Bret Anthony Johnston
A star-smeared night, the usual briny and humid haze of the brush country in August, and Dixon was hauling twenty cases of stolen toys up from the Rio Grande Valley. They were in the bed of his truck under a blue tarp. He took care to drive the speed limit and flash his blinker. If the border patrol at the Sarita checkpoint asked, he’d claim a delivery mix-up. If the guards were white, he’d blame it on Mexicans.
The toys had been slated for Dairy Queen kids’ meals, a promotion for a book series called Pegaterrestrials in which the characters were half alien and half winged horse, but that morning the office phone rang and a collectibles dealer had offered three grand for the lot. Dixon was forty-two and he’d managed the franchise outside Harlingen for four years. He knew he’d be fired, maybe arrested too, but he also knew better than to give himself time to reconsider. He loaded the cases into his truck between customers. When the afternoon crew arrived, he went to the filling station to top off the tank. He checked his tire pressure and brake lights. Then he drove to the house and had supper with his wife, hamburger meat fried with peppers and onions. Afterward, they ate Blizzards he’d brought home for dessert and he told her not to wait up.
Dixon pressed his swollen knuckles to the cold paper cup and felt a soothing. Trish saw it, looked away. She said, “You’re doing all this for someone named Cornbread?”
“I’m doing it for the money. Three grand gets us closer to the twenty-eight days.”
“Three grand from a man named after bread you cook in a skillet,” she said.
“Sounded more teenager than man.”
“Where does a teenager get that kind of cash?”
“Where does anyone?”
Trish licked her red plastic spoon. She said, “Did you put the pistol back in the truck?”
“I’m doing it for Kay,” he said. Their daughter was fifteen. She’d been asleep in her bed since Dixon had carried her there the night before.
“A man got arrested this morning,” Trish said. “He was driving a hearse and had dope in the cadaver, an old woman stuffed full of pot.”
“He didn’t think the creek would rise.”
“I never understand what you mean by that.”
“My father used to say it,” Dixon said. He wanted to get going. The deal was to meet Cornbread at a Kingsville taxidermy shop by ten. He said, “It means we’ll be alright.”
“If your knuckles aren’t broken, they’re getting close. I can put some ice in the cooler for your drive.”
“After I get home,” he said.
“Part of me wishes you hadn’t gone so easy on those boys.”
“I doubt that’s the word they’d use.”
“You know my meaning, Dixie,” she said.
“I need to scoot,” he said.
“The man with the hearse probably figured the cadaver would confuse the dogs,” Trish said. She was rinsing the plastic spoon. Their drawers were full of Dairy Queen flatware.
“What time do they start admitting patients at Bayview?”
“The story was on the news,” she said. “It happened at Sarita. That’s all I’m saying. It happened where you’re fixin’ to go.”
His headlamps washed out on the pavement. The air pushing through the vents smelled of creosote and trapped heat. Dixon wished the truck’s radio still worked. He hadn’t missed it for years, but tonight he wanted distraction. The drive was too flat, too dim and quiet. Occasionally, a sharp and radiating pain singed his knuckles; he should’ve accepted that cooler with ice. He alternated hands on the wheel. Outside Raymondville, plastic grocery bags were snagged on barbed wire fences. They looked like jellyfish.
How long since he’d come up this way? They used to go to Corpus for Kay’s school clothes because Valley stores weren’t up to snuff. There had been trips to see the replica Columbus ships dry-docked by the museum and the air shows at the army depot. Mostly, they’d drive up to go bird hunting near the King Ranch. For Kay’s twelfth birthday, they’d given her a .20 gauge. Dixon taught her to press her cheek to the shotgun as she’s patterning the dove, to keep her eyes on a shot bird as it falls, to track them where they like to eat—wheat fields and sunflower crops and gravel roads. He didn’t know what other fathers did with their daughters; the greatest luck of his life was having the only girl he’d know how to raise.
An hour into the drive, his cell lit up on the passenger seat. Felipe, his assistant manager, had an irate customer.
“She’s got three kids here,” Felipe said. “They want the new toys.”
“That promotion doesn’t start until tomorrow. We aren’t allowed to pop the cases earlier,” Dixon said.
“I know, but the kids are losing their shit and we’re trying to close. I thought I’d just slip her a couple, but I can’t find them.”
“Give her free Blizzards,” Dixon said.
“We already shut down the machine. Before her, we hadn’t had a customer for an hour. Did we move the cases?”
“Give them extras of the old ones.”
“What about tomorrow? I’m scheduled to open and if the toys aren’t here, I can’t—”
“They didn’t grow goddamn legs,” Dixon interrupted. “Hell, Felipe, they didn’t just walk out the goddamn door.”
Before Shawn Milford, Kay’s interest in boys had not extended beyond hunting experience—how old they’d been when they got their first guns, what kind of shells they loaded, how many birds they’d brought down in a day. She was in competition with them, not love. At fourteen, she still played cards and went bowling with her parents, made honor roll, washed dishes without being asked. So when the cop called Dixon last year, he figured it for a prank. Kay detained for panhandling? The word itself seemed vaudevillian: panhandling. And yet it was no joke. Others were on the hook as well, a crew of friends whose names neither Dixon nor Trish recognized. But the cops knew Milford. He was nineteen, a burnout. No question that he concocted the scam where the kids spread out through the mall, claimed to have been separated from their church group, and begged for bus fair money. Security footage showed they’d been running the con for weeks. Kay spent the day at the police station but got off with a warning. She cried and shook and apologized when Dixon picked her up, but he knew he’d been given a gift: she’d be too scared to court more trouble in the future.
But then came truancy notices and calls from Ivan at the pawnshop: Kay was hocking her mother’s tennis bracelet, Dixon’s circular saw, the .20 gauge she’d gotten for her birthday. Then came so many nights of her sneaking out her window that Dixon drilled it shut; he countersunk six screws from outside so she couldn’t work on them from her bed. Dixon talked to her by himself, so did Trish, and they talked to her together. She saw a counselor at school and started reading books to old folks at the retirement home. Then she got suspended for fighting Alma Santos in the cafeteria. Kay said Alma had been the instigator, but only Dixon believed her. Trish accused him of cutting Kay too much slack, of seeing good where there was only shit. A month ago, Kay came home in a police cruiser with pupils the size of quarters. The cops had been called on a noise complaint and when they arrived at the apartment Milford shared with his brother, they found a bowl party.
“A what?” Dixon had asked the officer. Kay was still in the cruiser, her cheek pressed to the window.
“Kids dump a bunch of their parents’ pills in a bowl, then spend the night munching on them like popcorn. No one ever knows what they’re taking.”
“County,” the cop said. “His brother, too.”
“Up to the judge. With all those pills, they might be in for a stretch.”
“Too bad,” Dixon said.
Then he crossed the yard and gathered his daughter from the squad car. She was dead weight in his arms, like her bones had turned to gruel.
Next time his phone buzzed, the night was full dark and the call lit the cab. Trish said, “Why are you the one on the road?”
“If Mr. Cornbread wants his toys so bad, why didn’t he make the drive down?”
“DQ has security cameras,” he said.
“They’re working again?”
“Safety first,” Dixon said.
“This doesn’t add up,” Trish said. “We didn’t think it out.”
In truth, Dixon had suggested delivering the toys tonight because Cornbread said he wouldn’t have access to a truck until next week. Waiting that long seemed careless, cowardly.
“I guess she hasn’t emerged yet,” he said.
“I checked on her. She kicked the covers off.”
“She’ll sweat some of it out. That’s all to the good.”
“She still smells like that glue,” she said.
“It’s in her hair,” Dixon said.
“Like those resistoleros,” she said. There’d been articles in the paper about homeless kids addicted to huffing Resistol across the border. The cobbler’s glue was cheap and legal in Mexico. It suppressed hunger. Dealers sold it in baby food jars.
“She’ll hate us more if they have to cut her hair to get it out,” Trish said.
“Bayview will have better shampoo,” he said. “She doesn’t hate us.”
“They start admitting at eight. I didn’t answer you earlier.”
“We’ll be the first in line,” he said.
“I made some tuna in case she wakes up wanting real food. I thought you might want some when you got home, too.”
“Nothing would taste better,” he said.
“Felipe called,” Trish said. “I let the machine get it.”
“We talked. He needed help closing out the register.”
“How far to Sarita?” she said.
“Coming up,” he said. “I can see the lights.”
“I told you about the woman stuffed with pot, right?”
“Yes ma’am,” he said.
“Cornflake should’ve come here. You shouldn’t be driving all that way. Your poor hands.”
“I didn’t want him to know where we live,” he said.
“Maybe he was thinking along the same lines.”
“We’re alright,” he said.
“That’s what you keep saying,” she said.
The Sarita checkpoint was bleached in artificial light. Dixon had to lower his visor as he idled behind a tractor-trailer being searched by two guards. One was white, the other was Mexican. Flashlights, clipboards, handcuffs and side arms. The Mexican guard led a German Shepherd around the truck on a leash. He opened the trailer and waved his light inside: wooden crates of grapefruit. Dixon rolled down his window and the night swamped in, heavy as wet wool. He fidgeted with the vents. He could feel his pulse racing under his jaw. His knuckles were throbbing too and he concentrated on the pain as a way of calming himself. After a sedan pulled behind him, he realized he’d been considering reversing out and hooking a U-turn back to Harlingen.
The rig heaved into gear and rumbled out of the checkpoint. Dixon pulled up. The white guard stepped in front of the truck, waving him forward then motioning for him to kill the engine. Dixon considered asking if he could keep it running, explaining that the starter was on its last legs, but he turned the key instead. The guard flipped a switch in his booth and a strip of spikes hinged up from asphalt. The other guard set to circling the truck with the dog.
“Where you off to?” the guard asked.
“Kingsville,” he said.
“Carrying any firearms or illegal drugs?”
“I’ve got a .38 under my seat,” Dixon said, hoping such honesty would pay off later. He added, “Permit’s at home.”
The guard scratched a note on his clipboard just as the tailgate dropped down and rocked the whole truck. It was like jumping a curb. The guard with the dog whistled and his partner went to see what he’d found.
When the guard returned, he said, “What’s with the boxes?”
“Toys for kid meals. I manage the Harlingen DQ. We got the Corpus shipment.”
“You said Kingsville.”
“I’m meeting another manager there. He’s hauling them the rest of the way.”
The guard surveyed the truck’s cab: paper trash on the floorboards, sun-split dashboard, cellphone on the passenger seat. He glanced to the rear. In the mirror, the other guard shrugged. Dixon put both hands on the wheel, a mistake.
“What happened to your knuckles?” the guard asked.
“Punched the wall when I saw we got the wrong shipment.”
“With both hands?”
“Not my finest hour,” Dixon said. His shirt was soggy against the seat. If he floored the gas, he’d make it no farther than fifty feet past the spikes. Then, a memory: Kay used to love the sound of balloons popping. When she had chicken pox, Dixon had blown up a bag’s worth of balloons and burst them with his pocketknife to make her laugh.
The guard had been talking. “Sir,” he repeated, “I need to see your license.”
Dixon fished out his billfold. The guard checked the ID picture against his face. He wrote something else down, then passed it back.
“Can I get hold of the Corpus manager?” the guard asked.
“He’s on the road. I don’t know his cell, but his name’s Milford. If he ever passes through, your time wouldn’t be wasted searching his car.”
“If he’s got something to hide, we’ll find it,” he said.
“I heard about the hearse,” Dixon said. “It’s bad in the Valley too—heroin, glue, pill parties.”
“Is your firearm loaded?”
“Unloaded, it’s just a paperweight.”
“And if I make a call, I won’t have trouble finding it registered in your name?”
“None at all,” Dixon lied.
The guard held his gaze. He wasn’t gauging whether Dixon was lying, Dixon suspected he knew the truth, but whether the infractions were worth his effort, whether whatever danger Dixon posed was tolerable. Without warning, the tailgate slammed shut. The guard moved to the booth and flipped the switch. The spikes flattened. The guards paced to the sedan behind him. Dixon had to crank the ignition three times before it turned over.
Excepting his pistol and Kay’s .20 gauge, Dixon had sold all of their guns. They’d gone one by one to the pawnshop—when he was short on rent, when the starter on the truck first gave out, when Trish’s hours got cut at the deli counter. He kept the pistol because he’d never lived without one; the .38 had belonged to his father, had traveled from one house to the next with Dixon. He kept Kay’s shotgun because it had once meant so much to her and he hoped it would again. After she tried pawning it on her own, he’d locked it in the gun cabinet in his and Trish’s bedroom. The key was taped under his nightstand drawer.
For the last hour of the drive, he’d been thinking of Kay as someone suffering temporary amnesia. She was in a fugue state. Getting her out of this sludge could be as simple as reminding her of the life before. All he needed to do was jar her memory. He could manage it. They’d play cards and go bowling, they could even start hunting again, maybe head up to the Hill Country where there was good pheasant shooting. If the taxidermy shop where he was meeting Cornbread did solid work, he’d have one of her birds mounted. Hang it above the television or in her room. When he’d laid her in her bed last night, Dixon was struck by how unfamiliar the room had become. Her plush toys and bright posters had been replaced by a wheel-less skateboard, a lava lamp, and barren walls. Maybe they’d hang a bird on all of her walls, he thought now. Give her more to brag about, build her confidence. Trish would call his thinking naive, but Dixon knew it would work. He could hardly wait.
The taxidermist’s gravel lot was empty. A lamppost swayed over the squat building but the casing and bulb were busted. What little light there was spread from the Party Barn across the road. A line of cars ten deep waited at the drive-thru liquor store; one was an ice cream van. Before he stepped from the truck, Dixon slipped the pistol into the back of his waistband.
He thought about walking to the Party Barn to get a bag of ice for his knuckles, but didn’t want to risk missing Cornbread. He checked his phone and peered through the shop window. Cupping his hands around his eyes, he could make out mounted heads of deer, javelina, a caribou. He squinted but couldn’t discern the quality of the work. A rattlesnake arrested in mid-strike, fangs bared. An armadillo on its back guzzling a Lone Star bottle. A lynx in a fierce pose, a marlin arching on the far wall, an owl spreading its wings. All of the animals’ dull glass eyes seemed fixed on Dixon.
When he turned from the window, a young man stood in the street: Cornbread. He was pacing in the turning lane, trying to time his crossing. Cars barreled by in both directions and Dixon feared he’d be hit. After a minute without an opening, Cornbread tried darting out and forced a 4x4 pickup to swerve. The driver laid into his horn and kept on it for a hundred yards. Cornbread waved an exaggerated wave; it looked like he was trying to flag down a helicopter. Dixon wondered if he was on something. When traffic finally eased, Cornbread bolted across. He ran in a flailing, childish way. One of his shoes flew off and he had to kneel to retie it on a parking block.
“You’re early,” Cornbread said, bent at the waist, breathing heavy. He looked about Kay’s age, but smaller. He said, “We’re in line at the Party Barn. I didn’t want you to think I flaked. I almost got run over by a truck.”
“You brought the money?”
Cornbread dug in his pocket and came up with a roll of cash. Before handing it over, he doffed an imaginary cap. Dixon fanned it out—twenties, fifties, a few hundreds. He counted the bills twice, then again, arranging them to face forward. Cornbread had closed his eyes. His head bobbed to music only he heard.
Dixon said, “Help me get these boxes out of the truck.”
Cornbread clapped his hands and cut a jig in the gravel.
They unhooked the tarp, lowered the tailgate and began unloading. Cornbread worked as though he was still hearing the music, as though he could barely restrain himself from dancing. He looked not like a kid buying stolen toys, but like he’d randomly happened upon something he’d coveted for years. Once enough of the cases were on the ground, Cornbread swung himself into the truck bed and passed what remained to Dixon.
His phone vibrated. Trish’s name appeared on the screen and he sent it to voicemail.
“We have a flea market booth,” Cornbread said after they’d gotten all the boxes out of the truck. “We sell collectible toys. Each of these cases has one ultra rare figure. Collectors pay out the ass for Pegaterrestrials.”
“How old are you?” Dixon asked.
“Eighteen. I’m little for my age,” he said.
“I thought you had to be twenty-one to buy anything at Party Barn.”
“My friend’s older,” he said. “He’s the ice cream man.”
Dixon was trying to fold the tarp, awkwardly trapping a corner with his chin and getting nowhere, but when Cornbread noticed him struggling, he came to help. They folded it like a sheet, finished in no time.
Cornbread said, “We called about ten Dairy Queens before yours. I didn’t think you’d show up.”
An idea had been forming without Dixon’s knowledge. It whorled outward as imperceptibly as a growing shell, recognizable only after taking its full and inevitable shape. Dixon said, “What about the extras?”
“You said you sell the rare toys. What happens to the leftovers?”
“They’re worthless. We’ll blow them up with firecrackers.”
“Sell them to me,” Dixon said.
Cornbread looked toward Party Barn. The ice cream van was next in line.
“We’ll pick out the ones you need, then I’ll take the rest back to Harlingen,” Dixon said. He felt awake and alive, sure of himself, the future. He said, “Five hundred for the lot?”
“Can we still have a few of the regulars to explode?”
“You bet,” Dixon said. “Now show me how to spot the special ones.”
Cornbread opened the first box, ferretting through the common figures until he found it. The toy was bright chrome—eagle wings, the muscled body of a thoroughbred, an alien’s smooth head and teardrop eyes. Cornbread studied it like a jeweler, handled it as delicately as he would a newborn chick. What drew children to such outlandish creatures? Dixon wondered. Had Kay read any Pegaterrestrial books? That he didn’t know galled him. She’d always loved animals, declaring once that she wanted to be a zebra when she grew up, and in a way Dixon couldn’t explain, he equated her hunting with an affection for the birds, an abiding desire to be closer with them. He’d ask her about such things when they drove to the Hill Country. Across the street, the ice cream van was entering Party Barn. Cornbread was still regarding the special figure with no small amount of awe. Dixon opened another box and located the chrome creature easily. Then he moved onto the next one, then the next and next. He opened case after case and his knuckles hardly hurt at all.
The day before yesterday Kay hadn’t come home from school. They called her phone, left messages, waited. They paced the floor, stopping occasionally to part the blinds and watch the street, willing her to appear in the distance. Trish kept supper warm, then after a couple of hours they conceded to pick at their food in fraught silence. Every little noise sounded like the door opening. Finally, Dixon wiped his mouth with a DQ napkin and said, “I’ll rustle her up.”
He took the .38 from the gun cabinet and went to the Milford brothers’ apartment. No surprise that they were gone, too. He lingered in the parking lot, but then set out. Trish was at home redialing Kay’s phone. She called the hospitals and border patrol. She called the police who said nothing could be filed until Kay had been missing for twenty-four hours. She called Bayview Hospital, the rehab facility in Corpus, and scribbled rates on the back of an overdue electric bill: 28 days = 3600.00. She called the morgue. The man who answered recognized their last name and said her husband had just left, said they’d get in touch if someone matching Kay’s description arrived, said not to call back. She called Dixon to tell him whom she’d called and to ask where else he’d gone.
He’d gone to the mall and pawnshop and her friends’ houses. He stopped for gas and left the truck running for fear of it not starting again. He drove out to the citrus groves, her school, the retirement home where she read her books. He checked the underpasses where users camped. Nothing. Everywhere, nothing. His prevailing sense was of having always just missed her. No evidence supported it, but the notion of lagging one step behind weighed more heavily every hour. Phantom visions of her appeared in storefronts and on street corners. Where are you, little girl? he caught himself saying out loud. He’d emptied a tank of gas. The night was leaden, clouds scudded by and disappeared. Think, he thought. Think.
What he thought was this: The world is too goddamn big. If she’d headed out after the first school bell rang, she could’ve been in San Antonio by mid-afternoon, in Houston by supper, in Dallas by dusk. Or she could be within minutes of where Dixon was now. She could be unconscious or terrified or crying out for her father. He was near a motor court that rented by the hour when dizzying nausea took hold. He pulled to the curb and tried to vomit but nothing came. He stepped into the empty street and pivoted in a circle, as if scouting a spot to crouch in a field and wait for a flock of quail. The memory of her safety, of a life where he could trust the day to deliver her home, had withered and scattered. There were new rules now. Or the rules were unchanged and he’d failed to understand them until this moment.
He went to St. Pius where Kay had been christened. He prayed and lit a candle. He doubled back the way he’d come.
Dixon and Cornbread had culled the special figures from the cases by the time the ice cream van jostled into the parking lot. Headlights slashed across them, briefly whiting out the taxidermy shop’s windows. The driver made a wide and fast arc that sent gravel pinging around, then reversed toward them. He braked and dowsed everything in a red glow.
The driver walked with a cane. He was shirtless, roped with skinny muscle, Dixon’s age. His cigarette was near down to the filter. He extended his hand to Dixon and said, “Call me Moose.”
“Moose and Cornbread,” Dixon said.
“Sounds like an old-time meal,” Cornbread said.
Moose smiled without conviction. Smoke ribboned into his eyes, but he seemed not to notice. He said, “Why are my cases open?”
“He wants to buy back the commons,” Cornbread said. “We pulled the specials.”
The tip of Moose’s cigarette flared and smoke went through his nose. He caned his way over to the cases. He said, “What price are you offering?”
“I was thinking five hundred would do it. Cornbread says they’re worthless.”
“Worthless to us,” Moose said, nudging a box with the tip of his cane, “but I’d wager they’re worth a job to you.”
“I could throw in another hundred.”
“The price is a thousand.”
“For something you’re going to burn up with firecrackers?”
Moose squinted toward Cornbread, then Dixon. He said, “Then how about that pistol of yours? Would that square us?”
Dixon saw where this was going. He said, “We’ll leave things be. Everyone can leave happy.”
“I wish we could, bubba.”
“You decreased the value when you cracked the seals on the cases. They’re not worth what I paid anymore. I’ll need to collect a refund.”
“My understanding was that you were only interested in the special figures.”
“My understanding was that I was paying for unopened cases,” Moose said.
“That’s my bad, Moose,” Cornbread said. “I just figured since the specials were what—”
“How about the three thousand,” Moose cut him off, “your Saturday Night Special, your piece of shit truck, and we keep all the toys?”
“Our deal was for the cases and I delivered them,” Dixon said and started for the truck. A line of traffic charged by and sounded like a long, heavy wave plowing the shore.
“Hey, bubba,” Moose said, laughing. “I’m just jerking you. Of course you can have these no-nothing toys. How about six hundred and we call it a night?”
“Six hundred and we’re done?” Dixon said.
“Six hundred and we’ll hallelujah the county.”
Dixon peeled off the cash. Moose grinned with the cigarette still clenched in his teeth—a show of shared enterprise—and limped over to take the money.
“How come you brought that pistol?” Moose said as Dixon loaded a case into the truck. “Didn’t pick Cornbread for a friendly?”
“It’s been a rough few days.”
“Your knuckles tell that story just fine,” Moose said.
Dixon expected Cornbread to help with the cases, but he stayed by the ice cream van. He was nothing but downcast eyes and stillness. No one spoke. For a while the only sound was gravel crunching beneath Dixon’s boots.
Then Moose flicked his cigarette into the parking lot and said, “Thing is, bubba, I’ve had a rough few days too, and the more I think about you toting a gun here, the more it chafes me.”
“Selling those toys will cure that,” Dixon said, stowing another case.
“It just makes me think you have untoward plans for me and my little buddy over there.”
Dixon’s back was to him. He closed his eyes and tried to figure the best move, tried to find some combination of words that would get him on the road.
“So, bubba,” Moose said, “here’s what’s going to happen.”
Dixon’s eyes were still closed when he heard the air slicing behind him. The blow coursed through the hollows of his bones like quicksilver until there was too much weight to bear and Dixon felt the ground go out from under him. His chin cracked the tailgate as he fell. His mind pulled away from him, a reverse spiral as he hit the gravel. He thought of shot birds dropping from ice-blue skies. He thought of Kay in the back of the squad car with her eyes like coins, thought of her draped in a Texas flag, thought of limp and lifeless bodies filled with cold water and jellyfish, and then his thinking ceased and there was nothing except a soundless and enveloping blackness. Then, increasingly, not even that.
Last night, when he’d passed once more by the Milford apartment, the windows were leaking light. He drove onto the patchy grass and bound up the concrete stairs two at a time. The door was slightly open. He pushed it the rest of the way with the barrel of the pistol.
A bucket of cobbler’s glue sat on a wicker table, the air in the apartment thick with a viscous odor—the glue, yes, but also dank sweat and mildew, aerosol and rotting food, the ripe and chemical smell of semen. A Texas flag hung on the wall over a plaid couch pocked with cigarette burns. All of the lights were on. A calico cat, likely a stray that had just come through the open door, was licking a grease-scabbed skillet on the stove. The cat paid him no mind. In the bathroom, the toilet seat was up and the water was dark with days of urine. Empty cans and bottles spilled from the tub. He took care where he stepped on his way to the bedroom. The door was shut, but he didn’t want to hit a creaking floorboard; he tested each step before putting his full weight on it, as if worried the floor would collapse. What a time to think of how he and Trish used to tiptoe through the house after Kay got to sleep as an infant. Now, as then, he put his ear to the door. He heard a window unit working hard. He turned the knob slowly, bracing for when it clicked and he could peek inside.
Kay. Asleep on a bare mattress on the floor. No box spring. She wore an oversized t-shirt and nothing else. Even with only the slice of light from the hall, he could see that the soles of her feet were black with filth. The Milford brothers were naked beside her.
One of them lay curled in a ball and the other on his stomach. The room was freezing, sixty degrees at most. No pillows, no blankets. Another bucket of glue beside the bed. Used condoms on the carpet. He slipped into the room without lowering the pistol. His arm trembled. Sweat in his eyes, bile in his throat, the sense of standing on a threshold that divided before and after. Then came a harsh clattering racket from the kitchen, a sharp and ringing noise that quickly wobbled into silence—the cat had knocked the skillet to the floor. Dixon expected the noise to rouse one or all of them, but no one stirred.
Then Kay rubbed her face with the heels of her hands. She yawned. She smiled, and it seemed a lifetime since he’d witnessed such beauty. He hid the gun behind his back.
“Daddy,” she said, groggy, “did you bring me a Blizzard?”
Before he could answer, her eyes lidded and she was back asleep. He lifted her from the bed and backed out of the room and carried her to the couch. The cat was cleaning itself on the wicker table. Dixon shooed it away. He snatched the flag from the wall and draped it over Kay. She snuggled into it, tucking the fabric under her chin. He kissed her cheek and whispered, “I’ll be right back, Kaybird.” He hadn’t called her that in years, had entirely forgotten about the nickname, and yet, now, there it was. He took up the bucket of glue.
The brothers hadn’t moved. The room was loud with the struggling air-conditioner. He left the lights off, locked the door behind him, and beat the brothers until he lost feeling in his hands. Before he left, they were whimpering and pleading, huddled in different corners of the room, too disoriented to find their way out. Dixon flipped on the light. The brothers pressed their blooded faces to the walls. Whether out of fear or a reaction to the sudden brightness, Dixon didn’t know. Nor did he know if they’d remember or understand what had happened once they sobered up. To make sure, he emptied a bucket of cobbler’s glue over each of their heads.
He woke in the taxidermist’s parking lot with gravel notching into his cheek. He coughed pieces of it out of his mouth like broken teeth and the coughing sent electric pain down his spine. He tried raising himself but couldn’t. He was too heavy or weak or he’d forgotten how. His ears rang. He tasted copper and minerals and his own mealy blood. He tasted hamburger fried with onions and peppers.
He made it to his knees and stayed there. Saliva hung from his mouth to the gravel. The swelling on the back of his head felt like a bone spur, a cranial anomaly that had grown so fast it tore through the skin. There wasn’t enough of him anymore. A breeze dragged itself over the parking lot, and when the air hit the gash, Dixon understood it was deep enough for his flesh to fold open. He thought he could feel grit in it. He reached to the top of his truck’s tire and levered himself up. His eyes wouldn’t focus. Then they did. The parking lot was abandoned. Party Barn had closed. His watch and phone were gone. His pistol, too, and the money.
But his keys were in his pocket, and when he turned to lean against the truck and rest a little, he saw that most of the toy cases were still there, too. He couldn’t gauge if this was good or bad news. He tried to figure the odds of Moose returning, but his thoughts kept petering out. Too many angles to consider. They made his head throb. He loaded the cases as fast as he could, but all of the bending over gave him vertigo. His vision kept twisting, shifting everything to the left. Each step was like trying to balance on a raft being pitched by waves. He draped the boxes with the tarp again, though not as thoroughly. He doubted it would hold to Harlingen.
He worried they’d taken his battery or cut the fuel line, worried the engine had given out again on its own, but the ignition cranked. After ten miles, he remembered to click on his headlights. The truck listed across the highway’s double yellow lines, and when Dixon jerked back into his lane, the cases slid across the bed. He drowsed. He lowered his windows to fill the cab with wind and noise that would keep him awake. The speedometer needle tipped toward eighty, eighty-five. The truck rattled. Trish would say he should’ve known better. He felt like a man who’d stayed too long at the poker table, a man who should’ve quit while he was ahead.
Not that all was lost. He was making decent time. The drive was halfway done and the tarp was holding. There was no checkpoint heading south, and when Sarita passed on the other side and he saw his two guards doing their work, a particular relief washed over him: he didn’t have to worry about them again. His head had eased up some. He felt one step removed from the current moment, which likely meant he had a concussion, but with that distance came clarity. The future seemed as certain as the past. He’d return the toys to Dairy Queen before going home and he’d keep his job. Trish would clean him up enough to get Kay admitted to Bayview, then they’d go to the minor emergency clinic. He’d scrounge the money for Kay’s treatment before she was discharged from the hospital. He had almost a month. There were ways. Sell the truck. Visit Ivan at the pawnshop. Go to other Dairy Queens where he knew the managers, pluck the special figures from the cases, open up his own goddamned flea market booth.
When he pulled into the driveway, Trish was on the porch. She held her phone with both hands, which made her look like a woman praying. What Dixon believed was that their air-conditioner had crapped out again, and he hated that his wife and daughter had been suffering through the soupy heat. He wondered if there was enough room on his credit card for a motel. Even just a few hours of comfortable sleep would do them all a world of good.
“You look chewed up and stepped on,” Trish said. “You look like you’ve been hit with a bag of nickels.”
“Things could’ve gone smoother out there, I’ll tell you that.”
“I thought you were dead. You never called me back.”
Dixon walked to the porch and she rose to inspect his wound. The blood on his shirt embarrassed him; he should’ve washed up at Dairy Queen after returning the toys. Trish had him bend into the floodlight. She said, “You need stitches.”
“It’ll keep til after Bayview,” he said.
She cocked her head, confused, like he was a stranger who’d called her name on the street. He wondered if he’d slurred his speech, if the blow to his head was compromising him in ways he couldn’t parse.
“I called the police,” Trish was saying. “They came and took my statement.”
Now Dixon was confused. Now she was the stranger calling his name. He said “Police?”
Trish said, “You didn’t listen to my messages?”
“Cornbread brought reinforcements,” he said. “They took my phone. The money and pistol, too, but we can still get her into—”
“Oh, Dixie,” she interrupted. “Oh, honey.”
“You were right. I didn’t think it out. I should’ve had him drive up here and—”
“She’s gone, baby. The cops are out hunting for her.”
“Gone? What does gone mean right now?”
“Her window,” she said.
“I had her window drilled shut.”
“Someone undid it,” she said. “They even left the screws on her windowsill, standing up like little soldiers.”
Dixon couldn’t get his bearings. His eyes lit on his patchy yard, the dark neighborhood, the stars in the sky like buckshot and his wife talking under it. He felt connected to none of it, completely untethered.
“The last time I saw her was around eleven,” Trish said. “She ate some tuna on the couch then went back to her room. I called to tell you.”
“What time is it now?”
“She could be in San Antonio. She could be halfway to Cancun,” he said.
“We had a nice talk,” Trish said. “She asked if you were mad and when you’d be back. Maybe she was distracting me while they undid her window, but she seemed sincere. I brushed some glue from her hair and she hugged my neck before going back to bed.”
“I’m not mad at her,” he said.
“I told her that,” she said.
“Good,” he said.
“I’m furious, though. I’m just seeing red, but I knew you’d be more forgiving.”
She meant too forgiving. There was no disdain in her tone, but Dixon still heard the accusation: He’d been too timid, too relentless in his optimism, too faint of heart. Had he handled things differently, they’d be in a better spot now. He couldn’t say she was fully wrong.
The morning was glomming, every surface beaded with condensation. First light was an hour away, but cars were already moving into the streets. People were heading to work or coming off overnight shifts. Dixon wondered how he and Trish would appear to someone driving by. Like a couple whose air-conditioner had died? Like they’d been up all night fighting? Or would the scene, in the shallow glow of the floodlight, look happier? Dixon could easily recall mornings like this when he was busy packing the truck to take Kay hunting. Trish had always woken up to see them off and they’d always let their daughter sleep until it was time to leave.
“Is there any tuna left?” Dixon asked.
“Plenty,” Trish said. “She just had a few bites.”
“I should eat something, then get cleaned up. She doesn’t need to see me like this when she gets home.”
“I’ll run you a bath,” she said. “It’ll feel good to soak and I’ll get a better look at your head that way.”
“That sounds mighty fine,” he said.
Trish went into the house. Dixon waited until he saw light come through the bathroom window then climbed the porch and made his way to their bedroom. The key for the gun cabinet was still taped under his nightstand drawer. Only now did he realize he’d been expecting otherwise. He listened for Trish coming down the hall as he took out the .20 gauge, but she was in the kitchen slicing a tomato for his sandwich. The smell of coconut bubble bath wafted; the tub was filling and Dixon hoped Trish would check the water before it flooded. He slipped out the front door quietly, concealing the gun with his leg. The morning was already brighter, a long seam of color on the horizon. His knuckles were aching again. His head thrummed and his vision undulated, as if he were watching the world through a fast-moving stream. But his thoughts were sharp, concerted. When he saw Trish pass from the kitchen and disappear down the hall, he dropped the truck into neutral and let it roll backwards from the driveway. Of course, he worried the engine wouldn’t crank, but it came to life without trouble. A promising sign, Dixon thought, a signal of good things to come.