XI. Promise of a New Day

Eagle's calling
and he's calling your name
Tides are turning bringing winds of change
Why do I feel this way
The promise of a new day

The promise
The promise of a new day
as thru time
the earth moves
under my feet
one step closer
to make love complete
what has the final say
the promise of a new day

And so time over time
what will change the world
no one knows

so the only promise
is a day to live, to give
and share with one another
see the wisdom
from mistakes in our past
hear the younger
generation ask
what has the final say
the promise of a new day

And so time over time
what will change the world
no one knows
so the only promise
is a day to live, to give
and share with one another

Promise of a New Day is the property of Paula Abdul.

Arm across arm, shoulder to shoulder, ear against ear, Brandon refuses to roll over, break from Kelly in his hold. If he does, last night will seem further and further away. No mistake but a memory. Hundreds of positive adjectives could've been used to describe it: beautiful, tender, momentous, thrilling, warm. The warmth of their skin meeting put him at ease. It was familiar but simultaneously new. The tangle of their limbs excited him. It was passionate but had a calm control attached to it. The beating of their hearts encouraged him. It was scary but that turned to fearlessness. So he isn't in a rush to stir as sleep abandons him.

Kelly's less lazy. Her blonde bangs sway as she brushes her lips against Brandon's neck, her blue eyes closed.

"Who needs California?" mumbles Kelly.

"Movie stars, sunny weather, Olympic-size pools," sighs Brandon. "A bunch of meh."

"Are we trying to convince ourselves that we shouldn't buy an airplane ticket today?" wonders Kelly.

Brandon traces the gentle contours of her left thigh through the blanket. "We're trying."

"If the Walshes go postal that I kept their son in D.C.," says Kelly. "I'm blaming the Chancellor."

"Yes, always blame the Chancellor," says Brandon, grinning.

Kelly beams and plants a kiss on Brandon's mouth. He can already tell. Kisses from Kelly will never get old. But reality is calling, like an overprotective mom when you're at summer camp.

"Question," says Brandon. "What did you tell your mom and roommate about this trip?"

"Don's in on the lowdown," replies Kelly. "My mom..."

Several rings cover Kelly's answer, the hotel phone showing a red light under the word "alarm." Brandon and Kelly trade weary glances.

"Brandon, what time did you schedule the airport taxi for?" asks Kelly.

He consults his watch, and then hops out of bed. Seriously? They slept in this late? Procrastionation. A college boy's worst enemy.

"Nine-thirty," replies Brandon, kicking his suitcase open with his foot. "And it's now nine-twenty."

"Shoot!" cries Kelly. "We're going to have to book it like a model backstage at a fashion show."

"Wha?" blanks Brandon.

"Hurry!" commands Kelly, tossing the blankets off her body.

Brandon would love to admire the view but he's busy throwing in dress shirts, pants, and underwear. He should've arranged a wake-up call. That's what his father did on business trips. Locating clean pants, he unbuttons them and manages to put his left leg inside. But the universe is adamant that he be tardy, resulting in a ring from the hotel phone.

"Jacques," guesses Brandon. "Thanks for waking us up."

"Who's Jacques?" asks Cindy Walsh innocently.

"Mom!" cries Brandon, casting an alarmed look at Kelly.

Her jaw drops as she fastens her bra.

"Is somebody there with you?" asks Cindy.

"Nah," says Brandon, hopping sideways as he attempts to get his right leg in without much success. "I was just talking about my roommate."

Ugh, if only Kelly's roommate Donna called. Then they wouldn't be in this pickle. Pickle? He must be stressed.

"I thought you had a single," says Cindy.

"Me too," says Brandon. "Change of plans. They probably pulled a fast one over on Al Gore concerning his sleeping arrangements too."

Cindy giggles. "Oh, I'm sure he'll eventually win regardless. What are they going to do? Elect another Bush?"

Brandon gets his right leg inside, but totters onto the bed. He proceeds to zip the pants and begins to wrestle with his belt.

"We'll see," says Brandon.

"Well, we miss seeing you," says Cindy. "You're coming in this afternoon, right? We're eager to hear what happened."

"And I'm eager to share," insists Brandon.

Kelly darts out of the bathroom, toiletries in her grip. She sticks Brandon's toothbrush, covered with toothpaste, between his lips. He takes it out, stares at the bristles. Kelly already has on a light blue dress and matching sweater. Who is this girl? The Jackee Joyner-Kersee of getting dressed? Bad thought since Kelly's own cellular phone rings, and it doesn't take him long to comprehend who's on the other end.

"Jackie!" whispers Kelly, confirming Brandon's suspicons, then louder. "No, Mom. I don't think pink makes your cheeks look fat."

She returns to the bathroom, exasperated.

"Your father and I will be home," says Cindy. "Brenda...the verdict's still out."

"Don't go arranging anything for me," says Brandon.

"Nonsense," says Cindy. 'I'm cooking your favorite dinner, and we'll head to the Peach Pit for dessert."

"Can't say no to sugar or bothering Nat," surrenders Brandon. "Can you hold?"

Brandon retrieves a T-shirt to match his slacks. Figures the first day he's not wearing a suit he has to sprint for the airport taxi. Kelly walks to her nearly full suitcase, sets in the souvenirs she bought.

"Bill Clinton didn't hit on me," insists Kelly, draping a tie around Brandon. "How do I know? Cause I would, Mom."

He gives his teeth several, careful brushstrokes and spits into the sink. Then, he packs the tie, the rest of his clothes, and tucks the Task Force folders into a briefcase by the TV.

"Take the lipstick away from Erin before she eats it, alright?" says Kelly, jumping and getting on both her heels while talking. "I've got to go."

Brandon's impressed. No falling on the bed for her. Well, not since last night. Kelly clicks the phone off.

"She saw us on TV," explains Kelly.

"Huh, I wonder if my parents did," says Brandon. "Oh!"

His mother was waiting patiently on the other line. Brandon slid along the bed and rested the receiver against his face.

"Airport taxi's almost here, Mom," says Brandon. "Don't want to delay my homecoming."

"Got it," says Cindy. "We love you and we're proud of you. Safe flight."

"Love you, guys, too," says Brandon before the dial tone sounds.

Returning the phone to his hook, Brandon finishes getting dressed, mourning the lost chance for a shower. Kelly grabs her suitcase handle. They take a last scan of the room and link arms.

"Promise we'll come back someday?" says Kelly sadly.

"Promise," says Brandon as they head for the elevator.

The elevator opens and they board, suitcases in front of them. Brandon wraps an arm around her, not as carefree as it was awhile ago, yet comforting all the same.

"Is it just me or do our families have two totally different types of conversations?" says Brandon.

II.

She's going if she can muster the courage. Maybe she should consider that every great, history-changing clash has a last stand: General Custer, the battle at Thermopylae, the Alamo. All against the odds, and all rife with consequences. But the end game was always freedom. Brenda is just hopeful that her freedom won't end in a grudge match, or bloodshed. No, her dad and Dylan aren't that savage.

Instead, they yell and make threats, which can be ten times worse if they cost you an education. She can't open with that, can she? Dad, thanks for putting me in limbo regarding London but I forgive you. The truth is she doesn't forgive him. Brandon would never get an ultimatum and Cindy would never put her in that position. It was because she specifically chose Dylan. On the other hand, sometimes her father let his temper overrule his heart. Brenda wasn't a wallflower and knew which buttons to push. The pushing of buttons had been going on for years. Plus she did lie, sneak out, and coerce Donna into her master plan. The direct approach might fare better.

Brenda shifts under the cab's seatbelt. Suddenly she feels more restricted than ever, especially as the car nears the Walsh home. One o' clock. They'd both be there. Brandon was getting in today too. Yep, her brother who could date anybody he wanted without facing a firing squad. She's lucky Dylan isn't with her because she's pretty sure Jim had already loaded the guns.

"Home sweet home," says the cabbie, pulling to the curb.

Oh, the irony. Brenda slips him the fare and slides out. The cab isn't the only foreign vehicle around. Before Brenda can go up her driveway, a burly man, wearing a grey suit, exits a green car. Pretty warm to be wearing a full suit, notes Brenda. He has black hair with grey sideburns and carries a clipboard.

"Excuse me, miss," says the man. "I'm collecting signatures to restore film landmarks on Mulholland Drive. Our foundation will meet the total number of signatures. Can you sign in order to save Hollywood history?"

This is weird. Usually, solicitors came on weekends and not by themselves.

"Which foundation?" asks Brenda.

The man releases a hearty chuckle. "Why...the Hollywood Wax Museum, of course."

"I just came from there," shares Brenda.

"Fancy that," says the man, giving her the clipboard. "Now about that signature?"

"Anything for the arts, right?" says Brenda, taking the pen.

Hmmm, the form appears to be official. She scrawls her name, the first to do so, and a pledge of fifty dollars in parantheses. That could restore a piece of patio furniture at least. She, unfortunately, can't offer more. Her funds are limited.

"Hopefully that's enough," says Brenda.

"That's enough," says the man, grinning widely. "Fifty bucks? Well, we have your address. The Museum thanks you. Come and see us again some time."

"Bye," says Brenda.

Going forward, she glances behind her. The man is still looking at her. She figured he'd be walking to her neighbors by now.

"I'm sorry," offers the man. "You...have an unforgettable face."

"Flattered," says Brenda, cautiously. "I think."

Careful not to offend him, she speedily opens the house door with her key. Brenda was in classes or play rehearsal during the year but was struck how quiet her home could be during the summer. In high school, their house contained constant noise. Either she and her girlfriends were going upstairs or Brandon and his "bros" were coming downstairs. Then, rarely did a week go by without a group activity ending in drama. The Walsh house remained a safe house anyway. Perhaps her parents being from small-town Minnesota brought some peace to the lunacy of L.A. Brenda can safely say that this was a soft place to rest her head when her world was falling apart.

Chatter from the kitchen kills the quiet. Brenda recognizes both her parents' voices. She isn't able to distinguish the words from the foyer, however, forcing herself to walk into the living room, closer but far away to hear what they're saying.

"Are you sure that's how she'd react if I went to pick her up?" sighs Jim, as coffee's being poured. "You know how eighteen-year old girls are."

Wait. They're discussing her? Her father missed her? Brenda smiles as she passes the couch.

"I was one," says Cindy. "Nothing's changed. Well, except for less flower and 'let's get groovy' T-shirts. Don't you want Brandon to see her when he comes home?"

"Maybe Brandon can drive her?" mentions Jim.

Kelly. Really? No, really? They're talking about how driving Kelly from the airport would embarrass her or trying to guess if it would inconvenience Brandon? What about her inconvenience, the fact that she may miss out on the best opportunity life has given her? Who cares about giving out rides? Brenda's hands curl into fists, hit her thighs.

"From Dylan's to here?" says Cindy. "He'll just be getting in, Jim."

Brenda closes her eyes. She's more confused than ever.

"Doesn't she get that it hurts me every time she's with Dylan?" asks Jim, disappointment in his voice. "He wrongs her and I don't. What does that say if she chooses him?"

Okay, not so puzzled. Brenda unfurls her hands, leans against the living room wall near the kitchen. If you asked her, she'd claim to be about two feet tall at this very minute.

"She appreciates what you do for her, sweetie," insists Cindy. "But she doesn't appreciate what you do to interfere with her decisions. And Dylan's grown up since West Bev, hasn't he?"

Expecting the impossible, Brenda crosses her fingers. Yes. Admit it, Dad.

"I've seen no proof," says Jim. "I don't want them together. Particularly if crooked people like Kevin glom unto him."

Cindy laughs. "When's the last time you used the word glom?"

"Now, apparently," says Jim, joining in the laughter too.

Speaking of now, if she's going to make that last stand, catching them in a light-hearted moment is the best way to go. Brenda pockets her keys and walks slowly into the kitchen. A startled Cindy nearly drops the coffee pot on the floor and Jim spits a bit of brew into his cup. Brenda shrugs.

"I'm here," announces Brenda. "Apparently."

"We're glad," says Cindy, eyes shifting to Jim for an agreement.

"That's what it kind of sounded like," says Brenda, her own eyes shifting to her father. "I...can leave, though."

"And take one of our cars?" speaks up Jim. "No sense in wasting our gas."

Jim opens his mouth to say more but lets the words disappear into his coffee-soaked throat. She'll run with it, accept what's underneath, an indication that it's better to stay.

"I made mistakes last night," says Brenda, standing across the table from Jim.

He grins sheepishly, sits upright.

"But nothing I said was a mistake," continues Brenda.

The grin hides, in a place Brenda isn't able to find it. She turns to an attentive Cindy.

"Mom, you said Dylan grew up," says Brenda. "So have I."

"Based on your behavior last night, you haven't," interjects Jim.

"If you don't believe I have, then why are you letting me go to London by myself?" asks Brenda.

"Dylan was insistent that he was going with you," says Jim. "I am not paying for a pre-honeymoon package when you should be focusing on your studies and not the guy who cheated on you."

"Dad, we can't fix the past, okay?" exclaims Brenda. "We can move on, though."

Folding his arms, Jim stares at the table top. What happened to the guy who was weighing whether to ferry her home today? Can he blow hot and cold that easily?

"But you're not letting me," says Brenda tearfully. "Because of your own pride. I have dreamed about studying in London since they told me about the program. I memorized the city theatres, chose the plays I'd audition for and invite you to if I was cast, practiced who I'd thank if I ever got a bio in a program. And you two were always at the top of my thank yous."

Cindy puts a hand over her chest and Jim's arms find his lap. They're listening. She's got to take this, say this.

"And you're taking those opportunities away from me, what could determine my future?" continues Brenda. "This decision is deeper than Dylan, Dad. If I have to, I will work every day and night to graduate, take out loans, skip meals..."

"Jim!" cries Cindy.

"I'm hearing her, Cindy," assures Jim.

"You better!" exclaims Cindy. "This isn't for show. She means it."

"Of course she means it," says Jim, standing and pushing in his chair. "Because she's my daughter."

The kitchen goes quiet again, momentarily. Brenda's stomach churns a mile a minute. She wasn't sure her sincerity would go through, what with a few instances of "drama queen antics" gone awry when she was younger, but it made an impact judged on the hug Jim provides her.

"Bren, I don't want to dim your dreams," says Jim as he strokes her hair.

Shivering slightly, she hugs him back, the bright lights of the kitchen surrounding her wet eyes.

"I was upset, punishing you for my own purposes," admits Jim. "You deserve your dream as much as anyone, more in fact. I want you to have those thank yous, those standing ovations."

"Thank you, Dad," sighs Brenda.

She pulls out of the hug and wipes her cheeks. Jim warmly pats her shoulders.

"Besides," says Jim as he puts his coffee cup in the sink. "I was punishing the wrong person."

Brenda rubs the lines appearing on her brow. "Huh?"

"If Dylan's so grown up, he can prove it," says Jim, rinsing the cup. "He should come apologize to me, and explain to me what he's going to do in England. Show he won't be bumming around. That way he won't find himself in trouble."

"Well, will you apologize to him?" asks Brenda pointedly.

"I don't have to," remarks Jim.

"Jim!" cries Cindy. "You're the adult. Honestly."

"No, I'm the concerned father," says Jim. "It's a simple demand, Brenda. I can't see that he's changed unless he's willing to be in my presence with a cool head."

"Dylan can be very cool," says Brenda, meeting her father's gaze.

"Good," says Jim. "Does he have plans today? Let's do this properly."

"Give me a sec," says Brenda.

She not so gracefully walks to the phone, punches the numbers like they've done naughty things. Her father's the person acting mischievous. This isn't fair to Dylan. He'll arrive at their house, apologize, and not receive an apology in return. Maybe if she gets him here her father will cave but she doubts it. Only one way to find out. And she found the answer to her question. Her father can blow hot and cold...in a blink.

III.

"Who's bad?"

The miniscule Michael Jackson finishes with a moonwalk, then a convicted "He he!" Dylan goes by bearing an amused smirk. Even kids want in on the act. The boy is greeted with a series of high-fives. Wannabe Michael has retired for the day. The wax museum is still up and running at one-thirty but he isn't certain about the working order of the Walsh family.

He did his best to sound optimistic when Brenda was standing opposite him. Dylan definitely meant it when he said her dad would fold for his little girl. But what's been plaguing him ever since she left is the fact that he can't change Jim's mind about him in a day. That truth presented itself to him time and time again. Facts are facts. Jim Walsh did not like him. He didn't even tolerate him anymore. Consequently, Dylan may have to let Brenda go to England by her lonesome. The idea is torture to think about, bitter to live with, but necessary to understand. Brenda needs London as much as he needs her: the bright outlook, the beneficial lessons, the incomparable reward. That's London for her and Brenda to him. Strive to be the best for Brenda, or have the best in his case.

What's another summer in California if Brenda's education is fully funded? What's another night of loneliness when Brenda's gaining dozens of admirers and selling out theatres? What's a broken heart in Beverly Hills if the Walshes get fixed? He's surprised...surprised he can shrink himself and not be as selfish as he wants to be. But if Brenda dangles that chance in front of him, despite what happens, he'll be a giant and carry their problems on his backside. What's another problem when they've been through the worst?

Dylan cracks open his wallet. He vowed to buy something for Brenda since it was a short-lived visit. They had fun...might as well commemorate it. He also narrowed his selections down to something that Brenda wouldn't expect. She could use a pleasant surprise. He ignores several snowglobes with the Marx Brothers pratfalling, the Sound of Music kids running on a mountain, and Steamboat Willie presenting his butt to viewers. The novelty shirts were trying too hard with their infamous dialogue: We're not in Kansas, Anymore; E.T., Phone Home; Beauty School Dropout. If Dylan got that drop-out shirt for Brenda, Jim would flip. Point there. Nah, don't poke the bear. Dylan stifles a snicker, stopping near a row of bobbleheads.

He could buy a trinket for Erica as well, assuming they locate her. A large part of Dylan craved going to the station and shaking Jonesy until he told Dylan what was up. The more reasonable sliver told him it was way too early to annoy police headquarters. So yep...tomorrow? Tomorrow, vows Dylan inwardly.

"Hi," says a sweet voice below him. "Can you pay for my Dorothy?"

A five-year old, rosy-cheeked and a redhead, holds a Wizard of Oz Dorothy doll.

"Hi," greets Dylan. "Um, where's your mom?"

"Don't know," answers the girl. "That's why I ask you. It's okay if you don't. I take from store."

The little girl's features start to quiver. Please don't let this kid cry herself into a fit.

"Well, you gotta pay," insists Dylan. "What if we make a deal? I'll pay for Dorothy if you help me pick out a present for my sister and girlfriend."

"Deal," replies the girl, perking up.

Dylan scans the shelves of bobbleheads. There was variety. Brenda might get a kick out of these nodding characters, and he knows Erica would.

"Erica's a few years older than you," shares Dylan.

"That's not hard," says the girl. "I have an older sister and she likes Batgirl."

Batgirl is to his left. She has a black, painted on superhero suit. He'd like Brenda to wear one of those, but he's not saying that out loud.

"Now my girlfriend Brenda's around my age," mentions Dylan.

"That's ollivous," says the girl, clearly meaning obvious. "Older girls like other pretty girls that fall in love with fancy men 'specially princes."

His eyes leap from Princess Leia to Princess Diana, remembering that the latter was actually married to a prince. Also, if his memory is serving him right, Cindy was also a fan of hers.

"She's going to London, so Diana it is," says Dylan, fetching the item.

"Candice!" calls a voice from the gift shop entrance. "Candice!"

"Mommy, I'm here by the heads!" shouts Dylan's shopping partner.

"I told you not to wander," moans Candice's mother. "Sir, was she bothering you?"

"Not at all," replies Dylan. "In fact, I owe her for the doll. She's been helping me shop."

"Oh, sir, we couldn't," says Candice's mother.

"Yes, you could," says Dylan. "I insist."

"That's kind of you," says Candice's mother, blushing.

They gather at the cash register, Dylan purchasing the gifts. Candice gives him a hug and waves good-bye. The mother and daughter move towards the lobby. He'll exit through the gift shop door instead of the main lobby. Foot traffic has increased and he wants to hear the car phone clearly if Brenda has left him a message. Dylan's almost out of the shop when he hears his name over the loudspeaker. He's being paged? Dylan jogs to an employee seated at the main desk.

"Two minutes max," says the employee, rolling her eyes.

"Hello?" answers Dylan.

"Dylan, can you meet me at my house in thirty minutes?" says Brenda.

"Will they let me in?" kids Dylan.

"They will," guarantees Brenda. "It's pretty important. I tried your car phone earlier. Can you?"

"Sure," says Dylan. "How'd it go?"

"I can't go into it," replies Brenda.

"They're in the room?" guesses Dylan.

"Yep," says Brenda. "Sorry to blindside you...and brace yourself."

Dylan lifts his eyes skyward. "I'm prepared for the many daggers thrown by Daddy Dearest."

"See ya soon," says Brenda after a defeated sigh.

"See ya," says Dylan.

Thanking the employee, he makes a beeline to the gift shop, going into an underground parking lot. The lot may be designated for delivery vehicles but nobody's there and he can walk to his car without being caught in a crowd. His shopping bags graze his pants leg. The few lights on the walls reflect off the bag's plastic. Better than paper. Brenda would shake her head if he got paper bags, bobblehead inside or not.

A rectangular bit of light floods Dylan's sight. He holds a hand up to his forehead, then tries to slow the car down by gesturing. The speed of the car increases. Not any car. My car, identifies Dylan.

"What the?" shouts Dylan.

He barely dodges the car as he runs to the right, the tires squealing. Dylan wavers until he can stand straight. He did not visit the Wax Museum to be car jacked. Screw that. The engine roars. The light is obscuring the driver. He races ahead but the car's aiming for him again. All Dylan can hear is the rush of tires while trying to keep track of the blinding headlights. He rolls to avoid the fender sending him flying.

"You crazy?" exclaims Dylan, hitting the rear bumper. "Either get out or take the car and go!"

"Nobody's taking this clunker!" shouts the driver over the engine.

"What do you want?" yells Dylan.

The headlights go dark. Dylan swallows a lump in his throat.

"You off my boss' tail," says a gravelly voice, a man walking casually into the lot. "Or we'll stay on your tail."

He steadies himself. The man, housed in a grey suit, keeps walking to Dylan. Lighting a cigarette on the way, he snaps and four other men run to him within seconds. Dylan's pulse quickens. No weapon, no escape. All he can do is talk.

"If this has to do with Jack McKay...," begins Dylan.

"Shut up, kid!" interrupts the head guy. "That's why we're here. You dabbling in business where you shouldn't be dabbling. So I got paid to make your blood dribble on this pavement."

Okay, all he can do is talk and defend himself. Two men rush forward, Dylan ready, locking a head, kicking a crotch. But he's not anticipating the other two. A pair of brass knuckles kiss his cheekbones. Dylan staggers to the middle of the group. The men chuckle. Another man hits his back with a small bat, Dylan seeing white dots, yelling in pain.

"He's standing, Grady," says the man with brass knuckles. "Remarkable."

"Grady...since you're wearing a grey suit?" jeers Dylan. "That's pretty freakin' clever."

"Knees!" barks Grady.

The man who took Dylan's car for a joyride joins the festivities. He takes a pipe and bangs it against Dylan's left knee.

"Uhhhhhhhhh!" yells Dylan.

"You gonna listen or should we try to break the other?" says Grady, puffing smoke in Dylan's hair as he bends to the ground.

"What?" snaps Dylan, glaring at him as blood coats his brow.

"Kevin Weaver," mentions Grady. "You won't be searching for him or for your sister...nobody. Got that?"

"So Kevin's hiding behind muscle," seethes Dylan. "A rat in need of gorillas."

"Are you going to leave him alone or not?" snaps Grady. "Cause we can do this for hours. Til you're limp...or dead."

Two men are on Dylan, holding him against his car's fender. They're too strong to tackle. Sweat or blood, maybe both, drips down to his waist.

"No," says Dylan, a wave of pain flowing through his entire body. "I have somewhere to be!"

"Don't care," says Grady.

The fender guys swing him back and forth against the hard surface twice. Dylan's waist can't take much more. The pressure is excruciating. He should beg for mercy. But he can't cooperate, can't if it means losing Erica.

"I have a name on this sheet," says Grady, removing a piece of paper.

"I said I have somewhere to be!" repeats Dylan.

Into the fender his body goes. Dylan grits his teeth. What will Brenda think if he never gets there? He's reaching a point where he's unable to walk. Two more throws and he may be done for.

"We're discussing what I have," says Grady. "Don't interrupt. Or don't you want to hear how I got Brenda Walsh's name? Should I read her address too?"

Dude's done. Totally done. Dylan manages to wrest an arm free, almost charging at Grady, grabbing his tie until the guy with brass knuckles raps his jaw. Dylan's pinned to the fender and it seems like he'll be that way forever. He won't shut up after that threat, though. Not until he's breathless.

"Aaaaaah!" wails Dylan, biting into his lip, drawing blood. "Stay away from her or I'll run you over and dice up your body!"

"Easy, tiger," says Grady. "We only bother the pretty kittens if the big cats come out to play. Speaking of pretty kittens, you're going to stay away from Erica or I'll personally break the hand that wrote this signature and let dear sweet Brenda cry over your dead remains at the funeral. Clear as crystal?"

Dylan parts his mouth but won't answer in the affirmative. Erica's family. Erica's almost everything, but Brenda is the rest. Dylan hates that a tear slides on his nose. The men not pinning Dylan down laugh.

"How much you angling for, McKay?" asks the man with brass knuckles.

"What can you faux gangsters dish out?" yells Dylan.

"Don't answer him. You gonna answer me, chump?" says Grady. "Huh?"

He grabs the pipe, scaring the other man who's holding it. He slams it into Dylan's stomach, Dylan choking up blood, saliva, and who knows what else. He surrenders to limpness, lets his body slide to the pavement. Dylan can barely breathe in the dark. Hearing a faint snip, and a declaration of "it's dead", he's fairly sure they've cut his car phone line so they can flee without detection.

"I take pleasure in this," says Grady, walking in a circle around Dylan. "Because you never worked for your wealth. Not mere wealth but wealth out the wazoo. We're hip to the McKays...how shady ya'll can be. And we're supposed to feel bad that a middle-class man with a wife and kid is getting cash you don't deserve? After you threaten to kill him?"

"Screw...," breathes Dylan.

"Speak up, kid," says Grady, stalling by Dylan's chin. "Your last chance."

"Screw you," says Dylan as he stares at Grady's shoes.

Grady nods, takes the pipe, starts smashing the contents of the bags. Dylan can hear every break, every shattered part. But they're not as broken as him. Grady returns to Dylan and puts his shoe on Dylan's chin.

"You're going to wish you died instead of your old man," says Grady. "Contact Erica and we'll make a necklace for her out of your teeth. Job's done, fellas."

The men shake hands over Dylan. They shuffle out, clearly proud of what they've done. Dylan can only view the black bits in the lot's pavement after a minute goes by. They're covered by something red and sticky. Blood. His blood. Dylan tries to stand, wailing when his damaged knee makes itself known.

Imagine if they did this to Brenda, if they weren't lying. Brenda. Gotta call Brenda, thinks Dylan, dragging himself up by the fender. He cries, unbearable aches coursing through his body, puts his weight on the good leg. He spies a phone booth...next to the museum hours. He lumbers forward, threatening to topple at any second.

If people are staring at the welts, the stains, he doesn't notice. All that matters is that his fingers dial. Luckily, the door is open. He fumbles for two quarters. His hands shake as they go into the slot. He repeats the numbers so he won't forget. Don't forget.

"Bren," says Dylan, his finger above the last number.

That's when the world around him goes black. Simple, calming black. Dylan collapses in the booth, falling to the sidewalk amid several screams. A tiny "Mommy!" follows. Candice? Or an angel? Is this it?

"Oh God!" says a woman, possibly her mother. "Somebody call 911! Oh God! Is he breathing?"