Shells are made to be cracked.
I stare down at the tiny white egg, wedged between the ashtray filled with cigarette butts and the empty bottle of Jack Daniels on the balcony. Hardly broken in two halves, the busted center reveals an underdeveloped bird inside, nearly devoured by the bugs that crawl in and out of the shell. I can just make out one bulbous eyeball, surprisingly intact, staring back at me. Mourning Dove, I’d bet. They seem to flock to this shithole every year, for whatever reason.
The nest teeters on the edge of the eave somewhere above me, as if the mother intentionally chose this most dangerous spot to lay her egg then up and abandoned it. Left to the careful watch of carnivores.
Poor little bird.
A tickle hits my arm and I slap a hand to my skin, before scratching at the spot just below a black monarch butterfly tattoo, digging my nails into the place where I’m certain I felt something crawling over me. I hate when my long wisps of hair skim across the surface like a translucent web dancing over my skin. Insects give me the willies. Well, except for butterflies, I don’t mind them so much. My therapist put a name on it once, said I had ento-something-phobia—a fear of bugs. It’s not really the bugs themselves I fear, though. It’s the idea that something could breach the barriers of my skin, and infest, just like the shell that housed that bird. Sometimes I have dreams about them, crawling over me, nesting inside of me.
The very thought casts a shiver down my spine, and I’m grateful for the pane of glass that separates me from the macabre outside my window.
Wind rattles the glass in its frame, the tendrils of late winter snaking their way beneath the thin afghan wrapped around my shoulders. It’s been mild, unseasonably warm enough for bugs and early blooms, but that Chicago wind carries the vestiges of a brutal winter.
The fog of my pills is lifting, making me more aware of the cold, but I’m holding off for something stronger. I’ll need it tonight.
From below, the mumbled shouts of Lady Ortiz, as I call her, push their way through the rotted wood planks that separate our balcony from hers. She and Mr. Ortiz are fighting again, their voices escalating into the crash of broken glass. The Yorkie, three floors below, barks an incessant plea to take a piss outside, and I wonder if his owner, Mrs. Silvia, has finally kicked the bucket. The lady’s pushing ninety, and the pungent reek of ammonia that fills her apartment seeps through the heating ducts of this place sometimes.
Oddly enough, in spite of the noise, the smells, and the crawling bugs, this is my moment of peace. Escape. Freedom.
I must be the only teenage girl on the planet who longs for quiet moments without the gossip, the socializing, and all the damn noise. In a generation of selfies and the desperate need for validation, sometimes I like to slip onto the other side of the mirror and simply watch.
Fringed by the glow of my bedroom light, I study the broken shell, eyeing an ant that marches away with a chunk of something far too big for its size, and I’m reminded that the world takes what it wants even after death.
That’s how I got here, this shithole apartment smack in the middle of Chicago. Just like insects, after my father’s death, the bank took our house, the creditors took our cars, and shame stole our pride as we bounced from shelter to shelter, my mom and me. I was nine years old when he died, and as innocent and vulnerable as a baby bird trapped inside a fragile shell.
Because he committed suicide, my dad’s insurance policy was considered null, and we were left without a pot to piss in. For a while, though, we got by. My mom landed a job dancing, and as a veteran’s widow, qualified for something like Section Eight housing. I was left home alone most nights, but it worked. We survived. Things were okay for a while.
I can’t even remember the moment life changed for us.
Feels like it happened in the span of a year, but I know it only took one fleeting second in time, when she didn’t have to worry about me, when the weight bearing down on her lifted and she felt high as the clouds.
An odd dichotomy, heroin—the way it rolls off the tongue as two completely opposite things—a selfless and courageous woman, and a selfish agent of destruction.
My mom gave up one for the other and that began our descent into some of the darkest days of my life.
My stomach twists, and I curl into myself, bringing my knees tighter to my body.
Two silhouettes hit my periphery, and I turn toward the mouth of the alley, where they move abruptly, limbs flailing, as if they’re in the thick of a fight. I focus on them for a moment, spotting the sag of his slacks just below his un-tucked shirt, and realize they’re not fighting at all. They’re fucking. A prostitute and her John pressed against the dirty bricks of the building, beside the overflowing dumpster. Her dark skin is hard to make out, but his crisp white shirt stands out like a beacon of debauchery.
This alley is a constant stream of slum life stories.
Staring at them drudges a memory of sitting tucked beside a line of garbage cans in the back alley of a bar, watching a rat pick at a maggot-infested chicken leg lying in a toxic pool of wastewater, while the sounds of my mother’s animalistic grunts and moans drifted from the other side. Nothing but meat and the stench of rot taunting my gag reflex. Through a small gap between the wall and garbage, I could just make out a man’s naked ass slamming into her, his dirty fingers curled around her bony thigh. Even then, no more than eleven years old, I knew what she’d become before the word was brutally carved into her skin. Whore. Junkie. A prostitute, always searching for the next high.
The two in the alley stop moving. Only that they’ve begun to pull their clothes back on tells me one of them must’ve climaxed. There is no big finale, or magical moment of ecstasy in the underbelly. It’s all quick and quiet fucks, while breathing in the fog and reek of stale sex and damp garbage. He tugs his slacks over his hips and holds up an object, which I’m guessing is a thin wad of cash. She reaches for it and the guy strikes her with the back of his hand, the echoing smack that kicks her head to the side is the first sound I’ve heard between them.
He’s probably her pimp. If she fights him, she’ll have to drag her ass across the city looking for an unclaimed street corner, and pray some crazy lunatic doesn’t pick her up and turn her into a human skin rug with her head mounted on his wall.
At seventeen, I know more about organizational hierarchy and job security than the average middle-aged CEO, and just like the corporate world, success depends on how many people get fucked.
Wolves and sheep.
For those of us in the flock, survival comes down to how well we manipulate, because a predator’s eyes are naturally drawn to the most innocent. So when my mom’s John started giving me that carnal look, I began carrying a pocketknife, and at thirteen, I once held it to the junkie’s throat, threatening to slice out his voice box if he ever touched me again.
Sometimes the sheep can be cunning, though.
My mom once tried to make me pickpocket—a lesson that landed us in the back of a cop car. Took ten minutes with the cop before we were released with a warning, and it was then I learned a valuable lesson in life: even at a woman’s weakest, sex could be her most powerful weapon.
I glance back at Charlie, my stark white Dogo Argentino, stolen from one of my mother’s back alley conquests. If not for her, I wouldn’t be sitting here, letting the blood-sucking insects feed off of me, after my mother spiraled straight to her grave.
Charlie gives me purpose. If there is a God, I truly believe he put her in my life to keep me from doing stupid shit. That, or to give me a weakness, because Lord knows I’d probably go psycho bitch crazy and end up in a padded cell if anything ever happened to my beloved dog.
Because of her, my heart is a tenderer piece of meat for the insects to tear apart.
At the opposite side of the room is another bed that belongs to my eight-year-old foster sister, Layla. Well, for now anyway. She won’t be here long. This place is a revolving door for foster girls, most only staying a couple months max. I don’t know where they go, and honestly, I don’t care. There’s no point getting to know them. In the time I’ve lived with the Westpricks, at least two-dozen girls have been in and out of here. In some ways, I resent them, getting out and moving on to something else. Maybe somewhere better.
I’m the only one who ever stays. The constant in this hellhole.
Since I was nine years old, I’ve been bounced around from house to house, wishing and hoping for things that just don’t happen to kids where I come from. For six of those years I’ve been lost. The forgotten. The unwanted. I’ve been hurt in ways that have forever changed my landscape and numbed me to future pain.
But now I have Charlie, who’s a reminder that good things can come from bad situations, and that even a beast can penetrate the hardest of hearts.
Charlie makes me think of my mother more than I care to. Perhaps because it was my mother who stole her for me, unwittingly gifting me my own personal guardian angel.
I miss her sometimes, though.
The memories of her are like bent photographs that I pull from my back pocket from time to time, wishing I could set them out on a shelf someday. But life’s too short, particularly in this part of the city, to dwell on what will never be again.
My mom wasted away before I even hit middle school. Police told me it was an overdose, but I think she got a hold of a tainted batch of heroin.
And I’ve been caught up in the system ever since.
A few places worked out okay. They let me keep my dog, which was cool, but people tend to give up on kids who don’t love as easily as others. I acted out. Punched my first foster mother in the face and broke her nose. Didn’t even have a good reason, really, except that she was the first person I had to deal with after my mom died.
Lucky for me, my caseworker managed to track down my mom’s sister, Chanel, and her long-time boyfriend, Randy. I’d never met her before, never even knew my mom had a sister. Aside from the fact that Chanel treats Layla and me like her favorite Barbie dolls, the two of them can’t stand us most of the time.
Doesn’t matter, though.
Two more months and I’ll be out on my own.
I close my eyes so tight they ache. Two more months. That’s when I graduate and can get the hell out of this shithole, and away from the shady foster system that threw me into the hands of Randy Westprick, as I like to call him, and my flighty aunt. In a few weeks I turn eighteen and no one will own me anymore. No one.
I could run away now, ditch school and hit the streets, but that would put me on the same path as my mother and I’d rather die in this hellish place than repeat her mistakes.
The neon sign across the alley blinks a mesmerizing repetition of lost hopes that reflects off the patches of water along the pavement.
A shadow slips along my periphery, and I lift my gaze as a dark figure stalks down the alley toward the old fashioned-looking diner that sits across the narrow cross section on the corner. A place that reminds me of the Boulevard of Broken Dreams painting I once saw at the mall.
Head to toe in black, the stranger’s tall frame remains concealed in the leather coat he always wears. I flip open the dull brass pocket watch, the only remnant left of my real dad, and check the time. Ten o’clock, as usual. Churning in my stomach has me hugging my mid-section.
Every Friday I watch the stranger enter the diner, choosing the corner booth beside the window, where he orders a burger and drink. It’s only Friday he orders a burger. Some nights he’ll come in, grab carry-out, and leave. But not on Fridays. On those nights, he stays and sits alone, never seems to make small talk with the waitress—the same lady who waits on him every time he ventures in. Their interactions are brief and as cold as I’d imagine from a man like him. In spite of that, the sight of him makes me dream things. I don’t know who he is, but I fantasize that he’s a deft killer by the way he carries himself with such lethal grace. If he is, then this is the side his victims never get to see—his vulnerability, choosing the same place, the same seat, the same time every Friday night. It’s a sadness that speaks to me, because without fail, I find myself settling in by my window at the very same time.
Occasionally, he goes at different times, on different days, some weeks not at all, which might seem erratic to some, but I’ve watched him long enough to know there’s a pattern. One that I’ve picked up on, because that one week he’s not there, is repeated precisely four weeks later. Perhaps it’s mindless on his part, maybe his visits correspond to events in his life that I’m not privy to, but I’m a creature of patterns, and I’ve memorized his.
From as high as my window, I can see he’s big. A man, not a boy, at least ten years my senior. His bulky frame fills the creases of the leather coat he wears, and he reminds me of something straight out of a comic book—not the hero, but the menacing antihero, the bad guy no one expects to be good.
No, in my fantasy, he’s bigger. Meaner. Stronger. A man who kills on instinct.
Beneath the cover of my blanket, I sneak my hand down inside my shirt, closing my eyes the moment my fingertip makes contact with my hardened nipple. I imagine his lips closing over it, the scratch of his day-old scruff against my skin and his strong hands holding me in place, the gruff in his voice as he says my name like a fervent prayer. I imagine he smells good, not like stale beer and the putrid mix of body odor and bacon grease, but something deliciously masculine.
I shouldn’t want for a grown man this way, but I do, and I don’t even know him.
For months, I’ve held this invisible rendezvous with him, staring down from my perch, imagining him stealing me from this cage. Turning me into whatever he is. Killer? Criminal? I don’t even care, so long as it’s tougher, more wicked than Randy Westprick.
I fault him for my lack of interest in the boys at school. Not that I’m allowed to date them anyway, but I’m certainly not touching myself to any of the guys my age.
Sometimes he stares out the window and I swear his gaze scans up to my balcony. However, if he sees me, he never makes it known. Perhaps to a man like that, I’m nothing but a young girl, hardly a threat for noticing him.
With my bottom lip caught between my teeth, I succumb to the visuals toying with my mind and the soft moan that escapes me has me stealing a furtive glance back at Layla to make sure she’s still asleep.
He takes his usual seat, filling the booth with his bulky frame. Some nights I picture sliding into his lap, his body crushing me against that table, as I straddle his thighs. I imagine his massive arms enveloping me. His tongue across my skin and in my mouth. Sweat dripping down my back, along my spine where the palm of his hand holds me in place. How he’d feel without the pills denying me the sensation of his cock filling me. The edge of the table beating into my back with every punishing drive of his hips, and the tight clench of his jaw in that reckless moment when he finishes inside of me.
My lips part at the vivid imagery, and my belly tightens while I circle my nipple with the pad of my finger.
If anyone were after him, he’d be hard to miss in those bright lights, the way he stands out like a splotch of black paint on a stark white canvas. He hasn’t looked this way once tonight, which allows me to study him intently, admiring his virile features.
He’s beautiful. A sad, but beautiful man.
The click of the doorknob sends a knot straight to my throat and my stomach sinks like bricks in a murky river. The sound alerts my dog, who I can hear rustling in her bed, and a low growl rumbles in her chest.
I slip my hand out of my shirt, straightening myself beneath the afghan.
A beam of new light invades the soft glow of the Christmas lights I’ve strung around the room for Layla, and as my nightmare enters, Charlie’s growl dies to a whimper.
The thud of his boots across the floor sound like the hooves of the devil coming to claim my soul. A scuffling tells me he’s stumbled, but not even that prompts me to turn around.
The moment I caught him hunkered down in front of the television with a six-pack, I knew he’d come for me. I don’t want to look at him. I hate him. The smell of him makes me sick, like a walking deep fryer.
If not for Charlie, I’d climb over the railing of the balcony, spread my arms, and fly. The police would find a broken shell of me. They’d study me, the same way I studied the baby bird, while the world dissects pieces of my story to suit their curiosities, leaving nothing but a picked over carcass.
All because my mother abandoned her nest.
They’ll never know it was he who gave the final push, and it won’t even matter. Once he injects the drugs, I’ll fall into dissociative bliss, tucked away in the same fog that kept my mother oblivious of the world around her, on rose-colored clouds, and a never-ending dream.
The darkness behind my eyelids is my only refuge from the hell around me, and I’ll willingly climb inside, burrowing myself in that place where no one can touch me. While my body’s propped on the cold metal of the washing machine, I’ll be miles away, fallen deep into the rabbit hole. No one can find me there. Not Randy, nor the men who see the photographs of me that he takes in the dingy laundry room of this apartment complex.
Although he never violates me himself, for whatever reason, he likes objects. The more common they are, the more he gets off. He once had me masturbate the end of a vibrating toothbrush and used it for months after—smiling at me every time he brushed his teeth.
I’ve been defiled in every sense short of rape, stripped and purged of innocence, feeding his disgusting obsession with me.
I often wonder what Chanel’s like when she’s not hopped up on pain pills. If she’d be jealous and accuse me of fucking her man, or if she’d take pleasure in watching him do it. I once tried to tell her about him taking me down there and snapping pictures of me. She offered me one of her pills and asked if I liked the boots her friend had handed down to me.
I can’t blame her too much, though. Randy likes to use her as his personal punching bag, and most days, she’s sporting a bruise somewhere. Even if it’s not always visible. He’s hit me a few times, but unlike Chanel, I hit him back, even at the risk of more pain, because I believe once you show weakness, it’s easier to fall prey to it.
A tug at my elbow and I glance to the side, swatting at his arm. “Don’t touch me.”
Sometimes Randy offers gifts—small tokens that come with his usual pep talk about how it’s not abuse because he never actually penetrates me and the photos don’t show my face. That’s a lie. I once swiped his phone when he passed out on the couch and deleted a good few dozen pictures of me—his little mementos. I couldn’t stand to look at my own face—droopy eyes singed with the apathy toward whatever he forced me to do. I’d hoped to see shame in those photos, but it seemed buried too far beneath the effects of the drugs.
He’s threatened to circulate them throughout the school if I say a word about any of this. Send them to all my classmates on Facebook, as if they’d come from me. Like he’d ever let me have my own account. As far as the world is concerned, I don’t exist.
“C’mon,” is all he says, before walking out of the bedroom.
I give one more glance toward the man in the diner, as he stares off, waiting for his food. Maybe one day he’ll look up and see me.
Maybe he’d want to kill Randy Westprick, if he knew that somewhere close by, a girl was forced to do bad things. Very bad things.
For now, the drugs will put up a barrier, separating my mind from the horrors of my reality, much like the pane of glass that separates me from the insect-ravaged bird outside my window.
Maybe it won’t hurt as much this time, knowing that I do this to keep Randy from slaughtering my dog or taking away the pills that have become as necessary as the air I breathe. A vicious cycle of escaping to survive and surviving to escape.
Because sex is power.
And even the hardest shells are made to be cracked.