The next day was drier but full of wind. We left at dawn. Artie sped down the highway, but when we reached Lighthouse Road we saw it was as the concierge had predicted. Artie veered to one side of the road and then the other, avoiding potholes that had turned to deep gullies. The branches of the live oaks hung low over the road bed, the Spanish moss dripping like grey ghosts on every limb. More than once Artie had me steer while he pushed the car from behind, the wheels stuck in mud. At last, the trees parted and we found ourselves in a low marsh, the sky above heavy and grey. The waves of the ocean were just visible, crashing forcefully against a low levy. The lighthouse was at the end of the lane.
“We could walk the rest of the way,” I offered.
“Alright,” Artie said. He took my hand as we walked. We watched as an egret flew startled from a curtain of sea oats and rushes, its broad white wings just inches from the roadbed. These were the few last minutes before James would cease in my mind as a being of possibility. This was the final stone not yet overturned.
The keeper of the lighthouse answered our third knock, coming to the door in waders and a thick sweater. He was an older man, late fifties perhaps. I do not know what I had expected, but I was surprised when he spoke with only a slight southern accent, his words holding great precision.
“I am terribly sorry if you’ve come for the tour, but a hurricane is on and I’ve many important tasks to attend to today-”
I realized then the lighthouse was in varying stages of preparation; some windows had been covered, others remained open to the elements.
“We haven’t come for a tour,” I said. “Our son has gone missing, and we wondered if you’d seen anything.”
And there it was, I held out the photo as a final prayer. The man’s entire mood shifted. He gave a click of his tongue. “Please come in,” he said. “I was too short with you before.” He held out a hand, introduced himself as Mr. Charon, a retired biology professor from Flagler University. He led us down a long white hallway to a small sitting room. Books filled every inch of it, lining the walls and shelves, piled in stacks on the floor. He rearranged the books that had been on the sofa so we had space to sit. “I’m terribly sorry you’ve lost your son,” he said. “How long has he been missing?”
“He’s been unaccounted for for nearly a month,” I said. “Last seen near Wakulla Springs.”
“Ah,” he said, raising his white eyebrows. Then he cocked his head to the side. “Ah,” he said again, as if he only now understood the futility of our situation. “I haven’t seen him, I’m afraid to say, but I’ll keep a keen eye out, be sure to alert the coast guard of course.”
“If he was able to get down the river from Wakulla Springs, the river empties here, doesn’t it?” I asked again.
“Yes, yes it does,” he said, considering. “Most boats are too large though for the shallows. It would have to be a raft.”
“No one swims it though?” I asked.
“Never,” Mr. Charon said. “It’s about the most dangerous-” He thought better of finishing the sentence. “It would be highly unlikely, ma’am.”
So that was it. He’d seen nothing, no craft, and to swim it would be too dangerous. If a storm hadn’t been so near, I might have suggested scouring the coast another several weeks, but even I was losing heart.
Artie stood. “Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Charon,” he said, extending his hand to the man.
“Would it be possible for me to look out from the lighthouse? Just to see?” I asked.
“Caroline-” Artie said. He was so ready to leave.
Mr. Charon hesitated, giving a nervous look out the window. He ran a hand through his hair. Then he must have thought of all I’d lost. “If you can make it quick,” he said.
“I’m heading to the car,” Artie said, not bothering to hide his exasperation and giving a loud sigh. “I want to check the engine before we head out.”
Mr. Charon led me down another hallway lined in books, and up a spiral staircase. He struggled to open the door at the top, the wind was that strong, but he walked me out onto the balcony. He pointed to a stream of rolling green water that flowed through the low marsh. “That’s the river there,” he said. “And you can see where it joins with the St. Marks.” The St. Marks was much larger, and the storm had turned it a muddy brown.
“Thank you for letting me come up,” I said. “I know you must be eager to leave before the storm hits.”
“Hurricane Florence,” he said, looking off towards the gulf, where black clouds were tipping over the horizon. Lightning flashed so far off it was silent. His look turned serious, as he considered. “Hurricane, from hurakan, ‘God of the storm;’ Florence, meaning, ‘to blossom.’” He seemed to remember I was there. “I’m not leaving, ma’am. Part of my job description, I’m afraid. Besides, this place has withstood a hundred years of storms; I’ll be alright.” He clapped his hands together once, energetically. “I’ll be alright so long as I hop to and finish boarding up. If you’ll excuse me,” he said. “You can see yourself out, whenever you’re ready.”
“Of course,” I responded. As he left the wind came up so hard my hair fell from its pins, whipping across my face. I tucked it behind my ears. The waves rolled hard, the foam crashing in ten foot sheets against the breakers of the levy. The marsh was slowly filling in along the shore, the tips of sea oats drowning, their little heads bobbing feebly above the grey water only when the tide rolled out. Seagulls dipped and rose in place as if riding glass elevators, never progressing in their flight, the wind barring their way.
I thought of shouting his name to the wind, wondered how far my voice could be carried on the air. Instead, it came as a whisper. “James. I have loved you. I love you now.” It was the closest I would ever come to saying goodbye.
I made my way back down and out through the maze of hallways and books. Arthur was back from the car, helping the man board up one of the front windows. Lilies and roses bloomed just a few feet beyond them in a small garden. It brimmed with flowers.
“I like your garden,” I said. “I’m a bit of an amateur botanist, myself.”
“Are you?” the man said with a smile. “Then you’ll know it’s a bit peculiar – we don’t normally have lilies or roses this time of year, as hot as this summer’s been – but those just volunteered themselves a few weeks ago. Didn’t know I’d planted so many, to tell the truth.” My heart lifted a little. “Of course it’s been a good year for flowers. Wild flowers especially have been something extraordinary. Sprague Island is still about covered with blanket flowers.”
“Sprague Island?” I said. “Is that near here?”
Mr. Charon laughed. “It is when the weather’s nice. Only about a ten minute trip by boat, across the rivers. But you can’t take a boat out now. No, it’s not reachable in a storm like this.”
I turned to Artie, “We have to go there. We have to at least look.”
“Caroline!” he said. He took my elbow and pulled me closer to him. “There’s no possible way-”
“Truly, ma’am, in this storm-”
I wrenched my elbow from Artie. “I’ll swim if I have to. What if he’s there? What if he’s there in this storm?”
“There’s nothing there,” Mr. Charon interjected. “There used to be fishing cabins, but even those have all but washed away over the years. It is hardly more than a sandbar, madame, and in a storm like this-”
I turned to them both, tears in my eyes. “Surely, surely, we could look. If I could only just make sure he wasn’t there.”
“Caroline, you promised me,” Artie said, rubbing his forehead again. “You promised we’d head home now.”
“Arthur,” I said slowly. “If there’s any way-”
“Enough, Caroline,” Artie said.
Mr. Charon coughed politely. He gave a quick look at the sky, then said, “So long as the rain holds off, I can take you. I can understand a mother wanting just to make sure.”
“Thank you,” I said, throwing my arms around his neck.
“Come with me, miss, you’ll need some waders.”
He led me back inside, to a small austere bedroom off the sitting area. He fetched some rain pants out of his drawer, and then led me to the bathroom where I dressed quickly, finding sand and seashells the size of dimes still in the pockets. When I met him back out in the hall he gave a sweet smile at my awkward appearance, his pants swallowing my smallish frame.
Outside, the wind blew harder than before. Mr. Charon led us over the roadbed to an old dock, where a small green boat was tied. Artie handed me down into the boat, and I was surprised when he clambered in afterward, the boat rocking as he sat down beside me.
He put an arm around me after he put his life vest on. “You’re stuck with me, Caroline,” he said as way of explanation. I kissed him.
Mr. Charon was already guiding the boat down a small rivulet through the marsh. Sand cranes and ibis flew from us as we went. Soon we were out in open water. “This is the river!” Charon shouted to us over the sound of the motor. At one point he gestured to a mound of matted grass at the edge of the water. “An alligator’s nest!” he shouted. Artie cursed low under his breath. I watched the horizon, waiting for the island to come into view.
Then there it was, a sandy plain covered in orange and yellow blooms. A floating dock rose and fell with the storm. Mr. Charon tied the boat, and handed me up. Artie followed. “Be quick!” Charon yelled to us. “The fishing cabins are just ahead, on your right up the path.”
My heart sank as I stepped onto the island. It was already flooded in six inches of water. Artie stopped to take off his nice shoes and roll up his pants. “I’ll catch up,” he said, when he saw how anxious I was. Blanket flowers and dune flowers grew all around, waist high. I hurried along the path, running my fingers along the wet blooms as I ran. The ground must have been higher here for it was wet but not yet flooded. Around a bend I saw the cabins, so sea worn and grey they blended in with the sky. I approached them quickly, opening the doors. The first two had been completely stripped long ago. The third held an old rusted fishing rod, a tackle box with no tackle. Sandbar willows grew all around the fourth cabin, so I had to weave my way in and out to reach the door. I opened it and gave a small jump. There was a small hammock of thick green canvas that looked like it had been used not too long ago. A small bronze figurine of a knight no bigger than a thumb waited on a table beside it, along with a conch shell the color of fire. There was also a small golden fishing lure, the jig shimmering even in the dim light of the cabin. It was just the sort of collection a child would have. Artie came near, called my name.
“I’m in here,” I said. He came and stood beside me, looking at the small treasures, his mouth open in amazement. “It could be him,” I said.
“Caroline,” he said.
Then the rain fell. It made its way in through breaks in the shingles, holes in the roof. “What do we do now?” I said.
Artie shrugged. “I can go ask Charon where else a boy would hide? Or we could wait to see if anyone comes?”
“We don’t have much time,” I said.
“I know,” Artie said. “I’ll run back. I’ll ask Charon where else we can look,” he said. I nodded. Alone in the cabin, I took the small knight in my hand. I put it in my pocket for safe keeping. I went back outside, looking around. Flocks of seagulls blew wildly about as they tried to land. A pale brown snake receded into a pile of rocks a yard from where I stood. A milk-white crane struggled, its white wings working deftly, to land on an old snag. Behind the cabins just outside the thicket of shrubs I saw a slight rise; what must have once been a sand dune was now no more than a little mound and the skeleton of a fallen cypress tree. Still, I headed towards it, the sand whipping my ankles, my hair lashing my arms, thinking maybe from there I would have a better view of the island.
I watched my feet as I went to keep the rain and sand from stinging my eyes. I saw crabs the size of quarters, spiders as translucent as glass. I reached the fallen tree, took a shaky step on to its trunk, and lifted my head.
And there he was.
Just ahead of me over the rise, he was running towards me through the rain, a fishing pole in his right hand, a line of caught fish slung over his left shoulder. His pants were in tatters and he wore no shirt, his rib bones visible from hunger. His hair was long enough that he tucked it behind his ears. I would have known him anywhere. He had been watching the ground as he ran but suddenly – perhaps he could sense he was being watched – he looked up at me fast and hard with serious eyes the color of the sea. At first, he acted as if he would bolt away, but then I yelled for him, “James!” He stopped, looking at me hard through the rain and sea mist. My hair whipped in the wind. I knelt. “We have to leave, James. You have to come with me now. There’s a hurricane coming.”
He approached me with all the hesitance of a wild animal. He stopped when he was just an arms’ reach away. “You’re my mother, aren’t you?” he said, the rain falling hard around us. I nodded. “Is he my father, then?” he said. He gestured behind me, where Artie was waiting a little ways down the trail.
“He is,” I said.
“What took you so long?” he asked. He said it bravely enough, but his little lip pouted some as he said it, so he looked that much more beautiful, that much more the baby I’d held so long ago.
I took a step closer to him, afraid even as I did that he would vanish into the clouds or dive into the ocean that was inching up the shore just beyond him, would eventually turn the island back to sea. I held my arms open to him. “Will you forgive me, James?” He looked so small, standing there. “I’ll never leave you again.”
He came to me then. He fell into my arms like the child he still was, half wild with hunger and loneliness, but mine. I closed him tightly into my arms, lifting his small form into the air. “Mother,” he whispered in my ear. It was as if he named me. This was infinitely more merciful than I expected, the way he let me hold him that near, his arms around my neck. My heart was breaking into a million pieces, rearranging itself into something full and strong and whole. I kissed his cheeks, his forehead, his sandy hair. “My son,” I said through tears. “James.”
Artie ran beside us, placing a hand on the boy’s head. “We have to hurry now. We have to go. I can carry you,” he offered to the boy. I did not want to let him go.
“I can run, Father,” James said nobly, and my heart broke all over again. I set him down, taking hold of his hand. We ran through the rain to the boat, minnows and crabs scuttling over our ankles. The waves crashed into the wildflowers, petals purling around our feet.
Turn the page.