The school bus comes to a stop in front of my house. I feel the smile slowly slip from my lips. The house looks cheerful, with its painted white walls and green shutters, but really it is just used to hide our secret. Mommy said that she painted this new house like that because I love green.
“See you tomorrow, Jake,” I say to my friend with a small wave as I carefully go down the steps as slow as my little legs can. My knee throbs more with each step. I need to tell Mommy that it is hurting again so she can rub some more of her smelly cream on it. Last night when she put some on me before bed, my knee tingled then it stopped hurting. I think my mommy is magic.
The bus drives off, leaving me standing alone on the porch. I reach under our welcome mat for the key Mommy leaves out here for me. I slowly push the door open. I hold my breath before I walk inside of the house, listening. I can only hear cartoons. My dad doesn’t like cartoons, but Mommy does. I let out my breath. My dad’s not home yet.
As long as Dad is not here, I don’t have to be scared. I burst into the house and remember Mommy surprising me with my early birthday present this morning. Excited I run off to my room. My new action figure that Mommy gave me before she took me to school is waiting for me on my bed, right where I left him.
“Mystery Man,” I scream as I throw my bag down and pick him up, cradling him in my arms. When Mommy gave him to me I held him to my chest. I hugged him so tightly that the magnifying glass he holds in his hand left a red mark on me.
“Don’t tell Daddy, okay, Reesie,” she said with a pat to my head. I nodded my head at her. I already knew that he would be our little secret. My dad doesn’t like it when she buys me toys. He says that they will make me weak and into a sissy. And Dad does not like weak men or sissies.
Together me and Mystery Man run into the kitchen. Mommy leaves food out for me so I can eat my dinner before he gets home. I use Mystery Man’s arms to lift up a piece of the peanut butter and peach jelly sandwich. The sandwich is in four triangles with the crust cut off but left on the side of the plate for me to eat like chips. My favorite. Only Mommy knows how to make it right. And she knows that I love them, that’s why she always makes it for me.
We sit on the furry white rug, watching cartoons, while I eat my dinner. I shove the last ball of crust into my mouth and grin at Mystery Man. My cheeks are puffed out with bread and peanut butter, making me look and feel like a chipmunk.
I pick Mystery Man up. I only have to ask him once before he starts teaching me how to fight bad guys. He shows me how to dodge their kicks by jumping up onto the couch. Then he shows me how to jump and spin in the air to land on top of the bad guys’ heads. Mystery Man starts to teach me how to fly from the coffee table to the couch, when the doorknob starts to shake and rattle.
Oh no. I look around at the mess me and Mystery Man made. Dad will not be happy if he sees this. He likes everything to be neat and clean. My dad thinks that there should be no dirt inside the house, no toys should be seen, and that nothing should be out of place. I scramble around the room picking up the pillows and the blankets that got thrown. I go to gather my plate and cup when he walks in. I freeze.
“What the Hell is this Reese? You think I want to come home from working all day to make money to feed your ungrateful ass, just to see this shit,” he yells at me. His voice shakes the walls.
I shake my head. My hands start shaking when Dad spins around and glares down at me. His eyes are glowing black. I want to cry but I know that I can’t. Not yet.
“What was that, boy?”
“N-No. No, sir.”
“That’s what I thought. Clean this shit up,” he says as he plops down onto the couch and props his feet on the coffee table. I start picking up my plate as he turns my cartoons off, the first beer of the night already half drank in his hand. Tucking Mystery Man under my arm I pick up my cup. I start walking away from the couch, but my foot catches on its corner, tripping me. The grape juice from my cup, spills all over the white rug.
My dad leaps up from his spot on the couch. “Goddammit Reese. Why do you always fuck shit up? Can’t you do anything right?” He yells down at me as he rips his black belt off.
“I-I’m sorry. Please don’t. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I say. The tears break free. I start crying, as I tuck myself into a ball on the floor. It only makes him madder. He brings the thick belt down once, twice. Each slap of the belt hurts more, stings more, and burns my skin more than the one before. Just when I think I can’t take another hit, my Mommy walks in through the door.
Her eyes go wide. “Richard! Stop. Stop this right now,” she says running over to me. I wrap my arms around her as she holds me in her lap. She lowers her hands but raises them before they touch me. I’m glad, though. My skin is still burning. The only good thing is that I can’t feel my knee hurting anymore.
“Go to your room, Reesie,” she says as she wipes my tears. I nod and Mommy kisses my forehead then hands me Mystery Man.
Dad picks up his beer. “That’s why the boy can’t behave, you baby him too much, Sandra. You keep doing that shit and he will never learn. How do expect him to be a man if you always come running to rescue him?” Dad yells at Mommy as I scurry off to my room.
I pause with my hand on the handle of my door. I look back over my shoulder and see Mommy slap my dad.
“Don’t you dare talk about my son like that,” she yells at him. I cover my ears with my hands. I hate it when Mommy yells.
Dad ignores her. He picks up the stool from in front of the chair and throw it across the living room. The wall shakes as the stool bounces off of it. I gasp and uncover my ears. Dad turns to me when he hears my noise. I quickly turn the handle and rush into my room.
The moment that I step into my room, I softly close the door behind me. I shut the door too loud once and Dad came storming down the hall after me. Chills run down my back as I remember how mad he was. I grab my blanket and pillow before I jump into the safety of my small closet.
“I-I-It’s okay, Mystery Man. Mommy will be fine. It’s okay,” I say through the tears running down my face. A mixture of snot and tears start dribbling off my chin. I wipe my face with the back of my hand as I listen to the yelling and other loud noises that sound like the punches the bad guys do on my cartoons, start for the night.
I hold Mystery Man as I wait for them to stop. I know they will stop later in the night when Dad falls asleep, but it scares me when they do because Mommy always acts funny afterwards. She doesn’t act like my Mommy. After a night like this she stays really quiet and I sometimes get to stay home from school. Whenever I do, me and Mommy sit in my room watching movies during the day after the nights that Dad gets mad and yells, but she always goes out to see him when he comes back home. I wish she would just stay in my room with me. I could protect her in my room. Maybe hide her under my bed or something…
I hope one day this will stop. I hope that my dad will quit being mean and that he will leave one day so it will just be me and Mommy.
“One day, Mystery Man, I’ll save Mommy from him. One day Mystery Man. One day when I am bigger and stronger I’ll save Mommy.”
The fan spins around in circles. It spins and spins. Faster and faster. I watch the fan, trying to ignore the grunting of the man on top of me. His hot breath keeps blowing into my face. I roll my eyes.
He moves his hand up by my head. I look away from the fan and watch as a bead of sweat rolls down his bald head. It falls down his face, off the end of his large nose, finally coming to a stop on my chest. I wipe the sweat away only to have it replaced with yet another drop of sweat from the overweight man. Good God, Craig. You really could stand to lose a few pounds.
The fan slows down its spinning, either that or my eyes just think that it is slowing down. I stare up at this fan so often that is has become my only friend. Craig grunts one last time then rolls off of me.
“Thanks, Sugar,” he says too close to my face. His voice sounds breathy and there is the faint smell of garlic lingering on his breath. He rubs his hot face into my hair. Craig inhales deeply then rolls off of me.
“You’re welcome, I guess, Craig.” I say, bored as I start getting redressed. Kathy bursts into the room, not even bothering to knock on the door.
“Well, hel-lo Craig. How was it? Was she good?”
He looks back at me. “She always is,” he says with a wink.
“Good, good. She did learn from the best,” she says with a flip of her unbrushed dyed blonde hair. “Now Craig, you said last time you were here that you would pay the next time you came. It’s the next time. And you owe us one hundred dollars and an extra twenty five for my generosity about letting you pay later,” Kathy says holding out one of her badly manicured hands to Craig.
Craig starts to sweat again, making his bald head shine more than it already is. “A hundred twenty five. Tha-That’s a lot of cash, Kathy. Maybe we can-” Kathy holds her hand up, cutting him off.
“Nope. We can’t. I am trying to run a business here and if my customers don’t pay, then me and my girls don’t get paid. If my girls don’t get paid, you don’t get laid. Understand how it goes now, Honey?” She says as she lights a cigarette. Craig stays silent, as if he is trying to win this fight with his lack of words. He won’t. Kathy always wins. Long silences don’t bother her so she finishes her smoke while she waits for him to crack.
“Fine. Here,” Craig reaches into his pocket and pulls out the cash. His hand shakes as he hands the wad of money over to Kathy’s waiting hand.
“Thanks, Babe.” Kathy waves her fingers at him as he stomps down the stairs. “And thank you, Baby. Here’s your share.”
I take the cash from her, not even bothering to count it. She always keeps a little of mine for herself, so there is no point. “You still owe me from Martin this morning, Kathy.”
Her empty amber eyes bore into my skull. I think she is trying to hide her hate for me right now, but even without her poor hiding skills I know that it’s there, lurking under the surface. “I told you I would pay you. You need patience, Emely. My God,” she says as she walks back out of the room. “Oh, and I thought we already talked about this? But I guess you are being forgetful again… What did I say about you calling me Kathy? Or Kathleen?”
I roll my eyes at her as I get up and walk to the door. “Sorry, Mother,” I spit out at her, then slam the door shut as she walks unsteadily down the stairs to drink and fuck the night away.
I leave my room a few hours later, when the smell of stale sweat and sex starts to make my head pound. It makes me want to hurl. I carefully walk down the hall, avoiding the empty liquor bottles and trash covering the floor. I hold my breath as I near the bathroom that I share with the rest of Kathy’s girls.
Kathy employs almost a dozen of us. And we all live in this house. Eleven women, who all get paid for sex and live in the same house. It’s like paradise on earth, only worse because a large majority of the girls spend their time fucked up on whatever substance they can get their hands on. Which it isn’t hard to find the drugs because in some cases, Kathy lets the men pay us with them instead of cash. But only if she trusts them to make good on having cash next time.
I try the handle when Carmen stumbles out of the small room and grabs my shoulder to right herself. “Craig done already?” I take her hand off of me and nod. She laughs then wipes off some of the white powder left under her nose. “He always finishes quick… Hey, I got two coming in later tonight, if you want to jump in. I’m sure that Clay and Benson won’t mind.”
“No, I told you last time that I won’t fuck with Benson anymore. Last time it ended with a gun to my head and I didn’t see any of the money. Kathy was so pissed that she kept all the money I made for the next two weeks after that.”
Carmen nods then shrugs as she walks down to the stairs. “Well if you change your mind,” she says. She shakes her bare chest at me then goes down the aging stairs. They creak with each unsteady step that she takes.
I turn back around to the bathroom, only to hear loud moans and cries coming from inside. I throw my hands up in defeat and go back to my room. I slam the door shut then walk over to my bed. But before I can make it over to the messy sheets I stop. Something moving in the mirror catches my attention. I turn around only to see that the whole mirror is occupied- blocked- by a single object.
All I can see is a sad girl with tired brown eyes. Eyes that I share with my grandmother- and Kathy. My blessing and my curse.
I stand there, staring at the cracked mirror. It’s cracked because one of Kathy’s Johns got mad and threw my small jewelry box. The impact of the jewelry box hitting the mirror made the glass shatter in one corner and sent hundreds of lines running up to the center of it.
It is in this moment, staring at the mirror and remembering why it is broken, that I finally come to terms with how fucked up this life that I have barely been living is. Looking at my pitiful reflection, my only choice is revealed to me. The only real way for me to get me the freedom that I desire is by leaving Kathy, and this horrible world that she created behind.
“I have to leave,” I whisper to myself.
“I need to leave,” I say louder this time.
With adrenaline pumping through me, I grab a bag and throw in some clothes. I walk over to my bed and push it away from the wall.
The small square of paneling that I carved out years ago after I discovered how untrustworthy people are with money, is still there. I reach in, pulling out the baggie filled with my cash that I hid there from searching eyes. I smirk as I tuck the money into my bag. I set a dress on top of the money to hide it.
I run through my list in my head of everything that I need. “Money, clothes, shoes,” I say counting each item on my fingers. I think I got everything so I slip on my black sneakers that are beginning to fall apart at the seams. I set my bag down on the still unmade bed then take a look around the room.
White walls, white bed with a grey sheet haphazardly tossed around, and a half dresser with an off centered and cracked mirror. It's not much but it's not mine anymore. Not that it was ever really mine to begin with.
With the bag on my arm I walk to the door but pause. I go over to my closet. I shift around the pile of clothes laying on the floor. Out from underneath them, I pull out the bottle of vodka and my pills that I have hidden there. I smile at my old means of escape and stuff them in my bag, as I make my way to a new, more permanent escape.
I jog down the stairs. I almost make it to the crooked front door- am almost free- when a half-naked Kathy stumbles out of her room. She brings a wine glass to her lips, making me notice the track marks that line the insides of her arms. She pauses mid sip when our eyes meet and she recognizes through her haze that it is me. I hear Carmen’s loud, and fake, groans as the door opens again. Benson walks out wearing only a pair of loose jeans that hang low on his hips. He peeks around the room. His face lights up when he sees us. Benson walks over and wraps his arms around Kathy. She smiles at him and pats his cheek then looks at me.
“Where the Hell do you think you are going?”
I stop walking down the long hallway and turn to face her. “I’m leaving so I can finally get the fuck away from you and your saggy ass.”
Her wrinkled face looks shocked. Never once in the eleven years that I have lived with her since I left here the first time to live with my grandmother, have I stood up for myself.
She turns her head to Benson. “Why don’t you go back into there, Baby… I’ve got some business to tend to,” she says in a sickly sweet voice.
“Sure thing, Momma,” Benson tells her before he brings his face down to hers. Kathy looks like she is trying to suck his whole face into her mouth. I roll my eyes at their patheticness. I clear my throat as her hand inches its way into his elevated pants. She moves her hand up and down twice before they slowly break apart.
As soon as he is behind the shut door to her room, Kathy turns back to me. “You had better watch your goddamn mouth, young lady. Get your ass back to your room,” she says pointing up the stairs.
I laugh at her. “Where was this attitude when Craig was fucking me not even twenty minutes ago and paid you for it? Or Martin earlier? Or hell, where was that when Wayne Carson, your fucking best friend from hell-” The words I want to yell at her, get caught in my throat. I can’t say them. I have never been able to say them and I probably never will.
“You knew what he did to me, Mother. You were there when it happened, and you didn’t do shit,” I say glaring back at her. “Why don’t you go back to your fucked up foursome and leave me alone? You know what, do whatever in the hell you want. I don’t care. I’m leaving- So fuck this and fuck you.”
I turn back to the door. Before I can even take one step, her boney, freezing cold hand wraps itself around my arm. Her fingers are long like the legs of a Daddy Longlegs spider. I try to shrug her off but she doesn’t move. For an old ass, crack whore she sure is strong. I take a step forward, taking her with me as I pull the door open.
“Emely, Baby, are you really leaving?” I turn my head to look at her. Her normally confused and empty amber eyes are rimmed with the red of tears. I shake my head at her.
Her performance has suffered over the years thanks to her habit of smoking cigarettes among other things. She used to be able to cry on command, now it just looks like she accidently squirt lemon juice into her eyes or there is a piece of dirt in them.
“Kathy. Get. Your. Fucking. Hand. Off. Of. Me.” I growl through my clenched jaw.
“But Emely- You can’t go. I need you here with me. You can’t leave me too. Your father already left me. He left us… I can’t lose you too,” she says pleading at the same time a screen door slams a few houses down.
“I’m eighteen. You can’t stop me. There is nothing in this world that you could say to get me to stay,” I say yanking her hand off of me as I turn back to the open door. My skin stings. I look down and see four long, red marks dotted with blood. She just can’t let me go without a fight. And why I don’t know. She never cared about me. She only cared about what I could do for her.
“Fine. Go ahead- Leave. But don’t you dare come back here when it all goes to shit.” She yells a string of curses after me then loudly slams the door shut.
“Shit,” I hiss as I pull out a sock from my bag. It burns when I press it to my arm, but it holds back the blood.
I glare at the door and see her peek through the blinds covering the window. I flip her off over my shoulder as I walk in between her house and the neighbor’s houses. I stop by the side of the house where Kathy’s bedroom is, listening. I listen for anything, but the night is empty. There are no sounds, not even from the storm that appears to be quickly rolling in.
I take off the sock. Blood is crusted on it now and my skin has four scabs in the shape of her claw marks. I ball the sock up then drop it as I turn around to walk towards the street. I glance back over my shoulder when I smack into something hard. My feet stumble back, but before I fall, a large hand wraps around my waist.
Goddamn. I should’ve known that it wouldn’t be that easy to leave Kathy behind. She would do something like running through the back door just to chase after me so that she could get the last word. She is like a chest cold that I just cannot shake.
I look up, ready to fight some more with Kathy, and see that the hand belongs to a man. At first fear floods my body, but fades when I realize that the man is not one of Kathleen's customers. Thank God it’s not, because if one of her regulars found me, I would become a sex toy to some horny, forty year old and live out the rest of my days in a dirty basement.
A weird look crosses his face as he looks down at me, but it is gone as quickly as it appeared. I try to jerk out from his tight grip but his hand doesn’t budge. His mouth starts moving. I don’t know what he says, though. All I can hear is the pounding of my heart because he is touching me. His hand is resting on my side, grazing the sensitive skin above my hip that got exposed when he grabbed me and my shirt moved up.
I reach down and snatch his hand off of me. In the few seconds that I hold it, the differences between his hand and mine shock me. His is heavy and rough while mine is feather light and smooth. I quickly loosen my grip. He catches on, dropping his hand back to his side. My heart starts to calm down now that he isn’t touching me.
I look back up at him. I can see his smirk. It is being highlighted by the pale light coming from Kathy's party going on in her room. He is tall. Maybe six foot. Maybe more. He has broad shoulders. And that's all I can see in this poor light. I try to look for more details about him, but the shadows hide the rest of him. I can feel something, though. I get the feeling that something is off. Maybe he is hiding a demon too… But then again every person has at least one hiding somewhere.
“I said, do you want to come with me,” the man says. His voice is intoxicating in the way that it is deep and yet so soft at the same time. It sounds like velvet and is a little raspy.
“Go with you where?” I ask hesitantly as I hike my bag higher up on my arm.
He shrugs. “Anywhere, I guess. Anywhere but here.”
We stand there watching each other. He holds onto my hard, cold stare with a warm and questioning one of his own. I know I should tell him no, that I don’t want to go with him, even though leaving is all that I have ever wanted. I refuse to suck anyone else down into the black hole of despair, unhappiness, and pain that is my life.
But his words echo in my ears, swirling around like a tornado, wrecking me. Anywhere but here. God that is all I have ever wanted… To be anywhere else. That and to become an unknown face to those around me. Everyone here, in this town, knows me and associates me with my mother and her business. But none of them have ever tried to help me or my situation. No, instead they all just turned their heads away and pretended that nothing bad was happening to me.
I peek up at him from under my lashes. “Alright. Say that I do agree to go with you to… To this Neverland, how do I know that you are not, like, a creeper or something?”
He shrugs again. “I don’t know. You’ll just have to have faith and trust me,” he says with a quick wink as he crosses his arms across his large chest.
“Ha. Have faith? Trust you? Yeah right. That’s all a bunch of bullshit. You can’t trust people any farther than you can throw them.”
“Why wouldn’t you trust me, though? I mean, I am just some stranger that you met only moments ago, in the middle of the night, and just minutes after you were arguing with someone.”
My eyes snap open along with my mouth. “You heard that?”
He nods slowly. “Yeah. You two weren’t exactly being quiet. That’s why I asked if you wanted to come with me. It sounded like you, maybe, needed… someone,” he says as he rubs the back of his thick neck.
I lift my chin up so I can get a better look at his face and mimic him by crossing my arms over my chest. He seems okay. He doesn’t appear to have any weird ticks or twitches, or anything like that, but I am still unsure about this. In the past, people have not exactly come through for me. “What’s your name?”
His eyes look down and meet mine. “Reese. Reese Beckett.” His name doesn’t ring any bells. That’s good. He and Kathy don’t run in the same circles then. This alone bumps him up higher on the list of people I know and like.
“I’m Emely. Nice to meet you, I guess.” I reach out to shake his hand but he reaches around it and grabs my bag. "What the hell are you doing," I yell a little too loud, interrupting the otherwise silent night.
"We can take turns carrying the bags." As he speaks, he shifts my bag to his other hand then throws it over his shoulder as if it weighs nothing. I narrow my eyes up at him.
“I never said that I was going to go with you,” I say as I stand on my tiptoes, trying get my bag back from the giant.
“Well then, Sweetheart, I guess that if you don’t come and chose to stay here, you just got robbed,” he says and begins to walk away. I stand there, shocked. What the hell do I do now? I refuse to go back into that hell hole with Kathy.
Having no other choice, I look back at the house with the fading brown roof. “Goodbye, Kathy,” I whisper towards her glowing window. I mock salute the old house then turn on my heel, jogging away to catch up with Reese's fading figure.
Each street we pass is empty. The town, Gillamore, is a complete void of life, except for us. The only sounds are our footsteps and our breathing.
"Are you ready to stop for the night?" Reese asks with a quick glance up at the angry clouds blocking the moon.
I answer with a yawn. Until Reese said something about stopping, I didn't realize how tired I was. Now I can feel exhaustion weighing down my bones.
"There is a park at the next intersection. Uh, on, uh, First and Washington I think. My mom used to take me there-" He smiles at what I guess was a happy time he had spent with his mom. "There is this little play cave we could stay in. For the night, at least, I mean." As Reese speaks he stops walking and looks at me.
I stumble, trying not to run into him. "What?" I ask, agitated.
He stares at me for a long time, studying my face. His eyes dart back and forth over my features. I shrink under his gaze. "Nothing," Reese murmurs. I glare up at him and notice his face clearly for the first time.
Now under the light from the street lamp, I can see that he has a long scar running from the left side of his forehead, down past his nose. It misses the inside of his right eye by centimeters before it comes to an end at his right jawbone. It stands out compared to the rest of his face. I have to peel my eyes away from it and am immediately drawn up to his eyes.
His eyes are striking. They are a dark, home-like brown that remind me of the melted chocolate chips in a cookie. My eyes flitter closed for a second as the memory of fresh baked cookies surround me.
Thunder rolls in the distance. I open my eyes and take advantage of Reese’s body still standing under the light as he looks in the direction of the thunder. His hair is dark brown, almost like the wet sand of a beach. He turns back to me, making the light cast a shadow on his face that brings out this tiny dimple in between his lips and cheek. I didn’t notice it before he began smirking so I guess that that is the only time it is visible. The dimple stalls my eyes for a few moments before they are drawn away.
I glance back at the scar then look Reese in the eye. "How did you get it?" I whisper, my hand tracing an imaginary replica of his scar on my face. I can’t help myself. I have to know.
Before he says anything, Reese turns his back to me. He shifts uncomfortably a few times before he looks back at me. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked.
“Hey, Reese. Look, you don’t- You don’t have to say anything. I shouldn’t have asked. I mean- Shit. It’s none of my business anyways…”
He rubs the back of his neck as he shakes his head. Reese takes an impossibly deep breath, then he opens his mouth. "My father used to beat my mom, but he killed her a year ago-" His eyes harden as he says killed. "So after her funeral he took his knife to my face because he said it reminded him of her," he says emotionlessly.
After the shock of his story leaves me, all I can do is stare at Reese and all Reese does is tense the side of his jaw without a scar.