Any article on saving money that starts with stop paying five bucks a day for coffee is bullshit. Because any article that starts like that assumes you’ve got five dollars a day to spend on coffee.
What Roy had was eight-fifty an hour at a gas station that barely gave him twenty-five hours a week. What he had was bills piling up, no car, a GED, and a baby sister that was his sole responsibility.
What he had was two pending applications with welfare and wic and a mother that was three sheets to the wind most nights.
That’s why he was turning tricks again.
That’s why right now he was locked in the restroom of a 7-Eleven cleaning blood away from his busted nose with wet naps he’d swiped from a KFC.
Maybe it had been easier when he was seventeen or maybe it was just easier when he was stoned—he couldn’t really tell. He’d used to think he was pretty good about picking out the bad ones. They just had this look. And he knew.
Maybe his senses weren’t so keen anymore.
Maybe he was just more desperate now.
He watched the last of the blood and water circle the drain before looking at his own reflection. The nose he could probably explain away. It didn’t feel broken. But the bruises around his throat. Not so much.
He grabbed the flask of Listerine from his bag and washed his mouth out. It burned but when the last of the blue liquid hit the bowl he couldn’t taste the guy that fucked him over on his tongue anymore and that was a small relief.
When he’d gotten himself as clean as he could he slid down to the floor, leaning his head against the cool tiles. All his muscles ached. Outside the door he could hear the girl that had saved him pacing. Her sneakers squeaked on the recently mopped floor and she was talking to someone on the phone in what he thought was Tagalog.
Half of him wished she would leave.
Half of him was happy she was still there.
He’d seen her at the park before tonight. A few times. Always leaning up against a beat up brown pick-up. Always smoking cigarettes. He knew she wasn’t a working girl but he’d never really thought about why she was there.
He still wasn’t sure.
He ran his fingers over his bruises and winced.
It had all been a smooth transaction right up until the guy got ballsy and tried putting his hands around Roy’s throat.
“I don’t do that,” Roy said. He’d brushed the man’s hands away.
The guy just responded with an annoyed grunt and it wasn’t even a few seconds later that he was back at it.
“I said no,” Roy said.
He tried to push the guy’s hands away again, only this time he didn’t let up and Roy started to panic. He elbowed the guy hard and shoved him away, putting some space between them.
“What the fuck, I paid,” the guy said. He took a step toward him.
“Yeah and you didn’t follow the fucking rules,” Roy said, holding his ground.
“That’s bullshit,” the guy said.
“We’re done here.”
Roy turned to walk back toward the parking lot.
That was his first mistake.
He realized it a second too late and the guy tackled him to the ground. It knocked the wind out of him and he took a sharp breath. He could feel his nose starting to bleed.
“Get off me,” Roy said. He tried desperately to get away but the guy was bigger than him. He flipped Roy over so they were eye to eye and Roy spit in his face.
The guy pushed down with all his weight. “Stay still,” he said.
Roy clawed at the dirt. He yelled. When the guy tried to cover his mouth he bit down hard and the guy yelped.
“Hang on,” he heard someone say. It was a girl. He heard her heavy foot falls against the grass as she ran toward them.
Everything tasted metallic and then there was a thwack. Her boot made contact with the guy’s ribs. He rolled over, clutching his chest, and Roy scrambled away, trying to catch his breath. He grabbed his bag.
“Stay down,” she said, looking at the guy.
“Stupid bitch.” He coughed.
He moved to get up and she kicked him again. Twice. Three times. And he stopped moving all together. She bent down and went through his pockets.
“Are you ok?” she said, glancing back at Roy.
Roy didn’t know what to say. His breaths were still coming out in gasps and he was leaning on his elbow for support. She walked over to him.
“Are you ok?” she said. This time it was a little more like a command.
“Yeah,” he said, and even he could hear how hoarse his voice sounded. He glanced over at the guy in the grass. “Is he dead?”
“Does it matter?” she said.
He didn’t say anything.
She took his arm and pulled him up.
“Can you walk?” she said.
He took a few shaky steps and without a word she moved over and put his arm around her shoulder to help limp him back to her truck.
“I have to get home,” he said when they got back to the parking lot.
“You have to relax,” she said.
She opened the truck door. He hesitated.
“I’ll give you a ride,” she said.
He looked at her. His hands were shaking.
“Or you can walk, it’s up to you,” she said.
He got in.
She closed the door behind him and got in on the other side. He tried to take deep breaths. She reached in the back and grabbed a bottle of water. He took it.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Don’t mention it,” she said.
He leaned back in the seat and took a shaky sip of water.
“I have to get cleaned up…” he said, running a hand over his face.
“Can’t you do that at home?”
“I don’t want them to see me like this.”
“Mom and my sister…”
She nodded. “The 7-Eleven on Willem. You can get cleaned up there.”
She started the truck. He closed his eyes.
Roy got up from the restroom floor and went to splash more water on his face. He’d gotten clean. He was off everything but cigarettes and things had been going well until his mom lost her job. She never questioned where his money came from.
There was a bang on the door and he looked up.
“You ok in there?”
It was the girl.
“Fine,” he said. “One minute, sorry.” He ran a hand through his hair and grabbed his bag off the floor.
When he opened the door the girl looked him up and down. “I was just making sure you didn’t have a concussion or some shit.”
“Are you sure? I could take you to the clinic.”
He shook his head and she didn’t press him about it.
“You look like you could use a cigarette and a stiff drink,” she said.
“Just a cigarette,” he said.
She nodded and he followed her back through the store to the parking lot. The guy behind the counter never even looked up.
“I’m Jay, by the way,” she said, handing him a cigarette.
“Roy,” he said.
They stood there for a while just smoking in silence while the sodium lights buzzed and crackled overhead.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she said after a while.
“Not really,” he said and flicked the ash off the end of his cigarette. He watched it fall to the cracked pavement before looking up. “Thank you…I mean for…yeah.”
She just nodded.
He looked at her then, really looked. She was shorter then he was but probably around his age or maybe a little older. Definitely more built. She had a pair of SAP gloves sticking out of her jacket pocket and a heart shaped kubotan hanging slack from the keyring on her belt loop.
“You got something to say?” she said.
He looked back up. “Why did you help me?”
“Because you needed help.”
“But why were you even there?”
She was quiet for a few seconds.
“Did you ever meet a girl name Sasha? I mean while you were working.”
He shook his head. “No, why?” He never really got to know any of the others.
She shrugged. “She was my sister, got killed there last year. Cops didn’t do shit.”
He did remember that. They’d dredged her out of the creek and beefed up patrols for about two weeks afterward.
He tossed his cigarette filter on the ground.
“So you’re, what, like a vigilante?”
“Figure I smash enough faces eventually I get the guy that deserves it.” She looked back at him.
“I’m sorry about your sister,” he said.
“Thanks,” she said.
She tossed her cigarette butt on the ground and crushed it under her boot before reaching into her pocket. She pulled out a wallet and flipped through it, taking out the license and the cash, and tossed the rest in the dumpster. She handed him the money and he looked at it.
“Take it,” she said.
“What is it?”
“About eighty bucks and some change. Figure he owes you at least that much.”
Roy hesitated before taking the money.
“Neal K. Fine,” she read off the license. She offered it to him. “Are you going to go to the police?”
He shook his head. She pocketed the license.
“I should get home,” he said.
“You want a ride?”
When Jay dropped him off at the apartment, clouds had just started to build. The air was thick and smelled like smoke.
“Here,” she said, before he got out. She grabbed a card from her visor.
It was on heavy black cardstock with a gold snake embossed on the front.
“What’s this?” he said turning it over in his hands.
“A doctor I know. A shrink. She’s good with stuff like this.”
“I can’t afford a shrink.”
“Just tell her I sent you,” she said. “They got a crisis number on there too, twenty-four hours and everything.”
She started the truck again and Roy walked across the yard to C building and down to the basement. He let himself in with the key under the mat. His mom was passed out at the kitchen table but he walked past her and straight to Lauren’s room. The baby was sleeping soundly in her crib and he reached in to touch her hand gently.
She’s what made it all worth it.
He was determined to make sure she had everything.
He sat by her crib for a long time, until his nerves finally started to settle.
After a while he went back out and helped his mom up and into bed.
“Baby what time is it?” she mumbled.
“It’s early,” he said. “Go back to sleep mom,”
He brushed the hair from her face, and pulled the quilt around her. She was already out again
He went into the kitchen. He made sure there was formula mixed for tomorrow. He did the dishes. He took out the trash. When he was sure everything was settled he went to the bathroom and broke down crying before he even had a chance to turn on the shower.