We drive like bandits through the night, grazing on drive-thru fast food. I picture myself this way while I dream and drive and worry my way up I-5: I see myself with a red bandana tied around my face, hold-up style, although even in my mind it clashes with my red hair. In my mind, it’s my disguise, hiding those telltale freckles. No officer, we don’t remember anything about the nondescript woman who stole the boy in San Diego—oh wait, yes, she had freckles. A grown woman with freckles [they snicker here]. The boy wears a bandana, also (in my mind), his a light blue, tied around his neck loosely, hiding his own telltale signs.
You might need to stop for more coffee, Patty.
Here is what I know: I have a quiet little boy in my car. I’ve bungee corded him to the passenger seat, which I recognize may sound cruel, but actually it provides him with a bounciness he seems to like. I ascertain his approval despite the fact that he has not made much sound (but there’s so little to comment on along I-5, Patty).
Start again, revise (revision is everything, Patty): I have a little boy bungee-corded to my passenger seat as we drive through the night in search of, well, I haven’t gotten that far. I know we’re headed north: California really only gives you the two options. Am I really in search of a town I read about in a brochure? A town that sounded homey and familiar, where absolutely no one I know lives? (This is a plus, of course, especially in this situation.) It doesn’t seem that crazy, this time of night. Right now, I’m somewhere in the Neverland known as “above L.A.,” as I always picture north as above me somehow. I’m visual that way, my mind like a map that lacks all capitals and cities. I’m visual but nearsighted.
He is very quiet, although is that such a bad thing? He has stayed quiet, snugly resting on my spare pillow, wrapped in soft blankets, bungee-corded to his seat. (But in a good way, Patty; it’s not like you’d have a car seat for kidnapping emergencies, the way some people carry spare leashes in their backseat to rescue stray animals.) He has said only “oh” and “oon,” but mostly when we hit a bump. I’m happy to hear any exclamations from his little voice (although happy may not be the right word), despite years of telling my composition students that exclamations are inappropriate. How wrong you’ve been, Patty.
He was tied to a doghouse. A splintery doghouse. Not that this detail might mean a lighter sentence or anything. What would you do? I ask the a.m. radio station, which is gracious enough not to respond.
There are any number of correct answer boxes to check. None of which I’ve done. Though didn’t I try?
I’m exhausted from driving in what I now recognize as the appropriately named dark of night, especially once you’re beyond the lights of L.A., as well as looking for flashing lights, waiting for that heart-stopping siren that means you (Patty) are about to be pulled over/arrested/humiliated/thrown in jail.
“It’s the slammer for me,” I try out. I can hear the thick metallic doors slam. Too much Law and Order. I turn up the radio. He’s asleep anyway, having bounced in his cords for a while, most of the time tugging at a phantom string—a holdover sensation no doubt from the cord I removed from around his neck, as I did of course remove it. What would have been the point of taking him if I’d left the rope on him that had connected him to a doghouse? I’m not that bad a person.
We stop at Carl’s Junior, in the drive-through lane, after I’ve thrown a blanket over him. I try not to smother him, which could only bring more charges, plus of course, it isn’t nice. (A spelling mnemonic goes through my mind—there is a mother in smother—but I let it go, fast.) I order us healthy chicken sandwiches (the authorities may look kindly on this) and French fries, but just small orders. I do not supersize. I have some judgment left, I like to think.
I have stolen a child and am clogging his arteries. I am not good at this at all.
I wake him and we eat, him smelling each bite before eating (not too abnormal) and keeping two fingers at his neck. It’s just two fingers, Patty. Just one finger worse than sucking a thumb, right?
But then I notice his hand. This is my first chance to really look at him, and it occurs to me, sickeningly: Has something been biting his hand? An animal? An animal with small teeth?
My vision sparkles over, but it passes.
Just one hand, the right one. And as he rests from eating, I realize what it is. He has been gnawing on his hand. Knuckles, inside of the palm, cuticles, that fleshy area between thumb and index finger. He’s not fussy which part. I study him now: He bites a fry, he bites his hand. Hard. I look away. I feel ill.
Then he removes the lettuce from his sandwich and throws it on the car floor. I’m relieved at the normalcy of it, a child indifferent to wilted vegetables. Please don’t bite, I want to tell him. Just bite the sandwich, chew the hell out of it (how do people stop swearing around children? It must be like talking to freshmen), but I can’t bring myself to mutter instructions at this moment. My teaching skills fail me yet again.
Instead, I remove the lettuce from my own sandwich and toss it on the car floor, too. I model healthy behavior (sort of). I want him to feel accepted, bungee cord notwithstanding.
Biting yourself. There are worse things. There may have been worse things. Drive, Patty.
I begin to think of what I can say when pulled over by the black-and-white racing police car I’m certain is somewhere just behind us.
Police guy: Step out of the car. (I do.)
Me: Can’t you see how much happier he is? (We both look over to examine the boy bungee-corded to the seat. I can see how this might give the officer the wrong idea. He may draw a weapon here, if he hasn’t already.)
Police guy: Step away from the child.
Me: Please, listen. There was a little boy on my street living in the doghouse. No one seemed to care. What would you do?
Police guy: We have authorities for that.
I realize here that I have never seen a gun before.
Me: But the phone lines were broken, and the office was shut down. The authorities were out of business. Budget cuts, you know?
Police guy: Are those French fries in his mouth?
Still, it’s possible no one is following us at all. When I consider this, at a lull on the road (and there are many), wondering if anyone cares about the bungee corded boy who is not mine, it makes me a little sad. In the scheme of things, although it wouldn’t be good for me personally, someone with a clear and legally justifiable sense of right and wrong should be following us, shouldn’t he (or she)?
We exit the freeway at a sign that indicates Food Lodging, even though the sign doesn’t use a comma or a conjunction. I would feel so comforted by a conjunction right now I can’t tell you.
I pass by the first hotel and choose one a little further on, figuring that at least it wouldn’t be the first place someone might look for us. My mind tells me that if the people following me (the cops with guns and mace—their faces slightly blurred by the hour of the night, but always marked by expressions completely lacking in understanding), anyhow, if they didn’t have to look all that hard, maybe I’d be in less trouble. The things you tell yourself in the middle of the night.
I check in with no questions asked, as the check-in guy (he’s about sophomore age) is half asleep, but then, who isn’t. I wrap the little boy in his blanket (he’s covered, not that anyone’s watching, or are they?) and carry him into our room in motel number two. I will never be able to remember the motel’s name.
I place him on the bed in the peppermint and vacuum cleaner smelling room. He watches me run a bath (it’s a small room), and then I begin to do something I do not want to give much thought to. I take off his clothes. The band aid question flashes through my mind: Should I rip them off quickly? Would that be less painful (for either of us) than to remove them slowly, and maybe in the process see something I long not to see—marks, welts, bruises, scars? Hints and allegations?
Cigarette burns, Patty. You’ve read those books.
Ever ambivalent, I go for the in-between speed and remove his clothes as if it were the most normal thing in the world. He says nothing: one hand goes to his mouth for a nice chew, the other one rubs at his neck, at the rope marks. There’s a moment of fear when I need to get his shirt over his head, but he moves his hands away pretty easily, as if free will has been lost to him for some time.
I do not see that much. I had bruised knees all the time as a child, and what would that have said about me? (Yes, Patty, look how well you turned out.) There are assorted question marks across his torso, here and there. There is the sore, red area around his neck, where he rubs. Then the hand. I place him in the tub, and he sits calmly, sleepily.
God, don’t let him drown, Patty.
I rinse out his clothes and place them over the heater. I wrap him in an old T-shirt of mine, and he falls asleep, hand stuck to mouth. He is a small unknown boy in an unattractive hotel room. I don’t have a firm grasp at all of who I am at the moment.
Linda Lenhoff’s latest novel, *Your Actual Life May Vary, was a finalist for the SFWP Publication prize, Top 6, and also made the final 6 for the Galileo Prize from Free State Review and the Orison Books prize. The first chapter, “Your Actual Life May Vary,” was published in This Side of the Divide by Baobab Press in 2019. She is looking forward to having her first collection of short stories, You’ve Got a Problem, published by Propertius Press. Linda published two novels with Kensington Books, Life a la Mode and Latte Lessons. Life a la Mode was her thesis for an MFA in Creative Writing and was translated into four languages. She lives in California’s Bay Area.