GODDAMNIT, HE WAS tired. Tired of hiding, tired of looking over his shoulder, tired of working with the underground class of society on nights like tonight. And still, he wasn’t tired enough to put an end to it. Part of him wanted them to catch him—the same part of him that always felt guilty for the crime he never committed.
Karl gripped the steering wheel of his station wagon. He’d parked across the street from the gas station, planning on grabbing a bottle of liquor to open instead of the beers at his place. It was just one of those nights. He looked through the window and caught the flash of blue and red lights unaccompanied by a siren.
The cop pulled over on the other side of the road and headed toward the gas station. The door flew open with a jingle, and a skinny girl with a ratty nest of dark hair barreled out. The clerk followed, baseball bat in hand, but stopped when the cop intercepted the girl. One hand clutched her scrawny arm underneath the folds of a denim jacket, the other hovered over his gun. That hand did not shake.
The girl spun around in her trap, trying to both shoulder her backpack and escape.
“What’s in the bag?” the cop asked.
“She’s been stealing from me,” the clerk put in, jumping from foot to foot.
“Is that so?” The cop never took his eyes from his prey. “I tell ya what. I’ll give ya one chance to tell me what’s in your bag, then I’m going to check it, and we’ll go from there.” The cop’s smile was sharp—predatory.
The girl scowled. “You really want to know everything?” She managed to jerk her arm free, giving no chance for an answer. “I’m an upstanding citizen just like everyone else. I paid for a candy bar and tried to leave. This guy”—she nodded toward the clerk—“likes to make trouble. I did not steal anything, and there’s no reason for you to search my bag, let alone be here in the first place.”
The cop and store clerk glanced at each other, faces slack in a blank confusion. The clerk tilted his head, and the cop’s mouth opened and closed without sound.
“I still…” he finally managed to say, then glanced toward the rooftops, as if he’d find his words there.
“You don’t still need to check my bag,” the girl spat. “And I think the two of you owe me an apology after these bullshit accusations.” Her indignant smirk seemed out of place on her tiny frame.
“Sorry,” the store clerk said. His chin drifted toward his chest, like he would fall asleep where he stood. “I must have forgotten that you paid.”
“Thank you”—the cop blinked—“for your… time. Now that that’s settled, I’ll be on my way.” His words came out like molasses, and as he turned around, his footsteps fell with a robotic jerk. The clerk shoved his hands into his pockets, searching for clarity, and returned to the shop with the same sleepy, bowed head.
The girl shouldered her bag again and stalked off into the newly dark night.
Karl watched all this through the open window of his car. The cop and clerk would be all right. Later confused, but he’d seen the symptoms before. He removed what looked like a Bluetooth headset from his ear, grateful that he’d forgotten to take it off before what he’d seen, and put it in the glovebox.
The girl was one of them. It was a gut instinct, a pinprick of certainty in his life’s haze. There was so much he could teach her. He’d sworn years ago he’d never use the beat again, but maybe with her under his wing, he could redeem himself. To redeem himself to anyone—this dirty, stubborn girl, even—was better than the daily pit of his conscience. He could help her do what he never could, though helping did not come naturally to a man like him anymore.
The girl hadn’t walked too far away. She sat against the front window of a cell phone store, running a hand over her tangled hair. Karl stood from the driver seat, locked the door behind him, and stepped into the pools of ruddy lamplight, fingering his lighter. After all, if she didn’t like him, she could just make him believe anything she wanted. He had just watched her do it.
Leo sat beneath the awning of a cell phone store, rubbing her wrist where the cop had grabbed her. The sun had set while they were arguing, but the clouds still hung low, dense, blocking any light. The streets and sky were dry, but it smelled like rain.
That had been stupid, shoplifting without a plan. Her head hurt, her mouth was dry, and her heart fluttered, more now in relief than anxiety. She needed a cigarette. She kept them in the inside pocket of her denim jacket, and when she brought one to her lips, a pair of scuffed work boots crashed her private party. She looked up, and the guy squatted in front of her. They stared at each other, and a flame produced itself from his lighter. Her lips were puffy when she blew out that first breath—a girl’s best nicotine friend.
He nodded, tucked the lighter away, and casually glanced down the street. “You got anywhere to stay tonight?”
“This was gonna do it,” she answered and brought her knees up to her chest. Her back rested against the window. The cigarette threw a thin cherry reflection against the dark.
The man rubbed his fingers through his beard, bouncing slightly in his squat, and looked her up and down. “Naw,” he started, rising to his feet. “I got a couch. Car’s parked across the street.”
“Great. Go drive your car.” Who did this guy think he was?
He took a deep breath and squinted down the sidewalk. “You know, I’ve seen a lot of cops out tonight. I’m willing to bet some of them remember you. I’m also willing to bet it would be a nice change for you to have a roof and four walls for a night.”
It was extremely difficult for Leo to argue. In a minute, this man had sized her up and offered her exactly what she needed. To turn him down would be stupid. Good Samaritans were hard to come by; taking off with total strangers was also stupid. And yet, the idea of shelter after weeks without it was almost worth it. When she only responded with a glare, he turned toward the street, giving her a wide view of his back.
She watched him until he pulled keys out of his pocket. “What do I have to do?” she called, ready to run.
The guy flipped through his keys, opened the car door, and didn’t look back. “Eat my cooking.” His head almost scraped the roof of the car as he folded himself into its belly and closed the door.
Leo kicked against the wall and jogged across the street. A car honked at her, barely slowing. She raised a middle finger, opened the passenger door of her new friend’s car, and hopped inside. The un-flicked ash of the cigarette fell and warmed a place for her on the seat before she smothered it and shut the door. The old station wagon rattled when she moved and coughed when the keys were turned.
If she didn’t know better, Leo would have thought the guy was ignoring her as he shifted into gear and coaxed the old car onto the road.
It was completely silent. She flipped out another cigarette; he lit it without looking at her. The ride lasted maybe ten minutes, and she touched him with her eyes. Prodding, poking, looking for soft spots or rotten edges. Once, he glanced at her quickly, looked her over from dirty hair to stripped-down sneakers, and still said nothing. His fingers were loose on the steering wheel, the way a man rested his hands on a woman’s leg. When he pulled into the driveway of what looked like a burned-down garage, Leo sniffed and sucked on her lip.
She had one bag only—big enough for another sweatshirt, a newly acquired carton of cigarettes, and the rest of her money. At one point, she’d had quite a bit. Not so much now, but it would have bothered her more if it had been clean money. She got out first, testing the dusty ground with her feet, waiting for his slow lead to the front door. His steps might have made him seem dumb, but she thought better of him. Sometimes, people chose to be slow.
He thrust a solid hip into the rusting door and flipped the lights on behind him. Leo followed, popping her lips, approving of the place. It looked like the back end of a trailer that had been sawed off and separated from its head. A short rectangle, only slightly longer than it was wide, with no other walls than the four. On the left were a small fridge, industrial plastic sink in a short countertop, and a microwave. A three-legged wooden table completed the circle, weighted disproportionately by an open camping stove. The opposite wall stood backed by a long brown couch, maybe once orange, whose end cushion sunk like the corner of a stroke victim’s mouth. It was the end closest to the twenty-inch television. On the right side was a mattress on the floor—boxes mixed with clothes, paper scraps, a lone shoe without the laces. Between the bed and the couch was an end table, adorned by a bowl of lighters and two picture frames. At a glance, she felt at home. She smelled old socks that had been removed but forgot to take their stink and wondered if the tangy, red-sauce scent had baked itself into the walls or if he just hadn’t washed the dishes.
“So…” she started, rubbing a hand along the unpainted wall. “Uh…”
She nodded. “So, Karl, how long you been here?” She wasn’t going to sleep on a couch without first knowing exactly what the offer meant. She made her way slowly into the center of the one room, stopped, glanced at him.
“Long time.” He turned his back again and headed toward the tiny fridge. He moved with the ease of a man who had nothing to hide, or whose secrets were buried too deep to find.
He sorted through the jumble of pots and plates, opening and closing the refrigerator as though he were forgetting something. Leo took a deep breath, noticing the thin film of dust on the chair. She had grown up in small, dirty places where everything was out on the table, nothing swept under the rug. Her eyes landed on the pictures by the bed. One of them was of an Australian Shepherd, obviously not around anymore. The other was of a sweet, fresh-looking redhead, late twenties, her hair blown about her shoulders as she laughed underneath the shade of a large tree. It was a great picture, the kind people paid good money to have manufactured. The rumble and hiss of the water through the tap filled the place, and Leo handled the photograph.
“Who’s this?” she asked after a few seconds. The smile played on her face until she turned around to lock eyes with Karl.
He stood by the table with a handful of dried pasta. His wild beard had acted like a mask and would have continued to hide any emotion if it were not for the sudden rigidity in his movement. When he reached her, he took the picture, looking down at it when he held it by his hip.
“That’s my wife.”
“Where is she?”
Karl placed the picture back on the side table. This time, though, the laughing face was buried against the peeling wood. He cleared his throat and returned to the round table. “I’m making spaghetti.”
Leo sat at the table and bored holes into his back as he cooked. She hadn’t eaten real cooking in over a month, but she didn’t want him to see the glisten on her lips when she licked them or hear her swallowing in silent hunger. She hoped her stomach wouldn’t start growling with the smell of meatball sauce and garlic.
They ate in complete silence, sharing an occasional glance over dinner. The man mostly focused on her fork. He graced her with a beer from the minifridge, and she found herself downing it faster than she would have liked. Finally finished, finally full, she wiped the red from around her mouth and sighed contentedly. It took him over a minute to finish the rest of the spaghetti, wipe his mouth, chug another beer. Then he met her gaze and held it for the first time.
“Thanks for dinner,” she told him, and his only response was a raised eyebrow. “So, what now?” She rubbed a hand through her hair, pulled out a cigarette, and he lit it for her. Her bent elbows met on the table, and she inhaled smoke from atop the cradle of her hands.
“There’s a reason I brought you here, you know.” He cleared the table. His back was to her as he washed dishes in the industrial sink, and Leo sat against the chair. He had not spent more than ten seconds actually looking at her.
“What, it’s not that I’m dirty and hungry and look like I need a place to crash?” She blew smoke into the light above the table.
“You’re really bad at flirting,” he said over the running water.
Leo swallowed, took a drag, folded her arms. “What makes you think I’m trying to come on to you?” He was remarkably uninterested, yet she knew he wanted something from her.
She choked on the smoke. “What’s wrong with my smile?”
“It makes you look like you have the flu.” He turned from the sink just in time to watch her put her cigarette out on the flimsy tabletop. “I’ll remember that.” Rubbing his beard, he returned to his seat and folded his hands.
“Why am I here, then?”
“I watched you. With the cop and the store clerk.”
“Yeah.” She felt her frown border on a headache. “I handled it.”
Karl’s mustache moved. “You made them believe you.”
“I’m very persuasive.” She stood abruptly from the table. “Apparently, I’ve managed to persuade you into some pretty fucked-up conclusions.” She shouldered her pack. His hints hit far too close to home, and she never let herself get close. Her secret had been protected for this long, and she wasn’t about to spill it all to this fucking hermit. She was three feet from the door when he spoke again.
“We both know it has nothing to do with the actual words coming out of your mouth.”
“You have a special… talent,” he said softly, and she turned again to face him. “Go ahead.” Karl sat back in his chair and folded his arms. “Do it. Tell me what you want me to believe.”
She swallowed. “Why?”
“To prove me right.” This time, he met her eyes and held them fiercely. “Which you know you really don’t have to do. I know exactly what your secret is.”
She took another drag of the cigarette, only now her hand was trembling. “How?”
He lit his own smoke. “I can do something similar.” The pipes clinked as the sink finished draining.
“What do you make people do?” The words were dry and stuck in her throat.
“There are a lot of us out there who can change people with our words,” he replied. “More than you’d think. I’d like you to meet them.”
“You know them all?” Her heart was racing now, a sheen of sweat building at her hairline.
“I know where to find them. How about I show you?”
Leo returned to the chair, her backpack slipping from her shoulder to the floor.
“We call it spinning a beat, when your chest burns and the words come out,” he said.
“Like what I do.”
“Like what you do. But first, you know my name…” He offered his hand over the table.
“Leona. I—Leo.” They shook briefly. His hand was calloused and firm but warm. A hot flash went down her back, and she sucked hard on the cigarette. She stared intensely at his mouth, now understanding the difficulty in eye contact.
“Leo. First then, Leo, tell me about yourself.”
A nervous laugh burst out. “What, you want me to tell you my whole life’s story?” Her foot tapped on the dusty floor.
“Just enough so I know what I’m working with. Another beer?”
She took a deep breath. “Yeah.”