[Not up to speed with what’s going on? Soak yourself in the lukewarm bath water of the previous chapter.]
In case you were wondering, calling officer Brown “Dad” wasn’t a term of affection. It was a reminder. Just like he liked to remind me what a worthless sack of trash I was, I liked to remind him that the half of the DNA in this worthless sack of trash belonged to him.
“You think this is funny?” he shouted, marching me away from the Jeep toward the darkened form of a squad car parked further down the dock.
“Honestly my sense of humor has always been a little off,” I said, trying to keep my tone glib while I scrambled to put the pieces together in my head. I could only guess of course, but what I guessed was that dad had been the one that put in the call that had sent the other officers running. And if it had been him, I could be pretty certain it wasn’t because he was looking out for me. It was because he wanted me all to himself.
He shoved me into the back seat of his squad car, and I saw that Frog was already there, hands cuffed behind his back, his head resting against the seat in front of him. His face and arms were scratched and bleeding from falling into the broken glass and the rough bushes, and his shirt was pretty badly ripped on one side. Officer Brown slammed the door, locking me and Frog in together.
I took a deep breath and tried to assess our situation. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to tell Frog it would all be okay, that somehow we would get ourselves out of this mess, but I couldn’t bring myself to lie to him, not now.
So instead I said, “You were right. I should have let you bring the grappling hook.”
Frog didn’t say anything. He didn’t even look at me. He just sat there, hunched forward in the darkness.
“Frog? You okay man?”
“What do you care?”
The soft-spoken words carried more weight than I know how to express just writing them down, but it cut deep into me.
“Look, it’s not like that,” I started, but Frog cut me off.
“What is it like, EXACTLY Vinny? You think I’m crazy? You think I’m wrong in the head? Maybe everyone would be safer if I was locked up like my mom!”
“You know that’s not what I think,” I insisted. “But you also know I don’t buy into your conspiracy theories.”
“Right. You tolerate me as long as I’ve got some crazy story to tell or scheme to plan, because you’re bored. You’re a bored fat LOSER Vinny! But in the back of your mind you’re thinking, ‘I may not have it so good in life, but at least I don’t have a screw loose like this Frog character!’” He was screaming now.
“Why did you come tonight? WHY!?”
“Because I wanted to keep you from getting into trouble.”
“You wanted to protect me,” Frog corrected. “You don’t think I can take care of myself. You think I need a handler, or…or, a babysitter. Look me in the face and tell me that’s not what you think!”
I couldn’t do it. So instead I looked down at my feet and said, “I’m sorry.”
Neither of us said anything after that, and the longer the silence stretched on the deeper the knife of guilt dug into my heart. Your fault, your fault, your fault, the voice inside me repeated until I was nearly sick with guilt. But another thought fought for a place in my mind. It said, Forget about whose fault it is, we can worry about that stuff later. Right now you need to figure out what your dad is planning and how to get out of it.
That made me snap back into some sense of reality. Where was he anyway? And what was his angle here? He wasn’t going to take us in or he would have done it already. Which meant he had something more…personal planned.
I thought about all the times he’d beat me just because he felt like it. Back then it had been easy to hide it. There were plenty of places he could hit me where the bruises wouldn’t show. But that was then and this was now. I was an adult now. He probably knew that if he tried something like that again I would fight back, at least call the police. And who do you think they’ll believe? That nagging voice in my head asked.
But even if they didn’t believe me, if Frog backed up my story there’d at least be trouble. He’d look bad. They might cover for him, but they wouldn’t be happy about it. Which meant if he was smart he would let us go without roughing us up. Not that my dad had ever won any awards for being smart.
And then the voice came again. And this time it said, What if he’s not afraid of who you’ll tell? What if he knows you won’t be telling anyone anything after tonight?
No. He wouldn’t. Would he? I thought back to the expression on his face as he’d spun me around to put the handcuffs on me, his features frozen in a rictus of rage. I didn’t want to believe it, but it was all that made sense. And then I heard footsteps.
This is crazy, I thought. This is really really crazy. I mean sure he’s a bad guy, but he’d never go that far.
But part of me suspected he would have done it a long time ago if he’d been able to get away with it. All the time he’d been away? He’d been preparing, maybe scoping out a good spot to dump the bodies, maybe laying out plastic somewhere so our blood wouldn’t be left for forensics to find.
And the footsteps drew closer. I couldn’t hear that well though the door of the squad car, but the booming of boots on the dock was hard to miss, and the thought came to me that he wanted me to hear, wanted me to know he was coming. And then the footsteps stopped and I heard the sound of voices. It wasn’t a loud sound, not shouts and curses hurled in the night, but the quiet muffled sound of normal conversation. My father was talking to someone, a man I thought, whose voice sounded strangely familiar. I twisted my head to try to see, but because of how my hands were bound behind me I couldn’t quite manage to get them in my line of sight.
Then the conversation stopped and the footsteps resumed, quieter this time, less threatening. My door was yanked open and my father stood there looking angry, but also a little confused.
“Out,” he barked in a voice that didn’t quite sound his own. And when I was slow in responding he repeated, “OUT!” and I wondered if I had imagined the variance.
As soon as I was out he twisted me around and unlocked the handcuffs. “Get out of here,” he said.
“I SAID get out of here, do you understand me? If I even so much as suspect you’ve been hanging around this nut again you know I can make things go very badly for you. Don’t tempt me.”
My mind was awash with fear and confusion. I had a hundred questions and didn’t dare ask any of them. I stumbled away in the direction of Frog’s Jeep, but about halfway there I realized I didn’t have the keys and anyway even if I did, I couldn’t just take it. So instead I started walking.
I looked back at the squad car a couple of times, and saw my dad open the back door and talk to Frog. I couldn’t hear the words, but it was then that I realized I had no idea where the man my dad had been talking to had gone. I stopped for a moment and surveyed the dock, but there was no one else to be seen. From across the parking lot my father screamed, “Keep walking, Price!” and so I did.
It was a long way to go, but I started, putting one foot in front of the other in a kind of daze. Nothing seemed to make sense right then. I had thought sure my dad would do more than just give me a warning, and his sudden change of behavior after he’d talked to whoever it was on the dock felt like it should be significant in some why, but I couldn’t figure it out. Actually in that moment I didn’t want to figure it out. My heart felt like it was tearing itself apart inside my chest. I kept thinking about what Frog had said, the hurt in his voice and the accusation in his eyes. It weighed down on me like a burden, like a literal weight had been placed on my shoulders. Part of me almost wanted to cry but it hurt too much even for that. I felt like there was a rock lodged somewhere deep inside my gut.
I’m not sure how long I walked, but I remember I was trudging past the gaudy yellow of the Church’s Chicken sign glowing in the night when Frog’s Jeep roared past me. At first it looked like he wasn’t going to stop, but then I saw the flash of brake lights and the Jeep skidded to the stop on the shoulder several hundred feet up. I picked up my pace and trotted up to the Jeep. I pulled the door open and climbed in. Frog didn’t even look at me.
“What did he say?” I asked.
No answer. Instead Frog punched the accelerator, making the Jeep lurch forward and slamming my neck back into the seat.
For the rest of the ride we didn’t speak. I wanted to say something, anything. I wanted to say, “I’m sorry.” But the look in Frog’s eyes, that burning driven…broken look, told me it wouldn’t do any good. I had gone too far to find my way back with words alone.
He dropped me off at my apartment and then he burned out of there his tires cutting twin ruts in the gravel parking lot.
But when I climbed out of the Jeep, just before he punched it, I would swear I saw the glint of tears in his eyes.