By Brian Panowich
It’s April in Augusta and everyone who lives here knows what that means—the majestic gates of Augusta National open and our city welcomes people from all over the world to the Masters. It’s a big deal. And all of us locals are pretty proud of it. That being said, on a more personal level, this month also marks my one-year anniversary writing for Augusta magazine. April also marks the U.S. release of my second novel, Like Lions.
So it’s a pretty amazing month and I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate those two landmark events other than to give my hometown readers of Augusta magazine an exclusive advance sneak peek at the new book.
Excerpt from the forthcoming Like Lions.
Annette memorized every board in the floor. It had taken her months to get the pattern right. She knew which slats creaked and moaned when she stepped on them, so she was careful to keep her bare feet only on the few that were nailed down tight. Those particular strips of seasoned oak had become her partners in crime. She’d let them become her friends. She trusted them not to betray her. She couldn’t say the same about anyone or anything else. Still, she was cautious, because this was her first attempt to navigate the route in the dark. She counted to ten every time she eased her weight down on each of them, and stepped in a slow-motion zigzag pattern down the main hall of the house.
She passed the room shared by her two oldest boys. Maybe after tonight, the constant bickering between the two of them about who deserved the top bunk would finally stop. That thought was a small attempt at making herself feel better about what she was about to do. She leaned on the solid wood of the doorjamb—another tested accomplice in her crime— and allowed her son’s nasal breathing to break her heart just enough to steal her own breath, but not enough for her to make any sounds of her own or shed any tears. Her tears had dried up a long time ago. She placed two fingers on her lips and then gently placed the goodbye kiss on the door.
She looked down and sought out the next board in the pattern and then the next. She moved as slow and fluid as molasses. Several minutes later, she arrived at the last door on her left. She paused, quiet as a thief, feeling as though she deserved the title. She gently tucked the dollar store gym shoes she’d been holding tight into her armpit. She’d fished them out of a dumpster down in Waymore a few weeks ago on one of her un-chaperoned trips to the valley and hidden them under the bridal chest in her closet. They were men’s shoes and two sizes too big, but they would keep her feet safe from any thorns or bramble on the forest floor outside. She let her hand rest on the tarnished brass of the bedroom’s doorknob. Still moving at a snail’s pace, she took nearly a full minute to turn the knob enough for the metal tooth of the lock to clear the latch. She had oiled the hinges early yesterday morning, so the door moved without so much as a whisper. That door had also become part of her crime; she took her time inching it open. The baby was sleeping. Annette crossed the moonlit room, still careful of each practiced footfall, and watched her youngest son’s chest rise and fall in his crib. The sight of him was enough for her to find out she did still have the ability to cry. As she stood above the crib, her tears began to swell behind the dark pockets of skin that circled her eyes. She was sure they would come.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She was thinking too much. She needed to move. Moonlight shone through some curtains she’d made from an old bed sheet, and the blue light turned the baby’s rusty-red hair into shiny copper wire. She leaned in and used the back of her hand to smooth the thin strands over his fragile skull, and then quickly scooped him up in her arms and pulled him into her chest. Her movement was awkward and fast and she almost dropped one of the shoes she’d been carrying. In that moment, her heart pounded so hard it rippled through her every muscle. She stood with her eyes closed and squeezed down on the shoe between her elbow and her hip. She stayed frozen like that until she felt herself breathe again. She repositioned the shoe under her arm and held the baby tight to her as he stirred awake.
“Shhh,” she whispered with a voice barely audible. “I’ve got you.”
Comforted by the warmth and safety of his mother, the baby fell back into dream without so much as a coo. This was the only thing left to chance. It was the only thing she couldn’t plan for. Her infant son’s reaction to her could have ended it all right there, but her son, her perfect baby boy, would not be her downfall tonight. Two of her sons had already been lost to her, stolen from her. She’d watched over the years, helpless, as this place had laid claim to them. She thought that maybe when the boys got a little age on them, they would show some spark of her in them, but there was nothing. Nothing was growing inside their hearts but the same pitch-black void that had already taken her husband, his father, and so many of his family before him.
But not you. Annette, thought and cupped the infant’s fuzzy copper head.
I can still save you. We can save each other.
This column originally ran in the April 2019 issue of Augusta Magazine.
Appears in the October 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.