Las Vegas, Nevada, June 2012
Max Lowry heard shouting coming from inside the house before he stepped onto the porch. It didn’t matter that all the windows and doors were buttoned up tight in an attempt to keep the barely cool air from the cheap air conditioner inside the run-down north side apartment. He could still hear his father’s hoarse voice clear as day. It wasn’t even noon yet, but from the sounds of it, his old man was already in one of his foul moods.
That wasn’t surprising. A kneecapper for one of the off-strip bookmakers downtown, Carl Lowry was a mean, nasty SOB at the best of times. But when the weather got hot, his temper took an even more violent turn. Which kind of sucked for Max, his younger sister, and his mother, since they lived in Las Vegas. It was over a hundred degrees, and summer was officially still a few days away.
Max almost turned and walked away, even if that meant staying out in the stifling heat. Since graduating from high school two weeks ago, he’d been working as much as he could simply to stay out of his old man’s sight. His father had always enjoyed taking his anger out on Max and had been beating on him as far back as Max could remember. That’s why Max had pulled a twelve-hour shift at the convenience store last night, then worked another six hours this morning. He hated going home. But he was exhausted and needed to crash for a few hours or he was going to pass out. Of course, with his father acting like the a-hole he was, Max doubted he’d get any sleep—unless one of his old man’s haymakers knocked him out cold.
Max took a deep breath and grabbed the doorknob. If his dad was in the mood to punch someone, better it was him than his mom or Sarah. His sister was only fourteen and on the small side. When their father hit her, it was usually pretty bad.
As he opened the door, Max heard his mom tearfully begging his dad to calm down. Max didn’t know why she bothered. He’d pleaded with his mother to take him and his sister and leave his abusive father for years. The three of them could stay in a local shelter or even move to Oklahoma, where his mom’s family lived. Someone out there would put them up until they could get their lives together, he was sure of it. His mother wouldn’t even consider it, though. She kept thinking her bastard of a husband would change and stop smacking them around if she simply loved him enough.
The moment Max walked into the living room, he could tell his dad had been drinking. He wasn’t drunk yet. Well over six feet tall and more than 250 pounds, his father was a big man, and it took a lot of alcohol to get him smashed, but he was obviously well on his way.
His father was standing in front of his old, worn-out recliner, waving his arms around and sloshing beer from his half-full bottle all over the place, yelling something about not telling him what to do in his own damn house. Fortunately, while he seemed pretty pissed, his eyes didn’t have that red-rimmed, insane look he got when he was about to explode. This was just his normal, everyday kind of pissed.
Max’s mother didn’t even look his way. Instead, she stood there wringing her hands as her husband ranted like a madman. But his little sister saw him and flashed a quick smile to let him know she, at least, was happy to see him. It had always been the two of them against the world—or at least against their dad.
Max didn’t make it more than a few feet into the room when his father turned bloodshot eyes on him. “Where the hell have you been?”
Max almost sighed but stopped himself just in time. Sighing, rolling his eyes, hell, even looking like he had a pulse were all things his father would beat him for, and he was too damn tired to put up with that crap this morning.
“I was at work, Dad,” Max said, subtly moving closer and putting himself between his old man and Sarah, just in case.
His mom still hovered off to the side, her hands clenching and twisting together in front of her even more anxiously.
“I pulled a double shift…for a little extra money,” Max added when his father didn’t say anything.
His father’s lip curled in a sneer. “You think you’re the shit now that you’re making minimum wage down at the local Gas-and-Go? You think you’re better than me because you have a little change in your pocket?”
Max shook his head, hoping he could somehow defuse the situation, but when he saw his dad’s face turn red and his eyes get that crazy look, he knew it was too late. Dad had been looking for an excuse, and he’d found it.
Max didn’t bother trying to avoid the blow coming his way. It would just enrage his old man more than he already was, which would make the beating that much worse.
His father’s fist caught him square on the jaw, knocking his head sideways so hard little strobe lights exploded behind his eyes. There were times in the past when a shot like that would have put him out cold. But he wasn’t a little kid anymore. He wasn’t as big as his dad, of course, but he was nearly 190 pounds, most of it muscle. It still hurt to get punched in the face, but he could take it a lot better than when he was younger. Max ignored the pain, refusing to reach up and wipe away the blood running down his chin. Instead, he glared at the piece of crap in front of him, unwilling to retreat even when his old man took a threatening step toward him.
“You think you’re tough now because you finished high school and got a job? I’ll show you tough, you little punk.”
Maybe that was why his father hated him so much. Maybe he was pissed at Max because Max had graduated high school. Something the big, tough Carl Lowry had never done. His dad had always crowed about never finishing fifth grade, like he was proud of it, but now Max guessed that wasn’t so true.
His dad cocked his fist back, and Max knew he was probably going to be pissing blood after this one—if he lived through it.
A flash of movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention; then Sarah was latching on to their father’s right arm. “Daddy, stop it! Please, just stop it!”
Max wasn’t sure how it was possible, but everything slowed down right then. At first, his old man seemed shocked, but then his face darkened, and Max realized this situation had suddenly taken a very bad turn.
His mother must have figured that out, too, because she lifted her hand and placed it on his dad’s shoulder, tugging at him tentatively. “Baby, don’t…”
But it was too late for any of that. His father yanked his arm away from Sarah and backhanded her across the face. She flew backward, bouncing off the living room wall with a cry of pain. Eyes full of tears, she reached up to cover her bloody nose with her hand, sinking to the floor.
Their father grabbed her by the shirt and yanked her back to her feet, his face a mask of rage. “Don’t you ever try that shit again, you hear me?”
His voice was so loud Max was sure the neighbors heard. Not that they’d do anything. Shouting was a common occurrence around here.
His mother swallowed hard, her trembling hands tightly clasped in front of her now like she was praying.
Max refused to wait for God to come down to stop his dad. He’d said those same prayers often enough to know that no help was coming—heavenly or otherwise.
Hooking one arm around his old man’s shoulders, he yanked him away from his sister, slinging him as far across the room as he could manage. His father almost stumbled over the recliner but caught his balance quickly. Eyes wild, he charged at Max with a yell.
Max might have been scared as hell, but he stood his ground. He couldn’t let his dad hurt Sarah, not again.
His father swung first. Max jerked back so the blow barely grazed his chin, then went on the offensive. He’d never hit his dad before, and when his fist connected with his old man’s face, pain shot through his wrist and up his arm. He ignored it and swung again, then again. He kept swinging, forcing his dad back toward the recliner.
Max wasn’t sure how many times he hit his father, but when he finally felt someone clutching his shoulder, he looked over to see his mom standing there, tears streaming down her face. Breathing as hard as if he’d run a race, Max slowly turned his attention back to his father. His old man was half-sprawled on the recliner, his ugly face a bloody mess.
Max stared down at him, wondering what the hell to do now. It wasn’t like he could act like none of this had ever happened. He’d just beat the shit out of his old man.
His mother pushed past him with a sob, dropping to her knees beside the chair to check on his dad. His father shoved her away, knocking her back on the floor. Climbing to his feet, he pushed past Max and headed toward the bedroom.
Max sidestepped his mother, where she kneeled on the floor, looking lost and confused, and hurried over to check on Sarah.
His sister was sitting back against the wall, pinching her nose closed as she tried to stop the bleeding. Damn, her nose was almost certainly broken. He was going to have to get her to a hospital, though he had no idea how to explain why she’d ended up this way. There was an outreach clinic over on Owens Avenue. Maybe they wouldn’t ask too many questions.
“Can you stand?” he whispered. “I have to get you out of here.”
Sarah nodded, letting him help her up. He’d just slipped his arm around her waist and turned to lead her to the door when the look of terror on his mother’s face made him freeze.
Max snapped his head around in time to see his father coming into the room, his face still covered in blood and a big gun in his hand. It took Max a second to comprehend what the hell was happening, and by then, his old man was pulling the trigger.
Max shoved Sarah aside, then lunged at his father. He had to get the gun away from his old man before he shot his sister.
Two bullets zipped past Max before the third hit him in the stomach. All the air went out of him, and he stumbled, forcing himself to keep moving, churning his feet and refusing to think about what the pain in his gut meant.
As he tackled his father, Max felt another round clip his right hip. He ignored that stab of pain, too, focusing every bit of energy on getting his hands on the gun. They struggled on the floor, slamming into the walls, the furniture, and each other. His father cursed, promising Max he was going to kill him.
The gun went off twice while they were grappling over it. Max had no idea where the bullets went. One or both of them could have hit him for all he knew. He only prayed Sarah had gotten out of the way.
Max grit his teeth, feeling the strength leaking out of him along with his blood. Before long, his father started wearing him down. Then his old man was on top of him, crushing him to the floor and twisting the gun out of Max’s grasp and aiming it at Max’s head.
Max lashed out with his right fist, his left hand reaching for the barrel of the gun at the same time. He didn’t realize he’d hit his father in the throat until his old man started coughing. But none of that mattered. The only thing Max cared about was getting the barrel of the weapon away from his head. Max grabbed the gun with both hands and shoved it away from him just as it went off again.
His father collapsed on top of him, crushing out what little air remained in his lungs. Max tried to gasp for more, but his chest wasn’t working right, and no air would come. His fingers were numb and slippery with blood, and he couldn’t hold on to the gun anymore. He braced himself, sure his father would jerk the pistol free and put a bullet in his head, but there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.
Instead, his father rolled off him, onto the dirty carpet with a loud thud, blood staining the front of his shirt.
As he lay there on the floor gasping for air, Max realized the nightmare was finally over. Well, as over as it could be, considering he’d killed his own father and was slowly bleeding out on the living room rug.
Then he heard the pitiful sounds of his mother crying in that same gut-wrenching way she always did after Dad had beaten her, Sarah, and him. At least the piece of shit would never be able to do that to any of them ever again.
Max tried to call Sarah’s name, but he didn’t have enough air to get his throat to work. Having no other choice, he slowly rolled over, grunting as pain that hadn’t been there before ripped through his body. Ignoring the dizziness, he pushed himself up on his hands and knees, then closed his eyes as blackness washed back and forth across his vision, teasing him with the possibility of passing out. When the wave of weakness finally receded, he opened his eyes again. What he saw stopped him cold.
Sarah lay on the floor unmoving, blood running down the side of her head.
Their mother kneeled beside her, hands clasped together as she rocked back and forth, sobbing. When she wasn’t staring blindly at his sister, she was glancing over at Max’s father.
Tears filling his eyes, Max forced himself forward, needing to check on his sister. Sarah was only a few feet away, but it still seemed to take forever to get to her.
“Call the police,” he told his mother, the words barely audible.
She turned her gaze on him but didn’t move. “What have you done?” she whispered over and over.
Max wasn’t sure whom she was referring to with that question. It could have been him, his father, maybe even herself.
Even though he knew it was too late, Max took Sarah’s slender wrist in his hand and felt for a pulse. One of their father’s stray bullets had hit her in the temple. Sarah had never had a chance.
One moment, Max was holding her wrist, wondering what chance either of them ever had. The next, he collapsed to the floor beside her. Everything around him was getting fuzzy when the police kicked open the door and charged in, weapons swinging back and forth in search of a threat.
Max would have laughed if he could. One of the neighbors must have called when they heard the fighting getting loud. If the cops had gotten there a few minutes earlier, maybe it would have mattered. Now they were just here for the cleanup.
Max was still marveling at how rare it was for the cops to show up in this part of town at all when the blackness folded in on him and he hurried to catch up to his sister.