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“Who’s Skinny and why does he want fifty bucks from you? Is he your dealer or something?”

“No.” She looked from side to side as if we were being watched then her eyes darted back to me. “He’s my pimp,” she whispered.

“Jesus Christ! What the hell have you gotten yourself into now?” I yell. I pause and wait for signs that anyone in the house has woken up and when I don’t hear anything I lower my voice to an angry whisper. “Why on earth do you have a pimp?”

“I don’t know.” Her voice cracks. “I don’t know where I went so wrong, Ray. I don’t know when I met him. I don’t remember agreeing to do the things I do. But I do them and it’s disgusting and I hate it, but he’s really going to kill me if I don’t bring him some money tonight.” Her head shoots up. “And that’s very judgey coming from you, Ray, Miss Teen Mom America, herself,” She hisses.

Stay strong, Ray. Remember, she’s a master manipulator. She needs help, not money. Both her compliments and insults are trying to play on my emotions, I remind myself, remembering what the articles said that I’d Googled over the last several months.

“I talked to your parents today. They said that if you go back to rehab and stay for the six-month program, you can come home when you’re done. Why don’t you just do that?” I ask her, hoping she’ll agree to go back again. But I sense that this time is different than the other times and deep down I know that this time she won’t be going back.

“I know, Ray. I just came from my parent’s house. And I agreed to go. I’m going. I just have to get Skinny off my back first and they won’t give me any money.” Just when I’m about to break, she sniffles and I spot a dash of white powder clinging to the inside of one of her nostrils. It reminds me again that every word out of her mouth is her addiction talking, not her. I know she hasn’t been home to see her parents. My room looks into their sitting area where both her mom and dad had been watching some documentary all night until they turned off the lights only an hour ago.

“I’m sorry. I just can’t” I say, crossing my arms over my chest.

“Fine!” She shouts, slapping her hand against the tree trunk. “But can I at least borrow your flashlight? It’s pitch fucking black out here and I can’t see shit. I left mine on the fucking houseboat.”

I walk over to my closet and pull out an old pink flashlight, the matching one to the package of two that we’d bought at a dollar store when we were in the fifth grade. We had made up our own version of Morse code and spent many nights sending light to one another across our yards, to one another’s windows. It wasn’t until another neighbor called the police and reported a possible prowler when we were forced to stop.

“Here,” I say, handing her the flashlight. She takes it and flips on the switch. When it doesn’t immediately turn on she pounds on the bottom with her palm until it comes to life. “You have what you want now. I’m leaving, Ray. You won’t ever have to deal with me again.”

“Wait! You just said you were going to go back into rehab. Why wouldn’t I see you again?” I throat tightens. I made a mistake. It doesn’t matter what she’s done. I can’t lose my best friend. She’s sick. She needs help.

She needs me.

“Because I told you, if I don’t have his money, Skinny is going to kill me.” She pulls her dark hoodie from her head and turns the flashlight upwards until her face is illuminated in the yellow glow. I gasp. Dark purple bruises are smattered across her obviously broken nose, both of her eyes are swollen, and one has a halo of yellow around it. The whites of her eyes are blood shot. The corners of her cracked lips are dried with blood. Her jaw is off-center.

She hadn’t been lying. Or maybe she had been but someone had obviously beaten her pretty badly. I am about to change my mind and open my mouth to tell her that she can have the money when she holds up her hand. “Never mind, Ray. It was nice knowing ya.” She turns off the flashlight and starts making her way down the tree, temporarily disappearing into the black backyard until her shadow emerges under the streetlight on the front walk. She turns and waves. “Bye, Ray,” I hear her say quietly, cutting through the silence of the night. There is a finality in her good-bye that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. She turns to leave but stops again and turns around.

“And Ray? Whatever you do, don’t trust the tyrant.”

Then I watch as my best friend turns back around again and walks away.

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