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The guy was a drug dealer and a pimp. He wore a nice suit, but other than that, how was he different than any of the pieces of shit who sold to Mom or turned out the girls in the neighborhood? He wasn’t.

I fucking missed, too. I was aiming for his head, but my hand shook, and I shot him in the neck. The bullet ripped a huge chunk of flesh and muscle clean off his spine and blood spurted three feet in the air.

Lucca sprinted backwards, laughing his ass off, while Tomas stood there, arms crossed, glowering while he got splattered like a contestant in a kid’s game show. They’re both fucking nuts.

I shake off the flashback and focus on the task at hand. It’s almost one in the morning, and I told Bernie I’d be at the shop by one thirty. I had to pay him two hundred bucks up front just to be there, and I have no doubt if I don’t show, he’ll bail without a second thought. He thinks I’m nuts.

He’s not wrong. I pad down the Graziano’s driveway, avoiding the range of the ring camera, and hold the booster up to the door handle of Zita’s SUV. When she’s mine, she’s not driving a vehicle with keyless entry. No fucking way.

I put the vehicle in neutral and push it to the street, half in and half out the driver’s seat.

When I get far enough, but still within range of the fob, I use the booster to start the car. The upholstery smells like her—vanilla and shampoo and expensive girly shit. She’s got a hair band twisted around the shift lever and a pair of sunglasses clipped on the sun visor. A Saint Christopher’s medal hangs from the rearview mirror.

For the first time since last night, I feel like I can breathe.

The streets are empty this time of night, and I drive the speed limit. I’ve watched dumbasses get busted for being stupid my whole life. Carrying a glass pipe through security at the stadium. Shooting up behind the convenience store dumpsters where the cops pull in when they want to call their girlfriends. I’m not going down for being stupid.

An image flashes in my brain, blood gushing from a neck like water from a busted hydrant.

I turn the radio on. Pop music blares from the speakers. It’s awful, but I let it play.

On the surface, Zita and I don’t have anything in common. She doesn’t cheerlead, but she’s that type. She likes that music, wears those clothes, hangs out with football players and kids on student council.

I don’t mind. She can be who she is. I don’t want her to be like me. I’m a piece of shit.

I want her to be happy, no worries, but even though she hides it, I know it’s not like that. I don’t know what puts the shadows in her eyes, but one day, I’ll kill whatever does it.

I know that about myself now. I can kill. I didn’t know before. Not for sure. But I do now.

I cross the bridge and head down Central to my part of town. Zita’s SUV is out of place here, not that there aren’t plenty of luxury vehicles, but they’re all twenty years old, keyed down the side, or souped up with tinted windows, doomed to be repossessed.

I turn down High Street and pull straight into the open bay at Bernie’s. The lights are on, and he comes out of the back, scrubbing his face. I woke him up.

I drive onto the lift and hop out.

“You gonna turn it off?” Bernie asks, sniffing and shaping the brim of his hat as he clears his head.

“Can’t. It turns off, I can’t turn it back on. Key fob is too far away now.”

Bernie shakes his head. “Fucking keyless entry.”

I nod in agreement.

“Just an oil change and tire rotation?” he asks.

“Yeah. And you can put a new filter in.”

Bernie grunts and gets to work. He doesn’t ask any more questions. He doesn’t work for the Renellis, but he’s an associate, and he’s from the neighborhood. He understands.

He can’t help himself, though, when he’s finished and wiping his hands on his stained jeans. “How do you own a vehicle like this and not change the oil?”

I nod, but I don’t fault Zita. Except me, no one’s looking out for her. Not her family, not her so-called boyfriend.

Sometimes it’s like a fire inside me, burning my guts, how far away I am from what I want, how he gets to fucking touch her whenever he wants. I lay in bed and stare at the flaking ceiling and think about just stealing her. Grabbing her and just driving until we hit the ocean.

Making her happy with what money? Protecting her with what?

The scent of gunfire sparks in my memory. I’m closer now. Tomorrow, next week, I’ll be closer still.

I hand Bernie an extra twenty for his silence, and for keeping his word, and then I drive back across the river to the nice houses in the nice neighborhoods where Renelli and the other bad guys live.

Lucca wants to take him out. He doesn’t come out and say it, but I’ve been around him long enough now, and I see the pattern in the moves he makes, the favors he collects, the animosities he fans. He’s biding his time, but eventually, he’ll make his move. Graziano is Renelli’s right hand.

I can’t waste time daydreaming about escaping to the coast. I have to be in place when that shit goes down. I have to be ready so that none of it blows back on Zita.

Another memory flashes across my brain—a hand grasping for a neck, the neck already gone, and then the whole body thudding to the floor, not a person anymore. Just meat.

I don’t force the image away. I let it stay there, let my mind dwell on it until it becomes background. Wallpaper. I focus on the road. I indicate my turn in good time. I don’t speed up to make the yellow light.

Minute by minute, I make myself into what I need to become.

When I get back to Zita’s house, it’s three in the morning. It’s harder to get the vehicle back in place than it was to take it. The driveway is on an incline. I really have to put my back into it.

I’m about to head off when I notice the light’s still on in Zita’s room upstairs. Tony Senior has the lights out back on a motion detector, so I do what I’ve done before. I jog around the block to the old lady whose property backs up to the Graziano’s. There’s a big ass tree along the fence.

I pull myself up to a high branch easily. First time I climbed a tree, it was this one, maybe three years ago. I sat up here all night long, nursing a busted lip, hiding from my dad and watching Zita’s window. I didn’t see shit, but it was a place to be alone, peaceful and quiet.

Tonight, her shades are open. She must be on that bike. She rides it at all hours. Maybe that’s how she deals with her stress.

I lean against the trunk and draw a knee to my chest. There’s a fence and a wall between us, but if there weren’t, she’d be close enough that I could hear her voice if she spoke.

She doesn’t talk much, but if you’re not paying attention, you wouldn’t notice. People don’t think of her as shy, maybe since she belongs to all the clubs, and she’s always listening and nodding, but she’s as shy as I am.

She doesn’t let people in either. Not even that boyfriend. Whenever he leaves, her shoulders ease like she’s letting out of breath. The faint lines at the corner of her mouth disappear.

It’d be easy to hate him, but I won’t let myself. He’s safe for her. For now. He’s weak, but the other guys stay away because of him. They’re weak, too.

I’m not. Not anymore.

I watch the window and listen to the crickets, letting my mind drift.

And then, when my eyes have grown so heavy that I’m on the verge of letting them close, just for second, she comes to the window. Her hair is up in a high ponytail. She’s sweaty and flushed.

She opens the window and tugs her T-shirt to cool herself off. She must’ve been on her bike.

And then, without warning, she peels the shirt off and tosses it on the floor. My throat clenches.

Her belly is paler than her arms. Her black sports bra flattens her tits, but they still spill over the top, round and smooth and fucking perfect.

My dick is instantly rock hard. I drop my legs over the side of the branch like that’d get me closer.

She slowly turns in place. She’s letting the night wind cool her skin.

I can’t breathe.

Her fingers go to the bottom clasp at the front of the bra.

She’s gonna take it off.

I glance around wildly, but the neighborhood is dark. The Graziano’s fence is high. She doesn’t think anyone can see.

A feeling like panic beats in my chest.

She undoes the next clasp.

She’s going to show me. Oh, God.

I want to see, more than anything. I want it so bad, and I have it coming to me, don’t I, after what I did? I earned it. All the fucking ugliness, I deserve something beautiful.

She undoes the final clasp—

“Fuck,” I mutter as I screw my eyes shut.

Somehow, I swing myself down from the tree and land on my feet without twisting my ankle. I walk myself out of the old lady’s yard, down the street, away from Zita’s house, my limbs so heavy it feels like I’m wearing a suit of armor.

The further I get, the more certain my step becomes, the straighter my spine.

One day, she’ll strip her top off while I watch, and she’ll know my eyes are on her, and she’ll feel exactly what I feel.

One day, I won’t walk away from her for anything.

Until then, I’m going to keep her safe, from everything that could hurt her, whether she knows it or not.

From this fucking ugly world.

And from myself.

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