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.
“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.