The Other Side Of The Globe
4:15 AM. I pull into a long gravel driveway attached to the McClellan residence.
A dozen or so cars are parked along the margin, waiting for their owners to return. The corn stalks which provided such convenient subterfuge isolate the property. They stand about shoulder high, like Spartan spears being shaken in the strong, sodden wind. The driveway ends in a sort of cul-de-sac before the whitewashed Colonial farmhouse. An enormous oak marks the center of the cul-de-sac. I park beneath it, behind a rusted-out Land Rover with the words “Make America GR8 Again!!” scrawled across the rear windshield. There is one light on downstairs, probably Chad McClellan cleaning up the party wreckage with a knot in his stomach, knowing that he might as well leave it because his parents are going to hear about this one way or another. I step out under the lashing boughs of the oak tree.
Chad takes his time answering the door. He might assume I’m a party guest returning for a play-by-play of all the legal repercussions. He is dismayed to find yet another cop.
“Yeah, what’s up. You forget to write a citation? You want to take another look around? I’ve already cooperated with you people.”
“I’m not here about the party. You can relax.”
“Not generally speaking, no. Are you familiar with a Khadija, or a Katie Mubarak? She was in attendance here tonight?”
“Sure, everyone knows Katie,” he says. “A lot of people were amazed she had the balls to turn up.”
“Because of the incident with her brother?”
“Were you amazed?” He gives a half shrug, staring off into the storm. “Didn’t let it ruin my night.”
I’m not bothered that he shows no intention of inviting me inside. The porch is broad and well-protected from the rain. Chad is a handsome kid with an athletic build. He wears a Browning baseball cap, no shirt, and a pair of red and black gym shorts slung well beneath his boxers. A silver cross hangs on a chain around his throat. He has a compulsive way of scratching his left bicep until it looks rashed.
“Did you interact with her at all during the course of the night?”
“Everyone came and went as they pleased. I don’t even remember actually seeing her. People talk, that’s all.” His words don’t slur, his actions aren’t uncoordinated, though his eyes are horrendously bloodshot. I understand that I’ll be lucky to get a single clear-headed eyewitness account.
“I’d like to ask a favor of you, Chad. It’s very important. Khadija hasn’t turned up anywhere since your party was disbanded. This is the last place she was seen or even heard from. Her friends, her family, they’re all worried sick about her. Do you understand?”
“Sure, but she probably just bolted like everyone else.”
“Just listen, please,” I insist. “The favor I want to ask is for you to quit whatever you’re doing, go to bed, and get a few solid hours worth of sleep. Are you with me so far?” He nods, switching from his bicep to the stubble on his chin, perplexed. “Then, when you wake up all refreshed, I want you to make a list of everyone you can remember seeing tonight, everyone you knew. And if possible, add a phone number beside each name.”
He chuckles skeptically. “I don’t know, man.”
“This isn’t about writing citations anymore, Chad. You have my word.” I put out my hand, thrusting it on him like a drawn weapon. “All I care about is Katie. All I care about is finding her. I’m a detective. I could give half a shit about underage kids getting plastered.”
His own hand is cold and clammy. I’m curious to know what’s all in his system, but now would be an inopportune time to ask. After the handshake, he looks like he wishes he could take it back, like he’s done nothing short of barter his soul with the Devil.
“Remember your promise,” I smile, pointing a finger at him. “And I’ll remember mine. Go and get some rest. I’ll call back tomorrow for that list.”
“Well, I can give you one name right now worth checking into,” he stammers in too eager a voice, quickly subduing himself. “—I mean, if you haven’t already.”
“And who is that?”
“Her ex. Devon Maguire.”
“Devon Maguire?” The look on my face seems to relax his nerves, and if I didn’t know better, slightly amuse him. “I was under the impression that Devon Maguire is serving in the US military.”
“So was I,” says Chad. “So was everybody, until he turned up here.”
My heart begins dancing with excitement. “You spoke to him?”
Chad nods again.
What did he say? What time did he arrive? Was he alone? He answers these questions one by one with full cooperation, happy to have the spotlight trained on someone else. “He showed up around midnight I guess, with this big goofy grin on his face. Seemed real happy to see all of us. When we asked what he was doing back, he mentioned something about an honorable discharge. Then he did a damn good job of changing the subject. People got the hint real quick just to let it go. He had a girl with him, too. Not Katie. Some girl I didn’t know. I’m not sure if she was from around here. Kind of a strawberry blonde, short, put together alright. I didn’t catch her name. Someone else must have—Wait, was it Alicia maybe? Ashley?” He ping-pongs the assorted names back and forth. “Nah, I don’t know. Sorry.”
“Don’t be.” I’ve been jotting scattershot notes as he talks. “This is all very useful. You don’t happen to have any idea where Devon is staying? With this mystery girl maybe?”
“Or else with his old man I guess,” Chad shrugs. “I know his place is somewhere in that subdivision out by Maywood . . .”
The search continues. With my new information, I bother Lorraine on the radio. She finds me an address for a Harold Maguire residing in the same area as McClellan described. Maywood is a municipal nature preserve, 130 acres or so, with spring-fed ponds and wetland wildlife. I happen to know it’s a hotspot for bird watchers, a hobby Bruno expressed some interest in when he was a kid. Honestly, I was amazed that he had the attention span for it: the same kid who couldn’t fix himself a bowl of cereal without getting distracted by some game on the back of the box. They have a copse of maple trees for tapping, showing kids where their Mrs. Butterworth’s ostensibly comes from—though a cornfield would be more accurate, as I know Valerie would be quick to point out—and they brew a bitter sap tea for the kids to try. Simpler times, I think, in that deluded nostalgia we all have to indulge ourselves from time to time.
A stone’s throw from the front door of the Ecology Center, on the opposite side of County Road P, stands the entrance to the aforementioned subdivision. Juniper Heights. As with Sylvan Glen trailer park, the name makes so little sense as to seem self-effacing. There are no juniper trees, and certainly no heights. There are vinyl houses with matching hip-joint roofs, competitive flagpoles, competitive gardens. Mailboxes stand like sentries along the curb, adding to the air of symmetry. Dawn is drawing near enough that I can begin to see the outline of clouds against a black sky. The rain has dwindled to a sensuous ooze that stinks of the nearby bog. Maguire’s house, like all the others, is utterly dormant. I feel like an obscene, nefarious force slamming my door; taking one percussive step after another; the only living, breathing thing in sight.
I ring the doorbell but don’t hear anything, so I knock a few times in case it’s broken. Within a minute, a light snaps on behind the curtains. A black, grizzled face peers out at me, which in the poor lighting reminds me of Beauford, only fleshier. The curtain falls back in place. The man unlocks his door and greets me in a pair of black and gold striped pajamas, rubbing his eyes. “Hello? There a problem, Officer?”
“I’m sorry to bother you at this hour, sir. It’s Mr. Maguire, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I’m Harry Maguire.”
“I was hoping you could provide me with some information pertaining to your son.”
“Who—Devon? What kind of information?”
“His whereabouts, for instance.”
Harry Maguire has an impressive potbelly and a well-trimmed beard. He in fact bears little resemblance to Beauford beyond race, so my initial comparison turns out to be impolitic. I place his age in the same bracket as mine. The skin around his eyes is creased with permanent smile lines. His cheeks are large and protuberant like double spoonfuls of pudding. He blinks at me in confusion, his mind still whirring. I can tell already that I’m not going to like his answer. “Devon’s been overseas for a whole year, Officer. Fighting in Afghanistan.”
He is incredulous when I explain that not only has there been a report of Devon being in the area tonight, but there may also be several individuals who can corroborate this claim.
“I haven’t heard a peep from him,” Harry says. “I don’t even have a number to reach him by.”
The bemused man invites me inside, offers me a cup of coffee. I tell him not to trouble himself, but he says it’s no trouble, he’s got one of those Keurig machines that can make one cup at a time. A birthday present from Devon. I recognize a portrait of his son on the mantle above the gas fireplace, the same handsome face Khadija has in her bedroom, only here he is in full dress uniform, crew-cut and unsmiling. To make conversation, and to set poor Harry at ease, I ask whether he hails from Judson Bottom originally.
“No,” he answers from the kitchen. “It’s a funny story, that. I was just passing through, driving truck for Schneider at the time. Devon’s mother and I met in a café, got to talking, and ended up having what I guess you’d call a pretty good time. We exchanged information. Three weeks later, I get a call from her telling me her birth control flunked out. Well, I wanted to do right by her, and right by the kid of course. Plus I was getting pretty sick of Tennessee—I’m from Knoxville originally—so I moved up here and got a job with the County. Devon was born that same winter.”
He seems to relish telling the story. He seems to relish brewing coffee for a guest, reclining in his wingback chair and talking to someone other than himself. I don’t know how congenial I’d be feeling if a cop woke me up before five in the morning to tell me my son may not be where I thought him to be. The Mubaraks certainly did not take it half this well, but then they are dealing with multiple stressors. With Devon (reportedly) in the military, and his wife taken by cancer five years ago, Harry presents a lonely figure. He would probably talk all morning if I let him. I ask whether he knows Khadija well.
“Oh sure, I’ve met her a few times. Devon talks very openly to me about everything going on in his life. It isn’t the conventional father-son relationship in that respect, I suppose. She was his high-school sweetheart, no mistaking that. Just a kid though. Two years behind him. At that age, two years can be the difference between night and day. But I left it alone. If he wanted to date an underclassman that was his business. You’ve got to have that mutual respect as a parent, you know what I mean? You got any kids?”
“A son. He’s a year behind Devon.”
“See, so you know. She was sweet enough, Katie,” he muses. “But because of her age, she could be a little naïve. No fault of her own. I’m thinking about how broken up she was over him joining the Army. I know they had a few arguments about that. Poor girl. It wasn’t an ambition he exactly kept secret. Devon’s been talking about being a soldier since he was eight years old. We went to his granddad’s funeral where they gave him the full salute. You know, with the guns and the flag and the spectacle and all that. His little jaw about hit the dirt.”
“When’s the last time you heard from Devon directly?”
“Got a letter about three weeks ago. Didn’t say nothing about coming back.” He gives me a polite, forgiving smile. “I’m convinced this has to be some kind of mix-up. Mistaken identity maybe. There’s no way my boy would be back in town without telling me so.”
“He keeps in touch pretty regularly?”
“Once or twice a month we Skype, plus the occasional letter. I haven’t heard him complain once, except about scorpions.” Harry chuckles, “Ain’t afraid to go to war but can’t stand creepy-crawlies. Never could.”
“He never mentioned anything about an honorable discharge?”
Harry’s smile vanishes. “No, of course not. Why? Do you know something about that?”
“Just hearsay, Mr. Maguire. Like you said, it could all be a mistake. But please do me a favor. The next time you hear from him, could you call me?” I rise from the couch and hand him my card. “It has my private extension and also my personal cell.”
“Sure thing, Officer. I’ll gladly do that.”
Having thanked him and slurped my coffee down to the grounds, I’m afraid if I stay too much longer my frustration will get the better of me. Are there two people MIA, or just one? Could this be an elopement scenario? Did they maybe reconnect at the party and run off together on a whim? Would Khadija be that irresponsible as to abandon her parents at a time like this? I don’t think so, but then I don’t know her well enough. Naomi mentioned how she caught her friend staring off at something in the middle of the dance herd, completely entranced, and then the next moment she was gone. Presumably, she dashed either toward or away from whatever was stopping her in her tracks. Right now Devon is the piece that fits best in that puzzle. Provided he isn’t on the other side of the globe.
I return to the station at a quarter past five. Kofey is back out on patrol, but I radio him to request that he send me a roster of the license plate numbers collected from McClellan’s party. With that in possession, I run them through the DMV registry and come up with contact info attached to the vehicles. Thus begins a slew of crotchety phone calls, people half in a dream state snapping at me: “Who is this? Do you have any idea what time it is? The police? Jesus, what’s the matter?”
More often than not, the vehicles are registered under a parent’s name, not the actual party attendant’s. In that case I ask them to put their son or daughter on the line, or at least provide me with a cell number. They have questions. But I let them know I have too many questions of my own to spend time answering theirs.
In the space of an hour I talk to four other people besides Chad who remember seeing Devon at the party. A satisfying development in itself, though winning these admissions is like pulling teeth. Often I have to resort to scare tactics: “If this does turn out to be a missing persons case, and it’s revealed that you lied to police during the course of our investigation . . .” Several people remember Khadija as well. They have the same scandalized inflection in their voice at the mere mention of her name. But nobody can recall spotting her and Devon together at any point.
I take a break to apprise Wojcik of everything when he comes in early as promised. He is completely thunderstruck. “Do I call the Feds? I guess I have to call them, right? Shit fuck shit.” I’ve never met anyone who relishes profanity like Wojcik, who downright flagellates himself with curse words.
“That’s not protocol.”
“Yeah, but . . . don’t you think . . . this being the same family. Say another letter turns up. I could be charged with negligence for giving her a head start!”
“Khadija isn’t anything like her brother, Chief.”
“You’d be willing to stake my reputation on that?”
I glance at the wall clock, deciding to propose a compromise. “Give me until noon to track her down. Then do what you think is best.”
He chews on this and counter-offers. “You have till ten.”
Wojcik sighs, trudging over to his office to fret. I grab a fresh cup of coffee and leap back into my phone calls. After a handful of duds and a couple more sightings in the same generalized vein, my first break comes in the form of Angela Skeris, a college freshman who knew Devon pretty well in high-school. The real reason she’s so valuable is that she is able to identify the mystery girl whom he arrived with at the party.
“Sorry I had to wake you like this,” I say.
“Oh, you didn’t wake me. I was just on my way to the gym.”
“So you said your brother went out with this girl?”
“Like a year ago. At the time she was living in Plymouth and bartending at the Spearhead Saloon. You know where that is?”
“I’m familiar, yes.” My pencil skitters over a notepad.
“Her name’s Elise. I’m sorry, I don’t remember a last name. I could call my brother and ask. According to him she had a lot of issues.”
“Yeah, he didn’t really specify. I know she has a kid. He said normally it stayed with her grandma because she was always working or whatever. The baby-daddy’s in jail. At least, he was when my brother knew her.”
“Let me follow up with this at Spearhead,” I say, energized and hopeful. “Thanks for talking with me, Angela. You’ve been a great help.”
She says it’s no problem and we hang up.
I’m surprised when I peer over my cubicle wall, stretching my legs, and see the windows lit up with pale blue sunlight. A few first-shifters have already begun to trickle inside, convening in the break room to discuss last night’s mayhem in Dallas, to rustle newspapers and help themselves to a Danish. In a matter of a few mouse clicks, I’m able to identify the manager of the Spearhead Saloon, one Dick Pfeiffer, and also a home number for him in the White Pages. His wife answers my call, her voice groggy and phlegmatic. I introduce myself as being with Judson Bottom Police. “Is Mr. Pfeiffer available?”
“No, he’s not. He already left for work."
“Does he work two jobs?”
“Just the bar. It closes at two and opens again at five for the graveyard shift. Those are his most loyal customers. We’re open holidays too. We only shut our doors three days out of the year for maintenance and renovations.”
“Alright. I’ll just go and speak to him in person then.”
I’m desperately burnt out on phone calls. Besides, I need to get out of here before word leaks about the Cucumber Boy and I’m crowded for a full raunchy account. With precisely four hours to meet Wojcik’s deadline, that leaves no time for war stories. I do spare a moment, however, to grab a Danish on my way out the door.
The Spearhead Saloon sits at a crossroads. The surrounding area is flat, dominated by alfalfa and soybeans. Inside I find a liveliness at odds with the sullen morning. People laugh around a horseshoe bar, talking over loud music. The southern wall has windows overlooking an indoor volleyball court. A graybeard bartender with cannonball shoulders waves me over. I can tell he doesn’t like me loitering, making his patrons suspicious.
“Mr. Pfeiffer?” I ask, feeling myself sized up by a rangy brunette on a barstool. Her porcupine mullet is bunched inside a visor.
“You’re the one who called my wife?” He draws some lager from the tap, places it before my admirer.
I nod. “I wanted to ask about a young woman you have, or at least had recently, in your employ. Goes by the name Elise.”
Pfeiffer dons a sardonic smile. “You’re not the first cop to come looking for her. Pretty damn quick this ain’t going to be the place to come looking no more.”
“She’s not in any trouble, I just have a few questions. Do you know if she’s working today?”
“I know she’s scheduled,” he scoffs. “But that don’t mean nothing.”
“Any chance you have a home address on file?”
He gives me an ambivalent appraisal, then shrugs, “Hell, I’d hate to get a reputation with the boys in blue as being uncooperative.” He walks off and returns shortly with my information scrawled on a cocktail napkin. “She might’ve moved since then, but this is what she put on her paperwork.”
The rangy brunette asks me, “That little bitch back on the needle?”
“Arlene,” Pfeiffer growls. “Why don’t you do yourself a favor and pipe the hell down?”
I thank him for his time and leave the establishment, sidestepping an old man blocking the doorway who reeks of urine and mothballs.
The address brings me to Plymouth, which is only a fraction of the size of Judson Bottom, though more photogenic in its old-world charm and less rundown. Bridges connect the town’s halves, straddling an aptly named Mullet River.
Elise’s place is a few blocks off the main drag, a sore thumb sticking out amid the neat little street. For one, her garbage bags stacked at the curb have been pecked apart by seagulls. Dirty diapers are strewn all around. Second, a sadistic landlord with no creative outlet has spray-painted the house’s brick foundation silver, making it look plated in aluminum. As for the rest of the structure, it is a patchwork of whatever paint was leftover in the basement—beige, white, blue—with no discernible method to the madness.
There are two mailboxes and two doorbells. I ring them each to no avail. A black sedan is parked out front. No driveway. I wander back to my cruiser, fuming, at a loss, hungry for something other than Danish. So I cruise over to the local Kwik Trip to piss and purchase a couple of chili dogs for breakfast, then return to my stakeout in front of the house. A stakeout is what I’ve been reduced to: sitting in a stationary car listening to robins chirp, watching time tick away, smelling my own farts. After the cavalcade of progress I’ve made all morning, the domino effect of one lead toppling into another toppling into another, this standstill is disheartening, to say the least.
I play the radio. I run the plates on the black sedan through Dispatch. If Devon is back in town, he has to be getting around somehow. It comes back as registered to a Jack Hanover. The name means nothing to me. Theo, the morning dispatcher who has taken Lorraine’s post, tries plying me for gossip. “So the old Strauss bird, I heard she got raped?”
Before I have to dignify that with an answer, a white Malibu comes cruising toward me and pulls over behind the black sedan. I smear a napkin across my face, telling Theo through a mouthful of chili dog I’m signing out. Alone in the vehicle sits a black man in his early twenties. My adrenaline resurges like a familiar friend, like the life of the party who has just come back from a beer run and cranked up the music. Devon—unmistakably Devon—steps out of the car wearing aviators, a jersey-knit T, khaki shorts, and flip-flops. From the back seat of the Malibu he unloads two paper Walmart sacks. He has obviously noticed my cruiser but he’s trying his best to ignore it. As he makes for the house, I think to myself something corny like “Let’s do this” and clamber out.
I call across the street in a clear, ringing voice. “Devon Maguire.”
He pauses in the front yard, amid the trash and soiled Huggies, pivoting slowly on his heels. A prolonged about-face.
“I’ll be damned. It is you,” I say. “Won’t Harry be surprised.”
This prompts him to ask, “You spoke to my father?”
I ignore the question, deeming it rhetorical, and inquire about his grocery bags. “What’s this? You’re taking her to parties and running her errands?”
A troubled furrow splits his forehead. “Do you mind if I set these down, sir?”
“You got any perishables in there?”
“Well, go and put the milk in the fridge. Then you and I have some talking to do.”
“Can I ask what this is about, sir?” His military deference I already find greatly annoying.
“Just go put that milk away, Devon, and be quick about it.”
So he crosses the lawn to the back door, balancing one bag on his knee as he fishes a key from his pocket. What the hell’s he doing with a key? I hover beside him all the while. What the hell is he doing acting like the man of the house, like he’s built a life for himself here when his own father doesn’t even know he’s back in the States? The door opens onto a small landing. A staircase leads both upstairs and downstairs. Straight ahead is another door and it’s unlocked, adjoined to a kitchen. “Stay where I can see you,” I warn.
To his credit, he doesn’t dally, transferring the half gallon of milk into the fridge, dumping the rest on a Formica countertop. “Should I lock up?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I say. “I think we’d better do our talking in Judson.”
I have to wonder what’s going down in this guy’s head, just owing to the climate we live in. Has he heard anything about the Dallas sniper? The Black Lives Matter rally abridged by bloodshed? I assume he’s been too busy cavorting with dodgy women at farm parties, but the way his generation is plugged into social media like life support, there is a good chance he’s heard something. Of course, none of that has anything to do with our entanglement, and yet it provides a constant stream of subtext. Take the ease with which he submitted to getting in my cruiser. There was no I-know-my-rights histrionics. None of the shit-talk I’ve come to take for granted. It seems half the people I need to question from day to day suddenly turn into Patrick Henry. I don’t know how much of Devon’s outward respect I should ascribe to military training, and how much is a more primordial survival instinct.
We’re on the highway between Plymouth and Judson Bottom—Devon in the backseat without cuffs, my second chili dog getting soggy on the passenger seat. We pass a damaged old silo belonging to a bygone farm, a grove of sycamores with a bright-lettered sign nailed to one of the trunks: PRIVATE PROPERTY. The day is getting clearer and sunnier and there is little evidence of the tempest that whirled through here in the black pitches of early morning.
“Was that Elise’s car you were driving?”
“Don’t you have a car of your own?”
“It’s parked at my dad’s.”
I gather from a catch in his voice that it pains him to mention his dad, so I spare him the task for now. “Tell me a little about Elise.”
“Is she in some sort of trouble?”
“What sort of trouble would she be in?” Though he tries not to show it, the question annoys him. And understandably so. It’s tailored to be an annoying question. “How do you two know each other?”
“Say again?” Assuming he misheard me.
“I’ve known Ms. Van Driest for about six weeks. Just as long as I’ve been back in the States.”
“Okay. Why don’t you start there.”
Devon gives the deep yoga inhale of someone about to delve into exposition. “I got off a red-eye flight on the 31st of May, sir. I can show you my boarding pass. It was a Lufthansa flight from Islamabad to Chicago, by way of London. Landed in O’Hare at about five in the morning. From there I took a bus to Milwaukee, then transferred at the downtown terminal and boarded a second bus to Sheboygan. On the way there, I happened to be sitting across the aisle from Elise. We got to talking.”
“What was she doing riding a bus out of Milwaukee at that hour?”
“Visiting her brother, she said. She had her kid with her in a carrier. A little thing named Scotty.”
“You two must have really hit it off.”
“Yeah, I guess we did. Emotionally we were on parallel paths.”
Don’t wax poetic on me, kid. “So let me try and get up to speed here. You’ve been hiding away with a girl you met on the bus instead of—oh, I don’t know—getting in touch with all the good people around here praying for you day in and day out?”
“I haven’t exactly been hiding, sir,” he says, thinking it through even as he speaks, either for duplicitous reasons or self-reflective ones. “But she’s been helping me to transition, I guess you could say. There’s no pressure with her, because she doesn’t know anything about me. She doesn’t know how I used to be, so she can’t draw contrasts.”
“How did you used to be, Devon?”
“I used to be . . . I guess . . .” He chuckles in a way I find unnerving, in a way that suggests it’s the closest thing to laughter he’s attempted for some time. “I guess I just used to be me, sir.”
I purposely take a roundabout way into Judson Bottom so that we have to pass through the railyards. I park within spitting distance of the willow tree where Khadija, her friends, and a host of vagrants consorted four days ago. I’m hoping to catch one of said vagrants lounging around. It would be easy to neglect adding them to Khadija’s list of associates, but at some point they will each of them need to be questioned. Ultimately though, I just want to have a private conversation while I finish my chili dog. The idea that Devon would fly home six weeks before his girlfriend vanishes and attend the same party as her is a fortuity too cruel even for the likes of God.
“What are we doing here?” he asks.
I can see I’ve made him anxious by pulling over. “You go on talking. I’m just going to finish up my breakfast here, but I’ll be hanging onto every word.”
“It’s just that—I thought we’d be going to the police station.”
“We’ll get around to it. What difference does it make? Am I making you uncomfortable up here enjoying my chili dog?”
“Okay, then. You were saying—let me see if I got this straight—that Elise never knew the real you—or excuse me, the old you—so you were able to behave comfortably around her. Is that right?” I tear off a chunk of bun, frank, and chili, watching him in the rearview mirror.
He stares out the window self-consciously at the dormant freight cars defaced with graffiti. Proclamations and representation from all up and down that archaic sludge canal called the Mississippi. “I don’t know what else to say about Elise.”
“Where is she now?” I ask.
“At her grandma’s with Scotty. They’re close, her and her grandma. I offered to run a few errands for her in the meantime. I mean, it’s the least I can do.” He shifts his weight on the hard plastic seat, scratches the nape of his neck. “I don’t mean to seem out of order, sir, but she’s expecting me to come pick her up at noon. She has to bartend later.”
“Just keep answering all my questions. That’s your best shot.”
I stop chewing to ask, “Why did the Army dismiss you?”
A vein ripples in his right temple. “I failed, sir.”
“You failed what? At being a soldier?”
“I failed my psychiatric evaluation.” He stares daggers out the window now, as if trying to astrally project himself out of this cruiser and onto one of those crummy boxcars, living the Woody Guthrie lifestyle henceforth, taking up guitar and wearing a bandana over his face on wild treks through the Dust Bowl. Sure, we’ve all thought about it.
“Now I’ve never been in the service, Devon, so first off, let me just say kudos for joining up. You’re clearly a very brave and principled young man. But isn’t that something they take care of on day one, those psych evals? Not a year into your tour?”
“They had me do another.” His voice is so restrained that, were a train actually going by, I wouldn’t be able to catch a word. “Some of the guys in my platoon, they thought maybe I was having a rough go of it. They thought maybe I was stressed out.”
Stressed out. Now there’s a euphemism if I ever heard one. “And are you inclined to agree with them?”
I reach the opinion that bringing up his tour of duty was perhaps counterproductive when Devon begins weeping in my backseat. I don’t believe it at first. He doesn’t strike me as the weeping type, so my first impression is that he’s having a kind of seizure. This actually strikes me as the less far-fetched scenario. His shoulders jump like the whole cruiser is being jostled by an earthquake. His hands go up to his face, massive hands that ensnare him like a cage from his chin to his forehead. He starts rocking back and forth, more and more violently until I feel the car sway on its suspension. “Easy now. Take it easy.”
I wipe my chili-stained fingers on a napkin and start the engine. As I pull back onto the service road, he begins to bawl openly, then punches the cage barrier between us so hard I can feel the reverberations in my headrest. “Hey!” I holler at him some more, to absolutely no avail. Tears stream down his cheeks. His face is mangled into the agony of someone burning alive from the inside out. The sounds he makes as he grows hoarse are far departures from any human vocalization. They are the sounds that a bull’s heart must make when lanced by the matador’s sword. Watching his total and seismic dissolution, white-knuckling the wheel as I put on my siren and haul ass toward the station, I finally allow myself to fear for Khadija’s safety.