Walter Jr. would never admit it to his friends, but he’s starting to love this PT Cruiser. Sure, it’s about as uncool as it gets, but it’s a car.
No, what he really loves is the freedom of having a car. No more relying on his parents, no more bumming a ride from his friends. His mom is so busy at the new car wash and he hasn’t been able to rely on his dad for transportation since the cancer struck, anyway. The gift couldn’t have come at a better time.
He doesn’t use it strictly to drive between school, school events and home. What’s the point of being home anyway? No one is there. Holly is always with his mom, and his dad is... wherever he always is. Walt Jr. sometimes drives by his dad’s condo, and the Aztec is almost never parked in front.
So when he sees it parked in front of a Los Pollos Hermanos, he does a double-take. Walt Jr. makes a careful U-turn, and drives slowly past it in the lot. Yep, that’s his dad’s license plate all right. But he keeps driving past, and back out of the lot – he doesn’t know what kind of shit he’ll catch if Dad notices him here instead of doing homework.
So Walt Jr. starts to keep an eye out for it. He sees it in the oddest of places – a restaurant here, a strip mall there, in the industrial district – and almost never in the car wash lot or home.
Walt Jr. isn’t stupid. He has been underestimated his whole life because of his cerebral palsy. But his CP affects his muscle control, not his brain function. There is something going on with his dad, something his mom knows about but pretends not to, something he has wanted to ignore for a long time, but he can’t anymore.
After the scare with Uncle Hank blows over, his parents are acting even weirder than normal. If he sees his dad at all, it’s rushing in to drop something off with his mom or get something from the house.
But the Aztec? That he sees often. He starts to keep a written log, looking for patterns. His dad doesn’t favor any particular time of day. Nor any particular location, except that strip mall. The only thing going for it is that lawyer’s office. (He loves those Better Call Saul commercials.) But unless his dad is a closet repeat DWI offender, he can’t figure out why he would be there in the first place.
Walt Jr. finally makes a connection one day out of the blue. The same beat-up red hatchback is almost always in the parking lot as well. Is his dad meeting with whoever owns the car? Does he have a new girlfriend or something? The thought turns his stomach.
But he has to know, he has to test this theory. If it were anyone other than his dad, Walt Jr. would ask his Uncle Hank for advice. He just can’t do that; Hank would probably rat him out to his dad in a heartbeat. So he comes up with a plan on his own.
The next time he sees his dad’s car at a fast food place, he parks out of the way, with a good line of sight on both cars. He’s actually lucky that gray PT Cruisers are a common sight in Albuquerque. If he still had that sweet red Challenger, he’d never be able to follow his dad without being noticed. His dad leaves alone, a soda in hand, and drives off to God knows where. Other people come and go to various cars, never to the red car. Fifteen minutes later, after Walt Jr. has almost given up, a young man in his twenties approaches the red car, gets in, and starts it up.
Walt Jr. is floored. His dad is meeting... a young guy?
He lets that sink in a minute.
His dad. Has been meeting. With a guy. A young guy. A young, attractive guy.
Walt Jr. screws up his face. He can’t believe it. But his parents’ separation makes more sense now. His dad is clearly spending a lot more time with his... boyfriend... than anyone else in his family.
The red car is pulling out of the lot, now, and Walt Jr. notices it just in time to start his car and follow. After a few twists and turns, the car heads into a residential area. It’s going to be harder to follow the guy in there. But he has to try.
Staying back as far as he can while still being able to keep track of the car, Walt Jr. sees it pull into a driveway. As Walt Jr. passes by, hopefully unnoticed, the guy gets out of the car, pulls out a set of keys and goes inside.
A block later, Walt Jr. pulls over to the side of the street and parks. What now? Should he stake out the place? Walt Jr. is no thief; he wouldn’t have the slightest idea of how to break in anyway. Should he follow the guy the next time he leaves? He can’t be gone from home all night – as little as his parents notice his comings and goings, they would surely notice that.
What could he possibly find out? He already knows his dad is seeing the guy. He suspects his mom knows already. Why are they even keeping up appearances? For his sake? Jesus Christ, Walt Jr. is sixteen, not three. He hasn’t needed handholding since he mastered his first pair of crutches.
Walt Jr. starts up his car and heads home.
Knowing what he knows, Walt Jr. begins to look at everything his parents do and say in a new light. The way his dad kisses his mom on the cheek and she only tolerates it. The way she won’t meet his eyes unless she is arguing a point she believes in. They way they both change the subject if Walt Jr. asks about his dad’s day. He’s afraid to just ask about it outright; even though tensions have cooled somewhat lately, his parents’ tempers are so mercurial he doesn’t want to risk it.
He’s just about decided to forget the whole thing, when he passes by the two cars again one Saturday morning on the way to Louis’ house. They are both parked at the Denny’s not a mile from the young guy’s neighborhood. For a brief moment, Walt Jr. considers walking into the restaurant, just confronting the two of them right there in the open...
Then he has a better idea. If the guy is there, with Walt, then he isn’t at home. Maybe he can find some clue, some idea, something to talk about. He gives Louis a quick call to say he can’t make it after all, and heads to the young guy’s house. Thinking about every private detective show he’s ever watched, he parks next door, out of sight of the house’s windows. It’s only after he’s out onto the sidewalk and making his steady way toward the door that he notices – there’s a different car in the driveway.
Walt Jr. stops halfway up the walk. Should he turn around and leave? Or risk talking to whomever is at home? As he is swinging his crutches around to double back, he sees a little boy’s face pop up in the window.
He swings back around, smiling in what he hopes is a totally non-creepy way. The head pops back down. “Mom!” he hears muffled through the glass.
Think fast, man.
He continues toward the house. As he reaches the porch, the front door opens. A pretty young woman with wavy, dark hair faces him with a touch of suspicion. “Can I... help you?”
“Yeah, um, I–I’m trying to... collect pledges for a walk-a-thon at my school?” He points toward the raised porch with one crutch. “Do you mind if I c-come up?”
Her suspicion melts away. “Oh, of course, do you need...?”
“No, I’m fine,” he says easily. “Gotta train for the walk-a-thon.” He smiles again.
“Oh, yes, sorry,” she says, embarrassed.
At least he has her at ease now. But who is she? “Can you help me? I promise not to walk a marathon.” He winks.
She smiles at last. “Oh, sure. Put me down for five dollars a mile. Andrea Cantillo.”
Walt Jr. pretends to search for his form. “Oh, no, I must have dropped it on the street. Just a sec, let me go get it.” He turns to go.
“No, wait,” she says. She calls into the open doorway. “Brock, can you bring me that notepad?”
The little boy from the window comes into view again. She writes down her info and hands it to Walt Jr..
“What about Jesse, Mom?” the little boy asks. He’s clearly been listening. “He could help, too. Call him!”
The name resounds in Walt Jr.’s head. It had been ever since the day he’d found his father bleeding and emotionally broken, the day his father had called him ‘Jesse.’ He had written it off as a drug-addled delusion before, just an odd mistake. But now...
“No, Brock, he’s at his meeting,” Andrea is saying. “We can ask him when he gets back home.”
“J-Jesse?” He hopes the shock isn’t showing on his face. Some private detective he’d make.
“Yeah, my boyfriend. If he decides to contribute, I’ll tell you when you come back to collect.”
“Okay. I should g-get going. Lots of houses left on the block...” he says. “Thanks for your support!”
He starts to walk away as she waves, slowly enough to listen for the front door closing, and waits until he’s completely out of sight before going back to the car. Once he’s sitting in the front seat, he just sits, letting the revelation wash over him.
The guy’s name is Jesse. Somehow his dad confused the two of them when he was groggy and in pain. And either the guy is lying to his girlfriend about having another relationship... or there’s something else going on entirely.
“Fuck it,” he says, and starts the car. He’s going to that Denny’s before they leave.
Of course, once he gets there, the Aztec is gone. But the red car is still there. He doesn’t know for how much longer, but he’s going to take this chance while he has it.
He pushes through the doors, scanning the restaurant for Jesse. There he is, sitting on one of the stools at the counter, still eating, it looks like.
“Just one?” the hostess asks.
He nods over toward the counter. “I’ll just sit by my friend there.”
Jesse doesn’t even look in his direction as the hostess gets him settled in his seat and takes his drink order. “Coffee, please. B-black.”
He sets his crutches against the counter, and they make a clink. Jesse turns toward the sound, takes in the crutches and then Walt Jr.’s face. His eyes widen and he coughs, averting his eyes immediately.
Interesting. He definitely recognizes me.
“Hi,” Walt Jr. says.
“Hi,” Jesse says back in a noncommittal way.
“Pancakes.” He gestures to Jesse’s plate. “That looks good.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Jesse says, and turns away from him.
This isn’t going well so far. Walt Jr. sighs. The innocent act isn’t going to work like it did on Andrea. He takes a deep breath and goes for it. “L-look, let’s get real here. I know who you are, and I know that you’ve been seeing my dad. I don’t know for how long, but I don’t care. You can stop pretending that you don’t know who I am.”
Jesse turns back to him, brows creased in puzzlement. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I think you have me confused with someone else.”
Walt Jr. raises his voice. “N-no, I don’t, Jesse.”
Jesse shakes his head slightly, now adding touch of annoyance. “Man, if you–”
“Hey! I-If you want to date my dad, you don’t have to sneak around. I can take it.”
Jesse snaps. “Oh my god, keep your–” His voice drops to a strained whisper. “Keep your voice down!” He leans forward, almost frantic. “Are you insane? I’m not freakin’ dating your dad...”
Walt Jr. gives him a flat stare. “You’re not.”
“So, you’re like, meeting him all over town, for... what? B-book club?”
That earns him a short laugh. “No.”
“None of your damn business is what.” He stands suddenly, wipes his mouth, and tosses the napkin to his plate, punctuating it with, “Bitch.”
“Jesse,” he calls after him. “Come back.”
Jesse ignores him, walking to the cash register to pay. Walt Jr. stumbles off his stool, narrowly avoiding the waitress bringing his coffee.
“Jesse!” he calls more loudly.
Jesse gives him a hard, chilling look. “Just leave me alone, man.” He tosses some cash and the bill on the counter and heads for the door.
“You’re seriously just going to l-leave me like this?” The other patrons are beginning to take notice. Jesse doesn’t seem to be affected by their disapproving stares in his direction. Walt Jr. tries to follow, but he can’t navigate the tables and chairs as easily with his crutches. As a last-ditch effort, he shouts, “I know where you live!”
That stops him dead. The room goes silent. His eyes get even colder, if it were possible.
Walt Jr. is used to both stares and averted eyes. He takes the chance to finish getting through the tables and plants himself in front of the door, facing him.
The manager, finally alerted to the commotion, hurries up to them. “What seems to be the problem?”
Jesse bares his teeth in a slight sneer. “Nothing. We’re leaving.” He pushes open the doors and exits.
Walt Jr. follows with a small, satisfied smile.
When they get into the parking lot, Jesse doesn’t slow down for him. Walt Jr. doesn’t care, he can make pretty good time. Jesse goes around to the drivers’ side, opens the door, gets in. But before he can shut the door, Walt Jr. blocks the latch with his crutch.
Jesse, about to slam the door, stops before he damages anything. “Jesus!” he spits. “Does being an asshole run in your family or something?”
Walt Jr. grimaces, unsure what that means.
Jesse shakes his head. “I told you to leave me alone. You know what your father will do if he sees the two of us talking?”
Walt Jr. shakes his head, unconcerned. He’ll get caught for having a boyfriend, maybe?
“I don’t know either, but I do know that he will flip his shit. And that’s why I’m getting the hell out of here.” Jesse, not too roughly, pushes the crutch out of the way of the door.
“What if–!” Walt Jr. says. “What if we went somewhere else, somewhere my dad wouldn’t be.”
Jesse just shakes his head.
“C’mon, I gotta know something! If you’ve been m-meeting him even half as much as I’ve noticed, then you’ve spent more time with him than I have in months.” He lowers his voice. “Please. Talk to me.”
Something about what he said or the way he said it must have gotten through to Jesse. His annoyance softens into compassion. “Okay, get in. I’ll talk to you.”
As quickly as he can, he hops around to the other side of the car, hoping Jesse won’t gun the engine and leave him there. But he’s as good as his word, leaning across the parking brake to open the passenger-side door.
Without a word, he starts up the car, and drives out of the lot as soon as Walt Jr. has his seat belt on. In fact, he doesn’t say anything until they are well out of town on one of the county roads. Walt Jr. doesn’t say anything either, taking in the car, the cigarette butts in the ashtray, the single-guy grunge collected in all the corners.
Jesse turns down a dirt track and drives about a mile before finally slowing to a stop and turning off the engine.
Jesse and Walt Jr. sit there a long time before either of them speak. Walt Jr. doesn’t dare start talking first, he’s afraid to spook him.
“First off,” Jesse finally says. “I’m not going to tell you anything that would get me in trouble.”
“With my dad?”
“Uh... yeah.” He frowns in thought. “Yeah.”
“Okay.” At this point, any information would be better than what he has, which is nothing.
“And you better not tell your dad that we talked.”
“I mean it.”
“Okay.” Jesse acts almost afraid of his dad. What, is he afraid he’ll break up with him? How much can one fifty-year-old man do anyway? But it seems important to Jesse. “I won’t.”
“Good.” He fidgets with his hands. “So, like, I was one of Mr. White’s students back in the day. And about a year ago, he saw me... at work... and recognized me.”
His dad probably has a lot of students all over town that he recognizes. Walt Jr. wonders what makes Jesse different from the rest.
“He asked me if I would... go into business with him.” He laughs to himself. “I thought he was crazy.”
“B-Business?” The answer was not what he expected. “Is it something to do with the car wash?”
“No. Well, not directly.”
“Then...” He looks Jesse up and down. What kind of business could his dad possibly go into with this guy? Does it have something to do with his dad’s gambling problem?
Jesse glares at him. “Hey, I have skills, yo.” And before Walt Jr. can ask, he adds, “Ones I’m not going to go into.”
Walt Jr. fights the urge to raise an eyebrow. Now he’s sure it’s the gambling.
“Anyway, this business means we spend a lot of time together. Like, I dunno, work partners.”
“Work partners who meet all over the city?”
“We don’t have what you would call a... regular place of business.” He stares out the window, at nothing in particular, for a long moment. “Not anymore, anyway.”
It explained why his dad was never at the car wash whenever he stopped by. His mom always gave him some excuse – she must know about this business, too. But he can’t imagine asking his mom anymore than his dad. Jesse has been more forthcoming, even with his half-told information, than the people who should trust him most. “Why don’t you j-just rent a place?”
“It’s not that kind of business.”
All at once it dawns on him, something that should have been obvious from the beginning. All the new cash flow, the weird hours, that feeling that his dad was lying to him regularly... “Then it must be ille–”
Jesse slaps a hand across Walt Jr.’s mouth. “Don’t!” He pauses, narrowing his eyes. “Don’t even say that word. Especially not with other douchebag members of your family around. Don’t even think it.”
Suddenly he knows with a certainty who Jesse means, and his heart sinks like a dead weight in his chest. His Uncle Hank. And if Jesse’s warning him about Hank then it must be… drugs. What else could it be? Hank, the guy he most looks up to – what would he say, what would he do, if he found out about this? No matter how much Hank jokes around, how much he jokes about the little things, when it comes to doing what’s right, he’s never backed down.
The fear Jesse showed earlier? Walt Jr. feels it now. What other people would think or say doesn’t matter in the slightest – it’s the thought of Uncle Hank that makes his blood run cold.
He looks back at Jesse again, and instead of seeing some guy who might be dating his dad, he sees something harder, sees something dead in his eyes that he hadn’t seen there before. “I get it,” he says.
“Get that you can’t talk about this? Not with your dad, not with... anyone?”
“Yeah,” he says, as a thought forms. He really doesn’t know this Jesse, not at all. He could be in danger, his father, his family in danger. He has to make Jesse believe he’s not a threat. Adding a little extra stammer to his voice, he says, “If you’re my dad’s bookie, then my mom’ll freak out when she hears he’s still gambling–”
“His wha–?” Jesse begins, then clears his throat. “Yeah, his bookie. No one can know.” He waves a warning finger in front of Walt Jr.’s face. “All right?”
He tries to look the proper amount of scared. Which isn’t difficult. “A-all right.”
With that, Jesse starts up the car again. “I’m taking you back. Your car at the Denny’s?” Walt Jr. nods.
The ride back is just as conversation-free as the ride out, but this time, Jesse is tapping the steering wheel in a rhythm pattern and humming something to himself. Walt Jr. wishes he felt that relaxed.
After he’s back in his PT Cruiser, he just sits in the lot for a while. Drugs. How could his dad be so reckless, so selfish? Especially with Uncle Hank so close? Walt Jr. has wanted nothing more than to know the truth for months, and now that he has it... what will he do with it? He sighs, and starts up the car. He drives around for almost an hour, just thinking, before heading home.