Please Help (part two)
“Give him the phone. I like it.”
The crouching man stood. He gave Milton a face that didn’t smile, but suppressed amusement. “Yeah, bud…think you can remember what I look like?”
“No, look…” Echoing her—the one who seemed, for their short acquaintance, almost a friend—Milton found himself pleading with her eyes, backing himself a step, asking her with a glance, down and up, will you stay there, between me and the gun, will you let me go? If he’d had more time to think, he might have asked himself, could this guy honest-to-god shoot me? What’s the use?
She flapped into the trash pile with the sole of her sandal, moving away from Milton, and rolled her eyes. He thought he’d braced his shoulders, tensed up, given a signal that he’d made up his mind now to run…and the guy caught him, an uncompromising fist clenching the belt at Milton’s waist. He was inside the apartment, and heard the door shush into its frame at his back.
The woman on the mattress was sitting up cross-legged, drinking the last of the water bottle. She had short dark hair, cut in bangs across the forehead. She was wearing yoga pants and a tee shirt, both grey, like a pair of pajamas. She made a cheeky gesture for Milton, pointing at her own face, waggling the bottle in her hand.
“I think he doesn’t see the news.”
“Um…you don’t really want me here,” he tried.
“Did you give him the phone? I’m serious.” The man was at the window, talking over his back. Milton’s friend checked her watch.
“We need you to get us something to eat. I guess you have money.”
Milton had only the twenty he always carried, a couple of Sacajawea dollars he kept because he was unlikely to spend them, except in emergency…and the usual loose change. He hadn’t got a donation yet today.
“I want cereal. That’s what I really want. He could go to a grocery store.”
The man, deciding on action, whipped round from the window and stooped by the mattress.
“Take it!” he told Milton.
This needed paraphrasing. It made no sense. Milton repeated his orders. “Take your phone. Go to the store…how come I wouldn’t just go to the cops?”
“The cops know we’re here.”
It was an admission…Milton guessed if this was the guy’s apartment, he could wave a gun around, whatever he wanted. But they were doing some kind of crime. While he was out, he ought to find a newspaper. It was her face, the one on the mattress, not the man’s, he should remember.
“But even so…if I’m going by myself…I mean, I can go, can’t I…?”
“Yeah, but you’re gonna help us. Because we’re asking you to. Because we got nothing to eat, like I said.”
He was taking the phone. He was following the signs. The phone itself was giving him the address, and a map to find the shopping center, and he could wake it anytime he felt lost. He shouldn’t get lost. It was only six blocks altogether to the highway, and there were traffic lights he could see from here…the sidewalk had given out with a truncated curb and a manhole cover, but the stores were on the near side. Easy to step along the grass by the ditch. He would get cereal and milk, bologna and bread, bananas, cookies, pretzels…ice cream, everything he could carry that a twenty would buy.
He thought he would go ahead and get ice cream. His friend had wanted it, and the man had made her blush, heaping too much contempt on a small hope.
“Jesus fuck, be melted by the time he gets back.”
They expected him to come back. He had the punch-code on a scrap of waxed burger wrapper, in his pocket. “You see a car with an open window, toss the phone in. You know your way once you get there. Don’t bring it with you.”
He took himself on a parking lot tour, a nervous amble round to the rear entrance of the building, where two metal doors at platform height were closed, and the shade of concrete walls meeting at a corner smelled like damp basement. There was a car here, just at the curb, with its trunk lid popped. Not many eyes. No one Milton could see standing close. He did a rude thing, improvising—propped the heel of his shoe on the bumper, and made—since he had buckles, not laces—to run a finger around his sock, like he’d picked up a pebble. He wouldn’t have called the drop smooth.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)