Cruce de Caminos
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Addiction and desperation drive Sean O'Hara to a critical crossroads. Will he make the right decision, or will the floodwaters bound for New Orleans sweep him away?
Street kid Sean O’Hara never had it easy, but New Orleans has driven him to his knees. His girlfriend’s broken up with him for a sugar daddy, a gun-toting pimp has robbed him of everything but the clothes on his back, and he’s down to his last two OxyContin. Sean’s no seasoned streetwalker, but he’s not above it either, not when he’s already itching for his next fix.
A familiar-seeming stranger named Ángel may be his ticket to some quick cash, but only if Sean’s willing to help him indulge a high-class john’s weird fetish for the night. As Ángel tells him, in this city and this business, you have to get a little weird to survive.
When night falls on the French Quarter, Sean realizes Ángel and the john want more from him than he was expecting to give. What once seemed merely strange soon crosses the line into supernatural and sinister. And Ángel, the man Sean had viewed as a partner and protector, might also be his otherworldly judge and executioner.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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The payphone was a battered shrine to a dying technology, cavity stuffed with mysterious crumpled paper bags and plastic handset coated with a syrupy, fuzzy filth that Sean hoped with all his heart was just from somebody’s Coke.
“Please. Deposit. Your Quarter. To Resume,” threatened the evil fucking robot death queen on the other end of the line. His fingers were trembling with anger, but he managed to slot his quarter in, willing his offering to be accepted and properly consumed, and wishing for about the hundredth time that he hadn’t tossed that stolen cell phone in Baton Rouge.
“Are you still there?” Cristina sounded bored.
“Yeah, yeah,” Sean replied. “Just had to feed the phone. Don’t know why I did, because I’m only gonna tell you the same thing again. You do this, I’m gone. I—Jesus, Cristina. I love you. I want to take care of you myself.”
“Fuck you. You don’t tell me what to do. You’re fucking delusional. I’m taking care of you. I’m not even having this conversation. You are not standing there, and you are not telling me this”—her voice had gone staccato, vicious pauses chopping every word apart—“because I need to focus on doing my thing and not get distracted by someone who says they care about me when all they do is talk shit and never—”
“Did you even hear a word I said?” Sean was shouting now, and waving his free hand in the air like a maniac. “Gone. You’ll—argh!” he yelled as he realized he’d completely forgotten phone hygiene and pressed the handset to his cheek. He jerked backward, thrashed his head and tried to grind the slime off his face using the shoulder of his shirt.
A woman in a gold bikini stood a few feet away, laughing at him. He didn’t blame her. He’d have laughed at himself. He smiled crookedly as if he’d pulled off a successful comedy routine, before turning back to the phone.
“I’ll see you next week,” Christina said.
“Fuck yourself,” he snarled back. He was so tired.
Cristina scoffed. “Hey. Thanks so much for being supportive.”
“You talking to her?”
He turned again, jerking his shoulders in the direction of the distracting voice. Why the fuck would some random motherfucker ask him a question like that? Of course he was talking to Cristina. Then he remembered there was an external world, a world beyond this endless soul-sucking argument, inhabited by other people besides himself and Cristina and whoever the hell her supposed new sugar daddy was. And this being a particularly sketchy neighborhood northwest of the French Quarter, maybe he should be more aware of that fact.
The man had a nice suit. Nice hat. By his side was the woman—a girl, really—in the gold bikini and high heels.
A smartass remark came to mind: No, I was talking to a different hooker. But that seemed mean-spirited. The girl in the gold bikini hadn’t done anything to deserve being called out like that. So he just shrugged and said, “No.”
The man squinted at him, curled his lip, took the girl’s arm, and walked away.
Cristina’s voice crackled from the handset. “I said, I’ll see you next week.” She sounded bored again, but there was an edge underneath. Or maybe Sean was imagining it.
He kept watch out of the corner of one eye to make sure there weren’t any further misunderstandings. “And I fucking said, you go with this fucker, I. Am. Gone.”
Something was going down a few car lengths away from the payphone: a string of curse words in a thick-as-hell accent broke his focus. He shifted to see.
“Naw, you don’t need ee ee ee—” the last a childlike wounded keen as the pimp hit his girl on the side of the head with a pack of cigarettes. “Naw, please ee ee,” again and again, methodical, until the box deformed and broken cigarettes spilled out, crumbling tobacco on her sobbing face as they fell away.
“Hey, stop that, man,” Sean said, a second before his instinct for self-preservation kicked in—too late. He was already stalking forward. If he moved fast, got under the guy’s reach, he could slam him up against the car, bear him down to the sidewalk, give her time to get away, if she would—
The black O of a gun barrel jumped up in front of his face. Not fast enough, then. He stopped dead and spread his arms wide. Tried not to stare down the hole. He flicked his eyes to the storefront window of Milo’s Meat Market and Check Cashing, but Milo was either absent or ducking down real low.
“You got a death wish, white boy? Or whatever da fuck you is.”
“Sorry.” As odd as it seemed, no, he didn’t have a death wish. “I’ll just back off now, okay?”
The pimp did the lip-curl thing again. He seemed like he’d practiced that look in front of the mirror for hours—no, years. Then he contemplated the crushed pack of cigarettes in his hand, and Sean knew he must be searching for something to administer a beating. Sean’s eyes flickered left, then right, scanning the parking lot for the same thing, if only to know in advance what he was in for. But there was nothing: just trash littering the pavement, chip bags, paper cups, a lone dirty diaper, all of it too insubstantial to bludgeon anybody with. Which left—Go ahead, try and pistol-whip me. I’ll take your fucking gun.
“Back up,” the pimp said.
Sean backed up nice and slow, pausing to grab his backpack propped up against the phone booth.
“You leave dat,” he heard, and then a bullet cracked into the pavement a foot away. Nobody in this city pronounces their th’s, he thought, bizarrely, as he ran empty-handed for the corner.
The empty street offered no refuge. No witnesses. Except for one: a figure leaning into the long late afternoon shadow of a telephone pole, face hidden by the hood of his sweatshirt.
“You better run,” Sean thought he heard him calling, but when he turned to look, skidding sideways for cover, the man in the hood wasn’t even facing in his direction. He was so jumped up and paranoid he was fucking hallucinating.
I’m already running. I’ve been running for a long time now.
He ran for the safety of the more peopled streets, looking over his shoulder every half a block. He almost didn’t want the adrenaline burning through his blood to fade away, because once his life was safe, he’d have to think about everything in his pack that he’d lost. How many times had he heard it? Said it himself? Never leave your pack.
And he’d have to think about Cristina. That sticky handset would have stopped swinging by now. The last line to her, gone dead. He picked up his pace until the wet air rubbed his lungs raw, because it didn’t matter anymore.
Everything he’d had in the whole world. All his money, and with it his hope of a bed to sleep in tonight. Cristina. He stopped on some street corner—no fucking idea where he’d gotten himself to—put his hands on his knees, and retched.
The Marigny district had been good to them, so that was where he drifted.
Dinner crowds swirled around riverside restaurants as the sun went down. Sean tried some panhandling. It didn’t work too well without Cristina’s sad-on-cue eyes and three-months-pregnant story.
“Get a job, fuck-o,” advised a blond jock-type in a Tulane shirt as he climbed into his jeep. He was about the same age as Sean, and Sean imagined himself in the guy’s place, just starting college and on top of the world. He would never drive a jeep, though, because jeeps were for assholes. College, that was a fucking joke too. He hadn’t even gotten halfway through high school, back in Florida. Like he could ever go to college.
He forced the frown off his face, trying to find a balance between sad and down-on-his-luck, friendly and approachable. It never worked to look too angry or too depressed—it made people guiltily avoid your gaze or feel the need to lecture, and in that case, the “two cents” was entirely metaphorical.
He hung out behind one of the larger restaurants for a while, side-eyeing the rats. Turned out the restaurant didn’t need any dishwashers or street sweepers, so the “get a job, fuck-o” strategy wasn’t paying off, either.
His stomach ratcheted tighter. He could hold off eating for the rest of the night, though, if that’s what it took to make his money. Deep in a pocket of his canvas shorts he had a straight razor and a baggie with two OxyContin. He dug them out and took one, swallowing it dry. It would help with the hunger.
Someone was staring at him from the front seat of an SUV in the neighboring parking lot. Sean glared back. He wasn’t doing anything illegal. Well, technically he was. But the pill could be Tylenol, for all that fuck in the SUV knew.
The guy flashed a weak, conciliatory grin, and then he raised a hand, beckoning Sean over. Well, that meant one of two things, and Sean was pretty sure it wasn’t a helpless-but-friendly stranger needing directions to Mississippi.
He was about to give the guy the finger when the thought of saying yes hit him like a punch to the gut. He’d get enough money for a place to stay for the night and something to eat, if he was lucky. And it’d be a lot goddamn quicker than panhandling. Whatever he felt about himself after it was done . . . well, it couldn’t be much worse than the way he felt right now.
He stood, stuffing the baggie with his last OxyContin back into his pocket, and smoothed his hands down his thighs as if to reassure himself that he still had the razor, ready to be pulled out at a moment’s notice. Made his face go neutral. Walked over.
The man rolled down his passenger-side window, and Sean leaned in, putting on what he hoped was a good-looking, cockeyed smile.
“Need directions?” he joked, relieved it didn’t come out bitter. He figured looking miserable probably worked about as well for prostitutes as it did for panhandlers. Prostitutes. Fuck. He’d just called himself a prostitute.
“Nope,” the man said, smiling. He was a totally average-looking, middle-aged white guy, and Sean knew he’d never remember what the guy looked like when this was all done. Which could be a blessing or a curse, he guessed. “A BJ. Getting one.” A long pause followed, until Sean realized he was supposed to list rates. How much would Cristina ask? Was that even comparable?
“A hundred dollars.”
The average man sighed and shook his head.
“I’ve got forty in cash.”
“Sure. Got a condom?” He remembered Cristina being adamant on that point, even for oral. She’d only go without for him. Or for a really unusual amount of money.
The man nodded, although he couldn’t hide the shadow of disappointment in his eyes. Sean didn’t give a shit so long as he got that forty bucks at the end of it. He opened the passenger-side door of the SUV and climbed in.
The job lasted five minutes. It wasn’t particularly traumatic or difficult, although he probably could have gone his whole life without hearing some guy calling him “a little cum pig.”
The surreal part was how close it made him feel to Cristina. As if there were walls he’d been raised to believe in, walls that separated all kinds of people—separated some people from themselves, even—and another one of those walls had just come crumbling down. And he could see her more clearly now.
“That was great,” the average man said.
Sean grimaced at the bitter taste of latex in his mouth, then remembered it could’ve been worse. “Does that mean I get a tip?”
The man searched the dashboard and found Sean half a handful of tollbooth quarters to add to the twenties. “Are you around this area a lot?”
“Maybe. Thanks. Bye,” Sean said, and got the hell out.
Once the SUV had peeled away, Sean pocketed the money and spat. Of course his fucking toothbrush was in his pack.
But still. Forty-something bucks in five minutes? He’d made enough money for a night’s shelter and dinner, maybe lunch tomorrow. It felt . . . well, it didn’t feel good, exactly, but it felt productive.
A store down the street sold cheap saran-wrapped muffuletta sandwiches. He paid with the quarters and scarfed one down with a cup of free tap water, trying to ignore the yellow tint and the rancid aftertaste. Then he hit the bathroom to crush and rail his last OxyContin. The mirror didn’t show any traces of white powder under his nose, but he stood there for a while as the rush came over him, staring at his face and calculating.
Money. Cristina. The drugs. It was all like some kind of algebra problem. To solve for one, he had to figure out the others. He’d lied to Cristina on the phone—he’d never leave her, not while she still needed him. Wanted him. She was the only one who did. Or would, now.
He considered the angles of his face and practiced several different kinds of smiles. Very pointedly licked his lower lip. Took off his bandanna to tone down any thug factor and ran a hand over the top of his head, shifting the light that caught his buzzed hair. He’d made enough for some bedbug-infested hotel, but why stop there? He could get enough for a steak dinner, or hell, a proper motel with a clean shower and a color TV. But who was he kidding? He knew exactly how he’d spend the money, if he got it. Enough heroin could make even a highway underpass tolerable, and more than that, it might be the one thing to remind Cristina he was still looking out for her. No matter what.
He was feeling pretty good now. Light and warm and happy and he wanted it to last, but it wouldn’t, not unless he got out there on the street and made it happen. And he was young. They liked young. He smiled again, reminding himself, then walked out of the bathroom, head held high.