The first glimmer of evening stars had just started to peek out of the Albuquerque sky as the red Tercel pulled into a quiet neighborhood lined with cozy stucco houses, lush sugar maple trees and neatly mown lawns. It was definitely a far cry from his girlfriend's old hood, which had been littered with discarded needles, condoms and broken glass, and surrounded by derelict buildings covered with gang tags and yellow police tape. Jesse Pinkman wanted Andrea and her son to have a better life, so he'd put them up here, miles away from the drug dealers and junkies.
Well, most of them, anyway.
Although this was a nice part of town, Jesse wasn't feeling particularly safe at the moment. After parking in front of the Cantillo home, he took one final drag from his cigarette before snuffing it in the dashboard ashtray and scanned the street nervously for signs of other cars or pedestrians nearby. Seeing none, he checked his reflection in the rearview mirror and did a final once over of his clothes, finding no suspicious stains or spatters. He started to exit the car until he remembered the .38 tucked in his waistband. Sighing, he sunk back in the seat and carefully pulled the gun into his lap.
They should never have to see this.
He hated the weight of the thing, the faint smell of sulfur, the coldness of the steel. But what disgusted him the most was that it felt too damned familiar in his hands. When exactly had this become his reality?
Resigned to that thought but determined to keep this world away from the Cantillos, Jesse stowed the gun under his seat.
As he made his way up to the house he saw Brock peeking out the window, waiting for him. The boy's face perked up with his funny little half-smile, and it took all of two seconds for him to race to the foyer and fling open the front door.
"Hey, little man!" His anxieties forgotten, Jesse swept up the boy in a hug, ruffling his brush cut hair. It always amazed him how seeing Brock could instantly improve his mood, no matter how bad his day had been. While the boy babbled about his day at school and what his mother had planned for dessert, Jesse hung his leather jacket on the coat hook on the wall, right next to the Spider-Man backpack he'd bought Brock for his birthday.
The moment he stepped into the home, it was like he was peeling off his claustrophobic gas mask and stuffy chemical jumpsuit, and he could actually breathe again. Even if it was just for a few hours, Jesse desperately needed this respite, this hit of normalcy he'd been craving for days. He spied a pile of toys on the living room floor.
"Yo! What you got over there? Robots? I love robots!"
"Transformers! You wanna play? You can be Optimus Prime, but I get to be Bumblebee."
"Sure thing, buddy. Let me just check in with your mom first." The delicious smell of cumin, onions and simmering beef wafted in from the kitchen, where he could hear Andrea banging some pots around. Jesse gave Brock a fist bump before he padded down the hallway.
Standing at the stove, Andrea was dressed in jeans and a gauzy white peasant blouse embroidered with tiny red flowers, the one he liked so much because it fell off her shoulders just a hint. She smiled as he slipped behind her to wrap his arms around her waist and kiss the side of her neck.
"Mmmmm…you smell even better than the tacos," he purred into her ear, grinning as he watched her stir the meat in the saucepan.
"That is the most romantic thing anyone has said to me in the last ten minutes." When she giggled it made her cheeks flush the prettiest shade of pink he'd ever seen. He kissed the top of her head lightly, enjoying her warmth pressed against his chest, the floss of her soft black curls against his skin.
Not for the first time, he wished he could bottle up the little moments like these, stash them to pull out and savor again later when he was feeling down and alone. His life would be so much better if he could just hold Andrea like this forever.
"I'm glad you're here," she said. "We haven't seen much of you this week, and I've missed you." Andrea lifted the wooden spoon to his mouth and let him take a bite of the seasoned meat.
"Not as much as I missed you guys." God, you will never know how much. "Sorry I'm late. There was some…uh, stuff that came up." Andrea gave him a quick kiss before she ducked out of his arms to finish dicing some tomatoes and chilies. Jesse walked over to the sink to wash his hands, trying not to let his troubles show in his face.
Not like I haven't already scrubbed myself down head to toe today. So much blood…dammit, Mr. White. Why'd you gotta go all Heisenberg again? I am so tired of your bullshit. Why can't you just let us be normal?
"Don't worry about it. Brock and I were stuck in traffic and we just got home a half hour ago. There was some huge chemical tanker spill on Highway 40; the cars were backed up for miles. There were tons of fire trucks and cop cars, and I think even the DEA was there. Such a mess!"
"Um, yeah…I think I kinda heard something about that." Jesse rubbed the back of his neck and grimaced. "Weird."
Have fun playing interference with your douchebag brother-in-law over that one, Mr. White.
"Hey, think you could help me out with this?" Andrea handed Jesse a block of cheddar and a grater, and he went to work. Being in her kitchen, it reminded him of when he used to make dinner with Aunt Ginny. His mom never wanted him underfoot while she was busy cooking, but Ginny used to teach him things. He'd almost forgotten how much he'd liked that. Gathered around the counter, preparing food, talking about your day; it felt like something families were supposed to do together.
When Brock sidled up next to him, Jesse snuck him a pinch of shredded cheese. The boy munched contentedly while Jesse grated. He showed Jesse how he could make his Transformer change shapes, and Jesse gave the little toy figure a beard made of cheese, which earned a bemused head shake from Andrea as she carried their dinner over to the table.
"You boys and your toys," she said with a loving smirk. "Brock, come here and help your mama for a sec."
Jesse stole a peek out the kitchen window. Parked just down the street was a Buick that wasn't there before. It was dark outside, but he could see the tiny red cherry of a lit cigarette inside the car.
"Dammit," he grumbled softly. He gritted his teeth and smoothed his hand over his closely shorn head. He didn't have to be able to see the driver to know he had a black jacket, black clothes, and even blacker dead eyes. The names may change, the bosses may change, but there was never a shortage of those assholes and they always looked the same.
Don't be a pussy. You know what you need to do. It sucks, but you gotta do it. You can't screw this up. Not like you screw up everything else.
He looked over at Andrea and Brock standing at the dinner table. Andrea was coaching Brock how to set the silverware by the plates, and he looked up at Jesse expectantly, as if to see if Jesse thought he was doing a good job.
It isn't fair. Christ, it isn't fair at all.
Jesse forced himself to smile and give Brock a thumbs-up, grabbed his bowl full of shredded cheese and joined them at the table.
After dinner and a few hours spent snuggling together on the couch watching a penguin show on the Discovery channel, Andrea finally trundled Brock off to brush his teeth and get ready for bed. Jesse paced back and forth in the living room, trying not to bite his thumbnail down to the quick but failing miserably. The man in the Buick was still parked down the street, his silhouette barely visible in the moonlight. When he heard Andrea make her way down the stairs, he stopped pacing and returned to the couch.
Andrea plopped down next to Jesse and nestled into the crook of his arm. He held her gently, stroking her hair while she rested her head against his chest. While Andrea flipped through the television channels, he drank in the flowery scent of her shampoo, her smooth tanned skin, and tried to memorize every little freckle that spilled across her shoulders, getting lost in her patterns. He didn't even register that she'd asked him what movie he wanted to watch until she asked a second time.
"Oh, sorry. Anything you want, baby."
"You seem kind of distracted tonight. Is everything okay?" she asked.
"Yeah, yeah…everything is fine. Tonight was perfect, Andrea. The best night I've had in weeks." He nuzzled her neck, and she murmured happily. "I wish things weren't so crazy in my life so I could be here all the time."
"You want to talk about it?"
If I told you about the day I had, you'd never want to talk to me ever again.
"Actually…I wanted to talk about your life." He cleared his throat and straightened up a little higher on the couch. He took the remote from Andrea and put the television on mute. "What we talked about before. You know, when you mentioned that school you were interested in, that one in Phoenix?"
"Yeah, you said you didn't want me and Brock to be so far away." She sounded confused.
"Well, I've been thinking." He coughed, his throat suddenly feeling much too dry. "That really wasn't fair of me. I mean, it could be a great opportunity for you. I don't want to stand in your way. I think…"
His words trailed off in a rasp, and he tried to find his voice again.
Don't stop. You're doing the right thing. Don't think about yourself right now, you selfish bastard.
"I think you should do it. I can even help you with the tuition, and-and-and…the books and uh, computers and everything. Whatever you need."
Andrea pushed herself off his chest to look him straight in the eyes.
"Really? You would do all that for me?"
"I would do anything for you." He cupped his hand to the side of her face. You are so beautiful.
"Oh, Jesse." Andrea let out a joyful little squeal and rushed into him, her lips so sweet and warm when they met his own. He couldn't stop himself from trembling as they kissed, his hands clutching her with a quiet yearning, and he crushed her lips harder, craving her even closer, wanting to inhale Andrea and keep her inside of him as long as he could.
If only…if only I could make this feeling last.
Andrea let out a little gasp when she pulled away, and Jesse felt an instant ache at the loss of her touch; he fluttered his finger against his lips, remembering how she'd felt, missing her.
"Wait, no." She looked down at her lap, her excitement replaced with a reluctant shyness. She shook her head and blushed. "It isn't right. You've already done so much for me! I can't let you keep paying my way. I need to do stuff on my own, you know?"
He took her hands in his and searched her eyes, trying to make her understand. "No, no, don't worry about that. I want to do this. I NEED to do this."
"But…but I thought you didn't want us to be apart?"
"I don't," he mumbled, his voice barely above a whisper. God, I do not want to be alone again. He took a breath and tried to steady himself. He really hoped those weren't tears forming in the corners of his eyes, because he couldn't afford to lose it now.
"This isn't about me." His blue eyes welled with concern as he picked his words carefully. "It's about what's best for you and Brock. Your future. You are a smart, wonderful person. You can really go places, I know you can. You gotta go to that school in Phoenix, Andrea." He squeezed her hands for emphasis. "This week. I'll even help you pack."
Her eyebrow rose with a look of puzzled hesitance, and Andrea pulled her hands back slowly, shaking her head. "This week? But the new term doesn't even start until September! Why would I go now?"
"Because…because you need to get Brock into school first!" Jesse sputtered. "And..and…it will be good to get out of this hellhole of a town, away from all the drugs. Like, totally a fresh start."
Please, just do this, Andrea. Please?
She put her hand on his shoulder. "Jesse, what is it? Why are you acting so strange tonight? Why do you want us to leave all of a sudden? Did grandmother say something to you?"
"She did, didn't she!" Andrea hissed something in Spanish under her breath. "I told her to mind her own business. Look, you can't listen to her, she doesn't understand you! You're a good man."
No, I'm not. But I'm trying to do the right thing.
Jesse looked past Andrea to see the muted television, and the silent images of the top news story of the day played out across the screen. The reporters were at the site of the chemical tanker spill on Highway 40. They showed video clips of the wreckage, crews in hazmat suits, and the law enforcement officers working the scene.
The camera then zoomed in on the body bags lying out on the side of the road, illuminated by the red and blue flashing lights of the surrounding police vehicles.
So much blood.
The flashing lights…
Tomas…Christ, he was only eleven. I could see the blood on his sneakers. His bike.
I got him killed. It was all my fault.
Jesse crammed his eyes shut and tried to shake off the memories. Even closed, he could still see the flashes behind his lids, like they were burned there for eternity.
"You should listen to your grandmother. You know I'm no good for you."
"Babe, don't say that!" Andrea tried to put her arm around him, but he shrugged out of her grasp and rose to his feet.
"Unh, god." He brushed his eye with the palm of his hand. Andrea stared at him, her brows drawn into a furrow and her eyes full of questions she was too afraid to ask.
"You and Brock? You guys are everything to me. I don't want you to go. But you have to. It isn't…" He swallowed, and it was like he had to force himself to remember how to speak, like everything in his being was trying to keep the words from flowing out of his mouth.
"…it, uh…it isn't safe for you to be around me." He bit his lip, unable to look at Andrea's face, and his shame dragged his gaze down to the pile of Brock's toys on the floor.
"What does that mean?" Andrea inched backward on the couch, and her voice turned throaty with the beginning undercurrents of panic. "What kind of trouble are you in?"
Jesse crept over to the living room window to spy the Buick parked down the street. He closed the blinds. "The less you know, the better off you are. I'm trying to figure things out, but until I do, I need you to leave town. Quietly."
"Jesse…I don't know where this is all coming from, but if you're really in danger, you need to come with us!" she urged, her eyes starting to brim with tears as her fear ratcheted up another notch. "We can all get away, together!"
I tried to run away once. New Zealand. But I learned there's no such thing as happy endings. I'm an idiot for trying to pretend otherwise, even for a little while.
"No! Don't you get it? I'm the problem! Remember what you told me? You said you didn't want Brock to end up like Tomas…"
"Stop it! Don't do this!" Andrea sobbed as she held her hands up in front of her face, as if they could shield her from the truth of Jesse's words. "I told you never to tell me about him!"
"Listen to me!" His heart felt like it was shrinking inside his chest. He knew this would be hard, but he still wasn't prepared for how much it would actually hurt. He'd rather suffer another beating from Tuco or Hank than feel as horrible as he did at this moment.
He knelt in front of the couch, where Andrea sat crying softly and clutching one of the couch cushions in front of her chest like a life vest. It was no use trying to hold back his tears anymore.
"Tomas died 'cause of me. Revenge, after I stepped out of line. That's the kind of world I live in. One where little kids get hurt when assholes want to prove a point. That's why you have to take Brock away from here!" He gingerly placed his hand on Andrea's knee, praying she would finally understand.
"I can't lose you two. You're all I got."
All the sound seemed to be sucked out of the room, and all Jesse could hear was his own heartbeat, thudding so loudly it would soon burst his eardrums. It felt like an hour while he waited for her. He could see her trying to work through what she'd heard. Slowly, Andrea dried her tears with the back of her sleeve. She reached down to take Jesse's hand…
…and pushed it off her knee.
"I said get out!" She shoved him backwards as she rose from the couch and walked towards the stairwell.
He staggered awkwardly to his feet and tried to follow her. "Wait! Please, don't…" He reached for her.
"No!" She whirled on him and in a frustrated flail she punched him in the arm, the shoulder, his chest until he managed to grab her wrists and forced her to stop hitting him. "That day at the hospital," she spat, her eyes burning red with rage. "That fucking nightmare with the poison. What did you say it was? The ricin? You sounded so sure…so was that all about revenge? Huh? Assholes proving a point? Tell me the truth, Jesse!"
He let go of her wrists, and his whole body felt like it was sinking into the floor.
"Who do you know who would allow children to be murdered?"
"I…I don't know." Her lips drew into a tight line and he knew by the look on her face that he'd paused too long, that the fear and guilt he'd been holding inside all these weeks must have betrayed him.
With that, she slapped Jesse's face with such ferocity that the sickeningly familiar taste of copper flooded his mouth. He put his hand there, felt the blood, and the pain was far more excruciating than any blow he'd ever received.
I deserve this. I deserve whatever happens.
Andrea and Jesse both jerked their heads up to see Brock standing at the top of the stairs, wearing his monkey print pajamas and clutching his little robot toy, his lip trembling and his eyes shining with tears.
"Why did you hit Jesse?" He had never seen the boy look so frightened.
Jesse put his hands up, trying to calm everyone. "Brock, I'm sorry, it's okay, we're just…"
"Don't you EVER talk to my son!" Andrea balled her hands into fists, like she wanted to hit him again and it was taking all of her willpower to hold back. "Baby, go back to bed." She shoved Jesse back again, ripping his leather coat off the hook in the entry way. She flung it at him, and he fumbled as he caught it, too stunned to say anything, his heart still thudding that ugly drumbeat in his ears.
"Get out of our house!"
"Mama, no! Don't yell at Jesse!" the boy cried, running down the stairs, but Andrea caught him before he could get to Jesse, and she held him protectively in front of her.
"Don't worry…we'll go to Phoenix, but you keep your blood money, I don't want it. If it takes me the rest of my life, I will pay back every dime you ever gave us. I don't want you anywhere near us ever again."
"Andrea, I'm so sorry, please please please don't hate me…"
"Go!" she screamed. Andrea picked up her struggling son as he called out for Jesse and hauled him up the stairs. He heard her bedroom door slam.
And just like that, they were gone.
He stood there dumbly for a moment, his mind not quite comprehending what he was supposed to do next.
He knew it was time to go, but he desperately needed to experience those last few fleeting seconds of feeling like he was still a part of something. He took one final look at Brock's toys on the floor, and his Spider-Man backpack hanging on the wall. At the photograph of the three of them laughing at the Go Kart track. He picked up Andrea's red sweater from where it hung next to the backpack, and breathed in the lingering scent of her perfume before he replaced it on the hook, smoothing it down neatly.
He looked up at the empty stairwell.
"I love you," he whispered.
Jesse Pinkman shrugged on his jacket and walked out of the only home that really mattered to him.
It was early May, but the night air somehow felt like the middle of winter, as every shred of warmth leached out of his bones while he trudged across the street to his Tercel, his whole body hunched over and his hands shoved deep in his pockets. He caught the flash of a butane flame flicker inside the Buick staked out down the street, and he fought the urge to flip off his waiting sentry.
He wrenched open the car door and slid behind the wheel. When he exhaled, his breaths were ragged and shaky and he tried to focus on just breathing, just one breath after the other, and not think about the emptiness expanding in his chest. The emptiness that demanded it be filled up with sweet, glorious smoke, smoke that would push away the hurt, push away the loneliness, and convince Jesse that a piece of glass and a lighter were the only friends he would ever need.
It would never be enough, but with quivering fingers he pulled out his pack of Wilmingtons and tried to find some comfort in the tiny rush of heat as he lit up a cigarette. While he shivered in his car, he pretended he didn't see all the lights being turned off in the Cantillo home. Pretended he didn't see the tiny shape standing at the bedroom window.
Have a good rest of your life.
The sharp rap on the window startled him so much he dropped the cigarette in his lap and had to scramble for it before the ember burned a hole in his jeans. Scowling, he rolled down the car window to speak to the man outside.
"It is time for you to move along home, Herr Pinkman," said the man in black, his clipped voice even colder than the chilly night air. "You forget that you have an important obligation tomorrow."
"Screw you, Adolf!" With a vicious snarl, Jesse flicked his cigarette at the man's chest, which tumbled to the ground unheeded. "I don't need anyone to remind me about my fucking obligations!"
The man stared down at Jesse, his chiseled face unblinking and unphased. He returned to his vehicle without saying another word.
"Asshole," Jesse growled as he shoved his key in the ignition and started up the car. He reached under his seat and retrieved his .38 and angrily shoved it in his pocket before he put the car in gear.
It was time for him to go back to the real world.