Originally published in the May 9, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Connor’s sudden appearance at the Pendleton Roundup, handing out flyers offering a reward for an “abducted child,” startled Miller Cane. With no time to say goodbye to their new friends Monica and little Bella, Miller and 8-year-old Carleen managed to slip away in Miller’s motorhome. Connor, Carleen’s deadbeat father, is the reason they’re on the road in the first place; he suddenly came back into the picture when he learned that Carleen will inherit a massive fortune he believes is rightfully his. Lizzie, Carleen’s mom, is still stuck in jail after shooting and wounding Connor. Meanwhile, the fires that raged across the West all summer have mostly burned out, but the toll of being fugitives is wearing on the unlikely duo.
Carleen had never been to Yellowstone, and Miller thought it might be a good distraction on their way to wherever they were going — the Little Bighorn first, then deeper into the country and away. He’d only slept for a few hours since leaving Walla Walla, and he tossed and turned now, in his bed at the back of the motorhome. Carleen hadn’t slept much either, but she wasn’t having trouble sleeping in her loft now. Miller was too wired, too disturbed by Connor’s appearance in Pendleton. How had he found them? Dena hadn’t seen him since that day at their mother’s nursing home. Showing up like he did last night seemed like proof he could track them anywhere.
Carleen slept, dreaming away her anger and disappointment, Miller hoped, at being pulled away from Bella. He needed something for her when she woke, but when he tried to book a reservation at Yellowstone, the hotels and RV sites were all full, even with school back in session. Still, they could spend a few days at the park, sleeping in Cody or somewhere nearby.
Miller got out of bed and made coffee. Carleen didn’t stir, even with him banging around the kitchen. He knew they couldn’t drive forever. They’d only been on the road three months, but Carleen needed stability. Miller would have to find a place with other kids and good food and good coffee and good people and schools — where no one would find them until Lizzie got out, which might be after Carleen was grown.
Connor’s flyer had referred to her as missing or abducted, but she wasn’t missing — she was safe in her loft in the motorhome — and she hadn’t been abducted. Miller was her caretaker, protecting her from her shitty father, as her mother had asked him to do, maybe not her legal guardian, but so what? Miller checked her again — still sleeping, still breathing — then went outside with his coffee and Larry McMurtry’s Crazy Horse, which stressed how little any biographer, including McMurtry, knew about the man. Miller’s phone buzzed with a call from the Skagit County Jail. He answered, bracing himself for the roar of the bad line, but there was just a low rumble, like an underground train coming toward him.
“Hello,” Miller said several times to the echo of his own voice. He was about to hang up when the line cleared enough for him to hear Lizzie say his name, followed by a blast of static and the full roar.
“Are you there?” she said.
“I’m here,” he said.
It was like screaming inside a hurricane.
“How is she,” Lizzie said, and Miller said, “We’re in California, on our way to Nevada.” It seemed important to lie as much as possible now, to keep the authorities off balance.
“I can’t,” click, roar. “California?”
“How are you?” Miller screamed.
There was almost nobody at the rest stop — an elderly couple walking a miniature dog, a man smoking a cigarette at a picnic table. No sign of Connor.
“I can’t,” she said, “rebel rap.”
“I know,” Miller said. He hadn’t slept in who knew how long and the roar was affecting his vision, making him nauseous.
Miller held the phone away from his ear, the interstate humming under the roar, a few of Lizzie’s words crackling over it. The air itself seemed filled with sound, but at least there was no smoke now. Maybe the fires were finally out.
“Can you hear me?” Lizzie said, and Miller said, “Kind of,” and Lizzie made other sounds, then said, “Anything — I can’t.”
“I know,” Miller said.
The smoking man across the parking lot lit another one.
“The crinkle,” Lizzie said, “the wrinkle round.”
Another blast of static.
The noise had never been this overwhelming — maybe because they were so far from each other.
The line roared, cleared, roared.
“I can’t,” Lizzie said.
“Please,” she said, her voice slipping. “Can you hear me?”
Another blast of static.
“You have to get me out of here,” she said.
And then the line went dead.
Out of there? They were going the other direction, and were going to keep going that way. Besides, there wasn’t enough money for bail, not if he was going to keep supporting Carleen. The world came back to him as the ringing faded, birds whistling and chirping and cawing and the old couple’s pocket dog barking. The man who’d been smoking was gone, then appeared from the bathroom and walked toward his car, an El Camino in good condition. But he didn’t get in his car. He didn’t even slow down. He kept walking toward Miller.
The motorhome’s door swung open.
Miller turned and Carleen was there.
“Go back inside,” he said.
“Why?” Carleen said.
“We’re headed out,” Miller said, and when he turned back around, the man was still approaching, early forties, Miller’s age, Connor’s age.
There was no reason for him to keep coming like that.
“I have to pee,” Carleen said.
“Pee in the moho,” Miller said.
“I thought — ”
“Just do it,” Miller said, pushing her inside and closing the door.
“Geez,” he heard her say.
The dude was twenty feet away. Miller needed something heavy to bash his brains in with. He’d probably been in Pendleton last night, or maybe the flyers were all over the West now, all over the country.
“Hey, man,” the dude said, and Miller said, “Hey,” trying to appear nonchalant, just a guy outside a motorhome managing his tremor.
“If you need help with that flat,” the man said, “I can give you a hand.”
If Miller turned to look for the flat, he’d get clubbed in the head with a tire iron, his blood running all over the parking lot as the dude snatched Carleen for the flyer’s reward. But the dude didn’t have a tire iron. Miller probably looked insane, an abductor who hadn’t slept in days, his tremor about to escalate to full blown convulsions. He had to look away, to hide, to look at the tire that wasn’t flat — but it was flat.
“You’ve done this before?” Miller said, turning back around, and the man said, “Walt,” holding out his hand.
Miller took it, shook it, said his own name.
“Had a rig like this when my kids were young,” Walt said. “That your little girl?”
Of course it was his little girl.
“I don’t know if my spare’s any good,” Miller said, and then, “My daughter and I are headed for Yellowstone.” How stupid he was. He should have said Utah or Oregon or Mexico. He should have told Carleen they would pose as a family from now on.
Walt pulled the cover off the spare, Miller watching, as if Walt were his father and Miller a nine year old boy.
“Looks okay,” Walt said. “You know where the jack’s at?”
Miller shook his head. Walt was pretending to be a good Samaritan, though he was really a killer or a cop. Whatever he was, Miller hated him for helping.
“I’ve got one,” Walt said, walking back toward the El Camino.
Carleen peeked out the side door and said, “What’s happening?”
“We got a flat,” Miller said. “And we’re going to Yellowstone.”
“Who’s that?” Carleen said, and Miller said, “Walt.”
“I’ve never been to Yellowstone,” Carleen said.
She seemed better than last night, happy again — herself.
Walt walked back with the jack. Miller didn’t want to see everyone as a cop or killer. Everything was going to be fine.
Then the cat bolted out the motorhome’s side door.
“Waffles,” Carleen cried, the cat tearing across the parking lot toward the expanse of grass where the old couple stood with their piddling pocket dog. Walt dropped his jack to chase the cat, Miller following, Carleen following Miller. It seemed possible that Waffles would kill the little dog. But the dog fought back.
“Waffles!” Carleen cried.
“Cookie!” the old woman cried.
The dog had Waffles pinned, teeth bared, was going for his throat.
But before the dog could kill the cat, the old man lifted him into the air by his leash, where he hung, spinning and panting, smiling the way dogs sometimes do.
Waffles scrambled toward the bathroom building, Carleen right behind.