Carnal Innocence (Page 24)

"I wish you'd try to get some more sleep." Tucker stood by, frustrated, while Caroline used a woman's tools to disguise the results of a long, restless night.

"I couldn't." She dabbed more concealer under her eyes and blended. "I'd just sit around and wait for the phone to ring."

"Go down to Sweetwater." He stood behind her, watching her in the tiny bathroom mirror. Despite the circumstances, he felt an odd and powerful sense of intimacy at sharing this private space, being a witness to this ageless female ritual. "Take a nap in my hammock."

"Tucker, don't worry about me. It's Darleen we all should be concerned about. And the Fullers-Junior. That little baby. God." Struggling to hold on, she stabbed the mascara brush in and out of the tube. "How could this happen?"

"We're not sure anything happened yet. She might have just run off somewhere. Billy T. said he hadn't seen her, but after Junior walloped him, he'd be apt to lie if he had."

"Then why did she leave her car on the side of the road?"

They'd been over this again and again. "Maybe she was going to meet somebody. That stretch is pretty lonely. She could have left her car and gone off with somebody else just to give Junior a bad night or two."

"I hope you're right." She dragged a comb through her hair, then turned. "I hope to God you're right, because if you're not, it might be like the others. And if it is, that would mean that-"

"Don't take it any further until it has to go there." Gently, he curled his fingers around her forearms. "Day to day, remember?"

"I'm trying." She leaned against him a moment. The tiny room was still steamy from their shower. Outside the single high window, first light was blooming. "If my mother's right, the press should be here before the day's over. I can deal with that." On a long breath she pulled back. "I can. But I feel I have to go to the Fullers to offer Happy some son of support. I'm not sure I can deal with that."

"There'll be plenty of others there for her. You don't have to go."

"I do. I can be an outsider, or I can belong. It comes down to how you treat others, doesn't it?"

Hadn't he said something very similar to Cy just the day before? It was hard to argue with yourself. "I'll come by when I can. If I can."

She nodded, glancing out the doorway when she heard the toot of a horn. "That's probably Burke. It's nearly dawn."

"I'd better go, then."

"Tucker." She took his shirt-sleeve when he turned away, then kissed him. Soft, quiet, comforting. "That's all."

He rested his cheek on hers for one last moment. "That's enough."

Though it was still shy of eight a.m. when Caroline arrived at the Fullers', Happy wasn't alone. Friends and family had closed ranks. There was coffee brewing to replace the pots already consumed. Though no one thought of food, women gathered in the kitchen, that time-honored space of comfort.

Caroline hesitated in the doorway, beyond the murmur of conversation, the circle of support and worry and reassurances. She recognized the faces: Susie jiggling Scooter on her hip, Josie standing, restless, by the back door, Toby's wife, Winnie, rinsing out cups in the sink, Birdie Shays stationed staunchly beside Happy, Marvella quietly ripping apart a paper napkin.

The sense of intrusion was so great, Caroline nearly turned around and walked out again. It was Josie who saw her, who offered her a tired smile of understanding.

"Caroline. You look like a whipped dog. Come on in and we'll pump you full of coffee."

"I just..." She looked helplessly from one woman to the other. "I wanted to stop by and see if there was anything I could do."

"Nothing but wait." Happy held out a hand. Reaching for it, Caroline stepped into the circle.

So they waited, in a melding of perfumes and soft voices, with talk about children and men and a baby's restless crying. Delia joined them mid-morning, with jangling jewelry and a basket of sandwiches. She bullied Happy into eating half of one, scolded Josie for making the coffee too strong, and quieted Scooter by giving him one of her bright plastic bracelets to chew on.

"That child's got muddy diapers," she declared. "I can scent 'em a mile off."

"I'll change him." Susie picked him up off the floor, where he was busy banging Delia's bracelet on the tile. "He's tired, too. Aren't you tired, little man? I'll just put him down in the daybed, Happy."

"He likes that little yellow teddy bear," Happy told her, pressing her trembling lips together. "Darleen left it for him yesterday."

"Why don't you find it for her, Happy?" Delia shot Birdie a warning look before the woman could protest. "She needs something to do," Delia said quietly when Happy went out. "Worrying'll eat her up. We all need something. Birdie, see if you can find the makings for one of your Jell-O parfaits. That'll go down cool by afternoon. Marvella, you stop wringing your hands and use 'em to squeeze some lemons. We'll have lemonade instead of this goddamn coffee. Winnie, I think you should mix up one of your potions for Happy. Get her to sleep awhile."

"I thought about it, Miss Delia. I didn't believe she'd drink it."

Delia smiled grimly. "She will if I tell her to. That woman's been going head to head with me for years, but I've been holding back. Josie, you and Caroline clean up these dishes."

"A woman as bossy as you ought to have a platoon of marines to order around." Even as she complained, Josie stacked dishes.

Now there was purpose in the room as well as a sense of unity. Caroline found herself smiling at Delia. "How can I get to be you when I grow up?"

Highly pleased, Delia fussed with the big gold buttons of her blouse. "Why, child, you just learn how to use your mean. We all got it, but not everybody knows how to use it constructive like."

"Happy's other girls ought to be here," Birdie said, slamming cupboard doors. "They ought to."

"You know they'll come if there's need. Marvella, is that how your mama taught you to squeeze a lemon? Bear down, girl." Satisfied, Delia began to rewrap uneaten sandwiches. "Those girls got families, Birdie. Jobs and homes of their own. Wouldn't it be foolish of them to travel all this way if Darleen's just kicking up her heels?"

"Miss Delia?" Winnie sprinkled herbs into a pot on the stove. Her hands were small and dainty. She was a quiet women, given more to doing than to talking. But when she spoke, her voice was cool and smooth, like cream. "I'm going to brew this up like a tea. I ain't making it strong, just enough to ease."

"Let's have a look." Delia joined her at the stove, where they muttered and sniffed. Birdie ignored their conversation. As a doctor's wife, she didn't think it quite proper for her to approve of folk medicines.

"There's nothing more I can do here." Josie wiped her hands dry on a tea towel. "I'm going out to hunt around some myself."

"There's more than a dozen men taking care of that," Birdie said. Her tone was sharp enough to have Josie lift a brow, but Birdie had to put her frustration somewhere.

"Men don't always know best where to look for a woman." Josie picked up her purse. "I'm going to check on Cousin Lulu first, Delia, then I'm going to ride over to see Billy T. If he knows anything, he'd be more likely to tell me than he would a man."

"Don't see as that's anything to brag on," Delia muttered.

Josie shrugged. "Fact's a fact. Besides, Happy's better off knowing whatever there is to know sooner rather than later. She'll make herself sick if this goes on too long."

No one could think of an argument to that. She left by the back door. Moments later they heard the roar of her car engine springing to life.

"If that Billy T. knows where Darleen took off to-" Birdie began.

"If he does, Josie'll find out sure as God made little green apples." Delia handed Winnie a cup for the sedative she'd brewed.

"He went off to sleep just like an angel," Happy said as she walked back into the room. Her famous smile was ragged at the edges. "Not a thing like his mama. Why, she used to fight sleep like it was Satan come to steal her soul. I must've walked a million miles of floor with..." Rubbing at her eyes, she trailed off.

"You sit on down here, Priscilla," Delia ordered, using Happy's given name to get her moving. "This is just making you sick, is all." Using her big, broad hands, she pushed Happy into a chair. "You let us do the worrying awhile. Nobody better at it than a room full of women. Winnie, bring me that cup."

"It's a might hot, Miz Fuller. You gotta blow on it first." Winnie set the cup in front of her, then stayed, resting a hand on the back of the chair. Winnie had gone to school with Happy's eldest daughter, and Belle Fuller had been the first white girl ever to invite Winnie into her home to play with dolls.

"What is it?"

"It's what's good for you," Delia said, and waved Winnie aside.

"I don't want one of Winnie's magic potions," she said petulantly. "I'm not sick, I'm just-"

"Scared and miserable," Delia finished. "By the look of you, you didn't get a wink of sleep last night. You know Winnie wouldn't give you anything wasn't helpful. You drink up now and get some rest."

"What I need is coffee." When Happy started to rise, Delia shoved her back.

"Now you listen to me. Being stubborn's not gonna change a thing. God willing, your Darleen'll be back here preening herself over the ruckus she caused. But right now you've got a child upstairs sleeping who's going to need you one way or the other. What good can you do him if you're worn out."

"I just want her back." When the tears started, she laid her head against Delia's cushioning breast. "I just want my girl back. I was so hard on her, Delia."

"You never gave her nothing she didn't need."

"She was always so fretful. Even as a baby, the minute she got one thing she wanted something else. I wanted what was best for her, but I never could seem to find it."

Needing to help, Caroline stepped forward. "Here, Happy." She lifted the cup. "Drink a little."

Happy took a swallow, then two, before grabbing Caroline's hand. "She doesn't think I love her, but I do. Somehow you always love in a special way the one who gives you the most grief. All I can think is that when she was here yesterday, wanting me to side with her about what happened with Junior and that Bonny boy, I couldn't do it. She was wrong. Darleen never could figure out what was right and what was wrong, but she came here wanting her mother to stick up for her. And I didn't. We just ended up fighting like always, with her stomping off. I didn't even watch her drive away."

She began to sob then, and Delia rocked her and stroked her hair. Susie had come back in to put her arm around Marvella.

"Those other girls." Happy's fingers convulsed on Caroline's. "Oh, sweet Jesus, I keep thinking about those other girls."

"Hush now." Delia lifted the cup to Happy's lips. "Aren't they saying that was Austin, and he's dead as a doornail. Why, Caroline here shot him in the head, and every woman in Innocence is grateful to her. Except maybe Mavis Hatinger, and she would be if she had a lick of sense. Now, you come on with me, darling. I'm going to take you up for a nice lie-down."

"Just for a little while." With Winnie's brew making her eyelids heavy, Happy let Delia lead her out of the kitchen.

"Oh, Mama." Marvella turned into Susie's shoulder to weep.

"Shush now, don't you start." But Susie patted her back. "We don't know that any thing's happened."

"We have to have faith," Winnie added. "And while we're having it, I'm going to fix some food in case others come by. I'll fry up some chicken."

"Good." Susie gave Marvella a last pat. "Honey, you peel some potatoes and put them on to boil for potato salad. No use anybody going hungry. No telling how long we'll have to wait."

Tucker stood on the banks of Gooseneck Creek and wiped his damp face with a bandanna. The temperature had soared to a hundred and two with the air so thick it felt as if you could grab a fistful and wring it out. The sky was a pale blue, bleached by the merciless white sun.

He imagined himself taking a quick, relieving dunk in the water. The picture helped a little, but he settled for soaking his bandanna in the creek and cooling his face and neck.

He remembered that Arnette had been found here-by Darleen's brother. While he was hunkered down, Tucker took time to say a prayer.

Please God, don't let me find her.

Someone would, he was sure. He'd discounted the hopeful theory that she'd taken off with someone. It didn't make sense. She hadn't had time to hook up with anyone but Billy T., and he, along with all of her women friends, insisted he hadn't heard from her.

Tucker believed him. Male pride was at stake. Billy T. wasn't likely to take up with a woman whose husband had bested him with a frying pan. Darleen hadn't been of particular importance to Billy T. One woman was the same as another to him.

The inevitable comparison with himself left Tucker with a bad taste in his mouth.

Darleen hadn't left her car on the side of the road during a thunderstorm to hop into another with some new lover or new friend. Not when Junior claimed none of her clothes were missing, and that the housekeeping money was still tucked away in the coffee can, where she'd kept it.

Someone would find her, Tucker thought again. And again he prayed it would be someone else.

He rose to move among the reeds. His part of the search party was ranged along the banks, slopping through the weeds and mud, hoping, Tucker was sure, that they found nothing but some old beer bottles and maybe a used condom.

They were all armed, which made him a little edgy. Junior had already blasted away a water moccasin. Since it had seemed to make him feel better, no one had commented.

The fact was, there was very little conversation. The men worked silently, like soldiers setting up an ambush. Or walking into one. One of the helicopters called up from County swept by now and again, chopping at the hot air, and the two-way radios each group leader carried on their belts would squawk and buzz with talk or static. The FBI was holding back from taking over. But then, they didn't know Innocence or its people. Burns was convinced Darleen was just another dissatisfied wife who'd taken off for greener pastures.

Tucker figured he wasn't ready to admit another murder had taken place while he was in charge.

He swiped at mosquitoes, finding himself testy enough to want to shoot at the whining bloodsuckers instead of slapping at them. When he heard the long, echoing whistle of the train, he wished he were on it. Going anywhere.

When he'd finished his assigned area, he walked back to join Burke, Junior, Toby and the others who'd taken this side of the creek.

"They're nearly done on the other bank," Burke said. He was keeping a wary eye on Junior, ready to move in if Darleen's husband started to relieve his anxiety by shooting at something more than a snake. "Singleton and Carl called in from McNair swamp. It's all clear so far."

Toby March laid his rifle in the bed of the pick-up. He thought of his own wife, his own daughter, and though it shamed him, in his heart he was grateful whoever was killing was choosing white skin.

"We still got about six hours of good daylight left," he said to no one in particular. "I was thinking maybe some of us could ride down to Rosedale and Greenville and such. Ask around."

"I've got Barb Hopkins calling all the motels, hospitals, the local police." Burke took Junior's gun and laid it with his own in the truck. "County's sending her picture out."

"There you go." Will Shiver gave Junior a hearty slap on the back. "They'll find her holed up in some motel, sitting on the bed, painting her toenails and watching TV."

Saying nothing, Junior shrugged off the hand and walked away.

"Give him a minute," Burke murmured.

The men shifted their gazes politely away. Toby squinted, adjusting the brim of his hat to cut the glare of the sun. "Somebody's coming."

It took several seconds before anyone else could make out the plume of gravel dust or the faint glint of metal through the waves of heat rising from the road.

"You black boys got eyes like hawks," Will Shiver said good-naturedly. "That car must be two miles away yet."

"The eyes're organs," Toby returned with a sarcasm so subtle and smooth that Tucker had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from grinning. "You know what they say about our organs."

Interested, Will cocked his head. "I heard tell that was a wives' tale."

"Yes, sir," Toby said blandly. "There's plenty of wives who'll attest to it."

Tucker coughed and turned away to light a cigarette. It didn't seem quite right to laugh out loud with Junior suffering so close by. But my, it was good to smile for a minute.

He recognized the car a moment later, by the color and the speed with which it was traveling.

"It's Josie." He shot a glance at Burke. "Looks like she's earning herself another speeding ticket."

She skidded to a halt, spitting gravel and waving a hand out of the window. "Barb told us we'd find y'all here. Earleen and I brought you boys some supper."

She slid out of the car, looking cool and fresh in shorts and a halter that left her midriff bare. Her hair was tied back with a chiffon scarf, reminding Tucker of their mother.

"That's real obliging of you ladies." Will slanted Josie a smile that would have earned him a sharp slap from his fiancee.

"We like to take care of our men, don't we, Earleen?" After answering Will's smile, Josie turned to Burke. "Honey, you look worn out. You come on and have a glass of this iced tea. We brought two jugs."

"Got a pile of ham sandwiches, too." Earleen hefted a hamper out of the backseat. She set it on the shoulder and threw back the lid. "Y'all have to keep up your strength in this heat.

"Yes, sir, meals on wheels." Josie kept up a bright chatter as she dug into the hamper. "Earleen and I got this together so fast, we're thinking we might go into the catering business. Junior, you come on and get one of these now, or you'll hurt my feelings."

When he didn't even turn around, she gestured to her brother. "Tucker, pour me a cup of that tea." While she waited, Josie unwrapped a sandwich and laid it on a paper napkin. "Earleen, you see that these boys leave enough for our next stop, you hear?" She rose, took the cup Tucker held out, then skirted around the truck.

Junior continued to stare down the road. Josie could see a muscle in his cheek twitch. She set the sandwich on the hood of the truck, then pressed the cup of tea into his hands.

"Now, you drink that, Junior. This heat steals all your fluids. A man could drink a gallon and not piss an ounce. Come on." Gently, she rubbed a hand up and down his back. "Getting heat stroke's not going to help."

"We didn't find her."

"I know, honey. Take a drink." She nudged the cup closer to his lips. "I was down at your mother-in-law's before. When I left, you little boy was sleeping like an angel. He's got a sweet disposition, that boy, and I do believe he has your eyes."

She paused when Junior took two big gulps of tea. She took the cup from him and passed him the sandwich. He ate mechanically, his eyes glazed with fatigue and worry. Josie slipped an arm around him, knowing there were few things more comforting than human contact.

"It's going to be all right, Junior. I promise. Everything's going to be just fine. You wait and see."

His eyes filled, spilled over, running rivulets through the sweat and grime on his face. But he kept eating. "I thought I fell out of love with her when I walked into the kitchen and found her with Billy T. Seemed like my heart just closed off toward her. It don't feel like that now."

Moved by his grief, she pressed a kiss to his cheek. "It'll work out, honey. You trust Josie."

He struggled to compose himself. "I don't want my son to grow up without a mother."

"He won't have to." Josie's eyes darkened as she wiped Junior's tears with the paper napkin. "You believe that, Junior, and it'll all be fine."

They searched until it was too dark for the 'copters to fly or the men to see. When Tucker arrived home, he was greeted by a weary Buster, who had tried, and failed, to avoid the puppy throughout the day.

"I'll take him off your hands." Tucker gave Buster an absent pat before scooping up Useless. The pup wiggled and licked and barked as Tucker carried him into the house. "If you've been like this all day, I'm surprised you didn't give my old hound a stroke."

He headed for the kitchen, dreaming of a beer, a cold shower, and Caroline. He found Delia slicing roast beef and Cousin Lulu playing solitaire.

"What do you think you're doing, bringing that dog into my kitchen?"

"Giving Buster a break." Tucker set the dog down and he immediately scooted under Lulu's chair. "Have you heard from Caroline?"

"She called not ten minutes ago. She was going to stay with Happy until Singleton or Bobby Lee got home." Delia arranged another slice of roast beef on the platter. Because she could see how tired Tucker was, she didn't slap at his hand when he stole it. "She's coming by here to pick up this fleabag."

Tucker grunted over a mouthful of beef, and pulled a beer out of the fridge.

"I'll have one of those," Lulu said without looking up. "Cards're thirsty work."

Tucker popped the lid on a second bottle, then scanned the hand she'd dealt. "You can't put a black three on a black five. You need a red four between."

"I'll put it there when I get one." Lulu tipped back the beer, studying him over it. "You look like something that's been dragged through the swamp."

"I guess I have been."

"That youngest Fuller girl still missing?" Lulu cheated a red ten out of her pile and played it. "Delia's been half the day over at Happy's. I'm reduced to solitaire."

"I got a duty-" Delia began, but Lulu waved her off.

"Nobody's criticizing. I'd've gone myself, but nobody thought to ask me."

"I told you I was going." Delia thwacked the knife down on the cutting board.

"Not the same as being asked." Lulu did some more creative cheating. "People come and go so much around here, it makes my blood tired. Josie in and out all hours of the day and night. Tucker here gone for a day at a stretch. Dwayne wasn't back five minutes before he takes a bottle of Wild Turkey and goes out again."

Delia started to defend her brood, then frowned. "When did Dwayne get back?"

"Half hour ago. Looked as muddy and worn-out as Tucker. Went out the same way."

"He take his car?"

"Don't see how he could." Lulu reached in her pocket and drew out a set of keys. "He took the bottle, so I took these."

Delia nodded in approval. "Where do you think you're going?" she asked Tucker as he tried to edge out of the room.

"I need a shower."

"You've lived with that sweat all day, you can live with it awhile longer. Go on down and see if Dwayne's at the pond."

"Shit, Delia, I've already walked a hundred miles today."

"Then you can walk one more. I'm not having him fall in and drown. You bring him up here, where he can get cleaned up and eat. They'll want him out there tomorrow just like they'll want you."

Grumbling, Tucker sat down his half-finished beer and started out the back door. "I hope to Christ he hasn't had time to get drunk yet."

He was only half drunk, which was exactly the way Dwayne liked it best. The fatigue of the day had faded into a nice, friendly buzz. Slogging through McNair swamp with Bobby Lee and Carl and the others had been a miserable way to spend a day.

He'd gone willingly enough, and would go again in the morning. He didn't begrudge the time or the effort, and didn't see that anyone would begrudge him a little time with the bottle to wash the day away.

He'd felt for Bobby Lee especially. Whenever he'd looked into the boy's face and seen the strain and fear, he'd wondered what it would be like to be searching for his own sister.

That thought had him burning his throat with more whiskey.

He wanted to think of pleasant things now. Of how nice the crickets sounded in counterpoint with the buzzing in his ears. How soft the grass felt under his bare feet. He thought he might spend the night there, watching the moon rise and the stars come out.

When Tucker sat down beside him, Dwayne obligingly passed him the bottle. Tucker took it, but didn't drink.

"This stuff'll kill you, son."

Dwayne only smiled. "It takes it's sweet time doing it, though."

"You know it worries Delia when you do this."

"I'm not doing it to worry her."

"Why are you doing it, Dwayne?" Tucker expected no response and continued without one. He gauged his brother's condition and knew he was sober enough to be coherent, drunk enough to talk. " 'Drunkenness is a voluntary madness.' Can't think right off who said that, but it rings true."

"I'm not drunk yet, or mad either," Dwayne said placidly. "Just working on both."

Wanting to choose his words carefully, Tucker took time to light half a cigarette. "It's getting bad. The past couple of years it's been getting real bad. First I thought it was because so many things went wrong so close together. Daddy dying, then Mama. Sissy taking off. Then I thought it was because Daddy drank so heavy and you just picked up on whatever genes it takes to have you follow him along."

Annoyed, and not wanting to be, Dwayne took the bottle back. "You do your share of drinking."

"Yeah. But I'm not making it my life's work."

"We do what we do best." Dwayne lifted the bottle and drank. "Of all the things I've tried, getting drunk's the one thing I don't worry about screwing up."

"That's bullshit." The fury rushed out so quick and sharp, it shocked them both. He hadn't known it had been preying on him, eating at him from the inside-this reality of what his big brother had become, layered over the image of the one Tucker had once admired and envied. "That's just bullshit." Tucker snatched the bottle and, springing to his feet, flung it into the water. "I'm tired of this, goddammit. I'm fucking tired of carrying you home, making up excuses for you in my head, of watching you kill yourself one bottle at a time. That's what he did. Flying that goddamn plane while he was shitfaced. The old man killed himself sure as if he'd put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger."

Dwayne got shakily to his feet. He weaved a little, but his eyes were steady. "You've got no reason to talk to me like this. You've got no right to talk about him either."

Tucker grabbed Dwayne by the shirtfront, tearing seams. "Who the hell has the right if not me, when I grew up loving both of you? Being hurt by both of you?"

A muscle in Dwayne's cheek began to twitch. "I'm not Daddy."

"No, you're not. But he was a fucking drunk, and so are you. The only difference is he got mean with it and you just get pathetic."

"Who the hell are you?" His mouth moved into a snarl as he grabbed Tucker's shirt in turn. "I'm the oldest. It was always me he jumped on first. I was supposed to take care of things, to fucking carry on the Longstreet legacy. It was me who got shipped off to school, me who got put in charge of the fields. Not you. Never you, Tuck. I never wanted it, but he wouldn't let me go my own way. Now he's dead and I can do what I want."

"You're not doing anything but sliding into a bottle. You've got two sons of your own. At least he was here. At least he acted like a father."

Dwayne let out a howl, and then they were wrestling on the grass, grunting and growling like a pair of dogs looking for a soft spot to sink fangs into. Tucker took a short glancing blow to his still-sore ribs. The fresh pain brought a burst of wild fury into his blood. Even as they went tumbling into the pond, he was bloodying his brother's lip.

They went under grappling, came up sputtering and cursing. They kicked and shoved, but the water softened the blows and began to make them both feel foolish.

Tucker scissored his legs, holding Dwayne by his torn shirt, one fist reared back. Dwayne mirrored his position so exactly, the two of them stared, panting.

"Shit," Tucker said, warily eyed his brother as he lowered his fist. "You used to hit harder."

Gingerly, Dwayne touched the back of his hand to his swollen lip. "You used to be slower."

They released each other to tread water. "I wanted a shower, but this isn't half bad." Tucker swiped the hair out of his eyes. "Though Christ knows what's in this water."

"A half pint of Wild Turkey, for sure," Dwayne said, and smiled. "Remember when we used to swim here, when we were kids?"

"Yeah. Still think you can beat me to the other bank?"

"Shit." Dwayne's smile widened to a grin. He rolled over in the water and struck out. Too many years of the bottle had slowed him. Tucker streaked by like an eel. In tacit agreement, they raced back, then floated awhile under the rising moon.

"Yeah," Dwayne said after they'd stopped panting. "You used be slower. I guess things've changed."

"Lots of things."

"I guess I've messed things up."

"Some things."

"I get scared, Tuck." Dwayne fisted a hand in the water, but there was nothing there to hold on to. "The drinking-I know when I should stop, but I get so I don't see the point in it. Sometimes I can't remember what I've been up to. I'll wake up sick and headachy, and it's like I've been dreaming. I can't make it out."

"We can do something about it, Dwayne. They've got places that take care of it."

"I like how I feel right now." Through half-closed eyes, Dwayne watched the stars wink into life. "Just a nice little buzz on, so nothing seems too goddamn important. Thing to do is to catch myself right here, where I like it best."

"It doesn't work that way."

"Sometimes I wish I could go back, see where I turned off wrong so I could fix it."

"You could always fix things, Dwayne. Remember that model airplane I got for my birthday? I wracked it up the second time I used it. I knew Daddy'd skin me when he found out, but you fixed it all up. Mama always said you had a talent for putting things together."

"I used to think I'd be an engineer."

Surprised, Tucker shifted to treading again. "You never told me that."

Dwayne merely stared up at the sky. "Wasn't any point. Longstreets are planters and businessmen. You could have done something different maybe. But I was the oldest son. He never gave me a choice."

"No reason not to do what you want now."

"Hell, Tuck, I'm thirty-five years old. That's no time to go back to school and learn a trade."

"People do, if they want it bad enough."

"I wanted it bad enough ten, fifteen years ago. That's behind me. A lot of things are behind me." He tried to make out the stars, but they were a hazy blur of light. "Sissy's going to marry that shoe salesman."

"I guess we had to figure she would-him or somebody."

"Says he wants to adopt my kids. Give them his name. 'Course she'd forget that soon enough if I upped the support payments."

"You don't have to take that, Dwayne. Those kids are yours. They're always going to be yours no matter what game she's playing."

"Nope, don't have to take it," Dwayne said lazily. "And I'm not going to. Sissy's going to have to learn that a man has his limits. Even me." He sighed, letting his gaze drift over sky and water. "I got comfortable, Tucker." Out of the corner of his eye Dwayne saw something bob in the water. An empty bottle, he thought, for an empty life. "Drinking makes things that way."

"The way you're doing it, drinking makes you dead."

"Don't start on me again."

"Dammit, Dwayne." He started to move closer when his legs brushed against something soft and slick that made him yelp. "Damn cats," he said. "Scared the shit out of me." He kicked away, glancing over his shoulder.

He, too, saw something bob in the water. But he didn't mistake it for a bottle. As the spit dried to dust in his mouth, as his blood slowed to a crawl, he stared at the trailing white hand.

"Jesus. Oh my Jesus."

"Catfish won't do any more than nibble," Dwayne said placidly. He swore when Tucker gripped his arm. "What's got into you now?"

"I think we found Darleen," he managed to say, then closed his eyes.

Some prayers, he thought, just weren't meant to be answered.