The Gamble

By Courtney Clark

Elsa Morris had been working as a nanny for the Dufresne family for three months when the men came.

The Dufresne family consisted of Lois and Frank (mother, father) and their three blonde children. Elsa was seventeen and Hilary, the oldest child (12) claimed, correctly, that she was in no need of a babysitter. Despite her ardent insistence, Elsa was sitting at the Dufresne table at 8:00 on a Tuesday morning feeding Henry, the youngest Dufresne (1) sweet potatoes from a baby jar while middle-child Haley (7) cut into the pancakes and bacon Elsa had prepared. Haley was moving the food around her plate to create a face. The bacon smile, because she’d eaten half of the strip, was lopsided and the bite from the pancakes caused the face as a whole to appear butchered. Haley was singing along to the static-filled radio set where every three seconds a phrase from some song made its way through the speakers. Hilary was upstairs trying on outfits for school while her breakfast grew cold. Lois was cleaning beneath her fingernails at the breakfast table. Henry was crying. He did not seem to care for sweet potatoes.

“Shut up,” Lois said from behind her dry, red knuckles, dirt filling in the cracks of her skin. Elsa glanced up from the tearful toddler to Lois, who did not glance up. Lois’ whiskey breath carried across the table from behind dark, oily hair. Frank, as usual, was not home. He was not at work, either, but was still out from the previous night. Frank was a drunkard and a gambler, but he was a friendly sort of both so that the children’s extent of abuse stopped short of physical and was mostly neglect. Elsa was paid weekly, just enough to save up before she finished her studies and got as far away from Minnesota as possible. The Dufresne house was old enough for Elsa’s foot to fall through the wooden floorboards once in a while.

“Shh, now,” Elsa said to Henry, “eat.”

Henry looked up at Elsa with watery eyes and hiccupped.

“Turn that stupid thing off,” Lois said without looking up from her fingernails. Elsa wasn’t sure if she meant the radio or the baby, but Haley bounced up to turn the radio down. Not off. Lois said nothing.

Car doors slammed outside in the yard. “Daddy!” Haley said. Elsa pulled her arm to sit her back down. Once Frank walked in breakfast would be a long-lost thought. Haley smiled at Elsa, kicked her feet, and shoved half of a breakfast face into her mouth.

“Come on, now.” Frank’s gruff voice carried through the walls of the house. “This is just a misunderstanding.” There was a padded thump from the yard, followed by heavy footsteps and creaks on the old wooden porch. A thud against the front door caused Elsa to jump slightly. “Look, my family is in there,” Frank said.

A tingle began at the base of Elsa’s neck. “Go upstairs with Hilary,” she said softly to Haley. The girl gazed at her beneath a furrowed brow. “Go on. Quietly and quickly.” Haley stood and ran lightly up the stairs in the next room.

“Frank!” Lois said, turning red eyes towards the front door. “Get in here!”

Muffled noises came from the porch. Elsa lifted Henry against her chest and stood.

“Lois, don’t you worry about what’s going on out here. You just–” Another thud interrupted him. “No, stop–” The screen door began to shake violently against its frame.

“Frank, you worthless bastard!” Lois stumbled through the kitchen doorway into the den, where the front entrance was located.

“Lois…” Elsa began, but Lois continued to the door. Elsa backed away to the stairs. Just as she reached the first step, the screen door opened loudly and the front door burst open, Frank toppling through. Lois stood a few feet away, cursing. Frank looked through the front doorway, a tall shadow covering him against the wall, shaking his head. His flannel shirt was stained red from a gash in his forehead. His blue eyes were wide. Elsa turned and ran up the stairs with Henry. A blast shattered the air behind her.

Elsa stumbled against the wall, her ears ringing. There was screaming, but it sounded far away. Henry pressed his palms to his ears and began wailing. She straightened and carried on up the stairs, her footsteps echoing in her head. Another blast. The screaming stopped. Elsa covered Henry’s mouth and moved faster. Reaching the top of the stairs, she saw Hilary and Haley peeking around the doorframe to their shared room at the end of the hall, eyes wide, trembling.

“Hush, hush,” Elsa whispered though they’d made no move to speak. “Close the door and lock it,” even though a locked door is nothing to a shotgun.

“Mom?” Hilary said softly, backing away from the door.

“Quiet, now.” Elsa moved to the window, checking for others. She saw none. Handing Henry over to the oldest sibling, she said, “You need to make him be quiet.”

“But how–”

Elsa grabbed her shoulders. “He doesn’t understand anything except that we’re scared and there were loud noises. Calm him down and I’ll get us out.”

They all froze. A stair squeaked beneath heavy weight.

“Nobody move,” Elsa mouthed, carefully going back to the window.

“What’re you doing, Jordan? We gotta get outta here before someone calls the cops.” A voice from downstairs.

Elsa opened the window.

“Didn’t you hear that?” The second man. Jordan.

“I didn’t hear nothin’. Come on.”

“Just a damn second, Charlie. Lemme at least check. We can’t leave no one who mighta saw us.”

Elsa looked outside. Straight down to the grass, maybe fifteen feet. It shouldn’t kill them, but it wouldn’t be pleasant. Maybe some broken bones, depending on how they landed. She gestured for the kids to come over. Footsteps were coming closer, cautious and slow.

“We have to jump,” Elsa said. The girls gazed at her with wide eyes. “No arguments. We have no choice. Give him to me.” She took Henry into her arms.

“Elsa,” Haley said quietly, her lips trembling, “I can’t.

Looking at the young girl, she realized how true this was. She would be paralyzed by fear. And she’d get them all killed. The footsteps were getting closer.

“Hold onto Hilary. Hilary, you’ll have to jump for the both of you.”

The twelve-year-old, already too old for her age, gulped, wiped her wet cheeks, and hugged her sister close to her.

“Hold on tight, Haley,” Elsa said, helping them to sit on the sill of the window, legs dangling in empty air.

Distantly, beyond the long dirt road within their sight, the first sound of a police siren sounded.

“We can wait,” Hilary said quickly, daring a smile of relief. “The police are coming.”

“Didjou hear that?” A man, maybe Charlie, said from the end of the hall. “We got to go!”

“We got a little time,” Jordan replied. “We can’t leave nobody.”

“We can’t wait,” Elsa said sternly. “Land on your feet. Bend your knees.” She gripped Haley’s arm. “Don’t scream. Go.”

Hilary stared at Elsa, who nodded. The girl gripped Haley tightly. Just as the footsteps started down the hall, she jumped. The sirens were still out of sight. One of the girls screamed, and before Elsa barely had time to blink, Hilary hit the ground, followed by Haley, and rolled. One of them began wailing.

“I heard that!” Charlie said from outside the room. Cop cars appeared down the road. “They’re outside!”

The footsteps turned. The two girls were still lying on the ground, though they were moving slightly. Hilary’s white dress was stained with dirt and blood. If the men went outside, the girls would have nowhere to hide.

After a brief hesitation, Elsa shouted, “No! No!” Henry began crying.

The men stopped. “That was upstairs.”

“That room. Go.”

“Maybe we should split up—”

“No more time. We need to take care of her and get out of here.”

As they began banging on the door, attempting to break it open, Elsa swung her legs over the sill. The girls were in the way of her jump.

“Move!” Hilary looked up at her. “Get out of the way!”

“Haley, come on.” She dragged her sister away from where they’d landed. Haley barely moved.

The door flew open. Elsa looked at the two men. Large, hairy, holey jeans, blood spattered across their faces and dirty white t-shirts.

“Hey!” One said, aiming his shotgun. Pressing Henry’s head and neck into her chest and gripping him tightly, Elsa jumped. The shotgun went off.

The fall was brief, carried by the weight of a teen and a toddler. Police pulling in caught a glimpse of a dark-haired girl falling from a window. She hit the ground, landing first on her feet and then collapsing onto her belly. A blonde girl ran to her, screaming and pushing her onto her back. The police cars parked and officers climbed out, some running to the entrance of the house, some aiming at the open window on the second story where a man was aiming a gun down at the children.

Sandy and Josiah Allens were neighbors to the Dufresnes, five acres out, and they had been drinking coffee and reading the newspaper in their pajamas when they heard the first shotgun shots. Josiah rushed to telephone the police. Five minutes later they heard distant sirens. Then screaming. The sirens were joined by squealing breaks and cut off. Then another shot, more screaming. The shouting of several voices. Put down the gun, put down the gun. After all of the distinct, ordered noise, the Allens would not be able to tell the officer who took their statements whether the shotgun or the police-issued handgun was the first to fire. Yet they would wonder, in the darkness of their bedrooms before sleep crept over them, why the baby stopped crying before the police started yelling, and why the shriek of a young girl ceased before the pop pop pops of gunfire began.

***

 

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