She was out on her porch in her mother’s favorite wicker chair, the old rifle that was usually displayed over the fireplace across her lap, when Brian came back. He was tipsy, so he squinted, not sure whether or not he was imagining the scene before him. It was August first, the day many people in town say that Louise Partridge went crazy and others say she came to her senses.

“What did you do with it?” Brian cried when he saw that the bones were missing.

“This is private property,” Louise informed him. “And I will shoot you if I have to.”

Brian picked up one of the rocks Louise had removed from the garden and heaved it. It went right through the living room window. The shattered glass was falling when Brian got back in his car and took off, weaving down Hubbard Street. Louise went inside for a dustpan and broom. She’d tell the museum committee that the researcher from Harvard had absconded with the skeleton in the middle of the night. Maybe when things simmered down, she’d admit that what belonged to Blackwell had stayed there.


THERE WAS SOME QUESTION AS TO WHETHER or not James Mott would be born. When he finally appeared, after eighteen hours of labor, his body was still and blue. There was a haunting silence, and it seemed to those in the delivery room that he wouldn’t survive his birth. Then, all at once, he drew in a shuddering breath and revived. There he was, alive and well in the maternity ward at Blackwell Hospital. He never cried, but merely gazed quietly as the doctors congratulated one another, his mother’s tears his first glimpse of the world.

He grew to be a big, handsome child, and although he continued to be quiet, he was ardently curious about the life he’d entered so perilously, facing it head-on. He crawled at four months and walked before his first birthday. Other children sat in front of the TV set, but James hurtled into each day. Wherever he went, he managed to find danger. His parents kept a close eye on him, but it was difficult, if not impossible, to keep track of him. When he was two, he disappeared from a family reunion, only to be found in the Eel River. His father was the one who located him. John Mott was the chief of police, as his father before him had been, and perhaps that was why he thought to follow the trail of cracker crumbs James had left behind. When John saw his son floating in the cold muddy water, he dove right in. He couldn’t help but think of the Apparition, the little girl whose ghost was said to wander along the river-banks. It was only a story, nothing more. All the same, John thought, Not this time. Not mine.

NO MATTER HOW his father might try to protect him, James continued to be unusually susceptible to harm. When he was six, he stumbled over a yellow jackets’ nest during a kindergarten outing. It was a warm September day, the end of bee season, a time when swarms had been known to go wild. John Mott was driving through town when he heard the droning. The other children in the class had scattered safely away, but there was James, smack in the center of a yellow whirlwind, trapped inside the beating, buzzing mayhem of stingers and wings.

John left his car and raced over, tearing off his jacket as he ran, then throwing it over the boy to protect him. James was quiet in his father’s arms once the whirlwind had dissipated, even though he’d been stung more than a hundred times. After being rushed to the hospital, he slipped into a coma. His parents waited outside the emergency room until the doctor at last came to tell them their son would either die of a severe allergic reaction or would be forever immune to bee stings.

James went home two days later, the raised welts on his skin the only sign of his misadventure. His parents, however, were deeply affected. After that day, John became the sort of father who was so strict and unyielding that his son had no choice but to rebel. Louise Mott joined forces with her husband, drawing up a list of house rules even she acknowledged were rigid. Number one on the list was Never Go into the Woods. Of course James didn’t comply. He disappeared the very day his mother’s rules were posted on the refrigerator. Louise called for him frantically. She raced past the gardens, the ones that were planted, and the old garden she’d let fill with nettles and weeds, not stopping until she reached the end of the fence. There, at the edge of the woods, where the air was darkened and green with floating pollen, huddled a group of coyotes. James was with them. Louise picked up a stone and flung it, hard, hitting one of the coyotes, scattering the group.

The very next day John Mott drove out to his cousin Martha Starr’s place and bought a dog. Martha raised collies, and Blackwell collies were said to possess the ability to watch over anything and anyone. John drove home with the pup asleep on his lap. He was ferocious when it came to protecting his son, and he was only too aware of the punishing ways of the world. He had witnessed too much of the grim turns human nature could take. He’d seen people unwound by fate and desire, those who had made a single bad choice, ruining their lives and the lives of everyone they loved. He’d been privy to men crying in their jail cells, begging for forgiveness, calling for their mothers, each one wishing he could rewind time and start over. John understood that some boys had to be pulled back from the brink. They might curse you, even despise you for doing so, but it took strong measures to ensure that a boy lived long enough to become a man.


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