Being a writer can often be lonely. You sit a desk and pound out words, day in day out. Sometimes I forget what my voice sounds like. The good news, is that there are other storytellers like me. And often we can get together when we aren’t behind our bookish deadlines. What’s even better about social media is that you can not only show your Gran how baby #2 is progressing, the same tools allow you to reach out to writers all over the world.
Meet Frederick Lee Brooke. A fellow sojourner on the writing path who I hope to meet in person someday.
This is Chapter 11 of his latest release COLLATERAL DAMAGE. Check out the blog tour to read previous chapters and also enter to win prizes!
Michael was waiting there when Alison and I walked back to the east lot to get in our cars. Here in my forest preserve, Michael. He had an uncanny ability to shadow me around the city. From a hundred yards away, before we left the cover of the forest, I saw him standing there, beside a shiny black sports car. I knew it was Michael. I saw him before my sister did.
“I thought I told you to stop following me around,” I said.
“Couldn’t resist.” That smirk.
“You break into my sister’s. You hide out overnight there. You go and meet with my slimy brother-in-law.”
“I just got through with your fiancé,” Michael interrupted.
I looked at his jaw where he fingered it. An angry red mark suggested a blow. I came closer for a look. A few layers of skin were abraded. In my mind an image of Salvatore’s fist connecting with Michael’s jaw, the rage in their faces, Michael receiving the blow…
“Small difference of opinion.”
“Salvatore hit you? Michael, are you okay? I told you he used to be a cop.”
“I’m okay. I’ll be fine. Why don’t you get in the car?”
“You’re not getting in his car, Annie,” my sister said. She had kept her mouth shut till now. The three cars were parked in a row, Alison’s, Michael’s, and mine, like drag racers on a starting line.
I checked out Michael’s wheels. I wasn’t sure what a Corvette cost, but it was a fine looking car, low to the ground, black-tinted windows, and Florida plates.
It pissed me off that Salvatore would hit Michael. It really burned me up. Salvatore knew Michael had written me a poem, but he hadn’t seen it. And he wasn’t going to see it. He obviously felt threatened. Which I could understand, given the circumstances. His mood had soured when I told him about the lie about Michael being dead. I was never going to live that one down. But still I didn’t expect him to solve problems like a schoolboy, with fistfights. That was an entirely new side of Salvatore. I was surprised.
“So does this car belong to you, or did you borrow it?” I said. I put emphasis on borrow in case he didn’t get the euphemism.
“Have a look in the glove compartment. My registration,” Michael said.
“I don’t believe this,” Alison fumed. She got in her car. “Call me, Annie. I want to talk to you later.”
“Thanks for the visit,” I yelled after her.
Alison slammed the door and sped off, leaving a little cloud of dust in her wake. For a minute, I couldn’t understand why she was miffed. Then it hit me. She had said it herself: she was jealous. It made me almost queasy to think of it, but there it was. Alison was alone, and suddenly I had two men competing for me, not that I asked for it.
I got in the car. My legs had gone wobbly at the thought of Michael and Salvatore fighting over me. I had to sit down. It wasn’t that I was afraid of confrontation, just the opposite. I just liked having Michael back in my life, if only for these brief moments. It was like a dream and I didn’t want it to end. I sifted through the documents in the glove compartment and found a Florida registration, Michael’s name on the certificate.
“Moving up in the world.”
“You really thought I stole it? You thought I would take you somewhere in a hot car?” It was the same tone he had used when he asked if I really told people he was dead.
I pulled the door closed and said nothing. I had known him as a car thief. Now he owned a fancy car himself. He started the engine and we rolled. He must have floored it, because I was thrown back against the leather bucket seat as we skidded ahead.
“You mind if I put my seatbelt on?”
“Haven’t got all day.”
He must’ve hit forty coming out of the east lot. We churned a cloud of dust as another car drove in. I stuffed all the documents back in the glove compartment and slammed it closed. Then we were on the main road, headed south. I decided I didn’t care where he drove me. I still couldn’t believe Salvatore would hit him. I decided I was just going to enjoy an hour or two with Michael.
“You don’t exactly do things the easy way.”
Michael sighed, gesturing with his right hand while driving with the left. “You know, little things remind me of Iraq. Like spending nine hours in your sister’s closet without moving.”
“It’s the kind of thing we’re good at,” I said. Michael was turning onto the highway. It was the expressway headed south. “But we’re back home now, Michael. You can’t just wear a mask and smash into people. You can’t break into people’s houses and lurk there all day and all night. We’re civilians.”
“Or like the sight of your face.” His gaze lingered on me so long I worried about him staying on the road.
“Shut up, Michael.”
“You know why I broke in over there.”
“I told you. I was waiting for you to show up.”
“How long were you going to wait?”
“I heard her talking on the phone. I knew you were coming.”
He kept one hand on the wheel, used the other for gesturing. We got on I-90/94 headed south. It was a bright sunny day, and he put on sunglasses. I found with these tinted windows I didn’t even need mine.
“So what’ve you been doing down there? Since you got back, I mean. You’re living with Husker?”
Michael nodded. “Sharing a house, yeah. It’s kind of small, but it’s air-conditioned.” He smiled. “Got to have AC down in Florida.”
“Are you working?”
“Me and Husker are in business together.”
“What kind of business?”
Michael waved. “His brother set us up. Husker went straight to his brother. He doesn’t get along with the rest of that family, but him and his brother are tight.”
“You never told me why he had problems with his family.”
“He never measured up,” Michael said. “It started in high school. Husker started smoking. Just Camels, you know, but his daddy is almost as bad as their famous uncle. Christian conservative, that kind of thing. Never touch alcohol, no tobacco, no gambling. So clean, even their shit don’t smell, the way Husker says it. His older brother toed the line. Joined the family business, two kids, a nice house and dog, and a seat on the board at the best golf club in Tampa.”
“Husker got in trouble?” I asked.
Michael’s smiled. “Not as much as me. I think he only got arrested once. Party got out of hand, drunk and disorderly, something like that. But that was too much for his daddy. He was disowned by the time he finished high school.”
“So he went to Nebraska.”
“Right, you remember that. Got a full scholarship, too. Played varsity football in his sophomore year.”
“Why’d he join the army? You never told me that.”
“One more way to stick it to his uncle, and therefore his dad,” Michael said. “See, the senator came out against the war about three years after it started. He was one of the only Republicans to go antiwar. That was about the time Husker was getting ready to graduate. He could have been an officer, too. But he went down to his local enlistment center in Nebraska and signed up. He didn’t want to be an officer. He didn’t want to go to school anymore, either.”
“So what’s this business you guys are into down in Tampa?” I was curious where Michael had gotten the money to buy such a fancy car.
“Why all the questions about business?” Michael asked. “Business is boring.”
“Well, I’m a private investigator. That’s my business. Used to be a third-grade teacher, but I’m never going back to that.”
“I remember you used to be a teacher. So now you’re a PI?”
“Pays the rent.”
Michael laughed. “Like you ever had trouble paying the rent. Say, the party’s tomorrow night. If we drive straight through, we’ll get there in plenty of time.”
“Excuse me?” I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right.
“I’m driving you to Florida, Annie. You’re coming, aren’t you?”
“I told you, I’m not going.”
“But we’re already on our way.”
“Wait a minute, you drove to Chicago? All the way from Florida?”
He gave me a look as if I worried too much. “It’s only sixteen hours. Believe me, in this car it’s an hour or two less.”
At that moment, we passed a sign that said Indiana state line, five miles. We were barely outside the Chicago city limits. I sat back in my seat and breathed deeply. Typical crazy Michael. He wanted me to drive straight through and go to his party. Which also meant spending the next sixteen hours with him.
I looked at the diamond engagement ring on my finger. I thought about my sister. He broke your heart once, and he’ll do it again. The problem was that Michael filled my heart and he filled it with longing. I wanted to spend a few more hours with him. I hadn’t had this chance in so long and it would surely never come again. It was like destiny, right down to the number of days we were separated. It was foretold in the inexorable sequence of prime numbers right up to the hundredth one. What right did I have to defy my own mathematically calculated destiny?
In my mind, I saw an image of Salvatore winding up and socking Michael in the face. He was so much bigger and heavier. It couldn’t have been a fair fight. How could he descend to the level of a fistfight?
I rubbed the diamond with my finger, as if it could make a wish come true. Salvatore was good to me. He was so kind, he loved me, and he knew how to take care of me. Michael was the embodiment of passion. With just a look from his dark eyes Michael could light a blazing fire in me. I wanted to feel that fire again. For almost two years I had longed for it, never dreaming my wish would be fulfilled. Now I sat in his car. Being in this car with him made me edgy, hungry.
“I will go to your party, but I have conditions,” I said.
“Name it.” Michael grinned as if he’d won a prize.
“You keep your hands off me.”
“You sure about that?”
“Michael, I’m engaged. I’m not throwing that away. Think what you like, that’s the way it is.”
“Just not the impression I got yesterday,” he said.
“That’s my first condition. If you don’t like it, take me home right now.”
“Fine,” he said. “I’m like a Catholic priest, now, right?”
“And I’m Sister Mary,” I said. “I’ve got another condition. I’m going to call Salvatore. I’m going to tell him I’m going to the party, and I’m going to invite him to come with.”
“No problem,” Michael said.
“I’m not very happy that you guys got into a fistfight. I’m going to tell him that. But I’m telling you, too. If you are you both at the party, I need you to grow up and get along.”
“You know me. I get along with everybody,” Michael said.
“Well, so does Salvatore. So I don’t know where this territorial aggression is coming from. But that’s my second condition.”
“Any more conditions, Annie?”
I didn’t want Michael listening in to my conversation with Salvatore. But I wasn’t about to make the call standing by the side of the highway with trucks blowing by, either.
Salvatore answered on the first ring.
“I’ve been trying to call you. Where are you?” His voice resonated with worry and anxiety.
“I guess I should’ve checked my phone. I had it on silent.”
“Are you okay? Where are you? I went to your cabin.”
“I was there.”
“Your car’s in the lot. Did you go for a run?”
“Listen, you know how you said you wouldn’t mind if I were to go to that party in Florida?”
I listened while his brain computed. “The reunion. Garcia.”
“Yeah, that one. I decided to go. There’s a lot of guys I’d like to see.”
“There’s something I’ve got to tell you, Annie. He’s crazy, your ex. He could be dangerous. I know what I’m talking about.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. It was so childish. I felt the anger boiling up in me again. These men and their testosterone. It made me furious that Salvatore thought he could beat up Michael, and then on top of it tell me he was dangerous.
“I know him better than you. I think I’ll be the judge of that,” I said, trying to keep my voice neutral.
“What? What’d he say about me?” Michael asked. He made no attempt to keep his voice down. Too late.
“Is that him? Where are you?” Salvatore’s voice went up.
“The party’s tomorrow night, so Michael offered me a ride, and, well…” This was the sticky part.
“You’re driving to Florida? Are you crazy, Annie?”
“I’m not crazy. We’re driving straight through,” I said. I didn’t like him calling me crazy. People who did that in the past, I took it personally. But I knew what he meant. Besides, my objective was to let him know I was committed. “We’re not staying overnight anywhere. It’s sixteen hours. We’ll be there by breakfast time, and then I’ll let you know the name of my motel.”
I waited for a response, but Salvatore and I both just hung on, each waiting for the other to speak. Michael kept one hand on the wheel, placid.
“We got engaged three days ago. You leave for Florida, and I don’t even get a kiss good-bye,” Salvatore finally said.
He was right, but he didn’t have to whine. “Listen, that’s the other thing. The party’s tomorrow night. Why don’t you fly down in the morning and we can go together? You and me, we’ll stay a couple of days and make a vacation out of it. You can meet all the guys I was in the army with.”
“I don’t know,” Salvatore said. I was surprised. Anything to be with me, I thought.
“Come on, you could even fly down tonight, beat me there. Find us a motel with a pool. Go to the party together.”
“It bugs me that you’re driving with him,” Salvatore said. “If you really want to know.”
“Stop worrying. See, I’ve got this big rock on my finger to remind me exactly where my future lies.” I looked at it, holding my phone with the other hand. I caught Michael stealing a glance. “Michael and I just want to catch up on old times.”
“He’s dangerous, Annie. I’ve got a big cut on my face, he gave me.”
“I can’t believe you two were fighting. If you come to the party, I hope I can count on you both to get along. I already told Michael.”
“I’m not coming,” Salvatore said.
“Think about it,” I said. “That’s what I said, too. I miss you already, you know that?”
“I miss you too.”
We hung up. After that, the car was quiet. I felt like smiling. I thought I’d walked that line pretty successfully, all things considered. I knew Salvatore must be upset, but as the Corvette ate up the Indiana miles, I just kept saying to myself, he’d get over it.