The kid is terrified. Good. He’s staring at a forty caliber semi-automatic that’s pointed straight at his chest. He should be terrified. And all his fancy Ivy League courses—and all his family’s fancy Ivy League lawyers—aren’t going to help him now.
“You’re—you’re Officer Nocelotl, right? Am I, uh, pronouncing that right?”
“Just plain Nicolás is fine.” I keep my voice level. “This isn’t official business. Hands in the air, please.”
I shrug. “I’m way off my turf. And you’re not wanted for anything, remember? Not even vehicular manslaughter.”
“So—so this is personal.”
It’s not a question, but I nod anyway.
“How did you find me?”
I cock my head at him. “Did you think I wouldn’t be able to hunt you down? Put your hands in the air.”
He swallows and stares straight at me. I have to give him credit—he ought to be shitting himself by now.
“Tyler, put those hands up.”
He finally obeys me. “Am I a dead man?”
Good question. “Turn around and put your hands against the wall of the cabin.”
“Listen, my friends are right inside—”
“You think I didn’t do my homework? You needed a place to stay while you recovered from your, uh, ordeal. Your cousin volunteered her vacation spot. Maybe she offered to stay with you, too. Or maybe some of your friends did. But you wanted to be alone.”
Part of that I know for sure. The rest is a guess—but it works. He looks at me as if I’m omniscient. Those baby blues of his are wide and frightened as he turns and puts his hands against the wall.
“Good boy.” I pat him down. I know he’s not armed, but I’m looking for his cell phone. It’s in the front right pocket of his jeans. I pull it out with my free hand and stuff it inside my jacket. “Now walk toward my car. If you keep behaving, I won’t cuff you.”
He doesn’t move. “If—if you’re only going to kill me, can’t you do it here?”
I look him over. He’s a pretty thing. Too skinny, but not bad apart from that. But he looks shallow—like there’s no substance to him. He must have guts, though. He’s showing them now. Either that, or he feels so guilty that he wants to die. “Right now, Tyler, we’re just going for a ride.”
I opt for honesty. “My apartment. Whether I kill you or not, I want you to see it. So you going to behave?”
He nods. Slowly.
“Good. Now get moving.”
“I’m sorry about what happened to your friend.” Tyler stares at me from the shotgun seat. “More sorry than I can ever tell you.”
I force myself to keep my eyes on the road. The kid won’t try anything—partly because he’s cowed and partly because he seems to think that talking to me is his best chance at staying alive.
“Gabe,” I correct. “His name was Gabe.”
“I know his name. I—” He breaks off. “You’re right. I shouldn’t avoid it. I’m so sorry for what happened to Gabe. For what—for what I did to him. But I swear, it was an accident.”
“Oh, I know it was an accident. But you know what wasn’t?” I glance at him. “You getting into that driver’s seat while under the influence. Your family hiring lawyers who managed to get you off with community service.” I laugh. “Funny, isn’t it? Gabe is dead, and you? You’re picking up trash along the side of the road every Saturday.”
He shakes his head. “It’s not—it’s not funny. And it’s not right. I know that.”
He’s talking like his acknowledgment makes everything okay.
“Was he more than just a friend?” The cautious tone of his voice makes his insinuation clear.
That’s a hell of a chance to take with an unhinged cop. But he probably has a decent gaydar. “Of course not. I’m a cop—I have a reputation to maintain. Think I’d ever be man enough to admit to a boyfriend?”
Somehow he’s undaunted. “So you two were together, just not out?”
“I don’t know what to say. Look, I can’t even imagine—”
“No, you can’t.” I grind my teeth together. “So shut up and stop trying.”
It’s almost two hours between the cabin in Pikes County, Pennsylvania, and my apartment in Hudson County, New Jersey. Tyler manages to keep quiet for about half of it.
“What do you do when you’re not working?” His voice is oddly polite.
So he’s going with harmless small talk. “Hiking, camping, fishing, hunting.”
“Hunting?” Apparently he doesn’t find that harmless. His face is pale, anyway.
“Yeah. Usually deer hunts, not manhunts. I just made an exception for you.”
“Did you—did you mean to kill me right away when you found me?”
“No. I didn’t know if I was going to kill you or not. But either way, I wanted you to see this place first.”
I pull into my parking spot—the one reserved for my apartment. It’s a Tuesday afternoon. Kids are in school and most adults are at work. But this is a crowded, almost urban town. There are always people around.
I turn off the car and turn to face the kid. “Now, if you have any brains, you’ll call out for help.”
He opens his mouth, like maybe he’ll agree, but then shakes his head. “You’re not going to hurt me.”
Idiot. Even after killing another human being in a car wreck, he still thinks he’s invincible. “You don’t know that.”
He looks down at his hands. “If you shoot me in your apartment, you’ll be caught.”
“Fuck, Tyler, I’m already unbalanced enough to kidnap you at gunpoint. And I’ve already—” I break off for a deep breath. “I’ve already lost the one person who made my life worth living. What makes you think I care whether I’m caught?”
His eyes shoot back to mine, but he doesn’t say anything.
“Last chance. Get out now and start running. I won’t even chase you.”
But Tyler shakes his head. “I want to see your apartment.”
Does he have serious balls or just a death wish? I roll my eyes. Maybe it’s a little bit of both.
Tyler looks around in surprise. “This is—this is not what I expected.”
I try to see the place through his eyes. Good hardwood floors. A few solid pieces of hand-crafted furniture that Gabe and I built together. The whole place is decent but sparse, including the bare walls. Well, bare except for the fresh coat of paint and the pictures of me, Gabe and our families.
There’s this one picture in particular. It’s just of me and Gabe, back when I dragged him along with me to go skeet shooting. A friend snapped the photo: I was firing and Gabe was observing with this priceless expression on his face. It gets across both his devotion to me and his total disapproval of firearms.
Tyler is staring at that picture too. I guess he followed my eyes.
He studies it for a long moment and then turns back to me. “Gabe didn’t like skeet shooting? Or he didn’t like guns?”
“He didn’t like either. He was a hardcore pacifist—he couldn’t even stand to see clay discs blown apart.”
Tyler quirked an eyebrow at me. “But he was dating a cop?”
“Yeah, well. He gave up on consistency.”
That draws a smile from the kid. I know at that moment that he groks Gabe. And I also know that, whatever happens, I’m not going to kill him. Hell, maybe I knew that all along. But I still needed him to see this. I needed him to understand that the person he took away can never be replaced.
Besides, beating the crap out of him is still on the table.
“Is Gabe the one who wanted to keep your place so sparse?”
I chew on that as I walk over to the closet to put my gun away and lock it up. “We’re both kind of born minimalists. For me, it’s because I don’t like a lot of stuff weighing me down. For him, it’s this big anti-consumerism political statement.” I look back at him. “I mean, it was.”
Tyler’s eyes cloud with guilt. He looks away from me, turning back to the picture. “Interesting. At first glance, you two seem such opposites. But I guess underneath that you had some kind of core in common. More than just minimalism, I bet.”
“Yeah.” I think about those differences as I finish putting the gun away. “He was this nice white Jewish boy. His great grandparents came here from Poland when they were little, so his family’s been here for a while. I’m this first-generation Mexican-American mestizo—”
“Mestizo? Ah, is that a PC term?”
I grunt. “Fuck if I know. Gabe could’ve told you. Anyway, I’m into fitness and the outdoors—running and hiking and all that. He liked to take it easy. You can see he was a little chubby, but it looked cute on him, you know?”
He nods. “It did.”
“And he was smart. Ivy League smart, like you. Me—I didn’t even go to college. Now they like new cops to have criminal justice degrees and all this crap, but back when I joined the force, nobody cared. You learned everything you needed to know at the Police Academy.”
Tyler gives me a weird look. “There are lots of ways of being smart.”
I close the closet door and lean against it. “Don’t give me the ‘multiple intelligences’ bullshit. You know what I mean.”
He smiles and lets it drop.
“Anyway, he was an activist; I hate politics. But we both had that minimalism thing going. And we’re both into history and documentaries. That’s all we’d watch on TV, apart from the news. And we were—we were good together.”
“I can tell.”
I close my eyes for a few seconds, remembering. When I open them, I look Tyler over. “You got a drinking problem?”
“No.” His eyes start watering. “I—look, when I got into that car under the influence . . . it was a stupid mistake. I was at this party, and—”
“Relax, man.” I don’t want to listen to his explanations. “I was just going to ask if you wanted a beer.”
Tyler’s a surprisingly good listener. And he’s not even trying to placate a crazy guy anymore. He seems confident that I won’t hurt him. It’s still a volatile situation, though, which he’d know if he had any common sense. But of course he doesn’t. The smart ones never do.
I take a gulp from my bottle. “We were out to the people who mattered. That’s how I justified it. Most of our family knew, plus some close friends.”
“But not the guys on the force?”
“No.” I stretch out my legs. We’re both sitting on the living room floor, leaning back against opposite chairs. “No. I didn’t have the guts for that. I didn’t tell them till Gabe was dead.”
“How’d they react?”
“Some of them didn’t care. Some got weird around me. Everyone managed to say something sympathetic.” I take another gulp. “Doesn’t much matter now.”
Tyler leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Why not?”
“I’ll be off the force soon. If you don’t call the police yourself—or the FBI; I took you across state lines—then I’ll resign.”
He looks stricken. I don’t know why. Unlike mine, his future is still intact. “You shouldn’t resign. I mean, not unless that’s something you really want. I promise you, I won’t call the cops or the FBI.”
I put my bottle down. “A guy who’s deranged enough to kidnap someone at gunpoint shouldn’t be a cop anymore.”
“But you didn’t hurt me.” His eyes are intense. “And I want to be here. And I want to know more about Gabe.”
“Yeah? What more do you want to know?”
“Anything you want to tell me.”
I stare at him. I stare at him for a while. But then I shrug. “Fine. I’ll tell you about his death.”
Gabe was alive, conscious and in stable condition when I got to the hospital. His mom hugged me in the waiting room and then sent me straight to him. His dad was with him, but he went for a walk so we could have some privacy.
His eyes lit up when he saw me, even though his face was so battered and bruised that he could hardly even smile.
“So glad you’re here.” His voice was just a little more than a whisper.
“Oh, baby.” I leaned over him to brush my lips against his before I took the seat next to his bed. At that moment, I didn’t care who saw us.
“Don’t worry about my face. All from the airbag.”
“They said you’re going to be okay.”
“Yeah. They patched me up good.”
“God, I’m going to kill that stupid kid—”
He laughed. It came out as a weird wheezing sound. “No, you’re not.”
“He was drunk. Did you know that? He was drunk when he got behind the wheel of his car.”
“Due process. You’re a cop, re—remember?” He was having trouble forming words. “Nic, you do something—something for me?”
“Yeah. Anything. Well, anything except jump on your pacifist band wagon.”
He laughed again, and then he groped for my hand. I laced my fingers through his.
My mouth fell open. Fuck. I should have seen this coming.
“Had to ask now. Now—now you can’t say no.”
It was my turn to laugh. “No, I can’t.”
“It’s legal here now.”
I tightened my grip on his hand. “So yes, I’ll marry you, you fucking manipulative bastard.”
He laughed and wheezed again. “I know you’re worried `bout the force. But—but I think they know.”
“Yeah, well.” I was half smiling and half sighing. “It’s one thing for there to be rumors, you know? It’s something else for me to say it. I’m a coward about this. You know that.”
“Not a coward.” He squeezed my hand. “This is real, right? Will happen?”
“Yeah. As long as the drugs don’t make you forget this conversation.”
“Fuck you. I won’t forget.”
I smiled down at him. “Okay. It’s for real, then.”
He let go of my hand. “Want to sleep, okay?”
“Make sure my parents—they need rest. You too.”
I brushed a stray curl off his forehead. “Night, baby. I’ll see you soon.”
“I don’t understand.” Tyler looks devastated. You’d think he was the one who lost somebody. “You said he was in stable condition when you got there.”
I reach for the bottle. “He was.”
“But then—what happened?”
“They called it a pulmonary embolism. Apparently blood clots are a risk with even minor procedures. His traveled and blocked the fuck out of an artery in his lung.” I pause for another swallow. “It happened that night, while I was in the waiting room. I never got to talk to him again.”
“Oh my God.”
“You can call me Nic. Only my grandmother calls me Nicolás.”
He sucks in a lungful of air. “I’m sorry. I don’t—I’m so sorry, Nic. I never wanted—”
I snort, cutting him off. “Yeah, you’re sorry. But you know what? Gabe is still dead.”
Tyler closes his eyes for a moment, like he’s mustering his courage. When he opens them, he looks me right in the face. “What do you want me to do?”
I stare down at the bottle for a moment and then shake my head. “There’s nothing you can do, Tyler.” I meet his eyes. “That’s the whole point of this. Gabe is dead. You can’t fix this. You can’t make it better.”
He just stares at me. I’m usually good at reading people, but this time I can’t figure out what he’s thinking. But why the fuck should I care?
I stand up and look around for my jacket. It was on the chair behind me. I fished Tyler’s phone out of the pocket and tossed it to him. “If you want to call the police or the FBI, go ahead. Tell them I hunted you down and forced you into my car. I won’t deny any of it. If not, you can get some extra blankets from the closet over there and crash on the couch. I’ll bring you back to the cabin tomorrow.”
He’s still staring at me, but I don’t bother waiting for a response. I just turn on my heel and make my way to bed.
I dream of Gabe. He’s laughing—he had this great laugh, pure joy without any self-consciousness. We used to roll around in our king-sized bed, naked and sweating, playfully wrestling against each other until I trapped him beneath me. I would tease him about how he was my favorite prey. About how I’d set out to capture him back when he was so skittish and uncertain around me. Then I’d nip his neck to remind him how good he tasted.
He felt so good when he was trapped under me. I would brush my lips against his, savoring the way they were just a little chapped. Savoring the way his damp hair smelled kind of citrusy from his shampoo. Then I’d press my lips against his cheek, his chin, his chest . . . I would work my way down, torturing him with my tongue.
He would wrap his arms around me and smack my ass, like he was punishing me for taking my sweet time. I’d run my hands along his love handles because—fuck, they were part of him. I loved them as much as I loved the rest of him.
It was so easy for us to find our rhythm. But without him—nothing. No release, no matter what I do with my hand. No matter how much I pretend he’s right here. Even though I can see that gentle, satisfied smirk of his. Even though I can smell that fancy soap he liked.
I’m awake now. And my eyes are watering. No. No fucking way. I held it together all this time since his death. I didn’t cry at his funeral. I didn’t even cried while I sat shiva with his family. So why now?
Fuck, I can’t stop. I’m crying and gulping and—shit, I think I just shouted Gabe’s name. But still nothing. I’m just hard and raw and bruised.
My bedroom door opens. God damn that kid. I roll over to tell him to get the fuck out if he doesn’t want me to beat his face in. But I can’t even see him. My eyes are too blurry.
Suddenly there are arms around me. I ball my hands into fists, but then—but then I just let them drop. A second later, somehow my face is buried in Tyler’s lap and he’s stroking my hair and my back as I sob and whisper Gabe’s name over and over, like it’s some kind of talisman.
I don’t remember the moment when I push myself up and resettle in the bed, facing away from Tyler. But the idiot has the chutzpah to curl up to my back and wrap an arm around me.
I should break away—but I’m too fucking desperate for any touch that’s not my own. Maybe it’ll be easier this way. Easier to pretend that this is Gabe.
That doesn’t work. Tyler’s all wrong. His whole body is too scrawny. And his fingers are too long and too slender. Too unfamiliar. But somehow through all the gulps and tears and exhaustion I find my release.
I roll away from him right afterward. He has the brains to keep his distance.
I don’t talk much on the way back to the cabin. I don’t need to. Tyler chatters enough for both of us—a half nervous, half thoughtful kind of chatter, if that makes sense.
He waits till I pull into the long driveway before he looks me in the eye. “Please don’t leave the police force.”
“I haven’t decided what to do about that.”
“Well, don’t quit because of what happened with us. With the gun, I mean. You were grieving, you were—”
“Unhinged.” I shake my head. “Don’t worry. I’m going to sit on the decision for a bit.”
“Okay.” He takes a deep breath, widening his baby blues. “I know I can’t fix this. But if I can ever do anything for you—anything—well, I left all my info back at your apartment, on your kitchen counter. Not that you couldn’t find it anyway, but . . . .”
“I’m never going to call you, Tyler.”
“Okay.” He looks away from me. I can’t tell if he’s upset or relieved. Or both.
“You can get out of the car now.”
He swallows. “I just want you to know that I—that maybe I can become part of some pacifist movement. You know, on Gabe’s behalf.”
I stare at him for a long moment. I can’t decide if I’m touched or if I want to smack him upside the head. “Look, you can’t take his place, okay? Get this through your head: you can’t fix this. So just do—do whatever it is you think you’re supposed to do with your life. And make it something worthwhile. That’s what Gabe would tell you if he were here.”
“Okay.” He nods at me, over and over. “Okay. I’ll try.”
“Good. Now get out of my car.”
He obeys me. I watch him walk up to the cabin. I watch him fish out his keys, open the door and step inside. I watch him give me one last glance and half a wave before he shuts the door behind him.
I sigh and start backing out of the driveway. I’ve got a long road in front of me.
Special Note: Originally published as The Long Ride Home in a collection of stories called Counter Offer under my pen name Miri Thompson.