Good Parent Karma
Gerald Alaner woke up this morning and found two things: His back door wide open, and his eight year old autistic son completely gone. This type of thing wasn’t unheard of. Timothy was always sneaking out of the house. Many parents might have panicked and called the police. But not Gerald. He had been down that road, and the police were really no help. After the fourth time Timothy snuck out, a cop plainly said that the next time they would call CPS and take the kid away.
In their previous houses, Gerald installed locks and deadbolts in the right places. And that had taken care of the problem. Some nights he would awake to the gentle knocking sound of Timothy trying to open his dead bolted bedroom door, or the door to the garage. Gerald would yell, “TIM! GO BACK TO BED!” and that would be the end of it for that night.
But they were in yet another new house, the third since leaving their first house, and some of their stuff was still in boxes. Gerald hadn’t had the time or the money to make the new house as safe as the old one.
He grabbed a recent photo of Timothy and started hitting the streets. He showed the photo to anyone who would look, and even some people who wouldn’t. He accidentally bloodied the nose of a guy in a business suit when he shoved the picture in his face. A skater kid, with face pierced all to hell, took Gerald’s phone number and promised to call if he saw Timothy.
As the midday sun passed over head, the temperature rose sharply, and Gerald wiped sweat from his brow with an old bandanna. He stopped into a grocery store and bought a bottle of coke. He showed the picture to the clerk. The clerk recognized that picture.
“I kicked that little shit out of here few hours ago. He walked behind the counter while I was in the back and made a huge mess. Knocked cigarettes all over the place and smashed a bunch of ‘em open. Stole a bunch of stuff too. Ran out of here with his arms full of stuff.”
“What did he take?” Gerald asked.
The clerk detailed everything, A banana, a chicken, probably some cigarettes. Gerald paid him for the things Timothy took, and silently thanked the lord that the clerk hadn’t called the cops.
He left the grocery store and started looking again. More hours passed with no leads. The sun settled into a low angle in the west and the early autumn temperature dropped again. Gerald cursed himself for not bringing a jacket. The late afternoon sweat on his arms and back evaporated off and he rubbed his hands over his elbows and chest for a little warmth.
There was still one place left to check. Gerald didn’t really have any hope that Timothy would be there. But it he had to check it off the mental list. As he set off east, toward the darkening sky, he made the mental preparations. He knew time was not on his side anymore. If Timothy was not there, and Gerald had no reason to believe he would be, then he would call the police, and deal with the consequences.
The streetlights flickered on. A waxing moon took over a cloudless sky and the stars shone. Gerald was chilled in his shorts and t-shirt. It was like stepping back in time, crossing those streets and blocks. Even in his state of worry, certain old trees and cars popped out at him, and he marveled at how little could change in four years.
He rounded the corner onto Pinehurst Lane. The sidewalk looked worse. Some trees here were pushing roots through the concrete. And the people who lived here now weren’t keeping their yards clean. The old neighborhood was getting trashy.
“Part of why we left,” Gerald thought, before completing the thought, and reminding himself of the bigger reason they left.
He could see the old house up ahead. It was still empty, and the chain link fence around the yard was falling apart. The porch was covered in dead leaves and trash. The upstairs windows were still intact, but the kitchen window overlooking the yard was smashed. Thieves had ripped out the gutters. The grass was as tall as his thighs.
He undid the latch on the gate. He had to shove it open with both hands, as rust had worn the hinges and tall grass worked like a doorstop against him. He walked up the steps, and the wood bent under his weight. He shoved his hand through the hole where the doorknob for the front door used to be and stepped into his old house.
“Tim?” He asked gently, unsure of who could be in the house, not wanting a confrontation with some drug addict or homeless man. He noticed the old coat of arms was still hanging on the wall. But it was missing an arrow now.
He walked up stairs and looked in all the old rooms, opening each door oh so slowly, memories of their old life hitting him with each creaky floorboard and torn strip of wallpaper.
Gerald walked back downstairs and into the kitchen, broken glass crunching under his shoes. He was looking out and forward when he tried to open the door to the back yard. His nose ran into the screen as something stopped the door from opening completely.
Timothy was asleep on the old porch swing, which had been torn free from its ropes and dragged away from the other side of the porch. He was wearing khaki cargo shorts, hi top sneakers with no socks, and his Cow and Chicken pajama top. He was shivering in the cold.
Cigarettes were falling out of his shorts. The arrow from the coat of arms dangled out of his left hand. A banana down by his feet, and the chicken from the grocery store was propping up his head like a pillow.
“Tim!” Gerald shouted, shoving the door against the old porch swing, trying to rock him awake.
Timothy woke up and looked around. He saw his dad standing in the doorway, but made no real response. He stood up, and Gerald was able to shove the door open. He grabbed his son in a big hug. Timothy stood there, shivering, with his arms down at his side, looking past his dad’s shoulder at all the stuff laying on the porch.
“Come on,” Gerald said, “Let’s get the hell out of here and go home.”
And he took Timothy by the hand and tried to lead him out. But Tim fought him and pulled backward. He wrestled his wrist free from his father’s grip and slammed the back door open.
“Tim!” Gerald yelled, “Damnit it’s time go! Do you have any idea what you put me through today?”
Timothy gathered up all the things he’d collected that day, and grabbed one final thing, a length of the rope that had held the porch swing up in earlier days.
He carried these random objects in his arms with a sort of reverence, and fairly ran past his dad with them, out the front door.
Gerald sprinted after, desperately trying to avoid chasing his son by foot through this now dangerous neighborhood. But he didn’t have to.
Tim stopped at the electrical pole on the corner. Gerald recognized the look in his eyes and didn’t stop him. Whatever Tim had in his mind, it was the most important thing the world at that moment, and nothing would unseat that thought from his mind.
Gerald stood back and waited it out. Ten minutes later, Tim came walking back, his task completed. Everything had been tied up around the pole, And Tim had shoved the arrow through the chicken. There was even some money tied up there that Gerald hadn’t seen, and had no doubt come from the grocery store cash register.
Tim grabbed his father’s hand and led him up to the pole.
“It’s a warning,” Tim said.
“Warning?” Gerald asked, “Against what?”
“Stay out.” Tim said, and his breath steamed as the words left his mouth. Gerald felt a chill go through his body that had nothing to do with the temperature. He sensed eyes looking at them from all directions. That primal part of his brain left over from ancient times told him to run and run fast.
Timothy took his father’s hand, and looked at him straight in the eye, a sort of personal engagement that was rare for Tim to do.
“Go home?” Tim asked.
“Yeah buddy. Let’s go home.”
And they walked. Gerald’s fight or flight response told him to sprint. But Timothy had a death grip on his dad’s wrist. And the little boy would go no faster than a gentle stroll.
Those two blocks of abandoned houses seemed like football fields to Gerald, and the feeling of being watched never left. But then the bright lights of a main road appeared. And Timothy led his dad toward them.
When they crossed the street, and into the parking lot of a corner gas station, Timothy finally let go of his dad’s wrist.
Gerald fished a few quarters out of his pocket and dialed up a cab from the pay phone. They went inside to wait for it, and he bought a coke and some twinkies to share. He let Timothy have first dibs on the coke and twinkies. He looked at the window at the street they’d just come from and he could have sworn he saw a homeless man staggering down the street in a trench coat. He was trying to focus in on the image, when an empty glass bottle and plastic wrapper were shoved into his hand.
He looked down and Tim said, “Thanks.”
Gerald looked back out the window. A big yellow taxi was blocking his view of the street.
As he walked out to it, he took another peek around its roof, looking for that staggering homeless man, but whatever he had seen was gone.
They got in. He told the cabbie where to go. It wasn’t a long ride, and they rode it out in silence. Gerald stroked Timothy’s hair and kissed him on the forehead. Not a moment after they were both deep into a dreamless sleep. And they were only awoken by the gentle voice of the cab driver, telling them that they were here.
They were home.