Hard Place Excerpt

Jericho

 

It is the oddest thing, to be traveling a hard road one week, and living on easy street the next. I can’t help but think it’s going to end badly and I’ve told my dad this several times. I’ve told him my fear that we are bad news, no matter how hard we’re trying not to be, and that we’re going to ruin the lives of the two people who’ve come to mean the most to us.

I feel guilty that I cherish my new stepmom and her daughter, as well as the the new life we’re living. It took my mom’s death to get us here, and sometimes it feels like loving my new family is a betrayal of the woman who gave birth to me and raised me for thirteen years. I miss her, despite the fact she was strung out for most of my life. Last year, she died from an overdose of whatever she was on that week. She was found on a ratty old couch; her last breath had been on a sagging, torn up cushion. But I cling to the memories that make me smile: her reading me a bedtime story when I was younger, or laughing and cheering me on at my school basketball games. It wasn’t all bad times, my old life, just bad enough that I’m glad to be rid of it. Not rid of her, but sometimes the two things get mixed up in my head.

Mom’s death was a wake-up call for my father and he managed to get himself clean. He found work, and worked all the time; it was like he traded one addiction for another. Work kept him straight. Somehow, my ex-junkie dad managed to win over Sophie, a woman who wore suits even on her days off and whose perfume smelled like it cost more than our old house.

We moved in with her before they were even married. For the first time in my life, I was in a clean house with a clean bed. There weren’t any rats or bedbugs. We ate dinner at the table every night, and it was almost always a home-cooked meal.

The best thing of all? My stepmother’s ten-year-old daughter, Delia, a beacon of light. She’s the most precious thing I’ve ever seen, with light brown hair and golden amber eyes. I’ve never known anyone as perpetually happy or innocent as she is. Her dad is gone, like my mom, yet it’s like she’s never seen even the slightest shadow drift into the light of her world.

I feel like I should share in the responsibility of holding the darkness back so that she can maintain her happiness and innocence. It’s the least I can do, to protect her and keep her safe.

“Jericho, don’t forget you said I can shop for a new dress, too,” Delia says, jerking me back to the present.

My dad and stepmom walk in front of me with Delia between them, holding their hands. We’re at the local mall because I need new clothes for school. All my old clothes either don’t fit or have been worn out. When Delia glances back at me to confirm I heard her, I smile and wink, making her giggle. “We’ll find the prettiest dress here,” I say.

The glass doors to the shopping mall slide open, and we walk into the food court. I’m immediately enveloped in cool, clean, crisp air. The tile floor is immaculate, and the lights are bright enough that there aren’t any shadowy places to hide, but there’s no need to hide in places like this.

I see happy families seated around the small tables that populate the open space between the restaurant stalls. It looks like a TV commercial, where perfect strangers are paid to sit across from each other and put on fake smiles while they pretend to eat fake food.

At fourteen years old, I’m slowly learning that some families are happy to see each other in real life, not just on the set of a commercial.

Then a shadow crosses our path, and I feel the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I see Rick, one of my dad’s old drug buddies, and his presence alone is a threat that makes me immediately tense.

“Hey, man, long time no see,” Rick says as he walks up. For some reason, he’s wearing a suit and tie instead of his usual jeans and wife beater. His dark hair is slicked back, and he’s wearing sunglasses inside the mall. He has a big, friendly smile, and large hands that look like they could easily break rocks. He shakes my dad’s hand and pats him on the back.

They exchange pleasantries, and I hear the nervousness in my dad’s voice, but I know he won’t tell the guy to fuck off. My dad has a problem sticking up for himself. And to be fair, there are consequences to publicly disrespecting people like Rick that should be avoided at all cost.

“You bounce back nicely, huh? You must be the new Mrs. Grant,” he says, taking my stepmom’s hand. I immediately look at my dad, and I feel guilty for the disdain that fills me when he doesn’t immediately act to defend his new wife from Rick’s slimy touch.

But, hey, he couldn’t do anything to save my mom, right? What makes me think he could save his new woman?

I guess things haven’t changed as much as I thought. But again, I remind myself how dangerous Rick is. That maybe my dad is being smart rather than a coward. All I can do is hope that this scene is over soon so we can get on with our new life and forget this scum even exists.

Then Rick does something unforgivable.

“What a beautiful little girl,” he says, and he strokes Delia’s hair.

“Hello, mister,” she says in her innocent little voice.

And that’s it. That’s all I can take. It’s like a switch flips inside me. I’m no longer thinking about what I’m doing. Instead, I step in front of Delia, separating her from this asshole scumbag.

“Whoa, hey there, tiger,” Rick says.

“You don’t have the right to touch her,” I tell him. “In fact, you need to forget you even know who we are.” I figure if my dad can’t stand up to this guy, I can. What the hell is he going to do to a kid?

“Son,” my dad says nervously, “be polite.”

“No, that’s alright,” Rick says. He sizes me up. I’m not going to lie; he could step on me, and it would be over just like that. I’m skin and bones from years of practically living on the streets. The flipside to that, and I think he can see it, is that somehow I’ve managed to survive, fighting for every scrap of food or safety.

“You’re getting big, kid,” Rick says, and his slimy voice contains a hint of respect. “Just don’t let it go to your head.” He smiles at me, and the look in his eyes tells me I better not say anything else. He then turns back to my dad. “Nice family. Take good care of them.”

And just like that, he’s gone. He pats my dad on the back as he walks off, blending into the people walking in and out of the mall.

I let out a huge sigh of relief, one echoed by my dad and stepmom. Delia simply puts her hand in mine and drags me over to one of those single horse carousels. When I pull a quarter out of my pocket and tell her to climb on, she looks at me like I hung the moon. Gradually, the remaining tightness in my chest from my encounter with Rick disappears.

After that, we resume our shopping trip. I make sure we get Delia’s dress first. Then I get a few new shirts and some jeans for school. We hit up the shoe store, and after buying me some good boots, we head out, leaving my old shoes in the trash at the mall. My stepmom doesn’t fuss about the fact I grabbed a few rock band t-shirts in addition to the collared shirts. She’s just glad I have new clothes, she tells me.

When we get home, I head to my room, grab my headphones, and kick back on the bed listening to the local classic rock station. I got roped into the classic rock scene by the guys on the street. They all listen to groups like ZZ Top and Aerosmith. Sure, our new home is clean and safe, but at night, after eating a home-cooked meal and heading off to bed, I sometimes get restless and music allows me to feel connected to that part of my life again by feeding that spirit in me.

When Van Halen kicks off the classic “Hot for Teacher,” it’s like I’m listening to the bikers cruising by my old house late at night. I envy the freedom those guys have, especially now that I’m stuck inside. But I figure it’s a pretty even trade. Before living here with my stepmom and her daughter, my life was a complete and total wreck. So if giving up those guys who looked out for me on the street means I get to have a safe and cozy home, that’s okay with me.

I drift off listening to the radio, as I do most nights now, and when I wake up, my headphones are sitting on top of my stereo, a sign that one of them has been in here to check on me. Man, how things have changed, I think to myself as my eyes adjust to the darkness.

But something’s not right.

Delia stands in my doorway and I can feel the fear emanating from her.

“What’s wrong?” I ask even though I don’t want to know. I just want to go back to sleep and let this be a dream. The growing knot in my gut tells me I already know what’s going on here.

The shadow is back.

Before Delia can answer me, I hear screaming from the living room. I hear my dad begging someone to stop and leave his family alone.

“Come here,” I tell Delia, trying to keep my voice level. She’s never had to deal with anything like this, and she doesn’t need to see what it’s doing to me to have to deal with it again.

I slide out of bed as she walks over to me, and I see that she’s got her favorite pink princess teddy bear clutched to her chest. She’s crying, and I wipe the tears from her face. “Look,” I tell her, “I need you to go hide somewhere. It’s important. Hide where no one can find you, okay?”

She nods.

“If you do that, I promise, you’ll be just fine.”

“You’ll come get me?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“Promise,” she whispers. “Promise you’ll come get me.”

A woman’s scream pierces upward from below, and we both jerk. Delia turns as if she’s going to head downstairs, and I cup her chin and make her look at me. “I promise I’ll come get you.”

“Mommy and Daddy,” she says, and my heart clenches at how easily she calls my dad her daddy.

“I’m going to get them. They’re going to be okay, I promise. We’re all going to be okay. But you have to hide. Right now, so I can go help them.”

She stares at me a second, nods, then kisses my cheek before she runs back into the hallway. I hope to hell she’s got a good hiding place because I don’t have any clue where to hide. I’m not even sure I want to hide. I’m tired of hiding. I’m tired of running.

And I have a lot of things to fight for now.

I creep down the hallway, following the voices to the living room. From where I stand in the darkness, I see two of them, dressed all in black with their faces covered. One has a knife. The other has a gun. My dad and stepmom are on their knees in front of the two guys, tied up. Knife-man slaps duct tape on my dad’s mouth, abruptly cutting off his shouting and begging.

Then he’s cutting my stepmom’s clothes off and pushing her onto her stomach.

Fuck these guys. I run into the kitchen and grab a knife from the drawer.

When I return to the living room, the guy with the knife is on top of my stepmom, raping her in front of my dad. I thought I’d seen enough horror in my life so I could deal with anything, but the horror of the scene in front of me has me pinned in place.

The man on top of my stepmom is grunting and telling her, “Just shut up and take it, bitch,” while she’s screaming and begging him to stop.

Then, my dad sees me. He tries to shout from behind his gag, and the guy with the gun turns to follow his gaze. I’ve been spotted.

“Hey, man, we’ve got ourselves a little voyeur,” the gunman tells his partner. “He’s the kid Rick told us about.”

“Let him watch,” he grunts.

Rick. Rick sent these guys. Probably because I’d talked back to him at the mall.

This is my fault. I did this.

I double over and vomit on the floor. Apparently the anonymous men in our living room find that hilarious.

“Your turn,” Knife-man tells his buddy as he gets up and zips up his pants. “I’ll handle the twerp.”

I brace myself, then bellow a battle cry. Running toward Knife-man, I swing my own knife at him, trying to get a good shot, but he just steps out of the way and laughs. Then I swing again, catching the back of his hand. He cusses and drops his blade.

“You little shit!”

I turn to run as he reaches for me with his cut hand. His other black-gloved hand slams into the side of my head, and I’m down on the floor.

They’re both on me now, kicking and punching me, and even though I try to get away, I can’t. Pain slams me from every direction, and I feel blood on my face.

Maybe it’s because I know it’ll be my last chance, and I want them to know I tried. I tried to help them, even though I failed. “Dad,” I yell. “Sophie!” But I don’t say Delia’s name. If I do, she’ll come down here and I can’t let that happen.

The darkness closes in quickly, and even as it does I pray Delia is able to hide from these men. That the darkness stays away from her. That she somehow maintains her light and innocence even when we’re all dead.

But I know she won’t.

We did this, I think. My dad and I should have stayed away from them.

We should have known that easy street wasn’t a place meant for us, and because we tempted fate, we brought darkness and death to anyone we touched.

 

* * *

 

Eight Years Later

 

“Here’s your drink.” I hand the fruity cocktail to the blonde I’ve been flirting with at the bar. She’s made it very clear she wants to fuck me, and I have every intention of giving her what she wants, but only after I do what I need to do first, which isn’t her.

I bring my gaze back to Delia where she’s sitting at a small table in the corner with a man who’s obviously a scumbag. It’s become a habit of hers, hanging around scumbags, even if the actual scumbag in question changes every so often.

Her brown hair has been dyed black and teased up like something from the ‘80s. She’s wearing combat boots, fishnets, a ragged denim skirt, and an old Motley Crue tank top. She’s got a few bracelets dangling from her wrists.

I haven’t spoken to her since the night our lives fell apart. As I’d been getting the shit kicked out of me downstairs, Delia had done the one thing I should have done the instant she came to me and I heard the screaming downstairs—she’d called 911. The police had arrived in time to save her from what the two men would have done to her, but not in time to save my dad or her mom. When I woke in the hospital, I had to listen to Mrs. Stevens, a social worker, tell me all this. Of course, I’d wanted to see Delia immediately, but Mrs. Steven told me she was in the custody of CPS. That’s where I’d be placed, and the both of us would be put in foster care. According to Mrs. Steven, they’d try to keep us together. Try.

But I’d immediately seen the writing on the wall.

Sweet Delia would have no trouble getting adopted. I, on the other hand, would be a nightmare to place. She’d fight that, the two of us being separated. She’d cry and be miserable, asking for the stepbrother who’d ruined her fucking life. I’d failed to save my dad and her mom, and even though I’d promised to come back to her, it seemed the best I could do for her at that point was let her get on with life.

Besides, when she found out that my dad and I were responsible for what had happened, when she found out it was our old life that had brought Rick’s men to her house that night to rape and kill her mother, she’d hate me anyway.

So that night, I’d left the hospital and started living on the streets again. No matter how much I wanted to, I never let Delia see my face again.

But I couldn’t stop myself from seeing hers.

I was on the streets a few months before I was picked up by CPS. After several failed attempts at foster care, I was eventually placed at Thornbridge Orphanage. I asked King, the man who ran the place, to look Delia up for me. He agreed, in return for a variety of favors of course, but given he already had me and the other boys at the orphanage under his thumb and acting like his own personal street gang, that didn’t bother me. In fact, it was probably because King ran the orphanage this way that I did well there, when I hadn’t been able to do well in foster care. It helped that I quickly made friends with some of the other boys, boys who could understand me, because they all had a fucked up past too.

King found out where Delia was, and I’ve been watching her ever since. Even now that me and my friends have left Thornbridge and started our lives over, which included making an oath to live clean and opening Nailed Garage, I haven’t stopped watching out for Delia from afar. I keep hoping one day I’ll get a glimpse of her light and be reassured she’s going to be okay.

She is not going to be okay. Not if she stays on the path she’s currently walking.

She just turned eighteen, and over the last year she’d continued to descend through a cycle of self-destruction and depravity. I’ve been watching her grow up and fall apart, but she’s getting worse, and I can’t let that continue. I’ve stayed away, even though I saw what she was getting herself into, because I figured nothing she could get into herself could be worse than what would happen if I added myself to the mix.

I’d cursed her. I’d ruined her life.

But I’ve got to do something, even if I have to do it in a way that insures she’ll hate me forever if she doesn’t already.

And I have to do it now.

I down my beer and tell the blonde to do what I told her before standing and walking closer to Delia’s table, but not approaching all the way.

Despite the dark clothes, and glam-rock hair that hint at a tough life, she still looks sweet. She’s definitely not a little girl anymore. She has a beautiful voice and an intoxicating laugh. Her face is older, but it hasn’t been blemished through any of the miles I’ve seen her put on her life yet.

I know I shouldn’t look, but her tank top hangs loosely from her chest, and I catch a glimpse of a black lacy bra strap. My eyes wander down to those fishnet stockings hugging her legs. I don’t just want to protect her and watch over her anymore. I haven’t for a couple of years. As I’ve watched her, I’ve seen her develop into a woman.

A woman I want.

I want to see her tits hiding under that top. I want to know how she feels under that skirt. I want to toss her little boyfriend or whatever he is off his stool and bend her over the bar. It’s horrible, but all I can think of is what she would look like, her body under mine as she stares up at me.

She’s so wrapped up in her current conversation that I swear she looks right at me several times without even seeing me.

I have to remind myself that I didn’t come here tonight to get mixed up in her life. I came here to save her. From her life and from me. I came here to offer her a way out. If I do what I want to do, it’s just going to mire her deeper into shit.

When I look back over, she’s taking a drag off the bowl her friend packed for her. Her soft lips wrap around the tip and I watch as she pulls the smoke in. It shouldn’t look so damn sexual. She’s mine to protect, not mine to abuse, but seeing her like this, all I can think about is what else that mouth could be doing right now. And she looks like she’d be good at it.

I listen as she and her friend flirt a little bit. But then it starts to sound like they aren’t flirting.

No, she’s definitely not flirting, and when I see the guy she’s with handling her roughly, I snap and lunge toward them, determined to rip the guy apart piece by piece.

 

* * *

 

Delia

 

One minute I’m sitting with Rowan, charming him because he’s my connection to getting drunk or high, and he’s always got the best shit. The next minute, he puts a hand on my knee and twists his fingers into the fishnet stockings running down my legs from my faded denim skirt with frayed edges.

“Come on, man, be cool,” I tell him as I push his hand away.

“Oh, you know, we’re cool, baby,” he protests as he leans even closer, and his hand slides up the inside of my legs.

I push him back by his shoulders. “Come on, Rowan, not here,” I tell him.

“I’ve wanted you for so long, Delia. And I never got to give you your birthday present, baby,” he pleads in my ear. His breath is hot on my neck, and I feel the desire rushing out of his mouth. Yes, I just turned eighteen. No, I don’t want a present from Rowan. Besides, I’ve heard his gift keeps on giving.

Fuck!  His fingers are rubbing against my black cotton panties. So disgusting.

“Get off,” I tell him, pushing harder.

“I will,” he promises, “inside your sweet little pussy.”

I use all my strength and finally manage to push him away. “In your dreams,” I snap, and Rowan’s face contorts in a way I’ve never seen before. Fear and anxiety, two emotions I constantly have to keep at bay, which is why I get drunk and high so much to begin with, slam over me.

“Rowan, I don’t want—”

“I don’t care what you want, you fucking cock tease,” he sneers. “But if you want more of what I have to give, you’re going to take everything.” He grabs my arms and yanks me toward him, his grip so tight I automatically yelp in pain.

When he’s suddenly jerked violently away, I almost topple out of my chair because of the hold he has on me. Next thing I know, he’s on the floor and whoever ripped him away is punching him in the face. Repeatedly.

“What the fuck?” I whisper. I shoot a quick glance at Odie, the waitress who’d disappeared but was suddenly back, but she just shrugs and shakes her head.

Whatever. I’m out of here.

“Here, handle this.” I pass the pot to Odie, and it disappears in her crafty hands.

I start gathering my shit, throwing everything into my backpack, but before I can get up and get out the door, he’s back.

My hero.

“Going somewhere?” His voice booms in the small barroom.

I stare at the man in front of me, down at Rowan who’s on the floor, his face bloody and his body curled into a fetal position, then back at the man who’d beat him.

He’s scary but he’s also hot, with shaggy dark hair and chocolate brown eyes. He’s wearing a leather vest with patches all over it, a plain black t-shirt, jeans, and black boots. His jaw is strong and stubbled, and he’s muscular but wiry. And he looks awfully familiar to me…

I blink as it registers who he is. A ghost from my past.

A bastard who’d sworn he’d come back for me, and instead, had abandoned me when I’d needed him most.

“Fucking Jericho.” I drop my bag. I haven’t seen him in eight years, and he comes in out of the blue, pretending to be my knight in shining armor, beating the shit out of my connection and effectively canceling my supply. What kind of bullshit is this?

“Hey, kid,” he says, as if he can’t even be bothered to remember my name even as he acts like no time has passed since we last saw each other.

“I’m not a little kid anymore,” I tell him.

“You haven’t been a kid for some time,” he agrees. “But knowing you when you were a kid, I never would have thought you’d wind up like this.”

I haven’t seen him since I was ten. Because he’d run out on me. He hadn’t even attended our parents’ funeral. And now he thinks he can judge me?

“Fuck you, Jericho,” I snap.

His eyes narrow and his jaw clenches before he visibly relaxes his expression, like he’s just counted to five and is trying to maintain his patience.

It sends my temper shooting even higher. “You think you can just walk up to me after being absent from my life for the past eight years and expect me to smile and ask how you’ve been? And what the fuck? You just beat up one of my friends.”

He glances at Rowan with a sneer. “Didn’t look too friendly from where I was standing. You told him no, Delia, and he didn’t listen. He deserved what he got. You should choose your friends more wisely.”

“Wait a minute, are you following me?” I look around to see if anyone else is with him, my gaze landing briefly on a curvy blonde at the bar who’s looking at us. “How long have you been stalking me?”

He sighs and runs his hands over the stubble along his jawline. “I’m here to give you something.” He slaps a wad of folded bills on the table.

“What is this shit?” Usually, the only reason guys I know throw cash down in front of a woman is for…well, take a guess.

“That’s cash, Delia,” he growls.

“No shit, Sherlock. What’s it for?”

“It’s for you. I want to help you.”

I laugh bitterly. I don’t want his money. I don’t even need it. “Now you want to help me? You abandoned me. You promised you’d come back for me, Jericho. You promised!”

“I also promised everything was going to be okay. That I’d save your mom and my dad. Look what happened! I left you, Delia, because I thought you were better off without me.”

I shake my head in disbelief. “Better? I lost my mom that night, and the one person I expected to still be there after the dust settled just disappeared. I had no way of finding you. I had no way of knowing whether you were okay or lying dead in a gutter somewhere. What happened was a nightmare, but we could have helped one another move past it. Instead, you…” It’s all pouring out now. I never thought I’d see this asshole again, and yet, he’s right here handing me money like he’s buying himself out of my life. Fuck, he hasn’t even been in my life, so what’s he buying?

“Take the money, Delia. Get yourself together. Go back to school. You used to want to be a veterinarian. Do that. But you can’t keep going down this road. I’ve already seen what’s down it, and I’m not going to let you find the end.” He takes his hand off the money and starts to walk away.

I am so pissed at him. I’m pissed by the way he’s suddenly reappeared in my life, trying to hand me money and spouting crap about how I’m better off without him. But at the sight of him walking away from me, I panic. This is Jericho. The boy I used to adore.

I scramble toward him, grab his hand and pull him back. I can’t let him get away from me this time. This is the moment I’ve been dreaming of for years, the moment when he comes to me as a man, no longer just the older brother I never got to have.

When I’d known him as a child, I’d known nothing of desire, but in the intervening years, I’d dreamed of all the scenarios in which he’d come back to me, and as I’d gotten older, those dreams became sexual. I’d fantasized about what he’d look like as a man, and my imagination had been right on the money. He’s still got those fabulous dark eyes and hair, and I can easily reconcile him with the same man I’ve dreamed about kissing me. Caressing me. Fucking me until all I can think about is how he feels inside me and how he’s able to block out all the crap in my life so I can see the light again.

My eyes search his face for any sign that he might feel the same way I do, that he might yearn for me, but his expression is closed off. Even so, holding his hand, feeling the roughness of his skin, I’m swamped by waves of desire that have only ever come to me in my dreams.

He’s so close to me, but he’s still too far away. I pull on his hand, trying to bring him closer. We’re not the big brother and little sister we were supposed to be. I want to tell him how badly I’ve wanted him to come back to me. I’m so angry and so scared, though, that I can’t get the words out. I can’t tell him how much I’ve wanted him.

If he hadn’t been running from what happened to us, he could have been there to teach me the things I had to learn the hard way from pricks like Rowan. I know Jericho would have been gentle. He would have taken care of me instead of taking advantage of me.

“Where are you going? Don’t leave again, Jericho. Come with me. Let’s start over together, just us, the way it should have been to begin with,” I plead.

He pulls his hand away and takes a step back. “I can’t, Delia. I can’t babysit you. You’ve got to do this yourself. I’ve got my own life.”

The blonde at the bar walks up to him then. She steps directly between us, putting me behind her as she leans in and kisses him. It’s a deep, long, possessive kiss. She’s claiming him, right in front of me, and he goes right along with it, putting his hand on her ass and squeezing. Pulling her into his hips and grinding against her.

I feel like I’m being stabbed. I feel like I’m dying.

I should have known. With his sudden appearance, I’d had the briefest glimpse of light again, but now it’s gone.

Jericho finally pulls away from the blonde only to wrap one beefy arm around her waist and pin her to his side. “Take care, Delia.” Together they walk to the door.

And Jericho disappears from my life again without a backward glance.

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