Failing to affect change never makes a person a hero, no matter how noble that person’s intentions might have been. Henry learned that the hard way. He never expected to be lauded for what he tried to do, but the pity caught him off-guard. The embarrassment. Then there were the ones who drew no distinction between him and the shooter. They would never outright say it, but it had been clear in their eyes; if Henry had known what he was doing, how many kids might have been saved?
In their estimation his failure was tantamount to murder, and he couldn’t help but agree with them. There was nothing more he wanted than to go back in time to that afternoon at Frida Middle School, and make things play out differently. Stop the shooter, or be killed instead of injured for the attempt. Short of that, he wanted to be as far away as he could from anybody who knew. But now he’d told Kara.
There was no regret there. She deserved to know, and the weight of the secret had become crushing on his back alone. His wound showed no sign of improvement, looking functionally identical to how it had the day he walked out of the hospital some months ago, but the pain was more manageable in Tortus Bay. He could operate again, like a normal member of society, and that is what he set out to do.
Over the next few days, a sense of routine settled into life in the village. Henry woke up with the sun in the mornings, and took his breakfasts in the bar with a perpetually chatty Jamal. He learned not to bring up the concept of money with the man; instead he sought Diana out in private, and slipped her the appropriate amount of cash. She kept the hotel’s records in a locked drawer in the back office, away from her husband’s prying eyes and questionable business sense.
He met their daughter, Jessica, who came by the bar with obvious reluctance and treated him with an exacting aloofness—as though he was simply another one of the rundown regulars. That, he supposed, wasn’t entirely unfair.
No word came to him from Kara, except for a parting promise that she would pass his number (and a good word) along to Aria Bethel, and that he could expect a call from her. That drove him to dig his cell out of the bottom of his backpack, whereupon he discovered that he had zero messages and zero missed calls. He supposed that wasn’t unfair either, but it did leave him with a pang of sadness and a lurch of homesickness in his gut.
Kara’s protection charm hung around his neck at all times: in the shower, into bed, and during his midday walks around Tortus Bay. If she could believe his impossible story, then he could believe hers. Sometimes he worried that people around the village saw the silver chain poking out of his shirt, and knew what he wore—for whatever Kara said about selling the things, nobody else seemed to find it appropriate to wear them.
The man behind the counter at the Pale Moon Buffet openly stared at his neckline while ringing up his order. Henry ate lunch at the buffet two days in a row, for although it was doubtlessly the most Americanized Chinese food he’d ever encountered, they also served the best french fries and chicken nuggets he could remember consuming. And for that, he would put up with the extra attention.
He got ice-cream at Pop Up and Scream, perused the shelves of Old Tommy’s General Store, and made a habit of checking the daily schedule down at The Plex. The theater boasted three screens, but appeared mostly interested in playing obscure action moves from the eighties and nineties. Several times he tried to visit Off the Edges, a small book store at the tail end of the shops on Main Street, but their sign said they were ‘out for a minute’ each time he walked by, with no indication of when that minute might end.
By some miracle he managed to keep the troubling figure of Beth Brihte out of his thoughts, until the exhaustion of a long afternoon walking out to the orchards saw him stopping in to Cycler to inquire about the price of a new bike. It was the owner of the shop, an elderly and well-tanned woman, who broached the topic of the widow by bragging that even so rich a woman as a Brihte bought a bike from Cycler rather than shipping one in from outside the village. Henry regretted his decision to ask for more detail when he saw the anxiety his question wrought in the shop owner’s face.
“I don’t know anything about it,” she said, wringing her hands. “The poor thing, it was a tragedy. She’s devastated. How could she not be? Been locked up in that house of hers since it happened.”
“She hasn’t come out at all?”
“No. Nobody’s seen her since.”
How had the rumor mill of the AM Bazaar let Beth Brihte’s early morning trip to the Double S slip them by? Or had that dark coat she’d worn really concealed her identity? Henry doubted it. If nothing else, Patty had recognized the woman easily enough from behind the counter. With apologies he left Cycler empty-handed, and headed back to the Hell on a Shell bar. That is where he wiled away his evenings, and where he figured he had the best odds of running into Niles.
This had happened a few times, but always in passing. Niles would smile and nod, or say a brief hello, but never stop to chat—and once that man was in the kitchen, that’s where he would stay. He seemed born to cook. More reliable was the presence of Clair and Clint, who were fixtures in the bar in much the same fashion as the tables. By routine they began their drinking at the turn of five, and would still be going long after it was time for Henry to retire for the night. He didn’t get the impression that the two of them knew each other outside of the bar, but their constant adjacent drinking had clearly bonded them within those walls.
Clair’s behavior was more muted around Henry, especially compared to how she had acted that first night. He tried asking for what her opinion on Beth Brihte was, but she didn’t seem interested in the topic. She talked mostly about how tired she was of living with her parents, and how boring her job stocking shelves at the grocery store was. He did not bring up their trip out to the park, or her secret cache therein. They were always surrounded by people, and he imagined that it would be a sensitive topic.
On Saturday Henry woke up late, and wandered downstairs in pursuit of pancakes to find a commotion in the barroom. Every table, chair, stool, and solitary stretch of wall was occupied. People spoke with one another in hushed yet hurried tones, occasionally breaking out of their groups to run across the room to another, where they would confer for a moment before returning again. In the middle of it all stood Jamal, his face smiling yet grim, taking random passersby by the shoulder and speaking a few brief words into their ears. For this occasion he wore his finest pressed shirt, and no apron at all. Presumably everyone was too preoccupied to eat.
“Have you heard the news yet?” Jamal asked, as Henry worked his way through the milling mass.
“I just woke up.”
“I thought,” he whispered conspiratorially, “that you might have heard it days ago.”
Henry sighed. “You and I have got to get on the same page about what I’m doing here.”
He held his hands up in faux surrender. “Fine, you didn’t know.”
“And I still don’t. What’s happening?”
“Mathas Bernard didn’t die of a heart attack,” Jamal breathed, his voice a delicate balance between sorrow and self-importance. “I confirmed it with the sheriff myself this morning. The coroner made a mistake, or else didn’t see something until yesterday. Nobody’s clear on that part yet, but Leia says she’s going to get down to the bottom of it either way.”
Henry felt his stomach twist. “Jamal,” he asked, “how did Mathas die?”
“Blunt force trauma. To the back of the head.”