She kept still. The creek felt quiet, even with the sounds of the stranger’s rowing. He stood behind her and stabbed the creek with his paddle, an egret spearing fish, thrusting them onward. Ahead of her, at the board’s nose, the dog too held watch over the marsh, tasting the tang of the air in staccato whiffs.
Slowed by her extra weight, they had inched their way around the sharp bends, past bare banks that teemed with the fiddlers’ countless burrows. Only in the center of the creek was there still water.
“I’m glad you were there when you were,” Devin spoke. She cradled her right foot, crossed above the other knee to keep the cut dry.
The dog craned its neck backward, tongue lolling, and blinked. The boy did not answer. She turned to look at him but his eyes only bore straight ahead. His dark arms glowed with a warmth like red clay as they flexed. His looming silence drew her gaze; something in him seemed to look out at the world as if from great depths. She frowned and bit her lip.
He pointed and broke his silence at last. “There,” he said.
They were nearing a low pier stretching out over the marsh. She measured the ebbing distance with every breath, eager to set foot on land again. The dog panted, full of sudden joy, its glance flitting between Devin and its master and back again.
“Go on, Taurus,” the stranger said.
The dog leapt and landed on the dock, barked as it ran up the ramp and vanished beyond the gazebo. Now it was only the two of them, Devin and the stranger. She shivered again, only half from the breeze and her own awkwardness.
He grasped her hand and helped her limp up onto the dock. Below her the marsh grass was quiet, unassuming. No sign of any shadow. What was it that she had seen? There was no way to make sense of it…
Drawn by the sound of an opening door, she glanced toward the house where a man holding a beer had appeared on the deck. He shook his head, displeasure clear in his stance. Devin wished she hadn’t come. Beside her, though, the boy strode briskly forward. She followed.
“Devonne,” the man with the beer said coldly.
Devin flinched, but the man’s grey eyes stayed locked on the boy. It wasn’t her name he had misspoken, then, as she’d first thought.
“Casey told me you took Taurus out. Swear that damn dog likes you better’n me.”
“Mr. Holbrooke,” the boy murmured. “This girl, she cut her foot in the marsh. On an oyster. Her car be too far, so I brought her here.”
The man stared at Devin and blinked, seeing her for the first time. Finally his head tilted and he broke into a grin and offered a hand. “Ron Holbrooke.”
Devonne. She said it again in her head. It felt unexpected, but fitting all the same. Devonne.
She took the hand and squeezed the sandpaper palm. “Good to meet you.”
Ron grinned again, and this time he meant it. “Well,” he said, as if telling some great joke, “now you can call yourself a true pluff mud pro. You ain’t lived in the Lowcountry ‘less you’ve had a run in with an oyster or two.”
She made herself laugh. Beside her, Devonne’s face now seemed masklike. He didn’t meet her eyes but stared pointedly at the man. “Mr. Holbrooke, her foot.”
The man’s lips curled but his eyes whipped back to her and he jumped aside, no longer blocking egress from the boardwalk. He beckoned her up onto the deck. “Come along inside, I’ll get you fixed up, Miss…sorry, what was your name?”
“Devin,” she said. “Devin Smoak.”
He looked for a moment as if she’d slapped her, but then broke into a roaring laugh. “Nice to meet you, Devin.”
She followed him inside, keeping the weight of her right leg on its heel. Behind her, Taurus barked as Devonne leaned down to pet behind his ears.
A wall of cold air enfolded her as they passed into a wide family room, walls lined with books on themes of hunting or sporting. The decor was smart, sharp, understated. It made her wish she lived in a place like this, though she would want more light — much more. Beyond the room, the rest of the house rose a single step, all on an open layout with the family room.
She followed Mr. Holbrooke up into a kitchen and dining room, passing into a hall. A door on their right opened, and a girl Devin’s own age burst through. They halted before her stunned face.
Her eyes flickered over Devin. “Dad,” she murmured. “I thought I heard Devonne outside.”
Ron soured again. “Yes, he’s out on my dock. Why don’t you take care of this girl’s foot, Casey, and I’ll see to that boy of yours. You know where my things are.”
Casey stared at her father, then looked at Devin. Her eyes widened and she gave a reluctant nod.
Devin hopped into the girl’s room after her as the man’s steps receded. Casey appraised her, then nodded, gesturing to her bed.
Devin sat. Here, as with the rest of the house, heavy curtains blocked all but a dreary tithe of light that fell on the hardwood floor and played in the colors of a fringed rug, shone diffused from a mirror on the wall that was framed by postcards and sketches.
Casey slipped into the hall and returned with a small red bag. “We need to clean that out,” she stated. “Any bits of sand, silt, or shell still in there. There probably isn’t, but we have to wash it out anyway.”
She opened a bottle of cold water and squeezed it over the foot into a shallow bowl, then looked up at Devin. “I need to open up the wound a bit. It’ll hurt.”
Devin nodded, not daring to look away. She studied the girl’s features as she worked: the round but visible cheekbones, narrow nose, the dark, expressive grey eyes. So this was the girl that black Adonis loved. She winced as Casey pulled the cut apart. A cool feeling dulled the pain, but only a little, as Casey applied a disinfectant cream.
“There. Now it needs to stay open a while.”
Devin raised her eyebrows. “Have you ever got cut out there?” she asked.
“In the mud? Few times.” Casey allowed a small grin. “With Devonne.”
The grin vanished when her father reappeared at the door. “You girls okay?”
“Yes,” sighed Casey. “Can you just tell—”
“Your boyfriend’s gone,” he smirked, and something in Devin’s chest dropped out. “Had to leave. Now we have the place to ourselves again.”
Casey’s eyes flared. “Dad, you know we have a guest.”
Ron Holbrooke ignored her. He studied Devin, looked over the wound, and nodded. “That needs to breathe,” he said. “Ideally a couple hours. You shouldn’t be moving around — stay if you can.” He flashed a conspiratorial smile. “Casey’ll drive you home, considering it’s your gas pedal foot.”
“I don’t want to impose,” Devin said.
“You’re not,” Casey pronounced, meeting neither of their gazes. Ron shook his head.
Devin bit her lip. She didn’t want to be here any longer, this comfortable yet cold oasis on the marsh, so different from her own home. It felt surreal, artificial somehow, despite the beauty outside. And the tension between these two, father and daughter. She didn’t want to get between something like that.
As if divining her thoughts, Casey gave a sharp look. Her pale eyes widened, showed the entire iris. Devin wavered. It felt as if the girl were pleading with her.
“All right,” she conceded.
Ron’s footfalls were silent as he left. Out in the living room a television clicked on.
“He’s probably drinking already,” said Casey, sighing. “PBR. I don’t know how he stands the swill. You want tea or something?”
“All right,” said Devin. The girl disappeared and she waited, lulled by the drone of the evening news.
Casey switched on her own TV when she returned and sat at the foot of her bed, while Devin lay with her foot outstretched. Hours seemed to pass that way, one Fresh Prince rerun after another. The laugh tracks numbed her thought as the pain receded slowly, but she did not laugh herself. It was difficult to feel humor when Casey kept so silent, as if miles away. It made her nervous.
Devin stirred. The day had worn on, and it felt as if she’d spent far too much time there. Casey saw the movement, stood, and waved her back toward the bed.
“Stay there,” she said. “I’ll bring you something you can use.”
She returned with a gaudy wooden cane that Devin almost snickered at: the gilded handle, the loud floral pattern running its length.
“It was my mother’s,” said Casey. Devin was glad she hadn’t laughed.
They went out into the open part of the house again. On the sofa Ron Holbrooke lay snoring, face red, a half-empty can loose in his hand.
“Told you he was drinking. He never has just one or two. He always goes till he passes out. I don’t understand the point of beer if you drink like that.”
Devin didn’t know what to say. They stared at the man for a long moment.
“Sorry about earlier,” Casey gave a short, bitter laugh. “He’s a little racist. Still thinks he has a say in who I choose to date.” She turned to Devin again. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to put this on you. But thanks for sticking around. I mean it.”
Devin nodded, smiled ruefully. “Shouldn’t I be thanking you?”
Casey gathered the cans and threw them in the kitchen trash. Returning, she held out a tumbler of whiskey in offering, its twin balanced in the other hand. Devin took it, downed the tawny liquid.
“Never drink alone,” the other said, as if reciting a toast, then threw back her own swallow.
* * *
“It was my brother first,” Casey explained.
They were out on the deck again, bringing in the last of Ron’s empties. The day felt old, though the sun was still visible behind a fringe of cloud. The marsh felt warm and safe now, as if nothing unhappy had ever happened there.
“His name was Lee. Dad pressed him into enlisting: family history, honor and valor, all that trash. He had him drunk on it.” Casey shook her head.
“So what happened?” Devin asked.
“Well, Lee went over to fight Iraqis and got himself killed.”
“I was the only one who didn’t think it was glorious. Even Mom held that damned flag close when she cried at his funeral. But then it was her, too, not long after.”
Devin wondered why the girl was telling her all of this. It had nothing to do with her; but if Casey wanted to talk, she had little choice but to listen till they parted ways. Beyond that, though Casey was about Devin’s own age, something made her seem younger, and she felt an odd sort of responsibility toward the girl.
“How?” she asked.
“Cancer,” Casey burned. “And all that time while she wasted away, he was never there.” She glanced back inside to where Ron slept. “Oh, he was around the whole time — but not by her side. He couldn’t stand to watch her go, so I had to.”
Devin held the black garbage bag open as Casey dropped in the last of the cans, hollow like shells some summer insect had left behind. The sun was dimming, burning lonely.
“That really sucks,” said Devin.
“I don’t blame him,” Casey droned. “I mean, I do. But I don’t want to. I know why…I mean, I get it, you know? But now we’re trapped in this thing together. This loop. Him wanting to move on, and me remembering, when all he wants is to forget.”
Blackbirds prattled in the thick grass and Taurus paced the dock, snorting disapproval. Finally the dog shuffled up to the deck again and sunk to his belly, resting his head on his master’s foot.
“Come on,” Casey sighed. “Let’s get you home.”
Devin smiled. A slight headache had been gathering behind her left eye, and she was more than ready to leave.
“Think you can find a ride back to pick up your car?” Casey asked as her own pulled out of the driveway.
“I don’t know why I don’t just leave home,” the girl went on as she left the subdivision. “Especially now that I’m out of school. I mean, I guess I stayed for him. Maybe more for my mom, though.”
“What do you mean?” Devin frowned.
Casey’s eyes closed a moment and her hand clenched the steering wheel. “I imagine her at night sometimes, walking around the house, doing who knows what. When the house settles it’s her footsteps I hear creaking and groaning. Not like a ghost — more an echo of her. Not even half real.” Her words failed. “I know it’s stupid.”
“It’s not stupid,” said Devin. “Not if it helps.”
Casey threw her a glance. “That’s just it…I don’t know if it does.”
By the time they arrived the sun had set, though the sky was still lit, fading fast. The streetlamp, too, was glowing. Shadows deepened, though they were still not as deep or bottomless or empty as the one Devin had seen in the marsh.
She climbed out of Casey’s car. Casey sat with the engine idling, taking in the white-painted brick, the dark green shutters — black almost, in this light — the stilted bend of the live oak over the roof. It wasn’t much, but it was home for Devin, a known quantity. Safe, familiar. Casey whistled.
“You own this place?”
“No, I rent it.”
Devin had to laugh, thinking of the house on the marsh. “Thank you,” she said. “For the ride, for my foot. For the whiskey.”
Casey gave a wry smile. “Well, I wasn’t the best host, I admit that. Sorry for all the drama.”
Devin limped around the car and stood in her yard, shifted her weight to the left foot. “Bye,” she said, “and thanks again.”
She turned, walked through the unkempt lawn toward the red door. Behind her, the engine’s hum did not fade. “Hey Devin,” she heard Casey yell. She turned to see the girl leaning out of her window.
“Need a roommate?”