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.
We were at the motel, but we didn’t have wheels, which was more than a little limiting. It was past lunchtime. A lot had happened, but the day still lay ahead of us. It’d have been nice if we could have driven to meet it head on with the A/C blasting from this point on, but for now, anywhere we went, we had to hoof it.
The room was an oven, as unoccupied motel rooms almost always are at first. Why pay for A/C if you don’t know whether the room will be used or not? The motel staff sure knew the answer to that one! I turned the A/C on first thing while Colt was in the bathroom, and Fitz made himself at home in the middle of one of the beds.
We both took showers and then put the same sweaty clothes back on. They were still wet. I modified our plan. We needed some new clothes.
While Colt was showering, I was checking the Yellow Pages section of the phone book. I compared what I found to the map of the city in the front of the phone book. We were lucky. It looked like all the stores we wanted were within walking distance. If that hadn’t been the case, I’d have had to alter the plan till we had wheels again, which would have required a longer stay.
We didn’t want to be too obvious, attract too much attention, because we didn’t know how many informants Colt’s dad might have in Aldon. Probably not a real worry, but still… Anyway, it seemed to me that the first order of business was to get Colt some clothes so he didn’t need to wander around half dressed or in a four-sizes-too-large tee shirt. What was OK in the country caught people’s attention in town. And I thought maybe we could kill two birds with one stone.
I’d found an Army Surplus store in the Yellow Pages located on our side of town. I knew these stores were getting scarce up north but figured they’d still be plentiful in the South, and wasn’t surprised there was one in Aldon.
One nice thing about a small-to-medium-sized town: most everything was within walking distance. When we’d both showered, we set off, leaving Fitz to guard the room and Bart’s pistol, which I’d hidden where a maid wouldn’t stumble over it. Not that a maid would stay long in that room with a German Shepherd looking at her from the bed. Anyway, ‘guard the room’ was a euphemism. ‘Sleep on the bed’ was more realistic, but ‘guard the room’ had a more militaristic sound to it, and we were going Army.
Fitz’s body language showed he didn’t like being left behind, and his puppy-dog pleading eyes were matched by Colt’s when I told him the dog couldn’t come, but I was averse to wanting to fit the description of a man, a boy and a German Shepherd that someone might be on the lookout for.
The Army Surplus store was like every other one I’d ever been in. It was a cavernous room with fluorescent tubes running the length of the room and with rows and rows of displays of clothes and gear, most of it in olive-drab green. I bought a couple of tee shirts that fit Colt along with a couple for me and a pair of long pants with a belt for Colt. Then I got hiking boots and thick socks for both of us, canteens, backpacks, camouflage greasepaint, a couple of strap-on hunting knives, some binoculars, water purifying tablets and folded-up rain slickers.
“You guys going on a hike?” the clerk at checkout asked.
“How’d you know?” I asked him with a smile. “Yeah, the kid’s been wanting to know what a combat mission’s like, living rough, being without a mom telling him to be careful about everything and to eat his greens. He’s nearly 13 and ready to get a taste of men being alone in the wild, building campfires, sleeping in a tent. Howling at the moon if we feel like it.”
“Kind of hot out,” the guy said while scanning our purchases. “Some guys wait till fall.”
“My kid, Wilbert here, says that’s for pussies, and anyway, we wait for school to start up and it’s not as much fun and we won’t be able to stay out for very long. You remember being a kid in summer, don’t you? You remember wanting adventure?”
The guy laughed. “Sure do. Hated school.” He told me the cost, and I paid. Cash.
Then we crossed the street to a Home Depot store where we bought some masking tape, several cans of black spray enamel, one of white enamel, painters’ masks, drop cloths, rags, paint thinner, and a few tools.
Outside the store, we stuffed all the supplies into our backpacks. We had one more stop to make before heading back to the motel. There was an office-supplies store in the next block. We spent a few minutes there, and then Colt insisted we stop on the way back for hamburgers. I didn’t object. My stomach was beginning to feel I’d forgotten about it, too. I had a cheeseburger. He had two, but I saw him save some of the meat from the second one for Fitz.
Fitz was delighted to see us but didn’t leap all over either of us. But if dogs could smile, he was doing just that with a tail going 40 mph.
After greeting Fitz and giving him his treat, Colt turned to me, a sour look on his face. “Wilbert? Twelve?”
When we left the motel, taking Fitz with us this time, it was mid-afternoon. I stopped at one of the newspaper-vending machines outside the office and dropped a quarter in the slot and opened it up. There were six papers left. I put two dollars on the shelf where the guy filling the machine would see them, then took all six papers and closed the door.
Colt was watching. “Why leave money?” he asked. “Dad would always just open it with his quarter, then take whatever was inside that he wanted—several papers for his deputies and the office.”
“Because the guy who services this machine has to turn in cash for the papers that were sold. Your dad is stealing from him, not from the newspaper itself.”
“Oh. I never thought of that. But that’s my dad. Even though he’s rich, he still does stuff like that. Doesn’t spend a nickel if he can find some way not to.”
I shook my head. “You haven’t had much of a role model, have you? Yet you still seem to know right from wrong. It’s bothered you, what he did to the people he stole land from.”
He didn’t respond to that. The heat was heavy around us, and we walked in silence. Fitz didn’t seem to mind the heat, but I did. I’d picked up some cold, bottled water from the motel office, and we both drank some as we walked. Colt seemed very quiet, quieter than usual. I learned what he was thinking about when he asked me a question.
“What’re you going to do with me? I mean, when we leave here?”
“We’re going to see if we can find your mother. First, we have to get out of this part of Georgia, where we’re hot right now, both literally and figuratively. Can’t do that in the car like it is. We’ll fix that, then drive some. Maybe into Alabama or maybe Florida. I kind of like Florida—there’re lots of tourists there, and we wouldn’t stand out at all. Once the heat’s off, I’ll start finding out where she is.”
More silence as we walked. Then, “What if she doesn’t want me or you can’t find her?”
“Then we’ll find another solution.”
“Why can’t I stay with you? I like it with you.” His voice, for about the first time ever, was timid and almost whiney. He was opening himself up, letting me in on what his hope was; he was risking a hurtful rejection with that question.
There was some shade up ahead, and without answering, I walked to it and stopped. I sat down against a large tree and motioned Colt to sit down, too. When he did, I took another big slug of water, then sighed.
“Colt, I’m a loner. Always have been. Never been married, never want to. I’ve always found kids a nuisance. And I have a job that takes me all over with no notice at all, going on assignments that are dangerous. It’s quite possible that someday I won’t come back from one. And that’s OK with me.”
Colt looked at me like I was crazy. I was kind of used to people doing that.
I tried to explain. “I like the adrenaline rush I get and like knowing I’m doing something worthwhile that’s helping a lot of people who’ll never even know it was done. I like the life I have. It’s the only one I want.”
I looked him in the eye. “But my life doesn’t involve kids. It can’t. There’s no place for kids in what I do. That sort of life probably sounds romantic, but it isn’t. I sleep on the streets sometimes. Don’t eat well. I have to assume an image that’s rough and hopeless at times. Where could a kid fit in that?
“Colt, I’ve never had a partner, never had anyone to work with. And you’re 14. You need the structure of a family. A house to come home to after school. Friends. Adults who care about you and will help you every day in so many ways I can’t begin to list. I can’t give you that. I don’t have that sort of structure myself, and I don’t want it.”
He was looking down now. I knew I was hurting him. But I was being honest, and he had to hear it.
“You’re a great kid. I never thought I could get attached to a kid, but I have to you. I want what’s best for you, and I’m going to see you have it. It’s going to be painful when we have to say goodbye, but that’s what we’ll do. If we find your mother and that isn’t a good situation for you, I won’t just abandon you with her. You can trust me to find something good for you. I care about you, and I’ll do that for you. OK?”
His eyes looked shiny. I turned away and fished out another bottle of water so he could compose himself. While doing that, I said, “This has to be scary, facing the unknown like this at your age. But it’ll work out. I’ll see to that. And you’ll have a voice in it.”
“Fuck the unknown,” he said, his voice harsh. “I don’t give a damn about that. I just want to stay with you.”
That got to me. Nobody really cared about me that way. No one had ever bonded with me. I reached out for him, and he was in my arms, and I hugged him. I held him for a few moments and marveled that this was probably what it felt like to have a son. A son I loved. A son who loved me. I’d never even thought about that.
I released him. “It wouldn’t work, Colt. I get restless. I have to be on the move all the time. Being in danger is part of it. But I’ll tell you what. Whatever we find for you, I’ll stay in touch. Maybe even find a way to visit, now and then. But that’s the best I can promise.”
He sat up straight, not saying anything for the moment. Then, looking determined, he cupped his hands and asked me to pour water into them, and Fitz came over and lapped it up. He had me fill them again, and Fitz drank some more. Then Colt stood up.
“OK,” he said. “It means something to me that you care. My dad and brothers didn’t. Growing up like I have, it was easy to think there was something wrong with me. All I had was Fitz. But you don’t think I’m worthless. So, OK.” He reached a hand down to me, where I was stuffing the water bottle back into my pack. “Let’s go.”
The barn looked just like we’d left it, but I’d learned to be cautious. From a distance I scanned the place with the binoculars. Nothing. Just heat waves rising from the roof, and the ground as sun-baked and sere as it had looked yesterday.
We approached the barn from the rear, which meant more walking than necessary and rougher terrain to negotiate than had we stayed on the road,. Nothing unexpected was there, and when we finally arrived, it only took a few moments for Colt to shrug out of his backpack and to reassemble the boost he needed to get through the window. I carried his pack to the front doors, and he let me in.
The first thing we had to do was get the light bar off the top of the car. I used the tools we’d bought and had it off in only a few minutes. Colt asked about the whip antenna, and I told him it wouldn’t be a problem.
I showed Colt how to spread newspaper over the parts of the car we wanted to mask and tape them down. The car’s body was mostly black. The top was white. What we had to do was spray the top and then over the seal and words written on the sides: Sheriff’s Dept., Caverton County, GA.
I was surprised how quickly Colt caught on to the masking task. I’d always thought teenagers were clumsy and awkward. I asked him about it.
“I’ve been doing stuff by myself all my life. I guess you learn from that. Anyway, this is fun.” He didn’t even stop to talk, just kept folding and taping.
When everything not getting painted was masked, I used some of the rags to clean the surfaces to be painted as well as I could. Then I was ready to go. Colt picked up a can of paint as well.
“Uh, you sure you want to do that? This has to be done right. Even coverage, no heavy layers that’ll run or drip, no light spots. Using these spray paint cans isn’t easy.”
He snickered at me. “I’ve probably used these more than you have. I’m a juvenile delinquent, remember?”
“No, I didn’t know that.” I was staring at him in surprise.
“Well, maybe a wannabe. But I have used these spray cans before and do know how. I’ll do the sides while you do the top. You’re taller.”
He was right. He was good at it. But what he was painting was the part that would be seen more clearly, so it was necessary it be done right. And it was. Easily better than I could have done it.
The paint dried quickly. Only an hour later, we were using the white paint. I’d cut a stencil at the office supply store that read:
I held the stencil in place on the car doors where the shield had been painted over, and Colt sprayed the words. When we were done, we had an official-looking Ford Crown Vic, all black except for our six words on each side.
Colt walked around the car, looking it over judgmentally, then said, “The plates are wrong. They’re sheriff’s department plates, and this is a school district car.”
I looked at him and shook my head. “You’re pretty smart, you know that? I never even thought of the plates.”
“My dad and brothers always look at plates to see if a vehicle is from our county or not.”
“OK, then, smarty-pants. How do we fix it?”
He grinned. And fifteen minutes later, after he’d mixed up a fine batch of red, sticky Georgia mud and slapped some artistically on the plates, changing an E to an F, a Q to an O and a 4 to a 1, we were done. “OK, that’s it for the day,” I told Colt. I was soaking a rag in paint thinner and cleaning the paint off my hands where he’d sprayed them while doing the stenciling. I passed him the rag, and he did the same. “What say we leave the car here, go back to the motel and cool off, get some dinner, maybe take a short nap, then come back tonight, get the car and take off. Maybe we can get all the way to Florida tonight. I’ll feel better then. If we get caught, transporting a minor over state lines is a federal offense. I’d do much better dealing with one of those.” We trudged back to the motel. It was the hottest time of the day. I stuffed the empty paint cans in the back packs; no point in leaving any evidence behind that we’d been there or what we’d done. Colt had left all the clothes he wasn’t wearing at the motel, as I had. When we got there, Colt smuggled Fitz to the room without passing the door to the lobby so they wouldn’t be seen. I’d paid for the night so didn’t have to go in to see the guy at the desk, but did anyway.
“You got a map of Tennessee and Kentucky? I’ll probably leave first thing in the morning, beat the traffic, and head that way. Little woman wants to see Mammoth Cave before we head back to New Jersey.”
The man gave me a couple of maps, chatted a moment about which were the roads to take, and then I wandered back to the room.
A shower, a short rest on the bed—Colt had conked out, and if he slept, so did Fitz—and then it was time for dinner. The motel recommended a restaurant just down the street. All we had were tee shirts and long pants and hiking boots, but the clerk said that was fine. We had dinner, barbecued ribs for both of us, a cold beer for me and a Coke for him, and Colt got a hamburger, plain, to-go for Fitz. I told him he was giving too much fat to that dog. He told me Fitz liked it. So, I discovered he was indeed a teenager.
At 12:30 AM, I woke Colt, and ten minutes later the two of us were hoofing it back toward the barn, leaving Fitz for the short time we’d be away. I’d remembered Bart’s weapon and collected it. We left everything at the motel already packed in the duffel and the backpacks, to be collected along with Fitz when we had the car. We’d already disposed of some of the stuff in a dumpster, stuff I’d bought to disguise who we were and what we were about, like the camo grease and the knives and purifying tablets and such. The moon was quartering but gave enough light to make walking along the deserted highway a snap.
Colt looked disgusted when I told him we were going to use the same surreptitious route to the barn as we had that afternoon. But he didn’t argue. Maybe he’d learned that arguing with me was futile.
We got out into the field the same distance from the road that the barn was, and I used the binoculars to survey the landscape.
“Oh-oh,” I said.
“There’s a car parked behind one of the bushes at the side of the barn, hidden from the road. I can see a glowing cigarette inside.”
I crouched down, and Colt did, too. He was looking at me with his eyes wider than usual.
I smiled. “We’ve got company.”
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