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The Girl Who Wanted to Fly



Reaching for the doorknob, she hesitated. What if she wasn’t properly prepared? What if the documents she had brought weren’t sufficient? It was so easy to make a mistake in situations like this.

She stood up straight, took a deep breath, and went in. She found herself in the basement laundry room of a small apartment building, where the odor of detergent hung in the air. At the high counter used by the tenants for folding their laundry, a man stood waiting.

“Brandy?” he said, putting his hand out.

“How do you do, Mr. Darling,” said Brandy.

For a moment they sized each other up. Mr. Darling was rather unremarkable, perhaps handsome, tall and slim and forty-something. Brandy, in her early twenties, seemed very young. She was pale and slightly thin, with a lot of brown curls framing an oval face. Footsteps sounded overhead, in apartment one, and the thump-thump-thump seemed loud in this brief silence that gripped Brandy and Mr. Darling. Brandy tugged upward on the zipper of her hoodie.

“I think the ad said the rent is six-twenty-five,” said Brandy. “How much is the deposit?”

They went over all the details. After a moment they got to the part about Brandy’s income qualifications.

“I get a monthly stipend from the state,” she said. “It’s given to me by Family Protective Services. Here are the letter and statements from the government confirming the payments. If there’s anything missing, I do apologize for that.”

Mr. Darling took the documents and looked them over carefully. Brandy expected him to ask for details about why the FPS had awarded her this stipend, but he made no such inquiry.

When Mr. Darling lowered the papers and looked up at Brandy, she could see that he wasn’t happy. His eyes were narrow, his lips pinched.

“I’m sorry, this won’t do,” he said. “I’ll tell you why. I had another tenant once whose only source of income was a state pension. One day I asked her for her rent money, and she said she didn’t know what happened, but the check hadn’t arrived that month. I never got another nickel out of her. By the time she left, I had lost three months’ rent. I’m sorry.”

“But — that’s not fair! This is a lifetime pension. See this part?”

“Yes, I see it. But these things sometimes just seem to dry up.”

“It’s guaranteed by the state. It’s true, I don’t have a job, but I know I can find one soon. Please, Mr. Darling! I can’t stay where I am now!”

Tears were starting in her eyes. She sniffled. She was breathing heavily, and her chest rose and fell. Mr. Darling gazed down at her for a moment. There was a thump-thump-thump overhead.

“You speak right up for yourself — I like that,” he said. “Well, I’m an easy mark. I’m a pushover. My wife has told me so many times. And you’re young and pretty. Okay, what the heck.”


***


Brandy slid into the passenger seat and slammed the door shut. She smoothed the front of her blouse and sat up straight. She knew she looked good in her white blouse and blue suit, and that gave her some sense of confidence. Also she was with the person who made her feel the happiest, and the safest, of anyone — her cousin William Sanchez. William at age twenty-six was four years older than Brandy, and he had always been like a big brother to her. Everyone else, at one time or another, had let her down. William was the only person Brandy could trust.

William pulled the car out of the lot behind the apartment building. Across the street, at Roy’s Auto Body, a yellow truck rumbled noisily. Stroking his beard absent-mindedly, William stopped at the corner and looked up the road. William was handsome and rugged, and there was something solid, quiet, comforting about his presence.

William pulled his car onto the road. He looked over at Brandy.

“You look really good,” he told her. “Are you nervous? I wish you wouldn’t be nervous.”

“How do I not be nervous? My doctor told me sit up straight, breathe slow and deep, put my hands in my lap and just leave them there. Sometimes I have what they call a racing mind. Well, I’ll just do the best I can.”

“I’ll bet you get the job. And then I’ll take you out for a steak dinner. You know, you’ve done a really good job. Got yourself out of a bad situation at home, got yourself a place to live, and pretty soon you’ll have a job.”

Brandy smiled and gazed out the window.

“How’s your new place?” William asked. “Working out okay?”

“I love it! It’s tiny, you know, you’ve seen it. But it’s plenty of room for me and my cat. And the landlord’s a nice man. There was a broken pane of glass in the back door, and he fixed it right away.”

William turned and the car went up on the Center Street Bridge, as the Big Middle River swirled below. The sun came out from behind a puffy white cloud and then quickly disappeared again. Brandy thought she could smell the dampness of the river. As they passed near the base of Huston Rock, she looked out at the red and gold October foliage. The colors made her happy.

But she needed to hear some news about her family. There was always some drama involving her mother.

“I almost hate to ask,” she began. “How’s Jacqueline?”

William glanced over at her but didn’t answer right away.

“Not good,” he said after a moment. “She’s back in rehab. She almost died this time.”

Brandy turned to look out the side window. As her eyes became teary, she watched the farms go by, the fields with their golden stubble.

“I guess I’ve given up on the idea that she’ll ever get better,” she said.

All her life Brandy had been let down by the people she had depended on. Her father, a victim of PTSD and other problems, had crushed her spirit before she was a teenager.

“I never thought I’d have a kid who’d be such a disappointment to me as you’ve been,” he had said to an eleven-year-old.

And then he was gone, and there was a stepfather. Brandy’s mother would disappear in search of drugs, and the stepfather would show up in Brandy’s bedroom, forcing himself on a fifteen-year-old girl.

They arrived at the shopping mall, and William pulled the car into the lot in front of a large sporting goods store. He scratched at his beard with one finger, turning toward Brandy as they sat in the car. Outside, a horn honked somewhere nearby, and two girls walked past, nibbling on candy bars.

“Are you okay?” he asked. “Ever since we talked about your mother, you’ve been in a funk.”

“I don’t know, I guess I’ll be okay. I have a lot of experience at trying to clear my head. Not that I’m necessarily that good at it.”

William leaned toward her, put an arm around her shoulder and gave her a squeeze. With a smile on her face, she headed out the door for her interview.

Several hours afterward, late in the afternoon, Brandy and William were sitting on the living room floor in Brandy’s apartment, eating pizza. As the aroma of onions and tomato sauce hovered in the air, there was a sound like cathedral bells ringing, and Brandy answered her phone.

“Yes? Yes? Oh my God! Thank you!”

Brandy got up and danced, and William gave her a big smack on the cheek. Then he went out for a moment and quickly returned with a bottle of red wine.

“It was supposed to be for my sister’s birthday,” he said, “but I think now’s just the right time.”

In the tiny kitchen, in two small juice glasses sitting side by side on the counter, William poured. The last gray light of an autumn afternoon shone in the window by the back door. Brandy and William clinked glasses.

“What an accomplishment, kid,” said William. “You finally made the break from your mother’s house. You’ve got your own apartment. And you’ve got a job. Here’s to you.”

“Here’s to me!” said Brandy.


***


Brandy turned the knob, and when the flame burst to life, a big smile came to her face.

“My beautiful new stove!” she said. “Thank you very much, Mr. Darling!”

Mr. Darling only shrugged.

“Gotta have appliances that work in these apartments. My first priority here is to keep the tenants happy — because if the tenants are unhappy, then all kinds of problems will follow. Making money has to be the number two priority.”

Brandy, in a green hoodie with a zipper down the front, ran her fingertips over the sparkling white stovetop. Turning back toward Mr. Darling, she gave an upward tug on the zipper and then hooked both thumbs in the front pockets of her jeans. She smelled lovely and fresh.

“The thing is,” she continued, “I’ll be cooking Christmas dinner here for my cousin William and his family. I can get a beautiful ham with my food stamps. I’m so excited about it!”

Mr. Darling was about the same age as Brandy’s stepfather. In the few weeks since Brandy had moved into the building, the two had developed a sort of father-daughter relationship. Mr. Darling had a son who was grown up now and far away, and he seemed to take a paternal approach toward Brandy.

“Could I ask you one other thing?” she said now. “I do apologize, I don’t mean to be a complainer. It’s not urgent, but this bedroom window has a crack in it. Come over here, I’ll show you.”

She wobbled a bit as she showed Mr. Darling into the tiny bedroom. She found her attention wavered at times, and she lost her train of thought, which were probably side effects of the medicine she took.

“See, the cold air isn’t coming in,” said Brandy. “So it isn’t urgent. I just want you to be aware of it. I didn’t break the window. It was that way when I moved in. I won’t have to pay for it, will I?”

“No, Brandy, of course not. I believe you. I think you’re a very honest person. I’ll have Merle put a new pane in there. You’ve met Merle, haven’t you? The building manager?”

Mr. Darling headed for the door.

“Thank you again for the stove,” said Brandy. “I love to cook. My doctor says cooking has a therapeutic effect on me.”

“No problem. Okay, I’m off to the marshal's office. I’m halfway through an eviction. Nasty business.”

“Is it that guy downstairs? I know something’s going on with him. I do apologize, I don’t mean to snoop. But the people in this building kind of know what’s going on with each other.”

“He’s a month behind in his rent, and I don’t tolerate that sort of thing any more. I used to give people the benefit of the doubt, give them some time to get caught up. But I got burned a couple times, and my policy now is to crack down right away when people don’t pay their rent. Okay, ’bye now. Enjoy your new stove.”


***


Brandy counted out the rent money for the third time and then put it back in her purse. Sitting in the passenger seat while William drove, she glanced out the window at the shiny new cars in the Chevy lot.

A crash — a blinding, deafening, shattering sound like the world coming to an end. It lasted a hundredth of a second, and then it was over. Brandy’s mind ceased to function and then slowly returned to life. She was on the center console with the gear shifter jammed against her hip. Gingerly she shifted herself back over to the passenger seat. After a few seconds she looked around at William, put her hands to her face, and cried out.

His face covered in blood, William sat slumped in the driver’s seat. The car had come to rest against the curb with broken glass in the street beside the driver-side door. The car that had T-boned William’s car sat crosswise at an angle in the middle of the intersection. Cars were backed up in both directions. A skinny black man had jumped out of his car, made a call on his cell, and come running over. Meanwhile, the woman who had been driving the other car stood on the sidewalk across the street tap-tapping on her phone, and never once during the entire incident did she look up.

“William! Oh my God!” Brandy shouted.

She reached toward him as if to do something to help him, though she had no idea what to do. Just then the passerby who had come to help reached William’s door, swinging it open slowly. At the same time, William began to come around. He groaned, blinked a few times, straightened up slowly. Brandy was paralyzed. The passerby, on the other hand, seemed to be perfectly composed. He had a thin face and long sideburns, and he calmly studied William’s face.

“I know there’s a lot of blood,” he said in a quiet voice, “but I think the only wound is a small cut up here on your forehead just below the hairline.”

Everything happened quickly after that. The ambulance arrived. William and Brandy went to the emergency room. William’s car was towed to a garage. The cut on William’s forehead was stitched up. William was a healthy and strapping young man, and the doctor determined that he was all right and he could go home.

But in the office, the woman at the computer frowned up at William.

“There’s a problem with the insurance,” she said. “Some of your charges won’t be covered. It could be a computer error, I don’t know. Unfortunately you have to pay these charges at this time. It comes to four hundred dollars.”

The insurance lady’s comments hit William hard.

“But I don’t have any money,” he said. “My payday’s a week away.”

Brandy spoke up. By now, an hour after the accident, her nerves had calmed somewhat.

“I’ve got the money,” she said. “It was supposed to be for my rent, but this is an emergency. Here’s the four hundred.”

She took a handful of cash from her purse, counted out a wad of twenty-dollar bills, and handed it to the woman behind the counter. William smiled at Brandy and gave her a hug.

They each called for an Uber, and Brandy gave William one last looking over.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked.

He was. Each of them got in a car and went home. In her apartment, Brandy collapsed into her overstuffed living room chair. Her face felt hot, and she unzipped her hoodie and spread the front of it open. Her best pal, a big orange cat named Fred the Red, came over and did a head butt against her leg. She picked him up and put him in her lap.

“I love you, Fred,” she murmured.

After a while she wanted a cup of tea. Still feeling shaky and a bit dizzy after all that had happened, she went to the medicine cabinet in the bathroom and took one of her pills. Doodling with her phone, waiting for the tea kettle to whistle, she got a call. It was Mr. Darling.

“Hi, Brandy, can I come up and get the rent money now?” he asked.

“Um … okay,” she answered.

The whistle of the tea kettle made her jump. Today was the fifth of the month, and after the frightening events of the day she had forgotten all about the rent. Well, she would just explain to Mr. Darling what had happened, and it would be all right. She would just tell the truth. Hopefully Mr. Darling would understand.

But she was still afraid. Her heart pounded, and her hands trembled. She zipped her hoodie back up. She tugged the zipper all the way to the top.

The knock on the door made her jump. She stood against the far wall of the living room, gazing at the door, as if stalling would change matters.

She opened the door and then took a step backward when Mr. Darling came in.

“Hi, Brandy!” he said brightly, smiling at her. “How are you? Apartment’s okay? How’s that new stove working out for you?”

Brandy said nothing for a moment. She coughed. Finally she got a few words out.

“Mr. Darling, I’ve had a really bad day,” she said.

And she told him the story.

“And so,” she concluded, “I don’t have all the rent money. I’m four hundred dollars short. I know, it sounds really bad. I do apologize.”

To Brandy, Mr. Darling had always seemed like a nice man. She was sure that he would always wish to do the kind thing. As Brandy waited to see what he would do, he looked down at the floor and frowned.

“We talked about this before, didn’t we,” he said.

A sense of dread came over Brandy. She shook her head. She was near tears.

“Please don’t make me go back to my mother’s house,” she said.

Mr. Darling only gazed silently at her.

“William might be able to pay me back in a week or so,” she said.

“I’ve heard that one before. I’ve heard them all. I’ve heard every crazy story you can think of. What I’ve learned is that once tenants fall behind in the rent, they never get caught up.”

“If you saw my mother’s house … the drugs, those horrible people, and my stepfather … .”

That leaden silence fell over them again. Out in the corridor there was the sound of footsteps. That quiet guy in the apartment next door was going down the stairs.

“If you tell me to leave, I will,” said Brandy. “I don’t want you to start an eviction. But … that house … .”

The footsteps ceased, the corridor was quiet.

“I don’t even bother with an eviction any more,” said Mr. Darling. “I call the movers and have them come and haul everything out of the apartment. I have it hauled to a warehouse that I own, and I change the locks on the door. I’m sorry, I know it sounds brutal, but I’m tired of people taking advantage of me and I’m tired of not getting the money people owe me. I’m sorry. I’ve grown to like you in the short time you’ve been here.”

He still stood in the doorway with the door open behind him. He was a sober, professional-looking man. But now there was something about the way he was looking at Brandy, down and then up.

“I’ve never done this before,” he said. “But I guess there could be some form of compensation … other than money.”

The silence was like a ton of lead in the little apartment. Brandy, gazing across the room at Mr. Darling, gave a deep sigh. She nodded once or twice, and her face went blank, a page with no writing on it.

“Yes … I understand,” she said.

And then she went over to Mr. Darling.

“Come in,” she said, closing the door behind him.


***


Mr. Darling eased himself down onto his favorite stool, the one at the far left end of the bar. He called a hello to Liz, who called a hello back. Right away she got the liquor out, mixed, shook, and poured. Into the drink she plopped a toothpick on which three tiny cocktail onions were impaled. With that distinctive swagger of hers, she sauntered toward Mr. Darling.

“Just the way you like it, Mr. D,” she said, placing a Gibson before him.

“That you, my dear, thank you, thank you.”

Liz was a thirtyish Puerto Rican woman with a long confusing name which Mr. Darling had not understood. But she had told him, “Most people just call me Liz.” She was a big woman but lovely in her face and personality. Above her a row of television sets displayed a bizarre array of ball games, news programs, and talking heads speaking of who knows what.

“Hits the spot!” said Mr. Darling. “What’s news, Liz? That boy of yours playing some football?”

“Oh my God, driving that boy around, and my girls, and working two jobs and going to school, I been so tired, coming down with a cold, my ex hassling me, and ….”

Liz talked fast, and she always had a lot to say. Eventually she ran out of steam. Mr. Darling used the time to work on that excellent Gibson.

“So how about you, Mr. D?” said Liz. “You with all those apartments, oh my God. How many apartments you got?”

Mr. Darling sat up straight and tall, and a grave look came over his face, reflecting the seriousness of his position as an important man of business in the town.

“I have five buildings — forty-four apartments. Keeps me out of trouble, you know what I mean? Next month I’ll close on another one — twenty-four more units. All this hard work, driving me to drink!”

Pleased with his joke, he raised the glass to his lips. Mr. Darling didn’t actually own anything, because all those rental properties belonged to his wife. But there wasn’t really any reason to mention that part. Mrs. Darling had inherited those properties and had never signed them over to her husband.

“Six buildings — hello!” said Liz. “You must be constantly looking for new tenants with places coming vacant.”

“And the background checks and credit reports, you have no idea. I’ve got tight standards for renting to someone. Oh, once in a while I loosen up a little. You know me, Liz, I’m not a hard man. Just last month, there was a girl, I felt sorry for her. Her qualifications were a little shaky, but I had a gut feeling she’d be okay. I gave her the apartment.”

“That’s damn sweet of you, Mr. D. What’s this girl like?”

“She’s pretty. Kind of a nervous thing, but she’s cute as can be.”

“And she’s paying?”

“Yes, she’s paying.”

Mr. Darling always seemed calm on the surface, but there was a sort of nervous energy in him. He bounced his finger on the bar, he wiggled his feet on the bar stool. Thinking of those three or four evenings last month with Brandy, as Liz went off to wait on another customer, he tapped a staccato rhythm on the bar. He recalled the fragrance of her, the softness of her skin. He thought of drawing down that zipper on her hoodie.

Then his cell phone rang, and the voice of his wife yanked him back to reality. He ordered his steak and ate that. As he reached into his pocket and took from the roll of money a hundred-dollar bill — Liz’s tip — he thought, Mr D, my man, life’s pretty darn good.


***


Brandy stepped out the front door, and the sunshine on her face made her feel the happiest she had been for a long time. With the cars and trucks zooming past her, she set out on her walk. It was a warm afternoon in early March, and Brandy had a rare bit of free time. Between her job and her classes at the community college, Brandy was a busy woman.

Across the street from Roy’s Auto Body, she passed the used car dealer, the Dunkin Donuts, and the casino. A big truck with a lot of black exhaust fumes rumbled past her. At last she reached the corner, made a left, and headed for the park. A car with some teenage boys came by and slowed down.

“Yo, pretty lady, we givin’ you a ride, where you wanna go, pretty lady?”

Brandy kept her eyes straight ahead and said nothing. The boys gave up, and there was a squeal of tires, and they were gone.

Five or ten more minutes and she was at the park. She loved this place. Over here was the reservoir, bikers and joggers, boys with fishing poles on the banks. Here was the spillway, the gulls diving and swooping, the geese on the march. Above were the ancient oak trees, the picnic tables, playground, pavilion, and more.

She walked for half an hour and then ascended the hill above the dam. The vista here took in the trees, the hills, the water, the casino and hotel in the distance, and the grassy lawns. She sat and quietly enjoyed the sunshine and the mild breezes.

A dreamlike melody, a number by Lana Del Rey, her new ringtone, suddenly filled the air. Brandy, sitting at that picnic table at the summit of the hill, pulled her cell phone from her pocket. The name of the caller flashed on the screen: Jacqueline. Brandy slumped. Hearing from her mother was never a good thing. But she answered.

“Baby, I’m at your apartment,” said Jacqueline. “Where are you?”

“I’m at the park behind the casino. For heaven’s sake, what’s going on?”

“ I need to talk to you, Baby. No big deal. I ain’t seen you for a while. You’re my precious little baby. You sit tight, Sweetie. I’ll be there in a jiffy.”

“Are you with Garth?”

“Sure, Baby, he’s driving. He wants to see you. You know he loves you. He loves you just like you were his own.”

“I’ll talk to you, but that man’s got to wait in the car. If he’s with you, I won’t let you anywhere near me.”

“But, Baby, he — ”

Brandy could hear some muffled talk in the background.

“Okay, Baby, whatever you say. I’ll see you in five minutes.”

Brandy gave a long sigh. The sun went behind a cloud, and she was suddenly chilly. She knew what this was about, this thing with her mother. It was always the same.

In a few minutes that little red car pulled into a parking space in the lot at the base of the hill. Jacqueline got out of the car and slowly ascended. Puffing heavily, she finally reached Brandy’s picnic table. Jacqueline was a tall woman, thin and brittle, pale and unhealthy. Standing above Brandy she struck her characteristic pose, arms folded beneath enormous, outsize breasts. Raising a cigarette to her lips, her hands trembled.

“Baby, how you been?” she asked. “Oh, I love you so much. Is school okay? You look kinda thin. You still working? Do you have money?”

Brandy was worn out from years of feeling sorry for her mother. She had no pity left for her.

“I’m fine, Jacqueline,” she said. “Yes, I’m working. I’m really busy with school and everything.”

A leaden silence settled over them. The breezes ceased, the geese fell silent.

“I won’t give it if it’s for drugs,” Brandy said finally.

“Oh no, Baby, no. My doctor ordered me into rehab for a few days. I’m a wreck — oh God, I’m sick. Two or three days of detox. But it ain’t cheap.”

Three hundred dollars would do it, she thought.


***


Mr. Darling watched from his car as Brandy came down the hill with an older woman, whom he presumed to be her mother. They climbed into a car waiting at the foot of the hill. The older woman settled into the front passenger seat, and Brandy scooted into the back, hard over to the right side. Someone sitting behind the wheel, a man, Mr. Darling thought, turned around and said something to her, and she looked away.

Mr. Darling had always wondered where Brandy went on these walks of hers, and now he knew. When the red car pulled out of the lot, he followed at a distance. They were returning to the apartment building. When the red car pulled into the lot, Mr. Darling simply delayed a minute or two, then pulled in and parked his car. He took some papers from his glove compartment and shuffled through them as if he were attending to business. Glancing around, he watched the others. The two in the front seat stayed in the car, while Brandy scooted out and went into the building. Two or three minutes later Brandy returned. Handing an envelope through the window to her mother, she went back into the building, and the red car was gone.

Mr. Darling had his suspicions about what was going on, but he would kept them to himself for the time being. He was feeling especially happy and important today because he had just picked up his new car, a beautiful black Cadillac with all the luxury appointments. His favorite feature was the buttery-soft red leather seats. In fact he stood there by the basement door of his building and just gazed, radiant, at the Caddy.



***


Finally, she stopped crying. She stood up, took a deep breath, and went into the bathroom. With her face washed, her hair brushed, she went out. Down the front staircase she went, around back, in the basement door, into the laundry room. This was the room that served as Mr. Darling’s office in the building. Mr. Darling, standing by the counter where the tenants folded their laundry, put his cell phone into his pocket and looked up at Brandy.

“Yes?” he said, in his usual friendly manner. ”You wanted to see me?”

The breath went out of her for a moment. She looked at the floor, put her hand briefly over her mouth. Well, it had to be said, so for Heaven’s sake, just do it.

She looked up at him. She gave a tug on the zipper of her hoodie.

“I guess I’ll have to leave the building,” she said. “I can’t make the rent next month. In fact, I can’t even say when I’ll be able to pay it.”

Mr. Darling’s brow clenched, his eyes narrowed, behind those heavy black-frame glasses of his.

“I’ll admit, I guessed something like this was coming,” he said.

Brandy didn’t know what he meant by that.

“But wait a minute,” he went on. “Let’s talk about this a little. Maybe we can think of some arrangement. First, tell me what’s going on.”

Brandy took a deep breath.

“It’s my mother,” she said. “God, I’ll never be free of her. She has to go to rehab. Her doctor says her life depends on it. She needs to detox. It could be long-term. She’s got some insurance, from when she used to work for the city at the housing office.”

Brandy further explained that the insurance would pay only part of the cost. She needed to come up with a co-pay of three hundred dollars a month.

“Her deadbeat boyfriend has no job and no money. She has no one but me. Obviously, I can’t pay her rehab costs and my rent too.”

Mr. Darling stood there occupied in thought, with one hand up, tapping his lips. A musical chord sounded in the quiet room. Taking his phone from his pocket, he glanced at it and then replaced it in his pocket. He looked Brandy over — down and up — in a way she didn’t like.

“Come in here. I want to show you something,” he said.

He opened the interior door that led to the other basement rooms. She hesitated. She shook her head and pulled her arms close over her chest.

“It’s all right, really,” he said. “There’s something in here I want to show you.”

She followed. Opposite was the boiler room. This open middle section of the basement was a storage space for the tenants. At back was a room, a series of rooms, the purpose of which Brandy didn’t know.

“Take a look at this,” said Mr. Darling, unlocking and opening the door.

He switched on the light, and what Brandy saw nearly took her breath away. Tucked away in the back of this drab, dank basement were the most beautiful rooms Brandy had ever seen. It appeared to be a small sitting and dining room, small kitchen, bedroom and bathroom beyond. The walls were a pale pearl gray, with one wall adorned with diagonal red stripes to brighten the place. Another wall was made of warm, gleaming knotty pine. One large window looked out upon a dogwood tree, now in full flower.

Uniform black cylinders, hung from the ceiling and mounted on the walls, furnished a soft light. The floors were a beautiful light hardwood, possibly maple. The furniture was an artful mixture of new pieces and antiques. In the kitchen were sparkling new appliances and a wonderful white quartz counter.

“Wow — it’s beautiful!” said Brandy. “Who would ever dream this apartment was hidden away in here?”

“Other than me, Merle’s the only person who’s been in here. The other tenants don’t know about it.”

Brandy turned slowly toward Mr. Darling.

“Why are you showing me this place?”

“I have a good reason. Come here for a moment.”

He motioned her into the little sitting room and closed the door behind her. Brandy didn’t like the sound of that door clicking shut. She looked at Mr. Darling’s face for a clue as to what he might be thinking. He wore that habitual expression of his — friendly and noncommittal..

“Have a seat,” he said, patting a spot next to him on the sofa.

She sat, with plenty of space between them. From here she got a slightly different perspective on the apartment. She thought it was truly stunning — the maple and the sweep of the knotty pine, the small but elegant mahogany dining table, the little bar area of the kitchen with its martini glasses and its sparkly backlighting.

“First, let me tell you the history of these rooms,” said Mr. Darling. “For years my wife and I lived in the country, more than an hour’s drive from here. I built this space for myself so I’d have a place to stay if I was working late and didn’t feel like driving home.”

Then a few months ago, he explained, he and his wife had moved into the city, and he no longer needed to use these rooms.

He paused to look about at the space where they sat.

“Lovely, isn’t it?” he said. “I hired the best architect in town to design it. It wasn’t cheap, I’ll tell you. You’d be amazed at the figure, if I told you what it cost.”

“Okay,” said Brandy, with a shake of her head.

“I know — I haven’t answered your question as to why I’m telling you all this. What with your being short on money for rent, well, basically I’m offering you a free place to live.”

Brandy’s eyes popped open wide.

“Excuse me?”

“Okay, here’s the situation. I can’t rent out this apartment because it would be illegal — the building is zoned four-family. And I can’t let you stay in your apartment without paying rent — I don’t want to give up that income. But I could put you in this space, temporarily, until your mother gets back on her feet, and rent out the apartment you’re in now.”

And when Brandy was able to resume paying rent, she could move back upstairs when one of the units became available.

“Well, Brandy,” Mr. Darling concluded, “what do you say?”

She had nowhere else to go. She couldn’t face the horrors of her mother’s house. William, with a wife and two children in a small apartment, couldn’t take her in. There simply wasn’t anywhere else to go.

To stay here in these beautiful rooms … but she knew what the cost would be.


***


Mrs. Darling set her martini glass down on the bar with a noisy clatter.

“Well, you’re pretty damn free with my money,” she told her husband. “I’ve told you before, you can do an eviction yourself, you don’t need to hire a lawyer for nine hundred dollars. I’ve seen the paperwork and it’s not that hard.”

“It’s just that, really, I’m awfully busy. We have so many apartments now.”

“Oh, stop it. You’re getting lazy, that’s what it is.”

There was a hard set to Mrs. Darling’s jaw and darkness over her eyes. She had iron-gray hair piled on top of her head and a scowl across her face.

“Liz, where the hell’s my steak?” she said.

When they finished dinner, Mr. Darling dropped his wife off at home and then returned to that building across from Roy’s Auto Body. He went right in through the basement and knocked on the apartment door. Brandy opened it, and he went in.

Half an hour later he let himself out of the apartment. Before leaving this large central storage area of the basement, he happened to glance out the window. Outside, above the treetops, hung a starry sky and a lazy moon. Something about the great happiness of lying with Brandy, and the delight of gazing into a lovely spring evening, caused Mr. Darling momentarily to feel as if he were in an exquisite dream. He sat down to drink it in. Amid the junk and the boxes and the discarded furniture was an upside down five-gallon bucket, which is where he sat. Gazing into the shadows of the dim basement, he was thinking of Brandy.

He swatted at the cobwebs hanging down from an old lamp. He thought of Brandy and her lovely curves and her soft skin, but the initial sense of sweet delight began to change. Her contempt for Mr. Darling was, after all, apparent. She did not think well of a middle-aged man who would take sexual favors from a young woman made vulnerable by financial circumstances. He knew that Brandy could easily wind up homeless if he put her out. She could land in her mother’s loathsome house, a dangerous place where she could wind up dead.

Her attitude toward him, the expressions he saw on her face, showed clearly how she despised him. In bed, when they were finished, she would run into the bathroom and not come out until he was gone.

And then there was his wife. Mrs. Darling treated her husband as if he were her clerk. He had nothing and had never really done anything on his own. He only looked after a handful of properties that belonged to her. Certainly, her feeling toward him was one of contempt. Sometimes he sensed something in her deeper than contempt — hatred, possibly.

Mr. Darling reflected on the fact that he had no friends. He wished he had a friend, someone that he could really confide in. He would have liked to have someone he could tell his troubles to. Maybe Liz would be his friend. Naturally, he knew this was an idiotic idea. Liz had that talent that good bartenders have, to give you a minute or two of their time and make you feel as if they are your best pal. But still, sometimes he would permit himself to imagine that she was really his friend.

What if she were here right now, sitting with him, and he were able to unburden his conscience? He began a conversation with the imaginary Liz.

“Liz,” he said, “I want to ask you something, and I’d like you to be absolutely candid with me.”

“Whoa, Mr. D! What up? Okay, I’ll give you the unvarnished.”

Mr. Darling reminded Liz about the new tenant, Brandy. He told her of the arrangement between them.

“Isn’t that reasonable on my part?” he asked. “I might even say generous. She’s got a nice place to live, and it doesn’t cost her a nickel. It’s an honest bargain. I give her something, and she gives me something in return.”

The imaginary Liz turned her head slightly and peered at him sideways for a moment.

“Mr. D,” she said. “It’s costing her a lot. Maybe not in money, but it’s costing her. To take this poor girl, in a bad way with nowhere to turn, to take advantage of her and make her … no, Mr. D, that ain’t nice.”

Mr. Darling sighed and pressed his face into his hand. He had lost Brandy, he had lost his wife, and now he had lost Liz.

“But … .”

Suddenly the door behind him opened and Brandy stepped out. She made a little gasp and stopped short when she saw Mr. Darling.

“What are you … ?” she began.

Mr. Darling was startled as well. He opened his mouth without saying anything for a moment.

“I was just … taking in the view, it’s a lovely evening … .”

Brandy put her head down and started briskly away.

“Where are you … I mean, can I give you a lift anywhere?” asked Mr. Darling.

Brandy shook her head without looking back at him.

“I need to talk with her,” she said, going out.

Mr. Darling and the imaginary Liz looked at each other.

“What did she mean by that?” said Mr. Darling.

Liz shrugged.

“First time I ever laid eyes on her.”

Outside, a car horn sounded, and Mr. Darling looked around. The car pulled away, and the street was deserted.

“You don’t think she’s going to tell your wife about you and her?” asked Liz.

A bolt of panic shot through Mr. Darling.

“Why would you ask me that?”

“I don’t know. It’s just an idea that came to me. She might hate you. She might hate you real deep down. You’ve taken advantage of her — truth is, Mr. D, you’ve done something real nasty to her. You’ve forced yourself into her life in the nastiest way possible. You’ve made her feel dirty.”

Mr. Darling grew dizzy. The breath went out of him.

“Do you really think she’d do that?”

“It’d be a good way of getting back at you.”


***


He had that dream again, spiders dropping from the ceiling and crawling around on his face. With a gasp, swatting at his mouth, he sat up in bed. In a minute or so, his head cleared. She wasn’t here! Brandy had talked to her, she had left him, now she would divorce him, and because he was an adulterer, he would get nothing in the settlement. He would be penniless, with no money and no income.

What kind of job could he get? He had no skills, and in fact he hadn’t really had a job since he was a youngster, before he was married. All he knew was taking care of apartments, finding tenants, and collecting rents.

Then suddenly she was there, getting back in bed. Must have just been in the bathroom. God, what a relief. She must not know. Brandy hadn’t told her yet.

Since the imaginary conversation with the imaginary Liz, the idea had grown in his mind. It was a reality now.

Panicky or not, he still had his work to do today. It was the fifth of the month, which was when the rent money really started to roll in. He made the rounds of the buildings; couldn’t get his breath very well, couldn’t eat anything; but he muddled through it.

He heard the usual stories about why people didn’t have the rent money. One lady said the transmission in her car had failed. Another man claimed the payroll department where he worked had made a mistake, and his check had been two hundred dollars short.

“See,” said Mr. Darling, “the thing is, when I can’t make my mortgage payment on time, the guy at the bank says he’s very sorry, but I still have to pay the late fee. He’s not interested in my excuses.”

In any case, by the end of the day, he had a lot of money. Many of his tenants were low-income people who had no bank account, so they paid their rent in cash. Others had bank accounts, but they had bounced so many checks that Mr. Darling now required them to pay their rent in cash.

Standing at the counter in the laundry room of the building across the street from Roy’s Auto Body, he looked down at the stupendous stack of money in his hand. He guessed it was some fourteen thousand dollars in hundreds and twenties. What a wonderful feeling it was, a big double handful of money.

But now these bundles of money that he frequently cradled in his hands were at risk, as Brandy threatened to reveal what she knew to Mrs. Darling.


***


As the wind became chilly, Brandy put on her hoodie. She descended the hill above the reservoir, amid a honking of geese overhead. At the foot of the hill she crossed the road and set out over a grassy lawn. This was the second leg of her stroll, the river walk. She passed the softball field and the playground, on her right. Overhead, the crowns of the great old oaks rippled in the breezes off the river. Brandy stopped and perched on a large flat rock that provided a lovely vista of the Big Middle River, which flowed north to south, from Panther Pond above the town, down to the Center Street Bridge, past Huston Rock and Usborne College, and on toward the casino.

She inhaled deeply, and the scent of the water was on the wind. While she may have been chilly, at least she felt fresh and clean, with this country-flavored air washing over her face, air that made her think of flowers and forests.

She kept going. The path meandered between a stone pavilion on her right and another rocky promontory on her left. She especially liked the view here. She went out close to the edge. With those rocks below, you had to be careful.

A flock of geese floated below her and landed on the silvery surface of the river. Beyond were sights that fascinated her. To the south was a large green place carved from the woods, the Kiowa Forest Country Club. On a hill above the river several golf carts darted about like frightened insects. One time years ago she had known a girl who played golf.

To the north was Joe Miller Field, amid the great oaks and cedars. Even now a small plane, silver with black markings, descended from the clouds and glided to a landing. Brandy hoped someday to go for a ride in an airplane.

She heard a scraping, like a shoe on a rock, and turned. She gasped and clapped her hands to her chest.

“Mr. Darling — what are you doing here?”

“I know what you’re up to. I can’t let you do this.”

His hands twitched nervously.

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Brandy. “I’m not doing anything.”

“You’re going to tell my wife. And I’ll lose everything.”

“No!” She put her hand out to emphasize the point. “I’m not going to tell anyone anything. Honestly.”

“Liar!”

He started toward her. She had nowhere to go. The only direction of movement available to her was straight forward, and that path was blocked by Mr. Darling.

“No! No!”

He was reaching toward her.

“You’re not going to ruin me!” he shouted. “You’re not going to ruin me!”

Brandy put her hands out to stop him. She screamed, but there was no one to hear her. The children at the playground, the boys and girls playing softball, were too far away. Even if someone had been looking in her direction, he wouldn’t have seen her, because his view would have been blocked by the pavilion.

Mr. Darling clutched the front of her hoodie and pushed. She pushed back, but Mr. Darling was taller and stronger, and she couldn’t resist. She stepped backward, but her foot was beyond the stone, and she could only fall. On her way back, in a desperate effort to save herself, she caught hold of Mr. Darling’s wrist, and they went over together.

For now, the world took no notice of the two smashed figures on the rocks beside the Big Middle River. On the hill beyond the water, golf carts zipped this way and that. Above, in a patch of sky between the clouds, a small silver airplane with blue markings on the side glided in, soared above the treetops, and touched down gently on the earth.

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