“Wills,” Brian McMillan
Luke Wills pressed the oak through the band saw, dividing the plank in two. In the shed where he worked, he liked to stand barefoot in the inch-thick sawdust, his worn corduroy pants tucked under his heels. Above the saw hung a battery-powered lantern, which he unhooked and held in front of a drawer of awls and chisels. With his other hand, he pressed his left temple, which was awkwardly bandaged with half a roll of gauze, stretched all the way around his head from his jaw up to his crown, through the tangles of his wild hair and long, curly beard. He had slipped at the creek that afternoon and landed right on his temple on a craggy boulder. His head was throbbing, and he still could not get the gash to stop bleeding. He redressed the wound with the other half of the roll of gauze.
It was dinnertime, and it was dark. A loon was starting its low song over the lake. He’d eaten some berries for lunch and did a mental inventory of the cans of soup back at the log cabin. It was a 20-minute hike through the scrub oaks, but he preferred working out here because he felt like he was going to work, even though he just as easily could have moved his woodworking to the living room at the cabin—no one else had set foot in the cabin in decades. He was finishing an intricate birdhouse, which was worth hundreds of dollars, but which he would sell at a flea market for just enough to sustain himself. Once he traded one for a new set of drill bits.
The radio show he was listening to ended, and he was about to turn it off and head back.
“Coming up next, an interview with the author of Seven Years’ Bad Luck, a new chick-lit memoir about a woman’s rocky marriage with Jud Hack, the world’s top poker player.”
Luke turned off the band saw and listened more closely. The author was his ex-wife, Christie.
“It’s not like anyone ever expects two marriages to fail,” she was saying. “And it wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for my son. He’s had to—”
Silence. Luke picked up the radio and turned the volume dial all the way up, but it was no use. He fished through his junk drawer for two more AA batteries, but found none. He stopped. Christie was divorced. Or something close to it. She was a brilliant journalist who had been nominated for a Pulitzer by the St. Pete Times when they were first married. He took her to the Lookout Bar to celebrate and promised her she’d win the award.
“Even if I have to walk into the Pulitzer Prize office itself and use my charms,” he said.
“It doesn’t work that way,” she said, watching him drink his fifth beer.
“I’ll make it work,” he said. “Because you deserve nothing but the best Pulitzer has to offer.”
She ate a pretzel and pushed the bowl in front of him. He put a handful in his mouth.
“Look at me,” he said, crunching and grinning. He touched her cheek as gently as he would a rare bird. “Look at me. You are the most beautiful woman in this bar. And I love you more than you love me.”
She rolled her eyes. Then, according to Christie, on the way out, a man at the bar touched her rear end, so Luke punched him in the gut. He never denied it—it was a personal rule or code to never lie, and if he couldn’t remember, he couldn’t deny it or confirm it, was how he explained it to her. She said Luke was escorted out by his collar.
Luke tossed the lantern on his desk and found his copy of North American Birds. Marking the page of the bald eagle was an envelope. He opened it and pulled out a card he’d received a year ago. Christie and Jud, with Hal on their lap, and an image of a wreath at the top, with “Happy Holidays” across the top. There was no personal note on the card, but the fact it existed was significant enough. It was the only picture he had of Hal, who was seven now, and it was also the only confirmation that all along, he’d had the right address. For seven years, he had sent letters addressed to Hal at an address he only hoped was Christie’s. A librarian had helped him find a Seattle listing for C. Kash—her maiden name—in an online directory. Every week, long before Hal could read, he wrote long letters teaching him about plants and animals, and telling him bedtime stories. He could never bring himself to say the essential things, though: Sorry for being in jail when you were born. Sorry for being a drunk. Every day since it happened, he pictured the young boy—about as old as Hal is now—as the ambulance arrived and took the bodies of his parents away. Luke still didn’t think of himself as a murderer, exactly, but there wasn’t much difference, was there?
She left him for another man, whom she had written a long article about, and took the newborn Hal with her without giving him any clues as to how to find them. After a few years in jail, he knew he had no chance in court to win any visitation rights, so he moved to a log cabin on some property his great grandfather had owned in Central Florida. He’d been here for the last three years and had barely set foot off the property.
He stuffed the card back into the envelope and put it in his pants pocket and got up to go, when he realized he did have batteries—they were in the lantern. He unscrewed the back plate to the lantern, and the shed went black. He fumbled for the radio and inserted the two AAs.
“Thanks for talking with us.”
“It was my pleasure,” Christie said.
“When we come back, more about the latest cell phone that will make you wonder how you ever survived with just video chat, and why it’s taken us this long to ask for more.”
Luke left the radio blaring in the shed, and he walked outside.
When he had received the card, he couldn’t open it for two days. He left it on the desk in the shed and worked around it, glancing up at it every few minutes. He imagined it was a letter demanding he stop writing. Or it could have been a letter of response from Hal, now that he was old enough to write his own letter. But no—it was a Christmas card. Christie had added him to the list on a whim, he decided. Her marriage was falling apart—Jud was a professional gambler, so it was bound to happen—and she was encouraging him to continue writing, without Jud ever knowing the difference. And now, a year later, the marriage was officially over. So much so, that she’d written a book about it.
He had waited seven years. This was his chance.
In the moonlight, as he walked barefoot along the trail back to the ranch house, he opened up the letter again and looked at the picture and kissed it. An owl hooted overhead, and he held up the picture in the direction of the sound.
“This is my son!” he shouted.
He skipped the soup in the cabin and went right to his pickup truck. In the glove compartment was $225—all the money he had. And he’d probably need all of it because he was going to the airport. It was as though the decision had been made long ago. He was still barefoot, but he was in such a hurry he didn’t bother going back in to find his boots. He found his moccasins under the passenger seat and drove along the dirt road to the highway.
It was an hour drive to the Orlando airport. On the way it occurred to him that he hadn’t been off the ranch in months. And he hadn’t flown in more than a decade—he couldn’t remember the last time. Since he got out of jail, he had been a hermit, living off the land and whatever he could buy at the shop at the crossroads. Now that the euphoria of setting off on a new adventure was wearing off, the gash on his temple began to throb. He pressed the gauze, but that only made it worse.
Still, all of that was small in his mind compared to the vision he was conjuring of his imminent reunion. Christie and Hal, in an apartment in Seattle, at 8912 Bainbridge Court. Or a house. Probably a nice house with a Seattle address, but barely in the city limits, in a nice part of town. He’d walk up to the door and knock, and Christie would open the door and give him a smile that both scolded him and said, “What took you so long?”
He walked into the airport with a brown paper sack containing a few oranges from the ranch. He had no luggage. His hair and beard were long and curly, like a wild bear, and the gauze was a deep red.
“Can I help you?”
Luke turned to meet a short black man in a blue uniform and a plastic name badge.
“Yes, I’m here to fly to Seattle.”
“I still need to buy a ticket, though.” He held up the stack of money, only now realizing this could be a challenge. He didn’t have an active credit card to swipe.
“What’s in the bag?”
“Oh, oranges.” Luke reached into the bag and showed him an enormous orange. “Straight from the ranch.”
A young man with long hair, a nose ring and a mopey girlfriend wheeled luggage toward a maze of passengers.
“Seventeen!” a woman shouted from behind a kiosk, and a woman with two small children in a stroller approached and handed over a driver’s license.
“Let me try to find someone to help you,” the man with the badge said.
But Luke waved him away and got in line. The man stood aside, watching Luke the whole way, occasionally whispering into a walkie talkie.
“I need to go to Seattle,” Luke said.
The woman behind kiosk 17 told him to put his credit card in the slot and following the prompts on the touch screen.
“Do you take cash?” Luke said, handing her the stack of money.
“Cash for what?”
“For a ticket to Seattle.”
“Do you have a reservation, sir?” she said to Luke, while motioning the next passenger to kiosk 18.
Luke said he didn’t. The woman glanced at the gauze bandage, and he started feeling hot; his hair clung to the back of his neck.
“You’ll have to move aside, sir. This line is only for people with reservations. Seventeen!”
The man with the badge was waiting for Luke when he wandered out of the line, looking at the signs overhead.
“You used to be able to buy a ticket at the airport?” Luke said. “A long time ago?”
The man had no expression. “Follow me.”
Luke followed him to a desk, where he was able to pay cash for a ticket to Seattle. He didn’t have enough for a round trip, so he settled for a one-way, which left him with $27.
Then, it was another line. Security. Another maze of people. Luke peeled an orange and ate it. He counted eight people in a row who were talking on high-tech cell phones or who had microscopic earphones connected to the devices. He was taller than most of the people in line, and he felt like he was towering over everyone. Wearing a bloody bandage in public made people nervous, it seemed. He peeled another orange.
A fat man with a ponytail and an earring made eye contact with Luke as he passed by.
“A 92-yard pass,” one boy said to his father as he filed past in the maze. “That’s how they scored their touchdown.”
A blonde woman in front of Luke moved a luggage strap from one shoulder to the other, grimacing at the weight. She wore white sandals with heels, dark denim jeans, a white, fitted blouse. She was as thin and as beautiful as an egret, and he imagined this was what Christie would look like when he saw her.
“I can carry that bag for you,” he said to her when they turned the corner.
“Oh, thanks,” she said with a quick, but polite smile. “I got it.”
He smiled back. She didn’t turn around.
The fat man with the ponytail filed past again, and he said, “Luke?”
Luke couldn’t recall his name.
“It’s Luke!” He reached out his hand. “You don’t remember your old cell mate?”
“Oh, right,” Luke said. “Tony.”
“Yeah, man, what are you doing here?”
“Oh, you know.”
They passed each other.
As he passed the young boy again in the maze, he noticed the boy was flipping through photos on a cell phone. The boy was at a football game smiling in an uncomfortable way for the camera. He flipped through more photos, and Luke craned to see more, but he was blocked by the stream of people.
“Hey, you hear what happened to Lou?” Tony said as he walked by again.
The blonde woman shifted her shoulder bag again as she turned the corner. Luke smiled at her, but she rolled her eyes, turning her back.
Once through security, Luke saw that his departure time was in about one hour. He ate his last orange, cleaned a few flecks of white pulp out of his beard and tossed the brown paper sack full of peels into the garbage. He touched the gauze and was encouraged; it felt stiff and seemed to have stopped bleeding.
He wandered into a bookstore. He was thumbing through a magazine when he felt a tug on his hair. He turned around, and he was face to face with a three-year-old girl with big brown eyes, resting on her father’s shoulder. The father, a balding Hispanic man, was comparing prices on trail mix. Luke returned to the magazine rack in the narrow aisle, and again he felt the tugging. This time he let her tug and only turned his head slightly, peeking through his locks of hair as she pulled. She smiled at him. He touched her cheek.
Just then the father turned around, and Luke bumped his shoulder.
“Excuse me,” Luke said.
The man looked at Luke’s hair and the bandage. He said, “What are you doing?”
“Don’t touch my daughter.”
“You have a beautiful girl there,” Luke said.
“I’m going to call security.”
“No need for that. We were playing.”
“If I see you following me, you’re a dead man.” The man hurried out of the store. Luke looked up, and the cashier quickly looked away. The woman in the fitted white blouse walked past, but didn’t notice he was in the store.
Then Luke saw Christie’s face under “Recommended Reading.” In fact, he saw a lot of her face. Seven Years’ Bad Luck. It was a bestseller. Christie had an eyebrow raised and was holding the ace of hearts. He grabbed a copy and brought it to the cashier. Twenty-four dollars later, and he had three dollars to his name.
He had sixty minutes until he was supposed to get on the plane, and he opened the book. In a book about a marriage gone wrong, there could be clues to win her back. Something Jud had missed. The truth was, Luke was still an alcoholic, but he hadn’t had a drink since that night. He was not in much of a state of clarity then, but as he watched the ambulance drive away with the parents of the child who had survived the crash, he decided he’d never take another drink.
“I had a bad first marriage. Who didn’t?”
That was how the book began.
“Let’s move on, because the second one was the fantastic, thrilling, disgusting, wonderful, bad marriage.”
The airport was gray. That was the principal color.
A woman slid by on the moving walkway. A man followed close behind, carrying an enormous pink box, a picture of a Barbie doll smiling at Luke as he sat alone in a row of vinyl chairs, sharing metallic armrests between them.
There was no mention of him in Christie’s book. He was skimming the pages now, looking for a hint of a memory with him in it. Hal was a minor character, showing up every now and then as an inconvenience to her traveling with Jud to tournaments.
Luke took off his moccasins. He wiggled his toes.
He let his imagination explore the reunion. He knocks on the door, and Hal is standing there. He’s wearing a baseball cap—Seattle Mariners. Luke will say, I’m the guy from the letters. And Hal will say he’s been reading those letters, and he’ll stand awkwardly in the doorway, because that’s what a seven-year-old knows to do. But his accepting eyes will give Luke courage, and he’ll scoop him up and embrace him, and Hal will squeeze his neck.
Luke could imagine a lot of other scenarios. Christie slams the door. Hal is too scared to come to the door. Another man is living there now. But Luke tried to think positively, and he tucked the book under his arm and started pacing slowly around the row of chairs.
As he turned the corner, he noticed a little girl out of the corner of his eye, and when he passed by again, he saw it was her. Big brown eyes. But she was all alone under a chair, lying on her stomach; her easily upset father was nowhere in sight.
He hadn’t forgotten: If I see you following me, you’re a dead man. He sat in a chair several rows away and watched her crawl out every minute or two, look around, then crawl back under the chair. After she did this several times, she lay on her stomach again, put her chin on her forearm, wrinkled up her face like she was fighting it, and she started to cry.
Her father was probably in the bathroom. Even then, he should have taken her with him. Luke got on the moving walkway and combed dozens of gates with his eyes, but there was no sign of the father. On the way back, he repeated the process, and still no sign. Back at his seat, he saw the girl was uncontrollable. Her head was in her hands under the chair, and now, even from several rows away in a busy terminal, he could hear her faint sobbing.
On the intercom, Luke heard: “Thank you for flying with us today. Now boarding all rows for Flight 1235 to Seattle.”
He stood up and spun around. A man in a brown leather cowboy hat handed a piece of paper to an attendant, who scanned it, and then the man disappeared down the tunnel toward the plane.
Luke held on to his boarding pass in his front pocket. Then he turned to the girl. She had stopped sobbing and might have even fallen asleep. He imagined getting on the plane, taking his seat and trying to close his eyes and take a nap during the flight. But he knew the vision of this lost, beautiful girl would prevent any attempt at sleep, and he would likely still be thinking of her when he knocked on Hal’s door, wondering if she ever found her father, knowing he could have helped her. He imagined her as the child in the car wreck, her parents’ bodies loaded into the ambulance as she watched.
He ran to the gate. “How long until the plane takes off?” he said.
“I’ll make the final boarding announcement in a few minutes,” the attendant said, eyeing a red-pixel clock on the wall.
“Can you hold it up a few more minutes?”
The attendant looked at Luke’s bare feet, his bandaged head. “We can’t hold everyone else up. But we’ll do the best we can.”
Luke ran back across the terminal to the little girl, who was still under her chair, now asleep. He knelt beside her and put his hand on her back. She didn’t wake up. He pulled her out and set her on the chair sitting up, and he took the seat next to her.
“Are you lost?”
Her eyes were still closed, and she crawled over the metal armrest and into his lap, putting her head on his shoulder, and her fingers in his hair. He put his hand on her back and gently patted her.
“Look, we need to find your dad real quick,” he said.
“I need you to wake up.”
He managed to get her to wake up, and she immediately began whimpering again, her brown eyes wide and terrified.
“Where did your dad go?”
She didn’t say anything.
“I’m going to find someone who can help you, OK?”
“No!” she said. She clung to his neck.
Despite her protests, he could have handed her off to a gate attendant nearby, or to the man putting new sacks in the garbage cans. But he couldn’t let go any easier than she could. It was the most human contact he’d experienced in seven years: an accidental embrace.
Still holding her, he got on the moving walkway and cruised the terminal, asking the girl if she saw her dad anywhere. He put her on his shoulders so that if they missed him, maybe her dad would see them towering over the crowd. The girl held onto Luke’s mane as if she were riding bare back. At the far end of the terminal, he got off where he saw an information booth, but no one was there. He scanned the crowds again, but there was no sign of the belligerent man.
Luke took the girl off his shoulders and led her over to a gate where no one was waiting for a plane. Making sure no one was watching him, he went behind the desk and found a telephone and a list of extensions for the intercom. He realized he probably should have done this a long time ago, and that because he hadn’t thought of it before, he was missing his plane.
“I have a little girl here,” Luke said into the intercom. “She has big brown eyes. If you are her father and you want your daughter back, come to gate 42.”
A few travelers with rolling black suitcases were milling about the gate now, trying not to look too interested. One woman was staring at him, frozen. She whispered in the ear of another lady, and they backed away.
Luke picked up the phone again. “I’m not kidnapping her, by the way,” he said. “I’m trying to find her dad, is all. He saw me in the bookstore.” He hung up the phone and smiled weakly at the small crowd.
The little girl wrapped her arms around Luke’s neck more tightly and buried her head in his shirt. He waited for a minute or two, but it felt like an hour. He craned his neck, but he was too far away in the terminal to see the gate to Seattle.
A redheaded security guard in a navy blue uniform strode to gate 42, with the girl’s father following close behind. Luke put the girl on her feet, and she ran to her father.
“This the guy?” the security guard said.
The father gritted his teeth. “That’s him,” he said.
Turning to Luke, glancing down at his bare feet, then up again at his bloody gauze, she said, “I’ll have to request that you leave the airport.”
“But I haven’t done anything wrong,” Luke said.
“It’s the best compromise I can offer,” she said, pointing the way. “Please follow me, sir.”
Luke turned to the father of the little girl, who was now clinging to her father’s neck even more tightly.
“Look, she was lost and—”
The father set the girl down and stepped close, stepping on Luke’s toes. “I went to get us some food, and when I turned around, she was gone,” he said. He glared at him, then sucker-punched Luke in the gut and walked away.
“Sir,” the redheaded guard said.
“Didn’t you see that?” Luke said, gasping.
“I need you to leave the airport immediately,” she said.
On the curb, Luke realized he was exhausted. He yawned. He put his hands in his pockets and found three one-dollar bills. He looked over his head and saw a sign: “All Vehicles Will Be Towed at Owner’s Expense. $100 Fine.” It was along a curb just like this that he had parked his truck; he hadn’t noticed the sign. He walked up and down the sidewalk in front of dozens of automatic doors, but he couldn’t find his truck. His stomach grumbled. The dinner of oranges wasn’t settling well.
Luke stood on the curb for some time—he wasn’t sure how long. He unwound the gauze from his head and threw it in the garbage. Cars crawled by, dropping off energetic travelers and piles of suitcases. It would be a long walk home for Luke, and he started on his way. It didn’t matter how long it took, he decided. No one would notice he was missing.
“Dude, what’s with the shoes?” a voice said behind him. “Or lack thereof.” There, on the bench was a teenager with green hair and a metal rod pierced through her nose.
“I guess I left them in the terminal,” he said.
She stared at him for a moment, then started laughing convulsively. “That is really living, man.”
“Um, thanks,” he said.
“No, way, don’t be mad at me. Come over here and sit down.”
“I’ve had bad luck with girls today,” he said.
Her face transformed into a serious expression. “Tell me your troubles. I’m good at this.”
He pointed to her zebra-striped suitcase and said, “Don’t you have a plane to catch?”
“No, man.” She pointed to a sign overhead: “Arrivals.”
He didn’t say anything.
“What’s troubling you, Mountain Man?”
He sat down with her and told her everything, starting with the car crash. He told her about his jail time and the letters and the book Christie had written. He showed her the Christmas card with the address.
The girl said, “Oh, dude, let me try something.” She snatched the envelope and dug a cell phone out of her pocket, then started furiously wiping and tapping the screen with her finger. “See? If you punch this in here, you can find the name and number, based on the address. It’s called Reverse Address. So. There you go. C. Kash, just like you were saying.”
“OK,” he said. He already knew this was the right address.
“And here’s the phone number,” she said, tapping again. “There you go.” She handed the phone to him. “Why perpetuate the problem, dude? Just talk to her. It’s dialing.”
He looked at the phone. “Wait, wait—I don’t want to talk to her.”
“Oh, shut up and do it. Be a man.”
This is Christie. Leave a brief message.
“Um, hello,” Luke said. “I saw your book at the airport, and I was thinking that Hal might want to see me. Maybe. And so I’ll see you later. This is Luke.”
He handed the phone back.
The girl punched him in the shoulder. “Yes! Yes! Yes! Dude, you made the right move.” She put her phone away and sighed, apparently very proud of her matchmaking abilities.
“So the question is, how are you getting there?” she said.
“I don’t know.”
“But you’re going?”
He looked at her but didn’t say anything. He got up and started walking down the sidewalk, under signs for all the different airlines.
“You can’t walk to Seattle!”
Luke waved and kept on walking.
She said, “Mountain Man, you’re my hero!”
He walked through the night, exhilarated by his recklessness. Until dawn, when he felt something pierce the sole of his foot. He looked down and saw that a shard from a broken beer bottle was lodged in his foot. A red drop of blood fell to the dirt beneath his foot. He looked around. It was an empty stretch of highway somewhere in an Orlando suburb, he guessed. Maybe he had walked 20 miles through the night.
He pulled out the piece of glass and tried walking farther just using the heel of his right foot, resembling a peg-leg pirate, his hair a shaggy silhouette against the sunrise. He wished he hadn’t thrown the gauze away. Anything would be better than nothing.
As the sun rose, Luke glanced over his shoulder, watching his trail of blood. He lifted his foot again and grimaced at the dirt and grime that were already caked on the gash. There were no headlights in either direction.
Several minutes later, a semi truck rumbled past and, about 100 feet past him, stopped. Luke hobbled as fast as he could and climbed into the cab with a skinny man who had a crew cut and a cup of tobacco juice in his lap.
“You get snake bit?” the man said.
“No, just stepped on a piece of glass,” Luke said. “Thanks for the ride.”
The man shifted into gear and sputtered up to the speed limit. He spat into his cup, which was now too full to safely hold without spilling. He rolled his window down, splashed the juice all over the side of his truck and returned the cup to his lap.
“You got no shoes,” the man said.
Luke told him the whole story. The man, who had a family of his own in Missouri, drove him to St. Louis. He brought him home and fed him a meal, bought him a pair of boots, let him borrow a bathrobe while he washed the only pair of clothes Luke had.
Luke stretched out on the sagging, living room couch. He closed his eyes, but he couldn’t sleep. He lay awake thinking about the child in the car he had struck. He tried to think of something else, but his mind only focused in on Hal and all the possibilities for failure in his quest.
He kicked off the thick blanket, and he was gone. He walked backward along the interstate through St. Louis, at night, crossing an overpass that was under construction and having to tightrope the painted lines when the shoulder was closed and full of barricades.
But he eventually found rides. He made stop after stop, sometimes going far off the path to Seattle because that was where his ride was taking him. He stopped at the post office and found a used envelope in a garbage can and an instruction sheet for shipping hazardous materials, and he wrote a letter to Hal. He had enough to change to buy a stamp from a customer who was leaving, and he dropped the letter in the box, and he started walking again.
On the fourth day, with just a few hours of sleep here and there, he was caught in a rainstorm, but he was close, so he kept on walking. He passed under an overpass and rested, 10 miles outside of Seattle. It seemed certain now that Luke was going to complete his cross-country trek and finally see his son.
“Hop in,” a man in a business suit said through the driver’s side window.
Luke climbed in gingerly, soaked through. “Thanks for the lift.”
The man eased into traffic without checking his mirrors and almost collided with a minivan, which swerved halfway out of its lane to dodge the car. Luke gripped the armrest on the door at first, then remembered he was all wet, and he retracted his hand as if he was touching a hot stove. He didn’t say anything. In the last few days on the road, he had learned not to criticize anyone’s driving.
“Where you from?” the man said. He had a five o’clock shadow and an upturned nose and thick dark hair.
Luke started to tell him the story of his quest to be reunited with a long-lost son.
Then the car drifted onto the rumble strip, and the man jerked the car back to the center of his lane. He opened his eyes wide and blinked several times. Then he looked at Luke and smiled a lazy, drunken smile.
“What about you?” Luke said, becoming more and more tense in his seat and more and more uncomfortable as he tried to act naturally. He tried to cross his legs but there wasn’t enough room to maneuver his feet around his knees and the dashboard at the same time.
“You been out with friends?” Luke said.
“Nah,” the man said slowly. “Just one friend—girlfriend.”
“Great,” Luke said, as cheerfully as he could. The windshield wipers couldn’t keep up with the rain, and the street became clearly visible only for a split second after each swipe. But the wipers weren’t even going at full speed.
“Yeah,” the man said, his lazy grin returning. He turned to Luke and looked him in the eye for what felt like a full minute. “Well, ex. Now, anyway.”
Luke leaned forward and pointed at a sign. “Do you see what that sign says? I’m not good with long distances.”
It didn’t work. The man glanced at the road, righted the course, and turned back to Luke.
“But I doubt she’ll ever call me her ex-boyfriend,” the man said. “It’s awkward when you’ve already got another one.” The man reached behind his seat and felt around for something on the floor. He let go of the wheel for a split second.
And that was enough. Luke grabbed the wheel, but it was too late. The man had inadvertently yanked on the wheel as he reached back, and now the car was whirling around the highway. It clipped an SUV, was shoved into the guardrail, rolled over once and ended up in the grassy median.
Both airbags had deployed and were now lying limp in their laps. The man’s head was resting against the window, out cold. Luke felt behind his arm at a cut that was bleeding.
Luke unbuckled his seat belt, realizing now that his right knee was also in shooting pain. All the windows were broken, except for his, and he looked at the traffic whiz by, and he and rested, as only a man who hasn’t slept in days can, in a kind of wide-eyed doze. He was exhausted. He pulled the Christmas card from his pocket. It was wrapped in a white grocery sack to protect it from the rain. He thought about the letters he had sent to Hal, and he imagined him reading them with a flashlight under his blanket. Hal was wondering who this one-sided pen pal could be, what he might look like. Or maybe Christie threw them away without ever reading them. There was always that.
Within ten minutes, an ambulance was at the scene, and headlights were backed up for miles.
“Don’t worry about me,” Luke told an EMT, and he motioned to the man in the driver’s seat. The man had not only survived, but he was now hysterical.
“Get off me!” the man said.
“Sir, your arm is broken. I need you to—”
Luke watched as they argued and then he put a hand on the man’s shoulder through the broken driver’s side window. The man looked up at him in the rain.
In the ambulance, Luke sat with the man and read information off his driver’s license to a nurse en route to the hospital.
In the emergency room, the man was lying on a stretcher. While the nurse was away, the man unbuckled himself from the bed and climbed off.
“I’m not going to stick around here and wait so they can nail me on a DUI,” the man said. He took a step and then collapsed on the floor. A nurse rushed to his side, but he pushed her back and stumbled toward the door. Luke, who was being pushed in a wheelchair, caught hold of the man’s pants and tore off his back pocket accidentally.
“Get out of my way!” the man said.
“Your car’s being towed away on the highway,” Luke said. “You have nowhere to go.”
The man stopped. He breathed heavily, clenching his fists. He took a swing at Luke, grazing his forehead, and then the man screamed out in pain and fell to the floor. Ignoring the other people in the waiting room, Luke inched the chair next to the man and put his hand on his shoulder.
The man looked at Luke but said nothing.
A few men in scrubs helped the man back onto the stretcher and wheeled him away, revealing a doctor, who had been eyeing Luke during the whole exchange, across the room. Before Luke could say anything, she said, “We’re looking for people like you. I work at Puget Rehab, a new, independent facility. Want a job in crisis intervention?”
Luke shook his head. “I don’t live around here,” he said.
She handed him a business card. He tried to slide it into his pocket, but his pants were still damp from the rain. He checked his elbow again and saw that his shirt was ripped and bloody on his sleeve.
“I could use some clothes, though,” he said. “Got any of those?”
On crutches, in slacks that were six inches too short for him, Luke limped through downtown Seattle. His shoulders were stiff, and he tugged at the sleeve of his blazer—also a few sizes too small.
In his hand was the Christmas card, which he stopped and looked at every block or so, holding it in front of him, as though it were a compass. He had no gift, no flowers. In his back pocket, he had $100, which he was sure belonged to the doctor who gave him the clothes before he had been checked out of the hospital.
Luke stared at the four-story apartment building. He buttoned the blazer, then unbuttoned it again. He tried to conjure a vision to combat the doubts that he had been dragging across the country; he imagined Hal beaming and throwing his arms around his neck, and he imagined himself squeezing his son and bawling into his hair, squeezing Hal too hard in something like an involuntary reaction.
He lowered himself to the steps of the apartment building and rested his leg, which was in a new cast. He let his chest heave, as if he had just run the whole way and only now taken time to catch his breath. His pants rode up to the middle of his calves, and he tried to push them down with his palms.
Luke was clean-shaven for the first time in months. He was wearing clean clothes. And he had never been more scared in his life. He felt like he was the seven-year-old, rather than Hal.
The cars flew by, and he stared at the work boot on his good leg. It felt like hours were passing him by, and he was not able to make himself stand up.
Then he heard the hiss of hydraulic brakes. He looked up and watched a yellow school bus park right in front of him and swing out its stop sign under the driver’s window. Children scattered up and down the sidewalk. One little boy crossed in front of the bus and walked straight toward Luke.
He stood and watched the child with the reverence of a prophet, studying the boy’s face, his blond hair, his mostly empty backpack bouncing with each step.
“Hal!” Luke said. He waved awkwardly.
Hal stopped and eyed Luke, cocking his head slightly to one side.
“It’s me,” Luke said. “Did you get the message? I called a while back to say I would be coming. To see you.”
Hal didn’t move.
“Well, you’ve at least got to get out of the road,” Luke said, and he grasped Hal’s hand and tugged him onto the sidewalk.
“Do you know who I am?” Luke said.
Hal shook his head. “You’re a stranger.”
Luke breathed deeply and knelt at Hal’s side. “It’s Luke,” he said. He handed him the Christmas card, then realized that wouldn’t prove anything since he wasn’t even in the picture.
“OK, wait,” Luke said. “Do you have a pen and a piece of paper?”
Hal shrugged off his backpack and handed Luke a pencil and paper. Luke put the paper on his knee and scribbled his name in the same way he had been signing his name for years in his letters, the anonymous father. He handed it to Hal.
A spark of recognition lit Hal’s eyes, and he looked down at his own shoes and smiled. “I was going to write you back,” he said.
Luke grasped his son’s hand with both of his own and kissed it.