“Jesus Christ that’s a pretty face. The kind you’d find on someone I could save, if they don’t put me away…” Lyrics, from a band called Brand New. Appropriate now, I think. It’ll be a miracle if I make it home tonight. Isn’t that the thing. You find someone worth sticking around for, and suddenly everyone wants you gone. You find someone worth saving, and then you need it yourself.
We met at a party I tagged along to with a mutual friend. She was standing in a doorway, looking for someone, or something. Her gaze was elsewhere, mine was only on her. She noticed me after awhile and we spoke. I made some jokes, she made a couple of grins, each one driving itself deeper into the chasm where previous broads had strip-mined my heart empty. Her smile took the express elevator straight into the center and set up shop. The way her lips moved was honest, innocent yet wry. Her eyes pierced me and pulled me, blue pools that looked like ice I’d gladly dive into. She was a small girl, coming up to about the bottom of my chin, but I knew she could floor me if she wanted to without raising a fist. Her hair was a silken curtain of brown, and it reached a little past her shoulders, toying with her collarbones. I could see it was soft, almost as soft as her voice. We interacted as the party mingled around us, and I managed to get her number as my friend and I left.
The streets of Tampa have always been kind to me. I’ve been pretty good to them, too, staying off the main roads whenever possible in favor of the sidestreets I love detouring down. Tonight they fight me, and I’m racing the city itself to get this package to the wrong people at the right time. Lexus’ drift aimlessly in front of me, beaten up Hondas race around me, and old, beaten American models hug the curbs and block the road. I’m doing this all for her, to keep her out of their reach, away from their notice. It’s always because of a dame. For once, this one actually seems worth it.
Her name is Cecelia. We’ve gone out a few times, the traditional sort of going out, the kind couples did before Facebook and texting and Mass Communication distilled relationships into random strings of status updates and truncated sentiment. I took her to the movies, we went out to dinner. We defied our generation and our twenty-something age brackets by sharing a meal, not just drinks, and afterward we’d go back to either of our places to talk. She is a self-motivated transplant from the Great White North, upstate NY. I discovered she loved Tampa as much as I do, and she’d come to that love much quicker than I, having only been here a few years. I found myself increasingly wanting her to stick around, something I expressed to her briefly before dropping it for the moment, and since.
She’s out of town this weekend, and I’m glad for her. I don’t know what I would have done if she had been there when the events that prompted this drive went down. There was a party at the house she shared with two other girls. They seem like cool enough people, nice enough, friendly enough to invite me to a party they were having even though Cecelia was going to be out of town. I’d only been around a few times, but figured I’d bring a buddy, maybe he could meet some girls there and I could make sure nobody messed with Cecelia’s bedroom in her absence. This party felt thicker than the one I met Cecelia at. There were more people, some younger, make-up painted to fit in. Easy to spot, they were the over exuberant ones, too excited to know that acting older meant calming down. The front porch offered no respite from the warmth of the house inside. Even the hardwood floors were sweating, breathing in the sweat of bodies and the stench of Weed being smoked and ashed onto them. My friend disappeared into the back of the house and I went looking for him. The front door opened and I slipped back inside. Before me, the path to the back door was long and littered with bodies. I moved true, through the living room and dining room into the packed kitchen, where I was held up by a skinny guy in plaid staring into the fridge. The plaid was red, the sideburns were too, as was his close-cropped hair. I reached in and grabbed a beer. Handing it to him, I shut the door and moved past him. I felt his eyes on my back as I glanced into Cecelia’s bedroom, which was at the end of a small hallway behind the fridge and to the right, off the kitchen. The door was open. I was sure I’d checked that it was locked. I pushed past someone coming out of the bathroom, also off the kitchen, and glanced in the room. One of the roommates, Ashley, was in there, alone, her back to the door.
“What’s going on,” I ask her. She startles, turns to face me. “What’s that?” I point to her right arm, which she has bent behind her back. She withdrew it and smiled, a look I’m sure she believed was sheepish and cute, but only looked untrustworthy.
“I wanted to borrow one of Cecelia’s shirts. Will you tell on me?” She smiled again. I reached out my hand.
“Yeah,” I said. “But I’ll ask her if you can borrow it.” She scowls and tosses the shirt to me, stuffing her hands in her pockets in almost the same motion. She brushed past me without a word. If I’d only seen what else she’d had in her hands.
Almost dawn. Almost there. It’s been a long night. Dale Mabry, the biggest thoroughfare in Tampa, ended a dozen miles back, but I’m still going North, and I’m no longer in Tampa. Land’o’Lakes was a blur of family owned delis, and too-flashy gas station convenience stores and churches, offering Salvation and Coffee, all-new and with better signage. Fill up and Praise the Lord. My destination is Brooksville, small-town America, around 60 miles north of Tampa. Nobody will be awake this early on a Sunday. Nobody will see me drive past their single-city-block downtown. Nobody will see what I’ll be holding in my hands, and what I’ll be passing off before the sun rises.
“Where the fuck is it?” The guy was shouting in her face, and even though I didn’t like her, I spoke up, trying to calm everything down. People were staring, some moving out of the dining room and towards the front door. The cops had come once, leaving quickly after an apology and a promise from one of the roommates, but the tension they left was still palpable.
“What’s going on,” I asked Ashley for the second time that night. She looked at me, blankly, and the guy rounded. It was the guy I’d handed the beer to earlier.
“You,” he said, “Who the fuck are you?”
“A friend. What’s going on?”
“She stole my shit.”
“What shit?” I felt a knot start in my stomach, curling my toes.
“The bag of coke I was supposed to deliver tonight!” He turned to her again. “Where the fuck is it?!?!” The guy was tweaking, he kept licking his cracked lips in between sentences.
“C’mon man, there’s no need-“ I started, but Ashley cut me off.
“It’s in Cecelia’s room!” Both the guy and I stared at her, and the comprehension of why she was in the room hit me like a segway driven by a fat mall cop. He must have noticed my face, because he addressed his next question to me.
“Who the fuck is Cecilia and why does she have it?” He was speaking calmly. I didn’t think it was a good sign. Ashley, however, had regained control of herself with her lie.
“Here.” She started towards the back of the house.
“Ashley..” I started, but she ignored me. The guy glanced at me and followed, as did I. I thought, could I distract him, could I distract her, could I just get a second in that room. I knew where she hid it. She was about to stuff something under the mattress when I walked in on her.