I: The Ferry
A little girl laughed as she ran over to her father near the railing. She stuck her arms through the rails, waving them on the far side. The deck moved gently beneath Will’s feet as he watched the girl. He wondered if he’d ever been that young himself, which was a strange thought for a fifteen-year-old boy to have. Not only had he been that young once, but it wasn’t that long ago. The father leaned over and said something to the daughter, and the daughter laughed; Will wished he’d been able to overhear the joke.
Will saw his own dad walking over, though if there was a time when Will had called him “Dad”, he could not remember it. For as far back as his memory stretched, his dad had always been “Lou”. Lou had a cup of coffee in his hands, from which he was taking small, exploratory sips as he came and stood beside his son. They didn’t say anything for a while; they merely existed in each other’s presence.
Over by the railing, the girl and her dad took one last look out at the waters of the bay before walking away to find a seat. Lou left Will’s side, going over to the railing and taking up a position right about where the girl had been moments before. He didn’t call Will over, or beckon Will to join him; he knew that his son would come. This assurance annoyed Will, but this irritation did not stop Will from joining Lou by the rails.
The water of the bay was a dark bluish-green, with swells of white froth. Birds cried overhead, swooping to and fro on invisible air currents. A distant part of Will’s mind hoped that none of those birds would grace him with a shower of droppings, while the front part of his mind thought about the start of the new school year, which was coming up in another month. Will had never been part of the popular clique in school, but neither had he been at the bottom of the social ladder. If the social hierarchy of school were a class system, he figured he’d always managed to retain something like a middle-class status. Well, lower-middle-class.
During the summer he rarely saw any of his friends, as there was always work to do. Will had been working ever since he turned twelve, when he wasn’t even sure if he’d been legally allowed to work. He thought the state authorities definitely would have had qualms about the nature of that first job, which was cleaning up in a bar. He could still remember the first time he’d had to mop up some drunken frat boy’s vomit, and the time he’d had to clean up blood after a fight. Twelve-year-old Will down on his knees, wet washrag in hand, scrubbing ruby droplets from the legs of a stool.
Work in the summer left little time for a social life, resulting in an odd, disorienting feeling with the beginning of each new school year. There would be a distance between Will and his friends. They’d formed memories that he had no part of, had inside jokes which he wasn’t privy to. It often left him feeling like a stranger even among kids he’d known for nearly the entirety of his life. Sometimes the gulf between them was bridgeable, and within a few weeks of the schoolyear things felt like nothing much had changed, or that the changes that had occurred didn’t matter. Other times the rift was too great, the islands too far apart, and friendships were let go either slowly or all at once. He hoped that this year he didn’t have to let go of anything or anyone.
“Look up there,” Lou said, dragging his son back to the here and now.
Lou gestured over at the cliff rising up at the eastern end of the bay.
“Up there,” Lou said. “They’re really something, aren’t they?”
And then Will knew what his dad was talking about, and he didn’t have to ask what “they” were. Father and son had taken this ferry ride around the bay at least twice a year ever since Will was a boy, for no greater reason (as far as Will knew or cared) than that it was something to do. He knew that Lou might have other, private reasons though, chief among them the chance to admire the grand houses that sat imposingly atop the cliffs, the smell of money seeming to waft down on the salty breeze. Oftentimes, Lou would stand near the railing as he was now, or find a seat that allowed him to face either east or west, depending on the direction the ferry was traveling at that particular moment, and he would stare up at those grand homes.
“I’m telling you, Will; someday we’ll be up there.”
Will said nothing, thinking that the only way they would ever live up on the cliffs above the bay would be if they hit the jackpot in the lottery. And not one of those little jackpots, either; a couple hundred grand wouldn’t be enough. Maybe not even a couple million.
“I know you probably don’t believe me,” Lou said, perhaps reading his son’s mind. “But it’s true.”
Still, Will said nothing. He breathed the cool morning air, in through the nose and out through the mouth, his hands in his pockets because of the chill. By the afternoon the day would heat up something fierce, but for now it was cool.
Lou looked at his boy, watched him for a moment, and then looked back to the cliffs. When he’d finished his coffee, he tossed the Styrofoam cup over the side, and it sailed down into the water. This action annoyed Will, but he didn’t chastise his father. Lou left the railing and took a seat on one of the benches. Will watched the discarded coffee cup floating on the water until it fell behind the ferry. Then he joined his father on the bench.
II: The Stables
“What are you smiling about?”
Will, who hadn’t been aware that he was smiling, and didn’t have anything in particular to smile over, looked back at Frank with a confused, questioning look on his face that irritated the older man so that he flapped one hand at the boy.
“Go muck out the stable, kid,” Frank said. “Get outta my hair already.”
Will did as he was told. He went and got everything ready that he’d need for the job. He piled a shovel (the one with the short handle, the long-handled one having disappeared a week before) and a pitchfork into a wheelbarrow. There was an old broom, the bristles on the brush end permanently bent back; Will tossed this into the barrow as well. Lastly, he took a pair of frayed work gloves from where they hung on a nail, stuffing them into his back pocket.
When he got to the stall, he saw Laurie taking Southern Gothic out for her morning exercise. The mare moved with an athletic grace, her chestnut coat pulled taut over well-used muscles. Laurie smiled at Will when she noticed him rolling the barrow to the stall, and she gave a short wave. He let go of one of the handles to return the wave, and that end of the barrow sagged until he’d taken hold of both handles again.
The empty stall smelled exactly as one would expect it to smell—like horse shit. Will took the tools out of the wheelbarrow and lined them up against one wall, then pulled the gloves from his pocket and slipped them on. He started with the pitchfork, lifting the soiled bedding into the barrow, making sure to push any clean straw off to the side. When the barrow was full, Will wheeled it out to the manure pile and dumped it. When he’d finished dumping a second load of bedding, Will discarded the pitchfork and used the shovel to pick up loose droppings scattered about the stall. He dumped this as well, and used the broom to spread what clean straw remained around the stall. He went and fetched some fresh straw, and spread this around as well, taking care to distribute it evenly. When he was finished, Will stored everything back where he’d got it.
This task finished, he watched Laurie and the horse for a while. The exercise pen was located in a courtyard that was surrounded by stables. Will climbed up on the first slat of the fence and hung his arms over it. The mare went round and round the exercise ring as Laurie watched over her, running alongside.
“Ain’t you got nothin’ else to do?” Laurie said.
She said this playfully; Will knew there was no real meanness in it.
“Nope,” he said. “I cleaned out the stall. I suppose Frank will want me to feed her, but I can’t do that until you’re through with her.”
Later, when the old girl was back in her stall, her coat slick with sweat, they fed her together, which usually meant nothing more than serving up some fresh hay to munch on, but today was a treat day, and so she also got some fruit. Southern Gothic chewed on the cored apple Will fed her. She took a playful nip at his hand, but he didn’t mind.
“How much does Uncle Frank pay you?” Laurie asked.
The question had nothing to do with anything they’d been talking about, and it took Will by surprise. Unlike his father, who liked nothing more than to brag about any money he made (even when the amount of it would seem almost pitiable to most people), Will didn’t much like the subject.
“He pays me enough so that I stick around,” he answered.
“Well, if there’s one thing I know about him, it’s that he’s a cheap bastard. I can’t see him paying you half as much as he should.”
Will couldn’t help but feel nervous that Frank might be nearby and could overhear them. He was a grumpy man, and while Laurie might be able to get away with speaking of him in such a way—her and Frank being blood relatives and all—Will wouldn’t count on forgiveness in such a matter. And while Frank was, in fact, a cheap bastard, and really didn’t pay Will half as much as he should, Will liked the job and didn’t want to lose it. So he just smiled at Laurie’s words without responding. She sensed his reluctance to badmouth his boss, and so instead of pushing the matter she just handed over a banana. Will took the piece of fruit and fed it to the horse, who accepted it without a nip this time.
“Will, can I ask you something?”
“What if I said ‘no’?”
“I’d ask you anyway.”
“Then I guess you should just go ahead and ask.”
“Why ain’t you ever asked me out?”
Will turned away so that she couldn’t see his face, afraid that she would see him blushing. He dragged over the water bucket, placing it close enough so that the horse could get at it if she was thirsty.
“Well,” he said at last. “I guess I was never too sure that you wanted to be asked out.”
“Hmm. Maybe I don’t want to be asked out.”
He looked at her then, hoping his face didn’t look like a bright red tomato.
“So do you or don’t you?” he asked.
She seemed to think about this for a while.
“I guess if it was you who was asking…I wouldn’t mind too much. Are you? Asking, I mean.”
Now it was his turn to think, but of course it was just for show; there was nothing to think about.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m asking.”
She smiled, and her smile was the sun.
“Then I’m accepting.”
III: The Diner
The place was half-empty, with no signs of the lunch-hour rush that one might expect. All the empty tables and booths made the place seem sad in some indefinable way. Will and Lou took a booth by a window. It was a soggy day, and rain sheeted down the window. Beyond the glass, the outside world was a gray blur. Somebody in the kitchen dropped some dishes, and the clatter could be heard out in the dining area.
Lou studied the grease-stained menu methodically, even though he ordered the same thing every time they ate there. Will, who typically cycled between a limited number of dishes, didn’t touch his own menu. Instead, Will watched the cars lumber by outside, each one going past in the rain like some great beast escaping a flood. The air inside the diner smelled like burnt food and coffee, and Will longed for a breath of the clean air outside. He vaguely recalled reading an article about why the air smells so good after a rain shower. He remembered a word—petrichor—but he could no longer remember exactly what that was. It had faded as most interesting little tidbits we read fade, even the ones we’re sure we’ll remember, the ones we file away on index cards in our mind so that we might be able to quote an interesting fact to someone.
“What’ll you boys have today?”
The nametag on the waitress’s uniform said that her name was Dottie. Though they’d seen her on a few of their visits to the place, this was the first time she’d waited on them. Her too-red hair was tied up in a bun; her eyebrows were the same shade as her hair, and Will wondered if she dyed both her hair and eyebrows, or if that impossible shade of red wasn’t impossible after all.
“Tuna sandwich, extra mayo,” Lou said as he set the menu down on the table. “Add bacon. And I like my bacon crunchy.”
Dottie dutifully jotted this down. This being her first time serving them, she did not already know Lou’s order by heart.
“And I’ll take a glass of orange juice with that,” Lou added.
“What about you, honey?” Dottie asked Will.
Will ordered a cheeseburger with a basket of fries (he got the basket instead of the smaller cup because he knew that Lou couldn’t help poaching a few). He ordered a large cherry soda. Dottie took their menus.
“So, what’s the news with you?” Lou asked his son when they were alone again.
“What do you mean?”
“What’s going in your life? You don’t talk to me as much as you used to. Sometimes it seems like I got a stranger living with me.”
Will couldn’t remember a time when the two of them talked much more than they had recently; he wondered if there was such a time and he’d forgotten it, or if his dad was just remembering things as they never were.
“Nothing much,” Lou repeated, and Will felt as if he were being mocked.
The two of them were quiet for a while. Will watched the traffic outside while Lou watched the few other patrons inside. Before too long, Dottie returned, setting the plates and drinks down in front of them. There was a mix-up with the plates, but it was a problem that was fixed simply once she walked away, with Lou sliding the cheeseburger and fry basket over to Will even as Will slid over the tuna sandwich. Lou grabbed a handful of fries from the basket and threw them on the plate next to his sandwich.
They dug into their food. When Lou took a bite from his sandwich, a gob of tuna plopped out onto his plate; he picked it up on his finger and licked it off. Will had only tried the tuna sandwich once, but didn’t like it. He thought they must get their tuna packed in oil instead of water, and they didn’t do too good a job of straining the oil either. The burger was neither bad nor good, most of the flavor coming from the spicy brown mustard he’d slathered on it.
“I got a letter from Mom,” Will said between bites.
Lou swallowed down a mouthful, washed it down with o.j.
“A couple days ago.”
“And you didn’t tell me.”
It wasn’t a question.
Will ate a ketchup-dipped fry.
“Well?” Lou asked. “What’d she say?”
“She just wanted me to know that everything was going good for her back east. She said she was thinking of visiting soon, before winter.”
Lou snorted, and Will chose to ignore it.
“Did you write back?”
Will shook his head.
“Are you going to?” Lou pressed.
“I can’t. There was no return address on the envelope. I wouldn’t know where to send it.”
Lou nodded as if this wasn’t a surprise. No return address, no way to write back. There would be no visit either, and Will saw the certainty of it in his father’s eyes. He had to look away from that certainty lest it infect him also.
“How’s that horse doing?” Lou asked. “She staying healthy?”
“She’s fine, I guess.”
Will wasn’t sure if he liked this topic any more than the last one. Lou was a gambling man, and always pressing his son for tips that Will did not have, anything that could give him an edge at the track. Will never asked Lou if he’d won or lost after a race, and he didn’t need to. Sometimes Lou was happy, and offered to take Will out for a treat. Other times, Lou was sullen, his eyes filled with the look of a man who knows that he’s been cheated but just doesn’t know how.
Will was thankful when Lou dropped the matter of the horse. They talked about other things, inconsequential things. When they’d finished their meal, Will offered to pay his share, but Lou insisted on covering it. Outside, on the sidewalk in front of the diner, Will pulled up the hood of his jacket against the rain. Lou, whose jacket didn’t have a hood and who hadn’t brought an umbrella, stood with his hair hanging down wetly in his face.
“You go on home,” Lou said. “I gotta see a man about a thing.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“No,” Lou insisted. “You go home.”
Lou left him then, heading up Broad Street in the pouring rain, his shoulders hunched together, his shoes splashing through shallow puddles in the sidewalk. Will watched him go until Lou turned a corner and was gone.
IV: The Date
They’d gone to see a movie, one that advertised itself as the funniest movie of the year. Neither of them found it all that funny though; halfway through the movie, as if they’d sensed each other’s boredom, they decided by some unspoken means of communication to leave. They stood in front of the theater and finished off the big bag of popcorn they’d bought, and their medium sodas, tossing the empty tub and cups into an overflowing trashcan.
It hurt a bit for Will to think of the money he’d wasted on the movie, particularly because his wallet was now too light to take Laurie anyplace else that cost money. He didn’t think she’d mind chipping in, but he was too embarrassed to ask. They stood there together watching as a family walked up to the theater. The kids were dressed in costumes, the girl as a fairytale princess and the boy as a pirate. The family disappeared through the double doors.
“What should we do now?” Laurie asked.
“I don’t know. There’s not much to do, I guess. I could walk you home if you want.”
Laurie thought about that. Will felt certain that that’s exactly what she wanted to do: go home, forget about the stupid movie and the stupid boy, and make a promise to herself to never go out with him again. Instead, her face brightened with an idea.
“I know where some kids are hanging out tonight. Some of my friends from school. What do you think?”
She went to a different school than Will, and he was unlikely to know any of her friends from there. But he’d seen that light in her face, and he knew that she wanted him to say yes. And so he did.
Neither of them had a license, so they walked. Will asked where they were going, but Laurie only told him that he’d see when they got there. They talked about the upcoming schoolyear as they walked together. Though neither one of them were into school sports (she’d been on the swimming team for a few months in middle school, but got bored and quit), there was a bit of a rivalry between their schools’ basketball teams, and so they tried to predict which school would come out the winner next season. Neither team stood a chance to make it to the state championships—even die-hard fans of either team would admit that—so the big winner would be whichever team won more games in the handful that they were sure to play against one another. They each found themselves predicting that the other’s team would be victorious.
Laurie led him along a path that wound down to a short stretch of beach near the bay. This particular beach didn’t look like the kind you’d see families lounging on during the long summer days, or groups of young couples playing beach volleyball. There were rocks in the sand, and their shoes crunched over broken glass. The salt air stung their nostrils. There was firelight up ahead, and people silhouetted against it. The jagged sound of teenaged laughter raced over the beach.
Laurie handled the hasty introductions. Her friends took in the interloper she’d brought with her, the males guardedly and the girls with mild curiosity. Will was a bit nervous when Laurie told them which school he went to, not sure of the reaction this would elicit from them if they took school athletics seriously; however, none of them seemed to care, and soon even the boys seemed to warm to him.
Will was mostly a passive observer. He said little unless asked a question, and there were few of those. The kids told stories about people and events that Will had no knowledge of, and this reminded him of the times when he was trying to get back into the swing of things with those friends he hadn’t seen over the summer. At some point he realized that Laurie had taken his hand, clasping it tightly in her own.
In ones and twos the others drifted away until it was just Will, Laurie and a boy named Paul left around the fire. When it was just the three of them, talk turned to horses. Paul, it seemed, had been Frank’s stablehand before Will was hired. In fact, Will had been hired only after Paul had quit after being refused a raise. The knowledge that Paul had worked at the stables around Laurie caused a brief moment of jealousy on Will’s part, but he brushed it off as silliness.
When the time came for the trio to break up, Paul extinguished the fire, kicking piles of sand over the flames until there was nothing left but wisps of smoke. They all climbed away from the beach together, and after walking together for a few blocks Paul broke off from them. Then it was just Will and Laurie; he walked her home, and she favored him with a kiss before heading inside of the house. The kiss was a quick one, furtive, as if she were afraid that one of her parents might peek out and catch them. Maybe she didn’t even mean that much by it, but Will felt that kiss, like a warmth on his cheek, all the way home to the apartment he shared with his father.
V: The Debt
A few days after the date with Laurie, Lou and Will were seated around the small table in their kitchen eating dinner. It was spaghetti, and for once it wasn’t take-out; Lou had actually cooked it himself, even adding in some meatballs. The sauce wasn’t great—Will could tell Lou had bought some cheap brand—but it wasn’t too bad, either. Will liked garlic bread with his spaghetti, but Lou hadn’t bought any. As a poor substitute, Will had toasted a couple slices of white bread and buttered them. He’d searched the spice rack for the small container of garlic powder that he was sure he’d seen there not that long ago, but it was missing.
“Must’ve used it all,” Lou said when asked about it. “I’ll get more next time I’m at the store.”
So Will ate the spaghetti with plain buttered toast. Lou was wearing the apron, which he called a bib, that he always wore whenever eating something with a good chance of staining his shirt or pants if he were to drop a little on himself. The apron bore the scars of its victories, with streaks of various sauces, and smears of grease, staining it all the way down to the part that rested over Lou’s upper thighs. Lou never washed the thing; he just balled it up when he was done with it and stuffed it somewhere. It seemed like he never put the apron in the same place twice, so that he often had to go searching for it the next time he had need of it.
“You working tomorrow?” Lou asked through a mouthful of noodles.
“Frank must be getting Gothic ready for the big race.”
“Yep,” Will repeated.
Lou nodded as if some vague suspicion had been confirmed.
Will finished the second piece of toast when there was just a forkful or two of spaghetti left on his plate. He looked at the pot on the stove, wondering how much was left. He always enjoyed spaghetti, but Lou often made too much. Sometimes they’d be eating leftovers for two days; Will didn’t enjoy that part so much.
There was a knock at the door. Lou made no effort to get up, so Will gave his mouth a quick swipe with a napkin and went to answer the door. There was another knock just as Will swung the door open, and the knocker’s last tap found nothing but air. Two men whom Will didn’t recognize were standing in the hall.
“Can I help you?”
“Is your dad here?” the knocker asked.
Will looked from one face to the next, and a feeling of unease wormed its way into his guts, though he couldn’t have said why. They were just two ordinary men standing in an ordinary hallway, making an ordinary request to see the man of the house.
“Sure,” Will said. “I’ll go get him.”
Will shut the door and walked back to the kitchen.
“There are two guys out there who want to talk to you,” he informed his dad.
“Who are they?”
“Don’t know; I didn’t ask their names.”
“What do they want?”
“I didn’t ask that either.”
Lou looked exasperated at this lack of details, but he pushed his plate away and stood up. He walked past Will, who followed after him. They found that the men were no longer waiting in the hall, but had let themselves into the apartment uninvited. The two men stood just inside the open door, and they were looking around the place. Lou stopped and looked at the men; the men looked back at him.
“What are you doing here, Joey?” Lou asked.
The man who’d done the knocking spoke up:
“I need to talk to you.”
Will had drifted over to the couch and sat down. He’d picked up the remote and clicked on the television, but he paid it no attention; he was still listening to the conversation taking place by the front of the apartment. He looked over and saw Joey looking back at him, maybe sizing him up.
“Let’s talk outside,” Joey said to Lou, taking his eyes away from Will. “We can talk in my car.”
Lou seemed to hesitate momentarily at the suggestion, but he untied his apron and tossed it over to Will.
“Catch,” he said, and Will caught it. “I’ll be back in a minute. Finish your dinner.”
Lou stepped out with the men. Will had an urge to call out to him as he went, to tell him not to go, to shut the door on them. Instead, he went back into the kitchen and stood looking down at his plate with just the two forkfuls of spaghetti left on it. He scooped this little bit into the trash and washed the plate in a haphazard fashion, setting it to dry in the dishrack.
Will went to the window overlooking the street and looked down. He saw a dark car parked at the curb, and he could tell that there were people seated in there, in both the front and back. Though he couldn’t see him, Will knew that Lou was in that car. He looked at the other cars parked along the street, and they all looked deserted. The street itself seemed deserted, save for that one vehicle where his father sat talking to the men. Will kept watch until the back door on the passenger side of the car opened and Joey stepped out onto the sidewalk. Joey held the door open as Lou climbed out of the car, and then he got back in and shut the door. Lou stood and watched as the car pulled away from the curb and disappeared down the street.
Lou turned and walked back into the building, and Will went back to the couch and pretended to be engrossed with was happening on the TV. He didn’t want Lou to think he’d been spying, even though in a way he had been.
The front door opened. Lou came in and shut the door behind him, taking care to lock it up. Will couldn’t help but search his father’s face for some clue as to what all this had been about. Lou’s face looked troubled, but this wasn’t unusual; he always seemed to be worrying over something.
“What did those guys want?” Will asked.
“I owe them some money,” Lou said without looking at his son.
Lou’s eyes were fixed on the floor as if there were something very interesting down there that warranted study. A sinking feeling came over Will at the mention of a debt.
“How much do you owe them?”
Lou didn’t answer.
“How much?” Will asked again.
“It’s okay,” Lou said. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve got it figured out.”
Lou came nearer to where his son was sitting.
“Will, listen…I’m gonna need you to do something for me.”
VI: The Race
It was race day, and the park was busy. Twelves horses would be running, and while each of them would have people betting on them to place or show, only two horses would have serious bettors laying money down for them to win. One was a big, black gelding called Rowdy Raider. The other was Southern Gothic.
Will thought it was going to take forever for Lou to find a parking space, but they quickly pulled into one of the open spaces reserved for disabled drivers. Before Will could protest, Lou produced a blue disabled parking permit (who knew where he’d obtained it) and hung it on the rearview mirror before getting out of the car and heading for the park entrance. Will followed after him, holding his head down sheepishly, embarrassed at their having taken one of the spots marked with an emblem of a person in a wheelchair. He was half-convinced that someone would notice him as he walked away from the car, and that they would point at him, calling him out. But nobody noticed; nobody said anything.
Will caught up with Lou, matching his quick stride. He noticed that Lou was carrying a little black pouch under one arm; any hope that the man had changed his mind, had decided to call the whole thing off, disappeared. As these thoughts ran through his head, Lou held the pouch out to his son. After a moment of hesitation, Will took it.
“You should be getting along now,” Lou said to him. “Come find me when it’s done.”
Lou quickened his pace, and Will made no effort to keep up this time. The boy tucked the pouch under his arm, just as his father had.
When he found them, Frank and Laurie were talking to Bradley, the jockey who would be riding their horse. Southern Gothic was in her stall, looking about amiably. If she was aware that she was about to race, she wasn’t showing it.
“Where the hell have you been?” Frank asked when he noticed Will. “We waited at the stables for you, but you never showed up.”
“Sorry. I got held up, so Lou drove me straight here.”
Laurie greeted him with a smile, and he returned it with one of his own; he hoped that it looked genuine.
“I’ll check her out,” Will said, meaning the horse.
He slipped into the stall, hugging the black pouch close to him, hoping that he wouldn’t have to answer any questions about it. Outside the stall, Frank continued the conversation with Bradley. Laurie watched Will as he went into the stall, and he was afraid that she would follow him in. He was thankful when her uncle asked her something, bringing her back into the conversation with the jockey.
The mare chuffed as Will came near. He reached out and stroked her muzzle. He looked to see if anyone was watching him, but nobody was paying any attention to him at the moment. He turned his gaze back to the horse, tracing his hand along her long neck. He found the groove that marked the spot where he’d have to do it. It had all been explained to him a thousand times over the kitchen table back at the apartment. Lou had even found books that displayed the anatomy of horses so that Will could learn the precise location of the jugular.
Will nervously checked again to be sure that he wasn’t being observed. He took the pouch out from under his arm and pulled it open. Inside the pouch there was only one item: a preloaded syringe with a cap covering the needle.
“What is it?” he’d asked Lou in the kitchen when he’d first showed it to Will.
“Don’t you know a needle when you see one, boy?”
“I mean, what’s in it?”
Lou had told him not to worry about it. When Will had asked where he’d gotten it, Lou had said not to worry about that either.
“We all know that either Gothic or Rowdy Rider is gonna win this thing.”
“Rowdy Raider,” he’d corrected his dad.
“Now, my money would be on your girl Gothic, but a dose like this…” he’d said, holding up the syringe, “…will slow her down nice and good.”
“But why?” Will had asked.
“Because I owe, boy. I owe a lot.”
Lou had explained that Joey and his friend hadn’t stopped by merely to chat the other night. They’d come to put a real hurt on Lou over his unpaid debts. Most of those debts were related to the races, as it happened; Lou had a thing for long shots. But he’d made a deal with them, and this was the deal: hobble the only serious competition to Raider, and Raider’s win was a sure thing.
“They’ll be betting heavy on Rider,” Lou had said, giving no indication that he’d heard Will’s earlier correction of the name. “If he wins, they win, and my debts are forgiven. Well, not all of them, but most.”
Will had said no; even when his father raged at him, he’d held firm.
“What if it kills her?” he’d worried.
“She’ll be fine, Will. I promise you.”
“You’re telling me there’s no chance this stuff could hurt her?”
Lou had said that was correct, there was absolutely no chance. But he’d hesitated just a little too long before saying it.
It was only after Lou had pleaded with Will, and Will had seen the fear in his face, that the boy’s resolve had wavered.
“I don’t know what they’ll do to me of Gothic wins that race,” Lou had said. “You’ve gotta do this, Will. You’ve just gotta.”
Now, in the stall, Will looked Southern Gothic in her honey-colored eyes. He could feel the heat of her. He closed the pouch and let himself out of the stall. This time he couldn’t bring himself to fake a smile for Laurie as he walked past her and the others.
“Will…where are you going?” Frank asked.
Will didn’t stop; when he passed a trashcan he tossed the pouch into it. As he left the stables he heard the call for the horses to be brought to the saddling paddock. Southern Gothic would be trotted out to the paddock. From there, she’d be taken for a couple circuits around a walking ring, and then she’d be escorted out to the starting line.
Will found his father up in the stands. The man’s face was drawn, tired. His hands appeared to be wrestling over a racing form. One hand would be close to victory, and then the other hand would try to snatch it back. His eyes brightened when he saw the boy.
“Did everything go all right?” Lou asked.
Will didn’t answer, and Lou didn’t notice the lack of a response. He was looking around at the other people gathered in the stands, many fidgeting with their own racing forms. On some of those faces, there was a strange look that was a mixture of wild hope and acceptance of a defeat that they knew in their bones would soon be upon them.
“I couldn’t do it.”
Lou didn’t seem to have heard him.
“I couldn’t do it,” Will repeated, louder this time.
Lou heard, and he looked at him sharply. Maybe he was searching his son’s face for some sign that this was a jest, a silly prank. Whatever he saw on Will’s face, it was enough to convince him that it was no joke. His face fell, and his hands gave up the battle over the form. He dropped the form, and it fluttered to the ground.
“I’m sorry,” Will said, and it was true.
They stood together and waited. The horses were trotted out, brought to the starting line. Soon the gates dropped, and the horses were off. As anyone could have guessed, Southern Gothic and Rowdy Raider quickly found themselves at the front of the pack. Except for a short period when it looked as if a horse called Intrepidatious might give them a run for their money, that’s where they stayed. Heading into the home stretch, Raider was slightly in the lead. Then Southern Gothic, that beautiful beast, found one last burst of speed, and she won the race.
Some of the people around them were celebrating. Lou looked shell-shocked. Will waited for his dad to say something. Instead of speaking, Lou turned and headed away from his son.
“Where are you going?” Will asked.
“For a drive.”
Will moved to follow him, but Lou stopped him.
“Get Frank to drive you home,” he said. “I want to be alone for a while.”
Lou left him there and was quickly lost in the crowd.
VII: The Breaks
In the days following the race, father and son didn’t say much to each other. They ate breakfast at the table together, but without the usual chitchat. They ate dinner the same way. Lunch was a separate affair, with Will grabbing a bite either alone or with Laurie. Laurie was a bit confused that Will didn’t seem happy about their horse’s win, but she didn’t press him about it. The horse in question gave no indication of knowing that she’d recently won anything; her days went about in their normal horse way.
As one week followed the next, Will began to hope that there would be no fallout after all. Even the nervous way Lou looked down from the living room window, scanning the street below, before going outside couldn’t stop Will’s mind from turning to other concerns. Chief among these was the fast-approaching first day of the schoolyear. Using his own money, Will bought as many of the supplies on the list that had come in the mail, things students were expected to have ready for the schoolyear. He sorted through the items on the list, deciding what he thought was most necessary, and thought to hell with the rest.
It was on a Saturday, three days before the first day of school, that the sword that’d been hanging over their heads came crashing down. It was chance that brought Will home at that moment. He’d called Laurie to see if she wanted to hang out, but she was busy with her own back-to-school shopping. He then tried Stevie, one of his old buddies. Stevie told him to come on over, but when Will got to the boy’s house, located at the end of a rundown street that looked a lot like the one Will lived on, Stevie had opened the door with the sound of his mother yelling something from somewhere within the house.
“Sorry, man,” Stevie had said. “My mom’s pissed. I gotta deal with this.”
Stevie shut the door before Will could say anything at all.
With nothing else to do, Will decided to head back home, thinking he would just while away the afternoon in front of the TV. As he neared the building he noticed the car from the night Joey and his pal had shown up at their door. The car was parked in front of the building; a man sat behind the wheel, watching Will as he approached. A warning bell went off in Will’s head, and he quickened his pace. When he passed the alleyway between the building where he lived and the convenience store next door, he heard a commotion. Without breaking his stride, he turned his head to look down the alley; he did a double take, as if this was all happening in a bad sitcom, and stopped in his tracks.
Joey and his sidekick were about halfway down the alley. At their feet, lying on the filthy ground and covering up to protect himself from the punches and kicks being directed at him, was Lou. Will’s reaction was instinctive, and he ran headlong into the alley.
“Get away from him!”
Joey turned to him, and when Will was within range he leveled the boy with a blow from one large, meaty fist. For a moment Will forgot where he was; he wondered when the ceiling of his bedroom had been painted to look like the sky. Then the realization came to him: he was lying in the alley. He’d just been rocked by a vicious blow to the head. He tried to get up, but he was caught by a kick to the ribs that knocked the wind out of him and sent him sprawling back to the pavement.
“Stay down, kid. I’m warning you.”
While Joey was dealing with Will, the other guy hadn’t stopped working on Lou. Lou grunted as he took a kick to his own ribs, and then another. He had one arm tucked so that it covered his upper body in an attempt to block the impacts; his other arm was held up so that it protected his face. Will could see that his dad’s face had already taken considerable damage.
Will sprang up and went at Joey, but the big man handled him easily, tossing him against the brick wall of the apartment building. Will fell to the ground next to his father.
“Come on,” Joey said. “Let’s get outta here.”
His comrade drew back his leg and directed one last kick into Lou’s belly. The man walked away then, heading for the mouth of the alley. Will looked up at Joey.
“Sorry about this, kid,” Joey said, and the apology sounded genuine. “But them’s the breaks, you know?”
Joey stood looking down at Will for a moment as if he expected the boy to give some sign of forgiveness. Getting none, the man left them there in the alley. Will saw the black car drive past moments later, with Joey in the front passenger seat.
Lou grunted something, but Will couldn’t understand him.
“What is it? Are you hurt bad?”
“Help me up,” Lou said.
Will did so. His own face was throbbing, and his ribs were sore from the kick, but he didn’t think he was seriously injured. Lou, on the other hand, looked terrible.
“We’ve got to call an ambulance.”
He reached into his pocket for his phone.
“No; just get me upstairs.”
“Help me get upstairs!”
Will didn’t argue any further. He helped his father out of the alley, supporting him as they walked. The building had an elevator that hadn’t worked since they’d lived there, so they had to take the stairs up. The stairway was narrow, and it was tricky going up together, but they managed it somehow. Once they were in the apartment, Will made sure to lock the door in case Joey changed his mind and came back to do more damage. He helped Lou get into bed.
“I just need to rest,” Lou insisted.
Will got a washcloth from the bathroom, wetting it with warm water from the sink. He used the washcloth to gently wipe some of the blood from Lou’s face. The man’s nose looked crooked, and one eye was swollen shut. Will took the washcloth back to the bathroom and rinsed it out, the water running down the drain in a pink swirl. When he went back to check on his dad, Lou was asleep.
As daylight drained from the sky, and the stars popped out like a thousand chipped diamonds, Will kept watch over his father. Lou’s breathing was steady, but he’d developed a loud snore due to the bent nose.
As he sat watching his dad sleep, Will thought back to when he was younger. Sometimes Lou would sit near his bed when he was having trouble getting to sleep. Lou would tell him stories; not the ones from books about fairytales, but stories from the book of Lou’s own life. Lou would tell his boy about things he’d seen and done, and people he’d known. He would tell tales of a century the boy had never seen.
Lou slept through the night. Sometime after midnight Will climbed into his own bed and slept as well.
VIII: The Ferry (Again)
It was still early when Will slipped out of the apartment. He checked in on Lou before leaving; the man was still asleep. It was evident that he’d gotten up sometime during the early morning hours. Three empty beer bottles were lined up on the floor beside the bed, sunlight glinting off the green glass.
The morning was cool, an early preview of autumn. Will zipped his windbreaker all the way up to his chin. A gauzy fog lay over the city, and as Will walked through it he had the feeling that he was walking through a dream. The fog had cleared somewhat by the time he’d made it to the bay, but it clung stubbornly to the shore.
He boarded the ferry just before the ramp went up. The boat wasn’t crowded; most of those aboard were headed to jobs across the bay. Will was heading nowhere; he would ride until the ferry returned. And then? He wasn’t sure. He didn’t even know what it was that had compelled him to board the ferry in the first place.
He took a seat near the stern, shoving his hands down in the pockets of his thin jacket. When he’d checked his face in the mirror over the bathroom sink, he’d seen a purple bruise spread over his left cheek, and now he hoped that nobody would take any notice of it. The last thing he wanted to do was explain the mark to some concerned ferry passenger. He thought that if he had to, he would lie about where he’d gotten the bruise.
The ferry had just a few passengers on the return trip. Most of the seats near Will were empty. He watched a woman seated across from him. She was looking down at her phone; she was either texting somebody or playing a mobile game, he couldn’t tell which. The woman had an umbrella laid on the seat next to her, as if she thought it might rain. Will wondered where she was going.
As the ferry got closer to the end of the ride, which was the same place where the ride began, Will got out of his seat and went over to the railing, gripping the top rail with both hands. The fog was breaking apart up on the cliffs. The big houses near the cliffside were revealed then, floating in the fog like ghosts. It was a strange and beautiful sight. As he stood gazing up at those houses that he would never see the inside of, tears stung his eyes, threatening to spill out. He fought the feeling, wiping away the dampness with the back of one hand. Lou had told him that they would live in one of those houses someday. Will wondered if his father really believed that.
By the time he got home, the fog had completely dissipated. Will let himself into the apartment, taking off the windbreaker and tossing it onto the couch. He peeked into Lou’s bedroom and found the bed empty. The bathroom door was closed, and yellow light spilled out from the gap at the bottom of the door. Will knocked.
“Yeah,” Lou called out. “I’ll be out in a minute. Where were you?”
“I went for a walk.”
Will didn’t know why he didn’t mention the ferry ride; he knew only that it felt like a secret.
“I’m hungry,” Lou said from the other side of the closed door. “You making anything to eat?”
Will felt that he should say something more. Maybe even tell about the ferry ride, and the way the houses on the cliff had looked in the fog. Instead, he went to the kitchen and made some pancakes.
Mike Ramon is a writer living in the Midwest.