Ellis Purdie

Things You Can’t See

In the ear­ly gloom, up on an elbow, Reid lis­tened from his bed hop­ing the cough­ing would cease. He felt afraid. His broth­er Justin strug­gled in the next room—his low, scrap­ing cough cut­ting through the wall between their rooms. Justin’s dog, Pepper, barked. His broth­er had been bur­dened off and on for months with a lung infec­tion after he’d fall­en out of their fish­ing boat into Lake Trevor and tak­en a breath of water. Flare-ups of his cys­tic fibro­sis had been a con­stant. He’d recov­ered slow­ly, and only in the last week had final­ly got­ten back to tun­ing and play­ing his gui­tar, talk­ing with a voice less hoarse and restrained.

He got up and pushed his sheets back, swung his feet to the floor and crossed the room. The floor boomed under his feet: foun­da­tion prob­lems he’d yet to take care of. He opened his door, and in the hall his daugh­ter Merrill stood in her door­way. Her light brown hair was messy, sharp shoul­ders jut­ting through a long, light-yel­low t-shirt. She pressed her lips togeth­er and looked away from him.

Reid held up a hand as he opened Justin’s door, mouthed “I got it” to his daugh­ter.

His broth­er looked up at him as he entered the room, turned over and coughed into his mat­tress. Justin wore a patchy beard. He’d begun to sweat and his black hair was mat­ted to his fore­head and glis­ten­ing dul­ly.

Easy, easy,” Reid said. He led the dog by her col­lar down off the bed. “Turn over, hey,” he said to his broth­er, tug­ging at his shoul­der. Reid felt some­thing relax in his brother’s bones, a weak­en­ing of resis­tance that calmed him in return. He placed a pil­low under his brother’s abdomen, and with cupped hands, mas­saged just below Justin’s shoul­der blades on either side of the spine. The spine felt some­what ridged and brit­tle, like an old cat’s. Reid moved his laced hands along Justin’s back, a sound like the pop of a ten­nis ball. “Just like she taught us—breathe and cough,” he said. He did this for sev­er­al min­utes. He closed his eyes and felt fatigue set­tle in the sock­ets, in his shoul­ders. Felt it lessen the pres­sure he’d been apply­ing on his broth­er. Sleep was all he had want­ed this morn­ing after an evening spent in train­ing at his job. He’d just tak­en a posi­tion at a com­pa­ny that sold food proces­sors, and when he wasn’t answer­ing phones for cus­tomer ser­vice, he packed and then loaded machines into trucks or did the receiv­ing for defec­tive mer­chan­dise. His body had begun tilt­ing for­ward in sleep, when Justin’s cough­ing tore him awake. A dif­fer­ent cough this time, the one Reid was hop­ing for. He searched over the room. Beside the door was an emp­ty trash­can. No lin­er. “Merrill,” Reid called. When he heard her voice he told her to bring a lin­er. Coughs wracked his brother’s body.

Before she could return, Justin began to force the junk from his lungs. Reid stepped away, coaxed Pepper up off her bed and then slid the bed across the floor towards Justin. His broth­er shook his head, but then gave in, hold­ing his head over the dog bed until he’d coughed up all he could. When he was done he lay back, eyes watery, tak­ing whistling breaths.

Merrill ran in with the lin­er, stood a moment. “Buck short,” she said.

Reid shrugged, rolled his eyes. The dog bed would have to be washed, and he wasn’t sure the out­er cov­er was remov­able, wash­er friend­ly. The pos­si­bil­i­ty he’d have to scrub it him­self made him weary.

Sorry I woke you—both of you,” Justin said.

Reid sat down at the end of the bed, rubbed his eyes. He need­ed a show­er. “It’s fine,” he said. “We got any uphol­stery clean­er?”

Of course,” Justin said. Justin worked at an auto detail­ing shop, and there was a steady sup­ply of car prod­ucts around the house: wax, jugs of ocean-blue soap, wipes that made a dash­board glare. “I’ll take care of that,” he waved down toward the dog bed.

Reid nod­ded, relieved. “We need to check your breath­ing,” he said. Merrill left the room. He wait­ed for his broth­er to sit up on his own, and when he did not, he shuf­fled over and pulled him up by one arm. Did he expect to be helped with every lit­tle thing? Sometimes Reid felt he need­ed some help, need­ed more peo­ple around. They spent too much time in this house, went too long just the two of them, the three of them on week­ends when Merrill was around.

Reid watched his broth­er. Justin looked beat, wip­ing his mouth with the back of his hand. He wore a fad­ed black t-shirt with the front pock­et unrav­el­ing and cut-off shorts. Merrill returned with a big cup of water from which Justin sipped. She’d brought the spirom­e­ter from the kitchen as well: a mouth­piece and long tube attached to an encased pis­ton. It mea­sured Justin’s inhala­tions.

Throw that fuck­ing bed away,” Justin said.

Reid said, “We’ll take care of the bed,” adjust­ing the tar­get point­er on the spirom­e­ter to the lev­el he want­ed his broth­er to reach.

I mean do it now. Merrill—now.” He motioned toward the dog bed.

Merrill rolled her eyes. Her shoul­ders slack­ened and she let her­self stag­ger to the dog bed, feet hit­ting the floor hard.

What are you rolling your eyes for?” Justin said.

Justin—,” Reid waved a hand. “Merr, I got the bed. Go back to sleep.”

Merrill turned from the bed, ruf­fling her hair. “Like I could,” she said, leav­ing the room.

His broth­er inhaled on the spirom­e­ter. He kept the ball in the air about the same as he’d done all year, but no bet­ter, strug­gling to meet the lev­el on the tar­get point­er. Pepper watched from the hall. When Justin was done, he lay back on the bed.

Get up, let’s go get some­thing to eat. You need some pro­tein,” Reid said.

The three of them washed up and then drove out to Pass Christian for Japanese take-out. They piled back into the car with their clamshell box­es of chick­en and shrimp, fried rice and small con­tain­ers of pink sauce. They drove to the beach and parked. Reid killed the engine but left the radio on, rolled down all the win­dows. While they were eat­ing, a song by the Counting Crows came on, one Reid remem­bered from the late 90s, “Angels of Silence” or some­thing like that, he couldn’t remem­ber for sure. Justin reached over and turned the vol­ume up a bit too high: some­thing he did when his ears were stuffy and deaf­ened some. “Down a lit­tle,” Reid said, turn­ing the knob left. He dipped a shrimp in pink sauce and brought it to his mouth.

The sky was still over­cast and hot breeze blew into the car, threat­en­ing rain. The water out in the gulf was chop­py and white. Reid punched the but­ton set to NPR, to hear the weath­er report.

Put that back. I fuck­ing love that song,” Justin said.

All right, putting it back,” Reid said. He grinned and swapped it to a local sta­tion, the one that played right wing com­men­tary dur­ing the week, Baptist ser­mons on Sunday. A voice came through the speak­ers: “You’re ask­ing me, ‘How come the world has such a hold on my child?’”

We’re miss­ing the rest of the song,” Justin said. He reached over and Reid bat­ted his hand down.

Just lis­ten, some­times the guy says some­thing inter­est­ing.”

God nev­er got a hold of you, that’s why,” the preach­er said. “You’d rather watch TV. You can’t make it here in the morn­ing, but you can sit in a deer stand. I have peo­ple tell me, ‘Well, I don’t feel good that’s why I don’t make it to church.’ But you can suck those cig­a­rettes. You feel good enough to do that.”

He’s got us on all counts,” Reid said. “Swap deer stand for boat.”

Speak for your­self,” Merrill said, her mouth full of fried rice. “I don’t smoke or watch TV.”

You’re answer­able just for hang­ing out with us,” Justin said. “I’ve heard this one before. Pretty soon he’s going to talk about Lot. You know—camped beside Sodom and Gomorrah. Then he moved in. Give it time, Merr.”

His daugh­ter shrugged. “How else am I going to get lunch?” She pinned a shrimp with her fork and ate.

Good point,” Reid said, look­ing at her in the rearview.

Gulls swooped and screeched out by the water. Reid lis­tened to the ser­mon. He didn’t real­ly buy much of what the guy said. Still, lis­ten­ing was sort of com­fort­ing. There were oth­ers lis­ten­ing too, guilty too. Reid didn’t share the gospel, didn’t go to church or force Merrill to go. He did pray some­times, most­ly when he felt help­less, most­ly over Justin, but it didn’t mean much—he didn’t believe it made any dif­fer­ence. But it did make him thank­ful, thank­ful his broth­er was there with him in the car, eat­ing by the beach. He wasn’t sure there’d be many more days like this one.

The radio went to a com­mer­cial break, the pas­tor they’d been lis­ten­ing to announc­ing a revival at a lake where Reid and Justin fished. Reid looked at his broth­er.

When they fin­ished eat­ing, they drove to an arcade near­by, next to a Laundromat, and Reid and Merrill watched while Justin played Punch-Out. Sweat popped from Justin’s fore­head as he leaned into play, but­tons snap­ping under his fin­gers.

Oh my gosh, some­one has some­thing to prove,” Merrill said.

A young black man sat a table near­by, wear­ing long braids and wife-beat­er and jeans. He had one shiny gold tooth in front and was drink­ing a Coke. “He gone get to Tyson in a minute. This man’s a war­rior.”

Going to burn my ini­tials into this machine,” Justin said. He forced the joy­stick to the right and tapped a but­ton com­bo. The gloved arms onscreen swung a right hook: Justin’s oppo­nent col­laps­ing, the let­ters “K.O.” blink­ing in bright yel­low and red. Justin looked at Reid and breathed, grinned and wiped his fore­head with his sleeve. “You want to try it?”

By now a small crowd had gath­ered, had come over from doing laun­dry. A cou­ple of Mexican kids about ten or so, and their father Reid guessed seat­ed on the win­dow sill, read­ing a paper and glanc­ing up every now and then above his glass­es to see Justin play. And a white woman had tak­en a seat next to the black guy at the table.

Reid shook his head. “I wouldn’t remem­ber what to do.”

You remem­ber, let me teach you, come on,” Justin said. “I ever let you embar­rass your­self before?”

Step into the ring,” the black guy said. “Bets are open.”

His daugh­ter slapped his shoul­der, told him to come on. Reid stag­gered over to the machine. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s get this over with.” Justin moved in beside him, his face a few inch­es above his left hand, pressed against the machine. He coached him, Reid’s hand-eye moves led with ease by Justin’s voice. His broth­er was a good teacher, and Reid won­dered what he could do if he just had a few more years.

*

From the sev­ered pier, Reid sat star­ing into the lake water. The shal­low water was dirty, but see-through, and shad­ows wavered on the bot­tom like elec­tric­i­ty. A soda can, half-eat­en with algae, lay tilt­ing slight­ly one way, then the oth­er, the brand obscured by rust. “Could be a beer can,” Reid said aloud. The last time he’d fished here with his broth­er, they’d drunk a warm six-pack of PBR because they’d for­got­ten to grab ice on the way. The day had been warm, but easy, and Reid had been relieved. When it was too hot, Justin’s fatigue set in, forc­ing them home. He’d still fall­en in, tak­en that breath of water.

Reid need­ed to try fish­ing with­out his broth­er. He’d tried to get Justin to come along, to check out the revival with him, just for a laugh, but Justin had said he wasn’t feel­ing up to it, the morn­ing going like it had. At best, Justin would live into his for­ties. He was thir­ty-nine now, and before long, Reid would have no choice but to get along on his own. The thought knot­ted in his chest, moved up his throat. Across the lake, music played from two speak­ers set up at one of the cab­ins: the revival, Reid fig­ured.

Reid went back down the pier towards his pick-up and stepped off into the mud to launch the boat. He need­ed to fish, to do some­thing to ease his mind. Reid had been dis­ap­point­ed the clouds had cleared off after noon. The lake was down sev­er­al feet, the air traced with the sod­den earth, and Reid took a breath and tried to be thank­ful. He passed the boat trail­er and reached his dark green Ford Edge, got in and turned the engine over. The truck in reverse, Reid looked behind him and eased off of the brake back into the mud, know­ing the moment he did the truck would be stuck. He closed his eyes. His hand trem­bled on the steer­ing wheel. Justin wouldn’t have let him to do that; he’d have thought longer, hard­er. That was his way. Reid flung the lever into dri­ve and gave her some gas and the truck jolt­ed for­ward with an abrupt stop, tires shriek­ing in the mud. He set his teeth, killed the engine and got out. He kicked the side of the truck bed and took a few steps for­ward, rest­ed his hands on his knees and breathed.

You all right?” a woman said.

She had to be about his age, mid-thir­ties. Her long dark hair was up, two chop-sticks it looked like crossed through the bun. The face was soft, with eyes sud­den and blue, a long hand­some nose. On her feet, bal­let shoes.

I’d give you a hug,” she said. “But I’d rather not get these dirty.” She stood on her toes a sec­ond.

Reid spat. “I look like I need a hug?” Hands still on his knees, he squint­ed at her.

Your truck does, with that dent you just left in it.”

He smiled at her. “I’ll bet you can’t see the dent rid­ing shot­gun.”

She rocked for­ward again on the plat­forms of her slip­pers. “I was actu­al­ly going to sort of ask you over.” She crooked her head, ges­tured with her eye­brows across the lake. The revival.

He turned and glanced at the truck, shrugged. “You ever had any­one, just sort of guid­ed you through things?”

Christ,” she said. “And my com­mu­ni­ty.” Again, she nod­ded toward the oth­er side of the lake, to the cab­in with the music. “I came over to see if you want­ed to join us. Maybe after we pull your truck out?”

Reid stood. “Someone over there have a truck?”

She offered her hand. “I’m Stacy,” she said. “And yeah—friend’s hus­band has a truck. Let’s walk.”

He nod­ded and fol­lowed her. “Reid,” he said. “I’m Reid.”

You shouldn’t be out here alone, Reid,” she said. “Christ sent out his dis­ci­ples in twos, and some of them were fish­er­men.” She frowned sweet­ly.

My broth­er usu­al­ly comes along. He’s sick.”

They walked around the far end of the lake, and through the pines trees. Parked at the side of the cab­in was bright red Dodge truck. “Justin has cys­tic fibro­sis, so he’s tired most of the time.”

You live with him?” Stacy said.

Yeah, his house, out in Pascagoula.”

Is that what you both want?”

Reid drew his eye­brows togeth­er, sort of laughed.

What?” she said.

Well, no, not real­ly,” Reid said. “I don’t want to be liv­ing with my broth­er. I’m broke, so that’s why. But, he’s also sick and needs the help around the place. And I guess I’m not doing so well either since the divorce.”

My par­ents got divorced. Didn’t do any­one any good.”

I didn’t want it; she did,” Reid said. They were going up the hill toward the cab­in, and Reid’s legs began to cramp. This would have been hell on Justin. His shirt went damp at the chest, and he thought how good it would feel once he was inside, the air-con­di­tion­ing cool­ing the fab­ric. The music had grown loud­er as they neared and Stacy waved for a man’s atten­tion, and get­ting it, motioned him toward them. The vol­ume decreased. “That’s Kyle,” Stacy said, voice raised over the music. “He’s got the truck.”

Kyle made his way down to them. He wore a base­ball cap, a t-shirt and jeans and had large mus­cles. Had he cho­sen, he could have been intim­i­dat­ing. He intro­duced him­self and Reid explained that his truck was stuck.

That’s yours on the oth­er side?” Kyle said. His green eyes were sober, face slack. He spoke like some­one who’d nev­er had a prob­lem he couldn’t fix.

Yeah, the one with the trail­er.”

All right,” Kyle said. With his head he ges­tured towards the Dodge and they walked over. There was a car­di­nal on Kyle’s ball cap.

You keep up with base­ball?”

Oh yeah,” Kyle said, stick­ing his key into the igni­tion. The Dodge rum­bled to a start and he looked out the back wind­shield. “My family’s from Arizona, so we root for the Cardinals. You like base­ball?”

Reid gave a ner­vous laugh. No get­ting away from Justin. “My broth­er and I played ball for a long time, until he got sick, until he couldn’t any­more. He was too tired, didn’t make for a good short-stop.”

Kyle’s face slack­ened. “What’s wrong with him?”

Reid was tired of talk­ing. “CF,” he said.

What’s that now?”

Cystic fibro­sis,” he said. He opened the door while they were still a cou­ple of yards away from the Ford and Kyle slowed down and let him out. Reid took up the chain from his truck and motioned for Kyle to turn the Dodge around. Once he’d secured the chains around Kyle’s hitch and around his own bumper, he got in and start­ed the engine, and in a few min­utes, Reid’s truck was free from the mud. He got out and took up the chain again, tossed it back into the truck bed with a heavy crash. He nod­ded at Kyle. “Thanks.”

Kyle lift­ed his hat and ran a hand through his hair, read­just­ed it on his head. “You should go get your broth­er, come back to the cook­out,” Kyle said. “We’d love to have you.”

Reid want­ed to say no, but had trou­ble doing so, see­ing as how kind they’d been. “I don’t know,” he said.

Kyle roughed Reid up at the shoul­ders. “What’d you, need to pay for your next meal? Come out and eat with us.”

No, he didn’t need to pay for his next meal, and if there was food left­over, he might be able to take some home and not wor­ry about pay­ing for meals for a cou­ple of days. “I’ll see,” he said. He got into his truck and pulled away, glanced in his mir­ror at Kyle, who stood there watch­ing him go, hands by his side.

They seemed to have some sort of weird joy.

When he point­ed into his dri­ve­way Pepper shot out from under the steps and began rac­ing along­side the truck until Reid reached the house. He messed with her, hit­ting the brakes to make her stop, then floor­ing it so she’d have to speed up. He killed the engine and got out.  “Hey, gal,” Reid said. “You’re going to hurt your­self one of these days. You been look­ing after broth­er man?” He grasped one of her ears as he went up the steps, let­ting it sweep through his hand as he head­ed for the door. Inside, Merrill sat at the kitchen table. Her text­books were out, and she appeared to be work­ing on home­work. Justin lay on the couch and looked over at him. Reid smelled cig­a­rette smoke.

He been smok­ing?”

The girl rolled her eyes. Looking at her was heart­break­ing. She looked so much like her moth­er. Justin reached into his shirt pock­et and took out a hand-rolled cig­a­rette, put it to his mouth.

Damn it,” Reid said. He snatched the cig­a­rette from his lips. “What the hell are you think­ing?”

Justin spat weak­ly at a speck of tobac­co on his low­er lip. His eyes had deep cir­cles under them, a sort of bruised pur­ple.

You fuck­ing know bet­ter,” Reid said. “And in front of her?”

Justin sat up slow­ly. “But it’s okay to swear in front of her.”

This isn’t about me,” he said.

His broth­er stood, stag­gered towards his cor­ner where he kept an eight-track recorder, a micro­phone and his gui­tar. Knowing his years were short, Justin had decid­ed that he need­ed to record as much of his own music as pos­si­ble, so that when he died, he’d still be able to speak. The prob­lem was that he wasn’t all that good at the gui­tar, but he’d spent over a thou­sand dol­lars on an elec­tric Les Paul Hollowbody any­way, because it was the gui­tar John Lennon played.

Reid knew a lit­tle about gui­tars. Though he didn’t play, he’d worked at a music shop for a few years, set­ting up drum sets, clean­ing the bod­ies of gui­tars and installing new strings and pick­ups. He’d spent a lot of time lis­ten­ing to peo­ple who could play, and he strug­gled to keep his mouth shut over Justin’s missed notes and bro­ken rhythms, the posi­tion of his hand. He didn’t want an album of his brother’s music. He want­ed Justin to live anoth­er fifty years, for him to be the one to bear the loss.

You catch any­thing?” Justin said. In his chair, he swiveled around to his broth­er, a wing of black hair in front of his face. He tuned his gui­tar, slid a head­phone over one ear and hit play on the eight-track.

Reid shook his head. “Nothing,” he said. “Had to have some­one pull the truck out.”

Lucky you some­one was around,” Justin said.

Yeah. A church group. They invit­ed us back to their cook­out; I told them I’d come.”

Justin had turned away.

You hear me?” Reid said.

Justin peered over his shoul­der. “Who are they?”

They’re with a church,” Reid said. He poured him­self a cup of cold cof­fee and stuck the mug in the microwave. “Merrill, do you want to come?”

Okay,” the girl said.

Justin, you com­ing?”

He now had his head­phones on both ears, turn­ing knobs on the eight-track. Then he coughed, low and rau­cous, and he rook a rag from his back pock­et and brought it to his mouth.

Justin,” Reid said loud­er. He was angry at his broth­er for cough­ing, for not being able to stop. “I’m talk­ing to you,” he said.

His broth­er yanked off his head­phones. “What?” he said soft­ly.

Reid had been pre­pared for Justin to shout, to tell him he couldn’t fuck­ing talk for the cough­ing, and his yield­ing voice made him feel awful. “Are you com­ing or are you not?”

I’d pre­fer to stay here, get some work done.” He spoke into his hand.

The microwave dinged and Reid reached for his cof­fee but stopped. “Come hang out with and me and Merrill,” he said. “Maybe the temps will drop and we can find a shady place to fish.”

Justin shook his head. “Too hot, the bream will have moved to deep­er water.”

That’s why I said maybe it’ll cool down. Maybe they’ll come back.”

They don’t do that, Reid.”

Reid came up behind him and put him in a head­lock. “You want to fuck­ing argue? I’ll tell you what doesn’t do some­thing, those notes don’t come out right when you hold the gui­tar like that. Prick.” His broth­er gripped his shoul­ders, press­ing him back. Reid tried to kid with him, but frus­tra­tion tight­ened in his fore­arm, pressed from his chin into the top of Justin’s head. He strug­gled to breathe. The chair began to lean back, then fell, and Reid let go.

Jesus Christ,” Justin said into the floor. “What the fuck is wrong with you? Fine, let’s go.” He pushed up on his hands and knees. The gui­tar lay off to the side of him, the strap across his back at the waist.

His broth­er was too weak to argue, to fight back. Reid felt sick. In his frus­tra­tion he’d for­got­ten how lit­tle his broth­er could take. He was like a rot­ted plank in a pier, porous and flak­ing: one hard step and it could snap, sink from sight. Still, he’d liked the girl, Stacy, and want­ed Justin to meet her, approve of her. And maybe she’d be good for Merrill. Maybe he could steal that joy from those peo­ple. They need­ed to get out.

He lift­ed his broth­er up from the floor. The microwave beeped again, and Reid went over and took out the cof­fee. He offered it to Justin.

Justin coughed. “Had some,” he said. He dis­ap­peared into the hall­way, to get dressed Reid fig­ured. Water start­ed through the pipes in the bath­room.

Reid took his cof­fee over to the win­dow. The mug bumped against the sill and cof­fee leapt over the rim. He dried the sill with his shirt.

Mom called,” Merrill said.

She say what for?” He turned with his back against the glass.

To ask how your job is going,” she said.

Tell her I’m fine,” he said.

You’re not going to call her?”

Barring a mir­a­cle, May, I don’t see why your mom would be sit­ting around wait­ing on me to call. Unless it’s about child sup­port.”

His daugh­ter looked up. “You ever think maybe you should keep some things to your­self?”

Reid pushed off from the win­dow, coast­ed to the table and kissed Merrill on her head. She smelled bright and clean, the sham­poo she used. “Yeah,” he said. “I’ll call her.” He went out the door and stepped onto the porch and dialed Lindie. The sun fell across the dri­ve­way, made the bits of glass in the grav­el sparkle. Reid sat in one of the white wood beach chairs, the one with one arm bro­ken, his legs straight out, and Pepper lay down at his feet.

When Lindie answered she said, “Make it quick, Bub. I’m in the mid­dle of some­thing.”

What’s that?” Reid said.

She told him she was going out that evening, and when he asked her if it was a date she said she thought so.

I think I sort of have one, too,” Reid said.

It’s all right, isn’t it?” she said. “Don’t you feel like you’ve got more poten­tial now? Like there’s room?”

Not real­ly,” Reid said. “You’ll recall I have a dying broth­er.”

I recall,” Lindie said. “How is he?”

Oh, you know: a spoon­ful of sug­ar helps the med­i­cine go down.”

Yeah, he’s a dif­fer­ent case, I know. I guess I meant that most things end, but with you and me, it doesn’t feel hope­less. More like a rearrange­ment, less like an ampu­ta­tion.”

Glad things look good from where you’re stand­ing.”

You know what I mean,” she said. She asked about Merrill and work and he told her both were fine. When he hung up, Justin had come out the door, dressed, his hair wet and combed back. His face had more col­or to it, from the heat in the show­er. Still, he nev­er seemed to look much bet­ter these days. He could not wash away his ill­ness. Reid’s mind went back to Stacy, her quot­ing the Bible, and from there his mind went to church, to that sto­ry where Christ told the blind man to wash in the pool, and the man came out see­ing. “Look,” Reid said. “There’s this girl at the lake I want you to meet.”

His broth­er eased into the chair next to his, exhaled and coughed. “Why didn’t you just say that?” he said. Pepper moved from Reid to Justin.

 

When they reached the cab­in, there were more cars out front than when he left. He found a spot next to a large pine and parked, switched off the engine. The dog climbed onto the side of the truck bed, poised a sec­ond before leap­ing onto the ground, put her head down and start­ed trail­ing. They got out and made their way towards the cab­in, but before they reached the front door, Kyle came out and greet­ed them. “It’s good you made it back. Whose dog is that?”

Mine,” Justin said.

That’s fine,” Kyle said, push­ing his cap up a lit­tle. “Just keep her out here. Wife’s aller­gic, bad aller­gic.”

Who said she was com­ing inside?”

Just let­ting you know,” Kyle said.

Reid turned and looked at his broth­er, eyes telling him to take it easy. Justin whis­tled for Pepper, and she came run­ning. The two of them made their way down the incline towards the lake. Reid fol­lowed Kyle inside. “I’m sor­ry about him,” he said.

Kyle nod­ded. “Not try­ing to be rude, Heather just can’t han­dle pets.”

It’s fine,” Reid said. “He’ll be fine.” To the right was a den, and on the hard­wood floor Stacy sat stretch­ing. She looked up, a ten­dril of hair in front of her eye. “I know you’d come back. Your brother’s here, too?”

Sort of. What’s with the shoes?”

She lay her face along­side her knee, spoke into the floor. “I’ve been into bal­let for—.” She glanced to her left, squint­ing. “Twenty-two years?” she said. “Something like that.” She sat up and brushed the strand of hair behind her ear. “I teach dance down­town as well.” Stacy stood, bal­anced her­self on her toes. She moved towards him. Watching her, he felt as though he were see­ing some­thing for the first time. The rib­bons wrapped around her ankles remind­ed him of del­i­cate birds.

Reid said, “What do you know about that Jesus sto­ry? The one where he tells the guy to go wash in the pool?”

The blind man,” she said. “Hand me that would you?” She point­ed to a clear-blue water con­tain­er on a small table beside the arm of the couch.

He passed her the water. “That one, yeah; what do you know about it?”

Only what scrip­ture says, I guess. And that I’ve seen mir­a­cles.” She took a long swig of water and he watched the hol­low of her neck move slight­ly up and down.

You’ve seen mir­a­cles?”

I’m a liv­ing one,” she said. She col­lapsed cross-legged onto the beige car­pet. “I used to have asth­ma. I don’t any­more.”

Reid shook his head, sat down on the couch and stared past her out the win­dow. “That’s so easy and you know it. It’s always some­thing you can’t see that’s healed. Whenever peo­ple talk about it.”

That’s fine you don’t have to believe me. I’m more inter­est­ed in your believ­ing in Christ.”

What about my broth­er?” he said. “Could you heal him?”

Her arms were out­stretched, a posi­tion you’d make for a snow angel. “I don’t know who can and can’t be healed. I know if the Spirit moves he’ll be healed.”

If the Spirit moves, Reid thought. Pepper moved past the win­dow, still trail­ing. It had been a long time since he’d been around some­one who talked like this. He liked hear­ing her talk about it, real or not.

I don’t know like, Christ didn’t heal every­one, but he did heal some. And that’s what he still does, heals some.” She got up and sat next to him on the couch.

Like you,” Reid said.

You’ve got be will­ing,” Stacy said.

We’re will­ing,” Reid said. “Who wouldn’t be will­ing?”

In the cor­ner was a beach ball, and Stacy stood up and went over rolled the ball towards her with a foot. “Is that why you’re here?”

I think I’d have come back with or with­out him.”

Well, you’re both here,” she said. She brought the ball into the air with her foot and caught it. “You want us to pray for him? Lay hands on him?”

He’d crossed the room and was behind her. “Lay your hand on me first,” Reid said. “For all the things you can’t see.”

She leaned in and kissed him, quick and soft, and she ran a thumb along his brow and down his face.

Dad,” Merrill said.

His daugh­ter stood in the door­way, and in a way see­ing her felt like heal­ing. With Stacy in the room it hurt less to see her. “Yeah?” he said.

Didn’t know you had a daugh­ter,” Stacy said. She offered her hand to Merrill and intro­duced her­self.

You’re the rea­son he’s out here,” Merrill said.

Not the only one I hope,” Stacy said.

Behind Merrill, Justin came inside. A num­ber of peo­ple had made their way back inside the cab­in, and the hall­way had got­ten busier and the main room at the back of the house nois­i­er. Reid could see Justin was ready to go and he went up to him. “I want to talk to you,” he said.

They went out­side. The light had begun to die, the sur­face of the lake, slick as glass, hold­ing onto the last of the pale orange glow. Crickets sang in the brush, and down by the water, the frogs. “What if you let them pray over you?” Reid said.

You’re the fifth per­son here who’s asked me that. Since when do you give a shit?”

Since your whole life, Justin.”

Stacy came out and stood by the door­way. Reid gave her a nod. “Look, I don’t know. There’s some­thing in her, the girl, Stacy. Just let her pray over you.”

Justin’s fatigue showed in his face, the same weak­ness from ear­li­er in the day. He would not argue. “All right,” he said. “Then we can go home?”

Yeah,” he said. He motioned for Stacy to come over, and when she reached them he said, “Does he need to wash in the lake or some­thing?”

Justin’s mouth opened. “What are you, out of your mind? The lake will fuck­ing kill me, Reid. I’ll get cold.”

Stacy’s eyes widened a sec­ond and she bit her lip. “No—no he doesn’t have to do that.” She shook her head. “Let’s go inside.”

When they went in, sev­er­al peo­ple, all mem­bers of the church Reid fig­ured, had gath­ered in the den. People Reid had not met. Stacy pushed them into their midst and Reid was beside a man with thin­ning, curled dark hair. Hands touched his back, reached over his shoul­der and onto Justin’s back. The man wore a sharp cologne that smelled like after­shave, and Reid couldn’t tell if his eyes were closed or a lit­tle open. There was Kyle, and anoth­er cou­ple beside him. They looked so clean, their clothes styl­ish. The guy’s hair was short and he wore a black short-sleeved but­ton-up and jeans, his wife’s skin white and her arms and legs lim­ber.

He’s sick,” Stacy said. “He needs heal­ing.”

You got that every­one,” the man with the Bible said. “This man wants heal­ing. We’re going to pro­claim a heal­ing right here and now.”

That’s right,” Kyle said.

There were Amens, and Reid heard whis­pers in tongues.   Someone asked Stacy to pray for them. She took her hand from Reid’s shoul­der and placed both of them on his broth­er, then began to pray. He tried lis­ten­ing but could not pay atten­tion. The oth­ers prayed loud­er now, gib­ber­ish he could not under­stand. He’d heard of speak­ing in “tongues,” but nev­er heard it until now. He want­ed to hear Stacy’s words, and knew then he want­ed hers to be the voice of God. It occurred to him his eyes were open, but he was not where he could see her lips move. He watched a man’s face. He had cop­per-col­ored skin, a short, curly hair­cut. Beside him a short, stocky black woman also kept her eyes closed, pray­ing in tongues. Justin’s eyes were open, too, and his teeth were grit­ted. The pray­ing went on for too long, and the mus­cles in Reid’s neck and back began to ache. His brother’s eyes met his own but he looked away. Outside, Pepper howled, the one she made when­ev­er she went after some­thing. Justin broke free from the group, shoved past the arms that tried hold­ing him there. “Let go, damnit,” he said. “Pepper,” he called. “Pepper!” he said again.

She’ll come back,” Reid said, fol­low­ing

She’s hunt­ing, she’ll be at I-10 before long.” He was out the door. His breath began to quick­en and he called again, the dog’s name came out wast­ed and raw from his chest.

Calm down. She’ll come back.”

Should have brought her inside. I didn’t because that bitch who isn’t sick didn’t want her in there. Fuck, what are we doing here?”

Why didn’t you just put her in the fuck­ing truck?” Reid said.

The sun was gone and the sky was blue-grey in the dusk. The air had grown cool. Justin walked towards the woods. “Justin, what the fuck are you doing?”

Someone’s got to find her,” he said.

You’re going to get sick. Wait till she comes back.”

He spoke with­out turn­ing around. “Why don’t you go back in and try pray­ing her back?”

Several peo­ple from inside the cab­in had come out, Kyle and Stacy with them. Reid caught up with his broth­er, grabbed him by the shirt col­lar. “Get your ass in the truck,” he said.

Justin turned and shoved Reid. It was every­thing he had, and he began to cough. Seeing the church mem­bers watch­ing, he tried to close his mouth, bury the rack­et. He stag­gered to the truck and got in.

Pepper,” Reid yelled. He spot­ted his daugh­ter. “Merrill, keep call­ing the dog.”

His broth­er coughed hard inside the truck.

Those gath­ered out­side looked more bro­ken than pow­er­less. Reid looked away in the dark, where his shad­owed daugh­ter made her way toward the trees.

 

They called for close to two hours, but did not find the dog. They drove home with­out speak­ing, noth­ing but the tires on the road, his daughter’s and brother’s faces blue in the dash glow. Merrill kept look­ing wor­ried­ly over at her uncle. They reached the house and went inside, Justin ahead of them. He dis­ap­peared in the back to his room.   Reid went for the Les Paul. He brought the gui­tar into his brother’s bed­room, flipped the light on. He lay the gui­tar on the bed, next to his broth­er who was face­down.

Play,” he told him. “Please. I’ll find the dog.”

 

Reid parked his truck back in front of the cab­in. There were few­er cars, and he wasn’t sure Stacy would even be there. He went inside and the man he’d noticed next to Justin was still there. “Stacy around?” he said.

He scratched above his ear. “She left, went on back home I imag­ine. Something I can do for you, man?”

You know where I can find her?”

The man’s eyes nar­rowed, and he said he wasn’t sure he should be giv­ing out Stacy’s per­son­al infor­ma­tion. When Reid pressed him he said he’d text Stacy his num­ber, and if she want­ed to con­tact him, the ball would be in her court.

When she called, he answered, back on the road. She told him where she lived, and he drove. Her house had a white, wick­er swing, where she sat when he pulled up. Flowers with pots, vines on the squared columns. He approached her and said, “We’ve got to find that dog.”

I’ve got some flash­lights,” she said. “A lantern if you’re inter­est­ed.”

You couldn’t heal him.”

I can’t heal any­one,” she said. “The Spirit does that.”

The Spirit won’t do for him,” Reid said. The air was crisp, get­ting cold­er, and he dug his hands into his pock­ets. “But I’m pray­ing we find this dog. He’ll die quick­er if we don’t. And I don’t want to pray about it, or talk real­ly, I just want to do it.”

She got up and took his arm just above the elbow. She walked him to the pas­sen­ger side, opened the door for him then closed him in. Then she got in, asked for the keys.

 

They drove back out to the cab­in and called. Stacy still had on her shoes, and now they were caked with mud. When Pepper did not come they began to dri­ve down the rut­ted, dirt roads lead­ing into the woods. The moon was bright, cut­ting through the trees, its light sharp with cold. The truck bumped and jarred, the head­lights wash­ing over the tree trunks on either side of them, the stand­ing water in the ruts and the dead leaves. The road stretched ahead of them, straight into the dark­ness. Then they spot­ted her, run­ning in front of the truck, in the head­lights.

Stop, that’s her,” Reid said, and looked over. But for some rea­son, Stacy did not stop the truck.

Don’t you want to see how far she’ll go?” Stacy said. “Where she’ll take us?” She pressed the gas some, and Pepper sped up, too.

Reid watched the dog in the beams, the mus­cles tense through her coat. He looked over at Stacy. She bit her low­er lip in a smile. The dog gal­loped like she was in front of a sled, pulling them by a strap of light, full breaths sweep­ing into her lungs. His broth­er had not been healed, but he felt like he was being led some­where all right all the same.

~

Ellis Purdie is a Ph.D. can­di­date in cre­ative writ­ing at The University of Southern Mississippi.  Previous work has appeared in Fried Chicken and Coffee, Grasslimb, and Product.  He lives in Petal, MS, with his wife and fox­hound.