This story, which was published in The Armchair Aesthete in 2004, continued the story of Eric, the runaway in "Security." Both Eric and Martin became main characters in Kings of the Earth.
Copyright Christopher Stanton
Eric had just enough change in his pocket to pay for the fare. He did not look at the driver’s face as he stumbled down the aisle and collapsed onto an empty seat near the back of the bus, struggling to catch his breath. The plastic was hard and cold against his bare arms, and he felt for a moment that he might pass out.
Through the bus window, thin and scratched by frost, Eric saw the security guard, the man with the pale face whom he had stabbed in the shoulder with the steak knife. He stood in the middle of the icy parking lot, bent over with pain and exhaustion, his breath forming around him in the frigid air. The shopping mall was dark behind him. Eric could not see his face, but he knew that the man was not hurt badly enough to die.
Then the bus pulled from the sidewalk with a lurch, and the man was gone.
Eric had not wanted to hurt the security guard, but he was sure that the man would have taken him back to the dark house with the water-stained walls again. Eric was only twelve, but he was smart for his age, and he knew that people still thought they could tell him what to do. He did not want to see the checkered couch with the cigarette burns on its armrests, or the rattling refrigerator with the broken handle, filled with six-packs of beer and empty jars of mustard. He did not want to see the boyfriend, with his unshaven face and backfiring car and loud music with men singing about wanting their bullets back. Besides, Eric still had the photo of Duke Kahanamoku, the color picture he had cut out of the surfing magazine and folded carefully, so it would fit in his back pocket. They would make the trip from Michigan to California together, and put all the bad thoughts behind them.
Eric reached in his pocket and pulled out the picture of The Duke. Eric had memorized everything about his life. He felt it was important to remember dead people who did good things. The Duke was Hawaiian and made surf boards out of sugar pine. He practiced hard and visualized each wave before he surfed it. He became known to people all over the world for his grace in the barrels and troughs of the ocean, and for his soft, modest smile.
Eric had never been surfing, not in a real ocean, but he was sure that his father would show him how, once Eric found him again. His father would understand the importance of The Duke and realize how pointless it was for Eric to stay in Michigan with his mother and the boyfriend.
Eric stared hard at the photo of the man in the old-fashioned black swim suit; he tried to visualize things, like he knew The Duke would. Eric pictured himself making his way across the country, past cornfields and grain silos and over the Rocky Mountains, whose sharp outline he had traced on the map on the wall in his bedroom. He visualized the wide beaches of California spread out in front of him, with pelicans and lifeguards and little kids with plastic pails full of sand.
Then, Eric tried to imagine his father’s bright blue eyes and scratchy beard; the face in the photo album that he kept in his dresser drawer, the face that made his mother cry. He sat there with his eyes closed, thinking of his father’s face until the lines became fuzzy and he could no longer recognize the man he saw.
Eric wondered if his mother and the boyfriend were looking for him, or if the boyfriend had even noticed he was gone. Eric was good at keeping quiet and agreeing with everything that people said. His teachers liked him because of it; his mother told Eric that she never knew what he was thinking. Eric figured it was better that she not know; sometimes the thoughts would rush through his head so quickly that he wondered if he had the brain of a robot. He was happiest on the Saturdays that he could ride his bike to the YMCA and swim laps in the heated pool, sometimes for hours, and think about nothing at all. Once, he brought his boogie board and tried to ride it across the deep end. The man behind the counter with the dark mustache and the whistle had confiscated it and never given it back.
The bus moved on through the night, the quiet streets of one story homes making way for liquor stores and boarded-up insurance offices with dark marquees. Eric grew suddenly afraid as he realized that he had no idea where the bus was going, or where he would spend the night. He was only sure that he wanted to wash the taste of the beer from his mouth and the memory of the man’s touch from his mind.
The man in the camouflage jacket was the first person that Eric had met after running away that morning. He had scratchy gray hair and was missing both of his front teeth. The man found Eric walking along a culvert near the freeway and pulled over to talk. He had soft brown eyes and a mud-spattered truck that was warm and comfortable inside. The man in the camouflage jacket told Eric that he wanted to help. They sat in his truck and watched the snow fall from the sky and cover the frozen creek bed. The man had a six-pack of beer in the cooler below his seat, and he let Eric drink two of them while he took care of the rest. Once, the man leaned in too closely and spilled beer all over Eric’s hooded sweatshirt as he touched him. Eric ran out of the truck and along the creek as it wound its way through the snow and under the freeway. Eric threw the sweatshirt down a storm drain near the Veterans Hospital and walked the rest of the way to the mall. He had planned to spend the night there, until the guard came and found him.
The bus turned off the main road and parked in a vacant lot. There were a couple of other buses standing empty near a stone building surrounded by wooden benches. Eric could see the lights of the freeway behind a stand of bare elm trees. A pickup truck sat idling at the curb across the street, its tailpipe sending clouds of gray whiteness behind it. Eric saw the dark profile of a woman in the driver’s seat, watching him.
“End of the line,” the driver said. He wrote something on a clipboard and then stood up and stretched. “Everybody out,” he said.
Eric had no idea where he was. It was still dark and cold, so he figured he was still in Michigan. His mother had warned him about the side of town near the freeway: houses with peeling paint and wide stone porches, rickety buildings with boarded up windows, men in business suits dashing out of them, brown paper bags clutched in their hands. Maybe that’s where I am, Eric thought. He wondered if he belonged here, among the alleys scarred with potholes, the open sewer drains stuffed with leaves. The boyfriend had always told him that he would never amount to anything. Maybe this is where those people live, he thought. People who will never amount to anything.
Eric looked out into the parking lot again, at the dark stone building surrounded by benches. He wondered if there were still people inside. Maybe there’s a warm corner, near the doorway, he thought. Maybe somebody left a window open, and I can sleep inside.
“Where’s your jacket, son?” the driver asked him, walking down the aisle toward Eric’s seat. He had a thick neck and a handlebar moustache. “You’re gonna freeze your tail off.”
“I just live across the street,” Eric said. He rose to his feet and pointed out the window. He moved to where the driver stood. “My mom’s waiting for me, “ he said, and tried to smile.
The driver stared at Eric for a long moment. Eric wondered if he could see the drops of blood on his jeans, or smell the beer on his breath.
“Right,” the driver said finally, and stepped aside.
Eric left the bus. He jogged across the parking lot, in the direction he had indicated to the driver. He could feel the man’s eyes on him, watching him from beside the bus.
Eric’s favorite Adidas were already torn and muddy from his walk along the creek bed. He wished that he had not stuffed his sweatshirt down the storm drain. Eric wondered if the smell of the beer would have disappeared from it, with time.
He reached the sidewalk and made his way across the street toward the rows of houses that were corroded and dull. They leaned against each other for support. Eric took care not to slip on the rutted patches of ice. The moon was white and perfectly round above him as he walked part way down an alley, past a tricycle that lay in pieces on the snowy gravel. He hid behind a trash can. A few moments later, the pickup truck with the woman driver, the one he had seen waiting for the bus, moved past. He caught a glimpse of the bus driver in the passenger seat. Then the truck disappeared from view, headed toward the freeway.
Eric rose to his feet. He knew he should follow the truck, perhaps find a ride that would take him out of town, but he was tired and hungry and only wanted to stretch out with a warm blanket on top of him.
There was a house nearby, and a white door down three stone steps. Eric walked down the steps to an area that was dry and lit by a single bulb from the brick awning above. There was a dog blanket, a rug made out of multicolored swaths of fabric, spread out in front of the doorway.
Eric lay down on the cold stone, under the light bulb, and watched the first flurries as they tumbled out of the sky. They covered his arms and blew into his eyelashes as his teeth began to chatter. Perhaps this is where I belong, he thought. Me and The Duke. At that moment, he wished that there was someone there with him, someone who would tell him differently, but there was only the snow and the cold. He put his head on the muddy blanket and drew his legs close to him and then closed his eyes for the night.