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Bubblegum Bounty Hunter

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    Without fail Aiden always woke up at exactly six in the morning. Every, single, morning. Getting out of bed was an entirely different story though. Especially now after he’d arrived in Dallas at a little after four, changed into track shorts, and crawled into some kind of bed Aiden wasn’t at all inclined to leave the stiff mattress. He remembered closing his eyes. He remembered feeling the humidity and the unbearable wool blanket that attempted to suffocate him. Lifting his head from the sweatshirt he had used as pillow, Aiden spotted the blanket still in a heap on the dusty asphalt floor where he’d kicked it off hours beforehand. The blanket wasn’t worth going after. Once Aiden was awake, he would stay wide awake.

    Red Lights from the decades old digital clock screamed it was already a quarter after seven. Something about the clock display on the countertop across from his bed was decidedly unwelcoming. No, not just unwelcoming; Aiden was once again in an untamed environment. Pin pricks of anxiety stabbed at his feet as Aiden recognized he had let his guard down enough to actually fall asleep in an insecure environment. Until his new environment was under his control, he wouldn’t wake up at six every morning, Aiden simply wouldn’t be able to sleep at all.

    Fortunately, sleep deprivation hadn’t completely robbed Aiden of common sense. He’d stowed his backpack and boots within arms reach on the left side of his bed. The boy hung his feet over the side of the cot. Rusted springs underneath the mattress creaked terribly, amplified by the wide open space of the loft he now resided in. As he slipped into and laced up his boots, Aiden took note of the open balcony before him; thick metal rails separating his seventy foot by thirty foot living space. To his right, constructed in stark contrast to the rest of the concrete and industrial decor was an immaculate tile and maple bathroom with sapphire accents. Even though the space was only separated by a hastily constructed black tarp draped over a shower rod, Aiden had never seen a more elegant bathroom.

    Behind him, Aiden felt the morning sun already beat down on him through the large nearly floor to ceiling window panes that lined the back wall. There were large cloth shades that could have be drawn, but they had all been pulled open. To Aiden’s left was his only other suitcase, an empty cot, and a spiral metal staircase leading down.

 

    Once he was fully dressed, Aiden reached the bottom of the stairs and couldn’t believe his eyes. This whole barn, warehouse, Sam’s Club sized building was riddled in metal sculptures that exceeded Aiden’s imagination. There were custom motorcycles in various states of completion, abstract sculptures, even a half finished tyrannosaurus rex. The dinosaur clutched a signboard in it’s tiny hands, “Columbia Real Estate.” For a moment, Aiden had almost forgotten about the compulsion to be secure. He simply marveled at the metallic creations that littered the dusty warehouse. Then, sitting before the boy atop a cluttered workbench, Aiden gazed upon the one thing that completely erased the need for security.

    Afterall, security couldn’t hold a match next to absolute freedom.

    It was still as simple and beautiful and miraculous as it had been when Aiden first saw it in action hours earlier: the paramotor. It was a fairly simple machine; two stroke gasoline powered fan with backpack straps. That’s all. Simple. There was also a seat cushion that separated the motor from directly hitting the back of the pilot and also two angled pieces of metal that held a crossbar about an arms reach above the fan. That’s probably wear the sail connected. That Flying Man, William, must have stored the sail and whatever ropes or cords connected it to the crossbar somewhere else.

    The search for the missing sail was cut short. A coarse, tanned hand reached out and grabbed hold of Aiden’s wrist. Pivoting on his heels, Aiden held up his fist, but didn’t strike. It was William.

    With a snort, the ginger bearded man released Aiden, “You won’t be playing about in here, am I understood there boy-o?”

    Aiden nodded compulsively, but still wasn’t nearly awake to fully agree to anything. He had questions. That man had answers. At the moment, Aiden was without a filter. It wasn’t until after he heard the first thing that escaped his mouth did Aiden recognize it was the most trivial comment he could have uttered; “That glider is really cool.”

    Aiden cringed. Of course it was cool. Anybody with eyes and half a brain could see that a backpack that allowed you to fly was objectively cool. Out of the million and one questions Aiden actually needed to ask, what on God’s green earth compelled him to spit out the obvious first?

    William made another guttural snort, “It’s mine is what it is. Don’ ya go touching what ain’t yours. Now where’d your mom get off to?”

    That’s right, Aiden had no idea where his mom was. He still didn’t really no exactly where he was in relation to the entire state of Texas. Aiden could only offer a uncertain shrug. This displeased the bearded man even more as he lumberd off towards the opposite end of the warehouse.

    William cupped a hand over his mouth and bellowed, “Ally, where ya at in here?”

    Against his better judgment, Aiden found himself following William and yelling, “Mom?”

    Bill stopped. With a heavy sigh, he chided, “Ain’t there something useful you could be doin’, boy-o? I’ve got a whole shop that needs cleaning. Best you get to it.”

    Clean his shop? Who did this man-sized-dwarf think he was? In the past a handful of his mom’s boyfriends had attempted to act like ‘a dad’. Mostly, that meant berating, bossing, and beating Aiden. When he got old enough to fight or more often flee the dad-of-the-week, Aiden stopped worrying about some random guy ordering him about.

    William on the other hand, a man chiseled from the side of a mountain standing an arms length away from him would be another story altogether. Bill raised his voice enough to where it could echo off the walls, “You speak English, lad? Supply closet is over there and I’ve got work to finish here. Now get.”

    Aiden tried to summon his voice, but it came out cracked, “I’m gonna find my mom first.”

   

    He’d searched for nearly two hours and scoured every inch of the warehouse. His nerves were frayed. His mom was nowhere to be found. The truck was still parked out front. Her keys on the bedside counter. Aiden’s mind stretched to come up with the simplest explanation but kept drifting towards the ridiculous. If his mom had gone for a walk, she’d had left a note. Had she gotten a ride somewhere? From who? Where?

    As he continued his futual search, Aiden’s mind took a nose dive into the worst case scenario. Had his mom said ‘they’ were going to see Uncle Bill, or only ‘Aiden?’ What if he was too much trouble? What if his mom couldn’t afford to run with him any longer? What if she left?

    Wiping away the panic laced tears that formed at the edges of his eyes, Aiden grabbed his backpack, suitcase, and the keys to the truck and swiftly made his way downstairs. He was careful not to stomp on the metal stairs. Who knew what Uncle Bill, or whoever he really was, would do to Aiden if he was caught trying to escape.

    Aiden tried not to consider the implications of why his mom would leave him and the truck with Bill. It was an older Ford, she wouldn’t get much. Aiden couldn’t stop himself from thinking how much money she got in exchange for her only son. If Bill really knew where his mother was, he’d probably ask for his money back. Aiden wouldn’t let himself be reduced to a thing to be bought and sold.

    Stepping into the thick boiling air, Aiden quickly loaded his bags into the truck and closed the door. He didn’t know where to go, only that he couldn’t stay. Keys in the ignition, he summoned the Bronco back to life. Down shifting into reverse, Aiden backed up out of the space the drove forward out of the lot. As he approached the end of the driveway to the industrial complex, just before Aiden turned North on South Greensville, he glimpsed his supposed Uncle Bill running up the driveway, shouting. It was too late. Aiden wasn’t that stranger’s property; he would always choose to be free.


    About a quarter mile up the road, Aiden approached the stop light at the intersection of Greensville and Bethany. Two signs caught his eye. One, pointed toward US Highway 75: the logical choice. The second sign was a green poster board with thick black sharpy that read, “Free BBQ, First Presbyterian Church Plano: Jupiter and 15th. Today at 11:00am!”

    In this order, Aiden was terrified, furious, and halfway to diving heart first into despair as he wrestled with the possibility that his mother had left him, possibly sold him, to a stranger. He’d never felt so much at once. Aiden was nearly hyperventilating from the sheer weight of everything pressing down upon him. Only one emotion out weighed everything else: hunger.

 

    At the stop light, Aiden turned right, then made a second right headed South on Jupiter drive. It took him a minute, but after catching glimpses of children playing in their front yards and parents reclining on patios, Aiden recalled today was a Sunday. Families rested on Sundays. At least that’s what the majority of folks in this particular residential housing tract did. Apparently, abandoning your children was an activity only the minority partook in. Aiden didn’t notice he was simmering; anger boiled just below the surface. It wasn’t till he almost ran a stop sign and slammed on the brake that the anger finally boiled over. It was the lemonade stand that did it.

    On the corner out the driver’s side window a little girl and her dad served a random passerby. Happy little family. At least on the outside. Aiden grit his teeth. He’d kill for a happy family on the outside. Cars behind him honked. Aiden rolled forward through the intersection and left the picturesque cliche behind. He was still a minor driving a truck without a license. If Aiden wasn’t careful, he’d end up in his own cliche: a troubled teen thrown into a shity foster system... or wherever American kids went when they were no longer wanted.

 

    A little less than five miles down the road Aiden found the small brick building surrounded by freshly mowed grass, a flock of church goers, and smoke billowing up from a pair of grills. He drove down a block and parked around the corner just to be safe. Even with his stomach growling like crazy, Aiden still had enough sense left to be cautious. It didn’t help matters much that he stuck out like a sore thumb; he’d probably be the only one wearing thrift store clothes in a sea of folks in their Sunday best. He’d be staying for long. He was on a mission; find the end of the line, grab free food, and get out.

    Service must have just let out. People kept pouring out of the main sanctuary and funneling toward… there, that’s where the line started. Aiden settled in behind a family of six. His mouth watered. Smoke infused with the scent of fresh grilled hamburgers and bratwursts hung thick in the humid air. Fresh ground beef sizzled and snapped off the grill. Why did the line have to move so slowly?

    Nearly half an hour later, Aiden finally grabbed two burgers, a hand full of fries, and a thick slice of watermelon. He’d nearly finished the first burger as he casually slipped away from the crowd back towards the truck. That’s when she caught his eye. He stopped hot in his tracks. Just looking at her, Aiden was afraid that his jaw had gone slack and half chewed hamburger would roll out of his mouth. Light brown skin, dark curly hair that floated like a storm cloud above her head, and curves like a red Comice Pear. Aiden had never settled in one place long enough to really notice girls before, but in this brief respite of peace, he made sure to take notice of someone so beautiful.

    Willing himself out of what had to have been an obnoxiously obvious gaze, Aiden expanded his view to take in the whole scene. This gorgeous girl that couldn’t have been more than Aiden’s age was arguing with some goth girl. Drifting closer to the situation unfolding before his eyes, he picked up on a few keywords…

    The pale goth chick wrinkled her face in disgust, “But he wrote all the songs, what do you mean he ain’t worth nothin’?”

    With a slight southern Louisiana lilt, the black girl snapped back, “Cause if he was worth his weight, he won’t run off. Cube should have stayed with ‘em, crew. That’s what friends supposed to do.”

    Snapping back, the girl in the black dress replied, “Well that ain’t how life works. People break up. Families break up, and people need to learn to grow up. NWA ain’t always going to be around.”

    The black girl rolled her eyes; “How you roll up in here talkin’ ‘bout family? I seen you with the Garner Family, all half dozen crate of Faberge eggs y’all are--”

    At the mention of family, the blonde girl stepped forward almost nose to nose with the black girl and lost it, “--They ain’t all my family, so how ‘bout you mind your own business.”

    The black girl shoved the blonde goth back in her place, “How ‘bout ya stay outta my face?”

    That’s when the blonde girl went from steaming mad to mad crazy. For someone a few inches shorter than Aiden, the blonde girl had some power behind her. With one shove, the black girl was knocked down on her back.

    Instinctively, Aiden dropped his plate. He sprinted forward. Everything went quiet for a moment; he could only watch the blonde girl yell on mute as Aiden closed the distance between himself and the two girls. It almost looked like the white girl was going to take a swing, balling up her first.

    Taking a defensive posture Aiden stopped and stood in front of the black girl, still in shock on the ground. Almost without his consent, he said something cliched, “How about you calm down, and back off?” Sucifice to say, these words were less than effective.

    Lighting fast, the goth girl rabbit punched Aiden in the face. It wasn’t the strongest blow to the head he’d ever received, but there’d be a mark in the morning.

    At the top of her lungs, the goth girl screamed, “You can mind your own damn business too!”

    Emerging from the crowd of people on the other side of the lawn a mountainous voice called out, “Dylan! What’s going on over there?”

    Aiden glimpsed at the human sized GI Joe Figure sprinting towards him. It was time to go. He quickly glanced down at the girl that caught his now black-eye. She’d already left. Typical. Therein lay the real reason why Aiden never got involved with people; nothing ever got solved kicking a hornet’s nest.

    Already drenched in sweat, Aiden sprinted for the truck. He could still hear voices behind him calling out. Aiden ran faster. This wasn’t the first time on the run and it wouldn’t be the last. He’d gotten real good at it. Turn, run, leave it all behind. That was the truth of how things typically fell together. Now he finally and fully realised that no family, no beauty, no amount of hospitality from strangers should tempt him into dropping his guard. He had to just keep running.

    Aiden threw open the truck door and slammed it shut again once he’d leapt inside. Doors locked. Engine on. He threw the Bronco into gear and headed for the intersection. Get to the highway. Get to the open road. Keep running. It didn’t matter where. Life didn’t have any permanent destinations; it was all journey. Then there was the itch. He shouldn’t have, but nevertheless, Aiden looked up in the rearview mirror. He looked back and tried to convince himself it was only an illusion of safety and permanence. It felt like something was stuck in his throat. There must have been some debris in his eyes. They weren’t real families enjoying themselves on a Sunday. It was all pretend. He had to fight. He had to run. He wouldn’t let himself feel jealous over something he never had, and would never have again.

    He reached up to readjust the mirror. That’s when he stomped on the breaks. That’s when his heart skipped a beat. It wasn’t just that he’d nearly rearended the stopped car in front of him, it was the sudden yelp of the siren and flashing red and blue lights that cut the legs out from under him. Aiden froze as he watched the officer dismount his motorcycle and approach the driver’s side door.