Before we took the money, before we ran, the days floated along hazy-like. We got high in Billy Joe’s parent’s basement and drank cans of Schlitz that we nicked from his dad’s side of the fridge. We cut school and played records: Alice Cooper, Ramones, the Stones. We watched TV: All in the Family, Baretta, Columbo.
In the basement, homemade orange and brown plaid curtains hung on either side of the glass door that led to the backyard and we closed them against the view of dead grass, the tiny bit of sky beyond the fence. We liked the way the Texas sun glowed through the curtains and made the room hot. We baked in there. We held lukewarm cans of beer against our wrists, our foreheads, our necks. We kissed the salt off each other’s top lips. We played the same records again and again. Our weeks went by in lazy orbit.
Then one day, we decided to cut loose.
Billy Joe’s dad was asleep on the couch upstairs and we crept past him, slipped his car keys off the hook near the front door. We got into the old GTO and the sunbaked leather burned the backs of my thighs. Billy Joe started the car and we cranked the windows down. The scrub brush and cracked ground blurred on either side of us and I put my fingers out the window, let the wind whistle through them. When I looked over at Billy Joe, he was smiling down the highway and I could see the chipped tooth that made his smile look like it was winking.
We ended up in El Paso, in one of the richie-rich neighborhoods on the outskirts of town. We drove through the mansions, the manicured lawns, the fountains with open-mouthed stone swans spurting water. I knew that people lived like this, lived like kings and queens, but knowing that and seeing it were two different things. A small dog on a chain barked at us as we drove past as if he were protecting his castle from us, two dirty bums in a borrowed GTO. That little dog probably ate out of a silver bowl. I bet his hair cuts cost more than mine.
When I squinted my eyes down the row of mansions, they blurred together and looked like blinding icebergs in the sun. We were adrift, Billy Joe and I, floating between them, looking for our own little island where we could land and make a life. Since I could remember, I had been anchored in a dusty patch of nothing. “Billy Joe,” I said, “We’re not going back.”
He looked at me, and the flash of surprise in his eyes hardened into something I’d never seen before. He pulled into the next driveway and cut the engine. “Whose house is this?” I asked.
“I don’t know. All these castles are the same. They all probably stuff their pillows with hundred dollar bills.” He leaned over me and I could smell his skin smell: sweat and dust, marijuana and something a little bit fruity—strawberry, maybe. He opened the glove compartment and took out a gun. Before I could say his name or ask what he thought he was doing, he had the gun tucked into the waistband of his jeans and he had opened the car door and started walking toward a mansion. I watched the back of his white t-shirt, the muscles rippling beneath it as he clenched and unclenched his hands into fists. He approached the door and, to my surprise, the knob twisted and gave. He disappeared into the open door’s dark mouth.
Even with the windows open, the GTO grew hot quickly. When I shifted in my seat, the backs of my legs squelched against the leather. I reached up to the rearview mirror and adjusted it so I could see out behind me. The neighborhood was still in the stifling midday heat. Minutes passed. I held my fingers on the burning dashboard until they blistered.
Then I heard the gunshot.
I barely saw the heavy curtains, hardly felt the plush carpet sponging my footfalls as I ran through the house, looking for Billy Joe. I finally found him upstairs, still and silent, before an open safe tucked back in a closet. I whispered his name and walked up to his back. His shirt was drenched with cool sweat. When he turned to look at me, he was shaking. The gun was still in his hand. “What did you do?” I asked.
He shook his head and turned back toward the safe. I looked inside and covered my mouth with my hands. Money stacked like bricks reached all the way to the back of the safe, just like on TV. I had never seen so much money in my life. I hadn’t known that stacks of bills like this really existed. “Oh my god,” I said.
A siren keened above us and I heard Billy Joe swear under his breath and start pacing. I could feel his frantic energy searching for a way out behind me. He didn’t realize the answer was right in front of us.
My hands tingled and I started grabbing money and stuffing the bills into my pants. I worked quickly, steadily. I stuffed money into my boots, and then I gathered all I could in my arms and started running for the front door. I heard Billy Joe murmuring a steady stream of “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit” behind me, but his words gave way and soon all I heard were the sirens and my boots clacking against the concrete as I ran for the car.
When I reached the GTO, I opened the door, and threw the money inside. I looked back and saw Billy Joe standing at the threshold of the mansion. He shook like a small, scared animal. “Get in the car,” I screamed. I dove into the driver’s seat and revved the engine. Billy Joe still wouldn’t move. I banged the wheel with my open palms and yelled at him. “We have to go.” My heart pumped so fast I felt like my head was going to pop off. I could barely catch my breath. I looked at the pile of money beside me on the passenger seat. Then I looked at Billy Joe and shook my head. I put the car in reverse and started backing down the driveway, never taking my eyes off him. The sirens echoed across the valley. Any second now we would see the flashing lights. I reached the end of the driveway. I saw Billy Joe look in the direction of the sirens and his knees began to buckle. Before he fell to the ground, he caught himself and ran toward the car. I opened the door and as he slammed it back shut, I pounded on the gas and we screeched away.
I drove as fast as I could. When I looked over at him, Billy Joe was sliding his fingers along the edges of the stacks of money. I knew that he was thinking about the person he left in the house, the person he left dead. “Hey,” I said, “I love you.” He glanced up at me then, with the newly hardened eyes that I hoped time would soften once again. God knows they changed quickly enough the first time.
This day began the same as our days always did, and then we altered our lives so fast we didn’t have time to think about it. We didn’t plan, we didn’t strategize, we didn’t think of the repercussions. We could only let the blazing sun burn black stars into our eyes as we followed it down the highway. We could only let ourselves be drawn by the magnetic pull of gun to flesh, of fingertip to money. More than anything, we could only sync our strange and beating hearts together, take hands, take the money, and run.