Poughkeepsie, p.11
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       Poughkeepsie, p.11

           Debra Anastasia
 

  Beckett had looked for a moment at the outstretched hand and finally accepted it. “I’m Beckett Taylor, and we’ve already been as fucking intimate as we’re ever going to get.” He’d put some extra testosterone in his handshake.

  “Beckett, I hope I never have to rub you with anything again. It might help if you let ugly kittens get themselves out of trees.”

  “Have you ever seen such an ugly damn cat?” Beckett had said with a wry smile. “Aren’t kittens supposed to be all cute and shit?” He liked this kid.

  “It was nice of you to help that ungrateful little girl out.” Blake unloaded his belongings onto his bed.

  “Ah, I’ve got a soft spot for kids. They’re so fucking little.”

  Beckett had turned to go, but thought better of it. Something in Blake spoke to him, maybe it was the Jesus eyes. “Dude, do yourself a favor and don’t go into the woods after dinner—at least until you see me back in this house.”

  Blake had looked at Beckett suspiciously and nodded.

  It wasn’t long after that when Beckett had figured out Blake was different. He avoided the sun at all costs and had more pill bottles than an AIDS patient. But Beckett wasn’t a bully. He didn’t pick on somebody just because he didn’t fit the fuck in. He only spoke with his fists when he was attacked, verbally or physically. Granted, the definition of “attacked” had a sliding scale.

  By the time they’d finished dinner that first night, Blake had made his formal introduction to his new foster parents and the assortment of other kids who lived in the house. After the meal, Beckett rose and went out the back door. His foster father, Rick, was close on his heels.

  Beckett stopped at the oak tree that was their meeting place. He stood, as requested, with his hands clasped in front of him. Each night, Rick geared up and beat Beckett repeatedly. With punches, cracks, slams, and grunts, Rick unleashed a fury he kept hidden just for Beckett.

  Beckett had had no idea Blake was as tricky as fog in the woods, and that he watched the scene unfold night after night with his clear green eyes.

  “Why aren’t you fighting back?” Blake finally asked one night as Beckett lay on his bed.

  “I told you not to come the fuck out there, didn’t I?” Beckett hissed.

  “I like the woods,” Blake said. “I don’t like knowing what he does to you.”

  “Rick’s a beater. He likes it. When I first got here, he beat all the kids. I told him I wanted to take it for everybody.” Beckett had shrugged like he’d just eaten the last cookie. “I’m a big fucking bastard. I can handle it.”

  “What about letting your social worker know?” Blake countered.

  Beckett shook his head. “No, she’s cool as hell and all, but I have to get through this on my own. I have this worked out. I have a plan. Don’t worry about me. I got this.” Beckett sucked at school, but he knew he could take few beatings.

  The next evening, Beckett had waited for Rick in his usual spot, head down and hands clasped in front like a condemned army cadet. As Rick approached, the sound of a solid punch suddenly snapped Beckett to attention. Blake stood in front Beckett with his arm in obvious recoil from the blow he’d landed on Rick.

  Beckett groaned silently. Stupid fucker. This’ll ruin the plan.

  But instead of starting a brawl, Blake had assumed Beckett’s position, hands holding one another in submission. “I’d like to take Beckett’s beatings for tonight, if that would be acceptable,” he said.

  It was obvious Rick agreed when Blake’s body buckled with the force of a blow. Beckett knew from experience that the kidney jab Blake had absorbed hurt like a bitch. Rick proceeded with extra vigor, leaving only after he was exhausted. He’d done his typical masterful job, leaving marks only where they could be covered.

  “Dude, that’s the last fucking time you set foot out here.” Beckett was furious.

  “Beckett, you’re doing this for people who don’t even know you’re protecting them. We’re in the shade here. I can do this. Let me do this. I can’t stand by and watch.”

  Beckett thought for a moment, saying nothing. Blake had taken the beating like a pro. Too good to be his first time.

  Beckett had had a moment of weakness. He selfishly wanted to take Blake up on his offer, so he did. Every night after that, Blake would show up and stand next to Beckett, head down, hands still.

  Beckett now got half the beating he used to get. Rick didn’t know that with every punch he was pounding his own coffin closed, but Beckett knew.

  Sometime later, Cole entered the situation. The quiet, thoughtful kid came with a rap sheet that belied his peaceful, Bible-carrying persona. Beckett wasn’t sure if Blake had confided in Cole or if Cole just stumbled upon the ritual, but one night he joined Blake and Beckett. And then there were three.

  Now just one third of the punches fell on Beckett. When Rick’s hands began to hurt, he switched to tree branches and his belt. Beckett felt like a big moron taking a beating from this twisted little fucker. He’d stood there motionless with two other guys, when together they could easily take him. But there would be ramifications.

  If Beckett had learned anything from his washed-out childhood, he learned he had to pick his battles. Rick was a respected retired music teacher. He’d promised Beckett he’d written down a very believable statement that Beckett had abused the younger kids. If Beckett ratted the beater out, he’d get stuck with a stigma he’d never be able to shake. Wouldn’t even matter that it wasn’t true.

  Beckett couldn’t have people think he was what Rick insinuated. Not with little fucking kids.

  In the woods the three broken boys had bonded, bound together by punches they could not return. They survived together.

  Then one night Blake had saved them all. The evening’s beating had been over for about an hour when the three decided to check out their foster parents’ cluttered basement. Under an old, dusty sheet, Blake found a Hammond organ. He plugged it in and looked like a kid who found a fucking present under the Christmas tree.

  When Blake sat down at the organ, his whole demeanor changed. Cole and Beckett stopped throwing an old baseball to each other so they could listen.

  Blake made the old organ into a tool. You could see right into his soul through the notes he played. Beckett knew why Blake had Jesus’ eyes. Kindness, hope, and light filled the music he played.

  In an instant, Rick came down the stairs like a new husband to his virgin bride. He was drawn to Blake like a moth to flame. Blake stopped playing and looked Rick up and down. The boys recognized an addict when they saw one.

  “Play more, Blake. That was wonderful,” Rick begged as if he’d never thrown a punch.

  So Blake had played, trapping Rick like a geisha with an opium pipe. After a week, he gave Rick an ultimatum. He would only perform after dinner. No beatings bought Rick a ticket to Blake’s nightly organ concert. Rick preferred Ave Maria, and eventually, as the boys’ wounds healed and cracked bones knit, that was the only song Blake played, over and over again.

  Beckett’s plan had commenced before he left the foster home, and now he had two accomplices. Blake’s quick, careful eyes located the key to the safety deposit box that contained the slanderous letter. Cole’s relentless patience led to a bank statement that included a yearly payment to the bank for the box. Beckett sold a boatload of pot to a teenaged teller at the bank, while videoing the transaction in secret. Then Beckett aged out first, Cole six months later, and Blake two weeks after that.

  The day Blake aged out, his jeans pocket had contained a small manila envelope with a shiny silver key. With the video providing needed motivation, the bank teller helped Beckett enter the vault to extract the miserable letter from Rick’s safety deposit box.

  The day the three boys met with Chaos—just before his sentencing for yet another felonious journey—they discussed Rick and his current lack of musician. As Chaos and his needles worked, Beckett assured them he’d take care of it as soon as he could. Neither brother asked what he meant,
but there were only young children left in Rick’s house now.

  One sunny Saturday a few months later, almost precisely a year after he’d aged out, Beckett went back to see Rick. He knocked on the door and played the part of a happy-go-lucky friend. As Beckett looked past Rick into the house, he saw one of the foster kids nursing his left side. Just as Beckett had known he would be, Rick was beating again. Hurting helpless children.

  When Beckett suggested a trip back to the oak tree, Rick eagerly agreed. When they arrived and Beckett pulled the snub-nosed pistol out of his waistband, Rick began to apologize for everything he’d done, for anything he’d ever do.

  Beckett ignored Rick’s pleas and pulled out the pathetic, lying letter that had kept him and his brothers still for Rick’s fists. Rick paled when he saw his blackmail in Beckett’s hand.

  “Rick, you sick, ass-sucking fuck, I want you to know I’m not here because you beat me. I’m not even here just because you beat children. There are lots of ways I could get you for that. But you’re going to die like the gasping pussy you are because…” Beckett advanced until he was nose to nose with Rick.

  “You.” Beckett pushed on Rick’s shoulder until he kneeled.

  “Touched.” Beckett leveled the pistol between Rick’s eyes.

  “My.” Beckett cocked the hammer with a quiet click.

  “Brothers.” Beckett smiled as he pulled the trigger.

  Beckett had rolled his head on his neck. He didn’t feel the release he had longed for. Killing this bastard wasn’t enough.

  So Beckett had beaten Rick’s body like he was killing him again. Then, one quick phone call later, Mouse had helped him bury the body. Beckett had set things right. He’d made Rick pay.

  Taking a deep breath, remembering how he’d stood up for Blake and Cole, Beckett smiled in satisfaction once again. He opened his eyes to scan the woods for Blake one last time. Nothing. It would be up to the organ to flush this guy out.

  Beckett started the Hummer and texted Eve:

  Tak4e Ur Cloth3s OFF Im on my qway

  Her reply came back quick as lightning:

  Take ur clothes off and fuck yourself.

  “One way or another, this chick is gonna kill me,” Beckett growled as the Hummer roared away.

  12

  Sorry

  BLAKE WAITED OUTSIDE. He’d forgotten the special knock.

  After a moment he tapped tentatively on the door and hoped that would do the trick.

  Almost immediately the man he’d come to see opened the door with a flourish, as if it were the threshold to a palace, not a tiny shack behind someone’s trailer. “’Sup,” he said in greeting.

  Chaos was a small, sinewy man with dark eyes and a fondness for black jeans and concert T-shirt. He’d been in prison more than he’d been out of it. When he was out among the “free” people, he gravitated toward small places. He seemed to seek close quarters like a newborn who wanted to be swaddled.

  Blake cleared his throat. He hadn’t used his voice in a while. “Chaos, it’s nice to see you. Thanks for taking my call.”

  “Don’t pull any bullshit, kid. I know what you came for.” Chaos stepped out of the way and motioned for Blake to enter his self-imposed cell. “Lay down there,” he said, pointing at an army cot shoved in the corner among gardening tools, old tabletop appliances, and broken toys.

  Blake was glad the space was dirty. That was all he deserved.

  Chaos centered his attention on the needle he prepared. When the sliver of hard silver took a bite out of his arm, Blake resented the pain. He’d nurtured his numbness like an elaborate garden.

  The blood that pooled around the needle’s point reminded him of the smears he’d made on his beautiful angel’s face. He’d touched Livia with his craziness and left a mark. How could she ever look at him again? By now she’d probably switched to a different train station anyway.

  Chaos poked him again, and Blake welcomed the pain this time. This pain will remind me why I shouldn’t find her.

  Blake hated his weakness, but he let the pain transport him back to the clearing, to her face. He vowed it would be the last time, but he wanted to remember her noises and panting as he tasted her soft skin. She smelled like cinnamon.

  Blake tried to see her face in his memory: trusting Livia, submitting to his hands and tongue. Instead he saw her pain as she told him she didn’t see his skin turn to glass in the sun. She’d tried to hide her knowing.

  Brave, beautiful Livia. She’d stood there waiting and never even flinched when he ran past. He could have plowed into her. Blake knew what it took to stay still when your mind screamed Run! A person had to find a place inside to die while things they didn’t want happened to their body.

  Chaos inserted the needle again and again with a skilled, practiced motion. The jabs blended together into a type of ecstasy. Blake made a fist with the hand Chaos didn’t have trapped, feeling the scabs and scars that had formed there.

  How did I do that to her? Her? Punching trees and screaming? She must have been terrified.

  Soon his hands would heal, so he might forget the pain he’d caused her. He’d left her in the woods. Left her. Watching her find her car and punch it with the same delicate hand she’d put so trustingly in his was too much.

  Blake needed something more permanent—a reminder so he’d never forget she was better off in her world, surrounded by food and family and love.

  Chaos and his needle droned on.

  Blake’s weakness disgusted him as he began to remember his favorite smiles. Number 134 was one of the best. Livia had dropped her cell phone and cursed quietly, but creatively: “Hairy-ass bitch.” She’d felt Blake’s watchful eyes on her and given him an embarrassed smile. Number 134 made Blake realize she was a real, live girl.

  On that day he’d had hope. Maybe a girl flawed enough to curse would someday say hello out loud. To him.

  Number 198 was wonderful too. Blake had watched a good-looking and ridiculously pretentious guy hit on Livia. The fancy man dropped expensive name after name as he showed her all his accessories. When he finally pulled out his wallet to show her a “highly desirable luxury credit card” Livia had rolled her eyes in Blake’s direction with smile number 198. He’d had to swallow a snicker when he heard her tell the fancy man she was debt free and didn’t even have credit cards.

  Blake knew that was a lie because he’d seen her pay for tickets with a card at the train station. That made number 198 a secret joke between just the two of them.

  Chaos wiped blood away with a towel and hummed quietly. He was in his happy place, creating something that would never go away.

  Number 1 was the hardest to think about now. After. But Blake let himself go there as Chaos pressed into the deepest punctures.

  Blake liked the train station because the trains offered reliable percussion for the songs he played in his head. When Livia had first stepped onto the platform, Blake had tried his hardest not to stare. He knew moneyed people didn’t like their women getting ogled by the homeless. But she was so friendly, even in this place where people built their own personal bubbles and stayed in them. When she smiled she looked like a walking ray of the sunshine he had to avoid.

  Her eyes had found his and shocked him. Blake was used to the blank, anesthetized eyes of those looking everywhere but at him. Her smile was resuscitation for his soul.

  Me! She sees me.

  At first he chalked it up to her mistaking him for normal. But smile after smile came, long after he knew she must have realized the truth.

  Finally, Chaos held Blake’s wrist up and inspected it carefully. He turned it toward Blake, who nodded his sad approval.

  There. Now as long as I have my arm, I’ll remember to stay away from Livia McHugh.

  “I don’t have anything to pay you with now,” Blake said, turning toward Chaos. “But just tell me how much, and I’ll make sure this debt is paid.”

  Chaos shrugged. “Dude, I owe Beckett. Just let him know.”

&nb
sp; Blake nodded and stood. Of course. Everyone owes Beckett something.

  Chaos’ attention drifted from his workstation to the shed’s only dingy, dirty window. “Man, don’t keep yourself locked up. Or else someday, even when the door’s open, you won’t want to walk out anymore.”

  Blake nodded and held out his hand. Chaos stood to shake it.

  “Your work is amazing. This is just what I needed.” Blake double-checked that the sky was still cloudy before he stepped out of Chaos’ shed.

  He rolled down the sleeve on his filthy shirt, covering the bloody, freshly tattooed word: Sorry.

  He looked at the tattoo on his other arm and realized with a devastating thud that he’d missed the meeting. His brothers would be long gone by now.

  His hands spread wide in anguish as he stood, unable to move, on the road in this horrible part of town. He’d disappointed the only people that mattered, his mistakes now documented on both his arms.

  His only salvation would be in the church, tonight. If Cole would still let him play the organ.

  13

  Let Him Come to You

  LIVIA APPROACHED THE PLATFORM, specially made sandwich in hand. When she drew close enough, the view from the steep stairs let her head in on the secret her heart already knew. No Blake. Livia set the bag down in his empty spot anyway. Maybe he’s watching.

  Her train ride to the city was full of sleepy commuters and not much else, but when she arrived, she skipped her class and went straight to the library.

  Books had always held answers for Livia. She liked their solid feel in her fingers. She looked down the long row of hardback books. Their plain, faux-leather covers had little wrinkles like elephant’s skin. She gathered them until they piled high in her arms.

  As she sat and read through them, Livia decided that if the covers truly matched the insides of these books, they’d be wreathed in images of people in torment—doctors and patients alike. In short, mental illness was a struggle to understand. Naming and classifying a disorder was like throwing bread to a group of pigeons. The psychologists in these books picked apart each definition or diagnosis until it was riddled with holes. There were twists and turns and contingencies.

 
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