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They get past Chattanooga before 6 a.m., the boy asleep in the passenger seat, the man driving cautiously, creeping along like a man on a suspended license. It’s still dark enough for headlights.
The boy’s head is against the window, and in the velvet predawn his father thinks how much he looks like his mother from that angle. The curve of the mouth. The shape of the jaw. It’s uncanny, and he’s never noticed before.
He turns on the radio at a low volume. The boy doesn’t stir. The man tunes to public radio, hoping to catch a news report, but there’s nothing. Classical music and a hushed overnight guy narrating. He flips it back off.
By 6:30 they’re on the interstate, tiptoeing through a convoy of big rigs. The Sentra is twelve years old and needs a steering belt. Among the big trucks they’re a goldfish blundering through a hover of steelheads.
The boy feels the change in speed and opens his eyes. He looks disinterestedly at the passing semis through ringed and puffy eyes. All his father can think is how much he used to love these trucks just four years ago. Big twuck! he would shout from the foot of their driveway, pointing and hopping as though incensed by their presence. Big twuck! Big twuck!
“Are we there?” the boy asks, entranced as they creep past the turbine spin of a Freightliner’s tire.
“I don’t know.”
His father doesn’t reply because he’s not sure what they’ll do about food. He’s got better than $600 in his wallet, but they’ve got to make it last. He’s got two credit cards and a debit card, but he doesn’t dare use them. None of that matters, though, because the boy is already back asleep.
They drive on. The only sound is the drone of tires on asphalt. The man muses about the boy’s mother, his ex-wife. What she must be feeling right now.
In a few hours they’re in Arkansas, and the boy wakes up and says again, “I’m hungry.”
“Drink some water.”
The boy repeats himself uncomprehendingly. He’s encountered a broken elevator and his only recourse is to mash the call button again. “I’m hungry.”
“Okay,” the man says. “We’ll get something soon.”
“Okay,” the boy agrees, and smiles at him, and that smile melts his father into a slop sink of sad, melted butter.
They exit at a town called Wiggins. There’s a gas station and a BBQ chicken place with a dusty ceramic rooster on the roof. A police car is at the gas pump across the street, and they wait in the restaurant’s dirt parking lot for it to leave. A stray hound noses around the car. The boy wants to get out and pet it, but his father says no.
The gas station they’re looking at has a pillbox minimart, and there’s a bum propped against the cinderblock wall by the door. Probably the town bum, in a who-cares little place like this, the man thinks. A local institution. Everyone in Wiggins, Arkansas must know him. His jeans are filthy, and he lolls back against the wall as though holding it up. His torn T-shirt has a Razorbacks logo.
“Daddy, what’s wrong with that man?”
His father keeps watching. The police car is gliding away from the gas pumps now, and the unsteady bum gives it a look that is cartoonishly wary.
“He’s drunk,” the man says.
“Could be, maybe.” Except he thinks it’s probably more than a couple of Budweisers. Whiskey and pills, maybe. Something imbibed in rapid-fire combination in the loading area behind a Piggly Wiggly.
“Keith drinks beer, but it doesn’t make him look like that.”
“It might someday, if he drinks too much.”
“Keith’s beer is Coors.”
“Don’t talk about Keith.”
A minute passes. Crows root through a dumpster near the car, looking to cannibalize the scrap meats of distant cousins. The police car merges with traffic and rolls away. The bum abruptly pushes off the minimart wall and starts across the street in their direction. He sways and lists like a tall ship on a rough sea.
“How much beer makes you look like that?” his son asks.
The man recognizes the dark curiosity in the boy’s eyes. “A lot,” he says slowly, carefully. “I think it’s more about how long a time, than how much.”
The boy squints his eyes at the bum and says, “He’s old. Older than you.”
The man thinks the bum is actually a few years younger than him, that a boozy life has made 35ish look more like 55ish, but he doesn’t answer.
“He’s almost as tall as you. He kind of looks like you, daddy.”
“Yes,” the man says, and now he’s really looking at the bum, trying to visualize who he is, or was, under the mange and the clouded eyes and the addict’s misty grin. What he might look like today if he’d grown up to be a farmer, or a utility lineman, or a corporate attorney instead of a derelict. He thinks his son is correct. There is a faint resemblance beneath it all. Something around the eyes, maybe. The angle of the nose.
His mind is on the cusp of something important, but he can’t tell what. His son has handed him the blueprints of an idea, but he’s no draftsman. He struggles to make sense of it.
He hesitates, still grasping at the short hairs of whatever it was that made his brain tickle. He watches the bum now like a Fall hunter watches a strutting tom turkey cross an open field, watches as he stagger-walks across traffic, ambles past the Sentra without seeing his audience, and collapses by the dumpster behind them. The man looks in the side mirror and sees him pluck something wrapped in a paper bag from his back pocket and take a long pull.
“Let’s eat,” the man says.
The chicken place is called Dot’s Bar-Bee-Q Shack. The waitress is young and pretty, the sour woman minding the register is last generation’s model. The man asks for a seat by the window, and the girl brings them to a table in checked red-and-white formica. They sit across from each other and the boy asks for a chocolate milkshake straight away. The waitress looks skeptically at the man, who gives a slight, grudging nod.
They order eggs and toast, and the boy looks around at the knotted wood walls of the Bar-Bee-Q Shack, which are adorned with old relics. Gas station signs from extinct corporations, rust-colored farm implements, old-time kitsch from the Coca-Cola company. There’s a boy’s slingshot sitting on a fireplace mantel. A platoon of nutcracker soldiers with furry eyebrows and stern lockjaw mouths muster around the hearth.
“What’s that?” the boy asks suddenly.
The man looks back from the window, prepared to explain what a rotary phone is, or a thresher’s scythe, or a snowshoe, but instead the boy’s looking at him.
His son points. There’s a stain on the man’s sleeve. Something almost brown. A color not far removed from the stained cherry wood walls of the chicken shack.
“Oh,” the man says. “That’s nothing. I spilled ketchup last night.”
But his boy isn’t dumb. He’s six, and the man can see that he wants very much to believe his father, but his eyes are set on the stain.
“Is it blood?” he asks tentatively. He looks quiet and ashamed.
“No. I told you what it was.”
“Is it Keith’s?”
“No. Be quiet.” He looks around warily but the matron at the register is watching a morning show on TV. Three old biddies chat around a TV set living room while headlines and stock prices scroll past their knees.
“It is,” the boy says, and his eyes well immediately. “Oh, daddy, it is.”
The waitress comes back with their plates, and the man watches the boy closely but he doesn’t say a word. The tears are gone like a brief rain in the desert. He picks at his eggs in silence.
When she’s gone the man says, “It’s not Keith’s.”
His son sniffs, and in a low, miserable voice asks, “Is it mommy’s?”
It kills him. A white-hot dagger sliding between his ribs. He blinks. “No. Jesus, no. Do you think I would hurt your mother?”
“Your mom is fine. But we’ll talk about it later, okay? In the car. Is that a deal?”
“Okay,” his son says.
They eat in silence, and when they’re through the girl asks if they want pie. They don’t. The man pays with cash and leaves a forgettable tip, and they slink away like thieves.
Outside, the boy gets in the Sentra, but the man stops and looks to his right. The bum is still there, but now he’s flat on his back by the dumpster, legs going sideways and one cheek eating gravel. The bottle in the paper bag stands a quiet watch at his elbow. Something in the man’s head moves again, and he pauses and scratches it, aware it makes him look something like a country yokel in Times Square.
He holds up a finger to the boy, a wait for me gesture. The boy nods. He looks tired. The man hopes he’ll go back to sleep.
He walks back toward the bum, shoes crunching around discarded plastic bottles and curled cellophane cigarette wrappers. He hunkers down on his knees, inches from the sleeping bum, and takes a closer look.
His son was right, there is a passing resemblance. Underneath the grime and the gin blossom cheeks he can see it. The jawline strong, the eyebrows thick and arching. They’re like brothers raised by wildly different parents, he and this sot on the ground. A little tremor of hope skitters over his heart.
There’s a rectangular bulge in the bum’s hip pocket, and the man pokes at it through the soiled denim. He thinks, If this guy wakes up he’ll think I’m molesting him. He hopes the bum is as out as he appears. He leans closer at an angle so he can get his thumb and forefinger over the lip of the bum’s pocket. He feels the wallet inside, and starts to work it gently back and forth, easing it up to freedom. It’s like priming a water pump. The wallet slowly gives.
The bum’s lips part, and he mutters something that sounds like beluga. His eyes flutter, then set on him, dim and watering. The man freezes and looks back at him. There’s a decent-sized rock on the ground over there, and he quietly claws for it with his other hand.
“Whassagan?” the bum says. “Whosagan?”
“Go to sleep,” the man says softly, and he draws the rock back and gets ready.
“Yessa, yessaman,” the bum murmurs. The eyes go heavy and slide shut, and his lips part in the peaceful smile of a napping infant. When his head falls back against the ground, the man gets the wallet the rest of the way out. He sets down the rock, rises from his crouch, and returns to the car.
His son has gone back to sleep. He wonders if he should be worried. He’s sleeping a lot today, even for a kid.
He flips open the bum’s wallet. There’s no money in it. He finds crumpled business cards, a VA card, an EBT card, and a Georgia driver’s license six months expired. He looks at the photo in the corner. The bum in the picture is markedly less bummed out. The salt-and-pepper whiskers are gone, the eyes clear and set. The resemblance is undeniable. It wouldn’t be enough to fool a suspicious cop, but it would be enough to get a job, or apply for food stamps, or rent a room. It would be enough to start over.
The man in the photo is grinning, just a little, almost slyly. And there’s no reason he shouldn’t be, he’s no bum, he’s no truck stop wino. He’s… he’s…
The man reads it aloud. “Harrison Dearborn.” He frowns down at the card in his hands. “Harrison Dearborn,” he says again, dismayed because it sounds like an alias, which is precisely what it will be.
“I’m Harry,” he tries again, adding a clipped little northerner accent, for no real reason. “Harry Dearborn, nicetameetcha.”
His son opens his eyes, blinking and stupid as only naps in a hot car can make you. “What?”
“I’m Harry Dearborn,” his father says to him. “Harry Dearborn, from Decatur.”
“No you’re not,” his son says. “You’re-“
“Yes I am. I’m Harry Dearborn and you’re my son. My son Joel.”
“Joel?” The boy’s eyes go wide a moment.
“Okay.” His son sits up straight. “We’re still here,” he says.
“Not for long. Wait.”
The man exits the car, goes back to where the bum lies on his back. He picks the Georgia driver’s license out of the wallet and closes it. He’s about to drop the wallet, but he pauses, thinks about it, and gets his own wallet out of his pocket and takes out a $20. He shouldn’t do this, he thinks, they need the money. But then again maybe he ought to. Maybe it’s owed.
He stuffs the bill into the bum’s wallet and drops it on the ground beside him. Then he extracts all the IDs, all the credit cards, his own business card, and the health insurance card from his own. He fans them out in his hand, his whole life in laminated number sequences.There’s a drainage culvert by the roadside and he drops everything in half a foot of scummy rainwater and throws dead leaves over it.
The man smiles. His wallet is clean. He’s got cash and an expired Georgia license with a picture that looks close enough, and that, he thinks, is a start.
Harrison Dearborn, Harry to his friends, of Decatur, Georgia returns to the Sentra.
“Where we going, daddy?” his son asks, and he just says you’ll see.
He’ll see too.
Before they get back on the freeway he remembers his cell phone and knows he should ditch it. He pulls over to the shoulder and fishes it out of his pants. There are text messages and dozens of missed calls. The last text is an amber alert. A father wanted in connection with a murder and the kidnapping of his own son, to be considered armed and extremely dangerous. Possibly driving a maroon Nissan Sentra.
Some guy from Chattanooga.
Harrison Dearborn powers down the stranger’s phone and tosses it in the bushes on the side of a dusty highway in Wiggins, Arkansas. In ten minutes, they’re southbound again.
Jonathan Face is a software engineer from New Hampshire, USA. He is the author of the novel Catharsis, the post-apocalyptic series The Remnants, and the short story collection Odd Tales. More information can be derived from his website www.jonathanface.com or his Amazon author page https://www.amazon.com/Jonathan-Face/e/B0054R4PKK