I woke to the steady beep-beep-beep of a backing truck, the sound large vehicles make to tell the people around them “I may crush you. Move.” I thought it was a garbage truck, but it just kept beeping, and I never heard the engine roar. In fact, I didn’t hear anything other than that droning noise. Jesus Christ, how long could you back up in front of one apartment building?
I opened my eyes.
Two terrible things happened simultaneously.
The first terrible thing was that the light in the room, obviously way too bright, especially with the white walls and ceiling reflecting and magnifying it, speared into my eyes, through my eyeballs, and deep into my brain.
They say the brain has no nerve endings.
They say it can’t feel pain.
The second, more terrible thing: Lisa’s face appeared above me. I would have recoiled had I not been lying down, head ensconced in pillows and already feeling like it might snap off and roll across the floor if I moved. It would probably make a break for it while it was down there, rolling hell-for-leather for safety, wherever that was.
I know I would.
Lisa’s head rotated up and away from me, offering a fantastic view of the strangely thick hair filling her cavernous nostrils. “He’s awake.”
I was still reeling from her voice, once again illustrating just how those bastards lie about cranial nerves, when another, larger face hove into view. It wore a grin that made me close me eyes and try to pass out again.
I wanted my happy place.
“Hey, buddy, good to have you back with us. You had us scared for a while.”
Vinnie was calling me “buddy.” He was being nice to me. He was showing concern for my welfare.
Oh, my God, I was about to die.
“Excuse me.” The faces pulled back, and a new face appeared. Porcelain skin and great blue eyes, eyes filled with far too much kindness to ever leave someone like me in a situation like this. I knew she was here to take me away from all this, and I knew, right away, who she was.
“Sorry, kid,” she said with a grin. “I’m just a doctor. But thanks. I’ll tell my husband about this tonight. He’ll get a kick out of it.”
She shone a penlight into each of my eyes in turn, nodded, and said she’d be back in a while and not to tire me out. I heard rubber-soled footsteps. The door closed.
A slap stung my cheek and my brain went nuclear. The world went white as pain overloaded my optic nerve for a second, but I didn’t need to see to know what was going on.
I was alone with Lisa and Vinnie.
“You lying, sneaky, holdout fuck!”
Another slap rocked my world, then another, small, fast hands, and though I tried to tell her to stop, I made only an incoherent mewling.
“Knock that shit off!”
Vinnie was coming to my rescue. A new feeling of love for my big, brutal brother-in-law swelled my heart.
“You’ll just set off the monitors and shit, and the nurse’ll come running. Wait ’til we have him home. Alone. Then we slap the shit out of him.”
That Vinnie: a true humanitarian.
There was silence, broken only by the sound of that truck backing up, backing up fast, though I recognized it now as a heart monitor keeping track of my racing, panicked pulse. That and breathing. Some fast and harsh, some slow and regular, and some rapid, irregular, and with little whimpering gasps mixed in.
I was the latter. After an eternity of blinding pain, the world faded into view; as it came into focus, I wished it hadn’t.
Vinnie’s huge face loomed over me, and it did not look happy. He held something in his right hand, and after my eyes had been open a second, he slapped it gently across my face. Whatever it was, it was pliant, almost soft, and the pain it shot through my head was of a much less crippling variety. He whisked my face with this thing twice, then pulled it back so I could see what it was.
A stack of money, fifties, that looked terrifyingly familiar.
“Found this in your wallet,” he whispered, flat eyes making his lack of volume more terrifying than Lisa’s screaming. “While we was waiting for the ambulance. Looks to me like somebody won while they was at the track, but then never mentioned it to their family. To their loving wife. This person was being a lying, sneaky, holdout fuck, and I don’t like it. Don’t like it at all.”
It was a thousand dollars. My thousand dollars—my longshot payoff from Blueboy. I groped for something to say, but nothing coherent made it past my lips. The sheaf of fifties struck again, harder, and I rocked my head back as best I could, pleas dying in my throat.
“You’re only gonna be in here a couple of days, tops, you know that, right? And when you get out we’ll be waiting to talk to you about what happens to lousy, lying, holdout fucks, ’specially when they try to hold out on me and my sister. So you better,” the money struck me again, hard and fast, “tell them,” again, harder, “not to give away your bed when you leave.”
The money hit me with all the force of Lisa’s first open slap, and the room went white again as my brain decided that pain was a visible thing.
“Let’s go, Lis,” Vinnie said. “Let’s leave this holdout fuck to think about his ways, and where they’ve gotten him.”
“Asshole,” said Lisa, and she slapped my foot. I’d apparently broken my femur again, and the shock of jostling the foot below it was enough to pull a thin scream out of me. For once it was my own voice making me wince as my brain, despite what the experts say, throbbed.
My vision came back to an empty room, the door swinging shut. Seconds later it was open again, a nurse, apparently hearing my commotion, rushing in to see if I was all right. Rather than answering her questions, I begged her to fetch my wallet from the locker where they’d stored my things, then prayed it was even there.
So was my Powerball ticket, missed in the quick search Vinnie had made while the ambulance drew near. The nurse was confused at my weeping, but to tell the truth, so was I: I was relieved that they hadn’t found it, but terrified that they still could.
They’re crazy! They beat the shit out of me, broke my leg again, because I did a few silly things, but now they seem really pissed off that I hid that money—more than their suspicion about the EpiPen. They find out I won the lottery, they’ll kill me!
I pulled it together and focused on the nurse.
“What are the odds I’ll be able to get out of here tomorrow?”
“I’d have to ask the doctor.”
“Ballpark odds. Broken leg, concussion, whatever else is wrong with me. I don’t want to run a marathon, I just want to hobble out of here under my own power.”
Because I need to run, I thought.
“I . . . I’m not sure. Better than even?”
“Okay,” I said. “I can work with that. You got a mirror around here?”
“Beg your pardon?”
“A mirror, you know, a hand mirror. Do you have one around for patients who want to see how messed up their faces are or something?”
“I can get one . . .”
Ten minutes later I had a hand mirror propped against my bed rail, aimed at the outside of my right biceps.
In the mirror a small, blue horse reared to paw the air.
“Oh, you have to be kidding me!”
~ ~ * * ~ ~
I dozed on and off through the day. Pain meds will do that to you. Each time I woke in a panic about Lisa and Vinnie, and I checked the mirror, hoping this magic mark of mine would give me a sign, a clue, as to how to handle the mess I was in. The mess this damn tattoo had gotten me into.
I had been right: it changed while I slept. And each time I checked, it was different, yet the same.
It was a blue horse, rearing and pawing the air.
Then a gray horse, running flat-out and fast.
Blue horse, rearing.
The track again?
“Oh, for Christ’s sake!”
“Beg your pardon?”
I looked up from the mirror to the nurse who had woken me, then gone about the room doing nurse things. I’d been so focused on the ink that was not ink, and what it might tell me, I’d forgotten she was even there.
“I . . . nothing,” I said. “Forget it.”
“You seem pretty fascinated with that tattoo of yours.” She stepped to the bedside.
“Mind if I take a peek?”
Before I could respond, cool, dry fingers swept up my arm, lifting the loose sleeve of my hospital gown out of the way.
I looked away. “Yeah, thanks.” If only it would go away, I thought. Or better yet, had never—
“You drive a Mustang, or are you just a fan?”
“I . . . what?” I said, impressing her with my wit.
“The Mustang.” She pointed to my arm. “You must be a big car guy, right?”
“No,” I said, pointing at the Blueboy tattoo myself, turning to look in the mirror again. “That’s—”
But it wasn’t the blue tattoo. It was the gray.
I can’t believe it never occurred to me! The Mustang logo!
But it was alternating with one I definitely knew, that of the longshot, Blueboy.
But I don’t even have a car. In fact, the only one I know who owns a Mustang is—
Vinnie. Vinnie had a classic ’68 Mustang, his pride and joy.
But it can’t mean Vinnie’s car! Unless something’s changed, that blue horse is some sort of reference to the track, and Vinnie’s going to go all Silence of the Lambs on my scrotum because I went there one time. One time! What the hell would he do if I went back?
I mentally flailed about. My massive failure the last time I tried to interpret the Terrible Tattoo kept intruding on my thought process, distracting me.
An idea kept popping into my head, but it was so ludicrous I nearly laughed aloud. I mean, the peanut thing had gone horribly wrong, and I hadn’t even needed to be present for that one.
“Sir? Are you all right?”
Concern creased the nurse’s face.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I think . . .”
I think I have to figure out what Fate, or Luck, or hell, the God of Ink is trying to tell me.
I only had the one idea, and it had immense backfire potential. That was the bad news. The worse news was I didn’t even see an upside to the plan; not really. For me there wasn’t any good side. I was about to throw the whole thing out the window . . . when I remembered Vinnie’s eyes as he slapped me with my own money.
Remembered Lisa’s expression as she called me a holdout fuck.
That winning Powerball ticket still hidden in my wallet.
Then I remembered the odd thing I’d been feeling since discovering the tattoo, and what it could do.
What if there’s an upside I just don’t see?
“What’s your name?”
“My name?” The question seemed to startle her. “Gina. Why?”
“Well, Gina,” I struggled painfully upright in the bed. “What’s the earliest I can check out of here in the morning?”
“Nine a.m., usually. Why?”
My head was pounding from exertion. “Call somebody or whatever you have to do and get me casted up and as mobile as I can be. I plan on hobbling out of here under my own power in the morning—oh, and could you do me a favor and not let anyone know about my discharge?”
She looked blank. “Wait—did you say not to tell anyone?”
“That’s right,” I said. “Tell no one, especially my wife or her brother if they call. Just tell them I’m being casted or tested or something, okay?”
She squinted at me. “What happened to you? You looked pretty beaten down when I walked in here, but now you look all, I don’t know, energized.”
“Fighting for your life will do that to a person,” I said, then waved one hand as hard as my head would allow.
“Come on, come on! Let’s go!”