Rain City Lights
"...a story both tragic and beautiful, and threaded with hope. It’s going to stay with me for a long time."C.G. Drews
In the summer of 1981, a serial killer preys on black, teenage prostitutes working Seattle's arterial highways. But the eyes of youth are blind to danger, and Montgomery “Monti” Jackson is distracted by her own problems. She'll be starting high school soon, and the return of her mother's boyfriend heightens the tension in her fractured household.
To add to her worries, Monti fears she may be in love with her best friend Sasha. But as close as they'd once been, now they couldn't feel further apart. Sasha is a burnout punk rocker, and has befriended the neighborhood drug dealer. And when an eviction notice is posted on Monti's door, a strange dynamic forms between them.
One night, an altercation leaves her family penniless. So Monti turns to the very streets where a killer stalks and ensnares young women, beginning her journey towards understanding one, simple truth - sometimes your only choices in life are to love and survive.
Rain City Lights is a gritty, urban love story that explores how poverty, addiction and abuse is passed from one generation to the next.
Release date: October 1, 2020
Publisher: Pine City Press
Print pages: 417
Content advisory: Sexual Assault, Adult Language, Abuse, Violence
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Rain City Lights
Christmas Eve, 1972
The rain pelt so hard it sprang up from the porch like bullets. The detective removed his hat, water dripping down his face, hiding tears but for his red-rimmed eyes. He couldn’t help crying, after what he had seen and for the scene before him. The Christmas tree lit with multi-colored lights and draped with silver tinsel. The cookies on the mantle. Frank Sinatra crooning “Jingle Bells” from the record player. And a small boy wearing red pajamas. These were the reasons the detective wiped his nose like a baby, and steeled himself to bear the bad news.
* * *
Mikael Sasha Coen already knew why the detective had come. Someone once said he could smile with only his big, blue eyes. He tried this by focusing his eyes hard into the sadness that seemed to hunch the detective’s shoulders. He curved the corners of his mouth upward just a little. It was enough to make the detective smile back.
“He should leave the room,” the detective said.
Daan shook his head. “The sooner he gets used to hearing bad news, the better.”
The detective scratched his sideburn.
“Mr. Coen, I’m so sorry to say this, tonight of all nights. But there’s been an accident. Your wife’s car went over the Ballard Bridge. She didn’t make it.”
Daan Coen keeled over and keened, a sound more piercing than nails dragged against a chalkboard. The detective described what happened. The grates were slick. His wife had been speeding to beat the drawbridge, raised to let a party yacht into the Fremont canal. She skidded and lost control. Daan sobbed and asked the Lord why. But Mikael thought he knew that, too.
After a moment, Daan asked,
“But wouldn’t she have seen the warning lights? Wouldn’t the gate have dropped? I don’t understand how this could happen.”
The detective pursed his lips. He spoke in the way adults sometimes did that made Mikael feel as if he’d been naughty.
“Not here,” the detective said.
Mikael watched from the porch as Daan left to identify the body. He’d promised to stay with one of the neighbors that lived in the apartment units of The Bridgewater. As Mikael turned, he heard a chattering sound, and it drew his attention to the stoop next door. A young girl sat with her head pushed between her knees, her body rocking back and forth and her arms enclosing her shivering shins.
“What’re you doing? It’s raining,” he said.
“No shit,” she muttered. “I’m locked out.”
“Why?” He bit his lip. “Also, you shouldn’t talk like that. My dad says bad words send people to hell.”
The girl didn’t answer. When she looked up, he saw the gray eyes of a feral cat ready to scram into the city gutters.
Mikael walked inside and turned up the music. He took the cookies from the mantle and went back to the porch, holding them in the rain, in view of the girl.
“Want a cookie?”
“I’m fine. My mom is coming soon.”
“You want to help me open my presents?”
The girl shrugged and stared at her knees.
Mikael sighed and stomped back to the Christmas tree. He moved the gifts from beneath the tree, one by one, into his bedroom. He knew the girl would come out of the rain soon. No kid could resist Christmas presents. On each trip to the tree he passed a photo of his mother. It was the kind with two faces, one of the smiling front and the other a profile. The two-faced photo was ghoulish, and each time he passed it became harder to look at because of the goosebumps that tickled his arm. He didn’t want to open presents in front of the ghost that had once been his mother.
Mikael waited on his bedroom floor. The music blared from the living room, but over the smooth, velvet voice of Sinatra came the soft pattering of uncertain footsteps.
“I’m in here,” Mikael called.
The girl appeared in the open doorway of his bedroom.
“Hi,” Mikael said.
Her eyes were glued to the presents.
“Where are your parents?” she asked.
“My mom is dead. My dad went to see her.”
“A car accident.”
He sniffled and pushed the presents towards her.
“Here. You can have them all.”
He handed her a football wrapped in gold paper, something he never wanted. Mikael’s father wanted it for him, in the same way Daan wanted other things. Be a good, Christian man. Don’t cry. Stand up straight. Don’t tell lies.
The girl tore the paper from the gift, filling the silence with the sound of shredding paper. Her eyes sparkled. She tossed the football in her hands as if it was something she was made to do.
“My name is Montgomery. But you should call me Monti. I’m seven.”
“My name is Mikael.” He paused, thinking of his Norwegian grandfather for whom he was named, a strict Lutheran who built the walls that enclosed them now. It was a name his father wanted for him.
“But you should call me Sasha. I’m seven and a half.”
Monti shoved an entire cookie into her mouth. She smiled, showing the crumbs stuck between the gap in her front teeth.
“Why aren’t you sad?”
“I was sad yesterday,” he said. “My mom said goodbye yesterday.”
She took another cookie and ogled the rest of the gifts.
“I can’t take your presents.”
“Yes you can. I don’t want them.”
She sputtered cookie crumbs from her mouth.
“Why the hell not! I’d kill for this many toys.”
“They’re from my dad. And he’s the reason my mom’s gone.” He picked another gift and laid it in her lap. “Also, you shouldn’t swear.”
She nodded, as though everything he’d said made perfect sense. He felt very brave next to her, so he whispered through clenched teeth,
“I hate my dad.”
He watched her pick a scab from her knuckle.
“Why were you locked out?” he asked.
She shrugged. “My moms got stuff to do.”
“She’s not home right now? Will she be back in time for Christmas?”
And then she smiled, sending dimples to her cheeks and sunlight to the rippled, gray eyes. It was a smile that meant they’d be friends forever.
“That’s right! She went to the midnight service at Mt. Calvary. I had to use the bathroom and she forgot me. That’s why I was locked out.”
“How could she forget you? And why didn’t she come back?”
Monti’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t tell lies, Sasha.”
He swallowed. She’d been nice enough to use the name he wanted. Her eyes turned red and wet. Sasha decided it was okay if she didn’t want to tell the truth about why she’d been locked out.
They sat in silence while she opened the rest of his gifts, his mood lifting in tandem with her joy. He liked making her happy. He was the captive audience and she the ringmaster, and surrounding them was a circus of domestic tragedy.
After some time, when the world grew quiet and everyone awaited the coming magic of Christmas spirits, she said something he would never forget.
“I’m sorry your mom died. If my mom died, I don’t think I’d cry either.”
Today nothing changes.
Ever since he could remember, Sasha Coen had a gift. His mother said it was because an old soul had been trapped inside his young body. He was inherently sensitive, and she called it intuition. Being a trusting boy he took her word for it, that he was special. That his intense bouts of sadness were actually an attribute.
“The ability to love is one of God’s greatest gifts,” she’d told him. “And sometimes all that loving brings great sorrow.”
When he came home from school with bruises and scrapes, sad from another day of teasing and a recess spent in solitary, she would say he was not boring, just observant. He was not weird, only thoughtful. And when kids called him “retard” because he’d rather watch the birds fly than play war with GI Joe’s, she told him he was simply unique. She said these things because she loved him. But then she died, and so went every occasion for this unconditional praise.
Today nothing changes.
As a crow barked outside his window, bathing in the subtle warmth of a June sun, and he wiped the dried sleep that had caked around his eye, these words wove through his consciousness, and he was glad.
A portentous tide surged towards Seattle, despite the beginning of a bright summer. Two bodies had been found in the Duwamish River, a murky snake of water that connected Seattle’s industrial ports to Elliot Bay. The victims were young and black. Teenage girls from the Central District that had been missing for over a week, though no one knew it. And some of the patrons at Mt. Calvary Baptist felt no one really cared. Because the dead girls were prostitutes. Addicts. And their skin darker than a brown paper bag. A small clip in the crime section of the Seattle Post described the horrid details. They had been raped, and when the perpetrator finished, had their skulls bashed in. They didn’t even make the evening news.
On the first Sunday after the discovery of the bodies, Pastor Pritchard bowed his head before a silent congregation and prayed for the dead girls. Sasha did not however, unsure of his belief in God, and watched as light poured through stained glass windows, turning the cotton-like hair of Pritchard’s humble crown a mixture of pink and gold.
We ask you to welcome the souls of Shandra and Kameel into your heaven and grace, for we know that you love and accept all your children and show mercy on the innocent.”
After more words about trust and faith, Pritchard motioned the choir to stand, and Sasha felt a wave of nausea overtake his trembling body.
He pulled at the polyester collar of his purple robe and wiped his sweaty palms down the front. He scanned the crowd as the choir began a hymn. His gaze settled on her face. It was his first time singing for anyone on his own. Not even his best friend knew what he could do. Just one of the many secrets he kept from her, always for her own sake. Monti stuck out her tongue and crossed her eyes, then resumed biting her fingernails.
The choir finished the first verse. Sasha made his way in front of the pulpit and accepted an electric guitar from Arnie, the leader of the church’s band. He made a bargain with a god he barely trusted, swearing to tell the truth if he could only sound the way he knew how. His voice broke, and he looked into her eyes which served as his lifeline in a raging storm of nerves.
I am a poor, wayfaring stranger
Wondering through this world of woe
But there is no sickness, toil or danger
On that bright plain to which I go
He sang from his gut, pulling his voice through his cracking vocal chords, strained from puberty and smoking so much pot. He took a deep breath while members of the congregation shouted Yayesssss! and Amen!, clapping and stomping their feet. He opened his throat and let his hands bend the notes so they sounded like mourning, ignoring the burn from the strings as they dug into the pads of his fingertips. He caught a glimpse of Monti’s gaping mouth, her gapped teeth on full display.
I’m going there to see my momma
She said she’d meet me when I come
So I’m just going, over Jordan
I’m just going, over home
Applause erupted, causing an involuntary upturn of his mouth. He felt his blood thrash against his veins, but gave his audience only a subtle smirk. Monti did not smile back, she did not clap, and her jaw hung open. Sasha ducked his head and worked the toe of his sneaker against the carpet, brushing away the praise, but not before kneading it through his mind like dough.
“When did you learn to sing like that?” she asked as everyone spilled into the churchyard for the post-service barbecue. “Why didn’t I know you could play the guitar?” He heard the accusation in her voice.
He shrugged, “It never came up.”
They were almost to the door when he took her hand, a single truth burning his tongue like hot sauce. But a friendly voice stopped them.
“Hi Sasha! Are you volunteering for the food drive next week?”
Treesha Jensen approached them, flipping her black braids over one shoulder. Her yellow sundress landed just above her dark, knobby knees. She stopped with a hand on her hip, smiling sweetly and batting her bald eyelids.
Treesha kissed him once, after choir practice while they retrieved abandoned sheet music from beneath the pews.
I wanted to know how a white boy does it.
She'd grabbed his hand and pressed it to the place the Pastor had warned against, into the soft skin between her legs. The visceral touch and pungency made it so he tasted her in his mouth, but he didn’t feel what he knew was supposed to happen. He assumed it was because her breath had smelled like sour cabbage.
“I dunno. Maybe,” Sasha told her.
She looked at Monti and grinned. Sasha suspected it wasn’t meant to be friendly from the way Treesha’s eyes roved over Monti’s battered shoes and second-hand overalls.
“I’ll help you put some cans aside. Don’t want to leave nobody out. What you like Monti? Spaghettios?”
Sasha had seen the kids from the Central District give Monti a hard time, slinging insults like Casper, Bisquick Bitch, and you make ashy look like a disease. Monti looked like an ill-defined, Mediterranean wanderer, her black skin the color of toasted cappuccino-foam. And he’d heard, on more than one occasion, a portion of the church donations set aside for the needy ended up in her mother’s pocket.
“You should shove them up your twat, only way your cherry’ll get popped,” Monti said, turning up her nose.
“You’d know wouldn’t you? Girls with no daddy be lookin’ for it everywhere,” Treesha said, stepping closer.
“At least I don’t look like Gary Coleman with braids. Your momma should get got for spreading the ugly gene.” Monti’s nose nearly touched Treesha’s. Sasha tried to pull her back, but she swatted his hand away.
“At least my momma won’t end up in no river like them other whores.”
Treesha’s nose bled the second the words left her mouth. The red ran down her dark face and turned purple with melanin. It pooled between the pads of her thick lips. Sasha didn’t see the first punch because it happened so fast, but Monti was now on top of her, pummeling her fists into Treesha’s ribs. He used his whole body to pull her off, like an anchor to a ship caught in a wayward drift.
“She just hit me!” Treesha cried, but Monti was running through the churchyard towards the parking lot, dodging the picnickers and maple trees. Treesha reached for Sasha’s hand, but he ignored it and chased after his friend.
He found her by his ’77 Chevy Suburban, bought used with the money earned the previous summer doing landscaping for his grandparents. She turned away, and he pretended not to see the tears welling in the bottom lids of her eyes. Her shoulders trembled, and he noticed how the sun put toffee streaks in her black, crimpy hair. He wanted to hold her, but she would only push him away. So he unlocked the truck instead.
He started the ignition and rolled down the window, letting in the smell of spicy chicken and grilled hotlinks. It made his stomach churn, though he wasn’t hungry.
“We should stay for the picnic.”
“No,” she said.
“I know you’re hungry.”
“You don’t know anything,” she said, jutting out her jaw.
“Banana pudding is your favorite. You really gonna deny yourself the pleasure?”
“I won’t enjoy it with that dumb bitch hovering over you the whole time.”
Sasha chuckled. “Yeah. Treesha’s pretty into me, huh?”
Monti rolled her eyes.
“Do you want me to stop at Dick’s on the way home?” he asked. “I’ll buy you a milkshake.”
“No thanks,” she mumbled, her forehead pressed against the window.
They’d reached downtown before she spoke again.
“Why didn’t I know you could sing like that?”
“It’s not something I feel comfortable doing, I guess.”
“You should. I’ve never heard anything like that before.”
“Thanks,” he said, turning the dial of the stereo so the blare from his Black Flag cassette might distract her. “Do you want to stop at McDonald’s? Tommy works there. He gets free fries and sometimes sandwiches if they’ve been sitting long enough.”
She scoffed and turned off the music.
“I don’t want to go begging for food like I’m homeless. Especially from some dropout that sells drugs. I don’t know why you hang out with that guy. And listen to this trash.” She motioned to the tape deck. “Ever heard of Michael Jackson?”
“Ever heard of Iggy Pop?” he countered.
They were almost to The Bridgewater when she spoke again.
“I’m not going back to Mt. Calvary. I don’t belong.”
“I’m a Norwegian Lutheran singing in a gospel choir,” Sasha said. “Who cares about belonging?”
Her silence sealed the end of the discussion.
He pulled into the shared parking lot of The Bridgewater, a simple, covered port on Seventeenth Avenue and adjacent to the north side of the building.
“Monti, I have something to tell you.”
She looked at him, but the scowl did not soften.
“Well don’t be a pansy. Spit it out.”
Just as he began to unravel his making, the words from that morning came back to haunt him.
Today nothing changes. But nothing will be the same.
He froze. She grabbed him by the neck and pushed his head beneath her armpit. The musk of her skin was both familiar and foreign, and while used to her roughhousing, he shook her off. She was water, pure and clean, and he was the stank of wet dog.
He wanted to believe the truth wouldn’t change their friendship. But that look on her face when he sang - while the rest of the church sat in awe and admiration, her face stood out. She wore the look of the betrayed. Don’t be a pansy said the girl who beat him in arm wrestling and talking shit, though they might be more evenly matched these days. But match or not, a negative reaction would crush his resolve, and might end their friendship forever. So he turned off the truck, tucked his keys in his pocket and convinced himself his cowardice was for the best.
* * *
Monti slammed the passenger door. She couldn’t believe her best friend would keep something from her. When he stood at that pulpit he transformed from a comfortable companion into a stranger, his beautiful voice a mockery of her mediocrity. A black woman sharing the pew had dropped her head and sounded a quiet, mmm mmm hmm. Monti knew then that Sasha had something special. Was someone special, and suddenly she suspected she’d been patronized the past nine years. He was simply too cool to be her friend.
Sasha grabbed her hand, stopping her in the center of the courtyard. The blooms on the rhododendron bushes had turned brown, as though they’d been neglected.
“Have dinner with me tonight,” Sasha said.
“Maybe. It’s my mom’s night off, so we might do something. She promised to get takeout.”
“Okay, sure. But if for some reason you don’t, or if she’s like, not home, come over. I’ll leave my window open. We can watch Over the Edge or something.”
Warmth spread into her stomach and she almost forgot the hunger. He swatted a bee away from her elbow, and his arm brushed against hers. She thought of its sinewy muscles as he’d played those haunting notes on the guitar, and how her toes had curled in her muddy sneakers. She wanted to say thank you, express how much he meant to her always, and especially in that moment.
“Yeah, maybe,” she said.
Monti glanced at Sasha’s house. As much time as she’d spent in it, she never felt truly welcome.
The Bridgewater looked like a vintage, English settlement and was located in the heartland of commercial Ballard. Sasha’s grandfather had built it shortly after he immigrated from Norway. The U-shaped complex was made of seven, Tudor-styled row-houses. The combination of brick, timber framing, prominent cross-gables and thick hedges gave it a dated and haunted look. Sasha’s house was at the crux of the U-shape. It had a large front porch and was the only house that hadn’t been split into single-story apartment units.
The front door opened and Monti heard it slam against the wall inside. Daan Coen came onto the porch. He crossed his arms and looked down his nose until it made her want to cry again. He nodded his head towards her apartment.
There lay Monti’s mother, her back against the front door and her legs spread-eagle, spilling down the concrete steps and baking in the sun. Her black mini-skirt looked soiled and bunched around her waist. A bra strap fell away from her orange tank top and rested at her elbow. She was out cold.
Sasha reached for Monti’s hand and squeezed. She looked at his face - the light in his eyes seemed to wither as he stared back. He might’ve been an angel, or a Norse god. In the sun his long, blonde hair looked molten and his pink mouth held her transfixed.
“What can I do?” he asked.
She tried to answer, but all that came from her mouth was stuttering and nonsense.
“I can help you carry her inside,” he said.
Even when he spoke, his voice sang. He drawled out his vowels, letting them drop into his deepest octave like a jazzy slide, turning single syllable words into two. He over-pronounced his R’s so the ear became drenched by his slow, Northwestern cadence. It was as if his voice kept a secret and he hadn’t decided if the world could be trusted.
“Monti, please say something.”
But what could she say? Something was different. Something had changed. When she wasn’t looking he went from a sweet, shy boy with a bowl-cut to a lanky, mysterious rocker. They once bathed together, shared candy and traded secrets when life was just a game. She’d fight away the bullies and he’d lend her his toys. And now she wanted more.
Monti looked at her mother. A tattered, crimson line of lace flashed from between Birdie’s thighs. Faces peeked from behind the curtains of her neighbors’ windows. She felt emotion break out on her face like a pubescent bout of acne. Fear. Anger. And when Daan clicked his teeth and said time to come in son - Shame.
She let go of his hand and grinned so wide she thought her cheeks would strain.
“What are you talking about? She worked a double at the bar last night and had to close. She must’ve fell asleep, or maybe she forgot her keys. Either way, it’s no big deal.”
He reached for her again but she turned away, desperate to get her mother inside.
“I’ll see you later, Sasha!”
The Fourth of July was once Richard Adamson’s favorite holiday because it represented freedom. As he grilled burgers on the wrap-around deck of his three-story beach house, a breeze sent white magnolia blossoms fluttering to the scenic road, and made the bay ripple and sparkle in the sunlight like a fireworks display. A yellow convertible cruised past his driveway, and Richard waved to be neighborly. He lived apart from the city, on a hill called Magnolia that sat above all of Seattle, above the port and boatyards, above the train tracks that rattled in Interbay, a swath of industrial land between Queen Anne and his house. He lived beyond the grime. He was on top. Yet, in this moment, in the prime of his life, he felt he was anything but free.
“Hey Dad, come watch me throw! I’ve got a perfect spiral.”
His son Clarke stood beside him, his second coming in both looks and ability. They both had red hair that seemed to catch fire in the light. They both had mossy green eyes. Both were muscular and athletic, and had the inherent, self-serving disposition of a streetwise alley cat. The only difference between them was that Richard had to claw for everything he had in life, working nights to put himself through law school. And Clarke was a spoiled, sniveling, teenaged brat who expected the world be handed to him.
“In a minute, son. I don’t want these burgers to burn,” Richard said. “Your mother would never forgive me for it."
“I don’t care about the burgers! We should’ve ordered pizza. Come on, watch me throw, you’ll be like, amazed I swear!”
It was just like his son to suggest pizza at a family barbecue. To want the opposite of what an occasion called for, not caring that his colleagues would be in attendance, judging his home and family.
He handed Clarke an ivory platter of expertly charred meat. He’d had it butchered and ground fresh from sirloin specifically for the occasion.
“Please take these inside to your mother.”
“I bet I can balance these on one hand.”
No surprise, Clarke would believe he could waiter though his whole life he’d only been waited on.
“Stop horsing around and take the food to your mother.”
“No, seriously look!”
Clarke put the heavy platter in the flat of his palm and walked inside. Richard watched as his foot caught in the thick, cream carpet of the dining room. The platter leaped from Clarke’s hand and smacked against the cherrywood table, leaving a small dent in the polished wood. The meat he’d had butchered fell to the floor, its greasy fond staining the carpet a coffee brown.
Richard didn’t get angry. He’d stopped feeling anger years ago. It was nothing less than what he expected. He walked past his son and avoided eye contact.
“Call Pizza Hut,” he said.
He squeezed his eyes shut when Clarke replied,
“But I want Little Caesar’s!”
* * *
“Hand me that perfume there, baby.”
Monti handed Birdie the bottle from the cedar dresser. She caught her reflection in the cloudy mirror, stained over the years with cheap window cleaner, dust and smoke. She looked so plain next to her mother, her hair a frizzy, kinky mop, her skin caught somewhere between white and redbone and her teeth an unfinished afterthought.
Birdie sprinkled the drugstore perfume on her wrists and rubbed them together, filling the room with the smell of rose-scented alcohol.
“Want to go to Gasworks Park, Momma? We could get hot dogs and watch the fireworks.”
Birdie smiled, her gold tooth glinting in the sunlight that streamed through the window and illuminated the dust particles floating through the air like tiny ghosts.
“Can’t, baby. Momma’s got to work.”
Birdie ran a tube of fuchsia lipstick across her bottom lip, then pressed both together. She filled in her eyebrows with a sepia pencil and swiped purple shadow over her eyelids. She pulled at her lashes with a mascara wand until they batted each time she blinked. Birdie’s golden skin seemed to come alive right in front of Monti’s eyes.
“You look beautiful,” Monti said.
Birdie covered her ample breasts in a primary-blue blouse, allowing them to spill over the frill of her neckline. She let her hair down, freed the sea of braids from the checkered scarf she wore to prevent frizz. Monti gasped as they cascaded down her back. Her mother turned heads, everywhere she went, and Monti could only hope to have a fraction of that beauty.
“You should see what your little friend is up to,” Birdie said, shimmying her thick thighs into fitted, flared jeans and strapping on a pair of platform sandals. She whipped her braids over one shoulder and checked herself in the mirror.
Monti sighed and leaned against the dresser, ignoring the acid that burned in her stomach. “Can’t. He’s in Edmonds visiting his grandparents.”
“Alright then, I got to jet. I’ll see you later tonight.”
“Momma?” Monti said, hovering in the living room as Birdie opened the front door.
“The fridge is empty. Will you get some groceries on the way home?”
“Of course baby, you know I will. Now where did I put my…”
Birdie dug through her purse in the doorway, standing just inches from where Monti found her sleeping days before.
“Why don’t we ever have money?” Monti asked.
“There you go, being ungrateful again. Know what I was doing at your age? Nursing that greedy little mouth of yours and wiping your spit-up from my chest.”
“I was just asking.”
“‘Why don’t we have money,’ girl you done lost your mind.”
“Will you be home early?”
“Why you asking?”
“Mr. Coen was pretty angry about you sleeping on the porch the other day.”
“Man, that cracker can mind his business. Can’t a working mother be tired from standing on her feet all night serving fools like him? And you know I be gettin’ sick.”
“Baby girl, I got to get down to the Wanderlust. You quit all that frettin’ now.”
Birdie kissed Monti’s forehead. Her mother’s face was full of warmth and love. “It’s all gravy,” she whispered.
Monti smiled until the image of her mother half-exposed on their stoop stopped hurting. She kissed Birdie goodbye.
Summers were always the hardest, when Birdie worked the most and there were no school lunches. But Monti knew everything would be fine. It’s all gravy. And Birdie was right every time. Things worked out in the end.
Certain things made the summers bearable. Sneaking into the movies with Sasha, hiking Seattle’s urban hills or pounding on her drums until the sticks began to splinter; these things made time stop, giving pause to the ever growing hunger that hollowed her belly.
Monti had barely eaten in two days, and the pit of her stomach roiled with hunger. She left The Bridgewater and walked across the Ballard Locks, watching as yachts passed from the Puget Sound into Lake Union, blue herons flying overhead and the gardens lush with flowers. She relished the burn in her strong quads as she moved up the hills of Magnolia, looking into the windows of the beautiful homes that smelled of beauty bark and fertilizer, summer wreaths on the front doors and birdhouses hung above the patios, hoping to catch a glimpse of a life well-lived. She found a shaded patch of grass at a park on the bluffs and watched boats float idly in the middle of the bay. She picked unripened blackberries from the wild bushes that grew along the bluff, and they were enough to ease her craving. There was much to be grateful for. Some years it rained so hard that fireworks and barbecues were deemed unseasonable, the red, white and blue banners made into soggy, purple towels. But this year the sky was clear. When the sun set, this spot on the bluffs would be the best place to watch the fireworks, the small plumes bursting from the waterfront houses on the opposite shore, like blooming, bay flowers that lived and died in a single, perfect, fire-filled moment. As she sat, the hunger baited her, called to her like a devil in heat. But she didn’t worry and didn’t heed its call. She would eat soon. She always found a way. Because everything was gravy.
* * *
Richard sat on the back deck and admired his yard. The grass was lush and catalogue-green. Blue hydrangeas grew along the fence, and a stone pathway led from the deck to a recessed pool in the center of the yard, surrounded by white, stone tiles. In the corner of the yard and behind a grove of rhododendron bushes the size of trees was a pool house, which mostly went unused. Over the years his wife Cassandra had grown to love the fuchsia and lilac-colored blossoms, and so what started as well-tended bushes had grown into an unkempt floral thicket. Sometimes Richard forgot the pool house existed at all.
Cassandra played croquet with three attorneys, men he’d known since law school. Tim Atkins and Jon Maim had gone into private litigation, and Lance Dell, like Richard, was a state prosecutor. He hoped they were enjoying themselves - it cost $300 a month to keep his yard immaculate for such occasions.
Richard sipped his whiskey, eyeing Lance as he, rather indiscreetly, rested his hand on the small of Cassandra’s back.
“Adamson, where did you find such a stunning wife?” Lance asked.
“Would you believe she stalked me?” Richard said.
Lance spun on his heels, slack-jawed.
“I wouldn’t. She’s too far out of your league.”
“That’s what I thought, too,” Richard said. “Cassandra Cummings, daughter of real estate mogul Armand Cummings, walked into a frat party of all places.”
“Oh don’t tell this story,” Cassandra said. She pointed her mallet at him as if she was shooting at a target.
“And at that party she said to me, ‘you forgot to zip your fly.’”
“So how did you win her?” Lance asked.
Richard set down his drink and leaned forward.
“I shrugged and said, ‘thank you for noticing.’”
“Then what happened?” Lance said.
“The next weekend she was sitting at my bar twirling a cherry stem between her lips. To this day she won’t tell me how she found out where I worked.”
Lance looked at Cassandra.
“You tigress,” he said.
Cassandra looked at Richard.
“Sometimes a woman has to take matters into her own hands, exhausting as it is.”
She dropped her mallet and walked to the pool. Her blonde, feathered curls bounced as she flounced into the cabana, her goddess silhouette reflected in the water. She sipped her white wine with a raised pinkie, and looked as though she hadn’t a care in the world.
There was a time it would’ve made him jealous, possessive even, to see his colleagues moon over his wife. But beauty couldn’t expunge loneliness, and what many thought was love had actually been youthful lust, dripping and hot before the inevitable congealment once the heat dissipated, much like the pizzas that cooled beside him on the patio table.
“Hey Dad, watch this!”
Clarke tossed the football back and forth with Lance. His son wasn’t good, but was the best Ballard had. Once Richard gave his attention Clarke chucked an ugly spiral that seemed to skip in the air towards Lance. Fortunately Lance was a former lacrosse player who moved well, and his sandy brown hair bounced with enthusiasm as he stretched out to catch the wayward ball before it ripped through the hydrangeas.
“Don’t throw so hard, someone will get hurt. If you want to play like that, call up your teammates and go to the park.”
Clarke skulked towards the house. When he was close enough for Richard to hear, he muttered under his breath, “Why don’t you grow a pair?”
Richard stood up and clamped his hand on Clarke’s shoulder. He leaned in so close his lips almost grazed Clarke’s ear.
“Don’t. Embarrass. Me.”
Clarke didn’t turn around. Richard could see his ears turning red. He flicked Richard’s hand away and walked inside.
Cassandra took a seat on the deck, Lance following close on her heels.
“Really honey, you should throw these pizzas away. No one is going to eat them.” His wife had insisted on dragging the butcher away from his family to cut more meat for the burgers. Refined principles prohibited her from serving food in a cardboard box.
Richard clenched his jaw. “I’ll do it later. Someone might get a second wind.”
Lance sat closest to Richard, eyeballing Cassandra as she wiped her chest with a moist toilette. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he discovered they were sleeping together. They always found a way to be near each other at work functions, and his wife had lived her thirty-six years without hearing the word “no.”
But worse was the fact that he didn’t care, and might be relieved by the idea of his wife taking a lover. It would make his desire to pack a bag and disappear into the forests of the Pacific Northwest easier to swallow, without that lump of guilt.
Tim and Jon stopped playing croquet and joined the party on the deck.
“Did you guys hear about the body they just found under the Ballard Bridge? Time of death makes her the first victim in what the cops are calling the ‘Headbanger Murders’,” Lance said.
“That’s three in one month,” Tim said. “But how do they know the murders are related?”
“All were black prostitutes. The papers say the killer bludgeoned them so violently their faces weren’t recognizable.”
“Cool. Did the paper show any pictures?” Clarke asked, appearing from behind Richard’s chair, his eyes wide.
Lance, Tim and Jon stared at Clarke. Cassandra looked at Richard, rolled her eyes and smiled.
Richard felt a chill slither down his spine. “This is an adult conversation,” he said to Clarke. “You should leave the table.”
Clarke pouted, then made a considerable show of removing his shirt and jumping into the pool, though Richard wasn’t sure who his son was trying to impress. Certainly his own mother didn’t care how fit his body was?
“Have they identified the body yet?” Richard asked.
“Yes, her name was Evie Tucker,” Cassandra said triumphantly, no doubt happy to have something to add to a topic Lance found interesting.
Lance raised his eyebrows at her, and she shrugged.
“I read the paper every morning,” she said.
The blood drained from Richard’s face. He took a sip from his drink, and then choked as a piece of ice caught in his throat. Cassandra stared at him, her beautiful mouth pursed.
“So who do you think is doing it?” Lance asked, popping an olive from his martini into his mouth.
Richard cleared his throat and relaxed his shoulders down his back, “Probably some lonely guy with mother issues.”
Lance shook his head. “I bet it’s a Boeing’s worker who’s just been laid off. Maybe a janitor. And definitely a black man.” He threw his hands in the air in a way that might’ve suggested he’d been directly affected. “First the recession, and now this. They put Ted Bundy away just two years ago. Pretty soon Seattle will be known as the serial killer capital of the world.”
Richard swirled the whiskey in his glass.
“Why do you think the killer is black?”
“Because he obviously prefers black women. So he can’t be white.”
Richard shook his head. “Unbelievable.”
“Chin up,” Jon said, pouring a glass of water and wiping the sweat from his forehead into his slick, black hair. “It’s people like this Headbanger Hunter who keep men like us in business.”
“I personally don’t see what the big deal is. Seems to me this Headbanger is doing what you lawmen haven’t been able to,” Cassandra said.
“What do you mean by that, sweetheart?” Lance asked.
“Downtown is disgusting. Drug dealers and prostitutes conduct their business out in the open. You can’t go to the Market without getting hustled or whistled at,” Cassandra said. She flipped her hair and simpered for what seemed like Lance’s benefit.
Richard finished his whiskey in one gulp, letting his hand fall so the glass cracked against the table. Everyone jumped.
“No one deserves to die like that,” he said.
His wife shrugged and smiled, became preoccupied with her manicure, and his fingers curled around his empty drink as if he might choke the last drops of whiskey from the glass.
Jon smirked and shrugged at Tim, and they shared the look of two parents appeasing a tantrum.
Lance cleared his throat. “I think what Cassandra meant is that, though tragic, criminal behavior breeds violent consequences. And maybe this Headbanger Hunter will give incentive to the prostitutes and pimps to close up shop.”
Lance tapped the table with his forefinger and raised his eyebrows at Richard. Who was he trying to impress? Why was it that every cocksure male was looking for his approval today?
“That was cute, Lance. Really. But I don’t think my wife has the ability to reason so eloquently. Street people are icky and she’d rather see them dead. Isn’t that right, honey?”
Cassandra bored into him with her ignited, hazel eyes. It was a terrible game of foreplay. He was the poor, foster boy from the wrong side of town from whom she’d lost favor. And she desperately tried to regain his affection. Not for love of course. For some women, rejection was just a challenge to prove their self-worth.
She crossed one of her bare legs over a knee, and let her white, silk dress slide up her lean, tanned thigh.
“If you say so,” she said. “Though you’ve always been sympathetic to the less fortunate.” She turned to Lance. “You wouldn’t know it by looking at him now, but when he was young Richard was quite the—”
Richard kicked her shin beneath the table, hard enough to bruise her perfect, porcelain skin. She gritted her teeth but didn’t cry out. And though her nostrils flared he saw the dusky attraction in the wilt of her eyelashes. He pictured the threat of her nails cutting into his hard back. Maybe he would fuck her later, a punishing act that slammed her against the chestnut headboard and made her feel fleetingly desired. But then again, maybe he wouldn’t.
The sun sunk below the clouds, turning them into polarized, neon tufts in orange and purple. Clarke had taken the Mustang to find his friends, their guests had gone home, and Cassandra was in bed complaining of a headache. Richard sat at the island in the kitchen, his backside sore from the wooden stool. The setting sun shone through the sliding glass door so he could see his reflection in the floor’s white, marble tiles. The cabinets and appliances were yellow and bubbly, just like Cassandra, and there were white lilies in a crystal vase in the center of the counter island.
It was a perfect moment in a perfect life.
He gathered up the pizza boxes from the counter, muttering to himself about waste. He walked outside and to the side of the house where the garbage cans were kept. He didn’t see the figure rifling through the trash. They nearly collided.
“What are you doing? This is private property and you’re trespassing.”
He dropped the pizza into the trash, but stopped his tirade when he saw the girl’s scowl. She looked to be his son’s age, and wore a baggy, moth-eaten t-shirt that drowned her cut-off jean shorts. Her hair was black and shoulder-length, coiled into frizzy spirals that gave it a mane-like quality. She was tall, the crown of her head reaching the height of his nose, and Richard guessed she was just shy of six feet. But the most outstanding feature was her gray eyes, dark and stormy and hooded like Seattle’s sky during a rainstorm.
“Rich people got the cleanest trash,” she said.
Richard looked at the pizza, uneaten and discarded though it was perfectly edible. He felt ashamed. Because when he looked into her eyes he saw the boy he’d once been.
Most kids grew up believing in magic, that if they wished or prayed or asked of their loved ones, their dreams would come true. But growing up in foster care taught Richard one thing: he would have to create his own magic, by any means necessary. He suspected this girl was looking to do the same, because in her blank expression he recognized the neglect he knew all too well as a child.
She ran before he could say another word, and something compelled him to follow. He stood in his front yard and she on the other end of the street, florets of fireworks popping around her like rainbow fireflies. She looked like a fallen angel, with gravel streaks on her face and broken teeth, and he knew it was his calling to save her. Because it was the only way to save himself. He waved; ‘we are kindred’ he tried to convey. But in response she flipped him the bird and walked calmly away, disappearing over the bluffs.
It was the day after America’s birthday, and Sasha was jonesing hard. He hadn’t been able to touch his guitar for the two days the store was closed, fearing his father would hear him play. Though it felt sacrilegious to walk into an establishment named Holy Mountain Books & Worship, his father’s store was the only option for work that summer. Most businesses were not keen to hire a sixteen-year-old boy who painted his nails black and thought wearing a spiked dog-collar, with the words I’m a Good Boy, was amusingly ironic.
Holy Mountain was located in the heart of downtown Ballard, nestled between a Bavarian meat shop and a diner. Ballard had been settled in the late 1800’s, and was a beacon for Scandinavian immigrants. It was a place of opportunity, with its maritime and logging industries and direct access to the Puget Sound, and in 1907 became annexed into the city of Seattle. Sasha called it Caucasia. Even June Cleaver would’ve said it wasn’t diverse enough. Everyone was either too old or too young, and so incredibly white and conservative that the DJs working the school dances played “The Hokey Pokey” for the last song of the night. Neighbors waved to one another as they swept the pathways to their craftsman houses. They shopped for dinner at the Scandinavian Shoppe, complaining to the owner about the deer that assaulted their vegetable garden. Most last names ended in “son” or “sen,” and substitute teachers struggled with morning roll call as they stumbled over names like “Bjornstad.”
But beneath the layers of the blue collar and middle class, intermingled with the single families living on their expansive green lots with old barns in their backyards, were the people that skirted beneath the awareness of every American community. Single mothers raising their kids in small apartments. Fishermen who drank away their sea-given sorrows after a hazardous crabbing season. And the dope fiends who frequented the motels dotting the corridor from Fifteenth Avenue and east to Highway 99. And somewhere, amidst the high-living and disparity, Sasha found himself caught between his easy life and the apathy he felt towards it.
Sasha stared mindlessly at the droning television, which was mounted above a shelf holding cheesy, teen books like the Elizabeth Gail Wind Rider series. He blew the hair from his face and drummed his fingers on the counter, playing air guitar in his mind.
The door opened, sounding the welcome bell, and Ms. Jenkins wobbled into the store. Her cane made pockmark sounds on the hard, gray carpet and Sasha smelled her perfume though she was a good yard away. Ballard was a small community, but he didn’t involve himself in the conservative gossip, and knew only that Ms. Jenkins was old and had never been married. He thought it was sad, for someone to be so devout and also a spinster. She was probably a seventy-year-old virgin. And the most exciting thing to happen to her body was the desperation-induced phenomena of speaking in tongues. Women like Ms. Jenkins only made love to God.
Sasha was also a virgin, but knew he wouldn’t be waiting by the law of God. He planned to have sex, lots of it. But not in the cliche way he heard boys talk about in the locker room before gym class. As with music, he felt sex should be a form of fervent craftsmanship. Something made between two people to release the energy of tangential love so the vagabonds of the universe wouldn’t starve. And though he had yet to define the nature of his future partner, he was certain it would not happen with just anyone.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. Is there something I can help you with?”
Ms. Jenkins placed her cane on the counter, forcing Sasha to sit up straight.
“Yes, sonny, sure can. You can help me by cutting that hair. You look like a little girl. I know your father has asked you on more than one occasion.” She winked, drawing the wrinkled skin around her eyes together like an accordion. “I come here every week to get a new story, so we get to chatting, him and I.”
“Would you believe that I’m the second coming of Samson? My strength is in this hair. I can’t cut it.”
She reached across the counter and pinched his chin.
“Such a pretty, sad boy. I’ll forgive you for being a smart-ass.”
“I can’t believe you just said ‘ass’ Ms. Jenkins.”
“How now, so did you. Do you have Once Upon a Summer by Janet Oke? I’d look myself, but my hip hurts.”
Sasha went to the shelf of new releases and found the book, but he stopped short as Daan took his place behind the counter. His father was only in his forties, but had the stooped stance of an older man, a man who’d lost his fight but still struggled against the tide. His once blonde hair was turning white, and the limp he acquired during a short stint in Vietnam had become more pronounced.
“Make sure the cover’s not bent, Mikael.” Daan turned a friendly smile on Ms. Jenkins. “Only the best for my favorite customer.”
Sasha cringed at his father’s address of his given name. He’d given up years ago, because Daan could not understand a son with his own identity, a son who insisted on naming himself. According to Daan, “Mikael” was a strong name, with a Norwegian spelling and special meaning. In the Bible, Michael was the archangel who defended God’s people, and it was Daan’s hope that his only child would live up to the title. But Sasha was no angel, no defender of God. The best way to save people was to get them high off acid and make them listen to Bad Religion.
“Sure thing, Daan,” Sasha said through clenched teeth.
He handed Ms. Jenkins the book, but her attention was on the television. Daan turned the volume up, and even Sasha was intrigued by the breaking news.
A curious disease has reared itself in the cities of New York and San Francisco. A rare and often rapidly fatal cancer has been diagnosed in forty-one cases, and eight of the patients died within twenty-four months after the discovery of the disease. But what makes this disease even more curious? It affects only gay men between the ages of twenty-six and fifty-one.
The report cut to an emaciated man in a hospital gown, reddish-purple spots seared into the pale skin of his back. His skin looked stretched, the rough bumps of his spine nearly piercing the surface. Like a leopard, once beautiful but now ravaged by disease.
Sasha felt his stomach clench, a flock of butterflies stirring up his breakfast. The newscaster called the disease Karposi Sarcoma, but before he could find out more, Daan switched to a Christian channel.
“Hey!” Sasha said. “I want to know what’s happening.”
“I’ll tell you what’s happening. That’s God smiting the wretched. Serves them right, damn faggots.”
“It’s a shame, really. These poor men, they could help themselves if only they’d denounce Satan. If we could get them to church, I’d bet they’d find their way,” Ms. Jenkins said.
“I don’t want queers at my Sunday service,” Daan said.
“Now that’s not very Christian-like. Everyone can be saved,” Ms. Jenkins said, tapping her cane on the floor.
Sasha looked up and found them staring at him, as if he was a stray dog that had just wandered in.
“I think you need to stop hanging out with that girl. She’s a bad influence on you,” Daan said. “Maybe a dyke, too.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I know something changed in you, ever since you started going to that nigger church. Wearing makeup and your hair long. You look like a faggot.”
Ms. Jenkins politely excused herself, leaving a five dollar bill on the counter.
“That mother of hers exposed herself in broad daylight. I want you to stop seeing her. She’s no good. That family is touched by the Devil. And I forbid you from going to that church.”
Sasha considered his options. He knew he would never leave Monti. She’d been the only friend he’d had since his mother’s death. But since she’d already decided against attending Mt. Calvary, he smiled sweetly and said,
“Yessir. I will not go to Mt. Calvary anymore.”
What he did not say was that he had no intention of attending Daan’s church either, with all the posers who preached purity and forgiveness, yet spit hate and judgement from their mouths just as easily. Or that he would never cut his hair - it didn’t bother him if people thought he looked queer. He had to pick his battles in the war against his freedom. He had to be strategic until he graduated, or risked losing that freedom forever.
The lowering sun hid behind a blanket of clouds as the workday drew to a close. Daan had retired to the stock room to finish his order for the coming week. The bell chimed once again, but this time Sasha was excited to see the visitor.
Tommy Pearson stood at the entrance, wearing all black in spite of the heat. His hair was also black, and combined with his lanky frame, it gave him the simple and unassuming look of a Bic pen. He lifted a single finger in greeting as he blew a dank cloud from his mouth.
“You can’t smoke pot in here, man. My dad will flip.”
Tommy licked his fingertips and extinguished the joint with a crisp hiss, half-grinning.
“Rough day?” he asked, making Sasha tuck his face into one of his knobby shoulders.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
Sasha considered the answer, pulling his chin length hair away from his face. There was a rumor Tommy had been locked in a broom closet with the school janitor, that he was both a delinquent and a fag. And everyone in the neighborhood had heard about the Pearson boy, including his father.
“My dad would kick your ass, if he knew we were friends.”
Tommy laughed. “Is that what we are?”
Sasha shrugged, tracing the counter.
“What are you doing here?”
“Brought some more stuff over. A whole backpack full. Walked my ass all the way from downtown so I wouldn’t get robbed on the bus. So be grateful. I put it in your truck.”
“The truck was locked,” Sasha said.
Tommy winked. “Not for me.”
Daan coughed loudly from the backroom, causing Sasha to jump.
“Wow, you’re all wound up. I’ve got something for that.” Tommy leaned against the counter, so close Sasha smelled his shampoo.
“Let’s get out of here. I just got the Sex Pistols on vinyl. That and some of my finest pot oughta mellow you out.”
Sasha looked over his shoulder at the back room.
“Alright,” he said. "Let’s go.”
* * *
The trouble with boys is they think they know everything. Daan had been a boy once, hopped up on confidence and nicotine. He’d joined the army and left his wife at home with their new baby. By the time he’d returned, with part of his knee cap blown away and shrapnel caught in his hip, his son was three years old. And his wife could no longer recognize him.
The trouble with boys is they think no one knows anything. Its why Sasha believed he hadn’t been caught with the Pearson boy, why he believed Daan was doing inventory when in fact he was sitting idle in a stockroom, surrounded by the words of Jesus, rubbing the faded spots on the photo of his wife with his thumb, a photo warped by his tears.
“Daan.” It meant “Judged by God.” And if, as a young boy enlisting in the war of Vietnam, Daan had known anything, he’d have realized how true this was. Because he watched as villages, surrounded by the lush, green jungles of a foreign Eden, burned down to char and coal, taking the lives of babies and grandmothers and everything between.
One moment, the golden fingers of a teenage boy plucked rice from the fields. In an instant, those same fingers curled against the marrow of his broken wrists.
Ash and bone.
One moment, a mother clutched her child to her breast, cooing comforts in a foreign dialect, only to have their skulls shattered by the bullets he’d loaded into the rifle he carried. The rifle he’d named, “Savior.”
He’d seen the horrors of men, the evil that lurked inside them, inside himself, waiting to be unleashed. Hell was not a place to avoid, buried beneath the earth, but a cage from which mankind needed to escape. And so there had to be a God. There had to be one, and that’s what kept Daan living. Otherwise, everyone was doomed.
Daan knew it was too late for him. And though he tried, it soon became too late for Daphne as well. And maybe that was his punishment for being the worse kind of sinner. The kind that licked the blood from his lip, left in the wake of his crimes, as though it were sweet jam.
But he would keep Mikael from the horrors of the world.
The liars. The leeches. The fags. The niggers.
Even if it meant his son would despise him.
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