I wonder how different my life would be if Mama hadn’t gotten herself hooked. It would be wonderful to have Mama back, or some version of her where she still cared if we’re alive. She used to care about a lot of people. She worked so hard for her fancy degrees. She taught the problem kids at my school for Christ’s sake and she threw it all away.
My name is Jessie Thorn. I’m seventeen, and I live in a small town that’s dying. It’s shriveling like a rotten apple. Soon, all that’ll be left is a moldy lump of nothing. But hey, we do have a new Walmart out by the interstate – because that will save us, right? We are in Arkansas so let’s build a new Walmart and kill the few businesses left in downtown, which is already boarded up and hollowed out except for a few antique shops and second-hand stores.
It’s getting late, and I know I should get home. The sunset is reflecting pink and gold as I stop and look in the window of a second-hand shop. The name Second Chances was painted on the window ages ago in fancy script, the green and gold paint was cracked and flaking. I lean in and cup my hands around my face to see through the window. They have a pair of little pink sequined shoes that look about Shelby’s size. Maybe if I can babysit for one of the neighbors, I can get some cash and get Shelby some new shoes. She’d love them. Mama’s not gonna do it, she probably hasn’t even noticed that Shelby’s little toes keep peeking out the side where the seam came apart.
I have three little sisters. Elizabeth, always called Sissy – I have no idea why – Annabelle, we call her Annie, and the youngest is Shelby, no nickname just Shelby.
We didn’t live in this shithole before the meth. We live in a shitty house, with a couple of bullet holes on the front porch to give it character, on a shitty street, with the occasional shooting for excitement. We have some shitty neighbors who sit on their front porches in the summer and wait for something, anything to happen. Nope, before all this, we lived in the country. It wasn’t anything special, just a run-down little farmhouse, but I loved it. Now I’m just another kid with a meth head parent in a neighborhood of kids with meth head parents. I’m not so special around here.
“Jessie.” I turn around to see who is yelling my name.
“Where have you been?” Annie ran across the street toward me.
“Jesus, Annie. I only left an hour ago.”
“Come on, we have to go,” She said grabbing my arm.
I pull my arm away. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I said looking back at the window. I wasn’t quite ready to go home.
“It’s Shelby. She was fighting again, but this time it’s bad.”
My youngest sister Shelby was trouble, and she was only eight years old. I think the problems with Mama hit her hardest. She was only six when things started going downhill. Lately, if I wasn’t at home, she’d be out in the neighborhood beating the crap out of all the other little girls. The older kids thought it was funny. It wasn’t.
“What happened?” I asked.
“What?” I said grabbing Annie’s shoulders. “What happened?”
“You know how Shelby is.” Annie started then paused, looking down and bouncing on the balls of her feet.
“What happened?” I repeated.
“I just went to take a shower. Just a quick one. Shelby went out and started another fight with Gracie.”
Annie took a deep breath. “When I got out of the shower and realized she was gone. I ran outside, and Gracie’s daddy come out to yell at her. He said he was gonna turn the dogs out if she didn’t get the hell away from his daughter.”
I held my breath, praying Annie wasn’t going to tell me that Shelby was attacked by the pack of mutts that lived behind Gracie Taylor’s house.
“Shelby took off running,” Annie said as I motioned for her to hurry up. “She ran right into the road. There was this car – it hit her,” she cried, “It was horrible Jessie. She flew in the air. I didn’t know what to do.”
“Is she okay?” I asked, terrified at the answer.
“Well, she’s alive, but she looked pretty bad.”
“Where is she?” I asked sitting down on the ledge of the store window. I couldn’t breathe.
“Mr. Taylor called the ambulance. They came and took her. The cops wanted to know where Mama was.” Annie grabbed my hand. “Jessie, we need Mama.”
I put my head in my hands. I was worried about Shelby, but I knew what Annie was thinking. Child services. I was seventeen. Sissy was fourteen, and Annie was twelve.
“Where’s Sissy?” I asked.
“She’s with her loser boyfriend, I don’t know where.”
I rubbed my face. Where do I start? “Okay. Try to call Sissy. If she doesn’t answer, keep calling. See if her boyfriend can drive both of you to Troy’s house. I don’t want child services to find you at home.”
“Troy’s house?” Annie asked surprised, “not to the hospital?”
“Not yet. I have to find Mama.”
“Should I call Uncle Joe?” Annie asked hesitantly.
“No,” I said firmly. “I don’t want him involved.”
Where the hell do I find Mama? I’m sure she’s with Wayne. Wayne is her boyfriend, and I blame him for this mess. She was a single mom and not perfect, but she tried. Then she fell for Wayne. I have no idea why. He’s a slime ball and drug dealer. That’s when it started. I tried to keep things at home as normal as possible for my sisters. I don’t know where they go to get high. Sometimes she wouldn’t be home for days. I’m sure Wayne has a place that he cooks, but I don’t pay attention to that. I figured I was better off not knowing.
I pull my cellphone out of my pocket. It’s nothing fancy, just a pay-as-you-go phone that I keep in case of emergencies. Please, God, let me have some minutes left. I have to find someone with a car that can help. I dread making the call, but I can’t think of anyone else.
I walk around the corner and sit on the side stairs to the Washateria. I felt too exposed standing on Main Street. I try the number three times. It keeps going to voicemail. I scroll through my contacts. If Ethan isn’t answering his phone. Junior will know where he is.
“Hello!” Junior yelled into the phone. I pulled the phone back from my ear.
“Junior?” The background noise was loud, I didn’t think he would hear me. “Junior? Can you hear me?”
“Jessie? That you?”
“Yes, where are you?”
“We’re at Duffy’s” Junior hollered.
“Is Ethan with you?” I cupped my hand over the phone so he could hear me over the background music.
I shook my head. It’s not even 8:00 pm and they’re at the bar. Ethan just turned 21 a few weeks ago. I know, I’m only 17. I don’t need a lecture. It doesn’t matter; he’s history. A couple days before his birthday, I found him with Darlene Simpson. I told him to go to hell, and since then, we haven’t talked. But… he has a car, I know he’s still interested, and I need transportation.
“Stay there,” I yelled and hung up the phone. Duffy’s was about a mile away. I started running.
I stopped short of the parking lot and bent over at the waist to try and catch my breath. I was sweating, and my feet and calves were on fire. I dig in my purse and find a tissue to wipe the sweat off my face and arms. I spray some perfume and swipe on some lipstick. I want to feel somewhat presentable before attempting to sneak in the back door of the bar.
Duffy’s is your typical small town honky-tonk with big ambitions. With the lack of jobs around here, they have all the usual promotions to get people in the bar, Ladies’ Night, Karaoke Night, and Trivia Night, anything to draw business. It’s common knowledge among the underage kids in the area that Duffy’s didn’t watch the back door too carefully. In all honesty, I don’t think they cared, as long as someone was buying drinks.
I jogged up the back stairs quickly, trying not to draw any attention. Opening the door halfway, I peered inside. There were a couple people at the end of the hall facing the dance floor. No one was looking this direction. I slip through the door and try to blend in with the crowd.
There’s a stage in the corner of the room. It’s a triangle about ten feet wide across the front. A very drunk blond in high heels is singing “Before He Cheats” with the karaoke machine. I cringe as she warbles, it’s painful, both to watch and to hear.
I inch my way around the outside wall looking for Ethan and Junior. The place was busy for a Thursday night. I look up to see if they are sitting next to the rail of the balcony. It’s their usual spot, but they aren’t there. Thankfully, the Carrie Underwood wannabe was done. The next song started, and I heard the first few bars of “Save a horse, ride a cowboy”. I turn around and see Ethan on stage. Of course, he would pick that song. What an idiot. I spot Junior across the dance floor, standing by the speaker waiting for his turn on stage and start in that direction.
“Hey,” I shouted touching Junior’s arm.
“Jessie!” He grabbed me in a bear hug. Junior was not a small guy. “Girl, it’s been too long.”
“I need to talk to Ethan,” I said pointing at the stage. I look up and see Ethan trying hard to look sexy as he sings. It’s not working. I shake my head and realize Junior is talking.
“Is your mom okay? I heard about what happened at the Stop and Shop.” Junior yelled.
“Stop and Shop? What are talking about?”
“Shit, you don’t know?” he said, looking embarrassed.
I shake my head, afraid to ask. He looks around to see if anyone is paying attention and pulls me toward the back hallway. He leaned in, so he didn’t have to yell.
“I heard that Duke knocked Wayne out. One punch. Right in front of the Stop and Shop.”
“What?” My brain wasn’t processing what he said. Duke was The Man around here – he was the one guy you didn’t mess with if you want to keep all your body parts intact. If Wayne was in trouble with Duke, we were all in trouble.
“Wayne is your Mom’s boyfriend, right?”
“Duke is pissed. I guess your Uncle Joe called in a favor with Duke on account of the fact that Wayne is the reason your mom’s a tweaker.”
I wince at the word. He was right, but it still stung.
“My Uncle Joe?” Uncle Joe is a small-time dealer who always manages to skate the edge of trouble. He hasn’t done time, yet. Uncle Joe and Duke have been buddies since high school.
“Yeah, I guess Joe told Duke about your mom and asked if he’d teach Wayne a lesson. Duke saw him walking out of the Stop and Shop and bam – dropped him right there at the front door.”
“Was my Mom there?” I asked, afraid to know the answer.
“Yep, she threw her entire cup of hot coffee on Duke. She’s lucky he didn’t drop her too.”
Tears start to sting my eyes and I try to blink them away. I need to keep it together, for Shelby.
“It’s my turn,” Junior yelled and I realize that Ethan’s song is over. Junior kissed my cheek and started toward the stage. As they pass on the stairs, Junior leaned forward and said something to Ethan. Ethan looked in my direction, and my stomach did a flip. I can’t help it. I still care, even if he’s an asshole.
Ethan made his way across the dance floor as Junior started singing “I got friends in low places”. Ethan sidled up, put his arm around me and led me back to the hallway.
“Jess.” He said and pulled me into a hug. “I’ve missed you.”
I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to lead him on, but he was the asshole that slept with Darlene, so I don’t feel that bad.
“I need your help,” I said, trying to smile and look sweet.
“What’s up?” Ethan said leaning closer.
“Let’s go outside and talk.” As I took his arm and turned to leave, something caught my eye. Duffy’s second floor had a balcony overlooking the dance floor and stage. There was a woman leaning over the balcony railing. She waved her hands and yelled something, pointing in our direction. I couldn’t hear her over the music. So much cleavage popped out of her low-cut tiger print shirt, I was sure one of her boobs would pop out of her shirt any second.
“Wait a minute.” Realization hit me. “Is that Darlene Simpson?”
“Whoa, Jessie.” He put both hands around my waist and leaned in to whisper in my ear. “She doesn’t matter to me.”
Of course not, I thought. You only slept with her. It might not matter to you, but it matters to me. I can’t think about this now. I need to find Mama and get her to the hospital and I don’t have a car. I glance back as we walk toward the back door, Darlene is still leaning on the balcony rail. Our eyes meet, she flips me off. I smile at her and return the gesture.
I start talking as soon as the door closes. “Shelby’s in the hospital. I have to find Mama. Will you help me? We have to find her and get her to the hospital.”
Ethan was quiet for a moment. Shit, is he going to say no?
“I’ll help you, Jess. Where do you think she is? Where do we start?”
I hadn’t thought that far ahead.
“I don’t know. Any ideas?” He opened the door to his brown 1984 Ford Pick-Up and helped me up to the passenger seat.
Ethan thinks for a few seconds. “I’m not really into the whole drug thing, but I know Duke’s guys hang out in the old Walmart.”
When they built the new store by the interstate, Walmart left the old building in the middle of town to decay. It’s had a For Lease sign as big as a billboard on it for five years now. Everyone in town knows that you can score whatever you want there.
Ethan turns into the old parking lot and shuts off his headlights before driving to the back of the store. He parks next to one of the old loading docks.
“Now what?” he asked.
“Um, I guess we go in.” I’ve heard rumors about this place for years. It’s dangerous, a lot of bad shit happens in this building.
Walking up to the entrance door next to the loading bay, I start having second thoughts and slow my pace. What am I thinking? These are not nice people. Ethan opens the door and puts his arm around me protectively.
We pause for few seconds and let our eyes adjust to the semi-darkness. I put my hand over my nose. It smells like piss, rotten food and a weird plastic smell that reminds me of when I put up a new shower curtain. I can see lights ahead to the left.
“This is creepy,” I whisper to Ethan. There are columns at regular intervals in the large space, and separate sections with temporary walls made of canvas tarps strung between columns. In the dim light, I can just see the graffiti sprayed on the walls. It’s hard to judge the number of separate areas in the shadows of the large room. I can hear people talking quietly, and the click of a lighter, but I can’t pinpoint the direction.
“Where do we start?” Ethan whispered. I shrug, take his hand and move forward into the shadows to try and find Mama.
The door we’d just come through flew open with a crash. I jumped and Ethan pulled me further into the shadow of a nearby tarp. The first thought that ran through my mind…cops.
“Jessie Thorn!” a voice bellowed into the dark room.
Ethan and I look at each other. What the hell?
“Jessie Thorn, get your ass out here.”
“Uncle Joe?” I said as I walk out from behind the tarp.
“Girl, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Joe said storming toward me. The lines etched on his face told the story of his rough life. He looked more like 60-something than 40-something.
“I came to find Mama,” I said quietly.
“Then what?” he asked, moving closer. His nose is inches from mine. I can smell his sour breath and fight the urge to lean back. I don’t answer his question because I don’t know.
“How did you know I was here?”
“Sissy called me and told me you were out looking for your Ma, at least one of you has a God Damn head on her shoulders. You could have been killed.”
He turned to Ethan. “Get her outside.”
Ethan nodded and steered me toward the door. As we walk, I see some of the people from the tarps coming out of hiding to see what was causing the commotion.
I see her, peeking around one of the tarps. I don’t run to her, I don’t say a word. How could this be my beautiful, smart mother? I don’t think I’ve really looked at her in weeks. It’s too sad.
“Mama,” I said after a moment, but I still don’t move. I don’t go to her and, at that moment, I realize that in my heart, I’m not even happy to see her.
Joe strides over and grabs Mama’s arm. “Let’s go.”
She pulls her arm away and takes a couple steps back. Wayne appears out of the shadows behind her and puts his hands on her shoulders.
“What are you doing Joe?” Wayne asks his left eye was swollen shut and he seems to be missing a few more teeth than I remember.
Joe didn’t answer. He just grabs Mama’s arm again and starts to guide her toward the door.
“Get your hands off her,” Wayne said stepping forward.
“Move back Wayne,” Joe said through clenched teeth. “You don’t want to piss me off right now.” Wayne takes a step back and Joe continues to move Mama toward the door.
As soon as we are outside, Joe tells Ethan to take off. Ethan throws an apologetic look my way but doesn’t argue. I watch the taillights of his truck as he drives away.
I help Joe lift Mama into the cab of his truck, climb in and shut the door. She doesn’t ask questions. She doesn’t even look at me. I take her hand, “Mama, there’s been an accident. Shelby’s hurt, she’s in the hospital.”
Still no reaction.
I look at Joe. “What do we do?”
Joe digs some pills out of his pocket and hands them to me. “Make her take these, it should sober her up. Maybe she can pull off half-ass normal.”
“What are they?”
“Xanax,” he said. “Christ,” he said shaking his head as he looked at his sister, “you need to get your shit together, right now, or you’re going to lose your girls.”
Mama sat in the middle, she didn’t speak, she just stared out the windshield of the truck, looking the back of the old Walmart building. I look at her face and think I see tears in her eyes. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking
© 2015 Kristin Lemons