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I never wanted to be a criminal.
I don’t want this, I don’t want to be here. The current here is the back seat of a burner car, in this case a shitty black Ford. My brother, Luke, is beside me, staring at his phone, smiling. His mind is clearly elsewhere.
My father is driving, and beside him is my uncle Tony.
Outside, the Atlantic coastline streaks by, in all its neon glory. Golden lights, glittering buildings, million-dollar sports cars. It’s like Florida forgot it’s a swamp for a second. Hordes of well-dressed people are out partying, but we speed past them.
I cross my arms. Everyone else in the car wants this life. They want power and glory, to drive fast cars and wear expensive suits and hook up with pretty girls.
They want to kill, too. For power. For family.
Or maybe they don’t want to. But they’re at least okay with it.
I’m not interested. In any of it.
Outside the window on Luke’s side, the ocean stretches out, reflecting the Technicolor city lights, the neon blazing against the dark sky. This town truly is designed to be seen past sunset. During the day, it looks gaudy, like a bad theme park. At night, though, it turns into something kind of magical. It’s a playground for adults, where you can get pretty much anything you want … as long as you’re hot or rich enough.
We stop at a red light. A group of guys in tank tops and designer jeans crosses the street. We’re in Donovan territory now, so those boys belong to them, even if they don’t know it.
“It’s time,” says Dad, looking up at us through the rearview mirror. “Masks on.”
I didn’t bring a mask.
Luke remembered his—of course he did—and pulls it on. It’s a black ski mask, leaving only his eyes and mouth exposed. Dad and Tony put theirs on, too. I can’t help but think this is them in their natural state of being. Miller criminals. One of two plagues on the city. There’s us, and the Donovans, and we’re both as bad as each other.
At least that’s what the cops say.
“Hey, Dad,” I say.
“There’s a small chance I forgot my mask.”
His silence is intense alongside the classical music he plays in the car. Beethoven, maybe? I don’t know, and I don’t know why he does it. Maybe he wants to add a little class to our grim task. Like classical music somehow makes us sophisticated, better than other criminals.
I wipe my sweaty palms on my slacks. I don’t even need to look at him to know how disappointed he must be. I’m already such a failure in so many ways. I’m no Luke, for starters. On top of that I’m too soft, too careless, too lacking in family devotion …
He has no idea I left my mask on purpose.
I’m a good actor. I can sell it.
He has no idea who I really am.
“Are you sure it’s not in your bag?” asks Luke. “Come on, we’ve been planning this for weeks.”
I make a show of going through my backpack. I see books, a school sweater, and my tablet. But no mask.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “It’s not here. I must’ve left it at home or something.”
“I told you,” says Tony. “He’s not ready.”
“He is,” says Dad. “He’s just distracted. Probably chasing some girl. That’s it, right, champ?”
“See?” says Dad. “Don’t get me started on the dumb shit you did when you were seventeen. Donna was the only thing you ever thought about.”
Tony chuckles. “She sure was.”
Dad looks at me through the rearview mirror. His murderous expression tells me everything I need to know. I get it. I’ve let him down, yet again. He lightened the mood to save face in front of Tony, but I’m nowhere near off the hook. I swear I’ve tried to be good at this stuff. I’m just not as in this as they are. The Millers hate the Donovans with everything they have.
I’d never admit this to the others, but I’ve never really hated them. I know I should, because of what they did to my family.
We used to be the closest of allies. The Millers controlled our territory unopposed since the twenties, making millions off the illegal alcohol trade. And right by our side were the Donovans. Things were good, fortunes were made, and little blood was spilled. But then the fifties came around, and the patriarch of the Donovan family wanted to get involved in narcotics. Our patriarch, my great-great-grandfather, said no, not wanting to pump poison into the area, or risk destabilizing their relationship with law enforcement.
The Donovans betrayed my family, broke off, and built their own empire off narcotics. Now they control nearly half the city.
So, yeah. Donovans and Millers aren’t friends at the best of times.
Last year, it got even more personal, though.
They murdered my grandfather. They shot him as he was leaving a supermarket of all places. Right in the street. He died on the curb, with bullet holes in his back. It was the spark I think both families had been waiting a long time for, and once long-simmering tensions finally erupted, the city went to war.
When it’s done, only one family will rule.
“You can stay in the car,” says Dad. “It’s too late to go back. We do this tonight.”
“All right,” I say. “If you think that’s best.”
“No, Matt, I don’t think that’s best. I wish you’d remembered your damn mask.”
“It was a mistake, okay?”
“Just … don’t do it again. I’ve got enough on my plate right now, I shouldn’t have to manage you, too.”
I can’t help but think, Isn’t that your job? Seeing as you’re, you know, my dad.
Dad pulls over, stopping down the street from the restaurant that’s a favorite meeting place for the Donovans. Sofia’s. It’s 11:00 p.m., so it’s closed. At least that’s a good thing. My family won’t be burning anyone alive tonight. This is about taking something away from the other side. Making a statement.
It’s the way things are done.
“You sure this is a good idea?” asks Luke. He’s gone pale. “We could try again tomorrow.”
“No, we do this tonight,” says Dad. “They won’t see him, the windows are blacked out.”
“Are you sure about that?” asks Tony.
“I just said I am.”
“There are probably security cameras up and down the street. Lie low, Matt. Just in case.”
Dad grips the steering wheel tight. I undo my seat belt and slide down the seat.
The three of them climb out of the car and go around to the back. I hear the trunk open. They reappear a few moments later, each one of them holding a Molotov cocktail. These aren’t the ones used in street warfare, though, these are the best of the best: thick bottles filled with powerful incendiary chemicals.
Dad holds up a lighter, and soon, the ends of each one burn bright.
And there they are, my family. Doing what they’re supposed to. I know there’s the stuff to make a fourth Molotov in the trunk, but obviously that’s not happening tonight.
I’m glad I “forgot” my mask. Dad being mad at me sucks, sure, but I don’t want any real part of what’s about to go down. Even though I’m here. Despite my best efforts to distance myself from this, I’m still an accessory.
All at once, the three of them hurl their Molotovs toward the restaurant’s large front window. Luke misses and hits the wall. There’s a huge fireball, smoke and sparks. Dad’s and Tony’s aim is true, and their bottles go crashing through the glass.
The three of them stand there for a moment, watching, as the fire spreads inside. It happens so fast, and soon, the whole place is alight. Torrents of black smoke stream out the windows. The trio calmly walks back to the car and climbs in. I pull my seat belt on as Dad plants his foot on the gas.
As we speed away, I watch the restaurant burn through the rearview mirror.
The scariest part is knowing the night isn’t over.
* * *
A cheer breaks out as soon as we step inside the bar.
I slink to the back of the crowded room and stand in the darkness. Tony goes up to my aunt first and kisses her on the cheek. Dad goes up to Grandma and starts talking to her in a low voice. She glances at me, and my blood goes cold. I really hope they aren’t talking about me and about what I did.
Or, more accurately, about what I failed to do.
Once we were sure we weren’t being followed, Dad drove us out of the city, to a meeting spot on a quiet stretch of road. An associate met us there, waiting inside Dad’s black bulletproof Mercedes. We swapped vehicles, then the four of us drove straight here. It’s a bar called Jimmy’s, and it’s a hangout for the city’s Miller-affiliated criminals. It’s sort of a home base for us.
I pull down on the cuff of my sleeve. Dad’s been meaning to take me shopping for a new suit, but he hasn’t found the time yet. He’s been too busy with war stuff.
Luke makes his way over to me. His suit fits him well, sitting snugly against his broad chest. He’s been working out even more than normal lately, and he’s freaking jacked now. Dad’s so proud. With his new body, and his hair slicked back, my brother looks way older than nineteen. His face is thin, with high cheekbones and a strong jawline, and his eyes radiate an intensity that always seems kind of desperate. It’s like whatever it is he wants, he wants it really bad, and he’s willing to do anything to get it. He reminds me of a jackal sometimes. Starving. Unpredictable. Deadly if needed.
Honestly, he looks right at home here. He’d be a golden boy, if my family were into that sort of thing.
My life would be a lot easier if Luke wasn’t so good at the family business.
“What was that?” asks Luke.
“What was what?”
I shrug. “You know me, airheaded as usual.”
He rolls his eyes. “Come on. I know you left it on purpose.”
How does he know?
But then he smiles. “I’m just messing with you.” His grin is toothy. Doesn’t feel right. Like he’s doing it for show. He swats my shoulder. “For real, though, don’t be so stupid next time, ’kay? I can’t be the smart one and the good-looking one.”
I give him the middle finger. He’s both, and he knows it.
He’s right, there is going to be a next time. And I can’t use this same trick again. One way or another, I’m going to end up as a soldier in this war. Now that I’m seventeen, I’m considered ready to fight. To put my life on the line.
I’m expected to kill.
As far as I know, Luke hasn’t killed anyone yet. But he’s ready for it. He’s told me he’s looking forward to putting “one of those Donovan bastards in the ground.”
I believe him.
“I’m gonna get a drink,” says Luke, walking backward. “Want anything?”
“I’m good, thanks.”
He spins and walks away, wading through the crowd.
The bar is dimly lit, filled with men in dark suits and women in dark dresses, talking and drinking in low voices. A bunch of them are my family, uncles and aunties and cousins, along with members of families we’re allied to. I’d say about half are blood relatives. Dad has two younger brothers, and they all got married young and got to work filling out the family.
I push that thought away and scan the room. There are red latticed windows at the back, above the booths, and there are candles in red glass holders on each of the tables. All this combined gives the whole place a somewhat eerie glow.
Despite my best efforts to be invisible, Dad’s youngest brother, Vince, spots me and makes his way over. He stops and sizes me up. He’s a sort of big dude, the kind of guy who was fit in his twenties but has since let it slide. He’s double the size of my dad, who’s thin, like me.
Uncle Vince is our family’s best torturer. It’s said he’s managed to crack even the hardest criminals in the city with his switchblade. Left in a room alone with him, anyone would give up their darkest secrets.
“Well, well, well, if it isn’t Little Matty,” he says, grinning. “What are you doing hiding back here?”
“Nothing,” I say. “And don’t call me little.”
He chuckles. “That’s fair, I guess you’re not so short anymore. When’d that happen?”
Adults are borderline obsessed with pointing out my growth spurts to me. It’s like they think I don’t already know I’m finally getting taller. I never know how I’m supposed to answer questions about my body, even though I get asked about it so much. It’s like they’ve never realized most guys get taller and stronger. Or maybe they’re just weirded out that the nickname Little Matty doesn’t fit so well anymore.
Lord save me if my voice cracks around them. I’ll never hear the end of it.
Vince keeps staring at me. I hate it. I wonder if he’s thinking about my weight. People love talking about that, too. Apparently I’m too skinny, and it’s something people take pearl-clutching levels of offense to. Especially because Luke is so big now.
“It’s a good thing you’re here, with your dad. Hanging around here will teach you a lot, trust me.”
I force myself not to raise an eyebrow. “If you say so.”
“You look thin. You been eating enough?”
“Like a horse.”
“Good. You should come by my gym and start lifting. Tall is good, but strong is better; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Unless you’re okay with the rumors.”
“That you’re, you know…”
Oh. Those rumors.
“I’m not gay,” I say. “Not that I care what anyone thinks.”
“Good, good, didn’t think you were, but you know how the family talks. So, you got a girlfriend yet? Handsome lad like you must be fightin’ ’em off, eh?”
“Not really.” I clap him on the shoulder. “Listen, sorry, man, really need to hit the bathroom. Talk later?”
He grins. “She must be a pretty one if she’s making you blush like that. Be careful, girls like that will only break ya heart.”
“Here’s hoping I get so lucky.”
He laughs and then finally lets me slide past.
On my way to the bathroom, I walk past Barbie Barker, who runs a bunch of secret brothels, only for the wealthiest local citizens. She’s in her fifties, and her light brown hair is cut into a wavy bob. She’s dressed in a black suit, with sparkly material on the lapels.
Her booth is nearly full, as she’s surrounded by a group of pretty young women, along with a few pretty young men. I’m guessing they work for her, which means … you know. They’re on offer tonight. They’re all stunning. Luke goes up to Barbie, stands up straight, and starts talking to her. She lowers her glasses and smiles at him. In that second, he looks like a pretty boy for sale, blending into the crowd, not a Miller man. I wonder if that’s what he wants: to not be one of the power players by birth, if only for a second.
I accidentally make eye contact with one of her male companions. He looks me up and down.
I step inside the bathroom, and walk into one of the dark wooden stalls. I lock the door behind me, then sit down on the closed toilet seat. I feel light-headed and sick to my stomach.
I can’t hide in here for long, so I need to make every second of peace count. I pinch one nostril closed, breathe in deep, then let go and exhale. It helps a little, but not enough. I can’t get the sight of the burning restaurant, along with Dad’s look of disdain through the rearview, out of my head. And then there’s the fact that my family has been talking about me.
It’s a pretty killer trio.
I wait for as long as I can, and then I step outside.
And find I’m not alone in the bathroom.
Washing his hands is a guy I haven’t seen before. He’s wearing a dark blue shirt tucked into gray slacks and nice black shoes. His dusty brown hair is short, cut in military fashion. The top two buttons of his shirt are undone, showing off some pale skin.
He has the kind of body you notice.
I ignore him and start washing up.
“Rough night?” he asks.
“You look like you’ve been through it,” he says, turning to face me. He’s drying his hands with a paper towel. I notice his posture, too; it’s weirdly great.
I shrug and turn off the tap.
“I’m Jason, by the way,” he says.
He looks young, maybe around my age. It’s not super uncommon for the sons and daughters of mob players to show up here: They like to get us indoctrinated early. So much illegal stuff happens here; underage drinking is the least of their concerns.
“Matt,” I say. “I’d shake your hand, but you know…”
I raise my wet hands.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says, and he smiles. “Hey, this might be a long shot, but are you up for sneaking out of here?”
His smile makes my heart beat faster. This boy, whoever he is, has a great freaking smile. It feels almost dangerous. He should warn a guy before smiling at him like that.
“What?” I say.
He steps closer, and his shoes click on the tiles. “Look, I can tell you’d rather be somewhere else right now. And conveniently, that’s what I want, too. I know a diner down the road. If you’re game?”
I eye him warily. Who suggests something like that? Who is this guy? But he’s right. I would rather be somewhere else right now.
And fine, I’ll admit it. He’s absurdly hot.
“Sure,” I say. “Let’s do it.”
Copyright © 2020 by Cale Dietrich