Issue 4

Alan Drew

    “That’s where they keep the rice,” Brady’s driver said as they passed a chain-linked warehouse on the edge of Khartoum.
    From the front seat of the dusty pick-up truck Brady snapped a picture.
    “Can we stop?” he said.
    “Bad idea.” The driver pointed to a couple of soldiers standing near the fence-line, machine guns held across their chests. Both men wore reflective sunglasses that shone silver in the afternoon light.
    They were headed south to North Bahr al Ghazel where the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army still held control. Brady was on assignment for Reuters, having been called up in London while resting from a stint in Kosovo. It wasn’t enough rest, but he needed the money. The assignment: pictures for a story about the civil war’s impact on starvation. In on Tuesday, out on Saturday. The writer set him up with contacts, arranged for Johnny—a driver for Chevron that liked a little money on the side— told him where to shoot, and that was that. It was an unusual assignment for Brady; he was used to war footage, diving into the dirt with the soldiers, ducking bullets--the action. He liked the action in the same way he liked the buzz from speed, that rush, that brilliant light of adrenaline that made him feel invincible. He had a scar from a bullet hole in his right shoulder he would show people when he was drunk enough. There was still a fleck of dried blood he couldn’t clean out of the focusing grooves of his 200 millimeter.
    This assignment was quieter--a war raged further west of North Bahr el Ghazal, but he wouldn’t be going there. Environmental folly, really. Famine, oil, and politics--a bad combination for sure. Johnny explained it this way:
    “The Jellaba businessmen in Khartoum want the oil in the south, the SPLA want independence. Bullets and bombs are expensive, so they keep the aid from going down. Starve them out.” Johnny lit a cigarette and the smoke streamed out the open window. He spoke English with the halting clip of a second language. His arms were wet with sweat, and his dark skin was darker for the contrast of pale land through the window. “Of course, many villagers starve, too.”
    “Drain the water to catch the fish,” Brady said.
    “Yes, it’s like that.”
    The road paralleled the White Nile. Shanties, leaning and rusty, broke for a sight of the muddy banks--covered Muslim women washed clothes in the river, children in underwear stood in the shallows--then closed the view again with cinder, rebar, and tin. Before leaving town they stopped at a grocery. Johnny left the car running and waited while Brady ran into the store.
    “Get plenty of water, Mister,” Johnny said. “Even the devil gets thirsty down there.”

* * *

They drove all night, hugging the river into the plateau of central Sudan before turning towards the bogs in the west. It didn’t take long for the city to give way to dry; Khartoum escaped most of the drought but only by a hair. The land didn’t look worth fighting over; it was as bleached as cattle bone, as if millions of skeletons had been ground to sand and strewn towards the horizon. In the mid-afternoon light the sand was so bright Brady had to squint behind his sunglasses, but by evening the ground settled into a soft sulfur yellow and the distant glow of oil derrick lights shone like little diamonds.

    When they hit the road block the sun was down and Brady wished he had his .45. Johnny had told him to leave it at the hotel.
    “Army won’t like that,” he had said.
    He didn’t know what he would do with it, but the quickening night hinted to a darkness he had never seen before, and the soldiers, wearing army caps pulled low over their eyes, looked malignant. Johnny must have seen the tension in Brady’s face, because he turned and smiled, patting him on the shoulder.
    “Don’t worry, Mister,” he said. “I tell them you’re an oil man, and it’s no problem.”
Brady watched a soldier come towards their truck. He held a Type 56 rifle loosely in his right hand.
    “I do this all the time,” he said. “Oil men come and want a ride, I give it to him. They don’t care if you want to get killed by rebels. All money to them.”
    The soldier stuck his face in the cab of the truck. Johnny had to push his head back against the seat so that they wouldn’t butt foreheads. The man said something in Arabic Brady didn’t understand and Johnny turned on the cab light. When the soldier took off his glasses Brady could see veins in the white of his eyes. He met the man’s stare, afraid he would reveal the lie if he looked away.
   The soldier lifted his head out of the cab and asked Johnny a question.
   Johnny answered and handed him an envelope, which the soldier slid into his pants pocket.
    “Passport?” Johnny said.
    Brady fished in the bag at his feet and handed it to Johnny who handed it to the soldier. Without a word, the soldier walked back to his truck, another soldier joining him in the glare of their Toyota headlights. Once, when he was in Kosovo, he watched at a checkpoint as a Muslim family in the car just in front of him was pulled from their seats and taken to the side of the road. The Serbs forced the mother to watch as they shot her husband and son. He knew enough not to take a picture of that, but it would have been the kind of shot that made a difference, the kind of shot human rights cases and careers were built on. He was scared and he had missed it.
    The soldier came back and waved the passport in the air. He shook his head, smiled, and spoke to Johnny. Johnny seemed to politely argue until the man unbuttoned a pocket on his shirt and slipped the passport inside.
    “Okay, okay,” Johnny said, holding his left hand in the air. “When you come back,” he said to Brady.
    “When I come back?”
    “They do it this way sometimes,” Johnny said. “Don’t worry, it’s just insurance for them.”
   Johnny looked at Brady as he rolled the truck past the checkpoint.
    “Don’t worry,” he said, patting Brady’s knee. “They’re not the trouble. The trouble’s in here.” Johnny tapped his fingers against Brady’s chest and laughed.

* * *

Brady tried to sleep but couldn’t. Between oil derricks the darkness was full, like staring into a room without windows, and it was one of these spaces where he said fuck it all and dropped a pill. The next derrick exploded on the horizon like a nebula, all electric sparkle and fire tongue. He watched it without blinking until it disappeared behind them and the night swallowed it up.Through the windshield of the truck he couldn’t see any stars and he couldn’t get his bearings. He knew they were headed west, but it didn’t feel like it. It was one thing to be in a city, a village in Europe; he knew what to expect there. When the street got quiet, shutters closed, when the sound of televisions disappeared, something was going to happen. You just found a place behind a wall and waited. But something about this place unnerved him--the space, nothing but space out there, and somewhere in that space there were people starving and people letting them.

    In his wallet he kept a picture of his daughter. Held just right, he could barely make out her face in the dashboard light. She was in San Francisco with her mother, the papers signed, custody dealt. Too much worry, too many drugs, too few nights together, was what Carol had said. What she was really sick of, he knew, was the constant reminder of how shitty it was out here. When he got home from a trip he needed to talk it out, needed to show her the pictures, needed to get it out of his system. Sometimes he yelled, once he grabbed her wrist and left bruises. Only once. She wanted a school teacher, Brady thought, a business man in a suit, some pussy with his balls wrapped-up tight as a drum. On a pad of paper he began a letter to Samantha—he wrote her a letter every assignment, in case something happened. Sam, my girl, he wrote, You should see the giraffes here! They’re ten stories tall!! And the elephants have soft, watery eyes with eye-lashes like combs-teeth. No matter where I am, Sammy, I love you. Be nice to your mother. It didn’t matter that there weren’t any elephants here, no giraffes; some fictions were helpful. He folded the letter into his breast pocket and watched the constellations of oil derricks float along the horizon.
 Somewhere near four he nodded off, a half-sleep of memory and failed forgetting: a wood of vines and bones, hair on fire, a man with a hole in his chest screaming not to have his picture taken. He finally woke at dawn to a herd of skeletal cattle standing over a dry waterhole; one was licking the dirt as if that would satisfy it.
    “Almost there, Mister,” Johnny said.“Almost there.”

* * *

Above the village the sky spread like an inverted ocean. There were a dozen thatched huts situated on a rise of land overlooking what had once been a swamp but was now just cracked earth. Some of the hut’s roofs were lined with dried out palm fronds, though Brady hadn’t seen a palm tree since his hotel in Khartoum. Nothing moved.
    “Used to be alligator here,” Johnny said. “I’ll stay here. Sometime the tires disappear, ya know?” He motioned his head towards the wheels.
    Brady pulled out the Nikon and popped another pill, washing it down with water from the grocery. He felt the weight of the water bottles as he lifted the bag to his shoulders. The crisp, dry air felt as if it would catch fire with the slightest spark. He walked through the cluster of grass hovels, the smell like dry hay locked shut in a summer barn. He saw a woman coming to the door of a hut; he focused immediately and snapped a picture before he noticed the knobs of her knees, her skin pulled tight over the plates of her shoulder blades.
    The village was filled with the silence of people waiting; in huts they lay on reed mats with matchstick legs folded in fetal position, they sat beneath thorn trees, their bellies distended and shiny. He switched off the auto-focus; he didn’t need it, the subjects weren’t running or trying to hide. He turned up the aperture and slowed the shutter speed. He wanted to capture the contrast between white ground and dark skin, wanted more depth to the images, more color.

    He stood outside a hut. The high sun lit the ground with brilliant reflection that risked over-exposing the film, so he readjusted the shutter speed. Inside the darkened doorway a woman lay on a mat, her feet, stretching into the sunlight, were light on the bottom, calloused and sunburned. Her eyes, like eggs in her head, flashed at him through the darkness. Behind the hut, stretching away for miles, the sickly yellow land wavered in heat.
    Later Brady found two men sitting at a rusted card table. One man held his face in his hands, his elbows resting on the table-top. The other motioned for Brady to come. The man stood to greet him, using the shaky table to prop himself up. Brady tried to remember the Dinka word for ‘Hello’, but his heart was racing and he could only think of the English and Serbian. The man smiled but waved a fist in Brady’s face, loosening his fingers to reveal three grains of rice resting in the folds of his palm. Brady lifted the camera and snapped a picture. The man motioned to Brady to take the rice, even grabbing Brady’s hand to try to force him.
    “No,” Brady said in English, “I can’t help you.”
    Cupping the rice back in his hand, the man sat down. He looked up at Brady, said something in Dinka, and held both hands to his face like he was taking a picture. He turned an invisible camera this way and that way, pushing an imaginary button with his right index finger. He lifted the palm with the rice in it to his mouth and pretended to eat the dry grains. Then he mockingly pantomimed the camera again and looked away.
    Brady tried to get away—he needed a breath of fresh air—but on the edge of the village he was distracted by movement in the low lands of dried swamp. He had learned to recognize clues about the world that lead to a picture. In this case it was the stretching of a wing, like a yawning of feathers.
    He turned to see the bald head of a vulture bent at preening itself. It held one wing aloft, rearranged its feathers with its beak, and then tucked the wing back into its body. Then, closer to Brady, something sat doubled over in the tinder-dry weeds. At first he thought it might be a rock, but as he got closer he recognized the unusually large head, the knuckles of spine protruding through taut, leather skin. The child’s stomach was bloated and its shallow breaths seemed to stretch the ribs to the breaking point. It’s legs curled underneath its body as if snapped from the weight. He knew as soon as he saw it that this was the picture, that one shot that told the story. He bent down to find the frame, but it wasn’t right—the bird was still too far away, perched just out of the camera’s eye. “Come on, come on, come on,” he said. He waited in the sun for twenty minutes, his eye pressed against the eyepiece of the camera. He thought the child was a girl, but it was difficult to tell. It was a thought he preferred not to have. The child seemed to try to stand once, just a little flexing of wasted muscle, but sank back down. He almost set the camera down; he couldn’t stand watching much longer, but then the bird moved--three quick hops towards the child and stopped.
    The frame: the thatch-huts in the background, just a hint of them to emphasize the distance, the aloneness. Just to the left of center, high in the frame, and barely out of focus, the vulture. The blurriness giving the animal a metaphorical quality, its head turned slightly away in patient boredom. Just to the right of center and low in the frame, the child, breathing slightly, head bowed, forehead touching the earth. Straight center in the picture, the parched space between bird and child.
    The shutter flashed open, letting in all the light of the world, and condensing it into a one-inch square, then shut again. The click of the shutter seemed very loud to Brady, but then the silence crept in again. He pulled the viewfinder away from his eye and the frame was gone and the child sat there, very small beneath a magnificently large blue sky. The whole landscape crowded him, pushed on him, the heat turning into a fist. He wondered, briefly--a dangerous moment--if the child had heard the clicking of the shutter. An assignment, he remembered. The picture’s the thing. In and out.

    He ran back to the truck. He needed to run, needed to feel that rush of blood in his legs, his heart beating like a steam-engine. When Johnny saw him, he threw his cigarette out the window and started the truck.
    “What’s the matter, Mister?”
    “Let’s go,” Brady said.
    “Someone out there?”
    “No,” he said as he opened the truck door. “No. Let’s just go.”
    “You had me scared there a minute.” He laughed. “Almost pissed my pants.”

* * *

Using duct tape, Brady fastened the roll of film up in the electrical wire underneath the dashboard. They could have the other rolls, but he wasn’t about to lose this one.
    “You worry too much,” Johnny said.
   The sun was orange and broke apart in ribbons as it touched the horizon. Brady imagined it dropping into the Red Sea, spitting steam as it extinguished in the deep. Then that settling darkness fell once again, a darkness he could feel in the muscles of his body, in his blood, like it was being poured into his ear. Things were catching up to him, he could really feel it.
    To the west a fire burned, not the release fires of the derricks, but a glowing inferno that pumped orange out on the desert floor. Above were blinking beacons doing circles in the sky—helicopters, probably.
    “What’s going on?” he asked.
    Johnny looked towards the flames. “SPLA got a rig, looks like.”
   Brady watched the fire; it throbbed and burst, simmered and burst again. From here the explosions were silent and the burning rig danced across the sky with the dip and rise of the road. He was tired, tired beyond speed.
    “What the fuck’s wrong with people?” he heard himself ask Johnny.
   Johnny lit a cigarette, his face briefly illuminated in the flame.
    He laughed. “Good question,” he said. “A damn good question.”
   When they reached the roadblock, the soldiers didn’t bother with a search. The man with the passport handed it to Brady. Brady thought he smelled a whiff of aftershave on the soldier.
    “See, Mister,” Johnny said. “Not so dangerous as it seems.”

* * *

    In Khartoum, Brady sent the pictures off immediately. He picked up a bottle of Canadian Club in the hotel lobby and drank it in his room while he watched his air-conditioner window unit drip water onto the floor. At midnight he called Samantha. The phone rang four times before the machine answered.

    “Hello sweetheart,” he said. He was slurring his words but he didn’t care. “Wish I was there. It’s hot here and the Nile looks like a long, skinny swimming pool. No,” he paused. “It’s bad here, actually.”
    He would hear about that from Carol, scaring Samantha like that.
    “Okay, well, love you, Sammy-sam.”
    When he landed at Heathrow on Saturday, the photo was there on the front page of The Times staring back at him.

* * *

One hundred and thirty one papers carried the shot, and for a few weeks Brady couldn’t escape his picture. When he went grocery shopping it lay stacked in newspaper stands. It was talked about on British television. One university professor wrote into the London Times Op/Ed and called him “another vulture on the scene.” He wrote three responses to her letter, discussing ethics and photo journalism and questioning her knowledge of both, but decided he didn’t need to defend himself.
    The Washington Post nominated him for the Hirschberg Prize. He got the letter on a rainy day in London three months after the assignment, followed by a phone call of congratulations from Richard Glengrove, the Executive Editor of The Post. Within days the paper had sent over a plane ticket, hotel reservations at the Waldorf, and when the day came to fly to New York a black limo met him at the front door of his flat.
    The next evening Brady was at the university sitting on the dais beneath the neo-classical rotunda. Spread in front of him was a hall of white tablecloths, black ties, and dresses accesorized with gold. Glittering pyramids of champagne glasses rose from tables dressed with ice-sculptures, and every few seconds flashbulbs popped silver sparks.
    “It is rare,” Ian Lightman, the Executive Director of the foundation, said, “that a picture seems to capture all the anguish of a place.” He paused until the picture was projected onto a white screen behind him. It was life-sized, the child looming over the room, the vulture calm, patient. The sight of it so large shocked Brady and he felt a little muscle spasm in his temple. “But Hugh Brady’s photograph of famine stricken Sudan seemed to capture the horror of a whole continent.”
    When he rose to receive the statuette, people rose from their tables in applause. He buttoned the single button of his tailored tuxedo before stepping forward. He and the director shook hands and held a pose a moment for the cameras. Then the director left him alone, the photographer in front of the photograph having his picture taken.

* * *

Afterwards a string quartet played and men dressed in black ties balanced platters of hors d’oeuvres in the palm of their hands. He finished a glass of champagne, and someone replaced the empty glass with a full one. Later when he requested a scotch, a man brought him a single-malt on a silver tray. He met a thousand people, it seemed, all a blur of names, smiles, handshakes and praise.

    In a moment of peace, he took a solitary breath in front of the donors plaque: the Altria Group, Shell Corporation, Marcus Farber, the developer, and two-dozen more names at which he only glanced before the reporter found him.
    “How’d you get that shot?” the man said. No ‘hellos’, no introductions.
    Brady turned around, a bit drunk and eager to answer.
    He explained while the reporter took notes on a pad of paper. Brady embellished the trip a little—the soldiers searched his bag and the truck, a rebel group took a pot shot at them on the highway—but the rest, the details out the picture, Brady told straight.
    “Twenty minutes to get the frame?” the reporter said, apparently checking facts.
    “Fifteen, twenty, something like that.”
    “How can you do that?” There was something in the tone Brady didn’t like. “I mean, how can you just sit there with that happening right in front of you?”
   “Because I want it happening right in front of people over their morning coffee.” He spoke without passion, but he was seething inside.“You think most people give a damn about what happens in some far away country in Africa? They only care if they see it, if they have to face it.”
    The reporter took notes and underlined something three times. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I’m supposed to put a positive spin on this thing, talk you up, you know. The new star photographer and all that. But I think it’s shit you just left that kid there.” He paused. “I’m not the only one, either.”
    “You ever worked in the zone, man?” Brady said, but the reporter had already turned away.
    “It’s shit,” the reporter said under his breath as he walked away.
    Brady watched him go and threw back the rest of his drink, but it didn’t help. He needed another.
    On a table next to the bar, propped on an easel, was an 18x36 of the shot. Various relief organizations were accepting donations, and the picture was being used as the pitch, the sell. People wrote checks, signed petitions, not knowing that the fruits of their good will would be locked up in warehouses. A man explained the proportions of the frame to his wife, and Brady stood behind him and listened. “Look at the lines,” he said. “It’s brilliant. The thirds of space, that emptiness between the bird and the child.”
    “Sad,” she said.
    “But a fantastic shot.”
    The picture looked so unreal, like a studio shot, that it was difficult for Brady to believe he had taken it. The lines were brilliant, the composition worthy of reward, but as he stared at it he noticed, for the first time it seemed, the curvature of the child’s pelvic bone. How had he missed it before? He remembered a mass grave on the outskirts of Skopje and how the pelvic bones had looked like whale bones. Beneath the skin of the child, he could see that curve, the bump where the ligaments just held the femur in place.
    “Congrats, Hugh,” a man said.
    He didn’t know the man, but he was glad to take his hand all the same.
* * *

Late that night he called Cleveland to speak to his mother.
    “I swear I got the most applause of anybody,” he said.
    Outside it was raining, a spring thunderstorm that amplified all the lights of the city. In the center of it, though, was the park, dark and deep and stretching like a gash all the way to Harlem.
    “Hughie, you’re drunk. You know what time it is?”
    “They all stood for me,” he said.
    “That’s good, son,” she said. “It’s two AM.”

    The next morning he was hung over, but he popped a pill and it helped. He had a meeting at the New York Times where they offered him a story in Sierra Leone. People were fighting over diamonds there, the warlords recruiting children to do their killing. He would accompany Sebastian Junger, who had requested him personally. A young photographer asked for an autograph, which Brady gave willingly, his hand shaking a bit as he signed the ‘y’ of his name.
    A limousine picked him up at the hotel and through the darkened window he watched the city, all wet and glittery from the night’s rain, disappear across the river. He wanted to sleep, but the zing in his head wouldn’t let him.

* * *

There he was on the dais, clean-shaven, his tie a little crooked, a smile on his face. It wasn’t a good picture. The photographer had tried to capture him standing in front of his shot, but the angle left the child out and revealed only the bird, hovering in some pixelated distance. It was on page 24 of the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times, followed by a story which he read somewhere thirty-five thousand feet over the Atlantic.
  Hugh Brady’s photograph blurs the line between photojournalism and art, taking the visceral elements of the journalistic vocabulary and merging them with the highly conceptualized compositions of studio work. It is a cold, unflinching look into a world few people choose to consider. The child and the vulture act as metaphors for the slow wasting away of Africa while the international community looks on. This photograph does what good art does—forces the viewer to meditate on himself, to consider his role in the darkest results of apathy and inaction. Mr. Brady is to be commended for his steely, uncompromising ability to capture such unnecessary pain.
    He ordered a drink, a double, which the flight attendant brought with a smile. His throat was dry and the whiskey didn’t help.
    He read the lines again and then again, this time using a pen to underline the words. International community looks on. Apathy. Unnecessary. He glanced back at the picture, and decided it wasn’t a half-bad composition. Out the window all was blue, the blue of sky and the darker blue of water. So much space out there, so deep and empty. He heard the snap of a newspaper being opened and watched a man two seats in front of him fold over the sports page. The smiling flight attendant brought him another drink, and somewhere after the third the edge came off and he slept.
    A doctor lay on the white tile with a hole in his chest, talking, the blood pouring out with each breath, talking, but speaking in a language Brady couldn’t understand. In a dark wood of ferns and towering pine, five blue toes stuck out of the ground. A severed limb on a burned out bus. A young girl collapsed in a field stared at him, her eyes like coal rocks in her head.
    When he snapped awake the plane was coming over Greenland. Blue gave way to white cliffs, fissures, and plateaus rising into mountains of ice. The glare was so sharp that he felt little explosions in his head, and something seemed to break loose from him, some buttressing emotion that believed in sunsets and sunrises, truths and lies, love. He lowered the window shade a bit, but he couldn’t take his eyes from the view.

* * *

London enjoyed a spring heat wave, all pleated shorts and kids dancing in public fountains. The grass in the parks hinted brown, and he imagined the green going out of the trees. When he arrived home there were twelve messages on his machine. He listened to them, but none were his daughter.

    In the drawers of his desk lay hundreds of contact sheets—Kosovo, South Africa, the West Bank. He pulled them out, spread them across the floor of the office, and stood there looking down. When he found the picture he was looking for, he placed the others back into their files, and set this one on his desk. It was one of twenty-four shots, not a particularly stunning composition, so it had never been published.
    Brady came upon the scene just after the hospital had been hit, a smart bomb gone off-target the coalition forces would later report. He was a young doctor, working for a French NGO, and Brady found him bleeding from a massive shrapnel wound to the chest. When Brady pointed the camera to get the shot, the doctor screamed at him, but there was screaming everywhere and Brady didn’t understand French. He snapped the picture and was ready to take another when a nurse knocked the camera away. “Doesn’t want his picture taken,” she yelled at him in English. “Tu comprends?” Then she was down on the ground, working at the man, trying to get the bleeding to stop.
    At his desk he stared at the man’s face. The doctor’s eyes were dilated with anger. His hands, which a few moments before had been attending to patients, sewing up wounds, administering medication, perhaps setting broken bones—Brady didn’t know—were thrown to his side, soon to be helpless. Brady remembered standing there, winding the film, pushing the button, using his fingers to detach one lens and replace it with another, while others frantically attended to the injured. He circled the shot with permanent marker and left it sitting on the desk.
    Above the desk hung a world map. Red thumb tacks marked assignments he had shot, each place imploding with its own brutalities. He placed a new tack in the L of Leone and stared at the shape of the country. People were about to die and he would be there for it. He chased death, but always stayed, purposely, one step behind. An accomplice. He thought of the Dinka girl trying to stand. It was shit, Brady thought, but it was shit because the pictures didn’t change anything; they didn’t rally a cause or make people take action, no one picture of death had a greater effect on the world than the death itself. That was shit justification. The picture made you believe you cared, simply because you were witness, it allowed you cheap sympathy, as if recognition was action enough.
    Sober now, he felt that familiar urge, that coming down that demanded a coming up. He thought he would rather sit and grind his teeth away than have that feeling grow, but he didn’t want a drink, he wasn’t going for the pills.
    He unpacked and folded all his clothes back into his drawers, wrapped the tuxedo, hung it in the closet, and used a soft cloth to dust the camera lenses. He cleaned the .45, cocked it and pulled the trigger, cocked it and pulled the trigger again, then filled the chamber. Using bleach he scoured the bathroom and kitchen, getting at the rings of mildew in the drains. He swept the hardwood floors and made the bed, making sure to crease the sheet over the top of the comforter.
    He drove to a spot in Richmond, right on the Thames, where the trees were tall and the undergrowth wild. At night kids escaped into the woods to make-out, drink wine, or smoke a few, but during the day it was left deserted.
    He parked the car in sight of the river, the gray water, like melted metal going around the bend. The gun sat next to him on the passenger seat. It would only take a second, a bright flash, he thought, and then nothing—just a clean flatline that he imagined would feel smooth and clean, like blank paper before the agitator develops the image. He could almost taste the relief; it sat like cool water on the tongue. He picked up the gun and held it in his lap, curling his finger around the trigger.

    It should have been so easy, but he sat there shaking his legs, telling himself to lift his hand, when just across the river, out of the shade of the woods, two boys appeared. The younger of the two bolted up the embankment, clothes and all, and jumped into the river. When he hit the water, the splash was like an explosion of sequins in the sun. He broke the surface, screamed with pleasure, and dove under once again.
    The next boy was still wearing his pants and he quickly pulled them from his waist. He got his foot stuck in the pants leg and hopped on one leg as he tried to pull it free. In his underwear now, he returned to the edge of the woods and bent down like he was about to run a race. He was twelve, maybe, three years older than Samantha, and in the slanting sunlight Brady saw the taut strands of his shoulder muscles. The light was amazing, full of late afternoon saturation—the darkness of the woods, the warmth of the boy’s skin, the silly bleached-white underwear, and the river before him all shimmer and sparkle. Brady felt the familiar weight in his hand, and out of instinct nearly raised the metal to get the shot when he remembered it was the .45. Still watching, he set the gun on the passenger seat and crossed both arms over the steering wheel. The boy broke as fast as he could, his head down, his thin body leaning forward as if running into a strong wind. When he hit the embankment, he pushed off, setting loose a bit of dirt, and propelled himself into the air. He swung his arms and kicked his legs like the action would help him to fly, great propeller swings of fists and feet. For a moment the boy was free of everything—the heat of his clothes, the weight of his body, the depth of the water.
    It would have been such a beautiful shot.