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With a Little Help
Part 1: Gemini
Chapter 3: The Empress; or, Compassion and Lost Bearings
Carolyn was Carolyn Sanders, the mother of the boy who had given Donny artificial respiration. The boy, Jake, was seventeen years old, and the oldest of the group that had pulled him out of the car. Apparently they were on a local swim team of some sort, and he was their captain. They’d been practicing when they saw Donny drive off the edge of the bluff, headed straight down into Halter Lake. Andy, the boy who’d ridden his bike pell-mell into town to let everyone know some damnfool kid had tried to kill himself, was sixteen. Rog, the one whose classic ’37 Ford woody wagon had been used as an ambulance, was sixteen as well. The others were Donny’s age or younger.
Jake, he learned, had been the one to watch over him last night and into the morning hours before Ray came in to work. Someone had needed to be nearby, in case Donny had (in Ray’s words) some kind of relapse. Meaning, of course, in case Donny tried to kill himself again. There had been no danger of that. He didn’t remember anyone being there the night before; he didn’t remember the night before at all. He’d been completely out of it.
Carolyn showed up around noon, a few hours after Ray Travers had conducted his aw-shucks interrogation. She brought sheets, a hand-knitted comforter, a fat goosedown pillow, and a covered plate which revealed itself to hold three pieces of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and white gravy, and peas drowning in butter.
Until that moment Donny wasn’t sure he was hungry, but his stomach made haste to clarify matters. As he tore into the meal, Carolyn pulled out several sets of clothes, old ones that no longer fit her son. She had a good eye and judged they’d fit Donny, who had been left with little more than a donated tank, shorts, and a towel after his adventure at the lake. Everything else was still damp, and reeked of black lakebottom mud. She primly turned her back while he tried the clothes on, but he was a little unnerved to see that Ray Travers was still keeping an eye on him, as though he might decide to do himself harm with a butter knife. The clothes fit well enough, at least. “Thank you, Miz Sanders,” he said when she’d turned back to face him.
“Carolyn,” she said with a smile that just about melted Donny’s heart. She could easily have passed for Barbara Billingsley, except she was in color, and Donny suspected she wasn’t playing a role.
“All right, Carolyn,” Donny said. “Tell Jake I said thanks for the loaners.”
“Oh honey, you can tell him yourself,” Carolyn said. “He’s coming by later to see how you’re doing.”
“Oh, that’s … he doesn’t…”
Carolyn waved his objections aside and collected her plate. All that remained of the meal was a few bones. She produced, somehow, a slice of berry pie, which Donny intended to make last more than the sixty seconds it ended up surviving after his first taste. Apparently his stomach had adopted a no-prisoners policy regarding Carolyn Sanders’s cooking. She beamed thanks at his unalloyed expressions of praise. “I’ll just be heading home now. I’ll tell Jake to drop by, oh…?”
“Half an hour, maybe,” Ray Travers said.
Carolyn smiled. “All right, half an hour.” She kissed Donny’s cheek, then smoothed back his hair. “You get to feeling better soon, honey. I’ve heard there are already three or four girls asking about you.”
“Um. Uh. All right. Thanks again for the clothes, and … really, Carolyn, about the best food I’ve ever eaten.”
“You are quite welcome, honey.” She patted his cheek, cast an eye on Ray, and left.
Donny eyed Ray too, but not in the same way. The man brought his swivel chair over to the cell door — which was still open, and had never actually been closed and locked while Donny was there — and said, “Mind if I sit with you a while?”
Donny shrugged. “I … well, I guess you’re … uh.”
Ray nodded and sat, then reached into a pocket in his overalls. “I am. And I have to, Donny, you understand. Attempting to kill yourself isn’t exactly illegal, but you’ve driven a car into Halter Lake, and that means at the very least I’ve got you for littering. Speeding, too, if I’m of a mind.” He drew forth a pouch and sheaf of rolling papers. “Zig-Zag. I buy these from Maggie at the Hot Pot. No one believes I’m using them for something as pedestrian as tobacco. Would you like one?”
“I’m fifteen,” Donny said.
“Thanks, I … no, I don’t smoke.”
Ray nodded, loading his paper. “Good habit not to start.”
“I know,” Donny said quietly.
Ray rolled the paper, passed it briefly along his tongue, and smoothed the cylinder. “I’d say we got off to a poor start, Donny, but I think you’re already approaching your life from that point of view, so it would not be an insightful observation for me to make.” He eyed his cigarette critically, pulled a single shred of leaf from one end, then put it between his lips and popped open a Zippo. The acrid tang of lighter fluid wafted past Donny, followed a cloud of sweet vanilla smoke. “Pipe tobacco,” Ray said while he pocketed his works. “I don’t inhale it. I just like the smell. Maggie believes I’m the reincarnation of an incense burner. What kind of trouble are you in, Donny?”
Donny sighed. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Ray drew a thoughtful puff. “I might not. But I definitely can not if you won’t divulge anything. I realize the badge represents The Man, and that you have no idea who I am. I realize that asking you to extend even a modicum of trust is probably more than you feel able to do now.” He reached over to his desk and picked up an ashtray, and flicked a grey cone into it. “But I am asking you, Donny, to ignore the badge and trust the person whom you know nothing about.
“You’re a good boy. There is no report of any prior police contact. Your school records are good. You’re respectful and polite, as befits the Boy Scout I know you to be, and you have not caused trouble since you were pulled out of the lake by Jake and his crew. Yet your father refuses to acknowledge your existence, and that does not make sense to me.” He put the hand with the cigarette on one side of himself, and the hand with the ashtray on the other. “I cannot balance the good boy, here, against the rancor of the father, there.” He puffed again, then tapped more ash into his ashtray. “Now I will ask again, Donny, and do understand that I would like to have this question answered, sooner rather than later. What kind of trouble are you in?”
“It’s … a family problem,” Donny said.
Ray nodded. “I had presumed as much.” He raised his eyebrows.
“My dad … he … we don’t exactly see eye-to-eye.”
“I don’t always with my old man either. That does not make me drive my car into a lake.” Ray stubbed out his cigarette and leaned forward. “Speaking of the car: Not yours.” Donny shook his head. “Your father’s?” Donny shook his head again. Ray leaned back. “I thought not, since he didn’t report it missing. Whose is it, then?”
“It … was my mother’s,” Donny said.
Donny sighed, and his throat tightened. “She … she’s dead. She died when I was eleven. He put it in storage then. He put all her things in storage then. Everything.”
“Ah,” said Ray. “And his heart as well?”
Donny sighed again and looked into Ray’s eyes. “I don’t think I ever had that to begin with.”
Ray was quiet for a few moments. “That’s hard,” he said, and pulled out his works again. “This lighter, here.” He held it up for Donny to see. “My dad gave it to me when I became Constable.” He tossed it over to Donny, who caught it a little clumsily. It was warm, made of brass, and had an inscription on the side. To my son, you do your old man proud. I love you.
Donny passed his fingers lightly over the words. “It’s … nice.”
“It is,” Ray agreed. “My guess is that your father is not the type to show sentiment. Many fathers are not. Mine is not. He let that lighter say what he couldn’t say aloud. But you must see that there is an almost infinite gulf between the kind of thinking that makes a man choose a gift for his son and put words on it instead of saying aloud what is in his heart … and the kind of thinking that makes a man say he has no son by any name, after learning that his son has driven a car into a lake.”
“Not my father. I’m guessing he didn’t even ask if I was all right.”
Ray studied him, then shook his head slowly. “He did not.”
“Yeah.” Donny didn’t sound angry or sad; just resigned. That tired resignation told Ray much more than any amount of histrionics might have.
He accepted the lighter when Donny passed it back. “Maybe I’ve been asking the wrong question. What kind of trouble has been made for you, Donny?”
“I just … he doesn’t … he doesn’t like who I am. H-how I am. There’s … there’s something wrong with me, Const — Mis—”
Donny swallowed. “Ray. Th-there’s something wrong with me, and my father, he … he hates it. He hates me for it.”
Ray considered that. “Is it something you can change or control?”
“No,” Donny said. “I’ve tried.”
“Does he understand that?”
“I’ve tried to tell him, but… ” He shrugged.
“I thought that might be so. It must be something large you’re wrestling with, though. What is it about you that’s so all-defining it has become a literal life and death matter? I doubt it’s booze or fast women.” Donny let out a feeble chuckle. “Do you have a weakness for the horses?” Donny shook his head, a very faint smile on his lips. “Drugs?”
“No. God, no.”
Ray nodded. “Well. Whatever it is, it seems you are going to be here with us for a while, probably another day or two according to Doc, after which … well, Donny, I haven’t quite decided yet if there have been any chargeable offenses committed within my jurisdiction, so after Doc gives you your walking papers, you may well be free to choose your own direction. It might be to a place of light, of goodness and courage; or it might be to the bottom of Halter Lake again. I believe you will go where you choose to go. And I believe that, before you make that choice, it is my bounden duty to urge you toward the former and not the latter.”
“What … you mean you’re not going to send me back to Cliveston?”
“Your father has been rather clear on the matter. If I were to return you to Cliveston, you would likely be taken into a home for boys, as a runaway. Do you want to go back there? Have you left anything of value behind?”
“God,” Donny said. “No.”
“That makes you a free man, then, I suppose,” Ray said, “because if there are indeed no charges to be brought, you may decide either to enter yourself as a ward of the state and take your chances there; or you may decide instead to deal openly with others around you, be honest about your age, and get such decent work as you can.” He leaned forward. “Or you may decide instead to look around yourself carefully for a while, find your bearings, and see if a third option opens to you.”
“But I can’t … I can’t just stay here in Burlingham, can I? I mean, what’ll I do? I’m just a kid. Where will I live? Are there even any jobs around here?”
Ray stood and wheeled his chair back over to his desk, then opened a drawer and rummaged around in it. He took something out and walked over to Donny, took the boy’s hand and placed it into his palm. It was cool, heavy, circular. “You’ll be having a visitor soon,” he said, and turned to go back to his desk. Donny opened his hand to see what Ray had given him.
It was a little brass compass on a lanyard.