BOY WITH THE STRAW HAT
was abducted. Stolen. I was only four when I was lifted out of the stroller by
Pearl and carried off while my parents had turned to buy fruit flavored ice
cones at a stand at the county fair. I didn’t really comprehend as I was
carried away in Pearl’s arms that it wasn’t part of the plan for the day, to be
smuggled off among hundreds of strangers who all seemed to be having a good
time. They were mostly smiling and laughing, so as I was carried off, I laughed
also. Pearl bought me a large pink cotton candy swirled around a white paper
cone just before we left the fairgrounds. It didn’t occur to me as I stuffed
the spun sugar into my mouth that I should protest in some way as I was carried
to the parking lot where we got into a car that sat idling. In the driver’s
seat, Henry nervously drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.
a boy or girl?” he asked Pearl.
boy, I think,” she replied. She lifted the straw hat my mom had just bought for
me from a vendor at the fair and stared at my mop of thick, blonde curls.
“We’ll find out later.” She put the hat back on my head.
slowly drove out of the lot, careful not to draw attention from the security
guards at the exit who apparently hadn’t been alerted yet that a child had been
was thirty years ago.
days after entering the home of my birth parents I sat on their sofa with both
my mother and father gazing at me wordlessly from overstuffed chairs on the
other side of a glass coffee table. They had welcomed me in the same way most
people do an insurance salesman. They politely shook my hand, offered me
something to drink, and showed me the way to the sofa. It was several moments
before anyone said anything.
you have a nice Thanksgiving?” my mother asked.
not really into holidays,” I replied.
had put too many ice cubes in the glass of lemonade she had given me and the
liquid was slowly seeping over the rim of the glass and sliding over my
fingers. I took a sip from it and started to put the glass on the coffee table.
jumped up from her chair. “Oh my, I forgot to put out the coasters,” she
squealed. She hurried into the kitchen and quickly returned holding a stack of
round, cork coasters. She placed them on the coffee table in front of me. “A neat
home is a happy home,” she said as she sat back down.
took the top coaster from the stack, placed it on the coffee table, and then
sat the lemonade on the coaster. As nonchalantly as I could, I licked the
lemonade from my fingers.
looking healthy,” my father said, abruptly.
are these people? I
thought, dismayed and dumbfounded. It made sense that I had forgotten them, but
it came as a shock to me that not only did they seem to have forgotten I was
their child, but they didn’t really have any interest in what had happened to
me from the time I had been taken. When the probation officer called them to
let them know I had located them and wanted to see them, he forgot to tell me
after the call that they really didn’t give a fuck.
prison there isn’t much to do other than workout and read. I like Zane Grey.” I
was a moment of silence before my father cleared his throat and said, “We’re
not ones much for reading.” He glanced over at my mother who was anxiously
playing with the string of beads around her neck. “Are we sweetheart?”
shook her head making the layers of skin under her chin wobble. She twisted the
beads so tightly they looked like a pearl noose.
probation officer said you had been in prison for the past ten years,” my
father said as if I needed to be reminded of it.
mother looked up as if suddenly caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck.
“Did you get raped while you were in prison,” she asked. “By other men, I
The string of beads broke as she gave them a
shocked, sudden tug, sending the beads across the floor and under the coffee
table. She slowly rose from her chair and averted her eyes as she said, “You’ll
have to excuse me, Kyle, but I need to go lie down.” She left the room and went
up the stairs.
was the first time either of them had called me by my birth name, or any name
at all. I hadn’t been called Kyle since that day at the county fair.
father waited until there was the sound of their bedroom door being closed
before he stood up, crossed his arms, and glared at me menacingly. “What right
do you have to come in here, into our home, and talk about having sex with
asked . . .” I started.
want you to leave and never let your shadow darken our doorsteps again,” he cut
I left, my business there done, I wish I could say I felt something, even a
little sadness, or anger, but a lot happened to me during the thirty years I
had been separated from them, and in place of any feelings, was the foggy
memory of the time I tried to hang myself. I had the same reaction then as I
was having as I walked away from their house; the struggle to breathe.
was several blocks to a street with restaurants and businesses where I figured
I could find a phone or use someone’s cellphone. I needed to call my probation
officer, Kevin Yardley, to tell him I would need to return to the halfway house
where I had been staying since my release from prison two weeks earlier. The
brisk, chill November breeze seeped through the worn, thin material of my
jacket, my gloved hand holding the broken zipper closed. The gloves were the
only purchase I made since being released from prison with the little money
they gave me upon my release. Gloves were an essential item; they had been from
the time I choked my first human victim to death.
street was tree-lined, where dead leaves clung to the branches, shaking and
rustling like the pom-poms of frenetic cheerleaders. I stopped at the corner,
leaned against a stop sign and lit a cigarette.
I knew from my days on the streets of San Francisco that if a car slows
down before moving on, then returns a few minutes later and slows again, the
driver has something on their mind that usually isn’t legal. The car was a
brand new one – a make I wouldn’t be able to identify even if a gun was put to
my head – and painted a dark green. The driver was a teenage male nearing his
twentieth birthday, nondescript other than the straw hat he was wearing.
I reached to the top of my head, and remembered, I hadn’t worn a straw hat in
car stopped and the passenger-side window glided down, noiselessly. The
teenager leaned across the seat. “That weed you’re smoking?”
it’s a cigarette.”
thought it might be a joint,” he said. “You look like a guy who’d smoke pot.”
never liked pot but this wouldn’t be the first time that someone made
assumptions based on my looks. I was six before my hair started turning black
and people on the street stopped telling Pearl what a pretty girl I was. It was
then that she stopped putting ribbons in my hair and quit dressing me as girl
to keep me from being recognized. Cutting my shoulder-length hair took a little
longer. The time spent dressed as and looking like a girl didn’t influence my
sexual orientation, but it did make clear how much others respond to what we
wear, not who we are.
flicked the butt of the cigarette into the gutter. “You got a cellphone I could
borrow for a couple of minutes?” I asked.
I got a phone you can use,” he replied. “If I can have one of your cigarettes.”
but I need to get out of the cold.”
He opened the car door and slid back behind the steering wheel.
got in, closed the door, and handed him the pack. “Find a place to park and
hand over the phone.”
Parked in in the shadows of a tree with
branches still heavily loaded with leaves, the kid took his time lighting and
smoking one of the cigarettes, which gave me time to get hold of Kevin and try
to explain what had happened at my parents’ home without it sounding like they
had caught me stuffing their silver into my pockets. I told him I was on a
nearby street and needed for him to come get me. The phone call ended and the
teenager finished smoking at the same time. I handed him his phone—and then
choked him to death. Easy-peasy. Walking away from the car I dropped the
cellphone through a sewer grate and heard the splash of water.
showed up a half hour later. When I got in his car, he looked at the kid’s
straw hat that sat askew on my shaved head, but said nothing about it. “It’s
past supper time at the halfway house, did your folks give you anything to
held back a sarcastic guffaw that begged to be set free from the confines of my
throat. “No, but my mother inquired into my Thanksgiving.”
struck Kevin as funny. We drove to a nearby McDonald’s with him chuckling all
the way. At the drive-thru he told me to order whatever I wanted, he was paying
for it. Everything comes with some kind of price—a lesson I learned the first
few days in prison—but as we drove away from the restaurant I thought there was
nothing Kevin could possibly want from me. As I tore into the bag of food, my
mind was on the smell of the French fries that filled the inside of the car,
like a cloud of greasy perfume.
the house, before I got out of the car, he reminded me to check in with him on
the scheduled days and told me to stay out of trouble. I had attempted to do
that for most of my life with little success. He drove off as I pushed the
buzzer on the front door. The evening resident counselor, Mrs. Sothby, opened
the door. She reminded me of what little I remembered of Pearl.
size, Pearl was a huge woman who stuffed her body into tight fitting
sweatshirts and leggings. She was oblivious to how she looked, like a stack of
jiggling water balloons, every part of her one movement away from bursting
through her clothing. She took good care of me, keeping me fed and cleaned, but
she kept her distance emotionally. Whenever I tried to express any kind of
affection, she’d push me away and say, “Don’t get attached.”
She once slapped me when I called her ‘mama.’
It was the only time I made that mistake and the only time she struck me.
was no better. He was a brutish man with a mean streak. I learned how to choke
a living thing to death by watching him do it to stray dogs that wandered onto
the property. My first kill was a large German Shepherd.
truth be told, I was glad when Pearl and Henry sold me to drug smugglers for a
hefty price when I was eight years old to be used as mule to carry cocaine and
heroin into the U.S. From Mexico. After all, it was why they had taken me in
the first place. They had taught me well how to be obedient, cold and fearless.
In the last six months with them they fed me small latex packets filled with
powdered sugar to train me how to swallow and crap out what I would be carrying
as a drug mule.
probation officer called you and said I need to come back,” I said to Mrs.
Sothby who was staring at me as if looking at a case of walking, breathing
he said you’d be returning. Smart of you not to take your things with you.”
tapped the brim of the straw hat. “I picked up new belongings.”
was sitting on the commode, his boxers down around his ankles. “How long were
you a mule?” he asked. The prison cell smelled like shit.
years,” I replied. “Surprisingly, I was well taken care of by one of the
largest cartels in Northwestern Mexico, but I knew that if I made one mistake
my life wouldn’t be worth the gum on the bottom of my shoes.” I lifted my foot
and pushed the springs under Danny’s mattress on the top bunk making it bounce
up and down. “If I hadn’t run away, I would have been shot at some point
anyway. Everyone who stays with a drug cartel is killed by a bullet in one way
or another, eventually. By age fourteen I had already strangled at least a
dozen people, mostly innocent Mexican farmers who were standing up to the
cartel, but gloves on my hands wouldn’t have stood up to even one bullet killing
me if it struck the right body part.”
the dim light outside the prison cell, I saw Harper, one of the night shift
prison guards walk slowly by. He briefly glanced in and continued on.
fragrance of Anna’s shampoo still follows me around like a kind of ghost,” I
woman who posed as my mother each time we drove across the border and back. She
was the one who taught me how to read and write, both in English and Spanish.
She provided the only schooling I ever got. If it hadn’t been for her, I’d be
one stupid bastard.”
still a stupid bastard,” he replied with a laugh. “What happened to her?”
did happen to her? I’ve
wondered about that ever since she
suddenly disappeared while coming home from the market. I made myself disappear
within hours after finding out she had vanished. Crossing the border legally
between Mexico to the US in the middle of the night was easy. I had fake papers
and despite my black hair which suggested I was Mexican, there was no mistaking
that I had Anglo white skin, Caucasian facial features and blue eyes. I got as
far away from Mexico as I could without any money in my pocket, carrying my
gloves in a back pocket with a straw hat on my head. I hitched a ride to San
Francisco and choked the driver to death while in his car in Golden Gate Park,
where he insisted we had to stop so that he could take a leak. Blocks away, I
crawled into the bushes with his wallet full of money tucked into the waistband
of my pants. The park became my new home and it cost nothing to stay there, so
for the first time in my life I had free and easy money to spend however I
wanted to. That lasted for about three weeks before I had spent the money on
food, a new pair of gloves and a new straw hat, followed by three days sitting
on a picnic table watching the tourists walk by and scavenging the park trash
cans for scraps of food. Then I began wandering the streets in search of food
and choking to death homeless men and women who were sleeping by themselves in
month later I was lucky enough to find a job washing pots and pans at a Chinese
restaurant. The owner, Mr. Ling, rented me a room in the back of the
restaurant. Eight years turned out to be a long time washing pots and pans. Out
of maddening boredom, I first tried to hang myself from a rod in the closet,
but just before I passed out, the belt around my neck broke. Lying in the
bottom of the closet I came up with another scheme. I put rat poison in the Won
Ton soup that was served to about a dozen patrons. Most of them ended up in the
emergency room or spent a few days in the hospital, but they all recovered. I
was found out to be the perpetrator of the crime and was sentenced to fifteen
years in prison for attempted murder, but was paroled after ten years for good
was the middle of the night when the door to the room in the halfway house
where I was sleeping opened and the lights turned on. In the doorway stood Mrs.
Sothby, Kevin, and behind them about half a dozen cops with their guns drawn.
you went to see your parents, you killed them, didn’t you?” Kevin said, his
voice filled with anger and disappointment. He may be the only really decent
human being I ever met.
could I deny it? I sat up and put the straw hat on my head. “Yes, they had it
coming for the life I’ve led.”
from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 500 short stories published
internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and
anthologies since June 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories
published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November
2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His Twitter is
@carrsteven960. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/ He
is on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/steven.carr.35977
Kevin D. Duncan
was born 1958 in Alton, Illinois where he still resides.
He has degrees in Political Science, Classics, and Art & Design. He has been freelancing
illustration and cartoons for over 25 years. He has done editorial cartoons and editorial
illustration for local and regional newspapers, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His award-winning work has appeared in
numerous small press zines, e-zines, and he has illustrated a few books.