On Valentine’s Day, Dean shivered on the curb at the front entrance of Barnett Hall while he waited for the shuttle to take him home. Nina had not seen him out. She shook his hand and said, “I have loved working with you, but I don’t want to see you back here again. You are almost eighteen, an adult. Time to put childish things away.”
Now, facing the sun-licked, snowcapped Blue Ridge — the words slippery slope came to mind. He would forever hear: baby steps and one day at a time. Hardwired with cliché, he was just another rebel armed with grandma quotes.
In the parking lot, a man in a rusted orange Microbus clamped a cigarette between his teeth and snatched a lighter from the dashboard. Dean bit his lip. He had not had a smoke in months. His fingers trembled as he watched the driver light up. At the flicker and puff, something ignited inside of himself like a gas stove.
Glenda had not been out to see him since she’d dropped him off after his day pass on Christmas. The snowy mountains made it a tough drive. Along the way, Glenda announced that she’d turned a corner. She said it so plainly that at first he thought she was talking about the drive itself.
“I’ve turned a corner, and I’m never going back.”
“Which is why you hired a kidnapper?”
“That’s right,” she snapped. “I hired a kidnapper. So what? Isn’t that what you say to everything? Should I just let you get high with Travis? Look how that turned out for him.”
“What are you talking about?”
Glenda bit into both lips before turning away. “Travis is in prison.”
Dean’s hands clapped onto his skull. “What are you saying?”
“He was picked up in a nightclub over by the university with a fake ID and he had pot on him. He got Judge Creech. Six months Downstate.”
After that, Dean had gone silent. Through the rest of his stay there was snow in the mountains, so his mother only visited by phone. Then, in the final days before his release, Glenda called to say, “The transportation service will be taking you home.”
“The kidnapper?” This was secretly the best news Dean had heard since his arrival.
“No, Dean. You’ll take the Barnett Hall Shuttle.”
So here he was, freezing, when the driver of the Volkswagen bus spotted him. Dean waved but the man turned back toward the mountains and took another puff. “Jesus,” said Dean, and he crossed the icy asphalt, stepping midway on a gritty snow bank. It collapsed and coated his high tops in gray slush. “What the fuck?!”
He banged twice on the passenger door. The driver waved his cigarette. “Climb in back. Another kid’s coming.” But I was here first, thought Dean, though rehab had taught him diplomacy. He squinted at the cigarette and the hairy fist before he slid the back door open and met the smoke-filled interior, which wasn’t much warmer. Inside, he asked, “Could you turn the heat up, please?”
“It’s up. High as it goes.”
Dean fell back on an exposed spring in the torn seat and took off his shoes. He started to peel off his socks when the driver said, “Stop right there. No smelly feet.”
“But my socks are wet.”
“And that’s my problem?”
Dean looked up at the face hovering inches above his own. The man couldn’t be more than five years older than him, stocky, feet barely reaching the pedals. A black shadow swallowed much of his face, punctuated by fuzzy sideburns. Dean was almost six feet, big enough to take on most guys, though he never did. He still liked to think of himself as the Artful Dodger.
Red cap stretched to his eyebrows, the driver reminded Dean of Curious George. Dean smirked. He stripped off his socks. “Deal with it.”
“I’ll deal with it. I got the keys. We’re not moving until you put them on again.”
Dean dug into in his seat: more springs at his back. “Gonna be a long ride,” he said.
Another passenger filed in and to Dean’s surprise, he went straight to the far-back seat.
Dean considered moving to the passenger seat up front but he’d already argued with the driver and he decided not to push his luck.
He turned instead to the guy in the back, who wore the collar of his peacoat upturned, his hands shoved into both pockets, his white-blond hair cropped like a jarhead. The buzz cut had not been mandatory, just strongly encouraged, less so for the dramatic effect than for the management of head lice — Dean kept his sandy curls long.
“You look just like your mother.” Nina had said this to Dean after he told her about Glenda’s last visit. “I’m guessing you feel the need to torture her. For what?”
For what? he’d thought, sarcastically, though he had not been able to name a single act committed by Glenda that any other mom wouldn’t have done in her place.
The guy in the back said, “What are we waiting for?”
“Ask your pal,” said the driver, pointing at Dean’s feet.
“What the fuck?”
Dean turned to explain, “He wants me to put wet —”
“Then do it, asshole.” The jarhead’s muscles tightened at his temples. “Let’s get the fuck outta here.”
“Dude,” whispered Dean. “Chill. It was just rehab. You’d think you were in combat.”
The guy craned forward, temples tightening. He whispered, “There’s nobody to save your ass from getting kicked out here.”
Dean folded his arms defiantly.
The driver lit up another smoke, turned to the mountains and said, “I get paid by the hour.”
The guy with the jarhead haircut winced.
A twinge of doubt worked through Dean’s gut.
The guy got even closer, and the facial hair that had seemed nonexistent was now a spray of prickly white nubs on his chin. Muscles tightened like stressed springs at his temples.
“I’ll put those damn socks on you by way of your stupid ass if you don’t move it!”
Dean could hit the guy; he could hit lots of people. “Fuck it!” He put the socks on, his toes curling inside damp cotton.
“Now the shoes,” said the jarhead.
“By the hour,” said the driver. “And I’m not liable if you guys kill each other.”
“Whatever,” said Dean, cramming into wet high-tops.
“Attaboy.” The driver shifted gears and took off.
Not another word was spoken until Winchester. There, the jarhead jumped out at a shotgun house that came up to the curb. A bony woman in a tatty bathrobe greeted him at the door with a jerk of her chin. “Later,” said the driver, and he scratched something on a business card, which he handed to the guy. The guy read it and laughed. “I’ve heard of you.”
“Anytime you need a pickup.”
“Good to know,” said the jarhead, who rammed the sliding door shut without even a nod to Dean.
As they pulled away, Dean remembered that Glenda said she’d had to schedule herself for a double shift. He couldn’t understand. They’d been getting along fine until Christmas. It was like she was taking it out on him that Travis was in prison.
The van rattled against fierce winds. Dean blew into his fists. “I’m freezing.”
The driver shrugged; he’d already explained about the heater.
Behind them, the sun settled into the Piedmont, the sky a red strip over purple lumps.
Dean pulled out an envelope (his “personal effects”) and poured on his lap: a silver ring from an old girlfriend, a leather wristband made by another old girlfriend, a few singles, some coins, but no keys.
He slammed the unsteady armrest. “My keys!”
“That sucks.” said the driver, oddly sympathetic.
Dean hadn’t thought to grab his keys when the kidnapper came for him. Did Glenda know that? In a recent phone call, she’d said, “You aren’t ready to come home. I can see that. Anyone can see that …” She waited for an answer from him, and when none came, she said, Guess we have to take life on life’s terms …” So she’d been going to 12 Step meetings, too. But did she know he’d be locked out?
He shifted to stuff his money in his pocket and hit another spring. “Hell with it.” He started to move to the passenger seat up front. The driver’s hand shot up, a monkey’s paw blocking the way. “House rules.”
The driver rolled his eyes. “Oh, fine.”
Dean paused at this sudden act of generosity. Then he grabbed the seat.
They made small talk. When Dean finally saw the sign announcing Rebel Run, he said,
“Could you drop me off at the hospital?”
“You don’t look hurt to me,” the driver teased. “Gotta broken heart?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Come on, I see all kinds. You’re a Romeo. Gotta Valentine’s date?”
“Whatever.” Dean glanced in the side-view mirror and saw a deer step out from the woods. It was coming from the park by the high school, where he used to fish. Dean almost pointed out the deer to the driver but then the word “Romeo” made him decide not to. “My mom works there,” he finally said.
“Sorry. House rules. They’ll fire my ass if I take you anywhere but home.”
“Curious George,” whispered Dean.
“It’s getting dark. I’ll freeze. Look, I won’t tell anyone.”
“Just call your mom.”
“Man, you know they don’t let you keep your cell in the can!”
“You call ‘Darn It Hall’ the can?” The driver slapped the heel of his hairy palm to the red cap. “Darn it, caught with pot!” He laughed, took another cigarette from his jacket, punched in the lighter. “That place is Polly Pocket shit. It’s not even lockdown. You need to go Downstate for the can. And they do take kids there nowadays. They don’t escort you in a kiddy car either.”
The orange light crackled when it hit the cigarette. “You go in a sheriff’s cruiser, wearing shackles.” He added a kick to that “K” in shackles. Dean hated to imagine Travis in shackles.
He folded his arms and slouched, thankful that this seat had a cover. “You call this the kiddy car?” He wanted a cigarette. But “house rules” would be the answer. So he said, “You won’t drop me off at the hospital because of ‘house rules,’ but you’ll smoke in a rehab van. And who the hell is Polly Pocket?”
“Polly Pocket? Itty-bitty, plastic chick.” The driver made an inch with his fingers to show how big. “Comes with accessories. My kid plays with Polly’s fashion center. You never heard of Polly?” He waved his cigarette and ashes fluttered. “I dropped this chick off in McLean last week. In one of those McMansions. Twelve years old and she’s hooked on junk. She plays with Polly.” He blew smoke at Dean. “She made me promise not to tell.”
“Well, I won’t mention that I wear ladies’ underwear then. Pink ones. Satin.”
The driver laughed. “Got a sense of humor. I like that.”
Dean relaxed. “You got a kid?”
“I got two kids, man.” The driver drew hard on the cigarette, sucking it right down to the filter; he opened the window and tossed it out before veering onto the exit ramp at the last minute, almost running over the homeless guy who balanced a cardboard sign on his twisted hip that read, Got cash?
“Do they live with you?”
They stopped with a jerk at the light. The driver threw up his arms. “What kind of a question is that?”
“What? My dad doesn’t live with me.”
The light changed; the driver shifted gears. “Man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.” Dean regretted his question, though he wasn’t sure why. Finally, the driver said, “Look, dude, how much money do you have?”
“Now you’re taking bribes?”
“I ain’t taking shit.” The driver accelerated. “I’m taking you home.”
“Wait.” Dean reached into his pocket. “I’ll give you ten bucks.”
“What hospital’s she at?”
“A cab’s gonna cost you that. Then you’re gonna have to wait for it … after you get to a phone.”
Dean didn’t have twenty but that would be the driver’s problem. They pulled onto the road leading to the hospital, passing Dean’s elementary school. The monkey bars made him smile. Then he felt sad.
“You set up?” asked the driver.
“You got a dealer?”
Dean threw up his arms. “I just got out of rehab.”
“I know. I’m the driver. Remember?” At a stop sign, he turned to Dean. “You think you got your head together, but you don’t.”
“How do you know?” Dean tried to challenge him with his eyes, but the driver didn’t even blink. Dean looked away.
“I got an eye for these things,” said the driver. Dean held his breath. The driver continued, “I can tell you that this Polly Pocket chick in her McMansion has her shit together more than you ever will. Bet you ain’t even met Auntie Hazel.”
Dean took his next breath cautiously. “Auntie Who?”
“Heroin?” Dean’s voice cracked; his eyes crinkled. He could never hide his amazement.
“Heroin?” mimicked the driver in a Munchkin voice.
Dean could hit the guy, but the van started. Besides, it would be his luck to get sent back to detention with this guy as his driver.
Just two more blocks.
They pulled into the ER loop. The driver stopped shy of the glass doors at the top. A red sign announced: EMERGENCY. Dean focused on the light that spilled from the glass doors.
Soon he would be right there inside, away from this psycho, away from rehab. This could be any night. It could be a night back when his dad was coach, before they stopped talking, before Dean lost the Artful Dodger, before Pot-head, Rehabber, Recidivist, before his mom gave up on him.
He imagined himself being dropped off by his dad from a soccer game. His mom would be at the nurse’s station. She might be scribbling notes when she would look up. “Score any goals?”
He cranked the door handle but it wouldn’t open. “I had that door kiddie-proofed,” said the driver. “It’ll cost you thirty to open up.”
Dean was so frightened that he spoke almost through his nose. “You can’t keep me in here.”
“That’s right. I can take you home.” The driver jammed a foot to the clutch, shifted gears and started forward. Dean toppled onto his seat. “Wait,” he said, balancing himself to pull the wad of singles from his pocket. “This is all I have. Just open the door.”
The driver stopped with a jerk. “Count it.”
“This is everything.” Dean stood up and tossed the bills on the driver’s lap. There were maybe seven bucks in there.
As the driver started counting, Dean lunged for the keys, ripping them from the ignition.
The driver dropped the cash and grabbed Dean, hurling him into the backseat like a basketball.
Dean landed on the springs. I could kill him, he thought as the man came toward him, at least take him down. He reached up with his free hand. The driver grabbed his arm and twisted.
Dean’s breath came faster as he braced himself for a broken arm, so he dropped the keys. And the driver threw up his arms, shouting, “You only had to ask nice.”
At that, Dean went crazy. He leapt up without a plan. The driver lunged for the keys, which were now on the floor. Dean swiveled. He pulled his right hand back but because he was left-handed this added momentum to his left fist as he sank it into the man’s jaw, and the man fell in a heap behind the passenger’s seat. Dean stood there heaving, relieved and shocked.
The driver looked up, revenge in his eyes. Dean grabbed his duffel bag, hopping over the man to the driver’s seat where he cranked the doorknob. The man grabbed his ankle. Dean pushed hard against the outside edge of the seat, thrusting his head and chest out the door. Hot cheeks met cold air. Freedom! Instead, he felt the man pinning him down at the shoulder.
Now the driver was on top of him, digging his knee into Dean’s spine. He reached back for something. Dean imagined the switchblade’s click, the cold metal at his throat. He squirmed.
The driver dug deeper. The other hand came around. Dean braced himself. But the man only slapped a business card into Dean’s chest then heaved him out, hurling the duffel bag after him.
The card sailed ahead of Dean and was still dancing like a snowflake when Dean lifted his chin from the cold cement. It landed at his fingertips.
The door slammed. The driver fired up the engine and jettisoned from the loop.
Alone on the sidewalk, just steps from the entrance, Dean picked up the card and read:
Stutz Lincoln Mercury, Tom Spreck. The telephone number was scratched out in red ink. He flipped it over and found a handwritten phone number. Below that it said: Polly Pocket, for the sweetest deal in town.”
“He wants to sell me a car?”
His eyes crinkled as he remembered “Heroin?” He laughed at himself, hoisting himself and his duffel bag off the sidewalk. Outside of the ER, he started to toss the card in a garbage can. He saw Glenda inside. She glanced up from her notes, grinning at him before she caught herself and pursed her lips. Dean’s fingers, trembling, let go of the card and it missed the garbage can.
He picked it up with his right hand, waving to his mother with his left. Then, for reasons he could not name, he stuffed it into his back pocket before entering.
Please read Eileen Cronin’s “Martin’s Tart” from our debut “love/hate” issue.
Eileen Cronin is the author of Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience (W.W. Norton, 2014), which has been translated into three languages and was chosen as one of Oprah’s Best Memoirs of the Year by O Magazine. She won the Washington Writing Prize in Short Fiction, and her essays and stories have appeared in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post and several literary publications. She teaches creative writing and practices clinical psychology in Los Angeles. She currently is writing a novel and sometimes performs with The Moth.