Home > Downfall(9)

Downfall(9)
Author: Jay Crownover

I felt my eyes widen and my teeth snap down on my lower lip. She was the friend Solo mentioned. The one whom he encouraged me to reach out to. The one I’d decided was probably a horrible person without even meeting her, because she lived in this place that I hated. Embarrassment washed over me in hot waves as I shifted uneasily under Noble’s animated antics as she mimed the Death Star blowing up.

“I’ve.. uh… been here a few months. So, kind of new, and we don’t go out much. This is Noble and I’m Orley.” I offered the weak introduction as the woman continued to watch me.

“Ahhh… You’re Solo’s broken bird. The building has been talking about you. It’s pretty impressive that you got him to give up any of his precious time to help you with your car. That boy is so busy, he’s going to run himself into the ground before he’s thirty. I’m Erica and this is Riley, by the way.” She arched a perfectly groomed eyebrow at me and gave me a faint grin. “Solo mentioned he passed my number along because you needed someone to watch the little Jedi. I was hoping you would call so I could at least give you a list of all the mom-approved places around here you might want to take Noble. It can be scary outside, but, believe it or not, there are some family-friendly options nearby you should have in your arsenal for those days you can’t stay inside.”

This woman was so nice… and helpful. It was probably clear I’d blown her off and been judgmental, but she was still throwing me a much-needed life raft.

I cleared my throat and put Noble down so she could stand on the step with the other little girl. My daughter had moved on from Star Wars to the girl’s cute cowboy boots. No doubt as soon as we were back upstairs, she would be demanding a pair of her own. I would end up promising her a pair, one more promise it was going to take me Lord only knew how long to follow through on.

“I would love that list, thank you. Our air conditioner has been on the fritz for three days and Noble is going stir-crazy inside. I apologize for not reaching out sooner. I’ve been looking for a second job and time has really slipped away from me.” It had become a black, chilling void I was terrified I would never escape. I lifted my sweaty hair off the back of my neck and made a face. “I don’t want to keep you. I’ll give you a call before the end of the week.”

She made a hum of agreement and told me, “Let Solo know the super is slacking. If he gives that jerk a call, your unit will be fixed within the hour. The man is useless, but he’s terrified of Solomon. I’m in apartment 3F. Just come on down when you have a free afternoon. You can bring Noble by to meet some of the other kids in the building.” I nodded and went to move around her, but paused when she put a light hand on my arm. “I would be happy to watch her for you in a pinch if you need to go to an interview or anything. I have a list of references and a whole host of qualifications. Those of us who grew up around here try and take care of each other.”

I shook my head and swallowed past a brick in my throat. “I’m not from here though.” And I had no intention of asking Solo for another thing. I was not going to be his newest burden to bear. Everyone seemed to know he was already carrying the entire world on his shoulders, and I wasn’t about to add another pound to his heavy load.

Erica smiled sadly and patted my arm. “Oh, trust me, I know. Anyone looking at you knows that. But you’re here now, so you might as well settle in the best you can with the right people in your corner.” She cocked her head and I found myself watching the peacock colors in her hair play hide and seek with the darker strands. “Have you ever waited tables before?”

I balked and tried to keep up with the change of conversation. “Uh… no. I haven’t done much of anything other than answer phones.” And look pretty. That used to be my number one skill, but I refused to think about that.

“My husband’s brother works at this cute little diner right on the outskirts of the city. He just got promoted to a management position after bartending there forever. They tend to hire college-aged kids so they’re always looking for help right around graduation. I’ll give you Ramon’s number.” She waited while I dug out my cell phone and could jot down the information she quickly rattled off. “Call him and see if they have any openings. Tell him Erica gave you his information and remind him he owes me a favor.” She smiled at me and called for her daughter. Riley hugged Noble and patted her on the shoulder, much like her mother had done to soothe me. “Good luck with everything, Orley. Noble, it was nice to meet you. I’m sure Riley can’t wait to show you all her Star Wars toys.”

They continued down the stairs, my daughter and I both slightly stunned, as we watched them until they were gone. I reached for Noble’s hand, wondering how more people in this God-forsaken city had come to my rescue and offered genuine help, than anyone in my affluent, pristine past had? What were the odds?

I took one step back up the stairs when Noble promptly announced, “I want a pair of cowboy boots!”

Well, at least she wasn’t asking for a pony. It was the small things.

Solo

I practically had to crawl home after my fight on Saturday night. The guy I was up against was new, the size of a house, and obviously had some professional fighting experience. He didn’t fight dirty, but he fought hard, and I had a split lip, blackened eyes, ringing ears, and more than a few cracked ribs to show for it. As a rule, I won more than I lost, but last night, it was no contest. I tried to give as good as I got, but once the guy had me on my back and in a submission choke hold, I’d tapped out. I’d done it right before the world started to fade to black. Back in the good old days, there was no such thing as a tap out. You fought until the other guy was dead or unconscious. But the man in charge of the fights was wicked and ruthless enough that most people referred to him as the Devil. He wanted to keep those of us around who earned big cash for him on the regular. So now, he had enforcers on hand to make sure the fight ended if one of the participants knew there was no way to win. I fucking hated being that guy last night, but one more kick to the head or fist to my ribs and I wasn’t going to be able to get out of bed for a week. I had too much going on to end up on my back and out of commission for any length of time.

I hated that the only money I’d pocketed was the fee for showing up to get my ass kicked and none of the prize money I could have won. The cash from the fights was the money I used to keep my mom in the best facility in the state. Anything I earned while taking a beating went to her, and everything I earned at the garage kept a roof over my head and my car tricked out. If I came up short during a fight, it meant I was going to have to borrow from my other funds and go without something in my day to day. It happened. It wasn’t anything new, but it still made me feel like a loser, even more than having to tap out.

It was really early in the morning when I was slinking into the apartment building. The sun was barely up and the normally busy streets were quiet. Lester was asleep on the bottom step, and my ribs screamed in protest when I had to haul myself over him. Luckily, I had the day off, so I could crash, recharge, then drive out to see my mother before I settled in and worked on any school assignments for the upcoming week. It was about as much of a day off as I ever got, and I was looking forward to the mindlessness of the familiar tasks.

I was reaching for the front door when it suddenly pushed open with enough force to send me back a step. The sudden movement made me clutch my injured side and let out a string of swear words that were loud enough to wake Lester. He blinked an irritated look in my direction. Orley rocked back on her heels and stared at me through sleepy blue eyes.

“Oh. Sorry, I didn’t see you.” She scooted her way around me, rubbing her eyes and obviously trying to shake herself awake. She looked like a very pretty zombie sleepwalking out of the building.

Sucking in a breath between my teeth and letting it out when the pain in my side was manageable, I roughly asked, “Where are you off to so early?”

She looked at me again and lifted a perfectly arched eyebrow. “I should ask why you’re just getting home when the sun is coming up. You go first.”

I grunted in response and watched as she suddenly seemed to take notice of the damage to my face. I knew it wasn’t pretty, but she gasped and lifted her hands to her mouth like she was face to face with a horror movie monster.

“What happened to you? Are you okay? Who did this to you? Did you call the police?” The questions came rapidly. One of her hands lifted in my direction, almost as if she wanted to soothe the dark spots and lacerations decorating my skin.

I took a step back before she could touch me and lifted my chin defiantly. I was slightly taken aback by her show of concern. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had asked if I was okay. I was the one always taking care of everyone else, so my needs tended to be an afterthought. “I’m fine. No need to call the police. This, unfortunately, comes with the territory when I’m at my second job.”

She frowned at me and adjusted the purse strap that was digging into her shoulder. “What kind of job gives you black eyes and a busted lip?”

I grunted again and reached for the front door. All I wanted was my bed and eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. “The kind you know nothing about.” I flicked a look back over her, noticing she was dressed in form-fitting black pants and a white button-down shirt. It wasn’t an outfit that was appropriate for the heat. “You finally get a job?”

She nodded and nervously reached up to play with her hair. “Your friend Erica hooked me up with her brother. He gave me a job at the diner he manages. I’m still training, and right now they have me working breakfast shifts. It’s not so bad. I’m home in the afternoon and still get to spend most of the day with Noble.” She blushed and had the good grace to look regretful. “Erica is watching her for me while I work. She’s great with Noble, and Noble loves Riley. I should have reached out sooner when you gave me her number.” She sounded contrite but I was in too bad of a mood to appreciate it.

   
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