“People are afraid of you now, you know.” Jo heard the note of pride in her voice and couldn’t bring herself to feel regretful about that. People were afraid of him – she’d heard the not-so-covert whispers behind hands; had seen the wary glances directed her way – and maybe they should be. Maybe those mocking, teasing, cat-calling, bullshitting boys should have a little respect.
Tam’s brows gave a mild jump, unimpressed, as he dug his lighter out of his jacket pocket. He clamped his cigarette between his teeth and gave her a steady look from beneath the dark fringe of his hair. “And you’re not?” he asked, and lit up in complete defiance of the crowded campus green on the other side of the bell tower.
Jo frowned. It was a question he’d posed a half a dozen times in the past week, always with a somber, serious look that made him seem ages-older than three weeks from twenty-one. “No,” she said firmly, “and I wish you’d quit asking me that.”
His eyes skated away from her and he took his smoke between fore- and middle finger, exhaling through his nostrils when he pulled it away. He’d been smoking since he was sixteen and there was something comforting in watching the familiar, casual motions of it; the nail on his middle finger had gone black – she thought he might lose it: a casualty of his “fight” with Nick Schaffer.
The fight. It hadn’t been a fight at all. Her grabby prom date Nick – who she’d ditched at the hotel room before finding Tam at her brother’s house – had been found on campus, down by the practice fields, his face a pulpy, pounded hamburger mess. He hadn’t returned to school yet. Jordan had recounted it to her on the edge of her bed, eyes wide with leftover shock, running his hands through the waves of his hair over and over again. Tam had a temper, and he’d turned it loose on Nick, and in the week since, he’d been dancing between pulling her closer and pushing her away, stuck in a place inside his head she didn’t know how to penetrate.
The pulling: he’d come to the school today, had parked in the student lot and walked up campus with a battered copy of Macbeth under one arm in case security gave him any hassle about not being a student; he was having lunch with her, just the two of them, in the shady, soft grass under the bell tower just like he’d been doing all week. In the stolen moments tainted by the fear of being caught, he’d tangled his hands in her hair and sent both of them chasing after a release that hadn’t, in the shattered quiet, been bound to the physical plane. Sometimes people crossed that last barrier and realized they’d gone too far; but not with him, with them. He’d smiled at her through the dim interior of his car two night before, his head resting back against the seat, and said, “I’m gonna have to fight all of ‘em off, aren’t I?” And he’d kissed her and she’d pulled him down across her on the wide, vinyl backseat.
But then there was the pushing: he’d get quiet, and distant, and he’d say things like “till you find your next boyfriend” or “and you’re not?” He was sitting across from her now, one knee pulled up, smoking and watching for the campus rent-a-cops, pointedly not looking at her.
Ass, she thought with a scowl, and kicked the toe of his sneaker with her own. “Ass,” she said out loud.
He cut her a fast, feral grin. “No, thanks. Not in public.”
Jo hid her own smile and kicked him again, harder this time. “What’s with you?”
“What’s with you?” he countered, unbending his leg and fitting the soles of his shoes against hers so their legs made a lopsided diamond over the grass.
Jo smiled; they’d done this as kids. It was a strange jolt to be reminded of that after all that had happened…but it made sense. They’d added another dimension to their relationship, not gotten rid of the old ones.
“You look so serious,” she said, not unkindly. She loved that about him, that he wasn’t frivolous or typical, but it worried her too. “Is everything alright?”
He looked at her a long moment, his eyes – the color of summer pool water – riveted to her face, and then smiled a real, soft smile that showed just the tips of his pointed canines. “Worried about me?”
“You’re the damsel in distress.”
“Oh, I will show you damsel.”
He took another drag and the breeze snatched it away; he moved around and put his back to the rough, warm bricks of the tower, reaching for her. Jo slid under his arm and curled her hand around his raised knee, rested her head against his shoulder, the smoke smell of his old leather jacket filling her nose. A tight knot of students – three guys and a girl Jo thought was named Leah – passed down the brick walk ahead of them, sparing glances that quickened their steps.
“You’re scary shit, dude.” Jo laughed; Tam didn’t.
Tam had known there would be repercussions for the Nick thing. He’d been too emotional, too violent, and had left too many witnesses: it was only a matter of time before one of them squealed.
Jordan called him midday in as close to a panic as he was capable. “Dude.” He was obviously still at school and talking just above a whisper; the thrum of something mechanical in the background left Tam picturing the back of the cafeteria and the exhaust vents. “The counselor called me outta class and there were cops here in the front office, asking me about Nick. Someone said I was there and the cops wanted to know if you were.”
“Shit.” Tam made a reflexive grab for his smokes and remembered he was at work; stocking warehouse shelves wasn’t much of a job, but he couldn’t afford to get fired for smoking around a bunch of flammable packing straw.
“I told them I didn’t even know who Nick was and that you sure as hell didn’t.”
Tam exhaled in a rush, his pulse already thumping in his temples. “Okay.” His hands were shaking. “Okay.”
“Use Mike as your alibi. I’m gonna call him and tell him what’s going on.”
“Okay.” His stomach turned over. “Wait, you’re not gonna tell him – ”
“No,” Jordan said. “I’m not telling him that.”
As it turned out, he should have had the smoke, because as his supervisor watched a police cruiser pull up to the loading dock, Tam knew this job was down the shitter. It didn’t help to hear his full name shouted through the warehouse. His coworkers watched him, that I-always-knew-he-was-worthless look shining in their eyes. He cursed them to perdition mentally, not giving them so much as a facial twitch to gossip about.
The cops were County boys, their necks rolling over rumpled collars, scalps sunburned under their crew cuts. They cracked their gum, hitched up their gun belts, and gave him flat looks from behind their sunglasses. “You Tameron Wales?” the heavier of the two asked, pronouncing the name like he found it distastefully weird.
Tam found his supervisor’s gaze, over by the open door, and could tell he’d already been let go. It looked like it was back to delivering pizzas, if he wasn’t arrested before day’s end. “Yeah.” He studied his reflection in the cop’s mirror lenses, satisfied with his bored expression. “Lemme grab my jacket.”
The interrogation room was so cliché it made his head hurt – card table, a plastic chair that looked nicked from a schoolroom, one-way mirror in a wood frame with peeling paint – and it gave him a swift kick of déjà vu. They’d brought him into this exact room with his dad’s blood on his knuckles two years before; the smell was the same: disinfectant that couldn’t quite cover BO and mildew. They’d opted to go the two-warm route – the air was thick and moist and boiling – but he wasn’t going to react. Tam plopped down into the chair, folded his arms over his chest, braced his feet apart, and refused to glance at the snapshot of Nick Schaffer’s bloody face on the table.
The cop that came in with him and closed the door was the one who’d turned his name into something fungal. He’d hooked his shades behind a button of his uniform shirt and had a file under one meaty arm. He braced a hand on the mirror frame in a move that Tam figured was for effect; it was doubtful anyone was on the other side of the glass, but the guy wanted him to think there was.
“Alright, Wales, I think you know why you’re here.” He gave the dropped-chin, crinkled-brow, be-a-good-boy look that had probably intimidated many an underage shoplifter.
It made Tam want to laugh; he fought the urge and shrugged. “I give off that criminal in training vibe?” he asked like a smartass, and earned an outright scowl for it.
The cop stepped forward and thumped a finger big around as a sausage down on the photo of Nick. “I’ve got two witnesses who can put you on the practice field with Nick Schaffer the night he got beat to within an inch of his life.”
Melodramatic much? Tam thought. He’d messed the kid up, sure, but his life had never been in danger. He knew what that looked like, what it felt like – inches between living and dying. It was nothing like the screaming chaos of what had happened down at the field with Nick. It was quieter and more final than that, more frightening. “And I,” Tam said, “have a witness who can say I was downtown that night.”
The cop snorted. The file came out and was flipped open. “You’ve got a history of violence,” he read. “You were picked up two years ago on a domestic disturbance. And you expect me to think you didn’t hurt this kid?”
“Think what you want,” Tam said coolly, tightening his fingers where they curled around his arms. “But two years ago – nobody would have done it any different than I did.” He met the cop’s stare and held it, not blinking, daring the guy to defend Hank Wales and his “history of violence.”
The cop blinked. The file went away again. Small victories.
Mike came into the precinct like a bull, all pawing hooves and bared horns. Built like a rugby player, his age tended not to be important to real adults. He put on a show, bellowing out a concocted story about the two of them going to the Braves game that night – he had ticket stubs to prove it – and how Jo had been telling him that Nick was pedaling dope and had heard rumors of him owing someone money, which was why she’d dumped him on prom night. Coming from Captain America Mike, it sounded credible, and without any physical evidence, and petty assault charges anyway, the cops were forced to turn Tam loose. The witnesses, it seemed, had clammed up within the past hour – Mike’s doing, no doubt. He could have wrapped them up like pretzels and left them to bake in the trunks of their cars.
Outside, leaning back against the trunk of Mike’s Toyota, Tam lit the cigarette he’d been craving and held the smoke in his lungs a long, tense moment before he forced it out through his nostrils. Mike was quiet, watching him, hands in his jeans pockets.
“Jordie told me,” he said at last, and Tam’s fingers trembled around his cigarette. “About what Nick tried to do and what you did to him.” He twitched a sideways smile. “I appreciate it.”
Oh, Mikey, he thought with an inward head shake. You wouldn’t thank me if you knew I’d had my hands on her. “Yeah, well…” he flicked ash down to the pavement, “all you guys are like family. When she told me…”
“I get it,” Mike assured.
But he didn’t. He didn’t get it at all.
“Hey, Wales, you coming to lunch?” Johnson asked from the open doorway of Tam’s office. “We’re hopping over to On the Border for fajitas.” Hop: Johnson was a guy who said “hopping.”
Tam glanced up from his computer and forced a smile. “No, thanks. The girls are coming by today.”
Five minutes later, Jo’s disembodied voice came floating down the hall, and he grinned.
“Will…Will, slow down. Will…Willa Beth, do not run down this hallway!”
In the threshold, a great tumble of curling black hair whipped around at waist-level; Will was in white shorts, sneakers, and a red t-shirt with flowers embroidered around the sleeves. Her pale cheeks were flushed from her run and her eyes were bright blue and sparkling. “Hi, Daddy!”
He wheeled his chair back away from the desk. “C’mere, Little Bit.”
She came launching across the office, scrambled up into his lap and hugged him tight enough to choke him.
Jo wasn’t far behind her – jeans and boots and pretty red top, perfectly disordered waves of hair – Avery perched on her hip. “I don’t know why,” she said, rolling her eyes, “I ever expected my kids to have manners.”
He started to say something about his DNA being the bad influence, but said, “Hi, baby,” instead and tipped his head back for the kisses she and Avery dropped on him, Jo to his lips and Avery to his temple.
They had Deli takeout straight out of the plastic containers around his desk, Avery making a mess and Will talking non-stop. Jo wanted another baby, he knew, but for now, he was glad to have girls; he wasn’t sure he knew how to raise a son in any sort of decent way – not after he’d been raised as he had – but messy, talkative, tomboyish little girls he knew all about. Those he’d been having lunch with forever.