Friday, December 1, 2017

Cash by Angela Doll Carson

When she hears trouble on her street, a vulnerable woman fears her home might be invaded; by Angela Doll Carson.

The cold medicine was a mistake. Penny was in bed with her eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling for an hour before she finally got up and opened a bottle of wine. Bosley followed her from the bedroom to the kitchen. He watched her with head tilted as she uncorked the Merlot and poured herself a glass. She stood at the kitchen counter drinking the wine like water. She asked Bosley, "Well, they say that whiskey is good for a head cold, right? Maybe it's true of wine." The dog looked hopeful, wagging his tail and waiting for a snack or a toy or a walk. When none of that came to pass, he gave up and wandered back to the bedroom.

The house was quiet since John left. The kids were away at school, Margot at Harvard and Brad at State. John moved in with his girlfriend the week after they moved Brad into his dorm. Margot left over the summer, moving into an off-campus apartment. When Penny found John packing a bag on the bed, she knew he was leaving. They never discussed it, but Penny sensed that they both had seen it coming. Penny noticed him slipping away from her long ago, but she did nothing to stop it. If anything, she might have even encouraged the affair. The blow was not emotional as much as it was financial. She would have to get a job now. They couldn't afford to support two households, three if she counted Margot's apartment.

After she drained the second glass of wine, Penny finally began to feel drowsy. She stumbled to the bedroom and lay down, pushing Bosley aside in the bed. John never allowed Bosley to sleep with them in bed. Penny preferred his company to John's, truth be told. At least Bosley didn't snore. So, given that he was now granted leave to sleep wherever he liked, Bosley was not at all grieved that John was gone.

Bosley was breathing softly on the other side of the queen-sized bed. Penny took to sleeping in Margot's room after John moved out. Margot was established now in her apartment at school. She probably would not move home again and there was something about being closer to the front door that made Penny feel calm and in control. Penny turned onto her side and tried to cuddle up to her body pillow, but her head was still congested, even with the cold medicine. She turned onto her back, pillows propped up and hands pinning down the sides of her blanket.

Two shots rang out. Penny sat bolt upright in the bed. She knew the sound. Fireworks echoed, gunshots were flat, almost muted. "They sound like a cap gun," she'd said to John when they first began to hear them in the neighborhood. This area was "changing," or so they were told. They bought the house ten years ago, hoping to earn a quick profit on the rehab, but the gentrification stopped just short of their street. Most of the houses were in good condition and owned by Ukrainian neighbors, but the neighborhood south of them, only a block or two away, was still gang territory. Penny never felt explicitly "unsafe" as it were, but now that she was alone in the house, the sounds were terrifying. They tried to sell the house three times in that ten years but never could get the price they needed to be able to afford to move. Now, between the tuitions for the children and John's departure, the only chance was a short sale. For that to happen, Penny would need to let her payments lapse, and she couldn't bring herself to do it. Her father's voice would echo in her skull whenever she entertained the idea. He'd lecture her in his thick Greek accent about responsibility and the weight of being an upright person in a tilted world. He did not live to see her leave the church, marry John, and get into financial and marital hot water. He would have wagged his finger at her, "I told you."

The sound of sirens came next. Penny expected the sirens, but that they were so close, driving down her short one-way street, was odd. She threw back her quilt, swung her feet to the floor and ran softly to the window. If she'd been sleeping in her own room, she might have had a better vantage point, able to see down the length of the street in either direction from the balcony, but from here she could only see the reflection of the blue lights somewhere at the end of her viewing area. She tucked herself back into bed, heart racing.

Had she locked the door?

The police are out there. Why does it matter?

She closed her eyes again. Bosley still had not moved. He was a terrible watch dog. She picked him out at the shelter because he looked so lonely. He was tiny, only five pounds. At first, she thought he was still a puppy, but no, he was a fully-grown Chihuahua. Unless she fed him steak every night, he'd always be five pounds with bat ears that drooped at the ends and lonely eyes. The man at the shelter said he was an "alert dog," meaning that he'd bark to alert the owner if danger was near. Bosley never barked. He was the least alert "alert dog" she'd ever seen.

As she lay there, Penny noticed that her head was clearing and she found she could breathe again. She remained propped up in her bed, eyes closed and listening to the faint noises outside. She opened her eyes and saw the reflected blue police lights playing on her walls. They must still be close, she thought.

Did I lock the door?

And the gate?

What if the food delivery guy failed to close the locking gate?

From the bedside table, Penny grabbed her phone. She signed into the "neighborhood watch" app and looked for information. The man who ran this app was always online, and he did not disappoint. "Two or three men, armed, fleeing on foot," and just down the block from her. She refreshed the app to read the comments; Bosley did not stir. A few moments later, "Two caught, police unsure if there is a third." Penny turned off the app and placed the phone face down next to the bed. She stroked Bosley's tiny head and tried to sleep again. She felt tired. Her head was clearing. The wine was having its intended effect - and then she heard a scraping sound below her. Penny sat upright in her bed again. She looked at Bosley snuggled under a quilt next to her.

The scraping sound was followed by silence. The blue lights still played on her ceiling.

Two men in custody, possibly a third still on the loose.

Armed? Dangerous?

Penny picked up her phone as quietly as possible from the bedside table. She checked the neighborhood app again. No updates to the post. She gripped the phone, trying to decide if she should call the police. He would hear it, she thought. What if he is desperate. What if he is armed? She waited ten minutes, fifteen minutes, twenty, still wide awake with her heart pumping. The police lights outside made her think that maybe they were still looking for another suspect. No sound came from the basement as she waited, listening.

Scenarios unfolded in Penny's head. Run upstairs, lock the bedroom door, call the police. Or tiptoe to Margot's door, close and lock it, call the police. She knew John would turn over and tell her to stop being paranoid. He would tell her to go back to bed. Once, after hearing gunshots nearby, John suggested that they buy a gun. Penny vetoed the idea. She read too many "children accidently killed by handgun" stories online. Now she regretted it. She wished she had a gun under her bed if for nothing else but to ease the long-lived feeling of helplessness. It resided in her chest, an apple-sized anvil where her heart should be. Penny felt it reach out from between her breasts, sending out tentacle-like waves of anxiety in seemingly innocuous moments; in the grocery store paper goods aisle, walking past the potholed soccer field next to the park, watching screwball comedies on her laptop while she ate cold cereal in bed.

Ten minutes, fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, Penny could not keep track of how long it had been. The wine was still clouding her head. She meant to make a note of the time so that she could detail it for the police when she called, if she called. She heard a shuffling below her so faint she was almost sure she imagined it. Then the sound came again. She would call the police. She would whisper to avoid alerting the intruder.

Could she text the police?

Could she text John to call the police?

Penny heard a door open downstairs. The floors in the house were hardwood, and the sounds from downstairs always bled through. Penny and John spent more money restoring those floors than she cared to remember. They tore up wall to wall shag carpeting in every room. They did one room on their own, thinking they would save some money, but after a week of pulling up carpeting staples they gave up. John said that there was a reason people got paid to do this for a living, so he hired someone. Professionals had a method, a way of doing it, the right tools, the right attitude. John always criticized Penny's "attitude" toward tasks. She was too timid, too angry, too cold, too soft.

She knew the sound of that door opening. It was the door that led from the laundry room to the family room. She knew the sound of footsteps. She swore she could hear him breathing, but the sound of her own heart beating in her chest began to drown it out. Penny noticed that she was barely breathing and took a deep, deep breath in through her mouth, and then let it out slowly, as her yoga teacher would have instructed. She felt better, stronger, or maybe she just felt she had nothing left to lose. For the first time in months, she felt her mind working. She stood up quietly and knelt on the floor. She put her ear to the hardwood floor and listened and heard nothing. She lowered her body to the ground and rested her cheek there, thinking through all the things she would say to him, "Don't be afraid," and, "I can help you."

She invented a back story for the boy. He was just here to rest, maybe look for a little cash to get him to a safe place. He didn't have a gun. He didn't want to hurt anyone. He was with his friends; they were a bad influence. His mother was gone. His father was abusive. He dropped out of school. He wanted to be an airline pilot. He was going to join the Navy. He would live here a little while. She would tell people she was watching him for a friend. He'd steal her wedding ring and pawn it. She would forgive him. She hated that ring. He would come back and get a job and help around the house and the yard. Her children would come to love him and call him their "adopted" brother. And when she was very old it would be this boy who stayed with her until the lights in her eyes were gone.

He was not a bad kid. She was not a bad mother, or wife, or woman, or neighbor.

This could be the start of something beautiful.

This could be exactly what we both need.

This could be everything.

In the morning, Penny woke stiff and cold, huddled still on the floor at the foot of her bed. Bosley watched her patiently from the bed. The sun was streaming into Margot's room. It was late morning. She rose slowly, knocking the sleep out of her head. She padded to the kitchen for coffee, with Bosley on her heels, forgetting for a moment what even brought her to the floor in the first place. She felt embarrassed when she did recall it. "You must be famished, puppy!" she said, and Bosley wagged his tail. As Penny filled his dish, she felt a breeze on her bare neck and legs. The front door was standing open. Her heart skipped, and she saw her purse on the countertop, wallet on the floor, the rest of the contents strewn around the kitchen. She picked up her wallet. The credit cards were still there. Her driver's license was in the plastic compartment. The only thing missing was the cash.

7 comments:

  1. .... in a mysterious yet everyday context. I really liked this story, many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. I agree with Ceinwen, this excellent story has a growing tension and a well drawn, vulnerable character.

    Mike McC

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  3. Great story, well written - it held my attention. At the end, the reader finds there was just the right amount of danger to satisfy the expectations built upon the tension. Thank you.

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  4. The backstory Penny invented for the intruder is heartbreaking and shows how she’s lost much more than a little cash and more than she wants to admit. Nicely done.

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  5. Excellent! The story depicts everyone's worst nightmare - an intruder in the middle of the night. You built the tension at the right pace with a surprise ending.

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  6. This story contains huge amounts of information; family profiles, finance, property, property-renovation. Once that was out of the way I felt free to feel the effects of the tension build which I would have liked to have felt earlier as the backstory of Penny and family are explained. The fantasy about the fugitive is an ingenious tool which (pre-denouement) aids and abets tension. I would have actually liked the story to end with a further fantasy about the robber (post-denouement). It would have stressed Penny's increased state of loneliness - wishing for a friend, even a criminal, and the fact that she's heading nowhere. I love 'upright person in a tilted world', and who could resist the non-barking non-snoring Bosley?
    B r o o k e

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