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       Grab, p.1

           Blake Crouch
 
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Grab


  Grab

  a Letty Dobesh thriller

  by BLAKE CROUCH

  1

  Letty Dobesh reached to freshen up a trucker's coffee from behind the counter. His name was Dale or Dan or Dave—something that started with a D. He was a regular. A creepy regular. Came into the diner several times a week. Tall, lanky, never-tipping guy who always wore a red down vest and a John Deere mesh hat.

  As Letty filled his mug, he grinned, said, "Know what would look good on you?"

  This should be good.

  "No, what's that?" she asked without risking eye contact.

  "Me."

  Now she did meet his eyes. They were small and brown and contained a volatile energy that she recognized—he was a hitter.

  "That's beautiful," she said. "You should write Hallmark cards."

  The man laughed like he wasn't sure if he'd been insulted.

  Her manager called her name from the grill.

  "Be there in a sec!" she said.

  "No, Letisha. Not in a sec. Now."

  She set the pot of coffee back on the warmer and wiped her hands off on her apron. An image blindsided her: Letty at seventy, hobbling around the diner on arthritic feet, hands like claws from a lifetime of this.

  The manager was a short, sweaty, unpleasant man. He wore black jeans, black sneakers, and a white Oxford shirt with a hideous Scooby-Doo tie. Same outfit always. As she approached, she saw that he held a wire brush in his right hand.

  "Good morning, Lloyd."

  "Bathrooms. They're disgusting. You were supposed to clean them yesterday."

  "Lloyd, I haven't had a chance—"

  He shoved the wire brush into her hand. "With a smile."

  "I'm smiling on the inside."

  # # #

  Letty scrubbed furiously at a beard of dried shit affixed to the inside of the toilet.

  The noise of the jukebox was indistinct through the concrete walls, but a new refrain had taken up residence in her head.

  This is my life.

  This is my life.

  This is my beautiful life.

  When the toilet bowl was pristine, she stood looking out of the small window behind the sink. The view was down Ocean Boulevard. Vacation cottages and high rises all oriented east toward the sea.

  There were bars over this small window, and Letty somehow found it fitting. She'd been out of prison now almost ten months, had been clean for half a year, but she hardly felt free.

  She was thirty-six years old and she had just worked herself into a sweat cleaning a toilet in a diner.

  Bad as prison was, the walls that had kept her in her cell and in the yard had never screamed hopelessness as loud as the barred window in this tiny bathroom. In prison, there was always something to look forward to. The promise of release, and beyond, the possibility of a Life Different.

  She felt a sudden, irresistible urge to get high.

  You don't do that anymore.

  Why?

  For Jacob.

  She needed to distract herself. If she was back at the halfway house across the sound, she'd either jump in the shower or go for a run. Do something to break that death spiral thought pattern. Here at work, she could just plug herself into serving the customers. Her therapist, Christian, would tell her to challenge the thought to use. To stop, take a moment, and analyze the error in it.

  Where is the error? I feel bad. Getting high will make me feel good. Doesn't get much simpler than that.

  But it's not that simple, Letty. Because you won't use once. If you start, you will use until you're broke or dead or back in prison.

  A layer of tears fluttered over the surface of her eyes.

  There was a knock at the door.

  "Just a minute!"

  She wiped them away. Smoothed her blue and white dress. Pulled herself together.

  Lifting the cleaning supplies, she opened the door.

  The trucker in the John Deere hat stood in the alcove that accessed the men's and women's restrooms.

  "All yours," she said.

  He crowded into the doorway.

  "Letisha, right?"

  "That's right."

  "Wanna earn your tip? How's about we go back in there for a spell?"

  Letty pushed up against his scrawny, fetid frame. Reaching down, she grabbed his groin and pulled him toward her.

  He said, "Oh hell yeah."

  Bulge in the vest. Left side. Wallet.

  With their lips an inch apart, Letty smiled. She released his manhood and drove her knee straight up into his balls at the same instant her right hand slid inside his vest, fingers diving into the pocket. She snatched the wallet as he keeled over onto the floor. Would've hit him again but Lloyd had appeared at the end of the hallway that opened into the diner, his face twisted up with rage.

  "You junkie whore. I didn't have to give a convicted felon a job."

  "He was trying to—"

  "I don't care. You're fired. Get out."

  Letty ripped off her apron and dropped it on the floor beside the moaning trucker who'd gone fetal in the corner.

  # # #

  She rode the bus into Charleston. Sat in the back going through the trucker's wallet. His name wasn't Dale, Dan, or Dave. It was Donald, and for a cheapskate, he carried around fat stacks—$420 in cash and three credit cards.

  She whipped out her jailbroken iPhone which she'd retrofitted with a wireless card-reader. Started scanning Donald's Visa, Mastercard, and Amex, dumping sub-$100 deposits into shell accounts.

  2

  Letty put her hands behind her head and interlaced her fingers. She liked this couch. The leather was always warm. She liked the afternoon view through the open window in the back wall where the two blues met—sky and ocean. The air breezing through was tinged with salt and suntan lotion and the sweet rot of seaweed.

  "You got fired?" Christian said. He was seated at his desk several feet away.

  "This morning. I'm leaving town tonight. I've already cleared out my room at the halfway house. Won't miss that place."

  "I thought we agreed it would be a good idea for you to hold down that job at least through Christmas."

  "I'm done with this place."

  "Where will you go?"

  "Oregon."

  "To see your son?"

  "That's the plan."

  "Do you feel you're ready for that? Ready to reenter Jacob's life on a permanent, reliable basis?"

  "It's the only thing I'm living for, Christian."

  "That means this is our last session."

  "You've been great. The best part of my time here."

  "Are you anxious?"

  "About leaving?"

  "It's a big deal."

  "I know it is."

  "How do you feel about it?"

  "Ready."

  "That's all?"

  She stared at the Thriller-era Michael Jackson bobblehead on her substance abuse counselor's desk and said, "Christian, will it make you feel better if I say I'm scared?"

  "Only if it's the truth."

  "Of course I'm scared."

  "Afraid you'll use again?"

  "Sure."

  "But you know how to fight it now. You're empowered. You know your triggers—external and internal. You know your three steps to ensure sobriety."

  "Recognize. Avoid. Cope."

  "There you go. And what's your main trigger?"

  "Breathing."

  "Come on."

  "Remembering what a complete failure I am."

  "That's not true."

  "Convicted felon."

  "Letty."

  "Meth addict."

  "Stop."

  "Junkie whore."

  "This is counter—"

  "And let's not forget—you got mother of the year sitting on your couch. Christian, I
got triggers everywhere I look."

  Christian leaned back in his chair and sighed the way he always did when Letty turned the knife on herself. He was old-school Hollywood handsome. Cary Grant. Gregory Peck. With his short-sleeved button-down and clip-on tie, he looked like a car salesman. But his eyes implied trust. Kind and wise and sad.

  How could they be anything but? Talking all day to losers like me.

  "You know if you don't make some kind of peace with yourself, Letty, none of this stuff works."

  On the wall beside Christian's desk, she let her eyes fall upon a painting between two framed diplomas. She inevitably found herself staring at it during some point of each weekly session. It was a print of a Romantic masterpiece—a man standing in a dark frockcoat on the edge of a cliff. His back is to the viewer, and he's gazing out over a barren, fog-swept waste. The landscape looks so hostile and unforgiving it could be another planet.

  Christian turned in his swivel chair and glanced up at the wall.

  "You like that painting."

  "What's it called?"

  "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog."

  "Nice."

  "What do you like about it?"

  "I like the man's fear."

  "Why do you say he's afraid? You can't even see his face. I think he's exhilarated."

  "No, he's afraid. We all are, and this painting says that. It says we're not alone."

  "You're not alone, Letty. If you'd take my advice and join a group, you'd see that."

  "NA isn't for me."

  "Sobriety is a group effort."

  "Christian, the only time I never used was when I was working. When I had a job."

  "You mean stealing."

  "Yeah."

  "You still messing around with that?"

  She smiled. "You know what they say. You can take the girl out of prison..."

  "That's just another form of addiction, Letty."

  "I get that."

  "So what are you saying?"

  "I want to stay clean. For me. For my son. But I don't see the world like you do."

  "What do you see?"

  Her lips curled up into something that could almost be called a smile. She pointed at the painting.

  3

  Letty left town that evening with her entire life, such as it was, in a suitcase.

  Clothes.

  A framed photograph of Jacob at four years old smiling from the top of a slide.

  Laptop.

  Phone.

  And 5K in cash.

  With a thermos full of French roast, she drove all night.

  Slept at a truck stop in Arkansas the next day.

  She got off the interstate where she could and stuck to back roads. Something more therapeutic in driving her Honda Civic beater down a two-lane highway than anything she'd experienced in rehab. A tangible sense of the life before falling behind her like so many stripes of faded yellow.

  She didn't push herself. Some days she only clocked a hundred miles. Oregon was the final destination, but she made no effort to take a direct course. She meandered, and in the beginning, didn't think about a thing. Just let the landscape scroll. Whole chunks of time when her mind was a bright blue cloudless sky. Where she was so completely out of herself that when she snapped back into the moment, she couldn't even remember driving. She'd be in a new state. On a different road. She wanted more time to pass like that. She lived so rarely in the present, her existence neatly boiled down into two equal parts.

  The depression and regret of her past.

  The fear of what was to come.

  Her two plains of consciousness.

  And it was driving on the plains of eastern Nebraska on a late summer afternoon when something like an epiphany struck her. She would always remember the moment, because out the windshield her stretch of prairie was sundrenched and golden with late light.

  When I'm high and when I'm on a job—I'm not plagued by the sadness of the past and the fear of the future.

  That's why I use.

  Why I steal.

  Those are the only times when I live in the moment like a free human being.

  # # #

  She checked into a motel on the eastern desert of New Mexico on her fifth or sixth day. It was after ten p.m. and in the west the sky was getting raked by an electrical storm that was too far out for the sound of its thunder to reach her.

  She pulled a chair out onto the concrete balcony.

  Sat watching the sky light up, thinking how nice it would be to get high. It wasn't much of a desert town, but she'd driven past a roadhouse on the outskirts. She could take a shower, put on something slinky, head down there and score. She could almost taste the smoke. Gasoline and plastic and household cleaners and Sharpies and sometimes apples. Oh yes, and nail polish. She hadn't dared to paint her toes in the last six months for fear the odor alone would set her down the bad path.

  Challenge the thought to use.

  You do it tonight, when you start to come down you'll feel so bad you'll have to go again. And again. Cycle repeats. Then you'll have lived in this motel room for three weeks and eaten nothing but convenience store food. You'll be frail and sick, right back where you were last fall.

  But the urge was still there.

  So how do you cope?

  If she went back into the room, she knew what would happen. She'd take a shower under the guise of distracting herself. But then she'd get out, suitcase dive for something sexy, and head down to the bar.

  So how do you cope?

  Stay right where you are.

  Do not move.

  By midnight, she could hear the thunder and smell the threat of rain in the sky like a closed-up attic. She didn't go inside. Not even when the rain started.

  It came down in curtains. The temperature fell. Almost instantly there were pools of standing water in the empty parking lot. The lightning touched the desert a quarter mile away, and the ensuing noise was louder than a shotgun blast at close range.

  Still, she didn't move.

  Her clothes were drenched and she was shivering.

  The storm passed.

  Stars appeared.

  She could hear the quiet roar of I-40 a mile away.

  It was 3:30 in the morning.

  Struggling to her feet, she pulled open the sliding glass door and walked into the frigid air-conditioning. She stripped out of her wet clothes and climbed naked into bed. The need was still there, just no longer screaming in her face. Now she pictured it as the embodiment of an emaciated woman, crouched in a corner, whispering madly to herself.

  4

  She stopped the next afternoon in the red desert waste of Arizona. It had been twenty-four hours since she'd eaten, something in the ache of an empty stomach that she found useful in fighting the urge to use. If hunger was on her mind, crystal meth wasn't.

  But now she was dizzy and lightheaded, feared her driving was on the cusp of becoming erratic.

  She got off the interstate past Winslow and headed south through a landscape of buttes and exposed rock. A world stripped down to its bones.

  She felt so lightheaded it was becoming difficult to focus, but a quick glance in the rearview mirror cut through the fog.

  The black Tundra that had been trailing her for the last hundred miles, perhaps more, had taken the same exit.

  Am I being paranoid because I'm famished?

  She pulled into the visitor's center.

  Walked up to the drab brick building and paid the admission fee.

  Inside, the air-conditioning was set to blizzard.

  She pretended to peruse the gift shop card rack while she stared out the window that overlooked the parking lot.

  The driver side door of the Tundra was open. A black man climbed out.

  He wore khaki shorts and a white t-shirt without logo or slogan.

  Letty threaded her way through the tourists and slipped out the exit. She followed the observation path through the desert until she stood on the rim.

  The de
pression was gaping. Nearly a mile across. Five hundred feet deep. She could see people the size of ants on the far side, walking the trail that circled the crater. The heat radiating off the ground was tremendous.

  A hole in the ground. Yay.

  Turning, she studied the visitor's center—no sign of the black man from the Tundra.

  You're imagining things. Go eat something.

  # # #

  She ordered a foot-long veggie at the Subway in the visitor's center and claimed a booth.

  Crazy hungry.

  Didn't even come up for air until she was halfway through and nearly choked when she did. Because that man was sitting across from her, smiling. It was a beautiful smile. Broad and bright. But there was something malicious and knowing in it which she couldn't quite put her finger on. Like the man wasn't smiling at her, but rather at something he knew about her.

  Letty put her sandwich down, wiped her mouth.

  "By all means," she said. "Please join me."

  The man unwrapped his sandwich—a meatball sub—and dug in.

  "You followed me here," Letty said.

  He nodded as he chewed.

  Through a mouthful, he said, "Picked you up in Gallup."

  "What do you mean 'picked me up?'"

  He just smiled.

  "There something I can help you with?" she asked.

  "Damn, girl. Can I eat my sub first?"

  They ate in silence, watching each other. He was thirty-something, Letty figured, but closing in on forty. Her age possibly. No trace of stubble. Brown eyes. Movie-star handsome. Shredded.

  They finished their sandwiches without a word, and then he washed his down with a long hit of Coke through a straw that sucked his cheeks in.

  He said, "Ahhhh. Can't believe they had a Subway. That's just bonus. You look thoughtful. Lemme guess. You going through all the people you ever wronged, trying to figure out who's come back to settle a score. Yeah?"

  Letty made no acknowledgement, but he was right.

  "This ain't about none of that," he said. "Ain't here to hurt you. This got nothing to do with anything in your past. All about the future."

  That unnerving smile again.

  Letty drew in a long breath. Her head was clear now, and she was afraid.

  "How'd you find me?"

 
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