The words sound pathetic out of my mouth and into the phone, but I don’t care. I’m terrified. “I can’t do this,” I say. Don’t make me do this.
A few shuffles hide a sigh on the other end. “What phone are you calling from?” my dad asks.
I hesitate. “Mine.”
Again, he pauses. “Don’t ever call me from this number again, Amos.”
The call ends. The tips of my fingers are going numb.
With a heavy tremor in my hands, I slip the phone into my coat pocket and take a quick breath, tugging on my backpack straps and glancing around. The street’s empty. A glossy, post-rain sheen covers the asphalt like fresh lacquer, the air heavy with the smell of rotting houses, brick, gasoline, tobacco, blood. I swear there’s blood. I swear it’s mine.
I choke down the vomit traveling up my throat and keep walking toward 14th, over trash and around moldy furniture left out from the last eviction. Fences surround front yards, two streetlamps out up ahead. The only sound I hear is muffled television from someone’s living room. Every window on every building is boarded up, and the abandoned laundromat at the corner spills broken glass from its storefront. It’s where the streetlamps are out. Convenient.
The corner of my mouth twitches upward, despite the acidic burn at the back of my throat. Joking with myself is the only way I’ll get the balls to follow through on this, but I doubt any gang member wants a smiling gun salesman, and I don’t have the option of backing out at this point. Especially as a tattooless 20-year-old. I tried to dress the part—all dark gray and black—but I felt more Matrix than a buy-an-illegal-firearm-from-me kind of guy.
It all came down to a simple issue of timing: Dad left before Lily got sick.
He’d been out drinking again one night, and the door was locked when he got back at four. Our house is cheap suburbia, thin-walled and weak—I heard fists on wood, clear yells, and a heavy thud had me sprinting downstairs.
I hate remembering it. I hate remembering the way my mother looked like a misplaced pile of dirty laundry in the corner, drowning and shrinking away in her baggy gray sweatshirt. I tried to find her face, to pull her out, but she was begging me to take Lily and go somewhere safe, pushing my hands away. I wasn’t twelve and obeying her word without question though, or fifteen and scrambling for the phone. I was eighteen and burning up with the same hot blood as my father.
Breaking his arm was an honest accident. He tried to drag me down with him, too drunk to stand and swing, arm wrapped high around my leg. I fell backwards, and it snapped. Thinking about the faint jab of his bone into my leg still gives me a pre-vomit sting in my throat.
When I finally called it in, the 911 operator stayed quiet as I ran through the situation at my feet: Dad howling in curses and death threats, Lily gathering Mom and their things, heading for another cheap motel. The operator tried to get it out of me, asking, did you use anything, did you hit him with anything, did he hit you with anything, how is it broken, did you break it in more than one place, on and on.
“I don’t know,” I lied over the noise. Dad pressed against the kitchen cabinets in pain, sputtering nonsense mixed with shouted, sharp curses aimed at gutting me, shooting me, killing me. He was making the only sound in the house, and the longer I listened, the sicker I felt. “Just come and get him please.”
I hung up and rammed the heel of my foot into his face. Silence. Absolute, breathtaking silence.
After that, the only thing my father could do was split. Lily was diagnosed about a year later. Maybe he wanted me to deal guns because he thought I could break an arm if I needed to.
The cold phone conversation loops back around in my mind, and I grip the backpack straps so tight my knuckles glow. I called my dad because I was scared? The hell. What the hell. I need to get a grip.
I’m at the abandoned laundromat before I want to be. The missing streetlamps make it tough to see where I should enter, glass crunching underneath the split rubber soles of my Vans. The weight of the guns in my bag feel heavier than ever, and for a second, all I want is to have them off of me. Which is exactly what I’ve come to do. It works out, right?
A figure walks out from the corner of the building, and I clearly see the silver gun in his hand, but it’s not aimed at me. His brow furrows for a second at the sight of me: a kid maybe old enough to be in college, maybe a man if he’d even try to fucking act like one. The gun raises.
I hold up my hands. “Don’t shoot, don’t—”
“The hell are you?” he demands. “You’re not our guy, are you?”
“No, yes,” I stumble, every muscle in my body wound painfully tight. “Yes. Yeah. Beretta M9. Five. I have them.” The barrel of the gun is like a third eye, and it’s the only thing I can focus on.
I hold my hands up higher as he steps closer, like the pathetic idiot I am, until the barrel’s in my chest. He towers over me by a foot, fresh tattoos crawling up his neck. Roman numerals sit on his cheekbones, faded. He’s not huge, but his shoulders are broad enough to be the horizon at this angle.
With a quick swallow, I speak as strong as I can. “Military grade semiautomatic, nine millimeter, no serial number, all black. I’ll get my money and be out of your hair.” I bite my tongue to stop talking, because the guy is completely bald. Idiot.
It takes him a moment of dog-like huffs before he takes the gun off me, and I can breathe. No words are said; he ushers me around the back of the laundromat to a rusting metal door. I expect a mural of graffiti tags from whatever gang I’m dealing to, whoever owns this corner, but there’s just a single word spray painted on the chipped-brick wall: PAINS. All caps. No fancy lettering or shading either, just black sticks and curves.
Roman Numeral holds the door open for me, gun still in his hand. “Thanks,” I say, walking in. Thanks? Jesus. Strike two.
I’m not sure what I expect to find inside, but my nonexistent expectations are exceeded. The entire laundromat was dredged and refilled with a fridge in one corner, couch in another. There’s a long row of vinyls leaning against the back wall, all pristine in their clear plastic sleeves. Stevie Wonder, Amy Winehouse, Prince. Recent ones, like Kanye and Kendrick. Brick-like bags of cocaine are stacked on a card table, and a few guys are packaging more coke—I think—into smaller bags across from another gang member, kicked back on a beaten recliner with a second neck of gold chains. A half-naked couple is passed out on the bed, someone’s hand hanging off the edge of an old, wooden record player. But there’s no music to any of this, no background noise: just a quiet, electric hum.
My adrenaline either reaches a ceiling or completely bottoms out as I walk straight up to the clear leader of this whole operation, dropping my backpack in front of the recliner. The clang of metal inside brings everyone to attention.
At ease, I think. At ease, Amos.
Lily’s smart. Top of her class, multi-sport athlete, and not the ten-hour study session kind of smart—I mean genuinely smart. She carried the entire varsity Quiz Bowl team to state as a sophomore, but despite the brains, she thought telling me she had cancer while driving was a good idea.
I didn’t crash, but I nearly rammed us into the guardrail pulling off the road, driving my foot into the brake with a puff, gripping the wheel tight. I shoved the shift into park and hit the hazard lights, turning to her. “What?”
She swallowed hard and shrugged, eyes down. “I’m sick.”
I paused, brow furrowed. “The tests didn’t come back—”
“Yeah,” she said. “Positive. For leukemia.”
My eyes focused on the still road ahead of us. “That can’t be right.”
“It’s right,” she replied, rolling her window down and up, down and up. “We’re going in Thursday to talk treatment options. Me and Mom. And you, if you want.”
My hands slid down the steering wheel, dropping into my lap, the asphalt stretching and morphing under the late summer sun faster than it should. The dividers they put in to account for all that expansion couldn’t take it, tar running into ditches and tree roots, bending the lines. “They’re sure?”
“Jesus Amos, they’re sure,” Lily snapped. “Have you seen me lately? I…I’m just…” she struggled to find the words, eyes traveling down her body like she could see the deterioration inside. “I don’t know what I am.”
Somewhere in my gut, I knew the diagnosis. Lily looked a lot like Mom between the olive skin and light hazel eyes, espresso-dark hair and slim, athletic frame, but she was fading into some past ghost of Mom’s those days: endlessly tired and covered in small bruises, always getting sick, making a bed out of the couch when the stairs were a challenge. I took her in for a couple tests myself, and the gravestone faces of the nurses and doctors clued me in. It’s just different hearing it out of her mouth. My adolescent sister had cancer.
“Don’t pull off like that again,” she muttered, wiping under her eyes as soon as a tear tried to form. We hated getting emotional.
I unbuckled and took her into the best hug I could from the driver’s seat, feeling her face bury itself in my shoulder to muffle the sobs, forgetting our unspoken code. Her bones felt like they’d shake out of place if I didn’t hold tight enough. I stared out her window at the guardrail, at the running creek that halved the roadside forest, bleeding black asphalt. She felt like Mom.
“What are we going to do?”
I swallowed hard and pulled back, holding her shoulders. “About what?”
“Bills,” she said, pulling my hands off her and gravitating toward the window again. “Expenses and treatment.”
“Dad’ll help pay,” I said, shifting into drive and turning off the hazard lights, respecting her space, relieved to have mine. I pulled back out onto the road, cautiously.
“No, he won’t,” Lily said, wiping the last few tears off her face. “Mom tried calling, and he won’t.”
My hands twisted around the wheel, burning the skin on my palms, heat coursing through my system. God, I could’ve killed him if I didn’t have Lily with me, drive straight to the supply center and shoot him with every gun in stock. Leave him to die on his managerial oak desk. Whatever idiot put him in charge of distribution deserved to be shot too.
“Don’t go see him. And don’t pull off again.”
“Lil, you’re his kid,” I said, chewing the inside of my cheek. “He should have the decency to help pay for his daughter’s cancer treatment.” My hands tightened around the wheel again.
Lily placed one of her hands over mine, cold, but still hers. “Seriously, slow down. You haven’t seen him since he left.”
“He’s not going to kill me.”
She pulled back, hands behind her head. “I actually think he might.”
“Then tell Mom to go take out life insurance on me.”
Lily chuckled and settled into the passenger seat, smiling. I was still the most emotional I’d ever been in my twenty years of life, but I smiled too. It was all I could do.
I swallow hard as I stand above the gang leader, a few feet back, tensing the muscles in my arms to make it look like I can put up a fight. With a steady inhale, I’m ready to say the price of the guns like the wheeling, dealing badass I now am, but hold back and exhale shortly instead. My boldness has a time limit, and the little huff makes it look like I’m taking a breath before starting the tenth round of the spelling bee. Repeat the word, please.
The guy takes the half-smoked joint out of his mouth, passes it off, and only then inspects the backpack. His chains clink together as he leans over and takes the first gun out, running a finger down the barrel, taking off the safety, the magazine clicked out, then in, safety back on, until the gun’s finally laid to rest on the coke-covered table before him. I’m still drowning in electricity, feeling it spark down my arms and chest, but there’s no plastic rustle of bags and powder anymore. The girl on the bed moans, drawing the acid out of my stomach, stinging my throat.
After each gun is inspected with the same meticulous procedure, lined up on the table like a daisy-chain of spooning, polyamorous lovers, the leader nods to the guy who let me in. I look to Roman Numeral; he goes to a safe nestled in the dark and starts pulling out cash.
The leader slides the empty husk of a backpack toward my feet, taking his joint back. “Thanks man.” He takes a long hit.
The packagers resume their rustling, and the girl on the bed is calling for her mother in a shaking, drippy voice. “Mama, mama, please…”
I pick my backpack off the ground and head for the door, maybe a touch too quick. Roman Numeral hands me the cash as I leave. “One k.”
He didn’t even need to speak. I fanned the entire stack out in my hand and immediately knew there wasn’t enough. “Four,” I say, to myself at first. I turn to him. “Four grand.”
He stands up tall, shoulders back, the gun sitting on top of the safe. “One grand.”
“You owe me four grand for everything, I need the other three,” I demand, clenching the hundreds in a single hand.
“Is there a problem?” the leader says, standing up from his chair. He takes wide-legged steps, as it if he can’t find balance, smoking and hooking a thumb around his belt loop. “You got paid. Now, leave.”
“I’m not getting screwed out of three thousand dollars,” I say, shoving the money into my empty backpack and slinging it over a shoulder. I push a fist into his bare, tatted chest, above the chains. He stumbles back a single step. “Give it.”
Then, he smiles at me. Piss-yellow teeth and all, the bottom four covered in gold. There’s a small bit of marijuana smoke that escapes, and for a second, I’m in a haze.
It’s long enough to make the punch to my face a surprise.
My stomach swam at the short glass set before me on the bar, amber over ice. “If you want to be a man, you drink scotch and water,” Dad said, sensing my hesitance. He drained half of it in a single gulp, gesturing toward mine. “Drink.”
I remember choking down a sip. It wasn’t awful.
“You need money, don’t you,” he sighed out, tilting his glass back and forth. “Always about money.”
For the fourth time that afternoon, I told him, “Lily has cancer.”
Dad paused, grunted, and finished his drink. “Yeah. Your mother called a day ago.”
“And you’re not going to do anything about it?”
He shrugged. “I have no obligation to. I’m not welcome at that house anymore.”
I bit down on the side of my tongue, gripping my glass tight. Don’t lash out. Don’t.
The bartender slid another scotch and water to Dad, glancing between the two of us. His eyes told me the same thing: Don’t.
“You’re what, twenty-two?” Dad asked, turning to me.
I peered through the liquor bottles behind the bar, comparing our interrupted reflections. I looked a lot like my dad, sure. Same run-of-the-mill brown hair and eyes, except years of smoking and drinking had turned my dad’s skin an angry, inflamed and perpetual red. Mine was olive, like Mom and Lily’s, but washed out in the wake of winter. Dark purple bags weighed down my eyes. “I’m twenty.”
“There’s your problem,” Dad said, nodding, facing the TV. “I moved out at eighteen. The best thing you can do is, is—” he waved his glass in a circle, “—get out of here. Fast as you can.”
“Then show up three years later and act like I care, right?” I muttered, burying the next sentence in my drink. I liked the fire it gave me, defining the edges of my body. My shoulders felt broader, my jaw sharper, the bends in my elbows and knees stiff and dangerous.
Dad tipped his second glass back and didn’t stop until it was empty, alcohol dribbling down his ash-gray beard. I kept the scruff off my face as best as I could, considering the price of decent razors. But in all honesty, I shaved because I knew I’d really become Dad’s carbon copy if I didn’t.
“I did what I had to back then.” He motioned to the bartender for another.
“You went on a three-year bender,” I said, gripping my glass tight. “Lily and I went through sixteen foster homes for you to just show up and win us back with some bullshit self-betterment sob story.”
“It wasn’t a bender.”
He cursed to himself. “I was on business.”
“Your piss was practically made of cocaine,” I laughed out, taking an indulgent drink and filling my stomach with lighter fluid. “You were found face down in a ditch across the state.”
I watched him shift in his barstool as the next scotch was set before him, the tacky green vinyl seat split on one corner. Dad spun the ice in his glass slowly, the soft hiss of the cushion suffocating every other sound.
“I got into something I shouldn’t have,” he said. “Pulled me away for a while.”
Again, I laughed, nudging my empty toward the bartender already pouring my second. “How many excuses do you have?” I took a moment to down as much alcohol as I could manage, lit up from the inside out again. “Never pegged you as the creative type.”
Dad grabbed the shoulder of my flannel and pulled me toward the back door, knocking my glass to the floor with a cheap shatter. The bartender yelled after us, but I was busy rolling up my sleeves, my feet moving in zig-zags. If he wanted to fight, I was more than ready.
The metal backdoor shut behind us. Dad clamped down on both of my shoulders in the musty, garbage-perfumed alley, my back against the ivy-covered brick. “You do not understand what I went through. I did everything to put food on the table.”
His hands were shrinking me into nothing again. “Doing all that cocaine really sucked, huh.”
“Goddammit, listen to me!” he shouted, grabbing my chin. “Listen. How do you think we scraped by during the recession?”
My head tilted back for fresh air, the sky ahead a cloudy, dismal gray.
“Your mother and I were both laid off, Amos.”
I shook myself loose and pushed him into the rusting dumpster across the thin alleyway. My feet dragged me closer to him, hands aiming for shoulders but finding his chest, pressing down like I could squeeze the worst out of him. There wasn’t anything I wanted to say, or do, or think or feel as we stared each other down. I ached to believe in a different construction than the road map under my hands, to trust that every vein of his didn’t lead to a ghost town. My father’s eyes sparked as they appeared to recognize mine, like I’d suddenly made sense as a son: I was new and certain, calcified as a man built in his sturdy image. I loved it so much I wanted to cry.
“Don’t say my name,” I said, voice small and slurred. My hands slid off him, loose at my sides. One flannel sleeve fell past my elbow.
My father’s body tensed, eyes narrowed and dark. “I gave you that name,” he spat. “I gave you everything, you ungrateful piece—”
“By killing people.”
Dad clamped a sudden hand over my mouth, my back against the ivy again. “Shut up. Don’t say that again,” he said, shaking, drowning in smoke and sweat. “I never did it. I never pulled triggers.”
I pried his clammy hand off enough to say, “You just provided the triggers.”
He punched me then. Straight in the face. I collapsed to my knees with a wet hand over my nose, the smell of blood taking me back to the old days, the in-between days, the sliver of time after home-hopping and before the broken arm. The sight of bright red blood made me nostalgic and empty, reminded I’m full of the stuff.
“If you need money, you know where my office is,” Dad said, heading for the metal door. He re-entered the bar without a glance back.
As soon as the door shut, I laid on my back and let my head loll to the right, coughing and spitting the blood out of my mouth every so often, cheek against wet pavement, eyes closing. I think I knew it all along: the only reason he had his distribution job was because of the work he did on the streets those three years. He was into the drug scene way before the recession hit—him and Mom used to be addicts, but she slowed her roll when I started growing normally, surviving, talking and walking and becoming human. Dad never stopped. Mom quit cold turkey once she was pregnant with Lily, got her life together, got her LPN. Dad couldn’t get enough.
I knew all of this. Every piece was put together, the full picture sitting in the broken-window gallery of my stomach, and each breath dug the shards in more: I, Amos Lancaster, was nothing more than a drug-induced fuck. A kid that saved my mother and ruined my father beyond repair. And, for the price of saving Lily’s life, I had the chance to become his protégée—hell, if I was lucky, I could have a carbon-copied life. What could be better than a wife that feared me, a daughter I didn’t know, and a malleable son fired into a faultless, solid, decided man? I’d be so goddamn proud.
I was going to vow my father out of my life, for good. But I went to his office two days after finding Mom curled over the kitchen table like laundry on a line, Lily’s hospital bill clutched in a trembling hand.
He told me I’d go to Chicago first. A laundromat on 14th in Englewood.
The punch is a classic hook, straight into the left cheek, half the impact on my nose. It feels like a nine iron to the face. My entire body slams into the metal door of the laundromat, and I put a hand to my pouring nose out of instinct. Roman Numeral reaches for the gun on the safe, and blindly, I twist the doorknob and run.
A few gunshots ring out behind me, one bullet finding its way into a brick house as I round its corner. I didn’t zip my backpack up, and hundred dollar bills float out as I sprint for my fucking life through backyards, to sidewalks, crossing streets. My hand’s off my nose, and I feel the blood running down my neck. It’s like a race: can I get to my car before it reaches the collar of my shirt? Can I stay alive? I stopped hearing gunshots a while ago, but I think I hear a car.
I don’t win. Against the running blood, I mean. My entire throat feels drenched and washed in red, a small pool sitting in the hollow between my collar bones once I get into the car and lean my head back, catching my breath My lips purse and buzz to get the blood off. Red splatters the beige upholstery of my car in tiny dots, and for a second, it looks like stars.
The five and half hours back to my dad’s place is grueling work, torturous focus on the limitless road. I could keep driving. I could take the $400 I managed to hold onto and stay a couple nights farther down south, into the mountains. Get out, fast as I can. Never come back.
It’s six in the morning when I get to my dad’s house, and he’s already made a home of the new place with the smell of coffee and cigarette smoke tucked into every corner. He sits at the kitchen table with the morning paper and rectangular reading glasses on, and doesn’t look up when I come in half-stained with blood, cheek red and swollen. I leave all the money by his coffee mug and turn to leave.
“It’s yours,” he says, pushing the cash back toward me. He sets the paper down, flipping to the sports section.
I turn back around. “I got ripped off.”
“Yeah, I can tell,” he laughs out. Dad takes off his reading glasses and rubs his face, softening his usual glare at the sight of me. There’s a hint of pride in his voice. “Christ, what happened to you?”
I open a couple sparse cabinets before finding a mug in one, pouring myself a scalding cup of coffee, refusing to sit at the table to make this some sort of fucked-up bonding time. The night is in my throat, the words ready to come out, but I burn them off.
Chair legs slide across the tile before he reopens the cabinet and plucks two clear, stout glasses from the top. “First sale, we should celebrate.”
Ice. Scotch. A splash of water from the faucet. I pour it down my throat and take a seat at the table with my coffee, feeling myself melt rather than stiffen. “I almost died.”
“This job is pure commission,” he says, ignoring me. “Whatever you make, keep seventy percent of it. And if you screw up, then it’s on you. Although I’ll be generous these first few times.” He paused to take a drink. “I’m shocked you came out with anything though, Amos. Four hundred isn’t bad for a first run.”
I drag the money off the table and stand, folding the bills into my back pocket. “I’ll see you later, Dad.”
“Alright, son. I’ll let you know when another job pops up.”
I linger in the doorway, hand on the knob, head cloudy with fatigue and alcohol. “Thanks.”
Mom leaves a voicemail for me to listen to on the way home. Lily’s collapsed, there’s an infection from the chemo, come home. Come back. Where are you? Come home, come home.
Lily will “lose the fight” a few days later to some complication I didn’t bother remembering. It’ll have to do with her immune system, and she’ll have time to give proper goodbyes, but I’ll still think about driving myself off a cliff. I’ll hate how well she takes it, but I’ll love how frustratingly excited her eyes look when I tell her about the time I dealt guns to a Chicago gang and almost got shot, about how I finally stood up to Dad at a bar and punched him straight in the face while telling him off, nothing held back. She’ll tear up.
Mom’ll move in with a new boyfriend, someone nice for a grief rebound, both their sleeves drenched in snot and saltwater. I’ll visit my dad, where he’ll hand me two M40 rifles for a house in Cincinnati that’s certain to pay good money for them.
No one will tell him his daughter’s dead. No one will tell me to come home.
Bri Long is currently a sophomore at the Ohio State University, studying Creative Writing and Professional Writing. Her work often concerns the Midwest, crime, youth, and someone driving somewhere. When she has to step away from the laptop, she enjoys reading ridiculously long novels, trying new restaurants, and visiting her cats back home in northeast Ohio.