Martin and Carrie are sitting in his living room. Carrie is nursing little Jane. Martin is trying not to look at her exposed breast. He doesn't know where to look.
“Is this making you uncomfortable?” she asks.
“What? No. No, you... feeding your baby is... fine, it's totally fine. It's natural, it's the most natural thing in the world.”
Carrie takes Jane from her breast to her shoulder to burp. Martin looks away as quickly as he can. He sees more than he is comfortable seeing.
“Yeah, it's a little weird. I'm sorry, I have two daughters, I should be used to this sort of thing.”
“You're such a man,” Carrie says, laughing. “So strong and so... weak.” She pats Jane on the back and bounces up and down in the chair. “But it's sweet.”
“I'm not used to it, is all. It's been a long time.”
“I'm not used to it, either,” she says.
“Breast-feeding? Yeah I guess you wouldn't be, yet.”
“No, breast feeding is fine. I'm not used to... awkward men. Sweet men.”
This makes Martin even more uncomfortable. She knows that and she likes it. She is really starting to enjoy his discomfort. She likes having a little bit of power again.
“I don't mean to be... rude, or anything, and maybe I shouldn't say anything...”
“What, I said you were sweet so now you have to say something rude to reclaim your manliness?”
“No, I'm just, wondering... last night you were... and maybe it was because you were scared or in shock, or something, but you were... stuttering. You seemed to have a stutter.”
“Did I? That's weird. I do stutter when I'm nervous, sometimes.”
“I'm sorry, I'm an idiot.”
“Is thi... thi... this bet... better?”
Martin's head drops. He is beyond embarrassed and can't look at her in this moment.
“Ask me about my mom?”
Martin looks up, confused, and still mortified.
“Hey Carrie, you're living with an abusive, violent, drug-dealing boyfriend, how did it feel talking about that with the mom you abandoned? Well, Martin, I'm glad you asked me that because it wasn't easy.”
“How was it, talking to your mom?”
Carrie smiles. She truly is enjoying this.
“How long had it been since you'd seen her?”
“Since before Jane was born. She knew I was pregnant, but I left when I was, like, seven months along.”
Martin is blown away by this information. She left seven months pregnant and had the baby by herself, without any help from her own mother. He shakes his head, amazed. This is a tough girl.
“So your mom hadn't seen Jane before last night?”
Carrie shakes her head.
“I can't even begin to process that. She had to be ecstatic. What did she say? What did you say to her?”
“Well, she still doesn't like Nate, I think she thinks I can do a lot better. Maybe she is right. But he isn't a bad guy. She thinks he is but he's really not. He loves me.”
Martin squints. He doesn't understand what he is hearing. Something is happening, something is wrong. How did she get here? Why is she in his apartment?
“She never liked him, never really liked any of my boyfriends. That is probably common with moms, but she always seemed to hold an extra special dislike for them. No guy was ever going to be good enough.”
Why is she talking about him like she didn't shoot him in the face last night?
“Wait, so... she knows? She knows about Nate? What did you tell her about... last night, about him? Did you...”
“Last night? Martin, what are you talking about?”
Another voice, behind Martin:
“What are you sayin' about me?”
Everything changes in Martin's head. The walls warp and shift. The colors change. Reality is coming apart all around him but no one else seems to notice. On his left, a figure appears. It is a large man, big like Nate. Martin shakes his head because it can't be Nate, Nate is dead. This man who looks and sounds like Nate steps up to Carrie's couch and leans over to give her a kiss. Martin can only see the right side of his face. It looks pretty normal. Then Nate turns.
“You're not harrassin' my lady, are you, Martin?” Nate asks.
Everything slows to a crawl. The left side of Nate's face is a bloody crater. His jawbone is exposed and flesh is hanging from his jaw and cheek. Blood is streaming down from the wound across his neck and chest, soaking into his shirt. His ear is gone.
“What... what is happening?”
“Now you know I can't let you bother my lady, Martin. I just can't have that, can I sweetheart?”
Carrie shakes her head and smiles. She continues to burp Jane over her shoulder. When she looks back into Martin's eyes, her eyes are bloodshot, deep-set, crazy.
“Well, there you go, buddy, you heard the lady.”
Nate goes for a gun. Martin puts his hands up and realizes he has a gun of his own. He levels it and begins firing. The bullets have no effect, they go through Nate and do nothing to him, nothing to the wall behind him, nothing at all. The explosions of each round are blinding, the booms impossibly loud. They take Martin's senses.
Nate is unaffected, he can take his time. There is nothing Martin can do, he is frozen to the chair. He can't move, he can't scream. As Nate's gun rises, Martin looks to Carrie. She is sitting in her chair, the baby crying in her lap. Her neck has settled into an extreme angle and her head is resting on her shoulder. She, too, is bleeding from wounds. Her wounds are in her chest. The baby's feet thrash and her hands grasp at the air above her.
Nate begins pulling the trigger.
Nate's bullets don't disappear. They slam into Martin's body, punching him into the chair. The bullets rip through his chest and take his breath. He fights for air, tries to suck it in, and can't. Nate's teeth glow in the warping light and he hisses laughter as he steps in front of Martin and points the pistol toward Martin's head. Martin screams.
Martin wakes up screaming and sits upright in the chair he was sleeping in. He has a gun and he points it wildly around the room. Nate's face flashes in front of him one more time and then fades. He screams. His hands are up, pawing at the air in front of his face and shielding him from bullets that aren't there.
He is coming down now. He knows it was a dream. He doesn't hear sirens. He peers out the curtain by the window near him. He doesn't see flashing blue and red lights outside. No one is coming for him, yet.
His breathing slows. He closes his eyes. He talks to himself, bring it down, breathe slowly, deeply. Breathe.
“Come on, Marty.”
Breathe. He gets up. In the bathroom he turns on the shower. being in the warm water helps. He feels it run over him as he lets his head hang. The shower floor goes crimson and brown as the blood washes away. That's better, just wash it all away.
Another flash memory of Nate's face, open, lifeless yet glistening and hot. Martin clenches his jaw and lips and closes his eyes hard, as if he can squeeze the thoughts from his mind. He doesn't want these images.
He shuts the water off but stays there, head down, forehead pressed to the shower wall. Breathing. He breathes in, then out slowly... in... out slowly. In. Out. Just breathe, Martin. Just breathe.
Knocking. The sound of knocking.
It is daytime now. Martin sits up suddenly in bed. Someone is here. Someone is knocking on the door. Now the doorbell is ringing. Martin scrambles to his feet and stands still, silent, trying to get a hold of himself and what is happening. Is it the police? he wonders, have they found me already? He considers the possible ways out of this. He considers whether he is ready to try to shoot his way out.
He grabs his gun. He is in his boxer shorts as he enters the front hallway and levels his gun at the door. He waits. More knocking. He hears voices. They are small, feminine.
“Daddy, wake up!!”
It's Saturday. It's his Saturday with the girls.
“Let's just go, Hill,” Juliette says, reaching out to take Hillary's hand.
“Do you think he is still asleep?” Hillary asks.
Martin puts the gun on the fridge and opens the door. Hillary is there, Juliette a few feet behind her, and Victoria has gotten out of her car and is walking up the front path. She stops when Martin opens the door.
“Hey!” Martin yells, blinking in the sunlight. The phlegm of a rough night's sleep rumbles from his throat. He tries to clear it. “Hey, girls, sorry, sorry. Come in, come in!”
He says this without thinking. This is not a good time to come in. He doesn't remember a lot about last night. What did he do with his bloody clothes? Where are his clothes right now? The TV is a shattered, whiskey-soaked mess and the place probably smells like an armpit died in it.
“Daddy, did you just wake up?”
He considers lying, making up a quick story about working out or waking up so early to work that he had to take a nap. He considers saying he has been sick. He dismisses all of these thoughts.
“Um, yeah... yeah I did. Daddy was really tired this morning. I didn't really sleep very well last night and I guess I didn't hear my alarm.”
Martin looks out at Victoria. He shrugs and shakes his head.
“Sorry, Vix, I've got them. I'm here. Thanks.”
Juliette turns to Victoria and smiles. She stretches her arms out toward her father.
“See mom, dad is more than ready and totally capable of taking care of us today. You should probably just go, I'm sure we'll be fine.”
Her sarcasm is sharp and nasty. It is meant to punish both parents, in different ways. She is getting good at that.
Hillary pushes into the apartment straight away. They don't spend much time here so it is something new and different to be explored. Juliette follows. Victoria's face suggests she would like a word with Martin.
“Really, Martin? What, you go out and get hammered with the guys last night, the night before your one full day with the girls this week?”
The image of Carrie holding the gun flashes into Martin's mind. Nate's face, at once sneering with hatred, then open and blood-soaked and lifeless.
“No, nothing like that.”
“Jesus! Well, it looks like you did, it looks like you've been living on the street.”
“Just had a rough night, is all.”
She is visibly shaken by his breath.
“I just slept through my alarm. I'm sorry.”
“Don't apologize to me.”
Hillary's tiny voice calls out from within the apartment.
“It smells like onions and mustard in here!”
Martin winces. Victoria is not pleased.
“Vix, it's fine. I'm fine. I have a whole fun day planned for us and the girls are going to love it, so don't worry.”
“Good, that's good, I hope they do. Just...” she stops, reconsidering what she was going to say. “Just... call me when you want me to pick them up.”
“And... the money? The money for...”
“I have it, it's fine. Thanks.”
Hillary, from inside the apartment again.
“Daddy, what happened to your TV?”
Victoria gives him another exasperated look. The look asks, “What next?”
Part of him never wants her to know. He doesn't want to give her the satisfaction, another incident to point to in order to pass more judgment. But part of him wants to grab her by the neck and yell it straight into her face. He wants to tell her he threw the bottle through the TV in a fit of drunken rage. He wants to tell her he imagined the TV was her face, that the TV was one of the few remaining sources of what could be called joy in his life and wanted to, needed to, destroy it and leave its jagged and ruined remains out in the open for everyone to see. He wants her to know what sorts of destruction he is capable of.
He swallows hard and clears his throat.
“I can't wait to tell you about it, Hilly Billy!” he yells back over his shoulder. Then, turning to Victoria, “Don't worry, it's nothing. It's fine.”
“I'm sure it's not fine but... (yelling to the girls) have fun, girls!”
“Bye, mom!” Hillary yells. Juliette raises her hand as if she is going to wave, but an overwhelming loss of caring sends her hand swinging back down to her side, where it hangs limp.
Once inside, Martin closes the door and runs toward his room.
“Back in a second, girls!”
While he rummages through his drawers, the girls survey his living space. Hillary bounces around the apartment like it's a museum. She loves the open space due to the lack of furniture. She is fascinated by the smashed TV. She reaches gently towards the shards, knowing she probably shouldn't be touching any of it.
“Don't... don't touch it, Hill. Don't touch anything.”
“What do you think happened to it?” Hillary asks.
Juliette ignores her and leaves her to examine the remains of the TV alone. Juliette heads into the kitchen. There are some taco wrappers on the counter, Tuco's. Juliette sits at one of two bar stools and lays her arms on the counter. After looking at the wrappers for a moment, she removes her arms from the counter. She stands up and brushes off whatever bacteria might have jumped onto her butt while she was on the stool. She decides she is going to avoid contact with everything in the apartment, if possible.
Martin returns, just getting his shirt over his head. A quick mouthwash, some deodorant, and a splash of cold water to the face make him seem less ape-like, slightly. He pulls the shirt downward.
“Okay, sorry... that's better” he says, breathing in deeply and sighing loudly out. He has on a cleanish pair of jeans and a red collared shirt. He does look a little better, marginally better. His eyes go to little Hillary who is pointing to the broken TV.
“So? What happened to it?” she asks.
Juliette cuts in.
“It probably killed itself to escape this hell hole.”
“Hey! Go easy. Mr. TV didn't kill himself. I just turned on The Bachelor and it self-destructed.”
“You watch The Bachelor?”
“Of course, I watch it every week. And any reruns, too.”
“You're silly, daddy. That's a girl show.”
Martin slams his hands into his cheeks. His mouth and eyes go wide, shocked.
“What? How dare you! It's called 'The Bachelor,' and bachelors are men so I think men should be able to watch it, too.”
“Well,” Hillary retorts, “he is a bachelor but there are like a hundred women and they have all the drama and girls like drama. So it's a girl show.”
“Well I loved it and I will miss it dearly.”
“Maybe that's why you can't sleep. Watching TV always helps me feel sleepy.”
“Did the TV down a bottle of Jack before it blew itself up?” Juliette asks. She stares over Hillary's head, stares at Martin. She flicks an eyebrow up. In her stare is annoyance and judgment and disappointment. Her look is asking how long Martin is going to keep lying straight to his youngest daughter's face. Her look is judging him for the untold times he must have done the same to her when she was younger. At the end, when her one eyebrow goes back down and her lips tighten together, her look asks if he will ever stop lying to the women in his family.
Humor is his last shield here.
“Well, Juliette, I'm afraid you're right. He'd been drinking heavily, too heavily in my opinion, for weeks before this happened. I had been trying to get him to quit for some time. I tried and tried but it was no use. Sometimes people just won't accept help.”
Her face shifts quickly in and out of something different. Remorse?
Martin sees it. He lets it go, and instead looks back to the ruined TV.
“I knew he would end up like this,” he says, shaking his head.
“You should've done an intervention, daddy,” Hillary says.
“Maybe someone should hold an intervention with you,” Juliette mumbles.
Relentless, blow after blow, Jules won't stop trying to hurt him. The pain and poison in her words are acidic, scalding, and seem to be about more than just a divorce or his broken TV or his broken life.
“Why does she know about interventions?” Martin asks, looking to Juliette.
“We've been watching Intervention. It's educational,” Juliette says, “so she understands the world.”
“I need to know what's what,” Hillary says, giving a single proud nod.
“The real world of movie star drug addicts?” Martin asks.
“The realest,” Juliette says.
“The realest,” Hillary echoes.
“By the look of this place,” Juliette says, looking around through squinted eyes and a furrowed brow, “she'll probably learn more about hitting rock bottom by hanging around here for a few hours.”
“Well, miss sunshine, I bet I can make you stop being so grumpy and mean. What do you think,
Hillary? Do you think I can make miss sunshine over here smile?”
“No way, she never smiles.”
“Do you think I can make her stop being so mean?”
Hillary shakes her head.
“Maybe just a little bit?”
Hillary shakes her head harder and pouts. She just doesn't see any possible way. But then she looks up with a tiny spark of hope.
“Well, dad... you could always try.”
Martin steps forward and offers his hand to Hillary. She obliges, a clean, hard high five.
“Come here, Jules, right here,” he says, moving a chair so they have a little clear area to face each other.
“No thanks,” Jules says.
“Come on, please. Just stand here, right here in front of me.”
“Just here,” he says, pointing.
“Come on, step right up.”
Hillary begins to clap and giggle. She has caught on. Juliette is not as excited.
“Please don't do a magic trick.”
“Yay, yay, magic, magic! Do it dad!”
“Yeah, see, yay magic, yay magic. All the cool people like magic. You want to be cool, don't you, Jules?”
Juliette's lips curl up and she lets the burning fury in her lungs slowly hiss out. She closes her eyes and hates herself for giving in. She knows to refuse would hurt Hillary more than Martin, so she makes her decision. She breaks.
“Okay, great,” Martin says, guiding her by the shoulders. He tilts her and guides her to a spot on the carpet near the kitchen linoleum and plants her in place with a single downward pull. “Here, stand right here, this is going to be amazing. Hillary will be amazed, you will be amazed, heck... I might even amaze myself.”
“Probably not hard to do,” Juliette says.
“Hush now, hold still, hold still, stand up straight, here we go, chin up, shoulders back...”
His hands bounce around her head and shoulders and back . He pulls at her head, lengthening her neck. He jostles her shoulders, first lifting them, then pulling them down, then crunching them forward before pulling them back. His hands go to her hands, first left then right. Her pulls up on her chin, reinforcing posture. His hands flit here, there, all over.
“Hey hey hey, shush shush shush. This will only take a second.”
“Don't break the spell. Don't ruin the magic vibes.”
“Yeah, Jules, don't ruin the magic vibes,” Hillary says.
She rolls her eyes. He rolls his back at her. Then his eyes ask nicely. Please indulge your stupid father, just this once, please.
She relents, again.
“Excellent, excellent, awesome, okay now look, look at my hands, we can all see that there is
nothing in my hands, right?”
He waves his hands around his head. He shows the girls the palms of his hands, then the backs.
“And we can all see that Juliette has nothing in her hands, yes?”
He takes her hands and raises them up above her head. She is keeping her arms limp, trying to help out as little as possible.
“Nothing in her hands, daddy!” Hillary affirms.
“Yes, yes, indeed. But... what about...”
Martin steps back, waving his hands like a dark sorcerer.
“What about... in your HAIR?!”
He claps his hands twice, a lackluster alakazam. It's cheesy showmanship, but his plant was smooth. Juliette reaches for the top of her head and is a little surprised to actually feel something that isn't supposed to be there. She pulls it out. It is thin and light and crunchy. She smiles, knowing what it is. Martin has scored a rare and brief victory.
“Wow!” Hillary says, seeing something in her sister's hand. “Daddy, how did you do that?”
“Wait, is this real?” Juliette asks. She is pealing the bills apart and seeing that they are hundreds.
“What is it, Jules, what is it!”
Juliette holds up the folded bills. She opens them. There are three green and shining one hundred dollar bills. Three hundred dollars, cash.
“It's money,” Juliette says, trying to take the creases out of the bills.
“It's for your trip to Portland,” Martin says, smiling, “I told you I'd get the money.”
“That was actually pretty good,” Juliette says. She reaches back up into her hair, feeling for more.
“That was amazing, dad, how did you do that?” Hillary squeals.
“Magic, of course.”
“But I won't tell you my secrets. I'll never tell!”
Hillary and Martin giggle together at his silliness.
“Dad wait, sorry... is this it? This is only three hundred. The trip costs...”
Martin stops giggling and his eyes go wide.
“WHAT?! Only three hundred? IMPOSSIBLE! I told you your bad attitude would break the magical vibes.”
“No, Jules, why did you break the magical vibes?”
“Unless...” Martin begins. He closes his eyes and holds out a hand, scanning. “Unless... one of the bills got lost... taken, to the nether regions... taken to a dark realm when I cast my spell.”
Hillary is transfixed.
“Hmm... hmmmmm... interesting, Juliette, very interesting... do you, by chance... have a sister?”
“Uh, well... I...”
“She does, daddy, she does. It's me... it's me, daddy!”
Martin moves closer to Hillary.
“Well, then it is possible that some of the money may have... passed to the younger... kinder... sweeter sister, instead.”
Juliette is relieved, then annoyed again. Enough already, stop embarrassing yourself, dad.
“To me?” Hillary asks. She reaches to the top of her head, to the same place Juliette found her money. She squeals. Sure enough, she pulls down a folded up one hundred dollar bill. Martin takes the money and inspects it. He turns it over and back again. He looks back to Hillary.
“You are a crafty little one. And you almost got away with it. But no one can fool the great Martini!”
Hillary giggles and spins around. Even Juliette has to laugh at how stupid her father is, and the fact that he did actually come through with the money for her trip.
Her face and tone soften.
“Thank you, dad.”
“You're welcome. Now... who is ready to catch some fish?!”
Martin has his knives out. He is giving them a last look-over, wiping off any dust or water marks, checking their shine against the yellow overhead light in his kitchen. He needs them to be pristine. He is not going to be taken advantage of again. The knives are perfect and he is going to get his asking price.
“One hundred, that's the price,” he says into his kitchen counter. He lets the sound bounce back to him, assesses the tone, the volume, tries again. “One hundred, that's the price. This isn't something I'm going to negotiate over. One hundred dollars or I will find someone else.”
He goes over the lines again. He doesn't know about the ultimatum. He wonders if it is too intense, so direct that it sounds desperate. That is the opposite of what he wants. He walks to a small mirror on the wall in the living room. He says the lines again, watching his mouth move, watch his face change with each word. He furrows his eyebrows. No, too much, he thinks. He raises the eyebrows. It's casual, it seems unconcerned with the outcome.
“One hundred dollars or I'll sell them to someone else.”
He glances to his right. A few feet away from the mirror, also hanging on the wall, are two framed pictures. Two little girls smile back at him from behind the glass.
“One hundred dollars,” he says. Matter of fact, to the point, clear and relaxed.
He scoops up the knives and grabs his keys.
Martin parks his truck along the curb on a street where the grass that used to grow along the sidewalk has died. Over the past few blocks, tidy front yards, cared for under threat of home owner association penalties and neighborhood shame, have given way to brownish green yards threatened by weeds, and now yards that can't really be called yards. They are dusty squares of jagged brown grass and dirt. The paint on the buildings has also shifted, from fresh, new bright colors to mute but even colors to what Martin sees now: chipped, faded, peeling beiges and grays on what are obviously not the nicest tenements in the city.
His anger CD is playing but he isn't listening. The man said 9:00pm. He is looking at the apartments he is about to walk out to and he is glad the sky is dark. He is watching the clock glow from the dashboard. 8:59... 8:59... 8:59...
He looks in the rear view mirror. He furrows his eyebrows again. Still too intense. He relaxes them.
“One hundred,” he says. He pulls one of the knives from its sheath again and runs his finger over an inscription: It's about the chase – love, dad
He reads the inscription, like he is reading from a gravestone.
8:59... 8:59... 9:00.
He grabs the knives, takes a breath, and steps out.
1518, apartment number four. He walks up to the door. There are no kids running around the complex. There are no dogs barking, no cats lying around. The lights in number four are on, but the apartments around it are quiet and dark. He hears a baby crying.
The crunch of Martin's boots on the gravel walkway are a siren. He doesn't belong here. He won't be received kindly. He knocks three times. A man's voice calls out “Just a minute,” then says something to someone else in the apartment. Boot falls boom their way toward the door. They stop.
“Who is it?” a man's voice, loud and grating. He's a smoker, Martin thinks.
“Uh, it's uh... Martin.”
“Martin, the uh... the knives guy.”
The door opens inward, suddenly and violently. The man before him is tall, looks like he used to be bigger, much bigger, before some lifestyle choices drained a large portion of some former physical glory. But even with his pale, sunken skin and loss of body mass, he is still formidable.
“Craigslist guy, huh? You got some knives for me?”
Martin brings the knives up to chest level for inspection. He isn't invited in, and he's not sure he would accept if he were invited. The man snatches the belt and pulls out the first knife.
“That's uh, custom leather, a custom leather sheath and belt.”
“Custom belt, too, huh?” the man says, turning the knife over, feeling it in his hand. The man is impressed, trying not to show it.
“Yes, sir. One of a kind,” Martin says.
The man scrapes the blade along his thumb. He shaves the hair off of it, testing the sharpness the way Martin did after sharpening it for the sale.
Martin notices a girl sitting on the floor in one corner of the living room. She has a baby at her side, lying on a blanket. The baby has stopped crying and is staring at a bear that the girl is dangling over the baby's head. The girl's stare is far away. Her eyes are deep set, sinking into dark circles, and yet bulging at the same time.
“Why are you selling them?” the man asks.
“Just cleaning out the garage. Trying to simplify my life a little bit.”
The man re-sheaths the first knife.
“Yeah... you need money and quick, huh? I get it.” Before Martin can argue, “Where'd you get them?”
“They were a gift.”
“So you don't know where they came from or who made them, none of that?”
The man is probing, finding reasons to lower the price. He wants to question their authenticity and put Martin on the defensive. Martin stays calm. He practiced for this, he is ready.
“I guess my question is how can I know their quality? You say they're originals and they're high quality but how can I know, you know? Why should I trust you?”
Martin keeps glancing back to the girl. She absently waving the stuffed bear over the baby's face. The baby is reaching for the bear and it remains just out of reach. The mother doesn't notice because her eyes have shifted to martin. She is assessing him, staring at him. When her eyes settle on his, he can see a question there. Urgent, pleading, but hopeless.
She is a prisoner here and she is afraid.
“How do I know you're not trying to rip me off?”
Her eyes are crying out. Help me!
“Well, you can't,” Martin says, “you don't know me, I don't know you. But you can see them. You can see their quality. They are high quality knives worth way more than $100. If you're not interested that's okay, I can find someone else to buy them.”
Martin takes back the knives and belt and breathes out.
“Well hold on, now, hold on. I'm just asking. No need to get... sassy.”
The baby starts to cry again, first in a low whimper. The man snaps his fingers and turns to the girl.
“Hey, what did I say?”
The girl looks down again, mumbles an apology. She lets the baby finally touch the bear. The baby is quiet again.
“Alright, buddy, they look good. I'll take 'em.”
“Good,” Martin says, trying to seem unaffected. He thinks about the moment his father gave him the knives. He thinks about the look on his father's face, the look of a man giving his son a real gift, a father's gift, something meaningful. Martin hadn't thought about it before, but the knives were one of the only gifts his father ever gave him, and they may have been the last gift he gave before dementia took him away. Martin blinks the thoughts away. He breathes in and out hard, setting himself against the reality that he really needs the money.
They're just knives, he tells himself.
The man stomps into a back room. As he passes the girl he hisses another warning to her, like correcting the perceived annoyances of a generally well-behaved puppy.
There is a small coffee table near the girl. It has an ash tray. Martin notices the ash tray is full of cigarette butts, and next to it is a foggy glass pipe, most likely for meth. Signs of hard drug use three feet from the baby's head. Martin finds himself leaning slightly forward into the doorway. He wants to step inside. He wants to clean the place up, maybe clean the man up a little bit. He notices the girl looking at him again. She can see what he is thinking and her head shakes side to side ever so slightly.
Thank you, but don't.
The man returns with his wallet. He removes two bills and drops the wallet on the coffee table. He hands Martin the bills and Martin hands him the knives. The bills should both be fifties. They aren't, it is a fifty and a twenty.
“Hey, where's the rest?” Martin asks, holding up the money.
“Where is the rest, the rest of the money? This is seventy.”
“Oh did I only give you seventy? Well hell, there it is right there in your hand, seventy bucks. I guess I did.”
“The price is one hundred, not seventy.”
“Well, I guess if I gave you seventy, then my price is seventy.”
“Well, I don't care what your price is. My price is one hundred. You owe me thirty dollars.”
The man steps closer to Martin. The knives and belt hang from his right hand.
“Haven't you heard? The customer is always right.”
The man is grinning now, showing his teeth. He prepared for this meeting, too, and he is ready. He was hoping for this. He wants a fight. He has played these games before. Many times. He is used to playing these games and he is used to winning, one way or another.
Martin straightens up. “The price is one hundred.”
“No one is going to take these knives for one hundred,” the man says.
“I guess I'll just have to try.”
“Come on, buddy, I'm offering you good money right now, cash in hand. You strike me as a guy who needs good money right now. So they way I see it, you can take them and try to sell them to someone else for $100, or you can just take my money and go now... while you still can.”
Violence is pouring out of the man now. It is shining from his eyes, beaming through his toothy grin. It is hissing from every word. He wants Martin to keep arguing. He wants resistance. Now he is looking for a fight. The girl is visibly afraid now. She has seen this before many times. She has been on the losing end of this argument before. She starts to pick up the baby and stand to leave the room. The man pulls one of the knives and points it at her.
“You sit your ass down!”
He wants her to stay, wants her to see this. The blade points at her, lingers on her, until she is seated on the floor again. He wants her to see her man dominate... like always. She sits and picks up the baby, who has started to cry again. The man turns back to Martin.
“Here, if my money is no good to you then here, take 'em back. Here, go ahead, take 'em.”
He is holding the knife out, blade exposed, pointing at Martin. His words are telling Martin to take the knives back, but his tone and his eyes are saying something else.
Try to take these back and I'll kill you.
Martin is rubbing the two bills together in one hand. His other hand clenches into a fist and shakes under the pressure of his squeeze. Years of moving concrete and working sledgehammers and jack hammers and pulling boards and hanging sheet rock have given power to that fist. He wants to let it out. He wants to send the fist screaming through the stinking apartment air. He wants to see it snap the man's head back, separate jawbone from skull, teeth from gums, consciousness from body. There is power in that fist, world-changing power.
Martin looks back to the girl.
“Where you lookin, boy? I'm right here. Don't look at her, look at me.”
Martin looks back at the man. He has lost his nonchalant brow and chilled out eyes. The brows furrow into dark hooks and his eyes burn.
“Do you want your knives back?”
Martin looks to the girl again. She is shushing the baby with her head down, but her eyes are on him. Martin doesn't want to endanger her. He doesn't want to piss this guy off. Martin knows she would pay for it later.
His fist relaxes.
“No, it's good,” Martin says, “your money is good. You're right, I do need the money, and seventy bucks is seventy bucks. It's a good deal.”
Martin gives a toothless, tight-lipped smile.
“Yeah, I thought you might say that.”
“Thank you,” Martin says, sliding the money into his pocket. He puts his hand out to shake the man's hand. The man takes Martin's hand hard, squeezes it. Their fingers writhe and twist together, a coil of white knuckles and red nails, and they look into each others eyes. Martin smiles sheepishly and releases first. The man hangs on for a little longer before letting go. Martin looks to the girl and nods.
Martin takes a step back and the door immediately slams in his face. He can hear the man inside yelling something at the girl. He walks to his truck, slowly. He doesn't look back, but he can't stop from hearing the sound of the baby crying. Once he is to his truck, the sound remains, and the baby's wailing seems to be getting louder.
You lost again, Martin. You lost again like you always do.
Martin steps up into the truck and sits. The door slams and the crying stops. All is quiet. Martin grips the steering wheel as if to let go would mean spinning out of control. He wrings the wheel out, the plastic and leather creaking under the pressure. He shuts his eyes against the thoughts in his head.
Great work, Martin. Lost your job, lost your marriage, lost your daughters. Could you lose any more?
He grabs the keys. They click into the ignition. He turns them enough for the CD player to come back to life. It is his anger coach, his guru, spouting nonsense.
“Only when we control our anger do we control our world.”
The keys won't turn any farther. Instead, the car turns off. Martin is looking at something new. It is the bracelet Hillary made for him. Two leather straps running through little beads, D-A-D-D-Y, with a heart at the end. He runs his fingers over the letters, all the way down to the heart. He pictures her sitting in school, her tiny hands carefully threading the leather through each bead, gently tying the knots at the ends. He imagines her finishing and showing her teacher, an eager smile accentuating her excited bouncing from foot to foot. He traces the letters with his eyes, says them out loud.
His eyes change.
Inside the apartment, the girl is still sitting with the baby in her arms. When there is a knock at the door she jumps, surprised. The baby starts to cry again. The man stomps in from a back room.
“Now what? Shut that baby up before I do it myself.”
The man reaches for the door knob.
“What in the holy fu—”
When his hand turns the knob the door explodes inward, slamming into his face and knocking him to the floor. The door crushed his nose and it spurts blood immediately, but he is still conscious. He is conscious long enough to see Martin enter, close and lock the door, and stand over him. The man sits up slowly, dazed. His words are muffled by the concussion and by the blood collecting in his mouth.
“You son of a...”
Martin kicks him straight in the face. The impact is horrendous, and the sound of the boot hitting the man's face is echoed as the man's head hits the floor. The thud shakes the cheap old building. The windows rattle. The man moans, softly. That is all Martin needed to do, the man is down. But Martin isn't done. As the man tries to sit up, a fist slams into his face. The man goes down. Martin punches him again. And again. Then he stomps down on the man's chest. A raspy cough sprays blood into the air and the man gasps for breath. He rolls onto his side, fetal position, instinctively trying to protect himself. It will not protect him. Martin moves to the side so he can have a clear kick into the man's stomach and chest. He kicks him. The toe of his boot goes deeper than he anticipated. The man squeals. Martin kicks him again. The squealing continues, but softer, more choked with each kick. Martin's black work boots thud into the man's chest and stomach again and again, as if he is trying to break his own leg with the effort. He kicks until the man stops moving, stops squealing.
Martin steps back and stands upright, his rage chugging in growling bursts of breath. He realizes he had been screaming, roaring through the beating. He looks to the girl. She might be eighteen, barely. She is wide-eyed as she clutches her baby. She is terrified but barely moving, not making a sound.
“Sorry, miss,” he says. His lungs are suddenly burning and he stumbles slightly as he snaps out of his rage. His chest is heaving with the release of fear and anger. His eyes are wide and wild.
“Are you... are you okay? I'm, I'm sorry I did that. I'm sorry you... saw that. And
She doesn't respond, doesn't move. She isn't crying, just silently rocking the baby in her arms.
“Do you...” Martin begins, looking back to the man on the floor. He is gurgling and choking, his face pressed into the stained linoleum.
“Do you... have some place you can go tonight? Some place safe?”
The man coughs a spray of blood onto the carpet nearby. He is beginning to get his breath back. Blood is oozing from his nose and mouth. His jaw looks badly broken. After a few wheezing breaths he chokes again and coughs up more blood onto the floor.
Martin goes to the coffee table. He takes the man's wallet and pulls out a ten and a twenty dollar bill. He was owed thirty dollars, so he takes thirty dollars. He looks down at the man. He holds up the money.
“Was it worth it?” he asks, waving the bills. The man groans and curls up tighter.
“Miss, we should go,” Martin says, turning around. But when he looks back the girl is gone. The baby is lying there on the blanket, crying. There are a few noises from down the hallway, a rustling from some back room. When he looks back, the man's arms are outstretched, clawing blindly in the air above him, reaching out for help. He is trying to roll over, trying to get up.
Martin walks over and kneels next to the man.
“Can you look at me? Hey, asshole, can you open your eyes and look at me? Your jaw and nose are broken. You have a bunch of broken ribs and probably a concussion. Hey, hey, I still need you to listen to me. The girl and the baby are coming with me. They are going to leave you tonight and you are never going to see them again.”
The man spits and wheezes. He has a rush of anger that is immediately replaced by severe pain and he settles back down against the floor.
The man doesn't like to lose. He's not used to it.
Martin slaps him lightly but repeatedly in the face.
“Hey, hey, hey, listen, you listen to me now. They are gone, you hear me? You aren't going to look for them, they are gone. You are going to forget about them. If she tells me she saw you... if you ever even think about that little baby again, I'll find you.”
Martin grabs the man by the jaw. He starts to squeeze and the man's eyes fill with tears. He can feel the jaw bone shift in his grip, can feel the looseness at the fracture. The man whimpers and sputters under the pressure.
“If I see you again I won't just break your jaw...”
He squeezes again, harder. Another squeal. He looks the man in the eyes.
“I'll break everything.”
Martin lets go. The man slumps back down on his side and sputters a few sick, panicked breaths. He is moaning now, low and quiet. He is broken.
The baby is still crying. Martin walks to her and kneels down. He feels the difference of kneeling beside the man and kneeling beside the baby. He reaches out to pick her up, but there is blood on his fingers. He wipes his hands off on his pants and shirt. He lays his bruised and slightly bloody hand on her tiny belly. His hand is shaking, but he tries to soothe her, shushing gently.
“It's okay. It's okay, little one. No need to be scared anymore, it's okay.”
He rocks her gently back and forth on the floor. There is movement from the hallway. He looks over and the girl is standing there. Her hands are at her sides and tears are running down her cheeks. She is crying, but she still isn't making a sound. The tears just run and she looks at Martin like she is staring through him. She stares at him like she is afraid to do what she is about to do.
“Do you have someone you can call?” he asks.
As he finishes his question she raises one of her arms from her side. Martin sees the glint of metal before she has the gun leveled at him. Her hand is trembling but he can see into the barrel. Her sad, tired eyes are alive now. They are on fire, burning with hate. They are ready to kill.
Martin's hands go up.
“Whoa, whoa, wait a second...”
The girl is crying and shaking with rage and trying to force her mouth to move. She wants to say something but she can't get it out. Her lips are pressed hard together. She is stuck on an “M” word. The silver gun in her hand is shaking, badly. There is no telling where a bullet would go if she fired now.
“Easy... easy now, I'm sorry. I'm very sorry, miss. The baby, miss, please don't...”
The girl begins a groaning mumble, “Mmm... mmm... Mmmmmm...”
“Please,” Martin says. He is ready for the explosion, ready to feel the bullet tear through him. Her other hand comes up to join the first. The gun suddenly becomes steady.
She finds her word:
“Mmm, mm MOOVVEEEE!”
Martin doesn't understand the command but he dives down over the baby to shield her. The girl steps forward and begins firing. Each gunshot makes his body jump, waiting for the impact of a bullet. He doesn't make a noise. He made a mistake but he didn't have enough time to even think about his death so he doesn't cry out. He simply covers the little one, silently, and waits to feel the bullets tear into him.
Six shots ring out. Then six more clicks as the girl continues to pull the trigger. The cylinder turns. The hammer slams down again and again, the firing pin ramming into spent brass. She is standing next to Martin now, standing over him. But her eyes are looking past him to the floor beyond.
The revolver clicks, the baby cries, but otherwise, the room is silent. There are no coughs coming from the man on the floor. No wheezing, no coughing, no moaning. Martin didn't see the man pull a gun from his waste band. The man was ready to shoot Martin in the back. The girl, having thought out this scenario before, finally stops pulling the trigger as she stands over the body. She lets her arm drop to her side. She looks down on him and enjoys the role reversal, if just for a moment. She breathes in, remembering the times his hands touched her, the times his fists touched her. She remembers the nights she was thrown through doorways, thrown into walls, thrown onto the bed. She remembers the alcohol on his breath.
She breathes out.
Prey becomes predator. Predator becomes prey.
Martin looks over his shoulder at the man. She hit him at least three times: once in the arm, once in the chest, and one shot in the face. The man is frozen, the wound and his mouth gaping in a silent scream. Blood is pooling and soaking into the carpet.
Martin sits up and realizes he wasn't the target. He is in shock. His mind is trying to piece together what happened. He didn't see any guns, then suddenly everyone in the room had a gun except him and the baby.
The baby is still crying and he picks her up without a thought. He is numb, but begins rocking her gently against his chest.
The girl scoops the baby up and disappears back down the hallway. Martin halfheartedly calls for her to stop, to wait, but she doesn't. She knows what she's doing. She knows a lot more about what she's doing than he does right now. Martin just keeps whispering “wait” to himself, over and over.
“Wait... just... just wait...”
Martin crawls over to the man on the floor. The hole in the man's face is enormous. Blood, bone, and brain matter are all showing. The sight and the smell, along with all of the trauma of the last few seconds, hit him at once. He gags. He crawls backward and fights back the vomit. Now what? He has no idea where to begin. He just attacked someone, thought he was going to be murdered, then saw someone else get murdered. He stands up slowly and looks around the apartment. Dead body, blood everywhere.
“Wait... I don't...”
His hands search his pockets for nothing. His eyes dart around the room, unsure of what they are looking for. He steps to the nearest window and looks outside. No sirens, no people walking up to look inside. Nothing.
The girl returns with the baby and two bags. There are clothes leaking out of the top, chosen and thrown in very quickly. She put on a sweatshirt and sweatpants while she was back there.
She is wearing slippers.
“We nee... nee.. need to g-go.”
She walks to the fridge and opens it. She pulls bottles of milk and grabs some string cheese. She opens the freezer and reaches deep into the back, jostling things around. Her hand returns with a brown grocery bag.
“Do you have a ca-ca-caarrr... herrre?” she asks.
She hands Martin the brown bag and points to another bag on the counter top. It is the baby bag.
“We ne-neeed to go... now.”
The girl steps out into the night air first. She doesn't look around. She doesn't seem nervous. She isn't scared. She is on a mission. Martin looks everywhere. He walks out as if stepping into a strange world he's never seen. He looks left and right, he looks back to the apartment building. There are windows, dozens of windows. No one is looking out. No blinds are split, no one is on their porch wondering what all the noise was about. Darkness. Silence. When he turns back around the girl is standing right there, facing him.
“Yeah, sorry, right here,” he says. He points to the truck. She walks to the passenger side and waits while he fumbles with his keys. Once inside, she throws the bags on the floor and buckles in with the baby in her arms. The baby's cries have died down into soft whimpers. She pulls the baby close and sets her eyes on the road.
Martin starts the engine and speeds down the street.
“Feather Cr... Creek. Go n-n-north.”
The three travel in silence for a long time. The baby makes an occasional sound. Martin doesn't know what to say. Finally, the girl breaks the silence.
“You're bl-bleeding,” the girl says.
Martin looks down. His hand is bleeding down across his knuckles. Either reopened wounds from Shawn Macky's face or new ones made with the man's teeth tonight. The girls pulls a packet of wet wipes from one of her bags.
“Disin... disinfect... infectant wipes.”
She is so calm. Even with the stutter, her voice is somehow still even and peaceful.
“Where are we going?” Martin asks.
“My m-mom's house. She liv-lives in Gresh... in Gresh-ham. I'll stay-stay with her for awhi, for awhile.”
Martin turns right off of Feather Creek road.
“Does anyone else know where she lives? Would anyone be able to follow you there?”
“No one w-w-hill know, know where I went. Not mmm... mmmany people knew I was with Nate.”
“Was that Nate? Back there?”
She nods, looking down at the baby.
“What about the police?”
“What is y-your na... name?”
“Martin. My name is Martin. My friends usually call me Marty.”
“Martin. It's ni-nice to mee... meet you, Martin. I'm Carrie.”
She reaches out over the baby to shake Martin's hand. It is the strangest introduction of all time for both of them.
“And th-this... is little miss-miss Jane. My lit... my lit, little Janey.”
Martin's face changes. A shadow passes over him. The darkness of the past. Carrie notices, but doesn't ask any questions about it.
“It's... it's a good name,” he says, squeezing the wheel. “She's beautiful.”
They don't say another word for the twenty-minute drive into Gresham. Finally, Carrie tells Martin to slow down and turn right. After a few other quick turns, he pulls the truck into a driveway. The house is dark, not even the porch light is on. It is a well-kept, quiet house at the end of a cul de sac. Martin and Carrie exit the truck and collect Carrie's things.
“I'm going to give you my phone number so you can call me if you need anything,” Martin says.
Carrie digs around in the brown paper bag. Her hand returns with two rolls of cash, probably a few thousand dollars. She holds them out. When Martin realizes what they are, he puts a hand up.
“Whoa, no, no, I can't take that. You take it, you will need it more than I will. Please.”
The look on her face says “I just rode for almost 20 minutes in your shitty truck and there is plenty more in the bag, I'll be fine.”
“You jus... just beat the sh-sh-sh-shit out of a guy, guy for thirty bu-bucks.”
Martin is caught, she's got him there.
“It wasn't just about the money,” he says.
Carrie smiles. She takes that as a compliment. Her arm remains extended with the cash. She has no plans to let him leave without the money. Martin gives up. He loses again. He does need the money, and she seems very much to want him to have it. He reaches out. As he takes it, she leans in with the baby and hugs him. She hugs him hard and he can't help but hug back. She lets go, picks up her stuff, and makes her way to the front door. After she rings the doorbell, a light clicks on. Then another. The door opens and a woman greets her with tears and open arms. They are hugging and laughing and crying as they step into the house and close the door. Carrie never looks back.
Back on the road, Martin drives in silence. No anger CD, no radio, nothing. Just the engine and the road and his whirring thoughts coming down from the crazy night. After a short ride he pulls over. He puts the truck in park and gets out. He walks a short distance from the truck and stops. He leans over and pukes. He pukes hard, violently. He pukes out the night's insanity, all over the grass and weeds, his back blinking orange with the flashing of his truck's blinker. He lets go. He lets it all go. Survival mode is over now and he can let go.
There, hunched over in the darkness at the side of the road, he coughs and spits and stands up straight. It is only for a moment as he bends to puke again, almost more violently this time. He spits again. His breathing is quick but it starts to slow. He groans. It is a deep groan, primal, almost a growl, but it shifts and morphs into a cackle, into maniacal laughter. Is he smiling? Is he smiling and laughing and spitting puke out of his mouth? Has he lost it, is this the moment he cracked?
No, it is joyous and rich and real. It is a laughter that has been caged, that has built up over months and years and a lifetime of repressed pain. It is pure exhilaration. He is alive, very alive, for the first time in years.
Martin gets back into the truck and back onto the road. His blinker switches from left blinker to right, he merges back onto Feather Creek and drives off into the night.