James leaned against the side of his work van. His eyes, hidden by his sunglasses, were busy inspecting the neighborhood of brick houses, each designed in the shape of a barn. The house in front of him, aside from its number and a splash of graffiti about its side, was completely indistinguishable from the rest. There was a scattering of lidless trash cans tossed about the patchwork grass, as if the garbage men were too good to set foot on the tattered patch of rented land. Looming over the neighborhood was the Piscataqua River Bridge, a connector between New Hampshire and Maine, a green giant whose bent back offered escape from one state and refuge in the other. In recent years cameras had been installed on the bridge to keep an eye out for jumpers, as the 160-foot drop into one of the world’s fastest currents seemed to draw out the pitiful souls who’d lost all hope.
James stepped around the piles of coiled dog shit littering the walk way. A plastic Santa Claus was lying face down in a patch of mud; the electrical cord was chewed so thoroughly that the copper wiring was exposed. A propane grill, stuffed with charcoal, was chained to the railing at the stoop, tankless, rusting through, and open wide as if it had taken its last breath.
James opened the screen door, then moved to the far left side out of habit, and reached over to knock. Inside, a dog began barking immediately and a sexless voice yelled, “Shut up already.”
James took a breath to steady himself and heard the fumbling of a chain lock. A face filled the space between the door jam.
“What do you want?” the woman asked. Her eyes were red and hardly open.
“Ma’am, my name’s James. I’m with Social Services.” He held his ID card in her face.
She stared at the ID, then tried to read James’s face. “What’s this about?” Her eyes were now open wide.
“Are you Wendy Reynolds?”
“I’ve come to talk to you, Miss Reynolds. May I come inside?”
The woman turned, revealing a crudely drawn tattoo of a blue star on the back of her neck. “Give me a second, the uh, dog, just one second.” She ducked back inside, closing the door hard.
The dog continued to bark a while longer. James could hear movement and the sound of glass clinking. He released a heavy sigh.
After several minutes she came back to the door, somewhat breathless. The dog had been brought to the backyard where it began to howl.
“I’m sorry. Place is a mess,” Wendy said.
James said nothing as she led him to the living room. His nose was crammed with the smell of chemicals, feces, and the stale odor of cigarette ash. The air had a hazy quality, as if he were looking through a dusty bottle.
Wendy turned on the ceiling fan, squinting as she left the light at the dimmest setting. “Go ahead and take a seat on the couch if you want.”
James eyed the sunken cushions. The couch was scarred with tears and escaping foam. He sat on the edge of the sturdiest looking cushion gingerly, if not somewhat uncomfortably. A massive flat screen across from him nearly took up the entire wall.
Wendy pulled a wooden chair from the kitchen and sat across the coffee table. She was wearing dirty pink slippers and pajama bottoms. A baggy sweatshirt, the color of insulation, hung across her like a blanket. The case report had said she was twenty-seven, but her face was as wizened as a rotten apple. Her baggy clothes hid her true size, but James bet that if he slid a scale under her she wouldn’t weigh more than ninety pounds.
Wendy eyed the ceiling fan and rubbed her hands together, as if she were cold. James was starting to sweat in the warm stuffiness.
“What’s this about?” She reached over and gathered up greasy burger wrappers and fast food cups that were spread across the coffee table.
“Were you expecting me, Miss Reynolds?”
“I sure as hell wasn’t.” She walked to the kitchen, stepping on a discarded Barbie doll with chopped hair, causing her to swear and kick the doll to a corner.
James waited for her to return. When she did, he asked, “Do you have any idea why I’m here?”
“Is this about Terry? Listen, he don’t live here no more. I kicked his ass out last week.”
“Terry Leaks, he’s your . . .” James spoke his name as if he reading off the police report.
“Boyfriend, well, ex-boyfriend,” Wendy said. “He’s gone. Screwed up his parole. I don’t know where he is. I already told the police when they came looking for him.” She spoke with an air of self-righteousness.
“I’m here, because we’ve received reports that you’re shooting up, Miss Reynolds.”
“I gave that up. Been clean for months now. Court knows that, granted me custody.” She rubbed the outside of her mouth and massaged her jaw. “Wait, who told you I was shooting up?”
James looked down at the tan carpet below his black shoes. Crushed chips were ground deep into the rug, while burn marks and dark brown stains spotted the ratty material. James didn’t smell it, but imagined that if he bent down the odor would be pure rot. “That information’s confidential.” James felt a wave of nausea running through him; the air he breathed seemed to get thicker. “May I see your arms, Miss Reynolds?”
She crossed her arms and her legs. “I just gave blood for my Hep C test. Did it at the free clinic.” She shook her head. “They let the damn medical students practice on me. Had to stick me a bunch of times—in both arms—because my veins are still scarred from when I used to shoot up.” She slapped the sides of her legs and looked at James.
James lifted his eyebrows.
“Fine, you can see them if you really want, but they’re marked from where the dumb-ass students stuck me.” She rolled up her sleeves.
James stood up and leaned down to inspect the arms. They were littered with red holes, bruises, and dark scabs. Several of the holes had puffed up and looked infected, while others had seemed barely clotted. “These are fresh.”
“The clinic.” Wendy reminded him.
“The clinic,” James said, then stood up and peered into the other rooms. “Where’s your daughter? —Oh, you can roll them back down now. I’ve seen what I need to see.”
She considered the question, then pointed upstairs. “In her room the last time I checked.”
“I’d like to talk to her, too,” James said, looking towards the stairs.
Wendy hesitated, then led him up the carpeted steps. James put his hand on the railing. It shook as if the bolts were barely holding together. Wendy hurried up the steps, her head swiveling, an obvious effort to sweep every webbed corner. At the top of the stairs James loosened his tie and unbuttoned his top button.
“There’s a bunch of junk up here.” Wendy stepped over a milk container that had a yellow liquid in it. “I’m cleaning out some of the closets, so be careful where you step.” Stacks of clutter, boxes of clothes, and black garbage bags—tight with trash—were strewn about the hall. “Watch that there.” A razor-like lid from a soup can, slicing through a garbage bag, nearly brushed James’s leg. “This is what I’m doing today, going through and cleaning this mess up.” Wendy said, then glanced back at James over her shoulder. She stopped in front of a closed door. “This is Abby’s room.” She opened the door and James searched for signs of life. Two sheet-less mattresses were shoved against the wall, a shoddy crib was shoved into the farthest corner, and thick plastic clung to the sole window, dulling the light and trapping in the heat.
James inspected the room and stopped at what he first thought were a series of dark stains on the back wall. When he got down and looked closer he saw that it was actually hundreds of tiny, shiny bodies: Ants, a whole colony of them, marching along the back wall to a corner in the carpet. “You’ve got an ant problem.”
Wendy pulled the door closed, causing James to turn sharply. “I told the landlord about that. She ain’t done squat yet.”
James stood up and took a step forward. “Who sleeps in here, again?”
“This is Abby’s room.”
James sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Where is Abby?”
“She’s got to be around here somewhere?” The way she said it was as if she expected him to find her.
James eyed the two mattresses skeptically. Stuffed between the wall and one mattress was a bottle. He pulled out a cap-less, half empty, green bottle of Jameson and put his nose close. The strong smell of alcohol triggered a swarm of memories. His father, heavy with the odor of whiskey on his breath, calling his name. “James!” His rough knuckles pounding James’s soft, doughy face, shaking his little body. “I told you to listen. And what do you do? You screw up, again!” James’s child hands had shielded his face, his sobs only making his father angrier. “Why do you make me do this? Huh? Why do you make me do this?”
James put the bottle down, releasing him from the torturous memories.
“You can have some if you want,” Wendy said.
“How about we try the other rooms?” James ran his hand up his forehead, the sweat sharpening the spike of his black hair.
“How old are you?” Wendy asked, her tongue licking the corner of her lips. She leaned against the doorframe.
“I’m thirty-three,” James said, then hastily added, “And engaged.”
“Huh. You look younger.” She began rubbing the doorframe in a long stroking motion.
James’s throat twitched.
She began massaging her meager chest. “Ever get high?” She stopped rubbing then grabbed the folds of her sweatshirt crushing them in her pale fist.
“We’re not having this conversation—Hey! Jeez—Pull those back up.” James looked away as Wendy dropped her pajama pants to the floor, revealing two pale chicken legs and a bare vagina. A c-section scar slashed below her belly button.
“I’m having it. You’re the one who’s not having it,” she said, and started to take her sweatshirt off.
James tried to shield his eyes with his hand. “Miss Reynolds, put your clothes back on, now!”
“What’re you queer?” She shrugged and dropped the sweatshirt back down and pulled her pajama pants up, as lazily as she had dropped them. With a look of distaste she turned away from him and opened the door.
“I don’t even know what to say to you,” James said, and followed her as she slipped out of the room. He made sure to stay behind her as she opened and closed doors calling for Abby.
When Wendy came to the bathroom she said, “There you are.”
Abby was sitting in the dry bathtub, playing with a crushed soda can. The first thing James noticed was that her hair was matted and stuck out in every direction. She was dirty from her scarred legs to her food spattered face. Abby was shirtless, and encased in the horrid smell of shit, which was no doubt coming from her heavy diaper. Wendy lifted Abby out of the tub and set her down on the tile floor. When James bent down to get closer to Abby she stretched her thin arms out to hug him.
Wendy’s cell phone exploded into a crackling hip hop song and she left the room to answer the call.
James bent down to see Abby’s face. “Hi, Abby, my name’s James.”
“Gaga ra loo.”
“You can’t talk can you?”
Abby laughed and flapped her arms.
“A four-year-old should be able to talk.” James turned. Wendy was in the hall still busy with her call. “Don’t worry, sweet heart, I’ll get you out of here.” James made a call of his own.
A short time later, James was walking out with Abby in his arms, escorted by a stern-faced police officer. Wendy had put up only a minor fit when he told her he was taking Abby. Wendy backed off when James mentioned the words “warrant” and “judge.”
Abby didn’t seem to mind being taken away from her mother by a strange man. James looked into her blank eyes. “I’m sorry, Abby. I should have gotten to you sooner.” She buried her face into his shoulder and hugged him. James could hear Wendy’s voice behind him as she was arguing with another officer. Abby slapped her hands to James’s cheeks, which for the moment halted his grinding teeth.
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