“Real American Dream Homes!” advertises the billboard outside the Wallcott and Reed Real Estate office. Perched on the roof of the glass-fronted building, it features a photo of a Brady Bunch Lite-looking family, dressed entirely in various shades of puke orange and standing on the lawn of a manicured, suburban house. There’s a palm tree in the front yard. Off-Brand Jan Brady is hugging a golden retriever. It’s a nice billboard.
Currently, it’s on fire.
Holly March, full name Holland Alice March, Jr., thirteen point eight years old, sits behind the wheel of a black convertible parked across the street from the towering inferno. She grips the steering wheel with white knuckles, eyes fixed on the Wallcott and Reed building as it goes up in flames.
Three streets down, a fire engine’s siren starts to wail.
Holly bites the inside of her cheek. “C’mon,” she whispers, staring unblinkingly at the billboard even as her eyes start to water from smoke and barely tamped-down fear, “get out of there.”
Something catches her eye, a window to the left of Dollar Store Marcia Brady’s foot-tall smile. Five shapes, in silhouette—five figures. Five people.
Holly wills herself to try to stay calm. She wants to hop out of the car and run straight into the burning building, wants to scream get the hell out, but there’s no one there to hear her. Normally, she’d have ignored her dad’s order to stay in the car, but here, now, she’s frozen, helpless. All she can do is watch as the light from the burning billboard hits the window, illuminating the shadows.
For a split second, she can see them—two men, backs to the glass, arms raised in surrender. Holland March and Jackson Healy look tiny so far up, the men holding them at gunpoint even smaller. Holly’s blood runs cold as she sees the firelight glint off of the gun barrels pointed straight at them.
On the billboard, a spark catches Jan and the retriever.
THREE DAYS EARLIER
Holland grabs a six-pack of Heineken off the shelf and drops it into the shopping cart behind him. Holly, pushing it after him as he meanders down the aisle, scowls at her father’s back. He can feel it. He ignores it.
“Everyone’s going to be there! I’m going to look like a total loser if I can’t come.”
Scanning the shelf, Holland frowns. “Exactly. Everyone’s going to be there? I know what that means.”
“I don’t see why it’s such a big deal. You let me go over to Jessica’s all the time.”
Yeah, Holland thinks to himself, because usually it’s just you two nice young ladies, not six other girls and a bunch of mouth-breathing boys between the ages of thirteen to seventeen. Teenagers. How did it come to this? He stares hard at the canned peas and, valiantly, makes an attempt to change the subject. “Where the hell is the peanut butter in this damn store?”
“Aisle four.” Holland heads off, but Holly doesn’t move. He turns to look at her expectantly over his shoulder. “Everyone’s going to think I’m a total loser,” she repeats. The fluorescent lights of the supermarket buzz overhead, enhancing her frown to truly heartstring-tweaking proportions.
Holland gets down on one knee and grabs her hand. She smacks the free palm over her face, peeking around the aisle through her fingers. “Look, sweetheart. Guys are awful. Teenage guys especially. Girls are just… you’re more evolved, or something.” He yanks his sunglasses off, wobbling a little on the linoleum floor. “Basically, they’re the worst.”
“But you’re a guy. And please stand up, you’re embarrassing me.”
Holland struggles to his feet. “That’s my point. If I, a dude, am telling you not to trust dudes, then you know I am one hundred percent serious about it.” He starts down the aisle.
“Mom would’ve let me go,” Holly mutters.
Twang. Holland flinches a little, then tries to play it off. “Ha! No she wouldn’t.” He grabs a jar of Skippy and tosses it to his daughter. “No boy parties. That’s final. End of discussion.” The tinny muzak being piped over the grocery speakers starts on a third rendition of The Girl From Ipanema. Holland checks his watch. “Man, it feels like we’ve been here forever. Does time just move differently in supermarkets? It’s like the twilight zone in here.”
Holly glances at his wrist. “The hands aren’t moving.”
“Did you forget to replace the batteries again?”
A vague memory swims to the surface of his (admittedly buzzed) brain. The batteries, which Holly had carefully laid out on the kitchen counter, are almost definitely still lying there.
Oh, shit, Holland thinks. “Oh, shit,” Holland says aloud, just for the symmetry of it. “What time is it?”
Holly shrugs. “I don’t know, like… one o’clock?”
“Fuck,” Holland swears. “I’m gonna drop you off home and then I’ve gotta go, sweetheart.”
Rolling her eyes, Holly sighs. “Yeah, sure, fine.” She squishes the peanut butter in between a loaf of WonderBread and the beer. “Whatever. Tell Mr. Healy I say hi.”
Holland pulls up to the curb outside the Comedy Store under a smoggy sky. A gaggle of kids lounge on a car a few steps away and eye him up and down as he grabs a scuffed briefcase from the backseat—one of them pops their gum at him. Teenage boys, an insidious little voice hisses in the back of Holland’s head. Look at them, in their stupid jeans, with their stupid hair. Holland bristles, glaring at the kid as he walks inside. The kid, who could care less, doesn’t actually see it.
At three o’clock in the afternoon, the comedy club is practically empty. A nervous stand-up in overlarge aviators doing a sound check crouches on the stage. Holland waves to the bartender—Ted? Or Tom, or something with a T—and points to the stairs; Ted/Tom nods and he makes his way across the floor, weaving between tables with chairs balanced on top of them upside-down.
“My wife, she’s like, uh… she’s a Russian doll!” the comedian titters into the mic, echoing in the room, “because she’s full of herself!”
Holland shakes his head. Jesus. Comedy.
He bounds up the stairwell, briefcase smacking against his leg. He knocks on the door: shave and a haircut. No answer. He frowns, getting ready to knock again, and harder, when the door swings open. Jackson stands in the threshold, wearing a faded t-shirt and jeans, with one eyebrow pointedly raised at Holland.
“My watch died, and the supermarket sucked, and I had to drop Holly off at home.” He half-shrugs, half-apologetic. “It’s been a morning, okay?”
“How’s she doing?”
“She’s pissed at me.” Holland points to the briefcase. “You gonna let me in or are we just gonna hang out in the hallway?”
Jackson rolls his eyes, holding the door open. Holland pushes past him into the apartment.
Tossing the briefcase onto the couch, Holland bends down to stare at the fish in their tank. “They’re looking better,” he says, tilting his head to make eye contact with a goldfish through the glass. “How’d you get those white spots to go away?”
“Heat and salt. Kills the parasites.” Jackson settles next to Holland.
One of the goldfish swims out from behind a cluster of colored rocks. Holland presses a finger to the glass, watching as the fish wriggles closer to them. “Hey there, lil’ guy. How’s the water?”
“Y’know, I named that one after you.”
Cue the warm and fuzzies. Holland glances over at his partner, flattered. “Seriously?”
“He kept bumping into the walls. It just fit.”
Holland straightens up with a glare. “Oh, ha ha. Very funny.”
Jackson grins. “Holly seemed to get a laugh out of it.”
“Seriously? You’re colluding against me with my own daughter?” Dropping to sit on the sofa, Holland pops the clasp of the briefcase. “That’s cold, man.” The months’ worth of files in the case are a pain in the ass to sift through, and he makes a mental note to try to organize them. At some point. If he remembers.
Jackson sits next to him, grabbing his glasses off the coffee table and taking the papers that Holland passes him. “These the estate details?”
Holland nods. “It checks out—if you factor out the part of the will that was forged, all the money goes to the cat.”
“Jesus.” Jackson shakes his head. “No wonder the third wife tried to kill him.”
“Here, look at this bit on line four—“ Holland points to the clause. Jackson squints through his lenses. “—‘I leave the entirety of my vast fortune to Fuzzikins, my only true companion, the one real creature that has ever shown me love for something other than my money…’ Can you believe this shit?”
“Who refers to their own fortune as ‘vast’?”
“Freaking Hollywood ‘eccentrics’.” Holland props his feet up on the table, fishing through his briefcase. A glossy photo of the Siberian cat on whose behalf they’d been hired nicks him and he swears loudly, sucking the tip of his finger.
“In the Bronx we just called it being nuts.” Leaning over him, Jackson plucks a cream envelope out of his hands. “Good thing that cat had nine lives,” he mutters as he pulls out the check inside.
Holland drops his head back against the couch cushions and groans, examining his papercut. A bead of blood oozes out, and a wave of nausea rolls over his stomach. “This is ridiculous. We’re not pet detectives. Next thing you know we’re gonna be camped outside a stable with a telephoto lens, trying to catch Mr. Ed doing the horizontal tango with his tennis instructor.”
“Horses don’t have sex lying down.”
“Wow, Doctor Doolittle, thanks for that life-changing revelation.”
Jackson slaps the envelope down on the arm of the couch. “Look, I’m not any happier about taking these cases than you are. But you wanna stay in business? We’ve gotta pay the bills.”
“Yeah, I know, but does it have to be animals? I think I’m getting an allergy.” Holland sniffs exaggeratedly.
“You wanna go back to fleecing little old ladies?”
“Fuck you, it wasn’t fleecing. And what would you suggest, we go back to punching people for money?”
Jackson leans back, eyeing Holland. They stare at each other for a long, tense second. Finally, Holland lets out a sigh.
“Shit, man, I’m too tired to fuckin’ argue right now.”
“Good. Wanna beer?”
“Fuck yes, please.”
Jackson retrieves a can of Lucky from the fridge and tosses it to Holland, grabbing himself a Coke. Holland raises one eyebrow, and Jackson shakes his head.
“Trying not to right now.”
“Suit yourself.” Shrugging, Holland pops the can’s tab and takes a swig. He sighs as the cool liquid hits his tongue. “Oh man, that’s good. Why is it so hot in November?” He taps his foot, leg bouncing up and down rapidly, barely even aware he’s doing it.
Jackson watches Holland swallow, eyes following the line of his throat before drifting down to his jumping knee. “You okay?”
Holland nods, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his eyes pinched shut. “Holly got invited to a party.”
“Hey,” Jackson brightens, “that’s nice.”
“Uh, no. It’s not.” His knee bobs even faster. “There’ll be boys there.”
A frown crosses Jackson’s face. “Oh.”
“You remember what you were like at fourteen?”
“So you see my problem.”
Jackson presses the Coke can to the back of his neck, letting it cool him down. “Holly’s a tough, smart kid, though. She can handle herself.”
Holland hums. “It’s not her I’m worried about, it’s…” he saws a hand vaguely through the air, “…just, everybody else.”
Jackson shoots him a sympathetic look. “I could teach her some self-defense…?”
Holland groans and drops his head into his hands.
“At least we’re done with the cat case,” Jackson backtracks. “We’ve got a couple of guys lined up willing to hire us—mostly infidelity stuff, but the pay ain’t bad.”
His voice fades into the background. Holland can feel nervous energy building in him, like it’s crawling up to burst from his mouth. Numb tingling is starting in his fingertips, his toes. He squeezes his eyes shut, trying to ignore the tears pricking behind the lids. Fuck, he’s just tired, and this is so pathetic—
A solid weight lands on his knee, stopping its movement. He blinks. Jackson’s got his broad hand spread across it, gently holding him down.
“Hey.” Jackson drops his voice, catching Holland’s gaze. “You’ve gotta relax.”
He forces himself to nod. “I know,” he chokes out.
“You’re breathing too fast.”
“Am I?” He squints at Jackson. It feels like the air is too thin, and his vision is starting to blur. It’s like there’s a fat fist squeezing hard in the center of his chest. “Oh, God.” He wheezes.
Jackson wraps a hand around the back of his neck and carefully guides him down. “Put your head between your knees,” he says. “Breathe in for four, out for eight.”
Holland fights to sit up. “No, I just—“ he gasps, “I just need a drink—”
“Head down.” Jackson’s voice is gentle but firm as he stands from the couch. “I’m gonna get you a glass of water.”
“Water? Fuck that,” he whines, even as he bends to follow Jackson’s instructions. He shuts his eyes and tries to focus. In, out. In, out. Innn, ouuuuut.
The cushions dip as Jackson returns from the kitchen and sits next to him. He rubs a hand between Holland’s shoulder blades.
“I’m freaking out,” Holland mutters into his calves.
“Shhh.” Jackson strokes his thumb over the top of Holland’s spine. He can feel the muscles start to loosen. Breathing, slowly, gets a little easier. “You’re gonna be fine.”
“Is that your professional opinion?”
“Shut up, Holland.”
A few minutes pass. Holland lets out a shuddering breath. “Thanks.”
“Come up slowly.” Jackson keeps his hand on Holland’s back as he straightens himself.
“Can I lean on you?” Holland half-collapses into Jackson without waiting for an answer. He buries his face in Jackson’s shoulder. “Shit. This is embarrassing.”
“Wanna talk about it?”
“No.” He sits up and grabs his beer off the table, emptying it in one long gulp. “Yes. I don’t know.” Letting out a sigh, he falls back against the couch cushions and passes a hand over his face. He peers through his fingers at Jackson. “Am I a basket case?”
Jackson shakes his head. “Nah. It’s a bad time of year.”
“Isn’t that just the fucking truth,” Holland stands up and crosses the room. “November nineteenth already.” He tears a page off the word-of-the-day calendar and flashes it at Jackson.
“I read it when I woke up this morning.”
“Compunction,” Holland reads aloud from the scrap of paper, “‘a feeling of deep regret, usually for some misdeed’.”
“You wanna stay here for a couple of hours?” Jackson eyes him steadily. Holland knows what he’s offering. Wants it, too. They’ve been doing this for nearly a year, as long as they’ve been partners, and it’s good, it’s so fucking good, and it’s exactly what each of them needs, though neither of them wants to really put a name to it. Normally Holland would be all over him, but right now, staring at Jackson’s blue eyes, any kind of horniness turns over and dies, joining the heavy, empty feeling that’s been sitting in the pit of his stomach all week.
Holland can tell Jackson’s concerned about him, and the thought makes him feel like a loser, like some pathetic freak. He bristles; the idea of Jackson pitying him, Jackson, with his fish tank and his slow smile and his stupid canvas shoes, makes him want to smash his fist into the wall. It’s even worse because there’s a part of him that just wants to lie there and let Jackson try to make him feel better, a part of him that wants to be taken care of or some other gay shit like that.
Holland grinds his teeth and crumples the page of the calendar in his fist. He tosses it over his shoulder, missing the trashcan entirely. “I should get back to Holly.”
He doesn’t miss the way Jackson’s face falls before he covers it up with a blank expression and a nod. “Sure. Of course.”
Guilt twitches through the churning mess of Holland’s stomach. He ducks his head at Jackson and grabs his briefcase off the table, stuffing papers back inside. “See you later.” He blurts out, as he already has one foot in the hallway. He can’t help it. Jackson shoots him a thin smile.
Holland hustles down the back stairs, face burning. He shakes his left arm, stiff in the humidity as he hurries through the empty club, and wonders if he can shake hard enough to finally fall apart.