*Not edited & subject to change
*feedback not only welcome but appreciated.
*As you can see, as a way of showing this isn't about simply editing and formatting the M&M books for republishing into print and ebook. I've been adding description, developing the characterization, removing plot holes, adding foreshadowing, solidifying the plot, and maintaining that each book is a solid foundation for the next.
This is not an easy task. In a way, it's more difficult that writing from scratch, as I have many threads from 12 books to keep straight to maintain the integrity of the series as a whole. I'm proud to place my name on the finished project.
18 years ago...
“I can’t,” I mutter, glad that I have an excuse. I love Fate and her little sister, Faith, but their mom makes it uncomfortable to visit. But my excuse is an even worse fate. “I have to go to Ade’s house tonight for the first time. She’s been pestering me, and I finally gave in.”
Fate gives me the usual pinched look of disdain, and then rolls her blue eyes. She doesn’t understand how I could be friends with someone who acts like Ade does. My best friends aren’t friends at all– more like enemies of the highest order. As Dominion’s original founders, the Whittenhower and Simpson families share bad blood, and their daughters perpetuate the cycle. It makes it rather uncomfortable to be me, because I have to split my time between the two girls, with both of them pissed at me for loving the other.
As the only scholarship student, having two friends at Hillbrook Preparatory School is for survival, needing the queens of the elite to watch my back from deliberate attacks. Dirt poor, where I come from makes me the enemy amongst the budding world leaders. Rich mommies and daddies get their panties in a wad when a girl from the slums is smarter than their genetically engineered kiddies who were showered with expensive tutors from birth.
“Ade’s a snooty bitch. I don’t know how you can stand her.” Fate slouches in her chair, bony arms resting on the tabletop. She pulls a grumpy look and pouts– too adorable for words.
Adelaide Whittenhower is an entitled monster who loves me because I accept her for who she is. Fate Simpson is a sweet, naïve, sheltered girl who will be consumed by the sharks in life, and I’ve made it my life’s mission to protect her from the Ade Whittenhowers of the world. It’s best if the duel sides of my life never collide.
“We’re studying for the Latin final.” What I say next isn’t a dig, since Fate is a mathematical mastermind, but dumb as a rock with foreign languages, which Ade excels in. My best friends are complete and total opposites. “You didn’t have to take it, so that’s the only reason I’m studying with Ade instead of you. Ya know you could always study with us. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind.”
Flashing perfectly straight, predatory teeth, “Oh,” Fate draws out, smile warping into an evil smirk. “But I would mind.” She pulls her long, dirty blonde hair into a ponytail, and then wraps the hair tie around it three times. She gives it a tight yank and I wince. I’m surprised she has any hair left at all after the amount of times she adjusts her hair in a day.
“What kind of freak graduates at sixteen? Worse is that you hang out with someone two years younger than you. It’s sad really.” Eyelashes fluttering, Fate allows haughty pretentiousness to infuse her voice.
Wincing, I love my education and my two friends, but I can only take so much of the ‘I am better than everyone else on the planet’ mentality. I deal with these people in short bursts, and then get back to my side of the city where the drug dealers and prostitutes dwell.
I live across the street from Dominion’s crime boss. Stanton Green just usurped his own father, and he’s only a few years older than I am. The elite think they hold the world by their wallets. But through ingenuity, we hold them by the balls. They may think we’re trash, but we live in reality. While they live in their own universe and are ignorant to anything that doesn’t outright affect them.
“Fate, lay off Ade,” I warn. “We’ve been through this for the past four years. We’re two weeks from graduating, so I think it’s a bit late to change anything.”
Eyes downcast, Fate turns sheepish. “It’s always worth a try.” Uncomfortable, Fate wringing her fingers together on the tabletop draws my attention. “I just want you to like me more than her, ya know? You loving someone so… nasty, it makes me wonder if I’m a good person or not.”
“Fate,” I sigh deeply, lowing almost into a snarl. I grip her fingers before she cuts off their circulation with her constant fretting. Softening my voice, “I need to study for finals tonight. You know I’ll lose my scholarship if I slip with my grades. We all can’t have our daddies buy off admissions and pay our way.”
Fate’s blue eyes tear up, and I’m instantly regretful for hurting her. It doesn’t make the insult any less true, so I won’t apologize. She’s never had to worry about grades, or scholarships, or even financial aid she can’t afford to pay back. Thomas Simpson bought his precious daughter her admission to the university of her choice and is paying her entire way.
Whereas, I’m not even sure I can use the scholarship I was awarded– the one I’ve earned by working my ass off for the past four years while suffering through these insufferable fuckfaces. I work and work, and study and study, but all I end up doing is treading water. Nothing will keep my dying mother alive– the only thing that would have saved my future was if her fight ended before my eighteenth birthday.
I turned eighteen last week.
I’m in an impossible situation, praying for every moment with my mother, but knowing the longer she lives, the more weight will be put on my shoulders. At the beginning of my future, I’ll have creditors garnishing my wages and putting liens on everything I own to recoup my mother’s mountain of medical bills.
What an awful daughter I am to have wanted a future versus a few more days with my dying mother.
Brushing those fears away, I know I’ll be stuck with Fate for life, so I best assuage her fears instead. “Fate, you know I love you. But I can love both of you, and it doesn’t change either of our friendships.” Arms spread wide, I display all six feet of my gargantuan body while wearing a smile on my face. “There’s more than enough of me to go around.”
“Of course there is,” A syrupy voice flows above my head, breath fluttering my hair. “You have a large capacity for love, Regina.”
Fate’s eyes narrow and fill with bitter hatred. “I just lost my appetite. I’ll see you in A.P. Calc. Later.” She abruptly leaves her seat to walk to another table filled with taunting elitists.
A sheep, always following the herd, Fate begins to laugh with them and glances our way over her shoulder. No doubt I’m the brunt of some brutal joke, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.
Fingertips curling into my palms, my nails bite into my skin. My present may suck, but these assfucks are going to lick my boots in the future.
If it weren’t for the fact that we have to wear uniforms, I’d be bullied more. My clothing comes from secondhand stores, not the pricy shops where you buy a pair of jeans worth no more than twenty bucks for a thousand dollars. The wealthy are the most wasteful people on the planet.
Without the aid of a salon or stylist, don’t get me started on my frizzy strawberry blonde hair.
The irony is the fact that no matter what I do, I won’t fit in anywhere, not when I’m bridging the gap between two cultures. Wearing my school uniform in the slums has slurs slung into my face on a daily basis, as would wearing my regular clothing around the Hillbrook elite.
Ade sighs above my head, no doubt glaring at Fate for her antics. After a reassuring clench to my shoulder, Ade takes a seat beside me.
With a wane smile, I look to the young girl everyone is utterly terrified of. Willowy, Ade looks like a runway model with her pale, flawless skin, natural blonde hair and big blue eyes– all Whittenhower genetic standards. With a mind rivaling mine, she may be controlling and demanding, but she does understand how I feel.
Ade speaks while looking down at her tray filled with a chopped salad and grapefruit segments, neither of which she’ll eat. “The fresh-fish-freshman are doing their orientation today. They should be here any second. Father said there are nine new students.”
With a minuscule student body, Hillbrook Preparatory School is preschool through graduation, but we’re segregated by age group. The rectory across the back lawn was converted for the little kids, with the preteens housed in an outbuilding. With the main cathedral turned into classrooms, seventh and eighth grade are all clustered into a segment away from the influence of the older kids. There are few open slots for grades beneath ninth. Your parents can either afford for you to start at preschool, or apply for high school. It takes a legacy to be smashed into the student body. Freshman orientation is an event that the proud mommies and daddies celebrate like a graduation, where legacies meet the kids who were rich enough to buy their way in, guaranteeing admission to any top university of their choosing.
Then there is me, the worst kind of interloper. Poor scholarship kid. The only scholarship student to ever grace Hillbrook’s marble hallways. The parents raised a major stink, saying I was tainting their reputation. Proving myself, I outscored their children, which only made them angrier. Every semester they petitioned to remove me from their roster because I was knocking their precious babies down the ranks. Two weeks until graduation, I’m still here, never knowing who my benefactor was.
Nodding that I heard it trickling down the gossip vine, I snag Ade’s multigrain roll slathered with layer of honey butter. Only the best for the children of the one-percenters. Commuting to a school with a different zip code, wearing a uniform, having Catholicism shoved down my throat when I’m a Protestant, and dealing with shiny bastards wasn’t as bizarre as the lack of sloppy joes, pizza, tatter tots, canned corn, and instant potatoes on my lunch tray. In fact, we don’t get a lunch tray with compartments. Plates. Real porcelain plates and stainless cutlery sit atop a silver tray. Hillbrook served high-quality, gourmet meals that are lost on my dirt poor palate.
I spear a fork into Ade’s salad, knowing she won’t eat it, and what I was offered wasn’t enough to fuel my masculine-sized body. Another advantage of having two dieting skinny, white chicks for best friends– I eat their lunches, because my cupboards are bare at home.
Cheeks stained pink, Ade shocks me with what she says next. “I’ve had my eye on one of the incoming freshman for a while.” Shock because I chat boys with Fate, never Ade. Ade is my partner in academia and culture, whereas Fate is a gossip monger and pop culture expert.
Blush deepening, “It’s too bad that I was so accelerated. I would’ve loved to stay here a year or two with him.” Ade licks her thin lips salaciously, and I giggle out of discomfort. She’s all talk and no bite. Worried about grades and our futures, neither of us have been kissed.
“Here they come,” I say of the thirty or so new students that will grace the halls of Hillbrook next school year. Twenty of them have been here since they were three years old, but the rest have never entered our hallowed halls.
Arrogant, the legacies have ate in this cafeteria for over a decade, but the newbies show no chinks in their armor. They don’t enter as I did and still do on occasion– heads down and shoulders curled, shrinking into themselves.
Swallowing hard, a ball forms in my stomach, knowing a child in preschool, someone in my graduating class, or one of these freshmen could possibly be a future president of the United States, or go on to cure cancer, or create a revolutionary idea to change the way we live our everyday lives.
I’m witnessing history being made. A mark on a journey of a great man or woman. I’m an outside observer, never in a million years believing I’d be sitting here. I’ll forever be Reggie from the block, earning my way but never believing I deserve to be here. I have the brains and guts to grab for it, but those positions of power are only handed to a legacy, never to the daughter of a second-generation Irish-American bus driver.
With great respect, I meet the eyes of every child who walks into the cafeteria. The students walk with their shoulders back and their heads held high. Sure of themselves, filled with pride and confidence, they are the future of our nation. They never get intimidated, even by the ninety kids in the cafeteria who are older and smarter. That isn’t the currency they go by– it’s green. Money is power. They aren’t intimidated because most of the newbies’ families have more money and power than the ones who are seated.
Stunned silent, I watch as a few students rise up and pull the new freshmen from their ranks to sit with them.
Fate runs up to her little sister, Faith, and hugs her proudly. Bony arms locked around one another, blonde hair flutters as the sisters rock each other back and forth while giggling and making happy sounds. Broad smile on her pixie-like face, the small girl waves at me, and I wave back.
Faith is a good girl. Born in Dominion but raised in West Virginia with her aunt. She hasn’t developed the attitude of the Simpson family, yet to fall into the trap that the rest of these kids are already ensnared in. They’re too blind to see that their fate has been sealed. It’s too late for them to make their own way. Yes, they have money, but at what cost? Freedom. It’s the cost of their true selves and their happiness.
Snapping me away from the scene playing out before me, “Hi,” a cute boy with tan skin, huge gray eyes, and black hair greets me.
An odd smile tugs at my lips as I glance up at the newcomer. Covered in baby fat, the mixed kid looks like he should be hanging outside of my building with Stanton Green’s teenage enforcer, Julio Ramirez. Not to sound racist, but even I’m not white enough for Hillbrook, and I burn in the sun after five minutes.
Eyes twinkling with mischievousness, grin charming, I can’t help but feel a pull toward the jailbait kid. He’s another outsider in this pure, six-finger environment.
“Hi,” I mutter back firmly, refusing to show any vulnerability. I’ve learned over the past four years that meekness is a weakness to these predators. No matter how much they think they’re better than me, it doesn’t mean they are.
Making himself known, “Stop leering at the lady,” another boy chastises with a soft, punishing cuff to the back of the other boy’s head. “That’s rude.” The charmer shrinks back, rejection flashing across his chubby face.
Baby fat already burnt off by puberty, the bossy kid looks similar enough to the charmer to be brothers, except their skin and hair color are at opposites: nearly albino white, meaning he’s probably Dominion royalty, while the other kid is dark enough that one of his parents has to be of Mexican descent. The differences stop at skin-deep, because their smoky gray eyes and the form of bodies are identical.
Bastard brothers? Maybe Daddy stepped out on Mommy like Fate and Faith’s dad did.
Tall and graceful, the pale one gestures to himself and then his pouting companion. “Hello, I’m Ezra Holden-Zeitler, and this rude bastard is Cortez Hunter.”
Not brothers, then.
That hyphenated last name means both sides of his family are Dominion founders. Ezra’s top of the food chain, which explains why over a hundred pairs of eyes are watching us with curiosity. You could hear a pin drop in the cafeteria– all the better to hear the dulcet tones of Ezra’s smooth voice.
Ezra extends his perfectly manicured hand for me to shake. I do so, and I’m shocked at how soft his skin is. Softer than mine was when I was a baby. He’s never seen an honest day’s work in his life. But then again, he’s still a kid.
“She’s Regina Regal,” Ade says for me, pushing her way into the conversation, clearly already acquainted with these gentlemen. I don’t mind. I’m not lusting after these cute boys. Not only because they’re babies compared to me, but because I’ve never lusted after anyone.
“It’s always a pleasure, Adelaide,” the smooth voice rolls over us, eliciting a shiver. Not faked or acted, amazing genetics on display.
Cort rolls his eyes at me as Ezra speaks. Either he’s making fun of the voice or Ade– I don’t know which. I smother my smile by taking a sip of my water, eyeing the pair over the edge of my glass.
Slumping against her chair, completely unladylike, Ade melts into a puddle because Ezra acknowledged her. The guy must be the one she has her eye on. Good choice, girlfriend. When he grows up, he’ll be devastating. I’m positive the sidekick charmer will be, too.
I have a few rules I abide by: I don’t do the rich and no one is worth it in my neighborhood. I’m biding my time for college to find someone in the middle ground to date.
Ezra doesn’t shake Ade’s hand or touch her in any other way to avoid encouraging her. With a kind smile flirting along his lips, he humors her as she rambles on embarrassingly. She has a tendency to do that when she’s nervous. However, Ezra does rest a possessive hand on Cort’s back. The boy leans into the touch, face going from murderous intent to satisfied, and my eyes widen in shock.
No freaking way!
The brightness in my best friend’s eyes informs me she has a massive crush on Ezra, and I don’t have the heart to tell her that she isn’t his type. Where I come from, you’re either observant, or you get mugged, knifed, or raped. Here in the land of opportunity, you don’t notice anything you don’t want to see. I’m sure deep down, Adelaide must realize Ezra is gay, but she’s in denial. Probably the rich are forced to marry anyway– maybe that’s what she’s hoping for. We’re too young to worry about that kind of thing, but many of my classmates are already betrothed to keep the wealth in their families.
It’s not a love match; it’s a business merger.
“We should mingle some.” With practiced ease of many dinner parties and public functions, Ezra orders Cortez as he squeezes the boy’s shoulder affectionately. “We can’t stand here with these graduates. Sadly, these lovely ladies won’t be here with us next year and we must build reliable connections early on.”
Both boys blaze brilliant smiles at me, flashing their pearly, bright teeth. The smile Ezra gives Ade is fond, whereas Cortez’s is a feral bearing of teeth. I bet he doesn’t like her looking at his guy with marital intent.
Adelaide’s thin lips stretch across her face in a huge grin. She tosses her shoulder-length blonde hair, trying to bring attention to it, and it doesn’t have an impact.
I watch as the boys approach the table where Fate and Faith are sitting. Both girls give them a cursory half-second look to see who it is, and then go back to chatting with their friends. They aren’t impressed, but most of these kids have grown up together since birth. It’s too much like siblings to get excited over one another.
“I’m going to be Mrs. Ezra Zeitler someday,” Adelaide declares with a great wealth of pride. “My father has been negotiating with Diane Holden for the past few months.” Her eyes glaze over with an insane level of want. I don’t know if Ade wants Ezra as a person, or just wants to know she can acquire him.
“Doesn’t the kid get a choice?” I scoff, appalled. “He’s a child.” I have more freedom as poor white trash than these rich children have.
I’d rather be poor than owned.
“No, Ezra doesn’t,” Adelaide states firmly. “We marry who our parents tell us to marry. Katherine was lucky because she fell in love with Kent here at Hillbrook, so that made the betrothal easy-peasy.”
“Easy-peasy?” I bite back a few choice words, but I am happy for Ade’s older sister. Katie is a pleasant girl to be around, and I wouldn’t wish an arranged marriage on my worst enemy. She had the bad luck of her husband becoming a Junior Senator.
Politicians are smarmy maggots.
“It’s human trafficking of one’s children, is what it is. The gang occupying my neighborhood has more ethics than that.”
“Oh, Reg.” Ade washes the air away with an outstretched palm. “I was smarter than my brother– Grant waited too long, dragging his feet, and didn’t get to pick. So Father did instead, and Grant is downright miserable with Cora. I picked who I wanted, and Father was pleased it was his closest friend’s son.”
Ade responds like this is normal and perfectly acceptable behavior. The world doesn’t operate like this, and she is ignorant to that fact. You don’t just order up a spouse like you’re catalog shopping.
Hello? Yes, I’d like to order a pale as paper one-percenter. I’d prefer if he had light eyes and hair to complement my own, and a bank account with so many zeros I lose count. Do you have one with political ties from a Dominion founder line? Please and thank you. Easy-peasy!
My eyebrow hitches high. “What if you pick someone and your parents say no?”
The fact that I’m making fun of her goes straight over Adelaide’s head. “You have to trust that your parents know better than you do. If Father says no, then it wasn’t a good match. Father said it was a perfect match for Ezra and me, and Ezra’s mother, Diane, is excited as well. But she hasn’t told him yet. We have to wait for him to grow up some.” She preens like a bird under the parental praise.
My eyes cut to the table where Ezra and Cortez are squeezed in next to Divina Hastings. She’s a pretty brunette who was this year’s freshman. Divina must be a relative of Ezra’s or Cortez’s, judging by the ease of how she touches them. Not possessively so, like you’d razz a bratty little brother. Everyone is chatting animatedly around them, while the boys seem to be lost in their own world, holding a preternatural, silent conversation.
Any woman who steps between Ezra and Cortez is staring down disaster.
“What about Cortez, though?” The looks the kid keeps tossing Ade’s way scream that he’s planning her demise and enjoying the thought.
“Cort’s a nobody– his mom just died,” Ade offers flippantly, and my heart beats double-time.
Gazing at Cortez, I recognize the same pain I’m holding deep inside, and it bothers me that Adelaide can talk so freely about the death of the most important person in your life, especially when my mother is dying. I curl my fists, barely restraining myself from punching the smug off my friend’s face.
“Celeste Hunter was Diane’s companion– Ezra’s mom. They fed from her hand and now she has taken in the orphan. It’s disgusting that Cort’s family was looking for a handout, but it was very sweet that Diane would be so charitable. She’s an incredible woman. I would be proud to call her my mother-in-law.” The haughty tone in Ade’s voice deepens as she speaks. I do love her, but she’s the most pretentious person on the planet.
“No, not marry Cortez. What about Cortez if you try to marry Ezra? They look like a package deal.” I say about the obvious couple. Neither is hiding their mutual affections for the other. Right now they’re holding hands. On top of the table.
“It’s just a phase,” Ade says with surety, and I do a double-take. Hands still holding, pretty much screaming they’re a couple to every person in this cafeteria. “The rich are never gay. They marry and have a family. I don’t care what my husband does in private as long as it stays private. That’s the rules.”
Ade looks at me like I’m being slow, and I look right back at her incredulously. Private? The boys keep caressing each other. In public. In a Catholic church. There’s no re-stabling that horse.
What a fucking way to live. I cringe.
“I gotta get to my next class– I’ll see ya around.” I stand and toss Fate’s discarded lunch on top of my tray. It’s gross that they never pick up after themselves. I glare at the back of Fate’s head, drilling my disappointment into her brain.
Knowing I’m pissed at her, “Do you still want to study tonight?” Ade’s big blue eyes look hopeful. She can’t stand to be alone for a second, while I revel in it.
“Yeah. Sure– come over after dinner tonight.” I say quickly, hoping she falls for it and misses the fact that I asked her to my apartment, not wanting to set foot onto her estate. I grab her garbage, knowing she would just leave it for the staff to pick up.
“You’re coming to my house.” Ade’s command is laced with the sickly sweet tone she uses to cover her true voice. I don’t like the calculating gleam in her eye.
“Why?” I ask in suspicion. “Why do you keep forcing the issue? Every time you ask it’s more demanding than the last. You sound desperate.”
“I… I…” Ade hesitates, and I can see she is struggling to find something that will assuage me. A small V forms between her eyes.
“Just tell me the truth, Ade.” I huff. “I need to get to class.”
Pain flashes over her perfect features, then she blurts a truth that hurts, but one I also feel to the core of my soul. “I don’t like seeing your mother. Okay? It freaks me out.” She says of my cancer-riddled mother, causing my heart to break. Her words make her look like an unsympathetic asshole, but I can see Adelaide’s point.
I’m my mother’s caregiver, and it pains me every time I look her way, hear her labored breath or the faltering of her heart.
Adelaide isn’t used to seeing anything that isn’t perfect. Also, I don’t doubt that she hates visiting my beaten-down apartment in my shitty neighborhood, too. Some people don’t like having harsh realities shoved into their faces, showing them how much they have to lose should they fall from on high.
“Fine, I’ll come to you.” I stare down at the tray, biting back how I truly feel. “Your father doesn’t like me, remember? He was carrying the preverbal torch at the last school board meeting, trying to get my scholarship revoked.”
“That was not what was going down,” Ade stresses, and the terror in her eyes clues me in that she’s telling the truth. “My mother is your biggest supporter, and Father will never go to battle with her.”
Shuddering, I mutter to the trays in my hand, “Maybe we should go to the library instead.” I’ve never been to Whittenhower Estates, and I don’t think I want to, either.
“I’ll send my driver to pick you up at five. You can eat dinner with us.” She looks excited and I don’t want to let her down.
“No on dinner. I have to cook for my mom, you know that.”
“So make Ella something to eat, but don’t eat with her. I’m not trying to be insensitive, but you need some space, Regina. Every moment with her is precious, I get that. But I can see the shadows beneath your eyes.” Ade’s face goes as soft as her voice. “You’re my best friend, and I want my family to meet you. It’s been four years– I think it’s time, don’t you?” The command is back in her voice, and I want to disobey it instantly.
“I’ll meet Albert out front of my building at five sharp,” I say over my shoulder as I scowl at my best friend. I dump the trash in the garbage, stack the plates and bowls, stow the flatware, and then rinse off the trays with the sprayer. The kitchen staff looks at me with kindness while simultaneously glaring at the rest of the student body in the cafeteria.
“Hillbrook– educating the next generation of pompous assholes.”
I’ll be ecstatic when I’m finally finished with Hillbrook. The Cathedral is at the very edge of Dominion’s business district, placing it closer to Crestview gated community. Like Mount Olympus, Crestview overlooks Dominion, where the legacies are tucked safely behind wrought iron and stone in their founders’ mansions. I’ve never been farther than Fate’s mansion, only seeing pictures of the hidden, sprawling estates in our history books and museums.
Whittenhower Estates, Adelaide’s home, is the largest residential property in the tristate area, if not the country, dwarfing most of our institutions, and I’ll be visiting it tonight.
With a foot in two different cultures, it takes a lot of effort to bridge the gap. A twenty-minute subway ride and walking ten blocks to my apartment in a Catholic schoolgirl uniform is pure torture. Daily I deal with constant leers and propositions because I look like a grown woman on her way to work at the strip joint, or the plaything to a deviant with a school girl fetish. A few construction workers mistook me for a guy in drag– I flashed them my nut-free panties to get them to shut up. One guy told me I was an expert ‘tucker’ and my huge tits looked natural.
The farther from Hillbrook and the closer I get to home, the worse the abuse I suffer. My people don’t like anyone who tries to rise above their station, and I’ve been verbally and physically attacked for trying to better myself. The only weapons at my disposal are my bitch glare and my strong body screaming Back Off.
In times like these, I’m no longer envious that my body isn’t petite like Fate’s since I need to be able to protect myself. I’m towering over six-feet and curvy. Big boned. Wide hips. Birthing stock. Huge tits perfect for a wet nurse.
I’m not tiny and pretty, which is what a man needs from a woman. They love helpless, fragile, stupid and giggly creatures who feed their male egos. I can never be any of those things, but the thought of coupling with a weak man who needs me to take care of him leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
I loosen my blonde hair from its bun, releasing the mass that refuses to curl or lie flat. I’m a sight with my wild hair, green eyes, and girly, virginal uniform. Mid-freshman year, just before my last growth spurt, I was repeatedly groped on the subway and nearly raped on my walk home. A group of homeboys dragged me into an alley and assaulted me.
Experience has changed me.
No one bothers me anymore.
Reaching my block, my eyes cast over the dealers hanging out of the corners, the crackheads’ zigzag strides, and the whores’ dead eyes. I wave to the big, handsome sweetheart guarding the building across the street, and Julio waves back while flashing me a grin.
“Keeping the hood safe, buddy boy?” I call across, projecting my voice over the sound of traffic. I like teasing the burly guy, because I know he has a hand in the fact that I’ve been untouchable for the past few years.
“Reggie!” Julio brightens because I acknowledged him. No way is he much older than I am. Hell, he might be younger than me for all I know. The streets have a way of aging you before your time. “I visited Ella earlier, brought little Bianca with me.”
“Ah…” I press a hand to my chest, eyes watering. I’ve never spoken to our crime boss, but as his enforcer, when I speak to Julio, I speak to Stanton Green himself. Stanton’s a single father, and since I have a way with kids, I’ve watched Stanton’s toddler daughter a few times when Julio was busy.
Employers trust the scholarship kid, and my on-and-off babysitting gig has kept me safe thanks to Stanton putting the word out to all of his employees. If only the elite knew I moonlight for a crime boss…
“So sweet– I bet it brightened my mom’s day. Tell Binks I said hi.” With a wave, I cut into my building, ignoring the piss-stank smell, used syringes, and broken bottles. Security is real tight here in the hood– there’s no front door anymore. I wished Mr. Green owned this side of the street, because he takes care of his property and people.
A baby begins to wail– alarmed, dogs bark from several apartments. Once one kid starts to sob, it’s like a siren call to the others. Infants and toddlers join en masse.
Televised, rapid gunfire is paused. “Shut that goddamned kid the fuck up!” shouts an enraged dad who should be working instead of playing on his brand-new Nintendo 64.
“Feed, change, or hold your own fucking kid, asshole!” With the side of my fist, I pound on the lazy idiot’s door since it was his baby who alerted the entire building. The kid continues to cry, but the game is restarted. “Jesus, you assholes need to be castrated.”
Trudging up the three flights of stairs to my apartment, a litany of bitching plays out in my head. With me going to school, Mom unable to work due to cancer but not eligible for any assistance because I’m eighteen and able-bodied without kids, and Dad’s pittance from social security ran out last week when I reached the age of majority, we can’t afford the rent in a building with an elevator. It’s been really difficult for my mother to make the trek. After Mom’s last doctor’s appointment, I had to carry her up the stairs like a small child. She can’t weigh more than seventy pounds at this point, but it was still a struggle.
I refuse to think about how that was most likely my mother’s last time to go outside of our apartment for the rest of her too short life.
But that able-bodied asshole in 1B can live off the system while playing the latest video games.
Taunting, waving at me in the light breeze from the broken window, the red eviction notice is a mirage in my sight. Growing larger and larger, becoming reality, it’s all I can see as I walk closer. I yank the offending piece of paper off my door, crumple it up in my fingertips, and then pitch it down the hallway, aiming for the manager’s door. I’m not angry with him or the building owner.
I’m furious at my circumstance.
My mother is too ill to work and the medical bills keep piling up. Every time we’ve filed for assistance, the response was that Dad’s SSI should cover us. No medical card, no food stamps– not a dime from the very system my father paid taxes into from the time he was fifteen years old. I barely make enough money to afford food for us to eat by working on the weekends by helping the manager do odds and ends around the building, or by picking up some babysitting money from Stanton or one of the mothers on the block. Those baby mommas are broke, trying to make ends meet while their baby daddies are sitting on their asses, sucking everyone dry like a bloodsucking leech, so sometimes I’m paid in handful of food stamps.
Girlfriends need to get some self-respect and kick the bums to the curb, put the food in their children’s mouths instead of a grown-ass man, and never fall victim to the same bullshit, or else they’ll end up with another kid on their hands and a second deadbeat daddy.
But I have larger worries than the economic devolution of my neighborhood.
Mom’s debt is daunting– a quarter of a million dollars in medical expenses that will fall onto me when she passes away. They’ve cut us off at the pharmacy, half-assed sent Hospice our way, will no longer schedule my mother for any doctor’s appointments, and have written my mother off as already being dead and not caring about her comfort and pain-level.
Our life used to be very different. We lived in a nicer neighborhood with the rest of the working class. I grew up in a row house with our neighbors being families with both mommies and daddies. There was a gaggle of kids I used to roam with, all of us going to school together and playing in the park afterward. No gunfire. No drug dealers. No women selling their bodies to pay for their habit. No filthy, health-hazard cesspool of an apartment that is speeding up my mother’s demise.
There was money from the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny dropped off a candy-filled basket as he hopped by, and we had a fireplace Santa would slide down on Christmas Eve to fill the stockings and place presents under the tree.
There was family game night, movie night, Taco Tuesdays and Pizza Fridays. Dad’s green eyes would light up and his freckled face would pink when he looked Mom’s way, then he’d ask her to dance while I played the piano in the front room.
We took vacations to Upstate New York and camped in the Finger Lakes every summer. Dad was waiting on his fifteen-year salary increase from the Transit Authority, promising a better future filled with a home to call our own in the middle class neighborhood, a puppy for me, and a used car for Mom to drive to her job at the supermarket.
Dad earned his raise, and we celebrated by going to the A.S.P.C.A and looking at throwaway puppies, pointing out sporty cars we’d pass on the street, and by sitting around in the evenings looking at the real-estate section of Dominion’s Insider.
Dad was no dreamer, a hard-working man with a family as his incentive, and he was determined to make it a reality. Then tragedy struck, destroying a future that would never become reality.
A drunk asshole ran a red light, plowing into the side of Dad’s bus, right where he was sitting. Since no one else was critically injured, there was no fuss made– no restitutions paid.
Curtis Regal was just a bus driver, and his wife and daughter were worthless when it came to the City’s list of priorities.
Dad’s pension would’ve kicked in at the twenty-year mark, our insurance was cut off the day Dad died, and we were left to fend on our own with a monthly pittance from SSI.
Life can change in the blink of an eye, and I’m only eighteen. How many more times will I have to deal with the shift in my lifetime?
At least once more, I remind myself when my mind wanders back to my loving mother. I think she tried to hold out long enough for me to become legal, ensuring I wouldn’t be placed with Child Protective Services.
A mother’s will to survive is only strengthened by her children, and I appreciate how much she loves me. There is only one issue with Mom’s line of thinking– as with any inheritance, I’m legally obligated to pay her mountain of debt.
Long ago, I came to terms that her death was looming– nothing will stop it. But it would have been better for my future if she had let go last month when I was still seventeen. I feel awful for thinking it, like the evilest of human beings. Every day she is with me is a blessing, but my future is now shit before it has even begun.
I try to be quiet as I enter our apartment, knowing Mom sleeps more than she’s awake and I don’t wish to disturb her. The door squeaks on its rusted hinges and I startle, as if freezing will erase the sound.
If we had any furniture, at least it would act as sound absorbers.
“Is that you, Regina?” Straining, my mother’s raspy voice echoes from the only bedroom in the apartment.
“Yeah, it’s me, Ma!” I yell back. “I’ll be with you in a minute. I have a few chores to do on my way.”
Leaning with my back against the door, eyes slipping shut as my heart breaks wide open, I try to fortify my nerves. Seeing our dilapidated apartment, with all of the precious treasures my father worked so hard to provide long gone, isn’t as difficult as facing my mother. With a deep breath, I shove away from the door.
If there is a chore to complete, I do it because it makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something– anything. I hate feeling helpless, and there is nothing worse than the powerless feeling of impending death.
I clean up the stray clothes, water bottles, and plates that my mother and her visitors left around the living-space. Rich or poor, cleanliness is an issue for both. I see someone spilled tea on my blanket, and unadulterated fury slams into me out of nowhere, and I immediately regret my resentment. It’s not Mom’s fault that her mobility is shit– but it’s not my blanket’s fault, either.
I can’t blame her, but that doesn’t take away that it did happen. Frustration and guilt are the root to most of my mood swings. I pull my blanket and pillows off my bed– the couch– and tuck them safely behind it.
Our apartment has three rooms: a small bedroom that barely holds the single bed. There are no nightstands, or dressers, or even a closet. We pawned all of our old furniture when we moved into this apartment, with my childhood bed taking up residence in the only bedroom. The bathroom is big enough for me to sit on the toilet taking a shit while simultaneously washing my hands in the sink while soaking my feet in the shallow tub. The living-room-kitchen-combo has a couch, no T.V., a two-seater table, and a dinky kitchenette with rundown appliances.
The rent on this hellhole is ridiculous, as is everything else in Dominion. The cost-of-living is exponentially higher in the slums because we’re unable to afford moving to a nicer neighborhood because there are no jobs that would support it.
We’re born here, and unless you claw your way out, we’re stuck here. I’ve been clawing my ass out since birth, while my neighbors have been grabbing at my ankles, trying to pull me back down to their level.
Even though I’m eighteen, at least Dad’s Social Security benefits won’t run out until I graduate. As it is, I have barely enough to cover the rent and utilities. I missed this month’s rent a few days ago because it was either that or no pain medication for Mom. In less than two weeks, with no more SSI flowing in, I’ll have no way to pay the rent. We have sixty days before they gather up our stuff, where they’ll place it on the curb like garbage, and then lock us out. I have no clue what to do.
Mom’s dying. I’m still in high school, and about to be homeless until I start college in the fall. I shouldn’t have to worry about this shit at my age.
With a deep fortifying breath, I peek around the doorframe. “Ma, how are you feeling today?”
Ella Regal is a shallow shell of her previous self. Her blonde hair is no longer silky and long. Now wispy puffs of pure white hair no thicker than a spider’s web freckle her scalp. The rounded cheeks and button nose of youth are now gaunt and sunken in. Her once voluptuous body is now a skeleton of skin-covered bones with a network of protruding blue veins.
I try not to look at Mom and have it affect me. I’ve had to distance myself emotionally, or I would’ve gone insane. There is no way I could ever be my mother’s caregiver and allow myself the chance to breakdown. I don’t have the luxury of feeling grief and pain when the most important person in my life is wasting away, her body cannibalizing itself, with every nerve in her body signaling pain to her brain.
If things had been different, if we could have afforded hospitalization and caregivers, the bond between mother and daughter could have been preserved. I try to give her warmth, but it’s difficult when I have to remain cold in order to be clinical when it comes to washing her body, helping her to the bathroom, and feeding and clothing her. I need someone to hold me and take the pain away, and the only person who can do that needs it from me instead. My needs do not matter, so I have to distance myself in order to survive. I’ve been in a constant state of grief for years on end.
Dad passed away two years ago in the accident. At the same time, my mother was at the hospital being diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer. I had to take care of funeral arrangements while helping my mother cope with the loss of my father and her inevitable demise, all the while grieving in private without a shoulder to cry on.
I’ve never spoken the words aloud that I can’t wait until this battle is finally over, with both of my parents at peace and hopefully together. But I can’t help thinking it on a daily basis. Does that make me a horrible person? Probably, but don’t judge until you’ve watched a person decay before your eyes, both mentally and physically. It’s a form of hell reserved only for the living.
I paste a blurry image of my once healthy with vitality mother over her present decaying version.
“I’m doing better today than yesterday,” Mom lies, voice weak and thready, like she needs a drink but no amount of water will ever change it. Noting every change in her body, I can see a pronounced difference from last week. Especially in her eyes, her green gaze is glazed over in intense pain.
“Ma, did you take your pills?” Voice soft, I approach the bed. I know she didn’t when I see her white knuckling the flannel blanket, a shiver working a way through her body. June, it’s eighty degrees outside and a good ninety in the stifling environment of our apartment, and my mother has three blankets covering her and she’s still shivering.
“Yes, Regina,” she lies poorly– forever the mother provider, even if it lessens her comfort. “I took my medicine just a few minutes ago. Let it run its course.” Struggling to shift on the small bed, she sits up partially to distract me from the obvious. “How was school today?”
Mom’s pain pills cost more than a month’s worth of groceries, or the price of one designer, silk sock worn by a Hillbrook legacy. She’s been skipping doses because we can’t afford the refills. This is her last time on earth, and it should be pain-free– luxury or not.
Ignoring Mom’s attempts at connecting with me, I go into caregiver-mode. “Did you run out again?” I ask over my shoulder as I walk into the bathroom to check the medicine cabinet. Fingers clutching the amber bottle, I give a shake and hear no rattle– empty.
“I’ll be back in time to fix your dinner.” I say as I hurry from the apartment before I change my mind. There aren’t many way to gain some quick cash, but I’d do anything for my mother.
My feet slide along three flights of steps on autopilot, taking me to my destination even if my mind and heart are warring. Exactly where I knew he’d be, I find Roman Alexander holding up the side of my building in the alleyway.
One in Stanton Green’s criminal army, Roman isn’t much older than I am. But around here, by the time you’re my age, you’re on your own. Thank God, he isn’t bad to look at if you’re into the sexy bad boy– I’m not… or so I lie to myself. Jawline sharp enough to cut glass, his Native American ancestry created an exotic creature with a fall of black hair brushing his broad shoulders. His intelligent blue-green eyes take in everything within 180 degrees of him.
“Miss Regal regales me with her presence.” Widened eyes shine, traveling over my body from head to toe, then his lips curl into a naughty smirk.
Groaning with mortification– I forgot to change out of my school uniform.
Roman’s has been after me since before I grew boobs, but not in the predatory way others have been. Kindred spirits. It’s a miracle if you keep your virginity until you’re twelve around here. I’m an anomaly at the ripe old age of eighteen.
“Roman, I need a favor.” I ignore my voice when it breaks. However, Roman misses nothing. “Mom’s out of pain pills, and if I were to take a guess, this will be her last refill.” Eyes held wide to stop the flow of tears, I look at Roman, silently admitting that Mom won’t last until the bottle is empty.
I don’t want to admit it out loud. I feel relief thinking that it would be easier when she’s gone, but I dread it too. I wouldn’t change a thing, as long as she stayed with me, but she’s in immense pain and her suffering needs to end.
I’m not that selfish.
Face softening, stance sagging against the building, Roman projects sympathy but no pity. “I don’t traffic that kind of thing, sweetheart. You know that. I’m sure your mom has a prescription for them.” His voice is a soothing wash over my throbbing emotions, and I know he’s merely placating me. “It would take Stan a couple days to track down a supplier, and I assume you need them immediately.”
“I know,” I admit while scrubbing a hand over my face. “It’s not that– we have a few refills left, but I don’t have any money and she’s in horrific pain right now.”
Frustrated, on the edge of either murdering something or holding up a convenience store, I stomp my Mary-Jane on the pavement. Roman’s sharp bark of laughter turns into a grin. He thinks I’m being cute and it pisses me off. This is life or death– I’m not asking him for a date.
“Are you saying you want to work for it?” He arches a perfect, black eyebrow at me in surprise.
Shaking my head left and right, I plead with him. “I’m willing to do anything I need to do to take her pain away.”
“You know I can’t put you on the streets to sell even if you changed your clothes.” Roman tugs at my skirt. “We all know the smartass Regina Regal goes to Hillbrook and has a fancy scholarship. No fucking way would they buy anything from you, sweetheart.” He leans against the building and folds his arms over his chest, bulging the muscles. It’s impressive, but I’m not impressed.
Losing the pleading tone, I get down to business. “I need two hundred and thirty bucks for a refill, and I’ll do anything you want to get it.”
Roman’s eyebrow hitches sinisterly high with interest. “Anything?” He drawls, curling the word around his tongue, and I nod my head yes in reply. “Then follow me…” He pushes from the wall and swaggers away.
Shoulders back, head held high, eyes looking straight forward, refusing to show defeat, I follow Roman behind our building to a metal door. He leads me down the cement steps and into the small basement apartment he rents. It’s the same size as mine, but the windows are at ceiling-level and he has more furniture. Dealing pays better– he even has a television.
“This will be the most expensive blowjob I’ve ever had and probably the worst.” Roman’s blunt about it our transaction, and his businesslike attitude comforts me some. “But deflowering your mouth will be worth it– everyone already thinks we’ve been fucking for years. It’s time I had those ripe lips wrapped around my cock.” Salacious, words taking on a filthy cadence, Roman is trying to scare me away.
I flinch as Roman mentions his cock. I’ve never even kissed a guy, let along handled a dick. I’m thankful, though, because I thought he’d demand sex. I know how much the girls ask for on the street, and it’s nothing in comparison to what I’m getting for a simple blowjob, which will probably suck in a bad way for Roman.
I don’t want to do it. At all. But I will. I waited to do this with my first real boyfriend, but it could be worse. Roman, although a lecherous dealer, has been my friend for a long time.
I will do anything to make my mother’s last moments on earth peaceful and pain-free.
In the middle of Roman’s kitchen, I drop to my knees in front of him as he stands impassively by. I try to ignore how cold the linoleum is against my bare knees. A slash in the flooring is digging into my skin, leaving an impression that will fade quickly but the moment will forever be branded into my soul.
Childhood lost– no longer a daddy’s girl. I transform into a survivor.
Staring at the bulging crotch in a pair of secondhand jeans, I experience another shift in reality as my world tilts on its axis. Two hours ago I was sitting in Advanced Placement Calculus, going over the questions on our upcoming final. I earned half a college credit from the course before ever stepping foot out of high school. All eight of my senior classes were A.P, so I’m starting college with a head start. Now I’m kneeling before a drug dealer, prepared to give him head.
Chest rapidly rising and falling, nearly gasping for air, my teeth begin to chatter. With shaking fingertips, I fumble with the zipper at Roman’s fly. All of the sudden, my fingers feel swollen with fear as they try for the tiny bit of metal holding back the demanding bulge in his pants.
My eyes roll up to his just as I find purchase with the zipper. I slowly drag it down as my emotions turn from dread to anticipation. Incredible, a rush surges in my veins. Right now, I want to do this for some reason, and I want to do it to Roman. I don’t want this to be the most expensive, worst blowjob he’s ever had. I want to do a good job like I do on everything else. I want to suck Roman better than anyone else has ever sucked him before.
Moving in my periphery, his hand draws my attention away from the glimpse of navy boxers peeking at me through his fly. He whips out a roll of cash from his pocket and peels off three bills. Around here, that’s rent money. But where I spend my days, it’s a daily allowance.
“Keep the change,” Roman murmurs as he hands me three hundred bucks. I take the money with shaky fingertips, and then shove it deep into the cup of my bra.
My fingers resume their fumbling at the button on his jeans, oddly eager and curious. Stopping me, Roman’s grip surrounds my wrist, so softly I barely feel any pressure. With a smooth jerk, he pulls me to my feet, my knees sticking to the dirty linoleum– a popping noise sounds as they break free from the sticky floor.
More so than confused, I feel disappointed for some reason as I stand before Roman.
“Regina,” Roman breathes my name, hand rising to brush a strand of my hair off my cheek. “That’s because you’re my friend.”
“I-I-I… I don’t understand,” I stammer, cheeks blooming with a crimson kiss of embarrassment, humiliation, and rejection.
“Don’t ever whore yourself out to anyone, do you understand me?” Roman’s voice breaks on the demand. “After your mom passes, I want you to reach for your dreams. You’re too good for this Godforsaken life.” His turquoise eyes are filled with tears, and I can’t stop mine from leaking out the corner of my eyes to fall down my cheeks.
What have I become?
I wanted to suck Roman off, and it hadn’t even crossed my mind that I was whoring myself out for money.
What is wrong with me?
Roman reaches up and wipes my tears of shame away with his rough fingertips. “Remember me someday when you’re a big-time computer whiz.” He kisses my forehead, leads me out of his apartment and up the stairs, and then pushes me outside. “Better run along– the pharmacy on 68th and Carmichael closes at five.” His kind smile is the last thing I see as he disappears back into the depths of his apartment.
In a haze of confusion, I rush to the pharmacy and back as quickly as possible. I have to meet Ade’s driver at five outside of my building. I bought some groceries with the leftover cash Roman gave me after I paid for the pills. Using chores to blank my mind, to erase the consequences of my almost-actions, I quickly prepare Mom’s supper. She can barely hold anything down anymore. I warm up some beef broth and fix her a grilled cheese sandwich. I place it on a tray along with a cup of tea laced with honey and lemon, and bakery shortbread cookies.
“Here ya go, Mom.” I place the tray on her lap, and then hand her two pain pills with a full glass of water. One pill will no longer numb her pain away, and I worry two may not be enough anymore, either.
“What did you do to get this money?” A strong accusation heavily laces her thready voice. I don’t answer her– it’s none of her damn business what I have to do to make her comfortable. In the past two years as she was slowly declining, I know Mom did many things she’s ashamed to admit.
It’s called survival, and there is no shame in that.
Gingerly resting my hip on the edge of the bed so I won’t upset her tray, I turn from caregiver to the daughter Mom is starving for more so than food. “School was eventful today– freshman orientation. Hillbrook was bloated by nine non-legacy students, readying to take the Ivy League by storm.”
“You fail miserably at keeping the bitter edge out of your tone,” Mom admonishes me as she dips her spoon into the broth, but her tone is wicked sarcastic.
Sharing a rare smile with my mom, a laugh flutters from my chest. “I’ll never deny that I’ve had the best education in the country. If I knew who my benefactor was, I’d give them a big hug. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the kids at Hillbrook are more lost than the crackheads zigzagging down our streets.”
“No one asks to be born.” The dull crunch of Mom’s teeth cracking through the toasted sandwich is a pleasure to my ears. Anything that gives Mom strength is a godsend. “No one should be judged or envied on their station in life. It’s their behavior that dictates whether they are a good human being.”
Smirking, “Is that your way of saying I’m being nasty to my fellow students because they’re asshats?”
“Their parents are asshats,” Mom mimics me, smirking back. “Your peers are asshats-in-training, just as your peers in the neighborhood are users-in-training: drug using, using their bodies with disregard of self-respect, and using the system to the point there is no money for those who truly need it. We’re all victims of our stations in life– it’s up to the individual to drag their own asses out of it.”
“Ah! You definitely saw Julio today. That boy has some odd notions about community revitalization.”
“Stanton,” Mom floors me.
“What?” I gasp, voice tight like I’m speaking through a straw.
Making me earn the information, Mom continues to dunk her sandwich into the broth, then chews thoughtfully. “Stanton came with Julian and Bianca. He’s always liked to visit with me because my personality mirrors that of his mother.”
“You mean from not around here, don’t you?” Cocking my head to the side, I really look at my mother, trying to see beneath the disease. Two years ago, my mother was a stunning woman to the point that if she was in the room, Dad couldn’t take his eyes off her. At thirty-five, she now looks like a body long buried in the ground.
“Stanton Green is oddly moral for a criminal,” my mother muses. “His family lives in Upstate New York on a farm. His stepfather was described as looking like your father. Burly, red-haired and green-eyed, with a strong work ethic. A Marine. Since we’ve moved into the neighborhood, Stanton’s enjoyed my company when he needs a burst of reality, because I don’t thrive on… destructive behavior.”
“Whoa…” I whisper, mind blown. Roman exhibits some of the very traits of his employer. It’s a good thing he does, because I was wandering down the inescapable path of destructive behavior. The soup my mother is eating was nearly bought and paid for by the rhythmic suction of my lips wrapped around an eager cock.
Shuddering, I change the subject. “Did you have any other visitors today?”
“A few neighborhood ladies.” With a clank, the spoon falls into the soup bowl. “Their constant hovering and gossiping exhausts me so. I’m unable to rest when I need it.”
“I’m sorry, Mom.” I reach over to fish her spoon out of the broth bowl. After wiping it dry with a napkin, I press it back into her hand. “After graduation, I’ll be able to monitor your visitors so they don’t overtax you.”
“All mothers should have a daughter like you, Regina.” Mom sounds wistful as she dips her spoon back into her broth, coming away with barely a sip. “Your father and I were truly blessed when we had you.”
“Dad didn’t think that when he was swatting my ass for being a brat.” I try to use humor to shift the conversation.
“You’ll make an incredible wife and mother someday– your children will lack for nothing that’s important. I wish things would have been different, where I could’ve gotten you ready for prom, been at your graduation from Hillbrook and University… your wedding day. The excitement of finding out you’re pregnant for the first time. Holding my grandchildren in my arms and seeing your father reflected in their eyes.”
“Mom,” I gasp out on a gut-wrenching sob, spine bowing from the force to keep it silent. “Please don’t. Please.”
Caregiver is lightyears easier than daughter.
Ignoring my protests, “Even if I’m not here in body, I’ll be here in spirit. If you ever miss me or your dad, just look to your children.”
Unable to take this for a moment longer, I turn to the side to mask the horror etched across my face. In theory, I can’t wait for this to be over. In practice, I haven’t even grasped the concept of Mom’s death. When it finally hits me, I’ll feel like I’m the one who died.
I finally understand what Ade meant earlier, about how I needed to get away and be me. Every second is an added blessing with my mother, but constantly staring down the Grim Reaper is killing me as surely as he is killing my mother.
“I’m going to Ade’s house for dinner tonight, and we’re studying for our finals after. Albert– her driver is picking me up and taking me home, so you don’t have to worry if I’m late.”
I rub Mom’s bony thigh as I speak. It feels like massaging a dried up twig through a cheap, threadbare blanket, but I can tell the contact makes her feel better– loved. I try to ignore the tactile sensation that leaves me queasy.
I sit with Mom while she slowly eats her meal, and we chat about everything that’s going on at school and random bits of gossip around the neighborhood. This is our routine. We used to do it at our kitchen table, now we do it while she rests in bed.
I clean up after supper and tell my mother goodnight. Then I charge down the three flights of stairs, knowing I’m late. With an eek! of surprise, I burst out the front door, one that didn’t exist an hour ago. Slamming it against the outside wall, I avoid the rebound, but just barely.
What greets me is a black Town Car idling at the curb with Roman interrogating the driver. Julio polices one side of the street, with Roman on this side. If you’re not from these parts, don’t expect a warm reception.
“Miss Regal,” Albert greets me, looking relieved. The Whittenhower’s driver is a kind, patient man in his late thirties. I’ve ridden around with him for the past four years. I’ve never met the Whittenhower family besides Ade and Katie, but I know their driver well.
“Hello, Albert. Sorry to make you drive all the way over here just to pick me up. Adelaide always gets what she wants– you know that better than anyone.” We share a conspiratorial smile.
“Here,” I say to Roman as I hand him four sandwiches and a few shortbreads. He stares at me in amazement.
I can tell Roman thought I would be angry with him for what he did to me in his apartment. I know he was trying to teach me a valuable lesson on how easily we can stoop to get what we need. How asking a friend for a hand-up is not a handout. I understand why he sells drugs to survive. I don’t judge, and I never will. I always thought myself above it all, though. I was wrong, because even I’m willing to whore myself out to survive.
Using humiliation as a learning tool, Roman knocked me off my self-created pedestal and showed me the error of my ways with kindness. How the hell could I be angry at him for that?
“I seem to have extra this evening after my good fortune. Thanks, Roman. Mom is sleeping peacefully because of you. I will never forget your act of kindness.”
Leaning forward, I kiss Roman on the cheek in thanks, and he jolts as if I’ve electrocuted him. He flashes me a goofy grin that I haven’t seen grace his face since I first arrived in the neighborhood. I kiss him on the other cheek for the simple pleasure of seeing the real Roman filter through his tough guy image. I allow myself a brief touch of his shiny hair, after always wanting to know what it would feel like to sink my fingers deep into the silky strands. His hair has always fascinated me because it’s so unlike my wiry mass. It’s even softer than I imagined.
Stepping away from me while wearing a sad, little grin, “This is your future, sweetheart.” Roman gestures with the sweep of his hand toward the expensive car idling at the curb. “Don’t let anyone take it from you– anyone. Ever.”
I flash Roman a shy smile in reply as Albert helps me into the car. The door cuts off my view of his face, and by the time the driver moves, Roman is already walking away. But I can tell by his jerky movements that he’s eating my sandwiches. I smile to myself and enjoy the smooth ride.
After a few minutes of idle chitchat about my school performance, Albert sinks into his duty with practiced ease, leaving me to my private thoughts. Leaning on the armrest, cheek pressed against the cool glass of the window, I mull over Roman’s words.
Is this my future? Riding in an expensive car with a driver behind the wheel? While the luxury of it is beyond decadent, it feels more like a trap. The absence of freedom. Merely being the passenger in your life while someone else drives.
If I stay on the academic track I’m on, I’m positive I could afford this at some point, but I’d never buy it. Everything happens for a reason, and as I watch street after street of the slums roll by, I know I was meant to be where I am today to keep myself humble in the future.
Instead of buying an expensive car, I could buy four reliable cars to pass out to those who need a way to get to work. It’s the difference between rewarding the bum sitting on his couch and actually helping the mother trying to feed her family. The indulgence and waste is disgusting. While I don’t advocate the redistribution of wealth because it teaching no one anything, the hoarding of money when it could better lives is sickening.
While my classmates passed notes and mooned over each other, I truly paid attention in economics class. But I paid greater attention to the world surrounding me. Money has greater value to the starving than it does to those who hoard it.
Idling at a stoplight, at the intersection where the lower income section meets the business district, I watch the suit-clad business people eye the service workers as if they’re going to be mugged– the very people who scrub their toilets and serve them their seven dollar coffees. Not tipping their server could be the difference between making rent and living on the street. When desperate, crime happens.
As the Town Car rolls down the street, the buildings get taller, grander– steel and glass. Chrome emblems on the hoods of expensive cars shine bright in sunlight– the elites’ form of a cock-measuring-contest. On the sidewalks stride women wearing stilettos and pencil skirts, receiving wolf-like hungry gazes from men wearing three-piece business suits.
These people are just playacting at being rich. There is having money, and then there is being money. Owning the suit, having the degree, and working at a corporation means nothing in Dominion unless your name is on the building.
The Green Building is up ahead– Stanton Green prefers to live in the slums across the street from me because it’s safer to live with honest criminals instead of sociopathic philanthropists. Humble. Not fucking audacious ridiculousness.
Like a gorgeous eyesore, ominous black-tinted glass surges from the ground with a sense of contained violence, The Edge Building rises three stories higher than any other building in Dominion.
In the heart of Dominion’s business district, the founders play global domination– my classmates’ parents and families. Closing my eyes to the excess, I agree with Stanton Green. I’d rather be back in the hood.
Albert accelerates, causing my eyes to pop wide open. He meets my gaze in the rearview mirror with a tiny smile of reassurance. This isn’t the first time I’ve ridden down this particular highway, and not because my father used to take us on family day-trips and vacations. This road is not the road out of Dominion– it’s the only way to Mount Olympus.
Crestview gated community is a few miles out in the middle of nowhere, resting higher than the low-lying business district and residential neighborhoods. The land Dominion’s founding fathers first settled looks down upon the city like a disapproving parent.
We slow to a stop for the first of a series of wrought iron gates, surrounded by miles and miles of impenetrable fencing. Just like how having a driver forces you to be a passenger in life, the fence and gate keep more people in than out.
Albert rolls down his window to speak to the guard. “Pleasant day, isn’t it, Robert?” He gestures to the backseat. “I have Miss Regal joining me.”
“Very well, then.” The bearded face of the security guard comes closer as he leans into Albert’s window. At first I fear he’s making sure I’m who I say I am, but then I see his lips move. “I’m sure I’ll see you again when one of the darlings forces you to run an errand for their entitled skinny asses.”
Albert’s abrupt laugh is immediately smothered, warping into a repressed snort-like sound. “Oh, no doubt I’ll see you at least four more times on your shift. Off at midnight, are you?”
“And your shift never ends.” The guard leans back until he’s upright, then walks away with a wave, disappearing into his shack.
Albert continues to chuckle underneath his breath as we traverse the wide, straight as an arrow street. Identical mansions dot the street at even intervals, offset, so their gates don’t faceoff with one another.
From what I’ve gathered from Fate on my few visits, the closer you are to the gate, the less power you have in Dominion. Even inside their cage, the founders fight for power.
The Simpson home is the first mansion to greet you upon entering Crestview, meaning Fate and Faith’s family has the least power. The street bisecting the community feels like it runs for miles, but that doesn’t mean there are a lot of residents. The spacing between mansions is thousands of feet wide. Their neighbors share the street, but they are most certainly not their next-door neighbors.
I’ve never been past the first house, so it’s a bizarre experience to pass opulent lawns behind the security of wrought iron fences and intimidating gates. Rolling slowly, I have a sneaking suspicion Albert is setting a pace for me to absorb it all. With my face twisted with disgust, Albert seems to be warming to me by the second, no doubt thinking it all sickening as well.
Abruptly the street just ends, forking three ways. On the left and right, there is another set of gates with guard shacks like at the entrance to Crestview. But in the center is a gothic gate draped in a black, death shroud.
“What happened?” I gasp, heart beating uncontrollably, mind venturing a city away, in a neighborhood the complete and total opposite of this. My mother’s gaunt face flashes before my eyes. “Did someone die?”
Albert draws the car to a stop, shifting into park. “Behind these three gates, and miles and miles of woods, are the original founding fathers, with those they brought here filling the houses behind us.”
Mind reacting to Albert’s verbal cue, my head whips around to stare at the mansions towering behind us.
“The center is Zeitler– the shroud is almost two years old, replaced monthly in homage to Rebekah Zeitler. Way before Dominion was anything but woodland, the Zeitlers were the ones who took charge, getting their hands dirty with the others to build the first home erected in the area. Sanctuary housed everyone while the village was built.”
Nodding, because that’s exactly the history I learned, I watch as pain crosses Albert’s features.
“Sanctuary was razed to the ground almost two years ago. It was a sad time, as not only did we lose an important part of our history, we lost the woman who kept them all… human.”
Throat tightening, eyes tearing up, all I can do is stare in horror at the black shroud’s wind-whipped tattered edges.
Shifting back into gear, Albert pulls to the right. “The left is Holden’s Shadow Haven Estates. Marcus Zeitler married into the family, but he’s still a man without a home.”
“Ezra Holden-Zeitler rolls off my tongue as I gaze out the window, trying to see the new freshman’s home, but there is nothing but the gate and the woods lining the hills behind it.
On the right, the gate opens before us, allowing Albert to drive past the guard shack with only a tilt of his chin in greeting. We’re immediately swallowed by trees. Gazing out the back window, I watch as the gate shuts. The resounding clank locks us in more so than intruders out.
“The founding fathers are a vicious lot,” Albert warns as the car takes the switchbacks cutting the wooded mountainside at a fast clip. Dizziness overcomes me, trees whip by, and the road disappears behind us as we drive higher and higher above Dominion. Fighting off vertigo, my ears pop.
An ominous feeling descends, forcing me to swallow my fear. On some level, I instinctively realize I won’t leave Whittenhower Estates as the same person I was when I entered.
Albert continues to speak as I struggle to keep my equilibrium. “Miss Simpson and young Miss Simpson are good girls, but their father is a worse criminal than our Mr. Green. In the two hundred years of Dominion history, Thomas Simpson is the first to be allowed into our community by anything other than marriage, blood, or bloodshed.”
“Bloodshed?” My heart patters out of control, and I finally realize it’s not the change in altitude. I’m on the cusp of a panic attack.
“Our founding fathers had roles to play in the creation of Dominion. The Green role was organized crime, no different than any other business erected. It was for our protection to police all levels of society, to ensure our reign was never overthrown. All business is criminal in nature, and our Mr. Green is revered with the same level of respect as the Whittenhowers are for their contribution to civilized society.”
“I’m a good student, but I don’t want to admit I understand what you’re saying. Nor do I want to contemplate why you’re warning me in the first place.”
“Good girl, Miss Regal,” Albert murmurs as we crest the mountain.
“Jesus Christ!” I nearly shout, aghast. “I think I’m going to be sick.” Slumping forward, I rest my head between my knees with my hands over my eyes, but nothing will erase the split-second view from my memory.
Owning an entire high-rise in Dominion is the very definition of power. Whittenhower Estates? I thought it was a goddamn joke when they’d toss out the word castle.
It’s no wonder I felt the trees were swallowing me. It’s like I’m being transported more than two hundred years in the past as the tortured heroine in a gothic novel.
Dumbfounded, unbidden, my head jerks up to take it all in. The nausea abates if I ignore the castle and gaze out at the miles and miles of Dominion sprawled beneath.
“The front of the estate welcomes you, the rear overlooks her people. It’s a sight on a clear evening from the back lawns,” Albert whispers in a soothing tone. “Lights as far as the eye can see. The Holden’s Edge Building winks off and on, as if it’s calling out to its master, knowing he can’t see her.”
“What?” I gasp, still ignoring the castle in favor of squinting my eyes to see if the slums darken Whittenhower Estate’s back lawn.
“Each of the three large estates have an advantage. Holden looks directly onto Crestview. Zeitler has its own lake, a natural fortification the originators used for a natural resource and protection. But Whittenhower Estates has the uninterrupted view of Dominion on the whole.”
“This isn’t feudal England,” I snarl, thoroughly disgusted.
“And where do you think the founders came from?” Albert smirks at me in the rearview mirror, enjoying my discomfort. “Well, the Whittenhowers are descendants of highborn.”
“Clearly the Greens weren’t,” I mutter sarcastically.
“Clearly. It’s quite possible they were indentured servants to the Whittenhowers and Holdens, but were smart enough to break their chains. As punishment, they were reduced to lifetimes of crime.” Albert has a wicked streak. “Are you going to look at the castle now?”
“No,” I mutter begrudgingly like a child. “I don’t want to– it makes me sick.”
“It’s impressive in the way a car accident or a compound fracture is,” Albert teases me. “But I’ve learned to look at it as the architectural wonder that is Whittenhower Estates. On the flip side, realize generations of more than two hundred souls would not have employment without this monstrosity existing. Realize, that without the founding families, life would be far worse for all those who live in Dominion.”
“Fine!” With defiance, my stomach flips over as I take in the house where Ade lives. Ade is inside a gigantic fucking castle.
We’re parked at the arc of a circular driveway leading up to a building so large I’d have to exit the vehicle and walk backward, and then farther backward to take it all in. I’d have to walk into the woods to have an impeded viewpoint.
Gray stone as far as the eye can see, with buttresses supporting the structure. The innumerable leaded glass windows have high arches. Menacing gargoyles gaze down at me from the roofline.
“What could the Whittenhowers have possibly done to deserve this?”
“Luck? Being born into a legacy. The three Is. Intelligence. Ingenuity. Industry. They shaped our great nation, isn’t that deserving enough?”
“No.” With clinical eyes, I see the history, not the excessive display of wealth.
The Castle is definitely a ‘her’, because she is watching over her people’s safety beneath. The outbuildings are fortifications meant not only to protect but to defend its master. It’s the law of nature that someone has to be in charge, has the responsibility for the safety and welfare of those they protect, feed, and educate. It’s a continuing cycle, every part having an equally important function. Where it goes off the wheels is the fact that no one should live inside a fucking castle, unless it’s packed to the seams with the very people it’s protecting.
Gothic, dark and depressive, a malevolent force settles over me as I look at the façade of Whittenhower Estates, as if it hides pain deep within its mortar and devastating secrets behind its walls.
“Misery Castle,” I whisper beneath my breath as Albert opens my car door and releases me into a world I could never envision.
©2015 Erica Chilson
Jaded, part one of the Queen Omnibus.