I am suffocating inside my plastic lined steel-barred cage, dying with the thickening silence and quiet sobbing coming from the other room. Locked inside for more than half of the day, my body twitches for the feel of the brisk air that causes my drool to freeze to my face.
Big footsteps lumber down the stairs. Instinctively I cower as far back inside my cage as possible, lowering my body to the pee-stained blanket in an attempt to make my big frame small while keeping my eyes downcast. A whine slips from me when he kneels in front of the cage. Is he going to haul me out for a beating? He did it yesterday when I peed.
He stands, glaring at me with eyes full of hatred but then turns away, and just when I think I am in the clear he gives my cage a good hard kick, forcing it to almost roll over. At the last moment I leap up forcing my legs wide to keep it upright. Task accomplished, I sit back down and wait.
He leaves. The door shuts loudly behind him. I relax.
Head on my paws, I try to sleep. Can’t. Standing again, I can barely turn around. My legs are cramping in the too-hot musky cage. Gnawing on the bars is useless. I knew that from previous experience, except I’m bored and need to pee again. I know now not to bark. That gets me nowhere.
I start whining in earnest. My paws push at the hard plastic frame. I need to run. Doesn’t anyone understand? I need to stretch. I need to get out.
The doorbell rings.
At first I think she is going to ignore it. After all, when he came down the stairs she ignored me and sat like a frightened bird in the other room. The creak of the door opening excites me. In walks a boy. He looks like he’s lost. My master motions for him to come into the room. A blast of frigid air hits me. I can almost smell freedom. Then the door shuts.
I hear footsteps from the other room as they move to where I’m caged. Hers arefamiliar because of the soft tread. The boy’s steps are hesitant. My head goes up and my ears perk forward, but curiosity makes me cautious.
I look up. A boy stands in front of my cage. He’s shuffling his feet.
When the cage gets unlocked I try hard not to leap out. It’s too much. Stuck in that hole for too long, my back leg muscles flex with joy and my front paws jump up, almost pushing her, my owner, over.
A good loud command from her instantly forces my body to freeze. Following her pointed hand motions I sit. She is all business. If I jump up again I will land back in the cage. Not understanding her words does not mean I don’t understand her meaning.
I look at the quiet boy. He’s nodding, not speaking.
My entire body itches to move. I lower my eyes. I force the stillness. I don’t even prance around. She talks fast, using hands to speak to the boy. Thrusting the leash into his hand the boy warily glances at me.
Great, another walker. I know now not to get attached. He might last a day or two with me, if I am lucky, then move on to something easier…something inside where it is warm.
My heart speeds up when he gives a good tug on the leash and moves to the door. He acts all business-like, but the scent of his excitement, like the cool air now coming in from the slightly opened door is refreshing. We shall see who runs who.
Ten dollars per hour. That’s seventy dollars a week, which is two hundred and eighty dollars a month and that’s over three thousand in one year. I am doing math in my head when I should be paying attention to what she is saying about Ollie. She needs to slow down. Shit. I think I missed something important but when she thrust the leash in my hand the frigging dog almost took off out the open door. Jesus woman shut the door, it’s freezing out there.
She seems nervous. Maybe she thinks I am going to steal something. We went over all of that before, when I approached her about the job at the hospital. I heard her talking about needing someone to walk her dog and I wasn’t about to let my opportunity to finally land a job pass. She asked me if I had references. By my puzzled expression, I think she got that I had no idea what she was talking about. My desperate look at the time might have helped. I did tell her she could call my school Principal. Not sure she did, but a few days later she called me, so here I am, inside her designer house feeling like the unwanted flea.
I hear words like trial run, security cameras, a code for the back door and not much else. The frigging dog wants out. Know exactly how he feels.
He’s now prancing, the click of his long nails driving me nuts while I watch him dance to his own beat. Poor sucker. Bet he sat in that stinky cage all day. Shit, he even pissed in it and by the way his body is twitching and moving I’m guessing he’s got to go again.
The piece of paper she hands me with her cell number scrawled on it is my acceptance note. At the end of the week I’ll get paid in cash. Suits me. Nodding, I say that’s great. She tells me she will be gone when I am done walking Ollie, and that I have to put him back in his cage, and to make sure the door’s locked. Guess he’s got a knack for escaping.
One hour. Ten bucks. I am not going to screw this up.
She doesn’t even know me and she’s repeating that damn four digit security code, again. Lady I got it the first time. Christ, what world does she live in? Certainly not mine. That was clear as Seven Up the minute I crossed the soccer field, moving from the welfare block of non-descript apartment buildings to single dwelling houses with lawns.
Middle-class, out of my league. This living room I stand in is as big as my entire apartment and there are two more levels and a big mother fucker of a garage I would kill to live in.
“Any problems, call me.” She flings her large white purse over her shoulder, flicking her long blonde hair off her shoulder. She looks pretty in her nurse’s uniform, but her eyes are red, like she’s been crying.
“Thanks. I need to go now. Don’t want to be late.” Grabbing her coat, keys and purse, she ushers me and Ollie out the door, but there’s a look on her face I can’t quite figure out.
“I’ll lock up, don’t worry.” Not sure why I feel the need to tell her the obvious but when she flashes a smile at me, I know those words were exactly what she needed to hear.
“Thanks, Jay. This means a lot.” A slight pause fills the air but then Ollie barks causing both of us to give shaky laughs. This job means more to me than her.
She climbs into her Escalade and quickly backs out of the driveway. I could have those hub caps off in six minutes flat. The minute she pulls out of the long driveway, I remember to lock up. My hands start to freeze. Tomorrow I’m wearing gloves. I’ll have to swipe a pair from the school’s lost and found box, but I don’t care. Shit, it is freezing out.
I stuff a hand in my jeans trying to keep it warm when Ollie takes off. Jesus, she wasn’t kidding. He pulls hard. Ollie is a boxer with sad brown eyes. They probably match my own. For a dog living in a fancy house I get the distinct impression he does not get the run of it.
My feet are flying along the icy sidewalk as I try to keep up with him. You’d have to be blind not to notice how all the driveways have been shovelled with the snow packed down around the sides like some freaking thing anal middle-class people do. The houses are a mix of brick and expensive siding and range from cranberry soda in color to chocolate bar brown. I feel like I’m a freaking foreigner in my own city. I don’t recall ever stepping through the doors of one, besides to get my job. My face probably had that Disneyland look of awe plastered to it. Pathetic! The dog pulls me sharply to the left, forcing my feet to do double-time. I will be lucky if my arm doesn’t get pulled out of its socket. Then I think about the money.
Seventy dollars. No, I got that wrong. She said she would pay me fifteen on the weekends because she knew I would be busy with extra-curricular activities. Her words, not mine. I didn’t say anything when she spewed that nonsense. I do nothing on the weekend. Sad state of my life. That means in a year I will have close to four thousand dollars just from walking this dog.
Ollie pulls me sharply to the left, again toward the park the lady talked about. I almost land on my face, but honestly I don’t care. Grinning ear to ear, my mind is thinking of all the important things I am going to buy with my money. Four thousand dollars rings in my head and I feel like I’ve finally won the lotto. This is going to be the easiest one hour of my day. If I can keep my arm in my socket from the damn dog pulling me along the sidewalk like some scrambling wayward kite ready at any moment to plunge to the hard, unforgiving ground.
The boy is stupid. He is not pulling me back. I am leading him. Suits me. I recognize his type. I am temporary, a quick walk and that is it. No ties. Bet he doesn’t even like dogs. Well, I don’t care. I bark at everything. I don’t get shushed. I run at another dog and the boy laughs.
I will show him a good laugh.
The minute I hear that click—freedom—I am off. I run through the piles of dirty snow. I roll in it, savoring the dirt clinging to my body and the feel of the ice cold snow against my hot skin. This is not how I normally act, but worrying that my life will be the plastic cage for days when I get home makes me act up. Lately my stays inside the cage are getting longer. I know that is not a good sign.
I pee every few seconds, marking my territory and it feels great. I take a big dump and watch as the boy kicks snow over it. Yeah, I figured that. He’s not the bag it type.
He is holding something in his hand that beeps every few minutes. With me being off leash now, he punches the pad adding to the beeps. Not paying attention to me, I run. Past the boundary—bet he didn’t know I had one. I am still racing, loving the feel of the frigid air that makes my eyes water and nose drip. My drool is freezing to my face but it feels great. When I pass a large field, I know I am getting near the frozen waters. The woman hates it when I go in there. She is not here. The boy’s not here, either.
My paws break through the frozen water, sending chills to slide up my body. The sound tickles me and my body shivers. My ears perk up to every sound. The birds tease me with their songs, a couple of dogs are barking farther away, but I don’t care—they are not trespassing. The scurry of a squirrel, its tiny claws attempting to move fast across the frozen swamp, catches my attention. I am off, barking loudly, chasing that tiny brown ball of fur with all my might, loving every second of it, knowing the boy won’t enjoy the chase.
“What happened to you?”
I glare at Fay, my kid sister, eight years my junior, hoping to scare her off and get her to leave me alone. She’s sitting in her stained Dora pjs, which she had on two days ago. Her face is crusty with dried food and her socks look more gray than white. She giggles and damn if I don’t crack a smile.
I look around our “oh-so-spacious…not!” apartment. One lounge chair, a small shit-colored stained sofa I hate because my legs hang over the side like a dangling spider, and a well-used TV found in the dumpster which surprised us all by working. You have to kick the right side of the set sometimes but the rabbit ears mom got from a friend make it so Fay can watch two English and one French channel. There’s burnt holes in our brown carpet, which has ugly crusty spots in places you don’t even want to think about. A flashback to the house I was in sweeps over me and I wish I could wipe it from my memory. Can’t.
“Mom home?” Hopefully that answer will be no.
Fay struggles to get out of the large torn brown recliner she’s settled into. She has probably been sitting in that chair most of the day. I notice the TV’s on, but she’s turned off the sound. Sad life when television is your friend all day.
Immediately, I yank off my muddy sneakers thinking about ways to kill that damn dog. I can’t believe he took off for the swamp again. If this keeps up I’ll have to buy boots and since I can’t afford those I’ll have to start wearing layers of socks to keep somewhat dry. “Wait a sec. Let me help.”
She shakes her head. “I’m okay, Jay.”
I force myself to stand still, wondering if this is how the dog felt when he wanted to race out the door. I am waiting all right, but ready to pounce to her aid if she stumbles. My heart’s beating fast, and the sweat from chasing Ollie has turned cold and clammy on my skin. Fay shuffles out of the chair, clutches her stomach and moves toward the bathroom. I look at my seven year-old sister. Her pixie cut black hair looks brittle as if pieces of it are falling out. Praying she hasn’t noticed, I wonder when she last bathed. Wishing things were different never helps, so I swallow that thought.
Almost at the bathroom door, I see her lurching forward. I am there so fast even I’m impressed.
“I’ve got you, Fay.”
She looks up at me. Her face is that sheet-white chalky color she turns before she is about to puke. I haul her forward to the toilet, lifting the seat and holding her over the bowl. It’s rimmed with earlier throw-up, flecks of yellowish-brown disgusting things I do not want to think about.
My gag reflex starts to act up. No way am I losing it.
When Fay is finally done expelling what has to be Mac and Cheese, and when the dry heaves finally subside, I wipe her face with a wet cloth, scratching her pale skin to get off the dried bits. There is hardly any water pressure in the tap and that worries me. I pick her up without a word, thinking she weighs about as much as one of her large stuffed animals. Tucking her small frame close to mine she smells like sour milk and sweat. I don’t tell her that. I carry her into our room, stepping over her trio of Little Ponies. It would upset her if I knocked them over so I don’t. The room is more her room than mine. It is loaded with stuffed cats of all types. I roll my eyes. She’s plunked two cats on my small bed, a jaguar and a bright pink one that looks like it belongs in a freak circus.
She catches my eyes and attempts a sad smile; even that effort cost her.
“They were lonely, Jay. Shelly loves Drake so I had to put them on your side for a bit. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. Don’t sweat it.”
“Want me to get them off your bed?”
Her tired voice pulls me. Placing her under her covers, I wipe her long bangs off her forehead and tell her not to worry about them. She starts to shake. That happens after she pukes her guts out.
“You want some water?” I am already moving to get it before she answers. I look back, watching her slide her tiny body halfway down in the bed, hauling the covers up over her head for warmth. In the kitchen, the pile of dirty dishes, still there from yesterday and the bowl of left over Mac and Cheese are my treats. Just freaking great!
I look in the cupboards for a clean cup. No luck. Rinsing out a mug, I get Fay her water, noticing again there’s hardly any pressure in the tap. Hitting the faucet does nothing. Fay doesn’t move when I enter our room. I place the mug on her night table knowing she will sip at the water if she needs it. Clicking off the TV in the living room I start cleaning up.
Back in the kitchen my curses only get heard by me. I look around for bread. No luck. Now I know why she ate my Mac and Cheese leftovers. She had no choice. But she knows better. The only thing her sensitive stomach can handle after her radiation treatment is toast, bananas and vanilla yogurt. None of which are evident.
The door opens with a bang. I don’t even move. Mom’s home. Oh goodie.
The stench of cigarettes and booze hits me like a shaken up can of soda before mom stumbles fully into the kitchen. Shit, if she can afford that why can’t she buy groceries? My anger rises and I force myself to take calm breaths. There is no point in bringing that up. It’s the same old, same old.
She settles into the plastic seat. We only have one. A flashback to the designer kitchen I stood in only an hour ago grips me.
“What the hell happened to you? You fall in the mud or something?” Her voice sounds gravelly as if she’s been sucking cigs all day.
No way am I about to tell her what happened. “Something,” I mumble, noticing there’s dried mud all over my jeans.
“Fay got sick.” I wait for her reaction, hoping once it will be the right one. It’s not.
She leans back in the chair, drapes her skinny arm over the side and rolls her eyes. “Shit,” she says, like it’s Fay’s fault. That is the end of her motherly words of concern. Pathetic.
We look at each for a good minute. A staring contest won’t help. My stomach grumbles. “Where’s the food?”
She shrugs her bony shoulders, uncaring. How on Earth is this woman my mother? Circumstances. I know all about the how. Mom made sure of that. I don’t have to like it. Christ, I don’t even like her.
“Where’d you get the booze?” I feel my rage begin to boil.
“It’s not like you think,” she says, not looking at me.
She starts to twist a strand of her dirty hair but her voice sounds resigned and weary. I hate that I recognize that too. I’m fed up with this. The anger gets the best of me. In a blink I find myself standing next to her, staring down at her heavily made-up face, making her see me. Her mascara has run and there’s only red lipstick left on her top lip. What I want is for her to see both of us—me and Fay. That is not going to happen. She slides her eyes down to the floor. I hate it when she does that…as if she’s afraid of me. At five foot eight I am a lot taller than her five foot two, popsicle-thin frame. I wonder if she thinks I’m going to hit her. I would never do that. I see the bruises she attempts to hide after her time with “her friends”. I’m not stupid. I know exactly what she does. Fast screw equals easy money. Her words she likes to throw at me when there’s no money for heat and no food to eat. Wouldn’t matter. We could have all the money in the world and my mom would throw it all away by drinking or drugs. Two things I’ve vowed never to touch.
I wish I didn’t notice how tired she looks, or how toothpick-skinny both of us are, or the fact we have the same thin dark brown hair that could use a good cut. I’m glad the similarities end there. There had been a time when I cared…when she cared, but all that changed after Fay was born. I used to resent Fay for causing mom to change, but no longer.
Still not looking me in the eye, I move away from her stench. I barely hear her throaty voice. “Charlie gave it to me.”
And what did you give him? I don’t ask that question. TMI. I already know the answer. Disgusted, I back away from her to face the pile of dishes I know she won’t touch. I turn on the water—none, go figure.
I could turn my anger on her, but why bother. Instead, I grab the kettle, march out the apartment and knock on Mrs. Fillmore’s door, all without saying a word to mom. Mrs. Fillmore opens it, only after taking a quick look through the peek hole. It took me months to get her to accomplish that act. Before, she simply opened the door. My stern lectures about why she should never do that, especially in this building, finally made her become more leery. Part of me hated making a seventy-plus year old lady, who spends most of her time wearing her purple housecoat, and fluffy pink cat slippers, scared to answer the door. Better safe than sorry and in my part of the city sorry gets you killed.
The door opens wide and she lets me in. Immediately the smell of baby powder and old lady perfume hits me. She grimaces, spotting the kettle. She doesn’t say anything. I live in a world thick with silence. She turns on the tap and the front burner of her puke-green stove, and then brings out a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies.
My stomach growls like an angry dog. Good thing she is hard of hearing. The kettle whistles a few minutes later. She clicks off the burner. I make my way to the door. The entire transaction is done in complete silence because we’ve done this enough times to know our routine. I don’t like her pity but having no water ain’t fun one bit.
Only at the door does she grab my sleeve.
“For Fay, Jay. I can’t eat all of these.” She thrusts the plate of cookies into my other hand. I nod, and accept them. It’s the same old, same old.
Jesus Christ, I feel the well of tears I hate fill my eyes. Taking the plate of cookies she pushes in my hand, I am out the door without a word of thanks for anything. My throat’s clogged and I’m starting to really hate the routine of my life.
I pour some of the water in the sink. Add the lemon-scented dish detergent, the same frigging stuff I use to wash my hair, and plunk the dirty dishes in it to soak.
The cookies I stash away. No way am I eating them. They are for Fay. She shouldn’t eat the cookies but since there’s not much else in the house they’ll have to do until I can get the food she needs. I notice mom is in her room still dressed but she’s sprawled across her bed, asleep. She didn’t even look in on Fay. No change there. I hope mom has nightmares because she deserves them.
Starved, pissed at my life, at fifteen there is not much I can do about it. I’d like to leave, to walk away from all this shit, but I can’t. Nothing and no one is going to take my sister from me. Not the leukemia she’s got. Not the frigging stone-faced social worker who visits once a month like clock work, checking on us to see if we are okay. My life ain’t perfect but that’s life. I make myself clean the filthy dishes knowing no one else will.