One of the things I intend to do here is occasionally post shorter (less than 2000 words) chapters from my current work. This is an early chapter from the manuscript I’m working.

8

No telling the last time he’d had decent food, and the boy ate it like he had something against it, like it had wronged him. They sat in the Good Luck Diner on Darden Street in High Point and Graves watched the boy maraud around the plate of chicken and mashed potatoes and corn, shoes squealing against clean tile and the tinny stutter of porcelain against itself and occasionally the bullfrog voice of a man seated at the counter. He was four hundred pounds if he was there at all, and obviously a regular. Every waitress called him something like “Dooley” and took pains to remain just out of his reach, always passing behind him and rounding the counter to refill his coffee, keeping a Formica barrier between. Graves resisted thoughts of smacking the fat, grabby bastard.

He asked the boy if Harper had hurt him in any way and the boy said “No, no le,” a biscuit fugitive escaping the destruction going on in his mouth.

He had met Mandy fourteen months ago, after they had taken a nine year old girl out of the house of a meth cook over near Summerfield. The only child of the seventeen people living there, all of the adults illegal. It had been Mandy who’d coordinated with the necessary agencies, eventually finding cousins in North Wilkesboro and arranging for the girl to go and live with them. He remembered standing in her stuffy office, faux wood paneling below a paste-on border of tea kettles. Tea kettles with daisies poking from their spouts. His grandmother had had the same border in the kitchen of her trailer. He was vaguely aware that she was saying some words – “Office of Refugee Resettlement” … “good temporary foster care” … “a week or two.” He only looked away from her to scan the room for pictures containing a man. He was pleased to find none. There was only a young girl, here floating just off the ground in a cheerleading outfit and there with a snow cone on a Ferris wheel, whom he later came to know was her neice, Molly.

Two weeks after, he sat on the deck at the back of her small brick ranch a little north of Thomasville and drank mediocre iced tea. It wasn’t hard for him to make her laugh and the tea got better when they added the lemonade and bourbon and it was one of those early fall sunsets that had no edges, flannel light rolled off some elemental loom beneath the horizon. After a while he’d said he’d never done anything like this before. She said neither had she.

A month, and he knew that she sounded like a wounded angel when he was doing it just right.

Around Thanksgiving of last year he told her that he and Stacey had been going through some things regarding his step-son, Travis, and that he had just done it to get back at her and it was childish and he was ashamed and sorry but it was over. Mandy said okay, no hard feelings. That lasted two weeks.

In February he said he couldn’t deal with the guilt and the worry over Stacey finding out and there was shit going on at work anyway and it was all just too much for him, had been a mistake from the start, and he was sorry but it was over. Mandy said okay, no hard feelings. He was back at her door before Easter.

Just after Memorial Day, Stacey had a scare with chest pain. Turned out to be gall bladder related but she spent a day and a half at Moses Cone hospital and Graves told Mandy that he had to wake up and realize that he had a family and maybe it wasn’t a perfect family but it was his and he was going to have to care for Stacey after she had the gall bladder surgery anyway and he was sorry but it was over. Mandy said okay, no hard feelings. She might have grinned a little, watching him back out of her driveway. They screwed like drunken teenagers in the bed of her pickup under a black sky clawed red and streaked white and bejeweled blue, and he said he wasn’t going to try to understand it anymore, much less fight it. That he might not ever love her or say it if he did, might not ever leave Stacey, and she said she hadn’t planned on asking for any of those things, said she thought it was the kind of thing that, if either of them ever tried to understand it, it would probably dissolve and blow away.

Through Mandy he’d come to know that local victims of trafficking for whom no kin could be found were turned over to The Redemption Group, a non-profit run out of the First Baptist Church of High Point. Law enforcement was generally supposed to be done with the victim by the time they reached TRG, and most badges drew scorn when they showed their faces in the big brick annex of the fellowship hall of First Baptist. Unless that badge was accompanied by a jar of Aunt Beulah’s Honey, from the shanty fruit stand off highway 311 down towards Archdale. Mandy had advised him to pick up a jar on his first trip to TRG and present it to the administrator, Bobby Davis. “Just tell him I sent you and give him the jar. You’ll get the time you need.”

Graves hadn’t abused the privilege, and occasionally he’d swing by with a jar of that honey just to keep the wheels greased. He supposed he owed it to Mandy, the fact that he was sitting in this diner with the boy. Exactly what he owed her…that was still murky.

Usted ha dicho that they always find you. Who? Who always finds you?”

“The woman.”

“What woman?”

“I don’t know her name. She is skinny and pretty and tall. Black hair.”

“She comes to the place you are staying? The foster house or the church or the orphanage?”

“Yes.”

“How does she take you?”

“They make me alone. Send me downstairs alone or back into the lunchroom after the other kids have gone. And she’s there.”

“Does she hurt you?”

“The first time she did.”

You yelled and fought because you didn’t understand, and nobody came to help you. And she bashed you around until you shut up. He didn’t know if he wanted to scream or throw up. “And it’s always her? This same woman?”

“Yes.”

“Where does she take you? Is it usually a house?”

“I don’t know. She puts a hood over my head. If I try to take it off she hits me. She puts me in a car and ties my hands. We always stay in the car for a long time.”

For the love of Mike. “When does the hood come off?”

“When we get to the hotel. She takes me to a hotel and takes the hood off and cuts the tie off my hands and gives me milk. When I’m done she puts the hood back on and ties my hands again and locks me in the bathroom and makes telephone calls.”

“How long do you stay in the hotel?”

“A day. Maybe two.”

“Then what?”

“A man comes and gives her money and takes me.”

“A man like the man we found you with?”

He nodded.

Somewhere in the far reaches of the kitchen a hard plastic thing clattered to the floor and Dooley threw a garbled mush of words back at the noise, laughed like the death throes of something made by Briggs and Stratton, strewed a few wadded bills on the counter and hauled himself off the stool and out the door. The waitress smiled and called the boy handsome as she warmed Graves’s coffee. The boy didn’t understand so he just looked down at his scoured plate and the detective asked her to bring him a slice of cherry pie. He let the boy eat it in peace, sitting and sipping the coffee and looking out the window and trying not to pick at the tattered stitching along the edges of his mind.

Back at TRG, he pulled Bobby Davis to the side as the boy made slow, solemn progress toward a jungle gym on the playground. “Will ya’ll get him a psych evaluation?”

Bobby leaned both elbows on top of a chain link fence and dropped his face to the ground for a moment. “Naw. Not anymore. That funding was cut out of this year’s budget.”

“Sounds better to say ‘that funding’ than somebody’s name, don’t it?”

“Not really. What’s up?”

“Can I give you a little bit of one, for whatever it’s worth?”

“Yes sir. Shoot.”

“Maybe it would be best not to leave him alone for real long at a time.”

“What…like he might hurt himself?”

“I don’t know, Bobby, just…he said some things when we interviewed him back at the station, and then again just now at the diner…they didn’t sit right with me.”

“Okay. I’ll make sure the staff knows. I can recommend that he get evaluated, but chances are he’d be gone before it happened.”

“I wouldn’t worry with it. I’m probably way off base. Just thought ya’ll could keep an eye on him for as long as he’s here.”

“Will do.”

He stopped the car on the side of highway 62 where it crosses Randleman Lake and got out and walked around and leaned against the passenger side. The sky was rolling over purple from orange and he stared into it the way a man will pretty much anything deep, something in him wanting to see the end of it even if it means not coming back. The sun lay half drowned and content with it, bleeding eastward over the lake. He wished for a different time and place. A still and hopeful day when he didn’t know what he knew. Light without the things he’d seen in it. Dreams without ghosts. Evenings he might have spent with a good, strong woman in the wrinkled and winsome years, wine and lights strung on a balcony, songs they’d been listening to for forty years. A call from his son, just to check in.

What kind of world is this now? What happened?

The sky and the water remained disinterested. He reached back into the car and fetched his mobile.

“Hey. You gonna be home in an hour or so?”

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