It was after three when Sammy slid into the backseat of the dirty, dented cab and gave the man at the wheel her old address.
The driver, a recently immigrated middle-aged Indian, looked back at Sammy. "You sure you wish to go there? That is a very rough neighborhood."
"I used to live there."
The man shrugged, put the cab in gear, and sped toward FDR Drive.
Sammy listened with only half an ear as the cabbie chattered in nonstop musical English about the family he'd left behind in Bombay, his dreams for a better life, his disappointment in this new country, which seemed to have such a voracious appetite for violence. "Sometimes I think maybe I will never live to see my wife and sons again."
Sammy mumbled a sympathetic response as they remained caught up in the slow-moving rush hour traffic on 3rd Avenue. They hit some gut-wrenching potholes near East 34th and narrowly avoided colliding with a crosstown bus, a sanitation truck, and a bag lady before pulling onto the expressway. At East Houston the man exited, driving down back streets to a run-down, crumbling area just twenty minutes from New York's Upper East Side.
"You wish for me to wait?" the driver asked, his voice tinged with concern.
Sammy reached for her wallet. "That's okay. The subway station is a few blocks away,"
"You should be suiting yourself."
The moment the cab sped off, leaving her standing alone on the street corner, Sammy began to regret her bravado. A light breeze had sprung up, carrying a hint of more rain on its chill edge. Behind, in the east, the sky was darkening. Fighting a shiver, Sammy started down the cracked sidewalk towards Hester Street. It was early evening and the Lower East Side neighborhood where she was born was just now coming alive. Only the scene wasn't the way it had been in her childhood - the litter-free sidewalks and well-maintained brownstones had given way to crumbling buildings decorated with graffiti and gang signs.
When Sammy finally arrived at number 453, she found a scrawny Puerto Rican teenager dressed in a spandex miniskirt and thigh-high black boots pacing in front of the building, trying to attract men in passing cars. An unshaven old codger leaned in the doorway, drinking from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. A group of young Asian toughs stood in the park across the street, exchanging packages for cash.
Sammy walked up the steps to the front door, hesitated for an instant, then entered the small foyer. A fly-specked, fifteen-watt bulb created feeble light, exaggerating shadows, obscuring corners. She shuddered, assaulted by the sour odors of stale urine and decay. The brown and red carpet had long been pulled up, leaving only filthy cement flooring. Paint was peeling from the walls, thick with grime.
A small boy, maybe eight or nine, sat on the stairs and eyed her with practiced toughness. "Whatcha doin’ here, lady?"
"I used to live here." To her right was the closed door of the ground-floor apartment. Directly ahead were four flights of stairs.
The boy didn't seem convinced. "Which one?"
"Three B." She began her ascent, avoiding the greasy banister. Someone had written "Fuckit" on the wall. Otherwise the tagging was unintelligible to Sammy. When she lived here, the wall had always looked freshly painted. She could still hear her mother reminding her from the top of those stairs not to touch it with dirty hands.
As she reached the second floor, she was so overcome by the presence of old memories, she had to stop on the landing for breath before going on.
Playing hide-and-seek through these corridors with friends.
Her mother coming home, still wearing her white hospital coat.
Her father, handsome and young in his elegant custom suits, always smelling of cologne.
The past wrapped around her like a time warp. A brief, safe time almost two decades ago. Before_.
"You okay, lady?" The boy was still shadowing her.
"Fine," Sammy said flatly. Taking a deep breath, she continued up to the third floor. The relentless beat of hip-hop emanating from the apartment she'd called home for the first seven years of her life grew louder with each step. Back then, she recalled wistfully, the halls would have been filled with the sounds of Mozart and Bach.
"Gimme ten bucks. I'll show it to you."
"What?" Sammy turned to the boy. His face was earnest. "Someone's obviously in there. I couldn't," she protested.
"Nah. They just playin' music. Looks like they're home."
"So's they don't get ripped off," he explained. "Ten bucks."
Sammy pulled two fives from her wallet. "You have a key?"
"Nope. Just this." The boy took out a penknife, not unlike the one Sammy had used at Conrad's and picked the tarnished lock. The door opened easily under his expert hands. Sammy was reminded of Vince DeFuccio, the teenager who taught her to pick locks at age eight. Some things hadn't changed.
Sammy glanced around the hallway with a guilty look as the boy motioned for her to enter. "Well, I'll only stay a minute," she finally said. She couldn't resist a peek inside.
Ton Loc assailed her ears, the smell of urine and feces her nose. But it wasn't the different sounds or odors that overwhelmed Sammy as she walked from room to room. It was the fact that this apartment had a transient feeling, as if no one ever lived there any length of time, no one ever made it their home. The furniture was sagging and worn, the walls and shelves, paint peeling and cracking, devoid of any pictures or personal mementos. When Sammy had lived here the unit had been filled with books and family photos and music and, at times, love.
At least until the trouble started. And her father moved out.
At the end of a narrow, dimly lit hall was the room her mother had used as her office. Now it was someone's bedroom. The mattress on the floor was tattered, the sheet covering it, long in need of washing. As she gazed around the room, a kaleidoscope of images tumbled through Sammy's mind.
The day her mother died had been beautiful for November and she'd dawdled coming home from school. When she'd finally returned to the apartment that afternoon no one greeted her. There was only silence. She threw her books and coat on the living room sofa and headed for the back. Her mother lay peacefully on the daybed. Thinking she was sleeping, Sammy tiptoed in and stood over her. "Mommy," she whispered. "Wake up."
Sammy recalled reaching out to touch her, then seeing the note and the empty pill vial. A paralyzing fear gripped her. "Mommy! Wake up!" Sammy screamed and screamed until she was wrapped in the arms of old Mrs. Shapiro from next door who heard the cries and came and found them.
Sammy felt awash in a wave of guilt, as palpable now as it had been fifteen years ago.
If only she'd come home sooner.
Dr. Osborne had called it "survivor's guilt".
Your mother was already dead when you found her, Sammy. You couldn't have helped her.
She thought about his words as she stared at the space where the daybed once stood, where she'd found her mother. Already dead.
She wasn't responsible?
Your mother made a choice, Sammy. Her choice.
Sammy started as she felt something running across her foot. She looked down to see a small furry animal scurrying under the bed. A rat. Her mother would have gone ballistic if as much as a dust bunny had graced the room.. And now - she looked at the dilapidated room – everything’s gone.
Dr. Osborne was right. All these years she'd blamed herself for her mother's dying and it wasn't her fault at all. Never had been. Neither had her father's leaving. She could feel the weight of all that guilt leave her shoulders. It was time to move on.
"Best be goin', Lady. They'll be home soon."
The boy's voice interrupted her thoughts. "Oh, yes." Sammy checked her watch: five fifteen. "I had no idea it was so late."
She followed the boy out into the hallway. The sound of the apartment door slamming behind them reverberated like a gunshot. Nervous, she mumbled a hasty "thanks" to the youngster and, without looking back, hurried off down the stairs.
Outside, the last embers of twilight were long faded. A quarter moon cast a wan pallor over the dark neighborhood, throwing the outlines of buildings into jagged relief. The already foreign-looking terrain appeared even more forbidding. The early morning's drizzle had returned with a vengeance, chasing most of the street-life parade indoors – or at least out of sight. Shivering, Sammy peered down the empty street, feeling very alone. Thank God the subway stop was only four blocks away.
Hunching against the raindrops, she hastened her gait, adrenaline rushing through her veins. In the middle of the first block she almost tripped over a derelict lying in an abandoned doorway. The homeless man mumbled a slurred complaint and she hurried along.
At the end of the second block she stepped into a deep puddle, soaking her feet to the ankles. "A brokh!" she cursed, as she tried to shake off the water. Now she had to walk with an accompanying "swish, swish" from the moisture in her shoes. The sound was unnerving. She felt as if a wet ghost shadowed her with each step. She looked up and down the alleyways, afraid of an unexpected meeting with her ethereal stalker. Damp, rain-slicked debris littered the sidewalk. She stopped for a moment, trying to sort out the sounds around her, giving each small noise an identity in order to allay her fears. The high-pitched drip, raindrops hitting a tin can, the "whoosh", distant traffic blocks away, the "rasp", her own ragged breathing. Calmer, she moved on, her footsteps slapping like a drumroll against the pavement.
By the third block, she was certain she heard a different cadence creating a counterpoint to her own footsteps. The beat was loud and invasive. Paced steps behind her. Though the night cold was piercing, beads of sweat broke out on her forehead. Her heart pounded against her chest. She glanced uneasily over her shoulder. Only her own shadow stretched behind her. Nothing more. She laughed nervously and took a deep breath, trying to slow her racing heart.
A car swept past, perilously close to the curb where she stood, buffeting her with hails of spray. Its taillights disappeared into the misty curtain of darkness before she could react. "Shit!" Now she was really soaked, her hair damp against her ears, a worm-like cap of sleek ringlets.
One more block.
She picked up the pace to a jog, her pumps losing traction and slipping on the slick pavement. She didn't dare slow down, urging herself onward at a faster rate. Come on, Sammy, one more block, you're nearly there!
Focused on her goal, she was unaware of the man who came out of the darkness until he was directly behind her. He grabbed her by the belt, tossed a jacket over her head, and, before she could react, dragged her into an adjacent alley.
"Help!" But Sammy's cries were merely sounds within her. The pressure of her attacker's hand against her mouth made it impossible to scream. She felt as though she were suffocating as the man threw her on the wet gravel and crushed her with his weight.
“You’re gonna pay!”
Terror seized her. Oh, God, he's going to rape me. Struggling to resist the attacker's hand moving up her thigh, Sammy kicked one leg out. The leg missed its target, as the rapist grabbed her calf and sat down on her knee. Angry, he punched her hard in the stomach. "Damn bitch!"
Galvanized by the pain, Sammy pushed out with her other leg, aiming her two-inch heel at her attacker's private parts. This leg landed in the right place and the man, screaming in agony, rolled off of Sammy's knee.
"Run, motherfucker. Police!"
Sammy and her attacker both heard the distant shout. The sounds of a siren were growing louder.
"Police!" The voice was closer now, as was the moan of the siren.
Still groaning in pain, the man lifted himself up and hobbled off down the alley into the darkness.
Stunned by the blow to her abdomen, Sammy felt too weak to move. She lay in the alley for several minutes before opening her eyes. There was no trace of her attacker.
"You okay, lady?" The child who'd shown her the apartment stood over her.
"I'm..." her voice was barely a croak. Painfully she sat up. "I'm okay." She was cold and wet and covered with dirt, but at least she was alive. My God, she thought, how close she'd come to dying - again.
He held out a hand to help her up.
Slowly, pressing a hand into her stomach to contain the pain, Sammy struggled to her feet. "I'm okay." She gave the boy an inquisitive look. "Were you the one who yelled 'police'?"
The boy's eyes had a mischievous twinkle. "Yeah."
Sammy looked around. No sirens, no cops. "I thought I heard a siren."
Sporting a wide grin, the boy pulled out an electronic gizmo from his pocket. He pressed a button on it and the alley echoed with the sound of a siren.
Sammy couldn't resist a laugh. "I'm glad you're here. Thank you."
Nodding, the boy extended his other hand. In it were Sammy's two bills. "Momma tol’ me to give the money back.”
"What's your name?"
Sammy took the bills and stuffed them in the boy's pants pocket. "Well, Darnell. I think your momma would be very proud of you right now and she'd say it was okay to keep a reward."
"Yeah," Darnell grinned. "Okay."
Off in the distance, the wail of a police siren once again was heard coming toward them. This one sounded real.
"I'm outta here," Darnell said, running off. "Cops."
"Wait!" Sammy shouted after him to no avail. The boy had disappeared into the alley before the squad car arrived.
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