KEITH REACHED FOR THE BACKPACK at his feet and the canoe flipped. One second he was riding on the river and the next he was in it, watching his canoe float away upside down, its silvery hull a bright line on the dark river. Thirty feet ahead of him, Deshaun’s canoe pushed through choppy gray water. A dozen feet in front of Deshaun, Gideon led the expedition in a sleek forest-green canoe that seemed to ride comfortably on the river, oblivious to the wind. It was a cool, early-summer day, and they were somewhere in Minnesota, on the Boundary Waters, not too far from the Canadian border. When Keith tried to yell for Deshaun, he wound up swallowing water as his legs hit a submerged rock and spun him around. After that, he concentrated on swimming to land and avoiding obstacles. By the time he reached shore, Deshaun and Gideon had disappeared around a bend downstream. His knees and shins were bruised and scraped, but other than that, he was okay—except that he was in sneakers, shorts, and a T-shirt, drenched, with a late-afternoon thunderstorm approaching, the first flashes of lightning already cutting through the gloom. He looked around for a place to take shelter and saw nothing but tall grass, thick brush, and scraggly pines. A trickle of water coming down off a slope had cleared out a sandy sliver of beach between the brush and river. He settled himself there, knees to his chin and arms wrapped around his legs. Eventually Deshaun and Gideon would see that he was missing and come looking. Where he was sitting, they couldn’t possibly miss him.
“He has no job, he has no prospects for a job, and it’s okay with you. You’re, fine go ahead have fun!”
“What did you want me to do, Helen? Tie him down?”
“You encouraged him!”
“I didn’t encourage him.”
Helen gripped the edge of the kitchen sink as if she were preparing to rip it off the wall. She was a small, scrappy woman, all sinew and bone. She lowered her head as if in prayer, then grabbed a glass from the drying rack and threw it at her husband. It missed and shattered against the kitchen wall. Robert slammed his fist into the table and yowled when it hit a slice of glass, drawing blood. He asked his wife, loudly, if she were out of her mind. When he jumped up, knocking his chair over behind him, Helen grabbed a butcher knife from the counter and held it in front of her with both hands wrapped around the handle.
“Now you’re going to kill me?” Robert pulled napkins from the dispenser and wadded them against his cut hand. “Because Keith went on a camping trip with his buddies and I didn’t stop him? Is that really what’s driving you crazy?”
Helen put the knife down. When Robert picked up the overturned chair and resumed his seat, she went to the pantry and retrieved a broom and dustpan. “You’re what’s driving me crazy.” She leaned the broom against the table and tossed the dustpan onto Robert’s lap. “You let Keith walk all over us. You always have. Everything I try to do to raise him right, you undo. I told him he couldn’t go. I told him if he went not to come back.”
“He’s twenty-one,” Robert said. “He just finished college a month ago—”
“Which we paid for!” Helen yelled. “Could he take out loans like every other kid? Oh no, not Keith. You wouldn’t hear of it.”
“We can afford it.”
“That’s not the point! The point is he would have had to take responsibility for himself. For once! You think he’d be out on a vacation with those morons if he knew he had to start repaying his loans?”
“It never ends with you,” Robert said. “No argument is ever over. You’re like a dog with a bone.” He pushed his chair back and looked at his wife. “The kid is out of college for a month. Give him time.”
Helen turned her back. “You watch,” she said, looking out the window over their neatly mown lawn, where a pair of mourning doves was perched on a birdbath near the bottom of the driveway. “He’ll live off us as long as he can get away with it.” She turned to face her husband. “We’ve raised a lazy, irresponsible kid, and the sooner you get that through your thick head, the better off we’ll all be, including Keith.”
Robert got up from the table, tossed the dustpan at his wife’s feet, and left the room.
Gideon had hoped to reach the campsite before the storm hit, but the first drops of rain were already falling, accompanied by flashes of lightning, and the site was still more than a mile downriver. He looked up at the sooty gray clouds tumbling in overhead and then behind him at Deshaun. There was no sign of Keith. He shouted to Deshaun and pointed upriver. Deshaun twisted around and scanned the water. “He was right behind me last time I looked!”
“How long ago?”
“Not that long.”
Gideon guided his canoe to a slab of table rock under the branches of an overhanging red pine. He was the only one of the three with experience camping on the Boundary Waters—with outdoors experience at all, for that matter. He had grown up going on fishing and hunting expeditions with his father all over the country. Keith and Deshaun were city boys he’d known since freshman year at UM, where they played intramural baseball together. The only place those two had ever camped was their own backyards. He’d proposed and arranged this trip as a graduation present to themselves, and he now felt responsible for their safety.
When Deshaun’s canoe slid up alongside him, Gideon took hold of the gunwale to steady it. Deshaun asked if they should head back upriver and look for Keith. Gideon looked at the sky and out over the river. They’d be going against the current and the wind, and in another moment they’d be caught out on the water in the storm. He told Deshaun there was nothing to do but wait for the storm to pass, keep an eye on the river, and watch for Keith.
Deshaun pulled his phone out of his backpack. “No signal,” he said. “What about you?”
Gideon knew there were no towers in the area, but he checked anyway. No signal.
Deshaun put his phone back inside a plastic storage bag. “What do you think happened?”
“No way of knowing.” Gideon tied his canoe to a tree branch and directed Deshaun to do the same. “Let’s get my tent up,” he said. “It’s going to pour any minute.” He took his backpack from the canoe and climbed onto the flat, warm surface of the table rock with Deshaun following.
Lauren leaned back, wrapped her newly dyed hair in a plastic CVS shopping bag, tied it tightly over her head, and went about cleaning up the mess she’d made of the bathroom sink. In the living room, Honora and Kira were on the couch watching something on Netflix that had them both laughing. She shut the door, finished cleaning, and sat on the commode to wait for the dye to set. She smiled at the thought of Deshaun’s reaction when he came back from his camping trip to find he had a blonde girlfriend. She liked messing with Deshaun, who was pretty much the stereotype of the macho athletic frat boy, but sweet as could be when he was alone with her.
Before he left, she had made him promise to apply to grad school in the fall. She’d told him straight out that if he wanted to be with her he needed to, eventually at least, have a solid, reliable career. In her own family, her mother was the breadwinner, which was fine, but she wanted something more. She wanted a two-career family. The way things were, that was the only way to really get ahead. As for herself, she was pursuing a career in medical research. And Deshaun, she wanted him to get an advanced degree in computer science. They were going to be a professional couple if they were going to be a couple at all. Deshaun had balked at first. He was a musician, played the alto sax, and had some dreams of making a living that way, which to Lauren’s mind wasn’t a career you could depend on. It was, honestly, a fantasy. He was good, but not that good, and if he was really set on making music, he could find the time apart from his job. She’d explained all this to him as reasonably as possible, and he’d come around, as she knew he would, because he was crazy about her. And she was crazy about him, too. Before he drove off with Keith and Gideon, she’d wrapped her arms around him, pushed him back against Gideon’s car, kissed him passionately on the lips and slid her hand down between his legs.
Give him something to think about while he was out in the woods.
Gideon finished securing the tent as blasts of wind roared through the trees, followed by fat drops of rain that were sparse at first; and then, all at once, it was as if they were camping under a waterfall, the rain coming down in a heavy, wind-blown torrent. By the time he crawled into the tent alongside Deshaun, he was soaked. He stripped off his clothes and pulled dry shorts and a T-shirt out of his backpack. Deshaun was lying on top of his sleeping bag, peeking out through the tent flap at the river. Gideon asked if he could see anything.
“Not much.” Deshaun glanced at Gideon before returning his gaze to the water. “I hope to hell Keith had sense enough to get off the river.” Running a hand over the slick interior surface of the tent, he added, “Any chance this thing is going to blow away with us in it?”
“Hope not.” Gideon pulled the flap back just enough to peer out. He had pitched the tent on the table rock, at a high point close to the shore, and secured it as best he could. The pines provided some protection from the wind. As long as tree limbs didn’t start falling, they should be okay. He worried about limbs coming down—or whole trees the way the wind was blowing—and the possibility of the river rising high enough to wash them away.
“Seriously,” Deshaun asked, “we going to be okay in this thing?”
Gideon said, “It’s designed to withstand wind and rain,” but it came out sounding like a question.
“Fucking Keith,” Deshaun said. “You think he’ll figure out how to get his tent set up?”
“Probably not. As long as he gets off the river, though, he should be okay.”
“What do you think happened?”
“I’m hoping,” Gideon said, “maybe he saw a fish breaking and decided to go after it. Something like that.”
“That’d be like him. He might stop to take a picture, too, if he saw an elk or a bear or something.”
Or he capsized his canoe and drowned, Gideon thought but didn’t say, because Keith wouldn’t wear his life jacket no matter how hard Gideon pressed. Neither Keith nor Deshaun would wear one, both insisting they were great swimmers and the jackets were hot and uncomfortable.
“If he’d capsized,” Deshaun said, “I’d have heard him. He’d have called out to us.”
“Probably,” Gideon said. He thought, unless he cracked his head on a rock or got caught in a strainer. “I’d feel better if I knew he was wearing his life jacket,” he added.
“Okay, I hear you. I’ll put mine on when we go back out.” Deshaun looked up at a sound like someone dumping a truckload of gravel onto the tent. “What the hell is that?”
Gideon put the flat of his hand against the tent’s nylon skin. “Hail.” He peeked out at the river, where hail pelted the water and slid down off the table rock. Overhead, the sky was a thick bank of dark clouds. When the roar of the wind started sounding like a freight train, it occurred to him that a tornado was possible.
Deshaun said, “Hey, I don’t mean to be a wuss here, but this is starting to scare the hell out me.”
“It’ll pass over us soon,” Gideon said. “We’ll be okay.”
“Keith’s probably scared shitless all by himself.”
“No doubt,” Gideon said, and he settled down in his sleeping bag to watch the river, as much of it as he could see. With the wind howling overhead and the river rising higher and pushing waves right up to the tent, he did the only other thing he knew to do, which was pray. He’d been raised Baptist, and he’d grown away from the religion of his parents, but not far enough away to give up on prayer.
“Are those trees?” Deshaun pulled the flap back and pointed to the river, where a flotilla of fallen pines was approaching.
Gideon yelled for Deshaun to grab his pack, and they rushed out of the tent. They untied their canoes and dragged them up the shore into the brush and trees, then turned in time to see the trees sweep over the table rock, taking the tent along with them.
Robert threw a half-rotted branch into the fire pit and watched it go up in flame. Beside him, last Christmas’s fir tree sat atop a pile of branches and twigs waiting to be burned. He picked up the garden hose and directed a stream of water around the edges of the pit to keep the flames from spreading. The fir was a little more than five feet top to bottom, and its needles were uniformly the color of rust. He took a seat in a lawn chair with the garden hose in his lap and waited for the flames to die down before he fed it what remained of their Christmas celebration.
It had been just the three of them: Robert, Helen, and Keith. Keith, home from school for winter break, had let his hair grow long, which bothered Helen. Beyond that, he had gotten a small wrist tattoo of what looked to Robert like a line of waves. Keith said it was a Hawaiian tribal tattoo. Helen said it was ridiculous, and that he’d regret it when he got older, and she just hoped he could keep it hidden when he was applying for jobs.
Keith, thankfully, had learned long ago—and better than Robert ever had—how to deal with Helen’s carping. “She loves me,” he’d told Robert more than once. “Getting on me about things is the way she expresses it.” Robert supposed that was true. In fact, he knew it was true, and he tried to keep it in mind when they were fighting. Still, she wore him down, year after year, worrying, complaining, criticizing. More than once, he’d thought seriously of quitting, of moving on—but then there were the good moments, and there were so many of them.
That Christmas morning they had awakened early, as was their tradition. Helen had put on a pot of coffee and brought it to them in their Christmas mugs where they waited by the fireplace, next to the tree with its stack of presents neatly arranged. Still in pajamas, they took turns opening small gifts from their stockings, with commentary that was sometimes funny or amused, sometimes serious and grateful. The stockings were Robert’s favorite part. That and decorating the tree the night before, Keith placing of the angel atop the fir. A cute little boy, he’d grown into a handsome young man. Robert was proud of him. And Helen was too, though a stranger would never guess it.
When the flames in the fire pit had died down sufficiently, Robert threw in the fir and jumped back. As he’d known it would, the tree exploded in a burst of flames. He dragged the lawn chair and hose back, took a seat, and watched the fire.
Lauren went from the shower to her bedroom wrapped in a sky-blue bath towel. She took a seat in front of her computer. In the living room, Kira and Honora were still chattering and laughing. Lauren watched a few cat videos and clicked through some Instagram posts before opening up her photos. When she clicked on a picture of herself with Deshaun at her parents’ house two summers ago, a series of photos from that month displayed in an autogenerated slideshow accompanied by music.
Deshaun at the beach, hands clasped at his waist, leaning into a comically exaggerated muscle-bulging pose, Lauren giving him the side-eye.
Lauren and her mom, looking more like sisters than mother and daughter.
Lauren and her Aunt Dara at the breakfast table, both looking annoyed at the picture taker.
Deshaun with Keith and Gideon, arms around each other’s shoulders, smiling like they couldn’t be happier.
Gideon and Keith with Aunt Dara between them, looking like she was in heaven.
And a dozen more pictures, most of Lauren and her mom and aunt and Deshaun, a bunch from the weekend Deshaun’s buddies visited.
She loved how the three of them—the boys—turned heads wherever they were out, all tall and good-looking and muscular.
Love, Lauren thought, should be grounded in mutual respect for the inner person, for their true character—but damn if good looks didn’t go a long way, too.
When the unbroken line of dark clouds finally passed overhead and the worst of the wind, rain, and hail let up, Keith looked at the patches of sunlight peeking through scattered shards of cloud and said, “Thank you, God!” because for a time there he was pretty sure he was going to get blown away or struck by lightning or crushed by a falling tree. The trickle of water where he had crouched to wait for Gideon and Deshaun had turned into a fast-moving stream pouring down off the hillside and pushed him up against a slab of rock on the riverbank where he huddled into himself, knees to his chest, head on his knees, hands over the back of his head. Now and then he’d look up as the tall pines swayed and rocked in the wind like blades of grass, or when a loud crack or thump signaled another tree coming down to be washed away by the river. For a long while he was pretty sure one of those trees was bound to take him with it, but then the worst of the wind passed and the hail and sideways rain turned into a regular, recognizable rainfall, and he knew he had made it through the storm and was grateful.
Still, he was soaked and cold and by himself, and he began to think about how to make some kind of shelter to keep warm until Gideon and Deshaun came back for him. The storm had brought in a front of cooler air, the temperature dropping dramatically, and he was already shivering. Finding fallen branches and tree limbs to make a lean-to wouldn’t be a problem. Getting a fire started would be. He had vague memories from Boy Scouts, but he was pretty sure he wouldn’t have been able to manage a fire even if everything everywhere weren’t soaked. When he stood upright for the first time since the storm hit, a gust of wind pushed his hair back and pelted him with rain. He thought about hypothermia and how to prevent it—and came up with nothing. At his feet, the river rushed past with such speed, he couldn’t imagine Gideon and Deshaun paddling back to him against the current. He began to think they weren’t his best bet for being rescued, but rather he had a better chance with other campers traveling downstream. After a while the last of the storm clouds went scudding by as the rain stopped and bright sunlight washed over the river and the shoreline.
For no reason at all, or else out of some mixture of fear and relief, Keith made a bullhorn of his hands and shouted out to the opposite shore, “Hey! I’m here! Hello! Is anybody there!” He took a step or two into the still-rushing water and shouted again. As if in response, somewhere behind him, he heard a booming crack that sounded like a shotgun blast, followed by a murderous roar. When he turned toward the sound he saw what looked like the whole hillside advancing on him. His heart pounded, his skin surged with heat, and then he was in the river struggling to find light and breath.
Henry straddled a picnic bench in front of his store—Henry’s Hardware and Sporting Goods—and chewed a bite of cherry cobbler as he listened to Martinez tell him about his brother-in-law who had come all the way from Los Angeles to live with him and his wife, Christina. The store was situated on a strip of land alongside a rural highway and under a looming mountain, with nothing on either side for half a mile in both directions. A roadside sign announced that the store sold hardware and sporting goods. It also rented U-Hauls and carried auto supplies, clothing, knickknacks, and food—and Henry’s wife, Allison, served breakfast and sandwiches from a small counter in back. Martinez’s brother-in-law, it seemed, was unprepared for life in rural West Virginia and wanted to go back home, even though his parents had thrown him out and he didn’t have a penny of his own.
“What’s the kid’s problem?” Henry asked. “Why’d his folks throw him out?”
“He was hanging around with the wrong crowd, you know?”
“And how old is he again?”
“Just turned nineteen.” Martinez finished off the last of his cobbler and took a sip of coffee. It was late afternoon on a hot summer day. Behind the two men, the store was empty except for the Johnson boy and a few of his friends looking at fishing gear. Their red Ford F-150 was parked alongside Martinez’s white Ford F-150 at the bottom of the store’s front steps. Allison was inside waiting on the boys.
“Well,” Henry said, “no harm in sending him by. But does he want a job?”
“The kid needs a job,” Martinez answered. “You know me a long time, my friend. The boy’s smart, and if I wasn’t sure you could trust him, I wouldn’t be asking.”
“Well, then, like I said, send him by.”
Martinez raised his coffee cup in a little toast. “He’ll be here first thing in the morning. You’ll see. You’ll like him.”
The men were quiet. The Johnson boy came out and they exchanged greetings, then he and his friends drove off, music blasting from the truck’s windows. The constant silence of the countryside settled back over the road and the store.
Martinez stood and tossed his coffee cup and paper plate into a trash bin. “You still plan on retiring soon?” he asked. This was a joke between them. Henry, in his mid-sixties, was a dozen years older than Martinez, and he’d been talking about retiring for more than a decade.
“One of these days pretty soon,” Henry said. “I’ve been thinking lately I’d like to sell the business to someone local who can run it right.”
“What about your younger boy? You said he loves the outdoors, right?” He shrugged and looked around him. “You don’t get any more outdoors than this.”
“Who knows?” Henry stood and shook hands with Martinez. “What did you say the kid’s name was?”
“Well, then, I’ll see Carlos in the morning.”
Martinez thanked Henry and drove off, leaving only Henry’s truck in the parking lot. Though he didn’t tell Martinez, Henry was still holding out hope that Gideon would take over the store. Oh, he wasn’t thinking the boy would work it full time, the way he and Allison had for the past thirty years, but only that he might manage it, keep it in the family. Meanwhile, he could move over to Morgantown if he wanted more of a social life—and with the reliable income from the store, he could open another more profitable business, or even businesses, of his own. Anyway, it was something he hoped Gideon would consider. Henry’s older son had moved clear to the other end of the country, to Seattle, pretty much breaking his mother’s heart.
Henry tossed his coffee cup and plate in the garbage and hesitated at the edge of the porch, watching the way the sun lit up the empty road and the line of trees stretching out beyond it.
Deshaun saw him first and bolted toward the river’s edge. In the sunshine that had come cascading down in bright torrents after the storm, Keith looked as though he might be sunning himself on the tangled mat of green branches sailing quickly down the river. His arms were spread wide as a preacher’s exhorting his congregation, and his white skin flashed bright against the muddy water and the green needles of a pine. His long blond hair was slicked back, and he was naked. He looked as though he had just stepped out of a shower. It took Deshaun a second to notice that Keith was impaled on one of the branches. It shot up out of his stomach, a small tree growing from his navel.
Gideon shouted for Deshaun to stop. He wanted to explain that that there was nothing they could do for Keith. He wanted to tell Deshaun that the river was still too dangerous, that the current would be impossible to negotiate, full of strainers and holes and entrapments and every deadly river hazard. But all that came out as he raced behind Deshaun was his name, which Gideon shouted over and over again, and which Deshaun ignored as he threw his canoe into the water, leapt into it, and took off paddling after Keith, who had already sailed past them.
For several seconds that felt endless, Gideon went on shouting after Deshaun, bellowing his name and telling him to get off the water; and when it was clear that Deshaun would ignore him, he waited at the edge of the table rock and wasted another eternity trying to decide what to do. The river was too dangerous. Keith was dead. Deshaun barely knew how to paddle. The only smart thing to do was to wait. To wait until it was safe. On scores of camping trips, Gideon’s father had taught him to balance daring with caution, not to be afraid but also not to be stupid. Sometimes it was a delicate balance. There were occasions when the boy Gideon didn’t know whether he was behaving fearfully or cautiously, but his father was always there for him, with the right word, the right suggestion. Unlike this moment, when his friend was dead and his other friend’s life at risk. In those seconds at the edge of the table rock, watching Keith and Deshaun rush away from him, he was momentarily paralyzed.
In his head, he came to a conclusion. The river was too dangerous. The only smart thing to do was to wait, and that was the thought—to wait until it was safe to get back on the river—that repeated itself in his conscious mind like a public service announcement as he raced back for his canoe, threw it in the river, and went after Deshaun.
He wasn’t out on the water for more than a few minutes before he acknowledged to himself that he was being a fool. The water was moving too fast. It was full of debris. He shouted again for Deshaun to stop, though at this point he doubted Deshaun had the skill to maneuver to shore even if that was what he wanted. Gideon wasn’t sure he’d be able to make it to shore himself without capsizing or getting caught in a strainer. Was he being a coward or was he being smart? He didn’t know, but he angled toward the shoreline and watched for a spot where he might be able to land. By the time he found a little cove and maneuvered into it, Deshaun was out of sight. He pulled the canoe ashore, tied it to a tree, and pushed his way through thickets and brush until he found a deer trail that ran parallel to the river. He walked a mile or more alongside the river with no sight of Deshaun. When he came to a spot where the river narrowed, he stopped, sat atop a boulder, and clasped his hands behind his head. Below him, an armada of fallen trees had formed a dam, and the swollen river hissed and growled as it overtopped the barrier and surged on. He knew—even before he spotted the silvery spire of Deshaun’s canoe lodged between a couple of tree trunks, the crumpled V of its hull splitting the river as it rushed past—that Deshaun was caught underwater in a hole. Keith too, probably. The hydraulics created by the dam would be inescapable.
Gideon sat on a boulder in the sunshine and looked down at the rushing waters. For a long time he was as blank as an untouched sheet of paper. He was so empty, it was almost as if he wasn’t there.
Helen found Robert stretched out on the living room couch, his hair still wet from a shower. His eyes were closed, and he appeared to be sleeping with a book open on his chest, his hands folded over the spine. She sat beside him, facing him, hip to hip, and touched her palm to his forehead. When he opened his eyes and looked at her, she apologized for her behavior in the kitchen. She said, “I can’t believe I threw a glass at you,” and her eyes filled with tears.
Robert said, “I was hoping you missed on purpose.”
Helen wiped away her tears and cuddled up alongside her husband, her head nestled against his chest. She told him again that she was sorry and promised it would never happen again. She wanted to explain that no matter how much she tried, she couldn’t keep herself from worrying over every little thing, and that sometimes all the worry and fear built up until she felt as though she couldn’t stand it another moment; and that was what happened in the kitchen; and that she had thrown the glass at him before she even realized what she was doing; and that she hardly knew what she was saying; and that she couldn’t believe, she just couldn’t believe that she had picked up the kitchen knife—but she couldn’t get any of it out, not a word. Instead, she wrapped her arm around Robert’s chest and pressed her head against his neck, and through her tears she told her husband that she loved him, which she hadn’t said in far too long. Robert kissed the top of her head and told her that he loved her, too; and then he was unbuttoning her blouse and reaching around to undo her bra.
When it was all over and he was still breathing hard, she slid out from under him and pulled a bright yellow cotton throw over both of them. They lay there together in the last of the daylight coming in through the living room windows, her head against his chest, his arm around her back, everything quiet and peaceful in the fading light.
Lauren reprimanded herself for wasting so much time looking through old photos. She closed the computer, took a heavy textbook down from a shelf above her desk, and applied herself to a reading assignment. She was taking a summer course that would count toward graduate credit, and she had a lot to do to be ready for the next day’s class. She was carrying a 4.0 gpa and intended it to stay that way. Behind her, the late-afternoon light came in through her bedroom window and cast a reddish glow over her bed and desk, as if the bedroom were being consumed by a gentle fire.
Allison found Henry on the porch, leaning against a column, watching the sunset. She came up alongside him and put her arm around his waist. They’d been married for thirty-two years, and neither of them felt the need to speak. Together they watched a thin line of clouds cast in shades of salmon and blue by the last of the sunlight, and were silent.
Gideon set up his tent facing the river. The storm winds had died down to a breeze that rippled over the water. He thought about building a fire, if only to keep himself busy, but the minutes passed and turned into hours, and he didn’t leave the tent. He lay inside his sleeping bag and watched the wind and sun on the river as his thoughts scattered from one thing to the next, from making a plan of action for the morning, to replaying again and again everything that had just happened, to what he would say to everyone, how he would try to explain it all. But he couldn’t focus. He couldn’t stay on one thought for long before his mind jumped to something else.
In and out of exhaustion, as the sun was going down, he drifted toward a restless sleep that was full of vivid dreams from which he’d awaken to the sound of a bird trilling or a squirrel skittering up a nearby tree. In one dream that felt like part dream and part waking memory, he was a boy again, with his mother on one side of him and his father on the other. They were in church, and the congregation was singing. He didn’t know what they were singing; he’d never heard the melody before, but it was a hymn in praise of God’s love, and the image was clear: the church packed with scores of his neighbors, family, and friends all singing in unison this mysterious hymn of praise. Keith and Deshaun were in another pew, close to the altar. He could only see the backs of their heads, but he knew it was them. He could hear them singing, their voices loud and clear and in perfect tune. He awoke from the dream to find the river bright and shimmering, mirroring a golden light, and for a brief moment he felt as if he had crossed a boundary out of time and space and was awake but still in that dream of church, and the wind in the trees and the sun on the river were singing the same mysterious hymn as the congregants.
Beneath Gideon, the turbulent river rushed past, flashing golden in dazzling sunlight, lit up with a pulsing, numinous beauty. Above him, the wind rustling through the crowns of countless trees sounded in his ears like thunderous applause.
Ed Falco’s stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and journals including The Atlantic, Southern Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review, which awarded him the Emily Clark Balch Prize. His novel, Transcendent Gardening, is forthcoming from C&R Press.