Morning came too soon for me. I crept downstairs and cringed when I heard the TV on. “Good morning, Dad,” I said. He didn’t have a beer in his hand yet, which was a good sign, but I wasn’t sure if he was still drunk from the night before. “Did you get breakfast yet?”
“Where were you last night?” he grunted.
“I have a job Dad. Remember?”
“Oh. Yeah. Where’re you off to now?”
“School. I’ll see you later, okay?” I slipped my shoes on and turned towards the door.
“What, no hug for your old man? Ungrateful chit.”
My throat stuck. “Sorry. I’m in a hurry today, that’s all.” I went over to the couch and put my arms around his shoulders. I tried to put some enthusiasm in my voice but couldn’t quite manage it. “Have a nice day.” He grunted and again and turned his attention back to the TV.
I wiped a few tears out of my eyes as I left the house. My mother was scraping the frost off her car with her driver’s license. She waved but didn’t say anything as I walked past her.
When I got to Corina’s house, I could tell she was still a little peeved at me, but I ignored her anger and launched right into my story as she put her toaster pastries in the microwave.
“So, I was working last night, and—”
“Late again?” The microwave beeped, and she pulled her breakfast out.
“Yes, but that doesn’t matter. This guy came in at midnight, right? He bought chips and soda and paid for them with a credit card, so he signed for it.”
“So?” She dropped onto the couch and offered me her second pastry.
“So guess what he signed as.”
“I don’t know. Just tell me.”
Her breakfast fell right out of her mouth. “No way!”
“I’m dead serious.” I sat next to her and brushed the crumbled mess off her skirt. “You really shouldn’t waste food like that.”
She waved me off. “It doesn’t matter. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was under the impression that you didn’t want to talk to me.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. She gave me an awkward, sideways hug. “You know I’m just a crazy worrier. I’ll never do it again.”
“Yes, you will,” I replied, but I returned the hug anyways.
Corina scrunched up her nose. “Probably, but I’ll be sorry then, too. Now tell me everything he did! It’s important to be informed about your local mass murderers.”
“Two people hardly counts as mass murder,” I sighed. “I think he lives in the warehouse district, in that old apartment.”
“What?” Corina stood up. “Take me to it! It’s on the way to school.”
I looked at the clock. “We have, like, a half-hour yet. You’re going to ruin my reputation if I get to class on time.”
“We won’t. We’re going to spy on him.” She was already putting on her coat.
Reluctantly, I followed her. “Don’t you think it’s a little imprudent to spy on a ‘mass murderer?’”
“Well, if we do it right, he won’t see us.”
I shook my head and followed her out the door. Five minutes later, we crouched behind a parked car, waiting for movement. Five minutes after that, I was freezing.
“This is stupid,” I said.
“Just a little longer, okay? I think a light just turned on.” I looked up and saw that she was right. The curtains moved, and we both ducked down. “You look first,” she whispered.
“You look first!”
“But what if he sees me?”
“This whole thing was your idea!”
She peeked over the car. “Ohmygosh!”
“What?” I peeked over the car. Sam Gardner was standing with his back towards the window. And he was completely naked. “Oh my.” I felt a blush creep up the back of my neck. He had a nice butt.
“Maybe we should…um…uh,” Corina said.
“Go to uh…that place,” I said.
“School,” she said.
“Yeah.” Neither of us moved until he began to turn around. “Run for it!” I yelled. We bolted out from behind the car and ran the rest of the way to school. “Let’s not do that again,” I panted. I bent over and tried to breathe deep. I really need to get into shape.
“How about after school?”
“No. We’ll get caught for sure.”
“Please?” She gave me puppy eyes.
Seven hours later we were behind the parked car with a pair of binoculars stolen from Corina’s brothers.
“You’re sick,” I told her.
“Shush! He’s got the window open. Sound carries around here!” She was peeking over the car with the binoculars pressed to her eyes.
I picked at the sidewalk with a bit of rusty wire I’d found. “It would serve us right if he came out right now and caught us.”
“What did you say?”
“Never mind.” I leaned against a tire. “How’s your dad doing?”
Corina sat next to me. “All right. He’s almost done with this round of radiation. They’re testing him next week.”
“Uh-huh.” She fiddled with the binoculars. “I don’t know if we can afford another round of treatments.”
I put my arm around her and kissed the top of her head. “He’ll be fine. The cancer will be gone, and everything will be normal.”
“I hope so,” she sighed. We sat, intertwined, for a minute. Then we heard a door open. Corina peeked over the car. “He’s coming out!”
“Yeah?” I peeked too. He locked his door and looked both ways. Then he crossed the street. “Corina?” I asked.
“Whose car do you suppose this is?” But it was too late for my warning.
“What have we here?”
Corina and I gazed into Samuel Gardner’s bemused face, Corina with the binoculars still pressed to her eyes. She scrambled to her feet and brushed off her skirt. “We’re practicing our rights as informed neighbors,” she informed him.
I scrunched my nose. It was just like Corina to be bluntly honest at the worst times. I probably should have stood too, it would be easier to run, but I couldn’t stop staring at Samuel. The late afternoon sky shadowed his face and made his dark eyes even darker. Staring into them, I tried to picture him as the dirty little boy that had haunted my mind but failed.
“I wasn’t aware that I had any neighbors,” he said. He had a sophisticated accent, like you’d imagine a professor or politician to have.
“Well, we aren’t directly your neighbors, but we don’t live that far away. Only five minutes or so.”
“Is that right?” He looked at me. “Do I know you?” he asked me.
I snapped out of my trance and stood. “We should get going,” I said, grabbing Corina’s arm. “It was nice meeting you, Mr.…?”
“Gardner. Sam Gardner. You needn’t be in such a hurry. I’ll drive you home.”
“My mother told me never to get into a car with a stranger,” I squeaked.
He laughed. “I couldn’t kidnap you if I wanted to. See over there?” He pointed to an alley. “There’s a cop sitting there, watching everything we do. I’d have to be stupid to try anything with such a witness. Get in.”
Corina and I climbed into the back seat and clung to each other’s hands. I didn’t know if I’d ever see the light of day again. What if he was going to take us somewhere, rape us, then drink our blood? I squeezed my eyes shut until he spoke again.
“Which way?” He looked at Corina pointedly.
“Right,” she whispered. “Then left two streets over. I’m the third green house, the one with the overgrown flower bed.”
The ride took up the longest two minutes of my life. Then, when I tried to get out at Corina’s house, Samuel stopped me.
“Oh no, I’m taking you home. It’s getting dark, and I wouldn’t want you walking home alone.”
My heart went into double time, and I sent a pleading look at Corina, but she was already at her door. She shrugged her shoulders.
“Which way to your house?”
I tried to wet the back of my throat. “Go back through the warehouse district.” He backed out of the driveway and didn’t say anything else. I fidgeted in the backseat.
“So why were you spying on me, really?” he asked.
I bit my lip. “Erm, we were curious about the person who moved into the warehouse apartment.”
“And what did you find out?”
I thought about that morning and blushed, but said, “Nothing much. We weren’t at it very long.”
“Uh-huh.” He snapped his fingers. “I know where I’ve seen you. You work at that gas station. I thought you were too young to be working that late.”
I crossed my arms. “You going to do anything about it?”
“No. It’s your business. Or maybe since you stuck your nose in my business, I should stick mine in yours.” He glanced at me in his rearview.
“Sorry,” I said. “It was Corina’s idea, really.”
“The green-haired girl? She does seem like an instigator. Which way?”
“Left. Why are you living in that crappy apartment?”
“It’s not that bad. I don’t see why it’s your problem where I live.”
The comment stuck a little. It shouldn’t have affected me so much, but I looked down at my hands anyways. “I’m just curious, that’s all.”
“Sure. Which way?”
“Straight, then turn onto the second road on the left.”
“So, you know my name,” he made a graceful turn, “and I know your friend’s, but I don’t know your name yet.”
He made the second turn. “Nice to meet you, Hadrianna. Where to now?”
“Right here,” I said. My house was white. Or, at least, it used to be. It was a little dumpy now, and a few of the shutters were lopsided. My dad was smoking on the porch, his enormous beer belly pouring over the sides of his flimsy lawn chair. “Thanks for the ride Mr. Gardner,” I said, trying to get him out of there ASAP.
He laughed. “Call me Sam.”
“Thank you, Sam.”
“Any time, Hadrianna.”
He drove off, and I smelled my dad coming up behind me.
“Where you been this time?” he slurred.
I held an ice pack to my eye and waited up for my mom. I had called her and asked her to bring concealer home from work- all my old stuff was clumpy. My dad was snoring on the couch. I had worn him out.
Mom walked in. “Let’s see it,” she said. She led me into the kitchen and turned on a light before taking the ice off my face. “Ouch.”
“It’s not that bad,” I lied. My dad usually stayed away from my face, but he was in a really bad mood tonight. “Did you bring the stuff?”
She lifted up a Wal-Mart bag. “I got you some other stuff too. It’ll make it look more natural.”
I nodded and bit my lip. “Why doesn’t he love me, Mom?” I whispered. I was crying, but I couldn’t wipe the tears away without hurting my eye.
My mom gave me a quick hug. “He does, sweetheart. He just doesn’t realize it at this moment. Remember your last birthday? He was so nice that day.” I nodded again and took a deep breath. “Now get off to bed. Can’t be tired for school tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow’s Saturday, Mom.”
“Well then, you’ll be over at Corina’s bright and early, won’t you?”
“Thanks,” I said.
“You’re welcome, honey.” I saw her light a cigarette before I left the room. My mom never used to smoke. She started the habit after Dad lost his job. That was when we stopped really talking. Now, she bought me what I needed to hide, and I let her stay away from the house. The situation sucked, but my alternatives were worse. Social workers. No more Corina. Strange people pretending they want a troubled child living in their home. I wouldn’t be able to stand in. All I had to do was suck it up until I graduated.
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