Seven p.m. comes and goes without any sign of Scout. I didn’t figure he’d show up—not after yesterday.
Though I am a bit disappointed.
He’s been coming to my camper every night for two months, and it’s just strange he isn’t here. The couch cushion where he usually sits is empty. I don’t hear his constant yammering and gum-popping in my ear. I don’t smell the soft notes of his cologne wafting from him.
I don’t bother to turn on the tele, I’m not in the mood for it. Suddenly the Winnie feels very small, too small for me to keep sitting in, so I go outside and climb up the little ladder welded to the side of my camper.
Up on the roof, I’ve got a sleeping bag rolled out for me to lie on. Sometimes I’ll sleep up there all night, if I feel like it (and if it doesn’t look like it might rain, of course). I stretch out on the sleeping bag, which isn’t quite long enough to accommodate my spindly legs, and look up at the night sky.
If I think about it too much, looking up at the stars makes me frightfully homesick. When I was a lad, I was obsessed with astronomy, so I learned everything I could about constellations, galaxies, planets. Mum and Dad got me a telescope for my eleventh birthday, and I’d spend hours looking through it nearly every night. I’ve still got that telescope, matter of fact, though I’ve long since bought a higher-powered one.
There’s nothing wrong with the old one, but it’s more of a toy than an actual observational tool. Great for a kid, but a bit lacking for a more serious stargazer. Still, I was riddled with guilt when I sunk two hundred dollars into a new telescope, on account of nothing’s technically the matter with the old one.
Spending money has always made me feel rotten. Even now, when I’ve got more of the stuff than I could ever hope to spend in a single lifetime, it makes me feel horrible. When the roof of my old camper van finally caved in and I had no choice but to buy a new one, I thought I’d faint right in the middle of the RV dealership.
I’ve got no clue what I’m doing when it comes to things like buying vehicles, so Truckie went with me. He was the one who talked me into getting the most expensive camper on the lot, rather than a cheap something-or-other that could hitch on to my truck. A ’72 Winnebago. I call her ‘the Winnie’ for short. She’s got everything a bloke could want, and then some. When I start to enjoy its spacious accommodations a bit too much, the guilt comes crawling back into my gut. Could’ve bought something cheaper, should’ve bought something cheaper. Wasteful. I’m only one man, and one man doesn’t need all that room. Not like I’ve got any friends to entertain.
Well. Maybe I’ve got one friend.
Or. I did have one friend.
It occurs to me that I quite like Scout’s company, and that I’d like for him to keep coming round. But if he won’t come to me, I’ll have to go to him.
Ah. That’s a problem, that is.
I really don’t like going inside the base and I try to avoid it, if at all possible. Team meetings, laundry day, and checkups with the doc can’t be helped, but other than that, I steer clear of the place. Too much noise, too many explosions, the industrial cleaner they use to scrub the place down smells like an old petrol station, and everybody always crowds around me and tries to talk to me. Like they’ve just spotted a rare cryptid. Like Mothman.
Even if I did go into the base to find Scout, I wouldn’t know what to do past that. Find him and talk to him, I suppose, but what would I even say?
I hear a small hooting sound coming from the opposite end of the camper. I lean up to look toward the noise, and in the milky moonlight I make out the silhouette of a small owl.
Even though I can’t see him all that clearly, I know it’s Hoots. Any other owl wouldn’t come this close to a human. I shift into a sitting position, click my tongue a few times, and crook my forearm. The owl gives a lazy beat of his wings and glides over to perch on my arm, his talons gripping my skin.
Found the little bugger when he was an owlet, all tangled up in a tuft of scrub grass. Weren’t any trees around for half a mile, so I’m not too sure how he ended up there. I knew if I left him there, he’d die, and we can’t have that. I took him back to my camper and fed him worms, mice, frogs, whatever I could catch, till he was old enough to go out hunting for himself. Since then, he’s made his home on top of my camper, spending his days roosting in a cardboard box turned over on its side.
I’ve even taught him a few tricks.
“There’s a good bird,” I tell him while I scratch at the top of his head. “What’re you up to tonight? You usually stay gone longer than this, y’know that? That means you’ve either had a really rough night of hunting, or a really good one.”
It’s almost like he can understand my words when he gives a soft chirrup in response. I know he doesn’t comprehend what I’m saying—a word or two, maybe, but certainly not complete sentences—but even so, it’s nice to have someone to talk to.
With Scout coming round every night, I’ve gotten used to conversing with a real person for a change, someone who can talk back to me. But in Scout’s absence, a patient owl will make a sufficient conversation partner.
“Lemme ask you something,” I say to the bird. He swivels his head and starts preening the feathers under his wing. “You’ve seen the bloke that comes round here every night, yeah? He didn’t show up tonight. And I think…”
I think I miss him, is what I nearly say, but I can’t bring myself to voice it aloud. Not even to an owl.
“Well, some things happened yesterday. Think he might be angry. Or embarrassed, actually, he’s probably too embarrassed to come round here again. Should I go in the base ’n’ see if I can find him, or is that too much?”
Hoots continues to preen his feathers, causing white, powdery feather dander to drift down onto my trousers. I brush it off with the flat of my hand.
“Maybe I oughter leave him be,” I say. “Wouldn’t want—“
Before I can finish the rest of the sentence, I hear something coming from the direction of the base. I can’t be sure, but it sounds like a human voice. Hoots hears it, too. His head jerks in the direction of the noise and then he takes off, his talons scraping against my arm as he heads in the opposite direction of the sound.
“That you up there, Sniper?”
Definitely a human voice. It’s Truckie’s, I’m almost certain of it. I roll off the sleeping bag and shimmy over to the edge of the camper, where I can make out a flashlight beam bouncing its way toward me.
“Truckie?” I call to the shadowy figure.
“Hey, you got a—got a phone call in there, Slim!” Truckie yells. He’s out of breath, probably been running.
“Phone call?” I repeat. That doesn’t make any sense, who’d be calling me? Mum and Dad used to call the base for me, on birthdays and holidays, but I don’t reckon they’ve risen from the grave to speak to their son on the telephone.
“Yeah,” Truckie yells back. His flashlight beam is a few meters away from my camper now and I can just barely make out the vague shape of a short, portly human.
“It’s Scout,” he says. He takes a few gasping breaths. “Hooeee, I’m outta shape, I tell ya.”
“Scout?” I repeat. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued.
“Yeah, he says he’s gotta talk to ya somethin’ awful. Told me to tell you to hurry up and get in there.”
I’m scrambling down the camper ladder before I can think much about what Truckie just told me. As the two of us take off at an ambling jog for the base, I start asking questions.
“Scout wants to talk to me?” I ask, already finding myself out of breath. I don’t know who’s in worse shape, me or the man struggling to keep up with me. “Did he say what—he wanted me for?”
“Nope,” Engie huffs. “But wherever he’s at, it’s real—noisy, kinda sounds like he might be at a—at a bar, or somethin’. Maybe he got a lil bit too toasty and he needs—a ride home. He wadn’t real specific, just told me to—tell ya to hurry up and get to the phone.”
That would be a logical explanation, I think, as I make my way up the set of four shallow stairs leading to the base’s back patio. I cross the patio in three long strides and enter the base through a sliding glass door.
The glass door opens up onto a cozy little kitchen-slash-dining room. Mounted to the wall beside the kitchen table is the communal telephone, whose receiver is dangling from its cord and nearly brushing the floor. I scoop up the phone receiver and press it to my ear.
“Snipes, thank God.” It’s Scout, all right. “Hey, look, I only got like fifteen more seconds to talk, so I gotta make this quick. Long story short, I’m in jail and I need you to bail me out. I know, I know, I’m an idiot. Y’know the police station on West Main? The one beside the Waffle House? I need you to come here and bring your wallet, and maybe your checkbook too ‘cause I dunno how much it’s gonna cost, and I dunno how much cash ya got on ya either, and I swear I’ll explain everything when you get here but I think I—“
Click. Dial tone.
I let the dial tone buzz in my ear for a moment before putting the telephone back onto its cradle.
“Well?” Truckie says.
I had no idea he was standing beside me until he said something. I feel my whole body give a little jump in surprise, not unlike a skittish cat.
“What’s the trouble?” he asks. “He drink a lil too much and need a ride home?”
I open my mouth to say that that’s not it at all, but right before I speak, it occurs to me that Scout might not want Truckie to know he’s in jail. That might be something he’s trying to keep quiet.
“Er,” I say, trying to come up with a convincing lie. “Yeah. He…he said he only had a couple drinks, but he’s feeling fuzzy-headed. He’s wantin’ to be better safe than sorry, I reckon.” I take a step away from the telephone. “I’m gonna head out to the bar and fetch him, then…”
“How ‘bout I go with you?” Truckie offers. “Me and you can both go, and I’ll drive Scout’s car home for him—“
“No,” I say loudly. I can’t see Truckie’s eyes because he’s still wearing his thick tinted goggles, but I have no trouble making out his raised eyebrows.
“I mean, erm—he said he’s not all that drunk,” I say. “He’s only had two-’n’-a-half beers, so…so he wanted me to take him by the Waffle House, so he can sober up a bit. Have a coffee and a waffle…you know…maybe some fresh air. After he dries up, he’ll be able to drive his own car home.”
Even through his goggles, I can feel his eyes on me. Searching, deciphering. He knows I’m lying to him, I can feel it in my soul.
“All right, then,” he says warily. “Scout don’t hold his liquor too good, so keep an eye on him, hear? If he ain’t fit to drive, gimme a call. I’ll hitch the trailer up to my truck and tote his car home, if I need to.”
Truckie seems genuinely concerned about Scout. At first I feel bad for lying to him, but then I remember the truth of the situation—Scout’s in jail. And I’ve got no idea what he’s done to land himself in there. For all I know, he’s blown up half the town again. Maybe it’s a good thing Truckie doesn’t know the truth yet.
“Thanks, mate,” I tell him, “I will.”
Before Truckie has a chance to ask me any more questions, I rush back to my camper to grab some money. My wallet’s in my pocket, but it’s likely I’ll need more cash than fourteen dollars and a handful of coins. Depending on what Scout’s done, his bail could be five hundred dollars, or it could five hundred thousand dollars.
There’s a hidden panel in the bottom of my closet where I keep some cash stashed, as a just-in-case. I shove a pair of boots out of the way, paw around the shag carpet until I feel the little hatch, and open it up. I grab a couple stacks of bank-fresh bills and slip them into my vest pocket.
Money acquired, I lock up the camper and make a beeline across the yard, toward the base’s communal garage. My truck might be old, but it runs okay, and I keep it clean inside and out. It suits my needs just fine, seeing as I don’t drive it much, just to the market and the hobby store every once in awhile. But at the thought of Scout climbing in here and sitting in the passenger’s seat, I’m hyper-aware of the cracked leather upholstery and the sort of musty smell permeating the cab.
Scout drives a brand-new sports car, some kind of Ford model, I think. Sleek body, pale yellow paint job, white-wall tires. He got it last year, after Truckie helped him finally pass his driver’s exam. By comparison, my truck’s a hunk of junk.
Then again, if he wants me to bail him out of jail, I suppose he’s in no position to stick his nose up at my old smelly truck.
While I’m driving toward town, it occurs to me that I’ve never bailed someone out of jail before, and as such, I’ve got no idea what to expect. Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, squeezing it for dear life, I try to think about what I should say and do when I get there. The first step, of course, would be to park the truck and get out. Step two, go inside. And then…
…and then what?
I’m not sure what comes after that. Is there a reception desk? Surely there is, there’s gotta be. What do I say to the receptionist? G’day, I need to bail somebody out of jail, please? What if I don’t have exact change? Do police stations have cash registers they use when people get bailed out of jail?
When I finally reach the police station parking lot, I’m swallowing over and over again to try and keep myself from vomiting.
“Get ahold of yourself,” I mutter to my reflection in the rearview mirror. “What’s the worst they can do, kill you? Just—just walk in, and go from there.”
All this anxiety isn’t necessary at all, and yet here I am, literally sick at my stomach at the thought of walking into an unknown situation.
I don’t know what I’m doing. I know I’ve got to walk inside, but I can’t even make my hand open up the driver’s side door. My body won’t cooperate. My nervous mind’s shut it down.
“I have to do this,” I say to myself. Scout’s asked me for a favor and I told him I’d do it. So I’ve got to shake this off and go inside, whether I know what lies in wait for me or not.
My brain seems to have mercy on me, and after a few deep breaths, I’ve regained the use of my limbs. Trying to keep my mind as blank as possible, I get out of the truck and stagger my way over to the police station front entrance.
I take another deep breath, swallow a few more times, and take one last deep breath for good measure. Then I swing the door open and head inside.