“I don’t know how you can drink that in this heat,” Devin mused. Steam billowed up from Lamar’s coffee, vanishing in the shade of the café umbrella overhead. She leaned away, sipping her cold brew. Beads of sweat slid down her neck, twinned by the moisture clinging to the outside of her cup. It was humid this early in the morning, earlier than she was used to.
“I don’t know,” Lamar’s brow arched. “Guess I got that heat in my veins!”
Their meal at Ed’s felt like ages ago — though in fact today was only Friday the following week. She’d waited for his text, at first disappointed when it hadn’t come, then relieved. It was hard to put Maybank’s name, and the painting and everything else, out of mind. But she needed room to breathe, and was grateful he had given it.
“Hey—look at this!” Lamar pulled a torn blue envelope from his pocket and tossed it on the table before her. Devin scanned it and blinked.
“Drew & Sasha?” It was too early for guessng games. “Okay…what is this?”
“An invitation. Couple friends from school are getting hitched the end of July. Their photographer flaked on them, so I gave them your name!”
“Oh,” she managed. “Wow. That’s great. Thank you!” She tried a smile she hoped wasn’t too strained and took another sip.
“Yeah, well, I remembered you saying your business hadn’t taken off. I thought this could help.” He tilted his head. “How’s your foot?”
“Better. Almost good as new.”
“Good. I still get a phantom pain sometimes when I think about that cut. Weird, huh?” He shuddered.
A silence spread out between them, one she wasn’t sure how to bridge. The truth was, she herself still felt lingering stabs of pain. Her right foot was infected, she felt certain — though it seemed healthy and clean on the surface. Maybe not medically infected, but something was wrong. Another kind of infection. An emotional one? A spiritual one?
Devin shook her head, dispelling such thoughts. They made no sense, and right now too many things needing sense made of them.
She leaned forward, eyes narrowing in the bright sun. She held his gaze and took his measure before she spoke.
“How do you want to approach this Maybank thing? I think he’s our best shot at figuring out…what happened in the marsh.”
Lamar’s face fell. “Uh. Yeah. I mean, I guess. Probably is.”
Devin blinked. “Isn’t that why you wanted to meet? You said you wanted to show me something. I thought maybe you’d found him.”
“No,” he said. “No, it’s not—I mean, it’s different. Something I thought you would like.”
She titled her head. “Okay. Give it to me, then.”
He grinned. “Ain’t that easy. I can’t show you less I take you there. You brought your camera, right?”
“Yeah, I got it. Okay…how far is it?”
She followed him in her Prius from the coffee shop up Bell onto River Road, then through backroads she’d never driven before. Morning light filtered through thick crowns of oaks, dripping in bright patches on the roads ahead except where tangles of muscadine and wisteria choked it, thick and green and flowerless. They passed an apartment complex, followed the snaking road until a dusty lot and an empty baseball field appeared, tucked away near the river. They parked, climbed out of their cars, and squinted in the beaming sun.
“Down this way,” he beckoned. She trodded after.
Lamar slipped into a copse of elms, sweetgums, and laurel oaks at the field’s far end. They walked beneath the trees on raised ground — not a path, but a former embankment, through forest just as flooded as the rice fields it had once been. Thank God the mosquitoes hadn’t hatched yet, Devin thought. They waded through brakes of saw palmetto, ducked hanging vines, sidestepped flowers. Elms gave way to live oaks and the space between them widened. The way banked right. A line of water came in view: the river, she realized. It looked blue under shadows of low-hanging oak limbs hiding the horizon. The air grew close; the heat thickened. It was gorgeous.
Then the forest fell away. Two boys knelt along the water, lining for crabs. Lamar led her away from them, toward a spit of land barely higher than the waterline, likely drowned when the tide was high. But they walked out amid the high spartina, boots barely sinking in the mud, and stepped across as if walking on water.
Lamar stopped and swept his hand in a grand gesture. “They call it Hag Island — the few who know about it. Though it’s not really an island. A hammock, really.”
It felt private here, guarded by thick undergrowth at the hammock’s edge. Hidden from any other eyes. A refuge from the world, kept secret for those whose lives were held in the river’s arm.
“It’s beautiful,” Devin murmured.
The skirted the edge. Near the far side of the hammock grew a short wax myrtle bony limbs mingling with the fingers of a sheltering oak thick with moss tangles. Blue bottles were strewn on the ground beneath. Dusty, dirty, and broken. Lamar picked one up and slipped it onto a branch.
“Oystermen and shrimpers brought them here, probably years before I was born. To keep away ghosts.”
She’d seen blue bottle trees in town, but never one as shabby and forlorn as this. She shivered despite the warmth, eyes drawn toward the river. Marsh grasses soared away far as she could see, while clouds marched over the water.
“Used to come here with my boy Gil all the time. We’d drink beers and fish on weekends.” Lamar beamed. “Good place to find dolphins, wouldn’t you say?”
She bit her lip, smiled. “I would.”
It was the wrong time of day for them, and maybe too far up the river for dolphins, but she didn’t want to say so aloud. There was something special about the place in the morning. She could sense that. It was a privilege to be here.
Even so, it felt…off. She had always seen marshes as places of stillness, peace, serenity. Now the tall grass was only a place where anything could lie concealed, an unknown myriad of formless things.
“What’s wrong?” Lamar asked, watching her.
Her foot throbbed. She shook her head, swallowed, and tore her eyes away from the marsh. She caught Lamar’s eye and saw a knowing look.
“It’s that thing, ain’t it?” he asked.
She looked away and nodded.
The sky waxed over and the light grew strained. The water shimmered. As if from far away, from an unbridgeable distance, they heard yelps of triumph from the boys, who seemed to have caught a crab. In spite of everything — the beauty of the place, the blissful quality of the day — she felt her throat tighten, her stomach clench.
Lamar sighed. “Hey. We can leave if you want. I get it. I do. I’m sorry I took you here.”
“No, it’s beautiful. It really is.” She smiled. “Thank you.”
* * *
They drove to Lamar’s apartment, a little place south of town near the bridge to the first barrier island. The building smelled of mildew, but inside was surprisingly pristine, every detail in its place, the furniture nothing special yet still ordered neatly in each area’s limited space. She followed him into a room near the rear door.
It was the one part of the apartment that felt disordered. “My studio,” he said, voice shy but full of pride.
Devin sauntered in. She took in the paint supplies arrayed wildly across tables and desks, the stacks of canvases — some complete, some half-finished — leaning against the walls. The room was brightly lit, more so than any other part of Lamar’s home. Despite the disarray there was something that felt clear and clean about it.
“This is my jam.” He indicated a few of the paintings. “It’s basically what I do. I call them conceptual portraits — not like an image of a person, but an expression of how I see them. Kind of a translation of someone’s true self into imagery.”
Devin looked them over. One was fully abstract, a riot of contrasting pinks, yellows, teals, purples, streaking over and past each other in every direction. Another was two pale colors split by a blurred stripe of white in between; fog hovering over a lake, maybe. A third was more representational: an aerial view of the city, of its red rooftops, blazing white church towers, verdant trees lining each street.
“That one’s Casey’s,” Lamar said, almost embarrassed.
“Isn’t it…I don’t know, kind of presumptuous? To think you can see someone’s ‘true self’?”
He winced. “Maybe. But I kind of feel, if you’re going to try do something? Try for the highest and best thing you can do. To me, that’s trying to see other people. And show them who they are, no matter how they worry they’re not good enough or have something to prove. You feel me?”
She met his eyes, regarded him for a while, and nodded.
“Would you…I mean, what do you think about doing one for me?”
A soft jolt seemed to run through his body, but he recovered. “Um… actually…no. Not right away at least.”
She reddened but looked away, hiding disappointment. “Yeah, I mean, whatever. It’s no big deal.”
“Listen, it’s not that I don’t want to. Okay? It’s just too soon. I don’t have a clear enough sense of you is all. Not yet.”
Not yet. It implied there could be a Maybe later, which meant he thought they would spend more time together. She wondered how she felt about that, whether she wanted it or not.
She was suddenly tired. Disappointed, almost, in the way the day had unfolded, though she knew it was wrong to feel that way. Their dinner at Ed’s last week, the way the two of them had been so connected by their meeting in the marsh… Didn’t he feel the same need to figure out what had happened? The same fear of what they had seen?
How could he move on so easily from something like that? Her hands were shivering, as if she were emptied of all energy. Devin wanted to go home.
Her phone chirped. She glanced at the incoming text, smiled, and pocketed the phone again. “Thank you for showing me all of this,” she said. “They’re all beautiful. But I’ve got to take care of some things.”
Lamar nodded. “It’s cool. Go on. I don’t want to keep you. I’m glad you agreed to come with me today.”
“Yeah. I had fun. Listen, I’ll text you soon,” she promised.
It had been fun, she realized, sinking into her car again outside of the apartment. And she would text him. Maybe not for a while. Not until her thoughts were still again, and she was free of that vague sense of wandering in the dark.
When would that be? Devin started her car, backed out of the lot, and drifted away down dusty, narrow roads.