The boy looks harder than last time. Cut jaw and slate eyes as blank as a sidewalk. He's chewing air, keeps his arms crossed and warded against me even though I'm behind a foot of glass. From here the kid looks like a slab of meat stuffed into a too-small polo. His collar is popped because of course it is.
"We gonna talk?" I venture.
We're talking through a speaker. His words are coated in static but I can tell there's a smirk in his voice. Little else. I'm not sure how to respond so I just twine my fingers on the table before me. Silence except for the stuttering rattle of the AC and the metallic jangle of my cuffs as I shift in my seat.
"Dig the outfit," the kid says. I glance at my reflection in the window. The bright orange of my jumpsuit colors the boy Oompa Loompa.
"We have to chat," I say. "It's required. Unless you want to switch places?"
The kid sighs. He rolls his eyes skyward though I doubt it's in prayer. Seventeen years old, built of muscle and contempt. Nice.
"Can't we just get this over with?"
"In a minute. You know how it works."
We've been meeting every week for the past month. The first time I could see something in his eyes. Not exactly fear, but some itching doubt. Like maybe he should feel guilty about how things turned out, about what was happening to me. By the time he left that doubt was gone. Just up and evaporated. Next time he was cool as could be. Never even took off his shades.
It's been that way ever since. There's only glass between us but it might as well be cement.
This is not unusual. Manny says his client chuckled last time he got slammed. The kid brought a bag of popcorn, tossed back handfuls the whole time. Before he zoned out, all Manny could smell was salt and sweat and butter.
My client pulls me back to the present.
"You want to talk?" he says. He puts on some syrupy accent. White-kid doing black-kid doing white-kid: "Fine. How are you doing?"
"I'm hurting, man." I raise my arms to show off the bruises spiraling up them like tattoos. All part of the script: show him the marks on our bodies, tell him about the marks on our souls.
Despite himself, the kid winces. Good. I feel a little relief. Maybe it's my charitable nature, a desire to see the best even in this sniveling little shitheel. Maybe he's not too far gone.
"Not like you didn't choose this for yourself." There's a quiver in his voice, like his words are untested, untrustworthy. First steps on an ice-caked river.
"Not the point," I say. I turn my wrist to show him the violet ring cut into my skin. I pulled on my cuffs too hard last time, nearly sawed through my skin. "You did this to me."
Wrong thing to say. Kid's wince goes straight into a sneer. He bares his teeth like a ticked off alley cat.
"I did fucking nada to you, buddy. I don't even know you. And our twenty minutes are done."
He slams the red button next to our little window.
"Guess so," I say.
Within seconds I hear Officer Parsons's heavy breathing behind me.
"You know why you're here?" Parsons asks the kid with that booming showtime voice of his.
"Yeah," the kid says.
Like being forced to read something out-loud in school (and, Christ, he's still young enough for that): "To bear witness. To know there are consequences."
"You've hurt others," Parsons says.
"So you keep telling me."
I feel one of Parsons's big soft paws brush against my shoulder. It's the signal to get ready and I go slack just before the baton comes down hard across my back.
"This is what happens," Parsons says as he hits me again and again. "This is what happens."
I close up just as I always do and roll my mind back to my wife, my kids, the check they'll be receiving tomorrow. I imagine them walking through the neon-blanched aisles of ShopCo. Imagine the meal Ellie'll cook for our family. Carne asade, I think. God, I can practically smell it.
But then, as always, the pain cuts through. It's a stray hit that does it. The stick glances off my shoulder and pops my ear. It sets off a siren in my skull. I can hear something leaking inside me.
"Guh," I say and immediately want to kick myself. Broke a promise I made on my second go-round: never give these kids the satisfaction of seeing me squirm. I clutch the table and raise my head to face the boy. Feels like I'm rising through thick sludge and each smack of the baton is trying to push me under. But I can do it. I steel my expression. I'm resolve, I'm strength. I will stare you down and you will know what you've done to me.
The kid is looking straight at me but seeing nada. Eyes a thousand miles away. Maybe he's glancing at his own reflection, maybe this is just a mirror to him. Above his lips, I can see flesh bulge as he runs his tongue idly across his teeth.
But I make sure to keep my gaze on high-beams. Make sure I never break contact even as that pounding stick melts my shoulders into slush.
After all, this is my job. I'm nothing if not professional.
It's finished after a minute. Parsons lays off and sheaths his baton. He's wheezing from the exertion.
"Do . . . you . . . see?" he manages. "Is it . . . clear?"
"Crystal," the kid says. "Can I go now?"
He doesn't even look at me, just twirls with linebacker grace and strolls out the door. Back to a life uninterrupted.
"Can you walk?" Parsons asks me.
"Yeah. Help me up?"
Parsons supports my shoulders, lifts me from under my arms the way I used to raise my boy from his high-chair. The thought cuts a slice out of my insides and leaves an ache deeper and more painful than the throbbing sting in my ear.
"That kid's an asshole," Parsons says.
Jamie McAuliffe is a typical client. Kid's parents owned a parcel of land on the Eagle Ford Shale. They had a small well and made a minor fortune after the war left the Arab lands untouchable. Jamie was their only kid. Pride and joy. Not the most popular kid in school, but popular enough to have buddies he could cruise with. Aimless weekends spent getting wasted in the empty landscape and wandering circuits around the county. Young and rich and Texan, what else are you gonna do?
He had a pick-up, a gift for his sixteenth birthday. It was tricked out with everything a teenage boy could value. They showed me a picture during briefing. The thing looked more yacht than car.
The kid had a few that night. Maybe more than a few. Either way, he had enough to miss the turn in the road. He plowed his truck right into a drainage ditch. Boy in the passenger seat flew through the window. Glass skinned his cheeks before the ground snapped his neck. There were some other kids in the bed, a couple who were busy removing each other's pants when it happened. The police found them thirty feet beyond the crushed hood of the truck. Girl survived, though I wouldn't call her current state "living."
Not his fault, the kid's lawyers said. Classic case of affluenza. How should he have known the consequences of his actions when his parents never taught him that sort of thing? They were providers but little else.
Could you really blame him?
Most people in my hood would say yes, but they never ask us and the Texas legislature says otherwise. Kid ultimately got offered the rich-white-boy special: free to walk so long as his folks were willing to foot the bill for a surrogate. After all, the judge said, we wouldn't want to harm the boy's future. Not when it looked so bright.
Jules calls us the sin eaters.
Guy's a veteran. He's on his tenth stint. Holds court on the sagging bleachers out in the yard, always staring a half-inch left of the sun. His face is bronzed and worn, ears so cauliflowered they press almost flat against his skull. Homeboy's so ancient the rest of us wonder who he's even doing this for. We've all got somebody. I have my family. Manny has his wife. After the financial blowout the Centers are not lacking in applicants, but nobody steps up just for themselves. We've all asked him. He just smiles and keeps on staring into the sky.
"Sin eaters?" I said the first time I heard it. "That our gang name?"
But Jules kept quiet. Sue, a fourth-timer who moved out west after her big east coast bank went bust, plucked an invisible apple from the sky and bit out a chunk. She chewed noisily for a few seconds.
"Yum," she said. "Tastes like privilege."
Sue calls the whole Detention and Surrogacy Act a sham. Bunch of oil families rammed the bill through with lobbyists and cash. Nobody put up much of a fight. The rich—who own the government anyway—get to protect their own and the state gets a steady revenue stream, much needed since the economy went belly-up. The actual offenders are beside the point. Maybe they'll learn their lesson, go on to be productive members of what's left of society. Maybe not. Doesn't really matter, but one can dream, right?
We cracked up at Sue's gag, but Jules slammed his boot down on the bleacher so hard the whole thing shuddered.
"Look it up. Educate yourselves. What else do we have a library for?"
It took me weeks to get around to scoping the definition. When I finally did, I could see the logic to what Jules was saying. Sin eaters take on the sins of others. Absolve their souls. Still, I doubt anyone else on this dear earth holds our position in as high regard as that old man. One website said sin eaters were shunned. Treated like lepers. That's more like it.
Manny's been laid up in Intensive for the past few days. An infection set in after his last client meeting. I visit at night. Sit with him and try to take his mind off the pain. He says it feels like acid is running through his veins. Says he questions why he even joined this program.
"Cause your wife has to eat."
"It's not like that." His voice is a torn wheeze. It trembles in the dark. "She's got a job. Better than mine. Secretary at one of the refineries."
"Then why did you sign up?"
"What else was I gonna do? I'm her husband, the one who should be paying our bills, and I was just stewing at home while she went off to get paid. I love her, but if I didn't do something, I know I would've grown to hate her."
I don't have a response worth airing.
"Get some rest," I say.
The kid is ruddy-faced. Looks more bloated than last time. His cheeks are doughy under peach-fuzz stubble.
"You don't look so good," I say.
"You're one to talk." I raise my hands in surrender. "You ever wish you could get a drink in there?" He leans close to the glass, exhales to make a fog between us. "I can get drunk, you know, cause I'm a free man. In fact, I downed a few shots twenty minutes ago." He presses a finger into the fog and draws a cartoon dick. Makes lines shoot out the tip.
"What's it doing?" I ask. "Firing lasers?"
"It's doing whatever the fuck I want it to be doing."
"How are your folks?"
"What's it matter to you?"
"You know they're being sued? By the families of those kids I . . ." He doesn't so much trail off as drop from a cliff. He swallows a burp, pounds a fist against his chest. "People are saying we'll be left with nothing."
"In that case, maybe next time we meet there won't be this glass between us. Colleagues, even."
He glares. "Please. Never in a million years. I'm not pathetic like you."
"And you know I'm pathetic how?"
"You're on the other side of this glass, aren't you?" He raps his knuckles against it. "You'll get beat up if I press this little button, won't you?"
"I don't think you know anything about me at all."
"Yeah? Then tell me."
"My name is Oscar Reyes. I have a wife and two kids."
"Real American dream type. You have a dog too? Golden Retriever named Skip or Toto or something?"
"German Shepherd named Django. He passed away shortly after I got here. Cancer."
The kid looks down at his hands. He picks at a cuticle.
"Sorry to hear that."
"No you're not."
"Dogs are innocent."
"You're sorry my dog died but you're not sorry that I'm in here for you? That I'm getting beat up for you?"
"My parents are paying you, aren't they?"
"In a sense. They pay the state, state pays me."
"Then no, I'm not."
"I'm here to show you that your actions have consequences. That your actions hurt others."
"But you're not a consequence. The kids in my car. Mike, Desi, Joe. They were consequences. You're just a chump who couldn't get a better job."
He presses the button.
The yard is dust and boredom. I stand by the fence and look out on my world. A dusky plain and a lonely highway. Half-collapsed houses in the distance. Every once in a while a truck comes rolling down the road and kicks up dirt clouds. They chase the truck for a bit before giving up and collapsing back on the asphalt.
This is the life I chose. Hard to believe the wetlands on the coasts are even worse, but that's what Sue tells me. She's running laps. Her heavy breathing comes round my way every few minutes in constant rotation. There are some catcalls from the bleachers.
"Mind if I smoke?" Parsons walks up beside me, already lighting his cigarette.
Parsons does this from time to time. Tries to play nice, ease his guilt over what he does to me in visitation. I entertain his efforts with reserve. It's easy to resent him. Easy to waste my anger on the man. I try to tell myself it's not worth it, that he's just doing his job same as me, but it can be real tough sometimes.
"What're you gawking at out there?" he asks.
"Just, you know, out there."
He laughs. "Pretty shitty."
"What isn't these days?"
"Your boy wasn't looking too hot yesterday."
"He was drunk." I immediately realize my mistake. "Please don't spill that to anyone. I'd hate to lose this gig just because my idiot client broke the rules."
"Secret's safe with me."
Parsons winks and I'm reminded once again that he's on my side. I often forget that. The Centers try to hire guards who won't take pleasure in the particulars of client visits. People who'll empathize with us surrogates, who'll hold back a little—even unconsciously—when they wail on us. Most can't even make it a year. They quit a few pounds scrawnier and a few hairs grayer. One look at the bags under Parsons' eyes and you can tell his gig isn't exactly a walk in the park. Second worst job in Texas, Sue calls it. I'm inclined to agree.
"What the hell is he doing getting drunk?" Parsons asks. "It was, what, eleven in the morning?"
"Something like that."
"These rich kids, man. I'll never understand 'em."
There's an email from Ellie when I get to the library. Video message from the only net-cafe in our town. Her face is thinner than I remember. Hair cut short and neat. There are new wrinkles creasing her forehead, but she smiles and those wrinkles disappear. Hell, she smiles and the whole rest of the world disappears.
"Hey baby. Hope Parsons isn't being too hard on you. If he is, just give a ring and I'll be down there to whup his fat ass. Maria won a contest. Nothing big—a fifth grade handwriting competition—but she's been stomping around like queen of the world for the past few days. Lucas is jealous. He's been practicing his cursive every day. I think we may have created a monster."
She goes on telling half-true stories of life at home. They're voiced with a chattiness so manufactured it might as well come in a can. But we agreed to this act. She knows what I'm going through and gives me exactly what I need: snapshots of what I'm doing it for. No point in being weepy, that would just make me want to give up.
"I'm working part-time now at one of the Eagle Ford transport companies. Administrative. Not a big deal, but hey, maybe someday it will be a big deal. Then you could stop getting the shit kicked out of you just so we can feed these little terrors. That'll be the day, right? We miss you."
There's a hitch in her voice, but she pulls herself together right quick.
"We're thinking of getting another dog. Shelly's bitch just had a litter. Little guys are yelping and keeping us up all night. I figure, if they're gonna be annoying us anyway, we might as well own one of the damn things. Besides, the kids are still miserable about Django. What do you think? Should I do it? What should we name him? I was thinking we keep the tradition of naming him after those awful movies you love. Tuco? Blondie? Angel Eyes? I can't believe I remember these names. You owe me when you're out. But I'm rambling . . ."
She kisses her fingers and presses them against the camera. The image goes dark for a second and then she's back.
"Later, sweet potato."
The image goes black once again, this time for good.
"My family got a new dog."
"Oh yeah?" The kid is back to wearing his shades. He's put on a little weight, his formerly rock-hard body looking a bit slumped under his tight-fitting tee. "What's his name?"
"Her name is Jill."
"Jill? What kind of dog name is that?"
"Wife likes it cause it's pretty. I like it cause it's the name of a movie character."
"Old western. Nothing you'd care about. What's going on with you? Drunk again?"
"Nah. My dad . . . he got pretty mad."
"Wasn't happy with you breaking protocol?"
"They're paying so I don't have to go to jail. Big waste of money if I get sent anyway just cause I broke one of this Center's stupid rules."
"Maybe the judge will let your pop hire another guy like me to sit it out for you."
The kid laughs. "This whole thing is so messed up."
"Tell me about it."
"Why do you do it?" He pulls off his shades and lays them on the table between us. His eyes are bloodshot. Eyelids quivering as he speaks. "You gotta have other options."
"I worked for one of the big eastern manufacturers. Machine shop. I was a union man. Crash came and that fell apart. Oil bloom came and nobody wanted to touch me because I was union."
"Well duh. All you guys did was cause trouble."
"Matter of opinion."
"Still, that sucks."
I keep silent. It does indeed suck. I think of Ellie dropping the kids at school and hitting the office, leaving at three to pick them up. I think about where I'll be. Holding an icepack to my swollen face? Laid up in intensive? Broken and absent from their lives either way.
"I dream about my friends," the kid says. It comes out in a whisper. "Not anything weird. Not like they're ghosts or zombies or something. Just memories, glimpses I had when they pulled me from the car. Joe's head is twisted wrong in the dirt. Mike and Desi are these bloody lumps in the distance."
"How long has this been going on?"
"Last few weeks."
"I'm sure your folks could afford a therapist."
"Aside from you, they've cut off the money. They're freaking. These lawsuits are a big deal."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
He smirks, but I see no hostility in it. "No you're not."
"What changed, Jamie?"
"What do you mean?"
"You didn't give a shit about me two weeks ago. Why are you talking to me like this?"
He chews the inside of his cheek. Appraises me like livestock.
"Don't think we're friends just because I'm talking to you. Kids are avoiding me at school. Mom and Dad are doing nothing but yelling at me, each other, anything. I got nobody else. That's all."
Parsons's baton catches a ridge of bone on the back of my neck and I scream. Broke my own rule yet again. I force my face up to the window and see the kid staring at me. He looks ill. Pale as hospital sheets. Eyes watery and red. He's paying attention, his gaze hooked to the swinging baton and lingering on my flesh wherever Parsons hits me.
Maybe there's still a chance here. God, let me do some good.
I lie awake in my bunk. Behind the scenes we're not treated so bad. Single dormitory bedrooms. Twenty-four hour yard and library access. Minimal supervision. After all, we signed up for this. Our crimes are not our own. I'm thinking about Ellie, imagining what it'll be like to hold her again and our raucous welcome home sex. Just when my thoughts start to get good and graphic, that idiot kid Jamie shows up to kill the mood. I see him lying in his bed and dreaming of his dead friends.
Good. He deserves it. He really does.
But that doesn't stop me from feeling bad.
Manny wants to quit. He keeps going on about his client. How he mocks Manny during the beatings.
"I don't know his problem. He calls me a towelhead. I'm Haitian for Christ's sake."
"You read the contract, right?" Sue asks. "Quitting isn't really a feasible option."
"Well, whoever wrote that contract obviously never met Kenny Echols, biggest redneck dickstain this side of Dallas."
"You wish to ignore your calling, boy?" It's Jules from up on the bleachers. Still staring off into the sun's gleam. "Good riddance."
Manny slaps his knees and buckles with laughter. "Calling? You been out in the sun too long, old man."
"Go ahead and laugh," Jules says. "Doesn't bother me."
"You have to admit," I say, "if we're sin eaters, we're doing a fat lot of nothing. It's all-you-can-eat out there and they just keep bringing out more grub."
Jules huffs. "It's not an easy task."
"It's an impossible task. I may take a bite out of my client's sins, but those sins grow back two minutes later."
Jules shifts uncomfortably and casts nervy eyes in my direction. He looks ready to fight, his features steeling into an angry mask.
"But that's just one case," Sue stammers, dropping her cynicism to broker peace. "My client is doing okay. We talk. She thanks me and walks away clean. It's good."
Manny fails to catch on. "You're an exception," he says. "Most of these kids walk out free, but they sure ain't clean."
Jules stands. Balls his fists.
"It's something holy," he says. "We've got to at least try."
There's a pleading strain in his voice. It shuts us up.
Jamie is wearing a suit when we meet.
"I got a job after school. It's for some family friends. They run a nearby well. Not hard work, just entering numbers into a computer. That sort of thing."
"Making a little extra spending cash?"
"Looking good for the press. Looking repentant."
"But you're not actually repentant?"
"Depends what you mean."
"You're not feeling regret about what goes on here? Between you and me?"
"You signed up for this, Oscar. The two of us, we look good on paper. Our, uh, relationship" and he chokes back a giggle "we sit here and everyone says 'alright, boy's learning his lesson.' It's a joke."
"Not a very funny one." I crane my neck, show him the blunt violet bruise that runs down to my shoulder. "This hurts."
"And that bruise paid for your kids' Happy Meals. This isn't repentance."
"Then what is?"
He taps the side of his head.
"Makes me see why we have jails," he says. "Trapped all day in a cell with your thoughts. Sounds horrible."
"So what are you saying? You should be over on this side?"
"Maybe. But without the salary."
"I can still smell it, you know? The crash. Gas and blood and shit and earth. Makes me think I'm going crazy. I mean, I don't think I even smelled anything when it actually happened. But now I'll be sitting in class or grabbing a slice of pizza when all of a sudden it's crawling up my nose and I want to puke. Isn't that crazy?"
"Crazy's a word for it."
"This is my life. It's like I never left that ditch."
We share silence for a few minutes. The kid raps a dirge-like drumbeat on the table.
Finally: "Guess I have to hit this button, huh?"
"Guess you do."
That night, I'm on the way back from the bathroom when I hear Jules crying to himself. I peer through his door and see him huddled and rocking in his bed.
"I give easement and rest now to you." He rolls onto his other side and I can make out tears at the corners of his eyes. "Come not down the roads or in our lands. For your peace I pawn my own soul."
His last word is spoken in a sigh, language borne away on his breath.
Jules throws himself from the top of the bleachers the next morning. He winks at Sue and performs a full swan-dive. Lands head-first, dead before we can reach him. A rictus grin is sewn onto his face.
We sit on the bleachers while they roll him away on a gurney. Sue's burying her face in Manny's shoulder. She's hiccupping through her tears. She says she's trying to forget the sound of his bones snapping on the ground. The rest of us are trying to forget our knowledge of what happens next.
The Center will haul Jules's corpse before his client. They'll make the kid stare at that husk for a half-hour before carting it back to the fridge.
Each week his client will come and each week he will sit before Jules's body. The boy will watch our friend slowly decompose until his sentence is up.
Only then will Jules be truly free.
"Tell me about your life," Jamie says. "Not just facts. Stories or something."
He's wasted. I can smell the booze through the glass.
"You look like shit," I say.
"Dreams again? That smell?"
"Just . . . please. Tell me some stories about your kids."
I do as he asks. I think he passes out during my beating.
Ellie is grinning. She holds a newspaper up to the camera.
"The McAuliffes settled one of those suits, Oscar. It cost them mucho dinero. The other two aren't going away though. Maybe they'll breach and you can come home to us. I'm pulling in good money. They like me down at the office. I can probably get some more hours. You won't have to do this anymore. We all miss you, Mr. The Grouch. Please come home so someone else can be the mean parent."
Jamie wears his tie loose around his neck. He's not sitting this time. He's stomping in a little circle.
"Sometimes I think you're nothing. You're nobody. You're just zeroes and ones. Ones and zeroes on a screen and they're making me watch this show that's you. And I'm part of it. Like, live studio audience. What do they want me to do? Clap?"
He grabs the back of his chair, lowers his bulk like a crane towards the glass.
"No offense, but you're meaningless."
"And yet you're obviously worked up."
"It's because you're meaningless but you're still getting beat up. And don't give me that bullcrap about how it's all my fault. It's not. It's something else. This . . . this punishment. It's, uh, it's . . ."
He chuckles. Drops heavy into his chair at last. He's gained a lot of weight since we started seeing each other. His cheeks are drooping into jowls. Not how it should be at age seventeen.
"Dumb. Yeah. I'll drink to that."
We raise invisible glasses and toast through the window.
"Clink," I say.
"This isn't punishment."
"Than what is it?"
"Fuck if I know."
Jamie doesn't show up. I sit for twenty minutes across from an empty room before Parsons walks me back to holding.
"Little asshole," he says. "Doesn't he know you're trying to earn a living here?"
Manny's back in intensive. His guard slipped up this week and broke his collarbone. Risk of the trade. They'll bring on a temp for the next few weeks. In the meantime, Manny will sit pretty in his room and collect comp.
I stop by and Sue is sitting by his bed. She and Manny got close after Jules died.
"You're looking spry," she says.
"Client never showed up."
"Crap," Manny says. "What's that mean for you?"
"Never happened before," I say. "Guess we'll see. Not sure I'm even getting through to this kid."
"Cruel bastard? Like mine?"
"Nah. I mean, something is getting to him bad. Doubt it's me though. Maybe I'm even helping a little bit."
"Sure," Sue says. "Keep telling yourself that."
"You're not Jamie."
A faded man in a tan suit sits where my client should be.
"I represent the McAuliffe family." His voice is as dry and parched as the land outside.
"This can't be good."
"Jamie is dead."
"I can't give you the details." He chuckles. It sounds like a rattler in the brush. "Let's just say young Mr. McAuliffe's penchant for cheap beer and fast cars remained unabated to the end. As I'm sure you know, this means you've officially served your time. In five minutes you can collect your final paycheck and kiss this place adios. I suppose you must be happy about that. There's a silver lining to everything."
"I mean, it'll be nice to see my family, but not like this."
"Mm-hmm." He lays a briefcase on the table. Flips it open and begins to shuffle papers. "Of course, this brings me to our next matter of business. It appears that Jamie spoke quite highly of you to his parents. He suggested they bring you into the business once you were released."
"That's, uh, nice of him."
"He was still an asshole, Mr. Reyes. But he had his moments. I've been instructed to present you with this contract of employment."
"Jamie's folks actually listened to him? I'm shocked."
"Perhaps it's not so much what he said. Perhaps it's that this was the last thing he said. The McAuliffes are sentimental in that way. You have experience in a machine shop?"
"A position just opened at a McAuliffe well not too far from your home. How about that?"
The man smiles. His lips are thin and wan. They're as dried out as the rest of him.
"Do I look like a comedian to you, Mr. Reyes?"
I visit Manny just before I head out. Knock on his door and head in to find Sue on the floor by his bed. Manny's lying there with his fly undone. They're both flushed and panting.
"Married man," I say. "Tsk tsk."
"Married woman," Sue says, holding up her ring finger. No actual ring—which was confiscated upon entry—but I get the gist. She raises an eyebrow in challenge and I back off.
"Just wanted to say my goodbyes."
"For now," Manny says. "When will we see you again?"
"Next time some overprivileged shit robs a liquor store?" Sue asks.
"I don't know. Maybe. If not, we should grab drinks when we're all out of here."
Sue laughs. She glances at Manny. "Yeah. That'll happen."
He shrugs. "What happens in the Center . . ."
"I get it," I say. "Have fun."
Parsons offers to drive me home.
"It's the least I can do," he says while eyeing his baton. "Seeing as how—"
"Stop," I say. I'm about to tell him "no thanks" but there's a plea in his expression that makes me reconsider. Maybe he needs this. Maybe he deserves it. I nod. "I appreciate it."
It's the first time in months I've been outside the gates of the Center. I try to breathe deep of free air but all I catch is a lungful of exhaust from Parsons's sputtering old sedan.
"There's a flask in the glove box," he says. "Help yourself."
"Thanks. Mind if we make a slight detour?"
"Depends what you mean by 'slight.'"
He agrees and pulls off the highway. We cruise winding roads and lonely stretches. Eventually we reach a point where the road turns sharply to avoid a drainage ditch. I ask Parsons to stop and I get out of the car. He remains at the wheel.
I walk to the edge of the ditch and peer down. It's a ten-foot drop and there's a smattering of debris at the bottom. Broken chunks of metal. Rusted silver parts. Something that looks like a jagged slice of hubcap. Beyond this ditch there's only broken bushes and a wide range that goes on and on until it meets the bruised sunset sky.
Walking back to Parsons I pass a telephone pole. Pictures of the four kids who crashed here are stapled to it. They're wrapped in plastic to protect them from the elements, but the first three are already fading into pale blurs from the sun. The fourth—the newest—is clean and bright. Jamie McAuliffe in a polo and backwards baseball cap. He's kissing at the camera and flashing longhorns with both hands.
The picture makes me chuckle.
"What a prick," I say, but not without pity.
We head back to the highway. I keep my eyes on the mirror and watch the memorial pole sink behind a hill.
"You accept that job?" Parsons asks.
"We'll see how long it lasts. Kid's family might lose everything, take the whole company down with them."
"It happens. Your family know you're coming back?"
"Figured I'd surprise them."
"Cute. You're a good man, Oscar. Damn good employee too."
"I don't know about that."
"That kid. Jamie. What happened to him is not your fault."
"You think? Sometimes I feel like I barely got through to him. Other times, well, what if I did? What if it was me who sent him back into that ditch?"
Parsons shrugs. "We all feel that way sometimes. But in the end, who knows? Right?"
We top a ridge and the lights of my town are sparkling out in the distance. My family is waiting. Ellie and the kids will jump all over me, bust up my sore bones and bruised flesh even worse. I won't mind at all. I'll bear their aggressive love with a laugh. I find myself grinning. Can't help it.
"Yeah," I say. "Fuck if I know."