Rowan began as Rowan always begins.
“I wanted you to be the first to know, little brother. Giving you the heads up right now so you’ll be ready. There’s gonna be all sorts a questions and they’ll come straight to you first thing. Just be chill. Things blow over pretty fast, ya know.” He looked around the diner and then he continued. “Anyway, you can’t tell anybody what I’m about ta tell you, alright? You know nothing. I just up and skipped town and no one knows where. Got it? …Just keep your mouth shut, Gavin. Everything’ll be fine. Deal?” He extended his hand over the tabletop seeking a fist bump. I gave it to him, of course. But I was a long way from being cool with whatever was trying to happen.
We sat in the Nothing Significant Diner in a booth as far into the back corner as we could get and we’d been waiting on our food for less than seven minutes. He was antsy and fidgety and way more scared than he wanted to let on. Whatever he was hatching was too hot to keep to himself. And frankly, I didn’t want to hear any more. Sorry.
Ever been in that situation? A friend wants to tell you something, wants to bare his soul, but you kinda don’t want any part of it? It’s an awful feeling. Selfish. “I know you’re really upset and all, but I’m kinda in a good place right now, and whatever this is really isn’t my problem. So can we just. Stop?” I mean, what kind of friend does that make me? But that’s not fair. The real question is, what kind of friend does it make him to put me in that situation? He’s torturing himself just trying to keep his own secret. And it can’t be a good one. This is Rowan Callabaugh we’re talking about. Could be almost anything.
Right now, before he opens his stupid mouth any wider, I’m feeling just fine. But I already know that’s all about to change. Any second now he’s gonna spill it. Can’t help himself. He’ll hand his burden off to me like a baton and it’ll be my leg to run in the anxiety relay. Well, I don’t want that baton! And I’m just about to tell him so too. Really. Just like this. Watch: “No! I’m going to stop you right there, Rowan. Not this time. Keep that shit to yourself. I mean it!” Like that. Here I go.
No, I’m not. He’s my brother.
“I’m all ears, bro. What’s up?”
As he takes a deep breath our waiter is suddenly tableside. Something about the guy makes me do a double take. I can’t place it. Name tag says LEE. Lee… I don’t know any Lees. But he does look familiar. It bugs me.
“Breakfast Salad… That’s hash browns tossed with bacon, sausage, onions, tomatoes, scrambled eggs and cheddar cheese. Mr. Pibb. And… You had the French Toast Monte Cristo, hold the turkey, with a side of sausage patties. English muffin and marmalade. Large orange juice. Anything else, gentlemen?”
“Nah, homes. We’re good.”
But he didn’t mean it. He went back into the kitchen and that was it. Maybe his own order of I Just Can’t Give a Damn Today came up in the window. Who knows. Finally I gave up and started eating without it. But it really pissed me off. Seriously? There were like two people at a table, way on the other side, and Sheriff Adams sitting all by himself. The place was dead otherwise! But the truth is, I wasn’t so much mad as I was agitated because I was running out of ways to stall Rowan. He was about ready to circle back to his point, the whole reason he wanted to go eat breakfast in the first place. I noticed he kept looking over at Sheriff Adams each time before he’d open his mouth again. That made me feel even worse. Ah, hell. Damn you, Rowan!
“I can’t wait any longer, brother.” I beckoned him to continue using both my hands. “Out with it. Issue!”
“Gavin,” he looked both ways again. “I’ve come up with the perfect way to score some easy green. And I mean a big ol’ box of it, homes!”
I knew it.
“Really! Got a new job, didja?”
Couldn’t resist. I should have, I know. Knew it at the time too. Screw him. He owes me. Trust me on that.
“Why you gotta be like that? Here I am in this great mood and all, letting you buy me breakfast even, and you gotta go and be all sarcastic just to keep me in your little Rowan Box, man. Like the rest of this stinking one-jackass town. You know what? Forget it!” He pushed his plate forward to punctate how over the mark my comment was. I held back a giggle, so points for me. “You ain’t gonna spoil my mood, man. Forget it! I’m not even gonna tell you now. How ‘bout that?”
“Gee, that’s too bad. And I was so looking forward to it! I wonder if Lee’s ever coming back. I could use a Pibb refill. Good on your O.J.?”
I knew lockjaw couldn’t stop him from telling me now. But I wasn’t gonna beg him. We play this game all the time and now he was the one over the mark. I went back to eating and waited on Rowan to remember the rules.
“Okay, I’ll let it slide.” He waggled his eyebrows, even. Just don’t Sheriff Adams hear us if he wanders over to the head or something. Nosy old fart gets on my last damn nerve.”
Then he leaned in as far across the table as he could. Now if he spat while getting carried away with his histrionics and whisper yelling he’d drool all over my Breakfast Salad. Great.
“Three words: Clemens Department Store!”
Rowan followed up this dramatic reveal with an exaggerated shushing sound. Eyebrows high. And suddenly Lee shows up with my Tabasco. I’m two bites from done and the cat’s already outta the bag. But thanks, grandpa.
“Clemens Department Store. Downtown on Quadrangle Square. Oldest locally owned retailer in Shippley, Missouri. Yeah, I know it. So? What about it? They hiring on warehouse help?”
“That’s strike two, Gavin! Strike! Two! Damn it, little brother.” He loves to call me that. I’m six inches taller than he is and outweigh him by 110 pounds. But he does have two years on me, so okay. Have it you way. “Do you wanna hear this or not?”
I wanted to answer. So. Bad. Even though I knew that question was rhetorical. After all these years he had to know I was listening for his benefit, not for mine. But I’d been enough of an ass already, so I let that one go.
Little brothers, man. You know… They look up to you. Wanna be just like you. Become your shadow. And then they get whiskers and and suddenly they think they know better than you and wanna judge your whole damn life! Hell, I know Gavin got the brains but I also know he got the easy road too. Good looking. Tall. Strong. Not to mention I see the way Ma and the Old Man treat him and it’s like I don’t even know these people! Comes and goes as he pleases. Doesn’t have to beg to borrow the car ‘cause they bought him his own damn truck, thank you very much. Ahem. “Need some money for movies and some Drive Thru? Sure! How much? Take it all!” I mean, yeah. He’s been easier on them too. Good grades. No law troubles. Football. Never met anybody doesn’t like Gavin. I guess the parentals got it right the second time around. Hell, I know they did. Part a the reason I gotta leave.
Still. He ain’t foolin’ me. This thing I’m ‘bout to do, man. Big. If I don’t let him in on it, I’ll never hear the end of it. I can’t just split town and never say nothing to him. I know my little brother. He acts all “Oh, no! I don’t wish to hear about any such hijinks!” and whatnot. But he’d be heartbroken if I kept him in the dark. Be like I didn’t trust him and I can’t do him that way. I love him, man. He’s my kid brother. No way I’d leave him out of this!
I just wish he’d leave me out of this.
Sheriff Bill Adams knew the Callabaugh family pretty well, just as he knew all the old families in Terrapin County. From his usual Monday morning stool at the low counter he could see it all unfolding. There was Rowan: pounding the table with his right index finger, cigarette burning away in his left hand, checking to see the coast is clear and yammering on and on about who knows what. And there was Gavin: listening intently with equal parts dread and obligation and maybe even a touch of fascination. They were seldom on the same page, but you better not mess with either of the Brothers Callabaugh. Not unless you were prepared to tangle with both. Everyone in town knew that and Sheriff Adams admired that much at least. He called Lee out from the kitchen.
“Lee! C’mere a second! You had them boys in the booth over yonder come through your school, didn’t ya? The Callabaugh Boys?”
“Sure. Kinder through 4th. Both of ‘em. Good boys. Bright. Ha! Rowan was a handful at times but he was a good kid. Still is I’m sure. If he catches a break or two he’ll be alright. Of course, he could go either way and I hate that for him. Ha! They don’t remember me though. Thank God for small favors. Freshen your cup?”
“Mm hm. When you took their order did you happen to pick up on what Rowan’s latest scheme might be?”
“Oh, he’s up to something alright. I’ve seen that look before. Did you hear what they was talking about at all? Even a piece of it?”
“Ha! You know, come to think of it, I thought I heard him mention Clemens Department Store and then he got all sheepish when he saw me coming. Didn’t think anything about it. In this job you’re either interrupting a magical moment or you’re too late with the iced tea. You sorta learn to tune out almost all of it. And believe me: I’m good with that arrangement.”
“You say he mentioned Clemens Department Store?”
“Yeah. I think so. Mean anything to you, Sheriff?”
“I sure hope not.”
“Dude comes out the backdoor and leaves the drop unattended for as much as a minute! The whole strongbox. Can you believe that shit? In broad daylight! Like clockwork.”
Then Rowan saw Sheriff Adams wandering over our way. He immediately shifted from whisper yelling into a louder version of his normal conversational voice. Pushing with full diaphragm. “I am so sick of Tom Brady! Cheater! Ball deflater! Am I right?”
“Um? Wha… Oh.” It took me a second to switch tracks with him. I whispered across the table. “Really?” But it didn’t matter. Too late now.
“Yeah, I’m not convinced he’s that great. He still hasn’t shown me anything. Well! Hello there, Sheriff!”
“Huh!” I think the whole act tickled Adams a bit. “Mornin’, boys. Gavin, them fellas out in Columbia taking a hard look at you yet?”
“Yessir. I have a letter. Also have one from Nebraska and another from Wake Forest. Hoping to visit each school this summer.”
“Congratulations, son! Some good offers, sounds like. Well. I’m sure you’ll think it over, pray on it, listen to your folks, and then you’ll do what’s right by your home state. And you, Rowan. What do you have to say for yourself these days?”
“Sheriff. I’m good, thanks. We were just about to pay and head out. Nice seeing ya, though.”
“Oh, your ticket’s taken care of, boys. Rowan, I wonder if you might take a ride with me.” Panic flashed across Rowan’s face. “Not to the station house, boy! No, no! Huh! Huh! No, over ta Quadrangle Square. There’s something I’d like to ask your opinion about.”
“My opinion, Sheriff? You’re asking my opinion? About something to do with Quadrangle Square?”
“If you can spare an hour or maybe a little better, yeah. Busy?”
“No, he’s not Sheriff!” That was my cue and I did not miss it. “His whole day is free, in fact. I have to get to the gym anyway so you’d be doing me a favor giving him a ride. Thank you. And thanks for breakfast!”
“No problem. Good luck. Looking forward to watching you play next fall. I try to make it to at least one Mizzou game ever’ year. Tell your daddy I said hey, will ya please?”
Sheriff Adams escorted Rowan Callabaugh into his squad car as had happened two times before. This time he opened the front passenger door as he would for a guest. It was surreal, and it confused the heck out Rowan, but he was curious and oddly flattered in spite of himself. Which is not to say the chip fell off his shoulder. Its roots were too deep for all that. In fact the chip might have morphed to become the shoulder itself.
“What are we doing here, Sheriff? And since when do you care what I have to say about anything?”
“Huh! Pipe down, son. You’re okay. I just want to show you something.” Adams drove them southward down O Street and into the north entrance of Augustus Shippley Memorial Quadrangle Square. Following the traffic pattern around to the right, they made an entire loop before passing in front of Clemens Department Store. Rowan began to sweat. Then they left Quadrangle Square the same way they came in, this time heading north back on O Street. But then Sheriff Adams took a hard right into the alley between the northern edge of Quadrangle Square and Gullet avenue.
There was nothing in the alley except dumpsters and loading docks but Rowan’s sickly feeling had returned all the same. He could not believe the two of them were suddenly sitting right here, of all places. How did this just happen? Adams threw the squad car into park and shut off the engine and just sat there in silence for a handful of seconds that might have been half an hour.
“Hush up!” Adams turned his wrist over to look at his watch. “Any minute now.”
After a few moments the back door to the Clemens Department Store leading to the loading dock opened and out walked Wilbur Hollister: daytime general manager. He set what appeared to be a black box on the dock and then went behind the dumpster to have a smoke.
“There! You see what I see, Rowan? You can’t know this, but that black box contains all the cash and checks and credit card receipts from last night.”
“You don’t say.”
“Uh huh. Oh, lookie here! Here comes the Loomis truck! More or less right on time.”
An armored car drove up to the dock and Wilbur Hamilton tossed his cigarette and met the driver. He handed him the black box and signed the deposit receipt and walked back into the store. The burgundy iron door clanged shut behind him.
“That’s what I wanted you to see, Rowan! Can you believe such a thing as that? I musta told Wilbur a hundred times that he was just asking for trouble setting that box out in the open like that.” Adams scoffed and shook his head. “You can’t tell that boy nothin, but whose door ya suppose he’ll be bustin’ through should anybody make off with that box one day? Hell. Anyone from any building on this alley could see him do it! It’s in plain sight and it’s every day. I just proved it to you. Matter of fact, don’t you workout at the YMCA yonder across the alley?”
“I’ve been there.”
“Yeah. Thought so. A person ought to be more careful than that, wouldn’t you say?”
“I guess so. But if fatty wants a smoke that bad it ain’t really none a my business. What did you want to ask me, Sheriff? I’m not sure what any of this has to do with me.”
He was sure.
Adams sighed again and then came out with it.
“Heard about m’deputy Thurston Sommers? His Missouri National Guard Unit just got called up. Be gone a year or more looks like.”
“No. I hadn’t heard that.”
“He’s a good boy. Hard worker. Proud for him. Probably be good for him. But that does leave me with my own set a problems and I don’t mind being selfish ever’ so often.
“See, I’m about to be shorthanded by one deputy, for a good while at least, and as long as I have village idiots leaving cash boxes unattended on loading docks, even right next door to me, practically… Well. I need every hand I can get. Especially ones with keen eyes for everyday details like this. Eyes like you got.”
“I’ve watched you, son. Since you was in a stroller, matter a fact. I like how you look after your little brother. Hell, I know you’re a bit rough around the edges, taken some chances that didn’t pan out too well for ya. But you got loyalty and you got guts. That’ll do, I’d imagine, if you get half a chance to be smart once and not so damn stupid all the time. Well, here’s your chance, Rowan Callabaugh. How ‘bout you come work for me for a little while? See what happens. Whatcha think?”
Rowan sat there mute for several seconds. There were too many emotions to sort out, but one or several of them caused tears to begin pooling at the corners of both eyes.
“But… My record?”
“Record? What record? Oh, you don’t mean those two little ol’ misdemeanor juvenile pinches that became sealed the day you turned eighteen, do ya?” Adams dismissed the notion like shooing an anemic fly. “I think the county has no official interest concerning those. Record’s been sealed going on two years now and your adult nose has been pretty clean so far, I do believe. Not for lack of trying, ya idiot. Anything else?”
“Why, Sheriff? Why you wanna stick your neck out for the likes of me? I ain’t never been no good. I ain’t no good today neither.” He looked away, out through the passenger side window.
“Oh, I don’t know.” He thought about it. “I needed some help m’self way back when. At some point you kinda want to start paying it back. Hell, I can’t explain it no better. Maybe I’m just buttering up your daddy because I wanna upgrade my Mizzou tickets!”
“Thank you, Sheriff. I won’t let you down.”
“Huh! Don’t thank me too quick, son. You got about six hundred hours a training ahead of you in Columbia before we can even get too serious about this idea. It won’t be easy, neither. And you’ll have to pay for it! But I know a few people in admissions… There might be some ways to work it all out sos it won’t be too hard on you.”
Rowan began to laugh.
“Now what the hell’s so funny?” He scoffed again. “First you cry on me then you bust out laughing! How many radical mood swings you planning on having inside my squad car today?”
“No, it’s just. Hee, hee.” Rowan wiped his eyes, long overdue. “To think I’m gonna make it to Mizzou before Gavin does! Ha! Th’old man won’t believe it. Ma neither. This is one weird day right here, Sheriff.”
“They all are, son. If you live long enough to see it clear. Now get your dirty hands off my dashboard. What is that? Marmalade?”
About The Author
J. David Thayer is an educator living in Texas. His works have appeared in 24-Hour Short Story Content (2nd place), The First Line, The Last Line, Fantasy/Sci-Fi Film Festival, Flash Fiction Magazine, Bewildering Stories, 101 Word Stories, Tall Tale TV, Black Petals, Farther Stars Than These, Terror House Magazine, 50-Word Stories, The Drabble, 365 Tomorrows, 42 Stories Anthology, Scarlet Leaf Review, Sirens Call eZine, Teleport Magazine, Sci-Fi Lampoon, The Free Bundle, Piker Press, and Pilcrow & Dagger.
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