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Death in the Fort - Chapter Twelve

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Jan Hoffman | The Journal Gazette

Chapter 12

Of all the people we expected to see when we returned from Auburn to Loree Street, Darleen was not one of them. Jaime? Yeah. Messing around in his organic garden or washing his car. Or his girls, even, hollering and screeching and building a fort in our backyard. But not Darleen.

"Can we even still call her that?" I'd asked on the ride home. "Should we call her Fake Darleen now?"

"How about Farleen?" Jessica said.

Still, there she was, Darleen, standing in the corner of our living room, pulling books off the shelf and flinging them onto the floor behind her. She looked tired and panicky - an angry line between her eyes, chunks of frizzy hair sticking to her sweaty cheek. And every few seconds, she would glance between the bookshelf, the books on the floor and the clock on top of the television. Manic, they call it. She looked manic.

Jessica and I just stood at the front door, kind of stunned, I guess, and quietly watched her until she turned around.

"Where have you been?!" She shouted it at us, loud enough to make me wince and Jessica rear back. "I need my box, you guys. Real quick."

"We don't have it," Jessica lied. "We threw it away after your little boyfriend tried to shoot us."

Jessica's face was stony. It's rare to see her that way; eyes like steel, mouth a thin, red line. I've seen her like that only once before - several years ago, when she found my still unsigned divorce papers buried under a bunch of mail and newspapers on my desk.

I'd been married less than a year by the time I'd realized it was a mistake - the huge kind you make right after someone you love dies. In my case, my dad. But it was only after I'd admitted my mistake that everyone else jumped on the bandwagon. ("I never liked him," Jaime had said. "He always reminded me of a thin Jabba the Hut. Something about the eyes, maybe.") Still, I was hem-hawing around with those papers for a while. My husband was long gone - out to California by that point - and I was still thinking about joining him. I had classy ideas about what would happen, too. Lots of begging him to take me back and hanging onto the bumper of his car … bawling … with no shoes on. Stuff like that.

"But why?" Jessica had asked.

"Because he's the only family I still have." I'd started wailing by that point, dramatically burying my head in a load of couch cushions.

"No, he's not." Jessica shook me, giving me the same look she was giving Darleen now. "I'm your family," she'd said. "So stop whining and sign this thing."

Jessica - eyes flashing - was advancing toward Darleen now, taking big, stalking steps and yelling about baby monitors and shotguns and bratwurst. She wasn't making much sense, but then she stopped short.

Darleen was crying. Wha? And she was an ugly crier, too - face crumpled and beet red, lots of sniffing. In the year we'd known her, we'd seen her do many things. Barf in the bushes outside our house, for instance. But we'd never seen her cry.

"The guy. With the gun," Darleen said, taking a few swipes at a tear. "His name is Travis, and he's not my boyfriend. Not anymore. But he's going to hurt me if I don't give him what's in that box."

She lifted the sleeve of her shirt and showed us a craggy, gaping wound on the inside of her arm, near her bicep. Blood - it looked red and fresh - was seeping through the paper towels she'd crudely taped around it.

"He did this to me," she said. "Right out here. Right in front of our houses. Please. I'm asking for your help. He wants that money. The money in the box."

So, I'm just asking. What would you do in a situation like this? This woman - Fake Darleen, our neighbor - was quiet possibly in real trouble. The kind of casual (but very real) danger that comes courtesy of an abusive ex-boyfriend. On the other hand, she had lied to us. A lot. And for all we knew, she'd made off with the real Darleen's identity - her birth certificate, her Social Security card - and all of her settlement money. (Although we were pretty sure there weren't thousands of dollars inside that box. We'd dug through it enough times to know that at least.)

I could see Jessica soften, her posture sort of deflate. "It's in my car," she said. "Is there anything we can do? Should we call the police?"

Darleen stopped crying - sort of suddenly. And then she gave us a sort of half-smile and turned in the direction of our kitchen.

"Travis!" she said, turning back toward us. "They say it's in the car!"

Like a slow-motion nightmare - the kind where you want to run away, but can't; the kind where the last thing you want to happen happens - in walked yuck mouth.

From a distance, from the safety and darkness of the alley, he'd seemed skinny, small even. But up close he was pretty intimidating. He was thin, but wiry. And jumpy. The kind of guy who might kick his shoes off before he cracks you across the jaw for no good reason.

"That's my girl, Nikki," he said. "Good work, hon."

"You're Nikki?" Jessica mumbled it, but clammed up when she saw Travis flip open a switchblade. He brushed past us - making these fake knife jabs toward our faces and laughing when we winced - and headed for the porch. He slammed open the screen door and made his way down the front steps toward the station wagon.

He stopped, sort of jerked back. Peeping his head into the passenger side window of Jessica's car, I saw him - him! of all people! - wrinkle up his nose and mouth the word "disgusting."

"You two! Get out here!" he yelled. "This car is filled with crap!"

Jessica and I walked like two soldiers - shoulder to shoulder, holding hands - out the front door, down the steps and over to the car, Darleen giving us little shoves from behind.

"You!" he pointed at Jessica. "Get in there and get my stuff."

And then he called Jessica a name. It's a common name - a word women hear all the time, actually. We even may use it ourselves from time to time. But it's also the kind of word that certain people hate. Jaime is one of those people and, unfortunately for him, he has a weird knack for hearing it - in crowded rooms, even - and it always means trouble. From the street, I saw him pop his head up from his garden, pull himself up on the fence and whip off his headphones.

"Martha?" He squinted, trying to find me on the porch. "Is everything OK?"

Then, from around the corner of Jaime's house - like three squealing, scabby-kneed angels - Bella, Sophie and Carmen came tearing over to us.

"Martha! Martha!" Bella said. "Play with us! Look what I found in the toilet this morning!" (She was holding a coffee mug.)

Little kids have a way of doing that - throwing cold water all over a situation, no matter how intense. One minute, you're threatening a couple of women with a switchblade, the next (unless you're a real sicko) you're quickly removing yourself from the situation.

Bella grabbed the hem of my shorts just as Travis was putting his arm around my neck, his gross mouth near my ear.

"I want that box," he said, his voice low. "I'll be in touch, princess. We're gonna finish this later."

"You want some coffee, Mister?" Bella offered Travis the mug she'd unearthed from the toilet and looked him in the eye.

"Never mind," she said, and buried her face in my knees.