Lucas Carson rolls onto his back and stares at the ceiling fan rotating on low, blades spinning faster than a clock’s second hand melting his waste of a life. As if the Mojave Desert hasn’t already done so.
He takes a mental assessment, digging up the motivation to get out of bed. His head pounds from the six-pack of empty beer bottles on the nightstand. More from the shots of tequila. The crust around his eyes that caked overnight stings. He scrapes it off. His body aches, his right calf especially. He must have tweaked it last night when they were going at it.
He drags his hands down his face, the stubble chafing, and drops an f-bomb into his cupped palms. Faye came knocking after midnight. He shouldn’t have let her in.
She stirs beside him, her body going taut as she stretches her arms overhead and purrs. The sound drips with enough innuendo that Lucas can’t believe it isn’t intentional.
Her eyes slide open, revealing the stunning green that gets him every time she shows up at his door in a skimpy dress, mountain-high heels, and legs that go for miles. She has ten years on his thirty-three, but it doesn’t show anywhere on her. She’s a knockout. And he’s a fool for a no-strings-attached lay.
He sits up in bed. She smiles, catlike. He swings his legs over the side. She reaches for his wrist to keep him close. He pulls his hand away and shoots up from bed, moody about when and how he’s touched. She pouts because he’s slipping away. Body, mind. Interest. Until next time, at least.
“Baby.” Faye’s plea is breathless, heavy with the dregs of sleep.
“Got to get to work,” he says gruffly, clearing his throat of morning phlegm. He grabs the orange Home Depot bucket he uses for trash and slides the empty bottles in with one swipe of his forearm. The noise shatters the morning’s calm.
Faye flops onto her back with an irritated groan. “Lucas,” she whines, now fully awake. She drags the pillow over her face.
He drops the bucket on the floor. The bottles clatter. “You should go. Rafe returns tonight.” Her husband.
She groans into the pillow, then dramatically tosses it onto the floor and rolls to her side, propping up her head. She lets the sheet slide from her shoulders, revealing perfect breasts, thanks to some fancy surgeon in the Valley. “He doesn’t leave again for weeks. Skip work. Spend the day with me.” Her bottom lip pops out.
“Can’t.” He hobbles to the bathroom, stretching his cramped calf.
“Who?” He lifts the toilet lid and seat she’d put down. They bang against the tank.
“Ivy,” he corrects. His seventy-nine-year-old landlady and boss. She owns the four-apartment complex along with the market on the first floor. He works where she tells him, and he’s already running late. He overslept and has the hangover to blame.
“She’s all you care about.”
He grunts and takes a piss without bothering to shut the door.
“‘The simple act of caring is heroic,’” she recites.
Lucas rolls his eyes, no idea what she’s going off about. He flushes the toilet, washes his hands, and splashes cold water onto his face. He leans on the sink and stares at his reflection, rallying the will to clean up and show up. His eyes are bloodshot, the skin around them mottled. He hasn’t cut his hair in months. It falls shapelessly around his head, the cowlick he’s had since birth more pronounced from Faye messing with his hair. He swears she pulled out strands when he was pounding into her. She can’t keep her hands off his head.
I need you. She palmed his face, his neck, begging for the intimacy.
He rubs a hand over his scalp. There’s nothing intimate about them or what they do in the dark.
The switchblade he keeps on the toilet tank demands his attention as it does every morning since the day he arrived here feeling the lowest of lows. He scowls at it, his gaze sliding to the tub. A memory from when he was sixteen of a bathtub like this one filled to the rim with lukewarm water, him in it, fades in and out.
“Edward Albert.” She’s prattling on about whatever from his room.
He’s never heard of him.
“That actor. He was in Falcon Crest and a movie with Goldie Hawn. He won a Golden Globe.” Her tone tells him he should know who this guy is.
Lucas shakes his head, totally uninterested. He turns away from the blade and grabs his toothbrush, smears paste across the worn bristles.
“Baby, I ache. Be a hero and come back to bed.” Her voice goes all singsong on him.
He could crawl back into bed. To hell with his responsibilities.
He could also show her exactly how unheroic he is and ignore her.
He spits foamy paste into the sink. “Go home, Faye.” He shuts the bathroom door.
A muffled “Lucas” penetrates the hollow barrier before he turns on the shower, and when he’s finished and has wrapped a loose towel around his waist, the front door slams.
He yanks open the bathroom door and spills out with a cloud of steam. Faye isn’t in his bed, and she isn’t excavating his fridge for spoiled milk and month-old eggs, insisting she whip up a hearty scramble because he subsists on Coronas and Cuervo.
The air conditioner hums. The ceiling fans he installed yesterday in the front room and his bedroom spin.
She’s gone. Thank fuck.
Hands on hips, he surrenders a relieved breath.
The Dusty Pantry is a convenience market located on a large parcel of barren land in California City, a town that never lived up to its founder’s hype of growing bigger and more vibrant than Los Angeles. Miles of paved roads lead to nowhere, baking in the desert heat. After a postwar real estate boom, its growth tapered off until it was virtually a ghost town, which is exactly why Lucas has found himself here.
He feels like a ghost, drifting through life with no purpose. He can’t figure out why he’s hanging on when he doesn’t have a reason to.
It’s been eight months since he ditched Seaside Cove, the gated community on the Central Coast he called home, along with his older sister, Olivia; his mother, Charlotte; and the troubles that haunt him.
It’s also been eight months that he’s avoided the police.
There’s a very real possibility he’ll be sent back to prison when the authorities catch up to him. But that isn’t why he ran.
When he got in his truck and drove, tossing his phone out the window somewhere along Highway 58, the market was the first place he stopped. He expected to have one last beer and drive on through. Instead he bought twelve. When the old lady behind the counter turned her back, a Reese’s candy, a pack of Dentyne Ice, and a jerky stick that was probably as old as he was found their way into his pockets.
Ivy Dervish. She and her late husband, Tom, had purchased the land and built the drab multiuse structure of apartments and deli market back in the late sixties. The business has been floundering and the structure falling apart since her husband passed five years back, she told him as he paid for his beer. She’d been working overtime to keep it afloat when she should have retired years ago. He told her he was driving through, that he didn’t know where he was going. He didn’t see a point in hiding those facts. He wasn’t planning on sticking around. But she convinced him to reconsider. There was an apartment above that needed a tenant. She’d lease it to him at half the publicized monthly rate if he helped her around the property.
He toured the sparsely furnished apartment and saw himself sitting on the worn couch powering through the twelve-pack. Then he saw himself draw a warm bath, shedding his clothes, and folding himself into the small alcove tub, and he made his decision. He accepted her offer.
This was a good place to die.
One problem, though.
He hasn’t yet mustered the courage to follow through.
The Dusty Pantry lives up to its namesake. Every morning, Lucas sweeps the stockroom’s floor, pushing fine, blond-toned dirt out the back door. The parking lot isn’t paved, and Ivy’s property in back stretches far enough that he can only see the rooftops of several single-family homes above the waist-high shrubs scattered across the landscape. The only good thing about this place is the night sky. Stars are brighter, more brilliant in the desert, where Lucas can remember he isn’t anything more than a speck of nothingness in the vast universe.
He hears the familiar rumble of Sanchez’s Produce. Mack drives the truck south from the Valley once a week and drops several small boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables Ivy displays in the self-serve fridge along the far wall. The parking brake drops into place, and metal doors clang open.
Lucas shuts the rear door, puts aside the broom, and pushes through the swing door that separates the stockroom from the market. He walks down an aisle of cleaning supplies, past the cash register, and unlocks the front door. He props it open with a brick.
“Morning, Luc.” Mack drops a wood crate bursting with apples and oranges onto the sidewalk as Lucas returns to the stockroom to retrieve the empty crates from the prior week’s delivery.
“Got the white peaches Ivy ordered,” Mack says when Lucas hands off the crates. Lucas can smell the fruit’s sweetness wafting from the truck’s refrigerated box. Mack tosses the empty crates onto the truck.
“Thanks, man.” Lucas mechanically bumps the fist Mack holds up before he takes the fruit inside.
“See you next week,” Mack hollers after he slams the rear doors. Lucas grunts over his shoulder, dropping the fruit-laden crate by the self-serve fridge for Ivy to sort when she comes downstairs.
Mack leaves for his next delivery, and Lucas retrieves the other two crates in front. Closing the door behind him, he takes the fruit to the fridge in back. The door separating the stockroom from the market swings wide and sticks, remaining open. Lucas leaves it. His hands are full, and the market doesn’t open for another twenty minutes.
He packs fruit into the fridge, tosses the crate aside, and starts on the next when a bell jingles. “We aren’t open yet,” he hollers. He’s about finished with the second crate when he hears another noise, a can falling off a shelf. It rolls across an aisle.
Lucas sets down the crate, closes the fridge, and scopes the market from the doorway. There, along the far wall, he spots a head of dirty blonde barely visible above the aisle. He opens his mouth to tell whoever ignored him that the shop is still closed. But something stops him.
The figure appears around the endcap, Lucas going unnoticed. She’s too fixated on the products displayed, Snickers bars and M&M’s. Hot Tamales and Lay’s chips. Dirt-smudged cheeks and greasy hair, wearing an oversize hoodie too thick for the Mojave’s heat, she keeps her eyes averted as her fingers trail over the products on the shelf. They skim everything she passes. Every so often, her hand dips to her side.
Lucas’s gaze narrows at her retreating back. He knows exactly what she’s doing because he’s done the same since he was eleven. It started with a Hot Wheels car he lifted that he regrettably let his younger sister, Lily, take the heat for. Next it was a candy bar, then a shirt he swiped from Big 5 just to see if he could do it. Until finally it ended with a six-pack of beer and a gun that didn’t belong to him. His reward? Six months in juvenile detention bunking with five guys in an overcrowded cell who’d committed acts ten times worse than him.
He wasn’t the guilty party, not entirely. But his friends, his football teammates since they were kids, let him take the fall.
He’s still falling. Flailing.
He wouldn’t wish his experience on anyone.
Face hard, he watches her disappear around the endcap. Lucas strides up the neighboring aisle to confront her. Ivy doesn’t have cameras. He needs to catch this little thief in the act with the merch still on her.
She comes around the corner and gasps. Lucas snatches her wrist, startling them both, and flips her hand. Clutched in her palm is a pack of Juicy Fruit. His gaze drops to the loaded kangaroo pocket before flying up to her face. Large hazel eyes, haunted and deep, sit atop a wave of freckles bridging her nose. She can’t be more than fifteen, sixteen at the most.
He lets go of her, stunned.
Lucas looks up and down the road, hand raised to shield his eyes from the sun’s glare. The girl is fast. She’s disappeared, and that’s not easy to do around here. Everything is spread apart, nothing but dirt and dust between sporadic clusters of buildings. No place to hide.
He should return inside, finish unloading the fruit, prep the deli counter. Take stock of what she took. Ivy will need the inventory numbers. But he can’t unsee the girl’s astonishment when he caught her, those hazel eyes that look so much like Lily’s.
He recognized that haunted look. Frightened but determined. She’s running from something—or someone—but driven to survive. And for a split second the past merged with the present, and he thought she was Lily, the little sister he hadn’t rescued from their father. He hadn’t tried to help her.
He thought that his sister was here. The one he’d let run away.
Disturbed, Lucas rounds the building and gets into his truck. He flips down the visor, and the key fob he hides there drops in his lap. He takes a right, cruising in the direction she ran. Nothing but an open field on his right, an abandoned strip mall on his left. He coasts around the building that’s boarded up tight and can’t find a crevice she could have slipped into.
He passes a gas station, a bar, an open lot with a faded FOR SALE sign that’s been there since the eighties. The space is littered with abandoned cars rusting under the sun.
He wonders where she could have gone, where she sleeps at night when the temperature drops and the vagrants come out of the shadows to sift through the day’s garbage with no qualms about taking advantage of an unaccompanied minor, lost, frightened, and alone.
Would anyone miss her if she disappeared?
He drives with the windows open and thinks about the terrible things that could happen to her, what probably happened to Lily. Things he could have prevented if he’d cared enough to intercede.
Eight months ago he learned Lily, who ran from home sixteen and pregnant, had survived on her own, when her thirteen-year-old son, Josh, a nephew he’d never met, showed up alone at their sister Olivia’s house. He was looking for help to find his mom. Through a flood of texts from Olivia he read before he ditched his phone, he knows Josh and Lily reunited. He also knows Lily now goes by the name of Jenna Mason. Author, animator, and screenwriter.
She’s a bigger success than Olivia and Lucas combined. Though Lucas’s achievements, or lack thereof, don’t count for much.
But that slice of unexpected news—locating Lily and knowing she didn’t just survive but raised a son while launching a flourishing career—doesn’t make up for what he didn’t do: help her when she needed him.
Lucas keeps driving, looking out his windows, making U-turns, retracing his route, as he begins to wonder if the little thief was a mirage. She was never at the market. He was hallucinating, damn hangover. It wouldn’t be the first time he thought he was seeing things. His temples throb, and his mouth is cotton dry.
Hot, brittle wind cuts through the truck’s cab. Sweat drips into his eyes. He swipes his forehead. She has to be around here somewhere. He’ll find her, throw some cash at her. And if she’s homeless and willing, drop her off at a shelter. Things he hadn’t done for Lily.
He circles the city center, crawling past storefronts and restaurants, looking in windows and back lots. When he reaches the park, the phone Ivy insisted he carry when he’s out and about buzzes in his front pocket. He didn’t want the phone at first. He got rid of his for a reason. No phone, no connections back home. But this one meant he was sprouting roots here. He kept it on him for convenience, and admittedly, so Ivy could reach him. She was getting old.
He slides out the device. “Yeah?”
“Where are you? I came downstairs, and the door’s wide open, there’s stock on the floor, and your truck’s gone. Did you leave for good?” Ivy’s panic rings in his ear.
He slams the brakes in the middle of a two-lane road. The truck comes to an abrupt stop. What is he doing? A car swerves around him, horn blaring. The driver flips him off through the rear window. A second later, another car swings around the corner. Lights flashing, it heads straight at him at high speed.
His stomach caves in at the sight of the police cruiser. Sirens wail, lights blaze, and Lucas locks up, his apology to Ivy lodging in his throat. They’ve found him.
Instinct pushes him to split. Run! But he stops himself from gunning the engine. The cops wouldn’t come at him like this, not head-on. Unless they’ve been tailing him, which he’d know. They don’t know where he is.
The cruiser blows past, and he exhales harshly at the near miss.
“Lucas? Lucas! Are you still there?”
He drags a hand down his face. “Yeah. I’m here.”
“Are you coming back?”
“Thank goodness. You know I can’t manage without you.” Ivy’s voice shrinks, making him feel small real quick.
But Lucas never fully committed to Ivy. He didn’t sign any employment docs or a lease. They didn’t even shake hands. Skin on skin makes his skin crawl unless it’s on his terms. She pays him cash, which he puts right back in the register when he loads a bag of food, taking the goods and a twelve-pack of Coronas upstairs. What change is left in his pocket he deposits at the bar three ridiculously long blocks up from the Dusty.
He can’t blame Ivy for how she feels. He lives like he’ll pack up and take off any moment, and she worries he will. But he never anticipated remaining here for as long as he has. If he had, he wouldn’t have used his given name, and he would have abandoned his truck. But when he crawled to California City like a wounded animal intent on dying far away from his sisters so he wouldn’t hurt them further, Ivy visited him his first night here. He was four beers in. But she’d brought homemade lasagna, the best he’d eaten. Somehow she knew he was famished. Somehow she knew he shouldn’t be left alone.
He didn’t have the courage that night to follow through on his plan, or any night since. He hasn’t gathered the will to leave either, even with a bleak future.
“No, I haven’t left. I—” He stops. How to explain what he’s doing when he doesn’t understand it himself?
What if he found the girl? What did he expect to do with her if she didn’t want to go to a shelter? Feed her? Ha. Let her use his shower? No way. Turn her over to the cops for stealing?
He almost barks out a laugh. Lucas has always had a precarious relationship with the police. In simple terms, he doesn’t trust people in positions of authority, especially if they’re after him.
“I’m headed back,” he says.
“You had me worried there.” A relieved laugh. “I don’t think we’ve had any customers yet. But hurry.” As in nobody has stolen anything yet.
Wait until he tells her about the sunshine girl, the kid with the filthy blonde hair and sticky fingers who visited that morning. He imagines that under all those layers of dirt, her tresses are golden like the sun, her smile high wattage.
He’s been driving over an hour and hasn’t seen a dirty speck of her. She got away. And he shouldn’t give a damn that she did.
“I’ll be there in a sec,” he tells Ivy before tossing the phone on the seat beside him. Heading back in the direction he came, he tries not to spare Sunshine Girl another thought.
© 2023 Kerry Lonsdale Inc. All rights reserved.