I had been out for a walk when I came upon a small child shuffling along the dirt road that ran from the beach to our new neighborhood. The girl was crying, and I stopped to see if I could help. She rubbed her eyes and pointed toward the ocean behind her. She could not choke back her tears for long enough to speak. I looked around for a parent but found only eavesdropping gulls.
“Are you hurt?” I asked. The girl nodded sorrowfully and renewed the force of her wailing. She moved closer, almost hugging my thigh.
Finally, a young woman came tromping along the wooden platform that led from the beach, her face hidden by large black sunglasses. Narrow strips of a black bikini showed her thin hips and torso, and I could see the tan lines a different bathing suit had made across her skin. She hauled two overflowing beach bags, their straps cast about her pale wrists like tourniquets. I looked again to the gulls; one of them blinked and shat.
“This your girl?” I asked as she got closer. The woman did not seem hurried and did not respond until I could smell the fog of Coppertone as she arrived beside the child. A sigh of wind peppered my legs with sand.
“Stung by a freakin’ jellyfish,” she uttered. “She just needs some Tylenol.” The girl wailed louder and tugged off the top of her bathing suit. I averted my eyes. “You're being so dramatic,” the woman said. She raised her voice, demanding that the child take her hand. Then, remembering, she dropped the girl's hand, hoisted the beach bags, and careened home, her sandals scraping their fractious song against the pavement.
Home, it turned out, was next door to my wife and me. We lived in a small development nestled behind the strip malls along the Dixie Highway. Up the street were jewelry stores, sushi, an ice cream shop, and a pink motel that always seemed to have an ambulance in the parking lot. When my wife and I finally walked over to introduce ourselves, it was Claire who answered the door, flashing nervous green eyes. In the spare tiled entryway, she looked younger than I'd remembered from the beach. The word PINK ran in black letters across her white tank top. A forelock of her blonde hair was dyed electric blue at the tip. She had a quiet, elusive manner so that when you glanced away from her, you suspected she might flee.
We had barely introduced ourselves when Rob—older, puffier—slouched into the threshold, eclipsing her. He wore his black jeans and black Reeboks like armor. A pair of Oakleys rested at his hairline, reflecting our grinning faces. They had moved from Massachusetts, Rob told us. His voice was soft and dim with a grainy quality, each word falling like a stone into sand.
“Us too!” said my wife. “Well, Connecticut—New England, is what I mean.”
“Good spot to land,” Rob said. He gestured appraisingly at the tower of palm trees canted above the neighborhood. It was early evening, and their crooked silhouettes pitched against the sky, bruised with purple clouds. This was his retirement home, he told us.
“What a luxury,” my wife prodded. “You must have done well for yourself.”
He chuckled. “I put in my time.” Cars were his thing, he volunteered, the rarer the better. The glossy Camaro in the driveway was this year's model, but he planned to build a stable of vintage hot rods that he could fix up during the days and flex along the boulevard in the evenings. Our conversation sputtered amid the waning daylight, the rising frog sounds, and eventually stalled. We smiled our way backward down the front steps, and he vanished behind their door.
“Retired?” my wife scoffed as soon as we got home. She had kicked off her sandals and disappeared into the fridge.
“What do you think?” I asked. “Gambling? Lotto winner?”
“Hmm. Maybe it’s inherited?” she guessed. I didn’t think so. His speech, his teeth—they did not call to mind the upper crust.
“Maybe,” I said.
She closed the fridge and carried a glass of wine through the room. “She’s young enough to be his daughter,” she said as she left.
Their home was a moss-green bungalow. It had a large front porch that sat beneath the balcony off the master bedroom. A nice place, but they did very little to maintain it, and they never quite looked settled. Their tough lawn grew in sharp, broad blades as it went untended, and a rash of blue-green mold blossomed along their siding. Palmetto fronds, dried and frayed, littered their flat rooftop and rustled against the gutters on breezy nights. Beside the house, a solitary orange tree had become diseased. The fruit frosted over with a white fuzz and rotted fragrantly on the ground. The landscaping, lush with mangroves, may have concealed these blemishes had our neighbors not drawn attention to themselves in other ways: Claire's taste for wearing furry boots with her scant bikini as she checked the mail in the evening, Rob's new boat perched grandly in their driveway instead of at the marina with everyone else's. Rob tinkered with his car during the hazy summer days, swearing with the fluency of birdsong. He coughed incessantly and spat tidy loogies onto his driveway. At night, they built fires in their backyard, and Rob would doze off in a lawn chair and just sleep outdoors. Our first September in our new house, Hurricane Gail stripped their roof of a quarter of its shingles. Two months later, when they finally had their roof redone, the discarded tiles littered the ground around their boat, giving the impression of a recent shipwreck.
My wife started calling Claire “the midriff” and sometimes “the urchin.” She was repelled by their quirks, but I was endeared. I’d ask Rob for help fixing our lawnmower or I’d stand at the lip of his driveway after a day at work and chat. He gave me an enthusiastic recommendation for a barber; I told him what shows and movies we’d enjoyed. To blow off steam, Rob would barrel past my house on his new ATV, trailing a scent of gasoline vapor, and ride along the shore. He spent full days away from home, cruising the peninsula, steering through its bramble and thistle. It rankled some of the neighbors, but he didn't appear to mind or even notice. He sped past anyone who happened to be strolling the beach, laying down long, unbroken trails of rutted sand and crushed seashells.
They spent lavishly. He bought a ’72 Dodge Challenger and a ’71 GTO, and he let Claire take the Camaro. They bought a jet ski that never seemed to leave the garage. Claire wrapped herself in gold necklaces and silver bangles, and they installed a brass fountain in their yard that gurgled up water day and night. Rob’s new hobby was to fly a drone above the neighborhood or along the coast and watch the footage on his phone. He once flagged me over to show me a corrosively tanned topless woman lazing on a beach towel, exhibited. He proudly listed his notable findings: whales, dolphins, boats, cars, women. Once, he said, wide-eyed and earnest, the drone had captured a wolfman on the beach.
“Like a werewolf?”
“Was it a full moon?”
A pained expression crossed his face when I laughed, but he maintained that the government knew an awful lot that it was hiding from the public. He couldn’t be positive, but he was pretty sure he had seen something he wasn’t supposed to see. He would have exposed it, and probably made a lot of money from it too, but he’d accidently erased the footage trying to save it to his computer.
That was Rob. He was living this extravagant lifestyle but was exasperated and deluded by life’s vagaries. A grain of paranoia seemed to grate against him, a push for some small advantage in the universe. He was suing the city, he said, for noise pollution from the airport. When I finally asked what he had done for a living, he told me he had worked in a factory. He gave me a hesitant glance, and when he registered my skepticism, he revealed that he’d “won a claim” against his former employer. He quickly changed the subject to ask about my work. I said I was in insurance, and he nodded. “Well, good luck with your next disaster, I guess. Hope you strike it rich.”
I say this with the benefit of hindsight, but even before Rob’s disappearance, there was an air of misfortune around him. He and Claire seemed to be using their windfall to sample new flavors of life, but they didn’t entirely turn away from old comforts: Miller High Life, the bonfires, waking up early to smoke a pork shoulder and a cigarette. The result was an incongruency. Instead of comfort, their money—or the suddenness of its arrival—had brought exertion, restlessness. They could not stay still for long. They took their daughter out of kindergarten in the middle of the school year and brought her on a long vacation to Mexico. Rob gave me a spare key and asked me to look after the house while they were gone, just in case.
“You never know who might turn up,” he said.
“There somebody after you?” I asked, trying to be amusing. “Maybe a werewolf?”
“If there is,” he chuckled, “guess you're the ones got to deal with it.”
They traveled almost constantly for most of that year, and the house sat empty for weeks at a time. San Diego, Nashville, Puerto Rico, Vegas, New Orleans, Vegas again—a tour of the American Behemoth. Rob would check in with me after each trip, looking more drained each time, and I’d tell him everything seemed fine around the house. I had nothing to report. He’d nod somberly and say thanks. His voice had turned wet and guttural, a soft purr. His cough had a wheezy tail.
The first time Rob told me he was dying, I didn’t believe him. I had grown accustomed to his exaggerations and conspiracies. Besides, he had just found out Claire was pregnant, and I’d assumed he was merely overwhelmed. He and Claire weren’t married, it turned out. Both of them had started and disbanded families before meeting one another, and they had dated for less than a year before moving to Florida. The little girl was Claire’s but not Rob’s. She had gotten pregnant at nineteen, married at twenty, and divorced at twenty-three: a friend of her older brother, Rob said, his eyes creased with grief. Rob had an ex-wife and two high schoolers of his own in Massachusetts, but the new baby would be his first child with Claire.
“I shouldn’t be having no more kids,” he said. “I’ll be dead before this kid can walk.”
“Jesus,” I said.
He gave me a long stare. In my memory, his skin looks sallow against the pearly black hood of the car he leaned on, and his dark hair was matted with sweat. He shrugged and repeated himself. “I shouldn’t be having no more kids.”
I ignored him. “Well, congratulations, Rob. A baby is quite a blessing.”
“Oh yeah?” he replied. “You guys want it?”
My wife and I had been married for five years. She was a few years older than me, so kids were, by then, out of the question. I had always thought I’d be a father, but enough time had passed that I had come to appreciate our quiet companionship. Like Rob and Claire, my wife had been married once before, though I know very little about that time in her life. At one point, she had wanted a child, she had told me. But she said no more than that.
We both worked in insurance—long hours peering out of corner offices at the blue surf. We met at a conference in Hartford, at a hotel bar. We'd talked about moving to Florida for so long that when we finally got married, we felt we had to go. Everyone we knew had moved to some clean, modern townhouse in Boston or New York, had watched their children grow sturdy, or had divorced and taken a lover or taken to drink. We were ready for something major to happen. We like the pace of life down here. We bought new clothes—bright shirts, everything linen—and mounted an ornamental marlin on one of our living room walls. Country music is always on the radio, and while I never much cared for it, I've become open to its wistful textures. The sharp twangs that dip into a soft thrum, the generosity and sparseness, the simple desperation, the brashness. Hurricane season meant draining hours at work and many miles in the car to assess the damage to other people's lives. Late that summer and early fall—this was the year of Hurricane Iris—I was constantly on Florida's wide, flat highways, driving from ruin to ruin. The work and long hours left me dulled and reduced, but I would turn up the radio and would nearly be brought to tears as I sang along with the music at the top of my lungs, my voice cracking like a snapped reed.
You guys want it? Rob had asked. I admit it stung me a little. But I laughed.
“Maybe we can make a trade. The baby for your Audi,” Rob said. “I’ll talk to Claire.”
“What’s the Blue Book value of a newborn?” I offered, dismayed but not overmatched.
“Depends on the make,” he said.
I know now that I was wrong about many things about Rob and Claire. A fatal truth was hidden in their sphinxlike riddles, their inane routines. My most vexing misjudgment: Rob, indeed, was dying. About a year before he disappeared, Rob was hospitalized. Something with his lungs, serious enough to keep him in the hospital for a couple nights. When he returned, he was thin and moved slowly. He retreated indoors. I ran into him days later and asked about his health. He shrugged. “Healthy as I’ll ever be.”
Claire gave birth on a still and sunless day in June, a boy. All the seams began to show. I bought Rob a bottle of Hibiki whisky, expensive stuff, to congratulate him and to pay a visit to the bundle of joy. When I brought it over, Rob looked haggard. He was impatient, in no mood for company. He glanced at the label and scoffed. “Japanese? No thanks,” he said. I tried to cajole him into giving it a try, but he raised his voice. “Unless you know how to do a fourth-trimester abortion, we don’t need you here tonight.”
All through the summer Rob and Claire hardly seemed to be in the house at the same time. I'd hear the bray of Rob's ATV even earlier in mornings and I'd hear him return late in the day. His coughs welled up from deep within him, contorting his body to escape. In the evenings, he'd set out to the beach again, this time on foot, dragging his distended shadow along with him like a stubborn dog. Claire seldom left the house. When she did leave, she wore sweatpants over her bikini bottoms and appeared groggy and confused. At night, she sat on the porch in near-total darkness, a shadow among the shadows. The ember of her cigarette swirled, her glass collected and deranged the scant moonlight. One night, returning home long after my wife had gone to bed, she crashed the Camaro into the garage door. Roused, we watched her emerge from the driver's seat and flutter toward the house. Her daughter, broadened and pouched by a covert growth spurt, burst outside in her pajamas to gape at the crumpled wreck and cried until Rob emerged in his boxer shorts and corralled her inside.
A month before Rob disappeared, Hurricane Josie began to gather offshore, and Rob got out of town. We later learned that he had flown to Massachusetts to visit his kids. In hindsight, I can see that he was probably traveling to say goodbye. Goodbye, and whatever else needed saying. The hurricane crushed Florida’s east coast but had weakened before reaching us as a brief wet howl. By the time the storm cleared, a red pickup truck with Massachusetts plates had materialized, as if dropped by a gust of wind, outside of Rob and Claire’s house. At first, I thought Rob had returned, having bought yet another vehicle, but I was wrong. The truck, it turned out, belonged to Claire's ex-husband—the little girl’s father. He had driven from Massachusetts and, until Rob left, had been staying at the pink motel up the street. Claire seemed to welcome him in. For a few days after the storm, the man stalked around the property, sizing everything up. Blond and skinny, with a protruding Adam’s apple, he straggled through the yard like a roving mole. He admired Rob’s boat, fixed the mailbox post the winds had dislodged, and sunbathed on the porch. He shuttled Claire and the kids to the beach and returned in the evenings, the truck breaking the soft lull of dusk with its loud idling. He slept there, and he and Claire drank coffee on the porch in the morning. The man was still there when Rob returned. An eerie peace seemed to envelope the house. But the next morning, the truck was gone.
Florida was always brilliant after a storm. Green, bright, disordered. The palmetto blades were razors, the ocean a shivering expanse. The air was clean and fast.
And then Rob vanished. There was no note; he’d left all his cars behind. It took Claire three days to report his absence. They had fought, Claire told the police. She thought Rob had just returned to Massachusetts, but he did not answer her texts or calls, and she grew worried. The police arrived—no lights, no siren—and declared Rob a missing person.
I joined the volunteer search and rescue crew, thinking, inanely, that I was among those who knew Rob best. We combed the beach and its adjoining inlets searching for any sign of him in the glinting sand. In the days after the police arrived, time elapsed in a tangle of impressions: the grimness of the task and the communion of the effort; the whispered judgments; the heavy ocean, the air brackish; the distracting interruption of the sexual urge; the grind and release of our exertion.
My wife did not volunteer but instead made a platter of sandwiches we ate with some of the crew members on our deck each afternoon. She hadn't been trained, she said, to find a corpse, and she hoped she never had to. It was a dark joke, and she repeated it the next day after delivering a pitcher of iced tea. Both times, I bristled.
“No one trains,” I insisted in front of the police and neighbors.
The fifth day of searching turned up one of Rob's black Reeboks and a black polo shirt, balled up in the dunes amid the sharp switches of grass. The clothes were damp and had been muddied with wet sand and kelp pods. It was anyone's guess whether they had been spun up by the ocean or simply left on the beach and embezzled by the rising tide. The search was called off soon after that, and although no body was found, nor has been found since, the investigators settled on death by accidental drowning. They thought he'd gone out for a swim.
A gloom settled over the neighborhood. On a Sunday morning, after a fitful sleep, I scalded my brain awake with coffee and I watched through our kitchen window as Claire watered her plants. She had quickly shed the baby weight and had returned to wearing her black bikini, but she looked weathered, no longer young. The Tribune ran an article about Rob’s disappearance, and I read it on my laptop as my wife busied herself in the next room. It hinted at a suicide, which wasn’t surprising, but it also revealed that Rob had been terminally ill, and it plainly, devastatingly, linked his illness to his wealth. In Massachusetts, the article said, Rob had worked in factory maintenance for a popcorn company and over twenty years had scarred his lungs inhaling the chemicals in the brand's artificial butter flavoring. The lawsuit Rob had once alluded to had awarded him $43 million, but he was already failing by the time he'd used the money to move to the shore. The reporter identified Claire Cockburn, 25, as “the drowned man’s partner” and quoted her: “The doctors said the warmer climate could only help things.” A picture of Rob accompanied the article. He was younger and thinner than I had known him, sitting atop a snow mobile on an iced-over lake.
We waited to hear about a funeral. When a few days passed, I rang Claire’s doorbell to find out if I could help with any arrangements. She answered the door in her black bikini and furry boots, her impassive expression once again alleging some kind of intrusion. I handed her a bouquet of begonias wrapped in a sheet of cellophane. It crackled as she bent over to place it on the floor beside the door.
“The funeral already happened,” she said. “Three days ago. In Massachusetts.”
It took me a moment to call up my words. “I didn't see anything in the paper,” I stammered.
“Well, it was in the paper,” she said. “Well, the paper in Massachusetts, I mean.” She took a drag from her vape.
“How was it?” I asked.
“Oh,” Claire said. She averted her eyes and exhaled smoke. “I was never really part of the family up there. I think—I think it would have only caused more grief if I went up.”
I stood before her transfixed, me in my khakis and dress shirt, she in three scant triangular patches; my hands wrung together, hers inverted high on her waist in such a way that I could glimpse the bristled plat of each hollowed armpit. I merely nodded. When she looked back up at me, there were tears in her eyes. “I thought we had more time,” she said. “I knew it was coming, but I thought we had more time. What am I going to do now?”
I didn't want to hear any more. It would be unfair of me to guess at the depth of Claire’s mourning, the size of her inheritance, or how the two might be related. She had kids to raise, after all. I could not know the demands Rob and Claire placed on each other or what was in Rob’s heart when he’d stepped into the water that night. Nonetheless it seemed to me that she had buried him long before his empty casket had been lowered into the ground, and I was dismayed to learn that she had not attended his funeral. I could not help but interpret her absence as a desecration. It revealed, I thought, her shame in their transaction and the lack of grace to even hide it. Claire’s tears had no effect on me in that moment. She seemed to grieve for herself alone.
I spent hours walking the beach, going as far as the inlet where Rob claimed to discover the wolf man. I found myself, absurdly, searching for both of them—Rob, the wolf—looking for ATV tracks or claw prints. I could not escape the sense that Rob’s drone hovered nearby in the blowsy sky, watching me pace and root through the sand.
Claire left town with the kids. The cars were sold, and the house sat empty for almost two months. The lawn bloomed with extravagant weeds. The mold on the siding had reappeared and advanced, slowing only in the cool days of November. And then, around midmorning one Saturday, she returned, riding shotgun with her arm slung out the window of her ex-husband's red pickup. They both tied their hair up before getting to work, pulling a few bags out of the house and whatever furniture they could fit in the truck bed, looking only at the ground as they hefted their heirlooms. They threw a blue tarp over the packed truck bed, tied it down with a string of twine, and then breaked to share a cigarette. Claire refused a second drag, her elbows rested behind her on the truck bed, and I saw the telltale bulge of her expectant belly. But I cannot be sure of anything.
When she saw me approaching, she muttered something to her partner and took her elbows off the truck. As I got closer, I could see her eyes shot through with red and the tangled look of distress on her face. Her ex stood up tall and crossed his arms over his chest. I had still been angry when I saw them arrive, vultures picking at the scraps of a man’s life. But standing before them, I found that I had nothing to say. It was the first time I’d seen her ex up close: his rough skin and downcast eyes, the alcoholic nose, the uncanny tremor of his bearing. The flatness in Claire’s eyes, which I had always read as defiance, I suddenly saw as resignation.
These were people, Rob’s people. They had settled for what they could get. They were looking for some small nourishment, the way a flamingo sifts the shallows for tiny organisms. It did not always seem to make them happy, but they did not struggle against it either, as if they had learned to enjoy whatever lasted. I had, by then, had my needs met many times over, and unmet again. I wish I could say that I had come to accept whatever was put before me: Florida’s swamp heat and clambering coast or the harsh and honest daylight of Connecticut winters, children or no children, companionship or solitude. But I had not. I had pursued a preordained life and tracked its details closely.
“Back up north?” I finally asked. Neither answered, and the hiss of a lawn sprinkler rose up in the silence. I looked around at the house, the palms. “I’ve always preferred the mountains,” I said.
The man scratched a mosquito bite on his leg. He spat on the ground then turned away from me as if I were not there. “C’mon,” he said, “long way to Greenville. They’ll charge us for the night even if we don’t make it.”
Claire turned from me too. “I need to change,” she said. She parted her sodden tank top from her moist skin with two fingers.
“You can change in the car,” the man said. He reached for Claire’s arm and pulled her back toward the house to collect their remaining items. The breeze blew a few palmetto fronds from the roof, and they pirouetted brownly to the lawn.
They left before the sun set, the loose, fluttering tarp loudly signaling their departure.
The house went up for sale, and a couple, relocating from Washington, DC, moved in one afternoon the following spring as storm clouds gathered thickly and then dissipated. He was white, she was Vietnamese, and they had two small children who kicked a soccer ball against the garage door, the sound thundering through the neighborhood.
What I have not yet said is that my wife, Kara, is beautiful, and I love her. She was sunning in our backyard as they unloaded their U-Haul, and I went through the living room to the screen door to ask if she wanted to come with me and introduce ourselves. I still had Rob's spare key, and I thought I might return it to them, in case the locks hadn't been changed. Kara demurred.
“I don't think so,” she said. She had been lying with her palms to the sun, but she turned her forearms over when she heard my voice. “Maybe they'll come introduce themselves to us.”
“Maybe,” I said. She settled back down in her chair and kept her eyes shut as she spoke.
“Or maybe we can all get together and search for their bodies one day.” The soccer ball boomed against the garage door. In the distance, waves burst into sand, an ambulance siren wailed. My wife opened her eyes and cast them at the bird feeder. “It's almost time for lunch, anyway. Aren't you hungry?” she asked.
“A little,” I said. I tightly palmed Rob's key in my pocket until it became warm. The sun shone brightly now, and a pale sketch of the moon, a full moon, was visible against the pale blue sky. I suddenly didn't feel like talking to my wife about the neighbors, so I took my hand off the door handle and left the screen closed between us.
“There's some leftover eggplant in the fridge, but I don't know if it's enough for two,” she said. “I can always just have an omelet.”
“That's okay,” I said. “You have the eggplant.” I turned. “I'll find something else.”
Brendan Missett received an MFA degree from the University of North Carolina Greensboro. His fiction has appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review and has been recognized with a Pushcart Prize honorable mention. He lives with his wife in Dakar, Senegal.