Chapter Nine

Posted: October 27, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

Day Ten

     The alarms were going off.

     “Help him.  He’s dying, can’t you see that?  Help him!”

     No one moved.  No one helped.  The thing in the bed thrashed and screamed, spewing blood like a geyser over everyone nearby, and still no one moved.  They stood frozen, all of them, except Marion, of course.  She turned, eyes full of malice, and sneered.

     “Don’t worry,” she said.  “You’ll find a new husband.  I heard you can find anything on Craigslist.”

     Maddie woke with a start.

     For a moment she was disoriented, not sure where she was, or why it was so dark.  Was it morning?  Or night?  Then she remembered.  She’d shut all the shades, drawn all the curtains, pinned them closed to keep out the light.  Safe and quiet, here, in the shadowy bedroom.  No one to see her.  No one to accuse.

     She rolled over, wincing at the sudden stab of pain in her wrist.  She’d forgotten to splint it again, before falling asleep.  Keep doing that, the damn thing will never heal.

     The ER doctor had told her it was badly sprained but not, as she’d feared, broken.  This after he’d made her sit and explain how it happened; the newly forming bruises had precluded a lie about a fall.  “A friend,” she had said, voice dull with shock.  “I won’t be seeing him again.”

     He’d left her on the gurney, in the little curtained area they rather generously called a room, and that’s where she’d been when she heard.  Word traveled down, from doctor to intern to orderly, until it was finally whispered by a nurse, almost gleeful with horror. She told it to another, not knowing or caring about the shell-shocked woman on the other side of the cheap fabric, cradling her throbbing arm.

     No open casket for Jake Cooper, it seemed.  He’d clawed out his eyes at the end.

     Maddie could picture it, sitting now in the dark; she could see his once-handsome face, covered in blood.  She saw it all in her dreams.

     What was he thinking?  She asked herself this every night, before bed, and again every morning, when she remembered anew that he was gone.  What had he thought, when he’d screamed at her?  When he’d started to choke; when he turned on himself?  What had been his final thought, before he’d succeeded in snuffing out the light?  Pain?  Fear?

     Relief?

     He had such beautiful eyes.

     Shaking her head, she sat up, careful of her wrist now that she was awake.  She needed Advil, and coffee; she needed to find the splint, or the bandages at least.  Although why, she couldn’t really say.  She was only going to move from the bed to the couch, to sit in the quiet until she grew tired again.  The doctor had said to rest.  She was, perhaps, being too obedient on that score.

     She reached for her phone and sent a brief text to her mother, then climbed out of bed.  She wondered how long it would take, today, before Grace texted back.  Her mom was still furious that she’d come back to the city, taking the train when she’d realized she couldn’t drive.  Why go back to that empty apartment, Grace had wanted to know, why do that to herself when she could stay home?

     “That is my home,” Maddie had said.  “My life is there.”

     “What life, what life, what life without Jack?”

     How to explain that that was the point?  No life without Jack, not that she knew, but no life here either, in this old house, in this old bedroom, where she’d spent years waiting to be noticed, be seen.  Going back, it would hurt, oh yes, it would hurt; the emptiness, the regret, no anger now to fuel her.  But stay here, she’d feared, stay here and she would disappear.

     So she’d left, she’d gone home, and Grace was still angry but what of that?  She’d get over it.  If nothing else, Jessie was bound to do something stupid, and soon; too many things had happened to Maddie, too much attention had been directed her way.  Her sister would find a way to divert it back, and then Grace would have something else to worry about.

     The kitchen smelled like coffee; Maddie breathed deep and smiled, thankful that she’d at least remembered to set the timer on that.  And there was the splint, on the table where she’d left it.  She slipped it on, tightening the straps until it felt secure.

     She poured out a cup and took a delicious, scalding sip, swallowing the handful of pills.  A warmth spread through her chest; she felt her brain start to wake up.  Good, hot coffee, she decided, was better than sex.

     She was about to drink again when there was a knock at the door.

     Who could that be?  There was no one to visit.  Maybe her neighbor?  For a brief, paralyzing moment she thought it might be Marion, come for Jack’s things, to scream, to lay blame.  But no.  She would never come.  She never did for herself what she could pay to be done.

     Wary, Maddie peered through the peep hole, holding her breath.  On the other side stood a man, a stranger, looking down the hall, so all that she saw was his profile.  Strong jaw.  Short hair.  She sent him.  She did.

     She started to back away, quietly, so he wouldn’t hear her through the door.  Best just to wait; he’d leave on his own.  Cowardly, yes, but she couldn’t do this today.

     Then he turned, to knock again, and she saw – he wasn’t a man at all.  A boy, eighteen at most, with a ring in his lip and one in his brow.  He looked nervous, unsure.

     Probably lost.  Wrong apartment.  That’s all.

     She opened the door.

     He paused in mid-knock, surprised.  “Uh.”  He shifted, dropping his arm.  “Miss Striker?  Are you, um, are you?  Madelyn Striker?”

     Well fuck.

     Forcing a smile, she nodded.  He stuck out his hand and she shook it, caught off-guard.

     “Caleb,” he said.  “Caleb Greene.”

     “Mr. Greene.”  She withdrew her hand and they stood, both staring, he expectant, she confused.  “I’m sorry,” she said finally.  “Do I know you?”

     He blushed.  “Oh.  Uh, yes.  I work for Dave.”

     She shook her head.  “Dave?”  Who the hell is Dave?

     “Yeah, uh, Dave?  The wedding?  Your, uh…”  He swallowed, hard, his throat working.  “Your photographer?”

     “Oh.  Oh!”  She stepped back, gesturing.  “Please.  Come in.”

     He walked past her, jittery.  “Nice, uh…”  He looked around at the stark apartment.  “Nice place.”

     “Thank you.”  She closed the door and watched him pace, mildly uncomfortable and still confused. Why was he here?  Did he, too, want to blame her, want some kind of reckoning?  I didn’t hit him, she wanted to say.  I didn’t do that.  That wasn’t my fault.  Instead, she said carefully, “Would you like some coffee?”

     “What?  Oh, uh, no.  No thanks.”  He fished in his pocket and pulled something out, thrusting it at her.  “Here.  I wanted to give you this.  It’s a check.  Your refund.”

     She took it, but reluctantly.  She imagined the envelope was crawling with germs, contaminated with whatever had made the photographer ill.  Grimacing, she dropped it on the table.

     “You could have mailed this,” she told him.

     “I know.  I know.  It’s just-” He stopped, and ran a hand through his hair.  “I wanted to see you.  To ask you.  What happened?”

     She was at a loss.  What could she say?  This boy was hurting, he thought she had answers, but what could she give him?

     “He was ill,” she said slowly, watching his face.  “I’m sure you know that.  He was sick, he was coughing, and then he collapsed.”  She paused for a breath; he stared at her, waiting, hungry for more.  She forged on.  “We did CPR.  And when he came back, when he woke up, he was…”  Mad.  Insane.  Flash of Jack, raving in bed.  “He went crazy.”

     The kid turned away, shaking his head.  “It doesn’t make sense,” he said, half to himself.  “He was a nice guy.  He wouldn’t hurt anybody.  Why would he do that?”

     “He was ill,” she said again, gently.  “He’d stopped breathing.  Maybe he panicked, or…I don’t know.  Brain damage, maybe.”

     “Brain damage.” He stood still, lost in thought.  “Brain damage.  Maybe.”  He looked at her.  “They closed it all up, you know.  Won’t let me in.”

     Lost, again.  “Closed what up?”

     “The shop, you know, the studio.  First.  Now the apartment.  Sealed it all off, for testing or something.”

     “Who?  Who sealed it off?”  She thought of the cop, what he’d said about drugs.

     The kid shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Guys in weird suits.  They didn’t say who they were, just I had to get out.  They sealed the door with tape.”

     Maddie frowned, thinking.  Guys in weird suits, doing tests.  That didn’t sound like a drug raid.  No, that sounded more like…like…

     She took a step back, horrified.  “Are you sick?” she demanded.  Anger surged through her.  “You come here, and you’re sick?”

     “No!”  He held up his hands, pleading with her.  “I’m not, I swear that I’m not!  I haven’t felt anything!  I haven’t felt sick!”

     She backed up even further, putting the table between them.  They stared, neither moving, not saying a word.  She’d left her cell in the bedroom, but then, who would she call?  9-1-1?  Yes, operator?  There’s a man here, and he might have a cold.  Stupid.  Should wish for a bat, so she could make him leave.

     The thump at the door startled them both, loud as it was in their shared silence.  She put a hand to her chest; she could feel her heart pounding.  “Paper,” she said.  Her wrist throbbed.

     “Late for the paper, isn’t it?” he asked.

     She cocked her head, considering.

     The door thumped again.

     Narrowing her eyes, she went to the peep hole again.  Looking out, she saw that it was Mr. Webber.

     “It’s just my neighbor,” she said.  “Poor man.  He’s been-”

     Her hand stilled on the doorknob, which she’d been starting to turn.

     “He’s been what?”

     She held up a finger, gesturing for quiet, and stared harder into the hall.  As she watched Webber shuffled forward, his head hung low, and bumped against the door.

     “He’s been sick,” she whispered.

     “WHAT?!”

     Maddie winced at his yell and hissed – “Shut up!” – but too late.  Webber lifted his head, at the noise through the door, and she gasped.

     He sees me. She knew that wasn’t true, one couldn’t see in a peep hole, and yet.  His eyes held hers.  She saw the scratches around them, and down his cheeks.  Blood caked his chin, drenched the front of his shirt.

     His mouth hung open.  His front teeth were gone.

     Keeping her voice low, she asked, “Do you have a cell phone?”

     “No.”  The kid sounded terrified.  “Why?  Do you?”

     She nodded.  “In the bedroom.  On the table.  Get it.”  He didn’t move.  “Now!”

     Webber lunged for the door.

     The kid turned and ran, as the door shook in its frame.  Maddie quickly thumbed the bolt and stepped back.  How long will it hold?  Cheap piece of shit door; thin enough to hear through, surely thin enough to break.  He was clawing at it, hurling his weight against it; the wood shuddered and groaned.

     “Did you find it?” she screamed.  “It’s on the table!”

     No answer, and no, that lock wasn’t holding.  She saw splinters fly.  Lock or no lock, he was coming.  He was coming in.

     Stumbling, panting with fear, she backed up toward the bedroom, keeping her eyes on the door.  She’d call herself, once she’d locked that door too, and maybe the bathroom.  He couldn’t get through three doors, surely, not before the cops came.  She just had to-

     She stopped at the feeling of wood against her back.

     Maddie turned, disbelieving.  The bedroom door was shut.  She rattled the knob.

     Locked.

     “Oh you motherfucker!”  She pounded her fist against the door, her own door, and kicked with her feet.  “Open up!  Let me in!  Let me in!  LET ME IN!”

     Cracking sounds behind her.  The top hinge blew loose; more splinters flew.

     Panic gripped her throat; she couldn’t catch her breath.  She looked around wildly, searching for something, anything heavy, but there was nothing.  Not even a vase.  It had all gone in the dumpster.  She had throw pillows, useless!  The TV was heavy, but she’d never lift it, not with one hand.

     Maybe in the kitchen.  She couldn’t go in, couldn’t move toward the door.

     “Let me in,” she whispered.

     The lock gave with a loud CRACK, and the door flew in, collapsing under the weight of the man who fell with it.  He writhed a moment, stunned, before climbing to his feet.

     She backed into a corner, cradling her splinted wrist.  He came toward her, snarling, his face twisted and feral.  He reached out a hand; blood dripped from his fingers.

     Maddie closed her eyes.

     A sudden roar filled the room; she jerked back in surprise, slamming her head against the wall.  Stars danced behind her closed lids.  There was a thump, the sound of something falling, heavy, at her feet.

     She cowered, waiting.

     “Madelyn?”

     Her eyes flew open.  A man stood before her, face full of concern.  Gun in his hand.  Oh.  He’s a cop.  Of course.  Of course he is.

     He came toward her, taking her arm, pulling her away from the body on the floor.  Not a trophy, this time.  Most of Webber’s head was gone.

     “Are you okay?”

     She looked at him, ears ringing.  There was blood on her face; he pulled up his shirt and wiped it away.  “Vinnie,” she said.  She fell into his arms.  “You saved me.”

     Kiss him, she thought.  The pain in her head was like a live thing, squeezing her eyes in angry fists.  The world grayed at the edges.  Kiss him.  That’s what you do, when the hero saves you.

     Instead, she looked down, and vomited onto his shoes.

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Comments
  1. mxcoot says:

    Holy shit I want more. Best chapter so far.

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