It’s 6:17. The party began promptly at 6:00. It’s been four years since Todd’s seen them, but he knows they didn’t wait. His father is nothing if not punctual.
He’d forgotten to buy a birthday gift for his stepbrother. That’s not why he’s late, but it is the reason he will now be even more late, as he exits the Golden State Freeway for the nearest strip mall.
Would the boy understand that Todd had needed to pull over at the rest stop outside Chowchilla and weep? That his hands shook so badly he could no longer grip the wheel. “It’s time you get over it, Todd,” his father would say. “Face your demons.”
The sun is setting over Turlock as he pulls into the Safeway parking lot and steps out of the car. The reek of tired manure and late September tillage fills the air; off to his left the Diablo Range crouches, the beautiful hues of red and orange a reminder of the pastel walls in the room where Todd spent nine years of his life.
He makes his way to the back of the store where the children’s games and close-out lawn furniture is stocked. Todd doesn’t know what to buy a normal thirteen-year-old; at that age he’d been chained to the floor of a gaily-colored cell in the basement of retail sales executive Robert McDowell’s house, a few miles from where Todd now stands.