I’m fucking freezing as the wind whips off the ocean. I can just barely make out the waves roll, crest, and slam down onto the soaked, hard-packed sand. I fidget, narrowing my eyes as a cloud drifts in front of the moon, obscuring the light, shoving the entire shoreline into darkness.
I sigh and stretch, trying to keep myself calm. I don’t know how the fuck I ended up out on the beach in the middle of the night. I never should’ve answered Isaac’s call three days ago, and I definitely never should’ve agreed to this bullshit to begin with.
They’re late. That’s the real problem. I can handle fighting on the beach at two in the morning, it’s no big fucking deal. I’ve done it before. But I can’t handle them being late, leaving me standing around like a moron. I’m supposed to be meeting with Vinny D, this local guy that films all these fights and makes serious bank by putting them on YouTube. They look all lo-res and shaky and bullshit, like he just happened to stumble up on it, but really it’s all faked, from the start to the finish. I’ve fought for Vinny a few times, and he’s normally a legit guy, very stand-up, at least as much as you can be in the street fighting business.
I was surprised when Isaac told me that Vinny asked for me specifically. Isaac is a huckster, a classic con man, although not a talented one. He’s charming as all hell and pretty smart, like every con man in history, but he’s greedy while simultaneously too small-minded. He thinks tiny, can’t see the big picture, and his cons usually end up going to shit before he can collect a dime. He doesn’t give up though, that Isaac, you gotta give it to him.
And there are plenty of marks in the rich ass beach town of Avalon, New Jersey.
I’m getting jittery. It’s been a half hour. Vinny knows I’m retired, or at least I haven’t been fighting for almost a year now. I’m doing this as a favor to him and Isaac and for no other reason, but the bastard’s standing me up. I’m starting to seriously think about turning around and heading back to my apartment where a nice cold six-pack is waiting for me. I can crack one open, crawl into bed, and see if I can’t slide into some DMs and maybe get a booty call over. It’s an appealing thought, and I’m practically turning around to walk away, when two figures start shambling toward me over the sand.
I stand there, eyes narrowed. It’s dark as hell, pitch-black really, with the moon behind the clouds. Both figures are in black hooded sweatshirts pulled up tight around their skinny bodies. They spot me and start walking faster, coming directly toward me. I figure these are Vinny’s guys, maybe here to tell me that the shoot’s off, or that Vinny’s on his way with my opponent. I almost hope they’re going to say the shoot’s off, because I’m cold and sore and I don’t feel like beating the piss out of some stranger for a few thousand dollars tonight.
I almost get my wish. The two figures stop short, and the moon drifts out from behind the clouds, lighting up their faces. The figure on the right is a guy, shorter than me, wiry with fast-blinking eyes and a twitchy frame. He’s chewing his lip like he’s confused about something.
The other figure draws more attention. It takes me a second to realize that it’s a girl, a very pretty girl. She’s wrapped in that sweatshirt, the hood pulled up tight, but I can just make out a hint of dark, thick, wavy hair and full lips. My eyes gaze down her body, taking it in, but I don’t have a chance to check her out.
“You the guy?” the man barks at me.
I slowly look back at him. “Excuse me?”
“You the fucking guy?” He’s looking around, clearly agitated. The girl’s hopping between her feet. I realize that what I originally mistook for a shadow under her left eye is actually a bruise, dark and purpled, relatively fresh.
I get a bad feeling. I step a few feet closer to the pair, my hands in the air. Clearly they think I’m someone I’m not.
“I don’t know who you’re looking for, but it ain’t me,” I say.
The guy stares at me. “I was told he’d be here, right fucking here, waiting right fucking now. How are you not the guy?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say. “Did Vinny send you?”
“Vinny? Who the fuck is Vinny?”
The guy’s clearly on something, tweaked out and twitching. His eyes widen and narrow, widen and narrow, jittering in his skull. The girl’s gaze is clean and cold, almost sober and analytical.
“I think you’re mistaking me for someone else.” I want to turn and walk away, but I know better than that.
You don’t turn your back on a feral fuckin’ dog.
“I don’t think so, asshole. He said you’d be here, right here, right now. Fucking shit, I brought it, so why are you fucking around? You’re the fucking guy, right?”
I step a little closer, hands in the air, and give him a charming smile. The girl steps back, frowning a little. Smart girl.
“Look, friend, you’re making a mistake, okay?”
“You’re making a fucking mistake.” The gun comes out in a blur. He pulls it from the voluminous folds of his oversized hoodie, whipping it out and up, aimed above my head at first. It’s enormous, a six-shooter with a heavy hammer, the sort of fucking thing you see in action movies.
He goes to correct his aim but I don’t give him the chance. I know how this goes. That trigger is heavy and that hammer’s not cocked, so I have maybe half a second to close the distance before he can pull it back. Chances are he’ll miss, or maybe he’ll blow my skull into smithereens. Either way, I’m probably dead if I don’t do something.
I move on instinct, closing the gap as he overcorrects, bringing the gun down. I’m too slow, damn fucking sand, as he pulls the trigger, the pitch night explodes as the goddamn hand cannon bucks back, fire spraying from the muzzle. The bullet misses, whizzing past my ear as I finally reach him, thankful I’m not some mess of blood and gore on the sand, killed by some moron tweaker high out of his skull.
I grab his gun hand, moving my body out of the line of fire, and jam my elbow into his throat. He croaks and I twitch his wrist, forcing him to drop the gun as he gasps out in pain, unable to scream. He scrabbles back as I drop down to the sand and find the gun.
I turn and expect him to run, but he doesn’t. I don’t know why, but he comes at me, eyes wild. The girl stands nearby, staring at us like it’s no big thing. The guy comes at me and I flip the gun, using the butt to try and smack him in the shoulder. He takes the blow with a grunt and smashes into me, and although he’s a skinny little bastard, I slip on the damn sand and we go tumbling.
“Fuck,” I grunt and he growls at me. I feel him sink his teeth into my shoulder. I yell again and bash him in the back with the gun. He groans and I shove him off me, but he’s not finished. He scrabbles at me, reaching for the gun.
“Stop, fucking idiot,” I say, but he’s not listening. He grabs my wrist and his other hand pries at my fingers, his body directly in front of the weapon, the barrel pointed at his chest. I don’t know what the fuck he’s thinking. “Fucking idiot, stop,” I grunt, as he struggles.
I feel it happen before I hear it, deafening and horrible. The gun kicks in my hand as the bullet tears through his sternum, blood spattering against my face. He stumbles and falls backwards, a smattering of blood on his lips, his chest a caved-in mess of something that used to resemble a human.
I stare at the guy, but he doesn’t last long. He’s dead a few seconds later, gasping once, twice, blood pumping and slowly stopping as his heart finishes its long journey and starts another one.
I’m a guilty man.
I’ve done things. I’ve stolen, cheated, lied. I’ve fucked around on women, on a lot of fucking women. I’ve beaten men into a pulp with my bare hands just to make some money. When I’m weighed and judged, I’ll be found guilty, there’s no doubt in my mind.
But up until this moment, I’ve never killed a man. I’ve never taken a life, and I never, ever wanted to.
Lots of guys brag about that. They want to sound hard, sound like real killers just to get some shred of respect. I’ve never had to, I’ve always let my fighting do the talking for me. Now that I’m retired and trying to turn my fucked-up life around, I thought I was past all this. I thought this was just one last fight, one last favor for a friend before I hang it up forever and walk away.
But I guess a man like me never can walk away forever.
I stare down at the body in front of me before I remember the girl. I look up slowly, the gun still in my hand. She’s staring at me, not moving a muscle. I can’t read the expression on her face. I think it’s part anger and part revulsion and part pure ecstasy. It confuses me, and I let the gun drop to the sand.
“Fuck,” I whisper, and more loudly, “that was a mistake.”
She just stares, not moving. I put my hands up again and move toward her.
“You saw it. He did that to himself. I didn’t want to hurt him, and I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Stay away from me.”
Her voice is low and I can barely hear her over the ocean’s pounding. The moon drifts behind the clouds again and her face is obscured, but I caught a glimpse of her eyes before it went. Green, emerald green, and cold as ice.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” I say, not really sure why I’m repeating myself, not sure why I’m walking toward her. She’s rooted in place, not moving a single muscle, but I can tell she’s ready to flee at any moment. She’s like a gazelle sensing a predator, waiting for her chance to spring into action and escape certain danger.
Her chance comes a moment later, when police sirens blare nearby.
“Shit,” I say. The sirens can’t be far, and they’re getting closer. “We have to go.”
“We?” She shakes her head, moving away. “Stay away.”
She turns and runs. She’s surprisingly fast, and for a second, I think about letting her go. She’s innocent in all this, just a bystander as far as I’m concerned. She didn’t get involved when her junkie boyfriend, or whoever he was to her, came at me with that gun.
But I can’t. I’m just getting my life together, finally piecing the shitstorm that’s been my existence into some semblance of a normal day to day, and I can’t risk her getting caught. She’ll dime me out, sure as anything, and I’ll go to jail for a long time for killing that junkie fuck by accident. Self-defense doesn’t matter, not when you have a rap sheet like mine.
I catch her halfway toward the exit. She struggles as I grab her arm, spinning her toward me. She’s fierce, but I’m stronger, easily twice her weight. I grab her and pull her along behind me.
“Come on, we have to run,” I say.
“What are you doing? Get off me.”
“The cops are coming for us. You think you can get away on your own?”
“Screw you. I can try.”
I stop and look at her, hand gripping her arm hard. She doesn’t wince. “You’ll fuck up, and I’ll burn. Either run with me or I’ll carry you.”
She doesn’t decide fast enough. I lunge and swoop her up, throwing her over my shoulder. She yelps and pounds on my back but I’m off and sprinting down the sand.
We pass by the body but I don’t spare it a thought. I keep moving, chest heaving, lungs pulling in salt-and-sand air. She struggles on my back for another minute but finally goes still, accepting that she’s not going anywhere. I keep moving as lights appear on the beach near where we were, almost right on fucking top of us. How the hell did they know to look right there? That gunshot would’ve sounded like it came from a million place echoing off the dunes and the nearby houses. There’s no way anyone saw us either, not in this moonless night, not at this time.
And yet the cops seemed to know exactly where to go.
I keep moving. Every inch of my body is screaming for me to stop but it’s just pain. I can tolerate pain. Hell, sometimes I want pain. I want to be reminded that I can overcome it and move past it, that pain doesn’t define who I am or what I do. Pain isn’t my master.
The houses tick past as we move up to the higher streets. The buildings right along the water’s edge are multimillion dollar homes, the sort of palatial places most of us won’t ever get to be inside. They’re the real people in Avalon, the real people anyone ever cares about. The cops come running when they call, but when a gutter rat like me or this girl slung over my shoulder needs help, suddenly they’re busy. Just the way it is in Avalon.
I finally reach a high enough number. My apartment’s not far from here, and we can make it if we’re careful. But there are streetlights up ahead and I can’t be running around with a girl slung over my shoulder like this.
I finally stop, breathing heavy, and put her down. We probably ran a couple miles, maybe more. She looks back at me, arms crossed.
“You gotta come with me,” I say.
“Why would I do that?”
“If you don’t, I’ll kill you.” It’s a lie and I feel like I’m puking as the words come up my throat, but I don’t have time to convince her.
Something flashes in her eyes. “You left the gun behind,” she says softly.
Shit. She’s right about that. And my fingerprints are going to be all over it.
“Come on,” I say. “You gonna give me trouble?”
She hesitates a second, watching, that pretty face calculating. “No,” she says finally. “I won’t.”
I grab her hand and hold it tight. Her palm’s warm and a little sweaty as we head up toward the street, my heart hammering fast.
I don’t know how I ended up here, hand-in-hand with some strange girl, but there’s no going back. We’re in this together, whether she wants to be or not.