Eric looked up when someone sat down across from him. One of the coolest people he’d ever seen said, “Isn’t it a bit cold to be living in your car, man?”
Usually the only people who sat down across from you at Burger King were people you already knew, but for this dude Eric was willing to make an exception. This guy looked like he’d walked out of a Robert Rodriguez movie, with a black leather duster and perfectly straight black hair that fell past his shoulders. Still, for someone like this to think he was a loser was intolerable, and he got defensive. “I’m not living–“
“Sure you are,” he said, smiling as if it was no big deal anyway. “I saw you leaving the fish store, and earlier today at the mall. You got that much shit in your car, you’ve got to be living in it.”
Eric looked away, trying to think of a way to tell this guy to fuck off, cool or not.
“It’s no big deal, man,” the guy said. “I was living in my van up until yesterday.”
That made him look back. “Are you serious?”
He nodded. “Came all the way the hell out here from LA, into this goddamn winter wonderland. Isn’t that what they call it? Fucking nasty, is what I call it.”
“So how’d you end up…” What Eric really wanted to know was how the guy managed to find a place; maybe that would help him think of something to do.
“Shit, you know how it is. My name’s Valentine, by the way.” He gave Eric a look that felt like a handshake.
“So, Eric, why are you living in your car in the middle of the winter? If I might ask.” Valentine reached into an inside pocket, took out a flask, and offered it to him.
Eric took a hit without hesitating or asking what it was. It burned, but he didn’t cough. “It’s just temporary. My dad kicked me out after I lost my job.” He growled in his throat, trying to clear the burn away. “Ain’t that a trip? This bitch at work gets me fired, and all of a sudden I’m the irresponsible one who can’t keep a job. And who the hell kicks someone out because he lost his job anyway? If they told me to find my own place because I found a good job, I’d understand that.”
“The mystery is how they got to be in charge in the first place,” Valentine said. “What you ought to do is walk right back in there, tell them you have a right to be there, and stay.”
“I can’t do that.”
“My old man would kick the crap out of me.”
Valentine looked slightly disappointed. “And it didn’t occur to you to kick the crap out of him first? How many times do you have to get shit on before you learn how to hit first, instead of hitting back?”
Eric shook his head. “I don’t know, man. You don’t understand.”
“What’s to understand? I’ll tell you a secret–I know the bitch who got you fired.”
Now he was really confused. Did he mean literally? “You know–?”
“Her name’s Liz. Tall. Half-Japanese. Used to have long green hair but I think she cut it. Moved out here from California not too long ago. Sound like her?”
Eric believed him. “That’s her. You friends?”
Valentine shook his head with a smile that wasn’t quite. “I don’t think so. She stole from me. I came out here to get it.”
He could see the picture forming already; she’d ripped this guy off and come all the way across the country, thinking he wouldn’t be able to find her. It made sense. “How’d you find her? What did she steal?”
“I found her because she can’t keep her mouth shut. She told me a dozen times that her dad and family were in Detroit. All I had to do was start checking the phone book.” Eric’s second question went strategically unanswered. “So how did she get you fired?”
“Did you know she was in a porno?”
Valentine didn’t even flinch. “I was there.”
“You’re in it?”
“Fuck no. But I was there. I drove her there; she was too fucked up to drive.”
Good; so he couldn’t get in trouble for telling this guy about the video, because he already knew about it. The threat of Liz’ father still loomed over his head, even though he’d never seen the guy. The last thing he needed was a state cop with a hard-on for him because he’d made the guy’s bitch daughter cry. “So, I saw it. You know? It was right there in the store. And then I asked her about it, you know, what it was like, and she goes all crazy about it and tells the boss I’m sexually harassing her, and I get fired.”
“Total bullshit,” Valentine said. “She could’ve handled it. So. That’s why you got kicked out of your house?”
“Fucked you over pretty good, eh?” Valentine said with a smile that made Eric feel like he was the guy’s confidant. “Looks like she’s making a habit of it. Someone’s going to have to put a stop to that.”
“If you’re here to mess up that chick’s life, tell me where to sign up,” Eric said.
“I suppose I am here to do precisely that,” Valentine said. They talked for over an hour, and it was one of the best afternoons Eric had ever had. Valentine had done a hell of a lot more things than any of the fuckups in Ypsi. He was someone worth hanging with.
Several more snorts of Valentine’s flask had made him bold. “So where are you staying?” he asked. Surely he could crash there until he found a place, hell, a hotel room floor would be better than sleeping in the car, or on Danny’s puke-stained couch.
“With a chick,” he said. “Why don’t we go to your place?”
“I already told you, I can’t.”
“How old are you?”
“That’s too old to be talking like that,” Valentine said, his eyes boring into Eric’s. “There are too many people who have control of you, and it’s time you stopped letting that happen.”
“What choice do I have? Shit, it’s not like I can run out and just get an apartment.”
Valentine didn’t seem to have heard. “First Liz fucks you over, and you back down. Then your father, and you back down again. You back down too much, Eric.”
He felt himself blushing angrily, and looked out the window at the snowy, darkening afternoon. “What choice do I have?” he muttered again.
“Would you like to know?” Valentine reached out, touched Eric’s chin and forced him to meet his eyes again. The touch was startling. “Would you really? Because I can show you what choice you have. Exactly what choice. You have all the choices in the world, if you don’t back down. If you’re not afraid.”
Eric frowned. “I’m not afraid.”
“Aren’t you? Then why do you always back down?”
He looked away again. “Shit, I don’t know.”
“Quit looking away. Look me in the face, Eric. It’s because no one ever taught you how not to back down,” Valentine said. He seemed to be looking past Eric’s eyes, into the back of his head. “Do you want to learn?”
There was an excited acid taste in the back of his throat. Something was about to happen. Many somethings, perhaps. He nodded.
“Then something will. I’ll show you how.” Valentine pushed himself out of the booth. “Let’s go to your house,” he said.
And they did. And when Eric’s dad–Mr. Augustus Stop, to his subordinates at the plant–had answered the door, still chewing on a mouthful of dinner, Valentine had lashed out with a fist as quick as a striking snake, and knocked the old man flat on his ass in the foyer. The rest of it had happened like a dream; Valentine pulling the knife and herding Augustus back into the dining room, hustling Eric’s mother and little sister away from the table amid much screaming and slapping, Eric himself helping to bind and gag the three of them and not able to believe that he was doing this the whole time, it was an amazing feeling but completely unbelievable, out of control, over the top.
And wham, bam, thank you ma’am, there they were. Valentine had promised him a third of the money that Liz had stolen from him, and from the sound of it that would be something like ninety grand. He’d never have to work again, holy shit. Eric took a big drink of whiskey, the whiskey he’d personally taken from his father’s liquor cabinet. They had broken open the gun cabinet too, and there were guns all over the dining room table. Holy shit.
When the takeover was finished, Valentine went to The Barn to see if Liz’ friends were there. He’d apparently met some of them, and they had no idea he was looking for the best way to get at her. Eric had wanted to go, but Valentine had said another time would be better. That was cool, though. Eric was where he wanted to be right now. Sitting at the table, some booze, some smokes, some dinner, and later on he’d watch TV, right where he belonged, here in his father’s house.