~ Twenty Months Ago ~
I don’t know what to tell you,
I don’t know what to say.
I only know that caring for you brings on more pain.
~ Romeo’s Quest
Absorbed in a stream of murky thoughts and annoyance, I parked the Jeep near the alley. I’d never been to this part of town. I hardly knew it existed. The night’s sky was drunk on darkness, the late winter chill affecting my level of irritation. My eyes shifted to the car’s dashboard.
Five thirty a.m.
I’d promised myself I wouldn’t show up for him again. His actions had created a vast crater between our relationship, destroying all that we used to be. But I knew I couldn’t keep that promise of staying away. He was my brother. Even when he f**ked up—which he did often—he was still my brother.
It was at least fifteen minutes before I saw Jace come limping out of the alleyway and holding his side tight. I sat up in my seat, my eyes locking with his.
“Dammit, Jace,” I muttered, hopping out of my car and slamming the door closed. I moved in closer, allowing a streetlight to shine down on his face. His left eye was swollen shut, his bottom lip sliced open. His white shirt was stained red with his own blood. “What the hell happened?” I screamed in a whisper, helping him to the Jeep.
He tried to smile.
He groaned again.
I slammed his door shut and hurried back into the driver’s seat.
“They f**king stabbed me.” He wiped his fingers against his face, only spreading more blood across it. He laughed once, but his appearance showcased the significance of the situation. “I told Red I would have his money by next week—”—he cringed—“and he sent his guys to handle me.”
“Jesus, Jace,” I sighed, pulling away from the curb. Dawn had broken, yet it somehow seemed darker than before. “I thought you were done selling.”
He sat up, and his one opened eye found me. “I am, Danny. I promise.” He began to cry. “I swear to God, I’m done.” It was clear that he wasn’t only selling, but he was back to using, too. Shit. “They were going to kill me, Danny. I just know it. They were sent to—”
“Shut up!” I screamed, feeling the idea of my kid brother dying sink into my head. I grew haunted with a chill and an unearthly fear of the unknown. “You’re not going to die, Jace. Just shut the hell up.”
He sobbed and whined from the pain, a deep sound of lost and confusion filling his tears. “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to drag you back into this.”
I eyed him and sighed heavily. My hand landed on his back. “It’s okay,” I lied.
I’d gotten away from his trouble. I’d focused on my music. I’d focused on school. I was in college, one year out of making something of myself. Yet instead of preparing for my exam in a few hours, I would be bandaging up Jace. Perfect.
He fiddled with his fingers, looking down to the floor. “I don’t want to mess with this stuff anymore, Danny. And I’ve been thinking.” He looked up to me before his gaze faltered and fell again. “Maybe I can get back in the band.”
“Jace,” I warned.
“I know, I know. I’ve screwed up—”
“Fucked up,” I corrected.
“Yeah, right. But you know. The only time I’d been happy after Sarah…” He flinched at his own words. His troubled spirit shifted in the seat. I frowned. “The only time I’d been happy since that day was when I was on stage with you guys.”
My stomach flipped, and I didn’t reply to his comment. I changed the topic. “We should get you to the hospital.”
His eye widened and he shook his head back and forth. “No. No hospitals,” he said.
He paused and shrugged. “The cops might get ahold of me…”
I arched an eyebrow. “Are the cops after you, Jace?”
So he wasn’t only running from people on the streets, but he was also running from those who locked up the people on the streets. I wished this would’ve surprised me.
“What did you do?” I asked, annoyed.
“It doesn’t matter.” I gave him a cold look and he sighed. “It wasn’t my fault, Danny. I swear it wasn’t. Look. A few weeks ago, Red wanted me to move a car. I didn’t know what the f**k was in it.”
“You moved drugs?”
“I didn’t know! I swear to God I didn’t know!”
What the hell was he talking about? Had he thought he was moving f**king candy canes?
He continued. “Anyway, the cops got ahold of the vehicle when I pulled into a gas station to fill up. By the time I walked out of the station, the car was surrounded. One cop saw me walking quickly away from the car and yelled at me to stop, but I didn’t. I ran. Turned out us running track in high school paid off.” He snickered.
“Oh this is funny? You think it’s funny?” I asked, my blood boiling. “Because I am having a f**king ball here, Jace!” He lowered his head. I sighed. “Where am I taking you?”
“Take me to Mom and Dad’s,” he said.
“You’re kidding, right? Mom hasn’t seen you in a year and the first place you want to go is there? Beat up and bloody? Are you trying to kill her? And you know Dad’s health is bad…”
“Please, Danny,” he whined.
“Mom takes her morning walks by the dock around this time…” I warned.
He sniffled and ran his fingers under his nose. “I’ll just wait in the boat shed and get cleaned up.” He paused and turned to the passenger’s side window. “I’ll get cleaned up,” he whispered again.
Like I hadn’t heard that before.
It took us twenty minutes to get to our parents’ house. They lived on a lake a few miles out of Edgewood, Wisconsin. Dad had promised Mom a lake house some day, and it had only been a few years ago that he was able to buy her this place. It was a fixer-upper, but it was their fixer-upper.
I parked the car behind the shed. Dad’s boat rested inside, waiting for winter to pass. Jace sighed and thanked me for bringing him. We headed inside the shed, the morning light shining through the windows.
I moved over to the boat and climbed inside, grabbing some towels from below deck. When I came back up, I saw Jace sitting and looking down at his cut.