end the thug’s life, rid them and the world of his useless soul. But now …
“Things will have to change,” David said, his features tense. He crossed his arms tightly over his chest.
Mitch’s eyes met David’s, and a slow, deliberate nod followed.
David sensed the pendulum of power swing his way, and he jumped on it. “First, I’m in charge.”
He waited for Mitch’s response, for him to buck the declaration, expected a profanity-laden objection.
But none came. Just an unflinching stare. That was it.
“What I say, goes. Got it? No more cocky bullshit that puts us at risk. You want to live with us? You contribute, you help. And you do it sober.” David stepped closer. “We pull together, we survive. We pull apart, like we have been, we die.” He took a drag from his neglected cigarette, reviving the spark and fire, tapping the long, dead ash to the ground. “We can rebuild, Mitch. We can make something from all this. But we’ve got to move. We can’t stay where we are. Or stay who we are.”
David saw Mitch’s lip twitch, like he wanted to interject, but David’s glare shut him down.
Instead, Mitch tugged a rag from his back pocket and wiped his neck. Sucking the last bit of fire from of his own cigarette, he let the filter drop to the dirt, mashed it with his boot. Extinguished.
Despite the staggering heat, David’s heart pumped a cool calm through his veins. He couldn’t believe what he was feeling, this boundless influence, and that Mitch actually acquiesced to his critical demands. The balance of power had shifted in a second, without violence, without death. It was almost too easy. But David knew that it wouldn’t always be this easy. Or without violence. Or death.
Randy sat quietly on the bench rocker on the porch, an ATR long action bolt rifle in his lap. He wasn’t as good a shot as Mitch, but he did okay. Sort of. His eyes roved the large yard, the tree line, the driveway. With both Mitch and David gone to who-knows-where, and Jessica’s incapacitation, he was it. The first—and last—line of defense. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, grunting as he shifted his bulk, and wiped his face for the umpteenth time that morning. As hot as it was outside, it was even more miserable inside. To this, he said, no thanks .
He chewed his beard to pass the time, a nervous habit that started when he first grew one years ago. It comforted him and kept him, in some deep-seated psychological way, grounded in the now. It represented that baby blanket he had loved so much as a child, the one he had gnawed the edges down to frays. How he’d loved that thing.
He toyed with shaving several times since he’d grown the beard. But he just couldn’t let go. Scratchy and hot, it served only to amplify his physical discomfort. Even the others suggested he should. But it was a part of him. His baby blanket.
The rusty squeak of the screen door surprised him.
“Oh, thank god,” he whispered in a breathy exhale. He wiped his forehead again with the damp handkerchief, then fanned his pink face.
Jessica stepped onto the porch, one hand on the doorjamb, the other gripping the screen door. “I scare you?” One side of her mouth rose to the sky, the other lazy. She guided the door back to the frame, not allowing the rusty spring the chance to yank it back. No need in making noise and attracting unwanted company.
“I wouldn’t say scared, necessarily.” He smiled big for her.
She smiled back, a full one this time. She limped to the porch railing, a hand on her kidney, and half-sat, half-leaned against the wood. Picking paint chips, she shot cursory glances around the yard.
Randy started to chastise her for pulling her IV and coming outside, but he simply settled on, “Feeling better?”
She didn’t answer right away, but continued to fiddle with the flaking paint, flicking bits of it over the side. Finally, she said, “I think so. Starting to feel a little bit