Bess trudged through the front door with her backpack slung over her shoulder and her blouse sticking to her back with sweat. The heat of early June pressing down on her washed away as she stepped into the air-conditioned interior of the house. She stretched her neck and let out a long sigh as she unslung her pack. She dragged it on the floor as she slogged down the hallway towards the living room, letting the cold soak into her skin. She shivered as the air sucked away the sweat on her back.
When she entered the living room, she saw the door to her father’s adjoining den was open with the light on. She stopped in front of the sofa when she heard a man’s voice float out from the den. At first, her heart jumped as some part of her mind thought she had heard her father. She knit her brow, annoyed with the intrusion of such a childish fantasy and unstrapped her pack, laying it on the sofa. She heard the voice again. It was a stranger’s voice. Whoever was talking didn’t belong in her father’s den and her chest tightened at the thought of an invader treading on what she considered sacred ground. She heard the voice again and this time, she recognized who it was. She picked up her pack and threw it back on the sofa, fuming.
Pulling a book from her backpack, she walked up to the door and leaned in so she could see his desk. A shiver rattled her shoulders when she saw the yellow windbreaker. Rickie was facing away from her, hunched over the desk with the phone to his ear.
He cleared his throat and hunched lower while Bess heard the indistinct buzz of somebody yelling on the other end of the line. Rickie pulled the phone away from his ear and cradled it in his hand for a moment before hanging up. He blew out a quick breath and leaned back in her father’s chair.
He started to turn around. Bess tried to step to the side before he saw her, but she couldn’t move her foot. Her entire body went numb as he swung around and she saw his eyes. His face was slack, as if he had removed a mask so she could see the stone cold eyes of a man who spent most of his time thinking about things that had nothing to do with what people saw him doing. It was gone in a flash as his face contorted into the disarming grin she had seen the night he had come to dinner.
He laced his hands behind his head and asked, “How are you doing, Bess?”
She blinked at him, unable to figure out exactly who she was talking to. “This was my father’s den.”
He looked around the room and said, “Um, yeah.” He leaned forward and folded his hands on his lap. “Your mom said it was OK.”
Bess squinted as she stepped through the door. Eyeing the man, she slid the book onto the bookshelf lining the den wall. Turning to face him, she said, “Nothing about this is okay.”
“It’s a rough time, I know.”
Bess scowled. “Who were you talking to?”
Rickie opened his mouth and looked to the side. It was only a moment, but she knew he didn’t know what to say. His face went blank, his mind racing to find something. Then the smile came back and he looked up at her.
“Actually, it was about you.”
Bess’s eyes stretched open and her breath came in shallow gasps as she felt a faint glow radiate out along her arms and her chest tighten.
“Who are you to talk to anybody about me?”
Rickie’s eyes narrowed and fluttered with a vague twitch before he answered, “I think it would be good for your Mom.”
He unfolded his hands and leaned back with a disarming smile. “Just a weekend with you out of the house so she can get her bearings.”
Get her bearings?
“That’s not what she needs.”
“How do you know?”
Bess blinked hard, letting her mouth fall agape. He was a phantom with no shadow, a man she could barely see. But he knew exactly how to stay in her mother’s blind spots. Bess felt her eyes watering and latched onto her anger, holding it like a shield between them.
“She’s an alcoholic. My father spent their entire marriage drying her out, just to see her fall off the wagon when something knocked her off balance so he could start all over again. I was there for the last sixteen years of that.” She clenched her jaw and took another step forward. “And now it’s up to me.” She leaned in closer. “And you’re in my way.”
A sly grin crept across his face, as if he were turning the key to unlock a hidden treasure.
“She was right about you,” he said.
“Yeah, I’m volatile. Where do you think I got that?” She folded her arms across her chest as if she were scolding a child. “You know, you could have given her somebody to hold on to, to help her keep it steady. Instead you threw her in an ocean of booze. And now I have to clean up your mess. The last thing she needs is for me to go away.”
Bess shuddered as he widened his grin and stood up, unfolding his body to its full stature.
“I’m not so sure about that, Bess,” he said. “Maybe that’s exactly what she needs.”
He took a step towards her. The grin vanished and she saw a man she had never met. His gaze burned through her, ready to ignite the ember gnawing at her insides.
“She was right about you.”
Bess gulped, shuddering at the thought of leaving her mother. Did she know about this? Had they already made a decision? “Right about what?” she asked.
“She blames you for your father’s death,” he said.
Bess stopped breathing. He knew too much. He had drowned her mother with inebriation and let all her secrets pour out so he could soak them up like a sponge. And now he slung them at Bess like a spear thrust straight through her chest.
He arched a brow and tilted his head back. Looking down his nose, he said, “She was right about that.”
Bess wanted to lunge at him, wrap her hands around his neck and squeeze her thumbs against his throat until his eyes popped out.
She couldn’t do that, of course. But she had to do something.
Bess forced herself to suck in a breath through her nose and glared at him for a moment longer before she turned around and ran down the hallway to the garage door.
She knew that moment and everything that was to follow that night would determine her fate. It was like the toss of a coin. Each side was as different as night and day, as light and dark, as freedom and capitulation. And when she was done, this man who had come into their lives would know. He would know that it was time to leave and never look back. Because, by God, when this night was over, he wouldn’t want to contend with the likes of her. That, she could promise.
She listened for a voice that she expected to hear for reasons that would take a lifetime to truly understand. She listened for her father’s voice, whether it came thundering from the sky or whispered to her from the depths of her own mind. She expected it to say something. But it did not. Her only guide was the ember that flared deep in her soul, impetuous in the face of an accusation whose truth she already acknowledged but whose sanctity was incomplete. Injustice had remained in its wake and, like all truths which demanded rightful blame, it would not be complete and untarnished until it rested on the mantle of her own penance.
To Bess, the imperative of her anger was simple enough. She understood now – the rage her father had felt the night he had gone to find Tony Halk. She realized, too, that he wasn’t just protecting her. A crime had been committed. The crime had been a simple trespass against the vaulted treasure of who she was. In the attempt alone, there had been impudence and savagery which could not be allowed to pass unpunished.
And now, there would be a reckoning.
Bess clutched the throttle grip of her motorcycle as its lone headlight swept over the gravel and dust of a dirt road winding into dry rolling hills. The Friday night party rotated between the isolated homes of kids whose parents were modestly wealthy and could afford to live in the remote corners of the desert. They could drink beer and be loud without anybody ever finding out as long as everyone understood it was something you didn’t talk about too much. Bess had never actually attended one, but she knew the circuit and she heard things that others thought they whispered in confidence to each other.
She checked her rear view mirror and saw only a boiling cloud of dust churning through the red haze of the motorcycle’s tail light. Ahead, the road rolled up as little more than a jagged etching of ruts that seemed to go on forever to no place in particular.
Sweat from the palms of her hands seeped onto the rubber grips as she thought about the encounter that lay at the end of that road. Rickie’s words kept turning in her mind like a song she couldn’t forget. She couldn’t turn it off. Your mother was right about that. It played over and over, floating out to her from a face hidden in the shadows with relentless eyes that wouldn’t look away. She couldn’t run from them. She could only run towards them.
She twisted the throttle and the motorcycle gyrated in swells of near weightlessness as it careened over the desert’s rises and gullies.
When she saw the lights encased in black framed lanterns hanging on the adobe stucco walls of the house, she eased off the throttle. She took her hand off the grip and shook it, trying to fling away the trembling that had set in. She thought to turn around, but she knew that no matter what direction she turned, the face still would be there, dripping the words into her mind in a relentless cascade of condemnation. Even if she went through with it, the words might still be there, but at least there would be something pushing back against them. She could drape the cloak of justice over them. Or maybe it was just the shroud of revenge. She decided it didn’t matter which and put her hand back on the throttle.
Parked cars sprawled out along the side of the road. Most were like her father’s – late model sedans that none of their teenage drivers deserved. She cast her gaze from one to the next, looking for one that was different, almost hoping it wasn’t there. But she knew it would be. She eased to a stop when she saw the matte black 1972 Trans Am. It was sleek, powerful and simple, rebuilt by its owner to do one thing: move things and people swiftly from one place to another without being caught. The appeal of both the car and its purpose drew young girls to him like moths to a flame. Bess wanted to condemn them all because they were too ignorant to know any better. But she had been one of them.
She cut the engine and pulled off her helmet. She peered at the Trans Am and twisted her hand against her motorcycle’s throttle grip, listening to the rubber grind beneath her palms. The words hammered in her head. She blames you for your father’s death. She was right about that. Staring at Tony’s car, she knew the words were wrong and that Rickie had attacked her mind for reasons she didn’t yet understand. She would get to that later. Tonight was about one thing: laying blame on its rightful hearth and letting it burn away.
She pushed down the kickstand with the heel of her boot and stepped into the dirt and weeds that surrounded the house. A classmate, whose job it was to collect ten dollars to cover the expense of hosting the party, stood next to the gate leading into the small courtyard behind adobe walls. Bess smoothed her hands over her pant leg, trying to wick away the sweat beading in her palms. She pulled her denim jacket tight over her blouse as a gust of wind blew through her hair.
The sentry smiled at her, almost sneering. People like her didn’t come to parties like this. But she knew where it was and she had ten dollars. That was enough for him to open the black wrought iron gate. He placed his finger over his lips, reminding her of the one rule that couldn’t ever be broken: Don’t tell anybody. She nodded and stepped into the courtyard.
The ground shook vaguely from the music inside while some of the kids standing in small groups in the courtyard eyed her from behind beer bottles tilted against their lips. She nodded at one girl she thought she recognized who only shook her head and glanced away. Bess tugged at one of the bottles of beer nestled in a trough of ice in the middle of the courtyard and headed for the open double doors that led into the house.
Inside, kids lounged on expensive furniture or stood in gaggles on the sprawling stone tile floor. The only light came from a few dim lamps nestled in the corners. Music thumped out from black speakers flanking a huge flat screen T.V. slung over a fireplace large enough to roast a small animal.
She scanned their faces as she paced slowly towards a hallway on the other side of the room. The hallway was dark and the doors were closed. She heard a nervous giggle from behind one of them and tested the doorknob. Finding it locked, she moved on. She put her ear against the next door and heard the rumble of his timbre. She couldn’t make out the words, but she knew it was him. Placing her hand on the doorknob, she saw the door was already open. The flicker of candlelight seeped through the slit between the door and its frame. She smiled, recognizing the scene. There was no such thing as too many girls and he would always welcome any who wanted to enter. There would be a choice of what they found on the other side, but it was always something that came from him and something they would wish they had never found.
She swung the door open. Tony Halk lounged casually on a sofa in the corner of the room. The light from an army of candles flickered against his stone-washed jeans and black denim jacket over a plain white T-shirt. His straight black hair hung to his shoulders and smoldering eyes were set in a brutally handsome face garnished with stubble that always seemed to be three days old. He didn’t recognize Bess right away as she stood staring at three girls huddled around him with fawn-like eyes and lips glistening with fruit-flavored gloss. Two of them were her age, but the third couldn’t have been a day over fourteen.
His face changed, like an electronic billboard changing its display. His eyes widened slightly and he smiled, revealing teeth that glowed eerily white in the flickering candlelight. The girls looked at her sideways and huddled closer to him, mistaking her for competition. Bess could see the cup of a bra peeking out from the thin veil of a halter top blouse. Its owner peered at her with a mix of brash contempt and confusion. Bess stood with the bottle hanging in one hand as she pressed her other hand against her shoulder, suddenly aching even though the bruise he had given her was long gone.
He started to stand up and put his hand out in a disarming gesture. “Hey,” he said, trying to look contrite without really meaning it. “I really am sorry about -“
Bess reeled back, swung the bottle as hard as she could and bashed it against the side of his head. The bottle shattered, spewing a mixture of beer and blood against the wall behind him. Ragged glass scraped across his cheek and his hands flew up to cover the wound. He screamed like a wounded animal and fell forward, slamming his face against the stone tile floor.
The girls leapt to their feet. The oldest one shook his shoulder. “Tony!” The girl glared while Bess stood over them, surveying his crumpled body. A wicked grin stretched Bess’s mouth as she watched blood trickling from his face and splash in quiet drops on the floor. The ember inside her flared as Rickie’s blank face and piercing eyes fell back into the shadows of her mind and his words faded to silence.
Overwhelmed with panic, the youngest girl shrieked and backed into the wall, covering her face. Bess tilted her head, studying the girl as she wailed absurdly. Still trying to revive Tony, the oldest girl screamed, “Get help!” The third girl stood with her hands over her mouth as she stared at the heap of Tony’s body with eyes wide in shock. “Go!” the oldest girl screamed. The girl with her hands over her mouth bolted from the room, her voice rushing down the hall as she yelled “Call 911! Call 911!” Footsteps echoed in the hallway as some of the others trotted in from the living room to see what was going on.
“Oh my God,” someone whispered. The music cut off and a clamor rose up as more came in from the living room to watch the spectacle. They crowded the hallway, blocking the door as they peeked in while a few pushed their way in and knelt next to Tony, pawing at his body as if there was something they could do to help him. Bess glanced around the room and realized she was trapped. She dropped the ragged neck of the beer bottle and the room fell silent as it clattered against the tile.
A hand grabbed her shoulder. “What have you done?”
Bess knelt next to Tony’s body and studied the blood oozing from the side of his head and dripping into his mouth. “Such a stupid question,” she said. “You know exactly what I’ve done.” She shifted her gaze to the girl still pawing at his body. “I’ve saved you.”
The next half hour froze in time for Bess. The room slowly emptied as curiosity waned and a sulking despair filled the room. The oldest girl dabbed at Tony’s wounds and kept asking when help would arrive. Bess didn’t move and by the time she felt the cold steel of handcuffs on her wrists, her knees had grown numb and the police had to help her stand up. They said something about remaining silent and asked her if she knew where her parents were as they dragged her out of the room.
Bess studied the gauntlet of faces staring at her as the police escorted her through the living room. The ember had subsided to a flicker as she realized they all stepped back from her with the same look of fear in their eyes.
As the police walked her past the ambulance just outside the adobe walls of the courtyard, Bess studied the EMT technicians fussing over Tony Halk, now laid prone on a gurney supported by metal yellow tubes. He wore some kind of mask and his head was in a thick plastic brace. She realized he was still breathing. His heart was still beating.
Justice, she realized, was not only blind, but cold and unseen. She felt incomplete somehow, and shivered at the thought of ever seeing Tony Halk again.
It was still dark when Bess and her mother stood outside their front door. Her mother threw the door open so hard, it shuddered as the doorknob slammed into the wall, gouging a hole in the drywall. Bess waited on the cement slab of the front porch for her mother to stomp half way down the hallway before she stepped inside. She eased the door closed and waited until her mother was in the living room before she traipsed down the hallway, bracing herself for the torrent of her mother’s anger.
She stopped mid-step when her mother whirled around and glared at her. The thick folds of her pleated shirt dress whipped around and fluttered as she crossed her arms and scowled. She flicked a brow and Bess’s heart surged as she forced herself to start walking again and close the distance between them, walking along the hall as if she were approaching an execution chamber.
She stopped a few feet away from her mother and looked at her shoes.
Her mother spoke in a low growl, barely containing a rage that Bess could smell oozing from her pores. “What are you doing to me?”
“This isn’t about you,” Bess said quietly, still looking at her shoes.
“The hell it isn’t. God. If you had done something like this earlier, your father would still be here.”
Bess raised her head and looked into her mother’s eyes. “How do you know?”
Seething, her mother narrowed her eyes. “What would he say now, Bess? What would he say about having to bail you out of jail like a common criminal because you almost killed a man tonight?”
“It was Tony Halk. You should be glad he’s in the hospital.”
“Glad?” Bess bowed her head down, but kept her eyes on her mother, refusing to give up her ground. Her mother’s eyes narrowed to slits as she took another step forward. “Why should I be glad that my daughter is running around the country side maiming people?”
“Because he killed Dad!” Bess shouted. Her mother’s eyes flew open wide with shock, but Bess knew that was only the beginning. Her mother’s chest heaved as she took a deep breath, set her jaw and cocked her brow with a look that sent a shiver through Bess’s entire body.
Her mother spoke in a voice whose calmness revealed the well of fury that lay just behind her words. “Because of you.”
Her mother’s eyes flared. The muscles in her forearm rippled and Bess braced herself as her mother started to raise her hand.
“Get to your room,” her mother growled.
Bess backed away, still watching her mother’s hand. When she reached the short hall leading to her room, she felt her way around the corner and backed up until she bumped into her door. She reached down without looking to open the door and backed through until she was safely inside and could close it.
Bess crawled up on her bed and sat with her back against the wall. She stared at the door, waiting for it to burst open.
She was alone and the silence fell over her like a blanket, but she couldn’t stop the trembling that ran through her body. She felt trapped inside her room and there was nowhere left to retreat. She tried to think of her father, but he would only come to her mind as a pale ghost, gasping for his last breath.
Her ears started ringing and numbness flowed along her arms as she realized there was nobody left to protect her. She was the only one left standing between her and the world beyond that door. For the first time in her life, Bess felt the pang of loneliness in her heart as she realized there was nobody left who could understand. There was nobody left willing to fight for her.
She was on her own.