John Henry Fleming

Egret

Frank took up golf when he and his wife moved to Lost Lakes Preserve three months ago. He hadn’t bro­ken nine­ty, and today looked like the day. He’d cov­ered the front nine in 44, chipped in for birdie on 11, and holed a thir­ty-foot­er for anoth­er birdie on 14. Standing now on the 16th tee, he knew he had only to bogey his way in for an 89—a small thing, maybe, but he under­stood that the small suc­cess­es were the only ones left to him. Last year he’d final­ly been pro­mot­ed to pres­i­dent of his ad firm after being bypassed again and again for younger can­di­dates with new ideas, or old­er can­di­dates with more expe­ri­ence, or stronger lead­ers, or bet­ter con­sen­sus builders—always some­one else. Now he’d final­ly reached the top of his small region­al agency, and there was nowhere else to go unless he was will­ing to sidle his way into one of the nation­als, which would also mean a tem­po­rary step back­ward for the promise of some­thing bet­ter. At 58, he’d keep the sure thing, espe­cial­ly when the sure thing had giv­en him and Jeanne the means to build their dream house on one of the last remain­ing golf course lots at Lost Lakes.

They’d had their eye on Lost Lakes for years. It was an old devel­op­ment, one of the first west of the turn­pike, and still the west­ern­most, since you couldn’t build beyond it with­out drain­ing the Everglades. It was qui­et there, and the devel­op­ers had tak­en care to pre­serve the envi­ron­ment, includ­ing some wet­lands that had been grand­fa­thered out of state pro­tec­tion. The cham­pi­onship links, the last design of a famous old course archi­tect, fea­tured saw­grass marsh­es, the string of small lakes that gave it its name, and a neck­lace of pine woods sep­a­rat­ing the course from the hous­es. That’s what made a twi­light round so tranquil—with the hous­es bare­ly vis­i­ble through the trees, Frank felt alone and at peace, and there were no elder­ly cou­ples or lum­ber­ing fam­i­ly four­somes to slow his progress.

If he didn’t get hung up, he’d have just enough time to fin­ish his round before dark. The day had final­ly begun to cool, leav­ing only the sum­mer humid­i­ty draped over his skin. The fair­ways were deep in shad­ow, and the woods to his left—beyond which lay his new house—were dusky screens between him­self and the world. Only the tops of the tallest pines still caught the sun as it slid behind the rain clouds gath­er­ing over the Glades. Frank wound up and launched one of his bet­ter drives—easily over 250 yards. Shrinking to a dot in the gray­ing sky, the ball looked for a moment like it might split the fair­way. Then, fad­ing from view, it seemed to draw toward the nar­row rough and the woods beyond it—somewhere in the neigh­bor­hood of his own lot.

As his cart whirred up the fairway’s edge, he leaned out and scanned the rough, one foot dan­gling, the toe of his golf shoe skim­ming the grass. In the dim light, div­ots, leaves, and small pine cones deceived him. When he real­ized he’d gone well past his range, he spun the cart around and head­ed back, a lit­tle near­er the trees this time, half-curs­es seep­ing from his lips. He prob­a­bly had a few min­utes to spare, and there was no one behind him, so he stopped, clicked on the brake lock, and got out for a clos­er look.

If he found his ball and had a clear angle to the green, he could still par the hole; then he could afford his usu­al dou­ble bogey on the huge dog­leg 18. If not, he’d have to take the drop, tech­ni­cal­ly okay under local rules but viewed shame­ful­ly by the club’s bet­ter play­ers. He ought to have hit a pro­vi­sion­al ball from the tee, but if he went back now he’d nev­er fin­ish before dark.

He gave it anoth­er minute.

A few feet into the woods, he crouched to inspect some pale round objects that turned out to be mush­rooms. He decap­i­tat­ed them with the toe of his shoe, annoyed that a dri­ve struck so con­fi­dent­ly might end up lost.

Scanning the lay­er of pine straw, his eyes caught sight of his own house, thick­ly shad­ed, its only lit room the kitchen, mean­ing Jeanne was busy with a recipe from one of those world cook­ing shows she watched. She’d nev­er been much for trav­el, and when they’d moved in, she told him she’d make it up to him by cook­ing recipes from all the places he’d want­ed to go. She had a slight fear of open spaces and big crowds, and he’d resigned him­self to enjoy­ing their retire­ment right here in this house. That’s why he was will­ing to spend so much and to agree to a sec­ond sto­ry even though they had no kids and didn’t need the space. The archi­tect had point­ed out that the sec­ond floor bal­cony off the mas­ter bed­room would allow them to sit out there on Sunday morn­ings under the slop­ing two-sto­ry pool cage and catch the sun­rise, sip­ping Bloody Marys and read­ing the Sunday paper, a rit­u­al they hadn’t fol­lowed so far, but he sup­posed they both liked know­ing it was pos­si­ble. He wished he could at least get her on the course, if only to ride with him. Her eyes were bet­ter than his, and she could be his spot­ter. Now, as he lift­ed his hand in a half wave—just in case she could see him through the trees—he heard a burst of noise behind him like laugh­ter.

He turned. The woods were still, the fair­way beyond turn­ing gray. No one back at the tee. Anyway, the noise sound­ed noth­ing like a ball thud­ding the ground or smack­ing a tree. It might have been a squir­rel, except they usu­al­ly kept up a steady chat­ter until the intrud­er left. What was it then?

His skin cooled and the hair on his fore­arms stood up as if he real­ly had some­thing to be afraid of. He stepped toward the rough, scan­ning the pines­traw for his ball, now with the feel­ing he was being watched. He heard the burst again—laughter or some­thing like it—and when he turned to his left, he thought he saw some­thing slip behind a tree. The crouch­ing shape of a boy or youth. Another sound, an adult “Shh!” try­ing to reign in the child.

Hello?” His voice was too loud for the still woods, and he wasn’t cer­tain he’d seen a per­son. It might have been one of the tall birds, still so com­mon out here it seemed they’d nev­er renounced their claim to the land. Cranes, herons, egrets. They looked strange­ly human when they stood erect and stared you in the eye. When they’d first moved in, he found one stand­ing next to his car door one morn­ing. It had moved only its head when he tried to scare it off. He’d laughed and gone back in the house to get Jeanne, but she was still in bed and the bird was gone when he returned.

Bird or not, his heart pound­ed. Sometimes the body is tricked. The devel­op­ment had its own well-equipped secu­ri­ty force, and there hadn’t been a bur­glary in five years. Lost Lakes’ ver­sion of juve­nile delin­quents wore their pri­vate school’s mono­grammed polo shirts and tipped over port-a-pot­ties after first check­ing that no one was inside. Anyway, hadn’t he heard an adult? He couldn’t imag­ine any of the home­own­ers in this devel­op­ment tak­ing their kids out to heck­le golfers.

He couldn’t rea­son his way out of a strange, help­less feel­ing. Stepping over to the tree where he’d seen the crouch­ing fig­ure, he real­ized he had a death-grip on his five iron.

No one. The woods a dim silence between him­self and his house.

He gave up the search and stepped back into the rough along the line he guessed his errant ball had fol­lowed. He took the drop with a prick of guilt and tried to steady him­self. When he raised the club, a bout of uncer­tain­ty fouled his swing. He skulled the shot across the fair­way and into a trap. A small, stu­pid thing, but it put him in a bad mood. He looked behind him, wish­ing he’d had a heck­ler to blame. He wor­ried he was get­ting old, his eye­sight and hear­ing deceiv­ing him, his nerves begin­ning to fal­ter.

When he drove over to the bunker, he found it wasn’t as hope­less as he’d thought. Only fifty yards to the green. If he could recov­er his poise, he could knock this close and one-putt for bogey. That would still give him a chance at 89.

He dug his feet in, took a deep breath, closed and opened his eyes in a slow blink, part of the pre-shot rit­u­al the club pro had rec­om­mend­ed. He snapped the wedge through the sand and lift­ed the ball to with­in four feet of the pin. He felt his sense of calm return­ing.

If it were always that easy, the game would after all be the relax­ing pas­time the devel­op­ment brochures made it out to be. He remem­bered por­ing through those brochures with Jeanne. All the smil­ing faces, the trim, healthy, mature adults and seniors who’d reduced their wants to the sim­plic­i­ty of chil­dren: a good score could make their day, and, as he’d joked to Jeanne, they looked like they could live for­ev­er as long as they had anoth­er hole to play. Now he was one of them.

On the green, calmer now, he took out the pin, read the putt, and was care­ful not to give away the hole. He struck the ball firm­ly. It start­ed right, then drift­ed left, final­ly dying into the cup. He clawed the ball out with two fin­gers, grin­ning, hav­ing avert­ed a minor dis­as­ter. A sound like scat­tered applause came from the woods.

No, not applause. Thunder. One of those evening storms that boil up out of the Everglades and sweep over the inland com­mu­ni­ties. Hadn’t he also seen a flash of light­ning?

Whatever he’d seen or heard in the woods, he now felt the sat­is­fac­tion of over­com­ing it. He’d still have to bogey 17 and 18, some­thing he’d man­aged only twice. But oth­er than a brief spell of unease—canceled in every way by a nice pitch—he was play­ing well. He liked his chances.

As the cart wound around the back of the 16th green, he felt the cool­ing wind on his face. The cart path swerved between the 17th tee box and a row of waist-high cro­tons that still held their col­or in the dim­ming light. Seventeen was a long par 3, the only one with­out a water haz­ard, and he felt more com­fort­able with a five wood than a low iron. If he hit a straight shot, he could get with­in 20 yards of the green. He’d improved his short game enough that a chip and a two-putt from there was almost a giv­en.

When he stopped the cart, a breath of wind caught up with him and cooled the back of his neck, bring­ing with it the sound of the turn­pike traf­fic, sev­er­al miles off, a hiss like the exhale of a dis­tant rain show­er. A cou­ple of fair­ways over, the lake had dark­ened to the col­or of an oil spill. A sil­hou­ette of anhin­gas posed beak-up, dry­ing their out­stretched wings. The tree frogs and cicadas worked their voic­es. Perhaps that was what he’d heard.

He should be used to the soli­tude. And yet he couldn’t shake the feel­ing he was being watched. He’d been com­ing out here at dusk for weeks and it had nev­er both­ered him. Why now?

He teed up and made him­self relax with a cou­ple of prac­tice swings. When he stood over the ball, he remind­ed him­self to take a slow back­swing, to keep his left arm straight, to keep his hips and legs loose. And to not think about any of these things as he swung. That was the trou­ble with golf; you had to think and not think. You had to turn it off in an instant. The tim­ing of your shot fol­lowed the tim­ing of your thoughts. If you could pull it off—if you could shut out every­thing that might dis­tract you, from a mos­qui­to buzzing your ear to a painful regret from decades back—you had a moment of med­i­ta­tion, and the flight of the ball seemed a per­fect exten­sion of your will. If you couldn’t, your whole life seemed as crooked and worth­less as the shot.

That kind of cer­tain­ty had been eas­i­er when he was younger. Now, his strug­gles sup­pos­ed­ly over, he found him­self less sure. Was he hap­py with his life? With few­er options left, he won­dered if the ques­tion even mat­tered. In golf, at least, you could ignore the murk. The good shots and bad were right there, and you knew imme­di­ate­ly, some­times with­out even watch­ing the ball, whether or not you’d got your­self in trou­ble. When you did, you had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to set things right again. You only had to hit anoth­er good shot. You still had choic­es, and while you were play­ing the game, at least, they mat­tered.

His neck stiff­ened. His mind wan­dered. He could no longer locate that sliv­er of calm where his thoughts shut down and allowed his arms to draw back the club. He kept rais­ing his eyes to the glow­ing cro­tons, which seemed too dis­tract­ing to have been plant­ed beside the tee box. There were six of them lined up direct­ly oppo­site, their leaves like punch-stained tongues. A com­pa­ny of child-guards in dress uni­form, like he’d some­times see in cer­e­monies when Jeanne taught at the ele­men­tary school. She’d been hap­py then. She’d been good around chil­dren.

He some­times won­dered why they hadn’t tried hard­er to have kids themselves—they might have seen some doc­tors, gone through fer­til­i­ty treat­ments. There were options. But chil­dren had been Jeanne’s idea—he’d been ambiva­lent. Why muck up his sat­is­fy­ing life? He’d seen stud­ies about the stress kids put on a mar­riage. Anyway, if it had mat­tered so much to her, why hadn’t she got­ten upset? Why hadn’t she pressed hard­er? He’d nev­er asked, and after a while it seemed a threat to bring up.

He stepped back and took anoth­er prac­tice swing. He shook his head. How stu­pid to rehash these things now, when all he want­ed to care about was his golf score.

He addressed the ball. He had to turn off his thoughts and hit this tee shot straight. It would be dark soon. The rain clouds were pil­ing up into the dim­ming sky, cast­ing a deep yel­low tint over the course, the last col­or of the day. He want­ed to do this one thing, to feel this small sense of accom­plish­ment that would silence his somber doubts. The brochures were right: it real­ly was that sim­ple.

He relaxed his knees. He took a breath, opened and closed his eyes, thought about his swing, then tried not to. He drew his club back and coiled his tor­so, paused at the top. His hands felt unsteady. On the down­swing, a cry—was it a bird?—threw him off, and he snap-hooked his shot into the trees. The ball struck two pines, then rolled back to the front slope of the tee.

He shoved the head of his five-wood against the turf and stared at the cro­tons, where the noise seemed to have sprung.

Da,” he heard. A small voice, an exhale, bare­ly a whis­per.

After a frozen moment, he stomped down the two rail­road-tie steps and off the tee box, con­vinced some kids were play­ing tricks, try­ing to heck­le him. Why didn’t they run?

He felt the club trem­ble in his hand, his breath burn in his chest.

Hey!”  His restrained shout with­ered in the trees.

He low­ered his club and shook one of the cro­tons with his gloved hand, knock­ing off a cou­ple of long, fin­ger-shaped leaves with fish-fos­sil veins. Nothing there, and the cro­tons weren’t bushy enough to hide any­thing but a small child. He part­ed two of the plants just to reas­sure him­self. Not even a squir­rel.

He scanned the sparse woods between him­self and the main­te­nance com­pound, its green gate shut for the night. Beyond the eleventh fair­way was the lake. The anhin­gas had closed up their wings. One taller bird remained, a white or blue heron, he guessed, or a crane—the light was too dim to dis­cern any­thing but an out­line. A dis­or­ga­nized flock of small­er birds angled over­head. He heard anoth­er rum­ble of thun­der behind him.

Had it real­ly been a voice? Not even a heck­ling kid would think to call him da. No one ever had. Crazy to think, if he and Jeanne had had a child after all, the son or daugh­ter would be grad­u­at­ing from col­lege about now, start­ing life with­out them. They’d be emp­ty nesters, start­ing again.

He ought to pick up his bad tee shot and head in. He was get­ting to the age where every minor wrin­kle in his think­ing augured a ter­ri­fy­ing down­hill jour­ney; the only way to avoid brood­ing over it was to go home and pull up the blan­ket of his long­stand­ing routines—a qui­et din­ner with Jeanne, a famil­iar old movie, and a sound sleep beneath the night-long shush of the A/C. A dirt main­te­nance road cut between hous­es up by the 17th green. He could take it and emerge at the far end of his own street.

Somehow he couldn’t bring him­self to do it—even now, when his only hope of an 89 was to take a mul­li­gan here and play what would amount to a hypo­thet­i­cal final two holes. He had to know if he might have done it. And he was in no rush to get home. Sometimes he returned from his evening round to find Jeanne still in the kitchen, over­cooked shrimp snap­ping in oil and a vod­ka ton­ic float­ing in a pool of con­den­sa­tion next to the stove­top. How frail her neck had become—the age spots and tiny crevices run­ning from her hair­line down to the knobs of her spine. There were times he had to turn away before an upwelling of sad­ness swal­lowed him whole.

He plucked anoth­er ball from the cart’s ball clip and stepped back onto the tee box. He was sweat­ing now, despite the cool­ing air. The feel­ing in his hands had reced­ed to almost noth­ing.

He took one rushed prac­tice swing, then addressed his ball and looked up once to reas­sure him­self no one was watch­ing. He closed his eyes and tried to pic­ture his shot, to erase the image of the snap-hook that had effec­tive­ly end­ed his round. Exhaling, he opened his eyes and drew back his club.

The swing was rushed—he’d for­got­ten to pause at the top—and the ball shot low to the ground, angling up the left side of the fair­way in the gen­er­al direc­tion of the green­side bunker. At least it was safe.

He shoved the club back into his bag and kicked down the accel­er­a­tor, leav­ing his first ball in the col­lar of the tee box. He wished he could take his anger out on some­thing. There’d been no heck­ling chil­dren. Not even a squir­rel or rac­coon. He’d imag­ined all of it, he guessed, and he’d let it get to him. He felt like an addled old man, help­less and unsure.

He remem­bered when Jeanne had stopped teach­ing. She’d just trans­ferred to the high school after fin­ish­ing some course­work. She’d want­ed a change, some old­er kids she could talk to as near-adults. Within weeks, one of her Algebra I stu­dents had torn the col­lar off her blouse when she’d tried to send him to the principal’s office. She’d brought the col­lar home and held it up for him before she broke down in his arms. The col­lar was ivory with lace trim and looked to Frank like a del­i­cate tourni­quet for an injured doll. He took it from her and squeezed it in his fist, angry at what the world could do, what a kid could do to his wife. He’d felt help­less then, too. He’d want­ed her to go back to the ele­men­tary school, but by then her posi­tion had been filled.

That was about the time they’d giv­en up on hav­ing their own kids. He won­dered how things might have been dif­fer­ent with a child in the house. Perhaps Jeanne would not have with­drawn. Perhaps she’d have over­come her fears for the sake of the child. She might not be drink­ing as much now.

After the Algebra I inci­dent, she began to slip away from him. A few years lat­er while look­ing for golf tees he found the del­i­cate ivory col­lar balled up in the draw­er of her bureau, and that’s why, when she decid­ed to retire, he didn’t put up a fight, though he knew even then it would be bad for her, that it prob­a­bly meant a steady, irre­versible retreat into the house.

It’s where he should be now—with her, inside, instead of push­ing on with his round. He’d already tak­en a mul­li­gan and a ques­tion­able drop. They say that golf reveals char­ac­ter like no oth­er sport. What did this say about him? What did it say that he played lat­er and lat­er rounds to keep him­self out of the house until Jeanne was drunk and what­ev­er was said—or left unsaid—between them would be for­got­ten by morn­ing. They’d become com­fort­able strangers. For all he knew, she might have want­ed chil­dren even after they’d stopped talk­ing about it. She might have want­ed a lot of things. With a lit­tle encour­age­ment, she might have gone back to work, if only as a part-time aide. He’d nev­er know. The time for dis­cussing those events was long past, and nei­ther had it in them to open a wound so long scarred over.

His cart whined up the dark­en­ing 17th fair­way, the feel­ing he was being observed more and more intense as house­lights winked on through the trees. The course had lost its col­or now. He felt short of breath, his throat tight, a pres­sure on his chest.

He found the ball at the left edge of the fair­way some forty yards short of the green. Hands unsteady, he decid­ed to keep the shot low and run it up onto the green with a quar­ter swing of a mid­dle iron.

No time for prac­tice swings. When he gripped the club, it felt loose in his hands, his golf glove damp with sweat. The cool­ing twi­light had brought the bugs out; a small cloud of gnats swirled around him, and he had to wipe them off his wet upper lip. When a mos­qui­to pierced his fore­arm, his head jerked and the ball bobbed and reset­tled in the grass. Had he moved it? Should he take a stroke? The light was dim; he couldn’t be sure. It didn’t mat­ter. The round was an exer­cise in what might have been. He’d make him­self fin­ish any­way.

He heard a sound like light foot­steps some­where on the grass. He tried to ignore it. He closed his eyes against the bugs and the sound and tried to pic­ture the shot, then drew back his club a short way, squint­ed down at the dim­pled white globe at his feet. He couldn’t remem­ber what it felt like to be sure of things, the way he’d seemed to even yes­ter­day. Hours ago, real­ly.

He breathed, his heart thud­ding. He swung through. The ball flew halfway to the green, bounced twice, and rolled, arc­ing away from the pin.

He heard the noise again, like thun­der, or like a small gallery of unruly observers. He shook his head at the thought. It would be nice to have some­one appre­ci­ate a good shot. If only he could get Jeanne out here, he’d explain the game all to her, and they’d have this expe­ri­ence togeth­er. She could at least give him a smile as he strode back to the cart. But to ask her now would be to pull at a frayed lit­tle stitch in the wound, and he knew what hap­pened when he did that—she drank more, with­drew more, and then even the lit­tle house­hold rou­tines, the emp­ty domes­tic graces, would fall silent, and nei­ther of them could pre­tend any­more.

He jumped into the cart, club still in hand, and drove up onto the col­lar, though cart rules pro­hib­it­ed dri­ving with­in thir­ty yards of the green. He locked the brake and trad­ed his iron for a put­ter. The nois­es of dusk shuf­fled out of the woods like fog—insects and frogs and bird cries—and surged over him, falling wave-like into voic­es and grassy steps, ris­ing again to an insis­tent hiss, an expec­tant lit­tle crowd. He tried to nar­row his focus, to keep his mind on the one task before him, to lag this putt close for a bogey—ignoring the mul­li­gan back at the tee.

He didn’t both­er to read the green and didn’t both­er with a prac­tice stroke. A pair of rain­drops ticked his neck and rolled under his col­lar. The wings of a large bird passed close—a sin­gle beat, as when they leap away from a min­i­mal threat to reassess from a dis­tance. The ball and the sur­face of the green appeared slight­ly out of focus—his night vision had grown weak. He swal­lowed and stroked the putt, aim­ing for a wide imag­i­nary cir­cle around the cup. He hadn’t both­ered to pull the flag out. What did it mat­ter?

The ball start­ed straight then curled down a ledge he hadn’t noticed, away from the hole, com­ing to rest any­way with­in his cir­cle, leav­ing some 2–3 feet. A lucky break that made him feel every­thing could still be okay. He knew from expe­ri­ence the next putt was straight. He walked over, pulled out the pin and dropped it on the oth­er side of the hole, then lined up and stroked, push­ing the ball slight­ly. It caught the right side, whirled around, and dropped in on the left. Another break. Maybe he could get his con­fi­dence back and fin­ish strong.

At eigh­teen, the mem­bers’ and ladies’ tee box was set to one side, with the woods to the left and the cart path to the right, the club­house in the dis­tance. He jumped out and grabbed his over­sized met­al dri­ver. If he could reach the green in four—ignoring the reset­tled ball, the mul­li­gan, and the drop on 16—he’d have two putts for an 89.

He stepped up, plant­ed his ball and tee, and drew back his club. Thinking of the noise, then of noth­ing. Thinking of Jeanne, then of noth­ing. Of the hypo­thet­i­cal voic­es now whis­per­ing around him, then of noth­ing. He swept down­ward and struck the ball pure­ly despite himself—one of those gifts of ran­dom­ness that align with your wish­es through no fault of your own. Another three, maybe two shots like that and he’d be on the green.

He shoved the club in the bag and launched the cart for­ward, ignor­ing the cart path that skirt­ed the woods and instead hold­ing the cen­ter­line of the 18th fair­way. He’d have to hur­ry to beat the storm.

He could bare­ly see the fair­way now, and find­ing his ball seemed hope­less. Something whis­pered as much in his ear. He should turn around. The round was point­less. The score was point­less. The fair­way was only a shade lighter than the black sky between flash­es of light­ning. He could pull the cart in the garage, tell Jeanne he was sick, and crawl into bed.

He tight­ened his grip on the wheel to stop his hands from shak­ing.

A flick­er of cloud-to-cloud light­ning illu­mi­nat­ed some­thing white forty or fifty yards ahead to his left—he’d seen it out of the cor­ner of his eye if he’d real­ly seen it at all, and he couldn’t even say how big it was. But if it were real­ly his ball, he’d be on the green short­ly and be done in five min­utes. He mashed the ped­al again, aim­ing for the after-image of the white dot.

He leaned over the wheel, scan­ning the deep gray fair­way for a round glim­mer. The light­ning flashed again just as he plowed into some­thing tall and pale that fold­ed neat­ly under his cart with a sim­ple thud.

He skid­ded and swerved to a stop with the vague feel­ing he was shov­ing the thing for­ward with the wheels.

He wasn’t sure what he’d seen, what he’d done. He sat per­fect­ly still for a sec­ond, hear­ing only his breath. The main­te­nance crew had done some plant­i­ng recent­ly; had he strayed into the rough and hit a sapling?

No. He’d seen a stare. A widen­ing black pupil-less cir­cle that col­lapsed under the cart with the rest of the thing. Why hadn’t it moved?

He reversed, the warn­ing buzzer obscene in the pool of qui­et. When he pressed the ped­al, he felt the right side of the cart raise and low­er slightly—he’d backed over it. He slid over to the pas­sen­ger seat. When he got out, he near­ly stepped on its long white neck.

He wiped the sweat from his eyes and felt a drop of rain on his neck, then anoth­er. Houselights burned around the course now, steady lit­tle wit­ness­es.

He knelt beside the bird, its black eye open and star­ing, bot­tom­less against the white feath­ers of its face and neck. The del­i­cate neck’s slow s-curve dis­ap­peared under the cart. Several inch­es down its length, a dark col­lar had formed where the cart wheel had struck it.

He ran his hand down the soft feath­ers from its head and let his trem­bling fin­gers rest in the blood. The rain, sud­den­ly heavy, struck his arms and tem­ples and rolled down his cheeks. It ticked off the bird’s long bill. The man­i­cured grass up and down the fair­way explod­ed in hushed lit­tle pops like a cho­rus of sighs. Through the woods, house lights beamed from kitchens and liv­ing rooms. In one of them, a woman sat star­ing out at the rain.

~

John Henry Fleming’s recent sto­ry col­lec­tion is Songs for the Deaf, an International Book Award win­ner and a CLMP Firecracker final­ist. He teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the University of South Florida and serves as advi­so­ry edi­tor for Saw Palm. He’s cur­rent­ly fin­ish­ing up a new nov­el called The Prince of Foul Weather. Please vis­it his web­page at www.johnhenryfleming.com.