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Excerpt: The Burden of Truth by Neal Griffin

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As a serving police officer, Los Angeles Times bestselling author Neal Griffin saw how family ties, loyalty to friends, and their own ambitions could lead young men to make choices that got them hurt, killed, or imprisoned. He explores this complex web of relationships and pressures in The Burden of Truth.

In a small city in southern California, 18 year-old Omar Ortega is about to graduate high school. For years, he’s danced on the fringes of gang life, trying desperately to stay out of the cross-hairs. Once Omar joins the Army, his salary, plus his meager savings, will get his mother and siblings out of the barrio, where they’ve lived since his father was deported.

One night, everything changes. Newly released from prison, Chunks, the gang’s shot-caller, has plans for Omar. That boy, Chunks thinks, needs to be jumped in.

By dawn, Omar will be labeled a cop-killer. Law-and-order advocates and community organizers will battle over Omar’s fate in the court of public opinion while the criminal justice system grips him in its teeth.

One night can destroy a man and all who depend on him.

That he’s innocent does not matter.

The Burden of Truth will be available on May 12, 2020. Please enjoy the following excerpt.


Prologue

Saturday, 7:00 AM; Vista, California

He woke to a timid knock on the bathroom door, followed by Sofia’s whispered voice.

“Omar? You still in there?”

Lying balled up on the cold tile floor, his head throbbed, but nowhere near as bad as his ankle, where the pain went bone deep. Muddled images flashed across his mind in a terrifying haze. Leftovers from a nightmare? Had to be. It couldn’t be real. He didn’t want to believe it, but when he ran his fingers across his scalp, his dread was confirmed by the moistness of blood.

Oh God, no. Please no.

She knocked again, her voice quicker in its urgency.

“Omar? Answer me. Are you okay?”

He struggled to his feet, keeping most of his weight on his one good foot. He leaned against the door, eyes closed. With the back of his hand, he wiped at the thick spit that had pooled on his chin. He rolled out the stiffness in his neck and shoulders, grabbed the door handle, and pulled. His younger sister, still in her nightgown, stood in the doorway, and he sensed her uncertain relief at the sight of him.

“Omar, I heard noises outside. I—”

An explosion of splintering wood and shattering glass came from the living room. The entire apartment shifted and the floor shook with the intensity of a California tremor worth paying attention to. Sofia screamed and dropped to her knees, hands over her ears. Enraged voices of angry men filled the air along with clouds of dust and smoke.

Sheriff’s department! Get on the ground! Sheriff’s department! Get on the ground!

From just inside the bathroom, Omar watched a helmeted green swarm descend on Sofia as she cowered on the floor. Omar stepped in front of her and faced the leader, whose armor-clad body clogged the narrow hallway, his wide-open eyes shielded behind protective goggles. More men followed, all of them yelling.

Get on the ground! Get on the ground!

Omar put his open hands in the air as a sign of surrender, keeping his gaze fixed on the lead man’s finger as it squeezed against the trigger of a strange-looking gun with a bore the size of a gaping mouth. A sledgehammer blow to the center of Omar’s chest sent the teenager reeling backwards. Dazed and flat on his back, Omar attempted to stand, but before he could even begin to gather himself, another man took up a position straddling his body. From directly above, this man pointed yet another gun at Omar—a bright yellow pistol that looked like a toy. A snap and a pop, like a cheap firecracker, was followed by a strong piercing sensation in his chest and stomach. A crackling current seized his body, and every molecule of his flesh convulsed uncontrollably. Minutes seemed to pass before the shuddering eased. He went limp.

“Omar!” Sofia screamed, as men dragged her prone body down the hall. “What’s happening? Omar, help me!”

“Let her go!” he tried to shout, but his voice was weak. Again, he tried to push off the floor, but his strength was gone. “She didn’t do nothing.”

What felt like a dozen gloved hands flipped him over on his stomach. The heavy weight of a man’s knee came down on the back of his neck, pinning his face against the carpet. Omar’s arms were jerked behind his back and cold metal slapped against both wrists.

Trapped facedown and surrounded, panic took hold, as Omar struggled to breathe. With a desperate effort, he turned his face sideways and sucked in a breath of musty air that smelled of the sweat of the cops and the metal of their guns. From ground level, he watched men in green armor funnel into the bedroom. Seconds later, they reemerged with Hector in tow, underwear low on the boy’s hips and a T-shirt twisted awkwardly around his neck. With a man pulling on each arm, his brother stumbled past, his face contorted in confusion and terror. Their mother followed behind, looking tiny in the shadow of the man guiding her by one arm. Omar, still sprawled in the hallway, heard her crying and chanting to God.

The weight lifted from his neck. An instant later, a pair of cops grabbed Omar by his handcuffed arms and yanked him to his feet. His injured ankle exploded in pain and he screamed as his legs gave way. The men let him fall, then hauled him up again, rougher than before. This time, Omar willed himself to stay on his feet.

“Whatta ya say, Seso?” Detective Murphy stood in front of Omar, in the same black uniform he’d been wearing the day before.

Murphy looked around at the SWAT cops and pointed to the black, two-inch-square box mounted on his own chest. “We good?”

One of the green crew gave a thumbs-up and spoke, his voice muffled behind a black mask. “Runnin’ silent, Murph.”

Murphy raised his pistol, pushing the barrel hard against Omar’s chest. He leaned in close and practically snarled in Omar’s ear, “Man up, boy. Give me a reason to end this shit right now.”

Omar ignored the threat. “Just leave my family alone. They haven’t done anything.”

“They haven’t, huh?” Murphy said, staying in close. “Sounds kinda like admitting you have.”

Holstering his gun, the detective keyed his radio mic. “Station A, show us code four on suspect location. S one in custody. Family detained. You can have your air back.” He grabbed Omar’s arm. “Come on, Seso. Time to get famous.”

Omar winced. The skin around his ankle felt hot and stretched. His foot was like a chunk of wood.

“I can’t walk.”

“The hell you say. You’re walking the gauntlet, homie.” Murphy motioned to another cop. “Stevens, grab his other arm. Let’s get him over to the front door.”

The men shoved Omar down the hall and into the living room, where his mother, brother, and sister clung to one another on the couch. All three were crying. Two more masked officers, both with machine guns slung around their necks, stood behind them.

Staring wide-eyed at Omar, his mother sobbed out, “Hijo, que—”

One of the men leaned over the couch and shouted, “Whatta I just tell you? No ha-blo!”

His head was barely two inches from hers; the words struck with the force of a blow. Her shoulders hunched and she covered her face with her hands.

Furious at the way the cops were treating his mother, Omar yelled, “You don’t need to be like that.” Spit flew from his mouth. His eyes blazed with hate. “I told you, she hasn’t done anything.”

Murphy lifted the cuffs, pulling Omar’s arms into a painful position and pinning him against the wall. At the tearing sound of Velcro, Omar turned his head in time to see Murphy pull a phone from a pouch on his vest.

“Okay. We’re walking him out. Down the stairs, out to the sidewalk, to the patrol car. Make sure they get plenty of video. And I want some good stills.”

The detective jerked Omar off the wall and stood him up straight. “Here we go, Seso. Do your best badass for me, alright?”

With another cop’s help, Murphy half pushed, half dragged Omar through the hanging shreds of particleboard and splintered two-by-fours that, minutes earlier, had been the apartment’s front door. Omar drew a breath—the moist air was cool on his skin and a momentary relief from the smoke inside. As Omar hobbled down the three flights of stairs, the cops doing little to help him, he heard a commotion building below. When he stepped off the last stair, an eruption of both steady and flashing lights hit him like yet another electric shock. Large cameras mounted on tripods lined both edges of the sidewalk. Several microphones were thrust in Omar’s direction, and what seemed like a dozen voices fired questions at him.

“Tell us why you did it.”

“Why did you kill him?”

Omar stumbled forward. The pain that racked his body, the pounding in his skull, and the slow realization of his circumstances converged in a tight ball of nausea. His stomach heaved, his throat burned, and his mouth filled with bile. Pressing his lips together, he tried to swallow, but rancid liquid escaped his mouth and ran down his shirt. He lowered his face in shame, but Murphy yanked his head back. The flash of the cameras fired faster. Again, anger and rage boiled over; Omar shouted and tried to pull away.

“Let me go, Murphy!”

The reporters moved in closer. Basking in the attention, the two cops seemed to slow down, prolonging their time in the bright lights of the cameras. At the curb, a sheriff’s black and white idled with the rear door open. Murphy pushed Omar into the caged backseat. Without bothering with the seat belt, he shouted to the driver through the thick wire mesh.

“Omar Ortega. He’s eighteen, so no kiddy jail bullshit. His ass goes to adult lockup. Straight to the station. Strip his property. An evidence tech is coming up from Ridgehaven to process him. After that, stick him in a cell. No visitors. No phone calls. No contact. You got all that?”

“Yeah. Got it.”

The door slammed shut and the car pulled away. Omar watched a few of the younger cameramen run alongside for a few moments, then fall behind and out of view. Turning to look ahead, Omar stared into the rearview mirror and, for a moment, locked eyes with the driver.

White. Blond. Blue-eyed.

“Hey.” The haze cleared. “You’re that cop. The one from yesterday.”

The man’s voice was as corrosive as acid, his hatred cutting through the metal mesh.

“Yeah, I am. And you’re that cop killer from last night.”

The words hung in the air, like a noose ready to be slipped over Omar’s head.

The patrol car sped up. Omar looked through the caged window, the familiar streets of the barrio passing by in a blur. Captured. Defeated. He lost himself in thoughts of what had brought him to this moment, as well as the nightmare that still lay ahead.

 

BEFORE

1

Friday, 7:00 AM

Run.

His eyes blinked open and went to work like two rescue searchlights, scanning for threats. Just as it had been every morning for going on four years now, his first waking thought was to get away. Get gone before it was too late. The hell with everyone else, he thought. Just run.

No. Not ever. Omar Ortega was never going to be that guy.

The stifling heat of the previous day still lingered, transforming the eight-by-eight room into a cocoon, incubating the three damp adolescent bodies. Omar’s little brother, Hector, was pressed against him on the twin mattress, snoring lightly, his mouth hanging open like a flytrap. Omar grabbed the metal bar just above his head and vaulted over the thirteen-year-old boy with ease. He landed in the middle of the room, which was cluttered with a mishmash of cheap furniture he and his mother had saved from the roadside, dumped there by a prick of a landlord after their most recent eviction.

He looked into his mother’s corner of the room, not surprised by what he saw: small cot neatly made, crucifix and rosary beads left on the pillow. He hadn’t heard her leave, but he knew she was already on the bus headed to Rancho Santa Fe. There, she’d make breakfast, pack lunches. Hustle her employers and their children off to work and school, then spend the day cleaning their home and scrubbing their toilets. He fought against jealousy and bitterness, knowing it damn sure wasn’t her fault.

Omar hoisted himself up to look at the top bunk, where his sixteen-year-old sister, Sofia, still slept. He gently brushed the long strands of damp black hair from her cheeks, then kissed her lightly on the forehead. He was filled with his usual combination of love, fear, and dread, but, more than anything, he felt a determination to keep her safe from the almost daily threats of the California barrio.

“Buenos dias, mija.” Her eyes fluttered open as he whispered in her ear. She hunched her shoulders and settled further into her pillow, smiling at the sound of his voice. “Time to get up.”

Dropping back to the floor, Omar looked out the pane of dull glass to the low-slung rooftops, a dark tapestry woven in a hundred shades of black and gray. Tar-covered power poles jutted out from the ground, staring back at him like an army of defiant middle fingers. Dozens of cables crisscrossed the air in the haphazard pattern of a botched afterthought. Off in the distance, barely visible dots of pink stucco shimmered on the hills of San Marcos. Seven miles, he thought. Might as well be seven hundred. Seven light-years. Like faraway planets at the end of a telescope.

Omar allowed himself a grim smile of satisfaction. Not so far anymore.

He turned away from the window and checked himself out in the mirror. His skin, deep brown from months of outdoor labor, stood in contrast to the white boxer shorts he slept in. He flexed, proud of the ten pounds of muscle he’d gained in the past six months. His body lean and tone. Stomach flat and well-defined, arms sculpted—to his own eyes, he looked like a welterweight. Pushing aside a pile of his brother’s dirty clothes with one foot, Omar dropped to the threadbare carpet and began his morning routine of a hundred push-ups. The first thirty took less than thirty seconds and his chest bounced off the floor with each repetition.

Thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three . . .

His excitement for the coming days fueled him. The past three years had been tough, but now it was official. Come next week, he’d be the first Ortega to ever graduate high school. And he wasn’t just dragging himself across the finish line. Hell no. Straight A’s since ninth grade and top of the honor roll.

Forty-one, forty-two, forty-three . . .

He glanced at his preenlistment certificate, tacked to the dingy, yellowed paint near the bed. The army recruiter had made it clear: turn eighteen, finish high school, and you’re in. To celebrate his birthday last month, his mom had made him a cake decorated with toy soldiers. He locked his elbows in the up position, feeling strong. A moment of rest, then he kept going.

Sixty-one, sixty-two, sixty-three . . .

Omar pictured himself graduating from basic training. His mother would want to be there, but how? The cross-country trip to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, meant money for a bus ticket, food, hotels. All sorts of things that multiplied the possibility of a run-in with a state trooper or some other inquiring asshole of a cop. Or worst of all, a Border Patrol checkpoint tossed up across some random highway. No. The expense and risks were too high. She couldn’t come. But there would be a day when Omar returned to her in his dress green uniform, an army insignia on his shoulder.

Seventy-six, seventy-seven, seventy-eight . . .

The soldier with the close-cropped hair and chiseled face hadn’t just walked through the galleria. He strutted, like he owned it, everyone stepping aside, reaching out to clap him on the back. Like his brown skin didn’t matter a bit. All that baggage just washed away. All people saw was that he was dressed in green. Omar had only been five years old that day, but he knew. Even then, he knew he’d be that man. He’d wear that uniform. People would step aside and let him pass. That night, he’d told his father, and the man’s face had lit up. The voice, still so clear it rang out in Omar’s memory.

Un soldado? Aye, hijo. That would be a very proud thing.”

Ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred.

Omar went low one last time, pushed off the floor, and jumped back to his feet. He shook out his arms and shadowboxed like Ruben Olivares, who his dad had always said was, pound for pound, the best fighter to ever come out of Mexico.

He lifted his pillow and picked up his one pair of Levi’s, carefully folded and placed there the night before. He slipped them on, then slid his hand into the pocket, unable to resist the desire to have a look. Two neatly folded, hard-earned hundred-dollar bills. His off-the-books pay from a week of heavy lifting at a construction site. Today, after school, he’d go to the bank and deposit the cash and that would do it. Two thousand seven hundred fifty bucks. Hundreds of hours of backbreaking labor. Months of saving. But finally he could cover the security deposit and first month’s rent. A three-bedroom house in a safe San Marcos neighborhood, a world away from the Vista barrio. They could put the last three years behind like some kind of bad dream.

Shaking off the dark thoughts, Omar told himself he had it all worked out. The army would provide a roof over his head and plenty to eat, which was all he needed. His paycheck would go directly to his mother. It wouldn’t be much, not even two grand a month, but it would cover the rent and take the edge off groceries. Once he finished basic training, he’d find part-time work near his army base. He’d clerk at a convenience store or work the counter at a fast-food place. He heard lots of soldiers did that. In the meantime, his family would be safe.

He pulled his number 84 Dodgers jersey from the closet. Seventy-eight bucks. A crazy extravagance, but he’d been caught up in the moment during a field trip to Chavez Ravine. From a seat in the bleachers, he’d watched twenty-three-year-old Mexican phenom Julio Urias four-hit the Astros. A poor kid from Mexico, just a few years older than Omar, Urias could throw a baseball ninety-eight miles an hour into a ten-inch square. Urias had used his skills to bust out, and Omar couldn’t help but feel a sense of kinship. He might not have the ballplayer’s arm, but he was no less determined.

Bending down, he scooped up a pair of dirty chonies and threw them at his brother’s head. “Get up, Hector. Get out so your sister can get dressed.”

Once his brother was moving, Omar poked his head out the bedroom door. The coast was clear. He’d made a game out of avoiding contact, like a Special Forces fighter trapped in enemy territory. He moved down the short hallway without a sound and locked himself in the bathroom.

After splashing cold water on his face, he rubbed wet hands across the stubble of hair, liking the low maintenance of his new look. He’d shaved his head a week ago, getting rid of his thick, collar-length black mane. When his mom had walked in and seen his shorn head and the clumps of hair on the floor, she’d crossed herself and brought her hand to her mouth. “Porque, hijo? Tu no eres chollo.”

He had laughed in agreement. “You’re right, Ma. I’m not a chollo.”

He told her the army cut off everyone’s hair, so he was just planning ahead. She raised her hands in the air with relief and took hold of his face, pulling him down to kiss each cheek.

The drone of a Mexican telenovela came from the living room. He peered into the room, dimly lit by the glow of the television. The back of the man’s massive head, clouded in cigarette smoke, poked up over the blue Naugahyde couch that dominated the small room. A nearly empty bottle of Fireball tequila sat on a crusty wooden end table next to an overflowing ashtray and half a bag of pork rinds. Omar had found his mom cleaning the room a few days after they had moved in. He’d been angry about it, telling her the man’s filth was his own problem.

Omar slipped into the kitchen and poured himself a small bowl of cornflakes, careful to leave enough for his brother and sister. He opened the refrigerator. Plenty of beer. A soggy 7-Eleven Big Gulp, half full of something, on top of a pizza box. He bent down to look all the way to the back.

“Shit.” He stood up and slammed the door.

“What’s your problem, pendejo?”

The man stood swaying in the doorway, holding a coffee cup that no doubt came with a little pick-me-up way beyond caffeine. His thick, graying mustache was damp with drink and peppered with crumbs from last night’s dinner. The gap between his stained boxers and his wife-beater T-shirt left the six roundest inches of his hairy stomach exposed. He wore a dirty robe that hung open in the front, giving him the look of a wandering mental patient.

A fortysomething unemployable alcoholic, Edgar Renteria was a day laborer who had worked off and on for Omar’s dad before all the trouble started. A few months ago, when he’d heard about the Ortegas falling on hard times, Renteria came along, passing himself off as some sort of guardian angel and wannabe father figure. He’d offered the Ortega family a room—in exchange for half the rent on the whole apartment. At first, Omar’s mother had said no thanks. But eventually, out of desperation, they moved in.

Of course, the man was a fraud. A drunk. A goddamn desviado. Omar loved his mother, but he wished she understood. They could make it on their own. They sure as hell didn’t need another man around. That was Omar’s role now.

Omar stared at Renteria, his eyes and voice full of contempt. “There’s no milk.”

“So tell your mother to go shopping.” Renteria worked to set his feet at a forty-five-degree angle, doing his best to post up. He used two fingers to pull his cigarette from his mouth and extended it toward Omar with a gangster’s tilt. “Don’t be slamming shit around in my house.”

“It ain’t a house. It’s a shithole apartment. And how can she go shopping? You spend all her money on booze and beer.”

The man moved closer but gave a quick look of reluctance when Omar took a step in as well.

“I let your ma move in here ’cuz she was getting thrown out in the street. What’s your punk ass ever done to keep a roof over her head?”

Omar considered telling the old man of his well-laid plans. Renteria knew all about Omar’s upcoming departure for basic training; that was common knowledge. But he didn’t know about the escape plan; that was a jealously guarded secret known only to Omar and his mother. If Renteria or any of the homies from the neighborhood knew of it, there’d be trouble. To Renteria, it would be a loss of income. To others, an act of disloyalty. Omar needed to keep it quiet for a few more days, but he couldn’t resist a chance to say what he knew to be true.

“She works three jobs while you sit around and get drunk all day. We’d be better off on our own.”

“Watch your mouth, flaco. Mommy ain’t here to protect you.”

Unimpressed, Omar turned his back on a man he saw as no physical threat. He poured the cereal back in the box and pulled an overripe banana from a blackened bunch on the counter. He took a bite and stared out the window. Maybe when they walked out for the last time, he’d drive his fist into Renteria’s bulbous nose. He imagined the release of all that anger. He could practically feel the spongy flesh collapsing under the force of his punch. See the spray of blood and the red smeared on the man’s round, bloated face as he crumpled to the floor. A little going-away present from the Ortega family. Omar was pretty sure his father would have approved.

Renteria’s voice got his attention. “I’ll give your sister a ride to school. You and your brother get going.”

“Ah, hell no. She’s taking the bus with me.”

“I said I’d take her. Now mind your business and get moving.”

Omar closed the distance to less than a foot. He and Renteria were the same height, so he could look him straight in the eye. The man was a hundred pounds heavier, but all of it hair, grease, and fat.

“She is my business and you’re not taking her anywhere. She’ll ride the bus with me.”

Renteria stared back, glassy-eyed. Omar knew the man would fold. When it came to protecting his sister, there was no question how far Omar would go.

“I’m thinking it’ll be good when you’re gone, soldier boy.” The words were slurred by the booze, along with the heavy accent of the barrio. “Two roosters, one hen house. Ain’t working out, eh? One too many cocks.”

Before Omar could respond, his brother and sister walked in. In these last days of school for the year, neither carried books or even a backpack. Hector, slouching, hands buried in his pockets, wore a blue Easton baseball cap with a board-stiff bill on top of his greased-back hair. His untucked but crisp white T-shirt was three sizes too big, and his khaki Dickies sagged low on his hips. Omar looked down at the boy’s knockoff Vans with bright blue laces and shook his head. He knew Hector was just playing the part of fool wannabe, but it still aggravated the shit out of him.

Sofia wore jeans and the pink blouse he had bought for her at Macy’s at the beginning of the school year. It was the only item of clothing she had left that didn’t come from a secondhand store. Her eyes searched Omar’s, as always looking for direction.

Omar pushed past Renteria, taking another bite out of the soft banana before he dropped it in the trash. “Both of you come on. We’ll stop by Mickey-D’s. We can catch the bus from there.”

“You got money?” the old man said, his voice louder and anxious.

“Yeah. My money.”

“Then you buy the fucking milk.”

Omar steered his brother and sister out of the kitchen as the man yelled behind them, stepping outside and into the stairwell to continue his drunken rant.

“Go on, soldier boy. I want you out. One too many cocks.”

On the sidewalk, Omar nudged his brother to walk ahead and threw a casual arm around his sister’s shoulder. He pulled her close, feeling a quiver like that of a tiny bird. It pained him that, these days, Sofia lived in a constant state of fear and uncertainty. And Hector was so desperate for acceptance he’d do near anything just to feel a sense of belonging. Then there was his mother. Sixty hours a week at three jobs so they could rent a room and eat. And all of it had been completely, one hundred percent avoidable.

What was it the homies say? Mi vida loca. Man, they got no idea.

Omar shook it off, knowing all that self-pity bullshit didn’t change a thing. Yeah, no doubt. The last few years had been hard on all of them, but things were about to change. Everything was set. The time had come. The Ortegas were getting the hell out.

 

2

0715 Hours

The intruding sounds trespassed into the haze of his exhaustion, like the slow and steady tap, tap, tap of a ball-peen hammer inside his skull.

“I didn’t wear it yesterday.” Always with the belligerence. When had that started? “I wore it two days ago.”

“Then you took it out of the hamper and that’s why it stinks.” The woman made little effort to disguise her barely controlled tension. “Wear something else.”

“I’ll be late,” the boy said.

“Well, you won’t stink,” she replied.

“I can’t believe you said I stink!” the boy screamed back.

“I don’t mean you stink, Tyler. Your shirt stinks. Now change it.” Her new tone indicated the argument was over, and the slam of a door confirmed it. The sudden silence was deafening but the damage was done. Travis Jackson was wide awake.

A couple of guys from work had been telling him to set up a sleep room. Dark. Cool. No windows. Some kind of white noise. A walk-in closet with a cot works great. It was the only way to survive night watch. Late radio calls, impounding evidence, downloading the body cam, and printing out reports almost always turned a ten-hour shift into something closer to twelve. On top of that was his forty-five-minute commute to Riverside County.

Yeah, right. Wall myself off in a closet. She’d love that.

Travis stared up at the popcorn ceiling. After four hours of restless sleep, he lay sprawled across the bed, his legs twisted in sheets that felt straight out of the dryer. His T-shirt was soaked with sweat, mostly because he hadn’t changed after last night’s shift. Why bother? Seven thirty in the morning and the temperature was already pushing ninety degrees. The oscillating fan blew hot air across the small room and kicked up an arid red dust, a not-so-subtle reminder of something that all the strip malls, golf courses, and thousands of houses with postage stamp yards couldn’t refute: he’d moved his family to live in a desert.

After graduating from the San Diego Sheriff’s Academy, Travis got lucky and pulled an assignment to the city of Vista. It was the closest sheriff’s substation to the home he and Molly, along with their four children, rented in the Riverside County community of Temecula—using “community” in the loosest sense of the word. More like a sprawling contagion of stucco and red tile, infested almost entirely by San Diego– and Los Angeles–area commuters. During the week the place emptied out like an Old West ghost town, only to be refilled on weekends with mostly conservative, white, middle-age residents who constantly grumbled about California’s progressive politics, sky-high gas prices, and, most passionately, the long lines at the Claim Jumper restaurant. And of course, Travis thought, everybody complains about the heat. Because who would’ve ever thought it could get so hot in a desert?

“All right, that’s it.” Molly was practically yelling now, and the slam of the refrigerator door told Travis the stakes had somehow been raised. “If you need me to find you some proper school clothes, Tyler Henry Jackson, I will do it.”

“You told me to change.” The boy sounded damn near possessed. “Well, I changed!

There was no more ignoring it. Travis threw back the sheets and pulled himself out of bed. He made his way to the kitchen, where Molly stood with her fists on her hips, blocking the path to the door. Tyler, their teenage son, wore a pair of baggy athletic shorts that went down past his knees, topped with an oversize Milwaukee Bucks tank top. On his feet were tennis shoes with the laces pulled out. No socks.

“Damn, Mom. What’s your problem? It’s gonna be like a thousand degrees today.”

Molly ignored her son and keyed in on Travis. “Did you hear that? ‘Damn, Mom’? I’ve had it. You deal with him.”

Tyler spun around, shoulders slouched, his long dark bangs hanging over his eyes. “Dad, would you talk to her? It’s fricking high school. It’s the last week. Believe me, nobody cares what I wear.”

Molly stared back at her husband, signaling he’d better choose carefully. His next words would come with consequences.

“You heard your mother, Tyler. Go change.”

“Ah, screw that.” The boy managed to squeeze past his mom. “If I’ve got to go to this effed-up school, I can pick my own clothes.”

As Tyler headed for the door, his mother grabbed him by the arm. “You wait just one minute, young man. You are not—”

“Let me go!”

Twisting, Tyler shook loose and headed for the door, shooting his dad a parting glance over one shoulder. Travis saw the anger. The look of rebellion, like he was daring his father to say something. Then he was gone, slamming the door behind him.

“Are you kidding me?” She threw out one arm and pointed dramatically in the direction of their escaping son. Travis recognized that her disdain for him was a definite step up from what she had directed at the back-talking teenager. “That’s it? You’re just going to let him go?”

“Come on, Molly. His clothes? Really? He’s right. They’re down to the last couple of days, not to mention the kid is practically eighteen years old. Don’t you think we ought to . . . I don’t know. Pick our battles?”

Molly blew out a long, shaky breath and closed her eyes. She leaned her head back and called out in a voice that was gentle and kind. Obviously, she wasn’t talking to him. “All right, you two. Turn off the TV. Let’s get going.”

Nicole and Hannah walked obediently into the kitchen. Hannah, the oblivious preschooler, wore a checkered dress, white tights, and black patent leather shoes. She ran to Travis, her heels clicking lightly against the tile, and hugged his legs.

“Daddy! Did you wake up to kiss me good-bye?”

Travis lifted the four-year-old high in the air and said, “That’s exactly why I woke up.”

He kissed his daughter on the neck until she giggled and squirmed and told him to stop. He turned to Nicole, a seventh grader, who was much more serious and had no doubt heard the argument between her parents and brother. Nicole had always been close to Tyler, but lately that relationship was being tested.

“Hey, Nicki. All set for the last week of school?”

“Hi, Daddy.”

Travis didn’t miss the fact that she avoided the question. As a middle schooler, Nicole’s experience of being the new kid had been every bit as difficult as Tyler’s in high school. It had surprised Travis and Molly that Nicole had been much more capable than her older brother in dealing with the stressful transition.

“Where’s Brandon?” Travis asked, realizing the living room was empty.

“I’m letting him sleep in,” Molly said, and Travis picked up on her lingering anger, even a bit of disgust. “He’s got a molar coming in. Had a rough night. I’ll be back in a half hour.”

“I’ve got court. What if you get stuck in traffic?”

“You cannot be serious.” If Molly were anything other than a well-mannered Midwestern girl, he knew her choice of words would have been much more colorful.

Travis pointed to the calendar of Wisconsin landscapes hanging by the fridge. “I wrote it down, Molly. I’ve got court at nine o’clock. I need to get on the road by eight. You know how southbound traffic is in the morning.”

Molly stared back, her face was near expressionless and her voice void of emotion. “Nicki, get your brother for me, okay? Try not to wake him.”

Travis recognized his tactical error. “Wait. That’s okay. I’ll—”

Molly answered even as she managed to completely ignore him. She aimed the palm of her hand at Travis while smiling at her daughter. “Get your brother, sweetie. Put him in his car seat.”

Molly looked back his way, her mouth a straight line. “Are you coming home at all? After court, I mean?”

“My shift starts at three. Probably won’t be able to make it back up.”

“So, what then? We’ll see you tomorrow? Or should I check the calendar?”

She was way beyond pissed off, and Travis didn’t blame her or attempt a comeback.

Four days a week, Travis worked swing shift as a patrol deputy for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. During that time, he typically slept until after the kids went to school, left for work before they got home, and came back long after the whole family had gone to bed. Add in the round-trip commute of eighty miles a Four days a week, Travis worked swing shift as a patrol deputy for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. During that time, he typically slept until after the kids went to school, left for work before they got home, and came back long after the whole family had gone to bed. Add in the round-trip commute of eighty miles a day and Travis was pretty much a ghost for half the week. On the days he was home, he was like some drop-in visitor, always anxious to leave. A relative who used to be close but, because of a long absence, now just didn’t fit in.

Not for the first time, Travis considered the reality of their circumstances. A three-bedroom rented house sandwiched between two identical houses on an eight-thousand-square-foot lot, a twelve-lane interstate within rock-throwing distance, and a family that was as cracked and broken as the hard dirt of the desert floor. Looking now at his wife’s careworn expression, he could only wonder, What the hell was I thinking?

It had been almost two years since they’d moved from small-town Wisconsin to Southern California. In that world, the Jackson family owned a modern five-bedroom home situated on six wooded acres. They’d sold the house at a healthy profit, but after fees and taxes the equity check didn’t come close to covering a down payment on a home in Southern California. To allow even quiet acknowledgment that things hadn’t gone according to his well-laid plans was to start down a path of personal self-loathing and ridicule. The truth was, when Travis agreed to take the job with the sheriff’s department, he’d failed to take into account the dramatic impact the move would have on his family.

More like traumatic impact, he thought.

“Today’s day three,” he said, speaking to his wife’s back. “I should be able to get off on time. Then just one more workday and I’ve got no subpoenas until next week. We’ll have some time together. I promise.”

Her shoulders dropped and her spiteful tone was replaced with one of intense sadness—and that hurt all the more. “We’re losing him, Travis. You know we are. He’s not going to graduate with his class, and if he doesn’t pass his summer school courses, he won’t graduate at all. And with what happened last month? I’m really scared for him. He could throw his whole life away.”

“Come on, Molly.” He moved in closer and gently turned her to face him. “That’s not going to happen. We won’t let it happen.”

There was no denying it. The boy was drifting. He was angry. Resentful. Acting out. All the typical ways that Travis had heard kids described in a courtroom during a sentencing hearing or probation report. But not his son. Not Tyler.

He’s a good kid, Molly. It’s just that the move has been hard on him. But you know I’m right. He’s got a good heart. And on top of that, he’s smart. He’ll come around.”

“Shoplifting, Travis?” She looked up with glistening eyes. “You don’t think that’s some huge red flag?”

“I took care of all that, Molly. We’ll handle it as a family.”

“Took care of it? Is that what you call it? Getting your cop buddies to let it slide?”

“You want him to go to court?” he asked. “Juvenile hall? Probation? Is that what you want?”

When Tyler had gotten snagged by a mall cop for shoplifting video games, the responding deputy from the Riverside sheriff’s office had given Travis a courtesy call. It had made for a lousy week at home, but Travis was glad to keep his son out of the system. He knew Molly didn’t agree, and the argument over that had been one of their worst in almost eighteen years of marriage. The way she saw it, she was the one sticking up for Tyler. She was the one looking out for their son.

“I want him to face some consequences,” she said, pulling away. “And so far? He hasn’t. Now he’s out the door dressed like some . . . some trashy, wannabe rapper. Defying me. Defying you, Travis. You’re his father. Act like it.”

Travis had started to smile at her colorful description of Tyler, but his anger surged at the insult. Trying to show as little emotion as possible, he couldn’t help but be terse. “I said I’ll talk to him, Molly. We’re not losing him. I won’t let that happen.”

A scream of frustration from their two-year-old ended the conversation. Nicole walked into the kitchen carrying her little brother, still in his pajamas, his cheeks bright red, his curly yellow hair matted and damp with sweat. The boy was crying and banging his small fists against his sister’s chest.

“Sorry, Mom,” Nicole said. “He woke up.”

Molly forced a smile. “I can see that. Get him in his car seat and sit with him. I’ll be right out.”

“Yes, ma’am.” With Hannah trailing her closely, Nicole walked to the door leading to the garage, doing her best to console her brother. Travis thought again of his older daughter’s amazing maturity.

“Sorry we woke you,” Molly said, the anger replaced by something close to surrender. “Be safe tonight. Text me later, okay?”

She moved to the door and Travis called out to her. “It’s supposed to get up to a hundred ten. I’ll shut the house up before I leave and turn on the AC.”

Not bothering to look back, Molly shook her head. “The electric bill was over four hundred dollars last month. Better we tough it out.”

“I love you, Molly.”

“I know you do, Travis,” she said, her voice hollow. “I know you do.”

The door shut behind her. The house went quiet and he was alone.

 

Copyright © 2020 by Neal Griffin

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