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He was letting me in.

“Okay, Brantley, what else you got?” I nudged his shoulder. He took a deep breath.

“You know about Max?”

I nodded. The girl we went to see, the one from the picture. “Your sister.”

“Pup, Max isn’t my sister,” King admitted.

“Then, who is she to you?” I asked. If she wasn’t family, then why did he have so much interest in her?

“She’s my daughter.”

Holy. Shit.

“Your daughter?” I asked, my throat tightening.

“Yeah, Max is my daughter. She’s the real reason why I went to prison, and only Preppy and Bear know the truth about her.” He squeezed my hand tighter. Looking out over the water, he seemed pained to be recalling memories associated with Max. “Do you want to know the story? Because you asked me if I wanted to let you go or keep you, and I want to let you in. I want to keep you, but it’s a hard story for me to tell. I’ve never told it to anyone. The only people who know where there in some way.”

“I want to know.”

“Do you know why I was in prison?”

“Because of your mom.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “I don’t make apologies for the things I’ve needed to do for the sake of business. Preppy and I had shit lives growing up. We did everything we could to turn it around for ourselves, most of those things were far outside the law, but we did it. Shit was amazing for a while. But my anger would get the best of me, and I would almost always be the one who ended up in jail here and there, usually just overnight. Sometimes, for thirty or sixty day stretches, depending on the charges. The other players in the game we play know the rules. They also know that when you step out of line, things happen. Things that make you dead. But this wasn’t one of those times. I didn’t pull a trigger, or use a knife, or send someone after her.”

“Your mom?” I asked.

He nodded, then told me his story.

By the time I was fifteen, Me, Prep, and Bear were our own little crew. Just three young shitheads who just wanted to have a good time, get laid, and make some fucking money. Surprisingly, we did make money. Enough for me to buy the house.

The three of us were on top of the world for a while. I’m not gonna lie. It was the best fucking time of my entire life.

But then, I got pinched. It wasn’t the first time, and it wasn’t for anything I should’ve actually gotten pinched for. A stupid bar fight in an upscale place Preppy wanted to check out across the river in Coral Pines. Some shitty tourist spot.

I was talking to a girl when some pink sweater-tied-around-his-shoulders douche-bag stepped to me for talking to her. We got into it, broke some shit in the bar, chairs, glasses, tables.

I’m covered in tattoos, and I have a record. He’s got a pink fucking sweater tied around his shoulders. It was easy to figure out which one of us was going to jail when the sheriff showed up.

I got ninety days because of my priors. When I was in county, this girl I used to screw around with showed up for visitation. She was as big as a fucking house. I thought that she was going to give birth right there in the visitors’ room. She told me the baby was mine, said that she wanted to raise it with me when I got out.

I didn’t think much of the girl, but she was nice enough, and after I got over the initial shock of it all, I was really excited to be a dad. I made a plan, made promises to myself that I was going to be a good dad, especially since I could only narrow down who my father was to every man in town except Mr. Wong who ran the corner store, for obvious reasons.

I wrote the baby letters from prison, though Tricia didn’t know then if it was a boy or a girl. She’d said they tried to find out on the ultrasound but he or she was moving around too much. It was exactly what I needed. And then it was what I wanted.

Sure I had money, but the baby gave me a reason to want more out of life.

Purpose.

The morning I got out of county, Tricia was supposed to pick me up but never showed. I walked to a payphone to call her, and when she answered, she told me she’d had the baby the week before.

A girl.

She’d named her Max, the girl name we picked out when she was still pregnant.

I asked her where the baby was, and she mumbled something about it being too hard and that she couldn’t handle it. That the whole motherhood thing wasn’t for her. She said she wasn’t coming back. There was a lot of noise in the background, glasses clinking, music. It sounded like she was at a bar. She was shouting into the phone.

Where the fuck is she? I kept asking her over and over again. For a second, I thought she was going to say she gave her up or something, and I was already thinking about who the fuck I was going to have to kill to get her back when Tricia said something that surprised me and turned my stomach.

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