SAVE NINA

 

 

I started the chapter talking about the mad shitter.

If you’ve ever been to jail…

 

Chapter 1

 

My cellmate glanced at the ceiling, as if to say I was full of shit. Part of what I said was, but the rest really happened. I assaulted a prisoner three years ago.

So, here I am laying in a six by eight cell, staring at crud stuck to the twelve-foot ceiling. Tossed up there long before I came to live in this hole.

The other prisoners called it organic graffiti, puttied by the infamous mad shitter. I never met him, but they said he stunk up the whole block in fits of rage.

Given the clientele in this nightmarish setting I assumed he did it to ward off predators. Which brings me to the character I held in my peripheral vision, Mack Murphy, the hater from cell block twelve.

And my newest cellmate.

“I earned my prison sentence and I’ve had plenty of time to think about my crime and the trial that followed,” I said, trying to make friends as soon as possible.

Mack yawned.

“The judge didn’t want to hear my reasons. She curled her thin lips and said, ‘Wesley Sullivan, I sentence you to ten years with seven suspended.'”

Mack turned on his side and sat himself upright.

“But your honor,” I said, while glancing over at Mack. “She said dismissed.”

Mack stared at the floor between his feet.

I swung my feet off the metal bunk and squinted my eyes in Mack’s direction, “I’d do it again, judge or no judge.”

I clasped my sweaty palms together and tried to speak without a quiver in my voice. “When I cut Victor it must have been painful because he screamed out, and I sliced him in the opposite direction.”

“Yeah, then what happened?”

“The others grabbed my legs and dragged me away. Not before I carved Victor a big X across his mouth. After I cut him, he sat against the white center block wall and breathed through bloody lips that flapped in four parts. Sprayed blood everywhere.”

“Where was this?”

“In jail.” I shrugged.

Mack cleared his throat and glanced at the bars, then stretched his tattooed arms. Twice the size of mine. He rolled his fingers and cracked each knuckle until he made a fist.

“I had four cellmates before you, never saw any of them crack their knuckles like that,” I said, thinking he’s going to kill me.

He glared at me, and for the first time I felt like prey. It looked like we were about to fight when he said, “Time for chow.”

As if in rhythm with the lights, he stood and faced his bunk. Prison ink painted his legs down to his ankles. Most notably a four-inch swastika on the back of his calf.

Great.

I glared at his fungus infested toenails as he walked over to the rusted bars. A roach darted across the cement floor and wiggled its way between his feet. I reached for the top half of my prison issued shirt and heard a pop. I darted my eyes back toward the roach, but didn’t see it anywhere.

Out on the catwalk, the prison guard tapped the bars while doing his rounds. One tap for each cell. We were tap 52. He was at 48. Mack strode back to his bunk and left a trail of bug guts across the floor. He made his bed while flashing cheap white see-through boxers.

I counted the guard’s taps, wishing he would hurry.

“I heard that story before,” Mack said.  My heartbeat thumped in my ears.

“Oh yeah,” I said. “Guess I told it a few times.” My voice cracked.

Mack whipped the blanket over the sheets and tucked it under the mat.

“I’m skipping breakfast this morning,” I said.

“Suit yourself.”

Officer Johnson stopped by our cell and tapped the bars twice instead of once. The red faced monster of a man glared into the cell.

“Heard it was an officer who sliced Victor,” Mack said.

I locked eyes with Officer Johnson. Shit. His smirk told me two things. One, he told a prisoner I was a correctional officer. Two, he’s going to let Mack beat the crap out of me. Dirty, corrupted guard. I should have known. My skin crawled as Mack moved in close. I felt his body heat on my neck, and then the bars slid open.

“Prisoner Wesley Sullivan,” Officer Johnson said.

“Yes.”

“Pack up.”

Mack backed away. I cut my eyes at him and watched as he pulled a dingy sock over his foot with the roach’s leg still attached.

He stood and faced me. “Can’t stand them fucking wetbacks either,” he said.

I exhaled.

He walked out of the cell, paused in front of Officer Johnson, and looked into his eyes. Officer Johnson didn’t flinch.

Mack stepped around him. “Hate fucking prison guards too.”

I turned my head toward Mack’s bunk. Could have played ping-pong off the top of his covers.

“Ex-Marine,” Officer Johnson said.

You’d think I got caught stealing or something by the way I jumped. I rubbed my sweaty palms on my prison pants.

Officer Johnson smirked. “Don’t mean shit since he murdered his wife and kids.”

He walked away and the bars slid closed. Standard procedure when a prisoner packed to go home.

I gathered my stuff and waited by the cell bars for Officer Johnson, praying he’d get there before Mack.

Officer Johnson finally returned and escorted me through a door I hadn’t been through in years, three to be exact. We walked up to a window and stood there for several minutes.

“What block and cell number,” the clerk said. He didn’t bother to look at me.

“I thought you were dead,” I said.

“What block,” he repeated.

“H Block, number 52.” I stared at his badge.

“I see you met Mack,” the clerk said.

Officer Johnson snickered behind me, but when I looked his way he turned his head.

“Funny, I didn’t think you had a personality,” I told to the clerk.

He dropped his smirk. “Prisoner number.”

“20120753,” I said. He shoved my wallet and clothes through the window.

“You can change over there.” He pointed to a changeover room.

A few minutes later, they shut the large steel door behind me and I faced the outside gate to freedom.  It creaked open as I approached and I picked up my pace.

Someone stirred the dirt behind me, and sure enough, it was one of them gang members. He glared at me with evil eyes and strutted south. At least he headed in the right direction. He didn’t look like Victor, but his smug stride was a dead giveaway, he was one of Victor’s boys.

I stomped north. First time I had been alone in three years.  The sound of my boots dragged across the dirt on a path many walkers paved before my walk of fame. Or should I say before my infamous walk.

A couple hours later, the sound of a truck’s engine came out of nowhere. I jumped away from the blacktop and watched the truck slow. The passengers inside tried to get a good look at me, so I faced the fields on my right, ignoring them, but damned if it wasn’t the Segal brothers.

The truck rolled backwards and stopped. “You Jim Sullivan’s boy?” a passenger asked.

“Yes,” I replied. As if you didn’t know.

“You just get out of prison for cutting that gang banger?” I supposed everyone was going to ask me what happened.

“Yes.”

“You remember me?”

“Yep,” I said. But you were never a friend.

He slid to the middle of the seat and peered at me through the window. “Hop in, we’re on a schedule but we can drop you off at route 2.”

I climbed in the truck.

“You remember my brother?”

I leaned forward to glance at the driver, and nodded. “Mike.”

“You on your way to the farm?” Mike said.

“Home? Yeah.”

“Sorry to hear about your dad,” Mike said. “It must have been a terrible blow after losing your grandpa a few years before.”

“Thanks.”

“Speaking of your grandpa, remember what he used to say?”

“About what?”

Mike leaned forward to see around Jesse, the younger brother. “About what? He said there was trouble ahead.”

“He was a crazy old hoot,” Jesse said.

“Crazy old hoot? He had it right all along,” Mike said. “Didn’t he, Wes?”

That crazy feeling came over me, always did when I thought of grandpa. “He always said…, be ready for it.” I really didn’t want to talk about it, but we passed a sign that read, Bowling Green 22. I didn’t want to walk 22 miles either.

“And damned if it didn’t happen. They came across the border by the thousands. Ready for killing,” Mike said.

“Killed your Pa,” Jesse said.

Tears welled in my eyes. “Yep.”

“Where’d you bury him?” Mike asked.

I cleared my throat. “On the farm, next to grandpa.”

“Good place,” Mike said.

A lump formed in my throat. “It was a small ceremony,” I said. “Just me, Joe and two grave diggers after the preacher left.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry Wes. We couldn’t come because dad was sick and all,” Mike said.

Liar.

“But you sliced that El Salvadoran, whatever his name was, at least you got him.” Jesse brushed the air like it was no big deal.

“He didn’t kill my Dad.”

Mike nearly choked. “Say what? Isn’t he the one who stabbed him?”

“No.”

“Then why the hell you sliced him for?”

“He’s a gang recruiter, brought trouble here.”

“That’s it?”

I leaned forward, “It was three years ago, OK. He pissed me off.” I straightened on my seat, looking out the window. How could 22 miles feel so long?  “I was the pod officer and I told him to lock down in his cell. He slow stepped, acted like he ran the pod.”

Mike slowed the truck. “You mean it was a pissing match between the two of you?”

“No, I told him to stay in his country and he said, ‘What can you do?’ So I shoved him against the cell door.” I looked the other way and stared at the cornfields. “I don’t know, man. I let out this crazy roar.” I cleared my throat. “My own voice sounded foreign, and I knew the others were coming, but I didn’t care.”

“So, what about the one who killed your Pa?” Jesse said.

“Deported, dead, who knows?” I sighed. “After dad, I wanted to stop people from crossing the border. Still do.”

“So in a way, it was for your dad?” Mike said.

“Yeah, I suppose.” 3 miles to Bowling Green.

“Hey man, glad your back,” Mike said.

I don’t know why.

“We’ll drop you off at Joe Douglas’ store,” Mike said.

“That’d be fine,” I said. Another mile and Mike stopped the truck. “Thanks for the ride.”

“Wes,” Mike said before I managed to open the door. “Remember what your grandpa said about the immigrants coming for us?”

I remembered alright, hated every minute of his racial antics. I loved him though, and he loved me. I smiled at Mike. “He slammed that beer can in the only spot free of crow’s shit on the picnic table. Then he’d yell, ‘Be ready!'”

“Yeah well, he was right, Wesley. Since you’ve been gone, a bunch more moved into town.”

I held the truck door open and stared at him.

Things ain’t how it used to be around here,” he said.

Things couldn’t be worse than before, but I hung onto every word Mike said, until a horn blew, and sent me a few inches above the ground.

I stepped away from the truck and saw three male Hispanics in a dark blue Toyota.

Mike peered through his rear view mirror. “See what I mean? And they think it’s funny.” He revved the engine. Jesse slammed the door. After a nod in my direction, Mike threw the truck in reverse and backed up, stopped and back up a little more.

The driver of the Toyota scrambled to turn his wheel. The passengers hung out the window and yelled something in Spanish. They sped around the truck and down the road. One of them threw a beer can out the window. It bounced across the pavement like the last word, ‘We don’t care what you think.’

Mike’s face turned red. “We got to go. See you around.”

“Same,” I said.

Left me standing across from Joe Douglas’ store holding my bag of stuff I collected at the prison. The same advertisements hung in the window. Coke, Wonder Bread and Marlboro Cigarettes. Mike made a U-Turn and rolled back by. “Joe’s bout the only thing that’s stayed the same around here. Tell him we’ll bring the money we owe him tomorrow!”

Seemed to me Joe wasn’t the only thing that stayed the same. Those boys were always owing somebody something and they’d borrow whatever they owed to pay Joe. I shook my head and gazed at Joe’s store.

“Welcome home, Wesley.”

 

Chapter 2

 

My hands trembled as I reached for the door handle. I cracked it open and I peeked inside the familiar space. The bell dinged and Joe spotted me before I changed my mind about going in and facing him.

“Wesley Sullivan,” Joe said, sounding surprised.

I guess he had good cause, hadn’t been there in three years.

“Mr. Douglas,” I replied.

I tried to sound tough, but it must have come out lame, because Mr. Douglas smiled with his eyes and gave me a man’s handshake.

“You know to call me Joe,” he said.

The store looked the same as it did three years before, isles of disorganized goods on dusty steel shelves and worn tiled floors. Joe looked the same too, with gray hair peeking from his baseball cap, and the same red and blue plaid shirt he wore when I last saw him.

“Thanks,” I said. “You understand where I’ve been, do you?”

“Yep, other folks and I been keeping an eye on your place, making sure none of them immigrants try to take over the place.” Joe’s hand shook as he pointed over to the goods.

“Take over, you say. You mean move into the farm?”

Joe glanced at me with telling eyes, the kind that says you were right, and the kind that said we got troubles.

“Wesley, take whatever you need,” he said. “Pay me later.”

Grandpa and Joe grew up together, right there in Caroline County. Most people stared at me with judging eyes. Joe had knowing eyes.

“Thanks,” I said. “When the bank opens in the morning.”

“Young man, don’t go telling me what I know,” he said.

I didn’t have to ask Joe if he knew Grandpa and Dad left me a good size bank account. Joe watched them survive off as little as possible for years, to deposit money into an account for my future.

Grandpa and Dad were my everything, but if you judged it through Joe’s eyes, I was their everything.

“Guess I’ll grab a few things and head out to the farm,” I said as I grabbed a can of beef stew, crackers, cereal, milk and coffee. I juggled everything without a basket. Walked past the beer cooler, thought of Grandpa. He used to grab his case from that box every other day. I sighed and took my groceries to the front, so Joe could take inventory. I watched him struggle to grip the inch-long pencil, but that was Joe. He’d use that pencil until the lead met the eraser.

“Me and the boys will come visit tomorrow,” he said without looking up from the list.

“That’d be fine,” I said.

He put my stuff in a bag and stared at each item with a scrutinizing eye, then at me with concerned ones.

I wondered what I’d done wrong, then Joe said, “The girls,” and by girls he meant his and the boys’ wives. “We’ll cook you some man’s food, to get you along.”

Guess that answered my question.

A big lump of relief got caught up in my throat. I tried to hide it from Joe as I stumbled to the door without facing him.

“I’ll see you tomorrow Joe,” I said, and let the door slam behind me.

I walked south with a bag of groceries in one hand and a plastic bag of stuff I collected at the prison in the other.

Stupid stuff: a cheap radio, toothpaste, soups and hard candy, and a pencil no bigger than Joe’s. Agony made its way up my throat, and caused pain in the back.  Tears poured and I kept wiping my nose with my sleeve. Cars slowed, people glared, but I stared at the fields in the other direction. Sobbed most the way home.

The farm sat way back from the main road. But, I could see from the mailbox that the shutters needed painting, and the porch needed patching. To the right of the old farmhouse was Grandpa’s field, the once lively green patch of money, now dirt sprawled as far as the horizon.

I hurried around back to where Grandpa and Dad were resting. Passing the picnic table that sat under the oak tree. I plunged in front of Grandpa and Dad’s graves. Hung my head and clasped my hands in my lap. I tried to say something to make them proud.

Words became moans as I rocked myself into a trance. My thoughts drifted back to good times. At least, what Grandpa and Dad made it to be during years of struggle, pancakes for breakfast, working on the Buick. The same Buick that sat in the driveway covered with tarp.

That was the last thing I remembered seeing when I came to, under the oak tree, staring straight up at fall leaves. I decided I’d been laying around long enough, and it was time to get the beef stew on the stove. I tossed that prison stuff in the fire barrel, burned it good too, and headed for the kitchen.

White tin cabinets with silver handles, and a fifties style table with a stainless steel rim, worthless to other people. Me? I touched everything in there and worked my way to the living room. The television was a big chunk of box and if there were any hint of modern to it, it’d be the remote control. I clicked it several times before realizing it needed batteries. I tossed it on the large wood crate used as a coffee table, and manually turned the box on, to the news channel.

I got myself a bowl stew and crackers, and sat at the kitchen table. The familiar space gave me a sensation of warmth, and peace.

Then a female voice with a thick Spanish accent blasted into my living room.

“We deserve and demand equality. Our people are detained, but not for committing crimes.” She paused and yelled, “Held in prison for months waiting for immigration court!”

People clapped and roared in response. Her words made my head hurt. The camera aimed toward the crowd. Hundreds of people gathered around the stage.

“Equality,” I said aloud, and in between grinding teeth. “They only jail gang members and criminals. How about telling the truth?”

The camera aimed at the speaker. On the stage, a dark haired woman, in her twenties, stood in front of the microphone. She wore black slacks, a bright multi-colored blouse and shiny black flats. She had her dark hair pulled back in a loose bun, with several sections hanging around her face. It made her appear hard working, but low maintenance. I had never met her, but when her lips moved, and when she glanced to the left, my jaw tightened.

The crowd held signs that read Rights for our People and Racial Equality for Hispanics.’ Another read, ‘Nina.’

“Nina.” I mumbled her name in a low threatening voice. I had spent hours at the prison dreaming of sleeping in my bed, eating what I wanted, and not anywhere near a toilet, and away from those freaking gang members.

Comfortable in my own space, yet, there I was pissed off. I grabbed my food and went into the living room.

News reports on immigration dominated the TV stations.

They killed my father and because of them I went to prison.  I spooned stew into my mouth, sitting on the sofa, thinking about the gangs and violent crimes.  I laid back wearing the clothes I walked home in, slept right there on the sofa. Had nightmares all night.

Next morning, I woke with a pounding headache, showered and left the house.  Got the Buick started and drove into town. I stopped by the bank and picked up more groceries.

Later in the day, the elders showed up along with their wives. They brought plenty more food, and home cooked dishes. The girls spread a cloth over the picnic table and we ate fried chicken, corn casserole, greens, baked mac and cheese, and peach cobbler. When everyone finished, the girls gathered the dishes and went inside the house. Called themselves tidying up the place. The elders and I stayed outside, fixing to have our men’s talk.

A fuzzy feeling came over me, it felt good to be back at the table. I gazed around at the elders.

“Me and the boys thought we should let you in on that immigrant you sliced up at the jail,” Joe said.

I lifted the Bud to my face, took a swallow. Couldn’t find any words.

“It was on the TV,” Joe said. “Son of a bitch claimed asylum, and the judge gave it to him. Courts let him go six months after you went to prison.”

I chugged the rest of the Bud and tossed the can in the fire barrel. Joe, Darryl, and Wayne stared at me, and I should have said something. But I grabbed another beer and popped it open, and took another drink.

“My boys,” Darryl said.

“David,” Darryl continued.  “Watched a group of immigrants in Grafton Village. Quarter mile off Route 218. He said they move immigrants in and out there.”

“So?” I said.

“Said Victor was there.”

I squeezed the beer can and heard it crumble inside my fist. The farm was thirty miles from 218. The Buick had a full tank. I could get there in an hour to teach Victor a lesson.

Darryl took a swig of his beer and turned his head toward the house. I guess he didn’t want the girls to hear. He leaned toward the center of the table and said, “Said Victor’s bringing more gang members across the border.”

Wayne slapped his beer can on the table. “He was up in Dale City with that girl on television.”

“What girl?” I said. Though I suspected it was the one that kept me up the night before.

Wayne said, “Nina, that one fighting for rights.”

 

Chapter 3

“I thought I knew that girl from somewhere.”  Joe and the others stared at me with blank expressions. Caused me to smile even though I was mad as hell.

“Watched her on TV last night,” I explained. They sighed.

Darryl said, “Little, Ms. I want equality in the U.S. has something to hide. I’ll bet you the government’s in the dark about her boyfriend.”

“Not her boyfriend,” I said. “Nina must be his sister or cousin or something. She looks similar to Victor. Minus the scar.”

“Maybe that’s what she needs,” Darryl said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Darryl placed both his elbows on the table, held his beer between his palms and sneered.

“She needs a scar across her mouth to shut her up,” he said.

Joe cleared his throat and glanced over at Grandpa and Dad’s graves. Hard to tell what he was thinking.

I glanced back over at Darryl. He was staring at me with squinted eyes. Evil ones that made me think he’d do such a thing.

“Now that’s enough, Darryl!” Joe said.

Darryl took a drink of his beer and sprayed it toward the tree trunk. “Shits hot.”

“You expect it to be cool when you cup it in both hands,” Joe said.

Wayne stood up, adjusted his trousers and shook his head back and forth. “Harming that girl is like you holding your beer can, getting it all hot and griping about it. You harm that girl and you’ll be griping from prison.”

“He’s right,” I said.

Darryl glared at me.

“Can’t get anything done in prison,” I continued.

Joe stopped staring at Grandpa and Dad’s graves. He tapped his fingers on his can.

“Way I see it, she’s a problem, spreading talk about equality.” He gulped his beer and stared at me. “Wait and you’ll see,” he said.

Reminded me of Grandpa, and everything Grandpa said had come true as far as trouble crossing the border. But, to hate all of them, shoot, I didn’t agree with that part. That was my secret though, and telling the elders wasn’t a good idea. We sat there another hour, talking. Darryl invited me to his boys’ house before they all said their good nights.

Going back to prison wasn’t on my list of things to do before I die, but hearing what the boys were up to seemed harmless. So, I got me a good night’s sleep and jumped in the old pick-up the next morning and drove to Grafton Village.

Grafton used to be a quiet little neighborhood. Cook outs in the summer, lots of colorful lights at Christmas time. Family vehicles and work trucks sat in the driveways.

As I drove toward the house, loud music blasted the streets.

The driveways were littered with older model vehicles, mixed matched rims and patched up paint jobs, resembling a junk yard. Behind them stripped down vehicles with parts and tools scattered on the ground, a sure hazard for kids. Sheets and blankets covered a few windows showing the occupants hadn’t lived there long, or were too poor to buy curtains. A child ran out onto the street in front of me. I stomped on the brake and watched a young mother run to him screaming something in Spanish. She glared at me as if it were my fault she wasn’t watching her child.

Darryl’s boys, David and Carl, rented a house that sat up on a small hill. I drove slowly in that direction, half expecting another kid to run out in front of me, but none crossed my path. A group of male Hispanics gathered around an old van.

They stood in the middle of the street and crept out of my way when I passed. On the porch, a man stood wearing a white shirt with large letters that read, ‘Virginia is for Lovers.’

“You got to be kidding me,” I said as I rolled by, hiding my face under the rim of my baseball cap.

I arrived at Carl and David’s house and backed the truck in the driveway in front of their red Ford 2500. Talk about sticking out in the crowd. David opened his front door and waved. I headed in his direction.

“Come in, close the door,” David said. A worn chair sat in front of the window with an end table to the right of it, writing pad and pencil, binoculars and several beer cans on top.

Across the room a sofa sat with no coffee table, no rug. The thought of no woman entered my mind.

“When did you move in here?” I asked.

“Couple years back. He gestured toward the living room window. “Come over here, have a look.”

I eased across the squeaky, dull, wood floor, smelled stale beer from a spill under sunlight coming through the window, thinking prison conditions was better.

“Look,” David said, pointing out the window.

I squinted my eyes and gazed down at the Hispanics gathered around the Toyota. “Yeah, so what.”

David leaned down beside me. “See that one wearing the ‘Virginia is for Lovers,’ T-shirt?” he said.

“Yeah.”

“That’s Victor Estrada Hernandez.”

My heart thumped fast. I stared out the window. Blood rushed from my face.

“You’re pale, dude,” David mocked.

Carl came through the kitchen entry with three beers in his hands. “Did you tell him yet?” He handed me a beer and I took it with a trembling hand.

“Tell me what?”

Both them boys were country looking. David appeared simple like his Mom, rounded face and childlike, but Carl took after Darryl. There was an evil about him, high cheek bones, squinted eyes, crooked grin.

Carl pointed to the window with two fingers while holding onto his beer can with the same hand. “We’ve been watching Victor. Moved in here about a year after you went to prison. They set that fucker free after you cut him.”

I raised the beer can to my face, but couldn’t take a swallow. “You’ve been spying on Victor?” I said.

“Yep.” David smiled at me as if he deserved a trophy.

My lips were dry but saliva filled my mouth quick. “Victor lives there?”

“No,” Carl said. “He lives in an upscale neighborhood, in Herndon.” He took a swig of beer, and darted those squinted eyes upward, disgusted. “Victor comes here twice a month.” He pulled the curtain back. “They’ve been there about ten minutes.”

“Wait, wait,” David said, sounding anxious. I peered through the window and saw eight people climb out of the van. Two women, six men. The women folded their arms across their bodies. One of the men pushed them and five of the men toward the house. They used a key to unlock the door. The sixth man talked to Victor.

“They lock ’em in the house,” David said.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

Carl staggered to the sofa and sat with his legs spread country-boy-cocky wide. “Those people that went into the house came over the border maybe two, three days ago. Victor has them locked in the house so the women won’t tell anyone.”

I frowned. “Tell what?”

Carl lit a cigarette and blew rings into the already stank air. “They were raped. One of the perks for the coyote.”

“Coyote?”

“The van driver, and he takes two watchmen, all three rape the women as they travel across the border. In the morning they’ll head out down 218, take the 301 bridge to Maryland.”

“What about the one talking to Victor?” I peered again through the window, but both men were gone.

Carl drank his beer, and just like his dad he said, “Shit’s hot.” As he strutted into the kitchen, he yelled back, “Another gang member.”

David cleared cans off the side table and tossed them in a laundry basket lined with a trash bag. “Your color is coming back,” he said.

I spent three years in prison while Victor was busy bringing more gang members to the States. He lived in a grand house while I ate more beans than my stomach could digest.

My jaw clenched.

“We’ve been waiting for you to come home,” David said.

“Waiting for me, for what?”

“Pay back?”

“That and to run them out of our town. You know one of them got your girl pregnant?”

“My girl?”

“Beth,” he said. “Yeah. Twice. Then left her to take care of them alone.”

I could have gone without that bit of news, and Carl talked like we were still kids. Beth and I hadn’t seen each other in years. How Carl thought it would bother me baffled me as much as looking at the two of them. They were once chubby little brats, turned current day renegades.

“I just got out of prison. Not planning to go back.”

David’s mouth dropped open, and Carl cut his eyes at me sideways.

“Thanks for the beer,” I said, heading for the exit.

“Wesley,” David said with an urgency in his voice. I glanced back, and he stopped talking for a moment. “You,” he stuttered, “You, can’t.” He squeezed his eyes tight and opened them. “You can’t let them take over.”

Last time I heard him stutter, he was eleven and about to get a whipping from his father for running the tractor out of gas six acres from the barn. That was the first whipping. The second one was for stuttering. He grew up getting whipped and I remember feeling bad for him then, but going up against an entire gang was suicide.

I heard a car door close. Carl walked over to the front door, someone mumbled, and two men walked in as Carl closed the door and stood behind them with sneering eyes.

“You’re Wesley,” one of them said.

Carl leered at me, and I bet he waited for me to dash toward the door.

I didn’t know what those boys were planning until Carl said, “They’ll move them early morning, around four. We’ll follow them, but we do not engage. We just find out where they’re taking them.”

My stay home felt short lived.

Chapter 1

 

My cellmate glanced at the ceiling, as if to say I was full of shit. Part of what I said was, but the rest really happened. I assaulted a prisoner three years ago.

So, here I am laying in a six by eight cell, staring at crud stuck to the twelve-foot ceiling. Tossed up there long before I came to live in this hole.

The other prisoners called it organic graffiti, puttied by the infamous mad shitter. I never met him, but they said he stunk up the whole block in fits of rage.

Given the clientele in this nightmarish setting I assumed he did it to ward off predators. Which brings me to the character I held in my peripheral vision, Mack Murphy, the hater from cell block twelve.

And my newest cellmate.

“I earned my prison sentence and I’ve had plenty of time to think about my crime and the trial that followed,” I said, trying to make friends as soon as possible.

Mack yawned.

“The judge didn’t want to hear my reasons. She curled her thin lips and said, ‘Wesley Sullivan, I sentence you to ten years with seven suspended.'”

Mack turned on his side and sat himself upright.

“But your honor,” I said, while glancing over at Mack. “She said dismissed.”

Mack stared at the floor between his feet.

I swung my feet off the metal bunk and squinted my eyes in Mack’s direction, “I’d do it again, judge or no judge.”

I clasped my sweaty palms together and tried to speak without a quiver in my voice. “When I cut Victor it must have been painful because he screamed out, and I sliced him in the opposite direction.”

“Yeah, then what happened?”

“The others grabbed my legs and dragged me away. Not before I carved Victor a big X across his mouth. After I cut him, he sat against the white center block wall and breathed through bloody lips that flapped in four parts. Sprayed blood everywhere.”

“Where was this?”

“In jail.” I shrugged.

Mack cleared his throat and glanced at the bars, then stretched his tattooed arms. Twice the size of mine. He rolled his fingers and cracked each knuckle until he made a fist.

“I had four cellmates before you, never saw any of them crack their knuckles like that,” I said, thinking he’s going to kill me.

He glared at me, and for the first time I felt like prey. It looked like we were about to fight when he said, “Time for chow.”

As if in rhythm with the lights, he stood and faced his bunk. Prison ink painted his legs down to his ankles. Most notably a four-inch swastika on the back of his calf.

Great.

I glared at his fungus infested toenails as he walked over to the rusted bars. A roach darted across the cement floor and wiggled its way between his feet. I reached for the top half of my prison issued shirt and heard a pop. I darted my eyes back toward the roach, but didn’t see it anywhere.

Out on the catwalk, the prison guard tapped the bars while doing his rounds. One tap for each cell. We were tap 52. He was at 48. Mack strode back to his bunk and left a trail of bug guts across the floor. He made his bed while flashing cheap white see-through boxers.

I counted the guard’s taps, wishing he would hurry.

“I heard that story before,” Mack said.  My heartbeat thumped in my ears.

“Oh yeah,” I said. “Guess I told it a few times.” My voice cracked.

Mack whipped the blanket over the sheets and tucked it under the mat.

“I’m skipping breakfast this morning,” I said.

“Suit yourself.”

Officer Johnson stopped by our cell and tapped the bars twice instead of once. The red faced monster of a man glared into the cell.

“Heard it was an officer who sliced Victor,” Mack said.

I locked eyes with Officer Johnson. Shit. His smirk told me two things. One, he told a prisoner I was a correctional officer. Two, he’s going to let Mack beat the crap out of me. Dirty, corrupted guard. I should have known. My skin crawled as Mack moved in close. I felt his body heat on my neck, and then the bars slid open.

“Prisoner Wesley Sullivan,” Officer Johnson said.

“Yes.”

“Pack up.”

Mack backed away. I cut my eyes at him and watched as he pulled a dingy sock over his foot with the roach’s leg still attached.

He stood and faced me. “Can’t stand them fucking wetbacks either,” he said.

I exhaled.

He walked out of the cell, paused in front of Officer Johnson, and looked into his eyes. Officer Johnson didn’t flinch.

Mack stepped around him. “Hate fucking prison guards too.”

I turned my head toward Mack’s bunk. Could have played ping-pong off the top of his covers.

“Ex-Marine,” Officer Johnson said.

You’d think I got caught stealing or something by the way I jumped. I rubbed my sweaty palms on my prison pants.

Officer Johnson smirked. “Don’t mean shit since he murdered his wife and kids.”

He walked away and the bars slid closed. Standard procedure when a prisoner packed to go home.

I gathered my stuff and waited by the cell bars for Officer Johnson, praying he’d get there before Mack.

Officer Johnson finally returned and escorted me through a door I hadn’t been through in years, three to be exact. We walked up to a window and stood there for several minutes.

“What block and cell number,” the clerk said. He didn’t bother to look at me.

“I thought you were dead,” I said.

“What block,” he repeated.

“H Block, number 52.” I stared at his badge.

“I see you met Mack,” the clerk said.

Officer Johnson snickered behind me, but when I looked his way he turned his head.

“Funny, I didn’t think you had a personality,” I told to the clerk.

He dropped his smirk. “Prisoner number.”

“20120753,” I said. He shoved my wallet and clothes through the window.

“You can change over there.” He pointed to a changeover room.

A few minutes later, they shut the large steel door behind me and I faced the outside gate to freedom.  It creaked open as I approached and I picked up my pace.

Someone stirred the dirt behind me, and sure enough, it was one of them gang members. He glared at me with evil eyes and strutted south. At least he headed in the right direction. He didn’t look like Victor, but his smug stride was a dead giveaway, he was one of Victor’s boys.

I stomped north. First time I had been alone in three years.  The sound of my boots dragged across the dirt on a path many walkers paved before my walk of fame. Or should I say before my infamous walk.

A couple hours later, the sound of a truck’s engine came out of nowhere. I jumped away from the blacktop and watched the truck slow. The passengers inside tried to get a good look at me, so I faced the fields on my right, ignoring them, but damned if it wasn’t the Segal brothers.

The truck rolled backwards and stopped. “You Jim Sullivan’s boy?” a passenger asked.

“Yes,” I replied. As if you didn’t know.

“You just get out of prison for cutting that gang banger?” I supposed everyone was going to ask me what happened.

“Yes.”

“You remember me?”

“Yep,” I said. But you were never a friend.

He slid to the middle of the seat and peered at me through the window. “Hop in, we’re on a schedule but we can drop you off at route 2.”

I climbed in the truck.

“You remember my brother?”

I leaned forward to glance at the driver, and nodded. “Mike.”

“You on your way to the farm?” Mike said.

“Home? Yeah.”

“Sorry to hear about your dad,” Mike said. “It must have been a terrible blow after losing your grandpa a few years before.”

“Thanks.”

“Speaking of your grandpa, remember what he used to say?”

“About what?”

Mike leaned forward to see around Jesse, the younger brother. “About what? He said there was trouble ahead.”

“He was a crazy old hoot,” Jesse said.

“Crazy old hoot? He had it right all along,” Mike said. “Didn’t he, Wes?”

That crazy feeling came over me, always did when I thought of grandpa. “He always said…, be ready for it.” I really didn’t want to talk about it, but we passed a sign that read, Bowling Green 22. I didn’t want to walk 22 miles either.

“And damned if it didn’t happen. They came across the border by the thousands. Ready for killing,” Mike said.

“Killed your Pa,” Jesse said.

Tears welled in my eyes. “Yep.”

“Where’d you bury him?” Mike asked.

I cleared my throat. “On the farm, next to grandpa.”

“Good place,” Mike said.

A lump formed in my throat. “It was a small ceremony,” I said. “Just me, Joe and two grave diggers after the preacher left.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry Wes. We couldn’t come because dad was sick and all,” Mike said.

Liar.

“But you sliced that El Salvadoran, whatever his name was, at least you got him.” Jesse brushed the air like it was no big deal.

“He didn’t kill my Dad.”

Mike nearly choked. “Say what? Isn’t he the one who stabbed him?”

“No.”

“Then why the hell you sliced him for?”

“He’s a gang recruiter, brought trouble here.”

“That’s it?”

I leaned forward, “It was three years ago, OK. He pissed me off.” I straightened on my seat, looking out the window. How could 22 miles feel so long?  “I was the pod officer and I told him to lock down in his cell. He slow stepped, acted like he ran the pod.”

Mike slowed the truck. “You mean it was a pissing match between the two of you?”

“No, I told him to stay in his country and he said, ‘What can you do?’ So I shoved him against the cell door.” I looked the other way and stared at the cornfields. “I don’t know, man. I let out this crazy roar.” I cleared my throat. “My own voice sounded foreign, and I knew the others were coming, but I didn’t care.”

“So, what about the one who killed your Pa?” Jesse said.

“Deported, dead, who knows?” I sighed. “After dad, I wanted to stop people from crossing the border. Still do.”

“So in a way, it was for your dad?” Mike said.

“Yeah, I suppose.” 3 miles to Bowling Green.

“Hey man, glad your back,” Mike said.

I don’t know why.

“We’ll drop you off at Joe Douglas’ store,” Mike said.

“That’d be fine,” I said. Another mile and Mike stopped the truck. “Thanks for the ride.”

“Wes,” Mike said before I managed to open the door. “Remember what your grandpa said about the immigrants coming for us?”

I remembered alright, hated every minute of his racial antics. I loved him though, and he loved me. I smiled at Mike. “He slammed that beer can in the only spot free of crow’s shit on the picnic table. Then he’d yell, ‘Be ready!'”

“Yeah well, he was right, Wesley. Since you’ve been gone, a bunch more moved into town.”

I held the truck door open and stared at him.

Things ain’t how it used to be around here,” he said.

Things couldn’t be worse than before, but I hung onto every word Mike said, until a horn blew, and sent me a few inches above the ground.

I stepped away from the truck and saw three male Hispanics in a dark blue Toyota.

Mike peered through his rear view mirror. “See what I mean? And they think it’s funny.” He revved the engine. Jesse slammed the door. After a nod in my direction, Mike threw the truck in reverse and backed up, stopped and back up a little more.

The driver of the Toyota scrambled to turn his wheel. The passengers hung out the window and yelled something in Spanish. They sped around the truck and down the road. One of them threw a beer can out the window. It bounced across the pavement like the last word, ‘We don’t care what you think.’

Mike’s face turned red. “We got to go. See you around.”

“Same,” I said.

Left me standing across from Joe Douglas’ store holding my bag of stuff I collected at the prison. The same advertisements hung in the window. Coke, Wonder Bread and Marlboro Cigarettes. Mike made a U-Turn and rolled back by. “Joe’s bout the only thing that’s stayed the same around here. Tell him we’ll bring the money we owe him tomorrow!”

Seemed to me Joe wasn’t the only thing that stayed the same. Those boys were always owing somebody something and they’d borrow whatever they owed to pay Joe. I shook my head and gazed at Joe’s store.

“Welcome home, Wesley.”

 

Chapter 2

 

My hands trembled as I reached for the door handle. I cracked it open and I peeked inside the familiar space. The bell dinged and Joe spotted me before I changed my mind about going in and facing him.

“Wesley Sullivan,” Joe said, sounding surprised.

I guess he had good cause, hadn’t been there in three years.

“Mr. Douglas,” I replied.

I tried to sound tough, but it must have come out lame, because Mr. Douglas smiled with his eyes and gave me a man’s handshake.

“You know to call me Joe,” he said.

The store looked the same as it did three years before, isles of disorganized goods on dusty steel shelves and worn tiled floors. Joe looked the same too, with gray hair peeking from his baseball cap, and the same red and blue plaid shirt he wore when I last saw him.

“Thanks,” I said. “You understand where I’ve been, do you?”

“Yep, other folks and I been keeping an eye on your place, making sure none of them immigrants try to take over the place.” Joe’s hand shook as he pointed over to the goods.

“Take over, you say. You mean move into the farm?”

Joe glanced at me with telling eyes, the kind that says you were right, and the kind that said we got troubles.

“Wesley, take whatever you need,” he said. “Pay me later.”

Grandpa and Joe grew up together, right there in Caroline County. Most people stared at me with judging eyes. Joe had knowing eyes.

“Thanks,” I said. “When the bank opens in the morning.”

“Young man, don’t go telling me what I know,” he said.

I didn’t have to ask Joe if he knew Grandpa and Dad left me a good size bank account. Joe watched them survive off as little as possible for years, to deposit money into an account for my future.

Grandpa and Dad were my everything, but if you judged it through Joe’s eyes, I was their everything.

“Guess I’ll grab a few things and head out to the farm,” I said as I grabbed a can of beef stew, crackers, cereal, milk and coffee. I juggled everything without a basket. Walked past the beer cooler, thought of Grandpa. He used to grab his case from that box every other day. I sighed and took my groceries to the front, so Joe could take inventory. I watched him struggle to grip the inch-long pencil, but that was Joe. He’d use that pencil until the lead met the eraser.

“Me and the boys will come visit tomorrow,” he said without looking up from the list.

“That’d be fine,” I said.

He put my stuff in a bag and stared at each item with a scrutinizing eye, then at me with concerned ones.

I wondered what I’d done wrong, then Joe said, “The girls,” and by girls he meant his and the boys’ wives. “We’ll cook you some man’s food, to get you along.”

Guess that answered my question.

A big lump of relief got caught up in my throat. I tried to hide it from Joe as I stumbled to the door without facing him.

“I’ll see you tomorrow Joe,” I said, and let the door slam behind me.

I walked south with a bag of groceries in one hand and a plastic bag of stuff I collected at the prison in the other.

Stupid stuff: a cheap radio, toothpaste, soups and hard candy, and a pencil no bigger than Joe’s. Agony made its way up my throat, and caused pain in the back.  Tears poured and I kept wiping my nose with my sleeve. Cars slowed, people glared, but I stared at the fields in the other direction. Sobbed most the way home.

The farm sat way back from the main road. But, I could see from the mailbox that the shutters needed painting, and the porch needed patching. To the right of the old farmhouse was Grandpa’s field, the once lively green patch of money, now dirt sprawled as far as the horizon.

I hurried around back to where Grandpa and Dad were resting. Passing the picnic table that sat under the oak tree. I plunged in front of Grandpa and Dad’s graves. Hung my head and clasped my hands in my lap. I tried to say something to make them proud.

Words became moans as I rocked myself into a trance. My thoughts drifted back to good times. At least, what Grandpa and Dad made it to be during years of struggle, pancakes for breakfast, working on the Buick. The same Buick that sat in the driveway covered with tarp.

That was the last thing I remembered seeing when I came to, under the oak tree, staring straight up at fall leaves. I decided I’d been laying around long enough, and it was time to get the beef stew on the stove. I tossed that prison stuff in the fire barrel, burned it good too, and headed for the kitchen.

White tin cabinets with silver handles, and a fifties style table with a stainless steel rim, worthless to other people. Me? I touched everything in there and worked my way to the living room. The television was a big chunk of box and if there were any hint of modern to it, it’d be the remote control. I clicked it several times before realizing it needed batteries. I tossed it on the large wood crate used as a coffee table, and manually turned the box on, to the news channel.

I got myself a bowl stew and crackers, and sat at the kitchen table. The familiar space gave me a sensation of warmth, and peace.

Then a female voice with a thick Spanish accent blasted into my living room.

“We deserve and demand equality. Our people are detained, but not for committing crimes.” She paused and yelled, “Held in prison for months waiting for immigration court!”

People clapped and roared in response. Her words made my head hurt. The camera aimed toward the crowd. Hundreds of people gathered around the stage.

“Equality,” I said aloud, and in between grinding teeth. “They only jail gang members and criminals. How about telling the truth?”

The camera aimed at the speaker. On the stage, a dark haired woman, in her twenties, stood in front of the microphone. She wore black slacks, a bright multi-colored blouse and shiny black flats. She had her dark hair pulled back in a loose bun, with several sections hanging around her face. It made her appear hard working, but low maintenance. I had never met her, but when her lips moved, and when she glanced to the left, my jaw tightened.

The crowd held signs that read Rights for our People and Racial Equality for Hispanics.’ Another read, ‘Nina.’

“Nina.” I mumbled her name in a low threatening voice. I had spent hours at the prison dreaming of sleeping in my bed, eating what I wanted, and not anywhere near a toilet, and away from those freaking gang members.

Comfortable in my own space, yet, there I was pissed off. I grabbed my food and went into the living room.

News reports on immigration dominated the TV stations.

They killed my father and because of them I went to prison.  I spooned stew into my mouth, sitting on the sofa, thinking about the gangs and violent crimes.  I laid back wearing the clothes I walked home in, slept right there on the sofa. Had nightmares all night.

Next morning, I woke with a pounding headache, showered and left the house.  Got the Buick started and drove into town. I stopped by the bank and picked up more groceries.

Later in the day, the elders showed up along with their wives. They brought plenty more food, and home cooked dishes. The girls spread a cloth over the picnic table and we ate fried chicken, corn casserole, greens, baked mac and cheese, and peach cobbler. When everyone finished, the girls gathered the dishes and went inside the house. Called themselves tidying up the place. The elders and I stayed outside, fixing to have our men’s talk.

A fuzzy feeling came over me, it felt good to be back at the table. I gazed around at the elders.

“Me and the boys thought we should let you in on that immigrant you sliced up at the jail,” Joe said.

I lifted the Bud to my face, took a swallow. Couldn’t find any words.

“It was on the TV,” Joe said. “Son of a bitch claimed asylum, and the judge gave it to him. Courts let him go six months after you went to prison.”

I chugged the rest of the Bud and tossed the can in the fire barrel. Joe, Darryl, and Wayne stared at me, and I should have said something. But I grabbed another beer and popped it open, and took another drink.

“My boys,” Darryl said.

“David,” Darryl continued.  “Watched a group of immigrants in Grafton Village. Quarter mile off Route 218. He said they move immigrants in and out there.”

“So?” I said.

“Said Victor was there.”

I squeezed the beer can and heard it crumble inside my fist. The farm was thirty miles from 218. The Buick had a full tank. I could get there in an hour to teach Victor a lesson.

Darryl took a swig of his beer and turned his head toward the house. I guess he didn’t want the girls to hear. He leaned toward the center of the table and said, “Said Victor’s bringing more gang members across the border.”

Wayne slapped his beer can on the table. “He was up in Dale City with that girl on television.”

“What girl?” I said. Though I suspected it was the one that kept me up the night before.

Wayne said, “Nina, that one fighting for rights.”

 

Chapter 3

“I thought I knew that girl from somewhere.”  Joe and the others stared at me with blank expressions. Caused me to smile even though I was mad as hell.

“Watched her on TV last night,” I explained. They sighed.

Darryl said, “Little, Ms. I want equality in the U.S. has something to hide. I’ll bet you the government’s in the dark about her boyfriend.”

“Not her boyfriend,” I said. “Nina must be his sister or cousin or something. She looks similar to Victor. Minus the scar.”

“Maybe that’s what she needs,” Darryl said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Darryl placed both his elbows on the table, held his beer between his palms and sneered.

“She needs a scar across her mouth to shut her up,” he said.

Joe cleared his throat and glanced over at Grandpa and Dad’s graves. Hard to tell what he was thinking.

I glanced back over at Darryl. He was staring at me with squinted eyes. Evil ones that made me think he’d do such a thing.

“Now that’s enough, Darryl!” Joe said.

Darryl took a drink of his beer and sprayed it toward the tree trunk. “Shits hot.”

“You expect it to be cool when you cup it in both hands,” Joe said.

Wayne stood up, adjusted his trousers and shook his head back and forth. “Harming that girl is like you holding your beer can, getting it all hot and griping about it. You harm that girl and you’ll be griping from prison.”

“He’s right,” I said.

Darryl glared at me.

“Can’t get anything done in prison,” I continued.

Joe stopped staring at Grandpa and Dad’s graves. He tapped his fingers on his can.

“Way I see it, she’s a problem, spreading talk about equality.” He gulped his beer and stared at me. “Wait and you’ll see,” he said.

Reminded me of Grandpa, and everything Grandpa said had come true as far as trouble crossing the border. But, to hate all of them, shoot, I didn’t agree with that part. That was my secret though, and telling the elders wasn’t a good idea. We sat there another hour, talking. Darryl invited me to his boys’ house before they all said their good nights.

Going back to prison wasn’t on my list of things to do before I die, but hearing what the boys were up to seemed harmless. So, I got me a good night’s sleep and jumped in the old pick-up the next morning and drove to Grafton Village.

Grafton used to be a quiet little neighborhood. Cook outs in the summer, lots of colorful lights at Christmas time. Family vehicles and work trucks sat in the driveways.

As I drove toward the house, loud music blasted the streets.

The driveways were littered with older model vehicles, mixed matched rims and patched up paint jobs, resembling a junk yard. Behind them stripped down vehicles with parts and tools scattered on the ground, a sure hazard for kids. Sheets and blankets covered a few windows showing the occupants hadn’t lived there long, or were too poor to buy curtains. A child ran out onto the street in front of me. I stomped on the brake and watched a young mother run to him screaming something in Spanish. She glared at me as if it were my fault she wasn’t watching her child.

Darryl’s boys, David and Carl, rented a house that sat up on a small hill. I drove slowly in that direction, half expecting another kid to run out in front of me, but none crossed my path. A group of male Hispanics gathered around an old van.

They stood in the middle of the street and crept out of my way when I passed. On the porch, a man stood wearing a white shirt with large letters that read, ‘Virginia is for Lovers.’

“You got to be kidding me,” I said as I rolled by, hiding my face under the rim of my baseball cap.

I arrived at Carl and David’s house and backed the truck in the driveway in front of their red Ford 2500. Talk about sticking out in the crowd. David opened his front door and waved. I headed in his direction.

“Come in, close the door,” David said. A worn chair sat in front of the window with an end table to the right of it, writing pad and pencil, binoculars and several beer cans on top.

Across the room a sofa sat with no coffee table, no rug. The thought of no woman entered my mind.

“When did you move in here?” I asked.

“Couple years back. He gestured toward the living room window. “Come over here, have a look.”

I eased across the squeaky, dull, wood floor, smelled stale beer from a spill under sunlight coming through the window, thinking prison conditions was better.

“Look,” David said, pointing out the window.

I squinted my eyes and gazed down at the Hispanics gathered around the Toyota. “Yeah, so what.”

David leaned down beside me. “See that one wearing the ‘Virginia is for Lovers,’ T-shirt?” he said.

“Yeah.”

“That’s Victor Estrada Hernandez.”

My heart thumped fast. I stared out the window. Blood rushed from my face.

“You’re pale, dude,” David mocked.

Carl came through the kitchen entry with three beers in his hands. “Did you tell him yet?” He handed me a beer and I took it with a trembling hand.

“Tell me what?”

Both them boys were country looking. David appeared simple like his Mom, rounded face and childlike, but Carl took after Darryl. There was an evil about him, high cheek bones, squinted eyes, crooked grin.

Carl pointed to the window with two fingers while holding onto his beer can with the same hand. “We’ve been watching Victor. Moved in here about a year after you went to prison. They set that fucker free after you cut him.”

I raised the beer can to my face, but couldn’t take a swallow. “You’ve been spying on Victor?” I said.

“Yep.” David smiled at me as if he deserved a trophy.

My lips were dry but saliva filled my mouth quick. “Victor lives there?”

“No,” Carl said. “He lives in an upscale neighborhood, in Herndon.” He took a swig of beer, and darted those squinted eyes upward, disgusted. “Victor comes here twice a month.” He pulled the curtain back. “They’ve been there about ten minutes.”

“Wait, wait,” David said, sounding anxious. I peered through the window and saw eight people climb out of the van. Two women, six men. The women folded their arms across their bodies. One of the men pushed them and five of the men toward the house. They used a key to unlock the door. The sixth man talked to Victor.

“They lock ’em in the house,” David said.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

Carl staggered to the sofa and sat with his legs spread country-boy-cocky wide. “Those people that went into the house came over the border maybe two, three days ago. Victor has them locked in the house so the women won’t tell anyone.”

I frowned. “Tell what?”

Carl lit a cigarette and blew rings into the already stank air. “They were raped. One of the perks for the coyote.”

“Coyote?”

“The van driver, and he takes two watchmen, all three rape the women as they travel across the border. In the morning they’ll head out down 218, take the 301 bridge to Maryland.”

“What about the one talking to Victor?” I peered again through the window, but both men were gone.

Carl drank his beer, and just like his dad he said, “Shit’s hot.” As he strutted into the kitchen, he yelled back, “Another gang member.”

David cleared cans off the side table and tossed them in a laundry basket lined with a trash bag. “Your color is coming back,” he said.

I spent three years in prison while Victor was busy bringing more gang members to the States. He lived in a grand house while I ate more beans than my stomach could digest.

My jaw clenched.

“We’ve been waiting for you to come home,” David said.

“Waiting for me, for what?”

“Pay back?”

“That and to run them out of our town. You know one of them got your girl pregnant?”

“My girl?”

“Beth,” he said. “Yeah. Twice. Then left her to take care of them alone.”

I could have gone without that bit of news, and Carl talked like we were still kids. Beth and I hadn’t seen each other in years. How Carl thought it would bother me baffled me as much as looking at the two of them. They were once chubby little brats, turned current day renegades.

“I just got out of prison. Not planning to go back.”

David’s mouth dropped open, and Carl cut his eyes at me sideways.

“Thanks for the beer,” I said, heading for the exit.

“Wesley,” David said with an urgency in his voice. I glanced back, and he stopped talking for a moment. “You,” he stuttered, “You, can’t.” He squeezed his eyes tight and opened them. “You can’t let them take over.”

Last time I heard him stutter, he was eleven and about to get a whipping from his father for running the tractor out of gas six acres from the barn. That was the first whipping. The second one was for stuttering. He grew up getting whipped and I remember feeling bad for him then, but going up against an entire gang was suicide.

I heard a car door close. Carl walked over to the front door, someone mumbled, and two men walked in as Carl closed the door and stood behind them with sneering eyes.

“You’re Wesley,” one of them said.

Carl leered at me, and I bet he waited for me to dash toward the door.

I didn’t know what those boys were planning until Carl said, “They’ll move them early morning, around four. We’ll follow them, but we do not engage. We just find out where they’re taking them.”

My stay home felt short lived.

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