“There’s a Sergeant Thacker to see you.” My assistant, Jennifer, stood in my office doorway. Her face flushed with concern and a touch of curiosity.
“I don’t know anyone by that name.” I grabbed my purse. “I’m late. Ask Melinda to help him.”
“He’s a uniformed police officer. And he’s asking for Owen Landers’ mother.”
Black squiggly lines swam in my periphery, and I gripped my desk.
Jennifer stepped aside, and a man in a dark blue uniform ducked through the opening. His shoulders drooped as if posture was the last thing on his mind. His puffy brown eyes held remnants of dread.
I braced for the inevitable hit, the way you do at a stoplight when you glance in the rearview mirror and see a car racing forward. “Owen?”
“Yes. But your son’s not hurt.” He waved a palm roughly the size of Owen’s catcher’s mitt toward my desk chair. “Maybe you should sit, Mrs. Landers.”
I heard my mother’s voice in my head. This is going to be bad. I tightened my grip on the edge of my desk. “Where is my son?”
“In the hospital.”
“Hospital?” My head spun like I was half-drunk or fighting a bad case of the flu.
He stretched his arm across my desk as if to catch me. “The hospital’s just a precaution. Your son suffered a few scratches. No broken bones. No stitches.” He rounded my desk and clasped my hand in his, patted it the way my grandmother had turned a pinch of dough into a biscuit. Three quick taps. “A bystander pulled your son from the Porsche in time.”
The room hushed, as if the air and the lights and the officer hung in suspension waiting for further explanation. “In time for what?”
“Your husband.” He released my hand. “Adam Landers. He died at the scene. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Ex-husband.” The words escaped my lips before I could grab them back. “We’re divorced.” I pressed my hand to my mouth. My mind felt pushed, compressed. “Adam’s dead?” I should cry. I wanted to cry. To weep for Adam. But I had no tears left for him. Still, the officer’s news emptied me. Owen would be devastated. “Which hospital?” I ached to touch my son. See him. Hold him. Comfort him.
He handed me a card. “Your son’s at Children’s Hospital. Can someone drive you?”
I must’ve walked out of Morgan Stanley and climbed into the passenger seat of my car, but I didn’t remember taking those steps. When my mind resurfaced, Jennifer was driving, and Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital loomed dead ahead.
Questions bounced in my brain.
Where was the accident?
Did Adam die on impact or did he linger in pain?
Did Adam’s sister Vivienne know?
Who pulled Owen from the wreckage?
I wanted to kiss that person’s feet.
Then I remembered my text message threatening to haul Adam back to court for breaching our custody agreement. My stomach lurched, and the bitter taste of bile coated my tongue.
Jennifer parked the Hummer, the only valuable asset Adam asked for in the divorce and didn’t get. She grabbed our purses in one hand and my arm in the other.
“The police officer said he wasn’t hurt,” I said. “He’ll be in the emergency room.” I ran through the lobby, down the hall, and stared at the receptionist with beautiful silver hair and pink lipstick the exact color of her smock. “My son—” An uncontrollable tremble shook my body.
Jennifer arrived out of breath. She threw our purses on the counter and wrapped her arm around my waist. “Hang on, Kate.” She spoke to the receptionist. “Ms. Landers’s son was in a car accident this afternoon. Owen Landers, he’s eight-years-old.”
The pink lady nodded and typed something on her keyboard. Picked up her phone.“Owen Landers’s mother is here.”
I paced a five-foot circle in front of the pink lady’s counter, and finally, a nurse in green scrubs walked from behind a pair of swinging doors. “Who’s the mother of Owen Landers?” She looked from me to Jennifer.
She settled her gaze on me. “We moved him to the second floor. Room 212. But you need to go to admitting—”
“Elevator’s that way.” Jennifer pointed down the hall.
I flew down the corridor, dodged a woman pushing a man in a wheelchair, and punched the elevator call button. The doors slid open with a rush of air. Jennifer and I jumped inside and pushed the second-floor button.
Owen’s room was in front of the nurse’s station. Inside, the only light came from a small lamp on the table beside his bed. And Owen slept. He wore a blue-striped hospital gown, a white sheet folded across his chest. And on his forehead a small bandage, the only sign he’d survived a fatal accident.
Another nurse in green scrubs followed me in. “Are either of you the mother?”
“Why is he sleeping?” No cuts. Only a bruise on his forehead. No blood. I ran my hand over his chest. “Is he hurt? The police officer said he wasn’t hurt.”
“The doctor gave him a sedative.”
“Why? What happened?”
“I don’t know. He just arrived five minutes ago.” She placed a clipboard at the foot of Owen’s bed.“Dr. Sanderson is on rounds, but she’ll be here soon. There’s a message on his paperwork—you need to go downstairs to admitting, sign forms, and give them insurance information.” The nurse rushed her words, clearly in control, but not in an unkind way. A no-nonsense tone. It was one I recognized and often used with my customers.
“I’ll go later. I’m not leaving my son.” I smoothed curls from Owen’s forehead, ran my hand down his arm. My fingers lingered on a scratch above his elbow, not bandaged. I eased the sheet off his legs, ran my fingertips over his feet, counted his toes.
A few minutes later an admitting clerk arrived with a laptop, and I answered endless questions, provided ID and insurance cards. She finally left.
I repositioned a chair close to the bed, sat and held Owen’s hand, determined to be the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes.
A young woman charged into the room as if responding to a code blue. She stopped at the sink and washed her hands. “I’m Dr. Sanderson.” She wore her knee-length white coat unbuttoned and looked to be in her early thirties. Her blonde ponytail and short black skirt might’ve swayed my impression.
“Why is Owen sleeping? Is he hurt?”
“He was agitated when he arrived. I ordered a sedative.” Dr. Sanderson dried her hands, walked to the far side of the bed, and lifted one of Owen’s eyelids. She seemed satisfied and plucked the clipboard from the end of his bed. “I’ve scheduled a child psychologist to examine Owen. I’ll have to consult with him before he can be released.”
My heart banged in my chest like an unlatched screen door in a storm. “A psychologist?”
“Your son arrived inconsolably.” Dr. Sanderson made a note on the chart and put it back in place. She must’ve noticed my shock because her hazel eyes filled with compassion. “Requiring a sedative, in this case, was understandable. Owen witnessed his father trapped inside his burning vehicle. It must’ve been gruesome. Three seasoned paramedics were still visibly shaken when they brought your son to the ER.”
“Oh, my God.” I attempted to conjure the image in my mind, but the picture refused to form.
The no-nonsense nurse handed me a glass of orange juice. A whiff of antiseptic followed her hands. “Sip this. You’ll feel better.”
Dr. Sanderson touched my shoulder. “I’m going to keep your son tonight for observation. I’ll review Dr. Cooper’s report, he’s the psychologist, and we’ll decide from there when Owen can be released.”
I set the juice on the side table and held Owen’s hand. “Sweetheart, it’s Mommy. I’m here, baby. Mommy’s here.” I ran my fingers through his curls, kissed his forehead, his eyelids, his cheek.
The doctor and nurse left.
“I’m going to step down the hall and grab a bottle of water,” Jennifer said. “Can I bring you anything?”
“No, thank you.” I had no clear idea of the time. “I’m going to stay with Owen tonight. You can drive my car home, but I should call my Mom.”
“I’ve already called Roslyn. She’ll be here by nine o’clock.” Jennifer removed a five-dollar bill from her wallet. “And the nurse said Adam’s sister Vivienne called to check on Owen, so she knows. Is there anyone else I should contact?”
Owen would have to attend his father’s funeral. “No. There’s no one else I need to call.” I gripped my son’s hand and kissed his fingers. Tears welled in my eyes. I let them flow.
Four hours later, Mom arrived. She slipped into the room and mimicked the same rituals I’d gone through to ensure Owen was okay. She kissed his cheek and then turned her worried gaze on me. She placed her tote bag on a chair. “I stopped downstairs and bought you a Diet Coke. It’s in the bag. I brought you a few things you might need, a toothbrush, a comb.”
Jennifer hugged Mom and whispered something I didn’t catch, then gripped both my hands. “I’m leaving, but I’m only a phone call away.”
Mom folded me into her arms, and I clung to her, blubbering through a new wave of tears. “Adam burned to death, and Owen witnessed it.” Even during the worst of our marriage battles, when I hated Adam to the core of my being, I hadn’t wished him dead. The muscles in my thighs trembled, and I leaned against the bed frame for support. “Adam and Owen were on their way to a baseball game in Gainesville, even though Adam knew I’d made plans to take Owen to the rodeo in Kissimmee. When Adam didn’t drop Owen at the bank at noon, I sent a text and threatened to haul Adam back to court if he didn’t have Owen at the bank by four o’clock. The car accident was my fault.” I said it more to myself than to Mom.
“Adam flipping his car was not your fault.”
“I knew the text would set Adam off. But I sent it anyway.”
“Adam was driving.” Mom wrapped me in another hug. “And today’s your birthday, of course, you were angry. He ignored your request to have Owen with you.” She held me at arm’s length. “You should come home.”
I pulled away, found a box of tissues on the table beside the bed, and wiped my tears. “Orlando is home. The doctor said Owen was distraught when he arrived. She had to sedate him. And a psychologist has to examine Owen before they release him.”
“After the funeral, come back to Savannah, let me help you through this.”
“Mom, I can’t discuss this now.”
“Adam’s death means the custody battle for Owen is over, and you have two beautiful homes sitting empty in Georgia. There’s no reason to stay in Florida now.” Roslyn the fixer. She saw a problem and swooped in with a solution.
“The Barry House is Calvin’s.” My voice had a subdued, bruised note, and the space between my eyebrows and down my nose tingled. Any minute the tears would start to flow again. “Once Cal calms down, he’ll want it back.”
“Then spend the rest of the summer in Shell Hammock, at Spartina.” She opened the tote bag and handed me the Diet Coke. “Spartina’s the perfect environment for Owen after this nightmare.”
Mom hated Spartina, but she knew my grandfather’s home held a special place in my heart. I could practically hear Mom lining up her debate points. Roslyn wasn’t a we’ll-cross-that-bridge-later kind of woman. She planned. She argued. She usually won.
“You’re a single parent now and traveling three weeks out of four is no longer an option.”
Her trump card struck the intended mark. My gaze locked on Owen. “I could transfer to another department.” But at my management level, no positions would offer flexible forty-hour workweeks.
Adam’s voice joined in the fray. You’re analytical, Kate, born without the mothering gene.
“You’ve run the family trust and worked full-time at the bank for the last three years,” Mom said. “You need to slow down.”
It was an ongoing conversation Mom and I had at least once a week.
“Spartina’s kitchen renovation is almost complete.” Her voice laced with hope. “And the river’s a magical place in the summer.”
Memories of my granddad’s summer home, afternoon breezes on the water, horseback riding, kayaking trips to the island, played like a film in my mind. “Owen’s been begging for a horse.” I had the means now, thanks to my grandfather’s inheritance six months ago, to offer my perfect and peaceful childhood to my son. No bad memories. Nothing to remind Owen of the horrors of today.
Vivienne swept into the room with two nurses in her wake. “Don’t give me a lecture on visiting hours. I’m his aunt—” She spotted Mom, and her face froze, but then she zeroed in on Owen and rushed to his side. “Owen.” She leaned over the bed and spoke into his ear. “Aunt Viv’s here.”
I watched to see which Vivienne was in evidence.
The kind sweet girl I’d known in high school kissed Owen’s cheek. But inside that toned petite body lurked another woman with a malicious heart and a mouth of venom.
Vivienne shook Owen’s shoulder. “Honey, Aunt Viv’s here. Wake up.”
I leaned over the bed and gripped her hand. “Viv, Owen’s sedated. The doctor wants him to sleep. Don’t wake him.”
She ran a loving hand down his arm and kissed his forehead. Then she turned. Her beautiful pixie face contorted into gargoyle ugly. “You.” She stabbed her blood-red fingernail at me. “You killed my brother.ˮ
Two Months Later
An airboat wasn’t the strangest thing I’d ever seen on this barrier island on the Georgia coast. At ten years old, my cousin and I were building a treehouse and spotted a three-hundred-pound black bear heading for the marsh.
Owen covered his ears. “Mom, whyʼs that boat so loud?”
I pried his fingers loose. “It has an airplane engine.” I recovered his ears with my hands and tried buffering the screeching whine of the boat’s motor.
“Can it fly?” he yelled.
The driver came ashore, shot past a burial mound, and swung back into the sound. The engine powered down, the silence so sudden muted sound waves hung in the air.
I dropped my hands to my side. “No. An airboat doesn’t fly. It’s designed to skim over water or marsh grass like in the Florida Everglades.” I couldn’t remember ever seeing one on the Georgia coast. I considered the raised mounds to my left. “And I guess it can ride over land, too.
This swath of ground on the east end of the island was protected land. Land my ancestors had meticulously maintained for the past seventy years. It wasn’t a playground for some idiot with an amphibious floating toy.
I’d first noticed the boat when we set our anchor at the mouth of the creek. The driver kept his craft within eyesight while we climbed dunes and skirted marsh grass lining the river. He’d been nothing more than an ill-mannered nuisance until we neared the eastern tip of the island. Then he moved in, raced up and down the bank, becoming impossible to ignore. I refused to let him ruin our day.
Kneeling beside Owen, I pointed to the shell mounds. “See those raised hills? That’s where the Indians buried their braves.”
Owen shifted his weight to his toes.
I grabbed his shoulder. “We can’t move any closer than this sign.”
He resettled on his heels and considered the four mounds. “Is this like the place where Daddy lives?”
“Kind of like that.” I weighed my words carefully. I’d navigated weeks of therapy to get Owen to this point, agreeing to an afternoon away from the video games used like a drug to numb his emotional pain. “It looks different here because the Indians buried their braves standing up. That’s why the hills are so high.”
Owen hadn’t mentioned Adam since we’d moved into Spartina, except for the nightmares. But screaming for his dad when he was half-asleep wasn’t the same as casually bringing up his name in conversation. Was this progress? It seemed like progress.
He plopped on the sand and scooped a fiddler crab into his hand. “They look like white mountains.”
“It’s the sand and oyster shells.” I snatched up a large white fiddler scuttling across the sand and encouraged the crab to crawl into Owen’s hand.
“We own this whole island?” he asked for the third time in five minutes. “Even the mountains?” He glanced up, and his hat slid over his forehead.
I lifted the brim, swept curls out of his sapphire blue eyes. The hat was too big and completely covered his ears. It had been Adam’s favorite. Owen never took it off. Even when he slept, he kept it on his nightstand. When he woke in the mornings, the hat went back on his head.
I glanced at the airboat, made sure it was still floating in the sound. “The island belongs to us. No one owns burial grounds, but we have the responsibility of protecting them.” I motioned for Owen to stand. “It’s getting late, and we need to head back to the boat.”
“Did the Indians fight?”
“No. The braves were hunters. A peaceful tribe.” The airboat motor screeched, and I glanced over my shoulder.
Like a teen boasting a new hotrod, the driver accelerated turned a donut and flew across the marsh. Two donuts later he spun back into the creek. Just a kid showing off.
“Do crabs bite?” Owen asked.
“They pinch.” I dragged my gaze from the boat. The fiddler crawled up his arm. “It’s okay.”
Most of the barrier islands were state-owned. The airboat driver might not realize this land was private. I kneeled beside Owen. “Hey, I’m going to try and flag down the guy in the boat, ask him not to drive near the Indian mounds. You wait here.” I walked toward the water and waved my hands over my head.
The boat pulled to a stop and idled ten yards offshore. I motioned for him to wait and sprinted forward. The driver gunned his motor, mowed over a patch of marsh grass, crossed the tip of the furthest burial mound, and circled back to the middle of the sound.
Irritation swelled like a prickly ball in my chest. Even if the driver thought this island belonged to the state, he didn’t have the right to destroy the land. I walked backward and kept my eye on the boat. Owen met me halfway with an index finger stuck in each ear.
I fished my cell from my jean pocket. Maybe a patrol boat was in the area. I held my phone high, spun a slow circle. No bars. My mother-son fantasy imploded into pragmatism. It was time to go home.
The airboat’s engine kicked up a notch, and the boat glided into the mouth of the nearest inlet. An inlet leading straight to us.
I hugged Owen to my side. The guy’s taunting no longer seemed childish, and I considered my options. If we walked the riverbank, our skiff was ten minutes away. Taking the cow trails through the brush meant walking for twenty. Twenty minutes of Owen complaining about being hot and thirsty. Twenty minutes of slogging through hundred-year-old vegetation.
The driver raced his engine.
Owen tugged my arm. “That boat hurts my ears.”
Twenty minutes of my child not being subjected to a jerk.
I pointed west. “Itʼll be cooler walking under the trees than the river bank.”
“Is that boat going to follow us?”
Minimize his anxieties, and the nightmares will recede. Therapist theories always sounded so simple until one had to put them to practical use. “Nah, he’s just goofing around. His boat’s probably new, and he wants to see how fast it turns.”
We started up the path, and I used both hands to rip a hole in the wall of moss and vines.
Owen pulled his cap low and walked through my opening.
I stepped in and let the vegetation fall back in place. Moss-draped limbs and vines the size of my thigh hung from trees bowed and bent from years of coastal winds. The tangy ocean breeze mixed with the heavier earthy scent of the river and enveloped us in a cloud of mist. It was like stepping into a flora sauna fully clothed.
The airboat’s rumbling engine grew louder. But we were hidden behind a curtain of green, and I took a moment to get my bearings. We were at least a quarter-mile from our boat. I added ten minutes to my estimate and slung my arm over Owen’s shoulders.
“Tide’s going to turn soon. We need to hustle.”
We slogged up an old trail that wound through high ground still used by deer and wild hogs, ending up in an oak hummock.
Owen scampered around me, his arms swinging wide. “Can we camp here? Have a bonfire and put up our tent under this tree?”
The distant whine of the engine filtered through the trees. “We could.” The boat wouldn’t follow us. Why would he? “But camping on the beach would be better because we’d have a breeze to keep away the sand gnats.” The whine of the motor grew faint, and my shoulders relaxed. Get a grip, Kate. This isn’t an island survival show. I searched for another trail heading south.
“I want McKenzie to come to our campout.” Owen picked up a stick and used it as a slashing sword for vines, twigs, moss, anything within his reach.
“McKenzie lives in Florida.”
“Aunt Vivienne would bring her if I asked.” He lifted a palm frond off the ground and stopped to watch a frog hop into a pile of leaves.
“We’ll see.” I urged him forward. “You’ll meet new friends at school.”
He turned away, swiped his stick at a vine. “I don’t want new friends. I want McKenzie.”
Squirrels chattered. Birds chirped. No engine rumbled. Whatever the airboat driver’s issue had been, he was gone. “Hey, you want to check out my old treehouse?”
“We have a treehouse?” Owen pumped a fist in the air. “Suh-weet!”
“Itʼs on the way. Follow close. We might see snakes—maybe even an alligator.”
His eyes grew wide with excitement and I hoped enough fear to keep him from dawdling. We reached the end of our trail and looked out over thirty yards of open pasture bordering the river.
“Whereʼs the treehouse?” Owen jumped flat-footed over a limb. I shuddered, thinking about snakes lying in wait. “It’s a little farther up, closer to where we anchored our boat.”
“I can have a fort with a treehouse lookout.” Owen was like the kid whoʼd discovered a pile of Christmas presents a week early and dreamed of the possibilities. “And youʼd have to say the password to get in.” He danced in front of me, his face animated, his cheeks splotchy.
“Secret password, huh?” From this vantage point, I could see the river. The tide had already turned, and I estimated fifteen minutes before the water in the creek vanished, leaving behind mud and oyster beds. Our skiff couldn’t be more than five minutes south. No problem.
“Passwords are cool,” I said. “My cousin and I used to have a special code word to get into our treehouse.” I reached for Owen’s hand.
“What was the code?” His fingers slid away, and he darted forward. The boy had one speed—mach. I followed at a jog. Ten steps in, the crank of the motor stopped me mid-stride.
“Owen, come back.” It was if we were wearing trackers.
Owen slid to a stop and glared at the driver. “Why’s he following us?”
I ran full-throttle. “I have no idea.” I pushed Owen behind me. What did this guy want?
The shrill of the engine grew closer.
Owen peeked around my waist. “I hate that boat,” he yelled over the whine of the motor.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sick of him too.” I squinted against the sun, made out the registration numbers on the side of the boat, and committed them to memory.
The driver turned a one-eighty and zig-zagged back the way he’d come. He’d traveled twenty yards before I remembered the camera on my phone.
Owen’s hand crept up my forearm. “I’m glad he’s gone.”
“Me too.” I wanted to find our skiff and get off the island. “The treehouse isnʼ far. You want to race?”
“See that tallest pine tree?”
Owen crouched into a running stance. “Yeah.”
“Whoever gets to the tree first wins all the ice cream.”
“The whole carton?”
“The entire gallon.”
We crossed the open field in less than twenty seconds.
“I get all the ice cream. I get all the ice cream.” Owen did one of his fist pump jigs.
“I think it was a tie.”
He stared me down. “You didn’t tag the tree.” His expression as serious as a banker turning down a loan. “You gotta touch the tree, Mom.”
God, he was cute. “Yeah, yeah. Nana probably bought plain vanilla anyway.” I searched the area for a trail leading in the direction of our skiff and picked my way around a decaying oak stump, then turned back, and lifted Owen over. “Come on, let’s get a move on. Our boatʼs up ahead.”
“What about the treehouse?”
“It’s in an old oak near the edge of the river, but we won’t have time to check it out today.”
Our trail ended at the bank of the river, in an area I knew well. But nothing about the open space looked familiar. A new wooden platform floated on the river’s edge, and a path leading west had been cleared of every vine, and all the brush and fallen limbs.
Owen started up the new trail.
“That isn’t the way to our boat.” I turned a three-sixty, compared the native land with the cleared. This much work had taken considerable time. Time nobody would spend without reason. Poachers wouldn’t build a dock and clear-cut this much land for a few deer.
“Whatʼs down that way?” Owen pointed to the open path.
“An old sugar mill.” A group of five buildings—all of them falling into disarray. I couldn’t fathom a reason someone would clean land they didn’t own.
I grabbed Owen’s hand. “Letʼ go.”
He lifted the tail of his t-shirt and wiped sweat from his face. “How much farther to the treehouse?”
“Keep your eye on the monster oak up ahead.” Branches of the stately tree swept the ground. “The floor is wedged into the middle.”
Owen took off in a fast sprint and hooped a yell. “It’s humongous.” He scurried three steps up the ladder.
“We’ve no time, sweetie. Tide’s heading out, you can climb the tree next time. “
“I just want to look.”
He shot up two more steps, and the crack of splitting wood drained the last of my patience.
“Get down.” I pointed to the ground. “Now.”
As if weighing the consequences, he dangled his foot in space and descended at a speed thatʼd give a racing inchworm more than a fighting chance. He ignored the last two supports, jumped, slipped on a pile of leaves and popped up.
I turned his shoulders toward our skiff.
He stomped down the path, boarded the boat, and adopted the familiar I-wish-we’d-never-moved-here pout he’d practiced to perfection over the past two weeks.
Water rushed out of the creek at an alarming rate, but somehow I dodged the sandbars, and we cruised into Three Cees Sound.
We passed the entrance to Canton and headed for Coulson River and home. Five hundred yards down, sitting smack in the mouth of the Canary River, sat the idling airboat.