Another week, another excellent challenge at Friday Flash Fiction. This week, in lieu of a starter sentence, Cormac Brown offered up four words to be incorporated in our stories. Sounded easy, until I realised that I didn't even know what one of them meant...
The four words were: Cache, Cashew, Eschew, Through. Hope you enjoy it and, as always, any tips on improvement or typo-spotting always welcome.
Alice had been working for Meals on Wheels for over a decade now and Mrs. Helder, her first delivery of the week, was by far the grumpiest (bitchiest) client she had. Not the greatest way to start the week.
Pulling up outside Mrs. Helder’s apartment block, Alice quickly shut off the radio, got out of the car and retrieved the small cache of food and medicine from the boot. Alice still could not believe that one woman could go through so much in one week.
The street outside Mrs. Helder’s seemed unnaturally quiet. This was not the wine-and-caviar section of town (more the beer and cashew nuts crowd) but still, she expected to find people milling about, small children playing in the street. She studied the faded and decaying building, the paint peeling badly and more than a few windows boarded up. No wonder this was the last refuge for the elderly, desperate and poor.
Heaving open the side entrance door, her senses were immediately assaulted by the smell of piss and decaying food, making her gag. Alice could never get used to that stench, no matter how many times she came here. Taking a shallow breath (she didn’t want to risk a deep one), Alice knocked on the door of number twenty-three. She heard footsteps in the hall beyond the door and a weak voice asking who was knocking. Alice found that strange; she usually just peered through the spy-hole that Alice had installed for her on her second visit. Maybe she couldn’t see very well as the light bulb on the landing was missing – probably stolen.
“It’s just Alice, Mrs. Helder. Got your delivery.” Alice waited patiently at the door as she heard the locks being disengaged. The old lady had four massive door chains and her hands were full of arthritis. It usually took her a few minutes to unlatch them all.
While she waited, she thought about the other residents in this block; she had come to know many of them during her visits. They were mainly retirees, unable to afford to live in private rental accommodations. They were a different community to what she was used to; she lived in tidy streets and leafy neighbours, they lived in a run-down apartment block, surrounded by drugs, guns and violence. She may as well be visiting another planet.
She sensed someone behind her, watching her and she turned to find Mr. Jackson, the Gulf-War veteran, peering at her from behind the mesh security door. His face was a mass of mangled flesh and deep scars and, even in this light, she could see that he was concerned about something. He was leaning heavily on his walking stick, looking much older than his fourty-nine years.
“I don’t think you should be going in there today, Miss. Bad things are happening here.”
Before she had time to ask him what he meant, the door to Mrs. Helder’s apartment was flung open and Alice felt a hand grip her forearm and pull her through the door. Her left shoulder collided with the door frame and she cried out; not in pain but in surprise. A split second later, pain caused her to groan, this time as she lost her footing and landed heavily, head first, against the solid oak coffee table. She felt the air rush out of her, leaving her doubled-over, gasping for breath. She noticed two men in the room. Seconds later she was left writhing in pain as one man unleashed a hellish right boot into her ribs.
Rolling ever so gently onto her side, Alice could see Mrs. Helder on the couch – hands tied behind her back and a gag in her mouth, held in place by a thick strip of black tape. The other man was sitting beside her, a handful of the old woman’s hair gripped in his fist.
“Who the fuck are you?”
It was such a simple question but said with such force and anger, it felt like a slap across Alice’s face. She couldn’t find the breath to answer so she attempted to reach for her purse, to offer her work credentials. The man nearest her stalked across the floor and planted that big heavy boot down on her wrist, causing Alice to scream in agony once again.
“It’s alright, sweetheart, I can get it.” Bigfoot reached into her purse, surprisingly still slung over her shoulder and grabbed for her identification. He let his hand wander slightly, brushing against her breast and leaving it there for the shortest time, but to Alice it felt like forever.
“Alice Knowles – homecare worker.” Bigfoot looked down at her with disdain. “Isn’t that bloody civil-minded of you?” He tossed her plastic ID across the room and emptied her purse onto the floor beside her. Alice had been brought up to eschew ne’er-do-well’s and, as such, she had no point of reference of how to react to the disorienting predicament she now found herself in.
The other man, so far silent, rose from the sofa and walked to the middle of the room, took Alice’s chin in one hand and slapped her hard across the face with the other. “Interfering bitch,” she heard him declare. “Take her to the spare room and do whatever you think necessary, but make it quick,” he had directed his accomplice. “Once we get the cash out of the old cow, we are out of here - and you know what that means for these two.”
Alice felt bile rise in her throat, despair like a lead weight in her heart. Bigfoot grabbed her roughly by the hair, hauling her to an upright position. She couldn’t put any weight on her legs, pain still shooting through her side where she had caught the kick earlier. Half-carried, half-dragged, Bigfoot led her down the darkened hallway into a small bedroom. It was an elegant room, considering the building that contained it and Alice had a crazy thought that if she was going to die, at least it was in a beautifully furnished room. Mrs. Helder obviously had more means than the Social Security documentation showed. Alice giggled insanely to herself at the shrewdness of the old woman.
Bigfoot threw her roughly onto the small bed in the corner of the room, the spring groaning in protest of the sudden weight upon it. Alice felt tears come to her eyes once more as Bigfoot hit her closed-fisted in the chin, a rush of darkness enfolded her then quickly disappeared as she felt hands on her body, trying to remove her top. She fought hard but he was bigger, stronger and more determined. She heard him undo the zipper on her pants and felt him pull them down to her knees. She felt his body on her. She could smell alcohol and onions on his breath. She quietly prayed to a God she had believed in as a child, that she would get through this, if only with her life intact.
Without warning, a man appeared at the window, a finger against his lips, telling her to keep quiet. He showed her a gun, and motioned to Bigfoot, indicating that he was the target. Alice was more frightened now; what if the shot went astray, killing her by mistake? She shuddered involuntarily under Bigfoot. The man at the window put his hand to his ear, apparently in communication with another person. He took his hand away and held up three fingers. Two fingers. One finger...
The noise was deafening; glass shattered and Bigfoot spun around in surprise. The look of surprise was more pronounced when he removed his hand from his neck, discovering the blood and slumping onto the floor beside the bed. Gunfire erupted in the same instant from the front room, where Mr. Do-What-You-Think-Necessary had been with Mrs. Helder. Alice prayed that whoever was out there was as accurate a shot as the man now climbing in the shattered window in front of her. The new arrival bent down, placed his fingers against Bigfoot’s neck and stood again, nodding with satisfaction.
“Clear!” came a voice she recognised.
“Clear!” replied the man in the bedroom, who was now helping her into a dressing gown that had been hanging from the back of the door.
The door opened and in strode Mr. Jackson from across the hall, no longer looking feeble and crippled. Alice had never been so happy to see another human being in her life – except maybe for the man who had come into her life only a minute before.
“Ah, Miss Knowles, I see you have met Mr. Gibson.”
“But...what...?” Alice stammered.
Mr. Jackson placed a kind-hearted arm around her shoulders. “Never mind, there is plenty of time for explanations. Let’s get you and poor Mrs. Helder to the hospital and we can talk later.”
Alice leaned into the comforting embrace.
“Okay, I can live with that.”