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Downfall
Author: Jay Crownover

Orley

Being out on the streets when the sun went down was not a good idea in any part of this no-good city.

Not that being on the streets during the day was any better, or safer, but something about the daylight seemed to keep the worst of the predators at bay. When it got dark, all bets were off and the shadows took on a life of their own. Anyone foolish enough to be caught out in the dark, distracted and unaware, was considered prey.

I knew all of this, had learned that lesson the hard way the first few days of living in this god-awful neighborhood. But tonight, everything that could go wrong had, which meant I was walking with my head down, clutching the tiny, sleep-limp body of my daughter in my arms, trying not to draw attention to either of us. It was a nearly impossible task. One look at the fear stamped all over my face, the anxiety which kept my posture tight and stiff, or a glance down at Noble’s designer sneakers, and it was obvious to anyone looking that neither of us belonged here. Unfortunately, not fitting in made us even more of a target. We stood out like a beacon in the darkness instead of blending into the shadows that seemed to come alive at night.

Noble muttered something groggily into the side of my neck where her head lolled. My almost-four-year-old daughter was a champ. She took the move to this hellhole far better than I did. She was excited by the noise, the traffic, the endless amount of colorful characters littering the sidewalks during the day. I was the one crying into my pillow at night, not her. She could sleep through anything, including me hauling her like she was a sack of potatoes while I sprinted the six blocks from my broken-down car to our tiny apartment. I put a hand on the back of her head, letting her dark curls slide comfortingly through my fingers and prayed the rest of the journey home would be uneventful.

She had no idea I was frantically scanning every alleyway I passed. She had no clue my car was dead as a doornail, abandoned on the side of the road, useless and billowing smoke. It was going to have to stay there. I didn’t have the means to get it towed or fixed. Being carless wouldn’t be a big deal if my job wasn’t all the way across town in the more affluent district of the city. I had to have my car to get to work, but I could get Noble to her babysitter by foot in a pinch. It was a slightly scary six-block walk in the daytime; at night it was downright terrifying.

Not that I’d need to worry about getting either of us anywhere tomorrow. Right after the car malfunctioned, Mrs. Sanchez, the lovely older Hispanic woman who watched Noble for me during the week, informed me that she would no longer be able to watch her. It seemed her husband was tired of coming home from work and finding an extra mouth to feed. What she didn’t say was that her husband hadn’t ever approved of her babysitting Noble in the first place. Apparently, he never liked her “privilege” and the fact she wasn’t a child from the inner city. He didn’t like her bright attitude and endless questions. My daughter was very different from the quiet, solemn children from the Sanchez’s neighborhood, and that never sat well with the man. But, instead of crumbling into a hysterical ball of emotion at Mrs. Sanchez’s door, I thanked her for everything she’d done for Noble up to that point and told her we’d be in touch.

I could see her sympathy for my predicament, but her unwillingness to defy her husband did me no good, especially when she patted my arm and told me, “I’m so sorry, Orley. You know how much I love having Noble here.”

The only reason I stopped myself from wilting into a mess of tears and desperation was that I’d already had one breakdown today: my boss at the salon had pulled me aside right before closing and informed me that she had a cousin who needed a job, so she was cutting my hours to accommodate the teenager. Working less than part-time with minimum wage barely kept my kid fed and the lights on in our apartment. Losing a single cent of that moved us into dire straits, but I refused to let my snotty boss see how terrified her words made me. I knew I could get another job, or two, if need be. At least I could have before my car crapped out on the way to pick up Noble tonight.

For the last year, it had been one thing after another. Blow after blow. I couldn’t believe I was still standing. And if it weren’t for the precious bundle clutched in my arms, there was a solid chance I wouldn’t be. There was no way I could stay down when my daughter needed me to get back up after every new hit. I was going to take the damn beating that life seemed determined to foist on me, but I was never, ever going to let Noble see the bruises. It didn’t matter what lengths I had to go to, what lies I had to tell, or what part of this dreadful city I had to hide away in.

“Mommy?” Noble’s tired voice jolted me out of my thoughts and I realized I’d made it two more blocks on autopilot. That wasn’t good. I was supposed to be keeping watch for any number of threats that could jump out at us from any number of places. Reflexively, my fingers tightened on the cylinder of pepper spray that dangled from my keys.

“Go back to sleep, sweetie. We’re almost home.” I cringed as I said it. The rundown, dingy apartment was never going to feel like home, no matter how well adjusted my kid was.

“I’m hungry. I want cake.” She leaned back in my hold, her bright blue eyes that were identical to mine gleamed with mischief. She was such a happy little girl. It was like she was completely immune to the filth that surrounded her every time she stepped outside her very pink bedroom. The sheer innocence of children was nothing short of amazing.

I huffed out a laugh and wrinkled my nose at her. “Are you sure Mrs. Sanchez didn’t already give you dessert?” I wondered why Mr. Sanchez had such an issue with the fact that my daughter looked distinctly different than the rest of the kids his wife watched. She sounded different as well, which was something he’d pointed out more than once when I went to pick her up. There was no hiding the fact that Noble had started off life with privileges most of the kids in this neighborhood would never know. It didn’t seem to matter that she couldn’t tell the difference between herself and other kids her age, or that I no longer had the means to give her every little thing under the sun. She was exactly like the rest of the children in this derelict part of the city now. It broke my heart whenever I thought about it. I was supposed to protect her from the things that could harm her, and I’d only managed to do an okay job thus far. It was hard when I was on my own, but better that way.

Noble smiled, that crooked grin lighting up the night, making the places warm inside of me that felt frozen and brittle.

“She gave me a churr-oh.” She stumbled a little over the words and drew the ‘o’ out in a silly way. “But that’s not cake.”

I guess she had a point.

“I’ll see what I can do when we get home.” I already knew there was no cake. There was rarely anything sweet. I couldn’t afford to indulge, but I did steal her a cookie or cupcake whenever someone at the salon celebrated a birthday or special occasion. I tried to remember if I had anything stashed somewhere I could give her. Right now, her request seemed like the easiest problem to tackle out of all the ones that were piling up.

“Hey.” I jolted at the sound of a deep voice way too close. A screech that, at one point, I would have attributed to a cat, but now knew more than likely belonged to a rat, sent a shiver down my spine. I watched a man step out of the shadows shrouding a nearby alley directly in front of me.

I could see the stoop of our building and the bundle of dirty clothes that indicated that Lester, the homeless guy who called the stairs out front home, was already passed out for the night. We were a hundred yards away. So close yet so far.

I should’ve seen him lurking. I should have been more vigilant. I was just so damn tired and feeling so hopeless. No matter how hard I tried, my best never seemed to be enough.

I took a deep breath and put a protective hand on the back of Noble’s head. She complained about me pushing her face back down into the hollow of my neck, but she was a smart girl and easily picked up on the tension that stiffened me from head to toe.

I knew the rules. Keep walking. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t engage or act afraid.

The first few were easy enough to follow; it was that last rule which was a real bitch. I was afraid, and it bled out of me so strongly I was sure the man purposely blocking my way to the apartment could smell it.

I tried to take a step to the side so I could walk around him, but he followed my movement. I went so far as to step off the curb and into the street to evade him, but he followed. I clutched Noble tighter to my chest and forced myself to breathe.

“Move.” I wasn’t nice, or timid, when I said it. That was one thing I appreciated about this place, maybe the only thing. There was no reason to play nice with everyone, because chances were the other person was out to get you. It was the first time in my life I’d freely spoken my mind whenever and wherever I wanted. It was liberating, but it wasn’t getting me anywhere with the man in front of me.

He was several inches taller than me. He had a shaved head and nasty-looking eyes. They were small, narrow, bloodshot, and locked on me like he was envisioning every horrible thing he could possibly do to me. He was the cold, slithering snake, and I was the helpless, fuzzy mouse dropped unwillingly into his cage. Predator and prey. It wasn’t a nice feeling at all.

“Pretty little thing, ain’t ya?” His tongue darted out to lick his lower lip, and if I hadn’t been holding onto Noble, I would have pepper sprayed him then and there. “Not in Oz anymore, are you, babe?”

Nope. I wasn’t.

I was in hell and every day it felt like I was running across another devil to battle. It was exhausting, and I never wanted to put my daughter in such a dangerous situation.

“Move.” I said it again and gasped as he lifted a hand like he was going to touch my daughter’s shiny black ringlets. I took a step backward and glared at him. I could feel Noble starting to shake in my arms. “Get away from us.” I narrowed my eyes and returned his glare, aware I didn’t look half as intimidating as he did.

He laughed. It was an ugly, dark sound and I heard Noble sniffle against my throat. She wasn’t crying yet, but she was close. This man was not putting his hands on my daughter, no matter what.

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