43.

The boys said he walked into the river. He wasn’t the first to do it, they said. It was a cruel life, worse than hell. It wasn’t his fault. He was only a child, and Doge hated him especially, called him a wild horse in need of breaking.

“Did someone see him leave then?” Artie asked Deputy Harris, who’d come to our hotel room two days later after I wouldn’t let Artie return his calls. I sat watching them talk from the edge of the bed, my hair long and wild rather than in its customary braids and bun. I was still dressed in my nightgown and had refused Artie’s pleas that I get dressed or eat something. While the Deputy spoke I only half listened. I’d gone crazy and didn’t care.

“One did. Hale did. Said he called after him to stop but that James kept on walking.”

“Are you searching the river?” Artie asked almost in a whisper. He was avoiding the word body.

Deputy Harris gave a slow nod. “We did yesterday. Twelve hours straight. We were looking for Doge too of course.”

“Have you found him then?” Artie said.

Harris shook his head. “Not yet, but we’re close. Seems he’d planned for this sort of thing, but he didn’t hide his tracks well. The Feds have found a couple properties down in Shadeville they’re checking into, think he could be hiding out there.”

Artie thought a moment, reached over to me and put a hand on my leg. “I’m sorry, Deputy Harris, but are you quite sure about James? You don’t feel there’s any chance-”

“It doesn’t look promising, Mr. Denton. I wouldn’t want to give y’all false hope. Boys said it’s been about three weeks, maybe four, since he disappeared. We were all over the swamp yesterday looking for Doge, and this land being what it is, the um, alligators, and sinkholes, and so forth-”

“I understand you, Mr. Harris.”

They spoke a while longer. Deputy Harris talked Artie through the process of the next few days, what would happen when Doge was found, what our role in his trial could be. As he left I heard him whisper, “Is she alright? Do you want me to send a doctor or-”

“She’ll be alright,” he said. “Thank you.”

Artie knelt before me, looked up into my face. “You’re strong enough to get through this, Caroline. I know it might not feel like it at the moment.”

My eyes filled with tears again. “Artie, I-” I wanted to tell him that just this week a lily found me in the woods. Hadn’t I always believed before? It felt like madness now. But still there was a quiet part of me- Artie was staring at me earnestly. I rose and walked to the window. The spring was a gaping blue hole in the earth, a tunnel to the center of the world. “Do you remember his file from the orphanage? How brave and strong he looked?”

“I do,” Artie said.

“The boy in that file wouldn’t just give up.”

“Caroline-”

“Or remember how he kicked Mrs. Anderson? Even David said he was always talking about running away.”

“It sounds like his life had gotten so hard, Caroline. Like he’d been through so much. Hale saw him-”

“Hale saw him leave. Hale couldn’t know for sure what he saw.”

“I think you’re letting your imagination get the better of you, Caroline.”

“So?” I walked back to him, knelt beside him. “Artie, I need this. Just a while longer. I know now what our chances are. I know we probably won’t – that he is probably-” I wouldn’t speak the words, “but please. What’ll it hurt to just -” my eyes were filling with tears, “Just pretend, if that’s all I’m doing, just pretend a little longer. Please, please, please.”

I was begging him. I let my head rest on his shoulder. He stroked my hair.

“Shh, Caroline. Alright,” he said. “What do you have in mind?”

I wanted to at least search the river I told him. There were tours every day on glass bottom boats, weaving there way in and out of the smaller streams off the spring. Now that we knew he wasn’t with Doge, we could look for any signs he’d gone elsewhere. We could go to a few nearby towns, see if he’d managed to get away.

“I will do this with you,” Artie said, “So long as I know you understand what a long shot it is. Deputy Harris has made up his mind, the agents too. They know more about this sort of thing than we do.”

“I understand,” I said solemnly. “Really.”

The next morning the telephone rang early. “Miss Montaine?” the voice said. “You’re one hell of a person to get in touch with.”

“Who am I speaking to?”

“It’s Mr. Parker, Miss Montaine. You forgot our meeting yesterday. Hunted all of North Florida trying to find you.”

“I’m sorry. We’ve had some- it’s been a truly terrible couple of days,” I said.

“I did hear there was some news. I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you,” I said. “And I’m sorry I won’t be able to meet with you.”

“But you’ll have to,” he said with half a chuckle. “I’m in the lobby.”

Artie was still asleep, so I threw on some clothes and made my way down. I didn’t bother with my hair again, or makeup, or any nice thing. I must have looked like hell.

Mr. Parker was waiting for me at a table by the soda counter. He was wearing a fine three piece suit and a hat. He stood when I neared. “Caroline Montaine,” he said, extending a hand. He was older somehow than I’d expected, but handsome. I shook his hand and we sat down together. I ordered a coffee.

“It looks as though you’ve had a hard go of it,” he said. “Is there anything I can do to help you in any way?”

“My fiance and I have decided to continue our search privately, just a while longer.” He was staring at me intently, his eyes sweeping over my face, my hair, my hands. It wasn’t done in a way I was used to, but rather the sort of look you give a specimen trapped in glass, on display in a museum. “I wouldn’t turn down any assistance-” He continued eyeing me. I shifted awkwardly in my seat. “You’re staring rather hard.”

“You don’t remember me,” he said.

I looked at him again, confused. Then in a flood I could see the way he’d looked over a decade earlier, when I was just a little girl, when his hair was only beginning to grey. He’d run beside me with an umbrella in his hand.

“You never wrote to me,” he said coolly. “I did intend for you to.” The waitress brought my coffee, and David Parker leaned back in his seat and crossed his legs. He watched me now with a look of satisfaction. “I’m your father, Caroline.”

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42.

My child, my only-

He is gone. You cannot speak to him anymore. You’re speaking to yourself.

It doesn’t matter. He has always been gone from me. I never spoke to him. Not once.

When he was younger. The way he smelled like the earth. The way he cried for you in the night.

I remember.

There will come a happier time than this. There can be other babies.

I don’t want to think that now. I only want him. Seven years old. As beautiful as the sun. My son, my only-

Turn the page.

41.

“What did his voice sound like?” I asked. We were waiting under the front awning for the valet to pull the car around.

“He sounded quiet, mostly, as I said before,” Artie said.

“But quiet how?” I continued.

“He said the Feds were just in the next room so he couldn’t say much, but plans had changed slightly. We should still meet him at the place on Buxom Cutoff. Quick as we could.”

“I’m just confused because it doesn’t sound as if plans have changed, so what could he mean?” Mrs. Thomas asked. “It worries me.”

“It worries me too,” I said.

“I think it’s a good sign we’re still meeting him at the original place,” Artie said. “Here’s the car.” He hopped the two steps down to the pavement and jogged to meet the valet. He tossed him a quarter and slid into the driver’s seat, ready. We drove down the country lane so fast the trees went past as amber blurs in the headlights. When we turned onto Buxom Artie turned off his lights and drove slowly, parking at last behind a long row of black cars.

“What do we do now?” Artie asked.

“I imagine we’re just supposed to wait,” I said. Mrs. Thomas was already opening her car door, quietly. Suddenly there was a rap on my window, and Deputy Harris waved to us without speaking. He slid into the back seat next to Mrs. Thomas.

“Hello, all,” he said. My heart was thudding in my ears. “Here’s the deal. Doge got news of us sometime this evening, I don’t know how- agents had been using the neighbor’s hunting lodge as a stake out so maybe they let slip what was going on or who knows. Point is, he just took off through the swamp. I figure we’ll get him if the alligators don’t. Right now, agents are in the process of seeing to the boys, but it sounds like we’re going to evacuate soon on the off chance Doge comes back intent on any more mischief. Names haven’t been released yet, but y’all trust I’m just asking after James and Hale constantly. I want y’all to hold tight while I go see if they’ve located them and if it’d be possible for them to release Hale to you now, Mrs. Thomas, or if y’all’d be able to meet James as soon as possible, Mr. Denton, Miss Montaine.”

He gave us a nod and then slid out of the car.

“Oh my goodness,” Mrs. Thomas said. “I can’t believe it’s happening. I thought so long-”

I turned around, gave her hand a squeeze. I looked at Artie, and was surprised to see he wasn’t beaming like Mrs. Thomas and I were.

“You alright?” I asked him.

He whispered low so that Mrs. Thomas wouldn’t hear him, “I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. Mrs. Thomas slid out of the car, waiting in the gray night. She would want to be that much nearer to him, to see him making his way to us through the trees.

“Jesus, Artie,” I said. “Even when he’s this close you don’t believe he’s real.”

“I believe he’s real,” Artie said. “It’s just nerves, I guess.”

“I can’t fault you for that,” I said, and smiled. I gave his cheek a kiss. I got out of the car.

Mrs. Thomas was smoothing her dress. “Do you think they’ll just walk him back here?”

I shook my head. “I couldn’t say. I hope so.”

Mrs. Thomas bit her lip. She seemed a different person, now Hale was coming back to her. Just as beautiful, certainly, but younger, less guarded. “I have wondered all this time, if he’ll be mad at me. If he’ll wonder why on earth I ever let him out of my sight. If he’ll blame me-” her voice faltered. “I’ve done the best I know how to do.”

“This wasn’t your fault, Mrs. Thomas,” I said. “He will be so happy you’re here there won’t be room for blame.”

“I hope you’re right,” she said.

Deputy Harris was coming to us through the trees towards the road, and we could just make out where two people walked beside him. Mrs. Thomas reached for my hand, holding it tightly in hers. When they reached the edge of the wood, Mrs. Thomas released my hand and ran to them. She threw her arms around her son and the two fell to their knees on the earth, sobbing in an embrace. Artie got out of the car, smiling at their reunion.

I had thought James would be with them, but I now saw Deputy Harris walked instead with Agent Chiddle. They said a few words to Mrs. Thomas and then continued towards us. Artie stood beside me now, putting his arm around my shoulder tightly.

“Good evening, Mr. Denton, Miss Montaine,” Deputy Harris said. He wouldn’t meet my eye. My heart sank.

“We’re still looking into this, of course, but it doesn’t appear as if James is here,” Agent Chiddle said to Artie.

“What does that mean, Mr. Chiddle?” Artie said calmly.

“We’ve located about thirty young men so far. It’ll take us ages to find families, placements, and so on,” the Agent said, not answering the question.

Deputy Harris said it softly, his voice wavering. “The general census among the boys is James has been gone several weeks now.”

“Gone where?” Artie asked again.

“We’re still working on that,” Deputy Harris replied, softer still.

“Do you mean dead sir?” Artie said. He held me tighter, his hand on my arm the only thing holding me to the earth.

“We’ll know more in the morning,” Deputy Harris said.

“I want you to tell me what you mean when you say gone,” Artie said, almost angrily.

“It doesn’t look very hopeful, Mr. Denton. I’m so sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry, Miss Montaine.”

In the minutes that followed I know that Chiddle left us, that Deputy Harris stayed. I remember a low cry coming from my throat, the sound an animal would make, my voice no longer my own. I know that the rain fell harder than ever, as if the whole of my body, the sky, the trees, the roadbed melted away. What did I care? The world was nothing to me without him.

Turn the page.

38.

Compared to the last time I’d been there, the Apalachicola Police Station was bustling. There were a half a dozen new men at least in the front room, standing around talking with their styrofoam coffee cups in hand. As I entered they hushed some. The officer at the front desk  greeted me. “Miss Montaine?” he asked. I nodded. “Deputy Harris and Agent Chiddle are expecting you in the conference room.” He led me through the office, where several more agents waited with police officers. Some were looking at maps, I noticed. This felt like progress. This felt like a plan was forming. Inside the conference room Deputy Harris introduced me to Agent Chiddle and had me sit beside Mrs. Thomas. A map was projected from a slide onto the front wall, and as the officer closed the door Agent Chiddle gestured to the middle of it with a thwack of his metal pointer.

“Crawfordville,” he said, looking first at Mrs. Thomas, then at me. “We’ve been able to identify the P.O. Box of a man named Chester Doge. A few of our agents have been able to infiltrate, discreetly of course, and this is not to be repeated, a few regional gatherings of the KKK. There are a few periodicals which circulate at such meetings in which euphemistic language is used to disseminate nefarious classifieds. One such ad was that of Chester Doge, who advertised himself as a guide for troubled boys.” Mr. Chiddle brought out a mugshot, sliding it across the table to Mrs. Thomas and me. Chester Doge was a round and doughy man. His grey eyes were dull, but his face was neatly shaven, his hair combed and parted. “Nothing incriminating about the ad, however upon inspection of his post office box application we found no posted home or business address (suspicious) and upon doing a thorough background investigation we found he hasn’t filed taxes ever (very suspicious) and was once arrested under the alias Dennis Smith (more suspicious) who was jailed and then released on (get this) kidnapping charges, though the case was dropped due to some mismanagement of the evidence and the recanted testimony of the minor in question. I’m guessing some underfunded judicial position was at play there as well. To conclude, we believe we have our man. We believe we know where he is, or was, and now the trick will be to get close enough for information without getting so close as to spook him.”

Mrs. Thomas wasn’t smiling exactly, but she had a clear, bright expression. “This is wonderful news, Agent Chiddle.” She reached out her hand to him. It felt to me there was a split second of hesitation before he shook it. “I’m so grateful to you and Deputy Harris both,” she said.  

Deputy Harris gave a nod of appreciation. Then he said, “Now I don’t mean to be a spoken record, but at the risk of redundancy I’ll say again, we’ve just got to wait a while now, ladies. A little while longer.”

“How far away are we from Crawfordville?” I asked. “Ought Mrs. Thomas and I to stay somewhere nearer, so we can be there if we’re needed?”

Mr. Chiddle scoffed. “You two won’t be needed, ma’am,” he said coolly. “And as I said, we don’t want to risk any chance that Doge would spook and leave. Is that understood?”

“It is,” I said.

After the meeting though Deputy Harris caught up with Mrs. Thomas and me. “There’s a hotel not too far from Crawfordville some of the agents mentioned. It’s a bit of an attraction, I’ve been led to understand, so I think it believable enough that two ladies such as yourselves might travel there without arousing suspicion. It’s the Wakulla Springs Lodge.”

“You forget, Deputy Harris,” Mrs Thomas said, “It’s likely a segregated institution.”

“Oh shoot, Mrs Thomas,” Harris said. “I did forget. I sure did.”

“I’ll check my Green Book to see if there’s a bed and breakfast for me in the area,” she said.

“That’s a wonderful ideal,” Harris said.

Idea, Deputy Harris,” Mrs. Thomas responded a bit coldly. “I assure you it is less than ideal.” Then she turned to me, “Miss Montaine, I’ll call over to your room this afternoon so we can coordinate our next few days.”

As she walked away Deputy Harris whistled a little under his breath. “That woman is something else, I tell you what.”

“She certainly has to bear a great deal, and she does it with grace,” I said. “I admire her.”

“I admire her as well,” he said. “I know a black woman in Florida ain’t exactly an easy person to be at the moment. I wonder sometimes how much faster people might have paid attention to Hale’s disappearance if he’d been white. So that has to be frustrating as hell, pardon my language. Not to mention she’s put up with a lot of incompetence from me since this all started.”

“You’ve done well, Deputy Harris. I appreciate you so much. Mrs. Thomas does too I know.”

“Thank you, Miss Montaine,” he said. “We’ve worked out alright as a team.” He paused, “I want you to know I think you’re a good mother.”

I blushed. I don’t think I’d ever been called a mother before. “I haven’t done any mothering yet.”

“Hell yes, you have. Squeaky wheel gets the oil, Miss Montaine. Don’t think these Feds aren’t aware there are two ladies in town missing their sons, waiting right here until they’re found. Two mothers who helped see to it the entire south east is paying attention to what goes on here.”

“I don’t think any woman would do less, when she knows her child is in danger,” I said.

“You’re probably right about that. Still doesn’t make it any less good though,” the Deputy said. “Just means mothers are an especially extraordinary breed of human, if you wanna know what I think.”

I smiled. “Thank you, Deputy. For everything.”

“Now don’t let anyone know I told you about Wakulla Springs, you understand. I’m on thin ice hanging round here as it is, but I plan on being there the minute they arrest that son of a bitch Doge. Pardon my language, Miss Montaine.”

I called Artie when I arrived back at the hotel room, catching him up on everything.

“Caroline, this sounds like they’re really going to find him,” Artie said.

“I know. I just hope he’s there. I just hope he’s there and safe,” I said. “If he really is being used for labor, surely they treat him half decent anyway. Feed him and such.”

“I hope so Caroline but I wish we knew more. It’s all I think about,” Artie said. “Today I bungled three orders, putting the wrong glasses in the wrong cases to be picked up. I was wondering what he looks like now, if he’d know us when he saw us.”

“Or if we’ll recognize him,” I said.

“You know,” Artie said, “I’ve been thinking it would probably be best for James if we were married. Hear me out- we want them to release him to us right away, but based off what’s happening with Davey and his grandparents it won’t be that simple, will it? There’ll be background checks and verifications. They’ll need to know they’re releasing him to a good, safe home. Seems our best shot of a speedy reunion would be to go ahead and get married first.”

It made sense. I wrinkled my nose. “I’ll take that into advisement.”

“That’s all I ask,” he said with a laugh. Then he continued more seriously, “The question is when do you think I should join you in Wakulla Springs?”

“It doesn’t sound to me like they’re planning on moving in tomorrow or anything. Deputy Harris is supposed to be keeping us in the loop as much as possible, says he’ll let us know the minute they’ve decided. But I think it would be best if you were here as soon as you can be.”

“Alright, well,” Artie sighed. “I’ll be there Friday night at the latest. If I need to leave sooner and I lose my job that’ll be alright. There are enough nearsighted people in the world I won’t be unemployed long.” Then he paused, “I can almost feel it, it’s seeming so near. You and me and James here in Nashville. I drove through this new little neighborhood on my way to work yesterday. Rows and rows of houses with maple trees in the front yard. Walking distance to an elementary school. Doesn’t sound half bad, does it?”

“No,” I said. But I was thinking how cruel it was to want something so much but to have no control over whether or not it came to pass. After we hung up I took out the atlas, tracing my finger along the snaked highway to Wakulla, the sixty miles left to travel between my boy and me.

36.

The airport in Apalachicola consisted of a single hanger. The prop plane Artie would take to Atlanta was already out on the tarmac, the pilot and inspector walking around it. The pilot was checking gauges and tire pressure; the inspector was making notes on a clipboard. “I want you to call me when you land,” I said. I had never ridden in a plane before.

Artie chuckled. “I will. It looks like a tin can, doesn’t it?”

“I hate that you’re leaving,” I said.

“Me too. But I want you to call me everyday with updates. I’ll be back the minute there’s news.”

I nodded. Artie kissed me. “I love you,” he said after, his eyes meeting mine. It was the first time he’d spoken the words since we were children.

“I love you,” I said, hugging him.

“I want you to marry me, Caroline,” he whispered in my ear. I shook my head. “Now I know your thoughts on the matter, and I know you’re as stubborn as they come, so I’m not asking you a question. I’m just telling you how I feel. I want you to think on it is all.”

I  bit my lip, smiled a little in spite of myself. “I’ll think about it.”

He kissed my forehead, said, “Bye, Cari, my girl,” and then walked briskly to the plane, the wind picking up, his tie flying over his shoulder. He waved at me from the stairs. I don’t think he’d ever looked handsomer.

I watched until the plane disappeared into the clouds, realizing as it did a sudden threshold had been crossed. I was on my own for the first time in my life.

Back at the hotel I called my grandmother for the first time in weeks. “Hello?” she said, picking up. Her voice on the other end of the phone sounded frail for the first time in my memory.

“Hello, Grandmother,” I said.

“Caroline,” she said with a deep sigh. “I’ve been wondering after you, girl.”

“Well, I’m fine,” I said. “I’m in Apalachicola. Artie left today for Nashville.”

“I know,” she said. “I spoke to the Dentons at church this morning. They told me Artie was coming home but you were staying on a while longer.  They had that Davey boy with them, too. He’s a fine looking lad. They said he’ll be going to his family by week’s end they think.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” I said. “He is such a good little boy. I’m glad that some of his family still care for him.”

“Do you need me to wire you any money?” she asked. There was an earnestness to her voice, a warmth.

“Not at the moment,” I said. “I appreciate the offer, though.”

“I’ve been thinking about it all, Caroline,” she said. “I’ve had too much time for thinking, perhaps, but-”

“Grandmother-”

“Let me say what I want to say,” she took a deep breath. “I know you blame me for some of what’s happened and you’re not wrong to. I was too harsh with you, perhaps, too stern. But whatever I did I did for love. I love you as my own soul, Caroline. I can feel the place where you’ve gone, right here in my ribs,” she said, her voice sounding as though she were fighting tears. “I wanted to save you from the world, my girl. I wanted to keep you as my own dear child a little longer. Your mother grew and left me so fast, you know. I only wanted to keep you. To love you. Please forgive me whatever wrongs I did you along the way.”

How I wanted in that moment to hold her.. I pictured her as she would be in her chair beside the phone. It overlooked the garden. I imagined her voice traveling the telephone lines, the miles and miles between us. “I forgive you,” I said, the words feeling insufficient to their task. “I am sorry too. I know I made your life harder than it should have been.”

“Caroline, loving you has been the great joy of my life,” she said. “And for all of it, I wouldn’t change you.” I could hear a final sniffle, then she said, more composed, “Now, I want to hear about Apalachicola. I haven’t been to the ocean in ages! Is it very crowded now?”

“The off season is just beginning,” I replied. “The beach is lovely.”

“And what news is there about the boy?” she continued.

“James,” I said softly.

“James,” she repeated. It was the first time she’d spoken his name. “I want to know everything.”

So I told her all about Deputy Harris, Mrs. Thomas, the Andersons, the most recent lead that James might be on a sugar plantation. I told her about Artie too, that we were in love again, or perhaps had never stopped loving each other, that he wanted to marry me.

“I’ve always thought the world of Artie,” she said. “You two are a good pair.”

We talked until dusk fell heavy outside. My grandmother excused herself, saying it was time for her to heat her supper. I promised to call again soon.

Then I sat quiet in the room, feeling the tug of my heart. Somewhere Artie was flying to Nashville through a blue black ether; my grandmother was shuffling safe in her lamplit kitchen; my mother was buried in the earth. My son I couldn’t picture anymore. He was stubborn and wild and perhaps too fearless for his own good. Wherever he was, it would be gloaming. The dark of night would be falling down around him. He would want shelter, rest, comfort. He would want these things, but I did not know if he slept on a bed or on the floor, if he had a blanket or not, if he would be sleeping with a full belly or a starved one.

And so I sent my love to him. I closed my eyes and willed it across whatever land there was between us. I willed it through the blue air, through the black branches of the pines, all along the tangled roots of trees and weeds and wildflowers. “I love you, my child, my only,” I said in the empty room. It was the truest prayer I knew.

Turn the page.

32.

Afterward we lay close together in the dark room.

“My father gave me a sex talk while you were in Marietta, did you know that?” Arthur said, chuckling. I shook my head. “Oh yes, he explained that God intended man to be pure until marriage. He said to have even an impure thought was the same as acting on it,” Arthur sighed. “Meanwhile, you’re in Marietta, eight and a half months pregnant… I was about to have a heart attack, I almost confessed the whole thing right then. Every time he talked about the future that awaited me, the love I would come to know in marriage with my wife, I couldn’t help picturing us naked in the woods. Jesus, if he’d only known.”

“My grandmother was half convinced I was still a virgin. I guess because I wouldn’t tell her the name of the father, she kept verifying it wasn’t some sort of immaculate conception. I’d already told her I was pregnant and she asked me if I knew how babies were made. I just pointed to my belly and said, ‘Obviously I do,’ and then she asked, ‘How?’ again, completely incredulous. I then informed her in very specific terms what we had done and she put her hands over her ears and left the room.”

Artie laughed. “I can just see her.”

“I know,” I said. “It’s funny but also very, very sad. She believed I was perfect, I think, until I told her. Like a little doll.”

Through the open window I could hear the waves rolling out gently, the moon pulling them to sea. “Let’s go see it,” Artie said, giving me a nudge.

“I’m so tired,” I complained. I rolled over, hugging a pillow.

“Come on, Caroline,” he said. “It’s calling us.” He said it playfully enough, but I understood he meant it, could feel the tide tugging us into the night. We dressed quickly, and then we were out in the thick air, our feet sinking into sand, the seafoam purling around our ankles. We kissed, our skin glowing in starlight.

I looked to the horizon, where the deep blue sky met the black ocean. Tears came to my eyes. I could barely speak the words. “Do you think he’s gone, Arthur? I want you to be honest with me. Do you think he’s still alive?”

Arthur exhaled. “Caroline I wish I knew,” he said. “I’m preparing though. I’m trying to prepare myself for the worst.” I understood. I nodded, wiping a tear from my cheek. Artie put his arm around me.

It happened as we walked through the dunes. Moonflowers, milkwhite, began blooming as we passed, the vines spreading all around us, the buds unfurling into blooms as soon as they formed. Soon the sandy hills were so covered in white flowers it looked as if a snow had fallen.  “Artie, look!” I said. I laughed. I kissed his face a dozen times I was that delighted.

“It is beautiful, isn’t it?” he said, trying to match my enthusiasm. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“It’s a miracle,” I said.

He agreed, tactfully. “It really is something.”

Turn the page.

31.

“So the witness is Lester Kittle, lifelong resident of Apalachicola, father of four, etcetera,” the Deputy said, taking his seat across from us at a table in the hotel lobby. “He saw them back in February. He runs the 5 and Dime on Chapman Square. He was about to close shop when he says a man comes in the shop for cigarettes. Man says he could ‘use a g- d- smoke,’ is what the report actually says; says his kids are about to drive him crazy.” The Deputy raised his eyebrows. “Kittle says he understands, his kids ’bout drove him crazy when they were young. Kittle asks how old the man’s children are. Man says he reckons they’re about 8 years old. Kittle thinks this is odd, man doesn’t know his children’s age, but not so uncommon. Then the man says he’s going to take a strap to them when he gets home. That’ll teach them to holler in his ears four hours straight.” Mrs. Thomas tensed, adjusted in her chair. “Sorry Mrs. Thomas, ma’am.”

“I’m alright,” Mrs. Thomas said. “Go on.”

“Then Kittle says they heard something out in the square, and the man runs outside and there’s a black boy sprinting down the road, and there’s a white boy shouting at him, ‘Run Hale, run!’ from the back seat of a car. The white boy has half his body squeezed out the rear window. So the man runs to his car, shoves the white boy back inside, and drives off down the road after the black boy. Kittle called it in at the time but the police down here didn’t think too much of it, thought it a little odd, but not much more than two kids giving a man some mischief. Still, Kittle remembered that name, Hale, and so when he saw the article he put two and two together and called it in again.” We were quiet a moment.  “And that’s all, so far.” The Deputy said.

Artie looked at me quickly, concerned. Then he stared hard back at the Deputy. “That’s not much, is it?” he said. “I don’t mean to be a killjoy here, I really don’t, but knowing they were here six months ago isn’t knowing much, really.”

“I don’t disagree,” Mrs. Thomas said. “I had hoped for more.”  

The Deputy shook his head.

“What’s next?” I asked.

“You’re not gonna like my answer, I’m afraid. We wait and see.”

“We came a hell of a long way to wait and see, Deputy Harris.”

“Well give ’em time. The Feds just got here two days ago,” the Deputy continued, “And far better for us to know they were in Florida then to still be hunting them back in Alabama. The Feds have gone back and gotten another statement from Kittle, and now they’re expanding their search, asking other folks in the area. Then too, interesting how little details like knowing they were in Florida might jog the memory of someone like the Andersons back in Chatom.”

I thought a moment. “I suppose the man wasn’t wearing a blue coat anymore?”

“No ma’am, he wasn’t,” the Deputy responded. “Being right on the ocean he’d have no need.”

“So he’s not recognizable then,” I said.

The Deputy hesitated. “Kittle said he might of had a limp, he wasn’t sure.”

“Still, he could help the police to do a sketch- knowing what he looks like is something,” Mrs. Thomas offered.

The Deputy scratched his head. “It’s been so long now Kittle’d mostly forgot. Said the man was about 6 foot, maybe. Blondish. ” Artie looked like he was about to cuss.

“It’s been a long day, Deputy Harris,” I said, standing.

The Deputy stood and took my hand. “I never promised he’d be here. I said six months is a long time.”

“I thank you for all you’ve done, all you continue to do,” I said. “I’m just tired. A little disappointed, but mostly tired.”

“Listen,” he said. “This may seem like a dead end, and maybe it is, but I’m asking you trust that the officers are doing all they can, that they’re taking this seriously, that we’re all working hard as we can to figure out what happened to James and Hale.”

“We appreciate it, Deputy Harris,” Artie said. “Mrs. Thomas, perhaps we can all get together in the morning and discuss next steps.”

“Of course,” she said. “Perhaps things will look brighter in the morning.”

“It’s exhausting, Caroline,” Artie said as we headed upstairs to our room. “Just when I think we’re getting close to him it’s like he’s ripped away. I don’t know how much more of this I can bear.”

“You’ll just have to keep on bearing it, Artie,” I said, rubbing my forehead. “We both will as long as there’s hope. I haven’t given up, have you?” We were at our room. Artie was unlocking the door.

“I haven’t given up. Not yet,” he said, but there was such a heaviness to his voice it made me shudder.

Outside our window, a black ocean shone like onyx in the moonlight, the tide coming in. The foamy waves crashed high on the beach. “It’s been years since I’ve seen the ocean,” I said, opening the window. I inhaled the brine of the water, the fine mist in the air.

“Do you want to go down and see it?” Artie asked.

“Not now,” I said.

“Sleep then?”

I shook my head.  “I’m not ready for sleep yet.”

He was staring at me hard from across the room, and I could feel my heart quickening. It wasn’t exactly an offer. Was this how it had been before? I could barely remember. Hints, so subtly revealed they were almost imperceptible, just the two of us together in half light, his eyes fast upon me. I started slowly unbuttoning my dress, until at last I let it slip from my shoulders. There was his invitation. If I had spoken it, I might have asked for comfort, for something in this world that felt less like loneliness. But there were no words now, there was only a kiss upon my neck, my throat, his hands strong around my waist. Then the slow sinking onto the bed, the way the night held both of us in the sacred dark. The waves outside that lapped the beach, the gulls scuttering in the black sky sang now, now, now, and for that fragile instant that was all there was.

Turn the page.

30.

We met them at a corner on Decatur Street. She was wearing a neat gray dress and her auburn hair was impossibly tidy and worn high in a bun. I was surprised to see that she was wearing sunglasses. Perhaps this was so her emotions wouldn’t be easy to read. He had polished his shoes, and despite what must have been five hours or more in the car his pants looked freshly pressed, the starched crease still visible on each leg.

“Here we go,” Artie said.

David took a deep breath and began fidgeting with his new tie. I paused, leaned down a little to look him in the eye. “This isn’t like before,” I said. “I know it’s not easy being passed off like this, but you’re going to have your own room, and you’re starting school next week.” He nodded, staring at his feet. “We’re not leaving yet. We’ll have a bite to eat before we go.”

The crosswalk began flashing. Artie crossed the street, gave his mother a hug, and shook his father’s hand.

I stood as tall as I could. “Mr. and Mrs. Denton,” I said, and nodded a greeting. I was willing myself to be brave, to remember I wasn’t a child anymore, and that I needn’t be afraid of them.

“Hello, Caroline,” Mr. Denton said, good naturedly. Mrs. Denton didn’t say anything, and because of the sun glasses I couldn’t tell if she even looked me in the eye.

“This must be David,” she said instead. She held out a hand to him. “David, we are so pleased you’ll be staying with us a while.”

David had been biting his lip, but he gave a forced smile. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Denton.”

“Should we go inside, have a bite to eat?” Mr. Denton asked.

“Sure,” Arthur said.

In the diner we ordered a small lunch. The waitress told me good naturedly that she thought David looked more like me than Artie. “He may be blonde but he’s got your eyes,” she said. No one corrected her. With David, we spoke mostly of Sparta, described the school and square, the little room that had once been Artie’s that overlooked the church yard. At some point, Mr. Denton nodded to Mrs. Denton knowingly with a cough, and Mrs. Denton asked if David wanted to sit with her at the counter and order a milkshake.

“Arthur, your mother and I have talked it over, and you and Caroline are getting married. I can perform the service today if you like.” Arthur choked on his soda. I felt my face flush. “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.”

“Jesus, Dad,” Artie said.

“And now you’re speaking profanity to me?” Mr. Denton smacked the table. “I won’t have it. I will not have it, Arthur.” Mr. Denton was growing red. He pointed a shaking figure at the two of us, looking around quickly and lowering his voice. “You two have had relations and you’re getting married.”

“I’m not getting married,” I said, my heart pounding. “Not ever.” I’m not sure I’d realized I felt this way, before I spoke the words. But now I knew it was true. Arthur and I had loved each other purely and without pretense and we had made a holy and pure being in the process and he had been hidden away and lost only because he had been conceived outside of marriage and now I wanted none of it. I looked hard at Mr. Denton. “I’m sorry, Mr. Denton, to upset you.” Artie gave me a quick look, his eyebrows furrowed, before focusing again on his father.

Mr. Denton’s eyes grew wide, but he kept his voice low and calm. “Listen, you little whore, I’ll not have you damn my son forever-”

“That’s enough,” Artie said, standing. He took my hand. “How dare you call her that. What Caroline and I did or do together is none of your business.” Mr. Denton stood hurriedly, bumping the table and spilling his drink in the process. We walked over to Mrs. Denton and David at the soda counter. “David, I want you to enjoy yourself at school. Mother, we’ll keep in touch.”

“Goodbye, David,” I said, giving his cheek a quick kiss. “You’re a good boy.”  The boy looked stunned that we were leaving so quickly. “I want you to call us whenever you need. We’ll let you know as soon as we’re settled.”

Outside the wind picked up. “That went as bad as it could have possibly gone,” Artie said, getting in the car. I didn’t disagree. “I’m sorry he called you that.”

“Thank you for defending me. I’m sure it wasn’t easy.”

We were silent a while. We got back on the highway, heading east.

“You surprised me some, though,” he said. “You never want to get married?”

I thought a moment. “Before I got pregnant, when it was just me and you in the woods, I used to think we were like Adam and Eve before the fall. It felt holy to me.”

“It felt holy to me too,” he said.

“To think that meant nothing to the world, because we were a bit young, because we didn’t have some slip of paper. That’s why James is gone. Because the world could look on that and only see sin. Only see something shameful we’d done. Instead of the beautiful thing it was.”

I remembered something I’d wanted to ask before. “How many other girls have you been with  now?”

Artie’s face grew red. “How many would you guess?”

“One or two. At least Annabell.” He shook his head. “More?”

“Only you,” he said. “Somehow you getting pregnant scared me away from the idea.”

“Imagine that,” I said, with a laugh. He looked at me, smiled. I felt a lightness in my chest.

“To be honest, Cari, I think if you hadn’t gotten pregnant we would be married. I think about it now and again. We would have gone to school together. You would have majored in education? Nursing?”

“Botany,” I said, decisively. He raised his eyebrows.

“Alright, you would have majored in botany. And after we graduated we’d have been married. We might have another baby by now.”

I could almost picture it. Our house, our garden. I would cultivate rare breeds. Roses white as snow, black irises, daffodils that bloomed in winter. And what would it be like to be proud to be pregnant? To have Arthur smiling beside me, proud that I carried his child? Arthur took my hand, kept his eyes on the road.

“I would marry you,” he said. “For lots of reasons that have nothing to do with my father or the Bible.”

“Then you ought to at least kiss me,” I said. Arthur pulled the car far over to the side of the road, and wrapped both arms around me, kissing me until I felt weak and strong at once, as if roses bloomed deep within me, as if a tide somewhere was slipping out to sea.

Turn the page.

29.

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.

26.

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.”

Turn the page.