The Next Ice Age
They are in bed, drifting off, when Jessica mentions the Search. “We should let Van do it this year.” She turns her head, squinting in his lamplight. “It’s been so long, he won’t connect it with Frank. He was so young then. His friends are doing it.”
“All right,” Adam says, uneager to lie to her son about another holiday spirit. But she knows what the boy can handle. He should be flattered she’s telling him.
“I put Pyrus in the front room.” Her voice drops to a murmur. “I knew you’d understand.”
He turns out his lamp, searches out her face, kisses her open mouth. “It’ll be fun.”
She rolls into her usual position. Rain taps on the roof and windows and steel cans, adds to the puddles drowning the yard. In town, the streets are flooded. The ocean rears up, gray and hairy. He wonders about Minnesota, before they moved here and changed their names. Jessica says life with Frank was like combat, moment-to-moment, nothing certain. When he finally hurt Van, she knew what to do. While he was in jail, she got the restraining order, then took the child and left. Frank would never go to the police, she said: he is too proud, too vengeful, too lazy, too ancient at heart. Here on the coast, she and Van are like refugees, especially on rainy winter days, when they sit touching on Adam’s couch while the TV mutters. Van is seven, getting too big for imaginary beings. Give him a last hurrah, Adam thinks, before reality smashes in.
In the morning, the horn-headed figure on the mantel startles him. He switches on the light, mind and heart still screaming. It’s your standard Pyrus doll, the one laughing down from the shelves in supermarkets, a foot tall, six inches wide. Comically musclebound, deep red skin, black eyes and mouth slashed into its lump-face. The image follows him to the YMCA, where he will run five miles and swim three before coming back to cook breakfast. He imagines Pyrus popping up in his rearview mirror. He looks back, half expecting to see a tiny devil perched on the back seat, like the killer doll Chuckie in a bad horror movie.
He doesn’t have a name for this sense of unease. Pyrus isn’t scary. He’s generic, even cute, a small red devil who dwells in the heart of the volcano, according to the packaging Adam finds crushed deep in the trash can, a black box with red lettering meant to resemble lava. Standing in cold rain, looking into the heap of white plastic bags, he hears Jessica and Van laugh through the wall’s aluminum siding. Not long ago, Pyrus was a corporate experiment in propping up candy sales after Christmas. Now the devil is part of the calendar. After the fat man, before the bunny. People act like he was always there.
Maybe that’s what bugs Adam: he was alive to see Pyrus invented. He rolled his eyes about the gimmick in high school, but now the idea’s gotten out of control, acquired a life of its own. And, in a way, Pyrus is alive. Parents and children sing about him. Kids talk to him, promising to behave if he will bring candy. His voice is well-known, guttural and kind. There’s a universe of merchandise, shirts, holiday cards, action figures, coffee mugs, candles, potpourri holders, even Pyrus Volcanic Cinnamon Schnapps. There are movies, but the first, the stop-motion feature where the devil walks down the volcano to confront the Wizard of Winter, is the one the TV stations call a classic.
He’ll get used to it, he thinks. He can get used to anything. He goes in the dry house, hears Van in back, asking questions. He looks at the mantel where Pyrus stands watch and says, “After the Search, you’re out of here.” It’s absurd, talking to a doll, but doing it reminds him he’s in charge. “You think I’m joking. Just wait.”
Jessica is Director of Activities at the YMCA. On her feet most of the day, she wears a dark blue polo shirt and slim khakis and carries a clipboard close to her chest. Adam goes during the winter to exercise and teach lifeguarding in the pool. A month from now, he’ll certify several local high school graduates, then hire them to patrol the beaches alongside the college swimmers who come out each summer. The first time he saw Jessica, she was peering through the glass doors while he clung to the poolside, steaming from the lather of a fresh sweat. He watched for her after that, curious, then interested but cautious, aware she’d noticed him, this town being so small. She seemed friendly and polite, but distant, never stopping to chat with the senior citizens who congregate in the lobby. She held meetings in a narrow rectangular room with a finely latticed window, her face lean and unsmiling, the face of a serious person. The first time she undressed in front of him, revealing the scars on her breasts, back, stomach, and hips, he felt ashamed of his first impressions. Then he became furious.
Afterward, she said his reaction was what she’d hoped for. Their natural connection had come on like a storm, and she lay in the crook of his arm, blushing and giggly, feeling as intoxicated as he, though they weren’t drunk. He had never felt this way, was reluctant to speak and disrupt the mood. “I haven’t come like that in a while.” She widened her eyes at the ceiling. “If Frank knew, he’d go crazy. I don’t mean to bring him up. I hope it doesn’t bother you. I hope I don’t sound crazy.”
He shook his head, already excited again, trying to forget the ex-husband. He remembered what she’d said, the drunk had resorted to dressing as Pyrus at the local mall for extra cash. That was how she thought of him, she said, as a man in a fuzzy red devil costume. He drove home wearing it. Adam thought of the men in town who played Pyrus, eccentrics who couldn’t hold a steady job, and he thought he understood.
“He’d be upset, huh?” he said.
“Oh my God. His head would explode.”
“I guess he’s a perfect Pyrus then.”
It wasn’t much of a joke. They laughed anyway.
He notices the truck a few days later. It’s in his rearview mirror while he drives Van to a friend’s house. Van is a good-looking boy, dark-haired, very pale-skinned, with a large head and short arms that look small for his body. He gives off the impression of being anxious, and he jumps if touched without warning. Some of this, Adam think, must be due to years of physical and emotional abuse. But Jessica says it comes naturally, he is high energy, like her. Looking at the quick-eyed and quiet child, it’s impossible to say if he’s damaged. Strapped into his booster car seat, the boy leafs through a graphic novel about Pyrus, asking questions, unaware Adam never believed in Pyrus as a kid. The boy, who has what Adam supposes are Frank’s dark eyes and hair, cannot see what Adam sees in the rearview mirror, only Adam's eyes as they move back and forth between the lightly flooded road and the reflection where their gazes connect.
“What if Pyrus didn’t come? What if, you know, he stayed in his volcano because he got sick? What if he stopped caring?” Van says. “Would it snow here?”
“It snows here,” Adam says, surprised by how defensive he sounds. The truck has made yet another turn with them, this time off of Route 158 and onto the causeway over to Roanoke Island. It’s not the most unlikely route, but it’s a long one, and the truck has been on their tail since way up in Kill Devil Hills, too close for Adam’s comfort, especially in this relentless rain. He wishes the vehicle, which is red with a capped bed and mounted on big tires that send up a wall of water when it accelerates, would go around him. Instead, the driver slows down when Adam brakes, then speeds up with him, as if using Adam’s car for guidance. He would be less annoyed if he knew the truck, but he’s never seen it. He can’t see the driver in the darkened windshield. Nor can he make out a front license plate in the rain-distorted reflection.
“I know it snows here,” Van says. “But it doesn’t stick. Not like in Minnesota.”
“Some years it sticks.” Adam turns down the fan, and the back window fogs up, obscuring his view of the truck. He switches on his rear wiper, and there’s the truck again, right on his bumper. “Just not this year. What is this guy’s problem?”
“What is it?” Van strains to look back but can’t see over the seat. “Are we being tailgated?”
“Don’t worry about it. But to answer your question, yes. If it got colder and colder, eventually this area would get as much snow as you guys used to get.” He says this though he has never been to Minnesota and knows nothing of climatology. But he thinks he may be right. The statement feels true to him. It has the desired effect, too. Van gazes out the window, through smearing rain, at passing evergreens and restaurants. “Over time,” he says, “another Ice Age would become established.”
“Wow,” the boy says, presumably imagining this place snowbound.
Adam shivers, remembering bad winters from the past, the ice storms that coated this road and the causeways, littering the shoulders with wrecked and spun-out vehicles. One year two ambulances got stuck. People died. “But don’t worry. Pyrus will be here,” he says, his cheeks growing hot.
“How do you know?” Van says.
He looks back and the truck is gone. He checks his side mirror, and it’s not there, nor is it in his blind spot. It must have pulled off, he thinks, back by the trailer park. He finds the boy’s clear brown eyes in the rearview glass. “I just know.”
Van looks back at him, thinking about that. “I can’t wait until I’m old enough to just know things.”
“How do they do the Search here?” Jessica asks. They’re in her office. She sits behind her neatly organized desk, composing an email in intermittent bursts of typing. Van’s drawings cover the walls. A good number of them are old, representing a child’s earliest attempts to create a figure or form letters, but his more recent compositions clearly depict Pyrus. An entire section is given over to various incarnations of the devil. In some pictures, Pyrus distributes candy to crowds of tiny children. In others, he blows fire on the Wizard of Winter. In others, he smiles down, eyes and mouth black slits. “Where do they send the kids?”
The question catches Adam off guard. He saw the truck again this morning while checking erosion on the beach. The wind tore in howling over the waves, and he'd had trouble seeing through the frigid spray, placing his yellow galoshes with care into the icy brown foam, watching for the eroded sandbags that jutted from the teeth marks the winter sea had left in the coast. When he finished making mental notes, he started up the shore and glimpsed the red truck parked beside his car, up in the lot. Its engine was running, its headlights on. In the low morning light, the windshield was a wash of water and the sky’s steel reflection. He hurried, meaning to get close enough to see the plate, but it backed out and drove off.
“Send the kids?” he says, as if puzzled by these words.
Jessica glances over, trying to tell if he’s joking. “I mean, where do the kids Search for Pyrus? You know, the part where they go looking for him, and all they find is candy?”“Oh, right.” He shakes his head. He feels stupid, but then this whole fake holiday is preposterous. Why would anyone imagine a devil would burst into flames and be transformed into a pile of candy? He supposes it’s no dumber than a fat man who slides down a chimney, or a huge rabbit who hides hardboiled chicken eggs in the yard. He’ll be happy when all this is behind them. “They go down to Jockey’s Ridge. There’s a whole thing.”
“Good,” she says. “Van should meet more kids around here.”
“What did Frank drive?” He holds up a hand to show he’s merely asking. “Just curious.”
She stares, fingering the small gold chain on her neck. “Why?”
“I’m sorry,” he says. He feels his cheeks burn, unwilling to mention the vehicle he’s seen twice. It’s probably nothing, and if it is Frank, come all this way to stalk them, he’s trying to intimidate them. Adam’s not about to let that happen. He’s also afraid of sounding crazy. “I don’t mean to scare you. Just something Van said about a truck he liked, got me wondering if he was a truck driving kind of guy.”
“Oh,” she says flatly. “Yeah. Well, he thought he was. I hope Van doesn’t take after him. Frank always had to have a big truck. Talk about your classic attempt to compensate. Before we left, he took out a second mortgage to buy this giant red pickup, with extra big wheels. I had to climb up just to get in.”
He stops in at the police station to talk to the chief, Darren Elder, a friend since childhood. When he comes in, Darren’s in the lobby with two deputies, watching rain streak the tinted windows. The men look at Adam hopefully. Winter here is slow and dull, months of unemployed locals driving drunk, months of deciding when and whom to bust. Sometimes a drug dealer shows up, providing some excitement, but apart from that, police here have only break-ins and domestic incidents to keep them busy. It’s not every morning that the head of Ocean Rescue shows up.
“What’s happening, Adam?” Darren says. “Haven’t see you. Thought maybe you was surfing the equator.”
The deputies grin. For people in town, it’s a point of both pride and resentment that Adam once surfed competitively and traveled in Asia and Latin America, seeking big waves with semifamous athletes. Ever since he returned to become head lifeguard, people tease him about it. These men know his serious boarding days are over, that the attractive new YMCA director and her young son have moved in. They know Adam’s staying put for a while.
“No trip this year.”
The deputies go back to watching the rain.
“What was the best wave you seen?” Darren says. The deputies look back, tentatively curious.
“Probably in Peru. There’s this wave about a mile long.”
“Wow,” a deputy says.
“That is a long wave,” Darren says. “The longest I’ve seen was my own when my ex-wife finally left.”
The deputies snicker at this.
Adam nods. They could go on like this, laughing at him one moment, envying him the next. “You guys seen anybody strange around?”
Darren looks at his deputies and shrugs. “Not counting the Pentecostals who come in yesterday on a big yellow bus? Shitty tippers, I hear, but I think they paid.”
“Guy in a red pickup. F-150, at least. Hard to tell with the rain. Cap, big tires. You guys see anything like that?”
The deputies shake their heads.
“Why? Something happen?”
“Not exactly.” Adam chooses his words with care. “Saw him driving crazy out on 158 last week. Then I saw him parked down at the beach. It was real early, and I thought he might be sleeping out there. He was pretty close to the bathhouse.”
“Ah shit,” a deputy says. A few years back, a drifter broke into a locked bathhouse and stayed for a week undetected. By the time they found him, he had spread trashy belongings all over the room, and policemen and firefighters spent hours cleaning up.
“I’ll go check on it,” the other says.
“I’ll follow you.”
Once they’ve gone, Adam remains in the station with Darren. His old friend smiles.
“What’s really going on, man?”
“It’s not anything, necessarily. Jessica’s ex drives a truck like that. And when I saw it, it looked like the guy was following me.”
Darren studies him closely. “All right. I’ll keep an eye out.”
“I wonder if you could look him up, maybe get his plate number or something.”
The police chief’s eyes look away. “I could do that for you, I guess. But I can’t be getting in the habit. You know?”
“I’d appreciate it. And if you could keep it between us. Jessica’s been through enough with this asshole. Right now, I just want her and Van to have a nice winter at the beach and set up this kid for ruining his teeth after the Search.”
Darren frowning, nodding in sympathy. “I get it, I got my own kids. We’re doing this Pyrus shit, too. Never ends. Don’t worry. I’ll keep it zipped.”
They go to the tavern for fish tacos. A six-foot cardboard Pyrus stands inside the door, black eyes staring down at them as they duck in, out of the rain. Van touches it tentatively, then yanks his hand back, looks up at Jessica, giggling. The place is jammed with locals, and country music blares from speakers hidden among the anchors, nets, and taxidermied fish mounted on the wooden rafters. They get a booth, and Adam and Jessica order beers while Van gets a soda. A wooden partition beside Van and Jessica obscures their view of the front of the restaurant and the brightly lighted bar. Adam can see the hostess at her stand and all the drinkers, who seem to be fishermen from one of the other towns. Rain falls out of the night sky, blanketing the windows. It’s warm. Fried white fish smells drift through the kitchen doors.
“So you guys talk to Pyrus?” Van asks, peering across the booth over his plastic tumbler of fizzing cola. “Do you report to him after I go to bed?”
Adam lets Jessica take the question. He watches Van’s eyes, looking for evidence of guile. He doesn’t see any and wonders how blind he’s become to the characters of children. In his old yearbooks, the worst bullies have come to look innocent.
“Sort of,” Jessica says. “The thing with Pyrus is, he has a telepathic connection with us. He knows what we’re thinking, kind of like Santa Claus does.”
“He’s like the NSA,” Adam says.
Van thinks about this, corkscrewing his lips. He’s got to be suspicious of this whole charade. “But the Pyrus we have in the house is obviously a doll.”
“Obviously?” Adam says, surprised by how easy it is to play along. He feels Jessica smiling beside him. “What if it’s just a disguise?”
“Kids at school have the same doll. They can’t all be him.”
“Maybe they’re his spies,” Jessica says. She narrows her eyes, as if trying to solve a problem. “Maybe the doll is the connection. Maybe he can see through the doll. Like a satellite.”
“So if I covered the doll’s eyes, he wouldn’t see if I did something bad?”
“I bet someone’s tried that by now,” Adam says. “If it worked, everyone would know.”
“Yeah,” Jessica says. “It’s probably best to just behave.”
Van rests his cheeks on his fists, exaggerating the gesture, Adam thinks. “All right.”
It’s now that he notices the man at the bar watching them. He’s been there a while, hunched over by the touch-screen game, a tall thick-bodied man who fills out his red and black checkered flannel shirt. Earlier, he was looking down the bar toward the television showing a basketball game, giving Adam of view of his heavily whiskered cheek. Now that he’s turned to stare, he reveals dark eyes, a small mouth, and a trimmed goatee that looks oddly familiar. Adam’s not certain it’s Frank, but he thinks it could be him. He has no memory of the guy’s face, only vague recollections of photos he’s found online, a thumbnail from a deleted Facebook account and the two mugshots, the most recent of which was more than a year old. The man in those photos had been thinner, and he can’t be sure this is him. Nor can he be sure that the guy was even looking at him before. He might have simply been gazing in this direction, because now the man moves his head, makes unmistakable eye contact, and looks away.
He hears Jessica tell Van, “He didn’t hear you.”
“What?” he says. “What did you ask?”
“Does the ocean freeze?”
“No,” he says. “Not like the lakes in the Midwest.”
“I think that’s what he was thinking of,” Jessica says. She’s holding her beer bottle, empty but for a swig left in the bottom. From her easygoing mood, she’s going to order another. “Just a few more days,” she croons, alluding to the Search.
Van slaps both hands on the table. “Has it ever frozen?”
Adam glances back over the partition and sees the man who was sitting by the touch-green game is gone. He looks to the front door, which blows slightly open in the wind. A vehicle passes under a streetlight outside, fleeting, but he glimpses it through the rain. It was red.
“Has it ever frozen?” Van says again.
“Maybe,” Adam says, imagining the Atlantic frozen over with ice and snow, twenty thousand years ago, a vast white plane between continents. “Maybe back in the Ice Age. I guess anything’s possible.”
In his dream he runs across a vast field of snow, perfectly flat, no houses or trees or roads in sight. He hears his breath in the midst of the miles of stillness. There is only the sun receding behind him, and a dark figure who trudges after him steadily. It is a Frank, he knows, who has been following him a long time. No matter how fast or far Adam runs, Frank remains in view, always moving at the same slow pace. He catches up to the same point, getting close enough that his red and black checkered shirt and fat goateed face come into view, before Adam catches his breath and resumes running.
He is not dressed for this weather, and it is getting colder. Far ahead, the horizon darkens. At the far edge, a thin black line stretches across the world, a black meridian indicating where night has fallen. He does not wish to be out on this field in the dark, fears losing track of Frank in the night and changing direction accidentally, shortening the distance between them. At the same time, he is aware of hurrying toward this state of affairs. There is no avoiding it.
The next time he stops to catch his breath, he looks back and sees Frank is closer than the last time, a few dozen paces away, moving forward steadily, his face wide and stoical. In the sky above, a fissure marks the line between the blue of dusk and a violet sky where the stars have begun to emerge, countless and sparkling. He turns to run again, but he slips and loses his footing, tumbles into the snow onto a hard surface, and in scrambling to get up, falls again, on his face now. The snow scatters like dust. It would be comic, this scrambling, were he less afraid. He feels Frank’s presence behind him like a wall of heat, knows he must turn to face him eventually. When he does lift his head, night has fallen completely. Frank stands behind, his entire figure engulfed in flames. The fires burn so bright as to obscure his features, and yet Frank stands over him, looking down calmly.
At that moment, a crack as big as thunder sounds around them, and the surface beneath Adam gives way, and as he sinks through he wakes up. Rain splashes against the windows and garbage cans. Jessica makes a smooth shape under the sheet, and though he knows everything is fine, that he will go find Van asleep and the street outside deserted and that the Internet will yield nothing new of Frank, he gets out of bed to make sure he is right.
Two days before the Search, the rain stops, and dim sunlight glows behind the clouds. Fog hangs over the coast, crawls over the gnarled gray surf, the pummeled beach, the brown and green dunes. Adam drives the beach road, his radio crackling about a fisherman who’s caught a large sand tiger shark at the pier. The sprawling lot is mostly empty, with a cluster of old vehicles parked around the pier entrance. Down at the far end of the lot, in the corner, he sees the red truck. He drives over slowly, toward the empty-looking cab and the dunes rising and falling beyond. He has memorized the plate number Darren gave him, but up close he sees the vehicle’s license plates have been removed. He parks next to it, then gets out and wipes the condensation from the driver’s side window. The cab’s mostly empty, just old stained seats and a few balled up greasy receipts. He looks through the dark windows in the cap and sees nothing inside, then walks to the top of the dune to look over the rolling landscape of succulents and shrubs. He sees no one and comes down the slope in hurry to reach the pier entrance. He scans the open lot, afraid that someone is behind him.
He sees the crowd as he nears the planked walkway into the pier. They’ve gathered down below, a crowd of about thirty people, mostly men and boys standing under the old wooden pilings around the long body of a dead shark. None of the men present looks anything like Frank or the man from the tavern. These are poor whites who have come out of the swamp across the causeway to fish, now that the rain has stopped. They hold fishing rods and fish knives and phones and their bony jaws work as they talk excitedly.
The shark lies on its side, dragged into a rut in the beach, thirteen feet long, its dead eyes staring, its toothy mouth wide open, its white belly smooth in appearance only. Bystanders take pictures with phones, and a boy puts his head in the deceased animal’s open mouth. A man sneaks up behind him and clamps hands over the kid’s ears. The boy screams, a high-pitched, absurd yowl, and pulls away, and the others laugh and shake their heads.
Darren is there, chuckling as the fisherman, a shabbily dressed, half-toothless man with arms covered in smudges of old blue tattoos, begins to make incisions along the long gray belly, telling those present he will sell them steaks for ten dollars apiece.
The police chief grins so hard he squints. “Couldn't resist the carnage, either, I take it.”
“Did you see the truck?” Adam says. “It’s out in the lot right now. I parked next to it.”
Darren looks confused for a moment, then turns up toward land, scowling. He's reluctant to leave the shark and steps toward the lot with noticeable effort. “Come on, let’s get a look.”
For a moment, Adam is sure they will come out and find the truck gone. He’s relieved to see it’s still there. It means he’s not crazy, after all, right? Darren takes a long time, examining it. He knocks on the cap and listens to the wind blow in off the ocean. “You sure this is his truck?”
“Not as much as I’d like to be.”
“Better check and see it don't belong to any of those yahoos.” Darren nods toward the beach. From the neutral look of his face, he might believe Adam, or he might think Adam’s losing his mind. “Don’t want to tow somebody if I don’t have to. These poor sons of bitches can't afford that shit, you know?”
Adam nods to show he understands. He knows he can’t be certain. There’s nothing he can do but wait and see what happens. “Let’s just forget it,” he says. “But if you see this thing on the road, please pull it over and make sure it’s not him.”
Darren seems relieved to hear these words. He claps a hand on Adam’s shoulder and says he will. He turns and looks at Adam’s car and laughs. “Did some kid write that?”
Adam turns to see someone has written BE GOOD IM WATCHING in the grime covering the passenger side wheel well. He’s sure it wasn't there a few minutes ago, or he is at first. The more he thinks about it, the less he can say for sure. All he knows is he didn’t see it then. “Must have.”
The police chief harrumphs, not quite approving. “Cute.”
The morning of the Search arrives. Adam does not remember sleeping, but he must have, because he wakes to the sound of Van running through the house, opening doors, moving furniture. After a brief, frightened moment, he realizes the boy’s looking for the Pyrus doll that Jessica took down from the mantel late last night. If Adam were to ask where the devil has gone, Van would say Pyrus has left the house to go in search of the last of the winter snow, that he has gone north or west, up into the mountains. Beside him, Jessica’s awake, smiling, eyes closed.
Van begins to shout for them. “Mom! Mom! Adam! He's gone! Pyrus is gone!”
“It’s like Christmas all over,” he says. “He really believes, doesn’t he?”
“Mostly,” she says. She sits up as Van’s footsteps race toward their closed door.
They drive to Jockey’s Ridge and park in the crowded lot, then climb the massive sand dune. There are hundreds of people up here on this mound of sand in the middle of a long barrier island. Kids from this and the surrounding towns look down into the pine woods below, anxious to search for the massive deposit of candy the winter devil left when he vanished in a ball of fire. It’s a cold, bright day, the wind whipping steadily out of the west. People without hats cover their ears and then rub their hands and then cover their ears again. Adam stands looking at the adults, studying faces, while Jessica urges Van to join the large crowd of children standing in the middle of the dune.
“Go on,” she says, her face red in the cold. She shoves the boy gently. “Go have fun.”
Van looks to Adam for reassurance, visibly anxious. “I’m going to go.”
Jessica laughs. “Prove it,” she says.
Adam says nothing, looking over the men up here, panicking slightly. There are more than he expected. He watches Van approach the other children, then tries to see the features of people beyond those he’s seen. He doesn’t want to frighten Jessica, thinks all will be fine if Van stays with the other kids, which he probably will. The odds are heavily on their side, he knows, and besides, he has probably been wrong in worrying about Frank. These thoughts do nothing to calm his nerves. Jessica slips under his arms to hug him tight through his jacket. He spots Darren across the dune, standing with his girlfriend and ex-wife while his daughters mingle with girls their age. He wonders what became of the truck, which the police chief seemed to lose interest in after the fishermen at the pier denied owning it. Darren had seemed annoyed by the whole thing, and Adam had let it drop, knowing he could only deepen the man’s distrust of him. The policeman sees him from where he stands and nods, and Adam nods back, thinking now their friendship must have ended a while go, back when he wasn’t looking.
A town alderwoman, a small gray-haired woman who looks cold in her wool coat, blows a whistle, getting the children’s attention, calling them to gather in a crowd before her. She explains the rules, says the Search will last until one child has found Pyrus or his remains. “Then we will know,” she says, “whether or not winter has truly ended.”
The children cheer. Jessica looks up and smiles and he kisses her before looking back among the other adults. They form a thick line across the ridge, facing down into the smaller dunes and the coastal woods where the children will search. It’s pretty safe, he thinks, even if Frank is here. Even if he cannot see him, perhaps someone else will.
The alderwoman blows her whistle again, and the children rush down the hill toward the wood of short pine trees and oaks. Van runs toward the front, with kids his age and some slightly older, the oldest boys and a few girls well ahead of the younger kids and those very small ones who follow. In a matter of seconds, the boy has followed the others into the trees, searching for anything that seems out of place. Adam looks after them, alarmed by the stillness of the woods with the children inside. He leans forward, straining to hear their voices over the wind.
It is then that he senses movement on the road below. Something is coming up the highway. He steps away and turns around, looks down at the highway below the dune. The red truck is passing, the window down to let in the cold spring air. The man from the bar is driving, speeding, but only a little. He wears the same checkered shirt. He looks up casually. He sees Adam looking at him and locks eyes with him. For a moment, he is coming for Adam, and for Jessica and Van, and nothing can stop him. Then he breaks eye contact and looks back at the road. He drives on past, heading north.
Jessica moves close and pulls an arm around his waist. She lays her head against his chest. It is heavy. Down the ridge, Darren Elder and the other parents watch the woods quietly, waiting, their smiles fallen. No one speaks as they wait for the children to emerge, as they do every year, hauling a garbage bag filled with candy that will be shared more or less equally at the top of the dune. It seems everyone is holding their breath. He hears a sniff, and he’s surprised to see Jessica crying quietly. She avoids looking at him and dries her eyes on his jacket sleeve.
When he looks back again, the red truck is gone. In the distance, wooden buildings and beach rentals stand along the highway, gray-windowed and waiting for the summer, when this place will once more teem with human life. A seagull perches on the roof of the closed ice cream parlor, watching a white plastic bag float like a ghost across the black highway.
For a moment, he can hear the ocean pawing at the shore. Then a silence, like a deep intake of breath. Down in the woods, children begin to scream.
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