At dawn, squeezed into a toilet stall in the men’s room of the interstate rest stop, Alex opened his eyes from a brief, restless sleep. His clothes clung to his skin and he could see his breath in the dank light. Groaning, he struggled up from the concrete floor and hobbled outside. Southern pine country, dense forests soaked by steady rain. He studied a glass-enclosed map hung next to the men’s room entrance. A red arrow pointed to a spot labeled YOU ARE HERE. All right, he thought, I am here.
With the last of his money, Alex McHealy bought a bag of potato chips and a Coke from the vending machines and stood staring at the empty parking lot, his head so foggy that he couldn’t recall his destination. His mind flickered out sometimes like a light with a faltering connection. He began to pace, massaging his scalp.
Savannah, he realized at last. Savannah, idiot.
Alex lugged his gear down the ramp to I-26, heading west, and stuck out his thumb in the cold rain. Mid-afternoon, a late model Buick stopped. A longhaired kid with a fluffy little beard helped Alex store his gear in the trunk.
“I never pass up hitchhikers,” the kid said. “I’ve picked up, like, hundreds.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t, son. There are some rough characters.”
“I can handle people.”
“My friend, there are psychos around,” Alex said. “Not everybody’s a decent guy.”
“I’ve never had any trouble.”
“Maybe you’ve been lucky.” Sprawled on the Buick’s plush seat, Alex wanted to close his eyes.
“How do you know I’m not a psycho?”
Alex grunted skeptically.
“I could be one,” the kid said. “You don’t know. You can’t tell by somebody’s appearance.”
Then the kid talked about surfing over the weekend at Folly Beach near Charleston. Each evening, the kid said, when he emerged from the sea he shivered from cold and exhaustion and hunger, but then he ate and bathed and the next morning returned to the ocean and surfed until he felt on the verge of collapse.
“To find ecstasy,” the kid said, “you have to go to the very edge. Right?”
“Son, every day I go to the edge,” Alex said, “and it doesn’t seem ecstatic to me.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Starved,” Alex said.
“There are apples and crackers in a bag in the backseat.”
The kid pulled out a leather change purse, which he opened to reveal small pieces of paper. “Four hits of mescaline. Want one?”
Alex swallowed a hit. He bit an apple as a chaser.
Soon after they swung onto I-95, it started to rain violently. The boy, named Joe, said he’d dropped out of Georgetown after his freshman year and moved to Winslow, South Carolina, a small town where his wife looked after her sick mother.
“Are you old enough to be married?” Alex asked.
“There’s a baby?”
“But he died.”
Alex winced, an electric surge of grief running through him.
“Stillborn,” Joe said.
“Jesus, how awful.”
“His brain didn’t send the correct impulses to his heart, and it stopped. My wife had good doctors. But the baby died.” Joe’s face turned bright red.
“Nobody’s fault then,” Alex said at last. “When a baby dies, it doesn’t have to be anyone’s fault. Though the parents naturally feel guilty. Especially the woman. She has a biological response to the loss. She can never really get over it.”
“You just told my life story.”
“I have a son.”
“Lucky man,” Joe said, his voice tight.
“Six years old. His name is Luke.” Alex pulled out a pocket-sized photograph. The studio that shot the picture turned his son’s dirty-blonde hair into Marilyn Monroe platinum and his lips a fire-engine red. Luke’s cheeks looked rouged. Washed by this artificial, cloying color, his son resembled girls in soft drink advertisements of the 1940s.
“Adorable,” Joe murmured.
“He lives in Charleston with his mother. Saw him day before yesterday, first time in three years.”
“That’s tragic.” Joe shook his head. “Broken families.”
“I thought I’d try Savannah. I heard they need carpenters down there.”
“So you had to go,” Joe agreed. “A man has to work.”
Alex took out another picture — a folded, cracked Polaroid of Luke sitting on a red tricycle and peering into the sun, his little face scrunched up as if he were about to cry.
“Neither picture really captures him,” Alex said.
“What photo ever could?”
“Exactly. Walker Evans was once asked if a photograph can lie, and he said something like, ‘It almost always does.’”
“No kidding!” Joe exclaimed, his face brightening. “My father was a student of Walker Evans! Really! At Yale. My old man was crazy about him. Once for a family vacation he actually drove us down to Hale County, Alabama, to see the place where Evans took photos for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”
They stared at one another, astonished. And under the mescaline’s deepening spell, they gazed at the wet road that soaked up the headlights and at the dark forests they passed through and at the billboards and overpasses framed in the car’s windows. Everything was beautiful and shapely. God’s cadences were revealed.
Wisdom is not about chasing things, they agreed, but about seeing and understanding what comes across your path.
“Can you recognize the essential elements?” Alex said and laughed inwardly.
Joe said, “This is kinship.”
“We have seen and we have acted. We have not held back.”
Alex knew that his own crazy grin looked like happiness.
It was exceedingly black out, black as deepest night, a menacing rain lashing the car. There were immeasurable depths in the woods, Alex thought. Staring into them was like standing in a small boat and looking down into the ocean. How far would you sink if you fell in?
Joe invited Alex to stay overnight in Winslow, twenty minutes west of the interstate, and Alex agreed, figuring he could continue toward Savannah in the morning.
They left the highway and rode along a two-lane road. But they got lost twice, and it was nearly midnight when they finally reached the house in Winslow. In Joe’s kitchen, they ate a giant frozen pizza, and drank a substantial quantity of beer before Joe showed Alex the spare room.
Alex had dozed off. Blinking, he found himself in complete darkness, confused and terrified. An evil presence — an hallucinatory pattern of red and blue and green – had suddenly appeared a few feet above his head. The pattern was stalking him; it wanted to kill him. Alex stretched out rigidly, blood thumping in his ears, trying to force his eyes open. As the pattern moved closer, Alex groped frantically and felt a lampshade. He turned on the light, and the presence quickly faded and disappeared. And he saw that he was sprawled on an unmade bed, barefoot but otherwise fully dressed, his gear nearby on the floor.
Alex pulled a sheathed hunting knife from his gear and moved cautiously into the next room. He saw a sofa and a littered coffee table. He crossed the rough carpet and found a light switch in the kitchen. There were dirty dishes in the sink.
He remembered Joe, the mescaline, getting lost, eating pizza.
Hearing a noise in the next room, Alex thrust the sheathed knife behind him into his belt, out of sight.
Joe appeared, blonde hair tousled, wearing jockeys.
“You’re up, too,” Joe muttered. “I couldn’t sleep.”
“I heard something outside.”
Joe frowned and went to the window. “Feral cats.”
Pulling the knife from his belt, Alex showed it like a gift. “I thought there was a burglar.”
“No burglaries around here.” Joe poured a glass of water from the tap and took three long swallows and wiped his mouth. “Hope you’re not one of those psychos you talked about.”
Alex smiled. “Not that I know of.”
“That’s a relief. Turn off the light when you’re done in here.”
Alex returned to bed and lay in the dark. Soon the presence reappeared a few feet away. It was a brightly colored maze, geometrically perfect, pulsing like a blood vein. It didn’t seem evil anymore, but patient, as if it were waiting. Alex admired the thing’s intricacy and beauty, but when he shut his eyes, the pattern was inside his eyelids, against his brain, and he opened them again.
He found some old issues of National Geographic in the closet and sat reading until dawn. When the sun poured into the room, the pattern became a mild shadow of itself, but didn’t disappear.
He was napping when Joe appeared, hair wet from the shower, and said that Alex ought to stick around another day.
After Joe left, Alex took a walk through the neighborhood of huge trees, moldy trailers, and concrete-block houses with screened porches. He was nauseated, sick of himself. Looking back, he saw only wreckage. I can’t keep this up anymore.
He glanced through books scattered around Joe’s living room — Light in August, The Mind of the South, Deliverance — before he opened A Good Man Is Hard to Find and read the title story and read it again.
Joe came home late in the afternoon, carrying a grocery bag filled with beer and several huge steaks. He was an apprentice butcher at a grocery store and bought meat at a discount. “I eat like a pasha,” Joe boasted.
“You’re a decent kid,” Alex said. “Good-hearted. Promise me something. You’ll stop picking up hitchhikers.” He held up O’Connor’s book. “There are misfits everywhere.”
“That’s just fiction.”
“There are bad people. You don’t seem to know that.”
Joe laughed. “You act like my father or something.”
They grilled steaks in the rain-soaked backyard. It was a gorgeous evening, the sky pale pink through the yellow trees. The neighborhood lacked streetlights, and Alex watched stars emerging. As night came on, the pattern of red and blue and green grew increasingly brilliant against his open eyes, pulsing, and he shook his head, blinking to make it go away.
“Gnats bothering you?” Joe asked.
“You get used to them.”
Joe asked if Alex wanted another hit of mescaline; there were two left. Alex said no, but accepted a can of beer.
“You’re missing out,” Joe said and swallowed both hits.
Alex recalled backyard picnics with his wife and son under the shade of a live oak. He’d held his baby son on his lap, the boy smiling a gummy smile and kicking his dimpled legs.
Almost three years ago, Alex lost his job as a photographer at the Charleston newspaper and subsequently left his family. He ended up in North Carolina, working on a roofing crew and later on a house-framing crew. In Wilmington, he could handle the work, but he was still drinking and he moved to Norfolk, where he wrote a number of bad checks and was picked up for marijuana possession. Alex went to jail for nine months, and after he got out, he returned to Norfolk and worked as a roofer again.
It was a grim time but not nearly as bad as his stint in jail, which had almost broken his spirit. If he ever had to go back, he was afraid it might kill him. He attended AA daily, saw his parole officer, pounded roofing nails, and wrote letters to his wife and son. He joined a tiny evangelical Christian congregation, mostly black, who met in a storefront in a deserted strip mall near the house that he shared with three Mexican illegals from the roofing crew. The congregation’s mood swings from sweating sorrow to frantic, hand-clapping ecstasy somehow soothed him. But he grieved over his estrangement from his wife, Mary, and his son. Luke was Alex’s only living blood kin. If I died tomorrow, Alex thought, would Luke remember me?
In September, several days before meeting Joe, Alex fell off the wagon and skipped an appointment with his parole officer and boarded a Greyhound bus with a ticket to Charleston, drying out, shivering, in the back of the bus. Late in the evening, Alex arrived at Mary’s house. He made up a story that he was passing through on a trip to Savannah where he had a job lined up. Although startled to see him, Mary allowed Alex to sleep on the spare bed in her studio, a large drafty room where she sewed quilts in her spare time.
At the breakfast table next morning, Luke called his father “mister.”
“You should call him ‘daddy,’” Mary said, looking sleep-deprived.
“Because he’s your daddy.”
“Are you sure?” Luke asked.
She smiled wearily. “Yes.”
Luke stared at his father. “You don’t look like you. Like you in your pictures, where you’re handsome.”
“Luke!” Mary admonished.
While Luke got dressed for school, Alex packed up his gear in the guest room. Heartsick, his face white, Alex gazed at Mary standing in the doorway. In jail, he had dreamed of reuniting with his family, but now that hope seemed farther away than ever.
Alex asked, “If I could find a job in Charleston, could I see you and Luke?”
“If you’re sober.”
He nodded. “I am. I’ll stay sober, too.” But first he needed a drink, a hair of the dog.
“Alex, please, it’ll kill you this time.”
He did not need to be told that he was passing deeper within a narrowing downward spiral, against which he had long struggled with his steadily declining strength and will.
“I’ll go to Savannah for a couple of weeks,” he said. “Then I’ll return with some money.”
“Well, your son needs you,” she said. She shrugged; she had no expectations.
A few moments passed.
“I guess you should go,” she said.
“Luke,” she said, “give your father a hug. You might not see your dad for a while.”
“Daddy!” Luke cried. “Daddy, I love you!”
Alex wandered the streets until he stumbled into a bar on King Street, a dark sodden familiar cave. Just a few drinks to tide him over, then on to Savannah.
The pattern was insistently vivid even in the well-lit kitchen. The pattern, he decided, had to be Bad Luck. Over the years he had tried to shake free of misfortune with fresh starts, running from place to place, but he couldn’t loosen its grip. Now Bad Luck was exposed, floating on his eyeballs. Perhaps his life was not his fault.
“The problem,” Joe said suddenly, “is butchery.”
“You mean of animals?”
“We’re cut off from realities — not like people ages ago who experienced raw nature, you know, red in tooth and claw. I was at Georgetown, and I thought, this isn’t life. So I came down to Winslow, miles from anywhere, gigantic forests all around. I found a job cutting meat. I thought that butchers would be different, that they would be more real, honest. I thought being a butcher would make you think harder about living. About the consequences. We kill to live — and who would understand that better than a butcher?”
“So butchers are unreal?”
“Well, the men I work with. . . . You ought to be new everyday. I couldn’t be a butcher for years.”
“You’re a smart kid. Why would you want to be a butcher anyway? Go back to college where you belong. Quit messing around with drugs.”
The phone rang and Joe left to answer it.
“That was Darlene,” he said, returning.
“My wife. She wants to meet you.” He shook his head. “Whoa. The buzz is coming on very strong.” His smile was wide, the corners of his mouth curling toward his jolly eyes. “Don’t tell her I picked you up hitching.”
“Then how did we meet?”
“On the beach.” Joe began rubbing his mouth as if he were trying to mold it back into a less extravagant expression. “You were surfing too. Darlene is open to lot of things, but she draws the line at hitchhikers. They’re too creepy.”
They watched baseball on a tiny black-and-white TV in the living room. As Alex drank beer, the pattern brought the pulsing colors of red and blue and green to the infield and gave the ball a tail like a comet’s.
“Alex, you travel all around, right? Take jobs where you find them? I think that would be a great life.”
“Joe, you know what I am? A homeless alcoholic.”
“That’s not true,” Joe protested.
“My friend, you don’t want to emulate me.” His own words frightened him.
“You’re all right,” Joe said, sounding determined. “Let’s go see Darlene.”
They stopped at a liquor store and Alex bought two pints of Jim Beam with money borrowed from Joe. Alex stashed one pint in his jacket pocket and swigged from the other.
Darlene’s mother lived in a tiny brick house in a subdivision of tiny brick houses, where the ditches spilled over with rainwater. Approaching the screen door, they could see a white-haired woman sitting in a rocking chair and watching the baseball game, breathing through a tube attached to a silver cylinder. The old woman looked at them with bitter solemnity and then returned her attention to the game.
Joe knocked and stepped back quickly, whispering, “Darlene’s mother hates me.”
Joe was amused. “You really need to ask?”
A young woman came out to the stoop. Darlene had straight black hair pulled into a ponytail, and she wore a sleeveless white blouse.
Darlene gave Alex a mocking smile. “So you’re a surfer. You don’t look like one.”
“All kinds of people surf,” Joe said.
“Surfers are seals — muscular, skinny seals. This one,” Darlene nodded toward Alex, “is more like a bear.”
Joe suggested they take a ride down to the river.
“I don’t think so.” Darlene peered at him. “What are you on?”
“Nothing,” Joe said.
Darlene stepped closer and looked into Joe’s eyes. “You are lit.”
“A thousand-watt bulb,” Alex said.
Joe grinned aimlessly. “I can drive.”
“Give me the car keys,” Darlene demanded.
Joe giggled and stepped away from her.
“How about you, Alex?” she asked. She sniffed suspiciously. “Can you drive?”
Alex held his back straight, head high. “I’m perfect. I’m ideal.”
“Are you?” she asked. She looked doubtful. “All right, Alex, take the keys from him.”
The men looked at one another.
“I’d rather not,” Alex said.
“Hand the keys to me then,” Darlene ordered Joe.
Joe, knees high, pranced away across the wet grass. “No chance.”
“Alex, you’re bigger than he is,” she said. “Take them.”
“That’s not a job I care for.”
“Go on, then, Joey,” she said, “kill yourself. I don’t care. But I’m not riding anywhere with you.”
Joe let out a theatrical sigh and tossed the car keys to Alex.
“You’re so stupid when you’re high,” she told her husband.
“Come on, sweetie. We’ve got company.”
“You promised, Joe,” she said.
“I took the last of it,” he said. “Now it’s gone.”
“I’ll wait by the car, little brother,” Alex said.
Alex got several mosquito bites and scratched them until they bled.
Darlene came outside carrying a sweater. “My mother wants to finish watching the game. That gives us about an hour. I have to help her to bed.”
“She’ll be all right alone?” Alex asked.
Darlene ignored him.
On a winding road out of town that descended through black woods, Alex drove and Joe gave directions.
“I was in a car wreck right here,” Darlene said. They passed a break in the woods, a pasture. “Summer before last. Four of us, bars closed, going to the river, the car went off the road through the fence, tipped over. Amazing, a miracle, nobody got a scratch. But I hit my head and I was out for a minute — maybe more — and when my eyes focused I saw where I was. Sprawled in the grass, thrown clear. Everybody was sitting around me, dazed, and the other girl was crying, but she wasn’t really hurt. I was so happy. Because … something … finally … happened.” She pounded her fist into her leg between each word. “I felt different about everything in those days.”
“We met that summer,” Joe said.
Alex parked in front of a yellow barrier and they walked down the road and through a parking lot and across a green swath of grass with picnic tables and swing sets, to the edge of the river. The ground was soft and lumpy and they could see their breath. “No Swimming” signs were half-submerged.
Alex finished off the first pint and threw the bottle into the water. He cracked the seal on the second bottle and took several long pulls from it. He offered Darlene a drink, but she shook her head. He grinned crookedly at her pale, hard face, and it seemed to him that she gave him an amused, intrigued smile in return. Because he was huge and powerful – anyone could see that — with a steady fire burning in his belly, sending heat down his arms to his fingertips.
“Look at the river, how swollen it is,” Darlene said.
“Swollen,” Alex muttered.
He thought of the frothing waterway that swallowed his first child’s clumped, papery ashes. When Mary got pregnant with Samuel, her doctor ordered her to bed and she followed instructions to the letter. But Samuel was born in the fifth month and died two weeks later. During a fortnight vigil, Alex and Mary watched their son struggle for his life. Samuel never opened his eyes, but Alex grew to know him, brave tiny boy. It was Christmas season, a festival of grief. Their baby was cremated, his ashes in a ceramic urn. Mary placed the urn on a small glass table in their bedroom, in a circle of votive candles, lit for an hour every evening.
Alex and Mary carried the urn to the northern tip of Folly Beach on Christmas Day, humid and overcast. They walked along the old Coast Guard station road and stopped at the edge of the sea and looked across the wind-swept inlet at Morris Island. There was an abandoned lighthouse in the inlet, the Morris Island beach having been eroded away decades ago. Their favorite spot before they married.
Mary swaddled the urn in a blanket. They watched the tide violently rushing out, the sea boiling and frothing. A greenish soup that slopped and licked at the shore. It made a sucking sound on the wet sand.
“I can’t,” she said, “leave him here.”
“But we agreed, darling,” Alex said. “We talked about this for hours and hours, and we agreed.”
“It looks monstrous.”
His lungs knotted, his heart tight, Alex could scarcely breathe.
“You do it.” Mary handed him the urn and turned away.
A whirlpool swallowed the ashes. Alex knelt brokenly at the water’s edge.
When Mary got pregnant again, she was again ordered to bed for the duration. Alex quit drinking and every night came straight home from work. She went into labor a month early, in the middle of the night, and Alex rushed her to the hospital. After Mary had struggled for nineteen hours, she was almost delirious with exhaustion.
“Please, don’t let him die,” she groaned.
“Nobody’s dying,” the doctor answered sharply. “Push.”
Over the previous months, Alex had grown closer to his wife, sharing her terror of another failure, her emotional strain, but in her pain and fatigue of course now she was alone. “Push,” he whispered.
Suddenly the baby’s head crested, and in a rush he was out, the doctor catching the squalling boy the color of bloody liver. Alex cut the cord. Blood and fluid had splashed across the floor, and the nurse, holding the infant, cautiously stepped through it. She wiped him down at a table across the room.
Mary lifted her head. “Is he all right?”
“Beautiful,” the nurse said.
The swaddled baby was brought to his mother, who counted his fingers.
Alex gazed at his squashed, red face. “Son.” He took one of the newborn’s tiny fingers. “May we call you Luke?”
Mary smiled weakly. “Look! He opened his eyes!”
“He knows his name.”
Alex stayed sober for a long time — until the Christmas after Luke turned three. Then Alex began sleeping on the spare bed in Mary’s studio so he wouldn’t disturb her when he stumbled in late. Nevertheless, he awakened her, so he made a hideaway in the garage. He bought a space heater and a cot and an old chair and a lamp and a radio. After he lost his job, Alex and Mary had terrible quarrels. The police were called once because they were making such racket. The air in the house seemed to grow dense with hatred. Yet sometimes when he was sober, they still came together, pale with sorrow, trembling with love.
One night while his family slept, he wrote a goodbye note and slipped away. He carried his things in an old camping backpack. A cowardly way to leave, but he didn’t think he could manage it during daylight, seeing their faces, Mary and Luke’s.
“My boys,” Alex mumbled, looking at the black, swiftly moving water.
“Who?” asked Darlene.
In the distance, Joe was sprinting along the shore, splashing through the soaked grass, his arms out, shouting: “I’m free!” Soon he disappeared around the bend, but they could still hear his voice: “I’m free!”
She said, “He’s not always stoned, you know. His father was an ambassador. He’s retired now, a widower, lives in D.C. Joey has been all over the world, speaks three or four languages. His dad won’t have anything to do with us.”
Joe came jogging back, grinning. “I love to run.”
“Apparently,” she said.
Joe picked up a long stick from the ground and pointed it at Alex. “En garde!” He danced forward and backward, pointing the stick. “I challenge you to a duel, monsieur. But I warn you, I was fencing champion my junior and senior years at Bartram School.”
“For heaven’s sake,” Darlene objected. “Put it down.”
“Don’t worry, I’d never hurt him. Alex and I are old, old friends. We’ve been friends forever.”
“But you met on the beach,” she reminded him.
“No, we are ancient pals,” Joe said, dropping the stick. “Known each other for centuries. In a past life, maybe we were brothers.”
“I suppose,” Alex said, suddenly irritable.
“No, don’t you see?” Joe demanded. “My old man was put here to test my spirit, you see? He tried to break me. But he couldn’t. That was my father’s purpose in life. And it’s been my purpose to defy him, you see?” He looked affectionately at Alex. “I never had a brother.”
“Calm down,” Darlene snapped. “You’re losing it.”
“Alex loves Walker Evans,” Joe said.
She turned to Alex: “Who do you love?”
Joe laughed miserably. “Walker Evans, Darlene. I’m talking about Walker Evans, the great photographer. You don’t understand anything.” He pointed to a “No Swimming” sign. “That strikes me as an invitation.”
“Well,” Darlene said, “I’m not fishing you out.”
“I could swim across.”
“No,” she said.
Her eyes were at half-mast. “You think you’re going to scare me? Well, I’m not scared.” Snorting with disgust, Darlene walked away to the swing set and began swinging slowly.
Joe looked at her, then at the water. He took out his wallet and handed it to Alex, who stuffed it into his jacket pocket.
“I’m really going in,” Joe called out in a teasing, high-pitched voice.
Alex threw the second empty pint bottle into the river. He put his fists in his armpits and waved his elbows, imitating a chicken. “Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk.”
Joe took off his shoes and socks and rolled up his trousers to mid-calf. He stuck one foot in the water. “Freezing!”
“The trick is to dive in,” Alex said. “Your body will adjust.”
Darlene stopped swinging. “What are you telling him?” she called out to Alex.
“Nothing, we’re just joking around,” Alex shouted. He turned to Joe and said in a low voice: “Don’t lose your nerve, little buddy. Your girl is watching.”
“Darlene thinks I shouldn’t. I try enough crazy things as it is.”
“She doesn’t like blowhards.”
“I got a bad feeling about this,” Joe said. He grinned, his pupils dilated and shining.
“So walk away,” Alex said. “Swallow your pride. Be a coward. What the hell, do you need to be pushed?”
“No. No, I’ll go.” Joe ran into the water and leaped in, belly-flopping. When his head came up, he shouted, “God, that’s cold!” He stroked with an elegant, powerful crawl toward the main channel. His long arms flicked out of the water and across the surface and down again like silvery flying fish. When Joe reached a place where the river rippled in waves sparkling in the moonlight, he lifted his head again and shouted, “Hey!” in an excited or alarmed voice. Then he thrashed his arms and went under.
The pattern of red and blue and green burned brilliantly on the black water as if stimulated by Alex’s concentration.
Darlene was at his side. “Where’d he go?” she cried.
“He’s a strong swimmer,” Alex said, trying to conceal his fear. “Terrific swimmer.”
“But where is he?”
With astonishing speed a tree trunk floated by, a small limb pointing up like a human arm reaching for help. Then the entire trunk slipped under the surface and disappeared.
“Joey!” she shouted. Her voice echoed among the pines.
Alex rubbed his eyes with his knuckles, making the pattern spin and change shape – it was like twisting a kaleidoscope.
“What did you say to him?” she asked.
“Nothing much.” He felt blood drain from his head.
She stared at the black water. “Joey can swim an amazing distance underwater.”
Alex sat on his haunches and wrapped his arms across his chest. He counted to one hundred. Then he started from one again.
“So he can swim a long way underwater?” Alex asked.
“At the city pool, two lengths without coming up for air.”
At the water’s edge, Alex shouted, “Boy! Where are you? Son! Talk to me!”
“Joey plays stupid games. “Sometimes I hate him. You – you – you were playing a game with him. What did you say to Joey? What was your game?”
“Nothing. No game.”
The pattern was spreading rapidly from Alex’s eyes down his face and neck to his shoulders, where it burned. In this place, Bad Luck grew wildly. What have I done? Alex asked himself. He was aghast at his own recklessness and cruelty. And a wave of grief for Joe’s father washed over Alex. Such regret and guilt that poor man is about to know.
“I’ll kill him,” Darlene moaned, weeping.
Alex looked at the sky. Wish upon a star. I take it all back.
In his jacket pocket, he reached for Joe’s wallet and keys. Alex knew how it would play out. A hopped-up kid from a nice family drowns, and somebody has to be blamed. Alex couldn’t take responsibility for this. When Alex thought of jail, he was terrified; his chest tightened from claustrophobia, his heart racing. Don’t panic. But I can’t go back to jail.
Make a plan, he thought, get out of here. Get away. Run, man. He covered his face with his hands, trying to think straight, but his mind was blurred and slow. He wished he were sober.
“What about your mother?” Alex asked, his voice breaking.
Darlene didn’t seem to hear him.
“Your mother will wonder where you are,” Alex said. “She’ll be scared if you don’t come home. Look, we drive to your mother’s house, you call the police, and then we return here. We’ll leave Joe’s shoes on the riverbank if he comes back before we do. He’ll need his shoes.” Run, he told himself.
She picked up Joe’s sneakers, held them against her chest.
“Amazing that you look after your mother,” Alex said. “Who does that nowadays? We go to your house and then we’re back here, twenty minutes, and then we’ll sit here all night if we have to. Your mom is in a lot of pain.”
Darlene’s face was drained of blood.
“We’ll sit up all night,” he said. “Let’s go.” He took her arm. “Your mom needs you.”
Darlene didn’t seem to remember who he was. Finally she said, “What do you care about my mother?”
“I’m just trying to help.”
“No. I’m not leaving,” she said.
“We can’t find him by ourselves.”
A quarter moon rose above the trees on the far side of the river, casting a dispiriting light. Waves lapped hungrily on the bank.
“My baby,” she said, weeping. “My babies. Joey! Joey! Baby!”
“Stop,” he said, grasping her arm. “Stop. Look down the river, Darlene. See? The river overflowed its bank into the woods. So I’m going into the forest, downriver, to look for him. Maybe he swam ashore; maybe he got snagged on a tree limb. Can you wait here for me?”
She nodded doubtfully. “Okay.”
He started toward the woods. “Darlene, what are you going to do?”
“Wait here,” she said, almost inaudibly.
Under his boots the soft forest floor, wet, smelled of pine needles and rot. Obscuring the faint moonlight, the woods deepened. In the darkness he couldn’t see the river, but he could hear it rushing past, a low roar. Keeping the river on his right, he climbed a small rise and then went down into a low place. A swamp. Water came to the top of his boots; his feet burned with cold. Something scraped his forehead – he’d bumped into a low-hanging limb. “Joe!” he called out. “Joe! Can you hear me?” This is crazy, he thought. I’m walking blind. Again Alex listened to the river rushing past. The current could’ve taken Joe miles from here. Go back, he thought, and tell Darlene that I did what I could.
He turned around, walking with his hands in front of him. He pushed through a thicket, and thorns scraped his face. And then he tripped and put his hands out to catch himself, sprawling elbow-deep in freezing water, his shirtfront and pants soaked. He pushed himself to his feet, outraged.
Shuddering, he climbed the rise again and caught his breath, listening for the river rushing implacably on his left. Then he went down into the clearing.
“What happened?” Darlene asked.
Alex felt so cold that it was difficult to speak. “I fell.” He caught his breath. “Listen. We have to go. Find help.”
They went across the grass to the Buick. Teeth chattering, Alex turned up the car’s heat, but the vents blew cold air, while he blinked past the pattern to view the black road snaking through the woods.
“He’s alive, isn’t he?” she asked.
Alex didn’t answer. The car’s heater was working by the time Alex pulled into her mother’s driveway, but his hands still trembled.
“Go inside,” he told her. “Call for help. I’ll go to Joe’s house and get into dry clothes.”
“You’ll come back?”
She opened the car door, but Alex grabbed her arm. “Listen,” he said. An important point needed immediate clarification. “Darlene, I didn’t give Joe anything. What he put in his body was purely his deal. I gave all that up years ago. I’m clean.”
“He’s a very good swimmer,” she said.
“Go, Darlene. Go.”
She got out and ran up to the house and went inside. Under the overhead light, he examined Joe’s wallet and found identification cards, a driver’s license with a Winslow address, and five dollars. He pocketed the money and put the wallet in the glove compartment and backed out of the driveway.
At a convenience store Alex asked directions to Joe’s address and bought several candy bars.
“What happened to you?” the clerk asked.
Joe’s house seemed smaller than he’d remembered. Alex turned on all the lights until the place was blazing. He stripped off his wet clothes and dried himself with a towel. He took dry clothes that he’d left hanging in the bathroom and put them on. After carrying his gear outside, he locked the front door and stood on the porch. Spooked, shivering, he shook his head to clear his thoughts. He couldn’t stay and face the police; he had to go. The car’s gas tank was full. He was two hours away from Charleston and his wife and son. He understood again how much he needed them.
Careful to stay below the speed limit, Alex took a two-lane highway toward the coast, Bad Luck still dancing on his eyes, though it was distinctly fainter now. Maybe the residual drug in his system was finally fading. Or perhaps he had become accustomed to the pattern, the way you accommodate a chronic condition.
Outside of town, driving over the swollen river, Alex pulled into a gravel swale beyond the bridge. He drew Joe’s wallet from the glove compartment and walked back over the bridge. The wallet sunk into the syrupy water.
Back in the car, he paused, exhausted. The sound of the rushing river worked on him; he was too weary to go on. His muscles were spent. He had to close his eyes for a moment. He let his head fall back and fell asleep.
Abruptly he was awake, his heart and head pounding, his tongue dry, his neck aching. He rubbed his eyes. Where am I? He was conscious that something terrible had happened, but he couldn’t place what it was. He looked around at the strange car, and then he remembered and his face flushed with shame.
The car’s digital clock said twelve-thirty. How long had he drifted off?
I’ll drive back to Darlene’s house and return the car, he thought, and help search for Joe. Poor Joe, poor kid. In his mind’s eye, he could see the boy’s pale, broken body washed up on a riverbank.
I’ll go back to Darlene’s house. I’ll take whatever punishment comes. Why did I panic? It only makes me look guilty.
It seemed to Alex that trouble always searched him out, which was strange because in reality he was a man of peace.
Maybe if I tell the police that I was drunk when I stole Joe’s car . . . I didn’t mean to do it.
“So walk away. Swallow your pride. Be a coward. What the hell, do you need to be pushed?” My God, he thought, that’s bad.
Alex started the car. It was a hundred miles to Charleston. The Buick chugged up a steep hill and Alex ate a Snickers bar, not tasting a thing; his tongue was dead. His hands lacked feeling, and he shook them and rubbed his waxy face. He rolled down the window and took deep breaths of the rich, humid air. At the crest of the hill, he saw the stars and then as the road turned sharply, the soft-edged quarter moon swung into view, painted delicately in red and blue and green.