They were in the woods, hundreds of them --- police officers and firefighters and volunteers and dogs and finally, after a week of living with the heartrending story, journalists as well --- walking hand in hand in hand in a sweep across the leaf-covered ground, the dense canopy of trees overhead turning black against the darkening August sky.
“Okay, that’s it!” called the police chief. “This is the end for us.”
Everyone froze. Cait felt the dry bony hand of the woman who’d been searching on her right slip away; on her left, Martin held fast. After a moment of stillness, they moved with the rest of the crowd to tighten their circle around the chief.
“We’ve done all we can in these woods,” the chief said. “I thank you for your efforts, but you can go home. I’m turning this case over to the FBI.”
Cait looked in alarm at Martin, already shaking her head, appalled. “I can’t believe he’s giving up.”
“He’s not giving up,” said Martin. “It’s just time to try something different. It’s dark now, it’s . . .”
But she was having trouble listening, the images that had haunted her throughout this increasingly desperate week rising up again: Riley, five but no bigger than a three-year-old, buried beneath the dense carpet of leaves, trapped under a rock, cowering in a cave, mauled by a bear, or caught in a fox trap. She wasn’t ready to give up on him. She couldn’t believe the rest of them were.
“We’ve got to keep looking,” she told Martin. “That little boy, nobody ever cared about him, and now it’s like we don’t care, either.”
Martin tried to gather her close. His shoulder looked so tempting, strong beneath his dark blue T-shirt, its cloth soft as a pillowcase. She could smell the sweat on him from the long day of searching in the late summer heat, but something else, too: the sweet scent of clothing carefully laundered by a wife.
She pulled away, mortified, swiping at her cheeks. “I’m all right.”
“No you’re not.” His hands, large, gentle, were still on her.
“What is it?”
They had found each other across the crowded fire hall the night after the story broke: the little boy, son of a meth addict, foster child of a great-aunt who was descending into Alzheimer’s, wandered into the woods and never came out. Cait, visiting her parents in New Jersey for the month of August and going out of her mind with boredom, had volunteered to cover the story for the website where her college friend Sam was editor.
Martin, an editor at the Times, had similarly volunteered for the gig, since many of the paper’s reporters were off on vacation and his wife was visiting her own parents at the beach with their kids. She’d wanted a break, he’d told Cait, his soft-looking lips twisting into a frown. Which may not have been a bad thing.
They were two of the tallest people in the room, he notably older than she --- late forties, she guessed --- with dark hair and a heavy five o’clock shadow and myopic brown eyes blinking behind tortoiseshell glasses. She noticed him first, scribbling notes like a cub reporter, earnest and sweating in his white button-down shirt and chinos, gold wedding ring glinting in the bright overhead lights of the country hall.
Then the fire chief said something inadvertently funny and she’d noticed him --- noticed Martin --- suppressing a smile as he ducked his head and scribbled faster. She must have been staring at him --- must have been smiling, too, because he suddenly looked up, caught her eye, and grinned full out.
They were a pair after that, swapping information on the story, comparing theories on what had happened to Riley, gossiping about their fellow reporters, drinking on side-by-side swiveling stools at the Blind Pig every night, then shuffling next door and saying good night beneath the bare bulb that lit the portico of the motel where they both were staying, he in Room 10, she in 11.
“I’m going to keep looking,” she told him now, pulling free,
really believing she was going to head out herself with her little flashlight into the now-dark woods. “Will you help me?”
“You’re not going anywhere,” he said, taking hold of her.
She looked down at his hand, big, pale against her tan arm.
She’d spent the whole of the two weeks before coming up here at her parents’ little lake club, the poky place where they’d been going since she was a kid, baking on the dock while her mom sat reading in an Adirondack chair under the dense pines. Cait never burned and her hair, as dark as Martin’s in winter, had bleached the same tawny gold as her skin.
“What if that were your son?” she asked him.
Noah, she remembered. Noah was fourteen, his sister Natalie seventeen, heading to college next year.
“That wouldn’t be my son,” Martin said quietly.
“What if it was me?” she said, and then she broke down for real, pressing her face against his shoulder now, feeling his arms wrap tightly around her, letting herself go, feeling safe in his embrace—so safe, she managed to think, that it was dangerous. One of his hands moved through her hair, got tangled, then got deliberately more tangled.
“It’s not you,” he said into her ear.
“It could be me,” she told him, pulling back to look at him.
“What do you mean?”
She took a breath but then decided not to say what she’d been preparing to say. “Nothing,” she muttered.
There was Riley in her mind’s eye again, lost, alone, scared, damaged. Why did she, who’d never felt anything but safe and adored, feel that could be her?
Maybe because she was prone to wandering into the woods.
Maybe because she felt, now, like she was lost.
“What?” he pressed.
She shook her head. “Nothing. We better go file our stories or everybody’s going to beat us.”
They sat, as usual, facing each other across the long folding table that served as a makeshift desk for the reporters covering the story. They each banged out their last Riley stories on their laptops. She found herself reworking her sentences more than was necessary, going back to her notes again and again in search of a better quote, reining in her pace as surely as if she were riding a horse when she felt herself approaching the final paragraphs. As long as she didn’t finish the story, she felt, he might still be out there, waiting to be found and written about the next day.
Martin finished first, packed up his computer, and sat playing with his phone till she was done. Then they set off, as they had every night, walking down the dark highway toward the motel. The only thing that was different was that tonight they held hands, loosely, noncommittally, but without letting go.
“Feeling better?” he asked her.
“Want to tell me more?”
She took a deep breath and didn’t answer. I want to tell you everything, she thought. I want to know everything. But wasn’t the very fact that he was married, however ambivalently, the very reason she’d let herself develop this kind of crush on him? Because she knew there was no danger of actually having him, of getting too close?
The night was darker than usual, the moon that had lit their search and their walks home all week narrowed to a fiery sliver.
And there was something else: no lights emanating from the Blind Pig.
“Shit,” he said, stopping. “If there was ever a night when I needed a beer.”
“I have beer,” she said, tentatively. “Well, not beer, actually. Whisky.”
He laughed. Stood on the shoulder of the moonlit highway and studied her. It felt nice, tipping her head back to meet his gaze. Nice and even more dangerous than heading into the black woods.
“If you have whisky, I have glasses,” he said. “The finest plastic.”
“I have water. The finest tap.”
“I might even have ice,” he said. “Or at least I know where I can get some.”
And then there was that moment, the moment she might have said, “God, but I’m so tired,” and he might have said,
“Maybe we can have lunch sometime,” but instead, after they let the silence settle for an extra beat, he leaned toward her and they kissed, his mouth salty with sweat, gritty with dust, hungry against hers.
She’d been traveling light for so long, emotionally as well as literally, giving in to sex only when she was desperate and nonattachment was all but guaranteed, when the man looked as if he could satisfy the body without leaving any imprint on the heart.
But that wasn’t Martin. I could love this man, she thought as they half stumbled, half twirled toward the motel, their kisses harder and more insistent with every clumsy step. I could love him but I won’t. Or I’ll let myself love him tonight and then tomorrow we’ll both leave and I’ll never see him again. He’ll go back to his family and I’ll go off to Addis Ababa or to Manila and I’ll think of calling him every time I’m in New York but I never will.
They forgot the whisky. She paused only long enough to duck into the bathroom and rummage through the big cosmetics case she’d never bothered to unpack at her parents’ place, miraculously finding her old diaphragm in its case. And a twisted tube of jelly last used who knew where or when.
He was waiting for her, stretched out long and lean on top of the sheets, his eyes without the cover of his glasses looking like the most naked thing about him. She lay down beside him, leaving the bedside lamp on. The smell of the woods, of the dead leaves they’d spent the day wading through and the trees that had towered all around them, filled the room and seemed to emanate from his skin. She kissed him lightly, tenderly, without force. The decision had been made and they no longer had to pretend to be swept away by passion.
She’d never had sex with someone as old as he was, and though he looked better to her than the hard-body expats who usually landed in her bed, his skin felt looser on its bones, as if it was beginning to slip away. He looked at her more softly, too, taking his time, turning her away from him and lifting the mass of curly hair so he could kiss the back of her neck.
“I’ve been dreaming of doing that all week,” he told her.
She turned back toward him and kissed him again, more insistently this time. What she’d been dreaming of was climbing on top of him, feeling small against his largeness, vulnerable against his ability to care for her. She wanted something from him beyond his cock, beyond obliteration, something more permanent and harder to define.
It wasn’t until the sex was over and she was still again, dozing on top of him, that he spoke.
“I want to be with you,” he said.
I want to be with you, too, she thought. But no. No.
“The way I feel with you—now but not just now; all week, from that first time you smiled at me—I never feel that way with her.”
She moved away from him so that he slipped out of her.
“Married guys always say that.”
“ ‘Married guys always . . .’?”
“You’re not the first,” she said shortly, standing up, crossing to her suitcase, getting the whisky.
“I didn’t think . . .”
“Listen,” she said, getting back into bed, switching off the light. “Obviously, there’s something special between us. But you’re going back to Park Slope, and your wife and kids will come home from the beach, and you’ll make up and be together again. And I’ll go to New York and get my next round of assignments and head out on the road.”
She could already imagine it, all the steps, the way it was every year: a few weeks back at her parents’, her mom fighting tears the whole time at the thought of another separation and her dad pretending it was fine, the month in Little Italy at her usual sublet seeing Sam and her other editors, and then the long plane ride, the new city, the next story, the place and people and job unfamiliar and foreign enough that she could forget how foreign she felt herself.
“I want to see you when you’re in New York,” he said.
She unscrewed the cap on top of the whisky bottle, took a long swallow, passed it to him. “No.”
“I’m not a home wrecker.”
To her surprise and his credit, he laughed. “And this isn’t a 1950s B movie. My home is already in shambles.”
“Call me when you’re divorced,” she said. “If you still want me, if I’m still single, then maybe we can talk.” Tough girl. This was so much easier than the way she’d felt
in the woods. So much easier than the way she’d felt kissing him.
“Cait,” he said. “I’m serious.”
He set down the whisky bottle, turned the light back on, took her in his arms.
“You don’t want to be with me. I’m a mess.”
Just agree with me, she thought. Everything will be so much simpler that way. And really, she knew for a fact that love didn’t change anything. She loved her parents and they loved her, too—she’d always been sure of that—but it wasn’t enough to make her want to settle down in their safe suburban town, as her mother might have wished, and be happy going to the mall on Saturday mornings, having dinner together on Sunday nights. She loved her friends, but one rollicking night out every six months was usually enough to sustain her. She even loved the apartment she always sublet in New York, but she’d never had the urge to stay there rather than move through a procession of motel rooms as anonymous and ugly as this one.
“Does that have anything to do with what happened in the woods today?” he asked her.
Did it? She couldn’t now access the feeling she’d had out there, her identification with the child, if that had been it, or the urge to rescue him. Had it been merely exhaustion that made her lose control, or the feelings for Martin she’d been struggling to keep under the surface, or something else, something deeper?
“Cait,” he said. “Tell me. Talk to me.”
She made herself focus on him. His eyes were so steady on her, trusting and trustworthy. She could almost imagine being with him, in the lovely little apartment hidden away in the building behind the building in Little Italy. She imagined him in his glasses, and his soft blue T-shirt and worn jeans, bringing her a sandwich in the captain’s bed raised so high off the floor that you needed to climb a step stool to get into it, folding himself into the bed beside her where they would gaze out at the treetops over the cemetery.
This vision seemed so appealing, so palpable, that she thought for a moment she might really be able to tell him what she’d really felt in the woods today. That Riley might have been her. That she’d been adopted, so soon after birth that it couldn’t possibly have made any difference and by parents who’d never been anything but wonderful, and yet the fact of her adoption had always made her feel completely lost.
Instead, she rested her head on his shoulder and asked, “Do you think Riley’s alive?”
He sighed deeply. “I don’t know. I want to think so. But that’s not the way these things usually turn out.”
“I think he is,” she said, the boy’s small pale face, animated from the countless pictures she’d seen of him, grew vivid in her mind. “I just . . . I don’t know. I think he’s out there, looking for something.”
Martin made a sound, not a laugh, but a bark of surprise.
“What would a five-year-old be looking for?”
She slid down so that her cheek was pressed to his chest, her entire world reduced to the thump-thump of his heart. It was so warm down here, so comfortable, so safe-feeling. She remembered herself at five, at seven, even at twelve, standing on the beach holding a shell against her ear, listening to its whoosh, so distant yet so provocative, the faint wind of a faraway land. She’d dig in the sand, down, down, hoping to find clams, gold, China.
“Treasure,” she told Martin. “Adventure. Something all his own.”
She listened to his heart and willed her own to match its pace. How long had it been since she’d felt so satisfied to be exactly where she was? Had she ever felt that way? She had no desire to leave him and move across the planet, across the room, even across the bed. All those years she’d been digging, she thought, and it turned out the treasure was not in the woods, hidden in the dirt, and it was not in China. The treasure was right here beside her and, for at least tonight, it belonged only to her.