By Todd McAulty
Illustrated by Bernie Mireault
from Black Gate 5, copyright © 2003 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.
It’s only been forty minutes since my last rest stop — half an hour of staring at a wall in a coffee shop east of London, Ontario — but I see the towering sign for a Bob Evans, tell myself I could use fresh coffee, and pull off the 401 into the parking lot anyway.
The crowd’s pretty light, even for ten o’clock on a Sunday night. There’s a bunch of kids by the fish tank, poking at the lobsters, some college kids near the bar, and three truckers by the windows watching the Jays game. The waitress spots me but I shake my head at the offered menu and just order coffee.
My gut feels sour. I really need to relax, simply chill for ten minutes. I can afford ten minutes. I glance at my watch; only two hours to go. Two hours until I cross the border, and this whole sorry ordeal is behind me.
Steel would get a kick out of seeing me like this, the smug bastard. “If you’re going to be nervous about it,” he’d said in his best mentor voice, “the thing is, don’t do it.”
The luxury of not doing this was something I could no longer afford, although admitting that would’ve been a serious mistake. “I’m not going to be nervous,” I’d told him.
We’d been making our way through Steel’s garage, past his collection of bikes. Not too long ago Steel was big into motorcycles, and he still looks the part. Leather jacket and big crunchy beard. I’d never come to Steel’s place when there weren’t half a dozen rigs out front, and an equal number of leather-clad bikers laughing and drinking in his kitchen. Steel did a lot of traffic between Toronto and Montreal a decade ago, and still does business through one of the big Quebec gangs. But he must be over fifty now, a little too seasoned to test his bones against a Canadian winter. Nowadays Steel drives a big red Chevy Tahoe.
“You sure?” Steel said, slowing for a minute to look at me.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” I said, keeping my tone light. “I cross the border all the time.”
“Not with 15 K worth in your trunk, you don’t.” Steel’s tread was very slow now, and I could hear the deliberate crunch of gravel under his leather boots.
This is the gauntlet part of the deal. If Steel walks you all the way across the cold garage floor, the transaction is done. But if he hears something he doesn’t like, if he stops or turns around, then it’s no dice. The trick is to keep your hands on your money and keep him moving, always keep him moving towards that locker at the far end. Sometimes it can be a long trip.
“With a little stuff,” I said. “All the time.”
“Ain’t the same.”
I know it’s not the same, this is not a news flash that it’s not the same. “The point is Steel, I’m not nervous. I don’t get nervous. I’ll be fine.”
It occurred to me that I was very nervous right now, that I probably looked it, and it was none of his damn business anyway. It was my fifteen thousand.
There was a long pause, and then Steel kept moving with a shrug. “Okay,” he said. “It’s your fifteen thousand.”
I sit at the table and rub my hands, working out the chill and impatient for coffee. There’s coffee in a thermos in the truck, but I’m here and there’s no point in examining my excuses for pulling over now. I try not to look at my watch again. I need to reach Windsor in two hours, cross the border into Detroit before midnight. After that it’s the night shift at customs, and I’m in line with the terrorists and drug smugglers.
I’m too nervous, and the fact that I am is really making me damn nervous. This is the easiest thing in the world, a simple 8-hour drive, and I’m blowing it way out of proportion. I take a breath and try to un-tense my shoulders.
Man, look at this. The guy leaning out the window at customs isn’t much more than a kid. Acne and greasy hair. It’s almost midnight and there are a thousand places he’d rather be. All that worry for nothing.
“Citizenship?” he asks as I roll to a stop before his polite little gate.
“Where are you headed, sir?”
“Ann Arbor, Michigan.” I’m tired and bored, and I look like I’m tired and bored.
“How long will you be staying?”
“Just two days. My cousin’s getting married.”
“Yeah? Congratulations. Do you have anything to declare?”
“Nothing? No wedding gift?” He grins a little.
“Well, yeah. It’s a gift certificate, for fifty bucks. I’m not much of a shopper.” I fumble through my pockets. “Do you need to see it?”
“No, that’s fine. Are you bringing any tobacco or alcohol with you?” His eyes roam over the truck, settle on the back seat.
“Noooo…” I’ve got some beer back there. Is it visible where he sits? “Wait, I got a… what is it, it’s like half a six pack. It’s in the back.”
“Half a six pack?”
“Yeah, that’d be a three-pack, right?” I laugh. I shouldn’t be laughing, I sound nervous. He’s staring at me now.
“Just a sec, I’ll look,” I say. Shit, I am nervous now, my palms are sweaty —
“That’s not necessary…”
“No, it’s right here.” I’m leaning back in the seat, mentally cursing. Just cool it. “Here it is. It’s just two cans. Heh… you want one?”
The line of his jaw hasn’t budged, but there’s a frown to his eyes now. I hear the car behind me roll forward a few inches, road debris scrunching under the tires. We’re taking longer than normal. Are we taking longer than normal? We must be. Shit, just relax.
“Sir, are you certain you have no other items to declare?”
“Yeah, I am. I’m certain. I’ve got nothing.”
He sits quietly and looks at me. My fingers drum the steering wheel. The car in the lane to my left is set free and shoots forward down the road, into the soft underbelly of America.
“So, I can go now?” I say, easing up on the brake a little. Too eager, that was too eager.
“Sir, I’m going to ask you to pull over, right over there by the lights. A U.S. Customs officer will be with you in a minute — ”
Dammit. I open my eyes. The waitress must have brought my coffee, because it’s sitting right in front of me. I take a sip. My hands are trembling.
This is whacked. I’m not going to make it through customs like this. I’m a wreck, and all this stalling isn’t helping. My blood must be 5% caffeine by now.
I shouldn’t rehearse customs over and over, either. I’m only making it worse. I need to relax; I can do this if I just relax. I spread my palms flat on the table, take a slow breath, and look around for a moment.
The restaurant is full of people whose lives, unlike mine, aren’t dogshit. One of the kids has wandered away from the fish tank and is yakking with the truckers. Over in the corner someone must have said something pretty damn funny, because all the college kids are laughing and pounding the tables. I need to be like them for the next two hours. Someone without a care in the world. I can do this. I just need some quick serenity.
Geez, look at this kid. He must be hitting up the truckers for spare change. Truckers are shaking their heads, incredulous. One of them cranes his neck, looking around for the boy’s parents, maybe. Whatever the kid wants, the truckers ain’t got it, and eventually he moves off.
It’s time for me to move it, too. I motion for the waitress. She ignores me, but I’m not in a mood to wait. I drop two loonies on the table and pull on my jacket. Lousy tip for $1.75 coffee, but I’m on a budget at the moment.
I turn to head out and suddenly it’s the kid, staring up at me and blocking my way.
“Whoa, Junior,” I say, managing a smile. “Almost ran over you.” I start to skooch around him.
“Hey mister,” he says, reaching out one hand. Man, he is gonna hit me up for spare change. Kid can’t be more than seven years old. He’s got rumpled curly hair, jeans and a baseball cap on backwards. He looks like a Gap ad.
“Yeah?” I say, still skooching.
“You’ve got a big car.”
That’s a new one. I do have a big car. Ford Explorer, a gas-guzzling behemoth I bought used in the spring of ’00, two months before a manufactured gas shortage sent gas prices to like a hundred bucks a liter. “Yeah,” I say again, more cautiously this time.
“Is it empty?” the kid persists. Lord, a junior customs officer, two hours from the border.
“Why?” I ask.
“Can you give us a lift?”
“You’re joking.” But I can see in his eyes that he’s not. Kid is dead serious. A seven-year-old is hitting me up for a ride at Bob Evans. As if tonight weren’t surreal enough already.
“I know it’s a lot to ask,” he says in a rush, “but we’re kinda in trouble and could really use some help.” He’s actually got his cap off now and is twisting it around in his hands. First a Gap ad, now a Hallmark card. Amazing.
“I’m sorry kid. Can’t help you. Have you asked…” I nod in the vague direction of the college kids and truckers, and notice the truckers watching me with amused looks. Doubtless they’ve been hit up already, and are waiting expectantly to see how I’ll react. I’m so pleased to be part of their entertainment for the evening.
“I did,” he says. “Nobody else can help us.”
I feel for this kid. I do. He’s certainly got guts. He’s trying to hold it together, but he looks scared. I take a quick look around for his parents, but don’t have any more luck than the truckers did. Other than us and the college kids, the place is pretty much deserted.
“Look… I’m sorry.” I take a step back towards the door. “I wish I could help, but I’m leaving right now, and I’m in a big hurry.”
“So are we! You’re going through Windsor, right?”
“Yeah, but — ” How did he know that?
“Just let me get everybody, okay?” He doesn’t wait for permission, just scoots off towards the fish tank. There’s a bark of laughter from the truckers, and suddenly I feel even more self-conscious. Is this some new scam everybody knows about but me?
I’m curious to meet this kid’s traveling companions, but not enough to want to stick around. I watch him make his way to the fish tank, then shake my head and turn for the door, digging in my pocket for my toque.
Keys. Haven’t got my keys. I return and snatch them from the table. At the door I risk a single glance over my shoulder, and instantly regret it. The kid has already signaled his clan. He’s making his way back, and when he makes eye contact he waves and smiles, like I wasn’t just running out on him. I stand awkwardly, half out the door, as he comes running up.
“I got everybody,” he says breathless and excited. He turns and waves frantically to a short black boy in a blue blazer. “This is TJ — TJ, come on.”
“Hello TJ,” I say without much enthusiasm. I don’t know who cuts TJ’s hair, but they should try doing it sober. He’s wearing a torn jacket at least one size too big for him, and his left sneaker has a visible hole. Just looking at him I feel the urge to root around in my pockets for loose coinage.
“TJ doesn’t talk,” Eric says.
“Not at all?”
“Not to grown ups.”
A few steps behind TJ are three others, all ponderously winding their way towards us through the maze of tables. They’re all kids. I stare for a moment, then take a step back inside the restaurant. “Is this everybody?” I ask, incredulous.
“Where are your parents?”
“They’re not here,” he answers cryptically. Before he can say more the others arrive, and he’s full of introductions.
“This is Stephanie.” He points to a pig-tailed girl who can’t be more than three.
“My name’s not Stephanie,” she responds with a fierce pout.
“It’s not?” I say. Eric shoots me an exasperated look that clearly says don’t ask, but I go for it anyway. “What is your name?”
“It’s Wolf Girl.” With that she arches back her head and lets out a pretty fair wolf howl. The boy next to her covers his ears.
I’m grinning despite myself. She’s pretty cute, for someone who looks a lot like a street urchin. Her clothes are nice enough, but her shoes look more mud than leather. She’s clutching two filthy dolls who’ve seen much better days, and she’s clearly not dressed for the road — not for October in Ontario, anyway.
“And this is Simon and Stephen,” Eric continues. “They’re twins.”
I can see that. Simon and Stephen look an awful lot alike, though not identical. They’re maybe six, seven, it’s hard to tell. TJ is younger, five or so. With the exception of the twins, none of them look like obvious siblings.
“This guy might give us a ride,” Eric announces to the group. Simon and Stephen brighten up immediately, and even Wolf Girl looks at me with renewed interest.
“Slow down a minute,” I interject. “I never said that.”
Everyone is staring at me suddenly. All five kids, the truckers, the comedians by the bar. Even the waitress is looking in my direction as she drains a coffee pot.
“Look…” I hunker down and grab a chair, slipping under the deck of all that scrutiny. “Where are your parents?”
“They’re not here,” Simon says simply. “We were on a school trip.”
“A school trip?”
“We missed our ride,” Eric explains. “We’re trying to get home.”
“How did you get here?” I ask.
“We got a lift from Joseph,” pipes in Simon. Or maybe Stephen, I’m confusing them already.
“A nice truck driver,” he explains.
“Uh-huh. What happened to him?”
“He’s gone,” Eric says.
“What do you mean, he’s gone? What, did he drop dead?”
Eric visibly starts, staring at me with wide eyes. Okay, bad choice of words. I say with an effort, “Alright, so this guy gave you a lift here… and then what, he left?” That sounds a bit stiff, even for a trucker. “Where’d this guy pick you up?”
“At McDonalds,” says Eric.
“What McDonalds? Where?”
“In London,” he says. London is less than half an hour east on the 401. It’s not a big city, but there must be at least half-a-dozen McDonalds. I’d never find the right one, even if I felt like back-tracking all the way to London. Which I don’t.
“Did this guy… did he just take you? Against your will?”
“No,” Eric says.
“Did he hurt you?”
Eric and TJ both shake their heads.
So what’s the real story here?, I wonder. An abductor who lost his nerve? Or maybe a drunken uncle who stranded them accidentally? I knew a kid that happened to. Forgotten at a rest stop in New Brunswick for a couple hours. Messed him up for years.