seven

December 13th
9:17 PM
New York
——

The moon was high and the air was bitterly cold.

Thick flurries of snow drifted from the dark sky and dusted Audrey’s hair, the late night chill forcing its way into her lungs and bones as the brisk wind stung her eyes.

She wrapped her an arm around herself to trap even a fraction of the warmth her body was depleting and knocked on the off-white door in front of her with a shaking fist.

Ace’s apartment building stood right between two rotten alleyways and across a corner store. The streets were restless and fitfully cruel, and Audrey remembered being swarmed by unwanted gazes the moment she stepped foot off the bus.

Almost every wall was covered in graffiti, the sidewalks dirty. It would take a miracle to transform this part of the city into the picturesque neighbourhoods she used to live in with her family.

She knocked again, and to her left rose a guttural chuckle and the sound of heavy footsteps. Come on, Ace, open the door. A man seemingly materialized out of the dark hallway and his gaze fixed pointedly on Audrey caused her heart to climb into her throat.

“Oh, well ain’t you a pretty one.” The same man who she’d served at the diner two days ago grinned, revealing his yellowing teeth. “Thought you looked familiar.”

She kept her face as still as possible and looked straight ahead to mask her fear. Audrey’s knocks proceeded to get louder as the man approached her. She noticed his scruffy clothing and his crooked nose, the smoke he breathed out smelling nothing like Gunner’s usual cigarettes.

“I didn’t see you the other day,” his laughter scratched at his throat as if it were trying hard to escape on its own. “I gotta say I missed you all sweet n’ stuff, takin’ my order and everything. Did ya give my little offer a thought?”

He stood only a meter away from her, his aura causing her skin to crawl. “I already told you I have a–”

“What the hell are you doing here?”

Both sets of eyes darted to Ace’s burly figure in the doorway. He threw a side-glance at the man then enclosed his hand around her forearm and pulled her inside. “Get fucking lost, Cam. Want me to tell your girl you’ve got your eyes set on someone else? You know she won’t be happy about it.”

Cam scratched his jaw and spat. “She ain’t even my type of girl. She’s too shy for me,” he pinned her under his sinister stare.

“Good, now fuck off.” Ace slammed the door and the arms that were once secured around her slim body were folded over his chest. “Why’re you knocking at my door at this hour? Where’s your kid?”

“I’m looking for Gunner.” Audrey chided herself for sounding so meek in his presence. Ace was intimidating, and although this wasn’t the first time she encountered him, she always felt bare when they were alone.

“He stepped out for a couple of hours,” he said, walking further inside the apartment. It was just as bad as theirs, but it smelt repulsively of drugs–she always made sure Gunner did nothing of the sort at home. “Taking care of some stuff, y’know.”

She watched him flop down onto the couch and reach for the half-empty bottle of beer on the coffee table. Ace was ruggedly handsome; his skin held the same tan all year round, his eyes a dark brown and hair never allowed to grow past its close crop. But his lifestyle made him ugly.

“I don’t like you,” Audrey’s voice rang out in the small living area.

Ace held her gaze for less than a second before his brazen laugh pierced what had once been silence. “I don’t like me either but,” he took another swig of his beer, “there’s more to this than you think. I like Gunner. He’s a good guy.”

She looked away first, determined not to injure her pride any farther. “You aren’t good for him. Everything he’s doing is because of you. I’ve told him to stay away from you but he won’t listen to me. You’ve got him all corrupt.”

He lifted his shoulders in a lacklustre shrug and leaned back on the couch. “Did you just come here to scold me or did you come here for Gunner?”

“Well, he isn’t here right now so I guess scolding you will do.”

His lips curled in amusement. “I’ve never heard you talk this much before. You must be really pissed at me.”

“Fuck off.”

“Ohyou’re feisty today, chica.” Ace gestured to the space next to him and his coy grin died down to something gentler. “Come here.”

Audrey hesitated. “Why?”

“I’m not going to kill you so come here. Come sit next to me.”

She heeded to his request and sat on the opposite end of the couch, figuring that it was best to keep as much space between them as possible. Ace only chuckled at her demure behaviour like he always did in the past, finding it funny how wary she was of him. She picked up on his quick movement and soon after she was sitting next to him and his heavy arm was draped around her shoulders. Her cheeks flared red as she became uneased about their proximity.

“You know Gunner isn’t doing any of this to hurt you, right? He’s always talking about moving you guys out of this city and somewhere better.”

“It’s still wrong. He’s neglecting Leah.”

“You mean he’s neglecting you,” Ace insisted. “That’s why you’re here, sweetheartIt’s not about his kid. You miss the bastard.”

He was right, Audrey missed him. Not this him, but the old him. The Gunner she met before their daughter and before Ace. Everything used to be so blissful between them that she had left her life behind because she believed they were so in love. And that love would solve everything.

“She misses him too,” she said timidly as he chuckled low in her ear.

“You just miss him more.”

She looked away. “I just need to talk to him.”

“Now, I’m no couple’s therapist, but he was happy today so I know he got laid.”

Heat blossomed in Audrey’s chest. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Are you always this naïve? Or is it an act?” he pressed. “He tries hard for you and that kid of yours, so the least you could do is give him a little action when he wants it. You should have seen him before today; he was always grouchy and pissed and he constantly came complaining to me. Now look at him: he’s beaming. It’s not hard to make a man happy, Rey.”

She hated the way her nickname sounded coming from him. She hated his coy attitude. Most of all, she hated that Gunner had confided so deeply in him, even going as far as revealing details about their personal lives.

“What he and I do is none of your business. I don’t need you telling me what I should and shouldn’t do, especially when it comes to Gunner.”

His teeth sank into his bottom lip to ward his smile away. “Whatever you say, chica. You can pretend all you want, but I know everything about my best friend.”

“Stay out of it, Ace. This isn’t your problem.”

A knock pulled them away from each other and Audrey was on her feet just as quickly as Ace made for the front door. He opened it without checking, perhaps already expecting whomever it could have been.

Of course, it was none other than Gunner himself.

“He made me wait,” he said to Ace, unaware of her presence. “You’re lucky I’m a patient person.”

Ace responded with his usual bout of carefree laughter. “As long as you got money for it,” he stepped aside and swung the door shut. “Oh, and guess who’s here to see you?”

Gunner’s brows knitted together. He finally threw a glance over Ace’s shoulder where Audrey stood by the coffee table. The tension in the air created a fire he could feel consuming the room.

“Audrey–”

“I called you.”

Neither of them wanted to discuss what needed discussion. There was so much to say, but it never felt like the right time. “I don’t want you coming to places like this. It’s not for you,” he voiced, words heavy.

“What about you, though? Should you be here this late?”

Ace whistled low and rubbed the nape of his neck. “You two should work this out in private. Take her inside or something, Gun.”

The only reason she followed him into Ace’s room was that she didn’t want to cause a scene, nor for him to witness the ugly side of their relationship. When she and Gunner argued, emotions tended to boil over horribly.

Within the surprisingly tidy room, Gunner leaned back against the door and ran his fingers through his hair, jaw clenched. “Why the fuck did you come here?”

“Because I thought something had happened to you,” she confessed. Sorrow swallowed her whole. “I didn’t hear from you since you left this morning and I was worried. That’s why I came. I hope that’s a good enough explanation for you, Gunner.”

Gunner’s eyes flashed. He stepped forward, involuntarily seeking contact. Quickly, she stepped out of range and hugged her arms around herself. “I’m begging you to stop coming back here, baby. I don’t like this. Any of it.”

Audrey shook her head and gazed up as her eyes began to sting. “Neither do I, but it feels like I’m the only one who cares about what’s happening to you.”

He reached out to touch her but decided against it. Instead, he placed his hands in the pockets of his jeans. “I’m doing all this for us, Rey. I want us out of this place for good.”

“Are you dealing drugs again?”

She stared back at him with eyes that spoke so much of her fear. Fear that he’d tell her the truth. As much as she wanted it, it would be painful to bear.

Gunner swallowed as his gaze travelled off to the side. “We need money, Rey.”

“It’s illegal, Gunner. If you get caught you’ll end up in jail and then what? Ace can bail you out? What about your daughter?”

“I don’t have time for this. I have a deal to make in thirty minutes.”

“Are you fucking serious right now?” No matter how hard she tried to stay strong, she just couldn’t. It was as if there was a gaping hole inside of her chest ripping her open from the inside. “Gunner, can you please just come home to your family? Ace isn’t the only person that needs you.”

He felt his resolve shake. She drew in a ragged breath as her tears sprang forth and cascaded down her cheeks.

“You need to stop worrying about me, baby. I’ve been fine all these years, nothing’s gonna change us. This is just temporary.”

Resentful emotions rose to her throat and pulsed. He inspected her closely, the intricacy of reminiscing these arguments again and again. It was exhausting, it was painful. But no matter, they were back to where they started. She was a fool for thinking that last night had changed something inside of him, but it was crystal clear that he would never change. Audrey and his daughter weren’t good enough reasons for him.

“It’s already changed us! Everything’s changed! You…” her voice died, flattened by her sobs.

“You’re not the same. You’re more horrible than ever. Sometimes I even expect you to turn up dead. I think about that possibility every night. And the worst part of it all is I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened.”

In a desperate attempt to console her, he closed the distance she created. But it proved futile. Audrey evaded his arms and dragged her feet to the bedroom door. Being around him was beginning to feel suffocating.

“Baby,” he called, tone brittle. “I’m…please don’t walk away. We can talk about this. I’ll be home soon, I promise.”

“You don’t have to be,” she murmured to him. “I don’t want you home tonight. Stay here. I think it’s best for the both of us.”

Gunner’s heart sank deeper into the ocean that was his guilt. Turmoil burned a hole in his heart and the only method he could use to repair it was more of the habits his girlfriend detested. He wasn’t doing it on purpose; it wasn’t his main goal to torment her to the point of tears. A good father and boyfriend was just something he wasn’t made for, and the sooner she accepted it, the sooner she would stop running after him or putting herself through the trouble of showing him how much she cared.

“Audrey, I’ll fix us. Just give me some time.”

Anger mixed in together with the hurt and sadness that fuelled her tears. “I keep giving you time, but nothing’s happening.”

“Rey—”

She opened the door and walked away wordlessly.

* * *

December 13th
11:30 PM
New York

It was eleven-thirty when Audrey stormed into the lobby.

It was just as cold as the outside she came in from. The air around her buzzed with regret and mistrust, and although the hour was late and her daughter was still without her, she considered walking out again to distance herself from the world for just one night. Who could blame her when this was the only place she had to return to? It was as if everywhere she looked, something or someone was mocking her predicament, reminding her of all the grave mistakes she made and how much they had cost her.

As she pushed the button of the elevator, her previous thoughts guilted her. “I didn’t mean it, baby. I’m sorry.”

To call her daughter a mistake was a bit harsh though. The little girl didn’t ask to be born, she didn’t ask for two parents who were so busy playing a game of mental tug-of-war to pay attention to her, and she definitely didn’t ask for a family in shambles. But at the end of the day, it was what she received, regardless of whether she liked it or not.

“I didn’t take you for the crazy type. To stand here and talk to yourself,” a balmy voice transpired into the empty lobby. “Something shitty must’ve gone down.”

Michael pushed himself up from the adjacent wall and buried his hands in the pockets of his dark jeans. All Audrey spared him was a huff before repeatedly pushing the elevator button. God, she despised him, everything about his complacency and nonchalance. And his eyes were too dark and too vacant to look at.

“I’m surprised to see you without your little boy toy,” he continued prying for details. “He isn’t home yet? Or maybe you’re sneaking around without him?”

“I’m not sneaking around,” she stated and tilted her head back to watch the red numbers slowly drop, impatient for the lift’s arrival.

Oh, so you do talk,” Michael ran his tongue over his cracked lips that took on a sluggish smile. “But hey, that isn’t any of my business. I’m just glad I got this chance to talk to you about some pressing matters at hand.”

The elevator dinged open, but his stare rendered her immobile. She angled herself towards him and dug into the pockets of her coat, hands clenched into fists. “I don’t owe you anything, so just leave me alone. I’m not in the mood.”

“But you do,” his grin stretched farther than she thought possible. “We’re technically halfway into the month and I haven’t gotten that cheque yet, doll.”

Rent. It was the last thing on her mind these days, and after losing her job recently she wasn’t so sure she could magically work up the money he was asking for. The alternative would have been waiting for Gunner to use his drug money, but she didn’t want that for them.

A long breath flitted her lungs and she upturned her face to the chipping, grey paint on the ceiling. “I need some more time to make enough money. Give me an extension, please.”

Michael rolled his head from side to side and the sight of that grin, permanently etched onto his lips, churned her stomach. He watched her like predators watched their prey, waiting for the opportunity to strike. And this was an opportunity he wouldn’t pass up.

“That’s the third extension you’ve asked for in the past four months. I can’t keep giving you all these privileges,” he used a hand to rub the nape of his neck, the other toying with the chain of keys attached to his belt loop.

“But you’re my favourite tenant and I wouldn’t want you on the street.” His voice fell to a hush and she was sure he could hear the beating of her heart. “Especially with that little girl of yours. That would make me feel bad.”

“What do you want, Michael?”

“Ah,” his spine straightened and his expression morphed into something daunting. “Just a little favour. Technically, I wouldn’t call it a favour, but it’s a little request that I have to make.”

Audrey regretted asking her question the moment it slipped out.

“Your boyfriend isn’t gonna be home tonight, so I’m sure he can’t fuss over what he doesn’t know. I’m talking no rent this month if you just keep me company for tonight.”

“You mean sleep with you? That’s what you’re asking?” She might have harboured ill feelings toward Gunner, but she would never stoop as low as to be with another man. Neither did he spend his time in the company of other women. They were certainly a wrecked and broken couple, but that was a line they would never cross. “You’re a pain in the ass, Michael. Just leave me the hell alone for once.”

“It’s a good offer.”

Michael’s laughter echoed loudly. She was almost worried they’d be caught. “I’m not cheating on my boyfriend.”

“You wouldn’t be cheating,” he explained. “You’d be doing your entire family a service. Think about it, one month of no rent–make it two, actually. No stress, nothing to worry about for another thirty days. You’d get to keep that home of yours and stay off the streets. That’s like my Christmas gift to you all. Seems like an awful lot for one night, but that’s because I like you, doll.”

She had a hard time understanding what continued to nourish his unhealthy obsession with her and his abhorrence for Gunner.

“I’m not having sex with you.”

“Then I expect you out of that apartment in two weeks’ time. I’ll send you the eviction notice tomorrow.”

Audrey’s heart was clenching in her chest. Her teeth scraped along her lips until they drew blood. Was it even a choice? One night with Michael compared to months, maybe years looking for a new place to live? What about her daughter? She’d be the one suffering the consequences. Yes, this was an impossible dilemma, one where she would have to choose between the lesser of two evils. She knew that was how Michael loved to operate; for a man who claimed to feel some sort of adoration toward her, he sure was cruel. Or was seeing her suffer something he enjoyed? Was her pain a sick game to him?

“You can’t do that,” she said.

“Yes,” he retorted. “I can.”

Her self-control dwindled the longer she stood in his presence. Everything he had said pointed to the deep-rooted jealously he had over Gunner. For what exactly? She had no clue. What she did understand, however, was that despite his endless taunting about her boyfriend, he felt inadequate. And he should have. Gunner was the farthest thing from perfect (quite the opposite, actually), but he had more decency than a man who preyed on women’s vulnerabilities.

“I tried being considerate, Audrey. You’re making this harder than it has to be. But, you know, it’s okay.” He unhooked the keys from around his belt loop and out of habit, tossed and caught them with one hand. “I get it. You love your deadbeat boyfriend. He’s probably a charmer behind closed doors or he’s so fantastic in bed that you can’t help but cling onto him like a lost little animal. It’s pathetic, doll. You and Gunner are a complete shitshow and yet you claim to love the guy.”

Gunner… she didn’t want him using drugs as a source of income.

“Two weeks, doll. If you’re not out of my apartment by then, I’ll call the fucking cops and have you arrested for trespassing.” His words were threatening, his expression was one of absolute calm. “And you know what happens to your precious daughter?” He leaned closer to her, the corners of his mouth tugging upward to create a rotten smirk. “Gunner can’t take care of her all on his own, so she’ll probably end up in foster care. Another family will adopt her. She’ll forget who you are. And years down the road you’ll regret not doing everything you could to protect her.”

Saying no to him was a privilege because the reality of things was exponentially brutal. She couldn’t deny that what he said held a semblance of truth when, in fact, she herself knew the consequences of putting herself before her daughter.

Michael began rounding the next corner, but she grasped his wrist before he could walk off. “Wait! Um…two months, right?”

His smile spread again. “That’s right, sweetheart.”

It took everything in her will to say yes. Inside, something waned and was snuffed out.

As he pushed her into his dark bedroom struggling with her clothes and kissed her, she couldn’t even cry.

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