CADE HAGEN - MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Cade lives in Las Vegas with his wife and one-year-old daughter. He teaches writing at UNLV and is a hot-sauce connoisseur, craft-beer enthusiast, and guitar teacher.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Jackson took a ten from his wallet and placed it in the bucket, specifically above the four singles already there. Megan had deposited the four dollars to kick things off, but ones encouraged people to donate ones. Fives were still too small, but twenties intimidated. Tens were perfect. The logic was elementary, but the difference it made was monumental. That’s what Jackson’s older brother, Willson, told him.
Megan and Luke stood behind Jackson, setting up the canopy tent. Las Vegas summers boiled and shade was a must. The Albertsons supermarket before them offered no awning, so they had come prepared. Willson had insisted. He didn’t want his little brother getting heat stroke.
People had been scarce up to this point, but that was to be expected, Willson said. It was Saturday, but it was still early. Jackson looked at his watch. Eight twenty-two. Shopper density would increase in the afternoon. They would remain outside of Albertsons until six p.m., or until they reached their goal of six hundred dollars, whichever came first. They would sit at a folding table beneath the pine green canopy, rising at the approach of customers, thrusting buckets before them as humble invitations to each shopper to enrich his or her life by making a difference.
That was the name of the foundation: “Make a Difference.” They had taped small flyers with those words encapsulated within a glowing halo to their bucket. Megan and Luke would tape a poster with that same logo to the front of the table once they finished the canopy. A stack of flyers that included a short blurb about the foundation’s cause and its impact to date, along with directions to the foundation’s website for further reading, would sit atop the table. One for each donor. People liked to have information about their altruism. More than that, Willson said, they liked tangible evidence to give to their friends and to their neighborhood tax collectors.
A car door in the parking lot slammed shut, and its driver, an athletic middle-aged woman with blond streaks in her hair and cross-trainers on her feet, headed toward the store.
“You’re up, Jacks,” Megan said as she and Luke unfolded the table.
Jackson took a deep breath, squinted in the sunlight, and smiled.
“Hello, ma’am,” he said, insinuating himself between her and the door. “My name is Jackson Bennett, and I’m here representing the Make a Difference Foundation. May I please have a brief moment of your time?”
Jackson continued to smile and raised his eyebrows, simultaneously innocent and expectant. He knew his politeness earned incalculable points. Adults anticipated from teenagers a snotty tone and a general indifference to the world outside of themselves. They expected sagging pants, side-cocked hats, and T-shirts brandishing offensive logos. When met with Jackson, a courteous, articulate, and socially conscious fifteen-year-old in a Polo shirt and appropriately fitting khaki pants, they were so taken aback that they would afford their only slightly begrudging attention.
“Sure,” the woman said, stifling the evolutionary impulse to wave Jackson off.
“I’m hoping to collect donations for the foundation. Did you know that nineteen percent of America’s teenagers either currently live or have lived on the street?”
Eighty-one percent of statistics are made up on the spot, said Willson.
“Wow.” The woman’s interest was spiked. Statistics do that. Her presence was now less begrudging. “Nineteen percent? Really?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jackson said, gaining momentum. “The Make a Difference Foundation has shelters around the country to temporarily house these teenagers. We have specially trained counselors who help reunite them with their parents, or, if the parents are incapable of caring for them, the counselors broker relationships between the teenagers and the state to help get them into safer and more permanent living situations.”
Two more shoppers walked past Jackson and the woman during his speech. Neither Luke nor Megan approached them. They occupied themselves with taping the poster to the table.
“Well. That sounds like…a really good cause.” The woman nodded. Jackson inched the bucket closer to her. The woman’s hand absently brushed her purse. “Oh, yes. Well. I don’t have any cash on me right now.”
Jackson left his eyebrows in his forehead. Innocent and expectant.
“Tell you what. I’ll withdraw some cash at the register after I finish shopping and catch you on my way out.”
“Thank you so much for your generosity, ma’am.”
The woman touched Jackson’s shoulder and smiled before retreating into the store. He felt a stir.
“You think she’ll actually give you something?” Luke asked. The table was erected beneath the shade of the canopy. Luke and Megan sat next to Jackson’s vacant chair.
“She has to. She’d be too embarrassed to walk by and not give anything after she said she would.”
“And after she rubbed your shoulder,” Megan said, performing an exaggerated imitation of the rub on Luke.
Jackson felt another stir of an entirely different sort. In these moments, he hated Luke, who, in other moments, was, more or less, his best friend. But how else should he feel? Megan and Luke were dating, after all, and Jackson was in love with Megan.
At least, he was as much as any fifteen-year-old could be. He had loved her since he met her six months earlier when she walked into his math class, late for her first day in a new school. He loved the way the teacher, Mrs. Bell, had scowled at the bronze ring that dangled from Megan’s nose like a cartoon bull’s, at the neon blue streak in her hair that would continually change color (now purple), and at the skin-tight camo pants tucked into scuffed combat boots (which she had graciously now abandoned in favor of ballet flats). Before, after, and during school, she smoked cigarettes—not cloves, like most teenagers, but real, honest-to-goodness tobacco cigarettes. Sometimes she smoked menthols, and when she did, Jackson’s head swam. The sickly sweet, mint-laced tobacco accented her organic, pubescent pheromones and created an aromatic cocktail that made him nauseous and horny. All he wanted was for her to breathe on him, to blow directly into his nostrils. The urge was repulsive, he knew, but it existed nonetheless.
Jackson thought that it was for all these reasons he loved her, but there was something more. Something of which he was unaware, and wouldn’t have understood or acknowledged even if he were aware. She made him feel dangerous, plainly and purely. He didn’t know that he needed to feel dangerous, but when that unconscious craving was fulfilled, he felt good. He felt significant. Her very presence, and the fact that a girl like her would award him her attention, made him feel, frankly, like a badass. And people respected badasses.
“Oh, yeah,” Luke said, leaning into Megan’s hand and adjusting his body until she was rubbing his chest. “Just like that. Okay, now move down a little. Lower, lower. Warmer. A little lower. Almost there….”
And then there was Luke. Tall—awkwardly, gangly so, Jackson thought—with small feet, an easy smile, and a unique ability to take nothing seriously. He wore V-neck shirts brazened with images of Johnny Cash and The Who (Pink Floyd today), ultra soft and pre-faded, intended to give the impression of introspective and romantic poverty but costing upwards of forty bucks a pop. Jackson knew the prices; he had been shopping with Luke. Megan had been immediately spell-struck by him, as were most girls at their school. Jackson believed that if Megan had a downfall, it was her infantile adoration of Luke. Prior to Megan’s appearance in their lives, Jackson had never viewed girls’ adoration of Luke as infantile. Sure, he had been accordingly jealous, though never spiteful. But now, he was spiteful. He spited both of them for it.
“Someone’s coming,” Jackson said, desperate for something—anything—to keep Megan from giving Luke a handjob right there under the table. “One of you guys do this one. I’m not taking them all.”
“Cock-block,” Luke said, rising. Turning toward Megan, he said, “Take notes, sugar tits.”
Jackson’s eye twitched when he heard “sugar tits.”
Luke took the bucket from Jackson and moved between the door and the approaching shopper, a younger woman, blonde hair hastily tied back in a pony-tail and a face devoid of makeup. She held the hand of a stumbling toddler, half leading him and half dragging him. His cheeks were red and swollen, evidence of a recent crying fit.
“Excuse me,” Luke said with a finger lifted in the classic check please gesture. “Hey, there. Uh, ma’am. I’m representing the foundation of making differences.” He pointed to the flyer taped to his empty bucket. “Oh. I mean the Make a Difference Foundation.”
“Okay,” the woman said. Her son’s eyes flickered between Luke’s shoes and his face. The boy, seemingly as nervous as Luke, slowly collapsed into himself.
“Well, you see. We—the foundation, I mean—help these teens find homes. Permanent ones. So they can be, uh, safe.” He pushed the bucket toward the woman.
She stared blankly, melting into impatience. “What teens?”
“The ones on the streets. Oh.” He paused, looked at Jackson, and looked back at the woman. “Did you know that sixteen percent of teenagers are homeless?” He looked down and smiled at the boy, who, if possible, collapsed even further into himself.
“No, I didn’t know that.” She stooped over and picked up her son, whose eyes were now firmly affixed on Luke’s shoes. Milk stains framed the boy’s mouth and crusted the collar of his Angry Birds T-shirt. “Listen, I have a lot to do today. Good luck with the teens.”
She disappeared behind the automatic door and into the store. Megan grinned.
“Nice one!” She flashed two exaggerated thumbs-up. “Okay,” she said, writing on an invisible notepad. “So first, forget the name of the foundation. Then, you confuse the shit out of her by talking about homes for teens without telling her anything about homelessness. Then, give her son a creepy ass smile and scare her into the store, where she is now probably talking to a security guard. Sound about right?”
“Whatever,” Luke said, dropping the bucket onto the table. “I was just getting warmed up.”
Another shopper trudged toward the store. A twenty-something guy in gray, mesh athletic shorts that flapped above angular calves. Megan rose.
“I got this one.” She tenderly brushed nonexistent flakes of lint from her breasts as she approached the man. “Hello, sir. My name is Megan. Can I have a moment of your time?”
The man slowed, looked at the door, then back to Megan, who was now biting her lip. He stopped, smiled. “Sure.”
“Did you know that twenty-seven percent of teens in this country are currently living on the streets?”
“Twenty-seven percent,” he repeated, struggling to keep his eyes above Megan’s chest. “Wow.”
“Yeah. Wow.” She twisted a finger through her length of purple hair. “I’m collecting money on behalf of the Make a Difference Foundation. With a small donation,” she paused, leaned forward, and put a hand that was at once both seductive and melodramatic on the entranced man’s shoulder, “you can make a huge difference for these teens.”
“A donation?” He looked down at Megan’s fifteen year-old hand on his shoulder and cleared his throat. “Yeah, I can do that.”
Megan gestured toward the bucket. The man reached into his pocket and extracted a twenty.
“Thank you so much,” Megan said, returning her hand to his shoulder, rubbing slightly. “We have flyers here if you want to read about the foundation.”
“No.” He again eyed the hand on his shoulder. “That’s okay. Good luck.”
“And that,” Megan said after the man was inside the door, “is how it’s done.”
“Bullshit,” Luke said. “You can’t collect donations with boobs and lip biting. Not fair.”
“Whatever gets the job done.”
Two girls headed toward the store, both wearing sorority shirts flashing raised, incandescent Greek letters. One wore shorts with a lack of material that would have been sufficient to earn her a trip to the dean’s office at their school, and the other wore yoga pants with the Bebe logo printed across the butt.
“I’ll show you how to get the job done.” Luke picked up the bucket, now with a twenty above the preexisting fourteen dollars, and strolled toward the girls, a comically overdone bounce in his step. “Hey, ladies. Oh, Delta Theta Pi? Cool, cool. Yeah, my ex-girlfriend was in that sorority.”
“I’m sure she was,” Short-Shorts said, not slowing.
“Yeah,” he said, now trailing behind them. “She told me about some wild parties. Anyway, I’m here with the Making Differences Group—”
“We’re kind of in a hurry,” Yoga Pants said. “Maybe next time.”
The door closed and Luke stopped. His disarming charm apparently worked only on girls under seventeen.
Megan’s invisible notebook reappeared.
“Whatever,” Luke said. “They were obviously dykes.”
“Obviously dykes,” Megan said, writing furiously with her invisible pen.
“Come on, man,” Jackson said. “Willson told you what to say. This isn’t a joke. Take it seriously. I mean, you didn’t even wear a Polo. Willson said people don’t want to give money to teenagers who look like teenagers.”
“Whatever.” Luke dug his hand into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled pack of Camels.
“What the fuck? Are you serious with that? You’re gonna smoke, right here in front of the store, in front of everybody? Are you fucking stupid? What do you think Willson would say?”
“Shit, Jackson,” Luke said, Camels still in hand. “I’m tired of hearing about ‘Willson said, Willson said.’ Where the hell is Willson right now? Why are we the ones out here doing all the work if this is so important to him?”
“You know he can’t be here right now.” Jackson paused. “He’s going to try to come later.”
“Later. Right.” Luke extracted a cigarette and popped it between his lips. He patted his pockets. “Shit. You gotta light, sweet nips?”
“Don’t call Jackson sweet nips in front of me,” Megan said, folding her arms. “It makes me jealous.”
Megan and Luke grinned.
“Ha ha. Yeah, great. It’s all a fucking joke. At least smoke behind the store.”
Luke didn’t move.
“Please?” Jackson said.
“I’m coming, too.” Megan rose. “I could use a smoke. You mind, Jackson?”
Yes, I mind, he thought.
“Whatever,” he said.
Jackson wished Willson were there. Then he wouldn’t have to deal with Luke’s shit on his own. Luke wouldn’t talk to him like that in front of Willson. He wouldn’t pull out a pack of Camels and try to smoke in front of everyone like a moron. He could say and do what he wanted behind Willson’s back, but never in front of Willson. Why? Because Willson broke his knuckles on people’s faces. He had tattoos. He drove a fucking motorcycle.
Willson was a badass, and people respected badasses.
“We should turn down the TV.”
“This is good.” A cloud of smoke obscured Willson’s head before dissipating. “Where’d you get it?”
“My friend, Luke.” Jackson said. “You’ve met him.”
Willson frowned, thinking, the joint slowly burning down between his fingers. “Gangly dude?”
“Yeah, I guess he’s kind of lanky.” Jackson craned his neck and looked down the hallway. “We should turn down the TV.”
“Where’s he buy?”
“Some kid at school. I think his name’s Brian. Or Brent. Something like that. Never met him.”
Willson grunted, toked. Sparse, post-teen but pre-man stubble circled his mouth. A hole in his black Fender T-shirt showed his pointed collarbone. Willson, like Luke, could be described as lanky, but in a distinctly different way. Whereas Luke looked as if he might lose his balance if a semi drove past him going more than thirty, Willson was compact with sharp, dangerous edges. He was a spring-loaded compression of potential energy, waiting for a reason to go kinetic. His presence unnerved most, but not Jackson. Jackson knew he would never experience kinetic Willson.
The TV in front of them, the only light in their living room, cast ever-changing shadows on Willson’s face, adding depth to his edges. They watched Back to the Future 3. The weed accentuated Doc Brown’s erraticism. Willson passed the joint to Jackson.
“You can finish it,” he said.
“I’m good. We really should turn down the TV, though.”
On the screen, Marty McFly rubbed his rope-burned throat while Doc asked him what idiot dressed him in his pink cowboy outfit.
Willson shrugged, said “eh,” and laid the joint amidst dozens of blackened scorch marks on the chipped wooden coffee table. He chugged the rest of his 7-Up and placed the empty cup upside down over the joint, cutting off the oxygen and suffocating the flame. Waste not, want not.
Popcorn kernels jabbed Jackson on his back. Anyone sitting on their couch with exposed skin ran the constant risk of having food scraps embedded in his skin. He leaned forward and dusted the back cushion with his hand. They had a vacuum at one point, but it was long enough in the past that Jackson couldn’t quite picture it. It might’ve been green with a clear body through which you could watch a vortex of dust spin. Or it might’ve been red with a cloth bag and a retractable power cord. Jackson didn’t know. But it had existed at one point. That he knew.
He rose from couch and grabbed his empty cup from the coffee table. Willson lifted his own cup from above the now flameless joint. “Fill me up.”
A successful walk from the living room to the fridge usually required sobriety, of which Jackson had just enough to make his walk marginally successful. He sidestepped piles of clothes and shoes, he kicked aside an overturned kitchen chair, but he bashed his shin against the corner of a cardboard box filled with license plates.
“Yeah! When is she gonna get rid of this shit? What the hell is she gonna do with a box of license plates?”
“Why does she do anything she does,” Willson said.
It wasn’t a question, it was a mantra.
“Stupid fucking useless license...” Jackson continued to mumble inaudibly while he opened the fridge. The 7-Up was almost gone—enough only for one. He filled one cup with 7-Up and the other with water from the sink. He threw the empty soda bottle in the direction of the garbage can but missed wildly. It didn’t matter. The stack of soaked coffee grounds, milk jugs, pizza boxes, ramen packets, and cigarette cartons reached a good two feet above the rim of the can. Had Jackson’s aim been more careful, the soda bottle would have bounced off the top and onto the floor where it now lay anyway, so why bother?
“Here.” Jackson handed Willson the 7-Up and returned to his spot on the couch.
“Thanks.” He gestured to the TV. “See, I think this is what makes the series so fucking great. Look at Doc chase down Clara. I mean, the guy’s a scientist. He’s like, brilliant, but look at him! Look at him ride, man.”
Jackson didn’t respond, didn’t need to. Willson wouldn’t have heard him. He leaned forward, shaking his head, entranced by Doc Brown’s heroism. Willson was often entranced, was more entranceable than anyone Jackson had ever met or would ever meet. He experienced moments entirely and singularly, shut out the distractions and focused on that one thing, whether it was Doc Brown or Kubla Khan or The Animaniacs. He erected a nearly impenetrable fortress around his attention. Often he spoke through the fortress, sometimes coherently, sometimes when he was alone. His fortress only allowed sound to exit, though, and any response to him would go completely unnoticed. Jackson envied that quality. He was always too aware.
“Why does it smell like fucking skunk in here?”
Jackson knew they should’ve turned down the TV.
“We talked about this shit. I don’t want it in my house. You little fucks want to waste your lives, do it somewhere else!”
Their mom stumbled from her bedroom into the living room and parked in front of the TV. The room darkened as she eclipsed the screen. Her ancient relic of a bathrobe hung open, the sash lost long ago. Beneath it, a grey tank top that might once have been black struggled to keep her stretch-marked belly beneath its tired fibers. Alfredo sauce, pizza sauce, Beefaroni sauce, and a dozen other mystery sauces stained the purple sweatpants that she had cut into shorts. Her right foot stood hidden inside an ashy green slipper, but her left foot was naked, obscene and sallow, toenails cracked and yellow. The skin on her face was pale, almost clear. She hadn’t been out of the house in at least a week, probably longer. She and the sun were strangers to each other. Seeing her like this, Jackson wondered, as he often did, what his and Willson’s fathers, Jack and Will (Jack-son, Will-son—ha ha, clever, right?), must have been like to bed a woman like her.
She looked at the coffee table and saw the joint. She lunged for it. Willson was faster. She pointed a crooked finger at him.
“Throw it away,” she said. “Throw it away!”
Willson didn’t flinch. “Go back to your room. We’ll turn down the TV.” His voice was even, calm.
“I don’t give a shit about the TV.” Her voice slurred, struggling with the transitions between consonants and vowels. “I’m sick of having hophead losers for sons. I don’t want it in my house. Throw it away!”
“Take a pill, and go to bed.”
“Oh, I should take a pill? And where should I get that pill, Willson?” She threw an empty prescription bottle onto the coffee table. It bounced once and rolled onto the floor. Jackson didn’t have to look at it to know that the description read Lortab. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’ve been doing. Selling my pills to the kids outside of Jackson’s school?”
Willson shot Jackson a sidelong glance. He didn’t know that Jackson had been selling the Lortabs.
“Do you have any idea how much pain I’ve been in since the accident? Have you ever thought to ask? Ever wondered, ‘Hmm, I wonder how Mom is doing. I wonder if she’s in pain. I hope her pills are helping her.’ No! Instead, you say, ‘Hmm, let’s see. How about fuck Mom! How about I sell her pills so I can pay for my hophead habit and ruin my life!’” Her chin began to tremble and her hands quaked. She possessed a potential energy similar to Willson’s. “I know you have them. I need my pills. Give me my fucking pills!”
“Mom,” Willson said, “go to—”
“GIVE ME MY PILLS!”
She dived across the table, wrapped her hands around Willson’s neck, squeezed. Her nail-polish glittered fluorescent green in the TV’s flickering hue.
“I NEED MY PILLS!”
She shook Willson and leveraged her considerable weight over him. Willson, caught off guard, was unable to defend himself. He lay against the arm of the couch, feet pushing up on their balls, hands wrapped around his mom’s wrists as her surprisingly powerful hands tried to crush his throat. His kinetic energy was entirely contained. A crumpled Dorito’s bag peeked from behind his shoulder.
“Stop,” Jackson said.
Their mom snarled inhumanly. Willson’s face shifted colors. The Dorito bag crinkled behind him. His mouth opened, and sound came out, but nothing intelligible. Grunts and spittle relayed the same message that his words would have. Let go of my throat, said the grunts. Don’t kill me, said the spittle.
“Stop!” Jackson said.
Willson’s eyes bulged, shocked and pleading. His hands glowed white over his mother’s wrists. A cockroach crawled into the empty prescription bottle on the floor. Jackson’s view darkened, and his ears buzzed. From a great distance, Marty McFly said to Mad Dog Tannen, “Nobody calls me yellow.”
Then he saw and heard nothing. Jackson picked up the lamp from the end table and swung. It collided with the side of his mom’s head. She fell onto the coffee table and then the floor. Blood pooled around her head, and a clear liquid dripped from her nose. The cockroach crawled out of the prescription bottle and into the puddle of blood.
“I’m sorry,” the athletic woman in cross-trainers said. “I forgot to get cash. Next time, though. Good luck.”
Jackson lowered the bucket as the woman walked toward the double beep of her Kia. Megan and Luke had now been gone fifteen minutes. Far too long for just a smoke. Jackson shuddered at the thought of the various ways they might be spending that extra time. If Willson were there, he might be able to distract Jackson. He’d probably be able to see in Jackson’s eyes his love and lust for Megan. He might even tease him about it in the way that only an older brother was allowed. But it wasn’t going to happen. Wish as Jackson might, Willson wouldn’t be coming to Albertsons. They don’t let you out of jail to participate in fake fundraisers.
“Excuse me, sir,” Jackson said, “but can I have just a moment of your time?”
In his Tommy Bahama button-up shirt, short slacks too many inches above the knees, and his boat shoes hugging his bare feet, the approaching man silently screamed that he had all the time in the world, but each of his seconds was too important to waste on the likes of you.
“What are you selling,” he said, “and am I going to go to hell if I don’t buy it?”
Jackson forced a laugh.
“Actually, sir, I’m not selling anything. I’m asking for donations for the Make a Difference Foundation. Did you know that nineteen percent of teens in America either currently live or have lived on the street?”
The man appraised Jackson. Then he reached into his pocket, removed a money-clip that bent outward into a V under the strain of cash, and casually slid from it a hundred dollar bill. He dropped the money into the bucket and continued into the store.
Jackson stared. Now resting in the bucket were Megan’s four ones, Jackson’s ten, a twenty, and a hundred. He looked at his watch. Eight fifty-one. Jackson needed his split for the day to be two hundred dollars. With that hundred, he would already be halfway there, and they had only been at it for a half hour.
Pausing only long enough to see if Megan and Luke were rounding the corner, he reached in and removed the hundred. He put it in his pocket.
Jackson had been skeptical when Willson suggested a fake fundraiser. Between the two of them, they had broken the law plenty of times. Hell, they had the conversation about it between bullet-proof glass during visiting hours. But this just seemed wrong.
“I don’t think I can do it,” Jackson had said.
“How the hell else can we raise the money?” Willson said, his face a pale bubble atop his orange safety cone of a jumpsuit. It wasn’t his color. “We’re only two hundred short. Two hundred dollars more and I’m out on bail. And then.”
Jackson knew what “and then” meant. Neither Willson nor Jackson knew whether or not these conversations were monitored, but just in case, they didn’t want to follow the “and then” with the subsequent “we get the fuck out of town before Mom or the cops know what the hell is going on.”
“Dude,” Jackson said, lowering his voice. “She’s still getting pills delivered to the house. I could unload one of her bottles in—”
“No.” Willson closed his eyes and shook his head. “Fucking no. How many times do we have to go over this? She thought I was stealing her high, so she tried to kill me, and then I hit her with a lamp. If her pills disappear and I’m not there for her to blame, she’ll come for you.” Willson grinned. “And I don’t think you can take her.”
Jackson paused, exhaled, looked at the ceiling. “Fuck, man. I should have done something. I should have pulled her off of you. I just…I don’t know, man. I don’t know what happened. One minute she’s on top of you, next thing I know you’re in cuffs and she’s bleeding on the floor. How the hell are you the one in here and not her?”
Willson shrugged. “Because she can afford bail until her trial, where she’ll probably get off on probation because I don’t bruise.”
“Fuck. Fuck her.” Jackson clenched his jaw. “Fuck me, man. You shouldn’t be in here. I should’ve been able to help you. It’s my fault, man.”
“No. It’s not your fault. And it’s not my fault. It’s her. That’s why you need to make that money. Just two hundred more so we can get me out of here and get you out of that house.”
And now Jackson was halfway there. He might’ve felt bad for screwing Megan and Luke (though their screwing each other made it easier not to), but what did they need with the money? Was there a Rolling Stones T-shirt that Luke didn’t yet have, maybe a color of hair dye that Megan hadn’t tried?
Six months ago, Jackson wouldn’t have been able to contrive a single negative thought about Megan if you threatened to set him on fire, but with each prolonged and unexplained absence she shared with Luke, with each time she publicly nibbled his ear, with each sexual innuendo they swatted back and forth like a ping pong ball, another negative thought surfaced. He still loved her, of course, but he forced himself to nurture those negative thoughts like orphaned kittens because they were all that kept him from stabbing Luke and claiming Megan as his own. Figuratively speaking.
No, Jackson didn’t feel bad. Instead, he took his bucket and he walked into the store. To his right, tomatoes and cucumbers were on sale. On his left, two checkers stood amidst ten closed lanes. Jackson couldn’t remember ever visiting a grocery store when every checkout lane was open. Seemed like a waste of space. He took his bucket and paced the ends of the aisles, past rows of salsa and enchilada sauce, past kettle chips and buffalo-flavored pretzel bites, past bags of Hershey kisses and Russell Stover’s sugar-free caramel nips, until he saw his target browsing vitamins.
Tommy Bahama read the back of a bottle of fish oil, his glasses resting on the edge of his nose.
“Excuse me, sir?” Jackson approached trepidatiously, knowing he was overstepping his bounds, not that there was a book of rules or regulations for behavior during fake fundraisers. But still.
Tommy looked at Jackson, at his bucket, then back at Jackson. He raised his eyebrows. Thin ice.
“I’m so sorry to bother you again,” Jackson said, “but I feel I would be doing a disservice to those homeless teens if I had stayed outside. Sir, your donation was beyond generous. Beyond anything I could have hoped for. I realize it’s, well, unconventional for me to be chasing you down like this. But, I, well, the shelters are horribly underfunded, and…”
“Son of a bitch.” Tommy took off his glasses and shoved the fish oil back on the shelf, knocking two bottles of Vitamin D and one bottle of Echinacea to the floor. They bounced and rolled like empty prescription bottles. Jackson felt momentarily cold. “You realize that was a hundred I gave you, right?”
“Yes, sir. That’s why—”
“As in one hundred dollars. As in at least five times as much as anyone else has given you?”
“Yes, sir. But—”
“And now you come in here, stalking me through the store, giving me this line of bullshit about disservices and shelters?”
“Well, sir, you see—”
“Jesus. Kids get fucking dumber and dumber. What’s the matter? You don’t have a computer at home? Do some research, you idiot.” Tommy tapped the side of his head with a fingertip. “The Make a Difference Foundation is a real charity. It exists. And it has nothing to do with homeless teens. It’s for a no-kill pit bull shelter. Yeah, that’s right. Not that I give a shit about pit bulls, but my wife donates every month.”
“Pit bulls?” Jackson’s tongue went numb.
“Yeah. Pit bulls. God, you’re lazy. When I was young, we put effort into our bullshit. We thought things through. At least come up with an original name. Something that’s not already out there.”
Tommy cupped his hand around his ear. “What? No more ‘sir’? Shit, kid, I gave you your money. Go back outside, think of a name that’s not already taken, and let me buy my wife her fish oil.”
Jackson had never been so intimidated by someone so frail. He began to turn, fingernails buzzing, but paused. “Sir?”
“What?” Tommy again held the fish oil, on which his eyes now remained affixed.
“If you knew it was bullshit, why did you give me money?”
Tommy exhaled, considering. “I’m a lawyer. I guess I figured I’d fund tomorrow’s generation of lawyers.” He laughed, slow and mild at first, then loud and hysterical, gaining momentum like a pack of galloping horses. Jackson was terrified. Tommy’s laughter finally subsided. He wiped tears from the corners of his eyes and took a breath. “Look, I ran the same games when I was a kid, and look where I am today. I don’t know. I guess I just like the idea of my money going somewhere other than pit bulls.”
Jackson nodded, unsure of what to do next.
“But you came in here after me,” Tommy said, frowning, “which is something even I didn’t have the balls for. Either you’re a doper, which I don’t want to fund, or you actually need this money.” He raised his eyebrows.
“I…” Jackson looked behind him, then past Tommy down the aisle. He hadn’t told anyone, namely Megan and Luke, that Willson was in jail. Figured it wasn’t anyone’s business but his and Willson’s. But now, it was Tommy’s as well. “I need to bail my brother out of jail. He’s going to get me out of my house.”
Tommy appraised Jackson, weighing his words. He squinted, tilted his head. Jackson was used to people believing his lies, but he didn’t know how well his truths came across. Finally, Tommy nodded. Without speaking, he retrieved his money clip, removed three more hundreds, and held them out for Jackson. Then, with a flicking motion of his hand, he shooed Jackson away like a dog before returning his attention to the back of the fish oil, mumbling about omega 3s and wastes of money.
Jackson walked through his front door at nine twenty-two. By now, Megan and Luke would have realized that he had bailed. They would have come back around to the front of the store to find the pine green canopy hovering above an unmanned table, atop which sat the bucket containing thirty-four dollars. Inside of Jackson’s front pocket were four hundred dollar bills.
“Mom?” Jackson called, scattered piles of clothes around the house sucking up his voice and keeping it from traveling through the halls. He stepped over a blood stain and a shard of glass from the lamp. “Mom, where are you? I need the car keys.”
Megan and Luke might have stayed at the store, begging for money for the homeless teens. And they might have made more money. Hell, now that they would be splitting the money two ways instead of three, they might have made more than they would have if Jackson had stayed, not counting the money from Tommy, that is. But then, they might also have been looking for Jackson. He had considered that, had considered waiting until they came back to tell them something had come up and that he had to leave immediately. Tell them goodbye. Because, if all went according to his and Willson’s plan, he would be out of the city by the next day and would never see either of them again.
That part was difficult. He and Luke had been friends since elementary school, but shit happened, right? People moved on. People made new friends. And this was for family. Blood is thicker than water and all that. If Jackson and Willson stayed at home with their mom, someone was going to get killed. Luke would have understood that. Jackson had to believe that Luke would have understood.
“Mom!” Jackson walked to the end of the hall and knocked on his mom’s door. “Mom! I need to go somewhere. Let me get the keys.”
Then there was Megan. Yeah, Jackson loved her. Yeah, he dreamed about her nose ring and her combat boots, but she was with Luke. And what, if they broke up, Jackson was supposed to swoop in and grab his best friend’s rebound? Not likely. No, Megan was truly alive and breathing as a phantom in Jackson’s head, in his fantasies and his dreams. He could take that phantom with him anywhere he went.
“Mom!” Even in her oxy-stupors, Jackson could usually get at least an annoyed grunt out of her. He continued pounding. “Mom! I need the keys. It’s important!”
A resounding thud sounded from inside the bedroom.
Jackson opened the door and found his mom convulsing on the floor beside her bed. Foam trickled from her lips. Jackson froze. His mom continued to convulse. He felt ice slide up the back of his neck and into the base of his skull. Her slippers lay forgotten and impotent at the foot of the bed. Her feet pointed straight out, yellowed toenails aimed at the dresser on the wall opposite her. Her stained purple sweatshorts rode up her legs, where cellulite pulsated.
After several critical moments, Jackson finally gained control of himself. He called an ambulance.
“My mom is having a seizure.”
Three hours later, a doctor at the hospital, Dr. Hodges or Hodgins, declared Jackson’s mom dead. He heard the doctor tell a nurse that it was SUDEP. Jackson didn’t know what that was, didn’t care. He did care, though, when he heard the doctor say that the seizure had been caused by recent head trauma.
He pictured Willson through the bullet-proof glass in his safety-cone jumpsuit, promising Jackson that he would get him out of that house, that he would get him away from their mom. He pictured Willson, his hands in cuffs, standing on the other side of their mom while she bled on the floor.
My brother hit my mom on the side of her head with a lamp, Jackson thought, and now she’s dead. Willson killed our mom. She was strangling him, screaming for pills, and he killed her. He’s in jail for “excessive self-defense,” but the judge doesn’t know the half of it. My brother is a killer.
Jackson went into the hospital bathroom and threw up.
Willson had killed their mom. For the rest of his life, Jackson would believe that lie. He was surprised to feel the tickle of a tear on his cheek as he walked out of the hospital. He felt more tears as he drove to the City of Las Vegas Detention Center. Together, he and Willson shed tears as they took the I-15 North out of town.
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