Corteo finally lets himself breathe as the ship pulls away from the dock. He should wait longer, but he can’t. He’s leaving Lawless forever, after all. He wants to say goodbye.
Avilio smiles at him as he approaches the railing. “Looks good on you,” Avilio says, by way of greeting. Corteo thinks that unkempt hair and a newsboy hat make for a terrible disguise, but it seems to have worked.
He watches the bank grow smaller, the Mississippi carrying them further and further away. From afar, Lawless almost looks beautiful.
Corteo has never been away from Lawless. He had dreamt of it though, spent years trying to convince his mother she would do better somewhere warmer, where the air was cleaner. She had smiled and said, yes, they’d go when she was well enough to travel. After she was gone, the dream was reborn, but with a different destination: college. Education, he had thought, could afford him some protection from all the things he had grown up fearing: poverty, violence, the whims of ignorant yet powerful men. But for that he needed money.
Deciding to make moonshine had been genius. He’d be thumbing his nose at the mafia, stealing a bit of the mafia’s business, a bit of change from their pockets, and then using that money to escape Lawless forever. All in all, a pretty foolproof plan.
At least until Avilio made that grand entrance back into his life, asking for his help. Suddenly, his Lawless Heaven had become a tool to avenge the past, rather than a ticket to his future.
It was a good trade, he thinks, even now.
“Does the ocean smell like this?” he asks.
“Like what?” Avilio responds, his tone not quite as sardonic as usual. “Dead fish and garbage?”
Corteo snorts, nudges his friend with his elbow. It is entirely possible that working at the moonshine still, with all the fumes from the chemicals and the machinery, had ruined his sense of smell but, to Corteo, the river doesn’t smell at all like death. It smells like life. Like freedom.
He doesn’t think even the ocean could smell as wonderful.
“Never been,” Avilio says. “To the ocean, I mean.”
“We should go someday then,” Corteo says. “You and me. Florida, maybe.”
Avilio inclines his head, thinking. “Sure,” he answers, finally. “I’ll drive.”
Corteo laughs. “No, thanks. I’ve heard the stories.”
Corteo doesn’t really want to think about Nero and Avilio’s trip. It had been difficult enough hearing about the details after Avilio had come home, though he had laughed with the rest of them then at the exaggerated flailing Nero did to demonstrate Avilio’s terrible driving. Secretly, he had taken sadistic pleasure at the image of Nero Vanetti being tossed around for hours on bumpy country roads, sleeping on the ground, and eating bad food in sleazy hash houses or from cans like a mere mortal (in Corteo’s mind, the pineapples tasted like unripe lemons). The hardest part had been the soft smile on Avilio’s face when Nero recounted the performing for children at the park, because he knew of whom Avilio had been thinking at that moment.
When they go, Corteo decides, they’ll take the train, or walk, not drive. They will leave everything and anything that has to do with the Vanettis behind, even memories.
“Okay,” Corteo nods. "Florida."
Normal, Ohio, is a revelation to Corteo.
Looking around the sleepy (aptly named) town, he would never have suspected that this is where Avilio had run away to, all those years ago. He wonders if, should he ask, Avilio would tell him that story. Of how he left Lawless, of how he managed to escape and leave town, to survive, when the entire Vanetti family had been looking for him, one lone boy, against an entire mafia family. How did he make it here, and why didn’t he go further? What had made him come here, stay here, of all places?
Beyond the curiosity is regret. Corteo had never looked for his friend. There had been his mother to consider, of course, and the fear, always the fear, that he would inadvertently lead the people who had killed the Lagusas to him. Back then, when he let himself, Corteo had always imagined his friend in some distant land—Canada, maybe, or even Europe. Surely, Corteo had thought, he had run as far as he could? (Coreto had tried never to think of the alternative, that he was already dead, in some ditch somewhere or in a shallow unmarked grave.) Seven years of not knowing whether his friend was dead or alive, and he’d been here, so close, all this time.
But then again, Corteo would have gladly waited seven more years, tolerated not knowing forever, if at the end it would have kept Avilio alive and safe.
Avilio’s apartment is ice cold and ridiculously bare, even by Corteo's standards. An unmade bed, a wooden bench that served double as table, and a chair are all the furnishings he can see. That is, aside from the mound of discarded wallets under the bed.
Avilio sees him looking around the room, sees the wallet in his hand.
“I was an empty shell when I lived here,” Avilio says, simply, and all Corteo’s questions die unasked.
Corteo wakes up to bright sunlight, the smell and sounds of someone making coffee.
Huh, he can’t remember that ever happening before.
“You slept well,” Avilio says, as a response to his greeting.
He did. Despite the hardness of his makeshift bed, Corteo had slept more soundly that night than he has in seven years.
“Want some?” Avilio asks, holding out a mug.
They sit on Avilio’s unmade bed and share Avilio’s too-sweet coffee, passing the single mug between them. Avilio seems lighter here, Corteo thinks, more relaxed. Was it because, as bare and cold as this room is, as different as it is from that large, brightly lit house that had always been filled with the smells of Signora Elena’s wonderful cooking, Avilio considers it home? Does Avilio feel safe here, away from Lawless, away from the Vanettis? Corteo wishes that he could let himself feel the same, but he knows better. He knows that this respite is a lie. Mafioso can’t be trusted, not a single one, and what Ganzo has given them is no gift; it's a bomb with a rapidly dissipating wick. But he’ll take it. He’ll take this time with Avilio, enjoy it before all hell breaks loose. He’ll let himself have this much.
Corteo had wanted to go to the grocery store first but, surprisingly, Avilio guides him over a small covered bridge (“A shortcut,” he’d said) to the town’s small zoo. “This is my favorite place,” he says, and Corteo is touched. He hadn’t really been expecting Avilio to fulfill his request.
“That day, Luce told me he wanted to go to the zoo someday.” Avilio doesn’t even seem sad as he says this, and again, Corteo’s words die in his throat.
In the town’s one general store, Corteo purchases dishes, a pot, a few other necessities, and enough food to last them at least a few days. He cooks dinner and then watches, pleased, as Avilio scarfs down his cooking. It’s the second day and they’re still alive, and Corteo lets himself dream again, just a little bit. This room will never be the Lagusa house but they’re together now and the Avilio's mission is almost over. Avilio is the smartest, bravest, and strongest person Corteo knows. If anyone can pull this off, it's him.
There’s no reason they can’t have more days like this, no reason this can’t be home.
Ironically, his turn on the actual bed proves far less restful. For Corteo, a sleepless night is an old friend. Through the years, sleeplessness had accompanied him through his mother’s illness, constant hunger pangs, even the pain from the occasional beating for simply existing. More recently, it had stayed with him as he waited up for Avilio, whose motivations he understood even if his actions were completely baffling. On more than one occasion, it had been a godsend, the skill of functioning on the barest minimum of sleep had most likely saved his life. One single unguarded moment, one episode of allowing his exhaustion to get the better of him, and it would have been the end, not only of him, but also Avilio. Sleep and he are near strangers, meeting at only at need. But still, he has never hated the certainty of morning before. In fact, he used to court it, if only to usher in the daylight and the greater safety it offered. Now sunlight is the enemy. Morning will come, and Avilio will leave.
Avilio is also awake, Corteo knows, even though he has his back turned. Avilio is a restless sleeper and the measured breathing only belies his unrest.
Corteo wants to talk, has been wanting to talk to Avilio all this time, but he still doesn’t know what to say. How do you apologize for placing your best friend, your brother, in such an untenable position? For forcing him to risk everything he’s worked for in the last seven years, his very reason for living? For smashing all his excruciatingly laid-out plans to dust?
He should have let Fango kill him that night. That would have been infinitely better. Avilio would have been safe, still trusted by Nero Vanetti.
He’d missed another chance to make things right when Ganzo had caught him. He should have stood his ground, let them pull the trigger. He never should have said one word into that telephone, never even let them get so far as to touch the rotary dial.
But he’d been afraid. And he’d been selfish.
They didn’t get a chance the last time; he'd just wanted to say goodbye.
He never actually expected that Avilio would come.
Avilio moves, trying to be quiet. Corteo listens as Avilio gets up from his makeshift bed and makes his way to the window, hears him uncork the bottle of Lawless Heaven and swig down the liquid.
Corteo takes a deep breath, gathers his courage, and turns over to face Avilio.
“I’m sorry,” Avilio says, and Corteo is ten years old again, beaten to the punch by his best friend.
Avilio always was the brave one.
“I should never have involved you,” Avilio says. “I should have found another way to do this.”
Corteo shakes his head, hoping Avilio can see him despite the darkness. “I loved them, too.”
When Avilio leaves in the morning, it takes all of Corteo’s strength not to stop him, not to beg him to stay, to ask him to run away with Corteo to Florida, right there and then, and forget the Vanettis, forget his revenge.
But he has always been weak, always been a coward, so in the end he can’t help himself.
“Avilio, you will come back here, won’t you?”
“Why did you come back?”
Hearing the question, Corteo wants to laugh, but he knows that would be unkind. “Ganzo said you were in danger,” he replies. There are a million other things he could have said, should have said, but what would be the point now? It was a dream, the idea that, at the end, they could both walk away, that they could start over together. He’d tried so hard to help Avilio, to save him. Rushing back to Lawless, he’d finally understood.
This. This is how he can save Avilio. This is how he can help.
"You can use that to clear their suspicion of you," he says, gesturing towards the gun Avilio is holding. Nero Vanetti's gun. "No one will get in your way after that." He smiles, at peace. "I'm glad I got to see you again."
“Why?" Avilio asks again, rage and sorrow distorting his usually imperturbable face. “Why did you come back?”
Isn’t it obvious? Corteo thinks. He came back because of--
“Angelo,” he replies, his hand moving in that old, familiar gesture. “Because we’re—“