The next morning, Taylor awoke in a sweat of self-loathing and despair. Damn it, he’d had his chance. He cursed himself for bringing the wrong gun to the island. He had Butchie perfect, no eyewitnesses, the ocean right there to swallow both bullet-riddled body and murder weapon.
He was scrambling eggs in a cast iron pan that had been his mom’s, when Tasha rang the buzzer. He buzzed her up. She refused breakfast.
“Can’t stay,” she said.
He set his plate of steaming scrambled eggs aside on the counter.
“I just heard rumors that you and I were a thing,” he said, expecting, but not getting, an amused reaction. “From my little cousin,” he added. He threw in some desperate flattery. “She never misses your show. So, how was the WartHogg concert?”
Tasha looked like she’d gulped sour milk.
“Did you get back stage?” Taylor asked.
“Didn’t get out of the Toronto airport.”
“Canadian Passport Nazis. But, now the good news: Joey and the boys had a layover up in The City, one last night before their flight to Prague. They did a secret show at Commando, to audition a new lead guitarist. Long term, he’s no replacement for Mitch, but, guess what? I have local gossip. Who got in a fight at Commando last night? Before the show even started? Butchie Block and Stephanie Voss.”
“Some kind of spat. She was a little banged up, I heard.”
“Is she all right?”
Tasha shrugged. “There where my knowledge ends,” she said, “and ignorance begins.”
Stephanie did not answer her phone and Taylor didn’t have her mom’s number. He pounded on her apartment door, no answer, so hailed a ride to her mom’s. He pounded on the front door until Mellie’s tired face appeared.
She let him in, scanning the street like a soldier under fire.
“Tell me she’s all right,” Taylor said.
Mellie Voss shook her head no but said yes, wringing her hands. She looked gray, like a rag washed and hung on a line.
“Is she upstairs?” Taylor asked.
A shout rumbled down the stairs. “I’m not coming down, Taylor.”
He took a step up and the stairs creaked.
“Don’t you dare come up here,” she shouted.
Her mom held a whistling red tea kettle over two cups and poured. Taylor joined her at the kitchen table.
“The law is no help,” Mellie said. “Restraining orders don’t work. I’ve seen a woman in the ER stabbed by a husband who was under court order. Right in the ER!”
“We’re talking about Butchie Block, right? It was Butchie who hurt her.”
“She says no, not Butchie.”
“She’s in denial.”
“She won’t talk to me.”
“Didn’t the cops arrest anybody?”
Mellie lifted a steaming white teacup to her chapped lips. “Taylor, honey, I don’t know what happened.”
“I’m going up there,” Taylor said, and mounted the stairs, this time to no protest. Steffie cracked open her bedroom door. There was a purple welt under one eye and her lip was swollen.
“Go away,” she hissed.
“What happened to you? I’ll kill that bastard.”
“Taylor, it wasn’t Butchie’s fault.”
“Oh of course not, these assholes are never at fault.”
“Taylor you don’t know the whole story.”
“We were late for the play, so instead we had martinis at the Zam Zam. And we got a little drunk. We ended up at Commando.”
“I thought you had tickets for the 10:30 train home?”
“But Butchie got passes for WartHogg. Backstage and afterparty. Come on. I’d have stayed up all night for that. We arrived at the club way early, Butchie got into a tussle, and we were literally thrown out the door.”
“I’m not buying it, Stef.”
“Well, good. Thanks for calling me a liar. And goodbye.”
She shut her bedroom door. Taylor had the strong sense that Steffie, humiliated, was lying about how her face got bruised. He remembered Hawaii, his bruised mother claiming she got hit with her own surf board.
Downstairs in the kitchen again, he touched Steffie’s mom on the shoulder and said: “She can’t admit she made a mistake trusting that bastard Butchie Block.”
And then he walked out in anger.
“So tell me, darling,” said Steffie’s mom. “No judgment, I promise.”
They stood side by side, looking out the back window, at a yard that looked like an abandoned lot.
“I’ve told the truth, mom. We were too late for the play. The train got delayed, some kind of signal problem. So we went to the Zam Zam. It’s a really famous place but I know you don’t go to The City, so … anyway, there’s a crabby bartender there who will only make martinis. Butchie knows him. So it’s three in the afternoon and we’re drinking martinis. Which, mom, I know that’s a bad idea, but there we were. In walks another guy Butchie knows, a roadie for guess who? WartHogg. That meant WartHogg was in town, on their way to Europe. And it turns out there were doing a secret show at the Commando.
“So we’re on our second martini, Butchie hails this big ugly roadie, and they go into a booth and talk privately. And when Butchie comes back to me he’s got passes to the show and an invite to the afterparty. So Butchie and I go out for pizza …”
“Honey, your diet…”
“I thought you said no judgment, mom? And anyway it was whole wheat pizza. Then we go to Commandos, and we’re let in the back door by the manager, and he knows Butchie too. So we’re sitting in the office, and I’m getting excited about the show, and these bruisers come in, I mean, like they could have been TV wrestlers. And somehow Butchie, they were like dogs growling at each other instantly and theses guys literally threw us out the back door and into the alley, like we were sacks of potatoes. So you see? Butchie’s an innocent victim, too.”
Steffie’s mom gave her a skeptical look.
“Honey, nothing innocent happens in that city. Nothing.”
Taylor hopped the bus to the Warehouse District, where he bought a burner phone for cash. He sent a single text message before he destroyed the phone and its sim card. That message went to Butchie:
Get out of Shipwreck Bay
and don’t come back.
He couldn’t live like a hunted man, and, with the memory of Steffie’s bruises fresh in his mind, could not tolerate seeing one more victim of Butchie’s brutality. He bought two bags of groceries, hauled them home and prepared for a siege. He left a breezy voice message on Artie’s phone. How’s it going? Any news? Call me, pal.
The next morning Taylor worked from his deck, applying online for jobs. He no longer even considered working in The City, it wasn’t far enough away. Silicon Valley? Did he want to join the well-paid coders living in their cars in Mountain View? Did he want to chance an encounter with Karen and Rick? No, so he focused on Boston, Chicago and with a warmer feeling, Austin.
Sometime around noon, when he stood to fetch another cup of coffee, he spied Butchie Block, across the street, lounging in front of the deli window as if waiting for a bus. Butchie wore a turquoise-and-gray beer-league softball uniform. A red cap sat backward on his bald head. A mitt hung from his belt. He leaned on a big black aluminum bat.
Taylor backed into the shadows. So this was Butchie’s game. He needed the softball outfit as camouflage for the weapon he was carrying.
Taylor backed into his living room and watched Butchie through binoculars. When a bus whisked up to the stop, Butchie flashed a middle finger toward Taylor’s windows, and stepped aboard.
Taylor was paralyzed then with fear, cowardice and indecision. Butchie was the spider and he was the fly. Brute vs. nerd, and it was a forgone conclusion who would win.
Taylor was sunk in despair, watching Judge Judy reruns and rooting for justice, when the answer came to him. What would his father do in this situation? Dad was no wimp. He would never hide from Butchie Block. The Jeff Road Strangler case had stymied the police for years, until the victims’ families hired Dan Burns. It wasn’t long before the monster was dead, and Dad was a hero in Shipwreck Bay and beyond. Dad had focused on Joseph Garland, the most obvious suspect, and had broken into his garage to collect evidence, had shot it out with a maniac armed with a shotgun. Was it really any wonder the man had little respect for his office-bound, video-gaming, ride-sharing, tech nerd son?
In a head-buzzing daze, without realizing where he was headed, Taylor wandered down to the street and into Manny’s Sports Barber. Macho haircuts were their specialty and Taylor asked for the Regular Guy, one of only six cuts on offer, as displayed on the wall. With satisfaction, he watched his wimpy hairdo fall to the floor and get swept up.
Back at his condo, he bypassed the elevator and mounted the fire stairs. At his apartment door stood Lisa, with massage table and stuffed backpack.
“What the hell happened to you?” she asked, circling around him for a 360-degree view. “Did a lawn mower run over you?”
“Very funny,” Taylor said. “It’s my summer cut.”
“Did you forget our appointment?” she asked.
“Sort of,” he said, and punched in the door code.
Lisa entered and lay the folded table against the couch.
“You just got that haircut? You’ll want to shower.”
Taylor backed into the bathroom and Lisa, in a flowing white dress, set up the massage table and retrieved towels, lotions and a candle from her backpack. Once set up, she stepped out to the balcony and watched the city rush.
Why did all these people think their lives were so urgent? She was learning, on the cusp of her 30th birthday, to let all flow around her.
She heard Taylor slide open the door behind her.
“Get yourself on the table and under the drape,” she demanded, without turning to look at him.
The door slid closed.
Lisa stepped over to the umbrella table to inspect a gaming console. Behind it she spied a bottle of expensive bourbon, nearly empty and accompanied by a tumbler. A layer of liquor in that tumbler had evaporated into an amber film.
So Taylor had become a solitary drinker?
She walked into the living room, lit the candle, set it atop a bookshelf. Taylor was lying face down on the table. She folded the drape off his shoulder.
“So how’s your business going?” he asked.
“Oh, cumbersome. Steffie used to take care of all the boring details. How is Steffie?”
Taylor lied. “Okay, I guess.”
“That girl loves you, Taylor. You ought to think about it. Love? Devotion? I mean real devotion? It’s a rare thing in a cold and cynical world.”
Taylor grunted as she worked his shoulders.
“So, you’re back to playing video games,” she said.
Taylor, embarrassed, shrugged. “Yeah, Lost Paradise. Inside every man there’s a ten-year-old boy, screaming to get out.”
“You know what’s amazing?” Lisa said, and dug into his lats. “And I only discovered this when I stopped drinking. Half of the world’s economy is devoted to denial.”
“Denial of what?”
“Of who we really are.”
“And who is that?”
“Video games, drugs, movies, alcohol, casinos, television, books, the Lotto, all of it mere distraction from the truth. Of what pitiful, small creatures we are. Monkeys in the jungle, fighting each other over a tree branch or a piece of fruit.”
She warmed oil between her hands.
“Lately,” he said, “it seems dark out there.”
“So you’re depressed, then?”
“I don’t know, for months I just pushed away the idea of what, the terrible thing, you know, that happened to my Mom. I’m pretty good at avoidance. I mean, like you just said, I made my living helping people avoid reality. And now it’s just all … what a coward I’ve been, hiding from the truth because I know who … I know.”
“Taylor, relax and accept this massage.”
He sat up, the drape across his lap. Using that drape like a shroud, he death marched out to the balcony. The drape flapped in the breeze. Lisa joined him at the rail.
“I’m paranoid, I guess, shaky lately,” he said. “Artie’s pushing a bad batch. Watch out.”
“Taylor, don’t lie to me. I can see the trouble in your eyes, I can hear it in your voice. And now getting your head shaved? What is going on with you?”
“Maybe you should just leave.”
She crossed her arms. “Not going anywhere until you tell me the truth.”
“Okay.” He sighed. “I’m trying to avoid Artie. I owe him money.”
She laughed. “You’re afraid … of Artie?”
“I just don’t want to bump into him, that’s all.”
“You’re afraid to leave your apartment?”
He clammed up, so Lisa said: “Okay, I get it. Paranoia. Drugs. And you’ve been drinking.”
“What I realized about myself when I stopped drinking,” she said. “You want to know?”
Taylor, distracted, scanned the street for Butchie. “Sure.”
“All those antics. Skipping school, joyriding, hanging out with the bikers on Monroe Street, drinking hard liquor straight from the bottle, sassing the teachers, smoking pot, all that bad girl stuff. I just wanted attention. I just wanted somebody to pay attention to me. I wanted to be special. I wanted to be noticed. Is that so bad?”
“It can’t be bad to know what you want.”
“I drank because I didn’t want to be me. I didn’t want to be Lisa Lange, just another twerp from a nothing town. I wanted to be glamorous, famous and rich, the envy of others. Not just another work-a-day schlub. And here I am, running from house to house with my second-hand massage table.”
She put her lips to his ear: “What are you hiding from, Taylor Burns?”
Head hung, staring straight down at the sidewalk, he had the impulse to heave himself over the side. “Taylor the Coward. I’m hiding from Taylor the Coward.”