Strong Rain Falling
by Jon Land
on August 12 – September 30, 2013
Read an excerpt:
Providence, Rhode Island
Caitlin Strong was waiting downstairs in a grassy park bisected by concrete walkways when Dylan Torres emerged from the building. The boy fit in surprisingly well with the Brown University college students he slid between in approaching her, his long black hair bouncing just past his shoulders and attracting the attention of more than one passing coed.
“How’d it go?” Caitlin asked, rising from the bench that felt like a sauna in the sun.
Dylan shrugged and blew some stray hair from his face with his breath. “Size could be an issue.”
“For playing football at this level, I expect so.”
“Coach Estes didn’t rule it out. He just said there were no more first year slots left in the program.”
“How’d you leave it?” she asked, feeling dwarfed by the athletic buildings that housed playing courts, training facilities, a swimming pool, full gym and the offices of the school’s coaches. The buildings enclosed the park-like setting on three sides, leaving the street side to be rimmed by an eight-foot wall of carefully layered stone. Playing fields took up the rear of the complex beyond the buildings and, while waiting for Dylan, Caitlin heard the clang of aluminum bats hitting baseballs and thunks of what sounded like soccer balls being kicked about. Funny how living in a place the size of Texas made her antsy within an area where so much was squeezed so close.
“Well, short of me growing another four inches and putting on maybe twenty pounds of muscle, it’s gonna be an uphill battle,” Dylan said, looking down. “That is, if I even get into this place. That’s an uphill battle too.”
She reached out and touched his shoulder. “This coming from a kid who’s bested serial killers, kidnappers and last year a human monster who bled venom instead of blood.”
Dylan started to shrug, but smiled instead. “Helps that you and my dad were there to gun them all down.”
“Well, I don’t believe we’ll be shooting Coach Estes and my point was if anybody can handle an uphill battle or two, it’s you.”
Dylan lapsed into silence, leaving Caitlin to think of the restaurant they’d eaten at the night before where the waitress had complimented her on having such a good looking son. She’d felt her insides turn to mush when the boy smiled and went right on studying the menu, not bothering to correct the woman. He was three quarters through a fifth year at San Antonio’s St. Anthony Catholic High School, in range of finishing the year with straight “A”s. Though the school didn’t formally offer such a program, Caitlin’s captain D. W. Tepper had convinced them to make an exception on behalf of the Texas Rangers by slightly altering their Senior Connection program to fit the needs of a boy whose grades hadn’t anywhere near matched his potential yet.
Not that it was an easy fit. The school’s pristine campus in historic Monte Vista just north of downtown San Antonio was populated by boys and girls in staid, prescribed uniforms that made Dylan cringe. Blazers instead of shapeless shirts worn out at the waist, khakis instead of jeans gone from sagging to, more recently, what they called skinny, and hard leather dress shoes instead of the boots Caitlin had bought him for his birthday a few years back. But the undermanned football team had recruited him early on, Dylan donning a uniform for the first time since a brief stint in the Pop Warner league as a young boy while his mother was still alive and the father he’d yet to meet was in prison. This past fall at St. Anthony’s he’d taken to the sport again like a natural, playing running back and sifting through the tiniest holes in the defensive line to amass vast chunks of yardage. Dylan ended up being named Second Team All TAPPS District 2-5A, attracting the attention of several small colleges, though none on the level of Brown University, a perennial contender for the Ivy League crown.
Caitlin found those Friday nights, sitting with Cort Wesley Masters and his younger son Luke in stands ripe with the first soft bite of fall, strangely comforting. Given that she’d never had much use for such things in her own teenage years, the experience left her feeling as if she’d been transported back in time with a chance to relive her own youth through a boy who was as close to a son as she’d ever have. Left her recalling her own high school days smelling of gun oil instead of perfume. She’d been awkward then, gawky after growing tall fast. Still a few years short of forty, Caitlin had never added to that five-foot-seven-inch frame, although the present found her filled out and firm from regular workouts and jogging. She wore her wavy black hair more fashionably styled, but kept it the very same length she always had, perhaps in a misguided at-tempt to slow time if not stop it altogether.
Gazing at Dylan now, she recalled the headmaster of his school, a cousin of Caitlin’s own high school principal, coming up to her after the victorious opening home game.
“The school owes you a great bit of gratitude, Ranger.”
“Well, sir, I’ll bet Dylan’ll do even better next week.”
The headmaster gestured toward the newly installed lights. “I meant gratitude for the Rangers arranging for the variance that allowed us to go forward with the installation. That’s the only reason we’re able to be here to-night.”
She’d nodded, smiling to herself at how Captain Tepper had managed to arrange Dylan’s admission. “Our pleasure, sir.”
Now, months later on the campus of an Ivy League school in Providence, Rhode Island, Dylan looked down at the grass and then up again, something furtive lurking in his suddenly narrowed eyes. The sun sneaking through a nearby tree dappled his face and further hid what he was about to share.
“I got invited to a frat party.”
“Say that again.”
“I got invited to a party at this frat called D-Phi.”
“Short for Delta Phi. Like the Greek letters.”
“I know they’re Greek letters, son, just like I know what goes on at these kind of parties given that I’ve been called to break them up on more than one occasion.”
“You’re the one who made me start thinking about college.”
“Doesn’t mean I got you thinking about doing shots and playing beer pong.”
Caitlin looked at him as if he were speaking a foreign language.
“They call it Beirut here, not beer pong,” Dylan continued. “And it’s important I get a notion of what the campus life is like. You told me that too.”
“I let you go to this party, you promise you won’t drink?”
Dylan rolled his head from side to side. “I promise I won’t drink much.”
“What’s that mean?”
“That I’ll be just fine when you come pick me up in the morning to get to the airport.”
“Pick you up,” Caitlin repeated, her gaze narrowing.
“I’m staying with this kid from Texas who plays on the team. Coach set it up.”
Caitlin slapped an arm around the boy’s shoulder and steered him toward the street. “Because I may rethink my decision about shooting him.”
“I told him you were a Texas Ranger,” Dylan said, as they approached a pair of workmen stringing a tape measure outside the athletic complex’s hockey rink.
“What’d he think about that?” Caitlin said, finding her gaze drawn to the two men she noticed had no tools and were wearing scuffed shoes instead of work boots.
“He said he liked gals with guns.”
They continued along the walkway that curved around the park-like grounds, banking left at a small lot where Caitlin had parked her rental. She worked the remote to unlock the doors and watched Dylan ease around to the passenger side, while she turned back toward the hockey rink and the two workmen she couldn’t shake from her mind.
But they were gone.
Providence, Rhode Island
“What’s this WaterFire thing?” Dylan asked, spooning up the last of his ice cream while Caitlin sipped her nightly post-dinner coffee.
“Like a tradition here. Comes highly recommended.”
“You don’t want me going to that frat party.”
“The thought had crossed my mind, but I’m guessing the WaterFire’ll be done ‘fore your party even gets started.”
Dylan held the spoon in his hand and then licked at it.
“How’s the ice cream?”
“What’s the difference?”
“None, I guess.
They had chosen to eat at a restaurant called Paragon, again on the recommendation of Coach Estes, a fashionably loud, lit, and reasonably priced bistro-like restaurant on the student-dominated Thayer Street across from the University bookstore. Dylan ordered a pizza while Caitlin ruminated over the menu choices before eventually opting for what she always did: a steak. You can take the gal out of Texas, she thought to herself, but you can’t take Texas out of the gal.
“I hear this Waterfire is something special,” Caitlin said, when she saw him checking his watch.
“Yeah? Who told you that?”
“Coach Estes. What do you say we head downtown and check it out?”
* * *
They walked through the comfortable cool of the early evening darkness, a welcome respite from the sweltering spring heat wave that had struck Texas just before they’d left. Caitlin wanted to talk, but Dylan wouldn’t look up from his iPhone, banging out text after text.
They strolled up a slight hill and then down a steeper one, joining the thick flow of people heading for the sounds of the nighttime festival known as WaterFire. The air was crisp and laced with the pungent aroma of wood smoke drifting up from Providence’s downtown area, where the masses of milling people were headed. The scents grew stronger while the harmonic strains of music sharpened the closer they drew to an area bridged by walkways crisscross-ing a river that ran the entire length of the modest office buildings and residential towers that dominated the city’s skyline. A performance area had been roped off at the foot of the hill, currently occupied by a group of white-faced mimes. An array of pushcarts offering various grilled meats as well as snacks and sweets were lined up nearby, most with hefty lines before them.
The tightest clusters of festival patrons moved in both directions down a walkway at the river’s edge. Cait-lin realized the strange and haunting strains of music had their origins down here as well and moved to join the flow. The black water shimmered like glass, an eerie glow emanat-ing from its surface. Boaters and canoeists paddled lei-surely by. A water taxi packed with seated patrons sipping wine slid past followed by what looked like a gondola straight from Venice.
But it was the source of the orange glow reflecting off the water’s surface that claimed Caitlin’s attention. She could now identify the pungent scent of wood smoke as that of pine and cedar, hearing the familiar crackle of flames as she and Dylan reached a promenade that ran di-rectly alongside the river.
“Caitlin?” Dylan prodded, touching her shoulder.
She jerked to her right, stiffening, the boy’s hand like a hot iron against her shirt.
“Uh-oh,” the boy said. “You got that look.”
“Just don’t like crowds,” Caitlin managed, casting her gaze about. “That’s all.”
A lie, because she felt something wasn’t right, out of rhythm somehow. Her stomach had already tightened and now she could feel the bands of muscle in her neck and shoul-ders knotting up as well.
“Yeah?” Dylan followed before she forced a smile. “And, like, I’m supposed to believe that?”
Before them, a line of bonfires that seemed to rise out of the water curved along the expanse of the Providence river walk. The source of these bonfires, Caitlin saw now, were nearly a hundred steel braziers of flaming wood moored to the water’s surface and stoked by black-shirted workers in a square pontoon-like boat, including one who performed an elaborate fire dance in between tending the flames.
The twisting line of braziers seemed to stretch for-ever into the night. Caitlin and Dylan continued to follow their bright glow amid the crowd, keeping the knee-high re-taining wall on their right. More kiosks selling hotdogs, grilled meats to be stuffed in pockets, kabobs, beverages, and souvenirs had been set up above the river walk on streets and sidewalks. The sights and sounds left her homesick for Texas, the sweet smell of wood smoke reminding her of the scent of barbecue and grilled food wafting over the famed San Antonio River Walk.
Caitlin was imagining that smell when she felt some-thing, not much and not even identifiable at first, yet enough to make her neck hairs stand up. A ripple in the crowd, she realized an instant later, followed almost immediately by more of a buckling indicative of someone forcing their way through it. Instinct twisted Caitlin in the di-rection of the ripple’s origin and the flames’ glow caught a face that was familiar to her.
Because it belonged to one of the workman she’d glimpsed outside the hockey rink back at Brown University. And the second workman stood directly alongside him, hands pulling their jackets back enough to reveal the dark glint of the pistols wedged into their belts.