I was very thankful to have an office to hide in - Best. Idea. Ever.
Child's best friend came over Monday, and the minute they heard the news that there would be no school on Tuesday either, the begging for a sleepover commenced. And since I was hiding in my office all day, I wasn't even annoyed about having an extra child overnight. Ahhh, the loveliness of having my own small and humble space.
It was a bit of an odd week. I got revved up about a whole new story (which always seems to happen when there's something else I really should be working on). And since I had to work 6 days out of 7 last week, the only writing I was able to do was longhand. Mm-hmm. But before you feel sorry for me - I wrote about 15,000 words longhand. It took me a good half of a day to type it all up.
So that was actually pretty amazing.
My new character's name is Angel, and he has shockingly beautiful blue eyes. Unfortunately, this does not turn out to be a good thing for my sweet Angel, and unimaginably bad things happen to him. Because that's what we writers do to fictional characters.
Justin Lattimore (a.k.a Angel) was snatched off the street and forced into a sex-trafficking operation. This excerpt is from sort of the middle of the story. Angel's already gone through the really hard stuff, and has a long-range plan to get himself out and hopes to destroy the whole sordid organization.
"Gearbox?" I asked. "What does that even mean?"
He was several inches taller than me, and slung an arm across my shoulder like we were already buddies. "Shit, I forgot, they force it at the training houses, don't they?"
I must have still looked baffled, because he said, "It's where we go for our hit. Our shot."
"Heroin before coffee?" I asked, and sort of liked the droll tone of voice I'd just found. I thought I sounded cynical and worldly.
He grinned. "Yeah, I guess. It's voluntary from here on out, you know. In most houses, if you don't ask for it by nine, you won't get it until the next morning." He shuddered. "Which means the whole day will suck and the night will be even worse. And you won't be able to work. Too many times and you go back to training. Or the kill room."
This wasn't the first the kill room had been mentioned, but it sounded ominous every time it was brought up. The term contained an inherent threat. I let my eyes ask the question.
Dusty nodded. "Yeah, it's what you think. The boy ends up on a snuff film, dying for the camera and the sick fucks who like that kind of shit."
The very idea that people wanted to see that kind of thing gave me the chills. Sick fucks, indeed. "The only way out," I said, quoting Jet, "is not survival."
Dusty nodded, and steered me into what looked like a fairly standard kitchen, except for a steel door set into the wall opposite the doorway we'd just come through. He skirted around a large oblong table with chairs that was central to the room, and knocked on the door, two gentle taps, then sat at the table.
I smelled coffee. I found a mug above the half-filled coffee pot and poured myself a cup, then opened cupboards until I found sugar. I poured in probably way too much, and added a generous pour of milk from the fridge.
I sat across from Dusty and set down my mug. He picked it up, sipped, and made a face. "Coffee with your sugar much?"
I wasn't a coffee drinker, but I could choke it down if it was light and sweet. And it seemed like such a normal thing. My mom had been one of those, 'don't ask me anything before I've had my coffee' people. So maybe I really did want my coffee before my heroin.
Maybe I just wanted control over something.
Five minutes later the steel door opened from the inside, and a man stood in the doorway looking at us dispassionately. He was an adult male, older than thirty but younger than forty, with neatly trimmed brown hair, and a stern face. "Who's first?" he said in a voice that was all business.
Dusty waved at me. "New guy first."
I shook my head, for some reason deciding to test the situation. "I'm having coffee."
The man in the doorway's expression didn't change.
My eyes skittered to Dusty, and he was staring at me. He gave his head one firm shake, and I caught the message, loud and clear. Don't.
I fiddled with my coffee cup for a few seconds, took one more sip, then pushed it away and got up from the table.
The man turned sideways in the doorway, gesturing for me to precede him. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I ducked past him. The door closed with a soft whoosh, like an air-lock.
It was more like a large closet than a room, maybe four feet by six.
He touched my shoulder, then my hair, as he went around me. A counter top ran along two walls, a small sink set into one end, and a refrigerator beneath the other. The shelves behind me were filled with medical supplies. If I moved too quickly, I would knock things over.
The man tapped the screen of a computer tablet that rested on the counter. "Angel Baby?" I heard the question in his voice, but felt too claustrophobic all of a sudden to answer.
I could feel his eyes on me, hard and not particularly friendly. I knew he was waiting for me to say something, but I had forgotten the question.
"Your name," he suggested.
Ah, that was the question. "My name is Justin Lattimore."
Jesus. I knew it was the wrong answer, but it fell out of my mouth before I could stop it. I couldn't have even said what it was about him, but I was scared out of my wits.
He sighed, and that drew my eyes toward him in time to see him stand up straight and rock back on his heels. The tension in the tiny room went up a notch.
I looked away, but it was like I was staring at the white noise that filled the inside of my head.
"I was told you were ready to be here, but perhaps we should try this again tomorrow."
I could hear disappointment in his voice, like he was a stern father and I was about to do something stupid.
I didn't want to go back to the training house. I didn't want to be put in a room with no windows and no sunlight, and I really didn't want to find myself back under the care and keeping of Slick.
And I didn't want to shit myself all night, praying tomorrow would come before I choked on my own vomit.
"I'm Angel," I said, the words barely louder than a whisper.
"There. That wasn't so hard, was it?" he asked, and turned away from me, tapping the glass face of the tablet. "Dang. Red gave you a tremendous dose for transfer. Were you giving him a hard time?"
I shook my head but he wasn't looking at me, so I said, "No. I wanted to come."
"Because they took Jet away?" he asked, and I almost thought I heard a thread of sympathy.
I wondered if everyone knew about Jet. The man glanced from the tablet to me, and I nodded.
He nodded back. "Changing trainers in the middle of things is never good." He opened the door of a cabinet above the counter. "I'm going to take your blood pressure, so I can record a baseline while you're neither high nor in withdrawal."
He turned toward me, a blood pressure cuff in his hand, snapped his fingers, and pointed to a tall stool next to the counter. I edged closer to him and pulled myself onto the stool. I wasn't shaking, quite, as he fastened the cuff around my arm, but felt as if my insides were mushy.
For that little while he seemed like a real doctor, and I couldn't imagine why he would be in a place like this, how he got sucked up into this organization. Surely he didn't start out a child prostitute who grew up and went to medical school. That wouldn't be possible, would it? Maybe he was just an addict, and that got him in.
He unfastened the cuff and entered something into the tablet.
"I'm going to wean you down to a much smaller dose than what Red's been giving you, so you might be uncomfortable for a few days, with muscle aches and such. I'll be here to monitor you, so if you start feeling really sick, have Dusty come and get me."
I didn't say anything.
"Did you hear me, Angel?"
"Yeah," I said. Whatever. Like everyone else, he was going to do what he wanted to me, and I would have to deal with it. And yet… I hated being so passive. I had to find my voice, for real, and start using it. "You're going to put me into withdrawal on purpose." The words came out flat, a statement, not a question.
"Not exactly," he said. "They administer the drugs in the training houses in a way that keeps you manageable and gets you addicted. You're expected to be manageable here, behaviorally, at any rate. That's the deal that got you moved to this house. I administer it more carefully – a maintenance dose that allows you to work and function, and yet is more cost-effective for the organization overall."
I didn't want to know any of this, and had nothing to say.
He sighed. "I really don't care for the sullen, silent routine. I know the first few months after being brought in are hard, but I expect Dusty will put some spunk back into you."
Oh, I've had plenty of spunk put into me, I thought, but somehow I knew it would be a huge mistake to say something that sarcastic, out loud, to this man.
"Rest your arm on the table, please," he said, and I flinched as he twisted a rubber tie around my upper arm. "Make a fist."
I curled my fingers tight to my palm.
I glared at him and felt the white noise in my head gain.
His eyes were steel like the door, and his voice so soft I almost had to strain to hear it. "Do you know anything about heroin, Angel? People sacrifice their lives so I can inject this drug into your vein. For that alone, you will ask for it nicely."
I wanted to scream. I was all too aware that it was probably true, but I never wanted any of this in the first place. Who would?
He stared into my face for long minutes.
His patience had no end as he waited for me to get over myself.
We hung in suspended animation for sixteen years before I whispered the word he waited to hear.
Postscript: The story excerpt above was inspired by a book called Hamelin's Child by DJ Bennett. I'll tell you more about Hamelin's Child next Thursday.