I check out of the emergency room early Monday morning, just short of forty-eight hours after blundering into the savage beating that had blown my weekend apart in a frenzy of shame. So much had happened between then and now, but so little of it had penetrated my battered body or wretched state of mind, and simply trying to process everything is now taking up most of my mental power as I limp through the hospital’s massive, hectic waiting room. It’s full of other people’s pain and boredom, but I’ve had too much of both of those things in the past two days to bother with any empathy. I shuffle past the automatic doors toward a bath of impossibly bright sunshine, and the low hum of surrounding commotion inside gives way to the more diluted static outside.
I put some distance between me and the entrance, slumping on a bench fifty feet from the doors. It’s a little warm and my bandages begin to itch as I sweat through them, but I just add that to the massive catalogue of small annoyances that I’ll have to endure before the wounds heal. I resist a temptation to rip the fresh gauze off my face, and am just beginning to sink beneath the haze of muffled aches and pains when an old Datsun pickup suddenly lurches into the loading zone in front of me and rumbles to a halt. The passenger door swings open and a tired, exasperated female voice says “You’re up and out earlier than I thought. Come on Derek, get in. I’ll take you home.” Lisa lifts her eyebrows expectantly, patting the seat with her thin hands, probably hoping that I will yet again be too much of a sucker to not take the bait.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” I ask, even though I already know the answer. She rolls her eyes and says “Michael shamed me into it. My brother the cop leaned on me big-time, but he was right. So are you coming or what?”
I draw a slow, deep breath through my mashed septum, too exhausted to be stunned, or angry, or wary, or whatever else I should be feeling right now. It’s all according to plan, but every instinct of common sense is screaming as I stagger into the truck without a word. Lisa smiles half-heartedly as she steers out of the parking lot. She’s much cleaner than she was on Saturday; her curly brown hair is held up by a white headband, and her bronzed, half-brown shoulders radiate life, but foundation is caked around her eyes, which are just as dead and empty as always.
“How do you feel, Derek?” Her flat tone sounds slightly tense, rehearsed even, and I glare at her. How do I feel? Can’t she see the bandages? Doesn’t she remember how it happened, how she let it happen? The two cracked ribs, the broken nose, the oil slick of blue-black bruising all over my body? Yeah, it looked messier than it actually was-my mom sure went into spastic hyperventilation when she showed up at my bedside, convinced I was either on drugs or dealing drugs-but Jesus, why the fuck would Lisa shrug any of it off? She knew what happened. She was there. How do I fucking feel? “How does it look like I feel, Lisa?” I finally spit.
She takes it in stride, solemnly saying nothing, turning into the traffic on Estrella. My head’s begun to throb insistently again, right on cue. She may be a treacherous, selfish little loadie, but she’s not completely stupid, and is at least as perceptive as the emergency room doctors who’d patched me up Saturday afternoon. “Your body came through that fight pretty well, Derek,” one of them had said, “but actually, we’re much more concerned about your head.”
The E.R. doc had briefly flashed some x-rays of my skull, and the five-day-old soccer goose-egg had dominated each of them. It had taken every ounce of willpower I had left in order to evade and dodge and deflect any treatment stronger than another ice-pack, some over-the-counter relief, and a stern lecture about the dangers of concussions. I’d thought Detective Kelley would get into it with me too, cause he stuck around ’til I was conscious again, but when we’d talked he’d started things off with an easy “Wow kid, I thought you’d had it, but you sure do clean up nice.” We’d had a very short but very informative interview, and to my surprise he was keen to spring me from the emergency room as soon as possible. Good thing, too, cause I’d refused to stay bed-ridden for days; I fucking hate hospitals, and all I’d wanted to do was go home, find my car, and get out of town and back to school. Checking out against a doctor’s orders was easy once the wheels were greased.
Lisa turns onto the freeway but doesn’t change lanes, flowing into the Coast Highway ramp toward Dana Point. “I’m out of rehab,” she says quietly. She glances at me for a reaction, gets another dirty look, and continues anyway. “Useless waste of fucking time. I feel fine, but my parents can’t afford it anymore.” I so wish to God that I didn’t have to take the ride with her. Mom or Hannah would have picked me up if I’d called them, but only if the hospital deemed me fit for release. I have a job to do, though, so I just deal with it. “My heart bleeds for you, Lisa.”
“Well, maybe you can be my sponsor, then,” she snaps back, capitalizing on my retarded reflexes to keep ranting as she drives, shooting through the tunnel under I-5 at fifty. “Look, Derek, I’m so sorry about Saturday, I really am. Honest. I know I should have done something about it, but once my cousins get on a roll, they’re like, unstoppable, you know?” I was told she’d say this, so I stifle the urge to drench her in dumb verbal napalm and just give a palms-up acknowledgment of the situation. She sees the opening and takes it.
“And I regret the other thing, too, okay?” She brakes a little and exits at Doheny Park, driving through funky, light-industrial, downtown Capistrano Beach. A crowd of tired Mexican men wait for work on the curb at our stoplight, and a few blocks up ahead, traffic bottlenecks at the Price Club entrance.
“What, regret that you did it?” The throbbing is dying down slowly, ebbing with the onslaught of discipline. I can’t believe I’m still able to play it so cool with her about this. Maybe it’s the injuries or the exhaustion or, more likely, some weird bravado that only comes with the security of police protection, but Lisa’s two-day-old revelation about her abortion hasn’t affected me at all.
“No, that I didn’t tell you for so long.” Lisa shoots me another apprehensive glance. Whether or not she means what she says is beside the point, but she’s sticking to the script like a champ, so I just nod and dismiss it. The light changes and she drives on. We turn left on Stonehill and zip over the bridge.
“I guess you had your reasons. Those were illuminating, by the way.” The hubris is really coming on strong now, and I’m almost thriving on it. And why the hell not? She’s not the bait anymore. I am, and it’ll just take a little longer for my angler to reel in his prize catch.
“Don’t be an asshole, Derek,” she says, flying through the green light at Del Obispo and barely squeaking past the yellow one at Palo Alto before stopping short at a red on Ocean Hill. “Fuck!” she yells, hammering the steering wheel in a surge of fury. It’s so sudden that I’m about to apologize, but she takes a moment and then sighs, “I hate this goddamn light. The truck always has problems with this hill.” I didn’t expect any weird detours into small talk, but there’s not really any time to think about that, cause Lisa gives a theatrical little laugh as she accelerates up the road, and says “I almost forgot.”
“My sister’s seventeenth birthday is in eleven days.” We turn right onto Golden Lantern and the high school looms into view on the left. She elaborates at the Acapulco light. “My parents are throwing her a family party that weekend, but there’s…there’s gonna be another party the night before, at a hotel.” She smiles. “The Doubletree on PCH. It’s a big sister’s gift, you know?” I nod slowly. The bandages are itching like hell now.
“Do you…do you think you might want to come back down for that?” Lisa looks away to make the left turn, but I can tell she’s a bit anxious for an answer. “Oh, and ask Roy if he wants to come, too.” She giggles. “Liv’s really into him. She says she wants to steal him from that other girl he’s seeing, that Russian chick.” The idea of Roy as a crush object is so weird that I almost forget to sound enthusiastic when I say yes, I’ll be there, but by the time Lisa drops me off at home everything’s arranged, and anyone watching would have thought we were best friends.
When I go inside, Mom’s not there and Hannah’s shut up in her room, talking on her phone, so I go through to the kitchen and notice how my convalescent ordeal has transformed the dinner table. There are lots of get-well cards, but I ignore them for now, going straight to the answering machine to play the four messages on it.
One’s from Colin, who missed me at the Screaming Mimes’ Saturday night show, and two are from Roy; the first saying he’d heard about the fight and had volunteered to retrieve my car from Capo Beach, and the second said he wouldn’t need a ride back to school cause he’d be taking the train. The fourth is from Detective Kelley, simply requesting I call him once I get home. I have some time before I need to get on the road tonight, so I pick up the phone and dial the number he left, complete with an extension. The detective picks it up on the second ring.
“Kelley.” His voice sounds dry and bored.
“Um, hi…Detective, this is, uh…Derek. Derek Haynes?”
“Aha!” Kelley perks up immediately, sounding genuinely happy to hear from me, and it’s kind of a relief. “So, Derek, what do you have to tell me, son?”
“Everything happened the way you said it would, sir.” I describe my entire conversation with Lisa, including the invite to her sister’s party. The detective is silent for a few seconds after I finish, but when he finally speaks up it’s with a calm, almost proud satisfaction.
“Good job, Derek. I really, really appreciate your help with this.” We talk for a little longer, ironing out some more details for the next ten days, and then after we hang up I start packing my bag to go back to school. It’s gonna be a long drive tonight.