The tarp tore at the edges where it had been nailed down, staggering his momentum. The fabric seemed to growl as it ripped. He could hear the men in the elevator hacking at the wires on the gate. His heart pummeled inside his chest as he sunk, his head disappearing further below the floor as the tarp came loose.
And then it came, all at once. The tarp fell out from underneath him, and he crashed down onto the next staircase below, falling hard on his shoulder. The wind was knocked out of him. He continued to tumble down the stairs, his body smacking against the steps, until at last he rolled onto the bottom of the landing.
He laid there, inert, blood drooling from his mouth. His arm, the one that had been shot, was twisted underneath him. He couldn’t feel his hand. The scene in front of him swam, black and red. Henry let out a long, soft moan.
He heard a footstep from above. He jerked his head up. People were coming from the next floor, and one of the doors in front of him creaked open. Lurching, his back crooked with pain, he bound to his feet, snatching the briefcase and the gun back up, and staggered towards the next staircase. He leaned on the handrail heavily, his head sagging, his vision tilting from side to side. He missed the last step and fell, smacking his jaw against the floor. He bit his tongue and more blood gushed out of his mouth.
Henry felt a hand on his shoulder, lifting him up. He threw his head back to look.
It was the kid from earlier, the one who had taken the beating.
“You a’ight, man?” he asked, confusion twisting his face.
There were more footsteps from above.
“GET ‘IM! GET ‘IM! DON’T LET ‘IM GET AWAY!”
The kid looked back to Henry, realization dawning on his face.
Henry grabbed the kid by the collar and threw him against the wall, knocking him out cold. Footsteps thundered behind him as he stumbled for the door, miraculously empty of men.
Gunshots tore through the air. One clipped Henry on the ear. He ducked behind the doorway, clamping a hand onto the side of his head, as the pavement and mortar in front of the door was churned into flying debris.
They knew it was him. There was no hiding from this. Henry’s chest heaved with regret. He was squatting just outside the threshold, but his legs could barely support him. The pistol shook madly in his hand. He could hear a group of them draw nearer.
He threw the arm holding the Glock into the doorway and fired a random shot. He heard someone give a cry. Henry bolted across the street, holding the briefcase between him and the factory, back to his car.
Bullets drilled through the pavement at his feet. The men shouted, drawing even closer.
Henry threw himself against the passenger side door, smearing blood across the paint. A stray bullet shattered the window above his head, showering glass over him. Fumbling with the handle of the door, Henry jumped inside, scrambling over into the driver’s seat. He heard bullets thunder against the car doors with enormous tin bangs as he dug around his hoodie pockets, searching for the keys.
“Fuck, fuck, FUCK!”
He’d dropped them. He’d dropped the keys when he’d fell through the fourth floor. They were back there, in the factory. Henry began to cry in earnest when he stuck his hand into the back pocket of his jeans. He ripped the key chain out, the rental number still attached.
He gunned the ignition, only half-sitting in the driver’s seat, and powered forward. He swerved on and off the curve, throwing him around in the seat. He knew they would be aiming for the tires. He nearly ran off the road as he turned the next corner, sharp, leaving the gas station in his rear view.
The sound of gunshots faded away.
Henry’s hands shivered on the steering wheel, his fingers slick with blood. As he saw the first traffic light approach, he forced himself to slow down. They would be following him, in their own cars, but he had less than a minute before they turned that same corner. He shook in his seat, his fingers tapping against the dash, his eyes flicking from the red light back to the rearview mirror.
At last it turned green. On impulse, Henry turned left, heading uptown. He didn’t think the Sons of Saints knew where he lived. But there was a chance. He couldn’t go back there tonight, even if he did throw them off the trail.
At the next light, Henry pulled off his hoodie. Checking himself out in the mirror, he attempted to wipe away the blood on his face, on his hands, and on the steering wheel as well. But his skin was stained pink. A person only had to see him under the lights to see the gore he was covered in. Henry tossed his hoodie onto the floor and forced himself to look forward, trying to make himself not twitch.
He drove for quite a while, taking every other turn, going the speed limit. He didn’t cut off taxis or pedestrians. He watched, his hands clenched, and pulled over to let a police car pass, its lights blazing. Never before had a rush hour seemed quite so tense.
At the next traffic light, he pulled out the track phone from his front pocket. He redialed Stephen’s number and raised the phone to his ear.
Henry listened to the dial tone go off once… twice…
“The number you are calling is not –”
Henry threw the phone against the dash with a large crash. Letting a long hiss out from between his teeth, he quickly ducked under the wheel to grab it from where it’d dropped, checking it over for damage. He dialed again.
He had made it into the next borough when he finally gave up on dialing Stephen. His hands were shaking so badly, he could barely exert enough muscle to turn the wheel. His vision slid in and out of focus, and the arm that had been shot through and twisted, was numb entirely. Henry couldn’t keep driving.
As he rolled up to another red light, he leaned forward, pressing his forehead against the wheel. He let loose a groan and closed his eyes.
“Fuck, Stephen,” he murmured to himself. “Fuck.”
The briefcase was sitting shotgun, covered in Alby’s blood. Henry’s muscles seized up in rage. He had half a mind to chuck it into the street and let it get run over. But then he remembered what the coke had done to Alby. Suddenly, he felt nauseous just sitting beside it.
A car horn blared behind him. Henry lurched up, seeing the light turned green. A taxi swerved around him, rolling down his window to flip Henry the bird.
“Sorry,” Henry muttered under his breath, putting his foot to the gas. He glanced at the buildings he passed, retail stores, restaurants, and one dollar pizzas. A large sign blinked just up ahead of him, attached to the side of a building. Henry narrowed his eyes, wondering if it was a hotel.
“Parking garage,” he read out loud as the sign came into focus. He slowed down a bit, hesitating. “Alright,” he said, pulling into the driveway. His heart began to thrum, his pulse leaping into his throat. Once his car mounted the sidewalk, he was approached by a man with a flashlight.
Henry pulled his beanie as low over his head as he could without covering his eyes. He tossed the bloody hoodie under his feet.
The man waved and Henry rolled down his window.
“Good evening, sir.”
“Evening,” Henry echoed, his voice breaking involuntarily. He tried to plaster a smile across his lips.
“Ten dollar,” the man said, nodding.
Henry stared at him for a second. The man was looking him directly in the eye, the flashlight pointed towards the car door. Looking down at his lap, Henry could see the stains, still glistening with freshness, gleaming in the fluorescent-blue light. Yet he didn’t act as though he saw all the blood.
Henry began to dig around his jean pockets, when he realized he’d left his wallet in the hoodie.
“One sec…,” he muttered, bending over. He tried as well as he could to rifle through the pockets without lifting it into the parking assistant’s view. He took the wallet out, his hands shaking, and thumbed through all the bills there.
“There’s a five,” he said, searching it futilely for more cash. “And a one. And… uh.”
Henry began to count out the remaining four dollars in quarters, dimes, and nickels, one-handedly. It was only when he had emptied his wallet of all the change he carried that he realized he didn’t have enough.
He glanced over at the briefcase beside him, his face burning red.
Henry leaned over the center consul, trying his best to block the briefcase from the assistant’s view. The arm that had been shot had begun bleeding so profusely that it was dripping onto the seats. He could feel the man’s glare piercing through him.
Slipping his hand inside the briefcase, he pulled loose a couple bills from between the rubber bands around a stack. They were twenty dollar bills. He wiped the blood on his fingers on the side of his jeans before fingering the cash.
“Th-there,” Henry said, reaching out the window and handing two to him. “I want to stay a little longer anyway.”
“No problem,” the man said, his face stoic. He reached through the window to hand Henry his ticket. Henry pulled on through before the man could fully extract his arm.
Henry drove as far up into the garage as he could. He found a spot by the wall, facing the street. He took his keys out of the ignition and slumped back against the seat.
He sat there for a quite a while, nursing his bleeding arm, feeling tired and sick to his stomach. Groggily, he grabbed up his hoodie from the floor and began to tie it around his busted arm. He kicked mentally himself for not having done this sooner. He had gotten so much blood all over himself and all over the car seat.
The longer he stared at all of it, the more he could taste the bile rising up in the back of his throat.
Henry picked up the phone again, swallowing thickly, his thumbprint sticking redly to the screen. The line dialed and dialed.
“The number you are calling is not available. Please leave a message after the tone.”
As the message tone blared, Henry bowed his head, holding the cell up to his brow. He took a long shaky breath.
“Stephen,” he said, his voice breaking. “C’mon Stephen. C’mon you fucker.”
He waited a beat more, his mouth quivering with tears. A guttural sob escaped his throat and he snapped his lips closed.
“Stephen. Stephen, please. Please Stephen. Please.”
Henry exhaled again and let the tears come.
“Please help me.”
He slumped down into his seat, covering his face with his hand. He stayed that way for quite a while. Anxiously, he took the phone out again and woke up the lock screen.
“Ah, no,” he mumbled to himself, wiping at his eyes.
It was past eleven. He had missed the phone call.
Knuckling his pounding head, he stared at the clock on his phone for a beat longer. Then he flipped it open and began to dial.
The dial tone droned on repeatedly. He sucked on his bottom lip, waiting for it to go to the answering machine.
There was a touch of static.
It was a woman’s voice, quiet and weary.
“Hey. It’s Henry.”
He cleared his throat of all the roughness.
There was a pause on the other side of the line. He could hear her sighing with sleepiness.
“I’m sorry Carmen, I shouldn’t have called.”
“No, it’s alright.”
He heard springs creaking, as though she had thrown herself down onto her bed.
Henry was silent for a long moment.
“Is he already asleep?”
“It’s way past his bedtime, Henry.”
“And he has school tomorrow…”
“I know, I didn’t think I would catch him. I just… thought I should try.”
“Why didn’t you try earlier?”
There was no accusation in Carmen’s tone. Her voice was gentle and probing. Henry felt his eyes aching again. He mashed his lips together miserably.
Henry sniffed, wiping at his face. It took him a second to realize he had used his bad hand, smearing blood under his eye. He took the corner of his shirt and tried in vain to wipe it away.
“Henry are you there?
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m here.”
He let out a long, distraught breath.
“I feel bad I missed him…”
Henry paused. He could hear a door opening on the other side of the line.
“Speak of the devil,” Carmen said. She pulled the phone away from her mouth. Henry had to strive to listen. “Honey, what are you…”
Though he strained his ear, he couldn’t hear what was said next, though he caught wind of another voice in the room, small and tentative.
“He stayed up for your phone call,” Carmen sighed into the phone, sounding mildly disappointed.
“I’m sorry,” Henry croaked, rubbing his forehead. He was beginning to realize he really shouldn’t have called. His head was heavy with blood loss, and he was aware of a slight slur to his words.
“Here he is,” Carmen said.
Henry swallowed as the phone switched hands, sweeping his beanie off his head nervously, as though he were being confronted face to face.
“Hey goose. How’s it going?”
“How was school today?”
Henry tried his best to keep his voice solid. His face was beginning to sting with dried salt tears and congealing blood.
“Did Ms. Green like your story?”
“She said it was good.”
“That’s good. That’s great, Holden.”
There was a long pause over the line. Henry could hear his son breathing into the mouthpiece.
“Are you coming home tonight, daddy?”
“No. No sweetheart, I’m afraid I’m not going to make it.”
“Are you going to make it tomorrow?”
Henry didn’t know what to say. He was staring down at his lap, purple with another man’s blood. His heart clenched.
“I’m gonna try.” Henry cleared his throat. “Whaddaya wanna do when I come over bud?”
“Can we play soccer?” Holden asked.
“The yard isn’t big enough for that honey,” Henry heard Carmen say in the background.
“How about we go to the park? Is that okay with you and Mommy?”
“Can I go to the park, Mom?” he heard Holden whisper.
“Is that where daddy wants to take you?”
“I don’t see why not. You’ve got to finish your homework first.”
“She said yes,” Holden said.
“Alright then,” Henry said brightly. “I’ll brush up on my soccer skills.”
Henry heard Carmen talking softly on the other end of the phone.
“Mom says I gotta go now,” Holden said, sounding tired.
“Okay. I’ll see you soon, okay goose?”
“See you soon.”
“Bye Holden. I love you. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight Daddy. I love you too.”
Henry listened as Holden’s lips kissed the mouthpiece. He blew a kiss back.
Henry chewed on the inside of his cheek, drawing blood, as Holden passed the phone back to Carmen.
“I’ll be there in a second to tuck you in, hun,” Carmen said, calling to Holden.
“That’s alright,” Holden replied, faint and in the background. Henry dragged a hand over his face.
Never once in all the five years he had spent in Lincoln Correctional had he missed a goodnight kiss. If he had turned down Stephen’s offer, he could have made this call from his apartment, back at the government complex. Showered, fed, and before Holden’s bedtime.
What the hell had happened?
He hadn’t realized that he had been silent for nearly a minute.
Henry sighed. He considered, for the barest hint of a moment, brushing Carmen off. But he didn’t want to.
“It’s Alby,” he said, letting the strain steep into his voice.
Henry broke into laughter, bitter and sorrowful.
“What the fuck didn’t happen?”
He covered his face, leaning heavily against the center consul. He could see the bloodied briefcase out of the corner of his eye.
“I’m not sure if I should come over tomorrow,” he said quietly.
“Did you promise Holden?” she asked.
“I told him I’d try.”
“Then you should try.”
He sighed again, his lips puckering with misery.
His voice broke. He moved the phone away as he struggled to contain himself. When he brought the phone back to his ear, Carmen was in the middle of talking.
“What?” he asked, his voice rough.
“Where are you right now?”
“I’m… in a parking garage.”
There was a pause on the other side of the phone. He knew Carmen was assessing his answer and assuming - very correctly - the situation he had gotten himself into. She had always had a good instinct. Though there was no way she could possibly guess the full context of the mess Henry had gotten into.
“It’s your call, Henry. I’m working tomorrow, from eight until four.”
“And I have to leave the house half an hour early. If you want, drop in before then. If you’re up.”
Henry leaned his head back against his seat, cradling his bleeding arm closer to his chest.
“I’ll be up.”
“We’ll talk then.”
Carmen didn’t speak for a moment. Henry heard sirens passing by on her side.
“Thank you for calling.”
“I’ll see you soon.”
Henry hung up the phone and held it for many long minutes, staring at the buttons. A part of him wished he had stayed on the phone with Carmen longer. And more than anything, he wanted to dial Stephen again. To, at the very least, leave him another voicemail. But he knew it would only bring him more frustration. Henry sighed, dropping his hand back by his side.
He glanced over at the briefcase in the passenger seat. With his good arm, he leaned over and undid the clasps.
It was all still there, some of it covered it blood, and even a little bit of vomit. The stacks of cash. The vials of amber liquid.
Henry picked up the vial that was loose - the one Alby had injected himself with - and held it up to his eye, inspecting it under the fluorescent parking garage lights.
“The fuck is this stuff?” he muttered.
Henry woke to the sound of knuckles wrapping against the car window.
He lurched forward. There was a man with his face pressed against the glass, squinting to look at Henry through the tinted window. He motioned with one hand for him to roll it down.
Blinking and bleary-eyed, Henry pulled his beanie lower over his head. For a moment, he panicked, finding that he couldn’t move his right arm. His hoodie was still tied tight around it, and the blood had congealed and turned brown. He forced his fingers to move, and they responded, belatedly.
Swallowing, he lowered his window, still slumped in his seat.
“You have to leave now sir,” the man said.
Henry stared at him dumbly.
The man jabbed a finger at his watch.
“Ten more dollars to stay one other hour.”
The man looked at Henry expectantly.
With lethargy, Henry began searching for his keys. The parking assistant backed up, his mouth twisted bitterly. He hadn’t left them in the ignition. He looked around his feet and was about to look in his hoodie. Finally, he found that he was sitting on them.
He could feel his heartbeat pounding in his forehead as he pulled out. The suitcase was still sitting in the seat beside him. Stark, unadulterated evidence of the night before. He shouldn’t be taking it with him. On the second story of the parking garage, he slowed the car down and idled.
There were plenty of places in this parking garage to hide a single suitcase. Off of the top of his head, he could think of a dozen other places to leave it; in a random trash bin in a random alley. Buried in the middle of a field, maybe somewhere outside the city, in Jersey. Underneath a seat of a subway car.
But there was still blood, and guts, and vomit covering the suitcase next to him. He could not erase from his mind what had happened the night before. For as many possibilities as he could come up with for disposing of Stephen’s vials, he could think of thousands of things that could happen to a suitcase in the time it left his hands. If a vial broke inside of it; if a curious discoverer thought it a good idea to open one up. Henry had no idea what the vials were, or what exactly had happened to Alby back at the factory. But whether the vials were grasped in someone’s hands, or sitting discarded in the middle of a trash yard, the danger of them persisted, just because they existed in the first place.
And if someone else got hurt? If someone else died from exposure to that… stuff? What did that make him? He leaned back heavily in his seat. What had it made him already? Four dead. Because they’d been in a room with him. And Stephen’s vials.
A sharp honk-honk startled him from his daze. He glanced hurriedly into his review mirror and saw that another car and pulled up behind him. The driver was waving at him impatiently, motioning him to keep moving.
“Sorry,” Henry muttered to himself. He gave a plaintive wave back to the driver, and pulled out of the parking garage. The suitcase was going to have to wait.
As he drove down the street, he caught sight of himself in the side view mirror. There was a cut on the side of his head that had reopened and begun bleeding freshly since he had drifted off to sleep. His lip was busted, and his eye was swollen. There was a series of broken veins blooming beneath the surface of his skin on the left side of his face - the side which he had fallen on when he took the drop down to the third floor.
It was funny that he had thought the guys working at the parking garage would care if he looked beaten up. All night long, he had envisioned himself looking much worse. He still felt soaked through with blood. He could feel the gore as though it still clung to his face. It made his clothes stick to his skin.
He felt as though he had murder painted all over him.
Henry knew he needed to clean himself up. He needed to get himself patched up, and figure out what to do next. He needed to be somewhere safe.
With his good hand on the driver’s wheel, Henry cruised back downtown. As much as he didn’t want to pull Carmen into this - didn’t even want to think of facing Holden after the events of the previous night - he needed to move quickly, and with secrecy.
And if this really were going to develop into a manhunt, Henry needed to say goodbye before he hid away.
As he drew near Carmen’s neighborhood, he checked his phone. There were no missed calls from Stephen. It was four thirty in the morning. He didn’t know for how long he had driven before parking, or for how long he had slept. After talking with Carmen, Henry had stayed up for a long time, staring out the windshield at the city below, watching the cars pass through the street. Thinking about what he should do.
The first and most obvious solution was to find Stephen and give him back his briefcase full of lethal drugs. Whatever the supposed “liquid coke” was – a bad batch, or simply just poison – Henry wished he had nothing to do with it. And after last night, he was pretty sure he didn’t want to have anything to do with Stephen either. At least for a while.
But Stephen wasn’t answering his calls, which made him suspect, more and more, that his brother knew exactly what had gone down at the factory – either because he had heard, somehow, or because he had been expecting it straight from the jump.
Whatever the case, Henry had decided that he needed to lay low from now on. If Stephen didn’t get back to him – soon or never – he would get rid of the case himself. He would talk to his parole officer, let him know, somewhat truthfully, that he felt threatened by the Sons of Saints, and try to get reassigned to a different government housing complex. He would work a nine to five job and avoid contact with his family as much as he could. As long as it took, until this shitstorm died down.
As he pulled into Carmen’s suburb, he pushed the briefcase under the passenger seat. He drove slowly past the brownstones, the manicured lawns and vibrant flowerbeds, squinting at the numbers on the mailboxes. It was early enough in the morning that the streetlamps were still lit, and a humid fog hung over the street, coating everything in dew. The sky was overcast. Henry could hear car horns and construction not too far off in the distance.
He spotted the house and pulled to the side of the road. He glanced around the street self-consciously, aware that the passenger-side window of the rental had been shattered from the top, and that there were bullet holes still piercing the doors. But there really wasn’t much he could do about it. He leaned over the center consul and tried to roll down the broken window. Glass crunched sharply, and before it was fully down, the button jammed.
Swearing, Henry checked his phone. It was now five. He remembered that Carmen used to wake up around this time, when they were together. But back then, she had been a teacher’s assistant, in a borough that took over an hour to get to in rush hour traffic, no matter if she drove or took the subway. Even when they had lived in a more central part of New York, the drive had been tough. She’d worked long days. Her new position was at an elementary school only a couple blocks away. Holden told him that they walked to school sometimes, in better weather.
His breath hitching with panic, he took a moment to tuck his t-shirt into his pants. On second thought though, he pulled his shirt out again, realizing it covered up more of the blood.
“Fuck,” he hissed to himself. “I forgot to stop. I should’ve gotten new clothes.”
Carmen was going to see him like this. She was going to know, the moment she opened that door, just how badly he had screwed up. All the horrible things he had done.
There was no remedy for it. He felt completely naked. He had nothing to cover it up with. No excuse to tell. Drawing a deep breath, Henry slid out of the car.
It took him a moment to stand. His legs were stiff and sore underneath him, and he found that he really had twisted his one ankle badly in the fall. He limped towards the front stoop, holding his bad arm close to his chest. He leaned against the railing heavily as he stood before the front door. He could see his reflection in the glass, through the screen.
He looked as though he had been in a car wreck, sheet white and battered, and the busted rental behind him completed the picture. He exhaled bitterly, closing his eyes, his chest clenching with fear. He sighed again, he whole arm shaking as he reached out towards the doorbell. But then he stopped. He knocked instead, his hand falling against the wood weakly.
He waited a beat, and then knocked again. His arm was shaking so badly, he could hardly hold it up straight. Staring into his reflection, he wiped a hand over his face, rubbing at his swollen eyes, trying to making himself look less ragged.
He knocked again, beating on the door with his fist. He paused. As he was about to try again, he heard something moving from within the house. He straightened himself out, glaring at his reflection, adjusting the beanie on his head.
The door swung open. In sweatpants and a t-shirt, Carmen stood before him, blinking groggily. Seeing her again made his heart constrict a little. Her big poof of curly black hair sagged around her face. Her copper skin was a touch paler with sleepiness.
“I’m…” Henry coughed, clearing his throat. “Sorry. I’m a little early.”
As Carmen’s eyes fixed on him, they grew wider, appraising all the purple stains set into his clothes.
“They booted me out of the parking garage, so…”
Carmen’s stare fell on the hoodie – once blue, now violet – and the stream of blood trailing down his arm to his fingertips. He picked his arm back up, his face flushing red, careful not to get any blood on the porch.
Carmen ushered him inside, looking over his shoulder to the wrecked car and the empty street.
“He’s still asleep,” she whispered under her breath.
“I’ll be quiet,” he whispered back, but he tripped over the threshold, bumping into a table by the door. Carmen caught him by the arm, leading him inside. “Sorry,” he murmured as she shut the door behind him silently. “Sorry…”
Henry never stopped being impressed by the house Carmen had found for her and Holden. It was such an improvement over the apartment they used to rent before Henry was put away. It was small – the first floor was an open area, consisting of the living room and kitchen area, and a hall leading back to their fenced in yard. Upstairs, Henry knew, there was a full bathroom and two bedrooms. Holden had been very excited, when Henry had visited for the first time since his release, to show him that he had is very own room, with camo wallpaper and a lofted bed.
Carmen shushed Henry gently, leading him through the living room and kitchen. He was careful to steer clear of all her furniture. Everything was so white and nice. She guided him down the back hall. There were two doors along it. Behind one, he could hear a washing machine churning. Carmen opened the next.
It was a small bathroom, with a toilet and a sink. Her hand balanced on Henry’s side, she dropped the lid to the toilet down.
“Here,” she said, motioning for him to sit. As he did so, he swayed, light-headed, and practically fell onto the seat. Carmen held him aloft by the crook of his arm.
“Sorry,” he muttered again.
Carmen kneeled down beside him, placing a hand on the side of his cheek. He stared down at her, marveling down into her face. It was so soft, her eyes so wide and full of concern. He closed his eyes for a moment, sighing, drinking the smell of her in.
“You’re hot,” he heard her say softly.
The sound of a door opening made Henry open his eyes. Carmen was rummaging inside the cabinet underneath the bathroom sink. She pulled out a washcloth, leaning up to run it beneath the tap. When it was soaked through, she pressed it against his face. It was as cold as granite against his skin.
“Can you hold it there?”
Henry took the washcloth from her. She put a hand on his better shoulder, pushing him back gently.
“You can lean back,” she said.
Henry obeyed, peeking out from behind the washcloth. His pants were smearing blood across the toilet seat.
“It’s okay,” Carmen assured him, opening up the cabinet again. “Just relax.”
Henry held the washcloth over his face, pressing it against his eyes. He hadn’t realized just how tight his face had felt, with exposure to so much blood and crying. He closed his eyes, leaning his head back, fighting against a tide of drowsiness that threatened to pull him into sleep.
Something sharp yanked at his bad arm and he stifled a cry. He looked down and saw Carmen fingering the bloody hoodie, trying to peel it away from his skin.
“I’m sorry,” she muttered, peeking around the congealed fabric to get a look at the wound beneath. She stood up, rinsing the dried blood from her fingers in the sink. “One second.”
She left the bathroom, leaving Henry alone. He draped the cold washcloth around his neck and looked down at the hoodie himself. He should have removed it a long time ago. But he had been afraid to expose the bullet wound again. Now it was glued to his arm with blood.
He pried at the fabric where Carmen had begun, and winced as his skin began to pull up with it. He tugged at the knot he had tied with the sleeves, but even that had begun stuck together. Gasping slightly, he tried to slide the entire bloodied thing down the length of his arm. He felt something rip, and exhaled sharply in pain.
Just then Carmen returned, with a bucket and a plastic cup.
“Don’t touch it,” she said, pulling his hand away. She placed the bucket by the side of the toilet, under his bad arm. Stretching, she filled the cup up in the sink.
“What’s that for?” Henry croaked.
“I’m going to try to loosen it,” she said, adjusting the bucket.
“Is that gonna work?”
Carmen’s brows were knitted together with care and concentration.
“We’re going to try,” she said, pouring the water over his arm.
It stung so sharply and took him by such surprise that a strangled cry caught in his throat. He flinched away, covering his mouth quickly, his eyes rising instantly to the ceiling above, afraid that Holden could hear him.
“Sorry,” Carmen hissed, her eyes tracing over his arm.
“I’m sorry,” he replied, his lips moving around the knuckle he was biting down on, trying to keep himself quiet.
Watery blood spilt down his arm, splashing into the bucket and onto the tile floor. With his other hand, he wiped the washcloth over his eyes, guilt chewing at him. He was getting pink and red all over her white bathroom. He struggled to maintain his composure.
“This would be so much easier in the bathtub,” Carmen muttered to herself.
“I… I can move,” Henry said, leaning forward.
Carmen scoffed, not looking up from his arm. Her fingers probed lightly around the makeshift tourniquet.
“You wouldn’t make it up the stairs,” she said.
“I can,” he protested.
“Lie back, Henry.”
“I can do it, Carmen. I can, really.”
Carmen didn’t respond to him. Henry fell quiet, leaning back against the toilet.
It took a lot of water, groaning, and hissing before Carmen was finally able to remove the hoodie from around his arm. It dropped onto the floor with a sodden splat. The flesh exposed, from where the hoodie had fallen, was mottled and pale. The bullet hole went straight through, just above the elbow. The wound itself was inflamed.
“Fuck,” Carmen swore softly. She dropped her hands back by her side, clearly afraid to touch it. Henry stared at her anxiously, biting on his lip. She let out a long sigh. “No hospital?”
Henry knew what she was asking. He shook his head, bowing his eyes with guilt.
Carmen nodded knowingly, scratching at her face as she thought.
The guilt that Henry felt crippled him. He struggled with an explanation that wasn’t complete horsecrap, but no matter how he put it, the result was the same. He was handing off his problem to her. He didn’t know what else to do. If he went to the hospital with a gunshot wound, there was a chance his parole officer would find out about it. And if his parole officer found out about it, there was a chance he would have to explain where he got the wound.
“Maybe I can Google it,” she muttered. She stood and left the bathroom again.
Henry waited there for what felt like a very long time. He tried to sit up straighter. His butt felt as though it was beginning to glue to the toilet seat. The washcloth he rubbed against the back of his neck wasn’t cold any longer. It was only then that he felt the fever Carmen had talked about. His skin felt racked with chill, and covered in goosebumps. For the past several hours, he had been so numb and lightheaded, he hadn’t been very aware of his own body. Groaning, he leaned over and soaked the washcloth in water again.
He stared out the open door at the hallway. Grey, morning light was beginning to stream through the back door. The sun was rising. Holden could be waking up any moment now. He swore at himself internally, raking his hands over his head, shedding the beanie hat. He held it tightly in his fingers, realizing that there were drops of blood stuck to it as well. It was his favorite thing to wear. Ever since his head had been shaved, he wore it self-consciously, missing the full head of hair he used to have. In the prison, the beard and shining scalp had proven a useful guise. But back among the world of the living, it made him an outcast.
He didn’t look like a father.
And now the beanie was covered in blood.
Before Henry could get emotional, Carmen walked back into the room, a laptop balanced on the crook of her arm. She kneeled back down, placing the computer on the floor beside her and tilting back the screen. Henry glanced at the page she had open.
“You should get it looked at, Henry,” Carmen said, looking him in the eye.
Henry nodded, the motion making him dizzy.
“I know,” he said, his voice quiet.
“Alright.” Carmen looked back down at her laptop screen. Opening the sink cabinet, she pulled out Windex, all-purpose wipes, and other cleaning products until finally she dragged a big first-aid kit into her lap. She opened it up, rifling inside. Henry couldn’t see what she was looking for. The kit was turned away from him.
Henry looked at Carmen warily. She held a small packet, labeled iodine.
“Is that what they recommend?” Henry asked, trying to keep his voice steady.
But she sounded unsure. She glanced from her laptop to the first aid kit nervously.
“What?” Henry asked quietly.
“I thought this was stuff was supposed to be used for cleaning water.”
Henry swallowed thickly. Carmen was looking to him, searching for an answer. He shrugged, leaning back.
“I dunno,” he murmured. He was beginning to feel colder. He dropped the washcloth in the sink, doing his best not to look at the bullet wound.
Carmen sighed, scrolling through her opened page. After a moment, she dug through the cabinet again, taking out rubbing alcohol. Henry’s heart skipped a beat.
“This is what they said, in place of iodine.”
They both hesitated a moment. Carmen unscrewed the cap.
“Alright,” she said, bringing the bucket a little closer. “Can you hold your arm out straight?”
It took a lot of strain for Henry to lift up his arm. Black spots began to appear in front of his eyes. Before he could stop, Carmen poured the bottle over the wound. Henry hissed loudly through his teeth, closing his eyes and turning away.
“Hold it,” Carmen instructed him. Henry kept his eyes closed, listening to her running the faucet again, filling up the cup. His arm began to shudder.
She poured the cup onto his arm. He groaned, peeking from the corner of his eye. Sudsy water dribbled into the bucket by his side. Henry tried his best not to fidget, and sit still. He curled his fingers up into a fist.
Carmen poured warm water over the wound, and Henry bit down his lip. Then she dumped out more alcohol. She repeated this process, again and again, until his arm began to shake violently.
“Okay,” she said. Henry dropped his arm back into his lap, gasping, his head tilted back in pain. Carmen reached out and caressed his face. He exhaled violently. “You’re burning up.”
“I-I… feel c-cold.”
His lips had begun to shudder. He was shaking more now than he had when he originally got shot.
Carmen picked up the washcloth and wet it again, draping it across his face.
“Try to relax,” she said. As he leaned back, she put two fingers underneath his jaw, as though measuring his pulse. “Try not to think about it.”
Henry sighed, closing his eyes. A sharp aching had begun to spread throughout his body, set into his very bones. He sucked on his lips to keep from making any more noise.
“What happened, Henry?”
He could hear her rummaging, and felt her probing around his wound, but focused on the sound of her voice.
He felt Carmen touch his arm, wrapping something around it. It felt like gauze.
“I was stupid.”
“He did this to you?”
Her voice carried very little emotion. It was clear that she was concentrating solely on her work.
“No, not d-directly.”
“You mentioned McAwley on the phone.”
“Stephen… w-wanted to make a deal with him. And he asked if I would help.”
“You said you would never go back there,” Carmen said lightly. Henry still felt a twinge of shame.
“I know,” Henry groaned. “He made me think I was doing it because of that. Like I was d-doing it for closure. It was my f-fault.”
“What happened then?”
He could feel the gauze wrapping, tighter and tighter around his upper arm, and he tried not to move. It was a gentle pressure.
“I mean… I went in, I tr-tried to make the deal. And it went b-bad.”
Henry could feel her gaze on him, though he kept his eyes closed.
Henry was silent for a while. He was thinking back to last night, reliving how it had all unfolded.
“I dunno,” he murmured. It was only half-true.
“I can see you thinking,” Carmen said, laying the gauze even tighter. “Try thinking it out loud.”
“Um… I w-walked in. I w-went up to his office. I g-gave him the ca… case. He s-sampled some of it. And…”
Carmen paused, her fingers resting lightly on top of his arm. She entwined her hand around his good one.
“I think he’s dead.”
There was a beat.
“I th-think he got poisoned.” His lip trembled. He was about to get emotional again. “I th-think I p-poisoned him.”
He felt Carmen tying the gauze around his arm. She put her other hand gently on his knee.
“Stephen’s drugs killed McAwley?”
Henry gasped, fighting back tears.
“Yeah,” he exhaled.
“It was someone else who shot you?”
He nodded, sniffing.
Her hand traced the bottom of his jaw, lined with bruising.
“Did they do this too?”
“I fell through a staircase.”
Carmen didn’t speak for a while. Henry dragged the washcloth off his face, so he could see her. She was frowning, her eyes narrowed in thought. She looked him over with a mixture of concern and regret. It made Henry want to apologize again.
“What are you going to tell Holden?”
Henry groaned, putting his face into his hand. He stayed that way, thinking, his eyes half-closed.
“That I fell?”
He looked to her. Her eyes roved him over, slowly, before she finally nodded.
“Can you stand?”
Henry put his hand on the edge of the sink, pushing himself up.
“I got it,” he said, as she moved forward to help. He stood, wobbling slightly in front of her.
“I’m going to get you new clothes,” she said.
They stood staring at each other a moment. Carmen gave him a pointed look.
“Oh,” Henry said, understanding suddenly. He began to tug at the hem of his tee one-handedly, but Carmen stepped in, pulling the shirt over his arm, his head, and shrugging it over his injury with a lot of difficulty. When it was finally off, she stared at his bare chest. It was splotched with red and bruised to hell.
“You need to take a shower.”
As she had predicted, Carmen had to help him up the stairs. By the time he got to the top, he was on the brink of collapsing from motion-sickness. As silently as they could be, she helped him take off his bloody jeans as well, and turned on the shower.
“Try not to get the gauze too wet,” she said, taking his clothes into her arms. She sighed. “I’ll probably just re-wrap it anyway.”
They stood there, staring at one another awkwardly for a moment.
“I’m going to throw these out,” she said, looking at the clothes she held.
She backed out of the room, turning the fan on behind her. When the door fell closed, Henry tugged off his boxers.
Standing beneath the showerhead stung at first. He stood there numbly, leaned against the wall. But then he saw that he was staining the tile again. His legs trembling underneath him, he sunk down until he was sitting. With his head directly under the faucet, Henry washed away the blood with soap, and shampooed his hair. He wiped at the pink marks he left behind on the white porcelain, trying to make it all go down the drain. The humid fog that began to fill the room soothed him, and the whirring of the fan filled up his ears.
He leaned his head against the side of the tub and closed his eyes, keeping his bad arm out of the water’s spray.
There came a knocking on the door.
“It’s just me,” Carmen called quietly. He heard her open the door a crack. “I’m leaving some clothes by the sink.”
“Thank you,” Henry called back. The door closed again. Letting loose a long breath, Henry tilted his face up towards the shower head, letting it rain down on him.
After a minute, he turned the water off. It took a lot of effort to get out of the tub. He toweled himself off, careful to avoid the bullet wound. He sat on the toilet seat, pulling the clothes Carmen had set out towards him.
He chuckled a bit as he unfolded the outfit, staring fondly at the design on the shirt. It was one of his. He slipped the tee over his head, and the sweater over it. Carmen had even left him a fresh pair of socks, though they were a little tight.
She was waiting out in the hall when he opened the door, toweling off his beard. She smiled at him.
“I remember this shirt,” he said, lifting up the sweater to show her. It was an old band tee he had bought at a concert many years ago, when she had still been in college. She hadn’t been able to come with him – the concert had fallen on exam week. So he’d brought her back a t-shirt from the merch table. That was when they first started dating.
Carmen laughed. It was old, the print faded, and the collar bore a bleach stain. She had worn it to bed often when they had been together. What was a large size on her fit Henry perfectly.
“So do I,” Carmen said. She came forward. “Here.” She emptied a fistful of painkillers into his palm.
“Do I take all of them?” he asked.
She handed him a tall glass of water.
Henry swallowed the pills whole, chugging back the glass. When he was done, he swayed slightly, still dizzy.
He followed her back down the stairs. She kept a hand on his arm to steady him.
“You can sit,” she said, gesturing to the couch when they reached the landing. She disappeared back down the hallway, ducking into the bathroom. Henry shuffled over to the living room, falling onto the couch. It was the same one they had purchased when they first moved in together. She had thrown a blanket over the back of it to cover an old stain.
There was a TV mounted on the wall in front of him. He stared at his reflection once again. He was still pale, his face riddled with bruising, but other than that, he looked as though he had just woken up, his eyes pink and swollen. Henry dropped his head back on the couch, closing his eyes. Everything swayed around him soothingly, his wooziness lulling him to sleep.
He heard Carmen approach him again, but his eyelids were heavy. When she touched the sleeve of his sweater, he turned his head and blinked at her. She had the gauze in her hand again, and the alcohol.
“You can just keep your eyes closed,” she told him. Henry obeyed. He winced and grinded his teeth as she changed his dressing.
He heard the TV turn on. He glanced up. It was turned onto the local news channel. Carmen began to flip through the stations.
“Anything you want to watch?”
“No,” Henry croaked.
Carmen eventually settled on cartoons. She kneeled down by him again, putting the back of her hand against his cheek.
“Are you still feeling cold?” she asked. Her chestnut eyes roved around his beaten face.
“Not as much,” he sighed.
She reached behind him and pulled the blanket off the back of the couch, throwing it over him. Henry wiped a hand over his face.
“What time is it?”
“Still early.” The corners of her lips smiled. “You won’t miss Holden, Henry. Believe me.”
Henry yawned, dropping his head into the crook of the couch. A Bugs Bunny short had come on.
“Is he loud?”
“Only when he’s awake.”
Henry chuckled. His eyes felt heavy. Carmen picked up the remote again and turned the volume down.
“I’ll be right back. I’m gonna get ready for work.”
She left the room, heading back up the stairs.
“Thank you,” Henry called after her. He stared at the television screen lethargically. He could remember how often he had seen this cartoon from when he was a kid.
He and Stephen used to watch TV from their neighbor’s window. They would lie on their stomachs on the tin roof of the house, sharing the eyes of the binoculars between each other. Mr. Grady, just across the path in number fourteen, had a tiny kitchenette television balanced on a stack of milk crates, positioned in the middle of the room, which made it easy to view through the man’s front window. All he ever used to do was watch TV. As far as Henry could remember, he’d never had a job. His mother used to complain that he never did anything but collect the check. Not that she didn’t as well. Not that pretty much everyone on Old Marsh Road didn’t live off of their welfare.
In the mornings, he and Stephen could catch Looney Toons or Tom and Jerry. As the afternoon wore in, Grady tended to flip through the soap channels and black and white films. It was in the evenings that he and his brother might catch a surprise.
They weren’t up on the roof that often at that time. When their mother wasn’t dragging them and their four sisters from bar to bar, having them wait in parking lots while she went on dates in the dead of night, he and Stephen played with the other kids on Old Marsh long after the sun went down. A horde of them would get together and play Manhunt when night fell, running around the creeks that surrounded the houses, hiding in the underbrush and the swampland just beyond.
But one night, Stephen pushed one of the girls into a creek. Her brothers chased the two of them off, and in the dark, Stephen and Henry shuffled back home.
Old Marsh Road bore more resemblance to a fresh water port than a country road. The houses sat on a strip of land between two creeks, some of them built so close to the water that the foundations were raised high above the ground, and catwalks linked them to steadier ground. To the east lay the marshland and the forest. To the west, the railroad tracks and the Hudson River, and the power lines that striped the sky like a massive fishing net. The houses themselves weren’t much more than glorified box cars, made of tin sheeting and plywood. There were no streetlights. They were guided home by the distant glare of mosquito lamps and lit windows.
The stench of marijuana assailed them as they reached Old Marsh. Their house was number seventeen, painted white, and much smaller than Mr. Grady’s across the way. As they drew near the front door, they saw a light on inside. Stephen stopped him.
“I hear Momma yelling.”
They stood staring up at the house for a minute, trying to discern what Momma was in a rut about. Stephen glared up into the front window, his eyes squinting. Henry turned about slowly on the spot.
“Hey,” he whispered, poking Stephen. “TV’s on.”
Stephen followed his line of sight. Through his front window, they could see the walls of Mr. Grady’s house flashing brightly from the reflection of his television screen.
“There’s nothing good on,” Stephen protested. His eyes were already turned back to their house, still attempting to eavesdrop on Momma. Henry snorted.
He walked around the side of the house, clambering atop the garbage bin that was pushed against the wall. After a moment, he heard Stephen’s step as he followed behind. Scabs of rust came off underneath Henry’s hands as he pulled himself up onto the roof. He helped Stephen up after him. Together, they crawled forward on bellies and elbows, careful not to make too much noise, or risk alerting the girls in the house below.
At first, Henry didn’t understand what he was seeing. He could spy Mr. Grady reclined in his chair as usual, but with his hand stuck down his pants. The movie that played on his TV was in full color, titties and all.
“The fuck is that?” Henry muttered under his breath.
Henry turned. An older Stephen was lying on the rooftop beside him, holding the binoculars to his eyes. He was the picture of the man Henry had said goodbye to before he was taken to prison – he wore the same clothes, right down to the hand-me-down suit and the beat-up loafers. He glanced at Henry out of the corner of his eye, extending the binoculars lazily.
“Have a look.”
His mouth agape, Henry took the binoculars and raised them to his eyes. There was Stephen, on the TV screen, completely unclothed. He held a woman’s hips firmly as he made love to her, occasionally brushing his hand through her long, curly hair. When they fell back onto the bed, he saw that it was Carmen who kissed him under the jaw, her face writhing with pleasure.
“Are you finished?” Stephen breathed into his ear.
Henry awoke with a jolt. He was sweating profusely beneath the blanket Carmen had thrown over him. He glanced frantically around the room. The sunlight streamed in thickly through the windows. It had to be sometime in the afternoon. The cartoons had changed, and he no longer recognized the characters. He threw the blanket off of him, wiping the sweat off his face.
There was no reply. He sat up, looking around the living room, craning his neck into the kitchen.
He waited a beat longer. Pushing himself to his feet, he shuffled over into the kitchen. There was no one there. But he spied a post-it note on the kitchen table. He picked it up.
“Henry,” he read out loud. “Went to school. Holden should be off the bus by two thirty. I’ll be home at four. Help yourself to leftovers in the fridge. See you in a bit.”
He sighed, putting the note back down. So he’d missed Holden. Feeling dejected, he turned towards the refrigerator. Inside, he found tupperware full of turkey and mashed potatoes which he reheated for himself. He sat at the kitchen table with his leftovers, propping his head up in one hand, staring at the photos Carmen had put on the fridge.
He recognized quite a few of them – they were doubles of school pictures Carmen had sent him in the mail while he was still at Lincoln Correctional. A couple were baby pictures taken when they had still been together. It was strange to see that younger version of him, with a full head of hair and no circles beneath his eyes, cradling Holden in his arm. He used to be so small, Henry could balance him between the crook of his elbow, holding his head in the palm of his hand.
Now other photos had joined the collection. Photos of Holden with his mother and her parents. There were even some with Holden and his friends, boys Henry hadn’t gotten the chance to meet yet.
He glanced back down at his food, chewing morosely.
Carmen had left his phone and wallet beside her note on the table. She must have found them in his clothes. Henry checked the time on his cell. It was one o’clock. He had been sleeping for over six hours, and still he felt ill. Fetching a glass and filling it with tap water, he stood by the sink, staring down at his list of contacts.
He had the cursor resting over Stephen’s number. Not too far down the list was the name Eric Saar, his parole officer. He sighed, scratching at his beard, wondering what call to make. He knew Stephen wasn’t going to answer anyway. But he still dialed him, needing to try, at least one more time.
The line rang. And it rang. Henry downed the glass of water in one swallow.
“The number you have reached is not available. Please leave –”
Henry hung up the phone. He stood by the sink a while, thinking. Then he dialed Stephen again and waited until it went to voicemail.
Henry paused a beat.
“It’s me. I’m at Carmen’s place. Your deal went to shit. I don’t know what the fuck you gave me, but it’s bad, Steph. Alby’s dead. A bunch of the guys are dead. Though that’s… that wasn’t the coke…”
Henry’s voice trailed off. He cradled the cell under his ear.
“It was spiked or something. One second everything was fine, then… I need you to call me back Steph. They’re looking for me. I don’t got anywhere to hide. They’re probably at my place right now…”
He walked out of the kitchen as he talked, standing before the front door. He looked through the window. His car was still parked out front, bullet holes and all.
“… tearing it up. I’ve got the case and the money, but the car’s been blown to shit, and honestly, I didn’t fare much better. Where the fuck are you? Why don’t you answer your goddamn –”
“BEEP. End of message.”
Henry glared down at the cell. He walked back to the couch and threw it down onto the cushions, flopping on top of it.
“Fuck, Stephen,” he muttered under his breath, rubbing at his brow. “Fuck. Just… fuck.”
Staring up at the cartoon that was playing on the TV, Henry suddenly felt a great deal of panic. The briefcase was still sitting in the front seat of the car, probably sticky with blood, full of Stephen’s deadly liquid coke. He jolted up to go get it, but then stopped himself.
He couldn’t bring that stuff into the house. Not with Holden. But he didn’t like leaving it out in the open either. He dug around in his wallet and fetched the keys to the rental, pressing the lock button until he heard the car beep. Not entirely satisfied, he laid back down on the couch, flipping through the channels idly, stopping on news channels frequently in hopes that he would catch wind of any police investigation down at the factory.
He didn’t find any news story about a shooting by that part of the river. And the longer he waited for one to appear, the more he realized how unlikely it was that one would show up. What few people lived on the block by the factory knew whose territory it was. They weren’t reporting gunshots in the middle of the night, not if it wasn’t directly in their neighborhood. And the Saints wouldn’t want the police involved.
Somehow, that was even less of a comfort to him.
He had settled on a Harry Potter movie marathon when he heard the rumbling of an enormous engine roar by the house, and the screeching of rusted wheels. Henry stood up and went to the window, still limping a little from his twisted ankle. He pushed the curtain aside. A yellow school bus had braked at the end of the road by the stop sign. Parents stood on the corner as children piled out, dragging brightly colored backpacks behind them. He craned his neck to get a better look. Just before the bus doors closed, a familiar mop of curly brown hair hopped down onto the sidewalk beside his classmates.
Henry went to the front door, swinging it open. He held the screen door ajar, standing on the front stoop. As the bus pulled away, the kids and their parents dispersed slowly. He could see Holden strolling down the sidewalk, his head hanging low, his Batman backpack bumping against the back of his knees. As he drew near, Henry cupped his hands around his mouth.
Holden looked up. At first when he saw Henry, he didn’t seem to recognize him. Then he came running, a smile spread across his face. Henry stooped down on one knee, his muscles groaning in protest, opening his arms up wide as Holden bounded up the steps.
He threw himself into Henry’s embrace. Henry picked him up and spun him around in a bear hug.
Henry set his son back on his feet.
“How was school?”
He opened up the door for him and Holden ducked inside. He threw his coat and shoes and backpack by the doormat, smiling eagerly.
“Is that where they go?” Henry asked.
Holden looked back down at them shyly.
He threw his shoes on top of his mother’s heels. Henry helped him hook his coat and bag on the rack beside the other jackets. Hearing the television on, he craned his head to see into the living room.
“Whatcha watching?” he asked.
“Nothin’. Just Harry Potter. Are you hungry, bud?”
Holden shook his head. He wandered into the living room, sitting on the arm of the couch to watch the television.
“Mom said you were going to sleep all day,” Holden said.
Henry smiled dryly.
He sat down beside Holden. Glancing away from the TV, he jabbed a finger at Henry’s face.
“What’s wrong with your face?”
“I’m not that ugly.”
“No, why do you have cuts on your face?”
Henry looked into his son’s face, watching the curiosity fly across it with a heavy heart.
Henry stared back at him blankly, suddenly feeling foolish.
“Down a flight of stairs.”
After a moment, he realized he had technically told Holden the truth. But he could tell by the way Holden twisted his lips sourly and turned his attention back to the television screen that he didn’t quite buy it.
“Wouldn’t you break your neck?”
Henry remembered what it had felt like, when his body hit the tarp. The way his gut had flown up into his throat with fear, the moment before he fell like a rock to the hard floor below.
“I think I nearly did.”
Holden looked at him sideways.
“Is that why there was blood on your pants?”
Henry felt the blood drain from his face.
“Mom washed your clothes.”
Holden looked up at him expectantly.
“Yeah,” Henry replied, practically choking the word out. He didn’t know what else to say. Holden didn’t seem to care. His attention had already drifted back to the movie. “Do you have any homework, Holden?”
Holden didn’t look away from the screen.
“I have math.”
“Maybe we should start that now. So we have time to play soccer later.”
When he didn’t respond, Henry grabbed up the remote and turned the TV off. Holden stared down at his feet glumly.
“I have a lot of time.”
“For what? Homework?”
“Mom isn’t home until four.”
Henry smiled at him slantways.
“Yeah, but I won’t be here much longer than that.”
Holden looked up at him. He had his mother’s eyes, big and brown and full of light. And, right now, dejection.
“You’re not staying?”
Henry shook his head. Holden twiddled his thumbs, his face falling even further.
“You could just stay for dinner.”
Henry smiled at him sadly, not knowing what to say. Holden’s eyes were pleading and hopeful.
“Mom made turkey. And mashed potatoes.”
“I actually think I already ate all of the turkey and potatoes, bud.”
Holden fumbled for words.
“We… we could make more. Or something different.”
Holden sighed angrily.
“What?” he groaned.
Henry blinked at him, unable to come up with a fair answer. For a second, he considered telling his son that he had work to do. The look Holden was sending him bridled with frustration and injustice.
“Because I can’t.”
Henry gave him a disapproving look.
Henry took a deep breath, chewing on the inside of his cheek a moment as he mused over his next words.
“I’m going to be honest with you, Holden. I’m in trouble.”
Holden didn’t look at him. But his back straightened, and the corners of his mouth smoothed out, his attention clearly hooked.
“There are bad men who are looking for me, and I’m going to try to hide.”
“What bad men?”
“Men I used to be friends with.”
Holden glanced at him out of the corner of his eyes incredulously.
“Why are they looking for me?”
“Why were you friends?”
Henry paused a few moments, sighing.
“I thought they were okay at the time.”
“You’re not going to be gone a long time.”
It sounded more like an order than a request. Henry raised his eyebrows at him.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, goose. But I can’t sleep over here tonight, and not for a while.”
“But how come?”
Holden was looking at him with big, sorrowful eyes. Seeing that look nearly made Henry want to smile – it was a puppy dog look he’d given Carmen often, to try and get his way. Despite the situation, Henry felt his heart warming with familiarity and fondness. Henry reached out to ruffle his hair. Holden turned his head away from him, sliding off the arm of the couch and walking over to this backpack. He took out his homework and sat down at the kitchen table with an angry huff.
Henry watched his son’s back, hunched over his work. He scratched at his beard in frustration. He felt like shit again. It had to do with a mixture of nausea and being a shit person in general. Wiping the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, he rolled up the sleeve of his sweater, checking his gauze.
He could see some blood spotting the bandage. The wound had begun to twinge again. He rolled the sleeve back down.
“Do you still want to play soccer?”
Holden didn’t respond. Henry stared at the back of his head, waiting for a reaction.
“We could go now if you want.”
Henry waited, and still, nothing. He sighed, laying back down on the couch.
He was a crappy father, just like the one he’d never met. He’d told himself often, growing up, that he would never have kids. When Carmen became pregnant, he instead started to repeat to himself with frequency, that he would never allow himself to become like his mother. Or even his oldest sister, Vicki, who’d he had always admired for taking care of him and his siblings when they were young, and with surprising grace, despite her teenage pregnancy.
It was lucky Holden had his mother. He needed someone to look up to. Henry had never had that, and he supposed it was better than nothing. Henry’s entire life, it had always been him and Stephen, surviving together, right up until the end of high school. Right until Stephen dropped out and left the city. For a time after that, they completely lost contact. They hadn’t started talking to one another again until the year of Henry’s arrest. They had written to each other while he was at prison.
Stephen’s silence now felt like a second betrayal. Only, this time it seemed a little worse. The first time, Henry had understood why Stephen had left. He had envied him for it; for having the courage to leave at all. Their life at home had never been easy. Everything had gotten tougher when they moved out of Old Marsh Road and into the city. The two of them worked to support the family. They were tied down, and the pressure was always on. Their family needed them in order to survive, and it often felt like more of a burden than a responsibility. Stephen had wanted to live on his own.
He had abandoned Henry in the process. And now he’d gone and done it again.
A finger tapped Henry on the shoulder, pulling him out of his own head. He turned around. Holden stood before him, his coat and sneakers back on.
Henry blinked at him. A smile crept across his face, and he fought it down.
“You finished your homework?”
Holden nodded, looking at him impatiently.
“I should probably call your mom first.”
Henry took him to Central Park. They took the subway, holding gloved hands in the autumn chill as they transferred between stops. The park itself seemed painted gold. The air carried the salty scents of falafel vendors and sweet roasted peanuts, and horse-drawn carriages ferried tourists around the paths.
They found a stretch of grass beneath an outcrop of rock and began to kick Holden’s soccer ball back and forth. Henry tried to teach him the positions, how to play defense and offense, like he had learned as a kid. But Holden was more interested in keeping the ball away from Henry as long as possible.
Sweat ran thickly down Henry’s back. Before long, he was wickedly out of breath, and his whole leg was twinging from the pain in his strained ankle. He went to kick the ball, but Holden feigned and launched it away from him. The abrupt motion caused him to twist his ankle sideways again and fall onto the ground.
He rolled onto his back, leaves sticking to his clothes, laughing. His brows were knitted in pain. Holden continued to kick the ball around him, toeing at it lazily.
“C’mon Dad,” he complained. He kicked it at Henry’s feet.
“Just a moment,” Henry panted. He put his arm over his eyes, blocking out the sun. Groaning, Holden sat on the ground beside him, dropping his head onto Henry’s stomach. Henry chuckled.
“Did you ever think about joining a team?”
Holden grunted, a non-committal sound. Henry looked at him sideways.
“Was that a yes or a no?”
“I don’t really want to.”
They both looked up into the canopy of branches above them, watching the leaves shower down. He didn’t blame Holden for not wanting to play sports for his school. It had never been a thing Henry had gotten to do while he was at school. Henry hadn’t joined any clubs at all. There had always been work to do. But it really didn’t matter what Holden joined or didn’t join, as long as he was staying out of trouble and having plenty of fun.
“When are you gonna come back home?”
Henry was silent. He listened to the sound of his own breath, exhaling raggedly.
“Whaddya mean?” he asked quietly.
“When are you gonna come home?”
He held his breath, chewing at his lips nervously. He could feel his son’s anticipation hanging in the air.
“You mean with you and Mom?”
Henry dropped his arm back by his side. He looked down the length of his body towards where Holden lay, staring fixedly up at the trees surrounding them. Holden grasped a leaf in his fingers, shredding the dead material into ribbons.
“I’m… I’m not living with Mom any longer, goose.”
Holden was silent. He had stripped his leaf down to the stem. He tossed it away.
Something solid settled in Henry’s throat. He swallowed.
“Because… we don’t love each other… anymore.”
The moment the words came out of his mouth, Henry regretted them. They sounded harsh, stale, and untrue. They were untrue. Henry didn’t know why he felt like he had to lie in order to get his point across. Holden’s mouth twisted into a pout.
“Yes you do,” Holden insisted.
Henry stared at him.
“We’re… I mean, we’re still friends.”
“But why won’t you live with us?”
“Friends… don’t really do that…”
“But why not?”
“Why can’t you? Can’t you just do it? Just for me?”
Henry sat up, propping himself on his elbows. Holden slouched onto the ground, frowning, holding a new leaf in his hands. His nose was red from the cold, and his lips were chapped. He sniffed wetly. Henry eyes felt heavy with shame.
“Maybe… soon I can get a job and move a little closer. That way we can spend more time –”
Henry bit the side of his cheek. Holden’s brows were creased together in rage.
“I miss you too, goose.”
“No. No you don’t.”
“If you really loved me, you’d come live with me and Mom.”
Henry wanted to tell him that his mom didn’t want Henry to live with them. But that wasn’t even strictly true. He and Carmen had agreed, together, that it would be better if Henry asked for government housing from his parole officer. Better than having him sleep on the couch every night, an awkward addition to their household, and a constant reminder of everything that had gone wrong. Henry didn’t know how to explain their relationship to his son. Holden was a very aware young boy, but he didn’t know that he should entrust Holden with the truth about his parents, even if he could understand. Carmen and Henry had never stopped loving each other. But five years was a long time, and they had grown apart. They were both in different stages of a process of transformation – and Henry still had quite a ways to go.
“I’m not ready for that yet, Holden,” Henry said, looking at his son pleadingly.
Holden glared down at the ground obstinately. Henry didn’t know what to say. No matter what he said, it wouldn’t be fair.
“It wouldn’t be right. It wouldn’t be like you remember it, buddy. It wouldn’t be you and me and Mom, like before… like when you and me used to play Legos while Mommy was working, or eating dinner on the couch, all three of us. We could do it again, but it’d be different.”
“But you promised.”
Henry looked up at him. Holden’s face was crinkled with tears. His voice cracked as he broke into a blubbering sob.
“You said… you said you’d be b-back soon, and… and we’d be together.”
Holden began to cry in earnest. His heart clenching, tears sitting in the back of his own eyes, Henry reached out and grasped his son’s shoulder.
“We are together, goose.”
But Holden didn’t stop crying. He hid his face in his hands, clearly ashamed. Henry pulled him into his arms, holding his injured arm awkwardly to one side. He could see, over Holden’s shoulder, pedestrians glancing at them curiously as they passed by on the walking paths. Holden did not accept his embrace, but kept his arms close to his chest, stiff and rigid, as though he was curling away from Henry’s touch.
“I know what I said,” Henry whispered, running his hand through Holden’s hair soothingly. He knew exactly what he had said. It was a promise he had made on the other side of a glass wall, his wrists still bound in chains, speaking to his son during a prison visit. “And I meant it. I really meant it, goose.”
A lump formed in Henry’s throat. He sniffed, blinking away the wetness from his eyes.
“This is my fault, Holden, I… screwed up. I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought I was taking care of you. It’s my fault. You’re right, I didn’t keep my promise. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t care,” Holden wailed. “At least if you stayed with us, it would be better.” He buried his face into Henry’s sweater, pressing his wet eyes against the rough wool. Henry rubbed circles into the small of Holden’s back, trying to comfort him.
“I care.” Henry dipped his face into the crook of Holden’s shoulder, hiding his eyes for a moment and taking a sharp breath. He couldn’t cry again, especially not here, in public. He’d done enough crying for one day. If he started now, he wouldn’t stop. “I care very much.”
They sat like that for a while, Holden’s tears slowly subsiding. He wrapped his little arms around Henry’s waist. He could feel his legs gluing to the ground with the cold.
“You and I, we’re going to work something out,” Henry said, wiping at his nose. “Let’s talk about it, huh? Let’s think of something we can do to make it better. Not the same. But –”
A harsh ringing noise filled up Henry’s ears. He glanced up, to the walking paths, expecting to see someone whipping out their phone. But there was no one, and he realized the ringing was coming from his pocket.
“Who is it?” Holden asked.
Henry let go of Holden a bit to dig inside his sweater pocket. He took out the track phone, looking at the screen. It said, “STEPHEN CALLING.”
Breathing thickly, Henry pulled off his glove with his teeth and pressed the accept button, pushing the phone beneath his ear.