Chapter One: Derailed
The sharp sound of ripping leather disturbed Jon’s reverie. He looked down with a start; they both did. Ay-Tal’s knee-high black leather boots had split along the inside seam. With bated breath, Jon watched as the boot started to swell, letting the gray flesh squeeze out like stringy putty between sheared strips of leather. He of course knew about the metamorphosis—the Change—but it had all been very theoretical up till now. He inhaled subtly though his nose so as not to appear rattled and then looked up and caught Ay-Tal’s eyes. This was why he was here with her, right now, on this journey home.
Jon sat across from Ay-Tal in a small but private train cabin. She was almost thirty years his senior, but he thought she was still very beautiful. There was a severity to her features: a strong chin, a slight widow’s peak, dark, thick hair cut short with a few stray grays but not too many, full lips and dark gray eyes, long face and slim figure, very light skin. In short, she was everything he wasn’t—except for her eye color. Gray eyes were common among his tribe. There didn’t seem to be a trace of Inuit in her. And yet Jon knew her tribal roots ran far deeper than his own. His own great-great-grandmother was English, he was told, one of those who came to Alaska during the Gold Rush all those years ago. Ay-Tal was pure…
“How bad?” she managed to ask. Even under duress, her voice was deep and velvety—a perfect oration organ. It had been beautifully designed by his grandfather.
Jon bent down to examine the boot. In some places, the leather polish was thicker than the remaining leather. Even with extra care and regular repair, thirty years was just too long for city boots. He hoped they would last all the way to the little village hidden on the shores of Alaska’s National Coastal Conservation Area, but one didn’t always get all that was hoped. Jon’s father had made these boots to last the duration, and now it was Jon’s job to make them endure these last four thousand miles. Seal fur with a whale hide foundation would have been more durable, but it wouldn’t have been appropriate, not for Boston, not for Washington, D.C., and certainly not in front of the Supreme Court.
He lifted Ay-Tal’s legs onto his lap for a closer inspection and grabbed his tools. Pressing the sides of the ripped leather together, he started to carefully wrap the specially made leather tape over and over the boot’s perimeter to repair the damage. He felt the pressure ease a bit; the gray flesh composed of millions of intertwining threads retreated and resumed the shape of a human leg. The repair wouldn’t last long, but perhaps long enough to get home? He pulled the hunting knife to cut the tape and scrape away the frayed edges.
“Tickets!” The compartment door slid open, and the conductor stared at Jon.
Jon looked down at Ay-Tal’s legs bound in tape and the long blade in his hand and back up at the horrified face of the conductor. Ay-Tal tried to talk; it came out like strange whalesong moan. She waved to the conductor, but her muscular control was still off, and what should have been a friendly hello turned into spasmodic jerks. She came across as terrifying even to Jon, and he understood what was going on. “It’s not what it—” he started to say.
The conductor dropped his pad and whipped a pistol from behind his back. “Stop right there!” he ordered.
Jon dropped his knife and tried to straighten out. Ay-Tal let out a loud howl, more animal than human. It would take some time before she would be able to speak again; too much of the transformation had been triggered by the ripped boot.
“Don’t move!” screamed the man.
“It’s not what it looks like,” Jon tried to explain. But he could guess what it looked like to this uniformed man: a dark-skinned man with a scar above his eye (an old hunting accident) threatening a white woman in a business suit with a big knife after binding her legs together. How could he explain it away? And Ay-Tal wasn’t helping. “Officer,” Jon tried again. “I was just trying to help Ms. Blue with her—” He reached for Ay-Tal’s legal case to pull out some documents.
A shot rang out. Jon felt Ay-Tal twitch and push his body out of the path of the bullet. With horror, he watched a hole in Ay-Tal’s chest start to pulse blood. The conductor dropped the gun, terror twisting his face. Jon sprung up and pushed the man out of the cabin, shutting the door with a click of the lock. He picked up the gun and hid it in his own waistband in the back, just like the conductor. The gun was still hot.
Jon looked at Ay-Tal’s ashen face. She was losing blood fast. She was his responsibility, his god, his reason for existence. And he owed her his life now too. He felt sick from panic. She blinked and blinked again, but then her eyes rolled back, closed, and didn’t open again.
“Aguguq take me!” Jon grabbed the knife and started to cut the boots off Ay-Tal’s feet. Cut and pull, cut and pull. It got harder with each incision. Ay-Tal’s fibrous flesh started to expand and push out again. But the bleeding ebbed and then stopped. Ay-Tal only bled in human form, Jon was told. Remove the boots, remove the humanity. That’s how his grandfather shaped her; the whole tribe had worked on finding the right form for those boots. When Jon was done cutting them off, he stood over a gray, twined blob covered in bloody clothing. Well, at least Ay-Tal was alive. It was time to get off this train.
Jon pulled down his backpack, his only piece of luggage, and grabbed Ay-Tal’s briefcase full of documents that solidified the tribe’s position on legal ownership of its land and mineral resources. Fifty years of work couldn’t end just because some white man misunderstood what he saw on the train. Gathering the synthetic blankets that came with their cabin, he wrapped Ay-Tal as securely as he could and stuffed the bloodied clothing under the seat with her suitcase. He wasn’t sure why he bothered—the place looked like a murder scene. Blood everywhere…
With the backpack on, Jon put his ear to the door. There were the usual noises of the moving train but no additional screams or suspicious shuffling. He dared to crack open the door and look out. The long corridor, running from one end of the train car to the other between the cabins, was empty. He had already considered jumping out of the window, but he wasn’t sure Ay-Tal was strong enough to survive the awkward fall. And he wasn’t too sure he was. Too high a risk. That meant carrying Ay-Tal through the train, out to the gangway connection between cars, and jumping from there. Jon deemed that safer. No more than a minute had passed since the gunshot, and Jon expected the authorities to return at any moment, guns blazing. It was now or never.
He felt a slight change in the motion of the train; they were slowing down.
“Ay-Tal,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I see no other choice.” With that, he hoisted the gray body wrapped in the Pacific Railroad blankets over his shoulder, grabbed the briefcase, and ran down the corridor.
Jon made it to the back of their train car without incident and slid open the door. Once between cars, only flexible walls separated him from freedom. He carefully lowered Ay-Tal onto the floor. Using his knife, he twisted and jammed the locks to each of the adjoining cars. It wasn’t much but it would buy him a little more time. A few quick motions with his knife and he opened a hole in the flexible siding big enough to push through. All those years of practicing on whales, seals, and reindeer…
He picked up Ay-Tal like a baby with one hand, pressing her…it to his chest, and with a briefcase in his other hand, he rushed for the opening and jumped.
He rolled over and over down the steep incline away from the train tracks. The early snow somewhat softened the impact. At least he hoped it was the snow and not Ay-Tal’s body protecting him yet again. The briefcase, unfortunately, was slapped from his hand when he hit the ground.
“Are you okay?” Jon asked as soon as he was able; the fall knocked the wind out of him.
The gray, twisting blob that used to be a beautiful woman purred. Jon wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. His father and grandfather had told him stories, but even they only saw the Change once. And he didn’t think it was this dramatic back then. From what he was told, he imagined it was more like going into a room as one person and coming out as another…after many hours. He didn’t know if anyone in his tribe’s living memory had seen Ay-Tal for what it was…like this. It wasn’t revolting or anything. Jon wasn’t repulsed touching the soft, fibrous gray flesh, but he did find it difficult to look at it directly. He needed Ay-Tal to assume a human form again. Fast. Soon. The boots were gone. Ay-Tal would never again have the look of a highly educated lawyer from Harvard, arguing cases in front of the Supreme Court. That person was dead, just like the conductor and the rest would assume…jump to conclusions. Jon knew he would have too if he saw what that man saw. There will be a murder investigation, he realized.
“We need to get out of here,” he said. He stood up and looked for the briefcase. It wasn’t visible. He would have to come back for it once Ay-Tal was safely hidden. Even if the Union Pacific train was far in the distance now, Jon wasn’t naive enough to think they were out of trouble. There was going to be a search. He gently gathered Ay-Tal in his arms and carried her—he felt uncomfortable thinking of her as it—farther away into the shelter of the thick low boughs of the evergreens growing on the edge of the forested strip of land surrounding the train tracks. Tucking Ay-Tal out of view, Jon left to look for the briefcase.
All along the railway, there was garbage strewn about among the vegetation, trash snagged on craggy branches and caught among the barren bushes, tall, dead grasses, and exposed rocks of the late fall. Civilization slithered through nature, leaving its slimy discards. Jon felt disgusted and experienced a strong urge to pick the crap up off the forest floor. But that wasn’t what he was here for. He scanned the ground for the briefcase; it couldn’t have landed too far from where they hit the ground. It was well made so unlikely to have opened and spilled its precious contents all over Wisconsin…or was it Minnesota already? Jon wasn’t sure, but he had a map and a satellite phone in his backpack; normal smartphones were not very useful out in the far northern country of his people. Although all the kids had smart tablets and shared educational materials by linking those directly. Technology had changed his people in the last few decades, but far less than Ay-Tal had when she joined their tribe. There might not even have been a tribe without Ay-Tal.
He spotted the brown leather of the briefcase in a ditch off to the side. He rushed over and almost tripped over a kid’s Dora the Explorer backpack. It was so covered in mud that Jon almost didn’t recognize the friendly face from his childhood. He bent down and picked it up. Probably fell from the train, he thought. It felt heavy; he took a quick look inside. Girl’s clothing, a coloring book, and…Yes! A pair of little pink boots! An idea formed in Jon’s head. It was crazy, but it just might work. He grabbed the muddy briefcase in his other hand and rushed back to Ay-Tal.
Jon had never seen the Change ritual; he was only a few months old for the most recent one. He had been told about it, of course, but hoped never to have to personally put into practice the legends of his fathers. There were chanting and singing and some drumming, but Jon believed all that was for his people’s benefit and not strictly necessary. He knelt before the gray form that was bundled in the ugly blankets and maneuvered the child-sized pink boots under the soft flesh. It almost felt like the gray tendrils burrowed into the earth beneath the Ay-Tal’s body, merging with networks of tubular filaments of mycelia that Jon knew naturally permeated the ground under the tree.
“Ay-Tal?” he said softly. “I know this is not what you would want. And I will help you with…with something else later.” He felt uncomfortable even talking about the Change, much less requesting Ay-Tal to become a child for him. But he saw no other way. The authorities would be looking for him and a woman. An injured woman. Perhaps if he posed as a father of a little girl… “Please?”
Slowly, oh so very slowly, thin tendrils snaked their way into the tiny boots. His father told him it took over a week for Ay-Tal to become the woman he met. How long would it take now? Back then, his grandfather spent several years designing the person Ay-Tal would need to become to win the tribe’s case in front of the Supreme Court. Ay-Tal knew what was required of her and helped shape that person. But now? How would it work now? Jon sat and watched and prayed to Aguguq that the metamorphosis didn’t take too long.
He woke up with a start. It was dark and very cold. The moon was out; he could see its light shining through the branches of their tree. A small hand touched his cheek.
“Jon?” The voice was very high. A small child was staring at him from inside a nest of blankets. “Will this work?”
“Ay-Tal?” It was one thing to know about the Change, but to witness the transformation? Jon was shaken. The child in front of him was no more than five, perhaps even younger. A skinny little arm was attached to a tiny little hand with miniature fingers. The eyes staring at him were deep blue, with just a hint of gray around the edge. A bit of red hair poked out from under the dirty cloth. That and those pink boots.
“Will this work?” the child asked again.
Jon forced himself to focus. “Yes. That’s very good, Ay-Tal.” It felt strange complimenting a god. “Thank you.” He quickly looked at the child’s face and then had to look away—too strange. “I have some clothing here.” He pulled out the Dora the Explorer bag and gave it to Ay-Tal. “If you could dress, we should try to get out of here as quickly as possible. They will be looking for us.”
The child nodded and took the bag. There were some pink tights, a t-shirt with another Dora print on it, and a sweatshirt. The clothing was covered in mud and blooming with spots of mold. Not enough to keep a child warm, Jon noted to himself. Ay-Tal wiggled out of the blankets and started to put on the clothing, slipping off only one boot at a time.
The child was male, Jon noticed in shock.
When done, Ay-Tal smiled at him. “Ready?”
“Y-yes,” he stammered. “Are you cold or anything?”
“I will be,” the boy answered. “But not yet. It takes time to adjust to the Change.”
“Yes, of course.” Jon had no idea what that meant. “Can you walk?”
“Only for as long as a kid my age can,” the boy said with a smile…a very adult smile. “And call me Al. I think it works better for this body, don’t you?”
“Al. I can do that.” Jon tried to smile back, but it didn’t work—his face refused to make it. So he gathered their meager possessions, rearranging his backpack so he could carry all of the legal documents on his back and tied the rest into a bundle made from one of the blankets. Ay-Tal…Al put on the dirty little backpack and tried to bury the briefcase under the many seasons of pine needles and other detritus surrounding the base of their tree hideout.
“Let me help you with that,” Jon said and with just a few movements of his wide hands finished the job of concealing the bag. It would be found, of course. But anything to give them additional time to melt into the American landscape was worth it.
The child that was Ay-Tal watched him cover the now empty briefcase and strip a dead branch to make a stick to tie up their bundle for ease of carrying; a hobo stick. They climbed together from under the tree. Jon swung the bundle over his shoulder, resting the stick on the strap of his backpack. Al gave him his hand, like a child would. And they walked into the woods, away from the tracks. Jon hoped to find some shelter before the moon set. In this part of the country, they were really never too far from civilization…for better or worse.
A few hours later, Jon was carrying the sleeping child over his shoulder, wrapped in a blanket like a burrito. He walked on the shoulder of US-12, a highway he had located on his map, pegging their position near the town of Wilkins, Wisconsin. It was still dark and there was no traffic, but Jon was ready to jump into the trees along the side of the road if he spotted any headlights. He was sure there was a manhunt on for him and didn’t want to take any chances.
They would need to stop and buy more appropriate clothing for Al. He almost said “Ay-Tal” in his head but stopped himself. That name was dangerous now—too memorable and too easily connected to current events. How many Inuit lawyers named Ay-Tal Blue that just won an argument in the highest court of land were there? She was all over the news last week and would be again now, for totally different reasons. Jon shifted his shoulders, and the child gave a soft sigh. Poor kid tried to walk by himself, and only after Jon pointed out that he was slowing them down did Al allow himself to be carried.
She doesn’t just mimic the attributes of the person she changes into—she fully inhabits that person, he remembered his father telling him. For good or bad, Al was a little kid now. Jon wondered if Al remembered all her…his previous lives. He must. Or it just doesn’t work. He decided to ask later, the next time it was convenient to have such a conversation.
Jon also needed to let his tribe know what happened. He was wary of using phones, but there was an email account set up that he could use to draft a message in code. Messages from that account were never sent, in order to avoid interception in transit. Someone back home checked the account several times a day and read all of the unsent email drafts. Nothing was ever addressed to anyone; nothing ever moved across the network. Ay-Tal had set up the message drop system when the Internet came online, decades ago. Now the whole tribe used this spy-craft stuff. Encryptions, codes, secure passwords, cyber currency, anonymous accounts… It had all been fun and games until now. But Ay-Tal taught them well; clearly, she foresaw it might become necessary someday.
He needed papers for Al. There was no easy way to get over the Canadian border without passports. And the kid didn’t look like his son. A shame, that. It would have been so much easier if Al was a dark-haired, dark-eyed, dark-skinned little boy. People would ask questions, the way Al looked. Perhaps they could use hair dye and sunglasses; it would work at a distance, but not at the border inspection or during any other interaction with authorities. Jon felt cold sweat run down his back as he thought of the police arresting him for murder and taking Al away. They would accuse him of child trafficking, too, and put Ay-Tal in foster care. He needed to stay away from people as much as possible and come up with a good cover story. He could change his appearance somewhat; he could shave his head and grow a beard, perhaps. Would that confuse any face-recognition systems? He could use skin-lightening creams. He could dye his hair red to match Al’s. But then his passport… He was never into the cloak-and-dagger stuff; he was a traditional Inuit artisan, just like his father and his father’s father before him.
A squat building with white walls and a dark-shingled roof surprised Jon out of the early morning mist. “Wilkins Nite Club” said giant letters across the entire facade. On one corner of the building, there were signs of fire damage that were patched up and covered with two giant flags, Wisconsin’s and the Stars and Stripes. Jon looked around. There were no other structures close by and no cars parked in the gravel-covered parking lot. He dashed into the lot and behind the nightclub. He needed to rest a bit and change his own clothing. All this mud and blood would attract attention. Back on the train, Jon never got to the point where his and Ay-Tal’s tickets were actually checked—the conductor never learned their names. Would the conductor remember what they…he looked like? People were notorious for being lousy eyewitnesses. And he still needed to dispose of Ay-Tal’s IDs; it would not be good to be found with those.
He lowered Al, still wrapped in the Pacific Railroad blanket, onto the back porch. The ground was wet and cold, covered in a silvery frost. “These blankets have to go too,” Jon mumbled under his breath, which came out as a small silver cloud about his face. “Should have left ’em under that tree for the police to find.” But the kid was cold. “Aguguq. So much to do.”
Al was sleeping peacefully. He looked like a little cherub from one of those greeting cards. And that was a big problem. Jon actually didn’t look like a typical Inuit—those English genes. He was taller than average for his people, just under six feet, and his eyes were an unexpected dark gray, not brown. But who would take the time to check his eye color when looking at Al’s wide blue-as-a-clear-March-sky eyes? Aguguq, help me.
And looks like a girl too, Jon continued his train of thought. A little white blue-eyed boy…or girl traveling with a guy like him raised eyebrows as well as questions. He needed to get the kid sex-appropriate clothing, something dark and grungy. But those boots… He looked at the shocking patch of pink sticking out from under the drab navy-blue blanket. Those had to stay. So more raised eyebrows, more questions.
He pulled out Ay-Tal Blue’s wallet and passport. Keep or destroy? As far as Jon knew, Al would never be able to take on that identity again. If they were discovered with these… Jon stuffed the papers deep into his backpack and lay down next to the child, pressing the little body close. The kid was still cold and made pathetic little snorts in his sleep. A child who is not a child. How do I keep him safe? And with that thought, Jon fell fast asleep.
Chapter Two: Wilkins
“Hey, Mister!” A voice and not so gentle kick in his back woke Jon up. He glanced at the sky; it was still early. He couldn’t have slept more than an hour or so.
Smeared in mud and worse, with a day-old growth, and pine needles sticking out of his disheveled hair and ruffled clothes, Jon knew he looked scary—more homeless drifter than Sunday school teacher. “Cut it out,” he barked gruffly, playing up to the scary image he projected. As he sat up, he pushed the bundle of blankets with Al behind him.
“Beat it. It’s our porch,” a kid no older than sixteen said, taking a step back. He was dressed in torn, ill-fitting black jeans, hiking boots, many layers of sweatshirts, facial piercings, and a biker’s leather jacket several sizes too big. Behind him were two more kids, similarly attired, boys or girls, Jon couldn’t tell yet. Too dark.
“Well, I’m using it now. Scram!” Jon growled at them threateningly. The boy inched farther back, and Jon felt guilty. These kids just looked tough; they were probably runaways or worse. Why else would a bunch of teenagers bother a sleeping grown stranger this early in the morning? “Look,” he said in a softer voice. “I’m just passing through. You can have your porch in a few hours.”
“I need it now,” the boy said and pulled a knife out of his jacket.
Jon inhaled deeply, stood up, and pulled out his own knife, leaving the conductor’s gun in place at the back of his waistband. Seeing how the kid held his weapon, it was obvious he had no clue how to use it. Jon, on the other hand, was an experienced hunter. He knew what to do with a knife…and a gun. He also knew that he would never use them on these kids. Scare them, yes. Hurt them? Never.
The kid took another big step back. He didn’t want to fight Jon either. It was all bravado—wear a scary wardrobe and wave a weapon and most people back down without a fight. It was a good strategy for a young kid on his own. Three young kids.
“Look, I want no trouble,” Jon said. “I just need to rest a bit. Long night. You get that, don’t you?” The kid lowered his weapon. Jon put away his. “I’m Jon.”
“Arrow,” the kid said. “And that’s Saga and Hazel.” The girls waved hello and smiled. The situation defused somewhat as the knives were put away.
The blankets next to Jon stirred, and a little face poked out and then pink tights and a pink sweatshirt. “And this is Al,” Jon said with a sigh. “He is my son.” As soon as he said it, he felt relieved—a decision made. “Does this town have a Goodwill?” he asked as Saga and Hazel stepped closer to take a look. Girls always reacted emotionally to cute little kids; it was their weakness. That made Al his secret weapon; people related differently to a man with a small child. Perhaps Al could be an asset, rather than a liability…
“Oooh, hi there, little guy.” Hazel crouched next to Al. “What amazing eyes…”
“Yes, so much like not yours,” Saga commented. And so it began.
Jon shrugged. “Genetics. What are you going to do? Al’s mother is English, and so was my grandmother.”
“Cute kid,” said Arrow. “Why is he dressed like a girl?”
Yes, why? Jon had no answer.
“I like Dora the Explorer,” said Al in his high, bell-like voice. “See?” And he pulled apart the blankets to reveal the cartoon character’s face printed on his dirty shirt.
“I see why you might want to visit a Goodwill,” said Arrow under his breath.
“Oh, I like her too, honey,” Hazel said with a smile. “You want some gum?” She pulled out a pack of strawberry bubblegum from the pocket of her tailored black leather jacket lined with shiny pink silk. Unlike Arrow and Saga, who wore matching black leather jackets with patches and studs, Hazel’s look was less sloppy biker and more fashion-forward grunge.
“I want real food,” said Al pathetically.
Saga turned to Jon, narrowed her eyes, and asked accusingly, “When was the last time you fed your son?” The way she said “son” made it clear she didn’t believe Jon was really his father.
Al climbed out of the blankets and, pink boots and all, hugged Jon’s legs as if in fear. Jon put his hand protectively on the little red locks. He didn’t even have to act; Al inspired empathy, he oozed innocence, roused maternal and paternal instincts. Jon felt it, and he could see how it worked on this band of young ruffians, too.
“There’s a kitchen in there,” said Hazel, all concern, eager to help. “We can make some eggs. Aunt Ada keeps the fridge well-stocked for us.” Seeing Jon’s reaction, she explained, “My mom’s sister owns this place.”
“So this really is your porch,” Jon said with a smile. It explained a few things. Most kids would have left a grown man like him alone. These kids were trying to protect their property. “I’m sorry to have trespassed.”
“Oh, it’s all right,” Hazel said. “Arrow takes his job as a guard way too seriously. Come on in.” She pulled out a thick set of keys and stepped around Jon and Al to open the backdoor to the nightclub. “It’s warmer inside, and we can make some coffee too. Or tea. Homemade tea. It’s Aunt Ada’s specialty.”
They piled inside a big, bright room with light wooden floors. There were many wooden tables, the same color as the floor, with black leather stools arranged in a circle around each of them. A pine bar stood on one side of the spacious room with dozens of liquor bottles and a large menu above, drawn in multicolored chalk. There were a dozen TVs screwed into the walls, and on the far side there were what looked like a kitchen and perhaps an office. Arrow turned on the lights, and the bar glowed a poison green with purple Christmas lights underneath the counters. All in all, it was a much nicer place than Jon imagined, given the outside of the building, the kind of place that would have done double duty as a community center back in his village…perhaps with a smaller bar.
“Nice,” Jon said.
“Thanks!” Hazel strode directly toward the back and motioned for him to follow. Jon took Al’s hand and, leaving his hobo bundle on the ground in the corner, followed the girl to the rooms in the back. The documents were still safely stowed away in the backpack on his back.
Hazel made a decent breakfast of eggs, bacon, and some toast. She made Al and Jon scrub up before eating—Ay-Tal’s blood, a jump from a train, a night in the mud under a tree, a walk through a forest… They did look like hobos or worse. They didn’t smell so good either.
When they finished cleaning up the kitchen after breakfast, Hazel asked Arrow to draw a Dora the Explorer cartoon for Al to color on a sheet of printer paper. To Jon’s surprise, Arrow was able to draw a decent Dora surrounded by some jungle animals in just a simple outline of black ink from his little pen set that he kept in his voluminous jacket pockets. Al set to color Arrow’s cartoon with some colored pencils that Hazel found in her aunt’s desk. Arrow didn’t offer his pen set to the boy. The sight of Ay-Tal coloring felt too wrong, and Jon couldn’t help but stare. Al winked at him and continued to allow the girls to fuss over him.
“So what’s your story?” asked Arrow when the two of them sat down to some coffee. The girls didn’t drink any. Ay-Tal did and liked it, but Jon wasn’t sure about Al.
“Not much of one,” Jon tried to evade while he thought hard of what to say that would make sense to these kids.
“You were train-hopping,” Arrow said, glancing back at where Jon left his stuff. Perhaps the logos on the blankets gave it away. “Not a good idea with a little kid.”
“Thanks for the advice, Arrow, but I didn’t really have a choice.”
Arrow nodded like he understood. He might have; he looked like his life had been rough. Thinking of his own life back with his tribe, Jon felt blessed. He always knew right from wrong, never worried about food or other life’s necessities, and there were people who loved him. It wasn’t until he had left that life that things became complicated.
“Shouldn’t jump from trains with a little kid,” Arrow said again.
“Yeah?” Jon wished that he had some access to the news—what was being said on the evening news about him and Ay-Tal? Without basic situational awareness, he was at a severe disadvantage.
“Did you check the boy for injuries?” Arrow looked at Jon over the rim of the huge coffee cup.
“He seems okay,” Jon said.
“I broke my collarbone once jumping,” Arrow said. “It took weeks to figure out. Hazel’s aunt finally took me to the emergency room. Hurt like a bitch.”
“Huh. Al seems fine. He hasn’t complained of anything. But thanks for the tip.” The kid clearly meant well. “His mama is a junkie. Abandoned him about a year ago.” Jon felt like he had to share some back-story, something that sounded believable. More empathy…
“He seems like good kid,” Arrow said, shifting his eyes to observe Saga and Hazel playing with Al. “The pink shit needs to go. It’s not that I have anything against it, mind you. It’s just other people…people bully when they don’t understand.”
“I’m just saying it would be easier on you and the boy, that’s all.”
“Thanks,” said Jon and meant it. This kid was trying to help him.
“There’s no Goodwill around, but the church has a donations center set up in the basement. The girls could go and pick something out for you.”
“That would great. Really. And…”
“I’ve got to contact my parents, Al’s grandparents. Any place I can use a computer for a few minutes to send an email? A library or a post office?” Jon asked. Arrow nodded. “Need to keep that kid safe until we get home.” Arrow nodded again. Jon felt bad for lying, even if he didn’t exactly lie, just implied a lot of stuff.
“Are you taking the kid to your parents?”
“Yeah.” That wasn’t a lie.
Arrow whistled. “Always wanted to go there someday. Got any money?”
Jon felt his hand twitch toward the inside pocket of his vest. He forced himself to relax, but Arrow noticed and his eye drifted to Jon’s chest.
“Some,” Jon said. “Not enough for a plane ticket or anything…”
“So, train-hopping,” Arrow said. “Tough to do in winter.”
“Where did you hop?”
“Down south. It was okay. Won’t do it with a kid that young, though.”
“Yeah.” Jon took another deep sip of coffee. “Any truck stops around here?”
“Good idea,” Arrow said after a few beats of hesitation. The boy was a slow talker, Jon noted. He liked that. Not like all those fast-talking dandies back in Washington. “But not too many willing to take hitchhikers nowadays,” Arrow continued. “Although with a little kid like that…still, there will be lots of questions. It might be better to ask your parents for money.”
“Dad?” Al called from across the little kitchen. “Hazel said that they could get me some clean clothing. Would that be okay? I can go with them…”
Al wasn’t asking, Jon didn’t think. Al was telling him of some plan. Too bad they hadn’t had enough alone time to work out a way of communicating and setting some ground rules. Was Jon supposed to let him go? Would that be too weird?
“Jon? We’ll take good care of Al. Saga and I have been babysitting since forever. Years. And the church is just a few blocks away…well, a mile or two,” Hazel corrected herself under Arrow’s glare. “But not too far.” She glanced again at the youth. He obviously had authority with the girls. Rare, that. “Anyways, I help with donations sorting, and I know our inventory. There are some good winter jackets in Al’s size. He needs warmer clothing,” she finished on an accusatory note.
Jon wasn’t sure what to say. He really looked the part of a confused young father. Al jumped down and ran toward him. “Daddy, please?”
“Saga and Hazel will take good care of him.” Arrow vouched for the girls. “I have to stay here. Job, you know.” Jon nodded. “But the girls will show you where the post office is. There’s a computer there. Mrs. Nelson would probably let you use it for a few bucks.”
“Well, I guess that would be fine,” Jon said, looking Al in the eyes. What are you doing? he wanted to ask. But his father and grandfather had told him to trust Ay-Tal. He felt his body relax a bit as he made the decision to go with the flow, so to speak. “Sure. Let’s go. I’ll walk with you guys to this church, and you wait for me there, Al. You hear? Don’t go anywhere. Just wait for me there. I will send a note to your granddaddy and then come right back to get you.”
Al climbed on his lap and hugged him around the neck, putting his face into his ear. “Mail the papers—it’s a federal offense to tamper with mail…” And then, louder, “Yes, Daddy!” Al let go of Jon, smiled, and a little dimple puckered his left cheek. Somehow, it was more adorable than having two dimples. There was something about asymmetry that inspired cuteness. So memorable…
“Let’s go then,” said Jon and set Al back down on the floor.
“Bathroom?” asked Hazel. She clearly had babysitting experience. She took Al’s hand and led him to the back.
“So where’s your mommy?” Hazel asked as she soaped Al’s hands. She also sniffed his sweatshirt and wrinkled her nose again.
While Al was sure his body smelled fine, the pink clothing they found inside the Dora the Explorer bag did smell terrible. Al was looking forward to wearing something clean…and more sex-appropriate. He didn’t know why the Change took on the characteristics of a little boy rather than a girl, given the obvious clues. But perhaps these things really did belong to a boy once…or a girl who wanted to be a boy. Hard to tell, and there was no time to prepare. If there was more appropriate footwear in the church’s donations bin, he would get Jon to grab some and then go through another Change in a few days when he got his energy back. There were a lot of advantages to being a cute kid…and a lot of disadvantages. The big one was that Jon wasn’t sure how to behave around a small child. And, unfortunately, there was little familial resemblance between them—why should there be?
“Al? What’s the matter, dear?” Hazel asked. “Are you sad about your mama?”
“No,” Al answered honestly. “Just tired.” He was very tired. The Change was never easy, even under the best of circumstances.
“You can stay here for a bit,” Hazel said. “And get some rest in a real bed. Aunt Ada is a real sweetheart. She doesn’t have kids of her own…not since Mason died in fire…” She glanced to check if Al was scared by what she just said. Since Al didn’t react, she continued without skipping a beat. “But that was a long time ago. Don’t you worry.” Hazel had a way of talking where there were no pauses between the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next. It was as if she was afraid of being interrupted before she could finish what she wanted to say. “Well,” she went on, “Aunt Ada lets Arrow and Saga hang out at her house now, but fostering is not the same as having real kids. And they are too old. Anyways, I’m sure she would love to have you for a few days. With your daddy, of course,” she added hastily as Al looked at her with his big blue eyes. “You’ve got beautiful eyes, you know. So not like your daddy’s.”
“Everyone says I look just like my granny,” Al said.
“Of course you do,” Hazel said. She moved on to wiping his face with a towel. Al was already as clean as he was going to be; so this was just stalling. “Do you know your granny’s name?” she asked sweetly.
“Granny,” he answered simply. He wasn’t fooled. This was a full interrogation. He’d bet there would be many more questions as soon as he was separated from Jon.
“Of course she is! And how about your mama? Do you know her name?”
“Mom?” Al played the innocent. How many kids his age knew their parents’ given names? Not too many in his experience.
“And your dad’s? He said he was Jon. Do you know your last name? Your family name?”
Al smiled, pushed the towel away from his face, and wriggled free. “Let’s go to the church! Do you think they might have some toys there I can play with?” he asked.
“Oh, they do! They have lots of toys to play with. I bet we can find a nice Dora doll for you,” Hazel said and took Al’s hand firmly in hers. “Let’s go see.”
When they rejoined the rest in the kitchen, Al noted that Hazel and Saga exchanged glances. Obviously, Jon’s story wasn’t believed. But nobody was calling the cops on them just yet…
The walk to the church was longer than Jon would have liked. Up the hill from the highway, two-story homes lined the street, looking eerily alike with the same slanted roofs, wide porches facing the street, broad front lawns, and American flags mounted next to the front doors. Aside for a few boarded-up houses, the town of Wilkins looked like a quintessential small-town USA in the lower forty-eight, at least to Jon. Some suburbs of Anchorage tried to emulate this look, but it was difficult to pull off up there; Alaska’s climate was much harsher than Wisconsin’s. Jon wondered if people knew their neighbors around here or if it was all very anonymous. Back in his village, everyone knew everyone else and everyone else’s business. It was a bit claustrophobic in that way, and many young people left for big cities because of that. But Jon liked it; it was home.
He carried Al most of the way to the church—either the little boy’s body really didn’t have much stamina, or Ay-Tal was exhausted from the Change. Either way, it made Jon seem more paternal to the girls, and that was good. Carrying Al and the hobo stick was a bit awkward, but neither of the girls offered to help—they were repulsed even to come in contact with the dirty-looking bundle. Jon found it amusing…and possibly useful.
The church’s basement was set up as a homeless shelter with a few beds but no customers. Jon figured that this far from a large metropolitan center, there were few homeless about. But there was a large table with books, toys, and old DVDs and many racks of used clothing, all neatly sorted, all clean. These people wanted to help…and there was a lot one could tell from how they went about doing it. Not a wealthy town, that’s for sure, Jon thought based on the selection of this community’s discards. But there was far more of the stuff than he imagined there would be; Wilkins didn’t seem to be such a large town.
“I work here most Saturday mornings,” Hazel said. “We have washing machines and a big drier in the back. I can even dry-clean some donations.”
“Very impressive,” Jon said. He meant it. Back home, they did clothing and book exchanges. Everyone had something they no longer needed or wanted. Most of his childhood clothing was second-hand—why spend the money? “Is there something here that would fit Al? Something for winter?”
“Oh, yes,” said a middle-aged woman in jeans and a sweater with hearts all over it. Aunt Ada, Jon guessed. She looked like every other small-town gossip that Jon had met in his limited experience. He knew it wasn’t fair to classify the woman like that, but first impressions didn’t often lie, as his grandfather taught him. So he smiled politely and put on his most charming demeanor.
“It’s so kind of you to help us out like this,” he said and meant it.
“Not at all.” The woman came around the table with an old computer and gave him a quick once-over. “I’m Mrs. Wilkins, by the way, but please call me Ada.”
“I’m Jon.” He extended his hand in greeting. Ada’s grip was soft and slippery, not wet, just ungraspable. Jon felt like wiping his hand afterward but restrained himself. A good impression was everything right now. “Is that Wilkins, as in the town’s name?”
“Yes, it is.” The woman blushed, but her expression showed that she was very proud of the fact. “Wilkinses were the founders of this community.” She did wipe her hand on the side of her pants after shaking Jon’s. Jon pretended not to notice.
“Very interesting,” Jon said. “And your help, it really means a lot to me and Al,” he said again.
“Oh it’s no trouble at all,” Ada said, continuing to unconsciously rub Jon’s “germs” off her right hand.
“I told you.” Hazel smiled at him. “My Aunt Ada is a jewel.” Ada blushed and waved her niece off, but Jon could see that she was very pleased by the praise.
“She’s doing God’s work,” Jon agreed and put on a particularly wide smile.
Al ran around the table to the toys and zeroed in on some book, made a happy noise, and rushed back to hug Ada’s legs. The woman was thrilled by the little boy’s show of affection, if a bit surprised. Jon just marveled at Al’s performance. Over thirty years as a high-powered attorney, and before that a skilled seal hunter, and before that… Jon looked forward to the time when he could safely ask Ay-Tal questions and learn about her past lives and his own tribe’s history from her unique point of view. Thousands of years ago, his tribe journeyed over the ice from what was now Russia to Alaska. Ay-Tal was there though it all; she led the original group of families over the Bering Strait during the Ice Age. The Ice Age! But now? It was all so awkward now. It was hard to see a little kid as an authority figure, as an elder, as a god. God? Jon never really thought of Ay-Tal like that. There was Aguguq, and then there was Ay-Tal. They were…different. But perhaps he should have focused on similarities rather than gods’ differences.
“Come on, Al.” Hazel took the boy’s hand. “Let’s go find you something more appropriate to wear.”
“But I like pink,” Al protested.
“I just meant you need something warmer, okay? And we can wash things here for you while your dad goes to the post office. Wouldn’t it be nice to have everything clean?”
Al made a face, and Hazel laughed and took him among the racks of kid clothing. Ay-Tal is so good at this, Jon thought again.
“And do you need something, Jon?” Ada asked. “I’m sure we have a few things in your size.”
“Oh no, thank you, ma’am. I have plenty.” He pointed to the bundle of clothing wrapped in a blanket and immediately realized he had made a mistake. Ada’s look turned hostile; he had warm clothing for himself while his kid went without? What kind of monster was he? Jon swallowed and said, “Well, if you don’t terribly mind, I could use a warm jacket.” Ada’s expression relaxed somewhat. She was still suspicious but put on a smile and took him to a different rack with men’s stuff. Truthfully, Jon looked like he could use a warm jacket; he was wearing just a puffy vest over a sweatshirt. But he grew up in Alaska—where it might be cold outside for these folks; for him, it felt as warm as a balmy spring afternoon. It was all a matter of what one was used to.
Ada left him to help Hazel and Al. Jon stayed and pretended to look through the selection of jackets and sweatshirts and hunting gear while keeping an eye on Al. That kid had Ada and Hazel eating out of his little hands the way they fussed over him.
“You don’t really need a jacket, do you?” Jon was startled by Saga standing way too close to him. Somehow he just plain forgot all about her. The girl barely talked, leaving that to Hazel, and made herself as invisible as possible, even in all that sloppy Goth stuff.
“It couldn’t hurt,” Jon answered. “But I hate taking charity.”
“You could pay,” Saga said.
“Good idea. Do you mind showing me the way to the post office?”
“I’ll walk with you,” Saga said.
“No, really. You don’t have to.”
“I don’t mind,” she said and walked toward the door. Jon didn’t want the company but he also didn’t know how to shake the girl. He wasn’t trained for this. He was a good leatherworker, a good hunter, and a lousy bodyguard, apparently. And this? He wished the tribe had sent someone more competent. But his family had been linked with Ay-Tal for at least four hundred generations. Perhaps much longer…there were rumors. Jon shook his head. Rumors are just that, rumors.
“Coming?” Saga called to him, and Jon rushed to catch up. He decided to leave the bundle of clothing behind and took only his backpack with the legal papers and Ay-Tal’s IDs. The sooner he could get rid of those, the safer he would feel. And the gun, he would need to dispose of it ASAP, too.
The town was quiet. Jon didn’t know if it was because it was early in the day or if it was just a really sleepy place.
“Why aren’t you at school?” he asked.
“Thanksgiving recess.” That explained some of the sleepiness, although back home, school holidays made for the most commotion out on the streets.
They walked along the side of the road. There were no sidewalks here; apparently everyone drove. Back home, everyone walked or skied. Driving was for going distances. No one thought of driving to go across the village. But here? Things here were farther apart, spread out just beyond Jon’s comfort zone.
“Over there.” Saga pointed. It was the first thing she’d said in fifteen minutes of walking. The squat building she indicated was inside a small shopping center: a dry cleaner, a gas station, a coffee house, and a small grocery store with a post office inside. Everything one could need in one convenient location. Well, that, at least, wasn’t much different from where he grew up. He knew some towns up north that were just one building. Restaurants, schools, apartments, medical offices, and even a church and a city hall were all stuffed into one multistory construction. It made sense in that climate—easier to heat, easier to manage. One-stop everything. Instead of cars, there were elevators…
“Thanks,” Jon said and cut across the street. He spotted garbage bins and veered off to find a box to package Ay-Tal’s papers.
Saga stayed a few steps behind and observed. When she understood what he was looking for, she went around the back and brought out two recycled shipping boxes, one too small and one just about the right size. She handed them over, again without a word.
“Oh, thanks,” Jon said and took the larger one. She tossed the small one into the bin.
“She will open at ten,” the girl said and went to sit on the curb by the store.
Jon hadn’t thought of the time. Of course the store would be closed so early in the morning. Well, he just had to wait. Al could take care of himself. He shouldn’t worry. But the kid inspired protectiveness. Jon sat next to Saga in front of the metal cage doors on the cold concrete steps. She pulled out her smartphone and started to text and surf and Aguguq knew what else. They would be here for a while, he realized. Jon closed his eyes; he hadn’t really slept in over twenty-four hours.
“Hmm,” he heard her say loudly, clearly intending to get his attention. “Hmm.”
“What is it?” Jon asked without opening his eyes.
“They are looking for a guy who might have murdered someone and then jumped off the train.”
“Hmm.” Jon had been waiting for some news of what happened on the train, and here it was.
“They say he is armed and dangerous,” the girl said with forced casualness.
“Who did he kill?” asked Jon.
“It says here that the man grabbed a gun from the conductor and shot another passenger. A woman.”
“Do they know who she was?” Jon finally opened his eyes and looked over at Saga. She was being very nonchalant about the whole thing…and so was he. It was hard to do, though. Jon was nervous and felt sweat running down his back. How long will it take them to figure the identities of Ay-Tal and her companion?
“Not yet,” Saga said. “But the description—dark hair, dark eyes, average height, ethnic-looking—fits you pretty well.”
“Does it? Sounds like pretty much anyone.”
“That and those Pacific Railroad blankets you stole,” she said.
“Got those in a second-hand store,” Jon said. “Don’t make accusations, kid, about people you hardly know. Some might take offense.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“Why should I?”
“Is the kid really yours?” Saga suddenly turned to look him straight in the face. “I mean, he really doesn’t look like you.” Jon opened his eyes as wide as possible. His features might be “ethnic,” but his eye color wasn’t. Saga noticed the grays of his eyes, and Jon could practically feel her relax. “I guess genetics does work in mysterious ways,” she said, a note of disbelief still in her voice and posture.
“You never know what you going to get.” Jon smirked. “So are you and Arrow related?” Both had dark blond hair—Saga’s was a bit more mousy than blond—and they shared certain facial mannerisms that only came from family ties or, at least, long time familiarity.
“He’s my older brother. But most say we look nothing alike.”
“It’s not always in the features,” Jon said. “Sometimes it’s the attitude that’s inherited.”
“Yeah,” she said. “We are both quick to judge.”
“He seems like a nice kid.”
“He tries,” Saga said. “But don’t let him hear you call him a kid. He feels all grownup and all.”
“Is it just the two of you?”
“For the last three years.”
“Yeah, well, life is not always fair, is it?”
“Hazel’s aunt and uncle took us in to foster.”
“Ada seems nice enough.”
“She is.” But the way Saga said it made Jon wary. Something wasn’t right there. Why didn’t Saga stay with Hazel and Ada back at the church? It couldn’t be more fun to trudge to a neighborhood store with a stranger.
“And the uncle?” he asked. He waited, but Saga didn’t answer, just turned away into her phone again. That bad, he thought. Well, Al will be fine for a few hours and we will be leaving soon. And it wasn’t really his problem…whatever it was. He glanced at the girl and saw that she had shrunk into her oversized jacket. Hardly anything of her was showing; she was hiding in it like a tortoise in a shell. He felt bad for her, but he was in no position to help. And she had an older brother…
He pulled off his backpack and opened the box Saga brought over. Most everything Ay-Tal had was stored and sorted into waterproof clear plastic envelopes. He slipped those into the box. Ay-Tal’s IDs he wrapped in an old t-shirt from the bottom of his pack without taking them out first and then added the bundle into the box. The t-shirt prevented the box from closing.
“Do you have to send that too?” Saga inquired. She’d been watching him pack. He didn’t mind too much; it was hard to tell what all this paperwork was.
“I know it’s silly,” Jon said. “But my mom would like to have something personal.”
“Something that smelled like you?” Saga asked.
Jon sniggered. “I guess.”
“Well, underwear is smaller and smells more.”
“Thanks for the tip.”
“You’re welcome. And it still won’t close. You need a bigger box.”
“Is there a bigger box?”
“Hmm.” Jon took out his knife and carefully sawed off unneeded portions of the shirt. “Now it fits,” he said triumphantly. Saga just rolled her eyes. “Well, it does. See?” He demonstrably closed the sides of the box, fitting the edges cross-diagonally under each other for a secure closure. “Do they have tape in there?”
“Yeah. Mrs. Nelson will give you some if you ask nicely.”
“Need a pen?”
Jon considered it. Did he want Saga to see the address of his tribe? No, he did not. “Nah, I’ll do it inside.”
“Mrs. Nelson likes people who come prepared.”
“Does she now? Well, I am. I want to use a permanent marker—don’t want the package to go astray due to poor eyesight or something.”
Without a word, Saga produced a thick black permanent marker. Jon didn’t have a choice now. He took the marker and noted a small smile playing at the corners of Saga’s lips—she knew she had won. Well, two can play. Jon stood the package on edge and wrote the address on the underside of the box; he was planning on taping up the top anyway. When done, he returned the package to his knees, address down.
“Thanks,” he said, handing the marker back.
“Any time.” Saga acknowledged that he won this round. He planned to be careful how he carried the box inside.
Another half hour of ignoring each other, and Mrs. Nelson arrived to open the store.
“You are early today.” She nodded to Saga and fiddled with the locks. “You look so thin. Grab an apple. I brought a whole basket’s worth from my yard yesterday.” Jon didn’t think it was possible to really tell Saga’s weight underneath all of that leather, but Mrs. Nelson seemed to mean well; based on the note of worry Jon heard, it wasn’t a jab at Saga’s appearance but a genuine concern.
“I figured I owed you a few hours, seeing as I left early the other day,” Saga said, standing up and helping Mrs. Nelson manage the door. So the girl worked there. Well, that explained why she walked Jon here instead of just giving directions. It made him feel a bit better. “This is Jon. He needs to mail a package home to…?”
“Home,” Jon said. “If you’d be so kind, Mrs. Nelson, I would like to post this right away. I have Hazel, Saga’s friend, babysitting my kid at the church. I don’t want to take advantage.”
Believing she understood the situation, Mrs. Nelson rushed to the back to open up the post office, leaving Saga to deal with the store and starting up the cash register.
“Can I buy a roll of packing tape from you, Mrs. Nelson?” Jon asked, stepping up to the counter.
“Oh, you don’t have to buy it, young man. Just take a few strips. It will hold. USPS makes good tape.”
“Thank you so much.” Jon took the tape and secured the box. “When does the mail get picked up? I would feel so much better knowing this package is on its way.”
“Oh, Michael will be by at one or so. He delivers and picks up at the same time. I can usually look up the exact time of arrival; unfortunately, my computer here is busted again. Mason used to…” She stopped and glanced at Saga.
The girl was under the checkout stand in front and couldn’t have heard what they were saying, and that clearly made Mrs. Nelson feel better. There was something strange going on here, but Jon had no way of finding out what it was, and he didn’t really care. The bad news was that he couldn’t use Mrs. Nelson’s computer to drop a message for his grandfather and other elders. He needed another plan.
“Anyways, Michael is very punctual. Very,” Mrs. Nelson emphasized and glanced at Saga again.
“I am sure,” Jon said. “So my package will get posted at one o’clock or so?”
“Or no.” Mrs. Nelson smiled pleasantly at him. “It gets posted as soon as I take it off your hands. We do everything by the book around here. I work for the federal government, you know.”
“Of course. I didn’t mean—”
“Of course not.” The woman was still smiling. “It’s just some people here believe they could take their mail back.” She looked at Saga again. “But the post office doesn’t work like that. Once you let go of your package or letter, it’s gone. As good as delivered.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear, Mrs. Nelson. Thank you so very much.” And with that Jon paid the express delivery postage on top of certified delivery and walked back into the market section of the store. “Well, thanks a lot, Saga. I’ll be getting back to Al now.” The girl looked at him strangely but didn’t say another word; she just bit into her apple and continued to busy herself at the counter. Jon waved goodbye in the direction of the post office window at the back of the store and left. He practically ran all the way back to the church.
Chapter Three: The Wilkinses
The television blared news. Al was now dressed in ski pants and a clean Dora the Explorer t-shirt with a dark blue sweatshirt on top that completely covered up any pink once zipped closed. He still had his pink boots of course. Ada wanted to get him to wear something more boy-like, but Hazel stopped her when Al started to cry.
“I know you don’t believe in this, Auntie, but in this day and age, we all have to be a little more accommodating. If the kid wants to wear pink boots, let him,” Hazel told her. “He is traumatized enough.”
“I know you are right, dear, but people will make fun,” Ada objected but let it go. The little boy just looked so unhappy. “Come here, little one. Tell me where you’ve been traveling?”
Al sniffed and hiccupped a bit and wiped his nose on his clean sweatshirt sleeve. Ada furrowed her brows; she was not a fan of snot and germs, especially on recently cleaned clothing.
“I’ll take him to the washroom,” Hazel said, seeing her expression. “Come, Al. We want you to look good for your daddy.”
Ada used hand sanitizer to get the “boy cooties” off. Who knows where that child has been? Really, who knows? And then she put the stuff that didn’t fit the boy back on the rack.
On TV, an earnest-looking newscaster described a possible murder on the Pacific Railroad train traveling through Wisconsin to Minneapolis. Something about a high-powered attorney for an Alaskan Native American tribe being bound up with tape and then shot, possibly to death, with the conductor’s own gun, no less. The conductor, his arm in a sling and a big bandage over one of his eyes, described a desperate struggle for the weapon. It was an ugly story, especially since they hadn’t caught the perpetrator or found the body of the woman, Ms. Ay-Tal Blue. The locals were told to keep their eyes open for an ethnic-looking man with a scar over one of his eyes.
Ada went cold—didn’t the kid’s dad have a scar over his eye? He was sort of ethnic-looking, darkish skin and all, everything but those intense gray eyes. The TV people would have mentioned the gray eyes, wouldn’t they? His eyes were so distinctive.
She stood up to go find Hazel and that boy and ask the child some serious questions when her eyes fell on a bundle of clothing tied up in the Pacific Railroad blanket with another identical blanket neatly folded up underneath. Ada would have recognized those blankets anywhere. They were so chic. She had one herself, and it cost her a pretty penny, too. And here these homeless hobos had two of them. They had to be stolen. How else would this Jon character get two?
Stolen railroad blankets, a murder mystery, and a kid who decisively didn’t look like his papa. Ada didn’t understand, and when she didn’t understand something, she got nervous and unhappy. She wished her husband Burt was here, but he worked into the wee hours in that bar of his last night… Still, she decided she would feel safer if he was around and used her cell phone to text him to come over right away. This was an emergency. It would be good if Burt got here before that Jon character.
Feeling better after calling for reinforcements, Ada walked back to Hazel and the boy. She had an idea.
“Hazel? Hazel!” she called. “Do we think we have time to launder some of Al’s dad’s things? It seems a shame to let them leave here with all that dirty clothing.” What better way was there to snoop through Jon’s belongings? And it was all charity work…
“Dad doesn’t like it when people go through his things,” the boy said innocently in that high singsong voice of his.
“Of course not,” said Ada. “And we won’t be doing that. We’ll just drop it all in a washing machine and have it all ready and nice and fluffy and smelling good when he gets back from the post office. I’m sure he would be thrilled for us to do a bit of cleaning for him. Most men are, you know.” She smiled pleasantly, ruffled Al’s red golden curls, and walked toward the bundle of clothing. Having made her decision to act, she felt much better. She rubbed the hand that touched Al on the side of her jeans—one never knew. I’ll wash tonight, as soon as I get home.
Al ran to intercept and sat on top of the bundle. “I’ll wait for Dad here,” the boy added.
Ada stopped short and then looked back to Hazel for help. “Dear? We don’t have much time, even with our new washing machines Reverend Paul bought. Really, child,” she turned back to Al, “we told your daddy that we’d get everything cleaned up before he got back. So up you go…” She made shooing motions with her hands to get him off the blankets. “And we have a real suitcase that we can give you for all your new things and for your daddy’s. Something with wheels.” And then she could keep the blankets for herself. Why would Jon want them if he has a real traveling case that rolled? And she could even give them Burt’s old sleeping bag—much, much better than these threadbare things. She eyed the blankets greedily. “Up, up, up, dear.” She motioned for Al get up again and looked to Hazel.
“Oh, let it go, Auntie,” Hazel said. “It’s not worth fighting about. And Jon must be on his way back by now anyway. It’s way after Mrs. Nelson opened the post office. There’s no time—” She stopped talking at the look Ada gave her. “Well, I guess we can—”
“We can and we must,” Ada said. She was going to get those blankets for herself. After all the good she had done for these two, it was only proper. “Take the boy into the kitchen and get him something to eat.”
“I’m not hungry,” Al protested.
“You have a long trip ahead and should eat,” Ada insisted. She was angry now. Where was Burt? Did that man ever show up when she needed him? Honestly, did she have to do everything herself? She leaned down, seized Al by his upper arm, and lifted the boy off the bundle. “I said go to the kitchen with Hazel, young man. Do it now. Hazel?”
“Come on, kid,” Hazel said, picking up Al and carrying him away. “I’ll give you some ice cream. It’s not like real food.”
Al stopped protesting and drooped over her shoulder on their way out of the room. Ada exhaled. She hated ugliness. She grabbed the bundle and the second blanket and walked over to the laundry area. Carefully untying the knot, she spilled the contents directly into an industrial-sized washing machine, then neatly folded and put away the blankets into a bag to take home. She could clean them in her own house. With the deed done, she totally forgot to snoop through Jon’s belongings.
The moment Jon walked into the church’s basement donations sorting room, he saw his stuff was missing. The stick he used to carry the makeshift bundle over his shoulder was left leaning against the wall. He looked around. There was no one in the room; only the television bellowed out the news…and the news was all about him. There was a sketch of the murder suspect now. The good news was that it didn’t look much like him, but the bad news was that they got his scar right. He reached up to rub the old injury but stopped himself—no need to attract attention. He needed to get something to cover it up. He walked to a bin with hats, picked out a dark wool cap, and pulled it down over his eyebrows. Simple solutions were always best. Jon turned off the TV set.
“Dad!” He heard Al’s voice and saw the kid run toward him. He had to force himself to pick up Ay-Tal and swing him around like a child. It was too awkward. But Al managed to giggle in just the right measure to smooth over whatever paternal shortcomings Jon exhibited.
“Aunt Ada is washing your clothes,” Al said.
“Is she?” He put Al down. “You didn’t need to do that, ma’am,” he said to Ada, who walked into the room with Hazel. Jon noted that the older woman had an expression of guilt spiced with defiance. Snooping, Jon thought, but outwardly he smiled and said, “Really, I’m used to doing it all myself. You didn’t have to, but I’m awfully grateful.”
“It’s my pleasure, young man,” Ada said. Her face had resumed the normal appearance of slight superiority mixed with righteousness. She truly believed she was doing God’s work in this world, and Jon didn’t dream of disabusing her of those beliefs.
“It will take a few hours to get through the cycle,” Hazel said apologetically.
“I guess that’s okay,” Jon said. It wasn’t; they needed to get out of there as soon as possible—too much discussion on the news. “Do you mind if I pick out a few things for myself and Al? Just a change of clothing. I’d be happy to pay…to make a donation.” In fact, he decided that he needed a fresh set of everything; jumping off a train into a muddy ditch didn’t improve one’s look. He needed to come across as more respectable.
“Of course, of course!” Hazel was happy to see the situation defused and rushed to show him the items that she had already picked out for Al. “See? We have a nice outfit for your boy. And very boy-like. I know, I know—pink is Al’s favorite color. But around these parts, not all people are so understanding. It’s just easier to wear dark colors on the outside and pink on the inside. Like a chocolate zefir, right, Al?” Jon didn’t know what a “zefir” was, assuming it to be some kind of local confection, but noted that Al was holding Hazel’s hand already and smiling. He guessed that many millennia of practice gave Al an advantage over mere mortals like him…or Aunt Ada, for that matter.
Jon picked out a pair of old jeans, a thick new lumberjack shirt, and an unopened pack of black wool socks. The shirt was a violent checkered orange-and-green pattern—perhaps the reason why it was still new. Jon was already wearing hiking boots, but they were soaked through. His vest was dirty but fine for warmth, even in a few weeks from now when real winter began in these parts. He hoped that the journey north would be short. They just needed to make it to Alaska. Someone from the tribe would be sure there for them at the border…but not before…
“You should try these on,” Hazel said, handing him a bunch of clothing and a pair of old cowboy boots. “You never know about these things. My mom says sizes don’t mean much nowadays.”
Jon nodded and stepped into a small booth made from some old recycled lumber boards with a shower curtain across the front. There wasn’t much room, but there were a mirror and a hook to hang things. He didn’t really need to try anything; he just needed to change. He quickly shed his now nearly empty backpack and puffy vest and started to take off the hiking boots when the gun fell to the floor with a loud clank. It didn’t go off, but Jon was sure Hazel could see it through the bottom of the shower curtain. Damn. He picked up the weapon and stuffed it into his backpack, together with the new socks, his hunting knife, and the satellite phone, whose battery, unfortunately, was completely drained and the charger back on the train. Quickly, he changed his pants and shirt. Then he slipped on the cowboy boots, packed his dirty clothes into his bag, and tied the muddy boots to the backpack straps. Having finished, he opened the curtain. Hazel looked straight at him, her face white as a ghost. Al was over with Ada. Jon assumed he was keeping the woman distracted.
“Fits great,” he said with a smile. “Thank you for all your help, Hazel.”
“Do you want to wash those?” she asked. She was looking into his eyes, holding his gaze, daring him to say something about the gun.
“I’m good. Let’s pack the kid’s new things.” He walked over to a small pile of items Hazel had picked out for Al and stuffed those into his bag as well.
“Aunt Ada set aside a suitcase for you,” Hazel said.
“That’s not really necessary. We like to travel light.”
“I bet,” she mumbled and went to join her aunt.
It was time to leave. Hazel already knew about his hunting knife and now she learned about the gun. She suspected him. Saga probably did too, along with her brother, Arrow. He pulled out his carefully folded map from his vest pocket and located the town of Wilkins. Wisconsin and Minnesota had plenty of wilderness, just not close enough to where they were now. And hiding in the woods wasn’t going to work with Al anyway. Train-hopping was not a good idea for the moment. Perhaps they could catch a ride with a trucker to Minneapolis and rent a car there. There were tribe-friendly establishments in the lower forty-eight. The elders would vouch for him. His father was probably advocating for driving down to pick them up right now—they must have heard the news about Ay-Tal’s murder. It was all over TV, at least here in Wisconsin. He really needed to pass on a message, but that had to wait. He glanced over the map at Hazel. She was watching him. He smiled at her. Damn.
The doors to the basement swung open, and a big guy walked in with tightly trimmed blond hair and a beard. He was wearing jeans, a red-and-black lumberjack shirt, a puffy vest, and cowboy boots—a strange mirror image of Jon. I’m probably wearing his rejects, Jon realized. Too big on Jon, the violently colored lumberjacker was just about right for a hulking fellow like that.
“Hey, sweetheart.” The man came over and hugged Hazel. “Ada.” He waved in the general direction of his wife. “And you must be Jon.” He came over and loomed over Jon, not offering to shake hands.
“Must be,” Jon said. “Hazel and Ada have been good to Al and me. Set us up right and proper. We are grateful.”
“Of course you are.” Having taken Jon’s measure, the man decided that Jon wasn’t a threat. “I’m Burt Wilkins, Ada’s husband. I’m the mayor of this town and run the place down the road where you decided to crash last night.”
“Sorry about that,” Jon said.
“I guess it couldn’t have been helped. Arrow said you were all right. Hazel texted me, and Ada did too. So I guess you make an impression.”
“A favorable one, I hope,” Jon said. He couldn’t really tell why, but he really disliked the guy from the moment he laid eyes on him. Burt looked younger than Ada, too, not that it meant anything in and of itself. Just strange. A bit out of the ordinary…like this whole homeless donation center. Jon wondered again how many customers Ada Wilkins served. Were there any homeless around this small town of Wilkins? Same name and the mayor—coincidence? Jon didn’t think so. It’s way past the time we got out of here, he thought again.
“That’s your kid?” Burt pointed to Al, who quietly made his way over to Jon and now stood just behind his legs. “Doesn’t look like yours,” he said. There was a touch of malice in his voice.
“Daddy?” Al said in his little kid voice.
“Let me take a proper look at you, kid,” Burt said and reached to grab Al by the shoulder. Al tried to squirm away from him, but Burt managed to grab him anyway. Jon could see that he was hurting the kid…deliberately.
“Let go of my son, sir,” he said and stepped forward, right into the man’s face. Jon was shorter, but not by very much. He also knew how to stare down predators; he wasn’t afraid of facing a bear. Jon wasn’t stupid about the confrontation; he knew when and how to appear threatening. And after a moment or two, the man backed off with a smirk. He’s just trying not to lose face, Jon thought. Burt was a bully, but the man wasn’t interested in standing up to someone who could take him down. And Jon knew he could, and he made sure Burt knew it too. It was all in the body language, Jon remembered his father teaching him. And what works with animals…works with animals. He felt fear from the guy like an electrical current. He thought back to Saga’s reaction to his questions earlier. Is it this guy? “Time to go, Al,” Jon said and turned toward the door. Al grabbed his hand, and he felt the sweat on the little fingers—Ay-Tal was nervous.
“Oh, don’t be silly.” Ada came running, blocking the exit. “You can’t go until your clothes are dry. And you should eat something. It’s almost lunch time.” It wasn’t—it was not even eleven. “Hazel! Call over to Mrs. Nelson and ask Saga to deliver some sandwiches. Turkey, white meat, hold the mayo for me and Burt. Don’t argue, dear. The doctor said you had to watch what you eat. You’re not as young as you think, you know. And what would you like, Allie? You don’t mind me calling your son Allie, do you, Jon? He just looks more like Allie. Perhaps with time, he will grow into Al, right Allie? How about a nice kid’s meal?” Her voice was thick, sweet, and off, like a jelly gone bad. But there was no escaping her, not yet.
Jon hated the nickname “Allie.” It was so inappropriate for Ay-Tal. But all he said was, “We’ll both take a turkey sandwich just as it comes, if you are ordering.” There was no way to leave just now. And it wasn’t just Ada. Jon had a feeling Burt would follow them and run them down somewhere where there were no witnesses. Perhaps he wouldn’t really hurt them much, but he could surely make the trip north difficult. And Jon liked his bones intact. “Come sit with me at the table.” He took Al over to the sorting table, and they both settled down to wait. Jon didn’t remove the backpack from his shoulders.
Burt went over to the fridge and pulled out a can of beer—he didn’t offer one to Jon or his wife—and sprawled in the corner of the room and turned the TV back on to the news. Ada flittered around, pretending to put things away. Neither Al nor Jon had disturbed much, and what had been moved out of its usual place had already been picked up and put back by Hazel. It was just busy work, all for show. Hazel, unlike her aunt, sat at the table with Jon and Al and stared just above their heads. An uncomfortable twenty minutes passed.
Saga walked in with a big bag of groceries.
“Need money?” Burt barked at her.
Without looking at him, Saga put the bag on the table and started to pull out sandwiches and chips and some sodas. “Mrs. Nelson put it on Aunt Ada’s tab,” she said.
“That’s fine, dear.” Ada pulled out some paper plates and some napkins from a cupboard and went around delivering lunch. “There you are, Allie. If you can’t eat the whole thing, we’ll pack it for you for the road.”
“Thank you, Aunt Ada,” Al said and gave her a radiant little smile, asymmetrical dimple and all.
Ada shared a look with Burt, but he just shrugged. Jon wondered what she had said to her husband about him and Al. There was all that texting, and telephoning, and probably image sharing… They’d stayed too long. He bit into his food.
“Good sandwich, Saga. Thank you, Ada. Burt.” Jon nodded to each in turn. “How much can I contribute for Al and me?”
“Nothing! It’s just a little nothing.” Ada exchanged another look with her husband. “Of course, of course. We couldn’t let you go all hungry and such,” she said. “And all your stuff drying…”
“I’ll go check,” said Hazel, getting up.
“No, you sit and eat,” Burt told her. “Saga. Go deal with the laundry.”
Without a word, Saga got up and walked toward the back, not looking at or acknowledging Burt in any way. Jon noted that she didn’t bring a sandwich for herself, only for her foster family, Hazel, and Al and himself. She might not be hungry or…
“Lazy girl, that. Didn’t even bring beer,” Burt murmured between bites. “At least her brother works for his keep.”
“Saga works,” Hazel said quietly but didn’t look up or confront her uncle in any other way.
Jon ate his sandwich in two bites. “Thank you. It was great, Ada,” he said and got up to join Saga at the laundry room.
It smelled like soap and fabric softener and was much warmer than the room outside. The dryer was still going, and Saga stood with her back to the wall, invisible to all outside of the laundry room.
“Hiding?” Jon asked. Saga didn’t answer, just stared at him with those eyes that reminded Jon of black ice cured too rapidly by the cold. “When do you think the dryer will be done?” The girl just shrugged. She didn’t seem to care what Jon did, so he went over to the machine and pressed pause.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Saga said.
“Aunt Ada is very particular about her machines.”
“I thought this was all the church’s?”
“I see.” Jon opened the dryer door and pulled out his clothing. It was just an extra pair of jeans, another shirt, and some underwear and socks. They were lost inside the giant maw of the industrial-sized drier. “Well, it’s actually dry.” He smiled at Saga and quickly stuffed the things into his backpack. It was bulging now with all of the “new” things he got.
“She won’t let you take Allie,” Saga said. She used Ada’s tone of voice to pronounce the ridiculous endearment.
“Having a kid around makes her feel important,” Saga said. “She took me and Arrow because we are direct proof of her good deeds.”
“Well, it was nice of her,” Jon said. “But Al and I are good. We don’t need any more help or good deeds.”
“There’s a special service tomorrow. She’ll want to show the kid off to the congregation. What’s in a good deed unless everyone knows about it?”
“I see. Pretty clinical, that.”
“Whatever. Do you want to get out of here or not?” she asked. The way she said it, Jon knew there were conditions attached.
“What do you have in mind?”
“The post office truck will be coming by here around one, no later than one thirty. Mike tends to be on time.”
“So Mrs. Nelson said.” Jon watched Saga’s body language. She tried for nonchalant, but the way she wrapped her arms around herself made Jon pity her. He wondered again about Burt. Is he harming the girl?
“Well, Mike’s a friend,” Saga said. “He—”
“What are you two doing in there?” Burt’s voice hollered at them from across the church’s basement. Jon saw Saga flinch.
“We’re just folding, Uncle Burt,” she called out. “Be right there.”
“If you touch my girl in there—” Burt yelled.
“Ignore him,” Saga said.
“I will. So Mike?”
“He rides through town making deliveries. The post office and the church are his last stops.”
“Would he take me and Al to the next town over?” Jon asked.
“No.” She stared at him, daring him…to do what? “But he will take me.” Aah.
“That’s nice. But how is that good for me and Al?”
“If I come, you two can too,” she said.
“That’s your price?”
“That’s my price.”
“Why what? Why do I want to help you? Or why do I want to leave this freaking hellhole?”
“Both, I guess.”
“Wilkinses.” The way she said the name made Jon shudder. “Burt will want his reward for doing all this good work and getting up this early.”
“I’m not planning on sticking around for it…again,” she said. “And I suggest you don’t either. He likes little boys too, you know.”
Jon felt sick. He glanced out there through the open door. Burt was on his fifth or sixth can of beer. Al was sitting on his lap, watching the news. Ada was helping Hazel clean up after lunch. Jon noticed that Hazel was keeping her eye on Burt. She knows.
“Is Hazel okay?” Jon asked.
“She gets to go home,” Saga said.
“And your brother? Arrow?”
“He decked Burt once. That’s how he got the guard job.”
Jon was impressed; he didn’t think the kid had it in him. Good on him. “Won’t your brother worry about you?” he asked. He didn’t want to add to an already painful situation, although he felt that he would help the siblings if he could…just not if it would jeopardize his ability to bring Ay-Tal safely home. Ay-Tal above all else…
“Arrow can take care of himself now. He’s almost eighteen. He’ll be able to leave this freaking place soon. I have years…”
“I see.” If he could, Jon would have taught Burt the only lesson that man was likely to learn from. But Al… And he was already wanted for murder; he couldn’t draw more attention onto himself. “Why me? Why now?” he asked.
“You have a gun,” she said.
So Hazel must have told her somehow. Jon watched her awhile and thought. The girl wasn’t lying. And now that he knew, he couldn’t really walk away, could he? “Okay,” he said. “You can come with us, but only for a while. I can’t take you with me as far as my home. You understand? I just don’t have the means to do it. But I will help as far as I can.”
“Okay,” she said. Jon saw palpable relief in her whole being. She was scared, he realized. Really terrified. Poor kid.
“Do you have papers with you?”
“School ID, library card,” she said. “I don’t have a driver’s license yet. Burt won’t let me.”
She shook her head.
“Social security number?”
“No. Nothing like that. Aunt Ada has it all locked in her safe. There’s money from the state for fostering…”
“Well, we’ll solve that problem later,” Jon said. “Why don’t you grab some change of clothing for yourself and get ready to go? We’ll try to catch Mike before he gets here.”
“Okay.” She slithered out of the laundry room—that was the only way Jon thought of describing how she hugged the walls and stayed low so as not to attract attention. She must hide from that monster a lot, Jon thought. The anger he felt was so intense that he needed time to get himself back under control. He needed his cool to face those people out there.
When ready, Jon walked directly to Burt and lifted Al off the man’s lap. He didn’t look down; he didn’t want to know how bad a monster Burt was. Thank Aguguq, Ay-Tal wasn’t really a child, or Jon would have had to kill this man. He pressed the tiny, fragile body to his chest; Al leaned into him. Al knew. And Jon took a deep breath to calm himself again.
“Well, we better be going,” he said, stepping away from the table and the monster before he lost control. “Thank you again for all your hospitality,” he called out to Hazel and Ada.
“Oh, but Jon!” Ada rushed out to try to stop him from leaving again. “I just made a pot of my homemade tea! You have to try it.”
“Aunt Ada!” Hazel tried to intercept her. “Jon has to take Al home to his grandparents. They are waiting for him, aren’t they, Jon?” She looked to Jon for support. “The kid needs his Nana and Baba, right? You said yourself, grandparents are so important in children’s lives. We have to let them go. We have to!” There was no question Hazel knew about Burt. How many in this small town knew and did nothing?
Jon walked past the two women. “Thank you, Ada. And thank you, Hazel. Thank you,” he repeated in a small voice just for the girl. From the corner of his eye, he saw Saga rush up the stairs. She had a small backpack on that wasn’t there when she walked in with sandwiches, and another bag in hand; she had followed Jon’s instructions and packed some things from the donations. Good. “Well, goodbye, ladies. Thank you again.” And Jon headed for the door, carrying Al, neatly bypassing Ada. Hazel had managed to put herself between Jon and her aunt. He was grateful and hoped that there wouldn’t be any dire consequences for the girl. She was real family, after all.
Outside, he looked around. Saga motioned to him from around the corner of the church. He rushed to her.
“We can’t stay here—” they both said at the same time.
“Burt will come after us as soon as Aunt Ada gets him to move. I didn’t see. How drunk was he?” Saga asked.
“Drunk enough,” Jon said and pressed Al closer to him. If it were his child… “Which way does Mike leave town? We can wait for him en route.”
Instead of answering, Saga just rushed down the road back toward US-12. Jon ran alongside her, carrying Al. It took half an hour to walk up to the church from the Wilkins Nightclub that morning, but they made it back in just ten minutes.
Jon veered off to go inside, but Saga stopped him. “If Arrow knows…” She didn’t finish, but Jon understood. Arrow wouldn’t have a choice…just like Jon wouldn’t have had one if Saga were his sister. It was a blessing to leave without a word.
“Which way?” he asked.
“There’s a gas station down the road about a few miles or so,” Saga said. “Mike usually fills up there before returning to the main postal sorting center in Eau Claire.”
“That’s quite a ways.”
“There used to be one closer, but with the population dropping…” She shrugged and slowed down to a walk. Jon wanted to keep moving fast, but Saga was breathing heavily already, and he couldn’t carry both of them. So he let Al walk as well, holding his hand.
“So did Burt—” Al tried to ask Saga about her foster father as soon as he was on the ground.
“Don’t,” Saga cut him off. “Just don’t.”
Al wiggled free and walked alongside her. “We could report him,” he said.
Saga gave him a frightened look. “Did he do it to you, Al?”
“I can take care of myself,” Al said. From a little boy, it wasn’t very convincing.
“I’m sure,” Saga said with a sad grimace. “So can I.”
“I’m just saying that you shouldn’t have let him get away with it. There are people, services that would have helped you,” Al said.
“What do you know about it?” Saga said.
“Al is smart like that,” said Jon. But he wished Al would shut up and drop the matter. No legal advice worked coming from a five-year-old. He tried to grab Al’s hand again to show his displeasure, but the kid rushed around and took Saga’s free hand instead. Surprised at first, she took it. Somehow, Jon knew that if it were him showing the girl sympathy, she would have shut him out. “Let me carry that bag,” he said instead and took the tote away from the girl, leaving her with a backpack and Al. The bag was small but heavy. Jon vaguely wondered what was inside.
It took almost a full hour to walk to the gas station. Saga immediately asked for the keys to use the bathroom, leaving Al and Jon alone at the station’s mini mart. They picked out a few trail mix packets and a reusable water bottle with a filter and then sat to wait for the girl and the postman by the curb.
“It’s heartbreaking that child didn’t know how to escape,” Al said.
“She’s out of there now,” Jon said. It was a strange conversation to have with a little boy…but not with Ay-Tal.
“Not yet,” Al continued. “Ada and Burt Wilkins have legal custody of the siblings. The law is on their side.”
“What do you recommend?”
“If we put some distance between, it will give us breathing room to address the issue in another jurisdiction. The Wilkinses are obviously well known around these parts. It would be their word over Saga’s. Once we reach Saint Paul—”
“Saga said that Mike, the postman, can take us only as far as Eau Claire, and that’s in the wrong direction—”
“There’s a manhunt out for you,” Al said. “I saw the news. The hat was a good idea.”
“But not enough.”
“I have you. They won’t be looking for a guy with a little kid.”
“No. But I’m a liability in this form.” Jon didn’t contradict that. It was very inconvenient to have Ay-Tal as a child. It made them more memorable, too. “I will have to do another change,” Al said.
“Can you so soon?” Jon really didn’t know how any of this worked. He wished yet again that he had been trained for all contingencies. But this trip was supposed to be easy.
“It will be more difficult the next time,” Al said. “More energy-intensive.”
Jon had no idea what that meant in practical terms. “You can’t while Saga is with us.” He immediately felt guilty for saying the obvious. Ay-Tal might look like a little kid, but the mind within was as old as human civilization. Such dichotomy of being was difficult to process, especially under duress. Jon didn’t think his father or grandfather would have done any better. “So what’s your plan?” he asked, because ultimately, what they did was going to be Ay-Tal’s decision.
“As always, we wait and see. Humans are predictable in the long run, but in the short run, you are full of surprises.”
There was nothing to say to that. Ay-Tal was speaking from a very different perspective. But Jon still found it hard to be reminded of the vast differences between himself and this creature. If not god, then what?
The sound of brakes pulled Jon out of his reverie. A big tractor-trailer pulled into the gas station, taking up most of the space at the outside pump and completely blocking Jon’s view of the road. Not wanting to miss the postal truck, Jon stood up and walked around the tractor-trailer. Al stayed with their bags.
The truck driver pulled out the gas hose, but it came short; the eighteen-wheeler had overshot the pump by a few feet, obviously trying to avoid hitting the overhang. Cursing under her breath, the driver climbed back inside and reversed…right into the shrubbery.
The driver was a large woman, about the same height as Jon, with salt-and-pepper hair—mostly salt—big but fit, dressed in loose-fitting pants and a sweater several sizes too big with rolled sleeves, snake-skin boots, and a big silver squash blossom necklace and a matching bracelet with chunky bits of turquoise. Jon guessed her to be in her mid-fifties, maybe a bit younger, it was hard to tell. Half her face—the left half that faced the driver’s side window—was severely sun-damaged, wrinkly and brownish with dark spots randomly dotting her chin and forehead. The right half was a lot lighter and smoother. It was like two women were spliced together. By her right side, Jon would have put the woman in her late thirties, attractive with piercing blue eyes that matched the stones in her necklace. But her left… Fifties was splitting the difference.
“The space is really narrow,” Jon called out to the woman through the open cab window—the old crow side. “I can help a bit, if you like.”
“Drove all night. Tired,” the woman said. Her voice was deep, velvety, nice. Jon liked her right away. He acknowledged her with a nod. Women truck drivers got plenty of shit on the road, and he wasn’t about to undermine her. But he also didn’t want this to turn into a full-blown incident with the police and all. The clerk managing the gas station’s little convenience store was already out and videoing the whole thing on his cell phone. Everything was documented nowadays. Jon pulled his hat down a bit lower and, conscious of keeping his back to the camera, used hand signals to guide the woman within the hose-stretching distance of the pump.
“You’re good, ma’am,” he said. “The bush’s okay too. Just a few leaves knocked off, that’s all. Will be good as new in the spring.” That was an understatement of the damage, but it was sure to grow back—plants did that all the time. So no real harm done in the long run.
“Thanks, kid.” The woman climbed back down and walked over to inspect the flattened shrubbery. “Damn. I don’t know why they make these places so narrow.” Jon noted the lack of space as well. It was fine for regular cars, but for something as large as an eighteen-wheeler? A tight fit indeed. And it would be hard to get out too. Whoever did the landscaping was an idiot.
“I’ll help on the way out, if you want,” Jon offered. “They didn’t leave you much room to maneuver.”
“Thanks. We can aim for symmetry, huh?” She winked at him. “Mind watching the pump for me? Got to go use the little ladies room.” And with that, the woman walked away, leaving Jon in charge. There wasn’t much to do, but Jon knew that it took some time to fill up something of this size, and he was expecting Mike at any time. He looked back at Al and shrugged. Al shrugged back.
Forever later—at least ten minutes—Saga and the woman driver walked back out to the gas pumps. The woman was still as she was, but Saga looked completely different. No more black leather jacket, or black denim jeans, or those heavy hiking boots, or the heavy Goth makeup. Even the facial piercings were gone. The girl who was Saga was now wearing light-colored sneakers, gray tights, and a pink dress underneath a very girly purple puffy winter jacket. She looked much younger now—a total makeover. Smart, thought Jon.
“You look good,” Al called to her approvingly. Saga shrugged, but Jon could see that she appreciated the compliment.
“They with you?” the driver asked Saga. Apparently they’d met in the lady’s room.
“Yeah. This is Al and that’s Jon,” Saga said. “Thanks for the help in there, Mary.”
“Sure thing. Sure thing,” Mary said. Jon wondered what help Saga required but decided not to ask. “Thank you for watching my rig, young man.”
“No problem.” Jon was relieved to be done with that. He walked back to Al and Saga. “So, is Mike late?” he asked. It seemed to be way past the time Saga said to expect the mail truck.
“A bit,” Saga agreed. She looked nervous, fidgeting with the straps of her backpack. It looked swollen—the leather jacket, Jon assumed. Her old boots were tied to the straps, just like Jon’s.
“Is there a chance that he drove back to his postal station some other way?” Jon asked. But just as he said it, he saw the mail van drive up to the gas station. Burt was sitting in the passenger seat in front next to Mike. A big pickup truck was right behind. Burt’s, Jon guessed. “We’ve got to go,” he whispered and pulled Saga to her feet, grabbing the bags. “Quickly go around the big rig. Keep it between you and Burt.”
There was panic in Saga’s eyes, but she rushed to the tractor-trailer, grabbing Al’s hand and dragging him along. Seeing that Al understood the situation, Jon ran to catch up to Mary, who was now paying the clerk for some junk food she’d picked up at the mini mart.
“Look,” she was saying. “It will grow back. You know it will. So just give me a break. There ain’t any—”
“Got to pay for the damage, lady. It’s not me. I’m fine with a dead bush. What do I care for greenery? But my boss will make me pay for the new planting. Sorry, lady. It would be two hundred extra.”
“Two hundred? For that sickly old thing? I bet they were not even to code!” Mary’s hands balled into fists. Her face was contorting in anger and incredulity.
Those shrubs aren’t worth two hundred bucks, Jon thought. But they were pretty smashed up, and he could see that this was about to escalate. And Burt was outside already. He might have not seen Saga and Al yet, but he would soon. “Sir, allow me,” he said and pulled out two hundred in cash. “This is enough, right?” The clerk nodded, but Mary rounded on him. Jon waited for her to yell and argue, but instead her eyebrows went up and she looked outside to where Al and Saga were seated earlier and then over to the where the mail truck just parked. Burt was staggering out toward them. Something clicked, and her entire demeanor changed right in front of his eyes.
“Need a lift?” she asked.
“Yes.” He looked back at Burt walking toward the mini mart and then back at Mary. She followed his gaze and nodded.
“Give this guy another two hundred,” she ordered. Jon didn’t question it, just counted out the money and placed it on the counter. The clerk watched them both with buggery eyes. “Keep that guy occupied,” Mary ordered the clerk and pulled Jon around the counter and toward the back door of the store.
Within seconds, they were slipping out the back. Jon heard Burt bark something at the clerk. The clerk protested. There was a bang, a crash, and glass broke.
“In my rig, fast,” Mary ordered.
They crept around to the front. There was glass all over the pavement. From the side, Jon could see Ada standing next to the parked pickup truck, hand clasped to her chest, eyes huge. Mike, the postman, was slowly backing away to his van. It was obvious that he had planned to go into the mini mart but changed his mind and now just wanted to get the hell out of there without being dragged into a confrontation.
“Go,” Mary ordered and strode out to the front of the store. “What’s going on here?” she barked at Ada. The woman cringed and turned to get back into her pickup truck.
Jon saw his opportunity and ran. He rounded the tractor-trailer and helped Saga and Al into the huge cab. As soon as the kids hid behind the seats with their bags, Jon climbed into a passenger seat, closed the door, and crouched low to watch.
Mary glanced over at him and winked. The woman had nerves of steel. But instead of walking to her truck, she went inside the mini mart.
What is she doing? thought Jon. Next to him, he heard Saga whimper. Al pressed himself into her; Saga hugged him and whispered encouragements. Jon could see that protecting a small child made her feel better, braver. Al obviously knew what to do; unfortunately, Jon didn’t. Did Mary need his help?
“Look, mister.” They heard Mary’s booming voice all the way across the gas station. “The only girl that was here was wearing a pink dress, and she drove away with her father a while ago. So why don’t you scram before I call the cops?”
From inside the truck, they couldn’t hear Burt’s answer. By now, the postman managed to get himself back into his van and was driving out of the gas station. He didn’t want to be around for this. Jon didn’t blame him. He wished Mary were speeding them away from here, too.
There was more unintelligible screaming from inside. In the side mirror, Jon saw the flash of blue and red lights—the cops. Damn. “Al?” he called back.
“Just stay low,” Al said. “The local cops won’t want any witnesses.” Jon considered and agreed—the Wilkinses most likely had pull with the local sheriff. Burt was drunk and had just vandalized the mini mart. There would be a surveillance video to that fact. And Mary. And Mike, the postman. And the clerk inside. That was a lot of witnesses already.
The sheriff pulled up right to the shuttered door and, waving hello to Ada, strode inside. There were more shouts from Burt, but then the man walked out and went around to sit in the passenger seat of his own pickup truck. Jon saw Ada carefully back up and out of the gas station and haltingly drive back the way they came. Al had guessed right—the sheriff wasn’t here to arrest Burt but to get him out of trouble.
A few minutes later, Mary walked out of the mini mart holding a giant Slurpee cup. She turned and waved to the sheriff and the clerk, walked to her tractor-trailer, and with a big grin handed the giant drink to Jon.
“Good to go,” she said and drove the truck through the other hedge and back out onto the road. “Don’t you just love symmetry?” she added with a smile. Jon just stared at the woman. How crazy is she?
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