Avery is quiet as Treat pushes her old Corolla up 65 like a fugitive. The speed doesn’t worry her; the cornfields stretch out a dull white both east and west, but the interstate is clear. She wonders if a fleet of Lafayette Police cars will pull up behind them at any moment, she wonders if what she’s doing is what’s called “harboring” on the TV shows her mother watches, she even wonders what she’s missing in World Civ. There wasn’t a test scheduled, so she’s safe on that front. A glance in the side mirror shows no police, only two shrinking semis. She swipes off her pink toboggan and unbuttons her pea coat, getting comfortable with helping Treat run from the law, the idea that made her hesitate back at her father’s.

    Treat had been staying at Avery’s father’s house since Thursday night. Her mother was working late, so Avery had taken her retriever/shepherd mix, Peyton, to her father’s so she could walk him around Columbian Park after dark. Peyton was born with cerebellar hypoplasia; with no motor skills, his paws chop the air as he skates down the street, tumbling forward and backward like he’s on ice. People can’t help commenting on his jerky gait: “What’s wrong with him?” When a young mother pushing a stroller had said, “That’s the strangest dog I’ve ever seen,” Avery told the woman she had the ugliest baby she’d ever seen, and since then she walks Peyton only at night. Thursday night, Peyton had tuggedas best he canAvery off the sidewalk and through the playground toward a boy slumped in a swing. She recognized the boy from his thick red curls: Treat Miller. In first period study hall that morning, she’d smelled liquor on him.

    Treat scratched behind Peyton’s ears. His nails were too long and seemed to glow. He’d never seen Avery’s dog before, and that he didn’t ask about his flopping around in the snow helped Avery overcome her disgust for him. It even made her like him a little.

    “I suppose Katelyn told you everything?” he asked.

    “Yeah. Don’t worry. She made me promise not to tell anyone.”

    Avery’s best friend, Katelyn, had done it with Treat; Avery was still a virgin, but Treat was not Katelyn’s first. Katelyn said Treat was rough, gripping too tight, letting those long nails scratch. She almost asked him to stop. When he came, he hit her in the side. Avery didn’t know about it until a dozen cheerleaders and Katelyn’s coach had seen the bruise, and the story that she’d gotten it in some guy’s bed had seeped through the halls of Tipp County High. Even Avery’s father, a drunk who phoned in his English lessons, had heard. When Katelyn finally told Avery the story, she swore her to secrecy; she wanted all the talking to stop, and thought turning in Treat would make things worse. Now this sicko was hiding in Columbian Park, cozying up to Avery’s dog.

    “I’m not a monster,” Treat said.

    Avery gave Peyton’s leash a gentle tug: Time to go.

    When the dog’s ears were out of his grip, Treat’s face flopped into his hands, his fingers digging in his curls.

    “He’ll kill me,” he said. “He’ll kill me.”

    “I said don’t worry. Katelyn’s not telling her parents, so no one’s going to kill you.”

    Treat looked up. Tears shimmered on his cheeks.

    “I’m not talking about that,” he said. “He’s going to kill me because I got caught drunk at school. If he finds out about Katelyn, he’ll find a way to kill me again.”

    To Avery, Treat was the worst kind of jock: the kind that doesn’t actually play any sports, but acts like a star in pickup games, talks too loud, and thinks so little of women that when he finally gets one (what was Katelyn doing with him, anyway?) he thinks he can rough her up. But she found herself pitying him. What would happen if she turned him away? He couldn’t hide out in the park or on the streetit was January. If he went home, what would his father do? Hit him? Grab him by his curls and throw him to the floor? Her father would know what to do.

    Treat followed Avery and Peyton the two blocks from the park to Avery’s father’s house. Avery’s father was on the couch watching the Boilermakers lose to the Buckeyes. His sweats stretched across his belly and he was cradling a bourbon and Coke. He said Treat was welcome to stay in Avery’s room until Mr. Miller cooled off. When Treat had gone to bed, Avery’s father explained to Avery why he’d taken the kid in: When he’d done ninety meetings in ninety days the summer before the divorce, Mr. Miller had shown up once toward the end. “He left a bad taste in my mouth,” Avery’s father said. “I knew he wouldn’t get the help he needed, not that time. And I knew his family would pay for it.” Avery thought: Like us, Daddy, just like us. To soften the harshness of the barb, she revised: Not just like us. You never lay a hand on us.

    Avery spent the weekend at her father’s, sprawled on her bed reading World Civ and Advanced Chem, while Treat watched basketball with her father. In the evenings, rather than go out to Desario’s or China Buffet and risk being seen with their refugee, they ordered pizza. Treat went with Avery and Peyton on their nightly walks, telling Avery how hard his home life was: If his father had a lousy day at the Dodge dealership, he laid into his family with cruelty. When Treat’s little brother prattled on about High School Musical, his father called him “my good lady.” His father once stared across the dinner table at his mother and said, “If you insist on being frigid, you could at least learn to cook.” Each night, he hoped the climax would arrive sooner: When his father slapped his mother’s cheek or pushed him into the wall, he felt a great wave of reliefit was over for now. Treat’s a loudmouth, and he hurt and humiliated Katelynbut how could he know any better? There was more Avery could do besides hide him. Sunday night in the park, when they’d grown silent and the only sound was the flurry of Peyton’s nails scratching the sidewalk, Avery turned to Treat and kissed him, their mouths steaming.

    Monday is when things go really wrong. Treat had stayed home from school, blaming a bad feeling in his stomach. Avery wonders now if it was a premonition or just luck, because during the break between sixth and seventh periods Avery’s father asked her into his classroom and told her that Katelyn (who hasn’t been to school since last Monday) broke down this afternoon and told her parents the name of the boy who hurt her. When he put his hand on her shoulder and said, “I’m sorry, but it was Treat,” she couldn’t fake surprise, but offered her blankest face. He didn’t ask, to be sure, if she knew. He said Katelyn’s parents had notified the school, and he was obliged to meet the police at home to hand over the boy.

    When the tone sounded for the start of seventh period, Avery was at her locker, grabbing her coat and toboggan. She sprinted to the student lot, started her car, and sped to her father’s house. They’d escaped: Treat answering her banging on the back door, she shaking him and giving him the situation, he grabbing his coat and jumping into the driver’s side. They’d only paused when she stood outside the car, not sure if she was supposed to go with him or just give him the car. But then his “Come on!” muffled by the driver’s window settled it. Their cells fluttered in their coat pockets, echoing their racing hearts, calls from their fathers that they shut off. Treat said something about Chicagohe has a cousin in Chicago. Dominic. Then they were on State Road 26, mercifully empty, and then they were pulling onto 65 north.

    Treat feels comfortable enough to call his cousin. “I’m on my way up to Chicago. I was hoping you could put me up for the night.” Avery hears Dominic’s miniaturized laugh coming through. “I got into some trouble with a girl and need a place to lay low for a while.” More laughter. Treat listens to Dominic give him directions to his apartment. Then he says to Avery, “We’re good.”


The sky is too close. It doesn’t give Avery the impression of distance that it does on clear days; the gray seems to hang just on the other side of the windshield. In this sobering light, she knows she’s not running away with Treat. She doesn’t even think Treat will stay on the run. Maybe he will. But if she doesn’t come back, for one thing Peyton will die. Her mother thought they ought to put him down when the specialist at the Purdue vet school diagnosed him when he was puppy. Her father would make an effort, but not enough, as the dog needs constant attention. For another thing, Avery graduates in June. Her heart’s set on Cornell; maybe she’ll double major in psychology and English. It’s just a matter of how long this will last. Dominic will keep them tonight, maybe longer. Avery glances over at Treat, whose eyes are squinted and tired, and sees a husband driving the last stretch of a long trip. If she’s given him a measure of comfort, time to breathe before his mistakes, which seem to float harmlessly in the past, are put on paper and fed into computers and he’s made accountable, she’ll consider all this a success.

    The gray sky darkens and gives them room as they get on 90 west. They haven’t stopped, though the tank’s getting low, and their stomachs rumble.

    “We going to make it?” Avery asks.

    “What’s that supposed to mean?”

    Avery points to the gauge. Treat thinks they’re close to Dominic’s village. He pulls off the Kennedy Expressway and drags them down a one-way street of red-brick row houses. They can’t pick out the numbers, but when Treat thinks they’re close, he parallel parks. He bumps the CRV behind them.

    Dominic’s second-floor apartment puts Avery at ease, not because it’s her element, but because it’s Treat’s. Dominic’s head is shaved, though a blue horseshoe pattern shows. He’s wearing a blue shirt, unbuttoned, and black wool pants, but he must have been home for hours. He hugs Treat, thumping him on the back. His apartment is cavernous: big rooms for boys to spread out and thump each other, little in the way of furniture, only a matching leatherish couch and chair facing a flat-screen TV, under which DVDs are crammed into a stand. Avery shifts on her feet, crunching dirt into the hardwood floors. Dominic looks mid-twenties. A bachelor pad. The only feminine touch is a vase of red carnations on the dining table. A girl’s been here recently.

    Dominic introduces himself to Avery with a gentle handshake. “Make yourself at home, Avery,” he says, gesturing toward the living room. “Can I get either of you a beer?”

    Treat says yes, so Avery says yes too. They are safe for now; they ought to relax before their next move. Avery flinches as the beer’s bitterness washes over her tongue.

    When all three are settled, Treat and Avery on the couch, their coats thrown over the back, and Dominic in the chair, Dominic says to Treat, “You didn’t tell me you were bringing the girl.”

    “Sorry,” Treat says.

    “No, it’s okay. It’s a nice surprise.” Dominic winks at Avery. “What kind of trouble are you two in, anyway?”

    “She’s not the one,” Treat says.

    Dominic asks Avery, “Are you in some other kind of trouble?”

    “No,” she says. “I’m just here for Treat.”

    “So you’ve got one girl helping you run from another one?” Dominic laughs. “I had no idea my little cousin was such a player.”

    Treat, not drinking his Heineken, just stares at his feet. Even Dominic can tell he ought to stop grilling him. “I can understand if you don’t want to talk about it,” he says. “I’ve got just the thing we all need.”

    He goes to his bedroom and returns with a cigar box and squeezes between his guests. He opens the box to reveal a bag of pot and rolling papers. When he licks the paper to seal the first joint, his tongue looks too pink.

    “Ladies first,” he says, handing the joint to Avery. She’s smoked pot once, with her ex, Johnny, and some of his friends. It was one of the moments that pushed her to break up with him; he was too busy goofing with the others to take care of her, to see that she was doing it right. She’s not sure she did. When she sucks this time, Dominic coaches her. “Hold on to it. Let it go down.” When she can no longer take the tickling and burning, she lets go with a rumble of coughs. “Good girl.”

    After her next hit, but before she’s sure she’s feeling the drug work, she says, “Oh my God, I just remembered I was starving.”

    “Damn,” Dominic says, “You get the munchies quick, girl.”

    He puts a frozen pizza in the oven for them and grabs them each another beer. It’s working, Avery thinks, Treat is free, breathing easy between hits, feeling invincible. She’s given him this. Dominic turns on his stereo: rap music, which Avery usually can’t stand (it’s all the niggas and bitches she can’t take), but digs right now. An angry black man stands between them and their pursuers. Even if they got past this smooth monster, the wall of thumping bass would overwhelm them. Dominic juts his elbows out, dancing. In his wool pants and with his work shirt swinging open, he looks like a total douche bag, something Avery has never called anyone. But she’s loving him anyway, right now; he’s given them a safe place to stay, food, and gotten them high. Beacons of light surround her: Dominic’s glossy forehead, their green bottles, the tip of the joint in Treat’s lips.

    Treat sits up and says to Dominic, “Sorry I wasn’t being cool earlier. You’re really helping us out.”

    “No problem, little cousin. One dance with your girl is payment enough.” Dominic takes Avery’s hand and pulls her up to dance with him. She obliges. She dances so close to him that they keep brushing each other, little strikes of his crotch against her hip, her boobs against his torso. She’s sweating, so she pulls off her sweater, andfuck ither tee shirt too, so she’s down to a white tank top that rides up to reveal a sliver of midriff.

    Treat goes on: “But this has been a fucking crazy day. I’m wanted by the cops, the fucking cops, and here I am, stoned as a motherfucker.”

    Dominic laughs. Maybe he thinks it’s a joke. He’s struck dumb by Avery, anyway. He tosses his shirt away. Avery can’t help but run her fingers over his thick shoulders. He puts his hands on her sides, his pinkies penetrating the slice of skin between her tank top and jeans. She doesn’t know how long they’ve been at it, she can’t tell when one track ends and the next begins, but she’s burning up, her Secret deodorant sweetening the skunky pot smell. And she’s actually turned on by this corporate douche bag ex-jockso not her type. She dates boys from Academic Team; her husband will have a PhD. She guesses there’s a Nerf basketball hoop on Dominic’s bedroom door. But it still turns her on that an older guy with a career and his own placeand this bodyis flirting with her.

    She has to pee and asks for the bathroom, and Dominic takes her through the bedroom. The light is too bright, so she flips it off and cracks the door enough to see by the bedroom lamp Dominic had switched on.

    On her way back, she surveys the bedroom. It’s clean: bed made, dresser top covered only in a couple picture frames (it’s too dark to see but she imagines his parents smiling out of them), a creased copy of The Da Vinci Code on the night stand. No feminine touches. She wonders if that means he’s not serious with the carnation girl. And there’s no hoop on the door.

    Out in the living room a jangling noise invades them. It’s an unfamiliar cell ringDominic’s phone. The stereo goes mute, and in this quiet, Avery feels their safety threatened. It seems Treat’s father is in the hall, about to knock down the door. She sits on the bed to steady herself and listens.

    “Hey, Pop,” Dominic says. “Have I heard from Treat? Why would I have heard from Treat?” There are the sounds of him cracking a window for the smoke; he’s making the place presentable for some unexpected visit. “The police? Really.” More talking from the other end. Avery strains to hear him, cowed by Pop, giving them up. “I didn’t have any idea, Pop. Yeah, I’ll keep them here.”

    As soon as he flips his cell shut, Treat is off the couch and in his face.

    “What the fuck, man! Why’d you tell your dad I was here?”

    “You didn’t tell me you were wanted by the police for assault.”

    “Yes, I did.”

    “What kind of shit did you pull, anyway? He said you assaulted a girl.”

    There’s a pause in which Treat must think he’s lost. That space Avery had bought for him to breathe in has closed.

    “A police car’s coming to pick you two up.”

    Avery freezes when she hears this; it now seems inevitable that she’s going back to Lafayette tonight, and the difficulties of her return frighten her. Will it be in a cop’s car? Or is her father on his way to Chicago? Please, God, let it be that. Don’t let her mother be with him. Let him bring Peyton.

    “No,” Treat says. “No fucking way.”

    “What do you mean, no?”

    “I’ll run. I’ll go to a hotel.”

    There will be no keeping Treat here short of physical restraint, and while Dominic has the strength he may lack the will. Dominic steps into the bedroom and closes the door behind him. Avery stands, holds herself.

    “I don’t know what’s going on between you two,” Dominic says, “but I think it would be for the best if you stayed right here.”

    “I can’t leave him.”

    Dominic puts his arms around Avery, and she leans into his body for a bit of comfort before she leaves. Because maybe by leaving they can buy Treat a little more time.

    Dominic whispers: “He’s trouble. That family’s trouble. You’re safe here. I’ll take care of you.”

    His hands creep up her sides now, his fingertips digging under her tank, alarmingly close to the edge of her bra. She tries breaking away from him, but he buries his face in her neck, that pink tongue flicking in her hair.

    Avery tries to cry out, but the cry gets choked off, and instead she throws a tantrum, arms flailing and feet stomping. This loosens something in her, and the cry gets free of the bottleneck and opens up like a baby’s wail. Dominic emerges from her neck and kisses her mouth, trapping the wail. The effort weakens his hold on her and she falls onto the bed. The spot where he licked her neck burns.

    “Cocktease,” he says.

    She gets up and runs to the living room, where Treat stands looking caught, unaware of what’s happened in the bedroom.

    “Let’s go,” he says.

    She gets into her coat and grabs her tee shirt and sweater, and they are out the door and down the stairs and inside her car before they can speak. Treat wants to get out of the village, back onto the Kennedy and then a cheap hotel. But he doesn’t want to stop for gas, either.

    “What were you doing back there?” he asks.

    “What was I doing? What were you doing? That creep was about to rape me and you were just standing there.”

    “He left his wallet in the kitchen. I got all the cash from it. Count this.” He hands her a folded stack of bills. “And I took the rest of his weed.”


As soon as they’re inside the room, Avery sinks to one of the beds and begins sobbing. She can still feel Dominic’s hands on her skin. She’d held herself together in the car, which jerked and wheezed for fuel as they pulled into the hotel lot, and put on a tired smile to match that of the old Hispanic woman in the hotel office. Treat had said to pay for the room with Dominic’s money, but Avery shoved it in her pocket and pulled from her wallet the emergency MasterCard her mother had given her. She pressed the card to her lips. If she left a paper trail, they could be found. But wouldn’t that be the same as calling the police and turning Treat in? The woman, waiting on the credit card, asked if everything was okay. Avery nodded and slid the card to the woman. It is not exactly the same. She was buying him more time this way. But she hoped it wouldn’t be too much longer.

    Since the spell of Dominic’s place had been broken by that phone call, Avery wants only for her father to show up and take her home. And Treat can’t run forever.

    Treat works all the locks on the door. Then he sits by Avery and holds her, tries to stifle her sobs. To get the awful film of Dominic off her, Avery kisses Treat. It’s not like last night’s kiss, a hot little star in the cold night, it’s sloppy and fills the room with its smacking and sucking. Treat’s hands reach inside her coat and crawl up her back, and she pulls him closer. His mouth works its way down her chin to her neck and to the firm spot just above the rim of her tank top. But it fails to wash Dominic away; instead it seems to seal him to her.

    “Wait,” she says. “I feel like taking a shower.”

    Treat smiles. “Together?”

    “No.” 

    Treat’s smile takes on the stuck look of the hotel clerk’s.

    “I’m sorry,” Avery says. “I just feel like cleaning up.”

    She shuts the bathroom door and turns on the shower before taking off her clothes. She shouldn’t have made out with Treat. He’s probably expecting her to have sex with him now. That would make him comfortable, but she must think of herself here, and this isn’t how she wants to lose her virginity. She lingers in the shower, prolonging the moment she’ll have to face his expectation. Then another fear grips her: What if he comes in here and tries to rape me like his cousin did? She turns off the water and nearly slips hurrying to get one of the coarse towels around her body.

    She comes out in her jeans and tank top, barefoot and with her towel wrapped around her hair. Treat is rolling another joint. The TV provides the only light in the room.

    “Up in Smoke,” he says, pointing at the screen. “Can you believe our luck?”

    He lights the joint and takes a hit, then offers it to Avery.

    “No thanks,” she says. “I just want to lie down.”

    She crawls on the bed next to Treat, but doesn’t get under the covers. Treat must’ve turned on the heat while she was in the shower. Her skin begins to itch from the room’s dryness.

    “Can you turn that down?” she asks.

    When he reaches for the TV remote wired to the nightstand, she says that she meant the heat. He obliges, and she turns to face the wall, where the TV’s lights grow and shrink and play, finally lulling her to sleep.


She wakes up to hard knocking and a mildewy smell. The smell is her towel, which has fallen away from her head. The knocking is at the door.

    Treat bounces off the bed and rushes to the bathroom. Flushing. Avery looks in on him. The pot, of course. Through Dominic and the MasterCard, the police have tracked them down to this hotel and come to take them back to Lafayette. Is her father on the other side of the door? It’s time to lose the drugs. She has an impulse to flush Dominic’s cash too, but doesn’t want Treat to know she didn’t use it for the room. Treat tells her to answer the door. All she can say here at the end is, “It’s going to be okay.” How lame.

    She undoes the locks and opens the door, disappointed to see it’s only the clerk. “Someone complained about a smell,” the clerk says. That stuck-on smile has been replaced by a hard, dry mouth.

    “I haven’t smelled anything,” Avery says.

    The clerk pokes her nose into the room and sniffs.

    “This is a no-smoking room. And I don’t like what I smell. If I have to come back, you’ll have to leave.”

    Avery promises the clerk she won’t have to come back. When the clerk’s gone, Treat comes out of the bathroom and clicks off the TV, leaving them in darkness, but not quiet. The hum of another room’s TV, the ghost of theirs.

    “Maybe we should get some sleep,” Avery says.

    She lies down on the bed and Treat lies next to her. The pot gone down the toilet, he might make his move on her now. But instead he says, “What‘s our plan?” Avery says nothing. “We ought to move to another hotel tomorrow. But where’re we going to get the cash?” What’s he thinking of? Picking pockets? Snatching purses? He could get killed. Or maybe he’s thinking of finding the kind of work where no one asks many questions, but that probably doesn’t exist anymore, and that loss saddens her, and not just for him. She wishes she could say something in earnest, give him hope, because the police aren’t coming tonight, they’re not going to trace them to this room, she’s been dragged into too many detective shows with her mother. Tomorrow, she’ll tell Treat she’s got to go back. He’ll understand she wants to go back to her father and mother.

    “Get out of the city,” she says. “Head for big open spaces.”

    As soon as she’s said it, she’s afraid Treat will ask if she means they should get out of the city together. He answers only with deep breaths. As her eyes adjust to the dark, his face comes into soft focus. He’s drifted off, maybe into dreams of hitchhiking out west, landing a job on a ranch, playing pickup games with the other cowhands under a rusted backboard, not talking so loud anymore.

    She’s given him peace. She wants to keep up this vigil, but she’s exhausted and drifts in and out of sleep. She doesn’t know if it’s hours or only minutes when she finally surrenders.

    Knocking again. Avery straightens and moves to the door, ready to tell the clerk she’s made a mistake this time. But when she undoes the locks and swings open the door, two cops wait on the other side. The closer one is fiftyish, his features clumped on his face like clay, with a gut, an uglier version of her father. His wide belt of glossy black compartments comes almost to her nose.

    “Avery?” he says.

    She had wished for them earlier, but since their absence had granted her and Treat the peace they were now interrupting, she’s angry, and all she can say to them is a dry, “What took you so long?”

    Treat is not fully out of his western reverie when the other cop enters the room for him.

    The first cop says to Avery, “Your parents are really worried about you.” This brings her around. She wants to be back home: Her room at her mother’s, her room at her father’s, the children at Columbian Park who don’t know any better and their parents who should know better than to ask about Peyton, World Civ and Advanced Chem. She collapses into this man’s arms and cries out for all of it.



Patrick Nevins lives in Lafayette, Indiana, with his wife and dogs. He has an MFA from Purdue University. His fiction is forthcoming in Gander Press Review.












Back to Freight Stories No. 4

 

Patrick Nevins

Harboring