A FEELING of menace rolled out of the dark alley. Jake’s door was halfway down, the bulb over it dead for a week or more. Had it been lit, he’d still have been jumping from one puddle of light to another. Something else twitched his senses. Was it a memory or a figment of his imagination? Probably both. Since his release, dark spaces set his skin to itching and crawling.
Partway down the alley, he noticed the slumped shape. Closer, the stench of piss caught him and the shape resolved into a man curled up in the shadow of his darkened doorway. Wrinkling his nose, Jake readied his boot for a nudge. He had some sympathy—life was rough—but his front door wasn’t a homeless shelter.
At his nudge, the guy twitched, groaned, and retched.
Obviously too drunk to wake up and puke properly, the asshole gurgled and began to choke. Seriously? Only thing worse than a bum on his doorstep was a dead bum on his doorstep.
“Oh, no you don’t, bud.”
Swinging his gym bag from his shoulder, Jake tossed it onto the steps in front of the door and reached down to hook his hands under the guy’s shoulders. He really didn’t want him to choke outside his apartment. Or in this alley. Being caught dragging a body out onto Beech Street would be difficult to explain to his parole officer, though. He settled for rolling him into recovery position. The choking stopped immediately and a spooky groan drifted up with the stink of urine and puke. Jake resolved to scrub the skin from his hands when he got inside.
“Finished trying to die?”
He didn’t expect an answer, and he didn’t get one. Jake hopped up the steps and fished around inside the pocket of his sweats for his keys. He really needed to replace the burned-out bulb over the door. Mr. Wu of Wu’s World, the Chinese restaurant on the street side of the building, would get to it in about a month if he asked. Easier to just do it himself and hope lighting his portion of the alley would discourage derelicts from dying on his doorstep.
Jake pushed open the front door and stepped into the narrow, dimly lit corridor. The odor of egg rolls, oil, and wilted broccoli permeated the air. He used to like Chinese food. He reached back for his gym bag and froze. A smear of red ran across his hand, from the soaked cuff of his long-sleeve T-shirt all the way down the side of his thumb. It had already seeped into the lines of his skin and around the flattened crescent of his thumbnail. Jake’s stomach flipped and folded.
Then he recalled the labored breathing and all too familiar snuffle and rattle of spit. The lingering scent of copper under the puke and piss, the mottled appearance of the bum’s face and the way he groaned and listed to the side. The absolute lack of alcohol fumes.
The guy on his doorstep wasn’t a drunk. He was… “Oh, shit.”
Jumping over his bag and down the three steps, Jake landed in the alley with a slap of sneaker soles. He dropped to one knee beside the crumpled figure of a man who, in the faint light now trickling through the open door, looked like he’d been beaten within an inch of his life.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
Panic kicked up his pulse until his heart hammered against his breastbone. Instinct begged him to run. No, he hadn’t smashed this guy’s nose or smacked his head into the wall. He hadn’t pulped his face or laid into his ribs. Guilt had a way of elbowing into every situation, though. Even three months released, Jake still flushed at dark thoughts, or the urge to cross a street against the light.
He couldn’t go back. Not ever.
He couldn’t ignore the broken man crumpled against his stoop either.
Stitched letters over the breast pocket of the man’s polo shirt caught his eye. Wawa. He must work at the convenience store three blocks over. Or maybe the one down on Lincoln. Couldn’t walk a mile in Philly without tripping over a Wawa. Jake peered into the purpling, swollen face and quickly decided that one, he didn’t recognize “Wawa” and two, he had to get him to the hospital. Except dropping Wawa off at the hospital would be about as damning as dragging him out of the alley. There would be questions and requests for identification. A possible call to his parole officer.
His frustrated yell echoed dully from the brick wall. Guilt slithered into the quiet pause, poking and gnawing. Jake wanted to do the right thing. He had to, for himself and for Wawa. But, Jesus H. Christ. He pulled his cell phone from the other pocket of his sweats and dialed his sister. Willa would know what to do.
“YOU FOUND him where?”
“In a heap by the front steps. Like someone had just tipped him there.” Which, in Jake’s defense, described the posture of most homeless folks.
Willa shook her head, her blonde bob twitching back and forth, and blew out a short breath. Gray eyes, same as his, pinned him with a look. “I wish you hadn’t moved him.”
“Well I couldn’t leave him out there.” Stinking up the alley. No, much better to carry him upstairs and have him stink up the couch. “I thought it might help to clean him up a bit.” Jake gestured with the blood-soaked rag in his hand. “His face is a mess.”
“His nose is probably broken.” His sister crouched in front of the couch and ran practiced hands over Wawa’s neck and shoulders. He didn’t move. He didn’t even groan. In fact, he’d done nothing but breathe in an awful, choky manner since Jake had carried him inside.
“He’s breathing okay,” she said.
Right. “Can you, ah, fix him up?”
“God no. He needs proper medical care.” She indicated his scuffed and stained polo shirt. “Someone has really worked him over. He’s out cold, and a concussion is probably the least of his problems. He needs….” She rattled off a series of tests or something, all of which sounded dire. “We should take him to Nazareth.”
Willa worked shifts in the ER at Nazareth Hospital, about a mile away.
Jake grimaced. “Willa.” Frustration and lingering panic left him with a tight sigh. Do the right thing, Jake. Help this man. “I….”
Wawa groaned and opened his eyes. Blood ringed one and the other only made a nasty slit in the swollen skin of his beat-up face. Willa put a gently restraining hand on his shoulder. “Shh.”
The good eye revolved in the red-rimmed socket and then the retching started again. Jake ran to the kitchen and pulled the trash can out from under the sink. He didn’t make it back in time. Vomit dribbled from Wawa’s lips and pooled on the pale floorboards between Willa’s feet.
He was going to have to burn the couch.
“We need to take him to the hospital now,” Willa snapped. She pointed a finger at Jake. “Go get your truck.”
“No,” Wawa slurred.
Willa turned her attention to him. “Shh, don’t try to speak. We’re going to help you.”
He produced a wet noise before repeating himself. “No.”
Willa smoothed his dark hair away from the blood clotting at his temple. “It’s okay. We won’t hurt you.”
Had he been mugged? Was that what he meant?
“Can you tell us your name?” Willa asked.
His eyelids fluttered. Well, the left one did. The right was trapped in swelling flesh. “No hospital.” He fell back, the white of his one eye, streaked with blood, flashing before he lost his battle for consciousness.
Willa turned back to Jake. “Go get the truck.”
Her gaze flicked to his knuckles. A flash of irritation burned through Jake. She looked up to meet his eyes, and he saw the relief there at the lack of bruising across his hands, at the proof he hadn’t had a fit in the alley outside his goddamned apartment and beaten up a guy he didn’t even know for no reason whatsoever. But he resented her for thinking it, for even a second.
The whole night was fucked-up.
Jake turned so hard the soles of his shoes squeaked against the floor, and went to get his truck.
HE WAS home an hour later.
The ER had been a bright nightmare. They admitted Wawa right away, but after that, the rush had all been inside Jake’s bloodstream until his adrenaline ran short. He spent thirty minutes pacing back and forth, waiting for news he wasn’t entitled to. He wasn’t a relative—he didn’t even know Wawa’s name. Willa promised to call him later.
Back at his apartment, the silence rang more loudly than the cacophony of the ER. Jake stood in the dark for a breath or two, appreciative of the relative peace, before dumping his keys on the table by the door and snapping on a lamp. Warm light spread through the room, giving his place a homey feel he usually enjoyed. Since his release, Jake had craved comfort. Cozy spaces lit only by single lamps. The aroma of fresh-baked pies, the sweet and savory kind. Clean linen that smelled of fabric softener rather than industrial-strength bleach. Anything soft.
He went to inspect his couch.
Willa had cleaned the floor while he brought his truck around from the garage at the end of the lane. The odor of vomit lingered, though, cutting through the antiseptic tang of pine. Jake cast a wary eye over his couch and thanked all the hells he’d bought leather instead of fabric or that weird microfiber shit. Leather could be cleaned and, wound up as he was, it would be a while before he slept.
He’d changed the bucket of water twice, for the couch and the floor, when his cell phone buzzed. Jake snapped off a glove and pulled his phone out of his pocket, answering with a quiet “’Lo.”
It was Willa. “Why are you still up?”
“You said you’d call with news.”
“Are you cleaning your couch?”
Closest in age of his three older sisters, Willa might as well have been his twin. She knew how he thought and how he felt, most of the time. When she didn’t, she always seemed utterly baffled.
Jake dropped the sponge into the bucket and peeled off his other glove. “Yeah. What’s up?”
“We got an ID on your guy. I thought you might like to know.” In that respect, she knew him well.
Wawa hadn’t had a wallet, only the shirt with the breast pocket logo, which the police had taken after the emergency room staff cut it off him. The police had taken Jake’s statement, too, without looking at his knuckles.
“His name is Gareth Maxwell Wilson. Goes by Max according to his manager at the Wawa on Lincoln. He also works at the market behind the strip mall four blocks down from you.”
“Hendrick’s?” The family-owned supermarket had somehow managed to compete with the Pathmark across the road for longer than Jake had been in Philly.
“Yep. His insurance coverage probably sucks.”
“Maybe that’s why he didn’t want to go to the hospital,” Jake said.
“Or he could just be a wuss, like you.”
“Hey, we don’t all live for the scream of sirens and people in pain.” How anyone could enjoy being a nurse was beyond him, but Jake was grateful, this once, for his sister’s profession.
“Oh, and guess where he lives?”
“Same building. The basement apartment.”
Jake pulled his cell away from his ear and blinked at it. Lamplight glinted off the screen, blanking out the portrait of his sister. He put the phone back to his ear. “Seriously?”
“Yeah. I guess that explains why he was outside your door. It’s his door, too.”
Now Jake really felt like an ass for not replacing the light bulb or hassling Mr. Wu to do it. The basement apartment was a hole in the ground, literally—a cellar Mr. Wu optimistically advertised as a “studio apartment.” The only light in the small, coffin-shaped room seeped down from two high windows covered by rusty old grilles. The bathroom was a moldy cupboard. The kitchen, as he remembered, consisted of a microwave on top of a bar fridge. Jake had painted the apartment for Mr. Wu after the last tenant moved out, just a month before. Not even the brightest rental white had improved the space.
Had he ever seen the new tenant? “Hey!”
“Hmm?” his sister answered.
“I’ve seen him. Skinny guy. Doesn’t own an umbrella, or likes walking in the rain.” A slice of memory, a bedraggled figure slipping through the door as Jake stepped out. Thin, wet, dripping. A flash of dark hair, vivid blue eyes, and pale skin. Though he still didn’t know Gareth Maxwell Wilson, Jake felt his concern was now somehow warranted. They lived in the same building. They were neighbors—could have been friends. “How’s he doing?”
“He woke up not long after you left. He’s actually pretty lucid this time. We had his name before then, which was great. Can you imagine waking up and no one knowing your name?”
Maybe. Being in prison had been like that at times. Not the waking up part, the moving among strangers part. The sense of being out of place, of being someone else, or just unknown.
“Would be rough, yeah. So when is he being released? Does he need a ride home?”
“I don’t know, and probably. Why, are you offering?”
“Ah, I guess? I mean, he lives in my building.”
“We’re trying to contact his family.”
“Okay. Let me know, then.”
“I will, and Jake?”
Willa hesitated. “I’m sorry.”
He didn’t ask what for. “See you at home on Sunday?”
The Kendricks clan went home to Doylestown every Sunday they could. Jake had resented the obligation when he was younger, but after missing those weekly gatherings for a whole year, he now craved the bosom of his family with something close to obsession.
Willa’s tired sigh sounded like static against his ear. “Yeah. See you then.”
Jake slid his phone back into his pocket and picked up the bucket and gloves. Breathing deeply, he inspected his couch. The dark brown leather looked clean and smelled clean. Maybe now he could sleep.