Monday, July 9, 2018

Long Drive Home, by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Shayne made him pick up the tab at the diner they stopped at south of Charlotte, which was when Marty finally realized how much trouble he was in. Normally, Shayne fronted everything with a roll of cash as thick as the business end of a baseball bat, handing it to Marty with a wink right before Marty headed out, which was Shayne’s way of letting him know he had him covered, but also that he was good at counting bills. Marty always nodded and said thanks and made a production of pocketing the money with the care of someone in an old war movie receiving orders before heading across enemy lines. Because Shayne had it figured down to the dime—besides the cost of the product, how much Marty and them would need for gas, food and tolls from Columbus to West Palm Beach and back, plus two nights in the Oceanside at $49.99 a night, including cable. Forget about a hotel on the road. That wasn’t happening. There were three of them. They could just switch drivers.

Only not this time. This trip it was just Shayne and Marty. Marty didn’t know a thing about it until he showed up that night, sitting in the parking lot outside Shayne’s apartment, engine running, staying inside the van to keep warm because at thirty degrees the temperature was below normal for November. He didn’t want to make the trip—he never really wanted to go—but at least it would be warmer down south. He worried about his sister when he was away. Her and the twins. He worried about them all the time, to be truthful. But especially when he was gone.

“Let’s do this,” Shayne said, climbing into the van, Mountain Dew in hand. He tossed a backpack in the rear.

“Where’s Frankie? And Mike?”

“They’re not coming.”

“They’re not?”

“What I said. Just you and me, partner.”

“Why aren’t they coming?”

“I told ‘em not to.”


“Figured just you and me this time. Road trip buddies. Plus I need a vacation. Get some Florida titty for a change. Pinch me some southern fruit.” He opened and closed his thumbs and pointer fingers like crab claws. “This Ohio titty’s starting to suck. Ha—you get that?”

“But Frankie and Mike always—”

“Frankie and Mike always come because I tell ‘em to. This time I’m telling ‘em not to. Simple as that. Let’s go. One stop and we’re outta here.”

“What stop?”

“Enough with the questions. Just drive where I tell you.”

Marty followed Shayne’s instructions, not that he couldn’t guess where they were going. What was more important was figuring out was why it was just him and Shayne. Shayne never went with. Shayne gave him the cash and then him and Frankie and Mike spent a day driving and two days buying pills and another day driving back. He handed Shayne the pills and Shayne handed him his cut, and Marty handed half to Janney. His sister needed it a hell of a lot more than he did. And he wasn’t going to see her back . . . where she’d been. He promised himself that. Except—

Except the half just wasn’t enough.

They found the girl sitting on a porch a block off Sullivant. Thin as a discount store rake with torn jeans and a hoodie the color of winter mud. Her flat eyes said old woman; her face and body said late teens, tops. Shayne opened the back door and she got in and Shayne told Marty to drive around the corner and down an alley.

“You mind?” Shayne said when they stopped.


“Little privacy?”

So Marty hopped out and stood a discrete distance away and smoked and tried not to listen to the sounds coming from the van. He winced when he heard the girl cry out in pain. He stood another minute and then the door opened and Shayne called him back. He stubbed out the cigarette and returned to the driver’s side and drove back around the corner and dropped the girl off.

“Pinched her titties,” Shayne said, taking a swig of soda. “Makes ‘em yell. They like it, you know?”

Marty didn’t respond. He drove up the street and found the entrance ramp to I-70 and got them on the road. He was thinking the girls Shayne got with didn’t like their titties pinched. He thought of Janney and the twins, and his shock learning she’d been working some of these same streets to make ends meet. Never again, he told her. So far, he’d kept his promise.

Most of all he wondered why Frankie and Mike weren’t coming. He had his suspicions, all right. But it wasn’t until they pulled into the all-night diner around 4 a.m. and Shayne ordered them plates of eggs and home fries and sausage and pancakes and toast and then when they were done told Marty to pay up while he went to the can, that he allowed himself to acknowledge the truth.

Shayne knew what Marty had been doing. And he was going to make sure it didn’t happen again. And if it didn’t happen again and Marty didn’t get the extra cash, Janney and the twins were up a creek.


Alex stared at the knife, not sure she was seeing right.

Black handle. Six inches of gleaming blade. Tip as sharp as a gator’s tooth. Lying next to the chopping block where Auntie Jodie left it after cutting up all those ribs last night. She was always slicing ribs, the meat thick and fat, and slow cooking them, and sitting at the picnic table outside tearing the flesh off the bones and wiping the sauce off her lips. Never asking Alex if she wanted any. Because Auntie Jodie only ever asked her two questions.

The first: “You ready?” The second: “How much you get?”

The knife. Just sitting there. Not like Auntie Jodie to leave it out.

Alex had grown accustomed to the questions. She’d grown accustomed to a lot of things. The slaps to her face and the cuffs to her ears. The pills she needed to keep her skin from itching and burning. Always feeling hungry. Yeah, a real routine.

What Alex wasn’t used to was being alone this long in the trailer’s tiny kitchen that smelled of cooked meat and spilled beer with Auntie Jodie gone and a knife sitting by itself next to the chopping block.

She reached out and touched the handle, half expecting it to disappear, like something with a spell on it. Like in a cartoon movie, one with princesses. With a good princess and a bad witch. But nothing happened. Outside Alex heard gulls crying as they circled the Dumpster and the sound of traffic on the highway headed for the Magic Kingdom and someone yelling to someone else to shut the hell up. But inside the trailer it was quiet. Alex hesitated only a moment. She reached out and wrapped her fingers around the knife handle. It felt cool to the touch. She drew it close, lifting the blade to her face and turning it flat until she could see her eyes reflected in the metal. Weary red eyes, smeared with mascara she never seemed able to wash off. She looked at herself for a whole minute. She realized she couldn’t remember the last time she’d gazed in a mirror. She lowered her hand and moved back to the table and slipped the knife into the drawstring bag where she kept the power bars and the make-up and the condoms Auntie Jodie gave her each morning.

“You ready?”

Auntie Jodie, barging through the door. Publix bags hanging from each enormous hand. She dropped them on the table in front of Alex and tried to catch her breath.

Alex said, “You talk to the guy?”

“What guy?”

“The guy. About the job.”


Anna. You said you’d talk to him.”

“Right. The job.” Auntie Jodie pulled ribs and jars of barbecue sauce from the bags. “Yeah, I did, as a matter of fact.”


“He’s interested. He just needs a little more. It’s a finder’s fee thing.”

“How much?”

“Five hundred.”

Alex’s heart sank. “Five hundred?”

“Not that much. Two, three days tops, right? No big deal.”

“The thing is, I was hoping—”

“Hoping what?”

“Hoping maybe I could take a day off.”

Alex’s head pitched backwards at the impact of the slap.

“A day off?” A wheeze separating each word. “How you gonna get the five hundred if you don’t work?”

“Dunno,” Alex said, rubbing her face where it stung the most.

Auntie Jodie dropped her off an hour later. The motel set back from the busy four-lane road. A single palm tree with brown-tinged leaves outside the office, like it survived a brushfire, but just barely.

“Got ‘em stacked up for you, so don’t be dilly-dallying,” Auntie Jodie said, tapping at her phone with fingers like sausages. “I’ll be around the corner, you need me.”

“Five hundred, and I’ve got the job?”

“Five hundred and you’ve got the interview. One thing at a time, all right?”

Alex nodded. She stepped back, drawstring bag in hand, watching Auntie Jodie pull away. When she was gone she walked across the parking lot and used the key to let herself into No. 43. She sat on the bed and waited for the first knock of the day.

She looked at her phone.

It was nine o’clock in the morning.


Shayne finally took the wheel on the other side of Savannah when Marty told him he couldn’t hold his eyes open any longer and was afraid they’d have an accident. Even then Shayne wouldn’t do it until they found a Parkers where Marty could buy Shayne more Mountain Dew. One of the twenty-ounce jobbers Shayne liked to guzzle in a single go. As if he had no regard for what he was drinking, or how it tasted . . .

How it tasted. The idea came to Marty as he drifted off to sleep. Because Shayne sure loved his Mountain Dew. It could work, he thought. It just might work . . .

“Let’s go.”

Marty jerked awake, staring wildly. They were parked at a rest stop. He looked at his phone. He’d slept only an hour, dead to the world the entire time.


“C’mon. My turn to sleep.”

Marty rubbed his face, cleared his throat, switched places with Shayne and pulled back on the highway.

Six hours later they were in West Palm Beach. The air was hot and heavy and smelled of salt and diesel and fish left in paper bags overnight. They piled into the room at the Oceanside off U.S. 1 and Marty collapsed onto the bed, face down.

“I’m gonna grab some chow,” Shayne said. “Want anything?”

“I’m good,” Marty said. In a minute he’d call Janney. He knew he should call someone else, but he couldn’t risk it, with Shayne around. “Grab some chow” Shayne’s way of saying, “I’ll be right back—don’t even think about going anywhere.”

Marty could think of nothing else.

Well, that and the Mountain Dew.


I want 2 b Anna.

The first thing of substance Alex texted to Auntie Jodie after they traded cell phone numbers. Feeling shy as she did. Because she’d never told her dream to anyone, even her sister. She couldn’t say for sure how many times she’d watched Frozen, but a fair estimate might be two hundred viewings. There’d been that stretch over the summer when the temperature in Jacksonville peaked at ninety-five plus for two or three weeks running, and all she’d done was sit next to the window air conditioner and watch the movie over and over until it cooled down just enough to flop on the couch and fall asleep.

Anybody else?

She decided Pocahontas was an OK second choice, especially considering her Gramma was supposed to be one sixteenth or something Seminole. Ariel or Jasmine would be all right too, but not Belle. No way. How could you fall in love with a monster, no matter how nice he was? She explained all this in a flurry of texts to the lady who called herself Auntie Jodie, making sure she understood Anna was her first choice by a long shot. She said she understood. She said her brother knew a guy at Disney who did the casting for the park princesses, and it wouldn’t be a problem. That made sense, Alex thought, since Auntie Jodie was the one who’d placed the online ad for “Disney Princess Models” that she answered on one of those hot July days right after her eighteenth birthday. And sent her money for bus fare and new clothes within two days, no questions asked.

Alex thought she’d died and gone to heaven when she saw the hotel room Auntie Jodie put her up in the first couple of days and the meals she treated her to, in restaurants with actual cloth on the tables. Alex was so happy she didn’t mind when Auntie Jodie said she had to leave the hotel for a couple of days and stay with her while she scheduled the interviews with the guy. And she felt truly sorry for Auntie Jodie when she arrived home one night and explained, shamefacedly, that the guy was willing to meet with her, but she might have to “play along a little” depending on what happened, because that’s how these guys work.

Alex played along, though she hadn’t wanted to.

She played along with the next guy, too.

And the next one, and he hurt her badly enough that once she’d stopped crying she accepted the pill to help with the pain that Auntie Jodie offered apologetically as she wiped her own eyes, like marbles pressed into the dough of her face, and put her arm around Alex’s shoulder.

And then cuffed her, telling her to be more careful next time.

And then gave her another pill.

That was in September. Now it was November. And she still needed another five hundred before she could get the interview.

“So talk to the guy tomorrow?” Alex said that afternoon.

“He had to cancel,” Auntie Jodie said. “Probably Thursday.”

“Thursday for sure?”

“Fingers crossed,” she wheezed.

Alex tried to zone out when they got back to the trailer, but it was hard to relax with Auntie Jodie stomping around the kitchen, yelling that she couldn’t find her knife. Alex just stared at the TV, thinking about Anna and crinkly dresses with puffy sleeves and five hundred dollars.

And the knife. And what she might do with it if Auntie Jodie didn’t stop hitting her.


Even with Shayne along the routine was the same. They started at EveryMed Rx Pharmacy, where Marty presented the forged prescription for Oxycodone and turned over a hundred dollars and received two full bottles and a form to sign saying they were for personal medicinal use only. They went to Family Ready Pharmacy next, repeating the drill, and BetterMed Rx after that. They drove past Walgreens and CVS and Walmart. It wasn’t worth the risk. Those places had computer systems now and you had to show your license.

It was late in the afternoon when they arrived at Chronic Care Management Clinic on an access street off the airport road. When it came their turn they presented themselves, explaining they’d hurt their backs at a construction site in Pompano Beach. Marty went in first. The doctor who saw him was pear-shaped, pale-skinned and had thick, brushed-back hair the color of crow feathers shed in a downpour.

“Show me where it hurts.” The doctor’s eyes soft and sympathetic.

“I think it’s my L5, S1,” Marty said by rote, reaching around to his lower back. “It’s popped before.”

“I would concur,” the doctor said, not moving from his chair. He wrote a prescription and handed it to Marty and told him he hoped he felt better and said the dispensary was down the hall. Marty nodded, not bothering to explain he knew that already. He handed over the cash and received four bottles in return and went outside and waited for Shayne.

“I’m gonna grab some chow,” Shayne said, looking at his watch. “Want anything?”

They ate pizza in the motel room, curtains open so they could watch the sunset over the ocean, even being the ocean was almost a mile away. Finished, Marty leaned back on his pillow, fighting sleep, and also a feeling of hopelessness. It was around this time, the work for Shayne done, that normally he was accustomed to saying so long to Frankie and Mike and taking a side trip down the road. To a house that wasn’t much more than a shack with a sign outside advertising herbal drugs and ozone therapy. A place where he could get double the pills for the price at the clinic. It had been so easy. On his return, present Shayne with exactly the number of pills he’d budgeted for. Then, afterward, take the extra pills he’d bought, yeah, technically with Shayne’s money, and distribute them on the sly through his buddy, and take the money from those sales and give it all to Janney. Between Marty’s cut from Shayne and the side dough she could make rent and buy diapers and food and not ever go back to the streets. Back to the pimp and his helper girl who treated Janney so bad.

But not tonight. Tonight Marty lay on the bed in the motel room while Shayne watched a Survivor show and drank his Dew and worked his phone. Marty drifted off, only to awake with a start hours later. He’d heard a shout—a high-pitched feminine yell. He looked at the other bed and saw a girl on top of Shayne trying to keep his hands off her breasts as Shayne said, “You like that, don’t you?”

In the morning Marty woke up and then Shayne woke up and they did it all over again.


“I got to $500 yesterday,” Alex said. “I counted it. So how come—”

“How come is the guy’s not feeling well and asked if we could meet Monday instead,” Auntie Jodie said. “And I told him yeah, because he’s being nice enough to meet with me.”

“With us.”


“You said meet with you. But he’s meeting with us, right? Because this is for the Anna job I want.”

“Right,” Auntie Jodie said, hand planted on her sofa-cushion sized chest as she tried to catch her breath. Better on her chest than Alex’s face. “Meet with us. That’s what I meant. Here’s a chance to get a little ahead, is all I’m thinking. Maybe just half a day. Whaddaya think?”

“I think I’d rather meet the guy.”

“I’d rather meet the guy too. Monday’s only three days.”

So Auntie Jodie dropped Alex back at the motel. And noon came, and she stopped by to check on her, and brought her a sandwich and a water bottle, and cuffed her, and apologized between shallow breaths as she explained there was just one more, some tourist, and then they could go home.

“How long,” Alex said, resting her hand on the drawstring bag. Feeling the outline of the knife under the material. Sneaking a glance at Auntie Jodie, guessing where the breastbone might be underneath all that fat.

“He’s on his way now.”

“Then we see the guy Monday?”

“Then we see how the guy’s feeling Monday.”

“Hope he’s feeling better,” Alex said.

“On his way,” Auntie Jodie said.


Friday morning they hit EveryMed a second time because Marty knew a different pharmacist came on duty to work a three-day long weekend shift. They planned to visit two other clinics afterward, but the line was so long at the first they lost an hour. Even so, Shayne seemed content when they walked out.

“We got exactly what I counted on. What I calculated. You’ve got the routine down, partner. Have to hand it to you. Not a pill more or less. Glad I came along, see how it’s done. See where you go. I’m feeling good about this. I may make it a regular thing. I like being on the road. Different sights. Different fruit.” He did that crab claw thing again with his fingers.

“So we’re heading home?”

“Just one stop on the way. Little east of Orlando. Then it’s back to O-HI-O. You homesick already?”

Marty thought about Janney. The panic in her voice when he’d snuck the call to her that morning, while Shayne was in the bathroom. The sound of the twins’ crying in the background.

“Just a homebody, I guess.”

“Not me. I like to get out and go.”

“I’ll pack the van.”

They drove until Cocoa West and then Shayne told him to exit and read him directions and they drove a few miles more until they came to a light. Marty turned right, and then left, and then into the parking lot of a motel with a single palm tree by the business office with brown-tinged leaves.

“Wait here,” Shayne said. “I won’t be long.”

“OK,” Marty said. Trying to keep his voice natural. Waiting until the van door slammed shut and Shayne was walking away to reach down and grab Shayne’s soda bottle.



“You like that, huh?”

“No—stop it,” Alex said.

“How about like this?”

Ow! That really hurts.”

“I like it too,” the man said.

Alex arched back, trying to keep him inside her but also lean far enough away that his hands couldn’t reach her breasts. When his fingers first touched them she recoiled inside, as she always did, but figured it wouldn’t last long because this guy looked and acted like he needed it bad and was in a hurry. Creepy looking, eyes the color of a palmetto bug’s back. The sooner he was gone the better. Then he pinched her and she jerked back, yelling at the pain, and instead of apologizing he laughed and did it again.

She couldn’t lean back far enough.


She rolled off him and scooted to the end of the bed.

“The fuck are you doing?”

“I told you that hurts.”

“And I told you I like it. Get back up here.”

“Not if you’re going to do that. That’s not the deal.”

“The deal?” The guy laughed. “The deal’s what I say it is.”

“No it ain’t,” Alex said, fumbling for her panties. “You need to leave.”

“I’m not leaving until I get what I paid for.”

“I didn’t say you could pinch—”

“Listen, bitch—” he said, slithering down the bed.

“No!” she said as he grabbed her left arm. She pulled free and fell to the floor, landing on top of the drawstring bag.

“No?” he said, laughing again as he reached for her.


It was a bit of an operation, it turned out, chewing the pills to a pulp, then carefully drooling them into the bottle of Mountain Dew, one dollop of spit at a time, mouth getting dryer and dryer at each go. Marty had done ten so far, which he figured was enough, but who really knew? Pure speculation that Shayne wouldn’t taste the pills as he drank the soda, though one thing in Marty’s favor was how thirsty Shayne always was after a girl. What he would do with Shayne later on, if it worked, he hadn’t thought about. He’d get to that. Janney might—

He stopped. He stared as a large woman—a very large woman—limped toward the room Shayne disappeared into a few minutes earlier. She walked with difficulty, legs like pile drivers and arms like sofa cushions. Flesh straining to burst from her black t-shirt and sweatpants. She knocked at the door, waited, knocked again, and went inside.

Shit. This wasn’t good. Shayne had the keys with him, like he always did. If that woman—

He had to do something. Shayne had the keys. And Shayne had to climb safely back in the van so he could drink his Mountain Dew.

Marty glanced around the parking lot, looked again, got out of the van and walked fast toward the room.


“You stupid, stupid girl,” Auntie Jodie said. Wheezing so badly she had to lean against the wall as she took in the scene before her.

“I didn’t mean to,” Alex said, head ringing from the blow from Auntie Jodie’s fist. She used a fist this time. “He wouldn’t stop pinching me.”

“Like that matters.”

“He hurt me.”

“Who cares—”

They both turned at the sound of the room door opening. A man stood in the doorway and stared.

“Holy crap,” he said.


It took a moment for Marty to process everything. Shayne on the bed on his back, a knife jutting from his left eye, blood pooling around him. A half-naked girl crouched at the end of the bed, a welt rising on her left cheek. The enormous woman glaring at him as she took deep, gasping breaths.

“Who—?” he started to ask.

Before he could finish she was coming for him, arms outstretched like giant rolling pins as she lurched in Marty’s direction. He braced himself and at the last second punched her soft chest with the palms of both hands and to his surprise she staggered backwards and fell over, the floor shaking a little, and just lay there, struggling for breath. Wheeze. Pause. Wheeze. Pause.

“Who are you?” the girl said.

“Who’s that?” Marty replied, pointing at the woman.


“She needs help,” Marty said.

“Like him?” the girl said, gesturing at Shayne.

Marty stood there, head spinning. He glanced down and realized he was still holding the bottle of Mountain Dew. He looked at the girl and then at Shayne and then the lady on the floor and then back to the girl. He saw how the girl stared at the lady. He thought of Janney and the twins and the streets he’d pulled his sister off. Away from the girl working for the pimp—not quite as fat as this lady, but getting there—the girl who kept hitting Janney for no reason . . .

“Sure,” Marty said. “Like him.”

He kneeled, twisted the top off the soda, and used his left hand to gently raise the woman’s head. She blinked, confused, but even in her state gratefully took a drink. And another. And another. When the bottle was mostly empty Marty lowered her head just as gently. After a couple of moments she snorted and gasped and her chest rose and fell three times like a hill riding an earthquake. After a couple more moments her head fell to the side and she wasn’t wheezing anymore.

Marty said, “Are you all right?”

The girl glanced at Shayne, naked and spread-eagled on the bed with a knife in his eye.

“I guess. Are you?”

Marty looked at the woman on the floor, bubbles of spit on her lips.


Marty turned his back while the girl gathered her clothes and went into the bathroom. When he heard the door shut and water running he went through Shayne’s clothes. He found the keys easily enough. Next he found Shayne’s wallet. It held all of eleven dollars. Disgusted, he threw the wallet and Shayne’s pants on the floor. The pants landed with an odd thud. Marty picked them up and felt around and reached inside the right pants leg.

The girl came out of the bathroom. She was wearing sneakers and jeans shorts and a t-shirt with a princess and some kind of snowman on it.

“What is that?” she said.

“It’s money.”

“I can see that. How much?”

“A lot.”

“A lot lot?”

He told her that it was.

The wad of cash Marty found in the sewn-in pocket down the leg of Shayne’s pants was as thick as the business end of a baseball bat. But unlike the wad Shayne always gave Marty, this wasn’t just twenties. These were hundreds. And there was another wad just like it in the other pants leg.

“We should go,” Marty said.


“You can come if you want.”


“I’m from out-of-state. Columbus, Ohio.”

“I’m from here. Jacksonville, actually.”

Neither of them spoke for a second.

“Could I have some money?” the girl said.


“You said it’s a lot.”

“How much?”

“I’m not sure.” She pulled a pile of greasy bills from a drawstring bag. “I don’t have quite enough.”

“For what?”

She told him.

Then she said, “Where’s that money from?”

He told her.

“So how about it?”

He thought about the twins and Janney and the streets she’d been on.

“It’s OK with me as long as we leave right now.”

He dropped her off at the Magic Kingdom entrance an hour later. Gave her four bottles of pills and half of Shayne’s cash. The remainder was still three times what he normally earned after a trip. More than enough for his sister and the twins. He watched the girl march toward the entrance gates, head held high and drawstring bag over her shoulder like a royal satchel or something, until he couldn’t see her anymore. Then he turned around and headed for the highway. He needed to be on his way. It was a long drive home, and it was just him behind the wheel.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Viking Funeral, by Nick Kolakowski

When they reached Piosa’s old property it was nine-fifteen and the sun burned down hard from a crystal-sharp winter sky. Their two cars turned onto a dirt track marked by a thick oak with a sun-bleached yellow ribbon garroting its trunk, and they bumped along until they reached a thinning patch of trees with a white doublewide in the middle of it. The trailer roof sprouted satellite dishes like alien mushrooms. From a window dangled a fading black flag with the skull-and-crossbones above the words ‘Sic Semper Deadbeats’ in gothic script.

In the lead car, Miller honked. The trailer door creaked open to reveal a teenager long and pale as a remora. He stood blinking in the sunlight and scratched a pimply shoulder and said, “Right-O.”

The cars stopped. Alex emerged from the rear one, squinting. Before climbing out, Miller yelled through his open window: “We’re here for your brother.”

The kid nodded and disappeared inside the trailer. Through the open door they could hear nervous-quick guitar and a gravelly voice singing about hell and damnation. The song reminding Miller of his childhood in Tennessee, the clapboard walls of those backwoods churches quivering as the Sunday congregation inside burst with the love and fury they kept bottled for the week’s other six days and twenty-three hours. His brother in the pew next to him, mouthing profane variations on the hymns as he made playing cards appear, disappear, appear from his lapels, sleeves, ears, mouth. As if from a distance he heard Alex say, “What’s with the country crap?”

Miller snorted. “That’s not country. That’s Johnny Cash.”

“Cash is country.”

“Johnny Cash is Johnny Cash.” Miller forced a cheerful note into his voice. “Accept no substitutes.” Opening the trunk of his car he set the sloshing gas-cans onto the ground, then opened the emergency kit beside the spare wheel. Stuffed three roadway flares into the back pocket of his jeans.

“Country,” Alex said, leaning forward to spit, and nearly tumbled to the frozen ground. He was still drunk from last night. Miller struggled to find a little pity.

The kid reappeared, holding aloft a cardboard box in the manner of a holy offering. For a delirious moment it seemed like he might yodel forth some Latin. Arms raised, Miller stepped forward to receive the relic, concentrating on holding it perfectly level as he moved away. He feared letting the box shift to one side, and hearing the dusty slither from within.

“Oh man,” Alex moaned. “You put him in that?”

“Sold the urn online,” the kid said. “Paid part of the rent. Not like he’d care.”

“We care.” Miller wondered what sort of human being would buy a used urn. “That’s sort of the point. Alex, grab the gas.”

“The Beast’s around the back,” the kid said. “Don’t take this as an insult? But I’ll be inside. I deal with grief my own way.” He disappeared into the cool dark of the trailer, and Johnny Cash switched to Axl Rose wailing about Chinese Democracy.

Alex hoisted the two gas cans, groaning like it was an epic feat. They circled around the trailer and as their feet crushed the brown grass it shimmered, alive with panicked insects fleeing their advance. The land behind the trailer rose into a low hill dotted with bare elms, and there they found the Mustang.

The car gleamed like a work of art. They had seen it before; Piosa, now residing in the box in Miller’s hands, had photographed every stage of its rebirth from rust-heap to cherry. Piosa, who had taken a sniper’s bullet above the left eye in the Korengal Valley, dead before the rest of them even heard the shot, dead two years ago today.

Miller set the cremains on the ground and stood. A fast wind rose and rattled the trees. Snow’s coming, Miller thought as took one of the cans from Alex’s hand, twisted off the cap and doused the Mustang’s hood. The gas flowed across the metal and rained softly on the grass. Alex took his cue and used the other can to soak the roof and trunk. Miller opened the passenger-side door and splashed the vintage leather and dashboard with the last of his can and went to retrieve the box.

Alex spun and tossed his cans away, reeled back, almost fell. “Not the best idea, drinking before something like this,” Miller told him.

“Don’t blame me,” Alex said. “The only kid on the block whose daddy got him a case of Bud for Christmas.”

“Funny.” Miller slid the box onto the driver’s seat of the Mustang, noting the keys in the ignition. As if waiting for Piosa to clamber inside, loose one of his patented war-whoops and punch the gas. The smell of fuel in the enclosed space wrung tears from his eyes. “Anything to say for the dear departed?”

Alex clasped his hands and bowed his head. “Piosa. Good man, good operator. Went from us too soon. That’s it.”

Miller pulled one of the road flares from his cargo pants and took five steps backward from the open car door. “Fire in the hole.” The flare burst sparkly-red, reminding Miller of the ones they used to let the Chinooks overhead know the landing-zone was hot. He tossed it in.

The seats caught fire. The flames leapt. They danced. They strutted their stuff across the seats. The windows and dashboard dials burst in applause. The paint crackled in laughter. In seconds a plume of greasy smoke billowed out the open door, scrambling for the sky. The box in the driver’s seat blackened and folded in upon itself and its lid curled open and white ash swirled into the hot slipstream and disappeared forever.

Miller and Alex knew the physics of the situation. They retreated twenty yards and hit the dirt and covered their heads in their hands.

With an eardrum-shattering boom the gas tank exploded and a lovingly restored chunk of engine howled into the sky. Heat crisped the hairs on their forearms. After that the Mustang settled into a more peaceful burning.

They stood, Alex saying, “Tell me: Why did Viking funerals ever go out of style?”

From down the hill, the trailer’s screen door banged open. The kid on the lawn yelling words lost in the roar of flames. Then he raised a middle finger high and stomped back inside.

Miller felt his mind slip into war mode. He walked toward the burning Mustang, Alex shouting behind him, the questioning sounds of a dog left alone in an unfamiliar place. Miller stopped behind the car and slammed his heel into the rear bumper as hard as he could. The Mustang began to almost imperceptibly creep forward, and gravity saw its chance. Standing on a thrumming left leg Miller offered the whole scene a proper military salute as the car bounced and jostled its way downhill, trailing a party of flames.

Piosa’s pride and joy collided with the trailer dead center and the impact knocked the windows out of their frames and the satellite dishes from the roof. The fire spied new territory to conquer and leapt shimmering to the cheap white siding. The whole structure was half aflame before the kid ran out squawking and stood in the yard with his fingers clenched in his hair. Alex and Miller watched everything burn with clinicians’ eyes.

“You’re losing it,” Alex told him, almost as an aside. “Really, truly losing it.”

Miller had nothing to say to that. The fire burst from the trailer roof and flapped its orange hands in the sunlight.

“You believe in the concept of blowback?” Alex said. “After everything that happened over there. Ever think someone will come at you for the shit you did?”

Hours later, Miller would blame what happened next on his mind in war-mode, where everything was a threat, and no insult too small for repayment. Quick as a rattler he slammed his right foot into the back of Alex’s left kneecap, sending him to the grass. Before the man could suck in more than half a breath Miller had dropped a knee onto his sternum. “Shut up,” Miller said.

“You’re a total wacko.” Alex wheezed, hissing steam. “It’s being noticed. Not in a friendly way. People ready to do something about it.”

“People got nothing to worry about,” Miller said.

Alex rocketed a sloppy fist at Miller’s head. Miller slap-pushed his arm aside and followed through with two hits to Alex’s jaw and left eye-socket. The violence had been automatic as a sneeze but in its wake Miller felt a little sick. He stared at the bright blood bubbling along the crest of Alex’s eye and thought: This is what I do.

“Like they’ll take your word,” Alex coughed bloody.

“They’ll have to. I’m done with this crap.” Miller eased upright. The cans had tumbled on their sides, leaking pungent gas. Miller retrieved them and followed the swath of scorched grass to the bottom of the hill, where Piosa’s brother knelt at the edge of the burning trailer, warbling into a phone. For an instant Miller considered snatching the device away and tossing it underhand into the fire. Instead he hurled the gas cans into the back of his car and drove away. The pillar of smoke stained his rear-view mirror for two miles before it was lost in hills and distance.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Beach Body, by C.A. Rowland

The seagulls. They landed near the surf every morning and evening. Anne had thought it was to feed, but they sat so still, as if watching, waiting for some signal, when they were to all take off again. As if they knew when it was the right time to leave the sandy area behind.

If not disturbed, the birds sat for at least thirty minutes. Anne wondered if they were just tired of flying and this was a moment of quiet for them. Or perhaps, they too were calmed by the crashing waves of blue-capped in white that raced to meet the light tan sand on Amelia Island, Florida. She hated raw fish and the slimy taste on her tongue but giggled at the thought of birds gathered to have sushi for breakfast.

She breathed in the salty air, feeling it fill her with the lightness of something so fresh and untouched.

She and James walked almost every morning since they’d moved here two years ago. Rain. Sleet. Sunshine. Only the outer coverings changed. This morning was clear and sunny for late December. A light windbreaker and sweatshirt underneath. Together with thick jogging pants, socks, and tennis shoes, the ensemble was more than enough to protect Anne against the elements.

A heavy rain with thunder and lightning, coupled with wind, had hit with a vengeance in the late-night hours the evening before. The sand was littered with bits of shells, seaweed and other debris brought in by the wind and surge of the tides.

James had worn his regular blue jeans, tennis shoes and a flannel shirt. The man never seemed to get cold. They could be in two feet of snow in Chicago, Illinois, as they had been last year, and he’d have on the same outfit. She wondered how it was men could dress in the same thing every day and be happy, when women constantly needed something new or different.

Anne looked down as James squeezed her hand, the cool breeze slipping between them, almost as if he knew she was thinking about him.

They were a picture of contrasts she knew. She, just over five feet tall, slender, fair with blond hair and freckles. James, with dark hair, eyes and broad shoulders that marked him as a man of strength that worked out regularly. His hand, tanned and leathered one from skiing, hiking and running their construction company. Her hand, a few shades of tan paler and softer, encased in light gloves.

Nearing the birds, Anne angled up the beach onto the rougher, drier area. It was this way each morning, her trying to leave the birds in peace. James walking, unaware he might be disturbing any other creature. She’d pointed it out a few times. James had simply said, “That’s the nature of their lives. If not us, something else will send them soaring.”

Secretly, Anne thought he just liked watching the birds take off. Or dive for fish. James loved hunting and fishing, although it was the hunt and skill rather than the killing of anything. He rarely came home with anything to show for his day in the wild. But always with stories of what he’d seen, or caught and released.

As Anne searched the beach for signs of overnight changes, she focused on a lump of sand ahead. Or at least that was what it looked like until she got a bit closer.

Black peeked through, like a rock or a tarp. Maybe hiding something underneath. “That’s new,” Anne said, pointing ahead. “Want to see what it is?”

James turned towards the mound. These side excursions were frequent, and he seemed happy enough to follow Anne’s lead on these daily walks.

However, as they got closer, he halted and pulled her back. “Let me check this out first. I don’t like the looks of this.”

Anne turned to face him. “Do you think something’s hurt or died? Like a seal?”

“I don’t know. Let me check it out first.”

Anne watched James looked around and picked up a twelve-inch-long piece of driftwood. He approached the lump, covered by what appeared to be a black tarp and sand. Using the stick, he pulled back a small part, exposing a shoe . . . connected to a leg with what looked like a butterfly tattoo.

Anne sucked in her breath, having moved closer but behind him.

“I told you to stay back.” James turned to look up at her with such anger that she took a step back. He pulled his ever-ready cellphone out of his pocket and dialed 911.


Anne was still shivering when the police arrived. Not that she was cold, but from the body and James’ attitude. She focused on what the officer was asking. The two cops were from the local town, one tall and blond, looking like he should be a lifeguard with trendy sunglasses, and the other almost as tall but thin, wiry with brown hair and a perpetual frown.

“No, we just happened to be walking by,” she said in answer to the black-haired cop’s question as to how they had discovered the body. “We go one way or the other every morning. Usually starting at the same spot.”

“We may have a few more questions,” the cop said as he moved off.

Anne turned her head, searching for James, only to find him staring at her. She shivered as it hit her.

James knew the dead woman. At least she assumed it was a dead woman from the shape of her slender calf and the pink and white tennis shoe-- too big for a child or even most teenagers.

She knew she was right. Another of his dalliances. Except this one was now dead. And from what she knew of his latest affair, this was not her.

The police had uncovered the body enough for her to see that this one had blonde hair. James’ latest was a brunette.

How long would it take the police to connect the woman to him? Another scandal. No matter if he did anything wrong or not. The shame of another humiliation had landed at her feet. And with that, they’d learn about the current affair. Double the trouble this time.

Anne wasn’t sure if her marriage with him or her reputation could survive another Chicago. Sure, he’d retired from his prestigious job with plans for them to travel and live for years.

But the truth was he was forced out–sexual harassment at the office with a subordinate little tramp who was hurt when he moved on. A minor blip in the news but one that all her friends and societal connections had heard and no doubt continued to laugh and gossip about behind her back. These events happened in the best of families, but most had the decency and ability to do it without getting caught or shamed in public. Or there being evidence shoved in the face of their friends and colleagues.

Not to mention their family. Her mother had lived through her father’s womanizing and survived without a blemish on the family. Anne had realized that she might have to do the same when she married James but had thought he could be discreet. She’d been wrong.

Mortified in Chicago. Leaving and starting a new life further south had seemed the sensible solution. She still wondered how the young woman had not seen that James would never abandon his wife. It was beyond Anne. James loved the prestige of his job, but he loved the money Anne had inherited more. It gave him a lifestyle he craved and Anne the husband that lent her a different kind of respectability, at least in her circles.

His little escapades? A rebellion that left him feeling in charge with the balance of power in his court.

A dead mistress though was quite another thing.

“You can go,” Anne heard the officer say to James.

James caught her hand in his and pulled her back down the beach, toward where they had parked their car. Neither of them saying a word.


The knock Anne had been expecting came two days later. Anne had found the cottage. Located a bit back from the beach so they didn’t have to deal with the summer crowds but close enough to a parking area so that they had access within five minutes of their house.

The cottage had three small bedrooms, one with blue walls and nautical figures, one with a green underwater theme, and one with muted yellow sunny tones. A living room with flowery upholstered furniture against the sandy walls and a kitchen overlooking the tiny backyard. All came with the house, which was fine with Anne.

Windows in every room let in lots of light, and breezy curtains floated in the wind. Anne had opted for what her friends would call a beach rental, leaving her furniture and memories in storage in Chicago, just in case they ever decided to return to the north.

This new place was easy to care for and meant their financial needs were smaller. While Anne had a trust fund, she wanted those funds for travel and vacations. They used James’ retirement package for everyday costs. The downsizing allowed them to eat out often although James hated the loss of the two-story walk up they had shared in their toney Chicago neighborhood. While the new start wasn’t exactly how either of them had planned to live out their days, it was a beginning.

Answering the door, Anne found the same officers were back, asking for James. Invited in, they sat drinking a cup of coffee, the aroma melding with the fresh sea air that wandered inland, while they peppered him with new questions.

“Mr. Rochester, we’ve identified the body you found as Charlotte Davis.” The blond officer that had taken the lead paused and getting no response, continued. “You told us you didn’t know the deceased, but that’s not quite true, is it?”

“Officers, I saw the bottom of a leg with a tennis shoe on it. That’s not enough to identify anyone,” James said.

“But you recognized the tattoo, right?”

“I didn’t want to guess. That tattoo seems very common and likely on any number of women’s ankles, here and everywhere. But to answer you, yes, I knew Charlotte.”

“And what was your relationship to her?” the blond cop asked.

“Anne, why don’t I handle these questions alone,” James said.

Both officers’ eyes turned to Anne. She sat for a moment and then said, “I think I’d rather stay.”

James hung his head for a few seconds and then raised it to face the blond officer. “We had a sexual relationship for two months.” Turning to Anne, he said, “But it’s been over for months.”

“And did the sex between you and Miss Davis ever involve erotic asphyxiation?”

“What? No. What are you talking about?”

“Ms. Davis was strangled.”

Anne watched James turn pale.

The bond officer turned to Anne. “And did you know about the affair?”

Anne stared at him. “My husband’s sexual needs are, shall we say, more than I care to provide. I am aware that he has had a number of affairs over the years. We have no secrets. And when we moved here, I assumed that would continue.”

“And what exactly are those needs as you understand them?” the officer asked.

“My husband has a high sex drive. He’d have sex six times a day if I were willing. I’m not. However, if you are asking me if he’s ever indicated he would like to try the erotic act–my answer is no.”

“So, Mr. Rochester, where were you the night before you and your wife discovered the body on the beach?”

“I was home, here with my wife. Tell them, Anne.”

“Is that true, Mrs. Rochester?”

Anne reddened. “As far as I know. Our sleeping preferences over the years have left us sleeping in different rooms. Snoring, his needs. I’d rather not elaborate if you don’t mind. And it is personal and would be embarrassing if this was made public.”

The officer nodded. “So Mr. Rochester could have slipped out while you were sleeping.”

“I don’t know about that. I am a very light sleeper and almost always wake up when James is stirring around the house. I feel certain I would have heard him leave … if he did.”

“And what about you, Mrs. Rochester? Where were you?”

“I was here with my husband, but as I said, I was in my bedroom from about ten o’clock until we got up to walk. There were some heavy storms that woke me about one or so, but I got up for a drink of water, then back to bed.”

“And did you know Miss Davis?”

“How would I know her? She was not in my social circle,” Anne said.

“Okay. I’ll ask that neither of you leaves town. We may need to ask you a few more questions.”


James was still not speaking to Anne two days later when the police arrived. Why hadn’t she simply said he was home with her all night? Didn’t she know that it made him a suspect? Or worse, was this her payback for Chicago? And why hadn’t they asked if he had heard her leave? Surely they could see she had a motive as well?

James didn’t seem to understand that the police were going to discover his history in Chicago. And they would then know that she was already the humiliated wife. If they talked to any of her friends, they’d gleefully report on their bedroom situation. Just as she would on them. Right or wrong, it was just the reality of how things worked in her world.

James had stormed out, only to return later in the day. Angry and unwilling to speak to her, just as she’d done when he’d betrayed her. All would blow over. Always did. In many ways, they were the perfect symbiotic pair.

The knock at the door was not unexpected.

This time the cops arrested James on the spot. Anne tried to ask what had changed, but they simply said they were taking him in and something about new evidence. James demanded she called a lawyer. She said she would.


Two days later, Anne sat in the office of Peter Keppler, a local attorney, with graying hair, an easy smile and a laid-back attitude that included leaving his plaid shirt unbuttoned. His office was modest as lawyers go. Comfortable chairs and a secretary/receptionist behind a pony wall. Located in an area of town outside of the tourist district, inside an older home, converted into offices.

Peter shared the house with three other lawyers. A large wood desk sat in the middle of the room, and two bookshelves filled with files of what she guessed were open cases dominated one wall. Pictures of old Myrtle Beach clustered on another. She expected a lawyer’s office to reek of old wood and law books, but here, it was a mix of lemon Pledge and seawater.

She’d turned to someone who knew everyone in town rather than a big city lawyer. Her reasoning was that a local might have better access and ability within the system. She still wasn’t sure if that was the right decision but it had made sense.

Anne listened as Peter outlined the case against James.

“It seems they have found some hairs on the victim that match your husband’s. DNA is allowable in court, and they seem to have a very strong case.” Peter had paused and Anne had let that sink in. “How long ago did James stop seeing the victim? Do you know?”

“I have no idea. I knew James had moved on to someone new. But the timing is not something I try to watch for. We have an arrangement. He doesn’t embarrass me, and I don’t ask,” Anne said.

“Got it. And about Chicago. Were they any threats of blackmail or anything like that?”

“No. Only the discrimination charge that we’ve already talked about.”

“And here? Did anyone threaten James that you know of?”

“I don’t know of anything like that, but you’d have to ask him. He and I never discussed his sexual partners and what they said. Can you tell me if that ever happened? Or could it have happened with the young woman who died?”

“All I can say is that he doesn’t understand what is happening or why. I may be able to argue that the hair was on her clothing due to the fact that James had been with her a few months before but that’s not a lot. It would help him if you could confirm that he was home that night.”

“I’m sorry, but as you know, we sleep in separate beds. With the storm, it took me a while to get to sleep, and I’m sure I slept soundly because I was tired. I know he was there when I went to bed and when I woke up.”

Peter sighed and laid his pen down on the yellow pad he’d taken notes on. “All right. That’s it for now. I’ll need to talk to you again but for now, let’s leave it at that.”


Anne straightened and laid a hand on her back to massage the ache from lifting boxes and packing. She grabbed the tape and closed the lid, securing it before she marked it for contents.

“This is the last one,” she said to the strapping young man with the muscular arms.

“Yes, ma’am. We’ll lock up the truck and be on our way. I just need you to sign here and initial in three places,” he said as Anne wielded the pen.

After the truck left, Anne locked the door, leaving the key under the mat for her real estate broker, Sherry. The closing would be finalized in the morning, and Anne had already signed the papers in escrow. What she wanted now was one last walk on the beach before she headed back to Chicago.

At the parking lot, she parked and locked the car. Then ventured down to the sand, turning in the same direction she and James had turned that fateful morning.

Everything was really as it should be. Charlotte the tramp was dead. Anne still didn’t understand how Charlotte could have thought she’d leave James for her. Anne had only wanted to experience what James had, maybe come to comprehend what the draw was. It wasn’t like Anne was a lesbian or anything, just curious.

But Charlotte had wanted more. And had threatened to tell James. Most likely she had threatened James too, but James would have told her Anne knew and it didn’t matter.

Telling James about Anne was another matter altogether. Anne could never let him have that kind of power over her, especially after Chicago.

Anne stared down at the area where she’d dropped the body. Really, the storm had been a godsend. Washing away the tracks of the wheelbarrow she’d used after she’d strangled Charlotte.

Anne had stayed for the trial as the dutiful wife, as she was expected to be, just as she’d given their marriage a new start here. Her Chicago friends were sympathetic and supportive. They encouraged her to return when James was sentenced after two years of waiting for a trial date.

She’s argued that she needed to stay while his case was appealed but they’d argued that she could do that from Illinois. And after just the right number of months of discussion, she’d agreed.

Smiling, Anne watched the birds flying, headed off in a new direction. She’d been discreet where James hadn’t, both in Chicago and at the beach.

That was really the issue.

The birds certainly understood there was a time for standing still, waiting, and a time to leave. So did she.

Anne turned and walked back to the car.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Tally Ho, by William R. Soldan

Gordon Jurewicz had just pulled into the parking lot of the Fortune Moon, as he did most nights after work, when the rear passenger door of his repurposed Crown Victoria was yanked open and a young woman scrambled in shouting, “Drive, drive!” A black, short cropped bob with platinum streaks framed her narrow features. Her face was battered, her voice frantic, and through the Valley Cab taxi’s Plexiglas divider, she looked to Gordon no more than eighteen, maybe twenty. He was done for the night, wanted nothing more but to eat his Tuesday usual—a General Tso’s combination plate with egg roll and soup—then go home to give his mother her medicine and retire to his basement room to watch a DVD. In fact, on some level, the present scene reminded him of one of his favorite films, but the thought was gone before it could settle into focus. He saw no one pursuing her, but the apprehension on her face made him tense, and he had no desire to find out what had her so scared.

So he drove, heading south toward downtown. “So where is it we’re going?” he asked more than once, to which she always replied, “Just keep driving, okay?” He moved up and down the narrow one-ways off Federal and Commerce. Each time he looked back at her, she was checking her phone, texting, biting her nails. Though he knew she’d been beaten, he couldn’t tell how bad the damage was; in the orange cast of the street lamps illuminating the backseat in swift intervals, it was hard distinguishing bruise from shadow.

“Who did that to you?”

She looked up for the first time to meet his eyes in the mirror, and that’s when her expression of fear became one of indignation. At first he thought it was at the question itself, at the fact that he was prying, which is something he’d learned not to do with passengers. Part of a cabbie’s livelihood in such a small city was dependent on his willingness to turn a blind eye and not ask questions. But she wasn’t a usual fare, so he’d ventured out of character and meddled. Perhaps he’d live to regret it, he thought now.

But when she spoke, she did so openly enough. “I’ll tell you who,” she said, crying a little as she said it. “A nasty bastard who’d still be stripping copper out of houses and boosting car stereos if it wasn’t for me, the limp-dick motherfucker.”

Her phone buzzed and she read something on the screen, its cold, anemic light making her look like some lost spirit. And that was how he would go on to picture her after she jumped out of the cab at a red light and, without another word, vanished like a breath.


The next morning, Gordon replaced the poison bait in the cage traps around the perimeter of the two-story farmhouse. Rodents had been getting in the garbage again. Coons, rats. He’d found several of each over the last few months, but they kept coming back. When he was finished, he went inside and gave his mother her insulin before driving to fetch her a half-dozen Boston Creams from the Plaza Donuts. Despite the diabetes and having already lost one foot due to an infected ulcer that had festered for too long, she refused to give up her sweets—the Ho-Ho’s and Little Debbie’s and two-liters of Pepsi. She weighed nearly four-hundred pounds and only got up from the king-sized bed upstairs to hobble with her walker to the bathroom.

As she worked her way through the donuts, Gordon rubbed lotion on the foot that still remained, while the puckered stump of the one she’d lost pointed at him like a shiny, accusatory finger. She was by no means a loving woman, or even the least bit pleasant. There were days when he fantasized about leaving her there without her medicine, going about his day while her blood thickened and she slowly slipped into shock and then a coma, perhaps injecting her with a cocktail of some of his late father’s leftover pain medication. There were Oxycontin and Percocet and Vicodin lining an entire cupboard shelf in the kitchen. But he could never go through with it. She was his own flesh and blood, after all. Besides, he figured she’d do herself in before long.

“Where’s my damn cigarettes?” she barked, her voice like gravel in a tin can from decades of smoking two packs a day.

“I’ll have to go back,” he said. “I musta forgot.”

“‘I musta forgot,’” she mocked. “Christ, boy, you’s about as useless as your father was. Least he had the sense to kill himself and put me out of my damn misery.”

After the construction site accident, in which his father had shattered his pelvis and fractured several vertebrae, the man had slipped into a depressed state, eating his pills and retreating further and further inside himself until one day he took one too many, or perhaps the wrong combination of things, and never woke up. It was during times like this, though, that Gordon wanted to remind his mother that it was the settlement from his father’s injury, and the life insurance policy he’d had the foresight to take out, that had paid off the mortgage and allowed her to sit around here getting fatter and meaner with nothing but her disability check coming in. Of course, most of the money from his father was long gone, and Gordon had to pick up the slack, but that was beside the point.

“Sorry, Ma,” he said, slipping on her compression stockings before getting up. “I’ll go now.”

“Goddamn right you’ll go now,” she said. He was halfway down the stairs when she yelled after him: “And pick up some more damn Pepsi while you’re at it!”


The dining room of the Fortune Moon restaurant was deserted. This, along with the dim lighting, was one of the reasons Gordon came here. He felt much less self-conscious than he did under the fluorescents over at the Denny’s on the other side of the highway. Tonight he sat in his usual booth in the back corner with a spread of egg rolls, fried wontons, sweet & sour pork, and chicken lo mein taking up most of the table in front of him. He knew he really shouldn’t be eating so much of this stuff, at least not as often as he did. So far, he hadn’t grown fat, not like his mother, but at thirty, his metabolism wasn’t what it once was, and sitting behind the wheel of the cab all day didn’t help. In the last few years, he’d gone from a fairly lean two-hundred pounds to a soft two-fifty, his once flat stomach hanging over his belt like a bloated udder. The grease was hell on his complexion, too, which was already pocked with acne scars from his unfortunate youth. Still, at least three nights a week, he found himself here, feasting alone in excess and telling himself this was probably as good as it was going to get.

His shift was over for the night, though “shift” wasn’t really the right word for it. He was an independent and worked as much or as little as he wanted, day or night. Each month he paid the Valley Cab dispatch service a fee to use their name and logo and provide him with customers. The car, a decommissioned police cruiser he’d picked up at a salvage yard was his; he owned and maintained it. Someday, he hoped to have enough socked away for a deposit on one of the vacant storefront properties down on Federal, maybe beside the pawn broker. He figured he’d be a one-man operation at first, but in time he’d get a few more cars and a few reliable employees to drive them. He’d only managed to save up about five grand since the idea first struck him, but within a couple years, he might just be able to pull it off. Until then, though, he had little control over the fares he was offered, only whether or not he took them when they came through on the radio, so he took what he could get, mostly drunks leaving bars or people traveling through on business, needing lifts to and from their hotels. But he got his share of crazies, too, people you’d never expect to have money, much less be willing to fork it over for cab fare—bums, crackheads. Now and then, everybody needed a ride, and in a forgotten town like this, the buses weren’t always running.

He hadn’t been fully aware that he’d been thinking about the young woman from two nights earlier until the bell over the restaurant’s front door chimed and he looked up. She approached the cash register, and after exchanging a few words with the gray-haired Asian woman behind the counter, the woman disappeared into the kitchen through a swinging door. The young woman remained standing, and after a moment she sat on a bench between two potted bamboo trees and began playing with her phone.

Now that he saw her outside of the cab’s backseat, Gordon realized just how thin she was. Sickly even, fragile enough to blow away in light wind. She’d been living rough, there was no doubt. Her bangs were pinned back, and even in the subdued light thrown by the gilded lanterns above the tables, he could see the discoloration around her eye and jaw. She looked up and caught him staring. “Can I help you with something?” she asked, not unkindly. She had a slight drawl he hadn’t noticed before. Kentucky maybe, or West Virginia. He’d felt inconspicuous enough in the back corner, but now he felt exposed and awkward, which was more or less his usual state when in the presence of beautiful women, damaged or otherwise. “No, sorry,” he said. “It’s just, I wondered if everything was okay.”

“Fine,” she said. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Well, you seemed more than a little freaked out the other night.”

She seemed confused, but then there was recognition. “Oh, the cabbie, right? I didn’t recognize you. Shit. Sorry about skipping out without paying, by the way. I was going through some things.” She got up and joined him in the booth.

Finally he shrugged and said, “The meter wasn’t running anyway. I was off duty.”

She was amiable enough, but fidgety. The sleeves of her sweatshirt were pushed up, and he caught sight of several marks on her wrists and forearms, some of them scabbed over, some fresh and ringed with red.

“So anyway,” she said, “thanks for the ride, I guess.”

“Everything worked out then,” he said. “You found somewhere to go?”

“I’m at the Tally Ho next door. Got a lift back after Damien cooled down. He was on the warpath again. Gets like that when he hasn’t slept for a few days, but he tires himself out eventually.”

“Damien,” he echoed after a moment’s hesitation. Here he was prying again. What had gotten into him? He’d never been one not to mind his own damn business. But something about her had him transfixed and wanting to know more. “Is he your pimp or something?”

She laughed so hard at this that it startled him, and he looked around, even though there was no one else in the place to hear her outburst. “Pimp? Jesus, man. Where the hell do you think we are? This is butt-fuck Ohio, not the Big Apple. Pimp. That’s real cute.”

His face grew hot. He’d made an assumption, based on the track marks and the fact that the Tally Ho Motel was a reputed nest of drug activity and prostitution—at least twice a year, he’d see on the news that the DEA or some other agency had done a sweep of the place—and he felt not only presumptuous now, but foolish.

“Sorry, wasn’t my place to ask,” he said.

“No harm, no foul,” she said, and smiled at him. “He’s just my boyfriend.”

“He do that a lot?” Gordon asked, gesturing toward her face.

Her smile faltered, then she brushed it off like it was no big deal. “Just a misunderstanding,” she said. “I shoulda known to let him alone when he was spun out like that.”

He stopped himself before he could interrogate further, as much as he wanted to.

The old woman emerged from the kitchen carrying a takeout order with a receipt attached to it. She looked around when she saw the young woman was gone, and then she spotted her in the booth with Gordon. “Order ready,” she announced.

The young woman got up. “I’m Haley,” she said, but didn’t offer her hand to shake.

“Gordon,” he said, holding out his. She shook it. Her skin felt clammy but delicate in his palm.

“Nice talking with you, Gordon,” she said, then started away, stopping after a few steps. She turned back. “Say, Gordy. You wouldn’t have a few bucks you could spare, would ya?


Haley. Ha-ley. The name made him think of comets tearing through space, burning bright and dying fast. He couldn’t stop thinking about her. Another three days had gone by since he’d seen her at the restaurant, and he kept seeing her in his mind. The frail, abused figure. And that smile. He’d be driving a fare from the bus station to the Holiday Inn south of the city, or picking someone up from the sticks, and he’d remember that smile. It’s not that women had never smiled at him, just that most of them had felt like pity smiles, those given by schoolteachers to children too dumb to learn. But Haley—there had been warmth in hers, something that expressed an unspoken connection between them.

Finally he couldn’t take it anymore. After picking up a twitchy couple, who’d crammed into the backseat of his cab with a large flat-screen TV, and dropping them at the pawnshop downtown, he drove to the Fortune Moon. He parked and waited to catch a glimpse of her at the motel next door, passing up several calls from dispatch as he did so. After a few hours, however, he gave up, telling himself he was being ridiculous—she was just a junkie who’d needed a ride.

But the next day, he was sitting in his usual booth eating a Beef & Broccoli lunch special when he saw her crossing the parking lot with a plastic grocery bag. She returned to her room on the ground floor of the Tally Ho, and just the sight of her had made his stomach tighten, so he left his unfinished lunch on the table.

Outside, he watched from his cab as a man drove up about ten minutes later and knocked on the door. It opened and he entered, and after a minute had passed, a different man came out. Though he couldn’t be sure, Gordon believed this to be Damien, a lanky guy swimming in an oversized T-shirt, with a shaved head and a scraggly red goatee. Gray tattoos, which from this short distance looked like some sort of contagious infection, patched his arms and neck. He stood with his knee bent, one foot against the brick wall of the building, smoking a cigarette. Then he walked to the edge of the parking lot, paced there for a while, came back. A half hour later, the door to the room opened and the man who’d gone in left. In the doorway, Haley handed something to Damien, after which he hurried up to a room on the second floor. When he returned a few minutes later, he went into the room with Haley. Gordon stayed parked there for some time, waiting, for what exactly he didn’t know. They’d been in there for over an hour when Gordon finally started the cab and drove home to check on his mother.


Men came and went, and for days Gordon watched, feeling helpless, as she must have felt helpless, he told himself. It was the same routine, taking place every two or three hours: a man would come, enter the room. Damien would exit. He’d linger, smoking and talking on his phone, now and then crossing to the gas station and returning with a bottle in a paper sack. Thirty minutes would pass, sometimes more. He’d duck into another room after the man left, and he and Haley would remain holed up until the next round.

Call him what she would, Damien was whoring her out. Gordon had no doubt. And despite how nonchalant she’d acted when he’d made the assumption, or when he’d asked her about the bruises on her face, he knew she must want help. Each time the door closed, he pictured her behind it, half naked on a seedy mattress, buried beneath the weight of some sleazy stranger, strung out and afraid. No one would submit to such a life willingly. The drugs, sure. He watched the news, understood that there was an epidemic, especially in the Midwest. He knew there was a lack of funding for treatment centers, certain politicians pushing for stricter laws, more prisons. He knew it wasn’t as easy as just changing the course of your life. But if the right person . . .

The thought broke off. “And I suppose you’re the right person.” He scoffed at himself, a disgusted sound, much like the one his mother made when he forgot something at the store, or when he wasn’t prompt enough with her foot lotion. “You can go just ahead and forget that nonsense,” he said.


But he couldn’t forget.

Later that night, he parked at the Fortune Moon and walked over to the Tally Ho while Haley was inside with a large bearded man who’d driven up in a brand new Silverado.

Gordon was nervous, unaccustomed to such shady dealings, never more than a distant, passive observer. But all he had to do was think of her—Haley—and what she must be going through, and that steadied him enough to approach.

“You Damien?” he asked the guy outside.

Up close, he looked even rattier than he had from across the lot through the cab’s windshield.

“Who the fuck’s asking?” he said.

“Just heard you might have a girl. I’ve got cash.”

His ears seemed to prick up at this. A flicker in his beady eyes.

“You sure as hell don’t look like no cop, but who you been talking to?”

“Just a passenger. I drive a cab.”

Damien looked at him skeptically, then said, “Fifty bucks for half an hour, hundred for a whole.”

“That’s fine,” he said. “I guess I’ll take an hour.”

Damien checked his cell phone. “She’s indisposed at the moment. Come back in fifteen.”

Gordon nodded and returned to his cab. He listened to the static of dispatch on the CB and eventually shut it off. It was the longest fifteen minutes of his life. When the bearded man finally came out and left, Damien went inside and Gordon walked back over.

Haley opened the door. She looked exhausted but surprised. “Hey,” she said. “What are you doing here?”

“Come in and shut the door,” Damien said. Gordon did as he was told. Damien held out his hand, waved his fingers. “Money up front.”

Gordon gave him a hundred dollars and Haley pulled Damien aside, whispering something to him. “It’s cool,” he told her. “Ain’t gonna pass this up, are you?” She didn’t reply, just looked down and shook her head. “Then I’ll be upstairs. You can hold off a little longer, right?” She nodded, then he was gone, and Gordon was alone with her.

“So,” she said, sitting on the edge of the bed. “What’s it gonna be?”

At first, he didn’t know what to say, though he’d rehearsed this moment all afternoon. He thought they’d just talk for a while, get to know each other a little, then he’d ease into it. But his nerves caused him to just blurt it out. “I want to take you somewhere, away from here. Well, not take you away, just . . . I want to help you, I mean.”

Her response was not one he would have predicted. “Man, you watch too many movies.”

It was like a slap. “Huh?” he said.

“You want to help me, let’s do this and get it over with, ‘cause I’m not feeling too great right about now.” She got up and crossed to the small table by the TV, started searching for something among a mess of wrinkled foil squares and empty cellophane wrappers.

“But, I don’t understand,” he said.

“That much is obvious,” she said, and sighed. “Look, man—Gordon, right?—I bet you got some ideas about what life is like, driving around in that cab and all, but let me explain something to you. You probably think I run away from home ‘cause Daddy touched me or something, and maybe Mama let him, right? Probably think that if I only had enough money to get to California or wherever that I could start over, finally go to college, get a nursing degree or some shit.” She laughed. “Look, I’m sure you see yourself as a real noble guy. But this ain’t prime time, Gordy. Get with the fucking program. There ain’t no happy endings, only potentially less shitty ones. People do what people do, and I don’t do shit I don’t want to. Get it?”

“I didn’t mean to . . . I didn’t think that.” Only he had. He’d fantasized about saving her, and she’d somehow reduced his entire sense of what things were like, of how they could be, into a plot summary, then pierced it with holes until it deflated.

“I shouldn’t have come,” he said.

“You paid for the hour,” she said. “Take it or leave it. But we don’t give refunds.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

He got back to his cab feeling stupid and hollow. It was nearly 10 p.m. Again he wondered what the hell he’d been thinking. What had ever possessed him to believe he should play savior? Suddenly he pictured his mother at home, a shapeless mound in bed, chain smoking and gorging on cupcakes, her legs swollen, tight with fluid. He started the cab, turned on the CB, and listened to the calls coming through dispatch. He should really go on a few more runs, or just drive out of town and never come back. But she would need her medicine soon, and like always, he would be there.


He’d just finished sponging the folds in his mother’s back and was now massaging her shoulders while she shoveled fistfuls of chocolate-covered pretzels into her mouth and watched one of those competitive cooking shows. It was like kneading a slick lump of dough, and when his hands began to ache, he took to digging in with his elbows.

“Ouch!” she yelled. “Not so goddamn hard, you dipshit.”

He’d been thinking about Haley and zoned out. “Sorry, Ma.”

She grunted. “Ah, just get the hell off me if you can’t do it right.”

Normally, he’d apologize again and continue rubbing her down, but tonight he left her and went down to his room to pop in a DVD. He decided on Taxi Driver. He re-watched the film every couple months or so, never grew tired of it. And it seemed particularly appropriate tonight. When it got to the scene where a young Jodi Foster jumps into the cab because she’s trying to flee her pimp, Gordon recalled the night a week previous, when Haley had jumped into his backseat, that sense of familiarity that had come and gone, and he found himself wondering: What would Travis Bickle do? It was laughable, but it seemed to cheer him up a little. What indeed. And the more he thought about it, the more absurd it was. First off, he would arm himself to the teeth. Gordon had owned a gun briefly, a .38 revolver, kept it in the cab for protection. But one night, he was held up at knifepoint while he was parked on a side street waiting on a fare. He’d pissed his pants and never even reached for the piece. The next day he went to firing range, hoping to get a little more comfortable with it. The booming sound of rounds exploding on either side of him made him panicky, though, and his hands wouldn’t stop shaking, so he sold the .38 and got a stun-gun instead. Fortunately, he’d never had cause to use it.

Besides, he thought, Bickle was unhinged, psychotic. He plans to assassinate a presidential candidate because Betsy won’t return his fucking phone calls, for Christ’s sake. “Travis, Travis, what a kook,” Gordon said to the screen. “But in the end? Nah, still a kook.”

By the time the movie was over, he had a new perspective on his own audacity, how utterly dumb he had been. Whatever had driven him to try and interfere in the first place seemed vague and insignificant. She’d been right: this wasn’t some drama in three acts, at the end of which the innocent are vindicated and all the villains slain.

This was the real world. And there were no happy endings.


He’d repeated this to himself, and had come to almost fully accept it as the hard truth when he came out of the Fortune Moon three nights later and found her sitting on the curb by his car, sobbing.

“Haley,” he said. “What’s wrong?”

She looked up at him through bloodshot eyes, mascara running down her cheeks. Her lip had been split. A fresh mark had purpled her jaw. At first she didn’t speak, just continued crying. Then she gained some composure and said in a phlegm-thick voice, “Hi Gordy, you got a minute?”

A light rain had begun to fall, so they got into the cab. She sat in the passenger seat, and in the close confines, the scent of her perfume or shampoo—something crisp with a name like Tropical Mist or Ocean Breeze, he thought—made his heart rate rise.

He let her be the first to speak. “I was thinking about before,” she said. “About your offer.”

A sudden rush spread through him, and he had a renewed sense that it had all been for a reason—her jumping in his cab that first night, his inexplicable meddling in things that shouldn’t have concerned him. “I guess you had another misunderstanding?” he said, looking at the gash on her lower lip. She didn’t appear to get his meaning at first, then understood and looked down, as if embarrassed. He said, “How can I help?”

“There’s this place,” she said. “Down by my folks, outside Lexington. A treatment center. There’s a bed available, and . . .well, I just need a little cash for the bus ticket and to pay some up front deposit or something—you know, because I don’t got no insurance?—and I’d ask Mom and Dad, but it’s just Daddy’s been out of work and . . .”

Her ramble trailed off and she looked out the window. The rain had picked up. It drummed on the roof. Fat drops swelled on the glass, broke, and ran down in jagged trails. She hadn’t looked him in the eye the entire time. Of course not, he thought. She was desperate and ashamed. It made more sense to him now, why she’d been so frustrated and quick to refuse his help the first time—she hadn’t been in her right mind. But she’d had a moment of clarity, however brief, and now she was here with him, asking for his help. Finally, her voice almost a whisper, she said, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t expect you to . . . you hardly know me, and I was such a bitch.”

“Don’t apologize,” he said. “I want to help you. Just tell me how much you need.”

Now she looked at him, eyes wide, so sad and sincere it made his heart hurt. “I don’t really know,” she said. “The bus ticket might not be that much, but the rest—maybe a few thousand? God, I know it’s a lot. I understand if you can’t.”

He thought again of leaving and never coming back, and he wished he could just take her himself, but he couldn’t leave his mother. This time, the realization filled him with a flood of resentment. He thought about how trapped he was, about the money he’d saved and how he really felt no closer to starting his own company. Five grand was nothing. It would help her a lot more than it would help him. Still, he needed to be reasonable. “I can pull together a couple thousand,” he said. “Will that be enough?”

She straightened up in her seat. “Yeah, yeah that would be great,” she said. “That would be fantastic, really.” She began to ramble on some more about how she’d been wrong to snap at him and how the dope had her so mixed up, something about fate and how he must be some kind of angel. And he, too, had felt something had brought them together, felt it now more than ever.

“How soon can you get in?” he asked.

“Right away,” she said. “I could go tonight.”

He couldn’t get the money until the bank opened in the morning, but he handed her what he had in his wallet to get some food. She looked unwell. It was only forty dollars, and part of him knew she’d buy drugs with it. But maybe she’d at least eat a little. If anything, he hoped it would keep her from having to turn tricks until he could come back for her.

“I’ll be here by nine-thirty tomorrow morning to take you to the bus station,” he told her. “You’re making the right choice. Everything’s going to be okay.”


The morning was overcast, but there was a brightness to it, the sky like a blank white slate that seemed to signal to him a new beginning for her, one he’d be a part of in his own small way. When she met him outside the motel, she had only a backpack and a purse, but didn’t seem to be nervous. She said Damien was passed out, so there was nothing to worry about. “He’s been speed-balling for a few days,” she said, “but he finally ran out of steam. He’ll be crashed out for a while.”

“I really wish I could drive you there myself,” he said as he pulled into the station and handed her the envelope containing two grand in twenty-dollar bills. There were people milling about outside the terminal doors, smoking and drinking coffee. A wino in camo pants and a trash bag poncho was yelling at a wall while a security guard chatted up a pair of young women waiting for one of the local buses. “Can I at least come in and wait with you?”

“That’s really not necessary,” she said. “You’ve done so much already.”

He was about to insist that it was no problem when a call came in on the CB. A fare from the Marriott clear out to the Youngstown-Warren regional airport. Being two thousand bucks lighter, he told himself he couldn’t afford to pass up the work. He hesitated for a minute, then answered the call.

“I don’t know how I’ll ever repay you,” Haley said. “But I will someday, Gordy. I promise you I will.”

“You just take care of yourself,” he said. “That’s payback enough.”

She smiled at him, and he drove off, watching as she entered the building. He held onto that image of her leaving for the rest of the morning.

Once the ball had begun rolling, it all happened so quickly. Almost too quickly. She was gone, and he’d probably never see her again. But he was in high spirits, just the same. His fare to the airport, a distinguished, WASPy looking man in a suit that probably cost more than Gordon’s cab, gave him a fat tip, and when he stopped back at the house to check on his mother, even her berating commentary couldn’t bring him down. He was Travis Bickle without the bloodshed. This made Gordon laugh out loud. Sure, Haley had been only one young woman among many pulled into a world of degradation, but they’d found each other, and now she was free. He rolled down his window and whooped at a field of lowing cows on his way back toward civilization. “He was a kook, but they made him a hero!” he shouted, and a solitary bull looked up from munching grass to grace him with a disinterested stare as he passed.

He replayed it all from the beginning and was lost in a sense of redemption, not for her but for himself, of having made up for, in that one act, an unremarkable lifetime of disappointment and regret, of never being or doing enough. Even if no one ever knew what he had done, he would know, and that would be enough. Yes, it would be enough. He floated through this unwavering reverie all afternoon.

But there appeared a schism, like a stress fracture in the surface of his elation, when he was driving home.

“What the?” he muttered, and cut the wheel into the parking lot between the restaurant and the motel, pulling in front of her.

She jumped back, then turned, as if to run, but stopped and stood her ground. “Shit, Gordy, you scared me. I thought you were someone else. I was hoping I’d see you, actually. You’re not gonna believe it.”

He examined her face for truth. He could see her wheels turning behind the mask she wore. And that’s just what it was, he realized—a mask. No. There was an explanation. There had to be.

“There was a mix-up with the bus,” she said. “The next one to Kentucky isn’t until next week.” She rolled her eyes. “Crazy, huh?”

“Crazy,” he agreed.

The door to her motel room swung open and Damien was striding toward them, shirtless and heated, the shadows of his ribs like smears of ash in the gray daylight.

“Well if it ain’t the punk who goes around tryna save people,” Damien said as he approached. He was amped up on something. He looked at Haley. “Get back to the room.”

She looked guilty, caught in something she hadn’t prepared for, then hurried back to motel.

Damien leaned down to Gordon’s level and peered through the passenger window. “Let me ask you something, motherfucker,” he said. “That bitch right there look like she wants saving?” They both looked at Haley as she stood in the doorway watching them.

Gordon tried, but he couldn’t read her. “I just want my money back,” he said. “That’s all.”

Your money?” Damien said. “Motherfucker, you ain’t got no money. You gave it away, tryna be Superman. And it was just too easy.” He laughed at Gordon and backed away from the car. “And before you go thinking something wild, Superman, like calling the cops or some shit, ask yourself what you think they gonna do. You got nothing but your word, and in this world that don’t mean shit with no proof.”

He sat there behind the wheel, stunned as Damien strolled away. He felt like the biggest fool, like every low thing his mother had ever told him he was. Twice now he’d played the fool, it seemed. He tried again to convince himself that it had all been Damien’s idea, that Haley never would have betrayed him like this. She was a good person, just sick. He’d put her up to it. That was it. She’d mentioned his offer, and Damien had devised the entire scheme. But what was it she had said before? People do what people do, and I don’t do shit I don’t want to.

But she wasn’t in her right mind, he told himself, remember?

She played you. They both did. And you walked right into it.

He shook his head, but the more he denied what he knew to be true, the deeper the cracks ran into the picture he’d constructed of her, and of his own role in her story.

He turned the cab around, aimed it for the street, not knowing what else to do but drive. Before he pulled out of the parking lot, he checked his side view. There at the door to the room, Damien scooped her up and spun her. He kissed her and squeezed her ass, and they began to laugh.


He couldn’t call it a plan, not exactly. That would imply too much forethought. But he’d gone home and had two shots of bourbon, then a third, a fourth, and the idea had taken shape with all the detail of a wriggling fish in muddy water. And all he knew now was that he was here.

“Boy, you got some balls, dude,” Damien said when he opened the door. He squared up right away, ready to scrap. And though Gordon had plenty of weight on him, he was no fighter, and Damien was a springy little guy who was clearly shy a few screws.

Gordon held up the bottle of 80mg Oxycontin like an offering. Damien’s eyes, which had been half-lidded in spite of his apparent energy, widened. “I just want to talk,” Gordon said. He looked past Damien at Haley, who was unconscious on the bed, slouched on a mound of dirty pillows in ripped blue jeans and a black bra. This was to Gordon’s advantage. “I want to buy her from you,” he added. The phrase almost made him wince, as if she was a piece of property to be bought and sold, but he didn’t know how else to say it.

“You fucking crazy?” Damien said. “Who do you think I am?”

“Pills and money,” Gordon said. “Just let her come with me. She doesn’t deserve this.”

“And what would you know about what she deserves, Superman?”

He snatched the pills from Gordon before he could reply and stepped aside.

Gordon took this as a sign to come in. Damien shut the door and popped the bottle. He looked inside, nodded slowly, and replaced the lid.

“They’re yours,” Gordon said.

“How much?” Damien said.

“All of them.”

“No, the money,” he said. “What you gonna pay?” Gordon reached into his pocket, pulled out a fold of bills, and handed it to him. Five hundred dollars he kept at home for emergencies. Damien counted it. “Man, this ain’t but a day’s work,” he said.

“I can get more. Tomorrow. I’m good for it. Just let me take her. Please.”

After a moment of staring Gordon down, Damien said, “Yeah, sure, all right, Superman. Go on and fly.”

Without thinking, Gordon moved toward Haley, picked up a hooded sweatshirt from the back of a chair and bent down to cover her with it. There was a charred spoon with an array of other paraphernalia on the nightstand, and she had a cigarette, burned clear down to the filter still between her fingers. He was about to pick her up and carry her out when Damien said, “Damn, you really are a stupid motherfucker,” and Gordon saw his shadow move on the wall as he came up behind him.

Gordon had envisioned some version of this going down, which is why he was able to turn in time, hit Damien with the stun-gun right in the armpit before he could break the beer bottle over Gordon’s head. There was a crack and a sizzle, and Damien seized. He dropped to the floor, still clutching the Oxy bottle in one hand. Gordon hit him again and removed the two syringes from his right jacket pocket, leaving the one he’d prepared for Haley in his left. He checked on her. She stirred and moaned but didn’t come to. Whatever she’d taken, it had been a lot. In the whirl of his head, he’d anticipated her being awake, maybe having to stun her, too, stick her with enough of the Oxy he’d dissolved to knock her out and hopefully not kill her while he dealt with Damien. He hadn’t thought much past that point, though. Once the idea of trying to barter for her had entered his mind, he’d been mostly on autopilot. In fact, he’d scarcely been aware he was following through with it until he was knocking on the door to their room, stomach doing flips, heart stuttering in his chest. But fate, or luck, or some force beyond his comprehension had seen fit to work in his favor. The hard part was over, he thought, removing the needle caps and plugging one into each side of Damien’s scraggly neck. He thumbed the plungers, and watched with numb fascination as Damien first convulsed, then began to froth and bleed. The rat poison doing its work. Gordon had seen the aftermath of what the stuff could do plenty of times, but a rodent of this size, up close and personal? It was a sight to behold. Gruesome. Nothing he could have braced himself for.

When Damien finally stopped twitching a few minutes later, red and milky ooze leaking from the various holes in his head, Gordon walked over to the wastebasket and vomited. One quick, burning heave. After that, he felt much better.

He retrieved the money and the pills. He tied up the trash to dispose of later. Through it all, Haley slept.

There was a pounding coming from upstairs. When her eyes finally opened, it took her a minute to focus and take in her surroundings, which were new to her. Then she began to scream and struggle against the restraints binding her to the armchair. He tried to get her to quiet down, but when she wouldn’t, he placed a strip of duct tape over her mouth. He hadn’t wanted it to come to this, but had suspected she wouldn’t understand, not yet. It would take a little time before she came to her senses. And once she had? No—he wouldn’t think about that just yet. Best to handle one thing at a time.

“It’s all right now,” he said, and shushed her, brushing one of her platinum strands from her face. “Everything’s going to be okay this time. Are you comfortable enough?”

He thought she looked terrified, naturally. Of course, the situation was not ideal. But she would come to see this was for the best. He only needed her to calm down so he could explain.

“I knew it couldn’t have been you,” he said. “No, I knew it had to have been him.” She continued to struggle and mumbled something. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about him anymore,” he said. “They’ll find him in the room. It was a mixture. I gave him a lot, wasn’t sure how much was enough, you know? I’m a bit new to these things. But I knew you’d never be free if someone didn’t do something.”

He zoned out for a moment, remembering Damien’s choked and spasming body on the motel room floor, the hemorrhaging eyes. The horror of it turned his stomach again and sent a shudder up his spine. But her movements brought his attention back.

Understanding crept into her pale eyes. She strained harder against the bonds and screamed behind the tape with renewed intensity.

“I’ll need you to be reasonable,” he said.

There was more pounding from upstairs, and he raised his eyes to the ceiling. It was time for his mother’s insulin. “That’s just Ma,” he said. “But don’t worry, she’ll quiet down soon.”

Haley continued to scream and thrash.

“Hey, you like movies, right?” he said, and grabbed the remote from the top of the TV. “Me too.” He started the DVD that was already in the player. It was one of his favorites, after all. Maybe it would be one of hers, too, in time. Maybe she’d even realize she’d been wrong about happy endings. Yes, he thought. She screamed and screamed but soon grew tired. “That’s better,” he said. He bent down and kissed her on the top of the head, then pulled up a chair and sat down beside her.