On a bright Nevada morning, weak with wanting and sun-stricken, Matías was reminded of all his dreams. He hadn't dreamt in years; any glimpse of the future had become clouded by the neon-radiation haze of the Las Vegas strip, until today. A moment of clarity.
He remembered the home they had hoped for; a palace on Silver Avenue where they would one day raise their family. A luxury car parked beneath the sandstone porte-cochère. Olivia on his arm and the keys to his house firm in his hands. Strands of lights glittering off the backyard pool like diamonds suspended in ether. It was a fantasy he had all but forgotten, brought back now by the sight of the Loomis armored car, its back gate open, the canvas bags of slot machine earnings piled up along its fender. The money, and his decades-old dream, unguarded.
Anyone watching from across the street, or down the same service alley he'd been walking, would have noticed the security guards smoking nearby. And they would have seen a man acting on impulse. Not a lover, nor a dreamer. A tweaker. His agitated head snapping in every direction to survey the area. The disbelief on his face that it could all be so easy. His frantic will to grab one, just one, of those heavy bags. But for Matías, it was never an impulse. It was a yearning 20 years in the making. Act now, so his dreams with Olivia could live on.
Running. He was always running. Running from hunger. Running from poverty. Running from the familial specter of addiction. Today, at 12 years old, he was running across a field of desert thistle and baked earth, running toward where he'd heard the screams. His all-white Jordans, representing a whole summer's worth of mowing neighbors' lawns, were scuffed and snagged by the harsh Mohave sage, but he pressed on with the heedless heart of a pre-teen boy. He hadn't yet learned there were no heroes.
The girl was his age. The boys who surrounded her, who tore at her shirt and tugged at her shorts, were older and larger. When the mirage ripples along the horizon settled and the entire scene came into focus, Matías did not consider his own safety nor the outcome. He just began swinging. Olivia's eyes, like burnished opal, were wide with wonder at this stranger who took such a savage beating to defend her. And when the dust dissipated, Matías and Olivia left the abandoned lot together: hand in hand. He was bloodied, the designer shoes stripped from his feet, but the weight of Olivia's small hand in his felt like a salve to sooth all the pain.
His joints burned as he coaxed them into motion. Twenty feet to the cash bag. Thirty more to the end of the alleyway. Fifteen years of a nightmare receding from memory. It was all momentum from here, a momentum no one could stop. The security guards looked on in disbelief and awe. But Matías could only see the dream ahead: clean streets, shade-giving trees, verdant lawns, a place impervious to the rainshadow. A place to call home.
He had to get Olivia out of that house. Away from the wine-drowned indifference of her mother. Out of reach of the stepfather whose hands turned cruel at night. Sprung from underneath a roof brittle with rot and swollen with asbestos. He had to give them a proper place of their own. And this was the only way his 17-year-old mind could figure. He looked at the knife blade, just under his nose, a chalky powder dusting its mirrored surface.
"Take a hit, cousin," said the man who was neither family, nor friend. "You want the good life? The good money? You want to work for me? You got to taste what you'll be selling. Just a taste. A taste of the good life."
He inhaled. For Olivia. For their dreams. He snorted a brushfire into his brain. He saw light. Felt light. Became light.
The cash bag was far heavier than he had anticipated. His muscles, warmed over by day-old opiates, struggled to balance the new burden. As he swayed like a punch-drunk boxer in the heat behind the Slots-A-Fun Casino, Matías looked once more for any sign of the armored car guards. No uniforms in sight. No shouts of warning. Just the still and arid air. He reached for a second bag. One bag for the house. One bag for the car, the pool. A third bag for their kids, for college tuition and an RV to take them everywhere offered under the blue bowl of the sky. How many bags did he need to buy that kind of freedom?
"It's a prison," Olivia said.
At first, Matías thought she was talking about their motel, where the Metro police prowled outside the concrete landing, like jailhouse guards in Day-Glo yellow.
They lay in bed, a matted whorl of damp sheets, foil squares, and browned bottle caps. The desiccated air smelling of burnt pennies. For a moment, the dope made Matías forget what they were talking about.
"The city," she said. "This city is like a prison." She turned to look at him, her once jewel-black eyes buried behind sunken sockets and threaded blood vessels. "What's the prison on the island called? The one in San Fran?"
He heard his voice answer her, floating and detached from his own body. "Alcatraz."
"Yeah. This city is Alcatraz, and the desert is the ocean. No one ever leaves because where would they go?"
"Twelve blocks north." he replied.
"Twelve blocks north and two blocks west. That's where we'll go. There's a planned community up there with the most beautiful houses you've ever seen. Kids get dropped off after school right in front of their own homes and the private pools are cool in the summer and warm in the winter. That's where we'll go. It's not far." He wanted to say more. To tell her about their home's grand entrance. To paint the picture in his mind of the strings of outdoor lights, swaying in the breeze like drowsy fireflies. He wanted to tell her he'd seen their children already; he knew exactly what they looked like: two boys and a girl. But the high was taking hold. And Olivia's breath had gotten shallower, and the warmth had left her frail body, and all he could do was repeat: "It's not far. Not far."
Just twelve blocks. He knew the exact house. 1801 Silver Avenue. The yard was always emerald green. The driveway spilled over with Big Wheels and chalk-drawn hopscotch. The sound of a family laughing, of water splashing, always echoing from the back. His arms strained under the weight of the cash bags. Blood hammered in his ears, drowning out the warning shots fired behind him. His adrenaline swelled, his shoeless feet began to float, and his spirit flew. He wouldn't use this money to get high. He felt too good already. He felt no pain and was dreaming again.