Vacant - Page 12/18

I knock, but there's no answer. I let myself in and I'm immediately relieved to see Emily's things still around the house, including her bedding on the couch. Remorse creeps back into my chest as I think about the numerous times I've tried to convince Emily to take my room - my bed - but she never has.

I kneel down on the floor in front of the sofa to worship the scent lingering in the sheets. She always smells like baby powder, the cheap off brand they sell at the Dollar Tree, but regardless of the price, it smells like heaven to me. I close my eyes and enjoy her essence while also promising myself to buy her name-brand lotion. No more generic.

The shouting startles me awake.

"I don't care! Get the mother-fucking money. I don't pay you to lose my shit!" Then I hear the unmistakable sound of a fist meeting flesh. My blood runs cold as I wonder if it's Emily next door. The thought hits me like the fist from next door: What has she done to get money for herself?

I've had many neighbors while I've lived here. It's to be expected, as the downtrodden are a transient population. That unit was empty when....when I left, so I hadn't thought about a new tenant. I also hadn't figured on undesirables moving in. I'd never worried about my safety, but now I have to think of Emily's safety and protection. This is no place for her.

I hear a feminine scream amid the sounds of skin being struck and I know it's not my girl. I know what her scream sounds like after a spider infestation and that's not it. It's not Emily.

"Get up, Punta!"

I hear more ramblings and shouts in Spanish; the female cries in response. All I can think is, Thank God it's not Emily. But it is someone - someone's daughter, sister, or friend. I do the only thing I can. I call the police and let them handle it. While I've read heroic tales of men saving the day, it's not safe or practical in this case. It's very likely that the monster next door has a weapon, and I'm no good to protect Emily if I'm dead. The cops come and go quickly. The woman refuses to press charges, but the man is escorted off the property with a warning not to return. He'll be back, though.

They always are.

My thoughts drift to moving to a better neighborhood, but then I realize I may not have a job because I'm a complete coward who left for a week without calling his boss; it'll be a miracle if I'm not fired. How will I take care of Emily without a job?

I'm an idiot. God, how did I fuck this up so badly?

I dial Margie's number and her cheerful greeting relaxes me a bit. "Hey, Marge, it's Ethan."

"Well hey, Sugarplum. How was your vacation?" She knows I wasn't on vacation, and I try to discern if there is sarcasm in her voice, but I can't seem to detect any.

"Margie, I wasn't on vacation."

"Sure you were, kid. It's on the schedule; I approved it myself. There's paperwork and everything. The owners are glad you finally took some time off. You had more than three weeks coming to you. It makes them nervous that you've never taken a day off in five years."

I'm confused and my silence must confirm this to my manager. "So, are you coming in tomorrow? I'm down a cashier and could use ya."

Cashier? I'm a "back of the house" guy. The "make sure there's always chips on the display" guy; low man on the grocery store food chain.

"Uhhhh..." is my incoherent reply.

"It's time you take on more responsibility, kiddo. You have that pretty girl to take care of."

She knows. She knows about Emily. How does she know?

"I'll see you tomorrow, Ethan."

I'm left holding the phone wondering what the hell is going on.