Carter had done his chores at the halfway house and was about to head up to his room to get ready for his five-to-midnight shift at the laundromat. He grabbed a glass of ice water because he was parched from working outside that afternoon cleaning the gutters on the house and helping Vernon repair the front porch. The banister was loose, and Carter didn’t know how to fix things of the sort so Vernon offered to teach him, especially in light of how he would be spending his community service hours.
Mr. Kerns made a drop-in visit that morning to tell Carter it was okay if he moved on Sunday instead of staying another week. Mr. Kerns had written a memo to Carter’s file which was approved by the parole board and signed off on by his sentencing judge, so everything was squared away. When Opie picked him up the next morning to spend the day at his house in Beckett Creek, Carter would be moving out of the halfway house and into the garage apartment at his brother’s and Tasha’s house. He damn near hugged Mr. Kerns when he heard the news, and he couldn’t wait to surprise Opie and Tash.
He was about to go into the bathroom to shower when there was a loud knock on his door before it exploded. Carter wasn’t surprised to see Tito Vega standing there, the muscled-up prick. It had always been just a matter of time before they had it out, once and for all. “Bet you never thought you’d see me here, did ya, baby?” the man threatened.
Carter and Tito worked together back at Farmington. Tito was running a smuggling racket out of the prison laundry, and Carter wasn’t having any fucking part of it. He was up for early parole, and he wasn’t about to let that fucking asshole screw it up for him. He slipped a note to one of the guards who ordered a surprise inspection of the laundry, discovering Tito’s stash of cell phones and other contraband which was being hidden by one of Tito’s buddies in a laundry cart next to Carter’s folding table.
For good measure, Carter and Carlos, Tito’s boy, were both put in solitary, but Carter was released an hour later to return to his cell. The tip he’d given the guard went in his favor with the parole board during his hearing. His actions sure as fuck didn’t make Tito Vega a fan, but Carter wasn’t in prison to make friends.
He knew for sure it wasn’t the time to panic, nor was it the time to show any weakness at all. “Huh, I didn’t know we became co-ed here at the Brimlee Palace. I heard good things about your pretty mouth,” Carter responded, getting ready for an ass-kicking or worse.
“You’re a fucking asshole, Riggs. You set my boy up, you fucking narc. If there’s enough of you left to bury, I’ll send flowers,” Tito threatened as he pulled out a long-bladed hunting knife.
Carter grabbed his pillow because it was the closest thing he had to use as a defense weapon, and he picked up his bedside light, ripping off the shade and busting the bulb. He needed a level playing field. “You better give your heart to God because your fucking ass is mine,” Carter shouted as he charged.
Just as he was about to land the first blow on Tito, he was jumped and shoved into the wall in the hallway. Tito was on his chest holding him down as he held the knife under Carter’s chin, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw fucking Speedball Coyne laughing at his position with Tito on his chest.
Carter was able to toss the guy off his chest and roll him onto his back, holding his left hand against the floor to try to get the knife before he felt a smash to the back of his head. He turned to see Speed with the lamp he’d dropped, and Carter knew he was totally fucked until he heard pounding feet on the stairs.
Speed hit the floor and writhed a bit before Carter saw Vernon with a Taser. Carter quickly rolled to the floor and put his hands behind his head as was required in prison when a fight broke out. When Tito started to come for him, he heard the clicking of another Taser and then saw Tito fall on the floor as if he was having a seizure. When the asshole pissed his pants, Carter wanted to laugh but knew better.
It was a fucking disaster to be sure, but Carter wasn’t about to do anything to fuck up his parole. Whoever the fuck released Tito Vega into Butler County Halfway House must have lost their fucking mind.
Carter was sitting in the common room of the house with an ice pack on his left eye which was going to leave a fucking bruise. His busted lip hurt like a mother fucker, but he wasn’t the one being hauled off to jail that night. Tito had been released to a halfway house in Cape Girardeau, but he had that ax to grind with Carter, so he got a lift down to Brimlee and paid a visit, convincing Vernon he’d been assigned there. Carter watched as the former cop explained the misunderstanding to the real cops while the paramedic bandaged Carter’s neck where Tito had sliced him with the knife.
“You’re putting some of that antibacterial goop on it, right? I had a tetanus shot last November when I got stabbed with a fork in Farmington, so I’m probably covered, but I don’t have the slightest idea what that fucker did with that knife before he came after me,” he offered to the lady who was working on him.
“You should let us take you to the hospital so you can get it stitched up. It’s going to leave a scar, Mr. Riggs,” the lady told him. She kind of reminded him of Billie Davis, Tasha’s mother. She had kind eyes, but she damn well wasn’t anyone to be fucked with.
Mr. Kerns came into the common room and shook his head. “What happened?” he asked, the look on his face showing all how exasperated he was at being called out to the halfway house.
“I was in my room getting ready to change for…shit! I need to call Mr. Lindell. He’s going to fire me,” Carter complained.
Mr. Kerns chuckled. “I called him. He just closed the laundromat for the night. Don’t worry about it. I called your brother, but I didn’t get an answer. Let’s go pack your stuff, and I’ll take you to Beckett Creek myself. I think it’s better if we get you out of here tonight considering a couple of Vega’s gang buddies were released today as well. I’m sorry, Carter. There has to have been some miscommunication between the parole office and the prison office. I’ll look into it, but in the meantime, let’s get you ready to go, okay?”
Carter looked at the lady who touched his sore shoulder from when he slammed into the wall. “Can’t I talk you into letting me take you to Ozark Memorial?” she asked again with a kind smile.
Carter smiled, wincing from the busted lip. “Thank you, ma’am, but I’ve had enough injuries to know nothing’s damaged too much. My brother has a doctor where he lives, and I’ll let him check me out if something feels off. I appreciate how kind you’ve been,” he offered, seeing her smile at him.
“Okay, Mr. Riggs. Keep that ice pack on your shoulder for a while and take some ibuprofen before you go to bed. Best of luck,” she told him as she stood from her seat on the coffee table. She packed up her bag and carried it out as Vernon came back into the room.
“Well, thanks for making your last day interesting,” he snapped at Carter, who laughed hard.
“I’m not the one who got duped by a banger, Vern. Glad you had the Tasers, though. Tito meant to slit my throat I believe,” Carter told the man as he grabbed a tissue from the box on the table and held it to his lip which had begun bleeding again.
Mr. Kerns chuckled. “Let’s get your stuff and get you out of here before Vernon gets the Taser after you.”
“Who’s gonna pay for that door? Not me,” Vernon complained.
Carter laughed as he stood from the couch. “Get my last check from Mr. Lindell and put it toward the fucking door, you cheap bastard. Next time, I’d suggest you put on your damn glasses before you read papers some shifty bastard hands you,” Carter told him as he limped upstairs with Mr. Kerns behind him.
The room was dark since Carter had busted the bulb in his lamp, so they were screwed, but he’d claimed it was a victim of the fight because he wasn’t about to say he was ready to settle that shit with Tito once and for all. Carter pulled out each drawer and dumped it into the same big box he’d used to carry his clothes out of Farmington. He wasn’t sure why he kept the box, but it was all Carter had to his name aside from a change of clothes when he arrived in Brimlee. He had acquired more clothes to take with him when he left that awful place which was what mattered the most.
The house was dark when Mr. Kerns drove up Opie’s driveway and parked in front of the house. “Do you have a key?” he asked Carter.
When he opened the car door, Carter heard the familiar laugh of his brother and the giggle of his nephew. “They’re in the backyard in the pool. I’ll be fine. So, when do I have to see you again?” he asked.
Mr. Kerns laughed. “You don’t, Carter. This is where we part company. I’ll call your new parole officer on Monday, and she’ll call you here. You’re going to have to arrange to go to Farmington to the parole office to meet with her sometime next week, and she’ll lay out the conditions of your transition from living in the halfway house to a private residence, but I think you’ll be fine. You need to find a paying job that complies with the terms of your parole, and I don’t know if Mr. Lindell will give you a good recommendation so have any potential employers call me. I’ll give you a reference.
“Just make sure you do your community service and get that priest to sign off on your hours. Mrs. Norville is nice, but she’s by the book when it comes to the rules—worse than me. I should know because I used to work for her.
“Anyway, if you need anything, Carter, please call me. Believe it or not, I’ve always been on your side. I have a file full of letters written on your behalf about what happened that morning when Sebastian Davis was…” Mr. Kerns started.
Carter touched his shoulder. “I appreciate it, but let’s leave Bas out of this. The guy has a hard enough life without worrying about me. Opie told me he’s finally able to move around without the chair, and he’s getting ready to go to grad school. That’s the best news I’ve heard in a while,” he explained to his now-former parole officer.
The older man smiled. “I’m glad to hear it, Carter. Take care of yourself, son, and stay out of trouble, for heaven’s sake.”
Both men laughed as they shook hands before Carter hopped out of the old Buick and grabbed his brown-box suitcase, making his way around the house to the gate of the wrought iron fence surrounding the pool. He saw his sister-in-law holding a beach ball as Opie carried Paul on his shoulders. It was the best sight in the world.
“Guess who’s here early?” Carter called as he opened the gate and dropped the box on the sidewalk. He kicked off his tennis shoes and jumped into the pool with his family. When Carter came up from under the water and shook his light brown hair out of his face, it dawned on him he had no way to find Mack, the man in black. He hated the idea they didn’t exchange numbers, but he was finally home. That was the best thing that had happened to him in a long time.
He was hugged tightly by Opie and Tash. He held Paul in his arms, and the two of them laughed together because Carter had jumped into the pool in his clothes. When he turned toward the lights surrounding the patio, he heard the gasps. “Rigger, what the hell?” Tasha asked. Carter nearly laughed because she never cursed.
He smiled. “Well, that’s at least a dollar in poor Paul’s piggy bank, Tash. My face looks worse than it is, I swear. Anyway, I’m sorry this is unannounced, but Mr. Kerns called the house and your cell, Opie,” he told his brother who seemed to be stunned.
When Opie didn’t answer, Carter turned to Tash. “Was he like this when you told him about this guy?” he joked as he tickled Paul and made him laugh.
It was then Tasha gasped and took Paul, placing him on the pool deck. “Rigger, get out of the pool. Your neck is bleeding,” his sister-in-law pointed out.
Carter reached up and pulled his hand away, seeing the red. “Fu…dang. I forgot about that. I’m sorry, but I’m negative, Tash, I swear. I mean, if you have to do something to clean the pool I’ll pay for it,” he told her as he hurried out of the water and took off his shirt to hold it against the wet gauze at his neck.
“No, no, it’s fine. Let’s go inside and let me clean it up. Are you hungry? We have some fried chicken,” she offered as she got out of the pool and wrapped a towel around herself, handing one to Carter.
He chuckled as he took it and wrapped it around his waist, turning his back to drop his jeans. He picked them up from the patio and tossed them over the fence to dry. “I could eat, but I’ll get it myself. I’m sorry I sprung this on you, guys. It wasn’t supposed to be…” he started to explain before Opie hopped out of the pool and walked over to him, wrapping Carter in his arms.
“I’m so happy you’re here. I was surprised because it felt like it was never going to happen, Carter. How about you sleep in the spare room tonight and then you can meet Father McCord tomorrow when you move into the apartment. He’s not home right now anyway. Besides, I want to talk to you. We’ll put Paul to bed, and I’ll give you a pair of my trunks so you can swim if you’d like. I’m so glad…” Opie trailed off before he started crying.
Carter wrapped his arms around his brother’s shoulders and held him tightly. They’d always been close, but never as close as they were at that moment. Carter was grateful for Opie and Tasha because, without them, he doubted he’d have made it out of Farmington alive.
He’d wanted to give up so many times, but then he’d get a letter from Tash with pictures of Paul or see the drawings from some of the kids in her kindergarten class that Opie would bring when he came to visit, and Carter would remember he had something waiting for him outside. He wasn’t alone. He had people who loved him, whereas a lot of the guys he was incarcerated with had nobody. He had a reason to survive.
“Thanks, big brother. That sounds great,” he told Opie as they all went into the house.
An hour later, his belly was full, and Tasha had put some sort of strips on his neck to keep the cut closed so it could heal. They were both demanding to know what the hell had happened that night. He did look beat to hell, but it wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle, or was it something he hadn’t experienced before.
Tasha returned downstairs from putting Paul to bed as Carter was cleaning up his dinner dishes. She was carrying a baby monitor in one hand and a pair of Opie’s trunks. “Go change,” she told him because he was sitting at the table in the towel and his boxers.
As he was about to go into the powder room, they both heard Opie talking to Paul. “Why he’s hurt?” Paul asked.
He heard Opie clear his throat. “One day, when you’re much older, your momma and I will tell you how your Uncle Rigger saved Uncle Bas. He’s like a superhero, Uncle Rigger. He’s not hurt too bad. I guess because he’s pretty tough that way. I don’t want you to worry about it because he’s going to be around here with us for a long time, okay buddy?”
Carter heard Tasha crying behind him as he started out of the kitchen, so he stopped and held open his massive arms. She slipped into them and sobbed for a minute as they listened to Opie and Paul say a prayer to thank heaven Carter was home. He almost wanted to cry with them, but that just wasn’t him.
“Natasha Lyn, stop crying. I’m home, and Opie told me Bastian is doing well. He’ll be here tomorrow, right?” Carter asked.
She wiped her eyes with her fingers and stepped back from Carter, reaching for a dishtowel to dry his chest where her tears were rolling down it. “Yes, he’ll be here. He’s wanted to come to see you since he got out of the hospital, Rigger, but Opie kept telling him all you wanted was for him to get better. I know you’ll hate it, but he wants to thank you for saving his life,” she told him, yet again.
Carter had an idea of what Bastian wanted to say to him, but Carter didn’t really want or need to hear it. He didn’t do what he did for glory. He did it because what he saw that morning was wrong, and he damn well wasn’t about to let someone go psycho on a kid without doing something to stop it.
When Carter returned from the bathroom waring the trunks with his boxer briefs in his hand, he walked out onto the patio and hung them over the fence with his jeans. Tash was sitting at the large, glass table with two beers on top of it. She had a glass of wine in her hand, and she was listening to some soft music on the outdoor sound system. It wasn’t the country music he was used to from the laundromat. It was some nineties pop he knew Opie listened to in the car. It wasn’t bad.
Carter walked over to the table and picked up the first beer he’d had since the night before his world was turned upside down. He’d had a few drinks with some of the guys he used to hang out with back then, and he had no concept of what the next day would bring.
They’d been celebrating Kim Tan’s victory at the MMA match they’d attended that night. The guy looked like he’d been through it, but he’d come out ahead of Tommy Matsumoto, a Japanese street fighter who was bigger than Kim. It was a miracle the small Korean guy walked out of the ring alive.
“This beer tastes damn good. So, are you looking forward to school starting in the fall?” Carter asked Tasha as he sipped his drink. Being sober for nearly five years meant his tolerance was low, and he wasn’t about to get sloppy drunk his first night of freedom. He had too many things going in his favor to fuck it up.
“Yeah, I am. What happened tonight, Rigger? That cut on your throat,” Tash brought up.
“…is nothing I’m not used to, Tash. I looked a lot worse than this when I was fighting, okay? This shit tonight was a mistake. There was a guy I knew from Farmington who was able to get into the halfway house where I was staying in Brimlee. He’s in worse shape than me, and I’ll never have to see him again, okay? Don’t worry about it. He’s going back to prison to serve out the rest of his time.
“Tell me about my new roommate. He’s a fucking priest?” Carter inquired as he finished his beer and took the one meant for Opie.
Tasha giggled as she leaned forward to speak quietly. “Oh my God, Rigger, he’s so damn good looking. I mean, I nearly peed my pants when I met him the other night. He definitely has bedroom eyes if I’ve ever seen them.
“I realize God calls men to do His service in the church, but in this case…it’s a damn shame. He’s beautiful,” Tash gushed, which made Carter laugh.
“And, what did Opie say about the handsome priest?” he teased his sister-in-law as he placed his hand over hers.
Just then the sliding glass door opened, and his older brother walked outside with a six-pack of beer he shoved into the outdoor fridge. He grabbed two and walked over to the table, placing one in front of Carter before he took a seat across from Tasha. “What are we talking about?” his brother asked.
Carter saw Tasha’s face blush a bit before she giggled. “Father McCord. God, his first name is Seamus,” she told Carter as she took another sip of her wine and gave him a sideways wink.
Carter laughed at her. “A Scotsman? Seen him in a kilt yet? You think they wear anything under those things? I mean, they’re wool, right? Wouldn’t that itch like a son of a bitch?”
The three of them started laughing, and Carter was glad he was home. He’d do anything he could to ensure it was forever. Eventually, he’d have to move out of his brother’s garage apartment, but he’d take a minute for himself, even if he had to share the place with a priest.
As Carter was settling into bed in the spare room an hour later, he was embarrassed he was so hammered at nine-thirty. The four beers he’d shotgunned had gone to his head, even on a full stomach. The next day was a big one, and he didn’t want to be hung over too much, so he turned in. His dreams were filled with visions of Mack, and a sadness settled into his soul at the thought of never seeing the good-looking man again.
Carter would eventually buy himself a car, but that was some ways off. By the time he had the money together and could get to Brimlee to look for the man, he had no idea if Mack would still be in the area. They hadn’t traded too much information, which he was regretting, but it was like people said… if it was meant to be, things would work out.
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