“I tell you my first memory of Mitch Anderson,” the sheriff said, “is when I was seven years old and my sister almost drowned in Miles Creek and he pulled her from the water. That man saved her life.” He was a large man. He leaned back in his office chair, folding his hands on his belly. “I know it seems odd, but what he does is this. He takes in kids that don’t have anybody,” he looked from Arthur to me with his eyebrows raised for emphasis, “Anybody,” he said again, “And he gives them a home, and he gives them food, and in exchange, what do they have to do except,” another pause in which he pointed his index finger at us, “Except teach them the beauty of a hard day’s labor.”
“I can appreciate that, sir,” Arthur said. The sheriff’s office was small but his desk and chair were massive, taking up half of the room. The walls were covered from ceiling to floor with pictures of the sheriff and his hunting conquests, deer dangling by their feet, bobcats with their mouths hanging open, their tongues draping at odd angles from their jaws. Something about the way Arthur and I were seated across from the sheriff in chairs that felt a little too small made me feel like a child.
“I don’t mean to be dismissive. It’s a sad thing that this boy was lost, no question it’s a sad thing, but I can tell you this, we already closed the investigation. We dredged the ponds. We looked in old storm shelters. We had hounds out in the woods for days on end. There isn’t a thing more we can do for the boy.”
“Boys don’t vanish,” Arthur said, and his voice had a slight edge to it.
“This one did,” the sheriff responded. He narrowed his eyes. “That’s what it says in my file. This boy vanished.”
“Does that happen often in Chatom?” I asked. We had passed a bulletin board on the way in, and I’d seen James’s photo hung there underneath a sign that read, “Have you seen us?” in bright yellow letters. The only other photo was of a black boy a few years his senior.
“It does not, ma’am,” the Sheriff said.
“No other boys have gone missing?” Arthur asked.
“Not that I recall, no,” the Sheriff said. “Though I usually leave the missing cases to my deputies. Only I took the Anderson boy’s case as a personal favor to his father, you understand.”
“We understand,” Arthur said, standing.
I wasn’t ready. This too felt like the end. “What should we do, Sheriff? What can we do?“
“I imagine I’m telling you just what Mitch Anderson told you: go on home. I don’t mean to be rude, ma’am, but he’s not your son now anyhow, is he?”
I was about to defend myself but Arthur gave one loud clap of his hands. I jumped. “Thank you for your time, Sheriff.”
“Not at all,” he said.
Outside in the hall we passed the same bulletin. I stopped, staring at the two young faces. I glanced around to make sure none of the officers were watching me, and then I grabbed both photos, tucking them into my pocket. Arthur’s eyes grew wide but he didn’t say anything till we were safely outside.
We stood under the awning of the front door of the precinct, waiting for the rain to slacken. “Caroline, what the hell?”
“I think you’re losing it. I understand taking James’s photo but why on earth-”
“Look at the date,” I said, holding the photos out.
“January 31st and February 3rd. So?”
“So you don’t think it a little uncanny that they went missing within a week of each other?”
He rubbed his forehead. “It’s something I suppose.”
“First thing we should do is get a bite to eat, I’m starving. We’ll stop off at the grocery, then head back to the hotel. There’s something I need to take care of there anyway.” We ran through the downpour to the car.
Soon we were sitting on the hotel bed, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
“This is turning into something a bit different than I’d imagined,” he said. “I thought we’d be home within the weekend.”
“I know, me too,” I said. I looked out the window, to the small patch of green beyond the gravel of the parking lot. I had not seen a flower bloom in days. The rain outside lightened to a slow drizzle. “I might go on a walk,” I said, “take advantage of the weather.”
Artie gave a half laugh. “Stay a minute, would you? It’ll only take a minute.”
He held up his hand. He lay back in bed, picked up the receiver of the telephone from its place on the side table. “Helloa, Mom! Could you get Dad on the other line?” His breath had grown fast and shallow. He reached out for my hand and I gave it to him. He held it tightly. “Hiya Dad!” he was trying to sound casual but his voice was shaking. “No, nothing wrong, I’m fine. Just wanted to ask if you remembered how I used to go around with Caroline Montaine when we were in high school? Yup,” he gave a nervous laugh, “Oh that’s right, I remember that,” my heart was pounding hard in my chest. “Well, anyway, when we were sixteen she actually got pregnant. I got her pregnant.” He put a hand over his eyes and gave a little sob. “We had a baby boy only Cari had to put him up for adoption and now he’s gone missing.” He was squeezing my hand tightly. There must have been silence on the other end of the line, because he kept talking, “And I might not be home for a bit while we try to find him. If we even can.” I could hear someone responding on the other end of the line, and then Arthur said quickly, “Well prayers are appreciated. Goodbye.” He hung up the phone and covered his face with both hands.
“Oh, Arthur,” I said. I wrapped both arms around him and lay my head on his chest.
“I’ll be alright,” he said. “That’s been a long time coming.”
Outside, thunder clapped loudly and lightning flashed near, the silver veins illuminating the sky. The electricity shut off. We fell asleep on the bed, his hand on my forehead, his heart beating in my ear.
In a dream, someone knocked softly on the door. Outside, the sky was pitch. It sounded as if the rain had stopped though. I rose from the bed. Another knock sounded from the door. “Arthur, wake up,” I whispered, nudging his feet. He stirred in his sleep. Out the window I could see two people at our door: a smallish man dressed in a suit, his hat pulled low over his eyes, and a woman on the other side of him. All I could see were her heels and the hem of her skirt. “Arthur!” I whispered more loudly. He sat up quickly. I opened the door.
“May we come in, ma’am? We understand you visited the sheriff today, about the Anderson boy.” The man looked nervous. He kept shifting his eyes, as if afraid he was being followed. The woman was calm. She was a black woman and looked about my age.
“I’d just like to speak with you,” she said. “My boy is missing too.”
“Of course, come in,” I said.
They entered hurriedly and the man shut the door behind them. Then he went to the window and closed the curtains. He was young, maybe younger than Artie and me, and he had blond hair and bright green eyes and a dusting of freckles on his cheeks. “My name is Deputy Harris. This is-”
“My name is Mrs. Clementine Augusta Thomas.” She might have been my age, but she dressed older, more refined. Her skin was dark brown and her black hair was worn in an elegant bun at the nape of her neck. She wore no makeup but still reminded me of models in beauty magazines.
“Won’t you sit down?” Arthur said, gesturing to the bed.
“Thank you, I’ll stand,” Clementine Augusta Thomas said. Deputy Harris plopped down, sitting cross legged on the coverlet.
“Can I get you anything?” I looked around the room. “Water? Or…ice?”
“No, thank you,” Mrs. Thomas said.
“Or we have sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly,” Artie offered, awkwardly.
“I’m afraid we should be rather quick, actually,” Deputy Harris said. “No one should know we’re here, and certainly not that we’re together here,” he gestured to Mrs. Thomas, “or that we’re all together here.” He looked around at us nodding his head as if he’d spoken great wisdom. I shot a confused look to Arthur, who shrugged.
“What the deputy means is,” said Mrs. Thomas, “it would be bad if anyone knew we were all together. They’ve been suspicious a while that the deputy might be working with me. It would make it that much worse if they knew we’d spoken to you as well.”
“Who’s they?” Arthur asked, quietly.
“Best we can figure it,” the deputy said, “They is the Sheriff, Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, and a man we’re calling Blue Coat, for now, and probably a dozen other people in Chatom, maybe more. They’re they.”
Mrs. Thomas spoke calmly. “We’re coming to you because based off what Deputy Harris overhead today at the Sheriff’s office, you’re interested in what happened to the Anderson boy.”
“I saw you take both photos off the bulletin board,” Harris said, looking at me with a grin.
“We’re the boy’s birth parents,” Arthur explained.
“It’s alright, we don’t mind,” the deputy continued. “Those pictures weren’t doing a bit of good on that board anyhow. We just need to know that you’ll be discreet about what we’re about to say to you.” We both swore our secrecy, eagerly.
Mrs. Thomas leaned against the desk. “The week my son went missing, the same week the Anderson boy goes missing, a man wearing a bright blue coat shows up in town. Now the coat is significant for two reasons: first this coat was ridiculous. It was too much for Alabama. It looked like what an arctic explorer would wear. It was a cold winter but it wasn’t that cold. I saw him wearing it Sunday as we were leaving church, going into the drugstore. Hale, Hale is my boy, went to go get an ice cream from the soda counter- now he did this every Sunday- but this Sunday when he came out he looked shaken up, a little worried. And I tried to get him to talk to me about it but you know how boys can be sometimes, he wouldn’t tell me what had happened. But just before we headed home I saw Blue Coat leaving the drug store, staring at our car as we drove off. And I just got this feeling, call it mother’s intuition, that somehow that’s who had upset my boy. Then a few days passed and I forgot all about it. Hale seemed fine. He didn’t seem worried or anything. Then that Thursday he didn’t come home from school.”
She seemed past being emotional about this. She spoke with slow, deliberate words: her boy hadn’t come home to her. And first it was a few hours of worry. And then days, weeks. And now months. She had it worse than I did. She had seen him every day, given him baths when he was a baby, helped him to dress when he was too young, reaching his young hands through his pajama sleeves. And then just as he was getting old enough that so many things were no longer a concern: no need to worry about cutting up his food, or him getting lost on his way home, or him falling out of his bunk bed, he doesn’t return from school. He is gone.
“And then the Andersons say their boys is gone too. Same time frame. Similar stories. We’re supposed to believe they disappeared.” She took a deep breath.
“I can tell the next part, Mrs. Thomas,” the Deputy said, looking at her with concern.
“Alright,” she said.
“The second thing you have to understand about Blue Coat is Blue Coat doesn’t exist. Mrs. Thomas saw Blue Coat at the drugstore. Elijah Woodson, who works Sundays at the drugstore soda counter, he didn’t see Blue Coat at the drugstore. All of the kids at the negro school saw Blue Coat. They said, in fact, that they saw him offer Hale Thomas a ride and that Hale Thomas said no and that Blue Coat cussed him soundly and drove off. A negro man working the pump at Earl’s gas station helped Blue Coat fill up on his way into town. Earl swears it didn’t happen. Most importantly,” the deputy lowered his voice, “I tell the sheriff, ‘Seems like this fellow Blue Coat might have gone off with these two boys,’ Sheriff says, ‘Blue Coat doesn’t exist. That’s what it says in my file. Blue Coat doesn’t exist.’”
“I know it sounds strange but what he’s saying is more or less true,” Mrs. Thomas said. “If you speak to certain black citizens of Chatom, a strange man came to town the last week of January, first week of February. He spoke to my boy on at least one occasion. Then both boys went missing. If you ask the white people of Chatom, the ones who should have seen him, who would normally notice if a strange man came into town, this never happened.”
“So what do you make of that?” the deputy asked.
Arthur and I looked at each other. He was the first to speak. “Caroline and I are under the impression that the Andersons adopt boys often. That the boys work in their fields in exchange for room and food.”
“The sheriff pretty much allowed that was true,” I said.
“What we don’t know is if, and correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like what you’re saying is the sheriff is complicit in the boys’ disappearance,” Artie added.
“The Andersons are too,” the deputy said.
“We’ve got more questions than answers ourselves, of course,” Mrs. Thomas said. “But the Andersons didn’t report he was missing until two weeks had gone by. And they tried to act like it was only then he’d run away, until Deputy Harris starts asking some of their other boys-”
“They remembered Blue Coat, until they didn’t,” Deputy Harris interjected.
“Based off those interviews, the Anderson boy went missing January 31st. And then the Sheriff took the case over.”
We were all silent a moment, thinking it over.
“Well what do we do now?” I asked them.
“For starters, Deputy Harris has reached out to a few neighboring precincts, quietly, you understand,” Mrs. Thomas arched her eyebrows.
“I’ve called a few friends I went through training with in Montgomery.”
“So far, no leads,” Mrs. Thomas continued. “Our only other link is the Andersons, the Sheriff, the folks being the most conspicuously dishonest.”
“And then there’s the boys at the Anderson farm, the folks being the most honestly conspicuous. I keep wondering in what ways they’re like James Anderson and in what ways they’re unlike James Anderson and if somewhere in that is a clue,” Harris said.
“We know all the local farm boys like to cut out Sunday afternoon and swim at the pond on the Jones farm. Deputy Harris is going to see if any of them work on the Anderson farm, or if they know anything about James, if they ever hear the Andersons talk about what happened.”
“Additionally, there’s a certain meeting that I know the sheriff, the Andersons, Earl, and half the other white men in town attend, if you understand what sort of meeting I mean,” the deputy looked from one of us to the other, “and seeing as how so far this seems to be at least in part a racial thing, maybe-”
“Maybe,” Mrs. Thomas seconded.
“I’m going to see if I can work it to where I listen in on their next meeting. And see if that proves elucimating.”
“He means elucidating,” Mrs. Thomas offered.
“I meant illuminating.”
“What we’re saying is don’t lose hope yet. I haven’t,” Clementine Augusta Thomas said. “It may sound foolish,” she added. “But it feels like if Hale was gone,” only now did her voice waiver for the first time, “I mean really gone, I would know. A mother would know.” I reached out and touched her hand, giving it the quickest squeeze.
“Y’all sit tight. Stay with us in Chatom a while longer. We’ll see what we can do,” Deputy Harris said.
“Well now we’ve stayed longer than we should’ve,” Mrs. Thomas said.
“One of us’ll be in touch soon,” the deputy said.
Arthur opened the door for them and they went out hurriedly, the black air thick and damp, the night humming with the sound of cicadas.
A week went by. Arthur and I went for drives through the countryside to all the nearby towns, placing missing notices for the boy in pharmacies and libraries beside advertisements for used bedroom suits or free kittens. When we passed farmers out in their fields we’d pull the car far over onto the shoulder and make our way through the wet land, my heels catching in sod, Artie’s trousers stained with mud, to hold out the small photo like a prayer in our palms. “Have you seen this boy?” we’d ask, not daring to call him ours. And then the now predictable shake of the head, the frown, the way the farmers’ wives would look at me sorrowful, their children safe and fed and dry on either side of them in the doorway. It felt like sending out ships in bottles. It felt the way a balloon must feel when it is loosed from a child’s grasp, listing its way up to nowhere.
In the evenings we’d lay on our bellies on the floor like children, making more flyers: Have you seen me? neatly printed at the top of each in thick black ink, copies of his photograph pasted underneath, and James, James, James, written over and over, so that at night as I tried to sleep the afterimage of the name flashed inside my closed eyes.
And then after a week had gone by we finally got a call from Deputy Harris. Someone was speaking to him about the boy. Someone who had known James well. Meet him at his place as soon as we could.
Artie’s car wound through thick forests of pine and oak, a fine mist hanging over the land, flecked here and there with the bold bright bodies of myrtle trees, the coral petals blowing across the pavement in a ripple as we drove. Artie cleared his throat and spoke as if he couldn’t wait to be done talking. “Annabelle broke it off with me last night, just thought you should know.”
I tried not to look too pleased or surprised. “How’d that happen?”
“She called while you were in the shower. I sent her a letter couple days ago explaining all about James and you. She wasn’t too happy, especially when I told her I’m going to stick it out here a while longer… Long as it takes.”
“I’m sorry, Artie,” I said. We turned down a long gravel driveway. The car knocked back and forth in the divets of the lane. When we came to the small house at the end of the road a hound bayed a welcome. Artie parked behind Deputy Harris’s police car.
“It’s alright,” he said. He stared ahead. “You know her favorite holiday’s the fourth of July because fireworks are fun, and that’s a direct quote. So, you know…” he was quiet a moment.
“All the same,” I said.
“Thanks, Caro.” He got out of the car, wrapping his knuckles on the roof while I got out. Deputy Harris came out onto the front porch, giving a hesitant wave. Through the window I could see inside to where a blonde boy of no more than ten sat uneasy in a low rocker, every now and again kicking his feet to set the chair in motion.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Denton, ma’am,” the Deputy said. “So we’ve got here a little boy named David, used to work out on the Anderson farm until- this I find a little interesting, I guess- he was taken in – now those are the boy’s words – I have no understanding of this yet in any legal sense – which is to say, I am not sure who his guardian would be legally at this point – by an older woman in town who needed help around the house.”
“That common practice round here?” Arthur said, crossing his arms. “Passing along adoptees?”
“No, sir,” Deputy answered. “Or it shouldn’t be, and that’s a fact.”
“Go on, Deputy Harris,” I said softly.
“He says he was with James the day he disappeared. James was talking about running away. He says James wasn’t too happy at the Andersons, used to talk a lot about heading back to the orphanage, there was a worker there he liked a great deal, etcetera.”
“Oh, I see.” My heart fell a bit deeper in my chest.
“He also said boys are changing there all the time. Almost every six months there’s a big turn. Half the boys gone, and new ones coming in. He was there a year, seen the turn once, seen it once more again since living in town.”
“What?” Arthur asked. “They’re moving kids around like cattle and it’s only now-”
“I know. I haven’t quite figured it out yet,” Deputy Harris said. “Seems to me they should have got caught a lot sooner. I already checked some county records. The Anderson kids are all down as getting their schooling at home. The principal at the elementary sent in one request of a truancy investigation but the sheriff handled it.” Deputy Harris demonstratively wiped his hands together, “So naturally that was the last of that.”
“Can I talk to him?” I said.
“Hm?” Deputy Harris said. “Oh sure,” he said, “I figured you’d want to. That’s why I had y’all out here.”
We all went inside a well lit room that contained both a kitchen, sitting, and eating area. “Y’all make yourselves at home,” the Deputy said, and we sat across from the boy on a sofa.
“Hello David,” I said, “I’m James’s birth mother.”
The boy raised his eyebrows, considered me a moment as he rocked back and forth. “Afternoon,” he said at last. His voice was sweet and young.
“I’d like to hear anything about James,” I said. “Anything at all.”
“We shared a bunk until I left, but even after that I’d come round to play with him now and again,” the boy said. “He was always talking about going to back to Georgia, to the home he’s born at. Miss. Cally was real sweet, would touch his hair while he fell asleep, that sort of thing.”
“Did he get along with the Andersons?” I asked.
The boy’s eyes grew wide. “No ma’am,” he gave a little laugh. “Most of us boys didn’t mind the work, not so much, but James didn’t want any of it. He wanted to read, draw, you know, or go to school. He was yelling at them almost every day. Mr. Anderson had to use the belt a time or two. Put him in a closet once for the night.”
Deputy Harris was looking at Artie and me with concern. “What else can you tell us about the Andersons, David?” he said at last. “You liked living with them?”
“I can’t say, exactly.” The boy fidgeted with the hem of his shorts.
“Like you don’t know or you won’t say?” I could tell Deputy Harris wasn’t used to talking with children. Neither was I, but I wished he would ease up a little.
“Not supposed to talk about it,” the boy said, quiet. “I liked them fine.”
“What do you know about James’s disappearance?” the Deputy continued.
Outside a wind picked up, shook some chimes on the porch. The boy watched through the window. He was silent.
“David,” I said at last. “You’re safe with us here. We want to know what happened about James, but we also want to make sure you’re taken care of too. You just speak the truth and everything will work out fine, we promise you that.”
The Deputy nodded, and continued in a softer tone. “You said James had been talking about running away. Do you think that’s what happened?”
“No,” the boy said, “I know that’s not what happened.”
“How do you know, David?”
“Because…” the boy faltered, uneasy. He stopped rocking. He looked off a moment, remembering. When he turned his eyes back to us they were almost vacant, and his voice was calm and steady. “When you misbehave the Lord smites you down,” he said, “when you don’t obey those that’s over you the Lord comes like the arm of justice and takes the wicked.”
I gave a small choking breath. Arthur squeezed my knee. “It’s going to be alright, Caroline,” he whispered.
“The Andersons teach you that?” Deputy Harris went on.
“Yes, sir,” David said, quietly. “They said it to us every night before prayers. James said he didn’t believe in the Lord, but I guess he does now he’s with him.”
“You mean he’s with the Lord?” the deputy said, only a slight waiver in his voice.
“Yes sir, Lord took him away for being disobedient. I seen it happen.”
The world melted away for a moment. Arthur and Deputy Harris continued to ask the boy questions, but all I could think of was the last time I’d held my baby. How he smelled of the earth and windowpanes and something sweeter like honeysuckle and his dark eyes shone at me almost unblinking with such a peace about him and I had never believed it was the last time I would hold him. I could never bring myself to believe it. Until now.
“Hold on, Caroline,” Artie said, giving my knee another squeeze.
“Say that again boy,” Deputy Harris was pointing at the child, wild eyed, and the boy stuttered as he spoke.
“The Lord was wearing a blue coat.”
“And when you say you saw them together?”
“I seen them drive off from the Anderson place in the Lord’s car.” Deputy Harris, Artie and I gave a collective inhale, as if breathing for the first time. “James and the other boy. A colored boy,” David said.
“So he isn’t dead?” I whispered to Artie. Artie shook his head and smiled a tired smile. I understood it to mean, “As best we know now, he might still be alive.” I felt again that helpless sensation of having everything to give, of having all the love and strength and will to fight, and such a little idea of where to turn myself. Still, here was another clue.
Deputy Harris was on the telephone, telling Mrs. Thomas there was a new lead, a witness, he’d seen Hale and James together. The deputy returned to the sofa with a pen and some paper. “Alright, David. I want you to start at the beginning. Start wherever you feel it’s the beginning. I want you to tell it to me slow and tell it true. If you remember someone blinking and it seemed odd or noteworthy, I want you to tell me about that someone blinking and how it seemed odd or noteworthy. You understand?”
“Yes, sir,” the boy said, starting his chair to rocking once more. “I understand.”
The boy told us many things.
He told us that he had no memories of his mother, not really, she having died when he was only three years old. Sometimes, though, he could call to mind the faintest smell of apples and vanilla and in his mind this was linked to a very soft hand cupping his cheek, and perhaps that was his mother. He knew somehow that his father had died in the war, and that his father had never met him. When the boy was five years old he and his sister were given to a farming family three hours from where he was born in exchange for money that his great aunt and uncle used to keep their own farm from foreclosure. The boy wasn’t supposed to know about the money, he said.
The first farm had been his favorite, perhaps because he was so young. His work was light. He was allowed a nap in the afternoons, and he would take it under an elm tree in the back pasture. It was near a small pond and he would watch crickets skid across the brown glass of the water. He was there two years. His sister who was some years older wasn’t there half as long. A woman who smelled of cigarettes and sour laundry came their first winter and took her to Atlanta. This had come upon them suddenly. They’d been given no more than a minute for their goodbye, and he’d watched as she was driven away, bewildered. He’d only cried about it a week later, when he realized she was gone for good.
Then he was traded around a lot. This was common, he told us, but he didn’t understand why. He’d gone first to Alpharetta, then Acworth, then Prattville, Cullman, Phenix City. They were all about the same. If he worked hard, he was fed, housed. Once when he was eight or so and working in Prattville he and some other boys had snuck off one afternoon, had gone into town and pretended to be bag boys at the grocery in exchange for pennies which they used to buy ice cream. When they were discovered they were brought home. The farmer told them to go cut a switch from the willow tree, each their own, and they were beaten until large welts formed on their backs.
He told us the Andersons were no different. They told the boys straight off what was expected of them: work, obey, don’t speak of the working and the obeying. James had been there longer than the others when David arrived, longest besides anyone other than the Andersons’ daughters, who were theirs by birth and who couldn’t work out in the field anyway. James was wilder than most, bolder, and had it in his head he was above working every day. He took to hiding odd places, in the loft of the barn, in the old smoke house, in the back garden shed. He’d steal a book from one of the girls and sit there reading while he was supposed to be working.
The first time Mr. Anderson found him he’d been kind about it, reminded him that James owed the Andersons for taking him in to begin with. Next time he wasn’t so kind, nor the next time. Then once Mrs. Anderson found him hiding in the cellar. She yelled at him but he just yelled right back at her. Then she smacked him in the face, so he kicked her in the shin, hard enough to bruise. David said that was the night he first heard the Andersons sermonizing. The Lord was coming, they said, to teach James a lesson. He would go far away to a land where the sun alway shone hot and there wasn’t any shade and James would learn what it meant to do a day’s work. James said there wasn’t any such thing as the Lord, and the Andersons replied that he was real and that he was coming for James in January.
And he’d come. The Lord. He wore a blue coat. David had been walking out to work on the Anderson farm, which he still did every Wednesday afternoon. He’d heard James screaming and yelling, so he’d hidden behind a cedar tree, and watched the man in the blue coat drag him by his shirt collar into the back seat of the car. There was another boy in the back seat, a black boy that David had seen sometimes in town, and the Andersons were smiling and shaking the Lord’s hand, were nodding their heads and laughing. Then the Lord drove away with the boys still in the backseat, James yelling as loud as he could. David resolved then and there if he got the chance he’d help James any way he could.
David told us that the lady in town who had taken him in was kinder than the Andersons, kinder than any of the farm families before, but still wouldn’t it be nice to go to school? Wouldn’t it be fine to take off a Sunday, now and again? The boy told us he slept in what ought to have been the kitchen pantry, and he didn’t mind it much. It was nice to have a place of his own for a change, he told us, only sometimes there were mice, and sometimes there were spiders he was sure were brown recluses, and sometimes, but only when it was quite warm outside, it would be so hot and close in the pantry he would feel faint before he fell asleep.
David told us he asked the woman once if he could write to his sister, but the woman said he had no sister she was aware of. David replied that he did have a sister, that she was four years older than him and freckled and kind. That her name was Clara and he hadn’t even said a proper goodbye and when she’d packed her things for Atlanta she’d left behind a little heart pendant necklace, which he assumed had been their mother’s. David said he’d worn it all this time doubled round his wrist, and that he was sure his sister would like it back someday. The lady had boxed him in the ear, and reminded him that the clothes needed to be hung on the line as quick as possible to prevent their wrinkling.
It was after dinner, and David was asleep on the sofa. Mrs. Thomas, the Deputy, Arthur, and I sat together at the table, drinking coffee and talking in low voices.
“Unless anyone has a different idea, I say we have three options,” the Deputy said, looking us each in the eye in turn. “We have three options, and I think only one of them will work. The first option is that we relay this to the sheriff. We tell him, look, the boy’s right here. David’s right here. And we have three other witnesses to his testimony. The Andersons shook Blue Coat’s hand as he drove off with these James Anderson and Hale Thomas. Arrest them. Inquire. Find Blue Coat, find James and Hale. That seems simple to me. Now, that’s what I’d ask the sheriff to do, if we go with the first option. I think this could be simple, maybe, if the sheriff wanted to be helpful. But I don’t think the Sheriff is going to be helpful. That’s based on my last one year as an employee of the Washington County police force. Sheriff is likely not going to be helpful, and I’m afraid in the process things might get muddled. David might start forgetting Blue Coat, same as those other boys did after, I’m guessing, the Andersons hushed them up. Or David might disappear.” I shuddered. “Or the Andersons might disappear. I don’t like option number one.”
“Second option is we go to the SBI,” the Deputy said. Arthur and I looked at each other, unsure.
“That’s the State Bureau of Investigation,” Mrs. Thomas said smoothly.
“But here’s the thing. I’ve been trying for weeks now to figure out a way to sit in on one of those meetings I was telling you about. I haven’t been able to come up with a way to do that without being too conspicuous. What I have figured out is that just about every white male in Chatom, apart from me and about a handful, attend these meetings, including members of our county and state government. This makes me a little uneasy,” Deputy Harris said. “Like, depending on who I talk to, I’m afraid this is going to fall on deaf ears. Which would take us back to David forgetting or disappearing, etcetera.” The deputy shifted in his seat, took a sip of his coffee.
“Which is why I think I’m for option three. We tell everyone.” He paused for effect. “We write a letter to two dozen papers, maybe more, some in Alabama, some elsewhere, explaining everything we know. How the sheriff closed the case prematurely, suspiciously. How it seems like too many people know this goes on but don’t say anything. How two boys were snatched four months ago and officially there’s been little more than a shrug.” He was silent.
“Then what next?” I asked.
“Then we’ll wait. We’ll wait for the SBI to swoop in, or if they don’t, the Feds. We wait for others to chime in. We see what other people know. This can’t just be going on in Chatom. You heard David. Boy’s been all over the South east.
Outside the crickets were coming to a crescendo. The boy stirred on the sofa.
“So that’s what we’ll do then,” Arthur said.
“Agreed,” I seconded. “Who’s going to write the letter?”
“I will,” Mrs. Thomas said, raising a finger. “I’m a writer, or I was, before starting my family.”
“Wonderful,” I said. “I’m sure you’ll do the task justice.”
“Just be sure to leave it synonymous. Leave it as synonymous as you can,” the Deputy said.
“Anonymous, Deputy,” she corrected. “And I’ll be discreet. But what do we do about David in the meantime?” We all looked at the boy. On the sofa, David’s face was pressed against the pillow, his blonde hair tousled. I wanted to give him every good thing in the world.
“He’ll stay with us, right, Caro?” Arthur said without hesitation. “He’s not going back to that woman.” The deputy arched an eyebrow, looked at me quizzically. I was surprised by the resolve in Artie’s voice, the way he sat up a little straighter as he spoke the words. I felt proud to know him.
“He’ll stay with us,” I said, softly. I breathed deep. I thought of James. None of this was easy.
“Alright then,” the Deputy said. “But I don’t think you can stay in Chatom, not with the boy. Come to that, I really think it’d be better if we all left.”
This had not occurred to me, but Mrs. Thomas did not look surprised. “I’ve been speaking to my husband about it. He’s got family up in Cincinnati. Better there for black people anyway.”
“How soon can you leave?” the Deputy asked her.
“We’d hoped to let the children finish out the semester.”
The deputy shook his head. “If you’re serious about keeping this boy-” he looked hard at us both. We didn’t waiver. “That means we’ve gotta get a move on. You’ve gotta leave or people will see you with him. You leave and the boy goes missing at the same time, I’m afraid the Sheriff’ll catch on.”
“We can leave tomorrow, if we have to,” Mrs. Thomas said.
The Deputy nodded, gravely. “You’ll finish the letter tonight then.”
“Alright,” Mrs. Thomas said. “Let me call my husband.”
The Deputy gestured to the phone. Then he turned to us. “How soon can you leave?”
“There’s nothing keeping us here,” Arthur said. “Not really. We can leave tonight. But how will we keep in touch?”
“I suppose we could exchange addresses. But really, tonight might be the last time we speak for a while.” Arthur and I both looked nervously at one another. “What we’re doing here, you see, what we’re doing is we’re shaking this up. We’re taking Chatom in our hands and giving it a good throttle, and we’re going to hide and watch what comes falling out. Keep our eyes open. Keep our ears open. And watch what falls out.”
Mrs. Thomas returned to the table. The Deputy went to his bedroom, returned with a mint green typewriter, which he set in front of her. “Best get going,” he said.
“I will,” she said. She placed her fingers comfortably on the keys.
Arthur rose. “I’m going to head back to the hotel, gather our things, come back for you and David.”
I stood. “I can come with you,” I said.
He shook his head. “I’ll be right back. Walk me out though, would you?”
“I need some air, anyway.”
The night was damp and cool, with a slight breeze rustling the trees. We stood at the foot of the porch steps. “I shouldn’t have sprung taking the boy on you like that,” Arthur said. “I’m sorry. I just feel…” he breathed deep and looked at the sky, hesitating. “I feel helpless, Caro. And anything, anything I can do to make anyone’s load a bit lighter, you know? Seems that’s all we really ought to do in life is to make each other’s way easier, when we can. And still I shouldn’t have sprung it on you.”
“Arthur, I’m with you. I agree completely. I hardly want that boy out of my sight, after all he’s been through.” I sighed, closed my eyes. “Still,” I could barely speak the words, “if I’m being honest, I can’t help but wish it were our boy we were taking with us now. I want to know he’s safe, wherever he is.” I wiped a tear from my cheek. “But it’ll be alright. It’ll be alright. We’ll take David, and we’ll wait.”
Arthur had already opened his car door when he turned as if he’d forgotten something. He walked up to me, put his arm around my waist as he’d done a hundred times before, and kissed me quickly on the mouth, and then again once more as quickly on my forehead. Then he turned and got into his car without saying another word, and pulled out of the driveway, the soft white lights of the car illuminating the trees as he drove away.
I sat down on the porch steps, dazed. I felt as if burning in the dark, and wondered for a moment if I wasn’t glowing, if Artie could see me as he pulled away, a small lit candle flickering in my chest.
The last time Arthur kissed me was the afternoon before I’d left for Marietta. My grandmother had gone out on errands for our trip, so Arthur had climbed the redbud beside my window, laying close beside me in my twin bed. Daring even, he only dared once, to kiss my belly, to place his hands curiously and feel the stretch and pull of the baby, almost fully grown.
“I love you, Caroline,” he’d said, brushing his lips on mine before kissing me hard. Then from below we heard my grandmother fiddling with the locks on the front door. Arthur had scrambled up, only half dressed as he began climbing down the tree. “I want you to write me everyday,” was the last thing he’d said, and I’d nodded, trying to seem reassuring. But I didn’t. I didn’t write him even once. There was too much to say. Too much I’d already left unsaid. And when I’d come home at last there existed such a distance between us. He’d reached for my hand under the table at the first church supper I attended and I’d pulled it away, barely spoken to him. I barely spoke to anyone. In fact, for some years I was like a dying star, turning in on itself.
When I woke it was almost dawn, the sky beyond the Deputy’s house a faint blue. I had fallen asleep in the chair across from David, who was breathing deeply in his sleep. The sheriff was crouched beside me. He spoke in a whisper. “I don’t want to startle you, ma’am,” he said. “But Mr. Denton still hasn’t returned.”
“What?” I said, worried at once. “He should have been back hours ago.”
The deputy nodded. “I know. I want you to try not to worry. Mrs. Thomas just finished her letter, and she’s typed copies as well. I’m gonna drive her home, and on my way back I’ll pass by the Grosse Inn, see if I can figure anything out. I want you to try not to worry now,” he repeated. I stood, walked him to the front door where Mrs. Thomas waited, looking tired but remarkably calm.
“Here’s your copy,” she said, handing me the letter. “If, for whatever reason, you haven’t seen anything in the news within the month, you’re to send it out. Do you understand?”
“I do.” I took the letter, folded it and put it in my pocket.
“And here’s where I’ll be staying, the phone number and address. The Deputy’s written his information on here as well.”
“I don’t know where we’re headed,” I said, still feeling half asleep, as if all this might be a dream. “I don’t know what Arthur’s is planning.”
“If Mr. Denton gets back before I do,” the Deputy said, “Don’t wait on me. Y’all can just cut out a town. Write us and let us know where you are, once you feel you’re settled.”
“Alright,” I said. Then I gave them each a hug. “I want to thank you both so much. I hope you find Hale,” I said to Mrs. Thomas.
“I hope you find James,” she said.
I walked out onto the front porch, then watched as their car disappeared beyond some trees. I sat back down on a porch step. “Where are you, Arthur?” I whispered, listening for the sound of wheels turning on the gravel. The morning felt eerily silent compared to the night before. I listened for birdsong but heard only a timid wren, hunting spiders in a nearby woodpile.
Suddenly there was a loud screeching and dust flew up from the roadbed as Arthur pulled in front of the house, leaving the car running as he got out. “Get in the car,” he said quickly, taking the porch steps in a single bound. “I’ll get David.”
I got in the passenger seat hurriedly and watched Arthur lead the groggy boy down the front steps. Arthur helped David into the back seat, where he lay down and fell asleep again. The clock on the dash said it was not yet 5:30 in the morning.
“What happened?” I said, as Arthur pulled out of the driveway hurriedly.
“Hold on a minute,” he said, leaning forward at the steering wheel. Up ahead, a highway sign offered Chatom to the left or Hattiesburg to the right. Arthur hung a hard right and relaxed back into his seat. “So when I got back to the hotel, I went to our room, packed our bags, and then I walked to the front office to pay.”
“As I’m walking back, I turn the corner and I notice a man standing outside our room. Leant up against the wall, smoking a cigarette. At first, I thought nothing of it, right? So I was about to keep heading towards him when it hits me that this might not be normal, you understand? That he might be there expressly for me, for us, you know? So I went back up to the road and looped back around out of sight. I hid in some bushes, watching him. And from where I’m sitting I see now it’s not one guy, it’s two, and one guy is going through our suitcases while the other guy stands guard.”
“I know! I would have just left but my car was parked right outside the room. So I had to wait for them to leave. And they took forever. After they were done going through all our things they just stood round waiting on us.”
“Who were they?”
“I couldn’t say. They kept the lights off. But-”
“Seems like the one on guard looked a bit like Mr. Anderson. Tall, you know? Sturdy.”
“Jesus,” I said, thinking it over. “What’d you do when they left?”
“Waited another thirty minutes or so, wondering if they were somewhere watching for me still.”
“And were they?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “But Christ I was out of there in ten seconds flat. Grabbed our bags and floored it and I don’t care if I ever see Chatom again and that’s the truth.”
“So on to Hattiesburg?” I said.
“For now,” he said. “While we wait.”
“While we wait and see what falls out,” I said, thinking of the Deputy’s plan.
“While we wait and see what falls out,” Arthur repeated.
I scooted over into the middle seat and let my head fall on Arthur’s shoulder. Up ahead, the sky was all pink and gold, the clouds the color of silver, the tops of trees caught in the yellow of the dawn. In the rear view mirror, a blood red sun was creeping over the road behind us like a piercing, inimical eye.
We found a hotel in the center of town, figuring it might be safest, or at least we’d be less conspicuous there. It was a great sprawling thing, with an indoor pool and a lounge. Artie gave a fake name, pulled out his billfold, and I let him pay for us the same as he had been: he had a job, a college education, his parents had insisted on it. My grandmother had kept me so close I had relied on her for most everything. I had emptied my bank account before leaving Sparta; the two hundred dollars untouched in my purse were all I could claim. I blushed, wishing I was more independent. “Thank you,” I whispered.
“Of course,” he said. The clerk walked us down a long hall, lined with ferns and floor to ceiling windows. David walked behind us, dazed, staring at the molded ceilings, the brass chandeliers. In the cleanliness of the hotel, I saw anew how truly ragged he looked. The knees of his pants were threadbare, his shirt was stained. I added clothes shopping on my list for tomorrow. Artie had booked us a suite, saying we would be there several days and wanted to be comfortable. There was a bedroom and a common area with a sofa and television. David ran to the television, flipping it on. A bespectacled George Reeves was dressed as Clark Kent, dashing into a broom closet, emerging as Superman. The boy laid on his belly on the floor, his feet crossed in the air, entranced. I went over to the telephone beside the bed, where a room service menu was conveniently waiting. “How about some food, David? Macaroni and cheese? A salad? A hamburger?”
“Yes, ma’am!” he said excitedly, so I ordered all three, portioning them out when they arrived onto three plates. The boy ate with his eyes unwavering on the television.
“Do you watch much tv, David?” I asked.
“Oh no, no ma’am,” he said. “This is the first time I ever. I heard lots about it though. Always wanted to.” An advertisement was on. A housewife wearing pearls and a tight floral dress was standing in an immaculate kitchen, extolling the virtues of purchasing a second family car. “Before we bought our Ford Victoria, I was practically a prisoner in my own home,” she beamed. David was riveted.
Artie yawned, stretched. He lay down on the bed, spent, falling asleep almost as soon as his head touched the pillow. I sat down on the sofa. Slowly, I dialed my grandmother’s number.
“Caroline!” she said when she heard my voice. “I’ve been so worried.”
“I am so sorry I didn’t call sooner,” I replied. “But I’m fine.”
“You are, are you?” she said, her tone biting. “I thought you might have died.”
“No,” I said. I was too tired for this. I had been too tired ever since the journey began, which is why I’d put it off. “No, I didn’t die.”
There was silence. “You’ve hurt me greatly, child,” she said.
“I am sorry for that,” I said, and I was. “I wanted you to know I won’t be back a while longer. The boy was kidnapped, and we’re trying to see if there’s anything we can do.”
I thought she might be sympathetic. Instead she spoke her next words carefully. “Who are you with?” I had the sensation she was a wolf, waiting to pounce. That she had been all this time.
“The boy’s father,” I said and paused, considering. Then I said slowly, “Arthur Denton.” I felt at once a great lightness within me. See? I wanted to say. I wasn’t the only one at fault. I have shouldered the blame of two. I have protected him by sacrificing myself. I have let him go on with his life. Seven years he’s lived just as he would have. Remember how proud you were of him at church that Sunday before we left? Some small part of that was my doing.
My grandmother gave a moan. “Oh Caroline! The preacher’s son! How could you? What have you done? What were you thinking?”
I hung up the phone. Outside, there was a long green lawn, its border planted in pale pink roses. I tried to remember the last time a flower had bloomed for me, the last time James had laughed somewhere, across whatever distance lay between us. In the sky above, dark clouds moved in from the west, black and heavy with rain.
Later that evening, Artie walked in, rain-soaked, stepping his shoes off in the doorway. “As requested,” he said, grinning, and handing David a comic book.
David grabbed it eagerly. “Thank you, thank you!” he said, returning to his place on the sofa.
“And this is for you,” Artie said, handing me a deep red rose.
“You shouldn’t have,” I said. Its smell reminded me of home. I put it in a water tumbler from the bathroom. Artie followed close behind me. When we were out of view of the boy I whispered, “So you’ve sent them?”
“Yes,” he said. “One letter for Mrs. Thomas, one for Deputy Harris. I gave them our address and phone number. Hopefully we’ll hear from them soon.”
“What do we do in the meantime?” I looked around the small suite. We had been there less than a day and already I grew uneasy. I wanted to be of use. I wanted to find James. Anything else felt like wasted time.
“You have to be patient, Caroline.”
I nodded. Somewhere our boy was seven years old. He was serious and imaginative and wonderful and he had not laughed in weeks and weeks. He looked like both of us. I whispered, “I talked to my grandmother earlier, while you were asleep. I told her you were James’s father.”
“That must have gone well.” He winced. “She’s always liked me, at least.”
“That worked against me, I believe. She seemed to blame me more. As if I corrupted you.”
“You didn’t. If anything, it was the other way around,” he said, solemn.
“Not so,” I replied. “We were hardly more than children. Neither of us should feel guilty, not for that.”
“Maybe, except I was able to go on with my life, while you-” He did not complete his sentence. In my mind, I completed it for him: while I withered. While I let my peers pass me by in every way. While I let my grandmother control me as though I were still her small child. I felt my face flush.
David came to the doorway, saying he was hungry. “What’s your wish, Davey boy?” Arthur said good naturedly, presenting the room service menu to him with a dramatic flourish. David smiled playfully. He reminded me of James, how could I not be reminded of him, I would always be reminded of him. “We’ll talk more later,” Arthur whispered to me as David led him to the telephone. They ordered steak and mash potatoes and ice cream, and Artie groaned at the bill and announced we would head to the grocery store first thing in the morning.
David fell asleep shortly after dinner during an episode of “I Love Lucy.” Arthur and I watched for a quarter hour as he fought sleep, his eyes opening and shutting lazily. Arthur clicked off the television and I tucked a sheet around David on the sofa. Neither of us knew what to do with a child.
“You think he’s alright?” I asked. I didn’t even know what I meant. Maybe he could roll off the sofa. Maybe we should leave a light on for him in case he woke.
Arthur shrugged. “It’s a bit better than a pantry,” he said. Arthur followed me to the bedroom. He flipped off the light. We both undressed in the halflight of the room. I put on my nightgown and got in bed. He lay down in the dark, facing me.
“Why didn’t you write to me when you were in Marietta?” he said, so fast I could barely think. “I meant to come. I meant to meet him.”
“Artie,” I said, almost a whisper. This was not simple. This could not be the way it had been when we were younger.
“And why didn’t you speak to me when you came back?” His voice sounded so young in the dark. I imagined him, sixteen, sweet, the way he reached out his hand to me.
“I was so angry, Artie…” I could feel the words on my lips, where they’d been waiting seven years. Artie expected me to continue. I could just make out the gleam of his eyes in the dark. “I wanted to get married. I wanted so badly to be a family, to keep him. I was angry that you were too afraid, too young and afraid, to want the same.”
“I see,” he said. “Are you still angry with me?” I thought of the secretary he was going to marry. I thought of his years away at college, the freedom he’d had that I could only dream of. Wasn’t this the way the world worked, though? Men are allowed accidents; women are not. It was not his fault that his parents beamed whenever he walked into a room, while my grandmother watched over me with such worry. As if I were a frail, ruined thing on the verge of breaking. Still, I thought of James, somewhere lost to us, possibly forever.
“Yes,” my voice was steady now. “I am. I know this isn’t your fault. And still I can’t help but feel angry. If it helps, I’m plenty angry at myself too.”
“Ah,” he said, coolly. He flipped over onto his back, his arms behind his head. “That’s very reassuring.”
I had not explained myself well, I thought. “I never sent him a birthday card,” I said softly, “I can’t stop thinking about it. Why didn’t I? I could have told him I thought of him, wished him well, was glad he was born, remembered my time with him warmly, anything, other than just-” I was about to cry, “Nothing. That’s all I’ve been to him.” Artie had turned back to me. “I loved him so much. He’ll never know…”
“Shh,” Artie said. “Enough now.” He opened his arms to me. I laid my head on his chest. He stroked my hair.
“How long before there’s news, do you think?”
“I really couldn’t say. There’s no telling. But we’re safe here I think. And David’s safe. And we’re doing the best we know how to do.”
News came in slowly at first. Deputy Harris was the first to call; he’d heard from Mrs. Thomas in Cincinnati. She sent her letters out to a dozen papers and news stations. Meanwhile back in Chatom the Sheriff had questioned everyone about their disappearance, wanting to know where David was, where we were, where the Thomases and the Deputy had vanished to and why. Mrs. Thomas’s sister was harassed at the grocery store. Her nephew was bullied after school by some of the Andersons’ boys on his walk home, arriving with torn jeans and a bloody nose and a bruise on his cheek the size of a baseball. There was a car parked out in front of Deputy Harris’s mother’s house most days now, one of the other police officers inside, “Just to intimidate her,” the Deputy said to us, “Just so next time they ask her where I’ve gone she’s so tired of all the commotion she tells them. But my mother is a stalwart, steady thing. They’d have to do a lot more before she’d talk, and that’s certain.”
Within a week Mrs. Thomas had the first call from the Atlanta Journal. There was a follow up, and soon Deputy Harris had been interviewed as well, corroborating the story. Eventually even we were contacted: a man called wanting our impression of the situation, asking how tall Mr. Anderson was, how large was the Sheriff. What did Chatom look like again. Artie told him of having our things searched in the hotel, the way the Sheriff had insisted that James had vanished, made no mention of Hale. We told them David’s story: half a dozen homes, the pantry, the workload, no schooling. That he had seen a man in a blue coat shake the Andersons’ hands and drive off with James and Hale hollering in the back seat.
Then we waited. Time became almost as oppressive as the heat. We went for drives in the afternoon for the breeze, Patti Page playing on the radio, David staring out the window, the flat land stretching forever before us.
“I wanna go swimming,” David said as we passed a creek, glistening in the light. Artie and I shrugged at one another, and Artie pulled the car over far on the side of the road. We walked carefully down the creek bank, and Artie took soon began teaching David how to skip stones.
I lay on the bank, watching the two of them. Artie was laughing as David’s first stone sunk fast. This is what it could be like, maybe. He would be shorter, darker. He might not smile so freely, might be more serious, might be hardened, might be joyful, he might have laughed just now when Artie slipped on the rock and almost fell, instead of politely ignoring it as David had done. How many weeks since somewhere James laughed?
David picked up a stone, turning it in his palm. “Like this one?” he asked, holding it out to Arthur, who walked over through the creek, taking it in his hand a moment before giving it back to the boy.
“That should do fine, David,” Artie said. It was dark grey. It was a small, flat chip of a rock, the size of a domino. David reached his hand above his head, shuttling the rock in the water.
“You gotta throw it sideways,” Artie repeated, shaking his head. “Like this.” He hitched back his arm, throwing his stone so straight it skimmed the water eight times before it sank below. David was already pacing the bank, turning pebbles over with his small fingers ponderously, trying to find his next one.
I dipped my handkerchief in the cool of the creek, tied it in a knot around my neck, the water dripping down my shirt. In June in Mississippi the heat felt so thick and close it felt like work just to breathe. David chucked another stone in the water. It bounced once before sinking, and he looked at Artie with amazement.
“You’re getting closer,” Artie said.
Through the trees on the high road behind us I heard a car come along slowly. I listened as it stopped and someone turned off the engine. Two car doors closed. Artie looked at me quickly. I stood, my pulse quickening. David was crouched on the ground between us, studying his stone. Slowly, so as not to startle the boy, Artie walked to the far end of the bank, picking up a long stick. Two people, maybe more, were walking towards us through the honeysuckle and privet that lined the trail. I could hear low voices. Artie looked ready to spring.
Then a young couple, not older than eighteen, came round the bend. The girl wore pedal pushers and sunglasses and the boy was smoking a cigarette. Arthur nodded to them good naturedly, and I smiled as well. They walked past us around a bend in the creek.
I exhaled. “We’ve gone crazy,” I said.
“We’re paranoid, is all, and we’ve a right to be,” he said, chucking the long stick back into the underbrush. He came and sat next to me on the creek bank. His face looked worn, exhausted. “It’ll be soon, Caro.”
It was the next day. The phone rang at 6 am. Deputy Harris spoke so fast we could hardly follow: “Aw hell, it’s a scathing expose. They name the Sheriff and the Andersons and practically indict all of Chatom and that’s what they do to. Front page, above the fold, font two inches at least. You could read this headline a football field away. “The Missing Children of Chatom.” It’s got a description of James and David, a request for information about his family, etcetera, and then a note about Hale too, and a whole page insinuating this is basically some sort of a slave trade or something and everything about Blue Coat and a call for an investigation from the SBI and everything. It’s everything we wanted.”
“You just wait,” the Deputy said, excitedly. “It’s just a start, of course, but there’ll be a lot to see in the coming days, don’t you despair yet, can’t hide two boys forever with the whole southeast looking at you. No sir. They won’t be able to hide them forever.”
“A servant of servants he shall be to his brothers. Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.”
It was written in a faded red on the back of what had once been the boys’ door. It must have been painted some time ago, for the paint was chipped and peeled in places, and was covered in a thin layer of dirt. David was pointing to a set of bunk beds on the far side of the room. The mattresses were a light brown, there were no coverlets, no sheets. The curtain that hung from the window did not flutter in the still room.
“And that was where you slept?” Mr. Carter repeated.
“Yes, sir, that’s where I slept. And James slept on the bed above.”
Mr. Carter jotted something down on his notepad, then tucked it under his arm. On a strap around his neck was his 35mm camera. He focused, snapped a shot of the bed. Took another photo of the door. “I want you to show me the field, now, David, if you would. Tell me about a typical day there.”
“I can lead you out this way, Mr. Carter,” Deputy Harris said.
Artie put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, gave a gentle squeeze. “You’re doing fine, David.” David took a deep breath.
“We’ll take these back stairs, here,” Deputy Harris said, leading them out into the hall, where a heavy steel door was propped ajar with a brick.
Alone, I walked to what had been James’s bed, ran my hand over the place where he would have rest his head at night. I said his name once: “James.” In the stillness, I wondered if there might exist some magic, some way in which he might hear me, having once lain in that bed, perhaps even lain in that bed thinking about me.
Artie wrapped his knuckles on the door frame. “Keep up, Caroline. We’re outside.”
David marched us through the field. I was pleased to see with three weeks’ absence it was already looking ragged, with grass springing up in the low beds. I wanted it to turn to forest. I wanted the creeks to overflow, turn the fields to sea. I wanted it to be as if the Andersons had never existed.
“And once more…” Mr. Carter said, his pen at the ready.
David repeated, “They said the Lord was coming to take him away, and where the Lord lives there’s no shade and the sun always shines. It’s always hot and there’s always work to be done.”
We walked back to the car, David swinging a stick, leaving a path of felled wheat stalks behind him. When we got to the car he shook Mr. Carter’s hand before climbing into the back seat, resuming his comic book. David was a fine boy, sweet and affable, but I could tell sometimes looking at him that his spirit had been broken along the way. He could be enthusiastic, could laugh, could enjoy television shows and skipping stones and ice cream and comic books, but still there was a gravity to him that seemed to run underneath it all. A heaviness that shouldn’t belong to a boy of ten years.
“It’ll be a few months before they stand trial,” Deputy Harris said.
Mr. Carter nodded. He was the Federal attorney. So far, the Andersons were being tried for fifteen counts of kidnapping, conspiracy to kidnap, and peonage.
Then there was one count of homicidal negligence; an older boy caught pneumonia the year before, working out in the field, and the Andersons didn’t take him in for treatment, not wanting to be suspected of anything. His name was Charles. He was sixteen. He’d died of a fever any doctor might have cured. First he’d been a rumor told by the boys in interviews: “and one boy even died, caught cold last year and was just let to die in his sleep one night.” Then dogs were brought out, and a shallow grave was found out behind the tool shed, marked inconspicuously with a little stone.
The Sheriff was still being investigated, charges were expected but hadn’t yet been published. And neither the Andersons nor the Sheriff had been cooperative with the investigation. As Mr. Carter spoke to Artie and the Deputy, I stared at the spot in the lawn not far from us, eight feet in diameter, the ground a charry black from where they’d burned their correspondences and contacts, all the information that might have been useful in finding James, or David’s family, or information about the dozens of other operations like this one likely still continuing all across the south east.
“We’ll let you know if there are any developments,” Deputy Harris said. “I want y’all to try not to worry, and to have a safe trip home.” The men shook our hands in turn, then sat together in Deputy Harris’s patrol car, where Mr. Carter continued taking notes.
Home. The sound of the word felt hollow to me. I had dared to dream, now and then, that when we left at last it would be with our child. That at least, I would have been able to rest my hand on his head, speak a kind word to him, see him to safety. I couldn’t imagine now going back to my grandmother’s house, my childhood bedroom, a garden full of wilting roses.
“Yes, thank you, Deputy Harris, Mr. Carter,” Artie said. He got in the driver’s seat, started the car. I waited. I felt, somehow, that James might walk out the front door. That he might appear to us out of the air like some wraith. That if I willed something with enough love, anything might happen. Artie got back out of the car, put his arm around my waist.
“I don’t want to go back,” I said. “Not without James. Not without… If I could only have seen him one time.” I put my head on Artie’s shoulder.
“It’s a hard lesson learned,” he said, his voice faltering a little, “Not to live with regrets. To do right the first time. We should have gone to Marietta years and years ago.”
“Or not at all.”
“Or not at all,” he said, and kissed me softly.
Beside us, a voice over the two-way radio in Deputy Harris’s car started blaring. Deputy Harris grew animated, slapping the roof of his car. He hopped out of the patrol car, ran over to us. “Looks like there was a sighting of James and Hale in February. In Apalachicola.”
“Florida?” I asked.
“Yes, ma’am. The Feds are already on their way to question the witness. I’m requesting special permission to continue on, though it’s not in my jurisdiction, technicality.”
“Technically,” Artie corrected.
“We’d like to go,” I said. “To be close by.”
The Deputy nodded. “I understand. I’m not saying it’ll be safe, but I can’t see keeping Mrs. Thomas away either, now that there’s new information.” He gestured to David, staring at us through the open car window. “I don’t think it’ll be suitable for him, though.”
Artie shook his head. “He can stay with my parents, in Sparta, while y’all keep trying to find him family.”
The Deputy nodded. He looked at us seriously. “February is five months ago. Almost six. I want you to understand anything might have happened.” He couldn’t bring himself to say more, but we understood.
My mother came to me in a dream that night. We were at a motel, halfway to Atlanta.
In the dream she sat on the edge of my bed in the motel room. Her hair was the color of silver, her eyes were two little moons. She was shining like some pale star come to earth. She was a thing almost terrifying in its beauty. She took my hand, led me out the door of the motel into the thick air of the night, cicadas humming all around us, fireflies flickering in the lawn. She walked to a small row of roses growing in a concrete planter, mostly bloomless in the high heat of summer.
“Mother, I dreamed you were dead,” I said, and even as I spoke the words I knew it was true. Almost twenty years dead.
“Right here I am, Caroline,” she said, and she touched the nearest rose bush. A blossom peeled forth, glowing like a star. “And here,” she said, and another grew. It lit up with the brush of her finger. “And here,” she said at last, and placed her palm on my cheek.
I woke coughing for air. Arthur stirred some, offered me a glass of water.
“I’m alright,” I said. He rolled back over in his sleep.
The dream had felt so real that a hope had swelled within me. I walked out into the parking lot. I expected flowers, roses, dozens of them. I expected daffodils and irises and tulips.
Instead, even the bloomless roses were imagined. There was no concrete planter. There was a drizzle and the cicadas were silent, and the fireflies wouldn’t return until the spring, and all I could hear in the damp night was a train whistle, calling somewhere far away.