48. Epilogue

Once there was a woman for whom flowers bloomed whenever she had a loving thought. James said they’d been with him as long as he could remember, clover springing up at his feet, morning glories wisping their way up into his bedroom at the orphanage. “So I knew you were thinking of me,” he said, as matter-of-factly as if he’d told me there were twelve months in the year, nine planets in the solar system.  

The hurricane crashed the following day, and the island drowned its final time, what was left of the fishing cabins carried off on a wave, dolphins reclaiming the sandbar as their own. We drove through the night to get away, calling Deputy Harris and our families from a payphone to tell them James was alive, that he had, in fact, managed to escape. We repeated his story quickly, as he had told us. How he faked his own death so Doge wouldn’t follow him, making sure someone saw him go into the water. How he got away on a raft made of sugar cane he’d been making for weeks instead of working, storing it underwater by piling stones on top. It had taken him four days to reach the island.

We stopped when we reached Montgomery, where Artie and I were married at a Justice of the Peace, and where a pediatric doctor looked James over from head to toe and declared him remarkably healthy, given the circumstances.

We drove on to Nashville. I had my father put the down payment on a cottage just outside of downtown. He seemed a little surprised that I turned out to be one who would cash in on skipped support payments after all, but I didn’t care. The house was new and bright, with no garden and few trees except for some wild muscadine vines and an old magnolia tree. We enrolled James at the local elementary school, and I watched and waited for something horrible to rise in him, some darkness to swell that had been planted in his years of mistreatment. It did not. He was smart, and funny, and brave, and kind, and if he was a bit wary of us at first, within six months he would place his small hand on my cheek while I read him stories before bed, as if to confirm, Right here is my mother.

Our second son, Alan, was born when James was nine years old. Here was the bright and dark of our lives in those years: each little milestone we celebrated, each step taken, each word learned, a small pang twisted in my heart as I mourned the years lost with James. He felt this too, and would sometimes grow sullen, slam doors, yell louder than was seemly. Well, rightly so, I would think at such times, how very valid is your rage. I tried to make space for his feelings and would wait for the storms to pass. And they did. James remained unfailingly good, would come from his room and apologize for his temper, would give his brother a kiss on his forehead. The beauty of my life would catch in my throat, would make my eyes fill with tears. It was so much more than I’d hoped.

Arthur opened up his own practice, specializing in taking recycled frames and giving lenses to those who couldn’t afford a new pair. When Alan was old enough for school I enrolled in a ladies’ college and studied botany. After graduating I began working for a local nursery, creating specialty breeds. My bulbs were shipped from Alaska to Africa: red striped irises, blue lilies, white roses flecked with gold. In the evenings after our sons were asleep Artie and I would hold each other close in love, and this had the magic of a prayer, a prayer to go on living like this forever.

Which is not to say our lives were perfect. There were hurt feelings, arguments, dirty clothes, kitchen counters left uncleared, backpacks and mismatched socks left on the floor. Still, I would weigh these problems against the great trials behind us and beyond, all the suffering in the world, and I would feel the supreme blessing of our lives, the sheer joy of being able to love my family, to hold James’s hand in mine, to watch him grow.

And so the flowers bloomed. Roses, pansies, irises, daffodils. Snapdragons in the spring and camellia in the snow. Magnolias the size of dinner plates and asters, each petal no larger than an eyelash. Flowers bloomed in winter and in drought and when my sons would laugh and when my heart would rise up just looking at them. They bloomed in the dark of night when only Artie and I were awake, in the mornings for no reason in particular, on Sunday afternoons sweet as rain with all of us home, the windows of our house open to a cool breeze. The blossoms formed and bloomed, they bobbed in the wind, dripped with rain, glowed in the sun, and all of this I knew was love – no more or less miraculous than love.

The End

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47.

The next day was drier but full of wind. We left at dawn. Artie sped down the highway, but when we reached Lighthouse Road we saw it was as the concierge had predicted. Artie veered to one side of the road and then the other, avoiding potholes that had turned to deep gullies. The branches of the live oaks hung low over the road bed, the Spanish moss dripping like grey ghosts on every limb. More than once Artie had me steer while he pushed the car from behind, the wheels stuck in mud. At last, the trees parted and we found ourselves in a low marsh, the sky above heavy and grey. The waves of the ocean were just visible, crashing forcefully against a low levy. The lighthouse was at the end of the lane.

“We could walk the rest of the way,” I offered.

“Alright,” Artie said. He took my hand as we walked. We watched as an egret flew startled from a curtain of sea oats and rushes, its broad white wings just inches from the roadbed. These were the few last minutes before James would cease in my mind as a being of possibility. This was the final stone not yet overturned.

The keeper of the lighthouse answered our third knock, coming to the door in waders and a thick sweater. He was an older man, late fifties perhaps. I do not know what I had expected, but I was surprised when he spoke with only a slight southern accent, his words holding great precision.

“I am terribly sorry if you’ve come for the tour, but a hurricane is on and I’ve many important tasks to attend to today-”

I realized then the lighthouse was in varying stages of preparation; some windows had been covered, others remained open to the elements.

“We haven’t come for a tour,” I said. “Our son has gone missing, and we wondered if you’d seen anything.”

And there it was, I held out the photo as a final prayer. The man’s entire mood shifted. He gave a click of his tongue. “Please come in,” he said. “I was too short with you before.” He held out a hand, introduced himself as Mr. Charon, a retired biology professor from Flagler University. He led us down a long white hallway to a small sitting room. Books filled every inch of it, lining the walls and shelves, piled in stacks on the floor. He rearranged the books that had been on the sofa so we had space to sit. “I’m terribly sorry you’ve lost your son,” he said. “How long has he been missing?”

“He’s been unaccounted for for nearly a month,” I said. “Last seen near Wakulla Springs.”

“Ah,” he said, raising his white eyebrows. Then he cocked his head to the side. “Ah,” he said again, as if he only now understood the futility of our situation. “I haven’t seen him, I’m afraid to say, but I’ll keep a keen eye out, be sure to alert the coast guard of course.”

“If he was able to get down the river from Wakulla Springs, the river empties here, doesn’t it?” I asked again.

“Yes, yes it does,” he said, considering. “Most boats are too large though for the shallows. It would have to be a raft.”

“No one swims it though?” I asked.

“Never,” Mr. Charon said. “It’s about the most dangerous-” He thought better of finishing the sentence. “It would be highly unlikely, ma’am.”

So that was it. He’d seen nothing, no craft, and to swim it would be too dangerous. If a storm hadn’t been so near, I might have suggested scouring the coast another several weeks, but even I was losing heart.

Artie stood. “Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Charon,” he said, extending his hand to the man.

“Would it be possible for me to look out from the lighthouse? Just to see?” I asked.

“Caroline-” Artie said. He was so ready to leave.

Mr. Charon hesitated, giving a nervous look out the window. He ran a hand through his hair. Then he must have thought of all I’d lost. “If you can make it quick,” he said.

“I’m heading to the car,” Artie said, not bothering to hide his exasperation and giving a loud sigh. “I want to check the engine before we head out.”

Mr. Charon led me down another hallway lined in books, and up a spiral staircase. He struggled to open the door at the top, the wind was that strong, but he walked me out onto the balcony. He pointed to a stream of rolling green water that flowed through the low marsh. “That’s the river there,” he said. “And you can see where it joins with the St. Marks.” The St. Marks was much larger, and the storm had turned it a muddy brown.

“Thank you for letting me come up,” I said. “I know you must be eager to leave before the storm hits.”

“Hurricane Florence,” he said, looking off towards the gulf, where black clouds were tipping over the horizon. Lightning flashed so far off it was silent. His look turned serious, as he considered. “Hurricane, from hurakan, ‘God of the storm;’ Florence, meaning, ‘to blossom.’” He seemed to remember I was there. “I’m not leaving, ma’am. Part of my job description, I’m afraid. Besides, this place has withstood a hundred years of storms; I’ll be alright.” He clapped his hands together once, energetically. “I’ll be alright so long as I hop to and finish boarding up. If you’ll excuse me,” he said. “You can see yourself out, whenever you’re ready.”

“Of course,” I responded.  As he left the wind came up so hard my hair fell from its pins, whipping across my face. I tucked it behind my ears. The waves rolled hard, the foam crashing in ten foot sheets against the breakers of the levy. The marsh was slowly filling in along the shore, the tips of sea oats drowning, their little heads bobbing feebly above the grey water only when the tide rolled out. Seagulls dipped and rose in place as if riding glass elevators, never progressing in their flight, the wind barring their way.

I thought of shouting his name to the wind, wondered how far my voice could be carried on the air. Instead, it came as a whisper. “James. I have loved you. I love you now.” It was the closest I would ever come to saying goodbye.

I made my way back down and out through the maze of hallways and books. Arthur was back from the car, helping the man board up one of the front windows. Lilies and roses bloomed just a few feet beyond them in a small garden. It brimmed with flowers.

“I like your garden,” I said. “I’m a bit of an amateur botanist, myself.”

“Are you?” the man said with a smile. “Then you’ll know it’s a bit peculiar – we don’t normally have lilies or roses this time of year, as hot as this summer’s been – but those just volunteered themselves a few weeks ago. Didn’t know I’d planted so many, to tell the truth.” My heart lifted a little. “Of course it’s been a good year for flowers. Wild flowers especially have been something extraordinary. Sprague Island is still about covered with blanket flowers.”

“Sprague Island?” I said. “Is that near here?”

Mr. Charon laughed. “It is when the weather’s nice. Only about a ten minute trip by boat, across the rivers. But you can’t take a boat out now. No, it’s not reachable in a storm like this.”

I turned to Artie, “We have to go there. We have to at least look.”

“Caroline!” he said. He took my elbow and pulled me closer to him. “There’s no possible way-”

“Truly, ma’am, in this storm-”

I wrenched my elbow from Artie. “I’ll swim if I have to. What if he’s there? What if he’s there in this storm?”

“There’s nothing there,” Mr. Charon interjected. “There used to be fishing cabins, but even those have all but washed away over the years. It is hardly more than a sandbar, madame, and in a storm like this-”

I turned to them both, tears in my eyes. “Surely, surely, we could look. If I could only just make sure he wasn’t there.”

“Caroline, you promised me,” Artie said, rubbing his forehead again. “You promised we’d head home now.”

“Arthur,” I said slowly. “If there’s any way-”

“Enough, Caroline,” Artie said.

Mr. Charon coughed politely. He gave a quick look at the sky, then said, “So long as the rain holds off, I can take you. I can understand a mother wanting just to make sure.”

“Thank you,” I said, throwing my arms around his neck.

“Come with me, miss, you’ll need some waders.”

He led me back inside, to a small austere bedroom off the sitting area. He fetched some rain pants out of his drawer, and then led me to the bathroom where I dressed quickly, finding sand and seashells the size of dimes still in the pockets. When I met him back out in the hall he gave a sweet smile at my awkward appearance, his pants swallowing my smallish frame.

Outside, the wind blew harder than before. Mr. Charon led us over the roadbed to an old dock, where a small green boat was tied. Artie handed me down into the boat, and I was surprised when he clambered in afterward, the boat rocking as he sat down beside me.

He put an arm around me after he put his life vest on. “You’re stuck with me, Caroline,” he said as way of explanation. I kissed him.

Mr. Charon was already guiding the boat down a small rivulet through the marsh. Sand cranes and ibis flew from us as we went. Soon we were out in open water. “This is the river!” Charon shouted to us over the sound of the motor. At one point he gestured to a mound of matted grass at the edge of the water. “An alligator’s nest!” he shouted. Artie cursed low under his breath. I watched the horizon, waiting for the island to come into view.

Then there it was, a sandy plain covered in orange and yellow blooms. A floating dock rose and fell with the storm. Mr. Charon tied the boat, and handed me up. Artie followed. “Be quick!” Charon yelled to us. “The fishing cabins are just ahead, on your right up the path.”

My heart sank as I stepped onto the island. It was already flooded in six inches of water. Artie stopped to take off his nice shoes and roll up his pants. “I’ll catch up,” he said, when he saw how anxious I was. Blanket flowers and dune flowers grew all around, waist high. I hurried along the path, running my fingers along the wet blooms as I ran. The ground must have been higher here for it was wet but not yet flooded. Around a bend I saw the cabins, so sea worn and grey they blended in with the sky. I approached them quickly, opening the doors. The first two had been completely stripped long ago. The third held an old rusted fishing rod, a tackle box with no tackle. Sandbar willows grew all around the fourth cabin, so I had to weave my way in and out to reach the door. I opened it and gave a small jump. There was a small hammock of thick green canvas that looked like it had been used not too long ago. A small bronze figurine of a knight no bigger than a thumb waited on a table beside it, along with a conch shell the color of fire. There was also a small golden fishing lure, the jig shimmering even in the dim light of the cabin. It was just the sort of collection a child would have. Artie came near, called my name.

“I’m in here,” I said. He came and stood beside me, looking at the small treasures, his mouth open in amazement. “It could be him,” I said.

“Caroline,” he said.

Then the rain fell. It made its way in through breaks in the shingles, holes in the roof. “What do we do now?” I said.

Artie shrugged. “I can go ask Charon where else a boy would hide? Or we could wait to see if anyone comes?”

“We don’t have much time,” I said.

“I know,” Artie said. “I’ll run back. I’ll ask Charon where else we can look,” he said. I nodded. Alone in the cabin, I took the small knight in my hand. I put it in my pocket for safe keeping. I went back outside, looking around. Flocks of seagulls blew wildly about as they tried to land. A pale brown snake receded into a pile of rocks a yard from where I stood. A milk-white crane struggled, its white wings working deftly, to land on an old snag. Behind the cabins just outside the thicket of shrubs I saw a slight rise; what must have once been a sand dune was now no more than a little mound and the skeleton of a fallen cypress tree.  Still, I headed towards it, the sand whipping my ankles, my hair lashing my arms, thinking maybe from there I would have a better view of the island.

I watched my feet as I went to keep the rain and sand from stinging my eyes. I saw crabs the size of quarters, spiders as translucent as glass. I reached the fallen tree, took a shaky step on to its trunk, and lifted my head.

And there he was.

Just ahead of me over the rise, he was running towards me through the rain, a fishing pole in his right hand, a line of caught fish slung over his left shoulder. His pants were in tatters and he wore no shirt, his rib bones visible from hunger. His hair was long enough that he tucked it behind his ears. I would have known him anywhere. He had been watching the ground as he ran but suddenly – perhaps he could sense he was being watched – he looked up at me fast and hard with serious eyes the color of the sea. At first, he acted as if he would bolt away, but then I yelled for him, “James!” He stopped, looking at me hard through the rain and sea mist. My hair whipped in the wind. I knelt. “We have to leave, James. You have to come with me now. There’s a hurricane coming.”

He approached me with all the hesitance of a wild animal. He stopped when he was just an arms’ reach away. “You’re my mother, aren’t you?” he said, the rain falling hard around us. I nodded. “Is he my father, then?” he said. He gestured behind me, where Artie was waiting a little ways down the trail.

“He is,” I said.

“What took you so long?” he asked. He said it bravely enough, but his little lip pouted some as he said it, so he looked that much more beautiful, that much more the baby I’d held so long ago.

I took a step closer to him, afraid even as I did that he would vanish into the clouds or dive into the ocean that was inching up the shore just beyond him, would eventually turn the island back to sea. I held my arms open to him. “Will you forgive me, James?” He looked so small, standing there. “I’ll never leave you again.”

He came to me then. He fell into my arms like the child he still was, half wild with hunger and loneliness, but mine. I closed him tightly into my arms, lifting his small form into the air. “Mother,” he whispered in my ear. It was as if he named me. This was infinitely more merciful than I expected, the way he let me hold him that near, his arms around my neck. My heart was breaking into a million pieces, rearranging itself into something full and strong and whole. I kissed his cheeks, his forehead, his sandy hair. “My son,” I said through tears. “James.”

Artie ran beside us, placing a hand on the boy’s head. “We have to hurry now. We have to go. I can carry you,” he offered to the boy. I did not want to let him go.

“I can run, Father,” James said nobly, and my heart broke all over again. I set him down, taking hold of his hand. We ran through the rain to the boat, minnows and crabs scuttling over our ankles. The waves crashed into the wildflowers, petals purling around our feet.

Turn the page.

46.

A hurricane was coming. It announced itself suddenly. The weather service said it was born from a tropical wave that crashed over Jamaica, decimating the island. It sped towards the panhandle where it was predicted to arrive Sunday at the latest. At the lodge, the wait staff boarded plywood over the windows, lashed boats to their moorings with thick, yellow ropes. “It is time for us to go home, Caroline,” Artie said Thursday afternoon when the rain pelted the windows so hard it reminded me of a relentless whip. I shook my head.

“Artie,” I said. “Not yet, please.”

“They’re closing the lodge,” he said. “We’ll have no place to sleep.”

“We can sleep in the car,” I replied.

He got my grandmother on the phone. Her voice was soft.  “Caroline, you’ve done well my girl. I’m proud of you. No one could expect any more of you, love. It is time for you  to come home.”

“But what if he’s out in the storm?” I said.

She took a deep breath in. “The storm can’t hurt him now,” she said. Her words cut.

Still I cried, pleaded. I felt as if an undertow was carrying me out to sea, that I was grasping at a ground made of silt. I took out the map one last time.

“Arthur, what if he didn’t head north? What if he headed down river?”

He was trying to stay kind, I understood. He didn’t mean to seem frustrated. “They’ve searched the river, Cari, you know that.”

I traced my finger along the gray blue river, past Shadeville, past St. Marks, past an intersection labeled Port Leon. “What if he made it all the way to the ocean?” I asked, pointing at last to sketch of a small red and white tower, a lighthouse, all the way at the end of the world.

Arthur rubbed his temple with his thumb and forefinger. “You’ve seen the river, Caroline. It barely moves. It’s a swamp more like. Think of how many alligators he would have had to avoid, how many moccasins, sinkholes.”

“I know all that,” I said. “But what if he did? What if he made it that far, and he’s out in this weather?”

“We can go to the lighthouse. We can go just to make sure no one’s seen anything.”

I kissed his cheek. “Thank you!”

“But after, we’re headed out as fast as we can. We’re headed back to Nashville before the storm hits,” he paused. “Do you understand, Caroline?” He stared at me hard, his brow furrowed. My stomach turned a little as I thought of what I was putting him through. He would have his own pain, his own sadness, and in my grief I’d swallowed it all, forcing him to be the collected one.  I had known for days how ready he was to say goodbye, to come to terms with the evidence, the horrible truth that spread unavoidably like cancer.

“I do,” and felt my heart breaking as I spoke the words.

It would take us an hour, the concierge told Arthur, down a dirt road – the road would be mud from the rain.We decided we would head to the lighthouse in the morning. We packed our suitcases, leaving out only our outfits for the morning. I walked with Artie to the car, the trunk thudding with finality as he loaded our bags.

In the night, in a sort of half sleep I remembered the story my mother had told me so long ago, and I dreamed of the deer that had once been my mother but now was me. James was a fawn frozen in ice. My breath upon his white fur turned him translucent, then golden, then something earthy and brown. My thoughts wandered and the dream dissolved, transmuted. I saw a world where nothing was lost, nothing faded – where the dross of life was kept, held neatly in palms until it combined together to form something whole again, river pearls and iris bulbs made from sediment and slag.  

Turn the page.

45.

Because of course James’s photo had been sent out weeks ago to all of the precincts in the area, and there had been no news. I understood this. I don’t know what I thought would happen when I took his photo from my pocket book,  the still earnest expression, the serious eyes, and held it out to detectives in Shadeville, Newport, Midway, as if some magic would transpire. As if a flash of recognition would cross their faces, they would bring him out from a back room where he’d been waiting like some prized item at a department store, placed on hold.  

Artie played his part beautifully. After every disappointment, he would find a soda shop and buy me a chocolate milkshake. If it was late enough in the evening, we would go to a bar instead and I would order gin, neat, sipping it slowly until my head buzzed and until it didn’t seem like madness to go on. Then we would stare at the map again, pick our destination for the morning.

No sign of James appeared as they searched the river. Dogs were brought out, and still nothing was found. Artie took me on a tour of the spring in a glass bottom boat, convincing me that we were looking for James as we wound through groves of cypress trees and out onto the blue black pool of the spring. We peered down into blue water as deep as a skyscraper, the bones of mastodons and sabertooth just visible, the manatee coasting beneath us like underwater shadows. All the while, alligators watched us from the banks, sunning themselves, their toothy overbites dazzling in the light.

The following Saturday we were invited over to the black bed and breakfast just outside Crawfordville, where Mrs. Thomas had been staying, now with her husband and three other children. They were waiting until Hale’s part in the proceedings were done and they would all return to Cincinnati. They would be leaving soon.

Mr. and Mrs. Thomas met us at the door. Mr. Thomas was a good foot taller than his wife with about the handsomest smile I’d ever seen. The two of them looked so beautiful side by side, both beaming hope. Because their boy had been found, I reminded myself.

“So pleased to meet you, Mr. Denton, Miss Montaine,” Mr. Thomas said. He shook our hands in turn. They led us inside to a living room that was supremely neat and smelled of lemons and fresh laundry. We were introduced to the Thomas children, though they quickly left us to watch television in the back room. Only Hale stayed behind. He was much thinner than the photograph I’d grown so used to seeing. He looked some older too, more an adolescent than a boy, and he shook our hands with all the seriousness of an adult.

“I’m pleased to meet you,” he said.

“Thank you for having us,” Artie said.

I couldn’t speak. There was this crazed part of me that wanted to cling to Hale, as if vicariously James was with us somehow, as if Hale was a ghost returned from the dead.

“I just wanted to say I’m so sorry,” Mrs. Thomas said. “I’m so dreadfully sorry that James wasn’t there. I understand what hell you’ve been through, and I’m sorry it’s not over for you.”

“Surely you know how happy we are for you and your family,” Artie said when I still remained quiet.

“Of course,” Mr. Thomas said warmly.

I finally composed myself. “Hale, if you could tell us anything about James, anything at all…” I felt almost embarrassed, too eager. Hale knew James in a way we never would now, and I wanted anything, any scrap of James’s memory to cling to forever.

“He was a bit of a spit fire,” Hale said. He grew a little less grave. “He never seemed afraid of  Doge, not the same way I was.”

“You were wise to be afraid,” Artie said.

“Yes,” Hale said. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. “I wouldn’t say James was wise. He was still too young I guess, to know better. He would curse at Doge sometimes, called him a stupid fool mostly, would steal things from him when he wasn’t around, threw his shoes into the swamp, poured his rum down the toilet, that sort of thing.”

“I’m sure Doge didn’t appreciate that,” Artie added softly.

“No, he didn’t. But James was hard to catch. He was fast,” Hale hesitated. “Doge would wait till he was asleep to get back at him. Box his ears mostly. Though-”

“You don’t have to tell us if it’s too hard,” Artie said.

“It’s alright, Hale,” his mother said. “You can run along and watch television if you want.”

Hale shook his head, bravely. “Once he tied James outside and left him all night, told him the alligators and moccasins would get him. I think they might have too except James used the rope to shimmy up the tree and he waited like that all night. He was scraped up from head to toe in the morning but that was all. Still, after that, something seemed different about him. He stopped stealing and cursing and Doge started wailing on him more often. Then about three weeks ago he didn’t come in from the cane. I called for him a time or two but he didn’t come. And then just before nightfall I looked out the window and saw him running through the yard. I called for him then too but he just went over to the edge of the river-” Hale’s voice began to waiver. “Just walked in as easy- I yelled and yelled for him but he didn’t turn or anything. Doge finally came and I told him what I’d seen and he said it was about time. That he was tired of dealing with him.”

Mrs. Thomas placed a comforting hand on her son’s shoulder, gave a gentle squeeze. She wiped a tear from her eye. “Go on now,” she said, and Hale nodded. When he was out of the room, she leaned in closer to us, placed a hand on my knee. “Is there anything we can do for you? Is there anything at all that you need?”

My eyes filled with tears at her kindness to us. I shook my head, and Artie mumbled his thanks for the offer. There was nothing, of course to be done. Still, I marveled at her generosity, her steadfastness to James and the vision we’d shared of both boys safe. Why should she want to confront herself with our grief? She had been spared, as miraculously as if a thundercloud had passed overhead, lightning striking so close you could smell the scorched earth. She would walk away unscathed. For the rest of my life, I would be instead the thing electrified.

Turn the page.

44.

He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a cigarette case, lit it and slowly inhaled. I took a deep breath and shut my eyes,  trying to arrange my thoughts. When I spoke I made sure to sound stronger than I felt. “This is a less than opportune time for us to meet. Perhaps I can write to you when I’m back in Tennessee.”

Mr. Parker gave a slight chuckle. “I don’t think you understand. I can help with,” he waved his hand as if flicking a fly, “this mess you’re in. I can make sure the FBI doesn’t stop their search just because your son- James?- wasn’t where they thought he’d be. I’m even willing to front some of your costs. This lodge must be costing you a fair penny.”

“I don’t need your money,” I said.

“Not one to cash in on parental guilt, eh?” he smiled. “I can appreciate that.”

I leaned closer, trying to keep my voice low. “Why are you here? Why now?” I said. “You’ve known where I was. You could have seen me anytime.”

“I didn’t want to intrude.” I almost laughed at the ridiculousness of this excuse. “You don’t believe me! But it’s true. It seemed you had a lovely little life. I checked in on you from time to time. I was even at your high school graduation, if that wins me any points now.” He looked at me quizzically and I frowned. He continued, “No? Well, I always tried to make sure you were doing alright. I didn’t know about your little indiscretion though until we found David, and then there you were in his file! You cannot imagine my surprise. The world is a strange little place, Caroline.”

“So you really are his grandfather?”

He took a deep drag on his cigarette. “Yes, I’m afraid I am. His father was my son, also named David. Junior, he was called. I hadn’t seen Junior since before the war, when he informed his mother and I he was taking up with a divorcee from the middle of nowhere, no family, no connections. I was rather brash at the time. More concerned with votes than with my son. That whole boring cliche. You think less of me for it, I’m sure. We didn’t learn he’d had a child till Junior had already died in combat. We looked for our grandson, of course, but by then David’s poorer relations had already sold him off, as it were. We kept looking, but discreetly, you understand. Of course, the press would have a field day,” he pointed the cigarette my direction, “with you. My illegitimate daughter, her illegitimate son, all of it. I’d rather they didn’t find out, if you can understand that.” He leaned closer to me, put an elbow on the table, arched his eyebrows.

“I have no intention of turning this into a more public scandal,” I said.

“I thank you for that,” he said. He stared at me. “Go on. You’re wanting to tell me off. You may as well.”  

I shook my head. “You think I’m angry at you,” I said. “I might be, but how can I judge you? You came to Sparta when I was barely what- seven years old? But you’d met me before, hadn’t you? More than once, I believe, when I was younger. How much anger am I allowed? No, I’m not such a hypocrite.”

“Caroline,” he said. It was as if he was seeing me for the first time. He cleared his throat. “Your mother was a remarkable woman. Impressively intelligent, quick to learn. She was my secretary for a while before you were born. After I put her up in a little cottage – do you remember it? It had irises all around it. You used to romp through the garden.” His tone was softer now. He waited for my reply.

“I remember the irises, maybe.”

“Your mother could make them grow just by looking at them. Anyway that’s the way it seems to me now. You were only in that house a few years but by the time she died the flowers had taken over the lawn. It was truly beautiful. She was truly beautiful.”

“You loved her,” I said, a little surprised.

“I loved her. I shouldn’t have, she was still such a young, wild thing, but I did. Seems you know all about such things.” He looked amused. The waiter came and refilled our coffees.  My father took a long drag of his cigarette, ash accumulating limply at its end. Seconds before the ash fell he smoldered the butt on the edge of his saucer. “Now, I said I could be of assistance, and I mean to be. What do you need now?”

“The Feds have all but decided James is dead. That he walked into the water,” I could barely speak the words.

“But we don’t believe that, do we?” he said. “You know, I read a story once about an orca whale whose calf died, starved, I believe, not long after it was born. That mother carried her dead baby on her back more than two weeks, swam with all that weight. A theater of the obscene, maritime edition. Wanted the world to see her in mourning.”

I grew angry, straightened. “I fail to-”

“Don’t misunderstand me, Caroline,” he said. “All I mean is, Feds be damned. Make them look at you. Show them your grief. There’s nothing so frightening as a mother’s love.”

He stood. “I’m going to make a few calls today. See that in the least they search the river more thoroughly. I’m paying for your room as well. Stay on as long as you need. No, don’t argue. There’s over a decade of back support payments I’ve still to make up for.”

“Thank you,” I said. He gave me a stiff hug and patted my shoulder. I was surprised how little it mattered to me after all these years.

Back in the room, Artie was half dressed, putting on his pants. “I was about to call out a search party,” he said. Then he grimaced. “Sorry. Poor choice of words.” I walked over to him and put my head on his shoulder without speaking.

“How are you this morning, Caroline?” he said so gently I could feel my heart breaking in my chest.

I gave a low groan. “I’ve just met with David Parker.”

“David’s grandfather?”

I nodded. “He’s informed me he’s my father.”

“Not really,” Arthur said. We sat together on the edge of the bed. “How could that be?”

“I know,” I said with a little laugh. “I have no father. My mother plucked me from a rosebush.”

Arthur looked concerned. “Excuse me?”

I shook my head.  “He came to visit me once when I was a little girl. I remember him, just. He’s known where I was all along.”

“But he can’t be Davey’s grandfather too. Surely the world isn’t so small as all of that.”

“Not small,” I said. “Just cruel. Apparently it takes one generation of parental neglect, one man more concerned with political clout than with his children, and you end up with abandonment and loss. He said he’d been looking for Davey discreetly. I take that to mean, as quietly and ineffectually as possible. He wanted to make sure I didn’t let anyone know he was my father.”

“A prince among men,” Artie said sarcastically.

“Still, he’s paying for the room. I’m letting him. He seems well-off enough, and meanwhile my grandmother lived all those years off my grandfather’s pension and the price of cut flowers. And he said he’d make sure they searched the river. That’s something.”

We both grew quiet. I wanted James found alive more than anything. I willed it with every breath. What would it be to have him forever a question mark, always the lingering possibility he was out there, somewhere, suffering still?

So we took out the atlas one last time. If James left the river alive, if he braved the alligators and the water snakes and the eddys and sinkholes of the swamp, where would he go?

“Let’s say he wants to head back to Marietta,” Artie said. I nodded. It wasn’t so unlikely. “He would head to Tallahassee, wouldn’t he? For a bus?”

“I suppose so.”

“We’ll begin there,” Artie said. “And everywhere between here and there. Woodville. Hillardville.”

“We should check with Deputy Harris and see if they’ve checked those places already,” I said.

Artie shook his head. “I want you to remember what we’re doing now,” he said slowly. My eyes filled with tears. This was just for pretend. This was just a way to say goodbye.

Turn the page.

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.”

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.

39.

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-”

“Yes?”

“Was that Annabell that answered the phone?”

“Who?”

“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.

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.