When he and Carrie fled from Nate's apartment, Martin wasn't fully aware of where he was. He wasn't sure of the date, the general time, the position of the sun or moon, and he wasn't watching the roads. Most of the drive was along a familiar highway. He knows now as he retries the drive that he didn't get her phone number and he isn't sure he will be able to retrace the directions back to the town, the neighborhood, let alone the particular street. Martin grips the wheel and tries to hear her voice in his head, tries to connect with that quiet stutter. There were words she got stuck on, and at the time Martin tried to ignore the stutter so as to not be rude. He now knows he should have paid closer attention.
A first glimmer of memory appears and Martin grabs the fragment before it vanishes. It was a right turn off of the highway. It was a right turn at a landmark, something her lips hated spitting out. Martin can hear four, maybe five sounds firing to make out the beginning of the word. It is either an S sound, like a hiss, or maybe an F sound. Martin freezes all other thoughts to try to keep the memory. He is losing it. He sounds it out, settling on the F sound. He bites into his lower lip and blows air out around his teeth.
“Come on.” He rings out the steering wheel. He clamps his eyes shut and hits the F sound harder. On the fourth blow he hears something new. The vowel was an I, fi fi fi, he puffs the sound out. “Fi-fi-fi, fire!” He catches it. Before the memory disappears, he sees it, sees Carrie sitting next to him with little Jane in her arms, sees her leaning toward the dash board as she points out the window.
“F-f-fi-fi-fi-fi fire house!” she'd said. She'd pointed and said it twice and waved her pointing finger off to the right. “Make a r-r-right, there.”
Martin's truck makes the right at the fire station. Carrie made another finger flurry from left to right shortly after. He thinks it was at a stop sign. As the road curves out toward the river a stop sign appears at the end of a quarter mile of meadow he didn't see the other night. But at the stop sign, he turns right, and another piece from the other night rises from the murky memory. The steps are appearing as he moves forward. He is diving through cloudy water, reaching into the dark, remembering things only when they bump against his hands or appear directly in front of his eyes. He knows the depths could darken completely at any time. But, yet again, another piece appears. He feels that in a mile or so there will be a bridge, and he is relieved when it comes into view.
The other night, when Carrie was guiding him to her mother's house, she'd tried to speak as little as possible. The next turn is a left, on “Barn Owl” street. Carrie spent a few breaths on the B in “barn.” At a four-way stop, Martin looks up to the green street signs. One of them says “Barn Owl.”
The truck eases left. He is on the right road, now he needs to recognize the house. He relaxes his search anxiety. This street is a long loop, and the house was on one of the offshoots, a cul de sac. He will be able to find the particular house. But the relief from finding the house gives way to a new panic. He is going to have to knock on the door, maybe reintroduce himself to the woman he saw shoot a man to death in a dirty apartment a few nights ago, or introduce himself to her mother. He mouths the conversation, laughing at himself, laughing at his life.
“Hi, I'm a friend of your daughter. Yeah, hi, we've been friends for, oh, two days, almost. How'd we meet? Oh, well, funny story. Yeah, I watched her kill a guy who I was beating because he shorted me on a Craigslist deal.”
Martin sees the front driveway, sees the three feet of bricks below the light gray wood panels of the house's front porch. He puts on his blinker as he pulls into the driveway. He stops in front of the open garage.
There is no one in the garage. He stops to listen, in case they are doing something out of sight. He doesn't hear anything. He peers into the front windows as he makes his way up the front walk. He stops to listen again. Nothing. He taps gently on the door.
When it opens, Carrie ushers him inside.
She hurries him in and closes the door quickly, but quietly, behind him. As the door closes, Martin feels a rush of relief, that he found the house at all, that she answered the door and not her mother, that she allowed him in immediately, and that they know each other at all. He suddenly pictures little Jane, cradled in Carrie's arms, and his eyes search for her in the living room in front of him.
“You can't jus-jus just show up here.”
Martin turns. He hadn't taken the time to look at her face. She is not thrilled to see him.
“You c-c-can't just come ov-over, it's not safe.”
It suddenly feels like he interrupted something.
“I wanted to make sure you and Jane were okay.”
“Maybe ju-just call next t-time.”
“I don't have your number.”
Carrie is agitated. She looks out the window, behind her down the nearest hallway, and back to Jane, who Martin can see is lying on a couch in the living room. Carrie looks back out the window again and freezes. A black sedan passes slowly on the road. Martin goes to apologize but Carrie's hand goes up. She is busy concentrating. She is watching for the car to return. She is listening. She is not the cool calm girl under pressure Martin watched the other night. Each time she looks back toward the couch, she grabs her hair. When she freezes to listen or stare, Martin can see that she isn't still. She is shaking. It doesn't occur to Martin that she might have been on something the other night. Now, she might be feeling withdrawal symptoms.
When she seems to relax slightly, Martin tries again.
She cuts him off. “Anyone see you?”
“You c-can't be-be here, you c-can't...”
“I didn't think...”
“Someone c-could have seen your-your truck that night. Someone-one could have your your your lice... your license p-plate.”
Martin's hands go up. It doesn't put Carrie at ease and she pushes past him to the couch.
“I know,” he says, staying where he was, “trust me, I thought about that. I thought about people following me home that night, sneaking into my apartment to kill me. I dreamed about it. I expected boots to kick in my door. If not that, I expected flashing red and blue lights and tight metal bracelets and the rest of my life in prison. I'm aware of that, of the dangers.”
“Not if you j-j-just drove your way here in the mi-mi-middle of the day-day,” Carrie says.
“I'm aware. No one followed me. You think I've forgotten for one second over the past two days? I'm having nightmares, I'm seeing things, I wake up in the middle of the night and puke...”
This isn't helping Carrie's agitation. When she sees that little Jane is still asleep despite Martin's presence, she folds her arms and hugs her rib cage. The more Martin talks the tighter she squeezes.
“You're out here free and clear and no one knows how to find you. You're safe. Jane is safe. I'm not. Am I safe, Carrie?”
Her left hand crawls up her neck and grabs a handful of hair. She pulls on it briefly, then covers her ear.
“You're right, someone might have seen my license plate number, might know who I am, who my family is, right now. Are my daughters safe? My ex-wife? My sister?”
Carrie's other hand climbs up to her other ear and she tries to silence him, tries to block out the noise. She closes her eyes.
“Stop... st... st... stop...”
“I came here to see if you need anything, if you need help or food or...”
She waves her hands briefly before they return to her ears.
“Shh... sh shh...”
Martin stops. Something is wrong. She isn't okay. The way she pulls at her hair and scrapes her scalp and squeezes her ribs is not normal. He sees it, in a flash, the way she pulls at her skin and clenches her jaw and shuts her eyes against the light. She is coming down. All of his drug experience is from bottles and the bar, but he can tell her body is crying out for some kind of fix.
“I jus just need... quiet. I nee need quiet for a sec for a second.”
The baby starts crying. Her little arms reach up from the couch, grabbing at the air above her head.
“I'm sorry,” Martin says.
Carrie steps around behind the couch. She looks, for a moment, like she is going to pick Jane up and try to calm her. She doesn't, she takes a look at Jane and then turns right and steps slowly down the hallway. A door closes quietly and Martin is left with a whimpering Jane.
Martin steps carefully down the single step into the living room. Jane notices him as he approaches and she stops crying. When he smiles at her, her whimpers soften. She stops and stares back at him. He waves and says “Hi, Jane.” She kicks her legs and tightens her fists. The grimace on her little face fades.
The silence is too long for Martin, something is wrong. He calls out to Carrie. No answer. He makes his way toward the hallway. The first door is open. It's a bathroom. The second door is closed. He stops and listens.
“Carrie? Carrie I'm sorry, are you alright?
There is no answer. He knocks on the door.
He tries the door handle. The door is locked. He can hear something happening behind the door but she won't answer him. She is coming down from some drug and she has locked herself in a room and won't respond.
“Open the door, Carrie!”
“I'll kick it in, Carrie! Open the door!”
He doesn't wait for a response. He steps back and lays into the door with a heavy kick. The lock blows out of the door frame sending splinters and wood shards into a dim room. Carrie is in the corner on the floor. As Martin rounds the edge of the bed she has the syringe drinking up the last of a charred spoon's contents. She aims the needle for her left elbow.
He did interrupt something.
When Martin lunges in, his force drives the needle in deep. She screams, not at the pain, but at the thought of him stopping her from shooting up. He pulls her wrist and the needle comes out. None of the liquid gets in. Carrie screams again, stutters crazed angry nonsense. She is strong, but not nearly strong enough. Martin lifts her entire body up by the one wrist and wrestles the needle out of her hand with his other hand. She slaps and scratches at his face. He tosses her onto the bed. She sits up, ready for more, and he raises his hand to slap her. She doesn't flinch, doesn't look away, doesn't blink. She stares at him, into his eyes, and her eyes beg him to do it. The tears fill her bottom lid and start to fall down her cheeks. She needs something to take away the pain, and if he won't let her use drugs, she'll settle for a beating.
Anything to take the pain away.
“Please,” she whispers.
He doesn't hit her. He drops the syringe to the floor and stomps it, smashing glass and plastic and needle and drug into the carpet. They are both wild-eyed and panting. The fire in their eyes collides between them.
Neither wants to lose here, Neither wants to budge.
Finally Carrie looks down at the carpet, at her precious drug. This maniac smashed a drug-filled syringe into her bedroom's carpet.
“Where is the rest?” Martin asks. She doesn't answer, just stares at the little stain and the jagged bits of broken plastic. The other syringe calls to her from the bedside stand. Her head tilts and her eyes look at it for a second. She looks back down. She hopes Martin didn't see her look. When he steps toward the bedside stand, Carrie jolts across the bed and reaches for it. Her hand hits the syringe and her fingers wrap around it just before Martin's hand comes down. He grabs her hand and lifts her up by the arm. Her free hand slams into the side of his face. He takes the blow with barely a blink and grabs her other hand. He leans into her and pins her, on her back, on the bed. He sits on her stomach to control her kicking legs. His fingers slide up to the base of her wrists so she can't jab him with the needle as she kicks and screams underneath him. Her screams deepen into growls and grunts. She twists back and forth and spits in his face. When she sees his arm she tries to get close enough to bite. Martin pulls on her other arm so she can't reach. He does the same thing when she switches and tries to bite his other arm. When she can't get either, she lifts her head up and bites at Martin's face.
“Stop!” Martin yells. When he feels her fighting intensify beneath him, he settles his weight down until he can hear her groan under the pressure.
“You feel strong, big man!” she hisses. She continues twisting and screaming in his face. Martin squints against the rage and presses her wrists into the bed. Her squirming has moved them to the edge of the bed and Martin can feel that he will have to adjust his position or he might slide off the edge. He knows the second he lets off the pressure, Carrie could get free. She is thin but she isn't frail, not in this state. The tendons and muscles of her forearms feel like thick rope.
“Hit me!” she yells.
He pinches his thighs together around her hips. It limits the range of her kicking. He sits down more and the squeaking of the bed frame quiets slightly.
“Where is the rest?” he asks.
“I know you w-want to! You're so b-big and st-st-strong, just hit me!”
“Where is the rest?” Martin demands. Carrie doesn't move. “Where is it? I know there's more.”
Her cries are getting louder now. She tells Martin again and again to hit her, to be a big man and hit her. She tells him she knows he wants to, she knows it turns him on. After she says that and sees that he isn't going to hit her, she stops fighting. She stares at him, lets her chest heave with each frantic breath. She relaxes her hands and arms. Martin can feel them give in but he doesn't move. He asks her again where she's hidden the rest of the drugs and she lays her head back against the bedspread. She closes her mouth and her eyebrows rise. Her face softens. Martin tells her he wants to help her. Carrie smiles. When her hips move, Martin braces himself, thinking she is about to start thrashing around again. His grips on her wrists tighten. Her hips rise again, gently. She rolls her hips up and into him. There is rhythm to it, a rolling, circular rhythm he hasn't felt in a long time.
Carrie had, over years of surviving different men, realized her defensive options. She learned early on, with her step father, that she would need to get used to taking hits from men. She would need to learn how to let the sting of a hard slap burn itself out quietly. She had to learn to ignore the ringing in her ears and convince her brain that she was aware of the damage to her cheek or her nose or her eyebrows or forehead or neck and that there didn't need to be so much pain. I know I was hit, she would tell herself, I'm aware of the damage so tone down the pain a little bit. Over time, her brain listened. The stings were shorter and shorter. The bruises could be acknowledged and then ignored. Don't remind me about the bruises, I got it, she would think, and the pain would dissipate. She understood that the men would hit her and if she went down and submitted, the men would leave. It would be a few minutes or a few hours and the men would be back, apologizing for the abuse, but imploring her to never make them do that to her again.
Her submission, her ability to take the abuse, became a form of control.
When she realized she couldn't get Martin to hit her, she tried another tactic. The men in her early life often first responded to their frustrations with something other than physical violence. Carrie quickly became aware of the value of her sexuality in limiting the punches and kicks and subsequent trips to the emergency room.
She moans softly as she writhes beneath him. Martin pins both of her hands to one side with his left hand so he can use his right hand to dig the syringe from her grip. Once he has it, he gets off of her and stands. He did see her desperate look toward the bedside stand and he goes to it. He opens the drawer. There are discarded tissues, a chap stick tube, and a small, ornate box. Martin takes the box and can hear Carrie whimper “No, please.” When he opens it, there is a small baggy with a substance inside he immediately assumes is heroin, even though he has never seen it.
“Is this it?” Martin asks. Carrie has turned onto her side and curled into a ball. She is crying, eyes closed, into the blanket. Martin accepts that her reaction means it probably is the last of her stash. The syringe is empty and he drops it on the wreckage of the other. Again, his boot comes down and there is a muted crunch against the carpet. He walks to the bathroom and flushes the drugs, baggy and all, down the toilet. He pulls the garbage bag out of the bathroom's garbage can. It is half full, mostly tissues and the wrapping from the toilet paper rolls. He brings it back into the bedroom and picks up the broken syringes. They go in the bag, along with the splintered remains of the door frame and lock housing. He ties off the bag and sets it on the bed behind Carrie and he sits down next to it.
Carrie's body is trembling slightly as she cries. Martin doesn't know what to do. He starts to reach out a hand but it hangs in the air and then he pulls it back. He starts to say something but pulls that back, too. He isn't sure of what to say. He thinks there is probably nothing to be said. He sat this way on Juliette's bed. When her boyfriend broke up with her one week before prom, she had screamed and thrashed around her room and cried, too. She had given up and laid on her bed and tucked into a ball and cried. Martin hadn't known what to do then, either. But he had finally knocked on her door and walked into her room and sat on her bed. Her stared at her back as she cried, unsure of what to say or do, and eventually found his hand drawn to her shoulder.
Before he knows what he is doing, his hand touches Carrie's shoulder. She flinches hard at the contact and her crying stops. She is waiting for something terrible, waiting for pain or humiliation. Martin squeezes her shoulder slightly.
“It's booze, for me,” he says. “Since I was thirteen it was always booze.”
Martin squeezes her shoulder again and says that he is sorry. Carrie was prepared for abuse. She wasn't prepared for understanding. When her crying resumes, it is louder and deeper than before. It is wild and out of her control and she bawls into the covers and the thin second blanket and into the sheets below and Martin braces them both against a surging tidal wave that crashes over and around and through them as it tries to carry them away.
Martin's phone rings. He looks at it, expecting an unknown number he will ignore and let go to voicemail. It is an old number, one that hasn't called him in a long time. It is Victoria.
“Well I haven't seen that number on my phone in awhile.”
“I know, right?” Victoria says. Martin can hear her voice. There is a tone he has heard before. “Brought back some weird memories dialing it.”
“So what's up? The girls alright?” he asks.
“Oh yeah, they're fine, they're great, actually. That's kind of why I'm calling.”
“Because the girls are great?”
“To thank you,” Victoria says, “they had a great time on their day out with you. They couldn't stop talking about it, even Jules. Her teen anger melted away and she seemed... like, happy. Is that the right word, happy?”
“Are you allowed to call a teenage girl happy?” Martin laughs.
“I think so.”
“It's been awhile since I would have called her happy. That's great.”
Martin smiles into the silent phone. It has been a long time since Victoria called him, and a lot longer since she called him to praise him or congratulate him in some way. He imagines Victoria smiling back.
“Thank you,” he says.
“It's a big deal. I'm sure you've noticed her attitude lately. I know it's a normal part of growing up and maturing and all of that, but lately it just seems... different.”
“Yeah, I noticed. On my birthday she couldn't stop raging against my never-ending stupidity. I knew she would be upset about the divorce but I wasn't... ready for it. I wasn't ready for the intensity of it.”
Martin looks at the bandage on his hand. He knows he needs to change it. The blood has soaked through again, and a dark cloud is emerging beneath the gauze. It is throbbing again.
“Well, it's good to know I'm not the only one she pretends to hate,” Victoria says.
“She finds every opportunity to blame me for our break-up.”
“Don't feel bad, she does the same thing to me. Your word, intensity, that's it. Does it, the intensity of it, does it seem like it's been getting... worse, to you?”
Martin gets the pack of gauze and the medical tape and anti-bacterial cream down from the fridge. He pinches the phone between his shoulder and cheek and slowly peels the tape in circles around his hand.
“Well, it did seem like that,” he says, letting the tape and old gauze fall to the counter top, “until our fishing trip. That was the first time she was a little nice to me in awhile. I'd like to think it was because I was so awesome that day, but something tells me her attitude change had more to do with a certain Portland trip and some money I gave her.”
“Well, it's still an attitude change, so that's something. It's a start.”
Martin turns the sink faucet to warm water. He waits to see steam.
“She didn't give me a lot of details about the trip, can you fill me in a little bit? What are they going to be doing?”
Martin hears Victoria talking to someone else. He imagines her pressing the phone against her chest, against her right collarbone, and turning her head to the left, the way she always did. She apologizes when she comes back to him.
“Well, the main mission of the trip is the hospital tour and the surgical theater. They will get to talk to a few doctors and surgeons, ask them questions, it's actually an amazing opportunity.”
“Pretty expensive opportunity.”
“Well that is the main event, but there is transportation, food, the hotel, and I'm sure they'll hit some parks and shops. For a three-day and two-night trip I think they got a great deal.”
“Yeah, I guess that is pretty good. Four-fifty just seems a little steep for three days.”
Victoria is silent. Martin isn't sure if she is gone talking to someone else again, or if she is thinking of something to say. The silence sounds like the silence she used to have before challenging something he'd said, or before easing into bad news.
“You mean three-fifty?”
“No, she said it was four-fifty,” Martin says, “are you sure it wasn't four-fifty?”
“Positive. Did you give her four hundred and fifty dollars?”
“I thought it was four hundred, originally, but she said the price went up last minute. She said a few kids dropped out and so they had to raise the price for everyone else.”
“God dammit!” Victoria hisses, away from the phone.
“You don't seem that surprised,” Martin says.
“Well, not to burst your bubble, but I think I know why she was finally being nice to you.”
“Well, I have a very easy solution. She is not going now. No crying, no excuses, her trip is off.”
A breath. It's the exasperated breath Martin came to know as the idiot's dismissal.
“Well of course Martin, that sounds great. That will teach her a lesson about lying and about responsibility. Only, she already left on the trip. They left this morning.”
“What? She said it was next week.”
“This isn't the first time she's lied like this. Apparently she's been lying to a lot of people.”
“It's the first time she's lied like this to me!” Martin says.
“Actually, it's probably not.”
They were finally making progress. Juliette was finally coming around, finally beginning to respect and appreciate him, Martin thought.
“Well I don't care if they left already, I'll drive into Portland myself and drag her out of a live surgery if I have to.”
“How long have you known about this, about her lying?”
“That doesn't matter now. We'll wait for her to get back and we'll sit her down and have a little chat.”
“We'll make her pay you back.”
“She can find a job. We'll make her get a job. Then maybe having to earn her own money will help her see how wrong it is to steal from people.”
“Christ! How long, Victoria?”
Martin waits. He hears a sigh from the line. This is the sound she always made when she had to admit something or had to apologize.
“A few months.”
“A few months? Jesus!”
“Again, were you ever planning on telling me?”
“We had her see a school counselor. She has a lot of anger issues...”
“She was probably acting out because of her anger at us.”
“About the divorce...”
“Stop, Victoria. Just stop for a second. Juliette has been acting out, stealing money, and you had her see a shrink, and you didn't think to tell me about any of this?”
“Not a shrink, just a school counselor, she is someone the kids can talk to when they need it.”
“And you said we... we had her see a school counselor. Who is 'we,' Victoria?”
Another sigh from her line.
“You and Hillary? You and your imaginary friends?”
“Who? Who is we?”
“I, misspoke, I had her see a counselor. It was my idea.”
“Was it Saxon? You and Saxon decided to have her see a counselor, without telling her father?”
Martin lets the name slide out of his mouth, long A, long held N sound. He doesn't know anything about Saxon, but he regurgitates it slowly like a cat puking on his owner's shoes.
“Martin, it's not...”
“You and Saxon talked about it and decided for my daughter, and you didn't bother asking me.”
“Martin, he is a colleague, he gave me his professional opinion...”
“No, you don't have to say anything else, it is all starting to make sense. Please tell me why you are surprised that your daughter has a little problem being honest. When her grades slip, you don't tell me, when she lies and steals, you don't tell me, and when you put her in counseling you don't tell me?”
“Whoa, that is not...”
“It sounds like she isn't acting out so much as acting like you.”
“Martin Bell, you have no right to...”
“I'm done talking to you. I will talk to her when she gets back. Until then, don't call me. I forgot how nice it is to not see your number pop up on my phone. Now I remember why.”
Victoria starts to say something else, tries to stop him, but he hangs up. He shoves the phone in his pocket and tries to control his breathing, tries to remain calm. The rage is building again. Being lied to by everyone in his life brings him back to feeling out of control, sends his thoughts spinning, spiraling. They are lying to you and about you, Martin. He pulls his phone back out. He opens his contact list, scrolls down to Juliette. They don't care what you think. You can barely pay your electric bill, why should they include you in the conversation?
He clicks on her name. His phone offers to option to dial or to send her a text message. He stops. He cancels out and the phone goes back in his pocket. He gets in the truck and fires it up. He screeches into the street.
Uniformed officers speed walk in and out of the various rooms of the apartment. They carry evidence bags, boxes, and make their way carefully around Nate's dead body. Homicide detective Clinton Wright is squatting near Nate's head, analyzing the gunshot wounds, piecing the puzzle together: who did this and why?
A uniformed officer approaches. He is holding an evidence bag with what appears to be a woman's underwear.
“Sir, we found these in the back.”
Detective Wright looks at the bag. A puzzle piece. Maybe Nate didn't live here alone.
“Is that all you found? Any other women's clothes, dresses, shoes?”
“Nothing else yet.”
Wright looks at Nate's body then looks to the kitchen and stands up. He mumbles to himself, “You live here alone, Nate, or did you need a woman's touch?”
“Sir?” the officer asks.
Wright's eyes rise from Nate to the officer. He stares and his mouth opens, ready to say something more. Then it closes with a barely perceptible shaking of the head.
“Nothing. Thanks, keep looking. Let me know if you find something else.”
The officer turns to do as he is told, and Wright walks into the kitchen. He opens the fridge, looking for signs of someone besides Nate living here. Nothing obvious. He looks in the freezer. A bag of frozen veggies, a bottle of vodka, chicken wings. He reaches his arm in and feels around, pressing into the sides, the ceiling, and the back wall. There is extra space, a big empty space, in the back.
He closes the freezer and moves to the cabinets: cereal and canned food; plates and cups. Not enough. He moves to the garbage.
After glancing into the garbage can, Wright takes out his phone. He searches for a bit, then hits send and waits.
“Agent Reynolds? This is detective Clinton Wright. From the Ashton case, that's right. I'm working a case out of Gresham and I'm thinking you might be able to help me. I'm here with a body, a Nate Collins, white male, 22.”
“Nate Collins, meth dealer?” Agent Reynolds asks.
“Well, that was going to be my next question.”
“Yeah, I know him. He had a bit of a sheet on him, growing longer every day. He was a low-level runner for the greater Portland area, mostly a meth-head who occasionally shared his product for money.”
“Well 'was' is the correct word because someone blew a hole in his face and two holes in his chest. He made someone mad because it looks like they went to work on him before they killed him.”
“How unfortunate for him. Well, for him and for you, unfortunately for you there is a pretty long list of people who would have loved the opportunity. Did they toss the place?”
Wright looks over his shoulder, quickly re-scans the living room and kitchen. He considers the empty space in the back of the freezer, the preferred storage space for a dealer's stash bag.
“Doesn't seem so, seems like the normal day-in-the-life meth den.”
“What are you thinking? Deal gone wrong?”
“Looks that way.”
“I can send you a list of his known associates if you think that would help. Might be a longer list than you were hoping for.”
Wright scratches the spot on his neck that won't stop itching in the dirt and grime of the apartment. He can feel the filth rising through his shoes, soaking into his feet and traveling, up his legs, into his abdomen, everywhere.
“No,” he sighs, “you've given me plenty.”
“Well, offer is out there. Let me know if you need anything.”
“Will do, thanks.”
Wright hangs up and considers another call, but pockets the phone. His gloved hand pulls the lid off of the garbage can. The smell hits him hard and he quickly gulps a fresh breath and hold it. He picks through the top layer looking for something, a sign.
He finds it.
He is pulling off his gloves as he makes his way out into the fresh air. There in the garbage can, under a brown paper bag, soaked in some mystery fluid, one of his questions has been answer. There is a box of baby formula.
Detective Wright knows Nate Collins wasn't living alone, and his roommate has a baby.
After hanging up his call with Detective Wright, Agent Reynolds pockets the phone and pulls out another. His thumb quickly clicks in a new number.
“It's me. Nate is dead. Someone hit the house, shot him in the head. It sounds like the money was gone when the police got there.”
He listens to the voice on the other end. He checks over his shoulder to be sure his is standing in the yard alone.
“Wright, you know him? No, didn't sound like he'd taken it. What do you want me to do?... What about the girl? No, they didn't find her there, she was gone... no, let me take care of that... You, you're going to find her?”
“I know someone who might know,” the voice says.
“Alright. Alright, do it... yeah do it. Let me know when you find her.”
Reynolds hangs up. His backhand sends a coffee cup through the air and against his office wall with a crunch. There is another crunch when the cracked mug hits the floor. Another agent looks in through the office's window. Reynolds' look sends him quickly away.
The air hisses through the bullet holes in the Dodge Charger's windshield and Chris finally eases off of the accelerator. He tells himself there is no way they could be following him at this point. If Ax's guys had been able to immediately steal one of the other cars outside of Jesse's house, they still would have been nearly a minute behind the Charger. It would be difficult to catch up to a terrified teenager with nearly four hundred horsepower under his shaking feet.
Chris lets the car slow down as he rounds a corner. A red stoplight forces him to stop completely. He finally hears his panicked breathing now that the engine isn't roaring and the whistle of air through the car's now multiple bullet holes has died down. His raspy breaths are unsettling. When he looks in the mirror, he first sees the lines of blood running down the side of his face and onto his neck. He wipes his face but the blood has already started to dry against his skin. He gives up on wiping the blood and looks back into the mirror for the view of the road behind him. No cars are coming. He waits for a car to scream around the corner. He waits for more bullets. He waits for flashing red and blue lights and police loud speakers telling him to exit the vehicle and get on the ground.
When no cars appear, his grip on the steering wheel softens slightly. When no police officers surround him, his breathing slows. As the light turns green, Chris eases left, with his blinker on, and makes his way back down the highway toward Gresham. Chris notices the speed limit sign, forty-five miles per hour. When he gets to forty-five he sighs at what a waste that speed is for the car he is driving. He was too terrified to notice at the moment, but now, thinking back to the engine roaring through Jesse's neighborhood and hearing the tires screech against the asphalt as he hit each hard turn makes him rethink this obsession so many of the guys on Ax's crew have with their muscle cars. The power is real. He hard taps the gas pedal and the car jumps forward, almost instantly to fifty-five. Considering all of the things people spend money on, Chris is starting to understand the draw of a powerful car. The thrill of the Charger's power is almost enough to overcome the terror of jumping from a second story window while being shot at by gang enforcers. It is helping. For a few seconds, Chris imagines this just being his car now, no issues, no red tape, no men tracking him down so they can murder him, and he punches the pedal again and smiles.
He quickly remembers the car is stolen, being driven by a wanted drug dealer, and has obvious bullet holes throughout. He slows back down to forty-five, but he allows a few moments of happiness before reality sets in.
He isn't a car thief, but that makes two stolen cars in less than twenty-four hours. This car was stolen under extreme circumstances and now a small army of Ax's people will be looking for it. Even the highway he is on is a main vein for their drug movements, and this car is recognizable. Very recognizable, he guesses. He knows he can't stay in this car, not if he wants to stay in town. He could head north, into Washington and maybe all the way to Canada. Ax's influence only reaches so far. He would have to cut all of his ties here in Oregon. His most recent foster parents are here. He realizes he wouldn't be sad to leave them forever. He wouldn't have to experience all of their judgments and disappointment first hand. He runs a line-up of his friends. The word “friends” bounces up and he considers what that means. People who would help him out if he were in trouble. Considering the people he knows who would help him out if he were in trouble, the mental list begins to thin. There are people he would have had on the list yesterday who didn't help him today. He has a short list of others he will call for help when he can get to a phone. After Jesse's reaction, and the various associations of the people on the list with Ax, Chris thinks it will probably drop to zero. He wonders if any of his friends would turn down a hundred bucks to protect him. Fifty bucks?
What is keeping me here? He wonders.
He decides he will find out. He doesn't have his cell phone. It could be anywhere at this point. The Walmart has a pay phone, the last pay phone that he knows of anywhere. Walmarts can also be a good place to leave a car. It will probably be awhile, maybe a few days, before anyone notices the car parked in the same place in the Walmart parking lot. Chris thinks it more likely that someone who knows the car sees it. The guys he stole it from will be pleased to have it back.
It takes less than fifteen minutes to get to Walmart. He finds a spot away from view of the highway, a back left corner spot under trees and pointing toward the back of a Chick-fil-A. He fantasizes about torching the car and just waiting by it while it burns, waiting for the fire trucks and the owner and his squad of other angry drug dealers. He imagines Ax himself arriving and asking what Chris thinks he is doing, and he plays a few finales back to back really quickly: spit in Ax's face and walk away with both middle fingers up; punch Ax in the face and lay him out; saying coldly, “I felt like destroying something beautiful,” before pulling out a gun and shooting the entire crew.
The fantasies die and Chris leaves the keys in the ignition and walks to the front of the store.
The payphone he remembered is real. When he picks it up there is a tone suggesting the phone is functional. Chris goes into his pockets and finds a few quarters. He considers who on his short list to call first. He decides on Marissa. When the quarter hits the slot, Chris stops. Without his phone he doesn't know Marissa's number. He tries to picture her name in the phone's contact list. He gets through the area code, five-zero-three, thinks the first number after that is a seven. Or the second number is a seven. There is a seven in there somewhere, he knows, but with six other numbers to remember, and the order they will be in, there's no way. He has enough change for maybe three calls, he can't be guessing random number combinations.
He thinks of the next person on the list. Before he settles on who that will be, he knows he won't know their number. He doesn't know anyone's number. It's why he keeps them saved on his phone, so he doesn't have to remember them.
He considers his full contacts list. There isn't a single friend's number he knows from memory.
But he does know one number.
Janet will have noticed the asian pears are gone by now. She will know Chris was there. Chris thinks about the pears and the bag, sitting on the floor in Jesse's bedroom. He was too busy thinking about the vial of meth and not getting shot to grab the bag, and now he would trade all of the clothes and meth for a few bites of one of the pears. Janet will have called Henry. He will have asked if she is okay, and if he should come home or go out and try to find Chris, but Janet will have assured him that she is fine and that trying to search for Chris would be a waste of time. The phone call will have made them both feel the way so many of Chris's actions have made them feel: helpless.
Janet's phone number shines in Chris's mind. He looks at the numbers on the payphone, traces a path from number to number across the scratched, stained metal. He imagines the call clicking through, the ringing, and Janet's voice answering not with “hello?” but with an exasperated “Chris?” She would say it again if he didn't answer right away. She would ask where he is, ask if he is alright, tell him he should come home. He doesn't want to hear that sound in her voice. He doesn't want to hear the panic and the pleading again.
His fingers slide another coin into the pay slot.
He doesn't want her asking where he is or if he needs anything or assuring him that she isn't mad and Henry isn't mad and they just want to know he is somewhere safe. He doesn't want to feel the hole in his stomach widen. He doesn't want to be hollowed out anymore.
He starts pressing buttons.
He doesn't want to feel useless. He doesn't want to be dialing the number but he is watching his fingers move across the board like they are someone else's fingers and when they get to the last number he can't stop them and he can't pull the receiver away from his cheek. When the line begins ringing, it closes his throat. His jaw is wired shut, he can taste the metal.
“Hello?” Janet's voice, shrill and hopeful. Chris can see her curled around the phone, leaning in and waiting to hear his voice. He can hear that she is holding her breath and ignoring all other sounds in the world.
He ignores the tears running down his cheeks.
“Chris?” she whispers, “Chris, please...”
Chris grinds his teeth back and forth. When they start to part he jams them back together. The pounding in his head and the thumping of his heartbeat in his ears is so loud his bites his lip and pulls the phone away from his face so she won't hear the noises. He leans against the wall and tries to cry quietly.
Janet's voice continues, muffled by the distance from Chris's ears. He can hear her saying his name, hear her saying something about home, probably that he should come home, that they really want him to come home. He hears the word “mad.” They're not mad. He knows they aren't mad, not mad in the way other people get mad. Not in the way Chris's friends get mad. Janet and Henry wouldn't hide from him behind blinds and closed doors. They wouldn't refuse to take his calls or let him into their house. They wouldn't try to beat him to death with a baseball bat or shoot him or get him arrested. They're something else: disappointed.
“You should be mad! You should be furious. I've stolen from you, I've lied to you every day of my life. I take advantage of you because you're stupid and weak. I screwed up again! Yeah, I know I screwed up, but don't... don't look at me like that! You don't have to look at me like that. You don't have to say anything, you don't have to tell me it's going to be okay. It's not going to be okay. If you let me back into the house I'm going to steal from you and lie to you and hurt you again. And again. And again and again for as long as you will let me and I think you will let me hurt you for a long time. You know what you should say? You should say that I'm stupid. You should tell me I'm worthless, that I've wasted everything you've ever given me, everything you've ever done for me! Go ahead and say it. Say 'Chris, you're the worst thing that's ever happened to us.' Tell me I'm stupid and useless and a waste of your time and that I always make the wrong decisions and I can't be trusted to live on my own and I need you to take care of me even though I don't deserve it. Say it. Say it!”
Chris says it all into the phone. He says it all to an empty line because his hand is on the hookswitch. He screams it into nothing, into the cold stone wall and the cold air and then he slams the phone into the cradle. He hammers it against the metal again and again and again, catching his own fingers on the third swipe. He drops the phone and grabs his hand, roaring through clenched teeth. He can't contain his rage and he steps back to make room for a lunging stomp kick to the buttons on the phone's face. He kicks the assembly again. He switches feet and gives three more hard kicks before losing his balance and falling to the pavement.
He stops screaming. He lies on the ground and pulls himself back toward the wall and stays there. He has almost no money, he has meth he can't sell, he's hungry and tired and alone. He watches through his tears as his breath appears in thin clouds in the cold air. He watches the phone receiver swinging from its line, the plastic clinking against the metal base at increasing intervals until it comes to rest.
Lying on the ground, Chris can feel the vial of meth in his pocket. It is demanding his attention again, prodding at him, offering itself as an alternative to his current state of mind. It promises to make things better. It promises to give him what it has always given him. He can almost hear it speaking to him.
“I'm your only friend.”
Chris sits up and scoots against the wall. He pulls the vial from his pocket and tilts it, side to side, letting the crystals slide from one end to the other and then back. He listens to the quiet scrape of the crystals. He shakes it like an instrument, finds a beat. The crystals sing to him. He looks to the cement. It is smooth and clean enough that he could crush and snort the crystals right here. He considers the immediate improvement in how he would feel. He thinks of the downsides. The downsides don't seem too bad compared to the reality of what will happen when he is finally caught by someone, crew members or police officers.
He looks back to the phone. It doesn't look right hanging down like that. He gets to his feet and returns the phone to its cradle. Whatever dents he made or scars he left on the metal blend in with the rest and he can't tell which are his.
The vial goes back in his pocket. He turns and walks up the sidewalk and around the edge of the building. He knows it is almost ten miles back to Janet and Henry's house. He knows he has time.
The walk helps Chris consider his limited options. He still doesn't like the idea of leaving the state, or the country, and running from all of this. He doesn't like the idea of staying and trying to finish his GED and trying to find a normal job, either. College is out there as an option. It is the most mysterious and seemingly unreachable option. I didn't like high school so why would I like college? But college seems to be where people get the training and certifications they will need to do the cool jobs of the world. Except musicians and artists, they don't all go to college. Or actors. Or models.
Chris passes a small medical complex. There is a sign for a dentist, a pediatrician, a general practitioner, and physical therapy. Chris imagines himself as a doctor. But then he thinks about all of the doctors he saw when he was growing up, rigid men who always seemed to be losing their hair and disregarding their personal appearance and who always seemed to be ill, themselves.
He wonders if he could get hired by a doctor.
He imagines himself in a dentist's office.
Probably too much school, Chris decides. The next building complex houses other businesses. There is an accountant, which Chris immediately dismisses. The next unit pulls him in. Above the door, someone in a helmet kayaks up into a cresting wave. The scene is painted on a broad wooden sign hanging above the words “Mighty Gear.” Chris stops a few steps from the sign. The kayak scene is carved into the wood and paint has been added. Someone carves signs for businesses out of wood. Of all of the classes he dreaded and avoided in school, wood-working wasn't one of them. It had been his favorite class. He liked the smell of the wood. He liked the sounds of the saws and sanders and drills. He liked the teacher, Mr. Stenz. Stenz wasn't the best wood-worker, but he showed the class some cool things. He kept them all on track without threats. He played the radio and let them pick the station. He didn't take himself or the class too seriously. As Chris looks up at the carved sign, he wonders where someone goes to learn such skills because there isn't a single student from Mr. Stenz's wood-working class who could have created a sign like that.
Chris is suddenly inside the store. There are kayaks standing upright, nearly floor to ceiling. There are paddles made of wood and aluminum and carbon fiber. There are fishing poles and nets and waders and large prints of photographs: fisherman casting in the early light of morning; climbers scaling ice walls; rapids being challenged by helmeted kayakers. Chris ignores the other two patrons and goes to the cashier. He asks about the sign out front. The cashier's name tag says “Chad.” Chad says he doesn't know who made the sign. When Chris asks if he could find out, Chad looks confused. He says he could call his manager. Chris moves on, realizing he doesn't have a way to contact the manager anyway. He asks Chad about the place. Chad says it's great. He says it like he is supposed to say it, like he is providing a password he has provided many times. Chad says he doesn't know if they are hiring, but that Chris should take a job application just in case. Chad pulls one from a pile behind the desk.
Chris takes it, and offers a thank you as meaningless as the job application. As he folds it under his arm, he knows he isn't going to fill it out, let alone turn it in. He doesn't belong here. When he walked up to the cashier, Chad looked at him and his face said something. Chad tried to cover it up, tried to be professional, but Chris remembered he'd just finished screaming into a payphone and crying and then walking for twenty minutes in the cold. He woke up in a strange car this morning and hasn't showered. He realizes how job-ready he looks. His pale face and stringy black hair and bloodshot eyes don't say “hire me.” They say, “You lookin for crystal?”
There is a bell on the door and it rings Chris out into the cold. There is a garbage can by a support pillar. Chris slides the job application into it and continues down the sidewalk. He doesn't look back at the sign.
Chris isn't used to having empty hours to fill with anything but video games and drugs. Without using either, the day drags out. The walk to Janet and Henry's only take two hours, but he isn't ready. He takes the last few dollars in his pocket back to McDonald's. One dollar gives him a large Dr. Pepper and a warm booth where he can sit. Just sit. Sit and drink his Dr. Pepper. Ten minutes of sitting and sipping feels good. After thirty minutes, Chris tries to remember what he used to do all day. There were days spent in the forest, climbing trees and making forts and traversing the creek. There were action figures and remote controlled trucks and hours of hide and seek. There were games. There was play. It's hard to remember the specifics of those days. He knows he did all of those things but he can't actually remember doing any of those things. He is watching it play on a clouded screen. It is reflected in a pool rippling with alcohol and meth. He is pretty sure he had fun. But he can't remember feeling the fun. Now, having the money to pay Ax and being free from the repercussions of multiple car thefts would feel fun. It's the only sense of fun Chris is interested in feeling.
By the time he drops his Dr. Pepper in the trash and wanders around Janet and Siri's park, the sun is gone. The last breaths of orange and red are being choked by the encroaching blue and black of night. Porch lights are going on in every neighborhood. Street lamps are burning wide spotlights in the cement. At first, Chris wades through the light and watches his breath appear in the chilled night air. He breathes it slowly out of his nostrils and feels the air curl back up around his neck and ears. It's another memory from childhood play. In the colder fall and winter, he and his friends would blow long clouds into the air and claim to be dragons, or yetis, or fire-breathing demons. They would open their mouths wide and huff air from deep down in their guts and hold their arms out like wings.
When two girls ride by Chris on their bikes and stare as they pass, he reconsiders. He remembers he is hiding. He is supposed to be hiding. For a second he doesn't want to hide anymore. He imagines getting caught and rather than dread. he feels, at first, relief. The thought of being dragged into a car and taken to his judgment seat is a weight off of his shoulders. He stops in the middle of an open stretch of lamplight. A car approaches. The windows are dark and he can't see the driver. He hopes it slows down. He hopes it stops. He hopes a recognizable face appears and hits him and drags him to the car and back to Ax and to something else, something that isn't this. He wants whatever is next.
The car drives past. Chris blows out one final dragon breath and steps into the darkness.
At Henry and Janet's house, Chris reappears. He steps into the light spilling onto the front lawn and the side yard from the large living room window. He sets himself low to peak through the bottom of the window while staying hidden from the street view by staying behind their bushes. He knows they won't see him. The window glare makes seeing anything through the windows difficult, and he knows they won't be looking so low. He only exposes enough of his head to see the basic layout of the living room. When he sees Janet sitting in her recliner with her crochet needles, he wants to be on the couch next to her. She is watching CNN. Chris imagines her hoping to see some word about him on CNN. Breaking news, lost teenager in northern Oregon has been found alive and he is ready to exorcise his demons and listen to his foster parents, who love him very much.
Chris flinches when she turns and looks in his direction. He ducks down and holds his breath. When he raises his eyes back up over the window sill, she is back to her crocheting. Chris flinches again when Henry suddenly appears from the kitchen. He is carrying two bowls. Chris knows they are bowls of popcorn sprinkled with chocolate chips. Chris knows what the kitchen and living room must smell like right now. He doesn't notice his hand pressing into the glass.
Henry passes one of the bowls to Janet and kisses her on top of her head. She squeezes his hand. They offer pained smiles and Henry settles into his own chair. They watch the news and eat their popcorn and occasionally say a few things back and forth. Chris leans in when they speak. He turns his head, giving his right ear a chance to make out what they are saying. Then he turns to listen with the left.
You don't deserve them.
Chris pushes away from the window. He suddenly has a sense that he shouldn't be here. Janet and Henry always tried to help him, always tried to keep him doing the right things and thinking before acting. He imagines Janet hanging up from the mysterious silent call earlier and going straight to his room. She imagines her straightening up, sorting clothes, making the bed, trying to find something useful in all of her helplessness. And now, after all of the things they've done for him over the last few years, he never stopped to consider the potential danger towards them that running drugs might pose. While imagining Janet picking up his room, he sees a dark figure appear at the window. He sees a gun rise. He sees a figure kicking in the front door and forcing the two of them into a back room and torturing them for information. They would take a beating for him. They would take a bullet for him. Watching them eat popcorn and watch the news and worry, Chris crawls out into the open and scrambles toward the sidewalk. He turns left and speed walks, then jogs, then runs away from the house.
He won't endanger them anymore. He won't rely on them to take care of him or fix his mistakes. They won't pay for any part of his life now. Not anymore. Chris runs through the lamp light and steam chugs from his throat and he isn't going to stop until he is far away from the only real home he has ever known.
He will face this, all of this, himself. He will go to Ax and bring him back the rest of the meth he was supposed to move and see what Ax says. He will accept his fate. He will take responsibility for his actions.
At this time of night, Chris knows of a few places where he might find Ax. He makes the short list of four locations in his mind according, closest to farthest.
When Ax isn't at the first location, Chris knows it is about three miles to location two. He stops running, but enjoys the burn in his lungs. Now that he has a goal and a mission, he feels better. Though he is walking into danger, he feels in control for the first time in a long time. The meth speaks to him briefly from his pocket but he shuts down the craving. He doesn't need it, not tonight.
He turns South and begins the trek toward Tuco's.
“Hi, Ozzy,” Jesse says. He presses the gun against Chris's head. “How are you?”
Chris puts his hands out into the room so Jesse can see them. His fingers splay out and Jesse laughs when he notices the fingers are shaking.
“Are you trying to die today, dude?” Jesse asks. He shoves Chris's head with the tip of the gun barrel and lowers it to his side. Chris stumbles toward the bed and it catches him. He turns and sits and puts his hands back up.
“Put your hands down, man, it's embarrassing.”
Chris lets his hands drop to the bed. The gaming monitor has been joined by another monitor. This added monitor is divided into four screens. One shows the front porch. One shows the back porch and lawn, including the surrounding fence. Another screen shows the entryway downstairs. A fourth shows another room, maybe somewhere in the house. Jesse has security cameras set up throughout his grandmother's home. He wonders if grandma knows about them.
“I could have killed you, fool. What are you doing sneaking up into my house, into my room, in the middle of the damn morning? You know better than to sneak up in a man's house like that.”
“A grandmother's house,” Chris says. He doesn't know why he said it. Jesse is still holding the revolver. The sudden switch of going from control to controlled, just like with the cop at the car earlier in the morning, just like in his own room an hour ago, he has lost too many battles to just keep rolling over. He had to say something.
Jesse brings the gun back up.
“Bitch, this is my house,” he says.
“Okay, man, sorry.”
“Say it,” Jesse says.
“Say it? Say what, man?”
Chris waits for a break in Jesse's face. He waits for a sign, any small sign, that Jesse is just messing with him. But Jesse's eyes hold. His mouth holds. The gun holds.
“Say this is my house.”
“This is your house,” Chris says, his hands coming up slightly.
“Say you're sorry,” Jesse says.
Jesse cocks the hammer back and steps forward.
“Bitch, don't sneak up in my house and disrespect me. Don't come sniffing around her like some stray dog begging for scraps and call me out like I don't run this place. Are you crazy? You trying to die? Say it or I'll put this gun in your mouth so you can't say it.”
Chris scoots sideways on the bed without thinking. He puts his left hand out to shield himself from the gun's stare and from the wrath shining from Jesse's eyes.
“Okay, okay, take it easy, man.”
“Sorry,” Chris says, shrinking away from the gun.
“Sorry? Sorry for what?”
“Sorry I snuck into your house and disrespected you”
Jesse lowers the gun and laughs. “Man you are a straight up bitch, you know that? Sorry for sneaking into your house? Come on, man! Just sit there, man, sit there and relax. Relax your shaky little hands.”
Jesse closes the door into his room and drops back into the chair at his desk. He depresses the pistol's hammer and clanks the gun down against the metal desk.
“Chris Osborne... man, how's your nickname gonna be Ozzy Osbourne when you're all shaky and frail? You can't be all delicate and have people call you Ozzy.”
He turns toward the camera monitor.
“What do you think?” he asks, pointing to the surveillance screens.
“Sick, man,” Chris says. He is still wary. His hands are pressed into the bed covers and he is ready to run, if necessary. The door is closed now so that route will be tough. He looks to the single window in the room. The window ledge leads down to a short portion of roof and then a ten to twelve foot drop to the grass below. That would not be ideal. His knees are still feeling the wall jump at the train yard. He secures that option as a solid plan B.
“Had a couple of tweakers discover the location of my secret lair a few weeks ago. They came in around midnight. Luckily my grandma was up taking a piss or something, because she saw them and started screaming, throwing plates and glasses from the kitchen. She went off. Lucky for me, too, because while she was screaming and breaking shit, they focused on her. She distracted them for me.”
Jesse slides his chair to the edge of the desk and reaches down between the desk and the wall. He comes back up with a baseball bat.
“She distracted them long enough for me to take this bad boy to the backs of their heads. I cracked the second guy before the first guy had even hit the floor.”
Jesse swings the bat twice, hard, offering sound effects for each strike. Chris flinches slightly at the first swing. When Jesse sees the flinch, he laughs. He realizes something and then laughs again.
“You know what, man? My grandma is more gangster than you. She didn't get all shaky and weak in the knees. When people tried to take what was hers, she took her sixty-eight year old ass and got to work. Maybe we should call her Ozzy. We'll have to figure out a new nickname for you. Oh you know what? I think we need to go back to your old nickname. I always liked that one.”
Jesse slides the bat back behind the desk and sits back in his chair. He takes a moment to savor Chris's humiliation before continuing with his story.
“So bap bap, I dropped them right there in front of the kitchen. I didn't want to get the cops involved but grandma insisted. The cops came in, hauled the guys away, we gave our statement and that was it. The guys weren't armed or anything. They were just itchin, you know? Well, of course you know.”
Chris shifts forward on the bed and shakes his head.
“Nah, man, I'm not under right now. I'm off the stuff, been off for a few weeks.”
Jesse leans back in the chair and smiles.
“Your shaky hands say otherwise.”
“Seriously man, I'm off it. I'm working, I'm moving.”
“You sure you're not running quality control, just testing a little on the side?” Jesse asks. The grin makes Chris stop. Jesse has the look of a guy who knows the lie before it gets tried.
“I swear, man, I'm moving. That's why I came here, dude, I thought you might be in the market. I know how you get at the end of your sessions. Sometimes you like a little help powering through.”
Jesse slaps his hands together.
“Indeed I do. Thing is, there's word out on you. Word is, that piece is expired.”
“My timeline is a little tight, is all. But I just have to move this last piece and I'm good.”
“Nah, man, you were supposed to do that last night.”
Chris stops. He looks out the window, half expecting to see Ax's guys ready to rush in and grab him. If Jesse already knows he is late, it means Ax sent the word out that no one should buy from Chris. He thinks back to Carly's reaction, hiding from him and refusing to answer the door. She got a call. He thinks about Adam, remembers Adam telling him to “handle his business” before coming back. He got a call.
“He already talked to you?” Chris asks.
Jesse nods and his arms go out to his sides. It is a sort of shrug, an apology about being unable to help. There is a hint of compassion, of true sadness for Chris's position, but not enough compassion for Jesse to do anything more.
“Wow, okay, so it's like that?” Chris asks.
“Is it like that? I don't know, Streak, is it like that? Where I'm standing you put yourself in this position, man. You can't blame anyone else for this problem. You're the one who went to Ax. You know this game. What did you think was going to happen when you didn't move his product and you stole his brother's car?”
The car. Chris imagines it being towed to police impound to be searched and stored. He imagines the problems that will bring Ax's brother.
“To be honest, some of the guys I've talked to thought you stealing Beat's car was hilarious. And pretty bad ass, maybe the most bad ass thing you've ever done. But Ax didn't see it that way.”
Chris gets up from the bed and looks out the window. He has to be sure no one is crawling up the siding, and when he sees the roof tiles and the clear air of morning, he paces in front of the bed.
“Well what do I do then, man? If I'm stupid and useless then help me. What do I do?”
Jesse's smile fades. His eyes soften at Chris's panic and he folds his arms and leans back. Chris watches his eyes searching through scenarios.
“You still have it?” Jesse says finally. Chris nods. His hand goes into his pocket and he pulls out the small vial and shakes it twice. The crystals clink softly against the glass. When he hears the soft clink and sees the change in Jesse's face, Chris feels like showing the product was a bad idea.
“Well, my advice is cut your losses. Go see Ax and beg for mercy and, you know, maybe he'll find some way for you to repay him. Maybe he'll have some crazy task for you, something dangerous no one else wants to do and if you do it, all will be forgiven. Plus, if he gives you some crazy task and you pull it off, that will do more than grant you forgiveness. You'll get soldier points, man. Your stock goes up and also, maybe, he doesn't beat you to death.”
“What about the car?” Chris asks.
“Well, you know, as long as he gets in back and you didn't mess it all up, they might forgive that, too. Honestly, though, you messed with his car. You're probably going to get a beating for that.”
Chris imagines the forensics team sorting through the car, finding drugs and cash and guns and who knows what else.
“The car is fine, right? Where did you leave it?”
Chris nods and says it is fine. He tries to seem casual.
“Well, thanks man, sorry I snuck up in your house. I didn't want to freak out your grandma.”
“Hey, using my new security system was fun,” Jesse says, standing.
“As scary as it sounds and as much as it's going to suck, I think I'll take your advice. I'm just going to go talk to Ax and try to sort it all out.”
Chris pockets the vial. Jesse watches it disappear into the pocket.
“Hey, man, you were coming here to offer me that, right?” he says.
“Yeah. Yeah, dude, you want it?”
“Hell yeah,” Jesse says, holding his hand out.
Chris pulls the vial back and sighs his relief. Selling the last of the meth will give him a better starting point with Ax. He will be late, but if he comes back with more money than he'd promised, that will have to be worth something in Ax's eyes. Chris holds out the vial.
“I really appreciate it, Jesse. This is really going to help me out. You might be saving my ass right now, dude, like literally saving my ass.”
As Jesse takes the vial, Chris sees movement on the security monitor. The top left screen shows what the front camera sees, and a car pulls up along the curb at the front of the house. Two men get out and make their way up the driveway toward the front door. Chris recognizes the car. These guys work for Ax.
“I don't know about that,” Jesse says. As the vial slides out of Chris's hand and into Jesse's left hand, his right hand curls into a fist and flies in a long arc from his hip to Chris's shoulder. The knuckles connect just below the ear and Chris stumbles back against the bed. Jesse lunges forward and swings another right hand, and another. He is still holding the vial in his left hand so he can only throw rights, and they slam into Chris's forearms and shoulder.
“You weak ass bitch!” Jesse yells, finally punching through Chris's guard and connecting on his eyebrow. The blow slices the skin open and blood begins to run down the side of Chris's face. On seeing the blood and seeing Chris slump to the floor to cower, Jesse steps back. He looks over his shoulder. The men are at the front door. When they open it, Jesse turns back to Chris.
“This is how the world works, Streak. You come begging, you show weakness like this, you get eaten. You should've manned up and did what you said you would do.”
The men are at the base of the stairs. When Chris finally looks up, they are climbing. As they near the top, he can feel the booming of their footsteps in the floor. He didn't see it on the cameras, but they have pistols drawn, and in a few seconds they will kick in the door and drag him at gunpoint down those same stairs, out the front door and throw him into the car so they can drive him to Ax. They will drive him to his trial, sentencing, and execution.
Jesse grabs his bat.
“You bitch ass foster kids are all the same,” he says, setting the vial on the desk and gripping the bat with both hands. “Your mommy and daddy leave you and you just crumble. You're weak, man, you're a slave! You're fit to be somebody's bitch!”
The men are at the top of the stairs. They are steps from the door. Jesse steps forward and raises the bat.
“Stay down, bitch!”
Chris finds the wall behind him with one hand and presses into the floor with the other. He pushes off and launches forward with a scream. The sound of his first foster dad's voice echoes in Jesse's words. Useless, weak, stupid, the words set a fuse in his stomach that blows and sends him flying forward, head first, teeth bared. Before the bat can come down, Chris's hands slam into Jesse's face and neck. One palm flattens Jesse's nose with a crunch and the other curves around Jesse's throat. The force of the push sends Jesse into the air and he flails, airborne, the seven feet to the door and crashes head and neck first into it.
The men in the hallway had turned the handle and were on their way into the room when Jesse's body slammed the door shut. It knocked the two men back into the hallway. One of the men went down, and he jumped back to his feet in a rage. His boot slams into the door and breaks through. He tries to get his foot back out, but his pants catch in the now jagged wooden edges of the hole and bind around the top edge of the boot. He tries to open the door but Jesse's barely conscious body is lying at the base of the door, blocking it. The second man tries to help the first remove his foot. It doesn't help, so instead he backs up and then lunges forward, shoulder first, and tries to break the door down. The impact rocks Jesse's body forward a few inches. The man backs up and slams into it again. They can hear Jesse moaning, and after one more hard kick, there is enough room to squeeze through and see into the room.
As the first man looks in, he sees Chris throw something through the window. The glass breaks and Chris kicks out the remaining shards. The man squeezes through the door a little farther but can't get in. He screams at Jesse to move, but the hole in the wall above Jesse's head and the large dent in the door suggest Jesse won't be getting up for another minute or two, at least. When he realizes he can't push through, the man tells his partner to go back outside, that Chris is going out the window. He then reaches his hand back out into the hallway to pass off his gun, and as he brings it back into the room he has time to fire a round at Chris's back. The round goes high, punching through the wall inches above Chris as he lunges out the window onto the roof.
The little roof ledge isn't wide enough to support his dive and he hits it and tips forward. He rolls off the ledge and flips once in the air. His legs hit the grass first, but they give out under the weight of the fall and he crashes forward onto his face. The impact clacks his teeth together and grinds his face into the turf. Grass and dirt dig into his lips, his teeth, and mash against the skin of his cheeks and forehead. The fall blurs his vision, sets a ringing in his head, and knocks the wind out of him, but he stays conscious. He scrambles to his hands and knees and crawls toward the front sidewalk. He can't hear the men running down the stairs and through the living room and entryway. When Chris reaches the curb, he pushes up to his feet and stumbles to his right. The car the men arrived in is still running. They were obviously planning to take him quickly and be gone. Chris isn't thinking straight. Stealing another of his drug boss's cars isn't smart, but some part of his instincts convince him to find the nearest means for escape and use it.
When he slumps against the driver side door, another gunshot rings out. Chris doesn't hear the round whiz through the air a few inches from his head. He grabs the door handle and pulls himself inside. More shots clap in the morning air and one bullet clips through the front of the windshield. Chris mindlessly shifts the car into drive and punches the accelerator. He doesn't even close the driver side door, but the force of the acceleration and his first left hand turn closes it for him. The two men are left running through the street after him, waving their guns and screaming. As Chris rounds a corner and disappears, they each have their phones out.
The hunt for Chris Osborne is on.
Chris Osborne is watching leaves fall in his dream. He is lying in the back of a pick up truck as it moves slowly down a forest road. The leaves are wide and shining green maples. They detach from high up in the forest canopy and descend, spinning and twisting through columns of sunlight and shadow. In his dream, the leaves shift and change, some becoming birds that soar back up beyond the tree tops and far beyond view. Others continue downward, their stems hardening, their green shifting through yellow to orange, then red, then brown, pinching in and wrinkling at the center as if being drained. They crack and give in, splitting and shattering and their pieces scatter downward. The tiny pieces scrape and tumble together with a hiss, a blizzard of tree ash swirling into clouds of dry death. The leaves that meet this fate begin to outnumber those that transform and fly away, and soon Chris's vision is a swirling cloud of brown and black dust that blots out the sun. The dark twister moves down over and around the truck, and though he knows he should close his eyes or jump from the truck and run, he can't. He is frozen. His eyes are open, unblinking, held by some force. As the leaves descend and begin hitting the metal sides of the truck bed, they strike with unexpected force and volume. What should be a gentle tapping, like rain on a roof, is more a series of heavy booms and the high shriek of metal grinding on metal. The sound grows and the swirl of leaves fills in the last of Chris's vision. In the end, before he wakes, his hands reach up into the shredding turbine of wind swept foliage and are gone, taken up in the same torrent and to the same fate as everything else. The last bangs against the truck's metal and the loss of his hands sets Chris screaming.
The last scream breaks through the dream into the present. The total darkness of the dream has been replaced by blinding light and the continued noise of something clanking against surfaces near to his head. His hands go up to block the burning light. He blurts out that he is awake, he is up, and tells the bright light to calm down. His hands reach out toward the light source and hit something flat and hard. His palms and fingers spread out across the surface and squeak slightly at the touch. It is glass.
“Sir!” a voice in the distance. There are other words being said but this is the only one Chris can make out with any certainty.
“What? Yes, what?” Chris says, sitting up and trying to find a direction to look where there isn't a blinding light and he can see something he recognizes. “Yes,” he says again, not knowing who he is saying it to or why.
“...the car, sir,” the voice says. Another series of booms and clanks shake the car.
I'm in a car, Chris thinks. But I don't own a car.
“Step out of the car, sir,” the voice repeats. Now Chris knows. In a wave of recall, his current state is revealed. He is in a car. He was at his foster parent's house and he left for some reason. Probably a fight, he admits to himself, and probably my fault. He left, stormed out again, and found a car. How did I find this car?
“Last chance, sir, please step out of the vehicle,” the voice says. Chris looks up from his seated position. He is in the driver's seat of the vehicle. He doesn't recognize the steering wheel or dashboard. The noise is coming from his left and when he looks, a man is shining a flashlight into the car and tapping on the window. There is a glint of metal. It is a badge. The man is a police officer.
The sky is dim, maybe dusk, maybe dawn. Which way is west? he wonders. Once they make eye contact, the officer waves Chris out onto the sidewalk with his flashlight. Chris looks down and is happy to note that he is wearing clothes.
“You can't sleep here, sir,” the officer says. He shines his flashlight over to a nearby parking pole. Sure enough, near the top of the sign, it says, “No overnight parking.”
Chris's mind is waking up. He wonders if he was making deliveries last night. He suddenly jerks upright in his seat and sucks in a long, frantic breath when the full plot of what is happening finally plays out: a cop is at his window asking him to exit a vehicle he doesn't recognize; he could have stolen this car last night. Chris wonders if he stole this car while out working the street and making deliveries. He wonders if he is still carrying. If he can't explain whose car this is, and he gets out of the car and the officer searches him, it could mean going back to jail. Depending on the amount he has on him, it could be prison, this time.
“Come on, buddy, I just need to ask you some questions. Please step out of the vehicle.”
He is parked on the street. He doesn't recognize the street, but it is a residential area. The sidewalk is lined with newly planted trees, saplings, which will help if he has to run. In front of the car, the sidewalk curves off to the right along with the street, disappearing around a corner a hundred yards down the road. Behind, there is a row of houses, each similar to the others, with open front yards and no fences. Across the street, an eight foot fence that stretches along the entire length of the street guards those houses from onlookers.
And people running from the police.
Chris looks down onto the seats and floor of the vehicle. He can't immediately see any drugs or signs of drugs. He doesn't see any cash. He would like to think that, even drunk or high, he would still know how to stash the important stuff. As he shifts in the seat and unlocks the door, he tries to notice any bulges in his pockets, or weight around his belt line. He can't feel anything. His shoes and socks seem clear, by the feel of them.
He unlocks the door and pushes it open.
“Come on out here, sir,” the officer says, stepping back.
“Sorry, man... officer,” Chris says, closing the door and leaning against it.
“You're not allowed to park here overnight, did you know that?”
“No, no sir. I didn't see the sign.”
“You've got to pay more attention to road signs when you're driving a vehicle, sir. It's why they are there. People that live around here don't want guys sleeping in their cars, coming and going at all hours of the day and night, a few feet from where their kids wait for the school bus, you know?”
The officer continues, lecturing about public safety and the growing homeless population and rises in crimes he says are associated with that sort of thing. Chris nods. Standing up, he realizes why he doesn't remember getting to this location with this vehicle. His head is pulsing, bigger, then smaller, then bigger, with each heart beat. His back is slightly hunched. There is a hollowness in his center, through his back and in his guts. Where he should feel his stomach, his hips, the weight of his core, he feels a pulsing pain. Whatever isn't in pain feels empty. It is a deep cavern only growing in breadth and depth under the continuous pressure of an unending river. He is being carved out.
He is coming down.
He fights to keep the right amount of engagement in the conversation. He runs the drill that used to work on his foster parents and his teachers and his counselor. He reminds himself to make eye contact, but not for too long, and to make sure his face is relaxed and casual. He tells himself not to talk unless he has to, and to not talk too quickly or too slowly. He is moving against the car, and he tries to play off the swaying as fatigue.
“I'm sorry, sir, I stopped here because I was too tired to keep driving. I stopped to get some sleep. I thought it would be dangerous for me to be out on the road.”
The explanation seems reasonable in his head and he thinks it came out smoothly and casually.
“Sure, kid. And how old are you?”
“Twenty years old, sir,” Chris lies, yawning. He doesn't know why he lied about his age, but the yawn is legitimate. He decides to play up the fatigue story, play innocent and good-hearted and hard-working and really, really tired.
“Do you have your license on you, by chance?” the officer asks.
Chris pats his sides, feeling for his wallet. In his left pocket there is a cylinder. It's a cash roll, he's almost certain. In his right pocket he feels the wallet, next to something else. He doesn't know for sure, but it feels like it might be a pipe. Based on his head and how he is feeling right now, there is a good chance it is a recently used pipe.
“Yeah, sure,” Chris says, pretending like he didn't feel his wallet, “I think it's in the car still.”
When he turns to open the door, the officer's right hand slides down to his service pistol.
“Sir, for my safety and yours, I need you to make sure you keep your hands where I can see them at all times, okay?”
“Yes, sir,” Chris says.
“I need to ask you, do you have any weapons or drugs on you that I need to know about?”
“No sir,” Chris says, but he hesitated. It's hard for him to tell how long he hesitated, or if the officer picked up on it.
“Good, good, just nice and easy then, don't make any sudden movements, okay? Let's stay safe, yeah? Don't make any sudden movements and we'll be all good.”
Chris nods. He doesn't know what all is in the car, but he is pretty sure there will be at least one thing that could send him back to jail. It isn't his car, and straining to think about it now, he has no idea whose car it is.
“Sure, sure, yes sir. Here,” Chris says, opening the driver's side door. “My wallet and license are in the center console.” Chris steps back and puts his hands up, offering for the officer to grab it for himself, for safety. He also hopes the gesture suggests a trust and a confidence in his own innocence. He tries to seem unaffected by the whole interaction. But not knowing what else is in the car, and not wanting to go back to jail, when the officer leans in to open the center console, Chris takes off. It takes the officer a few seconds to realize what is happening before he is on his radio for backup.
Chris runs back past the cruiser and up onto the sidewalk. He is running all out, but doesn't know, in his current state, how long he can keep that up. The officer is big, at least fifty pounds overweight, and will take a long time to catch him. It was one of the main factors that convinced him to attempt the escape.
The sound of the officer yelling and calling into his radio fades behind Chris. When he gets to the first side street, he makes a left and continues in front of the houses there. He is regaining his bearings. He knows roughly where he is now, and he knows where to go. He has his wallet so the police won't know who he is unless they find and run his fingerprints from the car. But he is wearing his gloves. He says a quick thank you to the universe for his gloves as he leaps over a kid's tricycle left out on the sidewalk. His mind races through other ways they could identify him. They wouldn't go so far as to try and find DNA, not for a stolen car they recovered in one piece. All they will have is the officer's physical description. The officer would have to look through thousands of mugshots of other white men aged fifteen to thirty.
Unless the cruiser's dashboard camera picked him up. Chris wonders if their software is good enough to run facial recognition from something like that. His lungs are on fire and his legs are getting heavy. Even with the capability, something like that would take time, time that could allow him to secure a place to stay quiet for a few days, maybe a few weeks. Right now, his heart slamming against his chest as his feet hit the pavement, all he has to do is outrun this one cop.
Two cops. Another cruiser hits its siren and turns onto the side street in pursuit. Chris looks back to see the cruiser closing distance as it passes the other officer. When Chris gets to the end of the street, the cruiser's tires screech to a halt on the asphalt a few yards behind, but it is enough of a gap. Chris makes his way through the last house's side yard and climbs onto their wooden fence. The fence is about eight feet tall, and gives him the height needed to scale the fourteen-foot wall behind the house that separates it from the train yard beyond.
The second officer in pursuit draws his pistol and yells for Chris to stop. Chris hears the officer yell for him to show his hands. When the officer yells a third time, Chris's head disappears behind the top of the wall.
A fourteen-foot fall would have made the chase very easy, as it would probably have broken one or both of Chris's legs. But there is a small stack of pallets on the other side of the wall that brings the drop height down by a few feet. The landing is still rough, and his legs give out and send him toppling off the pallets and onto the dirt below, on his back, with a dusty thud. The landing knocks the wind out of him, but he struggles back to his feet and pulls the top three pallets off of the stack, which he hopes will make the officer's pursuit impossible.
It does, and the officer screams at Chris from the top of the wall. He readies his pistol, but by the time he has considered shooting a fleeing teenager in the back without definitive proof of an actual crime having been committed, Chris slips between two parked train cars and disappears from view.
His lungs hold up better than he expected, and it is another nearly half a mile through the train yard and across an open field into a small grove of older trees before he has to stop. He falls to the ground and crawls up to the base of one of the trees and sits down, leaning against it and fighting to blow the fire from his lungs. His hands won't stop shaking, but he manages to fish through his pockets and come out with his wallet. The other object, which he thought felt like a meth pipe, is a small glass vial. When Chris holds it up, cloudy white crystals slide from one end of the vial to the other. It's decent, almost half a gram, maybe a hundred bucks worth if he shows it to the right people. If the cop had found it, Chris would be on his way to county.
He pockets the vial and looks east. He knows it is east because the sun is now coming up over the horizon. He stands and brushes the dirt off of his pants. The leaves on the ground around him remind him of the dream he was having when he woke up. These leaves are mostly brown and dried up, and they crunch under his feet as he heads north.
In twenty four minutes, he arrives at his destination. It is 7:38am and he will need to wait another fifteen to thirty minutes for his foster parents to leave. Henry, his foster dad, will be leaving for work at 7:50. Janet, foster mom, will hopefully be walking her dog, Siri, to the park just after 8:00.
Chris's head is still a little cloudy and his hands are shaking again. He can feel the vial in his pocket. It seems to be rubbing itself against his leg, asking to be opened. He knows he will need to move the product to get the money he needs. Last night is still cloudy in his mind, but he remembers the important part: yesterday was the deadline to bring back the money he was supposed to make selling the contents of the vial. He was given the vial and the amount to bring back at a short meeting. He remembers the meeting. Ax gave him the vial. Ax gets his money. When he doesn't get his money, guys get dealt with. Chris's decision is easy. He knows it will get tougher as the day goes on, but for now his shaking hands and the itch in his gums and the electrical jolts wriggling through his brain will have to wait. He will fight the craving and look to sell the crystal.
He checks his wrist. His watch is still there. He will kill some time by walking to McDonald's.
It is a ten minute walk. The seven dollars in his wallet get him the sausage biscuit and coffee he needs. He takes three creamers and takes a few ice cubes from the soda dispenser to cool the coffee more quickly. It is still hot when he gulps it down, but he likes the burn. The sausage biscuit sticks to his teeth and the roof of his mouth, but the coffee helps. His stomach protests initially against the sudden onslaught of hot fast food. Chris tries to remember when he last ate. Yesterday is fuzzy in his mind and he isn't sure. The sausage biscuit fights its way back up. Chris stops to breathe. He tries to relax, tries to get his heart rate down. He tries not to throw up. After a few minutes, his stomach settles and gives in, processing the food for use as energy.
On his way back to the house, Chris makes sure to stay on the far side of the street and avoid getting too close. He waits behind a tree, and after a few minutes the garage door whines and slowly opens. Henry backs his Toyota Prius slowly out across the sidewalk and onto the street. He stops and the back-up and brake lights stay lit. The car doesn't move. One second, three seconds, five. Chris wonders if Henry could have seen him somehow. He hopes the stop is due to changing CDs or cleaning up spilled coffee. The Prius backs up a little farther and stops again, this time shifting into drive. Henry heads to his accounting firm.
Chris's heart rate is up again. He shakes his head and takes four long, slow breaths to recover. He knows he can't keep doing this. If that was enough to jack up his heart rate, he needs to start living his life a little more simply. He sits down against the tree to wait for Janet. He presses his fingertips to his wrist. The blood is aggressively rippling through the artery. He closes his eyes and breathes in, holds it, breathes out.
It is only three minutes before Janet appears. Chris first hears the dog barking and growling, and then the two appear on the front porch and begin their walk to the nearby park. Janet has a small blue rubber ball, and even when she puts it in the front pocket of her coat, the dog yaps and jumps up on her, demanding the ball be handed over. Chris watches her scold the dog, and hopes for a moment that Siri will leap up and bite into her hand. He imagines her ripping the ball from the pocket and racing off to a better owner and a better life somewhere else.
Siri does not rebel today and they cross the street and make a left and are gone.
The house is clear. Chris knows he needs to change out of the recognizable white pants and bright blue jersey he is wearing. Police will be looking for someone wearing that combination and fitting his description for the next few days, maybe longer. He knows what he will wear before he gets into the house.
Janet locked the front door. Chris hoped she would forgot today, the way she used to every other day or so, but no such luck. He makes his way around the side of the house to the window into his room. It is still slightly open, the way he always left it, the way he will always leave it, and it slides open with a quiet woosh. Once inside, he grabs his go-bag. He packed it three months ago for quick emergency departures. There are a few sets of clothes, toiletries, and there would be money if he hadn't raided the emergency stash three days ago. He changes into new clothes: white sneakers, his red basketball pants, a white t-shirt and his orange Bengals hoodie, and his black and red TMT hat, “the money team” hat, his Floyd Mayweather hat.
With his go-bag and his new look, he is ready to work through the list of friends who might give him a place to stay for a few days. Before he leaves, he stops at the refrigerator. He finds what he is hoping for in one of the slide-out produce drawers. His foster parents felt it important to make Chris work for things. He would lose privileges for taking things without permission, including food. He was always subtle about the cash he took from Henry's wallet and Janet's purse. He never left them empty. If there was a ten and a twenty and some ones, he would take the ten and leave the rest. If there were multiple twenties, he would take only one. He paid attention to the earrings Janet wore and which ones she didn't. If he noticed a pair she hadn't worn in more than six months, that is the pair he would steal and pawn. He only once heard her ask Henry about a pair of earrings she couldn't find. She hadn't worn them in over a year, but they were a pair of gold hoops with diamonds at each end. Her mother had given them to her. Henry told her he hadn't seen them and she, at that point, didn't think to ask Chris about them. She moved on, quickly accepting that they were lost and simply hoping they would show up again at some point. It was the only time Chris ever felt guilty about taking something from Janet, and they were the last valuables he ever took from her.
But he did enjoy taking food. He knew the fruit in the basket on the kitchen counter and the fruit in the refrigerator's produce drawers was expensive. The fruit was always fresh, always organic, and Henry enjoyed some of the more exotic fruit selections from the organic grocery stores. Chris's favorites were always the Asian pears. He liked their color, the pale yellow skin and the brown speckles wrapping in crowded spirals up to the stem. He loved the smell, the weight of the juicy round fruit in his hand, all reminding him of how that first bite would feel, how it would sound, how it would taste. Growing up, his mother was too busy buying drugs to save money for fruit. The only fruit he got came in the form of occasional juices, the fruit cups served from the school cafeteria, and from the blackberry bushes he found on his walks to school and in the old creek behind their apartment building.
Here, in the produce drawer, there are four Asian pears stacked neatly against a row of cucumbers. There is no need to disguise his actions now. He stuffs all four into his bag. Zipping up the bag, knowing he has stolen from them again, and knowing he will get to bite into the pears soon, gives him a quick jolt in his chest and calms the throbbing behind his eyes.
A dog barks at the front walk. Janet is back already.
Chris straps his back pack on and tip-toe runs back down the hallway toward his old room. Siri is barking when Janet opens the door. Chris can hear the jangle of the leash as he opens the window. Siri can smell him and is pulling at the leash to be let free. Her barking intensifies and Chris can hear Janet's baby voice asking the dog what is wrong. She fumbles with the leash clamp, but once it clicks free, Siri races down the hallway toward Chris's room, barking as she runs, and then growling once inside the room. She smells her way to the wall by the window. She jumps up the wall, snapping her teeth and snarling, as Chris closes the window. In his hurry, the window slides shut too quickly and closes all the way, with a click. He won't be getting back in that way. He assures himself that is fine, that he won't need to get back in that way because he won't need to get back in at all because he doesn't need them. He never needed them. He tightens the back pack straps and ducks down to crawl under each of the side windows on his way back toward the sidewalk. He turns left when he gets to the sidewalk and he pulls his hood over his hat. He listens for Siri. He listens for Janet crying out after him.
When no calls come, his pace quickens. He tells himself he didn't expect any.
He tries to think of his list and the usual customers he would have gone to when looking to sell a few grams. He is late with his delivery. Ax doesn't like when people are late with their deliveries. To be late is to be disrespectful of someone's time, to see them as unimportant. This will have a cost. Chris knows he can't truly make up for the lost time and the disrespect. But if he can bring back a little extra, a little more money than normal, that might make up for the mistake. It might soften the punishment, at least.
His first thought is who is closest? Nate's place isn't that far. Nate is a little rough in the morning, and he runs for Ax, too. He decides against Nate. Carly might want it. Carly is living off of an insurance payout from the death of her father. She is nicer than most of the people Chris talks to and deals with. He can be at her house in less than fifteen minutes.
In twelve minutes, the pillars in front of her small craftsman style home appear. The lights are off in every window. There aren't any parents or grandparents to worry about, though, so he rings the doorbell. He hears something from the wood. It sounds like footsteps but then it stops. The house is quiet again. He rings the doorbell again. The rise and fall of the chime echoes briefly in the sparse open floor plan. He hears another sound, definitely footsteps. He steps to the window beside the front door and cups his hands over the glass to peer in.
“Carly?” he calls in a harsh, yelled whisper. The glass fogs up and he moves over, trying to catch sight of her or hear movement. “Carly I know you're home.”
He backs away from the glass. He walks back out onto the front grass and looks to the second story. He knows she is standing just off to the left or right of one of the windows, ready to slowly peak out and down at him. He knows she is home and he knows she heard the ringing of the doorbell. That means she doesn't want to let him in. Maybe she knows he didn't get his money back to Ax and doesn't want to be involved. Maybe she thought he was someone else and is hiding in some quiet, inner room.
Maybe she just doesn't want to talk to me, he thinks.
He wonders why she wouldn't let him in and then he wonders why she ever would. He turns and joins the sidewalk again.
His second thought is Adam Ramirez. He and Adam used to sell together. When he gets to Adam's apartment, Adam actually answers the door. He doesn't hide, he doesn't pretend not to be there, he answers the door and immediately tells Chris to go handle his business before coming back. When Chris starts to explain his situation, the door slams in his face. He is still trying to talk when he hears the lock click into place. He is still talking when he turns and walks back out across the parking lot and onto the sidewalk.
“You're talking to yourself, man,” he says out loud.
“I know,” he answers.
He does stop. He steps over the sidewalk lines. He tries not to step on them, and he tries to make sure each foot gets one step in each square of cement before the next. Don't step on a crack, he hums to himself, you'll break your momma's back.
“Stop!” he says again.
His third thought is Jesse Horton. Jesse lives with his grandmother. His father left years ago and his mother is in prison for armed robbery and attempted murder. In one of her wide-eyed lows of scab-picking desperation, she walked into a 7-eleven with a Glock 9mm she lifted from her pimp and fired nine shots into the cigarettes above the cashier's crouched, quivering body. She screamed for all the cash in the register. Jesse was almost seven years old at the time. She'd left him sitting in the car out front. He watched as one of the patrons slammed his mother to the floor and wrestled the gun from her hand. He watched as officers arrived and held their guns out toward the front door and slowly made their way inside. He watched them roll his mother onto her stomach and pull her hands behind her back and handcuff her. He watched as they dragged her out of the store and locked her in the back of one of the cruisers. She swore at the cops, at the man in the store, at the cashier. She cursed them and promised to kill them all. She threatened the cops' lives and then begged them not to take her to jail. She kept saying she was sorry, that she was so so sorry. She promised to get right, to never do it again and get herself right.
She never mentioned Jesse. She never mentioned having her son in the car out front, never looked over at him from her position in the back of the cruiser. Jesse watched her cry and bang her head into the seat's headrest and spit at the windows whenever the officers approached. She cried out for justice, then she cried out for mercy, then she cried and shouted nonsense.
She never cried out for him.
Twenty minutes later, an officer noticed the car parked near the front of the store. He ran the plates and found the car registered to a Mrs. Bernice Horton, Jesse's grandmother. It wasn't until the officer went to open the front door to check the registration and look for possible drug paraphernalia that he saw Mrs. Bernice Horton's grandson, Jesse, huddled on the floor in front of the passenger seat, hugging his knees and crying.
He went to live with his grandmother after that. As he grew up, his grandmother saw the same wild streaks, the same misbehavior she'd seen in her daughter. She took out her previous failures on him. When verbal abuse didn't work she moved to physical abuse. At a certain point, no amount of abuse affected Jesse. He dropped out of high school at fifteen and focused on his real passions: playing video games and using drugs.
When Chris gets to Jesse's house and sees the light on upstairs, he smiles. Jesse's gaming took place mostly at night and Chris was hoping for a session that carried on into the morning. The only reason Jesse would be awake before 2:00pm would be for video games. And one of his favorite methods for being able to play all night, or for multiple days in a row, was meth.
Chris looks in through a side window. The kitchen is dark, which used to mean grandma wasn't awake yet or wasn't home. He grips the front door's handle and smiles when the knob clicks and the door opens. He closes the door quietly and listens. He can hear noises from upstairs, faint and distant electronic dance music, EDM. He is careful around corners and as he makes his way up the stairs. There doesn't seem to be anyone else in the house and hopefully the music is playing because Jesse is in his room. At the top of the stairs, Chris recognizes the music, Pendulum. He shakes his head. He hates Pendulum. Hopefully, Pendulum means Jesse is at the tail end of an all-nighter and is itching. Maybe even if he isn't, the story will make him feel sorry for Chris and he will buy the meth simply to help him out, as a friend.
One-twenty, Chris decides. One hundred and twenty dollars should do it.
At the top of the stairs, all the lights are off in the upper hallway. Chris flinches as he passes the bathroom and the toilet suddenly begins to run. The other rooms are dark. All but the room at the end of the hall. The door is closed but light is crawling out from the sliver of space at the bottom. Once at the door, Chris can feel the music through the floor. It is thumping against the walls and shaking the door. He can feel the bass in his chest. He considers knocking but that seems weird, and if Jesse is gaming with the music this loud he probably wouldn't hear the knock anyway.
He taps on the door, so he can say he knocked. He opens the door slowly. Once cracked a few inches, the sound floods out. He can see the edge of a bed, covered in twisted blankets and an assortment of discarded shirts, jeans, socks. The quiet of the early morning sidewalk and the rest of the house make the sudden audio assault hard to manage. Chris squints and winces at the grinding spatter of electronic notes and steps through the heavy bass thump like he is wading through a thick bog.
As the door opens a little more, the edge of a desk appears. The desk holds Jesse's gaming setup. Chris was here when Jesse put it together: an ASRock NVIDIA motherboard, Intel 2 processor, one hundred and fifty megabyte Raptor hard drive. It was a thing of beauty. As the desktop comes into view, the tower is different than before. As Chris is thinking about that, he notices the chair in front of the monitor is empty just before the cold gun barrel touches the side of his head.
Chris stops. He wants to tell the gunman not to shoot. He wants to say who he is, to yell his own name and fall to the floor with his hands over his head, but he freezes. He says nothing.
“Hi, Ozzy,” Jesse says. He presses the gun against Chris's head. “How are you?”
Malcolm is hungry. He knows he made tuna salad last night, that it is sitting in the cool, dark of the refrigerator, a swirling pink and white mass speckled by tiny cubes of relish. He thinks of the creamy sweetness, the smoky fish flavors, the bittersweet crunch of the pickle bits, all over warmed mashed sweet potatoes. It would take two minutes to add garlic butter toast to that. It would be a good meal.
Malcolm pinches a few pills between his finger tips and leans back so he can drop them into his mouth. They hit the back of his throat and he gets the vodka bottle spout to his lips and a splash of the burning spirit into his mouth just before he chokes. The pills go down with the vodka and then he leans forward to cough into a clenched fist. Tangled strands of gray hair fall across his face and drape themselves over his knuckles. He winces against a pain in his chest. He lays back, knowing the pain will lose its teeth in a few minutes.
The tuna meal swirls through his head as he leans back in his recliner. He looks up at the cracks in the ceiling and coughs again. He closes his eyes and feels the room. The room is what someone might loosely declare the apartment's living room. It is the room where he lives, where he spends more time collectively than any other place. It is living room, dining room, entertainment room, drinking room, storage room, library, and on particularly dark days, a restroom. He looks to the floor five feet to his left. He was on his hands and knees scrubbing and rinsing and scrubbing and rinsing for twenty minutes a few nights ago. The carpet looks pretty clean. Someone who didn't know there had been vomit there probably wouldn't noticed the slight discoloration. But Malcolm can see it. He can see the outline, can still see the full puddle of the food and drink and bile that came out of him. He can see the red streak through the middle. When he first saw blood in his vomit three months ago, it scared him. It felt ominous, a declaration. A few nights ago, the blood went into the trash with the mess and towels and felt more like a sign of something to which he could look forward.
Malcolm's mind returns to images of tuna and potato. He can feel the warm plate on his lap, can smell the mixture rolling through the tiny apartment. But when he thinks of getting up and actually making the meal, the chair holds him, pulls him down, fuses with him. He considers the thought of the chair actually taking him captive. He wonders if he could struggle to break free from the grips of a living, greedy chair. How many of the fused fibers could he pull free from? How much longer would he be able to sit here and let the chair take him over before it would be too late?
He knows he could get up if he tried even a little. There is no force holding him here outside of himself. This thought, that he is trapped here by his own choice, is a crushing weight. He knows he isn't going to pull free and he knows why.
There is a small end table to his right. It is big enough to hold a coffee table book about high speed jets, a bottle of Stoli, and a small file folder, fattened by a quarter of an inch of loose papers stacked together. He won't look at the folder. He doesn't need to, it glows in his mind and lets off a heat he can't escape. Whether he closes his eyes, sinks into the chair, throws blankets over his head, the heat is still there. No matter how deeply he dives into the bottles of pills and drink, the heat is there. It claws at him.
When he knows he isn't going to eat dinner, and he feels the first vibrations of the hypnotic hum of the meds and alcohol behind his eyes, he reaches for the folder. He begs himself not to reach for it. When his fingers graze the edge, he begs himself to withdraw his hand. His fingers pinch the edge and he slides it closer. He slides one corner off of the end table's edge so he can grip it and pull the whole thing onto his lap. When it hits his thighs he tells himself not to open it. The feel of the folder, the smell, the scrape of his fingertips against the slightly wrinkled edges, quiets his protest. He knows he will open it, just like he knows he isn't making the meal tonight, just like he knows the Stoli will be gone within the hour. Of all the things this room has become, more than anything else it is a room for this.
It is a room for remembering.
Though his eyes know what they will see when he pulls the folder cover back to reveal the top page, he notes the recognition in his mind. He can feel the electrical exchange, deep in the center of his brain, followed by a flutter in his chest just above the solar plexus. He can hear the blood flow change in his ears.
The paper is clean, a slight crease in the top right corner. Malcolm's fingers go there and lift the first page from the others. The image is mostly blue, a tropical beach and bright blue water under an even brighter and bluer sky. A man stands by a palm tree. He is holding a coconut in each hand and smiling like a conqueror. Malcolm slides his thumb across the man's face. There are pencil notes on one side:
Jerry Portal, twenty-eight, online marketing strategist
The list continues, the handwriting more hurried and uneven as it moves down the page:
Girlfriend – Stephanie Morrow, nursing student
Malcolm's finger traces down through each fact. He presses into the paper, feeling the indent left by the original pencil work. He follows the etched letters through immediate family, education, personal hobbies, all the way to the bottom:
Killed in the crash of Jetblue flight 385 from Bridgetown
Malcolm looks at Jerry's face one more time before flipping the page over, face down.
The next page is similar, a beach and beautiful sand under a raised resort hut shaded by palm trees. A young man is cradling a young woman in his arms. Her hair is being played with by a breeze. Malcolm looks at each of their smiling faces for a few seconds before his finger tip finds the frantic pencil scrawls at the edge:
Adam Page, twenty-three, PE teacher
Kimberly Page, twenty-two, barista
Malcolm winces and flips the paper over before he gets to the end. He can never read to the end, but he knows the last word on the page. The word plays in his ears. He can feel his lips and tongue move to form it, can see a happy couple dressed in bright colors and drinking from each others glasses and taking tours of hidden lagoons and ancient ruins and lying and laughing in bed together. Honeymoon.
He continues, scrolling and reading, scanning the faces, remembering the hair and the looks in each person's eyes. He sees the curve of the smiles and remembers the outfits and the backgrounds and the histories. He skips words he knows he doesn't want to see, but they shine in the front of his mind. They glow and blink in neon, they hum with electricity and give off heat and demand to be seen. The pills dim the lights slightly, but a glare breaks through. The hum is still there, below the silence, waiting. It is patient. It will wait out the pills and booze and be ready to rise in Malcolm's mind again. If he manages to get the pills down again, the hum will wait. It will wait for as long as it takes.
Malcolm knows this.
The pages continue to turn. Malcolm knows where he is in the stack. There are signs now after all this time, like tracks in the snow. Harold Starling's page, thirty-one, has a small blue stain in the upper left hand corner. Malcolm doesn't know from what. Gregory Dean's page is rough, damaged by spilled water. Page fifty. Sarah Colson's facts were written in pen, the only facts written in pen, on page seventy-seven. A few are dog-eared, and Malcolm knows each by the size of the dog ear. The face up pile shrinks and the face down pile grows heavy. He knows where he is by the feel of the paper, by the smell, by the clock ticking away in his mind. The clock ticks down to eight pages left. It goes to seven pages left, six. When he sees an image of an older woman smirking into camera, the alcohol and pills can't keep up anymore. Malcolm's nostrils flare and his eyes redden. Tears pool up and pour from the inner corners of his hazel eyes. He can't make out the letters but he knows what they say:
Angela Brooks, fifty-nine, wife, mother, grandmother, flight attendant.
The top of the page says page 152. This page is different, not quite as clean or pristine as the others in the stack. The page is rippled in spots, and before Malcolm can flip the page over, one of his tears hits the page and quickly soaks in. When he turns it over, two more tears fall onto the next page before he can wipe his eyes.
Another picture, a man standing with friends all dressed as super heroes. The man is dressed as Loki.
Christopher Price, twenty-nine, flight attendant
Killed in the crash of Jetblue flight 385 from Bridgetown
A woman, kneeling so two children can kiss her, one on each cheek.
Stacy Kerrigan, twenty-six, married, mother of two
Killed in the crash of Jetblue flight 385 from Bridgetown
He flips over the page, and the next, and the next, before the flood takes him. His head drops and he tries to shut his eyes against the tears. His body is rocked by sobs and he slides the folder over the chair's arm and it falls to the floor.
“I'm sorry,” he says amid the crying. The words sneak out in between gasps and screams. He sends them out like flares in a storm. The mad cries don't sound like his own. He can hear the words and feel them passing through his throat and out of his mouth but they seem to be from someone else, someone behind a wall he can't get through. His apologies bang against the wall like fists. Nothing gets through, and soon the bottle is back at his lips and after three hard pulls he slaps his hands over his face and screams into his palms. The recliner squeaks under him, jerked by the force of his convulsions, and Captain Malcolm McKormack sets his elbows on his thighs and his face in his palms and screams through the storm. He sees the view from the cockpit that morning. He sees the horizon shift hard to the right as engine one explodes and he loses half of the wing. The control panels light up with orange and red warnings. Alarms pull the cockpit into chaos. The sudden loss of engine one and its wing sends the plane into a roll. He screams into his headset for everyone to assume crash positions. He hears the plane buckle under the torque of their spiral. The metal moans under the pressure. Bolts pop and sheets of metal and plastic are ripped away toward the deep blue water below. When the horizon is vertical, engine two catches fire. Catastrophic duel engine and structural aircraft failure shortly after take off can't be trained for or effectively piloted.
Malcolm writhes in his chair and yells through his fingers.
“Brace for impact!”
Captain Malcolm McKormack, pilot of flight 385 from Bridgetown, Barbados, lost consciousness immediately upon impact, along with nearly every soul on board. Ruptured fuel tanks sent a fireball through the back half of the plane, killing a large portion of the passengers almost instantly. The plane broke into four main pieces, the front of the plan detaching and tumbling across and then down into the relatively calm waters three miles from Barbados. People on shore saw the crash and emergency service boats and choppers responded.
In the end, one hundred and fifty-eight people died. Six passengers, one flight attendant, Malcolm, and his first officer, David Bennett, survived. Malcolm thinks of David, paralyzed from the neck down, being bathed and clothed and helped by his wife into and out of his wheelchair, his car, his bed. The word “survived” stabs him in the chest.
On the floor, most of the pages have fallen out of the folder. One of them is a list of survivors. Malcolm hasn't looked at this page in a long time. He has thought about throwing that page away. He has thought about burning it over the stove or flushing it down the toilet. He has considered eating it. But he keeps it in the back of the folder to remind him. The page should be a source of peace for him, knowing that not everyone died in the crash. It isn't. It is, in some ways, harder to read than the pages and pages of the dead. It reminds him of the cost of his failures. Paralysis, severe burns, lost limbs, brain trauma, no one made it out without paying a high price.
It makes him feel that he will pay for all of this someday.
He knows, if it were his family members, he'd find the person responsible. He would find their address and knock on their door and put a bullet in their head. He knows the family members should be tracking him down. He thinks some of them might be. Whenever he answers the phone and no one speaks, he assumes there is someone on the other line and they have finally found him. The last time he got a hang up call, he sat in the apartment for five days and waited for a knock on the door. He waited for a brick through the window, or a molotov, or machine gun fire, or a battering ram against the door and a team of angry fathers and sons and mothers and daughters armed with knives and guns and vengeance. When no knock came, when no bullets flew, Malcolm didn't find relief. He wanted them to be there. He wanted to open the door and find an end. He wanted an angry mob to take him and beat him to death, to punish him for what he did. He wanted justice.
When there is a knocking sound, Malcolm can't tell if it is real or imagined. He waits, tries to stifle his crying so he can listen. The room is quiet. The door out into the hallway is still.
This time there is no question. The knocking is present and real. Two shadows have appeared at the base of the door and three more knocks sound through the apartment. Someone is out there. Someone has finally come for him.
Malcolm smiles. He doesn't bother wiping his eyes. The day has finally come, someone is at his door ready to claim a payment for his sins. He is ready. As he rises from the chair he apologizes again. He is still whispering “I'm sorry” when he gets to the door.
Three more knocks, quiet.
He is ready.
As he reaches for the door knob, he considers something for the first time. What if the victims come for him? What if the ghosts of the one hundred and fifty-eight dead have been, for all of these months, slowly making their way back to him? As he grips the door handle, the image of the bodies, still in their ravaged forms, staring at him with eyes bleeding in burned faces, reaching for him with bloated, waterlogged hands, legs broken, necks twisted, heads hanging at awful angles, joined in their moaning thirst for retribution. When the door cracks and the first slivers of light slide through, he imagines them seeing him for the first time. He imagines their excitement at the product of their search, the source of their death and torment, finally in view. He imagines arms reaching out and eyes widening and mouths dropping open. He imagines a surge of bodies overtaking him.
He imagines this and still opens the door.
The light crashes down over him. He hadn't noticed how dark he'd kept the apartment, and when squinting isn't enough he puts an arm up to shield his eyes. He can almost hear their fingers wriggling through the air toward him, their knuckles cracking as muscle and ligament and tendon pull and twist and wait to grab a hold.
The first movement he sees makes him flinch. It isn't reaching hands. It isn't an army of the dead. Below his forearm, two small red shoes filled with bright white knee-high socks slide back and forth on the old gray carpet. The socks lead up to a red dress with puffed sleeves and a white sash for a belt. Two little arms wrap around behind the dress, linked by tiny clasped fingers.
No, please. Not one of the little girls!
The voice is small and short. Malcolm doesn't want to lower his arm and reveal the girl's face. If they are going to take him, he wants them to just take him. He doesn't want to see the mangled face of a little girl he killed.
Malcolm's mind flashes through the folder and the pages of the dead. There was a little girl named Lisa, and Isabelle, and Courtney. There was a thirteen-year-old girl named Grace. The little red shoes in front of him are not from a thirteen-year-old, and there wasn't a Lily on the flight list.
“I heard you...” she starts, then shuffles backward and looks down the hallway. After a confirmation from someone down the hall, she steps back forward. “I heard you... crying.”
Malcolm lowers his arm. He squints in the light but his eyes are adjusting. The little girl isn't burned. She isn't missing limbs. She isn't rotting. She isn't here to claim his soul.
“I cry sometimes, too,” she says. “Momma says it's okay to cry sometimes. She said sometimes it's rude to ask people why they are crying, but I asked her if I could ask you and she said I could. You don't have to tell me if you don't want to.”
Malcolm looks down the hallway. The door at the end is open and a woman is leaning out of her doorway. She has the same curly black hair as the little girl, and she smiles when Malcolm's eyes meet hers.
Malcolm looks down again. The little girl has taken his hand. She is inspecting it.
“Did you get hurt?” she asks, her voice rising at the end as her eyes get close to his hand's skin. The burns start at his fingertips and move up over his hands and forearms and, if he weren't wearing a shirt, Lily would see that they spread up to his shoulders and across his chest and back, as well. Most second degree, some third degree, and when Lily runs her little fingers over the scarred ripples along the back of his hand, Malcolm jerks his hand away.
“I'm sorry!” Lily says quickly, wincing as if she herself had been burned. “I'm sorry.”
Malcolm rubs his hands and steps back. He reaches for the door.
“Do you like fish sticks?” Lily asks. The door closes halfway and Malcolm stops it.
“What?” he grumbles.
Lily looks back down the hallway. Her hands go behind her back again and she stands up straight. Her words bounce around the doorway, carbonated by the light in her eyes.
“Do you like fish sticks? I do. When I'm sad, momma makes me fish sticks. I eat them with ketchup. Fish sticks always make me feel better. So I was wondering, if you, if maybe you, if you wanted to feel better because you're sad, if you want some fish sticks? I can make you some fish sticks. If you want. Do you want some fish sticks?”
Lily wants to say more. She talks more when she is nervous and doesn't know what to say, but a quick whisper from down the hall makes her stop. She rocks back and forth from her heels to her toes and smiles up at Malcolm.
Malcolm shakes his head. “No,” he says, his voice quiet and rough. He clears his throat and repeats the “no” and closes the door.
Malcolm said no that first night. He said no and sent Lily away and he went back to his recliner and fell asleep. He didn't eat with her, but he also didn't finish his bottle of vodka. The next night when Lily came knocking on his door again, Malcolm shook his head. He didn't say no out loud, but he shook his head and Lily said okay and trotted back down the hallway to her mom.
The next night, Malcolm sat in his recliner. He took two sips from the bottle and then put the lid back on and put the bottle on the ground. He wouldn't drink anymore, not if Lily from down the hall was going to knock on his door. He didn't want her to see him spinning. He didn't want her to smell the booze on his breath and ask her mom why he smelled like that. He told himself after she'd come by and asked and after he'd sent her away again, he would return to the pills and to the bottle and he would finish what he'd started. He imagined sending her away again. He wouldn't say no, he wouldn't grumble. He would simply shake his head again so as not to upset her and he would listen to her skip back down the hall to explain to her mother what happened. He told himself he didn't like seeing her face when he opened the door. He told himself he didn't like hearing her stuttering run-on sentences and seeing her bouncy hair and her big shining smile and her bright shining shoes. He told himself she'd lose interest soon and he wouldn't have to see her anymore and he wouldn't have to say no to her and that would be the end of that and everyone would be better off. He told himself he hoped she didn't show up that night.
There were three knocks on the door. He felt a jolt in his chest, but quickly reminded himself that he should send her away quietly and not bother her or her mother anymore. When he opened the door it was Lily, this time with her mother at her side. They shared curly black hair and bright smiles and Lily stepped forward to talk.
“This is my momma,” she said. Her introduction made Malcolm reach out his hand. It was something about the joy in her voice and how she stepped sideways and held her arms out to present her mother. It made Malcolm step forward. He didn't notice what he was doing until Lily's mother had his hand in hers and was telling him her name was Louisa and she was pleased to meet him. He nodded and grunted in return, mumbling “Malcolm,” before sliding his hand out of hers and sticking it back under his armpit. As he did, the smell from their apartment hit him: baking bread, buttery potatoes, and fish sticks. When Lily noticed him smelling the air, she giggled.
“It smells good, doesn't it?”
Malcolm pressed his lips together and blew air out through his nose. He couldn't deny it. He nodded.
“We have plenty,” Louisa said.
“We made extra,” Lily chirped. Then she leaned in and cupped her hands around her mouth, preparing for a secret. “We made extra on purpose!”
Louisa smiled. Lily grinned and giggled.
Malcolm smiled. When Lily took his hand, he closed his door behind him without thinking. As they glided down the hallway, Lily asked him if he wanted ketchup or tartar sauce, and if he wanted milk and that she always had milk with dinner unless she was eating pizza and then she could have one soda because momma said soda was a special treat and you don't want to ruin special treats by having too much of them. Malcolm didn't hear much of it, but he felt her hand in his and the itching in his skin died down. He felt her pull on his arm and the burning in his shoulders and neck cooled. When she pulled out his chair and put down his napkin and fork, the fire behind his eyes flickered and dimmed slightly. His chest wasn't crying out for pills. His mouth wasn't aching for alcohol. Louisa poured three milks and laid out plates of mashed potatoes and green beans and fish sticks and warm rolls and Malcolm McKormack remembered, for the first time in two years, what it was like to enjoy a meal.
They finished the entire plate of fish sticks.
Martin steps out into the morning air. He hasn't walked out of the county jail from a night spent in lock up in almost twenty years. He smiles at the thought that the last time he was locked up it was also because of a drunken bar fight. Similar outcomes in both events, and similar effects. The events from Bailey's Pub are starting to show. Martin grips his bruised knuckles and shudders under a cold breeze. The black eye is bigger, darker. The cut over his eyebrow is still wet at the edges. Sleeping on a cement floor didn't help him look or feel any better, but Martin smiles into the rising sun's glow. He takes a big, greedy breath. It isn't a better morning than usual, but it's different.
The door opens again and the teenager from Tuco's parking lot walks out, still sporting his bright orange sweatshirt. When Martin looks over at him the kid gives a nod and continues walking. Bruce pulls up in his mini van. He is Martin's ride. The teenager doesn't appear to have a ride as he makes his way up the long lonely sidewalk back into town.
“I bet you're ready to get home,” Bruce says. Martin shuts the passenger door behind him and shivers in the van's warmth. He watches the boy walk toward town, head down, arms crossed. The boy walks without looking up. He knows he doesn't need to look up, there will be no friend in a mini van for him.
“Your place?” Bruce asks.
Martin nods, He is still watching the boy when they drive off.
Bruce drives to the apartment. He speeds. This is not the time to be late for work, not if they want to stay on the still employed list. When the van screeches into the apartment's driveway, Martin has less than fifteen minutes to shower and prepare for work, so he storms past the broken TV and spilled whiskey, stripping his clothes off as he goes. He is down to his underwear and socks by the time he turns on the shower. He is naked and carrying his work clothes by the time the water is hot.
He forgets about the gash on his eyebrow until he plunges his face into the steaming water spray. He winces and rattles off his favorite curses, but he keeps his face under the water. He winces and curses again when his shampoo touches the wound. The water pressure and heat also draw his attention to scrapes and cuts he wasn't aware of, along his forehead and the sides of his head under the hair. The shower doesn't feel good, but it does wage a successful war against the emerging hangover and the less than two hours of sleep he got on the jail cell floor.
“Two minutes, man, then we gotta go!” Bruce yells from the living room. He is looking at the smashed TV unit when he yells.
Martin hears him. He is already lacing up his boots. It takes a few seconds to put on deodorant and his shirt and grab his coat.
“Almost there,” he says as he walks down the hall. He steps into the kitchen, looking for something.
“Damn, man, that was quick,” Bruce says. Martin ignores him, finally finding what he was looking for by the sink: sunglasses. He steps to the wall mirror and looks at his black eye and puts the glasses on. Even before they slide into place, Martin notices the black eye, the swelling, the colors, the red gash and its handful of small stitches. He thought glasses would cover the wound, help him avoid talking about it all day at the site. He thought it might be better in the eyes of the owners if he was seen as trying to cover it up.
He throws the glasses on the counter.
“Let's do it,” he says. He smiles and Bruce smiles back.
Bruce is driving and Martin sits in silence. The only communication for the first two minutes is in quick sideways glances and sighing and throat clearing. Bruce is trying really hard not to barrage Martin with questions. He wants to know everything. He is trying to respect Martin's silence and wait for him to offer up any details. The struggle is proving difficult, and after three minutes he can't take it anymore.
Just as he opens his mouth to speak, Martin cuts in.
“Do you know what kind of music teenagers are into these days?”
The twisted vines of Bruce's thoughts did not include teenage girl musical preferences.
“Teenage girls, what kind of music do they like? Is it Justin Bieber or something? Katy Perry?”
Bruce sits up, adjusts.
“Well, Sheila says Gabi really wants to see lady Gaga in concert.”
“Lady Gaga?” Martin asks.
Martin takes the information back into silence. Lady Gaga? Time to search all things about Lady Gaga and see what's possible.
“Okay, so you got to ask a question, now can I ask you a question?”
Martin's phone vibrates. He takes it out and sees that he has a new text message. Bruce continues:
“Remember last night when we were drinking at the bar, and then you got in a fight with Shawn Macky and body-slammed him and rage-punched him into the hospital?”
Martin reads the message. It is about his hunting knives:
those are good lookin knives would love to take a look at them meet tonight?
“Remember how you were punching his unconscious face into the floor boards without mercy?”
Martin doesn't answer Bruce. He texts a response:
Sure, how about tonight at 8:00? Where?
Bruce is talking to the windshield.
“Like some sort of psycho? Like a crazy Chuck Liddell? Like a guy I'd never met. That guy looked familiar. He reminded me of a guy I grew up with, a guy I work with every day, a guy my kids know. Similar, but also not the same, at all. I felt like I'd known that guy for decades but had never actually seen him before.
Martin sends the message and puts the phone back in his coat pocket.
“Can you tell me about that guy? Can you tell me where that came from? Marty?”
“What happened last night?”
“It was just a stupid bar fight. They happen all the time.”
Bruce jerks the wheel to avoid hitting a slow car in his lane. He hadn't been paying attention.
“Oh do they, Marty, do they happen all the time? Cool, good to know, now when was the last time they happened to you?”
Martin's hand passes over his gash and the stitches. He pushes gently against the swollen eyelid. He doesn't wince.
“I guess it has been awhile.” As he answers his phone vibrates again.
“Been awhile?” Bruce yells, “You looked like a UFC middleweight contender!”
Martin looks at his phone again:
Make it 9:00. 1518 N. Rawlings Rd #4
Martin responds to the text saying he will be there. He doesn't say anything but we see the tiny slit of a smile sprout from one corner of his mouth.
“That double leg and body slam?”
“Yeah, except you haven't wrestled since college.”
“Yeah, well...” he finally looks over at Bruce, “you never really stop being a wrestler.”
On the site, Martin continues work as usual. No one else on the site does. Wherever Martin walks today he is getting one of two looks. Either guys smile at him and nod or fist pump their approval of his fight victory, or guys scowl at him and look as disapproving and threatening as they can. Apparently Shawn Macky still has a few friends on the job, and the fact that Martin put him in the hospital doesn't please them.
Everyone is talking about it. Everyone except Martin. Martin doesn't want to talk about it, and anyone who asks gets vague answers and disinterest from him. They have to get their stories from Jerry and Bruce, who are more than willing to lay out all of the drama, every blood-dripping detail.
Martin is surveying a stretch of parking lot work when Jerry walks up.
“Yeah, there he is, Mr. Bailey's Pub champion himself. How are you feeling, brother? Ready for another 5-rounder tonight? After what I saw I'd put money on you.”
“Yeah. I'm doing fine,” Martin says, his eyes on the work.
“How are you here? You didn't break out of jail to come to work, did you?”
“Like you said, we need this job.”
Jerry gets closer and squints. He is surveying the damage.
“Looks like that first shot he threw dinged you a little bit, eh?”
“Protect yourself at all times, right?”
“That right there is the difference between assault, and self defense. Hey, we're about ready to break for lunch, you comin?”
“Nah, not today, man,” Martin says.
“Dude? After what happened last night you're not going to sit with us and answer all of our way too enthusiastic questions about the fight?”
“Just going to leave us all hangin?”
“We're going to make stuff up, you know.”
“Well at least include my charm and good looks in your legends.”
Jerry stops smiling. He turns to leave but stops halfway.
“Seriously, Marty, are you okay?”
Martin nods and touches the wound again.
“Yeah, yeah, it's not that bad. I think it looks worse than it is.”
“No, I mean, are you doing okay? That last night... you were...”
Jerry looks away, off toward the parking lot and the group heading to lunch. He considers letting it go, saving it for another time and place. But he can't. He turns to face Martin.
“Come on, man, you were a different person. I've known you a long time. Bruce, Evan, we've all known you a long time. None of us have ever seen you like that. You're Marty Bell, Mr. Nice Guy... the quiet one... Mr. Dependable. That guy last night was...”
“Alcohol does weird things to people.”
Jerry is not convinced. He wants more. He is both genuinely excited to hear about what Martin was thinking, and also concerned for his friend's mental state.
“Well, can you introduce me to that other Martin sometime? I'd be interested to talk to him.”
“Maybe later,” Martin says.
“I'll buy you a burrito,” Jerry says with a smile.
This is a legitimate offer, as Martin is still broke and will be going without lunch today. He stops, actually considering accepting. But he is just not in the mood.
“Tempting, my friend, very tempting. How about tomorrow?”
“Nice try, jackass, tomorrow is Saturday.”
“Some other time, then. Text me tomorrow and we'll figure something out.”
“And you'll tell me everything?”
“I'll tell you everything I remember.”
Bruce walks up.
“You better tell us everything,” Bruce says, “you have to promise or I won't give you this.”
Bruce holds up a slip of paper. It is an address and a name, Charles Finn. No phone number.
“I told Sheila your story and she wanted to help. It's a man's name. I hope your lady friend isn't already married.”
Possibly the drug dealer's address.
“Wow, thanks, man, that was quick.”
Martin reaches for the paper and Bruce pulls it away.
“Lunch, the three of us, and you tell us everything.”
Martin relaxes for a second, seeming to give in, and then shoots his hand out and snatches the piece of paper from Bruce's fingertips. Bruce's mouth drops open. Jerry slams his hands together and yells, “Ha! Those reflexes! I knew it, our best friend is a secret agent!”
Martin looks at the piece of paper and smiles. Seeing Marty light up just a little makes Bruce and Jerry smile, too. It is the smile of friends who have seen their friend face setback after setback. They're all hopeful about this glimmer of hope.
“You're welcome, and you owe me now, so it's a win win.”
“Tell Sheila thank you for me. If I had any money at all I would buy her a gift.”
“I'm sure she will accept payment in favors,” Bruce says. He tries to close his mouth before the last words come out but it's too late.
“Favors?” Martin smiles.
Jerry burps out a laugh and then can't stop laughing. Bruce immediately regrets his choice of words. He shakes his head and puts his hands up.
“Wait,” he starts.
“Hey, you said it,” Martin says.
“You're a bad person, you know that, right? Both of you. Terrible people.”
Jerry and Bruce laugh their way to the parking lot and drive to lunch. Martin watches them go and thinks about the interest in the fight, and the looks on their faces. There is real surprise that he, Martin Bell, would have done something like that. He remembers they aren't in his head, they have only seen him here on the job site. They haven't seen him in the recliner in the living room. They haven't seen the empty bottles of Jack. But seeing a little bit of the darkness rise in the bar inspired an admiration Martin wasn't expecting. He had never seen them so interested. Taking down Macky really meant something to them. Was it because he was a bully? Was it because Martin was fearless as the underdog? Maybe they just enjoyed something other than the troubling average of their normal lives. They liked seeing one of their own become something else.
When Martin looks up, two of the newer crew members, Jason and Caleb, are looking his way and talking to each other. They seem to be enjoying the stories they are creating. For a second, Martin appreciates the attention. For a second, the admiration feels good. He feels proud, something he hasn't felt in a long time. After all he has sold, given away, or lost recently, it feels good to reclaim something.
Martin rides the small high through his hunger. At two-thirty, Bruce is leaving and Martin reminds him to come back to pick him up at the end of his shift. As they talk near Bruce's mini van, one of corporate's enforcers calls to him from the office trailer stairs. He is being called in again.
Without looking at him, Martin tells Bruce to stick around for a few minutes.
As Martin steps into the trailer, it is only Susan sitting behind the table.
“Hello, Martin, please have a seat,” she says. Martin sits in the chair and leans back, relaxed.
“What do you need, boss?” He tosses the word “boss” out like he is saying it to a toddler.
“There is a rumor going around the site that Bailey's Pub was the scene of some sort of intra company brawl last night.”
Martin is blank, emotionless. He keeps a good poker face, knowing she already has the answers to her questions. Susan is probing and watching his reactions, not to test the validity of the rumors, but to test Martin's response to them.
“Your name seems to keep coming up in the reports.”
Still nothing from Martin. He's not biting. She is going to have to do all of the heavy lifting here.
“I don't need to explain to you why it would be bad for you, and for all of us as a company, to have our employees starting bar brawls, disrupting private businesses, destroying property, and getting arrested. I'm sure you can see how we might frown on that sort of thing.”
Still nothing from Martin.
“Martin, I chose you to stay on with us because you are a good worker. You are good at your job, you work well with the rest of the team, and you don't cause problems. You're simple and reliable, and we like that a lot.”
“And because my father built this company.”
“That... is a very small factor. You are here because of who you are, not who your father was.”
“You mean who my father is?”
Susan is flustered. Martin can see on her face that she can't believe her own word choices there.
“He is still alive, you know. What happened might have killed other men, but he's still alive.”
“Yes, who your father is. It has little to nothing to do with that, you are here because of your skills, and because you are someone we can see potentially staying on with the company after this season of restructuring.”
Martin is finally caught by something. He might still have a job in a few weeks? Could they possibly keep him on, or is this a lie to get him to stay in line?
“But I'm not terribly excited about keeping a man on staff who flies off the hinges and body-slams co-workers in drunken bar fights.”
Martin is somewhat surprised at her knowledge of the details. Apparently she did hear all about it.
“You have heard a lot of rumors.”
“It's a small world.”
“He isn't a co-worker,” Martin says.
“Shawn Macky, he isn't a co-worker. He is a former employee. He is no longer on staff here.”
“He is no longer on staff here? Oh, well, body-slam away then.”
“I was defending myself.”
Susan leans forward and folds her hands on the desk.
“There are reports that you antagonized him, that you were verbally confrontational and that caused him to attack you, that you provoked him.”
“I know at least three witnesses who would disagree with that statement.”
“He is also now in the hospital with broken ribs, a broken nose, and his jaw wired shut.”
“Maybe it will be good for him to keep his mouth shut for awhile.”
“Did you also hear that no charges are being filed?”
Susan stops. She obviously did hear this and it shuts down her arguments for the moment. It is apparent that she wasn't ready for Martin to have legitimate answers to her questions. She is annoyed, but there is something else there, too. Is she impressed?
“Yes, I am aware that he isn't pressing charges.”
“Small world, indeed.”
“If you think beating the hell out of someone is erased by the fact that they don't press charges, you are not the man we thought you were. As I said, we can't have you work with us if you are going to fight every disgruntled employee you run into when you're off site. Whether he failed to press charges or not, you were arrested and jailed overnight. Please know that this isn't something we will tolerate. If it happens again, whether it's your fault or not, whether the person presses charges or not, these bonus weeks will end, any potential job with us going forward will end, along with any hope for a decent reference for your next employer. Am I being clear?
Martin rises to leave. As he reaches for the door:
“You are excused for the rest of the day. It was a long night and has no doubt been a long day so you may leave when you're ready...”
“I'm fine to work, I can finish out...”
“With pay,” Susan continues, “take some time for yourself, clean yourself up and get some rest.”
With pay? No objections from Martin. He nods and opens the door.
“And Martin... don't ever call me ma'am, again.”
When Bruce drops Martin at Bailey's Pub, his truck is where he left it. Once inside, he looks at the clock. It's almost three o'clock. School is about to let out. He starts up the truck and heads west.
He pushes the CD button on the stereo.
“You are traversing the maze. When you look for things outside yourself to blame, you will find a dead end. You will hit a wall. Don't blame the wall. When you blame others for your journey through the maze, you fan the flames of anger. Breathe in and know this: you will reach dead ends. Will you go back and find your mistake or will you rage against the walls? It feels good to blame the walls. It feels good to hate them, to scream at them, to bang your fists into them. But until you realize where you went wrong, you will stay angry and lost... and your fists will be sore.”
Martin looks down at the steering wheel and his own bruised and bloody knuckles. He grips the wheel all the tighter.
Sometimes it feels good to punch the walls.
As he makes a right turn, a long carved sign appears from behind the trees. “Aspen Elementary School” hand-carved into the wood. He is a little early but there is already a line of cars awaiting the closing bell. He avoids the line and pulls into a parking spot, instead.
Before he turns off the truck, the CD finishes a thought:
“If we are going to find the root of the anger, we won't find it out in the world. We will find it here, within us, in the choices we make, in the things we say, and in the facing of our own fears.”
Martin turns the truck off and squeezes his hands together. He looks into the rear-view mirror at his swollen eye and slightly bloody bandage. These things have given him pride since last night, but now, waiting to surprise his daughters, the thought of them seeing him like this and having to explain to them how and why he got into a bar fight deflates the pride.
The bell sounds across the campus. Nothing he can do about it now.
A crowd of students and parents begins to flow from the school's front doors. The kids bound away from their scholastic captors and squeal at their newfound freedom. An older woman pleads with the children to walk, to look out for cars. The children are too busy looking for parents and siblings and showcasing finger paintings and paper bag puppets and blue ribbons and gold stars. The parents are doing their best to seem impressed. Martin watches many of them fake their enthusiasm very well. Some don't fake it well, and others are too busy texting to notice their kids, at all.
Martin sees Hillary first. She bounds out the doors and hops and spins with as much enthusiasm as any of the other kids. She loves life, everything about it and everyone in it. She stops and turns, talking to someone Martin can't see. A few seconds later, Juliette appears. She does not have the same lust for life. She displays the exact amount of excitement and joy a teenage girl is allowed to display, something near runway model or death row inmate.
Martin can see that Juliette is also talking to someone, but not Hillary. They are both standing and waiting for someone still inside the school. A man emerges from the front doors and walks toward the parking lot. The girls take a position on either side of him and they chat happily as they walk to a shiny black Audi. It is high end, high class, expensive. It does not fit in with the other vehicles in the lot, especially the vehicles of the teachers.
“Who the hell?” Martin whispers.
Martin grabs the door handle and is about to get out when Victoria appears. She jogs out to the Audi before everyone gets in. She receives a generous hug from Hillary, hugs an unwilling Juliette, and says something to the man. An agreement is reached easily and the girls get in the car with the man and drive away while Victoria jogs back into the school.
Martin's mind goes back to his birthday dinner with the girls.
“Mr. Saxon, I presume?”
For a brief moment, Martin is relieved at not having to explain his bruises to his daughters. That relief quickly fades. He wanted to surprise his girls. He wanted to see their faces light up and feel Hillary's powerful hug and get maybe a flicker of a smile from Juliette. He wanted to see them happy. But seeing them chatting with this Saxon guy, seeing them hop happily into his car, Martin knows seeing their dad wouldn't have made them that happy. He tells himself it is fine, that he will see them tomorrow, that they will be very happy to see him tomorrow. He tells himself they would have been at least as happy to see him, but it feels like a lie.
When he turns his truck on, the CD continues. Martin lets the voice get half a sentence out before jamming his finger into the power button. He doesn't put on music, he lets the sound of the truck's revving engine fill the cab as he drives out of the lot way too quickly.
It took the fire crew twenty-eight minutes to begin fighting the fire. Gearing up and getting to the trucks and out onto the road had taken less than two minutes. The call had included a few details: all available responders; industrial warehouse fire; thirty-foot flames; hundreds of civilians nearby, dozens still trapped inside. The last piece of information was the specific company name.
The truck's sirens carved a path through the Sunday morning traffic. Church-goers leaving their eleven o'clock services stepped from choral music into the bright sunshine and watched as two screaming fire trucks rumbled and hissed and honked their ways through stop signs and red traffic lights. The congregants mouthed silent exclamations to God and drew their worried hands from forehead to chest, then shoulder to shoulder.
The sirens blared for twelve minutes before the trucks rounded the last concealing building and the fire fighters saw the flames. They'd seen the smoke for nearly the entire drive. It was thick and black and fanning out in the wind at about three hundred feet, pushed upward by a thrashing blanket of flames nearly covering the entire building.
Beside the tower of smoke and fire, a high spray of water was soaking the asphalt in the parking lot. A fire hydrant had been ripped from its piping and the water, now free, stretched upward and outward into the autumn air. A crowd watched from a Starbucks parking lot a few hundred feet away as the high mushroom of water descended in two sudden jolts, and then fell from the air completely. Once the broken pipe had been locked, the fire fighters could use the other two hydrants nearby to begin battling the flames.
No one person in the crowd saw the full series of events that lead to the fire. Had the fire crew known precisely which people to interview in precisely what order, they'd have discovered the origin of the blaze driving her leased 2018 Mercedes Benz GLA 250 SUV to her three-story brownstone to drop off the spoils of her shopping and reapply her makeup before heading out to her second yoga class of the day.
The fire had taken more than sixty percent of the Costco by the time the Fire Chief arrived. People screamed over the roar of the flames and pushed past each other in their frantic escape from the bulk-wholesale-items-fueled inferno. Some ran across the lines of stopped traffic. Some scrambled over hoods and car roofs and leaped into hedges. Others ran out into the street and into the arms of spectating strangers, until hundreds of people were standing and hugging and crying and watching the only Costco for over a hundred miles burn.
The Chief walked through the flailing crowds. He walked past their manic zig-zagging, he stepped over the clumsy ones who'd fallen to the asphalt and lay there, tucked, fetal, rocking back and forth and moaning. When one hysterical man ran straight toward him, the Chief raised his knee and slammed his size thirteen boots into the man's chest. A squeal left the man's throat and shriveled in the wind as he flew over a nearby cart return corral. He bounced off of the side of an Escalade and fell to the ground. He stayed there with a few others, unable to breathe, and when finally able to breathe, he was crying. The Chief continued toward the Costco entrance and stood, squinting into the heat, and waited for the fire to blink.
The stare into the hellish heat lasted four full minutes. Finally, the fire blinked.
“That's what I thought,” the Chief sighed before spitting a wet glop of chew on the ground. Some of it dribbled into his beard. He didn't wipe it off.
“Oh, thank God!”
The Chief turned toward the squeal. A slight man in khakis and an apron was running toward him. The little man leaped over a few fallen customers and threw his arms around the Chief's broad chest.
“Thank God you're here, praise be! We're saved, we're all saved!”
The man was crying and laughing and trying to connect his hug across the Chief's back. The chest was too broad and the man's fingers couldn't reach, so he tried to dig them into the Chief's flesh. He expected his fingers to sink into the skin. He expected to feel fat and somewhat relaxed muscle, maybe ribs. Instead, he thought for a moment that in his excitement he might have missed the Chief altogether and grabbed the cylindrical cement base of one of the many parking lot light poles. As he squeezed, he thought maybe he'd mistakenly grabbed onto a whiskey barrel wrapped in warm bacon, or found himself hugging the the leg of a brontosaurus.
The girth and warmth were reassuring, and he held on as if to let go would mean certain death.
Suddenly there were hands on him. Rather than human hands, the hands of a giant, and they gripped his shoulders and pushed him out of his desperate hug. When he opened his eyes, he was staring at the Chief's chest and a sort of face made from his tears and snot and slobber. He had buried his face in the Chief's shirt and cried an eerie jack-o-lantern, an ink blot test whose answer was “embarrassment.” When the man looked up and started to apologize, a warm hand slapped his face. Before the pain fully registered, the man thought he smelled old hickory and tanned leather.
“Get a hold of yourself,” the Chief grumbled. He looked down at the state of his shirt and sighed. He grabbed the employee's head and used the frazzled hair to clean off some of the moisture and snot. When he let go, the little man stumbled backward, dazed. The Chief looked to the name tag.
“Braxtyn? Your name is... Braxtyn?”
The man nodded. The Chief did not.
“Well, I'm not calling you that.” The man's tears were creating streaks in the ash and soot on his cheeks. The ash was in his hair, on his clothes, and the Chief had his name. “For the rest of the day, your name is Ashley. Are you ready to get to work, Ashley?”
The Chief ripped the name tag from his chest. He did it so suddenly that Braxtyn squeaked.
“No, not Braxtyn. Your name is Ashley.”
“Good. Let's walk, Ashley.”
The Chief headed West to the side of the Costco not yet fully ravaged by the flames. He looked to the front of the building, then toward the back, and chose the back. His boots boomed against the asphalt and he took two strides for every six dainty tip toes from Ashley.
“Keep up, Ashley,” he groaned.
As he stepped around the corner of the building and caught sight of the loading bays in the back, the Chief stopped suddenly. Ashley continued his frantic tip toeing and didn't notice the Chief's stop until he ran into him. His face slammed into the Chief's back and he felt his nose crunch against the rippling curves of muscle. He wondered for a moment if he'd managed to stray from the Chief's side and run face first into a redwood tree wrapped in hot silk.
The impact knocked him to the ground, and the Chief didn't help him up. The Chief didn't even turn around. He was too busy scanning. He looked to the first loading bay. An eighteen wheeler was halfway into the store, and it's back end had obviously caught fire shortly after a massive collision. The back of the trailer had blown out, sending a cascade of broccoli cheese and chicken tortilla soup spraying out onto the asphalt. The Chief surveyed the truck, the burn patterns on the trailer and the side of the building, the boiling soup, and grunted. He turned his head toward the front of the store, then skyward, and shook his head, laughing. He was admiring the destructive forces of nature, the power of single mistakes, and marveling at his own ability to understand such things.
“Clever girl,” he mumbled. The flames seemed to intensify for a moment, arcing out toward Ashley and the Chief, as if reaching for them. Ashley stumbled backward away from the sudden flame rush and fell to the ground. The Chief stared back and blew a single, dismissive breath out of his nose. The flames fell back.
“Have you ever been hunted before, Ashley?”
Ashley stood up and tried to brush the dirt from his butt.
“Have you ever had a beast pick up your scent... known that it was after you, that it would do anything to catch you?”
“I don't think...”
“Have you ever turned back to face your pursuer and locked eyes and seen into its murderous soul? Have you ever looked through a window into your own destruction?”
“I'm not sure.”
“Shut up, Ashley.”
The Chief knelt down and rubbed his hand across the ground. He let the dust and grit collect on his palm and looked at it before blowing it out into the air.
“Do you want to know what happened?”
Ashley wiped his eyes again and nodded.
“This is where the fire started, this loading bay when this truck slammed into the building at thirty-two miles per hour.”
“How do you know it was thirty-two...”
The sentence stopped when the Chief's knife hand hit Ashley in the throat. Ashley grabbed his neck and fell, coughing and wheezing for breath, and the Chief closed his eyes and winced.
“Don't... interrupt me, Ashley. The truck slammed into the building at thirty-two miles per hour. Punctured gas tank, sparks from the collision, boom. The explosion blew out the trailer's guts, sent all of this soup scattering about. What a terrible waste of good soup. But that didn't cause this.”
He held his hands up to the mountain of smoke boiling into the sky and blotting out the sun.
“This... is something more. I'm thinking gas line, broken by the impact or by shrapnel from the explosion. Unless...”
The Chief squinted into the ravaged loading bay and had his answer.
“Unless the truck barreled into the forklift parking area. That would have been the second explosion, and that could have set off the gas lines. That would've spread through the store quickly. That would explain the flames so near the front doors. The explosion would have sent forklifts flying in every direction. The paper towels and toilet paper would've gone up quickly. The breads and pastries were easy targets. By the times the flames spread around to office supplies, the store was gone. We never had a chance.”
Ashley's throat finally opened up enough for him to desperately suck air in and blow it out. There was a phlegm to his cough, a wetness. Probably blood, the Chief thought.
“What time is it, Ashley?” the Chief asked. Ashley was still on his hands and knees hacking the ground's dust into tiny tornadoes and trying not to die. The Chief rolled his eyes at the fact that Ashley was still unable to move or speak. He reached down and grabbed Ashley's wrist to look at the watch. He looked at it only as long as absolutely necessary before letting it fall back to the ground.
No grown man should be wearing a Hello Kitty watch, the Chief thought.
“Nice try,” the Chief muttered. He looked behind him, then back to the building. He closed one eye and used the other to check angles, to see lines of action between him and the store, between him and the line of parked cars behind him.
“She's good, I'll give her that,” the Chief said. He leaned back and laughed, repeating how good “she” was. Ashley was starting to get to his feet when the Chief grabbed him by the collar and hoisted him upright. Before Ashley could stabilize, the Chief grabbed him by the jaw and pointed his face toward a certain point in the flames.
“Do you see it?” he giggled in Ashley's ear. “ I mean can you believe her, how sneaky, how messed up she is? Unbelievable.”
Ashley didn't see it. He squinted in the direction the Chief was pointing him, but couldn't see what the Chief could see.
“I've made it this far so she isn't that good. But she is getting better, I will give her that.” With that, he let go of Ashley's face, threw his head back and laughed, and then slapped Ashley on the back. The blow sent Ashley back to the asphalt with a whimper.
“Sorry there, Ashley, I just... I'm impressed. I hate to say it but I'm impressed this time. I'm glad you're here to see it because I think people wouldn't believe me, but her tactics are evolving. I'm going to have to watch my P's and Q's from now on. That will be fun.”
Ashley started to get up. The Chief held out a hand.
“Nope, Just stay right there, Ashley. You're not going to want to be standing up right here if I have any idea what I'm talking about. In fact,” he said, grabbing Ashley's wrist and rechecking the watch, “if my calculations are correct...”
The Chief stepped back. He stood tall, chest out, chin up, and closed his eyes.
Amid the cracking and popping of the main fires, a muted explosion boomed from deep within the blaze. The Chief smiled and Ashley looked in terror toward the Western wall and watched as time seemed to slow. The wall ripped open and flames and smoke and debris blew outward like a blooming flower. Ashley was barely able to raise his arms to a defensive position before a line of broiler chickens rocketed out from the belly of the store like canon balls and flew directly across the space between the two men. The chickens hissed by on their way to a light blue mini van parked across the lot. The flying chickens exploded through the windshield and both the driver and sliding passenger doors, and when the van settled after the impact, two small plumes of smoke rose from the holes in the doors and windows and curled into the sky.
The mini van's alarm sounded for a few seconds before warbling and cutting out.
“What the hell is going on?”
Ashley couldn't take it anymore. Fire and explosions and flying roaster chickens and psychic, abusive fire Captains, it had all been too much. After nearly burning to death, only to be slapped in the face, neck chopped, thrown to the ground, insulted, and nearly decapitated by flying poultry, Ashley was done being abused.
When he jumped to his feet and stomped toward the Chief, the Chief didn't seem to have heard him. The Chief was too busy staring at lines of action, again. But Ashley was done being ignored.
“Hey, did you hear me? I asked you what the hell is going on?”
The Chief nodded absently. He was scanning from right to left across the parking lot, squinting, eye brows furrowed.
“What the hell is going on, indeed?” he whispered.
“What?” Ashley yelled.
“Finally, you're asking the right questions, Ashley.”
“My name isn't Ashley, Chief!” He spit the word “Chief” out like it was rotten. The Chief turned and looked at him. He watched the fire blazing in Ashley's eyes and smiled.
“Well, why didn't you say so?” he said.
Before Braxtyn could answer, the Chief was stomping away toward whatever curiosity had taken his attention earlier. Braxtyn followed, staring into the chicken-sized holes of the now flaming blue mini van as they passed it.
“The fire, Braxtyn, the fire wants me. She wants me, wants to consume me. Since I was a boy. Since I scrambled out of the house fire that took my mom and dad and little brother, she has wanted me. Ever since she gave me these.”
The Chief stopped and turned and pulled at the collar of his shirt. The skin beneath was rippled and scarred as far down the Chief's neck and chest as he'd revealed, and Braxtyn knew the scars went farther. Words like “scorched” and “scales” and “hideous” flashed into his mind. It looked like the surface of Mars.
“When each of my foster homes burned, I tried to tell people what was happening. I tried to tell them what the fire wanted. They put me on medication. Every blazing house I crawled out of, every burning car, the two crashed planes, the forest fires, seemed to make her more and more angry. As her anger grew, the fires grew. They killed everyone involved except me. Until just now, it had been almost three months since her last attempt. I was starting to feel forgotten.”
The Chief took off again. Braxtyn followed behind. His steps broadened and he kept up with the Chief. When the Chief stopped, he stopped. The Chief turned and smiled again. “You're learning,” his eyes said.
“The truck slammed into the loading bay, right?” the Chief offered.
“At thirty-two miles per hour,” Braxtyn nodded.
“At thirty-two miles per hour. But why? The driver fall asleep in the back of a Costco parking lot?”
Braxtyn shook his head.
“Heart attack? Seizure?”
More head shaking.
“Did he go nuts, crash on purpose?”
Braxtyn shook his head again.
Braxtyn looked around. He looked at the burning building, at the blackened truck and its trailer, still popping and warping from the heat. He looked to the line of parked cars behind the loading bay. They all seemed straight, parked directly into their respective spots.
Braxtyn looked again. All straight in their spots except one.
When he looked back at the Chief, the Chief was smiling.
“He swerved to miss that car?”
“He swerved to miss that car.”
The two stood side by side and backed up so they could take in the entire scene. A Costco on fire, a spouting fire hydrant, a car out of place, people running around in a panic, bedlam and chaos. To see it play in reverse, the smoke would tumble back into the flames and the particles would soar back in toward the building from all areas of the parking lot and nearby streets. The thousands of gallons of water would bind together and shoot from the ground, high into the air, and down into the ruptured fire hydrant line. When all water had returned, the hydrant would reattach from beneath the car that hit it. The truck would back out of the loading bay flames and all of the soup would fly back into the trailer before the trailer sealed up. The car that caused it to swerve and crash into the Costco would back up in front of another car, which would back up to a spill on the asphalt. A cart would swerve to avoid the spill caused by a woman dropping a can of pickles. The woman spilled the can of pickles when, as she loaded her purchases into the trunk of her car, an abandoned shopping cart rolled into her from across the lot. The cart rolled from behind a parking space previously occupied by a 2018 Mercedes Benz GLA 250 SUV, leased, where a gleefully oblivious Meredith Ellerson-Kennedy had decided to unload the items for her self declared house-warming party (the third of four) and simply leave the cart in the middle of the parking lot rather than walk it the nineteen feet to the nearest cart return corral. When she left her cart there and drove away, she lit the fuse on a catastrophe involving car accidents and major water line damage and the fiery destruction of a beloved staple of any medium-sized community, a Costco.
The Chief was standing next to the abandoned cart. The woman it hit, a Mrs. Carla Jensen, had gone, but her shattered jar of pickles was there, sparkling in the diminishing sunlight.
“You have surveillance cameras that cover this area, Braxtyn?” the Chief asked. Braxtyn said that they did, and the Chief knew he'd find out who was behind all of this within twelve hours. Unless...
“Braxtyn? Please tell me you store your surveillance data off site.”
When the silence passed three seconds, the Chief looked over to find Braxtyn smiling, almost laughing, as tears streamed down his cheeks.
“I bet management didn't think it would be necessary to keep the data off site because that would be a liability and an added cost and they thought nothing like this would ever happen, huh?”
Braxtyn shook his head as the tears fell.
The Chief looked down. At his feet, a single, singed hot dog lay there, smoking. He picked it up.
“One of yours?” he asked. Braxtyn took one look at it and nodded.
“Can this city survive the loss of its only Costco?” Braxtyn asked.
“Once a town has had a taste of Costco, it's difficult. Costco changes people. It's like wolves in Yellowstone, the ecosystem has changed. Where will people get their pictures printed? Where will they get ten gallon drums of Hi-C? Where else can you get a giant hot dog and a soda for a dollar-fifty?”
Braxtyn sniffed back against the tears.
“It might have been better to have never had a Costco at all.”
“I'm beginning to wonder if the fire is trying to kill me. Maybe she doesn't want me. Maybe she just wants to take everything I care about. Maybe she is going to burn everything around me until I have nothing. To lose everything you love is its own death, isn't it?”
The Chief took a bite of the hot dog and passed it to Braxtyn. He took a bite of the hot dog and passed it back. They stood, slowly chewing the salted, kosher meat, watching the flames dance and the smoke rise and the people scream, and quietly bore witness to Meredith Ellerson-Kennedy's careless murder of their hometown.
The man sucks at the straw rising from the plastic covering on his Dr. Pepper. There is nothing left of his cheeseburger but the grease-soaked wrapping and a few stray minced onions, and the only fries left in the fry box are cold or burnt. He gulps the last of the soda until he is sucking at the ice, and he lets the rattling gargle in the straw stretch out for a few seconds, until the mother at a nearby table glances over at him. When he notices her look, he plants the cup back on his table and the ice clatters in the cup. The man lets out a satisfied sigh. He lets the whole place hear it.
The mother murmurs toward her husband. The husband looks over at the man and then back at his wife. He murmurs his tired response. He is agreeing with her, but also asking that she mind her business. When the girl at the register calls out a number, the mother goes to get their food. When she returns with their tray of primary-colored cups and kid's meals, the man takes another noisy drag from his empty cup and belches. The small boy at the nearby table giggles. “Oh my God,” slips out of the mother's mouth before she shushes the boy. The little girl wrinkles up her nose and says, “Gross.”
“My fries are too hot,” the boy whines. The father pulls the box away from him. He whines louder, realizing he has made a mistake. They have played this game before, but the boy only remembers that once the father takes the fries away. When the child grunts and whines again, the father eats one of the fries. The child screams. The man eats two more, stone faced, and watches other patrons look over at his family and pass judgment. The father watches the silent faces shout things like “spoiled” and “brats.” There is genuine fury about the family's assault on the otherwise peaceful fast food atmosphere.
The boy's sister chimes in, “I want to go to McDonald's!”
The man in the corner winces at the interactions. He is closing his eyes and breathing deep, cleansing breaths. Each whine is added weight on an invisible crown. His head droops a little, and when the boy says, “I want it,” six times in whining, panicked succession, the man's head droops a little more. When the boy kicks the side of the booth, the man grips the edges of his table and squeezes. He is holding back a rage. The man picks up his empty cup and for a few seconds is content to gently slide his straw in and out of the drink cover. He lets the squeaky plastic take his focus. But the squeak of the straw blends with the squeaking complaints of the grunting children and soon he is listening to their parents' exhausted attempts to quell the building tantrums and he stops the sliding straw. The man slides across the booth toward the family. They notice him scooting awkwardly toward them. They watch him bend forward to scramble around one of his pockets.
He brings out a wrinkled twenty dollar bill.
“I'll give you this to leave right now.”
The parents are confused. They heard what he said but they ask “what?” anyway. It is the polite way to deal with a suddenly present, rude stranger while you gain your bearings. The man slams the twenty down on the table. “That's yours, if you take those walking vasectomy ads out of here right now.”
The father looks to his wife. Her eyes demand that he do something. Her eyes ask “Are you going to let him talk to us like that?” and the father goes to stand up. He doesn't want to be bullied in front of his family like this, but his butt doesn't make it off the seat. As he presses his hands into the table and goes to stand, he looks into the man's eyes. He finally, really, sees them. He sees what is looking back at him. He sits back down and looks at his wife, then to his two kids, who have stopped whining.
“Grab your food, kids,” he says.
The kids collect their boxes and drinks. The wife starts to object.
“Tell your wife to stop,” the man says quietly. He doesn't look at the wife. He keeps constant eye contact with the husband. “This could all get really messy if she doesn't stop.”
The wife gasps but doesn't say another word. When she looks to her husband, his eyes beg her to keep her mouth shut. She does. She scoops up her burger and fries and pinches her drink between her arm and chest. When the lid pops off and soda splashes out onto her corduroy coat, she pretends not to notice.
“Come on, kids,” she whispers, moving toward the door. They follow her silently.
“You're welcome,” the man says. The father grabs the twenty and jams it into his back pocket. He goes to the door, out into the parking lot, and only glances back briefly before ducking into his mini van and driving away.
The man imagines the family driving home in relative silence. Maybe the kids are the first to speak, maybe amid their confusion and the obvious stress of the encounter with the strange man in the burger joint, they start to cry. The young boy cries first, and then his sister, and the mother tries to console them but ends up just staring into the side of the father's face. The father doesn't return the look. He stares out of the windshield, watches break lights blare their red warnings, watches blinkers click at odd intervals, and he blinks along with them as he merges onto the freeway that will take them home. They will unload their things from the car and walk into their house and wonder if the strange man is there, in the dark, waiting for them. They will sit in front of the TV and when they find nothing on that will take their mind from the man with the sinful eyes, they will put in a movie the kids have seen more than a dozen times and they will wait as the buzz of danger slowly dies down. The wife will wait until she is alone with her husband to bring it up again, but he won't want to talk about it. She will insist. She will ask why he did nothing, why he let some guy just boss him around like that. She will tell him they need to make a plan for if anything like that ever happens again. The husband will answer that he is used to being bossed around, and when the wife asks what he means by that, the husband will roll over, away from her, and wait for a sleep that won't come.
Or maybe they will live happily ever after, the man thinks.
He takes his empty cup to the bright line of soda dispensers near the registers. He presses the cup against the Dr. Pepper lever and lets the cup overflow. The foam rushes over his hand, and when he pulls it away and takes a drink, he lets the excess drip onto his chest and down to the floor.
The girl who took his original order is still at the register. The lunch rush has slowed. There is a young couple ordering and no one else in line. The guy wants his burger with no lettuce or mayonnaise. The register girl is new and she is trying to find the right buttons. She is talking herself through it all, “Modifications... lettuce, lettuce, no lettuce... mayonnaise? Mayo, mayo, mayo...” she can't find the place to input “no mayo.” The couple look at each other. The girl apologizes and they tell her it's alright, she is doing fine. The woman asks if it is her first day. The girl nods and begs a higher power to show her the “no mayo” button before she explodes.
“Just please make sure there is no mayo on the burger,” the man says.
One of the other employees notices the girl's posture and the color of her face and walks over. The older employee clicks through to another screen and points out where modifications can be made. The girl says thank you and the employee goes to walk away when she notices the girl making another mistake.
“Are you folks dining in today?” she asks the couple. They nod and she shows the girl how to put that in and assign them an order number. The girl grabs a number tag, sixty-eight, and tells them their number will be sixty-eight. But she marks their number in the computer as eighty-six. The other employee catches it and points it out. The girl smiles. She is thankful for the help, but she would also like to make her mistakes in private and not have them all pointed out for others to see. Her mother would look over her shoulder and question every action like this. Part of why she got this job without telling her mother was to break away from those hovering corrections and constant judgments.
She thanks the employee so she will go away. She gives the couple one more apology with their receipt.
The manager appears from the kitchen. She puts a hand on the girl's back and reminds her to breathe, tells her that she is doing great and she will learn all of this stuff in no time.
The man pops a new lid down on his soda. When he steps up to the register, the girl is taking her manager's advice and breathing long breaths. When she notices him, she straightens up and cranks out the smile she's been working on at home.
“Hello, sir, can I get you something else?” she chirps.
“First day on your own?” he asks.
“It sure is,” she says, smiling harder.
“Not as glamorous as it seemed in the brochure?”
The girl laughs. The idea rolls through her and she laughs again, harder. She realizes she isn't sure what she expected when she applied for a job at a fast food restaurant, but it should have been something like: say the same things over and over all day, do the same things over and over all day, slowly get better at this terrible job until the next job appears.
“The beginning and the end is always the toughest. The beginning is tough because you don't really know what you're doing, and the end is tough because you know exactly what you're doing.”
The girl glances over her shoulder. The manager is busy at the drive through window.
“You shouldn't be so hard on yourself,” the man says.
“I guess you're right,” she says.
“This isn't heart surgery, right?”
The girl is lightening up. The lobby is nearly empty, no one is looking over her shoulder, and the man at the register is talking to her like she is a human being and not a food dispersion robot.
“I don't know, some of our burgers are pretty complicated,” she says. “Our chefs go through some of the most rigorous training in the business to gain the skills needed to craft our Double Down Deluxe.”
The man smiles and looks at the girl's name tag.
“That's the spirit, Jamie.”
“Thank you,” she says.
“Do you need anything else, sir?”
“I do,” he says, fussing with his pockets, “I need a large chocolate shake, and...”
He pulls a black Beretta nine millimeter from his waste band, jerks the slide to load a round into the chamber, and tucks it under his armpit.
“And I need all of the cash in this register and that one over there.”
Jamie's smile jams. A single hard laugh slips out catches. This man was nice and funny and joking around a few seconds ago and now he has what the girl thinks is a real gun with real bullets and real demands for money. The last five seconds play back in her mind, slowly. I saw this in a movie, she thinks. Or a TV show. Am I in a TV show?
“It is your company's policy to comply with an armed robber's demands. You are insured for these types of situations and you should do your best to remain calm and try not to escalate the situation.”
Jamie feels like that is exactly what someone would say in a movie. Those exact words. They sound familiar, but they aren't from a movie or TV. That statement, that exact phrasing and tone, was in her hiring materials. It was on the training video she had to watch. A man in a red collared shirt stared at her from the small TV screen in the back of the restaurant and told her to comply with an armed robber's demands. He told her not to try and intervene, but to stay calm and not escalate the situation.
“Jamie?” the man says. Jamie's smile unlocks and her mouth rounds like she is going to say something. No words come out. “Jamie... I'm feeling escalation.”
The spell is broken. This is real life, and her consciousness comes rushing back.
“Are you trying to escalate the situation?”
“No, sir,” she says.
“Relax, this is easy. You simply need to comply with the criminal's demands. That's me, I'm the criminal. Shall I say my demands again?”
“I need a large chocolate shake...” the man nods until Jamie is nodding along with him. She punches the order into her computer. “And I need you to empty the cash drawer out into one of those brown food bags behind you and hand the cash-filled bag to me, okay?”
Jamie keeps nodding even when the man stops.
“Chocolate shake,” she says.
“Large,” he adds.
Jamie closes her eyes. She is going to cry.
“Jamie,” the man says again. She had been holding her breath and it all comes bursting out.
“Large chocolate shake...”
“And all of your cash.”
“And all of my cash.”
The man claps his hands twice.
“That's it! Easy, right? It will be one of the easiest thing you do all day.”
Jamie rings up a small chocolate shake.
“That will be one eighty-nine...”
She shakes her head and a few tears sneak out. Her automatic responses took over and she can't believe how stupid she is being. Another tear rolls out of her left eye but she keeps herself together. She hits “cash payment” and when the register opens she pulls the bills from right to left, stuffs them into a large to-go bag, and hands them to the man.
“Under the bill tray,” he says. Jamie pulls at the tray and it lifts, revealing more, larger bills. She scoops them up and the man takes them from her shaking hand. She closes the register and speaks through the tears.
“This one seems to be broken, sir, let me try the other register.”
The man smiles. Improvisation, she is starting to get into it. She moves over and repeats the process. This time, her head slightly clearer, she sees the milkshake screen options and realizes she ordered a small the first time. She orders the large and the register pops open.
“I accidentally ordered a small, sir. I'm so sorry,” she says, handing more cash to the man.
“Well, I'm sure a smart girl like you will be able to fix that,” the man says.
Jamie nods. Normally she would wait while someone on mid made the shake, but she grabs a large cup and does it herself. She plunges the straw into the lid and slides it across the counter.
“There you go, sir. Will there be anything else?”
The man takes a long pull from the shake and sighs his approval. There are customer satisfaction forms in a brochure holder on the counter and he takes one.
“Nope, that'll do it, Jamie. You've done a great job and I'm going to let it be known on one of these little cards here. Keep up the good work.”
“Thank you for choosing Bombs Away Burgers.”
The man nods and walks out to his pick-up. When the manager runs out after him thirty seconds later, he is gone. When they check the cameras, they will find what eight other fast food places in the city have found, that a man in a stolen Toyota Tacoma has managed to steal nearly five thousand dollars in small bills without getting caught and without being identified. The employees all share similar stories: a middle-aged man approached them during a low traffic time and asked for a large chocolate shake and all of the cash in their registers. They all reported the same black metal pistol, the same calm demeanor and knowledge of their robbery response protocols, and the same robbery procedure. Each also, after sustained prodding, reported a strange likability to his demeanor. None of the employees could pin it down exactly, but they suggested that they almost immediately... liked him. They were caught off guard, they were scared by the gun, but he somehow was able to put them at ease. They liked him.
When investigators asked Jamie if she, knowing the man's identity, would offer it to authorities, she paused.
“Oh,” she'd said. She'd furrowed her brow and tried to nod with certainty, “Oh yes, of course. He had a gun. He broke the law. He robbed the place where I work. Of course, of course I would tell you. I wish I could help.”
The detective saw a hesitation. He saw an effort to nod, to make the words appear, though they were in direct opposition to her actual thoughts. Her head nodded but her mouth curled at the corners. Her brow furrowed but her eyes shined. She hugged her own shoulders and slumped forward and tried to convince him of the intense fear the man made her feel, yet even as she cowered in her chair, the detective could see her cheeks trying to instigate a smile. He watched her fight the smile as she remembered what the gunman looked like.
As he walked away he considered relaying the same story, again, to his Captain. He assumed the man would screw up one of these times, that he would pick the wrong employee or pick the wrong time. The detective was content to wait for the screw up, to not push too hard, but his Captain might not agree. For a moment he considered his own job, and what life would be like charming fast food employees while robbing their fast food chain employers. He stopped, turned, walked back to the table where Jamie was still sitting.
“Sorry, Jamie, just one more thing,” he said.
He saw her shoulders rise slightly, a new tension in her neck.
“Could I get a chocolate shake?”
The man was awakened by water slapping at an even rhythm. He was pulled from a dream he couldn't remember (except that he was falling) into an awareness of being rocked slowly back and forth. His eyelids registered daytime before they opened. The heat of midday reddened his face, and the smell of saltwater pulled the senses together and to attention. He sat upright and squinted into the air to his right and left. He was on a boat, a speedboat with a small control cabin up front. The man went to stand. He made it to his knees before the rocking of the boat mixed with a swirling in his head and sent him sprawling to the deck. He leaned against one of the seats and closed his eyes against the searing drum beat rising in his temples. He took in the sea air and breathed it out, nearly vomiting. He tilted his head downward and let his eyelids part slightly.
Why am I hungover on a boat?
His free hand blocked the sun and his vision cleared. He could see the bare skin of his legs, peppered with small black and gray hairs. As his vision opened, so did his sense of touch. He wasn't wearing pants or underwear. He wasn't wearing a shirt. His nakedness hit him suddenly and he crouched and covered himself as his head swiveled to see if anyone else might be on the boat and watching him.
His head periscoped up over the side of the boat. The sun was high in the sky but he felt the first direction he looked was east. East held seemingly endless blue sky and ocean. West was the same. What would be south, over the back of the boat, offered the same view. He turned to check the front cabin. He didn't see anyone and was about to call out but thought better of it. If there was someone else on board, he didn't think their first interaction should be in the nude. He scanned the deck for clothing and saw none. There were no towels, or blankets, or discarded swim trunks or shirts. Thinking about where his clothes might be took the man's mind to the more obvious questions:
Why am I naked on a boat?
Do I own a boat?
The man smiled at the simple questions. He had been on a boat in the ocean before, years ago. It was a yacht, owned by a businessman out of New York. The man couldn't remember the businessman's name, but the boat had been called the “SS McDuck,” and the S's were dollar signs. He smiled at the name, and then laughed at how stupid a thing it was to remember it years later. He stopped smiling as he tried to remember how he came to this one. He couldn't trace his steps back beyond waking up. He couldn't remember riding in the boat, or getting on the boat in the first place, and couldn't remember any of the events that lead him to the boat. He searched for some kind of solid anchor.
“How did I get here?”
He said it out loud. He said it again, and a third time. Ahead of the boat, the blue sky ran far into the distance and darkened to a deep blue, then gray, then at a cluster of distant, heavy storm clouds, to black. A powerful storm, but far off.
The man looked toward the cabin and waited for someone to appear. The open door revealed interior windows and a small portion of a control panel. The waves continued their chatter but no person appeared. When he realized there was nothing on the deck to cover him, the man stood and called out.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
He looked over the sides of the boat again. No ships, no other boats, no planes, no birds, just sky and water. The waves continued to rap gently against the side of the boat and the man stepped quietly toward the cabin door.
Only the water answered. As the man reached the cabin, he stopped to look left and right. The man let his hands drop from their protective position over his crotch. He was alone on the boat, someone's boat, in the middle of the ocean, some ocean, with no memory of how or why.
The man's eyes appreciated the slight darkness within the cabin. The throbbing at his temples slowed and the burning behind his eyes began to cool. Being on his feet for a few seconds and feeling the adrenaline response retreat, the man's legs sagged and gave out. He caught himself on the wall and brought himself down onto the driver's seat. His limbs felt like they'd been hollowed out. His stomach was empty and he was nauseous and weak. His mind thrashed around in the present, and finding nothing to hold to for psychological balance, he went simpler:
What is your name?
“Ed, Edgar Stephenson,” he said aloud.
Who are you?
“My birth date is March seventh, nineteen seventy-four.”
He continued, declaring his home address, phone number, social security number, bank accounts. He recalled driving a twenty-fifteen Audi A4, silver, and remembered his license plate number. He recited his ex-wife's new address and social security number, the stats on his two kids, and named all of the dogs he ever owned. He stopped. He could feel that his memory was intact, he knew who he was, so he focused on more recent activities. His job had him interviewing potential partners for his venture capital company earlier in the week, Tuesday and Wednesday. Dinner, drinks, tickets to the Knicks' game. Drinks out after the Knicks' game, with a Timothy Statton and a Martin Fole, and then...
That was the end. Drinks downtown.
Did I go back to my hotel room? Did I have a hotel room?
Ed looked at the controls. At first he'd thought his blurry vision and hazy mind had made the lettering around the boat hard to read. Now he could see that the controls were not written in English. The characters appeared to be middle eastern, Arabic or Farsi, or maybe something older. There was a small compartment built into the wall and the latch popped easily when the man pulled at it. There were documents, booklets, and a compass inside, the same strange language on every item. Seeing it on these documents, the man considered Urdu as a possibility.
He let his hands travel from dial to dial, to the steering wheel, the throttle, the various buttons. He hoped for some spark of recognition. None came. There was a pink rabbit's foot dangling from the key in the boat's ignition. It had no writing on it, only a small black triangle. He turned the key. Even before he turned it, he knew the boat wouldn't start. He knew it wouldn't be that easy.
The boat whined briefly but wouldn't start.
A glint of metal caught Ed's eye. On the passenger side, on the floor in front of the seat, there were keys. And a wallet. He lunged across the aisle at the items. The keys verified his car memory. A black Audi key fob hung next to half a dozen other silver keys, and he tossed them onto the driver's seat. He sat on the floor and opened the wallet. It, too, was his. He still carried a family photo, his ex-wife and their two kids dressed in similar tones of blue and khaki, shining on a beach in front of palm trees and soft white dunes. It was his favorite picture, even though he hadn't seen any of the other people in it for more than two years.
The wallet had retained his credit cards but held no cash. He never carried an empty wallet. He tried to keep at least a thousand dollars on him at all times. After years of having his father call him worthless, he decided carrying at least a thousand dollars in his wallet at all times would be good proof to the contrary. As an eight-year-old, a thousand dollars sounded like all the money in the world. He soon found that it wasn't, but he liked the number and he liked the idea. When he sold his first company for eighty million dollars, it was the thousand dollars in cash in his wallet that made him smile that night.
Ed looked back to the floor where he'd found the wallet to see if the cash had fallen out. He didn't find cash. He found something better. Sticking halfway out from under the seat, his black and gold cell phone. He scooped it up greedily and wheezed out a crazed laugh. He hit the power button, his body surging with adrenaline again, and his mind buzzing with hope.
The phone stayed dark. He hit the power button again. Nothing. He held it down. The reflective screen stared back at him and showed him a haggard face and wild eyes. The man begged, then cursed, then screamed. Maybe the battery was dead, maybe the phone got wet or damaged. The phone stayed dark, now the most useless thing on the boat, and the man threw it across the cabin and roared.
His roar echoed back to him, amplified. From outside, a boom rose up and filled the sky, like someone must be shaking the earth. The boat shuddered under the noise, and even the waves seemed to hush at the power. As he stumbled back out onto the deck, the boom's echoes faded and the sound of the water returned. The waves were gently tapping the sides of the boat, the wind made a gentle hiss across the waves, and there was nothing else. For the first time, Ed noticed a sound missing that he'd always heard on the ocean. There were no birds. As he looked east, then west, and south, there were no birds. Not on the water, not overhead, not anywhere. The man looked north, ahead of the boat. The darkness on the horizon seemed to be bigger, and closer, having broadened and climbed higher above the horizon. Ed couldn't trust his memory of exactly where the dark clouds had been before, but he was almost certain they'd doubled their width and height in the sky.
“What the hell?”
Another distant boom drew his attention. It came from the north, from the crawling wall of thick black clouds. There was no denying it. Even watching the cloud bank for only a few seconds, he could tell it was moving closer, and quickly. Small bursts of lightning arced from cloud to cloud, from cloud to water. But the clouds were growing in height and not widening. They were gathering together, forming into a rising mound of churning debris and savage winds.
It's coming for me.
Ed tried to dismiss the silly thought. That a storm, whose mass, speed, and characteristics he'd never seen or heard of before, would focus on his little boat and come specifically for him, would be the last thought of a seemingly sane man before admitting he'd lost his mind. Storms don't target places, or things, or people, he told himself. But the cloud cluster continued its build up and if it wasn't coming specifically for him, he sure seemed to be in the worst possible place at the worst possible time.
The clouds clustered and twisted together, tighter and tighter, into a black tower like the hood of a cobra. The lightning bolts continued, striking closer together and more frequently, until they were nearly a single bright beam of electricity surging into the water. Another boom shook the air and nearly knocked Ed to the deck. He caught himself and watched as the cloud pillar built up like a wave preparing to crash down on top of him, and he held his breath as all noise left the air. The lightning stopped. The cloud froze in its place, what Ed thought might be two miles away, maybe three.
The lightning wasn't gone. It had been building, deep in the heart of the storm, and all of its energy surged out into the water in one blinding blast. Ed cried out, his scream swallowed by the boom, and he was thrown toward the boat's stern. The bolt of energy filled the sky with light. Even with his eyes shut and his hands instinctively up in front of his horrified face, the world was white light and white noise. Time disappeared. His scream felt final, felt eternal, and he kept waiting for the sound to stop and for his life to be over. He was still screaming when the sky reappeared and all was quiet again.
Ed swiped at the air in front of him. He couldn't trust his senses anymore, and the first gentle slap of a wave against the side of the boat made him jump and cry out again. He turned wildly to the left, then the right, clawing at the air, his teeth clenched and his head ringing.
The dark clouds remained, now centered and circling like a budding tornado. The lightning was gone, but the water seemed to be glowing slightly where the energy bolt had struck. Ed squinted, curving his hands around his eyes to cut out light and focus his vision. The glow over the water also seemed to be spinning. It's rotation matched the rotation of the clouds, a column of water and light joined by swirling winds.
The boat started up. The engine roared to life and the boat surged forward, turning itself directly toward the storm. Ed ran to the cabin and leaped into the driver's seat. The steering wheel was turning on its own. The throttle was clicking forward, nearing its fully open position. The boat was operating under some sort of autopilot, or by remote, and when Ed grabbed the wheel and tried to alter the boat's course, electricity shot through his arms. The current locked his hands against the wheel and he writhed in the seat, his face locked in a pained, wide-eyed scowl. He couldn't open his hands to let go, couldn't move, couldn't breathe. When the electrical current finally cut out, he fell to the floor and watched his hands quiver as he fought for breath.
When he pushed himself up to his hands and knees, the boat made a sudden hard turn and accelerated. The force tossed him through the doorway and he rolled out onto the deck. The fall slammed his head into the floor and a gash opened up over his right eye. He wiped the wound and pulled his fingers back bloody. The boat adjusted its course again, but this time he caught himself and braced against one of the seats. He stared up at the swirling storm. It was closer now, climbing almost directly overhead in the darkening sky. The red glow over the water was growing and getting darker. Crimson, he thought, blood. At this distance, Ed saw the ocean surface under the clouds. Or at least, he saw where the water's surface should have been. The storm seemed to be parting the water, burrowing into the sea, hollowing out a cavern half a mile wide of swirling waves. As the boat skipped across the water, Ed squinted through the haze of vapor and red glow and tried to find what might be at the center of the churning sea funnel.
He blinked hard and looked again. He sat down on the seat, laid his hands in his lap, pulled between dismissing his mind as playing tricks or being overcome by fear that what he was seeing might be real. He could blink all he wanted. He was seeing what he feared he was seeing.
Tentacles were unfurling from the tunnel and lashing out at the surrounding waves. As the beast rose, Ed's disbelief gave way to paralyzing fear.
He cried out. He knew there was no one to cry out to, but there was nothing else to do. He thought of returning to the controls, but his hands still burned from the previous shock. He could try to use one of the pieces of wood from the deck to pry the throttle backward, or press the control panel buttons, but he knew what would happen. Nothing. Whoever put him here wanted him here. They took measures to keep him here. He imagined himself slamming his fists into the controls, breaking the throttle lever, ripping the steering wheel from its housing, reducing the boat to wreckage. Yet he knew that somehow he would still be delivered to his intended destination.
A roar croaked into the sea air, swallowing the noises of the water and the wind and the boat engine. The creature pulled its massive brown body from the depths and fanned out scaly frills from the sides of its writhing neck. There were too many tentacles to count, hundreds, Ed thought. He saw a mouth open up before another roar filled the air. The beast was close enough now for Ed to see the rows of small, sharp teeth running vertically beneath shuddering black lips. After that mouth opened and roared, a second mouth yawned open from the other side of the creature's head. A third mouth opened between the two, this one snapping violently at some unseen prey. The creature raised one of its many tentacles up out of the water and brought it back down like the hardened tails of a whip. Ed watched the end of the tentacle hit the water and disappear beneath the waves.
He would jump. He didn't know how fast the boat was going, but he guessed it might be more than a hundred miles per hour. At that speed he knew he would be injured. The impact might break his arms, his legs, maybe his back or neck, or some combination that would almost certainly mean he would drown. The thought of drowning terrified him, but not as much as continuing on the boat to the ends anticipated by this creature.
The boat was still accelerating and he knew he couldn't wait any longer. He looked around one more time. No life raft bags. No life vests. Naked, possibly injured, and alone in the middle of the ocean sounded better than doing nothing. He would take control of his life, or at least his death. He wouldn't be kidnapped and stripped naked and offered up to some sea beast. No, his death would be his choice. It might be his last, but it would be his choice.
He stood, took a few rapid breaths, and made his decision. He stepped to the side of the boat. He thought of the picture from his wallet. He thought of his ex-wife and his kids. He tensed his legs and grabbed the edge of the boat to jump.
When he touched the boat's edge, he immediately felt his mistake. As his fingers made contact, a surge of electricity jolted him for a few seconds. It was an even more powerful surge than he'd been given by the steering wheel, and when it finally cut out, he fell to the deck, unconscious.
He dreamed of falling. When he awoke, he felt the elation of waking from a nightmare.
It was just a dream.
He thought back to the dream, to the electrical shock and the pain and the creature and the boat. He tried to breathe in a deep sigh of relief, but his lungs wouldn't open. There was a pressure on his chest, around his ribs and stomach. He tried to move his legs and they wouldn't respond. The feeling of falling was gone but he felt movement. He felt like he was rising. His eyes opened to blue sky and seemingly endless water. As his eyes tracked downward, he saw the boat. It was slowly rotating through the water in a long spiral, circling a deep tunnel down into the black depths of the ocean. He was flying, hundreds of feet up, out over a massive whirlpool.
A noise appeared from behind him. It was quiet, but had the essence of a familiar noise, a noise from his very recent past. A wet gargle, a booming purr, the beginnings of the roar of a terrible, prehistoric creature. He was suddenly aware of the smell, of thousands of rotting fish and salt and algae. The smell of an ocean death, the smell of an ancient grave.
Ed looked down. Where his chest had been, wriggling brown, scaly flesh coiled around him. He was encased in it, from neck to feet, and the squeeze tightened slowly as he was being turned around. His head was immobile under the tension, and as he turned, his vision moved from blue skies and seas to the dark swirling pit to the massive base of the creature's body. It seemed endless, and Ed realized his exaggerated estimates about hundreds of tentacles wasn't even close. There were thousands, of varying lengths and thicknesses, jutting out from every part of the monster's body.
Ed suddenly remembered one of the last things he saw before being shocked.
He couldn't remember how many. Three? Maybe more? As the thought hit him, he had an answer. The tentacles turned him over and he looked down on three different, gaping mouths. They each had their own pair of probing tongues, which lashed out back and forth a few feet below Ed's face. The tongues were the dark pink of rotting flesh, and each was tipped with a similar number and arrangement of small, fleshy barbs. The barbs twisted in the air, searching, and as they passed nearer to Ed's face he could see a slimy film shining in the light. The slime coated the barbs and the tongue, and small sticky strands stretched between them or detached and blew away in the wind.
What he hadn't seen before were the eyes. There were more than a dozen orange eyes looking frantically, angrily, in every direction, but the tentacled arm reached a point in the air and stopped and the eyes found their target. When one eye found Ed, every eye froze suddenly, then shifted at once, their arced pupils widening at the sight of their prey. The mouths also registered the potential meal at the same time and each opened, as if begging for the honor of chewing. They seemed to be making their case by flicking and twirling their tongues in increasingly erratic motions, and sending croaks and bellowing howls out from wrinkled throats. The frantic desire turned to desperation, and then to rage.
The coils around Ed loosened. He felt the squeeze slacken and heard a wet suction as the tentacle unwound itself. He sucked in a series of desperate gulps of air and screamed without words. Had he been in a state of mind to notice, he might have heard a similarity between his primal screams and the shuddering roars from the creature, harsh and guttural. When the tentacle unwound itself enough for Ed's arms and legs to slip through the spaces, he didn't fight to get free. He clung to the wet scales, fetal and desperate, and tried not to fall into the hot, chomping mouths below. The creature noticed his clinging, and once the arm positioned Ed over the middle mouth, it brought him up and then snapped downward. The first downward snap didn't shake Ed loose, but the force of the second snap did. His legs lost their hold and swung downward toward the lashing tongues. He kept his arms entangled and his face smashed against the slimy arm as his legs dangled below him. He fought to bring them back up, but the arm rose and snapped down again. This third whip was the last. His fingers separated and his fingernails carved four furrows into each side of the tentacle as he fell. The fall was short before he was snatched out of the air by two sets of the creature's tongues. They battled over his body. The battle didn't last long. Ed didn't feel the separation of his limbs. He felt the sensation of falling again, of being pulled down, as if in a dream again, and this time his screams hushed and he was pulled silently into the darkness.
A man sits back in his chair and smiles at a large desktop computer. A dark image flickers on the screen. It is camera footage at sea, and splashes of water are making details hard to pin down. But the overall theme is clear. The camera on the boat captures a figure being pulled into the air by pixelated tentacles. It would be unclear to anyone who didn't know what they were watching, but when the man sees a small, lightly-colored mass fall from the top of the screen to the middle and then separate before disappearing, he hits a button on his desk and speaks.
“Kyoto two, report confirmed. Item nine has been delivered. Repeat, item nine has been delivered.”
The man sits back and balances a mug of coffee on his palm. He takes a drink. A voice responds from a hidden speaker.
“Roger that, Kyoto two, report confirmation received. Item nine is green. Good work, soldier.”
“We did it again, sir,” the says.
“Roger that, soldier. We did it again.”
The man finishes his coffee. He sets the mug on the small desk. He is alone in the small, white room, but he stands up and yells and punches his fists into the air and then buries his face in his hands. He screams out the triumphant tears and they wet his palms. Before he sits back down, he wipes his hands on his pants and slams his palms down on the desk and cries out again.
He picks up a phone and sends a text to his wife, “I love you, Lisa. See you tonight.”
The creature has been fed. The ninth of nine, the last one. When the man turns his attention back to the screen, the colors have changed. The darkness is retreating. The tunnel in the sea is filling in and the creature's head slips below the roiling waves. It's tentacles breech the surface a few more times and then are gone. The offering was accepted and the skies clear and the seas calm. The earth will continue its turning. Humanity survives for another season.