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Authors: Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

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BOOK: The Art of Floating
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She sighed and glanced around again. Nobody.

“Okay, okay,” she said, beckoning to him, “that's it, then. Come on. I'm taking you home with me. But if you're a killer or a robber or even just a harmless nut looking for a friendly face to harass, save it for someone else.” Then she turned, slapped her leg for Gumper to follow, and started back the way she'd come.

When she passed the teepee a few kids had built from driftwood the day before, she stopped, swung around, and saw that the man was moving along behind her in slow, stuttered steps. He was wobbly and weak-kneed, and he stumbled every few feet, but Gumper—the faithful beast—stayed by his side, taking his weight like a crutch. The man's pants looked as if they'd shrunk, and his ankles and feet poked out beneath the cuffs. For the first time, Sia realized he was barefoot. He didn't even have shoes.

“Oh, for God's sake,” she said.

First, her husband. Now this.

•  •  •

When Sia and her troupe were almost out of sight, the Dogcatcher stood and, stepping lightly, walked to the spot where the man had magically appeared at the water's edge. She waved her hands in circles and said, “Abracadabra!” Then she looked for something to save. Finding nothing, she scooped a handful of sand from the man's footprints and poured it into one of the dozen or so plastic bags she kept in her pockets.

“Hmmph,” she said, gripping the bag, and then, “Gumper, Gumper, Gumper, Gumper.” This time she said it out loud. She liked the way his name bounced off her tongue like a red rubber ball.

Then she trotted after the troupe at a safe distance, leaving behind little more than a bird's tracks.

•  •  •

As she walked, Sia considered amphibians.

Frog.

Axolotl.

Salamander.

Newt.

Toad.

Yes
, she decided,
that's what I'll call him
.

Toad.

CHAPTER
2

Sia was still lying in bed
when she began to wonder what was taking Jackson so long. A Saturday morning coffee run usually took no more than twenty minutes, twenty-five if the line was long, twenty-seven if they opted for cappuccino, and still only thirty if Slow-Pour Sally was manning the espresso machine. That included the amount of time it took Jackson to jog down the street to Starbucks. But, Sia thought, they had decided against cappuccino that morning, Slow-Pour Sally was away on vacation, and the timing was good—too late for the midmorning slam and too early for the lunch rush. It should have been a twenty-minute run.

She looked at the clock. One hour had passed since Jackson had slung on shorts, a T-shirt, and his favorite pair of stink-ass, falling-apart sneakers that he absolutely refused—“No way in hell”—to throw away.

“Back in twenty,” he'd called over his shoulder as he'd lit down the stairs.

“Su-gaaaaaaaaar,” she'd hollered back, reminding him for the zillionth time to get three packets of raw sugar, even though she knew he'd forget.

It should have been a twenty-minute run.

Sia flopped onto her back and looked up at the ceiling. Their bedroom was a cool purply blue that absorbed the morning sun streaming into their eastward-facing windows. When the real estate agent had shown them the place, she'd said drolly, “Morning people, I hope.”

“If you only knew,” Jack had answered, referring to Sia's habit of rolling out of bed somewhere around four
A.M.
to write.

Even now, an hour outside noon, sunlight was smeared evenly around the room, making sharp shadows against the walls and floor.

Sia gave up and climbed out of bed. She went to the window, pushed up the screen, and leaned out. “Jackson,” she called.

No answer.

Weird. Maybe he was in the shed or in the driveway fiddling with his truck. Maybe he'd gotten distracted on his way out the door. Not likely before his first hit of caffeine, but there was always a chance.

“Jackson,” she hollered out the window a second time, but only Gumper responded. At the sound of Sia's voice, he bounded up the stairs and smashed into her. He hadn't had his walk, and he was agitated. Ready to burst.

Sia threw on some clothes, put her hair in a ponytail, headed downstairs, and let Gumper out on the patio. She looked around. Jackson's money clip, cell phone, and keys weren't in the silver box on the hall table. His truck was still in the driveway. Clearly he'd gone.

•  •  •

At first Sia wasn't worried. Irritated, yes. Worried, no. After all, Jackson was the most popular man in town, loved equally by men and women, high school punks and town officials, old and young, beautiful and hideous. He'd been born with that rare kind of natural charm that drew people in—charisma, folks called it—and few could resist. If by chance his buddies Nils Larsen or Harry Thompson had tried to distract him from the thought of his very naked wife in bed with the promise of big stripers in the surf or an old boat for sale at a steal, he might have given in.

Sia clipped the leash to Gumper's collar, grabbed a few dollars, and headed out the door. Though Gumper argued for his normal morning beach romp, she took the road to Starbucks. She was sure she'd find Jackson dillydallying either on the way or in the town square.

When she called his cell phone for the first time, it went straight to voice mail. She left a message asking where he was and teased him about both her caffeine withdrawal and his unfortunate distraction. The second time, the flat, computerized phone company voice told her, “I'm sorry. The caller you are trying to reach is not available.”

•  •  •

Within three minutes, Gumper was panting and Sia was coated in sweat. “Holy crap, it's hot out here,” she said. “It's May. Did anybody predict this f'ing heat wave?”

•  •  •

She got to Starbucks at 11:30. Len and Lucy were in the square. “We've been here for forty-five minutes,” Lucy said, “but we haven't seen Jackson.” While Sia went inside, Len held Gumper's leash and let him lick the remnants of his latte.

“Hey, Sia,” Stella called from behind the counter. The line was long, bolstered by the low-fat-frappuccino-hold-the-whipped-cream-please ladies who had just wrapped up their morning workout at the gym.

Sia waited. She was thirsty, cranky, and caffeine deficient. Not a good combination. She asked Tom and Ann, Mr. Pearl, Cat and Stan, and a few others who came and went if they'd seen Jackson. All said no.

“I'll have a grande cappa, triple shot, extra froth,” Sia said when she finally got to the head of the line. Then she paid and stood aside while Henry mixed her coffee. “Hey, do you guys remember what time Jackson came in this morning?” she said.

Stella glanced at Henry. “Jackson? I don't think he's been here.”

“He hasn't?”

“No. Henry, did you serve him while I was on break?”

“Nope.”

Sia took her drink from Henry. “Are you sure? He left home hours ago to come here.”

“Sorry. Haven't seen him.”

Sia could feel the folks behind her glaring at her back. Holding up the line was as close to a federal offense as you could get in Starbucks.

“All right,” she said. “If he pops in, tell him to give me a buzz.”

•  •  •

Coffee. That was what started this whole thing. They'd wrestled to see which one of them would make the run.

“Loser goes for coffee,” Jackson had said. “Winner gets oral sex.”

Sia had won.

•  •  •

At noon, assuming Jack had gone for a swim, Sia and Gumper walked the full length of the public beach. All the way to the clam shack and back. When they didn't find him chopping through the surf with his clunky but effective backstroke, fear trickled in.

“Stay,” Sia told Gumper, and she hightailed it to the stretch of beach on the wildlife refuge side of things . . . the part on the opposite side of the island that was closed to the public during significant parts of the year so that the town's most honored, most endangered, and (according to some) most pain-in-the-ass bird—the piping plover—could nest and raise its fledglings in peace.

“Sorry, little plovers,” she called as she bolted past the “Piping Plover Nesting Ground: No Entry Beyond This Point” sign at the end of the boardwalk. She could just imagine Jack's face when he found out she'd (a) broken the law he worked so hard to protect and (b) put their beloved plovers at risk. Horror. Disappointment. Maybe even a smidgen of anger, though Jack didn't get angry easily or often.

“Why would you think I'd go for a swim near the plovers?” he'd say. “You know how I feel about protecting the plovers.”

“I didn't know where else to look,” she'd answer. “I was getting scared.”

To minimize any potential damage, she stayed close to the water's edge.
Twelve pairs of plovers have nested at the refuge
, she recalled from Sunday's “Plover Report” in the paper.
Four have settled in at Sandy Point.

But despite her conscientious search, Sia didn't find a single sign of Jackson.

•  •  •

2:30.

“Gump,” she said, rubbing his head, “where's Jack?”

Sia didn't know where else to look, so she made her way back to their beach and looked everywhere. Out at the water. Down at the sand. Up at the sky. Over her shoulder. She spun in slow circles, then jogged up the steep, sandy dunes that opened to the crosshatch of narrow streets that eventually led to town, then back down to the water's edge.

The farther they went, the more frantic she felt, and she began yelling to anyone she knew. “Hey, have you seen Jack? Have you seen Jackson this morning?”

But all she got was:

a shake of the head

a couple of “nope”s

one “not since Friday”

three “but when I do . . .”s

a handful of “sorry, Sia”s

and who knows how many “not today”s

Gumper was worried, too, and for the first time ever, he didn't greet a single person on the beach. He ran like Sia—from water's edge to sandy peak—barking and whining. He buried his snarfling snout in every beach towel and sand hole, sniffing for some sign of Jack. He refused cookies and Popsicles from all the kids who usually kept him in treats, and Sia imagined that in his great big doggie head, he was chanting “Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack.”

But they found nothing. Not a small pile of Jackson's personal items—sneakers, T-shirt, cell phone, money clip, keys. Not his footprints so they could track his path. Not anyone who'd seen him.

Sia called his cell phone again.

“I'm sorry. The caller you are trying to reach is not available.”

•  •  •

By 3:30, the thermometer read ninety-seven degrees. It was May 14.

•  •  •

At 4:30, she made quick calls to Nils and Harry. “Have you seen Jack?”

“Nope, we figured he was working. Why?”

“Heard from him?”

“Nope, not today. Why?”

“Crap.”

•  •  •

At 5:00, fear turned to panic. Getting distracted by a cheap boat or a few stripers was one thing. Not showing up for hours and hours, even on his cell, was another. She called everyone she could think of—friends, coworkers at the fish and wildlife office, cousins, his brothers, everyone. No one had seen Jackson that day. Finally she called his mother.

“Have you heard from Jackson?” she asked.

“No, sweetie, not since you were here for dinner,” Elizabeth said. “Why?”

“I haven't seen him since he left this morning.”

“Did you call him?”

“Of course. He's not answering. His phone isn't even on.”

“That's not like Jack.”

“I know.”

“I don't like the sound of this.”

“Me neither,” Sia said. She knew something wasn't right, but what? what? what?

As soon as she hung up, Sia called Jilly and her mother. Jilly laughed her off until seven o'clock. She couldn't imagine anything going awry in Sia's life. Aside from her issue with empathy, it was perfect. Always perfect.

But when M heard the crack in Sia's voice, she raced over.

“Jack's gone,” Sia said as M came through the door.

“What? What do you mean?”

“Jackson. He's gone. Disappeared. Poof.”

•  •  •

At 6:00, while she was talking to Jackson's mother for the fifth time, Sia's cell phone died.

“The battery,” she said to M as she grabbed for the charger in the kitchen but failed and knocked the toaster off the counter instead. “What if he calls now? Right now?” The ridiculously large silver machine designed to accommodate bagels the size of mature clams skidded across the floor, lost a knob and a small metal thingy along the way, and clattered to a halt against the leg of a stool.

Sia stared at it until it settled. Then she picked up the charger cord and tried to jam the plug into the suddenly very small hole in the base of the phone, but her fingers were shaking so bad she missed.

And missed again.

“Enough,” M said after a few more tries. “Give it to me.” Then she gently completed the task. “I got it, Odyssia. See?” She held up the phone, and it beeped, indicating that it was indeed charging.

Sia nodded, seemingly calmed, but when M took her arm to lead her back to the patio, she yanked free, burst out the front door, and took off down the road toward town.

“Odyssia!” M hollered. “Odyssia, where are you going?”

“To look for Jack,” Sia shouted over her shoulder.

M started to chase her, but then remembered the phone; if Jackson called and no one was there to answer it, they might miss him. She turned and went back into the house.

•  •  •

From her perch in the uppermost window of the pink house, Mrs. Windwill watched Sia run down the road. Her heart cramped up. “He hasn't turned up yet,” she said when Mr. Windwill poked his head around the door frame.

“He will, honey. He'll be home soon. Where else would Jack go? Now come on down from there,” Mr. Windwill said. “It's like an oven up here.”

Mrs. Windwill shook her head. She felt sick in the stomach. “Not yet,” she said. “Open that window for me, will you?”

•  •  •

At 7:15, Jilly managed to lasso Sia into her car. Once she got her home, she said, “Sit,” and pointed to a chair on the patio.

M took the seat to Sia's left. Jilly took the chair to her right. Gumper plunked down onto Sia's feet and leaned back against her legs. She wasn't going anywhere. The four of them sat just like that for another hour.

“What are we waiting for?” Sia asked.

Jilly shook her head and tapped her foot against the chair.

“Jackson,” M said. “We're waiting for Jackson.” Then she bent down, grabbed Jilly's tapping foot, and squeezed a little too hard. “He'll be home.”

The women stopped talking. Every ten minutes or so Gumper grumbled under his breath. As they sat, Sia felt all order seep from her, and her own understanding of the shape of herself and the world began to melt away.

At 8:30, she called the police.

At 9:00, Richard arrived.

By 10:00, the Coast Guard was alerted and a search was on in the town. They ignored the normal twenty-four-hour wait to file the missing-person report. Fuck that. It was Jackson.

That night, as Sia lay in bed listening to the helicopters bhirring and whirring up and down the coast, she watched the moon.

“Here,” she whispered when she could see the fat, bright sphere.

“Gone,” when it slipped behind a cloud.

“Here.” Fat, bright sphere.

“Gone.” Behind a cloud.

Throughout the next few days, the police traipsed in and out. Reporters gathered in the road like ants on a slice of watermelon, peppering anyone who entered the house with questions.

BOOK: The Art of Floating
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