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The Marlbane Manchester Musser Award
  • June 30, 2013 : 23:06
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What went through his head in those first few ruptured moments as he turned away from the window? That his eyes had deceived him, that the big man was in the rest­room still and would be back any second now to claim the boy, who must have been his nephew or an adopted son or even his own natural child by a Hispanic woman, a Latina, an immigrant maybe with a green card or even citizenship. Wasn’t that how the Russians did it? Marry a citizen and get a free pass? He glanced up and down the car, but no one had gotten on and the conductor was nowhere to be seen. The boy was hunched inside his jacket, absolutely motionless, his eyes on the floor. ­Riley saw now that he wasn’t wearing a shirt under the ski jacket, as if he’d dressed—or been dressed—hurriedly. And his shoes—he was wearing only one shoe, a scuffed and dirt-smeared sneaker. His socks were wet, filthy. He looked—and here the ­awful truth slammed at Riley like a ballistic ­missile—abused.

He came up out of the seat so suddenly he cracked his skull on the luggage rack and for just an instant saw lights dancing before his eyes. “Stay here, I’ll be right back,” he breathed, and then he was out in the aisle and heading for the restroom, the skirts of his coat flapping behind him like great enveloping wings. He seized hold of the handle, flung open the door. There was no one inside.

A quick glance into the car beyond—nothing, nobody—and then he was easing himself down beside the boy and the boy was shrinking, getting smaller by the moment. The boy’s limbs were sticks, his eyes two puddles gouged out of a muddy road. Riley bent his face toward him, fighting to control his voice. “Where’s your father?” he said. “Where’d he go? Votre père? Papa? Where’s your papa? Or uncle? Is he your uncle?”

The boy said nothing. Just stared down at the floor as if Riley were speaking a foreign language. Which, in fact, he was.

“Where are you going? What town? Where do you live—do you know where you live?”

More nothing. Advanced nothing. Nothing feeding off of nothing.

What he had to do, right this minute, was find the conductor, the engineer, ­anybody—the nuns, where were the nuns when you needed them?—to take this, this situation off his hands. He’d actually ­started to get to his feet again before he realized how sketchy this all was—he couldn’t very well leave the kid there. What if the big man came back? What if somebody else——? What if they thought he was somehow responsible? He shot his eyes around the car. Something came up in his throat. It was then that he thought of the phone, Caroline’s phone, this miracle of instant communication secreted in his pocket for just such a moment as this.

He eased to one side to slip it from his pocket, a hard mute monolithic thing, cold in his hand, its screen decorated with the imprint of his wife’s fingertips. He’d call Amtrak, that was what he was ­thinking—the emergency number. There had to be an emergency number, didn’t there? Or 911. He’d call 911 and have the police meet him at the Albany station. All right. But how to turn it on? He’d seen Caroline do it a hundred times, her fingers flicking lightly over the screen as a steady stream of colorful icons rolled dutifully into position. He pressed the screen, expecting the thing to jump to life, but nothing happened. Again he pressed it. The kid was watching him now out of the reddened pools of his eyes—had he been crying, was that it? “It’s okay,” he heard himself say. “Everything’s fine. Just give me—give me a minute here.”

The car rocked. Bleak dead trees flailed at the windows. The sky was made of stone. Finally—and he felt a surge of satisfaction so powerful he nearly sang out in ­triumph—he found the on/off switch hidden in the frame and indistinguishable from it, as if the manufacturer, clearly a ­sadist, had put all the company’s resources into making its function as obscure as possible. No matter. The screen flashed at him, a parade of icons there, and they shimmied at the merest touch of his finger. But where were the numbers? How did you make a call? Why were——?

And now the train was slowing and the loudspeakers suddenly crackled with a mechanical voice announcing Station stop Albany/Rensselaer even as he shoved the phone back in his pocket and sprang up to jerk his bag down from the overhead rack, the decision already forming in his brain because it was the only decision he could have made—anyone in his position would have done the same thing and you didn’t have to be Albert Schweitzer to weigh the moral balance of it. He took the kid by the hand, pulled him up out of the seat and down the aisle to the door, which at that moment clattered open on the platform in a burst of noise and confusion, people swarming everywhere, and where was a cop? He needed a cop.

A dirty white pigeon fluttered into the air. Somebody said, “Laura Jean, you look terrific, I hardly recognize you,” and a pair of policemen surfaced amid the crowd, moving toward him now, and here was a too-thin vaguely blondish woman rushing for him with her hands outstretched and the light of redemption in her cracked blue eyes, and she was going to say, “Mr. Riley?” and he was going to say, “Ms. Trumpeter?” but that never happened, because the policemen wrestled him to the pavement even as he felt the cold metallic bite of the handcuffs gnaw into his flesh.

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read more: entertainment, fiction, issue july 2013


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