I don’t honestly expect to find a body. Someone has to go look, though, and on a day like this—the first Friday in June with the memory of cold winter lost beneath the trilling surface of summer—volunteers abound. Carpe diem; I have been offered an excuse to spend a couple of hours in sunshiny woods.
We take the river road to the highway, passing century-old mill buildings. Some are crumbling, encircled by chain-link and razor wire, and others are merely shuttered. They seem to stretch for miles, rotting corpses of an old economy, lining the banks of the Aponak River.
The westbound ramp will clog to a standstill by midafternoon, everyone going to lakes or mountains, but it’s early now, and I speed around the curve with tires squealing. On the highway, other travelers are making an early break from the city. Some have windows open, husbands driving while their pretty wives ride shotgun with hair blowing in the wind and flip-flopped feet up on the dash. Kids ride in back with Nintendos and iPhones, ball caps pulled low. A dog in a minivan paints the rear window with slobber as I pull alongside, and a boy presses his face to the side window and watches me. He thinks I’m a criminal because I’m at the wheel of my Volvo wagon doing twenty over the limit with the troopers behind me, blues-and-reds flashing, and behind them is the coroner’s van (just in case), its antennas bending in the wind. I slow enough to give the boy a goofy, cross-eyed look, and he responds with a smile so huge and gap-toothed that I’m laughing out loud with my head pressed back against the seat. The boy laughs too, and his mom, fresh from the pages of L.L.Bean’s summer catalog, looks over. We exchange knowing parental smiles. Then I speed away.
“Oh God,” says my daughter, Lizzy, in contempt of my inexplicably good mood, “you’re such a . . . weirdo.”
I look in the rearview for a glimpse of her complex smile. Lizzy is fourteen. Everything is a test.
“I’ve never seen a dead body before,” Lizzy says.
“Redundant,” I answer. “The word ‘body’ implies it’s dead.”
She thinks for a second, then snaps, “That is so not true. Like in health class, they used to say, ‘At a certain age, you begin to notice mysterious changes in your body.’ ” (This last part she squawks in her old-biddy voice.) “So are we all, like, dead?”
“Point taken,” I say, “but in any case, you’re not going to see any dead body, you’re staying in the car. And there might not even be a body.” I look at Cassandra, who is in the front seat beside me. Cassandra smiles and says, “I guess we’ll see.”
If I really believed for a second we’d find a body, I wouldn’t have come myself, and I certainly wouldn’t have brought Lizzy. Crime scenes aren’t places for teenage daughters. But with Cassandra here beside me, I need to pretend there’s a possibility. Cassandra is a civilian. I’ve known her under two hours. She is dressed in olive cargo pants with the cuffs tucked inside white socks. She wears a tight pink tee, which would look silly on a woman her age—early forties—except that she also wears a loose, unbuttoned work shirt over it, changing it from inappropriately adolescent to enticingly youthful. She is a younger version of my ex-wife, Flora, Lizzy’s mom.
“We should have brought Bill-the-Dog,” I say to Lizzy, “maybe let her run in the woods.” I explain to Cassandra that Bill-the-Dog is Lizzy’s border collie, a female.
“Oh, sure,” Lizzy says in a mocking voice, “Bill could help you dig. Maybe she’d find herself a nice arm or leg bone to chew on.”
“Well, I didn’t mean let her out at the scene; I was thinking we could stop on the way home. Pick up sandwiches someplace and . . . you know.” I stop. The idea is ludicrous: turning a possible crime scene visit and exhumation into a picnic with the witness. I brace myself for the onslaught of Lizzy’s ridicule, but in the rearview, I see her watching Cassandra.
“Oh, that sounds lovely, Nick,” Cassandra says, “let’s do.” She turns to look at Lizzy in the backseat. “Is Bill-the-Dog named for Bill-the-Pony? From Tolkien?”
“My mom named her,” Lizzy says. “My mom’s kind of weird, like she has this sign outside the house: WELCOME TO MIDDLE EARTH.”
“Do you have a dog?” I ask Cassandra.
“Definitely,” Cassandra says. “Having a dog is one of the best things about being human. One of the ten best.”
“And the other nine?”
“I don’t know. Love, dancing, good coffee, kids, summer? I never made a list. But if I did, dogs would be on it.”
“Jane Austen would be on it,” Lizzy says, and I look in the rearview just before her mouth tightens into a disdainful line of pursed lips. But it was there for a second: her metal-mouth smile showing those red-banded braces like a centipede across her teeth.
Cassandra turns again to look at Lizzy and says, “Definitely Jane Austen.”