Something drifted in the broad sweep of the river. Eddie saw first the glitter of sunlight reflected on glass, then bright blue and white paint contrasting with the gray-green water. A child's toy boat, spun in the roil gathered at the footings of the Hawthorne Bridge. It pitched and reeled in the turbulence.
Behind Eddie, Jonah's performance thundered. Eddie caught snatches of the monologue. "...led Eligius to a camp hidden in a fold of the hills ...a blind old witch mumbling by the fire... never again to see Lupe or Dolores or silent, strong Maximo..."
But Eddie had lost interest. He watched the toy boat bobble in the current. His mind caught on unanswerable questions. What am I doing here? Where am I going? His thoughts dove beneath the surface, seeking out the whisper of the river.
Darrel held the knife in his fist, blade-down, and dug a hashmark into the surface of the panel door. The mark he made was as long as Eddie's hand, and ran straight up and down, parallel to three similar marks that were there before he started.
When he finished, Darrel spun the knife in his hand and pointed it across the room. He closed one eye, as if aiming a gun, and pointed the tip at Eddie, who huddled on the mattress. "That's four," Darrel slurred. It was Friday night, so he was drunker than usual. "One more and you're gone." He weaved on his feet, then nodded, as if he had just demonstrated an irrefutable truth. "'Member that," he said. He lurched out into the hall and beyond to where Carlotta lay inebriated in the front room.
Eddie kept silent, salty tears warming his cheeks. The coppery taste of blood lingered on Eddie's tongue. His teeth felt awkward; the force of Darrel's punch had moved them, pushed them into a new alignment.
He wasn't sure what he had done to cause Darrel's rage. But Darrel wouldn't remember, either. He never remembered anything when he got that drunk. The hash-mark would be enough to remind him. He'd awake in the morning, eyes like blood, jaw already clenched in anger, and see the mark etched into the cheap stain on the door. He'd glare at Eddie, just like he had the three times before. Then, he'd look at Eddie's bruised face and his own mangled knuckles and growl "What'd you do to piss me off, boy?"
The television blared in the front room.
Even after Darrel had gone Eddie huddled on the mattress, covering his face with his hands. He peered through his fingers at the empty space where Darrel had stood. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you. I'd kill you if I could. The fixture on the ceiling cast the room in stark, yellow light
After a time, Darrel's snores came roaring out of the front room, rising above the noise of the television. Big man, Eddie thought. One day you won't be so big, though. He wiped the tears off his cheeks and stared at the hash-marks on the door. Four. No matter. There was nothing Eddie could do or not do. In time, Darrel would etch the fifth mark. Eddie didn't know what would happen then.
He got up. Darrel's snores rose and fell like waves of nausea.
Eddie crept through the doorway and down the hall. The front door was before him, solid and ominous, concealing the world beyond. To his left was the opening to the front room. He peered in.
The television was on the local newscast, tinny noise blaring out of its speaker. Darrel was slouched on the sofa, arms folded across his chest, booted feet stuck straight out and resting on the coffee table before him. The bill of his cap covered his face. Carlotta lay like a dead thing in the round rattan chair across from him.
The knife rested on the coffee table, near Darrel's crossed boots.
Eddie stared. Big man.
Eddie stepped into the room and looked down at Darrel. He would not awaken, Eddie knew. When he was drunk like that, he was as good as dead until morning. Eddie's hand was inches from the knife.
"Whatever you're thinkin', it won't work," Carlotta said.
Eddie turned his head.
Carlotta had not moved. She lay exactly as she had when he entered the room, but her eyes were open. When she saw Eddie's mangled face, her expression softened, somehow became more human, before settling into the hard lines that came from years of heavy drinking and despair. "He'll probably kill you one day," she muttered.
Eddie blinked, but said nothing. When Carlotta spoke, her words were like a punch in the gut.
"There's nothing here for you, kid," she said. "Be better to just shove off and see where you end up."
Darrel's snores marked time.
Eddie felt his throat tighten. Tears welled anew in his eyes. "Are you serious?" he asked. "You really want me to go?"
She didn't move. She just stared.
She sat upright. Her hair, alive with static charge, waved about her head like the thousand antennae of some freakish insect. "You got a choice," she said. "That's more than I ever had."
"Where can I go, Mama? How can I go anywhere?"
"Go to your dad in Oregon. It's about his turn to take you for a while."
Thoughts of Oregon and Adam danced on the edges of Eddie's imagination. His heart rose at the thought, but he shunted it aside. A hopeless dream was worse than no dream at all.
"I can't walk to Oregon, Mama."
Carlotta didn't reply. She watched him. He could see that she was more than half drunk, but that she was struggling to piece something together. A plan of action or a scheme. Then she shrugged. "Take my car," she said. "It might get you there."
"Your car? You want me to take your car?"
She gave a little laugh. "Consider it your inheritance," she said. "It ain't the send off I ever imagine I'd give you, but it is what it is." She stood and tottered away, into the bedroom she shared with Darrel. Eddie stood in the middle of the front room, stranded by his own confusion. Darrel's snores droned like scornful laughter.
She returned, extended hand holding a twenty-dollar bill and a single car key. She held it toward Eddie, who stared, uncomprehending.
She shook her hand at him and nodded toward Darrel. "Take it. He won't sleep forever," she said.
She gave a curt nod.
Eddie held his hand out, palm up. He kept his eyes on her face.
But she did not meet his gaze. Instead, she dropped the key and the money into his open palm. Then she turned away. "I don't expect I'll be seeing you for a while," she said. She disappeared into the shadows of the room beyond.
Eddie stood frozen for a moment. He heard the creak of box springs and knew she was gone to bed. Goodbye, Mama. He tucked the money and the key into the pocket of his jeans. Then he turned and went back to his room. All the clothes he owned were scattered about on the floor or in stacks by the mattress. These he stuffed into a plastic garbage bag. He slung the bag over his shoulder and cast about, looking for anything else he might need, and wondered if it wasn't too late to find a way he might stay here, in this hopeless place. For all its misery, it seemed better than the terror of what might lay ahead. His gaze came to rest on the door, with the four hash-marks. No. Carlotta was right. There was nothing for him here.
He turned toward the front door, the noise of the television and Darrel's snoring denying him any sense of solemnity. He started toward the door, then stopped short. He stepped quickly back into the room and lifted a corner of the mattress. The mermaid keychain, the gift from Adam, lay on the dirty carpet beneath. He snatched it up and tucked it into his pocket.
Then he turned and made his way down the hall to the front door. He did not hesitate to open it and step out into the warm California night. He pulled the door shut behind him, taking care to do it quietly.
To be continued...
Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.
Read Part III here.
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here.
Read Part VI here.
Read Part VII here.
Read Part VIII here.
Read Part IX here.
Read Part X here.
Read Part XI here.
Read Part XII here.
Read Part XIII here.
Read Part XIV here.
Read Part XV here.
Read Part XVI here.
Read Part XVII here.
Read Part XVIII here.