Authors: Rose Christo
Tags: #Gay, #Fiction
No Cars Beyond This Point
My father always told me,
If I'm gone for three days, call the police.
He liked to drink with his friends every night. Sometimes he'd be gone for the whole next day and I wouldn't catch a glimpse of him until the following afternoon, bleary-eyed, popping aspirin on the sagging sofa.
He was never gone for three days.
He had been gone for five days when I realized he wasn't coming back, and I had better do something about it. But I definitely wasn't going to call the police.
I tugged my jacket on and stepped outside our squashed, one-story house. Angel Falls is one of those cities that comes in only two temperatures: hot during the day and cold during the night. I think it has something to do with the desert lying out west, but I don't really know much about geography. Nor do I know why the city's called Angel Falls. They had us read
in freshman year, with Lucifer falling from Heaven, but Angel Falls isn't all that poetic. It looks like a jumbo cardboard city. The taller buildings, offices and apartments, are mismatched in color--robin's egg blue and candy apple red--and sometimes you'll see a building whose second story somehow looks wider than the first, or there's a waterlogged stain on the side, and the whole thing looks lopsided, like it's about to spill over on you at any minute.
I thought the neighboring tenement might spill over on me as I locked the creaking black gates--waist-height, not very good about discouraging burglars--and pulled my collar up against the chill. Nearby I heard a dog barking furiously in the coarse wind, his chain pulling taut around his neck. I probably would have stopped to see if he was alright except that I was worried about Dad. I couldn't prevent wild images of him flashing across the landscape of my mind--him lying in the corner of some grimy bar, a knife sticking out of his ribs--him keeled over on a derelict sidewalk, the passers-by stepping over him in disgust.
It was quiet as I made my way through the neighborhood, the last of the sun's smudged haze receding over the rooftops of the cardboard city. I thought to myself: I should have made this trip sooner, a lot sooner. Why hadn't I? I know I was scared, but that's no excuse.
The police station was three blocks away from home. It stood on the street corner, wedge-shaped, opposite an old hat boutique that hadn't been open in a good six or seven years.
I climbed the stone steps--watched out for the wad of gum smeared on the second step--and went inside.
In the entryway were double walls plastered with black-and-white mugshots and missing children's photos. I couldn't stop myself from lingering on the latter, and a wave of unexpected pity washed over me, gluing me to the spot. Some of the kids barely looked old enough to spell their own names. Being that helpless, or worse, being helpless to save your own child, it had to be terrifying. I probably spent too long thinking about that, because suddenly there was a police officer walking up to me, a woman, small and burly and all business.
"Can I help you?" she asked shortly.
I pulled aside the collar of my jacket and smiled grimly, apologetically. I saw her eyes move to the thick scars on my throat with a flicker of understanding. Her countenance seemed to soften at that, but I wished it wouldn't. In school, I sometimes found that teachers handled me like they would a fragile egg once they learned that I couldn't talk. It was nice of them to make things easier for me, but embarrassing, in a weird, contradictory way.
"Okay," she said. "Come with me, sweetheart."
That's what I'm talking about: It was like I was six instead of sixteen.
I followed her across a dizzying floor of checkered linoleum tiles. Racine Hargrove, her nametag said. Those are the kinds of names you mostly find around Angel Falls, Carter and Dustin and Racine.
She sat me down in a chair at a slender desk with stacks of drawers. She sat opposite me, typed something quickly on the bulky computer, and gave me a very sweet smile. I thought she ought to smile more often, because she had this otherwise harrowed look about her that made me feel bad for her.
She opened one of the drawers, rifled around, and dug out a pad of yellow paper and a stubby-looking pencil. She slid the pad and pencil across the desk to me.
"So what can I do for you?" Officer Hargrove asked.
I'd like to file a missing persons report, please.
Officer Hargrove read the note quickly, then dug around in the desk drawers again. She pulled out a long sheet of paper and handed it to me with another smile, fleeting and distracted. "Here you are," she said. "Be back in a second."
She got up and walked off, bustling and quick. I noticed the gun and nightstick at her waist for the first time.
I spent a few minutes filling out the report. It was long, and it asked all sorts of questions: my name, the missing person's name, my best guess about where Dad had been last, his hair color, his eye color, the clothes he'd been wearing, the places he liked to frequent. It even asked whether he was on any medications, and I realized that he'd never told me as much. I'd learned sign language in grade school, but he hadn't learned it with me. He hadn't needed to. It seemed as though he always knew what I was thinking or what I needed even before I did. I felt guilty, suddenly, that I might not know him as well as he knew me.
Officer Hargrove came back and took the report from me, skimming it quickly.
I could tell from the very first question that she had doubts. She looked up at me with a reluctant frown. "Paul Looks Over?" she asked.
I wrote on the yellow notepad:
Officer Hargrove's frown deepened. Again I knew what she was thinking. It's true that my dad's Native American, but I sure don't look it. Dad's got a straight, aquiline nose, a wobbly chin, brown skin, hair as black as a crow's plumage and wet gray eyes. He's barrel-chested. I've got the nose, I guess, but that's it. I figure I inherited everything else from my mom: milk-white skin, freckly arms, brown eyes, and crazy, curly blond hair the same shade as sawdust.
I don't like to think about Mom too much.
Officer Hargrove skimmed the report again. She asked, "Do you have someone you can stay with until we find your father?"
I couldn't say that I did. I'd never met any of Dad's friends, and that was the way he preferred it. In fact, he'd never even told me the names of the bars he liked to go to, though I thought I could hazard a few guesses. I didn't have any friends, either. Maybe I could have, but I had seen kids bullied for a lot less than being mute. I didn't want to be one of them, as cowardly as that made me feel.
My hand was halfway to the notepad when I hesitated. Actually, I did have a living relative. I knew I did. But I'd never met her. Also Dad's preference.
Finally I penciled in a reply.
I can take care of myself.
Officer Hargrove was giving me a stern look. I decided to punctuate the reply with a smiley face. It didn't seem to lift her mood.
Skylar is my name, tragically.
"Sixteen's no adult. You may not like it, but tough." She turned her attention back to the computer sitting on the desk. "We'll find you an emergency foster home."
I grimaced, but didn't interrupt her. I was starting to think that I ought to have gone looking for Dad on my own. It was true that I didn't know what bar he'd been to last, but maybe I could have narrowed down the choices over time.
Officer Hargrove drove me to the far side of town, where the streets merged with the highway, a part of town I'd never had a reason to visit before. The sky was starry and black when we climbed out of the striped squad car. A red brick building stretched before us; I swear it looked fatter up top than it did on the bottom.
"Cheer up," Officer Hargrove ordered.
We walked up the stairs to Apartment 4B. A tired-looking woman in pink curling pins opened the heavy door and squinted at us.
"Now what?" she asked.
"Don't be like that, Janet," Officer Hargrove said. "I brought this nice young boy for you to look after. Don't you want to look after him?"
Janet stifled a yawn. "Okay."
I spent the first two weeks of June with Janet and four of her foster kids. I shared a room with a mop-headed kid who had the bad habit of blushing and sprinting whenever I caught his eye. Each day without word from my father left an uncomfortable knot in the pit of my stomach; Angel Falls wasn't that big, and it was starting to sound more and more like he'd skipped town. He'd done that, once, when I was ten, only he'd told me he was going to, not like this time, and he'd left me with the neighbor lady. I'm pretty sure she was growing hemp in the front garden.
About half a month into my stay with Janet, Officer Hargrove came back for a visit. She took me into the dank kitchen--we wove our way through an obstacle course of black garbage bags--and put her hands on my shoulders matter-of-factly.
The knot in my stomach loosened--I was so sure she was going to tell me that my dad had shown up in some remote train station, dazed and concussed and missing his shoes--
"Your grandmother says you can stay with her until we find your dad."
The knot tightened again. I shook my head rigorously. I knew I had a grandmother--Catherine Looks Over, my father's mother--but I'd never met her. She could have been a perfectly nice old lady. That didn't mean I wanted to live with her. Probably she had only agreed to the arrangement out of a sense of responsibility. I didn't want to saddle her with that kind of compromise.
"What do you mean, 'No'?" Officer Hargrove retorted. "It's only temporary. I'm sure we'll find your father soon."
But the way she said it--she wasn't a very good actor. I could tell she was trying to sound more optimistic than she really felt.
That kind of sucked the optimism right out of me.
I left the apartment with Officer Hargrove that evening; the mop-headed kid gave me his favorite eraser as a parting gift and Janet waved absently, a mug of cold coffee in her hand spilling down the front of her bathrobe. Officer Hargrove drove me home, the knot in my stomach tightening as we passed under street lights, tires squealing on gravel. We parked outside my house and I swallowed a lump of cold fear. I didn't know when I'd be coming back to this house, the squashed house with the black gates, the house I had lived in since I was five. I didn't know that Dad was ever coming home.
I went inside and gathered my clothes and my schoolbooks. I said goodbye to the familiar cracks in the walls, to the fish tank that had never housed fish.
I got back into the squad car, and we drove until the night sky shadowed the burning street lights, my heart pounding unpleasantly.
My first glimpse of the Nettlebush Reserve was the hospital at the end of the turnpike. Wide and brown, with a flat roof, the hospital was one story; nothing more, probably because it only serviced the reservation. The windows were alight, the front entrance flanked by wheelchair ramps. Farther down the road was a big log cabin, the chimney spitting thin smoke into the night sky. And jutting out of the grass was a pike with a wooden sign: No Cars Beyond This Point.
I felt like I was going to throw up.
Officer Hargrove parked the squad car outside the hospital. She walked me down the dirt road, her hand on my shoulder, my books and my clothes hanging from my arm in a white garbage bag, and the reservation opened up before us.
The Nettlebush Reserve is where I'd spent the first five years of my life, but I couldn't have been more hard pressed to recall what it looked like before that blustery June evening: I felt as though I were seeing the reservation for the very first time. My first impression was of wet, smoldering wood; as it happened, someone had only recently extinguished a bonfire, and the rich scent of ash and smoke still clung to the air. The terrain around us was easily bigger than my neighborhood, an expanse of pine trees bowing and swaying in the wind. Log cabins rested uniformly under the stars. I saw children sitting on one of the porches and heard their loud, rippling laughter trill across the distance. They didn't seem to have noticed Officer Hargrove or me.