One day, on the seashore, John-Ray told us about sandcastles. I thought he was mute, myself; Sonny thought he only spoke Gullah. Every day we came down to the beach for lunch, every day he sat there, not a word, not a look, sculpting his visions in sand for the tide to take. Then out of the blue, he calls us over and starts talking.
“Y’all don’ know sandcastle,” he said, that barrier-island-black accent rolling around his words. “Y’all wonder why I buil’ dese.” He shoved his fingers into the sand as he talked, glopping huge handfuls onto the growing pile in front of him, then smoothing them like a father stroking the head of a newborn baby.
“Man born from de dirt. God, He take de sand, see? He roll it all round in He hands ’till He pack it good and firm, and He craft it wit’ a seashell. He cut Him out a nose and a mouf, eyes and ears, and top it all wit’ seaweed. An’ He got Hisself a nice statue of a man, but He ain’t got no man.” He leaned back on his knees and squinted at the foundation. Smoke from Sonny’s cigarette mixed with the salt on the breeze.
“So God take Him a big ole breaf and He blow down into de man’s mouf, and de man pull dat breaf down, and it flow tru him, and he start breathing he own air. And God, He look down wit’ a smile on He face and say it good.”
He slapped another glob of wet sand onto the mound and cut a spiral pattern in it with a bent oyster shell. “Den man come,” he said. “Man make de sandcastle to please God. Give it de form, give it life. Den de watah come, turn it back to de dirt. Just like God when He get mad, he take He breaf back. And man, he turn back to de dirt.”
Sonny blew smoke out the corner of his mouth. “Building them sandcastles make you feel like God, John-Ray?” he asked.
“No suh,” the old black said. “I ain’t got de breaf to spare.”
After lunch, we knocked the sand out of our shoes and headed back toward the little house Sonny had rented in the middle of the island. It was a pit, like most everything else there-thrown together, ramshackle, waiting to be washed away in the next storm.
Sonny came down from the low-state to the coast in 1959, picked me up in Charleston with dollar signs in his eyes. He sold the locals snake oil and bought their land; someday, he said, when the blacks were gone, there’d be a resort here. Till then, he was the great white hope, friend of the poor island folks, part black himself if you asked in a dark enough room. He would sell them anything they would buy, and they would unknowingly finance their own eventual exodus.
“People here are old fashioned, Jonas,” Sonny told me when we first set up shop. “You gotta treat ‘em with a little care. These are Old Testament people, and they think God’s watching out special for this island, for the whole community. But deep down, they’re looking for a way out, just like anybody else. You show ‘em something shiny enough, they’ll sell you the shirt off their backs and the ground underneath their feet.”
We stopped in at Papa’s on our way back from the beach. Sonny winked at some young thing I hadn’t seen before; she had creamy coffee skin and dark-dark eyes like midnight, and she blushed like it was the first time she’d been hit on. Sonny had a thing for the Negro girls; I think he liked reversing the stereotype, the idea of some skinny white boy with coke-bottle glasses and greased-back hair swooping in to steal the black girls while their Mandingo males were all out chasing virginal white women. Made him feel powerful.
I bought a Coke from the cooler and a pack of Lucky Strikes and walked to the door to light one up. Sonny bought the girl a Honey Bun off a rack of sweets, pushing his glasses back with his thumb and out-smiling the sun. She blushed deep, but let him pay for her, twenty-five cents worth of goodwill and an investment towards some later, secret, rendezvous.
“Sonny Deets,” he said, holding out his hand and lingering in his smile for just a moment past friendly. “We got an office half-way up the island. Why don’t you come walk back with us, if you’re headed in that direction?”
She flashed her teeth, straight and white, not yellow like most everyone else’s on Half-Moon. “All right,” she said. Sonny offered her his arm, and she wrapped hers, thin and dark and dainty, through it. Behind the counter, Papa’s eyes narrowed and he chewed on his bottom lip. I stepped outside ahead of them, full into the salty heat.
“Who’s your friend, Mr. Deets?” she asked as they came close.
Sonny winked at me. “This here is my associate and business partner, Jonas. A better man you will not find round these parts.”
“That right?” she said, turning to me. Her voice was low and husky, kind of sultry in its way, just a wandering hand and a quickened heartbeat away from a pant.
“I try, Miss…?”
“Lily Flora,” she said. With the sun behind her, she looked like she was glowing. I shaded my eyes against it.
“Well, that is an unusual name for a black girl, if you don’t mind me saying,” Sonny noted, drawing out a cigarette and perching it between his lips. He bent over to light it and pulled fiercely a few times to make sure it caught. A light breeze pushed sand around our feet, settling it into little cracks and crevices in the sidewalk. “You know, like ‘lily-white’ and all.”
“I reckon it just struck my ma as somethin’ nice,” she said. Her hair had been combed out straight, and gathered back into short pigtails with little red barrettes.
“I think it’s a right pretty name,” I said.
Sonny nodded. “Yeah, me too. Just an interesting choice, that’s all.” I tossed my cigarette, and we started off, strolling together down the sandy street with Lily walking between us. Sonny’s eyes strayed from her to the little one- story brick buildings as we walked, no doubt laying out the resort already in his mind.
Lily wasn’t from Half-Moon, come to find out, but was just visiting her cousins as she had done every summer since she was a little girl. In reality she was twenty-one, smart as a whip, and had just graduated college up at Benedict in Columbia, the only woman in her class.
“You graduated college?” Sonny asked, the lust fading from his eyes.
“Yes, sir,” she told him, beaming wide.
Sonny shook his head. “Don’t that beat all,” he said.
“So what do you do, Mr. Jonas?” Lily Flora asked me. She smiled gently with every breeze, though Sonny and I were sweating through our dark suits.
“Me?” I said. “Nothing interesting, I’m afraid. Sonny is the idea man here; I just balance his books, that’s all.”
“Now, don’t sell yourself short, Jonas,” Sonny said. “This here is the most gifted man with numbers I’ve ever seen. He knows how to run a business like no other and that’s God’s truth. I have the product, no doubt, but he’s the one that keeps us in the black, as they say.” He snorted to himself.
“So what is your product, Mr. Deets?” Lily asked.
“Opportunity.” He winked at her. The rim of his glasses glared in the sun. “All kinds of opportunity, Ms. Flora. The opportunity to live a healthy, happy life. The opportunity to make sound investments for the future. And most of all, I offer folks round here the opportunity to unburden themselves of the generational weight of this island and move on to greener pastures.”
“I guess I don’t really know what you mean,” she told him. “But people round here need any opportunities they can get, I reckon.”
We turned down Center Street, which ran up the length of the island to where the office sat. A little old black lady stood up by a church on the edge of the marsh, ringing a bell for Jesus. She was a stooped little thing, fragile and brittle, her wiry gray hair unkempt, but her eyes lit up like a Christmas candle and she grinned and waved as we passed.
“Afternoon, Miss Seabrook,” Sonny said. “You still doing the Good Work?”
The old lady smiled at him. “Every day of mah life, Mr. Sonny, every day of mah life.”
“All right, then,” he said, adjusting his glasses. “You get tired, now, you come on to my office, I got a tonic what’ll keep you on your feet all day long.”
She grinned wide and shook her head. “No thank you, suh. The Lord gives me all the strength I can manage.” And she rang her little bell again as hard as she could muster.
“One hell of a lady,” Sonny said, as we passed her. “Stubborn as a mule, though.”
Lily Flora laughed. “Miss Seabrook is the best thing going for this island. She’s been collecting for the church and spreading money for the poor since my ma was a baby. Helped a lot of people round here.”
“Well, she could help me by selling that old plantation house on the point,” Sonny said. “Good money in it, but I guess she’s got her pride.”
“She got more pride than you, Sonny Deets,” Lily said, laughing. We walked along in silence for a few more feet, listening to the breeze rustling through the slash pine and magnolia. Behind us, the banging of the bell rang on into the sticky Carolina afternoon.
We got to see a lot more of Lily Flora as the first days of May gave way to the long heat of hurricane season. She spent most of her time helping her cousins weave sweet grass or haul in shrimp from the marsh, but she saved some time for us too-as much as she loved being a part of Half-Moon, I think she enjoyed being outside of it, too, and we represented that in one way or another. Mostly me, anyway, as Sonny quickly lost interest when it became apparent that his chances of bedding her were slim.
One Sunday morning, Lily showed up at my doorstep in a neat little white-and-pink flower print sundress. “Get your suit on,” she said. “We’re going to church.”
“I ain’t much of the church-going type,” I said. “Besides, I already got a pastor up in Showalter who prays for my soul all the time.”
She giggled, pressing the fingers of one hand over her lips. “I bet you do,” she said. “Now get your suit on, let’s go.”
The church sat on the canal side of the island, and inside, the air was close and musty with the scent of marsh. I sat next to Lily on the fourth row with her cousin, Tom Johnston, between me and the aisle. Mrs. Johnston sat on the other side of Lily wearing a neat lavender dress which I knew was most likely her only piece of fine clothing.
We sang “The Old Rugged Cross” and “My Cup Overfloweth,” and bowed our heads as the Reverend took to the pulpit and raised his arms. His black robes flowed out around him like a breath of darkness, accented only by a single sash of scarlet and a shining tin cross. Everything stood dead still for a long moment, save for the little specks of dust drifting lazily through the air.
“Welcome,” the Reverend said at last, his voice booming across the pews. “Welcome again, Brothers and Sisters. It’s good to see y’all in the Lord’s house again today.” His eyes moved back and forth across the crowd, pausing for just a moment on me. The barest flicker of a frown crossed his face.
“Today,” the Reverend said. “Today, folks, I’d like to talk to y’all a little ’bout the way of the saints, in honor of Miss Annie Seabrook.”
“You hush your mouth, Reverend!” Miss Seabrook called from the front row. The whole congregation erupted in laughter, and the Reverend, a smile sneaking across his face, motioned for them to be still.
Lily leaned over to me without taking her eyes off the pulpit. “Miss Seabrook raised enough money to buy each seat in this prayerhouse a new Bible,” she whispered. “Mostly from her own pockets, which ain’t deep.” A few of the parishioners turned towards us, a stony look on their faces.
I tried to focus on the pulpit as the Reverend told stories of religious figures I had not heard of before, with names like Maura and Britta, Agostina and Alodia. He told stories of men and women whose bodies remained incorruptible after death, that gave off the scent of flowers even as they were buried. It was an aspect of Christianity I had never heard of before.
“There’s another word they used to use for saint,” the Reverend said, his voice taking on a deep and solemn timbre like the rumble of a storm at sea. “They used to call them ‘martyr!’ Martyr, the man who dies for God! Let it be in our memory, forever, that the greatest saints lost their lives at the hands of wicked men. The Devil, he will pull them from us forever, so that we might not know the light that the Lord would shine upon us.”
The Reverend paused for a long moment, his eyes closed. A sudden gust of wind from the door kicked up a scattering of sand, and I watched it spiral down the center aisle into a little cyclone. When I looked up again, the Reverend’s eyes were open, his face twisted with rage.
“There are those,” he whispered, still loud enough to carry to the back rows, “who would do us harm. Who would take this bold congregation and dash it apart.” A vague murmuring rippled through the crowd. I could feel their eyes upon me, as if this sermon, once for Annie Seabrook, was now directed at me alone.
“But the Lord is with us!” The Reverend’s words slammed through the air, echoing so sharply that it seemed as though it had forced its way into the church walls and been shouted out again from all directions, all angles, focused directly on my own head. “He is with us!” the Reverend shouted again. “And He will not let the Devil win over the righteous! Just as the body of the Holy, fresh slain by evil, will not corrupt but grows brighter and brings forth the fragrance of flowers, neither too will our people be corrupted, but will flower forever! For it is the God of Abraham and Isaac who protects us, the God of Israel who struck down Pharaoh, who shook down the walls of Jericho and sent the Flood to wash away wickedness like sandcastles before the storm. Let those with dark hearts quiver! Let them know that the LORD walks among them. Let them know that their evil will not be tolerated!”
He barked the last words, one at a time, like a drill sergeant mustering his troops. An energy swelled within the congregation, growing greater with each shouted syllable, until at last it broke over and the people leapt from their seats, voices crying at the top of their lungs, “AMEN!”
I couldn’t stand; the air had grown incredibly thick, and each breath sank like lead in my chest. I looked up at Tom Johnston, and he looked back down at me. Underneath his placid features, a storm brewed, wrathful but restrained like the wind-whipped sea behind a crumbling levy.
“You need ta’ learn ta’ rise when de Lord call ya,” he said, the waves breaking in his voice. I nodded and shut my eyes. I kept them shut as the people sank back into their seats, and only opened them again when I felt Lily’s hand slide over mine.
Later that day, we had a picnic on the beach. We talked about Charleston and New York City, California and Mexico, philosophy and politics. She kissed me on the cheek when I walked her home, and suddenly sitting through that damn sermon had been worth it.
“How long you think before they run you out of here on a rail?” I asked. I was sitting on the side of Sonny’s desk, letting the cool air from the fan wash over my back. Sonny had his feet up next to me, his fingers knitted together behind his head and his eyes closed behind his glasses.
“Come on in, Mr. Matthews,” he said. I twisted around to see our landlord standing at the screen door, his hand held up frozen in a half-knock. He looked anxious; sweat trickled from the wrinkles on his brow down his face to the collar of his ragged white cotton shirt.
“How you doin’, Mr. Sonny,” he whispered, ducking his head a little. He nodded to me without meeting my eye, and I nodded back.
Sonny swung his feet off of his desk and leaned forward a little. “I’m doing just fine, thank you,” he said. “What can we do for you?”
Mr. Matthews scratched the back of his head. “Well suh,” he muttered, taking in a deep draw of breath, “I gotta ask you for the rent a little early this month.”
“That right?” Sonny leaned forward a little further.
Matthews nodded. “My son, you see, he got in a spot of trouble up in Beaufort, and we got more bills this month than we can pay, so…” He wrung his hands together. “I just want to get the rent a little early, that’s all, if that’s okay.”
Sonny frowned and pushed up the bridge of his glasses with his thumb. From somewhere in the marsh creek, an egret let out its grating honk. “Well, you know, I been meaning to talk to you about this whole situation anyhow,” Sonny said. “You see, this building has served us real well, real well, but I’ve managed to get myself a little bit of property on the island, as you may or may not know, and I was thinking it seemed silly, us renting this place when I got my own lots all around.”
Mr. Matthews’s shoulders drooped, like the weight of the world had driven him another notch into the ground. “Oh, no, Mr. Sonny, I-”
“Now hold on,” Sonny said, raising an open hand. “Now there’s people still living on the lots they sold me, and the last thing I want is to make them move.” He gave a quick wink in my direction. A “not yet” belonged at the end of that sentence, and we both knew it. Maybe we all knew it. “And you know I don’t want to make things hard on you.”
“Oh, I know, Mr. Sonny.” The man’s voice came softly now, almost inaudible.
“So here’s my proposition for you.” Sonny leaned back in his chair again, placing the tips of his fingers together into a steeple. “I love this island, and you know that. And I love this office. You’re in need of some money, as we all are from time to time, and the twenty-five dollars I give you for rent ain’t gonna help too much. But if you’re willing, I’d like to buy this place, this whole lot, and I’d give you three-thousand for it by the end of the week.”
Mr. Matthews swallowed hard. “Now, I don’t know, Mr. Sonny, that’s real generous of you, but this place been in my family since my gran-daddy was a boy. You know, this here was the first piece of property my family ever owned.”
Appeals like this were common on the island; most of the families here had come from the plantation across the marsh, or up the river, and had settled on Half-Moon the day they got their freedom. They didn’t get their forty acres and a mule, but they did get Half-Moon, and often that was all they had.
“Well, you know I do understand that,” Sonny said. “But you got to look at the bigger picture here. You think you gran-daddy would have wanted you laboring under this kind of debt your whole life, pecking along for a living? You think he would have wanted to see his great-grandson go to jail up in Beaufort ’cause no one could pay for his defense? I don’t think he would. He’d want better for his kin.”
The floor creaked beneath Sonny’s chair as he leaned forward again, assuming his best businessman pose. “Now Mr. Matthews,” he said, pushing his glasses up. “I’m offering you three thousand dollars. Three thousand. You think about that number. That’s more money than you’ll earn in a year. Hell, a year and a half. Now I know there’s some people don’t like me here, I know that. And I know they think selling away this island is bad. But it ain’t. It’s just business. And if it helps you, then it’s good business. And that’s what I want. Good business.”
Matthews lowered his head and let out a deep sigh.
“You gonna do business with me?” Sonny asked. Slowly, almost painfully, the older man nodded. “All right then,” Sonny said. “I’ll draw up some papers for you to sign, and you can come back tomorrow and we’ll take care of it. An X will be fine if you can’t write too well.” Our former landlord nodded again, wiped his dripping brow, and walked back to the door.
“You done the right thing!” Sonny called. We watched after him for a minute until he was out of earshot.
“Sad to see a proud man brought low like that,” I whispered.
Sonny shook his head. “If it weren’t for proud men brought low, we’d have a hell of a hard time buying this island,” he said, chuckling. “Aw, hell, I forgot to sell him the damn ointment. Why didn’t you remind me?”
I snorted. “You don’t have a drop of shame in you, do you?” I asked.
“Not one single iota. Which is good for you.” Sonny leaned back in his chair, rocking it onto two legs. “You know, Jonas,” he said, casually, like he was talking about changing the wallpaper, “if you weren’t spending all your time trying to slide into that nigger girl’s pants, maybe you could learn something here.”
A spike of anger leapt through me. I grabbed the leg of his chair and shoved it up, sending him crashing to the ground, flailing and flapping like a snowy egret caught in an alligator’s jaws. His head banged the wall, and I stood over him, wordless, as he rubbed it with one hand.
“Ow, God!” he said. “What the hell’d you do that for?”
“You should watch your mouth,” I said. “Don’t talk about Lily that way.”
Sonny stared at me and I stared back, just as surprised as he was. My arms shook, tense.
“Damn, Jonas, I was just messing around with you,” he said. “Didn’t mean nothing by it.” I took a deep breath and walked over toward the far corner of the room. Sonny struggled to his feet, straightened his jacket and plopped back into his uprighted chair.
“Look,” he said, “I shouldn’t have said that. That wasn’t right.” He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “You’re pretty sweet on this girl, ain’t you?”
“Maybe I am,” I said.
“Well, I reckon she must be something special then,” he said, smoothing his dark hair back into position. “I’m happy for you, I am. You deserve something good for yourself.” He paused for a moment. “I mean that, Jonas,” he said. “We’ve known each other for a long time, you’ve always been a good friend to me, and I’ve always wanted the best for you. Sometimes I just can’t control my mouth, you know that. I don’t mean nothing by it.” An unfamiliar look passed over Sonny, though only for a second. It might have been sincerity. I nodded.
“Now to answer your question from before we were so rudely interrupted,” he said, his smile coming back, “I don’t believe they will ever run me out of here, thank you for your concern. Listen,” He turned to look me straight in the eye. “You got to see the way things are. I know people here are antsy ’bout giving up their land to white people. Hell, even my dashing smile and rakish charm won’t keep ‘em from getting nervous forever. But it don’t matter.
“See, the thing you got to understand,” he continued, “is that I don’t want to hurt these people. That ain’t my goal. But the tides are turning for them, and someone’s gonna ride those tides. Might as well be us. These people, they may get upset, they may get antsy, but in the end, they know the water better than anything else in the world. And they can feel the sea change coming. I’m going to keep giving them money, and they’re going to keep selling me land, and pretty soon, I’ll have all the land, and there’s nothing they can do about it, no matter who don’t like it. That’s just the way of things.”
He leaned back in his chair and smiled into the breeze from the fan. I slid off his desk and went back to balancing the books.
Two months after we met Lily Flora, Sonny ran a stop sign at Center Street coming back from some party on the mainland. He never even saw the old lady, just felt the crunch and bump as the wheel passed over her head.
“Ain’t that life, Jonas?” Sonny said to me. “Ain’t that life? One minute, you’re on top of the world, then some Negro bitch don’t watch where she’s going and BAM! The whole damn thing’s in tatters. Ain’t that goddamn life?” He put his head down in his hands and his whole body shook, from top to bottom.
They buried Annie Seabrook the next day. I didn’t go, but Lily Flora described it to me as we sat on a washed-up palmetto log on the beach and drank cheap wine from plastic cups.
“They held the service at that little prayerhouse I took you to,” she said. “Just on the edge of the marsh, where the water runs up into the street at high tide. Most of Half-Moon came. The crowd was out the door, some standing in their suits and dresses up to the ankle in marsh water. Inside, they was all filing by the body one at a time while the Reverend read from Isaiah.
“Do you not know?” she said, bellowing like the Reverend at his finest. In my mind, I could hear his quavering voice. “Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth!”
She shook her head and took another sip of wine. “I stood in line with the rest of them,” she said, “waiting my turn to lay eyes on Miss Seabrook’s body. The church was hot, real hot, and the air smelled like flowers, like roses and perfume, but the only flowers I saw were iris and chrysanthemum, and they don’t have no scent.
“It was open casket, too, which was strange, ’cause I heard her head had been, you know, by the car and all.” She shrugged, looking down at a ghost crab scuttling across the dry sand. “The coffin had this deep-mahogany lacquer; it was beautiful. Most everyone on the island pitched in to buy it. Her right hand hung out of it towards the congregation, and as they passed by, each one of them grabbed it and kissed it like it was the holy cross itself.”
I pulled out a cigarette and took a deep drag. Lily reached over and plucked it from me, then pulled hard on it until she nearly choked.
“You don’t smoke,” I said.
“I’m thinking of starting,” she coughed. The afternoon sunlight shattered on the calm surface of the ocean, sparkling like fireworks that never left the ground. I waited as Lily took a long sip of wine and composed herself.
“All dead people miss something, you know? Like when the life is gone, that spark, that animus, has left them, and their features sag like loose cloth, like they ain’t your kin no more. But Annie Seabrook wasn’t like that. I half-expected her to open her eyes and call me to the Lord again. She didn’t have a mark on her. Not a mark. She was perfect, like she had never been hit by that car.” Her gaze dropped back to the sand at our feet.
“I reached down and took that old woman’s hand,” she said, turning to look straight at me, “and I swear, Jonas, it was not cold. It wasn’t warm, not alive, but not cold like a dead person, neither. And that perfume, that strange sweet perfume, it was everywhere, choking me, stronger than ever, like it was coming straight out of Miss Seabrook herself.” She held up her hands and they shook, curling into little fists as her brow furrowed and her face grew worried. “I felt something there, Jonas. Something bigger than myself. Something huge and powerful and silent and peaceful, and angry- horribly, horribly angry. It wasn’t… I don’t know. But when I pulled my hand away, a little powder of silt trickled onto the floor.”
“I don’t know what I felt,” she said, “but whatever it was, it wasn’t right. If I was Sonny Deets, I’d feel real shy ’bout staying round here.”
“Sonny’s not leaving,” I said. “He owns nearly half this island by now.” The sun crept down toward the horizon, shining amber in the reflections in our cups.
Lily took a sip of her wine. “I’m just saying maybe he should, that’s all. Right now. The God they worship here, he ain’t really the forgiving kind.”
I nodded. Down toward the pier, John-Ray dripped sand from his fingertip onto a huge mound he had carved from the beach.
That night a storm blew in out of nowhere. A big one, nearly a hurricane. I went down to Papa’s to get a hotdog after I left Lily, just before the rain came. When I got home, the screen door banged against its frame and the house was empty. Two bags lay on Sonny’s bed in a state of disarray, like he had been throwing clothes into them, changing his mind, and pulling them out again. Sand covered the floorboards in a thin layer of grit, and three sets of tracks led in past my own to Sonny’s room, then back out again.
The sky rumbled loud, and the sharp crack of nearby lightning rent the night. Big swollen drops of rain hit my face as I ran out into the storm-straight into the barrel chest of Tom Johnston, Lily’s cousin.
“Where is he?” I shouted against the rising wind. Tom just shook his head. The wrath I had seen in his face before now seemed barely restrained, ready to break free.
“You don’ need to go out dere,” he said. “You get back in and get yo’ tings.”
“Where is he?”
“Lily taken a shine to you, boy,” Tom said. “Only reason you in heah, not out on dat beach wit’ him. Get inside and get yo’ tings.”
I nodded slowly and turned back, then dashed around him, leaving him yelling behind me. The sky glowed with an unearthly light as I raced past the dark buildings, down the empty streets in the wind and driving rain toward the pier.
The street dead-ended just before the beach. I charged full force off of it, into the rolling dunes. Sand shifted beneath my feet and I fell to my knees, clawing my way up one dune then tumbling down the backside to clamber again up the next one. Lily met me as I struggled on all fours to the top of the last dune. The whole town waited silently on the beach behind her, standing around John-Ray’s sandcastle. Sonny was nowhere to be seen.
“Go on back, Jonas,” Lily said to me. “Go on back home like Tom told you to.”
“Where’s Sonny?” I asked her, breathless. “What are they going to do?” Lily shook her head, a deep sadness in her dark eyes. We stared at each other for a long moment. I started to push past her, but the townsfolk had formed a line on the beachfront now, all watching me, blocking me from whatever was going on behind them. I saw an anger in their dark eyes, a fierce determination that would tear the world apart before it let me through.
“Sonny!” I cried out. “Jesus, what are they doing?”
“He can’t hear you,” Lily said beside me. “Just go home, Jonas. Please. Just go home.” A strong arm reached around my neck and pulled me backward.
At that moment, there came a fierce cracking, like heaven itself splitting open. I looked up to see a spiral, a cyclone, rising up from behind the townsfolk like a tornado in reverse stretching from the beach straight into heaven.
“Sonny!” I called, weakly. There came a sound like a giant inhale, like the whole world taking a breath, and then I was gone, dragged down into the valley between the dunes.
“Come on back now, boy,” Tom Johnston’s voice said in my ear.
“What did they do to him?” I whispered. Lily Flora leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, and they led me in silence back to the house.
Lily stayed with me that night, holding me tight as we lay in bed together, still in our soaked clothes, watching the storm rage out the window. The next morning, I walked the beaches with her, but she wouldn’t say a word about what happened. By noon, I had packed, and by that evening, I left for Charleston. I told Sonny’s parents he got caught in that storm, and maybe he did.
But when I walked those beaches the morning before I left Half-Moon, while Lily Flora stared out at the placid face of the sea, I found the remains of John-Ray’s sandcastle. The seawater had washed over it, leaving nothing but a vague outline, but I could still make out a human proportion to its features. It was tall, and thin, with one arm out to the side and the other flung up above its head, like it was flailing against the light from the sky. And half-buried in the disappearing sand lay a pair of coke-bottle glasses.
John Parke Davis is an attorney living in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his beautiful girlfriend, two lazy cats and one criminally insane foster-dog. His work has previously appeared in Shimmer Magazine and flashquake, and he and his brother maintain a not-for-profit story gallery.
I first started writing this piece when I was a student at College of Charleston, living in a poor neighborhood on the verge of gentrification. Our next door neighbor was an old man who only spoke Gullah. I got about a paragraph down, which sat in my virtual desk drawer for years. Then one day, it blossomed.