This story is by George M. Lies and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Thin and bony Haney Michaels reacted to the familiar honk-honk of a pick-up truck below her third floor walk-up. She stepped back from the window.
“Hurry, get dressed.” She dashed around Tommy Flanagan who stood clothed only in sunlight. “It’s my boyfriend Ernie.”
“Oh, no way,” Tommy said. His bare feet brushed over a rucked-up Persian throw rug on the way out of the bedroom. Haney passed through the living room and around the partition that enclosed the kitchen. “Oh no, the pot pie’s burning.”
A wisp of gray smoke floated from behind the partition.
Tommy Flanagan tried acting innocent. He weighed his next move. He stood in the midst of the shaded living room, his clothes heaped near the coffee table—and that smiley face logo stared up from a Hav’ A Good Day button pinned to his convenience store uniform. He weighed the risks.
First he remembered from a Vo-Tech health class that a person’s pupils dilate and contract with the amount of light, so the boyfriend’s eyes would need to adjust from day light to a dim room. But not for long. The stomping on the staircase grew closer until the apartment door creased inward.
Second, Tommy recalled reading in a detective novel that anyone could be invisible for eight seconds if he did not move. Facing the door, he froze like the sculpture in a book photo his mother once showed him: a figure called David, sculpted by an Italian artist, something like Michael Angelo.
A stocky unkempt guy wearing a ball cap bolted in and the door slammed against the wall. He darted right and disappeared behind the kitchen partition.
“You’re home early,” Haney said.
Ernie yelled at her. “What did I tell you, and how many times? Don’t turn on the oven and go to sleep.”
“I’m so sorry, honey.”
“One day, you’ll burn the place to the ground.”
Tommy had the advantage of a smoke screen in the air from the burning pot pie but the odds stacked up against him: a Wilson Slugger baseball bat leaning in a corner and the hunting rifle displayed on the wall alongside the antlers of a ten-point buck. Not good odds, beaten or, worse, shot dead. He reached for his clothes beneath the coffee table on which Haney had earlier deposited her paraphernalia. With the door swinging back from the wall, and only eight strides away, he began counting backwards. Eight seconds. He put on his underwear first, of course.
From the kitchen, the yelling and sobbing continued over the burning chicken pot pie. Seven. He slipped on his pants one leg at a time. He grabbed his shoes in one hand and stuffed his socks and tee-shirt under his arm. Six seconds. He took one step and one more toward the escape exit. The arguing continued behind the wall partition. Five. He advanced three steps and prayed his mother would not find out about his shenanigans, and that he would live to see his twenty eighth birthday.
Two paces from the open doorway, he lost track of the count which caused him to pause in a moment of guilt and remorse.
Earlier in the day, Tommy Flanagan had jump-started his battered Chevy after clocking out from the store for the afternoon. He drove to Mickey O’Shea’s Irish Pub, across from the neighborhood ballfield in a tree-laden park, and the playground where he once sold ice cream sandwiches. He met the Kelly Brothers, Butch and Harry, the old man Huddy and a few regular bar cronies. He joined their poker game and risked his last fifty dollars.
While he lost half his stake early on, he won six games in a row. Ahead two hundred fifty dollars in two hours, less the nine dollars for his Guinness beer tab, he decided to cash out. Groans came from the Kelly brothers as he walked out. He began heading home where his mother waited on her supper.
Within four blocks he saw a denim clad figure walking backwards on McDonough Avenue, her thumb out hitching a ride, and a bulgy knapsack swinging from her arm. He imagined his mother’s voice, look where you leap. He pulled over to the curb anyway.
“Hey,” said a girl. A twenty-something, she leaned in hovering at the half-opened car window. Face smudged and hair unwashed, she asked matter-of-fact, “Are you any good at breaking into an apartment?”
“You’re breaking into your own apartment?” He laughed,
“What’s with that?”
“It’s my apartment—that’s what, smart ass. Forgot my keys again.”
“Jump in,” he said. She tossed the knapsack on the floor of the Chevy and closed the car door. They drove a dozen block from the park onto a residential street and parked in the shadow of a row of oak trees. She squirmed out and he walked around the car.
“Name’s Haney.” She shaded her eyes as she stared up and gestured toward the fire escape alongside the yellow brick apartment house. “Climb up the fire escape and out along the ledge.”
“Whoa,” he said. “I’m not sure about this.”
“Never mind, I’ll do it myself—done it before.” She handed him the knapsack. “Don’t run off on me, now.” She pointed for him to walk around the building. “Upstairs, number three.”
“Don’t worry.” Tommy waited on the sidewalk as she pulled down the fire escape ladder and scuttled to the third level. At the top, she raised her leg like a gymnast over the metal rail and moved waif-like across a narrow ledge. She grasped the edge of the window but it didn’t budge so she stretched further. She shuffled along the ledge by gripping the indented edges of yellow bricks. With her forearm braced for leverage under the second window frame, she nudged it open and crawled inside. He followed her instructions and climbed the inside stairs to the third landing.
She met his knock at her door. “Here’s a few dollars—go buy a bottle of wine and come back.”
“Something sweet.” He returned with a bottle of Mogen David, a Concord grape wine on discount at the liquor store. From behind the kitchen partition, she brought tumbler glasses and poured the wine. “Take a seat”— and he chose a corner of the sofa away from the television set—“and I don’t suppose you’re a cop, are you?” Haney said.
“Not a cop—nope,” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“Can’t be too sure—one never knows anymore.”
“Life’s a gamble like poker.”
“My boyfriend gambles but only on the ponies.”
“Oh, your boyfriend?”
“Boyfriend, yep. Oh, don’t you worry,” said Haney. “Won’t be home ‘til later, at dark.” Tommy downed his full glass of wine in one swallow. “Say, you hungry? I am,” she said. “Back in a sec-.” From the kitchen came sounds of a refrigerator opening and an oven door banging. Haney returned and placed a wooden tray on the coffee table. “Need my hit, hope you don’t mind,” she said. His eyes widened when he saw the contents on the tray: a brown rubber cord, a syringe, and a plastic baggie of white powder. “Want a taste?”
“No, haven’t eaten yet,” he said. “The wine’s fine.”
“Pull this tighter, can you?” With her arm bent at the elbow, she began winding the stretchable cord around her left bicep. “I can’t grip it one-handed.”
He pulled the cord tight as she slapped her arm until a bluish purple vein crested in her forearm. She liquefied the white powder, by lighting a wooden match under a section of aluminum foil. She steadied the syringe, pricked her vein and depressed the stem with her thumb. Her eyes rolled back in her head as she pulled out the needle, which she dropped on the tray. He loosened the cord which snapped like a rubber band, and Haney’s body folded in a slump at the corner of the couch.
A red trickle streamed along her arm and onto her denim jeans.
Tommy explored her face. He thought she had died. He waited barely a moment before nudging her arm, her cheek. “Anyone home in there?” When Haney did not move a muscle, he tried shaking her awake by jostling her arms. He took out his cell phone and laid it on the table when she opened her eyes in a squint.
“We don’t have much time,” she said. She stood, swaying, and weaved between the coffee table and TV set, and into the bedroom where she flopped onto the bed. “What are you waiting on?”
“Waiting for?” he said. “Oh . . .”
The afternoon’s light illuminated the bedroom through the window that Haney had used to gain entry to the apartment. Within moments the sound of a pick-up truck bumping a curb under the oak trees came through the open window, and Haney sprung out of bed.
“No, no, I lost track of time—hurry, get dressed.”
Tommy Flanagan had remained invisible. Near the door leading out of the living room, the air darkened from the burning chicken pot pie. He found where he left off in the count.
Four seconds. He took the last steps across the floor without a glance toward the kitchen alcove where Haney and boyfriend Ernie argued out of sight. He crossed over the threshold and out to the stairwell as he grabbed for the railing. Three. He crept two steps at a time down to the second floor and descended the last flight sliding on the banister rail. Two. Fumbling with the shoelaces in the foyer, he dropped the shoes and heel-squirmed into each one.
One second. He pushed against the front entrance door. He shaded his eyes from the brightness but embraced the summer’s soft warmth. When he tucked in his shirt, however, he felt the emptiness in his pants pocket. He had left his cell phone next to the tray on the coffee table. He thought of fabricating a story: knock on Haney’s door and say, like, he had come for the phone that she called about finding at the liquor store.
A hand squeezed his shoulder. He held a baited breath as he imagined a swinging baseball bat or the muzzle of a rifle. He turned and raised his hands in front of his face. “You disappeared,” said Haney who stood in sunlight. “Here’s your cell phone—call ASAP.” He walked to his Chevy and remembered not to run from that detective paperback. He drove to Mickey O’Shea’s Irish Pub and ordered a Guinness and a shot of Maker’s Mark. He called Haney, asking if she was alright. Over the phone she whispered, “Ernie’s pissed off about the pot pie burning but he found two twenty dollar bills stuffed inside the sofa pillow. Call and I’ll meet you later for a drink.”
Tommy Flanagan did not call back. He gave his mother most of his poker winnings, less the forty dollars he lost, and prepared her supper that evening.
“Now there’s a good son.”
When his mother contracted a bronchial condition two months later, he bought a box of all-milk Sarris chocolate creams and a half dozen carnations from the convenience store. As he arranged the flowers in a small vase, nurse entered carrying a tray. The tray had a glass of water and an orange blend in a small paper cup.
“For that girl there,” his mother said. “She’s in drug rehab—taking that methadone for withdrawal.”
The nurse shifted the white curtain over in the space that separated their beds and, revealed the other patient: Haney Michaels propped up with her back against a pillow.
“We’ve had time to talk, and get to know each other,” his mother said.
“Want a-know something—we both like chicken pot pies.”
“I’ll introduce you.”
Tommy Flanagan stood still and began counting backwards.
“Son—now where did he go?”