I was jostled awake by little hands. Still groggy, I took a moment to translate the images into my woozy head. It was only Skunk's little sister. "Hey Kate. Go back to bed," I said and plopped back down on the old desk I had fallen asleep on, too exhausted from my two jobs to find a bed at the time.
"Marty! You've got to get up!" she yelled, rocking my arm violently.
I was now too annoyed to ignore her. "What?" I cried, "I have work in the morning! This better be good "
"It is morning Marty," she declared and shoved the clock in my face to prove it.
"Shit," I grumbled and quickly took off. I flung my backpack onto my shoulders and scurried out the window. I flipped over the hand railing of the fire exit and dropped to the ground with a satisfying thud.
I was off without a thought, scrambling in the alleys and avoiding garbage cans. The adrenaline pumped through my body as I ran. Fourteen and free, nothing could slow me down but the hot cement and screeching tires; I feared nothing. I was young, fast, and immortal. Nothing could touch me except my own circumstances.
"You're late," Mark said as I burst through the door in a rage of gasps. My heart pounded and my brain felt light from the pumping blood, a natural high. "Your clock's just fast," I said as I put my bag on the silver linoleum counter. It was a dull silver, worn from years of use. There was a slight crack in its plastic seal, deep and dark.
"Whatever. I'm in no mood for your sass. Go to the back and get dressed. I'm opening in ten minutes," he said. I swiftly obeyed.
Mark was a good employer. After all, he employed a 14-year-old war orphan with no references, no real home, and a light-fingered reputation. Good pay, good people, and good location was the best parts of the job. The only thing I didn't like was the short waitress dress he made me wear. I felt so exposed, naked. I was so very conscious of myself in it that I could barely concentrate on the customers. But he wouldn't let me wear pants. He said it wouldn't draw in enough customers.
At least the other waitresses wore them.
"Late again, are we Marty?" Amy asked as she buttoned her top buttons. She sliced them through the holes like a seasoned pro. She could have done it in the dark and with one hand.
"Like you're much earlier," I commented as I slipped through the fabric like an eel and rushed through the buttons.
"Well, at least I get in early enough to avoid Mark's wrath," she answered.
"God I feel like a flight attendant in this thing," I remarked as I looked at the springtime chipperness of the dress. It was something a squirrel might wear if it had enough bad taste. 'Would you like a pillow sir? Atmosphere re-entry is very turbulent,'" I mocked.
"Get out here and start working!" Mark yelled into the back.
He was opening the store.
"Better get out there, Ms. Pan Am," she smirked and gave me a little push out the door. I went behind the cash register to get my pad and pen while Amy started seating the various locals.
"Hey Marty," Luke said as he took his usual seat.
"Hey Luke. The usual?" I asked.
"Nah, I think I'll walk on the wild side. Give me black coffee," he said.
"Wow. You better slow down there or you'll hurt yourself," I answered.
Same old record.
Why are humans such creatures of habit? Even in language we're uncreative.
I walked home that night. It was dark in the alleys, full of hidden shadows and sound. The unknown was as thick as mist illuminated by the harsh yellow of broken lamps. Creatures scurried in the night that I did not want to know the name of, or feared their names. Stray mutts, much like myself, digging in trash cans for anything to feed their bare bellies were the most common things I heard, or so I hoped. The only constant was the sound of music playing above the remote traffic in the streets.
It felt eerie walking home at night, alone. I was paranoid constantly: looking
behind at every click and rustle, and if I ever stopped that would be the night
I heard some shouting around the block. I was both curious and afraid to look but I couldn't just ignore it. It was for my own survival that I did, being the practical mutt that I am. Awareness of your surroundings will keep you alive when all strength fails.
There was a man and a woman, fighting. Her skin was becoming welted from the ferocity of his argument. Dark blood rushed to the oily skin and pearled into a vibrant picture of yellow and blue, circling the swollen thigh and the arms like a vicious summer storm at dusk. Her plaid dress was muddy as she cowered in the corner like a child. A shrill whimper fell from her lips unceasingly as she relented to his punishment.
He towered over her like a giant: strong, immovable, a force as strong as the wind. A deadly glare of anger and pleasure radiated from his face as he cracked his hand against her like a cat-of-nine-tails, over and over.
She was helpless.
I closed my eyes tight until the blackness was shut taunt about me, engulfing me as a cloud without end. But it was no sanctuary. The smell of urine only grew bitter on my tongue and the cracking thunk of flesh hitting flesh only became more distinct. Like thunder it rolled into my very body until each sound was like a crash of lightning against my mind, an unrelenting flame that burned my soul and trapped me.
And then it stopped.
Silence, except the rustling of loafers over cement and paper, hit my ears. I waited a long time in that silence, more afraid of it than the noise that still echoed from the walls.
I opened my eyes.
He was gone, vanished, and she and I were alone as if he was never there. The alley was deserted and cast in shadow. Only her leg was lit by a faint luminescence from the street, the faint bruise tracing the graceful curves of her ankles until it doubled in a small puddle near her feet. The only sign it had been real.
When had it rained last? I couldn't remember
A shiver ran down my neck, cold with heat. My impulse was to leave, retreat until I was safe from this foreign territory, free from the cloud that would not leave me. I had dropped my guard and now I was in serious jeopardy. If I stayed too long, I could be next. But then I looked at her again.
There was a bad taste in my mouth, like a dead mouse.
"Hello," I said. My voice sounded small, weak as it echoed off the walls. "Are you all right?" I heard her whimper an answer, but I couldn't make it out. She seemed so insignificant.
My body tensed and grew hard. I could leave and be safe, call the police for her if it would satisfy the little pinprick saying 'help her.' Such a tiny impulse now. It would be so easy just to look away and not notice her.
Just walk away.
"Are you all right?" I asked again, chancing a glimpse from my hiding place. My feet were reluctant to move and my throat tore at itself like a gripping claw, but I managed to walk to her.
"Are you all right?" I repeated. She looked like a corpse: rotting and ugly. I hated to touch her, fearing what insects crawled within her carcass, dreading what diseases were manifested on her body. Nameless fears on a nameless thing.
Her voice was raw and small, stripped of any flesh or character when she finally answered, whispering, "Help me to my apartment."
It was two stories up from the alley and remarkably tidy. The walls were clean and whitewashed, with a single smear of color by an unknown artist. The furniture was simple and plain, set in the appropriate places designated by the latest copy of Home Living. In the corner, there were white dishes on the table, a large bowl of casserole, a cooling salmon cake, some chilled wine, and a perfectly prepared platter of Raclette. A single rose sat in the center, drooping slightly: the only color on the egg-white tablecloth.
She said nothing.
I asked her if she was really all right and she said so. What else could I say?
"Should I call the police?" I asked.
"No," she said, "he just got a little mad. He didn't mean it "
I wanted to shake her for saying that, spit on her for making excuses, helping him do it to her. How could she be so weak against him? How could she just let him do it to her over and over again? How could she just accept this life?
I went home in the shady street. Even the trees looked haunted. There was no sound as I neared the building. It was dark and empty, though I knew it was full of the warm bodies of orphans and runaways, the gang I had learned to live alongside but never with.
The wind blew through the broken windows and sighed.
I went inside and looked in the mirror. The darkness obstructed my face, pale and dim. I was so drained, so dead tired. I had even stopped dreaming from the exhaustion of life on the streets. I had already seen and done so much
The only sound I could hear was the broken drip of water hitting the floor.