Nine Toes Later
by Emily Jones
Jackson brushed at his nose, but the tickling sensation continued to pull him out of the darkness. More sensations began to pour in as panicked nerves shot off a litany of messages. Pain overwhelmed them. The smell of dirt, wet ground, the grass brushing against his face, it all ended in throbbing pain.
He opened his eyes and gingerly pushed himself up. His left shoe was caked in a dirty brown substance. He assumed from the agony tracing its way up his leg that it wasn't mud. Jackson pulled his shoe off and shrieked. Seeing the missing pinkie toe made the pain seem worse. He turned away, unable to look at the mangled foot, and vomited in the ditch.
He forced himself to run through everything he could remember, desperate to make sense of what had happened. It was clear until dinner. After was a blur of dark shadows and a growing sense of betrayal. It was still bleeding, crimson life spilling out to mix with the puddles left from last night's rain. He re-prioritized. A tourniquet outranked the need for an explanation. Jackson slipped out of his brown, khaki jacket.
He hoped it could be of some use as a bandage. With pruny, shaking hands, Jackson tore at the thick material in vain. He tossed it next to him and pulled his t-shirt over his head, pausing with it around his shoulders. Jackson recalled the delicate, white china, gold leaves etched along the rim, and next to the plate he had placed his bare arms.
“Why put my jacket on if you're going to cut off my toe and leave me to die in a ditch?” he wondered. Perhaps she hadn't meant for him to die. It was little comfort, but he held onto it. A rain drop landed on his forehead, shaking him from contemplation.
Looking around, he wondered with a renewed sense of terror how long he had been sitting there, staring blankly into space. He had no sense of time, and his thoughts were becoming less coherent. Jackson succeeded in ripping his soggy shirt into strips. As tightly as he could manage, he wrapped his foot. He doubled over, tears running down his cheeks, mixing with the sprinkle of rain.
He had to get to the hospital. Jackson slipped his coat back on and crawled out of the ditch. It was his first time begging for a ride, and he figured shirtless men were less likely to be rescued. Stretching up to rest on his knees, he dug sticks and pebbles out of numb hands. Black spots clouded his vision, and he sat back, stretching his legs in front of him.
Jackson looked around the deserted highway. It was early dawn, and the sun was still low in the sky, farm fields all around. No rush hour crowd was coming his way. He hung his head and dug his hands into his pockets in defeat. Something hard and slick brushed against half-numb fingertips. Confused, Jackson fished it out. His cellphone was safely nestled in a plastic baggy.
Contradictions and implications swirled up from the depths, but were cut short. Circus monkeys could drive up and offer him a lift, and he would gladly take it. Relieved laughter slipped from his ragged throat when it came to life with a jingle that sounded like salvation.
Jackson automatically pushed speed dial, but ended the call on the first ring. Her number, he had called her number. The urge to redial was strong, but she was the last one he had seen, the only one he had trusted, and yet here he was.
It had been slow to start and simple to settle into, as natural as breathing. No warning signs. No doubts. She had made his favorite meal for their six month anniversary, and it had all been so perfect.
Her face floated in his thoughts, beautiful but not smiling this time. Her petite mouth was taut. The smell of lasagna and garlic bread filled the room, but everything was moving, or he was moving. He couldn't tell.
The last thing she said to him echoed through his head. “Sit back and relax, Jackson.”
Jackson came back to the present. No more nostalgia, fury gave him focus. He dialed the only other person he could think of, nothing natural about it. His brother answered right away. He was surprised Andrew had answered at all.
“Oh my God, you're not dead?” Andrew shouted.
Jackson's brows knit together, sure that Andrew somehow already knew what had happened. “What?”
Andrew laughed. “I haven't heard from you in almost a year. I assumed you were dead.”
Jackson opened his mouth, but couldn't think of what to say. Finally he settled on simple, “I need help.”
“You need money?” Andrew joked, “because I don't have change to spare right now, little brother.”
Jackson imagined how good it would feel to strangle his brother. He had never asked Andrew for money. If he had needed money, he wouldn't have gone to the guy who stole something from his wallet or apartment any time he saw him. Urgency beckoned him past old family disputes.
“I need help now, Andrew!” Jackson shouted. “I don't know where I am. I'm lying on the side of the road, and I need you. Please.”
Andrew's voice was serious. “Calm down, I'll be there. Shit, Jackson, how am I supposed to find you? Look around, what's close?”
It was hopeless. He couldn't think of any meaningful description of a two-lane highway surrounded by cornfields, and it was too much to die on the phone with only his shiftless brother as company. He hung up and laid back on the dirt and gravel, eyes desperate for something lovely to look at as he drifted away. Jackson tilted his chin up and looked behind him at the stretch of road. The ringing phone sounded far away as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing.
It was the house. It was far off in the distance, but he could see it, and it hit him. He had looked at it so many times before. His mother and brother had always laughed about his fascination with that house when he was growing up. The house told him he was halfway to his grandmother's. He looked around the strange terrain as the pieces came together and formed a picture he recognized.
Jackson answered the phone. “I know where I am. Highway 23, it's the house,” he cried in relief.
“I'll be there. Hold on, Jackson.”
Jackson dropped the phone on the ground without thinking. Overwhelmed he covered his face, muffling his screams. Andrew was coming to get him. He could escape this untenable situation. Exhausted, Jackson drifted away into darkness.
He woke up warm and drowsy. Sounds echoed around him as if they were bouncing through a subterranean cave, but his thoughts were preoccupied with the itchy feeling in his face. A voice pulled him from his stupor.
“You're going to hurt yourself if you keep scratching like that,” a female voice commented. “Relax, it's a side effect of the morphine.”
He opened his eyes to see who was speaking. An older woman with silver hair looked down at him. Her green scrubs were bright and crisp against her dark skin. His fingertips still rested against his chin. He pulled his hand away, looking at it as if it weren't his. Flustered, Jackson rested it on the thin blanket. He looked around at the beeping machines and faded wallpaper. She waited expectantly for him to speak, but he couldn't think of what to say.
A dull ache coming from the bottom of the hospital bed reminded him what he was doing there. He assumed she expected an explanation, but he was unclear what that would be. He cleared his throat. “Where's my brother?” he asked.
She smiled. “He's around. He went to get coffee. Mind telling me what happened?”
Jackson wished he knew. “Yes,” he answered.
She looked surprised, but nodded. “I guess that will have to do for now. Is there anything you need? I can get you something to drink, more blankets?”
He swallowed at the mention of a drink and realized his throat was dry. “No thanks.”
She clucked her tongue. “Stubborn man. My name is Nancy. I'll be taking care of you until 8 p.m.” She held up a clunky remote attached to his bed. “Call me if you change your mind.”
She left him to put himself back together, but before he could settle into solitude, Andrew appeared. Andrew held up his coffee in salutation. “He lives. You know, Jackson, they invented a system for dealing with emergencies. It's really quite simple, you push 9-1-1 on your phone and paramedics come and get you. Really, you're supposed to be the smart one.”
“Shut up,” Jackson snapped, still relieved to see a familiar face. “I wasn't thinking.”
“No kidding, you called me,” Andrew joked. “What happened to you?”
Jackson looked out the window. “I don't know.”
He watched gray, bloated clouds swim through the sky, threatening to dump another deluge of dirty water on the earth. Jackson lost himself in the vast emptiness unfurling inside him. Feeling alone, he waited for some sign of what to do.
If she hadn't been involved, then she could be in trouble, and he was wasting precious time stuck in accusation and conjecture. If it was her, he didn't want the police involved. It was too humiliating, a file sitting on someone's shelf detailing how stupid he had been and how clueless he was about why. Even worse, what if they found her? He didn't want some deficiency of his written out in an official police report to be gawked at.
There was already a report sitting somewhere with his name in it. They would pull his information if he called the cops, and then questions would be asked again. They would give him that look like he might be rabid, wait for the foam.
Andrew sipped his coffee, watching his brother, knowing he was off somewhere. It had been so long, it would have been like looking at a stranger if their features were not so alike. Oval face, dark blue eyes, same stubborn set to his mouth, yet Andrew always saw an innocence beneath Jackson's surly expression, a sweet quality that made the six year age difference a vast ocean. Bitterness pulled at Andrew, and he mentally brushed it away.
It was always best to wait until Jackson reached a verdict, but he was never very good at staying quiet. Stiff from sitting in the hospital and irritated that he didn't know what Jackson would do next, Andrew brushed at his shirt and cleared his throat. When Jackson didn't respond, he scuffed the chair against the floor.
Startled, Jackson whipped his head around to look at his brother. He fought to come back from the mental labyrinth he had been walking through. “What?” he asked, still dazed.
Andrew smiled and rested his coffee on the arm of the chair. “Ah, good, you're back. What's the plan?”
Jackson gave him a wry expression. “You can leave, if that's what you're asking.”
Andrew glared at him. “No, that's not what I was asking, but thanks for the vote of confidence. I mean, what do you plan to do next. If you're planning to talk to the cops, you might want to give me a heads up.”
Jackson's face darkened. His brow wrinkled with disdain. “Still dealing drugs?”
Andrew looked at the open door. “You should keep that to yourself, and yes. It's hard to find a good paying job when you're a convicted felon.”
Jackson looked down at the sheet, unable to face his brother's recrimination. He worked to keep his expression neutral. When his brother was involved, everything became hostile territory, the past littered with minefields that only he seemed to feel.
Andrew raised an apologetic hand. “Look, I didn't come here to fight over what happened. I'm worried about you, and I want to help.”
Jackson fought the urge to call him a liar. Andrew went everywhere looking to fight about the past. It had been too much to always defend against him. Jackson had built a lofty moral tower around his desire to avoid Andrew, rebuilding the layers of high ideals when they began to crack under the weight of the truth. He was afraid of Andrew, afraid Andrew was right about him.
Jackson settled on a course of action. “I'm not talking to the cops. I'm going to find out what happened on my own.”
Self-doubt weakened his resolve. If Maggie was in trouble, he might need the police. “I don't know. I want to go back to my apartment first. If I decide to call the cops, I'll let you know.” He cut himself off before he could tack on a cruel remark about Andrew's penchant for running. He didn't need more regrets.
Jackson studied his brother carefully, as if he realized for the first time that he was really there. “Thank you. I didn't have anyone else to call,” he admitted.
Andrew smiled, allowing Jackson to bow out of an awkward conversation that he wasn't ready to have. “Well, I'm here, little brother, and I'm staying. I'll drive you to your apartment when they release you, and wherever else you need to go.”
Jackson raised an eyebrow, already feeling the old suspicion unravel his goodwill towards Andrew. He kept his distrust to himself, passively waiting to see how it would all pan out as usual. Crawling back inside his thoughts, he let the world slip past, only re-emerging to give the doctor a vague answer as to what happened.
Long after the well-meaning staff had given up on prying anything more than “It was an accident,” the words rang in his head. “An accident, it was an accident,” chimed through the crumbling halls of his mind, opening doors that had long been closed off. When he was a child, he had believed the mantra would protect him, but now it seeped through his present and into his past like poison.
Andrew stayed by his side. Darkness took over the window view, and Jackson watched his brother sleep in the pull-out bed. A hint of how he had looked as a boy lingered on his face, and Jackson clung to the sense of shared history, trying to fit his memory of Andrew over the sleeping form.
Guilt rained down on him. Wasn't he always the one to cut and run? The question bounced around his head unanswered. The beeping machines counted the time, each beep more judgmental than the last as he fought to think of a defense against the charge. The heavy hand of sleep pressing down granted him reprieve.
The morning came complete with crutches and discharge paperwork. The mysterious reasons for his arrival were not enough to keep him. Catastrophes were big business and there were always more unfortunate souls looking to be put back together.
Jackson shook his head at the gray sweatpants and sweatshirt Andrew had been kind enough to buy him. Recovering from an injury was not a sufficient excuse. He hated sweatpants. They made him feel homeless. “You couldn't find anything else for me to wear?” Jackson complained. “I would have reimbursed you.”
Andrew snorted. “Sorry, I was on my way to the suit aisle when I saw those on sale.” He picked up Jackson's empty water jug, compliments of the hospital, and threw it at him. “Pansy,” he added.
Jackson's fingers failed to detach from the crutches fast enough to block. The pain medication slowed time for his body and nothing else. The cup hit him in the stomach.
He glared at Andrew as he attempted to pick it up. Halfway to his goal, his good leg wobbled. He stood back up and tried again, but he wasn't able to stay steady.
Andrew held up his hand before Jackson could try again. “Fine. I'll get baby's cup. Stop before you get hurt again.”
Andrew walked over and grabbed it from the floor. Jackson whacked his brother in the head with the rubber tip of his left crutch. He laughed at the look of surprise on his brother's face.
“Young man, that is not what those are for.” Nancy stood in the doorway, arms crossed.
Jackson blushed, unable to meet her eyes. “Sorry,” he mumbled.
Andrew stood, expression sour. He rubbed at his head, tossing the cup on the bed. “That's right. You better listen to Nurse Nancy.”
Nancy studied Jackson, watching him carefully for any reason he may not be fit, mentally or physically to leave. She had pushed for psych, but the on-call doctor was not impressed by toe amputation or senior nurses.
“I thought I would check on you one last time before you left,” she said.
Jackson shrugged, still recovering from being caught acting foolish. “I'm fine.”
Nancy let it go. “If you need anything, honey, call social services or the mental health hotline.”
She pointed a stern, well-practiced finger at Andrew. After five children and three grandchildren, she was an expert at spotting trouble and cutting through bullshit, and the older one struck her as a man full of both.
“And you, big brother, watch out for our boy,” she commanded.
“Yes, ma'am,” he promised, face solemn.
She raised an eyebrow. “You better. If he ends up here missing any more piggies, you and I are gonna have a long conversation,” she cautioned.
Andrew's eyes widened, and he fought to keep a straight face. “Hear that, Jackson? I guess I am your keeper.”
“I'll be back with your wheelchair, hospital policy, so don't complain to me about it.” Nancy turned to leave, but looked back at Andrew. “Can you pull your car up to the front entrance? I'll meet you there.”
“Will do,” Andrew agreed.
It took an hour for her to return. She rushed into the room with the wheelchair, interrupting Andrew's tale about the hot stripper who couldn't keep her hands off him. Jackson only caught enough pieces of his brother's story to know it was greatly embellished.
“I bet she was ready to pay you,” Nancy chimed in.
Andrew grinned. “You have good hearing.”
She glared at him. “Go get your car.”
He saluted her and left the room, chuckling to himself in the hallway. Once he was gone, Nancy's expression softened. She took Jackson's arm and helped him into the chair.
“Please put these across your lap, sir,” she requested, handing him the crutches.
He did as he was asked, and she took her place behind him. They made it to the door before she stopped. Voice gentle, a confessor's tone, she asked one last time. “What happened, Jackson?”
He allowed himself the luxury of a small, victory smile. The discharge papers hadn't completely dispelled it. A thin tendril of fear had stayed firmly around his heart, whispering to him that they would find a reason to commit him, but she sounded defeated. The fear loosened its grip, leaving bruised painful thoughts to remind him it was still around.
Never one to be tempted by human absolution and its fleeting euphoria, Jackson relished only having to say the cursed words one more time. “It was an accident.”
Nancy stayed still, waiting for more to emerge. When she was sure he was done and her conscience was clear, she rolled him out. Regaining her energetic gait, Nancy wheeled him to the elevator.
It was difficult to get out of the wheelchair, but Jackson didn't mind. The crisp breeze felt nice, the stinging sensation against his cheeks novel, though he could remember grumbling about it a few days before. The sun's light struggled to break through the clouds, but it was enough to burn away the dark, locked room of Jackson's imagination.
Andrew threw his bag in the back and opened Jackson's door. He gave Jackson a mock bow. “Sir?”
Jackson put his crutches together and balanced against them as he lowered himself into the passenger seat. His strength gave out at the end, and he landed in the padded seat with a thump. He pulled the crutches into the car, denying the uncomfortable feeling attempting to slither in with them. Andrew shut the door, and they were off. Shame could find no purchase on a free man.
“First order of business?” Andrew asked.
Jackson held up the pharmacy script, scanning the indecipherable writing. “I need a place to fill this.”
“And then?” Andrew followed, eager to play Clue with his brother.
Jackson grimaced, watching skyscrapers, reduced to the undignified two-foot tempered glass, shoot past him. “And then my apartment.”
“Got it.” Andrew started tapping on the steering wheel. He glanced at Jackson, but his brother's gaze was fixed on the scenery.
He grabbed his cigarettes out of the console and lit one, offering the pack to his brother. Jackson waved them away. “Any preference on the drugstore? Perhaps somewhere close to where you live?”
Jackson looked at him. The wind from the cracked window blew around his face, but it couldn't hide Andrew's smirk. He figured gloating was better than anger or pain.
“I guess you need my address,” Jackson admitted. He rattled it off. “You know where that is?”
Andrew's grin grew wider, the Cheshire cat, ready to pounce. “I sure do.”
Jackson folded his arms, ready for the punch line, but Andrew continued tapping the wheel. He caved, opting to chastise himself rather than keep waiting. “It's a fancy place. We try hard to keep out the riff-raff, so I guess you ought to feel lucky you know where I live now, and yes, I am a shitty brother. You got me.”
Andrew chuckled. He took a hit off his cigarette and cleared his throat. “I guess things are going my way, business is booming and my brother is back. Now let me tell you about this stripper I met.”
Jackson groaned. “Oh God, is there any way to stop you?”
Andrew held up his hand for emphasis. “Now, she was obviously new to the occupation. That's the perfect time to move in. They're not quite resigned to their fate, fresh on a shift and begging for someone to present an alternate ending.”
Jackson shook his head. “Nice, Andrew. Is this going to be your new past time, picking up downcast hookers?”
“Strippers,” Andrew corrected. “That's insensitive to assume they're also hooking. So this girl is beautiful and new. Short brown hair, nice ass, the kind of girl you could clean up and take to church, if you're into that kind of thing.”
Jackson gave up on Andrew. He tuned him out, surveying the world around him at 75 m.p.h. He struggled to read building signs from his ever-changing position on the freeway, making up back stories for the places he saw and the people he assumed were inside. He inserted himself into the story, exploring how it felt to be different Jacksons, enjoying the freedom to disengage at will and sew himself into a new scenario.
As the landscape became more familiar, his ability to create a new existence faltered. Andrew took the next exit, and Jackson debated telling Andrew that he felt sick to his stomach. He waited to see what would happen, not wanting to delay the inevitable any longer with a side trip to a gas station bathroom.
“Have you listened to anything I've said?” Andrew asked.
“No,” Jackson admitted.
“Well, it was a good story,” he pouted.
Jackson smiled, despite his nerves. “I’m sure it was. Take the next right. There's a CVS ahead.”
Jackson filled his prescription. He was adapting to the crutches, navigating aisles and opening doors with minimal fumbling. When they pulled up in front of his apartment, he wished he had dragged out the trip to the store. Suddenly anything seemed better than opening his front door.
Andrew put the car in park. He eyed Jackson suspiciously. “Are you about to freak out?”
Jackson's eyes widened. “I don't know. Maybe.”
Andrew turned off the car. “Fair enough.”
He followed Jackson to the door, staying a few steps behind so as not to rush him. Jackson fumbled around in the pockets of his sweatpants. He looked to Andrew for help, unsure where his keys were. Something wasn't right. He scanned the parking lot. His car was gone.
“Shit,” Jackson hissed.
Andrew stepped in before Jackson could lose his temper. “I've got your keys.” He jogged to his car and grabbed the bag out of the back, sliding his other hand inside the inner pocket of his coat and pulling out Jackson's keys. He straightened and closed the door.
“Got em,” he called. Andrew rejoined his brother at the door.
“Thanks.” Jackson kept his eyes on the ground as he took the keys, fighting to control the flood of emotions.
Andrew leaned closer, respectful of the furnace burning inside his brother. “Whatever we find in there, we'll take care of it.”
Jackson nodded and pushed the door open. He scanned the room as he crossed the threshold. No dead girlfriend. No toe-stealing thugs. No mess. Dinner was on the table. He assumed the stink in the room was from the aging food.
“What the hell?” Jackson finally shouted.
Andrew stepped around his brother and walked past the haggard, sunken sofa. “New place, same stuff. You should come work for me.”
Jackson stayed close to the door in case he needed to escape the insanity of how normal it all looked. His treasured possessions struck him as obscene, the Monty Python poster on the wall, the book he had been reading for his geopolitics class on the coffee table. All the bits and pieces of his home were still whole, but he was not.
Andrew walked around the dining room table. He moved the fork on Jackson's plate without thinking. The clinking sound startled Jackson.
“Don't touch the food. She drugged it,” Jackson snapped.
“I wasn't going to ea-” Andrew's jaw dropped open, face losing color.
“What?” Jackson asked. Andrew didn't respond. “What?” he shouted.
“I don't think you should see this,” Andrew cautioned as Jackson crossed the room.
Jackson caught sight of the picture. His brain realized what it was well before his body. The message reached his fingertips as they brushed against the glossy surface, and with a whimper, he pulled his hand back. His little toe lay in a pool of blood. He closed his eyes, but he could still see the picture. His foot remembered what his conscious mind couldn't, searing pain and a rough pulling sensation. He heard a snapping sound in his head and another spike of pain. He covered his ears to drown out the screaming.
Andrew tugged at his arm. Jackson opened his eyes. He couldn't remember sitting on the floor. He held onto his brother's arm, a touchstone to bring him back.
Jackson swallowed, but his throat still felt raw. “I'm sorry for yelling.”
Andrew's brows shot up. “What yelling? You didn't say anything. Do you remember what happened?”
Jackson scrubbed at his face. He wanted another pill, anything to make the sensations go away. He shook his head, unable to explain how it had felt.
Andrew gave him a few minutes to calm down before handing him the piece of paper that had been under the picture. “You should read this.”
Jackson watched the paper coming closer like a child watches a spinning top, some part of him knew the trick before it began, but it was still mesmerizing. Fingers unfeeling but responsive, he unfolded it, his hands sliding away from the ugly brown stain at the bottom.
I love you, and I'm sorry. Please don't call the police. If you already did, then I'm probably dead. Let my mom and dad know I love them as well.
I used to know very bad people, and they think I owe them. I'm sorry they hurt you, but if you don't pay, they are going to kill us both.
He read through it again. Brain kicking into gear he studied the writing, picturing other notes she had written, anything he could recall to compare. Flipping it over, Jackson's mouth moved as he read the unfamiliar phone number on the back.
“I know-” Andrew cut in. He pulled his hand away from his lower lip, crossing his arms. “I kind of read it before I gave it to you,” He gestured to Jackson's general area, “while you were having your moment.”
Jackson rubbed at his temples. “I'm okay. I can do this.” He pulled out his phone and dialed the number.
She picked up on the second ring. “Jackson?” The sound of her voice pressed against his chest, suffocating him. “Jackson?”
“How could you do this?” He heard her begin crying, but he didn't care. “How could you do this?” he howled.
“I”m sorry. I'm so sorry, Jackson. It wasn't me. I didn't. He was already there at the house when I came over. He said he would kill you if I didn't do something to keep you out of the way while we talked. I didn't know he would do that. He gave me the drugs to put in the food, but I didn't know.” The hysterical babbling broke into sobs.
He used the time to piece her words together, slowing them down to normal speed, struggling to place them into intelligible sentences. “What does he want?” he asked quietly.
She tried to reign in her terror and frustration, but wordless stammering were all she could manage.
“What does he want?” he shouted. He hated her for crying over his pain, and he hated her for causing him to doubt that she was really crying at all.
“The money, Jackson. He wants the money, two-hundred and fifty-thousand.”
His voice was dry, distant. “How does he know about the money?” he asked, hating himself for ever trusting her.
She flinched, struck by the implied accusation. “You have until Friday at 11 p.m. If you don't leave it in a brown bag on the couch in your apartment, we're both dead.”
He ended the call and put his hands in his lap. Jackson mused that someone may really be planning on killing him, but that was Friday and it was Tuesday. It seemed a long time to wait.
“She in on it?” Andrew asked.
Jackson sighed. “I think so.”
Jackson gave him a weary look, but didn't answer. “Mind helping me up?”
Andrew took Jackson's extended arm and pulled him up. He bent down to retrieve the crutches. “Now you call the cops?”
Jackson slipped the phone into his pocket. “Not yet. I need some time to rest and think.” He took the crutches from Andrew and grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge. Jackson made his way down the hall to the bedroom. “Can you bring me the pills?”
“They're in the car. Be right back,”Andrew called.
He stared at the bed. He was an expert at sissy tests, but inanimate objects are hard to beat. Jackson looked away. He couldn't sleep where he could smell her.
Andrew returned with the pills. He handed Jackson the bag and turned to leave. “Want me to shut the door?”
“Yeah, sure.” Jackson waited until he heard it latch before taking the medicine. Before the quicksand of narcotics could catch him, Jackson made a bed on the floor.
He held up the phone, wishing he could shake it like an eight ball and get the answer. The hard plastic shell bit into his hand as he squeezed. Letting it drop, Jackson buried his face in the down-filled pillow.
When he woke, the room was dark and cold. He heard Andrew's voice. “What?” he asked, softer than he had intended. It was nice to sleep. He wanted to go back, but Andrew wouldn't stop talking. He made greater effort to understand.
Jackson opened his eyes again, pupils seeking the sparse light afforded by the street lamp. No Andrew because Andrew was talking to someone in the living room. Muscles reacting, Jackson grabbed the phone and sat up. Adrenaline chased away the vestiges of sleep. He strained to hear the other party's voice, but he could only hear his brother.
“Yeah, every thing's fine. I would tell you if it wasn't.” A pause. “I know. I've been busy, a family thing. It has nothing to do with you.” A longer pause this time. Jackson wondered if it was a woman.
“Joseph is handling runs. Don't worry. My end of things is taken care of.”
“Not a woman, business,” Jackson thought.
“I have to let you go. I'll see you Tuesday.” Andrew laughed at the other person's reply. “I'll be there.”
It was quiet again. Jackson glanced at the glowing alarm clock, three past midnight. Andrew tapped on the door, cracking it open before Jackson could respond. He shielded his eyes against the hall light, straining to see through the cracks in his fingers.
“You stopped snoring. I thought I should make sure you were still alive.”
Jackson licked his lips. He thought better of leaving the water on the dresser. “I'm alive.”
“Good. Get your stuff. We're leaving.” Andrew turned on the bedroom light.
“What? Why?” Jackson lowered his hand, still squinting.
Andrew leaned against the door frame, slipping his hands in his pockets. “This place is depressing, and you look like an ad. for Pound Puppies sleeping on the floor like that. You can stay at my place.”
“I had one of those, didn't I?” Jackson asked.
Andrew scowled. “No, I had a pound puppy, and you stole it.”
Jackson narrowed his eyes. “You beat me up over that.”
Andrew pointed a finger at Jackson. “I also let you keep it, so you could rub your bloody little nose on it and whine about how mean I was. Hurry up and get ready.”
“Wait, I need a bag or something to put over my foot. I'm not leaving until I take a shower and find decent clothes.” Jackson tipped his head toward the adjoining bathroom.
“I'll find one,” Andrew offered. He returned with a grocery bag and a rubber band from the kitchen. “Need help?”
Jackson narrowed his eyes. “No.”
Andrew raised his hands in surrender, letting the bag slip from his fingers and flutter to the floor. “Have fun,” he mocked, disappearing from the doorway.
An hour and a half later, Jackson judged his work in the mirror through gritted teeth. Other than the peaked expression, he approved. He was stubble free and in a fresh pair of clothes.
“I look okay.” he told his reflection. “Maybe not ready for class, but certainly not derelict. I definitely don't look like a guy about to be murdered in a few days.”
“Wow,” Andrew chuckled from the hallway. “Weird. Are you ready to go?”
Jackson blushed. “Sure.” He put his bag over his shoulder and joined his brother in the hall. He locked his apartment though he knew the other key was probably with Maggie and her friend.
Andrew took him to the other side of town to a small, two-story house. The neighborhood was as old as Jackson's but cleaner and better kept. A narrow hallway led from the front door to the kitchen. The moonlight coming through the window caught the hues of the granite counter top and bounced off the stainless steel appliances, giving the room a soft blue glow.
The kitchen opened up to a dining room and next to it, the family room, dominated by the large black thing taking most of one wall. Jackson assumed the monstrosity was a television.
Andrew grinned, catching his brother's amazement. “Aren't you glad you got that college degree?”
Jackson punched Andrew's arm. “I'll have my M. A. by the end of this year.”
Andrew clapped him on the back. “Great! You can buy yourself a matching recliner once you pay off those student loans.” He snickered and jumped out of reach before Jackson's crutches could connect with his leg. He pointed to the hallway on the other side of the kitchen. “Den's that way. You can sleep on the pullout sofa.”
Andrew helped Jackson get settled. Jackson opened his mouth to say something to his brother, but forgot what he was about to say when he spotted the man standing in the doorway.
“What is he doing here?” the man demanded.
Andrew's shoulders stiffened, but kept his expression relaxed. “This is my brother. He's going to stay with us for a few days.”
The man threw his hands up. “Are you crazy?”
Andrew's eyes narrowed. He kept his voice pleasant. “He's family, and he can stay.”
The man shrank back, muttering under his breath as he left. He stomped upstairs and slammed the door like a spoiled child.
“What was that about?” Jackson whispered.
“We're in the process of expanding our business. Joseph's a little on edge.” Andrew playfully pushed Jackson onto the bed. “Don't worry about it.”
Jackson swallowed his irritation at being toppled so easily. “Could you drive me to my bank tomorrow...and to Maggie's house,” he added ruefully.
“Sure. I”m free tomorrow. Goodnight.” Andrew turned off the light and left Jackson to his thoughts.
Jackson could hear an intermittent beeping and a soft whirring sound. At first, he thought he was back in the hospital. When he opened his eyes he saw a large black desk and computer. With a groan, he untangled himself from the blanket enough to reach his bag. He swallowed a pill and decided to test his luck.
Jackson stood on one leg and carefully placed the bandaged foot on the carpet. He put some of his weight on it and gave himself time to decide if it was tolerable. Pleased that it was, he changed clothes and grabbed one crutch to keep the pressure to a minimum.
Graduating from the lurching motion of yesterday to a minor hobble, he found Andrew in the kitchen placing food on plates. They hadn't eaten since the hospital, and the smell of bacon was too tempting. Jackson grabbed a piece from the nearest plate.
“That one can be yours. Why not?” Andrew joked. He finished cooking the eggs and divided them between the three plates. “Need a fork? I'm not judging, just asking.”
“I guess,” he said.
Joseph came into the kitchen, but didn't acknowledge either of them, only staying long enough for Andrew to toss a fork on his plate. He took his food to the living room and turned on the t.v.
Andrew stayed in the kitchen with Jackson, pointing at the brooding man in the other room with his strip of bacon. “That is the employee of the month. If you change your mind about your career path, you've got some stiff competition.”
“Will you cook me breakfast every morning?”
“Depends on if you meet your sales goals.” Andrew winked.
They finished breakfast and went to the bank. Jackson was relieved when Andrew didn't ask him any more questions about why he had so much money sitting in the bank. They both knew that it wasn't Jackson's pitiful teaching stipend.
It took four hours, a sandwich run, and several panicked calls to the regional office before Jackson could get the bank manager to agree to give him his money by Friday. Andrew sat in the lobby reading magazines, catching snippets of the exchange. He lowered the magazine when the shocked woman repeated back how much Jackson wanted, but said nothing about it on the way to Maggie's. The inside of her house forced them to pick careful paths through the rooms. Jackson's foot caught on the ripped out couch stuffing on the floor. Andrew caught him before he hit the ground.
Jackson didn't want to see anymore. Whatever her involvement, she never would have wanted her home torn apart. He picked up a shattered picture frame. The picture of Maggie with her parents was next to it, scratched and disfigured. A cigarette burn took the place of her face.
Andrew let go of Jackson's arm. He gently extracted the mutilated picture from Jackson's hand. Jackson's eyes followed it until he flipped it over. Something decayed and organic was coming from the stairs. “Do you smell that?” Jackson asked.
“Yeah.” Andrew looked at the stairway. “Do you want me to check it out?”
Jackson hid his dread. If she was up there, he should be the one to find her. He kept his face blank. “I'll go. You stay here.”
He spotted the brown bag in front of the bedroom as soon as he reached the top of the stairs. His lip curled with distaste, but he picked it up. Taking a deep breath, he pushed open the door.
Jackson gagged from the stench. He started breathing through his mouth to counter the smell. A large, blue tarp lay on the bed. Blood had run off and matted the carpet in little clumps. A small lump of discolored, rotting flesh lay in a dried out pool of blood on the tarp.
Maggie kept a gun in the nightstand. Jackson focused his attention on getting the gun. He dropped it in the empty bag and limped away from the mess as fast as he could. He didn't stop moving. “We're going,” he barked as he past Andrew. The sound of Andrew's footsteps followed him out of the house. He climbed into Andrew's car and doubled over in the seat.
“Oh God,” he chanted.
Andrew got in and started the car. “What? Was she up there?”
Jackson sat up and buckled his seatbelt, holding the strap for comfort. “No. Not her. Can I have a cigarette?”
Surprised, Andrew grabbed one out of his pack and tossed the lighter into Jackson's lap. He pulled onto the street. He paused for Jackson to finish hacking from his first hit. Andrew asked again. “What?”
“Toe,” Jackson replied, pulling the smoke in slower to give his lungs a chance to adjust, “my toe.”
“You left it?”
Jackson rolled down his window, sucking in the mixture of fresh air and smoke. “I don't want it anymore.”
He pulled out his phone and redialed the last number. It rang several times, but no one answered. Jackson hung up and tried again.
“Hello?” Maggie answered.
“Tell them I'll get the money,” he said.
She was quiet, and he wondered if she had heard him. “I'll tell them. I really am sorry.”
It sounded like she might cry again. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, he has someone babysitting me, but he hasn't...I'm okay. If they let me go, I'll call you to let you know I'm safe.”
“Okay.” He wanted to tell her that they were going to be okay, that he loved her, but he was afraid either would sound hollow. “Goodbye.” He felt foolish that he couldn't think of anything else to say.
“Goodbye.” She sounded just as uncomfortable.
He hung up the phone and slipped it in his coat. He marveled at how distant he felt from her. Alive or dead, it was over.
Jackson wasn't sure if it was reflexive paranoia, but he didn't mention the gun. He had never used one, but he supposed it couldn't be too hard, point and pull. Having a weapon made the danger more tangible, the physical object giving weight to his fears. Anxiety played jump rope with his intestines as if he were on some unstoppable internal rollercoaster. He wanted a quiet place to brood, and Andrew's house proved a suitable place to lick his wounds.
Leaving the day to pass free of his presence, Jackson replayed moments from his life. Memory made time malleable, allowing him to change the tempo. His mind worked to organize the sequence of events into a recognizable pattern, a neat bundle of causes and effects. No matter how many times he tried, the strings of logic unraveled at the vision of her face across the table, and the sensation of being consumed by a heavy haze.
Andrew and his friend occasionally moved into the frame as Jackson sat on the couch. His brother's voice broke through his inner dialogue from time to time. Relying on shrugs and nods, Jackson offered a minimal amount of body language, enough to end communication, so he could focus on his own moving picture. The light around him faded, and he laid his head on the couch. He disappeared into nightmares of blurred images and harsh syllables that never came together into a sensible narrative.
He startled awake, pulling at the light knit blanket that had crept up over his mouth as he slept. The room smelled strange and pleasant. Smoke hung in the mid-morning light.
“Jesus!” Joseph shouted, as shaken as Jackson. “Don't do that!”
Jackson raised his eyebrows. “Do what?” he asked, collecting himself.
Joseph scrambled to get the burning joint off the floor. He made a few half-hearted attempts to scrub at the singed carpet fibers. “Come out of a coma all of a sudden like that.”
“I don't think you can undo a chemical change with your hands,” Jackson remarked, rubbing at his eyes.
Joseph left the carpet alone. He hunched over and took a hit, making a high-pitched strangled sound to stop himself from coughing it out. Exhaling, he held it out to Jackson. “My God, you can't get any stranger. You should have some, mellow you out.”
Jackson snorted. “Yeah, you seem relaxed.”
Joseph flicked him off and set the joint in the ashtray in front of him. He picked up the controller and resumed the game he had been playing. Jackson watched him blow away imaginary enemies on the screen, each shot generating enough light and sound to be a ridiculous weapon for a war game based on stealth. “Where's Andrew?”
“Busy.” Joseph kept his eyes on the television.
Jackson tapped his fingers against his legs. “What game is this?”
Joseph kept his eyes on the screen. “Shut up.”
Rebuffed, Jackson folded his hands together to stop from fidgeting. “Okay.”
Joseph proved to be well-versed in cold silence. He contentedly played his game and smoked an impressive number of joints while Jackson watched, out of place but with nowhere better to go.
Joseph only paused to answer the phone.
He motioned for Jackson to get something to write with after repeating an address several times. Jackson found himself reciting it under his breath as he grabbed pen and paper from the den. Without thinking, he wrote it down and brought it to Joseph.
Joseph took it from him. He scowled at Jackson. “Yeah, Tuesday. We know. He'll be there.”
Joseph slammed the phone on the table. He held up the paper. “What the hell?”
“What did I do?” Jackson asked.
Joseph shoved the paper in his pocket. “I wanted you to get me a pen, not listen to my conversation.”
“Then have it elsewhere,” Jackson snapped.
Joseph stormed off to sulk in his room for several hours. When he returned, he sat in his usual spot and changed the television from the show Jackson was watching back to the game. “If you tell Andrew about the phone call, I'll break your nose.”
Jackson smirked. “I'm pretty sure he already knows you're an idiot. How have you not been busted for something yet?” Joseph raised his hand again to shoot up his middle finger, Joseph's answer to so many conversations, but Jackson cut him off. “No, wait, let me guess. Fuck me.”
Andrew came into the dining room with pizza and beer. “Look at you love birds. I knew you'd get along.”
Joseph grunted and turned off the game. Jackson followed him into the dining room. “Are all your friends full of social graces?”
“That's why I’m the face of the operation, right Joseph?” Andrew gave Joseph a knowing look. “Chris isn't much better.”
“Chris is an asshole.” Joseph took his plate piled high with pizza and a beer and returned to the family room.
Andrew handed Jackson a bottle. “Chris is an asshole,” he affirmed.
“Great, when does he get here? Then I can sit and watch two assholes play video games.” Jackson remarked.
Andrew laughed and sat on the couch. “He's not allowed to play. He threw the last Xbox through the window,” Andrew explained.
Joseph nodded and made the sign of the cross.
Jackson glanced at the now whole window. He didn't feel like flying threw it any time soon. “Is he going to be okay with me staying here?”
Andrew and Joseph made eye contact, sharing a private discussion. “Eventually,” Andrew admitted. “He'll be back on Saturday.”
Andrew drained his beer. “My brother is not much of a fighter. When he was in third grade, he came home with a black eye. Some little girl beat him up.”
Jackson shook his head. “She wasn't that little.”
They went to war, dredging up embarrassing tales. Jackson was hampered by the glow of awe that surrounded his childhood recollection of his older brother. He surrendered, laughing as he let his older brother guide them through history.
Andrew's seventh beer took them away from silly antics. “Did I ever tell you why I ended up in jail?” he asked Joseph.
Joseph stayed silent, sensing the monstrous grudge about to break through the still water.
“Don't,” Jackson whispered.
Andrew ignored him. “I had just turned eighteen, and I had signed the lease on my first place, but I couldn't leave my little brother alone with my mother. You've never met her, a really lovely person. She was committed a few years ago.”
“Andrew, stop,” Jackson hissed.
Andrew's face was flushed and angry. “I'm getting to the good part. I'm a planner, so I come up with a plan and little brother here agrees. We set a fire. Well, I set a fire while Jackson cowers in the driveway.”
Jackson slammed his beer on the coffee table, froth spilling out like so many uninvited emotions. “You lied. You said mom wasn't home, that she wasn't stable enough to make it through questioning about the fire, and that I could come and live with you.”
“If you had stuck with the plan, she wouldn't have made it through,” Andrew snarled. “She did love her sleeping pills, probably still does. All you had to do was get in the car, but no, you run in and call the cops.”
Andrew turned his glare to Joseph. “I had to go in and help drag her out so he didn't go up in smoke with her.”
Joseph reached his quota for discomfort. “Good night, fellas.”
Andrew was already too focused on Jackson to acknowledge Joseph's exit. “It was your fault we got caught, your fault I got locked up!” Andrew shouted.
“If I had known she was in there, I would never have agreed,” Jackson shouted. “I lied for you. I told them it was an accident, that you didn't know she was inside.”
Andrew clapped. “Congratulations, Jackson. How loyal of you. That was a lot of comfort while I sat in jail with no visitors.”
“I got put in the psych ward. What was I supposed to do?” Jackson retorted.
“I-” Jackson faltered.
Andrew pressed his advantage. “How did you get that much money?”
Jackson felt sick. “I was going to tell you. Mom gave me half of dad's settlement. I didn't spend any of it.”
He was going to share it with Andrew once he found a way to tell him without making it obvious that their mother had used their estranged father's passing as a chance to snub her oldest son. “I was going to tell you,” he repeated. “I still have the other two-hundred fifty-thousand. It's yours.”
Andrew smashed his bottle against the wall and stalked out of the room.
Jackson held his head in his hands. With self-pity for company, he went to his temporary room. He packed his things, taking the gun out of the brown bag and tucking it in his bag from home. He wanted to be ready if Andrew kicked him out in the morning. Crushed by how things were turning out, Jackson fell asleep.
Jackson had never considered himself to be quick to adapt, but the hum of the computer already felt familiar. The smell of breakfast meat filled the small space. Wishing for a shower, but afraid to ask after the fight the night before, Jackson settled for grooming himself in the half bath on his way to the kitchen.
Andrew was already eating at the counter, another full plate next to him. Jackson limped closer, ready to bolt if it looked like flatware was going to go sailing through the air. “Is that for Joseph?”
Andrew nudged the full plate. “Joseph went out. It's yours.”
Jackson took the offering. Following Andrew's lead, he ate at the counter. “I'm sorry,” he apologized.
Andrew put down his bacon. “I'm sorry about last night too. Let's just forget about it.”
The somber atmosphere persisted after breakfast and through the afternoon. The two men kept their distance, angling around each other like matching magnetic poles. Jackson waited for Andrew to fetch him from the den, but by two-thirty, it was clear that Andrew was not leaving his territory.
Jackson went to the family room, crossing enemy lines. “We should go to the bank.”
“Ready to pay your way out of trouble?” Andrew asked.
Jackson wasn't sure this would end it. “Do you really think this will save us?”
Andrew cocked his head. “Probably.”
A half an hour later, Jackson stood on the sidewalk outside the bank lobby. From inside the car, Andrew tossed him the bag. “You comin' in?” Jackson questioned.
“Not today, kid. I'll be waiting in the parking lot.” Andrew pulled away once Jackson was inside.
A man was waiting at the desk. Jackson poured himself a cup of coffee and sat in the empty lobby. He picked up the same magazine Andrew had been reading two days before, but he set it down when the man walked over and sat down in the chair next to him.
The man handed Jackson a card. His smile was congenial, but Jackson felt cold when he read the title. “Are you Jackson McLaughlin?”
Jackson clenched and unclenched his jaw. “Yeah.”
“Detective Adams. I got a call about you. When an injured man comes in asking for that much cash, it makes people worry. Should I be worried about you?”
“No sir.” Jackson kept his answers abrupt, hoping to end the questions.
“How did you get hurt?” the detective asked.
Jackson saw the manager spying from her office. She spun around and grabbed a paper from her desk when she realized he had noticed. “Woodcutting accident,” he grumbled.
Detective Adams stood, satisfied that Jackson had kept the card. “If you decide you need help, call me.” He went to the door, pausing before pushing it open. “And Jackson.”
Jackson's pulse picked up, fearing it wasn't really over. “What?”
Detective Adams grinned. “Tell your piece-of-shit brother I said 'Hi'.”
Jackson's mouth went dry. The detective didn't wait for a response. Jackson stayed in the chair until the detective left the parking lot in his unmarked Chevy.
Jackson went to the desk where the detective had been sitting. The manager scurried over to meet him. He dropped the bag on the shiny wooden surface. “Get me my money.”
She went about the task in a rush as if he was robbing her. He ignored her agitation. When she was finished, he took the bag and left. He decided he should find a new bank.
Jackson didn't mention the police officer. Things were stilted enough, and he could find no opening in silence to start a conversation. They dropped the bag at his apartment to be retrieved by his faceless assailant.
Andrew became more animated once the job was done, cracking jokes to lighten Jackson's mood. Jackson wasn't biting. He wanted to get to the finish line of a race he couldn't win. He only hoped this would get them off the hook for whatever trouble Maggie was in so he could go back to his splendid isolation.
By eleven p.m., he was puffing away at Andrew's cigarettes and considering upgrading to a joint. Andrew's chatter was getting more obscene and ridiculous as keep Jackson present and calm. By eleven-twenty, Jackson had given up on getting Andrew to be quiet. He shut himself in the den to deal with his crisis alone. A troubling question circled around him like an anxious buzzard, eager for the answer to drag him to the ground.
Ten minutes later his phone rang, i.d. unknown. His hand was shaking. He steadied the phone against his ear. “Hello?”
“Jackson?” Maggie asked.
He could hear traffic noise in the background. “Maggie! Are you okay?”
Her voice was subdued. “Yes, they let me go. Thank you.”
“What are you going to do?” He felt the loss before she confirmed it.
“I'm leaving, somewhere he can't find me.” She squeezed her eyes shut, shivering from the cold. “Where either of you can't find me.”
The truth crashed against him, striking him down where he stood. The pain felt like a physical blow. He couldn't hide from it. He knew, but he had to ask anyway. “Why not the whole five hundred thousand?”
He could hear cars whizzing past. He used the silence to pray that she wouldn't answer. When she did, her voice was so soft, he almost didn't catch it. “He wanted his half.”
An anguished snarl escaped him. He hung up the phone and held a pillow over his face to muffle the sounds. His face flushed with embarrassment. Little Jackson always lagging behind, always so naive.
Still shaking, he pulled the gun out of the bag. “I hate him,” he thought. “Oh God, it shouldn't be possible to hate someone this much.”
Jackson went to his brother, gun dangling next at side. Andrew gave the weapon a casual glance, dismissing it as trivial. Jackson aimed it at Andrew's chest, but Andrew stayed slumped against the couch, smoking his cigarette.
“Be careful with that, Jackson,” Andrew warned, blowing smoke in Jackson's face.
“Why?” Jackson demanded.
“Why did I do it?” Andrew absently rubbed his finger against his lip before sticking the cigarette in his mouth. “Mom called about eight months ago. God only knows how she got my number, but she had to gloat about how you told her not to tell me about the check, about how you were always trying to protect her.”
“I was trying to protect you. I didn't want you to know-”
“That she favored you?” Andrew interrupted, amused. “I would have been shocked.” Andrew gave the gun another look. “Put it down, Jackson. You're not going to do it.”
Jackson reluctantly put his arm down, tired of the weight. He told himself he could shoot if he needed to.
No longer forced to talk around the barrel of a gun, Andrew continued. “I waited for three months for you to come to me. I watched you sleepwalk around campus, always so self-absorbed, and I came up with a plan.”
Andrew let out a dry chuckle. “I convinced my girlfriend to help me work out an angle. I figured my sad, lonely brother would be quick to open up to a pretty girl. All it would take was a few dates.”
“Maggie,” Jackson whispered.
Andrew nodded. “And then she stopped returning my calls, changed her locks.” Andrew stubbed out his cigarette and folded his arms behind behind his head. He stretched his legs. “Strippers, so damn unreliable.”
Jackson wanted to jump the table and strangle him. “Did you do it yourself?”
Andrew's lips contorted into a sneer. “I always do my own dirty work.”
Jackson's stomach lurched again. He wished he had taken the time to throw up in the bathroom on his way in. “And then what? You went and had a cup of coffee and waited for me to call?”
The cruelty melted from Andrew's face. He turned his eyes to the blank television as he sorted through the chaotic mixture of impulses and desires. His face serious, he returned his attention to Jackson. “I never thought you would call me. I had never intended to become so involved, but to my surprise, I do like having you around. As far as I'm concerned, we're even.”
“Even?” Jackson repeated in disbelief. He pictured a bullet ripping through Andrew's face, but kept the gun where it was. “What are you going to do with the money, expand your business?”
Andrew grinned. “How about you throw in your half, and we can be equal partners.”
Jackson couldn't listen anymore. He didn't trust himself to refrain from becoming a murderer. “I'm leaving.”
“Call me if you change your mind,” Andrew yelled.
He walked several blocks before calling a cab. While waiting for his ride, he worked on recalling the address on the piece of paper he had given to Joseph as he pulled the business card out of his pocket. Certain he had it right, Jackson made another call.
Three months later, Jackson was in the process of carrying drinks to his table when he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. He set the glasses on the table and retrieved the phone. Jackson scanned the number and grimaced. He held up his finger, shooting his date an apologetic glance.
Jackson accepted the call. “Hello?”
“Jackson, I haven't seen you around. Are you gonna visit or what?” Andrew asked.
Jackson sat back in his chair. “Are we still even?”
“Very funny.” Andrew didn't laugh. “I'll see you when I get out.” He put the phone back in its receiver and followed the guard back to his cell.
Jackson put the phone away. His date noticed the shift in Jackson's demeanor. “Everything okay?” she asked.
He slid her drink to her. “Nothing I can't handle.”