Jack came in winter, a husky, stepping in through the black trees. He crept in with the ice. The day after, they took a canoe up the river. The river was higher than the seat of the rope swing, high enough to paddle to Siloam, or so they thought. They made it all the way to the cement bridge before turning back. The cement bridge led to Dead Road, the name Cole gave it because of the skins left there by deer hunters.
Jack trotted behind them on the bank of the river, his bright eyes studying the boat. A log had fallen across the river. Jack crossed it and jumped into the canoe. Cole asked if they could keep him.
The river was up to the fence. Harold stood at the beginning of the yard with a post hole digger. He was supposed to add more fencing today, he and Cole. The wildflowers were battered down. He frowned at the river, the numerous days they had spent by it. Cole was playing with the dog on the other side of the river. They used to get licorice sticks together at Cawthon’s. They used to go out for cherry Cokes.
When the raining stopped, the river stayed high, and Harold feared his wife would not make it across to get to work tomorrow. The old rope swing was frayed and nearly black with dirt. Harold had shot it up there with a bow and arrow. That's right, a bow and arrow, he told every visitor, and pointed. Swoosh, he said, over a limb, then back down, and maneuvered the knot up, something he learned as a boy scout.
Back then, Cole’s head was at his waist, the little blond head running through the woods. How old was he then? Seven? He had started finger painting around that time, Harold remembered. His small hands would come into the kitchen covered in red paint. They still had some pictures saved in scrapbooks.
Later, they found a note in the laundry. During the New Life Revival Camp on June Island, a seaside camp with beaches littered with driftwood, Cole watched Taylor, one of the guys in his youth group, pull down his pants. He had written about it. Harold read the note many times. The white thigh. There was some inside joke between them, between the two boys, and Cole wrote about the thighs. Taylor’s thighs. About his cock, how he had never seen an uncut cock before. The last line, “I want to see you again.” The note was likely meant for Taylor. Cole must have forgotten it was in his pocket.
Harold folded the note. In the morning he rearranged the rakes in the basement. Sand rakes, gravel rakes, yard rakes. Cathleen, who had been married to him for thirty years, was outside with a blue bowl in her hand. She picked the blueberries from the small bushes. She was wearing overalls and gardening gloves. Cole came downstairs from his room. He was late for school. They heard the truck start, both of them. They heard him go down the gravel driveway. They said nothing.
Summer passed like a strange mist, like a crow cry, like a silver storm across the pastures, empty now, mercilessly empty.
Cole found a job at the local country club. When had Jack come? The dog slept on the kitchen now, whimpering in his sleep.
Cathleen never liked the dog. Its blue were like ice. The ice had been bad that year, Harold remembered. Jack had brought it with him. Cole came downstairs in his boxers and saw the dog for the first time. He asked them whose it was and where it had come from.
“No collar,” Cathleen said.
Cole stuck out his hand and stepped close.
“Watch out,” she said. “He might bite.”
Cathleen was not thin anymore. Her cheekbones were beautiful, her hair grayed. She was from Mississippi.
The dog bent to Cole’s hand. Cole pulled the dog close and kissed him. The next day, they paddled up the river to Dead Road, and got no further.
Cathleen was making rolls for Sunday dinner. She wiped the butter over them with a brush. Cole left in his truck to help his friend Jay Beland who was stuck in a trench on the cutaway from Mill Road to Siloam. Jack was sleeping outside by the door.
Harold watched Cole through the window in the front door. Jack lifted his head and followed him, trotting behind, and when Cole opened the passenger door, Jack hopped in. How were their children already grown? Their daughter, Amy, was already in medical school. Cole was wearing boots and brown coveralls. It was raining.
They found his truck in a ditch, sunk into the red clay. There was no sign of struggle, nothing was missing. The keys were still in the ignition. Cathleen’s pink hair tie was tied around the steering wheel in a slipknot. Harold had put it there on a drive into town to get hay bales. He tied it there as a joke, and there it stayed.
They called Atlanta, the airlines, but Cole had not boarded a plane. They called his friends, the ones they knew. Then the search parties started. All the men, good men, Harold thought, came over, the grim, dark horde of them, in pickup trucks. Harold was embarrassed at the bad shape of the yard, the rusted tractor, their dirty cars sitting in the driveway.
All the men came by with their hands on their hips, asking questions. Harold answered patiently. He had known most of them since he was young, since long before he was married. He thought, briefly, how strange it was that he had never left, that Cathleen had come here, had come with him back to this horrible town, back to the First Presbyterian Church, the choir ladies with their plates of deviled eggs. They waved when he drove by, but never Cathleen. They did not know her. She was still a stranger to them, still an outsider, and Harold felt guilty that Cathleen had abandoned a better world, a better life, for his.
Then the boys from Cole’s football team came. They were so young and so strong. Harold was a star football player once.
“Cole was a quiet one,” Coach Richardson said. Harold talked to Anna Marie, the girl who Cole spent most of his time with. Her eyes were huge and red, she stood there in her dad’s plaid shirt. She had no idea where he would have gone.
“Was he depressed? Would he harm himself?” the policeman asked.
“Never. He was always happy and jumping around,” she said. “He was smart. He wouldn't just run off.” Her dad was a drunk who could be seen outside of Jackson’s liquor store at midday, sitting in his truck. The ladies shook their heads. The poor girl, they said. That man is no good.
Harold was wary of Mr. Bill, Anna Marie’s father. They had fought once or twice back in the day. One of Bill’s hounds had wandered into their yard once, underfed, with ribs showing through the peppered fur. The dog scarfed down the leftover pot roast. When Harold called, Bill came by in his pickup and kicked the dog out the door, took two fingers around the orange hunting collar and dragged the animal into the front seat, then slammed the door with a yelp from inside. That night, while they were watching TV, Harold called Bill "white trash." Good-for-nothing trash. "Watch out for him," Harold said.
There were no birds. The woods were their only home. Harold went with the men in the search party. They stumbled across one of Harold’s old deer stands in a tree. He had built it himself before Cole was born. Harold had forgotten about it.
The bloodhounds came with the men in uniforms. They called out for him. His name rang through the woods. Cathleen had chosen the name. For the first years, Harold could not get the image of black coal out of his head whenever they said it. Marching through the woods, the word shouted through the trees, Harold dreamed they were miners lugging wheelbarrows, silvered, heaving the dirty sacks on their backs. What a magical land this could be, he thought, if our lives had somehow run a different course.
After two months, they stopped searching. The helicopters flew over many times. A gentleman sat down with Harold and said, “I’m going to tell it to you straight, Harold."
“Okay,” Harold said.
“You’re going to find your son when some guy is out hunting and comes across the body.”
“That’s how these things happen.”
Harold looked at the man. “What about the dog?” Harold asked.
“That husky is long gone. Dogs like that don’t stay anywhere long.”
The man waited, his lower lip full of chewing tobacco. “I’m sorry Harold,” he said.
Harold nodded. He looked at the ground.
They went to church again. For weeks they had been dreading the entrance, the white doors, the hugs, the crying, the prayers. The younger girls, the ones that had known Cole, cried first and hardest. They told him how they kept things that reminded them of Cole. They were afraid of him, he and his wife, Harold realized. The girls in Cole’s senior class looked back at them over their shoulders from the front pews. They did not look him in the eye. They were wearing knee-length dresses. Cathleen was crying, hugging someone.
Harold stepped out during the sermon. The gravel of the parking lot crunched under his shoes. The cemetery was to his left. He could not look at it.
He saw the teenagers from the youth group walking to the main building from the trailer out back where they held Sunday meetings. He saw Taylor walking, jabbing someone in the side with his elbow, laughing with the other guys. Harold called out, “Hey!”
Some of them turned. Harold ran up to them. He walked up to Taylor and punched the boy in the face. The boy was on his back, blood running from his nose. Harold grabbed the boy’s plaid shirt and punched him again. A girl started screaming. Someone was shouting. Harold heard footsteps, running. Taylor looked up at him. The boy had blond hair and blue eyes, nearly grey, bright as a dog’s. Then hands were on his shoulders. People were shouting. Harold spit on the boy and left.
Harold had a meeting with Taylor’s father. Harold showed him the note. No charges were pressed. Taylor came to school with a bruise on his cheek. Taylor and his family moved away and were never heard from again.
Winter came. Harold cut the rope swing down. They moved the sofa into the living room, then replaced it with a new leather one. Cathleen got a new job. Harold made meals of rice and beans and ate them in silence. Then the river flooded again, higher this time, and on that icy morning, Harold heard paws scraping at the door.