2018 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Thriller
3,287 people are reported sold or kidnapped and forced into slavery every day. That’s almost 137 people an hour. More than 2 people every minute. Reported. What about those who aren’t?
—Statistics from Force4Compassion
Mama dumps her cup of instant coffee, laced with whatever booze she had on hand this morning, in the sink. “Jayla, I need you outta here by eight tonight.”
A few years ago she would’ve just told me to shut my door and be quiet when she had a boyfriend over. At least then I could do my homework. Now she sees me as competition.
“Where am I s’posed to go?”
“Don’t matter. Just want you gone by eight.”
“Don’t mess with me, girl.”
“You gone then?”
Mama looked at me. “You know I love you, right?”
“Yeah, I know.”
Mama does her best. Most of the time, anyway. She feeds me and clothes me except when she doesn’t. Her focus has always been men, and she only feels like she’s worth something if she’s got a man in her life.
Me she could do without some days. It isn’t exactly that she resents my mind and desire to learn, it’s more that she doesn’t understand it. To her way of thinking my common sense is about as abysmal as my daddy’s, and she never fails to remind me of that fact whenever the opportunity arises.
I’ve seen my daddy exactly four times in my whole life. As a little girl, I pretended he had a very important job that kept him away from Denver for years at a time, and when he could come home, I was the draw. Not Mama or any cash she might happen to be flush with at the moment. He always brought me a stuffed animal of some kind. The last time I saw him, when I was thirteen, I gave it back to him and told him to keep up. I wasn’t ten anymore. I think he got the message.
Because I want to keep Mama happy and make her proud of me, I do my best not to sound “white” when I’m around her. And I sure don’t talk about a new concept I recently read about or some story that touched my heart with pure light. I talk about clothes and current music and what I need to pick up at the grocery store to fix the little kid’s meals over the next week. What for Mama is normal and easy to wrap her head around.
On my way to the school bus stop I watch a gust of wind pick up a piece of trash and toss it down the street. The crumpled paper hits the pavement and skitters, wearing a little of it away with each contact. I feel like that every day. It’s like I work toward this one life, and then a gust of wind comes along and pushes me towards another one, scraping off a part of me every time. Sometimes I wonder what will happen when my bone is exposed. Is that when I die?
So where am I going to sleep tonight? I have a couple of friends I can check with. Trouble is, their families have as many issues, or more, than mine. I’ll give Chris a call. Since he got his own place he’s let me sleep on his couch a couple of times. I’ll stay there if he’ll let me.
“We’ll be square then, right? I won’t owe you anything? You’ll leave me and my family alone?”
“That’s the deal.”
Chris hung up the phone. He couldn’t believe his good luck. Just when it looked as if his days, hours really, were numbered, his luck had turned around. Who said being nice didn’t pay? He’d let Jayla crash on his couch before when she had nowhere else to go. And tonight she’d be here again.
He knew better than to believe what he’d been told about why they wanted a girl—that they were engaging in a college prank—but he wasn’t in a position to ask too many questions. And honestly, he didn’t want to think about it too much. Jayla would probably be pissed at him for sure, but eventually she’d get over it. Instead of thinking how scared shitless she’d be, he concentrated on how years from now they’d share a laugh.
And in the meantime, his gambling debt would be paid and he could get on with his life.
“Thanks, Chris. I mean it.” I stow my backpack at the end of the couch that is my bed away from bed.
“No probs. What are friends for?” Chris grabs a dishcloth and wipes down countertops that already look pretty clean to me.
“Is everything okay? Do you want to talk about something?” I ask him as he rubs away at the shining surface and doesn’t once look at me.
“Nah. I’m cool. I imagine it’s an okay thing to be away from your mom’s for a while. Am I right?”
I think about this and wonder how much Chris suspects. Why is he asking this now? I don’t want him, or anyone, to think badly about my mom. At the same time, it’s clear she’s the reason I have to find someplace else to sleep. “Even when you love someone, short breaks can be a nice thing.”
“That whole absence makes the heart grow fonder thing? Or is it that your mom’s heart is aimed in another direction?”
“Don’t be mean.”
“Sorry. My bad.” Now he grabs a pan he’s already washed and puts it in the sink, adds dish soap, and starts washing it again, still not looking at me. Something’s not right.
“What’s up, Chris?”
He gives the pan a final rinse and puts it back on the towel to drain. “You caught me. A friend of mine is coming by later and I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable.”
Heat flames my face. “Oh, uh… I’m sorry. I don’t want to mess up your plans. I can—”
“No, no. Not that kind of friend. Just a guy. He wants to hang out while his wife has her girlfriends over to talk about books or something.”
“Books? A book club? You know I love to read. Do they live around here? Maybe I could join.”
“Maybe not books. Maybe only girlfriend shit.” Chris opens his refrigerator and stares into it. “I’ve gotta go get some beer.” He closes the door and looks at me. “You cool if I leave?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Cool then.” He picks up his keys and looks back at me. “See you in a few. If he gets here before I’m back, let him in.”
I’ve known Chris all my life. He lived in the building next to mine. He graduated high school last year, has a great job repairing computers, his own place, and is attending night classes at Metro.
Something is bothering him. I can tell.
Is he feeling put out because I’m sleeping on his couch? Surely he knows I’d do the same for him if I could. I’ll pin him down when he gets home with the beer. I’m sure we can work it out.
I spread my homework over the coffee table in front of the couch. There’s a science test tomorrow and I have to get better than just a passing grade to keep my average up. Science isn’t my best subject… unless it involves science fiction and then I’m all in. But tomorrow is all about protons, neutrons, and electrons in the real world, not a story world. Too bad.
The clock on the stove says forty minutes have passed. Where’s Chris? Where was he going for the beer? Did he get mugged or something? Horrible images pass through my head.
I grab my backpack and head to the door.
The buzzer rings. Maybe Chris forgot his keys.
“You were starting to scare me,” I say into the intercom.
“Excuse me? I’m here to see Chris Wilson. He’s expecting me.”
“Oh, sorry. Yeah, come on up.” I press the button that opens the entrance door for the building.
Where’s Chris? He only went out for beer. It’s not like him to be gone this long, especially when he has a friend coming over.
I dig my phone out of my backpack just as there’s a knock.
“Hi, come on in,” I say to the rough looking man standing in the doorway. I’m surprised at his appearance and the fact he’s so much older than my friend. “I’m trying to find out what’s going on with Chris.” I punch in the speed dial number and then turn away to better hear when he answers the phone.
“Hey, it’s me—” I’m aware of a sweet-smelling cloth pressing up against my nose and mouth and there’s something dark covering my head. “Chris!” My cry is muffled in the cloth.
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