On Thursday, Dom and Howe were out on business. Dom had a Jeep that was new to him, and somehow, a clean driving record. Howe had a lead on his daughter, and Dom was taking him to follow it. He had to. Howe would do the same for him, no question, and with the whereabouts of Dom’s own daughter unknown, Dom hoped eventually he would have to.
On the three hour drive from the Chippewa Valley to a small town outside Duluth, they drank Miller Lites and listened to heavy metal.
“You ever been to Cloquet before?” Dom said.
“No way, man. And I don’t know why the hell July would be up this far. She doesn’t like the cold. I thought she’d be damn near Texas by now.” Howe kept his lips close when he talked, but anyone could see he was missing two teeth, one on the top and one on the bottom. He swigged the last of a beer, then cracked a fresh can and put it in the cup holder as they passed a road sign: 22 miles to Highway 33, the concrete vein of Cloquet. “You speeding?” Howe said.
“Shit, I am.”
“Cops are probably dicks up here. I’d set the needle on 70.”
“You’re right. Fucking small town cops.”
The last thing Dom wanted was for them to draw attention to themselves. He wanted to swoop in and out, their business complete, Howe’s daughter safe in the back of the Jeep. Hopefully she would be happy, but if she wasn’t, maybe she would be fucked up enough not to fight them much. Later on she would understand. She would realize that her father had only been trying to look out for her. He and Howe had not always been the best fathers, but they had always been there, looming like hills, large, immovable, and easy to find if one was oriented right.
Dom set the cruise. Endless pines and birches sped by as the truck climbed up and down the hilled highway. The landscape was different this far north. The trees were taller, the rises more dramatic. In early spring, everything was damp and cold, the snow gathered in dirty patches here and there, the trees waiting for heat and light. It was bleakly beautiful, and it opened up to Lake Superior. As jaded as he may have been, Dom still slowed down once they were near the water.
“You nervous or something?” Howe said. He was packing a one hitter.
Dom just laughed and took a long hit off the pipe when Howe handed it over. “Thanks, doctor,” he said. He punched the accelerator and turned up the stereo. He was beginning the process, readying himself for what lay ahead, just as he had before all his kickboxing matches. He turned on his favorite Priest song, “Pain Killer.” It was the song he listened to before every fight. Dom “The Painkiller” Matthews, bellowed the announcer. No one ever got tired of hearing their name like that. He would always miss it. He turned up the stereo and sang along.
He is the painkiller
This is the painkiller
Mankind’s on its knees
A savior comes from out the skies
In answer to their pleas…
A half hour or so later, they wended their way through Cloquet and down some pitted county highway off Big Lake Road until they found the house where Howe’s daughter was supposed to be. It was a falling down thing, the foundation cracked and crumbling. White paint curled off the side, revealing grey and splintered wood beneath. A group of outbuildings huddled behind the house like beaten dogs.
“5-star junkie hotel,” Howe muttered.
As he brought the Jeep to a hard stop, the sight of the place caused a bloom of violence in Dom. It should have been the cops out here, but the cops never were where they needed to be. All systems had failed July. And Tabby, Dom’s daughter, well, if he ever found her, maybe things would change, but it always seemed like you needed serious money to get serious help.
He jumped out without a word, his cowboy boots slipping in the cold mud. Once on the ground, he ducked back into Jeep, pulling something long and thin from beneath the seat.
“You didn’t bring a pistol?” Howe said.
“Nah. This is way better for fucking with people.” Dom cut the air with the sword, practicing his forms. It was a katana, a menacing piece of steel he had won at his first karate competition. Pawn America had nearly taken it from him on a few occasions, but he always managed to rescue it just in time. His inability to lose the thing was one of the only constants in his life.
Howe looked at him and laughed. “Pain Killer,” he said.
As they approached the front door, Dom put the sword behind his back. Bursts of static shot through his joints, a natural heightening of his senses. Howe knocked. A small mammal rustled through the brush. They waited. Howe knocked again. Fat drops of water fell from the nubs of icicles. They waited. Howe lifted his hand to the door, but Dom grabbed the handle. Though it was locked, the bolt didn’t sit right in the catch, and the door opened when he pushed it.
“Fucking idiots,” he said.
On the other side lay a kitchen. It smelled like dirty cooking oil and rancid meat. Plates and bowls and glasses and fast food containers were piled everywhere. The floor was stamped with dirty tracks. Thin bursts of water flared out of the dish-filled sink as the faucet dripped a rhythm. The house was dim, the only light that which crept through the cloudy windows and threadbare curtains.
Howe stepped forward lightly, pausing at the door frame that led into the next room. He put his arm out, holding Dom back, and peered around the corner.
“It’s empty,” he whispered.
“Fuck this sneaking around shit,” muttered Dom. “July! Ju—ly!” he yelled, pushing past Howe and into the house’s tattered living room, where a muted television screen was scattered with snow.
“Goddamn it, Dom.”
“Fuck ‘um. I’m not scared of junkies. July, you here?”
“What the fuck?” a voice yelled from somewhere else in the house.
Dom strode forward. “You got visitors,” he yelled back.
A pale and skinny creature wearing an old Nirvana t-shirt poured into the room. Dom grabbed him by the front of his shirt, squeezing the band’s logo into a jumble.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Shawn,” the kid slurred. “I’m not holding, man.”
“We’re not buying,” Dom said. “We’re looking for a girl named July. Is she here?”
“What do you want?” Shawn said. Beneath his eyes hung violet bags. A small trickle of mucus was starting to run from his nose. For a second as Dom held his shirt, Shawn seemed to leave, his eyes rolling back, his mouth falling open, but then he came to again. Dom put the sword up to his neck.
“What the hell?” Shawn said.
“Where is July?”
“July. A dark-haired girl about your age, July. Where is she?”
“I don’t know, man. I just stay here sometimes.”
“Then you won’t mind giving us a tour. Come on, Howe. We’re getting a tour of the place.”
Dom stood behind Shawn, his hand now gripping the back of Shawn’s shirt as he pushed the kid toward a dark staircase. “If you’re lying,” Dom whispered. “I won’t feel bad about what happens next.”
Shawn stumbled forward, taking them through a series of stinking, squalid bedrooms. The first room had a crib, a garbage can overflowing with diapers. The second had only a stained twin mattress on the floor. The white walls and ceiling were canvases filled with erratic sprays of blood, the high art of injectable intoxicants.
In the final room, which was empty except for garbage, a bucket, and a sleeping bag, Dom pushed Shawn down into a corner and leaned into his face.
“You see this guy?” he said, pointing at Howe. “July is his kid, and she has to go home now.” He pointed the end of the sword at Shawn’s chest. “So we need to know where she is.”
“I just stay here sometimes,” the kid said. His eyelids sagged.
Howe crouched down and grabbed the kid’s chin. “Where is she?”
The kid’s eyelids raised. “I just stay here sometimes, man.”
“Where is she?” Howe said again.
“I’m not holding. There’s no money. I’m not holding.”
Howe stood up and looked at Dom. “Let’s go,” he said and walked out of the room.
But Dom didn’t follow. Once Howe was out of the room, he leaned down into Shawn’s face. The trail of mucus slowly reached the kid’s lip. It was all so disgusting that Dom got itchy. The mucus flowed over the ridge of the kid’s top lip and then onto his stubbled chin. Dom’s hands twitched and before he knew it, Shawn’s head was slamming against the wall. The kid’s body collapsed. “Junkie piece of shit,” Dom said.
Howe was waiting for him in the kitchen. “You OK, brother?” he said. His cheeks were red, his mouth open wide enough to show the gaps in his teeth. “We gotta get in and out, like we talked about.”
“Yeah,” Dom said. “I’m good. Let’s go.”
Outside, the fetid odor of the house still clung to them. They walked toward a couple of the outbuildings—an old cabin and a sauna.
“Let’s check the cabin,” Howe said.
The cabin door looked like it was on the edge of collapse, and when Dom shoved his shoulder against it, it gave immediately. Behind the door was a single room with faux-wood paneling and torn beige linoleum. One lamp lit the place, and a space heater ran on full blast in its center.
“July?” Dom said.
“Who are you?” a man’s voice emerged from a shadowed corner.
“Never mind. We’re looking for July,” Howe said.
“Dad? Dad, what the hell? What are you doing here? Dom? What the fuck?” July emerged in slow motion from a pile of blankets near the space heater. She moved a greasy lock of hair from over her eyes, pulled her cut-neck t-shirt down straight. One of her shoulders showed, the black strap of her bra cutting it. As she moved, what light there was crawled across her. She had those heroin eyes; she had that baby face.
The man in the corner slunk into the light and stood beside her. “Leave us alone,” he said. His face was a ruinous field of pale skin and scabs. “Get out of our business. We aren’t hurting anyone.”
Dom laughed. He couldn’t help it. He laughed until he felt like his eyes would burst. “You hear this shit?” he said to Howe. July and the man next to her froze. “I can’t fucking believe this punk. ‘We aren’t hurting anyone.’”
Howe kept his eyes on July. “We’re going home,” he said. “I don’t care about the money or the credit card. I don’t care about anything. We’re going home. I got you a place so you can get straight. We’re getting you straight, honey.”
“Dad, you’re here.”
For a moment it seemed July would follow them, the patron saint of heroin addicts pushing the drug off the receptors in her brain, granting her a reprieve.
But then the man grabbed July’s bicep, his thin fingers pressing into her skin. “You aren’t taking her. She’s with me now. Right, July? You’re with me.” He smiled. “I’m taking care of you.” He scratched his neck. “Right, babe?”
“Get your shit-stain hands off her,” Dom said. Then he turned to Howe. “Get her out.”
“Easy now,” Howe said.
“Just get her.”
Howe walked over to July, his hands reaching out as though he were coaxing a frightened animal. “Come on, sweetheart,” he said.
She leaned away from the man, began to move toward Howe. But the man jerked her arm, and she slunk onto her knees, her eyes to the floor. The man pushed his hand down onto her shoulder. “She’s all grown up. And she’s with me,” he said.
With that, Dom felt a familiar break, a loud and particular crack that always told him when to strike. It had never been wrong. He rushed the man, spinning him, and holding the katana at his neck. “Really, asshole?” Dom said. He looked at Howe. “Get her,” he said. “Get her out of here now.”
The man snarled and scratched at Dom’s forearms. “The fuck?” he said.
Howe gathered up July, her body languid. “What the hell, Dad?” she said. “What are you doing here?”
“Shhhh….” Howe said. “It’s OK. It’s all OK.” He picked her up and carried her to the door. “Dom, let’s go. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Dom looked at him and then back at the man. “I’ll be right behind you,” he said.
“We got what we came for. In and out, brother.”
“I’ll be right behind you,” Dom repeated. He knew Howe was waiting, but he didn’t turn around, didn’t move. When Howe finally retreated, he spun the man away by the shoulders hard enough to knock him flat.
“Jesus Christ,” the man said. He clutched one of his elbows.
“I told you not to touch her. That’s his goddamn daughter, his only daughter.”
The man let go of his elbow. He smirked and then started laughing. “Why do you think she’s here anyways?” he said. “It’s fuckers like you guys. It’s always fuckers like you.”
Dom’s ears rang. He swooped down and struck the man once in the trachea. As he choked, Dom closed the heel of his boot on the man’s nose. The crunch of cartilage and the blossom of blood filled Dom with a satisfaction that in all his years of fighting had been unparalleled. He spit in man’s face, his saliva foamy with beer and cigarettes.
“You don’t know anything. Nothing, you little shit. Don’t you ever go near her again,” Dom said. “Never. Do you understand me?”
He backed off for a second and then grabbed the man’s shirt. The man didn’t respond.
“Do you fucking hear me?” Dom screamed. “Do you fucking hear me?” When no response came, he slammed the man’s head against the floor. The man went limp, and Dom counted down in his head. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10…It was a knockout. He backed out of the room slowly, katana raised, then turned and sprinted to the Jeep.
“What did you do?” Howe asked as Dom stashed the sword back beneath the seat.
“Never mind,” Dom said. “Let’s get out of here.” And then as he pulled away, “Narcan’s in the glove box.”
They drank beer quietly on the first part of the way home, then stopped at a liquor store for a fifth of whiskey to split. Howe kept checking on July to make sure she was breathing all right.
“Just like when she was little, huh?” Dom said.
The road unfolded before them, darkness falling just before they made it back to Howe’s sparsely furnished two-bedroom in the shitty part of Eau Claire. He had scraped together what he had to pay the deposit and two months’ rent in advance. Dom had helped, though he didn’t even have a place of his own. He wasn’t good with money, never had been.
Howe got July in the house and lay her on her side tucked into the only bed in the apartment.
“I’m going to sleep on the floor next to her,” Howe said.
Dom nodded. “I’m going to sit up for a while.”
“Thanks, brother.” Howe clapped Dom on the shoulder. “Tabby’s next,” he said. “I know it.”
“She is,” Dom said. “She is.”
After Howe retreated into the bedroom, Dom rummaged through the kitchen to find the bottle of Karkov Howe always kept stashed. Howe would give him hell tomorrow, but he didn’t care. He would drink too much tonight, dive deep into the poor man’s ocean. He had known he would do it all day. It was always like that, the intention and then the action. All those years of discipline—he was a black belt—and still.
When he drank too much, he came back to the same moment again and again: his addict daughter Tabby lying in a hospital bed in the ICU. What did he remember about the whole time she was in a coma after her overdose? He remembered her feet. They stuck out from under the sheets. She was wearing those hospital socks imprinted with rubber smiley faces for traction. They bagged at the ends, and he pulled them off. Her second toes were slightly longer than her first, had always been that way. Bright pink polish shrunk back from the edges of her nails. In his hands, the skin and bones of her feet glowed with fragility. It scared him as he sat with her, scared him more than when she had been a soft-skulled newborn. He did what he could think to do, which was reflexology, a skill from one of his former lives, a life built on mistakes that had taken him halfway across the country from Tabby for 5 years of her childhood. It was a life he wished he could erase. He worked on the points for her lungs, her brain, her heart. Wake up, he thought, please. Wake up, he thought, please, as he watched her heart graph its beat across the screen of the monitor.
He downed a final shot and walked to the bedroom where July and Howe were sleeping. He pushed the flimsy door open a little, letting in a stream of warm light. Howe lay on his side facing July. Ocean sounds played on a loop through his phone. After a minute, Dom backed away and switched off the lights. He took off his sweatshirt, balling the hoodie beneath his head, and stretched out in the hallway outside the door.
In the ICU, the nurses had told him that Tabby’s blood pressure dropped every time he came into the room. It seemed like something they couldn’t lie about. Drunk or not, before bed he always talked to Tabby. He did the same tonight. Just come home, he said. I’ll take care of you, he said. We’ll do everything together. He thought he could reach her; he thought she’d come back if he just kept talking to her, like she had in the hospital. After weeks of rubbing her feet, after weeks of asking, she had finally woken up, and upon waking, “Is that you?” she said.
Darci Schummer is the author of the story collection Six Months in the Midwest (Unsolicited Press), and her work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Compose Journal, Necessary Fiction, Midway Journal, and Synaesthesia Magazine, among other places. She teaches writing at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, where she also serves as the editor of the Thunderbird Review. A Wisconsin girl, she lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.