When Jenner was eight years old, his cousin Charlie disappeared into a well. The boys sat in their usual spots, the rock polished from the backsides of their cut-off jeans. Cicadas swelled in the Tuscaloosa heat, and the well stones were cooler than the air. They pitched pennies and made wishes. Their fingers were getting smarter. They could set the coins end over end like flat asteroids. The pennies rose and hovered like an inhale before descending into the blue-black gullet of the well.
“It’s hot enough to boil crawdads,” Charlie said. “Our pastor said the Bible pages turned to powder in the pews last Sunday.”
Jenner swung his legs out of the well and stood. His bladder ached. He shuffled through the indiangrass while fumbling with his zipper. “I might just write your name in piss, Charlie,” he said. “We’ve been learning cursive in school.”
He chuckled to himself and looked up into a pecan tree. In the crook of a branch was a nest with pieces of raw cotton stuffed into each crack. Jenner listened for babies, but it was too late in the season for chicks. He shook himself off and zipped up his shorts. A lazy patch of dewberries shuffled up from the ground, and Jenner plucked the only dark berry and popped it into his mouth.
When he turned back to the well, Charlie was gone. Jenner hurried to the edge and looked down, but there was only stacked stone and shale and the brackish water still and quiet. “Charlie,” he spoke down into the well.
The well had turned last summer. The sweet, piney water smelled like blood now. Like dank copper. Jenner and Charlie had been there when Uncle Charles pulled up the bucket. He’d jerked it back and forth, the ruined water sloshing onto his thick wrist. “Goddammit,” he said. Charlie’s little brother cooed loudly. “Shut that baby up,” Uncle Charles said. He pulled out his buckhorn knife and sawed through the rope, then tossed the bucket aside.
On the day Charlie disappeared, there was no wind. The tall blades of grass stood like sentries beneath the turning sun. Jenner listened carefully. No footfalls, no branches snapping beneath Charlie’s sneakers. Just tall grass too thin to conceal an eight-year-old body and the mouth of the well jutting up from the earth.
Back at the house, Uncle Charles slapped Jenner’s face hard, then shook him by the shoulders until he cried. “How could you let him fall into the well,” he said over and again. When they got to the well, Uncle Charles stared down into the blighted water, saliva dangling from his chin. Men appeared with a thick knotted rope, and Uncles Charles turned to Jenner.
“If you find him,” he said. Jenner could not bear his gaze. “Close your eyes when you find him. That’s nothing you need to see.”
Jenner’s shadow fell into the well. The men held his armpits as he swung his feet into the opening.
Uncles Charles gloomed at him, and Jenner worked his way down the knots. At the bottom of the rope was cool, dark water. It felt like the deepest part of space where there were no stars, no heat or light. “Charlie,” he said, and the sound bounced around the stone and made his ears feel full. He lowered his body down, and the water parted around him and found itself again. He looked up at the silhouettes of the men high above and swept his arm in wide arcs. Then he lowered his head into the defiled water and opened his mouth to say the name again. The water tasted like pennies, and he wanted all his wishes back.