Beth waited in the abandoned Circuit City parking lot for the dog-nappers to arrive. Trash and tumbleweeds swirled in the air around her and came to rest in piles along the cyclone fence. (Tumbleweeds! she thought. Her life had become a Wyle E. Coyote cartoon: she being the hapless, monomaniacal Coyote; some semblance of stability the elusive, mocking Road Runner.) There was no one else there. The dog-nappers were apparently running late. But in fairness, Beth mused, meth-heads aren't exactly famous for their punctuality.
Glancing at the boarded and graffitied front door, Beth suddenly remembered that she and Dan bought their flat-screen there a few years back. High-Def, plasma screen, the whole deal. The kids were back at the house, watching it now, in fact. And Dan was…well, wherever in the wide world Dan was now. Who could have guessed those would have been the salad days?
These days, you forget to latch the doggy door when you slog your kids forty minutes away to Gymnastics (Madison) and Karate (Stevie), and by the time you come back, someone's snatched your dog from the yard and is just waiting for you to post signs around the neighborhood so they can call you and shake you down for ransom. And of course, there are no neighbors left to have seen anything because they all had the brains to leave Rancho Encantado after the Bubble went pop, after Last Call's hard, sudden light, after The Great Oh Shit. Along with your husband.
Beth reached into her purse and shook loose a cigarette. It was a bad habit she knew she could ill afford, set a poor example for her children (particularly in regards to the deception she was engaging in to hide said bad habit from said children), and furthermore was a dangerous potential first step down a slippery slope, at the bottom of which dozed destructive habits best left dormant in their druggy dens, et cetera, et cetera ad infinitum and fuck you, Amen. She lit up and took a fucking satisfying drag.
Then she saw it: the beat-up Honda driving slow on the other side of the chain-link fence. The car lingered a moment, the driver's face a distant, pale zero. She geared herself up to Remain Calm, to maturely fork over the five hundred bucks, as though these creeps in the Honda were dry cleaners and Rascal a particularly expensive work blouse (not that she'd needed one of those in a while). When in fact, they were undoubtedly the perpetrators of Rascal's theft, and Rascal was, of course, her own fucking dog. Beth exhaled slowly, forced a tight smile. Then, with a sudden, startling rumble of its big, stupid muffler, the Honda took off. Inside Beth's head a klaxon went Errrnt, Errnt, Errrnt, a sound from the old days which meant Shit's About To Get Fucked Up. Her purse shook. She reached in and grabbed her vibrating phone.
"You got the money?" It was the same voice from the first call about Rascal. No good comes from a voice like that, Beth had thought after that first call. Young, but already raspy. Unwell, on edge, jonesing.
"Yeah, I have the money," she said, trying to keep her voice flat. "I'm standing right here. Where's my dog? Where are you?"
"Better question is…where are your kids?"
A hard punch to the solar plexus, knocking her gasping against the Prius.
"What did you say?"
"I said we got your kids, bitch. And if you want 'em back, you're gonna give us some fuckin' money."
"That's no problem, " Beth said. "Just put my daughter on the phone."
"Oh, yeah…uh, right," he said. He was an idiot, clearly. But was that better or worse? Worse, Beth knew in an instant. An idiot holding your kids hostage while fighting meth withdrawals was definitely, infinitely worse than a not-idiot not fighting withdrawals. The phone rustled and scraped, and then scared-girl breathing. Madison.
"Mommy?" she whimpered into the phone.
"I'm here, baby," Beth said. "I'm coming for you. Don't worry. I'll be right there, I promise."
"I'm scared," Madison sobbed, her voice going all high and screwy halfway through scared. Another gut punch, another little heart attack.
"What do I tell you before every gymnastics meet?"
"Breathe," her daughter said.
"That's right," Beth said. "Just do what they say and breathe till I get there. And tell Stevie to-"
The Idiot was back. "If you wanna see your kids again, you're gonna get us…you're gonna get us—" Here he argued with a co-conspirator over an acceptable sum, "Ten grand. We'll call you in a hour, and you fuckin' better not not have the money. And don't call no fuckin' police, either."
As it happened, there were no fucking police to call. The local police department folded a year before due to budget cuts, its duties theoretically assumed by the County Sheriffs, who in turn had recently slashed their budget to cover the huge settlement paid out to inmates at the county jail who'd gotten their heads stomped on by sheriffs furious about having to work as prison guards. This was stuff Beth never read in the local paper before it transfigured into a web-only edition and then finally, like the cops, like the firefighters, like everything in town, just up and disappeared. All she knew was that 9-1-1 just rang and rang.
The front door was ajar, and inside there were Signs Of Struggle. One of those empty phrases people said on TV, until you saw it in your own house: the glass-topped coffee table cracked, the half-made peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the kitchen counter, the phone off the hook and beeping.
For a moment, Beth imagined her kids' terror; the junkies conning them into opening the door, just a crack, just a crack…Oh God, it was too much. She ran upstairs to the safe to get the money.
Of course, there wasn't nearly enough money in the safe, maybe a few grand. She'd known that from the moment the meth-heads quoted her their outrageous ransom price, knew it while she rushed up the stairs and flung open the closet. Would the kidnappers take less? Probably so, strung-out animals that they were. That would have to be the gamble. Unless… her eyes slid up to her top shelf, to row of shoeboxes, behind which sat the steamer trunk…
She spun the little tumblers on the lock to "6-6-6" and popped the lid. She dug through the college detritus—the Sociology papers, the plastic cup with the puffy letter writing on the side ("Tri-Delts Rock!"), the pictures of Ronny doing his tough-white-boy face with the sideways peace sign—until she felt the rag, the heft of the gun wrapped inside of it. The gun, the pictures, the rusty dribs of dried blood on the rag all speed-balled together and zanged her in the nose, in the skittering heart, in the pleasure receptors of her coke-monkey brain, in the very pussy of her pussy. Rush and shame, rush and shame, right back to the old rollercoaster in her head, even now, even before she had a chance to anticipate it. She was fucking her dealer to keep her sorority sisters in coke, nose-bleeds in Econ lectures, and then just fucking him full-time, school a ragged and guilty memory, and then she was hiding his gun (rush rush), but not ditching it, in case she needed to flip on him to stay out of jail (shame shame). Those were the worst days in her life, until this one. She checked the mag—two shells missing still missing—Ronnie having put them into god knew what or whom all those years ago—slapped it back up into the butt of the gun, Ka-chack! and headed for the car.
A pack of skinny coyotes parted for the Prius, their eyes glowing green in the reflected headlights. Beth killed the lights, rolling dark and silent down the abandoned streets of Rancho Encantado. They'd landed here in heady times when attractive people were moving into houses as fast as the contractors could throw them up. Everyone, as it turned it out—including Dan, including herself—pretending: that you could afford your houses and cars; that your jobs and credit were solid; that you were a sorority girl and suburban mom instead of a former cokehead whom the world gave a pass because you're pretty…
Now the desert wind banged a loose screen door open and shut and the smoke alarm in an abandoned house whined its last before the batteries gave out for good. Now she lived in a video game about a zombie apocalypse. Ronny had found her on Facebook, looking out sternly from under his helmet. He'd been stationed in Afghanistan somewhere, after the Army relaxed the rules about letting in certain kinds of felons. Then the posts and IMs had abruptly stopped. She later learned he'd been killed while trying to score opium from guys who turned out to be Taliban, the dumb-shit. Which was troubling, because it was Ronny's voice, his affected bad-ass white-boy voice, that Beth was hearing in her head as she turned up the block. Her phone buzzed—Maddie on the screen, smiling, the summer sun dappling the lake behind her—startling her back into the awful now. She looked hard at her beautiful daughter—they'd jumped off the dock that day, over and over into the cool, delicious water; they'd roasted marshmallows over the fire and slept in a pack—before letting it go to voicemail.
She could have parked right out front, let them know she was coming. Present them with the backpack of cash and (hopefully) get the kids. Only if things went very sideways should the gun come out. But instead, she slipped the gun into the pocket of her sweatshirt and crept down the darkened street. "You gotta come in hard, yo," Ronnie used to say, like he was from someplace a lot rougher than Burlingame. "You gots to hit those motherfuckers with overwhelming force right at the top, let 'em know you ain't no bitch." With that, he'd jammed his Nine into the waistband of his sweats and marched into an apartment complex, while Beth, gacked out of her mind, had kept watch for imaginary cops.
She stayed out from under the few working streetlights. As she approached 1510, she remembered that it had been the house of one of Stevie's school friends. Andy Something? They'd gone to a birthday party there. There had been a bouncy castle in the back. The back…
She felt like she might puke as she broke into a stooped run to the side of the house. She crouched under the window, which was covered now by an old bed sheet with Elmos on it. She listened hard and heard The Idiot say, "Where the fuck's your Mommy, girl?"
"I don't know," said Maddie in a soft, scared voice. Beth nearly sobbed aloud, literally had to cover her mouth to stay quiet.
"Well, call her again."
The phone! Beth quickly fished into her pocket and scrambled to power it down before it rang.
"She's not answering," Maddie said. Hold on, baby, Mommy's coming. Let me be brave, God, let me be strong…
Beth crept up to the back gate, tested it, let it ease back as it began to creak. Would they hear it inside? Sweat pooled in the small of her back. She'd have to open it and slip through quickly without it slamming behind her. One, two, three…
She pulled the gate a foot or two and slipped through. She flattened herself against the wall, frozen as the gate went reeeeeeek and finally closed. She strained to hear sounds from the house. One Mississippi…two Mississippi… nothing. Beth the scanned the backyard: weedy lawn, strewn with forgotten toys, a paving stone path leading through it to the patio. They teetered a little beneath her feet as though she were crossing a treacherous creek.
She stopped before the patio, peeked around the corner. There was a sliding glass door on the other side of which, by the light of a Coleman lamp, the meth-heads held her children captive. The kids were pressed against one wall. Madison hugged Steven. Stevie hugged Rascal, who growled at the tweakers. There were three of them that Beth could see, two guys and a girl: skinny, white, tatted, matted, late teens, early twenties. One of them paced in front of the kids, a large hunting knife in his hand. Had to be The Idiot. You, Beth thought. I'm going to kill you.
Beth leaned back against the wall of the house, took a deep breath, and began working the last paving stone from the earth. It was heavy, took both hands to lift it. She slipped around the corner, building momentum as she approached the glass door. She flung the paving stone as hard as she could against the door. The sound was like a five-car pile-up, like the end of somebody's world. She slipped the gun out with one hand, reached in, yanked open the door with the other and stepped into the screaming.
She ran up to the girl and cracked that bitch right upside her gaunt face. The side of the Nine caught her right above the lip, took out one of her front teeth. The blood was tremendous. The scrawny girl went flying. Beth wanted to leap on top of her, pistol whip-her until she was dead, but she had to stay focused now. The big one was moving in at her. She swung the gun at him and he stopped short.
"Take one more step. Take one more step, you motherfucker!" She was screaming now. Her voice was a lion's voice. There was blood in her right eye. Big Boy stepped back. She turned to The Idiot. "Drop the knife. DROP THE FUCKING KNIFE, ASSHOLE!" The Idiot slowly squatted and dropped the knife. "Kids, get behind me," she said. Maddie and Steven crowded behind her, snuffling and bug-eyed, Rascal barking his fucking head off.
The three meth-heads' eyes flicked around at each other, at the knife, at Beth, waiting for the true balance of the moment to reveal itself. Beth knew it was time to go before Shit Jumped Off, as they used to say. But she didn't want to go, not yet. The voice that had led her here, Ronnie's voice, wanted something else.
"I'm gonna kill you, you kidnapping motherfuckers," she heard herself saying. "I'm gonna shoot you one by one, right in your ugly, fucking toothless faces. You hear me? YOU HEAR ME!"
"We hear you…" whimpered The Idiot.
"Who would miss you? Who would come looking for you, huh? No one. I could kill all three of you right now and get away clean."
"Jesus, lady," said The Idiot, tearing up, "Why you gotta be such a bitch about it, yo?"
"We ain't hurt 'em none," said Big Boy. "We're sorry!" Then, unbelievably, his voice choking up into a heartbroken bark, "Ain't nobody love me, for real."
The girl began to sob so suddenly and completely that Beth turned on her and nearly shot. But the girl just kept going, "Ahhh-huh-uh-uh!" over and over again, caught in a sudden downpour of amphetamine grief.
What was happening? Her tormentors who just seconds before had been edging around the arc of her gun, ready to slap it away and go for her throat, now wept like children who'd just been told Disneyland had closed due to rain. They waited in terror for the fury of her justice, for her to be the instrument from which they finally Got What Was Coming. Bang bang bang and down they'd go. Or weirdly, sickly, inconceivably…the other option made her mouth go dry. Would she really hole up in this gutted house and smoke crystal with these deadbeats until all the money in her backpack was gone? Errnt-errnt-errnt! She would she would she would.
Beth licked her lips, suddenly noticing how dry they were, how thirsty she was, how sticky the back of her shirt felt…
"Mommy?" whispered Maddie. Then louder, "Mommy!"
Beth nodded to herself several times, then pushed the kids out the broken back door behind her. The tweakers looked up at her, wild and ashamed. Save us, too, their popping eyes and scabby faces and twitching neck tendons cried. "Jesus Christ," Beth said, as she backed out the broken glass door. "Where are your mothers?"
She needed to go to a meeting, she knew that. But it would have to wait. The kids were waiting in the locked Prius, one bag of clothes each in the trunk, along with the backpack that contained pretty much all the money they had in the world. In her living room, at the foot of the couch, Beth piled a little stash of drug-related paraphernalia and struck a match. She watched as its small flame reached up and caught the dust ruffle. How quickly the flame spread to the rest of the couch. How strange to be standing in your living room, watching your couch burn. Good-bye, couch. Good-bye, Dan. Good-bye, Rancho Encantado. Good-bye to the whole house of cards. The insurance adjuster, if he ever came, would naturally blame the meth addicts who'd invaded the home of a plucky single mom. She'd collect the pay-out; use it to start a new life for herself and Madison and Steven. Or not. But either way, they were going to drive all night. Outside was the Wild West, outside was Nevadastan. This is how it had always been, deep down for the whole world, always and forever and only the lucky and soft thought otherwise. For the first time since those ragged nights with Ronny, Beth felt she wasn't pretending. This was Humanistan: kidnappings and blood feuds and revenge and improbably, love. You set fires, you walked the earth, you wore clothes made, like everything in this world that matters, of skin and bone.