‘I’ve got your money’ four words that can make or break someone’s day, save the life of a hostage, or in this case have the power reconnected and secure the apartment for another 30 days. He had hoped that Adam would be close enough to come and collect the money in person and sort out the electric. But Adam Rodriguez, the landlord, was ‘two beers down and halfway through a third’.
River worked through his desire to throw his personal phone, it was his only contact with ‘friends’ and ‘family’. Even if he rarely spoke to any of them it was reassuring to know that he could contact them if he needed to.
He slammed the apartment door with a lot more force than necessary. The light in front of Mr Stephenson’s apartment flared into life. River could see the man peering out from the blinds, so nodded in his direction. He couldn’t help but chuckle as the blinds rattled with the sound of a hasty retreat, was he really that terrifying?
The sky had been growing darker, lingering in deep reds, not wanting to give in to night. But the nocturnal cloak had fallen. Street-lamps cast everything in a sickly orange glow, bleaching the night sky, leaving the almost-full moon to stand alone. River pushed himself into a steady jog. He wanted to be back in the safety of his apartment.
The neighbourhoods slowly evolved, from rundown apartments and single story shacks, to single family homes with block driveways. They looked like mansions, rows and rows of almost identical sprawling units. It pissed him off, he could never live in a place like this and willingly refuse to do repairs on the complex. He supposed that a good portion of his rent must be used to care for the lawn. Even under the oppressive street glow it was too green. Phoenix is a desert, but there are no cacti, no gritty dirt thats easy whipped into a dust cloud that stings exposed flesh. Everything precisely trimmed, well-watered, and probably never used. All-in-all a glorious waste of money.
River stood in the doorway, hand raised ready to ring the doorbell when he heard their voices. He could hear the pleading in Kim’s voice, she was trying to get his attention, she needed to feel loved. The response was cutting, Adam simply scooted her away from the TV set and mumbled that he was waiting for a friend. River swallowed his disquiet and rang the bell.
Kim opened the door, her face said it all, no pearly white smile could hide the pain in her eyes. “Hi.”
“Hey Kim, I’m here to see Adam.” River offered her an smile, he let her guide her into the living room. The lights were off, the over-sized TV casting the room in an super-bright blue glow. He could see the man sat there, lost in the world of a zombie apocalypse, elbow deep in a bag of tortilla chips. “Adam.”
“Oh, River, sorry I got lost,” He paused the TV show, “You got my note then?”
River nodded. He noticed Kim out of the corner of his eye, slinking off to the kitchen, probably to listen to the conversation without being noticed. “Yeah.”
“So you know it’s higher this month because I had to cut you off?” Adam snapped round in the direction of the kitchen as one of the cabinet doors slammed. His eyes narrowed. Slowly and with the grace of a drunk he stumbled to his feet and ushered him closer to the front window to avoid his wife overhearing. “Now I’m going to be henpecked all damn night, she won’t quit ‘till she knows everything so she can play victim to her friends.”
River watched him rub his temples in stunned silence, he was close enough to smell the cheap beer on Adam’s breath, his pulse quickened. A thousand scenarios ran through his mind like a stampede, pushing him into an adrenalin rush. The cough caught his attention just in time, he pulled the envelope out of his pocket and pressed it into Adam’s waiting hand. “350 rent and and extra $50 for reconnection, thats right?”
Adam ripped the envelope and fingered the money feverishly, “huh? Yeah $400 is right, I’ll call Rodriguez to flip the switch for you.” He pulled a couple of twenties from the bundle and slipped the rest into his jean pocket. “You think this is enough to keep her quiet for a night?” he looked down at the notes in his hand, “Or maybe an extra ten for the inconvenience of unexpected guests?”
“Honestly?” River took a few hinting steps towards the door, “I think she just wants your time.” He felt Adam’s gaze, it stopped his forward momentum, forcing him to make eye contact.
“Time is the most expensive thing, we don’t have an endless supply of it, and all she wants is kisses and cuddles. I’m not finding the results of the game from some third party tomorrow morning because my wife wants cuddles. Now sex on the other hand, that would be a whole other ball game, but she hasn’t put out more than once a year since Nicky was born.”
The uncomfortable silence smothered the witty retort before it had a chance to climb out of River’s throat. His eyes darted from Adam, to the thin kitchen wall. There was no way that the thin walls of a stick frame mansion would have shielded Kim from her husbands harsh words, even if he had managed to say them at a sober man’s volume. River needed to escape, he needed to run before the fight mode kicked in.
“You leaving?” Adam brushed past him, unlatched the front door and held it open.
“Sorry.” River dived for the freedom of outside. He relished the ability to put more than an arms length between him and his landlord. More for the other mans sake than his own.
“I’ll text Rodriguez now.” His hand slipped on the door jamb, he pitched forward, but managed to retain his balance. Without another word, face flushed, he retreated back into the house and shut the door with a defined click.
It came as a welcome relief that the usual refrigerator hum had returned to his apartment. There was no need to go and disturb Juan. The risk of meeting Mrs Decker by the maintenance room had been eliminated. He wasn’t in the mood for an hour long conversation about Mr Tibbles and his 15 companions.
He sat the bag of groceries on the kitchen worktop. The kitchen light flickered, made an ominous humming sound, then came to life. River rolled his eyes and pulled open the fridge door. The light had been broken before he moved in, he put his hand into the centre and caressed the cool air. He scanned the shelves to survey the damage, most of the jars would be safe, as would the cheese, but the salad looked like it might try to make a sad bid for freedom if it stayed any longer.
A shiver shot up his spine as the crisper drawer squealed, he gritted his teeth and resisted the urge to smash it into a thousand pieces. Instead he launched the bag of salad towards the small garbage bin under the sink (the cupboard door was also AWOL when he took up residence) but it hit the cabinet wall and split. Most of the bag ended up in the trash, but now there was a green slimy stain on the wall of the cupboard. He cursed himself, and went to unpacking the fresh food.
The sandwich he made was as good as he would get from week old bread and cheese that had been allowed to sweat in the midday heat. He didn’t bother with a plate, he carried it in his left hand to the main room and sat down on the bed. The feeble kitchen light was the only functioning light source in the apartment, even then it was considerably less wattage than most people would deem acceptable, but River was satisfied with half light.
He was in the bathroom when his phone beeped, arguing with the medicine cabinet door that had tried to fall off whilst he was brushing his teeth. In the end he gently persuaded it off the hinges and set it down on the floor. Another thing for him to repair with his already dwindling funds.
A sudden rigidity overtook him as he read the email, this wasn’t the usual phishing scam or 50% off Viagra, it was worse. It churned up a sea of guilt in his gut. Someone had cracked the code, deciphered his meaning, they knew his secret desire for change. It scared him. No one had been this close to him in three years.
He couldn’t do it, the send button was impossible to press. The message had been typed and re-typed half a dozen times, mostly apologetic ‘Sorry to lead you on’ but there had been one that he gave a tentative ‘Maybe in the future’. He mashed the delete key, holding it until his reply was obliterated. Now he needed to be honest, explain that he had just paid the months rent, that would give him some extra time to come to a decision.
But instead of typing an email, he opened his messenger app. Sure enough Owen was still online. Fingers trembling so hard he struggled to keep his grip on the phone, he managed to send a quick greeting, then apologised for the lack of contact. Although he would never admit to Owen that he was stealing bandwidth from the Hickman’s across the complex. He used to have a TV streaming log in too, but Juan cancelled the subscription last month.
River felt like he had been stuck on the worlds most extreme roller coaster for a week solid. He was drained, mentally, physically and emotionally. The resolution scared him, he had finally agreed to meet Owen face to face, at the end of his lease. Twenty something days away.
It felt like no time to prepare, even if he only had one rucksack of belongings. He felt that he knew little about his destination. Sure there had been pictures, various funny stories, but would the place be suitable for him. Could he escape the city, and its inhabitants, for one night every twenty nine and a half days? They never discussed that, and now Owen was offline.
River lay sprawled across the twin bed; his head buried in the nook of the pillows. Naked except for a film of perspiration. His pale flesh twitched as the droplets slid down his spine and collected in the small of his back. Waves of intense Phoenix heat pushed into the room from the two large south facing windows. It forced the temperature of the room to climb rapidly, relentlessly pressing against his flesh until he could sleep no longer.
He kicked at the tangle of sheets at his feet, they slipped graciously onto the floor, covering a small mountain of dirty clothes. River pressed his face further into the the pillows, partially to try and find a cooler spot, and to try and find enough darkness to continue sleeping. The harder he tried to find it again, the more awake his body became. Sounds filtered in, becoming clearer until he recognised the voices of the couple living below him, the usual mid-day argument.
Mid-day. A fire ignited in his brain, calling him to action, he groped for the simple black phone on the night-stand. Nothing. He collapsed back against the pillows and cursed. "You need to ring, you understand me?" He shook the phone a few times before slamming it down on the bed beside him. "Damn it's hot in here." He said as he finally slipped out of the bed to draw the blinds he forgot about the night before. It seemed almost pointless this late in the day to try and curb the suns onslaught, but since the AC had packed up three months ago this was the best he could do.
Standing in the brightness, brain tired and overheating he could feel his stomach knotting uncomfortably. He closed his eyes to try and fight the nausea, only daring to open them once all the blinds were drawn and he could relax in the semi darkness. Truth was none of the blinds were made for his apartment, he guessed that the landlord had salvaged from a trash pile, yard sale,or most likely stolen from another apartment complex. They didn’t fit the windows, sunlight could pour in from either side of the sun bleached green fabric, and the kitchen blind was six inches too short.
River grabbed his chipped motorcycle mug and thrust it under the water cooler, the most luxurious item in the building that still worked, and waited for it to fill with water. Something bothered him as he stood there watching the level rise to half way, the apartment seemed too quiet. None of the usual appliance hum, no clinking of the AC as it tried to bring him much needed relief from the heat. He swallowed a mouthful of lukewarm water. "They finally cut me off.”
As he stood there a gunshot called out, he almost lost his grip on the mug. It made his ears ring for a few seconds, before everything became a muffled mess. It was like trying to hear messages through white noise or TV static. Completely disorienting, it forced his other senses into overdrive. Now the brush marks stood out like a mountain range on all the woodwork, he could even see some of the brush hairs had come loose and gotten stuck, entombed in white gloss for the rest of time.
Worse for him was the smell. Blood, a coppery sweetness, something he had grown to love and loathe. A mix of old dried blood, stale and unsavoury, and fresh blood only just starting to coagulate. Then it hit him, like a shovel to the face, the stomach churning odour of putrid milk. How long had the refrigerator been out?
It took River a while to notice, overwhelmed by his curdling goat's milk, that sound had returned in earnest. Juan and his old lady, the downstairs neighbours, finished screaming in Spanish and moved onto their two hour session of make-up sex. River could hear almost everything, the groan of springs under their weight, the heavy breathing and thumping heartbeat. The slap of her meaty thighs against Juan's well muscled ones, the hitch in her throat.
River shook it off, snapped his eyes open and marched into the bathroom. He spun both the taps and waited. Almost certain that the water had been shut off too he jumped slightly as the pipes drummed against the sheet-rock, a ferocious beat that sent a thick stream of orange water cascading out of the shower head. As he waited for the water to clear he caught sight of his reflection in the mirror. How had he not noticed the blood?
He moved closer, eyes focusing on the deep red stain on his skin, smeared from his lips like a woman's lipstick smudged in a passionate kiss. But there had been no woman, he knew this. There has been no woman in his life for at least three years. A glance down to his left hand confirmed it. Traces of dried blood remained, a thick track from mid-forearm to the base of his knuckles. Last night must have been a good one. He felt his pulse quicken. His groin stirred as he ran his tongue around his mouth, the faint traces of last nights feast lingered. As he looked up he noticed that some of his dark curls were matted, clumps of hair glued together with congealing life force.
Fascinated at his reflection he drew one of the more heavily coated strands between his fingers, enjoying the sensation as he rolled his thumb over his fingers. He raised his soiled fingers to his lips, satisfying a hunger that seemed to rise from deep within. He saw the shift in his eyes, from cool steel grey, to a warm amber hue. With a heavy sigh he turned away and threw himself into the torrent of cold water.
The water allowed him time to regain his composure, he couldn't let the animal have control. He focused on the droplets pounding against his skin, the way the chill drew every hair on his exposed flesh to attention, the shiver that shot up his spine and forced him to open his eyes. Something needed to change.
The pipes gave a loud thunk as he shut off the water. He stood in the shower for several minutes, naked, cold and dripping wet, considering his options. His feet reverberated with the moan of Juan's old lady, it snapped him out of his thoughts and sent an electric jolt through his body. Forcing himself to ignore his primal urges, he pulled his black towel from its holder, and send the cracked towel ring flying out of the bathroom door.
As he walked back into the main room something caught his eye, an envelope, resting on the rectangle in front of the front door. He didn't need to rip open the letter to know the author, the spidery scrawl belonged to his landlord. The rent needed to be paid within 24 hours.
River laughed, he couldn't help it. He pulled his wallet from a pair of discarded black jeans, flipped it open and waited to see if any moths would flutter out. There seemed to be more change than anything else, two fives and a bunch of ones. His lacklustre finances, the direct result of his work phone falling silent for two solid weeks. He tossed the letter into the overflowing recycling pile.
With a sigh he walked into the kitchen and pulled open the fridge door, he prepared himself for the assault on his nostrils, taking in a huge gulp of air before the noxious smell hit. Halfway through pouring out the contents of the carton an incessant buzzing caught his attention. He scanned the microscopic kitchen wildly, eyes high for any flying nasties, but instead of finding a giant hornet he found his phone dancing for attention. He let the carton fall into the sink, the water would stop the stench from becoming a distraction, and caught the phone with only seconds to spare.
The conversation, if you could call it that (River only ever said 'hello' 'yes' 'no' and 'goodbye'), lasted a grand total of one minute and forty six seconds. It gave him all the information he needed to do the job and no more. He pulled his clothes on in a rush, narrowly avoiding a painful mistake with the zip on his jeans, and killed the water in the sink. Tough shit if the carton wasn't completely empty, he would have to deal with that later, he had a job to do.