This week, I answer a burning listener question: should I not self-publish?
And now, our reading:
When Megan awoke in the motel room, the dull throb from the bruise under her right eye had subsided. Still swollen, but at least not so painful. She opened her eyes to find the bed sheet balled in her aching hands. The terror and shame of the day before had normalized into a manageable hum.
With no intention of going to class, she began her day with a solid hour of wall-staring until she got a late morning text from Becca. Since today was Becca’s birthday, Megan had been invited to join Becca and her crew for early afternoon drinks. Any other friend, Megan would say no, but this she could not refuse. Megan had stared at the text message on her phone for ten minutes, but ultimately replied because she realized she could not imprison herself in the motel jail forever. She knew that she could not think her way into feeling better; only taking action might improve her situation.
Megan dressed in her favorite jeans and pink top, and looked almost like a normal college student. However, standing in front of the mirror and applying the third layer of concealer to the discolored patch on her face, Megan had to accept that no amount of makeup would erase it. She tried out different versions of cover stories for how this could have happened, ultimately settling on I fell during a run and hit my face on the sidewalk. Believable. Pathetic.
She would play nice for them all; she would pretend that she was living the same boring existence as the rest of them. If given the opportunity, she would steal Becca away and tell her what had actually happened. Maybe Becca would know what to do.
At the bar, she met Becca, Whitney, Kellsie, and several others and played the part of Regular College Student to perfection. She told everyone the running story and they all bought it, even Becca. Maybe no one wanted to question a woman with a bruise on her face; maybe some of these girls had their own experiences and already knew that any interrogation would lead to lies.
The early afternoon drinks turned into the late afternoon drinks and by 3 o’clock, Megan had arrived in Drunkville. Somewhere in between boilermakers and cosmos, she stopped caring and set out to consume as much as possible. She forgot all about looking for an opportunity to isolate Becca.
By 5 o’clock, the party split up, and all the girls went their separate ways. Megan decided that if the car key fit the door, she was fine to drive. She knocked over a trashcan while attempting to exit the parking lot, and then swerved along Baseline Street. She giggled while narrowly avoiding a pedestrian as he scurried along a crosswalk. She had given up the ability to care about anything anymore.
With only a block to go before the motel, red and blue lights in her rearview mirror struck her eyes. She became keenly aware that she was drunk, driving, and completely out of control. Megan failed the road sobriety test, even after the cop allowed her several tries. She admitted to having some drinks (which, as she truthfully told the officer, was out of character for her, and even more out of character for her to drive after doing so), but he made her touch her nose, walk in a straight line, and do the other tests regardless. The police officer shook his head and said he had no choice but to take her jail. Some little part of her took comfort; no one would find her in jail.
“Look, Garcia, it’s been great catching up and all, but I’m a little busy right now. We’ll continue this again real soon,” Wiles said before ending the phone call.
“What did you mean by initiation?” Alex said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Wiles said.
Alex and Wiles, on the front porch of the house, smoked their cigarettes and drank their beers. Alex had left the pistol in his waistband for the last hour to see if he would grow accustomed to it. The implement of destruction warmed up to his body temperature, but otherwise still pressed like an alien invader next to his skin.
Alex paced and started to feel dizzy. He lost his balance, crashing into the side of the house. The gun slipped out and rattled along the porch. Wiles helped him up and stood Alex up straight before giving him the pistol. “Easy, son. That thing isn’t loaded, but if it were, you might have just put a bullet in me.”
“I am easy. I mean, everything’s easy. I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?” Alex said. Maybe the cocaine-methamphetamine mixture he just smoked in the bathroom had not helped his level of serenity. Hard to tell.
“I know, Speedy. Just be cool. I think you should take something to mellow out a little.”
“I’m totally mellow. That’s not the problem. Miguel and Brian aren’t stupid, you know. They’re going to figure out what’s going on. Especially Miguel. You basically just told him that you’re coming for him.”
“Who gives a shit what Garcia knows? Don’t worry about it. We’re gonna take care of this before they have a chance to do squat,” Wiles said.
“It’s gotta be this way. If I let this shit go, I’m just a punk. I can’t have that because everybody’s going to know it. I’ve been hibernating for too long. It’s time to let everyone feel the full weight of my motherfucking hammer.”
“That’s a little dramatic,” Alex said.
“This stopped being kiddie-shit a long time ago. Time to step it up.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know for sure yet,” Wiles said. “I have some ideas, but we’re going to have to play it by ear. It’s time to cut your teeth, kid.”
“Cut my teeth,” Alex said. “Sure, sure, totally makes sense. It’s self-preservation. We’ve got to look out for ourselves.
I have a gun in my waistband, soon it’s going to have bullets in it, and I’ll have to use those bullets to make holes in people. Or maybe Wiles will just bring me along. Maybe it will be like Tyson and the bicycle. Maybe I’ll just have to watch. That won’t be so bad.
“I’m ready. Let’s do this,” Alex said. A lie that he wanted to believe.
“Hold up. I got a couple errands that can’t wait. We’ll go when I get back.” Wiles nodded towards the gun in Alex’s belt loop. “There are some rounds in the wooden box on the coffee table.”
The bullets on the coffee table could wait. First, Alex wanted to be in the loop. He wanted a measure of trust from Wiles in the form of genuine information. “What happened to Kevin Werner?”
Wiles’ head jerked back. “Where in the world did you hear that name?”
“Don’t worry about–”
“Just tell me, Derek,” Alex said. He pressed a little more. “You want me to be in, you gotta let me in.”
Wiles chewed on his lower lip before answering. “Kevin got in my way. I took care of it.”
“You did what you had to do.”
“Of course I did. He was a little pain in my ass who got what he deserved. That’s all you need to know about it.”
Jimmy Connelly? He didn’t run away.
“I heard that he doesn’t walk anymore,” Alex said, rubbing a hand over his stubbly scalp. “Tell me, please.”
“Damn, Britton. I can’t get you to stop asking questions for five minutes. Fine, I’ll tell you. Motherfucker was trying to steal Connelly out from underneath me. I went to his studio and then I took a crowbar to his lower back. He doesn’t walk, and probably shits in a bag, too, but that’s not my problem. Just how the world works.”
Alex stared at his shoes. “How the world works. Cause and effect. But…” he began.
“Hang on a sec, I gotta drop a dime real quick. I’ll be back in a few.” Wiles dialed a number on his phone. Alex opened his mouth to speak, but Wiles held up a hand to cut him off. “Yes,” Wiles said into the phone. “I need to get a message to Private First Class Chris Wiles… thank you, I’ll hold.”
Wiles walked down the street and so Alex went back into the house, and gazed at the wooden box on the coffee table. Bullets inside it. Violence inside it.
He went into the bathroom and splashed water on his face. He regarded himself in the mirror, an activity that had not been the same since candy flipping in Dave’s bathroom. With his bleak and red eyes, his stubble-length hair, and his hands covered with scratches and burn marks, he would be unrecognizable to those who knew him only a few short years before. Pockmarks covered his face from pimples squeezed into oblivion.
He returned to the living room and sat down, again looking at the wooden box. He took several deep breaths, like waking up. The room had no light except for a beam that spilled through a gap in the curtains, showering his face and chest with late afternoon light. A shroud of pallid darkness covered the rest of him and the surrounding room. Enough black curtains could convert any day into night.
He opened a tiny baggie and dumped a little of the powder into the hole in the top of a glass pipe. He flicked a lighter underneath the bulbous end of the pipe, heating the meth until it started to vaporize, and then he stuck his lips on the opposite end and inhaled. He was sweating, and thumping the heel of his right foot against the floor, which caused his right knee to bounce in time with his elevated heartbeat.
Alex took the Smith & Wesson Sigma semi-automatic pistol from his waist and laid it in his lap. Opening the wooden box, he removed from it the bullets that he intended to load into the clip. His head pounded like a bass drum. Investment Banker Daniel Britton never took Alex to the woods to shoot a rifle at paint cans, so Alex had virtually no experience.
From his back pocket, he produced a squashed pack of cigarettes. He had to fish through several broken cigarettes to find one still intact. He put it between his lips and raised a lighter, and he tried to flick the wheel, but his hands trembled and he could not ignite the tobacco. He threw the butt back down on the table and dropped his face into his hands, trying to massage the tension out of his strained jaw muscles.
As beads of sweat gathered on his forehead, he loaded the bullets one by one into the clip and slid the clip into the pistol. When the clip locked into place, his chest lurched and he salivated. Alex feared he might spill more fractals all over the couch. He somehow managed to keep it down, but next emerged the sick, sour warmth at the back of his throat. He had not eaten anything today, the taste in his mouth like rancid cottage cheese.
The front door opened, and he did not bother to hide the gun or the drugs, or even to lift up his eyes.
“Alright, it’s time to go.”
Alex rose to his feet, with the pistol in his hand. Besides not eating anything today, he had not eaten much at all lately and his pants barely hung onto his hips. He cinched up his belt as tight as possible, which made the waist snug enough to fit the pistol in front of his crotch.
He feared that Wiles might see the concern on his face. He imagined having a steely resolve and an ice-cold demeanor. He imagined being all business, like his mentor, and in just a few seconds, he settled enough to speak. He became ready.
“I’m ready,” Alex said.