Crossing the Line

Ryan

When you die, it’s game over.

There is no coming back, no re-spawns or do-overs.

I’m sitting in the last row of the funeral home, watching as people file past me to pay their respects to Max Trieger’s widow. She’s clutching on to her two little daughters tightly. One tearfully asks if her daddy is in the wooden box in front of them, and all Mrs. Trieger can do is nod slowly through her sobs. Her son sits stiffly with his arms folded on his chest a few feet away.

I’ll always remember Max as being a tough-as-nails border detective. A few of the Mexican kids at our school were wary of him, afraid he might start snooping around and asking questions about their parents or immigration status. But his goal wasn’t to sniff out anyone who crossed the border illegally. He made it his mission to crush the criminal drug trade so the next generation wouldn’t have to carry that burden.

Supposedly Max Trieger was in the middle of some secret operation with the Mexican authorities and the DEA to take down Las Calaveras, the cartel operating between Mexico and the US, and he got shot for it. In his face. Nobody knows who did it but even if they did, the motto in our Texas border town is “snitches get stitches.”

Or worse.

I stare at the wooden casket and wonder if Max had known beforehand that he’d die and leave his wife and kids behind, would he have carried out whatever secret operation he was involved in?

Probably.

“Ryan, come sit with us,” my mom urges from the front row. She’s frantically waving me over as I contemplate how much alcohol she downed before she showed up here.

I shake my head with the hope she’ll stop focusing her attention on me while I try to blend in with the crowd. I put my head down so I don’t have to make eye contact with her or anyone else. It’s a trick I learned a long time ago to escape situations. Sometimes it works.

Other times it doesn’t.

I can tell this is one of those other times, because after a few minutes I feel a hard tap on my shoulder. “Yo, loser. Your mom wants you to sit up front with us,” my whiny stepbrother PJ sputters in a voice that could shatter glass.

Instead of answering, I shoot him a level stare as a warning to leave me alone.

“Suit yourself,” he says in a clipped tone. “I didn’t want you to sit with us anyway.”

Everyone here knows we’re not related by blood. It’s no secret I’m the troublemaker stepson of Loveland’s beloved sheriff. Nothing I do is about to change that.

PJ trots up to his dad, who’s standing guard in front of the casket, and whispers something to him. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he’s tattling on me, which is so pathetic for a kid who’s about to turn seventeen. My stepfather, Paul, otherwise known as Sheriff Blackburn, looks in my direction with pure disgust while PJ flashes me a small, triumphant smile.

I ignore them and bow my head as I do the only thing I came here to do. Pray for Max Trieger.

A few months back Max found me sitting on a park bench with a pocketknife in my hand. It was late at night, nobody else was around, and I stared at the shiny blade as if it were my salvation. When Max walked up to me, he didn’t interrogate me or demand I hand over the knife. As if he knew what I was about to do, he parked his butt on the bench next to me. We sat in silence for a long time until he said in that calm, cool voice of his, “What if it gets better but you never knew ’cause you gave up?”

“What if it doesn’t get better?” I asked him as I stared at the blade.

He shrugged. “Law of averages says it will, and I’m a guy who knows a thing or two about laws. Why don’t I hold on to that blade for a little while, Ryan? It’d be a shame if you accidentally cut yourself waitin’ for things to get better.” He held out his hand and I gave him the knife. “If you ever need me, don’t hesitate to call me anytime. Or my partner, Lance Matthews. He’s rough around the edges, but a good guy.” He handed me a card with both of their numbers on it.

Even though I knew I’d never call, I stashed that card in my wallet as if it were my lifeline to sanity.

Max Trieger saved my life that day. Max was a hero, unlike my stepfather.

I look at my mom’s husband, wearing his dark blue Loveland sheriff’s uniform with its shiny gold star pin and name tag engraved with the words PAUL M. BLACKBURN, SHERIFF. He loves that heavy polyester uniform, but not because of what it stands for. He loves it for the ego trip it gives him.

Paul is now greeting mourners at the entrance. Summer break just started and it’s hot as Hell here in southern Texas. I wonder if they notice the droplets of sweat on his face. Probably not. Some look at him as if he’ll single-handedly protect the entire town from harm. Truth is, he doesn’t give a shit about anyone but himself. He lets guys like Max and Lance do the dirty work while he hides in his big office at the Loveland police station and takes credit for every drug bust and arrest as if he’s the only competent person on the force. He dismisses the federal border patrol agents as irrelevant wannabes even when some police departments in border towns are notorious for employing crooked cops who are paid by cartels to look the other way.

I glance over at my mom sitting in the second pew next to Allen and PJ, Paul’s two obnoxious sons from his first marriage. Mom’s wearing a little black lacy dress from some designer store in town and she’s got her hands folded neatly in her lap. I know she’s drunk, but my mom is a pro at hiding it. Hell, I bet even Paul doesn’t realize she downed her daily dose this morning.

Or maybe he doesn’t give a shit.

In his sleazy mind, having a trophy wife by his side just enhances the hero image. Having to deal with her bastard son who doesn’t conform to his perfect image pisses the heck out of him.

As the flood of mourners starts to dwindle, a bunch of girls from Loveland High appear. They’re all wearing similar short, strappy dresses and they cluster around each other as if they’re a herd.

“I’m not sitting anywhere near Ryan,” their self-appointed leader, Mikayla Harris, announces loud enough for me to hear.

I flip her off.

She glares at me and mumbles “Jerk” before fingering her fiery red hair and leading the girls to the opposite side of the funeral home.

When I first moved to Loveland a year ago from Chicago, Mikayla and I hooked up at a party. I warned her that I wasn’t looking for a girlfriend because I was in training to move up the ranks as a boxer, but I guess she expected me to change my mind once we started hanging out. When I didn’t agree to worship the ground she walked on, Mikayla made sure everyone knew I’d been to juvie back in Chicago for assault and grand theft auto. I don’t know how she found out, but that didn’t matter. Pretty much everyone at school avoided me after that.

Paul, who just abandoned his post, is suddenly in my face. He reeks of cheap cologne. “Go sit next to your mother,” he orders through clenched teeth.

“Why? So we can pretend to be a cohesive, happy family?” Fuck that.

“No, smartass.” He flashes a tight, thin-lipped smile to a couple who just walked into the place before turning his attention back to me. “It’s so your mother doesn’t have to answer questions about why her son chose to sit with strangers at a funeral. Just once, spare her from having to make up excuses for you.”

I glance at my mom and feel a pang of guilt. It’s not like she’s been the doting mother all my life, but I don’t need to give her yet another excuse to get plastered.

Pushing past my stepfather to sit with my mom, I cringe when he pats me on the back as if we have some kind of affection for each other. It’s just a show. If everyone in this funeral home knew how he ripped on Max behind his back, they’d get a small glimpse into the real Sheriff Paul Blackburn.

Commotion in the front row brings me back to the reason why I’m here. Max’s twin girls are still crying. When Mrs. Trieger tells her son to sit closer to her, the kid shakes his head.

“I don’t want to be here!” the kid shouts.

His mother reaches out to console him but he twists away from her and runs outside. The kid has the right idea. I don’t want to be here, either.

While mourners and Max’s partner, Lance, rush to comfort the distraught widow, I sneak outside.

It doesn’t take me long to find the kid. He’s around eleven or twelve, a crappy age to lose a dad. Hell, I lost my dad before I was born and that was pretty crappy too. That’s not exactly true because my dad left. He disappeared right after my mom told him she was pregnant. Supposedly he took all the money they’d saved up and ran off with some bimbo stripper he’d met at a dive bar.

My dad was one helluva jerk.

Trieger’s kid peeks his head out from behind one of the trees and eyes me curiously. “No matter what you say I’m not goin’ back in there.”

I shrug, then pull out a cigarette from the pack I have in my pocket. “Listen, kid, I don’t give a shit if you go back in there or not.” I light the cig, then sit on a picnic bench near the tree. “The way I see it, you can stay out here and hide behind that tree all day long.”

“I’m not hidin’,” he says, stepping out and revealing his skinny body and a blotchy red face from crying.

I take a drag and the smoke burns the back of my throat. It’s a harsh reminder of why I hate the damn things. “Looks like you were hidin’.”

The kid tentatively perches himself on the edge of the bench. “You’re Sheriff Blackburn’s son, aren’t you?”

“Stepson.” I’m quick to correct him.

He focuses his gaze on the cig. “That causes cancer.”

“So does eatin’ hot dogs. You ever eat one of those?”

“Yeah.”

I take another drag, then smash the cigarette on the bench. I started smoking at about this kid’s age when my mom left a box of Newports on the kitchen counter and went out for the night. I gave up smoking when I started boxing and working out, but every once in a while I have one when I’m stressed out. Today definitely calls for a few drags. “Sometimes it’s fun to do shit that’s bad for you,” I tell him.

“Did you really go to jail for stealing a car?” he asks.

“I didn’t steal it, kid. I borrowed it.”

“Why?”

“You want the truth?”

He nods.

“To piss off my mother’s boyfriend at the time.” I gesture to the funeral home. “Why’d you walk out?”

He reaches for the collar of his stark white shirt and pulls it away from his neck as if it’s about to choke him. “I just . . . I don’t want to see that coffin. I’m not an idiot, I know he’s dead. I just don’t want to be reminded of it. And I don’t like everyone starin’ at me now that my dad is gone.” He kicks the leg of the bench and keeps his head down. “Did you ever just want to disappear?”

“All the time. The law of averages says that when you’re at your lowest things will start to look up. Your dad told me that a while back.” I glance at the parking lot where my old, beat-up Mustang is waiting for me. “Running away isn’t gonna fix your problems.” I toss a rock, hitting a tree in the distance. “And if you run away you’d be alone, and I gotta be honest with you. Those girls in there, your sisters . . . they need you. Your ma needs you.”

“I don’t want to be needed.” He finds a rock and follows my lead, trying to hit the same tree I did.

“I get you, but sometimes . . .” I think of Max’s coffin with the Texas flag draped over it. “Sometimes you got to man up before you’re ready. Trust me, I know from experience.”

The kid picks up another rock, but instead of aiming it at the tree he’s suddenly focused on something behind me. I turn to see my stepfather walking up to us with a stern look on his face.

Oh, hell.

“Charlie, the service is starting,” Paul says in his high-pitched voice that’s supposed to sound authoritative but instead sounds like nails on a chalkboard. “Get inside.”

The kid sighs.

“Go on,” I tell him. “Man up.”

The kid hands me the rock before heading back inside the funeral home.

Paul glares at me with cold, beady eyes. “What did you say to Max’s kid?”

I boldly stare back, because I know he hates that. He’d rather have me cower and be intimidated, but that’s not gonna happen. “Nothin’ much.”

We’re at a standstill, but he refuses to back off and leave me alone. He’s too predictable. Any minute now the insults are gonna fly.

Paul gestures to the pack of cigarettes lying on the picnic table. “What the hell are those?”

I slide one of the cigarettes out of the pack and light it. “I offered it to the kid, but he refused.”

“That’s illegal, Ryan.”

I take a drag and release a stream of smoke into the air. “So?”

“You’re such a loser,” he tells me as if I don’t already know it. Insult number one, check. But he’s not done. “You should feel mighty lucky I let you live in my home instead of sending you to live with your father.” The side of his mouth twitches. “Oh, yeah, that’s not an option.”

Insult number two, check.

“I thank my lucky stars every day that you’re so generous, Paul,” I say. I take another hit and blow it out slowly, immensely enjoying the fact that it’s annoying him.

He wags his finger at me. “I don’t want you talkin’ to Max’s boy. You hear me?”

“Give me a break. He just lost his old man and needed someone to talk to.”

“Let him talk to someone who treats people with respect.” He stands tall as if that’ll somehow make him appear intelligent. It doesn’t. “Someone with honor and integrity.”

Insults number three, four, and five, check.

Damn, he’s on a roll.

If this guy weren’t my mom’s husband, I’d probably knock him out. He thrives on insults and is the least qualified person to spout words of honor and integrity. “Whatever, man,” I say. “You’re not my father and you’re not family.”

“Thank the mighty Lord for that. If you were, you’d be sittin’ up there with your poor mother, wearin’ a respectable suit and tie instead of”—he gestures to my dark jeans and black T-shirt—“that.”

Paul is more than aware that I don’t have money to buy a suit and he sure as hell wouldn’t offer to gift me one.

Enough insults for one day.

“I’m out,” I say as I smash the cigarette on the bench and start walking away.

“That’s littering,” Paul calls after me.

“Arrest me,” I respond as I head to my car.

I can hear the words of the pastor as I pass the window of the funeral home. “Today we say good-bye to our dear Max Trieger, a man who lived without fear and was a hero to us all . . .”

Hearing those words reminds me of my motto in life . . .

Fuck being a hero.