December 12th
7:12 AM
New York
– – – – – – – – – –

Gunner couldn’t resist the urge to light the cigarette and inhale its poison. It kept him alive in a way, as ridiculous as it might sound to him. The very thing he smoked was what tore him apart. He made sure Audrey was still asleep when he slipped out of their room and out to the outdoor hallway. An hour later and he almost burned through one full packet of smokes, bringing one after the other to his lips despite the early hour.

This was the kind of place that was full of dirty business. With weeds growing out between the concrete and cars old enough to have come from junkyards. Certainly not the best, certainly better than a shelter. He had been in and out of enough in his short lifetime, so a place of their own–though cheap and shabby–was an accomplishment in and of itself. If it came to it, he used to sleep in the car. He had only been sixteen when his parents kicked him out because of his drug abuse. Sleepless nights in the backseat of his car weren’t a foreign predicament.

He inhaled and exhaled the smoke from the cigarette between his cracked lips, so taken by his thoughts that he failed to hear the creaking of the door behind him.

“What’re you doing out here?”

Gunner saw no reason to hide. His girlfriend already had the answer once the smoke danced around her nostrils. He met Audrey’s questioning eyes, and stifling a cough with his arm he sniffled softly and swiped a hand over his nose. “I needed a smoke,” he said. “I couldn’t do it inside. If Leah saw me she’d start hurting all over again.”

“You must be feeling better,” she concluded, something accusatory twisting her low voice. “Good to know because you were really sick last night.”

The cigarette hung between his lips and he averted his eyes to the doors across the hallway. Audrey was judgemental of him, critical of the mistakes he knew he was making, but it made him no different. He still had habits she despised and he still couldn’t understand why she’d come to care so much about him.

“Yeah, it won’t happen again,” he made the promise automatically, as automatic as it was for him to break it sooner or later. “I’m doing everything to keep Leah happy, Rey. I hate it when she sees me that way.”

A set of footsteps drew their attention to the person drifting down the hall from door to door. The tall, gangly man had a vile smile twisting the corners of his mouth, his dark eyes moving between Gunner and Audrey. “How’re my two favourite tenants doing this morning?”

Gunner took a long drag and cleared his throat. “What do you want, Michael?”

“Oh, I can’t stop by to say good morning anymore? You do remember you’re my tenant, right? You’re here because I let you be here. And if it weren’t for that little girlfriend of yours,” he took a daring step forward and grinned from ear to ear. “You’d be on the motherfucking streets.”

Gunner seethed as the man looked over his shoulder at Audrey standing motionless, one foot outside the apartment. Are you okay? he asked her silently. She sidestepped behind him and out of Michael’s view.

It was no secret Michael had eyes for his girlfriend even when he knew she was committed to someone else. He’d try things every once in a while, give her sly looks as if he was mentally undressing her on the spot. He made advances despite knowing she was Gunner’s girlfriend and the mother of his daughter. A sick man, he was. He never took no for an answer and would keep pushing until someone was driven past their breaking point.

“Get fucking lost and stop looking at her like that.” He stepped in front of Audrey.

“I’m serious, Michael. Go. She doesn’t want you around and neither do I.”

“Gunner, it’s fine. Just ignore him.”

She was too forgiving, too kind to a man like him. And it bothered him. “I’m not gonna ignore him. He’s obviously just trying to make a move on you.”

Michael’s eyes took on a newly found mischief. “Don’t be so hostile to me. I’m just trying to be friendly.”

“Stop trying,” he remarked. “You think I don’t know that you come looking for her when I’m not home? If you know what’s good for you, you’ll stop fucking harassing her every goddamn chance you get.”

“Gunner,” Audrey repeated tiredly. “That’s enough. Drop it.”

“Alrighty, you two. Have a great day.” He returned Gunner’s challenging glare. “And see you around, Audrey.”

He disappeared down the next bend and the hall fell silent again. Abruptly turning to his girlfriend, he saw how she fixed him with a stare devoid of emotion, her soft hazels dim and dull. He couldn’t help but notice how beautiful she was even when she wasn’t really putting in any effort. Falling to the middle of her thighs was his grey t-shirt, the one he recalled had been discarded on the floor the previous night. Although he didn’t outwardly vocalize it, he loved it when she wore his clothes; it was like she had a physical piece of him with her, a reminder that they were in a tough place, but not an impossible one.

“You’re not seeing him around, are you?”

She scoffed and looked at the floor. “You think I would?”

“No.” Gunner softened. “I know you. You’d never. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“It’s okay. I get why you asked. He’s persistent.”

Her tresses flowed down her back like ink against a white page, eyes mesmerizing and bold against her rich, tan skin. He trailed his hands around her neck, twining his fingers through the black strands of hair like a canvas of the darkest night, but the faintest light already made them reflect an indigo blue.

“You tired?”

“I guess so,” she said and shifted from foot to foot with unease. “I barely slept last night.”

Gunner’s eyes flickered to her parted lips. The last time they’d touched or kissed or shared a moment of love had been months ago. This feeling was as much familiar as it was vulnerable. He wouldn’t take advantage of her when she could barely keep herself together.

“I’ll take Leah to school today and I’ll pick her up in the afternoon. I don’t think you have the energy to do it.”

Audrey had a hard time believing him. “You don’t have to.”

“She’s my kid too,” he replied. “I gotta take care of her. Show her that I care about her and her mom.”

He was supposed to since the day Leah was born, but he had failed countless times and that was no secret. He loved his daughter and his girlfriend, he just didn’t know how to make sure they knew it too. In Audrey, he could grasp onto the things he had lost for so many years: family. Though he was sure there was hatred for him nestled deep at her core, she was there when he had nothing and nobody. That was why he found it hard to let them go regardless of the fact that staying and putting them through this cycle of abuse was selfish.

“I’ll go get her ready,” Audrey muttered with a glance up at him. “Are you gonna wait out here?”

He lifted his shoulders in a lacklustre shrug and fished into his back pocket for another cigarette. “Can’t smoke inside, now can I?”

She paused but opened her mouth before catching herself, stopping herself from saying what was really on her mind. “Right. I’ll see you so…wait here.”

“Get me my jacket, will you?”

Audrey nodded and closed the door.

Gunner did wait. He smoked through all the cigarettes by the time Leah made it out the front door and craved for more as they entered the elevator. She was quiet today and wouldn’t look any further than her shoes.

The lift stopped three times, crammed to its ends by other tenants either rushing to work or school or elsewhere before they made it to the ground floor.

“How’s your morning been, kiddo?” he asked, attempting to spark some sort of conversation between them.

Leah mangled his effort by simply shaking her head and continuously avoiding his eyes whenever they so much as rose an inch. Stepping outside they were greeted with winter’s chill and its icy embrace. A shiver went up his spine and he held her hand.

It was buzzing with life and people. The ones who wore the smiles were the ones who did the worst at night, the ones who hid behind their doors were the ones who came alive once the sun sank.

The light was just a mask. Gunner knew that better than anyone.

“What about that teacher of yours? Mrs…uh…–”

“Lancaster,” she finished.

“Yeah, her.” He looked at his drab surroundings disinterestedly and let his eyes wander. “You doing okay in her class?”

“I guess so.” Her other hand clutched the strap of her small bag. “School’s a bit hard though.”

Gunner let out a halfhearted chuckle, putting his hands in the pocket of his jacket to slow down the frostbite. She sounded so much like her mother. For a six-year-old girl, she was more mature and disciplined because Audrey had taught her to be that way. Not to cause any unnecessary trouble, to always try her best in everything she took on, to be good. It was always about being a good daughter, a kind daughter, a considerate daughter. Her daddy was sick and her mommy shut down once they got home; there was no time for anything else.

“Why’s it hard?”

Leah’s eyebrows pinched, and her expression was pensive. “I’m just not good at the homework she gives us. I don’t understand it and I always get the questions wrong.”

He didn’t have any solutions to offer given that school wasn’t his forte. That was more of Audrey’s strength. “Ask your mom for help next time, okay? She’s really smart so I’m sure she can teach you what you don’t know.”

Unfortunately, Audrey didn’t have much time on her hands either. She was working full-time and he was just existing for the sake of it.

“Do I have to go to school, daddy? I really don’t want to.”

“You have to, Leah.”

He took a good look at his daughter. Her complexion was lighter than her mother’s, and during the warmer months, her skin held a gentle brown undertone. As much as they might have resembled, her eyes were all Audrey; honey-brown infused with a soft touch of green.

Gunner loved her more than he loved himself.

She was beautiful like her mother.

He stared at the asphalt under his shoes as they trudged on to school. “Do you know if your mom’s mad at me about yesterday?”

Leah finally mustered the strength to glance at him, lips pursed. “No,” she told him. “Mommy says she loves you all the time.”

Gunner’s chest felt lighter. “Daddy, do you love mommy?”

“Of course I do, kiddo,” a smile stretched the edges of his mouth. “If I didn’t love her you wouldn’t be here.”

“So where do babies come from?”

It was his expression, the way his face twitched, the way his eyes filled with joy as he laughed. “You’re not old enough for that yet. But lemme tell you this much,” he leaned forward as if to whisper a secret. “It’s doesn’t happen by magic.”

“How then?” she giggled and watched him with glee. “Do you have to be a grownup to have babies? Can I have one?”

“You can’t have one.” They stopped at the crosswalk as it flashed red. “Never ever.”

“Do I have to be grownup like you?”

His smile faltered and Leah was smart enough to catch it. The sparkle in her eyes dissipated like steam from a hot cup of coffee. He pursed his lips and chose to look at the sidewalk again, the image of her mother flashing through his mind in ways he couldn’t handle. Staring at his visible breaths, all he saw was her. Them. When he was nineteen and stupid enough to get his seventeen-year-old girlfriend pregnant.

They crossed the street and took a sharp left. The moment lapsed between them and the air tensed.

He was thankful when the school building came into view. Children and parents scattered all over the wide field, a cacophony of noises. Leah seemed almost hesitant to go until Gunner prompted her. But before she would meld in with the crowd, she turned and hugged his legs.

“I love you, daddy.”

Gunner smiled genuinely for the first time that morning. “I love you, kiddo. Have a good day, okay? I’ll pick you up after school.”

“Bye!” She skipped away to a group of girls sitting next to the slide, waving exuberantly.

Gunner waved back. “Bye!”

He promised to make this day better for him and Audrey. He would talk to her, he would tell her he loved her again. He would try and keep all of his promises.

But as he walked back to the edge of the sidewalk, his phone rang and blared with life. He stopped halfway to the cross-walk, his jaw clenching.

His favourite name flashed across the screen. Ace.

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