The stranger thrust them on in short strokes, stabbing the creek with his paddle like a heron spearing fish. Though the tide had turned, water still only ran in the middle of the channel, slowing their progress as the board floated above the shallow bottom, inching its way around sharp bends, past exposed banks teeming with snails and fiddlers and their innumerable burrows.
Devin watched and kept still. Her foot throbbed, crossed over one knee and held safe above the water. The pain bit sharper, somehow, now that they were out of danger. As fear had fallen away a vague anxiety seeped into its place, making everything sharper, vivid, more raw.
“I’m glad you were there when you were,” she said. She wanted to say more but her words felt wrong in her mouth.
“Me too,” he murmured.
Though her back was to him, she could feel his nearness as he rowed. She stared ahead, not daring to sneak a look at him lest she lose her balance on the narrow board. Shadows mingled beside them in the marsh grass, and she wondered what might hide there.
Their speed hastened as the creek broadened and joined a branch with deeper water. Here a line of houses slept, their rows of docks reaching out over the spartina. The stranger paddled swiftly toward one: a low pier with stairs climbing a gazebo and boardwalk, and finally to the screened-in porch of a majestic blue two-story. Devin measured the ebbing distance with each breath, eager to set foot on land.
The paddleboard bumped against the pilings and the stranger grasped her hand, helping her onto the dock. She shivered again, making eye contact with him for the first time since leaving that place — that thing — behind. His glance was sharp, though not unkind. It was golden hour, but his smooth skin reflected the cool of a gloaming sky. Devin swallowed.
A dog barked as they plodded up the dock, then again, louder. The sound came from inside the porch where a hound lay kenneled in the shade, torpid though alert.
“Hush, Taurus!” the stranger called. The dog chuffed, recognizing him, and panted happily.
She watched as the stranger pulled the screen door open a crack and used a dried palm leaf to lift the hook-latch inside. He squinted at her, touched his forehead, and gave an uneasy grin. “I, uh—I used to go out with the doctor’s daughter. Casey. She showed me that once, back when she lived here, when we got locked out.”
“Are you sure…?” Devin looked around. The last thing she wanted was a neighbor to spot them and call the cops.
He caught her glance. “Don’t sweat it. We’ll be all right,” he said, then scanned the nearby houses, too. “Probably.”
They knocked on the door inside the screened-in porch, but no one answered.
“Aw,” he growled. “Well, he’ll be home soon. Bet he’s just getting off his shift at the hospital.”
They sat in a pair of rattan chairs and let a silence fall over them. The air was thick, humid, but not unpleasant in the porch’s shade. The longer she was there, though, the more nervous Devin felt. Had she done the right thing, coming here with a stranger? She glanced at the him. He too seemed anxious. Head bent, fingers twitching. She looked instead at the dog, at its drooping brown ears and brown back, the rest of its color melting to the pure white of its belly. It stared at her, whimpered. Brown eyes squinting and soulful. Both its food and water dish were empty.
The stranger opened his pack, brought out a bottle, and poured water into the dish.
“Do they always leave him outside?” Devin asked.
He nodded. “Even when it’s hot out. Casey told me her brother fed him and walked him all the time, before he went to Iraq and got killed. I guess Dr. Holbrooke never really liked Taurus.” He shrugged and crossed his arms.
“Yeah. It is.”
They waited some fifteen minutes, though it felt like hours. Finally a door could be heard opening inside the house, and Devin stood, turning as a man appeared through the kitchen window. The dog whimpered. The man halted, spotting the two of them through the glass door, and frowned deeply.
A long moment passed. He turned his back to them, opened the refrigerator, and took out two beer cans, then slid the door open and wordlessly put one down on a glass table in front of the stranger. Opened his own and took a long drink.
“She ain’t here,” the man said in a friendly tone that did not match the squint of his eyes. He gave a wry smile. “But I guess you know that. So what do I owe this visit to, Lamar?”
“Uh, Dr. Holbrooke, this…this is…” He trailed off, and Devin realized that neither of them had given each other a name.
“Devin,” she offered. “Devin Smoak.”
Holbrooke made eye contact with her for the first time, barely half a moment long.
“She, uh. She cut herself. Her foot. On a oyster. In—in the marsh.”
The doctor drank again. “So you brought her here. To me.”
“Well…yeah,” Lamar finished.
“Uh huh.” The doctor sighed. “Well, tell you what. How about I take Miss Smoak inside and get her fixed up, and you stay here. Keep Taurus company.”
Taurus panted happily. Devin stood along with the doctor and met Lamar’s eyes, took in his nod and pressed lips. She hesitated, then followed the man inside.
Her eyes swept the room as a curtain of cold air billowed over her. The kitchen was clean and white with tile walls, its layout open with the adjoining dining and family rooms, their own walls lined with shelves of books on sports and hunting. The décor was smart, understated. It felt out of tune with her host, too, somehow, though she wasn’t sure why. It made her want to live in a place like this, though, with less dust and more light — much more light.
“Ron Holbrooke,” the doctor turned and offered his hand once he’d closed the door behind them.
“Good to meet you,” she said.
“You a friend of Lamar’s?”
“No, I—we just met, actually.”
“Well how about that. You want a soda or something? Afraid I’m fresh out of tea.”
“No. I’m fine, thanks.” She winced in pain.
“Let’s get you off that foot,” said Dr. Holbrooke. “We’ll let you sit on Casey’s bed.”
She followed him through the living room and into a narrow hall, where Holbrooke waved her through the second door on the right. Here, as in the rest of the house, thick curtains kept all but a tithe of light from streaming in. What little there was lay diffused on the gloss of the hardwood floor, played on the colors of a fringed rug, shone dimly from a single round mirror hung on the wall framed by postcards and photos and sketches clipped around it.
Ron slipped into a bathroom as she sat on the bed. Returning, he switched on the desk lamp and knelt, held a bowl beneath her cut foot, and poured cold water over it. “We need to flush out all the sand and silt, any bits of the shell still in there,” he said. “Probably nothing left, but better safe than sorry.” He cut his eyes up at her. “I need to open up the wound a bit. It’ll hurt.”
She nodded, not daring to look away, and winced as the man pulled the skin on each side of the cut apart. A cool feeling dulled the pain a little as he applied cream from a blue and white tube. “There. Now it needs to stay open a while.”
He stood, gave a wry grin, then leaned forward as if sharing some grand joke. “Well,” he said. “Now you can call yourself a true pluff mud pro. You ain’t lived in the Lowcountry till you’ve had a run-in with an oyster or two.”
She forced a laugh. The man’s smile faded. “You know, he dated my daughter.”
Her eyes locked with his.
“It never sat right with me. He didn’t. Don’t know what it was, but I could tell there was something. Just so you know.” Ron glanced over his shoulder, as if half expecting Lamar to be there in the hall, watching and listening. He shook his head. “I don’t judge people, you know? I work with a bunch of them. I know plenty of them. But some of them just don’t make the best decisions. Or have the best motivation.”
Devin gaped. She didn’t know what to say. “Just watch that one, is all I’m saying. I got lucky when Casey dumped him.”
Ron turned and left abruptly. He reappeared a minute later with a glass of ice water and set it on the desk beside the bed. At the far side of the house a door opened and closed, and Taurus gave a soft whine.
“I sent him off for his car. He said he’d come back for you, but if you want I can give you a ride home.”
“No,” said Devin quickly. “I never thanked him. I should wait.”
He shrugged and threw his arms up. “Suit yourself! That cut still needs to breathe. A couple hours, ideally, then bandage it. I’ll give you one before you go. Keep your weight off it. It’ll take a while to heal, a good week or two maybe.”
Ron shook his head. “Well, I’ll leave you to it till your chauffeur gets back.” He arched his brow, winked, and flashed another smile, then vanished into the hall.
Devin was alone now. Alone in this strange place, this comfortable oasis on the marsh — comfortable, yet surreal somehow. It felt artificial. Held in stasis, as if waiting for something that had left it long ago.
It was too big for one man alone, which Ron Holbrooke seemed to be. Lonely, too. She’d felt this brand of loneliness before, the numb and empty sort, way back in school, her first semester, when she’d stayed in her uncle’s house east of the harbor. It reminded her of missing her boyfriend, who had stayed in the upstate to attend the local college. Who had never called again after the second week. She could almost hear the music again, the quiet, downhearted languor of “Part One.” It was a heavy stab in her chest, that incurable yearning, the dreamlike quality of the memories.
Devin shook the feeling away. She breathed in deeply, and waited.
* * *
“Sorry,” Lamar sputtered as he spilled into Casey’s room some forty-five minutes later, now wearing a dark blue t-shirt. “Had to walk all the way to the public water access to get my car. You feel any better?”
She nodded, slipping out of the reverie she had sunk into in his absence. It was nearly dark now; the streetlight outside glowed faintly through the closed blinds.
“Good,” he smiled. “See, I told you we’d get you taken care of.” His face fell. “He wasn’t, uh…he didn’t give you any trouble, did he?”
“Good.” Lamar smiled, relieved. “Didn’t think he would, but…” He gave a nervous laugh.
Out in the living room, Dr. Holbrooke was drinking again in the cold light of the Braves game playing on his big-screen, back toward them. Devin hesitated, but couldn’t bring herself to speak.
“Come on,” Lamar murmured. She nodded and followed.
They left the house and climbed into Lamar’s blue Rio, the paddleboard and oar strapped on top. They pulled out of the driveway, Lamar turning down the volume on his stereo.
“Not my first choice for medical care,” Lamar sighed. “But I didn’t want to leave you alone there in the marsh with…that thing…and I would’ve had to do that to go get my car and drive you some place.”
“It’s okay,” Devin said. She shivered, thinking again of the shape in the marsh. It made her feel better to hear him speak of it, though, to validate it. This way it wasn’t just in her own mind, the knowledge of what she had seen — whatever it was — rattling around anxiously.
That was why she had come here with him, she realized. Because he, too, had seen it. If it hadn’t been for that, she would probably have limped all the way back through the forest, alone.
“He was kind of a douche,” she said. “But not really to me.”
“Good. You know it’s crazy,” Lamar laughed. “Ever since I saw your foot bleeding like that, I kind of felt that pain, too. Thought it was like a visceral thing at first, revulsion, you know? But it’s still there. Like a — like a ghost, or — no, like an echo of yours.” He laughed again. “Sorry, I don’t know what I’m saying.”
She chuckled herself. “It’s okay. That is weird.”
They listened to the muted, earnest beats of Childish for a while, driving slow until Lamar pulled out of the subdivision. “Where did you park? Or should I take you home? I don’t know if you want to drive on that cut — got your right foot, too, didn’t it?”
Devin thought. She hesitated a long moment, bit her lip, heart pounding, then spoke.
“Well,” she said, “would you…want to get some food or something?”