Urban Fantasy Suspense R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
D uring   the   tumult   of   Vietnam,   half-brothers   follow   extreme   paths that   tear   them   apart   and   challenge   their   survival.   John   lashes   out, smothered   under   the   shadow   of   his   overachieving   brother.   Tony enlists    in    the    Navy    to    pursue    his    convictions.    Mistaken    identity propels    one,    duty    hardens    the    other.    Their    mentors    and    lovers transform   and   entangle   their   journeys   in   directions   neither   could imagine.
Chapter 1 ~ Tony Rollins Spring, 1962 ~ I    blocked   another   sloppy,   open-handed   swing,   but   they   were   getting   more   forceful   as Dad   grew   frustrated   and   angrier.   My   gut   wrenched   with   a   confusion   of   emotions.   I wanted   to   pull   back   a   fist   and   lay   into   the   man.   Wanted   to,   with   every   ounce   of   venom inside   of   me.   Maybe   the   pity   interfered.   Nothing   worse   than   hitting   a   kid,   than   hitting   a drunken cripple. “Wha’d I tell you?” my stepfather slurred. “Wha’d I tell you about the skateboard?” I   backed   away.   The   smell   of   stale   beer   and   cigarettes   wafted   on   his   breath.   This   was the   longest   the   man   had   maintained   his   focus   for   a   year.   A   hell   of   a   thing   for   the   mean son of a bitch to focus on. Paul   Ruud   two-stepped   forward   in   his   crawfish   shimmy,   a   new   torrent   pressing   me back.   I   danced   the   man   across   the   front   walk   as   quickly   as   I   could   to   get   this   new   abuse out   of   sight   of   the   neighbors.   The   son   of   a   bitch   wouldn’t   stop,   taking   us   through   the length   of   our   tiny   garage.   My   lower   lip   swelled.   Wasn’t   the   first   time.   The   right   side   of my face burned from that first, unexpected slap. Even   without   the   case   of   beer   in   the   man’s   gut   I   could   have   pasted   him.   I   didn’t   join the boxing team freshman year for my health. Well, maybe I did. Survival is good health. But   I   had   to   live   with   the   bastard   tomorrow.   There   are   thresholds   that   can’t   be   re- crossed.   Also,   the   man   talked   about   the   missing   chunk   of   his   skull.   What   if   he   fell and—could that really kill him? In   two   more   steps   I’d   be   cornered.   What   would   he   do   then?   How   long   could   the jackass   keep   this   up?   Before   my   shoulder   was   against   the   wall,   I   pushed   away   a   half-step and   slid   across   the   man’s   left   leaving   him   behind   like   a   picked   defender.   I   ran.   Ignored the rant to, “Get the hell back here.” No point in putting up with that shit. I   headed   for   Carl’s   but   decided   I’d   be   too   easy   to   find   there.   I   didn’t   want   Carl   to   see my   tears   or   my   fat   lip,   either.   Didn’t   need   any   conversation   about   how   stupid   the   man was. Worse, the pity. The man was an ass, but also the only father I’d ever known. Even looked up to him, once. When   Paul   was   sober,   he   was   okay.   As   fun   as   any   of   my   friends’   fathers—before   he got sick. When he came home from the hospital, the world was different. He   always   had   a   temper.   Didn’t   require   alcohol.   The   man   probably   deserved   all   the shit    God    dumped    on    him.    His    karma.    Though,    what    ten-year-old    deserved    to    be    a cripple?   Surgery   on   his   itsy-bitsy   brain   and   he   was   worthless   to   his   former   employer.   No job.   The   drinking   got   worse   than   it   ever   had   been.   Not   just   measured   from   quitting   time to bedtime. I   passed   Carl’s,   glanced   over   my   shoulder   to   make   sure   my   stepdad   didn’t   follow   me. I’d   already   decided   where   to   go,   to   be   alone,   but   no   way   I   was   going   to   double   back   and take the chance of crossing the man’s path. I   continued   to   the   end   of   the   block,   two   lefts,   and   walked   for   the   desert   fifteen minutes   away,   ten   if   I   walked   fast.   A   four-strand   barbwire   fence   and   I   might   as   well   be   a hundred   miles   from   another   living   being.   Peace,   among   the   ten-foot-tall   mesquite   and mounds of cacti. I   wiped   my   running   nose,   a   last   tear,   and   looked   around   to   make   sure   no   one   caught me   crying.   Didn’t   need   that   getting   around.   Especially   with   my   teammates.   I   had   a reputation to uphold. There   was   a   gaggle   of   punks   playing   with   their   toy   trucks   in   one   yard   but   they   didn’t look   up.   Still,   I   picked   up   my   pace,   took   deep   breaths   to   calm   down,   and   shoved   my hands   into   my   pockets.   The   sun   wasn’t   below   the   mountain,   but   there   was   a   chill   in   the air. Mom would be home in an hour, and it’d be safe. The bastard would have gotten over it. Hopefully. ~ I    flipped   off   the   overhead   light   at   the   door   and   felt   my   way   to   my   bed.   Sliding   between my   sheets,   the   quiet   hung   in   the   air.   Only   the   mumble   of   the   TV   down   the   hall   disturbed it. Maybe I’d get out of any conversation with John. “T— Tony?” My luck didn’t last. “Not a good night to bug me.” “Th—thanks,” John said. I   didn’t   answer   right   away.   “Yeah,   well.   I   hope   you   enjoy   the   stupid   thing.   It’ll probably be the last thing I ever do for you.” “F—first time I can r—remember you doing anything for me.” John   got   through   the   sentence   with   only   a   couple   stutters.   Amazing .   “Figures   I’d   get the crap slapped out of me for my trouble.” “How’d   you   know   Dad   would   forget   to   stop   and   buy   me   the   skateboard   like   he   said he would?” I rolled my eyes. “Maybe I forgot he said he would.” “Y—you’re   an   ass,   but   y—you   don’t   forget.   Y—you   sure   had   to   go   out   of   your   way   to piss him off this t—time.” “Not really. Not that hard.” John   mumbled   something   under   his   breath   I   didn’t   catch,   but   I   didn’t   bother   to grunt a huh . “T—true,” John said louder. “I don’t get why he went so crazy.” I   studied   the   subtle   change   on   the   ceiling   from   the   light   that   filtered   under   the   door, as   the   intensity   from   the   living   room   TV   shifted.   The   shadows   from   the   bare   blinds intersected it all like the jail bars. I   exhaled   hard.   “Because.   I   as   much   said   to   his   face   we   can’t   count   on   him   to   do anything   he   says   he’s   gonna   do.”   I   interrupted   John’s   next   question.   “Go   to   sleep.   You’re way past bothering me.” The tone of a siren echoed, not a real one, from the TV twenty-feet away. ~ I    jerked   awake,   fists   clenched,   wishing   Paul   Ruud   was   dead.   The   memory   loomed   fresh, raw   enough   I   didn’t   have   to   experience   it   in   a   freaking   dream.   I   relived   it   often   enough awake. It never seemed to get far out of my mind—still. As    always,    bizarre    pieces    of    detail    burned    crisp,    as    though    ensuring    the    pain remained   vivid   enough   to   draw   blood.   Like   the   black   and   red   tartan   pattern   of   Mom’s skirt   that   day,   when   she   walked   me   outside   on   the   school’s   front   lawn   to   explain   Ruud wasn’t   my   last   name.   The   hot,   muggy   air.   The   silver-blue   sky.   The   smell   of   fresh-cut grass. We’d   just   moved   to   Missouri   and   I   was   registering   for   sixth   grade.   I’d   always   been known   by   Ruud.   Suddenly,   these   people   said   I   had   to   register   with   the   name   on   my   birth certificate. I   took   the   document   from   Mom.   The   seal   on   the   lower-left   corner   remained   another of   the   incredibly   sharp   memories,   daring   me   to   argue   the   legitimacy   of   the   piece   of paper. The blocks on the form for last and first name read Rollins, Anthony. Rollins—Anthony. Rollins—Anthony. I   turned   the   paper   over.   Perhaps   Rollins   was   a   joke   and   Ruud   would   appear   when   I flipped   it   back.   But   it   still   read,   Rollins—Anthony.   I   handed   it   back   to   Mom,   wanting   to rip it up, sniffing hard to keep my nose from running. I refused to cry. Dad, evidently my stepdad, told me all the time, “Only girls cry.” Chapter Two Tony Rollins ~ P aul   Ruud   woke   us   for   school   like   any   other   day.   He   sang   his   usual,   “Wadda   ya   know, it’s   mornin’   already.”   He   flipped   the   light   switch   on,   off,   and   on   again,   walked   away leaving the door open. The   man   would   return   to   the   kitchen   to   pour   himself   another   cup   of   coffee.   In   the living   room,   he   would   sit   in   the   dark   and   nurse   his   coffee   and   massage   the   immobile, right side of his face, as though that would reverse the paralysis. The   bastard   didn’t   say   another   word   as   we   got   ready   for   school.   Acting   as   though   we didn’t   exist   had   nothing   to   do   with   the   previous   afternoon.   John   and   I   trudged   through our normal morning ritual. Dad couldn’t wait until we were out of his hair. What’d the asshole do all morning, until he headed for the bar? John   and   I   sat   in   the   kitchen   and   ate   our   cold   cereal.   We   muttered,   “See   ya,”   when Mom   headed   for   work,   otherwise   remained   quiet.   None   of   the   normal   threats   of   death, teases   about   hair   sticking   up,   being   uglier   than   vomit.   Not   a   single   exclamation   of booger eater or peter pecker. We finished our breakfast in record time. Paul   usually   had   to   get   after   us   to   hurry.   That   morning   we   rose   without   harassment, left our bowls in the sink, brushed our teeth, and collected our books. My   stepdad   would   find   the   quiet   refreshing.   A   relief.   He   wouldn’t   care   what   caused the    silenced    banter.    He    would    repeat    the    silence    everyday    if    he    could.    The    SOB complained   often   enough   how   he   hated   our   unending   teasing,   though   he   didn’t   use   the word teasing. He   probably   didn’t   even   realize   we   didn’t   tell   him   goodbye,   or   even   look   at   him   as   we passed him in the living room on the way for the door. It   was   coincidence   we   left   the   house   together   today.   John   usually   left   first   to   meet Leslie. Two   doors   down,   I   turned   away   from   John   without   saying   anything,   without   as much   as   a   glance   over   my   shoulder.   I   was   glad   to   get   away   from   him.   Not   in   the   mood   to even look at him. I   pounded   on   the   door   a   couple   of   times   and   walked   in.   Carl’s   mother   shouted, “Good morning, Michael,” from the kitchen. “It’s Tony, Mrs. Stott.” “Good morning, Tony. You’re early.” “Couldn’t be. You must be running late.” From   the   couch,   Carl   mumbled,   “If   Mom   ran   a   minute   late   the   world   would   come   to an end. At least she thinks it would.” “I heard that.” Carl   waved   a   lazy   hand   toward   the   kitchen   and   rolled   his   eyes.   He   jabbed   a   spoonful of   cereal   into   his   mouth,   hefted   his   bowl   high   when   I   plopped   down   on   the   couch   with him. Between crunches he asked, “What was with your dad aping-out yesterday, man?” I   caught   his   eye.   Shrugged.   Looked   back   at   the   TV   as   the   front   door   flung   open   and the broad cornerstone of our threesome filled the doorway. “Hey,    dudes!    How’s    it    rockin’?”    Mike    shouted,    with    way    too    much    energy.    He slammed the door behind him and strode toward the couch. “Good morning, Michael,” floated from the kitchen. “Hey, Ms. S. How’re they hanging this morning?” I smiled without taking my eyes off Captain Kangaroo. A   cackle   rewarded   Mike   from   around   the   corner.   “You’re   going   to   burn   in   hell   young man, you know that?” “That   would   be   like   another   summer   in   El   Paso   without   the   blowing   sand,”   Mike shouted, still louder than necessary. “You hear the big news, Ms. S?” From    the    other    room    Mrs.    Stott’s    chair    screeched    against    Linoleum.    The    petite woman   with   premature   gray   hair   appeared   at   the   doorway   sipping   her   coffee,   peering over the mug at the newest arrival. “Who got suspended now, Michael?” “No.   No   one   I   know.”   Mike   looked   at   me   and   Carl   for   a   signal   that   maybe   he    had missed    something.    At    Carl’s    calm    headshake,    Mike    continued.    “Mr.    Ruud    lost    it yesterday, like totally. The police came and everything.” Police? I jerked a look at Carl. He nodded. “You were long gone.” “They   didn’t   cart   him   away,”   Mike   continued.   “I   guess   no   pool   of   blood,   no   harm. Huh? I guess a kid can get the snot beat out of him as long as there’s no dead body.” Mike   put   his   feet   on   the   coffee   table,   his   eyes   now   on   the   Captain.   I   sensed   Mrs.   Stott studying   me   but   worked   to   keep   my   eyes   on   the   TV.   I   couldn’t   do   it.   Her   expression   was clear. She   had   dealt   with   her   own   abuse.   One   Saturday   night   after   the   three   of   us   finished off   a   couple   six   packs   and   Carl   felt   in   a   rare,   chatty   mood,   he   talked   about   his   dad.   It wasn’t flattering. He didn’t mind being raised alone by his mom now. Mrs.   Stott   pivoted   to   return   to   the   kitchen,   but   hesitated.   She   spoke   softly,   as   though that   would   keep   Carl   and   Mike   from   listening.   “If   you   ever   need   to   talk,   Tony,   you   know I’m here. If you ever feel like talking to anyone besides these two delinquents.” Mike   groaned,   placed   his   hand   over   his   chest,   and   fell   over   sideways   as   though mortally wounded. Carl smirked. I nodded to Mrs. Stott and quickly averted my eyes. ~ S tepping   off   the   front   stoop,   Mike   pulled   a   pack   of   cigarettes   from   his   pocket.   Carl   took one from the offered pack. I shook my head. Inhaled   enough   smoke   at   home   from   two   parents   who   raced   to   finish   a   pack   every night. My clothes reeked ten minutes after coming off the line on Saturdays. My   anger   popped   as   I   thought   about   how   Paul   lit   up   at   the   dinner   table   as   soon   as   he emptied   his   plate,   as   though   the   smoke   stayed   on   his   side   of   the   table.   Might   as   well have waved the smoke of a trash fire at me. At   least   Mom   waited   until   she   carried   her   plate   into   the   kitchen   ten   feet   away   before she   lit   up.   I   wish   my   nit-brained   friends   wouldn’t   smoke.   But   it   was   part   of   the   tough persona they thought they had to wear. “There’s   a   game   today,   right?   Guess   that   means   you   won’t   be   joining   the   posse   when we cruise Parkland. Rumor is the Snakes are looking for us. Might be fun.” I   kept   my   thoughts   to   myself.   The   Vultures,   the   wannabe   gang   we’re   members   of, couldn’t   find   a   fight   if   flashing-neon   billboards   pointed   the   way.   They   talked   tough   and made    nuisances    of    themselves,    but    thankfully    hadn’t    gotten    anyone    killed    yet.    The highlight   of   most   of   the   members’   rap   sheet   was   the   number   of   detentions   for   cutting class—that I knew of. There was plenty of bragging I didn’t believe for a second. I   got   tired   of   the   Goody   Two-shoe   shit   I   participated   in,   but   it   kept   me   from   having to   spend   too   much   time   with   the   numb-nuts   that   made   up   the   gang.   The   losers   weren’t worth   hanging   with,   but   the   same   faces   had   been   a   part   of   my   life   since   we   returned from Missouri. Membership   did   have   its   privileges,   like   admittance   to   the   unsavory   parties   they held   when   someone’s   parents   erred   in   leaving   their   butthead   son   alone   for   the   weekend, the   slutty   girls   that   hung   with   them.   Mostly   it   was   the   beer   I   could   mooch,   and   the occasional   drag   on   a   doobie.   It   kept   me   away   from   the   parents   on   Friday   and   Saturday nights when there was no game. Lazy-shit   Carl   kept   the   three   of   us   out   of   most   of   the   scrapes   the   Vultures   got   in.   Fat- Mikey’s lack of popularity excluded us from most jaunts. “You should have kicked his ass, dude.” Mike’s   screech   pulled   me   back   to   Earth.   It   took   a   moment   to   follow   what   Mike meant. But Carl answered for me. “Yeah, sure, man. Like creaming a drunk cripple is cool.” “Better than getting your panties hung over your head, man.” “Yeah.   Like,   what   would   that   have   bought   him?   A   night   in   juvie?   That   would   have been much better.” “You got t’ stand and make a statement.” “You read that on the back of your cereal this morning?” The   two   debated   my   options   most   of   the   way   to   school,   thankfully   leaving   me   out   of the   discussion.   The   tone   did   nothing   to   clarify   my   emotions.   Since   waking   that   morning my opinion of Paul Ruud had shifted from rage to pity. The   man   often   talked   about   his   days   as   a   boxer   and   softball   player—in   his   dreams. He   caught   polio   when   he   was   ten,   for   crying   out   loud.   Could   the   stories   of   farming   on   his uncle’s   place   in   Mississippi   be   true?   He   wasn’t   much   of   a   farmer   anymore.   Can’t   hold the   tools   of   his   former   trade,   support   his   family.   What   could   be   more   emasculating? Can’t   sign   his   name,   or   even   completely   close   his   right   eye   without   a   helping   push   from his numb right paw. My   anger   transitioned   to   the   half-brother   I   had   to   share   a   room   with.   Yesterday   the crap-head ran off, left me to deal with the bastard alone. Typical. I   shook   my   head.   If   only   I   could   hang   a   backpack   over   my   shoulder   and   head   down the   highway.   Life   is   unpleasant   enough.   At   least   the   parents,   for   the   most   part,   left   me the   hell   alone.   But   every   moment   I   was   under   their   roof   I   had   to   put   up   with   the   puss that was my little brother—coward, worthless little turd. Chapter Three Tony Rollins ~ I    dropped   my   gym   bag   inside   the   door,   scanning   the   room.   Though   I   was   late,   less   than a   third   of   the   student   council   members   were   present—a   lot   of   missing   Goody   Two-shoes. Another   wasted   hour.   Cliques   pitted   the   large   journalism   classroom.   One   had   a   chess game   going.   Another   played   football   with   their   folded   up   triangles   of   paper.   Others studied, or sat chatting. Our sponsor—AWOL. Screw this. I   turned   to   leave.   Retrieving   my   bag,   I   nearly   collided   with   Mr.   Rodriguez   in   the doorway. “Ah!   No   escape   for   you,   ese .”   The   man   grabbed   my   letter   jacket   at   both   shoulders and propelled me backward. “You had a game today.” It wasn’t a question. I nodded and he continued. “How’d you do?” “We lost by five points.” “I asked how you  did.” “Stank up the court. Didn’t have my mind on the game, I guess.” “Points?” “A few.” “Blocks?” “A couple, maybe.” “Then   you   did   your   part,   ese ,”   he   nearly   shouted,   clapping   my   shoulders.   “You   gonna be at the garage Saturday to work on those benches?” I didn’t answer. “I   can’t   show   either.   I   have   a   weekend   gig.   Gotta   pay   some   bills   somehow.   Deese   place ain’t gonna do it.” He   emphasized   the   accent   he   wore   sometimes   like   a   badge.   He   lowered   his   voice. “You   interested   in   making   a   few   bucks?   I   could   use   a   hand.   I’m   doing   the   rough   wiring on   one   of   those   big   houses   they’re   building   on   the   mountain.   A   little   work   on   the   side my brother gives me.” “I’ve got a game at three.” “Start at six. Give us a full day.” “Six? AM? You kidding?” “Twenty bucks is twenty bucks, vato .” A grin crimped my cheek. That was more lawns than I could cut in four weekends. “You   have   to   supply   the   Whataburgers   at   lunch.   I   have   to   have   some   energy   left   for the paint at three.” Vato    loco .   I’ve   seen   you   eat.   Those   size-thirteens—”   He   pointed   at   my   feet.   “Didn’t get   that   way   on   finger   food.   There’s   a   joint   close   by.   But   we   ain’t   driving   down   to   your favorite digs. It’s a working day.” We   sat   at   a   nearby   table,   ignoring   the   others   in   the   room.   Most   council   meetings were   like   this.   Simply   a   haven   for   some   downtime   from   the   crappy   routine.   No   surprise our sponsor sat down for a one-on-one with one of us. Far from unique. Probably   less   than   six   years   separated   me   and   Mr.   Rodriguez,   but   it   still   seemed   a chasm,   despite   the   kinship   I   felt   for   the   man.   I’d   heard   most   of   Mr.   Rodriguez’s   story. First-generation.   Father   sweated   sixteen   hours   a   day,   seven   days   a   week   laying   concrete, setting   tile,   framing   houses,   whatever   made   a   buck.   Mother   cleaned   houses,   until   the family business could afford an office manager. Mr.   Rodriguez’s   uncles,   brothers,   and   sisters   were   all   part   of   the   business.   As   the youngest,   Mr.   Rodriguez   was   the   first   on   either   side   of   the   family   to   go   to   college.   The family got lots of laughs that, as his reward, he made less money than any of them. I   was   glad   he   got   a   teaching   certificate   instead   of   a   fatter   wallet.   A   natural   with   kids. Watching   him,   it   appeared   it   wasn’t   work.   He   was   one   of   us.   Carl   aside,   Juan   Rodriguez was my best friend. Chapter Four Terese Ruud Summer, 1962 ~ I    slammed   the   receiver   down.   The   anger   might   have   truly   gotten   away   from   me   if   there wasn’t   a   part   of   me   that   wasn’t   glad   Tony   wouldn’t   be   spending   any   of   the   summer   with his   stepdad.   Much   of   the   baggage   that   soon   made   Paul   an   ex-husband   was   the   way   he treated Tony in the first place. He   never   even   mentioned    the   boy.   They   had   been   part   of   each   other’s   lives   for fourteen   years,   yet   it   was   as   though   Tony   no   longer   existed.   Our   arguments   centered only on John. His  kid. “So   Johnny’s   gonna   be   stuck   up   at   the   lake   the   whole   summer   with   nothing   to   do. No   TV.   No   friends.   Staring   at   the   four   walls   of   the   cabin.   Going   to   get   sick   of   beans   and cornbread.   He’ll   go   through   two   hundred   books   the   first   week.   Does   Hotsprings   even have a library?” I’m   not   good   at   holding   my   emotions,   or   tongue.   I   glared   at   my   eldest.   He   was   wiser than   he   ought,   for   his   years.   He   spun   the   situation   for   me.   Explained   all   the   reasons   he shouldn’t be jealous of his brother. “It’ll   give   you   a   summer   of   privacy,”   I   said.   “Bet   it’ll   be   tough,   the   house   all   to yourself.” “I’ll survive.” “Maybe I’ll be able to get you to help around here, since you’ll be so bored.” “Don’t   forget,   Mr.   Rodriguez   has   work   lined   up   for   me.   I’ll   be   gone   all   day   too,   six days a week.” Growing up too fast. “What’re you gonna do with all that money?” “Not    like    UCLA’s    huntin’    me    down    to    thrust    a    basketball    scholarship    down    my throat. It’ll come in handy for college.” College? I sucked in air. There’s no money for college. First   time   he   ever   mentioned   college.   No   one   in   the   family   had   ever   gone   to   college. Not like he didn’t have the smarts. We’d just never—besides, college was for rich people. “You want to go to college?” Tony’s   expression   changed,   as   though   a   bit   of   life   poured   out.   Ah   shit.   What’d   I   say? Not   like   I’m   the   most   involved   parent.   Always   something   in   the   way,   something   to   do. The kitchen. Washing clothes. Tony was always at Carl’s, anyway. All I do is work. Come home. Cook dinner. Repeat. My   boys   are   so   different.   Tony,   always   focused   on   something.   All   John   ever   did   was lay in his room reading, alone in his make-believe world. “So, you have a career and life mapped out I’m not aware of?” I asked. His face changed again, as though he smelled sour milk. “I gotta go. Carl’s waiting for me.” Chapter Five John Ruud ~ T he   last   day   of   school   meant   nothing.   That   is,   there   was   no   excitement,   or   relief   like   it tweaked   in   previous   years.   I’d   been   enjoying   the   last   few   weeks—at   least   the   weekends, more than I would the rest of the summer. When   Dad   picked   me   up   Friday   afternoons,   we   were   a   world   of   two.   Granted,   much of   our   Saturdays   were   spent   in   the   Highway   80   Bar   shooting   pool   or   playing   shuffle board,   me   drinking   soda   after   soda   while   Dad   downed   beer.   The   good   part,   nights   at   the grands’, where I felt the center of the universe. Nothing could beat it. I   walked   the   four   short   blocks   home   alone,   though   the   sidewalks   were   full   of   kids, mostly in small groups, all screeching, stupid-happy. I   looked   for   expressions   on   their   faces   that   matched   the   pain   in   my   chest,   but   found none.   Me,   off   for   the   lake.   Lots   of   stupid   fishing.   I   had   a   hell   of   a   time   sitting   long enough to wait for some stupid fish to find the worm at the end of my line. Nothing   more   boring   than   fishing.   Rather   lie   on   the   couch   and   read.   If   I   wasn’t reading   I   had    to   be   moving.   Since   Dad’s   operation,   the   man   acted   as   though   motion   was satanic. He’d freak if I didn’t sit still, threaten me with a backhand. Still    wasn’t   something   I   did.   Going   to   be   a   long   summer.   Gone,   weekends   with Grandma   and   Grandpa.   Rather   spend   the   summer   with   them   in   the   valley.   Their   living room couch was more comfortable than any other place I had to sleep. I   turned   down   our   street.   Dad’s   rust-trap   of   a   pickup   already   sat   in   front   of   our house.   I   picked   up   my   pace.   Not   because   I   wanted   to.   Felt   like   an   axe   hung   over   my neck, would fall if I didn’t get there. I’d   have   more   of   what   I   liked.   To   be   alone.   Yeah,   sure.   The   last   weeks   had   been tough.   After   Leslie   saw   Dad   acting   the   prick,   there   was   no   way   I   could   face   him   for   a couple   days.   Turned   out   I   didn’t   have   to   bother   avoiding   him.   Since,   Leslie   acted   as though I had leprosy. Leslie. My only friend. Friendship’s   cheap.   No   tether   ball   before   school   since   that   damn   day.   No   sitting under the tree together in front of the house talking about, whatever. Cigarette   smoke   billowed   out   of   the   truck.   I   trotted   to   the   open   passenger   window and forced a smile. “Where   ya   been?”   the   son   of   a   bitch   snapped.   “I’ve   been   watching   kids   walk   by   for thirty minutes.” Pow—that   quick.   Couldn’t   the   asshole   at   least   say   hi?   I   walked   straight   home   after release.   Hadn’t   expected   him   till   later   anyway.   Assumed   I’d   have   the   chance   to   tell   Mom and Tony goodbye. I   looked   up   the   street,   over   at   Carl’s.   Was   the   high   school   letting   out   later?   I   couldn’t remember noticing any older kids on the way home. “Y—you want t—to come in and wait for Tony?” “That   would   tickle   your   mother   pink,”   he   said,   “finding   me   in   her   home.   What   do you need from Tony?” “N—nothing, I just th—thought—” “Well, get your things. Let’s get on the road.” I   nodded   and   ran   to   the   house,   looking   up   the   street   again.   It   seemed   eerily   empty.   I experienced    the    queerest    sensation,    that    maybe    I    should    be    in    sixth    period.    Had    I walked out of school early? The   flesh   of   my   neck   crawled.   I’d   been   a   little   preoccupied.   Was   it   possible?   But   Dad expected   me   even   earlier.   No   way   I   did   something   so   dumb.   Right?   But   Dad   loved   to   rub it in that I always did stupid shit. I   leaned   over,   unlocked   the   front   door   with   the   key   on   the   chain   around   my   neck, and nudged the door forward with my toe. The   three   grocery   sacks   filled   with   my   clothes   sat   by   the   door   where   I   left   them   the night   before.   I   ran   to   my   bedroom,   threw   my   binder   on   my   bed,   flipped   it   open,   and   dug for my report card. Dad hadn’t asked for it. I’d leave it for Mom. Not that she cared either. I   ran   to   the   kitchen,   placed   the   envelope   on   the   dining   table,   hesitating.   Should   I leave   Mom   a   note?   A   blare   of   a   horn   convinced   me   to   blow   that   off.   At   the   door,   found room   for   my   novel   in   one   of   the   bags,   and   scooped   up   the   three.   One   started   ripping before I got out the screen door. Dad honked again, so I ran. I   smashed   the   sacks   up   against   the   cab   in   the   truck   bed,   hoping   the   wind   wouldn’t catch   any   of   my   stuff.   It’d   suck,   leaving   tread-mark-stained   whities   strewn   between   El Paso and Elephant Butte. “Hold   on,”   I   shouted.   Ran   to   lock   the   door   and   pick   up   the   things   that   escaped through the sides of the ripped paper bags. Dad   inched   the   truck   forward   as   I   ran   back,   foot   off   the   brake   before   I   swung   the door open and leapt in. He   made   a   U-turn   and   took   us   past   school.   Where   did   everyone   go?   The   streets should   have   been   filled   with   ecstatic   brats   celebrating   the   start   of   summer.   Dad   and   I could   have   been   the   last   two   people   alive   on   Earth.   Lots   of   paper   littered   the   sidewalk, evidence I hadn’t been dreaming. It was indeed the last day of school. Five    minutes    later    Dad    pulled    onto    the    two-lane    blacktop    that    connected    with O’Hara Road, through the Franklins, for the hundred-odd miles up to the lake. “Give me a cold one.” Dad pointed at the bag at my feet. The   cardboard   box   had   already   been   opened   and   missed   two   cans.   Dad   must   not have   been   waiting   for   me   long.   I   pried   the   magnet-affixed   can   opener   off   the   dash.   The spish    was   almost   drowned   out   by   the   roar   from   the   open   windows,   but   the   sound   gave me   an   odd   sense   of   belonging.   I   took   my   obligatory   sip   from   the   can   and   passed   it   to Dad. “Th—that isn’t going to get you to the lake. You only have three more l—left.” “Guess we have an excuse to stop for a case when we make it to Blue Waters.” As though he needed an excuse to stop at his favorite watering hole. I   watched   the   mesquite   fly   by   and   tried   to   swallow   away   the   taste   of   the   Pearl   that got   sourer   by   the   minute.   The   next   three   months—   The   lake   had   always   been   a   blast,   as a two-day retreat from the city during Easter break and week-long summer vacations. Tony    and    I    traipsed    over    every    square    inch    of    the    western    water    line    between Rattlesnake   Island   and   Rock   Canyon.   Played   on   the   beach   until   we   turned   lobster-red, played   war   across   the   gullies.   Built   forts   in   the   mesquite   and   had   rock   fights.   At   night, checkers   and   listening   to   our   granddad’s   stand-up   radio,   country   music   from   the   AM station out of Oklahoma City. Going to be the first time I’d ever been there without Tony. Grandpa’s   cabin   wasn’t   much   above   a   shanty—no   hot   water,   no   air   conditioner,   TV, phone,   or   washing   machine.   I   could   remember   before   he   got   water   piped   in,   when   we had to use the shithouse out back. My chest tightened. Three months. I wished I was dead. I’ll miss Tony. Our    relationship    was    never    the    same    after    the    mess    registering    for    school    in Missouri.   But   it’d   never   been   as   bad   as   it   had   the   last   month.   Since   Dad   moved   out   and acted as though he only had one son. Was   that   to   jerk   Mom   around?   Being   his   normal   asshole   self?   Or   did   he   really   hate Tony? A   pang   of   guilt   throbbed   in   my   chest.   Throat   closed.   I   struggled   to   take   a   slow breath. Wasn’t fair to take it out on Tony. Wasn’t fair Tony took it out on me. I had nothing to do with it. Even   if   we   fought   like   rabid   dogs   most   hours   of   the   day,   that   was   better   than   the vacuum. “Wh—what are we doing this summer?” Dad   lowered   the   hand   he   pressed   against   his   cheek   to   close   his   right   eye   and   glanced over at me. “What do you mean, what are we doing?” “I know we’ll get s—some fishing in, but do you have any other p—plans?” “If   we   don’t   fish   and   catch   something,   we’re   going   to   get   pretty   hungry.   In   case   you don’t   remember,   your   old   man   doesn’t   work   anymore   since   those   bastards   cut   out   a chunk of his brain. Funny how the grocery-people don’t give away food.” I   glanced   down   at   the   paper   bag   on   the   floorboard.   How   much   of   the   money   Dad   did   have go toward beer and cigarettes by the case? “What   the   hell   you   think   we’ll   be   doing   this   summer?”   Dad   continued.   “Going   to   gala balls and the theater?” He took a long gulp from his can of beer. I   opened   my   mouth,   but   reconsidered.   “J—just   making   conversation.   It’s   going   to   be weird   not   walking   the   neighborhood   with   Tony   this   summer,   l—looking   for   yards   to mow.” “Past   time   that   boy   got   a   real   job   in   the   summer.   At   his   age,   I   spent   sun   up   to   sun down running a tractor.” “Not much call for t—tractor runners in the city,” I said. “You gettin’ smart with me?” Shit.   I   faced   the   desert   to   my   right.   It   started   early.   The   beer   must   have   started   early too. What’s eating his ass? “Tony   is    working   this   summer.   With   his   English   teacher.   They’re   doing   electrical work on the houses they’re building up on the mountain.” “What   the   hell   does   an   educated   man   know   about   working   for   a   living?   He   going   to be   reading   those   wires   their   to-be   or   not-to-bes?   I’ve   never   met   an   educated   man   with   a lick   of   common   sense.   Men   go   to   college   because   they   don’t   have   the   gumption   to   do real work.” For a moment I peered into the bright sun, at Dad’s shadowed face. Don’t say it. Dad   finished   off   his   beer   and   tossed   the   can   over   his   shoulder   for   the   bed   of   the truck.   The   wind   caught   it   and   it   careened   off   the   side   of   the   truck   with   a   clank,   clattering down the highway. “Give me another one.” Chapter Six Tony Rollins ~ C arl   turned   the   stack   of   45s   and   set   them   up   to   play.   I   sensed   him   peering   at   me,   but kept   my   eyes   on   the   Playboy    I’d   been   studying.   Mike   as   usual   had   hardly   stopped talking since we met at the bleachers after school. “Tony, you don’t look very happy to be done with your sophomore year. What’s up?” I   didn’t   know   what   to   tell   him.   Luckily,   Mike   moved   on   to   another   topic.   “You   get your application to Texas Western for the basketball camp?” “Hell, seventy-five bucks is a lot of money.” “I   thought   you   said   all   the   starters   were   going?   What’s   it   going   to   look   like   if   you’re the only one who doesn’t?” “I didn’t start.” “For   a   sophomore   on   varsity,   you   played   a   lot   of   minutes.   You’re   going   to   be   starting next year. With Melendez and Nunez graduating, you’re in, man, you know it.” “Yeah.   Well   my   yard   money   was   gone   by   Christmas,   and   if   you   forgot,   I   don’t   sell dope   under   the   bleachers   with   you.   My   mom   turned   all   hysterical   and   asked   me   what bank she should rob when I asked her for the money.” “I told you I’d lend you the money.” “Camp’s    going    to    be    four    hours    every    day    for    four    weeks.    With    the    bus    ride downtown,   then   a   transfer   up   to   the   college   and   back,   half   of   the   summer’s   going   to   be gone   before   I   make   a   dime.   I’m   getting   twenty   bucks   a   day   working   with   Mr.   Rodriguez. Let’s   see,   spend   seventy-five   I   don’t   have,   or   make   six   hundred.   Let   me   think.   That’s   a tough decision.” “You   think   small,   you   shit   head,”   Mike   said.   “A   full   scholarship   is   worth   a   lot   more than six hundred bucks.” I   wanted   to   tell   him   to   screw   himself,   but   it   wasn’t   often   Mike   said   anything   that sounded half intelligent. I couldn’t cuss him out for not  sounding like a dip wad. “Maybe next summer,” I mumbled. “You might not get an invitation next summer.” “I got one this year, I’ll get one next year.” “This   year   you   were   a   sophomore-surprise   who   stepped   in   because   a   starter   failed   to keep   up   his   grades.   Next   year,   you’re   going   to   be   one   of   hundreds   of   juniors   and   seniors. There are no promises.” I   tried   to   read   Carl’s   expression,   before   reacting   to   Mike.   I   hated   Mike   actually   had   a point,   and   doubly   resented   the   suggestion   I   passed   on   an   opportunity.   As   though   I   had an option. “Yeah, well you might be right. But I couldn’t take your money.” “Why not?” “I prefer to pay my own way. How’d I ever pay you back?” “You’d   manage   somehow,   and   if   you   didn’t—well,   I   expect—I’m   going   to   be   around   a long time. You’d pay me someday.” “You’d be after me to sell dope with you. Ain’t gonna happen.” Mike   laughed.   “That   hurts.   Like   I’d   pressure   you   to   do   anything   that   didn’t   meet your strict moral code.” I   threw   the   magazine   at   Mike’s   head.   It   furled   but   stayed   intact   enough   to   collide with a satisfying throp. “Asshole,” Mike shouted. Carl snapped, “Take it easy on the rag, man.” I    curled    up    a    corner    of    my    mouth,    all    the    apology    Carl    was    getting    for    the mistreatment   of   his   coveted   possession.   I   finished   off   my   soda   and   blew   across   the   top of the bottle making a whistle out of it, to the beat of the music. Bored of that quickly. I   swiveled   away   from   the   wall   and   lay   on   the   floor.   With   nothing   better   to   do   with the   bottle,   I   balanced   it   on   my   forehead.   For   several   minutes   I   fixated   on   the   bottle, turning   my   head   slightly   left   and   right   to   see   how   far   I   could   shift   the   balance   of   the thing before it tipped over. “Haven’t even started summer and I’m already bored.” Carl asked, “When do you start working with Mr. Rodriquez?” “Tomorrow. Have to be at the corner at a quarter till six.” Both of them groaned. Mike said, “I’m so shittin’ disappointed I’m not getting any of that action.” But   he   was   happy   to   describe   in   detail   his   family’s   vacation   plans.   I   ignored   him,   and continued to play with the soda bottle on my forehead. “When   does   your   brother   leave?”   Carl   asked   without   concern   that   he   spoke   over Mike’s dissertation. I   let   the   bottle   fall   to   the   throw   rug.   It   bounced   noisily   onto   the   tile.   I   shouted,   “Shut up,    Mike.    We    don’t    care    which    Disneyland    rides    are    your    favorite.”    I    sensed    more irritation   in   my   voice   than   I   intended.   I   glanced   up   at   Carl.   “Little   Miss   Pantywaist   left with his father when school let out.” Carl   rolled   over   on   his   bed   to   look   down   at   me.   He   studied   me   for   a   moment   without saying   anything.   The   inspection   ticked   that   anger   living   under   the   surface   of   my   skin.   I imagined   Carl   thinking   of   the   puffy   eye   and   fat   lip   Paul   gave   me   the   night   I   got   between him and Mom, and escalated the final deterioration of their marriage. John ran out the front door, escaping as usual, unwilling to face any kind of conflict. The gutless coward. His  father?” Carl finally said. “Evidently   the   bastard   is   freed   from   being   a   stepfather   with   the   divorce.   He   hasn’t even spoken to me. Drunken bastard, like I give a crap.” Mike   had   continued   talking   non-stop,   ignoring   the   quiet   words   between   me   and Carl.   “You   guys   want   to   get   into   the   Diablo’s   party   tonight?   I   hear   all   the   gangs   from Andress and Parkland are invited in honor of the end-of-school.” “That’s   bull   crap,”   I   said.   “You’re   so   gullible.   Like   those   gangster-dudes   would   even know school was out, or be caught dead with a bunch of punk wannabees.” “No,   really.   My   cholo    buddies   are   going.   They’re   gonna   pick   me   up   at   nine.   You wanna go or not?” “Not.   I   have   to   be   at   the   corner   too   early,   or   lose   twenty   bucks.   I’m   not   the   least interested   in   hanging   around   those   murdering,   Harley-humping   pricks   anyway.   You’re crazy.” Carl grinned. “I’ll let you represent us.” Mike mumbled, “Bunch of pussies.” I said, “We’ll visit ya in the hospital. If they don’t kill you.” “You   two   need   to   grow   a   pair.   Life’s   too   short,   my   friends.   Before   long   you’ll   be bookkeepers   and   go   home   to   your   brats   every   night   and   wonder   when   life   passed   you by.” I   blew   a   raspberry.   “Let’s   survive   high   school   first.   Then   we   can   worry   about   our future ruts.” Mike   pushed   the   chair   away   from   Carl’s   desk   and   stood.   “I’m   outta   here.   You   losers sit   in   front   of   the   TV   tonight   if   you   want,   but   I’m   gonna   go   rumble,   score   some   booze, smoke some dope. Might even get laid.” He dribbled his brows. “Get   his   name   in   case   he   leaves   before   you   roll   over,”   I   said   as   Mike   walked   out   of   the bedroom. He   poked   his   head   around   the   corner   and   flipped   me   a   bird.   Carl   and   I   were   still laughing when the front door slammed. We   were   quiet   for   a   few   minutes   as   we   listened   to   the   last   45   on   the   turntable.   When it finished, Carl asked, “You want t’ go to the range Saturday?”    I   don’t   get   the   whole   obsession   about   guns,   but   appreciated   the   rush   Carl   talked about   getting   from   the   explosion.   I   looked   over   at   the   press   on   Carl’s   desk.   The   .22 rounds   were   cheap.   I   could   afford   that.   Enjoy   firing   Carl’s   .45   and   .38.   But   the   cost   of shooting   the   twenty-two,   with   the   range   fee   and   targets   was   all   I   was   willing   to   splurge on. “If you take your .22. I’m working, but Saturday night, sure.” © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
SCI FI Fantasy Dystopian
R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
Two Brothers Two Shadows ~ Tony Rollins Spring, 1962 ~ I     blocked    another    sloppy,    open-handed swing,   but   they   were   getting   more   forceful as   Dad   grew   frustrated   and   angrier.   My   gut wrenched   with   a   confusion   of   emotions.   I wanted   to   pull   back   a   fist   and   lay   into   the man.     Wanted     to,     with     every     ounce     of venom     inside     of     me.     Maybe     the     pity interfered.    Nothing    worse    than    hitting    a kid, than hitting a drunken cripple. “Wha’d     I     tell     you?”     my     stepfather slurred.     “Wha’d     I     tell     you     about     the skateboard?” I   backed   away.   The   smell   of   stale   beer and   cigarettes   wafted   on   his   breath.   This was   the   longest   the   man   had   maintained his   focus   for   a   year.   A   hell   of   a   thing   for   the mean son of a bitch to focus on. Paul   Ruud   two-stepped   forward   in   his crawfish    shimmy,    a    new    torrent    pressing me   back.   I   danced   the   man   across   the   front walk   as   quickly   as   I   could   to   get   this   new abuse    out    of    sight    of    the    neighbors.    The son    of    a    bitch    wouldn’t    stop,    taking    us through   the   length   of   our   tiny   garage.   My lower   lip   swelled.   Wasn’t   the   first   time.   The right   side   of   my   face   burned   from   that   first, unexpected slap. Even    without    the    case    of    beer    in    the man’s   gut   I   could   have   pasted   him.   I   didn’t join   the   boxing   team   freshman   year   for   my health.   Well,   maybe   I   did.   Survival   is   good health. But     I     had     to     live     with     the     bastard tomorrow.   There   are   thresholds   that   can’t be   re-crossed.   Also,   the   man   talked   about the   missing   chunk   of   his   skull.   What   if   he fell and—could that really kill him? In   two   more   steps   I’d   be   cornered.   What would    he    do    then?    How    long    could    the jackass   keep   this   up?   Before   my   shoulder was   against   the   wall,   I   pushed   away   a   half- step   and   slid   across   the   man’s   left   leaving him   behind   like   a   picked   defender.   I   ran. Ignored    the    rant    to,    “Get    the    hell    back here.” No point in putting up with that shit. I   headed   for   Carl’s   but   decided   I’d   be too   easy   to   find   there.   I   didn’t   want   Carl   to see   my   tears   or   my   fat   lip,   either.   Didn’t need    any    conversation    about    how    stupid the   man   was.   Worse,   the   pity.   The   man   was an    ass,    but    also    the    only    father    I’d    ever known. Even looked up to him, once. When   Paul   was   sober,   he   was   okay.   As fun   as   any   of   my   friends’   fathers—before   he got sick. When   he   came   home   from   the   hospital, the world was different. He   always   had   a   temper.   Didn’t   require alcohol.   The   man   probably   deserved   all   the shit    God    dumped    on    him.    His    karma. Though,   what   ten-year-old   deserved   to   be   a cripple?   Surgery   on   his   itsy-bitsy   brain   and he   was   worthless   to   his   former   employer. No   job.   The   drinking   got   worse   than   it   ever had   been.   Not   just   measured   from   quitting time to bedtime. I      passed      Carl’s,      glanced      over      my shoulder   to   make   sure   my   stepdad   didn’t follow   me.   I’d   already   decided   where   to   go, to    be    alone,    but    no    way    I    was    going    to double     back     and     take     the     chance     of crossing the man’s path. I   continued   to   the   end   of   the   block,   two lefts,    and    walked    for    the    desert    fifteen minutes   away,   ten   if   I   walked   fast.   A   four- strand   barbwire   fence   and   I   might   as   well be    a    hundred    miles    from    another    living being.      Peace,      among      the      ten-foot-tall mesquite and mounds of cacti. I    wiped    my    running    nose,    a    last    tear, and    looked    around    to    make    sure    no    one caught   me   crying.   Didn’t   need   that   getting around.   Especially   with   my   teammates.   I had a reputation to uphold. There    was    a    gaggle    of    punks    playing with   their   toy   trucks   in   one   yard   but   they didn’t   look   up.   Still,   I   picked   up   my   pace, took     deep     breaths     to     calm     down,     and shoved   my   hands   into   my   pockets.   The   sun wasn’t   below   the   mountain,   but   there   was   a chill in the air. Mom   would   be   home   in   an   hour,   and it’d be safe. The bastard would have gotten over it. Hopefully. ~ I    flipped   off   the   overhead   light   at   the   door and   felt   my   way   to   my   bed.   Sliding   between my   sheets,   the   quiet   hung   in   the   air.   Only the    mumble    of    the    TV    down    the    hall disturbed    it.    Maybe    I’d    get    out    of    any conversation with John. “T— Tony?” My luck didn’t last. “Not a good night to bug me.” “Th—thanks,” John said. I   didn’t   answer   right   away.   “Yeah,   well.   I hope     you     enjoy     the     stupid     thing.     It’ll probably    be    the    last    thing    I    ever    do    for you.” “F—first    time    I    can    r—remember    you doing anything for me.” John   got   through   the   sentence   with   only a   couple   stutters.   Amazing .   “Figures   I’d   get the crap slapped out of me for my trouble.” “How’d   you   know   Dad   would   forget   to stop    and    buy    me    the    skateboard    like    he said he would?” I   rolled   my   eyes.   “Maybe   I   forgot   he   said he would.” “Y—you’re     an     ass,     but     y—you     don’t forget.   Y—you   sure   had   to   go   out   of   your way to piss him off this t—time.” “Not really. Not that hard.” John    mumbled    something    under    his breath   I   didn’t   catch,   but   I   didn’t   bother   to grunt a huh . “T—true,”   John   said   louder.   “I   don’t   get why he went so crazy.” I     studied     the     subtle     change     on     the ceiling    from    the    light    that    filtered    under the   door,   as   the   intensity   from   the   living room    TV    shifted.    The    shadows    from    the bare    blinds    intersected    it    all    like    the    jail bars. I   exhaled   hard.   “Because.   I   as   much   said to    his    face    we    can’t    count    on    him    to    do anything     he     says     he’s     gonna     do.”     I interrupted    John’s    next    question.    “Go    to sleep. You’re way past bothering me.” The   tone   of   a   siren   echoed,   not   a   real one, from the TV twenty-feet away. ~ I    jerked   awake,   fists   clenched,   wishing   Paul Ruud   was   dead.   The   memory   loomed   fresh, raw   enough   I   didn’t   have   to   experience   it   in a   freaking   dream.   I   relived   it   often   enough awake.   It   never   seemed   to   get   far   out   of   my mind—still. As     always,     bizarre     pieces     of     detail burned   crisp,   as   though   ensuring   the   pain remained   vivid   enough   to   draw   blood.   Like the   black   and   red   tartan   pattern   of   Mom’s skirt   that   day,   when   she   walked   me   outside on   the   school’s   front   lawn   to   explain   Ruud wasn’t   my   last   name.   The   hot,   muggy   air. The   silver-blue   sky.   The   smell   of   fresh-cut grass. We’d   just   moved   to   Missouri   and   I   was registering   for   sixth   grade.   I’d   always   been known    by    Ruud.    Suddenly,    these    people said   I   had   to   register   with   the   name   on   my birth certificate. I    took    the    document    from    Mom.    The seal    on    the    lower-left    corner    remained another   of   the   incredibly   sharp   memories, daring   me   to   argue   the   legitimacy   of   the piece   of   paper.   The   blocks   on   the   form   for last and first name read Rollins, Anthony. Rollins—Anthony. Rollins—Anthony. I   turned   the   paper   over.   Perhaps   Rollins was   a   joke   and   Ruud   would   appear   when   I flipped      it      back.      But      it      still      read, Rollins—Anthony.     I     handed     it     back     to Mom,   wanting   to   rip   it   up,   sniffing   hard   to keep   my   nose   from   running.   I   refused   to cry. Dad,   evidently   my   stepdad,   told   me   all the time, “Only girls cry.” Chapter Two Tony Rollins ~ P aul    Ruud    woke    us    for    school    like    any other   day.   He   sang   his   usual,   “Wadda   ya know,   it’s   mornin’   already.”   He   flipped   the light   switch   on,   off,   and   on   again,   walked away leaving the door open. The   man   would   return   to   the   kitchen   to pour   himself   another   cup   of   coffee.   In   the living   room,   he   would   sit   in   the   dark   and nurse      his      coffee      and      massage      the immobile,   right   side   of   his   face,   as   though that would reverse the paralysis. The   bastard   didn’t   say   another   word   as we   got   ready   for   school.   Acting   as   though we   didn’t   exist   had   nothing   to   do   with   the previous    afternoon.    John    and    I    trudged through    our    normal    morning    ritual.    Dad couldn’t wait until we were out of his hair. What’d   the   asshole   do   all   morning,   until he headed for the bar? John   and   I   sat   in   the   kitchen   and   ate our    cold    cereal.    We    muttered,    “See    ya,” when    Mom    headed    for    work,    otherwise remained     quiet.     None     of     the     normal threats   of   death,   teases   about   hair   sticking up,   being   uglier   than   vomit.   Not   a   single exclamation     of     booger     eater     or     peter pecker.   We   finished   our   breakfast   in   record time. Paul   usually   had   to   get   after   us   to   hurry. That   morning   we   rose   without   harassment, left    our    bowls    in    the    sink,    brushed    our teeth, and collected our books. My     stepdad     would     find     the     quiet refreshing.   A   relief.   He   wouldn’t   care   what caused     the     silenced     banter.     He     would repeat   the   silence   everyday   if   he   could.   The SOB    complained    often    enough    how    he hated    our    unending    teasing,    though    he didn’t use the word teasing. He     probably     didn’t     even     realize     we didn’t    tell    him    goodbye,    or    even    look    at him   as   we   passed   him   in   the   living   room   on the way for the door. It    was    coincidence    we    left    the    house together    today.    John    usually    left    first    to meet Leslie. Two    doors    down,    I    turned    away    from John   without   saying   anything,   without   as much   as   a   glance   over   my   shoulder.   I   was glad    to    get    away    from    him.    Not    in    the mood to even look at him. I   pounded   on   the   door   a   couple   of   times and     walked     in.     Carl’s     mother     shouted, “Good      morning,      Michael,”      from      the kitchen. “It’s Tony, Mrs. Stott.” “Good morning, Tony. You’re early.” “Couldn’t be. You must be running late.” From     the     couch,     Carl     mumbled,     “If Mom   ran   a   minute   late   the   world   would come    to    an    end.    At    least    she    thinks    it would.” “I heard that.” Carl    waved    a    lazy    hand    toward    the kitchen   and   rolled   his   eyes.   He   jabbed   a spoonful   of   cereal   into   his   mouth,   hefted his   bowl   high   when   I   plopped   down   on   the couch     with     him.     Between     crunches     he asked,   “What   was   with   your   dad   aping-out yesterday, man?” I   caught   his   eye.   Shrugged.   Looked   back at   the   TV   as   the   front   door   flung   open   and the    broad    cornerstone    of    our    threesome filled the doorway. “Hey,    dudes!    How’s    it    rockin’?”    Mike shouted,    with    way    too    much    energy.    He slammed   the   door   behind   him   and   strode toward the couch. “Good   morning,   Michael,”   floated   from the kitchen. “Hey,   Ms.   S.   How’re   they   hanging   this morning?” I    smiled    without    taking    my    eyes    off Captain Kangaroo. A    cackle    rewarded    Mike    from    around the   corner.   “You’re   going   to   burn   in   hell young man, you know that?” “That   would   be   like   another   summer   in El   Paso   without   the   blowing   sand,”   Mike shouted,   still   louder   than   necessary.   “You hear the big news, Ms. S?” From   the   other   room   Mrs.   Stott’s   chair screeched    against    Linoleum.    The    petite woman   with   premature   gray   hair   appeared at   the   doorway   sipping   her   coffee,   peering over   the   mug   at   the   newest   arrival.   “Who got suspended now, Michael?” “No.   No   one   I   know.”   Mike   looked   at   me and   Carl   for   a   signal   that   maybe   he    had missed       something.       At       Carl’s       calm headshake,    Mike    continued.    “Mr.    Ruud lost    it    yesterday,    like    totally.    The    police came and everything.” Police? I jerked a look at Carl. He nodded. “You were long gone.” “They     didn’t     cart     him     away,”     Mike continued.   “I   guess   no   pool   of   blood,   no harm.   Huh?   I   guess   a   kid   can   get   the   snot beat   out   of   him   as   long   as   there’s   no   dead body.” Mike   put   his   feet   on   the   coffee   table,   his eyes    now    on    the    Captain.    I    sensed    Mrs. Stott   studying   me   but   worked   to   keep   my eyes    on    the    TV.    I    couldn’t    do    it.    Her expression was clear. She   had   dealt   with   her   own   abuse.   One Saturday     night     after     the     three     of     us finished   off   a   couple   six   packs   and   Carl   felt in   a   rare,   chatty   mood,   he   talked   about   his dad.    It    wasn’t    flattering.    He    didn’t    mind being raised alone by his mom now. Mrs.     Stott     pivoted     to     return     to     the kitchen,   but   hesitated.   She   spoke   softly,   as though    that    would    keep    Carl    and    Mike from   listening.   “If   you   ever   need   to   talk, Tony,   you   know   I’m   here.   If   you   ever   feel like    talking    to    anyone    besides    these    two delinquents.” Mike   groaned,   placed   his   hand   over   his chest,    and    fell    over    sideways    as    though mortally   wounded.   Carl   smirked.   I   nodded to Mrs. Stott and quickly averted my eyes. ~ S tepping   off   the   front   stoop,   Mike   pulled   a pack    of    cigarettes    from    his    pocket.    Carl took   one   from   the   offered   pack.   I   shook   my head. Inhaled    enough    smoke    at    home    from two    parents    who    raced    to    finish    a    pack every   night.   My   clothes   reeked   ten   minutes after coming off the line on Saturdays. My    anger    popped    as    I    thought    about how   Paul   lit   up   at   the   dinner   table   as   soon as    he    emptied    his    plate,    as    though    the smoke    stayed    on    his    side    of    the    table. Might   as   well   have   waved   the   smoke   of   a trash fire at me. At   least   Mom   waited   until   she   carried her    plate    into    the    kitchen    ten    feet    away before    she    lit    up.    I    wish    my    nit-brained friends   wouldn’t   smoke.   But   it   was   part   of the   tough   persona   they   thought   they   had   to wear. “There’s   a   game   today,   right?   Guess   that means   you   won’t   be   joining   the   posse   when we   cruise   Parkland.   Rumor   is   the   Snakes are looking for us. Might be fun.” I     kept     my     thoughts     to     myself.     The Vultures,       the       wannabe       gang       we’re members     of,     couldn’t     find     a     fight     if flashing-neon   billboards   pointed   the   way. They   talked   tough   and   made   nuisances   of themselves,    but    thankfully    hadn’t    gotten anyone   killed   yet.   The   highlight   of   most   of the   members’   rap   sheet   was   the   number   of detentions   for   cutting   class—that   I   knew   of. There     was     plenty     of     bragging     I     didn’t believe for a second. I   got   tired   of   the   Goody   Two-shoe   shit   I participated   in,   but   it   kept   me   from   having to   spend   too   much   time   with   the   numb- nuts    that    made    up    the    gang.    The    losers weren’t   worth   hanging   with,   but   the   same faces   had   been   a   part   of   my   life   since   we returned from Missouri. Membership   did   have   its   privileges,   like admittance    to    the    unsavory    parties    they held     when     someone’s     parents     erred     in leaving    their    butthead    son    alone    for    the weekend,    the    slutty    girls    that    hung    with them.     Mostly     it     was     the     beer     I     could