Rusty hinges creaked on the door to the studio apartment as he returned home from work. Frankie had lived there for the last five years, but it felt smaller every day. Lights flickered and the place had a stink to it, a hint of rotten eggs and sulfur from the plant upwind of the complex he lived in, the building and smokestacks constantly giving of a white-hot steam that spread into the air. He had no doubt it was awful for the lungs, but his exit from the area would require him to find a direction in life and that just could not happen at the moment. There was Emily to think about.
His suit already wrinkled from the day and his bed already smelly from the chemicals in the air, Frankie decided he did not care about what he did to his things and flopped down on the bed, face-first. The sheets fluttered about him, waving up and falling around him like the wings of a moth as they settled back onto the bed. He lay there, turning his head to the side so he could breathe out of it, and rested his eyes in hopes of rest. He crossed his fingers and hoped against hope that Emily had not woken up. Opening one eye to glance across the room behind him, he spied the blanket he had covered his three-year-old daughter with rising up and down with even, short, shallow breaths. “Good,” he thought, “this way I can get a little shut-eye.” Most of his evenings were filled with questions from Emily, reading books to her or watching television with her. She was smart and she knew it, but that did not mean she had to rub it in his face.There was plenty else to worry about on her end. The world began to fade to black around him, peace finally settling in.
“Ah, hell,” he thought. He stayed absolutely still, hoping she would just go back to sleep.
“Daghy? I see your eye open.”
He rolled his face back down, groaned into the thin mattress, then turned completely over and sat up to look at Emily. “What is it sweetie?”
She had peeked over the back of the couch, her massive forearm on her left side hanging down as she struggled to keep it up. Her head protruded on the same side, a bulge that consumed part of her forehead and her hairline protruding from her face. This protuberance had elongated her face and to compensate her jaw had grown in crooked, pulling the wrong direction a tad and making her speech difficult. Not that she could speak much yet. She was a three year old and so much of it was gibberish at this point anyway, but Frankie could see that she knew what she meant to say and merely had trouble enunciating it. A lot of the time she could get her basics out but sometimes her mouth refused to move the way she needed it to.
“Hi, Daghy,” she said, and began to climb down from the couch. He instinctively began to try to stand, to go and lift her rather than let her walk and go through this but the doctors had told him to let her work on it, to learn to get around while he saved for the operation necessary. There was a lot to be done for Emily but this was the major thing.
The sound of her walking around the couch was hard to listen to. He could hear it every time and it was part of why he always wanted to avoid waking her. She wanted a hug and she would get it if she damn well pleased, but it always broke his heart to hear her walk. She needed to build the muscle, though, the doctors had all told him that. So he has, listening to her thump-swipe around the couch. As she hobbled around the armrest he tried to avoid looking at it but his eyes twitched down involuntarily.
His poor daughter had a clubfoot. There were other, more blatant deformities but this was the one that hobbled her, that held her back from truly being able to do anything. This was the one that crippled her a bit, that pushed her to an awkward position in the workforce she would one-day join or the life she would one day never get to lead. He looked over at the jar on top of his refrigerator labelled “Emily’s Rainy Day Fund” and shook his head. It was less than half full, and it would take four of them filled with the right denominations of cash to pay for just the first of her operations.
Small hands touched his knee and Frankie turned back. He reached down and hoisted her up. “To hell with the doctors,” he thought to himself. He would hold her if he damn well pleased and no one was going to stop him. He pulled her straight into his arms and gripped her tight, feeling her tiny arm and wrap around his neck as her larger one flopped to hang down his back. “I love you, honey,” he whispered. She muttered the same in reply and nuzzled into him.
Frankie lay back on his bed, his daughter resting on his chest. Laying there, listening to her breath, he felt almost normal for a moment. He knew it couldn’t last but enjoyed the feeling nonetheless. Within moments they were fast asleep.
He awoke to a knocking on the door. Quickly but meticulously, he took Emily from his chest and lay her on the bed. Wrapping the blankets around her and tucking the pillow under her head to support it, he glanced back and willed the door to stay silent.
Tap tap tap came the sound again.
“Shit,” he thought angrily. He crossed to the door and put his eye to the peephole. Through it he could see a finger, the nail bright orange, extended from the middle of a hand. Popping the door open, he held a finger to his lips and a scowl on his face. He stepped out into the hall to join Sandy, the mother of his child.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he whispered angrily. “She’s trying to sleep in there.”
“Well she better git up,” Sandy said, her drawl accent dripping to the floor beneath her.
“The hell are you talking about?” Frankie asked, confused.
“I’m talking about custody.”
“What custody? You don’t get any say in who gets the girl. The court decided she went with me and that’s that. Hell, you aren’t supposed to be in the house without a supervisor.”
“I ain’t in the house,” she muttered.
“You’re on the property!” Frankie snapped, barely containing his volume and hoping it was enough.
Sandy, stronger than the stick of a man Frank had become since taking custody of his daughter, shoved him aside and burst into the apartment. She could see Emily, asleep on the bed, and headed toward her. Frankie reached in and grabbed her arm, seizing her by the wrist, and twisting it behind her back. She was an intruder here, one excited to try things she learned in class out on unsuspecting offenders. She spun as he took her wrist and pushed it against her, catching him in the leg. He held his ground, though, and did not budge despite the grunt of pain he elicited.
She began to mutter to him. Horrible things, things about his family and friends and his penis, all carefully whispered so that Emily could not hear over it. The woman kept her rant, miraculously, quiet and managed to still be cutting and vindictive. She swung her leg back and her heel caught him in the hip, right on the bone. Frankie went down and soon after Sandy was on top of him, clawing at his face and scratching at his skin. “Mine,” she kept growling. “I made her, I love her, and she’s mine!”
Frankie was not even thinking anymore. He swung a fist up and connected with breast. Sandy moaned softly and clutched at it, rolling off of him to lie on the floor. “The fuck,” Frankie whispered, “are you doing?”
“Judge,” Sandy breathed. “Judge says I’m fit. We’re going back to court in a couple of weeks. Gary, you remember him, he has the money for her surgeries so we’re taking her back.”
“Gary is a fucking bastard,” Frankie said, trying to keep his voice low. “She lives with me and you can’t take her away, not for anything!”
“Frankie, don’t be an idiot,” Sandy said, “she needs the surgery.”
“She’s perfect,” he growled, rolling onto his side next to his ex.
“She’s not,” Sandy said, “but she could be a bit better if you let me take her.”
Frankie thought about this for a moment, looking up at his daughter. Emily was still sound asleep, her breathing labored as she rolled from one side to the other. She lay there dreaming, worrying about things beyond her reality, and loving it. He wondered if she looked different in her dreams. He glanced at Sandy and, sadly, saw greed in her eyes.
“What do you need,” he said, “a new tv? You’re just after the custody money. Well fuck you, I’m saving for the surgeries she needs. She’ll get them without you.”
“Frankie, be reasonable,” Sandy said, scoffing at him.
This last was too much for him, the condescension reaching a peak. She had shown up randomly to take his daughter, she had physically resisted him as he tried to remove her from his apartment, and she had only come for the money. It was the final straw.
He felt his fingers lacing through her hair, felt the tightening as he drug her. She was no longer whispering, Emily’s rest no longer seeming to be a priority. As his daughter stirred the separated couple reached the bathroom and Frankie yanked her in. As she sprawled on the floor he looked and saw black hairs in his hand. “Losin’ a lot already there, aren’t ya?” he wondered.
As she tried to rise he struck her across the face. Blood and teeth fragments spurted from her jaws. He hit her again and then, as she began to cry out for the third time, he managed to get his hands around her throat. The wheels turned, the breathing shallowed to a sand-bank, and Sandy began to pass out.
Frankie squeezed harder the redder he got. At last he heard the loud pop of her neck, of the vertebra separating and the nerves severing along the bony edges. He watched her eyes go dead, the life fading from them, and he followed her down as far as he could. Feeling like he owed it to her, Frankie gazed at the irises until the light was all gone from them.
His daughter was out of bed and probably coming to pee. She knocked on the door. “Almost finished, honey,” he called, and returned his attention to Sandy. Finally deciding on the tub he set her in and walked to the door after pulling the curtain. He stopped by the toilet and flushed it, then opened the door. Emily stood outside, a confused look on her face so far as he could tell.
“Daghy?” she asked. “Daghy, whuh was thah noise?”
He pulled her close. “Nothing, sweetheart,” he said. “Daddy loves you, and you don’t ever have to worry around him.” He sighed, content in the hug. “You never have to worry with Daddy.