Conway Rides

Ian Breen

Two days after his father didn’t come home for dinner, Conway’s mother sat him down at the kitchen table and explained what had happened. Her eyes were red and her breath smelled of cigarettes. “He didn’t care about either of us,” she said, “so he did something stupid and selfish, and now we’re alone.” She said he was in jail in California and it was too far away and too expensive to visit him. He was never coming back.

Through his thundering confusion, Conway felt a tiny flame of anger. “But wasn’t he just trying to get us money, like you always say when you fight?”

She jerked her head back as if she’d been slapped. “You know what, Connie? You’re right. At least stealing might have gotten us the things we need. But he couldn’t even do that.”

Conway stared down at his hands. After a moment she covered them with her own, the cuticles bitten to raw red flaps. “Your father’s gone, honey, but you can count on me.”

Perpendicular to the aisle of fishing poles, a long glass display counter runs along the wall. A collection of new reels sits on top, next to assorted sinkers and bobbers in plastic trays. He steps to the counter, which comes up to his chest. His stomach feels fluttery. The clerk is ten feet away showing a bait cart to a fat man wearing a tan vest and a matching hat. When Conway reaches up to take the reel he almost drops it because his palms are so sweaty. He turns it over in his hands, pretending to play with the gleaming knobs and levers, but he can barely feel his fingers. He glances around quickly, heart hammering, and then stuffs it into his pocket.

As he walks back the way he came, Conway waits for a voice to call after him, but he hears nothing except the swish of his corduroys and the muffled chatter of other shoppers. Exhilaration surges through him; he feels like he’s floating. He heads toward the front of the store, limbs tingling, but just before he gets there he detours to the candy section. Taking the Twizzlers is even easier than taking the reel. He hurries on his way, trying to keep the package from crinkling under his coat.

His mother is waiting for him near the checkout lanes. Her makeup has run, leaving dark, tornado-shaped smudges beneath her eyes. She frowns when she sees him. “Where have you been?”

“I was…talking to Kayla.”

“You were?”

He swallows. “Yeah.”

“And what were you talking about?”

Conway can feel the weight of the reel in his pocket. “Fishing.”

She looks at him for a moment and then smiles. “I think someone’s got a little girlfriend.”

When they check out, his mother forgets about the gum she promised, but Conway doesn’t care. He just wants her to pay for her Brillo pads and carton of Parliaments so they can leave. The pit has opened in his stomach again, and his feet feel hot. When the cashier opens the register, Conway’s eyes fix briefly on the crinkled stacks of bills in the drawer, and then he looks away. The cashier, a tall man with black hair and eyebrows that join together in the middle, seems to stare right at him. Conway wonders if he knows and is just waiting for him to try to escape. Will he swoop down on him before he can get outside? Was that the way it happened with his father?

His mother takes the plastic bag with her items and steps forward so the next person in line can be rung up. She seems to be moving in slow motion. Finally she zips her purse and starts walking. They are almost to the exit when Kayla’s voice rings out behind him.

“There he is!”

Conway glances over his shoulder and sees Kayla and Mr. Nelson striding toward them. He darts forward, stumbling into another shopper, and as the doors slide open, splitting his reflection in two, the fishing reel clatters to the floor. He looks down at it and then up at his mother’s stunned face. Behind her, a dozen heads have turned to watch. For a long moment he stares into his mother’s eyes. Then Kayla laughs, a hateful, triumphant sound, and he turns and rushes through the automatic doors.

Outside, the vast gray parking lot seems to stretch until it joins the grayer sky; there is nowhere to go. A chill breeze ruffles his hair as he climbs onto the mechanical horse, but he barely feels it. He leans forward and wraps his arms around the stallion’s painted neck.

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