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Authors: James Scott Bell

Don't Leave Me

Don’t Leave Me

 

James Scott Bell

 

Table of Contents
Chapter 1
Chuck shot his arm across Stan’s chest one second before impact.
Then came the sound of crushing and the jolt of a hard stop. Adrenaline laced Chuck Samson’s nerves. And anger. Because it was the Escalade’s fault, jamming on its brakes that way. Like the guy
wanted
to be rear ended.
“Oh God Oh God Oh God!” Stan’s voice, high and scared.
“It’s all right, Stan.” Chuck kept his arm against his younger brother’s wiry body. Feeling it tighten, no body fat, he’d always been this way, as a kid, as an adult. Stringy and ADD.
Stan writhed under Chuck’s arm. “What happened? What!”
“Little accident is all,” Chuck said. “You okay?”
“I’m all tingly!”
“Just take it easy now. Deep breaths. Can you do that for me, Stan? Deep. That’s it. I’ve got to talk to the guy.”
“Don’t leave me!” It was what Stan used to say when he was scared as a kid. Chuck showing up whenever Stan got pushed or teased, putting a beatdown on the bullies. Or getting there afterward to wipe the tears off Stan’s face and tell him he could be stronger, and Stan hugging his big brother and always saying
Don’t leave me!
Stan hadn’t said it in years. He was thirty now, and just starting to look it. But shouting the phrase made him seem ten again.
He knew he had his work cut out for him, keep his brother calm while he dealt with this crazy driver. “I’ll be right outside the––”
Tap tap.
Chuck turned and recognized the face outside the window. Same guy. The one in front of his neighbor’s house just five minutes earlier. The Escalade had seemed out place at Lucy Bowers’ curb. She was single, new to the neighborhood. Driving by, Chuck had looked at the guy. The guy’s face wasn’t exactly friendly. Chuck nodded and drove on. What else could he do? He wasn’t the sheriff of the neighborhood. People could park where they wanted.
But here the guy was again. Longish brown hair, unkempt but with a part down the middle. Beard stubble. Large, flat nose. Looked close to Chuck’s age, thirty-four.
“You all right?” The guy’s muffled voice, through the window, carried a slight accent of some kind. Russian?
Chuck said, “I think so.” Suspicion gnawed him. Rear end insurance scams were common in Southern Cal. He wanted to give people the benefit of the doubt, but he knew too much about human nature.
Perfect setting for that scam, too. It was early morning and they were on a stretch of road on the other side of a new home development. One block north of Sherman Way, just before it turns into Platt.
And it didn’t help that the adrenaline was bubbling up the PTSD soup that was sitting on the back burner of his brain. He’d just started to get more control over it, but something like this could set it off, spill it. Chuck took a deep breath.
“Insurance?” the guy said.
There it was. In a rear ender, boys and girls, the guy in back always loses
.
In all his years of driving, Chuck had three speeding tickets but never an accident. That this one could have been so easily avoided rankled him.
They guy opened Chuck’s door. It groaned like a bored, metallic lion.
Chuck swiveled, put his feet on the street. His legs shook like he was in a ten-below wind. He felt duly embarrassed. He considered himself in good shape. Kept up his running, even a little of the kick boxing he’d learned in the Marine martial arts program. Not the usual training for a chaplain in Afghanistan, but it did teach a certain discipline. Which Chuck held onto now as he steadied himself.
Just stay calm and talk it through, the way Royce always told him to do it.
“Easy there, my friend,” the guy said with a little scratch in his voice. Chuck decided Mad Russian would be a good name for him, the way he drove. And he thought he caught a whiff of whiskey breath. At this hour? Mad indeed.
He was about Chuck’s height, a couple inches over six feet. Looked strong across the chest. A bar fight kind of guy. In high school Chuck had plenty of fights under the influence, and felt the familiar quiver of aggression shoot down to his fists. He told the quiver to shut it down, stay calm.
You were a man of God once, remember? A MOG . . .
“You okay?” Chuck said.
Mad Russian didn’t say anything. Just stood there. Was that a smirk on his face? What was up with that?
“So what happened?” Chuck said, keeping his voice steady. No need to get aggressive. Give the guy a chance.
“You look at me when you drive by,” Mad Russian said.
“Excuse me?”
“You drive by, back there, looking at me.”
“That? No, I wasn’t looking at you. I was just—”
“You slow.”
All right, simple misunderstanding. Chuck had learned to defuse emotional bombs. That had been a part of his work, his calling, after all. He said, “No, what happened is I’m driving to work, okay? So if—”
“Who is that?” Mad Russian nodded toward Stan, still in the passenger seat of Chuck’s Sentra. Stan was sitting with his arms crossed in front of his chest, rocking back and forth. Keep things calm, Chuck told himself, so Stan doesn’t freak.
“Look,” Chuck said, “let’s just––”
“I ask you question,” Mad Russian said.
Okay, the guy did not want to be reasonable. Clean this up later. All business now. “Let’s exchange information and I’m sure we—”
“You look at me and you study me.”
“No—”
“You look like tough guy. You tough guy?”
“Listen, I told you, I didn’t—”
A hand of iron shot up and clamped Chuck’s throat. Mad Russian thrust his face within a hair of Chuck’s and said, “You tell me why you look at me.”
Chuck couldn’t tell him anything, not with his air choked off. He looked into crazy, blue-ice eyes, rimmed red. Not with the buzzing of his brain now, kicking into survival mode, and the heat of it in his chest, that old and bad feeling when they’d cut his throat. It was back, all of it, in a fireball under his ribs.
Mad Russian tightened the neck vice.
Chuck heard Stan screaming inside the car.
Stay there Stan.
Chuck tried to will the thought to his brother.
Chuck shot a fist at the guy’s arm. No movement.
Blood pumping behind Chuck’s eyes.
Stan screamed louder.
Chuck’s mind shot to military mode. Thrusting up with his hands, he caught the guy flush under the chin with the heels of his palms. Mad Russian’s head snapped back and he let go.
Chuck sucked for air, making a sound like a shovel scraping cement. His head was light and he thought for a second he’d pass out.
“Chuck!”
Stan was out of the car, racing around toward him.
Mad Russian was a couple of steps back. He just looked at the brothers, head cocked to one side.
Then he removed something from his pocket, as smoothly as a pool hustler pulls out a ten spot. With a flick of his wrist a blade flashed in the morning sun.
The half moon scar on Chuck’s throat heated up. He knew what knives that size could do.
Chuck pushed his brother toward the sidewalk. “Run!”
Stan stumbled, kept his feet, but did not run.
Chuck stepped in front of his brother, ready for an attack, as much as you could be for a guy with a knife when you had nothing in your hands. But he did not think, he did not analyze, there was no time, it was a flash of knowing that he would never let Stan get hurt. He would take the cut if he had to, he would kill this guy if he had to, and he felt the blood rush to his face. And he knew then, too, in that blink of time, that he needed Stan as much as Stan needed him. That the brother-blood tie was what was keeping him from sinking further down into the shadows.
And the Mad Russian just stood there. Smiling.
For a long moment no one moved.
Then a blue sedan came around the corner, off Platt, toward them.
Mad Russian watched it, holding the knife low against his thigh.
The blue sedan pulled to a stop.
As the driver’s window came down Mad Russian flicked his wrist again. The knife blade disappeared into the handle. He slid the knife back in his pocket as if he’d just exchanged business cards with somebody.
Still smiling, he pointed his finger at Chuck, and then at Stan. Then he calmly walked to his Escalade, got in and drove off.
No license plate, Chuck noted.
“What was that?” the sedan driver yelled. “Was that a knife?”
Stan gripped Chuck’s arm. “He had a knife, Chuck. Did you see the knife?”
“I’ll call 911,” the driver said. He was maybe fifty, short gray hair and glasses.
“Yeah, yeah,” Chuck said. He looked to his brother. Stan was trembling. Chuck gently gripped Stan’s shoulders. “It’s okay now, bud.”
“Why did he have a knife, Chuck?”
“I don’t know. But he’s gone.”
“I have to go to work. The new specials are out!”
“We’ll get you there. Don’t worry. Don’t––”
Chuck’s phone vibrated. He fished it from his pocket. A private number.
“Hello?”
A male voice, whispery, said, “Don’t say a word.”
“What?”
“You do and you’re dead.”
“Wait a—”
“She would not like that.”
“Who—”
“She would not like it. She can see past the grave.”
A cold, blue fire tore across his chest. Julia. He was talking about Julia.
The connection went dead.
Chapter 2
“Chuck, I can’t be late,” Stan said. “I’m on door!”
“What? Oh yeah, sure.” Chuck blinked a couple of times, like he was coming out of a dream. No, it couldn’t have been Julia the guy meant, but it couldn’t be anybody else––
The guy in the sedan was out of his car now, punching his phone. “Hey, what’s your name?”
“What?” Chuck said.
“Name. Your name. I’ll call.”
“Chuck Samson. I work at the Raymond Hunt Academy, Calabasas.”
She would not like it. She can see past the grave.
Who made that call? Not the guy in the Escalade. He couldn’t have had Chuck’s number.
Or could he?
But how?
. . . past the grave.
“Chuck!” Stan’s face was etched with worry. Over-worry, as usual. Chuck’s first reaction, ever since he could remember, was to calm Stan down. Stan shivered when things got tense. It started when they were kids, when their dad refused to accept Stan’s autism and took out his own frustrations on both their skins.
“It’s all right,” Chuck said, touching Stan’s arm. “Let’s go.”
Stan ran around and got in the Sentra. When Chuck got in, his door wouldn’t fully close.
Great way to start the week. Rear ender. Guy with a knife. Guy choking you. Try that with your morning coffee, friends. Now your car needs body work. Your brother is freaking about being late, and you’re not going to get to your class on time.
And how about that cryptic phone call about your dead wife, sports fan?
No, no way. A coincidence, it was just a whacked-out guy with too much drink in him, and then a wrong number and––
Chuck started the car and pulled tentatively into the lane.
The guy in the sedan shouted “Hey!”
Chuck didn’t stop. The guy’d report it. Fine. Chuck had to get Stan to his job now or he’d be hysteria on stilts.
“Chuck, why’d he have a knife?”
“Stan?”
“Yes, Chuck?”
“Next time I tell you to run, you run.”
“But Chuck—”
“Just do it,” Chuck said. Then, from the distant reaches of his mind, it started again.
The shadow dance.
No. Not now. Please.
It hadn’t happened in months, this series of visions all tied up with his tour in Afghanistan. Memory muddled by trauma, the VA docs said. You never knew when it would come and if it would ever get straight in his mind. He called it the shadow dance because the dark figures seemed to float in front of him. Distant explosions were the sound track

“Look out!”
Chuck swerved just in time to avoid another rear ender, this time with a Mini Cooper.
“Chuck, you almost hit––”
“I know!”
“Don’t hit anything, Chuck.”
Stan, the voice of simple thought. Yes, little brother, I won’t hit anything if I can help it. Thank you very much! Since Stan had come to live with him and Julia, over a year ago, it had been a difficult period of adjustment for all of them. Chuck was trying to get to know his wife again, after his return, and it was hard. His own psyche needed the most adjusting, but he wanted to get better, he wasn’t one of those guys resisting it. Even though the VA was mucking up recently, denying him treatment. Still, he thought there was some daylight there, through the clouds, and then, then—
And then Julia’s death, like a bad joke from Fate with a morning hangover. Only no joke, and it took him hours to believe it, and then it was like he’d been tied to a log in one of those silent movies, the log heading to the big buzz saw. Only he hadn’t been rescued, he’d been sawed in half and even now, seven months since a drunk in a truck took his wife from him, he was barely stitched together with frayed thread.
Now he was looking after Stan, and he loved his brother, but he was a weight on him, too, and he wished Stan could be on his own somehow, and thinking that made Chuck feel like crud. He was on a merry-go-round of bad vibes and discordant music.
At least Stan was quiet the rest of the way to Ralphs Fresh Fare, the supermarket where he had a job greeting customers. Chuck realized just how much he needed quiet now. In fact, he almost prayed. Which he found odd, given that he hadn’t prayed once since Julia’s death.
He got to the Ralphs lot and parked in front.
“You can’t park here, Chuck,” Stan said.
Chuck said, “Yeah, I’m a notorious criminal. Don’t turn me in.”
Stan smiled. “You’re being funny.”
Chuck fixed the collar on Stan’s shirt, his Ralphs shirt, the black one with the red lettering. Stan didn’t have many clothes in the shared closet, but this was his uniform and he always kept it apart from the other clothes.
“There,” Chuck said. “Go make me proud.”
“Chuck?”
“Yeah?”
“I don’t like some people.”
“I know,” Chuck said. “Some people just don’t act nice.”
“Gimme five,” Stan said, raising his right hand. Stan thought it was always the ultimate cool thing to do, give high fives, even now, even though high fives had gone out with the Clinton administration.
No matter, it was what Stan liked to do, a final gesture, a connection until he got picked up after work.
Chuck slapped Stan’s hand. “Go get 'em, Tiger,” he said.

Rrrrrr,”
Stan said. He tried to make a tiger sound but it was more like a loud purr. Or maybe something else, Chuck thought. Maybe the sound a tiger might make when wounded, lying on the ground.

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