My father was a minister when I was a child, but the church was constantly having to relocate him. We moved for the last time when I was nine. We were sent from Baltimore to a large island in coastal South Carolina. My father considered this a personal affront, because he hated the South, but I preferred the South because it had produced my mother. I also thought palmetto trees were exotic.
My mother explained that the people at our old church had not been smart enough to understand my father’s complex theology. My brother and I were lying on her bed in our new home while my father was at work.
“Really?” my brother said. “No call from God this time?”
At sixteen, Mason was suffering from a loss of faith that made him sarcastic. Before, he’d been my primary source of religious instruction, as our father rarely spoke of God outside of church and our mother rarely spoke at all. Mason read the Bible to me when I was in second grade, and I liked lying on his floor, throwing his balled-up socks at the ceiling fan, thinking about life inside of a whale: was it scary and dark, pressed in among cold organs, each at work and unaware of you? Or was there a space there, cozy and warm, where a traveler might find refuge? Mason had preferred the darker mysteries, the book of Job and the trial of Abraham and Isaac. But now he was listening to the Grateful Dead and spending hours doing homework, and I was suffering from a lack of stories.
Our mother frowned at Mason’s tone. She pulled a dress from her closet. She added that, for now, she would be staying elsewhere during the week. She would join us for church on Sundays.
Within weeks of our move, I could see my father beginning to unravel. He had a barking laugh that frightened me. I watched him stand in the church doorway on Sundays, shaking men’s hands and slipping his arm around their wives, his green eyes filled with peculiar light. He was not an angry man, more of an empty one, and when he smiled we knew something terrible was going to happen.
I was in love with our new home, which sat at the edge of a wide, lonely marsh. I imagined secrets curled in the snails clinging to the cordgrass, and codes being passed by the oysters clicking under the water when the tide was high. Cheerful neighborhood dogs emerged from the woods at dusk and crossed our property as part of their nightly patrol. They walked along the marsh, smelling the gloamy sadness and the evening, passing through our yard like noble shadows of some happier life.
My father could not abide these dogs. He loaded his shotgun and leaned it against the wall by the back door. He said shooting stray dogs was a good way to teach them to stay out of our yard. I tried to explain that once a dog was dead it could learn nothing, but this conversation did not go well for me. Later, over the phone, my mother said not to provoke him. I told her the dogs weren’t even strays; they had owners. I thought of them as guests.
That weekend, Mason took me with him to see Joe Allen, the older brother of Reed and Charles, twin boys in my class at school. The Allens belonged to our church, and the plan was for Mason and Joe to go fishing while I spent the day with the twins. But in the few weeks I’d been at my new school, the twins and I had never spoken. I didn’t know how to play with identical strangers, especially boys. I was fairly certain they wouldn’t want me around.
In the car on the way over, I tried to convince Mason not to leave me behind. He tried to distract me with facts about the Allens. He said there were four children, one of whom was mentally disabled. He said everyone on their farm used the same frying pan over and over without washing it. He said the twins’ father was a veterinarian.
“Reed and Charles don’t like me,” I said.
“Forget it,” he said. “Don’t even start.”
My brother was graduating from high school two years early so he could escape our house and go to college. He had said not to worry, that I’d escape one day too, but I was worried. He’d also said that one day I’d understand why he was leaving, and this was true, but it hadn’t happened yet. He flipped on his blinker and we turned down a long farm road that separated a sprawling marsh from a stubbly field. In the field, four cows swung their tails and chewed grass. One of them regarded us.
We stopped at a closed gate. A sign nailed to a live oak read, “Allen, Private Pr—, Keep O—,” the rest of the letters hidden by mops of Spanish moss. Mason said, “Open the gate.”
I got out of the car, daring myself to refuse. I could stand there in protest, or, even better, bolt off into the woods. Instead, I pulled the wire loop off the fence post and dragged open the heavy gate. Mason drove across the cattle guard while I stood on the lower fence rail, watching. Then I pulled the gate closed, put the loop back over the post, and got back in the car. I held my door open with my foot. I was stalling.
My brother put the car in drive. “Close that door before I harm you,” he said.
I closed the door and put on my seat belt. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. We’d been moving all my life, and I was used to being dropped in among strangers. But this year I was full of fear that I could not articulate. I felt the force of my shyness tightening over me like a drum. I leaned over and touched Mason’s collar.
“You’re not listening,” I said. “I want to come fishing with you.”
Mason didn’t answer.
“One day you’ll have to listen to me,” I said.
This made him laugh. I had developed a bad habit of making threats about the future, when I would be older and bigger and might take over our house. I understood that my imagination was not following life’s rules, but it persisted, embarrassingly. I blushed and looked out the window. The car hopped and rolled along the rutted road. A few seconds later, I saw a jaunty white farmhouse.
Before he turned off the car, Mason looked at me. “You used to be a sweet kid,” he said.
He shrugged. “Like an hour ago.”
This made me smile.
He nodded. “Don’t get creepy and shy now,” he said. He checked his bangs in the rearview mirror. “And don’t turn away from strangers. You’re going to need all the help you can get in this life.”
“Why?” I said. “What’s wrong with me?”
My brother opened his door and the yawning day slipped in all around him. So much light in South Carolina. I watched him get out, and then I followed him.
A minute later we were in the Allens’ yard, and Mason was shyly shaking Dr. Allen’s hand. Dr. Allen held a football under his arm. Reed and Charles stood a few feet behind their father, tall boys with light blond hair and narrow eyes. Charles was in front, his upper body tilted back, as if pulled by a magnet located inside his brother. Reed stood straight with his arms hanging by his sides. I didn’t see Joe anywhere.
Dr. Allen asked Mason about college. Even though Mason lived and breathed Clemson, where he was applying for early admission, he looked down and shrugged. We were both uncomfortable around parents, especially fathers. I wanted to rescue, Mason so he’d see I was indispensable. Looking up at the plateaus of flat clouds, I found the edge of the cutaway sun, and I watched it until I sneezed. I covered my mouth with both hands and then extended them fully, as if the sneeze had blown my hands off my face. When I opened my eyes, Mason was smiling.
“What was that?” he said. “A tornado?”
“Yup,” I said.
Reed and Charles were looking at each other. I knew what they were thinking: Why do we have to spend the day with this girl? Why not Miranda Porter, who already knows the cheers from the varsity cheering squad, the only girl in our grade to need a bra? I imagined them telling everyone about me at school. Charles would say, “Her family’s having trouble. We think her mother might have run away.”
Joe came out of the shed behind the house with fishing rods in his hands. He was tall and skinny with reddish hair. He and Mason grinned at each other, and I saw Mason’s body relax. Joe nodded at me. “What’s up, shorty?” he said. I gave my best nonchalant shrug. Then they got into Mason’s car.
“Be careful!” said Charles.
Reed yelled, “Watch out for alligators!”
My brother stuck his head out the window, looking for me. “Don’t get in trouble,” he said.
Dr. Allen said, “Watch the road, son! That’s not a bicycle.”
He was spinning the football in his hand, and it seemed natural for the rest of us to fan out and play catch. But I was terrible. Instead of growing curvy like the pictures in health class, I had just gotten longer, which made me clumsy. More than once, the ball flew through my hands and hit me in the sternum, or I’d look away at the last second and miss the catch. I was distracted by Mason’s station wagon, which grew smaller and smaller until it vanished in a trail of dust. No matter what I was doing back then, part of me was always occupied, trying to figure out how I would survive without him once he escaped to Clemson, trying to figure out how to make him stay with me a little longer. He did not pretend he would be coming home for holidays.
Dr. Allen whistled admiringly when Charles threw a spiral. “Heads up,” he said before he threw me the ball. “That’s the ticket,” he said, when I lined up my fingers on the threads. When the ball fell backwards off my hand, he said, “Not important. Give it a year. Your hands will grow.”
After a few minutes, he looked down at his phone. “Uh-oh,” he said. “Time to rescue some kittens. Think you guys can survive without me?” He winked at me. “It’s not a good day if you don’t get to rescue a kitten, right?”
I nodded, amazed, and shook my head, confused. A father who would rush off to rescue kittens was a mystery to me. Dr. Allen was taller than my father. He was quiet, but that was fine. When men were more reserved, I felt less afraid of them. And once I stopped fearing them, I usually fell in love. I was young and smitten with everyone who was nice to me, and it wasn’t bad feeling this way.
Dr. Allen climbed into his white Ford and drove away. The dust had barely settled on the road after my brother’s car. Now it rose again into a kicking white cloud.
The twins and I looked at each other. It became clear, somehow, that I belonged with Reed, and Charles ran to the house. This was decided without me. I assumed that, as twins, they had their own language.
“What do you want to do?” Reed said. He had pale freckles and gray eyes. Without his brother, he seemed oddly vulnerable.
“Are there really alligators?” I said. I was terrified of these animals. They appeared in South Carolina in people’s yards and on golf courses. They ate people’s dogs. I’d heard they attacked babies, children, even stupid adults. They showed up in my nightmares, crossing my floor in shadowy swarms. Everyone said to run in a zigzag pattern if one chased you. They could move faster than humans, but their eyes were too far apart to keep track of their prey.
Reed nodded. “We have a bunch,” he said. “I’ll show you.”
“That’s okay,” I said.
“We’ll be careful.”
“I already believe you.”
Reed started walking, so I followed him. We headed down the dirt drive toward the marsh, each walking in our own rut. It was a clear blue day. Reed pointed out a rusty transmission Joe had dropped driving his jeep too fast the summer before. He told me seven or eight alligators lived in a brackish pond near the woods, but the one we were looking for was a twelve-foot male who’d eaten several of the Allens’ dogs. “He’s a bad one,” Reed said.
I didn’t understand why they let such an animal live, but I didn’t say this because my mouth had grown impossibly dry. It’s possible that, in my fear, I was walking more and more slowly, because at some point, Reed yelled, “Run!”
We ran across the wide field and along the edge of the sandy marsh, racing until we were too tired to keep going. When we finally stopped, Reed bent over with his hands on his knees like an athlete on TV. I tried to catch my breath. When I looked around, the farmhouse was gone. Everything looked wild all around us.
“Do you know where we are?” I said. Reed nodded. “Was there an alligator?” I said. “Was it chasing us?”
Reed shook his head. He was taking in deep chestfuls of air. “I just love to run,” he said. He pointed at some trees ahead of us. I could see the pond shimmering through the branches. “They’re up there,” he said.
The air in my lungs grew cooler. My father had a theory about “thinning out the herd,” which meant that weak and stupid people eliminated themselves by making bad choices. He said God had no mercy for fools, and I wondered if I was being foolish now. But I followed Reed into the woods. I wanted to know. I wanted to see what the alligator looked like.
The pond’s surface looked like broken glass because of the breeze and reflected sun. I scanned the water carefully, but it was hard to know what to look for. Reed pointed at something dark floating directly across from us, against the far shore. My chest filled with fear and I touched his arm.
“That’s him,” I said.
He shook his head. “That’s a log,” he said. “But that’s what he’ll look like.”
After a few minutes, I started to relax. “I don’t see him,” I said.
“Nope,” said Reed.
“I think he’s gone.”
Reed looked at me. “He’s not here,” he said, “but he is somewhere.”