It was a long walk up to the apartment. Five stories. No elevator. The smell was worse than the climb. Snow typically held her breath all the way up, taking only gasping breaths to keep her lungs from exploding. Groceries on her hip, she panted today, breathing in the noxious smells of the closed-in stairwell, trying hard not to think about exactly what caused the odor. In this building, one never knew. It could be anything. She once found a dead dog tossed into the hallway. It looked like the neighbor’s dog but when Snow asked, he said he didn’t have one.
“Open the damn door!” She growled, pounding at it with her foot. Teenage angst giving her more strength than her undersized form might allow, Snow managed to put a few dents in the pitted kick plate. There was the dimple she punched into the wall beside the doorbell. There was the broken lamp she tossed last week. No one had cleaned it up yet. Damned if she’d do it. The dog had been enough.
“Is somebody going to open the fucking door?”
Still no one answered. She had half a mind to toss the groceries there beside the shattered lamp and leave them all to starve; but only half. The other half reminded her she worked all week for the groceries in that bag. Balancing it between her knee and the wall, Snow fished the keys out of her pocket and opened the door.
They were all there, of course, sitting around the television. Beers in hand, stained t-shirts, not one of them had bothered to shave that morning. She couldn’t decide if it smelled worse in the apartment or out in the stairwell. Snow hefted the groceries onto her hip again. No one got up to help. Only after she had set the bag onto the cracked and burned counter did anyone even look her way.
“Did you get it?”
“I got it.”
“Where? Hurry! I wanna see!”
“Charlie, go back and watch the game. I’ll get it out when I get it out.”
“Please, Snow. C’mon. Please?”
Snow let go a heavy sigh, coughing as she did so. Damn cigarettes. As if the curse could bring the cure, she pulled a pack out of her shirt pocket and pulled one out.
“Get me a light, Charlie and I’ll see if I can find it.”
Snow took out her purchases and lined them up on the counter. Pitiful. Delivering groceries in the city did not pay very well but it did get them fed every week. Providing for herself and the boys was expensive business. Once in a while, she’d pinch something from one of the deliveries she made to supplement what she could afford to buy. Whenever anyone noticed, the store got the blame.
The customer is always right.
How she loved that mantra. Delivered with a roll of the eyes, Snow found that her boss inevitably agreed and sent her off with a replacement.
“Did you find it?”
“It’s right here, Charlie. Where’s my light?”
Charlie handed her the matches. His hands, big and clumsy, let go before she had a grip and they fell to the floor. He bent, picked them up and handed them to her again; concentrating hard on making absolutely certain she had them this time.
“Can I have it now?”
Snow lit her cigarette and took a long pull. The nicotine prickled through her bloodstream. She exhaled.
“Sure Charlie. Just don’t eat it all before supper.”
“I won’t, Snow. Promise.”
Charlie had the candy bar unwrapped and half-eaten before he left the kitchen. Snow smiled, white teeth flashing in her black face. Charlie was work but he was the only one of the boys she really cared about. The others? She cared about them in a way but not like Charlie. Twenty-years-old he was still just a boy—always would be.
“You better’ve gotten us something edible this time, Snow-girl.” Darnel picked up a can of pasta rings and wrinkled his nose. “What kind of crap is this?”
“It’s food, Dar.”
“Not food I’m gonna eat.”
“Then don’t eat it. If some of you boys would get jobs…”
“Aw, don’t start that one again, woman. You know I can’t get a job.”
“You could if you stopped putting every dollar you get up your nose.”
“It’s how I get by, sugar.”
“I heard that one before.”
“You don’t know nothing about my life so don’t you go judging me.”
Snow dropped it. She knew about all their lives—intimately. She knew Charlie would never be older than six. She knew Darnel would die of an overdose before he was thirty. Mannie would be gutted by some John in an alley. Carl would steal another car and be back in jail before the year was out. Earl’s liver was past protesting and on to refusing. Jon was counting the months until the cocktail stopped working and his immune system shut down. Tony should be back in the group home they could not afford anymore—could never afford. All of them misfits; all of them penniless; all of them hers.
She hadn’t intended to stay. All she had wanted back then was to get away; from home, from her father, from the backward system that looked the other way when she went to school with swollen eyes and bruised ribs. Her stepmother tried to help, but in the end had been too afraid. So Snow left with nothing more than the clothes she wore and the twenty-three dollars she had saved from working in the Quix-Mart. But the city had a parasitic quality, it sucked her in, attached itself, didn’t let go. The boys had taken her in. Rather, Charlie had. She had been another stray dog, another lost kitten. She had been small and pretty and alone. The others hadn’t really noticed her existence until she was an established member of the household. By then, she had made herself indispensable.
Snow put the groceries into the cabinets, squashing the roaches that didn’t skitter out of the way fast enough. Mannie was supposed to have gotten spray from the landlord. She had long since given up on buying anything but canned food. The roaches were as much a part of the family as she was, as Charlie or Jon or Tony.
“So we made a decision,” Earl spoke through a belch. Tipping back the beer, his fourth since she got home, he crushed the can in his fist and tossed it into the kitchen. Mannie, Darnel, Tony and Carl leaned in, a rehearsed dance, an expectation realized. “You need a better paying job, Snow.”
“I do what I can.”
“It isn’t enough,” Carl added. “I can’t get a job with my record. Jon’s too sick to work. Mannie’s paying for this apartment. You know the rest. You need to bring in more cash.”
“How am I supposed to do that?” Snow put her cigarette out on the wall. She had been burning a pattern into it the past several weeks. It was starting to look like a rabbit. “I work all day, come home and make this hole livable, feed you lazy sacks of crap. What the fuck do you want from me?”
Eyes exchanged glances. As usual, Mannie took over, suave smile greasy on his way-too-handsome face.
“You can earn four times what you get in a week in just one night working with me, Snow. The streets can always use a pretty, clean little thing like you. We could probably bill you as a virgin and get beaucoup bucks for you.”
“No way, Mannie. I’m not turning tricks. Uh-uh.”
“We think you should.” Tony rocked back and forth when he talked. “We could get a bigger place, better food.”
“I’d like that too, Tony but I’m not doing it.”
“You owe us,” Earl drawled, belched. “We took you in. We gave you a home. You know it’s true.”
“I don’t owe you this. I won’t do it so don’t ask me again.”
“I don’t think you understand,” Darnel slid in. “We’re not asking you, Snow-girl. We’re telling you. You’re going out with Mannie tonight.”
Panic surged, combined with anger and exploded into curses. Snow started for the door. Mannie and Carl blocked the way.
“Where’s Charlie? And Jon? They didn’t agree to this. They’d never agree to this!”
“That’s why they’re not here, baby,” Darnel drawled. “Come on, Snow-girl. The first time’s the hardest. After that, it’s just another job. You owe us this.”
Darnel had been right. The first trick was the hardest. What he didn’t get right was the part about it being just another job. The money was good, the work was steady—Snow died a bit every day. The boys didn’t care. They didn’t have to eat canned pasta. Jon was too sick to wonder why she didn’t laugh anymore. Charlie didn’t notice that the cigarette-burn-rabbit had transformed into some beast with no name, no soul. He got his chocolate. That’s what mattered.
Mannie congratulated her. Tony thanked her. Carl leered and Darnel laughed. Earl had crawled into a bottle a few days ago. His binges usually lasted a few weeks. Most days, he didn’t even remember her name.
It’s worse than being home. At least daddy let up on me once in a while. How did I get here? How do I get out? Show me how! Find me a way! I will do anything…anything…
Snow didn’t have it in her to cry anymore. Tears were for the living. She no longer qualified.
It was a rare day. All the boys were out and Snow was alone in the apartment. Two days into her period, she wasn’t turning tricks. She didn’t take anything for the cramps. Snow reveled in them. She blessed the heat surging through her abdomen, contracting the muscles in her back, thighs, pelvis, thanking whatever goddess was responsible for this monthly cycle that freed her, allowed her to be human again, allowed her to weep. A cup of tea, a pack of cigarettes, her tattered but thick bathrobe and the TV remote was all she needed in life. Snow clicked it.
Whoops and you go girls erupted from the static. Snow flipped through the channels during a commercial break. It wasn’t until she paused to learn something about the loggerhead turtle on PBS that she heard the scratching at the door.
“What?” she shouted. No answer. Growling low in her throat, Snow slammed out of the couch to peer through the peephole.
“Holy shit!” Her fingers shook as she tried to slide the bolt back, turn the deadbolt, twist the knob. Somehow she managed, yanked open the door.
Her stepmother smiled.
“You never called me that at home.”
“What are you doing here? How did you know were to find me?”
The woman smiled again, patted the silver gilded mirror hanging among the amulets and charms she always wore about her neck, but did not answer. Small, soft-spoken, she was not the sort of woman Snow had pictured her daddy marrying. She grew herbs, brewed them into potions that she gave out to the neighbors for the price of a chat and a cup of tea. She was kind and she was good. Daddy never deserved her.
“How are you, Snow?”
Snow drew herself up, ready to deny it all—but her belly cramped, reminding her it was her week to be human. Snow withered into tears. Her stepmother rubbed her back while she cried, never once saying a word. Her silence drew out sorrow like a needle drew out blood. After the initial sting, it felt fine.
“I can’t go home, mama. I can’t go back to daddy. He’ll kill me one day and no one will say a word.”
“No, you can’t come home,” she agreed. “That would be unwise. You can’t go forward by taking steps backward.”
Snow looked at her, one eye closed in disbelief. When had her stepmother turned into Yoda?
“Take this,” stepmother said, handing Snow a ribbon. It was green and shiny. It reminded her of the St. Patrick’s Day before her mama died; she had braided Snow’s hair with green ribbon even though they were far from Irish. “Hang it over the doorway, any doorway. Let it do its job. It will help. I swear it.”
“What’s it going to do?”
“What it was meant to. Just do it, Snow. I will be back in a month.”
“You’re leaving? Now? You just got here.”
“I came for a purpose. That,” she touched the ribbon, “is the purpose. For once in your life do something without asking why first.”
“All right, mama. All right.”
Her stepmother patted her hand, kissed her cheek and rose from the musty couch. She paused at the door as if to speak, the words perched on her lips ready to dip into flight, but instead turned and opened the door. After she was gone, Snow could not be certain she had even been there but for the green ribbon in her hand. She hung it over the threshold to the room Mannie, Jon and Carl shared using two thumbtacks that were still stuck in the wall from the decorations she and Charlie hung last Christmas. Shrugging, she flopped back onto the couch and picked up the remote. Flip, flip, flip. Some guy was getting the results of a paternity test. He walked off the stage, shaking his head.
“Bastard,” Snow muttered. “Filthy bastard.”
Jon died in the night. They had been expecting it. Still, it was difficult to call the ambulance and have him hauled away. Snow felt as if she had done more for that dog than she had for Jon. At least she dug the hole herself. One minute a shriveled bit of bone and skin on the bed, the next a gray bag that zippered up the front, Jon was gone, out of their lives, a chapter closed and a book ended.
Two days later, Mannie was dead too. Still milking her period for all it was worth, Snow hadn’t gone out with him that night. As she always knew would happen, Mannie got into the wrong car with the wrong John. They found his body dumped in the alley of a Chinese restaurant early the next morning. Within hours of discovering Mannie’s death, Carl stole his last car. High-speed chases were his drug of choice, his Russian roulette. The bullet in Carl’s head was a truck backing out of an alley.
Three friends in less than a week. Three of the boys gone—just like that. Snow sat with Charlie, who had no way to understand, trying to explain that people died, it was part of life. It wasn’t until she saw the green ribbon on the floor that she remembered her stepmother’s visit, her words, her promise to return. Handing Charlie another chocolate bar, she swiped the ribbon off the floor and stuck it in her pocket.
“You got to go back out, Snow-girl,” Darnel told her later that night. “Without Mannie, we’ll never pay the rent.”
“Then you go out and turn tricks.”
“You owe us. If it weren’t for us…”
“Shut up, Darnel. Just shut the fuck up.”
“It’s true and you know it. That’s why you’re so mad. Come on, Snow-girl. We need the money. Look at Charlie. How long do you think he’d last on the street?”
Snow glared up at him. “You can’t send Charlie out there. He wouldn’t understand.”
“Well if you won’t, Charlie’s going to have to.”
“Get a god-damn job, Darnel!”
“Snow,” he crooned. “You owe us.”
Cramps, tears, Earl Gray and television. Snow was flopped on the couch again flip, flip, flipping through the channels. She muted the television and listened vainly for the scratching at the door. She shrugged. Maybe she had just dreamed her stepmother’s visit. Yes, that was it. It had been a dream born of wishing so hard for some way out of the life she had made in this parasitic city with these parasitic men. Burrowing deeper into the couch, she pressed the mute key again, hit the power by mistake and the TV went off. Snow left it off. Nothing juicy on today anyway.
This time, her stepmother knocked. Snow bolted upright on the couch, trapped halfway between sleep and awake. She blinked, once, twice, got up and opened the door, still blinking, still trapped, still convinced she was dreaming.
“How are you, Snow?”
Her presence was like a spell, once again drawing out every sorrow in Snow’s soul. She told her stepmother of the boys’ deaths, how she really didn’t mourn them because she really didn’t care. She told her how Darnel had threatened to pimp Charlie if she didn’t go back out and turn tricks, how Charlie was really the only one who meant anything to her, how she could never let anything bad happen to him.
As on her last visit, Snow’s stepmother said nothing. She simply listened and petted, waiting for the well to empty.
“Take these combs,” stepmother told her. Snow took two black combs from her hand, turning them over and over. They looked like the combs the photographer gave out when the school pictures were taken. Lot of good it did her with her cornrow braids; but she’d always liked getting them anyway. “Leave them in the bathroom and let them do their job. They will help. I swear it.”
“What’re they going to do?”
“What they were meant to. I will be back in a month.”
Snow did not question her this time. After stepmother left, she put the combs on the sink in the bathroom and went back to the couch. She did not turn the TV on.
Tony was missing for two days before his body floated, bloated and fish-eaten, into the marina. The coroner couldn’t really say how he ended up in the river; only that it was death by drowning. The group home where he once lived sent flowers.
Earl never made it out his latest binge. A bad bottle of tequila, the guys at the bar shook their heads and agreed. Snow was convinced that his liver had finally exploded. The doctors confirmed she was right, in a way. Alcohol poisoning. The guys at the bar raised a glass in his memory.
“We need money, Snow.” Darnel was particularly jumpy. Was it the lack of drugs his system relied upon or the sudden yet expected deaths of the other boys? Did he feel death’s skeletal grasp pawing at his clothes? Snow wanted to laugh.
“I’m not going, Darnel. I’m done. I’m through. Not another trick. Not one and nothing you can say will make me.”
“You owe us, Snow-girl.”
“What us? There’s just me, you and Charlie left. I still have my job at the store. I’ll make enough to get us by. You’ll have to do whatever you have to do to get the money for your habits. I’m not tricking for you anymore.”
“That won’t work either!” Snow snapped her fingers under his nose. “I had a talk with Charlie and told him he wasn’t allowed to go anywhere alone with you. I gave him an extra chocolate so he’d remember.”
Darnel cursed under his breath but he let it drop. Snatching the remote from the couch, he turned it on to watch Sheriff Taylor and Opie coalesce out of the white noise scramble. Snow flipped him off behind his back.
“I’m going to work, Charlie,” she called. A grunt from the next room was all she got in response. Snow smiled. He was at the chocolate already. Flipping Darnel off again, she left.
The apartment was dark when she got back. Charlie was alone, sitting straight-backed on a milk crate they found in the dumpster. He did not move when she came in. He barely blinked when she turned the lights on.
“What’s wrong, Charlie?”
He did not answer. Snow put a hand on his shoulder. A strangled whimper escaped his lips, got caught, fell the rest of the way out.
“Charlie?” Snow caught him in her arms as he slumped to the ground.
“I told Darnel you wouldn’t let me go with him. He said I didn’t have to go anywhere. He said it wouldn’t hurt. He said I had to or we’d all be on the street.”
Her stomach churned. Bile rose. Snow swallowed it down, patted Charlie’s back. She seethed while he cried.
“Can I have some chocolate?” he sniffed later.
“Sure, Charlie. I just bought you more.”
He smiled, sunlight after a hurricane, and fisted tears from his cheeks.
“The kind with the crunchy things?”
“Yeah, I got some of those.”
Snow watched him amble into the kitchen. Slow as he was, Charlie had always been the best looking of their motley crew. The innocence he exuded could not be taken away, not ever. Darnel would use that to sell him. He would use that to mollify his guilt. Snow wasn’t going to let Charlie out of her sight again.
She did not wait for the scratching or the rapping. Snow waited at the open door for her stepmother to arrive as promised. It was a long wait. Interminable. Charlie laughed at the television, slapping his knees and rocking back and forth. Snow turned to smile his way, so grateful that Darnel’s betrayal had not destroyed him. When she returned her attention to the hallway, her small, soft-spoken stepmother was before her. A flash of the mirror she wore ‘round her neck tried to reveal something but whatever it was, Snow missed it. Stepmother closed a hand over its surface, erasing the image and the memory of it.
“What have you got for me this time?”
Stepmother’s smile curled slow and feline. She reached into her bag and pulled out an apple.
“Leave it on the counter. Let it do its job. It will help. I swear.”
This time before stepmother turned and left her, Snow touched a kiss to her cheek.
“It’s called an apple, Darnel. You eat it.”
“Fruit? You never buy fruit.”
“It looked good. I bought it. You don’t have to eat it.”
“It does look good.”
Darnel polished it on the front of his shirt, raised it to his lips. Snow’s heart raced. Sweat beaded her lip. Flipping through the channels, she dragged her eyes away from the real drama to the fake one on TV. Felix was chastising Oscar again.
“Hey Charlie,” Darnel called. Like an obedient dog, he came.
“What’s up, Dar?”
“You like apples?”
“Sure. Not as much as chocolate though.”
“You don’t like apples, remember Charlie? Eat it, Darnel. I’ll buy more chocolate for Charlie tomorrow.”
Darnel turned the apple over in his hand.
“Did you put a razor blade in this thing or something?”
“Yeah, a razor blade.”
“I know you’re still mad at me. You brought it on yourself, Snow-girl. You gave me no choice.”
“Just eat your apple and shut the fuck up. I’m trying to watch TV.”
Darnel looked at the apple, at Snow, then at Charlie. His smile crooked, his eyes narrowed. The apple arced in the air. Charlie turned. Snow saw his simple face break into a smile. He reached out a hand.
No, not Charlie!
But the apple arced and Charlie reached and the apple landed in his hand. Snow snatched it before he could take a bite.
“Fine. You don’t want it, I’ll eat it!”
Snow took a bite. Why she didn’t just toss it out the window, she never could have said. Perhaps she needed an ending, either Darnel’s or hers.
It burned going down but she swallowed. Before the chewed up apple hit her belly, her vision blurred, her breath grew short, voices drifted.
“Stupid bitch,” she heard Darnel’s voice from far, far away as he grabbed the apple from her hand and took a bite. Laughing, he left the apartment. The last thing Snow heard was the door slam.
“Snow, hey, Snow.”
She blinked. White blurs shaded with gray and black became a nurse, monitors and Charlie. He was patting her hand.
“Charlie? What happened?”
“You nearly choked to death,” the nurse said, patting Charlie’s head as if he were five. “This young man saved your life.”
“I was scared, Snow but I remembered that part on that show we watched…you know, the one where that guy was choking and the other guy squeezed him from behind and the choking guy hacked chewed up food all over the lady’s hat…remember that?”
“I did that and that apple came out but you wouldn’t wake up so I breathed in your mouth like they did to Jon that time he stopped breathing. I don’t know if I did it right but I guess I must have ‘cause look, you’re alive.”
“I am alive,” Snow smiled. Tears pooled in her eyes, rolled down the sides of her face. “I am. Where’s Darnel?”
“Don’t know. I’ve been here with you all night.”
Snow closed her eyes. She made a wish. Grasping Charlie’s hand, she squeezed it before letting it go again.
“Can I go home?” she asked the nurse.
“I don’t see why not. We’ll have to check with the doctors though.”
“Did Charlie tell you I don’t have any insurance?”
“I’ll get the doctor right away.”
The apartment was empty when they got home. Charlie helped Snow undress and get into bed even though she assured him she was fine. He slept on the floor in her room that night.
Darnel did not come home. Not then, not ever. His body never turned up bloated in the river or crashed in a car or gutted in an alley but as far as Snow ever found out, no one ever saw him again.