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A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


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CHAPTER 25

Einstein said the arrow of time flies in only one direction. Faulkner, being from Mississippi, understood the matter differently. He said the past is never dead; it's not even past. All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born, webs of heredity and environment, of desire and consequence, of history and eternity. Haunted by wrong turns and roads not taken, we pursue images perceived as new but whose provenance dates to the dim dramas of childhood, which are themselves but ripples of consequence echoing down the generations. The quotidian demands of life distract from this resonance of images and events, but some of us feel it always.

And who among us, offered the chance, would not relive the day or hour in which we first knew love, or ecstasy, or made a choice that forever altered our future, negating a life we might have had? Such chances are rarely granted. Memory and grief prove Faulkner right enough, but Einstein knew the finality of action. If I cannot change what I had for lunch yesterday, I certainly cannot unmake a marriage, erase the betrayal of a friend, or board a ship that left port twenty years ago.

And yet today I am granted such a chance.

Livy Marston does not call as she promised she would. She shows up at our front door at nine a.m. wearing faded Levi's and a white blouse tied at the waist, sapphire earrings one shade darker than her eyes, a silk scarf in her hair. On the street behind her, a midnight blue Fiat Spyder convertible idles like a resting cat.

"I'm kidnapping you," she says. "If it's all right with Annie."

It takes a moment to center myself in the present. "Kidnaping me to where?"

She smiles. "It's a surprise. If you thought about it, you'd know. But don't think. Today is a right-brain day."

Five minutes after I clear it with Mom and Annie, I'm clinging to the passenger door of the Spyder as Livy races up the highway, cutting in and out of traffic like a Grand Prix driver. She borrowed the car from a friend of her mother's, and we both know why. Our senior year in high school, after she received some honor or other, Livy was given a Fiat convertible much like this one by her father. The night they brought it back from the dealership in New Orleans, she and I drove across half the state with the top down, drinking beer and reveling in the promise of futures unbound by visible limits. We spent many of our best moments in that car, and she has apparently decided to relive some of them. I've fantasized about scenes like this more than once, but there is something eerie about tearing up the sun-drenched highway toward the edge of town twenty years after we did it the first time, and in the same car.

As the Spyder crosses the westbound bridge into Louisiana, Maude Marston's words echo in my mind: You ruined my daughter's life, you bastard. I want to ask Livy outright what her mother was referring to, but Livy always had a way of being elliptical where serious matters were concerned.

"What did you mean, today is a right-brain day?" I ask.

She laughs. "I mean today everything is off limits." Her voice has deepened slightly over the years. "Everything except experience."

"Livy, I have some questions."

"You mean like why are my husband and I separated? Why did you and I really split up in college? Why did my father try to destroy yours?"

"Yes. Little things like that."

"We'll get to all that. I have questions too. But first we give ourselves a little of the past. A little innocence." She grants me a brilliant smile. "We owe ourselves that."

At the foot of the bridge she pulls into the parking lot of the liquor store we patronized during high school. Joking that it's finally legal for us to shop here, she goes inside and returns with two chilled bottles of Pouilly Fuisse. Handing them to me, she takes a small ice chest from the trunk and sets it on the backseat. Inside, I see French bread, cheese, grapes, peeled shrimp, and chocolate chip cookies.

She crosses the four-lane and whips the Spyder onto Deer Park Road, the same route I drove yesterday with Frank Jones. Only Livy takes the gently curving blacktop at ninety miles per hour. She was always an excellent driver, aggressive but in control. When the road jumps onto the levee, she has to slow to seventy, but the wind still whips through our hair, keeping the sun from frying us. I serve her wine in a styrofoam cup, and when she drinks, the wine clings to the same fine golden down that dusted her upper lip when she was seventeen. But she is not seventeen now. And the questions hanging between us cannot be ignored.

She pulls a pair of Ray-Bans down from the visor and slips them on, snapping me straight back to Sarah's funeral. I didn't notice Livy at the church service, but later, at the graveside, I saw her standing at the edge of the crowd, a hauntingly beautiful apparition in a black dress and sunglasses, unmistakable even after twenty years.

"It meant a lot that you came to the funeral," I say above the whine of the engine. "I'm sorry I couldn't do more than say hello."

She shakes her head and touches my arm. "I had to come. And I didn't expect any more than that."

At the end of the levee she stops, and we switch seats for the return leg. Somewhere in the middle of the empty cotton fields, she intertwines the fingers of her left hand in my right. I don't look at her, but I feel a sudden tingling, as though I've put my hand through a portal in time and felt a charge of energy pour through. On some level, acceding to this intimacy seems a betrayal of myself, but it also presages a deeper connection, one that might lead to meaningful conversation, so I leave my hand in hers.

As we climb the eastbound bridge, the Cecil B. De Mille panorama of Natchez rises above us as it did yesterday when I crossed the bridge with Frank Jones. The whole grand stage seems laid out with such dramatic intent that I ask myself the question Caitlin asked at our first meeting: why haven't I written about this place?

"What are you thinking?" Livy asks.

"I thought questions were prohibited."

She ignores this remark. "I was thinking about this place. The town. The fact that it is a place, with a unique identity. Atlanta is so sterile that I literally can't stand being in it sometimes."

"I've felt the same thing in Houston."

Looking up from the bridge, I see Natchez as the tourist sees it: the high bluff where sun-worshiping Natchez Indians massacred the French soldiers of Fort Rosalie in 1729; where Aaron Burr was arrested as a traitor and set free to the cheers of crowds; where an African prince labored twenty years as a slave; where Jefferson Davis wedded Varina Howell in the halcyon days before the Civil War. But I see so much more. I see the city Livy Marston captivated with a beauty and poise not seen since P. T. Barnum brought Jenny Lind down the river in 1851. I see the thin edge of a universe of vibrant life and mysterious death, of shadowy secrets and bright facades, and of races inextricably bound by blood and tears, geography and religion, and above all, time.

"This is a good place to be from," I murmur.

"Could you ever live here again?" Livy asks in a strange voice.

I sense a deeper question beneath the one she's asked. "I don't know. Could you?"

She doesn't take her eyes from the bluff. From this place she left to conquer the world. How does it look to her now?

"Not while my parents are alive," she says, so softly that I'm not sure she knows she spoke aloud.

Before I can ponder what she meant, she turns to me, her eyes languid, and says, "Let's go to the Cold Hole."

The tingling in my hand spreads up my arm and across my neck and shoulders. The Cold Hole. One mile from the spot where my father and I sank the pistol I bought from Ray Presley-in the midst of that slimy, sulfurous swamp-a cold spring bubbles up through the green water, creating a pool as clear as Arctic snowmelt. It is the pool from my dream, the one I had the night Ike Ransom first told me about Leo Marston's involvement in the Payton murder. The woman in my dream was Livy Marston, and she sits beside me now, asking me to take her to that pool. Only in the dream she had something to tell me. Today she says the past is off limits.

Her presumption offends me. The Cold Hole was the geographic center of our intimate life, the name alone a talisman of spiritual and sexual exploration. Does she really believe that the passage of twenty years has somehow deactivated the mines that lie between us? Surely not. But perhaps she feels that in that hidden place, surrounded by our secret past, we can speak of things too painful to broach anywhere else. If that's what it takes to get her to solve the riddle of our truncated history, I'm willing. As I point the Spyder south and let the motor out, she lays her head back on the seat and smiles into the sky.

This is not the first time since my father's trial that Livy has tried to bridge the gulf it opened between us. Three years after she disappeared from Natchez, she was asked to be Queen of the Confederate Pageant, the apogee of social recognition by old Natchez standards. She was at UVA then, and everyone who was anyone waited on pins and needles to see whether she would accept. No one had ever declined the invitation to be queen, but all her life Livy had vowed that, if asked, she would be the first. That she would be asked was never in doubt. Her grandmother had been queen in the nineteen-thirties, her mother in the fifties, and if Livy accepted, she would be the first third-generation queen in history. Yet for years she had denigrated the Confederate Pageant (the nightly highlight of the pilgrimage to Natchez's antebellum mansions) as a hobby for garden club ladies with nothing better to do, a celebration of the Old South without a trace of irony or racial awareness. A lot of "new Natchez" people thought she was mostly right, and she earned points with them for flouting tradition. So, in the spring of my junior year, when it was announced to great fanfare that Livy Marston had agreed to sacrifice two weeks of college to serve as queen, I was stunned. For nine nights she would preside over the very pageant she had scorned, playing a generic Scarlett O'Hara for those Yankees and Europeans who journeyed thousands of miles to see the Old South reincarnated. This was vintage Livy Marston, the girl who liked to have things both ways.

The Pilgrimage season sparkles with evening parties, culminating in formal balls-the Queen's and King's-where liquor and champagne flow like water, and guests spanning four generations dance deep into the night. Nowadays the king's and queen's balls are often compressed into a single event, a telling commentary on the reduced fortunes of the city. But twenty years ago they were Gatsby-like orgies of conspicuous consumption, competitive arenas for the proud parents of young royalty. Livy's ball was the grandest in recent memory, and no one expected anything less. I was not invited, of course. But my date was: an "old Natchez" girl with a wicked sense of humor and no great love for the Marstons. I initially declined her invitation, but she finally convinced me that it would be a crime to skip such a historic display of excess.

Fifteen hundred invitations were mailed, and more than two thousand people chose to attend. Leo chartered a jet to fly Livy's sorority sisters down from UVA, a plane packed with Tri-Delts that-had it crashed-would have sent the Virginia marriage market into an irrecoverable tailspin. Ice sculptures were trucked down from Memphis in refrigerated vans, wondrous fantasy figures that melted so fast they drew solemn crowds of matrons who looked near tears that such extravagant beauty would be allowed to perish. Livy herself wore an eighteen-thousand-dollar gown hand-sewn by the woman who crafted the dresses for the Mardi Gras queens in New Orleans. It was made of candlelight silk, white brocade, and imported satin gathered tightly at the waist and spreading to a veritable landscape of snowy fabric embellished with alencon lace, pearls, iridescent paillettes, and jewels, and trailed by a seven-foot, three-paneled fan train to be carried by toddler pages during the pageant.

Traditionally queens never wore their pageant dresses to the balls, but Livy Marston, as ever, decided to make her own rules. When she appeared in the entrance of the hotel ballroom-escorted by the quarterback of the University of Virginia football team-a thousand women sighed together, making a sound like a soft wind. All I could think of was Audrey Hepburn at the head of the staircase in My Fair Lady, a shimmering chrysalis transformed into the most beautiful creature in the world. Even when the ball began in earnest, you could sense where Livy was at all times, a center of social gravity around which everyone whirled in attentive, almost worshipful fascination.

My date and I danced at the periphery of the crowd. She knew that, were I to come face to face with Leo Marston so soon after the trial, sparks would fly. I occasionally glimpsed Livy near me, spinning in the arms of her quarterback or her father, or passing in a glittering flock of Tri-Delts. But our eyes never met.

In the third hour of the ball, she suddenly appeared at my shoulder, touched my date on the arm, and said, "May I borrow him for one dance?"

I don't know why I went with her, but I did. Livy led me off without even pretending to dance, whisking me through the crowd as though pursued by paparazzi. She stopped long enough to hug a sorority sister, who giggled and glanced at me during a strange flurry of arms and handbags. Then Livy pulled me on again, nodding regally to anyone who tried to stop her, floating through the tuxedos and store-bought gowns like the daughter of a tsar in the Winter Palace.

Suddenly we were outside, moving along a row of blue doors. In a brick alcove she stopped and pressed her lips to mine, her eyes flashing in the dark. She tasted like champagne. When we pulled apart to breathe, she said, "I can't believe you came. My parents are livid." Before I could answer, we were off again, passing door after numbered door until she stopped and opened one with a key. That's what she hugged her sorority sister for, I thought as she pulled me inside the room.

That was the last coherent thought I had for some time. Livy sat on the edge of the bed and held me before her, working at my belt, then freed me with an exhalation of satisfaction and enclosed me again in an infinitely warmer place. Receiving this sort of attention from a woman wearing an eighteen-thousand-dollar gown is quite an experience, enough to obliterate consciousness. As I felt myself crossing the point of no return, she drew back and said, "My turn," then pulled me down to my knees, kissed me, lifted the jeweled hem of that dress, and lay back on the bed.

Her undergarments were surprisingly simple considering the dress worn over them, and I removed them with a surreal sense of wonder. She tasted as she always had-clean and coppery-and climaxed almost instantly, as though she'd been poised on a cliff, preparing for a long dive, with only a slight push needed to send her over. The ululations that escaped her throat drove me into a state of primitive arousal. I reared up over her, but she held me away and said, "No. The dress." While I stared in amazement, she stood, turned around, and guided my fingers to an invisible line of eyelets that ran along her spine. There must have been two hundred of them, and each had to be unhooked before the dress would free her. While I worked at the hooks, Livy reached back and worked at me, and after a seeming eternity, eighteen thousand dollars of Leo Marston's money hit the cheap hotel carpet with a haughty rustle.

She lifted the dress off the floor and laid it carefully across the table by the window. Then she stood before me with a pride I have seen in no other woman, supremely secure, elegant even without clothes. The bitterness that had tortured our families was nowhere in her eyes. There was only us. She reached past me and pulled the coverlet off the bed, then took both my hands and pulled me onto the sheet, kissed me deeply, and lay back, pulling me across her. I supported my weight on my arms and peered into her eyes, which were wide open and glowing with desire. She caressed my nipples with her fingers, the hint of a smile on her lips. When my breath went shallow, she slid her hands down to my waist, pulled me between her legs, and whispered, "Make love to me."

In that moment I became almost preternaturally aware of the ball in the next building, missing its queen now, the guests like hundreds of planets and moons whirling through space without their sun. I could feel the anxiety of the quarterback, the puzzlement of Livy's parents, the confusion of her sorority sisters. Their sun was here, in this dark room, unclothed, aroused, wanting me.

But she didn't, really. Not the way I wanted her to. She wanted me, yes, but she also wanted Virginia and her quarterback and her parents' admiration and a thousand things besides. She wanted me for those few minutes, in that context, while I filled some discomfiting space in the puzzle of how she saw herself in her sheltered little universe. The first glimmer of this knowledge cut me to the bone. Despite all that had happened between our fathers, I loved her. I wanted her in the way most women dream of being wanted. Till death do us part. She wanted me for the night. The way I'd wanted girls before. Utterly and completely until my passion was spent, and then not at all. She wanted me to fill her with myself, and by so doing, make myself less. She would own me then, in a way, without ever having to bother with me again. She would nullify the past and move on. She should have whispered "Fuck me"-not "Make love to me"-because that was what she meant. This realization terrified me, and it taught me more about what it was to be female than I would learn in all the rest of my life.

"I can't," I said, looking down at her with secret horror.

She reached between us and squeezed the rigid evidence to the contrary, pressed me against her sex, her eyes triumphant. For an instant-for the only time in my life-I felt the urge to rape, to plunge inside her with all the violence I could muster and pound against her womb until she could stand no more. But even that would have been her victory. She would, I suspect, have enthusiastically endured my most violent onslaught, reached a slightly more intense orgasm than usual, and then subsumed my rage and sadness into her with my seed, leaving her serene and content. That is the superiority of a woman unencumbered by love.

I could do only one thing to save myself, and I did it. I climbed off of her and began to dress. From the expression on her face, I was the only man who had ever done this, at least for any reason other than performance anxiety. And I was doing it because I loved her. She stared wordlessly at me, unable to believe I was doing what her eyes told her I was, even when I buttoned my tuxedo trousers and walked to the door.

"What are you doing?" she asked finally, her voice hoarse with confusion.

I couldn't see her clearly at that distance, so I focused instead on the white dress, which lay across the table like a fallen battle flag in the darkness, an artifact of a secret engagement no one would ever record. "Saving my soul," I said.

"What about my dress?" she asked, hysteria creeping into her voice. "I can't put it on by myself."

"You'll think of something."

And she did. She reappeared at the ball a half hour later, looking no worse for wear, and I'm certain that the UVA quarterback got the lay of his life later that night, without ever knowing why. I didn't tell my date what had happened, but when I took her home, she kissed me fervently and pushed my hands into her dress. I resisted at first, but she pressed me against her until I gave in to the moment. We spilled out of the car onto the grass and made love recklessly and fiercely beside her parents' house, until all I had withheld from Livy sluiced from me in an annihilating rush. I did not love that girl, but that was all right. She knew I didn't, and she wanted me anyway.

"Where are you, Penn?"

I blink myself to the reality of Liberty Road, startled to find Livy beside me, her hand in mine. She looks scarcely older than she did on the night of that ball.

"Nowhere good," I reply, steering the Fiat around a hairpin turn. This road was old when Mississippi became a territory in 1798, and it has settled deep into the earth over the centuries. The dirt banks rise higher than the car, and in some places the limbs of oaks meet high above our heads.

"What are you really doing in Natchez?" Livy asks.

"I thought you said no questions."

She refills my styrofoam cup and passes it to me. "You don't have to answer if you don't want to."

"Annie's having a tough time getting over Sarah's death. I couldn't help her. My mother has already worked wonders with her." I sweep around another turn, passing a cement truck like it's standing still. "What are you really doing here?"

"Visiting my mother. I told you that." Livy points to our right. "There's the turn."

I swing the Spyder off the pavement and into deep gravel that quickly shallows to ruts as thick pine forest closes around us.

"The next turn's easy to miss," she reminds me.

Twenty years ago, a dirt oil-field road led to the Cold Hole. Some lucky wildcatter hit a well not fifty yards from the pool, and while this damaged the aesthetic of the place, the pool itself remained pure and clear. Surrounded by a jungle of cypress trees, dense fern, and a carpet of lily pads, it remained an essentially secret place, where time and society held no sway. Summer after summer adolescents reenacted the eternal rites there, clothed and naked, drunk and sober, but always defiantly, totally alive. A plank walkway led across the lily pads to the edge of the clear water, and high in a tall cypress a diving platform had been built. Livy and I spent the most perfect day of our lives on that perch, lost in each other's eyes, talking of God and time and other imponderables, poised in that blessed state of awareness that has yet to comprehend its own mortality.

We were drinking white wine that day too, but we also had one bottle of red. The sun was so hot that we wanted to keep even the red cold. To this end, I climbed down the platform and swam to the bottom of the pool, into the waving fronds, so deep that my eardrums ached in the cold current welling up from the spring below. I wedged the bottle tightly among the stems of the water plants, then fought my way back to the surface and climbed up to the platform.

Hours later, when the sun began to fall, we carefully negotiated our way back down to the water, and I dove for the bottle of red that I'd cached at the bottom. I could not find it. Livy joined me, but we searched in vain, though we stayed until night descended over the swamp, and snakes and alligators became a real concern.

Many times since, I've thought of that bottle. Once I even considered donning scuba gear to salvage it, so that I could ship it to Livy as a gift. (I'm pretty sure I conceived this madness on the night I heard she was getting married.) I'm not much for symbolism, but that unopened bottle of red wine fills the bill if ever anything did. Inside it is a road unwalked, a life unlived. And today, I suspect, Livy means to find it. An impossible task, probably. But impossible is a word she never paid much attention to. Her attitude is simple: where Livy Marston goes, the rules do not apply.

"Stop!" she cries. "I think you passed it."

I hit the brakes, skid a few yards through the gravel, then back up until Livy says stop. An autumnal sadness suffuses me when I see the overgrown track, a desolate path through the trees that none would take but a killer looking for a place to dump his victim.

"Pull in," orders Livy.

I nose the Spyder into the trees, and she climbs out without opening the door and starts through the waist-high weeds. I put up the top of the convertible as quickly as I can and follow.

Five minutes' hard walking brings us to the edge of the swamp. The old pumping unit is still here, its great black arm frozen in place like a broken limb, the oil-bearing sands beneath the swamp long since depleted. The smell of stale crude permeates the air, and the cypress trees have no tops, casualties of salt water leaking from the well. The swamp itself is a scummy greenish-brown, swarming with breeding mosquitoes and obscured by a head-high wall of swamp grass. Our enchanted pool is gone.

"Well," I say philosophically. "I guess it's true."

"What?"

"You can't go home again."

Livy stares at the mess as though willing it back to its former beauty. I stand mute, waiting for her to face reality. But she won't. Why should she? Reality never stopped her before. She strips off her shirt and jeans, revealing a white one-piece bathing suit underneath. Then she hops onto a fallen tree that angles off through the hissing grass and walks like a gymnast down the rotting trunk. I call out for her to stop, but she pays no attention.

I have little choice but to follow.

When I get to the end of the trunk, I find myself stranded in a snaky morass with Livy nowhere in sight.

"Penn?" she calls from a jungle of foliage to my left. "Come here."

"Where are you?"

"There's a stump just below the surface of the water. That will take you to the next trunk."

Sighting the half-submerged stump, I leap onto it, catching myself just before I tumble headfirst into the slime. From here I can jump to the next fallen tree. Landing on the end of that one, I find myself peering down a green tunnel of leaves.

Livy stands at the other end, a motionless figure silhouetted by dazzling sunlight. Her body is still remarkable, not in the willowy way of a model or the lush way of a pinup girl, but somewhere in between. Her breasts are small but beautifully shaped, her wrists and ankles slim, her hands graceful. Yet the predominant impression she projects is of strength. She could be Artemis, more at home in the forest than among people. In this moment I cannot imagine her in a courtroom.

"Here," she beckons, stretching out her hand, her voice laced with mystery.

I teeter out to the end of the trunk like a drunken riveter working high steel, then perform the tightly pleasant maneuver of edging around Livy. She holds my waist from behind and whispers: "Oh, ye of little faith."

The Cold Hole sparkles like a diamond on brown velvet, a pristine world in the midst of decay. The swamp must have risen over the years, its edge creeping ever nearer the oil well, but our spring-fed pool is where it always was. You just have to work a little harder to find it. Livy points high into the trees, and I follow her line of sight. Even the diving platform has survived, though damaged by the growth of the cypress. Once we spent hours kissing and touching each other up there, quivering like dryads in the high branches.

Without warning, Livy dives off the tree trunk and swims to the foot of the ladder. She climbs four planks high, then turns and motions for me to follow. I strip to my underwear and dive after her. The climb requires the negotiation of many rotten and missing steps, but before long we are perched forty feet above the water, breathing hard and laughing. From here the pool looks translucent, bottomless, like a hole in the floor of the world.

"Do you think it's still there?" she asks.

"It can't be."

"The pool is."

"Storms the current from the spring that bottle could be a mile away by now."

She shakes her head. "It's down there in the mud and the plants. And I'm going to find it."

"Livy-"

Before I can argue, she arcs down to the pool like a falling arrow, lands dead center with scarcely a splash, and surfaces laughing. She waves and submerges again. I consider going down to help her, but I don't think she wants that. She wants to prove to me that she can find the bottle alone.

She searches with systematic diligence, diving to the bottom and probing the mud and plants in ever widening circles, surfacing for air, then diving again, her movements supple and efficient. It's like watching a Japanese pearl diver, except that Livy looks as unlike a Japanese woman as one can get. She is archetypally Western-Aryan even-like a hawk that has plummeted a thousand feet to penetrate the water and seize its prey. After fifty minutes by my watch, she surfaces and begins treading water, her face lifted to mine.

"I can't find it!"

I hold up my hands in commiseration and call down to her. "It doesn't matter. You can't resurrect the past with a bottle of wine."

She gives me an insouciant smile and dives again, so deeply that I lose sight of her. When she surfaces, she is at the edge of the pool, holding something in her hand. Not the wine. Her bathing suit. She drapes the white lycra over a cypress knee, then with a graceful roll pushes away from the stump and, floating effortlessly on her back, drifts to the center of the pool. This vision is more potent than any wine; it is my dream made flesh: Livy's hair floating in a corona around her face, her arms loose at her sides, her breasts little rose-tipped islands, her abdomen a submerged reef stretching to the rise of her pubis with its twist of burnished gold. The sight of her heats the backs of my eyes. As I gaze down, she raises a hand to block the sun and calls out:

"Don't you swim anymore?"

I scoot to the edge of the platform and drop forty feet through space, plunging deep into the pool. When I float to the surface, I find Livy treading water beside me. She splashes me playfully and says: "I really thought I could find it."

"Even if you had, it wouldn't make things like they were before. We have to talk about what happened."

She looks off through the silver cypress trunks. "I can't. Not yet." She stops treading and lies back, half floating, gazing into the hazy blue sky. "I've thought about that bottle sometimes. Over the years."

"Me too. During low times. Four o'clock in the morning, wondering if I ever made a single right choice in my life."

She seems amused by this. "Not me. I thought about it during good times. Or times that were supposed to be good. I thought about it on my wedding night."

"Your wedding night?"

She turns her head slightly, watching me as she floats. "There I was, supposed to feel some profound completion as a woman, and all I could think was that I was closing off forever an option I'd always thought I had."

"And you did."

Her eyes narrow. "You hadn't exactly made me feel wanted the last time we'd seen each other."

I look away, unwilling to explain my actions on the night of the ball without reciprocal explanations from her.

"We should have drunk that bottle twenty years ago," she says. "The extra time it would have taken might have changed everything that came after."

I shake my head, unwilling to grant her this easy revision of history. "Then I wouldn't have Annie."

For a moment she looks as though she might make some cruel remark, but her face softens. "I didn't mean it like that. We're here now. I'm not complaining." She brings herself upright in the water, flips a wet strand of hair from her eyes, then reaches out and touches my nose. "Will you do one thing?"

"What?"

"Kiss me."

Livy has given me nothing that I need, not a single answer. But I want to kiss her. Between the fatigue of treading cold water and the proximity of her naked body, I feel as though every capillary in my skin has dilated, magnifying sensation. She swims closer and slips a hand behind my neck. I lean forward and press my lips to hers, gently at first, then harder in response to her passion. Treading water is impossible now. I take a quick breath through my nose as we slide beneath the surface.

Undulating in the slow current of the spring, time is the oxygen remaining in our lungs and blood, but there is enough to remember her taste, the pressure of her breasts against me as we sink like a single creature, an incarnation of salt water, only slightly denser than the fluid surrounding us. As my chest begins to burn, I feel the soft roughness between her legs, pressing against my thigh, seeking more complete union, and I swell with unthinking eagerness. Then my lungs betray me, sending me fighting toward the shimmering surface. I smash through gasping for air, resenting the fact that I need it. Livy gently breaks the surface beside me, her neck and shoulders flushed the color of broken seashells. She pulls back her hair, then treads easily as her clear blue eyes search mine.

"I want you inside me."

I shake my head.

"I love you, Penn. I always have. I just didn't have the courage to choose you."

Her words are like needles thrust into my heart, triggering emotions too intense to withstand, much less interpret. Caitlin's warning on the plane sounds in my head: She could really mess you up-

"You don't have any right to say that, Livy."

"I know. I won't say it again. But I had to let you know."

I roll away from her and swim back to the fallen tree that leads to the shore. As I climb onto it, I turn and see her perched on the cypress knee where she left her bathing suit, slipping on the white lycra as gracefully as she does everything else.

"Where next?" she calls across the water, making no attempt to cover herself.

"I think it's time we got back."

"Home? But the day's not half over."

"I need to check on Annie."

She nods somberly. "I understand."

I turn and make my way carefully along the slippery log. For any other woman I would wait, but Livy Marston can take care of herself.

As I swing the Fiat back onto Highway 61, I realize with a dull shock that guilt is not among the torrent of emotions rushing through me. A moment's thought tells me why: my past with Livy predates my life with Sarah. Intimacy with Livy is not a new experience. It's like walking through a checkpoint to a country I visited long ago and to which I now return, older and- hopefully-wiser.

She doesn't speak as the Spyder thrums northward in the afternoon sun, but I feel her eyes upon me, trying to penetrate my thoughts. What really brought her back to Natchez? Caitlin's belief that Livy has returned to persuade me to leave her father alone is not impossible. But Livy would not declare her love for such a cynical reason. That is the one gift she's reserved through the years, if indeed she has given love to anyone. She certainly must have said the words more than a few times, probably while trying to believe them herself. But why did she want this reprise of a perfect day twenty years past? And why does she think she loves me? Is it some strange analogue of a man wanting to marry the only girl who wouldn't sleep with him?

As we pass St. Stephens Preparatory School and join the traffic heading into town, Livy touches my knee and says, "After you check on Annie, let's do something else. We still have our picnic."

Her voice is calm enough, but I sense anxiety beneath it. She is reluctant to let this day end. Tomorrow things will not be so simple. It's one thing to pretend for a few hours that we can evade the past, as this town somehow evades the future. But it will be quite another when I insist on asking the questions she didn't want to hear today. And what will happen after I tell the world that her father ordered the murder of Delano Payton? When I commence my campaign of attrition against him? How will she feel then?

"I think we've done a lot to think about already," I say evenly.

She bites her lower lip and looks away.

The whine of a siren overtakes us from behind, and I glance at the rearview mirror. Traffic is parting on the highway behind us. We're at the turn for my parents' neighborhood, so I swing right off the bypass, clearing the way.

"Penn?" Livy says, her voice tinged with fear. "Look."

A column of gray smoke is roiling out of the treetops in the distance.

"Penn, that's a fire."

I hit the accelerator hard, knowing that a neighbor could be in trouble. Most of them are older now, and it doesn't matter whose house it is: I've probably known the family all my life.

"Where is it?" she asks, her voice tight.

"Close to my parents."

I press harder on the gas, roaring up the street, with every yard becoming more afraid of something my brain does not want to consider. It couldn't be our house burning. It couldn't be.

Fifty yards from the corner, I see that it is.


CHAPTER 24 | The Quiet Game | CHAPTER 26