The last time I was locked in a trunk, my buddy Tommy and me were playing cops and robbers. Mom was mad as hell. She said, “People die in trunks for God's sake. You could roast to death in there! You’re eleven years old, Lukie. You should be smarter than that."
The brakes screech and I push my knees down to keep from slamming into the trunk’s wall but I end up turned over anyway. There’s another sound underneath me and the car starts moving again, I roll back over dirt and broken bits of car frame. Wires cut at my wrists and into my ankles. Dad says newer cars have safety latches so no one gets trapped anymore. This old jalopy has no latch, but even if it did, I'd have no way to pop it.
The car’s ancient body has rotted through making a tiny window to the outside.
One evening a bird turned up in the house and flapped around like crazy. Inside our living room, the bird looked as big as an eagle. Dad opened a window and told me to be really still. I didn’t move a muscle, but the bird just kept flying back and forth, hitting the walls and ceiling fan and lampshades. It zinged against my head and I screamed.
Dad turned off all the lights so the bird could see the way out.
Here in the dark, I think of how I’d like to fly through that little hole, right out to fresh air and freedom. I just need Dad to show me how.
My dad is the best man on the whole planet. People who don’t even know Dad pay attention when he talks, maybe because he's a police officer, or because he's such a large man, or because he has a big laugh. Like at the baseball games, he gets everyone singing. He’s the tallest one and probably loudest too. He buys me and him a bag of roasted peanuts, gets himself a beer, and a cherry coke for me. We sit up high in the stands. He holds the bag tilted towards me the whole time. We like to drop the shells right there where we’re sitting and nobody cares.
I thought I’d die right on the spot when he told me he had to move to a different place and I’d be staying with Mom. He kept saying it would be all right. Change is hard, he told me. Hang in there Luke, you’ll see. It’s going to be okay.
The day after Dad left was dry for a change, and when the sun came out, I took off on my bike to get away from the house. I rode to the lake where the mallards gathered in the water; some slept on the grass with their heads hidden under wings. I climbed off my bike and took a drink of water, watching the ducks swim without trying, their green heads bright as emeralds.
I didn’t see the man sitting on the grass until he spoke.
His name was Gabe. “Like the angel,” he said with a deep voice, nothing at all like an angel. A scar ran across his neck, under a snake tattoo.
At first I thought he was making fun of me. Dad got the bike free from a secondhand place; no one would buy it with a bent wheel and rusty handlebars. I just kept drinking my water.
Gabe said, “Fine lookin’ boy like you ought to have a proper bike, don’t you think?” He offered to fix it up, said he had nothing else to do.
“You’ll have to leave it here so’s I can work on it,” he said.
I left it and walked the mile to home. Mom didn’t even ask where my bike was.
I’ll be going to Dad’s new apartment one of these days, a little place near the precinct. He’ll spend more time with me than ever once he gets settled in. Mom said she’ll believe it when she sees it.
Tommy’s away at his grandmother's for the whole month. I sat around feeling bored, wondering if a kid my age can go to a ballgame alone.
Most days after lunch, I’d stop at Ted’s Junkshop for some red vines. Ted’s big belly jiggled under his worn-out shirt that used to fit. He’s a nice person, I guess. He always tells me to have a good day or enjoy the summer or perk up.
I can’t hang around Ted’s forever so I wander over to Gabe’s. His place isn’t a real tent like you buy from REI. His is more like what I used to build on rainy days in the living room out of blankets and couch cushions. It’s like a mountain man’s hut with tarps and plastic all over.
I never go inside. I'm way smarter than that. Who knows what would happen to a kid if he went inside a homeless person’s tent? Dad said it’s not a place for kids.
Me and Gabe would sit on a bench watching the water and the ducks. He asked me about home and my parents. About my room and what I like to do. He wanted to know about my friends, which teams I go for. It felt almost like when Tommy and I’d sit around and chew on the end of the long blades of grass.
After a week or two, I didn't notice the snake on his neck anymore. I asked Gabe about the marks on his wrists. His face went flat.
"That's where my ever lovin dad would put the handcuffs." I figured he was kidding since I had been telling him about playing cops and robbers with Tommy and about getting locked inside the trunk.
Dad had told me to stay away from the tents. I didn’t tell him how I’d made a friend down there; Gabe was just someone to talk with, not anyone bad.
Sure, there were some things about Gabe that I didn’t like so much. Like him putting his arm around me. But that was only one time, and I jumped when he did it, yelled at him to keep his paws off me. He told me not to be so touchy, that he didn’t mean anything. After that, he turned quiet. I felt bad.
Dad was supposed to pick me up one Saturday after his shift. It was all I thought about that whole day. I waited outside with my catcher’s mitt, tossing a baseball straight up in the air so he’d see me when he drove in.
When my arm got tired, I gave up and took a seat on the step. Mom tried to make me come inside. But I couldn’t stop looking down the road for him.
She brought out a slice of pizza on a paper plate and set it on the wood floor next to where I leaned against the porch railing. She said my father called and apologized but couldn't make it; he was stuck at work. Said we'll try again next weekend.
One day Gabe says he’s got his old Plymouth running and takes me to see it. Says my bike’s in the trunk all fixed. The car was about a hundred years old. The back end nearly touched the ground. It might have been yellow once but now it was just kind of sickly gray. He says, “Let’s go for a ride, kid. Out where you can ride your studly bike.”
I’m watching that little window in the trunk, about to pee my pants. The brakes whine and the car turns, bumping hard over rocks and potholes. I'm trying hard to quit crying. If I puke with this rag in my mouth, I'll surely choke to death. The car stops rolling and shuts down. Suddenly I wish the car would start moving again.
The car door slams and keys rattle. My heart is going wild. The trunk pops open.
I suck in air deep and fast, crying at the same time. Gabe’s face looms above me. It’s as if I’m seeing him for the first time. His wispy red hair is plastered against his head. His shirt’s unbuttoned showing a long scar from when his father cut him. His forehead is low and slanting back with overhanging eyebrows. The snake tattoo has fangs that go around the ugly knob on his throat.
"You made it," he says pulling the rag out of my mouth. "See? Your mom doesn't know everything after all. You didn't die,” he chuckles.
My throat is sandpapery with my tongue stuck down.
"I can't breathe," I manage to cough out.
Gabe uncaps a water bottle and holds it to my mouth. I hate taking it, but there's no deciding. I gulp it down and soon I find my voice.
“Are you tryin’ to kill me? I could’ve died. You made me hit my head. I’m gonna throw up. What’d you have on that rag anyway?"
"Ah, nuthin. Just a little bit of chloroform. I’ll teach you how to use it."
I’m like an animal trussed up, sitting in the old trunk, on the way to market.
"I almost died! I thought you were my friend. I hate you, take me home. My dad’s going to arrest you. He’s a cop in case you forgot.”
“Oh, settle down. Nobody’s gonna die. Don’t be so dramatic you little ass-hole.”
I’m all mixed up. I can’t straighten it out, where I am or what Gabe is doing.
He starts poking me in the ribs talking baby talk, “Coochie coochie coo, let’s hear you giggle lil Gabe. You ugly little fucker.”
I swear he’s crying. Crying like a little kid.
“Ouch, hey, ouch,” I cry. “My name’s Luke not Gabe, stop it, I hate you.”
He flicks his pocket knife open and cuts the zip ties from my ankles, wraps his smelly arms around me and pulls me from the trunk, dragging my legs over the latch.
“Hey, that hurts,” I shout, trying not to cry. “I really have to pee, no kidding.”
Gabe cuts the zips off my wrists and jerks my arms behind me, then ties them again.
“Listen here.” He wipes his nose with his wrist. “No funny business. See this?” He points to a gun stuck in his waistband.
When I turned eleven, Dad took me to an indoor shooting range, noisy and crowded. It was all smoky and smelled like firecrackers. I didn’t have the earplugs and the noise made me hold my hands over my ears. The pistol weighed about ten pounds, too heavy for me to hold straight up. But I finally did and pulled the trigger.
Gabe’s orange wispy hair blows around in the wind, sometimes straight up.
“Come on, Gabe. Take these off. I really gotta go. I mean it.” My underwear’s getting wet.
“I figured that was coming. Little altar boy such as yourself. Pretty little angel, right? Okay bud. But I’m warning you. Don’t forget what I have here.” He pats the pistol.
“That thing loaded?”
“A’course it is. What’d you think, I’m just wearing it to be pretty?”
Long shadows stretch across the field of tall grasses and wildflowers. No telling how far this place is from home. On hikes, Dad always reminded me to stop and get my bearings. Look in every direction and remember unusual details.
Gabe’s pulling stuff out of the backseat.
An airplane flies over, low enough to see the blue with an orange and yellow tail, a Southwest, same as home. A semi’s air brakes sound far away. Then a train whistle, closer than home.
“So, how am I supposed to pee with my hands behind my back?”
“Oh, don’t worry. I got you.”
Gabe grabs my shorts and yanks them down to my ankles, muttering that this is my own fault.
Then, he says, “Mmm, bet your old dad never showed you this one.”
He takes his big ape hand and puts it down there, pulls my dick between his two fingers and says, “Now pee.”
I’m crying again, no one ever touched me there.
“I can’t go. Leave me alone will ya. Untie my hands.”
“Let’s see who can squirt furthest.” He pulls his out.
I still can’t go.
“Come on Gabe. I’m not going anywhere. I mean, think about it. Where would I go? It’s almost dark. I don’t even know where we are.”
“Lucy, Lucy, Lucy. Watch this.” He lets it fly. I’m downwind and feel the spray hit me in the face.
“Go on, you said you gotta piss, so do it already.” He’s laughing.
I’m blubbering again, but don’t care if I am. All I want is my dad.
Gabe knocks me on the back of my head. “Cry baby.”
I turn away and finally go, my hands tied behind me, pee runs down my skinny legs.
“Good,” he says. “Now quit your yammerin’. Ain’t nothing to cry about. You sure you won’t run?”
The bird, the trapped bird, too crazy to see its chance right in front of him.
I take in long breaths, trying to quiet. “I promise”
He grabs his pocket knife, flicks his wrist to get it straight out, holds my arm and turns me around, cuts the wrist zip ties.
Tiny daisies wave like pretty ballerinas and milkweed pods let their seeds drift on the warm afternoon air.
Keys and coins and phone and knife and gun scatter.
Barn swallows, a small flock of them, swoop and sail toward the field’s edge. My Dad is there. He is right there at the end of the field with the birds. Him and Ted, running.
Gabe’s pushing me down, but I twist and roll, my face slams into the dry grass that smells like bread. He drops onto the ground with his eyes closed and moans as if he just finished a race.
My teeth are full of dirt and tears. I spit hard. I can’t stop bawling.
Gabe’s on his back, catching his breath. The window is small yet right in front of me. And with arms flat against the warm earth, my toes digging in hard, two hands lifting the gun, the cuts on my wrists like tattooed bracelets, I aim the pistol and squeeze the trigger.
Gabe turns and begins to stand.
Three loud cracks, firecrackers in the field. It’s Dad. Dad!