Stepping foot outside the airport into the breezy California December was all it took. They came from behind, two pairs of large hands grabbing and shoving him head-first into a dark SUV that waited by the curb outside the terminal. He’d known it was coming, so didn’t bother resisting.
“You must have a death wish, amigo,” a familiar voice said inside the dim interior.
“Benny. We’ve gotta quit meeting this way.”
“You’ve gotta quit being a fucking moron, Blanco.”
“Just tell me how you always know I’m coming so I can be stealthier next time.”
Benny chuckled. “You broadcast your presence like a fucking Fourth of July fireworks show. You buy your plane ticket with the same sad credit card that’s almost maxed out. You call your sister and tell her you love her. You call Toni and don’t tell her you love her. You call Ramon’s mama and ask if she’s heard from him because you haven’t. He’s in Southeast Asia, by the way. On assignment. He’s doing well in special ops. Why didn’t you train with him, Sam? Oh right, your dossier says you have problems with authority. Like Papa Flores telling you to stay the fuck away from SoCal, yet here you are. Again.”
“I have a dossier? Well…” Sam sat more erect. He brushed off his rumpled t-shirt and picked imaginary lint off his cami fatigues.
“You have no fucking clue, do you?”
“Fuck, Benny, I thought we were friends. Share your darkest secrets and I’ll share mine.”
“We are, which is why you’re going to survive today, just like the last two years when you pulled the same stunt. Papa Flores’s territory is off limits to you. You owe me, amigo. Don’t forget it.”
“The holidays would’ve felt empty if I didn’t come to wish you Felice Navidad, Benny.”
“Keep your fucking mouth shut and listen for once. Arturo’s distracted, but not enough to let you into his world again. Play your cards right here, you might just be able to come home. Set up that little tattoo shop downtown that you always dreamed about.”
“I always wondered why the old man didn’t just kill me if he wants it so badly. Do you have an answer, Benny?”
“Honor. Leo wants you alive. Pilar wants you alive. Those two are the only people between Arturo and you. And me. Yeah, tenuous fucking thread, huh? I don’t know what you did to them, but they love you and they’re not budging against the old man.”
That was a new sentiment Sam wasn’t prepared for. It left him breathless for a moment, and strangely confused. “They love me, huh? How ‘bout that.”
“You’re not gonna cry or something are you?”
“No, man. I’m just not sure how to process that. You remember what that summer was like.”
Benny chuckled. “Yeah. And you still have a goddamn death wish, so I guess I should feel comforted that things don’t change, right? And before you say it, they both know you’re sorry. You’re like a fucking broken record.”
Sorry didn’t quite cover it, but that was all he could share with Benny. It had taken him a year of self torture to realize he’d loved Pilar all along during their summer affair. Everything seemed so much clearer after being diminished practically to dust by basic training, then the gradual re-assembly of his psyche and his emotions along with the bullshit his drill instructors put him through , but there was nothing to do about it by that point, if there ever had been. Pilar and Leo belonged to each other, their love squeezing Sam out of the place he’d insinuated himself until at the end of the affair he’d felt like nothing more than a pile of extruded meat. He’d looked no better after Leo had gotten done with him. But the acceptance of that small feeling, as bright as a small sun inside him, left him feeling just a little easier. He’d loved her. He’d loved Leo, too. And now to learn that maybe the both of them cared about him even a little bit… enough to send Benny to run interference between Sam and whatever Arturo might have in store if he stepped foot beyond the airport. For the first time he thought he could leave San Diego without being completely pissed at Benny and himself for being ejected yet again on the verge of another attempted homecoming.
With this new outlook he relaxed and eyed Benny. “You look like you’re in pain, buddy. What’s with the arm sling? Did someone get the better of you for once?” He grinned at Benny ironically, rubbing at the scar over his left eyebrow that Benny had given him when they were fifteen.
“It’s nothing, but if you ever get stabbed, I recommend the Scripps Mercy ER. The doctors there are better than drugs.”
Sam chuckled. “I’ll remember that next time I get stabbed in San Diego. If you ever give me the chance to. So are you taking me somewhere or are we just driving in a circle around the access roads like usual? Seems like you’re taking your time…. Oh shit! Are you going to propose today, Benny? I’m about a size thirteen in the ring department, just so you know.” He waggled his fingers in Benny’s face for emphasis.
Benny didn’t even smile at the joke, which was unusual, but instead reached into his pocket. For a brief surreal moment Sam was sure he’d see a ring box in his friend’s hand when it emerged.
“Pilar wanted me to give this to you. She knows we have a regular holiday date.” Benny handed Sam a tiny thumb drive
Sam stared at it uncomprehending. “Pilar? Why the hell would she want to give me anything?”
“You’ll know when you see what’s on it.”
“What, no clues? Is this like a special Christmas present? She’s still secretly in love with me and there’s dirty pictures on here right? Or… no… she secretly hates me now and there’s pictures of her and Leo fucking. Christ.”
Benny rolled his eyes. “You need to chill the fuck out, amigo. It’s more important or else she wouldn’t have made me give it to you. She also asked me to tell you, if you feel like you owe them a debt, this is your chance to repay it.”
“Fuck that,” Sam said, but stuck the thumb drive into his pocket. He’d already slept with Pilar before meeting her lover, Leo. Before he and Leo had become friends, cultivating a relationship that left him feeling like he’d earned a brother. And promptly betrayed him in the very same breath of even saying ‘hello’. He owed Leo something at least, and maybe Pilar, too for his part in their complicity. He couldn’t go home yet, and he really only felt a deep resignation over that fact.
And what was about to happen next was just the cherry on the fucking sundae.
“Alright, you ready for the show?” Benny asked.
“Man, after this emotional reunion you still need to do this shit?”
“Sorry,” Benny said.
“The fuck you’re sorry.”
“You’re right. This is my favorite time of year, to be honest.” Benny grinned as he made a fist with his good hand and swung it at Sam’s temple.
Sam regained consciousness in a ditch beneath the deafening drone of a 747 taking off. He staggered to his feet, hauled his heavy rucksack onto his back, and started walking, prodding gently at the tenderness around his eye. Benny had let him off easy this time. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed as he trudged along the airport access road.
“Hey, bro. Any luck this year?” Celie’s insistent voice asked the second she answered.
“Maybe next year, baby girl. Not now, though. I tried.” He let out a defeated laugh. “I tried.”
“Shit,” she said. “I knew I should’ve come to pick you up.”
“It wouldn’t have done any good. They’d get me one way or the other. Maybe next year.”
“Next year’s too long, Sammy. I wanted to spend Christmas with you. Ramon’s coming home, too, and Mrs. Garcia has this whole thing planned for all of us.” The dejected sigh that erupted into his ear almost broke his heart. “Are you doing good otherwise? He didn’t hurt you too badly did he? You know I know where he lives. I’ll go kick his ass if you want.”
Sam chuckled, imagining the tongue lashing Celie would give Benny on his behalf, and Benny eagerly taking it and welcoming more. The poor bastard had been smitten with Celie for years, ever since Sam had told the punk in no uncertain terms that his little sister was off limits. Benny was less and less a punk anymore, and Celie had never really acted like a little sister in spite of being younger by two years. She had always been the smart one.
“No, Baby Girl. Benny just has to do his job. You know me. I survive. You’re still my hero.”
“You’re full of shit,” she said, but he could hear the emotion dampening her words. “Where are you right now?” she asked.
“Walking back to the airport. They left me in a ditch.”
“Assholes. How far are you? I can call someone.”
“Where are you gonna go, though? If you can’t come here…”
“New York I guess. I have a friend there. I’ll be fine.”
“That douchebag Booth?”
“He’s a good guy. He has my back at least.”
“He tried to get me to have phone sex with him that time.”
“Yeah, and he got a bloody nose from it, too. I’d trust him with my life, though. I have, actually.”
“I’d say give me his number just in case but I don’t want to encourage him.” She paused and Sam felt the hesitant winding down of their conversation. She didn’t want to say goodbye anymore than he did. Just as he was about to make an attempt at keeping it going, she blurted out, “I’ll try to figure out some way fix this for you. I promise.”
“And what exactly do you think you can do to fix this? You’re nineteen. You should be busy… I dunno… going to sorority parties, having pillow fights.”
Her laughter subsided after a moment. “Believe it or not I’m kinda smart,” she said with obvious irony that almost made him laugh. She’d never stopped rubbing that detail in. “Plus I have friends… in high places.”
The words ‘in high places’ came with a slight hesitation. He’d never known her to be so cagey and the odd tone in her voice alarmed him. He didn’t know what she’d risk to help him, but if she was anything like him, she’d do whatever she could.
“Celie, don’t. Please. I fucked up. I know it’s been three years, but I need to live with it. Don’t get hurt trying to clean up my mistakes, alright? It’ll pass eventually.”
“What about Toni? We hang out sometimes you know. I can talk to her. Maybe she can talk to them.”
“No, she knows better than to get in the middle of this. And I wouldn’t want her to anyway.”
An exasperated huff sounded into his earpiece. “Well, be safe, alright? I miss you, and just so you know if I find a way to change things I’m not hesitating.”
“Baby girl, you kick ass. I love you.”
“Love you, too. Be safe.”
He shoved his phone into his pocket and kept walking, bolstered by his sister’s confidence. His face throbbed from the beating he’d taken, but he’d had worse; these were only bruises. After another half-hour of walking in the temperate December breeze along the San Diego waterfront he made it back to the airport terminal. An hour later he was sitting in his cramped airplane seat waiting for takeoff. Dazed travelers trickled in and went through the same struggle to stow their carry on and find their own seats. He waved down a flight attendant and requested some ice. She eyed him with a raised eyebrow then disappeared, coming back a moment later with an icepack wrapped in a thin towel.
She rested a slender hand on his shoulder and squeezed, giving him a sweet smile. “Not at all. Thank you for your service.”
He nodded and plastered the icepack to his swollen face, glancing down at his cami fatigues, the same outfit he’d been wearing since disembarking from the plane from Afghanistan the day before. He’d spent so many months looking exactly like everyone else it was weird to be singled out. Why he thought he’d just fit right back in like a normal guy he wasn’t sure. It shouldn’t have surprised him any more than Benny’s greeting had.
The reminder of Leo and Pilar lingered in his mind now and he bent down to his backpack and pulled out his sketchbook, the familiar itch in his fingers compelling him to put the images down on paper. He jabbed a cinnamon-flavored toothpick into his mouth from the stash he kept in the pocket of his sketchbook. The first drawing was Benny’s face - a warmup, which he sketched out in a matter of minutes, capturing the new look of responsibility and determination Benny had worn that day.
The next sketches were of them. The two reasons he was in this shitty situation, but he still didn’t fault them for it. He had at first. He’d alternated between hating himself and hating both Leo and Pilar for weeks at the beginning of basic training until he grew exhausted and eventually just admitted to himself that it wasn’t really hate all along. They were the first two people in his life who he’d loved who weren’t blood relations. Aside from Ramon… Ramon he considered a brother, though, and he missed his best friend like crazy in moments like these. He wondered if his friend would find it amusing how much influence he still had on Sam’s decisions. His cautious, conscientious, respectful best friend who was now on the other side of the world on a special ops unit. Sam wanted badly to draw his friend but had made him a promise years ago never to do so. Instead he entertained memories of his friend’s lectures while he drew the others.
It was the first time he’d drawn them both in three years. First he drew them together - recreating that one perfect scene of their faces nearly touching that day when he’d given Leo his tattoo. The image was as crisp and clear in his mind as though it were right in front of him now. Not to mention the fierce arousal he’d had to deal with at Pilar’s presence and watching her react so strongly to Leo’s touch. After that he drew them each separately, reacquainting himself with their features as they spilled from the tip of his pen. He never should have come between those two, but in truth he cherished every second he’d had with both of them.
Once those pages were covered with ink, he flipped to another, beginning a fresh drawing of the only reason he could let go of the regret. He always began with Toni’s tattoos for some reason. The twining tendrils of them seemed to be the root of her, but he could never quite finish the drawings. Something was always missing and he’d spend days going back to old sketches trying to figure it out before giving up. If he’d been able to spend more than two days with the woman it might have been different. Hearing her voice over the phone wasn’t enough to force his mind into really seeing whatever that elusive piece was that he’d somehow missed. Sure, he had a perfectly crisp image thanks to his perfect fucking memory - a curse more than a gift. But his memories of her tended to disintegrate the second he tried to fully examine them on a deeper level.
“Christ, let them go,” he muttered to the sheet of paper. He squeezed his eyes shut in a futile attempt to blot out the ghosts from his past. Opening his eyes again, he flipped to a blank page to draw the only woman who would never be elusive and who would never change in his eyes. Yet even his mother’s face seemed to lack substance this time in the face of the last three years of torture and regret.