Bess sat in a plastic chair on the walkway just outside the block, smoking a cigarette. She didn’t know how many days had passed since the gunshot she could still hear in her mind had rung out across the courtyard. She watched the sun ducking behind the outline of the main house, noting the azimuth had edged south towards summer since she had arrived. She knew that meant days had passed – probably more than a week, but less than a month.
She had also stopped counting clients, thankful that she couldn’t remember too many details about the time she had spent with any of them. That she couldn’t remember too much about what happened after she took one back to her room did make it easier. Jefe was right about that – an idea that made her stomach turn every time she thought of it. The drug tainted her mind most of the time now and its haze draped itself over the light spilling into the courtyard. It had been worse at first and looking back, she knew the vacancy in her eyes had rivaled that of Teresita Leche’s. It was better now. She had been reducing the amount of her injection each night and noticed little things came to her more clearly.
What Jefe hadn’t told her, and what she knew by the looks of the men who looked past the shoulders of the other girls as they tipped their champagne glasses with a gleam in their eye, was that she was the most popular. In a world where she had never cared, she was now the one who was picked first. She scoffed as she took a drag on the cigarette. The smoke was acrid inside her mouth, a wisp of something vile she could control, inhale and blow away at will. The smoke burned as it left her lungs and swirled into a blue apparition that floated out over the courtyard.
Even though she didn’t know how many days had passed or how many clients had ravaged her, she had become obsessive about counting other things. She had counted the 37 steps it took to get from the block to the main house. There were another twelve across the parlour where she and the other girls mingled with men dressed in tuxedoes drinking champagne as they tried to act like they weren’t craven animals that should have been shot and dragged into a ditch where nobody could find them.
She studied the black iron gate in the wall across from her, flanked by two guards that seemed like permanently affixed statues. She had looked through the gate from every angle she could manage without being obvious about it and all she had seen were miles of low rolling foothills with short-cropped scrub that stretched to the horizon. She hadn’t seen a utility pole, cell tower or any other sign of human existence. Still, she looked.
She glanced at the two windows of Jefe’s office looking down on the courtyard, still covered over with heavy drapes that were never drawn back. The only other window she had found was over the industrial stainless steel sink in the kitchen. It looked out on the same stretch of nothingness and had thick iron bars stretched over the exterior, just like those over the windows in Jefe’s office overlooking the road. If the wall they were affixed to was made of the same adobe stucco that lined the inside of the courtyard walls, Bess was pretty sure they could be pried loose with enough time and a crowbar.
The block behind her had a low roof since the rooms were half-buried in the ground. Once on top, it would be a simple matter to crawl to the awning that stretched between the block and the main house.
Bess took another drag as she ran through it all again. There were several ways to get into the compound, but not a single one of them gave her a way out. But she knew she couldn’t stop looking.
She stared at the last pole that held up the awning next to the main house. Every time she passed it, she looked for signs of Teresita Lago, but couldn’t find a trace of blood, a speck of bone or even a strand of hair. Every blade of grass next to it was green and still, as if nothing had ever happened. This, of course, was for the benefit of their clients. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Bess thought of all this because she was somewhere between sixteen and seventeen now and she had learned that nobody had ever heard from a girl after the day she turned seventeen. She had seen what had happened to the only one she would ever know. There would never be another. Because she was next.
Leche stepped up behind her and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“What are you looking at?” she asked.
Bess took another drag as a guard emerged from the main house and walked towards them.
“The end of time.”
The guard stopped and looked down at them. He stood with one hand behind his back, which Bess knew rested just above a black handled pistol tucked in a holster clipped to the back of his belt. She had caught a glimpse when a guard stooped down to help one of the girls who had injected too much of the drug and his shirt flipped up for just a moment before he smoothed it back down. She hadn’t seen one since and was pretty sure it wasn’t something she was supposed to know about. It was another sliver of imperfection that she added to her collection of knowledge that might have been real power to somebody who wasn’t trapped inside.
The guard’s voice was firm, but tinged with something near civility. “It’s time to get ready,” he said.
Bess grabbed Leche’s hand before she could take it from her shoulder. She could feel Leche’s fingers squirming, desperate to get away. Her friend still got nervous when Bess pushed the boundaries. She didn’t blame her – she still hadn’t learned exactly what ‘training’ was. But she also knew her gentle prods against Jefe’s iron grip gave her friend the same kind of rush she herself enjoyed that came from pushing just enough without being noticed.
“Can I finish my cigarette first?” Bess asked.
The guard tilted his head down while she took a drag. “Make it fast,” he said.
Bess nodded, watching to see if his hand moved from behind his back. Jefe liked her now that she was in such demand from the clients. Because of that, the guards let her negotiate meaningless things like finishing a cigarette. Still, his hand was only inches from his weapon and he could end her life in seconds. She gripped the cigarette with a thin smile as she took the last drag before crushing it in the ashtray on her lap.
Bess stood up, leaving the last wisps of cigarette smoke curling behind her as she turned towards the block. Leche rushed into her room and closed the door. Bess looked over her shoulder and mouthed “Thank you” at the guard.
As she ducked into her own room, Bess wondered how many bits of power she could acquire, trying to ignore the simple fact that at the end of it all there would be a guard standing behind her as he pulled out the pistol that was always inches from his fingertips to add her name to the legacy of Teresita Lago.
A few days later, Bess stood outside the door of Teresita Lago’s old room, her hand poised to knock. Lago’s blue eyes pulsated in her mind, then faded as the eyes of the rest of the girls peered out from the darkness and blinked at her. Each of them had the same look as Lago had in the last moments of her life. They were all telling her goodbye. One day, she would look at them the same way. While she counted steps and peered at the wilderness through the iron gate, there was no escape from marking time until her turn to blow out a lone candle finally came.
When she was gone, one of the girls would knock on the door to her old room. Inside, some girl they had never met would be sitting on the bed, wondering what had happened to her, where she was and why she had been brought to this place. Now, Bess had to push the girl waiting for her in Teresita Lago’s old room on those first steps towards the day when she would blow out her own last candle.
Bess stopped breathing. She felt the blood drain from her face and could feel her eyes glassing over with the dormant glaze she had seen in Teresita Leche’s eyes. Finally, she understood what it meant. Finally, she understood the emptiness of knowing.
Slowly, she turned to look at the guard standing at the end of the block between her and the courtyard.
“I can’t,” she said.
The guard, a man who had watched her, bullied her and sometimes conceded kindnesses so miniscule as to be meaningless, stunned her with his next words.
“Now that you know what it is to lose all reason to go on living, is that as far as you go?” he asked. “I thought there was more to you than that, Teresita Fuego.”
He wasn’t mocking her. Bess realized that he had come to admire her in his own way, as somebody who was actually more than what any of them had expected. Trapped, doomed to die in less than a year and ravaged for money at the whim of a madman, she was still Teresita Fuego, and that meant something – even to the madman’s minions. Another life ring cast out in the night for her to hold on to as she bobbed in waves that rolled on forever.
Bess knocked softly, like a cat pawing at the door. She cleared her throat. “I’m coming in now,” she said.
She eased the door open and peeked inside. The girl sitting on the bed stared back with eyes so wide they were almost round. Her hair, black like Bess’s, flowed out over her shoulders and behind her back. She was a small girl and her cheeks were soft. Her nose sloped to a rounded button that would inspire smiling comments from grandmothers about how adorable she looked. Her mouth hung open, but not out of a sense of shock or sadness. She simply seemed to be dumbfounded at her new surroundings. Her chest was nearly flat and her hips were almost as narrow as her waist. Because her legs weren’t long enough to reach the floor, the girl swung her bare feet from the edge of the bed in a stammering cadence of boredom.
“How old are you?” Bess asked.
The girl’s voice seemed to come from somewhere else, like a bird singing from deep inside a forest. “Fourteen.”
Bess felt her hands start to tremble and her chest tighten as she stepped down into the room. She let out a long breath as the ember glowed back to life. Her stomach churned at the thought of a client just touching this girl. Imagining anything more was a torment beyond her endurance.
Bess sat down next to the girl and reached out to touch her shoulder. The girl blinked at her, slack jawed and let out a faint whimper as Bess involuntarily tightened her grip. Bess glared at her own hand, willing it to ease its grip and then pulled it away.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to…” Bess turned her hand over and studied her fingers as she flexed them while the girl absently rubbed her shoulder. Bess’s hand trembled as she closed it onto a tight fist and imagined her fingers closing around Jefe’s throat. Needing to feel something in her grip, she wrapped her hand around her own wrist, squeezing hard enough to make her fingers sizzle with pins and needles.
“What’s your name?” She wasn’t supposed to ask this, but the girl was out of place, too young not to have a name.
“Listen,” Bess said, trying not to reveal the throbbing pain welling up in her own wrist. “This is important. I’m going to explain the rules”
The girl blinked and Bess couldn’t tell if she really understood. She tried to think of the right words that would sink in. She needed words that would stab through like a knife. “I’m going to tell you what you need to know so they don’t kill you.”
The girl looked at her blankly, as if Bess was giving her a homework assignment.
“Rule number one. Don’t ever tell anybody your name.” The girl furrowed her brow in confusion. “I know I asked you,” Bess said. “That was different. You can’t tell anybody else. Ever. Understand?”
The girl nodded as she turned to watch her own feet swinging in a lazy arc over the floor.
“Hey, look at me,” Bess said.
The girl turned her gaze back to Bess, blinked once and then looked around the room.
“I’m going to take you outside in a minute.” The girl looked at her feet again, bored. “There is a sidewalk that runs between here and the main house. Don’t ever leave the sidewalk. Understand?”
Without looking away from her feet, Angela nodded again.
Bess lashed out and grabbed the girl’s arm. Angela flinched and jerked her head around, blinking at Bess with her eyes wide again, like a bird who had finally heard something that startled her.
“Are you listening to me?” Bess asked.
“This stuff is important.”
The girl blinked again, her voice flat with annoyance. “Yeah, I know.”
“Do you?” Bess squeezed harder, on purpose this time.
“Ow. Stop it.” The girl’s voice faded to a whimpering chirp. “You’re scaring me.”
“You’re supposed to be scared.”
Bess’s jaw tightened and she leaned forward, furrowing her brow. “Rule. Number. Three.” She squeezed harder until she saw a quiver of pain ripple across the girl’s face. “Don’t ask questions. Got it?”
Bess glared at her for a moment longer, unable to tell if the girl actually understood or just resented Bess as a stranger who was hurting her arm. She pulled her hand away and the girl scooted down the bed, away from Bess.
“We have to go now,” Bess said.
The girl stared at the floor, her feet still now. She didn’t seem to be trying to understand. It was more like she was trying to remember something. She swung her feet out and hopped off the bed. “Okay,” she said.
Bess reached out with her hand and the girl backed away, blinking.
Still holding her hand out, Bess rolled her eyes and pinched the brow of her nose. “Come on. We need to go.”
“I’ll follow you out.”
“I know. Stay on the sidewalk.”
Bess narrowed her eyes. “Do you know what’s going on here?” she asked.
The girl was impetuous. Bess didn’t know if it was because she was just dim-witted and didn’t understand or was just too young to understand – or both. She stared at the girl, trying to imagine her eyes hollowed out by the drugs and the nights to come. And if that didn’t do it, then the long years of waiting to grow up until she was given her own cupcake would.
But she couldn’t see them that way. The girl would never get that far. If she didn’t have the sense to be scared now, then she wouldn’t learn how to adapt to the coming horrors that they all had to face. Bess had been stubborn, resistant – and they had all paid a price for that. But she understood what she had to do to keep breathing. The girl, staring back at her like a fawn in a forest, did not. Jefe wouldn’t care. It would be better if Bess let go right then, and turned her back on the girl, leaving her to the rest of her short life.
“Fine,” she said, and turned to walk up the steps. The girl would follow or not. Jefe would be mad if Bess didn’t make sure the girl complied with those first simple rules, but Bess knew he would let her breathe into the next day. She was worth too much money to him. And in her world now, that was a powerful form of amnesty.
As soon as Bess cleared the doorway, the girl sprinted out behind her and trotted towards the guard.
“No!” Bess reached out to grab her, but the girl bounded away from her. Bess stared at the guard and waited for him move his hand the few inches to his pistol and pull it out from behind his back. But his hand did not move.
The girl ran up to the guard and clutched at his free hand as she wheeled around behind him, peeking out at Bess as if she were hiding behind her big brother. The guard jerked his hand away and pushed the girl aside.
Bess froze. She waited for his gun hand to move, but he still didn’t budge. Slowly, she lifted her eyes to look at his face. His eyes were stone cold but the traces of a smile curled up from the corner of his mouth.
Bess started breathing again and took a step towards them. Reaching her hand out again, she said, “Come on.”
The girl slid back behind the guard. He shook his head and said, “Don’t worry about it.” He opened Bess’s door and gestured for her to go back into her room. “I’ll take her.”
“She doesn’t understand,” Bess said, taking slow half steps towards the open door. Her mind raced, trying to think of what she could do to save the girl from the foolishness of her child’s mind. “Please, she just needs time to understand.”
“She’ll be fine,” the guard said. He tilted his head down and nodded once, letting Bess know that she had no choice but to believe him.
As Bess stepped into her room and the door closed behind her, she listened to the guard’s heavy boots thumping down the walkway and the quieter shuffle of the girl’s bare feet sliding along the cement next to him. She was supposed to take care of the girl. It was her job to explain the rules and safely escort her to meet Jefe, just as Teresita Leche had done for her. It was her job to protect her that way – the only way she really could. But all she had done was frighten her and now the girl sought refuge by hiding behind the very men that would take away everything she had.
Once again, she had endangered one of the others through her own inept sense of righteousness. She would set it right – somehow. But there was something else gnawing at the back of her mind. There was a question that she couldn’t quite put into words. The girl had looked lost to her, but she also seemed to be lacking something. Even if she was young or simply wasn’t smart enough to understand, her instincts should have been enough to tell her that she was the prey and that safety didn’t come by running to her predator.
©2017 Michael J Lawrence