Since six o’clock that morning they’d been on the run, the entire length of daylight spent as prey. Yet they remained free and alive. All around were broadleaf trees with earthbound leaves—orange, red, and yellow dancing through the air, landing softly on hard ground. Fading rays of sun filtered through and speckled a stream with little buttons of light. Zane Morley, the commanding leader of the runaways, knelt down beside the stream for a drink, risking his boyish health and endurance to the prospect of waterborne pathogen. He drank six cupped handfuls of clear water, slurping it down urgently. It dropped like rain from his lips. He splashed some on his face and neck and washed away the grime. He pushed water through his hair, the dampness darkening it from sand to soil. The mastermind of the escape had the most to lose, and nobody would stop him from realizing his dream.
His accomplice, scrawny Alex Jackson, age fifteen, was also thirsty, but was held back by some fearful instinct. If he drank, he would become sick in mere minutes. He trusted this instinct; he trusted and obeyed. A few paces back of the stream, Alex hunched over with hands on his knees, panting like a winded dog. The last half hour or more was spent dodging, sprinting, scrambling, and hurdling. Now with darkness setting in it seemed they were clear of danger, and the streamside was the right place for the night’s camp—at least for Alex. His feet and knees throbbed with pain and his throat was dry with thirst, but most of all, within the shallows of his stomach, an angry shark thrashed. It was powerfully apparent that he’d trade anything—anything other than his life—for a cheeseburger and side of fries.
For a moment it seemed he might pass out and fall, but soon he regained his breath, and his dark eyes shifted from the water to Zane. “You seen Tank?”
“Tank!” Alex shouted.
“Shut the hell up,” Zane snapped. “You know they out here lookin’ for us. He’ll hafta find his own way, man. I ain’t lettin’ his slow ass hold me back no more.”
Alex shook his head in disagreement but did not voice opposition. Instead he began to creep toward the stream, compelled by the urge to drink. Just one gulp or two, he thought. That’ll be fine. That ain’t gonna kill me. No, sir. All I need is one or—
His train of thought was shattered as he was bulldozed into the dirt. Zane was on top of him, covering his mouth aggressively with wet hands. Alex twisted his neck and looked toward the road. He heard the hum of an engine and the crunch of tires on gravel. Headlights bounced beams of light off tree trunks. The truck ascended a small knoll then stopped parallel to their position. On the other side of some evergreens, it was there at forty yards distance.
Alex pulled the wet hands from his mouth. Zane flattened his body harder against him. The driver door opened and a man stepped onto the gravel. Alex saw the swirling trajectory of a flashlight beam as it danced against the mossy rocks near his head. He felt Zane’s heartbeat hammering against his chest, against his own palpitating heart. The man walked toward the treeline, thirty yards away. Alex closed his eyes.
“Ted!” a strange voice called out. “Somebody’s runnin’ up ahead. Get back in the truck! C’mon! Let’s go!
He reopened his eyes and watched the driver leap back into the truck. The gravel spit away from the back tires and the truck raced further up the knoll.
“Tank’s gonna get busted,” Zane whispered. “I bet we hear him screamin’ for mercy any minute.”
They remained motionless and listened for any sound of struggle. In such frightening moments it was nice to have a companion by his side, even one as lawless as Zane. But Alex wanted him off, and he squirmed to get away. Due to the poor nutrition of his boyhood and his lousy genetics, Alex had little chance to unseat Zane from above. Only when his leader was willing.
A bony forearm glanced off his chin and drove into his throat. The pressure made him gag and cough.
“Shut up—” Zane whispered.
“Just get off, man,” Alex squealed. “They all gone.”
A firm hand was planted in his chest, and Zane pushed himself up. An arrogant smirk creased his face—a smirk of dominance—and Alex felt belittled and weak.
“Stand up,” Zane demanded. “We gotta move from this road. Like right now.”
Alex rose to his feet and dusted off his pants and shirt. He wore the uniform of the Black Forest Detention Center, a rural campus for petty delinquents aged thirteen to eighteen. His green jacket fit loosely over a polo shirt, each emblazoned with the Black Forest logo. A pair of pleated khakis covered his thin legs, and white shoes—a forty or fifty dollar pair from a general store—fit perfectly on tiny feet. They were the nicest shoes he'd ever worn. Early that morning these clothes had been clean; they were pressed and smelled of laundry chemicals. But now his pants were wet and muddy from ankle to knee and the jacket torn on the shoulder after a wrestle with a thorny bush. The once glimmering shoes were caked in mud.
Alex dug deep into his final reserves and swiftly followed Zane across the forest floor. They climbed through a blowdown, scuttled up a slope of boulders, and battled another thicket of thorn bushes. Only once did they pause for a rest. Soon they found themselves in a space much less open than before, a forest denser with evergreen. His body throttled with exhaustion, Alex collapsed at the base of a tree and rested his head upon roots hard as bricks. There was no talk of food, fire, water, shelter. Zane didn’t bother him again, and he surrendered to sleep.
It was not peaceful sleep—not in the slightest. He awoke four times throughout the night, the first and second times from the scattering sounds of animals, the third from being wet and cold, and the fourth due to a thumping headache. The first rays of dawn awoke him for a fifth time, penetrating the branches and marching across his eyelids like a trail of golden ants. He was ravenous. Some fruit remained in the backpack hanging from a tree branch close by. Zane lay right below the branch, asleep on a bed of leaf litter. With muddy shoes light upon the earth, Alex crept around the slumbering body and gently slipped the pack off the branch. He set it on the ground, unzipped it, and frantically rummaged through it. He found only a map, some toilet paper, and a notebook—the dangerous notebook of Zane’s where the escape plan was first conceived. But where was the leftover food? Had Zane eaten the apples in the night? He considered waking him but was afraid of impending fury. Was it possible to gather some food, to hunt some down?
He heard birdsong vibrantly filling the woods. He couldn’t see the birds, as a fog had formed in the night, just dense enough to mask any distant objects. Despite this he was determined to hunt. He found a rock the size of a baseball and looked for birds in nearby trees. Just a short distance from camp, he walked across a ridge and looked down into the treetops at lower elevations.
Kill. Kill. Kill was the only thought in his mind.
He studied the trunks, the branches, and the crooks, but saw nothing of value. The thought of eating grubs crossed his mind but was quickly dismissed. He sat down on a stump and cussed angrily at himself. Yesterday’s headache remained like a spike driven between his eyebrows. Always the scrawniest kid with misaligned teeth and dirty clothes, Alex Jackson—the black boy from a rickety ghetto—realized the absurdity of the escape. Then the sobs came, the gasps for air, the tears.
No more, he thought. I’m done. Just get me outta here and I’m done. I can turn it all around. I can. I will.
Something rustled in the valley below. His stomach knotted, and he stood with arm cocked and rock in hand. To his left stood a tree, its bark gray, its trunk wide. He side-stepped behind it, careful to make little noise. Could it be a bear? I forgot about that. There’s fuckin’ bears out here! He looked at the rock in his hand, the pitiful weapon of a caveman. But despite the weapon’s limitation, his hunger overwhelmed the urge to flee. He stepped around the tree and crouched at the edge of the ridge. He dropped to his backside and slid two yards down the slope. The view wasn’t much better. He still heard the rustling, then it stopped too, and the birdsong again filled the woods. He scooted up toward the ridge but froze at the sound of a sneeze. He wasn’t sure if wild animals sneezed. He crouched again and looked hard through the fog. There on the valley floor, in between two large rocks, a body moved. Adrenaline kicked in and he scrambled toward the summit, but the topsoil gave way and he started to slide down the slope. The more he struggled for traction, the more he seemed to slide, until finally his right foot struck a hold and he reversed course.
“Alex!” a familiar voice hollered. “Hold up, brotha!”
Alex whirled and saw the husky frame of his pal, Tank Mason, emerging out of the fog. For the first time in two days a smile came to his cracked lips. He drew in a deep breath, plopped down on the slope, and laughed out loud in relief. They had arrived at Black Forest the same day, a cold day last January, ten months before. They were roommates and they were best friends, each with eight months to go.
“You got any food?”
“I ain’t got nuffin’. You?”
“Aiiight. Just wait there a sec. I be right up.”
Tank rambled across the ankle-high ferns and climbed to the summit. Slightly winded, but no worse for the wear, Tank looked Alex over.
“You wastin’ away out here, brotha. You skinnier’n my ma. And she a crack ho.” Alex couldn’t say the same about Tank. He looked the same as ever—muscular, well-rested, well-nourished, solid as an ox. “You see, my body be feedin’ off my fat and muscle. But you, shit, I gotta ball bat wiff mo meat’n you.”
“You drink from any streams?” Alex asked.
“Oh hell yeah. Had some this mornin’ from a creek down that way. My throat was achy, but it felt fine ever since. You best have some ’fore you flat out die. You look like shit!”
“Back at Black-Fo, I be eatin’ eggs and bacon right about now.”
“Yeah, but then you hafta go to drug treatment class wiff Mr. Weibel. Fuck that dude and his holy abstinence talk. Fuck him and his big ass and his fat high horse that he climb on and preach from. I rather be out here any day.”
“No … you’re right. You’re right,” Alex lied. “I’m with you. Def’nitely.”
“So where Zane?” Tank snorted. “That pussy left me for the wolves. When I find him I’m gonna cave in his fuckin’ face.”
“Well, he’s right back there, you know, sleepin’.”
“Sleepin’? Good. Let’s go, brotha. Time for the wake up shock of his mothafuckin’ life.”
Like a hawk riding the wind, Alex ran through the woods to the camp where he’d slept beside Zane. He never looked back, assuming Tank was quick to follow. He slowed down on approach from sprint to crawl, not wanting to wake his leader. At roughly twenty yards distance he saw Zane asleep on his side. Alex looked over his shoulder and gave a thumbs-up, expecting to see Tank enraged and ready to smash Zane’s skull. But his bruising buddy was absent. The only trace of human form was his own skinny shadow.
Panicked thoughts ran rampant. Where Tank go? Why he gone? What the hell just happened? He retraced his path and found Tank slowly limping down a rocky incline.
“What happened, homey?”
“Man, I tell you, it gotta be broken.”
“My ankle. It smashed.”
“Yeah, smashed. Feels dead.”
“If it was dead you wouldn’t feel nothin’.”
“Truss me, brotha. It dead.”
“Does it throb?”
“Oh yeah! It throbbin’ like a mothafucka.”
“So it ain’t dead.”
“Quit grillin’ me, Alex. Just help me through here, for fuck sake.”
Alex picked his way up the slope along a narrow trail. He arrived at the midway point where Tank had sat down to rest. He extended his hand. “Zane’s still sleepin’. I just saw him. He ain’t moved at all.”
“I don’t know—like, five minutes that way.”
“Probly longer now,” Tank said, looking down at his leg.
“So what kinda pace can you take?”
“Real slow, man.”
“Then we take it slow,” Alex said.
Tank took his hand and stood. Though the same age, he was at least a block of cement taller than Alex and three or four blocks heavier.
“Lemme go first,” Alex said. “You lean on me if you need to.” After the words came out, he realized that if Tank stumbled and fell, he’d be driven face-first into a boulder with a two-hundred-and-fifty pounder on top. But he was starting to realize that sometimes you put yourself on the line for friends and family. Tank put his paws on Alex’s shoulders, and they plodded downward at a sloth’s pace, treading carefully to the valley floor. Five minutes from the camp on good legs was what Alex reckoned; it’d be a half hour or more on Tank’s bad wheel. All they could do was hope Zane still slept.
Though they weren’t tracking time, it took longer than expected. Zane sat awake with legs crossed and a mostly eaten apple at his lips. He stood as they arrived and threw the apple core to the dirt. “Where’d you find the gimp?” he said as wet apple chunks flew from his mouth.
“Fuck you, Zane! You fuckin’ lucky. You know that?”
“Of course I am. That’s why I’m me and you’re you.”
“Oh yeah? If my ankle wuddn’t shot, I’d wipe that stupid smile off yo mouth.”
“I’d like to see you try, you dumbass gimp.”
Tank took one hop forward and threw a powerful but wild hook at Zane’s face. Zane stepped back as the fist breezed by and kicked Tank in the meat of his thigh. The strike to the leg sounded like the crack of a whip, and Alex looked down at Tank, grimacing on the ground.
Zane threw back his head and laughed, then stepped forward and booted Tank in the ribs. “If I had a gun I’d put you down like a lame dog. Don’t step outta line with me. I gotta black belt, buddy. Try that again and I’ll snap all the ligaments in your knee.” He laughed some more, louder than before, and Tank rolled onto his stomach. Zane stood over him, looking down disdainfully. Tank groaned as he lifted himself to hands and knees, then crawled to a nearby log and sat back against it.
“Now listen, I don’t have time to babysit out here,” Zane said. “We’ve made it this far and I won’t be stopped. I got too much money to lose. We all do! If my mom marries her jackass boyfriend, I’m outta the picture. I’ll get none of it. So we gotta get him first. And if we have to end him, so be it.”
“You mean kill him?” Tank asked.
“Fuckin’ right. You knew that two weeks ago when you accepted the offer. Even if I didn’t say it outright, if you couldn’t figure it out, then holy shit you’re stupid.”
Tank stood, his arms crossed. “I ain’t stupid!”
“In my book you are, or you wouldn’t have tried to knock me out just then. That, my man, was stupid. Why’d you even sign up for this anyway?”
Tank uncrossed his arms, his hands swirling as he spoke. “Well, you promise us a flood a money—from inheritance, you said. And you promise we get the pick from yo harem of girls. Ooh yeah! No doubt that what I’m about. You said they got nice titties packed in tight tops, and they got them high-ridin’ jean shorts, and that smooth summertime skin. ’Member, I told y’all in confidence I’m a virgin. Yep. Way I see it my time is near—so near I be tastin’ it!”
Zane’s narrow blues looked over at Alex. “Since we’re showin’ our cards now, I wanna hear what you got left to gain. You accepted my offer, and I put together the plan. But you never told me what you runnin’ from. Now’s your time.”
“I mean, the money sounds good. I can’t lie there. But I ain’t got much interest in the girls.”
“You just ain’t got much confidence,” Tank said. “Money buys confidence, brotha.”
“Shut up and sit down!” Zane snarled. “It ain’t your turn no more.”
Alex cleared his dry and itchy throat. “It was that night, Zane. You know, ’bout three weeks back. Them boys from Philly was out in the hall. They was trash-talkin’ up a storm. I don’t know why I went out; in hindsight it was real dumb. Guess I thought I could smooth shit out. I thought from all the guidance I got from my counselors, well, I felt I could stop them thugs from brawlin’.” Alex touched the puffy welt running halfway across his pimpled forehead. “Now I got this to remind me.”
“Looks like it’s healin’ alright,” Zane said.
“Oh, sure. Physically I’m healin’. The forehead, the eye and nose, the ribs. Mentally, though, I just checked out. I got fucked up in that fight, you know. Sucks too, ’cause I was doin’ good—like my grades and my treatments. I was comin’ along. Serious progress. But getting slashed in that fight, getting punched and kicked and slammed, it all throw me off track. So I run away. I used to steal and rob when I got down on life. Maybe it’s my new thing, you know—maybe now I’m a runner.”
“From what I heard, it mighta been worse. But Tank jumped in and saved you.”
“Same thing I heard too. Once I saw my blood on the floor, I just passed out. But Tank’s my homey. Best friend I ever had, actually.”
“You’re both here for good reasons. But the clock’s tickin’. All I can say now is keep up if you can. And if you can’t, then do me a favor and drop out.”
“I can keep up,” Alex said. “Just ain’t sure I wanna.” Immediately he regretted speaking with such honesty.
“You ain’t sure? Well, why not? You pushed this far and you doin’ just fine. Hell, I think you doin’ real good. If you give up now, you lose. You don't want that, do you? I mean, you ever won at anything?”
Alex shook his head.
“Now, listen, it won't be long and you’ll be tellin’ my girls that you escaped and the cops couldn’t catch you. They gonna love that, Alex. That’s winnin’! I want you to win for once in your life. Get that in your head. Besides, you’re my friend. And you’re the master of unlawful entry. I need you to help break into my mom’s house.”
“I need some water, Zane. My throat so dry. My belly hurts. I ain’t got much left.”
“Drink the water out the stream, man. I been doing it and ain’t nothin wrong. You ain’t gonna get sick. You ain’t gonna die.”
Alex paused and watched Tank, sulking on a bed of ferns with his back against a log. “Fine. I’ll drink the water out the stream. Goddammit, I’ll just do it. But I don’t wanna leave Tank behind. I ain’t doin’ that again.”
Zane glared at Tank. “You gonna soldier on? Or you gonna take this shitty hand you been dealt and fold?”
Tank didn’t speak but folded his arms and nodded confidently.
“Arright. You was slow before you got hurt. But let’s see how you go.” Zane strolled to a nearby tree and began to climb. He made the first crook and put his feet there on the thick outstretched branch. He reached above to the second branch, snagged an apple, and tossed it down to Alex. “I stored the apples up here so you wouldn’t eat them if you woke. You were lookin’ for ’em, weren’t you? Don’t matter. You earned it. Enjoy your breakfast.”
Alex sat on the log next to Tank and devoured half the apple then handed the other half to his friend.
“Now why’d you do that?” Zane asked. “My bet is he won’t make it another hour.”
Zane went to the backpack and pulled out the map. He walked to Alex and revealed his plan. They were to hike six miles to the nearest town, a place called Tyler Junction. And they were to trek through the forest, over and around streams, up and down hills. Zane believed it would be tough walking and take the full day. They would make it by nightfall and find a car with the keys inside or a garage with some tools for a hotwire job. For whatever reason, if that didn’t work, Zane could steal a cell phone and call his girlfriend, and she’d drive up and get them. He believed it was nearly foolproof. The only way it wouldn’t happen was if they were captured. They were to stay hidden at all costs, even if it meant another night in the bear-infested forest.
“Everybody on your feet,” Zane commanded. “We gotta move before this lifts. Right now the fog is our friend.”
Alex and Tank left the relative comfort of the camp and followed their leader into the fog. As they walked, Alex thought mostly about Zane. He was certainly different than his two followers, not just in age or leadership ability, but also in upbringing. Zane could read topographic maps, he could navigate, he could plan for what might come. He had been in Boy Scouts as a youth. He had been in sports. He had been raised in a well-to-do area of Pittsburgh with privileges that his followers did not have. But there had been a point of severance from that life, a point in adolescence when he shifted to crime. He had told Alex as much. But Alex didn’t know why Zane had left the upper class, nor what crimes had sent him to Black Forest. He never asked; he just followed.
After a while, the fog burned away and the sun beamed down. The walk was proving good for Alex, except for the blister that had formed on his heel. He had energy and easily kept pace with Zane. The half an apple certainly helped, as did five handfuls of water from a cold brook. Tank managed to stay on pace for most of the hour, but in accordance with Zane’s prediction, he’d fallen back in the last ten minutes.
Alex stopped and looked back for his friend but didn’t see him. Would he have to retrace his steps again? A loud sigh of frustration escaped his lips. There was no question he would. He was about to speak up and tell Zane his plan but was startled by the sound of a car. Zane was ten yards ahead, crouched behind a bush. Alex dropped to his knees, his eyes locked on Zane’s back. For a couple minutes they held the pose, enough time for Tank to catch up.
“You hear that car?” Alex asked Tank as he crouched low nearby.
“I did. Saw it too.”
Zane motioned for them to stay back as he stepped through the willows and wandered onto the road. Alex could barely see his blonde head until soon it disappeared. He sat silently for a short time but panicked and came forth through the willows. His feet softly struck the pavement as if he was stepping on hot coals. It was warmer on the road than in the woods, maybe by five, even ten degrees. He walked to the yellow centerline and hopped over it. He hadn’t set foot on a paved road in months, the last time he was in a city. His mind began to race and his pulse quickened. Thoughts of his inner-city upbringing haunted him, an upbringing not only poor in material wealth, but poor with love, attention, and discipline.
Alex looked up. A pickup truck had stopped within arm’s length. Lost in thought, he never even heard it coming. He stared blankly at the man’s partially hidden face behind the windshield. Frozen, unable to run for cover, he was now thunderstruck by his own blunder.
Zane muttered loudly and audibly from the bushes on the opposite side of the road, “You fuckin’ idiot.”
The man rolled down his window and waved Alex over. His face was fat and stubbly. The white, powdery remnants of a donut peppered his lips.
Alex stepped to the window as the man spoke. “I got a Glock with sixteen rounds right here on the belt.” The man pulled back his coat.
Alex was no stranger to handguns. Most of his friends and relations had one or two and plenty of ammo. But he’d never seen one on a white man who wasn’t a cop. To make matters worse, this old man was country, and country folk were hard to comprehend. “Why yes, mister. I don’t need no bullet in me. I’m just passin’ through here and headin’ back to the woods.”
The man’s left hand rested on the steering wheel, and with his right he pulled the Glock from his belt and aimed it at Alex’s face.
“Whoa, mister.” Alex backed up, his arms raised.
“Pretty obvious that you’re from the center, son. Us locals been alerted that some of you been on the run. Now you listen to me. You’re gonna get in the bed of this here truck of mine, and I’m gonna run you back to the center and get on with my day. You make one wrong move and you’ll be bleedin’ from more places than them scratches you got. Now tell me, where’s the others?”
“Yes, here we are, sir,” Zane said, appearing out of the woods, approaching with a limp. “Thank you for stoppin’. We are from the center. And we been on the run all yesterday and today too, and we just plain over it. We all scratched up and tore up and beaten up, sir. Alex here got some nasty scratches, and Tank, who’s back there in the woods, got himself a bum ankle. I busted up my foot pretty bad last night too. We ready to call this off and head back and get our punishment. Heck, I ain’t even sure why we ran away. We got it so darn good at the center. So good, sir. The folks is nice. They teach us discipline and manners. The food is really good. Personally, I just want a hot meal. Ain’t that the truth. And I tell you another thing, studyin’ ain’t gonna be so bad after this stunt we just pulled. I mean, I’m kinda lookin’ forward to crackin’ the books in my room when I get back. Would’n you agree, Alex?”
“Yeah. Uh, most def’nitely.”
“Tank!” Zane shouted. “C’mon out. Show the man you been hurt too and that we mean no harm.”
Tank hobbled out of the woods, his ankle truthfully damaged.
“Pull up them khaki pants, Tank. Show the man how purple that ankle is.”
On the side of the road, Tank bent down and lifted his pants from ankle to knee. Alex caught a glimpse of the swollen ankle then looked at the man as he craned toward the passenger window.
“That boy is black as night,” the man said. “How you expect me to see any shade of purp—”
Two hands fell around the man’s neck, hands popping with veins and tendons and bones. A shot was fired, and Tank dove back into the woods. Alex stepped back farther, his eyes wide.
Zane’s upper half was now in the truck, his legs visible and kicking. Another shot was fired, and Zane slid out onto the road. He was on his knees, his hands on the pavement, his head hanging low. Alex stared at the man in the truck. His head had fallen onto the steering wheel, drooping there lifeless. Blood was running from a hole in his temple like cranberry juice being poured from a pitcher. Zane braced himself against the truck door and stood. He opened the door, pulled the obese body out, and dragged it under the arms into the woods. Soon he came back to the road, his fake limp gone.
If Alex was concerned earlier about bears, he’d missed the true beast before him, one that could create death in an instant, the one standing on the road like a blood-guzzling demon that had risen out of some hellish portal in the woods. Zane’s face was short and scrunched, his teeth bared with maroon tongue lolling as if to taste death. His blonde hair was thrown wildly about and sprinkled with blood and fragments of skull. His eyes appeared to darken from sky-blue to soulless black like those of a shark. On his white shirt blood was splattered like a Rorschach test, staining in red the rough shape of a tarantula—an oblong blob in the middle, eight or so rigid legs outstretching from the center in different directions. The dead man’s holster was now belted to Zane’s narrow waist with some copper vested bullets visible. The gun was in his right hand, the barrel aimed at Alex’s heart.
“You … get in the truck!”
Alex complied, first brushing some broken window glass from the seat, then climbing in and sitting tall and straight like an obedient dog. The cab smelled of tangy body odor mingled with cigarette smoke. He looked at the fuel gauge; it showed three quarters full. The engine remained on, and his bones shook from the rumbling power of the engine. He heard Zane outside barking orders.
“Get in the back of the truck! You don’t sit up front with me, you lazy sack of shit. That’s right. Just lie down in the bed. And don’t move, or I’ll shoot you in the face. Haha! That’d be some kind of improvement.”
Hearing Zane’s demented voice made Alex’s stomach wilt. For a second he thought about sliding to the driver’s seat and speeding off. But Tank wasn’t yet aboard, and he would not leave his friend. He watched Zane move swiftly around the front of the truck, and concurrently, he felt the back end lower as Tank boarded. Perhaps he had an instant to floor the pedal and get away, but in so doing he imagined Zane opening fire and filling Tank with bullet holes. He turned and looked out the broken back window as Tank lay flat on his back. His friend’s eyes were steely and looking skyward, with tears rolling past his ears, dampening the truck liner.
The driver door slammed shut.
“We ain’t got no back window,” Zane said. “I see it’s been busted. But we still got the rear-view mirrors in case someone tries to sneak up from behind.” Zane was looking into the mirror above the dash, smoothing out his eyebrows, then his hair. He took one last good look and winked.
A cell phone landed in Alex’s lap.
“Open that up and turn off location services.”
“Yeah, dumbass, so they can’t track us by GPS.”
“Jesus Christ. Just flip it open and go to the settings.”
Alex flipped the cover back and pushed a green button. “It’s askin’ me for a password.”
Zane’s head snapped toward Alex, his eyes crazed. “Just gimme that piece of shit.”
Alex handed the phone over.
“Fuckin’ thing is ten years old. That fat slob never heard of an iPhone?” Zane handed it back. “Just type in somethin’. Try and crack the code. We gotta get the fuck outta here.”
Zane revved the engine once and dropped the gear into drive. Alex looked at the forest outside his window, quickly becoming a blurred mess of color. He had witnessed a similar murder before, and he thought back to that day. It had happened in his aunt and uncle’s living room over two years ago during the dreadfully hot summer of 2012. The killer, a gangbanger named Rasheed, had been like Zane, quick and ruthless. It was strange, almost eerily similar when he thought about the post-murder antics and expressions of the two. Strange and downright disgusting. Why did he follow these cold-blooded types? They offered nothing but trouble.
A heavy force gripped him and his chest bulged. He was weak of body, but he didn’t have to be weak of mind. That was a choice, and the time was ripe to shed that skin.
“Why’d you do that?” Alex asked.
“Do what? Rev it up?”
“No, man. Why’d you kill that guy?”
“Because he got in my way.”
“For real? That’s it?”
“Yeah, that’s it. I ain’t killed no one before. I was just gonna beat the shit outta him and steal the truck, but he shot at me first. You saw that, right? You’re witness to that.”
Alex shook his head. “But you jumped in and choked him when he wasn’t lookin’.”
“I know. Then the fatass shot at me.”
“Right, man. But you went after him first. That’s the way it happened. Like, you was chokin’ him out! You know that. Unless you’re just pure crazy or straight evil. I mean, you know he had a right to self-defense, but now he dead like a hooker in the hood. Then you chucked his body in the woods, you crazy fuck! The body ain’t hidden good or nothin’ like that. Somebody’ll find that shit today or tomorrow. How you gonna hide this one out? They already on our tails. It’s just—it’s just crazy, man. You know? It’s just stupid.”
“Fuck off, Alex. I just need you to solve the password. Shut up and figure it out.”
“It wants four numbers. Odds of me guessin’ the right ones is like zero.”
“Just do it, or you gonna get pistol-whipped.”
Alex called his bluff. “No. No, I ain’t.”
“Oh, yes I will. You know I will.”
“Well, I guess you might, but that’d be plain stupid, like Tank tryin’ to punch you back in the woods. He needs you to get what he wants. And you need me to get what you want.”
“Just ’cause I pistol-whip you don’t mean you’d be brain-dead.”
“How d’you know? Might put me in a coma.”
“Look, man. I ain’t tryin to argue here. Point blank, we’re on a mission. And so I need you to work on that phone code, and if it can’t be solved, then throw it out the window. In fact, anything in here that looks techie, let’s get rid of it in case it got some kinda trackin’ system.”
Alex looked down at the phone. He couldn’t believe that he had questioned Zane and put him in his place. He felt courageous, a feeling he couldn’t remember experiencing. He typed four zeros into the password boxes, which the phone rejected. He typed in a number one, two, three, and four. Again, rejection. He started to laugh, first only a trickle, but soon the humor forced itself out boisterously. His eyes were shut tight, his head bowed, his stomach in pain from the laughter.
“Why you laughin’ so much? This is a serious mission, man.”
“I just got a sense of doom. Like this whole thing, it just all doomed.”
“You’re sayin’ we’re gonna fail. That ain’t funny.”
“Probly not. Probly means I’m confused by it all.”
“Confused by what? I need you to help break into the house. Period.”
“Yeah, I know, Zane. But I feel it ain’t gonna work. Like I said, doomed.”
“Shut up! Shut up now! You wanna know about doom? Listen, and I’ll tell you real good. Doom is when my mom and dad got divorced. Doom is when my dad killed himself a couple months later. You know what set me off into crime? I was a pallbearer at my dad’s funeral. I was embarrassed to carry the coffin around from a man who killed himself. He was too fuckin’ weak. Well, I ain’t like that. I ain’t weak. Understand? I’m goin’ in strong after Mom and her new man.”
“By the time we get there,” Alex said, “betcha the cops will be waitin’ for us.”
That’s when a searing pain shot across his skull. He touched the side of his head above his left ear and brought the hand in front of his face. The blood pooled in his palm. Consciousness was escaping, blackness overcoming his vision, deafness stealing his sound. Faintly, he still heard a voice.
“Who’s laughin’ now, bitch!”
The sound that led him into the silent void was the shrill cackling of a maniac.
Blackness, silence, heart pulse low. Insensate to the world whizzing by. The interstate highway. The exit signs. The fast-food restaurants. The outlet malls. An off-ramp into the unknown.
A sudden halt roused him. He opened his eyes and rubbed the hard knot of flesh on his head. The truck was in park, and he looked once more at the fuel gauge; it was half full. Some exhaust wafted up the side of the truck and in through the broken window. He smelled the gaseous funk of the fumes. Outside the window he saw that it was dusk. A helicopter chopped by overhead, and his bowels tensed.
“Where are we?” he asked, though Zane was not in the cab. He turned toward the truck bed. “Tank, where are we?”
“Don't know, brotha. I ain't hardly moved. If I do, there’s a good chance I get shot or shit my pants.”
“What? Why you say that?”
“I feel off, man—really off. Don't know if it the stress—maybe the water I was drinkin’. I ain't eaten much in two days, you know. I'm just tired and weak. Really weak.”
Alex spotted Zane about twenty paces behind the truck, “What's Zane doin’?”
“He told me to lay here and don't move. He'd shoot me if I did. Said he was gonna go to the gate.”
“Oh, I see. He at the gate punchin’ in the code.” But the gate was not opening.
Soon, Zane crossed the berm and re-entered the truck. “They changed the damn code. Probly changed all the locks too.” Zane pulled the slide back on the Glock then let go as it quickly loaded a bullet. “Alex, your time is now. Come on.”
With Tank staying behind, they climbed the fence and crossed the yard toward the unlit house. Alex hoped nobody was home. They made the front porch, and Zane motioned for Alex to test the front door. He crept to it and twisted the knob. “Locked up tight,” he said.
“Shit,” Zane whispered. “They’re all gonna be locked.”
Alex lifted a rug in search of a spare key, but there was none. He looked under some potted plants but again came up with nothing.
“Let’s check the back,” Zane said.
They scurried around the to the back of the big house and walked onto the planks of a deck. There was a long, sliding glass door, and Alex went to it and pushed on the handle. It didn’t budge.
“So the easy way ain’t gonna work,” Zane said. He pointed the Glock at Alex. “You see that scaffold we ran around when we came to the back?”
“I want you to climb that and check the door on the second-story deck. It leads into the master bedroom. Go up slow, you hear? If the door’s unlocked, whisper down to me and I’ll climb up. Then hide and wait for me.”
“Okay,” Alex said. At gunpoint he had little choice.
At the side of house he began to scale the scaffold, one hand over the other, more or less like climbing a ladder. It was very sturdy and hardly shook as he climbed. At the top, he slid under a waist-high railing onto the platform. A few stacks of shingles lay by his feet. He rose to his knees and looked around. He could see the entire front yard and the entry gate and the dead man’s truck out along the road. He could even see into the bed of the truck, but he didn’t see Tank. He blinked a couple of times and looked again. It was true; Tank wasn’t there.
“Pssst!” he heard from below. “Are you in?”
He crawled slowly across the platform and slid over another railing onto the home’s upper deck. He moved across it on his belly and put his hands on the doorknob. It was cold but quiet as he turned it. The door inched open and he peeked in. The room was without light, but there were noises coming from somewhere near, soft, moaning noises and heavy breathing. Without a sound, he deftly pulled the door shut. He crawled back across the deck and to the edge of the scaffold and looked down. “It’s open.”
Immediately, Zane started to climb. Alex moved back to the deck and looked out into the side yard full of mature trees. A big body moved down below. There’s Tank, he said to himself as he watched his friend maneuver stealthily from tree to tree.
“Anyone in there?” Zane muttered, his head peering above the platform.
“I heard noises, but I couldn’t see no one. You got a dog?”
“A dog? No, we ain’t got no dog.”
Alex shrugged, and Zane rolled onto the scaffold platform. His gun was in hand as he joined Alex on the main deck. “You first,” he said, the barrel aimed at Alex.
“That’s right. You’re my shield.”
Alex turned and squirmed toward the door with Zane close behind. He opened it once more and pushed it slightly ajar, just enough to fit through sideways. The noises were much louder now, grunts and groans and a woman’s cry. “Oh, yes! Oh, yes! Right there, baby! Right there!”
Then Zane was in front of him, growling like a threatened wolf.
Alex saw the woman on top of the man, and as she turned, her face went from pleasure to pain.
“Oh my god, Zane!” the woman screamed. “Oh my god!”
He raised and leveled the Glock at the man underneath.
“No! Wait!” she cried.
Alex became a stick of dynamite ready to explode. He lowered his shoulder and drove it into the small of Zane’s back. At the moment of impact, he felt an incredible surge of power that helped him lift Zane clean off the ground. He carried him for a step or two then dumped him like a Greco-Roman wrestler hard on the carpet. Control of the gun was lost, and it skidded to the wall. Zane rolled away and hopped to his feet. Alex defiantly pursued him, ready again to dump him down like a sack of garbage. A light burst on, and Alex squinted.
“Stop right now or die!” Zane yelled.
A punch was thrown that Alex misjudged; it struck his pistol-whip bruise, and the blood leaked anew. He pressed forward, the blood stinging his eye. He took a hook to the rib and a snap kick to his thigh. Both hurt, and he winced. He went back to the only move in his repertoire, ducking his head, driving in low and fast. Again he got his arms around Zane’s waist, but he’d lost the core strength to hoist and slam. Quickly he was upside down, being carried toward the wall. In a heartbeat he was planted on his side. He put his arm down to brace, but the impact snapped his wrist. Zane snatched up the gun.
“Shoulda done this two hours ago.”
Alex always thought he’d die in the street in the ghetto. He always thought a bullet would take his life. That was the simple probability. Now, faced with certain death, he realized that positive choices were available; they’d always been. He could’ve escaped from victimhood, from poverty, from the inner-city conditioning. A flash of memories unraveled in his mind, moving backward from recent memory to distant. He saw the man dead in his truck, the escape from his Black Forest dorm, meeting Tank for the first time, the scenes of his arrests for multiple shoplifts, and being witness to the murder of his cousin. Alex had done nothing to help on that hot summer day. It was the deepest regret in his past.
He heard a scream and the crack of a gunshot. He exhaled, imaging it as his last.
He heard another scream and inhaled.
Where was the bite of the bullet? The pain of copper and lead ripping through organs and flesh?
He sat up. Zane was pinned on his back with Tank mounted on top. Furious fists rained down on Zane’s face, accompanied by the sound of fracturing facial bones. He saw two teeth fly out, and he heard the mother frantically speaking on the phone.
The man on the bed had the Glock now, and he came over to Alex, who raised his arms helplessly.
“I’m not gonna shoot you, boy. I saw what you did. You saved me. I don’t know why, but you did.”
“I saved you ’cause I’ve seen enough killin’ in my time, and I don’t wanna see no more.”
“Well, you must’ve had a role to play in this,” the man said, “but I’m gonna make damn sure you get minimum punishment. No charges will be pressed on my end, and if need be, I’ll represent you and the other boy there holding Zane down.”
Soon, blue and red lights flickered in through the windows, and the sirens howled. Four policemen entered the room with guns drawn. One secured the stolen gun, while the others worked on handcuffing the three runaways. Alex wailed in pain as the steel cuffs were shut tight around his broken wrist. As he was led down the stairs, he heard the man back in the bedroom, “It’s him. Yeah, him with the white shirt. That’s Zane Morley. He’s the asshole who assaulted me. The other two saved my life.”
The last thing he remembered from that house was watching Zane being walked to a police car, looking back over his shoulder at Alex, flipping him the middle finger from both handcuffed hands.
An hour later, he sat on a medical table as the cast was formed around his hand and wrist. The doctor smiled as she did her work. A policeman stood in the corner of the room, also smiling. A profound yet subtle peace filled him and swirled around his heart. It only lasted a few fleeting seconds, but it was the purest feeling he'd ever known. He promised the doctor that the first fight of his life would be the last, and that someday he would work in a hospital and help people too.