Rickie watched Mary Kincaid hang up the phone in the living room and stomp back into the kitchen. Grabbing her Jack Daniels from the counter top, she upended the bottle and drained the last of its contents over the half-melted ice in her glass. She shook the bottle, cursing under her breath as a few drops spilled onto the floor instead of the glass. Grunting, she dropped the bottle into the sink and stomped back out to the living room, drinking down half the glass before her feet even found the carpet.
Rickie clenched his right fist, resisting the urge to reach out and steady her as she wobbled across the floor, drained the rest of her drink and turned around to wobble in the opposite direction.
“I… I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here,” she said, staring at the floor as she paced in front of him. “I thought she was a good girl.” She put the glass to her lips and growled when she realized the only thing left were the rounded pellets of ice cubes. “I need a drink,” she said.
She stomped back into the kitchen and flung cabinet doors open, banging them against each other as she shuffled through their contents looking for a bottle that wasn’t there.
Rickie let out a sigh, disgusted at how deeply he had been able to put her in the bottle. The thought that Bess might actually deserve better drifted through his mind and he clenched his fist tighter, forcing himself to focus on the task at hand.
“She’s in trouble again,” Mary said. “Somebody needs to pick her up.” She banged around in the kitchen some more and then said, “Oh hell, maybe I should just let them take her to jail.”
Rickie stretched his eyes wide open and glanced around the room. The thought of Bess Kincaid talking to police officers about drug-contaminated books found in her backpack made him shiver. It wouldn’t be long before they started asking her where she had last seen the book. That would be followed by questions about who she had seen last and that would bring their questions right to the front door. He had to make sure it never got to that point.
“We don’t have all the facts, Mary. Whatever they found wasn’t enough to bother with or else she would already be in jail.” She was still banging around in the kitchen and he wasn’t sure if she was even listening at this point. “Who knows what happened? It could have been one of her friends.”
He clenched his teeth as he realized he was talking about details she hadn’t even told him yet and took a step towards the kitchen to peek in. “Are you hearing me, Mary?”
She whipped around to face him. A strand of curled hair flopped over her face, which was beaded with sweat nearly to the point of dripping. “I need a drink,” she said.
“What about Bess?” he asked.
Mary stared at him, her chest heaving with the strain of breathing. Whether or not it was from her craving for alcohol or anger at her daughter, he couldn’t tell. If she had noticed that he was getting ahead of himself, she wasn’t letting on. But he knew she probably only heard half of what he was saying anyway.
“What the hell are you talking about?” She swept the strand of hair behind her head. “Friends? Seriously? This is the second time the police have come into my life in three days because of her.”
She hadn’t caught it. Rickie held out his hands in a disarming gesture. “Still, we don’t know -“
“You don’t have kids, do you Rickie?” She jutted her chin out, challenging him.
“Well, no, but I was a kid once,” he said. Her eyes narrowed. “And so were you,” he continued. “You remember what it was like.” He tried a disarming smile, but she only scowled harder.
“I didn’t get arrested for nearly killing people with beer bottles and hauling drugs around in my purse.”
“No. This is how it is. If she wants to act like a criminal, then she can learn what it means to face the consequences of acting like a criminal.”
She waved her hands and started to turn away. He grabbed her shoulders and forced her to look at him. He couldn’t give her time to think and he sure as hell couldn’t let her decide what to do next.
“Mary,” he said in a low voice, “listen to me.”
She tried to jerk away, but she was weak from drinking and no food. He tightened his grip and saw the crease of fear creeping onto her face.
“It’s not that serious,” he said. “She’s been through a lot and, as I recall, you told me this Tony character was bad news. Maybe he deserved it?”
“Maybe,” Mary said. “But that’s no excuse -“
“I know. But letting her rot in jail will just make it worse.”
He thought about that for a moment. In all likelihood, she would wind up in the custody of the Children, Youth and Families Department if they didn’t pick her up. He knew for a fact that they didn’t have any reason to actually arrest her. He considered telling Mary that, but that didn’t solve his problem. And he had to solve his problem, he reminded himself. His mind raced, trying to find a way to corner her before she started thinking too much.
“What about rehab?” he asked, lifting a brow. “Hmm? Yeah?” He nodded, trying to induce her to agree.
A wicked grin spread across her face. “Jail is free. I’m not paying for her to join a country club.”
“I’ll pay for it.” He blurted it out before he even realized what he was saying.
She tilted her head and wrestled free from his grip. Easing away from him, she asked, “Why would you do that?” She squinted at him. “She’s not yours.”
Sensing she was starting to figure it out, he turned to a skill that had taken him far in his chosen profession. He sprinkled a dash of truth on top of a heaping pile of lies.
“Bess is going to face the rest of her life without her father-“
“And I’m going to spend the rest of it without my husband.”
Rickie eased closer, staring her into submission.
“Husbands can be replaced,” he said quietly.
He let that sink in for a few moments and continued. “Bess is going through a tough time and she probably hasn’t thought about the fact that when she gets to our age, she will still be living a life where she doesn’t have a father.” He held her gaze, looking for any sign that his words were sinking in. “I know what that’s like.”
“What do you mean?” she asked. He couldn’t tell where her suspicion stopped and her drunken haze began, but at least she wasn’t fighting him now.
“Have you ever heard me talk about my father?” he asked.
“No. Or a wife, for that matter. Do you know what it’s like to lose one of those, too?”
“Well, that’s a different matter altogether.” He ventured a smile, but she just stared back at him, revealing nothing. “Just let me take her to rehab.”
Mary’s face grew still. Whatever clues he had about her thoughts were gone.
“Fine,” she said. “But if the police go round her up for something else, I’m done.” She gazed at him with hollow eyes. “Understand?”
He nodded, a pang of sympathy for her daughter washing over him. “Yes. I understand.”
She turned away and plodded back into the kitchen. “I need a damn drink,” she said, pawing at the cupboards again.
Rickie backed away, wondering if he would remember the image of this woman drowning in the daze he had put her in as her only daughter languished in a world where she no longer had a home to come back to or a family to be with. It was the last time he would see her and he realized he wouldn’t mind forgetting who she was.
He wasn’t sure it would be so easy to forget about Bess. He really did need to find a new line of work.
Still sitting in the orange plastic chair, Bess looked at the ground, trying to ignore the glances and whispers that scuttled around the counter of the administration area in front of her. Most of the staff members were quiet, but every student that walked in seemed to have something to say. She couldn’t hear the words, but the tone in their hissing voices was unmistakable. Without consideration of facts or even real information, she had already been consigned to the ranks of delinquents who helped create a world where metal detectors and police dogs assumed nobody was safe anymore. She understood that, but sometimes it really was a mistake. She knew better than to expect them to think of that, even in her case. It was easier to point and whisper than it was to do anything useful.
Bess thumped her leg, forcing her mind to settle down. She didn’t know what was coming next except that she wasn’t in handcuffs again. Beyond that, she was vaguely aware that bitterness wasn’t the right frame of mind for her predicament.
Somebody spoke loudly enough for her to actually hear words this time. “Over there.” She looked up to see a young officious looking woman pointing at her. Her pulse quickened when she saw Rickie’s yellow windbreaker. He smiled at her, as if he were an actual friend and knew that she didn’t deserve what was happening. She couldn’t help shaking her head, realizing that the reason he had come to pick her up was because her mother was too drunk. There were more things wrong here than she could count, but he was the best she could do. For right now, he was all she had.
The administrator followed behind him and knocked on the principal’s door. Rickie winked at her and stepped through, closing the door behind him. The administrator stood and looked down at Bess with a frown on her face.
Bess glared back and asked, “Seriously, what are you looking at?” The woman huffed and turned away.
Bess stood up as the principal’s door opened. She waited for the principal to come out, but only caught a glimpse of his balding head as he shuffled more papers on his desk. Rickie stepped out and closed the door. “Let’s go,” he said.
She studied him for a moment, wondering what was behind the smile that seemed pasted to his face. “Is that it?” she asked.
“That’s it. We can go.” He opened the door for her and waited for her to step into the main lobby.
Bess eyed the metal detectors, still flanked by the same guards from earlier that morning. The dogs were gone, but the table remained. It had only been a matter of hours, but watching students and faculty drift through the lobby, she felt as if it had been a lifetime ago. Rickie stepped briskly to the main doors and opened one for her. She slowly padded across the lobby, looking for a friendly or even familiar face. She stopped next to Rickie and took it all in one more time, wondering if she would be able to face it all again the next day.
Bess followed him across the parking lot to a sparkling silver-gray late model sedan. He thumbed a key fob and the car chirped with flashing lights and then the engine rumbled to life.
“Fancy,” she said.
“I do a lot of driving in my business,” he said.
They had never talked much and Bess realized that he really was a stranger about whom she knew very little. “What business is that?” she asked.
He opened the door and waited for her to get in before settling in behind the wheel. She closed her door. The vehicle smelled brand new and the quiet stifled her, as if she was inside a giant blanket. She eyed him as she buckled her seatbelt, waiting for his answer.
He still hadn’t answered when he started backing the car out of its parking space. “Well?” she asked.
“Oh,” he said, shifting again and easing the car across the parking lot. “I do deliveries.”
“Like delivering me to my mother because she’s too drunk to come get me herself.” She cringed as the words escaped her, but she couldn’t think of any reason to pretend to ignore the obvious any longer.
“Something like that,” he said, turning out of the parking lot. Bess looked around, realizing they were going the wrong direction to get home.
“Um, where are we going?” she asked, idly rubbing her damp palms on her denim skirt.
She felt the back of her seat press against her as he eased the accelerator down. The purring of the engine spooled up as he pulled onto a two-lane highway leading across the scrub desert, taking them out of town and further away from home. Bess hunkered down in her seat as the road came up at them faster and faster.
“OK Speed Racer, I’d like to live to see the end of this trip,” she said with a nervous chuckle. Rickie didn’t respond as he adjusted his hands on the wheel and pressed down the accelerator even further. She leaned over to see the speedometer passing 85. The rumble of the road was growing loud enough that she had to raise her voice when she spoke next.
“Where are we going Rickie?”
She had never heard him speak too seriously, but she felt the nerves in her face twinge when he spoke next. His voice was low and somber, as if a curtain had been pulled back and he could finally say what he was really thinking.
“Your mother doesn’t want you, Bess.”
She blinked at him, waiting for more. Another nervous chuckle rose up in her throat, but she kept it inside.
“That’s not what I asked you,” she said.
“You’re right. It isn’t.” He took a quick glance at her and continued. “I’m taking you some place where you’ll be taken care of while your mother sorts herself out.”
“Does she know about this?” Bess tugged at her seatbelt, making sure it was tight as the speedometer arced past 90.
“She knows I’m taking you somewhere, yes.”
Bess gritted her teeth as the speedometer swept past 95. She looked away, deciding she didn’t want to see how far it would finally go. Bess’s chest tightened. She looked nervously around the car as her mind reached into the universe and found the answer to a question she hadn’t even known to ask. She felt the blood drain from her face as she remembered the hospital lobby and the one thing that could have saved her. The man in the yellow windbreaker reading a magazine. How did she forget about that?
She squeezed out her words in between tight breaths. “It was you.”
She stared at Rickie, waiting for him to deny it at first. When he didn’t say anything and all she heard was the purr of the motor rise to a strained roar, she then waited for him to admit it.
Rickie didn’t say a word.
Bess lost count of time. Hours passed by as the day turned to night, but it was all one long moment of waiting for him to stop or even slow down so she could rip open the door, tumble out of the car and run. But he never did.
The road rose up as a shimmering ribbon while the headlight beams stretched out in front of them just far enough to keep the car from catching up to them. She strained to keep her eyes open as the car sped along endlessly, as if it ran on air and could keep going down the highway forever. Hanging in the sky in front of them, she could see the summer triangle. She gazed at the constellations, thinking of when her father had first shown them to her when she was a little girl. She latched onto them, a reminder of a world where her father would never let men like Rickie Hewitt carry her off into the night. She couldn’t look at them anymore because they also reminded her that he was gone – because of her.
Metal signposts with thin white markers flew by in a blur every few miles, but she couldn’t read them. To keep her mind from running rampant with panic, she started counting them. When she had counted several dozen, something changed. The engine spooled down and Bess could make out a dirt road spilling out from the side of the highway. She caught a glimpse of the next signpost as it flashed by, finally able to read it as the car slowed down. Its thin white metal tab was marked with just the number 62.
She wrapped her hand around the seatbelt buckle, waiting for him to turn onto the road. Just as he started to brake, she heard the electronic clunk of the locks latching closed. She whipped her head around to look at Rickie, but he just kept staring through the windshield as he worked the wheel to turn onto the dirt road.
She grabbed his arm and before she knew what she was doing, heard herself scream, “Let me out of this car!” She pounded on his arm and the car fishtailed as he struggled to keep his hands on the wheel. Once he had regained control, he clutched Bess’s shirt and slammed her against the door, knocking the wind out of her. She gasped, struggling to suck in her breath.
“This is an easy way or hard way situation Bess. The easy way is you just sit quietly and quit trying to figure it all out.”
Bess drew a raspy breath and wheezed out her words. “And what’s the hard way?”
He shot her a glance and shook his head. “You don’t want to hear about the hard way.”
Bess slumped in her seat as she felt her eyes welling up. She looked up, trying to hold back the tears, fearing that any sign of weakness would only make things worse.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked.
Rickie let off the accelerator. Bess heard gravel crunching underneath the tires as he braked the car to a stop and killed the lights. When he pulled a semi-automatic pistol from underneath his windbreaker, Bess couldn’t hold back any longer and felt her chest heave as she started quietly sobbing.
“That’s one of those hard way questions, Bess.” He leaned back against his door and watched her cry. Bess felt his eyes burrowing into her. She took a deep breath and held it, forcing her sobs to subside. “That’s better,” he said. “Just take it easy and everything will be fine.”
She swiped the backs of her hands against her eyes, quickly and just once, to clear away the blur of tears she refused to let spill. She took a deep breath and let it out in a huff. She didn’t have any more answers, but she clung to the fact that he didn’t seem to want to actually kill her. For the moment, breathing was enough.
She stared through the windshield, just able to make out the edge of the dirt road. There was no moon and the fact that starlight was enough to illuminate the edges of the road told her they were truly in the middle of nowhere. She looked around, scanning the horizon and couldn’t find a single source of artificial light. Turning back to the front, she saw a flash in the distance, blinking in and out so fast she wasn’t certain she had actually seen it.
Rickie muttered under his breath, “About damn time.” He flicked the headlights on and then back off. Bess’s heartbeat surged when she saw the wisps of dust trailing behind a vehicle driving towards them. It veered across the road and she wondered if it was going to run into them. It wasn’t until it pulled up and stopped next to her door that she could see it was a black van.
She whipped her head around to look at Rickie as the van door slid open and two tan-skinned men hopped out. Rickie’s eyes were glass. They revealed nothing but a man who was never there in the first place. He was a phantom tucked away behind the impassive mask of a total stranger who held a gun pointed at her as he flicked a switch to unlock the door.
Their hands were on her shoulders before she could scream, dragging her out of the car and onto the road. Losing all control, she kicked against the ground and screamed as loud as she could. She beat her fists against the gruff hands holding her arms like a vice. She heard a spatter of Spanish and then the men laughed. White hot anger bloomed inside her chest and she twisted her head around, gnashing at one of the hands latched onto her arm. She strained her neck trying to sink her teeth into it, but couldn’t reach it. Instead, she bit at thin air, her teeth clicking against each other and simmering with a dull ache.
She felt her feet leave the ground as they threw her into the van. She grunted as the air left her lungs when her back hit the floor. She felt something bite her neck and then a warmth spread over her. Her arms went limp and she stopped kicking.
As the warmth turned into a glow that seemed to swallow her up, her anger bled away and all she had left was the curious thought that she should be frightened. The world settled over her like a blanket and she stopped caring about any of it. Then she didn’t even know where she was or what was happening, vaguely aware of a dull darkness that smoldered on the edge of consciousness.
Then the darkness took her completely and everything was gone.