24 years earlier“Christopher, where are you going?” Johnnie ran behind his ten-year-old cousin, not caring he left behind the other guests at his birthday party. Grandda had called Christopher all kinds of horrible names in front of everyone. It even hurt Johnnie’s feelings. He loved both his cousin and his grandfather and couldn’t understand why Grandda insisted on being so mean to Christopher, his oldest grandson. Although Christopher was only six months older than Johnnie, Johnnie still looked up to him. “Christopher!”
A small figure in a pink dress with a head of long chestnut colored hair bounded past Johnnie as fast as her little legs could carry her.
“Christy!” Three-year-old Zoann screamed behind her brother.
“Wait, Zoann,” Johnnie yelled. Christopher liked to go to the edge of the river and he didn’t want his little cousin propelling herself right into the water in an attempt to get to her big brother.
The little girl skidded to a halt and turned to Johnnie, her brown eyes filled with tears. He went down on one knee and thumbed them away.
“Christy leaving,” she said around sniffles. She launched herself into Johnnie’s arms, her small body shuddering. “If he potties right, can he stay?”
Johnnie cringed at the question because he didn’t know how to answer her. He knew, though, Grandda calling Christopher a filthy piece of shit had nothing to do with going to the bathroom. He hugged her tighter and swallowed, rising to his feet as he lifted her into his arms. “Let’s go find him. We’ll think of something so Christy can stay. You and me. Okay? We’re Grandda’s favorites. He’ll listen to us.”
With grave and teary eyes, Zoann stared at him and nodded. Just as Johnnie suspected, Christopher sat on a sandbar of the Columbia, contemplating the water as if he considered jumping in.
“Christy!” Zoann squealed, squirming in Johnnie’s arms in an attempt to wiggle free.
Christopher’s shoulders stiffened and Johnnie picked his way closer. As the days went on, his cousin grew more and more reckless. Less interested in school when he’d always done so well, too. He turned a narrowed gaze to Johnnie and glared at Zoann. “Leave me alone,” he ordered.
Zoann’s face crumpled. “Christy?”
Christopher got to his feet and Johnnie took a step back. In the last, few weeks, his cousin had gotten taller and he looked like he was real old. At least thirteen or fourteen. He dusted off his jeans and stomped to them, yanking Zoann out of Johnnie’s arms and hugging her.
“Go back to the party, Bitsy,” he said, sounding embarrassed. He kissed the top of his little sister’s head and she melted against him, laying against his chest and popping her thumb into her mouth. “You’re pretty in your dress. Shouldn’t be out here by a dirty river.” He looked at Johnnie like he expected an answer.
It was his birthday and he wouldn’t just listen to Christopher like he always did, so Johnnie did what he saw his father and grandfather do all the time. Shrugged. He was a big boy now. Just like Christopher. Ten. Forever out of the single digit birthdays. “Had to bring her,” he answered, leaving off words from his sentences and wording them like Christopher had started doing. “Didn’t want her to run straight into the water trying to get to you.”
“Oh.” Christopher’s hand cradled the back of his sister’s head. “Then thanks, John Peter.”
Johnnie smiled. “They have to sing happy birthday to me, but we can’t do it without you.”
Christopher frowned. “Don’t see why not. It’s your party. Not mine.”
Not that Christopher ever had parties. On Christopher’s last birthday, him and Johnnie had celebrated right here with a swim in the river after they’d looked at a bunch of their Grandda’s naked girl magazines. After that, Johnnie hadn’t ever wanted to see his mother or his girl cousins naked again.
This morning, Johnnie walked into the bathroom while his mother had been putting on her makeup like she always did—in the nude—and his father had yanked him out.
“I didn’t mean to!” he’d cried, almost traumatized. He didn’t want to see the parts his mother had and remember those same parts on all those pretty girls in the magazine. “I didn’t know she was in there.”
“Next time, knock, boy,” his father had said. Simon Donovan had the same brown hair as his grandfather and Aunt Patricia, Christopher’s mother. He wasn’t mean but he wasn’t all that nice, either. “You’re ten now. Can’t see your mother without clothes on from this day forward.”
That was just fine with Johnnie. “Yes, sir,” he’d mumbled and ran to his room, slamming the door behind him.
The rumbling of motorcycles snapped Johnnie back to the present and he turned in time to see a bunch of awesome Harleys kicking up grass and mud as they pulled up in the large open field right behind them.
The same interest and awe wrapping around Johnnie’s brain gleamed in Christopher’s eyes. Zoann buried her face in her brother’s neck and screamed. The piercing sound hurt Johnnie’s ears but Christopher’s eye-rolling made him laugh.
Girls were such scaredy cats and both him and his cousin knew it. Christopher knew it better than Johnnie because he had four younger sisters. No, five. Aunt Patricia had had another baby two days ago.
As suddenly as the earth shifted with the noise of all those motorcycle pipes, it went silent real quick before grumbling men, the rattling chains attached to some of their belt loops and holding wallets, amongst other sounds, replaced it.
“S’okay, Bitsy,” Christopher swore, his eyes widening when a blond man headed straight for them.
Johnnie stepped a little closer to Christopher, who placed his body slightly in front of him. “I got this, Johnnie,” he whispered. “I’m used to taking licks anyway.”
Johnnie cringed because his cousin’s words made him feel like a scaredy cat girl. Maybe, he was, because he was trembling as the man who wore a vest with the word Probate on it reached them. Christopher’s face didn’t show anything and Johnnie admired how calm he was.
“Who are you?” the man asked, his blue eyes not real friendly. “And who’s the crying brat?”
“I’m Christopher,” his cousin answered, not looking away or down. Just staring directly at the man like he was a grownup, too. “This is my sister. Don’t worry about who she is. Grandda might not like me but he loves her.” Christopher nodded to Johnnie. “He loves him, too. So who are you?”
The man lifted a blond brow and stepped a little closer. Johnnie thought sure Christopher would budge, but he just stood there, almost daring the man to do him something. He whispered to Zoann and she shook her head.
“I promise. I’ll never let anything happen to you, so stop crying.”
She tried to suck up her tears, but they just kept leaking from her eyes. By now, two other men had joined them. They had the same word written on their vests, too. When the blond man shifted and spoke to the other two so low Johnnie couldn’t hear, he saw a big emblem on the back on the vest. It was a grim reaper with glowing red eyes and a bloody scythe. The words Death Dwellers MC arced over the top. Beneath the death patch was Hortensia, WA.
He’d heard about them. Sometimes, Grandda talked about them to his father when they visited. They were mean and Johnnie didn’t think Christopher knew that.
“Christopher,” he whispered. “They’re from a motorcycle club and they’re not a good motorcycle club. Don’t make them mad at you. They might hurt you.”
“Nobody can hurt me more than Grandda.” Sadness made his green eyes fill with water. Like he was about to cry. “Or Gran,” he added.
Yes, Gran was mean to Christopher, too, but she wasn’t as bad as Grandda. “They can kill you,” Johnnie pointed out. “And neither Grandda or Gran would ever do that.”
Christopher shrugged. “Maybe, they should. Only reason they keep me around is to be mean. Why I want to keep being around for that?”
“Christy!” Zoann shrieked and the three men jumped.
Johnnie winced but he couldn’t let Christopher take them on by himself. He even tried to protect his cousin from their Grandda and had made a deal that he take some of the whippings meant for Christopher. His backside and pride stung just thinking about the paddling he’d gotten for that offer. He’d been a scaredy cat girl again because he never interfered with whatever happened to Christopher after that.
“You, kid,” the blond biker said in a mean voice. “Shut the fuck up before I beat your little ass. You’ll have something to cry for then.”
“She’s a girl,” Christopher pointed out. “And she’s scared. And girls cry when they’re scared, so shut up, stupid, because you’re making it worse.”
“You either the bravest little fuck or the fucking slowest,” the man standing in the middle said. He was baldheaded and had small black eyes that made him look like a rattlesnake. “Show some respect to your elders, boy, before I decide to teach you a lesson myself.”
“Shut it, Rack,” the man snapped before glaring at the brown-eyed man with the thinning hair. “Kitchen Pussy, call up Prez. Tell him our boy isn’t here yet.”
“Kitchen Pussy?” Christopher said, laughing like a maniac. “Only girls have pussies.”
Johnnie’s entire body grew warm with embarrassment and he didn’t know where Christopher got the nerve to say anything like that.
Amusement danced in the blond man’s gaze and he smiled. “What do you know about pussy, son?”
Christopher gave him a cheeky look. “More than him if he lets himself be called one.”
“Shut up, you little runt,” the man growled. But Johnnie saw that even he was fighting back laughter. “What do you think I should be called?”
Johnnie decided to test how grownup he was and cleared his throat, puffing out his chest. “Why are you called that?”
The three men looked at him and frowned, and his insides shrank a little.
“Nobody talking to you,” the man called Rack bit out. “Learn fucking manners, boy.”
“We’re together,” Christopher said quietly, shifting Zoann on his shoulder. It wasn’t until then that Johnnie realized his little cousin had fallen asleep. “If you talk to me, you talk to him, so that means he can talk, too. If he can’t, I don’t have anything to say to you neither.”
Rack kicked sand onto Christopher’s jeans. “Don’t have to talk to you, fucker. We could just as easy bury you. From what we hearing, nobody would miss you.”
“Shut up,” Johnnie managed, fury overtaking him. Their family hurt Christopher’s feelings enough. He wouldn’t let strangers do it, too. Especially because of him. “I would miss him. And Aunt Patricia. And Zoann. I don’t ever have to talk to you. I turned ten today and I’m grown just like Christopher.”
Their laughter stopped his words.
“I’m Big Joe,” the blond man said after their chuckles died down. “I like you boys.” His grinned widened at Christopher and Johnnie knew he liked Christopher better.
Just because of that, Big Joe was great in Johnnie’s eyes because Christopher needed to be liked just like him and Zoann was.
“Oh, and by the way, boy,” Big Joe continued, looking at him. “We call him Kitchen Pussy because he knows how to cook like nobody’s business.”
Kitchen…Pussy rolled his eyes. Johnnie’s shoulders straightened with pride. He’d really used the word pussy.
“Name’s Kaleb Paul,” the man explained. “I’m called K-P.”
“Kitchen Patrol,” Big Joe added, reaching into his vest and pulling out a cigarette. “We just fuck with him and call him Kitchen Pussy.”
“Don’t smoke around my little sister, Big Joe,” Christopher said just as the man was lighting up. “She has asthma and she can get real sick.”
Big Joe cocked his head to the side before his eyes widened. “Fuck. These are Logan’s grandsons.”
“Yes,” Christopher answered, not flinching like Johnnie at the quickly closing expressions of the three men. “So?”
Big Joe gave Christopher a sour look and shoved the cigarette back into his vest. He smiled at Johnnie. “You’re Logan’s golden boy, huh, kid?”
Johnnie glanced nervously at Christopher, wondering if his cousin had ever heard the term before. Just looking at Christopher didn’t let Johnnie know his thoughts. He looked mad and upset and hurt all at one time.
Big Joe’s intense blue regard roamed between Johnnie and Christopher before he sighed. “I appreciate how you boys stick together. Shows real loyalty. A good trait for men to have. And, you,” he said, pointing at Christopher, “you’re one of the cheekiest little motherfuckers I’ve ever met. Pity Logan keeps his head up his ass and can’t see what fine boys you both are.” He took Zoann into his arms and looked at her little sleeping face.
She looked like an angel and Johnnie just couldn’t understand how such an itty bitty girl could be so noisy. But, then, girls were noisy and whiny and afraid of bugs and guns and blood. They were afraid of everything that mattered in life.
“Give her back to me.”
“I’m not going to hurt her,” Big Joe swore, cradling her in his arms. “I got a boy. He’ll be eight in a month. We call him Joey. Maybe, I can bring him around sometimes to play with you boys.”
“Whatever,” Christopher said, still reaching for his little sister. “If I like him, maybe, I’ll play with him. If I don’t, then I’m not going to be bothered with him.”
“You’re a straight-shooter, huh, kid?” K-P said, then looked at Johnnie. “What about you?”
“He makes us laugh,” Christopher answered, finally succeeding in snatching Zoann out of Big Joe’s arms, but waking her up, too. He huffed out a breath. “Go back to sleep, Bitsy.”
She started whining all over again and Johnnie had gotten tired of being out there. He just realized he was missing his party and he sure didn’t want to have to listen to Zoann cry anymore. He shoved Christopher. “You should’ve let her stay with Big Joe. Girls cry about everything and you just started all her noise all over again.”
“Shut up,” Christopher ordered. To Zoann he said, “Please be quiet. Go back to sleep.” Then to Johnnie. “You don’t know anything about girls. You’re just a kid. I’ve already been kissed and everything.”
Johnnie’s eyes rounded and even Zoann’s crying didn’t matter. “You kissed a real girl or one of your sisters’ dolls?”
Big Joe, Rack, and K-P laughed.
“A real girl, stupid. Me and Marley, we cut class and snuck to the gym and she let me kiss her on the cheek.”
The men laughed harder but Johnnie’s mouth dropped open. “You kissed Marley?” Marley was so pretty with golden eyes and golden hair. Every boy in the world wanted her. Even Johnnie liked her.
“She told me she’d let you kiss her cheek, too,” Christopher went on. “She thinks we’re both cute. I think she’s stupid because she said we look alike. Can’t see how. You have blond hair and light eyes and I have black hair and green eyes.”
“Don’t ever question what a cunt has to say,” Rack chortled.
K-P and Big Joe frowned at the man while Johnnie and Christopher frowned at each other.
Christopher cleared his throat. “What’s a cunt?”
“A pussy,” Big Joe answered, scowling at Rack.
“Why do you call girls that?” Johnnie asked.
“Cuz when girls get to be women that’s what they become,” Rack responded.
“If I ever had a daughter and you called her a cunt, motherfucker, I’d cut your fucking dick off,” Big Joe snapped.
“Shouldn’t it be his tongue?” Christopher questioned. “His tongue is speaking the words.”
Big Joe clapped Christopher on the back. “We can compromise. I’ll cut out his tongue because you’re right—always go for the offending body part. But I’ll cut his dick off, too, to make sure he learns his lesson.”
“That would do it,” Johnnie mumbled.
Christopher thought for a moment, then said, “wouldn’t he have to pee like a girl after that?”
Big Joe snickered, but nodded. He pulled two business cards out and handed one to each of them. “My cell phone number is on there. You boys ever need anything, just give me a call.”
Christopher stared at the card and rocked back on his heels, not seeming to mind Zoann pulling at his hair. Johnnie didn’t mind either. She’d shut up.
“Me, too?” Christopher asked, then clenched his jaw and glanced away. “I-I mean I can call you, too? Not just Johnnie?”
A pained expression crossed Big Joe’s face and he crouched to eye-level with Christopher. “One straight talker to another,” he said, “I wouldn’t offer you my card just to be nice. I don’t fuck around like that. Nor do I tell motherfuckers I like them if I fucking don’t. Got me?”
“I think so,” Christopher responded, though he looked like he still didn’t believe him. He backed away. “I have to get Zoann back to Mama. She just got out of the hospital last night with the new baby and I don’t want her worried. You probably need to get back to your party, Johnnie.”
“Probably so,” Johnnie agreed.
Big Joe caught Johnnie’s arm. “I need to talk to you a minute.”
Not stopping, Christopher shrugged and walked through the field of motorcycles. The moment Christopher disappeared from sight, Big Joe studied him, the cigarette he hadn’t lit because of Zoann already hanging from his mouth with smoke rising from the end.
“You do good in school?” he asked.
Johnnie nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“The cheeky little motherfucker?”
“Christopher?” Johnnie asked in surprise. “Um, a man never tells another man’s business. And that’s not my business to tell.”
“A man, huh, puppy?” Big Joe asked around puffs of smoke. “I’ll accept that.”
Johnnie eyed him warily, not understanding why he hadn’t asked Christopher about his grades instead of going behind his back and questioning Johnnie. “That all?”
“I guess so. Just remember what I said and remind Christopher, too. Either of you can call me anytime.”
“I don’t think Grandda would like us calling you.” When Big Joe narrowed his eyes, Johnnie took a step back. “No offense.”
“You don’t, huh?” K-P asked.
“Double standard motherfucker,” Rack growled.
“Take a fucking walk,” Big Joe commanded, shoving Rack away. “These boys don’t know shit and we’re keeping it that fucking way.”
“Yeah,” K-P agreed, “unless you want to end up buried, you need to shut up.”
Rack glared at Johnnie and yanked a little bag from inside his vest. He held it up and Johnnie saw something squishy looking and bloody.
“He got us cutting out fucking eyeballs while he’s coddling his grandsons?”
Horrified, Johnnie stumbled back as Rack pitched the bag against Johnnie’s chest. Big Joe planted his fist against the man’s jaw, but Johnnie stared at the sandwich bag, breathing hard, his stomach turning.
While K-P ushered Rack off, Big Joe turned to Johnnie. “Go back to your party, son. Forget about this, okay?”
Johnnie nodded, turned, and ran as fast as he could go, never again wanting to think of seeing a real eyeball in a bag instead of where it belonged.
And trying to figure out what Rack had meant about Grandda having them cut out somebody’s eye.