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Now in its fifth year, Summer Stories is our annual short fiction series. This year’s theme: The Road Trip. We’ll feature stories from some of the region’s best writers about road trips that are memorable, strange and sometimes a bit of both. Visit Summer Stories to read this year’s entries and revisit previous editions. Buckle up!

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Summer Stories: Not Too Bad a Guy, by Shawn Vestal

1. It wasn’t his car, strictly speaking.

But Raymond felt he had at least a partial claim to it. He’d paid for it, after all. Or no: some of it. Only a little, really, just that one month when he’d helped Kirsten out for once instead of Kirsten helping him out – but still, he thought. Some claim. He’d driven it so much the past 14 months, the Kirsten months, that it certainly felt like his.

He was going to give it back.

But now here he was, the reds and blues blazing in the rearview, car thick with the stink of fresh marijuana, his latest great idea about to die in a ditch.

2. His latest great idea was supposed to be a quick trip to a new life. Head from Bliss, Idaho, to Spokane. Hit every one of those new legal pot stores up there – he’d counted 18 on Google – and max out at each of them. One ounce of flower. Flower. He thought that was hilarious, the way everyone up there was so fancy about weed. Until recently, all he’d ever smoked was the dusty brown ditch weed he bought from Hoover in the Jerome trailer park. Those Spokane stores were like fancy cheese shops, and Raymond was a guy who’d only ever tasted cheddar.

Anyway, he’d buy those legal ounces for a hundo each, give or take, drive them back to Bliss, and price out $50 eighths to undercut Hoover. He could make five grand. Five grand would fix a lot.

If it worked, he could do it once a month.

He’d be rich.

3. The lights filled the rearview. Sirens cried. Raymond slowed down and pulled to the side of Interstate 90, trying to think of any way to mask the skunky odor that permeated the car even though the pot had been so very professionally packaged.

From the backseat came a question: “Daddy, what’s that sound?”

“That’s the police, sweetie.”

“What are they doing?”

“Probably trying to catch a speeder.”

“What’s a speeder?”

“Someone going too fast.”

“A bad guy?”

“Well,” Raymond said, wondering what happens to the children of people who are arrested. “Maybe not too bad a guy.”

4. Of all the things about Raymond that people found surprising, that was the biggest: his fatherhood.

There was nothing slightly fatherly about him. He had the untended hair and yesterday’s-clothes style of one who sleeps outside. He was on every bad-check list in Gooding County. His face shone with perpetual beer-sweats, and his eyes swam restlessly, like they were scouting the next lie. Raymond worked in the dairies of southern Idaho, burning bridges every few months when he’d miss a shift and argue with his bosses when they complained.

But even the many people who hated or mistrusted Raymond had to acknowledge that he had turned out to be a surprisingly good father, given what you’d expect. An OK father. Even Jayce, Hailey’s mom, might admit it in a friendly moment. Sure, his child support payments were as rare as August rain. He sometimes took Hailey to the Oxbow in her car seat and drank two pitchers of beer before driving her home. And lately, there were times he seemed to be leaving Hailey home alone much longer than you’d think a 4-year-old should be left home alone.

But Raymond loved that child, people could tell, and he was responsible in his limited way, and that made people like him a little better than they had formerly, though that still was very little.

5. What Raymond had told himself was: He had reasons for what he did. Kirsten would get her car back. Hailey would have a dad with more to give. More for child support. Wouldn’t things be better for everyone?

He’d just been eighty-sixed at the Hoekkema dairy for missing a shift, which was the second time he’d been fired there. He was backed up on medical bills, and six days from a power cutoff. It was a miracle Jayce kept letting him have Hailey for his visits, but she did: twice a month, Thursday through Sunday.

Every child, she said, needs a father in their life.

That’s what Raymond had told himself all the way to Spokane. A family trip, he thought. They’d see the city. Take the kid to that big red wagon in the park. Daddy-daughter time, he thought.

He had never been in a car with a 4-year-old for eight hours before.

6. In Spokane, he went to the Pot Doctor, the Weeditorium, Cannabiz, Greenleaf and Flower. At each spot, he marveled at the glass cases, the package information, the glass-blown everything, the range of products and the normalcy of it all – then he bought the strongest ounce he could get for $120 or less. He asked for double bagging at the registers, took the package out to the car, put it in the trunk, and drove to the next one.

For the first couple of hours, Hailey slept in her car seat. Raymond stopped at a Zip’s and bought burgers and tater tots, got her a milkshake. He went to four more stores, leaving her in the car seat, windows down. Then he took her to the big red wagon, where she cried because the slide was hot in the sun, and gave her some bread to feed the ducks, from which she ran screaming.

Back in the car, she asked him about that funny smell.

“I think a skunk got us, honey,” he said.

“What’s a skunk?”

7. Red light, blue light, red light, blue light. Raymond pulled to the side of the road, heartbeat clamoring. Would they take Hailey somewhere? Somewhere her idiot father could never see her again?

“Hailey sweetie,” he said.

“What?”

“You know I love you?”

“And Mommy loves me and Grammy loves and Papa loves me.”

She was counting on her fingers. She hadn’t said his name, but he was one of the fingers she was holding up, showing him. Proof. A crashing shower of self-pity rained down inside his chest. His luck was so bad, he thought. He never got a break.

His eyes were hot and itchy, and he found himself needing to press his lips together to keep them from trembling. He had brought the car to nearly a complete stop on the side of the freeway, when he realized the cop was no longer behind him, had sped past, racing on to whatever other emergency was calling.

8. Raymond had made it to 12 pot shops the first day, then got them a room in a cheap downtown motel fronted by three homeless men sitting on the sidewalk. He took Hailey to an Italian restaurant where she ate butter noodles and drank 7-Ups, and had a bowl of vanilla ice cream for dessert. They shared a queen bed, and when Raymond put the lights out at 8:30, she lay there asking him questions until she fell asleep.

He sat up and dialed Kirsten’s number, and said, “Collect from Raymond.”

When she answered, and the operator asked her if she would accept, there was a long silence on the other end. The operator asked again, and Kirsten said, “Fine.”

He told her he was bringing her car back. He told her there’d been an emergency. He told her he’d had to bring Hailey to Spokane to see a doctor for her ear aches. He told her he was sorry and begged her not to report it.

Kirsten said, “That kid has more doctor visits all over the place than I ever heard of,” and hung up.

9. After the cop car had vanished into the simmering horizon, Raymond took a huge gulp of air and made a sound he had not intended to make, a gulping sob or gasp – a sphere of living sound that had forced itself free of his body.

“What’s so funny, Daddy?” Hailey asked.

He had to wait a minute to avoid weeping like a baby.

“Nothing, honey,”

“Nuh-uh. You were laughing.”

“I wasn’t laughing, Hailey Bailey. I was just … coughing.”

“Nuh-uh.”

Hailey Bailey was right. Raymond was wrong. The cop had driven by and left him here, still OK, his latest great plan intact. But what he could tell was how short this time would be – this time when his daughter would believe the things he said just because he had said them – and how soon she’d see exactly who he was, all by herself.