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.