By eleven I was already tired and needed to pee in a bad way, so I ducked into the bathroom. Out of toilet paper already (of course), and I knew damned well nobody had time to restock. I pulled out my phone, doing a quick check for messages, and saw two. One from Miranda, my babysitter, and a second from Ruger, the world’s scariest almost-in-law.
Miranda first. I held it to my ear and listened, hoping to hell everything was all right. No way Dick would let me off early, even for an emergency. Ruger could wait.
“Mom, I’m scared,” Noah said.
“I took Miranda’s phone and I’m hiding in the closet,” he continued. “There’s a bad guy here and he’s smoking inside and he wanted me to smoke, too, and they kept laughing at me. He tried to tickle me and make me sit on his lap. Now they’re watching a movie that has naked people in it and I don’t like it. I don’t want to be here and I want to go home. I want you to come home. I really need you. Right now.”
I heard his breath hitch, like he was crying but didn’t want me to know, and then the message cut out.
I took a couple of deep breaths, trying to control my surge of adrenaline. I checked the time on the message—almost forty-five minutes ago. My stomach twisted and for a second I thought I might puke. Then I pulled it together and left the bathroom. I managed to walk back into the bar and have Brett, the bartender, unlock the drawer where we kept our purses.
“I need to get home, my kid’s in trouble. Tell Dick.”
With that I headed toward the door, pushing through drunken frat boys. I was almost out when someone grabbed my arm, spinning me around. My boss stood there, glaring.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going, Williams?”
“There’s an emergency,” I told him. “I need to go home.”
“You leave me now with a crowd like this, don’t come back,” Dick growled. I leaned forward and stared him down, which was pretty easy considering the guy was hardly more than five feet tall. On good days I thought of him as a hobbit.
Tonight he was just a troll.
“I need to take care of my son,” I said coldly, using my deadliest troll-killing voice. “Let go of my arm. Now. I’m leaving.”
Driving home took at least a year.
I kept trying to call Miranda, but nobody answered. When I reached our ancient apartment building, I tore up the wooden stairs to the top floor, shaking with a weird mixture of rage and fear. Miranda’s place was right across from my little studio, and while my thighs and calves hated the climb, I’d loved how we were the only residents up here. Until now.
Tonight it felt remote and scary.
I heard music and grunting as I pounded on the door. No answer. I pounded harder and wondered if I’d have to break in. Then the door flew open. A tall guy with unbuttoned pants and no shirt blocked the entry. He had the start of a gut and bloodshot eyes. I smelled pot and booze.
“Yeah?” he asked, swaying. I tried looking around him, but he blocked me.
“My son, Noah, is here,” I said, struggling to stay calm and focus on what really counted. I could kill this ass**le later. “I’m here to pick him up.”
“Oh, yeah. Forgot about him. C’mon in.”
He stepped aside and I ducked past him. Miranda’s place was a studio just like ours, so I should’ve seen Noah right away. Instead I spotted my useless neighbor on the couch, collapsed on her back with her eyes glazed and a dreamy smile on her face. Her clothes were rumpled, her long hippie skirt shoved up above her splayed knees. The phone lay on the coffee table in front of her, next to a bong made out of plastic pens, foil, and a Mountain Dew bottle. Empties surrounded it, because apparently weed wasn’t enough to keep her entertained while she failed to babysit my seven-year-old child.
“Miranda, where’s Noah?” I demanded. She looked at me blankly.
“How should I know?” she slurred.
“Maybe he went outside,” the guy muttered, turning away from me as he reached into the fridge for another beer.
I caught my breath.
Across his back was a giant tattoo that looked kind of like Ruger’s, only it said Devil’s Jacks instead of Reapers. Motorcycle club. Bad news. Always bad, despite what Ruger insisted.
I’d think about that later. Focus. I needed to find Noah.
His voice was soft and trembling. I looked around frantically, then saw him climbing in through an open window facing the street. Oh my God. I moved toward him, forcing myself to approach oh-so-carefully. Four flights above the ground and my boy was clinging to a windowsill. If I wasn’t damned careful, I’d knock him off the ledge.
I reached out and clamped my hands around his upper arms, pulling him in and clutching him close. He wrapped around me like a little monkey. I rubbed my hand up and down his back, whispering how much I loved him and promising never to leave him alone like that again.
“I don’t get what you’re so upset about,” Miranda muttered, pulling herself up to make room for her ass**le boyfriend. “There’s a fire escape out there and it’s not like it’s cold. It’s August. Kid was fine.”
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and forced myself to stay calm. Then I opened them and looked past her.
That’s when I saw the p**n on the TV.
My eyes skittered away from the sight of a silicone woman screwing four guys simultaneously. Something terrible took fire in my heart.
Stupid bitch. Miranda would pay for this.
“What’s your problem, anyway?” she slurred.
I didn’t bother answering. I just needed to get my boy out of there and home safe. I’d deal with my neighbor tomorrow.
Maybe by then I’d have calmed down enough not to end her miserable life.
I carried Noah out of the apartment and across the hallway to my own door. Somehow I managed to get it open without dropping him, fingers trembling from suppressed rage and a healthy dose of guilt.
I’d failed him.
My baby needed me, and instead of protecting him, I’d left him parked with a druggie who could’ve gotten him killed. Being a single mom sucked.
It took a warm bath, an hour of snuggles, and four books to get Noah to sleep.
Me? I wasn’t sure I’d ever sleep again.
The summer heat didn’t help—I swear, the place had zero airflow. After an hour of sweating in the darkness, watching his little chest rise and fall, I gave up. I popped a beer and sat down on our couch, a thousand plans running through my head. First, I’d kill Miranda. Then either I needed to find a new place to live or she did. I also pondered whether to call the cops.