Thomas hefted the crowbar in his hands, feeling the familiar balance, the weight of the cast iron, seeing the pits and dents in the metal, the scrapes in the paint, the shine of the twin sharpened steel tips of the claw as he inserted it under the old siding of the east wall of the shed. He’d had the tool since he could remember, one of the set he’d taken from his father’s house so long ago.
He took a deep breath of the clean smell of a warm fall day in Atlanta. “Okay, now watch,” he said, looking over at Jamie. The boy had grown another half inch or so; from where he was on his knees, Thomas could look right into Jamie’s eyes. “I’m going to wiggle it so the nail gets caught in the claw. See? Look how the head of the nail is right in the middle. Now, all I have to do is pull down, nice and easy, and ….” The end of the board popped out from between its fellows. “Let’s get the nail in the middle here … and then this last one. Now, I can just pop the board off. Here, get the other end.”
Jamie’s hands, in their child-sized work gloves, reached out to help him take the board from the wall. “Hey! The nails are still in it!”
“That’s right. We’ll use new nails with the new siding.” Thomas remembered what Dr. Susan had said about letting Jamie figure things out for himself. “What’s going to happen to the nails, once we burn these boards?”
“Um … well, nails are metal, so they won’t burn. They’ll end up at the bottom of the fire pit.”
“They sure will. And then I’m going to bury them under those hydrangeas over there. Remember the big puffball flowers from last summer? What color were they?”
Try as he might, Thomas had a hard time accepting that a boy’s favorite color could be pink. But Thomas would never repeat his own father’s mistakes. “Yes. But next summer, those flowers will be blue. The nails are aluminum, and if we put aluminum in the soil, the plant will absorb it and make blue flowers.”
“Wow! Can I help bury them?”
“Of course you can. You think you can carry this board over to the fire pit?”
“Sure!” Jamie started to walk away with it; before Thomas could react, the other end of the board caught him full in the face. He felt a blast of pain, and the flush of red-hot rage that came with it. He forced this down, smiled. “Maybe … without bopping me in the face?”
“Sorry, Dad!” But Jamie was grinning, and it made Thomas smile, too.
They developed a rhythm, Thomas pulling the boards off and Jamie carrying them to the fire pit; within half an hour, they had the siding pulled off the upper two-thirds of the shed. Jamie pleaded to switch roles, and Thomas agreed because it was the right thing to do. The crowbar proved much too heavy for Jamie, so Thomas went to the tool shed and got the small, flat prybar. Jaime pulled too hard, and broke some of the boards, which made Thomas have to suppress his annoyance. But it really didn’t matter, did it? Thomas busied himself getting the fire going.
Once Jamie was finished, they stepped back, wrapped in the smell of the smoke. “Wow, Dad,” said Jamie. “You can really see where the boards were.” He pointed at the horizontal lines etched by rain and the passage of time onto the shed’s thick, double-insulated walls.
“We sure can. We’ll scrub it down, but not totally: Those lines are going to help us put the new boards up evenly.” Jamie raked leaves while Thomas scrubbed, then while the walls were drying in the low autumn sun, he started adding the leaves to the merrily blazing fire. The smell made him drift off into a rare treat: an unsullied memory of his own childhood, from before his mother went away. He marked it carefully in his mind, reminded himself to tell Dr. Susan about it next week.
He kept one eye on Jamie dumping rakefuls of leaves into the fire while he got the chop saw out of the other shed, set it up, started carrying new siding boards over to it. He walked Jamie through measuring the width of the east wall of the shed near the bottom, then carefully measuring out that far on the first board, flipping the tape measure and measuring the other way just to make sure, chopping off the end of the board at just the right place, and tossing the butt end into the smoldering fire pit. Then he had Jamie hold one end of the board, while Thomas moved the other end into position, then used the nail gun. Now that sound brought back memories.
Jamie scooted out of the way as Thomas put a second mail at the other end, then a third in the middle. “Why do we have to start at the bottom?”
Always answer every question, and never say Because I said so. “Because we want the boards to overlap, so the rain will run down instead of collecting on the tops of the boards. Here, help me measure the next line up.”
“Won’t it be the same as the other one?”
“It better be: I built the shed. But never assume; always double-check.”
Soon, they had one wall finished, and Thomas had managed to relax enough to let Jamie use the nail gun, which he enjoyed almost as much as Thomas did. Jamie’s hands were just too small for the trigger of the chop saw, but he had great fun holding onto the handle while Thomas pushed it down.
Halfway through the second wall, just as Thomas was about to put a nail in, he was startled by a voice from the back fence. “Yoo hoo!” His hand jerked on the trigger, sending a nail into the wall above the board.
He damped down the flash of anger, turned to look. A woman’s head was visible over the back fence. She pointed at the fire. “Sorry,” she said. “Didn’t mean to scare you. I saw the smoke, so I took a peek.”
Thomas made himself put down the gun, put on a smile, walk over to exchange ritual greetings. “Hi. Just burning some trash.” She was in her forties, tall and stocky, not his type.
“Oh, no problem.” She had that Fargo accent. “Julie Mills.” She pointed back over her shoulder. “Just moved in.”
Always elicit information. People like to talk about themselves. “Where from?”
“Oh, Chicagoland.” She waved at Jamie. “How old is he, seven?”
“Six. He’s tall, like his mother was. Er, do you have kids?”
“Yes. Two girls, eight and five. I don’t know a soul here in Atlanta. Maybe your boy won’t mind playing with girls.”
“I’m sure he won’t. Welcome to Ormewood Park.”
“Thank you. I can’t believe it’s so warm out. I mean, it’s November.”
Talking about the weather is always good. “It must be much colder up there.”
“It’s just so nice to be outside. Your yard is beautiful, by the way.”
“Thank you. Er, where are your girls?”
“Staying with their grandma while I get moved in. I’ll bring them down after Thanksgiving. I just got divorced.” She didn’t look very sad about it.
Always find a point of commonality. Human beings are pack animals. “I’m a single parent, too. Maybe … we can share babysitting or something. Oh, you’ll probably want to know about the schools, won’t you? This neighborhood has come a long way, but if your girls like school at all, you’ll want to look into ….” She seemed to really appreciate his advice, which made him feel he had done the right thing. They talked for a few more minutes, Thomas sticking to the cheery and trivial, until he could excuse himself.
He and Jamie got back to work, Jamie happy and chattering about having new friends next door. They got through the back wall, stopped for a sandwich and half an episode of Dinosaur Train, started on the west side of the shed. Watching Jamie measure a board, his tongue stuck between his lips, Thomas was struck with a wave of a feeling he took time to identify as happiness. This was what it was all about. Doing it right: putting some of his own ambitions on hold, making sure that Jamie had a loving, secure environment to grow up in. Not repeating the past. He could actually feel some of the tension ebb out of him into the damp, chilly ground.
Thomas was carrying the top board for the back side when he heard a man’s voice over the gates to the driveway. “Hey! Excuse me!”
Thomas could only see the big guy’s head and shoulders, but marked him for a cop right away. He froze for an instant, but really, he had nothing at all to hide. “Come on in. Gate’s open.”
The guy came through. Tan skin, brown beard, cream overcoat flapping open. Behind him was a blonde about Thomas’s age. Now she was his type, or would be, if she were fifteen years younger. She had a badge clipped to the lapel of her black overcoat, which was buttoned up. “Thomas Price?”
“Yes, that’s me. What can I do for the Atlanta Police?”
“Hi there,” said the guy to Jamie.
“Hi. Are you really police?”
“We sure are.”
“How come you don’t have uniforms?”
Thomas said, “Because they’re detectives, so they dress in regular clothes.”
“Oh. Hey, come look at our shed!”
“I can see it,” said the guy. “Are you helping your dad?”
“I sure am!” Jamie launched into a long narration of what they had done, while both cops looked on with big smiles and a sort of patience that Thomas tried to channel and that told him both of them were parents, too.
After Jamie had walked him around the shed, the guy said, “Now that’s a solid piece of work. You built it?”
“Sure did. The other one, too, and I put the addition on the house. I used to work construction; I like a job well done. I used this one for an art studio, but then this little guy was born.”
The blonde smiled. “And there went your free time. Nice fire pit, too; and I’ll bet your garden is stunning in the spring.”
“I hope so. I rake the ashes from the fire pit into the flower beds. Circle of life.”
“We’re going to bury the nails,” said Jamie. “It’ll make the flowers blue.”
“Yeah?” said the guy. “Sounds awesome. Listen, can we ask your dad a couple of grown-up questions?”
Thomas said, “Jamie, you can go watch the rest of your show if you want.” Jamie needed no further encouragement and scurried off.
Thomas pointed at the fire. “You aren’t here about that, are you?”
“No,” said the guy. “We’re Homicide.”
“Homicide?” Thomas heard himself say.
The blonde showed him a tablet computer “Have you seen this girl?” Black, smiling, graduation gown and the funny cap over long, straightened hair. What a beauty.
“No. I don’t think so. Something happen to her?”
“Not sure yet. Her name is Denesha Rodgers. Her family lives about three blocks from here. She disappeared two nights ago. Honor student, no criminal contacts.”
“That’s just terrible. I wish I could help.”
“You see, Mr. Price, when we were canvassing up the block, some people said you go out walking at night a lot.”
“Yes. I have a lot of trouble sleeping. Post-traumatic stress, my therapist says. Walking helps. Oh, I get it; I might have seen something. But … I haven’t, not that I can think of.” Now Thomas was intrigued. “Can you show me where her family lives?”
The blonde pulled up a map, which had a pin marking Denesha Rodgers’s house. Thomas took it from her, scrolled. “Oh. Not my usual route; I’m a creature of habit. I usually walk up this way, over across Twenty, wander around Cabbagetown or even Inman Park. Sorry.”
“That’s okay,” said the guy. “It was a long shot. We were all excited when we came up your driveway, because the one clue we did have was that someone saw a white pickup, and yours is white. At least from the back. But then we got up alongside it,”
“Sure. I hit a deer a couple of years ago, had to get the door and the corner panels replaced. I keep telling myself I’m going to have them painted to match the rest of the truck, but I really only drive a couple of times a month. I use a bike instead; keeps me feeling young.”
“Well, it’s not exactly your kidnapper’s inconspicuous vehicle of choice.” He handed Thomas a card. “Thanks for your time. If you see anything?”
“Sure. Sorry I couldn’t help.” After they let themselves out, Thomas took a moment to think about poor Denesha and her family, then got back to work.
The early fall evening caught up with Jamie and him, and they had to finish in the glow of a couple of portable floodlights. The fire was barely smoking when they piled the rest of the trash on it. “I’ll take care of it,” said Thomas, and sent Jamie in to wash up while Thomas made them dinner. Then it was the full bedtime routine, which when Jamie was two had made Thomas the frustrated artist seethe with impatience, but now was the best part of Thomas’s day. Thomas made Jamie read one of their library books out loud, then Jamie listened while Thomas got another chapter into The Hobbit. Then another story, a cup of water, and several extra kisses, before Thomas could leave the room.
After an hour, with Jamie safely snoring and the emergency cellphone next to his bed, Thomas put on his running shoes and headed out into the comfort of the cold autumn darkness. With an effort of will, he turned from his usual path and went to the Rodgers’ block. The house was well cared for, a happy home, not at all the sort of place a predator would frequent. Denesha wasn’t somebody nobody would really miss. Thomas tried to imagine that she’d run off with a lover to a better place, but this didn’t really work. He began to imagine what might really have happened to her, but tried very hard to stay away from those thoughts. He walked briskly into the night.
At the top of the hill near Beulah Heights, he stopped. It was one of his favorite places. In the northwest were the towers of downtown; in the southeast, rising, were Orion and the other bright stars of winter. Those stars had been there long before Thomas was born; they’d be there long after his death. What purpose did they have? He had no idea. What purpose did he have? He used to think he knew, but now he really knew; it was to give Jamie what he himself had never had.
Back at the house, Jamie was fast asleep, snoring faintly. Thomas went to his own room, got the lockbox out from under the bed, took out his journal. He read it carefully, and found it … jejune. Immature. Nobody needed to read these words, or look at the pictures, which no longer moved him.
He took the journal out back, tossed it atop the trash heap, got the fire going to a real blaze. He checked carefully for nosy new neighbors, then went to the shed, undid all three locks, unbolted the door. One of the pictures in the journal had given him an idea: a sculpture, balls and sockets and rods, almost anatomical. Some of the equipment in the shed could be repurposed, he noted approvingly. Never waste a good tool. The ring bolts in the floor would have to go, but the drain might as well stay. It would be wonderful to have a craft he could share with his son.
Once the fire had been raked repeatedly and there was nothing left but ash, he spread it, still warm, around the hydrangeas. Then, he went inside to sit by Jamie’s bed and watch him sleep, once again feeling the glow he was pretty sure was happiness.