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.