Poughkeepsie, p.29
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       Poughkeepsie, p.29

           Debra Anastasia
 

  Patterns.

  Mouse soon learned the patterns of the bullies at his school. When the meaner children figured out that taunting him about his grandmother got a response, they grabbed onto his self-worth with their jaws and never let go. His teachers stepped in if they could, but they weren’t always around.

  When Billy made fun of his grandmother’s teeth and her squeaky basket in the cafeteria, Mouse felt something snap.

  He jumped up. “Meemaw is a wonderful person! She’s all I have!”

  Billy’s immediate and perfect mimic of Mouse’s outburst brought a roar of laughter from the lunch crowd. Mouse sat and hid behind his lunch bag, filled with shame. He couldn’t eat a thing. When he brought home his uneaten meal—he wouldn’t dare throw it out and waste it—his grandmother questioned him.

  Mouse gave in to her concerned eyes and told her the whole story. Meemaw’s eyebrows rose higher and higher as he spoke, and when he’d finished she released a torrent of angry Polish. She called the teacher, principal, and the custodian that evening.

  “My grandson was tormented today! If happens again I will handle that psia krew myself.” She was so angry she had to sit down. Mouse brought her water. She looked so pale and worn. He was worried.

  “Jimmy, you are small now. I know that. But your heart, so big. Don’t let them hurt your heart. You are big to me.”

  Mouse patted her back until she looked better. He never told her about the bullies again. Perhaps her calls put the adults at school on higher alert, but Billy and his crew were skilled at finding their moments. The worst, by far, was lunch. The cafeteria monitor had a habit of sneaking outside to have a smoke, and Billy had an incredible talent: he knew exactly how long it took to smoke a cigarette. He would devise tortures that lasted precisely that amount of time.

  Most of the time Mouse said nothing as Billy spat in his milk or threw his sandwich in the garbage. Because when he did get a reaction, Billy got more creative. Then one day when Mouse spoke up, his life changed.

  Billy stood in front of him as soon as the lunch monitor clicked the exit door guiltily behind her.

  “Hey, squeaky ass, what stinky lunch do you have today?” Billy tore into Mouse’s bag. Mouse felt revulsion crawling up his spine when he saw a thick slice of cake in Billy’s grubby hand.

  He hated his voice, but used it. “Put it down, Billy. That’s not cool, man.”

  The cake was from Meemaw’s birthday celebration the night before. Mouse had knitted her a shawl using her favorite colors and made the dessert.

  Billy imitated him, his go-to tease.

  Mouse made a fist, then unclenched it. Finally he smacked Billy in the chest.

  “You smacking me? You smacking me?” Billy asked, incredulous. “That’s it. Get him, guys. He’s asking for it now.” Billy’s friends grabbed Mouse’s arms, which were thin and lacking anything resembling muscle.

  “Let’s make him moon the cafeteria!” Billy smiled as Mouse made a grab for his pants.

  Together, like a pack of dogs, they brought him down. All the hands began working at once. Mouse felt tears of shame roll down his cheeks.

  “NO! NO!”

  Billy laughed harder at his screams.

  When the air hit his rump, Mouse’s inside hurt so much. Everyone in the cafeteria would see him like this. The bullies stood up, mission accomplished, and pointed. Mouse yanked on his dime-store pants, but the buckle that hadn’t helped to keep his pants on during the attack now sprang into action to prevent him from covering himself.

  Mouse heard Billy’s voice again as he worked at his belt. “Get back to your seats,” Billy shouted. “The monitor should be back by now.”

  Mouse heard footsteps and squeezed his eyes shut, fearing another assault. When he felt a cover over his exposed rear, the sense of relief was so amazing, he opened his eyes. It was a denim jacket. With this cover in place, Mouse hastily got his pants back in order. Instead of a teacher, as he’d expected, the new kid, Beckett Taylor, had bestowed dignity upon him. Mouse had heard Beckett was bad news, but he’d never been so grateful to anyone in his life.

  “Dude, what’s your name?” Beckett held out a hand so Mouse could stand up.

  “Jimmy.”

  “I was in the can or I would have stopped this crazy shit sooner. Which fool started it?” Beckett followed Mouse’s pointing finger.

  Beckett walked up behind Billy just as the cafeteria monitor snuck back into the room.

  Billy gave Beckett a smug smile over his shoulder. “You better sit down, new kid. You’ll get in trouble for standing up during lunch.”

  Beckett smiled back. “Hey, fucker, some trouble’s worth it.”

  Mouse’s mouth dropped open. Never in his eleven years on this planet had he heard a kid use that word.

  Beckett grabbed Billy by the jaw. “If you ever touch Jimmy again, I’ll kill you. It’s that simple.”

  Billy tried to pull away from Beckett.

  The lunch monitor shouted “Hey, hey!” in the loudest voice anyone had ever heard her use.

  Beckett began punching Billy in the face. The violence was quick and decisive. Billy couldn’t get up from his chair, and blood spurted from his nose, but that didn’t stop Beckett.

  When Billy’s head slipped backward, Beckett changed his grip, grabbing a fistful of Billy’s hair, and continued on. Flecks of Billy’s blood splattered all over Beckett’s face. The cafeteria monitor called for assistance on her walkie-talkie and grabbed Beckett’s arm to stop the pummeling. Beckett let himself be pulled from the now-unconscious bully.

  He smiled at Billy’s friends. “I got more where that came from. Never do that shit again.” He found Mouse’s eyes. “Jimmy, you hold your head high.”

  That moment changed Mouse.

  Beckett never came back to school, and Mouse wondered if his mother’s Jesus had sent him like a guardian angel. By listening to the hushed conversation of teachers, Mouse learned that Beckett had gone to juvie, but Billy and his cronies gave Mouse a wide berth for years afterward. Their memories were better than an elephant’s when it came to that pain, and Beckett’s protection covered Mouse long after he wasn’t physically present to provide it.

  Once he made it to high school, Mouse’s tall genes kicked in, and he grew to look down on most kids his age. Even though his voice kept its squeakiness, he never forgot to hold his head high. Beckett had paid dearly to defend him, so he made it count.

  He occasionally heard Beckett’s name tossed around, and he knew his savior’s reputation hadn’t changed a whit. Stories of his drug running and vicious ways became legend in the school hallways.

  When he was seventeen, Mouse’s sweet Meemaw succumbed to congestive heart failure. For weeks after her passing, he sat in her house, drenched in heartbreak. He’d known she was old, but she seemed timeless. Soon creditors called looking for money. Mouse grabbed his grandmother’s knitting bag and slung it over his shoulder. He walked the streets and asked about Beckett. Every person he passed got grilled. His persistence paid off and Mouse was finally pointed in the direction of a convenience store.

  Beckett held court in a booth at the back, and his disciples were decidedly shady characters. His loud voice and filthy mouth echoed off the walls, but Mouse smiled when he saw his defender all grown up. He looked just the same, except bigger and full of muscles.

  Mouse held his head high and cleared his throat. “Sir, I would like to work for you.”

  One of the dirt bags laughed and mimicked Mouse’s high voice. “Beckett, you’re stupider than I thought if you hire this bastard.”

  Mouse backhanded the dirt bag in a move eerily reminiscent of the one that had freed him from his shame so many years ago. He grabbed the asshole by the throat. “Don’t make that mistake again, fuckbag.”

  Beckett lifted an eyebrow at the man in Mouse’s grasp. “Last time you’ll make fun of his voice, huh?”

  Mouse shook his head and locked eyes with Beckett. “He can make fun of my voice all h
e wants, but if he ever calls you stupid again, I’ll eat his brains for breakfast.”

  Beckett nodded. Mouse nodded back. The moment held a pact only those two men would recognize. Without a word, Mouse became Beckett’s bodyguard.

  Mouse got his high school diploma and began helping Beckett with his finances. He tried not to think about his Grandma’s opinion of whores and drugs. He could only believe in the pattern he’d learned from Beckett—a pattern of respect and kindness.

  Mouse learned quickly about the three brothers, and he remembered clearly the state his boss had been in when they buried the body of his last foster father. Mouse would be lying if he said he hadn’t hoped Beckett would consider him a brother too. So many times he’d looked on as Beckett wrapped his wrist around Cole’s or Blake’s arm and wished he had a tattoo as well. But he resigned himself to being a help to Beckett, keeping him alive and out of jail.

  To celebrate five years of protecting his defender, Mouse had made a discreet visit to Chaos. As he laid his head on the dirty bunk in Chaos’s shed, he’d made a silent wish that someday he could show Beckett his tattoo.

  An employee disrupted Mouse’s reverie. “Can I help you?”

  Jo-Ann Fabrics appeared again around him.

  “Thanks, no. I’m all good.” Mouse slung his grandmother’s treasured knitting sack over his shoulder.

  The vibrating phone alerted him to a text from the boss.

  Merkin’s a traitor, kidnapped Cole. Find Blake, keep him safe.

  Trust no 1. ~Eve

  Mouse dropped his merchandise and swiftly left the store. He hopped in his new hearse and had his laptop open before he’d closed the driver’s door. He pulled up the GPS tracker he and Merkin had installed on everyone’s phones.

  Eve—or at least her phone—was off-grid. Merkin was speeding along Route 9, and Beckett was headed south on Franklin Road. He raged at Merkin’s deception. Mouse had never been totally thrilled about Merkin. There was something off, something about his demeanor that reminded Mouse of Billy from the good ol’ days of getting the crap tortured out of him every day. Merkin would die a painful death if Mouse got to him first.

  35

  And Me

  LIVIA HELD THE DOOR handle with one hand and braced the other on the dash board. Her father was usually a sensible driver, but now Livia discovered his well-honed high-speed skills. In her near-panic over Kyle’s unknown condition she kept forgetting to breathe.

  When the police radio crackled to life, John listened for a moment, then translated the cop speak for Livia. “They’re at a fire and saying there’s ammo in a building—that mall where Beckett Taylor conducts his…business.”

  John gave Livia a withering look as he bottomed out the cruiser in the drainage ditch at the entrance to the hospital. When he pulled up to the ER, Livia was out before the car came to a stop. She headed straight for the closest check-in window.

  John, on the other hand, busted right on through the swinging doors. “Kyle! Kyle McHugh!” he yelled.

  Livia hesitated only a moment before she followed her father. He was armed, after all. He went from one curtain to another, sliding them aside with a noisy swoosh. He would look at the patient and move on, not bothering to put the curtains and their flimsy privacy back in place.

  A pretty, brown-haired nurse stepped in front of the rampaging John. “Officer McHugh, Kyle’s in a room, not behind a curtain. Please come with me.” She kept talking as they moved down the hall. “I’m Nurse Susan Weiss. I spoke to you on the phone. Kyle’s doing fine. She arrived unconscious, and we’re monitoring her. We ran a tox screen to see why she’s unconscious, and she just got back from an MRI to double check for any head injuries. Her vitals are great.”

  John stared at the nurse like he could burn all his worries into her face.

  “She’s still unconscious, but the doctor thinks she’ll be coming out of it soon,” she finished as they arrived.

  She opened the heavy hospital-room door and pulled back the curtain. Kyle seemed so small in the bed. An IV stand and a heart monitor that beeped with assuring regularity stood at her bedside, along with a doctor.

  “Dr. Hartt, this is Officer McHugh and Livia, his daughter.” She touched John’s arm. “Dr. Hartt’s the best we have. Kyle’s in amazing hands.” Susan then busied herself with Kyle’s IV.

  John stared at his daughter and choked back a sob. Livia felt tears hit her eyes at the sound of her father’s emotion. They both moved to Kyle’s bedside. John held her elbow, carefully avoiding the IV needle taped to her hand.

  Livia smoothed back her sister’s hair and murmured, “Hey, I’m here.”

  Kyle had a red rash around her nose and mouth that had been dressed with salve.

  “Yes, I’m Dr. Ted Hartt. Kyle’s under the influence of some form of an inhaled anesthetic,” the doctor began. “Under different circumstances I might think she’d overdosed, but the paramedics on the scene felt she’d been attacked. There were signs of a serious struggle at the church.”

  John looked confused, but Livia could feel her anger brewing. Cole did this to her?

  “The people who live in the building next door witnessed a group of men leaving the church. A woman named…” Dr. Hartt consulted a sheet of paper fastened to his clipboard. “Bea Florentine had an aide wheel her to the church and found your daughter. She said their multiple calls to police were not taken seriously.”

  Bea. Sweet Bea was so brave to enter the church.

  Another nurse popped in and handed Dr. Hartt an MRI film and a folder. He placed the MRI results on a light-up display.

  “The MRI is clean,” he said after a moment. He opened the folder. “Looks like she was exposed to a chloroform-based chemical.”

  “Cole. Cole. COLE!” Kyle’s eyes snapped open. They searched the room and seemed to register none of it. Finally, she found Livia next to her and delivered her desperate message. “Cole! They kidnapped Cole. Cole!”

  “Okay, it’s okay,” Livia said, her own panic rising. “I’ll find him.”

  John began grilling the doctor about the paramedics involved. Now that his daughters were safe, he seemed to shift into policeman mode. He wanted to know who did this to Kyle and exactly what had happened.

  Livia stood back as her sister began to vomit. The nurse closest to John grabbed a bedpan with the reflexes of a pro basketball player. She had it under Kyle’s mouth before she could do any damage to the blankets.

  Livia backed up as Kyle tried again to yell something about Cole. She clawed frantically and tried to pull out her IV. Dr. Hartt gave terse instructions for a sedative, which Nurse Susan delivered. Kyle fell asleep again, her mouth open in the middle of saying Cole’s name.

  Livia put her hand on Susan’s arm while she still stood close. “Ms. Weiss, was Kyle okay everywhere else?”

  Susan nodded quickly. “She showed no sexual trauma.” The nurse patted Livia’s arm. “And please call me Susan.”

  Livia bit her lip and continued murmuring to Susan, ignoring the bustling men in the room. “Tell me what effect this chloroform is having on my sister, please.”

  Susan looked at Livia with kind eyes. “Kyle’s going to be fine. The vomiting is to be expected. She’ll have a headache, but assuming she has no allergic reactions or underlying problems, I’d imagine she’ll go home within a day or so.” Susan looked back at the patient.

  Livia felt relief wash over her. Kyle would be fine, if she’d just stay put. But Cole, wherever he was, was in serious trouble. Livia had to tell Beckett. Blake. Oh God. Her pocket began ringing.

  “Please take that outside,” Susan said.

  Livia walked obediently down the hall, but when she pulled out her phone there was no call—just a text from a number she didn’t recognize:

  Livia, this is Mouse. Where r you? Is Blake with u?

  U stole a mask from me (Just so u know it’s really me)

  Livia texted back quickly:

  I was going to meet him @ train station
. But I’m @ hospital

  with Dad and Kyle. She said Cole was kidnapped. She is ok.

  Mouse’s response was alarming:

  Cole was taken. Beckett knows. We have traitors in the group.

  Stay put. Tell ur father 2 keep u next 2 him. I’ll find Blake.

  Livia put a hand over her mouth and leaned against the wall. All hell was breaking loose, and Blake was out in the open, hurt. It was all her fault. From Kyle’s room she heard her father trying again to get a detailed description of what his daughter had been through. Livia took comfort in the fact that the doctor’s last name was Hartt. Is that common?

  She’d just have to wait for Mouse to find Blake. Would he even be at the train station? Livia felt a sudden chill. I wouldn’t be there if the situation was reversed.

  Livia considered explaining what was going on to her father, but she knew he would handcuff her to Kyle’s bed and stand with his gun pointed at the door, frisking anyone that walked through it. She couldn’t add any more stress to his night—not if she could quickly solve this problem on her own.

  When the idea hit her, she felt a certain kinship with Beckett. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

  Livia returned to Kyle’s room long enough to lift her father’s keys from the nightstand. After surveying the bustling activity, she knew she could slip out unnoticed. She needed to get to Blake. Quickly. Safely. She blew a kiss in her sleeping sister’s direction.

  Livia ran down the hall and out of the ER. The police cruiser was still just where they’d left it, lights blazing. At least her dad had turned off the motor and locked the doors. Livia hopped in and left the lights on as she accelerated out of the parking lot.

  She drove to the train station. This would be hard to explain later, but right now it was perfect. She tore into the parking lot and stopped right in front of the stairs. Livia was taking them three at a time before she realized she was out of the car.

  Blake wasn’t there. She tried not to feel hopeless as she stared at his empty spot. She knew for sure he’d heard what she said to her father. She felt a crack in the place where she kept him in her heart. She walked over to his favorite spot, as if somehow he might materialize, and noticed a familiar stone. She stubbed her fingers as she grabbed it from the cement. It was the rock from Blake’s pocket. B+L

 
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