Squinting down at the address scrawled across the crumpled piece of paper clutched in my hand, I reached to lower my sunglasses from the top of my head, only to realize I’d left them at home.
Of all the days to forget them, it was a day I would find them useful, not just for the sun, but to conceal the expressions in my eyes. It was too late to turn back now, considering I was about a block from the place I needed to be.
At least, I thought I was.
I wasn’t familiar with this part of town. It wasn’t a place most people recommended visiting, unless of course you had to. Like me, right now. Putting the paper right in front of my peepers, I made sure for like the fiftieth time that I actually was reading this right.
Yep. 666 Ghetto Street, up ahead and on the left. Right past the burning trashcans and through the doorway to hell.
Snorting to myself, I shoved the paper into my pocket and walked ahead. This neighborhood wasn’t that bad. I mean, nothing was on fire. And the address definitely wasn’t 666. I would tell you this, though: if it wasn’t broad daylight, I wouldn’t have come here.
Father or not, it would have been a hard pass.
It wasn’t dark out, though. In fact, it was still early in the day, not quite lunchtime. Also, I hadn’t seen or heard from my father in three years. When he called me out of the blue just yesterday, I wondered how the hell he got my number because I was so surprised he’d called at all.
He wanted to see me, he said. He had something important to tell me, he said. Please come, he said.
What could I say? I was a sucker. Well, that and I had some daddy issues because he wasn’t ever around. When he was, it was few and far between, which even then was more than my mother wanted. I made sure not to tell her about this little visit. She would have thrown a fit, and it wouldn’t have been pretty.
I’d just tell her about it after.
Maybe most grown women wouldn’t have been so quick to jump when someone who disappointed them time and again called. If I was smart (and did what dear old Mom instructed), I would have given him the finger and hung up the phone.
I wasn’t smart. As proof of this, I would later look back on today and realize how right my mother was.
In fact, my father’s indifference had the reverse effect. It made me want to jump faster and higher when he called. As if this time I could finally prove I was worthy of his attention. This time he would see what he’d been missing all these years.
With a heavy sigh, I stopped in front of the rundown brick building that appeared dingy and ready to crumble. Notes of warning shivered along my spine and tickled the back of my neck. Gazing up at the rusty fire escape, cracked windows on almost every level, and then finally to the sky, which was heavy with dark, ominous clouds, I decided to shove aside the nerves tightening my stomach and move forward.
Cautiously, I pushed open the door leading into the bottom floor and poked my head inside. It smelled like sweat and pee, trash and leaves littered the hallway, and part of the carpet was missing, revealing cracked concrete floors.
Eyeing the dark stain I sincerely hoped was not blood, I rushed around the corner and bolted up the stairs, moving as quietly as my sneakers would allow.
By the time I arrived at the third floor, my heart was pounding and I was quietly gasping for breath. I knew I was being ridiculous. The place was rundown, but it wasn’t like someone was chasing me. Still, adrenaline surged through my veins and made it hard to not feel I was in imminent danger.
Trying to shake off the feeling, I stepped into the hallway and felt a little better when I didn’t see any bloodstains. He was the third door on the left. As I approached, my fist lifted to knock, but before my knuckles could rap on the dirty wood, it swung open.
A set of bony fingers curled around the edge of the wood as wide eyes peered out, making me feel I was in some kind of horror film.
My father reached around, snatched my wrist, and pulled me swiftly into the apartment, shutting the door.
Rubbing my arm where he’d grabbed, I walked into the tiny space, gazing around. The place was a dump. And I wasn’t being rude. Or snobby. It was actually a kind description.
The only furniture in the entire place was a stained mattress without any sheets or blankets lying on the floor and a chair that looked like it belonged at one of those old metal card tables.
Oh, there was a lamp. It was brass, had no shade, and the lightbulb was busted.
It smelled in here, too. Mostly of sweat. And fear.
I didn’t realize fear had a scent, but taking a breath of it now, I found it was distinctive.
“Bellamy,” he said, moving into the room behind me after he did up the chain lock. “Thank you for coming.”
He moved to hug me. I stiffened, but he didn’t stop. His arms went around me and squeezed. After a moment, I forgot this was weird. I forgot I didn’t want to be here. I felt like a little girl again, back on that day when he pulled me into his arms and explained he had to go away and I probably wouldn’t see him for a while.
A while turned out to be five years.
I hugged him back, sniffled, and stepped away.
“What are you doing here?” I glanced around. “And in a place like this?”
“Thank you for coming,” he said, wringing his hands and glancing to make sure the lock was indeed locked.
I noticed he seemed to have aged exponentially since the last time I saw him. Yes, it had been about three years, but he was only in his forties… yet he looked closer to mid-fifties.
His brown hair seemed thinner, his body leaner. There were worry lines in his forehead and around his mouth and eyes. His clothes were rumpled, and he had this overall vibe about him. He was nervous. Almost skittish.
Joseph Cutler was a lot of things in life, but nervous and skittish were not it.
“It’s so good to see you. I’ve missed you.”
“Dad,” I said, sweeping a glance over him again. Concern was taking over any other emotion I might feel upon seeing him again. “What’s going on here? What’s wrong?”
“Listen, sweetheart. We don’t have long. You can’t stay. I just wanted to see you, even if for a moment.”
My stomach sank. “Why don’t we go have lunch? My treat. There’s this diner a few blocks away. I’m sure they have pie,” I said, smiling a little. My dad liked pie.
Without waiting, I started toward the door.
“No!” he said swiftly, moving in front of me and holding up his hands. My steps halted. “We can’t go. I can’t.”
His shoulders slumped. “It’s nothing you need to worry about.”
“Then why did you call? Why are you in town?”
“I came to see you. I—” His throat worked. “I came to say good-bye.”
“Good-bye?” I didn’t really need to ask. I knew.
As in good-bye forever. Not, I’ll see you in five years.
He came forward and grasped my arms. “I got into some trouble, made a bad business deal.” He began, glancing at the door once more. When his eyes returned to mine, they softened. “Do you remember that time we went on vacation?”
I nodded. “To B—”
Quickly, he put his hand over my mouth and shook his head. His eyes widened, silently telling me not to say anything. When he pulled back, he put a finger to his lips, telling me to be quiet.
“That was the best time of my life.” He confided. “I should have been a better father. We should have had more times like that.”
“We still can,” I told him. My heart squeezed uncomfortably. This whole conversation was not what I expected when I stepped into this ratchet building today. Maybe the address and unexpected call from him should have been the first clues.
He smiled a wistfully. Leaving my side, he went toward the bare mattress and lifted a navy duffle bag from the opposite side, placing it on the bed. The sound of the zipper was quiet but distinct. My father reached inside and pulled out a white envelope with the flap tucked into the opening in the back. It was thick as if it were stuffed full, and one of the corners was bent.
Without a word, he lifted the flap of the leather messenger bag draped over my body and tucked the envelope inside. “Take this,” he said, his voice catching just a little.
“You need it,” I answered, glancing around pointedly.
“I need you to have the last piece of me that’s clean.”
I felt my brow wrinkle, puzzling over his words. I didn’t understand what he was saying.
Before I could ask, his head tilted to the side, listening.
I listened, too, at first hearing nothing, but then a few faint sounds seemed to filter up from the lower levels.
“They’re coming,” he said, part gasp, part whisper.
He slammed his entire clammy palm over my mouth. The pupils of his eyes were dilated, making them look black and wild. I felt the tremble of his fingers against my face, and I was instantly shaking, too.
“Move,” my father ordered so low I wouldn’t have heard if he didn’t shove me backward with the demand.
I stumbled, but he kept pushing. Even though I was in front, I felt as if he were dragging me toward the narrow doorway crudely placed in the wall. My sneakers hit the peeling linoleum, sticking instantly. My father shoved, and I faltered backward.
Motioning for me to be silent, he quickly pulled open the single cabinet door on the tiny vanity in the bathroom. I watched in disbelief as he quietly pulled out the panel on the inside, the piece that was supposed to be attached to the wall.
The sound of pounding footsteps rumbled out in the hall, making me jolt.
My father grabbed me, forcing me toward the tiny cabinet. My body was rigid, but he pushed anyway. I wasn’t going to fit. This cabinet was so small. I wasn’t going to fit.
He kept shoving, I felt the edges of the door scrape me. Stinging pain radiated down my arm. Stifling a cry, I noticed the hole in the wall, beneath the panel he’d removed. It looked almost as if someone had chewed the drywall.
Panic assailed me as my body forced its way into the tiny space between the wall of the bathroom and the main room. I struggled, genuine fear clawing my throat, making it feel as though my trachea were collapsing.
Before I could scramble out, my father leaned into the cabinet and motioned again for me to be quiet. Out in the main room, someone banged on the door. I heard the rattle of the chain my father so carefully put into place.
His hand shot into the wall, caressing my cheek. “I’m not a good man, but I do love you.”
Another bang on the door, and my father pushed the paneling back toward the hole, making the space even more claustrophobic than it already was.
I pushed at it, stopping it from sealing me in. “Daddy?”
“Don’t make a sound.”
Then the paneling was slid over the hole, and the sound of the cabinet closing filled my ears.
It was dark in here. Pitch black. The space was so small my shoulders ached from being pressed between the two walls. The electric box inside the wall jammed into my hip, but there was nowhere to move, so I sat there just feeling the pain. The same scent of fear lingered in here as if this wasn’t the first time someone had squeezed themselves in here. As if hiding was a regular thing.
I struggled to breathe. Terror unlike anything I’d ever felt before strangled me. The sound of a door bursting open came through the walls. The sound of that damn chain swinging, clacking against the wooden door frame, penetrated my skull like a jackhammer.
Muffled voices reached my ears, low mumbling, and then a louder yell.
The familiar sound of my father’s voice carried through the drywall. His pleading bounced around my head.
What was happening? Who was out there with him?
A man with a deep voice barked an order for silence. Quiet fell for a stretch of time, but then my father spoke again.
A loud boom exploded. Despite the tiny quarters, I fell back, my body twisting sideways as something ripped right through the drywall above me, right where I’d just been.
I would have screamed, but the sound caught in my throat. My mouth opened wide, but nothing came out. A thin sheath of light seemed to blind me in the darkness.
I blinked, trying to understand what had happened.
Shaking almost beyond comprehension, another scream rose up my throat. I felt it build and push against the other one still lodged there.
I forced my fist against my lips, pushing my knuckles into my mouth so there was no chance any sound could escape.
My chest burned. With no place to go, they pummeled my chest and throat until I was pretty sure I might faint.
Staring at the stream of light suddenly stretching across the space, looking sort of like a laser beam, I realized something.
There was a hole in the wall. A ragged, ripped hole.
From a bullet.
The loud boom I’d heard was a gun being fired. The force of the bullet ripped right through the wall and would have killed me if I hadn’t fallen back.
A hard slap and the sound of a grunt made me forget about my almost demise. Carefully, I lifted my head, angling my face in front of the bullet hole, and squinted out into the room.
There were two men. Big guys, like wrestlers on TV. Their suits strained against their bodies, the fabric looking tortured and about to rip.
One man had blond hair, the other none at all. The one without hair had a big tattoo of a spider on the back of his neck.
I shivered. Forcing my fist back into my mouth, I watched as the one man grabbed my father and held him so the other could plow his fist into his stomach.
The air in him whooshed out. His body folded over the arm holding him. As if he were a ragdoll, he was yanked back up again, only to have a meaty fist slammed into his face.
Tears, fat and quick, spilled over, slipping down my cheeks and dripping off my chin and jaw.
“You didn’t think you could hide forever, did you?” the man with hair said, punching my father again.
The bald man let him go. His body crumpled to the floor in a sad heap. I couldn’t just sit here! I couldn’t just hide in this tiny hole and watch him.
Slap! Kick! Groan.
“Hiding is useless. Crone always gets his man.”
“Please,” my father said, spitting out blood. “I’ll do anything.”
I started to move, to try and wedge myself out from between the walls. As if sensing what I was about to do, my father surged to his knees, blood dripping down his face, and stared toward the hole as if he knew I was watching.
A very slight shake of his head made me go still.
The man with no hair pulled out a gun, making a show of screwing on a long-barreled silencer. Obviously, it was just a way to prolong what he planned to do. Obviously, these men weren’t worried about being heard. They’d already shot through the wall.
“Any last words?” the man with hair intoned.
My father stared at the wall. A single tear slid down his cheek, mixing with his blood. “Tell my daughter I love her.”
Both men stepped back. My father glanced up.
A bullet from each gun fired.
The sound of the metal slapping into my father’s body was something I would never forget. Blood splattered on the wall behind him. His body fell over motionless.
Squeezing my eyes shut, I bit down on my fist until the unmistakable tang of blood filled my mouth. I kept biting, kept staring through that tiny hole at my father’s body as life pooled out.
I shook so hard I pretty much vibrated. My mouth was so dry it was an effort to peel my tongue up to swallow. I felt my own blood coat the back of my throat, but in that moment, it didn’t feel like my blood I was swallowing.
It felt like his.
I sat there while the men dumped the contents of his duffle bag all over the mattress. I sat there while they made a joke about the way he soiled his pants in death. My eye stayed glued to the hole as the man with hair hit a button on his cell and spoke.
“Tell Crone it’s done,” he ordered, gruff.
When he was done, the bald man walked into the bathroom and took a piss. The sound of him relieving himself was almost too much. Black spots swam before my eyes, and the room around me spun.
“Let’s get some lunch,” one said.
I sat in the tiny space long after they’d gone. My body shook and trembled for so long I honestly thought it was a permanent state.
My father’s eyes were open, still staring at the wall. Still watching, making sure I was hidden.
When I finally crawled out of the wall, I stood over his body, staring down as his blood seeped into my shoes and clung to the soles.
Glancing over to the heap of his upturned bag, my eyes landed on a photo. The edges were worn, and one side was ripped.
Bending down, I picked it up. The image blurred, dimmed, and then came back into focus. I didn’t notice the blood on my hands where I’d bitten myself or the crescent marks on the opposite palm from my fingernails.
It was a picture of a memory. Of a younger man standing in the snow, his daughter smiling beside him.
That was the best time of my life.
Clutching the photo to my chest, I stared back down at my father, and finally, I started to scream.