“I’m okay, Alyssa Marie Walters.”
Even though it felt like a lie, it was one that her voice almost always made me believe.
I never truly celebrated my birthday before two years ago when I met Alyssa. Kellan always took me out to dinner, and I loved that. He was pretty great at reminding me that I wasn’t alone in the world, but Alyssa went bigger than ever each year for my birthday. Two years ago, we went to Chicago to watch a documentary special on Charlie Chaplin at an old theatre, then she took me out to a fancy restaurant that I was way too underdressed for. She came from a lifestyle where fancy dinners were normal, I came from a world where dinner wasn’t always available. When she noticed my discomfort, we ended up walking down the streets of Chicago, eating hot dogs and standing under the giant bean.
That was the first best day of my life.
One year ago, there was a film festival going on in upper Wisconsin, and she rented out a cabin for us to stay in. We watched each and every film together for the whole weekend. We stayed up late discussing which movies inspired us, and which were made by people who probably dropped a lot of acid.
That was the second best day of my life.
But today was different. Today was my eighteenth birthday, it was past eleven at night, and Alyssa hadn’t called me once.
I sat in my bedroom watching the DVD on Jackie Robinson while I listened to Ma stumble around the apartment. A pile of bills sat beside my bed, and I felt a tight knot in my stomach from fear of not making rent. If we weren’t able to make rent, Dad would never let us live it down. And if I asked him for help, I was certain Ma would pay the price.
I reached under my bed and pulled out an envelope, checking the money I had saved up on my own. The words on the envelope made me sick.
What a joke.
I counted the money. Five hundred and fifty-two dollars. I’d been saving for two years now, ever since Alyssa made it seem like a thing I could do someday. I spent a lot of time thinking that one day I’d save enough to go to school, get a solid career, and buy a house for Ma and me to live in.
We’d never have to rely on Dad for anything—the home would be ours, and only ours. We’d get clean, too. No more drugs, only happiness. Ma would cry because she was happy, not because he beat her.
Sober Ma would come back, the one who used to tuck me in when I was young. The one who used to sing and dance. The one who used to smile.
It’d been such a long time since I’d seen that version of her, but a part of me held onto the hope that one day she’d come back. She has to come back to me.
I sighed, taking out some cash from my college funds to pay the electric bill.
Three hundred and twenty-three dollars left.
And just like that, the dream seemed a bit further away.
Taking out a pencil, I began to doodle on the electric bill. Drawing and zoning out on documentaries were my main way to escape reality. Plus, a weird, curly-head girl who smiled and talked too much had been appearing in my mind. Alyssa took up a lot more of my thoughts than she should have. Which was weird, because I didn’t really give a shit about people or what they thought of me.
Caring about people made it too easy for them to mess with my mind, and my mind was already pretty much destroyed due to my love for my twisted mother.
“No!” I heard shouting from the living room. “No, Ricky I didn’t mean to,” she cried.
My stomach knotted.
Dad was here.
I pushed myself up from my mattress and hurried into the space. Dad was buff, and had more gray hair than black, more frowns than smiles, and more hate than love. He always dressed in suits, too. Really expensive looking suits, with ties and alligator shoes. Everyone in the neighborhood knew to keep their heads down when walking past him, because even looking him in the eye could’ve been dangerous. He was the biggest bully to walk the streets, and I hated him to my core. Everything about him disgusted me, but what I hated most was that I had his eyes.
Whenever I looked at him, I always saw a piece of myself.
Ma shivered in a corner, holding her cheek, which had his handprint against it. I watched as he went to smack her again, and I stepped in his way, taking the hit to my face. “Let her be,” I said, trying to act like his slap didn’t burn.
“This ain’t got nothing to do with you, Logan,” he said. “Get out of the way. Your mother owes me money.”
“I—I’ll have it, I swear. I just need time. I got an interview at a grocery store down the street this week,” she lied. Ma hadn’t applied for a job in years, yet somehow she always had these mysterious interviews that never turned into anything.
“I thought she paid you that money already,” I said. “She gave you two hundred last weekend.”
“And she took three hundred two days ago.”
“Why would you even give her the money? You know she can’t pay it back.”
He grabbed my arm, digging his fingers into my skin, making me flinch. My body was yanked as he pulled me to the other side of the room and hovered over me. “Who the fuck do you think you are, talking back to me like that, huh?”
“I just thought…”
He slapped me against the back of my head. “You didn’t think. Now this conversation is between your mom and me. Don’t interrupt.” He hit me again, harder. His hand formed a fist and when it met my eye, I whimpered out in pain. Dad started in her direction again, and like an idiot, I stepped in front of her again. “Do you have a death wish, Logan?”
“I’ll pay it,” I said, trying to stand tall, even though he made me feel tiny whenever I was around him. “One second.” I hurried into my bedroom, reached under my mattress, and pulled out my college funds. I could feel my eye swelling as I counted out the money.
Twenty-three dollars left.
“Here,” I said, shoving the money into Dad’s hands. He narrowed his eyes at me before he began to count it. Under his breath he muttered something, but I didn’t care. As long as he’d leave, that would be good enough for me.
The money went into his back pocket. “You both should know how lucky you are to have me. But don’t think I’m going to keep paying your rent like I have been.”
We don’t need you, I wanted to say. Leave and never come back, I dreamed of shouting. But I kept my mouth shut.
His steps moved toward Ma, and I watched her flinch as he caressed his hand against her cheek. “You know I love you, right Julie?” he asked.