Matthias is on his knees, trying to unclog the nacho cheese machine, sleeves rolled up, fresh burn singeing the back of one wrist, when Keyanna leans over the snack stand counter. “You said to let you know if that skinny dude showed up.”
He sets down the pliers and turns to Sharon, standing behind the register. “No nachos,” he says. “Make a sign so people don’t get their hopes up.”
Walking with the confident stride of upper management, Matthias passes the four royal throne rooms, glancing in to be sure all is well with the birthday parties in progress. He sees the plastic crowns atop the heads of the birthday boys and girls, piles of wrapped packages, a grandmother asleep in a wheelchair. In the last room, children swarm around Gary the Dragon as if he were Christ returned. Matthias makes a note to tell whoever’s in the Gary suit to dial down the arm swinging, which seems hostile, threatening. One tot flees behind his mother’s legs.
Matthias weaves through the canyon of enormous inflated slides and obstacle courses. He dodges sweaty, wide-eyed children darting from ride to ride, ignoring his teen workers endlessly droning no running. As he and Keyanna near the entrance, they cross a three-foot plywood drawbridge that arches over a carpet moat decorated with grinning alligators. They pass through a tiny gate, and he scans the entryway for the dad in question. Morgan, who still has facial stubble despite a written warning, snaps a neon admitt. bracelet on a pony-tailed girl and says, “He just left.”
“Great,” Matthias says. “Guess he got the message.”
But then his eyes fall on a thin-armed boy with an uneven crew cut. Carl smiles, flashing a wandering set of teeth that Matthias guesses will need a few grand in orthodontia one day. Carl says, “Can I have pizza again?”
“You let the guy pay?” Matthias asks Morgan.
The teen scratches at his stubble. “You told us to tell you if he showed up.”
“Nothing about not letting him pay,” Keyanna adds. Matthias keeps reminding himself that this generation of teens seems determined to do exactly what they are told, literally, and very little else.
Last Saturday, for what Matthias suspects was not the first time, the dad in question dropped off his son and left him at Kids Kastle for the whole day–unattended. Around six-thirty, one of the staff brought the boy to Matthias in his office and explained that he was asking for food but didn’t have any money. Now, Matthias reaches for the boy’s scrawny wrist. “C’mon Carl.”
In the parking lot, Matthias is blinded by the sunlight, but soon enough, his eyes fix on a solitary figure out on the asphalt. He’s crossing the vast expanse between the Kastle and the Camp Hill Mall. Directly ahead of him are a Sears, a JC Penney’s, and Overtime, a sports bar where the waitresses wear referee uniforms one size too small. “Pardon me,” Matthias yells. The dad, distant, doesn’t turn. Matthias tugs Carl along, and once they’re free of the cars parked in the shadow of the building, he breaks into a bit of a jog. At his side, Carl is not unwilling to come along, but he drags his heels just a bit.
Matthias recalls getting frustrated at his own son, Noah, who was perpetually late for kindergarten. Noah, in fourth grade now if Matthias has it right, lives out west with his mother and her boyfriend Nelson. For a while, Noah sent his father two sentence emails once a week.
As Matthias gains on the dad in the parking lot, he shouts, “Sir!” Then, when he doesn’t acknowledge him, Matthias lets loose with a good, “Yo, Buddy!” Now the dad pauses and glances back, and Matthias sees he’s smoking a cigarette. He hangs his head to the side and waits, looking a whole lot like a kid outside the principal’s office. If Matthias had to guess, he’d put him in his mid twenties, still too young to know crap from crap. Matthias thinks of the mistakes he made at this age, but only for an instant.
Approaching the dad, Matthias catches his breath, releases Carl’s wrist, and says, “Look, I told your wife last week, you can’t leave your son alone. We’re not set up as a babysitting service.”
The dad draws on his cigarette and stares at Matthias, huffing. “She ain’t my wife. And I seen shitloads of kids in there alone.”
Matthias nods. “Sure,” he says. “Kids that are thirteen. That’s posted out front.” The 8 Rules of the Royal Kingdom were one of Matthias’ additions when he took over last year. Other highlights include restrictions against rough play, cursing, and cleats. Lastly, all subjects are commanded to have fun.
The lanky dad aims his cigarette at Carl. “He’s thirteen.”
“Come on,” Matthias says. “He’s nine, maybe.”
“Carl, tell this jackhole how old you are.”
“I’m thirteen!” he says, beaming.
“Seriously?” Matthias asks. He posts his hands on his hips, feels the sun on the back of his neck. “Do you even think about the lessons you’re teaching your son?”
The man leans into Matthias, enough that he can smell the sweet tang of nicotine. Matthias rears back but doesn’t step away. He reaches two fingers under his watch, but there’s no rubber band there to pluck. So instead, he takes a deep breath.
Carl’s dad says, “The boy’s got some growth issues. Kind of a runt. Small bones, some shit like that. Now look, I paid my six bucks and I got somewhere to be. Carl, you walk on back with this guy to the bouncy playground. Don’t make no trouble. No bugging anybody like last week. You hearing me?”
Carl nods, cowed but smiling. His father turns to walk away, and Matthias says, “This is the last time.”
“You’re the boss, Big Man,” the dad says, and without turning he flips Matthias the bird.
After a moment, Carl says, “Do you know what that means?”
“I sure do,” Matthias tells him. He watches the dad striding toward Overtime, where Matthias figures he’s a bartender or cook. But Matthias could also imagine him going there to party. This other dad may well spend the day draining pitchers, laughing with high school buddies, playing pool or darts, watching a marathon of college football. All while his son plays alone. The thought, one Matthias has had many times before, crystallizes: Some people don’t deserve to have kids.
Matthias and Carl start hiking back across the parking lot. After twenty feet, Carl reaches for Matthias’ hand. This part of the lot is empty, and there is no need for extra caution, but Matthias takes the boy’s hand. Together, they head for the bright red and yellow spires of the Kastle.
Nearly a year ago, on an autumn morning much like this, Rodney the owner walked Matthias around the huge warehouse, big enough to house aircraft. The concrete floor was nearly covered with enormous deflated balloons, rainbow blobs that looked to Matthias like emptied skins. Rodney activated the massive fans and Matthias watched, mesmerized, as a fantasy world rose up around them, pumped full of air. “The customers aren’t really the kids,” Rodney told Matthias. “It’s the parents who pay. At Kids Kastle, the moms can bitch about the other moms while sipping fancy coffee and the dads can watch baseball on the widescreens.” Rodney pointed here to the new Keurig machines and the HDTV flat screens, which received over 200 channels. “These days, nobody trusts babysitters, and what with broken glass and dog shit, who wants to go to a park? We’re a substitute for parks, the next best thing. That’s our business model.”
Rodney had already given Matthias this speech when he was a sales rep for Z-104, the Thunder, Camp Hill’s country radio station. This had been a good job for over a decade, one which had helped Matthias finally pay off his student loans, be a good provider for a time. When the station manager told Matthias he was being let go, he phoned a few of his clients to say goodbye, a clear and desperate fishing expedition. Rodney at Kids Kastle bit. At the end of the interview/tour, Rodney shook hands with Matthias and said, “Hey, I never even asked. Have you got kids yourself?”
During his tenure as manager, Matthias has witnessed the ugly side of parenting. Fathers scowling at their children for a spilled drink, a lost shoe, a broken retainer. Mothers yanking kids by the wrist, smacking the bare backs of legs or even cheeks. It’s always disturbed Matthias, the way red rises on a child’s skin. Like an instant sunburn. There’s a quick sting in the palm, followed by a brief heat. And the things he’s heard: “Jesus, just play like the other kids.” “Stop pretending you’re hurt.” “You’re such an ungrateful snot.” All the while, the children wither under the assault. The awesome authority of a parent is godlike to a child, something parents often forget. Matthias knows this, understands this. In extreme cases, he’s tried to gently intervene. He’s developed a handful of lines: “It’s easy to get frustrated.” “Maybe I can help?” “I’ve heard the king frowns on that kind of thing.” At the very least, this redirects the parent’s anger.
Two hours after the encounter in the parking lot, Sharon knocks on Matthias’ door and pushes inside. She’s got a hand on the back of Carl’s neck, and the boy is staring down at the flattened carpet. She says, “Guess who bit someone inside the Mystic Mountain?”
Matthias turns away from the inventory on the computer screen, tries to make eye contact with the boy. “That true?”
“She cut in line,” Carl says. “I was next.”
“Cutting in line isn’t allowed. But that’s hardly a good reason to bite someone.”
Carl lifts his face. “What’s a good reason?”
This strikes Matthias as a reasonable question. But he says, “That’s not important now. Did you apologize?”
Carl nods his head. Sharon shakes hers.
Matthias asks, “Any blood?”
Sharon says, “None I saw.”
“How are the parents?”
“Mom’s freaked out. Dad’s oblivious.”
Carl asks, “What’s oblivious?”
Matthias says, “Okay. Bring them an Incident Report and see if they want to fill it out. Be sure they sign. Check the wound again. If skin was broken, get me involved.”
Sharon roams off, and somehow Carl is left behind, forgotten. He looks around Matthias’ cramped, windowless office. “You have a computer,” he says. “Cool.”
“It’s for work,” Matthias explains. “There are no video games on it.”
“We got one at school like that. Only dumb games with math and a robot bunny.”
Matthias tries to picture Carl at school. He imagines him with a smudge of dirt on one cheek. At recess, he’s the kind of kid who tears around the playground, inflicting mayhem, but not attached to any group. “Math is very important. Listen, you can’t stay here if you don’t follow the rules. The king won’t allow it. One of the rules is no biting. Are we clear?”
“I thought you were the king,” Carl says.
Matthias looks away. The spreadsheet on his computer screen shimmers.
Carl says, “I know how money works. If you want, I can work for you.”
“Doing what?” Matthias asks.
“I can clean dishes, tie up garbage bags, wipe down the tables. Lots of stuff. You can pay me in food.”
Matthias eyes the boy. “What did you have for breakfast today?”
“Brownie cereal with chocolate milk.”
Matthias wonders again about calling protective services. Earlier, when they’d first returned, he’d even looked up the phone number. But the publicity of a police car pulling up to the Kastle, right in the middle of a busy day, that didn’t seem worth it. Some parent would surely snap a cell phone picture, and rumors would be all over the web. Who knows what stories could spring up. Rodney would hear and want to know why it wasn’t handled in house. Plus, Matthias recognized that he was angry at how Carl’s dad had ignored his authority, mad that he hadn’t handled the situation differently. These days, Matthias tries never to make a decision in anger. For a few years, when he felt his temper coming on, he’d snap a rubber band that he wore on his wrist. This was an idea his wife had suggested, something she heard from a radio talk show. “Stay here,” Matthias tells Carl. “Don’t touch anything.”
Out in the warehouse, the late afternoon is in full swing. Screaming children climbing over the sides of rides, exhausted parents sipping coffee to stay awake, an obese man sprawled on the couch watching ultimate fighting, the new kid (was his name Sam?) reluctantly mopping up vomit in the Enchanted Forest. When Matthias comes back to his office, he finds Carl sitting in his chair. The boy is maneuvering the mouse, clicking closed a website. He swings the chair around and says, “Your browser is slow.”
Matthias sets down a bottle of water and a slice of pizza. “You were told not to touch the computer.”
“I didn’t break it. Check for yourself.”
Matthias inhales, exhales. Carl does not break eye contact. Matthias glances at the food and says, “Pepperoni, right?”
Carl nods. “I like Coke.”
“Your body doesn’t need Coke. It needs water.”
Matthias unscrews the top and Carl lifts the bottle with both hands, takes a long drink. He reaches for the pizza and says, “Who’s that kid?”
Matthias looks over his desk at the photograph, which is faded and worn. It is tacked up next to the calendar, nearly covered by schedule requests from the workers, invoices, post it notes scrawled with minutia. Matthias sees the toddler face peaking out at him. He considers lying to Carl but then says, “Noah.”
Carl takes three bites, chews with his mouth open, and says, “Noah looks happy.”
Matthias remembers feeding the geese at Silver Spring, how Noah ate a handful of the smelly pellets they got from a quarter machine. “Noah was happy,” Matthias says. “That day.”
Carl asks if he can wear the dragon costume. Matthias looks in the corner, where the body slumps like an empty tent and the huge head sits on its side, decapitated. “No,” Matthias says. “It’s too big.”
“It’d be cool to be a dragon.”
For a moment, Matthias imagines himself huge and winged, with claws and the ability to breath fire. He pictures Overtime in flames. The radio tower at Z-104 burns. For the second time today, he reaches for his wrist.
A hunk of pizza falls to the carpet and, before Matthias can tell him not to, Carl snaps it up and pops it into his mouth. Matthias watches him chew and asks him what year he was born. Carl’s knee-jerk answer confirms two of Matthias’ suspicions. One, that Carl is indeed not thirteen. Two, he was born the same year as Noah.
“Where do you live?”
Carl rattles off an address that Matthias doesn’t recognize. He says, “That’s not in Camp Hill.”
Carl shakes his head. “Harrisburg. We take bus five.”
With evidence that Carl is underage, here under false pretenses, it would totally be in his right to call the boy’s house or bring in protective services. Matthias says, “I’ll bet you know your phone number.”
“Uh-huh,” Carl says. He sing-songs the memorized numbers and Matthias writes them down, only to realize that he’s coming up one short. Carl only said six numbers. Matthias is pondering his options when Carl says, “Where is Noah now?”
Matthias looks at Carl, then turns again to the photo. He starts to reach for it, but then lets his arm fall to his side. “Colorado,” he says. “Far away.”
Around dinner, there’s always a lull, even on a Saturday. Matthias emerges from his office and helps with one of the parties, carrying the flaming birthday cake himself. In the arcade, he settles a dispute about the true owner of a horde of fun tickets. He sees Carl at the far end of the dark room, crouched inside a video game cockpit. The huge screen before him flashes with tentacled aliens, and laser fire explodes them into bloody guts. Matthias considers redirecting the boy, suggesting ski ball or air hockey, but then lets him have his fun.
At the snack stand, he’s taking another crack at the repair job to the nacho cheese machine when he wonders where Carl got the money from for that game. After he hears an order for popcorn, he rises to pass a box to Sharon, who gives it to the woman on the other side of the counter. Once she’s gone, Matthias says, “Things are kind of calm. I’m taking dinner.”
Sharon turns from her register. “You never take dinner.”
“I’m hungry,” he tells her. “I won’t be half an hour.”
“Carl’s in the arcade last I saw. Be sure he gets something to eat.”
She looks at Matthias, eyebrows raised.
“The biter,” he says.
“No Coke–and no charge.”
“Sure thing,” she says. She picks at something on the back of one hand, maybe a scab.
Out in the parking lot, Matthias is surprised that the air has cooled so much, and the walk is actually pleasant. Overhead, the late evening sun lights up the underbellies of the clouds, and Matthias wishes that Carl were here to see the sight. He would point out the half moon to him, perhaps explain the basics of the lunar cycles. He would be slow and patient.
Inside Overtime, Matthias pushes through the lobby, crowded with people clutching beepers and looking at their watches. He tells the trio of blonde girls at the front podium–could they be triplets?–that he’s meeting somebody and then slips inside. Everywhere, TV screens beam sporting events. There’s baseball, football, Nascar, girls softball. It’s enough to induce a seizure. Surrounding the pool tables, men stand with sticks around high back stools, slosh beer from pitcher to frosty mug. But Matthias doesn’t see Carl’s dad among the customers. He has come with a calm spirit, not to threaten or scold, but merely to remind him of the obligation he has as a father, the amazing opportunity he has to shape a young life. He wants to explain to him how much he takes for granted.
Matthias selects a seat at the bar that gives him a good vantage point. He checks the face of each passing waiter and peers through the cut out to the kitchen. Cooks drop plates onto a counter and shout out numbers. None of them is Carl’s dad. In response to the bartender, a woman in her forties with a kind smile, Matthias orders a mixed drink, and when it is finished, he orders another. He is beginning to think that perhaps Carl’s dad has left, abandoned his son, and that the boy is now fatherless. What will he do, he wonders, if no one comes to pick Carl up?
And just then, as he is deciding between a third drink and leaving, his eyes catch on a familiar gaunt face. Carl’s dad cuts through the crowd of drinkers holding an empty grey tub. At a booth not five feet away, he clears the clattering plates and glasses, and Matthias is surprised by his speed and efficiency. He watches his hands reach and grab, reach and grab again. As they flash back and forth, his quick fingers pinch a single dollar from the handful left behind for a waitress. Then the dad straightens and heads for another table, and Matthias follows him, watching closely.
When the man rushes past the bar, carrying the grey tray now loaded with dirty dishes, Matthias turns away, afraid he’ll be recognized. He squints through the prep window to the kitchen, where he sees the man in the back, hunched over a sink with steam rising from it.
The bartender asks Matthias if he’s up for a hat trick, and he says, “That skinny guy bussing tables. What’s his name?”
She glances over her shoulder, then back at Matthias. “Kenny,” she says. “How come?”
Matthias stuffs a hand into his pocket, peels a twenty from his money clip, and drops it on the bar. “No reason,” he says.
Back at the Kastle, Matthias wanders from one inflated ride to the next, scanning for Carl. He checks the arcade, where he interrupts two teens making out in the photo booth. He checks the snack stand, where Sharon confirms he ate two hot pretzels and an ice cream sandwich. Finally Matthias finds Carl curled up in one of the oversized easy chairs staring blankly at the enormous TV. On the widescreen, a gladiator hacks at a Roman centurion while a woman in a ripped robe tries to cover her exposed breasts. Two men watch from easy chairs of their own on either side of the boy. Matthias blocks the screen with his body and says, “Where’s the remote control?”
One of the men, a guy with a shaggy beard, points to a coffee table strewn with magazines about hunting and automobiles. Matthias snaps up the remote and changes the channel to a cartoon, something with talking sharks. He turns to the men and says, “This is a family business. Sporting events or children’s programming only, okay?”
Both gaze absently at him. Even Carl just blinks.
Matthias says, “You really think that show was appropriate for a little boy?”
The bearded man rises up, taking some offense. He steps into Carl and tilts his head toward the other dad, slender and bald with a single silver earring. “I thought the kid was his.”
Matthias looks at the bald man, who shrugs and says, “That show was on when I got here. He had the remote.” His accusing finger points at Carl.
Matthias says, “Was that a good show for you? Are you allowed to watch shows like that in your house?”
“Goddamn cable guy shut it off,” Carl says, clearly repeating something he’d heard.
The other two men stifle their laughs. The bald one with the earring sets a hand on Carl’s head and shushes his hair. “You’re something special, ain’t you?”
Matthias ignores them and says, “Carl, you shouldn’t talk like that.”
Matthias remembers the phrase he used when he apologized to Noah. “With rough words.”
“How can words be rough?”
The bearded man and the guy with the earring wait for Matthias’ answer. After a moment, he says, “Look, just watch this show, okay?”
All of them turn to the screen, where a cartoon baby seal is being chased by a killer whale. The bearded guy stays on his feet. Matthias says, “Be sure he doesn’t change the channel, alright?”
The man rolls his eyes. “Not my kid, man.”
“I said he’s not my kid. I mean, really, screw off. He’s not yours either.” And here, the man aims a single finger, jabbing it towards Matthias’ chest.
Matthias’ hands flash upward, and he clenches that finger in a fist. His other hand takes the man’s wrist, hard. He bends the finger back into the joint–just a bit–and shoves forward. With only a little heat, he asks, “Know how easy it would be?” The big man lets out a little whelpy sound and tries to retreat, but he stumbles on the coffee table and falls backward. Matthias watches him drop, then turns to see Carl staring at him. The boy is standing, skinny arms at his side, a silent witness. The bald man with the silver earring has draped an arm across the boy’s shoulder, as if to offer protection.
As the big man clambers to his feet, Matthias walks away. Behind him, he hears the man cough and shout out something that includes the words asshole and lawsuit.
After taking some time to cool down in his office, Matthias takes over for Sharon at the snack stand, which mostly means clean up duty at this hour. He oversees the last two parties as they wrap up, then makes the announcement over the loud speaker. “The Kastle will be closing in ten minutes. Please enjoy your final magical rides.” At the front gate, a small gang of older kids gathers, waiting to be picked up. Items left behind in the throne rooms–spare goodie bags, small presents, two cell phones–are collected. Matthias asks Keyanna if she’s seen Carl. She shakes her head and asks if she can leave early. He scans the thinning crowd of kids, glances over at the TVs. “Sure,” he tells her. “Just help Morgan and Nicky bring down the slides.”
At his office desk, Matthias goes through the day’s receipts, comparing the revenue to last year’s and then to this year’s projection. He inputs these numbers for corporate. After that, he fills out a deposit slip. The bank is on the way home to his apartment, which he pictures as still and empty. Tonight, he knows, he will lie on the couch and watch TV until he falls asleep. His attention is pulled away from this by raised voices in the hallway outside his office. When he opens the door, he sees Carl’s dad by the arcade, shouting at Nicky. Carl’s dad sees Matthias and the two men approach each other. “Where’s my kid?”
Matthias looks at Nicky, who doesn’t have any answer.
“Quit screwing around,” the skinny dad says. “I’m about two minutes from missing the last bus.”
“I don’t know where Carl is,” Matthias says. “He’s not here. I thought you came and got him earlier.”
“He got picked up?”
“Like I said. I don’t know. This is exactly why–”
“Fuck me,” the dad says. “If you dipshits lost him.”
“What about his mom?” Matthias asks. “Somebody else?”
Carl’s dad shakes his head. “Out of town.”
Matthias runs through the possibilities. “Nicky,” he says. “You and Morgan checked the rides before you deflated them?”
Nicky says, “There was nobody in them.”
“But did you go through them?” he asks. A walk through is written protocol, part of their required training. Matthias stresses this at weekly safety meetings. Nicky doesn’t answer, and in a moment, all three of them are sprinting into the warehouse’s main hall. They move quickly but carefully over the rubber, like men rushing over thin ice. Matthias scans the rubber skin for a small bump that could be a suffocated boy. Each of them calls out Carl’s name, and it echoes off the high walls.
After a few minutes, when they’ve each zig-zagged the hall three times over, they’ve still found nothing. Relieved, they check the snack stand, the arcade, both bathrooms. At the front gate, the three of them gather. In the wall of cubbies, a single set of tattered sneakers. The dad says, “Ain’t like him to just wander off.”
Nicky says, “You think somebody took him?”
“Who would take him?” Carl’s dad asks.
Matthias pictures a single silver earring, that bald man’s arm around Carl’s bony shoulder. He says, “It’s time to call the cops.” Together, they run up the hallway to his office and the phone. But just as he’s snapping up the receiver, Matthias sees the blackened bottoms of Carl’s socks. Over in the corner of the room, the boy is curled up on the floor. His legs extend from inside the mascot head of Gary the Dragon. For an instant, Matthias is frozen, staring at the tiny minotaur-like creature, half child, half beast.
His dad shouts, “Carl!” and the boy snaps to life. He tries to sit up but only whacks into the inside of the huge head. As Carl crawls free, his dad drops to his knees and embraces the boy. Carl sets his bony chin on his father’s bony shoulder. But then the dad grips him by both arms and yanks him back. “What the hell were you doing back here?”
Carl looks away. And his dad’s one hand pulls back, opened for a flat slap. Carl flinches but does not try to retreat. His dad’s right hand hangs in the air. His left still grips his son’s thin bicep. Matthias winces, expecting the swift strike. He says, “He’s safe now. Everything’s okay. Come on.”
Carl sniffles and his dad says, “Don’t start up with that crap now.” He shakes his head and releases the boy, then stomps from the office, reaching into his pocket.
Nicky asks Matthias if it’s okay if he heads out, and then leaves the three of them alone. Carl stares at Matthias, wipes his wrist under his nose and says, “I wanted to be the dragon.”
“It’s alright,” Matthias tells him. “You’re dad’s just upset. He was worried you were lost. We both were worried.”
Carl seems to process this, then he walks past Matthias, who follows him out of the office. They find Carl’s dad on the sidewalk out front. He tosses a cigarette into the parking lot, then glances at his watch.
Matthias says, “I need a few minutes to lock up. Then I can give you a ride.”
Carl’s dad flashes him a look like this is some kind of trick. Matthias tells him, “Really, it’s no trouble. I’m happy to help.”
Ten minutes later, Matthias slides behind the steering wheel while Carl and his dad climb together into the cramped back seat. Matthias says, “Sorry I don’t have a booster seat or anything.” He waits to hear the click of seatbelts, but the sound doesn’t come. Like a taxi driver, he asks Carl’s dad the best way to get to his address.
Up on Route 581, just as they’re coming onto the bridge that spans the Susquehanna, brake lights begin to wink and flash. Matthias slows down and takes his place in the stalled traffic. “Must be an accident,” he says.
The three of them sit in silence. When Matthias asks if they’d like the radio, there is no answer. A few minutes pass and a police car zips by on the shoulder, strobing lights but running without a siren.
Later, a couple cars up ahead sound their horns. Matthias hears a snap hiss in the backseat, and even before he turns he smells the smoke. Looking over his shoulder, he sees the cigarette’s red tip. Carl’s dad, on the passenger side, has one arm across the seatback. Carl is nestled in the crook, his head on his father’s flat chest. The boy’s eyes are open, but heavy.
Matthias almost asks the dad not to smoke but decides he doesn’t care. The smell reminds him of nights at the periwinkle house on Poplar Lane, when he’d go out back for a drink and a smoke, try to think of how to get a handle on the situation.
Without being asked, Carl’s dad cracks the window. A while later, Matthias hears it go up.
Finally the traffic starts moving. And in no time, they are across the river, whisking eastward. Mathias keeps an eye out for an ambulance, a tow truck, an overturned vehicle or skid marks. But there’s nothing. No sign of catastrophe. He says, “Crazy how it’s like that sometimes. All that trouble, and you’ll never know why.”
When there isn’t even a grunt from the back, he glances in the rearview mirror and sees them. Carl’s dad has his head tilted down, resting on his son’s head, which is resting on his father’s chest. As they cruise beneath the highway lights, their faces are brightened for an instant, then cast into shadow. But Matthias is certain they are both asleep, and for now, they look peaceful, serene.
When he reaches the exit that leads to their home, Matthias accelerates by in the passing lane. Above him, the billboards shine with whole families outside brand new homes, an infant beaming with care at a new pediatric unit, a mother and daughter–screaming with arms extended overhead–as they rise over the apex of a roller coaster at Hershey Park. Matthias has no clear plan, no expectation of atonement or penance. He knows only that the scene in his backseat brings him temporary warmth, and though he’s sure it must end, for now he’ll do all he can to preserve it.