Author’s note: Today marks the halfway point of the book! I’d like to thank everyone who has been following me so far. It’s all downhill from here… right?
Many of the other patrons also decided to go home, the whole incident with Tobias having spoiled their appetites. They left apologetically, with Henry taking the time to thank each one of them for their patronage. After the exodus had died down, Henry sidled over to the kitchen window and motioned Carter over with a conspiratorial waving of his hand. When Carter got close, Henry spoke in a low voice, so as not to be heard by the few patrons who had decided to continue their meals.
“If we have too much more excitement like this, it’s going to ruin me.”
Carter nodded, absently. Privately, he thought it might not be just Henry who would be ruined by the constant stream of excitement in Fisherman’s creek. He had noticed those diners who chose to leave eyeing him warily as they left. It seemed Tobias’ accusation was already starting to turn people against him. He was in a dangerous position, as the outsider during a time of crisis. It would be too easy for the accusatory glances to become loud, vocal condemnations, and legitimate legal accusations of wrongdoing. Sure, he had an alibi – he was working in the kitchen here at the Wanderer, and Gwen and Henry and a dozen diners could vouch for him. What he didn’t know was if they would. Carter was horribly aware of how little he really knew about Gwen and Henry, and how little they knew about him in return. Could he really count on them to back him up if the whole town turned against him? He thought he could, but as he began cleaning the kitchen, he couldn’t shake the tiniest feeling of doubt at the back of his mind. If those boys weren’t found soon – or were found dead – then there would be a town of angry, mourning people looking for someone to blame, and he thought that the need for closure could very well overwhelm the facts. All of a sudden, Carter didn’t feel very safe in Fisherman’s Creek.
Slowly, the last of the Wanderer’s patrons trickled out. From what little Carter could see through the kitchen’s service window, it looked as if Henry were doing the rounds, strongly hinting to people that they should leave. He flitted from one table to the next, shaking hands and smiling and motioning to the door. Finally, the last group left, and Henry flipped the Wanderer’s sign from ‘Open’ to ‘Closed’.
Henry called Gwen and Carter over, and sat at one of the Wanderer’s tables. He indicated for them to take a seat. When they had done so, he looked at Carter for a moment, elbows resting on the table in front of him and hands clasped together in front of his mouth as if in prayer. Finally, he spoke.
“Well, you’re fucked.”
Carter couldn’t help but bark a laugh at that. It was exactly what he was thinking, but Henry had put it so succinctly and directly into words. Beside him, Gwen was stone-faced. Henry waited for Carter to finish laughing before he continued.
“At least, you’re fucked for the next little while. People here trust Tobias. They listen to him. I know he was clearly concussed or something just now, but people won’t remember that. They’ll remember that his kid went missing, and he came in all grief-stricken and basically blamed you for it.”
Carter buried his face in his hands, rubbed at his eyes. He suddenly felt very wasted second of his previous night’s poor sleep. He spoke through his fingers, his voice slightly muffled.
“But I was here when they went missing. You guys are my alibi. Right?”
There was a moment of silence, and he looked up, just in time to catch Henry glancing at Gwen, then looking back at him.
“Yeah, of course. If cops get involved, that’ll help a lot. You’re not going to jail or anything, mate. But before that?”
Gwen drummed her fingers on the table, taking over the line of thought.
“More or less everyone in town is going to assume you had something to do with it, alibi or not. You heard Marcus the other day. We’re not exactly the most trusted people in town, you know. Henry left once, and even though he came back that makes him almost as bad as an outsider.”
Henry leaned back slightly in his chair, and looked up at the ceiling.
“Because who knows what kind of weird ideas I picked up in the city, right? In the city, people do whatever they want and they live sinful lives, so maybe I learned to be a sinner, too.”
Carter nodded. It made a certain kind of sense, at least to a community as isolated as Fisherman’s Creek. Because who would ever leave? There’d have to be something wrong with them, surely.
Gwen was absently picking at the wooden table with a chewed fingernail. Like Henry, she spoke without making eye contact with Carter.
“As for me… They don’t like me here because I try to stay out of community events.” She said the words ‘community events’ carefully, as if she had purposefully selected them over another, less savory option.
“I don’t get involved with things here. I don’t help out at harvest time. Neither does Henry. In Fisherman’s Creek, that’s pretty much like declaring yourself a proud Satanist, at least in terms of public opinion.”
There was the harvest again. What was so important that just not helping was tantamount to declaring yourself an enemy of the town?
More importantly, was it true? Carter thought that the Wanderer had seemed pretty busy for a place staffed only by the least popular people in town. And Henry always seemed to be talking to some group or another during service. Was he really that unpopular, and he had to work that hard to keep people coming back? Carter had no idea. He just wanted to sleep.
Henry stood up, grabbed a pitcher of water and three glasses, and sat down again. He began pouring water as he spoke.
“I think it’s probably best if you try not to wander around alone too much. Try to stick with me or Gwen where possible. Hopefully we’ll find those kids soon and the whole thing will blow over, but I think we all know that every hour that ticks by makes that outcome more unlikely.”
Carter took a sip of his water. Gwen cupped her hands around the glass and looked at him. He gave her a smile, to no response.
“It’s a good thing no one has figured out where you’re staying yet, so at least you can sleep easy,” Henry continued. “Just try not to keep the lights on too late, maybe.”
Carter looked out the window. The sun had set completely, and the only light outside came from a solitary street light across the road from the Wanderer. He stared at it thoughtfully.
“Do you really think I’m in that much danger?”
Gwen nodded. Henry considered the question for a moment.
“You? Maybe not. You can handle yourself in a fight, right?”
Carter nodded absently, and Henry went on.
“I’m willing to bet you don’t particularly want to fight every young guy in Fisherman’s Creek who thinks he’s a hero, though. Yeah, I do think there are some people in the Creek who might try to take a swing at you, if they really start to think you had something to do with those kids.”
Carter drained his glass.
“Yeah, probably. The guy’s kind of a religious nut. I mean, Tobias is one thing, but Marcus really takes it all to heart. I don’t think he’s got much else going on in his life. You didn’t hear me say this, but people who day consists solely of work and religion? They’re the nutters you really have to watch out for. It’s not healthy. People end up taking one of the two way too seriously.”
They sat there for a moment. Suddenly, Henry stood up.
“Well, I’m heading off, anyway. I’ll see you both tomorrow.”
He looked Carter in the eye, and Carter’s sleep deprived brain struggled to place the emotion he saw there.
“Look after yourself. Both of you.”
With that, he left the Wanderer, leaving Carter and Gwen sitting at a table, alone. There was a long, awkward silence. Carter stared at his glass.
Finally, Gwen broke the silence.
“I’m sorry about yesterday.”
Carter looked at her, disbelieving.
“For running off on you two. Seeing those animal bones kind of brought back some unpleasant memories. I should have stayed, instead of leaving you and Henry to search the woods alone. I’m sorry.”
Carter struggled to find the words he wanted. Finally, he decided to just dive into the sentence.
“You have literally nothing to be sorry for. Henry told me what happened with your friend. If I’d know that, I wouldn’t have expected you to even come out into the bush, let alone make it as far as you did.”
Gwen was looking at him, expressionless. He pressed on.
“Trauma is an incredibly powerful thing, and for you to push through yours for the sake of those kids… Gwen, that was incredible. Possibly not very smart, don’t get me wrong, but it was incredible.”
Gwen’s expression didn’t change, but Carter thought he saw the beginnings of tears in the corner of her eyes. She blinked heavily.
“Thanks, Carter. I appreciate it.”
They sat in silence for a while, before Gwen broke it again, pulling out her phone.
“I don’t really want to go home just yet. Not through the dark, anyway.”
“I’ll walk you home-“
Gwen smiled at that.
“No, it’s okay. I’ll get there. I just need a minute. Besides, after Tobias called you out tonight, I’d be more worried about you walking back here alone.”
She opened up a music app on her phone, and pressed play. The sounds of guitars and drums, played quickly, drifted up from her speakers.
“There. Now at least when we sit here not talking, like freaks, there won’t be any awkward silence. We can pretend we’re just really into the song.”