Mitch nosed his truck into the stingy parking place the mobile home park allotted his father’s rust-streaked trailer. He killed the headlights. Gave his stomach a second to unclench.
Hovel sweet hovel.
His mouth curled into a bitter smile.
Checking on Gary every Friday for the past two years hadn’t changed his instinctive flinch each time he saw the place. He didn’t hate the weakness, though, not anymore. The sharp twist of dread in his gut meant he still felt something. It hadn’t defeated him.
But he didn’t look forward to what he’d find inside the trailer.
Lips compressed into a hard line, he climbed out of the truck. When he spotted a familiar Amazonian silhouette out of the corner of his eye, near the trailer park’s last surviving floodlight, he waved. “Hey, Liv.” He turned back for the tall, brown paper bag that had lain, accusingly, on the passenger seat since he’d left the liquor store on Elm.
He pivoted to face her—and froze, arm outstretched for Gary’s whiskey.
In the arc of flickering light, her face shone sickly pale, features drawn and tight. Stress lines bracketed her mouth. Her dark eyes glittered with the same shame and despair that knotted his stomach. She ripped her glance away and fidgeted with the hem of her gray tank top. The tank had shrunk after too many washings and rode above her belly button.
Pink pajama pants five inches too short.
And no shoes.
As soon as he jerked his keys from the ignition and his truck engine died, shouted curses as blue as the frigid air reverberated four trailers down.
Jaw clenched, Mitch crossed the muddy excuse of a road, thankful the ground was still too warm to freeze. He shrugged out of his leather jacket. He draped it over her shoulders.
Shivering, she burrowed into it. “Thanks.”
Dark eyes huge, haunted, she nodded. “The cops are on their way.”
Weren’t they always?
He blew out a tired breath.
Since Olivia Winslow stood only a couple inches under his six foot two and he had zero desire to spend the rest of his weekend with a heating pad on his lower spine, he turned his back to her. He bent at the knees. “Hop on.” When she didn’t, he tapped the top of one shoulder. “Don’t be shy, honey. You’re barefoot and there’s a shitload of broken glass.”
Her arms slid around his neck.
He braced himself.
She jumped. Her thighs clamped around his hips. He grunted, but didn’t stagger under the weight. Liv was no skinny twig of a woman, but she wasn’t fat, either. Just…tall. “Hold tight.”
He stopped at the truck for Gary’s whiskey. He slammed the door and on the way to the trailer, he triggered the lock. Liv slithered off his back when he climbed the rickety steps to the trailer. Mitch crouched so she wouldn’t fall. “Careful.”
As soon as her bare toes kissed the gray weathered wood, he lifted his arm to beat on the front door. “Open up, Gary,” he said, his breath pluming in the frosty air.
She pasted behind him like glue, still shivering despite his coat. How long had she been hiding outside, freezing?
The TV inside blared.
Mitch pounded on the door. “Dad!”
“It ain’t locked, goddamnit!”
Mitch shoved the door open and dragged Liv over the threshold behind him.
The wasted shell of his father glared at him from the hospital bed in the dank, narrow living room. Most of his hair was gone and what little remained had pasted to his scalp in stringy, unwashed clumps. Lines grooved his face, some from the pain that required the morphine pump, but mostly from hard living. Gary McAllister had been a hulking, brute of a man until cancer had eaten him away. All that was left was this skeletal, dried-out husk and the hatred that beaded his eyes. “If you didn’t bring it, you can just turn your ass around, boy.”
“I brought it.” Mitch stepped farther inside, the smell of sickness and stale sweat churning his stomach. Once the door was shut, he tossed the bottle of Jack Daniels onto Gary’s bed.
He scrambled for it.
His father could still move pretty fast when liquor was involved.
“C’mon.” Mitch groped behind him for Liv’s hand. “We’ll see the squad car lights from my window.”
Already unscrewing the lid, Gary cackled. “Finally gonna get yourself a piece of that, son?”
Mitch’s jacket gaped when Liv skirted by the hospital bed and the bastard’s eyes focused on her breasts, nipples beaded from the cold to point prominently through the thin material of her tank. “Great tits.”
Mitch gritted his teeth, but he didn’t stop. Stopping would make it worse, so he pulled Liv down the hallway, dodging dirty clothes and trash piled against the walls like snowdrifts.
A voice slurred from the back bedroom. “That you, Mitch?”
Two more feet and they would’ve been home free.
“Yeah,” he said.
“We got notice.” His stepmother stumbled from the darkened doorway ahead, bleached hair frazzled around her head like a malevolent halo. The frayed strap of her sheer black nightie slid down her shoulder. She didn’t bother to right it. “‘lectric company’s going to cut us off Monday.”
Mitch reached for the doorknob to the room he’d slept in as a child. Not that he’d ever really been one. “I’ll take care of it.”
“You bring his JD?” she asked, a hopeful glint hardening her glazed eyes.
God, he was sick of this crap. Why couldn’t the son of a bitch die? Just die.
He stared at the phony wood finish of his old bedroom door. “Yeah.”
When she lurched forward, Mitch twisted the knob. He stalked inside before Rita reached them and yanked Liv in with him. He slammed the door shut. Leaned back against it.
Liv’s hand lifted to hit the light switch.
He snagged her wrist. “Don’t.”
He couldn’t stand it.
He couldn’t look at the bowed paneling. He didn’t want to see the lumpy twin mattress that had once been his bed. Or the stained sheets. But mostly, he didn’t want to know if his stepmother had left any half-smoked cigarettes mashed into the carpet again. He didn’t want to know that she snuck in here, slept in his old bed when he was gone.
Christ, why did he keep doing this to himself?
Liv tucked her head under his chin. Her free hand drifted to his shoulder and when he released the other, she curled it around his waist. “Are you okay?”
He was not okay.
He snaked his arms around her, though. She’d tied her dark hair in a ponytail at the nape, which he didn’t like. He wanted it loose, hanging free past her shoulders and almost to the base of her spine. Brushing against his arms and chest, like when they’d been kids. But it smelled of some fruity-flavored shampoo now. That, he liked.
“Why do we do it?” he asked her. “Why do we keep coming back?”
“I don’t know.” She hugged him. “I think…I keep hoping that if I save my sister, I just might save myself.” Her hair caught in his stubble, like silk against his skin, when she looked up at him. “You came back to bury your father. Bury what he did to you.”
Mitch grunted. “We’re both fucking neurotic.”
“Thanks for the newsflash, Captain Obvious.” Blue lights flared through the missing teeth of his window blinds. The smile Liv tipped up at him quivered only a little. “They’re here.”
She started to pull away, but he drew her back. “Let the police get him in cuffs first.”
He held her. Because it felt good. “You want to tell me how you ended up wearing her clothes?”
Mitch wished to God, he could make it all go away. The weary hurt inside her, the fury building in him.
They’d made it out. They’d crawled, clawed, and fought their way out of this stinking cesspool. She was a paralegal for some scum-sucking lawyer. It didn’t pay dick—he’d seen her car—but it wasn’t the impoverished rot of this hellhole, either. Mitch had worked his way up from day laborer to full partnership in a small but thriving construction company on the other side of town. Even getting his clock cleaned in three divorces hadn’t dented his professional success. They’d earned their freedom. Both of them. They’d fought for the right to turn their backs on poverty, suffering, and abuse.
Instead, they’d circled right back to where they’d started—in this godforsaken trailer, arms looped around each other as crude animal noises filtered through the paper-thin walls.
She wrinkled her nose. “Are they doing what I think they’re doing?”
“He’s so tanked on meds he hasn’t been able to get it up in a year. He just likes humiliating Rita.”
And Mitch. The world would stop turning if Gary McAllister passed up any opportunity to humiliate his son.
Snorting ripe disgust, he marched her to the window. He lifted the blinds. “We’re getting the fuck out of here.” He opened the window, punched the sagging screen out, and hopped down. His boots sank an inch into thick mud. He lifted his arms. “C’mon, baby. Just like old times.”
She peered at him from the darkened room, bit her lip. “I can’t run away, Mitch. Not this time. I need to make a statement to the police.”
“You need to get your ass out that window.” He shook his head when she didn’t move. “We’ve got ten, maybe fifteen minutes before Rita comes back to my room and tries to crawl into my pants. I mean it, Liv. Time to go.”
She shimmied out.
He caught her. Not the piggyback ride he gave her to the front steps. He carried her in his arms like Rhett frigging Butler. Except, instead of dumping her in a nice big bed, he slipped her onto the front seat of his Chevy 4×4.
“Seatbelt,” he said when he rounded the hood and climbed in, but she’d already buckled up.
That was the thing about him and Liv. They put on their seatbelts. Every time. Nobody had to remind them.
The Gary McAllisters and Bert Winslows of the world were only interested in belts they could swing from clenched fists, the kind that had left welts Liv had hidden so she wouldn’t have to explain them at school.
Mitch’s scars ran deeper.
And hadn’t this turned into another lovely trip down Memory Lane?
Mitch couldn’t take any more.
He pushed his key into the ignition and rammed the truck into reverse to back out.
“Leave it.” He shoved the gearshift into first, eased by the police cruiser pulled next to her family’s trailer. “To hell with it. All of it. Just for a while.”
He turned right on the main road and they left the nightmare in the trailers behind them.
Mitch wished it were that easy.
“I live on Euclid. On the corner of Grand Avenue,” she said when they reached streetlights and downtown traffic.
There were worse neighborhoods. They’d just bolted from the worst part of town. But he wasn’t taking her home. He made a left at the next intersection instead of taking the right toward Euclid.
“I know what you said.” He drove east, to the highway and newer housing developments there. “If you really want to go to your place, I’ll turn around.” His fingers tightened on the wheel until his knuckles shone white. “I…I don’t want to be alone.”
She didn’t reply right away, just stared out the windshield what felt like epochs. “Okay.”
* * * * *