by David McLeod
Christmas in Jail
"I'll put your breakfast on the table, here," the desk sergeant said. Her nametag, which Phillip had not been able to read before, said Kimmel. "Look, if you're going to be here for a while…maybe you'd like some of these." She opened a big locker in which hung plain blue jeans and light blue work shirts. "Some of these ought to fit you two. Socks and underwear are in the other locker," she added.
After breakfast, Phillip and Argon sat comfortably. Thet were still in the day room. The report on Argon's fingerprints had come back negative. "Things must be slow at the fingerprint division. I didn't expect this until next week," Sergeant Kimmel had said. "All we know, though, is that he doesn't have a criminal record. They haven't had a chance to search the non-criminal records. Anyway, since he's just a runaway, we don't have to keep him in the interrogation room. This is a lot more comfortable. The TV's busted, though."
"No time for TV, ma'am" Phillip said. "Too much language to learn. But thanks, anyway."
"Mac—that's Trooper MacComb—said you were making progress?"
"Yes, ma'am," Phillip said. "Trying to figure out where he's from, and what his family's name is. Um, any ideas what questions to ask?"
"How he got here; was it in a car? A truck? Who brought him. Can you get a description? Any of the roads he traveled; places he might have stopped; landmarks?"
"Okay, we'll work on words to ask those questions. Thank you for your thoughts," Phillip replied.
Even the Chinese restaurant was closed on Christmas day. Rather than greasy burgers or tacos from the diner, Phillip talked a trooper into getting cans of soup and sandwich fixings from a convenience store. The can opener, and the electric hotplate on which Phillip heated the soup, fascinated Argon. He had learned from his experience the night before, and carefully opened the plastic and cellophane wrappers of the bread, cheese, and cold cuts. He eagerly made a sandwich with cheese and mustard, but turned up his nose at the bologna. He examined the corn chips, furrowed his brow, and then broke into a smile when he ate one. The boy started, and then giggled when Phillip popped the top of a soft drink. Argon giggled again at the bubbles that went up his nose when he sipped.
"Lente (slowly)," Phillip said. He laughed. "Slow down."
"Small beer," Argon said. Phillip recognized "small," but the second word was new. He asked Argon to repeat it before writing it into his notebook.
By late afternoon, Phillip's brain was starting to fuzz, and Argon was growing increasingly restless—even a little testy. "I've got an idea," Phillip said. "In a minute…" He went from the day room to the desk sergeant's cubicle. Quickly he explained his problem.
"Sure, you boys need some exercise," she agreed. "There's a basketball court behind the building. Balls are in a chest just inside the door. The staff—they play sometimes, so the balls should be up to pressure. The court is fenced so prisoners could play, too. It's going to be dark soon; flood light switch is on the outside of the door in a box."
Argon did not appear to recognize the basketball and net, but quickly picked up the game. At least, he took turns with Phillip tossing the ball into the basket, and then chasing after it. The game lasted through twilight. Phillip turned off the light switch beside the door. Argon's gasp arrested Phillip's steps.
"What? What is it?" Phillip asked.
Argon was staring at the sky. His arms were straight down at his sides, and his fists were clenched. The boy shivered, but not with the cold.
"This is not my home," he said.
"Comprendamo," Phillip said.
"E contrario. (On the contrary.) You don't understand at all," Argon said in the pidgin they were using to communicate. "This world is not my home. These are not my stars!" The boy looked closely at the stars. Then he began to cry.
After leading Argon into the day room, Phillip guided the boy toward a chair. When Argon was seated, Phillip used his handkerchief to wipe the boy's face. Then he knelt, and took both of Argon's hands in his own. "Argon, ego non comprendamo (I don't understand); but I will. I will understand, and I will help you find your way home."
Argon nodded and surprised Phillip by leaning forward suddenly and kissing the taller boy. Shit, Phillip thought. It's bad enough that we had sex; I don't want him to get a crush on me!
The boys struggled with words and concepts to describe astronomy. At first, Phillip tried to convince Argon that he was wrong, that he misunderstood what he had seen. Then, he suggested that Argon was seeing winter stars with which he was unfamiliar.
Argon made it clear, however, that he knew the stars, winter and summer, and whether visible from the northern or southern hemispheres. He was adamant. He was not on his own world.
"I knew it the first day," he said, "when I found no fortiamus here. Nowhere on my world is there no fortiamus. When we shared puer fortiamus, you had none. I knew something was very, very wrong."
Fortiamus, strength? No, he means energy or power, Phillip thought. But puer fortiamus—boy power? He said we shared it. Does he mean when we had sex? Something about it was very different. I thought, then, it was like an electrical shock.
Aloud he said, "What is fortiamus; what is puer fortiamus?
A profound look of surprise and puzzlement etched itself onto Argon's face. Before he could speak, Trooper MacComb came into the room.
"Sergeant Kimmel said you two were doing well; I didn't want to interrupt," he said. "But I did say I'd come by today. Didn't plan on it being so late. There was a 30-car pileup on the interstate. Seven injured. Two dead. Took all day to clear. Most of the wrecker guys had their phones turned off. Can't really blame them. Anyway, how are things going? Do you need anything? Kimmel said she'd told you about the work clothes…did she show you the washer and dryer? If you want to clean your own…"
"Yes, sir," Phillip replied. "Our own clothes are in the dryer right now. We had supper. A trooper brought us stuff from the convenience store. He got us ice cream, too. We sort of forgot it. Maybe tomorrow."
"I can get you some real food, tomorrow. Maybe you'd like to go to one of the sit-down places on restaurant row?" MacComb referred to the stretch of road between the interstate and the old downtown that was lined with fast food joints and chain restaurants.
"Um, thanks, sir, but I don't think Argon's ready for that. You see," Phillip began, "I've learned that he's not a runaway and he's not been harmed. He'd like to go home, but he doesn't know where that is. Apparently, the children in his commune-community—whatever—are pretty ignorant of the world. I mean, he tried to eat a plastic mustard packet, and doesn't seem to know what a fork is."
"Is he, you know, retarded?" MacComb asked.
"Oh no, sir," Phillip said. "He's bright. He'd never seen a basketball net, but picked it up right away. He speaks at least three languages…that's part of what's making it so hard. We're concentrating on one, and it's starting to work. He understands astronomy…we talked about the stars. I know that wasn't on the agenda, but it kept him talking. He seemed interested in the stars, and this must be boring for him."
"Don't apologize, son," MacComb said. "What you're doing is so far above my comprehension, as far as I'm concerned, it's magic. You do what you have to do."
The trooper left at 9:00 PM (twenty one hundred hours, he'd said). Phillip and Argon were exhausted, but Argon would not allow Philip to go to bed without bathing. "Cleanliness fetish," Phillip grumbled, but allowed the boy to lead him into the shower.
Bathing was like the day before; Argon washed Phillip, who then washed the shorter boy. I didn't think about it yesterday, but Argon must have some of the same genes I have. Neither of us has any body hair.
Although they both gained erections during the shower, this time Argon led Phillip to the bunk, and lay down beside him.
The same electrical feeling, but not as strong, Phillip thought. Perhaps he's running out of this puer fortiamus. That was Phillip's last thought before sleep claimed him.