The sound of my mother yelling at me in a frantic sort of panic woke me from my sleep. Her screaming became an audible tone of necessity. She kept repeating that we had to leave this place. We had to move. I asked her why but she just kept reiterating the effect and not the cause. She had just moved in with me after getting laid off. She hated it, however, it was no picnic for anyone.
Times were hard. I was barely affording rent. It was a bad place. The kind of place that the landlord only appeared when rent was due. Jabbaar would show up with his knock-off, name-brand sunglasses and greying chest hair poking through his button-down, sweat-stained shirt, talking with his middle-eastern accent about how I owed him his money. I could always buy a day or two by mentioning how my freezer didn’t freeze or the tap water wouldn’t stay clear for longer than thirty seconds at a time. Nothing ever got repaired, he’d just show up within the next couple of days with his mentally handicapped nephew. My small-time tyrannical landlord took advantage of his unknowing nephew by using him as muscle. I once saw the kid dent the quarter panel of a sedan with his fist for a lowly pat on the back. Jabbaar would point and his nephew would destroy. He didn’t know any better.
This was the kind of neighborhood that when walking though, you wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone. The kind of place that you wore cheap headphones that connected to nothing but your pocket so you wouldn’t get beat up for ignoring anyone. Drug abusers and dealers lived side by side. Gang members would hang out in the parking lot looking for trouble. It was what one would call a bad neighborhood.
I had to live there because I had a gambling problem, well, not so much a problem, more a situation that one could explain as being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was a brilliant poker player. I made a lot of money. However, when you’re staring down a barrel of a gun you can’t really keep accusing people of cheating, which they were, but I kept my mouth shut. I lost all my money and acquired quite the debt with the wrong people. The kind of debt where you skipped meals just to ensure your ability to walk.
My mom never knew what kind of trouble I was in. How were I to tell her what happened? She would just tell me I should not of been playing poker with those kind of people anyway and she would be right. Not to mention, she would have more fuel for her campaign to leave this place. The poker tournament was a scam and I fell for every part of it. My mother didn’t ask too many questions as to why I lived where I lived or where all my money went. She was not a stupid woman by any means and definitely knew I made at least minimum wage and worked, most of the time, sixty to eighty hours a week between two jobs. Maybe she just kept my business as such. However, she did not like the situation that I had lived in and, now that she was living with me, became much more vocal about it than ever.
When I really think about it that day was different. She was really upset, more than usual. It was as if someone had done something to her. We usually were able to stay in the background. She never left the house and I would only venture out in the moonlight as little as possible. Still, she was thoroughly upset. She was stomping back and forth throughout the apartment grabbing things and attempting to pack them in boxes or sort them in piles. I was finally able to get a response out of her as she walked me to the window, pointed at parking lot and she asked me what was missing. It was my car.
I began to panic myself. It was not a panic that was on the same wavelength as my mother. It was more like a how was I supposed to get to work now panic. Either job would fire me if I didn’t have transportation. I wouldn’t be able to pay Mr. Chikko and I would then be lucky keep my life.
I can’t really explain why I left. Maybe I thought that if I went to where my car was I would find answers. Maybe I thought someone was playing a joke on me. Maybe I don’t know what I was thinking but I took off. I went out the door and down the stairs with nothing on my mind except my ride to work. One job I could have used a few sick days. I didn’t know about the other.
As my thoughts started to consider options for my night job, I ran into Dave who was a shift supervisor there and who I could probably talk into giving me a lift when we have the same shift.
Dave looked upset. ‘Hey Dave. What’s going on?’
‘Shit, just shit.’ Dave grumbled without looking at me as he stood against the railing, staring off into the early morning sky while smoking a cigarette heavily.
‘Is something wrong, man?’
‘Yeh! Isn’t it fucking obvious?’ Dave brought his trembling hand to his mouth and, as he took a long drag, he turned to me. ‘It’s all gone,’ he paused. ‘Everything. All I have been saving. Everything I had.’ You could hear the anger and frustration booming in his voice.
‘I hear yah.’ My words were cut off with a glare from Dave, implying that I had better relate. ‘Dave, my piece of shit car is missing too and you know better than anyone that I can’t miss another shift at the plant and I can’t miss another bill and, well, I’m tired of this shit too! Man.’
Dave took one last hit of his cigarette and flicked it off the balcony before he exhaled into the cool winter air. He stuck his tongue to his cheek and squinted as if he was searching for something profound to say. He turned back towards me. ‘Okay.’ Dave nodded. ‘Let’s go.’
I stood there, confused. ‘Okay? Okay what?’ I cocked my head to the side with a puzzled look on my face. ‘Where are we going?’
‘To look for clues.’ Dave began to walk to the stairs. ‘I have a feeling that your car and my stuff has been jacked by the same dead man. I have an idea who it might be.’
‘That fuck, Toni. And his punk-ass friends.’
‘Don’t worry about it.’
We took off down the rest of the stairs and made our way to the parking lot. Dave was walking at a fast pace. I wondered what motivated him so much. He didn’t say another word until we reached his car.
‘Get in,” Dave demanded. I got inside.
As we made our way to the other side of the apartment complex Dave started to act a little odd. He started to ask questions about who I have seen around lately and if I have noticed movement between the gangs. Before I had a chance to explain that I keep to myself, Dave asked me something that caught me off guard. ‘You’re with me, right?’
‘What do you mean, Dave?’
‘Are you with me?’ He looked at me for confirmation. ‘You know if shit goes down, are you with me?’
‘I don’t know what you’re asking me. Is shit gonna go down? Look, I didn’t come out looking for trouble. I just want to get to work. I just want to make a paycheck.’
‘Shut up! You know exactly what I am asking. Freddy, man. You got this. I believe in you. Do you believe in me?’ He sounded like he was bargaining.
‘Yeah, man. I trust you. I trust that you won’t do anything stupid.’ I was the one looking for confirmation now.
‘Alright. Then you’re with me?’
‘Yeah...If you don’t do anything stupid.’ The dumbest thing I had ever said.
Dave began to slow his sedan to a neutral roll as we approached a group of people. They ranged from early teens to mid-twenties. Dave rolled down his window. I slumped down in my seat. This was not my kind of situation. I was a non-confrontational sort of guy, but Dave was not. ‘Ay. Let me do the talking, ‘k?’
‘Sure Dave. That’s not a problem. Just don’t get us killed, yeah?’
‘Hey! Punks!’ Dave leaned out the window as we came to a stop. Half of the group turned around. ‘Which one of you assholes is Toni?’
‘Dave,’ I whispered. ‘you don’t even know who this guy is? How do you know--’ Dave motioned for me to be quiet. This is when my heart started to thump in my chest.
One guy stepped out of the group. ‘I am.’ He replied as he made way to the driver’s side window. ‘Who the fuck are you?’
‘I’m a customer. I heard you’re the kind of guy that can get things?’ Dave nudged me as if celebrate a small victory. He must have thought he was being clever.
‘Yeah. I do, but I’m all out of candy for little boys.’ Toni licked his lips. Half of his posse laughed. ‘Maybe you should bark up some other tree.’
‘Look man, I got credit.’ Dave pulled a wad of money out of his pocket. It was neatly organized and looked to be a lot. I wondered, if this was the amount of money Dave carried with him, how much did he have stolen?
‘Nice.’ Toni leaned in. ‘What are you looking for? Chemicals? Grass? Hale? I got Hale, man, but it goes fast, you know? It’s when everybody be diggin’ on nowadays. It ain’t cheap.’
‘I was looking more for merchandise. You know, like, an antique dish set? Some jewelry? Or, maybe, I don’t know, a fucking shoe-box full of my kid’s college fund! Eh? You know anything about that, Toni?’ Dave really did a good job publishing a tone of dominance even though his efforts were likely to be squashed.
I remember my heart pumping so hard and fast that I’m sure Toni and his gang could hear it through the metal cage of the car. I felt it shaking my entire chest. I felt a cold chill meet halfway with the bead of sweat that ran down my forehead, off the tip of my nose and onto my chest. What was Dave doing? I thought he knew what he was doing.
‘I see.’ Toni pulled down his sunglasses just enough to look Dave dead in the eyes. ‘You thought that you and your renegade friend were just going to come up in here and ask for your stuff back, maybe, I don’t know, act like you were cool at first and I would just be all about being a homie and, and, just, maybe, give it back?’ Toni reached into his coat. ‘Look man, that stuff is mine now. As for your kid, if he wants, he can go to Toni’s College. I can teach him a few things. You know, a few things that his bitch-ass dad wouldn’t know a thing about. Whadda say about that, hmm? That sound like a plan?’ Toni bit his bottom lip to hold back a smug grin while holding out his empty hand to seal a deal.
You could feel the blood boiling within Dave. I could see him clenching his jaw as hard as he was the steering wheel. This plan of Dave’s wasn’t going very well. Toni turned halfway around to address his group. ‘Well, boys, doesn’t that sound just fine and dandy? I’m not a total asshole. I have compassion for the kids. Man, for the kids!’ He turned back to face Dave. ‘After all, they are our future.’
‘You know, Dave, we should really get out of here.’ I pleaded. ‘This isn’t going well, we should cut our losses.’
‘Yeah, Dave.’ Toni mocked his name. ‘You should really...’ Toni paused, ‘bounce! Before things go bad.’ As Toni finished his sentence, I heard a loud bang and another followed. My ears were ringing. I felt Dave’s hand grab my arm. I looked over to him as he turned to meet eyes with me. Dave tried to say something but, blood streamed from his mouth instead of words. I looked down at his chest and saw a dark, red shape begin to appear from the two holes in his shirt. I felt Dave’s grip tighten over my arm. He again tried to tell me something but all I could hear was Toni muttering something to his group as I peered into Dave’s eyes.
I remember hearing the engine power to a rolling rumble before I was sprayed all over with what felt like hot, sticky pancake batter. I felt the car take off. Dave must have slammed the gas down to the floor. I looked over to see Dave slumped toward the center of the dashboard. I remember the agony of sudden reality piercing through my heart as it sank in my chest. The top of Dave’s head was missing and, though it wasn’t clear in the moment, it was brain matter, blood and Dave’s face that was all over me. I remember shock consuming me as the car sped toward a brick wall. Dave’s lifeless leg must have been on the gas petal. I vaguely recall bracing as the wall approached.