I had yet to catch a steelhead, whether drift-fishing legally on the Puyallup River or spearing in the Gorge with Aaron’s kid, who got a kick out of my inability to develop the proper wrist flick. But the couple times I went out with him, I always came back with fresh fish; a gift from Aaron whose smoker was busy enough to follow its scent-trail to his hidden cabin.
The albino wasn’t a big talker, and I wasn’t about to ask him if he really supplied Gorge skooks with their winter rations. When I tried to refuse a pair of particularly fine fish as too much, since I hadn’t contributed to the bag, he got grumpy.
“The daddy of Joe’s heir gotta make sure to feed that boy right,” he said flatly. “When Joe’s gone, the Gorge gonna need your boy big and strong and ready.”
Some things just aren’t worth arguing about. Some people it’s useless to argue with. Like Aaron, when he got his mind made up. I took the fish. But I didn’t go back all winter. Having two of the Gorge’s madder inhabitants taking as a given my son’s ascendancy to skook guardian of the Gorge was not a happy thing….
In August, my employer gave me a raise and a week’s vacation for my son’s fifth birthday, to celebrate my almost-year of employment…My wife’s boss gave her the same week, and we spent it at the beach. Harry liked romping in shoulder-high waves after a thrown dummy. My son liked romping in the ocean, period. The Pacific was way colder than the Atlantic of my childhood but no one seemed bothered but me. I loafed a lot in our beachfront cabin and watched the three of them explore and play. The boom of the surf made for wonderfully peaceful sleeping.
When we got home, early rain had cut the stuffy inland heat of August; an early autumn gift. The apples and pears in the orchard were round and bright and delicious; the wild blackberries were lush and purple, bursting with juice. When the premature rains cleared off, everything had a freshly laundered look and the nights stayed cool. The coyotes sang on the ridges and the wild dogs hunted loudly in the bottoms. Deer and elk helped themselves to the orchard.
I went back to work refreshed and happy, marveling at the tranquility we seemed to have achieved in our little bit of heaven above the ancient lahar…My superstitious Southern grandmother would have warned me not to be fooled; the most tranquil landscape hides the deadliest trap. But she wasn’t around, and I didn’t remember her habitual warning until our tranquility was rudely shattered.
It was an October Saturday when our peaceful time crashed down around our ears.
The winter rains were back. Saturday dawned with a steady downpour, but Western Washington residents never permitted a little rain to interrupt plans. We were planning an outing to one of the new outlet malls that had just begun to spring up. This one was about ninety miles away and we’d be inside a lot so after I gave Harry his morning constitutional, I put him in the garage with plenty of water and a bowl of crunchies to hold him.
My wife was finishing up a wicker basket with sandwiches and such for a picnic somewhere along the way and perking coffee for the half-gallon Stanley bottle. So I bundled up the boy in his new padded blue jacket and watch cap. The little yellow slicker, rain hat and boots from when he was two had gone to the Goodwill; along with winter jackets for when he was three and four. He outgrew them fast and was quite the little man at five.
We were taking the old Pontiac, which got better mileage than the truck and gave him the whole back seat to play with his little backpack full of various toys.
“I wanna start the car, Dad,” he said. It was his latest accomplishment.
“Okay, son.” I handed him the keys. “Remember the rules.”
“Leave it in park, don’t touch the pedals,” he said impatiently. “Even if the engine starts to die on me.”
“Just right,” I said.
“That old car always dies on mom first time.”
“Let’s see what happens.” I squatted within the open door and pushed the gas pedal a time or two. “Okay, now try,” I said.
The old Bonneville fired right up, ran hard for a couple seconds, then kicked down. His grin blazed. “Mom always forgets that!”
I stood up. “I think it’ll warm up fine now.” I saw her come out the front door juggling the picnic basket and the Stanley while trying to put the key in the lock and started toward her to help. She looked up at me. Then past me. Her mouth seemed to fall open. Her face reflected sheer horror.
She yelled. Not screamed, yelled. “No!”
I spun, thinking he had moved the gear selector.
Somebody was getting in the open front door of the car as my son’s face twitched up toward him, shocked.
Just somebody — that’s all I noticed right then. Somebody putting his hands on my son, trying to push him away from the steering wheel. I saw my son’s face change from shock to instant anger.
“No!” Just like his mom, he yelled it.
Big as the intruder was, he was momentarily stymied trying to pry my son away from the wheel. Or I wouldn’t have made it back in time to keep him from shutting the door.
It was close, anyway.
He shoved my son, hard, all the way across the seat and grabbed for the door handle. But I was there and blocked it with my leg. He yanked it hard enough to hurt, trying to dislodge me. All I could think of was him daring to lay hands on my son. I reached in, grabbed him, snatched him out of the car and slammed him upright against the back door. His flimsy, filthy T-shirt tore in my hands and I staggered back.
The son-of-a-bitch was bigger than me. A lot bigger.
And strong, oh man was he strong. He used one hand to push me away like I weighed nothing. He didn’t even look at me; he might have been swatting a fly.
I managed not to fall. In that stunned moment, I had just enough time to register that he must go six-four or five with a huge tangled mop of coarse black hair and a wild, matted beard that masked most of his face; beady little eyes devoid of expression. Beneath the tattered shirt, his broad chest was as hairy as his face.
And he was barefooted beneath ragged old pants.
In the next split second he dived with preternatural speed back into the driver’s seat. Tried to slam the door. I blocked him again. I grabbed him again. I got one hand under an armpit. He stank almost badly as a skook.
He clung to the steering wheel. Those massive arms knotted and writhed with muscle. My son clubbed him in the side of the head with his backpack full of toys. He let go with one hand and swatted at my son. Missed.
Red killing rage suffused my alarm. He was coming out of that car, now. I didn’t care if the damn steering wheel came with him. I snatched him out again and turned with him and gave him a judo hip like the Army taught me in unarmed combat. I threw him clear over the car.
“Get my damn gun!” I yelled to my wife.
Today of all days I hadn’t put on the Casull’s shoulder harness.
The intruder hit the ground beyond the car — and bounced up like a rubber ball. Raced around the hood of the car with that same inhuman speed. The bastard was still trying to get to the driver’s door. As if I wasn’t even there. His single-mindedness was terrifying.
“Get my gun!” I yelled again.
I blocked him with both hands up and open and drove my full weight into his broad chest. He rocked back, but didn’t fall.
Harry had heard enough. He weighed in with a basso profundo roar and hit the garage door like he was coming through.
That got this asshole’s attention. His flat dead eyes widened. The closest thing to an expression I saw the whole time crossed his ugly mug: fear of the dog. He spun and ran down the driveway. When he hit paving, he turned toward downtown. Then he really ran. How could somebody that big move that fast? I watched him out of sight before I checked my son.
His eyes were still blazing but his chin quivered. “He was strong, Da!” The lost “d” was telling. I pulled him into my arms.
“So are you, son, so are you. You kept him from closing the door till I got here. And gave him hell of a whack! Good for you!”
“Peee You! He stank, Dad!”
“He sure did.”
“Where’d he go?”
“He ran away when Harry started barking at him.”
My wife still was nailed to the spot where she’d first seen the intruder, eyes wide in shock.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I yelled. “Where’s my damn gun?”
She seemed to shake herself. “Is my son all right?” She rushed to the car and pulled him out of my arms. I let him go. So he was her son again; that usually meant she thought I had done something wrong. I didn’t have time to worry about it. I was still scanning for the asshole.
“Go in the house and check him out,” I said. “Now. That asshole may come back.”
“He was stealing our car!”
“And our son with it,” I said. “I almost couldn’t handle him, he was so damn strong. I needed my gun!”
“It was just a kid from the school,” she said, fussing with our son.
I drew a blank. “What?”
“They’re always trying to escape. He just saw the open car door, and — “
“That was no damn kid! He was big as a damn linebacker and strong as an ox!”
“A kid in his mind,” she said, not even paying attention to me. “Mentally they never grow up.”
“That sonofabitch was stronger than me!”
“Well…the school has a weight room for patients.”
“Just god-damned dandy,” I said hotly. “Get inside in case he comes back.” I reached in and shut off the car and pocketed the keys. “I’m calling the cops. Right now!”