He was on his way home, a leisurely trip driving back roads in rural Georgia.
A sudden encounter with a young teen interrupted his trip.
He’d just completed a job, and the last thing he needed was a passenger.
Especially a kid as a passenger.
The boy looked around, then sat on the bed. The dog immediately wriggled over to him and rested his head on the boy’s thigh. Unconsciously, the boy placed his hand on the top of the dog’s head. The dog shut its eyes.
I could see indecision in the boy’s eyes and posture, and when he opened his mouth I jumped in before he could say a word. “Don’t lie. If I hear one lie, you’re out of here. You and the dog are gone. That’ll probably mean no food today. That dog deserves better. I don’t know why, but I seem to be on your side here. I won’t be if you start lying to me. And believe me, if you lie, I’ll know. I have a strange job. It might sound melodramatic, but this is true: my life frequently depends on knowing when someone’s lying. I know exactly what to listen for; what I’m hearing. That’s why I stopped you before you got started. You were about to lie. I know the signs. So, think again. You have to trust me just like I had to trust you when I picked you up. There could have been three cars waiting for me down the road, waiting to stop me and challenge me for having you in the truck, and you could have claimed I’d kidnapped you. Then, if I’d paid several grand, the charges would be dropped. I know that racket and several others. But I picked you up anyway. I trusted you. You need to do that now.”
I looked at him hard. At first, he looked down but then raised his eyes and stared back at me just as hard. The kid had spunk.
“I guess it won’t hurt. If you’re a friend of him, then it don’t matter much what I say and you’d already have turned me over. So, why not? It can’t get any worse.”
I leaned back. But I kept my eyes on him, watching his body language.
“You want the long version or the short one?”
“The one so I’ll understand why you were on the side of the road looking like all those vampires and zombies you kids read books about were descending on you. And why you don’t seem to have any idea how to get out of whatever mess you’re in.”
He frowned but then looked resigned. Kids’ body language speaks as loud as their words and is more dependable in its truthfulness.
“I told you,” he began, “my name’s Colton. Colt. Colt Haddox. I live in Fredericksville, which isn’t all that much bigger than here, and this is nothing. It’s not on the main road, however. You have to be trying to get to Fredericksville to end up there. Less than three thousand people. But it’s the county seat, believe it or not. But there are only a few more thousand people in the whole county. No big cities at all.
“Anyway, I live there because the county business is done there, and my father is the sheriff. He’s stationed there. He has deputies that drive all over the county, and Crocker Corners is in his county. That’s why I didn’t want Teddy at the desk to see me. Lot of people in the county know me. He does. If he sees me, my old man knows a minute later if he knows Dad is looking for me. Then you would be in trouble.”
“Why?” I asked. “He should be happy I helped you from what was chasing you.”
“He was what was chasing me!”
I blinked. He continued. “He and my brothers. They’re both deputies. Both dumb as sawdust. They do just what Daddy tells them to.”
“Why were they chasing you?”
He looked down, opened and then closed his mouth, then shook his head. “I don’t want to tell you.”
He again looked very much like a 14-year-old kid, not the self-assured, sometimes bossy older kid he mimicked. I couldn’t help but like this version better.
“Look, Colt. I need to know. So tell me. If as you say, things can’t get any worse, then there’s no harm in it.”
“They can get worse if you throw me out!”
He had a point. So I committed, an idiotic thing to do, but we are who we are. “Tell me the truth, tell me everything so I know what I’m facing and I won’t throw you out.”
He was silent for a spell. Then he looked me in the eyes again. “You’d better not be lying!”
I shook my head. “Nope.”
That lightened the atmosphere. He almost smiled. Then he sighed and started in. “I’m my father’s third son. After I was born, my ma left. She couldn’t handle everything that was going on. Couldn’t take him any longer, I guess. Whether she wanted to take me with her and Dad prevented that, or she didn’t want me, I don’t know. Dad wouldn’t talk about her at all, and my brothers just laughed at me whenever I asked about her.
“My father sort of runs the county. He got rich. He did it by trampling all over the poor and uneducated people in the county. He couldn’t do that all by himself, however. He needed help, and he got it. He hooked up with the circuit judge; the two of them made a pair. The judge got rich, too.
“My father put my two older brothers on his payroll as deputies. They’re both much older than I am—in their twenties. Both are fat and stupid. My father is fat, too, but not stupid. Just mean and greedy. He has no conscience.”
He stopped, and Fitz opened his eyes. He didn’t seem like a protective dog, but he seemed very alert to any change in Colt. Colt was thinking about his father, and it upset him, and the dog seemed to know.
“My father is about every ugly thing you can think of,” Colt continued. “He hates everyone who’s not just like him. He hates blacks and gays and women and Catholics and Jews and cripples and newspaper people and lawyers—just about everyone.
“I had to grow up without a mother, listening to a load of his crap every day of my life. Crap about how wonderful he was and how much smarter he was than everyone else and how people deserved what happened to them. But the worst part was when he talked so gleefully about what he’d done to all those people who had no way to fight back. He ruined a whole lot of people, people with kids, families, people who weren’t educated, weren’t powerful, didn’t know how to defend themselves against him. He’d set them up. He’d plant moonshine on their property and find it and throw them in the state pen. Or plant drugs. Then foreclose on their property, throw the families off, and buy it for pennies on the dollar. He’s very much the biggest landowner in the county by now.
“I didn’t know any better. I heard all the talk and thought he was a hero, listening to him and his version of everything he did, sitting at dinner each night when I was just a kid. He had a black woman cooking for us, and he’d call her a nigger to her face and talk about how he’d stitched up other niggers in the county real good. He liked it when she just bowed her head and said nothing. She needed the job; she had her own kids to feed.
“But as I grew older and learned more, I started to realize who he was, what he was. A bully, a thief, a con man, an evil manipulator, a real bastard. Lately, I wasn’t able to always hide what I felt when he’d get into talking about how he’d screwed someone over, often stealing all their dignity in the process. I think he noticed, because he’s started paying more attention to me.”
Colt stopped and drained his Coke. I looked outside and saw the twilight was turning to dark. “We’d better go eat,” I said. “I don’t know how late that diner stays open, a place like this. You can keep on talking in the diner.”
“I can’t go,” Colt said. “They’d recognize me. Can you bring me—uh, us—something?”
I looked at him, recognizing his position. “Sure,” I said. “Hamburger and fries?”
“Yeah, and maybe something for Fitz?”
“OK. I’ll be back as soon as. Better keep the lights off.”
When I arrived at the diner, there was a county sheriff’s car parked in front. I decided it wasn’t a problem and went in. I saw a huge deputy standing by the register, talking to some guy who looked uncomfortable. The deputy probably weighed over 300 pounds. Huge neck, rolls of fat bulging around his collar, sweat-soaked uniform shirt. I walked past them and sat at a booth.
A waitress brought me a menu and a glass of water. I was looking over the menu when I felt a presence. The deputy was standing at the end of my table, blocking my exit from the booth, looking down at me. He blocked out the rest of the room with his bulk.
His belly was lapping over his belt, and his face was red. He was in his late twenties by the looks of him. Young, but he looked mean. I could, if I tried, see some resemblance to Colt, but Colt was slim and fairly reasonable looking. This guy was florid and ugly.
“Who’re you?” he asked after I’d been looking at him for more than a glance.
I knew how I had to play this. If I showed any attitude at all, he’d be happy to show me how things were in his end of Georgia, what power he had. I knew what the legal limits of his power were, but I wasn’t sure he knew. Also, if he took it in his mind to run me in, there was the boy to think about. But this was no problem for me. I’d had to play many roles over the years, and I’d sold some awfully suspicious and cautious men on the fact I was just who I was pretending to be.
“Kent Lewis,” I said. I said it with no affect, looking away as I said it.
“What’s your business here?”
The urge to challenge him was strong, but I pushed it down. “Just driving through. Be gone early tomorrow.”
“This ain’t the main route. Nobody just drives through here. Let’s see some ID.” He stood up a little taller. To be more imposing, I guessed.
I reached into my back pocket and pulled out my wallet. I started looking through it for my driver’s license. Suddenly his hand was wrapped around it.
I knew there was nothing in the wallet that was incriminating. Just a couple hundred dollars, a driver’s license, some pictures of people I’d never met, a couple of credit cards. The name on everything that had a name was Kent Lewis. The driver’s license was from Virginia, and the address it showed was in Richmond. It showed hair: black; eyes: dark blue; age: 36; height: 6’ 2”; weight: 204. It all fit. Just the name and address weren’t true, but there was no way a deputy county sheriff down in Georgia could ever find that out. He’d be shut down way early in his quest.
I looked up at him without relinquishing the wallet for a moment, then did. I was trying to show just the right amount of intimidation. I was letting him know I was aware that his taking the wallet wasn’t legal but that I wasn’t going to make a fuss about it.
He looked at everything in the wallet, even counted the money. I thought for a moment that he might decide to pocket some of it, but he knew he was being watched by everyone in the diner. It did cross my mind that it would be good not to run across him out on the highway where it would be just him and me. That money gave him a reason to make that happen.
When he was done looking, he didn’t give the wallet back, just held on to it. “So, tell me why you’re here. That ‘just driving through’ is bullshit and we both know it.”
I shook my head and then dropped my eyes from his. “It’s true. I’m a contractor. Just finished a job down in Jacksonville for a guy I know there who hired me as a favor. Don’t have anything else scheduled for a couple of weeks, and I wanted a break, so I’m just out driving back home. Taking my time getting there. Staying off the Interstates, taking back roads. Staying in cheap motels, eating in diners. Relaxing. No worry, no hurry. That’s all I’m doing.”
He stared at me for almost a minute in silence—a long time. I guess I was supposed to get scared or anxious, and I could have looked that way, but I didn’t want to appear to be that easy a mark.
As I knew how to tell if someone was lying, I also knew how to sound like I wasn’t. And some of my story was true. Made it easier. I’d given him no reason at all to continue on with me.
Finally, he spoke. “While you’ve been ‘just driving’, you didn’t happen to see anyone along the road, did you?”
I shook my head. “No, not for a couple of days. I’ve never seen such deserted roads as there are here. Not even many cars. I only remember passing only one today—two, three hours ago, and it was going south.”
He edged closer to me. “You see a boy by the road. No shirt. Maybe a dog with him. Maybe hitching?”
I shook my head. “Nope. No one. No boy. No dog. No one.”
He studied my eyes. I kept them on his, this time.
He stood back up and dropped the wallet on the table. “You best leave real early tomorrow. No reason for you to be here. Best you don’t even stop for breakfast. Best be out of the county before I go on patrol, which is at 8 tomorrow morning. You hear me, boy?”
I noticeably swallowed as I dropped my eyes from his, then nodded, not showing any of the relief I felt when realizing he’d just solved a problem for me. “Sure thing, deputy. Leave first thing. I’ll even order a couple hamburgers right now for tomorrow morning—eat them when I’m on the road. No need to stop for breakfast.”
He gave me his hard stare, then turned around and walked to the counter and took a stool there. When he left, the waitress came back. I ordered three cheeseburgers, two with the works and the breakfast one just plain, and a large heap of fries, all to go, telling her I’d just lost my appetite and would eat when I got back to my motel room. She nodded, and I could read empathy in her eyes. Or exhaustion. They looked kind of the same.
The deputy watched when I picked up the bag of food, paid and left. I imagine he watched me all the way out of the parking lot.
Back at the motel, the room was dark and the door locked. No one was around. There weren’t even any cars there; it appeared I was the only guest that night. Not too surprising, I thought, with the paucity of cars I’d seen on the road. I wondered how the motel stayed in business.
But as I stood there, just looking around, I saw an old pickup truck drive in and park down the row a bit. A young guy got out, and a young woman, dressed like I wouldn’t want my daughter to dress if I had one, got out the other side. The guy walked over to her and put his arm around her, and she sort of half-melted into his side, her hand landing high up on his leg, and giggled.
I guessed I knew how the motel stayed in business.
When the couple was inside, neither one having glanced in my direction, consumed as they were with coming attractions, I unlocked the door and went in. The room was cool and dark, the A/C not growling so loudly now. The boy was sprawled out on the bed, an arm draped over the dog who had his head up, looking at me. The boy was asleep.
I switched on the dim ceiling light that was over the door leading into the bathroom. It didn’t throw any direct light on the boy. But there was enough; I could get a good look at him. I hadn’t really done that before.
I guessed he was average height for his age; I had no idea how tall a 14-year-old was supposed to be. His hair was a medium brown and too long. It looked like it had been cut with garden shears. It didn’t look like it was long because he favored that style. From his appearance, the boy and any sort of style had never been introduced. His hair was only one of the little things about him that said no one really paid him much attention.
He was wearing only cut-off denims and they were ragged and dirty. He was skinny but didn’t look underfed. I assumed he was active, and that kept him thin. I know I’d been skinny as a rail at that age. I guessed lots of boys were.
Every bit of skin I could see was brown, the sort of summer tan boys get when most every waking hour is spent outdoors. He wasn’t only brown; he was dirty, too. I guess if he’d spent at least some of the day in the woods and hadn’t had a shower since, that was to be expected. But he did need a shower. Now that the room had cooled and his sweat had dried, it was apparent that bathing was needed.
I switched my attention to his face. It looked OK to me. Had all the necessary working parts. He wasn’t cute nor was he ugly. It was difficult for me to call him average, either, because I had no idea what an average face would or should look like, but he wasn’t unattractive. He had a thin nose; his chin was pointy rather than round or square, but not uncommonly so. His eyes were closed, but I’d seen them when he was staring defiantly at me when he’d asked my name; they were brown. His ears were just ears. He didn’t appear to have any tats or piercings. Overall, if pressed, I’d just say he was an ordinary sort of boy. Other than his personality. That, from what I’d seen, was bigger than he was.
An ordinary boy. With a bit more spirit than most. Independent. Probably capable. And now, in some sort of trouble that he didn’t know how to resolve on his own. Probably not something he was accustomed to—being unable to work through his own troubles—from the confident way he acted.
I saw Fitz watching me. Then I saw him glance at the bag I was holding, and his nose wrinkled. I grinned.
“Hey,” I said out loud but gently, wanting to wake Colt, not scare him.
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