A Little Help From Your Friends
A pair of stories about unexpected friendships in unexpected places.
by Jennifer Lafferty
Dwayne knew when he saw that gang of hoodlums pull into town that there was going to be trouble; and what happened that night in the sleepy little town of Lark Nest, Mississippi proved him right.
The gang, which included four guys and three girls, had robbed his neighbor Ralph Emmet’s house that night while Ralph and his wife Julie were out. But the really shocking thing was that one of the culprits who had just helped rob his friend’s house was now a guest in Dwayne’s home, sitting across the kitchen table from him this very moment.
“How’s the coffee?” asked Dwayne, with a drawl that emphasized his naturally languid, easygoing personality. The young woman scowled at him.
“It might be okay if I didn’t have to drink it here,” answered the redheaded little spitfire named Issy (short for Isabel), who Dwayne had managed to smuggle out of Ralph’s basement in an old trunk, after she had been left behind by her cohorts. The softhearted and somewhat naive Dwayne had taken pity on this wayward girl, originally from the south side of Chicago, whose plucky attitude was clearly a front to protect herself against the sordid world she inhabited.
Dwayne felt guilty about helping one of the burglars who had robbed Ralph escape, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to turn her over to the police. He convinced himself that her involvement in the robbery was minimal at the most.
“How long do I have to stay in this dump?” asked Issy.
“Why are you so mad at me?” asked Dwayne, as he straightened his lean, tall frame in the old wooden kitchen chair. “I helped you escape, you know.”
“Yeah,” she laughed. “You almost got us both killed — ‘Billy Bob’; smuggling me out through the living room in that old trunk. I could hear you talking; your friend’s wife was still sitting on the couch, holding that shotgun when she saw you carrying the trunk out of her house. She thought she was being ripped off twice in the same night.”
“Yeah, but you have to admit I covered pretty good. Did you hear what I said? I told her I wanted to sell it at my stall at the town flea market and split the profits with her. It’s not easy to come up with something like that just off the top of your head,” he said.
“Very impressive, I wonder what you would’ve come up with if you had a long time to think about it.”
Dwayne knew this girl had him pegged as a simple country bumpkin but he was accustomed to being misunderstood by those around him. His friends were always baffled by his behavior; such as when he graduated from college with a teaching degree only to quit his first teaching job after two weeks to go back to waiting tables at Maggie Sue’s Steak House. He didn’t tell anyone he couldn’t take the pressure and responsibility of a serious job. Dwayne needed to be free and spontaneous but he knew no one would understand.
“Listen, why did you help me anyway? So you could bring me here to be your love slave? Because I would gladly choose prison over that. In fact, I’ll call the cops myself, right now, if you have a phone.”
“Don’t worry,” said Dwayne. “If I was that kind of pervert, they would have kicked me out of town a long time ago.”
“Oh, good,” replied Issy. “I’m glad to know you’re not that kind of pervert. So, what kind of pervert are you? No, wait; don’t answer that. With all the animals you’ve got wandering around this house, I don’t think I want to know.”
“Oh, no.” He laughed. “These are just my pets,” he said, gesturing toward the chicken that was strolling past them.
“Well, there are inside pets and outside pets,” explained Issy. “You’ve got chickens, ducks, rabbits, and whatever’s liable to jump out of those cupboards. It just doesn’t seem like a combination that would live together in harmony,” she said.
“You think too much,” replied Dwayne. “Sometimes things just happen. Like with Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-Ball,” he started.
“No, you mean Cotton-Tail.”
“No, Cotton-Ball. Cotton-Tail would be too predictable. Anyway, I found ‘em abandoned in the woods when they were babies. There were six of ‘em. You know what happened to three of ‘em?” he asked.
“Your other pets ate them,” she said.
“No, they died because they were too small. And the last three would’ve died if I hadn’t spent hours every day feeding them with an eyedropper for two weeks. When I find an animal wandering around who’s hurt or in trouble, I want to help ‘em out. It’s — I don’t know. It’s just who I am.”
“So what am I? Your next charity case? You helped me because you felt sorry for me. You thought I couldn’t handle being in jail. Is that what you think?” she ranted. “Because I know how to take care of myself. If somebody tried to bully me, I would cut them in a second!” she exclaimed, vehemently.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door.
“Are you expecting someone — or something?” she asked.
“No,” he shrugged. “But you better get in that closet over there. If somebody sees a strange girl in here they’re liable to put two and two together.”
Dwayne went to the door when Issy stepped inside the closet, but the wood that the door was made from was so warped she couldn’t close it all the way.
“Hey, Ralph, how are you doin’?” she heard Dwayne say, his voice sounding just a little nervous.
“How am I doin’?” asked Ralph. “Well, about as good as can be expected considering I just got robbed. Listen, Julie decided she wants that trunk back. It’s an antique and she doesn’t trust you to get a good enough price at the flea market.”
“Oh, sure, I’ll get it,” said Dwayne.
“I’ll help you,” said Ralph.
Issy pulled the swollen door closer as she heard their footsteps nearing. Then she heard a squealing noise. Every muscle in her body tensed as she realized there was some kind of animal in the closet with her, but it was too dark to see what it was.
“Well, I sure do hope you find them folks who ripped you off,” said Dwayne.
“Yeah, me too, but I hope the cops get to ‘em before I do because if I get my hands on ‘em they might just end up dead.”
As soon as Issy heard the front door close she leaped out of the closet followed by a very large raccoon.
“How many animals do you have in this house?” she cried.
“Oh, that’s just Skippy. He’s more domesticated than a poodle.”
“Well, if you ever tell that guy about me please mention that I didn’t steal anything. He sounds like a freakin’ lunatic.”
Dwayne started laughing. “Who, Ralph? No, he’s the church choir director. He was just talking, you know. You must have heard a lot of idle threats in the big city, what with all them gangs.”
Issy gave him a sideways look. “Usually when gang members threaten to kill someone, they’re not bluffing.”
“Issy you’re not really like those crooks you were hanging out with, are you? I mean, you’re not really a criminal, are you?”
“Well, I didn’t set out to be one. I guess it’s like you said before. Things just happen sometimes. I ran away from home when I was sixteen, with my older sister and some of her friends. We were all going to be migrant workers so that we could travel all over the country. I know it sounds stupid, but I was only sixteen. It seemed like a big adventure. And things were really bad at home. Anyway, long story short: Things didn’t quite work out the way we planned. My sister wound up in jail, and I took up with those guys I came into town with. Most of the time, I didn’t do any stealing. I was just the lookout.”
“Well, that’s just as bad, you know,” said Dwayne.
“Oh, so now you’re judging me. It’s easy for you to be so perfect. What kind of temptations do you have in this town? And everybody watches you so closely. You couldn’t get away with anything anyway. Maybe I should just try to catch up with my friends!” she exclaimed, as she headed toward the door.
“Do you really think they’re your friends? They took off without you,” he said.
Issy stopped in her tracks and then slowly turned around. Then with a sigh, she said, “Who can you really call a friend anyway?”
“I’ll be your friend,” said Dwayne. “I already helped you escape. And if you tell me the names of those punks and where they’re headed next, so I’ll have some information to give the police, then I’ll let you go. And I won’t mention you to anybody.”
“Why would you believe any information I gave you?” she asked.
“It might sound crazy,” he said reluctantly, “but I trust you.”
Issy stood there silently for a moment and then started to cry.
“What’s wrong?” asked Dwayne.
“I don’t know,” she said, looking down, a little embarrassed. “It’s just that nobody’s ever trusted me before.”
Jennifer Lafferty is a published author and visual artist from the Little Rock, Arkansas, area. Her fiction has appeared in The Storyteller, she’s had a nonfiction article published in Fitness & Physique and also self-published her own Kindle book.
Forever, For Always and No Matter What
by Michael Laquerre
She sat in a bar, nursing a whiskey sour, hoping the liquid would assuage the ache in her head. It was reminiscent of dual pistons firing behind her eyes and Heather Agnew found herself blinking back tears. It always grew worse around this time of the day, she thought, and signaled the bartender to bring her another, hoping this time it would do the trick.
The bar was called Hanson’s and it was a relatively small place located within the heart of Mulberry, a small town in Florida with a population of just over 3,200. Hanson’s was never very busy and she liked it that way. It was a short walk, a mile and half give or take, from the mobile home park she lived in and Heather would often walk to the place, which was fine by her since her Dodge Neon had been acting up as of late. Bobby Gates, a neighbor, had promised to fix it, but that had been two weeks ago and he hadn’t been over since, on account of him working overtime at the phosphate plant.
The alcohol burnt the back of her throat and spread across her chest like a controlled fire.
The music emanating from the jukebox against the wall stopped playing and an eerie silence fell over the place.
“You look like you lost a good friend today.”
She was half-startled by the man’s voice who sat in the stool next to her. He was tall and lean, his skin bronzed from laboring in the sun. He had dirty blond hair and a short, thin scar on his cheek. His eyes were hazel-green and slightly bloodshot, dark circles underneath. The man wore jeans and a gray T-shirt, small spots littered the fabric in front, and when he smiled and held out his hand to her, she noticed that his teeth were stained and crooked.
“Mitch,” he said.
“Heather,” she said and they shook.
He ordered a beer and the bartender set the brown bottle down in front of him. Mitch tilted his head back and took a large swig. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and said, “How come I ain’t seen you in here before?”
Heather shrugged. “I’m here from time to time. I only live over at the park.”
“Oh yeah?” He seemed mildly surprised. “You know Bobby Gates?”
“He’s my neighbor,” she said.
“Is that right?”
“He was supposed to fix my car.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Alternator, I think,” she said. “Maybe it’s the starter.”
“Yeah, that Bobby, he’s been real busy,” he said.
Heather waited for him to elaborate, but Mitch just kept on drinking his beer.
“Maybe you can let me take a look at it,” Mitch said.
“You know something about cars?”
Mitch smiled. “I work over at Central Auto, as a Tech.”
Heather shook her head. “I couldn’t afford nothing like that. Bobby wasn’t going to charge me, but for the parts.”
“I ain’t gonna charge you,” he said and took another swig of his beer.
The following day Mitch pulled up to Heather’s trailer and cut the engine on his older Ford F-150.
She opened the door and stood in the doorway of her single-wide, wearing tight denim shorts and a white halter top with pink flip-flops.
“Just like I promised,” he said and ran a hand through his hair. He still wore his auto technician jersey with Center Auto stenciled on the front pocket. His large hands were black with grease, the kind that would remain with him no matter how many times he rinsed his hands.
“Got any beer?” he asked and climbed the oxidized steps to the door.
Heather pulled a can of beer from the fridge and handed it to him. She watched him pop the top and take a huge gulp.
The trailer was narrow and reeked of stale cigarettes. There were dishes in the sink and a stack of old magazines on the table. The floor looked like it hadn’t been mopped in weeks.
“I sure appreciate you coming over like this,” she said.
Mitch waved his hand. “It ain’t nothing.”
“How do you know Bobby?”
“He used to work with me,” he said. “At Central. Then he got a job at the plant.”
She watched him from the back window, the hood up on the Dodge, Mitch’s body half in it, tools spread haphazardly across the grass. She thought how it nice it might be to have a man around the house, to do those things that men ought to be doing, but then she remembered Hank, her ex-boyfriend, and thought better of it. The last thing she wanted was another Hank, not that every man was like Hank, but the notion itself was enough to deter that kind of thinking.
The sun was just sinking into the horizon, when Heather stepped out with another beer for Mitch.
“How’s it looking?” she said, hands pressed against the front edges of the car, leaning the upper part of her body to get a better view of the motor.
Mitch stepped back, the cold can against the flesh of his hand and let his eyes slide up her smooth legs to the roundness of her ass and swallowed.
“It’s going good,” he said, feeling himself grow stiff against his jeans.
Heather looked up from the car. “How much longer do you think?”
Mitch met the gaze of her pale blue eyes and said, “Why, you late for something?”
“Just curious is all,” she said.
“I’m just joking with you. I’m hoping to be done with it by tomorrow.”
She smiled and walked back to the trailer, where she lit up a cigarette and stood leaning with her back against the counter, blowing smoke out the side of her mouth.
It was almost 9:00 PM when there was a knock on the door. The sun had retired nearly an hour ago and Heather had turned on the porch light, basking the outside in an amber glow.
“I’m fixing to head home,” Mitch said, mosquitoes dancing around his head. “I’m done for the night. I’ll be back tomorrow though, same time. Sound all right?”
“Thank you so much,” she said.
“Don’t mention it,” he said and made his way back to his truck. From the living room and over the television, she heard him pull away from the trailer.
Heather was outside smoking a cigarette when Bobby Gates’ headlights swam over her, blinding her for a moment.
“What’re you doing out here?” he said, climbing out of his Chevy pickup.
Bobby was medium-built, with wiry hair, cut close to the scalp, and a Tampa Bay Buccaneer cap on. He sported a three day growth on his face and he clutched a red lunch cooler.
“Can’t sleep,” she said.
“Well, that ain’t nothing new, huh.”
“I guess not,” she said, taking another a drag.
The air smelled of oranges and the sound of cicadas drowned out the traffic from the highway that ran along the rear of the park.
Bobby scratched his face and watched as her hand shook as she pulled on the cigarette.
“You doing all that thinking again,” he said.
“I can’t help it.” Her eyes welled up and twin plumes of gray smoke exited her nostrils.
“You’re gonna drive yourself crazy, Heather.”
“I already am.”
“Let’s go inside,” he said.
Heather sat at her kitchen table with a distant gaze in her eyes, her cheeks moist from the tears. She stared blankly across the room while Bobby stood against the counter.
“You’ll get her back,” he said.
Heather shook her head. “You don’t understand.”
“People make mistakes.”
They were silent for awhile and Heather stubbed the cigarette out in a clam-shell shaped ashtray.
“She was everything to me, Bobby and I lost her.”
“You’re working on things, right?”
She turned to look at him. “You don’t have a clue, do you? It’s too late now. She’s happy where she’s at in her new life with her new family. I can’t give her those things.” More tears leaked from her eyes and streamed down her face.
Bobby didn’t know what to say. He removed a tiny clear plastic baggie from his pocket and held it out to her.
“Hey, look what I got. You want some?”
Heather looked at him like he was sporting three heads. “Are you out of your fucking mind?”
“Go back to your place with your wife and son. It’s where you belong.”
“I belong here,” he said. “With you.”
She laughed. “You want me to smoke with you?”
He glanced away from her. “I thought it would take your mind off things. I hate to see you like this.” He stuffed the baggie back into his pocket.
“I lost my daughter,” Heather said. “They took her away from me because of shit like that.” She stood up from the table. “I’m done, Bobby. I can’t live like this.”
“Like this. What me and you are doing,” she said.
He sighed and shook his head. “Come on, Heather.”
“Don’t be like this.”
She leaned forward, her palms flat on the table. “I can’t anymore.”
“I’m going out of my mind.”
“Is this because I haven’t been over to fix your car?” he said.
“Yeah, Bobby, that’s it.”
He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her toward him. He smelled like grease and perspiration.
“I’m sorry, baby,” he said. “I promise you I’ll get it done in a day or two, okay?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
He looked at her, brow knitted with concern. “Why do you say that?”
“I had Mitch Larson look at it.”
“I said, ‘I had Mitch Larson look at it.’ He was over today fixing it.”
He let go and stepped back from her. “Mitch Larson.”
“Why would you have him here?”
“What do you care, Bobby?”
He felt a rise of anger stirring within the pit of his stomach.
“All you give a shit about is fucking and smoking meth,” Heather said. “You don’t give a rat’s ass about nobody but yourself.”
The words stung like an open hand slap to the face. He blinked a few times and glanced away, shaking his head.
“You know that ain’t true,” he said.
“Well, it ain’t.”
“Go on home to your family, Bobby.”
“You fucking him?”
Heather pulled open the door. “Get out.”
He looked at her and shook his head again. He shuffled out without saying another word.
Bobby set the cooler down on his kitchen table and padded down the short hall to his bedroom, where his wife was asleep, a dark form underneath the sheets. She was snoring softly as he undressed down to his underwear. He slipped out of the room and grabbed a beer from the fridge.
He was pissed about Heather going behind his back and getting Mitch to work on her car. The more he thought about it, the angrier he became. He was putting in long hours at the plant — something not offered regularly, and he needed to take full advantage of the additional money that was available to him.
Bobby downed the remaining beer and popped the top off another.
Fucking bitch, he thought, peering through the small window above the sink at Heather’s place, which was now dark, her having finally gone to sleep. Who did she think she was anyway, telling him to get out like that? After all the things he’d done for her, like fix her water heater and a door with a loose hinge. He supplied a little meth for her when she craved it. Sure, he smoked it with her, but that was beside the point. And when she needed a man — someone to keep her warm — Bobby was there for her too. He felt as if she was tossing him away like a piece of trash and he wasn’t going to stand for it.
Bobby whipped his head in the direction of his six year old son. He stood in the entrance of the kitchen, his hair standing on end and rubbing the sleep from his eye.
“You need to go on back to bed.”
Bobby sighed and fetched a glass from the cupboard. He filled it halfway with water from the tap and watched his son gulp it down.
He returned the glass to his father, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Can you tuck me in?”
Bobby placed his hand on the small of his son’s back and led him to his bedroom. He watched him climb into bed and pull the sheets up to his neck.
Bobby tussled his hair and left the room.
In the kitchen, Bobby opened another beer — his last — and sat at the table, thinking of ways to get Heather to feel good about him again. She was such a needy person that the one or two times he was unavailable for her, she went and found a replacement. It was Mitch Larson who was putting it to her now, maybe even smoking a little crystal with her. There was little doubt in his mind.
Mitch was back the following day. It was almost noon.
“Didn’t you have to work?” Heather asked from the front door.
He popped the hood of her car. “I called in today,” Mitch said, “so I could finish working on your car.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“I know,” he said and smiled wryly, sliding his toolbox with his foot closer to the Dodge. “Thought we’d grab a couple over at Hanson’s when I’m through.”
“I need to run a couple of errands, but maybe later we can.”
She slipped back inside and closed the door. From the kitchen window she looked across at Bobby’s trailer and noticed that his truck was gone, and that was good. The last thing she wanted was for him to see Mitch here.
Her hands trembled again as she fumbled for a cigarette. It was her last and she made a mental note to pick some up at the store once Mitch got her car running.
As the smoke filled her lungs, it instantly calmed her and Heather drifted to her room, where the bed was unmade and several articles of clothing were strewn about the floor.
She sat on the edge of the bed and brought the cigarette to her lips. She could hear Mitch outside, attempting to crank the engine, but it wouldn’t turn over.
Hanging on the wall across from her was a four foot section of pine wood with the words FOREVER, FOR ALWAYS AND NO MATTER WHAT painted in a pale blue calligraphy across the entire length. As she stared at the words, her eyes filling with tears, she recalled the day she had discovered it at a yard sale, not far from where she used to live in Riverview, prior to the birth of her daughter, what seemed like a million years ago. She was going to be a good mother — a fine mother, they were going to be close, nearly inseparable, doing all those things mothers and their daughters do together. She was her ray of sunshine, that precise glimmer of hope that would shed light on her darkness. Heather felt exhilarated by her child’s appearance into this life and she knew things would be different.
If only …
If only she had made other choices. If only she had put her daughter’s needs before her own. If only she had discontinued with her old life and not lost her baby.
Heather couldn’t recall a more painful episode than when they came for her child, stripping her away from her cold, brittle fingers. How she sobbed — pleaded with them not to take her. I’ll be better, she promised. You’ll see. I’ll do anything to keep her with me. Don’t take her.
And yet they did on a wintry day, the hard ground blanketed in white, as she watched from the backseat of a patrol car as they whisked her daughter away.
Forever. For always and no matter what. Hollow words to Heather now; just a piece of wood with lettering.
She wiped her face and looked up to find Mitch standing in the doorway, wiping his hands on a rag.
“It started,” he said.
It felt good to be back behind the wheel of her car, Heather thought as she turned away from her mobile home park and headed west on Clinton Road. She was thankful to Mitch for making the essential repairs, since otherwise she was more like a prisoner, trapped without a vehicle, and with funds beginning to run low, she would need to find a job soon too. But more importantly, she wanted to get back to Riverview.
The afternoon sun glimmered off the asphalt highway and Heather regretted not bringing her sunglasses. She lit a cigarette from the pack she had purchased and glanced at her reflection in the rear-view mirror. Her hair was long, blond, and oily and she moved a strand away that was in her eyes. She noticed a few more lines in her face, especially about the eyes and mouth and wondered if they were a direct response from the meth she had smoked over time. It had been a week since the last time she did it. She recalled seeing the before and after photographs of meth-heads back in the day and how abruptly their looks deteriorated.
Forty-nine minutes later, Heather found herself on a quiet tree-lined suburban street with ranch style homes and manicured lawns.
She slowed the Dodge Neon as she approached 4611 Tisdale Street. A dog barked in the distance and Heather focused on the one-story, with dark green shutters and a large oak in the yard. A late model GMC Yukon was parked in the driveway.
Heather cut the engine and leaned her seat back, waiting, her heart walloping in her chest. She waited for what felt like an eternity, her hands growing clammy, and smoking one cigarette after another.
Having finally worked up the nerve, Heather climbed out of the car and made her way across the street.
She paused at the front door, swallowed hard, and rang the doorbell. A twinge of nausea swam over her and a part of her regretted driving all the way here at all.
A woman with thick dark hair and eyes the color of chocolate opened the door.
Heather’s rehearsed speech seemed to be tucked away, well inside her brain, and she found it difficult to get the words out.
“Yes? Can I help you?” the woman asked.
Heather peered down and noticed the child — Haley — hiding behind the woman’s leg, her face partially obscured. She would have been nearly seventeen months old.
“I —” It was as though a stranger’s hand had forced itself into the back of her throat, snatching the words away from her. Immediate tears began to leak from her eyes.
The woman sensed something wasn’t quite right and bent down to lift the child into her arms.
“Are you all right?” she asked Heather.
Heather covered her mouth with her hands. How much she resembled Heather, with her brilliant blue eyes that sparkled like pools and blondish hair that covered her pink scalp in wisps. I’m her mother, she wanted to say. I birthed this child that you hold in your arms. This is my Haley.
And then the woman opened her mouth to say something, but froze, looking from Heather to her child and back.
“Wait! You’re —”
Heather bolted from the door and ran to her car, her hair trailing behind her. The woman shouted something, but Heather was oblivious to it, her hand trembling at the door handle. She could barely get the key into the ignition and she prayed that the car would start again, and when it did, she slammed her foot down on the gas pedal, tires screeching across the hot asphalt, tears blinding her, watching as the house receded in the mirror. Her body shuddered with tiny quakes, both hands on the wheel, knuckles white. She never thought it would have been this hard. It took her so long to work up the very courage needed to bring herself to see Haley. She hated herself for it. I shouldn’t have come, she thought. It only made things worse. That house. She could never give her a home like that, nor would she possess the ability to give her the privileges she now had. She was a most fortunate child and that was something to be very happy about, Heather realized. She would grow up to be loved by a family with routines, who provided her with things that Heather lacked. Who was she fooling? There was no way she could handle having her now. She was still collecting the remnants of her life, piecing them together, hoping to form a more coherent and consistent foundation.
When she managed to pull in beside her trailer, Heather cut the motor and leaned her forehead against the steering wheel. She couldn’t get her daughter’s face out of her mind; the image of Haley behind that woman’s leg seared into her brain forever.
She peered up and noticed that Bobby’s truck was still gone. The clock on the dash read 5:45 PM.
Heather turned the knob of her front door and went in. It felt warm inside and Heather checked the thermostat in the hall. It was registering 81 degrees; the air conditioner could barely keep up with the heat.
From the top drawer of her dresser, where she kept her panties and bras and socks, she pulled out a small clear baggie that contained a tiny amount of crystals, enough for a hit or two. She looked at it, eyes welling up again, and plopped down on the edge of her bed, her head in her hands. She rocked herself to and fro, feeling ever so close to a complete breakdown.
Heather shot up and bolted to the bathroom, where she tossed the baggie into the toilet. She paused for a moment, watching as the little square baggie floated in the water.
After she had flushed, Heather made her way back to bed and laid on it in the fetal position, tears sliding down into her ear.
Ten minutes later she found herself drifting to sleep.
Heather was awakened by a knock on her front door. She opened her eyes, slowly, trying to bring the room into focus.
The knocking continued, more forcefully this time. She had forgotten that Mitch had asked her to go to Hanson’s today and she hadn’t meant to sleep so late. The clock in the kitchen read 9:35 PM.
“What the hell are you doing here?” she said.
Bobby stood down at the bottom of the steps, looking up at her, his eyes wide, a thin sheen of perspiration gleaming off of his face.
“Brought something for you,” he said.
And then it was as if time had stopped.
“Followed you earlier.” He pulled the little girl toward him, his hands on her shoulders. “Say hi to mommy.”
Haley peered up at Heather, unsure.
“What have you done?”
“This is for you, Heather. I did it for you.”
“What have you done?” she repeated.
“When I followed you earlier and saw where you went, I thought, What could I do to make Heather feel better? Bring her child back to her and here I am.”
She hadn’t noticed that she was holding her breath and Heather gasped.
“Go on up and give your momma a hug.”
Heather ventured out onto the steps, taking each one slowly and knelt down in front of her daughter.
A moth hovered near the porch light and the darkness felt humid.
Heather extended her arms and pulled Haley toward her, embracing her and she sobbed, touching her soft hair.
“Oh baby,” she moaned. “Oh baby…”
Through the veil of her tears, she saw Bobby smirk, as though he were responsible for bringing home someone’s lost child.
“You stole her,” Heather said and watched his grin dissipate. His forehead had become creased with worry.
“I thought this is what you’d want.”
Heather could feel her shaking in her arms and for one moment, it was what she had wanted, to have her little girl with her, all to herself. It’ll be like old times, she thought. Just you and me. This is where you belong.
But Heather knew it could not be so. Haley’s new family in her life would not allow this to happen.
She could run away.
No. What life would they have then? It would be a selfish act.
“Take her back,” she said.
She pulled away from Haley. “Bobby, do it.”
He sighed and glanced away. “I did this for you, Heather. I want you to know that.”
“You did a real stupid thing, Bobby.” She kissed the girl on the top of her head. “I’ll always love you, baby girl. No matter what.” Heather couldn’t hold back the tears and ran back inside, where she shut the door, her back pressed against it, eyes closed.
She didn’t open them again until she had heard the sound of Bobby’s truck pulling away out onto Clinton Road.
Heather was smoking a cigarette when the sound of a vehicle pulling up to the trailer was heard. She thought it might be Bobby returning and found Mitch at the door, a wry smile pasted on his face.
“You ready for that drink?”
Heather nodded. She was more than ready and climbed into Mitch’s truck, which smelled of pine, and she smiled at him, her elbow sticking out the window. A crescent moon was visible, casting pale light between the trees. It was still balmy and Mitch apologized for his a/c not working properly, but promised he would have a look at it, so that the next time she’d feel more comfortable riding in his truck.
They drank until their heads swam and thirty minutes prior to closing time, Heather nudged him and motioned for the door.
In the parking lot of Hanson’s, while Mitch’s truck idled beneath a lamplight, he and Heather kissed. It was soft and he tasted the sweetness of liquor on her lips and he touched her face.
“Take me home,” she said. “I want to be with you tonight.”
When Mitch’s truck pulled up next to Heather’s Dodge, they saw Bobby sitting on her steps, a forlorn dark shape, and his head down with a baseball bat across his knees.
“Bobby?” she said.
He lifted his eyes. “Did you two have a nice time?”
“Go on home, Bobby.”
Bobby stood up, the barrel of the bat scraping along the dirt.
“Maybe you ought to listen to her,” Mitch said.
Bobby’s grip on the bat tightened.
“If you don’t go on home, Bobby,” Heather said, “I will wake up your wife and then what?”
He stared at her. “Go ahead,” he said. “I’m pretty sure she won’t hear you.”
Heather glanced at his trailer. What was that supposed to mean? Was she here? Did she finally wise up and leave him, taking little Roy with her?
“You know what’s going to happen here,” Bobby said.
“What’s that?” Mitch said.
Bobby looked at him. “You’re gonna get your ass beat.”
“Is that right?”
“Bobby, just go, please,” she said. “I don’t want nothing to do with you anymore. Okay? Can’t you see that?”
And for a moment it seemed like her words had reached him, penetrating through flesh and bone. But then Bobby lifted the bat with both hands and swung, the thick barrel slicing through the night, bringing it down on Mitch’s shoulder. There was an audible thump and Heather watched as he crumpled to the ground. The bat rose again and again, connecting with Mitch, each contact resulting in a crunch, almost as loud as Heather’s screams.
Lights snapped on in the surrounding trailers and a few curious onlookers gathered outside to find Mitch lying on the ground in a bloody heap, while others remained inside, their eyes surveying the scene through narrow slats in the blinds.
Bobby dropped the bat and backed away.
“Somebody call the cops,” she shouted and not a moment after she finished uttering the command, sirens could be heard approaching.
She held Mitch’s head, rocking him, oblivious to the others around her.
“You’re gonna be fine,” she said and shuddered, her face stained with tears. “Everything’s gonna be fine.”