Lee thought of himself as a fish. Fish were players; they hung out just beyond the current, in the calm eddies, and waited for things to come floating their way. When he was a little kid, his old man used to take him fishing when the weather got cool, late in the fall, on the Guadalupe River down near New Braunfels. The state fisheries people would stock the river with brown trout every year for the fishermen to catch because the fish couldn’t actually survive in a Texas river over the summer. The heat killed them.
So what the trout would do, was hang out in the cool eddies until their time came, taking whatever floated their way, doomed from the start and not giving a rat’s ass one way or the other. Slackers, waiting to die, making the best of a completely screwed-up situation. It was a picture Lee liked: relaxed and resigned, mellow as hell, death right there in bed with you, as inevitable as the sun coming up on the first blazing morning of summer.
And yet here he was, ass-over-heels for some underage bad-girl wannabe and the cops looking for him because of it. And not a damned thing he could do about it. He’d even started calling people and telling them where they could reach him if they found something out about where she might be. Might as well stand out in the middle of the street with his cock dangling, waving his shirt around his head. And a load of potential grief just hovering out there, some very deep shit waiting for him to poke his head up so it could suck him in. Stupid, but there it was.
It was easy for guys like his buddy Eddie—dork-ass rich boy, trust fund kid, been living on gravy his whole life, so fug-ugly he couldn’t score to save his life. Eddie was still a couple years out from getting to dip into the money his old man had locked up in the trust fund, but he still had it pretty sweet, as far as Lee was concerned. For one thing, Eddie had a house, and it was all his, though over the last couple of years since he’d dropped out of college, he’d trashed it out pretty thoroughly. His daddy had bought the house in a nice little subdivision when Eddie started school at Texas Wesleyan University, thinking he’d save a pile on rent, then sell the house when Eddie graduated. But Eddie never graduated, and now the house was a dump with holes in the walls from rowdy party-goers and a leaking roof that Eddie never bothered to do anything about, so that the ceiling was spotted with huge water stains colored the reddish brown of chicken livers and the whole house smelled of mildew and rot.
That was Eddie. But Eddie didn’t mind if Lee hung out for days, and he kept the fridge filled and the cable bill paid. Eddie brought home cases of beer and good Colorado weed. So Lee waited, sitting in the mess and the stink, spending a whole lot of time doing a whole lot of nothing, waiting for a call. But when the news came, it was good old Eddie who brought it, big grin on his face, as faithful and eager to please as a Labrador retriever.
Eddie came slamming through the door as he always did, making it bang against the wall behind it so hard that Lee almost pitched reflexively out of the couch, ready to run.
“Hey,” Eddie said, grinning like a monkey. He was short, goofy-looking, dressed half Bauhaus-goth, half crumb-bum in dirty black jeans and a leather duster. He was at least two or three years older than Lee, but you wouldn’t guess it looking at him. Lee sometimes wondered how in the hell Eddie had managed to survive, living alone in a house that he left open to just about any creature of the street who wandered in the door needing a place to crash or fix.
“What the hell, dude?”
Eddie pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket, tossed it into Lee’s lap, then dropped with a dust-raising thump onto the couch beside him.
“Just tell me, dumbass,” Lee said, but he picked the paper up from where it sat like a fat moth on the fly of his jeans and opened it.
“It’s an address. I got it from my brother the fucking cop.”
“Okay. What the fuck is it the address for?”
“Listen, I shit you not. That’s where your girlfriend is.”
“No fucking way,” Lee said. He sat up and leaned forward over the dirty carpet, holding the sheet of paper out into the square of light coming in through the curtain-less front window. “So, where is this?”
“Group home, man. Fucking lockdown. She’s not going to be there long, though. She’s got, like, family out in goddamn west Texas, and they’re gonna take her back there.”
“Tomorrow or something. Maybe the day after.”
“You didn’t say anything about me to your brother, did you?” He didn’t think that was something Eddie would do, but you never knew. Eddie’s brother was just as much a black sheep of the family as Eddie was, but he’d gone the other way, blowing off the whole MBA thing his old man had planned so he could become a tight-assed freak in a pig’s uniform, a Nazi cop who’d like nothing in the world better than to hang Lee up by his low-life balls.
“I wouldn’t do that to you, dude.” He held a hand up, deeply sincere, a dumbass, indeed, loyal as a hound.
But Lee wasn’t listening. His mind was already somewhere else. He was seeing the shape of things to come, how it was going to be, how he was going to make it be. He was thinking about his own sweet little loli, and just how he was going to get her back.
‘Hey, man,” he said to Eddie, “you think I could borrow your car a while? I got to see some people, do a little business.”
Eddie shrugged. “Hey, whatever you need, man.”
“Cool,” Lee said again, “that’s cool.” Soon enough he’d be back on his game. Back in his own place in some other town with that pretty little girl who so endlessly preyed on his mind. Who was too damned sweet and too damned smart and, he had to admit, too damned young. Who might just say something she shouldn’t, if the right person asked the wrong questions.
In Wayne Lee Whitlock we trust, he thought. The rest can go take a leap right off the face of the fucking earth.
Lee was seeing the shape of things to come, how it was going to be, how he was going to make it be. He was thinking about the pills in the plastic grocery bag sitting safe under the seat of Eddie’s car, little glassine envelopes stuffed with candy. Traveling capital, though none of it was worth as much as the stash of oxy his buddy Dub was holding. And that was stop number one. Second stop was the girl. Third stop was fucking gone.
Dub was solid, though more grind than fish, day-jobbing through life with a wife and a kid and a nine-to-five, and doing his shit on the sly, holding the heavy weight so Lee wasn’t cruising around with a life-sentence everywhere he went, worried about “enhanced first degree felony” beefs because some cop in a cruiser might pull him over for looking hinky. The wife knew about the junk, Lee thought, but he wasn’t sure. Either way, it was a damned stupid way for a man to do business, like swimming with a rock tied around your neck. Like canned fucking tuna.
Lee didn’t do the grind, but he knew what a bullet-to-the-head that shit was. The first paid job he had, he was fourteen and stupid. His old man had set it up with a guy who wholesaled produce to little local grocery stores in the hick towns scattered across central Texas. Every morning for a whole summer, his mother would wake him up with the gray light of five o’clock. A-goddamn-M framing the window, and he would put on his work clothes and go off down the gravel road through the woods, tripping over wash-outs and roots in the half-light to wait by the highway. Another guy who worked for the company would pick him up on his way out to the warehouse.
The first month or so had been bad, especially when the watermelons came in and Lee had to ride around in the back of an open-top semi-trailer around to Wimberley and Dripping Springs and Bourne, the sun on his neck like an open flame. They stopped at every grocery and fruit stand so he could pitch thirty-pound melons fifteen feet down, out over the side of the trailer to one of the other guys, or one of them would pitch them to him. There was an art to catching the melons: you had to catch them with your forearms as well as your hands, and you had to give way with your knees and shoulders as the melon came into your arms, your whole body absorbing the impact. If you didn’t do it right, you broke the melon, or the melon would break something on you. After you caught it, you would turn and pitch it in one continuous motion to the next man, who would stow it in a six-by-six crate on a wooden pallet. By the time you turned back, the next melon would be arcing down. Crazy hard work, all out in the blazing summer sun, all day long, until you’d rather be dead than catch another fucking watermelon.
So screw that. Screw it forever until it died screaming.
He parked Eddie’s junk-ass car a couple blocks over from Dub’s place as a courtesy and a precaution. The neighborhood was older than Eddie’s but somehow still less run down, lots of trees and actual sidewalks, heaved up in places by the roots of the live oaks. The smell of someone burning leaves somewhere drifting by like some sort of real estate gag to make the suckers want to buy.
Dub’s place was an apartment over a garage tucked into some old lady’s backyard. Lee looked around before walking up the driveway, saw no one except some kid on a bike a half-block away making slow circles on the pavement, doing some Saturday morning screwing-around. He walked slow and casual up the cracked driveway, doing his best to look like a citizen, climbed the wooden stairs and knocked lightly on the door.
It was quiet in the backyard, the trees and the house making a buffer from the rest of the world. He could hear a thumping sound, mechanical and constant, like a loose rod in an engine, from inside the apartment, maybe something going around in a dryer. He knocked again, a little harder, and the door opened a crack, Dub’s old lady looking out over the chain, eyes narrow and suspicious. She wasn’t un-pretty, as twenty-something moms went, blond, slim, big eyes and nice-enough tits, but she looked hard-worn and her hair was burned frizzy from bleach.
“What?” she said, abrupt and unfriendly, hand already flat against the inside of the door to shove it shut.
“Hey, it’s Lee. Dub’s friend.” He was trying hard to remember her name. Melissa, he thought, or something like it.
“I know who you are,” she said. She glared at him. Her voice sounded raw. “He got arrested. So you should go the hell away.”
He leaned his shoulder against the door to resist if she tried to push it shut on him, but she didn’t try. “You serious? When the fuck did that happen?”
“What do you care?” Her face started to slip, her mouth open a little like she was about to start crying. Or panting, maybe, which was somehow worse. Like she was having trouble getting enough air. “It was last night. They pulled him over, in the car.”
“Yeah, OK,” Lee said, quickly, wanting to forestall any plans she had for losing it in front of him. He glanced back at the old lady’s house. “He wouldn’t say anything about me, right?”
“Fuck you,” she said breathlessly, her face screwing up. He knew she was going to start wailing or screaming or both and he rammed the door hard with his shoulder. The chain-lock’s base popped loose from the door jamb with surprisingly little resistance, and the door hit her, not hard, and she fell back onto her ass on the dingy beige carpet. He half-expected her to start screaming her head off, but she didn’t. She just sat there with her hands over her face, not even crying so far as he could tell.
He closed the door. “Shit. I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, “are you OK?” He felt funny standing over her, so he knelt down beside her on the carpet. She unwound the second his knee hit the carpet and clawed at him with one hand, taking some skin off his left cheek. He leapt back and almost slapped the shit out of her, but held fire. There wasn’t much of his daddy’s view of the world he’d held on to, but hitting a woman was one line he still wasn’t easy with crossing. Didn’t keep him from being tempted, though. He touched his cheek, feeling for blood, but though it stung it didn’t seem to be bleeding.
“Cut that fucking shit out. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“What do you want?” she said, her voice low but hovering on a note that could become a shriek with just a little more air. She was looking at him now, her face flushed but hard-set, angry.
“Just my stuff. And then I’ll get so gone you won’t even smell the smoke.”
“There’s no fucking stuff. The cops took the stuff.”
“If the cops took the stuff, this place would be torn to hell,” he said, and lifted his chin at the room. The thing was, it did look pretty torn to hell, though not in the way cops would have left it. Torn to hell the way anything cheap and old and rented would be torn to hell. And messy, random shit all over the place. Toys and cheerios scattered loose on the dirty carpet. He hadn’t thought about the kid until that very moment, Dub’s kid, this woman’s kid. They always had him put away somewhere when he’d come around in the past. Which maybe was weird, now that he thought of it. He was conscious of the thumping noise again, from the single bedroom in the back of the apartment, not so much like a dryer as a knuckle on a table, someone keeping time to a song he couldn’t hear.
“He had pills with him in the car when they pulled him over. That’s why he got arrested.”
He groaned. “Well, fuck.”
“Yeah, I guess it really sucks for you. Now go the fuck away.”
“The cops haven’t been here?”
She sighed and picked herself up from the carpet and stood with her arms crossed, looking less angry, more listless and forlorn. A little prettier for it. He saw she had a couple of cheerios from the carpet stuck to one of her forearms, and she seemed to notice them at the same time he did and brushed them off.
“Not yet,” she said. She gestured out the still-open door. “I saw some guys hanging out in a car on the street. They might be cops, I guess. I don’t know. I don’t know anything.” Lee felt the paranoia creep up the back of his neck like an itch. He went back to the door, looked down the driveway. Nothing. He closed the door and they both just stood for a long moment looking at each other, the thumping from the other room like a counterpoint to the slight throbbing of the scratches on his cheek.
“What the hell is that noise?” he said, not especially wanting to know, but just wanting to say something that didn’t sound panicked or desperate. Because he wasn’t, not yet, but he could be quick, and that was something he wasn’t going to let leak out if he could help it.
Instead of answering, she turned and walked down the short hall to the one bedroom. He watched her go in, considering his options, what the chances were that his shit was still in the apartment somewhere, in some place maybe she didn’t know about, and where the hell that might be. The thumping sound stopped.
“Fuck this,” he said, “just fuck it.” He pulled the front door open, in a hurry now to get the hell out, and stopped dead on the landing as a white Crown Vic, the kind the cops drove, turned off the street into the long driveway. Not cops, though. The car had expensive chrome rims and windows tinted nearly black. It occurred to him that he might not be the only one that Dub had been holding for. It occurred to him that the dudes in the Crown Vic might not give a flying fuck that he didn’t know a damned thing, really, about any of this shit. He stepped back inside, closed the door and threw the deadbolt.
He lunged down the hall and into the bedroom. Melissa, or whatever her name was, was standing beside a crib holding a kid, maybe three years old, the kid wearing a blue plastic helmet with a strap running under his chin to hold it tightly on, and Lee understood what the thumping had been. He felt a sudden, weird sort of afraid that had kindled with the sight of the white car outside and found fuel that might turn it into to some kind of blaze in seeing this small woman holding on to this clearly fucked-up kid. He hadn’t spent much time feeling afraid since his daddy had died, and he didn’t much like the feeling.
“There’s some guys just pulled in the driveway. You expecting them?”
“No.” She hefted the kid up to get a better grip. The kid was thin, but big enough to probably be pretty heavy, staring at the wall with his mouth open, not even looking at the stranger standing in the doorway.
“There’s no back door, is there?”
“I don’t suppose you’ve got a gun or something?”
“No. Knives, I guess. In the kitchen. Why?” She hefted the kid again, shifted him to her hip. Her eyes went a little wide and he thought maybe she was finally getting a little panicked. The kid put a hand up to his mouth but continued to stare at the same place on the wall like there was something fascinating there instead of white paint and nothing else.
“I got a feeling these dudes came here for the same reason I came here. I got a feeling they might be pissed.”
“I didn’t do anything,” she said, her voice getting high.
“I know that.” He gestured to the window on the back wall. “What’s out there?”
“Someone else’s back yard. The fence runs right across the back of the garage.”
He pulled the yellow plastic blinds aside and pressed his head against the window glass and looked down, the ground twelve, fifteen feet down. A chain link fence about a foot back from the wall, and beyond it an overgrown backyard. There was some junk in the high grass next to the fence, a couple of beat-up lawnmowers, a rusty bicycle frame. Damned sure nothing you’d want to land on if you had the choice.
He heard Melissa say something quiet to the kid, and at the same moment someone knocked at the front door, a quick, sharp, three beat rapping that made his heart leap into his throat. He felt a panicky urge to turn off all the lights and hide, pretend the place was empty, but he knew it was too late for that. They’d seen him, for sure.
The knocking came again, longer and harder, someone beating at it now with a fist. “Yo! Asshole!” someone yelled.
Lee unlatched the window, lifted it open and punched out the screen with an open palm. It fell down onto the top of the fence and hung up on the wire ends of the top of the chainlink. He put a leg out the window, climbed through, the girl and her kid watching him quietly like they were waiting for a signal for something. He lowered himself down until he was hanging from the sill by his fingertips, still a good two or three feet above the top of the fence. He dangled for a long moment, contemplating how much his next move was going to hurt, then pushed off against the wall with his feet and let go. He cleared the fence by inches and hit the ground on his heels and fell back hard, rolling through the weeds and trash, the pain sharp in his ankles and in one elbow he’d managed to slam against the rusty carcass of a lawnmower. He lay in the deep grass, half-stunned and wondering how badly he’d fucked himself up.
He looked back up at the window, and the girl was there. She’d set the kid on the sill with his feet hanging out the window and was looking down at Lee where he was sprawled out on his back. Somebody started up banging hard on the door again, loud enough he thought they weren’t knocking any more but trying to break the thing down. She looked back over her shoulder, then down at Lee again, and he could see in her eyes what she intended to do.
In an instant, he saw it all in his mind. Her pitching the kid at him, the kid clawing at the air, screaming, crashing onto the ragged top of the fence or the junk below. The ugly sound of impact, bones shattered, organs ruptured. The kid dead and broken with his mother hanging out the window screaming. He scrambled up to his feet, mouth open to shout at her to fucking don’t do it. He didn’t even get a word out.
She heaved and the kid pitched out and down. One small yelp, a sound like a dog makes when it’s kicked. He flipped forward as he fell, his hands wide like he was trying to grab on to something. He fell in an arc, like a watermelon pitched from fifteen feet up on a produce truck’s trailer. Without even thinking, Lee caught him in the same way, with his forearms and hands, his knees flexing to take the impact. The weight knocked the wind out of him and he toppled backwards again into the weeds, the kid clutched to his chest. The kid struggled in his arms, but not much, and began to wail quietly, a lost, toneless kind of sound.
He let go of the kid, then rolled onto his hands and knees and struggled up. Every part of his body was shaking, and he had some trouble getting air. His elbow felt like he’d twisted it nearly off. He looked back up at the window, but Melissa was gone. He heard a shout that sounded like it might be from inside the apartment, a man’s voice, loud and angry. The crash of something breaking.
“Fuck this shit,” he said, not quite out loud. There was no way left to win anything in this, and some good ways to lose. He looked up at the empty window, expecting a face to appear in it. He knew that if one did, he would run, and he wouldn’t look back. No face appeared. He looked at the kid sitting in the weeds among the junk, head bowed almost to his skinny knees, still wailing quietly, starting to rock a bit. The blue helmet made his head look like some sort of bright piece of trash in the high grass, something a breeze could push into a breathy, mindless rhythm.
For a long second Lee thought he might pick the kid up, take him somewhere safe, give him over to some authority somewhere who could do right by him. He could see himself doing it, carrying through, walking the walk. He’d saved the kid once already, right? Like the bible verse about bringing justice to the fatherless and pleading the widow’s cause. A righteous man. The thought pissed him off. Like his mother had managed to sandbag him somehow, had snuck up on him with all her bible shit when he wasn’t looking.
In Wayne Lee Whitlock we trust, the only kind of goddamn righteous he gave the first fuck about. For I know that in me dwelleth no good thing, the bible said, and as in all things it was right. Good things got your ass nailed to a wall.
Beside the house that the yard belonged to was a low gate, and he vaulted it without looking back. Give no opportunity to the devil, his daddy would say. Deny temptation in all its subtle forms and craft. He jogged along the sidewalk toward where he had parked the car, this street just as empty as the other one, emptier even, no kid on a bike cutting pavement circles, just trees and parked cars. He was already planning what next, seeing the future in his head, the scratch he could get for the junk he still had, not a whole lot but maybe enough. His sweet little thing still waiting to be set free. The river of the world flowing bright with possibilities.
He turned a corner and saw Eddie’s beater of a car, and beside it a tall tightlipped dude in mirrored cop-sunglasses just standing there still like a street sign, hand behind his back like he was touching something snugged in the waistband of his jeans. Lee didn’t have to turn around to know that there was someone behind him as well, maybe sprung up from behind one of the cars he had passed, maybe following him since he had jumped the gate out of that weedy back yard. He didn’t bother putting his hands up or even saying a word. The current at his back pushed him as it always had toward the sun-glare dazzling off the lenses of those sunglasses, and, without hesitation, into that blazing light he went.