SCREAMS SPLINTERED the night, pulling Rey from his sleep.
He was sleepy, and the last thing he wanted was to deal with his dad, especially since there was school to go to in the morning, a high school nightmare of numbers and words jumbled into a mess he struggled to make sense out of. But the screams, they were… unsettling… different… a high-pitched whine, then a rough, raw malevolent crinkle.
So very different from how his mother usually sounded.
Then he began to cough.
He couldn’t stop, not long enough to catch a full breath. Then Rey caught the smell of charred something in his lungs and worked to clear what felt like sandpaper in his throat and nose. There were more screeches, loud, horrific shrieks coming from somewhere, and the noise sent him trembling beneath his blankets. His chest hurt where his father struck it that evening, a lash of anger he didn’t see coming, but it was a day like any other, a tightrope walk between time dripping slowly in anticipation of his dad’s temper flaring and the tick-tick-tick of the seconds hurriedly falling off of the clock toward his bedtime.
Tonight had been bad, and he’d stepped in between the terrifying hail of fists and his mother, taking the brunt of his father’s rage. His eye was tight, lashes gummy and sticking, and he’d played with the cut on his lip long enough to make it taste like silver whenever he ran his tongue over it. Now he’d begun coughing again, massive wretched spasms long and hard enough to make his ribs hurt even more than they already did.
The burning smell had to be coming from the kitchen, probably his mother leaving a plastic dish in the oven and turning it on to heat up food for his father’s breakfast. It was something thoughtless she’d done a lot, stumbling from her bedroom down the hall, tired from working a double shift but awake enough to preheat the oven.
His eye wouldn’t open enough to see the clock, so all Rey could make out was a thin slice of red light, a blur of numbers through the dark. He’d lived in the room for ten years, and even after all that time, the space was hard to maneuver at night. Without an outside window, the only ambient light he had was from under the door, a sliver of orange-gold leaking out around the ill-fitting wood.
The hacking hit again, and he thumped his chest to stop it. He rattled on, caught in a vicious cycle of trying to breathe around the soreness in his nose and the need to relieve the heaviness under his sternum. His tongue felt swollen, and he couldn’t seem to pull up any moisture, no matter how hard he tried to hawk through the thickness in his mouth. His throat was raw, a scraped-open tenderness he wasn’t able to clear with what little spit he could get out.
Blinking with his one eye, he hunted around for his glasses, knocking over everything on his nightstand, but they weren’t where he could find them. The smell from the oven clung to the inside of his nose, and Rey stumbled off of his bed and straight into hell.
The light was stronger now, uneven and thick, clotted with gray puffs. Horror edged into Rey’s growing concern when the switch he’d hit didn’t turn on the lamp hanging in a corner of his bedroom. Rubbing at his face, he winced at the pain in his swollen eye.
It was hard to miss the roaring crackle now, and there was smoke pouring under his door, or at least he thought it was smoke. It was hard to tell… too hard to see, but the smell of it—the putrid rankness he’d come to associate with his mother’s forgetfulness—permeated his closed-in room, stealing the air from his lungs. It was difficult to breathe, and Rey struggled to catch a whiff of fresh air, trying to remember what he’d been taught in school, but nothing was coming to him. His brain was shutting down into a ripe panic, and he shuffled along the wall, trying to find the door.
The knob was hot, and he screamed when it seared his palm. His cry came out weak, a watery croak of flecked spit and sand; then the wall behind him crumbled, falling forward to strike his back.
Rey didn’t know how long he lay under the heavy debris. Time wasn’t something he could count anymore, and what little he saw was filled with stinging ash, followed by the flash of flames eating through the rest of the room. There was a voice—somewhere—and he tried to call out, screaming at the top of his lungs, but the fetid air in his chest choked out any sound he could make, and he ended up coughing, sucking in more smoke.
“Oh….” Grandma always told him to pray, but he couldn’t find the words… the faith… not with the heaviness pressing down on his legs and back. His throat hurt too much, and it felt like he’d swallowed his tongue, because he couldn’t get any air past it. Shifting didn’t help, and something gouged into his back, slicing his skin. Hiccupping, he fought his tears, refusing to give in to the helplessness swaddling him.
“Hey, I’ve got you now.” A voice filtered through the crash of the fire and the walls falling. “Stay still. Got to get you out, dude. Let me know if something hurts too bad.”
There were hands on his arms. Rey could feel them, even with the pressure on his back and legs, he could feel those hands, and he started crying, a snotty, ugly sobbing he’d have been ashamed of if he hadn’t been buried beneath the wall. The hands stroked at his shoulders, and the voice, rough and dipping deep with every other word, reassured him things would be okay… he would be okay.
He was too scared to be okay, his lungs too full of razor blades and glass, and when he caught enough air in his chest, he wanted to cry out for his mother, ashamed at the terror the flames brought out in him.
“Hold on, need to do this. Bear told me I had to cover your nose and mouth if I could. Just stay calm,” the guy half yelled at Rey. After a dig under Rey’s chin, he pulled Rey’s shirt up over his nose, blocking out some of the air, and Rey panicked, struggling to clear his mouth of the fabric. His rescuer patted him on the shoulders, then said, “It’ll keep the smoke out. I’m going to do the same thing. Just… breathe through your shirt. Okay, kid?”
The fire was getting nearer, catching on the pieces of wood sticking out of the remaining walls. His door crumbled, blackening at the edges. Then the frame burst into a line of red, angry flames, but the shadow at his side continued to work, his hands digging into the mess pinning Rey down. The heat was getting to be unbearable, and he turned his head, the collar of his T-shirt cutting across his face. Staring at the guy’s red Converses, Rey coughed, and his body took up the spasm, tightening down on his breathing.
“Almost there,” the owner of the Converses said. “Give me… a second.”
The weight was gone, a sudden heave of boards and sticky, crumbling drywall, and then Rey was free. The young man’s arms were under him, turning him over, then carefully lifting him up from the cheap rug Rey’s mom laid down in his room, but the pain, the agony of his bruised muscles was too much, and Rey screamed, louder than the sirens wailing in the distance. Bits of the rug stuck to Rey’s hands and arms, melted fibers clinging to his skin where the slag touched him, and he sobbed, scared he’d pissed himself or worse when he’d been yanked out from under the house’s remains.
They went a few yards or maybe even miles, he couldn’t tell which, but it seemed like forever before they stopped. Everything hurt. His chest ached, and his already swollen eye was sticky with grit. A streetlamp threw down some light, and he tried to move in his rescuer’s arms, twisting around to see his engulfed house topple inward.
“My mom!” Rey caught a hint of fresh air. A cold rush hit his lungs when his shirt fell from his face as the young man carefully laid him down on Mrs. Brockington’s plush green lawn. He doubled over in pain when his body knotted up around his spine. “I’ve got to get….”
“My brother got her out on the other side of the house. He got her. I know he did. He can’t…. Bear had to have gotten her out.” He moved to where Rey could see him. “I need you to stay still, okay? Someone’s coming to look at you—”
Rey wasn’t listening anymore. He let the young man’s rumbling voice roll over him, and he stretched out as much as he could on a lawn he’d never dared put a foot on at any other time in his life. He tried to speak, find the words to say thank you, but he couldn’t find them any more than he could the prayers he’d needed a few moments ago.
Blinking his one good eye, Rey couldn’t hold on to his focus. The night was fracturing around the edges, turning everything into prisms, and when he turned over, his legs refused to work. He could hear his mom crying—he knew the sound of his mother’s crying—and he wanted to reassure her, to stroke her hair and tell her everything would be okay, just like he’d been told he would be okay, but he couldn’t get his tongue to work either.
“Mason! You got the kid, yeah?” Another voice, this one husky and rough, carried over the roaring fire. “I got his mom out. It’s just the two of them.”
Rey lifted his head, straining his neck, and the blond man got up from the lawn, wiping his dirty hands on his torn jeans. Smoke pouring from the burning house swept an acrid veil over the street, and the ash carried over on the breeze stung Rey’s eye. He was massive, blocking out the orange glow, and it took a second before Rey saw his mother clinging to the man’s side, his arm tucked around her waist to lift her up onto the curb.
“Dad… he….” Rey pushed himself up, then collapsed back into the grass, his hands smarting too much to hold his weight. There were stinging welts along his arms, sprays of red streaks rising along his filthy skin. His lungs were still too tight, and each shuddering breath left him wanting more. The neighbors were starting to pour out of their homes, taking to the streets in an alarmed shuffle, but he couldn’t see his father in the thickening crowd. “I don’t know where Dad is.”
“Stay here. You’re hurt.” The blond who’d pulled him out—Mason—spoke with a hint of authority, firm and unyielding. “Just breathe in slow. Bear’s got your mom. She said it was only two of you inside. Maybe he left for something, okay?”
There was a third guy, a kid about his age, running ahead of the older man half carrying his mother. Coltish, his young man’s long legs ate up the distance between the street and Mrs. Brockington’s lush front lawn. The white streetlights did funny things to the teen’s hair, turning it nearly opaque gray, but there were flashes of gold and russet tucked into the strands, and when he turned to look at Rey, his eyes were a rich silver, a shimmering color he’d only seen in the moon.
If Rey hadn’t already had problems pulling air in, the starlight-eyed lanky teen would have stolen his breath away.
Cocky—his brain whispered—the kind of too-fucking-gorgeous guy he hated in school, but damn if he didn’t want to lose his first kiss to that smirking mouth. A dimple played coy on his cheek, a flash of a smile nearly as bright as his eyes, and Rey’s hand curled into a fist, tightening at the tickle of something he couldn’t understand forming in his belly. The fist didn’t last long, unable to hold when the burned skin on his palm stretched and cracked open, leaving his flesh raw and weeping. Gasping, he fell into another hacking spasm, and the teen frowned.
“Gus, go tell the ambulance to come around.” If Mason carried a thread of authority in his voice, the wide-shouldered man who gently set Rey’s mother down wore his strength and confidence like a suit of battle-tested armor. Up close the guy went from massive to alarming, his dark hair pulled back from a harsh, strong face with a scar cutting through his right eyebrow. “Now, kid. Not later.”
“Okay.” Moving out of the way for the large man, the kid dropped an unopened bottle of water on the ground next to Rey’s side. Then he was gone, swallowed up by the cloud of flecked smoke and the milling crowd.
The sirens were louder this time, but he could still hear his mother when she sobbed as she grabbed at his shirt, knotting her fingers into the fabric, then the murmur of the saviors someone—a saint or God—sent to pull him free from the inferno eating through his life. There were reassurances, different phrases than he would have used, but they seemed to quiet her, and she lay on the grass next to him, curling around him as if they were on the couch, watching an old movie she’d found on one of the free cable stations.
“Thank God. You’re okay. Thank God they… oh God,” his mother finally whispered, her face as wet as Rey’s, but she let her tears fall, creating odd lines through the soot on her cheeks. “I don’t even know how they… I don’t know their names.”
“It’s Gus, Mom,” Rey mumbled around the ash in his mouth. “Mason, Bear, and Gus.”
“JESUS CHRIST, that hurts,” Rey playfully bitched at the purple-haired younger man bent over his side. “You sure you know how to use that thing?”
No one threw a withering stare like Ivo, Mason’s youngest blood brother, and Rey was amused when the inker’s dark blue eyes narrowed. A chuckle from the next stall broke through the stinging silence, and Rey joined in, no longer trying to keep still under the stylus of vibrating needles held a few inches above his bared hip.
“He can take it, Ivo,” Tokugawa called out from his spot in 415 Ink’s guest stall, a midshop spot usually reserved for masters in the industry and directly across from a stall Rey refused to even glance at. “I’ve given him worse.”
“Challenge accepted,” the maligned artist mumbled, rolling his shoulders back, then resting his elbow on the massage table Rey’d stretched out on nearly half an hour before. “Remember, Montenegro, just because you’re Mace’s best friend, doesn’t mean you’re mine.”
The first time Rey Montenegro went under the machine, it was to sublimate one of the scars on his side. He’d worn the smeared tangle of flesh for nearly ten years before he decided he was done carrying around his father’s handiwork. It’d been Bear who’d taken the keloid and buried it beneath a Japanese-style tiger leaping up from his thigh to his hip, blending away white-gray streaks and pale pink patches until Rey no longer saw the marks of his father’s abandonment on his skin. There were other tats after that, but the first one—that tiger—pushed him in ways he hadn’t even understood at the time.
And now it was time to finish the dragon on his other hip, to put himself under the vibrating needles again and own a little bit more of his own body.
He’d found a spot for his convertible in the parking structure a few blocks down from the shop, a monstrous cement thing meant to suck up the congestion on Jefferson Street, but nothing could stop the traffic along the piers’ main thoroughfare. After dropping a couple of bucks into the tip cup belonging to a cowboy-hat-wearing guitarist slung against a pub’s post, Rey dashed across the busy street, dodging bodies in the stream of tourists hustling to hit Fisherman’s Wharf before the rain clouds broke open. A light drizzle ghosted over him, catching on his lashes, and he had a brief flash of regret in leaving the top of his car up when he left, since he was sick of being cooped up. After having spent the past few days either in the firehouse or on one of the trucks, heading into the flames or leaving covered in doubt and soot, the water-kissed San Francisco wind was nice to feel on his skin, even if he’d last about a second under its icy bite.
415 Ink shouldered itself into a spot between a souvenir shop bristling with T-shirts and cups bearing witty slogans and poorly drawn San Francisco landmarks and a fairly tame champagne lounge chasing after naughty-minded Midwestern tourists looking for a semi-risqué time amid the shirtless waiters, nacho fries, and two-dollar tacos. The tattoo shop was in a sweet location across the pier, the result of some deal Bear made with the owner of the building nearly ten years before. There’d been some mutterings from the owner of the champagne lounge, sour-grapes rumors spread when Bear first opened, but they quieted down after Bear had a talk with him.
Now the man avoided Bear and the rest of the staff like the plague, something that seemed to suit everyone just fine.
Rey didn’t know the details or even want to know what was said. Very few people crossed Barrett “Bear” Jackson, and those that had usually were nowhere to be found afterward. In the years since he’d known Bear and his oddball family, Rey had only heard the man raise his voice once, and that was one time too many. Still, when he’d walked into the shop earlier that afternoon, Rey only had a wide grin for the broad-shouldered man standing behind 415 Ink’s front counter and bit back a pained grunt when Bear reached over and slapped him on the arm in a hearty hello. His arm still stung from the slap after half an hour, but he wasn’t going to mention it, especially not to Ivo.
One didn’t show weakness to any of the 415 Ink blood brothers, not unless a guy was willing to hear about it for the rest of his life.
He hadn’t been in the shop in a while, but not much had changed. There was a new artist in the space next to Missy, one of the shop’s full-timers, and at some point, the poured concrete floor got a coat of something shiny on it, but the long shotgun-style space still sported a high ceiling painted black and creamy walls covered in various sketches, colored-in drawings, and the occasional photo. The shop’s eight half-wall stalls with their tied-back opaque-white curtains reminded Rey of a stable, but he was thankful for the privacy, especially since he was lying on his side with his ass half out while Ivo worked on him. The stalls were large, giving an inker space to not only maneuver around a broad massage table and worktable but left enough room for a couple of chairs or one massive, shaggy mutt named Earl, who’d only wander out from behind the reception area to visit people he liked.
Rey took a secret delight at Earl, sprawled out close enough to him to scratch at the dog’s ears.
“Okay, love,” Tokugawa murmured from the next stall. “We’re done here. Let me clean you off and you can take a look at it in the mirror.”
The familiar scent of astringent cleaner drifted over to Rey, and he lifted his head, catching a glimpse of the watercolor lotus tattoo, a spray of rich, soothing pinks, purples, and greens over a traditional Asian outline on an expanse of pale skin. The newly inked young woman met Rey’s eyes around the partially open curtain and smiled, twisting around while holding the strap of her tank top under her arm. The piece covered a broad section on her chest near her right collarbone, draping tendrils of color and connective black lines up over her shoulder.
Holding a mirror up in front of her, Tokugawa asked, “What do you think, Steph? It’s a blend, no? Henna-like outline but watercolor effect.”
She stood breathless, a curvaceous blonde with sweet face, then exhaled slowly, her voice a rough, awed whisper, “Oh man, Ichi, it’s… perfect.”
“Good, let me wrap you up and you can get dressed.” He cocked his head, a quirky smile lightening the seriousness of his Japanese features. “Well, not that you’re naked, but it is cold outside, and you don’t want any of this on your leather jacket.”
“Down, Montenegro.” Ivo tapped the back of Rey’s head, a light rap of knuckles only softened by Rey’s thick hair. “You’re fucking with my canvas.”
“Where’s the dog?” Bear called out from the front, and Earl lifted his head, sniffing at the air. “Earl!”
“Better go, dude,” Ivo murmured, scritching the dog with the toe of his red heels. His pleated black kilt shifted, exposing more of his lean, muscled shin. “Don’t want Bear to come looking for you.”
Heaving to his feet, Earl sighed, then shuffled off to the front of the shop. His toenails clicked on the floor, an echoing castanet chorus, before ending in a groaning thump of seventy-five pounds of dog slumping down on a covered piece of memory foam. Ivo’s bark of laughter was subdued but sharp enough to hook Rey’s curiosity.
Then the needles hit and Rey forgot all about the dog, Ivo’s knees, or his fuck-me red pumps.
“Shit, a little warning, bitch,” he grumbled around the pain.
“Oh, by the way, Montenegro”—Ivo’s gleeful mutter tickled Rey’s spine—“you’re going to get a tattoo now. In this tattoo shop. You know, that place that does tattoos.”
“Fuck you, kid,” Rey shot back, then gasped when Ivo did something that felt like a lick of fire along his hip bone. “Fuck you for that too.”
“Yeah, I’m not the brother you want to fuck,” the younger man replied softly. “And speaking of the prodigal son, he’s back, you know?”
Playing dumb with Ivo never worked, but Rey tried it anyway. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Gus.” Another stinging tap of needles then Ivo scooted closer, settling in to work. “He’s back home, Montenegro. Got in this morning, and from what I hear, you’re all he’s been talking about since he got off of his damned Harley.”