Stealing a Chance at Life
by Faith Hunter
Shit. Shit. Shit. Jenny warned me time and time again that my arrogance would be the end of my devilishly charming thieving ways. My battered boots hit the asphalt hard and the ground crunched unhappily in protest. Footsteps close by echoed as loudly in my ears as my own feverish heartbeat, pushing me to pump my arms harder and my legs faster despite my aching muscles screaming for mercy. Why the hell did I listen to Ralfie? Fucking cheat sold me out to save his own neck. But it’s my own damn fault. Never should’ve tried to steal from the Valences, especially not their bloodthirsty family head Renaldo. Or at least never get caught. Sloppy. My breaths were becoming more ragged with each quickened step extravagantly showing off my blatant lack of regular exercise and overall poor health. Hell, if these goons haven’t caught me yet one can only assume how badly out of shape my pursuers really are. The first hopeful trickles that I might just get away with this fluttered through my spinning mind. A chuckle caught me right in the ribs as the world was suddenly flipped upside down; the ground fell out from under me and I less than gracefully fell flat on my face. Crackleberries, thought too soon. Bitter grains of earthy goodness and city sewage made their way in my mouth and settled uncomfortably before being promptly coughed and spat up. Gross. Running a mucked hand across my mouth did little to rid the infestation-taking place on my lips. Pain blossomed as fresh skinned spots made themselves apparent across my arms and legs. Gingerly I reached up to my numb forehead and brought back sickly-wet bloodied dirt that smelled suspiciously of copper…and blood. Aw shucks, guess I won’t be running for Miss Missouri this year, I thought sourly. Ah shit. My fingers reach around the side of my waist before sinking in to wet, ripped flesh and I bite down hard on my lip to stop from whimpering. Well, that’s not good. Dusting my hands off on my wet and mucky- and now newly ripped- bloodied trousers I rolled over and searched for the cause of my fall. Wrapped tight around the length of my ankle like a traitorous boa snake was a used and abused hideous neon orange and dirt covered extension cord. Footsteps crunched the pavement unforgivingly and forced me out of my momentary reprieve. Like dogs relentlessly hunting their prey in hopes of appeasing their master. Yanking forcefully at the distastefully colored death sentence strangling my only means of escape I stilled when the sounds of ragged breath drew dreadfully close. My heart was pounding like a jackhammer in my chest drowning out all else but the sound of my fear. Whimpering I pulled harder on the cord willing it to release me from it’s death hold. Giving up on escape I settled for subterfuge and attempted to nestle myself in the darkest corner in the alley. A few inches away a rat scurried near me and regarded me hungrily before I batted it away with the back of my hand. “I’m not food you vermin. Not yet.” Though I was feeling pretty close to nothing but pain. Leaning my head back against the rough chain link fence I tried to focus on sounds that might signal danger, trying harder to ignore the increasingly loud pounding of my head and heart and the freckled black spots closing in on everything around me.
“Come.” She said. No more, no less. This place is loud. Filled with strange sounds and crying and laughter. Spicy smoke trails through the main lounge hiding the leering faces that sit menacingly behind them. Her skirts trailing gaudily out from behind her in a multitude of haughty colors. My fingers itch to reach out and embrace the warm stretch of fabric. It looks like the sunset, I think idly. I glance up from beneath my paltry lashes and jump when I see her accessing me coldly. “Your dress. It’s pretty.” I mumble blandly. A faint trace of warmth flashes in her eyes before promptly returning to ice. “Yes, it is. Hope that you won’t have to wear one just yet.” She whispers. “Why, don’t you like wearing such pretty clothes?” I ask. “These clothes are a brand. They signify that we are not our own. They’re a death sentence.” She says. Why would clothes mean that she would die? “Are you going to die? Am I going to die?” I ask boldly. “I’ll tell you a secret.” She says, giving me the first true glimpse of a smile on her pale lips, but it was cold and emotionless. “We’re all already dead. We just haven’t stopped breathing yet.”
Funny, huh, living an existence in a cage only to die within the confines of another fenced cage. Cowering from death. But the thing is, I’ve spent my whole life dying. I’m still waiting for the chance to live. My dirty fingers smudged from the toxins of life wrap weakly around the grated fence and pull. Pull harder and harder despite not having any strength left to give. Yanking dreadfully weakly at my gateway to life.
I stood in the middle of the room in front surrounded by three large windows twirling in circles over and over and over. My small, chubby fingers ran over the length of the crimson fabric lovingly. It’s the first time I’ve been allowed such fine silks and I smile beside myself in joy. “Ah, you look so pretty love, so pretty.” Mistress Molly crooned, rubbing her fat fingers together eagerly. I half-listened to her rant and flinched away when she tried touching my face with her grubby fingers. I didn’t appreciate the wicked glint reflected in her eyes. My young mind didn’t pay much heed and continued to admire the full glory of the deep red brocade that nearly swallowed whole my underdeveloped frame. “Yes, yes he’ll like you just fine,” Mistress Molly whispered. My whole frame stiffened at the full meaning of her words. Young I was but not stupid. I knew what kind of business my parents had sold me to. “What?” I asked gingerly, not wanting to entice her temper. “Why, you’re to have your first job today.” She said happily. The silk enshrouding me became tighter, wrapping around me like a noose, making it hard to breathe. To think. I desperately didn’t want to think. “Maybe now you’ll actually be good for something other than cleaning out my kitchen cabinets and following that no good girl around,” she muttered darkly. My chest clenched tightly in anger. How. Dare. She. What right does she have to speak ill about Jen like that? Jen took care of me when I was left alone to die. She snuck me portions from her own meager helpings so that I wouldn’t rot away in the musty hole that they stuck me in six out of seven days of the week. Too small to lie down or sit up straight. My fingers roamed the corset-taking note of the obvious ill fit due to malnourishment. Tight fingers wrapped around the length of my hair yanking hard and unforgivingly. “You will not screw this up you little whelp.” A large burst hit the wall as someone flung the door in. “Take your hands off of her.” Jen’s voice. Jen. Relief flooded through me and began to purge the unease settling treacherously in my gut. “Who are you to tell me what to do? She is to serve today and earn her stay.” Mistress Molly spat, the turkey flap under her neck shaking angrily. “She is barely eight summers and you intend to whore her out to perverted, vile men?” Jen shrieked, her voice rising uncontrollably with her rage. “Those perverted, vile men will pay four times the rate for a specimen like her,” Mistress Molly chided, clucking her tongue like a chicken. “It is illegal. She must be fourteen summers before the law permits her to be bid for in an auction. I will report it.” Jen said, her rage spreading through the air until the first inklings of Mistress Molly’s fear began to mix with it. “You would not dare. You ungrateful bitch, after all I’ve done for you?” Mistress spat before hastily letting go of the iron grip she had on my hair and spinning out of the room. “I knew what the punishment was for selling children before their time in brothels. I thought the death penalty would keep me safe.” I mumbled in between hiccupping breaths. Jen wrapped her arms around me and gently stroked my hair. “I’ll keep you alive. For whatever that’s worth.” It was worth everything.
Shallow breaths, shallow heartbeats and the sounds of eager vermin fill up the empty void of silence in the alleyway. I don’t think I’ve ever been this tired, like each of my limbs are covered in concrete and my head’s been hit by a freight train. Stupid. Everything just feels so stupid. Being sold by my parents. Being forced to work at a brothel. Being forced to steal. Getting caught. Not listening to Jenny. Soft tears trickle down and mix with the sewage coating my face. Ragged sobs rack my aching ribs and startle away my soon-to-be skin pickers. Nothing in this life has been mine. Sold into prostitution by those meant to protect me. Being starved and whipped and forced to steal. I’ve been doomed right from the start. A low, wretched laugh forced itself from the confines of my hoarse throat. Darkness enshrouds me like a thick fog, menacing and comforting. Why didn’t I listen to Jenny?
“Jenny, aw, Jenny don’t be like that. It’ll be a quick job. Ralfie says it’ll set us up for good. No more stealing. No more begging for the mercy of the merciless.” Jenny’s furious, but it’s not like we have a choice. A life full of dying ain’t no way to live. It’d been three summers since we escaped from the brothel together before my fourteenth summer. “I know I promised no more stealing, but Jim’s cut my hours at the shop and we need the money. We don’t have a choice.” Jenny spins round on her heel so fast the folds of her skirt turn furiously with her like a tornado. And with her face twisted in anger and her eyes alight with fire, it’s safe to say I’m looking at the eye of the storm. “That’s just it ain’t it? We ain’t never had a choice! If we want to live then we work until we die. Sell our hearts, sell our bodies, sell our souls for a measly scrap of food. What kind of a life is that?” She asks. I know it was a question towards me but since we both know the answer already I don’t bother saying anything. Her gaze cuts me sharper than the most honed of knives. “We’re all dead. From the moment we were born kicking and screaming covered in our mama’s blood. We were already pronounced dead.” Her words caress my skin sadly with the truth I’ve always known. “Maybe. Maybe we’ll die today. Maybe we’ll die tomorrow. But as for right this instant we are alive and I want so desperately to start living.” I break. Simple, truthful words. I want to live, I yearn for something greater than breath, hunger for something with more sustenance than food, something to quench this insatiable thirst that rasps my throat and suffocates me. I yearn for life. From the moment I met Jenny at the brothel I’d been sold to as payment for my family’s debt. From the second my wide innocent eyes met her weary and cold ones I knew that I was sentenced to a life of dying. Slowly. Piece by piece until I was nothing more than skin and bones. A hollow shell. But I resolved to live. “Jen. Please.” I plead with her. She regards me warily before a look of resignation shrouds her worn features. “Do what you like.” She turns to leave before stopping and rushing into my frail arms. “Be careful. Stay smart. Return to me. In order to start living you have to still be alive.” Tears. Salty and sweet traces down my face and I flick out my tongue to taste it. The sickly-sweet beginnings of life.
Rain. Soft and forgiving stroke trails down my face and mingle with my own bitter taste. It drenches me in understanding and pity and I hate it more in that moment then I have ever hated anything before it. More than I hated my mother and father for selling me at the tender age of six. More than I hated them for giving birth to me and using me as currency. More, even, than when they cried in agony when I called out for them as rough hands ripped me from their warm ones. I hate it with my woefully barren heart that has been ripped and broken and pillaged. I hate it with every inch of my stolen and battered body. I hate it with my every twisted and deliciously dark thought scouring through my mind. And more than anything I love it. I love it with all of my wounded soul, more than I have ever loved anything before it. More than when my mother first told me I was pretty and that I would make a good bride someday. More than when my mother and father baked me a cake for my fourth birthday despite how poor we were. More than when Jenny told me I was strong. Stronger than the strongest cruelties life had to offer. More than when she told me that I would survive, maybe not past tomorrow, but today I would survive. And despite myself a slow coming smile spreads across my bruised face as my lost soul rejoices in the soft, loving caresses of the rain. If even heaven weeps for me then I must be pretty damn pitiful. I crane my neck painfully to look up into the sky. But it’s bleary and grey with no stars to grace its great expanse. It’s like staring into an eternal nothingness. It’s like looking at my life. Black spots begin to reappear at the edges of my vision. I squint but I still can’t see what I’m looking for. There, a small white light. Small and frail breaks out from the cover of darkness and across the bleak dreariness of the night sky it shines. The rain grates down on me harder trying to cleanse me of an existence full of misery. It falls down my face and into my cracked and bruised lips. With every trickle I can taste what I have been so desperately yearning for. Life. And it tastes…so. Damn. Good.
Hey Jenny, I’m sorry I couldn’t make it back like I said I would. But I found it. In a sewage-ridden alleyway no less, hiding from Ralfie I found it. The meaning of life…my life.
© 2014 Faith Hunter