Darkness. They always kept it dark in this room; the only time I ever saw light was when they crept in with a candle in the middle of the night. Not even sunlight pierced into the room. The smell of musky, damp cement filled my nostrils, no doubt from leaky pipes. I heard water drip against metal in the silence; this silence could make a grown man weep. They often joked about my mother selling me to them for her next fix; they laughed and laughed as they climbed on top of me.
The pavement was cold on my belly as I laid still in the floor, my body wracked with pain. I couldn’t see a thing. All I could hear was the steady drip on that lead pipe from God knows where. I heard the door creak, but I had long ago stopped turning my head to look. I cried for my mom for what seemed like months, but she never came; she never saved me from these monsters. I knew what to expect now – I didn’t even flinch anymore. A gentle glow illuminated the dark room, albeit dimly. The door squeaked again as he shut it, rubber shuffling across the concrete floor. He knelt behind me, and I felt the heat from his body. The sound of the zipper used to make me cringe and whimper; they seemed to derive some sort of sick pleasure from it, but now I laid motionless. His thick, sausage fingers wrapped around my bony wrists and pinned my arms about my head, and then his weight bore down on me--
I groan, and my eyes flutter open, then back shut. I drape my arm over my face, realizing I had the dream again. I lift my arm a hair and give the girl standing next to my bed a sideways glance. “What do you want, Lily?” She’s wearing her school uniform -is it morning already? I twist my head to the obsidian curtains. Sure enough, blazing rays of light streak through the cracks.
“You had the dream again, didn’t you?”
I drop my arm back down to my side and push my torso off the firm mattress. “You’re going to be late.” I dodge the question, hoping she’ll drop it. I push back the golden tresses of hair that fall into my eyes, dazedly gazing around the bedroom.
“I still have time. You left your door open last night, and I heard you while I was making myself a lunch for today.”
I stare up at her, the nearly silver hair of hers pulled back into a tight ponytail, school uniform ironed and wrinkle free. She has nightmares too. It’s almost like we take turns waking each other up from them; her past was almost as bad – her parents died in a freak accident right before her eyes--but she still has her uncle, Dr. Cole. He’s the one I live with now. He doesn’t ask questions about the kind of life I’ve decided to live, doesn’t hassle me about the drugs or alcohol. I came home late last night, high off some concoction of pills my last client gave me – she said they’d help me satisfy her womanly needs.
“Thanks for waking me from it. I’m fine, you can go on to school.” I try to shoo her away so I can get out of bed without flashing her the goods. She must understand what I want, because she spins on her heels and saunters out of my room, shutting the door behind her. I plop back down on the bed, only then realizing the sheets are soaked through; I’m going to have to wash them again.
I fling the flat sheet off my legs and swing them over the edge of the bed. I ease up, a sudden rush of vertigo almost putting me flat on my face – now, that’s all I need, Lily running back in here to see my pasty white, bare ass up-ended on the floor.
My head throbs from the half bottle of Grey Goose I downed last night. The pills probably have something to do with it, too. I wobble to the bathroom door and brace myself on it momentarily, waiting to see if the dizziness will subside. When it doesn’t, I trek the two or three steps to the sink and turn on the faucet, filling a cup of water and pouring it down my gullet. The little bit of water helps just a smidgen, but this hangover is some kind of Hell. I stare at my reflection in the mirror; my slender body has little noticeable muscle tone. Light coral strips of puckered flesh scar my abdomen and back – the men that owned me didn’t like it when I said no, so they whipped me.
I raise my hand and stroke my throat. One of them liked to choke me until I passed out. I glower at my reflection and turn away, disgusted.
Twisting the knob in the shower and setting the temperature to hot, I test it with my hand until it warms. The curtain rings clank against the rod when I tug it close and step under the boiling water. I recoil at first, slowly easing into the stream until I can stand the temperature – it reddens my skin, but I don’t care. I feel dirty after the dream.
I scrub my body first with a moisturizing body wash, and again with exfoliating scrub to open my pores. I lather shampoo into my hair and rinse it out, little strands of gold floating down the drain. Then, I towel off and drape the damp cloth around my neck as I search for clean clothes to wear for the day – note to self: do laundry soon.
Some boxers sit on top of my dresser and I snatch them up. Unsure if they’re clean or not, I give them a sniff and step into them after determining they are, in fact, clean enough. I swing open the bedroom door, letting the knob slip from my fingers and smack the wall behind it.
“You’re still here?” I tilt my head, glancing at Lily in the kitchen.
“I’m on my way out the door. I made breakfast – it’s in the microwave.” She slings her lunch bag over her shoulder and heaves her text books into her arms before leaving.
I pop open the microwave and grab the plate full of food. “The girl must think I eat like an ox.” A stack of four blueberry pancakes, three soft-fried eggs, and seven slices of thick, crispy bacon wait for me.
I rake the leftovers into a bowl and stick them in the fridge before roaming back into my room to dress. I tug on a pair of jeans and button up a shirt over my scarred torso. As I comb my fingers through my hair, I give myself a once over in the mirror before going on my way.
I shove my keys in my pocket after locking the door, spinning to traverse to my favorite clothing shop. I pause at a corner, studying it for a brief moment, the memories invading my mind.
This is where I first met Lily.
After the men threw me away for growing too old, I lived on the streets for a couple months. I’m still not entirely sure how long. I cornered her at this spot and threatened her for money so I could eat –I had no clue how to procure food or shelter for myself.
“Give me your wallet!” My voice cracked as I gripped a rusted, old knife in both hands. The girl in front of me stared in horror, tears falling down her cheeks.
“I don’t have a wallet!” She couldn’t have been more than ten years old. Her blonde hair was tied in pigtails with red bows at the ends.
“You’re lying!”My hands trembled with the knife, not because it was cold, but because I was terrified, starving and exhausted.
“She’s not lying,” a man’s voice startled me from behind. Before I could react, he grabbed my wrist and twisted the knife out of my hands.
“Don’t touch me!” I tried to rip my hand free but was too weak from malnourishment.
“You were trying to rob my niece - why?”
“It’s none of your business!” I hissed back at the man.
He reached into the bag at his side, removed a banana, and handed it to me. “We all do desperate things when we have to. I take it you’re hungry.”
I snatched the banana and ripped the peel off, smashing it into my mouth so fast that I nearly choked on it. I held my hand out, still chewing the soft fruit, expecting more. I ignored the look of sympathy he gave me, my hunger overpowering any bit of pride I had left.
“If you promise to behave, I’ll bring you up to our apartment and give you some food.”
I hesitated, the memory of kindness being a distant one. The girl peeked out from behind him, her tiny hands wrapped around the strap of his bag.
“What’s wrong? Aren’t you hungry?” he asked.
“I-” before the words came out, the girl latched onto my hand and pulled me along behind her. “Wait a sec-” the familiar panic snaked up my spine.
“Don’t worry, I’ll let you use my favorite cup,” A smile replaced the fear that was once on her face, taking me by surprise. I just threatened this girl, and yet she acted like it never happened. I let her lead me, curious as to why she was no longer scared.
I went back to them several times for food before Dr. Cole suggested I move in. It was a big adjustment for all of us, but I’ve been there since.
My pocket buzzes sporadically from a small device – a smartphone.
“Time for you to get with the times, old man,” Lily teased when she thrust the phone in my hand two years ago.
I pull the awkwardly large thing from my pocket and click the screen on. One of my clients sent me a text message. I type in the passcode and read the text – is five hundred enough for tonight? I type my reply and shove the thing back in my pocket.
On the way to the shop, I stop at an old, wooden stand that sells newspapers and cigarettes. “A pack of Marlboro Lights.” The clerk eyeballs me before demanding identification. After I show him the card with my picture on it, he tosses a pack onto the countertop.
“Six dollars.” His voice is gruff and scratchy. I lay out a ten and tell him to keep the change, grabbing the cigarettes as I draw my arm back.
My phone buzzes again with another text that reads: Six o’clock tonight, wear something nice. Good thing I planned to shop today. I slide the device back in my pocket and place the butt of a cigarette between my lips – I light it with a strike of a match, puffing out a tiny cloud of smoke.
My go-to shop is empty of people, save for the clerk standing behind the counter and a woman in her late twenties waiting for a customer to walk in. I drop the cancer stick and smash it out with the tip of my shoe before I step through the automatic glass doors.
“Welcome! Is there anything I can help you with today, sir?” Her voice is almost too cheery for me to handle.
“I’m going to a formal thing tonight, with a date,” I start off, but she holds up a finger.
“I have just the thing for you!” she chirps with an impossibly happy tone and leads me to the back of the store The peppy woman stops in front of a mannequin wearing a silver suit with an ebony shirt and matching silver tie around the neck. “This suits your complexion and will bring out those silvery eyes of yours. Would you like to try it on?”
I concede to her insistence and give her a small nod, “I would.”
And with that, she disappears behind a rack of clothing – reappearing with the silver suit in hand. She holds it out to me, and I take it into the dressing room.
I don’t appreciate the mirrors on all four walls. I don’t need to be reminded of how I look – naked or otherwise. I clip the hanger onto the hook and strip down to my skivvies. I slide the cotton pants over my legs, buttoning them around my waist. Next, I slip the shirt and jacket on, carefully gliding each plastic button through its matching hole. Lastly, I drape the tie around my neck and use a full Windsor to secure it. I shuffle out of the dressing room, the pants dragging the floor by an inch under my feet.
“We can have that taken up for you! Otherwise, you look positively dashing!”
“Do you have shoes that match? Just get me an inch of heel and I’ll be fine.”
The young woman returns with a pair of onyx colored shoes that gleam in the shop’s lighting. I slip into them: perfect. “I’ll take it all.”
I don’t often visit Lily at her private school, but I have extra time today. I perch on the top of a metal table, waiting for the bell to ring; shopping bags at my side – it’s almost time for lunch, and this is Lily’s favorite spot. The chimes resound in the silent afternoon, and the low buzz of the students’ murmurs grow louder as they pour out of their classrooms. In no more than five minutes, Lily trots up to the table with her lunch bag in hand.
“This is unusual. I thought Ms. Devro drove you off for good last time.”
“You know I can never get enough,” I grin morbidly at her.
Lily spots the bags next to me. “Been shopping?”
“Yes, that’s the main reason for my visit. I’m going to be late tonight again, so don’t wait up.” I light another cigarette, taking a long drag and breathing the smoke out through my nostrils.
I recognize that voice.
“Ms. Devro, you are looking as radiant as ever.” My words come out like fine silk.
“You can’t flatter me with your silvertongue like you do the other teachers. Shouldn’t you be in school? And this is a tobacco free campus!” She snatches the cigarette from my hand and stomps it out.
“I have my G.E.D,” I shrug. “Why would I be in school?”
“Then I suggest you do something more productive with your time instead of corrupting our students. Leave before I call security.” The red-faced, plump woman leaves us alone.
“You know, the professor said he could get you into the university,” Lily reminds me, though I’ve been trying to ignore her and Dr. Cole’s not-so-subtle attempts to get me to go to college.
“Yeah, yeah. I better go before she comes back.” I gather up the bags and wave to Lily before I stroll away from the school.
Walking home from Lily’s school, I can’t help but reflect on the past when she and Dr. Cole sat me down for a little chat.
“Shay, I’m worried about you. You should go to college, get a real job. The one you have is dangerous and illegal.” Lily’s eyes pleaded me to cave into her request for once.
“You can go to the university, money isn’t a problem. All you have to do is apply.” Dr. Cole never made demands of me, only offered me options and accepted whatever I chose.
“I’m fine. If it becomes too much, I’ll get out.”
The life I chose isn’t much better than my past, but at least I call the shots. I can’t tell them I need help or about my problems, as much as I want to. Lily will get too involved; she always wants to save me - even from myself.
It’s a quarter to six, and I wait on the northern corner of Central Park for the limousine that is supposed to pick me up. Dinner reservations at a fancy restaurant – my clients are all upper-class women of thirty plus years of age, their husbands too busy with work or mistresses to give them the time of day. This is where I come in, to ease that loneliness.
“This is all I know how to do. How does Lily expect me to quit?” The image of Lily staring at me came to mind, and my chest tightened. She’s not related to me, but she looks out for me in her own way. What is she to me? A sister? A friend?
I glance up to see the alabaster vehicle pull around the corner and slow to a stop in from of me, shaking me from my thoughts. The door opens, and I slip in the seat next to my client for tonight – Mrs. Corbin. She dons a glittering silver maxi dress to match my suit, a sheer lily-white sash around her bare arms. A spring of chocolate hair dangles from the mass of curls atop her head.
“Beautiful as always, Clair.” I take her hand in mine and place a soft, delicate kiss on her knuckles.
“You’re as charming as ever, Shay.” Her smile is simply dazzling.
Marea is the restaurant Clair chose -- one of her favorites: Italian. To be fair, it’s one of my favorites too (the food is delicious). The waiter seats us in our usual secluded corner of the place, handing us menus to choose our dinner. I drape my suit coat over the back of my chair before easing out the one next to it for my date.
“I’ll have the Passion Whiskey Sour to start the night off,” I say as I study the menu.
“A Green Apple Royale for me, and the Panzerotti, and some of your Blue Island Oysters.” Clair wastes no time in ordering the food – oysters are an aphrodisiac, aren’t they? A wry smile spreads across my lips.
“It’s been a dreadfully long time since we last saw each other.” Clair grazes her fingertips across my forearm.
“It’s unfortunate. You are one of my favorites.” I stare into her lovely amber eyes.
“Just one of them? Is that why you only see me every other week?” She feigns disappointment, but we set up this arrangement almost six months ago.
“Once every other week, that’s what we agreed upon in the contract – if you wish to renegotiate, well... we can arrange that.” I bring my hand up to caress her cheek.
The waiter sets our drinks and food out before us and ambles away without word. I lift the glass of whiskey to my lips and take a sip; it’s strong. I take an oyster shell between my fingers and turn to Clair.
“Tilt your head back a little, my love.” As she complies, I rest the shell on her lip and slide the meat into her mouth.
On the waiter’s return visit, we place our orders for the main course of our dinner – she the Agnello e Acciuga with wild Arugula and lemon, and I the Bistecca with Hen of the Wood mushrooms.
“I thought you wanted to see a show tonight? We’re too far from the theater district to make it in time.” I sip from my drink, gazing into her eyes.
“I was thinking, maybe we can skip the show and go straight back to my condo.” Lust fills her eyes as she stares at me hungrily.
“If that’s what you want. I am here for you, Clair,”
The smell of the food wafts into my nostrils as the young man serving us brings forth the dishes. I pick up the steak knife and fork and cut a sliver of my meat off, raising it up to my lips and savoring the delicious aroma before devouring it. The tender steak melts in my mouth, my taste buds singing at the variety of herbs used for flavor.
“How is it?” her voice pulls me back to reality.
“Wonderfully delicious, as always,” I say after swallowing the bite of food. “How is yours?”
“Marvelous.” She scoops up another bite of the lamb.
I cross my silverware on the plate after cleaning it, finishing my dinner before Clair. I admire her graceful movements – unlike me, this woman could do anything her heart desired. She sets her fork down on the plate and peers at me, “What do you say we have dessert at my place?”
“Whatever you wish, beautiful.”
I jerk the ivory silk sheet from my head as I stare down at the gorgeous woman lying beneath me, her eyelids drooping over her eyes as she moans my name in pleasure. The bedroom door clicks shut behind me and I freeze. I chance a gander back – it’s Mr. Corbin, Clair’s husband. I swallow hard as he approaches us, entangled in the thousand dollar sheets of his marital bed.
“So this is what you do while I’m away on business?” His voice is deep and husky, reminding me of a man who used to visit me in the darkness. My eyes never leave him as he moves. He’s an older gentleman, probably twice Clair’s age – in his sixties maybe.
“Why don’t you join us, honey? You never shy away from a little spice every now and then.”
My attention snaps back to Clair. “That’s not what I agreed to,” I say matter-of-factly. I don’t notice Mr. Corbin until I feel the mattress shift under his weight.
“If you come into my home and crawl into my bed with my wife, what you agreed means nothing.” His hand finds a spot between my shoulder blades and shoves me down, the familiarity of his tone and force click in that instant, and my base instincts take over. I lie there, motionless – as I always did when they came in the darkness.
When the door of our apartment swings shut, I realize I’m home – I don’t even remember leaving Clair’s condo, let alone the entire way back here. I roam to the kitchen and drop my suit coat on the counter, grabbing the bottle of Grey Goose and a shot glass. I pour the vodka into the tiny container until it spills over the top and onto the surface. I drink the shot, the alcohol setting my throat on fire on its decent. I slam the glass down and pour another, then another.
“Shay?” Lily steps out from her room, clad in her pajamas, wearing a worried expression. “Are you okay? What happened?”
“It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.” I snatch the bottle and glass up and spin toward my room.
“It’s not nothing. I can tell something’s wrong,” she pushes, shuffling a few steps in my direction.
I growl in frustration, “Mind your own goddamn business, Lily!” I chunk the shot glass at the girl – luckily, my aim is terrible and the glass shatters against the wall. I turn up the bottle of vodka and gulp down one, two, three drinks of the vile tasting liquid.
“Shay! If you keep going like this, you’ll end up killing yourself,” her voice quivers, but I ignore it.
“Don’t you get it!? I don’t fucking care!” I throw the bottle, alcohol flying out and splattering on the kitchen’s surfaces. The bottle breaks when it hits the brick wall behind the refrigerator. “I’d welcome death at this point!” I scream at her.
It isn’t until I watch the tears stream down Lily’s rosy cheeks that the magnitude of what I’ve just said fully hits home. My gut wrenches, and my heart lurches as I realize I’ve hurt one of the two people in the entire world that cares deeply for me.
“Lily, I… I’m…” The words stick like phlegm in my throat, refusing to come out, regardless of how hard I force it. Why is it so hard to apologize to someone you love? Why is it so hard to ask for help?
I sink to my knees, my head dropping to my hands, and I sob. “Lily, I need help.”