I was five when my parents died and the State took me in. Just a little girl.
I don’t even remember what they looked like anymore – not that I care. In a gamble to triple it, and pay off the loan shark he owed, my dad lost what money and stamps we had. Then he lost his life to the loan shark.
Ten thousand dollars. That was the bill.
“Your heart will go for about that,” the shark said. Then he took it. You can sell anything these days. Yourself included.
Maybe I’d feel more sympathetic towards him if what he’d gotten the money from the Shark for had been more worthwhile. But a coke addiction on its way to meth doesn’t win the Purity League’s medal of honor. At least not in my eyes.
My mom hung herself later that night after an intense drinking binge in which she emptied the cabinets of all liquor, the one thing I could count on my parents to have. Food? Check with the neighbor next door. Cheap scotch? Top left cabinet.
I remember standing there on the bare wood floor of our dingy little apartment, watching as she stood on tiptoe on an old metal folding chair tying the rope to our ceiling fan. A head-sized loop hung at the end of it, frayed threads sticking out here and there like pricklies on a cactus.
“Here honey, hold this for mommy,” she said, handing me a half smoked roach she’d been puffing on as she worked.
“Wait, wait, wait, give it back a minute.”
I handed it back and she took a long drag, closing her eyes and holding it in for a moment. She coughed once and let it back out in a slow stream, her whole body relaxing as she did.
“Bad shit, honey,” she said a moment later, shaking her head and stretching her eyelids. “Don’t you never start it, okay?”
I nodded as she handed it back to me.
She brushed a loose strand of hair from her eyes and rubbed her hands together like someone trying to get warm.
“Okay, stand back, honey. I don’t wanna kick you or nuthin.”
She waved her hand as she said this and I moved back a few steps, roach outstretched in my hand as far from my nose as possible.
She raised herself on tiptoe again to put her emaciated head through the loop. A head which looked twenty years older than it really was.
“Say ‘Happy New Year!’ honey.”
She kicked the chair out from under her and dropped, a hundred and ten pounds of filth and bad living. The fan came part way out of the ceiling, a few sparks flying, and the lights went out with a pop.
She didn’t kick. It was over in a moment. But still, I think it was a nice gesture on her part to have me back up just in case. My mom really cared.
When the government men found me a few days later, after the neighbor called them about “a bad smell in 15 B”, I was sitting on the closet floor in a heap of old newspapers and dust playing with my stuffed rabbit, Lucky. I was having a tea party, I told them.
I lived in state run camps for the next eleven years, moving from one to the next as I grew up, each more crowded than the last but only slightly larger in size.
The welfare people who took care of me said they were foster homes. But I discovered my monthly cycle while squatting over a hole in the ground marked “Ladies” near the edge of the barbed wire fence surrounding us. That’s not a home, that’s a fucking cage.
Actual foster homes did exist. Ones in which there was a family of parents who wanted another child. But those were so few I never had the chance. Most people were too busy trying to get rid of their kids so they could continue their loose little lives without that pesky little “nine month burden” getting in the way. Poor them.
By the time I was sixteen I was living in slightly posher surroundings. As in the bathrooms were inside the buildings, and, while the showers were still all in one room, at least it was a room. And it even had curtains! Mildewy where they weren’t ripped away, but still. Must have been overlooked in the search and destroy mission to find anything which could possibly bring us happiness or comfort.
We also had a nurse. Though how one young woman was supposed to take care of the needs of over seven hundred kids, most of whom were half nuts at that point, I don’t know. But she was my friend. Probably the only real friend I’d ever had.
Her name was Tammy and per her she came from a long line of rejects and was the first to decide she didn’t want to throw her life away.
She was living in the old projects district then, Hell’s Toilet as it was fondly called by its denizens. Same place I came from. She heard about the need for nurses in children’s homes, the only criterion being that she had to have some background in nursing.
So, having taken care of her younger brothers and sisters since she was seven while her mother was in the bedroom earning money for her addiction, and sometimes the food and rent, she decided she had the needed background and applied.
I don’t know where she thought she was going to wind up, probably some pretty little place with a hundred or so kids and several other nurses. She got shafted.
Her “hospital” was a small cement building off to the side of the playground without even a single window. The playground, a large square of dirt, ran between the main building – a rundown schoolhouse turned dorm house – and the hospital. This was where all the kids walked around chatting about who liked who and egging on fights which broke out almost daily between two or more losers who had nothing better to do.
This was my home. An old building where I lived in a dorm with similarly minded bitches who either hated each other or hated with each other, a large patch of dirt and bits of old litter, and a little shack called a hospital. Oh yeah. A huge barbed wire fence encircled us. “For your protection,” as the superintendent once told me.
But I think it was the opposite. We used to watch some of the people walk by on the outside, staring in at us. To them we were the scary ones.
Anyway. One day I walked into the little hospital during a recess, as I often did, hoping to continue my reading lessons with her. I had high hopes for myself then, illiterate as I was. But as I entered a set of voices from around the corner stopped me.
“I said no. I mean it, James. No.” It was Tammy’s voice.
“Oh come’on! You been struttin that shit fer me fer over a week, you can’t tell me no now!”
There was a scuffling sound. Glass shattered as something fell to the floor.
“I said no! Stop it!”
James grunted but said nothing else.
“Stop it! Stop it!!” Her voice was choked, faltering. I walked in a few steps, hiding behind a tall stack of boxes.
She was on one of the beds, kicking and wrestling as James did his best to hold her back while unbuttoning his pants. He was standing between her legs which were spread wide about him.
I didn’t do anything at first. I was too shocked and didn’t understand what was happening. I looked at James. His eyes large and bloodshot. He was biting his lip, working fast.
Tammy tried her best to stop him but he kept beating her hands away. Black lines of cheap mascara ran down her face to fade on her cheeks.
His pants dropped to the floor and he reached for her skirt. Pulling a hand free she slapped him across his face as hard as she could.
His eyes went wide, nostrils flaring as he gritted his teeth. Grabbing her by the collar, he hit her twice sending her backwards onto the bed with a bounce. She didn’t move to stop him after this but I could see the uneven shuddering of her body as the tears came silently.
A large glass bottle of alcohol stood beside me on a metal desk. I picked it up, noticing as I did that my hand was shaking. I walked over behind him. He was over a foot taller than me. Not that tall, but I’m a little short.
Throwing her skirt back he let out an excited grunt. A whispered moan escaped Tammy’s lips. I brought the bottle down with all my strength on top of his head.
Everything slowed in that moment. There was the sound of glass breaking mixed with a brief cry of pain. For a moment I thought he was going to turn and hit me as he stood there tottering on his feet. Then he fell to the floor and lay there.
On the bed Tammy still lay, arms out, sobs racking her body.
“Tammy?” I asked quietly. “Tammy, are you okay?”
I backed up, startled.
“I said get out! Just get out and leave me alone!!” She rolled onto her side, her back to me, pulling her legs up into a ball and rocking herself with renewed sobs.
I stood there staring, not understanding.
“Just… leave. Please…”
I looked down at James below me. A thin trickle of blood was making its way down the side of his face. I walked out.
Later that night I was in the shower room, trying my best to wash the images from my mind. The place was covered in broken, mildew-stained tiles and the signs of menstrual discharge of many years. There were five other shower stalls but no one else was here now and I was glad of that.
I don’t know how he found me there. Or how he knew it was me. I guess it doesn’t matter. Probably asked one of my room mates.
I heard the grind of metal on linoleum and a draft of cold air as he opened the door. Booted footfalls made their way across the cracked floor. I knew it was him. I don’t know how, I just did. Maybe I was just expecting it.
He stopped right outside my stall. Making me wait? Trying to scare me? For a moment the only sound I could hear was that of the running water pattering against the stall floor. I could see his silhouette through the thin plastic of the shower curtain like some demon from the dark sent to discharge another soul. I knew then that I wasn’t going to make it past this one without paying the toll. Let it run.
The shower curtain flew wide displaying his panting form, face still stained with blood, and eyes strained beyond endurance. I just stood there, naked, covered in soap. I made no effort to hide myself. There was no reason. I think he wanted me to resist. To beg, plead, cry. But I wouldn’t give him that. He could take whatever else he wanted, and probably would. But not that. That was mine.
He got the point. With a curl of his lip he struck, the laws of motion in action. His fist hit my head and my head hit the tile wall. Blackness reigned.
When I woke up my head was propped against the corner of the stall, my legs spread out on the floor before me. The shower was off and a thin stream of blood mixed lazily with the pool of water between my legs. My legs which felt like they were on fire.
Several feet away James stood, buckling his belt. He didn’t look at me. No smile. No glare. Nothing. He finished buckling and walked out. Business completed.
I listened to the door open and close and the fading footfalls outside. When they were gone and silence was once more upon me I pulled my legs up to my chest and sank down on my back. I cried for a long time.
I would have told the head guard but that was James. I told the superintendent but he just said, “I’m sure that is not the case. You probably just fell and he was there to help you.” He patted me on the head, smiling like a good father figure and walked away.
Tammy denied the whole thing when I asked her to tell. Said she had no idea what a stupid kid like me was talking about. That she’d gotten her swollen face from a bee sting and that I needed to learn about the real world. Then she told me to get out and not come back.
I stepped out of the little building into the afternoon sun. It was the day after the episode and my legs were still sore and my face healing from when James smashed my head into the tile wall. I heard faint sobbing from inside the hospital but I didn’t care. She didn’t deserve my sympathy. No one did. I walked through the playground, past kids who stared or made comments like “that’s what you get” and “slut”. I walked until I reached the little alley behind the school house. There I sat in the shade, leaning against the brick wall, my butt in the dirt. And I thought. And thought.
I thought about James and what he’d done. I thought about how unfair it was that no one believed me. Or probably they did but didn’t care because no one cares about us gutter rats. But mainly I thought about what Tammy had said before she severed ties with me.
“You need to learn about the real world, kid. There’s the hard way and the easy way. You can fight it or you can leave it alone and carry on with your life. Nothing’s fair and nothing’s cheap. You wanna get along? Then get outta the clouds and look around before you dead. This ain’t no place to have ideals.”
I thought about that hard. Real hard. The hard way or the easy way. Fight or leave it alone.
I sat there for a long time. The sun went down. The dinner bell rang. I ignored it all. Finally, when the bell rang for “lights out” I stood up, brushing the dirt off my butt.
“There she is!” I heard from down the alley. I looked up to see three girls, my own age, running toward me, smiles sliced across their pimple strewn faces like jack-o-lantern miscarriages.
The one in the lead, Candy, slowed as she drew near. I could almost see the candle flickering behind her eyes as she stared at my discolored face. I knew what was coming.
“Look girls! It’s Delly, the little slut. Thinks she’s so pretty. Luring poor James in like that. Nasty little bi-”
I smashed her head into the wall. Bitch. I was learning.
She fell to the ground, stunned. The other girls took off. I stood there looking down at her. I thought she would get up, lunge at me, something. I wanted her to. I wanted to fight her. To tear her apart. But she didn’t. She didn’t even get up. She just sat there. Then she started crying. A large scrape ran across her face where it had hit the brick wall. I almost felt bad for her. Almost.
“Please done hurt me,” she said between sobs.
I didn’t. I turned away. I was learning. Limping painfully, I headed for the hospital. I knew what I had to do.
A week went by before I saw James again. Before I showed my face in public. I had thought Candy would retaliate. But she didn’t. By then my face was almost healed and I could walk normally again. I was pretty again.
He was standing with a couple of his buddies when I found him, under the shade of a tree in the playground. Guards in their important uniforms with important badges, watching the stupid kids in their little cage. He stiffened as I walked up to him, stopping mid sentence.
“James?” I asked. He didn’t answer. I stepped closer. “James?”
“What?!” He said, his face still averted, lips closed tightly and jaw working. No one else spoke, they just gaped.
I took a deep breath and let it out. In my most innocent voice I began.
“James? Please don’t be mad at me. All I wanted was to ask you a question.”
His gaze flicked from side to side, to behind him and back, doing his best not to look me in the eyes. But he couldn’t tell me to leave. He knew he couldn’t. “What do you want, kid?”
“I – I need your help, James. I… have an itch that I…”
I looked up at him, my tongue softly touching my upper lip. “I want more.”
“You what?” He asked, cutting me off.
“I – please James… will you help me?…”
He scrunched his brow as one of his buddies let out an excited hoot.
“Do it, James!” He said, punching him in the shoulder. “The nasty little bitch wants it! Do it!”
He pursed his lips, looking from one to the next and then to me. Or almost to me. He still couldn’t bring himself to look me in the eyes.
“Where to?” He finally asked, a little smile on his face. Arrogant asshole.
I turned and began walking away. For a moment I thought he wasn’t going to follow. I looked back at him over my shoulder, biting my tongue. I hope it looked like longing. Or something. I turned back around and continued walking. I could hear his footsteps behind me now.
I walked across the playground, past kids talking or playing tic tac toe in the dirt. Everywhere I went kids looked up, stared. Good. I wanted them to see.
I led him up the steps of the schoolhouse and through the barren, dust covered lobby where empty light sockets made perfect nests for pigeons and the corners were used as spare bathrooms by kids whose mothers abandoned them before they knew what a toilet was.
Up the first set of stairs we went, turning and up the next. Four flights we went and I didn’t look back once. But I could hear his boots pounding away and the labored breathing. From exertion? At the top of the fourth flight was a small landing. I crossed this to a narrower set of steps and up we went again to an old rust covered door, wagging slightly on it’s hinges from the breeze outside. I pushed it open, stepping into the sun on the gravel strewn surface of the roof.
“Where are we going?” He asked as he followed me out.
I didn’t answer. I walked across the roof, gravel crunching under my government issue shoes. I walked to the edge of the building where there was no guard rail, only open space. Below me the playground lay spread out. A few of the kids looked up. Then more. Good.
“What… are you doing?” He asked, a confused smile on his face.
I didn’t respond. I turned around so my back faced the playground. Slowly, very slowly, I lifted my shirt up, up, up above my head, dropping it on the gravel beside me. Several catcalls came from below but I ignored them. He bit his lip, fingers furling and unfurling. I could hear his breathing again.
I fastened my eyes on his, locking him in. “C’mere.”
One hand went around me, fingers digging into the flesh of my back. The other went to my breast, pressing and squeezing.
Very slowly I reached into my back pocket, pulling out the surgical knife I had stolen from the hospital a week earlier. His hand was working it’s way down the side of my body to my pants. His lips mashed against mine, the scent of stale cigarettes hot on his breath.
Reaching up with my other hand, my fingers gently traced the muscles of his back, finding the soft spots between the ribs, the open spots. When I was half way up I slid the knife in.
His body went rigid as warm blood covered my hand. I pulled it out. He stumbled backwards, trying to get away. But I held him there, sliding the knife in again and again, turning us around so that his back now faced the playground.
He coughed and blood dribbled from his lips as he raised his fingers in an attempt to stop me. The heel of his boot stepped back, hovering for a moment over four stories of nothing. I put my hand on his chest and pushed.
There was a dull thud as his body hit the pavement below.
I stood there, still as a doe, as behind me the rusty door slammed open and boots crunched across the gravel toward me.