The nine of July had come, and with it the special election. Erlon woke two hours earlier than he’d planned, thanks to nerves and a burning stomachache, which two cups of coffee did nothing to help. Once at the fire station, though, he quickly began to relax, even though only one of the two paid volunteers assigned under him had bothered to show. It was clear the day would not be the stressful, draining ordeal he’d feared. Few voters showed out; it was only a county treasurer, after all.
By lunchtime he doubted they’d had more than five in line at any given time all day, and even groups that large were few and far between. He was feeling capable and calm by then in the dull dry air-conditioning of the station interior, quiet and empty as he ate the turkey sandwich with extra mustard he’d thrown together that morning.
At times his thought drifted to what lay outside the fire station, barely a mile northwest. The two oval shapes etched in the earth, visible only from far above. The Carolina bays. Or dead ones, at least. Traces of round lakes that once had been, but were dried up now. It felt appropriate. Something, after all, had dried up inside him.
That was how he thought about it now: the missing pixel, the gap, the piece of himself he lacked. It wasn’t so much missing as…dried up.
Erlon chuckled to himself. He licked a bit of mustard from his finger and shook his head. He hadn’t had one of those dreams in a long time, not since before seeing Ayala. He was beginning to forget the whole idea, as if the first dream had been a heavy stone dropped into water, and all the ones since were merely ripples growing fainter and weaker and less frequent with time. Part of him felt embarrassed about the whole thing, that he’d ever been troubled by it.
In the evening, as he left the station and walked to his car under a gloaming sky, Erlon shoved two weary hands into his pants pockets—only to touch the crumpled sticky note he’d taken from Anette’s desk.
Shem and Tannile. The house. The address.
It was the one thing he couldn’t forget about. Not yet.
* * *
And so he went. It was Tuesday afternoon, on his lunch break, despite the fact that the address was down on the island, a good twenty minutes’ drive south from the commission office. He wouldn’t have time to eat, but today Erlon didn’t care. If he was going to forget all this—to put it back in the past and neatly pat it down again at the back of his mind—he needed to do this last thing.
The island went from suburbia to wooded stretches till the road opened up onto farmland. His phone’s navigation app chirped to say he’d arrived, so he pulled onto the shoulder.
He parked across from a field where some crop was already knee-high, and the only building he could see was a greenish trailer. Far too new. He turned, swept the landscape with his eyes, and then saw it.
It was nearly overgrown by a stand of trees. It looked more like a shack than a house: sun-bleached wood panels, unpainted, unvarnished, raised on narrow columns, the back half collapsed. A rusted red tin roof. Every window was gone. Down the back half, garlands of trumpet vine crept up the side, the brilliant orange-red flowers the only splash of color here, beacons for hummingbirds. Pepper vines clung to a mangled chain-link fence near the back, and by the front door pale clusters of yellow flowers sprang up, smelling like licorice.
Erlon stood for long moment, taking it all in, then trudged grimly to the door.
It wasn’t hard to break in. The wood was half rotted, though also entirely dry. Gradients of green mold crept up the inside walls. The place was not only a ruin, it was a dump. The floors and kitchen sink and counters were scattered with junk. Had Tannile really lived here?
It seemed too agricultural, for one. He couldn’t see Shem doing farmwork, not with that bad hand, nor would the Tannile he knew be caught with so much as a hoe in hand. Maybe it was all they could afford. Erlon wondered what Shem had done for a living back then, barely out of his teens.
He tried to imagine his sister living here. Three rooms: a small living area, large enough for a few chairs and little else; a kitchen, and behind that, a bedroom. It was roomier than it seemed on the outside, but not by much. Their grandmother’s house had been bigger.
What a forlorn place, Erlon thought. No one had lived in it in decades, that much was clear. Had anyone else besides Shem and Tannile dwelt here? If they ever had… Some of the junk that littered the floor was more recent than the early ’80s, when that would have had to be, though much of it looked far older. A rusted iron muffin pan, a plastic margarita glass. Two boxy speakers in the corner. A crock pot lid with no crock pot, a console TV with a smashed-in screen. And everywhere, scattered over the floor, musty cardboard boxes. White paint adorned the walls, but it flaked off everywhere. It made the place look rustic, strangely ageless. As if it might have been built at any point in history.
Erlon shuddered. He went down the short, narrow hall into the bedroom, passing through a knobless door painted seaglass green. There was no bed, but he could see where it had laid by the stretch of lighter space on the floor. In the corner was a cardboard box, shapeless, half collapsed into itself.
He took a breath. This was not what he’d ever wanted for Tannile, this squalor. A part of him knew, of course, that it hadn’t been this way when it was lived in. Still, though. His eyes stung, and not from the dusty air.
He turned around. Took in the rest of the room. From somewhere he couldn’t identify, the faint smell of licorice was coming to him, the same scent he’d caught on his way in. “Tannile,” he said, as if she could hear him. Then he walked to the box in the corner and knelt beside it.
Yellowed sheaves of paper. Mostly bills, it looked like, many stamped past due. Ragged old newspapers, a couple magazines. He sifted through them, shuffling for something to catch his eye. A letter written in a male hand. A shopping list on flowery stationary, in a spidery female one. Not Tannile’s—though he wondered if he could even recognize her writing if he saw it. He wasn’t sure he could.
He peered at the first envelope he found: not a name he recognized. He picked up another, and his heart skipped.
The addressee was ALDER BYRNE. Then, immediately beneath that, above the address itself, TANNILE RIVERS-BYRNE.
Alder. He faintly recalled that this was Shem’s given name. But Rivers-Byrne? Had Tannile actually married the man? She must have—at the very least in a common law capacity. He had never known that. Had his grandmother? Had Oscar? Had they all kept the knowledge from him? Why? What else did he not know about his sister?
He read over the names again. Stared at them. Something was bothering him, struggling to rise to the front of his mind, though a part of him was fighting it. Finally it won and he dropped the envelope as it flashed across his mind. He gasped. Erlon’s hand was shaking. He swallowed.
Rivers burn. The place where water burns.
This was it. It had to be. Erlon could feel it in his core.
* * *
It felt unreal, somehow, standing in the place he’d sought for so long. It was nowhere near a Carolina bay. The nearest water was the river, and that a good half-mile away. More than that, he’d nearly stopped believing in the dreams, nearly forgotten the words of the talking trees, dismissed them as meaningless. And now…here he was. Believing in all of it again.
It was some time before he stood. Erlon became aware of his surroundings once more, looked around him, surprised somehow that he was still here. The moment felt incredibly anticlimactic. Here he was: he was here. But what was the point?
The trees had told him where to look—to find that empty piece of himself—and he had found that place. But he was no closer to understanding anything than he’d been months earlier.
Erlon paced. If anything, it helped fill in the missing pieces of Tannile’s life—missing, at least, from his own knowledge. But what did that have to do with that hollow place inside him? He was no closer, after all of this time, to that missing pixel.
He breathed out. It came as a rattling sigh, and he closed his eyes, willing the tears away.
He was about to leave when two sounds caught his ear. The front door creaked open and a single footstep lit on the floor inside.
Erlon froze. He had broken in after all, and he knew well the consequence if a cop were to find him. He wasn’t ready to die. But there was no other door and the window, though long empty of glass, was too small to climb out of. His thoughts raced, searching for any option, when he realized that he’d heard nothing more since the door had opened.
He waited, listened. Nothing. Whoever had come in was being quiet as he was.
Then he thought: maybe it wasn’t a cop. Maybe someone else who had written down this address, who wanted, for some reason, to be here. Maybe—maybe it was—Anette?
He was convinced. It had to be her. Why hadn’t he expected something like this? If he could skip one day’s lunch to come here, so could she. Why else had she written down the address, after all?
How could he explain it? Why he was here? What he was doing?
He waited for her to open the bedroom door and find him, but it never happened. Finally he strode out down the hall, back to the main area. It was empty. There was no one. There hadn’t ever been. It was simple, Erlon thought. A passing breeze had opened the door, and the footstep had been some other sound, faint because he’d heard it from far away.
Erlon sighed. He ought to be relieved, but he wasn’t. He was disappointed.
Through all of this, how far had he drifted from her? The dream, the missing pixel. Tannile. At least he had shared that part of himself with her. He was grateful for that. But now he felt as though, even thinking of Anette, he was looking at her from beyond a great chasm. In the past, he had often felt a proper, healthy distance between the two of them was a comfort, something he guarded and valued. Now he regretted it intensely. How could he ever get back to her?
It was true, he decided. There had been something taken from him. A part of him had gone missing, had vacated his soul. He felt it more keenly now than ever.
“Tannile,” he spoke again, as if searching for some last hope of connection to her, some small scrap of meaning to glean from this place. “Tannile…”
He walked to the doorway, paused, and knelt to pick up a tiny acorn that had fallen on the threshold. He slipped it in his pocket, not knowing why, and strode down to the sandy ground again, back toward his car. He would never come back to this place again.