I was 19 when I met Tommy. A day and a bit into a two-day Greyhound trip from bumfuck, Nevada to Saint Paul, Minnesota. Going to meet some trick from the internet. Thought it was true love. Funky and itching for a smoke when we pulled into a truck stop in a one-road Nebraska town called Hendrickson or some shit. Big fat moon was high over the cornfields, and the diner gleamed all silvery. I was hungry, hadn’t eaten nothing since a McDonald’s outside Reno, so I finished my Newport and went in. You ever walk into a place where they hate everything you are? Them white folks stared at my fuchsia naps and mesh shirt like they couldn’t decide if they were gonna call me “faggot” or “nigger”. I sat at the counter, gave the waitress my biggest “y’all sure fine people” grin and asked, “That good smell the meatloaf?”
She didn’t smile back. “Meatloaf’s the special today. We also got fried chicken if you like that better.”
Ol’ racist bitch. “I’ll take me a meatloaf with extra gravy on the mashed potatoes, and a Coke. Where’s the head?”
She pointed with her chin past the booths. “I’ll get your order right in. Mind you don’t miss that bus. Liable to leave without you.”
What passed for a men’s room was a dank closet with a toilet cubicle, one urinal and a sink someone’d pissed in. A naked lightbulb attracted moths overhead. I pissed in the urinal, worked fine, and easier access than the sink. Didn’t wash my hands though. Looked myself over in the scratched-up mirror. My hair was flat on one side where I’d pressed my head against the bus window. I pulled a pick out of my back pocket. I’d locked the door, but it flew open with a bang. Big, blond, cornfed-looking motherfucker. About six feet tall, with freckles across his nose. Fuck. I’d left my Vaseline in my bag on the bus. If I was in for an ass-beating, I’d want something to keep his class ring from scarring up my pretty face. I clenched my fists and pushed my back to the wall. But the big boy’s face got kinda soft and his lip trembled. He looked me up and down in a way I know damn well. “You’re like some kind of angel from…”
I cut him off by kissing him hard. Whatever he saying was gonna be corny. Had to stand on my toes. He banged into the cubicle door. Fumbled with my belt. I pushed him down on his knees.
Half an hour later Tommy followed me onto that bus without even a change of clothes, his hair rumpled and shirt misbuttoned. We left that meatloaf congealing in its gravy right on the counter. I never did get to Saint Paul.
Most people look at Tommy think he’s simple. He got them big blue eyes and that baby face and an aw shucks way of standing that makes you trust him. Looks like he ain’t never had a devious thought in that head. But it was Tommy come up with the masks. He knew a curandera lived about an hour outside of Greeley, and to hear him talk, she had some tricks Sherlock Holmes couldn’t never figure out. Tommy also had an Uncle Joe who was a mechanic and fixed up cars he got cheap at auctions. He sold us a Honda Civic for a song and an understanding that if we was up to no good we wasn’t gonna say we bought it from him.
The bank was my idea. Big enough that we’d take in more than knocking off a couple of convenience stores, and far away from everything that we could get scarce before the law came down. We needed cash. Turning tricks in Wyoming won’t fill anyone’s pockets, and at 25, I was starting to get a little long in the tooth. Tommy’s cigarette-ad-boy in a pick-up thing might last longer, but the prices he charged ain’t never going back up. It don’t cost much to rent a two-bedroom in the middle of nowhere, but when you can’t count on pulling in nothing, not much gets expensive. I didn’t always want my big Saturday night to be clean sheets at the Motel 6 and a bottle of Jim Beam.
So, one night after not much of nothing and rent coming up due, we decided we was getting out, and headed out towards Greeley, Colorado.
Big-ass sky overhead going down to Colorado. Always seems like purple clouds in the distance bristle with lightning. Pretty, but like driving through a picture. Motherfuckers get restless.
“How you know this bruja?” I asked, watching the light move like honey over some fucking amber waves of grain.
Tommy scratched at his chin. “Remember I told you about Spike Jimenez? Miz Boudreaux is his grandfather Hector’s widow. His grandma died young, same as his ma. Hector and Miz Boudreaux practically raised Spike after his daddy went to state pen up in Lincoln?”
I grunted, and focused on the road. Tommy don’t talk much, but when he gets going, he’s like a dog with a bone, just jawing on and on.
“Anyway, one time in a game against the Sherman High Whirlwinds—they were our rivals, remember?—Spike gets sacked by this monster of a boy, musta been nearly three-hundred pounds, and just goes down with a crunch. They pull him off the field, but his arm is going into angles it shouldn’t go, and just looks wrong. Miz Boudreaux pushes her way down from the stands, nobody stops her, she takes what looks like a dried frog from out her purse, puts it on Spike’s arm and just kinda sings. You hear a snap like biting into a pretzel, and his arm is just fine. That’s how I know. She’s the real deal.”
Wasn’t nothing to argue with there.
We pulled up to the Curandera’s house at dusk. The clouds low against the far-off jagged line of the Rockies, like smoke escaping a ragged smile. Little ranch-style house. Yellow clapboard. Chain-link fence. Big neon blue and red fortune telling palm. The words Ms. Boudreaux’s House of Healing painted by the door in red turned orange by the prairie sun. Tommy charged up the gravel front path, clambered up the porch, and then opened the screen door. He shouted in, “Miz Boudreaux?”
A voice from inside called out, “Thomas? Come in. Bring your friend. Sit down. I’ll only be a moment.”
We entered her living room. House smelled good. Like gumbo and lemon furniture polish. Old-people furniture covered with doilies. Paintings of saints, Martin Luther King, and angels. A miniature version of that famous statue of dead Jesus being held up by his mama was a cookie jar. It rested in the middle of the coffee table. Miz Boudreaux swept in through a beaded curtain across the doorway to the kitchen.
She looked like my auntie Josephine, a light-skin woman Uncle Jasper married a week after he met her in Houston. She said she was creole. Mama said she was a witch, and told me not to eat her spaghetti or anything red she made. Miz Boudreaux had that same coloring, the same high forehead, and the same sleepy, heavy-lidded eyes. Tommy popped off the virgin’s head, and pulled out a crumbly almond cookie. Crunched.
Miz Boudreaux sat across from us. Rings glittered on her fingers. She pursed her lips. “Thomas! Your friend is very handsome.
“I’m Davion, ma’am.”
She smiled at me. “Handsome and polite. Good. I worry that you end up with some no ’count trifling stoneheart. This soothes my heart.”
I looked at my fingernails. Miz Boudreaux made a clucking sound. “No need to be shy.” Her smile faded. She stared at Tommy pointedly for a second. “Now, this thing you want. We have already discussed my fee, but you must also both be aware of the costs.”
I bit my lip. Ain’t the first time I come across some extras raise the sticker price. Tommy furrowed his brow. “Now Miz Boudreaux, I promised you pretty much everything we got, honest.”
She raised a hand. “I want no more of your money, Thomas. I can do things, yes? I can make charms that confuse the mind, I can enchant these things so electronics fail, I can do this. But it cannot come from nowhere!” The lights in the room flickered, long shadows danced across her face. “Your car, it need gasoline? My charms need fuel. The cost, my dears, is that for each minute you wear these masks, it will burn through a year of your life.”
Tommy and me looked at each other. He grabbed my hand. Wasn’t much of a life the way we were living.
“You must decide, both of you, how much life you want to give up. To make it work, I must bind that life into the charm. If you want this thing. If you do not, I understand.”
I looked her in the eye. “Reckon fifteen minutes would do it.”
When I say we dressed for the robbery, I want you to know we dressed. My jeans were Girbaud, my button-down Ralph Lauren, both our hats were Stetson, and we had on the nicest pairs of embroidered boots I could mop from the big leather outlet in Chickasaw. Tommy looked like a cowboy’s dream in a red silk western shirt with fringe and roses. Ain’t nobody going to remember what we wore or what we looked like thanks to the masks, but we knew, and I swear it made me walk a little taller, put a little swag in Tommy’s chest.
We pulled into the parking lot of the bank on a Monday afternoon, just after the few shitty nightclubs in Jackson Hole had deposited their weekend takes, and before the ranchers down from the badlands came to take out cash to hide under the beds or whatever. Synchronized our ugly-ass digital watches. I opened the box with the masks. Tommy’s had a long nose and crooked smile. It reminded me of the moon in that old McDonald’s commercial. Mine was a sobbing face. Big blue, painted on tears on its cheek. We nodded. Set the watches. Counted to five. Put the masks on. It was like jumping into a cold pond on a hot day. My body shook and I felt my heart stop. A moment, then colors flashed gold and green and the world felt normal. I looked at Tommy through the eyeholes, but my vision kept sliding off of him, and when I tried to remember how he looked, all I could see was that damn McMoon. He said, “They work.”
Right. Time was ticking. I grabbed the duffel bag. Out of the car and across the parking lot, duster flapping in the wind where no one could see it. Pistol in my hand, shotgun over Tommy’s shoulder. Even if they couldn’t focus on us, they’d know we meant business. Tommy kicked open the plate glass door. He trained his shotgun on the portly security guard who’d been chatting with a Miss Clairol redhead wearing an ugly string of fake pearls. There were screams. People hit the floor and hid under tables. I walked up to a teller, pistol aimed at her chest. A purse skittered across the room and landed at my feet. I kicked it away. I said loudly to the room, “We’re planning on making a withdrawal. From the bank.” I passed the duffel bag over to the teller. “No small bills, no marked notes, no little canisters that turn the money funky colors. Now, I’m not interested in your money, folks. Just the bank’s, and all of that is insured. No one tries anything heroic, we all walk out of here nice and friendly.” The tellers shoveled stacks of money into the duffel bag. I glanced at my watch. Three minutes, forty seconds gone. Stuffed near bursting, the teller shoved it back across the counter with some effort. I smiled, said, “Thank you, kindly.”
Then there was a sound like thunder, and a smell like the fourth of July. Then I couldn’t hear nothing but a high-pitched mosquito whine. I turned in the direction of the thunder crack. Tommy had blown a hole in the Clairol red, and much of the wall besides. She dropped to the ground. A dainty pink revolver spun away from her hands. Plastic pearls skittered across the floor. Tommy grabbed me by the wrist, and we both ran out the doors.
Masks off in the car at five minutes and forty-three seconds. Mouth tasted nasty, like I’d been sick. I started the engine, but couldn’t hear nothing but that high-pitched whine. Tommy pulled out a pair of binoculars from the glove compartment and scanned behind us. I tried to put distance between us and the bank quick as I could without wrapping us around a telephone pole or ending up in a ditch. At some point, he switched on the radio, but the girls singing sounded like they fell into a tunnel, and I snapped it off.
Didn’t stop driving until we reached the switch-off point about twenty minutes into Colorado. Ears rang the whole time. Didn’t see the point of talking. When I closed my eyes, I saw fake pearls on ugly carpet spattered with blood. At the switch-off, we stripped. Girbauds, western shirt, gloves, boots, all into a pile in the back seat. Switched the money from the duffel bag into a couple of JanSports. Tommy splashed gas from a jerry can over the things, while I carried the JanSports to the cab Ford pick-up. He tossed a lit match. We sat in the flatbed of the truck bare-ass naked, pink doughnut box of masks between us, and watched the little Honda burn.
I turned to Tommy. “You think you shoulda maybe put that shotgun with them clothes?”
He shrugged. “It’s a good gun.”
“It’s a murder weapon!”
“Well, I reckon it is.” He spit on the ground.
Once we got past Denver, Tommy stopped looking over his shoulder every six seconds. We passed the big green sign for the turn-off to Buffalo Bill’s grave and I heard snoring. I drove through the Rockies in the dark with Tommy’s rumbling for company, and felt less heavy each time we passed a turn-off or a junction. Time we got to the Eisenhower tunnel, I was almost back to my usual state of chill.
We stopped at a motel just outside the Siren city limits called the Lon-Tiki Inn. Big plastic Easter Island heads outside the office. Pool was drained and fenced off. Grey-faced old guy at the front desk handed us our key without any questions.
Room was mostly clean. Dusty red and orange carpet with a faded trail to the head. Palm trees on the wallpaper. King-size bed. Gideon’s Bible on the nightstand. Wasn’t neither of our idea of a tropical getaway, but I drove all night, and we weren’t never gonna find a hotel with room service in Siren.
Tommy lugged the JanSports into the room. He picked up the purple one, unzipped it and covered the bed with cash. He pulled his shirt over his head and swung it around before flinging it onto a chair. Pulled his jeans and drawers down over his hips without unbuckling his belt. Kicked them off. Flopped down butt-naked in that pile of money. “Come here,” he said. Then he plunked quarters into the slot for Magic Fingers machines atop the headboard.
You ever screwed on a pile of money with a bed bucking beneath you like a mechanical bull? I was still mad about the fuck-up at the bank, but wasn’t like I could say no to that ass. Tommy’s bigger than me, but I grabbed him by the hips and tossed him onto his stomach like he was some bird-boned twink. Bone-tiredness forgotten in my sudden need to fuck. No time for lube, I spit into my palm and slathered my dick. Tommy spread his thighs, desperate for it. The bed creaked and moaned beneath us, bumping up as we bumped together.
An hour later, we were sticky with cum and sweat, and plastered with Mr. Franklin’s portrait in damp places. I was in need of a smoke. I peeled a $100 off my upper thigh, crumpled it and threw it in Tommy’s face. “That shit did not go to plan.”
He just laughed and twisted the cap off a bottle of Maker’s Mark we picked up in Eagle. Took a swig. No chaser. “You think I was going to let some dried-up hero-playing bitch shoot you because of the plan? Baby, when I said I would kill for you—”
“I get it, Tommy.” I stood up. Scratched my ass. “Don’t think I ain’t grateful. But in my head everything was so smooth. Now it ain’t.”
Tommy leaned back into the not-so-crisp money pile. Tried to make money angels. “Looks like smooth sailing to me, babe.”
I scowled. “I need a shower. I smell like pits and ass.” Put some of the money back in the JanSport. “It still spends. Jizz ain’t the worst thing it’s had on it.”
I headed into the bathroom, grabbed a clean, threadbare towel. The back of my neck itched. There was an irritating sound like someone had the TV tuned to a dead channel with the volume all the way up. I figured I was just tired from the road. Hot water was soothing. I used one of those bullshit motel soaps and a washcloth to scrub the dirt off me. Turned off the shower. The itching and the sound was worse. I headed out to the main room. Tommy was sitting on the bed, jeans on, gun in his lap. He was facing the window. His shoulders looked tense. That sound got even louder. He half-turned towards me, mouthed “gun”. My gun was sitting next to the TV, masks on either side of it. The masks, though, they were shaking. Like they was in tune with that stupid fucking static sound. I grabbed my gun, crouched down low behind the TV stand. Tommy rolled back down behind the bed. The itching spread down my spine, and up my jaw through my back teeth. I inhaled. The window shrieked. Glass cracked down like a lightning bolt. The door flew open, chain popping off. A smell like burning hair. Two figures entered. Black visors. Black padded jumpsuits covered with crazy silver stitches that twisted and glowed without any light. On their chests a triangular badge with the letters A, S, A at each corner. One was holding a thing that looked like a cross between a Geiger counter and a mute trombone, the other carried a big black box that made that sound. Box guy spoke. “We’re only detecting six thaums. You might as well give it up. You’ll die easier if you don’t fight.”
Tommy popped up from behind the bed. I heard three quick shots. Box guy fell back. Geiger counter turned his trombone on Tommy. I squeezed my trigger. One. Twice. Three times. Four. Hit him dead center. He fell back too.
I grew up with guns. My uncle taught me to shoot. Picked off coyotes that got too near his ranch. I ain’t never shot a man before. My stomach turned. I tasted bile at the back of my throat. Doubled over, managed not to hurl. Tommy was cool, shrugged into his denim jacket. Grabbed the JanSports. Looked me in the eyes. “Davion, we got to go. Can you get the masks?”
I clutched both of the masks, still vibrating, to my chest and walked out into the early morning. Police sirens wailed in the distance. Tommy kicked the black box. The masks stopped vibrating. We put them on. Ran out to the pick-up past a fat man in a dirty wifebeater who stood at his motel room door, arms crossed. We piled into the pick-up and pulled onto the interstate, crossing over into Utah long before the Siren city police had time to figure out what had gone down at the Lon-Tiki.
Some hours into Utah, after we traded the pick-up for a plum-red Chrysler from a shifty dealer outside of Green River who took too much money in exchange for a pointed lack of any sort of nosiness, we turned off into the back roads, and stopped for a picnic. We climbed a big, beautiful, dusty red rock almost as perfect as God made it, except for a small pile of whippits glittering near the edge. The rock seemed to drink in the sun’s light, positively glowed. Tommy spread himself out on a blanket, took a bite out a sandwich and pointed at a cloud. “Looks like a really fat llama.”
It did, and I laughed, and he laughed. The sound echoed out over the rocks. Black-winged birds with white throats scattered overhead. I took a bite of my cold, bullshit gas station cheese-and-bean burrito and a swig of warm Coke. My guts been clenched like a fist since Siren, and everything felt loose and light on that rock. I ate that trash burrito like it was my momma’s banana pudding. I scooted close to Tommy on that ratty blanket and he wrapped his arms around me, and pressed his nose into the hollow at the top of my spine where my skull begins. The light was like honey.
“We fucked up. But everything’s gonna be alright,” I said. He nuzzled my neck. I rested my eyes for just a moment.
Tommy nudged me awake. “We better get off this rock afore it gets dark. I’m liable to break an ankle.”
The day had turned orange and gold, and the sun was low. “Momma ain’t raise no mountain goat,” I said, and we packed up the blankets and the last bits of our rest-stop picnic. We scrambled down that rock with no more mishaps than a false step and a scuffed shoe.
I spotted a plume of dust kicked up by something and snatched up Tommy’s binoculars. Off-road, in the distance I could see something a like a mail-truck but black, with a big version of the trombone thing from the Lon-Tiki on its top. “Fuck. Them assholes from Siren sent more a they busters after us.”
“How’n the hell they find us again?” Tommy scowled.
The pink donut box rattled a little in the back seat. We looked at each other. “Masks,” Tommy said.
I snatched them up out of the backseat. Made as if to fling the box into hell, but Tommy said, “Wait.” He opened the box. The masks vibrated. “We leave these intact and we don’t know if someone else could use ‘em. We gotta bust them up.”
Felt like a lump in my belly. I knew we wasn’t coming back for them, but there was almost ten years left in each. Tommy picked up a big rock and brought it down on the masks. They howled. A coyote got into my uncle’s rabbit hutch once, and the sound was like them rabbits, high, mean, and sharp. I felt a hitch in my chest, and the masks cracked when Tommy hit them again, then crumbled. He pitched the box away from him, put some spin on it. It tumbled down into a gulch.
We ran to the car and peeled out in the opposite direction. Tommy watched the black mail-truck thing through his binoculars. while I pushed that raggedy-ass Chrysler until it shuddered.
“They’re following the box,” he said. And I relaxed a little.
We switched the Chrysler out for a sky-blue Datsun, and after some detours and switchbacks, no more of that itchy feeling in the back of my head. We figured the trail had gone cold without the masks, but just in case I steered clear of Reno; too much of my own history tied up there. No plans and still with more money than two bodies ought to rightly have, we found ourselves heading towards California and the dream of canyon roads and beaches.
Tommy and me stopped off at a hustler bar called Tuco’s at a truckstop about a half-hour outside of Barstow along I-15. Had a neon peacock flashing his tail feathers on the sign outside. Windows blacked out for privacy. On the inside: wood panelling, red pleather booths, velvet paintings of Crystal Gayle and Dolly Parton, a horseshoe hanging over the front door. Wasn’t too busy when we got there at about two in the afternoon on a Tuesday. Two boys grinding on each other to a Deep House remix of Johnny Cash. Two others nursing beers on tap, one sucking the salt off roasted peanuts.
Tuco’s was run by an old, mean queen named Sammy Ray who took over everything when his man, Big Tuco, got sick. Big Tuco got called that ’cause he looked like a meaty version of Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Sammy Ray wasn’t no bigger than a poodle, and had a sweet, round face besides. But I’ve seen him deal with trouble in his bar with a baseball bat, and I know which of them I’d rather cross.
Sammy Ray ain’t ask no questions about why we was flush, but we were buying rounds for the four sad-eyed boys waiting for the right kind of truckers to pull up, and he was pouring ’em stiff. I threw back a whiskey sour and wriggled on my bar stool to get a little closer to Tommy. We twined fingers. Sammy Ray reached up over the bar and clapped Tommy on the back. Rare bit of emotion behind Sammy Ray’s steely eyes. “It sure is a good thing to see you two boys still together.”
“Tommy’s my ride-or-die,” I said.
“We’re like Bussy and Clyde,” Tommy said. A little bit dizzy from whiskey sours and too many days on the road, we looked at each other and laughed until we gasped for breath. Tommy beat his chest and coughed. I wiped away tears.
“Femme Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!” I said. That set us off again.
Sammy Ray grinned. “I’m just glad you nasty boys didn’t say something about For a Fistful of Dollars, because first of all—” He squinted his eyes and looked at the door. The horseshoe glowed a dull red, like a cast-iron skillet left on the burner too long.
A boom rattled the windows. Daylight flooded the room. Tommy shoved me off my stool. As I fell I saw a triangle of men in black padded uniforms storm in through the booted-open door. They opened fire. Tommy crumpled back against the bar. Drunk, on the floor, I wiggled to get my gun from under my shirt. Noise and smoke filled the room: screams from surprised twinks, breaking glass, and gunfire. The thundercrack of Sammy Ray’s peacemaker.
One of those fuckers shouted, “They’re not stunned!”
I turned towards the voice. I fired without aiming, into the light. My ears rang. I covered my mouth and coughed on the smoke and dust. Pulled myself upright, blinked. The horseshoe over the door cracked and fell to the ground in pieces. The twinks were crying. One of them was dead, slumped over in his booth. Spiderweb cracks laced the mirror behind the bar. Another twink clutched his stomach and howled. Tommy looked pale, one hand clamped his left shoulder, his shirt was red with blood. Sammy Ray stood over us, shotgun in his hand, his lips narrow and a vein bulging in his forehead. I moved over to Tommy, noticed a trickle of blood at his hips. Sammy Ray’s voice sounded like it came from a bad long-distance connection. “What in the chicken-fucking hell did you dumb sumbitches do to pull a team of gotdamn arbiters to my bar?”
I tore a strip off my shirt and pressed it to Tommy’s hip. My voice sounded like it came from an old floor-model TV. “What the fuck is an arbiter.”
“Goddamn magic police. Called out for bad juju, not whatever chickenshit you two artless clowns was up to. Used up the interception charm on my horseshoe in one go. Only reason your dumbasses are still able to explain.”
I pressed down on Tommy’s wound. He gasped. Through gritted teeth, he said, “We might have pulled something using magical disguises. Don’t know they found us.” He winced. “We ditched them.”
Sammy Ray’s face softened. “You boys gotta get the fuck out of here. I can take care of this here mess, but they’ll chase you anywhere in the States.” He paused. “On the way out, check their trucks.”
“Can you walk?” I asked Tommy.
He nodded. I helped pull him to his feet. He put an arm across my shoulders to steady himself. Outside was one of those black mail truck things we saw in the Utah desert. I peeked in the back. Our masks had been glued back together and stitched with silver thread and hooked up to wires on some sort of panel that looked like a submarine sonar from the movies. A radio crackled. A weird clock-looking thing with nine hands turned without any regard to the actual time. A pentagram was marked on the floor with LEDS at each juncture. Big silver pyramid on the wall with an eye like on the dollar bill with ‘Arbitration Service of America’ written in a circle around it. There were pictures of Miz Boudreaux and a map with glowing pins following our path from the bank. Tommy scowled. “What do we do?”
It ain’t hard to find gasoline at a truckstop. Before those fuckers’ backup showed up, we lit the masks up, and hell’s mail truck along with it.
The Datsun died somewhere in Riverside county. Tommy’s shoulder started to bleed again, and he was in no fit condition to walk to the next town, so we stood on the shoulder of I-15 with our thumbs out. Hours passed without much more than some curse words and half-empty big gulp thrown in our direction. The itching in the back of my teeth was back. Feeling cornered on the open road is not something I recommend.
Tommy turned to me, his big blue eyes wide and trusting. He coughed. “Maybe it’s in my head. But do you feel that itching. Do you hear a sound like a cat scratch?”
I kissed him on the forehead. It was clammy. My heart thundered. “Naw baby. I don’t feel nothing,” I lied. “I think maybe you need to get some rest.” I heard a squeal like the one before the windows rattled in Siren and sucked in my breath. A shadow loomed over us, and I prepared myself to go out fighting. But the squeal was the breaks of an eighteen-wheeler, and a big friendly-faced trucker in a plaid shirt leaned over to open his passenger door. “You boys looking for a lift?”
I gave my biggest smile. “Sure are, sir. Really appreciate it.”
“Hop in.” We clambered into the truck. Tommy leaned against me and shivered. He felt hot. The itching got stronger. I slammed the door shut.
“Where you boys headed?”
“To Mexico, sir. But as far as you can take us would be grand.”
He laughed. “Wish I was young enough to enjoy Mexico like I bet you fellas will. I’m going to San Diego, but I figure that’s close enough for you boys to find your own way south.”
I pulled out a wad of cash from one of the JanSports, desperate to put some distance between us and the itching.
The driver shook his head. “I didn’t pick you boys up with any expectations. Keep your money, just do someone else a good turn.”
Tommy moaned softly. He needed a doctor, but it wouldn’t do him no good if we couldn’t get away from them arbiters. They had to be close. The driver pulled back onto the highway. I kept my eyes on the road and tried to ignore the bad taste in the back of my mouth. Fifteen years gone. What if Tommy was only meant to live fifteen more years? Shania Twain was on the radio, but the itching drove out the bubblegum brightness of her song.
Tommy looked bad, and the driver sang along, and all I could think was to pray that nothing happened to this kind man as I looked in the rearview mirror. But nothing looked like a black mail truck, and slowly the itching subsided.
So, Mexico. It’s been almost two years since we crossed the border. We settled on a little town in Baja. Tommy’s learning to fish and I’m learning Spanish. It’s slow, and folk mostly laugh at my pronunciation, but I can understand what’s being said to me. Tommy don’t hardly speak English no more, them Spanish words slide off his tongue without a pause in-between them. He ain’t never recovered the full use of his left hand, and he walks with a limp, but he plays fútbol with the muchachos on Sunday and can pound out masa into a passable tortilla. JanSport money ain’t going to last us forever. But I got me a job at the carnicería cutting up hogs, and we make do. We watch the sun go down over the ocean together most nights. In the spring, sometimes you catch sight of a whale.
We ain’t never tired of each other’s company. We both know our time together is going to be shorter, but damn if that don’t make the silliest things have meaning. Each time Tommy tells a bad joke or tickles my neck is a blessing. And if sometimes we jump at an itch at the back of our necks, or my stomach drops because a stranger stands in a shaded alley wearing all black, well that don’t seem too high a price to pay.
(Editors’ Note: “Femme and Sundance” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 38B.)
© 2021 Christopher Caldwell