Authors: David Vinjamuri
By David Vinjamuri
Copyright 2013 by David Vinjamuri. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used, reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law, or in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Table of Contents
a person or object that holds something together
a streak of impurity in a coal seam, usually difficult to remove
John McCarthy knew they were in trouble before the hooded men boarded the bus. He saw the danger before dim headlights revealed muddy pickup trucks blocking the road, before a line of men carrying shotguns and tire irons emerged from the dark. John knew something was off the moment they hit a roadblock on Route 3 that hadn’t been there the past dozen times they’d made the trip.
He’d noticed just one thing as they’d approached the detour, a single flaw that made him look for others: the man holding the yellow sign wore sneakers. He wasn’t the teenager John had been the two summers he worked roads in Columbus, either. This guy was in his late thirties, and the arms poking through his reflective vest showed the kind of hard biceps that have to be worked every day to last at that age. His tan was a little light for a road guy too, but that wasn’t the thing that caught John’s eye. It was those white Nike cross-trainers. You don’t wear shoes like that when you’re working on roads because hot asphalt will burn right through the soles. And nothing white stays that way for long when you’re around construction.
Then John eyed the two men standing in front of the striped barricade in the middle of the road. Both were lean and fit like the first, but younger. That was odd, too. Those jobs were the ones the union guys covet—much easier than bending over a shovel or driving a paver in the scorching sun all day. The guys who worked them usually had bellies that betrayed the beer and burgers they downed at the same pace they had in their glory days. And both of them faced the school bus. That was just wrong. Neither was watching the other direction for oncoming traffic. Road workers don’t turn their backs on distracted moms in SUVs, even if there’s another crew up the road responsible for stopping traffic.
But the bus driver didn’t spot those warning signs; he only paid attention to the yellow diamond the guy in sneakers was waving. He swung the bus off the main road like a skipper steering a barge around a reef while John was still weighing the risks of bucking the chain of command. Tiny fingers of spiny leaves scraped the roof of the decommissioned school bus as it slipped under the low-hanging branch of a holly tree.
The detour put them onto a poorly paved road that didn’t look like it would connect to anything. A half-mile on, after narrowing down to a single lane, they found two old Ford pickups blocking the roadway. A line of men in grubby clothes wearing hemp hoods with crudely cut eyeholes stood in front of the muddy trucks. Several of them carried torches, and John half expected to see a burning cross greet them as a tall man with a shotgun stepped forward and waved the bus off the road. The driver—a kid from the suburbs of Seattle—finally started to panic, but by then there was no way to escape. A white panel van had followed them through the detour and pulled up close behind them. They were boxed in. So the driver followed directions and pulled the ramshackle bus into the empty lot by the side of the road. It was a construction site of bulldozed earth. A grader sat next to a big yellow Caterpillar dump truck at the edge of the lot.
There’s the construction equipment missing from the roadblock
, John thought dazedly.
The barrel of a shotgun rapped against old glass, startling the driver. Hands trembling, he leaned over and pulled the handle to open the door. Three hooded men smelling of sweat and bourbon came aboard, leaving prints of red mud on the ridged rubber mat that lined the aisle.
“Don’t resist. They’re just trying to scare us. They’re not going to hurt us,” Judy said. Judy’s badge of honor was having been arrested at the G-8 summit in Glen Eagles. She was the designated leader in Roxanne’s absence, but John knew she was wrong. He could smell the brittle pheromone that precedes violence on the hooded men. He badly wished Roxanne were with them. She’d have read the situation as he had but reacted sooner, perhaps even ordering the driver to run the barricade. If not, she might have cowed the hooded men into submission with words, a talent John did not possess.
But Roxanne was not on the bus and John knew that anything he might do would only make the situation worse, so he complied just like the rest. They were marched out and made to kneel down on the damp, scarred earth. A man spinning a baseball bat in rough hands approached them. His piercing blue eyes shone out from under the hood.
“We warned you. Stop interfering with our livelihood or face the consequences. Now’s time for consequences.” John had been sitting at the front of the bus, which put him at the front of the line. Two men dragged him forward. Throughout his life, John had always been clear in his convictions—not the type given to uncertainty. As the bat rose above him, framed for an instant by a luminescent cloud concealing the moon, he experienced a moment of doubt.
Then it began.
It was a classic ambush, and I walked straight into it.
I saw the two of them when I kicked the screen door open. I had a duffel bag slung over my shoulder and a box in my hands. There was no room to maneuver, so I stopped dead in the doorway. I lowered the box carefully to the ground and dropped my bag before raising my hands in surrender.
“You’re not leaving...are you?”
“Of course he’s leaving. What else would he do?”
“That’s not helping.”
“He’s not helping.”
“That’s not fair. He dropped everything to come here.”
“Spare me. He’s only here because you blubbered on the phone. Mom doesn’t want him here.”
“How do you know what Mom wants?”
“Remember what happened last time?”
“That wasn’t his fault!”
“Oh that’s precious! Whose fault was it then?”
“They were here
of him. Then he left, didn’t he, and he hasn’t been back since.”
“What did you expect? You told him not to come back. Then you didn’t invite him to Gabe’s baptism.”
“Don’t you dare bring my son into this!”
“You brought him into it! Mikey is Gabe’s only uncle.”
“And now he’s leaving Mom in the hospital so he can go back to work.”
“I—” I tried to interrupt. Amelia glared at me and the sound died in my throat.
“He’s been here for five days. Mom is going to be recovering for a long time. What else do you expect him to do?”
“You don’t understand...” I interjected. Ginny laid a hand on my shoulder without looking at me.
“What do I expect him to do? Are you kidding? One of us needs to be with Mom around the clock. A nurse almost killed her the other night with the wrong ’scrip. They took her off the catheter last night but Mom still can’t reach the buzzer when she needs a bedpan. There are test results coming in every day and Dr. Kassavian doesn’t take time to call us when he gets them so I have to call the neurologist myself. Plus the shingles on the roof still need to be repaired, the washing machine is leaking and there’s a mountain of laundry. And by the way, I still have a six-month-old at home.”
“So Mikey’s supposed to quit his job to help us?”
“He can take more than three days of vacation to help the family when there’s a crisis.”
“He got in the car ten minutes after I called him.”
“Because you’re the only one he listens to—his precious baby sister.”
“Maybe if you stopped trying to boss everyone around all the time...”
“Oh don’t you start with me, Virginia Herne!” Amelia knocked my shoulder as she brushed past, muttering about Ginny being a freeloader and moldy bread in the pantry. Ginny scrambled after her, still bickering even though Amelia was no longer listening.
I was standing there, speechless, when I realized my third sister Jamie, who is older than Ginny but younger than Amelia, had been watching the argument. She was standing in front of a burnt orange 1995 Honda Civic parked on the street in front of my mother’s house. Every time I see that car I’m amazed that it hasn’t been stolen for parts.
I grabbed the duffel and slung it back over my shoulder, then leaned down and picked up the box. As I approached, I saw that Jamie’s lips were all bunched together in amusement.
“You like to stir the pot, don’tchya?” she said.
I made a face. It was the same one I’d first used when she was eight and I’d stranded her six feet up in a tree after she smashed a chocolate ice cream cone into my head.
She wrinkled her nose. “Are you really leaving today?”
“Yeah, but not for work. I have to help a friend. It’s important.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“You’re leaving an emergency for another emergency?”
“When you put it that way...”
“You can’t fix this mess but maybe you can do something about the other one?”
I thought about that. “Maybe.”
She pursed her lips and shook her head. I shrugged and turned my palms to face her and nearly dropped the box.
“So go,” she said as she kissed my cheek, “and then come back.”
Three of them came for me as I left the bar. The big one had a couple of inches on me. Worse, he was built like a bull and outweighed me by three or four sawbucks. He shoved me into the first alley we passed. The push was strong enough to lift me off the ground for an instant before I landed flat on my feet. The leader wore a Carhartt cap, a rough canvas shirt and boots that looked like they might have steel toes. He was skinny and sported an uneven beard that didn’t mask his crooked teeth, broken nose and narrow, deep-set eyes. He slipped a hand into an outside pocket of his surplus Army jacket and emerged with a pair of brass knuckles.
“You done a lot of talking back there,” he said. That’s what I managed to translate, anyway, as his accent was two shades denser than others I’d heard so far. The third man stood behind the leader and nodded. He looked like he’d been doing that for most of his life.
“We don’t ’preciate strangers, ’specially thems with a mouth full o’ questions,” the leader continued.
I retreated slowly to avoid being flanked. Then I reached a hand inside the breast pocket of my windbreaker while I held the other hand up, empty palm forward to try to forestall the skinny guy from throwing a punch with that brass-knuckled fist. I pulled a color photo from my breast pocket. It was oversized and printed on glossy paper that I had neatly folded in half. It was considerably bigger than the snapshot I’d flashed in the bar when I was asking if anyone had seen the girl it pictured. More importantly, she wasn’t alone in this photo. The men slowed and squinted at the picture, which moved their thoughts away from beating me up.