As dusk gave way to a temperate December evening, Mallory searched for number 218 in the Hanging Gardens Apartments. She tried not to notice the rust streaked down the concrete walls, the cracked walkways, and the grime edging the murky pool. The deterioration of human existence.
A light popped on at the deep end of the pool, just below the receding water line, startling her. The illuminated moths and beetles floated haphazardly on the surface, no filter at work. Mallory had learned to swim in such a pool, in such a courtyard when she was five.
It was the summer her mother had married a new “daddy,” making Mallory ask where her old daddy was. “Shush," her mother had said, “You don’t want to hurt Tom’s feelings, do you? That’s your daddy.” She pointed to Tom waiting in the water. “Go get back in there.”
Mallory had been jumping to Tom near the drop to the deep end. Her Styrofoam “bubble” centered between her bony shoulder blades, clasped at her diaphragm. No amount of coaxing could convince her she didn't need it. Over and over she had leaped to within a foot of Tom, and over and over he found her up-stretched arms, even before she bobbed to the surface.
After her mother had shushed her, Mallory streaked across the grass, trying to please. “Here I come, Daddy!” She was mid-air when she realized she’d forgotten her bubble. “Gonna learn to swim now, by golly,” he yelled, laughing. No strong hands met hers.
That was the last time she thought of him as “daddy,” and the first time she thought of him as a bad man.
Mallory stepped away from the pool, her overnight bag sliding from her shoulder. She headed for the staircase to her left, passing flowering, yellow, Chinese Lanterns and Hibiscus. Here was something she missed, the flowers and shrubs of southern California. The exotic colors and shapes did all they could to make places like this habitable to the heart.
Broadcasts of news, and basketball and Hispanic television drowned out the crickets as she reached the second-story landing. Raw odors seeped from under peeling doors. She had always known she’d come back to a place like this—though she thought it would be for her mother—to take her away because Tom had died. Tom with two strokes and chronic high blood-pressure.
Even during childhood, Mallory had lain awake, sandwiched between her mattress and the cool wallboard, praying God would kill Tom. That He would release her mother from his meanness.
Mallory had banked on time, made it her hope. Eventually, she’d have her mother.
When the call came, Tom had had to repeat himself for her to understand. “Dead, she’s dead—in her sleep.”
Apartment 218 was two doors from where Mallory stood. Only the dimmest light could be seen coming through the bent slats at the window. For a God of justice, this felt horribly unjust. Mallory moved forward, her turtleneck constricting.
No answer came from her knocks. Maybe, he was dead, too. Slumped on the kitchen floor. She tried the door. It slid open without resistance. The place reeked of aged body odors. Tom sat on the edge of the couch, head in his hands. His body and hair, in equal measures, thin and filthy. As he breathed, he groaned.
Mallory looked for dirty dishes, used glasses. There were none. No casseroles from neighbors. No flowers. No cards. A silent phone.
“Mallory—you came,” Tom was looking at her, eyes sallow. Beard underway. She found him completely disgusting, but damn if she didn’t feel pity, too. “You came,” he repeated.
“Where is she—her body?”
“I’m not sure. They want me to make decisions—I can’t.” He groaned so low it reverberated in Mallory’s boots. She dropped her bag and sat in her mother’s rocking chair. The stain completely worn off the arms. Some people chewed their nails, others rubbed stain off wood.
This wasn’t the Tom she’d expected. Mallory began rocking in the chair. What was she supposed to do? Fly him three thousand miles home? No. Absolutely not. She’d call Todd. But she knew what he’d say, for she had married a good man, a man of mercy. A man who was everything her stepfather was not.
This wasn't how she'd planned it.
She feared for what it would do to their lives.
And yet God wasn’t worried. He knew the effect the good man would have upon the bad one.
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