Joel Hester ran alongside the northbound train, his leather boots leaping one in front of the other. He was in great shape, broad shouldered, strong, lean, and his stride was swift, but catching the train was harder than he had first imagined. To the point of giving up, he tucked his bundle tighter under his right arm, and with his outstretched left hand, he gripped the bar mounted on the side of the boxcar. He swung up to a drop-step and held on. He looked up the tracks and embraced the moment while cool wind massaged his smiling face. He then looked south, to his hometown of Hickory Hollow, the place of hopeless dreams and unfulfilled desires, and saluted it with a raised arm and extended middle finger.
He tossed his bundle inside and heaved himself up and in. The interior smelled of straw and the wooden planks on the floor were timeworn and needed replacing. The boxcar casually swayed to the left and to the right as it rolled up the tracks, away from the only town Joel had ever known.
On the front wall was a collage of street art featuring designs of swirling colors and sprawled names of those who had ridden the rails long ago. Disco Debbie, Free Bird, Big Frankie, and other insignias. A painted crown of thorns hung from the top of a cross, dazzled with greys, browns, and white.
Joel stepped into a darkened corner to retrieve his bundle when two shadowy figures took shape.
“Shit,” he said, startled. He reversed into the lighted area when one of the figures moved closer.
A young woman stepped into the lighted area to join him. “Welcome aboard. My name’s Reese.”
He looked at her, frozen, mesmerized. Her blonde hair was long and straight. She wore bell-bottomed denim jeans and a flowery blouse—no bra underneath, he thought as he noticed her erect nipples pushing through.
Removing his eyes from her nipples, he said, “I’m Joel.”
She yawned and then said, “Nice to meet you. That’s Boyd over there. Wake up and come out of the dark and say hello to Joel.”
The man named Boyd stepped from the shadows. His hair was dark and greasy and styled in a pompadour, which needed a fresh combing. Patches of dark side burns clung to his thin face.
“Hey, man,” said Boyd, hardly noticing Joel. His interest was with the girl named Reese. He hooked his arm around her waist only for her to fling it away.
“Don’t start that shit again,” she said.
“Okay. Okay,” said Boyd. “Don’t get all bent out of shape." He looked at Joel and smiled, displaying a brilliant set of pearly white teeth. “Welcome aboard.”
Joel eyed the fellow, and his teeth, warily. “Thanks.”
“Where you headed?” asked Boyd.
“As far from Hickory Hollow as I can get.”
“How old are you?” asked Reese. “You look young.”
“I’ll be eighteen tomorrow.”
“No kidding? We’ll have to celebrate. You got a girl?”
“No,” he said sharply.
“Oh. Screwed you over, huh?” said Reese, sensing his animosity. “And let me guess… you decided to skip town? Well, put all that behind you. This is where it’s at, seeing the country. This is your new love. There’s no better feeling in the world than being seduced by a green rolling countryside—or by the low-lying fog drifting through the mountains early in the morning. And do you hear that?” She cocked her head and put a hand to her ear. “That’s the best part. There’s no better sound than the clickity-clack of the train going down the track.”
Joel rubbed his chin with the back of his hand. “Nah. It wasn’t like that. She had her plans, and I had mine. What about you?”
Reese shook her head. “This boxcar is my lover. It brings me more love and joy than any man ever could.”
Joel glanced again at her erect nipples. He tossed his bundle along the boxcar wall. He saw Boyd venture back to the shadows in the corner. “Are you two traveling together?” he asked Reese.
“For now,” she said. “We met a couple days ago, but I think I’ve had my fill of Boyd’s company. You ever drifted before?”
“No,” said Joel. “Lived my entire life in Hickory Hollow.”
“Well now, that’s all about to change. You’ll never be the same person again. Drifting can be a hard life, but it can also be a wonderful life.”
In a trance, Joel dialed in on the clickity-clack of the train. It soothed his heart. The hint of straw infused his spirit with a freedom that it had longed for since he had first read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in his first year of high school. The novel changed his life. He too wanted to be the adventurous, go-where-the-wind-takes-you spirit like the characters in the book.
Curious, Joel asked, “Has there ever been a place you’ve come to where you thought about staying, a place you could settle down and start over?”
Reese brushed a strand of hair from her face. “Oh. There have been a few. I met this chick in a town down south. She was something else, that girl. Jessica was her name.”
“She went back to her husband. I was just her lesbian fling, I guess. She even tried persuading me to live with her and her old man. Can you believe that? Some people!”
“Why didn’t you?” asked Joel.
“I thought about it, but I have other dreams and ambitions, other attractions.”
Joel persisted. “Like what?”
Reese paused. “I’m attracted to the human spirit. If your soul radiates with kindness and love and joy…well…I guess that’s what I’m drawn to.”
Boyd stepped from the shadows.
Joel asked him, “Have you been drifting a long time too?”
“Too long,” he said. “This isn’t for me anymore. What I need is a good woman and a good town to settle down in. Both seem almost impossible to find.”
The train continued north into the late evening. The sky grew dark and grey and the air turned cool and crisp. Joel and Reese sat together, shoulder-to-shoulder, legs dangling from the door of the boxcar, looking out to the mountains and towns through which they passed. They had waved at strangers and received many a weird look from old men and women. Children, however, were never reluctant to smile and wave.
Reese chatted extensively about her travels. Joel listened and held on to her every word. He often stared at her, watched her thin lips stop and start, forming the most precise and descriptive of words that collectively told the tales of wild nights of yesteryear, and of her dreams and ambitions to come. A real vagabond, Joel thought. She spoke of the odd jobs she had acquired to make ends meet and some of the great people she had encountered along the way. “If not for a few of those wonderful folks,” she said, “I would be face down in the gutter right now, or maybe worse. If you remember anything out here on the road, Joel, my new friend, remember never carry around too much pride that prevents you from accepting the help of others. Don’t consider it a handout, but more like a favor, a favor you can pay back some day or one you can pay forward. Either is as rewarding as the other.”
With his back against the wall and a lantern glowing next to him, Boyd sat absorbing the conversation between Joel and Reese. He sipped from a bottle of Old Grand-Dad and then wiped his wet, shiny lips on the sleeve of his denim jacket. He took another swig, climbed to his feet, and walked over to join them.
“You think you’re cut out for this life?” He directed the question toward Joel. “You think you have what it takes?”
“Cool it, Boyd,” said Reese.
“No,” said Joel. “It’s an honest question.” He removed himself from the boxcar door, stood, and joined Boyd. He extended his hand, summoning the bottle of whiskey. Boyd smiled curiously, swilled again, and handed over the bottle. Joel grabbed the bottle and drank the stout liquor. His face contorted and his throat narrowed. He let loose three or four heavy coughs. He handed the bottle back. After gathering his composure, he said, “I’d like to think so. Time will tell.”
Boyd sipped from the bottle, and returned to his spot by the lantern. Joel followed him, and soon after, Reese joined the fellows. They passed the bottle around, the three of them. The more Joel drank, the smoother the whiskey became.
Boyd’s disposition loosened and Joel found him interesting. He watched him drink mercilessly from the bottle and listened to Boyd tell his life stories and expound upon his dreams.
“I used to be an auto mechanic,” said Boyd. “A damn good one. People came from miles around so I could fix their cars.”
“You look like a mechanic,” said Joel, passing the bottle to Reese.
“I couldn’t take my boss’s shit anymore,” said Boyd. “He was the biggest prick. Always on my ass. I had to get out.”
“Is that when you went on the road?” asked Reese.
Boyd nodded. “I had to get away. I miss being a mechanic, though.”
“Seems like anyone who hits the road is running from something,” said Reese. She drank from the bottle and extended it to Boyd.
“Not always,” said Joel. “Some of us just want to see other places. We’re tired of walking through the same town, seeing the same people, everybody knowing your business.”
Boyd grabbed the bottle. “And what are you running from?” he said, looking at Reese.
The question surprised her. She stared at the glowing lantern, as if caught in a trance. Her hair fell into her face again and she brushed it aside. There had been many things in life she’d done of which she wasn’t proud. She had ingested her share of drugs—cocaine and marijuana being two of her favorites. She had even committed petty theft—stealing a box of tampons one time and a Payday when her guts turned and twisted from starvation. But there was one thing that exceeded them all.
“I became pregnant one time,” she said.
“You have a child?” asked Joel.
Reese nodded. “A son. I gave him up for adoption at birth. He’s with a great family now.”
“Do you ever see him?” asked Joel.
“No. I’ve never seen him. Not since the day he was born—and that was only for a few seconds. He turned five in June. He’s in kindergarten now.”
“Shit. That’s heavy,” said Boyd. “Have you ever tried seeing him?”
Reese shook her head. “Maybe someday. Maybe someday, when I settle down, I’ll look him up. Pass me the whiskey.” She grabbed the bottle, pulled a large gulp, and wiped her mouth. “I’m afraid if I tried marching back into his life, it’d fuck him up somehow…you know, mentally. I don’t want to risk that. He’s with great people now. I had my chance.” She extended the bottle to Joel, stood, and headed toward the door of the boxcar.
“Where you going?” asked Joel. He sipped again and handed the bottle back to Boyd.
“Out here,” she said.
She grabbed the inside doorframe and stepped around the corner into the darkness. And just like that, she vanished.
Joel leaped to his feet and hurried over to investigate, wondering if she’d had too much whiskey and decided to jump. Boyd followed with the whiskey and lantern.
“Where’d she go?” said Joel, poking his head out the boxcar to peer down the track behind them. He saw only the black of the night. Then, he heard a voice.
“I’m up here,” said Reese, standing on the roof of the boxcar. “Use the ladder on the side and climb up.”
He reached around to the outside, patted, and searched until he felt the steel rungs of the ladder. It didn’t seem far. Even if it was, he wasn’t feeling any fear. The whiskey made sure of that. He gripped one of the rungs with his right hand and held the inside of the door with his left. He stepped out with his right foot, then his left, and climbed up. Boyd raised the lantern out the door to light the way.
When Joel arrived at the top and stepped up, a chill ran through him, not from the cool air, but from the experience. He sat beside Reese to absorb the moment.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“It’s cool,” he said looking to the clear, moonlit sky.
“Isn’t it though,” said Reese.
“When I was little I would lay out all night in my grandma’s back yard,” said Joel, “on top of the mountain staring up at the huge vastness that surrounded me. I would pretend to be in outer space floating around, just looking at the moon and the stars. I miss being a kid.”
“You know,” Joel began, “because back then it was okay to pretend, to stay in your make-believe world as long as you wanted to.”
“What’s stopping you from doing that now?”
Joel thought briefly, and said, “Nothing. Nothing at all.”
He stretched his legs, laid his back against the roof of the boxcar, and stared to the roving world above him. He forgot about everything. He forgot about the people back home who didn’t understand him. The grandparents who had raised him. They didn’t have the faintest clue who he was or what his likes or dislikes were. Nobody in Hickory Hollow knew who Joel Hester really was. All he wanted to do was forget his former life. This was his new life now.
The glow of the lantern came up and over the side of the boxcar. Boyd extended the light out in front of him, his face showing two glistening eyes and his sparkling white teeth.
“You have the whitest teeth I’ve ever seen,” said Joel.
“He does, doesn’t he?” said Reese. “Mr. Pearly Whites!”
Boyd eased over and sat. “My old man was a dentist. He engrained in us kids that taking care of our teeth was priority. He said it would look bad on him if his kids went around with a mouth full of cavities. It’d make for bad business. Check this out.” Boyd reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. Rolled up inside were a toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste. “Never leave home without it.”
“My dad didn’t teach me shit,” said Joel.
“My dad raised me,” said Reese. “He was always there when I needed him. My mom ran off with some drug addict. They were into some serious dope. Heroin and PCP is what I heard.”
The three of them drank only a little more and after a while climbed down. Back inside, the bottle went around until emptied. Boyd pulled another from his bedroll and the three continued to reveal their feelings and deepest secrets. They laughed about their pasts and told of more events that only another pint of Old Grand-Dad could convince them to tell.
“I wanted to be an elementary school teacher,” said Reese. “That was my dream.”
“You would’ve made a damn good one,” said Joel, slurring. “You could still be one, you know. I need another drink. Quick hogging the bottle, Lloyd.”
“What?” said Joel.
“Boyd. My name’s Boyd, you drunken bastard. Here.”
“Righty-o,” said Joel. “Boyd it is. Like I was saying, you still could be one, a teacher, if you wanted to be. You’re not that old. How old are you?”
“You don’t ask a lady her age,” said Boyd, whose words also slurred.
“Oh. Sorry,” said Joel.
“It’s okay,” said Reese. “I’m twenty-five.” She looked at her wristwatch. 12:15 am. “Happy birthday!”
“Happy birthday,” said Boyd. He swilled from the bottle again and then passed it to the birthday boy.
“Thanks,” said Joel. “I’d almost forgotten my birthday.”
“Sorry, I didn’t get you anything,” said Reese. “If I’d known sooner I would’ve planned a party for you. I would’ve gotten disco lights, blow, and hookers. You name it. Nothing is too good for my pal Joel!” She leaned over and pecked a kiss on his smooth cheek.
“Thanks,” he said again. He even blushed a little.
He raised the bottle to drink, but stopped when a twisting, burning sensation flared deep within his abdomen. He handed the bottle to Boyd. Standing wasn’t an option. He dragged himself to the edge of the boxcar door and waited. He had not been this drunk since the night of his fifteenth birthday, the night he drank two bottles of Mad Dog 20/20. The wine was cheap and served its purpose.
A sharp surge came forth, then another. Nothing. Dry heaves. A strand of spittle hung, stretching, blowing in the wind, from the corner of Joel’s gaped mouth. He moaned. His stomach, wrapped in knots and vacant of food, burned and sloshed with Old Grand-Dad. He had never experienced such pain, such brutal agony. He wanted to die. “Push me on out the door,” he said to Boyd, who had ahold of Joel’s belt, holding on tightly. “It’s for the best.”
“Can’t do it,” said Boyd. “You can’t die tonight. It’s your birthday. Your death-day can’t be the same as your birthday. People will know you planned it. They’ll think you sought some kind of glorified death. That’s no way to go out.”
“You’re right,” said Joel. The slobber and spittle blew away from his mouth. “That wouldn’t look good, would it? I need to die with dignity. How should I do it?” Waiting for Boyd’s response, he jerked, convulsed, and moaned. Another round of dry heaves. Reese shoved her fingers into her ears to block the sound.
“I don’t know, man,” said Boyd. “You’re not dying tonight. We have to celebrate.”
It was during this round of heaving that it happened. Joel’s stomach torqued worse than the previous times. His moans were louder than the previous ones. What came reflexing up and out his mouth was a spewing faucet of stomach bile and Old Grand-Dad. Reese walked away, not wanting to vomit herself. Boyd held on to Joel’s belt.
“Happy birthday, pal!” said Boyd. Those words were the last Joel remembered.
Morning came and Joel awoke to a silent boxcar. His eyelids parted slowly and he noticed the train was no longer moving. He jerked both hands to his throbbing temples as nausea rolled in his stomach. The urge to vomit presented itself again. He fought it off. He looked around and found himself alone, without pants, wearing only his boxers. He rolled over and sat upright, still massaging at his temples.
Looking from one end to the other, he saw no one. The other bedrolls had vanished and only his remained. The only traces of additional life were two empty bottles of whiskey and his boots and pants over against the wall. He had a memory—snippets of his birthday celebration. He remembered stripping his pants and boots when hot flashes swept over his drunken self.
He stood, stumbled over to retrieve his pants, and leaned against the wall to keep his balance as he painstakingly stepped into them, one leg and then the other. After he fastened the button at the waist, he vomited, or yet, he dry heaved so violently his vision muddled with dark, floating spots. He wiped his mouth, put on his boots, and grabbed his bedroll.
Outside the boxcar, the sky was dark and overcast. He peered up the tracks and spied a town. He had no idea where he was, where Reese and Boyd had gone, or how far the train had traveled throughout the night while he slept. He smelled wood burning and to his left saw the faint shimmer of a fire glowing through some trees. His inclination was that Boyd and Reese had wandered over to make breakfast, but there was no way he could eat now with the unruly hangover he nursed. Even so, he cut down a slope, jumped a ditch, and went to investigate.
He dredged through the poorly lit forest, pushing limbs aside. He swore under his breath when a briar patch snagged his shoulder, most likely breaking the skin underneath his shirt.
Nearing the fire, he saw only one silhouette sitting at the fire’s edge. The silhouette abruptly rose as Joel entered the campsite. The fire’s glow cast on a face that was neither Boyd’s nor Reese’s. A skinned animal—Joel didn’t know what kind—sat on a spit, a makeshift rotisserie high and in the center of the flames.
“Ho to the camp,” Joel announced hesitantly.
“That’s far enough,” said the man, leveling a pistol waist high, pointing in Joel’s direction.
“Hey, take it easy,” said Joel. “I was looking for my friends.”
“Step over here in the light so I can see you better,” said the man with a wave of his gun. Over the round spectacles that rested on his flat nose, the man eyed Joel.
“A girl with long hair and a man wearing a denim jacket,” said Joel, walking into the lighted area.
A moment passed and the man said, “I saw them.” Judging Joel as not a threat, he tucked his gun behind his belt. He stepped to the fire and turned the skewered animal. “They passed through a couple hours ago.”
“Which way were they headed?”
“Looked to me like they were heading into town. Care for some rabbit?”
“No, thanks,” said Joel.
The man grabbed the end of the skewer and lifted the rabbit from the flames. He ripped a hind leg from the charred carcass and replaced the skewer over the flames.
Joel watched the man, suspiciously, but not so the man would notice. He huddled closer to the fire pretending to warm his body, wanting to get a better look.
“Sure is good rabbit,” said the man. “Help yourself, if you want.”
“I better not. Thanks again. I could use a drink of water.”
“Sorry. I don’t have any more water.” The man hunched over to grab a coffee pot that sat on a rock next to the fire. He poured himself a cup. “You and your friends hitching on the train?”
“Yeah,” said Joel. Then he heard a rattling, clearly a cage or trap. The noise stopped. He heard it once, twice more before the old man spoke again.
“You be quiet over there.” He looked to Joel. “That’s my supper—another rabbit—I trapped last night. Got him in a cage. Rabbit on an open flame is damn good eating.”
“I’ve eaten it a few times,” said Joel.
The train whistle blew.
“Sounds like they’re pulling out,” said the man. “You pulling out with it?”
“Not on this one. I might head into town to find Reese and Boyd.”
“Who?” asked the man.
“I’d be leery of that town. I’ve heard some strange stories about that place.”
“Oh,” said Joel.
“I’ve never been. And I’ve traveled up and down this rail line for many years now. I don’t scare easily, but that place sure does it.”
Joel listened as the man talked. He finished his rabbit and threw the leg bone into the fire. Wiping his hands on his dirty shirt, the old man continued, “I’ve heard of people entering Paradise and never coming out, not being seen again.”
“The name of the town.”
“Strange name for a town with such a strong stigma,” said Joel.
The whistle blew once more.
“I’m fond of my traveling ways. I couldn’t bear being stuck in the same place forever.”
“Why would someone not be able to leave?” asked Joel.
“Woo wee!” said the man after sipping his coffee. “That’s good stuff. There’s nothing like that first sip of coffee in the morning.” He placed his cup beside him. “Why does anyone ever stay in a town, son? Who knows, really? Some places just have that distinct lure that attracts a certain type of soul. Some people love town, love the hustle and bustle. I don’t know why, but they just do. This world is made up of all kinds of people.”
The whistle blew again. The line of boxcars creaked as it pulled away.
“I think I’ll head into town to find my friends,” said Joel.
“Okay, then. You be careful. And good luck to you.”
Joel trekked north in the direction of the town called Paradise. He dredged along, weak and feeble minded, wanting a drink to wet his parched mouth and throat. To swallow was a struggle. He smacked his mouth, tongue sandy and rough. He came to a sign that read: Welcome to Paradise…where all your dreams come true.
Walking in, the town looked like any other. In fact, Paradise looked like his home town of Hickory Hollow. People roamed up and down the sidewalks. He saw a postal carrier with a sack of mail heading from one house to the next. He spied a man waiting at a bus stop reading the newspaper. Across the way, a construction crew worked busily framing a building of some kind—a new business, Joel assumed. He heard the air brakes of a garbage truck when it stopped and a woman stepped off the side to grab the bags of garbage at the curb in front of him.
The town seemed pleasant and friendly enough. Maybe the old man in the woods didn’t know the truth of this town. Maybe he was only trying to scare Joel.
He walked further along and saw children playing in a schoolyard, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. Each laughed, chased, and ran. Joel guessed the little ones to be five or six years old. They fled from one another, kicked soccer balls, and glided through the air on swings. He stopped and absorbed their innocence. Watching, he smiled. To be young again, he thought, free of worry was a thing of beauty.
Before stepping away, he saw a face in the distance, a face he knew. He hurried alongside the fence.
“Hey, Reese!” he yelled. The whistle blew and recess was finished. Reese corralled the children into a single line. “Reese, it’s me! Joel!” The children laughed and pointed in his direction. Reese and another teacher noticed the strange man over by the fence shouting and waving his hands in the air.
“What are you doing over there?” asked Joel. “Where’s Boyd?”
The recess teacher calmed and hushed the children and dismissed them back inside.
Reese walked to the fence.
“What are you doing?” she said, whispering. “You shouldn’t be here.” Her eyes showed compassion and delight to see her friend, but her tone was worrisome. She looked over her shoulder and saw the other teacher approaching. Reese’s disposition changed. “Do you want me to call the police? I will,” she said, raising her voice. “You have no right to disturb these children. Why don’t you get a job, you bum!”
Joel ignored the insults and threats. “Am I glad to see you. Why’d you guys take off like that?”
“Listen, if you don’t get out of here in the next three seconds I’m calling the police.”
“Go ahead and call them,” said the other teacher to Reese. “We don’t need his kind in our town.”
“But…it’s me!” Joel exclaimed.
“One…,” said Reese.
“Why are you doing this? Don’t you remember me?” asked Joel. “The drinking? My birthday?”
“Reese, snap out of it! You’re making no sense. What are you doing?”
She reached into her pocket, pulled out a cell phone, and dialed. She stepped away a few feet, but Joel could clearly hear her beckoning the help of the police.
“Okay, I get the picture. I’m leaving. I thought you looked like someone I knew, that’s all.”
Joel glanced back at the girl he thought was Reese, but that girl showed little signs of being the caring, free-spirited soul he’d shared a boxcar with the night before.
He turned a corner and he saw a sign to a café and went in. Half a dozen people sat scattered throughout the intimate eatery. He chose a booth in the corner and sat his bundle beside him. He wanted nothing more than a cool, refreshing beverage. It didn’t matter what, just something cool and wet.
“What’ll it be, sugar?” said a blonde waitress whose bosom stretched the buttons on her uniform.
“Water, please,” said Joel.
The waitress left and Joel thought of the woman at the schoolyard. There was little doubt that she was Reese. What he couldn’t understand was why she pretended not to know him, and why she was in the schoolyard in the first place.
The waitress returned and sat a glass of water and a straw on the table.
“Thank you,” said Joel. He skipped the straw and gulped heavily from the glass. Cool and refreshing, just as ordered.
“You’re a thirsty one,” she said. Her nametag had Betty stamped onto it.
“Had a rough night.”
“Would you like to order something to eat?” asked Betty.
“What’s your name, sugar?”
“Are you new in town?”
“No. Just passing through. Drifting more or less.” He drank again from the glass.
Joel then received a few odd stares from the other half-dozen patrons.
“You mean you don’t work?” asked Betty.
“I’m not looking for work. Living by my wits. Going where the wind takes me. That sort of thing.”
Betty looked surprised and disgusted. “Maybe you should be on your way. There’s no charge for the water.” She walked to another booth and refilled a man’s coffee cup. The two spoke secretively. Staring in Joel’s direction, the man pulled out his cell phone.
Joel peered around the diner. Seeing all eyes on him, he drank from his glass a last time. He grabbed his bundle and eased out of the booth, slowly, and headed toward the door.
“What the fuck is going on?” he whispered to himself. “This town is full of whack jobs.”
He walked along a sidewalk that carved through the heart of Paradise. He passed a bakery and then a floral shop. He crossed the road and heard the sound of an impact wrench followed by the humming of an air compressor. The large bay door was open and inside a garage, a man worked under the hood of a red Camaro. Joel eyed the beauty as he walked past. The mechanic swung out from under the hood and nodded in Joel’s direction.
Joel stopped short of clearing the bay door.
“Hey, Boyd!” he yelled over the noise. Walking into the garage, Joel received a hard stare from the mechanic that worked on a car in the next bay. “Hey, Boyd!” he said again. The mechanic again swung from under the hood. “You talking to me?”
“Yes, I’m talking to you,” said Joel. “Why’d you take off this morning? I just saw Reese. Man, she’s acting weird. I think she called the cops on me. What are you doing? Making a little cash to get you to the next town?”
Boyd walked a few feet to a tool chest and exchanged the open-end wrench in his hand for a ratchet. Before speaking, he looked to the other mechanic in the next bay, then back to Joel. “Sorry, pal. I think you have me confused with someone else.” He pulled another drawer and dug out a socket for the ratchet.
“Not you too,” said Joel. “What the hell is going on around here? Something is really fucked up.”
Boyd resumed his work under the hood. He wrenched a bolt loose and again swung out from under the hood. “Stepping out for a minute, Charlie,” he said to the other mechanic. Joel trailed him out the garage. “Listen,” Boyd started, “maybe you should just keep moving. This town isn’t for you. There are other towns that will suit you better.”
“What are you doing here? I thought you were drifting too?”
“Keep your goddamn voice down,” said Boyd. He peered back inside at the other mechanic named Charlie, making sure he didn’t hear the conversation. He turned to Joel. “If they find out who you are, or more importantly, what you are, you’ll be stuck here, forever. Just go!”
“If who finds out?” asked Joel. “And finds out what? And why would I be stuck here?”
Over Joel’s shoulder, Boyd saw three individuals walking swiftly in their direction. “You have to go now. They’re on to you!”
The three people hustled down the sidewalk. One was the man from the diner, pointing, saying something Joel couldn’t make out, and the other two were police officers.
“You have to go now!” said Boyd.
Boyd ducked back inside the garage, leaving Joel standing on the sidewalk. He glanced at the three pursuers. They no longer walked swiftly, but instead sprinted. Joel darted in the opposite direction.
He didn’t know why he was running. He cut a hard right down a vacant side street. He waited behind a dumpster, heavy of breath, unsure of his next move.
“You go that way and we’ll go this way,” he heard someone say. “He couldn’t have gone far.”
Through a narrow crack between the dumpster and a stack of boxes, Joel spied one of the officers advancing, gun drawn, and ready to shoot. He couldn’t understand what he had done wrong. He simply came into town looking for his friends, who were acting nothing like themselves. Something wasn’t right. He wasn’t a criminal, but everyone perceived him as one. He didn’t like the idea and it riled him. The more he thought about it the more pissed he became. He’d done nothing wrong. He had to take action. He could step from his cover and try reasoning with the cop, and let him know there must have been some kind of misunderstanding—perhaps mistaken identity, but even that seemed out of the question. This cop was serious. And Joel couldn’t run now. He would get a bullet in the back for sure.
He peered through the crack and waited for the right moment. The cop stepped meticulously, swinging his gun behind every trash pile and dumpster along the way, ready to pull the trigger on the outsider who had come into his town. The dumpster Joel hid behind was next. He was no longer able to see the police officer through the crack and could only anticipate his steps. In his mind he slowly counted…one-step…two-steps…three-steps. It was now or never.
He leaped, and with a swift, downward strike, sent the officer’s revolver to the ground. The officer collected himself and pawed for the baton at his waist. Joel popped a stiff right jab to his nose and a left to his stomach. He swung again and connected with the jaw. This strike rattled the officer. With a boot, Joel pounced the officer’s groin, causing him to buckle at the waist, moaning. This gave Joel the chance for an escape. He grabbed his bundle and ran to the main street and turned left toward the garage. He saw a closed bay door. He kept running. He ran down the sidewalk, rounded the corner, and nearly ran into Boyd.
“Hurry, in here!” said Boyd. Through a door, they came into the break room of the garage. “You’ll be safe in here,” said Boyd.
“I need to get the hell out of here.”
“Relax. I’m going to get you out of here.” Boyd motioned to a chair. “Sit down. Catch your breath.”
Joel, short of breath and panting, listened to Boyd as he told him about the town of Paradise. He explained that drifters, or bums, as the town’s people called them, weren’t welcomed. Everyone of age had to work and add economic value to the town. They wanted no freeloaders. If caught, they would haul you into questioning and force you to work where needed, or give you a job that coincided with your skillset. But you had to work somewhere.
“That’s why you need to get out of here,” said Boyd. “You’ll become a slave to the town, forever.”
Joel jumped out of his chair. “Well, come on. Let’s go.”
“Not me. I’m finally turning wrenches again. It’s my passion, man. This is probably where I’ll die.” He paused. “Besides, I was promised a good woman—one who’s looking for a hardworking man. It’s all working out. This place really is ‘Paradise’.”
It was then the other mechanic, Charlie, stormed into the break room. “There he is, Tom.”
Behind Charlie came the officer with whom Joel had fought. Joel bolted for the backdoor, but the second officer was waiting. He rammed his nightstick into Joel’s stomach. He let out a horrible moan and folded over. From behind, Officer Tom grabbed Joel by both shoulders and forced a hard knee to his back.
“Take it easy!” said Boyd.
“Stay out of it,” said Officer Tom. “This doesn’t concern you. You think you can come into our town and destroy the order of things, son?” He whipped his nightstick around Joel’s throat.
Through a struggling gasp, Joel said, “I wasn’t trying…to do anything.”
“Shut up!” said Officer Tom, pulling harder.
They searched, handcuffed, and gave Joel a good beating before shoving him into the backseat of a police car and taking him down to the station. Inside the station, the first officer jabbed Joel in the back with his nightstick while he followed Officer Tom through the main office.
“We don’t allow your kind in our town,” said Officer Tom. “We normally try to give our new citizens a choice of where they’d like to work, but I think you’ll do just fine shoveling shit out at Hasting’s pig farm.”
“Please, let me go and I’ll be on my way. I’m only passing through.”
“Can’t do it,” said the second officer. “If we release you, you’re likely to keep on drifting, end up in another town, being a bum. This is for your own good, son. Trust us.”
They led Joel down a hallway. At the end, Officer Tom pulled his keys from his belt and unlocked a large, steel door that led to the cell area. With the same key, he unlocked the cell door. The second officer removed Joel’s handcuffs and shoved him inside with another lucky individual.
“Don’t rough him up too badly, Leon,” said Officer Tom. He locked the cell door and then headed back down the hall.
A gray-haired man, the one named Leon, wearing denim overalls, sat on a bench in the corner. Joel limped over to him.
“Mind if I sit here?” he asked, standing at the opposite end of the bench.
Leon sat hunched over with elbows on knees, staring to the floor. He looked up when Joel spoke. With contempt, he eyed the young man.
“Rather you didn’t,” he answered, and looked back to the floor.
Joel chose a place over in the corner and sat on the cold cell floor. He had never been to jail. Under normal circumstances, he would be entitled to a hearing, but his situation was outside the realm of normal; this town was outside the realm of normal. There was no chance of escape while sitting behind the steel bars. He thought of fleeing while at Hasting’s pig farm—wherever that was—but the chance of making it would be slim, he knew. They would guard him heavily. They would know his every move from sunrise to sunset.
An hour had past when outside the cell and down the hall the door slammed. Footsteps approached and then Officer Tom appeared. Squinting, he looked inside at Joel, sizing up his captive.
“You comfortable?” he asked with compassion.
Surprised by the officer’s change of attitude, Joel answered, “Not really. Could I have a chair?”
“Sure,” the officer said, maintaining his compassion. “Just as soon as pigs sprout wings and soar through the sky.” The officer laughed at his own joke. “You have a visitor.”
From around the corner a face appeared, one he thought he would never see again, a face of beauty. He stood.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hello,” said Reese. She took a step forward, coming only an inch away from the steel bars. “Will you give us a few minutes?” she asked, turning to Officer Tom.
He hesitated, and then sighed. “You got five minutes.” He walked back down the hall and Joel heard the door slam again.
Joel too stood at the bars. “What are you doing here? Why’d you call the police? You’re the reason I’m in here to begin with.”
“I didn’t,” she said. “I was only pretending because Mrs. Rose, the other teacher, came up on us. I had to do it. I didn’t want her knowing who you were. I knew you were just starting your life and you didn’t want anything to do with what this town is about.”
Joel rested his hands on the bars, and murmured, “The man at the diner.”
“What?” said Reese.
“The man at the diner…he must’ve called the cops. Never mind. I also thought you wanted something other than this kind of life.”
“I’ve had my time, Joel. I’ve seen my share of the country. This is my dream, to teach. I can’t let it pass me by. And being around those children has made me consider reaching out to my son’s adoptive family. This town really has been a blessing in disguise for me. It has everything to offer.”
“But how did all this happen … I mean … so fast? You becoming a teacher? Boyd a mechanic?”
“All I had to do was tell them what I wanted to do with my life, Boyd too, and they made it happen. Instantly. The only drawback is we have to stay here forever. We had to sign a life contract. You understand, don’t you?”
Joel looked to the ground, searching for the right words to say. “I understand,” although he really didn’t. He paused. “Was this your plan the entire time—to come here and start a new life?”
Reese nodded. “Boyd’s too. We both were ready to settle down. We were going to tell you, but you passed out before we could. We didn’t know you’d follow us to Paradise. We tried to wake you…”
“It’s all right. And I’m happy that you’re happy,” said Joel, “but there isn’t going to be a happy ending for me.”
Reese smiled. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” Reaching into the front of her blouse, she pulled a key from her bra, which surprised Joel to see her wearing one. She extended it through the bars, and whispered, “Hurry. Take it before dipshit comes back.”
“Wait…how did you—”
“Just take it. It’s the spare. I got it from the desk drawer up front. And don’t worry…there are no cameras in this redneck police station.”
Joel grabbed the key, blocking the transaction with his body. He looked to Leon who was still eyeing the floor. Carefully, he slid the key down his boot and into his sock.
“You really are a good friend,” he said.
The door down the hall opened and Officer Tom came in.
“Time’s up,” he said. “Say your goodbyes.”
“Happy birthday,” said Reese. “I’m going to miss you.”
“Thank you,” said Joel. “And I’ll miss you. Tell Boyd goodbye for me.”
“Come on. Let’s go,” said Officer Tom, beckoning Reese with his palm up and fingers waving back and forth.
“Goodbye,” she said a last time.
He stood at the bars until she trailed out of sight. The door slammed again.
He returned to his spot on the floor to devise a plan. Escaping seemed impossible. How would he do it? How could he pull it off? They had guns, nightsticks, and Joel was unarmed. He had nothing to protect him. He knew nothing of this place. It was a chance he would have to take when the time came.
He deliberated on and on and after a while, Joel’s escape plan slipped his mind. He forgot about his incarceration and being in the stronghold of Paradise. He indulged his original ambitions of seeing the country on the rails. There was land he hadn’t seen, and he would be damned first before this town, or anyone in it, tried to stop him now. This wasn’t the end of the line; it couldn’t be. He had only begun his journey.
Thinking of what was to come beyond Paradise, Joel was drawn from his thoughts when Leon spoke.
“After they serve supper.”
Joel turned to Leon. “What?”
“After they serve supper,” Leon said again. “That’s when you should go. The tall one,” he said, referring to Officer Tom, “he naps in his chair after he serves supper. And the shorter one, he’s out cruising, making his rounds.”
“Are you sure?” asked Joel.
“That’s when you should go,” the old man answered.
“But how did you—”
“Just go then.”
Joel nodded. “Thanks.”
More time passed and the door down the hall opened again. As Leon predicted, Officer Tom pushed a cart with two trays on it up to the cell door. “Come and get it, you animals.” Through an open slot, he pushed one tray through and then the other. Joel grabbed them both, giving one to Leon and keeping one for himself. “Eat up,” said Officer Tom to Joel. “You’ll need your energy for all that shit you’ll be shoveling tomorrow.”
“I can’t wait,” said Joel.
He returned to his spot on the floor and placed his tray beside him. He bypassed the small piece of dried up ham that served as the main course, and instead nibbled on the lump of biscuit and sipped coffee conservatively from a Styrofoam cup.
Patiently, he waited. He didn’t know how much time had passed, but guessed enough that Officer Tom was surely snoozing in his chair as Leon proclaimed he did this time every evening. He reached for the key in his boot and then crept to the cell door. He pushed his arm through the bars and reached around to the keyhole. With his shaking right hand, he slipped the key in. Gently, he twisted to his right. Nothing. He looked up the hall, watching, listening for the door to open. He twisted the key to the left. This time it turned a three quarter rotation and clicked. Before pushing the door open, Joel looked over to Leon who sat on the bench watching the young man execute his escape.
“You coming?” asked Joel.
Leon said nothing.
Joel shrugged. He eased the door open and crept down the hall to the big door. At the top, the door had a small window through which Joel saw Officer Tom sleeping in his chair, kicked back, feet propped on desk, just as Leon had predicted. Once again, Joel gently slid the key into the lock and turned.
Inside the office, Joel slipped across the room, heading for the front door and ultimately his freedom. There was no turning back now.
Then, it happened.
Only a few feet from reaching the door, the phone on the desk rang—a loud blaring ring. Officer Tom came to and saw Joel standing in the middle of his office. Joel had a decision to make. Fight or flee.
He shot toward Officer Tom while he sprang from his chair. The officer went for his gun, but Joel was on him before he could draw. The two hit the floor.
Rolling and slamming, the two went around, neither acquiring a true advantage over the other. When Joel sat astride seeming to have the upper hand, the officer shimmied and maneuvered only to toss his younger adversary. Back and forth they went. Joel fought and scratched for freedom while Officer Tom battled to keep order in the town of Paradise, neither wanting to succumb to the other. The match went on until both became worn and tired.
A stern forearm to the side of Joel’s head gave Officer Tom the opening he needed. Encompassing Joel’s neck with thick, powerful hands, he smashed his thumbs into Joel’s throat, blocking his airflow. The young man pawed and fought. Darkness filled his vision as his strength weakened. Before going out, Joel saw a forearm wrap under the chin of Officer Tom.
The officer went flying and there standing stone faced was Leon.
“You better get outta here,” he said. “The short one will be back any minute.”
Joel gasped for air while rubbing his neck. His climbed to his feet.
“You dumb son of a bitch!” said Officer Tom to Leon. “What are you doing?”
He went for his gun and Leon went for him. They crashed and rolled on the floor. Joel ran for the door. He saw his bundle on a table and grabbed it.
He made it half way down the street when he heard a gun discharge. He stopped and considered going back, but knew it would do no good. Poor Leon, he thought. He ran some more. He ducked down side streets, dodging people, traffic, and even a stray dog. He ran until he was nearly out of breath and continued running until he arrived at the city limits and the train tracks. Seeing the tracks was a desirable sight, one that—only a short time before—he thought he would never see again. There wasn’t a boxcar to hop, or a train whistle to be heard. This didn’t matter. Joel was happy just to have broken the bonds of Paradise, to free himself from a tyranny he couldn’t understand.
With moonlight faintly lighting the way, Joel ventured south. He glanced to his right only to see the shimmer of a campfire through the woods—the old man’s most likely. He veered through the woods.
“Ho to camp,” said Joel.
The old man sat in the same spot as before with yet another skewered rabbit destined to be his evening meal. The one in the cage from the morning, Joel recalled.
“I see you made it out,” said the old man.
Joel stumbled up to the fire. “I did.”
“You’re a lucky one. Most people don’t.”
“It wasn’t easy,” said Joel.
“Where are your friends?”
“They stayed behind.”
“They ‘stayed behind’ or they didn’t make it out?” asked the old man.
Joel didn’t answer. He was too beat to explain.
“Care for some rabbit?” asked the old man.
“I would,” said Joel.
Joel lifted the skewered rabbit from the flames and tore off a hind leg. He placed the skewer back over the fire. He bit into the dry meat then chewed. It was the best meal he’d ever eaten.
“What do you think of this drifting life?” asked the old man.
Joel swallowed the rabbit, and said, “I’m not sure I have what it takes.”
The old man spat into the fire. “Nonsense. I don’t believe it. I’m a firm believer in that every man has what it takes. You were sadly mistaken if you thought this was going to be an easy row to hoe. You have to have guts, grit, and gumption. If you want to be a man of the land, a drifter, someone that roams as he pleases, then you need to toughen up. No matter where you go there are always going to be folks who try to tell you what to do.”
“I’ve sure had my fill of that today,” said Joel.
“Well,” the old man started, and then grabbed the rabbit from the fire, “don’t let them. Stand up for yourself. I’ve been doing that my entire life.”
Joel listened while his teeth ripped another hunk of rabbit meat. In the distance, he heard a train coming up the tracks. The old man reiterated the importance of believing in oneself and not taking shit from anyone. He didn’t mean to break the law or impose harm on anyone, or just flat out do wrong for the sake of doing wrong. He was referring to the bullies in the world who tried to position others for their own personal gain. Somebody had to stop these scoundrels and put them in their place.
“You get what I’m saying, son?” said the old man.
Joel knew exactly what the old man was trying to say. What he had experienced in Paradise wasn’t his first encounter with a society that tried to control one’s inhabitants. Hickory Hollow was very similar. The ones who possessed a free spirit were condemned, and marked as trouble, a waste to the community and town.
The train’s whistle blew when it rolled past.
“I get it,” said Joel.
“Then I think you know what to do.”
Joel finished his rabbit and threw the bones in the fire.
“Maybe I’ll see you on the rails again someday,” said Joel.
“I don’t see why not,” said the old man.
Joel nodded. “Thanks for the rabbit.”
“You’re welcome around my campfire anytime.”
Joel headed through the woods toward the train. He ran and jumped up on the drop step, held on, and felt the night wind upon his face. He was free once again.