“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.