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.

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.

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.

35.

That night as we lay in bed we watched a coral honeysuckle creep its way into our room, twining round itself on the window ledge.  Artie was surprised. I calmly told him it was nothing too unusual.

“Flowers perform miracles ceaselessly,” I said.

“Do they now?” he said, smiling.

“Have you ever heard of a blood lily?” I asked. “It only blooms one day its entire life.  Grows all year long just to give itself up that one day. I always wonder how it knows to bloom. How its cells know the way to live and die like that.” Artie kissed my neck. He wasn’t paying too much attention. “Anyway, I’m glad it’s not that way for us. Not a whole lifetime of waiting and then quick as a blink it’s all over.”

Arthur sat up a bit, looked at me. “Unless it is that way for us. Uness that’s what life and death are. Like these years we’re awake on earth, that’d be the way a flower blooms, right? And then afterwards we’re just bulbs resting – or rotting! – in dirt again, forever and ever.”

“You sound cynical,” I said.

He shrugged. “Wasn’t it Shakespeare who said life was like an hour on the stage and then silence? Something like that?”

“Signifying nothing? That one?” Artie nodded and kissed my cheek.  I continued, “That doesn’t feel true to me.”

“No?” he asked. I shook my head. “What does?”

“I’d say if anything we’re more like trees. We’ve years and years to grow, to bud and bloom and leaf and watch them fall. To give ourselves to seasons of economy and rest, practicing life and death again and again, each year.  Hopefully we grow surrounded by those we love. Those who’ve given life to us, and those we’ve given life to. And then we’re able, if all goes well, we see our past and future thriving around us, to have our parents and our children with us as we age. Eventually our elders die and we see death for what it is. You remember that old snag in the school yard – how the raccoon family lived there, and the bats, and the rabbits in the roots, and the mushrooms up the side, and the resurrection ferns on all the branches.  If we’ve lived well, that’s what death will be. All sorts of life rushing in to fill the void.”

“You’ve thought this through,” he said, with a laugh.

“I’m just saying it’s all a miracle if you want to look at it that way. The flower sweet enough to only bloom once, and the tree that goes on living forever. I just hope I’m the tree and not the flower.”

“Alright. We’ll be trees then,” he said, kissing me.

Turn the page.

34.

The Deputy slid a sworn declaration across the desk. Mrs. Thomas, Artie and I crowded in to see together.  It read:

My wife and I adopted James Anderson with the belief that he would be of service to us on our farm. We have a large property and often house boys in exchange for labor. There was nothing illegal about our intentions. We clothed him and fed him like one of our own. When it became clear to us that he was not an ideal fit for our family, we contacted a particular gentleman after finding his information through a classified ad in a publication that we have since misplaced. This gentleman was known to help in the moving about of boys to find them better placement – situations to which they would be better suited. We never knew his name.

This man arrived in late January. He picked up James and paid us $1000. This was in exchange for the room and board that James had received as well as adoption fees – an investment we would now not be recouping.  I did see that the man had Hale Thomas in the car with him, but I like to keep to my own business as much as possible. I did not ask questions. I assumed everything was above board.

Signed,

Mitchell Anderson”

“It’s not much of a confession, is it?” Artie said, closing the folder and handing it back to the Deputy. We were seated in the police station in Apalachicola, a converted bungalow on the main strip.

“Hell no,” Deputy Harris said, with a half laugh. “‘No intention of illegal activity.’ ‘Above board.’ All that about taking boys in. Christ, Anderson makes it sound like he was running a charity. What we have here is child slave labor. And seems like he was paid a finder’s fee for getting James in the trade.”

“Christ,” Artie said. He slumped back in his chair and frowned.

“What publication was he referencing?” Mrs. Thomas asked.

“We’re still working on that,” the Deputy said. “But…” he hesitated. “We know the Andersons and the Sheriff are members of the KKK, and that there are periodicals that circumvent at those meetings. That’s one of the threads the Feds are following at the moment.”

“Circulate,” Mrs. Thomas corrected.

“Circulate,” the Deputy repeated. “Anyway, they’ve grilled Mitch Anderson a dozen times now. Doesn’t seem to be much more he knows, except he conceded that the P.O. box he wrote – the address of which he has conveniently forgotten – was in Florida.”

“He won’t say the city?” I asked.

“He says he can’t remember. That it might have started with C.”

“That’s not very helpful,” Mrs. Thomas said, arching an eyebrow.

“No,” Deputy Harris said. “But-” he grinned ever so slightly. “He said when the man arrived and met James, he said something like, ‘Boy, how you like sugar?’ and that James had said he liked sugar more than anything, his face had lit up, Mr. Anderson said. And then the man had said, ‘Well you’ll be working it till your fingers bleed.’ And then apparently James kicked at him and that’s when he was put in the car.” The Deputy waited for our response.

Artie gave a shrug. “So?”

“So we can start hunting out sugar plantations in Florida!” Deputy Harris said excitedly. “That narrows the scope a bit now doesn’t it?”

“Does it?” I asked.

“It does! Hell, y’all are hard to please,” the Deputy said. “The Feds were whooping and hollering when they got hold of that news yesterday.”

“You certainly seem hopeful,” Artie said.

“I’m feeling very hopeful, Mr. Denton,” Deputy Harris said. “Very hopeful, indeed.”  

“Deputy Harris,” I said, “Artie is flying back to Nashville on Sunday. I don’t want to leave if there’s any chance y’all might find the man soon. Do you think I should stay?”

The Deputy leaned forward. “If you’re wanting to be close when we find him, I wouldn’t leave right now. I have a feeling we’re right on the cups of it.”

“Cusp of it,” Mrs. Thomas corrected.

“Exactly,” the Deputy said.

Outside the station, Mrs. Thomas told Artie goodbye. “Safe travels back to Nashville, if I don’t see you, Mr. Denton.”

“Thank you very much,” he said. “I wish you all the best in finding Hale.”

“Mrs. Thomas?” I asked. “Where are you lodging?”

“There’s a bed and breakfast not far, owned by and operated for black people,” she said.

“Are you planning to stay on then?” I asked.

“I am.”

“What about your other children? Your husband?”

“They understand there’s no other place for me now,” she said. “I wouldn’t be any further from Hale than I have to be. I’ll be there the minute he’s found.”

I nodded. As she walked from us, I told Artie I wasn’t leaving without James. “I don’t need more time to decide,” I said. “I want to be here.”

We started back to the hotel. Artie put his arm around my shoulder. “I can keep paying for the hotel room a while longer, I suppose,” he said. “But I do think I’ll be heading back this weekend. I hope you understand. I’ll return the minute there’s news.”

“I understand,” I said. I watched as a coneflower bloomed on the walk beside us, its petals a deep red, its pistil the color of fire.

33.

The telephone rang early Monday morning. “I would like to speak to Artie, please,” Mrs. Denton said when I answered. Artie was lying on his stomach, still asleep.

“Artie,” I said, “It’s your mother.”

He groaned. “Tell her I’ll call her back later.”

“He says he’ll call you back later.” There was a heavy silence. “Can I take a message?”

“Yes,” she said coolly. “You can tell him someone has contacted us about David. Social services is investigating, but it looks as though they’ve found the boy’s paternal grandfather. I just though you all should know.”

“Well that’s wonderful news!” I said. “Thank you for calling. And do let us know-” She hung up the phone. “She cut me off,” I frowned, turned to Artie. He sat up in bed, kissed my shoulder. “But she said that social services thinks they’ve found David’s grandfather.”

“Really? I’m surprised.” He stood and started to get dressed.

“Are you?” I asked.

“I thought his family sold him into this mess.”

“I know,” I paused, trying to remember his story. “Your mother said this was his paternal grandfather. I think it was his mother’s family he was living with before.”

“It’s good news anyhow. We need that around here,” he said.

I thought of the flowers last night, feeling hope rise within me. I couldn’t speak it though. It felt as if that would break the magic, the way nobody is supposed to announce what they wish for when they blow away an eyelash, or blow out candles on a birthday cake. I dressed quickly. We were meeting Mrs. Thomas at a diner at 9.

“Aren’t you coming?” I asked, as Artie sat back down on the bed.

“I have a call to make first,” he said. “The optometrist in Nashville; I’m supposed to start working a week from today. I’m going to ask for a week’s extension.”

“It might be longer than that,” I said, biting my lip.

“I know,” he said. “This will buy me time anyway.”

I kissed his cheek. I exited our hotel and walked around the block to Forbes Street, a warm breeze blowing hard from the ocean, the hem of my skirt rising in the wind, some of my hair coming loose from its bun and falling in front of my eyes. Mrs. Thomas was in the back of the diner, in an area marked “Coloreds.” I walked uneasily past the roped barrier towards her. I sat down and ordered my coffee.

The waitress didn’t look pleased at the two of us together. A couple of the patrons, dock workers wearing overalls and rubber boots, scowled at us.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” I said.

“It’s alright,” she replied. “Maybe we should have met in your hotel room.” She gave a subtle nod in the direction of the other white customers.

“We’re not doing anything wrong,” I said.

“I know that,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean it won’t cause trouble.”

I felt my heart sink in my chest. What would it be like to always be treated so rudely? To always live in such fear? “I want to do whatever makes you feel most comfortable,” I offered. The waitress came back with my drink.

“You have your coffee and we’ll go,” she said.  “There’s not too much to say, is there?”

“I suppose not,” I said. I wanted to tell her that for the first time in weeks I felt hopeful, that flowers had formed a blanket of white all around me, proof of my son’s existence, somewhere. “Artie and I tried to figure out a new plan of action. We haven’t come up with any new ideas. We can put posters up, same as we did in Chatom.”

“How’d that work for you in Chatom?” Mrs. Thomas said. She arched her eyebrows. It hadn’t proved useful at all, of course.

“It kept us busy,” I said. “When I’m not doing anything, just wondering where he is, I go crazy.”

“Well, that’s something then,” she said. Then she leaned in closer. “I hope you won’t think me forward, but I’ve been wanting to ask you about Mr. Denton and yourself. You’re not married?”

I shook my head, “No.” I wanted to be tactful. “We were just children when James was born.”

“So you put him up for adoption? And then he was adopted by the Andersons?” I nodded, feeling ashamed. I must have looked it, for she quickly added, “I don’t fault you for it. I was only nineteen when my eldest, Clara, was born. Frederick and I were married, both attending school in Jackson. Even so it wasn’t what I’d envisioned for myself.  I wanted to be a career woman for a few years before we started our family. Frederick and I had to grow up fast. He finished college, and then took a teaching job in Chatom because it’s the first he found. Not an ideal place to raise a family, perhaps, but we were doing alright until this.”

The waitress came approached our table. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” she said, her voice almost a whisper. “But I was wondering if you’d be willing to move tables. You’re making some of our regulars feel uncomfortable and I-”

“We were done anyway,” Mrs. Thomas said, rising. “Thank you.”

As we left I heard one of the men utter an obscenity under his breath. Mrs. Thomas held her head higher. I admired her restraint.

We bumped into Arthur on the sidewalk outside the shop. “You’re done already?” he asked.

“There were some very unpleasant men in there,” I said. “They didn’t like that we were sitting together.”

Artie frowned. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Thomas,” he said. “Anything I can do?”

“Not unless you can change the South in a day, I’m afraid,” she said. She gave a little laugh.

“We’ll I’ve just gotten off the phone with Deputy Harris. It seems the news that the boys were in Florida did jog the Andersons’ memory some, that and a sound threat to strip their girls of the Andersons’ land holdings if they weren’t cooperative soon. Suddenly they remembered a great deal. No name or address yet but a lot that’s useful. The Deputy sounded very hopeful. He wants to meet with us later with more details. 3 o’clock, our hotel room.”

“Well this is wonderful news!” Mrs. Thomas said, clapping her hands together once. “I’m going to call me husband and catch him up.” She headed to a pay phone at the end of the block.

“Meanwhile I’ve a bit of a setback, I’m afraid,” Artie said, his hand on my elbow. “My boss wants me there Monday, no excuses.”

“You told him about James?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said. He ran his finger through his hair, awkwardly. “He didn’t seem to think that was much of a reason, the boy having been in an orphanage so long, and then with the Andersons. He wasn’t entirely sympathetic.”

I sat down on a sidewalk bench. “So you’re leaving then?”

“I’ve got a plane ticket for Sunday morning. I wasn’t sure what you would want to do.”

“What can I do?”

“You can come back with me. Stay in my apartment in Nashville until this is all sorted. Until there’s news.”

“But it seems there was news, just today. I don’t want to be halfway across the country if he’s here somewhere. I want to be close when they find him.” I took a deep breath, composing myself. “Is it alright if I wait a day or two to make my decision? If there’s no news before Friday I suppose I’ll buy a ticket and go with you.”

“To Nashville?” he said, the faintest smile beginning. He took my hand, looking happy I would be joining him. I couldn’t share his enthusiasm. Not until James was found.

“It would only be until there’s news. And then we’ve quite a lot to figure out. When they find him,” I said, “We’ll have to what- petition for his adoption? Or argue that our giving him away was null? Or-”

“I don’t think you should get ahead of yourself,” Artie said, shifting on the bench. “If they find the man, that doesn’t mean James will still be with him. We’ve no idea what it will mean.”

“I’m choosing to be optimistic, Arthur.”

“I know,” he said. “I just don’t want you to get your hopes up and -” He paused, seeing that tears were coming to my eyes. 

Mrs. Thomas coughed politely. “I’m going to go back to my hotel now, but I’ll meet you later to talk with the Deputy.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Thomas,” I said. “We’ll see you this afternoon.”

I waited until she was out of earshot, and then turned to him.  “Arthur, I need you to believe, do you understand me? I need you to believe that something beautiful is about to happen.”

“Caroline-”

“No, I mean it,” I was trying to stay calm but my voice was faltering. “I need you to picture him, seven years old, as beautiful as the sun. Our son.”

He looked at me fiercely, nodded, and wrapped me in his arms. The wind blew harder around us. Sand flew up from the pavement. It whipped our ankles. We went to the beach anyway. We watched the waves roll in and out over our bare feet. We watched the way pelicans and sea gulls fall with the wind, rising with their wings outstretched. 

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.