Authors: AnnaLisa Grant
Next to Me
Copyright © 2013 Truman House
All rights reserved.
For the best readers a girl could ask for.
A gust of warm August air mixed with exhaust hits my face as I exit the cab. The wind blows my long, blonde hair in my face so I pull the band off my wrist and pull my mane into a pony tail. I followed my father’s instructions and had the cabbie drop me off on Constitution Avenue, near where I’m supposed to meet him. Constitution Gardens isn’t far from the Reflecting Pool that stretches beautifully in front of the Lincoln Memorial, but you wouldn’t know it to sit on one of the benches or under a tree next to the pond. The Gardens are so secluded that you often feel like you’re in a neighborhood park instead of in the middle of Washington, DC.
I come up the sidewalk and begin looking for my father in the direction of our favorite spot by the Garden pond. It's dusk and most people have cleared out for the night already. It’s also Wednesday and there usually aren’t that many people here this time of night anyway.
I spot my dad sitting against our favorite tree. He’s been bringing me to this spot since before my mom died. I was only ten when she lost her battle with breast cancer. It was really tough, but Dad was always strong. Looking back I realize just how strong he had to be for the both of us, and I’ve shed more than a few tears at the thought of Dad crying himself to sleep at night after holding everything in all day.
Bobby Matthews loved Elise Medcalf from the moment they met. They had always been a match made in Heaven. Even though Dad was the typical “boy from the wrong side of the tracks,” Mom always saw the good in him. She didn’t see the thug who had a rap sheet as long as your arm or the guy who beat the shit out of someone if they looked at his buddies the wrong way. She saw the sweet boy who always respected women, especially his mother. She saw the guy who literally took his leather jacket off and laid it over a puddle so my mom’s shoes wouldn’t get wet. She saw the guy who, when she asked him to leave his trouble-making friends behind so they could have a future together, did it without question.
They had a good life together. Mom was a secretary for the same law firm from the time she graduated high school, and Dad took his lock-picking expertise and starting using his skills for good by becoming a Master Locksmith. We never had a lot of money, which sucked at times because DC is so damn expensive, but we had a great life together.
Dad’s fellow-gang-member-turned-business-partner, Oz, became even more like family after Mom died. He ran their locksmith and security business while Dad took almost a month off from work, and kept it running as if Dad had never left. He maintained the clients they already had and landed a few new clients as well. Oz never married, which is a shame because even though he still looks like a bouncer, he’s a teddy bear and an amazing cook. I told Dad I was going to refer to Oz as my other dad since he took just as good care of me as he did, but Dad told me I better not as he didn’t want anyone to think he and Oz were
kind of partners.
Overall the last nine years since Mom’s death have been as good as could be expected. Each day things got a little better to where we could talk about her again and not cry. It’s been hard at times, and losing Mom’s income has been a source of many head banging nights doing the bills. Dad has had to do some things he promised Mom he would never do again, but you gotta do what you gotta do when the mortgage is due and your hungry eyes are staring at an empty refrigerator. We don’t talk too much about that, though. It makes Dad sad to think about how disapproving Mom would be about what he’s been doing for a certain Senator for the last few years.
I smile as I approach Dad but it fades quickly as I see that he’s not well. He’s slumped over and looks like he’s going to be sick.
“Dad! Are you ok?” I ask as I rush to him. “Oh my God! What happened to you?”
Dad lifts his hand from his belly and even in the shadows of dusk I can see how bloody it is from what looks like a gunshot wound.
“I need you to listen to me. There isn’t a lot of time. If you don’t hurry, they’ll be back for you,” he says through winces of pain.
“Keep your hand there! We have to keep pressure on the wound. I’m calling 911!” I start to pull out my cell phone but Dad stops me.
“You haven’t even started nursing school and you already think you know everything.” Dad gives a muffled laugh. I don’t know why he’s trying to use humor right now. This is serious. I’ve got to get him to a hospital.
“Who did this, Dad?” I look him square in his brown eyes hoping he’ll be honest with me. He looks at me and I immediately know the answer. “It was him, wasn’t it? What happened?”
“I got caught. The detective on the case knew right away that I wasn’t behind this or any of the other break-ins. He wanted a name or he was going to bring you in for questioning, too,” he tells me with a strained voice. I have no idea how long he’s been sitting here like this so I don’t know how much time has been wasted. “Naming Dellinger was just the confirmation they needed.”
“Oh, no, Dad. How many times did you tell me he was not to be crossed? How many times did you tell me that politicians like Dellinger are invincible?” I put my head in my hands and rest them on his should for a moment while I try to gather my thoughts. “Ok, ok, ok…let’s just get you to a hospital and then I’ll call that detective.”
“We’re not doing that, Ronnie. Dellinger made sure the road that detective was going down is a dead end. Now listen to me. You need to go see Oz. You knock on his door without me and he’ll know exactly why you’re there. He’ll take you back to the house. You know
what to take with you,” he says softly. “Everything is already set up for you to leave town and start over again.”
“No! Dad, I’m not leaving you!” I protest.
“Yes, you are. You can do this. I taught you everything I know for a
reason. You can protect yourself and you can get yourself out of any bind. You have to go. I won’t let him trap you the way he did me. You deserve to live the life you’ve always dreamed of.” Dad takes my hand in his as he winces with pain. I hate that he won’t let me help him. “This is it for me. You have a long life ahead of you. Go live it.”
“I’ll stay with you until…” I can’t say it.
“No. Go. You have to go now. They’ll be looking for you. They will have already been to the house. When they don’t find you there, they’ll assume you’ve come to find me.” His words are pained and his voice is struggling. My heart is breaking.
“Dad…Daddy….” I lean in gently and hug him as best I can without making the pain worse. “I love you.”
“I love you too, baby girl. You were the best thing that ever happened to your mom and me. I’m sorry that this is the way it is, but…” He coughs and I wince at the pained expression on his face.
“I don’t want to. How am I supposed to live with myself knowing that I left you here all alone to die?” Tears are streaming down my face and falling onto his blood-soaked shirt.
“You’ll live with it knowing that you honored my last wish for you. Now, go, and do what Oz tells you.”
“I love you so much.” I lean down and kiss my father on his cheek. With all the strength he has he lifts his hand to my head and hugs it close to him for a moment. With nothing left to say I look my father in his dying eyes and then force myself to follow his directions.
I get up quickly and make my way back to Constitution Avenue, hailing the first cab I see. I give him Oz’s address in West End and ring my hands the entire ride there. I can’t believe I just left my father to die under a tree.
Please, God, let someone find him!
I pull out my cell phone and stare at it, hoping to get a call from some stranger telling me they found him and are taking him to the hospital. Every second of the drive to Oz’s is spent gazing at my phone, willing it to ring. It doesn’t, and when the cab stops in front of Oz’s building, I feel an emptiness greater than when my mother died.
I get off the elevator on the tenth floor of Oz’s beautiful West End building. Oz was always really good with money. He inherited a huge sum from some distant relative a few years ago and has been investing it wisely. He offered to help me and Dad out, but Dad wouldn’t have it. I wish he had because then maybe it would have been easier to walk away from the money he was getting from Dellinger.
The knock on the door is still echoing when Oz swings it open with a wide smile. His 6’4” football player frame is quite a sight in the black, flour-covered apron he’s got on. When I was little I used to think they must have modeled Mr. Clean after him. He looks to my right expecting to see my father with me. When he doesn’t, the smile fades and he grabs my arm, dragging me into his home.
“What happened, Ronnie?” he asks in his serious, baritone voice. The door slams behind me and I’m walking aimlessly into his condo. I circle the couch and stand in front of the window that faces the direction of the Lincoln Monument, just yards away from where my father is still probably dying, or is now dead.
“He got caught. He named Dellinger. Dellinger had him…” I can’t hold it in any longer and I begin to sob. Tears are streaming down my face. They roll under my chin and I can feel the neckline of my t-shirt beginning to soak.
“It’s ok, Angel. It’s gonna be ok,” Oz says pulling me into his ridiculously large arms. I’m enveloped in them, my face in his chest now soaking his t-shirt. “I wish we had more time, but we don’t. We have to get moving.” Oz takes me by the shoulders. “Are you listening to me?”
I nod and wipe the tears from my face, trying to ready myself to really hear what he’s saying. I have to focus on the fact that every step I’m about to take is all part of my father’s dying wish for me.
“Now listen carefully and do exactly as I say. No questions. Understand?” I nod again. “Good. I’m going to take you back to your house. You’ll have exactly five minutes to put everything you can into
bag.” Oz goes to the hall closet and pulls a large duffle bag from the top shelf. “If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t go. Got it.”
“Yes,” I answer softly. “What happens then?”
“One step at a time, Ronnie,” Oz says as he rubs my shoulder.
We pull onto my street, having taken the longest route ever to get here. Oz parks a block and half away and takes us through the back alley of row houses. We pass through the wooden gate quickly and enter the house through the back door.
“Five minutes, Ronnie,” Oz reminds.
Dad said I would know exactly what to take with me so, with the duffle bag in my hand, I bolt upstairs. I hit my bedroom first and grab the obvious first: bras, underwear, clothes, toiletries from my bathroom, and every pair of dance shoes I own. They’re already perfectly broken in and way too expensive to replace. I pull a couple of books off the shelf, grab some pictures, and put my mom’s locket around my neck. I move to Dad’s room and pull a few of his t-shirts from closet, the picture of the three of us from his bedside, and the box from the top shelf of his closet. I check the gun inside and confirm that the safety is on after I take inventory of the rest of the important contents. This box, among everything that I’m taking, is the most important.
“Can you help me shove my laptop in here, Oz?” I ask hauling the now heavy duffle bag in one hand and my laptop case in the other.
“Leave it. They’ll be able to track the IP address,” he responds flatly. He’s pulling documents from a hidden panel in the pantry that I had no idea was there.
“What’s all that?” I ask as I struggle and force the zipper to the duffle bag closed.
“A few things you need…a few things I’m taking for safe keeping.” Oz opens the bag I finally got zipped closed and shoves one of the large envelopes in before closing it back much faster than I was able to. “You ready?”
“Yeah, I guess. Can I ask what the next step is now?”
“Now I take you to my sister’s in Virginia. He won’t look for you there.”
“Why? Why would he come looking for me in the first place?” I ask, confused. My father said the same thing and I was just as curious then.
“Because your father had a big mouth. Did your dad ever tell you about the night he met Dellinger?” I nod, remembering that Dad told me his company was called to install a new, high tech lock and security system at Dellinger’s home after a break in. “Your dad didn’t just get mouthy about how great he was at his job, but that he had taught
everything he knew. That you were a chip off the old block.”