One Summer in Georgia by Cole Parker

He was on his way home, a leisurely trip driving back roads in rural Georgia.
A sudden encounter with a young teen interrupted his trip.
He’d just completed a job, and the last thing he needed was a passenger.
Especially a kid as a passenger.


Chapter 1


The drive up from Orlando on I-75 into Georgia was monotonous and relaxing. Perfect. Just what I needed. I’d just completed another assignment; after one, I always felt like I needed a decompression chamber. All the tension that had been building for weeks was suddenly gone. All the worries, the anxieties, the fears, the thinking about every little detail that could trip me up—I could put them behind me now. Having to remember every word I’d said to anyone, thinking about the knife’s edge I was balancing on, the personalities I was dealing with, the loyalties I was undermining—all of them created a tightrope my life was balancing on. All that was over. Nothing loomed over me now affecting every waking moment—all gone now seemingly in the blink of an eye. It took some time for the effects of that to dissipate. Other guys found other ways to get rid of the tensions. Women. Drink. Vacations in the sun on a lonely or a well-peopled isle. What I did was, I drove. Drove lonely country roads where I’d rarely see another car and almost never a person. Just drove. Turned my mind off. Let it wander where it would as I wandered the countryside.

I was a loner by preference. This worked perfectly for me, creating the solace I needed.

I’d flown into Orlando along with so many vacationers and Disney World enthusiasts that finding any record of me would be impossible, especially because the name I’d flown under wasn’t the one I was using now. I’d exited the state on I-75, driving into southern Georgia, then taking US 84 west. It was August. Anyone who’s been in southern Georgia in August knows that the words ‘heat’ and ‘humidity’ take on a whole new definition there. For me, it was perfect. It kept most people inside. It allowed me to roam free of disturbances or distractions. Free to think. It worked especially well when the A/C in the vehicle poured out a steady gale of cold air.

The assignment had been in Wyoming. Physical separation afterwards was always wise. Instead of high plains, grassy fields, a chill at night forewarning of the coming winter, and distant or not-so-distant mountains, the scenery here was flat farm fields and pine forests. I’d see the occasional pecan grove and peach orchard, too. But mainly it was just an immense, unpeopled area, mostly undeveloped where I was, mostly lonely and deserted. Paved or dirt two-lane roads with trees on both sides were crossed now and then by dusty-looking dirt roads that could well have led to nowhere at all.

I was planning to spend the night in Crocker Corners. It was a tiny dot on the map. Nothing to distinguish it. Away from everything. It probably had either a motel or a bed-and-breakfast. Something, at least. Perhaps just a diner and a gas station. That’s all I really needed. I could sleep in the truck if need be. Heaven knew, I’d slept rougher than that before. Often.

The air outside the old pickup I’d been given was dense, thick with humidity, languid with heat. The truck creaked and shook with worn shocks, but the A/C worked fine. I’d made sure of that when I’d told my control in Washington what sort of vehicle I wanted and where I’d be to pick it up. “Make sure the A/C works a treat. A-1, bang-up condition,” I’d told him. And he had. We got on well together; I did what he assigned me, and he gave me what I wanted, too, both before and after the missions were finished. He appreciated me, and that’s always good in a boss/employee relationship.

Neither the appearance of the old truck nor the worn shocks bothered me. I had no desire to be a spectacle of any sort, and I wasn’t driving all that fast. The idea was to decompress, not get anywhere in a hurry. I’d had to kill someone this time. With some of the guys, that didn’t seem to bother them much. I didn’t have the military background most of them did nor the same sort of training or personality disorders they seemed to exhibit. It bothered me when killing was needed, even when it was entirely justified by the need to save innocent lives, as it had been a few days earlier.

It was getting on in the afternoon. I’d reach Crocker Corners in another couple of hours. By that time, it’d be early evening, and I was already tasting the cold beer I’d have if there was a bar there. Maybe two.

I wasn’t worried. There was always a bar, no matter the size of the town.

I hadn’t seen another vehicle or a solitary soul for the past three hours. I was bouncing along, my mind adrift, when suddenly…

A boy burst out of the woods ahead of me on my right. There was a dog, a German Shepherd, trotting along with him. They moved to the side of the road in a flash, racing to get there just before I reached them. The boy was shirtless, his hair a mess, flying every which way as he ran in his denim cut-offs and flip-flops.

I took all that in at a glance. The boy was standing right beside the road, turned so he was facing me, and he was waving both arms up above his head as I drove up. The expression on his face was frantic.

“What the hell?” I muttered but pressed my foot on the brake pedal. By the time I’d stopped, I was about 100 feet down the road from the boy. In the side mirror I could see him sprinting in my direction.

I didn’t want a passenger; I didn’t want to handle some sort of backwoods emergency; I didn’t want to do anything but continue on towards that solitary cold beer. That was the only objective I had. But I felt I should at least talk to him. I’d do that and send him on his way. I reached over and cranked down the window on the passenger’s side.

The boy reached the truck. “What’s the trouble?” I asked.

I expected a short conversation. Instead, the boy yanked on the door handle. The door wasn’t locked, so it popped right open. The boy said, “Fitz!” and the dog jumped in. The boy tumbled in right on its heels. He crowded onto the bench seat with the dog in the middle. “Drive!” he said, and the frantic expression I’d seen on his face was now visiting his voice.

I hesitated, then stepped on the gas. Making decisions was something I was good at. I had to do it all the time in my profession—spur of the moment, life-affecting decisions. There were lots of pros and cons to moving off with a strange boy in my truck, but it seemed to me, looking at the boy, there was more reason to obey than balk.

The road was straight as a die. The boy kept turning backwards, looking out the rear window. “Go faster!” he commanded.

“How’s ‘bout you telling me what’s going on here?” I parried, not speeding up at all.

The boy was silent, still watching; then, a few seconds later, he turned back around and slumped down in his seat. “Far enough. Don’t matter now,” he said. Perhaps he was talking to the dog; it only half-sounded like it was meant for me.

“You OK now?” I asked.

He turned to me. “Should be.” He paused, then said, “Thanks.” Seemed he was making an effort, just getting that out.

I was driving through late-afternoon sunshine with long shadows reaching from the left across the road. I had my visor flipped down and turned to cover my side window, and that helped. Up ahead, I saw a wider space on the left where the forest we were passing wasn’t threatening to overgrow the road. I slowed, then pulled across the road and onto, then off the shoulder and into the deep shade back near the trees. I turned off the truck.

He didn’t say anything, and neither did I for a few moments. The ticking of the cooling engine was the only noise I could hear.

Within a minute, I became very aware of the lack of air conditioning. How did people live down here without it? I restarted the truck and let it idle. I said to the boy, “You want to get out here?”

The boy looked around, though with thick woods on either side of us and only the road bisecting the space between, there wasn’t that much to see. He brought his eyes back to mine, then dropped them to his dog. He rested his left arm on the animal’s shoulder. He’d calmed down; his initial fright seemed forgotten. He was sitting up, looking out the front window. The dog never had seemed anxious.

“No,” the boy finally said.

“Then I guess you’d better tell me what this is all about.”

The boy returned his eyes to mine and held them. What I didn’t see was any lack of confidence, any shyness, any fear. Where he’d been frantic before, now he seemed perfectly under control. Whatever he’d been afraid of, he wasn’t now. I remembered him jumping in the truck without being invited. He had no problem meeting my eyes. This didn’t seem to be a fragile kid.

But he also didn’t seem to know what to say. So he just sat there, looking at me. Perhaps he thought: well, you’re the adult, you figure something out.

OK. I could do that. “Can you tell me what you were running away from?”

The boy shook his head. Didn’t speak.

“You want me to take you somewhere up ahead?”

I saw a spark of interest in his eyes then, but it quickly faded into indecision. I saw his shoulders slump.

“You’re not sure what you want, huh?” I asked, my tone just a bit gentler.

He nodded.

I thought for a few moments. This wasn’t a good thing for me. I wasn’t sure what was what. Someone had been coming after him, I was thinking. Perhaps it was the law. Maybe he’d escaped from a youth facility and was fleeing. But the dog sort of made that unlikely. If he were fleeing his parents and they called the cops and the cops found him in a truck with me, well, I’d have a lot of explaining to do. His parents had a right to him; I didn’t.

My control in Washington didn’t like me using my job in any way, shape or form to make excuses for anything, either to explain or justify. Very few people even knew of my sub-agency’s existence. Control liked it that way. If I were picked up as a potential kidnapper or child abuser, I’d be on my own trying to talk my way out of it, and Georgia law enforcement had a reputation of being a bit parochial. Perps talking their way out of things to rural-county sheriffs wasn’t something they were famous for. Chain gangs for unpaid parking tickets—yeah, that was more what people considered the norm.

I needed some information from him before I got myself in trouble and lost any ability to be of use to him or, more to the point, myself.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Colton.”

“First or last?”

“First.”

“What’s your last name?

“Haddox. What’s it to you? You haven’t told me yours yet.”

I grimaced. “Kent. Kent Lewis. How old are you?”

“Fourteen.”

“Where do you live?”

“Mister, you’ve got a heap of questions and they don’t get us anywhere at all. Why don’t you keep driving?” There was some annoyance, which I decided to think of as spirit, in his voice.

I shook my head. “I need to know what to do with you. I can get in trouble, you just being in the truck with me, and I don’t like being in trouble. So if you want to stay with me, I have to know why and how safe it is.” I realized, as I said that, I’d as good as offered to let him ride on with me. Why would I do that? I should just be kicking him out of the truck and moving on. That cold beer was calling.

“Who was chasing you?” I asked after he’d ignored what I’d just said and sat silently looking out the window.

He turned back to look me in the eyes. “Some people that were trouble. I had to get away. I lost them in the woods and was able to make it to the road. It was empty. So I kept going along the edge of the road just back in the trees, and when I saw you coming, I darted out, and you stopped. I made you drive off right away so if who was after me came out of the woods just then, they’d not be able to see your truck or license-plate number. So, see? I was protecting you. I was keeping you out of trouble.”

I couldn’t help it. I grinned while shaking my head. “You were protecting me. I see. Seems to me it was the other way around, that I was saving your ass, but you can have it your way if that suits your fancy.”

“Nothing funny here,” he snorted. I wondered if I’d hurt his feelings. A quick glance didn’t show him looking like that. He just looked serious. “But we should get moving.”

“Oh, so I’m just supposed to drive, and you’re just supposed to be going along for the ride? Well, maybe you should be telling me where to go, then.”

“Where were you headed?” he asked.

I didn’t see any reason not to tell him. “Crocker Corners. You know the place?”

“Sure.”

I waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t. So I asked, “That a good place to drop you, then?”

He was still and silent for a moment, then asked, “Where you going after that?”

I didn’t like that answer. I wasn’t planning on adopting the kid or even driving around with him any longer than was absolutely necessary. What was this, anyway? “Why do you care? I thought you wanted to be dropped off somewhere.”

He did his silent thing again. Funny how he did it. Most kids I’d known, if they weren’t sure of something they should have known, they’d act defensive or embarrassed or shy or, or whatever. He just acted like it was nothing at all. Like he simply didn’t feel like answering and so didn’t. His self-composure was unreal. This kid was something else. He was sitting in the middle of nowhere with a strange man in a truck, and he was less nervous about it than I was.

He didn’t seem to mind the silence at all. So I asked, “Look, I’ll be spending the night in Crocker Corners. One way or another. I’ll drive you there if you want. Drop you off somewhere in town. That OK?”

He kept looking out the front window for a minute, then said, “Let’s go.” So I did.

>>>>> >>>>>

The next two hours were mostly quiet. I tried to engage him in conversation, but he either ignored me or only answered in one- or two-word terse responses.

Crocker Corners was almost nothing. A few tired-looking shops, a gas station, a diner, a bar and a few houses. Couldn’t be more than a thousand people in the place. There wasn’t even a stoplight. It had one of those caution lights hanging above where our road and a crossroad met, a light that continuously blinked yellow. That marked the center of town. That was it.

I turned to the boy. “You know this place? Is there a motel here at all?”

He nodded. “Yeah, about another half-mile straight ahead on this road.”

“OK, thanks. Well, you want to get out here? Middle of town?”

He looked at me hard for a moment, then sighed. “Look, mister. This isn’t a good place for me. I need to get away from around here. I know you don’t know me, but, well, I need help. Not much, but a little. Just a ride. I’m not someone who asks anyone for help. But I’m asking now. If you’re still going north tomorrow, I’d like to come with you. I need to be up north. Any place, really, that isn’t here. You think you could do that? Let me stay in the truck tonight and then ride with you tomorrow?”

For the first time, the kid was sounding his age, and I could tell, he really wanted me to say yes. Ah ha! I thought: a bargaining chip.

“You want me to give you a ride tomorrow. What about tonight? You need to be fed. Your dog needs to be fed. You need a better place to sleep than in this truck out in the heat. Seems I could help you with all that. I could.” I stopped, looking at him.

He gulped. Then nodded. That was all. He seemed to be asking again.

“OK,” I said, sitting up a little straighter. “I’ll help you, but there’s a condition that comes with it. We’ll go to the motel, grab a room, come back and get some grub, and while we’re eating, you’ll tell me every bit of what’s going on. That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.”

He turned from looking out the front and met my eyes. The wishful, needy kid was nowhere to be found in his eyes now. “Sounds like we need to negotiate here. I like the offer, but it needs to be worked over a bit. Why don’t we go get the room. We can talk more there. I need to take a leak, and Fitz does, too.”

This kid had some moxie, and I might have laughed if he hadn’t been so serious.

“OK. We’ll talk in the room.” I pulled away from the curb we’d been sitting next to and headed out in the same direction we’d been going. The kid was right. We’d just left the town limits when the motel came into sight. The Dew Drop Inn. Figured. Aargh!

I pulled into the driveway, and the kid slumped down in his seat and pulled the dog down so he was in the foot well. I looked over at them. The kid said, “I’ll explain in the room. Don’t mention that I’m here, OK?”

And here I’d wanted to stay out of trouble.

I did it, though. Not sure why, but I did. Maybe the fact I was dealing with a kid, a bare-chested one without proper shoes and by the look of him, no money, made a difference. So, I registered for a single room, a room for one. They didn’t have any king-size beds but did have some queens. I asked the clerk, a middle-aged man who’d finally come from the back wiping his lips with a napkin, for a room as far away from the road as possible to diminish the noise. He looked at me oddly and said there weren’t no traffic at night no-how; never had been. I told him I always took a room in the back, it was a superstition of mine, and he just shook his head and pointed on his chart at one on the backside of the place. I took it. $40 for the night. Seemed high based on the looks of the place, but I doubted there was another motel for miles in any direction.

I pulled around to the back of the motel at the end of the long row of rooms. Twenty feet behind us another woods began. In an instant the boy and his dog were gone into the woods. I was hoping that would be the last I’d see of them. I entered the room and the first thing I did was switch on the A/C; the room was an oven. The A/C worked, if noisily, because pretty quickly I could feel a torrent of cold air coming out.

In just a few minutes there was a knock on the door, and when I opened it, there was the boy. He came in without pause. Fitz, too, who looked around and then jumped up on the bed and lay down right in the middle.

The boy stood looking at me. I threw my duffel on the bureau, then told him I was going for ice. “Bring some Cokes, too,” he said, and I just shook my head, muttering to myself.

I got the ice from the machine, bought four Cokes and went back to the room. I handed the boy one, then sat down on the one chair. It was beginning to look like that cold beer was nothing but a pipe dream.

“Talk,” I said.


Continued…



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