Jack watched the laughing children play happily on the swings outside the motel.
“Jack!” Mummy snapped the curtains shut and the curtain rings clattered so loudly it made him jump. “Pay attention. Eight times tables.”
She was putting his pyjamas over his head while he recited, struggling at seven eights.
“You’re getting better,” she smiled.
But it wasn’t one of her wide-mouthed, all teeth showing, happy grins, like back in the big house whenever Jack and Daddy would make Mummy laugh. It was her slightly dipped brow, no twinkle in her eyes, worried smile. Jack knew this. He did his best to make her smile – pulling silly faces was his forte. And she’d laugh like everything was back to normal, as though for a few seconds, they weren’t living in a strange place.
But sometimes she’d get teary eyed.
“Tears of joy,” she’d say. “Being here with my boy.”
“That rhymes.” Jack would say, grinning cheekily, making Mummy chuckle.
“That reminds me,” she had said one night, wiping the tears away, “did you finish your poem?”
Jack nodded and jumped up from the dining table to fetch his assignment. He knew that whenever he was out the room, Mummy would be checking her phone. He remembered listening in on the first night. The motel had been very silent, which scared him a little, so he crept towards Mummy’s room but she was in the living room on the phone. Daddy’s voice. Jack’s little heart was beating very fast like the time he played one of the three kings for his school’s play. He wanted to run towards the voice but Mummy was crying so he stayed put.
“RenĂ©e, I love you. Come back. I need you here. Both of you.” Daddy’s voice seemed little and far away.
“No, I gave you a chance. You need help.” Mummy sounded different, not strict or stern, but frightened and unsure. “Get some help, Julius, and I’ll think about it.”
“You’ll fucking think about it now!” Daddy always said a bad word when he was angry. “Or I swear I’ll – ”
Daddy’s voice stopped and Mummy put the phone down loudly. Jack peered around his bedroom door frame. Mummy’s hands were shaking. Jack remembers staying up all night, listening to her cry.
“Wed like stawbewies, owenge like the fwoot, yellow like the banana smudged on daddy’s suit, gween like the gwass, blue like the sky, and purple like flowers in soil standing side by side.”
Mummy blinked. Jack hoped he hadn’t upset her with the part about Daddy, but he couldn’t get the time when Mummy wiped the banana off his suit and kissed him before he went to work, out of his head.
“It’s lovely, Jack.” she finally said. “But purple is indigo… and then there’s violet.”
Jack put his hands to his head, disappointed.
“Doesn’t matter.” she held Jack’s hand. “Where are the drawings you did of the different animal groups?”
Jack rushed to go get it.
“Did you label them?” she called.
That night Mummy was reading a story to him and Rufus the teddy. Jack listened to Mummy’s voice until his eyes drooped and he drifted into sleep. He dreamt that he and Rufus were dragon slayers but found that the dragon was actually quite friendly and let them ride on its back, soaring over hills and castles. But then grey clouds formed over them and lightning struck the dragon’s tail. It breathed fire and roared in agony as they went sharply downwards, plunging deeper and deeper into a dark ocean.
Jack woke up screaming and Mummy hurried in to rock him gently until he was calm.
And for the first time in this dingy motel, Jack felt safe.
It started when she was doing work experience at the local shoe shop.
Carmen had been selling ever since her best friend needed a favour and wanted her to run a little errand. They were in the middle of their lunch break.
“Since when were you selling weed?” Carmen had stopped eating, staring into the eyes of someone she thought she knew.
“Shh!” he screeched. “And crack.”
Carmen remained stunned, trying to process what he was saying. They’d been best friends since they were toddlers – how could she not know this was going on?
“Come on, Carmen.” He pleaded. “I really need your help.”
She was being cold with him, “Why can’t you do it?”
He sighed, “I’m leaving early to visit my uncle in hospital.”
“Are you telling the truth?”
“Yes! I’d never lie to you.”
“Clearly.” she felt bad the second she said it.
He and his uncle were like father and son ever since his real dad ran off. Carmen wanted to melt the ice, “Is he alright?”
“My uncle? Yeah, got in a punch-up. Just a bit shaken up.”
Carmen nodded sincerely although she didn’t exactly approve of punch-ups.
“Look, would you do this for me, please?” he glanced at her uncertain, verging on frightened face. “It has to be delivered today or I’ll get it in the neck. Literally.”
After tidying up the shop at the end of the day, Carmen subtly opened up her friend’s locker, making sure no employees were around. Underneath his spare jumper was a carrier bag and a piece of crumpled paper with an address in his neat handwriting. She chucked the bag out a nearby window and stuffed the address in her pocket.
“Bag checks,” the manager called out from his office in a slow, unmotivated way.
Carmen walked into the office to join the others, her palms sweating even though she had nothing to hide. But then again she did.
The assistant manager was cashing up, frowning up at her, “You alright? You look a bit peaky.”
Everyone turned to stare at her in a kind of unified zombie motion. And just for a second she saw gaunt faces, dark circles around the eyes, decaying teeth and malting hair. For another second she thought she heard, “I need drugs!”
Carmen snapped out of her daze, “Just feeling a bit queasy.”
“Let’s do yours first then,” the manager gestured her over, “before you throw up and we have to stay longer to clean it up.”
Carmen opened her bag and he peered in. Nothing but money, makeup, a phone, and keys.
“Good to go,” he said.
She said bye to everyone and rushed out the fire exit, feeling the heat. She took in the fresh air as though she hadn’t been breathing in the past five minutes. She went round the building to a bush where the carrier bag lied stuck between thin branches. She looked around the premises, also stuck, but in a situation she was unable to get out of. Could she really feed another personâs addiction? Stuffing it in her bag, she charged down the road toward Mulberry Street. It was just like any other street in the area, smooth concrete pavements polka dotted with squashed gum and tumbling litter.
Carmen knocked gingerly on the door of the location, after checking obsessively that she had the right house number. A middle-aged man opened the door. She was taken aback, after picturing someone her own age but with the vacant look that lacked ambition.
“Hello,” she suddenly had a hot flush of anxiety racing through her as she realised she was still wearing her work uniform. It had the shop’s logo embroidered on it.
He stood their impatiently yet concerned about Carmen’s worried look, as though she was a bearer of bad news.
“I have something – a delivery for you,” she stammered, shoving the carrier bag in his hands. “Someone gave it to me to give to you…”
He peered in the bag then put it behind his back, “Oh, right.”
Carmen stood frozen for a few seconds then spluttered, “I don’t know what it is.”
“OK.” he slammed the door so swiftly it made her stumble backwards.
She texted her friend; Never again.
The computer screen glared at him, taunting him, daring him to throw it out the window or just punch it there and then – rip out its electrical innards.
That’s why Leonard didn’t own one at home. But he wasn’t a violent man, he stayed out of conflicts between colleagues, mostly caused by Julius’ cockiness and relentless sly comments.
Grey was all Leonard saw around here. Grey walls, grey desks, grey photocopier. But his stapler was red. That always cheered him up, like a cherry on top of a big pile of crap.
He never looked up at the clock in case time went slow, but not looking ever sped it up either. Type, print, fax, receive, scan, send, lunch, type, print, fax, receive, scan, send, etc.
He couldn’t wait to get home, roll up a spliff and slunk down into a state of numbness in his armchair. But he was running low and would have to wait for his dealer to drop by. Leonard wasn’t the type to meet down alleyways.
The traffic home was just as bad as it was that morning. He stared ahead clutching the steering wheel, trying to block out the bleating of horns and screeching of tyres.
Once he’s in, the briefcase, keys, suit and tie drop to the floor. He’s in his own world now, no Julius moaning, no dogs barking, no babies crying. Just him and his armchair. He sleeps almost immediately until the sound of the doorbell rings, putting a sharp crack in his dull dream.
A girl, no younger then fourteen, was standing at the door with her hair in a wind-swept mess. She looked as though she’d just been slapped, not in an angry sense but in a guilt ridden sense, as though she deserved it.
Leonard thought that maybe she was about to burgle him and was having second thoughts. She worked at the shoe shop down the road.
The girl gave him a carrier bag and when he looked down inside, there it was – the little bulging bag of delight. He quickly hid it from the public’s eye and closed the door, deciding to give the money he owed only to his dealer, not some frightened little school girl.
Harry was a smart young man but he and school did not get on.
For now, he was a bartender working all day and all night, listening half-heartedly to the exaggerated tales of local men.
His vision was to run his own nightclub but he reckoned he had another year to go before he had enough money just in case he couldnât get enough funding. The business plans and interior design mood boards were there in his wardrobe, waiting to have the dust blown off them. He was determined it wouldnât be a pipe dream.
He never really had time for girls, although he sometimes went out into the city to research the competition. However, there was one girl that seemed different from the rest. Although she was a little bit older so really she was a woman. And with a son too. So he supposed her maturity is what kept her grounded rather than frivolous like the others he seemed to attract. When she said her name was RenĂ©e, he was hooked.
“And what’s your name?” he’d asked her son whilst drying some pint glasses.
“Jack!” after studying him closely, the boy beamed up at Harry with wide brown eyes, just like his mother’s, as if to confirm that Harry was a nice man that can be trusted.
They’d sometimes come in the evenings from the motel across the road. Harry had bought Jack some crayons and a colouring book so he and RenĂ©e could talk without Jack getting bored. She would have a spritzer and they’d talk about anything and everything. Except for why she was staying in the area. She was an obvious townie, not a villager. The subject would always divert and it intrigued him.
RenĂ©e advised him not to marry too young. It was a mistake she regretted.
“But I’m glad I’ve got my Jack,” she smiled down at a beer matt.
Harry nodded, almost enchanted. He hoped no one would order some ale or he’d have to waste time going down to the cellar to replace the barrel.
When Jack would get tired she’d pick him and his teddy up and carry him out. And although he had been living in this place way longer than them, Harry would always feel more lost each time RenĂ©e left the pub, as though she was deliberately trying to distract him, putting his future nightclub on hold. But he didnât want her to leave. If she did, he hoped it would be the city that took her fancy, so he could meet her again someday. The fact that he gained her number was promising.
Jack covered the cut on his knee with his hand.
He didnât want Mummy to worry, sheâd let him play in the park after doing well on his spelling test but hadnât been looking out the window for a while. The boy behind him had pushed him over.
âWhy donât you go to school, weirdo? Bet you donât even have a TV. Youâre going to be dumb!â the boy said.
âNo, Iâm not,â Jack tried not to cry, âI passed my spelling test.â
Some of the other children were playing and others watching. This was not how Jack imagined his first time in the park to be. He wanted so badly to make friends with the others but he didnât know they would be mean.
âDinnerâs ready, Jack!â Mummy called.
Jack hurried back inside while the others laughed at him.
âDid you have a good time?â Mummy asked without looking at him.
She seemed fidgety which was odd because Jack always got told off if he played with his food.
âYes,â he lied, âI went on the monkey bars and the slide.â
Mummy smiled at her spaghetti. Jack wanted to take her mind away from whatever she was sad about.
âAre we going to see Harry?â he asked, accompanied by the loud drumroll coming from the boiler, breaking the silence.
Mummyâs phone rang and her arm jolted towards it like a frogâs tongue to a fly. She put it to her ear but never said anything. She then slammed it back on the table and put Jackâs cutlery down.
âI havenât finished!â
âWe have to go.â Mummy pulled Jack along out the door.
Carmen was in big trouble.
By the time she got home she had realised that maybe there shouldâve been an exchange of money. Maybe she should have rang up her friend about it, but she was way too tiredâŠ
Carmenâs eyes snapped open. She was still in her uniform.
âShit, Iâm gonna be late!â
She had a quick wash and stuffed a banana in her mouth like she was Pac Man. The doorbell rang and she hurried to meet her friend outside.
âHey thanks for doing that yesterday,â he said as they walked to work.
Carmen felt nervous and jittery even though this was her best friend, not a gang leader.
âDid you get the money? I was gonna drop it off on the way.â He said.
Carmen stayed silent.
âWell did you? Carmen? Whatâs wrong?â
She dared not look in his face.
âYou never said anything about money,â she mumbled.
He halted, waiting for her to do the same. When she wouldnât he grabbed her and pulled her forward, marching furiously.
âIâm guessing youâve never watched The Wire,â he said.
They got to a back alley club where they were patted down. Inside there were podiums with poles and sequined walls. It was light for now while the bartenders cleaned around but Carmen imagined that later on, this place would get really dark, with flashing red lights and gazing eyes.
They went into a room; an office with a desk and stationary. Very normal. The person sitting behind it was a plump woman. She was reading a book until she looked straight up at Carmen.
âWhoâs this?â she asked as though Carmen had gate-crashed her party.
âI donât have your money,â her friend said calmly, but Carmen could sense he was scared. This made her even more nervous, especially as the woman was staring at her without blinking.
Her eyes shifted to him in one quick sweep, âWhy not?â and went back to Carmen.
He was about to reply but she interrupted, âI donât think you seem to realised that whenever I set a job for you to do it is for you and you alone.â
How did she know? Maybe it was written all over Carmenâs face. She gave him a carrier bag, which he put in his sports bag.
âWhereabouts?â she asked.
âMulberry Street,â he replied.
âWeâll pay the guy a little visit, but if you two mess up again Iâll cut ââ she pointed at him, âyour balls, and ââ she pointed at Carmen, âyour tits off so you canât have babies together. Because a hybrid of you two would not do the world any good.â
Carmen thought she was about to have a heart attack.
âGo away.â The plump woman got back to her reading
Carmenâs friend wouldnât speak to her all day at work. At the end of the day, he did the bag-out-window routine before the bag checks. When they were outside he finally spoke.
âWeâve got a lot to do,â he said, grabbing the carrier bag from the hedge when the other employees were out of sight.
âI donât know if I can do this ââ
âIâve sold some already.â
âHow?!â Carmen couldnât believe that all this new stuff about her best friend was unfolding before her.
âTexted a few trusted mates. Used empty shoe boxes.â
âOhâŠâ she was thinking about how much trouble theyâd be in if the school found out. She pictured being asked by their headmaster why they were fired from work experience. Their future job applications would read: âReason for leaving: sold drugs in shoe boxâ.
âLetâs go.â He was determined to get this done so he was in the clear.
They went from door to door, from parks to back alleyways. Her parents didnât mind her coming home late since she was with him but Carmen just wanted her bed.
They did this every day, wearing jackets over their work and then school uniform. Sometimes Carmen did it on her own, getting the gist of things. The plump woman even started to give her a cut of the money. So really theyâd been in the clear for a whileâŠ so she could stopâŠ anytimeâŠ
One evening they went to the local fair that a group of friendly travellers hosted every year. They ate loads of sweets and went on rides until they were sick just like when they were younger. There was a mysterious looking tent where a fortune teller sat, waiting patiently. Carmen was drawn to it, leaving her friend to play on the slot machines. She entered the tent, mesmerised by the emerald and plumb velvet drapes. The lady sitting by the table wore a tasselled shawl and she looked up at Carmen with calm eyes. Carmen gave the lady some money, who began turning over tarot cards.
Later that evening Carmen and her friend were playing Monopoly at her house.
âSo what did the fortune teller say?â he said after she rolled the dice.
âI donât really know,â Carmen moved her barrel up five spaces. âSomething about captivation. Why do I keep getting chance cards?â
After the game (her friend had won due to being better at building empires), they walked to the nearest bus stop.
âWhen are you next visiting Harry?â he asked as it began to rain.
âNext week probably. He said heâs met someone.â
âSome woman called RenĂ©e. Turns out she has a son.â
He laughed, âMust be a milf then.â
His bus came and they said their goodbyes. On the way back to Carmenâs house, someone was creeping up behind her.
âWhere does this Harry live?â a man was swerving drunkenly.
Carmen quickened her pace, but as drunk as he was, he was able to catch up with her and grab her by the arm.
âLet go!â she struggled unsuccessfully.
She told him the name of the village, âWhatâs it to you?â
âHeâs been seeing my wife, RenĂ©eâŠ Hasnât he?!â
âHarryâs a common name â get off!â
âIâll take my chances.â
And with that, he lifted Carmen over his shoulder and shoved her into his boot.
Leonardâs wish had come true.
Julius was at it again, but this time he was called to the bossâ office. This would be his third warning for upsetting employees and not meeting targets. Three strikes and heâs out, Leonard hoped. And when Julius came back to pack his stuff up, Leonard was trying his best not to smile, something he hadnât done in a while. He just kept his head down when Julius stormed out, shouting profanities to no one in particular. Then there was a strange communal sigh of relief as everyone on that floor of the building began to relax, like the scene of a captured village criminal. To be truthful, Leonard felt it was too quiet as the ticking of the clock became sonorous. Juliusâ charades may have been the only entertainment he got around here.
On his way home he saw a group of people waiting outside his house. He got out the car and locked it, âCan I help you?â
A plump woman put out her cigarette, âIâll be needing that money you owe.â
Leonard could sense passers-by looking at the two henchmen by his door. He never liked attention.
âLetâs go inside,” he said nervously, squeezing past them.
When they were in, Leonard started scrambling for his wallet.
âCup of tea would be lovely.â
Leonard blinked at her.
âTwo sugars,â she continued. âYou fellas want one?â
The henchmen shook their heads. Leonard went to the kitchen and turned on the kettle, trying to breath slowly. He wondered what they were going to do. He went back to the living room where he found the woman sitting comfortably in his armchair, and put the money on the coffee table. She didnât take it, deciding to glare at him instead. Leonardâs palms became clammy as the kettle stopped boiling. When he returned with the tea she spoke.
âNow if a young girl came to my door step with supplies,â she blew at the tea, âIâd pay her. You know why?â
âI was going to pay, Iâve just been busy ââ
âBecause,â she put the cup on the table, âchances are sheâs working for someone who expects an exchange.â
She took the money and stood up, making Leonard move backwards.
âWeâre not dumb, Leonard. Believe it or not, one of these guys is also my accountant. Donât let it happen again.â They walked out the door, leaving Leonardâs heart rate as high as the temperature of the discarded tea.
He poured it down the sink and began to roll up. This was the best time for it.
That evening, there was a knock at the door, but more like angry banging. The first thing that came to mind was police. So he hid everything and opened the door as normally as possible.
The one man he thought he would never see again was standing at his doorstep with mad eyes. He barged past him. Leonard stood paralysed.
âWhy â how do you know where I live?â Leonard said, finally closing the door.
âFollowed you. When you finished work. Then went for a drinkâŠ stumbled on someone by chanceâŠ Who were those people before?â
âNo oneâŠ relatives.â
Julius was agitated, pacing back and forth.
âWhatâs wrong?â said Leonard.
âYou,â Julius stopped to point at him. âYou got me fired. I saw how you looked at me. What were you, some sort of informer?â
âLook, calm down. I never ââ
âDoesnât matter anymore. Youâre gonna make it up to me.â
âWhat?â Leonard could see this man was losing his mind.
âI know where RenĂ©e is.â
Julius began to well up, âShe left me, Leonard. She took my son with her.â
He collapsed onto the armchair.
Leonard wished he hadnât have chucked the tea, but then again he just wanted him out, âIâm sure sheâll come back. Maybe she just needs a break.â
âThatâs the thing, itâs been a month. And I think sheâs with someone new.â
âGive her a call then.â
Leonard imagined Julius swearing down the phone at his wife and calling her up constantly like a relentless stalker.
âDidnât even know you had a wife.â
âYeah well,â Julius dragged himself up, âI didnât know you were a snitch.â
Leonard looked down to see Julius had a small sharp knife, âWhat are you doing?â
âGo outside,â Julius seemed to have no emotion on his face anymore.
Leonardâs day was getting stranger by the minute. And his high was amplifying his panic. When they were out Julius had hidden the knife under his jacket.
âGet in that car over there,â he said firmly, âdriverâs side.â
He gave Leonard his car keys and got in, typing a location into a sat-nav. Leonard wasnât quite sure what was happening but he went along with it because he didnât want to die. But then again, if he did die then he wouldnât have to go to work.
Half way through the journey, Leonard heard a muffled banging noise coming from the boot.
âWhatâs that noise?â he asked, feeling more and more apprehensive.
Julius looked straight ahead motionless, âJust focus on the road.â
Leonard knew there was someone in there but he kept his mouth shut. There didnât seem to be any point in having a hostage and getaway driver when all Julius needed to do was beg his wife to come home. Maybe she was the only one who kept him sane. Then again Leonard couldnât comprehend how Julius managed to gain a wife in the first place. What was he planning?
When they were at their destination, Julius got out, âStay here.â
It was a small quiet village, somewhere Leonard dreamt of living in. When he heard the boot open and shut he closed his eyes. He didnât want to see the mysterious hostageâs face. He didnât want that memory. By the time he had opened his eyes, Julius was entering a pub with what looked like the schoolgirl dealer, her hair wilder than the last time he saw her. Leonard felt a rush of anxiety flood through him. He wanted to call the police but thought against it, since the plump woman and her henchmen dominated his mind. He was truly fucked.
Harry was wiping the bar down when he saw his sister come into the pub.
âCarmen! Wasnât expecting you for another week,â he grinned.
But she looked jaded, her hair like a lionâs mane and makeup running down her face. A man followed after her, grabbing her arm. She hardly flinched like she was used to it.
âOi! Whatâs going on?â Harry wanted to come out from behind the bar but the man brought out a knife, âAlright, take it easy. Thatâs my sister.â
The manâs face changed for a split second, as if he had struck gold.
âI see the resemblance. Which is why youâre going to tell me where RenĂ©e is,â he was possessed by rage and it was obvious that nothing could prevent his determination.
âI donât know,â Harry pleaded truthfully, âshe stays in the motel across the street but I donât know what room!â
âYeah you do, youâve been doing her!â
Harry realised then why RenĂ©e was so reserved about her personal life. This guy was a monster. Harry also realised that if it had to come down to it he might have to choose between RenĂ©e as well as Jackâs happiness, and Carmenâs life. She was fourteen and there was a sharp object inches away from her neck. All the punters were in total shock â this sort of thing never happened around here.
âRing her,â the man demanded.
Harry got his phone out and called RenĂ©e. She picked up at the first ring.
âCan you come down here. Itâs your husband. Heâs got my sister somehow.â
He hung up and they waited, the air tense with uncontrollable uncertainty. Harry saw one of the punters take their phone out but Harry shook his head. Even if they successfully got in touch with police without this crazy dude noticing, hardly any crime happened around here and so the nearest station was ages away. The quiet cries coming from Carmen daggered at him. What were the chances of her getting into this situation?
RenĂ©e and Jack finally arrived, rushing in like they were late for a departing train. The horror in RenĂ©eâs eyes made Harry feel sick. It was a part of her that she did so well to cover up.
âJulius, think about what youâre doing.â She was on the brink of tears but wanted Harryâs sister to be safe.
Juliusâ eyes seemed to soften when he saw Jack, who hid behind his mum. Harry felt useless. He wanted to shoot Julius in the eye with the paintball gun he had under the bar (it was a birthday present), then take Carmen, RenĂ©e and Jack somewhere safe. But the area was too remote. Plus he didnât want to miss Julius, already provoked and dangerous. No, that wasnât going to work. He wasnât taking any chances…
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