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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?”
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.
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.”
“Why are you asking me these questions?” she frowned.
“I’m just curious.”
“Really? Because your tone and mood are worrying me.”
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?”
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.
My Based on a Song series has begun, check it out here: Adele – Hello (Based on a Song)