His hands gripped the railing firmly, and he struggled to hobble up the first step, one foot at a time. “Does that happen every night when you come home?” he asked. He always had tried to summon humor to deflect.
“Are you okay, Gordon? I’m so sorry. I should have warned you it’s a bit rough around here. The neighborhood’s changed the last few years. Honestly, I’ve never had a problem on my own. I don’t know—”
“It’s fine. Don’t worry.” His features spoke a different story though. He was already firmly into his mid-thirties, and a year seemed to be added to his face with each step as he fought against the pain to close the gap between them. “He was taking a swing at you. I grabbed his fist, but I forgot he had two. Fortunately I blocked him with my face.”
His nose. It was bleeding. After cutting the man, she hadn’t even noticed because her heart was hammering too hard, her mind trying to anticipate every possible scenario. There was still blood on her keys. The sight made her stomach turn, and she nearly sprinted to her door so she could get inside and feel safe again. “Please hurry, Gordon,” she called out to him as she went for the sink. “The sooner you get in here, the sooner you can relax.”
She threw the keys in the basin and ran the water hot. There was a flashlight on her key chain, but fuck it. She could buy another. What mattered was squeezing some orange liquid dish soap between her hands and scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing. Bile rose in her throat, but she choked it back down. She didn’t feel brave anymore, just disgusted and terrified because someone dangerous knew where she lived and had a reason to resent her.
She should have telephoned the police, but she knew it was a lost cause. The man would be long gone by the time the NYPD arrived, and a case like this wouldn’t matter enough to them to chase. She’d just be another lost slip of paperwork.
When her hands were clean to the point of aching, she ran to get a washcloth to wet. Gordon finally slipped inside and slammed the door behind him, then leaned heavily against the wooden paneling. “Nice place you have here,” he panted as he rested his head back.
“No, you’re supposed to lean forward. Do you want to fucking drown yourself?” she asked as she handed him the cloth. “Don’t worry about staining that. Just tilt your head down and let it drain. Apply pressure. Go sit down.”
“Yes, Mom,” he answered dryly, but she could see that he was grateful. He wiped at the blood on his face and then held the rag to his nose as he shuffled toward the couch. It was covered in silly things, dresses and magazines and bags of shopping that she hadn’t gotten around to putting away yet. She whizzed over to clear some space for him but he just sank down in an empty chair. “Remind me not to piss you off like that. I mean, I’ve pissed you off pretty badly, but Jesus Christ. Did you take up martial arts or something?”
She flushed because she didn’t want to admit what had set her off. “We should get you some ice or a hot compress or something. I don’t know what to do. He kicked you, right? Was it in the ribs?”
He didn’t answer, too busy nursing himself already, so she unzipped his hooded sweatshirt and peeled up the dark blue t-shirt underneath. Even in the dim light from the attached kitchen, she thought she could see a heavy bruise forming on his left side. As though he could feel her gaze on him, he twisted away until she had to let the shirt drop back into place. “Good thing he didn’t aim for the liver. I would’ve been a goner.”
“Gordon, be serious. What if he broke one of your ribs?”
“Then nothing can be done for it. I’ve cracked a rib before. Playing a video game, no less.”
“You should’ve seen the other guy.” He did his best to smile for her, but with the material pressed to his nose, she had to go by the way his eyes creased in the corners. “I have to admit, this is not the way I envisioned my knight in shining armor moment.”
“Well, you certainly were one, what with the way your body took the beating.” She gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze and crouched by his knees so she wouldn’t hover or pace. “Is there anything I can get you to make you feel better? Or do you want to take a hot bath and soak? I’m really sorry about this. I can’t believe it, I really can’t.”
He chuckled quietly, but the sound tapered off into a groan. “Don’t make me laugh. It hurts. I just want to sit for a while. And if you have a bag of frozen peas or something, I think that would be fantastic.”
She wasn’t sure how much food she had in the apartment since she embrace the Manhattan lifestyle of using her oven for storage rather than cooking. Still, she rummaged through the freezer and was rewarded with some small piece of chicken that had been encrusted in enough ice to render it jagged. His shirt would at least provide enough of a buffer to make it tolerably cold against his ribs. “It’s no homecooked meal, but I hope it’s okay,” she told him as she held out the frosty piece of meat.
He raised an eye at the chicken but still set it gently against his side. “For all I know, that was a thug you hired to keep me away from your home.”
“I wouldn’t have keyed him if he was one of mine.”
“Maybe you just wanted to rescue me.”
“Well then, mission accomplished.” The adrenaline rush had faded away from her system, and she wanted nothing more than to go to bed to relax. Of course she couldn’t do that while he was still wincing and trying to mend his wounds. “Let’s see your nose then.”
When he pulled the cloth from his face, the bleeding had stopped, but there were still dried flecks of blood clinging to his nostrils. “Probably a less attractive sight than I was an hour ago,” he stated knowingly.
“I never said you were attractive then,” she reminded him. Still, cringing, she took the washcloth from him and took it to the sink so she could rinse it out. She tried not to think about how much blood had been washed down her drain that night as she offered the ruined rag to him again. “Here, clean yourself off.”
He dabbed at his nose but seemed reluctant. “So, what happens next? You kick me out as soon as I feel better, and that’s that?”
“No, of course not.” Color flooded her cheeks because she was trying to figure out how he could spend the night and sleep on her lumpy, budget Ikea couch. It wasn’t a comfortable piece of furniture, and it seemed cruel to subject him to a night in her messy living room with his bruised side. “Do you need a shower or bath or something?” she asked him. After a thick pause, she added, “I can help.”
He looked down at the spot where the chicken cutlet had begun to leave a wet patch on his shirt. “I suppose I could use a tiny bit of help,” he admitted.