I SMASHED MYSELF AGAINST THE apartment wall, clutching Charlie to my chest. His erratic heartbeat fluttered under my fingers. Blood dripped off the wound on the side of his head, soaking into my favorite yellow tank top. The little dog let out a noise that was a cross between a whimper and a bark.
“Shh.” I put my fingers around his muzzle. The giant brown ears flattened against his gray speckled back. Craning my neck, I peered toward the front window located in the kitchen. A large bearded face smashed against the glass, looking inside my apartment. Flipping around the corner, I glued my body tight to the wall. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even dart to another room. The window gave a full view of our entire living area.
I was going to kill my sister for not shutting the curtains. I told Blaire every day not to leave them open, but she wanted to see her food with natural light as she cooked it. She could see it just fine without the curtains open.
A loud banging came from the door. “Emma Sawyer. I saw you run in there with my damn dog. Open the door.”
I knew that crazy man would snatch him right out of my hands if I opened the door. Charlie wasn’t technically mine. I had rescued him from our abusive landlord.
“If you don’t open this door, I’m coming in with a key. I’ve got rights, you know. And you’ve got none. Not when you stole that piece-of-shit dog.”
Taking my chances, I ran into the living room, sliding open the back window. I crawled outside onto the tiny ledge, balancing Charlie with one arm. My nails clawed the glass back down. Little prickles of fear slipped down my back. Blowing a blonde curl out of my eye, I chose not to look at the rocky area below our apartment. The ledge wasn’t meant for people. It was more of a cement decorative area that ran along the top floor. I moved, one foot at a time, one breath at a time, over to the next window.
Tapping lightly, I waited for Mr. Hughes. He was an elderly man who lived next door. I did his weekly grocery shopping and cooked him dinner a few times a week. The curtain moved slightly, revealing an old face that slipped into a toothless grin. He pulled up the glass with his crooked fingers.
“Emma, what are—”
“Hold him.” I transferred Charlie over to Mr. Hughes. Crawling inside his living room, I shut the window behind me and covered the glass with the thick, blue curtains. The adrenaline coursed through my blood, making my hands shake.
“You finally did it,” he said with an excited gleam in his eye.
“Yes. And he saw me. I thought I had enough time to get in and out of his office.” I took Charlie back into my arms. His little body shivered in fear. I doubt he’d ever experienced much of anything besides terror from Kurt. That man was incompetent as a landlord and borderline psychotic when it came to animals.
Yesterday, when I came home from my shift at the nursing home, I’d heard terrible sounds coming from the manager’s office. His voice, shouting and screaming, followed by the repeated squeals of a tortured animal.
“Where are you going to take him? You know he can’t stay here.”
“I don’t know. Maybe my parents’? I’ll call them.” Pulling the phone from the pocket of my tight denim shorts, I pressed the auto dial for my mother. I sat down on the couch, waiting for her voice.
“Hey, I have a favor.”
“Oh, honey. What have you done now?” Her voice flowed with a hint of a drawl.
“It’s not that bad. I rescued a little dog. But he can’t stay here at my apartment. I have to find him a place. Will you take him?”
“I’m sure he’s a very nice dog. But I just can’t bear to have another after Rolly died. It’s too soon.”
“It’s been five years, Mom.”
“I know, but I still can’t shake that image, Emma. You weren’t there. Just the thought of it makes me sick to my stomach.” My parents got Rolly when I was ten. A few years ago, he was hit by a car.
“It’s okay. I just thought maybe you were ready. I’ll think of something else.”
“You just need to talk to your sister. I know she doesn’t like dogs, but maybe you can entice her. Work that Emma magic on Blaire.”
I rolled my eyes even though my mother couldn’t see me. “It’s not Blaire. It’s my landlord. You met the guy. He’s not the world’s kindest person. I just need to get the dog out of here before Kurt finds him.”
“I would love to. But I really can’t, honey. I’m sure you will find it a home. You are so good at that kind of stuff.” I pictured her face with that wide smile as she fawned over me with her flowery words. “Are you coming to dinner Thursday night? I missed seeing your sweet face last week.”
“I’m sorry.” The guilt flowed in my chest, hearing the sadness in her voice. She was good at that too. “I had to cover for a girl at work. I’ll make sure I come this week.”
“You know how important our weekly dinner is to me.”
“I know, Mom. It won’t happen again. I promise.”
“Okay. Well, I have to go, Emma. I’m working in the flower bed today. I need to get it done before I burn up out here. Good luck with your dog.”
“Thanks. See you Thursday.” Clicking the end button, I watched Mr. Hughes come back into the living room, leaning heavy on his walker, carrying a duffle bag. I needed to speak with Kurt about transferring him to an apartment on the first floor. He’d struggled getting up and down the stairs the last few months. I guess that conversation would have to wait until Kurt forgot about the Charlie incident.
“She said no?”
“Yeah, she wishes me luck.” I frowned. “So I guess we need another option.”
“I was thinking. It’s Saturday, right? Today is Saturday?”
“Yes, it’s Saturday.” I nodded my head, feeling a little sad. Over the last few months, I’d noticed other signs of his fuzzy thoughts. I guess that’s what happens when you stay in an apartment seven days a week.
“That pet store. You know, the one in that outdoor mall thing? There used to be a shelter place in front of it on Saturdays.”
I vaguely remembered the little cages next door to the shoe store. I grinned at him. “That actually might work.”
“Here’s you a bag. Go wrap him up in a towel and zip him up in the bag. You’ll have to make a run for the car.”
“Okay,” I said, holding Charlie tight to my chest as I got up from the couch.
I found an old towel under the bathroom sink. Wrapping it tight around his body, I felt a surge of emotion, seeing his terrified eyes peering out of the duffle bag. I didn’t know what kind of dog had features like Charlie’s. He was the strangest little animal. Almost like the giant ears of a brown rabbit were yanked off and placed on the body of a gray and black dog. He was one of a kind.
“Hey, little guy. You are almost home free. Just one more trip.” I zipped the top closed and put the black straps over my shoulder. The weight of the twenty-pound animal cut tight into my skin. I patted Mr. Hughes on the arm. “Thank you for the help.”
“Anytime—and good luck.”
Unlatching the door, I pushed it open an inch, checking the walkway for my landlord. My eyes followed the stairs from the second floor down to the parking lot and over to my car. I didn’t see the six-foot bearded man anywhere. Maybe he went back inside the manager’s office. Charlie whined from deep inside the canvas. Nerves fluttered under my skin. It was now or never.
I fished my keys from my pocket. Taking off in a sprint, I felt a sharp twist in my knee. Seriously? My knee had to act up today of all days. But I knew better than to be running in flip-flops. The pain came in burning stabs through my leg. Taking the stairs two at a time, I got to the parking lot without seeing Kurt. I glanced to my left toward the manager’s office before running in the direction of my car. The white Fusion was roughly half a building away.
My leg jerked again, sending pain right through my kneecap. The muscles curdled into complete mush. I lost my balance and flew forward. I cried out as I hit the ground. My arm scraped across the cement. I came to a stop, feeling every ounce of pain as the bag with Charlie slid across the parking lot.
No, no, no. I scrambled to my feet, limping over to the black duffle bag. Charlie whined from deep inside. “Sorry, little guy.”
I grabbed the straps and ran the final few yards to my car door. Putting the bag in the passenger’s seat, I started the motor and threw the car into reverse. My heart beat a hundred miles an hour as I left the apartment complex with the face of the bearded man in my rearview mirror.