Authors: Evelyn R. Baldwin
Evelyn R. Baldwin
Copyright © 2012 Evelyn Baldwin
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Table of Contents
I grew up in a small house in a lower-class neighborhood, just my dad and me. My old man worked a blue-collar job with shit benefits. I can’t complain too much though, because I never went hungry and always had a roof over my head.
No, my dad didn’t hug me every night or read bedtime stories by the glow of a nightlight, but he fed me, clothed me, and didn’t knock me around. That’s more than some of my friends had, so I was grateful. I hadn’t known then, growing up, that there was anything more in life to want.
I was fifteen when my father left just after dinner to buy a pack of cigarettes. He never came home.
My dad was shot in a convenience store parking lot after he gave the wrong guy the wrong look. He walked down to get some smokes and didn’t take his wallet, just five bucks for the cheapest pack he could get. He was shot at point-blank range, no cigarettes or money found on his person.
He was listed as a John Doe at the morgue. There was no burial and no identity when he moved from this life to the next.
I was on my own for a week before anyone realized I was alone. I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut, to get up and go to school every day. I figured I had at least three or four months before a bill collector came knocking, but the nosy bitch across the street hadn’t seen the old man in a week and was “worried.”
That’s when I began my life in the system. It’s not like on TV; when you’re an orphan in an after school special, they ship your ass off to a relative and everyone lives happily ever after. In real life, though, if you don’t have family that wants you—or family at all, you become a ward of the state. Sure, they have foster homes and
families that some kids get to live with, but there are a shit-ton of homeless kids and few foster families available. Many foster parents are in it for the money, so they aren't exactly the best option, either. Typically, you’re stuck in a group home with other kids in the same messed up situation as you and a revolving door of caregivers. However, I had a bed to sleep in, clothes on my back, and I was not a victim of abuse. It wasn’t all that different from living with my dad.
At eighteen, Children's Services kicked my ass out. There were lots of kids to take care of and not a lot of money. Luckily, I’d gotten a job at a grocery store as a bag boy at sixteen and began saving. I wasn’t stupid or naive enough to think the state was going to take care of me forever. I was fortunate enough to have graduated from high school before I got the boot; some kids had to worry about finishing school in addition to being homeless.
My father told me many times I couldn’t depend on anyone but myself, and I never realized how right he was before the day I was truly on my own.
With my savings in hand and a promotion to stock-boy, I got my first place. It was the cheapest place I could find in a neighborhood without bars on the windows. It was small and dirty, but it was mine. There weren’t gunshots whizzing by my windows or the sounds of screaming every night, so I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
My life hasn’t changed much in the past three years. I get up every morning, walk to the grocery store, clock in, work a ten hour shift, clock out, come home, mind my own business, and do it again the next day.
I don’t have friends because they create lots of complications and drama. I spend my time at work smiling at the customers and doing my job. Co-workers ask me out from time to time, but the truth is I don’t have extra money to have a few beers with the guys or take a girl on a date. I’m always careful with my rejection. There’s no sense in hurting anyone’s feelings when it’s not necessary. Plus, it would lead to questions I'm not willing to answer.
I’m sitting alone at my thrift store kitchen table, staring down at a day-old cookie. It’s my twenty-first birthday today. I don’t have any plans, and there are no cards in my mailbox. I’m having dessert for breakfast, a treat to myself, and I’m thankful for what little I have.
It’s sad as hell, but I don’t have any candles so I light a match and jam it in the middle of the damn cookie. I don’t even make a wish before I blow out the tiny flame so it doesn’t burn down and ruin my treat.
No sooner than the flame’s gone out, there’s a knock at my door. I look at my dollar store wall clock and see it’s only nine. I can't imagine who would be at my door this early on a Saturday morning. Most of my neighbors sleep in after a late Friday night.
Even though I’m twenty-one, I tend to think of myself as more mature than most people my age, so when I open the door and see a girl, petite and fragile in appearance, I automatically think she’s young. She may even be my age, maybe younger, but my experience makes me feel like I’m over thirty, so she seems like a girl to me.
She’s standing there smiling as if she doesn’t have a care in the world, obviously not knowing people around here don’t smile. I peer at her through the ripped screen of my front door as the heat and humidity of the day filters in.
“Hey, what’s up? I’m Emily. I just moved in next door.”
I’m staring, which is something I don’t make a habit of. Eye contact typically invites people into conversations, and I’m not a fan of chit-chat. I stand in the doorway with an awkward pause, like I’m unfamiliar with waving as an appropriate means to say hello. My pause before I answer her is a pace too long, and the situation is somewhat uncomfortable as I stand there waiting for her to offer up more information.
More importantly, I want to know why she’s knocking on my door, and I hope it’s not so we can get to know each other.
Since several more seconds pass without further exchange, I finally cave in and offer myself up. “Hey, I’m Ethan,” I say wanting to keep it simple. I don’t want to get sucked into a conversation with her, but I don’t want to be rude, either. She can tell I’m a little put out with her presence, so she gets right to the point. The last thing I need is an overly perky neighbor who thinks we’re “pals.”
“Sorry, I was just having trouble getting a window open. It’s going to be a hot one, you know, and I don’t have the electricity turned on yet. They want some freaking deposit since I don’t have a credit history. It’s like, ‘Hello, I’m living in a crappy house, in a crappy neighborhood. If I had good credit, I wouldn’t be living here.’ Anyway, I want to get the window open to get air moving through, and I think it’s painted shut. I don’t want to be all ‘damsel in distress,’ but I can’t pry the darn thing open…”
My thoughts trail off and I realize this is the most anyone has said to me in years. Perky girl is still talking, but I’m continuously distracted by her mere presence and the fact that her chest spills over the top of her tank. She’s pretty cute, but I try not to dwell on her appearance as lustful thoughts won’t lead anywhere good.
“So you think you could come help me?” I know I missed some information in there, but I’m not going to ask for clarification or for her to repeat it.
“Sure, no problem.”
I follow behind her, but at a safe distance. I don’t want the offer of my help and me being polite to some girl mistaken for flirting. It sounds conceited, but it’s happened before. It’s better not to give them any sense of false hope. I mind my own business and live my life; today will be no exception. She shows me the window in question, and sure enough, it’s painted shut. I roll my eyes at the incredibly inept and lazy maintenance people for doing a half-assed paint job.
“Um, I’ll be right back. I’ll have to get something to cut this open.” I turn to head out her front door, but she stops me.
“Oh, wait. Like a box cutter? I have one of those. I think the maintenance people left it here by mistake.” She rummages in a kitchen drawer then presents me with a paint covered box knife. As I work the window, she asks me several questions related to the area. My answers are succinct since I’m not really receptive to the
game. The “Twenty Questions” moderator doesn’t get the hint though, and keeps on with the game. “So, how long have you lived here?”
“A few years.”
“Do you know many of the neighbors?”
“I don’t talk to the neighbors much, so I don’t know anything about them.” I’m hopeful my continued shortness helps her get the hint that I’m not interested in a conversation.
“Wow, you’re pretty quiet, huh?”
“So, what do you do for fun?”
I’m caught off guard by her question. I can’t recall when I’ve had fun, so I’m not sure how to respond. I stand up straight, rolling my shoulders back and craning my neck in a stretch, attempting to buy a little time for my answer. While I don’t particularly care what this girl thinks of me, I don’t want to come off like a total loser, either.
“Look, I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t mean to pry. I’ve bothered you enough this morning. You’ve been so nice, helping me out and all. I’m gonna…” she trails off and I go back to working the window, popping it open a few seconds later.
“I’ll see you around,” I tell her, raising the window to its fully open state. She quickly dismisses me with another small wave, and I leave to go back to my own little corner of the earth. Despite the fact that I’ve been in her unit for less than five minutes, it doesn’t escape my notice that there’s no furniture or a TV, just a mattress on the floor of her bedroom.
Maybe the moving truck with her stuff hasn’t arrived yet
, I think to myself. In the back of my mind, I know there isn’t more stuff coming. People like us don’t have
or the need for moving trucks.
I’m lying in bed, thinking about the stupid question she asked me.
“What do you do for fun?”
How could such a simple question send me into a tailspin?
That’s when I hear a whimper. It’s been a while since anyone’s lived next door, and the last guy who lived there was never home, so I’m used to quiet. The walls are thin in apartments like this, cheaply built and economically priced rental units. Much expense was spared in their construction. I’m certain we share no more than a few two-by-fours and two slabs of sheetrock as the wall. It doesn’t provide any more privacy than that found between bedrooms in the same home instead of two separate residences. I turn my head, thinking it will improve my ability to discern what I think I’m hearing. It doesn’t, but then I hear muted sobbing. That can only mean one thing—new neighbor girl is crying. I turn away, wanting the sound to stop; I don’t want to be involved.