Thursday, September 11 - 5:53 PM PDT
The clink of the poker chips against the green felt table sounds a lot like the ice hitting the side of my opponent’s whiskey tumbler. He takes a sip and smiles at me over the rim of the glass, the indulgent smile an uncle might give his favorite nephew. I’m not his nephew, though. He doesn’t have any nephews.
I’ve been playing against John Owens for years, long enough to know his tells by heart. Right now, with the glint in his eyes, the way his thumb caresses his tumbler when he sets it down on the table, and the careful distance he keeps from the cards sitting face down in front of him, I know he has a solid hand. Full house or better.
Hopefully my four queens will be enough.
I’ve been playing against John Owens for years, long enough to know his tells by heart.for Right now, with the glint in his eyes, the way his thumb caresses his tumbler when he sets it down on the table, and the careful distance he keeps from the cards sitting face down in front of him, I know he has a solid hand. Full house or better.
I shrug and call, adding another $550 to the pot. “Lynnie’s good.” If you call falling fast into the well of debt, drinking, and decay “good.” “She’s working at Flash still.” At least, she was yesterday.
“Same old Jacquelyn then, huh, kiddo?” Brandon folded early this round and now he’s lounging in the armchair like it’s a couch.
They’ve known her too long (she stopped introducing herself as Jacquelyn when she turned thirty) to think she’s going to grow up now. They don’t know the worst of it, though. To them she’s a free spirit, but a good mother. I barely keep from rolling my eyes.
“Always a child at heart,” I say, forcing a laugh even though my chest tightens. I really wish she’d grow up.
“I forget.” Bai Chang rubs his thumb along his wrinkled cheek, his dark eyes narrow. “How old were you the first time you snuck up here? I fold, by the way.”
He places his cards facedown and sits back. I smile. Years ago I distracted the Bellagio’s concierge long enough to swipe a master keycard and sneak up the elevator on a night I knew John was hosting a private poker game. Friendly, but not exactly playing for chump change. The guys had been regulars at the hotel long enough that Lynnie knew them and I knew I could get them to give me a chance.
“I was ten.”
“Couldn’t believe it when you begged us to teach you to play,” Brandon says, laughing. “Little imp. Jacquelyn was mad as fire when she figured out you’d found your way up here.”
Yeah. Mad because I hadn’t brought her with me.
“Gentlemen,” John smirks and winks at me, “and Julian, I think this round might be mine.”
I stare at the cards he reveals . A straight flush. “Oh Sinatra bless it.”
The guys laugh. That stupid phrase I picked up from Lynnie always makes them laugh; it’s pretty much the only reason I made it a habitual thing. I flick my useless hand onto the table and smile ruefully at them, pretending to laugh with them, but in my head I quickly calculate the remaining chips in front of me and the odds of convincing them to play another hand. Normally it wouldn’t be a problem, but John’s granddaughter is in Vegas for the week (a combination trip to visit family and celebrate her best friend’s eighteenth birthday in style, apparently) and there’s no way I’m talking him into being late to dinner with her.
Only $2,500 tonight. The cards just weren’t with me. If I hadn’t bluffed my way through most of the hands, I wouldn’t have even made this much. It isn’t enough. This will cover a payment on Lynnie’s more pressing debts, but I’m going to have to find another game this weekend to make rent. Forget food or electricity. That might not happen.
Taking a deep breath, I shake that train of thought off the tracks and refocus. My fault. I skipped two games this month because of the marketing internship I’d been working. Thought it’d be okay, but Lynnie’s losses outpaced my gains. By a lot.
John stands, buttoning his suit jacket as he does. That’s the signal. It’s time to go.
“A pleasure, as always, my friends,” John says as everyone cashes out their winnings and pays up any losses. “Same time next week?”
Smiles, nods, jokes, and handshakes follow as Brandon, Bai, and I head for the elevator. Halfway there, John taps my shoulder and holds me back, his brown eyes scanning my face.
“Things really okay, kid?”
Looking up at him, I know I could play this a few different ways. If I laugh and show off the bullet-hole dimple in my cheek, tell him about the (nonexistent) regular who tips Lynnie well, and ask him about his granddaughter, he’ll go off thinking everything really is fine. If I hint that Lynnie might be on the verge of losing her crappy job at Flash because of her habit of being an hour or more late, he’ll probably spend the next week trying to think about if and how he should help. If I smile (without the dimple), shrug, and play the story down the middle, though …
Smiling, I shrug. “It’s been a slow month, but we’re good. Really.”
John’s already thin lips almost disappear as he considers my answer. I hold my breath, waiting. It only takes him a couple of seconds to reach into his pocket for his wallet and pull out a wad of bills. “You’re a good kid, Julian.”
“John, no.” I make my eyes wide and push the bills back into his hand t even though I desperately want to shove them in my pocket and run. “I appreciate it like you wouldn’t believe, but we’ll be fine. Honestly.”
He laughs. “That right there proves it. How many fifteen-year-olds would turn down a no-strings-attached wad of cash?” John shakes his head and closes my hand around the bills. The deeply etched lines around his eyes get deeper as he grins.
I force a blush to my cheeks, knowing the freckles across my nose stand out more against the pink and make me look even younger than fifteen. I play it up whenever I need to, because it works. Without looking at the bills, I nod and push them deep into my pocket. “Thank you, John.”
He nods, looking pleased with himself and probably feeling both virtuous and generous. Which he is. We leave the suite together and I listen to him talk about his granddaughter’s insanely high SAT score and her long-term agony over the choice between a West Coast school or one in the Ivy League. I comment whenever necessary (which isn’t often) and swallow the resentment building in the pit of my stomach. When we reach the lobby, I repeat my thanks and wave goodbye, heading out the doors and north toward the Stratosphere.
On the three-mile walk home, my mind churns. Take time off to travel after high school or plunge straight into life at a fancy college? Please. I wish I had her problems.
Sighing, I stop at the edge of the small parking lot in front of the (motel-look-alike) apartment building hidden behind the Stratosphere complex. The paint is peeling and the slightly angled roof desperately needs a pressure washing. Music blasts from one of the apartments, sirens wail in the distance, and the baby in 1-C is screaming again.
I walk up the steps to the second floor, the hand in my pocket fingering the folded wad of (technically illegally obtained) bills that will get Lynnie and me through another month in this disaster of an apartment.
Sinatra save me. What wouldn’t I do or give or pay to have college be the biggest stressor in my life?
Once upon a midnight more dry than dreary, while I pondered weak and really pissed off with the world in general, a door opened in the wall of my bedroom. I thought I’d fallen asleep somewhere between tearing apart the eviction notice I’d found tacked to the door that afternoon and punching a hole in the cracked drywall, so I stepped through that inviting portal of pale-gold light with only a few seconds of hesitation. Inside, I found a world as different from the deserts of Nevada as possible.
The rocky shoreline stretched for over a mile in a soft crescent shape, outcroppings of rock on either end creating a natural barrier and quieting the waves before they entered the bay. Massive trees (sequoias, I guessed from pictures I’d seen) grew above the rocks, their branches swaying in the cool breeze that blew off the water. Standing in the center of it all was a guy who looked like he was maybe in his twenties. He had an angular face framed by long auburn hair, violet eyes, and a surprisingly soft voice. He introduced himself as Orane.
I’ve been back to his world (which I sometimes jokingly call Narnia) every night at midnight for the past two years, and Orane has earned my respect, becoming something between a much older brother and a mentor. I trust him with all the grime and secrets in my life and he does whatever he can to help me. I trust him. I do. But oh, by Sinatra’s last cigar do I wish I hadn’t agreed to this particular adventure.
“Are you sure about this?” I ask Orane as he edges closer to the door. Through the small window inset in the white-painted panel, all I see is pale blue.
He was way more serious than I thought about grinding my fear of heights into dust. Each night it’s been a different challenge, and each one has knocked my fear down another notch, but hiking the Rockies or standing on the glass floor of the Willis Tower overlooking Chicago is really not (at all) the same thing as what he has planned tonight. There’s facing your fear and then there’s insanity.
Skydiving is freaking insane.
“The last test,” Orane says with a grin. “If you can face this tonight, no height will ever challenge you.”
He opens the door of the plane and the wind whips into the cabin, pushing me back against the opposite wall. The last lingering bubble of fear swells in my chest. I cling to the strap hanging from the ceiling and shake my head. What about that scratch on my cheek I brought back from the dream world last week? Injuries here matter. I may be asleep, but hitting the ground at terminal velocity will still kill me.
“This isn’t about heights! It’s about not dying!” I shout at him.
“Death is an inevitable part of life. If your fear keeps you from living, you might as well let death claim you now.”
Orane holds out his hand. He’s barely recognizable in his jumpsuit, helmet, and goggles. His grin is the same, though, and I never have been able to turn down a challenge he’s thrown at me. However much I may want to.
Grabbing his hand, I let him pull me across the plane until I’m standing in front of the open door. Ahead I see nothing but cloudless sky. Gulping a breath, I look down and know what a satellite feels like. I think I’d rather be in space. Maybe we can do that instead. I start to turn to ask Orane, but then his head is next to mine and he’s speaking into my ear.
“Pull the red cord first.” Orane yanks my hand off the doorframe and shoves me out of the plane.
I can’t help it. I scream. I scream like a five-year-old as the wind pushes against me but does nothing to slow me down. I’m freefalling. My heart is pounding. All I can hear is the wind. Only fear is keeping me warm against the bite of the air. My hands search for the cord. I can’t remember where it is. This feels like a cord. Or is that the strap holding my backpack in place? What if I pull the wrong thing and lose the chute?
Holy Frank Sinatra, I’m going to die.
But not for a while, apparently.
We jumped from miles above the land, much higher than would be possible on Earth without an oxygen mask. But that means I have way too much time to process what’s happening. Lynnie went skydiving once and spent the whole next day complaining it was over too fast. I can’t say the same thing. It seems like I’ve been falling for five minutes and the ground isn’t getting any closer.
Something f shoots past me like a torpedo. I flinch away, the motion sending me spinning through the air. When I finally stabilize, I spot Orane careening toward the ground. His arms and legs are locked together and he’s rocketing down even faster than I am.
He’s insane! I’m not doing that! I don’t even know why I’m doing this.
Why not go for it? a small voice in the back of my head asks. Would Orane really let you get hurt?
The bubble of fear pops, adrenaline and curiosity rushing in. What must it be like to plummet toward the earth like that? Can I handle it? Am I strong enough? Orane seems to think I am, or he never would have taken me up here.
It’s like someone has reached into my mind and cleared away the cobwebs. Or maybe like the last bit of a complicated knot has finally come undone. I feel unburdened. Free. Brave. Sucking in a lungful of chilly air, I fight against the wind, lock my legs together and glue my arms to my sides.
Pointing my head toward the ground, I pick up more speed. I have no idea how fast I’m going. It doesn’t matter. I scream again, but this time it’s fueled by excitement. Exhilaration.
Experimenting with the currents of air, I spin and dive, tumbling through the sky with no restrictions and no limitations. I see Orane’s body jerk as his chute opens and slows his descent to a crawl. But I’m not ready to let go of this freefall yet.
I tumble faster and faster, spinning through the air so quickly I start getting nauseous. The ground is coming into focus at an alarming speed, but the freedom is addicting and I don’t want it to end. Wait, I tell myself. Wait, wait, wait. Only when I realize I can see the spots on a deer running through the enormous clearing do I give in and tug the red cord.
My head jerks forward as the parachute pulls me higher. Or maybe it just seems like I’m going higher. It’s hard to tell. And then, suddenly, it doesn’t matter.
I’ve gone from falling to floating. The adrenaline begins to fade and I’m left with a softer sort of excitement. Closer to the wonder I felt when I was a kid before I learned to be constantly on guard.
Wait. The ground is coming closer a lot faster than I thought.
“Oh, crap!” I scream just before my feet hit.
Momentum pushes me forward and I roll, ending up on my back tangled in the lines of the parachute. My face is covered, but before I can attempt to unravel the mess I’m in, a shadow falls over my eyes.
“Except for the landing, I would say you did quite well, Julian.”
“Help me get out of here so we can go again!”
Orane laughs and the parachute vanishes, lines and all. He’s standing over me with his hand outstretched, offering to help me to my feet. I knew Orane wouldn’t let me die. A scratch is one thing, but he always watches out for me.
“So? Can we do it again?”
“I was right, then?” Orane takes his helmet off and tosses it into the air. It disappears before it hits the ground. “Your fear of heights has been vanquished?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we should test it and see.” I can definitely see now why some people become adrenaline junkies. That was insanely awesome. “Can we do it again?”
“Perhaps tomorrow.” He taps the helmet on my head. It fades away and he nods toward the edge of the field, where a picnic table and a huge buffet of food appeared. “Come. I must speak to you about something.”
“Oh, no.” I groan even as I follow him toward the food. “What’d I do now?”
“Nothing.” Orane grins at me over his shoulder. “You are not usually such a pessimist. We must discuss your next goal.”
“Oh. Cool.” As I slide onto the bench, I pick up a piece of bread and toss it from hand to hand, trying to get it to cool. It’s as hot as if it had just come out of the oven. “I thought we’d covered most of the annoying ones already.”
In the two years I’ve known Orane, he’s taught me to handle crowds, to quit smoking, and how to gamble well enough to make sure Lynnie and I always have enough to eat. I asked him to help me get rid of my fear of heights. The memory of getting stuck (paralyzed, really) on a stupid class field trip to the Stratosphere Tower makes it worth the trouble. One of the kids noticed and it took every trick I know to play it off as a joke. A for prank. Like, “Oooooh, haha I got you! You thought I was actually scared of that? Please.” It worked, but it was a close call. I’ve worked really hard to keep my weaknesses hidden. The Stratosphere came too close to blowing that out of the water.
To make it worse, I can see the dang thing from our apartment. Every day there’s that reminder of my weakness staring at me from 1,149 feet in the air. I smile thinking about it now. I won’t ever freeze again. Not after tonight.
Orane takes a grape and pops it into his mouth. “The work we have done for the past two years has only been leading up to the most arduous task. You will not like it, and it will be extremely difficult for you, but I want you to try.”
“That sounds ominous. It can’t be that bad, can it?” I bite into a piece of bread and raise my eyebrows.
“I suppose you will have to tell me.”
Orane arranges two plates of food and passes me one. Grilled sirloin, seasoned French fries, a salad made of greens I can’t even identify—it all smells so amazing I can’t resist stuffing a huge bite with a little bit of everything into my mouth. Mmm, it’s perfect. But I already knew it would be. Everything here is.
We eat in silence for a few minutes, both of us steadily working our way through first (and then second) helpings. When I fill my plate up for a third time, I finally slow down long enough to ask, “What exactly is this horrible thing I won’t want to do?”
“You have a habit of lying, Julian.”
“I do no—” His lips press together and I cut myself off. “Okay, fine. Maybe I do. But I’ve never lied to you.”
The severity of Orane’s expression lessens. He even smiles, but only a little. “True. I am grateful for the trust that represents, but I am the only person in your life to whom you have never lied. The only one, Julian. It is not healthy. If you do not learn to speak with honesty, one day your lies will lead you down a path there is no escaping.”
I stare at him, waiting for the punch line.
There isn’t one.
“That’s my next goal? Honesty?” I shake my head and push my food around on my plate. “Can’t we work on something easier? Like walking on coals or theoretical physics?”
Orane chuckles, but I’m serious.
I don’t lie just to lie. I lie to keep myself safe. To protect my life from scrutiny and to keep Lynnie (who’s more immature than me) from being shuttled off to rehab or something. It’s not even usually lying. It’s the truth presented in disguise. A twist in wording that makes people see the information I present the way I want them to. Even though Lynnie is a 24/7 disaster area, anyone “just trying to be helpful” and “do the right thing” would completely mess up my life. I’ve heard the horror stories from kids stuck in group homes or foster care. No one adopts a teenage boy. Honesty could destroy everything.
Lynnie has family, but she’s managed to piss every one of them off. There’s no guarantee any of them would take me in if the worst happened. Maybe Uncle Frank and Aunt Dana, but they live in New York and they’ve had more than enough to deal with since their daughter Mariella went mute four years ago. Even if they wanted to, they might not be able to handle me. I think Uncle Frank would try, though. Maybe. If I ever let him know how awful it really is with Lynnie.
Still …”I don’t know if I can do that. It’s not that simple.”
“It could be. You have let lying become a habit. You do not just lie to keep people from seeing the truth about your life; you lie simply because it is easier and because people will believe you.”
“Not everyone believes me,” I mutter. But is that even true? I bite the inside of my cheek remembering how I played John and ended up with an extra $500. Thinking back further, I can’t remember the last time someone called my bluff when I was manipulating them into something. Some people take more convincing than others, but I usually make them do what I want or believe whatever I say. Or I’m smart enough to know when I can’t get away with it.
Orane must see the realization on my face e because he nods. “You see, do you not?”
“Yeah, yeah. I see.” Sighing, I push the plate away and all of the food vanishes, leaving the table clear. “So, that’s it? Just suddenly be all honest all the time?”
“It would be an impressive feat if you could do that,” Orane says with a smile. “But no. I would not ask that of you. Not yet. For now I ask only this—if the lie does not directly pertain to keeping this realm or the deficiencies of your mother a secret, tell the truth.”
“And if If don’t?” I ask. “If I can’t?”
“I know you can, but if you choose not to …” He pauses and holds my eyes as though he wants to make sure I’m paying attention. His violet eyes seem brighter than usual right now, almost glowing. “If you choose not to, this place will be close to you.”
My hands drop to the table with a thud. “What? Are you serious?”
“Of course I am.” Orane frowns and tucks his shoulder-length auburn hair behind his ear as he leans closer to me, his eyes somber and a little sad. “This place is a gift, one that is meant to be used as a tool on your path to self-fulfillment. If you decline to work toward your potential, the doors to this realm will shut. There is nothing I can do to change this, Julian. It is simply the way my world works.”
Pushing off the bench, I pace, my steps flattening the grass beneath my feet. “So you’re saying if I screw up I can’t ever come back here? How is that fair?”
The door to the dream world may only open at midnight, but knowing it’s there is the one thing that gets me through most days. Just the idea of losing this refuge makes my hands shake and my breath quicken.
Orane steps in front of me and grips my shoulders, leaning down to look into my eyes. “It is not so grim as that. A mistake shall not bar the door. Willfully choosing to ignore the tasks you have been set shall.”
“Oh.” I take a deep breath and exhale slowly. “Really?”
“Yes, really. There will come a time when I shall ask you to vow that you will live your life in honesty—for this is the last and greatest of your tests, Julian—but, until that time, a mistake shall not lock you away from my world.”
My head is spinning. It’s hard to focus. How did everything change so fast? I knew the freedom of Orane’s realm couldn’t last forever, but I never expected the price I might have to pay would be so high.
Closing my eyes, I try to concentrate. Honesty and I are barely on speaking terms. To do as he asks, I’m going to have to pay attention to every single word that leaves my mouth. Geez. What about poker? Does bluffing count as a lie? Or what I said to John this afternoon? Technically, it was true. Mostly. Kind of.
Okay, fine. Barely. It was barely true.
Crap. How black and white is this?
The truth is as variable as the people who speak it. There are so many shades of gray in human interactions and motivations and perceptions that not even a mantis shrimp would be able to distinguish between them all. Just thinking about it gives me a headache.
“Will you do this, Julian? Will you begin to live honestly with yourself and those around you?”
I open my eyes and sigh. “Do I have a choice?”
Orane nods, dropping his hands to his sides. “There are always choices, and there are always consequences. You must decide what you are willing to live with and what you are capable of living through.”
The spot under my ribs pinches and then pulls, like someone hooked a fishing line through my diaphragm and started tugging. I rub the spot, but that doesn’t ease the twinge that always emerges when the doorway back home opens.
“Time is almost gone.” Orane glances over my shoulder, where I know the doorway is waiting, and then back at me. “What is your answer?”
What can I live with and what can I live through? Could I survive two years at a group home if they took Lynnie away? Yeah, more than likely. It would suck in ways I probably can’t imagine, but I could survive it as long as I had Orane’s help. But if I lost this place? I shudder and try not to think about it. If I lost the dream world, I would lose everything.
The tug turns into a sharp pull and I gasp. “Geez. All right, all right. I’m coming.”
“Your answer, Julian,” Orane says.
“I can do it. Honesty or whatever. I can do it.” I say the words with more confidence than I feel. Orane accepts it and smiles as he ruffles my light brown hair and nudges me toward the doorway.
“Then go. I will see you tomorrow night.”
Nodding, I turn and walk through the glowing portal that will take me back to the waking world. Everything is black and empty for a split second—neither cold nor hot and I’m somehow weightless and grounded—but then the hazy flow of my dreams overtakes me and I sleep. But not for long.
I wake earlier than for usual tonight. It’s only two-fifteen when I check the clock, but I don’t feel tired or worn out. As soon as my eyes open, I’m alert. Ready to get up and do whatever I have to do today. And do it all with honesty, apparently.
Groaning, I sit up and swing my legs over the side of the bed. I’m about to stand and grab my economics textbook when I notice something shining out of the corner of my eye. I focus on it, but there’s nothing there. Maybe it was just an afterimage from Orane’s world. No, wait. There is something on my nightstand. That bracelet wasn’t there before. Leaning closer, I examine the braided leather bracelet and the clear glass bead dangling from one end.
It’s weird enough that the bracelet appeared in my room, but it’s even weirder that this is the source of the light I saw. The whole thing is covered in a thin layer of mist that dances and sparkles like glitter in a snow globe. Wary but curious, I reach out and pick it up.
And almost drop it in shock when Orane’s voice fills my head.
The character within the glass is from an ancient language lost to humanity eons ago. It was a symbol of honesty and truth and trust. For you, let it be a reminder of your promise and what is at stake. Remember what I have taught you and you will succeed in this as you have succeeded in every test I have set until now.
I shudder and tighten my grip on the bracelet. Orane is obviously powerful (I mean, the guy created an exact replica of the freaking Grand Canyon for me last week), but I had no idea he could reach through the barrier between our worlds and leave things behind. Or attach telepathic messages to them like he’s leaving a note. It’s awesome. (Also, really weird. But mostly awesome.)
Taking a deep breath to calm my racing pulse, I turn on my lamp and hold the glass bead up to the light. There in the center is a looping design that vaguely reminds me of an Arabic letter.
Grinning, I hook the bracelet in place e and take a deep breath. Honesty. I can do this. I have to do this. Losing Orane would be a far worse fate than leaving Lynnie.
Since the entire apartment building is usually asleep and quiet at this time of the night, these early-morning hours are when I usually do my homework. It’s easier to focus when I don’t have to filter out traffic and conversations and TV noise and whatever else is happening. I get through some of the reading and one set of questions for Algebra II when a car door slams in the parking lot.
I can’t catch the words, but the tone and the screech is one I know well. Lynnie has finally made it home at—I check the clock—3:27 AM.
Please let them come in and go to sleep, I beg the universe. The universe t is apparently not in a mood to listen.
The front door slams open so hard it rattles my doorknob, reminding me once again why I never bothered hanging up anything in a frame. They’re screaming at each other, words so slurred and incoherent that I know they’re both riding some sort of chemical wave. Getting up quietly, I lock my door. I’m not worried they’ll hurt me, but I am not in the mood for them to forget which bedroom is Lynnie’s and come stumbling half-naked into mine. Eww.
I shouldn’t have worried. This isn’t a fight that sounds like it’ll end in sex. This one rages on for three hours, dying for short bursts as it fades into something close to a normal conversational tone until one of them says something that fires the whole mess up again. The chaos finally dies just before seven. I’m dressed and ready for school by the time they fall completely silent.
I give it ten minutes before I unlock my door and slide into the hallway. I’m about to step into the kitchen to grab something to eat on my way to the bus when I notice something that shouldn’t be there. There’s a foot on the floor. A foot connected to the body of Lynnie’s current jerk boyfriend Ed. Beside him is a half-empty bottle of vodka and, not too far away, a bottle of prescription pills spilled across the linoleum. It’s hard to tell if he’s breathing or not.
Should I leave him? I consider it for a second, but only a second. If he dies, Lynnie will be a mess and we’ll have cops (and maybe social workers) crawling all over our backs. Not worth it.
“Ed?” Nudging him with my foot, I wait for some response. Nothing. I kick him a little harder and talk a little louder. “Ed?”
His leg twitches, but otherwise he e doesn’t move. Twitching is an okay sign, though. At least he’s not dead yet. He’s also barely dressed and I really don’t want to touch this guy. Looking around, I grab a plastic bag off the counter and wrap my hand in it before crouching down by his side and shaking him.
“Ed, wake up.” He snorts and groans, shifting slightly. Snorting means he’s breathing, right? And lying on his side is safer than on his back if he starts puking.
Whatever. Good enough for me.
I step over his body and straight into a puddle of vodka. Pulling the leg of my jeans off the floor to keep it dry, I grab my water bottle from the cabinet and refill it in the sink, snagging a granola bar from the mostly empty pantry. On my way out of the room I turn and survey the mess one last time. At least there’s no broken glass. I’ll clean everything up later. Once there’s not a body blocking half the floor.
The sunlight coming through the tiny kitchen window glints off the set of knives in the corner. Two years ago I was so pissed at the world that I would’ve been inches away from killing this idiot. Orane saved a lot more than my sanity—he saved my life.
In the living room, Lynnie is sprawled on the couch. Her makeup is smeared and runny, making her look like a clown that got caught in the rain. Her short, dyed-blonde hair sticks out in various directions and she’s still wearing her glittery, way-too-short club dress. On the floor, half-underneath the coffee table, Lynnie’s monstrosity of a pink leather purse is on its side, contents everywhere. It was probably used as a projectile at some point during their fight. Papers and pills are spread across the linoleum.
Suppressing the urge to wake her up and kick her and Ed out of the apartment, I pick up the papers from her purse, peer into the huge bag and pull out anything that looks like it might be important. Doing the is at least once a week is the only way I find out about when she’s lost a job or who she owes money to.
My heart sinks when I pull out the envelope I used to send the check to the electric company. It’s been torn open, and only the stub from the bottom of the bill, the piece with our account number and address on it, is inside. They never got last month’s check.
I can’t even find the energy to be angry. This happens too often to waste the emotion on. The anger only comes when I find a slip of paper torn from a complimentary Caesars notepad.
J.E.T. 3.9k --> H.D. 2wk
That’s Harry’s handwriting and his abbreviations. Jacquelyn Elizabeth Teagan owes $3,900 to Harry Dougal within two weeks.
How old is this? There’s no date so I can’t be sure, but it’s just dirty and creased enough to hint that it’s not a debt she picked up tonight. Something (like a crapload of experience with Lynnie) tells me that this is probably where the money that should have gone to our electric check disappeared to. At least she had a decent reason for swiping it this time. I know what would’ve happened to both of us if she hadn’t made at least a good faith payment on the account. Harry Dougal does not subscribe to the “injured and dead people don’t pay debts” school of criminal thought. He’d rather lose some money and knock the fear of Harry into the rest of his “clients.”
Fantastic. Another few thousand dollars I have to scrounge up out of thin air. Guess I know what I’ll be doing with my weekend. I prob-ably should’ve kept a record of how much this woman owes me, but the number would be so high it’d be more depressing than helpful. Not like I’ll ever get any of it back.
Swallowing a burst of somewhat hysterical laughter (seriously—how have I found myself in this situation again?) I drop everything to the floor and leave, locking the door behind me. At least I’ll have eight hours of relative peace at school.
Walking across the parking lot and toward my bus stop, I look up at the Stratosphere.
Vegas is the city of dreams, lies, and possibilities. There are a thousand different ways for you to pretend your life is completely different, but none of them last.
Still, it’s hard not to imagine what my life could be like. If I had different parents, if we lived in a place that didn’t bleed temptations for someone as weak-minded as Lynnie, if the Fates had been kinder when deciding what I would suffer in my life. Logically I know there are people who have it a lot worse than me, but somehow that doesn’t really make me feel any better today.