“ONE WALLET with six dollars and eighty-three cents. One pair of jeans, T-shirt, pair of boots. Belt with buckle. Sign here.” The paper bag was shoved over to him, and Dakota Landry scratched his signature on the paper, his hand shaking harder than he wanted to admit.
One wallet with six dollars and eighty-three cents.
One pair of Wranglers.
Twelve years, three months, and eight days.
Dakota sighed and rolled his shoulders. The Unitarians had donated a gently worn pair of tennis shoes, a button-down from the Walmart, and a pair of new jeans, which hung on his scrawny ass like a bad costume. They were what he had, though. He’d lost seventy pounds since he was twenty, and he read way more bull rider than bulldogger these days.
The rest of the processing flew by, and he walked out of the gate half an hour later, blinking at the late-afternoon sun. He was gonna puke.
He had a suitcase of his shit from his cell and this paper sack and….
A white pickup pulled up, the window rolling down to expose this weathered face peering out from under a straw brim. “You Landry?”
“Yessir.” He braced himself, waiting for a barrel to appear from the window. God hated him, he had no doubt, and it would be just like the evil bastard to have one of the McCarthys come to shoot him as soon as he walked outside as a free man.
It wasn’t a pistol that appeared, though. It was a gnarled cowboy hand. “Sage. Sage Redding. You want a ride, man?”
A lump lodged in his throat. Sage. Okay, he knew this guy from letters and the occasional call. When he knew he was getting out, he’d been assigned… what? Sage was no counselor. He was a godsend, though. “I do, yeah.”
“Cool. Come on. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
“Please.” He climbed up into the truck, breathing in the smell of horse shit and Old Spice and hay, and suddenly he was thirteen again and had a whole summer in front of him and all these dreams and….
“Hey.” The word was short and sharp, dragging his attention right to Sage’s face. “Stay here. Stay with me, man. You start thinking and the fucking world goes straight to shit.”
“We’ll go to the next town over, and we’ll grab some burgers and a Coke. You ain’t a vegetarian, are you?”
“I’m pretty fucking sure they put all of them in minimum security.”
Sage hooted, the sound natural as breathing. “I bet so.”
“Thanks. I didn’t expect….” He hadn’t known what to expect. He had the numbers for the Salvation Army and a halfway house, neither of which he intended to call.
“No sweat. I been there.”
Manslaughter, Sage had said, and the man never once claimed to be innocent. But he was out and living on a ranch, doing his parole, and writing prisoners in this exchange deal. Dakota wasn’t sure what the fuck Sage got out of it, but it looked good to the parole board, and to his credit, Sage had written a letter to them.
Sorta like the murderers speaking for the rapists. Whoop-di-fucking-doo.
He rolled his head on his neck, trying to get the kinks out.
Sage pulled into a Whataburger parking lot. “This work?”
“Yeah. Yeah, it does.” He looked down, and there was nothing he recognized—no jumpsuit, no numbers, nothing—and he heard himself whisper, “Can you tell?”
“No. No one can tell. I swear.”
Thank God Sage got it.
“Thanks. Smells—” Good? Did it smell good or just weird? Dakota couldn’t tell yet.
“Like greasy burgers and jalapeños. Come on. This one is weird, but the next one is easier.”
He nodded, patting to make sure he had his wallet with its little stash of gate money and his single bus ticket to Austin.
“I’ll get lunch. We got some talking to do, you and me.”
“Yessir.” He wasn’t sure what that meant, exactly. Talk about what? What was he supposed to say? He’d been nineteen the last time he was a free man. He had nowhere to go, no one who cared whether he lived, and a whole family that wanted him dead. What did anyone have to say to him?
“I’m not the man, Dakota. Is it Dakota, or do you rather me call you something else?”
“Dakota works. My folks called me Koda, but…. Everyone on the inside called me Landry.” Or TB. Titty Baby. The first couple of years had been hard.
“Cool.” Sage got out and came around to open his door, kinda forcing him to step out of the truck.
He headed into the restaurant, staring at the people in line. Every single one of them was staring at a phone or talking on a phone. He’d had a cell phone once upon a time, sure, but these were something else. He guessed all the commercials weren’t lying.
No one even looked twice at them until they got to the front of the line, where a teenager in a striped top smiled and chirped, “What can I get y’all?”
“A Whataburger and fries, large Coke. Dakota? I’m buying.”
“A patty melt, fries, and a Dr Pepper.”
“You got it. Anyone want to upsize or get a pie?”
He shook his head, trying not to look behind him, check his perimeter. Personal space was impossible in prison, and a man tried to develop coping mechanisms.
Coping mechanisms. Christ, listen to him. A fucking convict with an English degree. Talk about putting lipstick on a pig.
He hoped he could get a job proofreading manuals or something. Something where he could sit in a room alone and type.
“Hey. Come and sit.” Sage didn’t touch him, but somehow they were moving toward a table.
“I’ll get the drinks, huh?” God, these plastic cup deals were flimsy as fuck. He poured Sage a Coke and got himself a Dr Pepper without ice. He was going to take advantage of the calories.
Sage was sitting, waiting for him, and Dakota knew right there how long Sage had been in prison. The stillness, the way he drew inside and almost disappeared… yeah.
For a horrifying second, he wanted to go back in. There were no questions there. The basics stayed the same. Life. Death. Food. Shit. Work. Fucking. Everything was routine.
Out here you had to make decisions every moment. Step around the big redneck posturing at you or run his ass down. Mustard or mayo.
Find a job. Find a place to live. He’d never had to do that before. He’d gone from home to dorm to jail.
He had to stop his hands from squeezing the cups before they snapped; the lids had already come loose on both.
Sage stood, reaching for one cup. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” He sat down, then started chewing on his bottom lip. “This is so weird.”
“No shit. Thanks for letting me come pick you up.”
“Seriously? I mean, thanking me for….” What? What exactly was Sage doing here? Why would anyone pick his skanky ass up?
Sage gave him a level look, which calmed him some. “I wish someone had been there to do it for me. I spent weeks in this shitty apartment in California because I could only afford to call Momma once a week here in Texas. If I can help someone else out, I’m grateful.” Then Sage winked at him. “It also looks fucking amazing to my parole officer, just so you know. Hooray community service.”
Now that? That made sense.
“Yeah. I did a lot of anger management and sexual addiction courses.” Not that they helped. He hadn’t done it. He hadn’t raped anyone, no matter what they said. He’d never had his dick in no one—male or female.
He never ever intended to have sex again. Fuck knew, he’d experienced all that was gonna teach his unhappy ass.
Sage tilted his head. “Yeah. They do tailor things to your crime, I guess. I did a lot of drugs-are-bad classes.”
Their food arrived, another bored teen delivering it and collecting their plastic number stand. Now that actually smelled good.
“I didn’t do it.” He wasn’t ever going to even barely pretend he was guilty again. He did it so he could please the fucking jackasses on the parole board. Never again.
“You sure don’t seem like the type.” Sage shrugged. “I was a stupid kid.”
“I was too.” He’d believed it when they said innocent until proven guilty. Now he was registered as a sex offender, and the McCarthy family would be able to find him no matter where he was.
He hadn’t raped their daughter. He hadn’t hurt anyone, and there had been no physical evidence to corroborate the eyewitness testimony. Someone had to pay, though, and Dakota had done the time.
“Do you have a place to stay? I have a friend who could use a roommate.”
“I don’t. I don’t have a plan, but… shit, you don’t know me from Adam. I just have to get to Austin and find my PO….” Surely there would be a halfway house, a crack house, something so he could…. Do something.
“I’m just offering, man. Azel is a good guy, and he could use the help with the bills for a bit.” Sage munched a fry, humming a little.
A little voice whispered, Beggars can’t be choosers, and it was that voice that kept him alive, so Dakota nodded. “Thanks. I appreciate the help.”
He ate, keeping his head down, making sure his elbows were in, that he didn’t take up more than his space.
“Dakota? Dakota, man?”
It took a second to remember that was his name, to figure out that Sage was talking to him, and he looked up. “Yessir?”
“You ain’t going to do anything harder than this.”
He blinked, totally confused for a second. “Whut?”
“Going in is hard, but coming out, staying out? That’s hell on earth. I was eighteen when I went in—you were what? Nineteen?”
“Yeah. I’m fixin’ to be thirty-two.”
“You ever had an apartment or anything?”
“You read my background. I know you had to. Don’t fish.”
For a second, he thought Sage would just stand up and walk out, leaving him there staring like an idiot, but instead Sage smiled. “Fair enough. I was fucking scared when I got out. Your people still in contact with you?”
He shook his head. “Not once. I’m dead that direction, I guess.” He was dead in more than one, Dakota thought, but somehow he kept on breathing.
“You a God-fearing man?”
“No. No, not a bit. If He exists, He hates me. If He doesn’t? Well shit, He probably still hates me. I got nothing left to swing, and I don’t see how pretending that there’s a better life beyond soothes that.” And if Sage Redding didn’t like that? Well too fucking bad. Dakota wasn’t some goddamn pet project.
He looked down at his hand and forced it to open, the half-moons his nails made filling with blood.
“Good to know. I am, but I’m pretty damn simple about it, and like I said, I ain’t innocent. It was my fault folks died, one of ’em just a wee thing. I cain’t say how I’d feel if I served another man’s time.”
Whenever he started ramping up, started thinking he was going to just lose his shit, Sage spoke and it calmed him. “You a preacher?”
“Shee-it no. No, sir. I’m a cowboy. Work horses. That’s it.”
“That’s better than what I can do.”
“I bet you’ll do just fine. Horses soothe me.” Sage spread his hands. “You’ll find something.”
“I worked in the laundry. Someone will hire me.”
He saw Sage’s eyes go wide. “The whole time?”
“Yeah.” He wasn’t a suck-up, he wasn’t big enough to be a threat, and he had been the laundry whore. He did what he had to. It was to survive. “I can handle the heat.”
“Jesus. You were just a baby.”
“Older than you and I wasn’t in maximum.” He wasn’t interested in bullshit or sympathy. Honestly, he just wanted someone to tell him the plan so he could get on it.
“Well, you got some skills, then.” Sage crumpled his trash and set it on the tray. “I’ll take you to meet Azel. He has a wee two-bedroom place over on Rundberg.”
“What was he in for?”
“He had a booze problem that led to a stupidity issue, sorta like me. He did ten for vehicular manslaughter.”
“Knew some of them.” Those tended to be sob stories, for the most part, and deep in the Jesus camp. “I appreciate the hand.”
“It makes me feel like I’m one of the good guys. I write a bunch of letters. You’re the first one that I came to pick up. Adam’s gonna be pretty pissed off.”
“Yeah. He was the sheriff in our hometown.”
Dakota shot Sage a look but didn’t say what he wanted to. Sage had to know he was a fucking cliché at best and a really bad joke at worst, and Dakota needed that ride more than he needed to be an asshole.
Never let it be said he didn’t have self-preservation down to a fine fucking art.
“I’m not interested in making trouble.” Dakota didn’t make friends, and he wasn’t going to try to insert himself into anyone’s normal.
“Well, it ain’t like I’m gonna ask y’all to go to church together. I do have some sense,” Sage drawled.
“No, sir. Of course not.” He looked down at the food and carefully wrapped up what he hadn’t eaten. “I’ll just take this for later.”
He’d be grateful for it in the morning, he was sure. He just needed to see his parole officer and get a plan.
“You need a bill of groceries?” Sage held up a hand. “The Catholic charities place gave me a money order for you. They said to use it for rent and food.”
“I better not ’til I know what rent is and all. The parole office guy will point me toward work that won’t care if I’m”—ruined—“an ex-con, right?”
“If he doesn’t, you can call me.”
Dakota nodded, but he thought maybe he wouldn’t. Sage was trying to be a good guy, and Sage’s man didn’t want them talking, obviously. “Thanks. I’m gonna hit the head and then refill my Coke.”
“I’ll head out to the truck, then.” Sage gave a look that was full of sympathy, but Dakota didn’t sense pity, which he was grateful about.
“I’ll be right there.” He stood up and forced himself not to ask for permission, not to speak to anyone.
He could do this.
He’d survived prison. He could survive freedom.