A Wedding. A Celebration. An album of both.

An album of celebration for the love found by my dear friends Katlego and Musa. All pictures captured on my Canon 1200D.

Click here for my video explaining our story (and subscribe to my YouTube channel)

Note: this is a brief series of some of my favourite shots, mostly unedited. If you feature in one and want to save it to share online, feel free to do so. But, please, use the hashtag #OracleJag if sharing on Instagram and giving me credit. Thank you and enjoy! 

 

 

 

Some stuff to read while you’re here:

Polysemous, a short story series

Cranes in the Sky – a short story 

Adele – Hello (Based on a Song)

Anniversaries in Colour

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Cranes in the Sky

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The song: Solange – Cranes in the Sky

The lyrics: Cranes in the Sky lyrics

There was absolutely no sound in the room. I woke up to the kind of quiet that felt almost dream-like. For a second, I let myself lie in it and imagined that I was floating, alone, in some faraway universe. But the more I sunk into that silence, the more I became aware of the fault in it. Breathing. I could hear the soft in-out flowing of air from the man lying next to me. I didn’t want to open my eyes, but I had to. I had no idea who he would be and, when I turned to see a face I did not know, I sighed with relief. That would make him easier to forget.

I dragged myself to the edge of the bed and set my feet down on the warm floor. The floor was literally warm and bright, buttered to be so by the yellow morning sun falling on top of it. My legs were stiff and sore, throbbing with the aftermath of all the dancing which had occurred the night before. I remembered lifting my drinks up in the air. And, even if I didn’t, the heavy pounding in my head would have served as a reminder of just how much I drank.

My hair, thick and knotted with the sweat of the night before, brushed over my shoulders as I stretched my neck. It was purple, with hints of a baby blue hue. I had hoped that the vibrancy of it would reflect into my own life. I hoped wrong. A month in, and a series of vacuous compliments later, the new hair had only served as a maintenance burden.

On the floor lay another burden; my dress. It was beautiful. It shimmered in silver silk on the white hotel bedroom tiling. Just a few hours earlier, it had massaged my body and wrapped it like a flawless Roman sculpture. In it, I could only be seen as a perfect porcelain princess, without a crack in my soul. Under it, I was the crumbling of mother Gaia under forces more unknown. On the floor, it lay abandoned as if it had not run my credit card bill deeper than I could dig out.

I yawned. Lazily, I yawned. I was tired. Just like every day that had come before it and like every day that I could see coming. I had tried everything, and it had all led to the same feeling of exhaustion. I read, and I got tired. I wrote, and I got tired. I worked, and I got tired. I slept, and I got tired. My life was a dizzying array of circles which all left me in the same darkness. I shut my eyes and frowned hard to fight the thought. My nails dug into the mattress like that of a desperate soldier holding on to dear life. Except that I was no soldier. I was the furthest thing from anyone who knew how to fight.

I was just a young woman, sitting on the edge of a king-sized bed which served no queen. I opened my eyes to look straight ahead at the Sunday morning which rose before me. I walked towards the tall glass wall of the twenty-fourth floor that I was on. The inviting warmth of the sun met my face and caressed it ever so gently for the longest minute. But, the longer I stared out at what should have been a beautiful view, the more I felt confronted by myself. I saw life in a landscape.

I saw cranes in the sky. Like metal clouds, they hung between the buildings all around mine and refused to be whisked away. A view. A potential for beauty. Marred. Every instance of possible goodness in my life was reflected in this presence of a thorn. Except for one difference. These literal cranes before me would facilitate growth – a good thing – and then disappear. Only the beauty would remain. But what about me? What would become of the cranes in my life? And what would they leave behind?

Further away from the breathing of my anonymous distraction, I closed my eyes again. I did not see the cranes. I tried to forget them. I tried to drift in the silence. I tried to drift away. The only thing warmer than the sun against my skin was the slow rolling of my quiet tears.

“So, Ange,” he called out, his raspy voice breaking through my imaginary veil.

With a sniff, I wiped my cheeks dry. I turned to face him. I wore the same smile that he must have seen the night before. A perfect porcelain princess.

 

 

A new series is coming soon. It has nothing to do with songs. Watch this space.

Tony the Tiger

The song: Manchester Orchestra – Tony the Tiger

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And you slept the entire drive home.

It was you, my sister, and I. I didn’t think that you would actually do it. As I held your hand and felt your gentle breath against my shoulder, I wondered how I could do it. I wondered how I could sit there and bear the decision you had made. As much as we had spoken about it, I had never been granted any power to decide. You knew what had to be done and you told me that it would be done.

I remember a time when I was alone. I was lost in a world of darkness and cold. So, I set a fire. A flare. On an island in the city, you saw me. You saw me, and I allowed myself to waste all of my light and warmth on you. When I planted the seed, I knew that it would be over soon. I always imagined that you would be hard to remember. And I was right all the way up to the moment where a very different seed was planted.

As I held your hand and felt your calm warmth against my shoulder, I wondered how you could do it. I wondered how you could rest your head on my body and sleep so peacefully. As much as you had struggled to find peace for days, I had never imagined that you could find peace in that moment. Was it exhaustion that allowed you to escape? Was it desperation that helped you leave me more alone than before I had met you?

I remember a time when we were ecstatic. I was in a world built anew. Your touch was the signal of pure excitement. Against all of the realistic odds, we crashed into each other and disregarded the pain. In the deep of summer, we exploded within each other on an abandoned bridge. I saw the chaos of the water beneath us, fresh from the fallen rains. And I considered the aged wood which stood as our only support. A sign. I should have cautioned myself. You should have cautioned us.

As I held your hand and felt your eyelashes brush against my shoulder, I wondered how we could do it. I wondered how you could stare at the desire in our souls, tell me that it’s destructive, and still sink yourself right into me. I wondered how you could tell me there was no hope, and still take even more hope away from me. As that cold steel bled its way into you and you clenched your teeth, I tried to imagine what you thought would be left. Of you. Of me. Of us. The only thing we ever could have made, we killed.

I didn’t think that you’d actually do it.

And I know that you think you know, but you probably don’t know. How I felt is a numbness that allowed me to hold your body despite everything in me screaming for me to push you away. I felt the dark and the cold return. Only worse. So, I closed my eyes. And we slept the entire drive home.

 

A new series is coming soon. It has nothing to do with songs. Watch this space.

NWA – Fuck Tha Police (Based on a Song)

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The song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9jOqOlETcRU

The lyrics: http://genius.com/Nwa-fuck-tha-police-lyrics

“That is some funny shit, man,” Maurice laughed. He had spent over an hour browsing his Vine feed and giggling as softly as he could. He admired the ability that the creators had in telling a concise story in just a matter of seconds. He longed to have one of his own creations see the love of a million loops but he had seen no such luck. He had made numerous attempts to emulate some of his favourite content creators but he always felt that something was missing. Before the thought could ruin his browsing experience, a call interrupted him.

“Hey, Andre,” he answered.

“Wassup, bitch. I’ma be there in five minutes, so yo’ black ass better be ready to go.”

“Yeah, shit, I’m ready,” Maurice lied. He dropped the call and jumped off his bed, heading straight for his closet.

He swung the doors open and looked at his clothes as if he had many options. He already knew what he would be wearing that evening. He pulled an assortment of items out of his closet and then stood in front of his mirror. He was feeling good about the adventure that he had planned with Andre. He slipped into a pair of grey sweatpants and complemented their droop with an oversized T-shirt. For warmth, he chose to go with a pale-grey hooded jacket with a massive Lakers logo on the back. It was his brother’s, and he had promised to give it back months ago. He wanted to wear it one more time for one more video. He sat back onto his bed to put his shoes on. They were a pair of Jordans in fire truck red. A black trim traced along the bottom of the shoes to meet at the soles. They were so clean and well taken care of that nobody had realised that they were knockoffs. He played around with the idea of a beanie, but decided to rather leave his growing locks visible. He had worn a similar combination of clothes so many times that it had essentially become a uniform. It was the uniform of his neighbourhood and many others, so he felt safe and comfortable in it. A familiar car horn sounded from outside his window and prompted him to grab his things and get going.

Andre was parked in the driveway in his cousin’s 1967 Chevrolet Impala. The paint was an ugly sky-blue that was rusting off the edges to reveal an even uglier grey tint underneath it. The car was in a bad state, having had more owners than it had had decades on the road. Andre was permitted to drive it on the weekends as long as he remained within the city limits. The restriction seemed caring in spirit, but it was only made to prevent a ridiculous towing bill in anticipation of the car’s next inevitable breakdown. Andre had his arm hanging casually out of the car’s window, half a joint resting between his thumb and forefinger.

“Come on, nigga, get in the damn car,” he urged. Andre was a plump and pimpled mass of urgency and excitement. He had spent some time shaking off his old ‘Big Andre’ title through infrequent running and threats of physical harm to those who still dared to use it. He had attained a small level of success, but his large frame was more persistent. His hair was braided tightly against his round head, with the ends of it hanging just past his shoulders. It was hardly visible between the folds of his favourite blue Dodgers baseball jacket. His skin was light and contrasted Maurice’s deeper complexion. The contrasts continued in how much louder and unreserved he was, always choosing fight over flight whenever his mouth got him into trouble. To most, their friendship made very little sense, as their personalities were not complementary at all. To them, however, the dynamic worked perfectly. Andre needed an impressionable younger kid to believe all of his bullshit stories, and Maurice was bored enough to listen to anything as long as he got to leave the house.

“I told you not to light up before you pick me up, man,” Maurice moaned as he buckled his seat belt.

“Shit, nigga, the engine’s still cold and you’re already bucklin’ up for safety?” he taunted. “You know we can barely do sixty in this shitty Chevy.”

“You ask me this every time, Andre,” Maurice sighed.

“Yeah, because I’m tryin’ cure your anxiety, little bitch,” he responded, backing out of the driveway. The sun was setting. It painted a pale yellow over their faces and cast soft shadows behind them. In the near distance, everything was showered in the deep red that trailed all along the horizon as the sun dipped below. The mountains all round were blackened and undefined. They layered the landscape like the bottom frame of a very dull painting with only heaven above. The heavens themselves were a consistently darkening gradient that obscured into uncertainty. All of this reflected in Maurice’s eyes, but he could not see it.

“Have you had a good day?” he spoke, ignoring Andre’s comment.

“Man, it was all good until I was drivin’ over here and these bitch cops were starin’ my ass down for nothin’,” he spat.

“What happened?”

“Man, you know how it is. A young nigga got it bad ‘cause I’m brown and not the other colour. They’re all punk motherfuckers hidin’ behind a badge and a gun.”

“You say that like you could do anything against them.”

“I can stop ‘em beatin’ on my ass and throwin’ me in jail,” Andre argued, flipping the butt of his joint onto the sidewalk.

“No, you can’t. They have the authority –”

“To kill a minority?” he interrupted. “I’m sure I heard that in a song somewhere. You seen all these videos lately? Cops fuckin’ niggas up like it’s a huntin’ trip in these streets. And, actually, the niggas on the street is a majority. The day we stand up, it’s gonna be a bloodbath of cops dyin’ in LA.”

“Except that won’t happen.”

“Why the fuck not?” he barked.

“Because, it just won’t. How many times has it happened and how much has changed? This shit goes viral and then people just forget until the next time. One day you’re all about ‘black lives matter’ and the next you’re all about a fresh pair of tits. We’ve got a consistent problem with an inconsistent mindset.”

Andre burst out laughing and continued to do so as he turned to look at Maurice. “You fuckin’ serious, nigga?”

“What?” Maurice frowned, confused.

“You the little nigga runnin’ round all obsessed with the Internet and going viral or some shit. Now you goin’ complain about how that shit works? The fuck kind of world you wanna live in? You can’t have both.”

“What the hell was in that joint? Since when are you so woke?”

“Since I fucked your mom,” Andre sniggered. “You could say she woke my dick.”

“That’s a classy response,” Maurice grimaced, punching Andre’s arm.

“Calm down, lil’ nigga. By the way, your prop’s on the back seat.”

Maurice swung his head back and saw the handgun on the torn leather seat. He reached for it and felt its cold weight as he brought it close to his face for further inspection. “Damn, is this real?”

“Realest thing to an actual Beretta 92, yeah.”

“A what?”

“A popular gun, damn,” Andre shook his head. “That’s why I’m a gangsta and you’re not.”

“Well, if it looks this real up close, it’s going to look even more real in the video,” he said, waving the prop to get a feel of it.

“Nigga, you advertisin’? Put that shit down before some other bitch cop ruins my day.”

Maurice shoved the gun into his jacket pocket like a child almost caught being naughty. He could already see his bright idea playing out in his head. This would be the one. This would be the video to do it. The only thing brighter was the distracting blue and red flashing behind them.

“Fucking really?” Andre frowned into his rear-view mirror. “He askin’ me to pull over. For what? Tell me, for what?”

Andre complied and pulled over to the side. They were in a quiet neighbourhood with streets so bare it may as well have been midnight. Theirs was the only other vehicle sharing the road with the police officers behind them. One officer stepped out of the vehicle and walked over to the driver’s side of Andre’s car. He was a heavy-set man who looked as though time had taken its toll on his health. His face was hard and impatient as he leaned into the vehicle to take a look at the boys. He rested his elbow on the door as Andre leaned back.

“Good evening, officer,” Andre spoke. “Anything the matter?”

“I didn’t think anything was,” his voice gravelled, “but I’m smelling something that’s got me changing my mind.”

“W-what do you mean, sir?” Andre croaked.

“What’s your name, boy?”

“I’m Dre, and this over here is Ice,” Andre stared.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” the police officer frowned, stepping back from the door. “Get out so I can conduct a search.”

“Seriously? You’re gonna search a brother? For what?” Andre grew bratty in his tone.

“I am not your brother, boy. Exit the vehicle, now.” The police officer rested his thumb and forefinger over his holstered pistol.

“Do you think every damn nigga is selling narcotics? Do you think your boy is on the streets dealin’ dope right now?”

“Andre!” Maurice pleaded. “Shut the hell up before you get us in trouble.”

“Alright,” the police officer grimaced, pulling his weapon out and pointing it at Andre. “Step out of the vehicle with your hands behind your head.”

“Everything alright, Cooper?” asked the second police officer, opening his door.

“I’ve got it under control, Johns,” he replied.

Andre pushed the door open with his knee, carefully stepping out with his hands held high and visible. “So that’s it, huh? Black police showing out for the white cop?”

“Are you begging to get arrested? Because you’re making this really easy for me.”

“The fuck did I do, man? What did I do? What are you gonna read me my rights for? Man, fuck this shit.”

The police officer pushed Andre against the hood of the car and proceeded to cuff him. “Alright, smartass, I’m taking your black ass to jail. This is the problem with you niggas with attitude.”

“For what? Tell me. For what?” Andre foamed at the mouth.

“I’ll find something in this dirty piece-of-shit car. I bet I will.”

Maurice sat, frozen, mortified, as he witnessed the scene before him.

“Yeah?” Andre bit. “Go ahead and search, ya pig. Fuck you. Fuck the poli–”

Andre’s head slammed hard against the hood of the car before he could finish his insult. Blood spewed from his nostrils, running into his mouth. “Maurith,” he gargled, “wun! Get outta here!”

The police officer shot a look straight at Maurice, his eyes wild, and said, “Don’t even think about it, boy.”

In his rear-view mirror, Maurice could see the other police officer exiting his vehicle. His mind raced for a second that felt like a lifetime. He was stuck between two uncomfortable options. And then he wasn’t. In a second that passed much quicker, he had opened the door and was headed straight for the fence right ahead of him.

“Hey!” the other police officer shouted. “Get back here!”

In a neighbourhood quiet enough to hear the sound of sweat falling on grass, nothing was louder than the beating of Maurice’s heart. He ran and jumped. And ran and jumped. Fences set as hurdles in a guilt-ridden Olympic marathon. The thumping of his heart made it impossible for him to hear the officer behind him. With a desperate look, he discovered no one to be in pursuit of him. Chest heaving, he found his way onto a street and bent over to rest his hands on his knees. Cold, frightened air exploded from his mouth. Even with his eyes closed, he felt the flashing lights as they screeched around the corner. He turned to his left to run. This time, however, it was only a hopeless sprint as he had run himself to an unfamiliar dead end. He shoved his hands into his jacket pocket. He felt the prop. He froze. The police vehicle skidded to a halt. Suddenly, Maurice could hear everything. Every nervous step that the police officer took resounded like bombs dropping ever closer. There was a click that signalled the unannounced readiness of the police officer’s weapon.

“Ya got nowhere to run, kid,” the officer breathed. “Ya shouldn’t hav’ run. Now ya’v committed a crime. Turn around and put ya hands in the air.”

Maurice turned slowly, his hands unwillingly glued to the fake weapon in his pocket.

“I said hands in the air!” the police officer ordered.

Two floors above the ground, a mortified onlooker observed the scene below. With a hesitant hand, he reached for his phone. He clicked record.

“I… I can’t, officer,” Maurice shivered, his voice failing with each word.

“Don’t make me repeat myself. Hands in the –” the officer paused and squinted. “The fuck are ya holding? Ya armed?”

“No, God! Please,” Maurice panicked, pulling his hands out. “It’s only a –”

In the officer’s response, Maurice did not get to finish his sentence. Maurice did not get to absolve himself.

There was a click. There was a bang.

There was a teenager who would be in another viral video.

He would never know it.

******

My ‘Based on a Song’ series is a series of short stories inspired by the lyrics of a song. This is the third one. Click here to read the one based on Hozier’s Take Me to Church.

Hozier – Take Me to Church (Based on a Song)

Hozier

 

The song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVjiKRfKpPI

The lyrics: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/hozier/takemetochurch.html

Based on a Song #2

I did not know his name at first. I always saw him from a distance. I remember when I first took note of him. My church family was at a funeral. Some old priest had kicked it and we were all forced to go. There was a whole lot of talking that I cared very little for because it meant nothing much to me. I had done a good job of avoiding these gatherings outside of church, but Father’s law was Father’s law. It was almost as if Father could tell whenever I was distracted, because he nudged me on the elbow to make sure I was listening. I frowned, looking away from him. I never let him see me in a moment of defiance.

“He was a great man, through whom you touched all of us,” the bishop spoke.

In the corner of my eye, I caught the boy’s giggle. I saw his mother pinch his hand, but the boy seemed hardly fazed. His blushing cheeks wore dimples that cut sharp lines along his spreading smile. It seemed laughing at the childish spotting of innuendo was more compelling than his mother’s disapproval. I could never imagine being so bold about something so trivial in Father’s presence. I needed to know who he was. Father would never let us overstay our welcome, so we left as soon as the last word was spoken. I would have to wait.

I knew the wait would not be too long. As I sang the given hymns on the following Sunday, I felt a half-half split of my emotions at church. Every Sunday was getting more bleak because I hated every minute inside of those walls. But every Sunday was also bringing me closer and closer to speaking to that beautiful boy. I was being commanded to listen to the heavens as they spoke. But, if the heavens ever did speak, he would surely be the last true mouthpiece. For the first time in forever, I felt an excitement growing inside of me. I was experiencing an awakening that I had no idea was possible. Once again, Father noticed and nudged me.

“Our church would never allow this,” the voice spoke. I was too short to see. I was too young to care. “I have said it before and I will say it again. They were born sick, but they will be healed through prayer. Through God, it is possible to cleanse the soul of these unnatural urges. Man is for woman, and woman is for man. There is no alternative.”

The part of me that had always been filled with fear wanted to believe his words. My guarded upbringing meant that the word of the Church and Father always held a place of truth and authority in my teachings. I had never come to question this. I had never needed to question it until the day I first saw that boy and he made me feel exactly what the church was teaching against. For the longest time, I was worried that I was not normal when I observed the other kids and saw them grow into what the church had considered acceptable. I had always found myself feeling nothing for anyone around me. Father always sent me to play with Katie, but Katie did not excite me. That boy, however, was an entirely different story.

As we walked out of the church, I felt a weight lift off of my shoulders. I hoped to my core that Father would announce that he had work on the farm. Work on the farm meant that Father would have to let me walk home alone. That space allowed me up to five hours to be myself. That day, I wanted that space to allow me five hours to find and explore my true self.

“Jesse,” Father spoke. “You’re gonna have to walk again today. I want you to go straight home, alright? Straight home, please.”

“Yes, Father,” I nodded. “Straight home, as always,” I lied.

He smiled and nodded, planting a gentle kiss on my forehead before turning away. I watched him say goodbye to his fellow churchgoers and then climb into his old green utility vehicle to make his way to the farm. I watched and waved until he was out of view. Immediately, I turned to search the crowd for the boy. I had to see him. I hoped he would be alone or have somewhere to walk to. My latter hope was confirmed as I spotted him, walking far ahead, towards the apple road.

I hurried after him, not allowing a second of hesitation to hold me back. The apple road was so-called because it was lined with hundreds of apple trees that split a path all the way down to the lake. The boy seemed to be on a solo mission in that direction, and I was on a solo mission after him. The compulsion of my actions was almost as exciting as the prospect of what it would be like to finally talk to him. He knew that I was following close behind him. He did not seem bothered at all. He settled down under the shade of a massive oak tree. I took slower, more careful steps towards him.

“Come sit with me,” he offered. His voice was calm and inviting. It was light, like snowflakes landing delicately on my ears. And just like those snowflakes, it was unlike anything I had ever heard before. It drew me in, peaking my curiosity. I sat down next to him. I was close – less than a foot away from him. I looked out, towards the lake, my nervousness taking hold of me.

“I wonder,” he started, “I wonder if I even need to ask why you’re here. It’s weird, isn’t it? How you just know? We could walk through a crowd of a thousand people. We could be drowning in all of their noise. We could be shrouded in their darkness. We could be silenced by all of their hate. It doesn’t matter. Despite all of that, we would still find each other. There would be a calm and a silence and a ray of light. Your heart would hear mine, and mine would hear yours. Through our commonality, we would be drawn to each other.”

“How?” I whispered. “How are you so sure and so comfortable in this?”

“Why shouldn’t I be?”

“Because… Because we were born sick. You heard them say it.”

He turned to look at me. The right side of his mouth curved into a knowing smile. His green eyes were like sharp blades of fresh grass, cutting into mine, and cutting through the facade that I did not know I held. In his presence, no, in his gaze, I felt naked and exposed. In that nude vulnerability, I felt freedom call my name. For the first time ever, I felt the beauty of nature tug at my core. My soul, unclothed and unhinged, brought me the purest sense of belonging that I had ever felt. Alone, with him, I felt a brush of the only heaven I ever desired to know.

“I was born sick,” he breathed, his warm breath washing over my quivering lips. “But I love it.”

He knew his true self. His deep state of acceptance had allowed him to be free. In our closeness, my shackles shook in protest. All of my demons pressed down on my shoulders and weighed down on my heart. I wanted to be cleansed. The warmth of his lips near mine was commanding me to be well. So be it, my body spoke. So be it, my soul echoed.

We shared my life’s first kiss. It was the first kiss that I had ever desired, and it pulsed through me like the only kiss I would ever ask for. His peach lips graced mine like the rays of the morning sun. The tiny hairs of his manly stubble tickled my still-smooth chin. I felt myself smile against the playful innocence of our unforgivable sin. I felt most right in the moment where I became guilty of what I had been taught was most wrong. In one breath, I was a sinner, bare and in full confession. In one breath, I was a believer, liberated and in complete truth.

“Jesse,” he said, having pulled away for a moment. I lingered, my eyes closed, and listened to his voice. “Come to my house tonight.”

“I… I can’t,” I stuttered. “Father would never let me leave.”

“Come on,” he urged, resting his hand against my cheek. “Just tell him that you’re going to woo a girl or whatever sounds like what straight guys like to do. The thought will make him happier than what everybody else probably suspects.”

In an instant, the warmth of his palm was gone and I was back home. I stood outside Father’s bedroom door. My hands were sweating and my shirt felt too tight around the collar. I had practiced my words a thousand times, yet I was still forgetting them. Lying to Father was not something that I was used to doing. I never wanted to betray his trust. But I wanted Andrew by my side and this request had demanded a sacrifice. I could hear doubt in Father’s voice as he listened to my teenage fabrications. Regardless, he allowed me to go. As I ran down the old dirt road connecting our houses, my body felt like an engine that was being fuelled by the burning anticipation in my chest. I did not want to waste a single second of my time out.

Andrew was waiting on the porch. His smile was as inviting as the open front door. It squeaked shut behind us as we made our way to his bedroom. Everything about his house was old and colourless – everything except his room. It felt like walking from an old-timey movie straight into a flush of rainbows and flavour. I was seeing the kind of world that I could exist in if I could just be brave enough. Andrew was brave enough. Andrew could guide me to the light that my life needed.

“It always bugged me,” he said, “that I had to wait to die, in order to feel most alive. All of these years of being told that death could be deathless. What if I want to be alive right now?”

His words were like the deepest revelation of all that I had felt was out of place in my life. As he spoke, he unbuttoned his shirt. With each loosening button, my hunger grew. I had been starved all along and what I saw before me looked tasty. I took a step towards him and rested my shaking hands against his chest. I was in my own world as my hands traced the muscular build of his stomach and sides. I wanted to worship him for the offering that he had granted me. I wrapped my arms around him as he pulled me in, his lips pressed warm against my forehead. I looked up into his eyes and saw the shine of an eternal night sky. A second later, I saw a frown build between his eyebrows and noticed a reflection of what seemed like flashlights.

“Jesse, get under my bed. Now.” It was an order, and I took it.

I heard the shuffling of feet outside the house. More flashlights ran along the walls and pointed their beams straight at Andrew. “Come out here, you queer. You wouldn’t want us to come in there and hurt your whole family. You knew this was coming after the last warning.”

I panicked as Andrew opened the window and jumped outside. I was crippled by my feeling of helplessness. Unable to speak through my cowardice, I crawled to the window frame and stole a look outside. Andrew was in the middle of a circle of about nine locals. Most of them were older. All of them were angry. They brandished various sports bats and brass knuckles. All of their flashlights were focused on him. The tallest of them seemed to speak for the group.

“This life you’ve chosen is filth,” he grunted. “It’s sick and you must be punished for it.”

“By you?” Andrew protested. “Are you without sin, Jack?”

“Nothing I do is nearly as bad as your bent ways, Drew.”

“Wow,” Andrew stayed, looking Jack right in the eyes. “That’s a fine-looking high horse. Got any more in the stable?”

“I’ve got this for you,” Jack gritted, landing the first punch against Andrew’s face. Andrew fell back, his hands clutching his cheek. And that’s when the rest of the group joined in, throwing insults in with every hit.

There were no masters or kings when that ritual began. It was just a group of young men fuelled by hatred and disgust, employing the only form of cleansing that they knew. In the madness and soil of that sad, earthly scene, I witnessed love dwarfed by fear and a lack of understanding. I was suddenly pulled back down to the real world. His punishment, as warned, had come long before his death.

Andrew did not scream. He barely grunted against all of the pain. They left him in a bloody and bruised mess. His family heard none of it. As soon as they were gone, I rushed over to him. At a loss for what to do, I knelt down and held his head in my arms, comforting him as he coughed up blood.

“I’m so sorry,” I cried. “I’m so sorry that you had to suffer for how wrong we are.”

“Don’t be,” he whispered through busted lips. Again, he rested his hand against my cheek. “There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin.”

 

******

My ‘Based on a Song’ series is a series of short stories inspired by the lyrics of a song. This is the second one. Click here to read the one based on Adele’s Hello.

Adele – Hello (Based on a Song)

Adele

Based on a Song #1

The song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQHsXMglC9A

The lyrics: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/adele/hello.html

The anticipation and enthusiasm never die. I could tell you things about how I’ve learnt and I’ve grown, but that would be a lie. I still stare at the phone and wait. It’s funny, because I don’t need to stare. I don’t need to look, at all. It’s a phone, and I’ll know when it rings. It’s never on silent. Yet, still, I stare and I wait. I wait for a phone call that will never come, even though I believe that it might. I hope that it will.

It’s kind of ironic, because that is one of the things that annoyed her most. Looking back, I never would have imagined that this is the thing about her that I would remember so vividly. You know, when someone does or says something, and you think that it’s so unimportant. I always shrugged her off when she pointed out that it was an unnecessary habit.

“Why do you do that?” she would ask. Her voice was raised with curious concern. It was soft, but confident. When she spoke, I listened, even though she demanded much more than that. She always looked me right in the eyes when she asked, as if all of my prior responses had been a lie, and she was searching for the final truth.

“I just don’t want to miss the call, babe,” I would say. I gave the exact same answer every single time. There was never any kind of variation.

“Your phone is in your hand, and it’s on ‘loud’. You’re not going to miss anything. Besides, the university will email you once they’ve accepted your application.” She was so sure in everything that she said. In fact, I can’t remember ever hearing her say anything with doubt in her tone. In a different world with different rules, she would probably be some kind of authority figure. But there, in that small town where nothing ever happened, she was just my girlfriend and a waitress at a coffee shop.

“I just like being ready, that’s all. It’s not a big deal, it’s not like I’m missing anything,” I said, stealing another look at the tiny screen. Nothing.

“You could have missed me walking past if we weren’t already dating,” she smiled, planting a soft-lipped kiss on my forehead. It was warm and comforting, and it should have made me feel at ease. It should have.

I think of that, and it always makes me think of when we met. It’s such a simple story, really, but she’ll never know how right she was about what I could have missed. I never told her because I did not like admitting that I was wrong.

I was sitting at the bus station. I never would have gone there so early, but the heavy rainfall had forced my hand. The station’s shelter kept me dry, but it did not keep me warm. I kept staring at my phone, unlocking and locking it, wondering why my mother had not called to say that she would not be picking me up. She always warned me if I needed to take the bus. My persistent checking had drained my phone, and I stared at the screen as it went green and then faded to black. Annoyed, I clenched my fists and tucked them under my arms, subtly protecting myself against the chilly breeze. I rested my head against the metal railing, having no real idea when the next bus would come. It was still a while before the end of the workday, so the stop felt abandoned and remote. It was for that reason that I was forced to notice when a girl ran in to take cover from the worsening rains.

She wore a thick, green raincoat and brown boots. She was dressed warmly and her brown hair still swayed in the wind, not too wet to be held down. As I looked at her, I was confused about how she had known to dress that way. I had checked my weather app a million times and it had said nothing about rain. I shook my head and looked back down before she looked in my direction. I was a second too late.

“You look a little cold,” she huffed, a little out of breath from her brisk run. “Weather caught you off guard?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” I sighed, still looking away. I reached for my phone again, only to remember that it had died. I sighed again.

“Are you feeling a little off?” she asked, not at all bothered by my lack of interest.

“No,” I answered. “Just… my phone died.”

“Oh yeah?” she laughed. “Mine too.”

“Okay.”

“You know, it’s gonna be almost half an hour until the next bus,” she pressed on, sitting down next to me on the cold bench. “We may as well chat.”

“About what?” I asked, looking up for the first time. I saw her face, and I gave myself a moment to take it in. It was very rounded, with the most delicate edges that I had ever laid eyes on. It fell under the command of her friendly smile, a smile that was shaped by a plump pair of lips that glimmered under a smooth pink gloss. A petite nose hovered above them, its bridge rising and spreading to direct me to her eyes. They were a dark hazel, like fallen autumn leaves on a rainy day – except filled with the glow of life. Her eyelashes stood out like the rays of a sun and complemented her curved, expressive eyebrows. Her skin was smooth and flawless, and looked as if it could taste like the chocolate that it seemed to be made of. I found myself paying attention before I could stop myself.

“Anything, really,” she breathed, waving a hand through her shoulder-length hair. “You could tell me who you are, or you could just tell me about your favourite band or movie.”

It was that simple, really. She demanded it, and I gave in, only so I could be taken away by her voice. I could not tell you exactly what we spoke about, but I also did not care much for it. I really just wanted to look at her and sit there, hoping that the bus would be delayed. When the time came, I took her number the old-fashioned way and felt an unusual enthusiasm take hold of me. Her stop came before mine, and she waved me off with a sincere and hopeful smile.

What followed was a year of seamless bliss. We were young and free, taking advantage of our lack of responsibility so that we could enjoy ourselves. We experienced a myriad of firsts together, some being much more significant than others. I was beginning to learn about a side of me that I was never sure existed. I was finding myself talking more and caring more about something outside of myself, and I felt home in the warmth of her accepting arms. I felt changed and matured. I felt growth. And all of this became so very clear to me when I experienced our coming to an end.

“Yeah, it’s pretty awesome here,” I said to her. She had called me to check in on how my first semester on campus was going. “That first test was pretty horrible, but it’s a growing pain. It’s a different standard.”

It had been six minutes into the phone call, and I had droned on since the minute that I picked up. My new adult life was exciting and colourful and involved, but hers had remained largely the same. She was still back home, in that small town. We had chosen to commit to each other despite the reality of how difficult it would be. She called me every day, and I always answered. I always spoke.

“Babe,” she said, interrupting my explanation.

“Yeah?” I responded, matching her change in tone.

“You didn’t ask about my job application,” she reminded me.

“Job application?” I slipped, not intending for her to know.

“Yeah, I applied for a job at,” she paused, sighing. “This is it. This is the problem. I call you to talk every day, but you only ever talk about yourself. You barely know me anymore. It’s always just about you. I’m sorry I didn’t go to some fancy big city, but I’m trying my best here. You’re only hours away, but it’s starting to feel like we’re a million miles apart.”

“Babe, I’m sorry. I was just so caught up in the test and then the game and…” And that is exactly what I did. Right after she had voiced her concerns, I confirmed them by spending so much time justifying myself that I did not give her a chance to respond. It was like a dark rabbit hole, and I had sent myself spinning deeper into the abyss. Before I knew it, I was only speaking to myself, sitting in the corner of my dorm room in a pit of the loudest silence I had heard in years.

In the forward-moving irony of my decisions, I reached out to my roommate and we took to drinking. It was a common solution for common problems, and mine was considered quite common. The flow of hard liquor down my relentlessly-dry throat made the club scene bearable. As I got showered in a rainbow of strobe lights and smoke and bumped shoulders, I found my foggy self dancing dangerously close to one of the female patrons of the club. She wore a black crop top which emphasised her seductive hip movements against the contrast of her pale skin. Her hair was loose and flowed along with the expression of her waving arms and coordinated swaying of the head. Her skin glistened with beads of sweat in the crowd’s concentrated heat. She was shining and inviting, and I fell into her like a well-placed honey trap.

We were in the back seat of her car, and I felt a comforting revival in how easily our encounter was playing out. She was direct and assertive and this allowed me to pull back without losing out. In the parking lot’s lack of lighting, she began to strip us off, not giving me any chance to hesitate with the distraction of her tongue in my mouth. It was that same tongue that would cause a piercing desperation in mine as my phone started to ring in my pocket. I reached for it, searching with my eyes closed.

“Oh my god, babe –” was as far as I got before the phone was snatched out of my hand by my anonymous companion.

“It’s a little rude to call someone this late,” she bit confidently. “Especially when that someone is about to get laid. You can wait.”

In my head, I was screaming. In my head, I was flipping a million tables and clawing my eyes out. I was in the most personal hell that I had ever known. But, in real life, I stared in disbelief. I was so abruptly pulled out of my guilty heaven that I could not direct my mouth to utter any meaningful phrase. In my shattered reality, I looked at her as she looked back triumphantly, turning my phone off and throwing it over to the front seat. Stunned, I lay back motionless as she continued, going about my unresponsive face unperturbed by my corpse-like approach.

That’s the thing about feeling something so intense for the very first time; you never forget it. It’s a unique elation. It’s an exceptional disaster. I remember sitting in my room, on the floor. It could have been a day, or a week, or a month, or the rest of my life. Whatever it was, I know that I sat there and experienced a small eternity as my phone rang over a hundred times. I could not answer it. I could not face the guilt and the reality of what she had found out in the worst of ways. I looked away from it, and I prayed for the calls to stop. And then they did.

I had become a series of switches. I was being triggered into a different self at every turn. I was transitioning through shades of myself that I did not know existed. When I finally looked at my phone, there was a text from her promising me that that had been her last attempt at calling me. I had broken a promise, so I hoped that she would break hers. However, I did not take to mind just how resilient she was in comparison to me as I tried to call her back. For days on end, all that I heard was the dial tone. I must have called a thousand times before her lined went completely dead. I wanted to tell her that I was sorry for breaking her heart. I wanted to tell her anything that would allow me to hear her voice again. Nothing.

I could tell you things about how I’ve healed through time, but that would be a lie. I haven’t done much of that, but I’ve done a lot of staring at my phone. Every time it rings, I jump at it, hoping that it’ll be her. It never is. I know it never will be, but I hope, regardless. The anticipation and enthusiasm never die. Despite everything I know, the anticipation and enthusiasm never die.

My phone’s ringing again. It’s a number that I don’t have. Could it be?

I answer, “Hello?”

******

My new ‘Based on a Song’ series is a series of short stories inspired by the lyrics of a song. This is the first of them. If you’d like to read more, try this complete series Polysemous Part 1 of 10: Winter’s Gift.

Roses and Thorns Part 6 of 6: Blooming

rose-blooming

Read Part 5 here to refresh

BEFORE

 

The bags were filled to the brim. Lizzy watched as her father threw the luggage backs onto the back seat and slammed the door. She was sitting on the front porch, hugging herself against the cold. He was rushing back and forth, in and out of the house, constantly moving. She had grown tired of following him with her eyes, so she had just resorted to staring into the distance through her foggy vision. Her mother was running back and forth, in and out, chasing after him and begging him.

“What the damn hell am I supposed to do about Elizabeth?” she screamed. “What the damn hell am I supposed to do about our child?”

“Figure it out,” he grumbled, pushing past her and getting more of his things. Their house was small, but his anger had made it impossible for him to employ a more efficient method of packing and leaving.

“That’s my damn car! I paid for it with my damn money!”

“It’s signed in my name. It’s mine.” His responses were cold and sharp.

“You’ve lost your damn mind, Joe! You’ve lost your damn mind if you think you can just leave us like this.”

He stopped and looked her dead in the eyes. “You lost your damn fucking mind when you tried to get a restraining order against me. How the fuck is that not asking me to get the hell out of your lives?”

“Don’t swear like that in front of my girl! I gave you a choice. It was for our own safety. And you refused it!”

“I’m starting to think that you deserved every damn bruise and broken bone I fucking gave you, you little bitch.”

“Do you not understand how patient I’ve been with you all this time, Joe? Do you not see how bad I’m damaged? Do you not see how bad I’m hurt? I didn’t ask for any of this. We didn’t ask for any of this.”

This was only one of a thousand fights that they had had before. And as the numbers accumulated, so did the strain that her body was taking from all of the fists and furniture. She had threatened him with a restraining order as an ultimatum, hoping that the risk of removal would deter him. It had only made things worse. “You don’t understand how bad this is going to be for Elizabeth.”

“She’s only twelve. She doesn’t understand a thing.” He threw his responses around with his pacing about.

“I’m fifteen!” Lizzy shouted.

Joe recoiled and held her curly fluff of her tightly in his fist. “You shut your little fucking mouth.”

“Don’t touch her!” her mother jumped, pulling his hand away. He had never physically harmed Lizzy, but he grew closer to it every time they argued.

“She’s my daughter. I’ll do whatever the fuck I want,” he spat, shoving her back.

“Fuck off,” she grimaced. “Get away from her and get out of our lives. She’s not your daughter. She never was.”

“What the fuck are you saying, Donna?”

“She’s not your child. She’s not your daughter. She’s mine.”

“Who’s her fucking father?” His fists were clenched tightly.

“Not you. Such a beautiful thing could never come from a monster like you. Leave us to live our lives.” She motioned for Lizzy to come closer. All the while, Lizzy had grown even more silent, struggling to process everything that she was witnessing.

“Do you want to fucking die, bitch?” he threatened, grabbing her top at the collar.

“No,” she answered, unperturbed. “I just thought that you deserved to know the truth before I finalised this restraining order and watched you leave.”

“You’re fucking playing me,” he pointed a calloused finger at her face. “You’re fucking playing me. You think this will make me stay?”

“I don’t want you to stay anymore, Joe. You’re damn poison and I’m sick of you. I don’t need your damn anything.”

“You’re losing the house, you have no job, and you’re sick as hell. What exactly do you think you’re going to do without me?”

“I’ll find a way, Joe. I’ve suffered enough at your hands. I don’t give a damn anymore.”

“Donna, I’m gonna ask you one more time. Whose child is this?”

“You don’t deserve to know, Joe. Just leave us be.”

“Donna, I swear to god, if Eliza isn’t mine, I’ll kill you.” He tightened his grip and the fabric started to tear.

“Leave me and my daughter, Joe,” she grimaced.

He grabbed Lizzy at the shoulder and pushed her away, causing her to fall down the small steps. Joe was a behemoth of a man, towering three heads over Donna. He was bear-like in that he was muscular, but also fatty. He had a lot of strength in his grip, and caused a lot of damage whenever he went on a tirade. This occasion was no exception. He landed two flat hands on either shoulder, sending her flying into the front door. He proceeded to pummel her face with heavy fists, harder than he had ever hit her before. When she cowered, he aimed for her shoulders and stomach, throwing everything at her fragile body. Lizzy made a futile attempt at aiding her mother, only to be slapped back. She fell against the wooden rocking chair so hard that it broke, causing her to scream out in anguish. Joe stopped to look at her, moving away from Donna.

“Do you see what you’ve made me do, Donna? Is this what you want me to become? I’m done with this shit.”

He gathered the remainder of his things and drove off, leaving them as they were on the porch. In the small cloud of dust that fell, Donna pulled herself towards her crying daughter. The backrest of the chair had splintered into Lizzy’s back, marking her body with a splattering of blood and wood. She was in a lot of pain, and it was only going to get worse.

 

*

 

Lizzy stood at her mother’s bedside and held her weak hand in hers. Her mother wheezed as she attempted to stifle a painful cough in her daughter’s presence. They had been living at Lizzy’s grandmother’s house for half a year since Joe left. It was far from ideal, as the house was more than crowded, but her mother knew that there would be nowhere else to leave her daughter to live on. Donna’s time had run out, and no one could afford the medication that would at least make the remaining hours hurt less.

“I know it hurts, Ma,” Lizzy whispered. “You don’t have to hide it from me.”

“I know you know, darling. I just… I just don’t want my pain to hurt you anymore than it has already.” Donna’s face was near-skeletal, and Lizzy could see the exact shape of her cheek bones and eye sockets. Seeing her mother so truly weak and defeated was a sight that tore through her core.

“It’s not your fault.”

“It may not be, I know. But I still have a responsibility towards you, and now I’m failing it. It was always supposed to be me and you, all the way, remember? You were my little wonder girl, and I swore I would do anything for you. I feel like I’m leaving you all alone, now, and breaking all of my promises.”

“You’re not leaving me alone, Ma, I have Grandma and all –”

“And if any of them were to turn against you? I won’t be here to protect you from a world of people you can’t trust. I won’t be here to guide you and shield you from anything you’ll still face. I’m sending you out into the world long before you’re ready to face it. That thought hurts me more than anything I could imagine.”

“You know what this reminds me of, Ma?”

“What does this remind you of?”

“Remember when I was eight, and I tripped into a pile of nails?” Donna nodded in confirmation. “I still remember what you tried to teach me that day. I didn’t get it then, and I’m still only learning to understand it now, but I see. I had cuts all over my legs, and I was covered in blood. I was crying because it hurt so much. I couldn’t even touch my legs because I was so scared. When you cleaned the blood up and started putting bandages on me, I told you that it was the worst pain ever. I said it felt like I was dying, and that it was worse than when I lost some of my teeth. I don’t know if you thought I was really listening, but you started saying things that I was never going to understand as a kid. You explained to me that pain changes as you grow up and start to understand things differently. You said to me that I could lose my whole arm but still feel fine as long as I was fine in the heart. You said that no pain could compare to the pain that I could feel on the inside. You said that the words and actions of others could hurt so much more. Somehow, a punch could never hurt as much as evil intentions. To me, you were just rambling on and on about complete nonsense. I even started screaming at you and saying that you were just lying to try to make me feel better. I told you that it wasn’t working, and that nothing could hurt more than my legs. I wasn’t really listening to you, and you weren’t really listening to me. I don’t know, I’m just thinking of that now. And how I see that you were right, but so was I. You’re in absolutely physical agony right now, and it’s enough to kill you. And seeing you like this is enough to kill me, on the inside. Neither is worse than the other.”

“A part of me hates that you remember that. I was very angry and hurt by your father that day. I had no one to talk to about it, so I just rambled on to you. I think that I was trying to make you aware of the world that you’d be growing up into. I’m just not sure I took the best approach to it. Regardless, there was truth to those words. I am powerless against your pain, and you’re powerless against mine.”

Donna coughed again, causing her frail frame to stiffen in protest. Her grip on Lizzy’s hand grew weaker. She allowed her eyes to fall shut as her breathing slowed. “I should have spent more time teaching you that the world is extremely selfish, and that you always have to put yourself first, because no one else will. Faith in people can be a very dangerous and regrettable thing. I’ve had more than my fair share of regretting the trust I invested in people.”

“But, Ma, you always said you put me before anything else.”

“And I meant that, because you were mine and mine alone. I chose to make you the most important thing to me, and I will never regret that.”

“It’s funny, I thought I didn’t understand the world when I was eight, but I still feel the same now that I’m older. I don’t understand why this is happening to us.”

Donna sighed softly, but did not respond.

“Ma,” Lizzy continued, “the only thing you never said that day is something that I ended up thinking about. I need you to tell me this now. My legs healed and I felt fine. I could have just as easily forgotten about it. And you told me that I would heal very quickly because I was a strong girl. But you never told me how healing on the inside works. If bandages and ointments can take care of the pain on my body, what takes care of the pain on the inside? How will I heal from this? You never told me this and I need to know, because I’ve been learning a lot about the pain, but not about what comes after that.”

She stared at her mother and waited for her response. After a few seconds, she squeezed her mother’s hand and repeated the question. “I need to know how to deal with this. If you don’t teach me, who will? Ma?”

She held a finger below her mother’s nose and felt how thin her breathing had become. “Ma, I need to know,” she sniffed. She pulled her mother’s hand close to her face and gave it a soft kiss. A splattering of tears dropped onto it as she failed to hold them back. “I don’t know how else I’m going to learn.”

 

*

 

Lizzy was dressed in the only black clothing she had as she stood over the cheap coffin that her mother was contained in. She had never been to a funeral before, and she had never imagined that her first would also be her most important. She stood closest to the coffin, and stood alone. The pastor had already said his words, and those who had come to show face had also paid their respects. Her father’s was the only face that was nowhere to be seen, and she quickly reserved herself to not searching for it. She traced her fingers along the edge of the coffin before it began its descent below ground. She took a step back and watched silently as her only definition of family got buried under fresh earth.

“I’m scared about not knowing the answer,” she whispered to herself. Her skin was dry and cold as the winter breeze washed over it. She closed her eyes and imagined what her mother would do if it were anybody else in that coffin. She squeezed her eyelids tightly and attempted to get lost in the thought. She felt a warm hand rest over her shoulder. It was warm against the weather, and it was comforting against the pain. It was familiar against the feeling of abandonment, and it was safe against the slow creeping of the dark. At least, it would have been all of these things, if it were truly there. Instead, she felt the hard tug of a restless grandmother pulling her back into the real world.

“It’s done now,” she declared. “We’re going home.”

Lizzy’s supposed uncle drove her home. The car ride was steeped in a piercing silence, despite the small station wagon being overloaded with family members who did not seem all too bothered about what they had just witnessed. Lizzy’s life thus far had been a cacophony of screaming and broken dishes, but she had always held on to the comfort of a loving mother’s arms to hide behind. This time around, however, she had fallen into the quietest world that she had ever known. The fear that came with this clean silence was enough to cripple her and drown her in the reality of having no one left to run to. It was crazy to imagine, but she could almost give anything to return the chaotic danger that she used to live in, if only it meant a sincere feeling of safety and love. She understood the trade and was willing to make it.

The world around her blurred together into an unfamiliar brown filth. Before she knew it, the swimming cesspit had landed her back at her new home and she was walking up the short stairs to the front door.

“You,” her grandmother pointed, “stay on the porch. We gonna talk.”

“Now? I’m really hungry,” Lizzy protested.

“Sit your ass down,” her grandmother insisted, pushing Lizzy down at the shoulders and forcing her to sit.

“Okay, jeez, what?” Lizzy grumbled.

Her grandmother responded with a swift and burning slap to the cheek. “You will not talk to your elder like that ever again, girl, you hear me?”

Lizzy was absolutely stunned and barely managed a nod as she held on to her stinging cheek.

“You gonna have to get a job. You come into my house and live with my children, you’re not gonna be no burden to me. You gonna have to pull your own weight in here. I don’t care that you twelve or whatever you are. Everybody here does their bit, and you old enough to do yours. If you don’t bring in the cash, you’ll eat nothing but trash. Is that clear?”

Lizzy nodded again.

“I didn’t get that.”

“Yes, ma’am?” Lizzy tried again.

“That’s better. Your mama was a good girl, and she worked hard. I expect nothing different from you, or else you out of here and I don’t care where you go. The biggest rule in this house is respect, and you will always show respect towards me, girl. Is that clear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” she answered meekly.

“You gonna start looking for a job tomorrow morning, bright and early. Be efficient, there’s a lot of competition out there. However,” she said, pulling Lizzy’s face up at the cheek, her long nails digging into Lizzy’s skin, “remember that this is a house of God. If you bring home any of that filthy money from pimps or clubs, you out of here. Understand?”

“Yes, ma’am, I understand,” she replied, pulling her face out of the clawed grip.

“Good, good. Your last free dinner will be ready in an hour. Your mother will be missed dearly. However, maybe she shouldn’t have done such a good job of keeping quiet. Your scumbag daddy could have been stopped before he did this to her. Trying to play hard will get you killed, girl, remember that. Don’t play hard in this house.”

With that final word, she stood up straight and walked past Lizzy, into the house. The house was one in a series of connected apartments. They all looked exactly the same, and comprised of two floors with four bedrooms. It was a narrow, San Francisco-style establishment, meant for small families who had just moved to the city. For Lizzy, it was a new hell, clad in off-brown bricks and a peeling white paint. It smelt of old wood and dust. It housed a lively crowd of ten, although lively did not automatically translate into joyful and content. Lizzy had been taken from one house of arguments straight into another. The only consolation was her lack of personal involvement, which made it easier to ignore the noise. They were all also without much physical confrontation, which brought a flickering comfort in Lizzy’s eye. Six of the inhabitants were youths, the youngest being ten, and the oldest being eighteen. Four of them were boys, and two were girls. With the addition of Lizzy, the abundance of raging hormones and mood swings was more than apparent. The girls and boys took two of the rooms separately, with bunk beds to hold them at night. The house was cold, and Lizzy could feel a cool breeze lick her face every night. It made the hairs on her skin stand erect, as if she could run away from it without becoming fully consumed by it. She would shiver wildly and almost shed a tear, but she always backed out as soon as she felt the warm liquid build up over her eyes. She convinced herself that her mother had made it through so much worse, so she could as well.

“You look like you’re in deep thought,” said a deep and familiar voice. Lizzy looked up to see her father standing at the foot of the steps. “I heard some of what that crazy old bag said.”

Lizzy looked away and shrugged. She wrapped her arms around herself and held on tightly. She hoped that she could wish him away, but she knew that she could not. For the first time in her life, she could not shout for help.

“That’s a lot less attitude than what I’m used to,” he continued, unfazed. “You know, that crazy lady has no right to hit you like that. You don’t have to stand for it.”

“Really?” Lizzy stood up, feeling a furnace of anger building up inside of her. “Really? You’re going to stand there and tell me who has a right to hit who? When that’s all I ever saw you do?”

“Listen, I loved your mother very much –”

“No! You don’t get to say that. You don’t get to come here and tell me that when you just missed her funeral!”

“I was there, Elizabeth,” he spoke softly, and she looked up at the sound of him saying her name. It was not a sound she was very familiar with. “I was there, standing in the trees like a coward. I didn’t want to be seen by anyone there. I’ve been a coward so many times in my life, but that was the last time. The guilt I feel is just way too much for –”

“So, what, I’m just supposed to accept this as genuine remorse and suddenly hug you like the dad I always wanted you to be?” she napped.

“Elizabeth, I can never take back anything that I did. I can never take back what I did to your mother, and what I did to you. But you’re still so young, and you can take hold of your life right now. Don’t make the mistakes that I made.”

“I don’t understand what you’re trying to say, Joseph,” she frowned.

“I’m saying leave this house and that old rag behind. Come live with me and give me a second chance.” As he said this, he extended his hand and held it out towards her.

Lizzy recoiled. “Are you freaking crazy? After everything I’ve seen you do? Have you seriously lost your mind?”

“Elizabeth, please. Give me a chance to be father I never was.”

“What makes you think you deserve a second chance?”

“I’m dying.”

Lizzy looked him straight in the eyes and then proceeded to punch him in the stomach. She gave him several weak blows before collapsing to her knees and allowing her tears to take hold. “You can’t pull this on me right now. Not today, Joseph.”

“Elizabeth, what’s happening to me, is what happened to your mother. I caused it, and I begged her to never tell you. I blamed her for it, but it was me who brought it upon her. I… I can’t explain how everything between us worked. I’m just asking you for a chance to make your old man happy before he sees his last day.”

“You want me to give you a chance to be happy before you die? Where were you when my mother needed that chance? Where were you when I stood by her side, all on my own, as she died right in front of me? Why wasn’t she given a second chance?”

“Elizabeth, I understand that you have every reason to be angry –”

“Then,” she cut him off, “you should also understand that I have every reason to not forgive you.” She stood up and began to walk away, into the house.

“I hope you understand that I’ll never forgive myself. And if I never see you again, just promise me this: you’ll never let anyone take advantage of you, and you’ll never be a coward like me. Do better than I did. Don’t be selfish, but take care of yourself.”

Lizzy looked back over her shoulder as she gripped the door handle. “I’m not taking life lessons from the worst man I’ve ever known.”

She shut the door behind her and stood against it, letting her head fall back as she slid to the floor. She sighed deeply.

 

*

 

Faced with the choice between the devil you know and the devil you don’t, Lizzy had picked the latter and was struggling with the consequences of her decision. Three weeks had gone by without her managing to find anywhere to work. The disappointment in her grandmother’s eyes was sharper than the pain in her stomach, just as her grandmother’s words were thinner than the rations of food that Lizzy was eating. For a few days, she tested her grandmother’s seriousness, and quickly came to learn just how serious she was. She had gone two full days without food before her grandmother gave her another chance. She had begun to lose faith in finding anything that would aid her in avoiding her grandmother’s iron fist.

It was a Saturday night, and Lizzy was deep into her mother’s makeup kit – one of the very few things left for Lizzy to own. She sat in front of the full-body mirror and got to work on her face, doing everything that she had watched her mother do. She placed her eyeliner carefully, tracing the shape of her eyelids and added a delicate wing. She made her eyelashes pop with a generous brushing of mascara and complemented the dark look with a glittering purple eyeshadow. She glittered her cheeks up with a blush to each side and painted her lips a striking red. She let her curly locks of brown hair flourish over her head, forming a dark halo around her small face. Her makeup had successfully aged her about two years. It was not ideal, but it was close enough to what she wanted. She was fully prepared to break the house rules, but she paid no mind to possibly breaking legal rules along the way.

It had been four hours since the sun set, and the house was as quiet as ever. Her small pink crop top was old and tight, but it served its purpose. It was too cold for a mini skirt by anyone’s standards, but she had one and cared more about her end goal. Her mother’s heels were too big for her feet, so she settled for a pair of black sneakers and stockings. This meant settling for being a little shorter than she had hoped, but necessary sacrifices had to be made. She had always been a little taller than the girls her age, and would play into that fact as she stepped out into the night.

As she stood over the window, she looked back at Janet and Tracy in their beds. They always went to bed early, and they always slept so deeply. She wondered where growing up in that house would lead them, which reminded her of why she had to spend the night out. She stepped onto the ledge outside her window and trailed it until she reached the drainage pipe at the edge of the wall. She dripped it tightly and proceeded to loosen her grip and slide down slowly. Once she was at a safe enough distance, she let go and landed gracefully on the cold ground below her. She paused for a second and considered cursing her grandmother for not allowing any of them to have keys, but she realised how in-character that was for the crazy and possessive witch that her grandmother had shown herself to be.

She sighed against the chilly breeze and watched her breath materialise before her. The streets around her neighbourhood were very quiet. She barely heard the hooting of cars, or the barking of dogs. Most of whatever noise she would hear was generated by the voices of the people around her. The silence comforted her as she walked towards the industrial area. Of course, she could have just as easily worried about what could happen to her in any of the quiet corners of the town, but recklessness was an element of her excitement.

In her fruitless days of searching for a job, Lizzy had kept an ear to the ground about the kind of things that only happened in the night and in the shadows. She quickly came to hear of a stripper ring that was run in the industrial area of her neighbourhood. She had discovered that it almost worked like a free-entry competition. Any willing participant could perform in front of a group of strangers and their response would grant her the chance to work in a real club. Of course, Lizzy was way too young to ever make it as far as a club, but she wanted to try her luck for the money. She had heard that, even for a losing contestant, the men watching would still throw cash that she would be able to keep.

She could hear the music and cheering as she approached the cluster of industrial buildings and winding roads. The stripper games took place behind the blue distillery, so she shot a path straight to it. She approached the crowd carefully, staying in the shadows, and observing the show. She saw a long, maroon pole that seemed to extend upwards and disappear into the night sky. Gripping it tightly was a woman in purple underwear, spinning around it and gyrating her body to the thumping music provided by large speakers in the boot of a car. The crowd cheered mildly, as her movements were very sluggish and she had very little creativity or rhythm. Regardless, a select few still enjoyed her performance and offered their money and applause. She responded as though she was feeding off of the lack of enjoyment and cut her performance short with a middle finger. The pole was well-lit, allowing Lizzy a good look at the performer’s face before she walked down from the metal podium. She was an older woman with messy teeth and unhealthily-skinny cheeks, highlighted by her terrible makeup and large, hooped earrings. Her failure gave Lizzy more confidence.

A man in a thick winter jacket stepped up immediately after the disappointed contestant left the makeshift stage. He had multiple golden chains hanging around his neck, and wore a pair of jeans that were easily two sizes too big for him. His hair was braided tightly, and his ears pierced to make room for the silver studs that sat snugly in his lobes. He rapped along to the last few lines of the song that was still playing – to much excitement from the crowd – before signalling for the music to stop. He then spoke into a wireless microphone, his voice also coming from the boot of a car.

“Alright, alright, she tried her best, give it up for Juicy,” he signalled, waving his hand to half-hearted cheering from the crowd. “You know we got good nights and not so good nights. Our closing show is always hot, though, ‘cause you know we got Tatyana tonight.” The men in the crowd whistled and howled enthusiastically at the reminder. “Now, before we close this thing up, are there any more newbies who would like to shake it for Daddy Mic and his boys?”

Daddy Mic was so-called because he had attempted to take on the nickname ‘Daddy Cool’ for years and failed. He was persisted, but his friends had refused to let it catch on. He was, however, always the speaker at any even organised by his friends, and his real name was Michael. It eventually followed that he met his friends halfway and adopted the ‘Daddy Mic’ name in reference to his hosting talents and shortening of his name. Everybody else quickly learnt to refer to him as that and that only.

Lizzy mustered up the confidence and pushed through the crowd. Her heart felt as though multiple explosions were going off inside her chest. She felt a burning heat building up as she got closer to the raised platform. Her mouth was suddenly sandpaper-dry, and she could not tell if it was because she was nervous or excited or truly terrified. The cold breeze bit at her shoulders as she lifted her arms up in order to get Daddy Mic’s attention. She waved wildly against the taller adults who stood before her. Daddy Mic spotted her and hushed the crowd.

“Hey there, girl, come up,” he said, offering his hand to help her over the big step. “Are you up for a little dance following Juicy? You’re gonna have to be something special to get this crowd pumpin’ again.”

“That’s exactly what I’m here to do, Daddy Mic,” she offered in her most enthusiastic voice.

Daddy Mic recoiled a little in response to her voice. “Hey, girl, how old are you? We’re not getting in trouble with the cops again, am I right?” He turned to the crowd with that last part, prompting immediate howls of laughter in reference to a prior raid.

“I just turned eighteen, so I came here to celebrate my birthday,” she lied, twisting her right foot inwards and biting the tip of her right thumb in a tease. The crowd cheered.

“Ya hear that everybody? We’ve got fresh meat in the house!” Daddy Mic was feeding off of the enthusiasm of the crowd as they relished the thought of a potentially good performance. He turned to Lizzy and continued, “You know the rules, right? You got one song to make it or break it. Whatever’s thrown onto the stage is yours to keep. If you get the most votes, we’ll consider taking you on as a regular. And, believe me, there’s some good cash in that. Am I right, fellas?”

The men got even more rowdy and whistled in anticipation. Daddy Mic hushed them one last time. “Alright, girl, what’s your name so that these dogs have something to scream?”

“My name is Hayley,” she lied again, to oblivious cheers.

“Hayley, babe,” Daddy Mic spoke as he walked off of the stage, “the pole is all yours. Show ‘em somethin’ good.”

A set of hard lights were trained onto the pole from an overlooking beam, making her perfectly well-lit against the night sky above her. The car DJ pressed play and a thumping beat started to build over the crowd. It was a slow, sensual RnB track that was recognised by everyone in the audience. Lizzy gripped the pole loosely with her right hand and began to walk around it slowly, allowing her legs to linger and pull into a highly defined curve. She brought her left hand onto the pole and pushed her butt out, slowly dropping it to the floor while doing and impressively smooth split. The sea of onlookers went crazy as she proceeded to seamlessly pull herself back up in the exact way that she went down. She was gaining their confidence and she could feel herself falling into a performance trance, but a disturbance was also growing in the crowd.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” a familiar voice was screaming over and over, with growing intensity. At first, she ignored it and went about her dance, but a violent grab to the ankle forced her to turn and look into the wild eyes of her father. He was foaming at the mouth and fighting for his shoulders to be freed from the crowd. “What the fuck are you doing here, Elizabeth?”

Lizzy froze, not knowing what to do. Her father got pulled off of her by a bouncer who was so muscular that his veins looked like the roots of an old tree. Joseph’s small, diseased frame was laughable in the hands of the bouncer. He continued to wriggle his body and attempt to fight his way out, but the bouncer simply squeezed his shoulders until he was forced to settle down. Daddy Mic ran up to the stage and cut the music.

“Whoa, fellas, what’s happening here?”

“This is my daughter, Elizabeth,” he spat, “she’s only fourteen. She shouldn’t be here, you damn perverts!”

“Whoa,” Daddy Mic turned, “do you know this man, Hayley?”

“Yes, I do,” she answered confidently. “But he’s not my father. He’s a creep who’s followed me before and tried to touch me. I think he likes them when they look young.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he screamed, his eyes almost popping out of their sockets. “These people are going to fuck you up!”

“Brother,” Daddy Mic warned, “you’ll be the only one getting fucked up if you carry on speaking to this young woman like that.”

“If someone doesn’t fuck him up for me,” she suggested, “he’s going to carry on thinking that he can mess with underage girls.”

“Just what the fuck do you think you’re doing? You little bitch!”

“I’m doing exactly what you said I should do; I’m taking care of myself. I’m not being the coward that you’re used to stepping on. I’m doing better, and this is where I start.”

“I gonna fucking kill –” his deranged threats were cut off by a swift punch to the mouth which cause a couple of his teeth to fall out.

The crowd was booing Joseph and throwing hits in wherever they could as his weak body was being dragged out.

“Are you alright, girl?” Daddy Mic asked quietly, away from the microphone.

“I will be,” she sighed. “As long as he’s away, I will be. And as long as I stay here, where I feel safe.”

“Don’t you worry about his ass. No one will mess with you while we’re around.”

Lizzy was betting on that being true.

 

******

 

NOW

 

The bags were filled to the brim. Carly strained against the weight of bags packed with more money than she ever imagined she would see, and definitely way more money than she ever dreamed she would own. One of the bags was bouncing against the bullet scrape in her leg, but she bit against the pain and did not let it show. They were the last two bags that had to be taken to the car, and then they could be on their way. Lizzy, despite all that she had been through, had done an efficient job of lugging the money bags into her car. They had taken a reasonable amount, and then a little extra, which brought them to six heavy bags of cash. It had been a silent agreement that each would take three bags.

“That’s it,” Carly panted. “That’s the last bag.”

“Yeah,” Lizzy breathed.

“Okay, let’s get out of here before we get in any more trouble,” Carly suggested, buckling herself in and waiting for Lizzy to start the car.

“Barry’s calling the cops, right?” she responded, bringing the engine to life.

“Yep, that’s what he said. He’s just going to dispose of the phone after an anonymous tip to the cops.”

“And what happens to him?”

“What do you mean?” Carly turned to look at Lizzy.

“When will you see him again?”

“I don’t know. It could be tomorrow, or it could be never again. That’s how Barry works. He was there when I needed him most, and that’s what counts.”

“Do you think you’re done needing him now?”

Carly sighed. “I can’t possibly know that. I’ve already needed him twice and I’m not even eighteen yet. I don’t know.”

“Okay.”

“Why are you asking me these questions?” she frowned.

“I’m just curious.”

“Really? Because your tone and mood are worrying me.”

“Forget it.”

Carly shuffled in her seat and stared at Lizzy’s face. “Listen,” she spoke in a calm and reassuring tone, “I know that was messed up, back there. I know it was scary, and we both could have died. I also know that a lot of this – well, all of this – is my fault. But we were both so badass back there and all of tonight, for that matter. It’s all over now. We got away with it, and I think that deserves a smile, at the very least.”

“Did you just tell me to fucking smile?” Lizzy snapped, putting her foot down harder and sending the car into a speedy jolt.

“Whoa,” Carly jumped back, “what’s going on?”

“Do you seriously think I need to hear uplifting shit from you right now?”

“Lizzy, I don’t understand.”

“Of course you don’t understand, you’re just a kid,” she said, flying down a series of city blocks. It felt like it had only been instant, but they were already on the less extravagant side of Lutherton, whooshing past a splattering of parks and residential areas.

“I’m just a kid, yeah, but I can tell you that if you don’t slow down, we’ll get pulled over by the cops. And then everything we’ve done will be lost.”

“Your money is safe, quit worrying about it,” she bit back, keeping her eyes straight ahead and barely acknowledging Carly.

“Okay, what the fuck is going on, Lizzy?”

“Nothing’s going on, Carly,” she replied, suddenly breathing calm into her tone. “We’re here.”

“Here?” Carly raised an eyebrow. She turned to look outside and saw the sign. It was comprised of a series of thick, backlit letters labelling the stop as ‘Lutherton Terminal’. “What is this, a train station?”

“Grab a bag,” Lizzy ordered, stepping out of the car. She picked two bags out and waited for Carly to get one more.

“What are we doing? Are we going to ditch the car for a train?”

“It’s a bus terminal, Carly,” she clarified.

“Why are we leaving the car for a bus?”

I’m not.” Lizzy’s emphasis on the singular was subtle, but clear.

Carly dropped the bag she was carrying. “What?”

“Pick that bag up,” Lizzy requested, impatient.

“What do you mean ‘you’re not’?”

“We don’t need to have this conversation.”

“Lizzy,” she choked, her eyes welling up with tears, “you’re scaring me.”

“Seriously?” she dropped the two bags. “You’ve spent the night killing one guy, trying to run from the cops, fighting a pedo, stealing shitloads of money, and almost killing another guy. And only now you’re scared?”

“Why did you bring me to a bus station?”

“Because we’re splitting up, Carly. Obviously.”

“Why? Why the fuck?” she asked, her voice desperate and breathy.

“What else did you expect? I helped you, and you helped me. Our work together is done. We both got what we wanted.”

Carly’s eyes were wide and searched Lizzy’s face, hoping it would show some sign that she did not mean the words that she was speaking. She found no such evidence.

“Don’t make this any harder than it needs to be,” Lizzy frowned. Her face was hard and unwavering.

“What do you expect me to do? You’re going to send a teenage girl out into the world, alone, with bags of money? Are you actually sentencing me to death? I won’t survive the rest of the night if you are serious about dropping me like this. I’ll be fucked.”

“How else did you see this ending? Are we supposed to drive into the sunset together? And go where?”

“I don’t fucking know! We were supposed to work it out together. You have nothing to stay for here, and neither do I. We’re both in need of a fresh start.”

The bus terminal was completely empty. There was absolutely no other sound except the sound of their voices going back and forth. The station itself was a massive, towering construction with three levels. Lizzy and Carly stood on the ground floor, facing the main entrance, which comprised of large glass panels signalling the station entrance. The building’s theme was a clean and welcoming white, sporting friendly murals here and there. The child-like murals depicted various types of families on journeys around the world. They all looked so happy and excited to be together, sharing adventures and memories. There were at least two people in each depiction, sometimes being a couple, other times being what could be friends or siblings. In many of them, there was a loving embrace, or quaint little hearts strewn over their heads. In the eyes of Lutherton Terminal, boarding a bus had nothing to do with separation or loss. In the eyes of Lutherton Terminal, they provided a service that kept people together, and kept them happy. The way Lutherton Terminal portrayed things, its clients maintained their closeness even when going far away from home. Lutherton Terminal existed in a world where nothing negative could be implied by a bus ticket. The Lutherton Terminal business model existed in the very same world where its art existed. Carly, however, had to deal with the pain of the real world. She was no piece of corporate graffiti. She was no party to a pairing of hugs and love. Her bus ticket would always signify the same abandonment that she had always known it to. In her head, Carly was screaming obscenities at the Lutherton Terminal marketing scheme.

“Your fresh start begins somewhere far from this city,” Lizzy explained. “The furthest that these busses go is Union City. I suggest that you go there, and then figure out the rest on your own.”

“Fuck you, Lizzy. Fuck you,” she grimaced, tugging at Lizzy’s elbows. “Fuck you, and fuck your money. I don’t need it, and I don’t need you.”

Lizzy shrugged her off. “That’s the kind of attitude that’ll get you hurt. I helped you get a second chance. You have enough money to go find it.”

“You’re so full of shit, Lizzy. You try so much to act like you don’t care. If you didn’t give a shit, you wouldn’t have done anything good for me tonight. You saved my life more times than I can remember in the past few hours. You even risk your life to try save mine. Why would you do that if you’re going to throw me back into the same shit that you found me in?”

“Do you think I’m some kind of saint? Do you think I was sent from above to save you? I found a lost little girl who needed a little help, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. You got us into all kinds of a mess, and I’m not even sure it’s all over. Tonight has been a nightmare, and you don’t seem to see that. I’m not whatever you want to imagine me to be. Right now, we’re just a pair of criminals. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Carly was on her knees, resting the weight of her beaten and bruised body. True rest seemed impossible. “You know what I just realised? This whole time, I’ve told you all kinds of stuff about me. But you, you’ve barely told me anything about yourself. It’s like we’ve put trust in each other without even knowing each other. I don’t know who you are. But, I think that’s because I feel it. I feel your loneliness. Not once did you worry about anyone else tonight. It was always about you and me. And that’s because there is no one else for you to worry about, is there? You’re just as alone as I am, but you’re way too scared to admit it. You’re basically as orphaned as I am, and it’s like you want to hold on to that forever.”

“I’m not fucking orphaned!” Lizzy exploded. “I knew my mother. My mother was a beautiful, strong, and loving woman. She taught me how to be a strong person, even at the worst of times. She was always strong. That’s what kept her together. She never faltered, even when she needed to.”

“Was? And your father?”

“Fuck him, and fuck your little interview. I’m done.”

“No,” Carly disagreed. “You’re not done; you’re lost. Just like me, life has given you some shit and you think that means you have to rough it alone. But that only makes it even harder, believe me.”

Lizzy threw her arms up in disbelief. “What are you, a damn life coach now? I spent my teen years getting all kinds of conflicting advice from the people around me. I never learnt what I was supposed to do, and I’m definitely not going to learn it from you. You don’t know how hard shit gets. You’re just a runaway.”

“I’m a runaway who’s managed to survive two years mostly alone.”

“Does that earn you a medal? I’ve been surviving alone for years. For years, I’ve gotten by on shitty club jobs and hiding behind bouncers and getting fucked over by managers. You don’t learn to abandon trust just so you can find it in some random teenager.”

Carly stood up and attempted eye contact with Lizzy. “Look me in the eyes and tell me that you still see me as some random teenager. After everything that has happened, tell me, honestly.”

Lizzy avoided eye contact and walked back towards her car. “Don’t let your bags of cash be seen when you’re buying a ticket. It might attract some unnecessary attention.”

“Lizzy, please,” Carly croaked, her soft face flooding with tears as she began to weep like a child. “Please, I’m scared. I don’t know what to do. I’m scared.”

Carly’s words were drowned out by the sound of Lizzy’s engine as she sped off, disappearing behind the first available turnoff. She collapsed onto her bags of money and gave in to the tears, crying out to no one as her exhaustion started to sink her body down. She suddenly felt too drained to cry and needed somewhere to curl up. She pulled herself up and attempted to move the bags into the waiting area. However, she was not strong enough to carry all three, so she dragged two of them laboriously whilst the third hung over her shoulders. The small distance that she had to cover felt like a marathon, but she managed it before dropping onto the bags once again. Her head swung back as she drifted off into a sleep, resting on the most expensive and uncomfortable pillow that she had ever slept on.

 

*

 

She was jolted awake by the light vibration of the phone in her pocket. She tried to ignore it, but it buzzed a second time. She pulled herself up and took it out to check it. It was a low battery notification and she only had five percent of it left. It was almost two in the morning.

“Fuck,” she whispered to herself. She ran her fingers through her hair and thought about how pointless a phone would be to her in any case. She had never needed to own one, and the only one she had was nearly dead. She opened the Internet browser and it automatically loaded a Google search page. Without thinking, she typed the word ‘Lutherton’ and clicked the search button. The results ranged from quick facts about the city, to main attractions, to a map, to the night life. She clicked on the map and tried to find her location. As she zoomed in, she spotted the Octagon, marked as a point of interest. On the opposite side of the road, she noticed a row of three bars that were also marked as points of interest. A desperate thought sparked in her head as she clicked the first bar and read its details, which included a contact number. She pressed the call button and put the phone to her ear. It rang for a minute before getting picked up.

“Hello?” said the voice on the other side, with a cough.

“Hi, is this the Point of Pint bar?” she asked meekly.

“Yeah, it is,” the man answered, “what’s up?”

“Do you maybe have a Riley who works there?”

“A what?” he coughed again.

“A girl, named Riley. Is anyone there named Riley?”

“Nope, sorry. Never heard of her.”

He ended the call before she could say anything else. She gritted her teeth and stood up, pacing back and forth as she dialled the second bar on the street.

“Hey, Breaker’s Bar here,” answered a lively, feminine voice. “How may I help you?”

“Hey, yeah, does a Riley work there?”

“A Riley? A girl?”

“Yes,” Carly huffed.

The woman paused as if she was in thought. “Nah, dude, we have a Rey, but not a Riley. What’s up?”

Carly ended the call without saying anything. The phone vibrated again, this time being on two percent. She dialled the third bar.

“Hello,” came the lazy answer from the other side.

“Hi, this is the Red Shaker, right?” she spoke, almost mincing her words in the rush.

“Yeah, it is. What do you need?”

“Does a Riley work there?”

“What?”

She repeated herself slowly and clearly. “Do you have a girl named Riley working there?”

“Oh, oh, yeah, I think so,” he replied, sounding unsure.

“Can you please get her on the phone for me? Please, it’s urgent.”

“Um, I can try. Who’s calling?”

“Carly. Tell her it’s Carly.”

The man on the other side seemed to put the phone down on a table and move away. After a second, there was a flush of noise and music from outside the office, and then it went silent again. Carly paced even more aggressively as she waited, twisting her hair in her fingers. She heard the door open again with another burst of sounds and ruffling of the phone on the other side.

“Hello, Kylie?” Riley asked, clearing her throat.

“No, Riley, it’s me, it’s Carly. I need to –” she got cut off by the buzz of another vibration. She looked at the phone and watched as the screen blacked out.

“Fuck!” she screamed. She screamed it over and over as she kicked the bags of money. She collapsed to the floor and punched them weakly before lying down on them once again. She stayed in that position and stared out into nothing, left to her thoughts as she traipsed over the idea of sleep for hours.

Sleep did not come again and, with the sunrise, she moved her bags over to a bench and waited for the terminal to become operational again. In all of her hours of thinking, she had resorted herself to the idea of solitude. She considered the need to keep moving, and also thought about how easily she would be able to do that. It would not be easy with three bags that were too heavy for her to carry, and she thought of how they could make her easy to target. So she picked the lightest bag and stuffed it into a trash bin. She hoped that some inquisitive bum would find it as his luckiest day ever, but she cared very little for it.

She bought two seats on a bus to Union City so that she could sit with her bags. She was nervous that her choice would be questioned, but it seemed that the bus would not be very occupied. As she waited in the short queue to get on, she saw her face in the reflective side of the bus. She had bags under her drained eyes. They were green in the reflection, surrounded by a pale-red reminder of the tears that she had shed. Her hair was mottled in places and hung haphazardly over her pale face. She looked a mess and should have brought concern, but people kept to themselves. They behaved in the very same way that she had known people around her to behave. She was a mere shadow in their midst, and she would stay that way.

The bus shook to life at exactly nine o’clock, and began its journey five minutes later. Carly had her face resting against the window and watched as they started to move away from the city. She held herself tightly and tried to invite sleep back in. The trip was set to be at least six hours, and she wanted a little rest before having to deal with life again. Despite living a whole lifetime of events in one night, her life had shown little change. She found herself back on the road again, headed to a place she had never been to before, with no plan, whatsoever. She squeezed her eyes shut and droned off to the soft jazz soundtrack that was drifting from the speakers.

She was jolted awake by the rumbling of the bus halting to a stop and hooting aggressively. There were a number of raised heads in the seats before her, trying to see what was going on. She lifted herself up to look for a second, but then she realised that she really did not care, so she sat back as she was before. She heard the smooth hiss of the passenger door opening, followed by the sharp cut of a heel climbing on, at the annoyed protest of the bus driver.

“I don’t know who you’re looking for, lady,” the bus driver huffed.

Carly heard the determined steps come closer and closer, ignoring the complaints of the other passengers. Carly kept her eyes closed and her head pressed against the window. The sound of clicking heels stopped.

“Carly,” the voice spoke. A familiar voice that she could have sworn she had known for years, even though it had been less than a day. “Carly, look at me.”

Carly kept her eyes shut and shook her head. She felt a lump rising in her throat as she forced her tears back. She was doing a lousy job of it as she felt them fill her eyes from within and warm her cheeks. She frowned against her weakness and breathed slowly.

“Carly, it’s me,” the voice said, resting a hand on her shoulder.

“I know it’s you,” Carly responded, opening her reddened eyes to look. She shrugged the hand off of her shoulder. “I know it’s you, Lizzy. Did you forget something? What more do you have to say?”

“Yes, actually, I did forget something, and I do have more to say,” Lizzy confessed, sitting down next to Carly. “I forgot to learn. I forgot to learn and grow over all of these years. I forgot to let myself find my own way to heal. Throughout all of my years of anger, I can’t possibly know how many people I’ve shut off. I can’t possibly know how many great people I’ve missed out on. I’ve been a super-efficient shell, but a shell, nonetheless. And, like it or not, you scared me last night. Your honesty in my moment of stupidity is the exact act of humanity that I have not allowed myself to have. I saw myself mirrored in you for that brief moment, and I would have let me walk away without even a word of how I truly felt. I don’t want to be that person anymore, Carly. I don’t know if this is how I heal, or if this is just a minor step in the right direction. But I do know that this is the right thing, and I’ve never felt more regret over walking away from a person in my life. It’s crazy, because you’re just a kid and I barely know you, but, in just a matter of hours, you’ve shown me more bravery and heart than I have seen in forever. And it comes with brains, too. I don’t want to go on for too long, but I need you to understand this: I know you can imagine why I wanted to leave last night, but that’s a part of ourselves that we both need to be able to let go of now. I am so eternally sorry for the way I made you feel last night, and I never wish to do that again. I don’t want to go into this world alone again. I don’t want to search for trust anew, and I don’t want you to do the same, either. I need to know that you understand and forgive me, Carly.”

There was a fearful hesitation in Carly’s eyes as she searched for the sincerity in Lizzy’s. It did not require much looking, because she saw Lizzy’s eyes water in the most frightfully honest way right before her. Lizzy opened her arms up in peaceful invitation and Carly jumped at the offer, squeezing her arms around her as tightly as she possibly could. She could feel Lizzy’s nails digging into her back in the most nurturing embrace she had ever felt in her life. For Lizzy, it was like an awakening and a reminder of the parts of her that she had lost.

“This is sweet an all,” an old woman a seat ahead chimed in, “but some of us have places to be, lady. Get off the bus or stay on until it stops again.”

Carly laughed and sniffed as she got up and grabbed her bags. The two whispered insincere apologies to the passengers as they made their way off the bus and back out Lizzy’s car. The bus left a massive cloud of dust as it pulled off in hopes of making up for lost time. As Lizzy threw the bag onto the backseat, she frowned and then looked at Carly.

“Wait, two bags?”

“Yeah,” Carly sighed. “I had to ditch one at the station because I just couldn’t carry all three. Should we go back for it?”

“No,” Lizzy shook her head, “we have way more than we need. It’s not worth the trouble. You’ve probably made some bum really happy.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” she laughed. “So, where to?”

“I don’t know,” Lizzy said, squinting against the sunlight. “Anywhere that takes us away from Lutherton, I guess?”

“That sounds all good to me.”

Before they could get into the car, a police vehicle that had been approaching in the distance reached them and stopped ahead of Lizzy’s car. It did not have its siren or lights on, and had a solitary policeman in the driver’s seat. Carly looked at Lizzy with panicked eyes, wild in remembrance of the previous night’s events. Lizzy swallowed and remained calm as the police officer stepped out of his vehicle and approached the car.

“Ah, Lizzy,” the officer spoke, “I can’t say I’m surprised.”

“Edward,” Lizzy smiled weakly, “it’s been a while. How have you been?”

“I’ve been just fine. Tell me,” he said, looking over at Carly through his thick eyebrows, “does your little friend here know that it’s not a good idea to leave the jurisdictional area of a pending criminal investigation? Or did you two forget that there’s been a death in Lutherton?”

“We… we weren’t leaving,” Lizzy hesitated, her heart racing as the lump in her throat grew.

“Is that right?” he smirked. “If I’m correct, this road leads out of Lutherton, and you’re facing the direction that leads out of town.”

“Ed, get to the point.”

He walked over to the side of the car where Carly stood and then looked over at Lizzy. His eyes were a deep brown and were encircled in wrinkles that had appeared too soon on his unnaturally-tanned skin. He rested his hands on the roof of the car and addressed them both.

“We had some pathologists and whatnot look at Glen Stein’s greedy old corpse and figure out exactly what happened. We made some breakthroughs during this, but I was surprised that you two were nowhere to be found when it came time to contact you.” At this point, Carly had a steady stream of tears falling silently down her face. “The first thing we noticed is that he had a good amount of this young lady’s skin under his nails. I mean, we could have cloned a whole new brat out of that stuff, if we wanted to. Of course, our main priority was the murder investigation on our hands. So, a kind Dr Martin finally informed us that the old bag Stein had a heart condition that was worsening over the years. His heart was slowly giving up on him under all of that filth, or whatever. Anyway, it fought its last fight last night, and lost. The knife did not inflict a fatal wound, although it could have contributed to the shock that sent him into a bit of a deadly panic.”

“So, what are you saying, exactly?” Lizzy asked.

“I’m saying that the sick bastard died of natural causes, Lizzy. The most we could get on your little friend here is an aggravated assault charge against a dead man who maybe possibly tried to rape her. Quite frankly, I don’t think anyone liked Glen Stein enough to bother pursuing that one.”

“Oh my god!” Lizzy exploded. “And you couldn’t open with that? You’re such a dick sometimes, Edward, really.”

Edward made his way back to an annoyed Lizzy and brushed her cheek with the back of his hand. “I just love how you look when you’re flustered, honey. And you should thank me for finding you and letting you know so your hearts can be at peace. And also maybe thank me for not asking you about anything else you may have been involved in last night.”

He breathed in deeply and smiled before turning back to go to his car. He opened the door and waved. “I hope this is not the last I’ll be seeing of your sweet ass, Lizzy. You’re definitely one of the greats.” And with that, he stepped into his car and did an unnecessarily loud U-turn in the direction of Lutherton.

Carly ran over to Lizzy and screamed. They both held each other’s hands and giggled as Carly brushed her tears off on her shoulders.

“I’m not a murderer,” Carly laughed. “I’m not a fucking murderer, Lizzy. Oh my god.”

“No, you’re not,” Lizzy confirmed. “We’re finally free, honey. We can actually say now that we have our lives ahead of us.”

“Promise me one thing, though,” Carly asked.

“Anything in the world,” Lizzy smiled.

“First town we get to, we’re stopping to shop for clothes because I’m manky as fuck in these.”

Lizzy laughed. “Sure thing. I know a thing or two about dressing girls up. Hop in, it’s gonna be a long drive.”

“I’m ready,” Carly confirmed, and it was one of the most sincere things that she had ever said.

 

The End.

My Based on a Song series has begun, check it out here: Adele – Hello (Based on a Song)

Roses and Thorns Part 5 of 6: Weathering

Shattered Rose

 

BEFORE

 

From outside, the house looked so peaceful. The Blake family was away for the week, and Barry had seen this as his chance. A sneak job like this always guaranteed that he would have food and a place to stay for at least a month, but he never found it exciting. The tedium of breaking in, stealing the most precious finds, and leaving without a trace had quickly grown old on him. There was no fight, and there was no fear. Barry never wanted his night life to end up feeling like a day job. He hated day jobs, and he had never managed to hold one down for longer than two weeks at a time. He had accepted his life of delinquency from a very young age.

Barry was never the bully. He was also never the victim. He had learned to fight through years of trial and error. His younger years at the Lower Ridge Boys School had led to him learning about the harsh realities of life sooner than any boy would be expected to. The faculty at his school cared very little for the daily health of the boys in attendance. This meant that any fight that broke out would be handled by the boys themselves. The drawing of blood and the dashing of cowardly feet were often the only deciding factors. There was no true serving of justice; the stronger fist and the faster kick upheld the law. The boys had developed their own little set of rules for the settlement of disputes. The fights were always public, with an audience of at least thirty boys. The outcome of the fight would often determine the boys’ earning or losing of respect from their schoolmates. The winner was almost always more prone to welcome a future fight. He was always much less likely to find a willing opponent. Barry desired much more than a fight.

The arranged fights took place almost exclusively on the hockey fields. Hockey Field C was the best spot, as it was most out of the teachers’ way and attracted the least amount of unwanted attention. This particular field was called the ‘Red Court’ and was presided over by the ‘Red Judge’. The Red Judge was so called because he wore a red scarf around his neck to represent the amount of blood that he must have spilt to earn his position. It was an honour enjoyed by one of the senior boys who had asserted his dominance over all of the others. As corrupted as any system ever becomes, it soon became evident that the successor was agreed upon instead of being decided upon by combat. In Barry’s years at the school, he had never seen a Red Judge fight, despite having seen five Red Judge changeovers. Barry wanted the title of Red Judge. He did not care for how long it would last, even if the scarf would only warm his neck for one day and one fight. He knew that he would have to openly challenge Jay, the holder of the scarf. In Barry’s eyes, rules had to be honoured. In Barry’s eyes, a fight always trumped an agreement.

Barry had been in more fights than he could remember. The only two fights that he would never forget were the two fights that he had lost. They had been his first at the school, and they had filled him with a burning desire for vengeance. However, his revenge fights had left him feeling unfulfilled. His bloodied knuckles left him craving something more rewarding than the establishment of his place amongst the general crowd. He wanted to be bigger, and he wanted to be better. Despite having gotten his position through the employment of politics, Jay was still a beast to behold. He was a head taller than Barry, standing on the toned legs of a football player. He had dark skin that barely showed his handful of scars. His curly hair was cut short, with patterns trimmed into the sides. This would normally not be allowed, but the captains of the sports teams often got away with so much more than the usual crowd could. He was not nearly as buff as the last few Red Judges had been – his body being built mostly for speed – but he was still considerably bigger than Barry. He had a very hard and serious face, even though he joked much more than the previous judges had when there were fights.

The fights were rarely too personal. Barry respected Jay greatly, and would continue to do so even after the fight. Having no girls to fight about meant that most of the fights were petty squabbles or displays of dominance. Barry wanted to enjoy dominance at the confident age of fifteen. The youngest Red Judge ever was sixteen when he earned his scarf. That judge, however, was also built like a fridge on steroids and had the temper of a mad dog. All of his challengers had failed miserably. He eventually lost his title in the most respectable way; by graduating from the school.

Barry was ready to make a name for himself amongst the boys. A fight between two boys had just ended when Barry decided to speak up. The fight had settled a matter deciding which of the two boys would have to take the earlier of two physical training classes on a Monday. The scrawny boy with the glasses never truly stood a chance against his physically superior albeit ironically lazy opponent.

“I want to challenge you for the scarf,” Barry spoke, making sure not to allow his voice to break. All the boys went silent.

“Are you joking, dude?” Jay frowned, not moving from his high-chair.

“No, I’m not. I want to challenge you for the position of Red Judge.”

“There hasn’t been a direct challenge in years.”

“Yeah, it’s time for that to change. I challenge you. I want to do it the old-fashioned way.”

“Are you even old enough to fight, bucko? You look twelve. You’ve got arms like a starving baby.”

“If you don’t accept the challenge, you forfeit your position,” Barry continued, unfazed.

The Red Court had rules. In the midst of all the apparent disruption of peace, an agreed-upon constitution existed amongst the boys. Most of the rules were related to the dos and don’ts of the court fights. The number one rule was the ‘no ball hits or dick strikes’ rule. Aiming for an opponent’s delicates was considered weak and cowardly. The second rule was that no permanent injuries would be inflicted during a fight. This rule was followed by the banning of weapons. Their pubescent bodies were the only weapons allowed. Most fights ended with the drawing of first blood, although the more hardcore boys would go until exhaustion decided the winner. There was no knocking out of teeth, and no poking of the eyes. The Red Judge could stop a fight or intervene whenever he so pleased, even though he rarely did because it would spoil the entertainment. The only rule that Barry cared for, however, was that the Red Judge had to honour every challenge.

“Fine,” Jay stood up, removing his school blazer. “I was not planning on attending a funeral today, but you asked for it.”

Barry removed his school jersey and shoes, as only bare feet were allowed. He was nervous, and he was scared, but that realisation excited him. Most of the time, he wanted to fight for the pure sake of punching his frustrations out. And other times, he wanted to fight for the brief reward of playground glory. He had made an attempt to do research on his opponent’s fighting style and abilities, but there was very little to find. He had never seen Jay fight because of the way he acquired his position. He was less prepared than he would have liked to be. All that he really knew about Jay was that Jay was very fast and sharp with his punches. Barry doubted this because of the weight difference between the two of them.

“I hope everyone heard that,” Jay announced to the crowd of boys, “this is an official challenge to the Red Judge. If this challenger, Barry, wins, then he will immediately become the new Red Judge. If he loses, I retain my title and he goes home with his tail between his legs. The ordinary fighting rules apply –”

“No,” Barry interrupted. “I want the hard rules.” The boys gasped.

“Are you being for real?” Jay laughed.

“Yes.”

“And you know how the hard rules work?”

“Yes, I do. No complaints. I’m requesting them, and I agree to the terms that come with them.”

The hard rules were a variation of the normal fighting rules between the boys. They were only asked for very rarely, and often only by the Red Judges. The hard rules meant that anything goes, bar for weapons and crotch shots. This meant that some visible damage could be caused, but the sufferer waived the option of ever telling anyone or making an attempt to report the opponent. The fights alone required bravery, but the hard rules required a true heart of iron. Barry had a hardened heart.

“Fine. Hard rules. Come at me.” Jay clenched his fists and planted his legs on the hard ground.

Barry felt his heart kicking into gear. Every beat punched from within his chest like a drum leading him to war. He wanted it to be war, and he wanted to be on the right side of victory. He edged towards jay with hard fists, calculating his first strike and aiming to earn an early advantage. With a quick breath, he launched a right hook at Jay’s neck, aiming for his Adam’s apple. Jay deflected the punch with his left arm and elbowed Barry between the shoulder blades. Jay moved so quickly that Barry was already falling to the ground before he realised what had happened. He pushed himself up and decided to aim a kick at Jay’s ribs. Jay bent his body in the direction of the kick and absorbed the impact, holding on to Barry’s leg by pinning it down with his right arm. He then proceeded to hammer punches into Barry’s knee, almost bending it in before throwing Barry to the ground. Barry bit down and fought the pain. He could feel the alarms going off in his back and his leg, but he ignored them. The damage to his knee meant that he became slower. It was as if Jay could finish him off quickly, but he wanted to drag it out to entertain the silenced boys.

Barry limped towards Jay and showed little fear or desperation on his face. He could almost feel that Jay could see through his facade. He shot his right fist at Jay’s neck – which Jay caught – and followed it up with an immediate left fist. Jay caught that one as well, and had Barry by the fists. He pulled Barry towards him and smiled before crashing his head into Barry’s nose. He repeated the devastating act two more times, each collision drawing more blood than the previous one. Barry was already losing consciousness when Jay let go of him and threw him backwards with a hard punch to his core. The punch sent Barry rolling backwards and into a bloody cocoon. He was down, and he was not getting up.

“You can take a beating, Barry, I’ll give you that. But you don’t know your opponent at all. You’re too slow, and you rush to the good parts. You don’t savour the fight. You don’t have fun with it. It seems as though you want to come in, cause damage, and then get out. I know this because I am observant, and it is my duty to know about how everyone here fights. I don’t wear this scarf for no reason, buddy. Going in this unprepared will leave you in a lot of pain if you don’t change it. I’m only telling you this because you seem like the type who wants to fight for the sake of fighting. And I’m also telling you this so that this becomes the third fight that you never forget.”

With that final word of surprising intel, Jay walked picked his blazer up and walked away. Rat, one of Barry’s friends, ran towards Barry to tend to him and help him get off the court.

As Barry looked at the Blake house, he scratched the tip of his nose, remembering the third fight that he could never let go of. That fight was etched into his brain and he remembered it more vividly than the countless break-ins and other petty crimes that he had committed since. His memory of it reminded him of why he felt unfulfilled by the jobs that he had been running recently: none of them were memorable because none of them taught him anything new. Granted, that fight had left him broken for a very long time, but it had inevitably served as a life lesson that he cherished. As he lifted the small hook that connected the gate to the wooden fencing, he thought about Jay’s words. He had done his research on the Blakes, and knew everything about the very low security of the house. All of that was good and well, except that there was no chance that the Blakes would be putting up a fight of any sort. It would be like stealing candy from a sleeping baby.

He disabled the security alarm using a signal disruptor which he had bought from a pair of smugglers. He forced a gloved hand through the glass panelling on the front door and clicked the lock off from the inside. The door swung open and the house became a free mall for him to pick out anything that his thieving heart desired. He always headed for the bedrooms first, because that was always where the size of the loot made it more valuable. Any house with a jewellery box of some kind was always a good find. The Blake house was small, having only one floor and three bedrooms. Two of the rooms belonged to the children, and that made them very low on the priority list. Barry took quiet steps in the direction of the main bedroom, finding the door bare and inviting. He started searching every drawer and wardrobe for any case or compartment that might hold what he wanted. In his opening and closing of everything, he knocked a bottle of perfume over, which shattered loudly on the tiled floor. He froze only for a second to listen, but remembered that there was no one around to hear him.

He continued to work his way through clothes and documents and cheap adornments without finding anything of real value. The smell of the perfume was strong and distracting. It was so distracting, in fact, that he missed the light steps which entered the room and only noticed them as a baseball bat came down on his face. The hits did not stop until he was on the floor, covering his face with his hands. The person brandishing the baseball bat was not very strong, but had a good enough idea of where to hit. Barry was not going to get out of it by cowering away, so he concentrated on the frequency of the swings and then threw a hand out, grabbing the bat as it swung again. He wrestled it out of his attacker’s hands and swung back, hitting what felt like bone. His attacker screamed and fell back. The scream was feminine. It was feminine and very young.

“Okay, okay, stop,” she pleaded, holding a hand out towards him.

“Who the hell are you? None of the Blakes are here.” He searched the walls for the bedroom light and found it next to the door. The flush of the fluorescent glow was blinding at first.

“I’m not a Blake. No one was supposed to be here. Who are you?”

“I’m… I’m just a guy who’s passing through,” he answered, not trusting her with any truths. The girl looked very young. She had dark hair and a pale, lightly-freckled face. Her hair was down, and she stared back at him through her barely-visible green eyes. They were a pale green, lightened by the tears which had welled up in her eyes.

“You’re not passing through. You’re a thief. You were looking for things to steal.” She found her way onto her legs, gripping her left elbow with her right hand. Barry must have hit her there.

“Oh yeah? And why are you in here, then?”

“I… I’m actually passing through. I’m not taking any of their stuff.”

“Wait,” he said, moving closer towards her. “The whites of your eyes are so red. Were you sleeping? Are you squatting here?”

“That’s none of your business,” she blinked, turning away from him and fixing her hair.

“You look twelve, why are you squatting here?”

“I’m fucking fifteen, actually,” she hissed. “You don’t get to question my intentions when you’re just as guilty. So what if I needed a place to stay? You’re breaking and entering with the intention to steal. You’re worse.”

“Wow,” he laughed. “You’re the worst for actually trying to name my crime. Why don’t you have a home?”

“Why the fuck would I tell you?”

“Well, because Mommy and Daddy will be searching for their little runaway. And an anonymous tip would be your worst enemy right now.”

She breathed. “Good luck with that, thief boy. There’s no Mommy and Daddy looking for this little runaway.”

“What, did you murder them before deserting your house?”

“No, you morbid asshole. Leave it alone.” She crossed her arms and turned to look out the window.

“Wait, are you a foster kid or something? How long have you been on the run?”

“I’m not… I’m not on the run. I’ve been free for three months.”

It was only then that Barry noticed just how skinny and underfed the girl looked. Her body seemed weak and deprived under her pyjama shorts and plaid shirt. “You don’t look like you’re doing too well.”

“I’m doing just fine, thank you,” she turned to him, lips pursed. “I was just fine until you broke into my house.”

Barry laughed. “The Blake family lives here. And, last I checked, they didn’t have a super-skinny girl watching the house. You’re a squatter.”

“Do you expect a freaking cookie for being the world’s most researched burglar or something?”

“Would you like a how-to guide on getting by without getting caught by other criminals? Because that’s actually sadder than getting caught by the cops.”

She had her eyes trained on him and did not move for a few seconds. “Could you actually do that?”

Barry laughed. “You look like you need the help.”

She frowned. “Why would you help me? Is this just some trick to get me to suck your dick?”

“Holy shit,” he recoiled, “you’re like, twelve. I would never do something like that to you. I’m a criminal, yeah, but not that kind. Relax.”

“I said I’m fifteen already!” she screamed.

“Shall our first lesson be about meditation and keeping calm, then?” he asked sarcastically.

“Let’s get out of this house first. There’s nothing worthwhile to steal.” She squeezed her elbow as she walked towards the door. It was surely bruised.

“Do you have a name?” Barry asked.

“What’s yours?”

“I’m Barry. Nice to meet you. And, uh, sorry about the arm.”

“I’m Carly. It’s okay. I would have hurt you a lot more.”

Barry laughed as he followed her out of the house.

 

*

 

Carly was just hours shy of her sixteenth birthday as she sat on the balcony overlooking the quiet streets below. She was on the fifth floor of a low-income apartment block on the uglier side of Redford. Redford was only three hours away from the house that Carly had always called home, but she felt as though she was worlds away from that aging memory. She looked at the patchy asphalt below and wished that there was a little more traffic to drown her thoughts out. With all of that silence, she could only imagine allowing herself to fall to the hard ground below. She could imagine the wind washing over her face, and the brief moment of tranquillity before her head hit the street and splattered into a thousand bloody pieces. There was a light breeze blowing, and it called her name. She closed her eyes and breathed it in, and tried to use it to calm herself down. It felt as though she was begging her personal Satan to help her find the good in the darkness.

“You know I hate it when you do that,” she heard Barry’s voice. She opened her eyes and saw him walking over to her, with a cup of coffee in each hand.

“Do what?” she asked unnecessarily.

“Sit on that thin metal, holding on to nothing. Especially when you’re in one of your moods. I can’t trust what you’ll do.” He handed her a cup and sunk his body into his massive green bean bag.

“I’ll trust you a little more if you’re willing to trust me a little more,” she offered, taking a small sip of her coffee.

“I’ve been a stellar host to you for weeks now, haven’t I? We’re at a trust buffet at this point.”

“When midnight comes,” she started, “it’ll be my first birthday outside of the orphanage in eight years. I had eight miserable birthdays there. And now that I’ve found freedom, I’m not sure I’m any better off. I’m more lonely than I’ve ever been and I feel more caged than I’ve ever felt. How is that possible? I got so sick of that old house and that fucking Riley bitch. But, somehow, I feel like being there right now and arguing with her would make me happier than being here and feeling so lost. What am I doing, really? What do I think I’ll become, being a runaway with no hope? I was enough of a castaway at the orphanage, but then I went and cast myself away even more. I,” her eyes welled up and she turned to look away.

“Why did you run away? Who’s Riley? How did you end up here?” Barry had learnt very little about his guest’s past in the weeks that she had spent living with him. Most days, he felt that he knew nothing at all.

She took another sip and sighed. “I ran away because I wanted to find the one thing that the orphanage was supposed to give me, but failed to: a sense of belonging. The Tomlin House just never felt like home to me. I must admit guilt because I could have tried harder with the other kids, but they were all so clique-y. Riley was the über bitch of them all. She had an overpowering personality, and she towered over me in a way that made me super defenceless. I felt that there was nothing I could do to bring her down. And, with her hanging over my head the way that she did, there was no way I was going to make good friends with everybody else. At least, that was until this cute boy moved in. He was older, and we got along really well, but things turned to shit so quickly. I thought he was really into me, but he was apparently just that nice to everyone. I thought I was in love with him, but he was actually just fucking that hot slut, Rai. God, I don’t even have a good reason to hate her; I was really just super jealous of her.

“I don’t think anyone at the house will ever figure out what happened. See, from their perspective, I was just a lonely girl who got heartbroken and ran away. They’d be right on both counts, but they couldn’t tell you why. I was lonely, and my heart was broken, but not because of being an orphan, and not because of that stupid prettyboy. I was lonely because I was thrust into a world with so many people, and I had failed to make a meaningful connection with any of them. I was heartbroken because my heart had been breaking for years as I figured out how sad I was becoming. I latched onto anything that I thought could make me happy, but it always failed. So I found myself sitting on the porch one night, after a really long and really fucked up day at the orphanage. I had never felt that alone before. I was crying, and no one had come out to comfort me. Stupid shit had happened with that stupid boy, and Riley just gave me the final push with her bitch words. I was alone, and I was crying. No one was there. I looked up at the barely-visible stars and wondered what the fuck I was still sticking around for. I always waited for that comfort to be handed to me, but I never truly tried to find it myself. The house was already a lost cause, but the rest of the world wasn’t. In that moment, I felt as though I would rather die than spend another night in that house. So I got up, packed my things, and chose the option that would lead to me rather dying. I said no goodbyes. I only took what I could carry in one bag. I didn’t have much to begin with, anyway.”

“And then?” Barry urged, showing a little too much enthusiasm.

“And then Redford. I took all that I had in my little piggybank and paid for the bus that would take me the furthest away. I knew that the Tomlins would not try very hard to find me, but I still wanted to be light-years away from them. I didn’t even think about food, or where I would stay. I got off at the first stop in the city, and then I spent the night out there. It was one of the coldest nights of my life. I could almost feel my fingers and toes dying as I huddled in a corner and relied on only hope to make it through the night. When the sun came out in the morning, I could barely believe that I was still in the same state that I fell asleep in. I hadn’t been robbed or touched, but I was fucking starving. I walked around town until I found an outdoor food market on the corner of Green and Main. I still looked clean enough, so I tried to grab a small loaf of homemade bread and then blend into the crowd. The crowd was big enough, but my hand wasn’t fast enough. The baker grabbed me at the wrist before I could turn away. And fuck, his grip was tight as hell. At first, his eyes were cold as ice, and I showed nothing but fear in mine. But, I don’t know, maybe he could sense how desperate and scared I was, because his eyes softened, and his grip loosened. He told me to get lost so I did exactly that, not realising how lost I already was. Fuck me, that bread was the most delicious plain bread that I had ever eaten. I was so hungry, but it was also so good that I felt intense guilt for not having paid a cent. I wolfed my way through half of it, and decided to keep the rest for later. I spent my second night in Jones Park, making one of the benches my bed for the night. I was not any warmer than the night before, but I had taken on a more comfortable position.

“I woke up to find that my bread was still there, but it had fallen off the bench and become a feast for ants and pigeons. I was so fucking pissed, but things could have been worse, I guess. I spent the rest of the day searching for less obvious ways to steal food, but it’s not as easy as it looks in the movies. There are cameras and security everywhere. I was going hungry again, and I went back to the park at night. I had no proper sense of time, but somewhere in the colder parts of the night, I woke up to a hand grabbing my ass. It was this old homeless guy with no teeth, giving me the filthiest gummy smile that I’d ever seen. I’m usually a very light sleeper, but I must have been sleeping my exhaustion and hunger off. Luckily for me, he was old, so he wouldn’t be able to chase after me. I left my bag in my panic. I would have gone back for it, but I saw him pick my underwear out and sniff on it, and I couldn’t deal with that. It was so revolting. I spent the rest of the night just walking. I didn’t know where I was going, and I guess it didn’t matter. Just before sunrise, I found myself in a residential area. It was a very middle-class area, and it seemed nice. One of the houses that I walked past had no lights on, and a very low fence. I decided to look in, just out of curiosity. The house seemed empty, so I made my way round back and broke one of the windows as quietly as I could. Still, no sound from the inside, so I snuck in and shot straight for the kitchen. They didn’t have much food, so I assumed they were away. The fridge was switched off, and there was nothing fresh, but they had canned food, and that’s all I needed to stay alive. After stuffing myself on baked beans and canned noodles, I found my way to a bed and had the best and most comfortable sleep that I had had in years.

“When I say years, I mean it literally. I hadn’t had a peaceful sleep at the Tomlin Home for a very long time. Alone, in that house, as I fell asleep, I felt free. I felt like I was in a moment where everything was by my own doing. I was relying only on myself, and I saw a split second of hope. As I was passing out, I felt unbound. As I slipped away, I knew I wouldn’t be woken up by the voice of an unbearable bitch. But I was woken up by the voice of an unbearable bitch in the form of the owner’s dog barking out of excitement. Well, I don’t know if the dog was female or not, but you get the point. I’m glad I heard it, because it gave me the time to sneak out the way I had snuck in. And that’s who I became; a watcher who targeted empty homes for their food and bedding. I avoided staying longer than two nights at a time. I never wanted to become too comfortable or risk being seen. I liked houses with teenage girls in the family. I would always take an item or two out of their closets. Never anything too distinct, or anything that they might miss. I needed the change of clothes, and I needed their hair products when I showered. I made it through a month and a half living that way, until I found the Blake House.

“I was in a house two doors down when I noticed that the Blake family was going off on a trip. They dropped a note off at my house, whose family was out for a day and a half. Thea, the mother, slipped it in under the door. So, after they left, I opened it. It was a bunch of numbers to call, and details about their trip. Most importantly, however, it had their alarm code so that my house could check in on theirs. I took the note and used the code to switch houses. I figured that I could spend a little more time there, because I knew exactly how long they would be away, and I had the feeling of security on my side. Their food was fresher, and their daughter, Joss, was a very similar body type to mine. As with all of the other houses, I never switched on any lights, or played any music, or watched any TV. I stayed away from the windows, and did everything quietly. Six days into my time of bliss, I heard a noise in the house. The alarm hadn’t gone off, so I picked up Jimmy’s baseball bat and went looking. That’s when we met.” She looked straight into Barry’s wide eyes.

“Fuck. You knew all of their names?”

“Yes,” she sighed. “I did not have much to entertain myself with, so I would always go through books, photo albums, the works. I guess I was curious, but I was also seeing what having a real family is like. They did things together, they hugged, they kissed, they smiled, and they reassured each other. No amount of running, and no number of houses, would ever give me that. I was eternally alone. And the first person I met in ages tried to beat me up.”

“Whoa, hey,” Barry protested, putting his coffee down. “You attacked me from behind, with a baseball bat. I thought the house was empty. You could have been a ghost.”

“Do you believe in ghosts, Barry?”

“No, not particularly.”

Carly looked away. Her hand was shivering, causing the coffee to spill over just a little. “Well, maybe you should. Maybe I’m a ghost. Or maybe I will be, very soon.”

Barry jumped up and grabbed her small body as she was slipping off of the railing. Had he been just a little slower, her body would have become a mess on the hard asphalt below.

“Why did you stop me?” she growled.

He kept his arms tight around her, and pulled her down to the bean bag. He held on as her body shook and she broke out into a light sob. Her warm tears fell onto his arms.

“Because I care, Carly. I might have only known you for a few weeks, but you’re not just some passing presence in my life. You’ve been through a lot of shit, and I know this could make you hate yourself, but you’re way too young to give up, and you deserve so much more. I can’t give you everything that you deserve, but I can help get you on your way. I know it took time to trust me, and I know I haven’t taught you much, but I’m willing to help you in any way that you need. Even if it’s just me being here to listen to you. I’m not going to let you give up like this, trust me. I want to be the reassurance that you need.”

“Then teach me how to be safe. Teach me how to care for myself.”

“My grandfather’s knife,” he said, pulling a fixed-blade knife from his pocket. It was in a leather sheath, marked with his grandfather’s name. “It’s the closest thing that I have to a family heirloom. I want you to have it, as a sign of what you mean to me. And, if the time ever comes to use it, remember to first stab, but, just as important, remember to twist the blade while it’s still inside of them. That’s your first real lesson, and one I hope you never need to apply.”

“Stab and twist,” she repeated.

“Carly,” he said, holding her face and looking her in the eyes. “You have to promise me that you’ll never attempt to harm yourself again. I swear to god, hurt someone else, if you have to, but never yourself. Promise me.”

“I promise, Barry. You can trust me.” She rested her head on his chest and closed her eyes, clutching the knife with her right hand.

“I promise to be there whenever you need me most,” he said in oath, and wiped the tears from her cheeks.

“I’m gonna hold you to that.”

 

*

 

“Got somethin’ on your mind, Barry?” Ronny asked. It was evident in his tone that he did not actually care, but he wanted to make sure that the team was ready for the job.

“No, Ronny, I’m fine,” Barry answered.

“I told you; no lethal force, unless necessary. We taze the guards, get in, get what we want, and then get out. Simple as that.”

“I suppose that’s why we need Big Justin over here, right?” Barry sneered, looking at the silent muscleman in front of him.

“Come on,” Ronny laughed. “He’s a big softie. And he’s quiet. Who wouldn’t want a guy like that on their team? Besides, he makes up for all the muscle that our hacker boy here doesn’t have, right?” He nudged Justin for a forced laugh, but the massive man showed no change in expression.

“Does he actually not talk, or is he just that quiet?”

“Who the fuck cares? We’re here,” he said, looking out of the window. “Get ready. We taze the guards and then move quickly. This Mr Stein must have left somethin’ really tasty behind.”

The Stein Mansion was in full view, with two guards at the gate. They looked extremely calm, as if they had no idea that their boss had been killed not long ago. Ronny was driving, with Justin in the passenger seat. They drove up to the gate in a station wagon so as to look as innocent as possible. As soon as the car was lined up with a guard on each side, the men whipped their tazers out and hit them square in the chest. It was an extremely quiet takedown, and bought the thieving team a few minutes to find what they needed. The hacker grabbed the gate remote and granted the men access to the mansion. They car sped up the driveway and parked close to the front door.

“You all know what to do,” Ronny reminded them. “You two, find the safe. Barry, you’re on watch downstairs. Let’s go.”

“Bit odd for a rich businessman to own a Mini Cooper and park it right outside, don’t you think?” Barry commented, noticing the car.

“Just do your fucking job, Barry, or you won’t get your cut,” Ronny threatened before turning to walk through the front door.

Barry took a deep breath and looked away. He walked over to the Mini Cooper and put his hand flat against the hood. The engine was still warm. Somebody had to have arrived at the house before they did, and they were most likely still there. Barry reached for his radio to warn his team but felt himself hesitate as he noticed the scattered possessions in the back. The driver must have been female, based on the clothing and makeup kit. Barry had to think hard. Ronny had shown a horrible pattern of being psychopathic around women. Barry had only put up with it because this was their last job together and he needed the final boost of cash. However, considering the mass of blood and bruises that Ronny’s last female victim was left in, Barry chose not to radio it in. He ran into the house and started searching the first floor.

Every room in the Stein Mansion was about three times bigger than what it would be in a normal house. The rooms were also oddly-shaped, causing Barry to experience quite the run-around. He paused in the entertainment room when he spotted a painting that caught his attention. He walked closer to it to inspect it, wondering why he felt so drawn to it. He stared at the painting for a good minute before images of his not-so-distant past began to flash before his eyes. It had been so long since he had last seen Carly, but the eyes in the painting looked almost exactly like hers. He had gotten so close to saving her, but had failed in his last moments. They had both suffered a relapse of sorts, and fallen away from each other. He never thought that he would go a day without worrying about her, but keeping himself busy had made it a lot easier. He was no saviour. He was never meant to be a –

A scream broke him out of his reminiscent trance. It came from upstairs, and it was definitely feminine. He had forgotten about his search.

“Is everything good up there? What’s taking so long?” he asked stupidly. No duration of separation could make him fail to recognise the helpless voice that he heard on the other side. “Carly?” he said to the sound of uncaring static.

With blind desperation, he made a dash for the staircase. He could not afford to lose a second, and he could not afford to lose Carly to Ronny.

 

******

NOW

 

From outside, the house looked so peaceful. There were no telltale signs of the murder and bloodshed that lay behind those pristine walls. Carly wondered how long it would be before the guards woke up and investigated the mess inside the Stein Mansion, but she did not want to wait around to find out. She stepped into the car and shut the door, resting her head against the cold window. Lizzy threw a pile of documents onto the backseat and started the engine. They had both gone silent after everything that they had just witnessed. The soft hum of the engine was the only sound for what felt like an agonising eternity. Neither of them could stand it.

“Why did you take those papers from the safe?” Carly started.

“Because… I don’t know. Because I need to know why Glen lied to me. And the only secrets I can think of must be hidden in these documents. It’s stupid, but it’s worth a shot.”

“What are you hoping to find?” she asked, reaching into the backseat to grab two files.

“Carly… I don’t know. I don’t know where we go from here.”

There was a collective sigh in the car as Carly flipped through pages upon pages of legal jargon. None of it was even remotely interesting, but she persevered regardless.

“Are you going to explain to me who that was back there?” Lizzy asked. The question had been playing around in her mind since the save.

“Barry is a long story,” Carly breathed.

“Are we in any particular rush?” Lizzy pointed out, having no idea where to drive to.

“Barry… Barry sort of saved my life, at least, before he did again tonight,” she began. She glossed over the details of their meeting and initial relationship. “For the first few weeks, I lived as a drone in his apartment. I barely trusted him, but I needed somewhere to stay, and he was accommodating. He was supposed to be training me to become a criminal like him, but I had very little interest. I’m surprised he didn’t kick me out, because I was really just freeloading. And then, one night, we had a conversation that gave me a little hope, and brought me back from my deep self-pity. I started to care for him then, as I believed he cared for me. To be quite honest, I’m not sure how I didn’t fall in love with him. Or, maybe I did, I don’t know. I started learning how to look after myself, but I was also becoming really attached to him. It was all great for a while, but I couldn’t help taking risks at every turn. Maybe I wanted more of his attention, I don’t know. It’s weird, saying all of this out loud. But he was a crook, and I was a runaway, and we were both doomed to relapse.”

“How?”

“A fight – not between us – he would never do that. We tried a wallet scam on this guy who turned out to be conning people himself, except that he had muscled backup. Barry tried to fight them off while I ran, but one of them threw his fucking brass knuckles at me and hit me right on the head. I fell, and he caught up. They beat the living shit out of both of us – no mercy. They left us on the street, and we had to wait for one of Barry’s friends because we couldn’t call the cops. Despite being in a bad state himself, he took care of my injuries at home because we couldn’t risk a hospital. I still have the scars. We didn’t talk for days after that happened. I tried to break the silence, but Barry blamed himself for all of it. When he eventually spoke, it wasn’t good. He didn’t want to drag me down with him. Or, whatever, he just couldn’t stand to see me beaten up like that. He wanted me to go legitimate and get a waitressing job or something. And that sounded so fucking boring but I was in pain, and boring seemed so appealing. So I, wait,” she trailed off.

“What?” Lizzy looked.

“Didn’t you say Glen only had four strip clubs in Lutherton?”

“Yeah, he only has four. Why?”

“Name them.”

“The Decagon, Hexagon, Heptagon, and Octagon. Why, Carly?”

“They’re all geometrical shapes?” she probed, paging back and forth more furiously.

“Yeah, I guess he had a slight obsession. The buildings themselves bear a resemblance to those shapes, and they each have a strict colour scheme. The Deca is pink, the Hexa is green, the Hepta is red, and the Octa is blue. Why are you suddenly so interested in this?”

“What’s the Pentagon, then?”

“The Pentagon? There’s no such thing.”

“Wait,” Carly bit her lip, “what does Glen own on the other side of the river?”

“I don’t know, but whatever it is, it’s definitely not a strip club. That side of Lutherton would never allow such a stain.”

“Stop the car. Now.”

Lizzy brought the car to a quick stop on the side of a mountain road. “What is it, Carly? Just tell me.”

“Get your GPS out. Show me where the clubs are, in relation to each other. I think Glen’s obsession was bigger than you thought.”

Lizzy switched her car’s GPS on and loaded a map of Lutherton. She marked the four points on the map which corresponded with the locations of the four strip clubs.

“Oh my god,” Carly gasped, looking at the locations. “Do you see that?”

“What? Goddammit, just tell me,” Lizzy huffed, growing impatient.

“If you draw an imaginary line going from the Decagon to the Octagon, it makes a very square ‘U’ shape.”

“Yeah, so?”

“Well, look,” she continued, “imagine you were obsessed with geometrical shapes. If you wanted a fifth club, and wanted to call it the Pentagon, where would you put it?”

“I don’t know, what are you –” she paused, her eyes wide. “I’d put one right there, in the middle of the Ford Plaza, on the other side of the river.”

“Yes, there, whatever, and that would complete the imaginary line. That would make one massive Pentagon shape over the map of Lutherton. According to these plans, it’s what he wanted. The club would have been gold-themed, like a final achievement.”

“Yeah, that’s great, but it didn’t happen. It was just a dream.”

“Wait,” Carly urged. “He owns an expensive piece of property there, though. And he told me that this key had something to do with his life’s work. Maybe there’s something there that’s worth seeing.”

Lizzy exhaled loudly and put her head down against the steering wheel. “Carly, there’s nothing to find. This was just a wild goose chase. Aren’t you tired of running around?”

“What else are we going to do?”

“I don’t know, Carly” she blinked, “maybe it’s time we went home.”

“Home?” Carly sat up. “One of the many things that I don’t have?”

“You know what I meant,” she tried in an apologetic tone.

“It’s one more thing, Lizzy,” Carly pleaded. “One more thing – it’s the only clue we have left. If there’s nothing there, it’s done. But we have to at least try. This key must mean something.”

“Aren’t you scared? After everything that just happened?”

“Nobody else could possibly know about this place, though. It’ll just be us going on a little treasure hunt.”

Lizzy buried her face in her hands and took a deep breath. She was tired, but her heart was too restless for her to consider slowing down. “Fine, Carly. But, this time, it’s on you if anything goes wrong.”

“We’ll be fine. If we drive there any time this century, that is,” she pressed, pushing Lizzy’s chin up.

Lizzy shook her head and started the car. With a firm grip on the steering wheel, she directed the car towards Glen’s Ford Plaza loft.

Carly scrolled through the list of contacts on the phone that Barry had given her. There were only fourteen of them, and one was saved as ‘Barry’.

“What was the point of that phone?” Lizzy asked. “All you could do is wait for him to call you.”

“I guess so, yeah. But it’s something, at least. I don’t know. I could text this… Does Glen have security at this other place?”

“I don’t know, but I have a feeling that we’re very close to finding out.”

Carly looked up and saw the stretch of road ahead of her. Ford Plaza was the industrial district of Lutherton in the early days of the city. The worse side of the river became the better side of the river when the town planners decided that the mountainside deserved cleaner air and brighter streets. All of the factories and their men were moved over the river, and a city-wide revamp took place to clean the streets. The industrial buildings were all either repurposed or completely demolished to make room for more visually pleasant constructs. Gentrification would be an understatement when considering the long-term effects of the overhaul. The mountain side of the river became exclusive and only for the affluent and well-established. No blue collars existed on this side of the river. The air was clean and light, and the wallets were mostly dirty and heavy. It was the perfect place for Lutherton’s controlling powers to live. It was a place of mutual escape and eccentricity. Considering the hearts of those who populated the area, it was more than surprising that they drew the line at gentlemen’s clubs. It was a place of moral ambiguity and hard rules. It was a different state.

“This is it. This is Glen’s loft.”

Glen was a rich man who liked his privacy. All of the other surrounding lofts took inspiration from glass themes and transparency. Glen’s loft, however, was dark in all of its themes. It was a stark contrast to his mansion, and an even more intense contrast to the colours that it was surrounded by. It was three storeys of artistically-exposed brick and wood. The bricks were a dark grey that blended smoothly with the blackened wood. The larger surface areas were covered by a shimmering glass that resembled gothic wine chalices. It was impossible to see in.

“Did he seriously go with the option of black glass for his loft?” Carly asked as she took a step out of the car.

“No,” Lizzy frowned. “It’s clear glass that tints somehow. I remember him mentioning it to me in passing. I assume he makes it tint at night for extra privacy.”

“Let’s hope that that’s because he has something to hide.”

Just like his mansion, Glen had an electronic lock on his door that required a security code. The door was a tall, glossy black behemoth. Lizzy gave the keypad a hard look before considering the code.

“What?” Carly asked, reading her expression.

Lizzy keyed a long string of digits and watched as the display flashed green and the door clicked open. She exhaled angrily.

“What?” Carly asked again. “It worked.”

“Yes,” Lizzy answered, “it worked, but it was a different code.”

“And what’s wrong with that?” Carly probed as she walked into the loft. The lights to the first floor came on automatically as they detected her presence. Lizzy followed cautiously, this being the first time she was unfamiliar with something that belonged to Glen.

“I was supposed to know all of Glen’s codes and passwords. That one was a guess, which means that he didn’t trust me with it. I’m not supposed to be here. And if I’m not, I doubt anyone else is.”

“Lucky us, then, we’ll be the only ones here this time,” Carly huffed, taking a quick look around the brightly-it first floor. It was completely open plan, allowing her to see from the lounge to the kitchen. It had a minimalist design to it, with bare walls and glass interior. It did not look as though anyone lived there on a daily basis. There were no paintings on the walls, very few things were plugged in, and there were no visible signs of food. The only thing more concerning was the lack of dust. It’s as if someone came in to maintain a place that barely needed any maintenance to begin with.

A metal staircase led away from the first floor, and Carly followed it. Lizzy was right next to her as they made their way to the uppermost floor. The lights came on automatically all the way until the third floor, where only the short hallway lit up. One door stood out from the others; it was a beige door with a pentagon etched delicately into it. It was an obvious invitation. Carly marched on confidently, opening the door into a dark room. Lizzy followed her in, searching the wall for a light switch.

“I’ll help you out with that,” said an ominous, anonymous voice from within the darkness. The lights to the large office lit up sequentially after he had spoken. The room lit up to reveal Jonathan Black in a black leather armchair with an armed guard to his left and to his right. Both men wore black suits and dark sunglasses, and they were armed with automatic handguns. Jonathan Black was in yet another signature white suit.

“Fucking shit,” were the appropriate words which escaped Lizzy’s mouth. “Of all the people in the fucking world, you?”

“Who is this, now?” Carly asked, puzzled by the ambush.

“You two,” Black signalled his guards, “out – go guard the entrance. I want to be alone with these idiots.”

Without a word, the two men disappeared from the room. Black made a note of displaying his silenced Magnum, which was shiny and threatening in his gloved hands. His guests stayed put as he stood up to address them.

“You really think that lowly of me, Lizzy? Is it really such a surprise that I would know about Glen’s affairs? I was his fucking lawyer, for Christ’s sake!”

“The first time I saw you,” Lizzy grimaced, “you were his little bitch. And now you dare to mess with his secrets?”

“He’s fucking dead! Didn’t you get the memo? He’s gone! Somebody offed that fat cunt and now I get to dig into his corrupt spoils.” Black was foaming at the mouth as he howled his frustrations. He held his gun carelessly and waved it with every inflection.

“Wow,” Carly spoke, “you’re a dramatic piece of shit, aren’t you?”

“Carly!” Lizzy warned. “What are you doing?”

“If I’m about to die, I may as well die having said whatever I want.”

“Carly?” Black repeated, unsure of himself. “Who the fuck are you? What are you doing here? You look twelve.”

“I’m fucking seventeen! And I killed your stupid client. I made him beg, and I’ll do the exact same thing to you!” Her teeth were bared and snarling.

“You’ll make me beg?” Black laughed. “I’ll make you beg, you little bitch. Right after you get me what’s mine in that vault.” He pointed to his left. A door stood in a space that must have been hidden by a full-body mirror. It was a shiny, metal door with a touchpad and slot for a key. That slot could only be for one key.

“Can you believe that?” Black continued. “That idiot had a full-body mirror to hide his vault, as if anyone would believe that he used a full-body mirror to begin with! He didn’t even live here.”

“Oh my god,” Carly interjected, rolling her eyes. “Can we just open it and see what’s in there already? I don’t give a flying fuck about your villain monologue.”

Lizzy sunk her head with a loud sigh.

“You know,” Black spoke, “if you weren’t on the wrong side of this whole thing, I would probably like you. Give me the key.”

He ripped the key from around her neck and employed no caution in dragging Lizzy by her hair towards the touchpad. Carly jumped forward in protest, but was met with a hard metal jab to the shoulder. She dropped to the floor, grasping her shoulder and groaning in pain.

“I hope you won’t waste my time, because I’m confident that you know all of his codes and passwords. We’re going to open this thing together, and then I’m going to leave your rotting body behind as a final message to him.”

“Why do you hate him so much?” Lizzy asked. Her voice was sincere, and she possessed a true desire to know.

“I just did,” he answered. “I hated his stupid fucking face from the very beginning. I was willing to work with him at first, but then I started to hate his sordid heart as well. He was so overwhelmingly greedy and power hungry. And, sure, Lutherton is full of those types. Hell, some might even say I’m just like them. But, would I ever break a man’s damn fingers for a small transgression? I am a man of the law. I am a respected individual in this city. Do you know how humiliating that was? It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt, and it was still secondary to the wounding I suffered underneath. I won’t let go without taking from him.”

“Wow,” Carly laughed, “the man can bitch.”

“Are you begging me to blow your brains out?” Black spat.

Two silenced gunshots resounded from the floors below. Black turned sharply to look around, and then pushed Lizzy towards the touchpad. “Unlock this damn thing, now! If you sent anyone after you, that would have been the sound of my men getting rid of them. Enter the damn password!”

He held her face close to the touchpad and inserted the designer key into its slot. The slot lit up in a pale green as he turned it clockwise. Lizzy entered the password reluctantly. The display beeped and flashed green. There was a faint hum and a flush of cool air as the door slid open. He kneed Lizzy’s face out of the way and pulled the door wide open. It revealed a small room of shelves covering all of the walls. Each shelf was populated by black luggage bags made of leather. He walked in and unzipped one of the bags to reveal that it was filled to the brim with money.

“I knew it!” he exclaimed. “I fucking knew it!” He proceeded to open more and more of the bags, all containing the same hard cash. “It had to be somewhere. All of this time, this is what he was doing.”

“Jonathan,” Lizzy spoke, blood trickling out of her mouth.  “Please, let the girl go. She’s just a kid. She doesn’t need to be in the middle of this.”

“So, what,” Carly protested, “you expect me to just leave you with this maniac?”

“No,” Black turned, pointed at Carly’s leg, and fired. She screamed in agony. “You’re staying right here and learning a thing or two about respect.”

“For fuck’s sake, Jonathan, she’s just a kid!” Lizzy begged, horrified.

“A kid who knows too much, and clearly can’t keep her mouth shut. You,” he pointed at Lizzy, “in the vault, so I can see you while I get these bags out.”

He nudged Lizzy into the vault and proceeded to hurl the heavy bags out of the vault and onto the office floor, near Carly’s body. Each bag landed with a dulled thump.

Out of the corner of her tear-filled eyes, Carly noticed the officer door creaking open slightly. It moved slowly and silently until Barry’s face stuck through, eyeing the room until he spotted Carly. She looked back at him with wild eyes, unable to give any signals without being caught. She merely nodded her head in approval of whatever plan Barry might have had. Barry stayed low, crawling behind the cover of the office desk between him and Black. There was nothing further to take cover with, and Black’s back and forth pacing did not allow for a very big window to strike.

“Hey, Jonathan, asshole,” Carly taunted, “why keep me waiting? Why not just kill me already, since I know so much and won’t shut up?”

“What is wrong with you?” he frowned. “Do you have an actual death wish?”

“Carly, what are you doing?” Lizzy fought weakly.

Black aimed at her face and walked towards her, putting himself in a direct line from Barry. “Yeah, you have a fucking death wish, don’t you? What’s stopping me from just –”

There was a silenced bang and Black’s gun flew out of his hand, blood flying onto Carly’s face. Black screamed in confused agony, searching the room for the source of the bullet. He saw Barry as he stood up, his gun trained on his chest. He was ambushed.

Carly pulled herself up and limped towards the fallen guy, picking it up and using the butt to land a hard knock on Black’s face. He clutched his face with the unhurt hand and fell to his knees. She clasped a handful of his hair and pulled his head back so that he was looking up at her. She forced the gun into his mouth and stared into his wild, desperate eyes.

“Beg,” she ordered. “I told you I’d make you beg. So, beg.”

Both Lizzy and Barry ran towards her.

“Carly, no,” Lizzy pleaded, “not like this. You don’t want this resting on your shoulders for the rest of your life.”

“So what? I’ve already done it. But this pig is the fucking worst. He threatened me. He threatened you. He hurt us and didn’t flinch when he shot me. Why does he deserve to live?”

“That’s not for you to decide, Carly,” Barry answered, his voice calm and soothing. “You don’t want that responsibility.”

“You’re fucking scum,” she said, not moving her eyes away. “You’re fucking scum and you deserve nothing good in life. I hate you.”

Lizzy slowly pulled her away from Black and made her back off, holding her by the shoulders. “Barry, any suggestions?”

“Knock him out. Take as much as we can and then tip the cops. He’ll be found here and, with his boys outside, all evidence will dirty his hands anyway.”

“That should work, right? I am so done with this night.”

“We have to be fast. And we’ll have to split up.”

“Again?” Carly sniffed.

“I’m wounded, remember? I’ll only slow you two down.” His growing paleness suddenly became much more apparent with those words.

Carly hopped over to him and pulled him into a tight embrace, resting her head against his heart.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“No, thank you,” she breathed. “Thank you for everything.”

 

To be concluded…

Roses and Thorns Part 4 of 6: Whittling

Bleeding Rose

BEFORE

Glen Stein owned a beautiful mansion. Stein Manor was one of only four dozen houses to be built on the Lutherton hillside. The Lutherton hillside was the only elevated part of the city, and overlooked everything else. A trip to the hillside required driving away from the city, through a short mass of wilderness and greenery, before reaching the sudden incline that signalled the beginning of Lutherton’s top one per cent. Every house on the hill had at least ten bedrooms and garages housing more cars than they did occupants. Glen’s house was no exception – he lived alone and owned eleven vehicles of varying classes. Every few months, he would rid himself of one to make space for another. Among the near-dozen cars in his garage, he had his handful of classics which could never be touched. One of his prized babies was a 1965 Ford Mustang. The beautiful roadster was a metallic navy blue and was completely free of any racing stripes or faults. It was a convertible with no add-ons, as he liked to keep his classics pure and in their original-era state. The car was in impeccable condition and ran as if it had just come off the production line. The rims were a shiny silver star and the hard top was a deep black. Glen had only driven Marilyn twice. The first time, because he absolutely had to in order to know how she drove. And the second time, because the first time had been such a thrill.

Like many who lived on the Lutherton hillside, the lifestyle came with a complex of its own for each inhabitant. Glen was no exception to the rule. Like a child who went out to play with his toys but always came home, Glen went out to play with his toys, but had no true home to return to. He had learnt to keep himself busy with the clubs, the various other businesses, and the long drives. However, at some point, he always had to come back to his lavishly lonely house. He had occupied the space with a myriad of expensive collections and works, but none of those things spoke to him or cared for how he felt. His life at home was mostly spent staring at the sleeping medication that he always had at his bedside as he drifted into a forced sleep, covered in the synthetic comfort of authentic silk.

The house was quiet, and he liked that a lot. It was a complete contrast to the loud and colourful life that he lived when he was at his clubs. Whenever he was home, he was far from almost everything and everyone but himself. His mansion had two security guards at the main gate. This was relatively low security for a house on the hillside, but Glen had little fear for anyone making an attempt at his possessions. He did not care much for most of what he owned. There was no way anyone could get to his collection of cars, and that gave him all of the comfort that he needed. Glen could not remember the last time he had an honest guest at his house. He did not count the high-end female companions who made appearances for his entertainment. He had made the decision to never do anything related to work at his home, so he also never had business meetings at the mansion.

As he sat in his study and looked at the plans on his desk, he thought about the exception that he had decided to allow. He had a business partner coming over. It was his lawyer – and, hopefully, eventual friend – Jonathan Black. Jonathan Black had proven himself to be on the rise and would soon become one of the most sought-after lawyers in Lutherton. Glen had invested in Jonathan’s efforts from the early days of Black & Wright Incorporated. The firm grew exponentially and was supported by many of the businessmen in Lutherton. Glen and Jonathan were both very private men, and this common trait was what had led to them knowing each other for many years, but never becoming good friends. Glen was hoping for that to change, although a big part of the change would come from Jonathan being able to make the deal that Glen needed in order to realise his final dream. Jonathan was known for not shying away from an opportunity to force a hand in favour of his client. Glen needed a few stubborn hands to be forced.

“You don’t need me to welcome you in,” Glen spoke before Jonathan could knock on the polished wood of the study door. “Come right in.”

“You heard me approach?” Jonathan asked, as he pushed the door open and walked into the spacious study. The study was an oval shape, and was covered from wall to wall in books that would most probably never be read by anyone, especially not Glen. The books were more for show, and to give the study its typical feel. Everything in the study was wooden and almost had an expensive fragility to it. It was the kind of room that almost no one but Glen and the necessary cleaning staff entered. Even Glen would only visit his study to look at his plans and access his safe. He protected his safe the way he would his mind, and the ideas contained within. Jonathan had arrived to shed light on one such idea.

“Please,” Glen gestured, “have a seat.”

“Thank you, Mr Stein,” Jonathan replied and obliged.

“You’ve known me long enough to call me Glen. Some scotch?” Glen offered.

“No, thank you, I like to keep a clear head.”

“A single glass never killed anyone but, alright. You look a little nervous, Jonathan. Don’t tell me you have bad news for me.”

Jonathan was not the kind of man to ever look nervous. For the most part, he maintained a cool head because he was almost always in control. He did not reveal himself to be any kind of person but a calm, collected lawyer. All other known parts of his personality had to be picked up on by a perceptive eye. Glen was one such perceptive eye, and he made sure to pay attention to every small detail. For example, Glen had noticed that Jonathan’s dress code served as a light contradiction to his dark surname. Jonathan almost exclusively wore white suits which were always tailored specifically for his lean, muscular body. A black shirt lay behind a white waistcoat, matching his polished black shoes and black belt. His suits often had vertical lines running from the top to the bottom but featured no striking details. Jonathan himself was only a few years younger than Glen, sporting a few grey hairs along the sides of his skull, and a forehead of serious wrinkles which rarely gave in to a smile. He had steel-grey eyes that were always shadowed by a blank expression, and his thinning lips were always tight. He was a man who always thought ahead because his career depended on it, but so did Glen’s career.

“I have mostly good news and some bad news, Glen,” he said, concentrating hard on not allowing his nervousness to show.

“There’s no need for me to worry, then, is there?”

“The bad news is concerning the most important request that you made.”

Glen sat back in his leather desk chair and stared at Jonathan through piercing eyes. “Get to the point. What’s the final word on the Pentagon?”

“It just can’t happen, Glen. That part of Lutherton – it’s just not available for that kind of business. It’s too clean. It’s too managed.”

“Too clean?” Glen grimaced, clenching his fists. “The whole idea of the Pentagon is that it’s going to be the most exclusive gentlemen’s club in all of Lutherton. It’s going to be like walking into a piece of heaven. A piece of heaven, mind you, that comes with premium tits and ass!”

Jonathan sighed.

“What?” Glen frowned.

“Glen, most of that property belongs to the most stuck-up old rich boys in Lutherton. They would never let the side over the river get tainted with a strip club. Hell, you don’t even have the necessary location available to you.”

“Jonathan, friend, I will never be complete until I have my five night clubs. This is my life’s dream. It’s all I’ve ever wanted. And you’re telling me that some pompous fucks aren’t gonna let me have it, even though they’d be in there and salivating like hungry dogs the minute it opens?”

“It’s not just them, Glen. You have to think about the mayor, and the district attorney; all the powers that be. It’s a long line of approval. You’re trying to open a strip club, not a children’s hospital.”

“Fuck the mayor. I’ll buy his own city from under his own nose.”

“If you had a few decades to acquire that property, then, yes, you would possibly have the bargaining power. But, as it stands, you own very little property on this side of the city.”

“Property? That’s what it’ll take?”

“Yes,” Jonathan answered, and then quickly paused to think. “However, even with all of your current wealth, property on this side is incredibly high-priced. It would be an exhausting endeavour.”

“Jonathan, I’m starting to think that you don’t want the Pentagon to happen. Please, tell me that I’m wrong.”

“I’m just your voice of reason, Glen.”

“Ha!” Glen bellowed. “You’re my voice of reason? Just recently, you suggested that I expand my business into prostitution. You, a lawyer, openly suggesting that I commit a crime. How reasonable does that sound?”

“You felt that the Hexagon was not making enough money. Considering the part of Lutherton that it’s in, and the lazy police presence there, my suggestion was not all too unreasonable.”

Glen massaged his chin. “Yet, if I were to be caught out, I would be doomed. I’m not risking the Pentagon on cheap sex.”

“No, of course not. Although, the sex would not be so cheap, and the revenue from the revived business interest could accelerate your chances of the Pentagon becoming a reality.”

“You’re trying to sweet-talk me, Jonathan,” Glen said, waving a weary finger at his lawyer. “You know I’m no stranger to bending the rules, but I always do that with men I can trust. The news of this new offering would spread quickly through the mouths of the low-life scum that crawls in that part of town. I can’t trust those coal-chugging sods.”

“Those coal-chugging sods are the reason the Hexagon stayed open longer than a week, Glen. You cater to their needs, and you keep a solid hold over that part of town. I suggest you do it before someone else wises up to the idea.”

“Nonsense. I’ve made my name synonymous with fun and excitement in this city. No one would dare to challenge my legacy.”

“That is more than a fair point,” Jonathan conceded.

“And on that fair point, I think it’s also fair that we conclude our meeting. It was not nearly as fruitful as I would have hoped, and I need some time to think. So do you, because I don’t want you giving up so easily on the Pentagon. It’s not just an idea. It’s inevitable.”

“Right,” Jonathan said, standing up and reaching for his suitcase. “Will you not be needing help picking properties of interest in the new area?”

“No, Mr Black, I won’t. That sounds like a fun journey of exploration. And fun is something I like to have with my friends. Talk to me again when you have a solid plan. I trust you’ll find your way out?”

“Yes, thank you, I will,” Jonathan swallowed, and turned to make his way out.

 

*

 

Glen’s office at the Octagon was designed in such a way that it could isolate all noise from the club itself. In his office, Glen could be all the way out in outer space, floating about in the great nothing and not worrying about a single thing. With his eyes closed and his body reclined in his leather armchair, he could imagine that he was in the vast darkness, where anything was possible, and nothing could hold him back. He imagined that he was the master of his own destiny, and no laws or physical restraints applied to him. Glen’s mind was always clouded in escapism. A series of unfortunate events and bad decisions had led to him missing out on his idea of the finer things. He had spent a majority of his life never allowing second chances, even to those who needed it most. It was a business decision that had almost always served him well, but business decisions did not quite match up to matters of the heart.

Glen did not at all mind that he spent half of his days surrounded by some of the most beautiful women in Lutherton. In fact, he always looked forward to that part of his day, and took pride in it. However, the sight of them was also a reminder of some of his life’s greatest failures. Glen was plagued, and he had spent his recent years running from the hard truths that he had come to learn about his life. A man of mathematics and numbers, in general, was not the kind of man who should have ended up in the criminal underworld. Hard crime was meant for hardened criminals. It was the line of work that made men hard shells of who they once were, and Glen had done more than test the waters. Like many others before him, Glen was forced to face his dark side when he was challenged by men much more powerful than he was. The ultimate cost of his failure was the loss of the only thing that had softened his heart. Everything that came after that night only served to make him impenetrable. He was well on his way to achieving his shadowed goals, but trouble was never too far away.

A buzz from his phone interrupted his fantasy and brought him back to real life. Responsibility was also never too far away. He answered the call.

“Yes, John?” he sighed.

“There’s an Elizabeth from the Hexagon here. She says she has an appointment with you.”

“Ah, yes, Thursday. Direct her to my office.”

“She… she says she needs to get dressed first. Shall I find a change-room for her?”

“Yeah, get her whatever she needs. Make it quick. I don’t have all night.”

In truth, Glen had all night. Glen had all week. But he would never show that level of comfort and freedom with his staff because he knew better than anyone that familiarity bred contempt. He took a smooth sip of his scotch and waited for the knock on his door. Glen’s office was much larger than it needed to be. It almost resembled a small house within the club itself. To his far left, he had a fully-stocked bar that housed all the different kinds of alcohols that any normal person could imagine, and more. A number of the bottles in that bar cost more than a small car and he had very little intention of ever drinking out of them, but they always made an impression on his guests. Right beside the bar was a long, wall-hugging couch that could easily hold fifteen people. All of these people would then have any chosen view of the three massive flat-screen TVs which hung from the opposite walls. The floor space in between Glen’s desk and the bar was big enough to have twenty people dancing on it, and he had specifically decided on this open area for occasions such as the one he had made an appointment for.

The knock on his office door finally came, so he moved away from his desk to comfortably face the floor space, with a pole at the ready. “Come in.”

Lizzy dimmed the lights as she came in, finding the switch quite easily on the inside wall. She made her way to the media control panel and slipped a disc into the audio system. She put a bag on the floor and pulled a flat, elongated object from inside of it as the slow, bass-heavy song started to build. She set the object down in front of the pole and made her way back to the wall, increasing the lights to a medium, just enough to see all the little details. And there were many details to take in.

Lizzy seemed to be wearing a colourful, flowery crown of feathers which stood high above her head. Most of her body was covered in a thick fur coat, revealing only her feet, on which she wore golden ankle-strap platform heels. She stood tall, and did not say a single word as she took carefully-placed steps towards a curious Glen. She bent forward before him, resting her perfectly-manicured stiletto nails on his chest and proceeding to trace them along his shoulders and arms before gripping the arm rests of the chair. All the while, Glen was soaked in the smell of her perfume. She smelt like the flowers of a tropical forest, as if the most colourful assortment of roses had been wrapped all over her skin and allowed to infuse their every hint into her pores. She was like a rose from heaven’s garden.

She pulled the chair in her direction, bringing it closer to the pole and the light. Glen was quiet, paying close attention, and not allowing any of his enthusiasm to show.

Lizzy turned her back and faced the pole, leaving Glen to see only the feathers and the coat as she edged closer to the pole. She took a step onto the thing that she had put in front of the pole, adding a few inches to her height. The music in the background grew in layers over soft and scintillating female vocals as Lizzy lowered the coat to reveal her bare shoulders, but conceal the floor beneath her. She began to gyrate her body in a snake-like fashion, as if a wave ran from her shoulders and all the way down to her legs. Her movements were too fluid to be human and she flaunted this fact as she lowered the coat even more, exposing her smooth and toned back. She let the coat fall until it hung from her fingertips, but did not let it expose anything past her lower back. In one smooth motion, she turned around, bringing the coat to her front as if it were made of a liquid that she controlled with her mind. She looked at Glen with a confident and proud face.

She wore a purple shade of matte lipstick and a thick layer of sky-blue eye shadow. Her brown skin glistened with silver glitter under the glow of the lights overhead. The bra that she wore looked like three bird claws holding a tight grip over each breast, and each claw was covered in small, green gems that grew in number from claw tip to just under her breasts. In between the gems were small spaces between the stitching – just enough to tease, but not to allow much else. A single thread of jewels snaked its way from the middle of her unique bra and up to a collection of brightly-coloured necklaces which looked like a seamless chain connected in gold. A few bronze chains hung loosely over her toned stomach, completing all of the parts that were visible to the eye.

Lizzy began to do a slow, side-to-side belly dance as she played with the coat, lifting it up and bringing it back down again, and always maintaining eye contact. She leaned her head forward and her whole body moved towards Glen, as if she were floating on a cloud. No part of her movements suggested the taking of footsteps, as it was so fluid and entrancing. Glen was caught between trying to understand how she was doing it and just being completely involved in the moment. She floated towards him and held the coat as a teasing barrier, before proceeding to float all around his chair in a smooth dance. All the while, she flipped the coat back and forth, like a matador moving in circles and taunting a chained bull. Glen followed her with his eyes and head, trying to understand the little gadget upon which she stood. It was allowing her full motion without her having to take real steps or move her feet. Her command of it was so fluid that it was easy to imagine that she was doing it all by herself. She moved behind him again, and hung the coat off of the headrest of his chair.

She revealed herself from behind him, whizzing silently to the pole, facing away from him. The underwear that she wore was shaped like a sharp, metal ‘V’. It had parallel lines of gold running from the hip and disappearing between her legs. Aquamarine gems adorned the back of the piece in a cluster above her butt cheeks, which were completely visible under the thin line of clothing. She turned around to reveal an assortment of gems that formed a flower at the midpoint of the ‘V’ where her thighs met. Three golden chains hung loosely over each thigh and were linked at the highest part of her hips. She looked like a sinful slice from heaven above, and moved like the most prized temptress from hell below.

She floated towards him and turned her back so he was looking straight at her magnificent ass. She started to bend away from him, all the while moving her hips from side to side until her face appeared between her legs and allowed her to give him a triumphant wink. She pulled herself back up and found her body right before his, so she dipped her buttocks into his thigh and moved gently back and forth against him. The fluidity of her lap dance was enhanced by her legs being able to move freely and smoothly on the board beneath her feet. She was just getting into a comfortable rhythm when she felt the persistent vibration of Glen’s phone going off in his pocket. Unsure of whether or not to continue, she stood back up and looked at him expectantly.

“Wait,” he said, with a finger, as he checked the caller. “Fuck. I have to take this. Give me a second.” He turned his chair around to face away from her and then answer. “Yes, David? This better be important.”

He listened intently for a few seconds and then frowned hard. “Bring that motherfucker to my office. Right now.” He hung up and took a deep breath.

“Is there a problem, Mr Stein?” Lizzy asked nervously.

“Nothing that won’t be handled swiftly, no,” he smiled. “I apologise for the interruption, but I will not have the time to see more of this marvellous show tonight. However, I look forward to seeing it centre stage, here, next Friday.”

Lizzy laughed and snorted, but saw no change in his facial expression. “Oh my god, you’re not kidding? I got the job?”

“Yes, Elizabeth, you got the job. I was amused from the moment you walked in and took charge without asking for permission. You were a very different character to what I remember from when I first met you. However, Elizabeth isn’t exactly the perfect fit for a stage name.”

“Well, my friends all call me Lizzy,” she suggested shyly.

“Hmm, Lizzy,” he pondered. “We’ll have to find something to go with that. I suggest something that describes your unique style. For a second, there, I felt as though I was on some exotic island. It was incredibly vivid.”

“I plan on making all of my shows extremely vivid. All of them will have a self-contained theme. I promise you that I’ll have people coming in here just to see what I’ve come up with.”

“Yes, good,” he dismissed. “And what exactly is that?” he asked, pointing at her little piece of technology.

“Oh, that? It’s a hoverboard. Well, not in the most futuristic sense, but it glides smoothly and allows me to move the way that I did.”

“If you’re going to remain so innovative, then I am glad that you weren’t wasted on the Hexagon. Now, I have some business to attend to. Find Satine in the club and she’ll get you up to speed with everything that you need to know until I can talk to you again. Go.”

“Satine? As in Moulin Rouge Satine?”

“You wouldn’t want to annoy me so early on, now, would you?” he said, his face stern and unwavering.

“No, of course not,” she turned and began to pack her things.

She moved quickly, but not quickly enough to miss the impending knock on the office door. Two men in black suits walked in, dragging a very nervous-looking man in a white suit. He did not look as though he had bothered to struggle against them. He was thrown to the ground as Lizzy snuck her way around the men and out of the door. She would not hear anything from the other side.

“Are you fucking with me, Jonathan?” Glen grimaced at his lawyer’s petrified face. “Are you seriously fucking kidding me?”

“I’m so sorry, Glen, I –”

“It’s Mr Stein to you, you fucking idiot! And you’re not even denying what you’ve done!”

“No, I’m not,” he pleaded. “I fucked up. I’m so sorry.”

“Give me one good fucking reason for calling the cops on the Hexagon. Give me one good reason for trying to get me busted for prostitution. Give me one good fucking reason for suggesting the idea and then trying to fuck me over for it. Why, Jonathan, did you tip the cops off to raid my club? Choose your words carefully.”

Glen was almost never publicly aggressive or violent. For all intents and purposes, he kept a calm demeanour. He was a man who knew how to conduct himself for the sake of his businesses. However, he never lost sight of the importance of asserting his dominance. When the time called for it, he would bring out the dark side that bit much harder than any bark could imagine. Behind closed doors and with a minimal audience, Glen could show himself to be quite the criminal monster. The secrecy was part of what had kept him respected. Stories of his violence were told, but such violence itself was rarely witnessed. His dark side was like a living urban legend, and the fear of its truth rippled through the hearts of anyone who dared to test him.

“What are you?” Jonathan asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Are you a criminal, or are you a legitimate businessman? You’re sitting on the fence, and I had to know. You can’t have the best of both worlds. You’re either legitimate, or you’re not. Your willingness to prostitute your own girls was a show of that.”

Glen laughed. He laughed slowly and comfortably as he removed his suit jacket and placed it on his desk chair. He cracked his knuckles, and then gave Jonathan a hard right hook to the jaw. No teeth fell out, but there was blood dripping onto the lawyer’s white suit. The suit would be ruined, certainly.

“Alright, Jonathan,” he said, calmly, “I’m going to give you a little lesson about how this works for me. Gentlemen,” he said to the two henchmen, “please hold Mr Black’s hands out for me. Thank you.”

The two men obliged, holding Jonathan’s hands out towards Glen. He took Jonathan’s left pinkie finger into his hand and gripped it tightly.

“See, Jonathan, I maintain control in the way that it best suits me,” he said, as he slowly twisted the little finger back. He did it without a rush, until there was a click and Jonathan screamed in agony.

“I fucking decide how my clubs are run. Me. I decide, all on my own. Absolutely no one else has a say. Are you starting to get the picture?”

He moved from one finger to the next, snapping it back as he spoke. Jonathan’s anguished screams did not faze him, nor did they make him pause for a second of consideration. He continued until he had only the right pinkie finger left.

“See, here, you’re going to understand how I do things. You’re going to see that I don’t need to pick a side. Your fingers are fucked, but they’re not permanently damaged. You’re going to go see Dr Harper after this. He’s my personal doc, and he’s on my payroll. He won’t ask any questions because he’ll know exactly what happened to you. He’ll patch you up nicely, and you’ll be on your way to recovering and carrying on to be the wank stain that you are. However, you’re not going to stop working for me. You’re going to stay right by my side and you’ll remember this moment any time that you think of running. You showed guts, trying to fuck me like this, and I like that. But, you’re still weak, and you need grooming. My Hexagon was never at risk from the cops because those cops will bend over backwards for me. Without my shoulder to cry on during this time, you would go broke and lose your firm. I’m going to keep you afloat with my money, and you’ll return the favour by being the best lawyer on my team, alright? As a sign of gratitude, I’ll leave this pretty little finger untouched. Now, get the fuck out of here and go see Dr Harper immediately.”

The two men dragged Jonathan out of the office without question. Jonathan himself was paralysed with pain and could not have said a word, even if he had truly wanted to. Another story had been born that few would believe, but many would fear.

 

*

 

Almost everything in Glen’s life had been going according to plan. Still, almost was not good enough. Three years of hard work and pulling strings had not earned him the power to build the Pentagon. He had exhausted time and money into buying property on the other side of the river, but the properties were still mostly occupied by the kind of people who would never be very pleased with a gentlemen’s club. He was growing tired from his efforts, and he was certain that Jonathan had done all that he could to secure a deal. His failure to close a deal felt like a final limit to his powers. It felt as though he was being told that he was not invincible. He needed another escape so that he could have some time to think.

“Mr Stein, sir? Your purchase is complete,” the shy salesman announced, holding a pair of keys. “Neon orange is an interesting colour for a mature man.”

Glen turned to look at the young car salesman with a cold face. The scrawny man immediately recoiled and regretted his statement. However, Glen was not in a volatile mood.

“I like the flashy tint. It says, ‘Hey, I’m a little older than you, but we can still have fun as if I’m also only twenty,’ right? I think it says that, and I think it will be a fun drive.”

“Yes, sir, definitely. On behalf of the Lutherton Ford branch, we thank you for your purchase and hope that you enjoy your Mustang driving experience for many days to come.”

“Thank you, son,” Glen smiled, and took the keys.

Glen felt that he needed the drive. He was sure of it, as he had taken his new cars out onto the desert road many times before. The desert roads were his little sanctuary for when nothing within the city limits would allow him a sufficient escape. Glen hoped that he would enjoy his new Ford for many months to come, at the very least. He grew tired of the recent models much faster than he did the classic cars.

He had some of his things moved over to his new car before settling into it and smelling the fresh leather. He was looking forward to the drive. And, unbeknownst to him, it would be the last drive of his life, after picking up a youthful hitchhiker.

 

******

NOW

 

Glen Stein owned a beautiful mansion. Lizzy had had the pleasure of visiting the mansion on multiple occasions with Glen. It was this privilege that she would rely on in order to gain entry into the mansion without suspicion. The guards at the gate knew her because the list of privileged visitors was extremely short.

“When we get to the gate,” she said to Carly, “don’t say a word. I’ve never come here with a friend. As far as they’re concerned, you’re a deaf mute. Got me?”

“Yeah, sure. I’m not going to fuck it up.”

“Are you okay?” Lizzy asked, with a sideways glance to gauge Carly’s reaction.

“Yeah, I’m good,” she said with a calm voice. Her voice was much calmer than Lizzy had heard it be before.

“Listen, if you’re no longer okay with doing this –”

“No,” she interrupted. “I want to do it. Let’s get it over and done with.”

They approached the grand iron gates of Glen’s mansion and slowed to a halt next to one of the armed guards. The man stepped over to the driver’s window as Lizzy was winding it down.

“Oh,” the guard said, “Miss Elizabeth. Nice to see you again.”

“Nice to see you too, Paul. Has Mr Stein come home from his drive?”

“No, ma’am,” Paul answered, lifting his cap. “He has not been around all night. I assume he’s got business at one of the Gons. Anything I could help you with?”

“Glen told me to meet him here, tonight. I can just wait for him inside.”

“And who’s this?” he inquired, pointing at Carly.

“She’s the reason I’m here. Glen has a particular interest in her.”

“Alright, ma’am, go on right through,” he smiled, and clicked the gate remote.

“Wow,” Carly spoke as they drove up the long driveway. “That was incredibly easy.”

“It’s me. Glen and his men trust me. Glen trusts me.”

“Trusted,” Carly corrected. “He’s dead, and we’re about to steal from him. We’re about to steal from your dead boss, who trusted you.”

“Are you always such a ray of sunshine?” Lizzy snapped.

“No,” Carly sighed. “Only when I’ve committed multiple crimes in one night and have no intention of slowing down.”

“Well, hopefully this is your last crime of the night. Maybe even your life.”

“You know, that would be a lot more comforting if we knew what we are possibly going to get from this. We don’t even know. Seriously, what are we after? You must have an idea.”

Lizzy took a deep breath and parked the car. “Honestly, Carly, he trusted me, but I only had three years to get to know the man. He had many secrets, and this was one of them. He would not guard something so closely if it wasn’t worth a whole lot to him. My guess would be an illegal stash of money or all of his most prized jewels.”

“What, does Glen not believe in banks?”

“He did believe in banks. Still, I got a sneak of his accounts, once. And something tells me that he made much more money than he was putting in his savings. I don’t know, Carly. It was just a guess. Now, let’s get in there so we can leave as soon as we can.”

“Wait, do you have keys to this place?” Carly asked as they walked to the front door.

“No, I don’t. Everything is electronic, and I have his codes.”

“Wow, trust. What exactly did you do to impress him so much?”

Lizzy paused to key the front door’s code in and then pushed against the tall wood after the beep. “I… I don’t really know what I did. He just took a liking to me, I guess. It was a complicated friendship. Glen was a complicated person.”

“Holy shit,” Carly gasped, walking ahead of Lizzy. “This house is beautiful. He had this whole thing all to himself? How many rooms are in here?”

“I don’t really know. I didn’t get to move around the whole thing.”

“Wait, what do we do after we find whatever it is? Glen isn’t coming back. So what will we say to those guards?”

“I don’t know, Carly. You’re young-looking, so we’ll tell them that you just got your period. They wouldn’t stand to question that.”

Carly laughed because she had no good reason to argue against the idea. Most men cringed at the thought of a lengthy discussion about menstruation, so it was sure to work.

“Wow,” she said, as they walked down the hallway on the second floor. The walls were lined neatly with great artworks from varying ages and styles. Many of the pieces were impressionist landscapes and Victorian-era portraits. The works did not represent a very specific taste in art. They seemed as though they were bought and hung up haphazardly. “Was Glen a lover of art?”

“I’d be more inclined to say that he was obsessed with beautiful things more than being a lover of art. He loved seeing beautiful things and being seen to be in association with beautiful things. A lot of it was just for show, obviously, like some of these horrible paintings.”

“I don’t think they’re horrible,” Carly disagreed. “I mean, some of them are pretty bland, but they still have something about them that’s pretty. They’re unique amongst the others, I guess.”

“Well,” Lizzy sighed, “then, maybe you should have gone art shopping with Glen. I’m sure he would have loved it.”

“Don’t,” she warned. “Where are we going?”

“Right here,” Lizzy answered, and opened the heavy door leading into Glen’s study.

“Huh,” Carly breathed. “This looks like every movie rich-guy’s study, except so real and so expensive.”

“And rightfully so, because if we don’t find whatever it is in his safe here, then we won’t find it anywhere.”

“Where’s this safe?”

“Right under our noses,” she responded, tracing her fingers along the polished wood of the heavy office desk. She clicked a concealed button with her finger and triggered a soft whirring sound.

“Holy shit,” Carly whispered, as she witnessed the desk split in two. The left legs of the desk moved to the side on their own, separating like the front-end of a shipping truck. The rest of the desk moved away, in the opposite direction, and seemed to be incredibly well-balanced, considering the lack of legs to support all of that expensive weight. The carpet immediately underneath the desk had moved out of the way, too. It revealed a brushed-steel surface which was so shiny that Carly could see her own reflection in it. She jumped back as the block of metal began to rise out of the floor until it was the same height has the desk. A blue touchpad illuminated on the surface of the safe, as if out of nowhere.

“I am officially impressed,” she commented, eyes wide.

“That’s about as far as I can take us,” Lizzy said, taking a step away from the safe to let Carly get closer. “You need to get us in. I’ve never seen the inside of this thing.”

“You know how to do all of that, but you’ve never seen it open?”

“Glen liked to show off, as you know. But he still enjoyed his secrets.”

Carly examined the glowing buttons of the digital keypad for a few seconds as she massaged the key hanging over her chest.

“Fuck, I don’t get it,” she frowned.

“What? What’s wrong?”

“Look,” Carly pointed. “It’s just buttons. This safe works with a password alone. There’s no keyhole anywhere here.”

“Are you saying that the key is actually useless?”

“I don’t know. Should I just try the password as it is?”

Lizzy nodded. Carly keyed the phrase “PentagonX” into the pad and pressed enter. The whole display flashed red with a buzzing sound. A pop-up notification gave a warning of only two attempts remaining.

“Fuck, what the fuck?” Carly swore.

“Did you use a capital ‘P’ and capital ‘X’?” Lizzy asked, trying her best to maintain her composure.

“No, I don’t know,” she shook her head.

“Just… just try that.”

Carly did as Lizzy suggested and the display flashed red once again. Only one attempt remained.

“Fucking shit! It’s not working!” Carly growled.

“Are you sure you –”

“Yes, I’m fucking sure,” she interrupted. “You saw me fucking do it.”

“Shit.”

“What? What?”

“I think I remember Glen telling me what happens if someone tries to breach his safe and fails.”

“What happens?”

“He has a private security company,” Lizzy sighed. “It’s called MILES and it’s probably the closest thing you can get to a personal army. If the alarms in this house are triggered, they’ll be here in ninety seconds. We wouldn’t make it out the front door in that time.”

“Well, fuck. We’re fucked, then. Glen lied to me. PentagonX means nothing.”

“No,” Lizzy refused. “It can’t mean nothing. When he started trusting me, he started telling me little details about his life. Most of them were personal things, and a lot of them were tragic. But, every now and then, he would light up and talk about his dreams and hopes. He spoke about the Pentagon idea, but he always spoke of it so vaguely. He said that it was the final stage in him becoming the businessman he always dreamed he would be. I always imagined that it was probably going to be his fifth nightclub. You know, all of them are geometrical shapes, so, it would only make sense for his fifth club to be a pentagon. What I didn’t understand, though, is how he protected this secret so much. It seemed like more than just a plan, as if it was about more than just a nightclub.”

“Protecting his hidden money with the name of an obvious club name is a bit reckless, don’t you think?”

“No,” she said, biting her lip. “Absolutely no one knew about the Pentagon idea. In the eyes of the city, he was done at four clubs.”

“Well, regardless of that, we’re done. We’re hanging it up, right?”

Lizzy sighed long and hard. “We’ve come so far.”

“Yeah, I know. And I’d like to keep going, instead of spending the rest of my young life in a maximum security prison for attempted robbery.”

“You seem to like naming your crimes,” she giggled. “But, no, there’s one more password that we can try.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Carly protested.

“No,” she said, moving over to the touchpad. “I’m testing how well I knew Glen. It couldn’t have all been for nothing.”

“Great,” Carly threw her arms up. “Just throw our lives away like that.”

Lizzy ignored her as she thought carefully about the numbers and letters that she keyed into the pad. She confirmed her choice and the touchpad flashed red again. This time, however, it was followed by a blaring alarm and flashing lights as everything else went dark.

She turned to Carly with panicked eyes. “Fuck, I’m so sorry. I was so sure that would work.”

“What the fuck do we do now?”

“Not much,” a male voice spoke. It was worryingly calm, all things considered. The alarm and the flashing lights stopped immediately. Emergency lights came on. It had only been a few seconds. “Not much,” he said, “apart from explain to me what you’re doing here.”

The man looked to be in his early thirties. He wore thick, rounded glasses which sat high over his nose. His skin was pasty and pimpled, and his brunette hair was thinning overhead. He seemed to be uncomfortably skinny underneath his all-black get-up. He held a tablet in his hand which shone up and reflected off of his glasses in the low lighting.

“Who the fuck are they?” asked another man, entering the room in a rush. “I heard the alarm and came running. You told me you wouldn’t fuck up.” This man’s voice was deep, and he was considerably much larger than his colleague. He had long, dark hair that was tied up in a messy bun which matched his unkempt beard. If murderous intent could be found in any pair of eyes, his two grey gems would be them. He looked at Carly with an unsettling thirst. He walked over towards her as a third man entered the room.

“Tie that one up, Justin,” he ordered, pointing at Lizzy. Lizzy growled in protest and ran towards the supposed leader to protect Carly. The bearded man responded with a heavy backhand to Lizzy’s face, which sent her crashing into a stack of books.

“Lizzy!” Carly screamed. “Leave her alone!”

Justin, the last one to enter the room, walked over to the grounded Lizzy and picked her near-limp body up effortlessly. He was the bulkiest man in the room. He did not speak, but he looked to be a hired muscle man who could have come from anywhere along the west coast of Africa. His black hair was trimmed short, with an inlay of mysterious writings cut into his skin. Lizzy clawed weakly at his face, to which he responded by wrapping his gorilla-sized fingers around her throat and squeezing tightly. Her eyes started to roll back into her head.

“No! Lizzy!” Carly screamed again, her desperation and fear growing.

“Is this necessary, Ronny?” asked the pimply one.

“Shut up and hack the safe,” Ronny sneered.

“Private security is going to be here in less than a minute,” Carly attempted to warned. “You’ll all be fucked when they get here.”

“I don’t think so,” the hacker laughed. “The MILES alarm allows a five-second window before sending an actual alert. You triggered the alarm as I cut the power. It was close, but I got it in four seconds. No one is coming to help you.”

Ronny, the obvious leader, grabbed Carly’s jaw with a firm hand as if to closely examine her face. He turned it from side to side, studying every inch. He leaned in and sniffed along her neck and cheek. “Clean, too, like a fresh rose,” he said, after a brief lick of her chin.

“Get the fuck off!” she grimaced, aiming a hard kick at his delicates.

The man winced and gritted his teeth. He lost his resolve for a second as he bore into her soul with vicious eyes. “You fucking bitch! I was gonna go easy on you. But now, now I’m going to make it hurt. I’m going to make you wish you’d died tonight.”

He knocked her to the ground with a quick chop to the chest. She was winded and clamped her hands down to ease the pain. Ronny began to unbuckle his belt as he stood over her, relishing in her helpless state. Lizzy, who was now bound with her hands and feet behind her like a hog, began to regain consciousness.

“Let her watch,” Ronny commented in response to her breathy and near-silent screams. He leaned down over Carly’s defenceless body and pinned her legs to the floor. He was far too heavy for her to fight off.

“Is everything good up there? What’s taking so long?” asked a broken voice over a walkie-talkie.

“Please!” Carly screamed. “Help us!”

Ronny rushed a hand over her mouth, muffling her screams. “Are you fucking stupid? Why would a man on my team help you? You’re obviously young, but you can’t possibly be that naive.”

“Now,” he continued, ignoring the radio call, “to business.”

He bit his lip, which barely showed under his messy beard, and moved her hands away from her chest. She tried to wrestle them back, but he clasped both wrists in one hand and kept them at bay. Carly’s face was drenched in tears and her failing voice was being reduced to desperate squeaks. Ronny leaned in again to smell her fear-soaked skin and proceed to bite her just below her collarbone. The rough tangles of his beard scratched against her skin like a mass of wires as she felt every minor touch from his chapped and salivating lips. She reached a doomed hand out towards Lizzy and held on to her shoulder, the only thing she could reach. Lizzy’s reddened eyes looked back in hopeless horror.

“Yes!” the hacker celebrated as the safe whizzed open, separating into a series of backlit drawers. “I’m unstoppable.”

“No, you’re not,” said the same male voice that had spoken over the walkie-talkie. The butt of a handgun collided with the hacker’s face and knocked him out cold.

The massive muscle man ran towards the apparent saviour, but a bullet found a space between his eyes before he had made it very far. His heavy body fell into the small office bar with a noisy crash. Ronny was the last man left, and he fought clumsily to get back on his feet, struggling with his loose belt.

“Close your eyes, Carly,” the balaclava-clad man spoke. “You don’t want to see this.”

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Ronny spat, pulling his zipper up.

“Close your eyes, Carly,” the man ordered. Carly refused. She needed to see.

Ronny pulled a small pistol from his jacket and aimed it at the anonymous saviour. The man in the grey balaclava punched Ronny in the nose and reached for the gun, but not before Ronny could fire one weak shot which blew through the man’s left arm. The man’s punches grew relentless, as if he needed the force to fight through the pain. Ronny fell back, unable to defend himself with the pool of blood that was washing over his eyes. His teeth were flying out of his mouth like popcorn, going from left to right with the direction of the punches. Carly had never seen anyone get punched to death before, but she was quite certain that she was about to. The only thing that scared her more was the fact that she had very little desire to make him stop, or to look away. Blood was bubbling out of Ronny’s smashed nose and mouth as if his lungs had become immersed in it. He had stopped fighting a few heavy punches ago. His face was almost half the size it had originally been.

“Who are you?” Carly asked.

The masked man began to pull his balaclava off. As the bloodied hands pulled the woolly cover off, Carly’s eyes widened. The mask revealed a man in his mid-twenties. He had jet-black hair that was short and spiky. His eyebrows were thin and focused. His tired eyes were a deep blue and contrasted his fair skin. He had light stubble along his chin and strong jaw, but it took a slight turn into the light for Carly to see what she needed to see. Running between his left eye and his nose, she saw the signature scar that marked half of his face, all the way down to the corner of his mouth. It was a scar she could never forget.

“Holy fucking shit, Barry?” she gasped.

“I heard your voice over the radio. I was almost too late. I’m so sorry.”

“No, don’t be,” she said, getting up to hug him. “You were right on time. Well, save for a few seconds.”

“Um, hello?” Lizzy croaked.

“Oh, shit,” Carly jumped, getting back onto her knees to untie her.

“You know this guy?” she asked, her voice still shallow.

“Yeah, yeah, I do. He’s… he’s an old friend. Although,” she turned to look at Barry, “what are you doing here?”

“Things didn’t exactly go as planned,” he spoke, his voice deep and raspy. “I was in Lutherton, looking for a score. I didn’t have much to go on, until we got wind that Glen Stein got lynched. We knew the guy was rich, so we wanted to get here before anyone else did. I didn’t realise that I joined a team of rapist assholes. Except the nerd who’s still alive. He’s going to wake up into quite a mess. I think,” he paused, groaning at the sudden pain in his arm. “Shit, I need to patch this up before I lose too much blood.”

“Lizzy can help you,” Carly offered, looking at Lizzy, who had moved over to the open safe. She seemed to be rummaging through a mass of documents and files.

“No, I’m gonna need tools. I gotta go.”

“No,” Carly begged. “You just got here. Where have you been? What have you been doing? You can’t just disappear again. Let me come with you.”

“No, it’s not safe. I can’t see a real doctor for this, or I’ll have to explain myself. Here,” he said, taking a small phone out of his pocket and handing it to her. “Take this. I’ll call you, or use it to find you. Leave this city, right now. Everyone’s starting to find out that Glen Stein is dead. This place is close to crawling with cops and crooks. You’re not safe, trust me.”

“Wait, you’re not going to ask why I just happened to be here?”

“Carly,” he smiled, resting his right hand on her warm cheek. “We didn’t spend too much time together, but it was still enough for me to get to know you well. And if there’s one thing I learnt, it’s that you can’t help but go where trouble goes. And this is where trouble is, right now.”

“Trouble,” Lizzy chimed in, “and no golden reward. There’s nothing of any great worth in this safe. It’s just documents and a few watches and chains. A couple thousand, at most.”

“No point in stealing those, they’ll be tracked,” he said, turning for the door. “His riches were better protected than we thought. Take my advice and get the hell out of here. Now, before the guards wake up.”

Carly sank her face into her hands and fell to her knees. She started to sob quietly behind her hair. Lizzy dropped the files and kneeled down by her side, offering a comforting hand over her shoulder. “I’m so sorry. Everyone honestly believed there would be something here.”

“No,” Carly sniffed. “It’s not that.”

“What’s wrong?”

“What the fuck is wrong with me?” she questioned, her body shivering. “I’m a fucking murderer. I killed a man. I stabbed a man to death. And then I tried to rob him. I almost got you killed. I ignored an offer to look for my fucking family. I’ve lived my whole life wondering about them. I think about it every single day. Instead, I chose to run around and risk death and rape. What the fuck is wrong with me? I’m just cold and broken. One of the only friends I’ve ever known shows up in my life for five minutes, and then he’s gone again. I deserve to rot in prison for the rest of my life. I don’t deserve anything good for the choices I’ve made. You can go, Lizzy. You can leave me here for the cops to find me. I’ll tell them it was all me.”

“You’re fucking crazy if you think I’m going to leave you in the middle of all of this. Half of this is my fault, anyway. I’m getting you out of this mess. I’m getting us out of this mess, one way or another. You’ve made mistakes, but you’re not beyond hope. Shit, we’ve all fucked up, honey, but Glen was no angel. Neither were these assholes. Get up; we’re on the run now.”

“I don’t want to run anymore, Lizzy. I’ve spent my whole life running. My legs are tired. I’m tired.”

“Come,” she refused, pulling Carly up by the shoulders. “Just one more escape, and you’ll be done running for the rest of your life. I promise.”

 

To be continued…

Read Part 5 Here

Roses and Thorns Part 3 of 6: Nurturing


BEFORE

Lizzy took a moment to stare at the neon lights. The bright-green sign illuminated the word ‘Hexagon’. She had finally made it to Lutherton. She had finally made it to the big city that would change her life forever. Lutherton had been her calling since the late days of her teenage years. Of course, she had been forced to spend a long time working after high school. She committed herself to saving her earnings and perfecting her shape so that she could pay a year’s rent ahead of arrival, and be ready to face the Lutherton strip scene. From the offset of her days and nights working in restaurants and bars, she was making more money from her tips than her actual pay.

It was almost as if her body called for it. She was tall, and she had long legs. A look at her started at the bottom, with her perfect silver glitter of toes which had always been given the neatest pedicure treatment. Her feet were always exposed because she wanted every inch of her body to be worshipped. From her red wedge sandals, the eyes travelled up along toned legs and muscular thighs that could cling to a pole effortlessly. The curvature along her hips gave her a delicate hourglass shape and more than complemented her strong stomach. Her smooth waist directed an onlooker’s eyes towards her abundant chest which stood like a perky throne. A rising inquiry would lead one to her plump lips which were always coloured in the boldest and most striking shades, making them impossible to miss. She had a cute button nose and big, almond eyes that were outlined by her long lashes and curved eyebrows. She kept her black hair at a manageable length – just above the shoulder – so that she could don any wig to match her many outfits. She was the perfect candidate, and she was ready.

She walked into the Hexagon on a quiet Monday night. It was the kind of night that the Hexagon served as more of a bar than a strip club. She figured that she would be more likely to speak to management on a tame night. She had done her fair bit of research, but that would only get her so far. Everything inside the Hexagon had a green theme to it. The lounge chairs were a moss-green and faded into the shadowy areas of the club. The walls were covered in a lumo-green wallpaper which gave the strobe lights a responsive surface to reflect off of and give the club its dim, smoky lighting scheme. The club was nearly empty, with no visible strippers walking about, and a soft rock soundtrack playing in the background as a contrast to anything with a thumping beat. The barman looked up as Lizzy approached, his eyebrow rising out of curiosity for the unexpected patron.

“Hey,” she said with a smile.

“Hi,” he responded, edging closer. “How may I help you?”

“Could you direct me to your manager?”

“He’s a busy man. What do you need to see him for?”

“Busy? There’s barely anyone here. I want to sign up.”

“Oh, yeah?” he smiled. “You should have said so. Over there,” he said, pointing over to the end of a row of bar stools, “straight through. He’s the last door on your right.”

“Thank you,” she smiled as she turned away.

The floor that she walked on was carpeted, which did not seem like a wise choice for a place where so much drinking would take place. She made her way down the dimly-lit hallway to the last door on her right. It was not marked as the manager’s office, but it had a blank plaque on it which differentiated it from the other doors which had numbers on them. She gave the wooden door two firm knocks.

“Gary?” inquired a husky voice from within.

“No, no, it’s Elizabeth,” she replied.

“Elizabeth?” he coughed. There was a brief silence and a rustling of papers and keys before he invited her in.

Lizzy opened the door to see a man in his forties sitting behind a bright computer screen, his eyes wide as she walked in. He wore thick reading glasses and an unconvincing toupee which matched his bushy moustache. His grey suit looked too big for his skinny frame and hung from his shoulders. A finger with thick golden rings signalled for her to take a seat, and she did so.

“Are you the Don?” she asked.

“Me? The Don?” he laughed. “I’ll be the Don if you need me to be, baby girl. Is that what you want?”

“Um, no,” she frowned. “I’d like to talk to the Don, please.”

“Listen, Liz,” he chuckled. “Mr Stein doesn’t come down here. He won’t see you until you give him reason to see you.”

“Mr Stein?”

“Yes, Glen Stein. Nobody actually calls him the Don. That’s just a joke.”

“I want to work for him. I know he owns all the best strip clubs here.”

“Is that so?” he asked, sniffing audibly. “You know how to work a pole?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Sure,” he said, unzipping his pants. “You can get the job after you show me how you work this pole,” he winked.

“Are you fucking serious?” she grimaced, standing up from the leather seat.

“You’re a stripper, babe, not an accountant. Your body is your résumé.”

“You’re fucked if you think I’m doing that.”

“And you’re fucked if you think you can start anywhere better than the Hexagon. No one knows you. You can’t just jump to the other Gons.”

“Cut me a break, please.”

“Come back on Thursday,” he said, zipping his pants up. “Ask for Kat to show you the ropes. If you’re good enough, maybe I’ll spare you the rod. Or maybe, just maybe, I’ll give it to you even harder.”

“Thank you,” she exhaled.

“Whatever,” he coughed. “Get out so I can finish what you couldn’t start.”

He directed his eyes back to the screen and she saw bare flesh reflected onto his glasses before she turned to walk out. She closed the door behind her and breathed deeply. It was going to take more work than she had previously imagined.

*

“Ten fucking months,” Lizzy groaned in frustration, “I’ve been doing this for ten fucking months. I’m still on the same stage. I’m still in the same shitty slots. When do I get a Friday night at midnight? When do I get a themed show?”

“God,” Kris sighed. “Have you always bitched so much?”

Kris was busy applying her makeup and concentrating on perfecting her peacock look for her next act. She always had the marginally better slot that came an hour after Lizzy’s slot. Kris was a young British import who had joined the Hexagon team a few weeks before Lizzy did. She was extremely honest and had a fiery temper, both of which were the cause for her friendship with Lizzy. Before Lizzy’s arrival, she had failed to become friends with the other girls at the club. Kris was very into animal themes and always found a way to make the animal kingdom supplement her performances. Her favourite costume was a striped that she wore for her tigress acts, tail included. She was shorter than Lizzy and she was a rarity amongst the girls because she had such a small frame and quaint breasts. Her tiny body came in very handy, however, when it came time for private dances. She could climb her clients like a leopard climbing a tree.

“Don’t you wonder what it’s like for the other girls?” Lizzy asked. “The Hexagon has been fine so far, but I want bigger.”

“You don’t just become a Deca or Octa girl, you know,” Kris responded in her heavy accent. “Hell, even the Heptagon is bloody hard to get into. Glen likes to keep his girls for as long as they’re worth something. It could be forever before the next rotation.”

“How does the rotation work?”

“I’ve never seen it happen, but I’ve been told that Glen pops in unannounced and takes a peek. If he sees something ‘unique’ or fun in some particular way, he bags it. There’s no telling what he’s looking for or which club he’ll take you to, but it’ll most likely be the Hepta.”

“Is that why you do the animal thing?”

“What? This? Of course not. I’ve always fancied a little animal play. I think nature is sexy. But, hey, if old Glen thinks it could make for a show, then I’ll cycle through every tail in the animal kingdom.”

“Shit,” Lizzy sighed. “I need something of my own.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Kris agreed. “To be quite honest with ya, you’re well hot, but your act could do with a little spicing up. I’m sure the lads love the private shows, but the stage shows are a little bland.”

“The private shows are about to get even better,” a male voice chimed in. It was Dylan, the manager, walking into the dressing room. “We’re changing things up in here so we get more business. All the other Gons have their massive pull. We needed one of our own, so we decided that our massive pull is going to be the pull of your tight snatches.”

“Wait,” Kris interrupted because of her confusion. “You want us to do vagina tricks?”

“Vagina tricks?” Dylan bellowed. “Yeah, sure, if fucking strangers for money is your idea of a vagina trick.”

“Are you asking us to prostitute ourselves?” Lizzy frowned, feeling a slight panic.

“I’m asking you to make our clients happy and give ‘em a reason to come here, time and again. Get a little more personal, you know?”

“What the fuck?” Kris barked. “This isn’t a brothel. We’re strippers, not hookers.”

“That’s a very fine line in my books, babe,” he said, showing little regard for their concern.

“And what if we refuse?” Lizzy asked.

“If you refuse?” he responded, biting into his nails. “Well, then you will also get refused; by every bar and strip joint in L-ton. Mr Stein will make sure that you never work in this city again.”

“He doesn’t even know who I am!” she burst, throwing her hands in the air.

“No, he doesn’t,” Dylan responded, still calm. “But I do. And you can rest your pretty tits on the guarantee that I will let him know you’re being a hard-ass.”

“Fuck me,” Lizzy sighed.

“Gladly,” he laughed with a wink and made his way out.

“This can’t be happening,” Lizzy moaned as she sank into a chair. She suddenly felt drained and close to questioning her aspirations.

“What are you gonna do? Start your own strip club?”

“Kris, it would take me a thousand years to save up enough cash to open a club.”

“Even if you lived a thousand years, you’d have to find another city to compete in, because Glen owns L-ton now.”

“And apparently us, too.”

*

The news of the Hexagon’s new offering took little over a month to spread like airborne lust. The weekends at the club picked up considerably, pulling men in from all of the dirtiest corners of Lutherton. The Hexagon was situated in the older side of Lutherton, surrounded by the industrial area and lower-cost living. The expected clientele was never going to be anyone walking in in a tailored suit unless he happened to be hiding from something in the more popular parts of the city. Lizzy had done her own fair share of hiding for the weeks that had passed, but no number of stage dances and group tables could keep her from the inevitable special request.

“Yes, this one!” shouted a man at a table dance.

Lizzy had been giving a table dance for a group of construction workers who had come directly to the club after work. It was a Friday night, and they had decided to give the man a well-deserved birthday gift by taking him to the hottest spot in their area. There were six of them, and Lizzy had figured that it would be an easy and undemanding group to entertain. She was wrong.

“Whatdya mean, Ed?” asked one of the friends in the group. He was an older, heavily-bearded member of the group and he sported a multi-coloured beanie.

“I want this girl, tonight,” answered Ed. Ed looked to be in his late thirties. He had a scruffy beard and dark hair that thinned very quickly towards the top. His teeth looked like the bricks of a broken-down apartment building, although that did not deter him from smiling excitedly as he looked up at Lizzy. His pimpled forehead wrinkled as he nodded approvingly at her now-nervous gyrations.

“Oh, shit, Ed, how long is it been, buddy?” asked the older one, with a pat to the back. “You must be dryer than that hole you had to drill today.”

“A very long time since that bitch,” Ed answered, taking a sip of his fifth beer. “But I see a nice, wet hole that I’d like to drill tonight.”

All six of the men guffawed like hungry hyenas and gave Ed high fives for his comment. All the while, Ed kept his beady eyes trained on every little movement that Lizzy made.

“You a sharp one, Ed, you deserve your fun tonight. I’ll even help you pay what you need for this Belle,” the older one offered generously.

Lizzy planted her knees on the opposite side of the table and bent all the way backwards, her hair hanging off of the edge of the table and onto Ed’s lap. She looked at him upside-down, with her hands travelling up her body, towards her bare breasts. All of the men were entranced as they watched her body snake into a sharp curve.

“My name’s Lizzy, boys, and I’m not on the cards for a one-on-one tonight.” She traced a fingertip along her neck and lips and then lifted it over to Ed’s quivering mouth to give him a gentle, frustrating touch. “I’m sorry, birthday boy, but this will have to do from me.”

“Bullshit!” the older one spat. “The rule is any girl goes. I’m gettin’ my boy what he wants.”

“I’m booked for the rest of the night, hun,” she responded. She blew the group a kiss and pulled her thong back up from her ankles. She was ready to leave the table.

“None a’ that,” the older one persisted. “I wanna talk to your manager.”

“Good luck getting through our bouncers,” she winked and turned to walk away, but could not manage a step.

“There’ll be no need for that,” Dylan spoke, “I’m right here. What’s the problem, gentlemen?”

Lizzy’s heart sank.

“This lil’ diamond’s refusing to give my good friend a private meeting,” the heavy beard spoke.

“Lizzy,” Dylan turned to her, “take the kind gentleman to the back and give him a tour of our latest offering.” Dylan’s face was hard, and his tone assertive. He did not appear to be at all open for a counter-argument.

“I can’t,” she protested. “I have another table order coming up.”

“I’ll find a replacement. Go.”

“They asked for me specifically,” she almost begged.

He grabbed her tightly around the elbow and whispered into her ear. “Did I fucking stutter? I said I’ll find a replacement. Mr Stein might be around tonight and you’re not gonna fuck this up for me.”

Lizzy turned to look back at the table with a big smile. “Ed, your birthday night is about to get a lot better. Follow me.”

The other five bellowed and howled like wolves as Ed made his way around the table and walked off with Lizzy. He followed her to the private rooms behind the bar and closed the door behind him, as soon as they had found an unoccupied one. Lizzy looked around the small room and felt a growing panic as she remembered being told that there were no shower facilities. She had to take Ed on a small, recently-used bed with sheets that did not look very clean. She sat down on the edge of the bed and turned to look at him. He was already ripping his work clothes off and staring at her hungrily. He stepped closer as he wiggled his baggy pants off.

“Can’t you just tell them that we did this?” Lizzy tried. “I promise I’ll never tell.”

“Nah, nah,” he breathed. “This is for me. I don’t care what they think.”

Lizzy cussed under her breath. “No kissing. You know the rules.”

“Least of my concerns, baby,” he grinned.

She moved further back onto the bed, seeing no way out. He stepped closer, having only his tighty-whities and pair of socks on. He got onto the bed and crawled towards her. She could smell the dust and mud still fresh on his skin. His eyebrows were lightly discoloured and his breath smelled of something that could have been road-kill. His unkempt nails rubbed along her shivering stomach and made their way towards her chest as she saw the black filth that had built up underneath them, and how his hands may as well have been covered in a layer of soot. His nervous sweat fell onto her neck and she held her breath and turned her head.

“Here’s the rubber, just do it,” she offered, failing to fake any pleasantries.

“Give me a fucking minute, bitch,” he bit back.

She turned back and opened her eyes to see him desperately tugging at his limp penis. “Don’t look,” he threatened.

The bed started to shudder under the back-and-forth pleading of his hand, but it seemed to be of no avail, and he began to sweat even more under the pressure.

“Whiskey dick? After two beers?” Lizzy laughed triumphantly.

“It was way more than that,” he grimaced. “Just give me a minute.”

“Sorry, honey,” she said, taking her chance and pushing him off with her feet. “I’ve got work to do.”

She grabbed a red gown and rushed for the door, leaving him to frantically fight for his clothes. “Wait, bitch! I’m paying for this!” he shouted as she slammed the door on him.

Lizzy took a moment to compose herself and breathe deeply as she thought about what she had almost surrendered herself to. She gave her hair a flick and fixed it in the hallway mirror, ready to go back to the stage side and find Kris.

“Come back here!” Ed screamed, making his way towards her while buttoning his overalls.

Lizzy panicked and started taking hurried steps towards the stage side, hoping that a bouncer would spot her and come to her aid. It was not an easy escape in her clear high heels. The nearest bouncer was talking to a man in a white suit and they were both standing close to the table Lizzy had danced at earlier. Ed got a calloused hand around her elbow and swung her back towards him.

“I’m not done,” he frothed in desperate anger.

“Get the fuck off!” she screamed and gave him a hard kick straight to the crotch. He screamed obscenities and curled into a pained lump on the strip club floor.

The bouncer ran over to see what had happened, followed by the other man in the suit.

“What’s happening?” Jay asked as he dragged Ed up by the collar.

“It’s fine,” Lizzy assured. “He wasn’t following the rules. Throw him out.”

“Lying bitch!” Ed swore through gritted teeth. “She’s fucking lying. I’m not paying for this.”

“Shut up,” Jay threatened with a squeeze to the neck. “You’re done.”

“Thanks, Jay,” Lizzy grinned.

“No problem,” he responded, and continued to drag Ed out. He turned to the man in the white suit on his way past and apologised. “I’m sorry, Mr Stein, this never happens. I assure you.”

“Oh, fuck,” Lizzy panicked for the second time that night. The expensive suit, the calm demeanour, the big glasses. She should have been more subtle. She should have known. “Mr Stein? I am so, so sorry.”

“It’s alright,” the club owner responded calmly. “He was harassing you, was he not?”

“Well, yes, but…” she trailed off.

“But what? Don’t tell me he didn’t earn that kick to the nads. Because half of this club just saw you do that, and none of them will forget that. My clients don’t forget my girls.”

“I’m sorry. It won’t happen again,” she pleaded.

“Not if you do your job right, it won’t,” he warned.

“I’m a stripper, not a prostitute. That’s the only job I can do right. I belong at one of your other clubs. I could be one of your stars.”

The club owner laughed. “You don’t say? You think you can embarrass me in front of my customers and then demand a promotion? That’s like trying to rhyme with purple, missy. It ain’t gonna happen.”

“What? Rhyme with purple?” Lizzy asked, visibly confused.

“It means that you shouldn’t try to do the impossible, bright star.”

“Hirple,” Lizzy replied.

“What?”

“Hirple. It rhymes with purple and it’s a real word. It’s what zombies do when they walk with a limp.”

“Are you tryin’ to be a smart-ass right now?”

“No,” she said, feeding from a sudden confidence. “I’m just showing you that it’s not impossible. Look it up.”

Mr Stein laughed again and took a step closer towards Lizzy. “Girlie, the way I see it, you’re done here anyway. Your reputation’s gonna turn to shit, and you’re not gonna have a good time.”

“Then give me a chance. Just one chance at one of the other Gons. Let me show you what I can do.”

“I don’t have the time for –”

“Just five minutes,” she interrupted. “That’s all I’m asking. You won’t regret it. But you might regret never hiring me.”

“Next Thursday, at eight,” he offered. “My office, at the Octagon. Don’t be late.”

“Oh my god, the Octagon?” Lizzy breathed, wide-eyed at the thought.

“You scared?” he chuckled. “You’re going big, or you’re going home. I have a feeling it’ll be the latter, considering what I’ve heard about your shows, Elizabeth.” With that final word, he turned to walk away.

“I won’t,” she said weakly.

“Oh and, by the way,” he said over his shoulder, “curple is another word.”

******

NOW

Lizzy took a moment to stare at the neon lights. The bright-blue sign illuminated the word ‘Octagon’. It was a quiet night at the exclusive gentlemen’s club, and there were only a few cars outside of it. There seemed to be no sort of commotion around the club, which could only mean that the news of Glen’s death had not yet reached the Gons. The thought was only a relief for a second before she heard Carly speak.

“What’s this? Is this where you work?” she asked.

“Yes, Carly,” Lizzy answered. “This is the Octagon; the greatest club in Lutherton. I’ve been working here for over three years.”

“It looks fancy,” Carly observed.

“It’s beautiful,” Lizzy sighed. “But, come, we don’t have time for stories. We have to move.”

“How will I get in?” she asked.

“Don’t worry about that,” Lizzy assured. “But here,” she said, handing her coat over to Carly, “we don’t want anyone seeing that blood.”

They both got out of the car and walked across to the entrance. A tall and bulky bouncer stood patiently in an all-black suit. He extended an arm as they approached, prompting them to stop.

“Good evening, Miss Lizzy. Who is this?”

“Hey, John,” Lizzy said with a smile. “This is Erica. She’s staying with me for the week. She’s a friend’s sister.”

“She looks fifteen,” he hesitated.

“She isn’t, but don’t worry. We’re not here to party. I’m just getting some things and we’ll be out in five minutes. I promise.”

“Better be, we don’t want cops here,” he said with a look, before moving out of the way.

“Thank you, sweetie,” Lizzy grinned.

“Oh, Miss Lizzy,” John turned. “Have you seen Mr Stein tonight? It’s weird that he hasn’t popped in yet.”

“No, John,” Lizzy swallowed. “I’ve been too busy with this rascal. He’s probably out on another drive. You know how he gets.”

“Probably,” John shrugged.

Lizzy rushed Carly through the club and in an attempt to not have her noticed. Carly tried to take it all in as it flew by her. The club had a black and blue colour scheme. The black tones were rich and dark, and dominated the upholstery and furniture. Delicate touches of blue neon lined the walls and dance stages and a touch of blue shone from under the tables and bar. All of the male staff members wore black suits and white ties. The floor was carpeted in black as well, with dark mirrors stealing into view from behind the black stage curtains. Carly could only imagine how the atmosphere must be on a busy night.

“Here,” Lizzy directed, “this is my private dresser.”

Carly stepped into a bright contrast of colours as she walked into a room filled with costumes and masks and flowers and shoes. She saw more colours than she could name, and more outfits than she ever imagined there could be characters of. “Holy shit,” she said.

“Over there,” Lizzy pointed, “that’s the bathroom. Wash up, and be quick about it. Go.”

Carly did as she was told, being especially willing because her time on the road had not allowed her the chance to care much for her personal hygiene. She made a fast job of it, taking care to wash as much of the blood out of her hair as possible. She dried up and walked back into the main dresser, having forgotten to ask for clothes and fearing the possibility of a costume.

“Wait, I need something else to –”

Before she could finish, Lizzy threw a pair of leggings and black top into her arms. “Wear those, they should fit. But you’ll have to make do with the shoes you have on.”

“Thank you,” she said, and began to change. “So, what’s the plan? Are we going to sneak into Glen’s office? Find his safe?”

“What? No, not here. Glen would never keep anything too precious in a club office, not even at the Octagon. Besides, I’ve seen his office safe here. It’s usually got a couple of thousand in cash and some files.”

“But, I thought that’s why we had to come here. Where else would he keep whatever this key opens?”

“Only one place makes sense; his mansion.” Lizzy was changing into grey tights and a loose top to fit under her leather jacket. With sneakers to give her feet a break from the high heels.

“He has a mansion?” Carly asked, stupidly.

“Where else did you think a Lutherton club owner would live? In his office? An apartment? Of course he has a mansion.”

“Wait,” Carly paused.

“What?”

“What if this is the key to his safety security box? That would be in a private bank, or something. We’d never get to it.”

Lizzy giggled. “This is Glen Stein we’re talking about. There were always rumours that he didn’t handle all of his finances through banks. And I didn’t want to believe those rumours, but we might have a chance at proof. His mansion is our only shot. But if you take any longer, we won’t make it there before an army of criminals does.”

“Okay, okay, I’m done. We can go.”

“Good,” Lizzy said and grabbed her keys.

“Wait,” Carly stopped again.

“What?” Lizzy frowned impatiently.

“It’s a mansion. It belongs to one of the richest men in this city. Doesn’t that mean security will be a problem?”

“We’ll worry about that on the way, but I should hope it’s something we can handle.”

“That’s super comforting,” Carly said with a sarcastic tone and walked out of the dresser.

They made their way through the club quickly, and Lizzy stopped at the door to thank John again and show that she kept to her time. He joked with her and waved as she walked on. A group of girls was walking past Lizzy’s car as Carly made her way to the passenger’s side. She turned to look at them for a second before reaching for the handle.

“Oh my god,” one of them spoke. “Carly? Is that you?”

Carly looked back nervously, searching for the source of the voice.

“Oh my god, it is you!” the girl confirmed, walking away from her group and closer to Carly.

“I don’t know you,” Carly recoiled, getting a tight grip on the handle.

“We don’t have the time for this,” Lizzy urged.

“It’s me, dummy,” the girl persisted. Her breath smelled of hard liquor, and her speech was a little slurred. “It’s Riley. I dyed my hair, but look,” she said, taking her glasses off to reveal her striking grey eyes, “it’s me.”

“Ah, fuck,” Carly sighed. She could never forget those eyes, despite how reddened they had become from whatever she had consumed.

“What are you doing coming out of the Octagon? Aren’t you about seventeen now?”

“I wasn’t, I’m just…” Carly stuttered. “What are you doing here?”

“I work at a bar down the road,” she answered. Her voice was enthusiastic and light, and seemed to be a complete contrast of what it had always been. “I’ve been working in Lutherton since I ‘graduated’ from that shit house.”

“Okay,” Carly said, opening the car door. “I have to go.”

“No, wait,” Riley put her hand on Carly’s shoulder. “We have to catch up. I haven’t seen anyone else from the house.”

“Are you fucking serious?” Carly grimaced. “You’re the reason I ran away, and now you want to be friends? What’s wrong with you?”

“Listen, Carly, I’m sorry,” she blinked. “I was a bitch back then, I know. But I’m not that person anymore. I’m working on finding my parents. It’s so much harder when you’re alone.”

“Good luck with that, but I’m not fucking helping you.”

“Please, Carly, just hear me out. I can help you, too.”

“Who the fuck said I want your help?” Carly exploded. “You only exist to make my life hell, and two years without you has been bliss.”

Riley did not reciprocate the outburst but, instead, reached into her handbag for a pen and paper. “Listen, I know how it feels. I’m sure you try to find the reasons, as well. I can help you find out why you had to live there. You can hate me, but I know you want to know just as badly.” She slipped her number into Carly’s hand. “If you change your mind, call me.”

“Carly,” Lizzy insisted, “we need to get going.”

Carly threw the piece of paper at Riley’s face and stepped into the car.

“Fine, bitch,” Riley barked. “You’re fucked up for saying no to this.”

Lizzy sped away from the confused group of girls.

“What was that back there?” she asked.

“I’d rather not. Not right now,” Carly sniffed. She turned her face and stared out the window in an attempt to hide her tears from Lizzy, but she was a second too late.

To be continued…

Read Part 4 Here