Let it Ride
Three hours and twenty six minutes ago Carrey lit the Ralston’s old ice cream shack on fire. Relit, technically – a miss-wiring had set it ablaze a few summers back, only this time there was no one to put it out. He was supposed to meet Dylan at eight, but Carrey was a fiddler, and his jittery fingers found their way to a lighter, which made its way to the dead grass, which made it to an old half-charred two by four, which made its way to the wall. It wasn’t a big deal, no one had used it in years other than paranoid stoners, and Carrey told himself not to worry. He used to go there every Sunday, when his brother had worked there, and he’d get a double for the price of a kiddie cone. Carrey smiled. Then the fear hit him again and he scrubbed his hands on his jeans.
He suddenly became very conscious of the hum of the car and hurriedly turned back the keys. The lights cut. Above the low, hot clouds reflected the sickly orange light of the nearby city, made clear without the glare of his high-beams. He was in the camping grounds, in the very peak of summer, though a single Winnebago was his only company. It was simply too hot to camp. Carrey wished he had left the air conditioning on; already the Georgia night had begun to creep through the vents and windows, warm and wet. He closed his eyes.
His brother used to take him here on weekends; it was only a few miles down the road from their house. They came early in the summer, for Carrey’s birthday, that way it was still cool enough to sleep outside. Their mother would sleep in the car, near enough to hear any trouble but far enough to keep the magic alive. He had tried to come down with Dylan once, after hunting down the tent in the attic, but they left around midnight for fast food and sheets. Carrey’s brother was still alive then, but it was one of the last times he had returned to the park, other than for a graduation party or two. It was still too early to go home though, but the park just had been on the way back from the Ralston’s and Carrey didn’t know where else he could go.
Carrey always assumed, since his camping days, that the park was the place to come when one needed to think. He would turn the lights off and open the windows, close his eyes and inhale - a fog rolls in, sliding over the cobbled creek that sounded in the distance. I am encased in the breathless rubbing of cricket’s wings. I lean into the electricambersummertime glow of the streetlight and sighs at the Spanish moss and am cleaned - the answers would come, and if they didn’t, acceptance would. The park would be the place of epiphany, where solitude would usher in a sudden, transformative self-awareness. Yet Carrey didn’t know what he could do with an epiphany like that. He didn’t have a girl to go get or bully to stick up to, a novel to finish or a life to save or a million other endings to run to. He had a lighter and sweaty palms.
His engine pops and he opens his eyes, eying the camper a few spaces away with something resembling distrust. Sirens wailed up behind him. It was the second batch since he had gotten to the park, likely the police or a precautionary ambulance, though they were louder this time. They were heading out of the city, right past his house and the park and on down route 11. Carrey remembered with vague panic the stories of his classmates, busted in this very parking lot hooking up or getting high. The siren call weaved through the pines, drifting unevenly back into silence, leaving the park quiet.
The lot felt small.
Muted white light sprung from the window of the Winnebago as a door clanged and footsteps pounded down the stairs. A tangle of forest green limbs erupted from within, yelling in staccato: “The diretruck! the diretrucks!”. Carry slid slowly, instinctively, down the seat until only his head was visible. He felt dirty in the ever-present orange lamplight. Carrey wanted to roll the windows up but was afraid the sound would give him away, so instead he simply begged that the kid wouldn’t turn around. He wondered how fast an Accord could peel out. The green shoes pointed eagerly towards the road as the sirens began to subside, and the boy spun around.
“Did you see dem!?” Carrey fingers lingered on the keys, pretending the comment was directed back inside the camper. The boy asked him something else but Carrey couldn’t understand him. When Carrey finally looked up the kid was only a few feet away, but his lips moving aimlessly and without sound as if he had to try out each syllable before finding the one he wanted. He usually found the wrong one. Carrey wanted to make him slow down, but mostly he wanted the light in the Winnebago to go out.
“I’m damping! With my dad! He dleeps a lot dough...” The boy is suddenly fascinated by some trash on the ground and reaches down to get it, popping a few of the stiches on his pajamas. “Whad’re you doin dere?” He looks briefly over the shard of green glass before dropping it again.
“What am I doing here?” Well I just burned down an old ice cream shack. Reburned, to be fair. That’s called arson. The first time was when my brother used to work there, couple years back. Somebody had clipped a wire and left a machine running after my brother’s shift, the Ralstons always blamed him, though my mom always said that they were just using him as an excuse for the insurance company. Anyway I’d go with my mom to pick him up every Thursday. I had just got off of work busing at that bar and grill on 11 and my friend and I wanted to go smoke. So I was waiting, for Dylan, he’s a friend of mine, but he never showed up. And I started playing with my lighter, you know, just dead grass and stuff, and –
“You’re doring! I want to see the diretrucks!” Carry snapped back to the park.
The boy’s toes wiggled in his pajamas, testing the seams. The slippered feet were facing directly at Carrey, breaking their gaze only to scratch nervous circles in the ground. He was older than Carrey first took him for, an illusion of the ridiculous pajamas. By now he was too big for them, and together with the speech impediment Carrey felt a bit sorry for him. He had to be in the 3rd grade by now, maybe 4th, and well into the age where kids would start to notice it when he spoke funny. Well on his way to the imitations, parodies, bullies, speech therapy, silence. Carrey knew -- from a far at least. His brother had been the one to really know. His hands were sliding up and down his jeans, his palms hot with friction.
“So… do you, uh, like camping?”
“No. We don’t ever do anyding! Its so doring here!”
“Boring?! Not if you know about the secret pond...” For once the boy’s feet stopped, planted in the ground. His mouth was open, working like a water wheel, but nothing came out. Carry smiled through feigned disbelief. “You’ve never heard of the secret pond!? Well, its just back there through those bushes. Some pretty great fishing back there. That is, if you and your dad can find it!” He pauses. “But, I guess that’s probably too boring for you and all...”
“OOO yeah I wanna dough fishing! I’m donna tell my daddy!” In a flash his round, green feet were climbing up into the door frame of the Winnebago and Carrey had hit the ignition. The streetlamp flickered and clicked as he sped by, and he was happy to leave its uncomfortable glow behind him. Five minutes later Carrey was again on the Route 11, and the boy in the green pajamas was likely learning all there is to know about stranger danger. Arson and attempted childknapping, Carrey thought. At least the night is still young.
Carrey’s phone had been buzzing with messages regularly for the last few minutes and did again as he passed the high school. He had read a few of them, mostly panicked questions from Dylan, who wanted to meet up fast to tell him something urgent. Something had gone down at the shack; he hadn’t even been able to get down the road ‘cause the cops, and he swore he saw smoke. Carrey was suddenly angry – he knew Dylan was usually late, but he would have been waiting there twenty minutes had he not torched the place. He tossed his phone to the seat next to him, telling himself that it was dangerous to text while driving. His plan had been to go to Dylan’s after smoking, but plans had changed. There were still two joints in the change holder, his older cousin had given him a bag of them when he graduated, and they pointed up at him stiffly. Carrey wasn’t sure where he was going, but that was fine. Better, in fact. Route 11 faded endlessly in both directions, sliding into cotton fields and peanut farms, past his house and off towards the throughway.
He couldn’t go home. At least he wouldn’t yet. Carrey knew that no one had seen him, but it didn’t feel like it. In his mind he saw the squad car in the driveway, his mother crying, and his father’s head in his hands. The officer would be kind but severe. Cuffs might not be waiting, but questioning would. He wouldn’t say a word, but the lighter, slight in his pocket, would nail him. Hit fast forward and he’s standing in front of a judge, waiting to hear which soup kitchen or road gang he’d be sent to. He wondered if they put notices out on minors. “Be on the lookout for a male, Caucasian, short with fair hair, driving his brothers beat down POS and likely hanging around playgrounds, daycares, or anything flammable. Over?” Carrey saw a version of himself smiling and hitting the gas, skipping town without so much as a wave goodbye. Then he saw the real him about to run a stop sign, imagination still whirring:
I’m dead. A car, no, make it a truck, just t-boned me. I don’t flip though, that’s too dramatic. The car just crumples. The truck driver breaks his leg but hobbles out of the car anyway. It is his last month on the job, and his record has been spotless until now. He is screaming for an ambulance but I am losing a lot of blood, fast. The car bursts into flames, and I burst into poetic justice.
He had somehow made it up to sixty by the time his daydream snapped and he hit the brakes. His entire door was already in the intersection, but the roads were dark save for his weak high beams. Carrey’s hands were rubbing furiously on his jeans, and his foot was still firmly on the brakes. The road was still empty, and Carrey suddenly wished he’d just run the stop. His house was only a few miles away now; the bar where he worked was only about a mile. Carrey eased onto the gas and cranked the radio.
The bar appeared around a corner, low and unassuming but clean looking, with a few pick-ups and sedans out front. It was the last place he could turn before reaching home, so Carrey cranked the wheel into the parking lot. He parked along the whitewashed wall, away from the road, and stepped through an unfinished flowerbed he’d been working on all week. He resisted the urge to pick a newly formed weed and entered quietly.
He had only worked there for the past month, and nothing but day shifts. His mom hadn’t wanted him working nights, and Carrey wasn’t quick to fight her on it. He liked having the nights free, like any high school kid would. He thought senior summer would be nights of parties, assumed it mostly, but he mostly spent his evenings at Dylan’s house. He got out of the car quickly and went inside, taking a right as if to go to the break room. But he didn’t have anything to do in the break room, so he instead stood dumbly in between the two doors, unsure of whether to sit down or leave.
Corning, the owner of The Spanish Moon, was against the wall, pumping quarters into the jukebox, then opening the back and taking them out to use again. He did the same thing with the pool tables, leaving the balls scattered on the felt, sometimes with a drink on the lip, though no one but Carrey had played them in months. Had they set Cheers in Georgia they would have used The Spanish Moon for the set, a compliment Corning would have been honored to hear. He finished his selections and looked around proudly, his eyes quickly catching Carrey’s with a wink. He had learned from a fry cook that they didn’t mean anything, the winks, just some tick he got after his sister died. Apparently she had drowned herself; the cook had figured she got knocked up. “By a negro,” he said, when Carrey looked disconcerted. Carry hadn’t responded, and he hadn’t believed him. He had generally ignored the cook’s stories after that, at least he had pretended to. Corning saddled up behind the bar, and beckoned Carrey over with another wink, his face clouded with the smoke from half a cigarette.
“Well I haven’t seen you around The Spanish Moon lately my friend. Sit down, it’s quiet for a Tuesday.” His eye kept fluttering, and Carrey suddenly realized that Corning didn’t recognize him. He had really only seen him when he hired him, and he only came in for the night shifts – Corning’s older aunt ran the place during the day. Perhaps it was trumpet blasting from the jukebox, but Carrey suddenly felt bold.
“Mind if I have a Coke and whiskey?” He had wanted to go with whiskey on the rocks, but he wasn’t sure if he could pull it off. And he knew he couldn’t drink it with a straight face. But Coke and Whiskey, now that’s a drink worthy of a bar like this.
“Mind if I have ID?” Shit, he thought. No worries, I left it in the car. Even better, I don’t need it. Come on man, it’s been a long day. I’m just looking to unwind. I’ll lean back, pull another bill or two out and slide them casually into his palm. He casually leans back and sips his whiskey, noting its smooth aftertaste.
“I’ll uh, have a cranberry juice”
“One jus de cranberry on the rocks for the gentleman.”
“Yeah I, I left my ID in the car.”
“Well it’s much too warm a night for you to have to go back out to your car for an ID I suppose. Don’t worry though, my guy says that this cranberry is from a very good year.” He slid the ruby highball down the counter, just in front of Carrey, and looked around proudly. Carrey, staring at the counter, took one gulp and wiped the moisture off on his pants.
“How’s the night been treating you kid? Don’t suppose you come in her on a Tuesday for a juice box. What’ve you been up to that you need to come talk to good ole Corning?”
“Arson?” Somehow, a small part of him hoped Corning would think he was serious.
“Arson?! Well damn, you’re making me look like a nerd.” He was chuckling, and Carrey let himself laugh as well. “If you’re looking to hide out from the cops or a crazy ex or something you’ve stumbled into the right place. Oh yes. Regular bunch of outlaws round here.” With that he winked again and exhaled a puff of smoke, mostly to keep himself from smiling. Carrey got the sense that Corning only smoked so that the bar could actually be described as “smoky,” and the more he watched, the less sure he was that Corning was actually inhaling. But he had to admit it worked.
“You see that group back there,” he said, pointing with his cigarette stub at a couple of men in a booth, “now those are guys you don’t want to cross. They take a little something extra with their juice if you catch my drift.” He winked again. “Those guys are on one side of the law, and it ain’t the pretty one. Don’t suppose you know what it is they did, do you?” Carrey’s face gave him nothing. “Those men, those very men, started the Chicago fire.” Carrey again began to wipe his hands on his jeans and finished his drink. “I know, hard to believe, but that’s the sort of crowd that pops up around here. Probably why you stopped by, seems like your type.” Carrey was staring off at the small TV in the corner playing the local sports recap punctuated by static, smiling faintly.
“I wouldn’t suppose you’d have a lighter on you?” The unlit cigarette was already in his mouth, and Carrey lied and nodded no. It was still in his pocket, angular and uncomfortable, but he really didn’t feel like looking at it anymore. “Damn. You’re a pretty shitty arsonist, you know that?” Carrey smiled and turned back to the TV as Corning left to take care of a couple of “regulars”. The pudgy sportscaster was finishing up, and the lead anchor was back on screen, though the volume was too low to make out what he was saying.
Carrey imagined his yearbook photo plastered up in the corner over some fire themed word art of his name as the anchor’s face gets stern, even angry. He shuffles some money out of his pocket and makes for the door, but one of the men, who Carrey now saw was an EMT or something, recognized him. Corning grabs for the phone and Carrey stops him, but it’s too late – a cop bursts through the door, after spotting his car from the road. Carrey is hauled out, and Corning’s sales go through the roof.
But instead at the bottom of the screen it just said “Amber Alert” in big block letters, and the anchor looked tactfully and appropriately concerned. Corning was on the edge of his seat next to a trucker and his pal, feigning conversation and looking at the new guys who had just started playing pool. He was dying to get them whiskey sours. Carrey just looked down at the countertop, spinning his ice with his fingers and scratching at the wood. Suddenly his fingernails caught something, and surprised, he tugged. The dark brown paneling separated with a snicket, leaving behind a bluish, gummy underside. Carrey smiled and wished he could rip the whole thing off.
“Hey hey hey buddy take it easy I’ll get you another juice!” Corning looked over at the pool players, annoyed they had only wanted sodas. “Those two new gentleman volunteer with the fire department you know. One on the left keeps looking at you all funny.” Wink. “Just got off of a call over at the Ralston’s farm, guess that old ice cream place finally went down.”
“Yeah way down route 11. Apparently it smoldered out before they could do much though. About time, if you ask me, I think Mr. Ralston only kept it up so he could collect the insurance some day. Hoped it would get hit by lightening or something, I bet you that sly bastard probably burned it down himself. Anyway, they just came in to unwind a bit, a guess. Real shame they’re still on call though, the money’s sure as hell not in the cola...”
Carrey laughed. Really laughed, and Corning, surprised, smiled back and filled up his cranberry juice again, telling him that this one was on the house. Carrey thanked him and asked how his business had been (Carrey knew that it had been slow but asked anyway). Corning winked, said things were great: the weekends were really picking up and all. He was glad to have a customer to talk to, men “just don’t talk to their bartender like they used to,” and that made Carrey happy. Corning pumped a couple more quarters into the jukebox and Carrey tried to stick the corner of the wood paneling back on.
Before long the two firemen had worked their way over to the bar, curious at the swing in activity. Keith, the smaller one, challenged Carrey to a game of darts, with the winner buying the next round. Carrey was good, he played nearly every day around three, when the lunch crowd cleared, with a pencil or glass of water dangling casually in his left hand as he shot. He won his next drink easily, and asked one more time for that whiskey and coke.
But before Corning could respond Keith’s pager set off. “Good, now I don’t have to buy this kid another drink. I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that last request, and you better too, Corning!” He smiled and grabbed his coat while his partner called in to the station.
“Just cause you’re off saving the world doesn’t mean you can just leave without paying, my friend.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, just throw it on the card.” Corning went to go ring up the number and Keith turned to his partner, who had just finished on the phone. “Any idea what we’re off too?”
“Yeah, search and rescue. Guess some kid went missing down at the park and the dad thinks it could be an abduction. Says he saw a car waiting outside his camper.” To their right the Amber Alert was still bright and bold on screen, but instead of the anchor there was now a video of sirens flashing in the park. Corning came back and the firemen left, clapping their hands on Carrey on the way out. But Carrey hardly noticed -- his eyes were fixed on the television, where a white Winnebago flashed red and blue and orange. Carrey threw some cash on the counter and got up as well, telling Corning his mom needed him back, it was getting rather late. He stepped out of the door and was blasted by the night, feeling hot and sticky and sick.
The heat hadn’t broken a bit, and the humid air still had a smoky fog to it. Carrey slunk into the car and turned the AC up is far as he could, though he was getting low on gas. His phone had seven new messages, but all he wanted to do was smoke the two joints, right in a row, and melt into thick night’s fumes. He twirled one in his hands absentmindedly, then put it back and turned the keys.
Carrey pulled out slowly, going right, away from home. He was hardly at the speed limit, but it still seemed too fast. The first light he hit stayed green, but Carry was wishing it would turn yellow before he hit the line. He felt like he deserved that much. Instead it stayed green and he crawled through it, letting his foot off of the gas and throwing the car into neutral as he started down a hill. The Accord picked up speed. A stop sign began to glow in the distance, the opposite of the one he had almost skipped an hour earlier, but Carrey continued to let it ride. He was twenty feet away from the stop when he jammed the car back into drive and floored it.
He raced through the intersection alone, and it was only a little while later that he finally let off the gas again, coasting back down. By then he was outside of the park entrance, and he slammed the brakes and put the car into park. He left the car on and headed straight for the sirens a few hundred yards in front of him. Heat lighting flashed across the clouds, mixing with the oppressive orange glow of the streetlamps a few short miles away. I’ll tell them about the pond and the little boy, and the fire too, and then they can find him. And then I can go home and they’ll turn the lights off and the sirens and I will be back and it will all be fine. We can all laugh about it and maybe they father will take his boy fishing there tomorrow just like my brother and I used to.
He was within shouting distance of the two firemen when he broke left and plunged into the forest. The light of the flashing sirens slithered through the pines, and Carrey’s skin was already beginning to coat with sweat and sap. He wanted a breeze. The sirens were on the move, but they stopped right outside the park gates. He heard shouting, or at least he thought he did, and he stopped and looked back. His hands were glued to his jeans, as he stood frozen. And then he took off.
It’s been three hours and twenty six minutes since Carrey lit the Garretson’s ice cream shack on fire, and he is finally running. The flashing sirens have disappeared, and all that is left is the soft glow of the city and the flashes of heat in the sky. Carrey imagines the police chasing after him and then he doesn’t care. He knows that its’ not his fault, that he was just being friendly to the kid, but he doesn’t feel safe. He feels like shit.
Carrey hadn’t been back to the little pond in years, but he knew how to find it. By that point, Carrey was old enough to take his brother out alone every now and then, to fit the kernel on the hook for him and to make sure he didn’t catch anything as he flicked the pole back. He knows the boy is here. He has to be. Carrey needs him to be here -- among the rocks that he once sat on with his Wal-Mart fishing pole and fading older brother. He reaches the pond where he and his brother used to fish back before a loose wire, or a helpless worker, had set the Garretson’s shack on fire the first time and his brother had been fired. Carrey feels the hopeless and awkward weight of nostalgia threatening to stretch him apart like a medieval rack. He wants before, and he wanted after. He just doesn’t want now.
But this isn’t before, and this wasn’t after, and he lets the sensation simmer. He stops at the water’s edge as if startled by the fact that he had actually found it. But it’s dark this deep in the pines, and he hears little more than the light lap of water in the black air, and the faintest of fogs clouds the air in front of his nose. So Carrey pulls the feeble lighter out of his pocket and flicks.
The light is weak, but he expects it; he walks down to the shore and steps in. He sinks in past his ankles but keeps going, the mud pulling off his shoes. It slips into the webs of his toes, sealing and releasing with each step. He slips perfectly out of the air and into the pond -- the lukewarm water feels like an extension of the thick humidity. He doesn’t notice the growing weight of his thin cotton shirt. He simply wades deeper and deeper, doing his best to keep the lighter dry. By the time he is in the dead center he has to look up just to breathe. But just as he begins to swim he is already beginning to rise up again, the dripping water off his wet jeans cracking in the heavy air as he emerges on the other side. In the soft and gassy orange light lays the boy, muddied and still.
His head is on the shore covered in blood, and his wet feet rest barely two inches above the rippling shoreline. He looked as if he had slipped somewhere and hit his head. Carrey drops the lighter with a hiss, and the only light left is radiating across the slow burning clouds, barely bright enough to see by. For the first time that night, Carrey hears thunder, real thunder, growing with a cackle before giving way to the bassy boom. Carrey lowers his body, drops it really, until it rests on the boy’s thin, cotton chest, but he doesn’t have the heart to listen for anything. Instead, he slides one arm under his neck and the other under his thighs, bracing to pick him up, but unable to make himself move. To his right the forest green toes, awkwardly jammed into the felt and broken seams, slowly begin to squirm, but Carrey is too busy catching his breath to notice.