"I have to tell you what I found"
The cold hung on like a crick in the neck the next morning. Sudden and seizing, it was hard to ignore. The ground lay dry and crinkly. The sunlight dull and grey. A city waking up, curled into itself, already braced against the chill. Rush hour traffic inched forward, engines creaky, past skull-capped men on street corners, pink-nosed children in last year’s coats, their wrists bare. Everyone’s eyes a little bloodshot, leaky in the breeze. The first blush of a coming season, the world still turning, life continuing on. At least, Grant thought, for the scarf-wrapped people hurrying past his window at the Waffle House on Courtland, at least for the cook beside the grill. For the bus drivers, the off-duty cops directing traffic, the grinning anchors on the morning news. But it wasn’t just the first cold day from where Grant was sitting. Not after last night, not for him. Today would be the day he found Eliot.
He’d spent most of the night in this Waffle House, ordering more hash browns or raisin toast every half hour so they wouldn’t kick him out. After he had reached the wall at Oakland Cemetery and, stooping, followed it to a gate he could scale, Grant had landed on the sidewalk down Memorial with a torn shirt, bloodied knuckles, and a heartbeat he could feel in his toes. He killed an hour pacing the parking lot behind Octane before he had the courage to go back to the spot where they’d jumped over a few hours earlier, in hopes of finding his keys, his phone. He didn’t look long before the shadows scared him off, every leaf or acorn falling like a gunshot to his nerves. So he’d started walking, without his phone, without his keys, and before long, he recognized the direction he’d taken. Like any Atlantan in need of late-night sanctuary, he’d been drawn to the place where no one cared what you looked like or asked why you came.
Throughout it all—the walk, the endless cup of coffee, the raw-eyed dawn—he’d gone over the night again and again, as if re-watching a movie, hoping it might end differently this time. But the letters he’d found etched on that tombstone always made up the same words.
Around 8:30, he paid his bill and shivered onto the sidewalk, his arms pimply with the cold. The library didn’t open until 10, he remembered, but he was eager to see Jules. He hadn’t allowed himself to consider she might not be there, or what he would do if she never came. It was a short walk from Courtland—down John Wesley Dobbs, across Peachtree. He huddled under the library awning, one of a half dozen men in threadbare t-shirts, with chapped fingers and lips, glazed eyes. Pigeons pecked the slate tiles around his feet.
Not two months before, he’d been there, on a veranda, a scotch in his hand. His breath still briny from crawfish, his lips still slick. They’d all raised a glass to good fortune and lit cigars they were too drunk to finish, and when he left in the early hours, a little too wobbly to be headed toward his truck, he remembered the red balloons drooping by the mailbox, how he’d thumped one with his finger as he passed.
Grant joined the line at 9:45, bouncing on the balls of his feet to keep warm. At 10, the door opened and they began to shuffle inside. Without a bag, he skipped ahead to the turnstile and then bones brittle, his knee aching, he took the stairs two at a time.
Jules was not waiting for him on the second floor. He never really expected she would be—the library had been closed all night, after all—but still her absence made his breath scuttle in his throat.
He took a seat at a still-waking computer and typed that name into the search box faster than the screen could keep up with the keys: Allen C. Roberts. The Phoenix Group website topped the results, followed by local news articles, restaurant reviews. He tried to skip past any mention of the now-doomed Bravata, but it popped up like a switchblade on so many pages, sharp enough to puncture what was left of his hope.
Most of the magazine profiles told him what he already knew. He’d been at Allen’s table enough times for dinner, in the audience of more than one keynote speech. He’d heard the folksy stories of a red dirt childhood in rural Alabama, in a town so small, Allen joked, that it didn’t have a name. The one stoplight, the mobile library, the sprawling Sunday dinners on church grounds. Baptist parents who never spared the rod until they died in a car accident and made an orphan of their only child. The bootstraps he’d used to hoist himself out of there a few years later, go to business school, get a loan. In every interview, the same stories, a one-hit wonder on his stadium tour.
Grant took some paper from the recycling bin and a number 2 pencil from the desk, and he started working backwards, tracing the timeline of Allen’s life. Before Bravada, there’d been Drunken Noodle; before that, Kaleidoscope. The One Two in Macon. Mama Sissy’s in Ellijay. A dozen restaurants, a few boutique hotels, even a mixed-use development that never broke ground in Old Fourth Ward. Going back more pages in the Google results, Grant found a forty-year-old property record for The Phoenix Group. But no high school alumni newsletters. No guest speaking gigs at his fraternity. No “local boy made good” headline from any county paper in Alabama. Not a hint he’d even been alive before 1978. Who had he been before he became Allen Roberts? Where had he come from, and why?
“Hi again,” came a voice behind him.
He jumped up, hoping to see Jules, but it was that librarian with the smile, the one he’d met just yesterday, a lifetime ago. “Hi…,” he said.
“Right. Hi Mallory. I’m Grant.”
“I remember.” Her cheeks were red from the morning chill, warming her face, the room. “Did you find her? Your friend?”
Mallory’s eyes grew as she noticed the rip along his shirt hem, the purpling bruises on his palms. “What happened?” she reached for his arm. “Are you okay? I have some Neosporin.”
“I’m fine. It’s fine.” He tucked his hands into his back pockets, out of sight.
They stood there a second, trading smiles.
“Diving right in this morning, I see,” she said, pointing to the computer.
“Yeah, I….” Grant glanced at the screen. “Actually, do you think you could help me?”
Her cheeks beamed. “Let me just put this stuff down.”
A clamor on the stairs stopped them both. The trail of backpacked men parted, and from among them, a voice they knew emerged. “Excuse me. Sorry,” they heard her say.
Her hair was matted on one side, flecked with the powder of dead leaves, and her skin looked sallow and wrinkly, but here came Jules, alive, in one piece.
Without thinking, Grant swept her into a hug. “I was so—”
“I know,” Jules said. “Me too.”
He set her down and stepped back, scanning for injuries.
“I’m okay,” she said. “Never going to sleep in an ATM vestibule again, if I can help it, but okay.”
“Let me get you some coffee,” Mallory said, moving toward the office.
Jules shrugged off her coat and rubbed her hands, bringing them back to life, as Grant considered how to tell her about Allen. It was still just a theory, potentially a bizarre coincidence, though he knew, as if holding the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle, that it was true. But still, he wanted to be careful. Jules could be quick to action, he’d learned, and right now, they needed the patience to triple-check their harness before they jumped.
“I have some presents for you,” she said, digging into her coat pocket. From it, she held out his phone and keys.
He snatched them both. “Where did you find these?”
“Exactly where we left them. The guy must’ve dropped them as soon as he sensed trouble. I climbed out the same way we came in, and there they were.”
“You’re awesome.” Grant hugged her again and told her to sit down. “I have to tell you what I found,” he said, pressing the button on his phone to check the time.
Instead, an alert stared back at him. He’d received a text, it told him, from Allen Roberts:
Call ASAP. Have news abt your friend.