Favors Undone

Image of Short Story
Yellow light pushes through old plastic domes on the ceiling. Streaks of rain on the window glow at the edges with color from a traffic light hanging outside the apartment. Red... yellow... green. Nancy’s carrying plates to the table. When she sits, her chair scoots across torn linoleum, the squeal makes everybody wince.
“Sorry.” Gabe reaches for Nancy’s hand, offering a squeeze. Cheryl’s smile barely blinks.
The combination kitchen/dining area bleeds into the living space where a corduroy chair sits against the wall, its upholstered ribs long rubbed flat. Flattened cardboard boxes are leaning on it, a half full roll of packing tape is on the seat. A small television’s angled so it’s visible from either side of the room.
“Looks delicious.” Cheryl sinks her fork into the cheesecake, careful so the silk cuff of her work blouse doesn’t touch the chocolate topping. The crust is dry, crumbling like powdered dirt as the fork hits it. Nancy watches Cheryl’s face as she cuts – her soft smile doesn’t waver.
A clamshell box made of thin cardboard is open on the counter. The cheesecake inside is starting to droop from the heat, just like the slices on the old oak table. The table’s dark finish is covered in dirty blonde scratches from countless bottles and long nights.
“Yeah, I got it at the Bodega near work. They’ve got the best cakes.” Gabe’s fork is clutched in a fist like he’s feral. Cheryl looks at the box, Sara Lee is printed on the side in white cursive. “What do you think?”
She’d hoped that the tension would dissipate as the night went on, but here it was, same as it had been when she’d walked through the door, arms full of packing supplies. “Really good.”
“Only the best for you, Cher.” Gabe’s stage grin is plastered onto his face as he cuts into his cake. Nancy’s eyes dart between Gabe and Cheryl, her plate untouched. “Remember the cheesecake mom used to make? Hers were the best.”
“She was a wizard with cakes.” Cheryl is taking big bites.
“Yeah, she went all out for those bake sales. What was your favorite?” Gabe is inhaling his slice, smears of chocolate collecting in the corners of his mouth.
“Blueberry.” Cheryl swallows prematurely to answer. “She made the best fruit pies, too.” Nancy is trying to catch Gabe’s eye, but he’s distracted.
“My favorite was -”
“Chocolate.” Cheryl interrupts, spearing another big bite. “I remember. It was her specialty.”
There’s a bump under the table and Gabe jumps. Nancy is staring daggers as he turns.
Here it comes. Cheryl is chewing fast, trying to get the cake down so she can begin her graceful exit and avoid the conversation that Nancy is trying to kindle. Nancy’s eyes shoot toward Cheryl as she scoops up the bulk of what's left on her plate. Gabe’s lips purse, and his head shakes a quick No like it’s on a tight spring. There’s a second bump under the table, and Gabe sighs.
“Hey, Cher.” Gabe leans over the table toward his sister. “We really appreciate those moving boxes.”
Cheryl talks around a full mouth, “No big deal, had them saved.”
“Yeah, it’s a big help, but... y’know...” He shifts in his chair, “I’ve got this job now, and-”
Cheryl is still talking around cake, “Gabe, you know I can’t.”
“Yeah, I know you can’t cover the whole thing, but even, like, five hundred.” Nancy is watching, her bottom lip pinched between her teeth.
Fuck. Cheryl grabs for her glass of milk and starts to wash the cake down.
“That’s all it’d take so we could stay.” Gabe’s eyes are wide, an unsure smile wavering on his lips.
“I don’t have it.” Cheryl reaches for her purse, its knockoff clasp doesn’t unlatch right anymore, and she has to fiddle with it to get it open.
“I could pay you back.”
“Yeah, we could pay you back.” Nancy’s voice cracks. “Please.”
Cheryl sighs, “That’s not it.” She finds her phone in the purse and brings it to life. The cracked glass is rough under her finger as she sends for a ride, desperate to escape.
“The website’s really starting to sell through, too.” Nancy pulls her earrings out and sets them on the table. “You could take some earrings or something as a thanks for now.” She pulls a wire bracelet off and sets it next to the earrings. “I’ve got some really cool new stuff you haven’t seen.”
10 minutes before a carpool arrives. “No, really, there’s no need. I can’t swing it, Gabe. I’m so sorry. You know I would.”
“It’s like an investment.” Gabe opens his palms on the table. “If you help us stay here we can pay back all the rest.”
The tiny room starts to feel even smaller to Cheryl. She’s frustrated... at her idiot brother with his hand out again, at the stubborn countdown to freedom on her phone, at herself for coming here in the first place. Everything’s too familiar. “Look at the time.” She lifts her phone asd evidence. “I’ve got to go.”
“It’s not that late.” Gabe stands up. “I’m making $500 a week. I swear I’d pay you back.”
Cheryl stands up too, an uneasy feeling returning to its nest in her gut. “I can’t, Gabe. I’m gonna get a car–”
“Please, Cheryl.” Nancy’s standing too, her hands clasped in front. “You’ve gotta help us out.”
Cheryl looks back at her phone. 8 minutes. She turns to get her shoes from next to the door. “I’m so sorry. I just don’t have it.”
“Wait!” Gabe’s hand shoots out and grabs Cheryl’s wrist, sending her phone flying. It hits the ground with a CRUNCH and skitters across the linoleum.
“What the hell?” Cheryl rips her wrist free and retrieves her phone, its screen inscrutable through cracked glass.
“GABE!” Nancy screams.
“I’m sorry!” Gabe holds his hands up in surrender. “I didn’t mean to.”
Cheryl’s at the door, slipping her feet into muted grey heels. She stumbles, the left heel is starting to come loose and wobbles if she’s not careful. “It doesn’t matter.” Her voice is like stone. “I don’t have any money for you. When I came here, I wished I did.”
“Gabe! Why’d you do that?” Nancy’s voice is loud enough to spill through the walls and windows.
“It’s not Gabe.” Cheryl grabs the doorknob. “I just don’t have it. My car’s almost here.”

Nancy turns on Cheryl, her eyes narrow. “Your car? And nothing to spare for your brother?”
“Nancy,” Gabe moves to block her, but Nancy’s already across the room.
“You don’t have to lie to us, Cheryl. You’re not so much better than us.” Nancy’s top lip curls. “Can’t even help your brother out when he needs a hand.”
How many times does it take to be a good sister? Cheryl lets the thought pass unsaid. “Enjoy the boxes.” She swings the door open. The sound of traffic and patter of rain drift in from a broken window at the end of the hallway. “Gabe, I love you. I’m sorry.” She spins and walks out, pulling the door shut behind her hard enough to shake the walls.
“I told you.” Nancy’s voice leaks through the door, chasing Cheryl down the hall. Her legs take long strides, their pace quickening as she moves toward the stairwell. Old carpet muffles the click clack of her heels as she moves. Her stride breaks, and she’s jogging. Her left foot comes down crooked and the weakened heel snaps. She kicks the shoe off, letting the right fly behind it.
She starts down the stairs, stockinged feet taking them two, three at a time. Her hands hover over the handrails as she flies, grabbing hold to pivot at corners. At the bottom of the stairs she can hear her phone buzzing. A blue sedan with its headlights on and windshield wipers sweeping is parked at the curb.
Nancy’s watching from the window upstairs as Cheryl walks out to the car, a passenger visible in the front seat. “She’s meeting somebody,” She calls to Gabe. “Your sister’s so full of shit.”
“Yeah, she can be pretty stingy.” Gabe sighs and walks over to the green chair. “And these boxes... what a joke.” He knocks them over with an open hand, pushes the roll of packing tape to the floor, and drops himself into the chair. “What about David, you heard back?” A cigarette finds its way to his hand and he sparks a lighter.
“Not yet.” Nancy’s still watching out the window as the sedan pulls away. “Where’s the cordless? I’ll give him another call.”