Dana would have his tail if he didn’t make it back across the lake by sundown. She’d said as much when she put him out on the steps of their trailer—which she did the second Rory Pitkin rolled up on his Indian Scout with the engine off, the toes of his motor-cycle boots dragging in the dirt. She’d given Levi the key to their granddaddy’s boathouse and a few dollars from the bottom of her purse and told him he had to be home before Ma and Gil got back or she’d burn all his Pokémon cards and make him watch. Lord, but his sister could be a bitch, he thought, enjoying the knifelike feel of the word so much he said it out loud, a secret between him and the cypress trees. The rust-red light pouring through the Spanish moss told him he’d never make it home by dark, which meant he’d broken two of his mama’s rules: missing curfew and going boating alone on the lake. Levi was not allowed to take his pappy’s old twelve-foot V-bottomed skiff into the open waters of Caddo Lake, which was so vast that, if you had the time, inclination, and a day’s worth of smoked oysters and clean water, you could ride it all the way into Louisiana. Gil said it wasn’t nothing like it nowhere else in the country, the only lake to cross two counties and a state line. But Gil said a lot of things that weren’t true—that he loved Ma, for one. He sure as shit didn’t act like it. Levi’s real daddy, he used to come up on her frying bologna on the stove and kiss her neck, make her titter and smile, kiss him back. But anytime Gil walked in a room, Ma was just as likely to cuss him as go stone still with terror, as if she could camouflage herself against the brown corduroy couch, where Gil had left a dozen cigarette burns since he’d moved in. Levi didn’t trust Gil any more than he would a smile on a gator. But the water, Levi thought, now that he was traveling it on his own, well, ol’ Gil might have been right about that. Caddo Lake was a monster, a body of water that could swallow a boy like him whole. In most places it resembled a weed-choked swamp more than it did a proper lake, a cypress forest that had flooded and been abandoned eons ago, and Levi could admit he was scared out here alone. Through the open sound south of Goat Island, it was a straight shot to Hopetown, the small community of trailers and shacks on the northeastern shore where Levi lived with his mother and sister and Gil. He blew away a lick of blond hair that had slipped over his eyes and gunned the boat’s motor. He yanked the tiller left, chancing a shortcut.
In just the past few minutes, the light had melted from the color of plum brandy to the bluish gray of coming nightfall, and a December breeze curled up under the thin fabric of his wind-breaker, a blue and white karnack high school Indians jacket he stole from his sister’s half of the closet. He got a sudden image of her and Rory Pitkin rolling around naked in the room he and Dana shared and felt a quiver go through his body that embarrassed him. He wasn’t stupid. He knew what they were doing. Fucking, CT called it.
This was his fault, CT’s, he decided. Levi had been playing foot-ball on CT’s Xbox and lost track of time. He wanted to get a fantasy team in place because Ma had said there might be an Xbox under the tree this year if Gil came through on this deal he was running out of Jefferson. But in all the time Gil had been around, almost none of his plans ever amounted to anything that made Levi’s life easier. They still didn’t have milk in the fridge half the time.
Put out of the trailer for the afternoon, Levi had motored the small boat seven miles along the lake’s coast to CT’s family’s cabin, way on the other side of the lake in Harrison County, had lost himself playing the video game, enjoying something he knew, deep down, he’d never have. He’d been so jealous of his friend that he’d stolen one of the game’s controllers on the way out, slipping it into the pocket of his windbreaker. He hated when he did stuff like that, but neither could he stop himself. Something just came over him sometimes. It’s like his brain just went black with want—for the stuff other kids had, be it an Xbox or a daddy living at home—so he lashed out blindly. He felt the corner of the controller pressing through the nylon jacket, poking him in his bony side. Out here on the water with only God as a witness, he felt hot with shame.
It was way past five o’clock now, the sky told him.
He didn’t have time to go home the way he’d come, hugging the north shore of the lake, sailing along a thin canal of relative safety, porch lights on boathouses and craggy lake cabins twinkling hints of civilization. That would take nearly an hour. It would be full-on dark by then, and Levi hadn’t brought a flashlight. He’d set out in a thin jacket with nothing on board but Pappy’s old radio and a single oar pitted with rot that his grandfather had used to pull himself ashore. The radio kept cutting in and out. The antenna was bent halfway down, and in the pockets of silence, a deeper kind of fear took hold. He’d heard the lake went silent come nightfall, Spanish moss on the cypress trees dampening all sound, so that you could feel in this primeval lake on the edge of the state, this swamp at the edge of time, that you were the last man alive.
Not that he’d ever been on the water this late, not even when his granddaddy was still alive. Pappy believed in supper at five o’clock sharp. The Swamp Loon would have been drying in the boathouse by now, Pappy on his third or fourth beer in front of the TV. The old man steered clear of the lake after dark, always warning Levi how easy it was for a man to get turned around once night fell if he was moving solely by the light of a weak headlamp or a shy moon. The lake was big and complex—the many bayous, tributaries, and inlets like a tangle of snakes on the Texas side, at least the part that sat in Marion County—a wetland maze that had mystified outsiders for hundreds of years. If you didn’t know the lake well, you could easily mistake one cypress tree for another, take the wrong bayou pass, and never find your way out, not in near blackout conditions. The thought made Levi’s heart race. The radio shot back on, startling him, Patsy Cline cutting through a burst of static. It was a station out of Shreveport that switched from zydeco to country near suppertime—another sign he was late.
I go out walkin’ after midnight…
The word felt like a warning. His granddaddy used to call it “spending a night at the Caddo Motel.” Now, don’t you ever fart around and end up alone out here at night, son. ’Cause ain’t a soul gon’ save you. Pappy was old enough to remember his granddaddy’s tales of moonshiners and murderers hiding on the lake’s many large islands. Injuns and spooks alike, boy, thieves and Yankees too. Pappy had grown up with gruesome tales of shoot-outs and knifings, not to mention ghost stories about souls roaming the waters, haints hiding in the trees. According to Pappy, wasn’t no telling how many souls had disappeared out on this water.
Levi tried to nose the dinghy around a thick stand of cypress, but pulled the tiller right when he’d meant to maneuver it left, his damp palms slipping across the gear. When he tried to correct his course, he ended up knocking the back of the boat against the roots of a cypress tree. He heard a few clicks in the engine, like a small pebble bouncing down a flight of stairs. He snapped off the radio and listened for any further sign of engine trouble. But the clicking soon stopped, and the engine hummed sweetly again. He wiped his palms against the front of his dirty jeans, then pointed the boat toward home. Levi was not as skilled on the water as Pappy was, having been allowed to work the skiff only a handful of times before his granddaddy died in September, ending their boating lessons for good—just weeks before he was supposed to make his skipper’s debut in the Christmas boat parade in Karnack, helming the Swamp Loon. He’d saved up eleven dollars to buy every strand of colored lights he could get his hands on at the Dollar General in town. But now, riding out here alone, the sun about to leave him, he got a sudden image of this boat floating empty in the parade, Pappy gone and Levi missing. He didn’t know where the thought came from, but it felt real to him in a way that iced his bones, that made him admit he was terrified. A pair of crow’s wings chopped the air above, and Levi, startled, came out of his seat. The boat tipped slightly, taking on a few cupfuls of the dull brown water and soaking the toes of his sneakers. He guessed he had less than a mile to go, and suddenly he wanted more than anything to be home, to be fussing with Dana over her leaving her crap on his side of the bed; even listening to Gil fart and cuss every ding-dang minute sounded good right about now. The fading sunlight had blackened the lake, as if dark wool had been laid across the surface, God tucking Caddo in for the night. Levi made a bargain with the Man himself: Get him out of here and quick and he would confess everything. He’d tell Ma he went out without her say-so and take his whipping like a man. He’d start acting right all around, even quit messing with Mr. Page and his Indians.
He just wanted to be home.
He heard the clicking again. And then the engine died a death quicker than any he’d imagined possible. No gurgling last breaths, like the gunshot victims he saw on TV, none of the babbling nonsense of Pappy’s last days—rambling sorries and sorrows over his friend Leroy—just a silence so stark he felt it in his chest. He realized he was holding his breath, waiting on the engine to hum again. But it was dead and cooling by the minute. Between here and home, he saw no other boats; the fishermen, pleasure cruisers, tourists with their kayaks, they were all gone. Help. It could have been a whisper or a scream, and it wouldn’t have mattered. He was out here alone, and he knew it. If he kept due west, he would eventually reach the shores of home. But all he had for forward motion was the rotted oar, and he didn’t trust he wouldn’t turn himself in circles and end up drifting halfway to Louisiana. No, he should stay right where he was till morning. In a few hours, surely Ma or Dana would borrow someone’s boat and come looking for him. He could make it that long, couldn’t he, if he didn’t lean so much as a fingernail over the side of the boat, where even now he could feel the wildlife that was burbling beneath the water? He felt something bump into the back of the boat. Gator, he thought, and flat-out panicked, jerking upright, standing even, as if he thought he could outrun it. The boat tipped again, taking on even more water, and now it was nearly up to his ankles. Up ahead, he saw something.
It was a black shadow floating toward him.
He thought he heard the low hum of an engine.
But couldn’t be sure he hadn’t imagined it, that he wasn’t just a little bit losing his mind out here. A night in the Caddo Motel. His every thought was bent away from this coming reality. A light clicked on and shone in his eyes as the shadow neared. Levi remained standing, waving his hands over his head, tilting the narrow boat this way and that. It rocked so much that it threatened to tip over for good. But Levi was desperate now, willing to risk capsizing if it meant being saved. “Here,” he called, the sound like a single drop of water on cotton as the Spanish moss ate the words out of his mouth whole, needing the cries of lost souls as sure as it needed the blood of the bald cypress to survive in the swamp.