The rational part of Ethan's brain, always quick on the uptake, was more than happy to inform him that the crack of the tire as it blew sounded nothing like a gunshot. And yet, the noise had been so sudden and so sharp that he had brought his hand to his chest to see if he'd been hit, and nearly careened into a telephone pole in the process. His luck held, though, and reflex had the brake pedal jammed down hard against the floorboard before he'd even registered that he'd needed to move his right foot at all, so that the otherwise empty residential shortcut suffered no more damage than some scuff marks as Ethan's now-soft front right tire hit the curb before the whole car jerked to a halt. Heart pounding in his ears, knuckles gone white around the steering wheel, he jammed the car into park and tried to remember how breathing worked.
His hand was shaking so badly as he went for the door handle that it took him three tries to get it open, though the little dashboard light was warning him of disaster even before he stepped out, lighting up the strange signal it gave him when he'd overfilled one of his tires at the gas station air pump. He couldn't remember having seen anything on the road that dangerous to drive over, but it wasn't as though a tire needed a special reason to blow; sometimes, things just gave way. With shaky knees, he swung his feet out of the car and walked around the front to inspect the damage.
He'd meant to step over the gutter on his inspection tour, but his feet weren't in the most obedient of moods, and his shoe came down heavy in a puddle of rainwater, soaking the cuff of his trousers. The weather had been dry for the past two days, but a grey overcast sky had menaced the DC area well on past the last storm, and without a good dose of sunshine to clear out the place, the standing water hadn't budged. The tire sagged in the middle of a soggy mess of cut grass, tilting the whole car with it. It wasn't just a little low, banged up but good to limp on with a patch job; it was blown out, totally flat and sporting a hole big enough for Ethan to poke his finger inside, if he'd wanted to. He wasn't going anywhere, not until he got a new tire on, and the air froze up in his lungs just as sure as if someone had put a lead weight there, until he found himself standing beside his car, hands braced against the blue metal frame, clenched up with terror about what the hell he was going to do about Shaun.
The hands on his watch were already pointing to 3:40; the last school bell rang at 4:00 on the nose, and Shaun was a punctual sort, never showing up at their assigned meeting spot later than 4:05. Maybe, Ethan thought, he could manage to put on the spare himself in time ... except for the part where he hadn't changed a tire even once in his whole life. It had something to do with a jack, he was fairly sure, but he wasn't even sure that car had a jack in it; he'd bought it a few months back, when the doctor had finally given them both the okay to get the hell out of Dodge and move to Bethesda, and hadn't been inclined since then to go exploring all the features. There was the insurance company's roadside assistance program, at least, but that would take time, and the thought that kept pushing its way to the front of Ethan's mind was the image of Shaun, standing all alone on the deserted basketball court under a grey sky, clutching the straps of his bookbag and wondering why his dad had abandoned him--
Moving with something now approaching blind panic, Ethan jammed his hand into his pocket and pulled out his phone; he flipped it open and, absent any other clear thought or direction, pressed the green call button. A list of his most recently dialed numbers popped up on the screen, the first of which belonged to Grace -- but Grace was in California this week on some business trip, thousands of miles too far to make it in time. The next lead to a far more local line, and if Ethan had been thinking clearly, he would have tried to think of another option, maybe found anyone else in the area who would have been a more logical choice, like the pizza delivery guys or the receptionist at the firm Ethan freelanced for or maybe even the homeless guy that hung out under the building's front awnings on rainy nights. But he could hear his own breathing, harsh and shallow, and pressed send before common sense could get the better of him.
The phone picked up on the second ring. "Norman Jayden."
"Mr. Jayden," said Ethan, leaning his forearms against the roof of the car and shutting his eyes, "it's Ethan Mars."
"Ethan?" And there was worry in Norman's voice, not even disguised, clear through the connection. "What's wrong? Is everything okay?" There was a shuffle on Norman's end of the conversation, the sound of a body's pushing very quickly away from a desk.
Everything's fine, Ethan started to answer, an unfortunate reflex born from years of having everything not be fine, but he decided it wasn't worth trying to lie about his emotional state to someone who profiled criminally deceptive people for a living. "Shaun's still at school," he said, nonetheless trying to work the shake out of his voice, "and I go get him every day, except I've got a flat fucking tire and I don't even know if I have a spare here, but--"
"Ethan," Norman said again, this time not a question at all, and Ethan fell quiet, taking a deep breath in the following silence. Though they'd only been in the same room together a few times, and Ethan had been in pretty bad shape for most of those, Norman in person came off as a fidgety man, always a little restless, a little haunted; now, though, his voice had an authoritative edge that seemed steady as stone. "Calm down and tell me the problem."
"Can ... you go get him?" As soon as he'd asked, Ethan felt the idiot he knew he sounded like, but once it was spoken, it couldn't be taken back. "I know you're busy, and ... and this is ridiculous, I shouldn't be calling, but Grace is out of town and I don't know the number of his school, and he hates it when he doesn't know where I am, and I know you have better things to do and ... but if you could--"
"What's the name of the school?"
"St. Florian's. It's up on Marble Street, near--"
"Got it." There was a soft percussive sound, maybe the single clapping of gloved hands. "I'll call you when I have him."
Ethan felt tension he hadn't even known he'd been holding seep out of his shoulders, and he leaned heavily against the car just in case his knees decided they had better things to do than keep on holding him up. "Thank you," he said, clenching his eyes shut to keep prickling tears at bay. "I don't know how to thank you."
"It's fine," Norman said, and then the connection was closed without so much as a note of good-bye. It must have been that strange sort of government efficiency, Ethan figured, never spending a second or a word more than necessary, crystalized into one hyper-efficient, meticulous man who could solve serial murders and still have time to pick up an eleven-year-old boy who got scared if someone wasn't waiting for him at the end of every school day. Right now, though, Ethan wasn't into questioning how he made it work, so long as he knew help was on its way to Shaun.
With that all settled, now all Ethan needed to do was to get the roadside assistance number from the little card in the glove compartment, and he figured he'd do that just as soon as his hands stopped shaking.
The mechanic who showed up less than half an hour later was a kind older fellow, pleasant but very slow, and Ethan had to ball his hands into fists in his pockets to keep from saying something unkind about how long it could possibly take a human being who did this sort of thing professionally to change one lousy tire. But after ten minutes that felt like three hours, he was on his way again, and only through the greatest effort did he manage to not to break every traffic law ever written on his way to the meeting place Norman had specified. He'd been too relieved to hear that Shaun was okay to question it while Norman had actually been on the line with him, and too distracted by the business of waiting for the new tire to think about it either way, but it wasn't until he was actually pulling into the parking lot and staring at the lemon-shaped red sign that he actually stopped to wonder why Norman had chosen, of all places, the nearest Dairy Queen.
At first, he was most surprised at what he didn't see: namely, Shaun's face pressed to the glass, eyes searching the parking lot, waiting anxiously for his father's arrival. He thought he might have somehow gone to the wrong Dairy Queen entirely, until he pushed open the front doors and saw a pair of familiar figures inhabiting two of the counter stools. The larger of the two sat hunched forward over the counter, wearing a dark grey suit that was slightly ill-fitting and looked just a touch too long in the legs; the smaller one had legs that didn't even touch the ground, and kicked at a backpack tucked under his feet.
He cleared his throat, but the sound was lost in the noise of Shaun's voice as he chattered excitedly over his Blizzard cup. "She took half a grade off for every spelling mistake!" he cried, sounding more indignant than upset.
Norman shook his head as he listened, then pulled the spoon from his mouth and stuck it back in his own cup. "Taking a half a point off, that might make sense, but a half a grade? That's putting the focus on the wrong things. Seems like a little bit of overkill to me."
"Ugh!" Shaun threw up his hands in a gesture that was unfortunately comic on his gangly frame. "No one else would ever say that! They all said it was 'part of learning'."
Breathing out a sigh of relief that felt months in coming, Ethan cleared his throat. "Hi, guys."
"Dad!" Shaun spun around on his stool so fast he nearly fell off, and broke into a grin as he bolted off the seat and toward his father. He'd been sparing with the public displays of affection lately -- another sign of impending adolescence, Ethan figured, trying not to take it personally -- but this apparently constituted special circumstances; he threw his arms around Ethan's neck and allowed himself to embraced for nearly three full seconds before he started pushing away, self-conscious. "Daaaad," he hissed, "Mr. Jayden is watching...."
Norman turned on his stool with a far more measured calm, keeping hold of his own Blizzard. "All your car problems worked out?" he asked, pronouncing 'car' in the way most people would imitate the sound a crow made.
"Tire fixed and everything." With one last pat, Ethan let Shaun back down to the ground, though he kept a hand resting on Shaun's shoulder. "Thank you so much, I hurried as fast as I could."
Norman shook his head. "No problem at all. We had a good time," he added, and when he said it, it wasn't the sound of a man trying to make all the proper polite responses to cover how much of an imposition he felt some engagement had been; he actually had had a good time, or so he made it sound, and there was a little smile playing at the edges of his mouth. With a nod for emphasis, he went back to eating his Blizzard.
"Thank you, I appreciate it," Ethan said, and he turned back to Shaun, bracing himself for the irritation he knew he had earned. "I'm really sorry I was late, buddy."
"It's okay, Dad! Mr. Jayden's been to Spain, did you know that?" Shaun cast his awestruck gaze upon Norman, then looked back at his father, grinning from ear to ear.
"I...." Ethan blinked. "I can't say I did, no."
"It was just for a few days," Norman pointed out. He picked up one of the flimsy paper napkins from the counter and wiped away a trickle of ice cream that was meandering its way down the side of his cup.
Shaun poked Ethan in the side. "And he likes Oreo Blizzards best too, so you and strawberry are outvoted."
The entire exchanged seemed so dream-like to Ethan, so completely outside the range of expected outcomes, that he was only partly convinced that it was actually taking place. "I guess I am," he shrugged, running his fingers through Shaun's overlong hair, making a mental note to take them both in for haircuts one of these days. "Ready to go home now, buddy?"
But Shaun cast a longing glance back to his seat. "Can I finish my Blizzard?"
"Oh?" Ethan shrugged. "Oh, sure."
It turned out Shaun had only a few bites left in his cup, but he savored them slowly while Ethan kept a hand perched on his back, just between his shoulderblades, the still-fading panic inside him not quite ready to let his son loose just yet. "And he has to fill out paperwork every time he fires a gun," Shaun babbled on between bites, "especially if he's just cleaning it and it accidentally goes off and it fires into a wall."
"Which, I hasten to note, has never happened," said Norman, whose Blizzard cup was still nearly a quarter full. "To me."
"Good to hear," Ethan smiled. "Say, let me pay you back for the ice cream."
But Norman shook his head in a way that was as authoritative as the voice he had used on the phone, and Ethan knew right away he'd lost that battle before it'd even begun. "My treat," he said, and that ghost of a smile became just a little more corporeal, edging its way toward the little pink scar that marked his cheek, until Ethan had to turn away to keep from staring. It was a hell of a thing, really, to see someone he had so associated with such a particular extraordinary time in his life doing something as mundane as eating ice cream, like being in elementary school and running into your teachers at the supermarket and having to process that they, too, were humans who inhabited the same world as you did. Crises came and were dealt with, but when they were over, there was still the business of normal life to contend with. And Ethan was beginning to suspect that was the hardest part of all of it.
Two bites more, and Shaun was done to his satisfaction; he grabbed his backpack, slid back off the stool, and pushed the cup through the swinging door of the nearest trashcan. "Okay," he nodded at Ethan before turning back to wave at Norman. "Bye, Mr. Jayden! Thank you for the Blizzard and thank you for telling me about your job and thank you for picking me up from school today!"
"Don't mention it." Norman returned the wave with the hand not currently holding his slowly melting Blizzard as the Mars boys made their way out of the Dairy Queen, Shaun babbling all the way about all the new FBI facts he'd learned, and if Ethan hadn't known better, he would've sworn from the look on Norman's face that he was actually sad to see them go.