Evan hung around the abandoned apartment complex, even after everyone had left.
He texted Savannah. You get Jose?
He stared at his phone’s screen for three minutes and waited for a response. When she didn’t reply, he put the phone in his pocket and figured he would stop putting off the inevitable. He had to go home.
Evan took his time descending the battered stairs. What was the hurry?
Twenty minutes later, he dropped his bike on the lawn in front of his single-wide. The area was mostly dirt with scant traces of dead grass. White flowers and green weeds flourished in the forgotten yard.
A shoddy lean-to was built off the side of the shed. A wire cage, like a mesh wall, wrapped around the perimeter. Inside stood six wooden boxes. A claustrophobic home for six different fighting cocks.
Off to the other side, his dad’s old Dodge was parked in the yard. Bald tires grayed in the sun. The once white paint chipped and rusted from constant neglect.
Evan creeped into the house. The smell of bacon and stale smoke filled the halls. His parent’s room was across the hall from his. He stopped by their door and peeked into the room.
His mom napped on a made bed. She lay on top of the sheets, wearing jeans and a big sweatshirt. Her bare feet were dirty. Her red hair was a matted mess around her pillow. But she grinned in her sleep.
Evan hoped she was having a good dream, because their waking moments weren’t that great.
Despite himself, Evan mirrored her grin.
“What you smiling for, boy? Peeking in on your momma like that?” His dad’s voice slurred from behind him.
Evan whirled around. “Hey, dad.”
“When’d you get home?”
“Why’re sneaking in like a damned burglar?”
Evan stammered “I saw your truck outside. I didn’t know if you came home to rest. I didn’t want to wake you.”
“What’re saying, kid? That I’m lazy. That I sleep during the day because I don’t have nothing better do?”
“No. I didn’t say that.” Evan looked at the ground and stepped back.
His dad grabbed his face. “Are you talking back to me? Look at me, not at your feet.” He released Evan’s face, and his right hand worked his belt through the loops, sliding it off like a snake slithering out from under the rocks. “You talking back to me?”
“No, sir.” Evan watched the belt. He knew if he made eye contact, his father would take that as a challenge. As a threat to his dominance.
His dad threw open the bedroom door.
“You’re right. I’m not a lazy asshole. I got shit to do. But this woman, this woman here. What the hell is she doing sleeping on my damn bed in the middle of the god damn fucking day?” He bulled into the room, snapping his belt in the air. “Christine,” he roared.
Evan watched his mother’s eyes flutter open.
For a moment, the joy that had been on her face lingered in wakefulness, as if the dream had refused to go away. But when she saw the monster boring down upon her, her eyes widened with fear. Her mouth opened to scream.
Before she had the chance, the belt smacked against her cheek, instantly burning it red. She cowered into a ball. The leather struck across her neck and face four more times.
Then Evan’s dad refastened the belt around his waist and stomped from the room. The front door slammed a few seconds later, followed by the sound of his truck’s engine igniting.
Evan shuffled to his mother’s side.
She was whimpering. Not sobbing, not even crying, just whimpering. Like a broken dog.
He climbed onto the bed and wrapped his arms around her. He cried for her. Hot tears spilled down his cheek and soaked into the fabric of her shirt.
“I’m so sorry, mom,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
Her hands, dry and rough and strong, grabbed his shaking hand. There was so much strength in her grip, so much comfort. Where did she find it?
She met Evan’s gaze. “Don’t cry. I’ll be okay.” She smiled despite her pain, and it was the most beautiful sight Evan had ever seen.
In that moment, he wanted nothing more than to kill his father. To cut open his fucking throat.
“He’s not a bad man,” she said, running her fingers through Evan’s thick, red hair.
“Mom, how can you say that?”
She had welts across her throat and over her cheeks. Her left eye was pinched shut.
“When I knew him as a younger man, he was actually quite charming.” She giggled, like a school girl talking about a crush. “And he was so cute.”
“He’s not the same man, mom. You’re allowed to see that.”
“You should go help him at the shop. He needs to finish that car by tonight. And you’re grandparents will be here in a couple hours. Remember, we’re celebrating today.”
Evan had forgot. He turned eighteen tomorrow. He thought of Jimmy. What did he have celebrate? The accidental murder of a friend? The fact that he could move out, leaving his mom alone with his father? Or that he’d be stuck here forever to protect his mom?
“Okay,” he said. He rolled off the bed. “You’re gonna be okay in here?”
“What do you think?”
Evan kiss his mom’s forehead, then left the room and hopped on his bike.
Evan rode down the street to his dad’s shop. A rundown place that resembled a junkyard more than an auto mechanic business.
A plume of smoke drifted from the open rolling doors. Evan dropped his bike on the ground and walked toward his father.
He worried. When his father was drunk, his mood flipped at the slightest inconvenience. He may not even remember whipping his wife fifteen minutes ago. That was the worst part. He didn’t remember his actions. Held accountability for the pain he caused. And Evan had to endure it to not trigger him again.
He noticed a jagged, rusty pipe propped against the chainlink fence. How easy would it be to pick it up and jam it through his dad’s face? Evan sidestepped toward the weapon, but continued forward.
When he entered the dim shop’s interior, he noticed his dad was shirtless. Tattoos and sunburn and grease covered his wiry torso. He sat on a rolling stool next to the engine block of an old Mustang. He held a beer in one hand, socket wrench in the other. A cigarette dangled from his lips.
“Hey, dad,” Evan said. “Thought you could use some help. Maybe we can finish this before grandma and grandpa show up.”
Martin finished his cigarette, then dropped it on the smooth cement and snuffed it out with his foot. “Sure. There’s a cooler of beer in my office. Bring it out, would you?”
Evan didn’t argue. His dad seemed calm and refusing him would stoke an unwanted flame.
“Have a seat,” his dad said, nodding to another rolling stool. He limped to Evan and leaned against the workbench. He reached into the cooler and tossed Evan a beer, then cracked his own. Foam bubbled from the top, and he sucked it down. “Cheers.”
Evan pulled the tab to his beer, and tapped the aluminum rim to his dad’s can. “Cheers to what?”
“To my boy. To you. Becoming a man. In the Lewis family, that’s something worth drinking to.” He took another long pull, then crushed the can between his fingers, dropping it to clatter on the concrete. He opened another. “You ever drink before?”
Evan shook his head, but he saw Robert bring the full beer can onto Jimmy’s head. Heard the big guy slumped onto the damp ground. He recalled the numbness in his lips and the way Savannah had worn the night.
“Then go on.”
Evan sipped on the alcohol. His dad reached over and tipped up the can. Cold beer spilled down Evan’s chin and onto his shirt. Martin howled with laughter. He slapped his bad knee.
“It ain’t gonna burn your tongue. You drink it. Watch.” Evan’s dad demonstrated how to drink a beer, lifting his chin toward the sky and chugging from the can. When he brought down the drink, he belched for a good three seconds. “Clear you right up.”
Evan grinned and felt a hot guilt rush through him. His mother’s abused face flashed through his mind. But she had sent him here. He tipped the beer can upward and followed his father’s example, finishing nearly half the can. It tasted like dirt and blood and regret.
When he lowered it, he felt dizzy. Nauseous.
“There you go.” His dad chuckled.
When the silence became unbearable. When the image of dirt splashing across Jimmy’s pale face filled his mind, Evan asked, “How’d you get that limp?”
For as long as Evan could remember, his father had limped, favoring his left leg. Evan had never had the courage to ask him. But Evan needed to purge his mind of Jimmy.
A shadow crossed his father’s face, and Evan immediately regretted asking. But the darkness passed, and his father began to speak.
“I played football back in high school. I was an All-State Linebacker.”
Evan had never heard this story before, though he had seen several photographs of his father in high school, dressed in pads, holding a pigskin on the fifty yard line. Black tape streaked under eyes. And his hair was long and thick and brown. He had been handsome in his youth. Evan’s mom was right about that.
But life worked overtime on Martin. His bulk had thinned into wiry muscle. His full hair had moved down to his chest and back where it clumped and curled in giant tufts. His face had sunk, most likely from a poor diet and an excess amount of cigarettes and alcohol.
“Last game of the year. Last game of my high school career. I had a scholarship to Fresno St. Full ride. Except I was bullheaded as a kid could get. I acted first and thought later.” He paused to drink again. His throat gulped in pulses as the beer rushed from the can.
“We were up by two touchdowns with two minutes left in a game that was all but over. I was three tackles away from setting the state record for most in a single game. Coach told me the record didn’t matter. Told me to sit. Told me to think about my future. I told him my future was three tackles away. I remember how he looked. He bit his lip and glared off in the distance, squinting against the Friday lights. Then he told me, ‘It’s your call, Martin.’”
Evan finished his drink, but pretended to nurse it. He couldn’t stand the taste of another, and he thought he’d vomit.
“I got caught up in a skirmish and someone rolled onto my knee. Tore the ACL, MCL, everything. Fresno dropped my scholarship. I dropped out of high school that year. I figured there wasn’t a point anymore. I’d go on to be like my old man. Thirty and worn out by the sun and the dirt. I never much had the patience for books or classes anyway.”
His eyes glazed over as he peered out the open shop door. “Had the limp ever since.”
Evan wanted to feel something for his father. Bad, maybe. Sorry. But each time he tried to feel sympathy, he pictured his mother’s cowered form on the bed, as Martin loomed over her and whipped her.
“Not one of the Lewis’s ever finished high school. You know that?”
“Yeah, I know.”
His father wrapped a warm, sweaty arm around Evan. He pulled his son close. “You’re a good kid. And I’m proud of you.”
With those words, a rush of emotion drowned Evan. Tears stung his eyes. He couldn’t remember if his dad had ever been proud of him. He didn’t know how to respond, or what to say. Did he love his father? Could he say that? He didn’t know.
“Thanks,” he managed.
Martin lit a Marlboro Red. “I’d offer you a smoke, too, but this is a nasty habit.” He exhaled sweet smelling smoke.
“That’s okay. I’m feeling sick off the beer.”
Martin chuckled. “Well maybe we should cut you off. You don’t want to be slurring around your grandparents, now do you? They’re kinda prudish. They’ll look down their noses at you, showing up drunk and all.” Martin snickered, then stood. His joints popped and he had to steady himself against the wall, but when he did, he said, “Should probably get back to it. I told the customers this would be done first thing tomorrow.”
Evan stood as well. The shop swayed around him, and he had to steady himself against the work table. When he recovered, he asked, “What do you need me to do?”