Got anything fun planned tonight? You should enjoy your last hours as a kid.
Beth must have read Maggie's text a dozen times before she finally tried to answer it. It wasn't a trick question or anything, but all the same...
She erased her response without sending it and sighed, then dialed Maggie.
Maggie must have had a cold when she recorded her voicemail, "Hey, sorry I didn't pick up—don't leave a message, I'm not gonna listen to that. Just hang-up and text me. See ya."
Beth dropped the phone onto her bed and stared at it, contemplating whether or not she'd heed Maggie's instructions. Out the open window, she could hear Otis playing his guitar on the porch below. He paused a moment as voices interrupted him, her mother and Patricia.
Hey Maggie, I'm not—
What wasn't she? She wasn't feeling so hot these days. I'm not sure about anything. She erased the text.
I just wanna talk— Beth backspaced over these words as quickly as they appeared on the screen.
Call me whenever— but she deleted the message and gave up. "Stupid," she said to herself under her breath. "You're just being stupid." She had nothing to complain about. My life is perfect, she thought to herself as a grey cloud ambled over the sun, casting the room into a gloomy state that didn't suit the flowery décor.
Out the open window she caught sight of Leon's murdered-out black Accord tearing the dust up from the road. The car came to rough stop right in front of her farmhouse and everyone poured out, Leon and Luke from the front seats, and Karen and Minnie from the back. Even from this distance, she could tell that the girls were wearing heavy make-up. With a glance at the mirror in the bathroom, she realized that she still hadn't put any make-up on yet. She'd meant to. She'd also meant to change, but she was still in the jeans and pink, sleeveless blouse that she'd worn during her ride that afternoon. She smelled like horse.
Would they really be all that disappointed if she told them she wasn't feeling up to it? Her mom and dad would probably see right through her faking sick, but they wouldn't give her away. It was her birthday in a few hours—well, her birthday and her friend Minnie's. They decided to celebrate together, months earlier. Still, she ought to be able to do what she wanted on her birthday.
But what she wanted to do was nothing, and she had to admit that there was something pretty troubling and sad about that.
Her friends promised to make her go out and live life. They hadn't steered her very wrong yet.
She forced herself onto her feet, pulled her boots on and checking the mirror one more time. She didn't look like she was going to a concert. She looked like she worked on a farm and forgot to brush her hair on a regular basis. Then again, the concert would mean she'd just get sweaty and disheveled anyway.
As she was going down the stairs, her phone chirped at her from her pocket.
Hey Beth, you called me?
Maggie had been living in Atlanta for the last year. The distance wasn't too bad, but it was far enough that Beth looked forward to seeing her sister more than anything else, these days.
You coming Sunday? After thinking about it, Beth decided that she wasn't sure she should bug Maggie with her imagined problems, especially not when Maggie probably had legitimate drama to deal with in her new Atlanta life.
Beth said a quick 'see ya' to her parents and Otis and Patricia, who told her to be safe. She purposefully didn't meet her father's eyes. Something about his face in the corner of her eye told her he already determined to disapprove of whatever her friends had planned that night.
"Hey Beth, you remember my cousin Leon, right?" Minnie hung off the side of the car-door, clearly anxious to get going.
"Hey," Beth smiled at Leon but he went in for the hug, which took her by surprise.
Leon looked like Minnie right around the eyes and mischievous smile, but he was a lot bigger than her. Beth hugged him back, feeling awkward.
With a roguish grin he gestured to the car, "You carriage, ma'am."
"This is his little brother Luke," said Karen with a peculiar smile on her face, the way she said it made Beth think there was some joke she wasn't in on.
She would never have used the word 'little' to describe Luke. He was built like a line-backer and wearing a Georgia Tech T-shirt.
"Cool, get on in, we'll let out."
The five of them piled into the car, out of habit, Beth watched her home disappear out the back window.
"That must be a real sweet place to live," Leon commented on the farm.
"You ever made sweet peach wine?"
"Uh, no," Beth admitted, "Lots of peaches though."
"Her daddy don't abide alcohol," Karen explained, inspecting Beth's jeans with her fingers and a frown of disapproval. Both she and Minnie were wearing light, airy and revealing outfits, perfect for a concert.
"I respect that," said Leon with a nod and a glance at his brother that said otherwise.
Beth let the four of them talk while she watched her phone for Maggie's response. It took almost twenty minutes for her to reply.
Yeah, I'm coming Sunday.
Beth breathed a sigh of relief. She'd been worried all week that something would happen to make Maggie miss her birthday dinner.
Bringing anybody? She texted, she was curious to know how things were going with Maggie's boyfriend, Zach, but mostly she just wanted to keep talking with her as long as she could.
Maggie never texted her back to reply, which Beth took to mean that her sister didn't know whether or not her boyfriend was coming with her to meet the family. The car was loud and unruly. Beth tried to follow their conversations, but kept finding her mind drifting away.
She caught up, just in time to hear Leon say, "Alright, let's play us a game—If I can guess at what age you had your first puff on a joint, than each one of you has to admit that I'm a bona fide genius and the greatest human being you've ever known."
Juvenile, especially considering that Leon looked like he was probably about twenty-five, but Beth smiled to herself and said, "Alright, me first," quickly.
Leon peered at her through the rearview mirror, drawing his eyebrows in as he made a show of thinking, "I'm gonna say sixteen."
"Wrong. Still virgin!" Minnie blurted-out before Beth could say anything.
"No way—Minnie, where'd you find yourself a friend who don't smoke?" Luke turned around from the passenger seat to look at them.
"She don't do nothin' really. I mean nothin'."
"Yeah, I'm pretty boring," said Beth, suddenly uncomfortable.
"It's been like that ever since we was fifteen and we started playing never-have-I-ever with booze we swiped from mom's liquor cabinet. We partake—she just watches," Karen leaned over to kiss Beth on the cheek, leaving a smear of gloss that shimmered on the back of Beth's hand when she pulled it back.
"Three years later, and it's the same story… but she drives us home," said Minnie proudly, "She's responsible like that."
"Our own personal Designated Driver Barbie," Karen added.
"I've gotta be exempt from this game—you were there," said Luke.
"Alright, ya get a pass—Minnie, I'm gonna say fifteen was a pretty eventful year for ya."
Minnie frowned but it steadily pulled into a grin as she nodded, "Yeah—you could say it was—alright, I'll say it. You're a bona fide genius and the greatest person I've ever known, mostly 'cause you do sweet things like buy me and my friends concert tickets for my birthday."
"Yeah, I'm one generous guy, it's true."
Out the window, a road-sign caught her eye. "Uh—I think you turned off too early," Beth warned Leon. No one seemed the least bit concerned by what she'd said. In fact they all pointedly looked away.
"Truth is, we're makin' a little stop. There's someone Minnie's been asking me to introduce her to," Leon cleared his throat, his face going red as he smiled at her through the rear-view mirror. She caught a glimpse of the road out the back window. A couple of motorcycles were gaining on the Accord, as it wasn't going fast enough for their taste. Their engines rumbled angrily.
They had found their way to a fairly isolated neighborhood, fenced in naturally by a small woodland. "Who?" Beth asked.
Leon pulled over against the curb in front of a house before he answered, "Well… The name's Nick, and he's my dealer. One of 'em. The good one."
"Are ya kiddin' me?" Beth had never heard her own voice sound so toneless. Then again, she could barely hear herself over the motorcycles. The bikes pulled off on the curb and their engines shut off, leaving a windy silence.
She met Leon's eyes in the rearview and grit her teeth as he grinned, clearly amused by her shock. Why am I even surprise?
"It's just a quick stop," said Minnie with an apologetic glance over her shoulder. Her cheeks were red and she was biting her lip. "I swear. We're just gonna pick up some stuff from Leon and Luke's guy."
"This place looks like the opening shot of a horror movie," Beth climbed out of the car and slammed the door shut in one fluid movement.
The two guys on motorcycles had parked on the other side of the street. She hadn't looked at them straight on yet, but out of the corner of her eye she already formed the impression that they firmly belonged on this street.
She'd never seen a neighborhood this obviously bad in her life, let alone willingly stepped onto the curb. The houses were all shabby to the point of careless neglect. No one who lived here took pride in it. The low, cheaply made rooftops sagged, the sidings were crumbling and she could see broken windows. In some places people had tried for some rudimentary repair with found objects; sheet metal, molding cardboard and chicken-wire were visible from where she stood.
Leon and Luke didn't get out of the car, but Minnie and Karen bounced up the driveway.
"Ain't you comin'? He's your dealer, I imagine, you oughta introduce us?" Beth lingered on the curb, leaning down, resting her hands on her knees. She peered in through the window. She would feel a lot better about them going inside if they had a couple of big strong guys with them.
Leon wouldn't look her in the eye, but he was still smiling, and he rolled down the window to better talk to her. "Nah, that's okay—at least it don't seem like Minnie minds, but if you're really looking for formal introductions," he cleared his throat, "The Dixon brothers here can do the honors," with that, Leon reached through the window to clasp a large, heavy hand.
Beth started. She hadn't realized that the two motorcycle riders had gotten this close, or that they were heading to the same house. She pushed a curtain of blonde hair aside and stood up straight to face them.
"Hey Merle," said Leon stiffly to the man who's hand he grabbed.
"Lookin' for a fun time tonight, kid?" Merle asked Leon, but his gaze was on Beth with a grin that immediately made her feel like she needed four showers. Her first impression of him, besides the unsavory feeling that slithered down her throat was that he was a big man, wide chest and thick knuckles and hair cropped so close to his head that she could see his scalp all the way around. She'd guess that he was around fifty years old. He was dressed in leathers, with a studded cuff on one wrist.
"Not tonight, man," Leon shook his head, "We're fresh outta cash, so we thought we'd be better to just wait—avoid temptation and all that—hey Daryl, doin' alright?" Leon craned his head to look around Merle and address the other Dixon brother.
Daryl was meandering on the curb, eyes on the gutter, though he looked up and nodded to Leon. He wasn't as tall as his brother, but he had wide shoulders and big hands, like him. He was clearly a lot younger, but Beth couldn't place his age. She wouldn't be surprised if he was as young as his late twenties or as old as his forties. Like his brother, he was wearing motorcycle leathers. With his body turned away from them she could barely catch a glimpse of a pair of stitched-on angel wings on the back of his vest.
"Yeah, we're just here to hook up the girls," said Luke indicating Nick's house with his eyes.
Minnie and Karen were hovering in front of the door, seemingly pushing one another to actually do the knocking.
"Oh, so it's you lookin' for a party, is it?" Merle turned to face Beth directly. All pretense of being interested in what the boys had to say sliding away.
Deer in the headlights was a fairly unfamiliar feeling for Beth. She didn't like it.
"Not her—her ass was dragged along, but, hey, night's still young. We'll make a wild-child of her yet," Luke winked at Beth.
She rolled her eyes back at him, "Can we please just go?"
"Go hurry your friends along—we'll be waitin'," Luke blushed red as he waved Beth off.
She took another sideways look at the Dixon brothers and was sorely tempted to wait in the car with Luke and Leon, but something about letting her friends (who she was beginning to realize might not have the best judgment) enter a crack-den by themselves didn't sit right with her.
Besides that, if she was being completely honest with herself, she was a little curious to see the inside of this place. Would it be as foreboding as the outside? She didn't feel precisely like she was in danger, but more that she was aware that she should feel uneasy. In the end, she just wished that Luke and Leon would get out of the car and come with her.
"Are we even going to the concert? Tell the truth." Beth demanded.
Next to her, Merle's grin widened and he let out a throaty chuckle. "No good lyin' to the girl, she'll make you pay for it later."
Leon nodded vigorously, "Of course we're goin' to the concert. I paid for the tickets."
"You guys are jerks," said Beth in her sweetest voice. With that, she turned on her heel and marched up the driveway. Merle was laughing; he leaned against the car, while Daryl fell into step just behind her
"Oh, come on!" Leon called after her, but she ignored him.
Karen and Minnie had vanished at some point, though she hadn't noticed anyone answer the door. Tentatively, Beth reached out to knock, but Daryl brushed right up next to her. She stiffened inadvertently as he passed so close that she was hit full in the face with the smell of cigarette smoke and motor-oil. He was taller than her by a head, and made a visible effort not to meet her eyes as they were standing so close. Clearing his throat he turned the knob and pushed the door open, stepping back and gesturing for her to go on with one hand.
She bit her lip and meant to glance up at his eyes, but got snagged looking at his mouth instead. He had a short goatee and his lips were in a thin line, curled slightly into his teeth so he could chew on them anxiously. She was struck with the immediate impression that he didn't smile much. Right before she would have stared too long she forced her eyes up to his and said, "…We just walk in?"
"Pfft," Impatient with civility, Daryl walked inside the house, nudging her shoulder with his arm as he swept past.
She gave the curb a quick backward glance. Merle was still saying some words to Leon and Luke in a quiet shout, as he walked backwards up the driveway. She took a deep breath and stepped inside the house. Daryl had already booked it out of sight. The little hallway made a straight-shot into the backyard of the lot, also splitting into a narrow, awkwardly steep staircase and a couple of rooms. The first was a living room and Beth was immediately struck by how normal the place looked. Shabby, certainly, but she wouldn't have pegged it for the lair of a drug-dealer. There was a small fireplace, a pretty nice flat-screen and Blu-ray, a couple of mismatched chairs and a couch. Some heavy blinds kept too much sunlight from coming it. The carpet was old and probably didn't get cleaned regularly. It was clearly a very lived-in kind of place; heavy with the weight of bodies trying to rest between obligations. She could hear voices coming from the kitchen, but none of them sounded like Karen or Minnie.
A heavy hand rested on her shoulder as Merle caught up to her. He closed the front door with a snap and jerked his head towards the back of the house, "That way kiddo, your friends'll be in the bedroom with Nick." he winked at her and sauntered off, heading towards the kitchen, where the voices greeted him at boisterous decibels.
She started back in the direction that he'd indicated, but she could already hear them exiting the room. Karen and Minnie were restraining giggles while Nick told them "Y'all hustle back next time you're lookin' for some recreation," he was a stocky, heavy-browed man with a deep and oddly soothing voice. "Y'all are some lucky girls, lemme tell ya. Luke and Leon hooked you up—and I'ma take care of ya." His dark eyes fell on Beth and his smile didn't falter, "Hey sha."
"Nice to meet you," Beth mumbled, "We all done here?"
"Looks like your friend's in a hurry," Nick chuckled, "I'll see ya out." He paused and his skin paled ever so slightly as sirens sounded, not close, but not far enough away. When he saw all three girls staring at him, he laughed shortly, "Tough habit to break," he shrugged it off, "Don't worry, kids, it's a shitty neighborhood, the pigs pay a visit from time to time, but they won't come here." Even as he spoke it sounded like the sirens were nearing them, but with confidence he walked them right to the door and swung it open. Simultaneously, Beth heard the shrieking of tires as Luke and Leon peeled away from the curb like the devil himself had revved his engine at their back.
Minnie's jaw dropped to her collarbone and her eyebrows shot up.
"Shit!" said Karen and she immediately burst into a fit of laughter.
"Whoa there—I 'spose chivalry's dead, and all?" Nick chuckled, peering around the corner of the street where they'd disappeared. The last few words he spoke were drowned out as the sirens became impossibly loud, before they abruptly shut off, but the flicker of red and blue lights from the other side of the street drew her eye. Nick was right—the cops weren't coming here. They were chasing a neat, old El Camino that had jumped up the curb three seconds before the driver tumbled out and headed into a different house at a run.
The cops were too late to stop him—he was inside the house with the door slammed shut in an instant. Five officers drew their weapons and approached cautiously. For a moment, everyone just watched the scene, all of them admittedly fascinated by the spectacle. But there wasn't much to see. In minutes, something must have changed, because she saw them all back off from the house, lingering by their cars. One of them was shouting into a radio.
"What a couple of pussies," Minnie finally spoke. Glaring at the opposite end of the street, where Leon and Luke had made a run for it. She ripped her cell phone out of the pocket of her mini-skirt and Beth saw her begin to type furiously, THE HELL!? GIT UR PANSYASSES BACK HERE!
Beth finally laughed too, it was kind of funny.
Nick leaned against the doorframe, smirking at the three of them.
Their smiles all ebbed as more sirens filled the air.
"Uh…" Nick furrowed his brow as three more units appeared on the opposite end of the street. More sirens screamed in the distance and Beth began to worry that every cop in Georgia was converging onto this one little street. She hadn't felt panicked yet, not even when Leon and Luke took off, or when the cops almost rushed the house down the street, but now she was starting to get nervous, because Nick looked nervous. "Maybe… come inside and hang for a few, 'till we can get your boys back here."
Minnie's phone buzzed, Beth glanced at the screen over her shoulder. Are they gone?
"What do you mean 'are they gone' ya idiot?!" Minnie shouted out-loud, "Y'all let out not two minutes ago!" She began to text WHERE ARE YOU? Then deleted the message, "I'ma call 'im."
Nick ushered them back into the house, looking nervously at the small cavalry of police who had invaded the street. "Just stay calm," he said, still trying to laugh it off, though a few beads of sweat had appeared on his forehead in the last few minutes.
Back inside the house, the sound of sirens was muffled a bit. From the kitchen, a thin guy with a short Mohawk appeared, "Problem, Nick?"
"Nah, don't think so, Andy," Nick shrugged, "The girls are just a little excited 'cause their boys skedaddled when they heard 'em cops."
Andy let out a bark of laughter.
"What—what happened?" Beth heard Merle demand from the kitchen.
"Leon and Luke ditched their friends here," Andy explained, leaning back into the kitchen.
"The fuck is wrong with ya, boy?!" Minnie demanded, indicating that she must have been able to get Leon to answer his phone. "You're my cousin—my kin, and ya just leave me stranded like this?!"
Exchanging a look with Karen, Beth headed towards the kitchen after Nick, leaving Minnie alone in the hallway to chew Leon out over the phone.
In the kitchen, Andy took his place at a table with Merle and two other guys who looked like they were probably related to Nick.
Daryl was sitting on the edge of the counter, removed from the others and kind of hunched over. When the girls entered he glanced up, "They left you here?" she realized it was the first time she'd heard him speak. Like his brother, he had the same deep country accent and a similar gravelly quality to his voice, like he'd smoked every cigarette he could find. Beth couldn't help but notice that everyone looked up at him when he spoke, not just listening but heeding.
She nodded in response, wearing a plastic smile.
"My little baby brother don't approve," Merle chuckled, "Ask 'im nicely, I be he'll rough 'em up for ya."
"I think Missy in there can handle it herself," said Daryl darkly, indicating with one hand the hallway where Minnie was shrieking at her cousins.
"WHAT DO YOU MEAN THE COPS ARE SETTING UP A BARRICADE?!"
At that, everyone perked up. "What the hell's goin' on Nick? Can't you control your neighbors?" asked Andy, nervously thumbing at the spiked locks in the front of his mohawk .
"There's two dozen houses on this block, I've only ever spoken to the lady a couple doors down and her kid," Nick shrugged, "I don't know what people get up to. But I can tell ya… number 708, across the way. You seen the El Camino parked there?"
"Oh yeah," said Merle and all the guy's suddenly nodded in recognition. "That guy? He lent me a light once. Seemed okay."
"He's got the cavalry after him tonight, for some reason," said Nick.
Merle let out a heavy sigh and shook his head in disproval, "People, huh?"
Finally, as her eyes crossed Merle's gaze Beth started to feel real fear creep in. Something serious was going on. What were the chances that she'd be able to get out of here without talking to the police? What if they guessed what she and her friends were doing there? She and Minnie were technically still underage. They hadn't graduated yet. Her stomach twisted as she remembered some students from her high school a few years ago who'd been expelled during their senior year and weren't allowed to walk, precisely because they got caught in a place like this, with illegal substances like the ones that Minnie and Karen had on them.
How close were they to that kind of a scenario, right now?
From the look on Karen's face, she was having similar thoughts. The men continued to laugh and talk as if nothing was bothering them, but Beth saw little signs that indicated that they might be getting anxious as well. She didn't know any of them well enough to be sure, but Nick seemed twitchy, very different from the relaxed demeanor that he'd first displayed. He kept scratching his head and glancing in the direction of the front door. Daryl didn't seem to know what to do with his hands, he fidgeted while looking in the one direction that was guaranteed to help him best avoid eye-contact with anyone; out the back window.
Minnie's shouted phone conversation fell silent for several minutes. For a while it seemed like the room was breathing easier, and then Minnie's voice came back, muffled at first, but it steadily grew as she started talking faster. "They won't let you through? Well—but they gotta let us leave. They can't just keep us inside the barricade." they only had to wait a beat before Minnie snapped, "Why not?" Minnie scoffed, "What the hell's that 'spose to mean?!"
Everyone in the kitchen was frozen solid, listening intently. No one pretended like they weren't trying to overhear the one-sided conversation.
"YOU WANNA KNOW IF I'LL BE MAD IF Y'ALL GO TO THE CONCERT?! Shit son! I'm already mad, but if y'all go without us—I'll still be mad, but you'll be dead, hear me boy? Ya done for!"
Merle snorted with laughter, "The country really shines outta that one when she's pissed, don't it?"
With a roar of frustration and a strangled final expletive Minnie ended the call and appeared in the doorway. Face bright red with fury and her nostrils flared.
"What's goin' on?"
"They tried to drive back and hit a barricade that the cops are setting up all around—they're not letting anyone in or out. Says there's some hostage situation going on at one of your neighbor's houses," she rolled her eyes, clearly not impressed, or perhaps not believing it.
"Hostage?" Nick frowned, but shrugged it off after a moment's contemplation, "Alright, fine—makes sense not to let anyone in, but why can't you leave? What's the point of keeping such sweet little dolls hostage on the same street as some psycho is takin' hostages?"
"That right there is ironic," said Andy with a laugh.
"It's shit, is what it is," snapped Minnie, "We're gonna miss the concert. Leon says he talked to one of the officers and he told him to get lost, said the whole block is on lock-down. No one comes or goes 'til the situation is resolved."
"Maybe they're thinkin' they might wanna level other charges, while they're in the area," suggested Merle with a dark look directed to Nick.
Unable to hide a grimace, Nick attempted to shrug this off as well, but couldn't quite manufacture convincing ease in time. "It's fine—they got no reason to harass us. We'll just wait it out."
"Leon and Luke are going without us," said Minnie indignantly, "They said that there's nothing they can do, and it could be hours. They don't want to miss anything," she rolled her eyes.
"'Course not," Beth let out a heavy sigh.
"Beth," Minnie looked pained as she slid an arm across Beth's shoulders and pulled her into a tight one-arm hug. Automatically, Beth wrapped her arms around her friend's waist, resting her chin on her shoulder. "I'm sorry—you didn't even wanna come here."
"That's okay," Beth pulled back with a tired smile. "I didn't wanna go to the concert either, so…" she trailed off, a little surprised by the hurt expression on Minnie's face.
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, come on, Minnie, you know me—I'm kinda lame. If it was up to me I'd just have gone for a ride, eaten ice-cream in bed and be asleep by like… eight." She tried to smile, but just ended up looking at the floor.
"Well, lucky us that's not the case," said Merle, "'Cause of your total lack of spine, we'll be enjoyin' the pleasure of charmin' company for the evening's festivities. Whatever shall we do to pass the time?" Merle chuckled, shooting Beth another leering glance that struck her with the same sickening weight as before. She knew her face must be burning red. Nick, his kin at the table and Andy all grinned, while Karen and Minnie snorted with laughter.
Only Daryl didn't seem to find it amusing. "Shut up, jackass, she don't know you." He kicked the back of his brother's chair with his leg that was dangling off the side of the counter. "…Don't know you're jokin'," he added gruffly.
"My apologies, doll," said Merle with a flippant wave of one hand. "Could be worse, ya know. Could've found yourself stuck in a shit-hole with a bunch of lowlifes or somethin'."
Some of you might recall me claiming that this would be a short story... blatant lies. Sorry. It's is going to be another multi-chapter.
This one is shaping up to be fairly light and fluffy—especially compared to Killer and Mother. Like… this is about as cute as I get, party-people. I didn't mean for this introductory chapter to be quite so long, but it just happened! Other chapters will probably be snappier. Hope you enjoy:) Please let me know what you think, I'm always curious to get thoughts and reactions.
And your Bethyl song of the chapter is... The World Spins Madly On - The Weepies. Good stuff. I highly recommend the Ryan Woodward "Thought of You" film on YouTube, if you haven't seen it before... you just need to. And think of Daryl and Beth, because good feels.