"Sure haven't, just kids on the way to school."
Unsatisfied, Paul nods and drives on. He makes a right on Tibbs. An oil-stained street. Jamie's not there and nothing's out of the ordinary. Not sure what to do next, he drives the rest of the route and then continues to the office.
Rooster sits and sips his morning beer. Overdriven guitar sounds thunder in his head. He'd been playing Mudvayne all morning. He turned it off a minute ago, but can still hear it. He can do that. It is one of many things he can do that others cannot. He's special. He knows he is. But he's not happy. Having gifts is not the same thing as happiness. His mind roils in simulated guitar fuzz he doesn't want to think about in thereuntil he hears the van drive up outside.
Tad lumbers out of the panel van clutching a sixer of Blue Ribbon and the reload, the day's second round of food. This time it is McDonald's as directed. He approaches the house, the eyesore of the neighborhood. The paint is falling off in flakes and long curls, and only the windows on the side and those of the room down the hall are freshly painted. Black. It is what they'll call their "music studio" if anyone asks. But no one does. This is the house the neighbors wish would just go away so property values could rise.
Tad enters, pulling off dark sunglasses and sliding them into the chest pocket of his flannel shirt. The living room is dingy. Carpet that is lentil in color and texture, and secondhand green and orange sofas that have gone decades without a re-covering fill the room.
Fast-food sandwich boxes and wrappers litter a dinette area. Rooster sits on a spindly chair across from a dormant twenty-year-old color television with tinfoil bunny-ears antennae that rests on a milk crate. His eyes are on the dead screen and he rocks slightly in rhythm to music that seems to fill his head from an unknown source. He is shirtless.
"You are one lazy bastard."
Rooster's eyes don't leave the television as he gives Tad the finger.
"You got no work ethic at all."
"You speak to Riggi?" Rooster asks as if Tad has just entered the room and the previous comments had never occurred.
"Shiftless. Look at you."
"I've already been in there two times since you been gone," Rooster says. Flat. His eyes, also flat, turn to Tad, stopping him up. "You speak to Riggi?"
"Two times? Bullshit, two times . . ." Tad gets his breath back. "Yeah, I spoke to him."
"What'd he say?"
Tad puts the beer down among the rubble on the dinette table. He opens one for himself and chucks one over to Rooster.
"Mr. Riggi said he needs it for Thursday."
Rooster opens the new beer and takes a delicate, probing sip. "Thursday. Shit."
"Yeah," Tad begins, enjoying his partner's discomfort, "he's got it arranged for Thursday, so you better get cracking."
"Yeah? I should get cracking? Whyn't you take a turn?" This silences Tad for a moment.
"No thanks. You're the pro."
Rooster nods slightly, pleased, then kicks a pill into the back of his mouth, drains off a few ounces of his beer, and wearily stands. Vicodin. When you're in physical pain, it takes away the pain. When you're not in pain, it takes away other things. He gathers himself and walks purposefully down the hall toward the back bedroom door.
Tad occupies the chair in front of the television, leans forward, and turns on cartoons.
The sound of a lock being undone from the outside and the door opens, allowing a crease of light into the ugly, darkened bedroom. The blacked-out windows are nailed shut and have metal grating over them on the inside. A sheetless bed is the only furniture. Rooster reaches up and tightens a bare lightbulb into its fixture, illuminating the room. Balled up between the bed and the wall is a tearstained, violence-shocked flash of skin. The man's face sets in a mask that expresses neither frenzy nor madness. The boy's face forms its own mask of pain, and fear, and incomprehension, and so far below the surface as to be invisible, fury. He doesn't even say no but weakly tries to scrabble away from the man.
Published by Doubleday. Copyright © 2008 by Levien Works, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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