* Bullet Number Two *
Hawley hadn’t been in the desert since his mother died. That was four years ago. The hospital had tracked him down with the news and he’d taken the bus, all the way from Cheyenne to Phoenix. The police made him identify her body in the morgue. The place was dank and cold compared to the heat outside and smelled of chemicals and bleach. He stood underneath the fluorescent lights and they rolled his mother out of a drawer in the wall.
She’d been dead for more than two weeks, and her body was absolutely still, like an animal run over on the side of the road. Her face had sunken in and most of her teeth were gone, but she still had that square chin and those long delicate fingers, the ones he remembered running through his hair in the dark when he was a kid. He buried her alone in a cemetery near the hospital. Then he’d taken the bus back to Cheyenne.
The past four years had been good to Hawley and he had a car of his own now, an old Ford Flareside. He’d bought it on his twenty-fifth birthday with cash and he enjoyed opening up the engine on the highway, the windows rolled down and the blazing heat channeling in, the sand blowing through his hair and the red cliffs layering hues in the distance. Behind his seat was a 20 gauge Remington shot gun, a 9 mm Baretta revolver, a Sig Sauer pistol, a crossbow tire iron, his father’s rifle from the war and seven thousand dollars.
He’d gotten a postcard from Jove, who was working outside Flagstaff at an Indian casino. Jove still had dreams of buying a boat and sailing it up the Hudson, but he also had a bad habit of burning through his money fast. Now he had an angle for ripping off the casino, and he’d asked Hawley if he wanted in.
It was night by the time Hawley crossed over into Arizona. He took route 191 to 160 and after an hour or more he was the only car for miles. When he looked in the rear view it was nothing but blackness and when he looked out the windshield it was nothing but blackness and all he saw was to the end of his own headlights beaming into the dark. An hour later he was in the middle of a dust storm, tumbleweeds flashing past, sometimes hitting the grate and getting caught under the body of the truck. The wind swept down in gusts, shimmying his Ford off the road. It was late and his eyes were already bleary and now he had to struggle with the wheel to keep his tires straight.
After a long while of this he saw a light ahead, a motel standing all by itself at the cross roads. He pulled into the parking lot and got a room. The guy at the desk was a Navajo Indian. He was wearing a red bowling shirt with a white collar and a pair of pins embroidered over the heart. Behind the desk was a back room and Hawley saw another Navajo and a freckled guy at a table playing cards. They looked like they’d been going all night, empty bottles of beer lined up on the floor and ashtrays full.
“You’re big blind,” the man with the freckles called out.
“Just take it from my stack,” said the guy at the desk. “Want to join us?” he asked Hawley.
The men at the table leaned forward in their chairs. The other Navajo gave Hawley the once over and returned to his beer. But the one with the freckles kept staring. He had hair the color of motor oil, and marks that blossomed across his face and neck like a rash. There was something about those freckles that made Hawley’s stomach ache.
“What’s the game?”
Hawley was tempted. He hadn’t held cards in nearly a week. He watched as the man with the freckles reached over, grabbed some chips from the desk guy’s pile and threw them in the center of the table. The man’s wrists were covered with homemade tattoos, the kind done in prison. One was a snake with seven heads that disappeared up his sleeve, the other was the number 187, the section of the California penal code for murder. The ink was still fresh. The edges had not faded.
The Navajo slid a key across the counter.
“Thanks,” said Hawley. “I’ll pass.”
He made his way back to the truck, pulling his shirt over his face to keep the sand out of his eyes, then drove around the back of the building and pulled into the parking spot with his room number spray painted on the asphalt. He climbed the stairs to the second floor landing, carrying his bag full of guns and the money, which he’d been keeping in a jar of black licorice. The bills were stuffed in rolls down the bottom and the thin strips of candy were layered on top, like a pile of shoelaces. He hated licorice and he figured most people didn’t like it either.
The motel room smelled like corn chips and cigarettes and there was a hole punched though one of the walls. On the bedside table was a clock, the digital kind with glowing numbers, but he couldn’t get it to work. His own watch had stopped in Denver, and he didn’t know what time it was. He put the bag full of guns in the closet. Then he unzipped the side pouch and took out his Beretta and set it on the bedside table.
When he was boy Hawley’s mother had taught him how to handle a gun. Take a breath, she told him, take a breath and let half of it out. She’d said it so often that he nearly always breathed this way, even when he didn’t have a gun in his hands. He took in what he could and he held half of it back and that’s how he kept himself steady, day to day, year to year, every time he squeezed the trigger.
Hawley went into the bathroom and turned on the light. He had a bad case of trucker’s tan—his left side all burned from keeping the car window open. He turned on the shower and stepped into the cold water and washed the sand out of his hair. When he got out he wrapped a towel around himself and then he got back into his jeans. He’d just turned on the TV when he heard a knock on the door.
It was a girl, maybe twenty years old. She was rail thin and nearly as tall as Hawley. She had a black eye, her blond hair pulled back tight in a bun and seven or eight piercings lining the sides of her ears, sets of tiny hoops looped one after the other and a purple feather dangling from the top like some kind of fishing tackle.
“I’m locked out,” she said.
Hawley kept his hand on the doorframe. “Can’t the front desk let you in?”
“No one’s there,” she said, “and I saw your light on.”
Hawley wondered if she was a hooker. Then he saw that she was carrying a baby. It was about six months old and she had it in a sling with her coat zipped up around it.
“Wait,” Hawley said. He closed the door on her and took the licorice jar out of his duffel bag. He made sure it was screwed tight and put it in the toilet tank. He grabbed the Beretta and slid the chamber to see that it was loaded and tucked it into the back of his jeans and pulled his shirt over it. Then he opened the door again. “I’ll go check with you,” he said.
They went through the storm to the other side of the building. The girl walked backwards against the wind, holding up the sides of her coat to protect the baby. The front door to the motel was locked and the lights were out. Hawley put his hand to the glass and peered in. It was too dark to see anything.
“I told you,” the girl said.
Hawley banged on the window. He considered busting the lock. The baby started fussing and the girl bounced up and down on her toes. Then another big gust of wind came and they both got sand thrown in their faces and the baby started to cry.
“Let’s go back,” said Hawley. He put the girl behind him this time and held his arms out so he’d get most of the sand and not her and the baby and when they reached his room he let them in.
“Those guys will probably be back in a minute or two,” he said.
The girl unzipped her coat. Her black eye was only a few days old, still bloodshot, with a streak of dark purple along the nose. “Is it okay if I change him?” she asked.
“Go ahead,” said Hawley.
She took the baby out of the sling and put him on the bed. He was dressed in blue pajamas printed with elephants. There were snaps along the side and the girl pulled them open and undid the diaper and then she grabbed both of the baby’s legs with one hand and lifted his bottom in the air and slid the diaper out. The baby stopped crying as soon as she did this.
“How long you been at the motel?” Hawley asked.
“About a week,” the girl said. “Only ones here, besides that guy from California.” She opened her purse and took out a fresh diaper and put it under the baby. Then she took out a tube of white cream and rubbed some between the baby’s legs and across his behind before she closed the diaper and snapped the sides of the pajamas up. The baby stared up at her face from the bed and kept waving his arms back and forth and opening and closing his fists, reaching for her the whole time.
The girl rolled the dirty diaper and used the plastic tabs to close it. “You got a trash can?”
Hawley looked around the room. “Maybe in the bathroom. Here.” He reached out and she gave the dirty diaper to him and he carried it across the room. It was warm and heavy against his fingers, like a living thing. He put the diaper in the trash and washed his hands. When he came back the girl was sitting on the bed and she had a bottle of vodka on the table.
“You want a drink?” she asked.
Hawley always wanted a drink. “Sure.”
“I don’t have any cups.”
Hawley went back into the bathroom and got the plastic-covered glasses by the sink. He handed her one, and they ripped open the little bags and slid their cups out. She poured a finger for them both. “Cheers,” she said.
Usually Hawley only drank whisky or beer. Vodka was the drink alcoholics drank, because you couldn’t smell it on them. It was what his mother used to drink. He remembered the bottles. He’d even saved one for a while, after she’d left, until his father found it and threw it out. This vodka was cheap stuff and it burned Hawley’s throat on the way down. The girl swigged hers fast and poured another.
“What’s your name?” Hawley asked.
“Amy,” she said.
“That’s a pretty name,” he said.
She looked at him strangely with her black eye until Hawley felt uncomfortable, so he moved further away, towards the door, and leaned against the wall there. She was still sitting on the bed. The baby had fallen asleep beside her, his face to the side and his arms over his head like he was in a hold-up.
“Did those hurt?” Hawley asked, pointing at her ears.
Her fingers floated to the hoops, caressed the purple feather. “The ones up top did,” she said. “But now I don’t even think about it. I get a piercing whenever something important happens, something I want to remember.” Amy poured a second drink for herself. She threw it back like a shot and sighed. “Is that the right time?”
The clock on the bedside table said 4:16 am, the same numbers as when Hawley arrived. It could have been 2 or even 5, there was no way to know because the sandstorm outside had turned the sky so dark and yellow. Hawley took another sip of his vodka. “Probably not.”
“I’m so tired,” Amy said. She closed her eyes and rubbed them.
“I’ll go see if they’re back,” said Hawley. He put his drink on the table, unlocked the door and stepped onto the landing. The wind was still fierce. He jogged down the stairs and around the building thinking about the holes in Amy’s ears. He wondered if she’d ever want to forget the things that had happened to her. Remove the hoops and let the skin close back over itself.
He tried the motel doors again. They were still locked. He beat on the window but nobody came. He checked for cars. There were two parked in front, a pickup with an Arizona license plate and a brown van from California, but they were both empty. He walked around the corner. His Ford was still where he’d left it. A few spots down there was a blue hatchback with a big dent in the passenger side. Through the window he could see piles of clothes and a few taped up boxes and a baby seat in the back. He stood in the parking lot and looked up at his room. All the other windows in the motel were dark.
Amy was stretched out next to the baby on the bed when he opened the door. He could tell from the way her shoulders moved that she was asleep. He closed the door gently and then he went into the bathroom and checked the toilet. The licorice jar was still there. He threw some water on his face and then he came out and pushed the bag of guns deeper into the closet. He walked to the other side of the bed and took the Beretta from the back of his pants and put it in the drawer of the table, next to the bible. Then he slipped off his shoes and sat down on the bed.
The smell of cigarettes still hovered in the corners of the motel room, but all the bed smelled of now was baby powder and apples. Hawley leaned back against the headboard. He could barely keep his eyes open but he didn’t feel right lying down with them. The baby made little sighing noises and sucked on air, its mouth moving like it was going at a bottle. The bruised side of Amy’s face was against the bedspread, and without the black eye showing she looked even younger. She’d taken her hair out of the bun and it was spread across the pillow. Hawley listened to the girl and the baby breathing. Then he reached over and turned out the light.
When he woke up it was still dark and Amy was kissing him. Hawley didn’t know where he was at first and then he saw her face leaning over him in the red of the motel clock. The numbers still read 4:16. She was soft and warm pressed up against him. Hawley was afraid that touching her would end it, so he kept still. She was kissing him slowly and carefully. When he couldn’t help himself anymore his hands went to her waist and she moved away. Then after a minute she slid forward again and kept her mouth just out of reach, hovering over his, their faces close and their breath going into each other.
Her hair fell down and brushed his lips and there were the apples—the smell was coming from her hair. He wound his fingers through to her scalp and pulled. His knuckles brushed the line of hoops in her ear, all that cold metal going through her skin. She tugged at his shirt and he threw it off and she ran her teeth along his shoulder. And then they got hold of each other’s belts and tried to unlatch them in the dark. She got his done first and threw it to the ground, then pushed his fumbling fingers away and stood up next to the bed and slid her jeans down each of her long legs and stepped out of them, her bare skin glowing in the clock light.
Hawley caught her around the hips and buried his face in her neck and together they fell onto the carpet. He pushed her knees open and she made a sound like it was hurting her. Hawley tried to see her face but she only wrapped herself tighter around him and their bodies spun and he cracked his head on the frame of the bed. And that’s when he heard the gunshots. Two quick pops in a row and then silence.
The girl was still panting and shaking beneath him. Hawley covered her mouth with his hand. They waited like that in the dark on the floor of the motel room. And then there was another blast, and the baby woke up and started crying.
Hawley scrambled to the table and pulled open the drawer and took out the Beretta. He went to the window and pushed back the curtain. He couldn’t see anything but the two cars. He turned around and Amy was still lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling.
“Shut him up,” Hawley said.
The girl got to her knees and then climbed onto the bed. She pulled the baby to her chest and started rocking. Hawley found his jeans in the dark and then went to the closet. He grabbed some clips and his father’s rifle too and then he hurried back to the window. The baby was still crying. Every scream screwed Hawley’s nerves tighter. The girl was searching through her bag. She found a bottle but her hands were shaking and she dropped it twice and then she got back on the bed and stuffed the nipple into the baby’s mouth and the baby was quiet.
Hawley took a deep breath. He told the girl to keep the light off. Then he told her to take the baby and go into the bathroom and lock the door. She cleared her throat a few times like she was going to say something but then she didn’t. He listened to her gather the kid and her clothes and then he heard the door to the bathroom click. His eyes never left the parking lot. The sky was paling, just a few stars left. He could still sense the clock behind him, the stagnant numbers like heat, illuminating the side of his face in the gloom.
A few minutes later the brown van, the one from California, eased around the side of the building. It circled through the lot and slowed by Hawley’s car, then stopped right before it came to Amy’s. A man got out on the driver’s side, holding a handgun. It was the man with the freckles. He was wearing the red bowling shirt the Navajo had on earlier. The snake tattoos winding up past his elbows. The man checked the license on Hawley’s truck and peered in the windows of Amy’s hatchback. Then he looked up at the line of rooms.
They’d both seen him—Hawley and the girl. If the man had only stolen some money, he might get in his van and leave. If he’d killed the Navajos, he’d probably come after them. The man with the freckles reached behind the driver’s seat. He took out a box of bullets, opened the chamber on his revolver and reloaded. Then he wiped his hands on the red bowling shirt and started up the stairs.
Hawley knew how to read the weather, to compensate for drag while taking his shot. If leaves changed direction, the wind was close to seven miles per hour. If branches began to bend, it was closer to nine. But there were no trees here to tell how fast the storm was blowing, not even a plastic bag caught in a fence. Only the sand that was circling the asphalt below, crossing the desert and pelting the windows with dust.
The man with the freckles climbed onto the landing, then turned and made his way along the row of doors. He took out a set of master keys and fit one into the lock of Amy’s room. He slipped inside. As soon as he did Hawley stepped out onto the landing. He leveled the rifle but the wind swept up and started pushing against him.
Start with your feet, his mother told him. Your heels are already on the ground. Build from there when you lose your way. Hawley eased his weight back. He shook the tension from his calves and loosened his knees. He turned at the waist. He pressed one elbow to his hip and the other high against his ribs. And then he laid his cheek gently to the stock of the barrel and dragged it down behind the rear sight.
Hawley took in a full breath. He let half of it out.
The man with the freckles stepped from Amy’s room, not even careful, the red shirt like a target. Hawley could have shot him in the head but he went for the shoulder. The man cried out and staggered and then lurched for the stairs, but before he made it down he turned and fired off all the rounds he’d been holding. Hawley stepped back too slow and felt a burn through his right side and suddenly his arm couldn’t support the rifle anymore. It was falling and it fell and he watched it fall and then he was scrambling for the Beretta. He staggered over to the edge of the balustrade with the handgun. There was blood it was streaming out over the walkway and his head was spinning. He looked from the pool of red to the man struggling into the van below—the bowling shirt catching air and fluttering sideways, clocking the speed of the wind. Thirty miles per hour, Hawley decided. Then he raised the gun and took the shot.
When Hawley tried to stand his lungs weren’t working—it was like there was a sponge at the back of his throat. He crawled across the landing on his knees. The concrete was cold and unforgiving. He called Amy’s name and pushed open the door. When she came out of the bathroom she was fully dressed, like when he first met her, her hair pulled back tight in a bun once more and the baby in the sling and zipped up in her jacket. The only thing different was her face, pale and white and thin.
“We got to leave,” he managed. But he couldn’t get up from the floor.
Amy grabbed towels from the bathroom and wet them and pressed them to his side. Then she pulled out some diapers from her purse and opened them and put them underneath, taping the plastic tabs to his skin. Hawley told her to get the bag with the guns and to fetch the rifle he’d dropped and then he told her to open the toilet and get the jar of licorice out of the tank and put it in the bag too. She did all he asked and when she came back and kneeled beside him her face held that same strange look from earlier when he’d told her that her name was pretty.
He barely remembered coming down the stairs. Amy maneuvered him into the back of her car and then she put the bag in the trunk and then she opened the other door and took the baby out of the sling and strapped him into the plastic seat next to Hawley. The van was still running, the man with the freckles half in, half out of the driver’s seat. Clots of hair and shattered bone littered the pavement, and the windshield was sprayed with blood.
Amy got into the front of the hatchback and slammed the door. She gripped the steering wheel and kept her eyes on the rear view mirror. “Do you think the manager’s dead?”
“We should check,” said Hawley.
They drove around the front of the building. Amy got out and this time the motel doors were unlocked. Hawley and the baby stayed in the car, the kid watching the spot his mother had disappeared into, kicking his tiny feet and drooling. Hawley pressed the diapers against his ribs and drifted in and out. When Amy came back she froze for a moment, holding onto the handle of the car, looking like she was going to be sick, and Hawley knew he’d been right and the other men were dead and he wished he’d listened to his guts when he checked in and saw those freckles. He could have been miles away by now or even drinking beers with Jove and not dying in the back seat of some girl’s car.
Amy fumbled with her seatbelt. Then she put the car in reverse and backed out of the parking lot. “There’s a doctor on the reservation,” she said, “about ten miles down.”
The seat cushion beneath Hawley was wet with blood. There was blood on the seat belts, blood on the floor. “He’ll report it.”
“Not if you pay him,” Amy said.
And that’s when Hawley knew she’d gone into the jar.
He tried to say something about this but it came out slurred. He focused on the little boy strapped in the carrier next to him and did his best to stay awake. The elephant pajamas had blood on them and the baby was staring at the back of Amy’s head and his arms were grabbing for his mother like she was the only thing that mattered in the world.
The sun seemed to be coming up—the sky a multitude of pinks and oranges and Hawley wondered what time it was. The bullet was turning now, spinning into a dark place and taking him with it. He touched the diapers taped along the side of his stomach. They smelled of talcum powder and were heavy and warm and felt alive in his hands, just like the baby’s diaper had when he’d carried it into the bathroom and put it in the trash.
“We’re nearly there,” Amy said. Then she said, “I’ll go back and get your car for you.”
Hawley hoped she would. He hoped that when he woke up and stumbled out of the doctor’s house into the blazing desert heat she’d be there with the baby and the money and it wouldn’t just be his car dusted on the side of the road with the keys in the ignition and a pile of bloody towels. That he wouldn’t have to check the trunk to see if she’d left the guns, and that there’d be at least a grand left for him in the licorice jar. She owed him that, at least, he thought. She owed him something.
They went over a bump in the road. Hawley looked out the rear window. It was road kill, something with fur and feathers mixed together. A rabbit and an eagle, he thought. A coyote and a vulture. In the seat beside him the baby moaned and whimpered and then the baby began to cry.
“He’s hungry again,” said Amy, but they couldn’t stop so she started singing. Twinkle, Twinkle and Hush-a-bye Baby. Hawley closed his eyes and listened. Her voice wasn’t pretty but she was trying.
“You’re a good mother,” Hawley said, or at least he thought he did, and then the bullet pulled him the rest of the way into the dark.