Nick sighed as he hauled his weary, aching body up the steps out of the thigh-deep water in the street, and into the small vestibule of the apartment building where he’d taken shelter, out of the rain and wind. He hadn’t been able to find anything he could use to build even a small fire—everything had been saturated with rain or seawater as the storm had made landfall last week. He’d had some emergency fuel set aside, but it was long since used up.
The storm had been raging for days, and still wasn’t played out yet, even if it was weakening. The rain had let up some, and the storm surge was finally starting to recede. Maybe.
He wasn’t sure if he’d make it even to the end of the storm. His fuel was gone, he wasn’t able to find more, and everything he owned was thoroughly saturated. And he hurt. To the bone. He sighed as he huddled in the corner most sheltered from the rain and wind, thinking of what he had in his bag to stop the pain. Usually, he was sparing with how much he used—just enough to take the edge off, not stop hurting entirely—but…he honestly thought he wasn’t going to make it, this time. He decided that when he felt himself drifting off, he’d use the last of what he had, and go into death finally pain-free.
And then, he heard the baby screaming. And the screams were coming closer. Nick Bryant sat up, a jolt of adrenalin-fueled fear shocking him into acting. He had never been so afraid of anything in his life as he was when he spotted the baby—a girl, judging by the dingy, puffy pink coat—struggling to climb onto a broken door as she was washed down the street toward the shore with the receding storm surge. He jumped back down into the water, grabbed the end of the door she was trying to climb onto, and spun it so that he could catch her when she lost her grip—which happened almost immediately.
She clung to his arm as he scooped her out of the water and clutched her to his chest, struggling against the current to climb back up into the semi-sheltered entry way above the water line. Her screams had lost the utter terror they’d held almost as soon as Nick had pulled her from the water, but had gained coherence. After a few moments, he managed to understand that she was crying out “Mama!” over and over.
He got her up under the not-quite shelter, and sat on his duffel bag with her scrunched into his lap. He got his blanket wrapped around himself and the baby in his lap. It was as wet as they were, but it was wool, and would hopefully trap what little body heat they had between them to stave off getting too much colder, while he caught his breath and rode out the spiking waves of pain, and tried to think.
He shifted to look down at the baby girl in his lap. She looked to be around a year old, with kinky-curly black hair caught up in pom-pom pigtails on top of her head. Her skin was a sickly grayish-brown from the cold, fat tears rolling down round cheeks as she wailed, showing off every tooth in her head.
‘Shh,” Nick said, rocking her and looking around. “Where is your mama?” And why on earth did she bring a baby out in this, he wondered.
The baby stopped screaming, but still sobbed, pointing back up the street with a chubby hand. Nick sighed and stood, carefully balancing the baby girl on his hip as he walked back out into the receding storm surge, praying to a God he wasn’t sure he still believed in for help keeping his feet, keeping the baby safe, finding her mama, and maybe finding better shelter than what he’d had.
He found the little girl’s mama, face down in the water, her body caught in some debris. He worked her loose, and hauled her up out of the water by one of her arms, pulling it up and across his shoulder. Her head lolled grotesquely, and he suspected that there was no use trying, but the baby whimpering on his shoulder made him haul her over to another raised, sheltered entrance. He put the baby up on the porch, in a sheltered corner, and tried to get the water out of the woman’s lungs.
She wasn’t dressed for the cold. Instead of something to conserve what body heat she’d had at one time, she wore a mini-skirt and a tube top. Nick compressed her chest, trying to force water out of her lungs, and force her heart to beat. After a few moments, he stopped. There was no water coming out. There was no breath. There was no heartbeat. And both arms were tracked up. He sighed, stifling the urge to curse with the baby girl sitting silently nearby, tears still rolling down her cheeks as she stared solemnly at her mother.
And then, the nagging sense of familiarity at the back of Nick’s mind resolved as he recognized the woman. She used the same dealer he did. He closed his eyes and let loose a long breath, trying hard not to judge a dead woman for how she’d abandoned her baby to die, just to get a hit.
He checked where women always tucked things when they had no pockets, and found a wallet between her skin and her waistband, and a key ring with two keys tucked into barely-there cleavage. The ID in the wallet gave an address on the street they were on…in the building right across from them.
Nick left the corpse where it was, and moved to the little girl, squatting painfully in front of her. She sniffled and held up her arms as soon as he reached for her, but made no further sound. “I’m sorry, sweetie,” he murmured as he picked her up, and braced himself to stand. She nestled her face against the side of his neck and sighed as he moved past her mother’s body, and back down into the water.
He made it across the street with only one stumble as something had knocked into his numbed legs as it was swept away. He managed not to fall, though—something that probably saved both their lives, given the way they’d both stopped shivering.
He fumbled the keys, trying to find the right one to open the outer door, as well as not drop them both from numbed fingers. Finally, though, he succeeded in unlocking and opening the door. The hall just inside the entry was blessedly dry, and the door closed behind him, shutting out the wind. Even though it was still cold, it was better than what he’d had for shelter. Still, the apartment listed on the ID might be warmer, and the baby needed warmth and dry clothes. He sighed, heading for the stairs and beginning the long trek up. She probably didn’t even weigh a fifth of what he used to be accustomed to hauling, but he wasn’t even in as good of shape as he had been when he’d been discharged after having taken shrapnel from an IED down the right side. The doctors had told him he’d never walk without a limp again, but he’d proved them wrong. Mostly. He still limped when it was cold and damp—like it was right at the moment, while he was trying to make it up five flights of stairs with a clinging baby girl of somewhere between a year and a year and a half old.
He’d mostly shaken the limp. What he hadn’t shaken was the constant pain. His entire right side burned, with special points of agony flaring in his right arm and shoulder, hip, knee, and ankle. The chronic pain was why he’d ended up in a city whose name he forgot, busting his ass to buy heroin. Because somehow, that chronic pain from having served his country and taken shrapnel to multiple joints was psychosomatic, according to the docs at the VA. They’d told him, outright, that it was all in his head, that the pain wasn’t pain but an addiction to the morphine that they’d put him on to control the pain after he’d been wounded.
He made it up to the fifth floor and stumbled off the stairs into the hall. It was warmer up there, but pitch black with no windows. And the storm had knocked out the electricity that powered the lights he knew had to be there. He reached out cautiously, setting his hand gingerly on the wall as he shuffled down the hall, the baby sniffling piteously against his shoulder. He stopped as he reached a door, and ghosted his hand across it, looking for (hoping for) a raised number to tell him where he was.
There were no raised numbers, so Nick lifted his hand and knocked. The door opened under his hand, and a flashlight shone into his face. “Shaniqua!” a young voice yelped. “You! Who you, and what you doin’ wif my sister?”
“This is your sister?” Nick asked with relief.
“I said so, din’t I?” snorted the voice. “I axe you again, who you, an’ why you got her?”
Nick shifted the baby and squinted. He could barely make out the figure of a young boy, about eight or so. “I’m nobody important,” Nick said after a moment’s thought. “I found her being washed down the street. Where’s your daddy?”
“Prison,” the boy said shortly. “Don’t even axe ‘bout hers, Mama din’t know who he was.”
Nick grimaced, trying to figure out how to tell the little boy what had happened to his mother. The boy must have read his thoughts from his face, because he said, voice low and sad, “I seen Mama collapse, but I din’t know she had the baby. I thought ‘Niqua was sleepin’. Mama’s dead, ain’t she?”
“I’m sorry,” Nick said, setting the baby down. She crawled over and sat on her brother’s foot, wrapping herself around his leg.
“Ain’t your fault. Mama’d shot up with the last o’ her shit. I think she died from dat.” The boy swung the flashlight up to aim at the ceiling.
“Well, damn,” Nick sighed as he ran his hands through his wet hair. “Listen. Do you want me to stay with you guys until the storm’s over, and we can get you some help?”
“Guess so,” the boy said, urging the baby to stand up so he could help her toddle further into the apartment. “Got anything to eat?”
Nick nodded. “In my bag. I’ll go get it.”
“I’m gonna watch from the window,” the boy said, “an’ I’ll come let you back in when you get back. I still wanna know your name.”
“It’s Nick. Nick Bryant.”
“Mama named me Devon. Most everybody calls me Dee. You already met ‘Niqua.”
Nick smiled down at Devon, a crooked smile that held a lot of sympathy for the little boy who had to act as the adult, since his mother hadn’t been capable. “I’ll be back soon.”
“We be waiting.”
Nick nodded, and backed out. “Get her in some dry clothes, yeah?” he said, gesturing at the baby.
“Do my best,” Devon said dubiously.
Nick sighed, resigning himself to the idea of changing the baby when he returned, and headed carefully back down the stairs, and out into the rain and wind. After having been inside shelter from both, they cut deeper, and made his old scars burn worse as he waded out into the street and carefully made his way down to where he’d left the blanket and his duffel. He had quite a few cans of soup—he never turned down food handed to him when he panhandled—but it was well worth its weight, now that he had more mouths to feed than just his own.
And he realized, as he reached the entryway that he’d found a reason to fight on, to try to live. Because without him…he didn’t want to think of the kind of shape the children waiting for him would be in by the time FEMA reached them.
He sighed, rolled up the blanket, and wrapped it around his neck, swinging his duffel up and across his back, ducking his head and one shoulder through the long strap. It didn’t damage his balance too badly, he decided as he went back to the flooded street, and fought his way back to the building where the children waited.
An old woman waited in the hall outside the apartment with a kerosene lantern, staring suspiciously, when he returned. Had it not been for the lantern, and for the stark, white hair, he would have missed her in the dark
“An’ jus’ who you be, to be messin’ wif dem babies?” she asked in a quietly harsh voice.
It reminded him of his lieutenant—a career man who’d gone mustang—so he ducked out of the duffel strap and came to attention automatically. “Corporal Nick Bryant, medically retired, ma’am,” he said. “I’m an acquaintance of the kids’ mom. I found her outside. Dead. I only barely saved the baby.”
The old lady eyed Nick with extreme disfavor. “Uh-huh. Acquaintances. She a junkie. Dat where you know her from?”
“Unfortunately, ma’am,” Nick said guardedly. “Not by choice. I was wounded pretty bad in Afghanistan, and when I was discharged, they terminated most of my treatment, despite me not having fully recovered.” He felt his hopes rise as he thought he saw a flash of pity cross her face.
“Uh-huh. You got drugs in dat bag, don’chu.”
It was not a question. Nick grimaced. “I do. But I won’t be using them. I’ve got people depending on me. Kids. I won’t use around kids.”
“Uh-huh. Sure. You get ta hurtin’ too much, you knock. I’ll watch ‘em for a bit.” The pity he thought he detected was absolutely there. “I know alla ‘bout pain like dat. My man los’ ‘is leg in service. In Korea. He gone, now, an’ it’s a mercy.”
“I will,” Nick said, “if I have to. Thanks.”
The old woman nodded, then turned back to her apartment. She hesitated, then said, “Lan’lord tol’ the manager to turn on the radiators. We got heat. We got gas ta cook. We got hot water. It ain’t much, but it’s more ‘n what we had.”
“Thanks for telling me,” Nick said, turning toward the apartment door the kids waited behind. The door opened suddenly, startling him. Devon stood there, chewing his bottom lip in distress. “Mr. Nick, you back,” he said, relief clear in his voice. “I heard Nanna say we got heat. I show you where it is—I don’t know how to turn it on. We kinda need it--’Niqua’s awful cold, an’ I can’t get her warmed up.”
Nick nodded, picking up his duffel from the hallway, stepping through the door, and closing and locking it behind himself. “How old is she?”
“She a year an’ a half.”
“If you can get her out of her wet clothes, that’d help,” he said, dropping his bag on the linoleum entry with a wet squelch. He hurried as best he could into the small kitchenette, and flipped on the hot water faucet on the sink, then rummaged around for a pan, just in case the water heater hadn’t had time to work. He absently noted a bit of warmth as he passed the gas cookstove, and set his hand in the middle of the top, between the burners. The metal there was warm, hinting toward pilot lights. He twisted a knob, and smiled as the burner whooshed to life. He turned it back off, for the moment, while he looked for something to heat water in.
All of the bottom cabinets were empty. All of the top cabinets were empty. “What did she cook with?” he hissed in frustration.
He moved over to test the water, and found it warm. Luke warm, almost tepid. Good enough to start. He plugged the sink, then hurried out of the kitchen, limping hard from the cold, and the wet jeans rubbing over stiff joints and scars. He followed the sounds of Shaniqua whining pitifully, and the sound of Devon cursing quietly. He found the baby trying to hold onto her clothes, and quickly took the boy’s place, efficiently stripping the baby and scooping her up. He hurried her back into the kitchen as she whimpered, and plopped her into the sink of barely warm water. And she stopped, breaking out into a bright, toothy smile.
Devon sighed in relief. Nick glanced at him, and noted the first signs of shock from distress. “Devon. Dee. I need you to listen to me,” he said calmly, holding onto the baby and using his other hand to cup warm water and dribble it down her back. “I need you to hang her wet things somewhere, like in the bathroom, over the shower rod, if you have one and can reach.”
“I can reach the towel rod,” Devon offered.
“That’ll do. And when you’re done with that, I need you to get me a dry towel, and some warm, dry clothes for Shaniqua,” Nick continued.
“Yessir,” Devon said, “anything else?”
“My blanket, if you can,” he said, shrugging it off to the floor, now that he remembered it. “If you can’t, don’t worry about it, and go ask your neighbor if we can borrow a pot to warm some soup.”
Devon frowned. “Soup?”
“It’s what I have. Unless you’d rather have Spam.”
“Naw, soup’s fine.”
He eyed the rolled up blanket thoughtfully. “I think dat would go bes hung over chairs in here,” he muttered, dragging a couple of the mis-matched chairs around back to back before he went to go grab an edge of the rolled blanket and unroll it. He struggled with the weight, but managed to get it dragged up and draped over the chairs. “Heavy damn blanket,” he panted.
“I know,” Nick replied, “and watch your language around your sister.”
Silence met the statement, and Nick glanced over his shoulder to find the boy staring at him in shock. “Huh?”
“Don’t cuss around your sister,” Nick clarified. “You don’t want her picking up that kind of language.”
Devon frowned thoughtfully. “Why do it matter? An’ what do you care?”
Nick frowned, turning back to Shaniqua, who was focused on dragging her pudgy hands and fingers through the warm water. “It matters. It matters if you want a better life for her than this. And I care, because…well, I just do. Somebody has to.”
Devon went silent behind him. Nick heard the rustle of his clothes as he turned, and heard the boy walk off. He was back a few moments later with a towel that the dim light through the uncovered window suggested might have been white at one time, but was a dingy gray. It smelled clean, at least, when Nick accepted it with quiet thanks, and pulled the plug, and pulled the baby girl out of the sink. “She got a diaper an’ clothes over by the couch,” Devon said quietly. “I’m gonna go ask Nanna for dat pot.”
The door opened and closed quietly, and Nick carried the baby over to the couch to dress her. She yawned, and her belly gurgled, pulling a grimace and whimper from her. Nick sighed, and stroked her still-damp hair. He couldn’t understand how even a junkie-mother could let her babies go hungry.
Devon returned, followed by the little old lady that had grilled Nick when he’d gotten back a few minutes earlier. She carried a two-quart saucepan, and a small bundle under her arm. Something in the pan rattled as she set it on the counter. She eyed him approvingly, and shuffled over to the couch. “You got any dry clothes?” she asked.
“No, I don’t,” he said, eyeing his duffel hopelessly.
“Here. My man was ‘bout the same size as you,” she said, shoving the bundle toward him.
He took them with a deep nod—almost a bow. “Thank you.”
“I watch the baby while you change outa your wet things,” she said, scooping Shaniqua up with a deft tickle that distracted her from her hunger. “Den you can make those chirren some soup, like Dee said.”
“Will you stay?” he asked.
She laughed. “Oh, honey, no. I got my own food—an’ you need to save yours to feed the three of you.”
Nick nodded, thankful for the dry clothes, and for the assurance that his limited amount of food wasn’t going to need to feed two adults, and limped off into the hallway. There were two doors in the dark hall. The first was a cave that smelled—a bathroom, he guessed—and the second was dimly lit by the cloud-covered daylight leaking through broken blinds. He stepped through that door, and found a squalid bedroom with a twin-sized mattress with a dirty blanket on the floor, a full-sized mattress and box spring up on rails, and a playpen that the baby had probably mostly outgrown by then.
He sighed, shaking his head, and stripped quickly, unrolling the loaned clothes. The old lady had brought him a full set, from the skin out, all clean (if musty from storage) and well cared for. He scrambled into the jeans, tee-shirt, and flannel shirt, before sitting down and stripping off his wet boots and socks to put on dry socks.
And then, he headed back out into the living room. Quickly. Because he didn’t want to spend any more time in that filthy room than he had to—and he planned to clean that room directly after feeding the kids.
He found the old lady hanging his wet clothes up around the living room and kitchen. All except for the pair of socks he kept his painkillers in—those were still rolled up, set up on top of the fridge. And there was a pan holding cream of chicken soup—he could smell it from across the room. The old lady patted his cheek and handed him the baby without saying anything, and wandered back out.
“Dat soup smells good,” Devon said, pulling out the paper bowls and plastic spoons that happened to be the closest thing to dishes in the apartment.
“Good.” Nick focused on getting Shaniqua settled in the ancient plastic high chair and pulled up to the table—there was no way he’d set that tray on until he’d had a chance to clean it.
“We ain’t had nothin’ to eat since day ‘fore yesterday. Nanna brought some ‘taters, and a knife to cut ‘em with, in the pan. We gonna eat those tomorrow?”
Nick closed his eyes and sighed. “Yeah, we’ll eat those tomorrow. You’re not going hungry again,” he said. “Not while I’m here, at least. I know what it’s like to go hungry, and it’s not something a kid your age should have to know.”
Silence met his declaration, and he glanced over at where Devon was setting out the bowls and spoons, to find him staring at Nick doubtfully.
Nick sighed again. “Come on, kiddo. Sit down. I’ll get the rest.”
He dished the can of reconstituted cream of chicken soup into two bowls, and set one in front of Devon, sitting down to feed the other to the baby. She smiled and clapped her hands as he scooped up a bit and blew on it to cool it. “Um…mister? What ‘bout yo food?” Devon asked quietly.
“You eat first,” Nick said firmly, steering the first bite into the baby’s waiting mouth. “And call me Nick. If there’s any left, I’ll eat it. We can’t save it without electricity.”
“Okay,” Devon agreed. He sounded cynical, and Nick caught him glancing at the rolled up socks with the drugs hidden in them.
“I don’t need it at the moment,” Nick said obliquely. “And even if I did, I wouldn’t use it until after you guys were asleep and didn’t need my help for a few hours.”
Devon bowed his head over his soup, and took a bite. “Dat’s better dan Mama,” he said, voice low and sad. He returned to eating for a few moments, then looked up. “I know I should feel bad she dead, but…I can’t,” he admitted.
Nick shrugged, feeding the baby another bite. “You’re angry with her,” he said. “You’re angry with her for making you be the grown-up, and for nearly getting your sister killed. You’re angry with her for abandoning you. And you’re angry with her that a stranger felt the need to step in and take care of you guys.”
“I guess so,” Devon said after a few minutes, and a few more bites. “What’s gonna happen to us when da storm’s done?”
Nick sighed. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “You said your dad’s in prison, and nobody knows who hers is. What about grandmothers? Do you know your mom’s mom, or your dad’s mom?”
“Dad’s mom’s in prison for killing grandpa for screwin’ around, and Mama’s mom is dead,” Devon said. “We got no family.”
Nick sighed, then smiled helplessly at the baby bird impression that Shaniqua was offering as soon as she saw the spoon headed toward her. “FEMA will probably hand you over to child services, and they’ll find you a home,” he said quietly.
“Dey’ll break us up, won’t dey?” Devon asked, his voice heavy with resignation.
“I don’t know,” Nick lied. “I just don’t know.”
The baby yawned and rubbed her eyes, turning away from the spoon. Nick waited for a moment, then tried feeding her the bite again. She turned away, whimpering, and said, “Nuff!” Nick shrugged, and finished the small bit in the bowl. There wasn’t much.
“Whatchu want me to do, now?” Devon asked, fiddling with his soup.
“I want you to eat the rest of that, and tell me where to put your sister down,” Nick replied, nodding toward the soup as he scooped Shaniqua out of her high chair.
“She sleep in the li’l crib in the bedroom,” Devon said, shrugging and taking another bite. “Dat’s where we sleep. ‘Less Mama brought someone home, and den I slep on da couch, and the crib got brought out next to da couch.”
Nick grimaced at the matter-of-fact tone. “Ah. I’ll go put her down, and worry about cleaning tomorrow,” he said.
“Getting’ dark anyhow,” Devon said, shrugging. “I be goin’ ta bed soon, too, jus to keep th’ batt’ries from dyin’ too soon.”
There was a bit of a hustle to get everyone set up to bed down, and Devon disappeared at one point, leading to a short, panicked hunt. Nick finally found him as he stepped back into the apartment through the window that led to the fire escape—the kid guiltily told him that after the toilet had nearly flooded when he tried to flush a few days ago, he’d been climbing out there to go piss, because he didn’t know how else to make sure not to overflow it.
It explained the stink.
By full dark, the kids were put down to bed. He’d checked his clothes everywhere they were draped, but they were all still wet. His blanket was worst.
Nick considered the little bit of heroin he had, but ruled it out. He wasn’t in any worse pain than he had been, and he had the kids to think of—they were depending on him.
He laid back on the couch and stared into the blackness shrouding the ceiling, thinking about Devon’s concerns. And feeling guilty. He’d lied when he’d said he had no idea whether or not the two kids would be separated; it was a certainty. And it wouldn’t be temporary, but permanent, as the baby would likely be adopted out almost as soon as she was put into the system, and likely with her name changed. Devon, on the other hand…he’d be left into the system to rot.
Nick didn’t want to let that happen. He wasn’t quite sure how and why his protective instincts had been roused for Devon (Shaniqua was obvious), but they had been.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t sure how in the world he’d be able to prevent it from happening.
He sighed and let his eyes drift closed, feeling certain that there was a way, if only he could find it.