Clean sheets. That’s what I’m dreaming about when something wakes me up. I groan, swearing. Sleep is the only time I have to myself—the only time I’m free from the motel and the other girls in it. The sound grows louder, people coming up the stairs outside the room.
I force my eyes open. It’s still dark, but there’s always a sliver of light that comes through the window—neon blue from the vacancy sign, and yellow floodlights. Shadows pass, strobing the light. It’s too late for business. If Mitch let us go to bed, it has to be not much before dawn. We’re his nighttime girls.
I took some pills earlier, after the last john left, so maybe I’m imagining things. Mitch came by and gave us all a little “treat.” I’d been greedy. I’m always greedy when it comes to my medicine, and Mitch spoils me. I’m his favorite—he told me.
There are six of us on the second floor of the motel. The manager gave Mitch a deal on the rooms for a cut of his take—and a piece of each of us. I wonder if that’s what this is, the slimy piece of shit coming to get a little somethin’ somethin’ before work.
There’s a crash, followed by a scream. I sit up, head swimming. Fear takes hold, sobering me. I crawl out of bed, stagger to the other one. Ivy is out cold. I shake her shoulder—it’s bony. Too bony. “Wake up. Ivy, wake the fuck up.” How can she sleep with all the screaming?
“Poppy?” She clutches at my hand. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know, but you need to get up and put some clothes on.” She’s naked. I’m in a tank top and my underwear. I stumble to the dresser we share and pull out a pair of jeans that should have been washed days ago. I tug them on, fastening them low on my hips. I grab a sweater and shove my feet into a pair of sneakers. Behind me, I hear Ivy getting out of bed, the sheets rasping against each other.
More screams. I run—lurch—to the door and try to open it, but the manager locks us in after the johns leave. Most of us have nowhere to go even if we were straight enough to run, but every once in a while a girl tries to take off. They never get far before they turn around and come back on their own. Mitch has that effect on us.
“What is it?” Ivy asks as she stumbles into a pair of jeans. Her voice is slurred, her eyelids barely open.
“I think it’s the cops,” I say. Either that, or it’s a rival of Mitch’s. I don’t want to think about what’s going to happen to us if that’s the case.
The door to our room flies open. I jump backward, putting myself between whoever it is and Ivy. The cops. We stand there watching them like cornered dogs, beaten and meek. We know the drill. Don’t say nothin’.
“Are you girls okay?” a woman cop asks. She’s tall with long, curly hair and dark skin. Beyoncé wishes she were this beautiful.
“We ain’t done nothing wrong,” I tell her. “You can’t arrest us.”
She gives me a funny look. “Honey, we’re not here to arrest you. We’re here to get you out of here.”
“Yeah? Where you gonna take us?”
“The hospital, then home, if we can.”
I snort. Home. Yeah right.
She holds out her hand. “Come on. You can’t stay here.”
Ivy clings to me as we inch toward the door. As soon as I cross the threshold, I start to run. Ivy’s feet tangle with mine and we go down, hitting the cement walkway hard.
Ivy grunts. There’s blood on her lips. A male cop hauls her up, carries her away.
“Hey!” I cry.
“Da fuck?” someone yells. I smile at the sound of Daisy’s voice. She’s gonna fuck somebody up. “Get off the floor, you stupid bitch.”
I push up onto my hands. The female cop takes my arm and pulls me up.
“Ow!” My left ankle doesn’t want me to stand on it.
“Lean on me,” the cop says, putting her arm around me. Her hand is on my ribs. I wait for it to creep higher, but it doesn’t.
My foot really hurts. I should have grabbed my pills. What am I going to do when these wear off?
“What’s your name?” the woman asks as we begin walking. She’s taking a lot of my weight, but she doesn’t seem bothered by it.
She smiles a little. “Your real name, sweetie. So we can let your parents know you’re okay.”
I’m not sure my mother would even care. “Alexa,” I tell her. “Alexa Marie.” It doesn’t feel like mine anymore—it belongs to someone else.
“You’re safe now, Alexa. You’re going to be okay.”
I laugh. Who does she think she’s talking to? She don’t know shit. “Bitch,” I say. “We ain’t never going to be okay. Never.”
* * *
They say I’m safe. I don’t feel safe. My skin itches and twitches like bugs are crawling underneath it. I’ve left fingernail scratches on my arms from trying to get to them—long, raw furrows in my skin that felt so good at the time, but burn like hell.
I’m in the hospital. Why doesn’t Mitch rescue me? Why doesn’t he come take me home? He’s a bad guy, they tell me. I know, but he’s my bad guy. He’s all I got.
“How long have I been here?” I ask the nurse, but she doesn’t seem to hear me, because she doesn’t answer. It has to have been a while. I don’t feel right. I need my medicine.
My clothes are gone. I’m wearing a thin cotton gown that smells weird. I’ve been photographed, poked, and prodded. They swabbed my mouth and got me into stirrups so they could swab down there too. They said they were going to check me for STIs, and would I consent to a pregnancy test? Sure. If I am pregnant, I want it out of me.
So many tests. So many questions.
“You okay, baby?” the nurse asks.
I want to ask her if I fucking look okay. “No,” I say instead, scratching.
Her lips form a thin line and she nods, like she understands. “I’ll see what we can do to take the edge off.” She leaves the room, but she’s back in a few minutes. She gives me a cup of water and a little paper cup with pills in it. I don’t even ask what they are, I just flush them down my throat and start counting the seconds.
“Give me your arm, honey,” she commands. She has a tube of lotion that she rubs into the scratches and dry patches. It feels good, takes away the sting and itch.
“You’re pale as milk,” she comments. “Skin that delicate needs to be protected.”
I don’t know what to say, so I stay quiet.
“I’ll be back later to put some more on, okay?”
She smiles at me, and tears burn in my eyes. I blink—hard. No one is going to see me weak.
I’m watching cartoons on TV a little while later when another woman comes in. This one’s wearing pants and a blouse and carrying a bag big enough to hold a small child. She has curly blond hair and blue eyes.
“Hello, Alexa,” she says. “My name is Jill. I’m with DCF. Do you know what that is?”
“Yeah,” I reply. They came by to talk to Mom once when I went to school wearing the same clothes three days in a row and didn’t have lunch.
“Good. I work specifically with cases involving human trafficking. Are you aware of what that is?”
Does she think I’m a fucking idiot? Brain damaged, maybe? “It’s when you’re forced into being a ho.”
She inclines her head. “That’s part of it. I’m here because you’ve been identified as a victim of human trafficking.”
I stare at her. She doesn’t seem bothered by my silence.
She walks over and sits in the chair by my bed. I push myself farther up on the pillows.
“Would you be okay if we talk about what happened to you?” she asks me.
“Ain’t nothin’ happened to me,” I respond.
“Mitch Anderson didn’t force you to have sex with strangers for money?”
“I didn’t charge anyone money.”
“No. Mitch did that, didn’t he?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Mitch is my boyfriend.”
“That’s what the other girls from the motel called him as well. You don’t mind sharing your boyfriend with them?”
I’m silent. I want to tell her I’m his favorite, but I’ve already said too much. I forgot how much trouble Mitch could be in for having sex with young girls.
“Your mother’s boyfriend, Frank, is a friend of Mitch’s, isn’t he?”
“I don’t want to talk about him.” What I want is my pills. I don’t like the things I’m starting to feel. To think.
Jill gives me a sympathetic look. “Alexa—”
“Poppy,” I correct her. “My name is Poppy.”
“Do you really want to be called that?” she asks me.
Yes, but I give her the answer she wants to hear. “No.” I’ll tell her whatever she wants if it makes her go the fuck away.
I have to get out of here, but how far will I get in a hospital gown with my bare ass sticking out? I want to scream, but when I tried last night, nothing came out. Jill’s still watching me. I want to punch her in the face.
“I want to see Ivy,” I say.
Jill nods. “I’ll see if we can make that happen.”
“You don’t have to see shit. She right down the damn hall.” To prove it, I yell her name at the top of my lungs. “Ivy! Ivy!”
“Poppy!” comes the answering shout. “Pop-py!”
I grin, so fucking happy to hear her voice.
There’s a knock on the open door. I turn my head and see the woman cop who found me at the motel.
“Detective Willis,” Jill says, giving her a look I recognize from adults I’ve known my whole life. It brands me as “difficult,” an asshole.
The cop smiles at me. A small real one that tells me she’s known too many girls like me.
She ain’t known anyone like me.
“Can I come in?” she asks.
Like I can stop her. I nod. I can’t help but stare at her. She’s probably one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. And she’s got this attitude—like she knows how to kill somebody with only two fingers, y’know? She’s strong.
I hate her for it.
She stands beside my bed, watching me like she thinks I might bite—and she’s prepared to take the risk. “How are you feeling?” she asks.
“Like a junkie,” I rasp. I hold up my hand; it trembles.
Detective Willis looks sympathetic, but I wonder if she’s ever felt like this before. “We’re going to get you into a rehab program for girls who have been trafficked.”
I startle. “I’m not going home?” I don’t care if I see my mother, or Frank, but Mitch won’t know where to find me if I don’t go home.
She looks at Jill, who shakes her head.
“What the fuck are y’all not tellin’ me?” I demand. “I’m right fucking here.”
Jill sighs. “Alexa, your mother has given up her parental rights. You can’t go home.”
I look from her to Detective Willis. “She doesn’t want me?”
The cop tries to take my hand. I pull it away. “She knows home is not a good environment for you.”
“Bullshit,” I say. “She just doesn’t want her fucked-up kid back.”
I am not going to cry.
“So, I’m going to be sent to prison, then, huh?” I ask. I won’t be eighteen for almost a year. That makes me a ward of the state. “Where all unwanted kids go?”
“No,” Jill says. “We found someone who very much wants to take you.”
“Who?” I demand.
“Your aunt Krys,” she replies.
I remember Krys—vaguely. We used to spend a lot of time with her when my grandmother was alive, back when I was little and Mom’s drinking wasn’t so bad. I liked her.
“She’d like to visit with you, and if you want, you could maybe live with her and her husband in Middletown when you get out of the program.”
“What does she want in return?” I ask. “She get paid to take me?”
Detective Willis doesn’t look surprised at the question. “She doesn’t want anything.”
“She told me your mother wouldn’t let her see you when they broke ties. She says she’s missed you.”
My throat is tight. I swallow hard. I’m not the kid Krys knew. I’m not a kid at all. “She’s not going to want me when she sees what a mess I am.”
“Maybe you should let me decide that,” comes a voice from the door. My head whips around so fast, it hurts.
Standing just inside the room is a woman who looks like a younger, sober version of my mother. Softer. She’s tall and slim with bright red hair and blue eyes. She’s wearing a long sweater over leggings with tall boots. She looks like she stepped out of a catalog.
“Aunt Krys?” My voice sounds thin, stupid.
She’s pale, her mouth tight and eyes watery as she nods. “Hi, Lexi-bug.”
I burst into tears.
* * *
Something pokes me in the face. I groan and push at it, grabbing a skinny finger. My eyes open, blinking against the corridor light shining into my otherwise darkened room.
A familiar face looms over mine.
“What time is it?” I ask.
“Time for you to get a Altoid or somethin’,” Ivy replies. “Girl, whadafuck died in your mouth?”
I laugh. “You don’t like my breath, get your face out of it,” I tell her. “What are you doing up? It’s late.”
“Somethin’s goin’ on. The nurses ain’t watching the station. Let’s go.”
Suddenly, I’m wide awake, throwing back the covers. They took my IV out earlier, so I’m not connected to anything anymore. I’m not 100 percent, but I’m better than I was, and I’m ready to get the fuck out of this place.
Yesterday, when one of the nurses opened the cabinet in my room, I spotted the clothes I was wearing when they brought me in. I go get them and pull them on. They smell like the motel and French fries. Ivy’s dressed too.
“Where we goin’?” I whisper.
She shrugs. “Anywhere we want.”
“What about your parents?”
She watches me pull on my sneakers. “I can’t go back to them. They don’t want my fuckin’ broke ass. Like any of us can go back to how things were.”
“Mitch will take us back,” I tell her.
She gives me side-eye. “He’s hiding from the po-po. He don’t want us neither.”
He will want us, eventually. She knows it as much as I do. Mitch will always want us.
We peek out the door of my room. The corridor is bright with a slightly greenish light, but Ivy is right—it’s practically empty. Whatever’s going on has the nurses busy.
All we need to do is make it to the elevator.
“C’mon,” Ivy says, grabbing my hand. We run down the hall. Pain sparks when I put weight on my ankle. The elevator is right there—so close but so far. I run faster, ignoring the pain. Sweating.
Ivy hits the button when we get there. Nothing happens.
“Shit,” I whisper. We have to wait for a car to reach our floor. Beside me, Ivy’s twitchy.
“You okay?” I ask.
“I need to get the fuck out of here,” she replies, scratching at her arm.
She needs a hit, but there’s no point saying what we both know. I look down the hall as I chew on the side of my thumb. A woman walks out of the waiting room, rubbing her face.
She turns her head and our gazes meet.
“Aunt Krys?” My voice is a squeak. Has she been sleeping here?
Has she … been waiting here for me?
Her face is white. Her mouth opens, and there’s a loud dinging noise. The elevator door opens.
Ivy tugs on my arm. “Come on.”
I can run. I can leave this place and not look back. I can go back to Mitch and the life, to my pills. I won’t have to worry about letting anyone down, and I’ll be with people who love me.
I turn my head. Ivy’s in the elevator, leaning against the door. She’s impatient, wants to get out of there. I do too, but Krys is watching. She hasn’t moved—like she’s not sure what to do.
I know how she feels.
I also know there’s only one reason she’d be sleeping in a hospital—me.
“Poppy, come on.”
I glance at Ivy. She used to be someone else. She was the one who tried to hold on to that old self. I’d been the one to tell her to let it go, and now …
“That’s not my name,” I whisper. I take a step backward. If I don’t move back, I’ll move forward. As much as I want to, my body refuses to get on that elevator.
“Whatever,” she replies. I can’t tell if she’s mad or sad. Maybe she doesn’t feel anything—we’re all pretty good at that. She waves at me as the elevator doors slide closed. I stand there like a stupid idiot, watching the numbers blink on the screen above.
I turn. Krys is behind me. I didn’t hear her approach. I’m taller than her, I realize. She used to seem so tall when I was a kid. Larger than life.
“Are you okay, sweetie?” she asks.
I nod, shuffling toward her. “I want to go back to bed,” I tell her. What I really want is a hug. I want her to promise me everything is going to be okay, and I want to believe her. I want someone to tell me what to do. I want someone to fix me. Or maybe I want to go to sleep and not wake up. I don’t know. I just know I can’t stay like this.
We go back to my room, and I take off my sneakers before crawling back into bed.
“I’ll have to bring you some pajamas,” my aunt comments as she tucks the blankets around me.
“Why are you here?” I ask her.
She smiles—it’s a pretty, gentle thing. I haven’t seen anything like it in a long time. “For you, kiddo. For you.” Her smile fades a little. “The girl who left. What’s her name?”
She’s going to rat her out. “Ivy,” I say.
My aunt’s head tilts to one side. “Her real name.”
Maybe she understands more than I think. I close my eyes, because that makes it easier to betray my friend. Easier to remember things I am supposed to have forgotten.
“Jaime,” I say.
“Go to sleep,” she tells me. Warm fingers close over my cold ones. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”
I don’t believe her. I keep my eyes closed and wait for her to let go.
When the nurse comes in to check on me in the morning, Krys is asleep in a chair by my bed. She kept her promise.
Part of me hates her for it, because that’s going to make it worse when I disappoint her.
Copyright © 2020 by Old Crow, LLC.