Chapter 1

 

Wednesday, July 4, 1998

 

MILES’S SIX-YEAR-OLD legs churned as he chased Amos, his golden retriever puppy. The boy and the dog flew down the sandy lawn of Grandma Anna’s house, its borders hedged by tangles of beach plum and wild rose. Overhead, the sun shone through clouds of spun sugar. Grandma Anna was inside the white clapboard house with Mother and little Maya. Father had to work the holiday in Boston but had promised there’d be a long weekend where they’d drive to Provincetown, go out on a whale watch, and handpick a box of saltwater taffy at Cabot’s.

Amos turned, stopped, and dropped the drool-covered red rubber ball. He pawed the ground and nudged the toy with his nose. He barked. It was a game, and Miles knew if he approached too fast, Amos would grab the ball in his mouth and race off.

He inched forward. “I’m not going to take the ball. Nope, not me. Not interested. Who’d want that stinky thing?” He skimmed his red sneakers forward like the ninjas he’d watch on TV with Grandma Anna. His eyes and the dog’s locked. The space between them narrowed from ten feet, to nine, to eight. The animal’s lustrous red-gold fur sparked in the sun. Muscles in his back twitched as he tracked Miles’s stealthy approach.

“I don’t want the ball. It’s slimy. Who’d want a ball like that?” Ninja sneakers slid forward, seven feet, six feet. Boy and dog focused on each other and the game. Five feet, four feet. “I don’t want it.” Three feet, two feet. “Uh-uh, not me.”

As though each could read the other’s thoughts, Miles and Amos lunged for the ball. The pup was closer and faster. He gripped the prize between his teeth and raced down the hill with Miles in pursuit.

Caught in the moment and the ecstasy of flight and pursuit, neither Amos nor Miles saw the heavily laden burgundy Dodge Caravan as it turned off Highway 6A.

Likewise, the driver was distracted by his oldest daughter punching her little brother in the arm. It had been a miserable six-hour drive with no AC, three children, including the new baby, and his largely unresponsive wife, who suffered an emotional meltdown after giving birth three months earlier. He did not see the dog or the boy. What would become seared into his memory was the sequence that started with his daughter’s scream—“Daddy!”—followed by a dull thud and single surprised yelp as the two-ton vehicle going thirty-five miles an hour made impact with the dog. The animal flew for what seemed an impossible distance.

His pulse jumped as he slammed on the brakes. He saw the dark-haired child racing toward them as he broke through a beach plum hedge, and for a split second he feared there’d be a second impact. Tires squealed as they burned rubber and ground fine white sand into the asphalt. He spotted the red dog in the rearview mirror, not moving save for blood that pulsed from an open wound onto the hot tar. From the angle the dog lay, it was clear his neck was broken.

“Don’t look!” he barked to his family, who stared in horror at the unfolding tragedy. “Shit,” he muttered.

His wife turned, her lip trembled, her mouth opened into a scream: “No!” He saw condemnation in her eyes.

I didn’t see him. This wasn’t my fault. One more sin that would be laid at his doorstep. He opened the door, not certain what he was supposed to do. “Kids, stay in the car! Don’t look.”

His feet touched the pavement, his attention riveted on the dying animal. He wanted to warn the little boy away from his pet. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I’m so sorry.”

Up on the hill, two women emerged onto the porch of the two-story white house, a few hundred feet from the accident. The younger held a toddler’s hand while the older, dressed in black, her silver hair in a bun, started to jog toward them. She screamed at the little boy who crouched in the middle of the road, touching the dog’s unmoving head, “Miles, no! Don’t!

What happened next the man would never understand and would never forget. As he stood frozen, the little boy lay next to the fatally wounded animal. He knew he should intervene to pull the kid away, but there was something so tender in how he wrapped his little body around the puppy.

The woman’s screams grew as she ran on arthritic knees.

“Miles, don’t! Stop! No! Please, God, stop it. Now!”

All the man could see was the child, his body fused to the dog’s, moving his lips as though singing. His hands fluttered across the dog’s fur; they blurred like hummingbird wings. There’s something wrong with this kid. This isn’t normal. The boy was drawing designs across the dog’s body. He trilled his fingers impossibly fast, first this way and then that.

And then it happened. The animal convulsed. His hind legs, which at first glance the driver thought were broken, kicked back. They were synchronous and straight. He found purchase on the pavement with his front legs. The boy rolled back on the asphalt. He stopped the freakish movement of his hands, and for a moment the man wondered if he’d been hit as well. The kid’s face was flushed and smeared with blood, his striped shirt was drenched in it. His green, green eyes stared, unmoving.

The dog stood up, shook his head, and then his entire body, starting from his tail and ending with his fuzzy golden nose. Blood whipped off the animal in all directions; the droplets sparkled like garnets.

The dog turned to the boy. His broad pink tongue licked the kid’s face from chin to forehead.

The man held his breath. He stared at the blood on the boy’s chest. Don’t be dead. Please God, don’t be dead.

“Amos.” The boy recoiled from the dog’s tongue bath and threw his arms around the animal’s shoulders.

“Miles!” The woman had made it through the hedge to the road’s edge. She looked from the boy and dog to the man standing ten feet from the minivan.

Her eyes were a vivid green like a cat’s, like the boy’s. She glared at the driver. He felt her rage and fought back a childhood memory of a fairy-tale witch. “Get out! Get in your car and get out!”

He wanted to argue, to say he was sorry, to give her his insurance information, to….

“Leave!”

He looked at the boy and the dog. He saw the steaming pool of blood on hot asphalt. Too much of it for the boy and dog to be unhurt, for the dog to be alive… but he is.

“Leave now!”

He could almost feel the words of a curse about to be hurled in his direction. Of course that was a ridiculous thought, and he pictured the boy’s hummingbird hands. The kid stared wide-eyed at the woman. Maybe it was a trick of the summer sun, but his eyes glowed as though lit from inside his skull.

“I’m sorry,” the man finally said.

“Get out,” she said as she walked to the child.

“Okay.”

He turned back to his van. The hood had crumpled under the impact; an inch higher and the windshield would have shattered. He got into the vehicle. His family, for the first time since they left Norwood, was silent. His wife’s teary gaze was fixed on the ruined hood. He put the Caravan in gear and looked in the rearview mirror. The old woman in black pulled back her right hand and struck the child across the cheek. It looked far harder than any well-deserved spank he or his wife had ever administered.

He thought of getting out, but then he thought of witches and curses and of the two-thousand-dollar-a-week cabin he’d rented to bring some fun to his family. He’d have to get the hood fixed…. You’ll say you hit a deer. You should call the cops… and say what? The dog’s okay. He looked from the mangled hood into the mirror as the old woman, gripping the child’s shoulder with her long fingers, disappeared through the hedge, the barking dog trailing behind. He shouldn’t be okay. He wasn’t moving. Too much blood. How can he be okay? But he is. Get out of here. And he drove away.