Rough, Grooved Surface

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Chapter 34

34

“Tremble for yourself, my man,

You know that you have seen this all before.

Tremble little lion man,

You’ll never settle any of your scores.”

—Mumford & Sons, ‘Little Lion Man,’ Sigh No More (2009)

Although it was risky, I drove to Bonnie’s place to grab a few of my things. Most importantly, I had the money that I had been saving for my California trip stashed in a back closet. If I was going to get out of town, I was going to need money.

I rolled up to the ‘castle,’ and sat down the street watching for ten minutes. There were no cars parked on the street, and I didn’t see anyone moving around the house. I drove out and around the block. I parked behind the yard and entered the house via the alleyway from the south.

If it had been a movie, my steps would have been narrated by a slow and expectant soundtrack, filled with thick notes of terror and suspense. Instead, I was bombarded with the painfully mundaine noises of Midwestern suburbia—a yipping lapdog jumping up at the blinds in a nearby house, a group of elementary-aged kids playing tag with water guns in a back yard.

The rest of the world was finishing up their workday or enjoying the last few hours of summer vacation, while the world around me spun itself into chaos. It was a sensation that I should have been familiar with—the sobering realization that the cosmos doesn’t give two shits about you, the individual.

Unfortunately, it’s a lesson that we can’t ever fully learn, no matter how convincing the instruction.

When I reached the house, I peered carefully into the windows, looking for any sign of life, but everything was quiet. I tiptoed in through the back door—which to my knowledge had never actually been locked—and made my way to the spare bedroom.

When Okie left town, he had given me the keys to his apartment, since the lease was paid up through the end of December. Though I spent most of my time there, I stayed at the Wrastle Castle often enough to leave a change of clothes and a few meager possessions there. Most importantly, I had stashed my California fund money in the back closet. Considering that Okie’s neighbors had been robbed three times in the previous year, I figured the Wrastle Castle was the safer place to keep my cash.

Given the circumstances, it seemed like an incredibly wise decision. Although the police detective was content to leave me with his little ‘warning,’ I had no doubt that Karl and Whistler would be looking for a more permanent solution to their problems, and Okie’s apartment would be the first place they would look for me.

On the way back out of the house, I saw a picture sitting on a side table. The framed photograph seemed out of place largely because the castle didn’t really contain any decorations of any kind. Bonnie wasn’t the type of person to worry about frivolities, and he wasn’t exactly the sentimental, hallmark-moment type. He had, however, put up this one picture, a snapshot of him with his brother, sometime when they were both in high school.

We had talked about his brother a few times before. They were separated by the same age gap as Tommy and me, and they had been pretty close. About the time that Bonnie came to Whitehaven, though his brother had fallen into drugs. As far as anyone knew, he was still alive somewhere, but he hadn’t had contact with them in years.

They hadn’t even been able to track him down for Bonnie’s funeral.

I stared at the picture for a long while, marveling at the life that had slipped away from both of them, and I couldn’t stop thinking about Tommy.

Two completely different stories with the same ending.

I knew it was dangerous, but there was one last stop I had to make before I left town.

Our little blackmail job on Dean Grayson had worked well for a while, but she was eventually placed on administrative leave for ‘inappropriate contact’ with a student. Given her impromptu sabbatical and my growing bill at the financial office, my official welcome on campus had run out at the end of the previous semester.

Before I left, though, I had given a few of my old things to Sam, my old roommate. He spent the summer working on campus, helping out with maintenance and painting in exchange for a reduced tuition, so I asked him if he’d mind looking after a box of old things for a while. As I walked up to the dorm room, I hoped desperately that he hadn’t thrown the box away.

When no one answered the knock, I fished out my old keys. I’m sure that the school had sent notices about returning them, but Whitehaven’s property control was not exactly at the top of my to-do list. After a few minutes of rifling through a tiny closet, I found my box of leftover possessions. I dug through until I found what I was looking for—a small, leatherbound photo album and a black, hardcover journal.

The two items represented the only connection I cared to maintain to my childhood—pictures of the old days with Tommy, David, and Mark, and Tommy’s journal from his dying days at the hospital. It was one of the hospital psychologists’ ideas, a death journal to make sense of his final days. At the time, I thought it was stupid and morbid, but in the months after he died, I read the journal over and over again, soaking in the words like a dry sponge dropped in a bucket of water.

As I stood to leave, I heard the door click shut behind me, and I spun around to find myself face to face with Karl, who was leering at me with a hateful grin.

For a moment, we stared at one another and said nothing, swallowing the tension floating in the air in large gulps. “Whistler needs to see you,” he said with a grin. When I backed away, he stepped forward and punched me in the stomach, knocking the air from my chest and sending me crashing to the floor in a crumpled heap.

Karl perched over the top of me with a satisfied grin. “I fucking told Whistler that you were involved, too, but he wouldn’t believe me. I love the guy, but that’s kind of his fatal flaw, you know?” He reached down and grabbed a fistful of my hair, pulling me up to my feet.

“Lucky for him, I’m not quite so sentimental.” As he reached back to punch me again, I let loose with several wild, haymaker punches. Though he outweighed me by thirty pounds, there was no way that I was going down without a fight, and there is something to be said for bottled-up rage. As I swung wildly at him, I pictured Bonnie’s face, and I thought about those crime scene photos of Brisby.

When one of the punches caught him in the side of the jaw, he stumbled backwards a few steps, catching himself against the wall. He reached up and grabbed his lip, which was split open, a tiny trickle of blood running down to his chin. “I’m impressed,” he said, “I always thought you were too big a pussy to fight back.” He stepped forward again. “I still think you’re a pussy, but at least I’ll respect you a little more this time.”

As he raised his fist to come at me again, the door of the room swung open. My old roommate, Sam, was standing in the doorway, gap-mouthed and shocked to see two random people having a fist-fight in the middle of his dorm room. Karl turned to the light streaming in from the hallway and froze for a moment.

I quickly looked around and grabbed the first thing I could find—a glass beaker filled with chew spit.

The chewing tobacco, as far as I could tell, was Sam’s one and only vise. Though he was a good guy, and he seemed to do nothing wrong, he always had a bad habit of leaving spitters sitting around the room wherever he happened to drop them.

The Whitehaven-monogramed glass beaker had been a gift from the school in our freshman orientation grab bag, a clever way to celebrate the newly opened science building. At some point, Sam had clearly been desperate for a chew bottle, and as always, he had left it sitting on a random dresser.

I grabbed the beaker by the skinny end and whipped my body around, crashing the glass jar down onto Karl’s head with all of the force I could muster. I had expected the vile to shatter as they did in the movies, but it didn’t. Instead, it sunk into his head with a hollow thud.

Karl slumped to the floor with a grunt, and he lay on the ground moaning as the vile remnants of Sam’s latest chew dripped from the bottle and landed on his face. For good measure, I swung the bottle down, smacking him in the temple once more, then I slammed the bottle down on the ground next to Karl’s face. This time, when the glass made contact with the linoleum floor, the beaker finally shattered, peppering Karl’s cheek with shards of glass as the black chew spit merged with the blood dripping down from Karl’s temple.

I picked up the photo album and journal off the floor and turned to find Sam inching back into the hallway with a terrified look on his face, clutching his hands to his chest as if he were holding an invisible shield. “Sorry about the mess,” I said, “you can keep my X-box.”

I turned to run towards the stairs, leaving Sam babbling to himself in the middle of the quiet hallway.

When I reached my truck, I pealed out of the parking lot, and drove out of town at twice the legal limit. Twenty-minutes outside of the city limits, I had decided that no one was following me, and I pulled over down an old farm road so that I could think.

My first instinct was to run to Caroline. Leave this all behind and forget that I had ever met Whistler or Karl or anyone else for that matter. For a moment, I indulged the fantasy. I could see her lying on a California beach, thumbing through a book. I could almost smell her coconut suntan lotion, taste her peach Chapstick on my lips.

In the end, though, I decided that running to Caroline was a terrible idea. Whistler clearly had connections, his puppet-faced detective left little doubt about that. I wasn’t sure if those connections stretched beyond state lines, but I did know that Carl knew about Caroline and her California plans. If I ran to her, I might be putting her in danger, and I wasn’t about to let her end up in a black and white police photo.

I sat in the truck for an hour, weighing one terrible option after another. The surest bet seemed to be to find a policeman that I could trust, someone who was beyond the reach of Whistler’s connections, but how would I know who to trust? No matter what I came up with, every plan left me exposed to Karl and Whistler.

After all, I didn’t have any proof at all, and it was going to be their word against mine.

I turned and looked at the photo album sitting on the seat across the cab of the truck. I flipped open the pages and saw images of a world that I hadn’t known in several years. A home that was so removed it felt like a foreign country. As I flipped through the pictures, I thought of an option that might work, one that didn’t involve any police at all.

For the first time since I was eight years old, I was going to ask my father for help.

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