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Dead Low Tide

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Dead Low Tide

  Dead Low Tide is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Copyright © 2012 by Bret Lott

  All rights reserved.

  Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

  RANDOM HOUSE and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Lott, Bret.

  Dead low tide: a novel / Bret Lott.

  p. cm.

  eISBN: 978-0-679-64425-5

  I. Title

  PS3562.O784D43 2012

  813′.54—dc22 2011006154


  Jacket design: theBookDesigners

  Jacket image: © Nikki Smith / Arcangel




  Title Page



  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15



  Other Books by This Author

  About the Author

  Woe to those who deeply hide their plans from the Lord,

  and whose deeds are done in a dark place,

  and they say, “Who sees us?” or “Who knows us?”

  —Isaiah 29:15

  “Hold on,” Unc whispered, warning me.

  I turned, saw him standing there at the stern and poling the jon boat in. He was only a silhouette in this dark, thin stars around him for the half-moon we had out here.

  “You hold on, old man,” I whispered, and turned, looked ahead.

  None of this was my idea.

  He knew we were almost there for how shallow he had to set that pole and give it the push. But it was me here in the bow about to toss the cinder-block anchor far as I could into the marsh, hoping I’d make it onto the dry ground past it. It was me could reach out and touch pluff mud and cordgrass on either side of us, the two of us at the head of this finger creek at dead low tide.

  Like always, it was me looking out for the two of us, because Unc is blind.

  Two-thirty in the morning, and we were where we shouldn’t be. Though a higher tide would have helped us get in a little farther, this was when Unc wanted to be here, for no other reason than two o’clock was too early, three too late.

  The cordgrass and spartina and salt-marsh hay stood silver in the moonlight, all of it crowding up on us the closer we got in, the thick rim of black pluff mud a couple feet wide beneath it. To the left and above and past the marsh I could see a house a good twenty yards in, another one to the right, back through trees and maybe fifty yards away. All I could see of that one was an outside light, a coach lamp looked like, and the dime-sized halo it cast on the brick wall it was mounted to.

  What worried me was the house to the left, the closer one. Like all the houses out here—they call them cottages, only thirty-three of them on this whole parcel of land—it was big, this one white stucco and two stories, two chimneys, a circular gravel drive out front.

  But I only knew that from when I’d seen the place in daylight. At two-thirty in the morning, and creeping in through the marsh at the back of the place, all I could make out was the white of that stucco, and the waist-high brick fence that ran alongside the whole thing almost down to this creek.

  And the light in an upstairs window somebody’d cut on a couple minutes ago. A light still on, right now.

  “Let’s go back,” I whispered. “That light’s still on.”

  We were almost there now, me already up on my knees and leaning a little farther out over the bow. I had the cinder block in both hands, the ratty nylon rope it was tied to trailing back to where I’d cleated it off, because I knew we wouldn’t be turning back. I’d been out with Unc on these efforts enough times to know once we were this close there was no going back, and now here of a sudden and yet no surprise at all was the cold stink of the pluff mud thick around me.

  “That light probably means ol’ Dupont’s nurse is up to change his diaper,” Unc whispered. “He’s got to be a hundred if he’s a day.”

  “And what if his nurse takes a look out the window, sees—”

  “Oh,” Unc let out then, the word more a solid chunk of sound than a word at all, nowhere on it a whisper, and at the same time I felt a hard shiver through the boat.

  For a second I thought we’d hit bottom, the creek shoaled in here at the head. But I knew this spot. I’d been here before, knew the bottom didn’t come up until the very end. I quick turned back at Unc, saw he was looking down and to the left, the bill of the Braves ball cap he always wore part of that silhouette now, him in profile to me.

  He’d touched something down there, had the pole up out of the water, held it with both hands like he was ready to gig a frog. And then I could feel that the jolt hadn’t meant the bottom at all, and that we were still floating free, still inching closer to that pluff mud and where I’d have to heave the block to anchor us in.

  Something’d scared him, made him flinch hard enough to shake the whole boat. That’s what it was, and even though he couldn’t see a thing he was still turned to it, ready.

  “What?” I whispered.

  “Don’t know,” he said, too fast. He lowered the tip of the pole to the water, eased it down slowly, like he was testing for something. “Thought it was a gator,” he whispered. “But I don’t think it was.” He let it down all the way, until the top of the pole was even with his chest, let it set there a second. “Something,” he whispered.

  He turned to me, said again, “Hold on.”

  And then we hit ground for certain, and here I was, shoved forward out over the bow for the pitiful bit of momentum we had going in. I let go the cinder block, tried hard to get both hands on the gunwales or on the bow itself or just somewhere, anywhere, to keep me from tipping over and into that mud.

  But it was too late, and I heard the huge aluminum donk! of the block hit the hull in the same instant I fell forward and into pluff mud to my elbows.

  We were both silent for how loud that sound was, and the way it caromed like a billiard ball one end of the world to the other out here on the water. I already had words lined up in me, pissed-off ones it was everything I had to hold back for the cold of this mud, and the stink of it, and the stupidity of falling in like this when I’d been out on jon boats my whole life. I had words for Unc, and this mission, and how none of this was my idea. I had words. But all I could do was swallow them down.

  And watch that window up there, past the marsh grass. Somebody had to have heard us. Somebody had to.

  Nothing happened. Nothing: no face at the window of that Guatemalan nurse Judge Dupont had taking care of him, or no old Dupont himself, holding close a shotgun. No turning off of the light, or turning on an outside one so’s to scare off whatever dangerous intruders these were out here. Nothing.

  And so I leaned back as best I could, pulled my arms out of the mud, and whispered “Shit!” through teeth clenched tight for holding off every other word I had.

  I held my hands out in front of me a second, looked at the pure black of them in this dark, whatever moonlight there was soaked right up in that black so that it seemed I had stubs for arms. “Shi
t,” I whispered again, though this time there was nothing for it. Just me, pissed off.

  “Nope,” Unc whispered from behind me. “Pluff mud’s only detritus. Organic material breaking down. Maybe you’d know this if you hadn’t quit college.”

  “Not funny,” I whispered. I turned toward him, made to move farther back in the boat to where I could lean over one side or the other, wash my hands off in the water, the bow set tight in that mud. “And one more time: I quit for good reason.”

  “I’m sure you did,” he whispered.

  I looked up at him, ready to spit words at him. Ready for it.

  But he was looking off to his left again, and a little behind him now. Back, I could tell, to where whatever he’d touched had been. As though he could see anything at all.

  “If it’s a gator, he’s long gone,” he whispered, “but you might ought to wait a sec before you put your arms down in that water.”

  He turned, looked down at me: that silhouette again, behind him those thin stars.

  “Thought I told you to hold on,” he whispered.

  My name is Huger Dillard. You say it YOU-gee, not like it’s spelled. When I was a kid and people would ask about it, I’d tell them I heard it was French. That’s all.

  But then I went off to college, started after what my friends used to call an edumacation. By friends I mean the ones I used to have, before my mom and I moved out of the old neighborhood and into the new one. It’s a different set I run with now, if you’d even call them a set, or if you’d call what I have to do with them running. I’m twenty-seven now, and still living at home though, like every one of us still hanging out with Mom and Pop at the ranch, I’ve got my reasons.

  And Unc isn’t my uncle. He’s my father.

  It’s complicated.

  But to my edumacation: Huger, I learned in a course called History of the South, taught by a tweedy and mildewed old professor who never once lifted his eyes from his notes to look at the class, is short for Huguenot, a fierce people who came here to Charleston from France once they’d had enough of being burned at the stake and forced to be galley slaves and whatnot because they wouldn’t lick the silk slippers of Louis XIV, Mr. Sun King himself. Back in the day, the word Huguenot meant a kind of curse on who you were and what you believed. But then it became a good thing, and meant you were a durable son of a bitch who wouldn’t put up with anything.

  Huger. It was a good name before I went off and had my go at getting schooled, and it still is.

  But it’s come to me in the six years since I’ve been back that it’s a name I don’t think I deserve anymore. Because it was this kid named Huger who chose to quit said college after two and a half years, though the word quit is a lie: my grades kicked my ass all the way from Chapel Hill to here.

  Some kid named Huger quit because he was lost up there. He wasn’t as smart as he’d led himself to believe, even with an SAT of 1510.

  And I don’t think I can live up to being an endurable son of a bitch anymore because, if you were to ask me point-blank, I’d have to tell you I actually like being twenty-seven and living at home. I like watching after Unc, taking him to whatever appointments he might have with his financial adviser, or to the bank, or out to what’s left of Hungry Neck Hunt Club on those Friday nights when we have a hunt on a Saturday. I don’t even mind hauling him out to his Thursday night poker parties at that huge orange monstrosity of a house in Mount Pleasant, though I won’t set foot in the manse for the bit of history I have between the host’s son and myself.

  It’s a big event for Unc, even though it happens every Thursday night ten to two, Thanksgiving included. A weekly opportunity for Unc and thirty or forty of his closest chums to win and/or lose up to five grand a night, if they so desire. It’s also an evening in which, because I don’t want to leave Unc alone in case he taps out early but generally because I don’t want to be at home alone with Mom, I end up sitting in the Range Rover out on the street with the other thirty or forty cars and playing solitaire on my iPhone, or feeding locations into the Maps app to see how I’d get from here to Fargo or Los Alamos or Palo Alto. Or I’ll end up just sitting there and thinking about how empty the all of this life is, and how much I am queasily enjoying it.

  Oh. And I’ll ponder, some of the time, on a girl involved with this whole maudlin malaise thing I have working. Her name’s Tabitha. She’s on a postdoc at Stanford.

  I don’t think I deserve this Huger moniker, finally, because ever since I gave up, it’s seemed a good life to do nothing other than fart my way through a day. Or a night.

  Case in point: this excursion.

  Because the truth of the whole thing, the absolute and pathetic and sorry stupid reason we were out here at the head of a finger creek backed up to a cottage in the first place, the reason for all this intrigue and mystery and worries over an old man at a window toting a shotgun or a Guatemalan nurse hot on the phone to Hanahan’s finest for the dumb metal donk! of a cinder block dropped—the truth of the whole dense and gratuitous and embarrassing thing is that we were here because Unc wanted to golf.


  And as I leaned over the gunwale, made to put these pluff mud stubs into the water to wash them off, I couldn’t help but think on my name—Huger Dillard—and how, for the life of me, I ought not to care how the hell anybody’d pronounce it.

  Here was yet another moment in the crowded long line of them—a line more crowded and longer every day—when the me I am sneaks up on me, taps me on the shoulder, then sucker punches me when I turn around, and I realize I am, at the ripe old age of twenty-seven, smack in the middle of wasting my life, living the way I do.

  This was what I had come to: sneaking Unc out to golf at two-thirty in the morning because he was too damned proud to be caught doing so in daylight.

  None of this was my idea. But here I was.

  I looked down at that water, and in the last instant before I put my hands in to start at washing off this detritus, this organic material breaking down—this shit that might as well have been me—I caught Unc’s reflection in the water.

  He stood behind me and to my left, his silhouette showing up clear and sharp for this still water at dead low tide. I could see that pole off to the side and in the water, and the bill on his ball cap, him turned from me again and looking back. I could even make out the thin wash of stars behind him. All of this in the water, and in an instant.

  I heard him take in a small breath, then whisper low, “Now what in the hell was that?” the words no louder than a breath back out, meant for nobody but himself.

  I put my hands into the water, troubled it big for how hard it was to get off this mud.

  Unc swung the club, and here came the quick whip through air, then the strike, two separate sounds that seemed even louder out here than that block on the hull. The ball made a sharp slice, the bright green dot through the night-vision goggles I had on a kind of missile peeling off to the right into the trees. No way would I be going after that one. No way.

  Night-vision goggles: AN/PVS-7D Generation 4 with an infrared illuminator. You couldn’t get these unless you were military or law. Unc knew people in both.

  “Sliced it,” I whispered. “Big.” I took in a breath, let it out in a hard sigh. “That one’s gone.”

  I sat on the fold-up camp chair we always brought with us, Unc in the tee box ten feet to my left, me facing straight ahead down the fairway so I could watch where the ball went. Like always, I felt like some Borged-up cyclops with these things on, the gear strapped onto an old yellow hard hat I picked up a year or so ago from the work site out to Hungry Neck after they’d halted building.

  It’d only taken a couple minutes to get out here once I’d gotten my hands cleaned up enough: first I’d tossed that idiot block out into the marsh grass, then’d pulled from the bottom of the jon boat the eight-foot plank we keep in there, slid it out over the bow onto solid ground. I’d picked up the camp chair in its long skinny nylon bag, and my old book bag stu
ffed with the paraphernalia we needed—six or seven balls and a few tees, the night goggles and hard hat, an old thermos of instant coffee, two beat-up travel mugs we’d bought one night years ago at the Hess station on our way out to Hungry Neck.

  Usually when we were out on the jon boat—in fact, wherever we went, boat or truck—there’d be Unc’s walking stick to bring along, too. The one I’d found for him when I was seven out on the land at Hungry Neck, Unc in bed in the single-wide we lived in back then and healing after what happened to make him blind. A stick so straight it seemed the old hickory it was off of had dropped it just for him, and that he’d used every day since. But right now it was in the kitchen back home, in the corner where the breakfast table sits, precisely where he leaves it and where he knows it’ll be when we make to head out.

  Tonight it was a golf club to grab instead, the Callaway three wood with its grip resting on the center seat. The only club Unc ever brought with us, though he had a whole set out in the garage at home, a bag of clubs cost him three grand, but this was the only one he ever used. Further evidence of the stupidity of his pride.

  Because there’s plenty of blind golfers out there. Really. There’s even a United States Blind Golf Association, and an annual world tournament—last year’s was in Dublin, Ireland, next year’s in Palm Springs. The whole thing involves a coach who’s there with you to help set up the shot, tell you where you are and distance to the hole and all else. You take the swing, wait to hear from that coach how you’d done, where it went.

  So a blind golfer’s no joke. The joke, though, is that in order to accommodate Unc and his fear of someone seeing him take crappy shots—the same crappy shots every golfer makes at every course in the world, blind or not—well, this fear of his has called for these special-ops escapades.

  The camp chair under one arm, the book bag over my shoulder, I’d leaned over, picked up the club from where it lay, stood back up. I thought to say something to him—Here we go, or Be careful, or some such rot—but I only looked at him standing at the transom.

  And now that I was standing, I’d been able to see behind him the whole of the marsh, the uneven spread of blacks and grays and silvers out here. Across it all, a good half mile away, lay a low jagged tree line, what always looked to me no matter what marsh I was on like a long line of men on horseback, watching and waiting. That was Naval Weapons Station land over there, the giant tract of woods that buffered the world against the dozens of ammo dumps they keep bunkered in there, a tract no one even dared think to sneak in on. To the left and a couple hundred yards off stood the trestle across the marsh and Goose Creek, a hulking structure that since I was a kid seemed the black backbone of some monster ready to rise up out of the water and tear us all to bits. I loved this place, loved being out here on water whether night or day, loved sometimes even the smell of that pluff mud.

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