Jon had just sat down for lunch with Jefferson and Rodriguez when his phone rang again. It was Carrie. His wife seldom phoned him during work unless it was an absolute emergency, because, well, he would usually be in a patrol car in the desert somewhere, maybe checking someone for possession or other things that sometimes required you to be very focused.
Like, focused on deciding if your hand should go for the notebook or your gun.
Besides, even if Jon’s work had been bringing out snacks, there was little he could do fifty miles away on some dusty road at the ass-end of nowhere when his six-year-old autistic son had had a fit and screamed for an hour and couldn’t explain if he was ill or just stressed about some of his toys not standing in the right order. In fact, there was little he could do even if Michael had fallen and broken his leg. Or some other really serious thing.
Carrie and Jon seldom talked about this state-of-things because it was just one of those conditions you had to accept with a special needs child and one parent being the breadwinner. Especially in a job like Jon’s.
But today Jon’s shift allowed a drop-in at Daybreaker’s Cafe with his fellow smokeys and thirty minutes for that all-important coffee and excuse for lunch—bagels and more coffee.
Carrie knew that. So perhaps the timing of the call was intentional, and it was no big deal?
“You are too slow, amigo.” Rodriguez grabbed the phone from the table before Jon could answer it.
“Jon?” Carrie’s voice came through at the other end.
“Jonathan is busy dusting off his car,” Rodriguez answered cheerfully. “Carrie, when are you going to run away with me?”
Jon leaned over the table and snapped the phone away from the other man. “She’s already run away—last time she saw you!”
He could hear Carrie sighing at the other end. “Isn’t it time Ernesto found a more exciting job?”
“He is actually trying to keep this one.” Jon grinned at Rodriguez. “The chief said we had to be more service-minded on duty. Public image and all that.”
“I think he is overdoing it a bit.”
“Is everything okay?”
“Yes, yes, nothing’s wrong. Or maybe—I don’t know … ”
Jon turned away from his colleagues. The bustle of the cafe became distant. “What’s going on?”
“I took Michael to The Final Frontier—”
“The toy shop?”
“Comic book shop. And much else.”
Jon emptied half of his coffee. “Couldn’t you have taken him to O’Reilly instead? I need that new oil filter soon.”
“Look, you married high school’s biggest nerd. Get over it.”
“I have.” Jon smiled.
“I had this really weird experience with Michael there just now,” Carrie went on. “I knew you had lunch break today. I had to tell you.”
“Yeah, I went to the ‘toy shop’ because they also have loads of old movie posters and remember how Michael likes to read, or spell out, signs, posters, stuff like that?
“How could I forget?”
Carrie continued her tale with some breathlessness. “Ronia who works there showed me this old paperback—a book like Lord of the Rings—only it’s called ‘Farthest Reach’ … It’s all fantasy like the roleplaying stuff I did in high school. It all takes place in the Dungeons & Dragons world—Are you with me so far?”
“ … I’m with you.”
“It’s a book about elves fighting demons. But it could’ve been a story of one of our Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying games from back then.”
“Jefferson’s son plays that game. I know … it.” Jon glanced at Jefferson who nodded back at him with a strained smile.
He could hear Carrie pausing to breathe deeply, the receiver very close to her lips. “Jon, I was holding this book, reading the back cover. I hadn’t even opened it, and then Michael looked up at me and said ‘roleplaying’.”
“So … you talked with Ronia about roleplaying and he repeated it?”
“We didn’t talk about roleplaying. See?”
“No. I don’t. Maybe he saw a poster with a dragon and ‘roleplaying’ on it in the shop?”
“—There is no dragon poster or anything like that in the shop. Or on the cover. Or in the book! Ronia just asked me if I still read stuff like that story and then Michael said ‘roleplaying’!” Carrie sounded more and more frantic. “So Michael could not have made a connection between the book and roleplaying games from anything—”
Jon eyed his colleagues who were trying to look like they were busy gulping the remaining coffee and not listening in at all. “ … Aren’t there other roleplaying books with elves or demons or whatever in that shop he could have seen?”
“They moved all of that to the basement years ago. Michael’s never seen any of those books.” Carrie sounded close to exasperation now. “This was a novel Ronia had in her bag, she was reading it.”
Jon bit his lip. The clock over the cafe’s counter was moving too fast. In five minutes, he would collect more dust on his patrol car. And then five more bloody hours …
Jon got up and walked around among guests and waiters until he found an awkward spot near the restrooms, where he had some measure of privacy. “Look, you know our son remembers all the words he hears and sees but can’t really use them. That’s why he can read and write but he doesn’t understand much of what he is reading or writing. Or saying, for that matter … ”
“But he has never heard or seen the word ‘’roleplaying’,” Carrie said. “I’m sure of it.”
“He has. Somewhere. Maybe he saw it online. Maybe the two of us talked about it once. Maybe there was a roleplaying game book, poster, advertisement, or something similar with these figures on it in a shop window in L.A. when your mom tried to take him for a stroll by herself. And then he saw your book today and said that word.” Jon went through the possibilities as methodically as if he was explaining to a driver why he was writing out a 700-dollar fine for vehicle defects.
“So you are saying … ” Carrie hesitated “ … that he remembered I mentioned roleplaying and, like, elves in the same hypothetical conversation how many years ago? Or Google happened to suggest it when he searched for ‘alphabet’ for the 100th time? Or it was something from an unknown shop window in Carlsbad last summer?” She sounded extremely skeptical. “And then he saw these elves on the book cover for two seconds and made the connection to roleplaying?”
“That’s his super power,” Jon said drily.
“ … I still don’t understand how he could connect it to that book,” Carrie said. “I mean, how the hell would he even recognize those characters on the cover to be elves? Each artist draws them in a different way …” Her voice faded.
“Look,” Jon said, “I have to go now. We’ll take it when I get home. Okay?”
There was silence for a long time at his wife’s end.
“I’m sorry,” Carrie then said. “I shouldn’t have called about it.”
“Wait. Wait—” Jon quickly walked back to the table and downed the rest of his coffee, including the very last dregs. Then he turned for the exit, without a word to Jefferson and Rodriguez.
When the cafe door shut behind him, he walked right out into a wave of midday heat. He kept walking and kept the phone pressed close to his ear. He could feel that he was sweating already.
“Carrie, what are you trying to say with all of … this?”
There was another long silence at the other end.
“I … I don’t know,” she then said.
“Look, honey, I know these last weeks with the kids have been murder but—”
“No, no, it’s alright. I’m alright.”
“You sure?” Jon’s throat felt dry.
“ … Yeah,” Carrie said.
“Okay,” Jon said. “See you this afternoon. Give the little buddy a hug from me.”
“Will do.” She hung up.
Jon went over to his car, his phone still in one hand. For a while he stood by the patrol car, but didn’t open the door. He rested his hand heavily on the hood and watched the traffic on Frontage Rd. His hand felt like it was on a boiler plate that had only been turned off ten minutes ago but he kept it there.
Jefferson came out and came over. His car was parked next to Jon’s. “ … Everything okay with the kid and all?”
Jon shrugged and put away his phone. He opened the door to his own car with his free hand but didn’t get in. He felt the searing heat from the metal in the palm of the hand, which was still on the hood. The sun was up there in the empty sky. As above, so below …
“Jon? You ready to get rolling?” Rodriguez had also come out. “Sorry about the phone, amigo. Just fooling around, like at the barbecue. Which was excellent by the way!”
Jon shook his head. “It’s fine.” Then he looked at Jefferson. “Michael is fine. You know, the usual problems, but … fine.”
“Still not talking?”
“Sometimes. Bit here and there.”
“It’ll come.” Jefferson nodded reassuringly.
“Yeah, it will come,” Rodriguez chimed in. “My sister-in-law’s son, you know, he—”
Jon held up his hand. “Get a move on, guys. I’ll be right behind you.”
They all looked at each other and then there was nothing more to say. The clock was ticking.
While the others drove out, Jon waited by his car. His hand was very warm now. He took it off the hood and let it linger close to his gun. It was an FNH FNS Smith & Wesson .40. A good weapon. His job wouldn’t be possible without it.
But right now things had never felt more impossible.