Riders in Disguise

July 11, 1979

1.

Adrian stood at the corner holding his board and staring down the street at oncoming traffic. A Camry sped up to catch the yellow light and Adrian watched the driver’s face slowly coming into focus, waited until the car was 50 feet away—40 feet, 30—then took off running across the intersection. The driver’s horn blared, curses flying out the window as the car swerved by. Adrian hit the other curb and dropped his board, his shoes slapping the wood as he took off rolling east down Kendall Drive. A couple of kicks and he was coasting, his heart racing as he stood up straight and grinned, locking his fingers on top of his head and breathing in quick bursts.

Glancing down at his red Chucks, Adrian wiggled his toes back and forth to keep the board moving, the pair of shoes as weathered as his tattered jeans and t-shirt, sleeves cut off to the shoulder. The left shoe sported a tight pencil-sized hole in the bottom where he’d stepped on a nail last year (his dad bitched out the nurse at the hospital that day about the price of a tetanus shot), the right was missing most of its inner lining, both of them were about a half-inch too small for him (Adrian had literally grown out of his pants these past few months) and the laces had been chewed down to knotted nubs months ago. But they were Adrian’s favorite pair, and would be until they fell off his damn feet, way he saw it.

Adrian kicked off again, catching some good grip on a patch of cracked concrete near a manhole. Gliding, he ducked to pick up speed. The sky heading east on Kendall at this time was the color of Adrian’s shirt, a sort of washed-out blue and partly cloudy, the sun beating down so his long brown hair gleamed despite its chaotic condition. The draft pushing against him was tall, rattling the palm fronds above on either side of Kendall Drive. Adrian raised his face and took a deep breath, closing his eyes. The air smelled salty, the ocean just a few miles away.

A tricked-out Impala gunned its engine as it blew by and Adrian nearly ate it, losing his balance and hopping onto the sidewalk just as his board slipped out from under him. He let it sail into a patch of grass as the car cruised on. A kid with a Mohawk who looked barely older than Adrian shoved his head out the passenger window and flashed his tongue, tossing up his pinky and index fingers in devil’s horns. The Impala turned a corner and sped off. Adrian glared at them then hurried to his skateboard, picking it up and checking it from each angle carefully. The Cadillac Wheels logo was leopard-spotted, patches of paint missing on each letter.

Adrian placed the board back on the sidewalk. Balancing his left foot on the fading grip, he sucked in a deep breath. Without the breeze of motion, the air was stagnant, laced with exhaust fumes. Adrian wrinkled his nose, gathered his strength and pushed off, quickly gaining speed again and whipping the wind into a frenzy around his face, getting rid of the fumes and overlying smells of Miami’s streets and shops and cars and people; smelling to the core of what made his hometown unique, that aroma of being right up on the edge of oblivion each and every day. His board picked up speed on a decline and Adrian kicked off again, listening to the steady thwack-thwack, thwack-thwack, thwack-thwack.

Ahead about half a block or so, a guy named Frank Siemens hurried across his front yard, hustling towards his car and a business meeting downtown that started in fifteen minutes (no way you’re gonna make it, Frank, his wife had yelled as he ran out the door). Frank strode down the stone path leading from his front door to the driveway, head down, deep in thought as he stepped onto the sidewalk, his widow’s peak arrowed downwards. Frank heard the thwack-thwack of Adrian’s board approaching and looked up just as Adrian crossed into the stretch of sidewalk that stood right outside Frank’s house. And Frank froze.

Eyes wide, hands up in the air with his car keys dangling between his fingers, Frank wasn’t even all the way on the sidewalk, his head and upper torso bent over the grass. But at thirteen years old, Adrian was already nearing five feet nine and had the shoulder width of a man twice his age. Without adjustment, he was in for a direct impact.

Adrian leaned to the left quickly, trying to navigate around Frank Siemens even though his instincts told him better, told him that the distance was too short and that there was no way he was not going to slam into this man unless he bailed—BAIL!—the conflicting commands from his brain confusing his limbs disastrously: Adrian pointed his board towards Kendall Drive to get out of Frank’s way, then proceeded to jump off of it, the board sailing into the street while Adrian’s momentum and trajectory sent him flying headfirst, arms dangling, right into Frank’s stomach.

Adrian hit the man like a linebacker and Frank let out a loud oof! as the air flew out of his lungs. The two of them tumbled to the ground, rolling into a tangled pile next to the brand new Mustang that Frank had leased with last year’s commission.

Frank sat up quickly, clawing a hand at his chest as he tried and failed to suck in some air, his face turning newborn-pink almost immediately. Adrian didn’t even hesitate, throwing Frank a cursory glance then jumping up and searching the street wildly. He found it, his skateboard, rolling to a stop against the median in the far left lane of oncoming eastbound traffic. Adrian turned to look at what seemed like a sea of headlights approaching half a mile away, all of them lit up with sunlight so it looked like a giant beast with dozens of eyes was coming right at him.

Adrian’s feet kicked up dirt into Frank Siemens’ face as he took off into the street after his board. Frank turned to the boy, still holding a hand to his chest and gasping, reaching the other hand out in Adrian’s direction as if he could pull him back by thought alone.

Barreling forward, Adrian kept his eyes on his board. The honks started as he stepped into the middle lane and Adrian gritted his teeth, digging his feet into the ground and pushing off again, and again, six feet from the board, five. There was another honk, followed so closely by another and another that within a second it was as if Satan himself were screaming in Adrian’s ear, the demonic squeal of dozens of brakes jacking up Adrian’s heart rate.

Adrian reached down, letting out a sound somewhere between a growl and a shout as he snatched up his board and threw himself onto the grassy median. The wind from the car that passed behind him spit gravel against his back as he fell, his foot inches away from the car’s hood. Then, suddenly, the honking and squealing brakes stopped.

Adrian landed on his back, holding his skateboard in the air, his chest heaving. He inspected the board against the sky, then stood up and looked back across the street through the torrent of cars at Frank Siemens, now standing in his driveway but still holding his chest. The car that had almost hit Adrian had stopped about twenty feet up ahead, the driver screaming back out his window at him. Frank still looked out of breath, his face sweaty and red, his armpits damp. He used one hand to shade his eyes from the sun and look at Adrian through the traffic.

Adrian held up his board triumphantly, still grinning.

Frank held his hands up in unison and said some stuff Adrian couldn’t make out, shaking his head sort of angrily, mostly confused. The driver of the car up ahead slammed on his gas and squealed away. Adrian shook the board once more, then turned and looked at the westbound side of Kendall Drive, where traffic was light and distant. He tucked the board under his arm and crossed to the other side.

Behind him, Adrian could still hear Frank Siemens yelling louder, each word whisked away by the wind of passing cars. He glanced back once more and threw Frank a thumb up, then dropped his board on the sidewalk, placed one foot on the front end, and kicked off.


 

2.

Emma wrapped the phone cord around her finger so tightly it pulsed with her heartbeat, the tip turning bright red. On the other end of the phone line, her mother spoke like an auctioneer trying to ramble and confuse her way to a sale.

“This is no joke, Emma,” she said, her voice smoke-raspy. “Not like when you were eighteen, just brushing things off and figuring that, you know, someday everything would turn out alright. You’re lucky you didn’t end up in”—pause here to scoff a bit—“a worse situation than you’re in right now, though I wouldn’t call your situation all that ideal, but who knows what will happen this time? That husband of yours, Tommy, I mean”—another scoff—“he’s a decent man and all and your father—God rest him—I’m sure he’d agree that Tommy’s, you know, adequate, and great with Adrian—when he’s around—a little overzealous sometimes but strong and definitely capable of taking care of you and Addy but”—pause to take a drag of her cigarette, a slight whistling sound as she inhaled then spoke through the smoke—“it seems obvious to me that he’s not living up to his full capabilities. And now he’s got you two in this predicament, bills due soon and you haven’t even seen him in however many days and you have no idea where he’s at or when he’s going to come back and, I mean, how long do you really think you can live like this, Emma? You have your own teenager to worry about”—she said the word “teenager” like Adrian was some diseased pit-bull that had invaded their home—“And it’s just like your Aunt Sadie used to say—God rest her—when she had your cousin Mitch—”

Emma unwrapped the phone cord from her finger and the relief was instant, her hand flooding with warmth. She shook it until pinpricks of feeling returned, then pulled a Virginia Slim from her pack, tossing the half-empty carton back down. The box slid across the brown tabletop and came to a stop hanging off the edge.

The table was good for two people if you didn’t mind your plates touching. One of the legs was too short—Tommy had stuck a piece of cardboard under it to stop the wobbling—and it was covered in stains: spaghetti sauce, Kool-Aid, bleach. But it was functional, which described pretty much everything in this apartment, including the apartment itself.

On the other side of the table the yellow-linoleum floor of the kitchen began, spreading past the two burner stove and short, squat fridge (the freezer couldn’t hold more than a pound of beef) with half a dozen gum stains marking the floor like moles on a face. The fridge had a few magnets on the door, and Emma focused on a faded one of Bugs Bunny with a dialogue bubble above his head: “What’s up, Doc?” The kitchen floor stopped short six feet in at a wall with a small square window overlooking the hallway outside their apartment. A man with dark, curly hair and skin like an overripe banana bounced past as Emma gazed out at the sky. The man glanced in, saw Emma and did a double take, backpedaling to get a closer look at the beautiful woman just sitting there, on the phone, looking kind of sad. He smiled and waved.

Emma stared back at him blankly—her mother’s voice tinny in the air, like a whistling teapot—and continued to stare at him until his smile dropped and he flicked her off then walked away.

Standing and stretching the phone cord across the kitchen floor, Emma snapped the drapes closed. The kitchen/living room grew dim, shadows creeping up the yellowing paint on the walls like cockroaches. The thought made Emma shudder and get that itch again in her arms, that incessant urge to scrub and scrape and clean clean clean.

Emma sat back down and raised the unlit cigarette to her lips, pausing to stare at the jittering thing between her fingers. Her mother’s words came through the phone receiver like fat raindrops on the side of her head. Emma flicked the lighter against the tip of the Slim and inhaled. The smoke enveloped her and she moved the lighter away, the flame jumping and rippling and protesting before finally going out. Her hands were shaking again. She rubbed at her reddened nose and sniffled.

“Emma?” her mother said.

“Yeah I’m here,” Emma said slowly, smoke spilling from her mouth as she spoke, rising around her in a dense cloud. Her eyes burned and she rubbed them, took a breath and felt a dull pressure deep in her chest. She tapped her cigarette against the corner of the ashtray and stared at the ashes. “I hear what you’re saying, Ma. This is all just a lot—”

“I know it’s a lot to mull over,” Claudia interrupted. “But it really isn’t a difficult choice. There’s nobody to protect here but you and Addy. That’s it. Your well being. Your livelihood.”

Emma glanced at her hand, the white lines of pressure left behind on her finger from the phone cord slowly disappearing. Her mom kept talking and she pretended to listen as she took another drag off her Slim, looking around her living room and wishing to God she had something stronger than this shitty cigarette.

Hanging crooked on the wall above the double stacks of milk crates they used to hold up their TV was a large picture of her, Adrian, and Tommy. It was a Christmas photo they’d taken when Addy was seven, joining a crowd of young parents at the J.C. Penney in Dadeland. That had been a good day, dinner at that café across the street, movie theater after to sit as a family with a giant tub of popcorn to the three of them while they watched a Disney movie—Robin Hood, the cartoon one with the fox. Emma and Tommy had made love that night, quietly and sweetly in their bed while Addy slept in the living room. That was five, maybe six years ago. It seemed like twenty.

“—just practical,” her mother was saying. “It just makes sense, and you know I don’t have a problem with it. I moved down here to be closer to you and Addy. You really think I would mind having you two stay with me?”

Emma flicked the cigarette against the ashtray again and sighed.

“I can’t just leave Tommy,” Emma said, her voice choked. She cleared her throat, spoke quietly. “He needs us.”

Needs you?” Claudia spit. “Some need! You haven’t seen him in a week! That doesn’t sound like a man who needs his family.” Claudia took another drag, a faint, angry hissss in the background. “People don’t just change, Honey,” she added with finality.

Emma tucked the phone between her ear and shoulder and squeezed the bridge of her nose. “I’ll talk to Addy when he gets home.”

“Yes, talk to him,” she said. “And while you’re at it, talk to him about why his father left on an overnight business trip six nights ago and hasn’t called to say where he is or what’s going on.” Another whistling cigarette puff. “Because that’s a conversation you probably should have already had with him.”

“Thanks for the advice,” Emma said through gritted teeth, even as her bowels clenched at Claudia Wagner’s words, a sharp stab of fear and regret cutting through her abdomen and forcing her to bend over. She imagined Tommy lying next to a dumpster like those men the police had found on Sunset and US-1 a couple of weeks ago. What was left of them, at least.

And her here, contemplating leaving.

“You guys can come tomorrow if you’d like,” her mother said. “Or this weekend. Whichever makes you more comfortable.”

“I said I’ll think about it,” Emma said, her tone cautionary.

“I just want you to really think about it,” Claudia said.

“I am thinking,” Emma said. “I’ll call you later tonight, after I talk to Addy.”

“I would also advise you to consider it even if Tommy comes back,” she added.

“You couldn’t live with Tommy, Ma.”

“That’s not what I mean and you know it.”

“I’m not going to acknowledge what you mean,” Emma said.

“Be reasonable,” her mother said, almost barking the command. “And don’t give Addy too much say in the decision either. He’s only thirteen. He won’t see the bigger picture.”

“The bigger picture,” Emma said, then chuckled, a single tear escaping through her barricade and sliding down her cheek. “The bigger fucking picture.”

“Emma,” her mother said, biting the syllable off near the end. “You know I don’t approve of that language.”

“I’ll call you later,” Emma said, setting the phone back on the cradle before Claudia could respond. Emma stared at it for a moment, then leaned back and put the cigarette to her lips, pulling in until the filter sizzled, this drag sweeter than all the ones before it. She held the smoke in until it burned then opened her mouth, exhaling.

Like a breath of fresh air.

Emma still remembered the first pack of cigarettes she’d ever bought. She was seventeen then, about a week after she met Tommy, a year before she got pregnant. She’d chosen Virginia Slims without even thinking about it really, at a gas station while Tommy was in the back peeing. It was the ad that had caught her eye, a magazine page shoved in the corner of the glass counter picturing a thin, beautiful woman in an elegant pantsuit with a wide, white smile and one hand tangled in her thick blonde hair.

You’ve come a long way, baby,” it said. And she believed it.

That had been thirteen years ago. Tommy’s promises and Emma’s face had aged since then, both becoming a little less bright and sunny with each day, almost brittle, as if the slightest scrutiny would reveal years of decay and cause the entire façade of contentedness Emma had tried so hard to cultivate her entire life to just fall apart. It was almost like the last words Tommy had said to her before he left last week were about their marriage and future, not the job.

“I don’t really like how we set this shit up,” he’d said, a rare moment of insecurity on his part. They’d been on good terms that night, his leaving bringing out a tenderness in Emma that had been infrequent as-of-late. The room still smelled of sweat and sex as she pressed her naked body against Tommy’s bare back and kissed his neck. Tommy shoved another shirt into his gym bag then zipped it up. “I don’t know these assholes, what they’re like.” He sighed. “What if this Lehder guy gets nervous and does something stupid?”

“You know Raul,” Emma had said, wrapping her arms around his stomach and putting her cheek between his shoulder blades, her ear right behind his heart. She could hear it, speedy at first then slowing as he put his hand on top of hers.

“The only person I really know is you,” he’d said, which had touched Emma at the time. Only later did she recognize the tension in his voice as he spoke.

Emma stabbed out what was left of her cigarette and pulled out another, considering her mother’s request as she lit it and inhaled. Emma smoked this one more frantically, the lit cherry glowing with each inhalation. Addy’s face popped into her head, and she took a glance at the clock. Five past two. He was late.

And with that thought it all came up, every worry and fear and simmering slice of anger in her life, everything that defined her these days. All of it swooped in and consumed her, dropping a seed of despair into the pit of her stomach that blossomed immediately, branching out to every part of her body.

Emma dropped her forehead into her palm and wept, holding the cigarette near the carpet as her long hair fell in a curtain around her face and arms. After a moment, she placed the unfinished cigarette in the ashtray and wrapped her robed arms around her chest and rocked back and forth and sobbed like she’d just been beaten, sobbed like a five year old promised ice cream that never came.

Eventually the tears subsided to sniffles, but Emma didn’t move from that spot, not until 45 minutes later when her phone rang and she picked it up, put it to her ear—glancing at her now-empty pack of Virginia Slims—and heard Detective Lance Murphy on the other line.


 

3.

Adrian tucked his board under his arm and opened the door to the Westside entrance of Dadeland Mall, raising his forehead up to the AC breeze as he walked inside. Legs rubbery from the exercise, each step forward felt like his feet were going through the floor. He stopped to compose himself—straighten his shorts and wipe his sweaty face with the bottom of his shirt—then walked on toward Gray’s on the other side of the mall.

Gray’s Emporium was the only comic book store around for ten miles; the next closest one was about half Gray’s size and a traffic-filled drive north on US-1 towards Downtown Miami. Buried between a Foot Locker and a Border’s, Gray’s boasted over two hundred titles, with all the newest comic book issues in stock and nearly 10,000 total issues on sale (according to the sign outside the front gate). A part of Dadeland Mall’s community of stores for going on two years now, Gray’s also stood at number one on Adrian’s one-item list of Things That Make the Mall Bearable. The store was set up like a flea market, a couple dozen tables scattered around the room with boxes on top filled with plastic-wrapped comics, the excess stacked in random spots on the floor.

Adrian stepped inside Gray’s and walked directly to a table in the middle of the room, picking up the latest issue of X-Men and turning to the counter, where Matthew Gray—owner of Gray’s emporium—stood squinting at two other kids rifling through a box of comics in the back. Matt was a squat man with a rounded belly—he was an inch shorter than Adrian, and a foot-and-a-half wider—with a face that managed to look perpetually smug even with the shocking amount of acne scars littering his forehead, cheeks and chin. His hair was long and shaggy, a mop on top of his head. Adrian approached the counter as Matt yelled out:

“You guys be careful with the goddamn merchandise!”

The kids looked up, startled, then looked at Adrian as if he were a co-conspirator in the reprimand. They returned to rifling through the comics a bit more gently and Matt looked at Adrian, then the comic, the cover of which displayed a giant pinball table, the villain Arcade’s grinning face over it as he sent boulder-sized pinballs flying at the X-Men who were trapped inside. There were six of them on the cover: Cyclops with his laser eyes blazing, Storm raising her arms to the sky, Nightcrawler running for his life with his tail trailing behind him like a flying arrow, a giant silver Colossus smashing through a pinball, and Wolverine with claws bared as Banshee floated off the ground in attack mode.

Adrian placed the comic on the counter and pulled a dollar out of his back pocket, handing it to Matt. Matt dropped two quarters and a dime back in Adrian’s hand and smiled.

“Always a pleasure, kid,” he said.

Nodding and picking up the bag with his comic in it—the Gray’s Emporium “GE” logo on the side, letters inside a blue circle with wavy lines behind it to make it look like it was flying—Adrian flashed a smile at Matt Gray then walked out the front gate.

Cutting through the back exit near the food court, Adrian took the path through the parking lot back around the sidewalk to 88th street. He jumped some bushes and scraped his leg on a branch then ran around The Tribute Tower—an aqua-colored landmark stretching about fifty feet up in the air with a giant “D” on top, for Dadeland.

Adrian dropped his board in the lot attached to 88th then kicked off, swerving between parked cars with the Gray’s bag under his arm, eventually kicking his board up into his hand and slowing to a trot in front of Cozzoli’s Deli.

Cozzoli’s: a small bakery set on the side of Dadeland, to the right of a liquor store, Crown Liquors, which Adrian had been to with his dad a couple of times during Tommy Langley’s monthly trips to restock his Jack Daniels stash. Adrian glanced inside Cozzoli’s through the glass door, then opened it and stepped inside.

A familiar scent hit Adrian the moment he entered, the insulated air tossed in his face like flour so that he had no choice but to take a deep breath. The convolution of smells warmed him, each distinct even as they mashed themselves together in his nostrils: fresh baked bread, potent Cuban coffee, sugary pastelitos.

Adrian walked over to the display case, bypassing all the breads and assorted sandwiches, shunning the trays of flan and croquetas, barely batting an eye at the long sleeves of Cuban bread as he focused on the platter of guava pastelitos. He looked at the man sitting behind the cash register and the man stared back, nodded once.

“Que tu quieres?” he said.

“Two guava,” Adrian said, pointing. The man grabbed a piece of clear wax paper, pulled two pastelitos out and handed them to Adrian. Adrian dropped the coins from his pocket into the man’s hand and he gave Adrian back the dime, which Adrian slipped in his pocket as he readjusted his skateboard under his arm.

Taking a bite of pastelito as he walked away, Adrian paused next to one of the three tables in Cozzoli’s, placing a hand on a chair as he savored the burst of guava in his mouth, the soft inside of the breading, the flakes of brown crust on his lips that he licked away before taking another bite. A balding, red-skinned man sat at the table next to Adrian’s and Adrian must have made a sound because the man turned and looked at him funny, smirking.

Adrian turned and walked to the front door, standing in front of the glass as he popped the other half of the first pastelito into his mouth then bit into the second one, staring out at the parking lot. A faint squeal touched his ears and a moment later a white van circled around the lot then pulled into a spot next to a brand new Mercedes Benz, right in front of the liquor store next door. The white van initially approached from the south but since it made a circle around the lot it came back at the store from the north, so Adrian got a good look at the entire profile as he chewed. And it was the profile that pricked his attention at first.

The van was bulky, the best way Adrian could describe it. It looked like a regular van, sure, but it also seemed to be bigger than one, as if somebody had taken a regular van and stretched it a bit on the sides and up top. The cabin seemed to bulge with weight, and the van drove slowly even though Adrian could hear the engine revving high, like it was carrying something heavy in the back.

And the company name on the side, Happy Time Complete Supply Party. Something was off about that name.

The van idled for a long while in its spot, long enough for Adrian to finish his pastelito and press against the door for a closer look. He jumped a little when the van’s doors suddenly flew open and two men jumped out wearing jeans and leather jackets, outfits that automatically made them stand out. It was over ninety degrees outside, yet these guys looked like they were walking through Toronto in the fall, their dark sunglasses hiding their eyes and most of their sweat-stained faces. One of the guys, the driver, was about Adrian’s height. The guy who’d gotten out of the passenger seat though was much taller, scarier too.

Adrian looked away instinctively when they got out, pretending to stare at a wrinkled movie poster for Mother, Jugs & Speed with Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch and Harvey Keitel. The tag line said “They don’t call them that for nothing!”

A moment later he peeked back around then craned his neck to watch as the men stepped over the parking curb and walked up to the liquor store door. They walked stiffly, both of them holding their jackets closed around something in each of their hands, Adrian couldn’t see from his vantage point. He could still hear the van’s engine going though, and imagined someone coming over and stealing it right in front of these guys’ faces.

Adrian felt the door shudder a bit beneath his weight, threatening to fly open, as the men stopped in front of the Crown Liquor door. They glanced at each other, like they were speaking without actually saying anything, then they finally walked into the liquor store. Adrian pushed Cozzoli’s door open, grabbing his board and comic bag tightly and walking out of the deli. The sun’s rays hit Adrian on the back of his shoulders and arms, sweat beading on his skin immediately.

Adrian walked up to the van, staring at the tinted windows and the stenciled letters on the side:

Happy Time Complete Supply Party.

Not even grammatically correct.

The paint appeared to be fresh too, a few dark streaks on a couple of letters where it had been applied too heavily. Adrian peered at it then headed to the other side of the van, coming around the rear bumper and placing a hand against the back door, the metal hot. He rounded the corner and stared up at the same set of streaky red letters, just as fresh as its twin on the other side: Happy Time Complete Party Supply.

Adrian cocked his head to the side, mouthed each word to himself, then walked back to the other side and read again: Happy Time Complete Supply Party. It took him a moment to put it all together: the genius painters had stenciled the last two words in opposite order on each side of the van.

Adrian burst out laughing, his hands dropping to his stomach, his board slipping a little down his side. Tears sprang into his eyes as he tilted his head back and struggled to pull in a breath around the guffaws. He had no idea why the typo was so funny to him, but within seconds he was hysterical. He came around the back of the van to look at the passenger side again and laughed even harder.

It was just one of those days, he guessed. Stomach full, his favorite comic book characters in a bag at his side with his board tucked under his arm, Adrian felt it deep within his laughing gut that this botched company sign on this generic-looking white van meant something, and meant something big.

Adrian’s laughter trickled down to chuckles, and he swiped at his tear-stained face with the back of his hand before looking up at the van’s sign in admiration. Adrian touched the van one more time, almost lovingly, and shook his head.

He was turning to walk away when the front door of Crown Liquor blew outwards, glass flying across the concrete in giant shards accompanied by the deafening bat-bat-bat-bat-bat of machine gunfire.

 


 

4.

Miguel’s hands—and the gun it held—were shaking, which was a problem. It kept making this little clacking sound against his wrist. Sitting on the wheel well in the back of Luchi’s van, he tried putting the gun down softly, next to the large black box in front of him. It hit the cabin floor with a loud clang and he snatched it back up.

Miguel’s brother, Jose, looked back at him from the driver’s seat, which drew Luchi’s attention from the passenger’s. The van shifted with the movement and Miguel heard the slosh of gas in the canister behind Luchi’s seat, right next to the giant black box. Behind him stood an M2 Browning mounted heavy machine gun, pointed at the hole drilled into the back of the van below a pop-out window.

Jose gave his brother a look that Miguel could read clearly—stop being weird—then turned to Luchi and tapped his shoulder, motioning towards the door for them to leave.

Luchi didn’t move, just kept staring at Miguel.

Miguel tried to think of something to make himself relax; anything other than where he was, what they were doing. Something funny, maybe.

Nothing funny about this.

Something to make him feel good then, and he pictured his fiancée Clara’s face, that tiny beauty mark below her bottom lip, those big green eyes that flared to hazel when she got angry or passionate or a mixture of both. Just last night, when he’d given her the short version of today’s job, she’d shoved him into the bedroom door and screamed in his face and he’d grabbed her by the throat and yelled back and she’d dug some skin out from under his eye with her thumbnail and he’d slammed her against the wall next to their bed so hard she’d been out of breath long enough for him to feel bad and kiss her and she’d kissed him back and he’d ripped off her shorts and made love to her right there in the middle of the floor, falling over after in a sweaty, panting pile.

Miguel guessed that was a memory he could be thankful for, even in a moment like this.

Miquel smiled at it and Luchi smiled too across the car, his teeth small and yellow. Miguel forced his smile to remain, even though Luchi’s face sucked all the joy out of the memory.

“You okay back there?” Luchi asked, his voice smooth and friendly, his slight accent just barely giving away his Colombian roots. And still, Miguel was scared to death. He forced himself not to look away, nodding slowly even though he had no idea what Luchi had just said. Miguel had yet to even faintly grasp the bumbling lack of fluidity in English.

“You sure?” Luchi asked, nodding his head in time with Miguel’s, so Miguel just kept going. “Griselda wants no fuck-ups on this,” Luchi added.

“No fuck-ups,” Jose said from next to Luchi. Miguel’s brother had learned enough English to get by, mostly expletives.

Luchi kept an eye on Miguel for a second longer, then glanced at Jose and nodded. The two men opened their doors and Miguel saw the barrel of the Tec-9 under Luchi’s arm as he got out, Jose climbing out carrying his own gun too. The two men slammed the doors with a heavy thunk. Luchi cracked his neck, the shoulders of his bomber jacket bunching up as he glanced at Miguel and put a finger up to his own eye, keeping his other hand pressed to his side to hide the gun. He used the same finger to point at Miguel then flashed a smile, a joking smile. Miguel forced one back, but his stomach went cold. Luchi and Jose approached Crown Liquors, and Miguel watched them go, feeling like he was watching some vital part of himself walk away.

Luchi and Jose entered the liquor store and Miguel grabbed the bottle of water next to his left foot, twisting the cap off shakily, putting it to his mouth and swinging his head back. The water was an oasis in his throat, and he sighed, splashed a little on his head then swiped the water off his face. His fingers cleared his eyes just as a flash of movement caught him from the right. Miguel snapped to attention, his head whipping around to face a boy approaching the van, staring right at Miguel.

Miguel ducked, raised his gun, but the boy didn’t seem to notice; just kept walking towards the van without hesitation. Miguel raised his head a little and watched the boy’s face, realizing quickly that the kid couldn’t see him. Miguel peered at the boy, more curious now than fearful. The boy was tall, broad-shouldered, but Miguel could see from the lingering pudginess in his cheeks and the birdlike awkwardness in his steps that he was just a kid.

The boy walked out of view and Miguel held his breath, putting his ear to the door. Footsteps outside stopped close to the van, just a couple of feet away. Miguel adjusted his grip on the gun and the metallic clacking resumed as his hands started shaking again.

A few seconds later the kid’s footsteps scraped around the back of the truck, and Miguel followed the sound with his gun. There was silence for a moment, and Miguel was beginning to think he had finally gotten bored and walked away when the kid suddenly hopped back to the left side of the van again. Miguel twitched around the inside of the van like an epileptic, gun raised and head cocked to the side.

Miguel threw a glance inside the liquor store at Jose and Luchi, Luchi talking to the men behind the counter while Jose stood to the left with his arms pressed tightly at his side. At the sight of them, Miguel felt a rising anger that he struggled to push down. The emotion flared up like a virus though and took hold violently, a fury so red hot he had to remove his finger from the gun’s trigger before he inadvertently pulled it.

It was a big moment for Miguel actually. His brother would have grinned at him and said that American freedom and the potential for prosperity were already getting to his head. But for Miguel it was a revelation; the first time since he was a kid–looking into his father’s angry face as he drunkenly laid into him–that he’d told himself in some form or fashion: esto no es justo.

This. Isn’t. Fair.

Miguel gripped his gun even tighter, so that the metal—warmed by his body heat—practically burned in his hand. His fear had disappeared with the anger, replaced by something he couldn’t quite pinpoint but that made him want to burst out of this van like a banshee, shoot Luchi then grab Jose and run back home, back to his woman and son, away from all of this. It wasn’t an entirely unpleasant feeling, though he couldn’t remember ever having felt it before.

So Miguel had no idea that the word for what he felt right then was empowerment—empoderamiento—like for the first time in his life he held the key to his future in his hands.

The skin on Miguel’s face tightened around his skull, his mouth forming something in between a grimace and a grin. He contemplated his next move, so deep in concentration that he was totally locked in when the boy burst out laughing from the other side of the door. The sudden sound startled Miguel so much he would’ve gone tumbling backwards if he hadn’t already been pressed against the side of the van. As it was, he banged his head against the ceiling jumping up as the laughter moved towards the back of the van again. Miguel rubbed his head and listened to the hysterical kid walk to the other side, his laughter fading slowly. Scowling, Miguel glanced at Crown Liquors front window, at his brother and Luchi, and froze.

Inside, Luchi’s face had transformed from calm to enraged as he shook a fist at one of the two men behind the counter, his left hand hidden at his side. The two men seemed frozen by Luchi’s shouts, both their eyes wide and trained on his hidden hand. Luchi kept yelling and pointing, his hand jabbing the air faster and faster, his face twisting more and more with anger until Miguel saw the fear in the men’s eyes turn to bitter realization.

Luchi let his jacket fall to the side and swung his Tec-9 up. Less than a second later, the man on the right’s face imploded in a red mist, his chest deflating beneath his neck like a crushed piñata as he fell. The other man followed, hopping like a puppet on strings, bright red blossoming dots appearing all over his chest and opening like roses before he finally pirouetted to the ground. It all happened so quickly, it seemed like Luchi had barely touched the trigger before the gun was bucking in his grip and disintegrating both men, tearing entire chunks out of the back wall as the room erupted with bullets, broken bottles, and blood.

Luchi underestimated the kickback on the gun though, the force of the shots swinging his arm around and sending bullets flying behind him also, blowing the glass door and one of the windows of Crown Liquors out onto the sidewalk.

Luchi released the trigger just long enough to grab the gun with both hands and swing it back around, holding it over the counter and unloading the rest of the clip into the men who were no longer visible or—Miguel assumed—breathing.

Jose seemed frozen for most of it, though only five seconds had passed since Luchi pulled the trigger so you could say he just reacted late. Either way, Luchi got his gun back under control at the same time Jose raised his (double grip, he’d seen what just happened to Luchi) and pulled the trigger, the muzzle flashing with a rattling bass. With both guns going now, the rumble of expended bullets—to this point like bowling pins in an alley—transformed into what Miguel imagined two planes crashing into each other right above his head must sound like. Within seconds the liquor store was a dustbowl, and Miguel couldn’t see a thing.

When the bursts of gunfire stopped, the sound that replaced it couldn’t really be called silence. Though the entire episode had seemed to last for minutes, it had actually been less than fifteen seconds since Luchi first pulled the trigger, and Miguel barely had a chance to squint at the scene before Jose and Luchi walked—not ran, but walked—out of the store. Miguel’s instinctual sense of urgency had him bouncing in place as he studied his brother and Luchi, who dropped his gun on the sidewalk and pulled a pistol from the back of his jeans, turned and started blasting through the empty doorway of Crown Liquors. Bullets pinged off metal shelves and more bottles fell, the floor inside covered in rum and vodka and cognac and wine and blood. Luchi emptied the clip then dropped the pistol on the ground as well, staring grim-faced into the dark store entrance.

The deafening silence that followed was cut off by the earth-shattering screams that faded in from every direction. In the deli next to the liquor store, people lay on the ground with their hands over their heads, most of them crying or looking out the window and flinching involuntarily, as if they were being shot at too. A woman with a huge purse clutched to her chest pressed her face against the front door with her mouth wide open, tears streaming, her eyes frantically searching from side to side.

Miguel remembered the kid then and had a moment of pure terror when he thought that Luchi had killed him. He moved to open the side door then hesitated, leaned back on the wheel well just as Luchi walked over and threw the side door open himself. He glanced at a frightened Miguel then grabbed the large black box behind the passenger’s seat, next to the sloshing red gas can. Dragging it over, he clicked the lock open and tossed the top off, and Miguel’s stomach turned.

Inside the box were over a dozen firearms, of various shapes and sizes. Mac-10s, Uzis, a couple of shotguns, a revolver and some pistols. Luchi grabbed a pistol, an Uzi, and the revolver, then walked over to Jose, who was looking at his gun and trying to figure out why it had stopped shooting. Luchi handed him the pistol, then raised his Uzi and sent shots flying at the main entrance of the mall. Jose watched as he did, staring with either awe or fear in his eyes, Miguel couldn’t tell. Then Jose turned and unloaded the pistol into Crown Liquors, lining up each shot and flinching as he pulled the trigger, like he was at target practice.

Luchi paused shooting for a moment to look in at the deli, at the people all lying there with their arms over their heads, and for a second Miguel’s mouth hung open in horror as he waited for Luchi to take all those people out. Miguel saw everything clearer now with the side door open, and he told himself to get up and get out, either stop Luchi from turning this into a massacre, or just make a run for it. Before Miguel could decide though, Luchi spun around and sent the rest of his clip into the Mercedes Benz parked next to the van, shooting holes through the hood and the engine. Bullets pinged and Miguel closed his eyes and told himself none of this was happening. That he was at home, safe, with Clara and Rafi. That this was all some weird dream amalgamation, a combo of the violence he’d experienced as a child in Bogota and his new life in the North.

Miguel opened his eyes and Luchi was staring at him.

Miguel studied his face, half-expecting him to be smiling, leering as his gun shook in his hand. Instead, what Miguel saw was the same dead look that had been there since the day he’d met him, as if he were out for an afternoon of grocery shopping. That sort of tired, I’m-doing-the-chores-so-everybody-will-leave-me-alone-later-while-I’m-trying-to-watch-the-game expression.

Which, somehow, made all of this even worse.

Luchi ended the barrage by pointing the gun up in the air and pulling the trigger until there was nothing but a faint click from his gun. Jose stood next to him staring into Crown Liquors, the front of the store no longer recognizable. Miguel looked in the direction Luchi had been shooting and realized just as the man dropped his gun that he’d been clearing a path.

The area was a ghost town by time Luchi headed back to the passenger side of the van. Jose sent his last two bullets into a single unbroken bottle of Johnny Walker still sitting on a hanging shelf, then turned and followed suit. Luchi climbed in and turned to grab a shotgun and Mac-10 from the box. He glanced up at Miguel, then at the gun mounted on the stand next to him, then back at Miguel. Miguel didn’t move, and Luchi faced forward again, checking his ammo.

Jose bounded into the van a second later, and Miguel thought at first that his brother’s tossing about as he climbed in was out of their mutual desire to get the fuck out of here as fast as possible. Then Jose turned to look at him and Miguel saw the manic excitement in his eyes, his mouth lit up with a grin that seemed to cut his face in half.

“Puta madre!” Jose yelled.

“English,” Luchi barked, snapping his fingers in Jose’s face then slapping him on the leg and pointing at the steering wheel. “Conduces!”

Jose whipped back around and turned the key in the ignition, reversing out with a squeal then slamming on the gas. Miguel braced himself against the floor, staring out the still open side door at the concrete flying by, cars with shattered windows appearing then disappearing.

Luchi turned to Miguel. “Shoot,” he said, pointing out the door, then at the mounted gun.

Miguel stared back at him blankly, his mouth closing involuntarily with a snap that made his jaw hurt and his ears ring. Luchi’s face transformed then, screwing into a demented mask.

“Dispara!” he yelled, pointing emphatically. “Dispara, fucking—shoot the fucking gun!”

Miguel, startled out of his trance, raised his gun and pointed it out the side door then screamed as he pulled the trigger; out of frustration, anger, a twinge of excitement maybe. More likely a bit of all of the above, like a buffet of emotions riding his speeding blood through his pounding heart. The gun bucked like a wild horse in his grip, slamming into his chest. The impact drove the air out of his lungs but Miguel held on to the trigger, the recoil screwing up his aim and sending bullets flying everywhere: out of the van and inside the van, ricocheting off the roof with metallic bangs almost louder than the shots themselves. Jose slammed on the brakes and Miguel almost fell out the side opening, his Tec-9 flying from his grip and landing in the parking lot with a clatter.

“What di fuck, Miguel?!” Jose yelled.

Luchi whipped his head around and looked at Jose with a faint amount of pride at first, then slapped Jose in the back of the head and pointed at the windshield. Jose slammed on the gas, sending Miguel flying into the mounted gun just as he was trying to grab another weapon from the black box. He scrambled back to it but Luchi reached back and put an arm over the box, pointing emphatically at the mounted gun with his sawed-off.

“Shoot that, maricón!” Luchi yelled. “That one.”

Miguel didn’t hesitate, bounding over to the M2 browning and holding onto it for balance, glancing back at Luchi as Luchi pulled an Uzi out of the box and dropped it on Jose’s lap. Jose glanced at it for a half-second before looking back up and weaving the van through a patch of parked cars so that Miguel had to drop to his knees and spread them apart for extra balance.

Miguel faced the mount, took a deep breath then slid open the small slit in the back of the van door. He tried to calm himself as his brother tossed the van around like a remote control car.

Looking out on the parking lot, Miguel put his finger on the trigger, closed his eyes and counted to three then opened them and exhaled deeply. He imagined Carla’s face, and suddenly everything around him went silent: the rapid fire of Luchi’s gun, the squealing of the van’s tires, the boom of Luchi and Jose yelling, everything just faded away. All Miguel could hear was the faint thump of his heart in his forehead as he inhaled again, exhaled slowly again, then pulled the trigger.

The van erupted with a sound like carpet bombs from an airplane. It was so loud Miguel’s hearing registered about five blasts before cutting out completely with a faint pop, leaving only the booming bass of each shot hitting him in the chest like a sledgehammer. The gun kicked back so violently in Miguel’s grip it was a wonder it stayed on its mount. Two seconds after pulling the trigger his arms felt about to shake out of their sockets; within ten seconds his shoulders were numb. Bullet cartridges flew out of the side of the machine gun like quarters from a slot machine jackpot; within seconds the floor of the van was littered.

The deafening machine gunfire threw a spark into Jose and he floored the gas pedal. The steering wheel spun in his hands, the van careening off to the right, bullets flying out the back in every direction. Miguel couldn’t see to know where—or who—he was shooting at. He wondered if he’d hit anybody. All he could see were shot up cars, no bodies, but his vision was limited by the foot wide square of light coming through the small flip-up window in the back door.

Miguel heard—rather felt in his back—bass from the steady rat-tat-tat of Luchi’s Mac-10 out the passenger window shattering another car windshield. He told himself to let go of the gun, to stop this, but his finger remained on the trigger. A wailing resounded deep in his head,  and it took him a moment to realize it was the sound of his own yelling.

Jose took a sudden left too fast around a parked pickup truck and lost control of the van again, this time not touching the brakes as the wheel spun out of his grip and took the vehicle directly into the Dadeland tribute tower. The van’s right headlight and fender crumpled and Miguel found himself airborne for just a second before he slammed into the back of Jose’s seat. The engine cut out, as did the gunfire as Luchi looked back at him.

“Dispara!” he yelled again, pointing at the back of the van.

Miguel got up slowly, got back to the gun even slower, watching as Luchi dropped his spent Mac-10 out the window, grabbed the shotgun and started blasting again.

Miguel raised his hands to grab the Browning again, but his hands wouldn’t curl around the grips. All he could do was stare out the small slit in the back door at the scene behind them, now fully visible without the bullet flashes. The entire area was bustling with activity; people screaming and running, some slowly standing and looking around in wide-mouthed shock.

And people on the ground. Dozens of them, most moving in some manner—even if just to scream—but many of them not.

Dios mio, he thought to himself, without any real emotion. Hicimos esto.

We did this.

Miguel tried to tell himself that wasn’t true, that this had all been Luchi’s doing, that he himself probably hadn’t even hit anybody. He’d been shooting too erratically, most of those bullets probably went into the air. He told himself this even as his eyes welled up, flinching with each of Luchi’s shotgun blasts.

Luchi turned to Jose and screamed for him to get the car started.

The engine struggled as Miguel caught a hint of familiarity outside the van and squinted out the tiny back window.

Blue shirt and jeans shorts. A red skateboard and red shoes.

It was the boy who’d been walking around the van earlier. He was standing in the middle of the lot fifty yards back with a curious look on his face, staring at them while swarms of people ran away behind him. Miguel saw him and was surprised when his heart soared. He almost wanted to wave to the kid, and before he noticed what he was doing a smile crept across his lips. Then the kid looked down and to his right, crouched over and disappeared for a second, then stood up again. When he looked back over at the van, Miguel saw he was holding a gun, one of the pistols Luchi had dropped during his shooting spree. The kid studied it, studied the van, then seemed to make a choice and turned away, opening his bag and sticking the gun inside then walking slowly towards the crowd of people near the liquor store. Miguel suddenly felt a spark of fear and wanted to yell for the kid to put the gun down, leave it there.

Don’t touch it. You’ll regret it for the rest of your life.

The engine finally turned over just as a burst of sirens came from the distance. Jose threw the van in reverse, backed up a few feet then tossed it into drive and took off, speeding around the front of the mall and weaving through parked cars as Luchi continued blasting out the window. He didn’t shoot as rapidly though, and Miguel figured he only wanted to keep people away from the van as they escaped. They took one final turn and hopped a speed bump, scraped the van’s underside against the sidewalk curb, then hit the ground on first two then four wheels before taking off west on Kendall Drive. The moment they cleared the mall, Luchi dropped the steaming shotgun on the ground between his legs, leaning back in his chair like he’d just finished smoking a cigarette.

They drove in silence for a while after that. Or, at least, Miguel thinks they drove in silence, since he still couldn’t hear a thing but the beat of his heart in his forehead, sounding so much like the booming blasts from Luchi’s shotgun. When he looked up though, they were a few miles away from Dadeland, still on Kendall. They stopped at a red light and Miguel looked to the left at a bakery, people sitting outside. A woman laughed at a man’s joke. An employee came out and wiped down a table. Some guy opened the door and let his toddler son waddle inside.

They were all acting normal, like nothing had happened. For a moment Miguel wondered if he’d dreamt everything, if they maybe hadn’t even done the job yet. If he was dozing at the apartment right now hours away from heading to Luchi’s, having a very, very vivid dream.

Then he glimpsed the shotgun between Luchi’s legs again, steam still wafting from the barrels. Miguel flinched, and suddenly wanted more than anything to be out of this van.

Jose made so many turns that Miguel had to drop his head after a moment, closing his eyes and willing himself not to be sick. He kept his head down for the rest of the drive with his hands on his gun like a security blanket, seeing the image of that kid just staring at them, his face frozen with wonder as he held the gun at his side.

Eventually the car came to an abrupt stop, and Miguel let it fling him forward this time so that he could throw the side door open and stumble out. His feet hit the ground and he immediately bent over, hiccupped once then vomited so violently it felt like his stomach was trying to turn itself inside out.

When the dry heaves finally subsided, Miguel wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked at the mess he’d made. The vomit and bile had congealed in a small brown pile in front of his feet, sitting on a raggedy patch of grass next to a bunch of other raggedy patches of grass that surrounded him. Miguel looked up and saw that they’d stopped in a pock-marked field next to scattered trees; not farmland but an undeveloped lot, a very large undeveloped lot with a single long road leading to another wider street that trailed off to Kendall Drive and a few buildings in the far distance.

Miguel looked at Luchi curiously. Luchi was looking at Jose, who had climbed out of the driver’s seat and come around the front of the van to smirk at Miguel’s sick. He glanced at Miguel’s face and his smirk disappeared.

“Miguel?” he said. “Estás bien?”

Miguel still couldn’t hear, a ringing noise filling his ears now. He looked blankly at Jose, then Luchi.

“We have to burn the van,” Luchi said, looking from Miguel to Jose then back to Miguel, pointing at the van. “Tenemos quemar.”

Miguel saw where Luchi was pointing, took a moment to put it together then nodded. He understood now why the gas canister was there. He walked over to the van and reached inside, pulling the gas can closer to him. He uncapped the top then raised the canister and paused, looking back at Luchi who stood in the grass about ten feet from the van, staring at the brothers. Jose was leaning in the driver’s side, pulling a simple duffle bag out of the center console, his gun sitting on the driver’s seat. Luchi’s shotgun lay on the passenger’s. Miguel reached over and picked it up then held it out to Luchi. Luchi nodded and took the gun—tucking it under his arm with the barrel pointed at the ground and his finger on the trigger guard—then motioned for Miguel to continue.

Miguel upended the can and watched the gas gurgle out. It hit the van floor like piss in a barrel and started spreading immediately, splashing everywhere and over everything and assaulting Miguel’s nose with its acrid stench. The canister emptied quickly and Miguel dropped it in the van, taking a step back, then another. He surveyed the vehicle from about five feet away and realized that seeing it from this angle and not actually being inside anymore gave him a way to separate himself from the events of the day. He could almost physically feel everything that had just happened becoming part of his past within his head, compartmentalizing itself into a story he’d tell Clara someday when it was nothing more than folklore.

Something he couldn’t change and therefore had no reason to dwell on.

Miguel thought of the boy again and quickly dismissed it.

It was over. No más.

His relief was quick and strong. He turned to Luchi with a smile flirting at the corner of his lips just as Luchi raised his shotgun in the direction of his brother. Luchi didn’t hesitate; the moment the gun was aimed, he pulled the trigger.

The blast registered as a dull thud to Miguel, the shell hitting Jose in the stomach and seemingly opening his entire body up. Blood and chunky bits of flesh splattered the grass behind him. Jose seemed confused at first, not even reacting to the shot so much as Luchi’s face, staring into the man’s eyes with a look of admiration that made Miguel’s heart sink.

A second passed and Jose staggered back a step, finally looking down at what was left of his body. Miguel looked at what was left of his brother too. Then he and his brother’s eyes met, Miguel’s vision blurry, and in that look Jose conveyed everything he needed to convey.

“Lo,” Jose said, his voice hoarse. He coughed once, a glob of thick, mucous-laden blood flying from his mouth and landing in the dirt. “Lo siento.”

Then there was another dull thud, and Miguel flinched, waiting for his brother’s body to be cut in half. Jose didn’t though, just staggered back another step, his expression one of horror now as he looked at Miguel.

Miguel wondered what had changed suddenly, why his brother was looking at him like that instead of at himself, at his own mortal wounds. Then Miguel felt the numbness, as if everything below his chest had suddenly disappeared. He looked down, and it was the same thing as Jose—like Miguel had suddenly been unfolded. He reached down to try and hold himself together as he fell to his knees, everything slipping through his fingers, like trying to hold a pissed off snake. When he looked up, Jose was on the ground, on his back, one hand on his chest as his fingers and legs twitched, then stopped.

Miguel fell slowly to his side, the impact making his teeth click together, biting off a piece of his tongue. The pink and red flesh fell to the grass next to his head and wiggled once, like a lizard tail. Miguel glanced at it, then looked up at Luchi.

Luchi held the shotgun down by his legs. He had the same dead look in his eyes he’d had since this entire thing began, and Miguel wished he’d show excitement, anger, sadness, anything. He got nothing except a tired sigh, which—astonishingly—Miguel could hear, the ringing in his ears subsiding momentarily. Luchi stood over him.

“Lo siento,” Luchi said, then nodded once. “Your wife and son. Do not worry.”

Not for the first time, Miguel wished he understood what Luchi was saying. Then Luchi raised the gun, pointed it at Miguel’s face, and pulled the trigger.


 

5.

Running like this was something Emma didn’t think she’d ever done.

She used to run track back in senior high, mostly for the exercise and something to do after school. Same when she’d first moved to Miami, before she’d started working at Bootsie’s.

This though. This went beyond motivation, entering the realm of destructive. The type of animalistic drive that hit deep inside and shifted a person’s equilibrium, so they weren’t the same person anymore when things finally leveled out again.

The flight of fear.

The panic ate at Emma’s chest and spread across her lungs until she could barely breathe, gulping in air like salt water, getting nothing from it but stabbing needles in her chest and sides. Still, her feet moved beneath her. Her thighs burned and her vision blurred with tears. She sped up, weaving around a family pushing a baby carriage then hopped a bush to avoid a strolling couple. Emma dodged an old man and cut through the parking lot of an apartment complex before finally coming out on 77th avenue and Kendall Drive, a quarter mile from the mall.

Emma stopped, sucked in a rattling, clawing breath, then took off running again.

Dadeland’s parking lot was across the street when Emma stopped again, her thin shoes ruined, one of the flat heels broken off somewhere behind her. She swiped streams of sweat from her forehead then sprinted towards the mall, ignoring the honking horns and squealing brakes as she crossed the street, her crazed eyes shining against the police lights spinning in the parking lot.

Detective Murphy hadn’t told Emma where Adrian was, or even if anything had happened to him. The phone had just rang, and when Emma picked it up, Murphy was on the other line sounding harried.

“Mrs. Langley?” Murphy said. Emma confirmed and Murphy’s voice changed, got softer, nicer. In the background there’d been yelling. “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Ma’am—and let me preface this by saying there’s nothing to worry about.” He’d paused there to gather himself which had, of course, made Emma start worrying. “There’s been a shooting at Dadeland but—”

Emma hadn’t let him finish, literally throwing the phone across the room and tossing off her robe. Within seconds she had her shoes on and was out the door, not even bothering to lock it—who would want anything in there anyways?—as she hurried down the stairs and took off up the street.

The entire time she ran, Adrian’s face sat between her eyes, staring at her accusingly.

In that way, Emma had lost all sight of logic with Murphy’s words, as if he’d invoked an incantation. Questions raced through her mind, quickly blasted away by her frantic pessimistic responses.

How do you even know Adrian’s at the mall?

Why else would the detective be calling you? There’s been a shooting.

How’d the detective get your number if something bad happened to Adrian?

Adrian’s got that wallet you got him for his birthday with our number in it. There’s been a shooting!

You didn’t even let the man finish. He told you not to worry. Adrian’s probably fine.

Adrian can’t be fine! THERE’S BEEN A FUCKING SHOOTING!

Emma’s heart slammed against her chest as she slowed to a trot, bending over and planting her hands on her knees, sucking in breaths so rapidly her chest vibrated. She tasted blood in the back of her throat and spit on the ground, the concrete too dark to see. When she got control, Emma raised her head and searched the area for some sign of familiarity in the chaos surrounding her. She was met with nothing but frightened, confused faces, many of the people covered in dirt, a few bleeding from superficial wounds to their heads and limbs. A woman walked past her with shell-shocked eyes, holding her keys out with an arm up in the air looking around for her car. She wore a red blouse and knee-length brown skirt, the blouse torn at the sleeve, the skirt damp and dirty. Emma walked past her without acknowledging her, towards what seemed to be the center of the crowd, where all the paramedics and police cars were.

Emma was pushing through people by time she realized the focus of all the commotion was Crown Liquors. She’d been in there many times with Tommy before, even came in a few times by herself to pick up some wine on those evenings when she and Tommy used to still do date night. The closer Emma got to the liquor store though, the worse people looked. By time she reached the front of the crowd and the yellow caution tape roping off a twenty foot radius outside Crown Liquors, she could see nothing but flashing lights, paramedics scattered around the scene with IVs and First Aid kits and stretchers. She saw what was left of the store, now a gaping black hole into dusty darkness. And she saw a row of large black bulky sacks lined up on the concrete, recognized them as body bags. Her stomach dropped down to her knees.

“Adrian?” she said, her voice coming out small and weak. “Adrian!” she screamed right after, as if trying to reestablish herself. The sound echoed and a few people turned in her direction, including one man who had a notepad out, questioning a floundering middle-aged woman who clutched her purse to her chest so tightly the veins on her arms were standing out. The man left the woman there without a word, to her obvious annoyance, and walked up to Emma as she was screaming Adrian’s name, louder and louder. Emma saw him approaching and tried to cross the caution tape but an officer hopped over and held her back. Emma looked at him like he was crazy then made eye contact with Detective Murphy, channeling all her energy in his direction.

“Have you seen my son?” she burst out, tears streaming down her face, though she didn’t seem to notice. “My son, Adrian Langley. I got a call. Where’s my—where’s Adrian?!”

“Mrs. Langley?” the man said.

“Yes!” Emma said, so happy to have some recognition that she smiled in spite of herself, almost forgetting why she was here. The cop glanced at Murphy then took a step back, pulling the caution tape up. Emma bounded under it and up to Murphy, started sputtering, “Yes, I’m E-Emma. Emma L-Langley. My son, Adrian.” Emma let out an involuntary groan that she felt throughout her entire shuddering body. “My son,” she said, her voice cracking and fading away.

“Your son’s fine, Ma’am,” the man said. “I’m Detective Murphy, I’m the one who—”

“Adrian!” Emma yelled one last time, a death squall, then burst out sobbing, an explosion of emotion so sudden it felt like it could tear her in half. Her legs grew weak and Detective Murphy took a step towards her, trying to rub her back but somehow ending up hugging her. The contact felt so good, Emma didn’t even notice she’d pressed her face against the man’s chest until she pulled back and saw the wet stain of snot and tears on his shirt, in the shape of an oval. She swiped at her nose and took a step back, eyes wide. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry. I just—I’m—where’s my son?”

Murphy glanced at his ruined shirt then smiled up at her, a hint of annoyance in his motions as he put a hand on Emma’s back and led her over to a curb where more people were running around frantically. As Emma approached, a path cleared for just a second and she saw Adrian at the end of it, sitting on the curb with an open comic book in his hands, skateboard between his feet. He mouthed the words to himself as he read, as he’d been doing ever since he learned at barely even four years old, so much earlier than most kids. Emma saw him and forgot about everything that had just happened, every destructive thought that had gone through her head. She tore away from Murphy and ran up to her son, grabbing him up into her arms before he even knew she was there.

Adrian looked startled at first, then craned his neck a bit to make sure it was his mom (though he’d already figured it out by her smell, a very distinct scent of lavender and sweat) before hugging her back. He looked up at Murphy and rolled his eyes, then glanced back at the open comic in his hand. His bulky Gray’s Emporium bag sat next to him on the sidewalk.

Detective Murphy watched the interaction with wonder, in awe once again at the kid’s demeanor. He’d thought Adrian Langley (as he’d confidently introduced himself when he shook Murphy’s hand about half an hour ago) was in shock at first when he’d run into him walking aimlessly around the parking lot. The scene had been even crazier then, and Murphy had been about to launch into his generic refrain about how the kid needed to go find his family—maybe add in a “don’t worry, the bad guys are gone” to settle his nerves (though Murphy was pretty sure these bad guys were not gone, were in fact just arriving to Miami and making the biggest fucking first impression he’d ever seen)—when Adrian pointed off into the distance. He looked up at Murphy without a touch of incoherence and said,

“They went that way.”

Murphy had looked in the direction the kid was pointing before leaning into him. Adrian came up to Murphy’s chin, which was saying a lot for a twelve year old.

“Who went what way?” Murphy had asked. Adrian leveled his eyes at him, like he thought Murphy was dumb. And Murphy had felt dumb.

Adrian turned and motioned towards the mall and all the running and screaming people, then looked back in the direction he’d pointed. “Me and my parents live right there.” He pointed at one of the apartment buildings visible over the Expressway.

Murphy’s training had kicked in then and he’d immediately gotten Adrian’s information, his statement, relaying it to cops already headed in that direction. Then he’d called Emma Langley, and now stood here watching their reunion, somehow feeling a little better about things. The look on Adrian’s face right now though, the calmness in his tone earlier—the kid was handling trauma better than half the officers he knew. He gave the mother and son a moment longer then sat down next to them, on the other side of Adrian from his mom. Adrian quickly moved his GE bag behind him, the thing scraping against the concrete as Adrian untangled himself from his mother’s grip.

“Did you catch them?” he asked, leaning towards Murphy. Not even excited, just genuinely curious.

“No,” Murphy said. “We found their van though.” Murphy left out the part about what condition they’d found the van in, or who they’d found next to it. “We can search it for clues and try to trace it back to them.”

“He’s a homicide detective,” Adrian said, turning to his mother, who hadn’t stopped staring at him since she’d sat down. The way Adrian said those words, it was like he’d met a rock star or something. Murphy felt a moment of pride then looked to his right and saw a guy down by Cozzoli’s with a hole in his arm screaming at a paramedic. The pride slipped away.

“I know, honey,” Emma said, rubbing the back of his head and turning her gaze on Murphy. There was so much gratitude in her eyes he almost felt embarrassed, having not really done anything but put some coins in a payphone. Yet. He hoped to have done a lot more by tomorrow morning.

Murphy looked at Adrian again, then his GE bag.

“What else you got in there?”

The kid’s face transformed suddenly, not so much fear as a sudden, acute awareness of everything that was going on. He grabbed the bag, hugged it to his chest. “Nothing,” he said, then cleared his throat. “Just some comics. And stuff.”

Murphy raised his eyebrows at the boy, got the impression for a moment that he should really look to see what was inside the bag. Then he got a sudden flash of memory: himself at Adrian’s age, the trials and tribulations of adolescence and just trying to find your place in the world without being sidetracked by every adult who came up to you with some piece of random, typically pointless advice. Murphy saw his dad, glowering at him constantly, demanding obedience.

Murphy smiled, nodded, patted Adrian on the back then stood up. He looked Emma Langley in her eyes, a brilliant shade of green embedded in a gaze that was harder than it should be. Murphy felt his heart do a quick double tap, as if it had expanded to double its size for a second then gone back to normal.

“I’ll give you guys a moment,” Murphy said. “Got some people to talk to over here.”

Emma smiled, nodded. Murphy bowed his head, got a little embarrassed by the gesture, then turned and walked away quickly.

Emma looked at Adrian as he tucked his comic book back into his bag, then she pulled him to her chest again. She held him there tight, kissing the top of his head and tangling her fingers in his knotted hair and catching a whiff of that juvenile male scent, a mixture of dirt and hormones that she loved coming from Adrian, because he was hers.

He is mine, she thought, and then, I need to protect him.

Emma loosened her grip on Adrian and leaned back, looking into his eyes, searching.

“Honey,” she said, then took a deep breath. “You think you’d be okay if we went to live with Grandma for a little while?”

Adrian looked at her skeptically at first, as if he thought she were making a stupid joke. Adrian had never really been one for jokes without reason or purpose. He was such a solemn kid. Emma knew that was partly her fault.

She looked at him pleadingly, her eyes watering. Adrian glimpsed the concealed tears and his eyebrows dropped. He studied his mother’s face then looked away. Emma waited him out, sitting there on the curb as cops and paramedics and civilians crossed back and forth in front and behind them. Then Adrian looked back at her and said, “Is dad coming?”

Emma swallowed thickly.

“I don’t know, Honey,” she said. “Maybe.” Emma nodded. “Probably. Whenever he gets back.”

Adrian stared at his skateboard for a moment, then said “Okay.”

Emma smiled, pulling him back in for another long hug.

Across the parking lot, Detective Murphy watched Emma and Adrian embrace, the hint of a smile touching his lips. He turned back towards the group of paramedics a few feet away who said they had somebody who could describe the main shooter, the one who hadn’t been lying with his stomach blasted open five miles away from the Everglades. Murphy pulled out his notepad and opened it to a blank page then paused, looking up at the sky. It had gotten dim in the past few minutes. Murphy watched the sun slip behind a large smear of dirty clouds on the horizon, like a performer exiting stage left; probably the last time they’d see it for the day. He stared at that distant gray, his lips moving the entire time.

Anybody close enough to him would’ve been able to hear him repeating the words, over and over again:

“Stop it. What are you doing?”

Like a mantra, until it didn’t sound like words to him anymore, just noises coming from his mouth. Murphy reached into his coat and pulled out a business card, glancing at the silver lettering.

Special Agent Lance Murphy

Miami-Dade Police Department

Murphy studied the numbers below, for his office at the precinct and the fax machine, then turned it over and pulled a pen out of his pocket. He hesitated, then wrote the number for his apartment on the back, though it would probably be easier to reach him at his office for the next couple of days.

Murphy slipped the pen back into his coat then tapped the card against his palm. He stared at the group of paramedics—tending to a mother and her three kids, who all looked rattled but fine—then turned around and trotted back towards Emma and Adrian Langley.


 

6.

Emma and Adrian arrived at the apartment with Detective Murphy about five minutes after it started pouring outside, and Tommy watched them through the rain. He sat in the driver’s seat of the Ford LTD listening to the radio playing that Johnny Cash song he swore he was getting sick of but never turned off when it came on.

Yippie I ohhhhhhhh; Yippie I ayeeeeeeee.

Ghoooost riders innnnn the sky.

Shirt and shorts both damp with his long, stringy brown hair hanging in his face, Tommy stared at the man who was escorting his wife and son home, tapping his finger to the beat against the dash. The song made Tommy think of Raul, oddly enough. Raul loved Johnny Cash, but his accent made his broken English sound mushy whenever he belted the chorus, so “Riders in the sky” sounded like “Riders in disguise.” The thought usually would’ve made the corners of Tommy’s lips twitch upwards. Now he just sat there, tap tap tapping.

Emma walked upstairs with Adrian and that fucking cop stood at the entrance to the building like he was guarding it or something. Tommy could tell he was a cop; he had the walk and the cheap suit, and the full-black Lincoln Continental wasn’t hiding much either. That voice in his head—that same damn voice that had followed him around ever since he could remember—berated him about it, as expected. That voice in his head that sounded suspiciously like his long-dead old man.

Pansy ass sissy boy, the drawling voice said. Got no goddamn balls, told ya mother ya had a cunt when ya came outta hers, she kept pointin’ at that thang ‘tween ya legs and callin’ it a prick, but now I know. Now ya Pa’s got hisself some proof. Cuz instead a you gettin’ outta this car and takin’ ya wife and kid from that fuckin’ pig like ya s‘posed to, you out here runnin’ scared like the little pansy ass faggot I always knew you was.

Tommy could hear the old man’s cackle too. The sound set his teeth on edge, even as he told himself the voice was as wrong as wrong can be.

Because he wasn’t running, no no no.

Tommy was letting go.

Adrian reemerged from the apartment a moment later and walked downstairs with his book bag slung over one shoulder, skateboard tucked under his arm. He dragged a ratty duffel bag across the ground behind him, glancing up at the cop and nodding. The cop reached down to help him and Adrian brushed him off, which summoned up a glob of pride in Tommy that stuck to his resolve like acid. Tommy wanted to get out of the car and tell Adrian to quit being a wimp, pick the bag up off the ground, it was getting soaked.

It hit him then, what his decision really meant. What he was actually giving up.

Adrian tossed his bag in the back seat of the cop’s car then climbed in. At the same time, Emma appeared upstairs with her own suitcase, and Tommy was instantly struck breathless by the sight of her. She’d spruced herself up a bit in the few minutes she was up there; her blonde hair looked fuller, her cheeks rosier. She wore thigh-length shorts, respectable, yet her tanned legs looked longer than he remembered. She smiled at the bottom of the stairs as the detective helped her with her bags, and Tommy could see that her smile was genuine, that there was happiness in her eyes, and a bit of relief. He hadn’t seen genuine happiness in those eyes in a long time.

She’s getting out, Tommy thought.

He could tell, because he’d seen the same look in the mirror last night at Carlos Lehder’s mansion, right before he went to sleep. That was a victorious smile on his wife’s face, and Tommy was absolutely sure he’d never seen a more beautiful and triumphant woman in his entire life than Emma right then. He put his hand on the door handle, pushing it open a crack; his arm and pants leg immediately soaked through with rain. Tommy paid it no mind, imagining Emma’s expression as he approached, wondering whether or not she’d light up or frown. Imagining his own feeling of triumph as he pulled his son out of that pig’s car.

Then he paused, looked out at the gray sky, and remembered what it felt like looking up at that same sky from Norman’s Cay, from the wide balcony with that gorgeous girl Paola pressing her naked body against him from behind. And Carissa the night before. And the one whose name he’d forgotten the night before that.

He remembered what it felt like standing out on the beach with Raul next to him, drinking beers and talking business and pleasure. Later, standing on Lehder’s private runway as a plane landed and they greeted Lehder’s associates with jeeps full of bikini-clad women, like kings.

And the money.

And the coke.

Tommy glanced back at the cop’s car as the brake lights came on. The car shifted into gear then started to pull away. Tommy hesitated for just a second, just long enough so that—in later years—he could convince himself he’d tried to stop his family from leaving. The taillights moved through the parking lot and Tommy put his right foot back on the brake pedal, pulling the door closed with a soft click.

Soon the cop’s car was gone, and so was the rain. Tommy climbed out of the beat up Ford to the tap of drops from the tree above on his windshield. He walked upstairs to his apartment, tried the door and it was locked, of course. He shoved his key in—scared for a moment that Emma had changed the locks, unlikely as that was—then pushed the door open and slammed it closed behind him.

Tommy stood there in the dark for a long while, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Eventually he saw his lumpy couch, his dim TV, his dining table with the scratches from tossing down his keys whenever he came home, just like now.  He turned and saw his tiny kitchen, his empty refrigerator, his stove with the crusty brown stains around each burner, the dried up rice grains and flecks of dried spaghetti collecting at the grooved corners. He walked into the room and saw his unkempt bed, his dresser with the two broken drawers, his overstuffed closet that could barely hold one person’s things, much less his and Emma’s. And from his vantage point he looked inside the bathroom in the outside hallway too, the greasy fingerprints on the mirror, the leftover hairs from his quick morning shaves.

Tommy looked at all his stuff and he thought—not for the first time—that all this stuff was crap. Everything in here was crap. Everything he owned was crap, just as everything he’d ever owned had been crap, ever since he was a kid growing up in crappy Gainesville. And even this stuff was nice compared to what he’d had back then.

No, Tommy had never had anything nice, except for maybe Emma. And even she was starting to get used up and aged, like everything else Tommy touched.

For once in his life, Tommy wanted his things to be the things that other people wanted.

For once in his life, he wanted his things to be the nice stuff.

Tommy’s shame and resultant defensiveness whipped and roiled itself into a vehement anger in his (old) bedroom and he screamed with fury as he turned over the dresser he and Emma had shared. It had barely hit the floor—letting out a dull thud—before Tommy was storming out into the hall and turning into the bathroom, opening the medicine cabinet and swiping all the items to the floor. Bottles burst on the tile and sent a rainbow-colored assortment of pills bouncing into the hall. Tommy crushed  a few under his feet as he ripped the shower curtain down, then tore the towels from their hanger and tossed those in the toilet before ripping the toilet seat off and tossing it at the wall outside the bathroom door. Back in the bedroom he hit the closet, tossing all the clothes on the ground—never mind that Emma had taken all of hers and Adrian’s so he was just tossing his own stuff. Tommy didn’t plan on wearing any of this shit anymore anyways. He’d buy new stuff, new friends, a new life. And they’d all be nicer than any of this shit.

In the living room Tommy flipped over the dining table and it slammed into the wall with a loud crack, his keys flying into the door and one of the table’s legs falling off. He opened the refrigerator and took out the only things left in there—condiments—and threw a ketchup bottle against the opposite wall of the living room so hard it burst and spilled all over the carpet. Tommy stared at the spreading red glob of sauce, then tossed the mustard. The bottle slammed into a lamp in the corner, knocking it on its side and turning it on. Through the toppled lampshade, the light cast an eerie glow across the room, shadows creeping down the walls and illuminating the many pictures of him and Emma and Adrian, hanging all over the place. Tommy stared at them. Then—with conviction—Tommy went to the bedroom, emerging a moment later with a chipped, pockmarked baseball bat.

Smashing the first picture felt good, the bat denting the wall separating the bedroom from the living room. Smashing the second picture felt even better, the frame flying across the room and hitting the overturned dining table. Three, four, five pictures down. By time Tommy made his way around the room, he was grinning and sweating. He stripped off his t-shirt, tossing it on the floor and standing on the dirty carpet with his bat cocked over his shoulder. His bare chest glistened in the still-dim lamplight as he looked at the last picture, right above the television: their first Christmas photo.

Tommy remembered that day. He hadn’t wanted to take that stupid picture. Emma had made him.

Tommy slammed the bat into the frame, the glass shattering and clinking against the television. Then he brought the bat down and let it hang at his side, brushing the carpet. His chest heaved, his shoulders slouching. He was suddenly tired, bone tired actually. And sad, so sad it was like gravity had tripled in the past few minutes. He felt like crying, but he wouldn’t allow himself. Instead, he stood there staring at the single Christmas photo, the frame still hanging onto the wall for dear life. Then he dropped the bat and went into the bathroom.

Tommy stripped down and climbed into the shower, tossing the torn curtain out onto the tile. He washed quickly, with no soap, running the water over his shoulders and back and letting it rinse the sweat away. He climbed out after and stared at the damp towels in the toilet, chuckling humorlessly then walking into the room. He pulled up the dresser with a grunt and grabbed a towel out of the top drawer to dry himself, then got dressed in a new pair of pants and shirt, tugging on his shoes and tossing the rest of his salvageable stuff in a garbage bag from the kitchen.

When he was done, Tommy stood by the front door and surveyed the wreckage that was his former life. The one stubborn frame still hung crookedly on the wall above the couch. Tommy stared at it, for a very long time, then opened the door and walked out, locking it behind him.

The apartment was quiet for a while, the only sound coming from settling debris as everything got used to the new state of affairs. The lamp flickered a bit then went bright again. In the bathroom, the faucet dripped. A piece of shattered glass finally fell to the side and clinked against another shattered piece.

Minutes later, the sound of approaching footsteps came from the other side of the front door. A key entered the lock and the door swung open and Tommy walked across the living room with purpose, pausing in front of the Christmas photo to gently take the crooked frame off the wall. Tommy shook away the glass shards then held the picture up in the soft light, looking at his smirking image, at his wife and his son grinning.

Tommy slipped the picture out of the frame and folded it once, then again, sticking it in his back pocket. He took one last look around the apartment then turned off the lamp and walked out, closing the door softly behind him.