I drove to the lodge on the first day of September. A slow drizzle hung over the land, as if signaling the coming autumn. I passed through Crawfordville, which was little more than a post office and a gas station, a small school adjacent to a library in a converted house on the main road. I stopped to fill up the car, and wanted so badly to ask the station attendant if he knew Doge, but I held my tongue. I looked for him as I drove, but I saw no one.
The entrance to Wakulla was gated. A black man dressed all in white worked the gate.
“Can I help you ma’am?” he asked.
“Yes, I have a reservation for this week,” I said. “I’m Caroline Montaine.”
The man checked a roster, gave me a nod, then pressed a button to open the gate. I drove down an avenue lined in live oaks, their immense branches swooping low over the lane, festooned with Spanish moss. The lodge itself was almost blinding in its whiteness. A covered veranda with several arched french doors comprised the front of the building. A valet greeted me and I turned Artie’s keys over to him. Another bus boy took my bags upstairs to my room. There were very few other patrons, because it was off-season and because the owner of the lodge had only recently converted it for public use. The entirety of the 27 bedrooms and grand hall had once been his guest house, I was informed by the bus boy, who stood in the door with an outstretched palm and waited for a tip.
Out the window of my room I could see the spring, glistening a deep blue even in the rain. An egret flew across the length of it as I watched, its fine legs outstretched behind it. The rain picked up, becoming a fine downpour. I made my way back downstairs to the soda counter, where a wall of windows overlooked the spring and the trees all around it, dripping with the Spanish moss. A boat pulled into dock, the tourists inside running through the rain with their hands held over their heads.
“Hello, Miss Montaine,” Deputy Harris said, taking the seat beside me. He was dressed in a polo shirt and plaid shorts, looking every bit the part of a tourist. Mrs. Thomas was with him and took the seat beside me. She was dressed finer than I had ever seen her, in a gray pencil skirt and a matching hat that she wore low over her eyes.
“Hello, Mr. Harris, Mrs. Thomas,” I said.
“So I informed Mrs. Thomas on the way over,” he said, “But I can tell you quickly so you’re not worried, Doge was spotted yesterday in Crawfordville by the post workers. He was followed to a farm just two miles north of us here on a road called Bloxham Cutoff. Some stealth surveillance was performed last night at an old farm site…” I felt as though my heart had stopped beating. I remembered to breathe. “And Doge was sighted with a handful of boys whom agents feel confident he houses in a barn at night,” I couldn’t breathe now. I must have looked anxious because Deputy Harris put his hand on my arm, “There has been no direct news about James or Hale,” he said, “But Doge was sighted with several boys. This morning additional surveillance caught him putting them to work in a cane field, and some agents were able to get photos of him using unlawful force with one boy. They have decided to move in tonight, while Doge will hopefully be asleep and while the boys will all hopefully be together in the barn.”
I took deep breaths.
“It is a lot to take in,” Mrs. Thomas said. She took my hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. “I’ve had the whole ride here to process it. You should take your time, Miss Montaine.”
“Is there anything else to know? Any reason for hope or, or- any reason to think James won’t be there?” I asked.
“Now I’ve told you all I know,” Deputy Harris said. “The Feds aren’t telling me everything, likely. But I’ve told you what I know.”
“I need to call Artie,” I said. “I want him here.”
“Go on ahead,” Deputy Harris said.
I called him from the lobby phone.
“Spectacular Spectacles, how can I help you?” a chipper voice said on the other end.
“Uh- yes,” I said. “Can I speak to Artie- Mr. Denton, please?”
“Just one moment,” the woman said. Her voice sounded a bit sharper as she spoke this.
“Caroline?” Artie said in a moment.
“They’ve found Doge,” I said hurriedly. “They haven’t seen James yet, or at least Deputy Harris doesn’t think so, but they’ve found Doge and they’re moving in on him tonight, late.”
“This is wonderful,” Artie said.
“I want you here,” I said. “I don’t want to be alone if there’s- if there’s bad news. And I want you here if everything goes well too.”
“Alright. I can fly into Tallahassee this afternoon.”
“Artie-” I said. “It isn’t going to be easy. Even if everything’s perfect, you know? It’s like how Davey was. Wonderful, but a bit broken at the same time.”
He was silent a moment. “We’ll just have to see, and take it a day at a time.”
“I know,” I said. I hesitated. “It hardly matters, but-”
“Was that Annabell that answered the phone?”
“Annabell, your former fiance.”
He hesitated. Then, “Yes, it was. But-”
“You might have told me,” I said.
“I was going to only-”
“I can’t think about it now. I don’t want to.” I shut my eyes, exhaled, and tried not to cry. “You can call when you know what time you’ll arrive in Tallahassee. I can pick you up.”
“I will. I appreciate it,” he said. “I love you.”
I hung up without responding.
Back at the soda counter, Mrs. Thomas and the Deputy were talking in low voices.
“Is everything alright?” Mrs. Thomas asked.
I nodded. “He’ll be here today.”
“Mrs. Thomas has just asked if she’ll be able to be there when they bust Doge,” Deputy Harris explained. “It’s something to think over,” he continued, “Because strictly speaking I would lose my job if anyone found out I’d let you. On the other hand, I feel like a mother should always be able to be with her kids, and if a child’s in harm’s way it’s up to the mother whether or not she puts herself in that same harm’s way, etcetera.”
“I fully agree,” Mrs. Thomas said keenly.
“All the same, I’d hate for you to be there if there’s bad news of some sort,” he said slowly. It was a euphemism, a code. We knew what he meant: if your sons have died, or are gone. If they were never there at all.
“If there’s bad news it will exist whether or not we’re present, and we will have to contend with it eventually,” Mrs. Thomas said crisply. Her brown eyes were flashing defiantly. She would not be kept from Hale.
“Your thoughts, Miss Montaine?” Deputy Harris said, turning to me.
“I want to be there. I know Artie will too.”
Harris sighed, putting his hands on his knees. “Well, I suppose if I called to say the Feds were on their way over to the farm, that wouldn’t be an invitation, and y’all would be able to do what you wanted to with that information, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes, we would,” Mrs. Thomas said. She looked thankful.
“Alright,” Deputy Harris said. “But I don’t want to see you. Not even an inch of you, until it’s clear Doge is in custody. Is that understood?” We both nodded.
“Mrs. Thomas, if you’re alright with hanging out at the lodge for a bit this evening, Deputy Harris could call us here and then we could all ride over together,” I offered.
“It won’t be before 10 tonight,” Deputy Harris said. “They’ll want to wait till it’s good and late.”
“I’ll come to your room around 10, if that works for your and Mr. Denton,” Mrs. Thomas said. I nodded and smiled, but inside I felt nervous. I said goodbye and went to my room. I flipped on the television but couldn’t keep my mind on it. The hours stretched cruelly before me. Tonight, I would have James in my arms or I wouldn’t. Tonight I would see his face, seven years old, as beautiful to me as any flower or any star or the whole of the earth, or I wouldn’t.
The rain let up and I took a trail around the spring. It led through groves of palmetto and palms, the fronds dripping wet across the path. Once, only once, I saw a fire red lily push its bloom through the undergrowth. I stooped to examine it, to hold it in my hand, but at the brush of my finger the blossom closed tight, each petal curling in on itself like a shut fist.