I knew she’d stretch it out, but my finger gripped the trigger just waiting on it.
I hit the first target posted on the tree and walked forward as the swamp floor suctioned around my boots. I barely had to aim to hit the cans lined up on the branch to my right. The small flags took more focus, but they tore with each shot. I never slowed my pace as I kept count in my head. The gun only had eight shots, when that last one fired, I pulled the other from my holster.
Aiming with one hand, I was rewarded with a pinging sound as the bullet hit the hubcaps laid on the ground, and then I was at the end of the course, but the bottle shattered a breath before I took my shot.
“Fuck.” I dropped my arm and turned to see Blake clearing his gun.
“Lost again, girly.” A dark stream of tobacco spit flew from his mouth to the muddy ground.
“But I was close this time.”
He shook his head, turning back to the start of the course. “Not that close,” he called over his shoulder. His shaggy hair swung with his stiff walk, his prosthetic leg not bending under him.
I glanced back over his side of the course till I saw Breezy at the start, sitting in a lawn chair with her camera aimed at the sky. “I was quick this time, right?”
She shrugged. “Don’t know, wasn’t paying attention.”
“Doesn’t matter. I still beat you. You’re closing again.” He pulled a beer out of the cooler by Breezy’s chair.
Breezy pulled her camera off her face and held it in one hand on her lap as she twisted her thick black hair over her shoulder. She rolled her eyes at Blake. “And you’ll be staying there anyways.”
He took a pull of his beer. “Someone’s got to keep the order. Now ya’ll get in gear, I’ll meet you girlies in an hour to drive into town.” He tossed his beer bottle into the bin beside the fire pit in front of us. “I’m ah go make myself presentable.”
Breezy laughed. “Good luck with that.” She lifted her camera again, ignoring anything beyond the lens as he walked away.
I picked up my own beer bottle, nursing the ache from my loss. Next time. Next time I’d beat him. The noises from the swamp began to return around us. The animals back to chattering and calling, only stopped due to the gunfire. They had to be use to it by now. Blake believed he had to prepare for war and was always training for when the government would try and take his guns. He was a bit mad, but so were we all. I’d never admit to what I was preparing for.
“Do me a favor?” Breezy stood up, peering into the overgrowth of the swamp. “Fire at that tree.” Her tiny arm, covered in a colorful sleeve of tattoos, pointed to a short shrub in the center of bigger trees.
I wasn’t sure where she was going with this, but took the opportunity to shoot. It was the one thing that shut off all other feelings. That split second blast held my moment of escape.
“Anywhere specific?” I questioned, raising the revolver.
“Uh.” She was fiddling with the knobs of her bulky black camera. “Aim for the center?”
I shook my head but adjusted my arm to aim at the thin trunk in the middle of hundreds of branches.
Her tattoos and clothes may have her looking like a bad ass, but for a girl that had lived the last several years with Blake, a former Force Recon Marine, she cared very little about guns. She never even touched them.
As the shot rung out, black birds took off from the branches, calling out their alarm as the flock scattered in multiple directions, black spots against the grey evening sky.
Breezy’s fingers were quick as she snapped the photos.
The majority of the birds regrouped and landed in nearby trees. They had looked like chaos in the sky, only to quickly settle back down, too close to danger. Stupid birds. But a few, they flew off somewhere else, making the escape.
And all I could think of was the blue eyes I was running from. Except there was no escape, no matter how far I ran. Time was supposed to be what I needed, but even after three months, he still strangled my heart every moment, eyes glowing behind mine constantly. I put away the gun and took a deep drink from my bottle, needing to dull the stabbing memories I could never escape or forget.
“I’ll meet you at the truck.” I tossed the bottle in the trash, picking up another for the quarter mile walk back to my trailer. The mild winter temperature made it an easy thing. It just sucked when it rained
Even if I had a car, I’d still have to walk to get there since there was no road, only a path. That’s part of why I stayed. That and Blake let me pay in cash from the start, never trying to file any paperwork. Once the cash ran out, he let me work at his shop, a space him and Breezy shared. A gun store and tattoo parlor, conveniently located within walking distance to a liquor store. You might as well call it in town, but this part of Louisiana was all country, or swamp to be exact. And the swamp was proving to be a good hideout.
“God Dammit,” Blake’s voice filled the shop as he yelled from somewhere in the back.
Breezy had her feet perched on one of the cases and her sketchbook propped against her legs. She didn’t look up from her drawing, but her shoulders shook with laughter and her lips twisted. She was guilty of something.
“Where did you put it?” Blake was still yelling.
She dropped her head, little squeaks escaping from her lips.
“A man should be able to take a shit in peace without having to worry about his leg disappearing.”
“Breezy.” I looked towards her, leaning away from the computer where I’d been ordering new parts for a gun brought in for repair.
She was full on laughing now. “I had to. I couldn’t help myself.”
Past Breezy, the T.V hanging in the corner of the room caught my attention. The name on the screen made my heart jump to my throat and then immediately plummet to my stomach.
I tuned out whatever Blake and Breezy were yelling back and forth about, everything tunneling on the words across the screen, ears straining to hear what was being said.
“…comes a day after his announcement that he had to postpone his defending title match against the up and comer Commie Magoro.”
On the screen, Gage was being ushered out of a building, hood pulled over his head to hide his face, his lawyer and public relations team around him all saying “No comments” to the questions being shouted out by reporters.
“He was at a night club in New Orleans where witnesses say he attacked another man. No reports yet on the details, but he was taken in for carrying a concealed weapon and assault. Although no formal charges have been made at this time.”
I couldn’t breathe as my heart ricocheted in my chest. He was in New Orleans, right now, or as of this morning. That was still hours away from me, and I didn’t think I had left a trail on where I was. But New Orleans had been the next stop for the bus I got on several months ago, but it broke down before it made it, and I got off then. I wondered around for days before I stumbled into this shop and helped Breezy with a customer. From there everything just sort of fell into place.
I shattered all over again as Gage whipped around towards a reporter, shrugging off his team that tried to stop him. With the fire in his eyes, I feared his intentions, but he stopped in front of the man.
I don’t know what the reporter had asked, but Gage’s voice caused a flood of emotions in my veins. Painful. Soul sucking. Torturous. Emotions.
“My wife?” He questioned the reporter in front of him. “She’s nothing to do with this, and she’s none of your business.” His jaw clenched, but the lines in his face softened just a bit as he continued. “But I owe her an apology for it.” Then his eyes looked directly into the camera like he could see me, like he knew exactly where I was. It sliced me open, spilling everything out. The eyes that haunted me were sucking me in again. “I’m sorry.” It was full of anger, but I thought I could see the depth of sadness behind it. It stirred the same pain in me. And then he turned away. Only the back of his grey hoodie showing.
The cameras followed him till he slipped into the back of a car.
The newscasters went on summarizing his history, his wins, and then adding, “All this coming in the midst of rumors of divorce. After a very public proposal last year, the newlyweds haven’t been seen together since she was in an accident in December.”
I flipped off the T.V.
When the screen turned black, I looked around, expecting to be caught, to have to explain, but Breezy walked out of the backroom, oblivious to my freak out.
She flopped around like a pouty child. “I am so bored,” she whined, stretching out each syllable. “Let me give you a tattoo or something.”
I zipped up the swirling storm in me and stood on shaky legs. “Let’s go shoot something.” The back of the shop had enough land that no one cared.
She dropped her head back. “Fine. But I’m shooting Jack Daniels.”
Thirty minutes later, and three shots down, I had fired the rifle enough that my shoulder was a tingly numb, but nothing else was. Everything else hurt with memories. The liquor wasn’t getting close to it either. I wanted to cut it out. I’d cover myself in scars if it would rid me of this feeling, of the hollow pain in my chest, it radiated through me.
Picking up the bottle of Jack, I poured the liquor into a glass and swallowed it down in burning gulps. The warmth of it spread through me, but was consumed within moments, not burning away anything and I wanted to cry. I needed something else to focus on.
“Give me that.” Breezy waved for the bottle as I poured myself more.
I handed it to her and glanced at the sketches she had been working on. Those birds from earlier were all over the page in mini drawings. Those birds that ran at the sound of every shot fired, only to remain within shooting distance again.
“You still want to give me a tattoo?”
She pulled on her eyebrow ring as she looked up at me with a smile. “Uh huh. What do you have in mind?”
I took a sip of my drink and then nodded at her book. “Those birds.”
She slid her leg under her as she rose up and pointed at one of the pictures. “We could do this line of birds on your shoulder.”
“I like this one.” I pointed to the larger picture. She’d captured the birds rising from smoke, scattering everywhere. No order, no reason, just chaos and flight. That summed up my life. “Here on my side.” I moved my hand over my ribs, over my scars. The shot that started it all but no longer mattered. I wish that was my biggest pain again, but now I was marked on the inside and it was much deeper.
“A big one? That might take a couple of sittings.” She stood up, undeterred. “You ready now?”
I looked at her tiny frame and our nearly empty bottle. “Are you ready? Can you see straight right now?”
She squinted one eye and pointed to the moon. “Yup. Straight. Let’s go.”
The stars streaked and blurred as I tried to focus my wavering vision. But the moon was clear and large. I followed her in, ready. I didn’t even care if I ended up with scribbles all over my side. I needed this pain right now. I craved it. That’s how all my choices had gone since I arrived, whatever I needed at the moment. No planning. I couldn’t.
I tipped the bottle back and finished it before sliding my shirt off one arm, revealing my side. My scars.
Breezy barely glanced at them as she arranged her tools for the tattoo. She paused before she brought a marker to my skin and tugged the neck of her shirt off of one shoulder. Swiping her hair out of the way, she tilted her bare neck in my direction and revealed large quarter size red and pink burn scars inside her watercolor flower tattoos. Then she removed her hand from her shirt and let it bounce back into place, never once meeting my eyes.
“None of us moved here because we like nature. We’ve all got a past.” She brought a marker to my skin, sketching out the design. “Let these birds be you breaking free of yours. Yeah?”
I nodded and leaned back on the reclining chair, staring at the ceiling. I wasn’t sure that’s what this was. I just wanted to feel something real, something other than phantom pains.
“Who did your tattoo’s?” I was curious but also wanted to change the topic, even though I could tell Breezy wasn’t going to keep talking anyways.
She paused in her drawing, a tense quiet coming over her. “My brother.” Then she got up and flipped on the radio. “I work better with music,” she explained as she turned up the volume, killing any conversation.
As she sketched out the birds, I tried to relax into the alcohol. Tried to make myself feel better, reminding myself, reassuring myself, this time it wasn’t all chaos.
I just needed more time.
But the needle sting biting into my skin didn’t take away any of my thoughts. It didn’t cut off the feel of Gage. It didn’t dull his voice in my head. Nothing ever did, except sometimes when the bottom of a bottle put me out, and then I could sleep without dreams.
But tonight none of that worked. All I could hear was, ‘I’m sorry.’
I only wished that was enough.
“Fuck this shit. I’m closing early.” Blake pulled down the cage for the windows, slamming them to the ground and locking them. “I’m going to Winston tonight.”
“Winston? Again?” Breezy sat up from her magazine, eyes flashing to me.
“Shut it, girlie. I didn’t say you had to go.” He stomped off to the backroom, calling over his shoulder, “But I’m leaving in five minutes, so be ready if you are.”
“What’s that mean?” I asked her, recognizing her concern but not knowing why.
“He gets in these moods. It never turns out good,” she was mumbling as she cleaned up her desk, sliding papers and receipts into drawers.
“So I guess that means we need to go.” I put the cleaner away. The cases could wait, I wasn’t sure Blake would.
“What’s his deal?” I nodded to where Blake was at the pool table, leaning on his stick while waiting for his turn.
Breezy handed me a glass of rum and coke and swallowed a sip of her own before responding, “He’s good people, but sometimes, it’s like shit builds up and he just needs to get out of our little corner of town.” She tilted her head, looking me over. “Since you’ve been around, shooting with him, it’s been better, like he found a different outlet.”
I nodded. I understood feeling restless; I was beginning to feel stir crazy myself without any change.
“So what’s the deal between you two then?” I took a sip and eyed her reaction. She hid her smile behind her glass.
“He’s been a family friend since as long as I can remember.” Her eyes dropped to her drink, and she stirred the little straw in it. “It’s like I said, he’s good people.” She sat up suddenly. “So how’s the tattoo?”
“Good. All healed. Thanks.” I took the hint and dropped the subject. Spinning in the chair, I tapped the bar for another drink. There really weren’t that many people at the bar, the majority were on the dance floor while a band with fiddles played. But I needed more alcohol to deal with the crowd.
“What are you ladies drinking? The next round’s on us.” A guy stepped behind us and gestured between him and his friend, both in tight jeans and cowboy hats.
“I buy my own drinks, thanks.”
But Breezy answered at the same time. “If you two are buying, whiskey.” She nudged me when my words caught up to her. “And she’s being shy, but she’ll take the same.”
The men exchanged looks and a laugh. “Woo dog. Not sure we can keep up with you two tonight.”
The second man spoke with a thick twang. “But I’m going to try, Breezy.”
So he knew her.
He slapped the bar, calling over the bartender, but before he could order, shouting rose louder than the music and Breezy pulled on my arm.
“Damn, that went faster than I thought. Sorry gentlemen, but we’ve got to go.”
I slid off the stool, catching sight of Blake ducking as a fist flew at him.
When he rose up, he snapped the pool stick across his knee and held the jagged ends up to the three men who approached him.
His back was to a wall, and I had to walk around the group to come along side him. Adrenaline burned away the effects of alcohol and replaced it with an even better high.
A blonde boy in a camo jacket laughed at the sight of me and tapped his friends arm. “Come on Wayne. He’s a gimp, and he’s got a girl as back up. Let it go.”
Wayne pushed his tongue to his lip, where there was already a trickle of blood. “That crazy fool hit me, retard or not—”
He got hit again, didn’t even get a chance to dodge. But the others all moved with it, multiple guys tackling Blake.
I slid my arm around the guy holding Blake and put him in a chokehold, ripping him away so Blake could move. And he did. He shoved one guy to the ground, and then reached behind him as another attacked.
“Break it up.”
Things were being yelled as burly men threw patrons off each other. Someone grabbed me from behind just as my fist collided with the cheek of the man pulling Blake’s hair. The man whipped around, cheek flaming red as he swung, hitting me in the stomach. All air escaped me and I caved forward, using the momentum to flip the person restraining me over my shoulder. I used my hands to pull him the rest of the way, slamming him to the wood floor. It was a bouncer, I think.
Breezy was beside me. “Damn. It’s time to go.”
I looked around for Blake. He was grinning, blood smeared across his cheek. Whether it was his or not, I didn’t know. He had his fists up, stepping towards a guy who was poised to fight but had been hanging back, weary.
“Oh, hell.” Breezy charged up to them, but a bouncer got there first.
“Get out now, Blake. We’ve called the cops.”
The night stopped being fun.
“Shit,” I pulled on Blake’s plaid shirt; it was missing a few buttons from his fight. “We’ve got to go.”
“Yeah, crazy old gimp. Get gone.”
I glared at the kid who all of a sudden had a mouth but continued to pull Blake to the door.
“Little shit, come outside and say that.” Blake was turning back to face him but still let me pull him out.
“I don’t have to.” He held his arms out. “I just said it here.” His friends were gathering themselves again.
Blake pulled out of my grip, and I wanted to keep going to the door. I needed leave. I should leave.
“Do your fucking job and shut them up,” I came back after Blake, yelling to the bouncer who wasn’t bouncing anything but just standing there.
“Who are you, telling me how to do my job?” He gripped my upper arm, pulling me before I could get to Blake.
Blake was held by two of the men and hit by another.
“Get off of me and stop them.”
“They’ll stop in a minute, when police get here.”
My heart tried to race out of my body, and I jerked free, going for the door. All my thoughts on getting out before—
Four police officers walked in, strolling through the door like they could have been patrons instead of here to do a job.
“That’s a record William. Took you less than ten minutes,” a bartender yelled. The band had long ago stopped playing.
The police officer at the front tipped his hat with a smile. “We were on standby when we saw Blake’s truck. That’s enough Blake.”
Blake finished his swing, knocking the boy in front of him to the ground. He showed his bloody teeth when he smiled to the officer.
I felt like I was in a parallel universe. No one seemed to care.
But I wasn’t pressing my luck. I walked a wide circle around the cops and made my way to the door as they stepped further into he bar.
“Wait,” the bouncer who had stopped me earlier spoke up. “That new girl, she was part of it too.”
I didn’t turn around to see who he was talking about, or what everyone’s reaction was. I kept walking but was stopped when I tried to step through the door.
“Mam, can you stick around for a moment?” One of the officers stepped in front of me, blocking my exit.
I looked back. Blake was at a table with Breezy and a cop. They were all looking at me.
And so was the cop in front of me. His patience was growing thin as I hesitated.
Breezy waved me over and the cop swiped his hand in that direction.
“Sure.” I stepped back into the bar, stomach clenching as I walked to the table.
“So you’re corrupting a new girl now with your conspiracy theories?” The round cop at the table leaned back, laughing. “Sit down,” he ordered to me and then looked back to Blake and Breezy. “What did you say her name was, Riley?”
They nodded and I sat. Blake glared at him as he continued to laugh.
“Now come on Blake, how many times are we going to do this?”
“Till these bastards learn to stop messing with me.”
The officer nodded. “And when will you stop coming into their town and messing with them?”
“What’s the deal? You going to take me in or let me go?” He leaned forward, wiping at the corner of his mouth with the end of his shirt.
All my muscles turned rigid.
“You have somewhere important to be?” Another officer slid up a chair. “Well drop the plans because you’re coming in tonight.”
“Well, Willy, can you give the girls a ride home? You know where it is.”
“She lives at your camp too?” The officer slapped his hand on the table and looked between the three of us. “Who are you again? Riley? Riley what?”
“She was part of the fight tonight too. Threw Sam over her shoulder and hit Mason,” The other officer added.
My mouth went sandpaper dry, and I wanted a drink. Bad.
“Riley, you got an ID on you?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“No? How old are you?”
“Leave her be. She was just trying to keep me from getting ganged up on,” Blake spoke up.
“She must be new if she thought you needed help.”
“Or drunk.” The officer closer to me leaned in. “She’s been drinking. We need to see ID.”
“I told you. I don’t have any.” My legs shook to run.
They were all asking questions at once, somehow all directed at me. I wasn’t the one to start the fight, or even take a big part in the fight. But before I knew it, I was the main focus and they were pulling me into a police car, reading me my rights.
“I didn’t do anything. Why are you arresting me?”
“For assault and disorderly conduct.”
“Bullshit. You’re taking her in because she’s with me and wouldn’t answer your questions,” Blake shouted as he was lowered into the back of another police car.
I stayed silent for as long as I could, hoping something, anything, would save me. But at the station they needed my social security number and name. They thought they knew it, Riley Rivers, but I didn’t have a social security number for that, and they took my fingerprints when they processed me. I was cracking under the pressure and gave in. On the form they pushed in front of me, I wrote my real name and my real social security number.
I always knew I couldn’t run forever. I just thought I had a little more time.
By any grace of God, I might. If they didn’t hold me that long, I might. If the name wasn’t released. I might. If. If. If.
But they did hold me—for the rest of the weekend. I had to see the commissioner before they would let me out, and he wouldn’t be in till Monday. All my ifs went up in smoke because Blake had gotten out that night. Why wouldn’t I? I already knew that answer. My time was up.
The only real question was who would be waiting for me? And was I ready?