JAMES NAMED HIS collie Cody, after his grandfather’s dog, and preferred the collie’s company to all others. The outside world continued to call to him, and he rambled more as the years went on, going farther afield, defying his parents’ expectations and their rules. Tell him one thing, and he’d do the opposite. Say no, and he’d get a glimmer in his eyes. If punished, he would simply climb through his window at night, the dog leaping out behind him. Then he’d disappear at will, up to the woods, or making his way along the highway. He’d be grounded for weeks when found out, but soon enough he’d take off all over again. He fell into a sinkhole in the marshes where the mud was so deep it took five men from the Blackwell fire department to pull him out. One winter he surely would have frozen to death in a sudden snowstorm, if Cody hadn’t led him to an abandoned fox den. He’d had so many close calls, he began to wonder if he was meant to be among the living. But if James was willing to accept a dismal future for himself, his father most certainly was not. John refused to give up his watch. He nailed James’s bedroom window shut and put a lock on the door. It made no difference. Locks and nails could not keep his son confined. James had already decided that if he couldn’t avoid his fate, he might as well enjoy what little time he had.
BY THE TIME James entered high school, he and his father no longer spoke. If one walked into a room, the other walked out. His father still kept watch, but from a distance. That distance grew every day, until the only thing John Mott was watching was his son walking away from him. By then, James was six feet three, handsome, reserved, desperate to get out of Blackwell. One girl after the other fell in love with him, and in his senior year he briefly fell in love back with Brooke Linden. Brooke had a crush on him first. She was waiting for him one night when he climbed out his window, a big grin on her face. She was fun-loving, with a houseful of brothers, and danger didn’t scare her. All the same, James broke up with her when he crashed his mother’s car. Brooke had been his passenger, and though he might not mind endangering himself, he didn’t want to hurt anyone else. Brooke didn’t understand when he said he was cursed, although when he walked away, she herself threw out her own string of curses. His back was turned to her, but the words stung.
He tempted fate more than ever after that. He swam in the Eel River during the spring floods, hiked the mountain in bear season, never backed down from a fight at the Jack Straw Bar. He figured that if death was looking for him, he might as well face it head-on. As soon as he graduated he decided to move to New York City. He wanted to get as far away from Blackwell as possible and find a place where danger was an everyday occurrence. He stopped by the police station on his way out of town, his collie waiting in the car.
“What do you want me to say?” John Mott asked when James informed him he was leaving that day without a plan or any goal in mind. “Good-bye and good luck?”
“I don’t believe in luck,” James told him. “Not in my case.”
In New York, James got a job as an orderly; then, after a year of training, he became an EMT. Every time he rode in the back of an ambulance he was reminded of the many close calls he’d had. He was serious and practical, but that wild streak ran deep. He still had an affinity for disaster and longed for the adrenaline rush of accidents. He lived for such moments, as a matter of fact. After he managed to save someone, he felt so alive and euphoric, he had to polish off three or four beers in order to calm down. On those nights, he never managed to get to sleep, and instead he went out walking. He loved New York, how it seemed to have its own heartbeat, how you could be on a crowded street and still be alone. On weekends he took Cody to Central Park, where he liked to hike through the Ramble. In the middle of the city, he was reminded of Hightop Mountain. The way the sun streaked through the trees was so similar, here and in Blackwell. The light was pure and lemon colored, and there were bees nesting in the fallen logs. When James knelt in the leaves and listened to them buzzing, he forgot all the disasters he’d witnessed, the blood and sorrow and death.
JOHN MOTT FELL ill one damp, green spring. His heart condition was unexpected and devastating, too advanced for a cure. James got the call in the middle of the night. He realized that three years had passed since he’d been home. He wondered how that had happened. Time was trickier than he’d imagined it to be. Now when he looked at his dog, he realized that Cody was suddenly old. James’s mother had come to New York several times, but his father didn’t like cities, or perhaps he was still unable to say good-bye.
James broke the speed limit driving up Highway 91, an edge of panic coursing through him as he crossed the Massachusetts line. He went directly to the Blackwell Hospital. It was late when he got there. He forgot how soft the nights were in Blackwell, how dark the countryside was. He was surprised by how small his hometown hospital seemed compared with the ones where he’d worked in New York City. He left his dog in the car and went inside. John Mott was asleep; there was nothing to do but wait. James went to stand against the window ledge. He felt awkward and much too big. He was used to action, not standing still. He had thought his father would look like a stranger, but he didn’t. John Mott opened his eyes. He smiled when he saw James, then closed his eyes again.