Four Corners hadn’t been much of a town since October 17, 1946. That was the day Hazel Krueger’s father set the Whitestone Lodge on fire and danced naked through the flames in some sort of sorry recompense for all he’d seen and all he’d done in a place called Normandy.
Not that the town had been such a thriving metropolis before that – more like a tiny open spot in Wisconsin’s north woods where someone had dropped a lake by mistake – but without the lodge and the trickle of fishermen that made the long drive up from Milwaukee and Madison every summer, the town sort of sat down on itself and started to dry up, corner by corner.
By the time Tommy Wittig was born, the lodge road that crossed the county tar had faded back into the forest, and it was only last week that Tommy, approaching his eighth birthday and given to the solitary contemplation of a lonely child, had ever wondered aloud why the town had been named Four Corners when it only had two.
Grandpa Dale had told him, walking him out to Whitestone Lake and showing him the crumbled remains of a brick wall that had once framed the base of the old lodge.
“You peel your eyes when you walk through these woods,” he’d said, waving the gnawed end of a briar pipe he hadn’t lit in thirty years because he always had his head stuck inside some engine or other and feared blowing his own head off; “and you can still mark the hole that fire burned in the forest when it jumped from the lodge to the trees. Probably would have burnt down the whole damn state if it hadn’t started to rain.”
Tommy had marveled at that, wondering where he would have been born if Wisconsin had burned right to the ground that day, and if the flag would have looked funny with forty-nine stars on it instead of fifty.
“Now, if you was a hawk flying overhead, you’d see a fifty-acre circle of second-growth, all strangly with those prickery briars that get stuck in your sneaker laces. That was the fire, and I remember it like it was yesterday. Killed this old town, is what it did. Prime white pines was going up like sixty-foot candles on a birthday cake.”
“Was he really naked?” Tommy had asked, focusing on the single part of the story he found most remarkable. Grandpa Dale had laughed and said that yes indeed Mr. Everett Krueger had been naked as the day he was born.
“Did old Hazel see him?” Hazel ran the café that sat on the corner next to Grandpa Dale’s gas station – the only other business left in Four Corners – and she was about a hundred years old, as far as Tommy could tell.
That’s when Grandpa Dale had squatted down and looked Tommy right in the eye the way he did when something was really serious and he wanted him to pay attention.
“We don’t make no mention of that fire in front of Hazel, you understand, Tommy? She was barely older than you when her daddy up and did this thing, and she was right there, watching, just a little girl peekin’ through a porthole into Hell, watching her own daddy sizzle away into a blackened stick, can you imagine such a thing?”
Tommy had been trying to imagine it for almost a whole week, and still he couldn’t put a picture in his mind of Hazel Krueger as a little girl, let alone one touched by tragedy.
He was straddling his old bike across the street from the café now, staring through the plate glass window, watching Hazel’s broad back hunch and move over the grill plate behind the counter. Even through the dust-streaked window he could see that great pile of too-black hair wobbling on top of her head, and when she turned around to plop a plate down on the counter in front of a customer, he saw the loose skin of remembered chins cascading down over the place where her neck was supposed to be.
Tommy squinted until Hazel’s bright red lips were a blur and her wrinkles disappeared, and still couldn’t see the little girl under all those years.
On the other side of the plate glass, Hazel looked up and caught sight of him and wiggled her fingers, and Tommy waved back, suddenly shy. For all the years of his life she’d just been old Hazel with the arms so big they could squeeze the squeaks out of you and the crazy hair and the free French fries anytime he set foot inside the café.
But ever since Grandpa Dale had told him the story of how Four Corners became two, Hazel had seemed like a different person – an exotic and interesting stranger who’d watched her own daddy burn to a cinder.
He heard the old Ford pickup when it was still a good quarter mile behind him, and trotted his bike onto the shoulder close to the trees and looked around frantically. “C’mon, boy! C’mon, where are you?”
The pup was an early birthday present, little more than a black and tan fluffball with too-long ears and too-big feet and a penchant for wandering. He had absolutely no sense when it came to cars.
“Hey pup!” Tommy laid down his bike and squatted, peering into the trees that marched nearly up to the tar across the road from the café and the gas station. There were ghostly tendrils of morning ground fog still hugging the trunks, and he dearly hoped the pup would come out on his own, because Tommy didn’t want to go in there after him. It looked like a scene from one of Saturday night’s Creature Features, when mist started floating around crooked graveyard tombstones and you just knew something bad was coming any minute.
It startled him when the pup came bounding out of a dew-speckled fern bank and jumped into his arms, grinning. A wet, busy tongue found his ear and made him giggle just as the battered white pickup topped the rise that dipped down into the town. “Hold still, you squirmy worm,” he hugged the pup close to his chest as the truck passed slowly, then turned left into Grandpa Dale’s station. His mom leaned out the passenger window and crooked her finger at him.
The pup galumphed after him as Tommy pedaled across the road to the station. Halfway there, the oversized feet tangled and set the pup tumbling like a fuzzy roll of black and tan yarn. He scrambled upright, shook his head, then sat down abruptly on short, crooked haunches and complained with a plaintive yip.
Jean Wittig watched out the truck window, shaking her head. She was a pretty blond woman with fair skin just beginning to show the cruelties the sun inflicts on a farmer’s wife. “You need to watch that pup on the road, remember.”
Tommy screeched the old bike to a halt next to the truck and looked up at his mother. “I will,” he said, solemn with the weight of this responsibility.
“We might be late, so remember to help with the milking, and anything else Grandpa Dale asks you to do. What are you grinning at?”
“Nothin’.” Tommy kept grinning.
“Think we’re going birthday shopping, don’t you?”
Harold Witting leaned forward and peered past his wife out the window at his son, affecting surprise. “Somebody’s havin’ a birthday?”
Tommy’s grin widened.
“Hell, we’re just goin’ to Fleet Farm to pick up some new parts for that old milker.”
“Don’t say ‘hell’ in front of the boy, Harold.”
Harold rolled his eyes and got out of the truck to pump gas.
“Here, Tommy,” his mother handed him a dollar bill. “Run over to Hazel’s and get us two donuts for the road. Those ones with the jelly filling.”
“Hey, Mom, did you know that Hazel watched her daddy burn in a big fire a long time ago?”
“Oh, Lord. Harold…?”
“Wasn’t me. Talk to your dad.”
Grandpa Dale chose that moment to walk out of the station, and Jean fixed him with a look that made Tommy decide it was a good time to go get those donuts.
The café was bustling this morning, with all three of the booths and half of the counter stools filled. Hazel was manic, propelling her bulk from grill to booth to refrigerator to counter with a speed that was absolutely amazing for a woman of her size.
Tommy suffered a pat on the head and a cheek tweak from Pastor Swenson and his wife, respectively, nodded like he’d seen his dad do at the two traveling workers who were helping put up hay at the farm, and eyed with some interest the two families in the other booths and a lone woman at the counter. Not many strangers found themselves on the mile-long strip of tar that passed through Four Corners as it connected to County Road Double-P to County Road Double-O, and this many at one time was downright unheard of.
“Here you go,” Hazel distributed five plates at one booth, all expertly balanced on her slab-like arms, then pulled a map out of her pocket and slapped it down on the table. “But like I said, all you gotta do is head up to Double-P, hang a left, then keep going. You’ll hit Beaver Lake in under an hour if you don’t get the itch to wander off the county roads again.”
A frazzled looking woman in sunglasses with tiger stripes on them took the map and tucked it in her purse. “We’ll take the map, just in case.”
“Suit yourself.” Hazel poked her fists into hips like bread dough and looked down at Tommy. “Well, Tommy Wittig as I live and breathe I swear you’ve grown a foot since I saw you last!”
Tommy blushed because Hazel saw him almost every day of his life, and he was sure everyone in the café, stranger or not, knew that.
“Must be because your birthday is tomorrow and you’re growin’ so fast.” She tipped her head sideways and for one terrible minute, Tommy thought that pile of black hair was going to fall right off and land at his feet like some dead animal.
“I need two donuts really quick!”
Hazel laughed a big laugh, like a man, then went behind the counter and opened the glass case where her homemade donuts were laid out like jewelry. “What kind today, honey?”
Tommy looked up at that broad, sagging face with its familiar smear of red lipstick and the dark eyes that always twinkled, and thought how silly he was to have been so leery of old Hazel this past week; to have thought of her like a stranger.
“Um…I’m sorry…well…I’m sorry your dad died.”
Hazel’s face went quiet then, and she looked at him a long time. It was sort of a grownup look, and in a funny-nice kind of way, it made Tommy feel old. “Why, thank you Tommy. I appreciate that,” she finally said, and then she took one of the little white bakery bags she put donuts in off a stack on the case and shook it open.
By the time he got back outside the mist was gone from the woods across the road, and Grandpa Dale was standing next to Dad at the pickup truck, hands shoved deep in his coverall pockets. If Mom had scolded him for telling the story about the lodge fire and Hazel’s dad, it was over now, because all three of them were smiling around a secret. They stopped talking abruptly when they saw him coming, and Tommy knew they’d been whispering about his birthday present.
He walked toward the truck slowly, his eyes on his dad in absolute adoration, pushing back the nagging thought that if Hazel’s daddy could die, then maybe other daddies could die. But not his. His was the tallest, broadest, strongest dad in the world, and even fire couldn’t hurt him. Sometimes he’d catch a head-butt from one of the cows clattering out of the barn after milking, and he’d holler after her that she was a goddamn milkin’ whore, and Mom’s face would get all stiff and she’d tell him he’d burn for taking the Lord’s name in vain, and that’s when he always said he was too full of vinegar to ever catch fire.
His father laid a big, work-roughened hand on his shoulder as he passed and squeezed a little. “Be good, son.”
“Yes, sir.” His shoulder felt cold and light when his father took his hand away and climbed into the truck.
“Thanks, honey.” His mom took the donut bag and leaned out the window and planted a kiss on his head. “You be good, now. See you at suppertime.”
Grandpa Dale walked him out to the center of the road and they stood there waving after the pickup as it roared away around the curve toward County Road Double O. The pup sat crookedly at Tommy’s side, leaning against his leg, pink tongue lolling.
Grandpa Dale put his hand Tommy’s shoulder. It wasn’t nearly as big as Dad’s hand, nor as warm. “Unusual number of strangers in town this morning,” he nodded toward the two unfamiliar cars parked on the side street between the station and the café.
“They got lost,” Tommy said.
“I figured. Pumped nearly thirty gallons of gas already just on those two.”
“That’s a lot.”
Grandpa Dale nodded. “Your Grandma’s in there working on the books today. Guess she could pump gas with the best of them if the need arises, which means maybe you and me could go fishing in a bit if we had a mind to.”
Tommy grinned up at him and Grandpa Dale ruffled his hair.
A quarter mile north of town, Pastor Swenson’s twin sixteen-year-old sons, Mark and Matthew, were working in the Wittig’s roadside pasture. The house and hundred-year-old barn were behind them, etched against a cornflower sky at the end of a drive as straight and true as the rows in Harold Wittig’s cornfield. Behind the barn, Whitestone Lake lay like a giant blue plate in a necklace of cattails.
A prime herd of Holstein grazed close to where the boys were repairing the white board fence, near a sign that read ‘Pleasant Hills Dairy Farm.’ Jean Wittig had painted the sign herself with green enamel left over after Harold touched up the old John Deere, and everyone agreed that on the whole, the sign looked mighty professional. The ‘P’ in ‘Pleasant’ was canted slightly to the right, as if it were in a hurry to catch up to the other letters, but Harold thought that gave the sign zip, and wouldn’t let Jean repaint it.
Mark and Matthew had their headphones on full-blast, listening to their favorite heavy metal bands, so they didn’t hear the truck making the turn off Double ‘P’, and wouldn’t have thought much of it, even if they’d looked up and seen it coming. It was a sight they were used to – just a truck that looked all the other dairy tankers that traveled from farm to farm on Wisconsin’s secondary roads, taking on raw milk from the state’s productive herds. It had an older, dusty white cab and a shiny stainless steel tank that looked like a giant’s thermos bottle. Good Health Dairies was spelled out in royal blue lettering along its length.
The truck was going forty miles per hour when it hit the place the tar had buckled in yesterday’s afternoon heat, right at the end of the long driveway that led back to the Wittig farm. The cab’s right front tire bounced violently over the worst of the break, then veered into the soft pea gravel of the shoulder. There was a long, high-pitched squeal as the driver slammed on the brakes, and then, its forward momentum diverted, the truck began a sickening lurch to one side. It balanced on its left wheels for a moment that seemed endless, as if it wanted to give the driver time to think about it, then jackknifed and crashed to its side and slid across the asphalt with a deafening, metallic screech.
Wide-eyed and terrified, the driver lay pressed against his door, the metal handle poking into his ribs, his hands still frozen in a white-knuckled grip around the steering wheel. The cab was pointed toward a distant cluster of farm buildings, and through the stone-pocked windshield, he saw two boys running toward him down the dusty drive. In an adjacent pasture, a tight cluster of panicked Holsteins was running the other way.
“Shit,” he finally managed a shuddered exhale that broke the word into half a dozen syllables. He flexed his fingers on the wheel, wiggled his toes, then released a shaky, breathy laugh, giddy to find all his body parts intact. His smile froze when he heard the compressor behind the cab kick in, and vanished altogether when he glanced at the dashboard and saw the needle on the bulk tank gauge dropping slowly.
“Sweet Jesus,” he whispered, groping frantically for the small computer unit built into the console. He depressed the large red button in the middle, then hit the ‘send’ key. A message appeared on the tiny screen, blinking innocently in large, baby blue letters.
Mark and Matthew were almost to the truck, running flat out, legs and arms and hearts pumping hard. They dropped like stones a few yards shy of the truck, and for one terrifying instant, saw horror in each other’s eyes.
On the other side of the pasture the cows in Harold Wittig’s prime herd of Holstein began to sink to their knees.
A half a mile downwind in Four Corners, the screeching noise had split the quiet morning like a thousand fingernails scraping down a blackboard. The puppy wailed and batted at his ears, Grandpa Dale and Tommy both covered theirs with their hands. For a second Dale wondered if those Swenson boys had taken out Harold’s old John Deere and tipped it over in the road again, but dismissed the possibility almost as soon as he thought of it. The horrible noise was going on much too long for that, spearing into his brain, making his eyes hurt.
The curious and the worried had already started to come out of Hazel’s by the time the awful noise had stopped, all of them looking up the road toward the Wittig farm, shading their eyes in the bright light of morning. The Pastor and his wife were the worried ones, thinking of their sons working up there. The sudden silence was almost more upsetting than the sounds of the crash had been, and they both moved quickly toward where they had parked the big Chevy in front of the café. The others were wandering right into the middle of the road as if that would help them figure out what had happened over a hill and out of sight.
Inside the café, Hazel was waiting impatiently for the donuts she’d just put in the fryer to finish so she could follow her customers outside and investigate for herself. Excitement of any kind was a rare thing in Four Corners, and not to be missed. When she finally lifted the basket and hooked it on the edge of the fryer – another perfect batch – she had only enough time to glance out the window and marvel at the sight of her customers prayerfully sinking to their knees, some of them right in the middle of the road, before her candy-red mouth sagged open and her throat started to close.
When Dale saw the first person go down just a few yards away, he scooped up Tommy in one arm and the pup in the other and tried to race away, but already his heart was pounding too slow for that. He never felt the pup slip from his grasp and tumble to the asphalt, but he never let go of Tommy, not even when he finally fell.