Because guys shouldn’t talk to girls like that. Because my own father doesn’t speak to me that way. I deserve to be treated better. At least I think so. My eyes burn and I quickly blink. My life is so twisted I’m not sure what’s correct anymore.
I’ve been hanging upside down for too long and a terrifying doubt wedges itself in my brain, asking the question…is this normal? Is this right? And the horrifying part is the small voice answering, “Yes.”
Dad grabs my shoulders and I gasp. He turns me, forcing me to stare at him. Fire blazes from his eyes. “No one should talk to you that way. Do you hear me, Haley?”
“But he does.” My throat thickens with every word. “And you let him.”
Dad releases me as if my skin were layered with acid. “I’m sorry,” he mumbles. “I’m your father… I should…”
He pivots slightly, angled half toward the living room, half toward me. The gray of his skin is what worries me and causes me to snag his wrist, to keep him from deciding between fighting for his daughter and giving the rest of his family a place to live. “It’s okay.”
It’s not. I’ve never desired anything more than for my father to tell me I’m worth saving, that I’m worth being stood up for. I press my fingers into his skin until he meets my gaze. “It’s okay.”
The sane part of my brain knows it’s selfish for me to even want it, because my uncle would throw us out and we’d have nowhere to live. But if I’m going to be honest, if I thoroughly analyze the black monsters inhabiting my soul, I’d discover I’m stopping him because if given the opportunity, even without repercussions, I doubt he’d believe I’m worth more than what my uncle thinks of me and I’m not sure I can handle the truth.
My father nods and moves his arm so we no longer touch. A hand through his hair, then he clears his throat. “I’m going to the library.”
“At least take Maggie with you.” At least save her. In movements so deliberate that I mimic a marionette on a string, I turn from him, take vegetables out of the fridge and close it. He’s gone when I turn back.
I slice a knife through the potato and listen as he mumbles his destination to my uncle, tells Maggie to grab her coat and closes the front door.
A numbness shrouds my body. One slice of the potato, then another. The same motion again and again. There’s an awareness you have when you reside with evil. A presence. Tiny whispers snapping at your energy. The only thing preserving your sanity, the only thing that helps you sleep at night is the idea that others surround you. That somehow together you can be protected. My spine straightens and a shiver runs through me.
A few blocks up from Haley, I lean on the glass of the pawn-shop display counter and count the wad of cash the street-hustler-owner of the joint just gave me. The owner reminds me of a fattened hog prepared especially for Christmas as the legs of the stool he sits on creak under his weight.
“You don’t trust me,” he says.
“No.” I got played on the cost of my watch, even with negotiating him much higher than his initial price. Now I have money for food, gas and a few items for school. The temptation to rent a hotel room hovers around me, but I’ve got to think further than that.
“Good,” he says. “It means you’re smart.”
The glass cases on the wall contain guns and electronics. In the display below me, a couple of old baseball players stare at me from their cards. When I count out three hundred for the second time, I shove the wad into my front pocket. An ass**le pickpocket is going to have a rough time digging in the front of my jeans to get their gold.
“Anyone around here hiring?” At this point, I’ll shovel shit if it means I can have a roof over my head.
A smoker’s hack shakes his fat rolls. “Everyone’s looking for a job, boy.”
Yeah, I’m sure they are. Here’s the problem with landing a job: I need a phone and unless I plan on returning home with my tail tucked between my legs to retrieve my charger or to beg Dad to take me back, I’m SOL.
I scratch my head as I leave the shop and pause against the wall. Two skaters fly past. My stomach growls and a pang shoots through it, almost doubling me over. Hunger. It’s surreal that a few days ago I was here stalking my mother.
My temples throb, and as I spot a guy head out of the grocery store with a loaf of bread dangling from his hand, I bury the urge to snatch it from him. I’ve got money now and can buy my own loaf of bread. Maybe some meat.
Every time I came here peddling for pot, I’d mumble to some lowlife pleading for change to get a job. The pounding in my head intensifies. I’d get a job if I could. In a world that seemed black-and-white days before, now all I can see is gray.
Down the covered sidewalk, two guys stumble out of the bar, completely ripped. I used to come here to protect my mother. Each time I think of her, I feel like a frayed string is winding tightly around a nerve, cutting it off. I should find a pay phone and call her.
Gravity or just plain magnetic curiosity pulls me in the direction of the bar. There are three signs on its door and one grabs my attention. It’s not the one that indicates no one under twenty-one can be admitted nor is it the one stating motorcycle gang colors aren’t allowed. I’m interested in the help wanted sign: bartender and handyman. If I work here, I can score some cash and possibly some information on Mom.
Inside, the strong odor of spilled beer permeates from the drywall. To my right, a guy in a wifebeater breaks the balls on the pool table. The loud crack thunders in the boxed-in room and Hank Williams croons over the speakers. Neon signs advertising different beers hang on the wall and illuminate the dark dive.
My shoes stick to the concrete floor and, as I walk to the bar, I try to find one redeeming reason why my mother frequents this dump, even if it is for a f**k. Mom’s in her fifties, but she still turns the heads of guys at those charity balls. No need to lower or demean herself.
“Hey,” I call to the Vin Diesel bartender hovering over a small laptop. He’s a huge son of a bitch with a completely shaved head. “I hear you’re looking for help.”
“You a bartender?” he asks without glancing up.
I’ve mixed a few drinks at parties and nobody died. “No.”
“Then I don’t want you.”
“You should check him out, Denny,” says that same damn feminine voice that keeps popping up at the wrong times. Like the beginning of a bad dirty joke, Abby waltzes into the bar. She brushes past me and reminds me of a lazy cat as she slips onto a bar stool. “S’up, West.”