The First Two
As seen in Belletrist Magazine, 2018
Gerald couldn’t sleep again, so he drove. His car floated down the road, past skeletal cement plants and dark fields cleared for construction. Moisture gathered in his stinging, unblinking eyes. What sign had he just passed? The exit for McKinney? He couldn’t tell. Everything on either side of Interstate 75 was pitch-black and flat; the only sub-city lights in view were from a Race-Trac station, miles behind him, a red fleck in the distance. Was he that far from Dallas already?
And there was the grey pullover, carefully folded in the back seat. Joanna would be glad he had not wrinkled it. Gerald smiled, just slightly. He liked that the shirt was in his possession. Alone on the road, he exited 75 and drove until the feeder road became a dirt road, which became the muddy side of a lake, eclipsed partially by woodland. It was quiet here, but with enough noise that he wasn’t alone with his thoughts. The occasional car horn sounded from the distance over the hum of crickets; toads groaned in low, rumbling croaks. Gerald parked at the end of the dirt road, stumbled into a grassy clearing in the trees, and gingerly lay on his back with his hands folded under his neck. Here, he was not Gerald. He was a stranger.
But still, here, as he lay with his eyes closed, hoping the drone of the mosquitoes might overtake the noise of his swarming thoughts, he couldn’t think about anything but her. What was she doing right now? A few weeks before, she called Gerald insensitive, and Gerald said nothing in response. Well, nothing as bad as insensitive. Not that insensitive was inherently the worst thing in the world, but it was a lie, and Gerald couldn’t stand lies.
The growing clusters of swollen, pink skin on Gerald’s legs began to itch. Fuck the bugs, all the bugs and their stupid, sneaky masses. And to think, Joanna loved them—Look at them on your window, she’d say when she came over to Gerald’s apartment, which suffered a ladybug infestation every November. They look like jewels. Once, she’d collected a few in a jar and painted a still-life. A big, bright painting, on a canvas and everything. Then she set them free, back on his damn window. Why’d you paint that? Gerald had asked when she whipped the final product out from under a sheet. Apparently, Joanna did not think this was the correct response, so Gerald bought her flowers and took her to a community center painting class where a real artist showed people how to paint real things, things that people actually liked to look at, like hot air balloons and sunsets. They’d had fun there, making up whispered backstories for the other people in the class and giggling about the ruddy woman in the front whose balloon came out very phallic. God, they’d been so good together, he and Joanna.
But bugs, bugs were stupid and small. Gerald lay flat on his back and stared at the sky, wondering where it stopped being sky and just became empty. Beyond the stars, probably, that were sprayed across the blueblack stretch of space. Out there, nothing mattered like it did on earth. But then again, the earth was just out there too. Maybe that was why some people did the things they did, without worrying about the consequences. Like Joanna. How lonely she would be, now, without Gerald.
A twig snapped somewhere behind him. Gerald froze. His heartbeat quickened, and goosebumps sprouted across his arms, raising his hair on end. What kinds of animals were out in a place like this? Was the sound even an animal? Squinting into the dark, he inched quietly back towards his car. A small figure with no discernable shape began to materialize at the edge of the clearing, moving closer as Gerald moved away. Should he run? Search the ground for sharp branches or rocks? He glanced down at his feet, at the earth under him.
But when he looked back up, the figure took the vague form of a child. No—two children. Two heads, two sets of feet, feeble mouth-breathing. Gerald relaxed, nearly collapsing back onto the ground, but he couldn’t shake the coiling sensation in his gut. What could a couple of kids be doing out here? He squinted at them as they trudged closer, and his stomach dropped. They were kids, but they were covered in blood.
Gerald began to back away from the scene as a distant, static buzz crept between his ears. But when he blinked, he saw in front of him, fully emerged from the heaviest of the shadows, just two young, small, muddy children. He blinked again. Mud, yes. One boy, looking a little bit scared and a little bit ridiculous in a monochromatic ensemble of an orange T-shirt and shorts, and one girl, slightly older, with tangled platinum hair and a Snoopy nightshirt that hung to her knees, continued to approach. They looked down at their feet, unaware of his presence, trudging over brambles, puddles, and dead leaves.
“What are we gonna do, Allen?” hissed the girl. She reached over to wipe some of the mud off the boy’s arm. “If we’re this dirty when we get back, Mom is gonna”—
The boy had stopped walking and was gazing at Gerald through wide, shocked eyes. The girl, too, halted and looked up. Both children stared expectantly for a moment. The girl stepped ever-so-slightly in front of the boy.
Gerald cleared his throat. What the hell was he supposed to say to two lost kids? Tell them that they were idiots for going out alone in the woods at night? No, no… you couldn’t talk to a kid that way. They’d cry, or something.
“Kids,” Gerald finally said with a single nod. Jesus. He had to have something more than that. He should be nice. “Hello,” he continued.
“We lost our tent!” the boy cried, poking his head out from behind the girl’s shoulder. A slight whistle escaped his lips on the s sound. “Our mom’s tent. And then we fell.”
“Allen!” the girl gasped.
“I’m sorry,” Gerald said. He remained quiet for a moment, then squatted down so he was level with the boy’s face. “Good thing tents are pretty big, right?” he smiled. “Should be able to spot it when the sun comes up?”
“W-we’re going to die out here!” the little boy wailed.
“Okay, ssh, don’t say that,” Gerald added hastily, glancing around the clearing. “No one is going to die. Maybe I can help.” There. This was fine.
“No,” the girl said. “You’re a stranger.” She took a couple of steps backwards, steering her brother alongside her.
“But we’re lost, Sarah,” the boy sniffed, his lip trembling.
Gerald knew he couldn’t leave them here. What if something happened to them? And more importantly, what if someone had seen him drive to the campground? What if he wasn’t alone here? Well, obviously he wasn’t. So, what if something happened to these kids and someone knew that Gerald had been here, and the only logical explanation was that Gerald was at fault? His life would be ruined. He would have to take on a new identity, or rot in jail. Joanna would never come back to him.
“Here,” Gerald said, pulling out his wallet. “This is a picture of my family. I, uh, have parents, too. Just like you. And here’s my student ID, I graduated college last year, and… I have a car, so, we can look for your tent with, er, the headlights.”
The girl looked at the boy and crossed her arms. “I’m older, and I say no.”
The boy sniffed. “I wanna find it. I’m going. You can come, or leave me.” He wriggled out of his sister’s grip and took a step towards Gerald. Surely the girl wasn’t stupid enough to let the boy go alone; Gerald took his car keys from his pocket and raised his eyebrows.
The girl looked back and forth between them for a moment. “Fine,” she said. “But I’m telling Mom it was your idea to leave in the first place.”
“I wanted to find night bugs!” the boy cried.
The kids sat in the backseat of Gerald’s car, packed together next to Joanna’s sweatshirt. Clouds of steam appeared on the back windows as the boy pressed his grubby cheeks into the glass. Gerald wanted to tell him that physical contact with the window did not really improve his vantage point, but stayed silent. Should he make small talk? Did children understand small talk?
“So… how long were you out in the woods?” he asked, glancing back behind him.
“Ten hours,” the boy sniffed. “Twelve.”
“It wasn’t that long, Allen,” the girl snapped. The boy squished his face flatter against the window.
“The woods aren’t really safe,” Gerald said, his gaze darting back and forth between the road and the children’s reflection in his rearview mirror. “Especially at night. You never know what you might run into out there.”
The girl straightened up behind him. “Good thing we’re really loud,” she said.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Gerald chuckled.
“I’m just saying that if we screamed,” the girl continued, “everyone would hear us. Everyone.”
“Do you think screaming would help you, in a place like this?” Gerald asked. He enjoyed the way the girl eyed the back of his head nervously while she talked.
“There are people here who’d hear,” the girl said, but her face softened like she wasn’t sure.
“That’s a good thing to have faith in,” Gerald replied. The girl didn’t say anything else. Glancing back, he noticed her hand squeezing the door handle. Why? There was no point, really, when he could have locked the door if he’d wanted to, from the front seat.
“That’s it!” the boy suddenly squealed. Before Gerald could even hit his brakes, the girl yanked open her door and tumbled down the dewy incline beside the road, pulling her brother alongside her. She pushed him into the pale blue tent and peeked over her shoulder at Gerald before stepping into the tent herself, fumbling to zip the slippery fabric.
Gerald sat in his car for a moment, looking at the regained stillness of the forest. Had the children woken up their mother? Did she know they’d been gone? Would the children tell her about Gerald? He began to take his foot off the brake, but hesitated, still looking at the tent. Was that it?
A minute later, the tent flaps unzipped and a woman poked her head out, so Gerald rolled down his window. “Thank you!” the woman exclaimed, massaging her temples. “Thank you so much, I can’t believe they snuck off like that, I didn’t hear a thing…”
“It was no problem, ma’am,” Gerald called out the window. “Wouldn’t want anything dangerous to happen.”
The woman put a hand to her heart. “I can only imagine,” she said. “We’re so grateful, I wish there was some way to repay you…”
“I just figured I should do it,” Gerald replied.
“No, really,” the woman said earnestly, rifling through a small green backpack. “I think I have some cash somewhere in here, let me see… I have a few dollars, for sure…”
Gerald laughed. “I don’t really need a few dollars.”
The woman stopped rummaging through her bag and looked back at Gerald. Some things Gerald could not make out fell from the open backpack pocket, but the woman did not bend down to retrieve them.
“Oh… er, well, okay,” the woman said, still looking at Gerald. “I really wish there was something I could do, though. I can make you a tea? For the road?”
“Tea?” Gerald guffawed, raising his eyebrows. “Your kids are worth a tea?”
The woman opened her mouth, frowned, and closed it again, her hand hovering over her bag.
“But I guess my mouth is kind of dry,” Gerald added, putting his car in park. He thought he noticed the woman’s eyebrows lift just slightly, but it was dark, so it was hard to tell. He was miffed, really, that her gratefulness seemed to deteriorate, as if he hadn’t just saved her children. As if there wouldn’t have been consequences if he hadn’t.
“Of—of course,” the woman finally said. “I did offer.”
Gerald got out of his car and shuffled down the slope into the campsite.
“I hope you don’t mind,” the woman said, glancing into the tent, and then at Gerald, “I’m just going to make you a thermos right outside so the kids can go ahead and get some sleep. They’re already out like lights.”
“I don’t mind,” Gerald said. He spread his jacket out on the damp grass and sat.
The woman emerged through the tent flaps, busying herself with a camp stove and a lantern. Up close, Gerald saw she was a thin, young mom, with coffee-colored hair and just a few light wrinkles. She was wearing a cotton tank top, and her upper arms were taut, like maybe she did yoga or something. She smiled at him when she turned around with the box of tea bags, and the lines at the corners of her eyes deepened.
“What brings you out here at this time of night?” she asked while Gerald fished around for a chamomile or an oolong.
“Not much,” he answered, rubbing at the bags under his eyes. “I’m just having a disagreement with my girlfriend.”
“Your girlfriend, eh?” the woman said, turning up the heat on the burner. “Love is tough sometimes.”
Gerald nodded. “We don’t always see eye to eye,” he said. “She’s very irrational.”
“All right.” The woman chuckled. “I’m sure you’ll work it out if you both want to.”
“Oh, we do,” Gerald said. “I don’t think she really wants to lose what we have.” He paused, waiting for the woman to advise him somehow.
The woman just grunted as she poured boiling water into a thermos and dropped a tea bag into it. She was not wearing a ring. “Mhm. Well, tea’s ready.”
Gerald cupped the thermos in one hand and prodded the tea bag with his fingertip, forgetting the hot water would sear his skin. Why didn’t the woman want to know more about this kind Samaritan who’d saved her children? Where was her grateful breathlessness? Gerald continued to jab at his tea bag, wondering if she might offer him a spoon. “Your husband doesn’t like to camp?”
The woman busied herself with packing up the camp stove. “Isn’t that a little personal?”
“I’m not a complete stranger, now,” Gerald said, “so maybe not.” The woman just looked at him. “For the record,” he continued, “I think single parenting is perfectly respectable.”
The woman unzipped the tent. “Great,” she said flatly, dropping the tea supplies inside and sliding through the door. “Thank you again for bringing my kids back.”
She was going back inside so soon? “I don’t want to take your things,” Gerald said, holding up the thermos.
“Keep it,” the woman said with a quick, small smile before zipping the tent the rest of the way. Gerald downed the scalding tea in a few gulps and left the thermos by the corner of the tent. Blisters began to creep up his throat as he fumbled for his keys.
It was funny, really, how isolated from Gerald the woman must have thought she’d become after she receded back into her tent. It was only fabric. He wondered if she had the fancy, thermal, waterproof kind of tent, or if it was just a run-of-the-mill windbreaker type. Was she new at camping? Or experienced? She owned a camp stove, so maybe the latter. But her kids had run off, which gave Gerald the vague sense that she wasn’t quite as smart as she should be. Really, it was a good thing Gerald had been there. The family was lucky—after all, what were the odds of this potentially life-saving encounter? What would have happened if she’d lost her kids for good?
But it was not his responsibility to make the woman care about consequences, was it. Gerald got back into his car and began to drive home, his eyes stinging as though they needed to close. When he reached his apartment, he fell onto the couch in an inexplicably easy stupor. Somehow, Joanna was absent from his mind. She was just out there.
Dusty sunlight awoke Gerald the next morning as it streamed through the blinds he’d forgotten to close the day before. The morning news was on, as apparently he’d never turned off his TV, either. He happily listened to the anchor talk about droughts and murders and robberies and politics for a bit while he blinked and gathered his thoughts. Really, he felt pleased with himself for helping out that family. He imagined reporters coming to his house for a news segment: local student helps children reunite with mother.
His empty stomach gurgling, Gerald shuffled into the kitchen and took a package of instant oatmeal from his recently abandoned pantry. While he waited for the microwave, he wondered if he should get groceries. Was it trash day? Had he put out his trash bags? He looked out, but could not see his doorstep. In the way, collecting reliably on his window in little scarlet clumps, were the ladybugs, bunching together on the glass. He thought of Joanna. She would probably call him soon. Gingerly, he opened the window, careful not to scare away the clotted bugs on the other side of the pane. As the purr of suburban traffic wafted into the room, Gerald reached through the window and up, skimming the outside of the glass with his fingertips. A couple of the bugs flew away when he reached them. Their backs were hard and smooth. Gerald’s hand hovered, for a moment, over one of the bugs, quivering on the outskirts of the pack. He pushed down on it, just slightly, with his finger, then slightly more, until it fell with an easy, satisfying crunch. In its wake was only a smudge of blackish goo. He touched another. The slick armor of its shell was thin, no match for even his finger. Gerald pushed down, harder this time, and the bug crumbled.
Smiling, Gerald turned around to retrieve his oatmeal. There were many more untouched ladybugs on the window behind him, but he was in no rush.