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First pages

2 DAYS AGO…

As the sun dies in the harbor, nocturne blooms. It’s an old world town on the water. No matter how cosmopolitan its pretense, the traditions haunt. Tigers and stripes, old dogs and new tricks, the city of Boston will never fully abandon its pedigree: its people are habitual, its heritage ancestral, the traditions iron-wrought. From a Plymouth colony to the first shots of a great revolutionary experiment, this is a town awash in blood. The soil is steeped in it and no matter how clueless the scions of high-yield clans, corporations and colleges who now make up the majority of its population, history never forgets. There’s always a legacy waiting somewhere, ready to spring, to remind everybody that whatever is earned must first be fought for.

And these assholes have earned nothing.

Max checks himself, trying not to let the bitterness overwhelm. There are certainly worse scenes than a party of twenty-something’s raging without a care in the world. Does he really disapprove of their carefree elation, or is he just envious of it? He takes a long pull on his beer, choosing not to answer. Fuck scrutiny, especially on this night of nights. His life’s about to change; they’ve all paid their dues. In his twenty-six years, he’s never been more single-minded. By tomorrow night, Max is finally going to—

“Hi!”

She’s got striking green eyes, nearly hazel, set off by aggressive swipes of mascara and eyeliner. His age, she’s got rich brown hair over eyes a pure chestnut, cheekbones to kill for and a flawless figure. He’s so struck by her that he finds himself unable to respond. They stand by the punch bowl – actually, a giant cooler filled with some purplish-red mixture emitting alcohol vapors so strong, Max envisions a lit match followed by a giant mushroom cloud over South Boston.

“You’re Max, right?” she asks, slurring heavily. A few haltering steps closer cover the short distance between them, a taxing trip for her booze-battered equilibrium. She cocks a hip in that way that the maximally shit-faced adopt to try to appear casual. “Gotta be. Scott said you were, like, really good-looking.”

Max scans the milling masses for his friend, fearing some kind of practical joke. No luck; all he can see are bobbing heads and sloppy grinding under the back porch lighting of Scott’s townhouse. She mutters another line she doubtfully heard during her Victorian English major.

“Sorry?”

“Who you with?”

“Nobody. Like Scott said, I’m just a friend.”

“Can’t be.”

“Why?”

“All of Scott’s friends are drunk.” She giggles then runs a finger down his shirt, issuing a come-hither leer that would send any guy running to 7-11 for a pack of protection.

Max just smiles benignly, certain he’s being pranked or punked or whatever the hell it’s called anymore.

“Strong silent type. I dig it,” she says, then leans in close. “You wanna get high?”

“No, thanks.”

“Then just watch me.” She presses into his body and his temperature isn’t the only part of his body doing a slow boil. Her thigh grazes his crotch just to make sure.

A few partygoers glance over, that assessment in their eyes. Everything in his generation’s a goddamn posture, ready for judgment so it can be run through the social media stock ticker: “Hottest girl ever!” “Drunkest I’ve ever been!” A few of Max’s friends nod, either impressed or simply admiring the fine gams in the skinny jeans. Max searches for the inevitable video or phone cam capturing his blushing face. He hopes it’s not also capturing what’s going on below his waistline.

Stepping back, he delivers his best good-guy smile. “I’m good. I gotta roll anyway.”

She hooks his arm. “Gonna make me work for it, huh.”

Max begins to question whether this is a gag or not. If so, she’s got a real future in acting; the pleading/hunger/temptation in her eyes almost convinces him to take the plunge, even as he hates himself for it. That voice, that guy voice, reminds him how long it’s been, that he’s still a red-blooded American male and he’s more than earned it. What’s one little fling?

The questions and justification are still rolling through his mind as she leads him into the townhouse and down a narrow hallway. They turn into a room lit by the glow of three computer monitors emitting tie-dyed psychedelic patterns. Max indulges a second’s amusement; his buddy Scott, host of this wild soiree, is such a hippie poser. But can anyone really blame him? Max is reminded of one of his basketball buddy’s lines, a burnout named Lance who’s thirty, looking fifty: “We’re all late to the party, man.” That’s the way he talks, honestly, drawing a crowd after their games with his stories and the primo blunts he lights up and passes around as he shares his views on a world one thrown rod away from being sent to the scrap yard. Max can never tell if Lance is brilliant or stoned stupid, but that one line sticks with him.

Her gaze reclaims his attention. How could it not? She arches up and kisses him full on the lips as she reaches behind him and pushes the door shut. Setting her drink down, her free hand comes around to cup his crotch.

“Wanna get high?” she asks, pulling him to the bed.

The buttons on Max’s shirt jump against his thumping heartbeat. Blood flushes his face. Her hands run down his sides, around to his ass, back across his front pockets. It feels so good.

“Where is it?” she asks.

“You can’t tell?”

The bulge against his zipper is pure agony. She cups it, giggling. “Not that.”

“What?” And then he realizes she must have him confused with someone with access to drugs. Why shouldn’t she? Scott’s crowd over the years has inherited a steadier and increasing stream of recreational users. Max doesn’t judge; but he doesn’t use anymore, either. Not for six years when his life changed forever.

The door opens, two dudes stumbling through the threshold. One wears a porkpie hat down to his eyes, the other carries a spliff the very size of the Swisher Sweet they repacked with fine Columbian. They spend a comical second halting their momentum, bumping into one another, laughing, coming up short at the sight of Max and the girl. Through the open door comes a renewed blast of Kaskade.

“Sorry, sorry—”

“Yo, Maxie, workin’ it out!”

Then they fall back out the door, slamming it closed in a collective tumble. Max laughs, unable to tell which of his friends then calls out the congratulations from the hallway beyond. If he had to guess, he’d say Reb or Tyson.

The girl continues to stare at the door: “You see the size of that joint?”

The interruption and her single-minded observation is enough to break him out of his spell. He stands up. “Sorry, I shouldn’t…”

“What?”

“Any guy’d consider himself lucky. Believe me. It’s just...I’m spoken for.”

“I thought we were gonna get high.”

“I think I just did.” He reads her longing gaze. “But if you hurry, you can probably catch them before they torch it all.”

She gives him a sloppy smile and lurches to the door, flinging it open and stumbling out. She leans back in, mumbling about her “fuggin’ drink,” grabs her cup and disappears.

Max takes a few beats to regain control of his breath and to wait for his embarrassing bulge to deflate. He returns to the party, which is starting to flip into The-Cops-Will-Be-Here-Any-Second mode. Winding through the madness, he searches for Scott even as he maneuvers to the front door. Hand on the knob, he takes one last look then heads out into the night.

 

An autumn breeze cuts up the narrow lanes of Southie, chilled by the nearby waters of Carson Beach. Fall is Max’s favorite time of year – the favorite of most venerable New Englanders. The combination of warm days iced by breezy nights reminds you of the humidity left behind and the arctic blasts yet to come. Max begins his trek up the sidewalk.

The front door opens—

“Yo, Morris!”

—and closes behind him. Scott Prohl rumbles down the short set of stairs. Max grins at the sight of his friend, the modern hipster with the genteel pedigree, a corpulent man of unlimited appetites, incapable of anything small, but concerned and generous to a fault. Scott’s been Max’s best friend since third grade when the Morris clan moved down from Burlington. In twenty-odd years, Scott has never questioned, cautioned nor so much as raised a discouraging word in Max’s direction, even after Max…well, after he committed one life-altering action (Max refuses to call it a mistake). Scott stood by him, shocked by what he heard but immediately thinking of ways to help and support rather than heap any more damnation down on his head. Max has not, nor will he ever, forget that.

“Wanna get high?” Scott says with a smile.

“The hell was that all about?”

Scott throws an arm around Max. “Just in case, you know, you wanted one last fling. Or any fling.”

“Who the hell is she, anyway?”

“Who cares? That was the point.” He taps his shirt pocket. “I can hook you up.”

“I’m good.”

“You sure? Because she’s good to go.”

“C’mon, Scott. You know…”

“Yeah…” He gives him a squeeze then stumbles a few feet towards the parked cars. “Helluva party, right?”

“A little crazy, actually.”

“Ah, they’re harmless.”

“Just be careful. Your crowd’s getting a little rough.”

“Rougher than us?”

“A few, yeah.”

“Always the school marm. Sure you gotta split?”

“Yeah. Overtime, you know?”

A drunken duo falls against Scott’s window, knocking off the rod and drapery, laughing hysterically.

Scott just shakes his head. “There goes the security deposit.” He puts his arm around Max again and walks him to the corner. “Where the hell’s your coat?”

Max just shrugs, rolling down his sleeves and tucking his hands into his pockets.

“You okay, man?” Scott asks.

“Sure.”

“Happy days are here again.”

“I dunno if it’ll be that easy.”

“It will. You’ve earned it. Both of you.”

Max just nods. “Thanks. And thanks, you know, for being there.”

A sudden seriousness comes over Scott’s face; it’s such a rare occurrence, Max can’t help but take notice. “Anything, anytime, anywhere.”

They reach the corner, the Red T-Stop sign burning at the end of the block. Scott gives him a bro-hug.

Laissez le Bon temp rouler!”

“This is Boston, Scott.”

“Let the good times roll, anyway!”

Something shatters inside Scott’s apartment, suggesting major damage as a hush falls over the party. Scott shakes his head and lopes back in his hopelessly awkward gait.

Max laughs and shrugs off against the cold.

 

Working-class. That’s the polite way of describing Max’s neighborhood. Bumping up against the infamous Winter Hill section of Somerville, Max’s street dead-ends at a raised section of I-93. A small estuary off the river gurgles just behind his cottage and takes on the smell of God-knows-whatever’s buried in the silt: gasoline, burnt candy and dead fish. They’ve tried to prettify the area with scrub brush and a paved walkway that’s so dimly lit, they might as well call it “Rape Path,” or “The Narcotics & Gun Exchange.” Max has witnessed more than a few packages exchanged by hooded zombies almost certainly not peddling rosaries. He’s just grateful there’s a sturdy chain link fence separating his cul-de-sac from the overpass.

Not that any self-respecting jacker would be tempted onto Max’s block. Two of his neighbor’s cars sit perpetually on blocks while the ones that do run blast black fumes out their tailpipes like Chinese coal plants. Max’s own vintage Bronco is held together by second-hand parts and morning prayers. The lack of automotive glory and the knowledge that everyone on the street is handy with a baseball bat, crowbar or firearm keeps any trespassers at bay. After four years, the denizens have accepted Max, the young man who looks like he belongs anywhere else; he at least assumes they’ve accepted him since they no longer glare but simply ignore him. But if you’re not wearing the uniform of a postman, plumber, parole officer, welfare worker, electrician or telephone/cable repairman, prepare to suffer the Get-The-Fuck-Out glower. And even if you are appropriately attired, you’re going to at least get the Hurry-The-Fuck-Up vibe. On this stretch of road, minding your own business produces a state of grace.

Max hurries down into the cul-de-sac, a barely paved path really, its surface alternating between chipped asphalt and hard-pack. Blighted trees surround a secluded cottage and a line of blue collar singles, multi-bedroom saltboxes for extended families and studios for those who just want to be left alone. Max’s neighborhood maintains the proletariat traditions of Somerville’s history, removed from the rarefied environs of Tufts, Cambridge and Charlestown. It’s almost as if this one-way stretch of functional dwellings stands in defiance of the city’s recent “Best Run City” award from that elitist glory rag, The Boston Globe. Fuck any award given out by a New York-owned paper, right?

Doesn’t matter to Max one way or another. Rent’s in his ballpark and it’s close to the bus line into the city for work. And there’s a small driveway – really a small patch of dirt – next to the cottage so he doesn’t have to worry about parking restrictions or pissing off one of his neighbors by taking a space they’ve dug out after a blizzard. Tucked behind the trees, his home is out of sight, out of mind. He runs up and slips inside.

The living room is lit by a near-silent TV, the volume turned all the way down on an old black and white movie. Some detective thing – Max doesn’t have much patience for old movies, even less for new. Or music, books, art, dining out, virtually any pastime or hobby. Max prays for the day when he actually has time to kill.

“How was it?” a sleepy voice asks from the couch.

“How do you think?” He walks around and sits on the arm of the couch.

Roxanne peeks up. “Loud, crowded, hot and desperate.”

“I’ve no idea how you live in that place.”

“Why do you think I’m always willing to come over?” She sits up, her Suicide Girls shirt pulling up, exposing six-pack abs her clients at Healthworks gape at with envy. He finds himself staring a bit too long, remembers the Wanna Get High girl from the party and averts his gaze.

Jesus, what’s wrong with him?

Nothing, he recalls Scott telling him one time. Absolutely nothing. You’re a twenty-six year-old dude, not a Grecian castrati.

Roxanne shakes her hair, a short bob of red she highlights with streaks of purple. She slides into her ever-present pair of running shoes and zips up a form-fitting down vest. She pulls on a knit cap and kisses Max on the cheek as she passes him.

“Thanks, Rox,” he says, an apropos nickname for his fitness-freak friend.

She smiles over her shoulder, then stops, reading something on his face. “You okay, Morris?”

“Sure.”

She walks back over, taking his arm. “It’s what you wanted…right?”

She’s a little too close, and by “close” Max is considering her question. He meets her eyes, trying not to assess her own hidden need. It would be so easy. All he has to do is lean over to meet her lips. Just one night to indulge what might have been…

But that wouldn’t be fair to either of them.

“I’m good, Rox. You sure you don’t want to crash here, let the rager die out? I can drive you home in the morning.”

She summons a smile, his restraint her disappointment. “Don’t worry about me, Max.”

Max. A name she only uses when they’re at their most familiar, friends for nearly as long as Scott.

He nods. “Then run fast.”

“Always.”

She walks out the door. Max watches her through a smeared window. Head down, she breaks into a run as her sneakers hit asphalt.

He walks down the short hallway separating his room from the bathroom and a second door next to a shallow set of shelves holding bath towels. He cracks the door, knowing just when to stop before that rusted hinge releases its godawful howl. He waits for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. The bedroom is tiny, eight feet long and equally as wide. A twin bed is pushed into the corner, bears grinning on a faded blanket. Buried amidst the threadbare comfort sleeps Max’s daughter, Kelly. Only six years old, she’s lost in what he hopes is a happy dream.

Not too happy, so she won’t be too disappointed when she wakes up.

He slips inside and pulls the blanket up to her chin, feeling the urge to do anything in the world for her, literally anything at all: kill, murder, maim or die. It’s one of those moments when he yearns to be near her, wishes he could pick her up and run back to…

To where, Max? The old days are gone.

True, but things are about to change.

“It’s okay, baby. Everything’s going to be okay,” he says, kissing her lightly on the temple. He sits in the chair next to her bed, watching her sleep, exhaustion quickly overtaking his system.

YESTERDAY MORNING…

Max is losing his mind because it looks to be ten minutes earlier than last time he checked the clock. He signals Carla and she gives him a one-moment finger from inside her office. He taps a pencil nervously, earning a playful smile from Darlene, the teller next to him.

“A watched pot never boils, Maxwell,” she says.

Max loves Darlene. Everybody does. The de facto Mother Goose of the bank, Darlene takes an active interest in the personal lives of all her coworkers. Her husband’s heart gave out a few years ago and her adult children are focused on their own families now. Besieged by lonely hours, Darlene applied at the Bank of America in Copley Center and was hired despite the fact that her accounting experience dated back to the Regan administration. Yet Darlene’s skills returned quickly. She’s been offered management training but she repeatedly turns it down, choosing instead to work alongside the “young folks” like Max and Sonya, the aspiring stage actress at the other end of the counter.

Max is Darlene’s favorite. He knows this not because of the stares he catches her giving him (nothing salacious, just a gentle interest, and she doesn’t even avert her gaze when his eyes meet hers, just grins and goes back to whatever she’s doing). No, Max knows because Darlene inquires about Kelly all the time and after too much eggnog at last year’s Christmas party, she confessed how much she “admired” him, a man “so young” being such a “responsible father.” Max doesn’t need accolades but coming from someone as pure as Darlene, he appreciates her approval.

And yet Darlene also terrifies Max and produces an indescribable melancholy in him whenever he considers that he’s foreseeing his own destiny in her, a local damned to a living wage fate, soliciting happiness from the lives of others; a wanderer rather than an active participant, robbed of ambition. Max envies her calm resignation but there’s too much he wants to do with his life, a purpose unrealized.

Thus the source of his anxiety: today is the day, the one for which he’s been longing for and dreaming about for five long years. The first day of the rest of his life – Max doesn’t care for the platitude but right now, he appreciates its nugget of truth. All he has to do is get the hell out of here.

He glances at a photo on his workstation, his heart kicking up a beat. He stands and nods at Carla: right now, his eyes and straight-backed demeanor scream. He will not share Darlene’s fate. This job and the days preceding it are merely notches on a timeline he vows to push in an entirely new direction. He has plans, a journey to begin. Today is the launch date, T-minus as soon as freaking possible.

Carla marches her cheap polyester over to Max’s station. Coffee smells literally ooze out of every one of her pores. Still, despite her constant guzzling of Dunkin Donuts finest, she always seems half-asleep. It takes her a full ten minutes to recheck his drawer and then, finally, blessedly, he is buzzed out of the teller area – the “exercise yard” as Sonya calls it – and running for the exit.

“Good luck, honey,” Darlene calls out before happily greeting the owner of the café across Boylston with his daily deposits.

He waves to her as he backs out through the door.

Outside, protestors march, carrying signs against some new development project and its lack of affordable housing. He’s reminded there’s some real estate conglomerate in their building planning a new 500-unit luxury palace out on the Harbor that has the environmentalists and equal housing activists screaming in indignation. Max winds through the crowd. A man in a poncho tries to hand him a homemade pamphlet.

“How’s it feel to serve the slave drivers and exploiters ruining this country?”

Normally, Max might spare a second to remind this righteous asshole that just because he’s wearing a suit and tie doesn’t mean he’s part of the one-percent, but he doesn’t have the time or inclination today.

“I’m just trying to catch my bus, man.”

“And we just want a fair deal!”

“Amen, brother.”

Max gently but firmly moves the man out of his way and runs to his bus as it pulls up to the stop.

12:10 PM

Despite the autumn chill, Max breaks out in sweat as he runs up the sidewalk, his bus lumbering away in a gag of exhaust. The tangle of streets roars with the hum of mid-day traffic, but as he turns onto his street, a relative silence descends.

Max tries not to think about the big house in Newton he grew up in, the large lot and trimmed fauna that hosted a litany of childhood fantasies and footraces between him and his kid sister. People mythologize their youth, recalling only the good and the great, forgetting the struggle for maturity and the perceived freedom tantalizingly out of reach. Max has learned the hard way that it’s not emancipation that looms but separation, a distance from parents, teachers, coaches, instructors and the litany of the well-intentioned who educate and guide the young. Once those bonds are broken, they are gone, man, impossible to get back.

Every time he turns up his block, he understands a bit more of his parents’ blighted disappointment in him, even if he hasn’t forgiven them for it. He and Ashley were the showpieces of the Morris tribe until he strayed. Well, not so much strayed as detonated an A-bomb that didn’t just knock him off his destiny but destroyed the path utterly, rendering all of his parents’ expectations and planning obsolete. He can’t understand why, like him, they don’t just view the drastic change as a new path, less smooth but still fulfilling. The fall from the familial mantel upsets Max but the sting of his parent’s desertion has been outright devastating.

And yet he’d make all the same choices again with no hesitation.

Because of who is waiting for him inside his home.

And who will be rejoining them in a just a few precious hours.

 

12:29 PM

Roxanne taps her foot in impatience as Max runs in.

“I know,” he says.

“Then hurry,” she counters.

He darts into the small bathroom, banging his arm on the towel rod for the 10,000th time. He sheds his work clothes and runs a hand over the scruff on his chin, which grows at faster than light speed compared to that on his cheeks. He pulls a fresh disposable from a bag of razors, wanting the cleanest possible look. He even splurged a little and bought some aftershave from the discount pharmacy on the corner.

“I’ll get her ready,” Roxanne says, walking down the short hallway. “Kelly, Daddy’s home!”

Max hears Roxanne open the back door on his daughter’s bedroom. He imagines Kelly looking up from one of her art projects, positively unexcited at the trip ahead of her. She’s a precocious child, her sensitivity breeding an inward shyness – even borderline distrust – of the world at large. She’s been more withdrawn these last couple days, picking up on Max’s tense excitement. They’ve talked about today’s events ad nauseum but it’s still a big change, world-altering to someone so young. Kelly needs time to adjust but Max is certain her natural apprehension will quickly fade away in the wake of newfound joy. It must; he doesn’t know if he has the strength for any more setbacks.

He finishes shaving and slaps on the cheap aftershave, hissing as alcohol burns his skin. He sprays on a fresh coat of deodorant and steps into the hall, all smiles for his little girl.

“You ready, honey?” he asks excitedly, as if they’re on their way to Disneyland.

Kelly stares down at an unfinished drawing, moody about their forthcoming adventure despite the forced merriment of the adults smiling down at her. She nods, stores her drawing on top of the others and leads the way out.

 

12:41 PM

You should have said something.

Of course she should have said something. Roxanne’s friends and mother have been chiding her to speak up for years. But Roxanne hoped her actions would proclaim her devotion more clearly than words. A foolish assumption, she sees now. It’s a strange irony – the more she helped Max, the more she insured she would never be part of his life; not to the degree she desired. Max’s fidelity forever belongs to another.

Roxanne carries Kelly out to a beat-up Ford Bronco and belts her in the rear car seat. The little girl’s dark eyes peer out at her, immeasurably bummed.

“What’s with the pout, scout?” Roxanne chimes, trying to make light of a situation that is equally depressing the shit out of her. “I’m gonna see you tomorrow night.”

“Can’t you come with us?”

“No. This is just for you and Daddy and…” Roxanne can’t even complete the sentence. She forces another smile.

“I’m scared,” Kelly whispers.

“There’s nothing to be scared of.”

“What if she doesn’t like me?”

Something heavy drops in Roxanne’s gut because she’s been wondering the same thing.

“Now who wouldn’t love a little rugrat like you?” Roxanne says, tickling Kelly’s middle.

The little girl, though, isn’t so easily pacified. She angles her gaze into her lap. Roxanne kisses her tenderly on the cheek then shuts the door before Kelly sees the dejection welling up.

Max hurries out. Roxanne rubs her eyes, anticipating the inevitable waterworks that will be unleashed the second he pulls out of the driveway.

He gives her a friendly peck. “Thanks, Roxanne.”

She nods through a forced grin as he climbs behind the wheel. She wants to say so much but how can she confess anything at this of all moments when she’s remained silent all these years? Max must see behind the façade, struggling for something profound to say but instead gives her arm a lame squeeze.

“Tell her I said welcome home,” Roxanne says.

He closes the door and drives off.

Roxanne waits until they are out of sight then sprints back inside the house, tears stinging her cheeks.

1:13 PM

Max parks the Bronco. He checks himself in the mirror and sees Kelly slumbering in the back seat. He exits the truck quietly, taking in the surroundings. At the end of the block, a busy rotary churns with cars and small delivery vehicles. The fields of green and rugged trees are stunning. If not for the incongruity before him, the verdant setting might serve as a photo spread for a travel pamphlet. Then he reads the sign, dashing any such impressions:

SUFFOLK COUNTY WOMEN’S CORRECTIONAL FACILITY

The large prison is the real deal: high walls, guard towers, razor wire, abandon all hope at the curb. Max imagines thousands of eyes staring out at him, probably wondering who the lanky guy is driving the shitbox SUV. A car passes, two young ladies in the front seat glancing out at him. One smiles in an appreciative manner. He wonders if either of them has just been paroled.

Max is used to the stares, realizes he’s been physically blessed with attractive features and a metabolism that keeps unwanted sag from his bones. He tries not to acknowledge the occasional frustration he feels at being twenty-six and unable to explore the flirtatious vibes on a rare night out in Boston. His libido yearns for satisfaction, but his dedication countermands any ardent inkling. If unrequited love from a cherished friend like Roxanne isn’t enough to dissuade Max, appreciation from random girls doesn’t stand a chance of subverting his commitment.

Roxanne. What to do about her. He feels guilty calling on her friendship to help with Kelly. She’s been boldly auditioning for the part of mother as well as lover. It eats at him to ask for her support and offer nothing but friendship in return. What’s even worse, the affinity between his daughter and Roxanne will now be modified, their time compromised by another.

A loud buzz draws Max out of his rumination. A metal door at the end of a fenced corridor leading from the prison slides open. Max runs to the truck and gently nudges Kelly awake. He hears footsteps clopping on the pavement, crossing the street. Max leads Kelly around the Bronco pulling up at the sight of Marisa Cooper standing in the middle of the access road.

A tiny breath escapes him. He’s been visiting her once a week for over five years but seeing her out in the free world brings all of her stunning features into sharp relief. One look at Marisa and it’s easy to see where Kelly gets her exotic coloring and lush hair. Even against the backdrop of a prison, carrying a ratty knapsack, dressed in the rugged gear she wore the day she went in – leather jacket, jeans, boots, workshirt – Marisa is still the most beautiful woman Max has ever laid eyes upon.

“Hi,” he says.

“Hey.”

He steps around Kelly and gives Marisa a kiss. She holds onto him for a second, closing her eyes then opening them, as if to make sure that he’s in fact real.

“How are you?” he asks.

“Out of there.”

“Yeah.” He smiles at Kelly. “Say hello to Mommy, honey.”

Kelly remains rooted in place.

“Kelly, we talked about this.”

She clings to his pants, remaining partly behind his legs.

“Kelly—”

“It’s okay, Max,” Marisa says, risking a crooked smile at Kelly. “We got plenty of time to catch up, right?”

Kelly just stares in response.

Max furrows an apology at Marisa but she shakes it off, trying to pretend like it’s no big deal. She walks over to the Bronco.

“I’ve been dying to drive,” she says. “You mind?”

“Not at all.” He tosses her the keys and walks Kelly back to the truck.

“I’m sorry, Daddy,” she murmurs.

Max secures his daughter in the car seat and kisses her. “It’s okay, baby.”

4:30 PM

Max’s picnic consists of pre-cooked wonders from Whole Foods: macaroni salad, pizza, lemonade for Kelly, wine for the adults. Marisa pours more Valpolicella into a plastic cup. She’s downing the stuff, her first drops of alcohol in five years but it appears like she still enjoys the constitution of a linebacker. He calls it quits after two cups, thinking of the drive home. Kelly nibbles at a pepperoni slice and sips lemonade, nearly mute, answering questions with shrugs and one-word answers. On any other day, Max would chide her for being rude but today he bites it back. Marisa’s re-entry into her daughter’s life is going to take time.

After lunch, Kelly drifts away to pick dandelions.

“I should have brought her to see you,” Max says by way of apology.

“No, we did the right thing. I didn’t want her to see me in there. I didn’t want anyone to see me in there”

An ice cream truck pulls up in the parking lot, children running over. Kelly eyes the scene with guarded interest.

Marisa follows her gaze, shielding the sun with one hand. “Do you, uh…?”

“Yeah, sure.” He hands her some bills.

Marisa steps over to Kelly, making sure not to crush any dandelions. “Kelly, you want an ice cream?”

Kelly looks up, cautious, mother and daughter total strangers. She peeks at Max, who nods, his grin plastered on. Kelly falls in line behind Marisa, never coming too close, ten feet behind her mother the whole way, periodically looking back at Max, as if to make sure he’s still there. He gives her a dorky wave, wishing it was six months from now after this awkward stage.

Six months, Max? Is that all it takes to restart a family?


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Matt Mars has been writing professionally for over a decade, working for outlets as diverse as the L.A. Times, book and film review sites and mental health periodicals. He currently has two films and a TV pilot in production. While he doesn't live on Mars, sometimes he feels like he was born there. EBONY DAWN is his first novel.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
A lifetime love of great pulp and thriller novels, fueled by direct experience with true crime stories. While this is a work of fiction, many of the elements are (unfortunately) inspired by real-life events.
Q. What books have influenced your life the most?
A.
The Stand - Stephen King To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving A Cool Breeze on the Underground - Don Winslow The Choirboys - Joseph Wambaugh
Q. Why do you write?
A.
All of the alternatives suck.

Next in:
Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
GOLD FROM ETHER /novel/
The method of extracting gold from ether.
Heart-Beat
What would you do before your life ends?
Bad Money
Murder and mayhem in the name of justice