The boy is walking about forty feet behind his mother. The two of them, the mother and the boy, are walking in the snow on the shoulder of a straight highway on a gray windless day. The snow is not deep—just a few inches of slushy mess that fell the night before—but it’s enough to soak right through his cheap sneakers and now the boy can feel his toes starting to go a little bit numb.
He would prefer to be walking on the actual pavement of the road, which is just a couple feet away and is much drier from being plowed, but his mother already made it quite clear she would not allow him to walk on the road because it was way too dangerous. Some idiot driver wouldn’t be paying attention and would run him right over. Then she’d really be pissed.
So he shuffles along on the gravel shoulder through the slushy snow, hoping they are getting close to the place where the sidewalk starts. It seems like the whole thing would be more interesting if there were a blizzard or windstorm or something even more drastic like a forest fire bearing down on them, but no such luck. It’s just a day in December, that’s all. The boy is thin and unusually tall for his age, with yellow hair that hangs long and straggly and skin almost the same shade of pale as the snow. This combination makes him feel like a Viking. Or a candle. He has his coat unzipped and dangling from his arms like he’s seen some of the kids do at school. He’s trying to be casual in case someone he knows drives by. He glances up at two gray birds on a power line who are hopping from one place to another and squawking. They keep landing in the same place the other one just left as if everything was much better over there. He decides the birds are funny instead of annoying. Forty feet ahead, his mother is still walking along, still holding that ratty old dish towel up against her cheekbone. She’s got a hunk of snow wrapped up in the towel to cool the swelling and he can tell she is having trouble tracking a straight line, although the highway is doing its best to help her with that.
To pass the time, the boy decides to check the points of the compass, like he used to do hiking with the Boy Scouts, way back when life still made sense. He first checks the funny-gray-bird-side of the road (which he knows is the south side) where a heavy pine forest stands darkly behind the power lines like a wall. Straight ahead to the west, he can see the top of the water tower and the steeple at St. Benedict’s in the distance. Smoke is drifting up from the paper mill on the river and the road stretches out perfectly straight ahead of him like a school hallway. To the north, snow-covered fields stretch out across the flatlands as far as he can see. Scattered about the fields are barns, silos, telephone poles, small clumps of trees and a few whitewashed farmhouses with tall, narrow roof lines and brick chimneys. He imagines families in the farmhouses laughing and talking as they sit down to dinner, as they pass the warm dishes from hand to hand. A thin gray mist hangs over everything like a veil. Like a sad song.
The final point of the compass is due east behind him. The boy doesn’t have to turn and look to know what is there. The man sleeping it off in the murky darkness of a double-wide trailer deep back in the pines, old blankets tacked up on the windows to block out the light. The broken-down truck still standing in the muddy driveway, the fire pit still spitting out its toxic black smoke, and a helpless, feral rage still swirling about the clearing, looking for a way to escape.
After some time, the boy hears a car on the road behind them. There’s an immediate lurch of fear and a jerking open of his senses before he realizes there’s no way the man could have gotten the truck running just like that. It’s been dead there in the driveway for months with the engine half torn apart and now two of the tires have gone flat. He takes a deep breath and turns to look, but just then his mother yells out, We’re not getting a ride so don’t even bother.
What’s wrong with getting a ride, he asks.
Some day you’ll know.
The car is actually a work van with ladders strapped to the roof and it slows down as it approaches them. The boy is looking over his shoulder while walking and as a result he veers off the gravel shoulder, sliding into some deeper snow that got thrown there last night by the plow. His right foot slips into a drift and when he yanks it back up there’s no shoe on it. Just a gray sock dangling half-off like a dead fish on a trotline. He’s hopping there on one foot beside the road when the truck pulls up beside him. An older man with a kind face, You need some help there kid?
The boy stops hopping around and looks at the man. He bends slowly down to try and retrieve his shoe from the snow pile and he points ahead to where his mother is still wandering down the highway. Talk to her, he says.
The van pulls ahead as the boy starts shaking the snow out of his sneaker. It says Bohl & Magnuson Plumbing on the side in big block letters and there’s a nice drawing of a wrench too. The boy wonders which one is in the van, Mr. Bohl or Mr. Magnuson. He uses a jacket sleeve to try and dry out the shoe’s insides, but he realizes it’s impossible and just puts the shoe back on his foot, still wet. He stands there and watches as the van slows down beside his mother. She keeps on walking. Doesn’t even look at the guy. He must be saying something to her because finally she stops and the van stops and she steps closer to the door. After a few seconds, she yells something, whacks the door with her hand and turns to continue her quest of highway walking. Pretty soon the van is just a memory disappearing down the road into the mist ahead of them.
The boy puts on a loose-limbed jog and catches up to his mother. We shoulda got a ride from that guy, he says.
No. She keeps on walking.
He was like, old. He wouldn’t of hurt us.
I said no. His mother stops walking and looks at him. Her eyes are glassy and rimmed in red and she wobbles a little bit. We don’t take rides from strangers and we don’t take charity anyway, she says.
I know that.
So why are you asking?
We’d be there by now.
Who’s in a hurry? His mother bends down to refill the old dish towel with snow.
My feet hurt, says the boy.
His mother finishes packing the snow and turns to look down at his pathetic sneakers. The boy can see her cheek where it’s all bruised and there’s a deep cut still oozing a bit and blood clotted black and shiny in her hair. It’s good to hurt, she says, putting the dish towel back up to her cheek. At least you know you’re still alive.
She gives him a smile that seems unsure of itself and turns back to walking. She’s faster than he is and more determined and pretty soon she’s ahead of him by about forty feet again. The boy can tell they’re getting closer to town because the pine forest wall is broken in places by a series of small square clearings in which people have built cheap ranch houses and random metal outbuildings. He doesn’t see any people outside anywhere, but there’s chickens clucking from a scratch yard at one place and the sound of someone chopping wood behind another. From one of the driveways a skinny gray hound comes loping out towards the road and at first the boy is scared, but then he notices its ears are up and its tail is wagging and his fear goes away faster than it came. The dog comes right up to him, sniffs at his knees and gives his hand a few licks before falling in beside him heading west down a straight road on a gray day in the snow.
Finally, they get to the place where the sidewalk starts, which is still out in the middle of nowhere, but at least the concrete is dry and the boy is happy just to be out of the snow. The dog seems glad as well to be loping along with them and it pisses on the first fire hydrant it sees. Like its in his contract as a dog. On one side of the highway now are a bunch of curvy roads leading off into a housing development that never got built. There’s a big sign at the main entrance that says Paradise Crossing–Where Dreams Come True. On the sign is a faded picture of a family playing together on a perfect grassy lawn, a row of clean two-story homes in the background behind them. The sign is faded and there’s a chunk broken off of the bottom right corner, where it might have been hit by a car or something. The development is as empty and barren as the fields they’ve been passing all afternoon. Street signs and lot markers and weeds and green electrical boxes are all that are there.
They walk a little farther, past some low metal buildings that sit back from the road behind square gravel parking lots. A heating and air conditioning contractor. An auto repair shop with customers’ cars lined up out front. A landscaper with piles of dirt and mulch and some colored lights blinking on a small pine tree near the door. The boy remembers that it’s getting close to Christmas, but the thought doesn’t stir much of a reaction in him. There’s more traffic now, people at work and cars passing on the road, and he realizes he has no idea where they are going. They pass an old car dealership that closed a few years ago and now sells used clothing from mismatched racks in the former showroom. Sad-eyed workers stare out at them from the huge windows.
They end up walking to a gas station on High Street as daylight fades and a light snow starts falling again. The boy stands outside against the small building as if the fluorescent lights and red bricks can keep him warm. The dog sits against his leg and whimpers a little as they watch cars come and go from the gas pumps. The boy’s mother has gone inside the store and he can see her talking with the clerk behind the counter. The clerk is a large dark-haired woman who keeps shaking her head, saying No, I’m sorry repeatedly and closing her eyes tight as if that alone will make the boy’s mother go away. Eventually the clerk lifts up her hands and shrugs her shoulders and the boy can see the look in his mother’s eyes change from hopeful and pleading to pure hatred. She comes back outside with chips and a soda they can share and the boy wonders if she has enough money to buy them a real dinner. Or a place to stay.
She approaches a man in a leather coat and asks if he has a cigarette, which he says he does. Then she asks if he has a phone with him and he says, Of course I do.
Our phone’s dead, she lies. Could we borrow yours for just a minute?
The guy’s unsure, standing there scratching his beard. He hands her a cigarette from a crumpled pack, tilting his head slightly to better see the cut in her cheek, then looks at the boy and at the dog sitting there. He appears to be thinking deeply about something, conjuring up what type of scenario might have led them there. Do you need some help, ma’am? he says.
I just need to borrow a phone.
You want me to call someone for you? Do you need the police?
Please, she says, I can make my own calls. He looks around at the gas station customers pumping their cars full in the dusk. He scratches his gray beard and mumbles a bit. Finally his eyebrows arch and he shrugs his shoulders and says, I guess, I guess. What harm would it do? He reaches into his back pocket and hands the phone to her.
Thanks, she says. It’s just a local call.
The thing’s not even worth stealing you know, he says, turning to go into the store. In case you were thinking about it.
The boy’s mother steps a few feet away and dials a number. She lights the cigarette while she’s waiting for someone to answer and starts pacing back and forth between the boy and the convenience store while she talks.
The boy watches her, catching bits of the conversation she is having.
God’s honest truth, she says into the phone. I wouldn’t lie to you... Listen, he’s a total asshole. He got shit-faced and knocked me around again and took off. I’m so done with it.
The boy notices there’s some sort of commotion inside the store, but he doesn’t see exactly what because he’s focused on his mother’s phone conversation, trying not to miss any of the details. I don’t know where he got the goddamn car, his mother says. She shakes her head and puffs on the cigarette. He just showed up with it... Some little piece of crap Volkswagen or something... I don’t know where he went....
Now the boy sees inside the store the tall dark-haired clerk is on the phone too and she’s quite animated, looking out at them through the window and pointing. A small line of customers are standing at the counter looking out at them too. The sign on the window keeps blinking in orange and blue neon Try the Lottery. It’s Your Lucky Day!
His mother is still talking. He left us with nothing, she says. We don’t have any money. We don’t have a car. We’re freezing our asses off at this gas station and we don’t even have a place to stay. I had to borrow this phone from some guy...
From many blocks away, the boy can hear the Doppler wail of a siren and gradually a connection forms in his brain. Standing there in the fluorescent lights and snow falling lightly in the gathered darkness, with a stranger’s dog at his side, the realization rises up inside of him like a snake. Like a storm cloud. A thought that makes him turn suddenly to see who spoke it into his ear. But there’s no one. Just the distant siren and his mother still talking on the phone. You’ve got to come and get us, she says, you’ve got to help us out. She’s pacing a three-step course back and forth and back and forth, the bruise on her cheek grim and gray in the harsh store lights. She crushes the stub-end of the cigarette against the concrete wall, her red-rimmed eyes wild with desperation.
Inside the store, they’re looking past him and gesturing, and when he turns he can see flashing lights coming up the highway. Sirens getting louder. Without thinking, he backs into some shadows a few feet away. The dog following. He stoops down there and reties his shoes, eyes glancing back and forth around him. Without thinking, he stands up and shuffles around the corner of the building and across some snow-covered grass to a high wooden fence that’s hiding a dumpster. He crouches there beside the fence and the beautiful snow is falling gently and a small breeze is rising up, whispering in the juvenile oaks. Behind the fence and the dumpster is a frozen field and then a small wooded hillside that dives down into a shallow ravine. The dog is already scouting it, begging him to follow. Below the ravine is an even larger woods, and somehow the boy can sense a path waiting there for him in the darkness. A path that might lead down to the river and across it and into some land beyond.
Without thinking, he takes it.