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I am on my knees, the sun beating on my back and dirt from long- dead bones sifting through my gloved fingers, when my cell- phone rings.
Focused as I am on the dig, the phone’s shrill summons startles me. I jolt upright and lose my balance, falling on my butt and send- ing a cloud of dirt into the air. Behind me, I hear Jake, one of my graduate students, let out what can only be described as a guffaw. I swivel to glare at him and he smothers it into a cough, looking abashed. Color creeps up his cheeks, already reddened from the sun and wind.
I assume the phone call will be from my supervisor, back at the College of Charleston. Or from my dad, who keeps Finn, my seven- year-old daughter, when I do fieldwork. Squinting to make out the number, I try to suppress the instinctive, icy panic I feel whenever the phone rings: It’s the school. Finn is gone. She was on the play- ground at recess and now they can’t find her anywhere, it’s like she vanished into thin air.
It’s not useful to react this way, I admonish myself. It’s not pro- ductive. But I can’t help it. For all my years of mixed martial arts training and a black belt in judo, I still don’t feel like the world is a safe place, a place where people stay.
Then I see who’s calling me, and I forget Jake, forget Finn, forget everything but the three innocuous little letters that have appeared on my screen.
The phone rings again, but my hands are shaking so badly that it takes what feels like forever to get my gloves off, and then two tries before I can answer the call. My heart beats in triple time as I press the phone to my ear. “Hello?” I say, and then, when there’s no re- sponse, “Max? Is that you?”
There is silence on the other end of the line, and then, as if com- ing from the end of a long, long tunnel, laced with static, a voice I thought I’d never hear again: “Isabel.”
All he says is my name—but it’s Max, there’s no doubt in my mind. In the six years we knew each other, I heard Max say my name innumerable times, in a thousand different ways. Hollering at me from the woods that linked our houses, eager for me to come outside. Trying to get my attention as we lay next to each other in the tree house he’d built, paging through old National Geographics. In won- der, the first time he kissed me, his fingers light on my face. And later, when we made Finn, as if those three syllables were a sacra- ment, a holy word that held more meaning than “I love you.” I would know Max’s voice anywhere.
The thing is, I haven’t heard it since before Finn was born.
My fingers are suddenly nerveless, and the pick I’m holding thumps into the dirt. “Oh my God, Max,” I say. “Where are you?”
Silence on the other end of the line, and then he says my name again, his voice limned with desperation. “Isabel,” he says, and then there is static. In frustration, I press the phone harder against my ear, trying to make out the words. But I can’t understand a damn thing. Then his voice comes clear again: “Keep her safe.”
“Max, I can hardly hear you. Keep who safe? Tell me where you are,” I say, but it’s too late. I’m talking to an empty line.
I try to call back, but all I hear is the message I’ve gotten for the past seven years: The number you’ve dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service. I call over and over, but the result is the same.
Gradually I become aware that I am still kneeling in the dirt, tears spilling down my face, in the middle of an archaeological dig I am supposed to be overseeing. One by one, the blurry faces of my grad students swim into view. Jake is staring at me, puzzled and alarmed.
Dizzy, half-blind, I get to my feet. “Excuse me,” I mumble. And then I do something I’ve never done before, not in five years of grad- uate school and two years of teaching.
I walk right off the dig.
I can hear Jake’s steps behind me, crunching on gravel, can hear him calling my name, wanting to know what’s wrong. But how can I possibly explain? I make myself turn and lift a hand in reassurance, hoping my sunglasses hide the tears that sting my eyes, unbidden. I hear my voice, impossibly even, say that everything is all right, I just need a few minutes alone. That he is in charge until I get back.
Even through the haze that clouds my vision, I can tell Jake is unconvinced, so I attempt a smile. Apparently this is less than suc- cessful, because he winces. His mouth opens, but before he poses a question I have no idea how to answer, I fumble in my pocket for the keys to the van and manage to open the door. Moving as if in a dream, I settle behind the wheel and shut the door between us with a vague feeling of regret. This is not how a supervisor ought to be- have, but right now I can’t muster the energy to care.
Hands trembling, I back the van out of the site and pull onto the road, ignoring the bone-rattling thump that ensues when one of the wheels sinks into a pothole. The last thing I see is Jake standing at the edge of the parking lot, hands shoved in the pockets of his khaki shorts, staring after me with a look of total bewilderment on his face.
I have no idea where I’m going, and after a few minutes it be- comes clear to me that I really shouldn’t be behind the wheel at all. I can hardly drive in a straight line, much less watch out for traffic. The fact that we are in Barbados, where people drive on what I still think of as the wrong side of the road, doesn’t help. And so I pull over at the first place I see—Cutters Deli, a restaurant that proudly adver- tises itself as the purveyor of “#1 Rum Punch.”
Harboring the vague notion that a drink will calm me down, I stagger out of the car. But as I make my way toward the porch, logic asserts itself. I can’t get drunk—I’m working. What the hell am I thinking?
I look back at the car, then at the restaurant. The shaking has resumed, a head-to-toe trembling that makes my teeth clack together and my knees buckle. With the exception of the day my mother vanished—six years before I lost Max—I have never felt so alone.
In desperation, I imagine that my closest friend, Ryan, is here with me. I hear his deep voice telling me to focus. Concentrate. If you’re thinking, his voice says, you can’t be feeling. Look around. Tell me what you see.
“All right,” I say aloud. I force myself to look at Cutters, to truly take in the bright yellow plaster of the exterior, the blue metal roof that gleams in the midday sun. My eyes travel over the patio, with its flagstones and round white tables surrounded by benches, where two families sit, chowing down on the restaurant’s specialty—flying fish sandwiches. I can smell the seasoned batter the cook used to fry the fish, and rising above that, the tang of the hot pepper sauce Cutters is famous for using in their slaw.
Ryan’s strategy is working. Heartened, I continue my inventory. The tree that shades the patio needs trimming, I note with com- mendable objectivity. The stones could benefit from a good power wash. And the paint on the broken trident—the symbol of the colo- ny’s break from England—next to the restaurant’s name could really use a touch-up. Breath coming easier, I take in the words painted on the side of the building: Cutters Bajan Deli, large enough to cover the entire wall, and then smaller, of Barbados, just in case a hapless traveler has lost their way entirely. If Ryan were here, that would make him laugh.
“Okay, Ry,” I whisper, taking a few steps closer to the building. “I’m okay.”
I don’t know if this is actually true, but at least I am capable of deciding what to do next. Leaning against the side of the restaurant, phone slick in my sweaty hands, I dial Max’s number one more time. Again I hear the woman’s dispassionate, automated voice. I have to fight the effort to throw the phone to the ground and stomp on it— after all, I reason, how will Max call me back if I don’t have a phone? The better question, of course, is this: How did he call me at all?
And why now, after all this time?
I haven’t seen or heard from Max for almost eight years. The day after I’d told him I was pregnant with Finn, he disappeared—less than fifty feet from where I was standing, while I screamed his name. It’s over ninety degrees outside, but I shiver in my tank top and shorts. That day—it feels like another lifetime—he’d asked me to meet him in the woods between our parents’ houses. This was in no way an unusual request—we’d come upon each other for the very first time in those woods, when I was sixteen and he seventeen, and we’d been meeting there ever since. It was our retreat, a place where we could escape—he from the claustrophobic demands of his par- ents, I from the oppressive silence of an empty house, haunted by my workaholic, grieving father and the uneasy ghost of my mother.
We had made love for the first time there—had made Finn, five years later, on the sun-warmed boards of the tree house Max had built, high in the branches of one of the ancient oaks. It was spring break of my senior year at the University of South Carolina at Co- lumbia, and I’d just come back from a volunteer dig in Greece, still glowing with the memory of it. I’d told Max every detail, like I’d told him so many stories over the years, and he’d listened, his eyes fixed on my face, running his hands through my hair, winding the curls around his fingers.
This is a far better memory than the day I lost him, and standing in the bright sunlight of a Barbados afternoon, I close my eyes, bring- ing it to life. The plaster wall is warm against my back, but I barely feel it. I breathe deeply, taking in the unmistakable scent of a South Carolina spring: the delicate fragrance of wisteria, winding inexora- bly around the trunk of the oak that held the tree house, the sweet tang of the strawberries Max had brought, fresh from his family’s garden.
I must be in shock, that’s all I can figure, because as much as it hurts to think of him like this—to remember a time when we were happy—I can’t seem to help myself. Around me, life goes on—the restaurant door slamming shut, a waitress asking if she can bring any- one another drink—but these sounds retreat, dialed back as if some- one has turned down the volume. Instead I hear the chirp of crickets and the call of frogs from the pond beyond the tree house’s clearing. I see Max’s gray eyes, intent on my brown ones, dark hair framing his face, the stubble that covers his cheekbones sparking blond in the fading light.
It had been weeks since we’d been together. I knew he wanted me—I could feel it in the tension of his body against mine, in the need, barely stifled, as he traced my shape, skimming his hand over my ribs to the swell of my hip and back again. Still, he let me tell him about the tombs and the dust, the exhilaration I’d felt when I touched a shard of pottery no one had seen for thousands of years, brushed the dirt from it, and lifted it from the earth. He let me talk the sun down as we lay face-to-face on the tree house floor, heads pillowed on the cushions we’d brought up long ago, wrapped in an unmistakable sense of peace. Until finally I ran out of words and he moved above me, blocking out the last of the light. God, I’ve missed you, he said. Don’t go away like that again, okay? Or better yet, take me with you.
I laughed at that, my breath coming short at his touch on my bare skin. On a dig? All those hours kneeling in the dirt, poking at things. You’d be bored to death.
He raised his head then to look at me, one hand moving between my legs, fingers sliding inside me first in query, then in demand. What do you think I do all day? he asked, closing his mouth on my breast, slipping backward out of my grasp when I tried to pull him down to me. Besides, I’d follow you anywhere. You know that.
Come here, then. I tried to pull him closer, and he shook his head, laughing.
Not so fast, Isabel. I’ve been waiting for you for weeks. You can damn well wait a few more minutes.
Really? I said, and pushed him down onto the floorboards. His smile faded and his eyes fixed on me, hypnotized, as I knelt between his legs and took him in my mouth, bent on revenge.
All right, he said, pulling me on top of him. You win. He arched his hips, filling me, and we began to move, there in the gathering dusk.
I can still remember the feel of Max’s hands, callused from years of working in gardens and greenhouses, settling on my hips. Can remember looking down at him, seeing the darkness that filled his eyes, his lips mouthing my name. And then him coming to his knees with me in his arms, my hair falling like a curtain to shelter us both, his mouth warm and urgent on my neck, my breasts. Isabel, he said, panting. I don’t have—you know. Oh, God, I can’t stop.
I dug my nails into his shoulders, pressing myself against him so I could feel him moving inside me, deep as if we were one flesh. So don’t, I whispered, swept up by a wave of recklessness. And, covering his mouth with mine, I let the wave carry us both away.
That was how Finn came to be—a surprise but not an accident, the way I’d always thought of it. I’d known good and well that after- noon what might happen, and so had Max. The way we’d both fig- ured it, it had just been a matter of when. Or at least that’s what I’d always thought. Maybe Max had thought something else. Maybe he hadn’t wanted her at all.
I open my eyes, breathing hard. Around me the world comes back into focus—the searing light, the hum of the restaurant’s air conditioner, a sunburned couple walking up the steps to the porch.
The woman gives me a curious glance and then lengthens her stride in a sudden hurry to get inside. I look down at myself, realizing for the first time that I am covered in dirt and mud from the dig. My cutoff shorts are ripped from their encounter with an ancient piece of jagged metal.
Still, I can’t bring myself to care. I can still feel Max’s touch on my skin, gripping me hard enough to bruise, branding me. I can see myself standing in my father’s kitchen eight weeks later, fingers splayed on the worn surface of the table, telling Max I am pregnant. Can see his face, eyes first wide with shock, then lit with what I could swear was joy. I remember him walking around the table and taking me by the shoulders, asking me if I was sure, lowering his face into my hair and wrapping his arms around me, saying that he loved me and everything would be okay. He would take care of us both.
And then I remember him dropping his arms and backing away, an odd look on his face. “I have to go,” he’d said, which was true enough—he had work in twenty minutes. “Meet me at the tree house tomorrow? Noon? I have the day off.”
“All right. But Max, what’s the matter? Are you angry? Or is there . . .” I’d stopped, unwilling to articulate the ugly thought that had come to mind as soon as I’d seen that look on his face—that there was someone else. Five minutes before, I would have sworn that wasn’t possible. Now I wasn’t so sure.
“Of course I’m not angry. Everything’s fine,” he’d said, but I knew him well enough to tell when he was lying. I could see it in the way his eyes slid from mine, the way he shifted from foot to foot, as if he couldn’t wait to get away from me.
That hurt more than anything else. Max had been the one who consoled me when my mother disappeared, who filled the hole she’d left in my heart. He’d held me when I cried for her, let me say the words my father refused to hear: She’s dead or she deserted us. Either way, she’s not coming back. Max had been there for me when my fa- ther sank into obsession, when he stopped coming to my parent- teacher conferences or even buying food. For six years, Max had been everything to me. Other than a brief period when I’d wanted space from our friendship—terrified that I was falling for him—we had been inseparable since the day we met in the woods. Even the four years I’d spent at Columbia, earning my degree while Max stud- ied history at the College of Charleston and worked his way up the chain of a local gardening business, hadn’t driven us apart—or so I’d believed.
“Max,” I said again, mistrust clear in my voice, and he forced a smile.
“I’m happy, Isabel. Really, I am.” He rested his palm on my belly with a gentleness I’d never felt from him before, and for a moment I let myself believe that it was true. I stood still under his touch, imag- ining the cluster of cells that was Finn, growing and changing even in this single moment, becoming a tiny person that one day I would hold in my arms. And then, with eerie premonition, I imagined rais- ing that person alone.
“I’m glad,” I said, and lifted my chin. “Because the way you’re acting, it’s pretty hard to tell.”
His voice went soft, apologetic. “I’m a little overwhelmed, that’s all. It’s a lot to take in. And I . . . well, I need to tell you something.” Fear must have flashed across my face then, followed quickly by anger, because he shook his head, a rueful smile lifting his lips. “Nothing like that. Jesus. You think I’d have the balls to cheat on you,
let alone the desire? Christ, you’d scalp me.”
“What, then?” I didn’t like the way my voice sounded, fearful and small.
“Tomorrow, all right? In the clearing. I’ll tell you everything, I promise.”
“Why not now?”
“Because I have to get to work. In fifteen minutes,” he added, checking his watch. “Which isn’t nearly long enough. Not to mention—well, never mind.”
I stood there, taking in the worry in his gray eyes, trying to figure out what could be so awful. “Are you dying?” I asked, my voice cracking.
“What? Of course not.” His lips twitched.
“Well, then—what?” I said, staring up at him in confusion.
For a moment I didn’t think he was going to answer. Then he muttered, “I’m late anyway. The hell with it,” and took my face in his hands, kissing me with a savage desperation that struck an icy chord of fear in my heart. “I love you,” he said, the pressure of his fingers insistent against my skin. “You believe that, don’t you?”
“Of course,” I said, more alarmed than ever. “Max, what is it?” He cradled my face between his palms. “I’ve always loved you,”
he said, brushing one last kiss across my lips and stepping away. “Al- ways. Remember that, would you? No matter what.”
I said I would. And I’ve kept my promise, despite everything.
He’d asked me to meet him that day, and I’d come—just in time to see him running into the trees that bordered the other side of the clearing, crashing through the brush. Stop, Isabel, he’d yelled when I gave chase. I hadn’t listened, for all the good it had done me. But I’d gotten tangled in a briar bush—I’d never known those damn woods as well as he had—and by the time I’d freed myself, he was nowhere to be found. I’d followed the trail he’d left until I couldn’t pick it up anymore. Had run all the way to the road, calling his name, then back to the clearing, with no sign of him. He was just—gone.
It’s been years since I’ve let myself think of him like this, let my- self remember what it was like to have him hold me, much less move inside me, calling my name. This phone call has ripped me wide open, and I force myself to take deep breaths. Keep her safe, he’d said. Fear ripples through me. Did he mean Finn?
This is an absurd thought. I’m sure of it. Max has never met his daughter. Besides, she’s home with my dad, who has redeemed him- self by being a grandfather extraordinaire. He would never allow any- thing to happen to her.
Still, the fear that’s been with me since the day my mother vanished—a low, simmering flame that burst into a conflagration when Max disappeared and only burned hotter when Finn was born—won’t let me rest. What if she’s gone? I think, clutching the phone in my hand. What if it—whatever it is—got her too?
I know I’m not being reasonable. Yes, Max and my mother van- ished in the same approximate geographic area, six years apart. Yes, neither one was ever found. But despite the police’s concerted ef- forts, they never discovered a connection between the two disappear- ances. A coincidence, they said. There is no bogeyman that rose up out of the ground and swallowed my mother and the father of my child. No incorporeal curse destined to strike her down like a doomed princess in a fairy tale. I know that to be true. But all the same, I am afraid.
I shouldn’t have left her, I think, dialing my father’s number. What good is all my martial arts training if I’m in another country? I got complacent, I let down my guard. And now look what’s happened. It’s all my fault. I know better.
My father’s cell rings once, then again, and my heart flutters in my chest like a trapped bird, struggling to breach the bars of its cage. Please, I pray, even though organized religion has never been my thing. Please let her be okay. Oh, God, please.
Just when I’ve decided that the bogeyman has gotten him too, my father answers. “Hi, Isabel,” he says, calm as can be. “How’s it going?” I am so relieved to hear his voice, for a second I can’t even reply.
Then, gripping the phone for all I’m worth, I blurt out, “Finn. Is Finn all right?”
“Finn?” my dad says, sounding puzzled. “She’s fine. I just picked her up from school. It’s the last day, you know. We were about to go down to the creek and see if we could catch some frogs for her ter- rarium.”
My legs give way, and I slide down the wall until I’m sitting on the ground. “Thank God.”
“Isabel?” my dad says. “What’s the matter?”
My throat is bone dry, and at first all I can manage is a stammer. “I . . .”
“Are you okay?” my dad says, and now he sounds panicked. I make an effort to pull myself together.
“Yes,” I say. “And no. Max called me.”
There’s a muffled sound, as if my father has put his hand over the speaker. Then I hear him yell to Finn, “Yes, it’s your mom, sweetie. Of course you can talk to her, in a minute.”
I can’t make out Finn’s reply, but I can hear her voice, sweet and high-pitched. Something in me relaxes at the sound of it, and my heart resumes its normal rhythm. I watch people walk by on their way to places unknown—an older woman pushing a baby carriage, her dark hair twisted up in a complex arrangement of braids; two teenage boys, shouting at a group of girls across the street—and feel the world settle back into place around me. All right, I think. She’s all right.
“Isabel!” my father says, sharply enough that I realize this isn’t the first time.
“What?” I ask, startled back into the present.
“I thought you said—but you couldn’t have. Did you say . . . Max called you?”
“Oh. Yes, I said that. Because he did.”
“What do you mean?” His voice is harsh, urgent. “Just one sec- ond, Finn. Hang on, love. Go check on the crickets we caught, would you? Make sure they haven’t escaped.”
I hear Finn murmur in acquiescence. Then my father says, “Okay. What do you mean Max called you?”
So I tell him everything that happened—which seems like pre- cious little, to have disrupted my world the way it did. He’s silent for a long minute. At last he says, “Sweetie, it couldn’t have been him. How could it? You called back, and the line was disconnected. It had to be some kind of—I don’t know, some sort of cosmic cyber- mistake.”
“But he said my name,” I say stubbornly. “It was his voice, Dad, I know it.”
“Isabel, you said there was static. Maybe you just wanted it to be him so badly, you heard what you needed to hear.”
“How can you say that?” I hiss, earning peculiar looks from pass- ersby. “You of all people. How can you just discount this?”
My father sucks in his breath and I know I’ve hurt him. “Me of all people,” he says. “Of all people, I know how much you want it to have been Max. All right, Isabel? I know. That’s why I’m saying this, not to judge you, honey. Christ, I’m the last person who’s got a leg to stand on in that department.”
“Damn right.” I only mean to think it, but from the sound my dad makes—like I’ve stabbed him—I know I’ve said it out loud. For a moment I consider apologizing—whatever my dad lacked when I was a teenager, he’s more than made up for it with Finn—but then I change my mind. We’ve never talked about what happened after my mother disappeared, but there’s a first time for everything.
“Isabel,” my father says again, “I know I’ve hurt you. I know I can’t ever fix it, even though I’ve tried my best with Finn. But please listen to me. Don’t do to your daughter what I did to mine. Don’t let the obsession devour you—because believe me, honey, it will if you let it.”
“It was him,” I say. “I know it was.” “Don’t do this,” my father begs.
“Let me talk to Finn,” I say, getting to my feet.
“If you won’t listen to me,” my father says, “then maybe you’ll listen to Ryan. Have you told him yet?”
“No. I called you first. I wanted to make sure Finn was okay.” “She’s absolutely fine, Isabel. Look, here she is.” The receiver changes hands, and then I hear Finn’s voice, small but clear. “Mama?”
“Hey, sweetie,” I say, injecting cheer into my voice. “How was school?”
“It was good. Me and Grandpa helped Miss Evie with her garden—you know, his new neighbor? She has chickens. And guess what? When we were there, the baby chicks hatched! There were six of them. Miss Evie said when they get a little older, I could take one home. Can we, Mama? Please?”
The sheer normalcy of our conversation makes me smile. I imag- ine her in her South Carolina Aquarium T-shirt, jeans with the hole in the knee, and rubber boots—her “frog-catching clothes”—her black hair in two messy pigtails that constitute my dad’s best effort at little-girl hair care. I can see her clutching the phone in one grubby hand, her gray eyes—a legacy from her father—shining with an ea- gerness I’ve always found so hard to resist. “I don’t know, monkey. We’ll talk about it when I get back, okay?”
“Okay,” Finn agrees reluctantly. “They’re really cute. All fluffy and yellow.”
“Yeah?” I straighten up and start walking to the car. Relief floods me. She sounds just like she always does. As long as I know Finn is all right, I can put one foot in front of the other. I can finish up my dig and go home—as long as she is all right. “Be a good girl,” I tell her. “Listen to Grandpa, okay?”
“I’m always good,” she says, affronted.
“Of course you are.” I fumble with my keys and ease into the van, grimacing as my bare legs stick to the seat. “You and Grandpa are going to catch frogs, huh?”
“Yep. We have the net and the bucket and everything. But we won’t hurt them. Just keep them for a couple of days, and then put them back again.” Her voice is reproachful, as if I’ve insinuated that she and my father were poised to go on an amphibian-murdering spree.
“Sounds fun, baby. You be careful.”
“Oh, Mama,” Finn sighs. “Grandpa is a good babysitter. And you’re coming back on Tuesday. Then you can look after me your- self.”
She sounds so much like an exasperated teenager, I have to laugh. In the background I can hear my father rustling around, most likely gathering their frog-catching equipment. The sounds are homey, familiar, and I feel myself begin to relax bit by bit. I envision the house where I spent my teenage years, its high ceilings and dark wood floors, its back door that opens on the small expanse of grass where I used to sit and read, my back propped against the gnarled trunk of the magnolia tree. As if meditating, I walk myself across the lawn and down the path to the creek, a thin ribbon of water no more than two feet wide. I can hear the croak of the frogs, see the low sweep of dragonflies. Beyond the creek I can see the trees that mark the edge of the woods, the property that linked Max’s home to mine. Step by step I make my way through the trees, feel the filtered sun- light bathe my face and the branches scratch my skin. “Grandpa!” Finn scolds. “Not that one. It’s way too small. The frogs will be all squashed. They need their space.”
While they haggle over the size of the frogs’ transport, I close my eyes and silently repeat my mantra—the one that’s kept me going for the past eight years, through losing Max and a rocky pregnancy with Finn, through graduate school and twelve-hour workdays and count- less training sessions at the dojo until every muscle in my body ached. Don’t worry, baby. I won’t let anything happen to you. It’s as much a promise to Max as it is to myself and Finn, and I have kept it all these years without fail.
I could have sworn that I was repeating those ten words to myself, that they never passed my lips. But perhaps I am wrong, because Finn speaks again. Her tone is matter-of-fact, but the words send my heart racing all the same. “Silly Mama,” she says. “Don’t you know? It already has.”