Short Story Contest Finalist: Two Days in October

By March 14, 2016Blog, Featured

Written by John Farrell Jr. 

Dilley whacked the bump key with a small hammer he carried in his bag of tricks.

Lily stood back, watching, while Dilley worked it. The small vestibule felt crowded and hot. It was a four-unit, the kind Lily’s father managed when she was growing up in northern New Jersey. Except this one, set back from the street a bit in a small New England town, was much nicer. The hallway smelled of cooking spices and the owner had kept up with the maintenance. The carpet in the entryway was worn, but clean, and she could see the mailboxes still had their original locks.

Through the glass center panel, Lily could make out a lace doily on an old table near the bottom of the stairs. A heavy lamp sat dead-center on the doily, casting its incandescent glow over an assortment of local take-out menus.

Catching sight of the teriyaki font reminded Lily she couldn’t remember the last time they’d eaten. Some donuts she lifted from the AA meeting they crashed before getting on the road. That was Tuesday. Then, yesterday, Dilley managed to stuff two orders of fries into his coat pockets before the 7-11 clerk returned from the bathroom in the back. Dilley forgot to grab ketchup packets when he was leaving, but he managed to pilfer a bottle of sparkling wine on the way out the door, and the fries still glistened hot and salty when they parked beneath a street lamp a few minutes later to celebrate their victory over the Man and chow down.

Dilley laid out their score on the dash and smiled over his accomplishment in a way that made Lily beam with pride. Her grandmother, Dora, who mostly raised her, would say, at seventeen, what Lily was feeling wasn’t love, just hormones. That’s not a crime, her grandmother would say, but a girl has to be aware of herself, her feelings. It’s not an excuse, or a license to run loose through Crazytown.

Lily loved her grandmother, and she wasn’t sure if she loved Dilley or not, but she knew she had the hormones real bad. She felt this way ever since Dilley turned to her in the car, his face so sincere and so sweet, and he told her there wasn’t another girl in the whole world he’d rather be on the road with. He said there was no one else like her, that he loved her.

Maybe the sparkling wine slowed her senses, but before Lily could even react Dilley was kissing her hard. He kept kissing Lily – and she kept kissing him back – until the world around her dissolved in a blur of streetlights and night sounds from an unfamiliar place.  And the feelings rose up and churned inside her, shredding young Lily like a riptide, until there was nothing holding her focus but the kiss that bound them, the taste of raspberry flavored bubbly, cooking oil and salt lingering on her plump lips. She knew that night she had to be with him, even if it meant getting in his car and driving all the way to Boston, where Dilley had a plan to get some things going.

A quick, second tap of the hammer. A jiggle of the key. Then a third, harder whack. Dilley felt the tumblers fall into place. He turned the knob and the door swung open.

“Après vous,” Dilley said with a theatrical flourish of his hand. He really was so adorable.

Lily stepped inside, suddenly self-conscious. She followed him silently to the second floor, past the first apartment they came to, and watched him pop the lock to the adjacent unit. They hurried inside and Dilley closed the door with hardly a sound.

“See?” Dilley said, “Vacant. I told you. Place like this, at a hotel, you know what you’d pay?”

“Uh, I don’t know,” Lily said. “A lot?”

“Five hundred a night, easy.”

The place didn’t look like much, and hotels, obviously, would be furnished, but Lily had no reason to doubt Dilley’s estimate. She’d never stayed at a hotel, but she knew they were expensive.

And Dilley did have a knack for spotting opportunities. Driving at night in a strange town, Lily never would have noticed the tell-tale signs of a second floor vacancy, but when Dilley turned the corner in his old Ford no more than fifteen minutes ago, he was all over it. If she closed her eyes, Lily could still see the tired smile creasing Dilley’s face as he squeezed her thigh just above the knee, saying, “Lodging for the night. Dilley done it, baby. Dilley done it.”

Maybe it was love.

 

Somewhere in his subconscious, Lyle Quinn was telling himself to get up, go to bed. He was dozing in an armchair, his head dipping forward and snapping back, a relentless series of hypnagogic jerks that pinned him firmly in the sleepy netherworld between rest and dreaming.

Lyle’s wife, Judith, was eight months pregnant. An attractive woman, with long, silky black hair and almond shaped eyes, she lay awake debating if she should fetch Lyle from the living room, or let him be. For weeks now, whenever Judith would hoist her belly to her feet in front of the TV and announce she was going to bed, Lyle would get a flustered, almost panicked look on his face and say he’d be along “in just a few.” But he never made it to bed.

At first, Judith would awaken around 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and call out to Lyle. A few times, he roused himself from the armchair, quietly thanked her, and slipped under the covers without bothering to undress. Other times, Judith would shuffle into the living room in the Tempurpedic slippers Lyle’s sister bought for her when she first found out they were pregnant. Judith would gently nudge Lyle and he would follow her, silently and dutifully, into the bedroom. Whenever she’d ask him about it the next day, Lyle would smile sheepishly and shrug. “Sorry, honey,” is what he’d say.

Too many times, Judith found herself having to prod Lyle into consciousness. She hated doing it because no matter what she said, no matter how carefully she selected her words, this simple act of gathering her husband made her feel matronly, overbearing and fat. Too often, Judith found herself standing beside Lyle’s chair in the middle of the night, shifting her weight from one swollen ankle to the other, softly saying, “Work tomorrow. Come on, baby, it’s late.”

Lying in bed now, both hands poised on her enormous belly, Judith took a deep, cleansing breath and held it. She was about to release it, slowly, to a count of eight, when she heard a toilet flush in the apartment next door.

Judith eased her legs over the side of the mattress. Her feet found her slippers in the dark and she could feel herself crushing the cushioned insoles into the carpet as she padded quickly into the living room.

“Lyle,” she whispered, shaking his shoulder. “Lyle, did you hear that? There’s someone next door.”

 

Lily lay still in the darkened room when Dilley got up and slipped quietly into the bathroom. The floor was hard beneath her and she was thinking about the differences between being with boys and being with men. Until tonight, Lily had only been with two boys. One, she knew from school, a jock named Randy. He was nervous and cute and smelled like Axe body spray. But she never saw him again after homecoming.

The other boy, Hunter, was a lead guitarist. Hunter smoked too much pot, but he was funny and sweet and so talented. Everyone said he was going to be a rock star someday because whenever he stepped into the spot to play his solos, the music would radiate from him like he was channeling spirits, and everyone – even old people in the audience – couldn’t look away. Lily liked Hunter, but she wasn’t too upset when he told her his Dad was getting transferred and his family was moving to Pittsburgh. At the time, she wondered if not missing him more meant she was a slut.

Now, lying on the floor in this dark apartment, waiting for Dilley to come back from the bathroom, Lily recalled how much pot she smoked with Hunter the week before he left, and how much sex they had. But even as the memories churned fresh in her mind, Lily felt her sexual history beginning to fall away from her, trivial and small. It was a feeling she credited to growing up, and, for the first time, Lily consciously envisioned her past as a blood-red helium balloon, slipping from her fingers. She smiled as she watched it go, vibrant and rising, lifting and bobbing merrily through the wispy clouds, until, finally, fading from sight, Lily’s balloon was lost to the nebulous realm of nostalgia.

It’s good to be with a real man, she thought, pulling her jacket around her shoulders for warmth. Dilley was twenty-seven; a week earlier, Lily would have said he was too old for her. But he didn’t look that old, and he was right: when you connect with someone, really connect, there’s no telling how far you can go. Lily envisioned the two of them like candles at an evening vigil; separately, they were tiny sparks against a vast darkness, but, together, they’d grow into a great, warming flame. Lily closed her eyes and smiled, tucking the collar of her jacket beneath her chin. It felt good to be in love.

 

“The fuck you been? What’s the holdup?” It was Sullivan. Everyone called him Sully.

“We had some car trouble,” Dilley said. He was sitting on the toilet seat lid, speaking softly into his cell phone, a nervous sweat glazing his forehead. These weren’t the kind of guys you mess with; these were the kind who mess with you.

Sully said, “We’re on a timeline. You got her?”

“Yeah,” Dilley said. “But I wanted to—“

“You get her phone?”

Dilley said, “Tossed it. She thinks she lost it.”

“She a looker?”

“What?”

“The cooze,” Sully said. Then, very slowly, as if Dilley was retarded, “Is…she…a…looker?”

Dilley could feel his jaw muscles tightening. It wasn’t so much what Sully was saying – Sully didn’t know Dilley had feelings for Lily – more like Dilley should have known better than to go for a big money job in the first place. He had always prided himself on being small time. Shoplifting, B&Es, the occasional smash-and-grab – these were his bread and butter as he made his way in this world, a true disciple of the streets. He didn’t even know Lily when a kid named Rufus told him about some guys up near Boston that were paying top dollar for girls. “I ain’t no fucking pimp,” Dilley told Rufus. “Pimps ain’t what they be needin’,” Rufus said, “mo’ like facilitators.” Then he explained how the girls were headed overseas, where they were worth a lot more. All Dilley had to do was serve them up. Five grand apiece.

At first, Dilley passed, but when he bumped into Lily coming out of a CVS the next day, and she looked up at him with those big, glistening doe eyes and laughed at the first thing he said, Dilley knew she was exactly the kind of girl a wealthy Dubai businessman would go for. He imagined the kind of life she might have: bathing in rose water pools, being tended to by older women in the harem, draped in finery and jewelry befitting her ripening beauty. All the while being jetted to parties in places like Monaco, St. Moritz and Ibiza. There would be yachts, too, on which Lily could soak up the sun while glimpsing the finest beaches from the Caribbean to South America to Thailand. I mean, really, Dilley thought after hearing the sad story of Lily’s childhood over slices of pizza, would it be so wrong?

But that was before he fell in love with her. Ever since they got on the road together, Dilley had been fighting the urge to really like Lily. She was that awesome. The way she hung on his every word, even when he was bullshitting, and their senses of humor were perfectly attuned. Sure, Dilley had been with many girls, most of them younger, but in his entire life, he’d never met a girl like Lily. She was beautiful and smart and funny on a level that far exceeded Dilley’s previous conquests, and he’d be goddamned if he was going to hand her over to a bunch of jerkoffs, so they could sell her to some rich Arab asshole. Besides, what if her new life wasn’t all rose water baths and beach vacations? What if the guy who bought her turned out to be a prick, or he was elderly and cruel, or a sick pervert getting obscene on young flesh? No way, Dilley thought, fuck that.

“You still there? She a looker or not,” Sully said, losing patience. “Fuck’s the matter with you?”

“Yeah,” Dilley said. “Listen, change of plans. We ain’t gonna make it.”

Dilley should have ended the call right there, but he stayed on long enough to hear Sully sigh heavily on the other end.

“Numnuts,” Sully said. “You don’t change plans, we change plans. Have the cooze here tomorrow, or we’ll be shipping you out. They buy boys, too, you know. Fuckin’ putz.”

That’s how the call ended.

 

Lyle awoke in his chair with a start. His mouth was bone dry, heart still racing as he scrambled to process the image of Judith standing over him, one hand flat against her belly, the index finger of her other hand delicately crossing her lips.

“What is it,” Lyle said, reaching for a glass on the table. He gulped what was left of it.

“Someone’s next door. I heard a flush,” Judith said. Her head was cocked to one side now, actively scanning the walls for any sign of forthcoming audible intrusions.

“So? It’s the middle of the night,” Lyle said. “Probably got up to pee.”

“They moved out two weeks ago, Lyle. It’s vacant. Are you awake?

Lyle licked his dry lips and stood up slowly. He placed his hands on Judith’s shoulders and gently pecked her cheek. “It’s late, baby. Let’s go to bed,” he said.

Before taking maternity leave, Judith was a purchasing manager for one of the largest employers in the state. She took her job seriously, and meticulously planned her ascension through the corporate ranks, carefully and precisely calculating both the timing of her pregnancy and leave. Few things could unravel Judith and send her scurrying down the primal ladder faster than the thought of someone not taking her seriously, a reality that applied doubly if the sleight was coming from a man—triply, if that man happened to be her husband.

If Lyle hadn’t been running on auto-pilot when he started for the bedroom, he would have noticed the sudden flush of color in Judith’s cheeks as her eyelids tightened into slits that held back two hard-staring brown eyes, cold as river stones. When he half-turned to see if she was following him to bed, Judith’s fuming gaze upended Lyle like a bucket of ice water. His brain went into overdrive to correct for the error, but all he could manage was an empty offering, made worse when the words tripped from his lips in a weak stutter.

“Wha-wha-what do you want me to do,” he said, “call the police?”

“Yes. That apartment’s supposed to be empty.”

“I can’t call the police because you heard a toilet flush, Judith. You sure it wasn’t one of the other apartments?”

But there was no reasoning his way out of this one; Judith’s mind was made up and, without saying another word, she held Lyle in her gaze until she felt his resistance dissolving in the late night silence and, finally, he caved, his rounded shoulders imperceptibly slumping before he hitched his pants and shuffled, meekly, to the door.

 

A minute later, Lyle stood in front of the adjacent unit. He was about to knock when he lowered his hand, suddenly feeling self-conscious, ridiculous, weak. So what if somebody was in the neighboring apartment? How was that his business? He wasn’t the building manager. What would he say if someone came to the door?

Lyle stood for a minute, weighing his options, the steady buzz from an overhead lighting fixture the only sound piercing the night. The building manager. Of course, he thought. Really, this sort of thing would be his job.

The building manager was an older, Greek man. He didn’t speak much, but he made timely repairs and kept the building tidy. Through the long winters, he kept the driveway cleared of snow, and the path to the front door salted. Come summer, he planted cosmos in the small dirt patches on both sides of the entryway and, when they blossomed in a vivid spray of reds, whites and pinks against the tiny, manicured lawn, Judith felt the four-unit rental property could easily pass for condos. Lyle agreed. At least from the outside.

He descended the stairs and rapped twice on the Greek’s door. Nothing. He stood for a moment, glancing through the main entryway, out to the darkened street. Not a sound. He was about to knock again when he remembered Judith saying something the other day about the Greek being gone for two weeks. His daughter gave birth to twins, out in Minnesota. Twins.

Lyle moved to the entryway and opened the inner door. He braced it with one foot and leaned forward, closer to the outer door, so he could get a look outside. Must be four, four-thirty now, he thought, close to five. Lyle loved this time of night, when the still silence layered a shroud of comfort around him, easing his troubled mind.

For weeks now, he hadn’t slept. More than that, he couldn’t bring himself to go to bed with Judith. Come bedtime, he’d seize upon any excuse to stay up a little later. Mostly he’d sit in the armchair and think about things until he dozed off, his head bobbing forward and snapping back, feeling like a marionette in the hands of a novice puppeteer—yet oddly at ease in this limbo state, free from the pressures and anxieties that consumed his waking thoughts.

A light snapped on across the street. Through the living room window, Lyle watched his neighbor, in a tank top and booty shorts, stretching her hamstrings in front of the television. He had noticed her before, leaving for work in the mornings, much more masculine in her uniform, a shiny shield pinned to her shirt, a Glock nine millimeter riding high on her hip. She looked so different now, sexy even, as she followed Jillian Michaels through a rigorous workout. They had never spoken—Lyle didn’t even know her name—but he recalled hearing her laugh once. It was a summer evening, shortly after Judith and Lyle moved in, and he was crossing the driveway, headed for home. The neighbor must have been on the phone, out of sight, her laugh, light and lilting, carrying a distance before dropping off in the dusk. It was the laugh of a woman he could imagine being friends with, drinking beers and joking around with Judith while he grilled beef and shrimp kebobs on the Hibachi that sat catty-cornered on their tiny balcony at the rear of the house.

Through the window now, Lyle watched the woman’s body dip and bend, the tautness of her leg muscles thickening as his eyes moved quickly from her Reeboks, up her calves, behind her knees, past the hamstrings, settling, finally, on the sculpted density of her glutes.

Lyle closed the door and went back upstairs. As he glanced at the vacant apartment next door, he hoped Judith would be asleep when he returned, but she was sitting in the armchair, sipping herbal tea, when he locked the door behind him.

“Well,” Judith said. “How’d it go?”

“There was no answer,” Lyle said. “I don’t know what you heard.”

“A flush,” she said, pointing with her teacup. “From that apartment.”

Lyle shrugged. “I’m going to bed. You coming?”

“Finish my tea first, sweetie” she said. “Mommy’ll keep her ears open, just in case.” Her playful tone now was added for balance, Judith’s way of retroactively softening the hardness of her original demand. It was a practice that evolved into a system shortly after their relationship graduated from the fun-fueled honeymoon phase into the more sustainable union of two adults, grounded in words like duty, commitment and obligation. If Lyle was on his game, he would have uttered a response in a similarly playful tone, so they’d both know without saying that everything was cool between them.

But he didn’t. He turned and walked to the bedroom without saying a word and, as he lay staring at the ceiling – exhausted and bleary-eyed, yet unable to sleep – Lyle wondered again what the hell was wrong with him. People lose their jobs, he thought. The timing sucked, but he’d find another. He knew Judith would understand whenever he got around to telling her, knew she’d go into overdrive helping to get the word out that he was looking for work; but, no, that wasn’t it. Whatever was jamming him up inside went far beyond his recent dismissal, and that’s what worried him.

As he lay with his eyes closed, feigning sleep, Lyle saw himself standing on an empty beach at sunrise, the tide pushing in over his toes, thick columns of storm clouds blanketing the sky. As heavy drops of rain began to fall, Lyle walked into the sea until he stood chest-deep in the steel-gray water. He eased onto his back, trying to float, and felt the chilling wind pass over his wet skin. A sudden rumble and crash of thunder, a flash of lightning on the horizon. Lyle was floating now, bobbing over the waves that rushed the shore. He drifted for a while, until the sky tore open and the heavy rains pounded the surface of the sea, until he felt his legs dropping beneath him, the weight of his body going vertical, sinking. Fight it, he thought, his mind suddenly scrambling, fight it now. Fight it like you fight for work, like you fight for life, like you fight just to fucking breathe.

Far away, Lyle could sense Judith’s presence in the room. She sat on the edge of the bed, kicked off her slippers and eased her legs up. As she rolled back into the bed, the mattress sagging and creaking beneath her baby weight, Lyle felt the ocean’s great current pulling him down, deep, deeper, until he was completely submerged in its inky stillness.

And, like that, there he was: just Lyle and his soul, duking it out in the freezing blackness.

 

Dilley scooted his body closer to Lily’s, spooning her to stay warm, but also because it felt right to be near her. She lay with her eyes closed, smiling as his hand moved up her thigh and over her hip, his thumb hooking the belt loop of her jeans before coming to rest. He pressed his face into her hair and said, “I love you, Lily.”

It was the second time he said those words to her and, just like the first, Lily felt her heart abruptly skip a beat, a joyous tingling in her tummy overtaking her in seconds, rendering her lightheaded and breathless. She turned beneath her jacket, facing Dilley now, and said, “I love you, too.”

Dilley drank her in, his hand framing her delicate face, lost in the power of those eyes that held his gaze in the pale blue glow of early morning light. It was the first time she said those words to Dilley and, although he was thrilled to hear them, the look on her face when she spoke added a power and urgency that caught Dilley completely unprepared. A tangle of feelings swirled in his gut. Here was this girl – a woman, really – whose compassion and capacity for love was so great that she could turn a blind eye to all his obvious faults. She didn’t care that he was ten years older, homeless, a hustler. She didn’t mind that, since they met, she hadn’t eaten a decent meal, or slept in a warm bed. Through it all, Lily remained open to the promises of love – and Dilley truly loved her for that. For other reasons, too. And why not? A man could find redemption if he looked for it. Couldn’t he?

Without looking, Dilley took Lily’s hand in his. He felt around and gently pushed three fingertips up the length of her ring finger, not stopping until he reached the third knuckle.

Lily’s eyes widened.

“Will you marry me, Lily?”

“Yes,” Lily said, her face beaming now, tears welling up. “Yes. Oh my God, yes. Yes.”

She was hugging him now, kissing his face.

“I promise I’ll get you a ring someday,” Dilley said.

“I don’t care about that,” Lily said. “I just want us to be happy together. Forever.”

Dilley and Lily made love for the next hour. They would have kept going, too, if the bamboo floorboards hadn’t conspired against their union, the pain in Lily’s tailbone and hip too much to endure. Dilley’s knees, rubbed raw and aching.

“We can pick this up again later,” Lily said, rolling onto her side, face flushed and glowing.

“Absolutely,” Dilley said, catching his breath. “It’s a date.”

 

Dora didn’t believe in coddling children. When her own daughter, Marjorie, had brought Lily to her years earlier, Dora made it clear there was no going back. Kids need stability, a home life they can count on. She wasn’t going to provide that to Lily, only to have it disrupted after a few months or a year, whenever Marjorie’s life was back on track. “You’ll always be her mother,” Dora had told her daughter. “No one can ever take that from you. But this is Lily’s home now. You entrust her to me, she’s going to live here until she’s old enough to live on her own, make her own decisions. You sure you want to do this?” Marjorie quietly nodded. What choice did she have? She turned and walked out the door. It was the last time Dora, or Lily, saw her.

How the years had flown by. Dora stood at her kitchen counter. She poured a cup of coffee and handed it to the police officer.

“Ma’am, do you think your granddaughter’s in any danger?” He was attentive, polite, seemed genuinely concerned.

“I don’t know,” Dora said. “I’ve been trying her phone for two days and can’t get through. That’s not like her.” She could see the phone clearly in her mind, the light pink casing with a Hello Kitty image in its center, a half-circle of faux diamond accents glittering around the cat’s face. “I’ve always encouraged her to make her own decisions. I steer, I don’t judge. There’s no reason for her not to return my calls. We didn’t bicker.”

“When does she turn eighteen?”

Dora said, “Next week. I know, in the eyes of the law, she’s an adult, but —“

“This boy she left with,” the police officer said. “Do you know him?”

“Well, he’s a man, from what I could see,” Dora said. “He stayed out in the car. Only caught a glimpse when they were driving away. Must’ve been in his mid-twenties, at least, though. That’s why I’m concerned. Kids and their hormones, you know?”

The police officer nodded, sipped his coffee. “If she left willingly, being almost eighteen, and there’s no reason to believe she’s in danger, there’s not a whole lot we can do,” he said. “But, you say she’s headed for Boston? I can make a few calls, put out a BOLO, see if we can’t track her down just to make sure she’s all right.”

“Will you ask her to call me?” Dora said.

“Yes, ma’am,” the police officer said. “We can do that.”

 

What happened after Sully hung up on Dilley was a matter of risk management. Sully had learned, from years of doing business with junkies and thieves, he had to stay on them. Know their movements, the way they think.

There was this Russian kid in his twenties, a few years back, quiet guy with a gambling problem, who owed Sully big-time. His face had been badly scarred from a chemical explosion back in the Motherland. When he came to America, he started playing cards to win enough money to get his face fixed. Wanted to be in business, the American Dream. He wasn’t a bad card player either, but he had no reserves. Worse, the kid was overeager. Every game, he played all the cash he had to his name. It wasn’t long before one of Sully’s guys sets his sights on him and wrapped him up tight: eight grand at twenty percent a week.

When he didn’t have the money to pay, Sully punched his ticket. But instead of having one of his guys beat the balls off this kid, Sully listened when the kid – Artyom was his name – said he could work off the debt. He knew computers, mobile technology, all that. At first, Sully figured the kid was stalling, saying anything to avoid a beating, but when Sully parked him in front of a computer, Artyom proved his worth. The kid was a whiz at accessing databases, so Sully kept him close.

After Sully hung up on Dilley, he jotted down the last incoming number and handed it to Artyom, who went to work trying to identify the phone’s location. He said he could narrow it down to a general calling area, but to get an exact location, they’d need to have Dilley on the line. The call was placed from Rhode Island, if that helped. Not far.

So, Sully sent a couple of his guys on a drive to the Ocean State and told them to hang around Providence until they heard back from him. This kid, Dilley, might still come through. If he didn’t, at least they’d be ready to snatch the cooze.

 

Lily sat cross-legged on the living room floor, brushing her long brown hair. Dilley came through the door carrying two cups of coffee. He had slipped out while she was sleeping because he woke up remembering a soup kitchen they drove by when they were scouting for lodging, and he wanted her to have something for breakfast. He tried to close the door quietly behind him, but it slipped away from his foot and shut with a bang.

Dilley placed the paper cups on the floor. “Drink it while it’s hot,” he said. “Here.”  He took the brush from Lily and knelt into a sitting position behind her. He waited for her to take a sip.

“Mmm,” Lily said. “This may be the best coffee I’ve ever tasted, and I don’t even drink coffee that often.”

Dilley lifted her hair and began to brush, working the underside of her fragrant mane in a series of long, careful strokes. He was so glad she liked the coffee, he almost forgot about her breakfast. He reached into his jacket pocket and handed her two donuts wrapped in white paper napkins.

Lily turned to him, flashing that angel smile again, and said, “Well, aren’t you resourceful. Where’d you get this stuff?”

He told her they were just soup kitchen donuts, nothing special. They’d have to take advantage of what was available to them until he could get some things going. Then he told her there might be a change of plans. Boston wasn’t looking so good anymore. How would she feel about bypassing Beantown completely, maybe shooting up north to Maine? He had a cousin there who did pretty well for himself selling industrial supplies. Maybe he could help Dilley find some kind of work.

Boston was a city Lily always wanted to visit, full of history, but kept lively by the constant flow of college kids passing through it. It disappointed her to hear they’d be skipping Boston, but when she asked Dilley if maybe they could just make a quick stop so she could send a postcard to her grandmother – and he said, “Beantown’s off the table, baby” – she didn’t want to push it. It was the first time she’d seen Dilley looking so serious. Maybe that’s what being in love does to a man, she thought. After all, she had never heard him mention looking for work, either. And wasn’t that a good thing? Wouldn’t it be the first step toward having a life together with regular meals and hot water, a roof over their heads in an apartment they belonged in? Wasn’t that what growing up was all about? Besides, she had heard that Maine was beautiful; also historical, but full of wilderness.

“Maine works,” Lily said, smiling. She took a bite of donut, letting it sit on her tongue until the sugary glaze coated the inside of her mouth. She washed it down with another sip of coffee, steam still rising through the little triangular opening in the lid.

 

By 10:15, Lyle was losing his coffee buzz. He’d had three cups before leaving the house, dressed in the clothes he’d normally wear to his job as a customer service manager. At one time, the store he worked for was an iconic brand, a household name. Now it was just another struggling retailer, unable to compete with the flood of cheap products from China, hobbled by the showrooming trend that brought customers in to manhandle their goods before buying them at an even deeper discount online.

It always troubled Lyle to see the way people behaved when they knew they had no intention of buying. They’d run their hands roughly over the merchandise, disrupting the neatly folded stacks and carefully placed shelf displays before turning away dismissively, a look of practiced disdain on their bunched up faces, as if they were used to something much better. They weren’t, of course – the clothes they were wearing proved it – but it made them feel superior to act this way. And the comments they’d make, always louder than necessary, while meandering through the departments: how this store was going downhill fast; how they could get it cheaper, with free shipping, on Amazon; how they would manage things differently, far better, if they were in charge. Why were people so willing – eager, even – to celebrate the death of a familiar establishment? Did they have to take pleasure in watching it topple? Over the past six months or so, Lyle had come to deeply resent them for it.

Unable to win the price war, corporate decided to compete on service. High touch was the order of the day, and it was Lyle’s job to make sure each and every customer grievance was handled to their utmost satisfaction, that they knew how special they were, that the store truly valued each opportunity to serve them.

In the weeks leading up to Lyle’s termination, he could feel his resolve fraying around the edges. He knew he should be running a tighter ship, keeping the customer service team on its toes, holding them accountable. But he was starting to let things slide, pretending he didn’t notice when one of his reps spoke to a customer in an unacceptable tone; or, Lyle himself, failing to thank a customer for the opportunity to serve them after performing a system override to issue a store credit.

The final straw was a woman named Lydia Greene, who came in with an axe to grind because the maternity pants she purchased through the store’s website didn’t fit. She was a vicious woman with a hard face, well into her third trimester, draped in a tangerine muumuu, beige vinyl slippers barely containing her bulging feet. After chewing through two of his reps, Lydia demanded to speak with the manager. Lyle came out to help her, but before he could get a word out, she let him have it with both barrels, spewing a stream of invective that turned the heads and reddened the faces of several other customers within earshot.

It wasn’t that Lyle had thin skin, or that he took Lydia’s cruelty to heart. Over the years, he had refined his ability to hear people out. As customer service manager, he took pride in his capacity to withstand even extremely high levels of verbal abuse. But there was something about Lydia – the sickly paleness of her skin contrasting against the bold monstrosity of her dress, the unyielding condemnation in those cold brown eyes – that was enough to upend him.

“Perhaps a woman in your condition would prefer something with an elastic waistband,” is what Lyle said.

He knew better, of course. As he stood there – a blank expression fastened to his face, nearby customers gawking in disbelief, Lydia’s face turning blotchy and apoplectic beneath the fluorescent lighting – Lyle’s supervisor, Bethany, inserted herself between them. It was Lyle’s cue to remove himself from a failed customer experience – a never event, as senior management would call it – and to wait somewhere out of sight until his supervisor came to get him.

That’s exactly what Lyle did.

An hour later, Bethany found him. Although she didn’t want to lose Lyle, the store maintained a zero-tolerance policy for never events.

A woman in your condition? Jesus, Lyle, you’re lucky that tangerine train wreck didn’t claw your eyes out, see it all over the news tonight,” Bethany said. “You’re a good manager. You know you’re there to de-escalate, not make things worse. What were you thinking? What were you thinking?

Now, driving around in the middle of a workday with no destination in mind, Lyle knew he had his answer. It wasn’t Lydia Greene, despite her vile nature and her abysmal lack of style. It was those cold, brown eyes that drilled into him, relentless and unyielding. The same look Judith’s eyes had taken on within days of announcing her pregnancy, a look that asserted itself with increasing frequency until, gradually and without discussion, it redefined the terms of their relationship, effortlessly calling into question his judgment, his capacity for fatherhood, his value as a man. How it twisted like a knife in his guts whenever she gave him that look. How it took for granted and undermined his trust in the delicate layering of emotions and deeds that formed the rickety framework of their love. Had he not always held up his end? Had he not always been there for her, in good times and bad, looking out for her, encouraging her, loving her? How could she cast their history aside, changing everything between them, without the slightest whimper of regret or a word of acknowledgement? Why was she so willing to kill off his sweet Judith, replacing her – even as the life they created together grew inside her – with this caricature, this prefabricated construction of womanhood, this hard-staring imposter that insisted on referring to herself only as Mommy? He knew in his heart the Judith he once loved was lost to him now, that she would never return.

 

The apartment wasn’t big enough for a nursery. Judith had decided while Lyle was at work one day that the tiny breakfast nook off the kitchen would have to do. Immediately upon beginning maternity leave, Judith painted the kitchen and living room. She chose decorator’s white, which gave the rooms a crisp, clean look and made them look slightly bigger. The previous tenant had wallpapered the breakfast nook, so she saved that for last, carefully steaming off the paper and wiping away the excess glue with a warm damp cloth. She used a putty knife to scrape away the stubborn spots. It was tougher than she thought it would be. At one point, she almost decided to hold off until Lyle could help, but she pushed through, finishing the prep work in one day, papering the next.

When she was finished, the apartment – except for the bedroom and the bathroom – looked immaculate; a fine place to raise a child, at least until they could afford something bigger with a back yard. Maybe a condo. The nursery colors worked especially well, a pale lemon background with happy green elephants and orange giraffes, pink and blue shooting stars that appeared to be dancing with joy. When Judith stepped out of the apartment, pausing a moment in the hallway so she could get the full effect when she stepped back inside, she was amazed at the apartment’s transformation.

Later that day, sitting in the nursery with the window open, her eyes closed, soaking up the sun, a gentle breeze passing over her face, Judith found herself hoping Lyle would come around. He’d been off lately; not argumentative, but distant, a bit detached. Like the connection that had always existed so naturally between them was suddenly compromised, but she couldn’t say why.

They hadn’t wanted children. They said as much before moving in together, but when Judith discovered she was pregnant, she found she could barely contain her excitement. A life inside her; a baby to love and nurture and protect. They would be a family. Her family. What husband wouldn’t want that, too? No, they hadn’t planned on it, but life throws us curveballs, doesn’t it? We adjust and move on. Lyle would, too.

In fairness, Lyle took the news in stride, hugging her closely, a pale look of shock and wonder on his face as Judith called her mother to share their big news.

Now, lying in bed, Lyle gone off to work, Judith moved her right hand in circles over her baby bump, letting these memories flood back, unable to dodge the thoughts that chipped away at her confidence until her feelings blurred and swirled into a tepid pool of raw emotion. Oh, Lyle, Judith thought, brushing the tears from her face, where have you gone on me? Our family needs you. How can I bring you back to us?

 

The plan, the new plan, was to take a couple days to regroup, figure out their next move before getting on the road again. They had shelter and food – a soup kitchen, just a few blocks over. But where to next, and then what? Dilley’s head was pounding as he lay on the floor, his arm draped across his face, shielding his eyes from the sunlight that flooded through the uncovered windows. He could hear Lily in the bathroom, the sound of her turning the water spigots on and off only as needed, doing her best to keep the noise levels down, just like he taught her.

Dilley wondered how Sully would respond if he called him back and said he lost the girl. She got wise and ran off in heavy traffic before he could grab her. But not to worry, he’d find another. A replacement.

No, keep it simple, he thought. Maybe instead of a girl – a business Dilley now knew he didn’t have the stomach for – he could serve up an S-class Mercedes, shiny and new, right off the showroom floor. Wouldn’t that square things, set things straight? No harm, no foul. Right?

Dilley had never boosted a car before, but Rufus had. Maybe, if Sully would go for it, Dilley could bring Rufus in on it. Partners. Rufus could pocket some quick cash. Sully would get his, and Dilley and Lily could get gone with a little spending money in their pockets. Or, Sully wouldn’t give them a dime and Dilley would be on the hook with Rufus.

He turned the idea over and over in his mind, trying to see every angle until finally the pounding began to ease near the base of his skull and in his temples. Yeah, Sully would be pissed – Dilley could picture the man’s fat fingers drumming the desk at the other end of the phone, his face flushed with a seething anger – but what could he do if the girl was in the wind? At a certain point, Sully would want to recoup his losses. Would he really pass on a cherry Mercedes? Dilley didn’t think so. He pulled the phone from his pocket, went into one of the bedrooms and stepped inside a closet to keep his voice from echoing through the empty apartment. He thought about what he wanted to say one last time. He dialed Sully’s number.

 

The wind was picking up, a hint of coming winter in the air, as Lyle crossed the driveway. There was a familiar comfort to be had in repeating this simple trek each day, a sense that by returning home at the end of a workday he was moving in tandem with the great swell of humanity that rose and settled like clockwork, just as he did. It was a feeling he was only vaguely aware of while employed – something that floated in the background like a peripheral element in a photograph, gauzy and surreal – that only came sharply into focus in the wake of his termination.

As Lyle mounted the stairs, he thought about coming clean with Judith, telling her not only about the loss of his job, but the unsettling and growing distance he’d felt through the duration of her pregnancy. He wanted to assure her that, as of today, he was back in the game, that he’d find another job quickly and there was no reason to worry. He wanted her to know that he loved her, that he’d lost sight of all that was great and meaningful between them, but he was back now. Things would be different going forward.

Lyle felt restored, even a little proud of this hard-earned moment of self-discovery, as he fumbled for his keys in the hallway.

If he hadn’t been distracted, if he hadn’t spent the entire day inside his head evaluating and analyzing and scrutinizing the state of his life with Judith, he might have been quicker on his feet. He might have noticed the sound of a woman sneezing in the apartment next door, or the paper in Judith’s hand, the oversized suitcase at her feet, as the door swung open before him. But he didn’t.

All Lyle saw was the hurt in wife’s eyes, a pain so unbearably overwhelming that she instinctively shielded it behind a blank expression, betrayed only by the reddened puffiness around her eyes. They stood frozen in silence for a moment, Judith’s hand slowly floating into view until the deep blue logo on the paper she clutched registered with Lyle and he knew at once what it was: a letter from the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, confirming receipt of his initial unemployment claim. Standing there, he could feel his jaw go slack, his lips parting slightly as his brain scrambled for an explanation.

 

Officer Cynthia Mooney, just three months out of the academy, was off duty when she turned her car onto the tree lined side street where she lived. She had a date that night with an assistant district attorney she met two weeks earlier. Her plan was to squeeze in a quick workout – her second that day – then hop in the shower and glam herself up a bit before rushing to make it to The Whiskey Republic in Providence by eight-thirty. She was about to turn into her driveway when an old, brown Ford parked halfway up the block caught her attention. She had noticed it yesterday, parked in the same spot, and that little voice in her head – what Cynthia liked to call her cop’s voice – told her to check it out. She glanced at her watch and reached for her cell phone.

 

“Gesundheit,” Dilley said. He was watching the street from the window, deeply troubled but not wanting to upset Lily, who sat on the floor, trying to stifle a second sneeze she could feel building quickly near the base of her nose, tickling her sinuses.

Twice now, the same car circled the block, a black Caddy, two men in the front seat, Massachusetts tags. Dilley couldn’t see their faces, but when the car slowed and hovered by the Ford before pulling around the corner to circle the block again, he knew it was time to go.

Dilley said, “Baby, we gotta skedaddle.” He pulled the small hammer from his bag of tricks, cupping the weighted end in the palm of his hand, so the handle lay flat and concealed against the inside of his forearm. He slung the bag over his shoulder.

Lily said, “Now?”

“Right now,” Dilley said. “C’mon, I’ll explain in the car.”

Lily scooped her hair clip and brush from the floor. She stood, grabbing her jacket and backpack, and followed Dilley in silence through the apartment.

 

“We’ve been living a lie. I want a divorce,” is what Judith said. She shoved the paper against Lyle’s chest and pushed past him, the heavy suitcase rolling on two tiny plastic wheels behind her, snagging and catching and dragging every couple feet.

Lyle followed closely behind, the zig-zagging suitcase forcing an awkward barrier between them. “Wait,” he said. “Judith, wait.”

But there was no reasoning his way out of this one, Judith’s mind was made up. She’d stay at her mother’s for a few days, until she could meet with a lawyer. She turned to Lyle at the top of the stairs and was about to tell him as much when the door to the apartment next door opened quickly and two young people hurried into the narrow hallway, making a beeline for the stairs.

The young man looked frantic, his eyes fierce and menacing, a glaze of sweat shining his drawn face, a large black duffle bag banging against his hip as he moved. The woman – just a girl, really – followed closely behind him, face down, eyes averted.

Dilley never intended to get tangled up with any neighbors in the building. He’d crashed at vacant apartments before, here and there for a day or two at the most, and he’d never had a problem. The key was getting in and out quickly without being seen. Worked like a charm.

What threw him off his game was the added pressure of having the woman he loved beside him while two hard cases from Boston hunted him down. They were literally circling the block looking for him, and Dilley knew every second counted. His whole plan hinged on getting to the Ford and driving off quickly before they turned the corner again. That’s why, as Dilley and Lily reached the top of the stairs, he had no time for pleasantries. Dilley brushed past Lyle without slowing his pace, the duffle slamming into Lyle, knocking him back a foot.

“Hey, watch it,” Lyle said. Before he could say anything else, he saw the young man bump Judith, her hands instinctively clutching her belly to protect the baby as the man drew his foot back and kicked the suitcase down the stairs, clearing his path. The girl, to her credit, mumbled something that sounded like the young man’s name, a quick “sorry” to Judith, as she hurried along in his wake.

The shock of it set Judith off. In an instant, she was down the stairs, chasing the two through the vestibule, out onto the sidewalk. Lyle was calling after her, urging her to stop. He flew down the stairs, through the doors, out to the sidewalk behind her.

 

What Officer Mooney saw from her driveway was a young Caucasian man and woman matching the BOLO description released earlier that day. What caught her off guard happened seconds after the couple exited the building, when an Asian female, maybe thirty and at least eight months pregnant, raced out of the four-unit residence, grabbed the young woman by the hair and proceeded to yell something Officer Mooney couldn’t decipher.

Another man, also Caucasian and approximately thirty years old, came out of the building seconds later. He appeared to be with the Asian woman, and was attempting to separate the two females, when the young man carrying the duffle bag produced what appeared to be a firearm.

“Back off,” he said to the couple.

Officer Mooney drew her back-up weapon – a .38 caliber Taurus 738 TCP – and slipped quietly from her vehicle. She moved within striking distance and shouted, “Freeze, police!”

The two women and the man in his early thirties stood frozen, staring blankly at Officer Mooney’s pistol. The young man turned slowly, the metal in his hand catching the last of the late day sun, his face turning suddenly fearful as he glimpsed something beyond Officer Mooney’s field of vision. As she shifted to see what he was looking at – a black Cadillac moving slowly down the street – her gun discharged, striking the man who was standing between the two women in the chest. The man crumpled and dropped to the ground.

 

Later that night, the local TV news affiliates would report that, during a standoff with a man wielding a hammer, off-duty police officer Cynthia Mooney fired her weapon, striking and killing a bystander. Lyle Quin, of Barrington, died while in transit to Rhode Island Hospital in Providence. He is survived by his wife, Judith, who is eight months pregnant. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family this evening.

What the media wouldn’t report was that, over two days in October, a beautiful young woman, free to choose a life of adventure and romance, fell in love with a misguided young man who, having found love himself, would opt to spare her a life of unimaginable torment and, in the process, redeem himself. Or, that he would prove his love for her twice; once, by choosing her love over money, and again, during a terrible moment of confusion, when he told her to run as a rattled rookie cop stood over the body of a dead man, and a thug from Boston forced Dilley into the back seat of a car.

Nor would the media report how, over two days in October, Lyle Quin of Barrington, on the verge of expiring, would struggle against the fading light to tell his wife, Judith, that he was sorry for the terrible pain he caused her, that he didn’t want to go but could no longer hold on. Or, that Judith, horrified and frantic, unable to see through her tears, her throat clenched and burning, would clutch Lyle’s face to her heaving belly and beg him not to leave. It was all she could do.

THE END