Chapter Four

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Mack is twenty-one-years-old, and man, is he over it. His anger is subdued like a feral kitten, small but still in full force. He keeps it locked down, and whenever he goes to look for me, he finds it instead. Sometimes he pets it. Sometimes he leaves it alone.

He graduated high school with a wrestling scholarship to Texas A&M-Texarkana, but he decided not to go. He thought about it for a while, but the kitten kept nipping at him, and he thought to himself: Why do I think I can do any better?

It was an expected reaction, but his mother was so disappointed. Glenn Augustus was disappointed, too, because it meant a potential freeloader looking for a handout. Glenn is a staunch Republican and is still sore from Clinton winning the presidency. He detests the tactless phrase "trickle-down economics," but he fully embodies the theory, splattering the world with his financial investments. He has a sixth sense when it comes to his money, and I admire his keen intellect and the lack of fear in his heart. But not much else.

"You can do better, Mack. We can help. Glenn wants to help." Glenn is in the threshold of Mack's apartment, the sun edging his Lacoste polo, almost giving him the impression of an angelic being. But Mack doesn't look at him. He hardly looks at this mother because the kitten is shrieking fiercely in his chest.

"I'm sure he does." Mack is eating Fruit Loops at the breakfast bar at his apartment like a child. He's graduated from trade school and has worked for the past year at Estes Auto Repair where Jaime Estes treats him like family. He respects Jaime, a feeling he once carried around for the father he's never met until Rochelle told him in a drunken stupor once how his father was a rapist who took his own life.

It was like digging up a treasure chest only to find it empty.

"Look, we care about you. And I know you are capable of so much more. You did so well in high school. That was all you, I know that. You kept your grades up and worked so hard on the wrestling team. Don't give up on yourself. Let Glenn pay for your schooling. You can stay with us–or Dennis? Dennis would love for you to stay with him." Mack snorts on a Fruit Loop and tries to keep it from going down the wrong pipe. He takes a big swig of his chocolate milk trying to forget but instantly remembering Dennis's face the day he left the duplex for good. His mother was working, so Mack loaded his stuff up in Coach Markle's borrowed pick up himself. Dennis kept shadowing the threshold of his room like Glenn does now.

"All grown up," Dennis said. The insanity had already eaten a large chunk of his brain, and his heart was so small at this point, it could barely be felt. His mind's eye was a dismal fabrication of what uncles typically do with nephews. There were trips to the park and walks with invisible dogs. And a blatantly senseless feeling of respect between the two of them. When Mack looked at him in the doorway, he couldn't see anything but an outline framed in black.

"That's the word on the street," Mack said. He wasn't scared or even threatened. He could have killed Dennis if he wanted to. He just didn't feel like it. He was thinking about the money he'd be making, his brand new apartment. About going to some bar and getting toasted and hopefully meeting a girl. He thought these were the necessary steps to a better life, like he could dig up the old one and firmly replace it. But he didn't understand that the past is stamped permanently. That it's tattooed on every inch of his insides unless he lets me in to wash it clean.

"Dennis?" he asked. He retrieved Roy McGruffin from a dirty corner of his closet to put him in a box.

"What, buddy?" Dennis asked, hopelessly hopeful.

"Nothing." Mack said because that's exactly the way he felt.

"You okay?" Rochelle asks now, tentatively patting him on the back. It's a breach of his personal bubble, and it reminds him of wrestling, of feeling somebody tangled all up with you and how you never feel alone in a moment like that.

"Yes," Mack says firmly, feeling the kitten growl a little bit in his chest. "I'm perfectly fine."

#

There's a woman at the bar he's never seen before. And before the night is over, she's in his bed. He's too drunk to say anything, but she feels like a dream, like the only thing that can save his soul.

I've planted her hard in his life. It's his last and final hope.

He's so drunk and sweating, he can't make heads or tails of anything except the white sheets he's swimming in. Natalie helped him back to his apartment because she already knows this is the man she's going to marry. But she would have done it anyway knowing her.

She's stripped him down to his underwear after he vomited on his shirt. I helped her pick up his large body so she could move him from the toilet to the bed. She wipes the stink and sweat off of him and doesn't even mind when he tries to kiss her with his foul mouth.

"Just rest," she says and holds his hand. He begins to cry.

"What is it?" she asks.

And that is the key that unlocks him. He tells her about Dennis, and Leonard, and Roy McGruffin. He tells her his stupid mistake of turning down his scholarship and what Rochelle and Glenn think of him. Natalie's heart is good soil. It's abundant and deep, and she plants every word so she can tend to each individually.

"I'm sorry," is all he can keep saying as she lightly kisses his hairline that still smells like Jager Bombs.

"Don't be," she says and holds him in her arms. She's not afraid of his brokenness or threatened by his past. She's one of the good ones.

So for one night, Mack forgets about the darkened room, the ropes. He forgets about being exposed and touched and tormented.

About being a child.

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