Authors: Delia Owens
The next morning, she headed for the beach to find more pirates.
“First thing I’m gonna do is boss my crew to pick up all them nails.”
, still listening for the clatter of Ma’s busy cooking. Ma’s favorite breakfast had been scrambled eggs from her own hens, ripe red tomatoes sliced, and cornbread fritters made by pouring a mixture of cornmeal, water, and salt onto grease so hot the concoction bubbled up, the edges frying into crispy lace. Ma said you weren’t really frying something unless you could hear it crackling from the next room, and all her life Kya had heard those fritters popping in grease when she woke. Smelled the blue, hot-corn smoke. But now the kitchen was silent, cold, and Kya slipped from her porch bed and stole to the lagoon.
Months passed, winter easing gently into place, as southern winters do. The sun, warm as a blanket, wrapped Kya’s shoulders, coaxing her deeper into the marsh. Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land that caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.
Overhead, cicadas squealed against a mean sun. All other life-forms cowered from the heat, emitting only a vacant hum from the undergrowth.
Wiping his brow, Sheriff Jackson said, “Vern, there’s more to do here, but it doesn’t feel right. Chase’s wife and folks don’t know he’s passed.”
“I’ll go tell them, Ed,” Dr. Vern Murphy replied.
“I appreciate that. Take my truck. Send the ambulance back for Chase, and Joe with my truck. But don’t speak a word about this to anybody else. I don’t want everybody in this town out here, and that’s just what’ll happen if you mention it.”
Before moving, Vern stared for a long minute at Chase, as though he had overlooked something. As a doctor, he should fix this. Heavy swamp air stood behind them, waiting patiently for its turn.
Ed turned to the boys. “Y’all stay right here. I don’t need anybody yapping about this in town, and don’t put your hands on anything or make any more tracks in the mud.”
“Yessir,” Benji said. “Ya think somebody killed Chase, don’t ya? ’Cause there’s no footprints. Pushed him off, maybe?”
“I didn’t say any such thing. This is standard police work. Now, you boys just keep out of the way and don’t repeat anything you hear out here.”
Deputy Joe Purdue, a small man with thick sideburns, showed up in the patrol truck in less than fifteen minutes.
“Just can’t take it in. Chase dead. He was the best quarterback this town ever saw. This is plumb outta kilter.”
“You got that right. Well, let’s get to work.”
“What ya got so far?”
Ed moved farther from the boys. “Well, obviously, on the surface, it looks like an accident: he fell from the tower and was killed. But so far I haven’t found any of his footprints walking toward the steps or prints from anybody else either. Let’s see if we can find any evidence that somebody covered ’em up.”
The two lawmen combed the area for a full ten minutes. “You’re right, not one print ’cept for the boys,” Joe said.
“Yeah, and no signs of somebody brushing them out. I just don’t get it. Let’s move on. I’ll work on this later,” Ed said.
They took pictures of the body, of its position relative to the steps, close-ups of head wounds, the leg bent wrong. Joe made notes as Ed dictated. As they measured the distance from the body to the trail, they heard the sides of the ambulance scratching the thick bushes along the lane. The driver, an old black man who’d taken the wounded, ill, dying, and dead under his charge for decades, bowed his head in respect and whispered suggestions: “A’right den, his’n arms ain’t gwine tuck in much, so cain’t roll ’im onta the gunny; hafta lift ’im and he’s gwine be heavy; Sheriff, sir, ya cradle Mr. Chase’s head. Dat’s good. My, my.” By
late morning, they’d loaded him, complete with clinging sludge, into the back.
Since Dr. Murphy had by now informed Chase’s parents of his death, Ed told the boys they could go on home, and he and Joe started up the stairs, which switched to the top, narrowing at each level. As they climbed, the round corners of the world moved out farther and farther, the lush, rounded forests and watery marsh expanding to the very rims.
When they reached the last step, Jackson lifted his hands and pushed open an iron grate. After they climbed onto the platform, he eased it down again because it was part of the floor. Wooden planks, splintered and grayed with age, formed the center of the platform, but around the perimeter, the floor was a series of see-through square grates that could be opened and closed. As long as they were down you could walk on them safely, but if one was left open, you could fall to the earth sixty feet below.
“Hey, look at that.” Ed pointed to the far side of the platform, where one of the grates stood open.
“What the hell?” Joe said as they walked to it. Peering down, they saw the perfect outline of Chase’s misshapen form embedded in the mud. Yellowish goo and duckweed had splashed to the sides like a splatter painting.
“This doesn’t figure,” Ed said. “Sometimes folks forget to close the grate over the stairs. You know, on their way back down. We’ve found it open a few times, but the others are almost never left open.”
“Why would Chase open this one in the first place? Why would anybody?”
“Unless somebody planned to push somebody else to their death,” Ed said.
“Then why didn’t they close it afterward?”
“Because if Chase had fallen through on his own, he couldn’t have closed it. Had to be left open to look like an accident.”
“Look at that support beam below the hole. It’s all bashed in and splintered.”
“Yeah, I see. Chase must’ve banged his head on it when he fell.”
“I’ll climb out there, look for blood or hair samples. Collect some splinters.”
“Thanks, Joe. And take some close-ups. I’ll go get a rope to spot you. We don’t need two bodies in this muck in one day. And we have to take fingerprints off this grate, the grate by the stairs, the railing, the banisters. Everything anybody would’ve touched. And collect any hair samples, threads.”
ORE THAN TWO H
, they stretched their backs from the leaning and stooping. Ed said, “I’m not saying there was foul play. Way too early. But besides that, I can’t think of anyone who’d want to kill Chase.”
“Well, I’d say there’d be quite a list,” the deputy said.
“Like who? What’re you talking about?”
“C’mon, Ed. Ya know how Chase was. Tom-cattin’, ruttin’ ’round like a penned bull let out. ’Fore he was married, after he was married, with single girls, married women. I seen randy dogs at a bitch fest better behaved.”
“C’mon, he wasn’t that bad. Sure. He had a reputation as a ladies’ man. But I don’t see anybody in this town committin’ murder over it.”
“I’m just sayin’ there’s people didn’t like him. Some jealous
husband. It’d have to be somebody he knew. Somebody we all know. Not likely Chase’d climb up here with some stranger,” Joe said.
“Unless he was up to his navel in debt with some out-of-towner. Something like that we didn’t know about. And a man strong enough to push Chase Andrews. No small task.”
Joe said, “I can already think of a few guys up to it.”
One morning, Pa, shaved fresh and dressed in a wrinkled button-down shirt, came into the kitchen and said he was leaving on the Trailways bus for Asheville to discuss some issues with the army. He figured he had more disability due him and was off to see about it and wouldn’t be back for three or four days. He’d never told Kya his business, where he was going, or when he was coming back, so, standing there in her too-short bib overalls, she stared up at him, mute.
“Ah b’leeve ya deaf and dumb as all git-out,” he said, the porch door slapping behind him.
Kya watched him gimp along the path, left leg swinging to the side, then forward. Her fingers knotted. Maybe they were all going to leave her, one by one down this lane. When he reached the road and unexpectedly looked back, she threw her hand up and waved hard. A shot to keep him tethered. Pa lifted an arm in a quick, dismissive salutation. But it was something. It was more than Ma had done.
From there, she wandered to the lagoon, where early light caught the glimmer of hundreds of dragonfly wings. Oaks and thick brush
encircled the water, darkening it cavelike, and she stopped as she eyed Pa’s boat drifting there on the line. If she took it into the marsh and he found out, he’d take his belt to her. Or the paddle he kept by the porch door; the “welcome bat,” Jodie had called it.
Perhaps a yearning to reach out yonder pulled her toward the boat—a bent-up, flat-bottomed metal skiff Pa used for fishing. She’d been out in it all her life, usually with Jodie. Sometimes he’d let her steer. She even knew the way through some of the intricate channels and estuaries that wandered through a patchwork of water and land, land and water, finally to the sea. Because even though the ocean was just beyond the trees surrounding the shack, the only way to get there by boat was to go in the opposite direction, inland, and wind through miles of the maze of waterways that eventually hooked back to the sea.
But, being only seven and a girl, she’d never taken the boat out by herself. It floated there, tied by a single cotton line to a log. Gray grunge, frayed fishing tackle, and half-crushed beer cans covered the boat floor. Stepping in, she said out loud, “Gotta check the gas like Jodie said, so Pa won’t figure I took it.” She poked a broken reed into the rusted tank. “’Nough for a short ride, I reckon.”
Like any good robber, she looked around, then flicked the cotton line free of the log and poled forward with the lone paddle. The silent cloud of dragonflies parted before her.
Not able to resist, she pulled the starter rope and jerked back when the motor caught the first time, sputtering and burping white smoke. Grabbing the tiller, she turned the throttle too far, and the boat turned sharply, the engine screaming. She released the throttle, threw her hands up, and the boat eased to a drift, purring.
When in trouble, just let go. Go back to idle.
Accelerating now more gently, she steered around the old fallen cypress,
putt, putt, putt
beyond the piled sticks of the beaver lodge. Then,
holding her breath, she steered toward the lagoon entrance, almost hidden by brambles. Ducking beneath the low-hanging limbs of giant trees, she churned slowly through thicket for more than a hundred yards, as easy turtles slid from water-logs. A floating mat of duckweed colored the water as green as the leafy ceiling, creating an emerald tunnel. Finally, the trees parted, and she glided into a place of wide sky and reaching grasses, and the sounds of cawing birds. The view a chick gets, she reckoned, when it finally breaks its shell.
Kya tooled along, a tiny speck of a girl in a boat, turning this way and that as endless estuaries branched and braided before her.
Keep left at all the turns going out
, Jodie had said. She barely touched the throttle, easing the boat through the current, keeping the noise low. As she broke around a stand of reeds, a whitetail doe with last spring’s fawn stood lapping water. Their heads jerked up, slinging droplets through the air. Kya didn’t stop or they would bolt, a lesson she’d learned from watching wild turkeys: if you act like a predator, they act like prey. Just ignore them, keep going slow. She drifted by, and the deer stood as still as a pine until Kya disappeared beyond the salt grass.
She entered a place with dark lagoons in a throat of oaks and remembered a channel on the far side that flowed to an enormous estuary. Several times she came upon dead ends, had to backtrack to take another turn. Keeping all these landmarks straight in her mind so she could get back. Finally the estuary lay ahead, water stretching so far it captured the whole sky and all the clouds within it.
The tide was going out, she knew by water lines along the creek shores. When it receded enough, any time from now, some channels would shallow up and she’d run aground, get stranded. She’d have to head back before then.
As she rounded a stand of tall grass, suddenly the ocean’s face—gray, stern, and pulsing—frowned at her. Waves slammed one another,
awash in their own white saliva, breaking apart on the shore with loud booms—energy searching for a beachhead. Then they flattened into quiet tongues of foam, waiting for the next surge.
The surf taunted her, daring her to breach the waves and enter the sea, but without Jodie, her courage failed. Time to turn around anyway. Thunderheads grew in the western sky, forming huge gray mushrooms pressing at the seams.
There’d been no other people, not even distant boats, so it was a surprise when she entered the large estuary again, and there, close against the marsh grass, was a boy fishing from another battered rig. Her course would take her only twenty feet from him. By now, she looked every bit the swamp child—hair blown into tangles, dusty cheeks streaked with wind-tears.
Neither low gas nor storm threat gave her the same edgy feeling as seeing another person, especially a boy. Ma had told her older sisters to watch out for them; if you look tempting, men turn into predators. Squishing her lips tight, she thought,
What am I gonna do? I gotta go right by him
From the corner of her eye, she saw he was thin, his golden curls stuffed under a red baseball cap. Much older than she, eleven, maybe twelve. Her face was grim as she approached, but he smiled at her, warm and open, and touched the brim of his hat like a gentleman greeting a fine lady in a gown and bonnet. She nodded slightly, then looked ahead, increasing the throttle and passing him by.
All she could think of now was getting back to familiar footing, but somewhere she must have turned wrong, for when she reached the second string of lagoons, she couldn’t find the channel that led home. Round and round, near oak knees and myrtle thickets, she searched. A slow panic eased in. Now, the grass banks, sandbars, and bends all looked the same. She cut the engine and stood smack-dab in the middle
of the boat, balancing with feet spread wide, trying to see over the reeds, but couldn’t. She sat. Lost. Low on gas. Storm coming.
Stealing Pa’s words, she cussed her brother for leaving. “Damn ya, Jodie! Shit fire an’ fall in. You just shit fire an’ fall in it.”
She whimpered once as the boat drifted in soft current. Clouds, gaining ground against the sun, moved weighted but silent overhead, pushing the sky and dragging shadows across the clear water. Could be a gale any minute. Worse, though: if she wandered too long, Pa would know she took the boat. She eased ahead; maybe she could find that boy.
Another few minutes of creek brought a bend and the large estuary ahead, and on the other side, the boy in his boat. Egrets took flight, a line of white flags against the mounting gray clouds. She anchored him hard with her eyes. Afraid to go near him, afraid not to. Finally, she turned across the estuary.
He looked up when she neared.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey.” She looked beyond his shoulder into the reeds.
“Which way you headed, anyhow?” he asked. “Not out, I hope. That storm’s comin’.”
“No,” she said, looking down at the water.
Her throat tightened against a sob. She nodded but couldn’t speak.
She bobbed her head again. Wasn’t going to cry like a girl.
“Well, then. I git lost all the time,” he said, and smiled. “Hey, I know you. You’re Jodie Clark’s sister.”
“I used ta be. He’s gone.”
“Well, you’re still his . . .” But he let it drop.
“How’d you know me?” She threw a quick, direct look at his eyes.
“Oh, I’ve been fishin’ with Jodie some. I saw you a couple a’ times. You were just a little kid. You’re Kya, right?”
Someone knew her name. She was taken aback. Felt anchored to something; released from something else.
“Yeah. You know my place? From here?”
“Reckon I do. It’s ’bout time anyhow.” He nodded at the clouds. “Follow me.” He pulled his line, put tackle in the box, and started his outboard. As he headed across the estuary, he waved, and she followed. Cruising slowly, he went directly to the right channel, looked back to make sure she’d made the turn, and kept going. He did that at every bend to the oak lagoons. As he turned into the dark waterway toward home, she could see where she’d gone wrong, and would never make the mistake again.
He guided her—even after she waved that she knew her way—across her lagoon, up to the shore where the shack squatted in the woods. She motored up to the old waterlogged pine and tied up. He drifted back from her boat, bobbing in their contrary wakes.
“You okay now?”
“Well, storm’s comin’, I better git.”
She nodded, then remembered how Ma taught her. “Thank ya.”
“All right, then. My name’s Tate ’case ya see me again.”
She didn’t respond, so he said, “Bye now.”
As he headed out, slow raindrops splattered the lagoon beach, and she said, “It’s gonna rain bullfrogs; that boy’ll get soaked through.”
She stooped to the gas tank and stuck in her reed dipstick, cupping her hands around the rim, so rain wouldn’t drop in. Maybe she couldn’t count coins, but she knew for sure, you can’t let water get in gas.
It’s way low. Pa’s gonna know. I gotta tote a can to the Sing Oil ’fore Pa gits back.
She knew the owner, Mr. Johnny Lane, always referred to her family as swamp trash, but dealing with him, the storms, and tides would be worth it, because all she could think of now was getting back into that space of grass and sky and water. Alone, she’d been scared, but that was already humming as excitement. There was something else, too. The calmness of the boy. She’d never known anybody to speak or move so steady. So sure and easy. Just being near him, and not even that close, had eased her tightness. For the first time since Ma and Jodie left, she breathed without pain; felt something other than the hurt. She needed this boat and that boy.
HAT SAME AFTERNOON
, holding his bike by the handlebars, Tate Walker strolled through town, nodding at Miss Pansy in the Five and Dime, and past the Western Auto to the tip of the town wharf. He scanned the sea for his dad’s shrimp boat,
The Cherry Pie
, and spotted its bright red paint far out, the wide net-wings rocking with the swells. As it neared, escorted by its own cloud of gulls, he waved, and his father, a large man with mountain shoulders and thick red hair and a beard, threw his hand in the air. Scupper, as everyone in the village called him, tossed the line to Tate, who tied up, then jumped on board to help the crew unload the catch.
Scupper tousled Tate’s hair. “How’s it, son? Thanks for coming by.”
Tate smiled, nodded. “Sure.” They and the crew busied about, loading shrimp into crates, toting them to the wharf, calling out to one another about grabbing beers at the Dog-Gone, asking Tate about school. Taller by a hand than the other men, Scupper scooped up three wire crates at a time, carrying them across the plank, going back for more. His fists were bear-sized, knuckles chapped and split. In less than forty minutes the deck was hosed, nets tied, lines secured.
He told the crew he’d join them another day for beer; he had to do some tuning up before going home. In the wheelhouse, Scupper put a 78 record of Miliza Korjus on the player strapped to the counter and turned the volume up. He and Tate went below and squeezed into the engine hold, where Tate handed tools to his dad as he greased parts and tightened bolts by a dim lightbulb. All the while the soaring, sweet opera lifted higher into the sky.
Scupper’s great-great-grandfather, emigrating from Scotland, had shipwrecked off the coast of North Carolina in the 1760s and was the only survivor. He swam to shore, landing on the Outer Banks, found a wife, and fathered thirteen children. Many could trace their roots back to that one Mr. Walker, but Scupper and Tate stayed mostly to themselves. Didn’t join the Sunday picnic spreads of chicken salad and deviled eggs with their relatives often, not like they had when his mother and sister were still there.
Finally, in the graying dusk, Scupper slapped Tate on the shoulders. “All done. Let’s get home, get supper on.”
They walked up the wharf, down Main, and out a winding road to their house, a two-story with weathered cedar-shake siding, built in the 1800s. The white window trim had been painted fresh, and the lawn running almost to the sea was cut neat. But the azaleas and rosebushes next to the house sulked in weeds.
Pulling off yellow boots in the mudroom, Scupper asked, “You tired of burgers?”
“Never tired of burgers.”
Tate stood at the kitchen counter, picking up globs of hamburger meat, forming patties, and placing them on a plate. His mother and sister, Carianne, both wearing baseball caps, grinned at him from a picture hanging next to the window. Carianne loved that Atlanta Crackers cap, had worn it everywhere.
He looked away from them, started slicing tomatoes, stirring baked beans. If not for him, they’d be here. His mother basting a chicken, Carianne cutting biscuits.
As usual Scupper got the burgers a bit black, but they were juicy inside and thick as a small city phone book. Both hungry, they ate in silence for a while, and then Scupper asked Tate about school.