Authors: Holly Hart
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wo years ago
, the last place I expected to be was
I never imagined I'd still be desperately trying to plan and scheme, to scrape together some way out of this mess. Life’s like that. It’s not all roses and gorgeous men sweeping you off your feet. At least, it never was for me - not for a long time, anyway.
“You can do this, girl,” I muttered under my breath. I doubt anyone could have heard me, even if they stood with their ear pressed half an inch from my mouth, so close their hair danced with my breath. I’m used to it by now – talking without anyone hearing, without
anyone to hear.
And without having anyone who’d want to hear me, even if I did. “You
to do this.”
Still, knowing that something needs to be done is a whole hell of a long way away from actually
. I knew exactly where to find our birth certificates, Kitty’s and mine – locked in dad’s moneybox - under the bed that he and mom used to share.
I’d seen them, so close, yet so far every time I handed over my wages at the end of the week. It was like he was taunting me, teasing me with a vision of something he would never let me have.
, he called it.
But I’d been expected to work ever since the morning I turned fifteen.
pushed me out the door and told me I better not come back without a job. I didn’t, not for a week. That was five years ago. And every week since, I’ve paid into that chipped red box.: stacks of ones, fives, wrinkled tens; even a fifty, every now and then. But I never saw a red cent of it, not after dad took it.
I never called him Russell to his face, but only because I knew he’d only beat the
back into me if I slipped up. It’s hard to disobey, even in the quiet of your own head.
, he called it.
He would lecture me, acting as if he was a candidate for father of the year. Like passing out on a faded brown leather couch, surrounded by crushed metal cans, is a shining testament to the way his parents raised him.
No – I wasn’t going to stand for it a second longer. I couldn’t. Not now that he was taking an interest in Kitty. Not now that I actually had a life on the line; a life that meant more to me than my own sad, broken existence. Not now that there was someone more to stand up for; someone who makes me more than I am; and more than I’ve become.
Getting out, though, was easier said than done. I’d done everything I could. Resigned myself to losing every possession I owned, except what I managed to sneak out of there; mostly Kitty’s clothes, anyway. There was only one thing left to do.
Get our documents – passports, birth certificates – that kind of thing.
“You can do without them,”
the kindly woman at the shelter had said, a sad, knowing look glinting in her eyes.
“And don’t put yourself in harm’s way just to get a couple of pieces of paper, you hear?
But it might help speed things up – housing, a little allowance – that kind of thing.”
And that’s why I was back at dad’s – Russell’s – front door, my key trembling in my hand. As I stood there, wavering, the memory of the little lady’s words echoing in my ears, a small piece of paint freed itself from the peeling green door.
I watched it the whole way, as a breeze swept through the aging, drafty tenement block building and caught it. The paintwork had looked proud, once. Dad did it – back when he was dad, not Russell. Back when mom was still around.
The little, dry fleck of paint danced like a feather on an insistent late fall breeze. It reminded me of the way I was, once – lively, strong – proud. Back when dad was “dad”, and mom was still around. It kept flying, and my eyes tracked it as long as they could, sticking to the little piece of debris like it was a sign in the darkness.
And then it was gone, disappearing into the murky gloom of the fifth floor hallway of a tenement of a block that should have been demolished a year after it was built, a place where light bulbs didn’t last a day before being taken by even lighter fingers.
I chose five in the evening, because I knew that by then, dad should be asleep. He followed a simple schedule, like a Buddhist monk – only nowhere near so enlightened. He woke by midday sharp for his lunchtime stroll. He returned ten minutes later. Twenty if the nearest grocery store was out of beer.
And then he drank, in front of the television, for hours: by four he got sleepy; by five – passed out.
The aged lock protested as the trembling key’s metal teeth bit into it, startling me out of my daydream. I shook my head to clear it.
Game face, Cara
, I thought fiercely, biting into the fleshiest part of my bottom lip. It was hard enough to draw the slightest drop of coppery blood. Now wasn’t the time to mess about.
If everything went to plan, I could be in and out in minutes – and gone for good. With my birth certificate, I could change my name, and Kitty’s, in days and go somewhere far, far away. It would be somewhere warm and sunny, where Russell would never be able to hurt me again. Not that I expected he’d search for too long.
Do you really believe that? He's a proud man. He won't take betrayal lying down…
I pressed my shoulder against the door, pushing against where it stuck to the frame, and was greeted by another little shower of faded green flecks of paint. The door squeaked open as wood ground against wood, and I cringed, as if shrinking in on myself would help me hide from Russell’s swinging fists.
I shouldn’t have worried. It opened another inch, and I heard his snores rumbling from the living room.
But, as if in a dark, operatic, foreboding chorus, another sound joined that grumbling wheeze: a dog’s growl.
“Hey, Rat,” I said quietly, fumbling in the otherwise-empty duffel bag slung over my shoulder. “Here, look at what I’ve got for you!”
I tossed a heavy, raw beef bone in his direction, regretting it the second it thumped against the old, creaky wooden floorboards. I took my eye off one foreboding animal to check on the other one, slumped on the couch. He didn’t move an inch.
Rat was Russell’s dog.
“It’s short for Rattler,”
“Because he’s scary
– he rattles people, get it?”
I got it. He wasn’t just scary, he was goddamn terrifying. A German Shepherd mix, Rat was a mutt from the pound. When Russell got him, he was already missing half an ear. Two years later, nothing had been done to improve his temperament. He’d barely been walked, unless I offered – and I was usually too afraid. Training? Forget about it.
And he wasn’t a rat dog, either – a little Chihuahua, or a pug; the kind of dog that might nip at your ankles – that you could simply shoo away.
He was big, mean, and in my way.
My eyes flicked back to Rat eagerly, expecting to see him pick up the bloody, meaty bone and take himself to a corner to gnaw at it. He glared at me instead, turning his untrusting, dark brown eyes on me and staring.
At any other time, in any other place, facing any other dog, it might have been cute. His eyes were deep, soulful orbs, the kind you could drown in. But Rat wasn’t any other dog – and he had me rattled.
The little apartment that Russell, Kitty and I all shared together sometimes seemed to be run like a tinpot dictatorship. My father ran it like a tyrant. Rat was his loyal general – and Kitty and I? We fed off scraps.
I knew that if I tried to sneak into Russell’s room, and Rat saw, then I was in for a whole world of hurt. He’d bark, my father would wake with a start, and with a splitting headache, and off would come his belt. I couldn’t let that happen. My distraction
“Come on, Rat,” I crooned quietly. “You know you want it. It tastes way better than kibble, trust me…”
His ears, all one and a half of them, pricked up, and he cocked his head to one side. I could see the gears turning in his brain, watched as his snout dropped down an inch, towards the enticing chunk of meat and bone.
It was a mighty battle, between nature and duty. But this time, nature won out. At least, Rat’s stomach did; at least, for now.
I’d picked the treat out especially for him, aware that his usual diet consisted of whatever Russell passed out holding. He couldn’t resist, and as his head dropped for the second time, he was committed.
Safe – for the moment. With the sound of chewing and cracking bone ringing in my ears, I crept down the short, fetid hallway. My room was at the end on the left and his on the right. Only a couple of feet separated either doorway, but it might as well have been a canyon, for all we shared. He disgusted me.
Seeing it like this, for the last time – or so I hoped – made me look at the cramped, dark hallway with fresh eyes. Like the rest of the tiny apartment, it smelled of stale beer and discarded food.
It didn’t matter how often or hard I scrubbed. When my father passed out, he spilled whatever he was holding – food; drink; sometimes even the contents of his own gut.
happened more often than I cared to remember.
I stood at the threshold of his bedroom, my legs stuck fast like they were encased in concrete. A wave of nausea passed through me, and my stomach compressed into a tight, tiny ball, as though it found itself pressed into the grip of an iron vice with no hope of escape.
Come on, Cara
, I urged myself.
You don’t have time for this
But that voice seemed so far away, and so faint that I barely registered it. Repressed memory burst into my brain with all the vigor of a firework exploding into a dark, moonless night – but none of the joy. My eyes closed of their own accord, and the cloying smell of the dank hallway faded away. A different scent filled my nostrils, a cleaner one, and I knew where I was at once.
I couldn’t have been more than five years old, because that’s when mom left. The smell was fresh laundry, my pajamas. It was the only good thing about this memory. My bedroom was dark, and I clung to the railings of my crib like the bars of a prison cell. Terrible sounds filled my ears – monsters in the dark. Mom always told me that monsters didn’t exist, but I knew better. I heard them every night, prowling and skulking in the darkness.
“No, Russell –“
I heard a cracking sound, like the snap of a whip.
Then came a slurring voice; a monster’s voice. “Don’t argue, bitch.”
Finally, a cry of pain.
I bit down on my lip for the second time that evening, and this time blood flowed freely into my mouth. It dragged me back to the present. I passed through the doorway in a daze, thinking of all the hurt dished out on my mom in this room. And then to the women who came after; a new one every year to mark his birthday.
And finally, as Russell’s skin yellowed and his brow wrinkled, there were only street whores. But even they stopped coming, after word got out what happened to the women who entered that bedroom. When heroin junkies look at you with pity, as you walk back from school – that’s when you know you’ve got problems.
the suffering inflicted in here, as though it had been expelled onto the floor with cries of protest and pain, forming a cloying swamp. I trudged through the hurt, and knelt by the bed, eyeing the room’s stained filth with distaste. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I glanced around the room, every nerve ending crackling with nervous tension.
Get going already
I pulled the lockbox out from underneath the mattress, warm fingers shivering as they embraced cold metal. It rattled. It was battered and chipped after long years of service – and broken, too. I’d known that, of course. It had been for months.
Russell’s mind was far too dulled by drink to think of buying a new one. Even a flimsy fraction of an inch of steel with a functioning lock was too much of a barrier between him and his drink. For me, it was a welcome gateway to my future.
I cast an anxious look over my left shoulder, ears straining in a desperate attempt to detect any sign of Rat’s threatening growl. But only the faintest sound of voracious, aggressive chewing floated down the hallway as he devoured the treat – bone and all. It was enough to make a girl shiver.
I opened the door gently, careful not to make a sound. Deep inside, I harbored a faint, scarcely realistic hope that Russell hadn’t frittered away every last cent I’d ever earned. I was like the kid whose parents forget their birthday every year.
, they whisper into the pillow.
This time it’ll be different…
The possibility hung from my strained nerves, like a frayed rope rubbing against a glass-sharp cliff face. It only took a second to smash that dream into a million fragments. The rope severed, and I fell with it, crashing back to reality: all my wages; all those years of hard work; all gone; all wasted at the end of a bottle.
A few nickels rattled amongst scattered dollar bills, but otherwise the lockbox was bare, except for the precious documents I’d taken such a desperate risk to recover. It was a kick in the gut, the kind that might have laid another girl low. Not me, though. I stuffed them into the duffel bag by my side, clutching at them gratefully.
As I pulled them out, something came with them. It came half way out, before falling back to the floor with a hiss of displaced air.
I saw an envelope: old, worn, even somewhat yellowed with age.
Marked with an old-fashioned script, it plucked a chord within me, a memory.
It was my mother’s handwriting.
I took it. I had to. I wasn’t an orphan, not
. But every day when I woke up, I felt like one. My mom left me, and the dad I knew departed too, if only to his own personal hell of drink, drugs, and depression. A tear rolled down my cheek.
This wasn’t the time for it, but I had to know. I had to know why she left, how she could have done that to her own child – her only child. A fierce, desperate hope surged through me. A hope that maybe, just maybe, she left an explanation, a way back home. But I didn’t have time to open it, not now. I thrust it into the bag and zipped it tight.