Lloyd gazed through layers of pollen, dust, and carbon emission residue caked on the prison bus window. Mesmerized by the sun’s orange glow fading beneath the central Florida landscape of banana palms and hibiscus shrubs, he held his breath until his starving lungs forced him to inhale.
He wasn’t dreaming.
His departure from the regimented life in a cell block dorm was happening in real time, in living, vibrant color, but without the fanfare he’d imagined. His chance to start over, to pick up where his life had ended ten years ago, had finally come to fruition. The light felt brighter. The air smelled cleaner. The freedom he’d dreamed about tasted sweeter than a cane sugar soda. He had the rest of his natural days to look forward to. And many disturbing images to forget.
Lost in his own solitude, he shared a bench seat with the same correctional officer who initially indoctrinated him to a world behind bars—an irony gone unnoticed until Lloyd recognized the guard’s hand deformity, where two fingers grew together as one and ended at a point with a single nail. A thick beard hid the man’s hardened face—a man who’d lost his voice box to cancer and his conscience to the devil himself.
A fitting end, Lloyd thought, to the bastard who reaped profits from the pain and suffering of younger inmates recruited to participate in human cock fights—gang-bangers, mostly, with lots of attitude and little common sense, lured by the promise of easy coin and special favors if they won with a vicious display of force. Most of them fought the good fight and returned to their cells physically and emotionally bludgeoned by bigger, meaner, hungrier machines disguised as men.
After years of powdered milk and dirty water, Lloyd salivated over thoughts of cold beer, warm steak, and a hot baked potato or fries. Not the lame-dick fries the prison served, but the over-salted, golden brown crunchy ones McDonald’s cranked out by the millions. The salted grease would melt in his mouth the way the glob of whipped butter would dissolve on his open baked potato. And yet despite his desire for real food, a more potent hunger gnawed at him, a deeper emotional famine he experienced during his lengthy incarceration.
When the bus arrived at the scheduled destination, Lloyd stepped out as a free man in his jeans and leather ankle boots embroidered with a cross on one side, the same clothes he wore the day the judge passed sentence in the courtroom and tore his family apart.
He ventured across the street toward an abandoned strip mall and a bus shelter, where a handful of weary travelers waited for the public transportation to arrive.
“You got a light?” a young woman asked. She approached Lloyd with her arm akimbo and an unlit cigarette between her fingers.
“Sorry,” Lloyd told the mocha-skinned girl in a miniskirt and heels with a wig and glitter nail polish. “I don’t smoke.” He advanced toward the bus shelter with the girl in his shadow, swinging her arm in sync with her hips. “Can I help you?” he asked.
A streetlight petered out overhead after several seconds of random flickering.
“Tell me what you did.”
“I saw you come off the short bus,” the girl explained. “That bus only stops here once a month. Mostly after dark.”
Lloyd pressed on.
The girl followed. “Were you a dope slinger? A car jacker? You ever kill anybody? The cops found a joint in my cousin’s car one time. He told them he’d never seen it before. The cops also found a bag of weed in his glove box. Said he’d never seen that before either. I think they put it there on purpose when he wasn’t looking. That kind of shit happens all the time.” She took a lighter from her purse. “You don’t talk much,” she said. She blocked the wind to light her cigarette and blew smoke away from Lloyd. “You want a date?”
“I’ll pass,” said Lloyd.
“Are you sick in the head?”
“Are you sick in the ass?”
Lloyd stopped on the broken sidewalk littered with fast food wrappers and discarded cigarettes. “Do your parents know you’re out here trying to pick up strangers?”
“What are you, some kind of Boy Scout? How young do I look to you?”
Lloyd stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Too young to be out here alone.”
“I’m clean, and I ain’t never touched a needle.”
“Go home,” Lloyd urged her as a stranger with a smash-nose face inside a hooded sweatshirt approached from a black Escalade with spinning rims.
“There a problem here?” the man asked Lloyd in a deep, resonating voice. He gave Lloyd the once-over with fierce, deep-set eyes that almost glowed beneath his hood.
“We’re cool,” said Lloyd. He turned to follow the arriving bus. “I don’t want any trouble,” he spoke over his shoulder. He looked directly at the girl and said, “Get on the bus.”
“Look here,” the hooded stranger challenged Lloyd. “I run a business. This here’s my merchandise. You touch it, you buy it.”
Lloyd watched the group board the bus. “Not tonight.”
The stranger pulled a butterfly knife from his sweatshirt pocket and flashed the blade. “Give up the wallet, motherfucker.”
Lloyd touched his back pocket. “I must have left it at home.”
The stranger pressed the scalpel-sharp blade to Lloyd’s throat. “Are you trippin? Give up the wallet or give up your life.”
“You’re the boss,” Lloyd acknowledged, his heart rate barely higher than his standing pulse. In less time than it took to sneeze, Lloyd disarmed his opponent and barked his heel against the taller man’s shin, prompting his attacker to hunch forward. In the same instant, Lloyd yanked the man’s head down and smashed his grill against a rising knee, knocking him out cold.
“Shop’s closed,” Lloyd mumbled. He stomped the knife with his heel and tossed the broken weapon at the trees. Then he boarded the bus and grabbed the overhead rail, facing opposite the minor irritation in a skirt who claimed a seat between a homeless man and a grandmother clutching her purse.
“You got some serious anger issues,” the girl chastised Lloyd. “You need to cool your jets and find some peace.”
Lloyd switched hands on the rail. “You need to find better friends.”
The girl unwrapped a wad of grape bubble gum and started chewing in earnest. “You got a name?”
“What kind of medieval name is that?”
“Mine,” Lloyd replied with a hint of attitude. He had enough on his plate without befriending a teenage runaway and all the baggage she brought with her. “Look, I don’t know you. You don’t know me. Let’s leave it at that.”
“Where are you headed?” the girl asked. She blew a softball size bubble.
“The same place you should be. Home.”
The girl popped the gum with her nail. She tugged at her miniskirt. “What are you staring at?”
Lloyd held his arm out. “Give me your hand.”
“Just give me your hand.”
The girl held her hand out, nails up.
Lloyd turned her wrist. He ran his finger on her palm, tracing the lines that betrayed her tough girl facade. He followed the life line across the middle of her palm between the index finger and the thumb. He studied the shape of the hand and fingers. “You have great potential. Don’t squander it.”
The girl tried to pull her hand away, but Lloyd held on.
“You can read a lot from a person’s hands. If you believe that sort of thing.”
“Let go!” the girl exclaimed. “Or the next thing you’re gonna read is my fist in your face.”
Lloyd released his grip. “Where do you live?”
“You’re looking at it,” the girl replied. “I got nowhere to be. My Mom’s dead. My Pop’s been in jail forever.”
She blew a bubble in her mouth and popped it between her teeth. “No matter. I’m an independent business woman now.”
Lloyd followed her hand gestures as she talked. A bundle of human potential wrapped in a pretty package with no direction and a welfare net to catch her fall. A girl starving for a hot meal, a clean bed, and a shoulder to cry on. An easy target for a predator lurking in plain sight with the conscience of a serial killer. “So that’s your plan?”
“You got a better idea?” the girl asked. She rubbed Lloyd’s knee. “I can be anyone you want me to be.”
Lloyd pushed her hand away.
“You got a problem dating black women?”
“I have a problem dating children.”
“I’m older than you think.”
“And smarter than you pretend to be.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “What are you? My fairy godmother now?”
Lloyd shifted his weight to his back foot before the bus came to a stop. “I’m getting out. You’re staying on.”
The air brakes hissed. The folding doors opened.
Lloyd took a crumpled Jackson from his wallet and gave it to the girl.
“What’s that for?” she asked him.
“Your ticket home.”