Please Help (part one)

Stylized photo of apartment house

Short Stories

Please Help
(part one)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The accent came fleetingly to his attention—

And he saw no reason to care about it. People came from different places. Milton’s hand moved fishlike, a swath of metal buttons cleared by the gesture. Everywhere they wanted punchcodes.

Easy getting them, though.

“Hey, I locked myself out.”

She jabbed out sixteen digits. “You must be new.”

As this was impossible, he hadn’t tried following her finger with his eye. Though he liked jotting this stuff down…funny how you could come back four years later, and the code would be the same. Milton had charity to sell, another memorial to beg for the building of. People hated to say they wouldn’t give, but often enough they ended up feeling convinced of it. And the picture of the dead soldier was one he’d used for a few years now.

Be rich, putting that across, someone said. Or someone’s television said. He put his ear flat against cold paint. Milton had taken the elevator all the way up, muttering to himself, “Start at the top, Champ.” That was six floors. The house, he was sure, had a couple more, stairs only. There was a weird little lobby across, that hit you when the door swooshed open. Ugly carpet, fiber berbered into clusters of blue and green. Hard to make those colors clash.

And the window was wire inside glass, splintered. Because these shards couldn’t fall out, no one would fix it. Then also a chair, that would have had a seat made from vinyl straps, but all it had was a metal frame, and a pair of straps to rest your shoulders on.

He looked at all this, looked at the end of the hall, where a tall window above a slab of marble was cranked open. Milton thought he would see a roof, not a drop to the pavement…so someone could go out there. He thought he heard the accented voice again, and that she really was out there, speaking to a friend.

She had to have run up the stairs. Six flights, pretty good shape.

He strolled along that way, rapping knuckles on both doors. On impulse, waiting for an answer, Milton edged sideways, leaned out the window…and got a shock. The girl had a short ponytail, beach sandals on. He saw the hair bob, a sole smack the heel of a foot. For a moment she was within his sight, at the corner, her fingers between the bricks, swinging herself out over nothing. He thought she had actually entered this silent apartment he stood outside of.

City kids…even the girls! Sheesh.

What to do, but knock loud?

No…Christ! someone said. This was live, Milton thought. He wanted the angry SOB to feel sorry, come out and yell in his face, and feel sorry…that all the guy at the door wanted was a donation. People were not always sorry, of course, and the hero angle did not always play on their bad consciences. He knocked again, let his knuckles strike sharp, with no special character—no impatience, no wise guy rhythm.

“Anyone at home?”

“Oh, look!”

The girl put her head through the crack, after a sequence of noises, that sounded to Milton like greater precautions taken than a bolt and chain. He thought she’d moved a piece of furniture. She hadn’t been careful to keep sarcasm, or maybe real exasperation, out of her voice.

 

 

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He could see over her head that the room was not furnished, and a man inside crouched on the floor, intent on something the door blocked from view.

“I think you should let him in.”

Whoever said this, they could or not, far as Milton cared. He was going to ask for ten bucks, and if that was a lot, five. He had no rules about visible wealth, or visible poverty. There didn’t seem to be any, as to whether people gave or not. The ritziest neighborhoods, where a few dollars was tip money, they might as easily call the cops.

The girl was giving him chin-up scrutiny. She backed away, widening the gap. Milton said at once, “I’m collecting. Your good deed for the day…huh?” He had the brochure in his hand, and held it out to her. He saw for himself there was a mattress on the floor, a stack, one that had grown and tipped, of plastic silverware and restaurant styrofoam…ketchup packages inching off like slugs, a water bottle sitting half-full. The woman lying on the mattress seemed groping after this.

“Give him the phone. I like it.” The crouching man stood. He gave Milton a face that didn’t smile, while the eyes mocked. The hand dangled a gun by the trigger. “Yeah, bud…think you can remember what I look like?”

Milton found himself pleading with her, the one who seemed, for their short acquaintance, almost a friend, backing a step into the hall, asking her with a glance, down and up, will you stay there, between me and the gun, will you let me go? With 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, moving away from Milton. He braced his shoulders, tensed up, a signal he’d made up his mind to run…and the guy caught him. An uncompromising clench of 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 crosslegged, 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.

“You wanna give him the phone? I’m serious.” The man was at the window, talking over his back. Milton’s friend checked her watch.

“You can 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…and pockets weighed by 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.”

 

 

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Please Help

Virtual cover for Short Story collectionSee other stories on Short Stories page
Please Help (part two)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(2017, Stephanie Foster)

 

 

 

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