Jenny From the Block
The sounds of a teenage girl crying filled the midnight halls of the City General Hospital. No one came or went from those halls in the dead of night as Jenny Riley sobbed, head in her hands. Completely alone, Jenny finally quieted her broken soul as she took a shallow breath. She had to talk to someone. Her father was useless as he sat silent in the room where her mother had died, staring at the empty bed. She shoved her hands in the front pocket of the sweatshirt she was wearing and hurried from the hospital. Once in the streets, with the night air blowing through her thin clothing she managed to regain some sort of thought. Donnellys. Even at this late hour, someone had to answer the door. She raced down an alley that opened up on the block where the boys lived with their widowed mother. Their father had died just a few years before, beaten to death in a small diner, well, at least that's what they heard. Mrs. Donnelly had the youngest convinced he'd choked on a sandwich.
The loud knock startled Helen Donnelly from her stargazing. She'd been standing at the window in her tiny apartment while she listened to her sons' slow breathing through their open bedroom doors. She hated sleeping alone and often resorted to staying up, sleeping a few hours at most. No one ever came to her door at… 2:15am she noted. She set her cracked tea cup down and watched another drip escape the sides. A wedding gift she still refused to part with. She sighed and steeled herself against whatever was outside. She peaked through the small hole at eye level and stuck her tongue out at the wadded gum one of her boys undoubtedly shoved into it. Unbolting the door she cracked it open.
"Jenny…!" She threw the door open and tried to keep her voice measured as she took in the sight of the 16 year old standing alone in the hall. "What the hell are you doing out this late?"
Jenny pulled her hands out of her pockets and threw them around Helen's neck, crying into her shoulder.
Helen held her for a long moment before pulling her inside and closing the door. "What is it, Jenny?"
The response was muffled forcing Helen to push her away. She pulled her to the dining room table that served as the center of the family's apartment and sat her down. She grasped both of Jenny's hands in hers and cocked her head to the side, waiting for an answer.
"Mom…" She whispered.
Helen's heart all but stopped. Meredith Riley had been very sick, leaving the doctors baffled. "She's gone?"
Jenny nodded as the tears started again.
Helen left her there as she went into her room across from Sean and Kevin's bedroom. She returned a moment later with a knitted blanket and a box of tissues.
As Jenny blew her nose into the soft tissues, Helen wrapped the blanket around her and, standing behind her, rested her chin on the top of Jenny's head. "I'm sorry, Sweetheart." She whispered, her hands firmly on the young girl's shoulders.
Jenny turned her head a little, whispering back. "Can I stay tonight?"
"Of course you can." Helen knelt down beside the chair and smiled. "Whatever you need, we're always here."
Jenny nodded and managed a weak smile back. Helen Donnelly had been struggling to hold her family together, barely able to keep food on the table and take care of the boys and herself and yet she always had time and room for Jenny.
It was only a little while before Jenny was sound asleep in Helen's bed. Helen stood in the doorway studying the emotionally damaged child. It would be a long time before she'd get over this, but if Helen could help in some small way, she would. As God as her witness she would give Jenny as much love as she had for her own children.
Dawn was sobering as Helen woke, stiffened from sleeping in the old green chair that had been her late husband's favorite spot. He'd pick his horses from that spot, make all of his "protection calls" from there, he even once pulled her onto his lap and promised her a wonderful future, far from the criminal underground that had become her life. He had swung her legs over his lap and tickled her until she'd been completely out of breath and than whispered to her the large home he'd build for them. Rooms for everyone! Even little Joey, whom she'd nearly adopted after a particularly harrowing event in the little one's life. But, that was a long time ago and promises from mobsters are short lived unrealities. She stretched out as she walked quietly to the first door, the one straight off of the dining room. It was still open, indicating neither of the two oldest boys had gotten up in the night.
"Jimmy…. Tommy?" Her voice was low enough to keep all others in the house from waking as she spoke.
Jimmy looked up from the position his face had taken under his pillow. "Good morning, Ma." He managed a smile, followed up by a grimace as a wave of pain hit him.
She kept her gaze focused as he moved his leg carefully. The pain never went away, and it killed her, but she could only afford the very basic prescription pain killers for him. "Okay?" She asked finally as he hung his legs over the bed.
Her eldest nodded. He'd lived with this pain for a while, and he was learning how to cope… but he'd never tell her how.
"Tommy?" She repeated to the second.
"Yeah… I'm up."
"Jenny's here, she got here very early. Her mother died last night." Helen lowered her voice even further as she spoke, as if Jenny could sense her words from the other side of the apartment and through a closed door.
"Oh wow." Tommy mumbled as he sat up against the headboard. He rubbed his eyes and stared at his mother, waiting for some sort of details.
In response Helen shook her head. "I don't think they know what was wrong."
"Damn." Jimmy muttered as he struggled to stand and pull a pair of pants on over the black boxers he wore to bed. "She okay, Ma?"
She handed him his shirt off the door knob and shook her head. "Do you expect her to be?"
Jimmy mulled over that for a brief moment. He was fifteen when his dad died. It killed him. "No. No, she won't be for a long time."
Helen nodded her silent agreement as she watched him twist the fabric of his shirt in his hands before pulling it over his head. "You'll be late for school." She added in Tommy's direction. Jimmy had already dropped out, school too much for him to handle through a day. Although she hated it that one didn't finish, she never told him.
"Can I skip today? Maybe we can find something to keep Jenny busy."
Helen thought about it for a moment before nodding. "You've been doing well, I'll drop Kevin and Seannie off and you two can stay with Jenny."
He nodded as he climbed out of bed and located his own clothes.
Helen continued her routine of waking her sons, tripping over a dirty pair of something as she went into the last bedroom. She muttered under her breath and than smiled as she saw Sean and Kevin both sleeping in the bottom bunk. They had two books open laying on their stomachs and a long-dead flashlight between them. She closed the books and sat near the foot of the bed, ducking her head so as to not hit the top bed.
Kevin stirred as soon as she sat and he opened his eyes, smiling brightly at her. "Hi, Ma."
She smiled back at her 13 year old and than ruffled the baby's hair. Baby. Sean was already eleven. "Seannie… time to get ready for school."
"I hate school." His less than cheery response made her heart sink. She'd already been near the edge of sadness with the thoughts of Jenny and than the pained expression Jimmy had shown and now Sean was miserable about just getting up.
"Ssh, don't say that. I need you to be positive this morning. Up, get in the shower and put some breakfast in you."
Sean rolled himself out of the bed and onto the floor, using his hands to slow himself as he dropped. Then he laid there, face flat in the pale blue carpet.
Helen used her foot to nudge him and get him to look up at her. "Listen, Jenny spent the night. Her mom's gone and I need you to be a gentleman today."
He sat up and nodded, instantly behaving as he wondered to himself what that must be like. Losing Dad was bad. But your ma?
Kevin sat up too and pushed his hands into the bottom of the top bunk, lifting the mattress a little. "She really sad?"
"When we lost dad, how did you feel?" Helen's sarcasm was something Kevin could barely tolerate, but he took it.
"Yeah, yeah. I get it." He got up and raced into the bathroom, slamming it shut on Sean who'd tried to get ahead of him.
Sean pounded the door furiously. "You took one last night! Kevin… Kevin!"
Helen dropped her head as she imagined the argument jarring Jenny from what sleep she had gotten. She stood and grabbed Sean's ear as she passed the bathroom door, pulling him along with her. "What did I just get through telling you?"
"Be a gentleman." He growled and sat, dropping his head to the table.
Jimmy and Tommy were already at the table, discussing some outlandish plan to cheer up Jenny as they shoveled spoonfuls of oatmeal into their mouths.
Helen put a pot of coffee on and began washing dishes from the previous night's dinner.
When the younger two had both showered and eaten and Jenny still hadn't appeared, Helen peaked into her bedroom. "Jenny? Are you up?"
"Sort of." It was a sad tone as she responded.
"I'll be back soon, I'm walking the boys to school. Jimmy and Tommy are here though."
Jenny sat up and smiled sweetly. "Thanks, Mrs. Donnelly."
Helen nodded and closed the door, returning herself to the very opposite and not so sweet Kevin and Sean. "Alright, jackets and out!" She pointed as they grabbed their backpacks and headed in the direction of the door. Helen looked over at Jimmy and Tommy who were quietly observing her since she'd checked on Jenny. "She's awake. Give her some time."
They both nodded as the three left.
Jenny sat cross-legged in Helen's bed as she stared at the closed door. It sounded like the rambunctious kids had left the apartment and it was now completely silent. She cocked her head to the side, listening for anything that may translate into Jimmy and Tommy. Not one sound.
She let her eyes wander the fairly bare walls in the bedroom. A drawing done beautifully by Tommy was hanging above a desk, and the picture it had been modeled after was beside it; A photo of Helen and Bobby from early in their marriage. She loved Tommy's work, but had never heard Helen mention it. She thought it was sweet Helen had it there. She stared at it before her eyes caught the mirror. She looked up above the head of the bed to see the source of the reflection. A wedding picture tacked up, no frame, just the picture. Around it were baby pictures of all four boys and than a group picture from a year or so before Bobby had died. They were so little. It was maybe five years before, and Seannie was only 6. The four boys were all hanging off the rails of the front stoop, Joey was parked on Bobby's knee and Jenny was standing beside Bobby, leaning with her elbow on his shoulder. They'd been laughing so hard when Helen took the picture that it looked like they'd been in tears. She stood to get a better view of it. They had loved spending time with Bobby. He always brought home some treat for the boys, and just as often he would have two extras - in case Joey and Jenny were over. It was almost as if Mrs. Donnelly had six children and not four. She focused back on the wedding picture. A 4x6, non-professional picture of Helen in a plain white dress, possibly not even a real wedding dress, and Bobby in a cheap suit. She was sitting on his knee somewhere near the river, her hair down, but clipped back on one side, with a small flower in it. She had the brightest smile Jenny had ever seen, and Bobby looked quite handsome. Neither were out of their teens, that she was sure of. She jumped at the sound of the door opening.
"Hey." Jimmy was standing there.
Jenny climbed off the bed. "Don't you knock?"
"I didn't want to scare you." Jimmy shrugged, realizing too late it didn't matter, she'd been startled anyway.
"It's okay, Jimmy. I didn't mean to be sharp." Jenny walked over to him and smiled. "I love that picture."
"Of all of us? Yeah, it's one of my favorites too." He held the door back as she walked past him into the hall and out into the dining room.
Tommy stood and hugged her before indicating a fresh bowl of syrup covered oatmeal. "Good and hot."
She kissed him on the cheek and smiled at both brothers. "I'm going to call my dad first, tell him where I am."
"I'm sure he guessed." Jimmy offered as he picked the phone up and dialed the diner. When he was satisfied it was ringing, he handed the receiver to Jenny.
"Hi, Dad…. Yeah…. I came over last night…. No, I'm okay. Are you?…. Mrs. Donnelly said it was fine…."
The boys watched her expressions closely as she talked to her father, eyes shut the whole time. When she finally hung up, she shrugged.
"I love him, but if I'm there, I'll never be okay either."
"He's real bad, huh?" Tommy asked quietly.
She nodded and sat in front of the oatmeal. "I really… Tommy, I'm not…."
He picked up the bowl before she could finish talking. "No, it's okay. You don't have to be hungry." He smiled at her and got her a glass of milk instead.
Jenny fought the fresh build up of tears. She was one of the boys… she could not cry in front of them. She jumped up and ran back to Helen's room, closing the door behind her.
Tommy and Jimmy exchanged glances as the younger stood and went to Ma's door.
"Jenny?" Tommy knocked with one knuckle, hoping to be less intrusive. "Jenny, we can listen if you want to talk."
"I want to be alone, Tommy." Jenny's face was buried beneath blankets and pillows and she sobbed hard.
Helen watched Sean and Kevin go their separate directions, Seannie to the Elementary Building, and Kevin to the Junior High Building. When they had each vanished from her view, she turned to head back the four blocks home. They usually walked with Tommy, although both were capable of going alone. She grasped the strap to her purse as she walked, an odd habit she wasn't sure where she'd gotten. Purses were still new to her. She never went anywhere before Bobby's death. She didn't have to, he always picked up what she needed, or ran the boys places. She hadn't even found reason to renew her driver's license. And after the van had gone dead, she couldn't afford a vehicle anyway. She took the steps two at a time out of another habit. That one was easy to trace, she was usually chasing fast children up them. Three floors in a quick minute and she was at her door. She unlocked it and slipped in to find Tommy's head pressed against her bedroom door. "I told you to give her some time."
"I did." Tommy looked up. "She was out here, than she started crying and ran back in."
Helen dropped her purse on the small table in the hall and moved Tommy away from the door. She knocked twice before going in.
Jenny's leg moved to the side as Helen entered, giving her room to sit. That gave Helen a reason to smile. Jenny needed someone. Maybe anyone would do, but right now it was Helen. She sat and pulled blankets away from Jenny's shaking body and than lifted the pillow off of her face. "Hi."
"Hi." Jenny mumbled.
"Did they do something?" Helen wouldn't put it past either of them.
"No." Jenny shook her head. "I guess they were just being so nice."
"They can be sometimes."
Jenny laughed a little at that. "Yeah, weird huh?"
Helen pulled her hair away from her face and mouth. "How long were you up?"
"Maybe two whole minutes." Jenny sat up, shoulders still slumped, but up. "Do you have a copy of that picture?" She pointed at her new favorite.
Helen sighed. "I wish I did. Maybe I can get one made up. I think they do it at the pharmacy."
"Yeah, I'll give you the money." Jenny's eyes lit up at the thought of having such a precious moment frozen on her wall too.
Helen shook her head. "Consider it an early Christmas present, though I can't promise when I'll get it done."
"I remember that. We all had way too much ice cream and Joey wasn't sitting still. Mr. Donnelly was holding him so tight I thought Joey's eye was gonna pop out." Jenny looked back up at it.
Helen nodded, a smirk on her own face. "That wasn't a good day. Do you remember why?"
Jenny had to think about it. All she could remember was the ice cream. Than it hit her. "That was when you fell down the stairs. Yeah, that day sucked."
They both chuckled and Helen shrugged. "Didn't know if you remembered that whole ordeal. I'm pretty sure it was more miserable for everyone else, the grouch that I was."
"You still took the picture, and it turned out to be a pretty good one. I'm actually glad you didn't go on vacation. I would have been all alone for two whole weeks."
Helen nodded up at it. "That's why it's there. I never take pictures. When I do, there's always a good reason. Do you know it's the only one with Bobby and the boys? Not to mention you and Joey."
Jenny stared at it for a little while before she pointed at Tommy's sketch. "You like his art too, you never mention it."
"He wants to make a living out of it. It's not practical, so I try not to encourage it. It's a damn good way to starve too." Helen looked down at her hands and than back up at Jenny. "He does some beautiful drawings, doesn't he?"
Jenny grinned. "I told him years ago we can hang them in the diner when he's famous!"
"Yeah yeah." Helen shook her head, but still smiled. "I'm guessing two minutes didn't get any food in your belly?"
"No, Ma'am." Jenny shook her head as they left the bedroom.
Tommy had her oatmeal reheated and waiting, a big smile on his face. "I knew Ma could get you out of there!"
Jenny took the bowl and perched on the window sill while Jimmy eased into the big green chair and Tommy sat on the floor. Helen had returned to straightening the apartment, weekends are always hard on a place where kids live, and drying the last of the dishes.
To be Continued...