Camden, on the other hand, was cagey and silent because he was expecting the worst. He was expecting Uncle Jim to be compromised, but I just couldn’t think that way. I wouldn’t. I had to trust someone in my life, and after mistrusting everyone and finally taking a chance on Camden, my uncle deserved the same opportunity.
We reached the sign marker stating it was ten miles to Hemet when I asked Camden a question I’d been thinking of for a while.
“What had happened to your wife?” I asked gently. I knew it was a loaded question, but he and I were balls deep in loaded questions these days, drowning in our answers.
He chewed on his silence for a few beats, looking romantically pensive in his reading glasses. I looked out the window at the headlights as they illuminated the twisting road, giving him space.
“I hit her,” he said. I shrank back in my seat, a bit shocked at his admission, at his bluntness. I’d been in a short but volatile relationship with a man in Nebraska. He hit me— only once, but I packed my bags and never looked back. Sure, I was trying to con him in the end but no con was ever worth abuse.
“Why?” I asked, my voice very small, not really understanding how the man next to me could be capable of that.
He breathed in deep and I shot a look at him. His brows were drawn, eyes held in some painful memory. “Because I was an angry fool. Our relationship was crumbling beneath my hands. She’d been out a lot. I was the one taking care of Ben more often than not. I never knew where she was or what she was doing, and it was never my business to know. One day I suspected she was cheating on me. I called her on it. She admitted it. Actually, she did more than admit it. She flaunted it. She told me she wanted a divorce, that she didn’t love me, that I wasn’t worth anything to her as a man. I was nothing more than a sperm donor. I think she was back on drugs again, if you ask me. It wasn’t the Sophia that I married.
I didn’t know how to handle it. She called me names. Spat in my face. Insulted me with everything she had. It wasn’t until later that I realized what she had been doing and I walked right into her trap. She punched me, called me a name I don’t even want to repeat, and I hit her back. It was just a slap, my fist wasn’t even closed. But it was enough to destroy me. It was enough for her get her divorce and custody of Ben. It was enough to put me in her family’s debt.”
“So you think she wanted you to hit her?”
He shrugged. “Does it matter? I hurt her, the one person I never wanted to hurt. She loved me at some point, I know that. I don’t know what she must have felt at that moment, to doubt that I ever felt that way, that everything had been a lie. It wasn’t a lie though, Ellie. I loved Sophia. She could never replace you, but I still loved her as much as I could. And I love Ben. I’d give everything to go back to that moment and make things right.”
I stared at him, feeling his pain.
“Would you really? Would you go back in time and change that, if you could?”
He thought it over and looked at me. “No. No, maybe not. Because then I wouldn’t have this. I wouldn’t have you. I have to live with my mistakes, but I don’t have to regret them. I regret my actions but I can’t regret the consequences. We all make our own paths in life. Everyone we meet, everything we do, it changes us. It makes us who we are. And, if we’re lucky, we’re given the chance to make things right again.”
I completely understood. I stuck my hand out the window and let it snake up and down with the wind. “It’s like an I.O.U. you didn’t know you’d written.”
He nodded. “That sounds about right. I have a feeling we’ve written a lot of those.”
“I think everyone does.”
We lapsed into a comfortable silence for the rest of the drive, understanding each other a bit better. Camden lived with his guilt, his guilt that had never let him be free. I wasn’t any different than he was. Each day I found myself relating more and more to the only other “freak” in town, the only one who really knew.
Once we passed through the small town center of Hemet, and after I whooped with delight at discovering the Hungry Heart music store still existed, we began our search for the Shady Acres. It was further out of town than we had both thought and as the town lights disappeared behind us, I had to admit I was feeling a little bit nervous.
It was terrible to doubt my uncle, but for a split second I thought maybe, somehow, this was a set-up. Maybe something wasn’t right. I don’t know if it was my own instincts or Camden’s cynical influence, but it set alarm bells off in my stomach.
It took a lot of courage to say to Camden, “I have a funny feeling about this.”
He gave me a smile and kissed my hand. “I know you do. You’re a trained con artist, you can’t forget that. If you didn’t walk into every situation with suspicion, I’d question how you survived so long.”
“So what do you think?” I asked him, suddenly doubting everything.
“I think your uncle sounds like an honest man. And I know he took care of you when we were kids, like you were his own daughter. I think he needs our help—that he deserves our help, and I believe that Javier has targeted him. But, I also think to be safe, we don’t park at the motel. Just around the corner. We sneak in.”
“Better paranoid than dead?”
“You know it.”
Once we located the hotel on my phone and spied the flickering signpost in the distance, we took the first side-street and parked down by an abandoned house on an overgrown lot. There was nothing but small farms in the area, a place that would probably seem very bucolic during the day but looked lifeless and deserted at night.
“Should we bring a gun?” I whispered as we climbed out of the car.
He eyed me over the roof. “I don’t think it could hurt. I’ll bring mine.”
I liked that idea. I didn’t want to have to use my gun in any situation that involved Uncle Jim. I was too close and it would get messy.
We quietly walked up the street, eyes peeled, ears scanning for anything unusual. A few cars puttered past on the main road up ahead, and in the distance an owl hooted, but there was nothing else except the sound of our feet as we crunched through gravel on the shoulder.
When the hotel got closer, Camden gestured for us to head in through the back of the property and scale over the fence. My arms burned from the effort but I made it over okay. We landed on the ground with a soft thud and observed the scene.
It wasn’t a hotel at all but a rundown motel. From the back, it looked like only one of the rooms in the bungalow block was occupied. I did a quick count and the small bathroom window with the light on was probably Uncle Jim’s.
I gestured at it and Camden nodded. We crept closer and tried to look in through the frosted glass pane but couldn’t see anything. Camden tried to listen with his ear pressed against it. He heard nothing either. That could be good or that could be bad.
We went around the side of the block and came into the front. There was a rusted chain link fence surrounding a tiny swimming pool with heaps of leaves floating in it, a small house for the office, and the single row of rooms. There was only one car, my uncle’s old truck, and that was it. I scanned the dark street to see if there was anything out of the ordinary but there was nothing—so far—that made me suspicious. It looked like he’d been telling the truth, which made me feel bad for doubting him and bad for putting him in this position.
With Camden leading the way, his hand hovering near his waistband where he had tucked his gun, we headed for room number eight. I made a sign at him to be careful, take it easy, and don’t go in the room guns a blazin’ on my poor uncle. I’m not sure if he picked up on the gesture or not.
I quickly rapped at the door. “Uncle Jim?”
Camden stepped back and to the side, his hand on the gun handle now, like he was playing cops and robbers.
I waited with bated breath, listening hard, until the door opened a crack, the chain lock on.
“Ellie,” Uncle Jim said, giving me an odd smile. “Come on in. I’m so glad you came.”
He undid the chain lock and opened the door. He looked like he wanted to hug me—he was being quite emotional for my stoic uncle—but first I needed to be sure he was alone. I brushed past him and did a quick sweep of the room. Camden followed, going even further by checking the bathroom and closets.
“Looking for someone?” Uncle Jim asked, his voice shaking a bit. He must have been stressed out of his gourd.
I quickly gave him a hug while Camden locked the front door. “Sorry, you know me, Miss Paranoid.”
“I know,” he said softly. “Now I can see why you are.”
He went and sat on the sagging bed with the tacky green floral duvet and started tugging at his flannel shirt. He let out a sigh. “I don’t know what to do, Ellie.”
I exchanged a look with Camden. Mine was sympathetic. His was hard. He looked at Uncle Jim with all the warmth of a hawk scouring a field for its next dinner.
I mouthed What? to him but Camden ignored me.
“Tell us what happened?” Camden asked in a steely voice.
Uncle Jim glanced at him, surprised. “I already told Ellie everything.”
“You never told me,” Camden pointed out. “So tell me.”
My uncle pursed his lips, looking Camden up and down. “How on earth did the both of you get on the run together?”
Ah shit, I thought. Camden was going to tell him about my robbery attempt. Another thing my uncle really didn’t need to know.
“I was in trouble with some people and Ellie agreed to help me,” Camden said, keeping his eyes on him. My lungs expanded gratefully.
“You’re both in trouble with different people?” he asked incredulously. “Jesus, kids, what the hell is wrong with you both?”
“You tell us,” Camden said. He took a step closer to him, his right hand looking anxious and poised. “And while you’re at it, tell us what happened.”
He frowned but said, “Like I already told Ellie, I went out earlier today, I came home. There was a fire truck there putting out the last of the flames. It was only a row of trees but it had burned right through them. The workers were upset—one, Jorge, was bleeding from his nose, says some people roughed him up. They wanted to talk to me, and when they told them that I had gone out for a bit, they hit him. Then they left.”
“What did they look like?”
“They said there were three of them. All Hispanic, although Jorge thought one sounded Puerto Rican or something. But wherever they were from, their English was impeccable. Especially the guy with the longer hair. He had some vivid eyes and they thought he was the one in charge, and maybe a little loco. He didn’t say much but he had some sort of authority. Anyhow, I guess that could be your Javier, couldn’t it Ellie?”
I nodded. Vivid eyes, a little loco, and oozing power? Yes, that sounded just like Javier.
“So then what?’ Camden asked. The impatience in his voice was rising and I wondered just what the hell he was thinking. The story sounded tight to me and made sense. Javier had a dramatic flair for lighting things on fire.