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.”