NOTE: Big, ginormous spoilers for Behold the Stars, Book 2 in the series. Don’t read this if you haven’t finished BTS. But if you have and are interested in knowing where Book 3 is headed, here’s the first chapter.
Again, SPOILERS ahead. Big ones.
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He wedged himself out of the miniscule shower and grabbed a worn towel. The bathrooms in the clubhouse dorm were not built for men of Showdown’s size. He practically needed to kneel to get his head wet. No chance of soaking away a hangover in there.
He’d been living in the dorm for…damn, ten months now. He’d barely noticed time moving. But it was time to make some decisions, he guessed. Get Holly off his back.
Dry, he dropped the towel over the rod and walked naked into the bedroom. He picked up his personal cell to read, again, his ex-wife’s most recent text. He’d read the thing a dozen or more times, like poking at a rotten tooth.
“Um, Show? I’m so sorry—I thought I could get in and out before you were done in the bathroom.”
He turned to find Debbie, one of the club girls, clutching an armload of linens. Then he saw that the bed had been stripped. The club girls served as a kind of housekeeping staff, when they weren’t serving the Horde on their knees. She looked a little scared. Showdown shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Do what you need to do.” Heedless of his own nakedness and her nervousness, he turned his attention back to the phone. Debbie shuffled around the room for a few minutes, and then she left. Show paid her no mind.
WTH are you waiting for now? I want my things. My girls want their things. We’re sitting here in an empty apartment. I’m sick of your shit.
Her girls. Not theirs, hers. He had a very strong suspicion that she’d chosen that word deliberately, knowing the sharp stab he’d feel. Things had been hard between them for the last few years of their marriage, a bilious current just under the surface—over the surface sometimes, too. But he was a long-haul guy. She’d been his old lady, his wife. They’d had three daughters together. He never would have left her, never would have strayed. Even after Iris was born and sex had hurt her, even after she pushed him out of their bed, he hadn’t strayed. Eight years—half their marriage—without intimacy. By the end, barely any touch at all. But he’d have stayed true. Just the way he was wired.
And then everything had gone to hell.
Now they were divorced, and Holly was in Arkansas with their two youngest daughters. She’d cut ties with him completely. He sent money, but he had no custody or visitation with his girls. She was right—they were hers now. She’d ignored him for months. Months he’d spent alone, living in the clubhouse, steeping in self-loathing and grief. And whiskey. That, too.
She had taken Rose and Iris and left in a hurry last year, taking only what she could pack in her Suburban. She’d moved them in with her parents. Show had not been back in his house since the morning of the day he’d lost his family. He’d sent a Prospect in to collect his weapons and some clothes. He’d had every intention of letting the place disintegrate into dust without ever crossing the threshold again.
Then, a month ago, she’d texted him. It had been brief: We want our things. He’d tried to call her, but she wouldn’t pick up or return his calls. She’d only communicate via text. He hadn’t heard her voice, or his girls’, in almost a year. Over the past few weeks, they’d had a stilted, infuriating text conversation, the net of which was that she’d moved with the girls into an apartment and wanted him to ship furniture and other shit to her.
He didn’t want to go back in there. He’d offered to send her money to buy new shit. She’d insisted that she, Rose, and Iris, all of them, wanted the things they already had. He’d thought about ignoring her, getting a new number, shutting her down. But she had Rose and Iris. That fucking phone was his only chance to connect with them. Maybe someday Holly would let him.
He had to do something. All these pissy, sometimes raging texts from her were doing was pushing him back into that awful night of their last contact, standing in a hospital waiting room, her screaming and hitting him. The night Daisy died. His Daze.
If he couldn’t ignore her, then he had to give her what she wanted. He’d always given her what she wanted. In almost everything.
He hated texting more than a word or two; his fingers were too big for the touchscreen. He could only use one finger, and still it took forever to get the words right. Going today. Will pack and ship.
With a sneer of disgust, he dropped the phone on the freshly made bed and opened the closet for a clean pair of jeans.
When he came into the Hall, he was surprised to see Isaac, the club President, standing at the big chess table, setting up the board. Isaac was an artisan woodworker, and he’d made that gorgeous board. For years, Show and Isaac had always had a game in play—until last fall, during the lockdown, when they’d packed up the pieces to make way for the crush of people taking refuge in the clubhouse. In the ensuing months, they’d been too busy with club and town business, and Isaac with his new wife and daughter, to start up again. Show hadn’t really thought about it, anyway. His head was too full of fog and blades for chess. Or games of any sort.
He took a breath and pushed back his crap about Holly and what he had to do today. No use bringing that around his brothers.
“What you doin’, boss?” Show was older than Isaac and had worn a patch longer, but Isaac was President. Show didn’t want that weight; he was comfortable in the VP role, better advising than leading. Or he had been. Lately, even that wore heavy. But the Horde had shrunk in the past year, and Isaac insisted that he still needed Show at his side. He knew it was true. Isaac was good at the head of the table. He was smart, he was strong, he had his priorities straight, and he saw down the road a bit. But he had a temper, too, and a tendency to let his emotions grab the reins. Show’s job was to make him take a breath and think.
Isaac was the only man Show had ever known who was bigger than he was. Show was six-five, 260. Isaac had about two inches and twenty pounds on him. Bart, the youngest patch, had once tried to get the club started calling them the Two Towers, but, apt though it was, it hadn’t caught on. Most of the Horde hadn’t known the reference, but Show and Isaac both did. Show had read The Lord of the Rings with Daisy. Isaac was just a nerd; he read all that crap—fantasy, mythology, science fiction, whatever. Show was a reader, too, but his tastes ran to histories and biographies. He’d never had much patience for pretend. He lived in the world as it was. As bad as it was.
Isaac set the white queen—a gleaming piece of pale wood, ten inches tall and intricately latticed, on the board, next to the tall, solid white king. He looked up and grinned, the scar on his left cheek forcing his grin sideways up the right half of his face. “Thought it was time we start a new game, now that things are quiet around here again. What do you say?”
Show’s first impulse was to refuse, but he took a beat and considered. Ten months had passed, and he’d barely noticed. Ten months since he’d lived. His memory of those last months was almost nonexistent, just stray scenes, almost all of them horrific—Daze’s waxy, lifeless body on a gurney in a post-op room at the hospital. Holly’s rage. Dan lying dead in the ice cream shop. Isaac’s old lady, Lilli, naked and covered in blood, stabbing some asshole with a letter opener. That desolate Christmas alone. Daze’s birthday.
Holding Gia, Isaac and Lilli’s new baby girl, his goddaughter, while Isaac stayed with Lilli in the ICU. His one good memory in almost a year, holding that little new life, her fresh, innocent eyes staring calmly up at him. She’d been born nine months after Daisy died, almost to the day. As if his girl had left a little piece of herself behind in the world.
“Sure. You open. I gotta go.”
“What’s up, brother?” Isaac moved a white pawn, E2 to E4.
Show recognized the open and knew his move, but let it sit. He’d move later. He considered blowing off Isaac’s question, too. Telling him where he was headed would start a conversation he was not in the mood to have. He turned and started toward the front door, but then he turned back. “Got to go to the house. Holly wants me to ship a bunch of furniture and shit to her and the girls.” He had no clue why he’d said that.
Isaac took a step forward, his brow creased. “You been back there yet?”
“You know I haven’t.”
“Then I’m with you, Show. You don’t do that alone.”
“No. On my own for this.”
Isaac shook his head. “Fuck that. I’m riding alongside, or I’m riding behind, but I’m with you.”
Show did not want an audience for whatever he was going to see and feel, whatever he would need to deal with, when he got to his house. He had no clue in what condition he’d find anything. But Isaac was staring steadily at him. He glared back, and Isaac crossed his arms. “I won’t get in your way, Show. I just got your back. I owe you, man. I got your back.”
Finally, Show nodded. Then, without a word, he turned and headed out of the clubhouse. Isaac followed right behind.
They pulled up to the house together. Show sat astride his bike and stared at the grey clapboard, the deep blue shutters, the red door. Holly’s flower beds, cultivated with devotion for almost sixteen years, were untended and unruly, overrun with knee-high weeds. The whole yard had gone to seed, in fact. Otherwise, though, the house, from the outside, looked as it always had. As if he could open that red door and find his girls in the living room, sprawled across the furniture, doing the things they did.
That wasn’t going to happen, though.
So he sat there. Not thinking, really, not with any kind of focus. His head was full of noise—memories and imaginings clamoring for place. Isaac sat next to him, astride his own bike. Show could feel him there, being still, saying nothing, just waiting. Understanding that Show needed to work up to it.
For most of Isaac’s life, since before he wore a patch, when he was just the President’s kid, riding a hard road of his own, Show had watched out for Isaac. Big Ike had been a hard man. He’d been a decent, if fearsome, President, but there hadn’t been much in the way of patience in him. No kindness, not much love. Even less when he was drunk, and he’d been a drinker. Show had been a Prospect when Isaac’s mom had killed herself and his older sister had run. He didn’t know the details—even now, after almost thirty years, Isaac had hardly spoken of that time—but he knew that Isaac, from that point, from the age of twelve, had come up in a home devoid of love or comfort.
Isaac had begun to spend a lot of time in and around the clubhouse. Big Ike didn’t seem to care, as long as the boy—who back then was known as Little Ike—stayed out of his way. He was a good kid. Serious-minded and curious. And Show found himself talking to him often. When he’d earned his patch, he started to take up for Little Ike some, help him keep clear of his old man. The kid moved into the clubhouse at his earliest opportunity and, then, as soon as he’d graduated high school, he’d applied to Prospect. Show had sponsored him. Big Ike had voted against him and lost.
Show had never wondered why Little Ike would want to join the Horde, even with his mean old man at the head of the table. Show had known. It was him. And C.J. And Reg. Frank. And the rest. It was the Horde itself. Most of those guys were dead now; only he and C.J. remained, but Little Ike had found his family in the clubhouse, a family that understood him and knew the man who was his father in a way the rest of the town did not.
Once patched, Isaac had proven himself quickly to be strong, smart, and savvy. Quick to temper, yes, but that wasn’t exactly considered a flaw among men like them. Even Big Ike had eventually seen it and come to a grudging kind of respect for his son. When Reg passed, and Frank put forward Little Ike’s name to replace him at VP, Big Ike had agreed. Less than two years later, Big Ike was dead, having dropped his bike on an icy stretch. Little Ike took the gavel, with the table’s blessing. And, though his given name would always be the same as his father’s, Little Ike dropped the nickname that had forced him to be seen as less than the man he’d grown to hate, and he’d become Isaac. At least in the eyes of the Horde. To the town of Signal Bend, it seemed, he would eternally be Ike. At least he’d been able to lose the “Little”—which had been ironic from the time he was fifteen years old and had outgrown his father.
The big man sitting quietly next to Showdown was a good man. A good friend. A good President. A good leader of the club and the town. He’d seen them through the fight of their lives last year. The town was on its feet, with a future more hopeful than it had been in years. It had survived. But not without loss.
So much loss.
Show had always been Isaac’s strong right arm. He’d never had to lean himself. He wasn’t sure he knew how to lean. But now he wasn’t sure he could stand, either. He turned to his friend. His brother. Isaac’s eyes were on him, without judgment or pity. Only compassion.
With a stalwart sigh, Show dismounted. “Yeah. Okay.” Isaac nodded and dismounted, too. He clapped an arm down on Show’s shoulder and they walked together through the weedy yard and up onto the wood porch.
He got as far as the front door. His hand on the brass handle, his thumb on the lever that would release the latch, he stopped.
Isaac’s hand returned to his shoulder. “Show. We cleaned up in there. You know that, right? You’re not gonna…it’s not…there’s nothing.”
Show nodded and opened the door. He stepped into his house for the first time in ten months.
Isaac had told the truth—the living room, the dining room, the hall—it looked as he remembered. Dustier, the air heavy and stale, but otherwise the same. No signs of the horror that had occurred.
But that was worse. It was so very much worse. Like what had happened to his wife and daughters—to his Daisy—could be just erased. Mopped away. His heart crawled into his head and broke apart, the force of it destroying the walls he’d erected to keep himself sane, get through each day. He was suddenly, overwhelmingly filled with the rage and pain that had held him hostage those first days and weeks. It brought him to his knees, down on the red, white, and blue braided rug Holly had made years ago.
Isaac squatted next to him. “You don’t have to do this, brother. I know this house. Tell me what she wants, and I’ll pack it up. You head out. I got this.”
At first, Show nodded. He couldn’t do it. He needed to get the fuck out, go in to work. Or just go back to the clubhouse and start the day’s drunk. Be away from here. Pulling his phone out of his kutte, he started to hand it to Isaac and then stopped.
“No. This is me.” He stood and took a step forward. “This is me.” He opened his messages and scrolled to Holly’s list. She wanted a bunch of kitchen shit. Daisy had been hurt in the kitchen. That, he could not do. Turning back to Isaac, who was also standing again, he asked, “You take the kitchen?”
Isaac nodded. “You bet, brother. Whatever you want.”
It took a couple of hours, but they got the things Holly wanted together and stacked in the living room—beds, the couch, a couple of chairs, linens, clothes, toys, photos and knickknacks, all manner of things. They’d run out of boxes early on, so a lot was stacked in fairly neat piles. It was going to cost a fucking fortune to ship it to her.
For the most part, Show had mastered his pinballing head. He’d been unable to go into two rooms: the kitchen and Daisy’s bedroom. Isaac had gone upstairs and closed her door before Show had gone up. Packing up Rosie and Iris’s room had hurt deeply, but he’d been able to get it done, even smiling a little while he gathered up dress-up clothes and Barbie dolls.
Now, they were sitting on the porch railing, sharing a joint. Isaac took a drag and closed his eyes, taking an extra beat or two. He didn’t smoke much of anything these days, with Lilli and Gia at home. He passed the joint to Show and said, “Lots of boxes in storage at the B&B. I’ll send Omen over to pick a bunch up, bring ‘em over.”
Show had a lungful, but he shook his head. When he could, he said, “I’ll go. Pack it up tonight. Think I can borrow your trailer? I’m gonna drive this shit down to Holly myself. Cheaper. And maybe she’ll let me see the girls, take them out to lunch or something.”
Isaac nodded. “’Course, man. You want backup? I could take a day or two, ride shotgun.”
“No. You stay home, where you’re needed. You don’t leave a woman alone with a month-old baby, brother. Not and live to tell the tale. I’m good. I got it.”
He wasn’t sure that was true, but he knew he had to go, and go alone.