The lit windows of Marshall’s overgrown single-wide flicker as it twitches, its whole life summary blooming and wilting in a psychedelic flash, then the dull crack of bone over the forest din. An exhausted moan and the trailer shudders again terminally.
“My dad,” Marshall says, his tattooed hand hard against the door frame, “beat my fuckin ass if I didn’t listen. Shit was fuckin beat into me, fuckin—” his big insulated rain boot smearing sandy mud on the sheet on the floor. He scoffs, thinking, “I remember one time we were fuckin installin sidin on his fuckin—on this house he had renovated over on the other side of his property there he was gonna rent out. I was 15 or somethin.” He spits on the floor. “Yeah, yeah, I’m mouthin off, fuckin—fuckin, I don wanna fuckin do this shit with him. You know, I wanna work on my fuckin truck—I drop this big fuckin piece of siding he had me carryin, tryna mouth off. Fuck you, fuck this, I’m fuckin outta here, n then,” he wants to laugh, “then—BANG!” Hands leaping, toothless grin. “The old man squared up and kicked me right in the fuckin knee! I go down like,” his voice feminine, “Ahhh, ahhh, fuck, ahhhh, fuck you—” he’s laughing. “Then the old man kicks me in the stomach, the face— shit, he stomped me out like it was a goddamn jailyard beatdown! I’m like, Fuckin look here, old man, I’m gonna fuck you up! I bounce up, take my little swing on him and boom! That was that. I woke up an hour later thinking it was next goddamn week.”
He looks over his naked wife’s lover, her boss from the restaurant, Bill, by now all bled out in an ugly heap, and is serious again. “Like I say, I learned to fuckin listen, bitch. It was fuckin beat into me, like I say, fuckin—,” he spits again. “You’re too fuckin old to learn an you ain’t but goddamn 19 years old.” He pulls his ax from her back and lets it thump on the floor and spits. “Deader n shit now, I guess.”
Marshall’s land is huge. From where his trailer sits dug out of the woods, with some rock put down for a driveway out to a county road, it unfurls gradually up and down over hills and water, heavy forest, past a dilapidated old horse stable, and up along state game lands for 65 acres. He built a big garage by the house to keep his dozer, tools, and fourwheelers, and put in a little sawmill too. From time to time he’d cut and skid logs and sell them to the bigger mill in town and buy tools or parts or a new vehicle. He built a hunting shed on the other side of the property.
In the rain, he pushes open the garage door and cuts on the light, his shadow crisp on the concrete. He backs the dozer out, drops the blade, picks up the bucket, and rolls around to the house, the tracks loudly cracking and crushing the driveway rock.
Marie’s wet hair sticks to his forearm as his kneeling thighs strain. He rolls the body onto a pile of linens he’s set down and wraps her in three sheets. He drags the leaking bundle through the kitchen and out the front door and kneels, bending the shroud into a seated position, then, hugging the chest from behind, standing it up, a delirious mummy. Crouching, he guides the drooping weight over his shoulder and carefully stands, takes a few steps and dumps the whole mess in the waiting dozer bucket, wiping his hands on his shirt. The same with Bill. Then he turns to the cleanup. He cuts carpet with a utility knife, he throws bloody oil soak pads into the bucket. Blood ran under the linoleum, into the carpet. He finds a tooth. By four, he’s mostly done; he pressure washed the floors and walls, sprayed bleach, cut out all the carpet. He’ll have to wait for daylight to take the dozer into the woods, especially with the ground so wet from the rain. By five, he’s asleep on the couch with a cigarette just burnt out in the ashtray.
A few hours later, he’s startled off the couch by a screech from the yard that’s like a defibrillator to his bare chest. Looking at the blank wall, his mind races. Beth. He kicks open the flimsy door, and chases. Beth is running screaming toward her grandfather Joe, who is idling in his brown farm truck a couple hundred feet up by the fence smoking a cigarette. Marshall overtakes her in the stone and both hit hard, and old Joe jumps out of the truck yipping and yelling in his ugly pig-squeal, “Whoa, whoa, motherfucker! Whoa!” He worked as a mechanic at a shop in town for 30 years and is dead drunk even before church, and slow to begin with, with squinty eyes and a mean, fat face. He pulls Marshall right off and doesn’t ask anything, just stands panting in front of Beth, who’s screaming about blood in the dozer bucket. Marshall, jittery, conniving, waves his hands, moving forward.
“Naw, naw, naw, that’s just a deer I was cleanin, baby,” he sputters, but Joe lands a fist like a freight train on his lip because he’s too close, and there’s blood like mist where he was standing and on the ground his tangled, lanky hide crumples up defensive, dust rising from the rock, and Joe starts kicking and stomping, adding to it. But Marshall’s been beaten worse. He rolls over and is quickly on his feet again, pale like a vampire, a little crucifix tattoo by his right eye, and a couple more, a little pentagram and other little bullets and knives, down the sides of his cheeks. Fat old Joe, too dumb to think twice, hits him again and Marshall crumples on the ground again, Joe’s ugly, hairy arms bending and crushing him as he writhes like a cut up nightcrawler. “Joe, Joe, Joe, lemme explain, Joe!”
The beater backfires.
Joe doesn’t even look, but Marshall is back in Iraq, where he got his bell rung plenty of times, leaving him with baseball stitching all over his head. He surges and pushes. Joe’s huge fist comes down once on the dirt and Marshall tries to bite at it, but Joe catches Marshall’s jaw with the other hand and palms his forehead back with all his weight. Marshall gets his hand on the utility knife still in his back pocket and gnashes his teeth as he puts it into Joe’s side, tearing a six-inch rut. Joe roars and leans on Marshall’s throat. Marshall cuts him again and his grip gets weaker. Marshall squeezes and squirms himself out some and cuts Joe’s neck deep with the razor, blood dumping like he opened a gate valve. Beth tries to pull Joe back to the truck and Marshall slithers away, is up and kicks Joe in the stomach and he falls flat onto the grass, taking Beth with him. Then Marshall is on them both with the blade.
Marshall sits exhausted on the bumper of the truck and wipes blood off his forehead. He figures he has a few days to get ahead of the cops.
Four days later, in the cab to JFK, Brian reads with brief composure as his five-year-old daughter, Kathryn, babbles and thumps a seat away, her iPod blaring. She’s off to her grandmother’s house, flying as an unaccompanied minor, for the week. Six-year-old Robert is already there. Khalilah, Brian’s wife and Robert and Kathryn’s mother, died a month ago of an undetected breast cancer that spread so quickly she only lived two months after her first biopsy. She was thirty-six. And since the burial, Brian hasn’t had time to let himself grieve, to let his forehead hit her disorganized desk like he imagined when he couldn’t concentrate. He had constant visions—grief fantasies that were effortlessly vivid but never quite played out in the physical world. The kids were always there. Robert wouldn’t sleep through the night and Kathryn could hardly be removed from her mother’s closet, where she’d disappear under Khalilah’s dangling dresses.
Next to him now she is happy, kicking her feet, her own blue dress covered in dark red and dark purple strokes of watercolor. Rose petals drifting on rippling water.
Grandma Mary, a retired social worker from West Virginia, picks up Kathryn from the Pittsburgh airport and carts her home, just southwest of the city. After lunch, they sit on a couch reading a book about a turtle that pouts. Robert hunts toads in the yard.
“What if I died right now, Gramma?” she asks, making a nasty, guttural sound and falling onto the carpet, her frizzy black hair in pigtails, cloudlet poofs, eyes closed, chest rising and falling, rising and falling, the lamplight glistening on her brown cheeks.
Kathryn’s eyes bulge.
“Don’t cry, Gramma!!” She jumps up. A replicate of Khalilah, who was herself a girl of not even forty with a terminal diagnosis like that, drinking Chardonnay from a plastic bathroom cup in the hospital room even when it made her sick, where friends and relatives came and left so filled with food and wine and laughter and heartbreak that Mary’s face hurt from laughing and crying every day. The raucous room notorious, Brian reading aloud, rendering dramatically for his audience the ridiculous descriptions of products from an upscale catalog. Mary still cries thinking of those jokes that became so outrageous; Khalilah in a valley girl accent, Chemo was like the best diet ever.
“Did Mommy cry when she was a baby?”
“Yes, she certainly did!”
“Was she… a fat baby?”
“Mmm, not so fat.”
“Do you want to see pictures?”
Mary retrieves two albums from the shelf and spreads them on her lap, Kathryn hovering.
“That’s her. So small.” Mary has seen the picture a thousand times, but this time, it’s new. “And that’s me,” she says slowly. “Very young.” Her mind totally absorbed by it, her body by Kathryn inanimate. 26 years old then, soft Khalilah in her arms, squirming.
“Why was Mommy your baby?”
“Because I gave birth to her.” She says sliding her finger under the plastic sleeve.
“And are you sad that she died of cancer?”
Outside, after dinner, as the last red sunbeam diagonal against the ground swirls with dust, and Robert is sprinting on a mission as a Navy SEAL chasing a terrorist who tried to steal the president’s gold, the sound of Marshall’s careful footstep slashes into fantasy’s silk-thin veil, the invisible world drifts gently to the ground. The forest always makes noise, especially at night, but Robert’s spent enough time here to know somebody’s there. He kneels, hidden at the base of the tree he’s circling and tries to silence his heaving chest. No other sound. Then another crack, undeniably human, rings out and Robert’s shoulders tense. He leans a little to see who’s there. Stinking Marshall is 10 meters away, covered in dried mud, his hair hardened and tangled, the denim at his ankles mudbound to his boots.
“Hey, boy, do you—” the monster starts casually.
Robert scurries into the open and Marshall is on him like an eagle, raising him, legs kicking desperately, over his sitting rucksack. He duct-tapes the boy’s mouth and zip-ties his little wrists softly and sits him in his bag, Robert’s eyes pouring hopeless tears. Marshall glances back at Mary’s house, shoulders the bag, and takes off into the woods.
Robert can feel Marshall start running with the bag closed over his head. Running running running running running running running, snapping branches scraping the bag and pricking brush poking, Marshall humping over rotten wood meal crumbling underfoot, moving faster than he’s ever moved in his life with this kind of weight on his back; fingers smeared with sap, the boy’s knees or elbows bump and dig against his spine. Marshall’s broken nails, full of dirt, breeze through leaves and branches, keeping the flying boy, small and soft, as safe from the swatting, snapping brush as he can. He splashes into the creek that Robert knows is far away, still running. A huge heron rises up, off and away, legs against the faint moon. Through the water, he hops and stomps on past rocks and back onto earth that fills with water like sponge cake. Back on the grass for a moment, they sit in the falling dark, thoughts drifting away into the forest’s thousand-part idle, a demented dream-world of clicking clock gear sounds on the wings of insect song.
Through thorns, Robert gasps again as they go farther, still running, bumping, thumping, bouncing. Marshall’s breath labored on an incline, his hands in gravel and dirt, grabbing out roots and swinging over bent and broken timber, the weight on his back swinging wide around corners. Stamping through clearings, leaving ferns and skunk cabbage trampled or swaying, termites gone insane in crumbling trunks. Dribs of moonlight on leaflet brush, smashed. The forest now totally dark. The crying boy in his bag silently sobs and seethes, rubbing his knee against the canvas, tensing and collapsing, wheezing spittle from his nose.
“You’re okay, boy,” Marshall announces, now on flat ground, marching briskly like he’s back at Fort Hood. But Robert is still crying, lost, exhausted, bootprint after bootprint after bootprint after bootprint away from his grandmother’s backyard, somewhere far away by now.
When Mary finds him, she’s going to punish him. He will inadvertently disarm her probably, she knows, imagining a headfirst hug at the bottom of the slide, a tangled pile, wheezing and wild with laughter. The smiling cherub laughs, anger wilts. Babysitters wander home bewitched. He is angelic, his late mother had confessed on the phone. The only time Mary has ever seen him cry was the morning Khalilah died. She remembers Brian nodding in his wrinkled and rolled up blue oxford and frameless glasses, speaking to the nurse in the hall. Kathryn asleep in a chair. Mary whispered to Robert to go hug Khalilah, her eyes watery, hoping she wouldn’t have to say anything more explicit. He knew and he was brave. He moved toward the bed like an astronaut on the moon, the rising sun in the window over his shoulder. But climbing onto her still chest he seized, his stunned silhouette like a Nagasaki shadow on the floor.
Then he flew like a swirling flock of starlings. Away, out the door, in all directions, away away away. Mary caught up to him, she remembers, going who-knows-where in front of a crush of yammering nurses. He saw her and gave in there, and Mary, who couldn’t lift him, knelt and clamped him to her chest as he blew apart, tears and howling; he fell backward, rigid as a board, screaming, crying. Mary was possessed: a kneeling statue, a frozen monument ennobled by proximity to him, then mother, then armor, her chameleon spirit commandeered by the fates somewhere wildly trying to control his erupting heart. Around them, gasps and whispers fluttering down like ash.
Kathryn was less out of control, but still racked to the floor, still transformed in her own way; her little body a drain cover, any hope in the room swirling down the void peering through.
Here now, a month later in the forest with a flashlight, Mary looks at the little broken sticks her grandson had been playing with. Wouldn’t he be too afraid to stay out overnight by himself? But he didn’t come back after dinner. Now it’s 10:30 and she’s pushing through branches, scanning the forest, worrying. Kathryn is a few feet off, shouting his name.
“Gramma!” she points.
In the distance, flashlights.
Inside, James cackles. A disappointed contestant shrugs off a Jeopardy! loss, and James empties a bag of Doritos into his mouth, still chuckling. What a fucking idiot! He kicks his feet wildly, rocking back and forth. It is true that James is a game show savant. He’ll go months without missing even a single Jeopardy! question. But James is also forty-three years old—without employment, without formal education—living with his adoptive mother, Mary, whom he mostly bullies and terrorizes. She wants him to find work and he has all kinds of things to say for himself. He wants to make custom furniture for a living after he finishes college, but before that, he wants to be EMT certified, and maybe join the air force or army so he can actually get into an EMT program. Maybe he will learn a language because that has practical application like, say, in the CIA, where he would consider a career if the US Government weren’t so corrupt. Or maybe as a UN translator, but the UN is such a joke, he wouldn’t work there. Maybe he could join the French Foreign Legion, except that he hates French culture and even though the Legion is mostly populated by non-French, it’s still a French thing. French fries, his favorite food, are, of course, American, and therefore mostly of sound integrity, in theory. No country is great, according to James. The Romans were a bunch of pedophiles yet too focused on civilizing the useless Germanic barbarians. It’s no surprise the Italians are a bunch of racist fools who couldn’t defend themselves now in the admittedly unlikely case that—surprise, surprise!—Germany decided to invade all these years later. You never know! What if we’re in a computer-simulated network, our bodies harvested as an energy source for some weird alien race, James frequently demanded of his mother? What then? Prove that it isn’t true, Mother! Or, who’s to say that the Federal Reserve notes you so blindly pass off as meaningful currency won’t one day become valueless as a result of subtle manipulation by still more subtle elements of the upper class? Suddenly a cubby filled with rifles and ammunition doesn’t seem so unreasonable, Mother! Suddenly all that Spam and toothpaste will be like diamonds and gold, and even more suddenly your precious 401(k) and Social Security payments will vanish into the electronic ether, Mother! Gone forever! But then again, he imagined that she’d expect a black family like theirs to survive this kind of macroeconomic seizure, this kind of end of times, where megafires burn incessantly on the horizon, and row homes in every city teeter, gutted, bombed out, if not totally eviscerated. Imagine, he would shout. Out here in the middle of nowhere! Just you and me! You expect these roving bands of marauding hillbillies to accept us? They’ll hunt us like deer, Mother!
Of course, James’ adoptive father, the late Gary Kelly, worked his whole career as an electrician, making a very respectable income at, as James would emphasize, the same, that is: one—repeat: one—company and actually bought into the whole idea of loyalty to a lumbering behemoth of American industry, which he was lured into by promises of pensions and other lazy benefits. What a joke, James thought, what a moron! Couldn’t he have invested that money more wisely himself? Now James and his mother are forced to live in this tiny little four-bedroom piece of crap! Couldn’t Dad have been more self-reliant? Taken some initiative, so that he, tormented James, and Mary the hopeless weren’t left to wallow here in rural Pennsylvania? Stifled to death by its maddening endlessness! Lost forever amongst the waddling cast of local buffoons who might as well be wearing clown shoes to work everyday, whose only conception of civilization is an interstate that blows by this bankrupt backwater! My God!
The door to his room bangs four times loudly and he rolls his eyes to it, annoyed. “… Yes?”
“James, the police are here. Come out right now! Robert has gone missing!” She’s in a panic.
“Did you even check the garage, Mother? Before you went and called the police?”
“Right now, James!”
He leans forward and off the couch, mumbling under his breath. This idiot actually called the police over this crap? Where does it end? “Mother, we don’t live in Caracas, I’m fairly sure—” he opens the door to continue his lecture.
“James, you shut your mouth right now! These police are tracking a fugitive! And they think he may have,” she bursts into tears, “Robert!”
“Have?” He turns, incredulous, looking for an officer who isn’t there for corroboration.
“He’s downstairs, James. He wants to talk to you.”
“If you think I am cooperating with these—”
From the stairs, just the sound of the officer’s radio, alive with chatter, makes James resent him. The whole thing is too authentic. This man is a real live representative of an institution, an agent of some network that has power. The police. Who even decided that they had authority over him? When did he ever agree to subjugate himself to this man’s badge and radio and uniform and fascist haircut? Why “the police”? This guy was just another moron who bought into everything he was ever told. Businesses, churches, rotary clubs. The police. Filled with these people.
“Sir, I’m Officer—”
“I bet you are.”
What was this man’s job, even? To lurch around with a radio through black people’s houses all day? Officer Jackass here, oh—what’s that? Some idiot stole a pack of Gummy Bears? Let me put on the siren! Oh—what’s that? Some cat is in a tree somewhere? Be right there!!
“…which is why we’re interested in your account—”
“Sure, uh huh, right.”
This jackass signed up for the police academy and so suddenly, he can stomp around people’s houses asking for—no, demanding—statements from perfectly innocent bystanders? What about civil rights!?? This guy! What is it, 1962?? Practically a third amendment violation, maybe. Did Mother give him quarter voluntarily? Knowing her, she probably sat him right down. Ohhhh, officer, come on in and have a seat! I’ll get my son, who is sitting in a room filled with unlicensed firearms! Why should I know any better? I’m some clueless old fool blundering my way to the grave like everybody else!
“The last time you saw your nephew was…?”
James stands abruptly and looks out the window. Robert is probably out in the cruiser twiddling his thumbs. This is an excuse for the feds to entrap James because he is the moderator of r/noworldgov, or maybe it’s for something he can’t even think of, some bit of dark web communication the NSA picked up. He never actually completed any sales to the Mexicans! All they wanted was full auto! Oh, there was a slight discrepancy in your statement, which noted that you saw the boy at 8:45 pm when he was known to be missing since 8:40 pm, so I’m going to have to dismantle the house to the foundation for “clues.” No. Completely out of the question. No.
“Excuse me, sir?”
James, posing dramatically, slowly turning his head, and, fanatically composed, he, a holy martyr—this fool before him, a goon—whispers: “Get out.”
Enter with great bluster mother Mary, who collars James and parks him at the table in a storm of badgering and head slapping. The confrontation eventually ends with a defeated James reluctantly mumbling to the officer that he’d seen Robert at dinner and that the boy had been in the yard all day. Kathryn was watching movies inside, and their father is in New York until Monday. The officer clarifies a detail about Khalilah’s death and Mary cries. James slams his door.
In his room, James is seething. What is she doing!? The police! For God’s sake, Mother! I could find him 10,000 times fas—
Wait a second. An opportunity! Civilian rescues innocent boy without police interference! A resurgent American populace demands independence from institutional slavery! Universities and businesses crumble! Governments crumble! Police forces crumble! Like the ruins of ancient Rome, the spiritual throttle these institutions have over the herd will be left in the dust as artifacts of a barbarous history! Spiritual slavery of the masses, exploded! All of them, every club and party and idiotic worldview, lost like dinosaur bones to the tar. Academics and politicians as bickering children in the backseat of history. Self-possessed James, fearless as Ahab at the helm! The spirit of man, each one, by nature, unique and individual and as-it-should-be, cannot and should not be deadened by incorporation!
He ransacks his room for equipment: rope, knife, hunting rifle with ammunition and scope, boots and gloves, matches and flint, a GPS tracker with maps and compass and protractor, freeze-dried food and bags of nuts. All of it in the bag by the bed as he ties his boots. Then, in a black jumpsuit and an all-black baseball hat, he hoists himself out the attic window onto the roof of the garage and then down to the soft grass by the driveway below. The fate of humanity falling together around him.
In a darkened cruiser on the street, Officer Wallgate organizes himself. On the radio, he’s finishing calling up his meeting with the grandmother and uncle of the lost boy when his partner, Shmee, pulls at his sleeve.
“Check out this retard,” nodding toward James’s darkened silhouette darting down the street. “Has to be your dude, right?”
“Does this dipshit really have a rifle on his back?”
The siren blares once curtly as they pull out after him. James springs left and into a neighbor’s carport. The cruiser rolls to a stop by the curb, and Wallgate hastily calls in an armed man on foot on the 300 block of Wingbreeze Drive. He and Shmee silently move on foot, nine millimeters drawn, into the carport. James is already a house away and flying toward the tree line, through the darkness, over new mulch; then his boot awkwardly stubs an invisible mound and pitches face first into an enormous ditch with dramatic ceremony.
Wallgate and Shmee come streaking in a fury across the yards toward the commotion, flashlights bumping and bouncing.
DOWN DOWN ON THE GROUND STAY DOWN ON THE GROUND DOWN!!
James complies motionlessly, totally humiliated.
The house is a complete mess, and Brian knows Khalilah would be furious. With the kids gone, he is happily having conversations out loud with her as he spends the morning cleaning and organizing, defending himself, criticizing her. Swept up in the fun of it. He holds an ongoing conversation for two hours. Then, making their bed, he accidentally quips, in response to some imaginary dig, Well, it isn’t your bed anymore, and he hears himself and the fantasy is gone.And then he cleans more frantically.
He steps outside onto the porch with a glass of Chardonnay and thinks of three sweating carafes of Chardonnay nine years earlier, a few bottles of Champagne—this was his business school cohort, still young, still glamorous. Tim Greene introduced them at a lunch with friends, together for a wedding. The server in all white rolls her eyes. Somebody knocks over a glass. The young women snap pictures, fanning hands, pointing at each other. A green puree of something cold; dearly departed bird wings, roasted, circling a ruin of beet bricks with crumbled feta, stained red here and there, sprinkled with pepper, and topped with some kind of greens. Much of it left on the table after they are back on the party bus pulling away.
Their first date, a set-up.
Dinner after the service the next night is on a huge stone balcony. Afterwards, in the gravel courtyard lit by the moon, Brian makes a pass. He wakes up alone.
Staring into the yard, his cell phone starts buzzing on the glass tabletop. It’s Mary.
Still bumping and thumping in the dark, Marshall pushes onward, following deer trails toward distant twinkling streetlights.
“You eat yet?” He barks over his shoulder, making a play at compassion. The bag doesn’t move. “I’d be madder n shit, too.” An hour later, Robert swings downward and feels what must be grass on the outside of the canvas. He hears Marshall’s footsteps, a couple thuds, and cracking wood. A minute later he swoops upward, and Marshall’s back to walking. But his footsteps sound different. Robert can tell they’re inside.
Robert’s eyelashes flutter as the hallway light finds his forehead and cheeks as Marshall opens the bag. He tries to kick and push away. Marshall pulls him out of the bag easily.
“Stop,” Marshall snaps, pushing Robert onto his stomach and putting another zip tie around his ankles. “I can take the tape off so you can eat,” he scolds. Robert is still crying, resisting, trying to roll away on the carpet, so Marshall grabs his face hard; the boy’s eyes widen. “But it’s gonna hurt.” He’s overwhelmed and continues to squirm and cry, so Marshall puts him back in the bag, ties the cover shut, and goes to shower.
The kicking bag tips and muffled crying fills the hall.
In the kitchen downstairs, Marshall drinks water from the faucet and loads bottles and cans of soup into pockets on the outside of his bag. He pulls white meat from a leftover chicken carcass wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator. He eats chips and cereal and slurps Coke from a can. Impulsively, he starts out of the room toward a bathroom. Robert is sitting bound on the floor. He hears a door swing open and a girl scream, terrorized.
“Stay calm, Jessie,” Marshall, standing shocked in the doorway of the bathroom where the teenage girl had been hiding, can hear the operator say from her lit iPhone. “Two cars just arrived.”
James sits in a holding cell at the tiny police station. He’s been here now for three hours, abandoned by his mother and family, this time explicitly. This time it isn’t just left to inference like it has been historically. There is no talking around it this time—oh, the innumerable and humiliating (for them) episodes of the past! As a child, left to engage on his own the line-toeing automata that were in charge of his every breath from 7:30 am to 3:30 pm for 12 years. His mother—specifically—could avoid entering the fray by claiming that a teacher had his best interest at heart. Yes, Mother, of course that’s what they say! That this is their profession. Yes, Mother, to herd cattle through fence posts! That it’s natural for little boys to resist instruction. At all costs! And that the sudden death of his father had somehow made him extra sensitive. Speculation! Or the case of the outrageous overreach of the bank teller who questioned the legitimacy of his signature; the hubris of his manager at the movie theatre who demanded that he tolerate insolence from customers in good faith; the blatantly rigged testing procedures at the DMV were, to her, standard, to her, normal, to her, what everyone else has to do! And so, is it really any surprise that yet again she cowers at an opportunity like this? To overthrow any and all systems! This twinkling opportunity now tottering away in the slow water, away, away, every second away! Were she to seize it and sing! Even she, of hopelessly corrupted constitution, who radiates feebleness and infirmity of spirit like a raging warehouse fire, could sheepishly bah the right notes into a masterpiece of resistance! The act would only be further imbued with nobility by the very desperate weakness of her character!
Oh, what torture. Every minute like finger to the eye. What agony. James paces furiously, like a lit bottle rocket tied down by a four-inch string, manic for the moon, damned to this cell. And what next? Do they expect to break him by this slow roast? That he will reemerge ready to stand by the gate and wave through every atrocity-to-virtue that comes down the pike?
He inspects the steel bars at the window, the frame completely ensconced in concrete, fuming. She’s probably throwing a celebration at the house! To commemorate this fumbled botch! The fool! He puts his hands on the bars and pulls. His only hope is to get through the concrete somehow. Or even easier still would be to wear down the concrete around the steel frame and then remove it completely. Ignoramuses cruising the hallways pointing out nonsense, courtiers at the castle of ignorance! He rubs his finger along the concrete; it’s smooth. Impossible to wear down, but he’s not convinced. He rubs hard with the tips of his fingers until it burns the skin. He grabs at the frame of his bed—for God’s sake, Mother!—in a growing rage, but it’s bolted. He tries his shoe, he tries—you fool!—his tooth, pounding and kicking, more rubbing, more kicking, but it remains unchanged. He kicks the wall so hard that his toe cracks and he bellows in pain. Touching the dishes and cups with their filthy hands, for God’s sake, you idiot! A young officer at the door watches now. James thrashes and curses at the wall, punching it, his body being burned by a white dot of flaming hatred as if he is being fried under a magnifying glass, his mind now completely deranged, completely unhinged, no longer merely determined; his inhibition a plastic grocery bag lost to the hurricane winds of his desperation (Who are these people!?). Swatting at the wall and spitting, summoning life force to overwhelm it, barking nonsense, arching his back before running at it and bouncing off and running again with his shoulder forward. The young man outside the door, the only officer in the very small station now that the search for the fugitive has been merged with the search for missing boy, leans in.
“Hey, pal, someone just posted bail so you might as well hurt yourself at home so I don’t have to do a sworn statement and all.”
Mary’s house glows. She sits outside, staring into the shaggy trees from the porch, the warm breeze like an unplugged fan still turning; seconds ago resisting flickering worry like Joan of Arc chained to the stake, now consumed. The whole house consumed, the whole planet consumed. Her horrified imagination conjuring hysterical possibilities. Brian trapped in New York, probably pacing right out of his shoes. And then there’s little Robert. She imagines him lost in the woods. She imagines him face down in the water.
Inside, the smell of dinner still lingers when she goes in for the night, and the smell of it exhumes her spirits. Even though it’s an illusion, she cherishes it and loves it and wants to believe that it’s a big hug from Khalilah. The smell of it as the ghost of clever Khalilah, who, if in charge of such things from above, would have deployed that kind of meal to fruition in the animal-world below, where smells and tastes can tranquilize an anxious knee or tapping fingertip.
Ungrateful, James had stomped straight up to his room without a word to her. But what did she expect? He mumbled to himself the whole car ride home like a crazy person. She’s seen him like this before.
She stares at the ceiling from her sheets and imagines herself too big for the house, a lonely giant, the only person on earth, lying in the grass, then swimming out to the Moon, beyond, a kick off of Saturn, her milky wake among the stars.
A silent hour passes through the house, and then the phone rings.
James, of course, was aware of the development some minutes before Mary was notified. His mind still a screaming kettle, he has been hyper-actively monitoring the local police scanner over the internet, continuously refreshing the various local news stations’ Twitter accounts. He knows Robert is probably at a house only 15.7 miles away by car, according to Google Maps, with another hostage maybe. Police aren’t saying anything publicly, but over the radio they say they’re starting to set up a cordon around a house as James pulls on his boots. He’s bounding down the stairs when the house phone rings. He rushes out the door and pulls out of the driveway; blabbering lunacies, without headlights, racing into the darkness.
Marshall peels back a mini blind and watches two sets of blue and red lights in disharmony. No noise. It’s too dark to know how many cops are out there, but it can’t be that many—only two cruisers. There are more police in back of the house. Robert and the girl are laid out on the couch, zip-tied. He could put a gun on one of them and come running out right now, betting that none of these local cops has the balls to take a shot at him if he has some kid slung over his shoulder. But then what? Run around in the woods for another week before the dogs find him? Before getting sick from drinking stream water? It’d be like living outside the wire in Iraq. He turns away from the window.
But not for James. He is possessed, his chest against the steering wheel as he screeches around suburban side streets. His Lincoln jumps a curb, careening through the lawn of the house on the corner, his foot so hard against the accelerator he’s almost standing. He plows through deer netting and mulch piles toward the police lights. The three cops in the front yard are totally unprepared for the speed. The car loses traction, and James slams the brakes in the sod and swerves out of control, spitting grass and dirt into the street and tail-whipping a parked cruiser. The police scatter as the cruiser is shoved into the middle of the street. Inside, Marshall’s blind hits the windowpane. James falls out of the driver’s side door onto the lawn, a liter of blood on his face and shirt, more draining out of a black gash over his left eye, chest heaving. Police bark commands as they scramble out of the gravel and grass. Marshall comes banging down the wooden steps as the screen door clatters against the frame and starts to run toward the trees; James throws himself insanely at Marshall, shouting, “I’ve got you!” and hits the turf hard, skidding to an idiotic halt near Marshall’s left foot, grabbing hold. Marshall, distracted, tries to step but can’t and loses balance badly. James pulls him down and Marshall slams his shoulder onto a concrete walkway, his collarbone cracking audibly. James roars in triumph, his knee on the back of Marshall’s defeated neck, rising arms outstretched like wings as if he is being assumed into the heavens, consciousness receding to blackness, ecstasy coursing through him, all of his urgency dissipating into the moonlit yard.
He is bowled over by a frantic policeman.
The next morning, Mary is reading to Kathryn in bed when Brian pulls into the driveway in a rental car. He almost runs through the screen door, bounds up the stairs three at a time and pushes into the room where he knows Robert is sleeping. Robert’s whimpering snore hits him like intravenous morphine. He exhales, dizzily steps backward out the doorway, and loses his strength, coming down seated onto the hallway carpet with a light bump. He wipes his forehead and breathes, looking at the ceiling, then the wall in front of him, tears blurring his sight.
Mary and Kathryn emerge from Mary’s doorway.
“I’ll go turn off your car,” Mary says.