Authors: Delia Owens
Abruptly, he pushed away from her and stepped back. “God, Kya, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“Tate, please, I want to.”
“Not like this, Kya.”
“Why not? Why not like this?”
She reached for his shoulders and tried to pull him back to her.
“Why not?” she said again.
He picked up her clothes and dressed her. Not touching her where she wanted, where parts of her body still pounded. Then he lifted her and carried her to the creek bank. Put her down, and sat beside her.
“Kya, I want you more than anything. I want you forever. But you’re too young. You’re only fifteen.”
“So what? You’re only four years older. It’s not like you’re suddenly mister know-it-all adult.”
“Yes, but I can’t get pregnant. And I can’t be damaged as easily by this. I won’t do it, Kya, because I love you.” Love. There was nothing about the word she understood.
“You still think I’m a little girl,” she whined.
“Kya, you’re sounding more and more like a little girl every second.” But he smiled as he said it, and pulled her closer.
“When, then, if not now? When can we?”
“Just not yet.”
They were quiet for a moment, and then she asked, “How did you know what to do?” Head down, shy again.
“The same way you did.”
NE AFTERNOON IN
as they walked from the lagoon, he said, “You know, I’m going away soon. To college.”
He had spoken of going to Chapel Hill, but Kya had pushed it from her mind, knowing at least they had summer.
“When? Not now.”
“Not long. A few weeks.”
“But why? I thought college started in the fall.”
“I got accepted for a job in a biology lab on campus. I can’t pass that up. So I’m starting summer quarter.”
Of all the people who left her, only Jodie had said good-bye. Everyone else had walked away forever, but this didn’t feel any better. Her chest burned.
“I’ll come back as much as I can. It’s not that far, really. Less than a day by bus.”
She sat quiet. Finally she said, “Why do you have to go, Tate? Why can’t you stay here, shrimp like your dad?”
“Kya, you know why. I just can’t do that. I want to study the marsh, be a research biologist.” They had reached the beach and sat on the sand.
“Then what? There’re no jobs like that here. You’ll never come home again.”
“Yes, I will. I won’t leave you, Kya. I promise. I’ll come back to you.”
She jumped to her feet, startling the plovers, who flew up, squawking. She ran from the beach into the woods. Tate ran after her, but as soon as he reached the trees, he stopped, looked around. She had already lost him.
But just in case she stood in earshot, he called out, “Kya, you can’t run from every whipstitch. Sometimes you have to discuss things. Face things.” Then with less patience, “Damn it, Kya. Damn it to hell!”
, Kya heard Tate’s boat whirring across her lagoon and hid behind a bush. As he eased through the channel, the heron lifted
on slow silver wings. Some part of her wanted to run, but she stepped onto the shore, waiting.
“Hey,” he said. For once he didn’t wear a cap, and his wild blond curls wafted about his tanned face. It seemed that in the last few months, his shoulders had widened into those of a man.
He stepped from the boat, took her hand, and led her to the reading-log, where they sat.
“Turns out I’m leaving sooner than I thought. I’m skipping the graduation ceremonies so I can start my job. Kya, I’ve come to say good-bye.” Even his voice seemed manlike, ready for a more serious world.
She didn’t answer, but sat looking away from him. Her throat pulled in tight. He placed two bags of school and library rejects, mostly science books, at her feet.
She wasn’t sure she could speak. She wanted him to take her again to the place of the white frog. In case he never came back, she wanted him to take her there now.
“I’m going to miss you, Kya. Every day, all day.”
“You might forget me. When you get busy with all that college stuff and see all those pretty girls.”
“I’ll never forget you. Ever. You take care of the marsh till I get back, you hear? And be careful.”
“I mean it now, Kya. Watch out for folks; don’t let strangers get near you.”
“I think I can hide or outrun anybody.”
“Yes, I believe you can. I’ll come home in about a month, I promise. For the Fourth of July. I’ll be back before you know it.”
She didn’t answer, and he stood, jammed his hands into his jeans pockets. She stood next to him, but they both looked away, into the trees.
He took her shoulders and kissed her for a long time.
“Good-bye, Kya.” For a moment she looked somewhere over his shoulder and then into his eyes. A chasm she knew to its greatest depths.
Without another word, he got in his boat and motored across the lagoon. Just before entering the thick brambles of the channel, he turned and waved. She lifted her hand high above her head, and then touched it to her heart.
The morning after reading the second lab report, the eighth day since finding Chase Andrews’s body in the swamp, Deputy Purdue pushed open the door to the sheriff’s office with his foot and stepped inside. He carried two paper cups of coffee and a bag of hot donuts—just pulled from the fryer.
“Oh man, the smell of Parker’s,” Ed said as Joe placed the goods on the desk. Each man dug an enormous donut from the brown paper bag splotched with grease stains. Smacked loudly, licked glazed fingers.
Speaking over each other, both men announced, “Well, I got something.”
“Go ahead,” Ed said.
“I got it from several sources that Chase had something goin’ on in the marsh.”
“Going on? What do you mean?”
“Not sure, but some guys at the Dog-Gone say ’bout four years ago he started goin’ out to the marsh a lot by himself, was real secretive about it. He’d still go fishin’ or boatin’ with his friends, but made a lot
of trips alone. I was thinkin’ maybe he got himself mixed up with some potheads or worse. Got over his head with some nasty drug thug. Ya lie down with dogs, ya get up with fleas. Or in this case, not get up at all.”
“I don’t know. He was such an athlete; hard to picture him getting mixed up in drugs,” the sheriff said.
“Former athlete. And anyhow, lots of ’em get tangled up in drugs. When the grand days of hero dry up, they gotta get a high from somewheres else. Or maybe he had a woman out there.”
“I just don’t know of any ladies out there that’d be his type. He only hung out with the so-called Barkley elite. Not trash.”
“Well, if he thought of himself as slummin’, maybe that’s why he was so quiet about it.”
“True,” the sheriff said. “Anyway, whatever he had going on out there, it opens up a whole new side of his life we didn’t know about. Let’s do some snooping, see what he was up to.”
“Ya said you got something, too?”
“Not sure what. Chase’s mother called, said she had something important to tell us about the case. Something to do with a shell necklace he wore all the time. She’s sure it’s a clue. Wants to come in here to tell us about it.”
“When’s she coming?”
“This afternoon, pretty soon.”
“It’d be nice to have a real clue. Beats walkin’ around looking for some guy wearin’ a red wool sweater with a motive attached. We gotta admit, if this was a murder, it was a clever one. The marsh chewed up and swallowed all the evidence, if there was any. Do we have time for lunch before Patti Love gets here?”
“Sure. And the special’s fried pork chops. Blackberry pie.”
Dressed in the now too-short peach chiffon, Kya walked barefoot to the lagoon on July 4 and sat on the reading-log. Cruel heat shrugged off the last wisps of fog, and a dense humidity she could barely breathe filled the air. Now and then she knelt to the lagoon and splashed cool water on her neck, all the while listening for the hum of Tate’s boat. She didn’t mind waiting; she read the books he’d given her.
The day dragged itself by minutes, the sun getting stuck in the middle. The log hardened, so she settled on the ground, her back against a tree. Finally, hungry, she rushed back to the shack for a leftover sausage and biscuit. Ate fast, afraid he would come while she quit her post.
The muggy afternoon rallied mosquitoes. No boat; no Tate. At dusk, she stood straight and still and silent as a stork, staring at the empty-quiet channel. Breathing hurt. Stepping out of the dress, she eased into the water and swam in the dark coolness, the water sliding over her skin, releasing heat from her core. She pulled from the lagoon and sat on a mossy patch of the bank, nude until she dried, until the
moon slipped beneath the earth. Then, carrying her clothes, walked inside.
She waited the next day. Each hour warmed until noon, blistered after midday, throbbed past sunset. Later, the moon threw hope across the water, but that died, too. Another sunrise, another white-hot noon. Sunset again. All hope gone to neutral. Her eyes shifted listlessly, and though she listened for Tate’s boat, she was no longer coiled.
The lagoon smelled of life and death at once, an organic jumbling of promise and decay. Frogs croaked. Dully she watched fireflies scribbling across the night. She never collected lightning bugs in bottles; you learn a lot more about something when it’s not in a jar. Jodie had taught her that the female firefly flickers the light under her tail to signal to the male that she’s ready to mate. Each species of firefly has its own language of flashes. As Kya watched, some females signed
dot, dot, dot, dash,
flying a zigzag dance, while others flashed
dash, dash, dot
in a different dance pattern. The males, of course, knew the signals of their species and flew only to those females. Then, as Jodie had put it, they rubbed their bottoms together like most things did, so they could produce young.
Suddenly Kya sat up and paid attention: one of the females had changed her code. First she flashed the proper sequence of dashes and dots, attracting a male of her species, and they mated. Then she flickered a different signal, and a male of a different species flew to her. Reading her message, the second male was convinced he’d found a willing female of his own kind and hovered above her to mate. But suddenly the female firefly reached up, grabbed him with her mouth, and ate him, chewing all six legs and both wings.
Kya watched others. The females got what they wanted—first a mate, then a meal—just by changing their signals.
Kya knew judgment had no place here. Evil was not in play, just life
pulsing on, even at the expense of some of the players. Biology sees right and wrong as the same color in different light.
She waited another hour for Tate, and finally walked toward the shack.
HE NEXT MORNING
, swearing at the shreds of cruel hope, she went back to the lagoon. Sitting at the water’s edge, she listened for the sound of a boat chugging down the channel or across the distant estuaries.
At noon she stood and screamed, “TATE, TATE, NO, NO.” Then dropped to her knees, her face against the mud. She felt a strong pull out from under her. A tide she knew well.
Hot wind rattled the palmetto fronds like small dry bones. For three days after giving up on Tate, Kya didn’t get out of bed. Drugged by despair and heat, she tossed in clothes and sheets damp from sweat, her skin sticky. She sent her toes on missions to scout for cool spots between the sheets, but they found none.
She didn’t note the time of moonrise or when a great horned owl took a diurnal dive at a blue jay. From bed, she heard the marsh beyond in the lifting of blackbird wings, but didn’t go to it. She hurt from the crying songs of the gulls above the beach, calling to her. But for the first time in her life, did not go to them. She hoped the pain from ignoring them would displace the tear in her heart. It did not.
Listless, she wondered what she had done to send everyone away. Her own ma. Her sisters. Her whole family. Jodie. And now Tate. Her most poignant memories were unknown dates of family members disappearing down the lane. The last of a white scarf trailing through the leaves. A pile of socks left on a floor mattress.
Tate and life and love had been the same thing. Now there was no Tate.
“Why, Tate, why?” She mumbled into the sheets, “You were supposed to be different. To stay. You said you loved me, but there is no such thing. There is no one on Earth you can count on.” From somewhere very deep, she made herself a promise never to trust or love anyone again.
She’d always found the muscle and heart to pull herself from the mire, to take the next step, no matter how shaky. But where had all that grit brought her? She drifted in and out of thin sleep.
Suddenly, the sun—full, bright, and glaring—struck her face. Never in her life had she slept until midday. She heard a soft rustling sound and, raising herself onto her elbows, saw a raven-sized Cooper’s hawk standing on the other side of the screen door, peering in. For the first time in days, an interest stirred in her. She roused herself as the hawk took wing.
Finally, she made a mush of hot water and grits and headed to the beach to feed the gulls. When she broke onto the beach, all of them swirled and dived in flurries, and she dropped to her knees and tossed the food on the sand. As they crowded around her, she felt their feathers brushing her arms and thighs, and threw her head back, smiling with them. Even as tears streamed her cheeks.
OR A MONTH AFTER
4, Kya did not leave her place, did not go into the marsh or to Jumpin’s for gas or supplies. She lived on dried fish, mussels, oysters. Grits and greens.
When all her shelves were empty, she finally motored to Jumpin’s for supplies but didn’t chat with him as usual. Did her business and left him standing, staring after her. Needing people ended in hurt.
A few mornings later, the Cooper’s hawk was back on her steps, peering at her through the screen.
, she thought, cocking her head at him. “Hey, Coop.”
With a little hop, he lifted, made a flyby, then soared high into the clouds. Watching him, at last, Kya said to herself, “I have to get back into the marsh,” and she took the boat out, easing along the channels and slipstreams, searching for bird nests, feathers, or shells for the first time since Tate abandoned her. Even so, she couldn’t avoid thoughts of him. The intellectual fascinations or the pretty girls of Chapel Hill had drawn him in. She couldn’t imagine college women, but whatever form they took would be better than a tangled-haired, barefoot mussel-monger who lived in a shack.
By the end of August, her life once more found its footing: boat, collect, paint. Months passed. She only went to Jumpin’s when low supplies demanded, but spoke very little to him.
Her collections matured, categorized methodically by order, genus, and species; by age according to bone wear; by size in millimeters of feathers; or by the most fragile hues of greens. The science and art entwined in each other’s strengths: the colors, the light, the species, the life; weaving a masterpiece of knowledge and beauty that filled every corner of her shack. Her world. She grew with them—the trunk of the vine—alone, but holding all the wonders together.
But just as her collection grew, so did her loneliness. A pain as large as her heart lived in her chest. Nothing eased it. Not the gulls, not a splendid sunset, not the rarest of shells.
Months turned into a year.
The lonely became larger than she could hold. She wished for someone’s voice, presence, touch, but wished more to protect her heart.
Months passed into another year. Then another.