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.”
“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.”