24.

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, loaded up, and then I walked to the front office to pay.”

“Mmhmm.”

“As I’m coming 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.”

“Jesus, Arthur.”

“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-”

“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.

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23.

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.

Turn the page.

22.

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 three 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.

Turn the page.

21.

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.   

Turn the page.

20.

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.”

Turn the page.

19.

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.

“No.”

“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.

“Oh, I-”

“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.’”

“He talks strangely and I know it sounds like it doesn’t make sense 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 eachother. 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.

Turn the page.

17.

The countryside all around the Anderson place was flat and planted in tobacco and cotton, the fields stretching out on either side along the dirt road as far as the horizon. Now and again, we could see some person, far off in the distance, a dark speck of a body bent over the rows at work, labouring even in the rain. The farmhouse itself was nothing special, an old Sears and Roebuck order I’d seen twins of back in Sparta, though it wasn’t well cared for: the columns and trim were all in need of paint and the screen door was left ajar and hung crooked on its hinges. A few of the shingles of the gable had fallen leaving gaps in the siding, and the roof had been patched a place or two with plywood. Behind the farm were a few outbuildings, a large monitor barn for drying tobacco, a smaller dairy. A few cows stood in the doorway, watching the rain. One bellowed, announcing our arrival as we pulled in front of the house.

Mrs. Anderson, looking almost as neat as in the photograph, came out onto the front porch. A girl, maybe two years old or so, followed along behind her, grasping the hems of her skirt.

“Can I help you?” she asked. The little girl was tugging at her skirt, looking to be held. Mrs. Anderson picked her up.

“Yes, ma’am,” Arthur said. “We’re here to talk to you about James.”

“James?” she said, looking momentarily puzzled. She put the girl down, who began to cry again at once. “Sarah!” she called inside. An older girl, nine or ten years old, came out onto the front porch, picked up her sister, and carried her back inside. Mrs. Anderson  motioned for us to come inside. “Of course. Y’all come in. We don’t get many visitors out this way. Please excuse our mess.” It was dark in the house, and humid from the rain. Buckets and sauce pans had been placed here and there throughout the house, and the rain dropped loudly from the roof. She showed us into the kitchen off the main hall, and gestured for us to sit at the kitchen table. In the hallway, I could see the older girl watching Arthur and I through a crack in one of the bedroom doors. She closed the door when she realized I was looking back at her. Mrs. Anderson sat across from us. “James, you said?”

“Yes,” Arthur replied. “We’re his biological parents, you see.” She straightened and looked markedly agitated.

“We understand he’s gone missing, and we want to help, in any way we can,” I added as quick as I could. Mrs. Anderson stood and went to the window, ringing a large bell that rest on the sill.  It gave a loud clang.

“My husband will want to meet you is all,” she said. Her expression had gone blank. “James was such a queer little boy.”

“Was he now?” Arthur responded, amicably.

“Did you know he hit me?” she said, slowly. “More than once. I ain’t never had that happen before, with any of our boys. It’s been so much quieter round the place since he left.”

Arthur looked at me, uneasy. “How long has he been missing, Mrs. Anderson?”

“Let’s see…he’s been gone since January,” she seemed unsure. “January, I believe.”

“Of course we miss him, very much,” a deep voice said behind us. Mr. Anderson stood in the doorway, well over six feet tall. “Mitchell Anderson,” he said, reaching out a hand in greeting.

“These are James’s biological parents, Mitch,” Mrs. Anderson said. “Wanting to help us to find him.”

“Well how thoughtful!” he said. He smiled warmly. “We’ve looked everywhere for the boy, got the police notified in all the surrounding counties, we’ve asked all our other boys, all the other children. Sheriff even had dogs out in the woods, tried to track him. It’s like he just vanished into air, it’s that strange.”

“Is there any way we can be of service?” Arthur asked.

“Well, I’ll tell you prayer wouldn’t hurt, no sir,” Mr. Anderson said. He placed his broad hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “We got ‘em praying all over the county too, but more prayer never did hurt a body.”

“Anything else?” Arthur said.

“I don’t think there’s anything else to be done,” Mr. Anderson said. “Prayer.” He gestured to a cross above the doorway. It hung at an angle, revealing an unpainted outline on the wall behind it from when it had been straight.

“He looked like you two, you know,” Mrs. Anderson said. She stared at us both earnestly. “I can see now how his little face was the two of yours combined. He was a beautiful little boy, wasn’t he Mitch?”

“He was indeed, Laura,” Mr. Anderson said. Then there was silence, punctuated only with the rain dropping in the buckets.

“Well, I thank you very much for your time,” Arthur said, standing. It felt like the end of our journey. I couldn’t think of anything else to ask them, or to offer. We were almost out the door when Arthur turned. “All this your land, Mr. Anderson?”

“It is indeed. Been in my family since before the war.”

“Lotta land, isn’t it? Hard to manage all this land?”

“We do alright,” Mr. Anderson said. He stood tall. “Go big or get out, that’s what the Farm Bureau says, and I guess I have.” He winked. “It’s the biggest family farm in the county.”

“It’s impressive, no question,” Arthur said. “Just how big is your family?”

“We’ve got five beautiful daughters,” Mrs. Anderson said, “And goodness our boys…”

“She’s just about lost count!” Mr. Anderson said, good naturedly.

“Well, I thank you for your time. And if you think of anything we can do for you, we’re staying at The Grosse Inn.”

“I’ll tell you, best thing for you and your wife,” Mr. Anderson said, “is if you head on back to your home. There’s nothing for you in Chatom. We’re doing what’s best for our boy, I can promise you that.”

“Arthur this is horrible,” I said as we walked back to the car. Mr. and Mrs. Anderson watched us from the doorway. “I feel like-” I could barely speak the words. “I feel like he’s gone forever.”

Arthur sat at the wheel and slammed the car door shut. I was surprised to see he looked more determined than ever. “I feel like there is something suspicious as hell going on here.” He quickly turned around, backing the car up into the yard, then began driving out at a fast speed. “They seem broke as shit, bragging about their biggest farm in the county. There’s no way unless they’re so deep in debt-” Arthur had a wild look in his eye. Up ahead, a boy of around 16 was working near the dirt road. “Roll down your window, Caroline.” Arthur pulled up, calling to the boy, “Helloa! You there!”

The boy dropped his hoe, walked over to the fence along the road. “You work for the Andersons?” The boy nodded. “What do they pay?”

“They don’t pay anything,” the boy said. “Except room and board.”

“How many workers they have?”

“Thirteen, including me.”

“They hire you from town?”

“No sir, I lived at a home in Piedmont before this.”

“They treat you well?” Arthur asked.

“They treat me fine,” the boy said. He wiped his face on his sleeve.

“Did you know a boy named James?”

“James?” the boy considered a moment. “No, sir, can’t say I did. I heard them talk about him some, but he had already left before I arrived.”

“I see. I’ll let you get back to it, young man,” Arthur said. The boy waved and I rolled my window back up. “What do you make of it, Caroline?”

I sighed and shook my head. “I don’t know what to think. You’re thinking what, that they adopt boys-”

“Yes.”

“And make them work in the fields?”

“Yes.”

“That isn’t a crime, Artie. That’s just a family farm. That’s half the town of Sparta. That’s every other boy we knew growing up.”

“True enough,” Arthur said, “But still I say there’s something not right about adopting kids solely for that purpose.”

“You think that’s what they do?” I asked, uneasy. Artie nodded. “What does that mean about James?”

“I’m not sure.”

“I think we should go to the police,” I said. “We can just feel them out, offer aid.”

“Alright.”

Something was gnawing at me. “The way that woman spoke about him…” Arthur nodded. “It worries me, Arthur.”

“It worries me too, Caroline. But there’s no place to go now but onward, whatever we find.”

We were back at the main road. Arthur turned right, heading back into Chatom.

Turn the page.

16.

The next morning when I woke Arthur was still asleep on the floor beside me, and the clock beside the bed read 7:30. In my bag I found my nicest dress, folded neatly at the bottom: it was a light teal color with a floral print in deep rose that I had made myself, with some help from my grandmother. I combed my hair carefully and then wound it in a high, neat bun. I even decided, last minute, to wear the gloves I’d packed just in case. What do you wear to meet the parents of your child?

“We’re going to a farm, Caroline,” Arthur said, giving a yawn as he stretched.

“I want them to think well of me, that’s all.”

Arthur gave a shrug. “I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Who loses a seven year old?” I ignored him. “I’ll wear a tie,” he said, getting up.

“I’ll be outside. Hurry up.”

“It’s just now eight,” he complained.

I went to the front office, where now a middle-aged woman stood behind the front counter. “Hello ma’am, I was wondering if you could help me get to Caruther’s Road. It’s not on my map.”

She looked at me suspiciously. “Y’all from around here?”

“No,” I said, “We’re visiting family.”

“What family?”

“The Andersons, on Caruther’s Road.”

She gave a little laugh. “You’re kin to the Andersons?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

She looked me up and down, still more suspiciously. “You don’t look like kin.”

“It’s distant,” I said.

She pulled out a smaller map of the county, circling a small intersection a ways out of town, back down the main road. “You get to this corner you’ll turn left. I’ve never been out all the way to their land but I’ve heard it’s about a half mile down this lane, unpaved.” She arched her eyebrows, leading me to believe this was not the normal way of things.

“I don’t mean to- to pry, but as I said they’re distant family. Are they alright?”

“They’re fine, I guess,” the woman said. She started rearranging maps and pamphlets on the counter. “They got about a dozen kids, though, or more. Can’t hardly keep track of them, myself,” she said the next part slow, “seems like they’re always changing.”

“Really?”

“Sure. I see ‘em around time from time to time. Mrs. Anderson doesn’t know how to dress a child, not proper. Even heading to school they’re covered in dirt.”

“I see. Well thank you,” I said.

“Y’all staying another night?” she asked as I was leaving.

“Hm? Oh yes, I think we will be, at least one more night.”

“Alright,” she said, making a note in her ledger.

When I got back out to the car the rain had started up again, and Artie was waiting with the engine on. “I got directions,” I said, getting in. “It’s a ways out of town, turns out.” Arthur looked at the map. “Lady said it was about a half mile down a dirt road.”

“Huh,” Arthur said. He was looking in the rear mirror, backing up.

“She also said they had about a dozen kids, that she couldn’t keep track of them all, that it always felt like they were changing.” He was silent, his eyes still on the road. “Said they were always coming to town covered in dirt. That Mrs. Anderson didn’t know how to dress them properly.”

“Oh yeah?” he said, still distractedly. Then he looked at me just before pulling out onto the main road. “What are we getting into, Caro?”

I was trying to stay calm. I was studying the rain, starting its gentle rhythm on the windowpane, tallying the days since there’d last been sun.

Turn the page.

15.

The man took off his cap and scratched his head. “Chatom, you said?” Arthur was drenched. The rain poured from the downspouts, pooling around our shoes. It shuttled over the the awning of the station and slapped loudly on the tin of the roof.

Arthur spoke louder over the din. “Chatom. Yes. Route 43, I think.”

“Hell, you passed 43.” Arthur held out the soggy atlas, and the man used his middle finger to trace his way along 84. “You’re in Mississippi.”

“Shit,” Arthus swore. I took a deep breath.

The man chuckled. “Fine afternoon you chose for a drive.” Thunder clapped close, demonstratively. “Aw, you’re okay. You’re just where you need to be. Listen, you’re gonna keep straight another two miles, you’ll come to a big intersection with a little Baptist church on one corner and a convenience store and that’ll be 45. You’re gonna go left, south- you understand? – and pass Winchester, pass Buckatunna,” he slid his finger along the highway, “and when you get to the state line round Eret you’ll see signs for 56. You’re gonna take that east, left again – you followin’ me? – and then you’re practically there, Chatom.”

Arthur nodded. I stood close, studying the map with him. “Why the hell you going to Chatom anyway?”  The man narrowed his eyes a little. “Where’d you say you’re from?”

“Sparta, Tennessee.”

“You got family in Chatom?”

“No, just some business,” Arthur replied, quickly. “I’m an optometrist. I thought I might see about setting up a satellite office there.” The man seemed satisfied with the explanation. As usual, I felt a slight squeamishness about how deft a liar Arthur could be.

“Thank you so much, for your help,” I said softly, getting back in the car. I was tired. I was more than tired.

“Well, what do you think, Miss Montaine?” Arthur said, getting in. “Man said there’s a hotel about two miles back in Waynesboro. Otherwise we’re about an hour and a half from Chatom.”

We had been driving in a downpour since seven that morning. I closed my eyes and said, “I just want to get there.”

“Me too, Caro.” We were quiet a moment. A gust of wind came along, rocking the car slightly. “Here we go then,” he said. He headed in the direction of Chatom. “Keep your eyes peeled. I don’t want any more detours if we can help it.”

The clouds hung low and heavy over the road, and though it was only a little past five and April, the landscape had the look of nighttime. Pine plantations oppressive on either side of the highway grew thick and tall in spare rows with no flowers or underbrush beneath them, only a thick mat of needles, burnt orange. “I don’t like these woods,” I said. “They look man made.”

“Well, they are, of course.”

“I know.” I watched for deer, a wildflower, a weed, any other thing that might signal somewhere some uncultivated life. Then of a sudden the trees gave way to stumps, chopped off at two feet tall, and with no hills all around us was the brown, muddy graveyard of the stumped pines, and the greyblack clouds stretching as far as the horizon over their brown stumpy bodies. And then at last there was a sign for Chatom.

“What a cheery locale,” Arthur said.  

“It’ll look better in the day.”

“Or it might look worse.”

We stopped at the first motel we passed, The Grosse Inn, ignoring the name and the faded lettering of the welcome sign and the way the front door slammed shut behind us, we were that tired.

“You married?” the owner asked, examining our naked ring fingers as Arthur took out his billfold and I reached for the room key. “There’s no fornicating allowed in The Grosse Inn.”

“Sir, of course we’re married,” Arthur said, “Only I’m saving up for a ring as pretty as she deserves.” He nudged me playfully and I gave a feeble smile. Here again, my stomach turned over in disgust.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” I said once the door careened shut behind us. The rain was still pouring all around the covered walkway that led to our room.

“Do what?” he asked. He unlocked our door. One bed. “I’ll sleep on the floor,” he said hurriedly.

“I wish you wouldn’t lie. You didn’t have to say we were married.”

“You’d prefer we sleep in the car?”

“Maybe,” I said, and then, “No. But you lie all the time. I don’t think you even notice anymore. Where does your fiance think you are right now?”

“That’s unfair.”

“Is it? You should call your parents and update them on your camping trip. They’ll want to know how many fish you caught today!” I headed back out to the car for my bag in the rain, slamming the door shut behind me.

And of course, it wasn’t about the room, and it wasn’t about the man at the gas station, or the fiance, or the camping trip that wasn’t. It was that once I stood in front of my grandmother all alone, and I told the truth because, among other reasons, the truth was growing plain as day on my small frame. I was alone and sixteen and shaking from fear of what she would say to me and so sick for the thing we’d done I could barely speak and still I told the truth. And once I’d told that truth any other truth felt easy.

All my grandmother kept asking for was the name of the father. That was what stuck in her mind, that I wouldn’t say his name, and I had answered, “There’s no use us both having to pay for what we’ve done,” and that felt true to me then.

When I got back in the room, Arthur was brushing his teeth.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” I said. “It’s been a long day.”

“I’m sorry too,” he said. He spit out his toothpaste. “I don’t know what to do about all this. I’m trying to figure it to where no one gets hurt.”

“Ah,” I said, and I closed myself in the bathroom and tears came to my eyes because best I could understand all he meant was, ‘No one gets hurt except you. You and the child.’

Turn the page.

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When he was four a vining rose began its ascent to my window, the deep pink and red of his joy opening petal after petal. A peace settled deep within me_ somewhere, my boy was laughing.

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