| Dustin Hendrick |
The boy walked alone on a gravel road, midday in mid-June. The school year had ended. His house shrank away behind him, a pale artificial green square against the softer and deeper greens and shifting brushstrokes of the surrounding trees and hayfields. His sneakers crunched as he walked, creating momentary clouds of dust that settled in his tracks. His grandmother had let his hair grow longer as summer approached. He could see it on the edge of his vision, dark brown with a reddish tint from the sun. At the end of the drive was the paved main road that separated the two pieces of his grandparents’ property on which he was allowed to roam. On the other side was an aluminum gate he always climbed instead of opening. Beyond it, another gravel road leading to places he knew well.
Some days he was joined by neighbor kids: a pair of brothers around his age and occasionally their younger sister, though she whined and threatened to tattle so often that they only included her when forced by their parents. They would invent little adventures to get lost in, grand fantasies set on alien planets, in far-off lands constructed largely from the plots of Saturday morning cartoons and movies they’d seen.
He wasn’t terribly fond of the siblings. They were easily offended and aggressive. Their parents were mean and religious and it made them mean too, and easily offended. But they were the only other kids in the spattering of farms and ranches he lived in, a collection of like-minded but socially distant country folk that formed a loose community. He would only ask them to come along if they were already riding their bikes up and down the road, a sort of invitation in itself, or if his loneliness got the better of him.
Sometimes the dogs were his company – two large, poorly disciplined farm dogs that loved him fiercely and received the same abundance of care as himself – but only if they weren’t preoccupied with other goings on of his grandparents’ sprawling cattle ranch. He liked it most when they came along. Their happy whines and constant snuffling at the ground were comforting, familiar sounds to a boy who’d spent his life surrounded by dogs. But they loved harassing cattle more than journeys with him, and he’d woken that morning to the dually familiar sounds of his grandfather issuing orders to ranch hands and the thundering of the herd being disturbed and relocated. The neighbor boys were nowhere to be seen. He was on his own that day. It didn’t bother him.
Being alone was easy enough most of the time. Most of the adults he interacted with were in their forties and fifties and beyond. It was easy for him to feel separate and unique and alone. He enjoyed conversations with adults and the praise he received for his vocabulary. His grandparents raised him well, but they were still only grandparents in place of his absent parents. Their age made them remote.
The acreage was, to him, vast, though its borders were clearly marked by graying posts and rusted fences. There were places he would only go with other kids and places he would only go alone. On this day he was headed to one of the latter: a semicircle of twisted apple trees that seemed to hold some magic in their branches, something ancient and sacred. He would sit there for hours, drawing or writing in the tiny notebook he always carried in his pocket, sleeping, singing, touching himself in ways that seemed profane in the house where he was always in potential sight of his family.
It was here, too, that he allowed himself to think about other bodies – specifically those of other boys – in ways that would also have been discouraged in the house, in ways that made him long for something he couldn’t explain and wonder if he was a real boy at all, or was perhaps something else he had yet to be told about.
When a car or truck passed on the main road between the two pieces of land, he would stand at the side of the road and stare at the driver. Often enough it was someone he knew, and they’d wave, or he would. The road was so long and empty, the land so wide that he could hear a vehicle approaching minutes before he could see it. If it was something loud like a motorcycle he’d crouch down and hide in whatever bushes or grass were nearby. His grandmother had instilled in him a fear of motorcycles and their drivers. They were invariably bad men who didn’t have kids or didn’t like them, at least.
As he left the gravel driveway and crossed the main road, he saw a square little car – light blue with out-of-state license plates – parked near the mailbox he always checked on his way home. Brilliant overhead sunlight obscured the driver.
The driver-side door opened and he considered running. He wondered if it was too late, if he was already trapped in a way he couldn’t see – perhaps a second, hidden person emerging to grab him from behind while the car and its driver distracted him. He’d heard about the disappearances of children his age on the news and in school. Policemen, armed and imposing, had come into his classroom to teach the students how to fight against would-be captors, how to draw attention and escape. It didn’t seem like a thing that could touch him at home, on land his family owned.
But the thought occurred to him in a flash of panic that he was standing on pavement. His grandparents owned the land on either side of it, but the main road was owned by no one. He was free game here.
A woman’s voice; his feet glued to the road.
Her greeting, though only a single word, held a note of either guilt or worry. He wondered if she felt bad about her role in his pending abduction. It was only after she removed her oversized sunglasses that he recognized his mother.
Fear was washed away by relief, and then confusion. So many times he had longed for her to appear out of nowhere just like this. She’d been missing for most of his life, only visiting on well-planned occasions that were supervised by his grandparents and other members of his father’s family, everyone on best behavior, pretending that nothing was wrong, nothing was unspoken, though even a child could note the strangeness of it all. Anxious eyes and voices, a palpable strain of forced joviality, his mother always leaving again at the end of the visit – even a little boy could perceive these things.
But today she was alone, this visit unplanned. This had never happened before. It seemed like a hallucination or a trick of some sort. A test devised by an adult. He said nothing.
“It’s okay, everything’s fine,” but again, a look in her eye. A tone that lingered. “I came to get you.”
“Where are we going?” the boy asked, though he didn’t much care. The day had changed shape.
She hesitated. “With me. Up north.”
He knew she lived a state away. He knew it took a day of driving to get there. He had never been there, but his grandmother had always answered the same whenever he asked her where his mother was: Up north. An impossible distance, no chance of ever reaching it.
“For how long?”
“We’ll sort it all out later, okay? It’s okay. Let’s go.”
His love for his home and his grandparents – the only real parents he’d ever known – warred with his desire to leave with her. He had dreamed of leaving before, of slipping away in the night to board some bus or train that would take him through the fog and unknown of the north to his mother, of trekking on foot through woods and plains and rushing rivers like the lost dogs and cat in the film he’d seen a hundred times who’d done the same thing to find their family.
But his home was here: cattle and dogs and empty landscapes and freedom. He wasn’t lost. This was all he knew.
“But we have to go right now, okay?” Her eyes glanced down the gravel driveway as she spoke. She stayed close to her car, her body shielded by the open door. She seemed too young to be a mother to anyone. Her hair was longer and less maintained. The bones beneath her face were sharper and more defined than his grandmother’s or his aunts’.
He got in the car. His mother pressed him her side briefly. She kissed his head and buckled him in. As the car began to move he pushed away all thoughts of how. The interior of the car was a pale brown, a calming color. It smelled of diet soda cans and cigarettes and new upholstery. He imagined his grandparents witnessing the scene from afar, too far to intervene. A figure, unfamiliar from a distance, taking their boy away in an unfamiliar car. He imagined them running after, screaming and powerless, then despairing and fearing the worst as they described the event to authorities with shiny badges and notepads who already knew what terrible things had been done to him. He’d heard bits of these horrors on the evening news, boys and girls who were never found, one boy found naked and dead in a park somewhere in his state earlier that year.
He wasn’t meant to hear that last part, he knew, but the newscaster relaying the tragedy didn’t know he could hear her from the darkness of his bedroom down the hall from the TV set. He was still too young to be given the full details of things, though he always knew they were there, beneath the gloss of his grandmother’s explanations. The volume had been turned up high because his grandfather’s hearing was bad and he refused to use an aid.
After the announcement of the dead boy, the news had played a recording of the boy’s parents seated on a brown floral print couch much like the one in his house, begging the abductor to set their son free, to bring him home. The mother had broken into ragged sobs and the father had fallen silent, face red and crumpled. The boy’s sisters had stared at their mother as she wailed, standing off to the side in awkward dresses, but the camera stayed fixed on them all. Their son was already dead, the news had said, yet the clip aired over and over.
“It’s new and scary, I know.” His mother said, nodding as she spoke.
She smiled behind her sunglasses and patted his leg with her free hand. He looked back. No one ran behind the car as it took him away.
“A lot of this will make sense later, okay?” She used okay as a balm to soothe the shock of her actions. It was unnecessary, but he nodded back. The car rolled on.
His grandparents’ ranch was situated on the rural end of an irregular eight-mile loop of road, the other side of which was a small town adjacent to the interstate that seemed massive to him. His mother had chosen the part of the loop road that ran along the river, where trees grew over the road in a half-canopy. He wondered if she chose this way for whatever obscurity those trees could provide them. He approved this decision. It was the one he would have made.
“Will they be mad?”
“Yeah. They’ll be furious.” His mother said, and offered nothing further. His grandmother would have answered no, but not his mother. She was different.
They drove in silence. Memories surfaced of himself as a toddler, waiting on the front porch of his grandparents’ house for his mother to return.
He wondered what his father would do when he found out. He only visited on occasion, too, but came and went as he pleased, with no announcement, like an uncle or a cousin, visiting with gifts and vanishing as quickly and easily as he came. He never said a word to the boy about his mother.
Sun shining through trees became a green-gold kaleidoscope as they drove in silence. He imagined his grandmother calling for him from the front porch, from the lawn, from the kitchen window. How long would she call before her tone grew desperate? How long before she called someone else?
His mother clicked a knob on the radio. A woman whose voice he’d heard many times sang about a girl named Sara. His mother sang along. She knew all the words to the song. Her singing voice was familiar too. The words in the song didn’t make sense to him, but the tone of the song seemed to echo into the moment and intensify each emotion as it sparked in his chest.
The road rolled out ahead of them, sunlit and endless. Air rushing in from half-opened windows smelled like something new. The car travelled backwards through time, out of view of the present, out of view of the fate that had separated them and back to the beginning where things could start over and his mother could stay, like she’d been meant to. If she left again, he could go with her.
In the cemetery outside of town his mother stood over a rectangular grave marker. She placed a white flower on the grave, one she’d instructed him to pick from the overgrown parking lot.
“This is your aunt,” she said, which confused him as all the aunts he knew of were living, affectionate reflections of his grandmother.
She sniffed and caught a tear with her finger as it fell from beneath her sunglasses. She saw him take notice and stopped herself. He was afraid to ask too many questions.
He left his mom to let her speak quiet sad words to the aunt beneath the gravestone. He wandered through the graves and noted how some were tall and cracked and mossy and others were only flat shiny stones set in the grass. He found himself standing in front of one about his height made of pinkish stone. Sitting on the top, as though still alive, sat a baby with wings, its hands clasped together in prayer. The dates on the front were only a few days apart, and it took him a long moment to realize an actual baby had died. He wondered if every dead child received such a grave.
His mother found him. She gave no explanation for the infant’s short life, only offering her hand and leading him back to the car.
They took the bypass road that ran alongside the town. It had been built in his lifetime, only a few years prior. He remembered when it was a field that filled with murky water and geese every spring. The little town floated by, its buildings and phone poles a mouthful of jagged, discolored teeth. It said come back but they didn’t listen. They drove on. The highway beckoned.
“We’ll stop and eat something when we get farther away.” She said.
He hadn’t thought for a moment about food, or of what would become of the life he was leaving, of his belongings, his clothes and books and toys. He began to miss the dogs, but he pushed it away. Missing the dogs would lead to missing his bedroom, then the ranch, then the fields and woods, then eventually his grandparents. It would ruin his mother’s plan, he knew, so he reduced it all to a ball at the base of his throat.
“You drove all the way here just to get me?” he asked, if only to distract himself.
“I did,” she said. Then, in a different voice: “They wouldn’t let me see you.”
“It’s complicated, honey. It’s messy. Your dad, he…someday I’ll explain it all, I promise.”
He believed that she would.
“Draw something for me.”
They sat on a splintering picnic bench in the tiny park on the river. They hid in the shade of the sign about the natives who once hunted and fished there. His mother had parked her car at the far end of the lot, as far from the road as she could get, next to the restrooms. She had given him a can of lukewarm cola, something he never got at home. But it wasn’t the kind he remembered. It wasn’t sweet at all, and the lemon taste reminded him of the spray his grandmother used to polish the furniture. He drank it anyway.
“Anything you want,” she said.
He pulled the pencil and notebook from his back pocket and immediately set about drawing a castle. It was too big to be contained on a single page of the little notebook, so he started over, designating two pages for the castle that could be torn free of the notebook and taped together to make one picture.
“What did you settle on?” she asked, after what seemed to him like hours of silence.
“Can I see?”
It was almost complete. In every window – some square, some rounded at the tops – was a figure or two. At the base of the thing, almost as though standing guard, were two dogs: one shaggy and dark, its fur colored in completely, and one spotted.
“What goes on in there?”
“The family all lives there together.”
“Just a family. They don’t have names.”
For a moment he feared he’d upset her. She said nothing, not a thing more about the drawing or his artistic skill. She stared at the grain of the table for a long moment and nodded, like someone had told her something and she agreed with them. When she looked at him again she smiled, but he could see that something had changed in the shadows and planes of her face.
The interstate loomed in the distance, a rushing vein of shiny vehicles and overpasses that stretched out of sight in both directions. They parked in the rear lot of the truck stop restaurant between a white delivery van with smiling cows on it and a low concrete wall from behind which he could see the tops of trucks as they departed. He’d been there before with his grandparents. The waitress had made him a tomato sandwich because her kids liked it, and he had too. The stopping of the car made him feel exposed and vulnerable to questions and doubts.
He felt a chill, though it was summertime and the sun still poured onto everything in sight. He looked at himself in the backward-facing mirror on his side of the car. His hair was messy from driving with the windows down. His mother’s hand appeared in the mirror, smoothing it down.
“I didn’t think this through,” she said. “I think…maybe I just wanted to see you.”
She didn’t cry, so he didn’t either. The grumbling of trucks and motorcycles and men all around them drowned out whatever emotions might have overtaken them in a quieter place.
“I don’t have anywhere I can take you. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” The boy said, because it seemed like the right thing to say.
She drove him home on the wide bypass road, across from the river road where they’d made their escape, on the other side of the fields and hills where he would spend the rest of his childhood. This road was straight and wide where the other had been thin and winding, a long fat lizard in place of a garden snake. The grass here was yellowing already, turning to straw in strange contrast to the bursting greens of the road along the river. He wished he could pull the river closer so the grass could live longer. The radio still played, but the songs were muted now by the parting to come.
The boy searched silently for some way to connect the pieces of his life into a whole. When none came to him, he drifted off, out the window and over the valley with both love and misery. He both longed for and dreaded the sight of the house at the end of the driveway, now impossibly large in his mind’s eye.
As the drive came to an end his mother slowed the car, either to keep quiet or to prolong the moment. Several times he was compelled to speak, to ask her something, to sob, to scream at her until her somber adult brain came up with a way to keep him. He kept quiet.
Finally, the mailbox at the top of the drive. It had only been a mailbox a few hours before but was now the marker of both a beginning and an end. The boy unbuckled himself and gripped the door handle.
“Hold on, I’ll drive you down to the house,” his mother said.
She sounded resigned and hopeless, like a child herself. He felt sorry for her, and responsible.
“No, stop here. No one can see us yet.”
“I can’t have them thinking you were abducted by some stranger. They might have called the cops already.”
“They won’t know if they don’t see you.” He insisted with sudden authority. It seemed disrespectful, but this was all he had to give her.
The car crackled to a halt on the side of the road. The trees on either side of his driveway still hid them from the eyes of the house. He stuck his head out the window and heard no one calling for him, no one screaming, no dogs, no policemen. But the sun was already halfway down; his absence would be noticed by now.
His mother pulled off her sunglasses and turned to look at him. Her eyes were sharp and green, and he thought she might be angry for a moment.
It was the best solution. It was the only one he could see that wouldn’t result in tears and punishment and raised voices and sadness. He knew his grandparents’ behavior toward children well. They had only softness and love for their brood – nothing hard, nothing strict. They would scold him and forgive him in the same moment. His mother knew it too.
She kissed his forehead. A knot of pain twisted its way into the area of his heart at the thought of watching her leave again. It fueled him somehow, and he got out of the car before his mother or his heart could protest. He looked both ways and then crossed the road, to the side with the long gravel driveway that would lead him home. His mother rolled down her window.
“You’re so good.” She said, and her voice broke a little. He only smiled in return, but the image of his mother in her car on the other side of the road, the sidelong sun, the sound of tires on pavement rolling out of view, it would all be recorded with enduring clarity on the backs of his eyelids for the rest of his life.
“Go home. I’ll come back, I promise.” She said and drove away. He watched her car disappear.
Halfway down the driveway he pulled off his watch. It had been a birthday present from his grandmother the year prior, though not one he had wanted – brown leather that still smelled new and silver metal that turned the skin of his wrist a strange bruised color. He wore it at his grandmother’s insistence whenever he went outside in order to keep track of when he should be home.
He wandered off the gravel tread to a collection of large rocks that stood out on the side of the drive, far enough off-road to be safe from cars and trucks passing by. He tipped the largest one on its side, nearly losing his grip from the weight of it. A rock colony, he imagined them, this one their enormous queen. The underside was dry and concave and rain in June was unlikely anyways. He placed his watch underneath and went home.
“I bet I can find it tomorrow,” he said at dinner that evening. His grandmother was especially disappointed in him – for worrying everyone by staying out so long, and for the loss of the watch. She’d cheer up the next day, though, when he came home on time, birthday watch recovered and intact. His grandfather would call him “Injun Joe” and pride him on his tracking skills.
He woke that night to his grandmother’s comforting rose scent in his bedroom. She sat on the edge of his bed, her hand on his back as he breathed. She didn’t seem to notice him waking, so he said nothing and kept his eyes shut. After a moment she sighed and left. When he opened his eyes the night seemed abnormally bright, the moon too large on the other side of his bedroom window.
As he sank back into sleep he thought of his mother, flying away again, up the interstate alone. He thought of the dogs, sleeping outside in the dark unafraid. He thought of his grandparents, asleep in their bed down the hall from his own, oblivious to how close they’d come to losing him. He thought of his watch, abandoned under the rock halfway up the drive. He would, upon retrieving it, whisper an apology to the thing and imagine it ticking a little louder at being saved.
Dustin Hendrick is the author of The Endless M (Rose Books), an autobiographical essay collection. By day he works as a script supervisor and by night he is at work on the dreaded novel. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his husband Nathan, a filmmaker. More at dustinhendrick.com.