by Brian Sutton
It never fails, Clark said to himself as he emerged from the grocery store, gallon of skim milk in hand, that evening in June of 2018. Just one other car—truck, actually—in the whole parking lot, and it was parked right next to his Camry. He chuckled.
Then he heard the scrape of metal against metal and saw a grinning boy, about eight years old, scurrying back and forth between the Camry and a nearby shopping-cart corral. Occasionally the boy glanced toward the truck like a football player checking with his coach.
Clark took the remote from his pocket and pushed the unlock button. The car’s headlights blinked, the horn emitted a staccato beep, and the driver’s-side door unlocked with a click. The boy’s grin faded and he turned toward the truck. Following the boy’s gaze, Clark saw a muscular, hard-chiseled man in a denim jacket step out from the driver’s seat. ‘Get in, Davy,’ the man said. ‘Move it!’ Then he got back into the truck. Clark heard the truck start up, the engine gunned as if before a drag race.
Then he saw the shopping carts. Three in a row just ahead of his front bumper, three more behind his rear bumper, and three on either side. The car was walled in. And Clark thought there might be a scratch, one he didn’t remember seeing before, on the rear of his car, right above his “Keep the Refugees—Deport the President” bumper sticker.
He watched the boy scramble toward the truck, then noticed that it had a bumper sticker of its own. It read “Build the Wall—Establish Law and Order.” Clark’s stomach tightened.
‘Hey!!’ he shouted.
The boy froze, his hand almost to the doorknob of the truck.
‘Why’d you put those carts around my car?’
The boy stared at him, wide-eyed.
‘Put them back where you got them, please,’ Clark said, trying to keep his voice calm and polite.
The boy looked toward the truck. The man rolled down his window and said, ‘Do like he says, Davy.’ Then he closed the window, stared hard at Clark, and said something Clark couldn’t hear.
Clark lowered his glance to the pavement. ‘Asshole,’ he muttered.
Instantly the driver’s-side door of the truck flew open and the man sprang out. ‘You say somethin’?’
‘Not to you.’
Clark returned the man’s glare in silence.
The boy had begun to return carts to the corral, but now he stopped to watch. Then he turned toward Clark and raised his hand as though to wipe something from his eye. But he used his middle finger for the wiping motion, with the other fingers curled down. The boy’s grin returned tentatively and his eyes sought those of the man beside the truck. Clark felt heat bubble up within him.
‘Hold it!!’ he shouted.
The boy looked at him.
‘Don’t take those carts back to the corral. Put ’em around the truck.’
‘No way,’ the man said.
‘So it’s okay to put carts aroundmycar, but not your truck?’
Then Clark heard a woman’s halting voice say, ‘Sir.’ He turned and saw that the woman had emerged from the passenger side of the truck. She was probably younger than the man but looked older, with disheveled blonde hair and circles under her eyes, a small woman who hunched as if trying to look even smaller.
‘Don’t,’ she said to Clark. ‘Just let it go. Please.’
‘Keep out of this!’ the man snapped. ‘Get back in the truck!’
The woman obeyed.
Clark knew he should take her advice. But he also knew that if he backed down, it would look like the other man had won. And the boy—now standing stock-still, looking back and forth between them—would look up to the man, would see the man as his role model, more than ever. Clark, in his own small way, would be complicit in passing the man’s values along to the boy. This was intolerable.
Looking at the boy, Clark gestured toward the truck and said, ‘The carts.’
‘Ain’t gonna happen,’ the man said.
The man pulled back his jacket—only briefly, but long enough for Clark to glimpse the handgun in its holster.
‘’Cause I said so,’ he replied.
Despite the adrenaline that pulsed through him, demanding action, Clark found himself frozen.
‘Here’s what’s gonna happen,’ the man said. ‘You’re gonna put them shopping carts back. Not my boy. You. And not back in the corral—back around your car, just like they were when you come up. My boy and me, we’re gonna get in my truck and leave. And you’re not gonna move a muscle ’til I’ve drove away, ’cause you’re scared shitless. Then once we’re gone, you can move the carts out of the way and get in your wimpy little car with its half-assed little bumper sticker and go back to your pathetic little life. Got it?’
Clark glanced around, hoping for witnesses. But the lot remained deserted other than the man, the boy, the woman, and himself.
‘All right then,’ the man said. ‘Davy, push that cart you’re holdin’ over to the gentleman. He knows where he can shove it.’
Grinning, the boy pushed his shopping cart until he stood close in front of Clark, arms extended as he offered up the cart.
Moving with almost exaggerated slowness, Clark placed the bottle of skim milk in the cart. Then with a swift, fluid motion he grabbed both the boy’s forearms, swung him around to face the man, and pinned his arms behind his back.
‘Davy!’ the woman shouted, opening the passenger door and scurrying out.
The man’s hand returned to the gun in its holster. But Clark, still holding the boy’s wrists with one hand, clenched his other arm across the boy’s stomach as though embracing him from behind, then lifted him until the boy’s head blocked his own. He shuttled the boy from side to side, a moving anti-target.
‘Go ahead and shoot, big man,’ Clark said, loudly enough to be heard above the boy’s panicked cries. ‘You’ll hit somebody for sure.’
The man’s hand stayed on the gun, still holstered. ‘Kick free, Davy,’ he said.
The boy began writhing and kicking. Clark could feel himself losing his grip.
He released the boy’s wrists and opened the driver’s side door to his car. Before the boy had time to react to having his hands freed, Clark threw him hard into the car, across the driver’s seat and into the passenger’s side.
‘Dad!!’ the boy shouted.
Now the man drew his gun. But Clark had already dived into the car, closing the door behind him. The woman ran a few steps toward the Camry. Then she looked at the man and stopped cold.
Clark pressed the button to lock the car doors and heard a satisfying click. He knew, or hoped, that the man wouldn’t shoot with the boy flailing erratically near the line of fire. He pushed the ignition button and heard the engine turn over. Then he backed the car out fast, sending shopping carts spinning across the lot. In the rearview mirror he could see a cart careen toward the man, who simply shoved it aside, never budging or taking his eyes off the Camry.
Even with the car windows closed, Clark could hear the woman screaming ‘Davy!!’ over and over and the man repeating a series of numbers and letters. At first it seemed like the man was chanting some sort of primitive incantation. Then Clark realized it was the Camry’s license-plate number. Looking again in the rearview mirror he saw that the man had put the gun away and was speaking into his cell phone.
The boy thrashed uncontrollably in the passenger seat. His shrieks blended with dinging from the car itself, a reminder that the seat belts remained unfastened. Beneath all this Clark could hear Bach’s ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’ from the car radio, still tuned the NPR station he had been listening to when he had pulled into the lot perhaps ten minutes earlier.
Clark turned onto East Mason and the man’s and woman’s images disappeared from the rearview mirror. The boy’s shrieks had coalesced into screams of ‘Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!’ Clark covered his right ear with one hand, steered with the other, and tried to think.
It began to sink in. He had separated a child from the child’s parents. He had no plan for how to reunite them. The police were probably already looking for him. There was no way out. He had no refuge.
Looking in the rearview mirror again, he saw a police car gaining ground on him, its red lights flashing. The siren blended with the boy’s screams, the car’s dinging, and the music from NPR. Clark wondered how it had ever come to this.
Brian Sutton’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Journal, Oyster River Pages, Woven Tale Press Magazine, Seventeen, and over a dozen other magazines or journals. Four of his plays have been produced, including a musical comedy which had a successful run on 42nd Street in New York and has been performed at the high school, college, community-theatre, and professional levels. He won three Hopwood Awards, two for short stories and one for plays.