Authors: Adrienne Wilder
“Wait.” I waved him back. “I’ll do it.” But I had no idea why I wanted to. I got a firm hold on Morgan’s arms and pushed him. He pulled, but when I didn’t let go, he gave up and I steered him into the kitchen.
An older black man met me just beyond the racks of pots and pans. “This way.”
He turned on the light in the office. “See if you can get him to calm down, I’ll call Jenny.”
We both jumped when Morgan barked out, “No.” He opened and closed his one fist while the other tossed thoughts in rapid succession. “Don’t, Tony… don’t call her.” His shoulder seized up for a second. “It’s late.” It did it again. “I’ll be okay.” He nodded and didn’t seem able to stop. “I’ll be okay.”
Tony looked at me.
“Don’t, Tony. Don’t…” Another cry ticked out from behind Morgan’s clenched teeth. He worked his jaw as if to free it from some unseen vice. “Don’t… call. Please.”
“You know she won’t mind.”
“No. I know. Don’t.”
Tony nodded. “Okay, but if you change your mind…” He shut the door, sealing Morgan and me inside the office.
I grabbed the chair sitting next to the wall. “Here, sit.”
Morgan jerked his arms and braced his chin to his chest.
“Please sit before you fall.” It occurred to me that maybe he couldn’t. I lowered him into the chair.
His arms continued to jump and the cords in his neck stood out. I took him by the wrists and forced his hands into his lap. I held them there and massaged his pulse with my thumbs. The grimace on his face eased, and the pause between each breath grew longer. With every exhale, the strength in his jerking limbs waned.
He nodded. His wayward hand opened and closed, and his fingers tapped off against the heel of his palm.
He shook his head.
“You want me to tell Tony to call Jenny?”
His face reddened with the effort to force out the word. “No.”
I continued to rub my thumbs over his wrists, and he sank against the back of the chair. Eventually the tension left his body, but for some reason, I still didn’t let go.
“Is he going to be okay?” Morgan raised his head but dropped it before I could catch his gaze.
“Who? The truck driver?”
“I hope not.”
He made a sad sound. “I can’t lose this job.”
“Why would you? He assaulted you.”
“Because Jessie can’t afford to get sued.” He made two fists, but it lacked the abruptness of a tic. “I can’t believe I did that.”
“No, I mean, that was pretty impressive. And here I thought you said Jenny made up that story about you beating up the football team?”
“Not funny.” Yet he laughed, and I smiled.
“You won’t lose your job.” Again he almost looked at me. And damn it, I wanted him to look at me. I cupped his face and tipped his chin up. A tear escaped down his cheek. I wiped it away with my thumb. “Did you learn to fight like that the same place you learned to count toothpicks?”
He tried to drop his gaze, but I shook him a little because I wasn’t done staring at him yet.
“Why did you take a self-defense class?” There was a pale white scar over one of his eyes and another one across the slight dip at the bridge of his nose.
I hadn’t seen them until now, since he kept his head down most of the time and the scars were faint. But I’d seen enough beatings in my time to know the kind of marks they left behind. Morgan either healed really well or had a damn good plastic surgeon.
I traced the one leading from his eyebrow to his cheek. “Who hurt you?”
“A mistake.” He pushed my hand away. I didn’t try to stop him again when he dropped his chin and averted his eyes.
“Does that mistake have a name?”
“Why do you care?”
I didn’t have a clue, but there was no denying the urge to hunt the asshole down and make them bleed.
“Well? Does he?”
“He’s in jail so it doesn’t matter.”
Morgan’s wayward hand returned to his temple, and his fingers fluttered. “I’m really tired so I’m gonna go home and get some rest. Can you ask Jessie to let Sheriff Parks know I’ll come to the station after I sleep for a few hours?” Just like that, he’d shut me out.
Morgan stood, easing his weight from one foot to the next.
“Did you hurt your ankle?”
“No, just stepped on something sharp a few days ago.”
White socks covered his feet and the strap connected to the sole of his flip flop made a crease between his first and second toe.
“Getting a bit chilly to wear those.”
I think he looked down, but it was hard to tell.
“I’m gonna go. Marty is supposed to meet me at the corner store.” Morgan bundled up his torn earbud wires and stuffed them in his pocket. On his way out, he took off his apron and hung it on the hook next to the door.
He hesitated for a moment with his hand on the knob, but before I could ask him if there was anything else, he was gone.
Except for a few gawkers too drunk to drive home, the bar was empty. Cops tend to have that effect on places like Toolies. Even if there’s nothing illegal going on, people will get nervous and jump ship.
I met Jessie in the parking lot. He leaned against the hood of a patrol car with one foot on the bumper while he talked to a blond-haired cop who was almost as wide as he was tall.
“Grant, this is Deputy Patrick Harold.”
“You saw what happened?” Deputy Harold took out his notebook.
“Sure. The truck driver assaulted Morgan. Twice. The second time he defended himself.”
Patrick chuckled. “I’m on your side. This is just standard.”
I kicked at a piece of gravel. “My apologies.”
“So what now?” Jessie said.
Patrick put his notebook in his front pocket. “I charge your esteemed patron with assault. Convince him that it’s a wise choice not to sue, otherwise he could wind up in jail.”
“What do you mean
wind up in jail?” I said.
“If I book him, he’s more apt to retaliate by getting lawyers involved.”
“And I already told you I don’t care,” Jessie said. “Let him try.”
“Yeah. I have a really good lawyer and Morgan’s been through enough.” The way Jessie said it made me think of the scars.
Patrick and Jessie shook hands. “Call me if you need anything.”
“Morgan wanted me to tell you he was tired and to let the sheriff know he’d come to the station tomorrow to talk,” I said.
“We won’t need to talk to him.” The deputy got in his cruiser. “There’s more than enough witnesses so he doesn’t need to worry himself. Tell him to rest.”
Jessie moved off the hood, and the deputy drove off.
A cab pulled into the parking lot, and two of the bar flies helped each other into the back.
“How’s he doing?” Jessie said.
“He’s says he’s okay, but honestly I think he’s shook up more than he’s letting on.”
“He is. Morgan hates it when people see him like that.”
“What do you mean?”
“His reaction. You saw it. He shuts down. It’s hard to watch, and he knows it.”
“Do you think we should call someone?”
“Tony said he offered and Morgan said no.”
“Then don’t. Morgan has worked hard to be independent.”
“This has nothing to do with independence.”
“It doesn’t, huh?”
“No. Not if he’s hurt.”
“Yeah? And when’s the last time someone played nursemaid to you after a brawl?”
Never. At least not of my own freewill.
Jessie nodded as if he’d read my mind. “Me either.”
A few more people wandered out of the bar. The neon sign overhead transformed them into red and black silhouettes.
Another cab drove up and took a few more home.
Jessie toed the gravel. “If you’re so worried about him, why don’t tell him you’re too tired to drive home and you need to crash on his sofa?”
“After I drive him home?”
“Haven’t you been picking him up every evening?”
“No. He told me he’d hitch a ride with Marty.”
“Marty Bower hasn’t worked here since June.” Jessie spit out a curse. “No wonder he’s been dragging his ass.” He started across the parking lot in the direction of the bar. “He couldn’t have gotten far, I’ll lock up and go find him.”
“I’ll do it.” After all, this was somehow my fault.
“I know I don’t. I want to.” I took out my keys. “You take care of the bar.”
Jessie nodded. “He’ll take Dent Hill Road as a cut through.” He pointed east. “It’s about two miles down, Water’s Way on the right. It’s nothing but a pig trail so you’ll have to look hard or you’ll miss it.”
I did miss Dent Hill Road, twice. I was about to give up and go get Jessie when on the third pass the headlights caught the reflective paint on the only corner of the street sign not swallowed by Kudzu.
I was surprised to see how far Morgan had gotten considering he limped with every step. As I approached, he held up his thumb and stepped into waist-high grass clogging the shoulder of the road. Just the kind of thick weeds snakes loved to hide in.
I stopped. He opened the door and froze.
“Why didn’t you tell me you needed a ride?”
Morgan shut the door.
I leaned over and rolled down the window. “Get in and I’ll take you home.” He walked, and I let the truck idle up next to him. “C’mon, Morgan. Get in.”
The missing tic returned.
“Morgan, get in the stupid truck.”
He limped faster.
I put the truck in park and got out. “Morgan.” He still didn’t stop so I blocked his path. “Get in the truck and let me take you home.”
He pulled his hand to his side but couldn’t keep it down.
“Please,” I said.
Crickets chirped, and dead grass crinkled under Morgan’s constantly shifting feet. He made a half-turn like he might try and run but instead went over to the truck and got in.
I slid in behind the steering wheel. “You should have told me you needed a ride.”
He leaned against the door.
“Why didn’t you say something?”
Puffs of dirt mushroomed up ahead in the headlights and gravel pinged off the undercarriage in sharp bursts.
We reached the main road. It was longer, but it would be quicker than crawling at a snail’s pace down a pig trail. Morgan draped his hand out the window and wiggled his fingers in the wind.
“You told me Marty was going to give you a ride. Jessie said he hasn’t worked for him since June.” The knowledge Morgan had been walking twice a day for over a week sat in my gut like sour milk.
He laid his head on his arm.
“If I’d known you’d have to walk, I would have given you a ride.” But Morgan didn’t tell me, because I’d made it clear how much I didn’t want to. I scrubbed a hand over my chin, then squeezed the steering wheel.
The hum of the tires and the rumble of the engine filled the silence. Deer watched us from the side of the road with their ears cocked, and I slowed down once to keep from running over a raccoon.
I counted the mailboxes and turned onto Porter’s Creek. The headlights slid across the picket fence. Colored glass flashed to life before fading back into the dark. I stopped in the shadows just beyond the soft glow of the porch light.
The rumble of the engine was replaced by chirping tree frogs.
“I’m sorry.” I leaned back in my seat. “I’m sorry I made you feel like you needed to lie. No, no, that’s not quite right. I gave you no choice but to lie.” I dried my palms on my jeans. “I’m sorry, Morgan.”
I couldn’t see his expression so I flicked on the light. “Will you at least yell at—”
Morgan’s eyes were closed, and a sigh left his parted lips after each slow inhale.
I shook my head. “You’re an asshole, Grant.” If only Morgan hadn’t been asleep so he could agree with me. I went around to his side. It took some maneuvering, but I was able to open the door and not have him fall out.
He muttered and made a halfhearted flick of his hand before slumping against me. I slipped an arm under his knees and another around his ribs. By the time I got to the porch, I had to stop and catch my breath. Either I was getting weak or tenacity weighed twice as much as muscle.
The door was unlocked. Did he even have a key? It wouldn’t have surprised me if he didn’t. Locking a door had been a foreign concept to me until I moved to Chicago.