an extract from the novel
so ashamed. It's all he can think of as he flees the Wayward plantation;
scrambling down the back road out of Wayward, Jimmy Daley may be scared
-- no, terrified -- but before anything, he is ashamed.
Laid out by a Carolina gentleman in richer, far less fearsome times,
the front road into the Benedict compound at Wayward is overgrown but
orderly. A double avenue of trees lines the approach to the antebellum
house with its formal gardens and outbuildings. Come in by the front
way and Wayward is picture-perfect Old South, with banks of blossoming
azaleas and oleanders, carefully placed pecan trees and liveoaks festooned
with Spanish moss. The Benedict foundry is not visible from here, nor
is the boathouse perched on the edge of the marsh. Certain portions
of the compound are closed. You will come and go by the front gate and
never guess the truth.
Like their best work, the nature of the Benedict heritage is carefully
hidden. What meets the eye is beautifully maintained, precisely groomed.
Everything is quiet, orderly, expected. Nice.
But there is another way out.
The few who know the back road are afraid to take it. The escape route
is notoriously unsafe -- twin grooves in slippery Carolina mud. It begins
deep in the woods behind the Benedict house. Pebbled walks taper to
nothing and artful planting gives way to weeds. Cutting through thick
growth to the water's edge, the track gives onto an eroding causeway
over the marsh. The causeway is so narrow and treacherous that any sane
person would take the long way around to avoid it.
Old Beaufort Benedict made the last generation of slaves dredge him
a causeway out of the muddy bottom of the Inland Waterway long before
the War Between the States. They paved it with oyster shells so he could
leave Wayward for the mainland unseen. It was built so long ago that
if they knew, the town has forgotten. Whether that particular Benedict
was hiding something criminal or trying to forge one more link in the
underground railroad, nobody can say, but the ruined back road is treacherous.
It's been abandoned for years.
Halfway to the mainland, a decaying wooden central span bridges the
channel, and on the far bank the land is so bleak that it's hard to
know why anybody would want to go there. The decaying causeway is overgrown
in some places and in others it's disintegrated into mud with planks
thrown across the shifting surface. There's no telling what's underneath.
Once you are on the causeway, there's no getting off. On either side
the salt marsh gives way to something that is neither land nor water,
and in the channel under the center span whirlpools wait like hungry
At any moment the planks can shift and leave the traveler mired.
Once your car clears the Benedict property there is no turning, and
if it breaks down there's noplace to go. The terrain is treacherous;
in some parts of the marsh birds roost and insects burrow in the mud;
in others the bottom is liquid, waiting to devour you. A man can drop
out of sight here before he knows what has hold of him; he can drown
before he has time to scream.
What things lie buried in the gluey bottom stay there forever: leached
bones of slaves who died building the causeway, old enemies of the early
Benedicts perhaps. Family treasures thrown into the swamp to preserve
them from the invading Union soldiers. For centuries the marsh has claimed
whatever it wants: here a flawed bronze angel with an arm sheared off,
surrounded by imperfect submerged cupids -- and there, just off the
point on the mainland, marched into the sawgrass by an ignorant drill
sergeant, the skeletons of an entire platoon of lost Marines. There
may be others deep in the muddy marsh that borders the Inland Waterway:
the bodies of Charlestonians long ago reported missing, corpses begging
to be exhumed.
Waiting somewhere in the mud there is a beautiful woman with her mouth
frozen open in a perpetual scream.
It isn't safe.
But here is Jimmy Daley, struggling through the mud and undergrowth
to the causeway. It's his last hope. Clearing the woods, he throws himself
onto the oyster shells. Hitching along on his elbows, he advances slowly,
dragging the rest of his body behind. The ruined would-be sculptor with
the beautiful blue eye can't hope to make it to the other side. Not
the way he is. He can't even hope to outstrip his terror, but he has
to try. Sobbing, Jimmy goes along on bloody hands and elbows, trailing
shattered legs and broken feet.
At Parsons, where he was an art student bent on being a sculptor,
handsome, tow-headed Jimmy was a happy guy, affable, a little shy. His
careless grin told people he had plenty to say even though, like most
artists, he couldn't necessarily find the words. Deep, right? People
liked Jimmy on sight. How did he stray so far from home, and how did
he get so...
I'm so ashamed.
The grin is long gone. It was scraped off his face in a series of
gouges that took one of those nice blue eyes; his mother would be so....
Oh, Jimmy, she would wail, Jimmy Daley. What happened to you?
Only a mother would recognize him now. He is wrecked, body and soul.
It's a wonder he can keep going. In fact, he's made it this far only
because it serves somebody's purposes.
At the top of the cavernous house behind him something stirs: the
figure in the window observes the little progress on the causeway. Waits.
What does Jimmy hope for, dragging himself along, inching through
mud up to his elbows in some places and in others hauling over jagged
shells that bite his raw hands? Does he really think he can make it
across, or does he hope some rescuer will hear his sobs and scoop him
up in a boat? Maybe he's pretending he can make it to the far highway
where RVs and eighteen-wheelers go barreling north, and one of them
will see him and...
He has to hope for something. If he can just make it to the highway,
maybe he can haul himself up like a flag on a scrub pine, waving like
a distress signal. Or else he'll hang there just like a real person,
hitching a ride. Oh hi. Going to town?
One look and they'll know. They'll never guess why, but a
blind fool will know at once that Jimmy Daley is afraid and, worse,
that he is soiled and ashamed. So very ashamed.
Never mind. He has to go!
He fixes on the narrow track in front of him. One yard more, one yard
more, how many yards will it take to get across? He doesn't know. All
he knows is that he can't go on the way he is, he has to go. All he
can hear is his own breath sawing in his throat. Behind him all of Wayward
looms: land, trees, elegant house sprawling on a slight rise, doomed
inhabitants caught in a dark globe of family obsession, terrible and
Who they are, the Benedicts -- no, what they are doing -- explodes
in Jimmy's consciousness. In a flash he comprehends Ava Benedict, his
beautiful, cold mentor and her real intentions; Ava and her students,
the work, the unknowable other -- everything at Wayward driven
by the same inexorable force.
Something darker than fear drives Jimmy Daley now.
In the house behind him, the abiding spirit waits. Does Jimmy know
he's being watched? Is he really trying to escape or is he only trying
to get Ava's attention? When he shakes his bloody fist at the house
is that real defiance, or does he expect Ava to see and come after him?
God help him, he couldn't help what he did, he loved her. He did. Damaged
as he is, ruined forever by his time at Wayward and bent on escape,
Jimmy Daley may want something else. Maybe he really does wish Ava would
come. Unless he wants her people to overtake him and finish him.
Anything to keep him from feeling this way.
From being what he is.
I'm so ashamed.
What's Jimmy Daley running away from? What's he really hoping for?
In the deep, grieving part of him, Jimmy needs to be caught and punished.
Not for what he's done. For what he has become.
Before he left Parsons for Wayward, Jimmy was different. Talented.
Borderline charming. Happy. A nice, ordinary guy.
All that has burned away. The only thing left of him is shame.
After Ava demolished him, he crawled under the potting shed. He hid
until he was strong enough to flee. No matter how far he goes, he'll
never outrun the shame. Filth mats Jimmy's hair and filth clings and
drips from all his orifices; even now he can't remember what he did
or agreed to do or what he let happen to himself that was so wrong,
exactly, or why or how he got the way he is, but in the lexicon of shame
what Jimmy Daley does next is the ultimate verb.
The quality of the air has changed. He hears the rumble of a car in
Low, a cautious driver creeping along. For a second Jimmy mistakes the
source. Ava, he thinks, gulping greedily; she's coming for
He turns back toward Wayward with the desperate, guttural roar that
some men make at climax.
Behind him, the road is deserted. Jimmy fishtails in the mud, confused.
This car is coming from the mainland. No! Some outsider who knows nothing
of Wayward is heading his way. They'll see me! How can they possibly
understand? He can forget the Benedicts. They aren't coming for
him. With one eye destroyed, Jimmy can see that the Benedicts don't
The car is almost on him. In another minute the driver will see him
for what he is. What he has become.
Oh, my God.
The driver is a girl. One look at Jimmy and she'll retch and turn
away. He is repulsive. Even if she let him into the car, even if he
got away... How can he explain what he has become? How can he admit
what he's been up to here at Wayward. How can he go on living in the
filthy wreckage of his body? This ruined face?
How can he live with the shame?
Can't let her see me, he thinks, and this is the end of Jimmy
Daley. Even if he gets out, he won't escape. He could spend the next
hundred years trying to find his way home to who he used to be and never
get that person back. He sobs. Not the way I am.
Something inside him breaks in two.
Tears stream from Jimmy's good eye and the blind one, stinging his
torn flesh; God, if only. But there's nothing left of the looks
or the intelligence or the talent, the grin that won him so many friends.
He is no longer who he was.
As the car approaches Jimmy rolls into the sawgrass, dragging himself
through the mud. He's been warned about the quicksand underlying the
marsh, riptides in the channel. He welcomes it. Sobbing, he lunges for
oblivion. Sawgrass whips his face but he drags himself along, toward
the deep place where the swamp will swallow him... She's coming, she'll
see me, can't let her, I have to get away!
Raising his arms like a descending angel, the ruined artist loses
himself in the muck with the silent grace of a swimmer on a hot day,
slipping into a cool pond.
Something writhing across the road...
Squinting, Jude tried to make it out. At this distance it was no more
than a grey blur in the road ahead, a shadow that disappeared when the
car yawed and she blinked. -- What?
It could be nothing.
It could be something.
It could be anything.
Person, water snake, she wasn't sure; out in the unfamiliar Carolina
countryside like this, on a narrow causeway over marsh and wide water,
you imagined things. It was strange territory, ragged and wild. The
road seemed to sit on top of glittering green water. It was like being
on a stage set in a floating opera. On the shore Jude's destination
waited like the set for Act Two -- an elaborate frame house sprawling
under great, artificial-looking trees.
Careful, she told herself. This is the south. A strange
country. Anything could happen here. Flying in last night was like
coming into Oz. Landing in Charleston in the middle of the night, Jude
Atkins and the other passengers had to come down a ladder and walk in
to the terminal from the runway. After Boston on a crisp day in autumn,
it was like walking into a warm bath. The light in the sky was different,
the silhouetted trees were different, everybody sounded different.
Jude's baggage, including all her funky jewelry samples, was adrift
in the Washington-Baltimore Airport, where it failed to change planes
with her. Her Charleston hotel had never heard of her and in the early
dawn outside, a gat-toothed, grinning street kid in a tattersall vest
handed her a spray of azaleas ripped off some bush and played the harmonica
until she gave him money to stop.
On the way down here from Charleston she veered around a pack of dogs
like carnival midgets boiling out of a blazing car -- crazy, she told
herself, edgy and shaken; maybe it was only a TV shoot. Just as she
left the interstate she caught a flash -- bears, or was it two enormously
fat people dancing underneath the bearded trees. What if they weren't
Should I stop? Could I help?
She was going too fast to make it out. What could she have done to
help anyway? Would they thank her, Oh thank God you've come, or would
they separate and pound her to bits? It was all too new for her to know.
The deep South went by too fast and in the context of the unnervingly
usual -- superhighway, generic exit signs, flashy markers on stilts
broadcasting nearby malls -- what you thought you saw didn't necessarily
So maybe she really did see something strange hitching across the
narrow causeway like an enormous rodent or a leper fleeing so she wouldn't
have to see his face.
So OK, she'd been awake for two days straight. That kind of thing
makes people weird. Jude woke up in Boston before dawn yesterday, she's
been running hard on no sleep. She packed, finished up at work, got
to the airport three hours ahead of flight time. By the time she finally
found a hotel room in Charleston it was five a.m. and she was too wired
to sleep. She ended up drinking too much coffee in the hotel dining
room, after which she set out on her fool's errands in a rented car.
What was she doing driving into Wayward anyway? What was she doing in
South Carolina three days before Peter expected her anyway?
He promised to meet her at the airport in Charleston on Friday after
work. He wanted to take her to his apartment to see his paintings. Then
they were going out to this wonderful restaurant on the Battery. But
Jude couldn't help herself. She'd given in to this subversive impulse
to catch Peter Benedict in his native habitat. She had to see him before
he saw her coming. As though then she'd know what he was really like.
Crazy, but she had to see what Peter was like when he didn't know he
was being watched. A woman who's crazy enough to fall in love with a
guy she met online needs to compensate by doing something sane. She
had to find out who was behind the emails and the letters, the voice
she fell in love with over dozens of late night phone conversations.
There was that one rushed meeting in Boston; he was there between
planes and he came out through Security to meet her in a Starbucks:
public place, coffee, plenty of people around in case he turned out
to be weird, but there was nothing weird about Peter Benedict. Tall.
Sandy hair. Sweet looking, she thought. As he headed back through security
she heard herself saying, "If only you could stay!"
"I can't." He took her hands; the line moved forward. As her fingers
slipped out of his he said, "If only you could come!"
Now here she was. Not spying, exactly. Jude let herself fall in love
too fast last time, and Phil hurt her badly on his way out. This time
she wanted to be sure.
So she drank too much coffee in the sunny dining room of her Charleston
hotel this morning, and went to the Front Street address just before
nine. She wanted to catch Peter coming out on his way to work. She needed
to see him before he saw her. Follow long enough to catch him in an
unguarded moment. Study him and decide. Was he really as nice as he
seemed in their rushed ten minutes or was it an act he used with all
the girls he met? What was he like when he wasn't trying to impress?
If anything went wrong -- and Jude had no idea what she meant by anything
-- she could write this off as a bad deal and walk away. He'd never
know. By the time he came to the airport on Friday night for their long-awaited,
carefully scheduled meeting, she'd be gone. All those emails and all
those letters -- all those phone calls and one brief meeting. I'm
in love. Am I in love? Jude thinks so, but she's afraid.
When you've been hurt as badly as Jude Atkins, you go forward, but
you go forward with great care.
As expected, she found Peter's name on the mailbox next to the right
number on the street where she'd sent him so many letters. It was the
last thing that unfolded as expected that day.
First, the place wasn't at all what Peter led her to expect. The snapshot
he sent put him in front of a pair of gracious-looking long windows
on the porch of a beautiful house. His mailbox was bolted to the frame
of a narrow, mean-looking door in a wall that showed nothing to the
street. If the inside looked like the outside, Peter Benedict lived
in a dump. What's more, even though Jude waited until midmorning, he
showed no signs of coming out. Exhausted, anxious and impatient, she
got out of the car and went up to the door. It opened as she was deciding
whether to knock.
"Can I help you?"
Caught. "Ah. I. Not really, I think."
In the flowered dress and the straw hat, the old lady looked like
a fugitive from Gone With The Wind. "May I ask who you're here
"I was just going." Jude blushed. Why am I falling all over my
She fixed Jude with a military glare. "Why, whoever you are, I've
been watching your car. There must be some reason you are parked outside
"I'm -- ah, a friend of Peter Benedict's? From up north?"
"Oh you poor thing. Come in!"
In the South, Jude had read somewhere, appearances are deceptive.
At the old lady's back wild roses tumbled around wooden columns and
twined around the railings of the double row of porches that ran across
the front of the magnificent old house. Forget the rundown external
wall, it was a little like Tara here inside the gate. For whatever reasons,
the old lady could not stop blinking.
Jude said, "He does live here, right?"
"He does and he doesn't," the old lady said.
"Um, is this the right place?"
"It is and it isn't," she said. "Oh, don't fret! Off course he lives
here but at the moment, I'm sorry, he's gone."
"Oh, no!" Jude sagged.
"Honey, it isn't the end of the world. I know he'll be sorry he missed
you but he was -- called home unexpectedly? His mama, well, something
came up and I'm afraid there's no telling when he's comin' back."
Exhausted, Jude heard herself losing it. "But I came all this way!"
"You poor thing, all this way and our Peter isn't even here." The
old lady patted her arm. "He's gone down to see to the family, at Wayward?
Family is so important to Southerners, and Peter's family, well, you
must know all about his family, everybody does."
"I'm sorry, I don't..."
"Sure you know, everybody knows about the..." The old lady broke off,
patting her flowered front. "When Peter goes, there's no telling when
he'll be back, oh, but you're the little girl I've heard so much about,
oh dear, are you all right? I'm Violet Poulnot, Peter's landlady, do
let me give you some iced tea."
"No thank you, I have to..." She didn't know what she had to do.
"Come on, you look like you could use a little perking up..."
At Violet's back there was a gracious courtyard and above it long
porches sprawled, this is more like it; the house was set at
right angles to the street so the only thing outsiders would see was
a blank wall and that mean-looking gate -- deceptive, Jude thought,
like everything else down here. One more reason to study Peter from
a distance. See how he acted in his native habitat. "You don't know
a man until you know his family," Violet said.
"Oh yes, family really is important," she echoed, looking at Violet
over the sprig of mint in her glass.
"In these circles, family is everything."
"Well I'd love to meet Peter's," Jude said.
"They aren't real social."
"Since Peter and I..." She flashed the ring Peter had sent her with
the plane ticket -- an aquamarine set in silver filigree. "If I just
knew where they lived..."
"Why, I don't know if the Benedicts... It isn't that easy. More tea?"
"After all, we are engaged."
"Oooooh, that's wonderful!" Violet closed knobby fingers on Jude's
hand. "You know, he was so miserable after..."
"Ma'am?" What? After what?
"To tell you the truth, I was worried about the boy, but now..." The
old lady beamed. "Now you're here."
"And he's gone!"
"Oh, honey, don't look so sad, Wayward isn't the end of the world,
you know. It's only a little bit south of Beaufort, why if you wanted
to go down there, it would only take you half a day..."
"I don't suppose you have a map?"
Violet's parting words taunt her now. "Why, everybody knows where
Why didn't I insist? As it was Jude said politely, "If I had
"Wayward, oh, Wayward isn't on any map. But don't worry, the Benedicts
are famous. Let me call Peter and tell him you're on your way."
"No, please. I want it to be a surprise."
"Isn't that sweet. Honey, if you lose track along the way, all you
have to do is ask. Everybody knows."
The minute Jude left the Interstate, she made a series of wrong turns.
In spite of all her stops for directions at trashy gas stations and
country stores, every road dwindled from cement to asphalt to oystershell
to sandy twin tracks. ("Ma'am, didn't you see the sign?" "What sign?")
The last set of directions led her into a cul de sac she thought
marked terminal lostness until she ran into a hick kid working on a
jacked up Corvette in a roadside clearing and stopped to ask one more
He had a Mr. Goodwrench T-shirt and silvered jeans that matched the
eyes he turned on her; they were like windows in his head, so clear
you could see right through to the Carolina sky. "Wayward?"
"Everybody knows how to get to Wayward," he said.
"Except me. I'm, ah. From out of state?"
"Up north, you mean." The grin made it clear that nobody else would
be stupid enough to take the back road to Wayward, only an outsider
would end up here.
"So. If you could just tell me..."
"Ma'am, it's right over there." He waved at a spot where the trees
thinned out. "Across the water, over there on the point?"
She shook her head in frustration. "You mean I need a boat."
The kid said reluctantly, "There is a kind of road. But I wouldn't
be using it if I were you because it idn't safe."
"You mean it's impassable, or what?"
She tried not to sound irritated. "Then what's the big problem?"
"I just wouldn't be going in on the Benedicts by the back way, you
know?" He studied Jude, the subcompact rental car; maybe he saw her
head rattling with exhaustion and her whitening fingers clamped on the
steering wheel because he relented. "Look, Ma'am, you don't need to
take the causeway. You can make it to Wayward easy on the state road.
It's a straight shot from town."
"Yes Ma'am," he said helpfully. "Just go back the way you came and
you'll hit town in a couple of hours. An hour more and you're at the
Wayward front gate."
"You might could get there by boat if you could rent one, but." He
gestured toward the spot where the trees thinned out; twin ruts led
to the water. "Nobody uses the causeway, Ma'am."
"But it's so close!"
"Look, the front gate idn't that far. It's only three hours. If you
start now." After a pause, he said, "Besides."
"The Benedicts have a nice guy that takes your name and unlocks the
gate for you."
"You know how they are about tourists," he said ominously.
"They're expecting you, right?"
"Then lady, you don't want to go."
She'd seen this in movies: visions of angry rustics running out of
the house with shotguns and hounds to chase intruders over the dismal
swamps. Jude said carefully, "Is there something going on that I ought
to know about?"
"What?" The kid took her meaning. Too quickly he said, "Oh no, no
"I mean, ah. You know." This was awkward but Jude tagged it and filed
it under preliminary investigation, which meant she was able
to ask flat out: "About the Benedicts? That people aren't supposed to
He didn't exactly answer. "I think they want tourists to be satisfied
with the museum in town."
"All them statues, you know."
"I'm sorry, I don't. I just came looking for my friend."
"You're friends with them?" His expression slid from: uh-oh
to oh wow to: amazing; it couldn't settle.
"Yes. No." This was embarrassing. "Well, sort of."
He stepped back. "Well if you know them, and all ..."
"I know Peter," she said. This both was and wasn't true.
"Then I guess it's OK. Look, that track puts you on the causeway,
or what's left of it. That out there is Wayward, way out at the other
Jude was afraid the last thing the kid said to her came straight out
of some movie; as the Carolina kid watched her drive through the trees
and onto the causeway, she thought she heard him calling after her with
an it's-your-funeral wave: "But I wouldn't be going there if I was you."
She didn't know how hard it was going to be.
So, fine, she told herself, you're seeing things. It's only
hysteria or fatigue or both. Unless. Squinting, she stared at the
road, trying to see what had crossed her path and where it had gone.
Whatever it was, it had disappeared. This was not going well. Her car
was locked into twin ruts like a plastic toy in a roadracing set. If
the road crumbled or gave way, then rental car and all, Jude Atkins
could drop out of sight. Like that.
So it was her fault, she supposed, for charging in here on her own.
But Jude ran her life in a series of checks and balances, and in the
cold light of reason, the foolhardy, loving, needy Judith who had logged
onto an internet dating service in a crazy attempt to get over Phil,
the injured Jude who had found Peter and fallen in love with him sight
unseen, was superseded by bright, tough Jude Atkins, who'd been hurt
once, and vowed never again. She would do anything to keep from getting
She'd even sneak into Wayward by the back way and catch Peter where
he lived. Then she could make up her mind about him. She might even
do it without his knowing, and if that was spying? Fine. She would be
gone before he even knew.
Jude told herself this side-trip to the Carolinas was only a pretext
for walking out of her old life. She couldn't keep running around Boston
hoping Phil would change his mind and take her back. With or without
Peter, she had to forget Phil and move on. If this with Peter didn't
work out she had plans to keep going South to Savannah or Jacksonville,
where there were plenty of boutiques that could use jewelry like hers.
She'd sold out her half of the business to her partner and walked away
with enough money to buy in someplace new. Forget two-timing Phil Forrest,
and if he didn't measure up, forget Peter Benedict. With or without
him, Jude was going to start a brand new life in the heart of the American
She had to do something to get past handsome, unfaithful Phil Forrest,
whom she'd loved almost half her life.
Phil was her last mistake. He had to be. Brooding, she drove on without
seeing. If there was anything unusual struggling across the road ahead,
disappearing into the water, Jude wouldn't know. If there was an agonized
cry, she would not hear. By the time she passed the spot, Jimmy Daley
had disappeared into the water without leaving so much as a ring of
ripples or a trace of froth to mark the place.
Then something caught her eye. Unnatural. Out of place here. Shapes
protruded from the water like... What? With a start, Jude recognized
them before she even knew how she knew.
Lord, those could be...
She saw a series of jagged edges sticking up out of the water,
delicate shapes like the spires of a submerged city just clearing the
surface in a formation that suggested something huge and unexpected
Those look like...
The little convoy of shapes emerged further as Jude came closer and
the tide dropped, tips of whatever lay mired in the swampy waters just
off Wayward. At first she thought it was a cluster of mangrove stumps
jutting, but slimy and overgrown as they were, they looked like something
else. She was almost close enough to see.
Oh lord, they are!
Statues. Bronzes, shrouded in slime.
It was creepy at first, frightening and glorious to know what these
things were, sticking out of the water like broken branches: here a
hand rising in the sweep of a graceful arm, there a wingtip, there a
horse's hoof, and although the water was murky and the objects buried
in mud, she could imagine the rest, flawed goddesses, broken angels,
all mired so deep that no collector would ever be able to find the right
equipment to dig them out; "Good lord." Why hadn't she known? She felt
head-bashingly stupid. The public monuments. The dazzling bas reliefs.
The family of sculptors. The fame. Everybody knows the Benedicts. I'm
sorry, I don't. "Oh. Oh! Those Benedicts."
This must be where they bury their mistakes.
© Kit Reed 2005, 2006.
Bronze was published by Nightshade
Books in October 2005.
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