"Leave this place, Agent Harrow," the words of a stranger uttered a final unwelcome.
Bulletproof glass on a steel frame. The main entrance door of the Tulare County Sherrif's Office in Porterville, California, slammed closed and a forty-four year old man stomped away from the building, down the concrete steps and across the parking lot to his rental car. Teeth clenched, he pulled a key fob out of his pocket and clicked open the automobile's locks. Then, he opened the driver's side door and got inside. It still smelled like a doctor's office inside. Anger flashed across his face and he punched down at the steering wheel, letting out a loud and abrupt honk for a split second. As a government agent, he knew he had to keep his cool and remain professional, lest the local cops over-react.
He understood them: they didn't want a "fed" like him on their turf, not in what, to them, was a conflict of interest; they wanted him to back off and let them do their jobs, instead of upsetting their citizens, scratching at old wounds and getting in the way of their petty investigations.
But they did not understand him! And they never could, he couldn't let that happen. And that made his job so much harder. He wasn't allowed to tell them why he was asking local citizens in Lemon Cove, Three Rivers and Woodlake about the five teenage boys that went missing as part of a closed police case that had gone cold. And he certainly wasn't giving them the real reason why they had caught him, earlier that morning, unloading strange equipment off his trailer at a Lake Kaweah boat ramp. He simply wasn't allowed to tell them about his branch of the FBI. And the paperwork wasn't going through fast enough to clear things up. Agent Harrow was left impatiently craving clearance.
He slid the keys into the ignition, and the car growled to life. He pulled out of the parking lot of 379 North 3rd Street. He drove north on Highway 65, through Strathmore, Lindsay and Exeter. Then, he turned northeast onto 198 and drove right on into Lemon Cove, precisely the place he had been just told, by the Sheriff, never to return to as part of his case. It was a bureau-to-bureau pissing contest he'd let his boss handle, but his real reason for returning to Lemon Cove was far more personal than FBI work.
Percy Harrow pulled his government-paid rental car into the driveway of his ex-wife's farmhouse, looking completely out of place for the warm California weather in his leather overcoat.
The farmhouse seemed to never age, and stood like a defiant, small piece of personal hell from his past, an emotional prison he had fought so hard to escape. But he knew it wasn't like that anymore. Things had changed! He was no longer the foolish cuckold, too caught up in his work to care.
Maude, his ex-wife, took one look out the window, up from her smocking, and swore loudly. Her hazel hair was beginning to gray, and she made no attempt to hide it.
His footsteps fell with bitter nostalgia against the cracked asphalt.
"He's back," she muttered to herself, as if saying so would make it untrue. Passive aggression took over, and she called for one of her three kids to answer the door. Maude chose her youngest son, the one that was not his: "Damian! Can you get the door? I think it's CJ."
She knew it wasn't CJ. She didn't like CJ, because the teenage boy reminded her of a young Percy. A Percy she wished she'd never met. She hated feeling guilty. She hated feeling like a slut.
Damian stumbled to the door, lost in thoughts of a girl he might very well never see again. The door swung open, casting harsh light into the dim front hall of the farmhouse.
"Can I speak to your mother again, Damian?" asked Percy, with a duffel bag in hand.
Oh, hello not-Dad. "Sure thing," he mumbled. To Percy, the teenage boy seemed lost in thought, as if swept up in some inner fantasy. "Dad's still in Arizona for the rest of the week, so you might as well."
Percy smiled politely, and then, as Damian stood aside, he hauled his duffel bag inside for the second time that week. It looked like it would burst, right there on the front porch, too stressed.
Damian closed the door, and starting walking back to the stairs and then to his bedroom.
Maude did not look up from her smocking. "Hello again, Percy," she greeted him, pronouncing his first name as if it was a swear word.
He smiled awkardly, "I'm grateful, once again, for your hospitality."
Maude nodded, still not looking up at him. "Spencer's still living on his own. But if you're here tomorrow night, I could invite him over for dinner."
"That would be nice. He hasn't called me since Christmas," admitted Percy. "And he is my son."
"I'll see what I can do," said Maude. But she didn't seem keen on acting on it right away.
And then, as Percy parked his bag beside the pullout couch, the phone rang.
And it rang again.
And somewhere, upstairs, someone picked up the call. An amused eighteen year old young woman's voice shouted from upstairs, calling to her younger half-brother for all to hear, heard throughout the farmhouse, "Damian, it's for you and it's a girl!"
And in that moment, Percy caught a glint of panic in the eyes of his ex-wife, eyes that still refused to rest upon him.