It couldn't have been more than forty-five degrees outside. It had been raining the better part of the last week, as it was liable to do 'round this time of year. Floyd Dougherty had spent the youngest hours of the evening slumped over the bar counter at Meyer's, looking in a bottle for a friend, as he was liable to do most any night. Meyer's was just up the block from the Hedgefield Apartments, which meant 'ol Murray wouldn't have to come from behind the bar and fight him for his keys. Nobody was going to have to worry about Floyd driving home. Walking was going to be trial enough.
The muddy gravel pathway that led from the sidewalk up the hill to the apartment complex was treacherous with rain, and Floyd could feel his high coming down as he forced himself to concentrate. Left foot. Right foot. Couldn't fall again, couldn't afford to miss any more work. Not after the last go-round with a sidewalk 'bout got his drunk ass canned. Concrete always wins. It was bad enough that most everyone in the office called him Still because of the alcohol that poured off of him like sweat used to. Bad enough he still had headaches from the last time he fell. A concussion and, on top of that, broke his jaw in two places. Mouth wired shut for a month. Could't eat anything that hadn't been tossed in a blender first. Thank God you don't have to chew bourbon.
What made it worse was that Tammy had finally had enough of his falling down and whiskey sweat and took a Greyhound to her mother's in Charleston. Floyd always figured that one day she would stop talking about doing it and really leave. Doesn't mean he wasn't shocked when she actually did it. Doesn't mean it didn't hurt like a punch in the kidney. He was well on his way to being drunk for an entire weekend when she came back. Tossed her suitcase on the bed and started putting all her sexy under-things back in the drawers and hanging the other things back up in the closet. Said she wasn't going to leave. Said she was going to stay. Suprised the hell out of him. Surprised him even more when she said that he was going to be the one to get the hell out. He was too drunk to put up much of a fight, she was probably right anyway. Left foot. Right foot.
He was most of the way up the hill when he saw her. Normally he wouldn't have noticed; normally he couldn't have. Things usually got pretty blurry, but coffee has nothing on being freezing cold and wet on top of it to sober you up, even for a professional alcoholic. She was skinny, with worn jeans and a raggedy sweat shirt with the sleeves rolled up clinging to her coat hanger frame. She had a backpack on her back and another backpack slung around her neck, like she hadn't bothered to take the time to put it on regular. Her ponytail had mostly wriggled out of her hair tie and was now matted against her skin by the rain. She was taking her time, just like Floyd, but not because she was drunk. She was burdened with two small kids; a little boy and a little girl. Even if his vision was wobbly, Floyd could see that the two tykes were dressed in T-shirts. Didn't look like much else. THe woman was carrying th little girl on one hip and half carrying, half dragging the little boy. The little fella was fighting her, didn't want to stand on his own two feet. The tug of war had turned her around so that the little group was facing back down the hill.
The rain and the cold and the concentration on left fot, right foot meant Floyd was sobering up fast, which meant that he was getting ornery.Ornery because he wasn't that drunk anymore mainly, but also because the woman was hauling around two little kids, at three in the morning, in the rain, wearing t-shirts irritated the hell out of him for some reason. Floyd was drunk, but hell, six in ten drunks could tell you that you aren't supposed to have little kids out in the rainy cold in t-shirts. The little boy had started to worm his way out of the woman's grasp and she had stopped her climb to get a better grip on his wrist. The pause let Floyd catch up to them. Let him get a better look. She was still skinny up close, real skinny, hair still wild and tangled from the rain, but her eyes were pretty clear. Pretty period, actually. But there was a fear and a determination that was messing up the pretty in those eyes.
She had to have noticed Floyd standing there, because he had stopped walking too. Couldn't concentrate on left foot, right footwhile he was looking at the pretty and the fear and the determination all mixed up in her eyes. She figured out a way to notice him without actually looking at him.
"Come on honey, just a little further to the new house", she coaxed, trying to get the little boy to stand on his own two feet. "Mommy needs you to stand up and walk like a big boy, ok?"
Floyd could see the goose bumps all over the little boy's arms, which matched the goose bumps on his sister's and mother's arms.
The little boy wasn't buying the whole "big boy" bit and curled his legs under him. Four year old dead weight. The little girl was starting to complain too.
"Mommy, I am cold and I don't wike it. I feel sad. I wanna get down Mommy."
The little girl squirmed in her mother's arms and the woman started to lose her grip on the child. The girl began to slide down her mother's bony hip and the straps of the woman's backpack were getting tangled with the child, pulling the whole little family toward the muddy ground. Floyd was losing his buzz and forgetting his irritation with the woman's parenting and stepped forward in time to catch the woman's shoulder and help her keep her balance.
"Thanks." She still wasn't looking at him when she spoke, kind of like the way people at the office turned their eyes away when they talked to him. The smell probably.
"Reckon you was 'bout to drop the 'lil lady." Floyd wasn't sure what else to say. Hard to know what to say to people when they don't really look at you.
"Need sum help? I kin hep ya make it tuh yur place", Floyd could feel the words slur. He knew they were because he could feel his tongue, thick and uncoordinated, flopping around his mouth like a catfish out of water.
The woman glanced up at him. The fear in her eyes was fighting with the determination now. She was afraid to tell him yes, but more afraid to tell him no. He felt that pang that lepers must feel when people recognize the leprosy. The woman looked up the hill, then back over her shoulder.
"Can you carry this?" She unwound the smaller backpack from around her neck. Didn't have much in it. Floyd couln't see inside, but the weight of it told him that it was about half full.
"Sure, reckon I kin manange."
"Come on babies, the nice man is going to help us get to the new house. What do you say?"
Perched safely back on her mother's hip, the little girl buried her face in her mother's neck and said nothing, but the little boy managed a "Thank you mister" before moving to the safer space behind his mother's leg.
The thoroughly soaked group braved the last of the dstance to te apartments. His high was getting close to ground level, but when the mother turned up the flight of stairs headed toward the second floor, Floyd felt a sudden wave of nausea.
"Awh hell", he thought, "Can't go loosing my lunch in front of these little kids." He held it in, except for a tiny bit that he gagged back down.
Thankfully the apartment as only on the second floor, and the skinny woman pushed her way inside the front door and deposited the little girl on the floor. The two little ones stood shivering just inside the doorway.
"Don't you two move, Mommy will be right back."
The woman began removing her soaked sweatshirt as she moved toward the rear of the apartment. Even skinnier without the sweatshirt. Floyd felt a twinge of dissappointment. Then he felt like a piece of garbage for even thinking that way. She walked into the bathroom of the apartment and emerged with three large white bath towels. One she wrapped around the soaked t-shirt that she had had on under her sweatshirt and with the others, she began drying off the two little ones. She didn't offer Floyd a towel.
The apartment was small but nice. Real nice in fact. Nothing like Floyd's. The furniture all matched, as did the lamps on the end tables on either end of the large sofa. A large book shelf held several hardback books, but little else. Nice coffee table in the center of the living room, seperating two club chairs. Floyd had a coffee table, but his had little brown circles all over it from always leaving beer bottles or fifths of Jack Daniels on it. The rugs were white, no stains, no dirt. Matter of fact, from what Floyd could see, the whole place looked super clean. Maybe this woman was a better housekeeper than mother, Floyd thought. House was spotless, but the kids were out at three in the morning in t-shirts. Enough thinking, nausea was coming back for round two.
The kids were dryer and now complaining of hunger.
"Mister, hand me that pack, will you?"
"Uh, mah name is Floyd, Floyd Dough...."
"Don't worry about it", the woman dismissed his attempt at introduction with a wave of her hand and gestured toward the backpack that Floyd was still holding. He handed it over. The woman produced several packs of crackers and opened them for the children. While they munched contentedly, sitting on the carpet, wrapped in the bath towels, the woman peaked out fo the slats of the blinds before coing back to join her children on the floor. She sat between them, an arm around each one, pulling them as close as she could without smothering them. Floyd had been leaning against the wall, more for balance than anything else, and now slid down to a sitting position. He figured he looke less threatening seated. He didn't feel threatening, but the way the woman watched him so closely made him feel uncomfortable. Like some kind of invited intruder.
"So what brings you out this time of night?" she asked, as if she wasn't out herself, and with two little kids to boot.
Floyd wante to say that his woman left him, he drank too much and stumbling around in the rain in the wee hours of the morning was old hat for him. But all that sounded too much like an old country song. All he needed was for someone to run over his dog with an old pickup truck. Still the truth took less thinking than some clever alibi and his head was starting to hurt.
"Drinkin', mostly." Maybe should have given the alibi a whirl. The familar disgust in the woman's nod said that she had already figured as much. Didn't take that much figuring.
The little boy took a bite of a cracker and raised it to his mother's lips.
"Wanna have some of my cracker Mommy?" he asked.
"No baby", she answered, a slight smile breaking through the grimness of her face. "You eat it for Mommy ok?"
"Ok. Do you want some of my cracker Mister?" The little fella sure was generous with his half eaten cracker. Floyd passed.
"That was sweet of you, what a good boy!" said the woman, ruffling her benevolent son's soggy hair, "Try not to get crumbs on the carpet ok babe?"
The little boy glowed as if he had just been voted into sainthood.
A twenty minute patch of silence passed before it hit Floyd like a ton of bricks. She was leaving him, whoever he was. Shoot, had already left him. Just like Tammy had left; finally packed some muscle behind her promises, threw some crackers in a backpack and left. Some poor sap just like him, probably too drunk to realize just what was walking out the door. Or maybe he did realize and just didn't care. Or maybe he was a different kind of animal, the kind that swings and breaks things when its been sloshing around inside a bottle for too long. The kind of animal that breaks glass windows and dinner plates. Breaks teeth. Breaks bones. That kind of animal. Now she was finally striking out for that new life, the one that didn't include broken glass and falling down and brown water stains on coffee tables. Floyd's head started to spin and he had to remember not to close his eyes. Makes it worse they say, closing your eyes when you're mostly drunk. The room only spins faster. The rain was starting to slack off some.
Below them in the parking lot, a car's tires crunched in the muddy gravel. The woman sprang to her feet, nearly knocking both children over. She nsatched up the backpack, rummaged inside for a second. A click, then a metallic flash. Floyd had never seen a derringer in anything other than an old Western He had never seen one in the hands of a woman in any case, come to think of it. The thing was big, well, as big as derringers go. The two over-under barrels looked big as shotguns, probably a .357 Mag. A purse sized cannon. She moved closer to the window and looked out.
"Hey you", she half whispered, half screamed, "cut those lights out!"
The urgency in her voice made the hair on the back of Floyd's neck stand up. Made him stand up too, and slap the light switches so that their heads bowed and the little apartment went black. The darkness started the kids to crying.
"PSSSST!" hissed the woman, "You two be quiet, shut up that crying right now. I mean it! Be quiet!"
Floyd figured she was just talking to the kids, he wasn't crying.
" Miss, I can just scoot on out the door here and be out of your way...." The coward in him made the statement come out sounding like a question.
"You sit your ass down!" She punctuated the statement with a flourish of her derringer. "And get my kids away from that door." She who has the gun with the two barrels makes the rules. FLoyd pulled the two children away from the door and huddled beside the couch with them. The couch smelled brand new. The new smell made Floyd feel sick all over again.
A car door slammed somewhere in the parking lot. Then footsteps on the wooden staircase, footsteps coming hard. They made the sound that someone who knows exactly where they are going makes. Hard steps. Certain steps. The woman flattened against the wall just besides the window. The lamp outside the apartment was pouring light in through the slits in the blinds, and Floyd could see the barrels of the woman's pistol glint every few seconds. Her hands were shaking.
A shadow blocked out the light coming through the blinds.
"Hey in there!" A man's voice boomed, "I know you're in there, damn it. Come on out right now!" Sounded like whoever that skinny woman had left wasn't going to take the exodous lying down. Maybe she had a head start, but he sure caught up fast. Tracked them to this nice apartment. Or maybe he hadn't even cared where she or the kids were until he found out that it was his money that was paying for it. Either way, somebody sure wasn't too happy about the arrangement.
The little girl whimpered and Floyd clapped his hand over her mouth to muffle her fear.
"I ain't playin', ya 'll get your tails out here!" the man thundered. A pregnant pause followed. A glint out of the corner of his eye told Floyd that the woman had raised the derringer.
"Alright, fine, that's how ya'll wanna play ball" growled the voice outside, "I am gonna come in there and drag ya'll out! I ain't standin' for this no more, no way!"
A metallic click in the darkness meant that the hammer of the derringer had been thumbed back. The handle of the door clicked once, then the door burst in, crashing into the wall, blasted off two of its three hinges. A woman's scream ripped the air, then two deafening thunderclaps. A grunt, followed by a resounding crash, as whoever came through the door slammed backward into a wall, then pitched forward with a meaty thud onto the carpet.
Ears ringing, Floyd rolled to one side, pulling the two little ones with him. Both were now crying hysterically and Floyd felt the distinct urge to join in. The man who had come through the door was down but still moving. Floyd untangled himself from the crying kids and stood on two wobbly legs.
"Get a light on." The woman ws still leaning against the wall, more for support now than anything.
Thankful for some direction, Floyd flipped the light switch near the ruined threshold.
A gasp, and the woman dropped the derringer, and sank to her knees besides the fallen intruder, who had rolled over onto his back. The man looked to be about mid forties, with a heavy-set build and a jagged hole ripped through one side of his coverall uniform, just below the patch that read "Superintendent":
Red life was running out of that hole and dying the once-stainless carpet crimson. The man coughed, a sound that was more wheeze than cough, his tongue trying to clear the blood from his lips enough to speak.
"Damn squatters, ya done killed me" he hacked.
Squatters? Floyd jerked upright.
"This your husband or boyfriend, or whoever you're dodgin'?"
The woman stared off into space, tears pooling in her eyes.
"No. It ain't."
Floyd was suddenly feeling very cold. He stood and turned toward where the door was dangling from the frame by its one good hinge. The bile surged upward in his throat as he read the plate on the door, just over the peep hole. The plate that should have had an apartment number on it, like the plate that read "143" on the door of Floyd's apartment. Except there was no number. No number at all. Just two words. Two awful words. Words that meant something worse had happened than a runaway woman shooting whoever was chasing her.