Such a Good Man

by Dustin M Hoffman

Selected as the fiction winner of the 2020 Beacon Street Prize by SJ Sindu, author of Marriage of a Thousand Lies.

“Such a Good Man” is a harrowing ride. The author squeezes us between Eggy’s search for a missing child and her own troubled past, and these two strands spin closer and closer together as the narrative builds. Near the end, I found myself anxious and unable to breathe, and that’s a testament to the strength and confidence of the writing.
–SJ Sindu, author of Marriage of a Thousand Lies

Dustin M. Hoffman is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. His second collection, No Good for Digging, was published by Word West Press. He painted houses for ten years in Michigan and now is an associate professor of creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. His stories have recently appeared in The Masters Review, The Adroit Journal, Washington Square Review, The Journal, and Juked. You can visit his site here: dustinmhoffman.com.

Such a Good Man

by Dustin M Hoffman

They told Eggy they’d be calling the cops soon if their missing kid didn’t appear in the next ten minutes. Eggy knew their type, fussy helicopter parents, the rich kind raised on fistfuls of pills and internet, who could afford to be chronically anxious about terrorism and plastic straws in the ocean and global starvation because they never had to worry about their own empty bellies. Eggy had grown up hungry. She’d tasted worry. She knew Mason and his guns, and now he was two days out of prison and calling her momma’s house every two hours.

This missing kid—he was no sweat. She could find the kid before the cops showed. She’d bet all the money in her boot on it. She told the parents, “it’s a sure thing,” and sprinted off. But then she realized they probably didn’t know what she meant, so she sprinted back, grabbed the mom’s gold-bangled hippie wrist—she smelled wonderful, like patchouli and brand-new plastic bags—and said, “I’ll find your kid in a flash.”

It happened. Now and then, when Bouncy Paradise pumped up their inflatable arsenal at a town event, a kid would go missing, and a parent—often buzzed and wobbly—would start bawling. Then, they’d recover the kid in a big fanfare of tears and cotton candy. Eggy liked the idea of playing hero. She danced through the crowd, weaving past sticky kid fingers and blind parents staring into their glowing phone screens. This was her crowd, her world, and she quickly became an expert. It was probably her best job ever. Sure beat waitressing at that truck stop, or shooting meth and blowing hicks and shooting more meth until she spent six months in Leath Correctional and came out pristine. Johan, the Bouncy Paradise big boss, loved the tax break he got from hiring felons. Nearly every employee had a tar-stained past, so she never worried about hiding her brown meth teeth. She smiled big as she pleased at parents and kids alike, and they smiled back. Everyone was dirty here.

Bob’s Gorilla Punch-Out inflatable loomed in the distance, the gargantuan twenty-seven-foot gorilla head bobbing in a breeze she couldn’t feel from the ground. Lucky goddamn ape had the nicest spot in the whole place. Plus, it could probably see every missing kid from up there. She didn’t spot Bob out front. Everyone was dirty here except Bob, who was too sweet for this place and dearly loved Jesus. Some called him Pedophile Bob, but Eggy figured that was just the torture you got for being a good guy around a bunch of fuck-ups like her.

***

Twelve years ago, on Mason’s cracked-concrete patio decorated with brand-new Wal-Mart furniture, Mason said, “I know you want a baby. Let me help you out.” But he was her dealer, and she didn’t want to screw that up, so she said, “Maybe next time,” and tried to smile and then remembered her teeth so didn’t.

“No strings.”

He began mashing a crystal with a magazine from his AR-15. He crushed it as gently as if he were pinning butterfly wings. “I’d admire from afar. You’d be your own woman. I believe in that. I believe in women leading their own lives.”

“Why the hell would I want a kid?” she said.

“I want to help you put more love in the world.”

He reached across and gripped the back of her neck. He pulled her head down to the table to a row of three neat lines. He kept his hand there with a light grip, but she doubted she’d be able to lift her head if she wanted. She didn’t want.

She inhaled the middle line first.

With her head still held down, he said, “And you’re pretty, Eggy girl. This favor for you would be doing me a favor. And you’re smart. You’re a special customer. My favorite.”

She did the first line second. Through the glass table, she had a direct view of the crotch of his cargo shorts. Below that, the black AR-15, missing its magazine, rested across his bare toes, a black toenail, hairless. This was her view, and she wouldn’t be able to break it until he released his hand.

“Think you’d like a girl or boy, Eggy?” His thumb kneaded the divot at the base of her skull. It wasn’t unpleasant. “Me, I think I’d prefer a girl.”

She did the last line.

***

Eggy sprinted through the slides, shimmying her rail-thin body through the twenty-person line. “Official bouncy business,” she hollered until she was up the ladder, where she scanned the landing, then bombed butt-first down the slide. She dumped herself into the carousel-shaped mini bouncer jam-packed with toddlers, tried to yell the kid’s name, but had already forgotten it. She settled for “Hey, lost kid,” and looked for that curly towhead she’d seen pictured on the parents’ phone. With no luck, she bounded out of that dirty-diaper mob.

She was working up a sweat by the time she reached the Thunder Gauntlet. Sharice looked tired and pissed, her usual look. She’d worked there two months longer than Eggy and every day seemed like it’d be the one when she’d quit. She scowled at the kids, yelped “Giddy-up” when it was their turn to go, and yelled at the ten-year-olds loitering behind the half-wall rope climb, waiting to bodyslam the little ones. She’d growl at the little ones too if they puttered too long.

“How’s business, Sharice?” Eggy asked.

“I’m sweating like a stuck pig and these kids don’t listen, and,” she leaned low to whisper, “my hemorrhoids are inflamed as a motherfucker.” Though she screamed generously at the children, she made sure not to cuss loud enough for little ears.

“Seen a lost one?”

“Looks like?”

“Usual stuff. Blond, four years old, and they said an orange Clemson shirt.”

“Oh yeah,” Sharice said. “I saw one of them.”

“Yeah?”

“Or maybe,” she waved open palms at her line, “that describes half the snots here.”

“No reason to bust my cunt. I’m just telling you what I know,” Eggy said. “Crummy intel. Worthless.”

A sweep of cool air blew between them, and the whole area seemed to pause in the rare breeze. It was too good and too rare in the heat of a South Carolina July not to honor a few seconds of relief.

“Hate to suggest what you’re already thinking,” Sharice said, “but you sniff around Pedophile Bob yet?”

The breeze died away and brought back the stifling heat and sweat-swaddled skin. Bob was just too nice. Even if there was a touch of truth, she believed in giving everyone a second shot. Hell, every employee here was on their fourth or fifth.

“You shouldn’t call him that.”

“If the shoe fits, he’s gotta be forced to wear it,” Sharice said, and then screamed at a kid pretending to wrap the rock wall rope around his neck like a noose. “We don’t have no pink jumpsuits here, so I see value in reminding.”

What if people change? Reformed, and all that.” Sharice snorted, puffing out hot air.

“Plus, boss hates it. Bad for business,” Eggy said. “Who’s gonna bring their kids back to a place that may or may not employ a pedophile?”

“Tough for the boss.”

“Could be tough shit for you when you lose your job.”

Eggy knew she had her there, but Sharice couldn’t stand to lose an argument. So she muttered “good goddamn goose” under her breath and then lunged herself through the inflatable tunnel at the Thunder Gauntlet entrance. The kid was strangling himself again and laughing like a dumb shit. But that would stop once Sharice was towering over him screaming, the red worms on her forehead pulsing. Eggy preferred the friendlier route, which was probably why Johan planted her in front of the Rainbow Bounce with the little kids. Eggy was one of the nice ones. But none of them knew about Mason, his recent parole, and the phone calls—the goddamn fucking phone calls when Mason begged for her to listen, and ached to tell her more about what she didn’t want to hear, about the kidnapping he’d served time for. Eggy couldn’t smother the spark of fear that maybe Mason had come to prove something to her, that the missing kid was with him and it was her fault.

She swerved through the shaved ice line, the cotton candy queue, the barbecue pit. She even popped open the smoker, imagining the missing boy’s orange shirt hanging from the blackening meat, and then she cursed herself and bit her cheek for thinking so dark.

***

Mason came for her baby when it was eight months old. He showed up on her momma’s driveway in his burgundy Jeep with the chains that rattled on the front bumper, and he revved his engine until Eggy ran out in her underwear and a Minor Threat t-shirt.

“Your legs look pretty,” Mason said through his open window.

“Neighbors are gonna call the cops on you,” she told him.

“All of you looks pretty, Eggy girl,” he said. “Baby didn’t do nothing to slow you down.”

“Hope you don’t have any shit in that Jeep,” she said. “Momma’s probably calling the cops right now.”

“Where’s my baby?”

“What do you care?”

“I want to take it for a ride. Introduce myself. It’ll ride right on Daddy’s lap and help me steer and we’ll go get ice cream.” He formed his hands into brackets meant to cradle a baby’s armpits at the steering wheel.

“You’re fucking high,” she said.

“What flavor he like? Is he a he? I bought both kinds of toys. Dolls and dump trucks.”

“Don’t think babies are supposed to eat ice cream.”

“Don’t be a bitch about it.” Mason smiled his wormy lips at her, trying for a cute look she didn’t feel like receiving. “Let the little fucker have some fun.”

“He’s not here.”

“A boy?” Mason honked his Jeep’s horn three times. A neighbor’s light flicked on, a yellow square down the road. “Fuck yeah. Point me in his direction.”

“He’s not mine, I mean.”

“Who else’s could he be?”

“Adopted is what I mean.”

Mason punched the rearview mirror and it snapped, shattered, and rattled to the floor. His fist was bleeding. Eggy felt the old fear dripping, and she knew Mason well enough to know running inside would rile him. Mason on meth needed to be treated like a wild rottweiler. Run from a rott, you get teeth sunk deep into your calf muscle.

“The fuck’s wrong with you, Eggy?” he said. “That’s not a choice you make without your baby’s daddy.”

She longed to tell him all the ways he should fuck off, but she spotted the assault rifle’s barrel poking out from the passenger-seat floor. He caught her looking at it, and if she didn’t play this right, he’d make her do a bump off the barrel like the old days. She might not be good at saying no.

“I tried calling you to tell you about the baby, but your old number didn’t work.”

“Fuck. Yeah. That’s right.” He sniffed at the blood on his knuckles, sucked at them. “Got into some heat and had to get invisible.”

Her arches hurt from working all day at the diner, waiting first shift, cooking second. If he stayed much longer maybe she’d ask him to rub her feet, or, hell, blow them off with the rifle. She’d have a good excuse not to show up to work tomorrow.

“Well,” she prompted, and still Mason idled in park. He fumbled around for the rearview mirror, found it in the shadows, and tried to stick it back in place. It fell again. “Was a nice surprise, you stopping by and all,” she said.

Mason hurled the broken rearview mirror at the passenger side door. It hit glass like a thunderclap, and Eggy felt her organs cringe.

“Know what, Eggy?” he said. “It doesn’t matter that you’re a lazy quitter of a mother. That you stole something important as fuck to me.” He was smiling in the dark—something flickering that was shinier than teeth. She never much thought how close a smile was to gnashing teeth until now. “I’m gonna find him. I’ll track him down. I’ll use my guys. Whatever it takes. That’s my love you gave away. And when I find my son, you won’t even know. You won’t even be a thought. Less than a fart in the wind. That’s the kind of mother you are.”

He spun rubber in her momma’s driveway until she was coughing on burnt tires, and then he was careening down the street with a pair of disappearing red eyes.

***

Of course, Johan already knew, even before she climbed the ladder to the roof. He was perched atop the gutted trailer home they used to transport all the inflatables. Like a king overseeing his convicts. She watched him for a moment. He picked his nose and flicked it into the sky, and then leaned forward on his inflatable throne—he spray-painted it gold once a week.

“Boss,” she said, “seen any lost kids from up here?”

“I see everything,” he said.

“Blond boy, orange shirt, four years—”

“I wonder why I bother paying you all if I’m responsible for losing kids.” He was back at plowing his nose again while he stared into the crowd.

“It’s just, the parents are pretty freaked, and, maybe—I wonder if you’ve seen a long-haired guy…” She stopped herself from describing Mason. She couldn’t jump to that yet. No reason to blow fire into the worst-case scenario when there was still time. Johan didn’t seem to be listening anyway; he was busy fondling his nose hairs.

“Know why I got into this?”

Once Bouncy Paradise was inflated, Johan never came down from his roost. She did wonder if he wanted nothing to do with the crowds. She liked kids, and she figured that had to be why anyone would choose a business venture like this. Well, not like kids like Bob did. And, damn it, she had no proof at all that Bob did like kids in the way that made the back of her throat go waxy and her stomach feel bitter enough to wretch. And her boy now—he was, what, ten or eleven? “Because you like kids?” she said.

“I like money.”

“Oh.”

“All there is to it.” He stopped fiddling with his nose hairs and turned to stare her in the eyes. “Money, honey,” he said, stretching out the syllables like he was talking to a slow kid. Her fists balled. She let the urge to punch him flutter off. No reason to stack felonies and see how high she could build a domino house.

“And, I suppose,” he said, “I do like a good fuck on an inflatable after hours every now and then. What I don’t care about is kids or convicts.” He turned back to watching his subjects as if she’d breezed away.

She thought about how they tended to rush disinfecting the inflatables. She made a note to be extra thorough when scrubbing out the bumper gutters next time. “So you haven’t heard anything?” she said. “Sorry I bugged you.”

“The parents just called my cell. They’re calling the cops now,” Johan said, pointing into the crowd. “I guarantee it’ll be a convict who eats shit before my liability insurance. So what I’m saying is find that kid or you’re fucked.”

Eggy skidded down Johan’s ladder and cycled back through the crowd with all the optimism sucked from her lungs. She couldn’t even smile at the blue- and purple-lipped kids getting sugar-high on snow cones. The cops would run her name, and Mason would come up. The kidnapping he’d been incarcerated for would flash sirens in their heads. She’d been absolved for her testimony, but the word accomplice had been tossed around enough. The cops would suspect she took the missing kid even if she’d been innocent before. Hell, she’d been a victim, though no one gave her that label. It had been her boy Mason had stolen from his adopted parents, after all. She never even got the chance to see him. She got nothing. Less than that. Forced to sweat death deep down all her cracks in court in front of the judge’s stare, and they didn’t even show a picture of her kid as evidence, like she’d hoped.

But she went free and Mason didn’t. He spent ten years locked up, and she got clean, god damn it. She had truly been clean. She kicked through the women’s bathroom door, stuck her head under each stall and saw nothing but sweat-glistening thighs. She slammed into the men’s room, and a white-haired, Friar Tuck-looking asshole wearing a tank top stretched skintight over his inflated gut immediately gave her a wink. “Fuck off, fatso,” she said, and then scanned the wall of urinals for a miniature man. She considered apologizing to the old-timer on her way out, but he was making a humping thrust with his hips, so she walloped his belly hard as she could on the way out the door. “Damn, hot stuff, get back here,” she heard him groan.

She was running out of places to look, and Bob’s giant gorilla smirk was bearing down on her, but she didn’t need to bother Bob when Mason haunted her mind, a likelier and likelier suspect. Bob didn’t need the harassment. Just last week, he’d told her about his cocaine problem. He’d lost two houses, three wives, a half-dozen children, and a cat named Bingo he loved more than anything. He used to own a chain of burrito restaurants—all organic—paid his workers a whopping thirteen bucks an hour, and now he, like Eggy, was scraping up Johan’s $7.36 per hour.

So when she jogged past the Gorilla Punch-Out, she hardly glanced through the netting. Instead, she checked the dumpster brimming with Styrofoam cups and paper plates smeared in corn dog mustard.

***

Mason lit her foilie for her. She couldn’t remember the last time he made her pay. It was before everything, before she had a baby and let it go. But, of course, nothing was free. She understood that even as she savored the burning-plastic taste that filled her lungs the way no food had ever filled her belly, no love had filled her heart. She contracted every muscle to hold it in against the coughing impulse. Maybe if she passed out holding it in, holding her breath, letting herself become a smoke wisp, she wouldn’t have to find out why Mason’s smile was so gigantic.

He flicked the tinfoil clean and loaded up another go, which, turned out, wasn’t for him. She’d do it. She’d get as fucked up as he’d let her. She’d already missed work at Wendy’s for the fifth shift in a row. They’d stopped calling. Her hair finally didn’t smell like french fries anymore, instead like apple shampoo and tar. She’d never eat another french fry.

And goddamn Mason wouldn’t quit flashing that new, gaudy, golden grill with fake diamonds that sparkled the words “Get Fucked.” No way any sane woman would find it even ironically funny. Then again, she didn’t know many sane women.

“What the hell you goofy-smiling at?” she finally said to his sparkly diamonds.

“Been thinking,” he said. “Planning, I suppose, is how I should put it.”

Mason let the room’s ghostly gray smoke swirl around his face, his long black hair. She wanted to inhale everything she could use from this man before he inevitably turned into the lead-balloon burden she knew he was.

He said, still stupidly smiling: “We should find him.”

“Who?”

“Who the fuck else?” And maybe his grill-flashing teeth looked like a trap that could snap a finger off if she took the bait. She had. “Don’t be dim, Eggy.”

“I’m not,” she said. “I didn’t get what you meant. I try,” she drew the lighter’s flame to the foil, “not to think about him so much these days.”

“Well, Eggy,” he said, his cracked, peeling lips closed over his diamonds, “I never ever stop thinking about him.”

Of course, she never stopped thinking about him either. He was thirteen months and seventeen days old now. Maybe the red, splotchy birthmark shaped like a bunny on the back of his neck had faded. He probably lived in a suburb. He’d probably said his first word, dad or mom or maybe dog, if they had one. Maybe they even got a puppy, a soft yellow one, to grow up with him. It was summer. He’d be doing something amazing she’d never done as a kid, something she couldn’t even imagine. She took the hit.

“Every fucking second I’m thinking about him,” Mason said. “And it’s about time we went and found the little fucker.”

Eggy held her breath, held the hit in even while it was pounding to escape her chest, lungs begging for air.

“Let’s go rescue him and teach him how to be a little badass.”

“Kidnap him?” she said. “I don’t even know where he might be.”

“I can find him. I can always find anything. You know that.”

“Don’t do it.”

“Come with me.”

“I can’t.”

“You can do anything, Eggy. I always believed in you most.”

A cough escaped her, then another, and then she couldn’t stop herself. She vomited on Mason’s red, silk sheets. He patted her back not ungently. She knew she had to stop him, but she couldn’t kill anyone. She couldn’t. No way. Not with her momma’s pistol. Not with the tire iron in the back of her Neon. Not with one of the matte-black rifles mounted on Mason’s wall. Couldn’t. Couldn’t.

But if she didn’t, her boy—who she’d named Abel and would never tell anyone—might not ever learn to play lacrosse or understand how the horse-shaped piece moves on a chess board.

“Gotta go,” she said and hopped off his bed. Mason might’ve been following her as she left his house, might’ve been ready to bind her arms with an extension cord and dump her into his Jeep, and then she’d have to go with him. When she got to the driveway alone, she plunged one of Mason’s serrated combat knives into his Jeep tire, just to be safe, the hiss following her into the night.

***

She was running thin on spots to check now. The parking lot provided a hundred shiny windshields. She searched through a reflection of her face, her graying hair. The setting sun was catching her just right, making her squint and her skin wrinkle into an unrecognizably old version of herself. No way she could check every car. No way she could stare into herself that many times. She climbed a dusty Bronco’s hood and scanned the lot for Mason’s Jeep. Just because she didn’t see him didn’t mean he wasn’t there, waiting to pounce and kidnap and crank her full of meth. Or, worse, if he’d already taken this kid, they could be driving toward the Blue Ridge Mountains, turning invisible in the nowhere Appalachian fringe.

As hard as she didn’t want to believe that a pedophile version of Bob could exist, she supposed checking with Bob was better than the nightmare of Mason. But Bob was a nice guy, like her, proof you could clean up once and for all, and he didn’t need suspicion. Still her feet moved faster than her hesitation, and suddenly she was standing in front of Bob’s Gorilla Punch-Out. His ponytailed scalp popped from the entrance flap. His face was red. He was panting and smiling.

“Swell to see the one and only Eggy,” Bob said and offered her a high-five. She touched his palm. “What brings you to my neighborhood? That missing kid show up?”

“I’ve been searching all afternoon,” she said kicking dirt and playing it cool. “I mean, I’m sure he’ll turn up. This is the last place I looked. I hadn’t even thought of it, really.”

“Oh my gosh, Eggy, what a big bummer. I’m so sorry.” He reached out and gripped her elbow with one hand, her shoulder with another. Any other guy, this would be a cheap attempt to dig into her panties, and she’d practically hear the expectation creeping through blood vessels within the crotch of his jeans. But that wasn’t the way with Bob. His touch was sincere, warming. Hell, she wished he was sleazing on her and then she’d know for sure not to worry about the kid.

“If I don’t find him I’m fucked,” she said.

“I’ll say a prayer, Eggy. You can pray with me, if you like. But, of course, you should feel no obligation to. I’m not one of those God pushers.” Bob began to bow his head, but a preteen kid in a football jersey kicked Bob’s shoe and demanded to know why the shit the line wasn’t moving. Bob turned back to his patrons while shushing out a slurry of apologies.

The image of Bob stashing a kid inside his inflatable faded to the peaks of the Blue Ridges through Mason’s windshield. He’d drive as fast as the Jeep would go, the boy bouncing in the passenger seat. Her best bet now was to slink back to the parents, head bowed low, and hope to hell the kid had found his way back on his own. But as soon as she neared, she knew no lucky reunion was happening. Two black uniforms stood in front of the parents, their backs to Eggy. They were cops. Fuck and double fuck.

“Any luck on your end?” she said, touching the mother’s back from behind. The muscle in her shoulder shriveled under Eggy’s touch.

One of the cops, a woman wearing a ponytail so tight it raised her eyebrows into a permanently surprised expression, turned to Eggy. “You the one in charge?”

“I work here.”

“This ride?”

“It’s more of an experience,” Eggy explained. “I mean, they bounce in it.”

“We all know how a bouncy house works,” the other cop said. He had dopey eyes, a half-opened mouth. The heel of his palm rested on his pistol.

“I haven’t found him yet,” Eggy said. “But I will.”

“Where did you see him last?” the ponytail cop asked, and she realized now her memory hadn’t retained the kid at all. A blurry face on a rectangular screen. Could’ve been anyone.

“Before all this,” Eggy said, because lying to cops was always easier than admitting you didn’t know. “I guess a few minutes before all this.”

“Can you be more exact?” the cop said, and the dad’s face was pale, frozen. The mom looked like she might gouge an eye out.

“About what?”

“Don’t mess with us, ma’am,” the cop with the dopey eyes said and kept his hand on the gun. “No good ever comes of that. Just tell us all you know. Or would you prefer we do handcuffs while we run your name?”

Eggy felt the old fear, like when she had a dozen grams of Mason’s junk bunched into her underwear, sweaty between her butt cheeks.

***

“We need to make this right,” Mason was saying. “Let’s make another one!”

She was in her kid bedroom at her momma’s house, head out the window, trying to shush him, but he was too fucked up, was wearing only silvery track pants, shirtless, yelling to her second-story window from the lawn at 3 a.m..

“Let me up.”

“Go home, Mason, baby,” she said. “You don’t feel like it, but you need sleep.”

“You’re not too old, if that’s what you’re worried about. I read a thing, said the over-forty age group is popping babies out more than ever.” He was still yelling, though he looked calmer. She remembered being that high, not noticing that you’re yelling and out of control. She never wanted to feel like that again now that she was cleaned up for the fifth and final time. And she only wanted to feel like that again, more than anything in the world, except maybe for seeing her baby—who was not a baby anymore, who Mason got to see for a moment that cost him ten years. Ten years he’d just repaid.

“Let’s talk about it tomorrow,” she said.

“Let’s talk about it now.”

“Momma’s sleeping. She’s old, Mason. She needs her sleep. Please.”

“Don’t you love me more than Jupiter’s big? More than the sun’s burning?”

“No, Mason.” If she kept saying his name, it seemed like maybe it’d calm him.

“Well, fuck you, bitch.”

“You’ll be okay, Mason.”

He reached down and then heaved a clump of dirt that thumped against the siding.

“We are too old, Mason. And we’re too screwed up. This is stupid.”

“I told you we’re not too old!” Mason would never grow up, would never stop thinking he’d live forever. Why did he need a child when he’d always be one? He threw another clump. She could hear Momma rustling downstairs. Eggy hated him for wasting so much of her time. And she probably would’ve wasted it without needing him. A paperweight was in her hand, big as a baseball and made of glass—the one with the purple crocus trapped inside forever fully blooming. Her arm became a lever as her fingers released it and the glass orb smacked Mason in the thigh. He went down howling.

“Eggy?” the floor said, the muffle of her mother beneath it. “What—”

She couldn’t catch the rest because Mason was limping toward the little crab apple tree. He pulled at a low-hanging branch.

“Just go home,” she hissed.

“I’m gonna yank this tree down and beat you through the window with it.” He tugged and the tree swished, but the branch’s grip was stronger than anything Mason had to offer. He gave up, threw his fists in the air toward her. “New plan. I don’t need your ugly old ass, and I don’t need your meth babies. I’m gonna go get my own. Go steal a big healthy one.”

“Good luck.”

He got to the end of the yard, the overgrown wall of kudzu, and turned around. “Come with me, Eggy girl. Come steal a kid with me. We’ll teach it everything and we’ll drive to the mountains and I’ll grow a beard and you can get fat and we’ll teach that baby to live off the land.”

“You gotta let me be done with you.”

“I don’t gotta do shit.” He kickboxed the air with his shiny pants. “You’ll see. And when you see how happy I become it’ll hurt so bad.”

***

“You’re not going to run, are you?” the cop with the strangling ponytail said.

“That’d be pretty stupid,” the dopey one said, shifting in a way that made more of him seem to touch his gun.

“She knows.” The mom was yelling, pointing at her. “She goddamn knows where he is.”

“Do you?” they were saying.

If it was Mason, he’d want her to join him in the mountains so she could get ruined again. If it was Bob, that meant no one ever got fixed for good. It seemed she didn’t know anything for sure anymore. Both were the worst-case scenario.

It probably would’ve been impossible not to run, she admitted to herself as she started running. The cops could easily find out where she lived, find out about her priors, about Mason. She heard the two cops mutter curses. They’d have to be fast to catch her smashing through the snaking shaved ice line, behind the Big Rapids Bubble Slide, a hop over the generator, where she lost them behind Johan’s trailer. Then she was sprinting even harder than when Mason had first taught her to shoot into her veins and she’d spent the night running through a field of wildflowers by moonlight that—when she woke up stinking, her bare legs sliced raw— she’d realized was a landfill. She had no other choice but Bob. If it was her or Bob, then it was Bob. If it was her or Mason, Mason. Any man was not going to be enough to risk being clean and free. Clean and free felt like air conditioning, sixty-eight degrees on a South Carolina August day. It felt like funnel cake on an empty stomach, fresh out of the fryer, warm and soft, sugar as light as a ghost. It felt like bouncing and no adult ever demanding you stop.

She dashed toward Bob’s inflatable gorilla, risked a look over her shoulder, saw the cops weren’t tailing anymore. She slowed in the crowd and heat, letting that massive, bobbing gorilla visage pull her like a magnet.

When she reached the Gorilla Punch-Out, Bob was MIA again and the kids had unleashed anarchy like bullets firing in a bank vault. They ricocheted off the walls, off each other, heads clunking together, blood spattering across the bouncy floor and dripping from noses.

The only sign of Bob was a note taped to the entrance that read: Attraction temporarily closed. So so so sorry. Recovering a missing child. Be back in five!

She scanned the crowd for Bob, for the cops, for, perhaps, Mason in a slinky tracksuit carrying an assault rifle under one arm, a kidnapped boy under the other. What she did see was Sharice, still screaming at the prepubescents, but in between her ravings, Eggy locked eyes with her. She pointed a bony finger toward the Jungle Bungle maze and mouthed, I told you so.

At her back, the cop with the ponytail of strangulation screeched her name, her full one, the one Johan must’ve told her because she never used it and hated the name her deadbeat dad had demanded: Adrina Eugenia Sinclair. But if they were hollering her name into the South Carolina heat fumes, they were still searching, just like her. She still had time to fix this. She entered the maze.

Inside, the sun was nearly set. The inflated walls decorated in camouflage looked real in the shadows, reminding her of the kudzu encroaching a little more on her momma’s backyard each year until it had swallowed the turtle-shaped sandbox she’d used as a child. In the decade Mason had been in prison, she’d imagined her son flinging sand inside that turtle, if he were ever to visit, if Mason wouldn’t have got busted so quickly and kept their son and then dumped him with her once he grew bored.

Teens loitered in the Jungle Bungle maze, making out and groping in the dead-end corners. She came upon one couple, his hand all the way down her unbuttoned jeans. They met eyes for a moment, and the girl didn’t slow the boy’s grinding dry humps. Eggy wished she could explain who would be left responsible for every decision after they zipped their jeans back up, about how this boy would surely disappear and then only bounce back when least convenient. But Eggy was too busy, and the girl wouldn’t listen. If some old bouncy house worker had preached at her when Eggy was a teen, she would’ve spit in her face.

She wanted to call for the missing kid, but she still couldn’t remember his name. Her son—she’d never learned his real name. She’d hoped to find out in court. Things she also didn’t know: the color of his eyes and hair, if he ever sucked his thumb, if he was afraid of the dark, if he liked cookies or cake, if he preferred Grover to Elmo, if he hated playing outfield, if he’d started liking girls yet, if he’d found out he was adopted, if he imagined her. She often found herself playing the game of all she didn’t know about the human she’d made who was living out there in the wild world.

“Adrina Eugenia Sinclair” bellowed from outside, through the din of the crowd’s white noise just beyond the inflated walls. They could be in the maze any minute. She risked calling: “Bob, you in here?” She held her breath. Waited. The throbbing in her feet inched up her limbs and into her skull, and it seemed nothing could stay quiet for long, even her own body.

“Over here, darling,” Bob said, and she hurried toward the voice. She found him around a corner, dead-ended like the teenagers, kneeling. On his knee—a blond boy, young, the right age for the one missing. His face was puffy, but he was silent. His hair was mussed. The top two buttons of his orange Clemson Tigers shirt were undone. Bob smiled neatly. One strip of the kid’s Velcro shoe was undone.

“Isn’t it a miracle, Eggy? Aren’t we so lucky?” Bob said, bouncing the kid on his knee. “He’s okay, see? He’s safe.”

She wanted to ask him questions, but every inquiry that surfaced seemed barbed with accusation. And what good would that do? Here was what she needed, the missing kid that would absolve her, keeping her clean and free. So she walked over to Bob and took the kid’s wrist. It was thin and bony, the unfairly forced fitness of one of those kids probably raised on an organic, vegan diet. A kid deserved to eat ambiguous meat on a stick now and then, battered and fried, smothered in mustard. A kid deserved a face caked in powdered sugar and cotton candy. Eggy could’ve at least given her boy, secretly named Abel, that.

She walked the kid out through the maze, where her instincts told her the exit might be, and away from Bob, who was buzzing through his optimism like machine-gun fire: “I mean, first place I looked. I just said a prayer and strutted in here, and there he was. What a blessing. Isn’t that a blessing, Eggy? Praise God. The kid was here all along.”

Onward, around another bend and another, the kid’s face seemed frozen, jaw set tight. He latched his little legs around her hips mechanically, but his arms dangled. Bob still huffed behind them, explaining, bargaining, and maybe turning her into an accomplice again. Or maybe he was indeed the blessed hero. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe the next turn would relieve her from the maze, but she met another dead end, another teenage couple groping, fingers too fast for their own good. She spun around to retrace her path, and there was Bob, tugging his eyebrow. “You believe me, right, Eggy? You believe me—that I’m a nice guy, that I love kids, that I’d never hurt them. I know the rumors, Eggy. I know what they say, and they’re wrong.”

She pushed past him, butting his shoulder harder than she intended, but he’d been taking up the whole path—the only way out. The kid made a throaty grumble at her hip. Sunset was upon them and had dimmed the maze into an orange glow so dull it was almost a shadow. Everything seemed to swim. Bob spoke from behind her: “It’s not true. All of those sins are so far behind me, and I’m such a good man now. I am, Eggy. I’m nothing but love now.”

Faintly, she heard her name beckoning her from somewhere outside the walls. Those walls were just air, after all, just the same air filling the breathless South Carolina nights of swelter and sweat, the same air inhaled by the blower pump fans and forced through the vinyl walls. In the center was nothing but air. But you couldn’t punch through it. That was the genius of the inflatables: such a soft landing, the impression of a cloud, but far too strong for anyone to break by force alone. All she needed was something sharp and she could tear through that vinyl film. If she could find something sharp, she could slash her way to freedom and emerge the hero. Her pockets were empty, and a missing boy clung to her hips. She held him back, one arm supporting his weight, her other palm stroking his back. She’d have to try a few more corners. A few more. More. Another. Until she’d reached the last one.

***

“Difference between us, Eggy,” Mason hissed over the phone, an airplane engine rumbling behind his words, “is I got to see him and you didn’t. You never will, and I did, if only for a moment. I got to see him and smell him and touch him and hold him, and you didn’t, Eggy. You never ever will. He had your long, goosey neck. He has my thick knuckles. Smells like neither of us. Never laughed once, but he knew who I was. He could tell who was who. He knew, and I knew, but you never will.”