Hefting a crate of beer bottles, I pushed the bar door open with my hip and slid inside. Sweat and stale alcohol filled the air around me, mixing with the loud clamor of obnoxious voices and football turned way too loud on the TVs. It used to give me a headache, back when I’d first gotten the job. I’d had nowhere else to go, and my father had put in a good word, so the owner would overlook my young age. Father had forced me to apply here only because he was friends with the owner, who more than likely gave a considerable amount of my pay to him.
I’d considered quitting the job many times, but each time I’d shut the idea down. I’d even gotten as far as disrespecting the owner- Mr. Swain- and had come home that night to Father waiting for me. With a belt.
From then on, it was always sweet smiles and hidden threats with Mr. Swain. Both of us fully aware of the falseness behind the attitude.
My sneakers squeaked past drunken men as I neared the storage room behind the counter, and Swain gave me an evil, greasy smile. Ignoring him, I set the crate down- roughly, hoping some of the bottles would break- and turned around, ready to start serving drinks. Swain stopped me, licking his lips, and said, “Looking nice today, Bella.”
I almost gagged as I met his muddy gaze. His stench was overwhelming, like he bathed in cigarette smoke and mildew. Swain was a tall, skinny man with greasy black hair that clung to his scalp like a wet rat. His sharp nose was unnaturally pointy, and the scraggly stubble growing on his chin suggested sloppy behavior. It didn’t help that his clothing was always rumpled and unbuttoned, as he just gave off general shady vibes.
I fixed him in an icy glare, knowing that he wasn’t just giving a dirty compliment. My clothing bugged him because it was my way of breaking- or at least bending- the rules in defiance. All of the other barmaids wore crop tops and booty shorts, complete with caked-on makeup and suggestive smirks at the men on the barstools, but I refused to comply. I hadn’t chosen to work here, and I wasn’t going to lower my standards just because it was considered normal. They could all go kiss-butt on the next waitress.
Reigning in my anger and disgust, I gave Swain a sugary smile. “Thanks!” I said.
He scowled at my dingy blue hoodie, worn jeans, and converse sneakers.
I smiled again and grabbed a little notepad and pen, heading to the table farthest from him. Four men sat there, round in girth and sporting dirty beards. They reeked of delirium, and it was clear they’d been here for a long time. I kept a smile pasted on my face.
The man closest to me noticed me waiting for an order and said heavily, grinning stupidly, “Tequila, lovely girl.”
I couldn’t keep the smile, and it vanished into a scowl. All four men laughed, and I spun on my heel, walking away. The man slapped my butt as I was leaving, and they all roared, like it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. It took every ounce of my willpower not to retrieve my concealed-carry and blow his face off. I clenched my fists and stalked away. Someone else could take their order.
I neared a different table, this one containing a giggling woman and a muscled man in a tank top. The woman leaned over the table, sequined dress showing far too much cleavage like she’d forgotten how to sit up straight. The man had his arms folded, hands subtly pushing up his muscles like he was trying to be impressive. I tried again, pasting on yet another smile.
I left the bar smelling nasty and feeling dirty. It was pitch black outside, and- I checked my watch- after midnight. Hopefully, Father would be asleep.
A chilly breeze tossed my hair, and I pulled my hands into the sleeves of my hoodie. The sidewalks and trashy allies were practically empty, except for the shady bystander every now and then. I pulled out my phone as I walked to the neighboring parking lot, dimming the brightness so I didn’t blind myself.
I pulled up a news page, as I always did. At least once a day. It was habitual, and it took the stress off my shoulders for reasons I wasn’t sure of. Any big events, strange occurrences. I had to know because I could help. I had knowledge that others didn’t.
I remembered Olivia.
I remembered the uniformed men from five years ago, with the gas masks and strange words.
No one else in my family remembered, but I did. I remembered my older sister. The gas masks had been made to help us forget, but it hadn’t worked on me. Mother had left us a few months after, and Father was still horrible. But ever since Olivia left, Father had turned his anger to me, and I now had the scars to prove it.
Goosebumps raised on my arms and I shook those thoughts away.
I neared a Jeep Wrangler, and the headlights flicked on, the engine roaring to life. Its vibrant red paint began to sparkle in the newfound brightness, and Bianca - my best friend, well, the only friend, really- leaned out the window and hollered at me to hurry up.
I turned off my phone and broke into a jog.
I slid into the pristine black leather passenger seat and shut the door. “Hey, Bee,” I said, buckling my seatbelt.
Bianca tossed her curly black hair over her shoulder and gave me a smile, olive-skinned hand on the steering wheel. “Hey, girl,” she said in her silky, heavy tone. Her voice was naturally deep and velvety, and it always gave the guys at school a run for their money. “How was it tonight?”
I leaned back in my seat, the mere mention of the bar giving me a surge of anxiety. “The usual,” I said eventually.
Bianca pulled out of the parking lot. “Hm,” she said thoughtfully. “And that weasel… the owner?”
Bile rose in my throat. “Oh,” I said hoarsely. I coughed. “As I said, the usual. Nasty, overlarge ego.”
She nodded. “About right.”
It was silent for a little while, and I was vibrantly aware of the tension woven into the quiet. Bianca was the only one in the whole world who knew of my Father, and of his abuse. Only she knew where the bruises and scars came from. She’d been super protective over me when I first told her. She almost never talked about it, not unless it was particularly bad. In those situations, I had to calm her down before she called someone. Like the police. That couldn’t happen. It would only make things worse.
She’d known for about a year now, and I was surprised she hadn’t abandoned me yet. That was what usually happened.
That was what Olivia had done, after all. Just… left.
Sure, I had many so-called “friends” at school. Bianca, being a year older than me, wasn’t around much. Meanwhile, I surrounded myself with airheads, perky girls who’s biggest problems were what would happen when their boyfriends dumped them. I had my fair share of guys who gawked when they thought my back was turned, who every now and then got up the nerve to ask me out. Some of them were actually kind of sweet. It was a shame I could never say yes. Father’s wrath was mine and only mine to bear.
I blinked, barely realizing that I’d been zoned-out this whole time.
“You okay?” Bianca asked.
“Yeah,” I replied. The silence kept dragging. I’d never been able to stand silences like this. “How have you been?”
She shrugged, her shoulders making her long, gold-chain earrings brush together. “Parker took me out a few hours ago.” Her hazel gaze was still on the road, but I saw it go soft and warm at the thought of her boyfriend. “To that buffet a little south of the school.”
Honestly. Bianca and Parker were couple-goals. Parker, the sweet, soft-spoken guy with a surreal talent on the violin. He somehow managed to melt Bianca like chocolate, something that I had never seen before. Bianca was usually all tough, rough teasing on the outside, protective and loyal on the inside. She was a hard shell to crack. And yet Parker managed it quite well. It almost made me wish I did have a boyfriend.
“Awesome,” I said.
Bianca nodded. “Yeah, he’s pretty great.”
“You have any plans for this summer?” I asked.
She beamed. “Yes, actually. Parker and I want to go for a vacation at the waterpark hotel downtown. You know, you should come. Think you can get yourself a boyfriend in the next month?” She turned a mischievous smirk in my direction.
I cocked an eyebrow at her, matching our two levels of sass. “I think I'll be busy,” I said.
Bianca huffed and turned back around. “You can’t be alone forever,” she pointed out.
“I’m only sixteen, Bee.”
She was quiet. Then, “What are your plans for summer?”
I bit my lip. She was clearly bothered about my opinions on romance, but what could I say? I veered as far away from that subject as possible. “I want to travel,” I said.
Bianca frowned, confused. “How? I mean, your dad…”
“My father will never let me leave,” I agreed, “but that doesn’t mean I won’t find a way.” My throat felt dry as I saw the true meaning in my words. If I could travel for a little while, away from home, what would inspire me to come back? Nothing. I wouldn’t come back.
“You’re leaving?” she asked. “To where? When?” She left the last question unasked: How long?
The more I thought about it, the more terrified I became. The instinctual fear that had been drilled into me through childhood spiked and a chill went down my spine. The mere thought of running away was so unthinkable. So daring. Risky. I’d never considered it with such open arms before.
But I knew where I wanted to go. I’d known for a long time now.
“New Mexico,” I said, with such conviction that it scared me. “As soon as possible.”