“If we’re going to do this,” Lamar said, “the best way is by water. Same way we came the first time. Easy to get to the dock by paddleboard, then into the porch. Then all we got to do is break out Taurus.”
It hadn’t taken him long to agree. She’d known he would, eventually. He was just that kind of person.
Devin’s smile of admiration faded, though, hearing his plan. She shook her head. “Not the marsh. No.”
His brow rose. “I knew you’d say that. But I’m just sayin’…”
“You know what’s on that creek,” she almost whispered. “You saw it. We both did.”
“Yeah, we both did. But I’ve never seen it before, and I don’t think we’re likely to see it again.”
“Do you really want to take that risk?”
Lamar frowned. He had his own answer, but he also saw the fear that shone behind her eyes. “No,” he conceded. “No, guess not. It’s just going to make the thing harder, though.”
“I don’t care,” Devin swallowed. “You’re not getting me anywhere near that marsh.”
He rubbed his forehead and winced. Then sat upright. “Huh. You know, there may be a compromise. I like this even less, but…there’s a house a block down that don’t have a gate or a fence at all. You can just walk into their backyard to the creek. Then we could paddle down to Holbrooke’s, get the dog, put him on the board, and paddle back to your car.”
Devin thought about that, then nodded. “I guess,” she said. “For Taurus, I’ll do it.”
Lamar sighed. “Well, that’s settled.” He dug deep in the popcorn bowland leaned back into the sofa. “Anything good on HBO?”
* * *
They chose a Monday morning to do it. Late enough that the urgent care clinic where Dr. Holbrooke worked would be open, but early enough that anyone not working first shift might still be sleeping. There were few cars in driveways that Devin saw as she drove through the subdivision. An encouraging sign.
“Pull over here,” Lamar directed. They parked in front of a smaller yellow house which indeed did not have a fence. She could see the marsh from here.
“I’ll go first. If there’s no one out on the creek, I’ll wave for you.” He was wearing a green polo shirt he’d borrowed from his cousin Gil, who worked at a landscaping company, and khaki cargo shorts. That way he at least had a plausible excuse for what he was doing if he was stopped, though one that would fall apart quickly if pressed.
She watched him go. Her heart began to throb softly. He vanished, for a far longer time than she expected, then reappeared and beckoned her on.
Devin got out of her car and unfastened the paddleboard from the roof. It was unwieldy in her arms, so she quickened her steps, feeling certain they were being watched. The bright orange of the board, with its sunny yellow stripe down the middle, didn’t help things.
“All right,” Lamar spoke in a low voice, taking the board from her arms and striding down the yellow house’s dock. “All right. We good.” He put it in the water, stepped on, and offered his hand.
Devin knelt in on the board. He rowed. She could scarcely breathe. Her eyes swept the spartina grass on either side of the creek, certain the shadow thing was hiding there, waiting, watching. A green heron took flight, its wingbeats loud in her ears. She nearly jumped.
“We good,” Lamar said, “we good.”
It was taking too long. The tide was falling, and the flow of the creek pushed against them. They hadn’t even thought about that. How many other things had they overlooked? She glanced back at Lamar, who looked ridiculous paddling in his landscaper’s uniform.
She bit her lip. Her stomach churned.
They reached Holbrooke’s dock and she stepped shakily on, Lamar following. Her feet felt unsteady, the blood flowing slowly back into them.
Unlike her first time here, Taurus did not bark as they approached. Her footfalls creaked heavily, though, however lightly she tried to walk. At the end of the dock Lamar grabbed a dried palm leaf and tried the same trick he’d used to open the hook-latch before.
The leaf broke. He swore, ran back to the palm tree in Holbrooke’s yard, and tried another one. This time it worked. The door groaned as he opened it, and both of them cringed. Taurus’ head craned up to look at them, and he gave a toothy grin.
“We should have brought treats or something, to tempt him out,” said Lamar as Devin opened the kennel. The food and water dishes, as she expected, were empty again. Taurus let her reach in and clip the leash they had brought onto his collar, but when she tried to pull, he wouldn’t budge.
“I guess we should have,” she conceded. “What do we do now?”
“Look and see if there’s a tennis ball or a stick somewhere in the yard. Here, let me try.”
She gave him the leash and ducked back into the yard, grateful now for Dr. Holbrooke’s fence. As long as she stayed low, no one in the houses on either side could see her. She cast about the lawn, but there were no dog toys to be found. Honestly, she would have been surprised if there were.
The morning was wearing on. The heat was rising. Devin wiped sweat from her face with the heel of her palm. Her shirt was damp and clung to her skin.
In the marsh, she spotted snails clinging to the stalks of spartina grass, clustered like a child’s connect-the-dots game. She shook her head, but there were no other ideas…
She ran to the marsh, knelt on the boardwalk, leaned through the wood railings, and grasped at the nearest snail. “Sorry,” she murmured, peeling it away by the pale brown spiral shell. She stood, nearly hitting her head on the rail, and ran back to Holbrooke’s porch.
“Here, Taurus,” she held out the snail for him to smell. Taurus perked up his brown ears and his nostrils flared. He growled a moment, but kept still. “Come on, buddy!”
Finally he stood, stretched languorously, and stepped out of the kennel, peering up at Devin. She stepped back, luring him with the snail. Taurus barked loud, loping quickly after her. She cringed. Now he wouldn’t stop barking.
“Okay, come on, let’s jet,” Lamar breathed.
The dog leapt onto the pier, barking as he cantered down the ramp toward the dock. Lamar set the board in the water, using the paddle to hold it in place as he stepped on. He reached to help her down.
Something darkened behind them, a shadow gathering. Devin froze. But no: only a cloud passing overhead. Taurus still yelped in his high hound voice. “Come on!” Lamar hissed at her, but she still couldn’t move. “Devin! Please!”
The ice in her veins melted and she stooped, picked up Taurus, and stepped aboard in front of Lamar. He shoved off with the oar. Holbrooke’s dock slipped away as they glided down the creek. They had made it, somehow.
Taurus ceased baying and Devin let him go. He stood sentinel at the tip of the board, Devin balancing them in the middle as Lamar rowed behind her. The dog’s ears perked and he breathed happily, tasting the tang of the air in staccato whiffs. His head craned back, and his glance flitted from Devin to Lamar and back again.
They drifted the low silver coarse amid ranks of spartina. Her breathing had barely faded by the time she saw the yellow house. The tide had quickened. She looked down at her hand; she was still holding the snail. Idly, she threw it back into the marsh.
A bad idea. Taurus tensed to leap after it, and she grabbed him just in time. The motion almost upset the paddleboard, but somehow Lamar kept them steady.
“Damn it!” he yelled. She stared at him. She had never heard him swear before. “I had to drop the paddle!”
“Look, it’s sinking,” she pointed.
“And we’ve missed the yellow house.”
It was true. The current had pulled them past the dock, and now they had come to the end of the block of houses. Only a steep bank lined the creek’s edge now, rising toward florid, vine-choked underbrush and twisting live oaks. She scanned the shore, hoping to see a less steep place where they could come aground.
That was when Taurus leapt.
Through the spartina and needlerush he vanished, into the high fringes of sea lavender. The wind was dead. Devin couldn’t breathe. Grackles and blackbirds called sharply above her head, mocking them.
Lamar stooped and paddled with his arms, guiding them toward a wooded point. “Go!” he yelled, not bothering to keep his voice low now. She jumped, touched the muddy earth, and ran into the forest, not bothering to look back.
There! Taurus was a hundred feet or so away, halted in a clearing under pines, where sunlight reached his brown and white fur and gilded his teeth and long tongue. His ears were perked, as if hearing something, his head turned straight behind him. What did he hear? Was it the black shape? Devin swallowed, wondering if she should run toward Taurus. She didn’t dare.
Taurus twitched again. Threw back his head, wailed, then bounded off. A moment passed, then Devin ran after, though she had lost sight of him again through the thick press of saw palmetto and draping twines of jessamine.
“Taurus!” she called. “Taurus, come back!”
He didn’t come back. She waited several minutes, forlorn. “Taurus!” she yelled again.
Infinite curtains of warmth gathered. Cicadas trilled. She waited for a breeze that wouldn’t come.
“Taurus,” she called. Her voice sounded dim, stifled by the heat. Mosquitos and no-see-ums shrilled in her ears.
“We lost him,” a voice droned behind her.
She whirled — it was only Lamar, his green shirt drenched with sweat, his khakis soaked.
* * *
They walked together, slowly, ducking under low-hanging vines. Wandering the maze of ramrod pines. Sadness pressed against her from the inside out, aching to burst. Her vision blurred. Far away, a marsh hen clattered.
She thought of Taurus, imagined his sleek form, his vigilant stance, the somber black of his nose and lips. Heard in her mind his fire alarm bawl. She stopped, fighting tears, and backed against an old oak, slumped to her knees. It looked ancient enough to have been planted when the land was still a colony.
Lamar halted and shuffled back, knelt beside her. “Hey,” he said. “We tried. I’m sure someone will find him, give him a good home.”
She nodded. A tear slipped out in spite of her, first one then two. He reached for her face and wiped one from her cheek.
That was it. She couldn’t hold it back anymore.
“Uh, Devin,” Lamar said a minute or two later, when she had sobbed her throat raw. She met his glance, looked to where he was nodding, chin jutting down in unease.
Just beside her, at the base of the old oak, lay scattered shards of blue glass. Empty yellow cans were strewn nearby, too, their labels barely legible in the shade. John the Conquerer. Around them, nearly in a circle, fresh earth had been dug up, forming shallow, hollow bowls.
“Uh… We should go.”
She nodded. They stood and trudged away in defeat.
He took her hand and squeezed it. Neither spoke as they headed back toward the river for the paddleboard. Both knew how close they had come, just as they knew how far close was from enough. A yellow butterfly flitted over Devin’s head. She watched it sadly.
Light gleamed through the trees. Devin thought she heard Taurus’ bark. Then she heard it again. Far off, but not so far as she might have thought. They stopped, listened.
“Look!” said Devin, voice nearly gone by now. Lamar looked. Through two young trees, barely as thick as her arm, they saw him, standing and peering back at them, as if he had other reason to be there than to give them some sort of sign. Then he looked away.
They passed through the two trees. Halfway there the sun shone in her eyes, golden now somehow, as if with the last rays before sundown. She shaded her eyes and looked again, but didn’t see Taurus. Instead she seemed to look away toward the river, then past it, and even farther off, beyond the harbor and out to sea. Foam on waves, cresting — just like Lamar’s painting. She stood in awe, transported by the sheer silvery beauty of it.
She blinked. The vision cleared, instead and she saw Lamar some twenty feet ahead, approaching Taurus, who was tied now by the leash to a tree. She strode slowly toward him, and he turned to her, stooping to scratch Taurus by the chin.
“Who did this?” Devin asked. “Who tied him up here?”
“You didn’t see? Little black girl in yellow?”
Devin shook her head. “I didn’t see anyone.”
Lamar frowned. Taurus, nudging his hand, only grinned.
* * *
She laughed as they climbed into her car again, Taurus finally safe in the backseat. The car started and she blasted the air, making sure the dog was cooled.
“What are you going to call him?” Lamar asked, voice jittery.
“If you’re really going to do this, then you should make a clean start. Calling him Taurus ain’t a good way to do that.”
She thought. Her mind was blank, void of ideas. They drove past a palm on the corner of the street and idly she thought of a vacation with her mother, when she had been only nine years old.
“How about Hilo?” she asked.
“Hilo,” Lamar repeated. “Hilo.” He glanced back at the dog panting happily behind them. “Hilo it is.”