Episode One by Shari J Ryan
Today is another day without a dime to my name, and I’m not sure how much longer I can continue like this, but something has to give. Someone has to give in and give me a job. The hole in the wall pizza shop on the next block over with a hiring sign didn’t even let me fill out an application. Maybe it’s the puffy red eyes—they probably think I’m doped up on something, but what they don’t know is, it’s from tears. So many tears—I don’t know how my body produces enough of them each day.
I’m not this girl. I’ve never been this girl. It’s been a year since the collapse of the career and reputation I built for myself, yet not a day goes by that I don’t wonder how I could have let things get so bad. In any case, now I am this girl, alone in the middle of Boston, with no family around, no friends, no car, no job, and no money. I’m eating crumbs left behind from the last box of crackers I could afford, and I’ve tried to ration it to once a day, but I’m running low.
I’m not opposed to begging on the street, but I’ve tried that, and I’ve been ignored. Not even a penny was dropped into my cup. The morals I have left won’t let me take my actions further, even though I daydream about selling my body and becoming a drug runner. The thought scares me more than starving, though.
With defeat branded into my head, I trudge up the stairs to my apartment. Key in hand, I slip it into the lock and twist but the key doesn’t turn. No. Please, no.
“Achem,” a man interrupts my failed attempt of unlocking my door. Knowing his voice, I turn around slowly to face him. He’s looking at me like everyone looks at me these days. “Look, Harley, it’s been three months. I feel bad for you, kid; I do, but I have applicants on a waiting list to get into this building, and you’re not paying your rent. I wanted to do your old man a favor and help you out as long as possible, but…I’m sorry.”
“No,” I cry; the tears burn down the side of my cheeks over the raw skin that the last tears caused. “I have nowhere to go.”
“I’m sure you gotta friend or sumthin, Harley, come on, don’t make this harder than it has to be, okay?”
“You don’t understand,” I beg. “I’m trying my hardest to find a job, but no one will cut me a break.”
“You’re a pretty girl. We all got options and they ain’t always pretty, ya know what I mean, doll?”
“No,” I grunt. “No.”
“Look, I saw some rented space down the street. There was a sign looking for help and it included room and board. I don’t know what it is, but maybe it’s something. If not, there’s a homeless shelter down near Milk Street. They’ll help you.”
I can’t do much other than stare at this man and wonder how he pulled himself out of poverty. I thought if anyone would understand, it would be him. He used to live in Boston Commons, on a park bench. Someone obviously gave him a break. I only know this from my time at Boston University when I would see him while running in the mornings. That was back when my life was headed in a good direction.
“Can I get my stuff at least?” I ask, sniffling.
He nudges me out of the way and opens the door, standing to the side with his arms crossed over his chest. “You have two minutes.”
I grab my backpack from the closet and fill it with as much crap as I can stuff inside. The last thing I take is my empty box of crackers.
I don’t need the full two minutes he gave me and I walk past him, clutching the crackers as if it were my last lifeline. “Chin up, kid, it can only get better.” Yeah, or I can die living on the streets unless I’m lucky enough for starvation to take me down first.
Ambling down the stairs to the first floor and into the early December air, the chill immediately bites through my skin. It’s so cold it hurts to breathe. Of course, it isn’t helping that the sun is beginning to go down, which means it’ll only get colder from here.
I walk down the block toward the shelter, looking at each building for the hiring sign the landlord was talking about. When I hit the corner, I see it. It says exactly what he said. That’s so strange, though. What job comes with room and board?
I knock on the door, pretty much not expecting anyone to be here after work hours, but I might as well try. Rubbing at the glass with the back of my sleeve to clear a spot of the fog away, I’m not surprised to find solid darkness filling the interior. So much for that idea.
Not so shockingly, there is no answer. Of course. Though, I do hear the faint noise of what sounds like footsteps.
With one last try, I knock harder, hoping to summon someone to the door. After waiting it out another couple of minutes, I’m surprised when the glass door is unlocked and opens a couple of inches—not wide enough to see inside, though. “What do you want?” an ominous voice asks.
“Hi, um, I’m inquiring about the job with room and board,” I say, trying to look in through the dark crack.
“What qualifications do you have?” he asks without pausing.
“Well, I don’t know what the job is for but I’ll tell you I’m desperate. I have nowhere to live, no food, no money, but hey, I have a psych degree from Boston University, so that’s gotta be something right? Not that any fast food restaurant seemed to think so, but maybe you’ll be different.” The sarcasm is most likely not going to help me get this job but I feel as though I’ve been crossed off of the list during the same second the guy asked me what qualifications I have. I think it’s pretty clear that the only real qualification I have is failure.
“The last thing I suggest you do is mistake me for an idiot…” the guy says. “Something tells me a pretty girl like you with an actual psych degree wouldn’t be knocking on unknown doors looking for unlisted jobs.”
“I didn’t mistake you for anything…” I snap while trying not to shiver against the brutal wind. “The tone of your voice and articulation says to me you’re not exactly some idiot hiding behind a dark door like a bouncer in a sleazy night club.”
A brief moment of silence grows between myself and the door, and I’m beginning to feel mildly uncomfortable standing here. Bad idea.
“You’re hired,” he says sharply.
“Excuse me?” I ask. Shock fills me into wondering if I heard him correctly, but he has every chance to change what I think he just said.
“Meet at Hotel Long Warf in an hour. Axel will find you.”
“Uh, oh, okay, can you tell me what the job entails?” I ask, feeling like this conversation is about to come to a quick end. Axel?
“You said you were desperate,” the guy says. “Desperate people don’t care what the job is.”
“Then just tell me if I can keep my clothes on,” I mutter demandingly.
“Why wouldn’t you keep your clothes on?” he asks with a sound of distaste.
Okay, so now I feel ridiculous and embarrassed in front of a man who won’t show his face. Great. “I’ll be at Hotel Long Warf in an hour.” This is still a bad idea.
The door slams and the lock hinges from the inside, leaving me with only a question on whether or not I hallucinated that whole conversation. Months of looking for a job led me to nothing, and now this? I’m smart enough to know that nothing comes easily without consequence, but with no other option, I have to take my chances that the consequences are slim compared to the alternative.
I head down several streets, holding myself tightly against the rising winds from the harbor. Once I arrive at the hotel, I walk inside, finding myself in the center of an upscale lobby, one I shouldn’t be in dressed the way I am.
“Can I help you, Miss?” a man in a full-length butler looking suit asks me. “Are you lost, maybe?”
“I’m just waiting for someone.” Someone, I don’t know, I mutter to myself. Feeling awkward, I spin around, taking in more of my surroundings, particularly seeking a place to sit while I wait out the next thirty minutes.
“There’s a coffee shop next door, Miss. I might recommend you wait there.” Mortified to be viewed the way I am, even after living this way for more than a year now, I hurry back outside and step into the coffee shop next door. The problem here is, I don’t have money to buy anything, which qualifies this visit as loitering.
I make it twenty minutes before I’m asked to leave, which is longer than I expected to stay.
Forced to wait the next ten minutes outside, I huddle in a deep crevice of the brick wall, partially shielding myself from the wind.
“Are you the desperate psych degree?”
I look up, finding a largely built man in front of me. He’s dressed in an expensive blue suit, one that shimmers under the street light. His crisp, white dress shirt is a sharp contrast from his lightly tanned skin, and his dark hair is shaven short but with a bit of length on top.
“Are you Axel?” I ask him, pointedly.
“No, I’m John, and I like to randomly look for desperate women with psych degrees in the middle of Boston. Of course, I’m fucking Axel,” he says with a squint of his right eye.
“Fair enough. I assume you won’t have the same issues walking through this hotel as I just did?”
“You’re with me. There won’t be a problem. Let’s go.” He stops short in front of me, turning back quickly. “Lose the cracker box first.”
“No!” I snap. “It’s all I have left.”
“You’ll be provided with anything you need. Lose the box.” Did he just say, anything I need?
Assuming we’d walk in through the front doors to the lobby, I’m a bit taken aback when we walk around to the side of the hotel toward a fire escape door. This is what I was worried about. I reluctantly drop the cracker box into a dumpster across the narrow walkway and meet Axel in front of the red, metal door.
Axel knocks once, and a rough around the edges looking man dressed in casual clothes, full tattoo sleeves, and a long beard opens the door, then ushers us in before heading off in another direction.
I’m not sure how much longer I can hold in my questions but I’m also running on hope that there are answers waiting for me wherever we end up.
In silence, I follow Axel down five or six sets of stairs into a windowless warehouse looking area, except without anything that would belong in a warehouse. It’s empty, large, and my quiet breaths are echoing. Six levels below street level? What is this?
We walk into another area, one that has finished floors, battleship gray painted walls and modern furniture. “Have a seat,” Axel tells me.
I do as he says, and I rest uncomfortably on the firm couch as he removes his suit jacket. He hangs it up on a coat rack behind an empty desk and rolls his sleeves up to his elbows, showcasing sleeves of tattoos on both arms. The artwork looks similar to the other guy’s who opened the door.
Axel takes the chair from behind the desk and lifts it up, carrying it toward me. Placing the back of the chair down a few feet from the end of my toes, he sits down, straddling the chair and resting on top of the seat’s back. “Before we make things official, we’re going to be testing your skills. Depending on the results of the test, we will discuss what’s next.”
“What kind of test?” I ask. “I’m not up for anything illegal.”
“Desperation doesn’t come with questions.”
“Are you desperate too?” I ask. “I find it strange that you haven’t so much as asked for my name yet.”
“We are desperate to weed out the wrong people for this job, in hopes of finding the right person. Desperation has a different meaning to everyone,” he says with a straight face. “Your name has no relevance to this position.”
“What position? This is curiosity, not desperation…just to clarify since we both have different views on desperation.”
Axel straightens his posture and rests his hands on the top of the chair. “Once we know you’re qualified, we’ll go over all of the specifications.” He stands and replaces his chair back behind the desk. “Not that the questions are out of the way, are you ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be, I suppose.”
Axel continues down a hall different from than the one we came from, leading us to a similar looking area as the rest of the space down here. He takes a key from his back pocket and opens a utility-looking closet. Leaning into the dark room, he flips the light on, illuminating a woman in the center who’s sitting at a table, which is the only piece of furniture in this small room. “Go on in,” he tells me.
“What am I supposed to do in here?” I ask, looking back and forth between Axel and the women. She looks dazed and half asleep. “You’re not locking me in here are you?”
After I step inside, he places his hand on the doorknob as if he’s ready to do what I just questioned. “I’m locking this door. The door will be unlocked in five minutes and one of you needs to walk out, or neither of you are leaving. If you try to work together, neither of you are leaving. If you try to escape, neither of you are leaving.” Without a moment to process what he said, the door slams shut.
Holy shit, what the hell does he mean by that? The woman looks up at me slowly and I notice dark circles beneath both of her eyes. My gaze skates to her exposed arms where I see track marks, and my analysis of why she looks the way she does is immediately conclusive. “Are you okay?” I ask her.
“I’ve been sitting in this room for an entire day, detoxing,” she says, her words sounding more like growls. “And what the fuck did that asshole mean by one of us leaves, or neither of us does? Are you detoxing too?”
I don’t answer her. I’m not here to detox. He obviously meant one of us has to leave here alive. I lean my back up against the wall, feeling a sickness grow through my gut. I try to breathe through my stress but she’s glaring at me with a look I can’t decipher, nor do I want to. I don’t know if she’s capable of killing me, but if it’s her or me, I can’t let it be her. I should never have knocked on that damn door today. My desperation has officially gotten the worst of me and now it’s going to be the cause of my goddamn death. This looming fear of my oncoming end is speeding toward me quicker than I wanted. I tried. I really did, but it obviously wasn’t enough. “Wow, you’re more fucked up than me…” Her words percolate my attention, pulling me back to the present.
“Yeah…” I tell the woman. How can I get out of this in one piece? I think for a minute, searching around the room, seeing a tin can on the table. How the hell does he expect this to happen?
“I’m not doing this again. I can’t. The pain, the suffering, the nightmares. No way am I detoxing again,” I blurt out, pretending to scratch my arms while wildly looking around the room to avoid eye contact.
I hated college. My parents always thought psychology was the door to the future or some crap like that. Staying awake in lectures became excruciating after freshman year. I mean, Freud? I’d rather read about a wet noodle. I needed something else. Something interactive. Something beyond normal.
The only class I ever enjoyed, and couldn’t wait to attend wasn’t because of the course, but the professor, Dr. Mason Phillips. He was the most controversial, yet respected teacher in the department and I loved every moment of his lectures. Experimental techniques, dark history and practices from the wars, and even unethical behaviors used to benefit the greater good. We all knew his discussions went completely against the grain of both the school and curriculum, but it was the most intriguing stuff I could ever get my hands on.
“I can’t either!” she seethes.
“Obviously. But most people in our situation wouldn’t even be sitting up straight right now. That tells me you have more control over yourself than they think you do,” I say, stuttering for effect while sliding my back down the wall.
“You’re new here, which means I’m the one who’s leaving this time,” she says, trying to glare through me. Her eyes are screaming a false sense of assertion.
“They’re not letting either us out of here,” I say with a groan as I throwing the back of my head against the wall. “This was just a trap to see how bad we really are before they start the process. This time, though, it’s going to be different.” Taking a moment to create an awkward pause, I watch her fidget in the seat, squirming with discomfort. “Sometimes, I wonder if there is only one way out, you know?”
“What do you mean, like hallucinating or some shit?” she asks.
“Nah, I mean, taking myself out…out, like ending it all, kind of thing.” I cross the room, pacing back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, feeling her anxiety build slowly while she keeps the corner of her eye on me.
“Will you stop?” she shouts. “You’re making me nauseous.”
“Oh geez, sorry, I’m just trying to make a decision.”
“What decision?” she asks.
“Is it all worth it? Starving every day, waiting for the next fix. Hoping money comes in so we don’t have to feel like this.”
“You’re so right,” she says before dry heaving over the side of the table. Once she stops gagging, she lifts her head and sweeps the back of her arm against her mouth. “What’s worse is, the bastard left us with nothing to complete your plan. That’s why he’s just a bastard.”
I walk up to the table, refocusing on the tin can. This was all premeditated. I look inside the tin and find a small blade as well as a piece of string, and I dig my hand inside, retrieving both. “He left us this,” I tell her, placing the objects down onto the table.
“A blade with no coke. Not cool, not cool.”
“A blade can be used for more than dicing up blow,” I tell her.
She lifts her head again, narrowing her eyes at me. “You want to be the one who walks out of here, don’t you?”
“Nope,” I lie. “I’m not going make it another few days anyway. I’ve been living off of crumbs and my new home is the side of the street. Honestly, I wouldn’t want to be the one who walks out of here, you know?”
“Yeah, I don’t want to be that poor fucking loser either,” she says.
“Do you mind if I—” I reach for the blade.
“No way, you’re not making me be the one who goes out there to get tortured by those shitheads.”
“We’ve all done it before…” I say to her.
“You’re full of it,” she says.
“No way, I can’t lie. I have this thing where my eye twitches every time I lie. It’s my freaking tell-all. It’s gotten me in so much trouble, so I gave up on even trying to make up stories,” I explain with theatrics.
“Well, your eye ain’t twitchin’ right now,” she points out.
“Yeah because I want to be done. I’ve wanted to be done for so long and there hasn’t been as big of a motivator as this right now. You look like a good person who can straighten out. I’d rather you get your chance out there.” I force a quick blink into my right eye.
“You’re lying, you see? You twitched. Your eye just fucking twitched.”
“Look, you’re right. I want out. I don’t want to die right now. I’m hoping someone will give me food and shelter tonight. That’s all I really want.” Another blink, and three more for good measure.
“What the fuck? You’re talking out of two sides of your mouth and you’re lying about it all.” She’s breathing heavily and sweat is beading up on her head. She’s breaking.
“Screw you, loser, I’m not going out there and feeding myself to the dogs for you.” She takes the blade and quickly slits a line down the center of her wrist.
“What the fuck! That’s my blade!” I shout. “Stop, stop, stop!” Do I sound convincing enough?
“You can have it when I’m done, if they don’t get to you first,” she says, laughing weakly while she takes the string and wraps it tightly around the same wrist she just slit. “So let’s hurry this process up. Want to help?”
I nod, refusing to touch her. Instead, I watch her fall to the ground. I hear her head crash into the cement as the single high-tone of the blade dribbles against the ground.
Staring for a long minute, I watch her chest stop rising and I turn for the door with a daze swimming through my lucid mind.
Ten steps and a now unlocked door separates me from a hallway filled with four men, and I find Axel in the center of them all.
“That was less than five minutes and you didn’t lay a finger on her,” Axel says, looking at his watch.
I shrug with uncertainty. Is this it? Are these guys going to end me too? “You said you’d feed me. I’m starving and didn’t feel like waiting much longer.”
They all share a look, and one of them grins widely. “Perfect,” Axel says. “Just perfect.”
Please note: these episodes are not edited.
Copyright 2016 – Shari J. Ryan