Shawn wasn’t sure why his stepdad put the duct tape there before they left home early yesterday morning, but it was now flapping in the wind.
“You okay back there? You haven’t said much since the turn–”
Mia stopped talking when she felt something butt against her ribs, and she looked down to see a bottle of water.
“That is... if – you don’t mind?”
“What’s that supposed to mean, Deacon?” Mia asked.
“Look, will you just empty the bottle so I can clean the windshield.”
When Mia told Deacon what she thought of him with her eyes, Deacon pumped the fluid button to prove it was still broken.
“Fine,” Deacon said. “But don’t blame me if I rear-end a U-Haul truck and kill everyone on board.”
Mia glanced over her shoulder at Shawn and smiled. Technically he wasn’t a kid anymore, so he’d liked to think he knew what that smile meant.
Mia emptied the water bottle, although most of it disappeared in the wind, and took great pleasure listening to the windshield wipers continue to squeak across a dry windshield.
“Where are we going?” Shawn asked.
“We’re heading North to buy a refrigerator, remember, kid?” Deacon said.
Shawn remembered eating Lucky Charms doused in sour milk, alright, and the urge to vomit that followed.
“Why don’t you tell him why we’re really going three-hundred miles out of town to buy a refrigerator when there’s a perfectly good second-hand appliance store near the Ford Dealership?” Mia said.
“Pete’s? Nah! Pete only stocks junk! Jeff’s refrigerator is practically brand new and half the price,” Deacon said.
“Is that right? So, you hauling our asses halfway across the County has nothing to do with the fact that Jeff moonlights as a band manager and said band is looking for a drummer.“
“You know something, Mia; you wear it well.”
“What's that, Deacon?”
“That goddamn smug look on your face. You’re starting to remind me of your mother, you know?”
Mia drew her two front teeth over her bottom lip and mouthed – Fuck you – as slowly as she could.
“Right back at you, sweetheart,” Deacon said.
Deacon checked his rear-view, pumped the accelerator, and over-took a clown driving a Mazda. Shawn said nothing and slumped in his seat – clowns are scary all year round –
while Mia read the advertisement pasted to the Mazda’s door. “Barnum, the clown. Available for Birthday Parties and Church Events. Dial 617 85...”
“Perhaps he’s on his way to church,” Deacon interrupted.
“Or maybe he’s on his way to an audition,” Mia continued.
“Let it go, Mia. My head hurts.”
“It ought to. You drank enough beer to serve a platoon last night.”
“I’d a long day in the office, remember?”
Mia watched as Deacon's hand came at his cheek and how he tried to wipe something that wasn’t there.
“I’m hungry,” Shawn said.
“Me too, buddy. I could kill for a double cheeseburger right about now.”
“Hey, you hear that?” Shawn asked. “My tummy growled.”
After Deacon turned his head sideways, he pursed his lips and growled. “Hey, buddy, mine too.”
But Shawn wasn’t buying it.
Mia saw it first, a yellow sign that read – Left – attached to a blue sign that read – Service Plaza 1 Mile.
Deacon noticed the price of gas and spent the next five minutes or so commenting on how the oil companies, with the government’s help, were ‘unapologetically’ fucking every hard-working American – doggy style.
“Deacon, not in front of Shawn, for crying out loud. Remember what happened last time?”
“The kid’s gotta learn, Mia.”
“Learn what?” Shawn asked. “I heard something about a dog. Wait – what? Am I getting a dog?”
“No, you’re not getting a dog,” Mia said. “See what you started.”
“The kid’s gotta know that the government will screw him every chance they get.”
“Okay, that’s enough,” Mia said. “Look, they got a Wendy’s, A Villa Pizza, and a Dunkin’ Donuts. There’s something for everybody.”
Shawn rolled from the comfort of the spacious back seat, pressed his face against the glass, and immediately thought of a Villa Pizza slice – the melted cheese hanging from his mouth and the pepperoni sizzling on his taste buds.
“I changed my mind,” Deacon said. “The lady wants some melted cheese and a fat soda.”
“Pizza for three it is,” Shawn said.
“Oh, honey, I’m afraid the lady Deacon is referring to is his fat stomach and not me.”
Deacon found a parking space, put the Buick in park, and killed the engine.
“And don’t you forget it,” he said.
Deacon left Villa Pizza holding a large pepperoni and diet soda when he spotted a man with his thumb out and slowly walking backward. At some point, he rendered the cardboard sign he was holding useless and folded it under his arm.
Deacon jogged a few feet while nodding. “Hey man, what’s up?”
The man stopped, glanced around, and pointed to himself.
“Yeah – you,” Deacon said. “What’s up?”
“Nothing much, I guess. Just waiting on my fellow American to do me a solid,” he said as another car drove by and pretended not to see. The man shrugged his shoulders.
“I couldn’t help but notice your T-shirt,” Deacon said with a smile and pointed. The man took a moment before peering down to remind himself of the T-shirt he was wearing under his jean jacket. “I was a roadie for The Woodchucks in the early nineties,” Deacon said. “Huge fan! In fact, An Evening With The Woodchucks is my favorite album.”
The man narrowed his eyes.
“Is that so?” he asked.
“The name’s Deacon.”
“Nice to meet you, Kai. Where are you heading to?”
“Maine, but folks don’t seem to be feeling very religious today.”
“I can get you to Cavalier if that helps?”
The man said nothing as he watched half a dozen more cars amble by.
“Lemme guess, the Buick is yours,” Kai said.
“How did you know?”
“Well, I guessed that pizza you’re holding belongs to the pretty red-head with her arms folded sitting on the hood.”
Deacon grimaced. “And the kid?”
“He’s wearing a catcher’s mitt and throwing a baseball above his head.”
“Damn! Look, don’t move! Okay? I’ll be right back.”
The man let his backpack slip from his shoulder and sat on a wall no higher than his kneecaps.
“What is it with you, Deacon?” Mia asked. “I mean, you had one job.”
Deacon handed the pizza box to Shawn and the soda to Mia. “Hear me out, will you?
His name is Kai, and he’s heading to Maine.”
“And… it’s a sign.”
“Mia, the guy is wearing a Woodchucks T-shirt, and I’m on my way to fulfill a lifelong dream. Its faith.”
“I thought we were on our way to buy a refrigerator, remember?”
“Well, that too,” Deacon said. “Look, one good turn deserves another, right? Helping Kai get to where he’s going might be the little bit of luck I need.”
“Pizza is going cold,” Shawn announced, although Deacon could only see his sneakers behind the open rear door.
“With you in a second," Mia said. "The answer is no! The guy could be a serial killer for all we know.”
“Oh, come on, Mia. You know that’s not true. I mean, look at the guy. He’s probably on his way to visit his sick grandmother or something.”
“Is that what he told you?”
“Deacon – read my lips – the answer is no.”
“Who doesn’t like pizza?” Shawn asked, munching on the crust.
“It’s the cheese, kid. It gives me an upset stomach,’ Kai said.
Mia put the soda carton in Shawn’s hand and told him to drink up.
Kai glanced at Mia, staring back at him in the rearview. “I could have sat in the back, you know?”
“Oh, I know,” Mia said. “But I can keep my eyes on you a whole lot better upfront.”
“Jesus, Mia. Do you have to?”
“It’s okay, Deacon. Look, I get it. And you have every right to be wary,” Kai said.
“And yet you’re in a car with my family,” Mia added.
“So, Deacon tells me he has an audition when you guys get to Cavalier. I mean, you must be excited – your old man, the drummer in a rock band.”
“Oh, please,” Mia said. “It’s hardly the Grateful Dead. It’s a bunch of suburban dads going through a mid-life crisis if you ask me.”
“I’m excited,” Deacon said, drumming the steering wheel. “I mean, I just know this time it’ll be different.”
“Different?” Kai asked.
Mia gripped the driver’s seat and pulled herself forward, forcing her hair to slip across her face. “Oh, he didn’t tell you, did he?”
“Tell me what?” Kai asked.
“Deacon here has never played in a band before, have you Deacon? In fact, the last audition you went to…”
“That’s enough, Mia. Kai here doesn’t need to know everything about us, do you, Kia?”
Kai nodded before he felt a tap on his shoulder.
“Oh, come on, look at him,” Mia said and pointed. “Deacon, I hate to burst your bubble, but you’re twenty years too late, and it’s time to grow up. I mean…”
“Look, it’s the cops,” Shawn said.
Up ahead, a convoy of State Police cruisers had parked in the shape of a – V – and reduced the road to a single lane.
“This is awesome,” Shawn said, pointing at the pulsating blue emergency lights scattered along the road.
Kai glanced at Mia, staring back at him in the rearview for the second time, only this time she left him feeling uneasy.
Deacon slowed the Buick to a crawl and gradually lowered the window. The Buick was five, maybe seven cars behind when Mia asked, “Car accident?”
“It doesn’t look like it,” Deacon said, craning his neck.
“Perhaps, they’re looking for someone,” Kai said.
Kai’s theory brought Deacon’s and Mia’s attention to the two troopers standing side by side. The smaller of the two troopers held a clipboard while the taller trooper appeared to be instructing officers blocking the lane on what to do next.
“Kai’s right. They are looking for someone,” Mia said.
Meanwhile, Kai paid close attention to the trooper guiding his finger along the brim of his hat and how his subtle head-nod decided on who could continue their journey without question.
“I bet it has something to do with yesterday’s robbery,” Kai said.
“Robbery? What robbery?” Deacon asked.
“Yesterday – some guy burst into a mom and pop store, or was it a bank? And shot the clerk.”
“Get the fuck out of here,” Deacon said.
The trooper summoned the Buick forward and then raised his hand shortly after for it to stop, while another trooper came forward in an alarming number of short steps.
“Afternoon, Sir. How are you doing?”
“I’m good, officer,” Deacon said. “Everything okay?”
“Sir, can you remove your sunglasses and look in the direction of the two officers standing next to the unmarked car.”
Deacon removed his sunglasses and made eye contact with the two officers. Meanwhile, another two troopers had made their way towards the Buick and were now inspecting it.
“I feel like Henry,” Shawn said.
“Who?” Kai asked.
“Henry – my goldfish.”
“Kai?” Mia whispered.
“I think they want you to roll your window – slowly.”
Kai acknowledged the officer’s hand gesture and rolled the window.
“Where you guys heading to,” the trooper asked.
“Cavalier,” Deacon said. “We’re on our way to buy a refrigerator.”
“An awfully long way to go to buy a refrigerator.”
“We got a good deal.”
The trooper nodded and leaned in for a closer look, arching his top-heavy body at the waist.
“Is that your son?”
“Yeah, that’s Shawn, my wife Mia, and my brother Kai.”
The trooper nodded and winked at Shawn, although his left eye remained on Kai at all times. Deacon watched as one head nod between troopers led to another.
“Okay, Sir, you’re free to go. Have a nice day,” the trooper said.
Deacon tapped the accelerator, and the Buick rolled by a trooper and his two-finger salute.
“Okay, what was that about?” Kai asked.
“Why did you tell the Trooper I was your brother?”
“Because I have an audition in three hours, and you’ve got a date with Maine.”
“I don’t follow.”
Deacon cleared his throat and altered his voice.
“Hey, officer, here’s a ‘hitchhiker’ I allowed into my car – calls himself – Kai. Perhaps, you should take a closer look at him.”
“What the hell, Deacon? Are you implying I shot that clerk?”
“No.” Deacon took a moment. “Look, I told the officer you were my brother because a family riding in a station wagon on their way to buy a refrigerator goes unnoticed. Otherwise, we’d still be there answering his dumbass questions.”
“Fourteen,” Shawn said, unexpectedly.
“Fourteen?” Kai asked.
“Fourteen red cars,” Shawn said. “Wanna play?”
“How about we play something different?” Deacon asked.
“Sure,” Shawn said.
“What do you think, Mia – fortunately and unfortunately sound good to you?”
“Sure, Deacon – whatever.”
“Great. I’ll go first,” Deacon said. “Fortunately, this is my first time stopping for a Hitchhiker.”
A pause followed while Mia exhaled through her nostrils.
“Unfortunately, I don’t know much about him,” she said.
Kai shifted uneasily in his seat. “Perhaps, I ought to get out at the next stop,” he said.
“Come on, man, relax. We’re only busting your balls.”
“Deacon, bathroom break,” Mia said as she shook the large soda carton for everyone to see.
“Can’t you hold it?”
“No, I can’t hold it – Jez.”
“Exit twenty – five,” Mia said.
After that, the Buick took a left and spent another three minutes on the road until Deacon guided it into the only parking space he could find. Before that, Shawn brought everyone’s attention to the people taking pictures beside a rather large statute of a Moose.
Mia said nothing, unclipped her safety belt, and left. Deacon followed, claiming he saw something about a lobster roll on the ride in.
“Hey, Kid, can I ask you something?”
“I guess so.”
“Deacon and Mia aren’t your mom and dad, are they?”
“What makes you say that?”
“Call it a hunch, but your ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ just left you in a car with a stranger, and neither of them has stopped long enough to consider the consequences.”
“My mom sleeps a lot, so Mr. and Mrs. Perez like to take me with them on road trips to keep them company.”
“They go on a lot of road trips, this Mr. and Mr. Perez?”
“Mmm, maybe one every two weeks.”
“I thought so. And your dad?”
“My stepdad doesn’t say much – he spends most of his time in the garage fixing cars – like this piece of junk.”
“And they’ve no problem with you going on these so-called road trips?”
“I don’t think so. I mean, every time I come home, Deacon gives me an envelope to give to my stepdad.”
Kai pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes when everything began to make sense.
“Hey, look, it’s the cops again,” Shawn said.
Kai watched as eight police cruisers entered in unison but quickly separated – four covered the exits while two made their way to the plaza entrance.
Kai figured it wouldn’t take long for the remaining two cruisers to find what they were looking for – a two-tone Buick station wagon. Knowing this, he suggested to Shawn, perhaps, they toss a little B-ball in the park behind the Plaza while he figured a way to get him home.
“Home?’ Shawn asked. “Why can’t the Perez's drive me home?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, kid, for the Perez's or your mom.”
"Hey, did Deacon give you the envelope to give to my stepdad?"
"Yeah, sure, kid, why not?" Kai had a thought, “Wait there.”
Kai slipped from the Buick and to the trunk, where he discovered a duffle bag partially full of blood-stained money.
“Okay, kid. Time to go, we got company.”
Mia left the restroom with her head down; otherwise, she would have seen Kai and Shawn disappear behind an eighteen-wheeler. When Mia eventually lifted her head, she saw enough police officers to know the jig was up. Mia saw an opening and ran in the direction of the Buick, sidestepping her way through a host of parked cars.
Mia kept running while “Stop, and “We have you surrounded,” followed, “Show me your hands.” Mia’s run to the Buick faded to a heartless jog when she realized the Buick was empty, and a dozen officers were approaching from the West side of the parking lot with their weapons drawn. Deacon wasn’t where he was supposed to be, considering the deal was one of them remained in the car at all times.
“On your knees.”
Mia closed her eyes, interlocked her fingers behind her head, and knelt. When she opened her eyes, she saw Deacon faced down on the grass beside a timber shack selling Lobster rolls with his hands behind his head. A moment later, two police officers hauled Deacon to his feet. Mia drew her two front teeth over her bottom lip and mouthed after they made eye contact – Fuck you – as slowly as she could and smiled.
“Right back at you, sweetheart,” Deacon mouthed and smiled. "Right back at you."