CAYCE D’AMICO felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. The gathering clouds were angry, bruised, hulking blue-gray shapes pressing down on the hills.
“Oh, there’s one hell of a storm coming. That’s for sure.” He watched the darkening sky through the kitchen window, pausing from his work of chopping burdock stalks into sticks for the Sicilian fritters called cardoons. The wind kicked up, audible, becoming icy, the leaves turning to display their pale undersides. The last few days had been the opposite: punishing temperatures in the upper nineties and humidity so thick you could drown in it. Miserable. Cayce had lain in front of a fan in his boxers at night as it whirred and blew the hot air around, offering no relief.
It was like lying inside a convection oven.
He beat eggs, added some grated Romano and salt and pepper, and set the batter next to the burdock stalks. He wiped his hands on a dishtowel.
Worse, though, than the brewing storm outside was the fact he couldn’t see his son, Luke. Luke, at seven, was prone to wandering away. Usually such distraction wasn’t of much concern, because Fawcettville wasn’t like Pittsburgh, about an hour east, with its crime and traffic. Fawcettville perched on the banks of the Ohio River, overlooking the hills of the northern panhandle of West Virginia. It was mostly known as a town where nothing ever happened. Sometimes the inactivity seemed like a drawback, dull. Other times it was a blessing—especially for a single dad bringing up a little boy. Then you appreciated blessings like living in a dull backwater town, where the worst crime you could remember was some kids breaking into Bricker’s drug store last summer.
Peace of mind.
So why did Cayce suddenly feel something wasn’t quite right? Why did the fact that Luke was no longer in the backyard make him queasy?
Cayce and Luke didn’t live in some sort of exclusive area. Their little house was surrounded by others much the same: older houses covered in peeling paint, rusting aluminum siding, or asphalt tile that was supposed to look like brick but never did. Cayce had grown up in this little hollow down by the Ohio River and knew most of his neighbors. Just as they had watched Cayce playing from their porch swings and gliders, many of the same people watched Luke, even though their hair had turned gray and their children had grown up and moved away, especially when the steel mill in a neighboring town had closed down, taking any hope of prosperity with it.
“Maybe it’s just the wind making me so cold.” Cayce rubbed at the dark hair on his forearms, making the coarse black fur stand on end. He was sure the temperature had dropped at least fifteen degrees in the past half hour. This drop, coupled with the slate blue clouds perched on the southern horizon, did much to raise the gooseflesh on his forearms. The chill might have been welcome if Luke was at the kitchen table, playing with his Hot Wheels.
But he was not. And Cayce, on the younger side of thirty, knew that at least a portion of the goose bumps on his beefy arms was from a distinct yet inexplicable dread and not the cold breeze, the dark clouds, and the imminent storm making its way into Fawcettville.
The Swiss chard laid out to be cleaned could wait, as could the tomatoes from his garden, still unsliced. Cayce did not like Luke being out where he couldn’t see him as weather bore down. He didn’t like it at all.
He slid into a pair of flip-flops he kept by the kitchen door. “Oreo!” he called, and a black-and-white mutt about the size of a boxer, with bright brown eyes, bounded into the kitchen, toenails clicking on the linoleum. “Wanna go outside, boy? Wanna help me find Luke?” Oreo had been left behind two years ago by Marc, Cayce’s “friend and roommate,” as his mother put it. Marc couldn’t stand the stifling life of a gay man in a small town and had set out for the bright lights and tall buildings—and easy men—of Pittsburgh. Who knew? Perhaps Marc had been swayed by all the Queer as Folk reruns he used to watch. Once he’d packed up his Nissan pickup, Cayce never saw the guy again and had never found love again.
But who the hell had time for that crap!
Cayce didn’t know why he ever bothered to think of the man, who had never been much help as a parent to Luke… or even as a dog owner, for that matter. Marc had been all about Marc. “C’mon, Oreo!”
Outside, the wind was kicking up. Papers and small pieces of gravel skittered across the road in front of the house. Cars passing by had turned on their headlights, piercing the odd, darkening afternoon light. The maple trees lining the road bent in the wind, like fingers splayed backward. The sky had a funny greenish tinge, and Cayce had seen that weird green color enough times to know what the storm portended.
Cayce made his way down First Avenue, searching from side to side and pausing occasionally to rub a piece of grit out of his eye. “Luke!” He yelled, “Luke!” even louder when there was no response. Where was that boy?
A drop of water landed on his arm, icy. The rows of houses lining the yellow-bricked street had deserted porches, everyone escaped indoors. The lights switched on inside the houses made them look like sanctuaries, and Cayce wished he could be in his own sanctuary with his own son, smells of the Sicilian peasant food he had grown up on filling their little house. Cayce supposed his neighbors had all retreated into their living rooms, where they could turn on the Weather Channel or listen to the radio to validate what was happening before their eyes.
Everyone, that was, except for Lula Stewart, bless her. Lula, who had lost her husband the winter before, still sat on her glider, wispy dyed-black hair being lifted by the wind.
“He went thataway,” Lula called, pointing to where First Avenue dead-ended at the woods.
“Great,” Cayce whispered to himself, then said to Lula, “Thanks. I’m going to wring his little neck for him.”
“Be nice, Cayce. He’s only seven.”
“I know, I know.” Cayce headed for the darkness of the trees at the end of the street. As he picked up his pace, so did the wind and the droplets of water, coming heavier every second.
The sky flashed with white light. Cayce gasped as a crack of thunder ripped through the air, reverberating through the ground and leaving in its wake the smell of ozone. “God, that was close.” Why didn’t Luke have the sense to come in out of the rain?
The sky ripped open and released the downpour, a sibilant hiss, so heavy it nearly blinded Cayce. In seconds his T-shirt and board shorts were drenched, clinging to him like a second skin. Water sluiced from his curly black hair into his eyes. The sky morphed into premature night, brightened only by the lightning. The thunder’s crash upped Cayce’s sense of anxiety and fear with each crack. The volume and the bright lightning seemed to have a direct line to his heart, which hammered double time in his chest.
“Luke!” he screamed above the wind that yanked twigs and whole clumps of leaves from the trees above him. An orange drink carton hit Cayce in the back of the head.
“Luke!” He watched in despair as Oreo ran back toward the house, tail between his legs. “Traitor,” he called after the dog.
The woods were even darker than the street. Cayce held his hands out in front of him to avoid crashing into trees. Already, his flip-flops were making a sucking sound as he pulled his feet out of the mud.
Annoyed, Cayce wiped the icy rain away from his face, flinging his damp mop of black hair back, trying to see in the storm’s murk. In the brief bluish flash of lightning, the woods looked empty, deserted. Why couldn’t he see Luke cowering under a tree, or better yet, running toward him, hell, even running away from him? Anything but this dreadful emptiness, abandoning him to the woods and the storm.
“Luke!” he yelled again, his throat growing hoarse. He tried to keep his voice even so Luke wouldn’t think he was mad, so the little boy wouldn’t hear his dad’s fear. “Luke, if you can hear me, yell. I’m not mad.”
And he wasn’t, not at his little boy anyway, whom he pictured trembling under a tree or huddled under a neighbor’s porch, shivering, terrified, wet, and cold. But Cayce was angry at himself, for not keeping better tabs on the weather and the whereabouts of a seven-year-old. What was wrong with him? Maybe his mom was right; maybe Cayce was too young (and alone) to take on the responsibility of rearing another human being. She was always telling Cayce to give the boy back to his mother. “Little boys need their moms,” his own mom often proclaimed.
Apparently, though, moms didn’t always need their little boys. Case in point, Joyce, Cayce’s wife of less than a year, who was only too happy to leave the “burden” of Luke with Cayce when she abandoned them both four years ago, heading off without a backward glance for the presumably greener pastures of Portland, Oregon. Like Marc, Joyce apparently believed happiness awaited outside the city limits of Fawcettville, Pennsylvania.
“Luke!” he called once more, competing for dominance with the wind, the thunder, the driving rain.
But all that answered him was the roar of the storm and the sound of detritus whistling through the air and smacking against the trees. Cayce was beginning to think his quest was in vain, that Luke was probably already at home, sitting at the kitchen table and wondering where his dad was, hungry for his supper.
It happened so quickly Cayce only experienced the event through instincts, like an animal.
The flash was so bright, Cayce gasped, squeezing his eyes shut.
The scent of ozone filled the air. Hair stood up on the back of his neck, tickling.
The rumble of the thunder deafened, so loud and close it drowned out his scream. And the sharp break of the tree branch above his head was akin to the crack of a whip.
The limb crashing down on his head dropped him to his knees. Everything went dark.