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Win for Love by Isabelle Peterson (1)

1

Finders Keepers

CRYSTAL

My skin crawls hearing my mother’s squeaky bed in the next room through the paper-thin walls. It’s as clear as if her bed is in my room, a major flaw in the construction of this ‘box on blocks’ we call a home. Even after pulling a pillow over my head, I can still hear her and a man groaning and grunting and spewing profanities. The only way to block the babel is to hum quietly to myself, so I do, yet it only blocks so much. I don’t want to hum loudly enough and have them hear me.

“Oh, God, Carol! Yes! Just like that!” the guy bellows. I don't know his name, and I bet my mom doesn't either.

Choking on the bile rising in the back of my throat, I can no longer hum.

“It’z Ssshhherylll,” my mother corrects him, her speech slurred from way too much booze. There are many in town who think it’s just the way she talks. I know better.

“Who. Th’ fuck. Cares,” he grunts just before he howls loudly with his release.

He sounds like a brute.

His feet hit the floor, apparently his boots still on. Good move, I think to myself. One never knows what one will step on in her room.

It’s not entirely her fault—my mother’s. She has a disease. She’s an alcoholic. She can’t help it. This is what she’s told me since I was seven, anyway. It’s what I was told by the social worker at my school. And in Al-Anon. She has her good days. She has her bad days. But don’t we all?

When I hear her bedroom door open, I grab the metal baseball bat I have kept next to my bed for the past ten years or so. I have used it more than once when one of my mother’s prize-winning assholes brought home from whatever dive bar she was at has come into my room. They were never serious, and they rarely stayed the night. I started keeping the bat there when I was fourteen and had been molested by one of my mother’s guys. What hurt most was that my mother actually blamed me. And at fifteen, I believed her. True, she was drunk as shit at the time, but she said I must have done something to be suggestive to her ‘boyfriend.’ That said, I expected my mother to be outraged equal to my fear and humiliation. That’s not what happened.

~

“Well, look at you, Crystal,” she scoffed, pointing to my tank top and running shorts, my sleeping attire for the warm summer night. “Your perky tits are practically hanging out for the world just to touch and grab.”

“I was in my room. My door was closed,” I protested.

“Well, he must have seen somethin’. Or smelled you,” she scowled. “I need another drink,” she muttered and staggered down the hall.

~

I had asked my mom if we could get a lock on my doorknob, but she laughed as if I’d asked her to install a state-of-the-art security system in my room.

My mom also benefitted from my security bat. Once, I actually used it to defend her when the guy started punching her for God knows why.

~

“Leave her alone!” I shouted, busting into my mom’s room, fully clothed in sweatshirt and sweatpants despite the 70℉ night, lest I run around scantily clad inviting unwanted advances from Mom’s Beau du Noir. Tonight’s gem’s fist was raised and just about to come down on my mother’s already swollen and bloody face, so I swung the bat making direct contact with his elbow.

“Motherfucker!” He grabbed his elbow with the hand he’d been using to pin my mom down, so he could hit her without her moving.

“Get the fuck out or the next thing I hit will be your head!”

“You’re just as fucking batshit crazy as she is.” Then he looked at me and then my bat and started laughing.

“You find this funny?” I asked, waving the bat overhead, ready to strike.

“You’re holding a bat. And you’re batshit crazy! I finally get where that word came from.”

I swung again, narrowly missing him, and then he turned tail and sauntered out of the room closing up his pants muttering something about ‘not worth the piece of ass.’

~

It took four weeks for all my mother’s cuts and bruises to heal. At least she was sober for most of that time if you don’t count the pain meds, which I kept with me, so she didn’t plow through the entire prescription in a matter of days.

I hold my breath as tonight’s Jerk du Jour walks by my door, into the living room, and out the front door. I breathe a heavy sigh of relief that tonight I won’t have to defend myself. Sure, I’d installed a lock on my door, but the door frame was another thing altogether. With gaps between the frame and the wall, it wouldn’t take much for someone to bust through.

I hate the men part of my mother’s addictions the most. Seldom does a guy stay with her for more than a week or two. Most are just a ‘one-and-done’ and don’t even stay until morning.

It isn’t that she can’t commit. She did once. She was married to my half-brother’s dad, Alexander Jameson. He was the ‘love of her life.’ Until she wasn’t the love of his life. He had fallen in love with someone else and left my mom and my half-brother, Jude—named so because the song Hey, Jude was playing when our mom went into labor. That was when my mother’s disease started. Some of the crueler kids in school used to say that she had really been attracted to my brother’s dad for the last name—Jameson, a quality whiskey. Almost four years after she had been left high and dry—well, not ‘dry’ since she, according to gossip, was often sauced—she discovered that she was pregnant. With me. And here was the kicker—she had no idea who my daddy was. She thinks it was some guy named either Nick, Adam, or Peter. But maybe it was a guy who went by the nickname ‘Goodwrench.’ She seemed to favor this guy over the other possibilities because he had red hair, and mine is a reddish color or something like that. She never knew that guy’s real name. Bottom line—no idea who my dad is. I’m not proud of the fact, but I can’t change it, so I don’t dwell on it.

The only upside of her getting pregnant was that at least she stopped drinking for a while. It was probably the longest time she’d been sober in the past twenty-five years. After I was born, though, she went right back to drinking. According to neighbors, when I turned five, it got worse.

Surveying my bedroom, I feel like crying. Here I am, twenty-four and still living with my mom. Why? Because my mom doesn’t have anyone else to look out for her. True, there’s always my brother, Jude. But Jude is in jail. Again. He’s been in for three years already. This last offense was for stealing a car from a junkyard and having a large enough stash of weed on him that made it look like he was distributing.

It’s not that I haven’t thought of leaving home, leaving this all behind, but the last time I did, it was a disaster. It was just after I’d fought off one of my mother’s men seven years ago. He’d made it into my room, and I had been too tired to stay up until he left. I wasn’t ready with my bat. I guess I fought him well enough that he decided I wasn’t worth the effort. But I was done. I thought I knew everything, and my boyfriend of two years, Leo ‘Disco’ Dyskowicz, convinced me that we should get out of town and get a fresh start.

We had both just graduated high school and hadn’t any real plans for the next year. Half of the kids in our small graduating class of only fifty-seven students from not just Harton but also two neighboring towns, were going to college. The other half had jobs lined up either in the surrounding corn and soybean fields or various technical trades like auto mechanics or construction. I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t have a way to afford it. School loans seemed frightening, so I decided I’d work for a couple of years and save up. I hadn’t gotten a job yet, so Leo’s plan sounded good.

~

I fought with the key and the keyhole of the door to the fleabag motel in northern Tennessee that Leo and I were staying in while he looked for a job. On the first day, I had gotten a job working at a truck stop just off the highway and only a half-mile walk from the motel. I was hopeful that Leo had been successful in landing something since, as we learned the second day after running away, landlords wanted to know where our jobs were, how much we earned, how long we’d worked there, and so on. Landlords apparently want you to be gainfully employed, and one day of waitressing didn’t cut it. We’d been in the motel nearly a week already, and at thirty-seven dollars and fifty cents a night, our modest savings would be gone before long. Yesterday, Leo heard from a guy that the lumber yard was looking for some workers. Good money, a union job, and even healthcare benefits. Leo was a hard worker, but only having a high school diploma was hurting all of his chances for a decent job. Not that my job at the diner was anything to be ashamed of. I was fine with hard work, but today I’d only earned fifty-two dollars after tipping out to the busboy and host. But it was more than we had this morning.

Finally wiggling the key in to be able to unlock the door, I turned it and used my shoulder to push the door open through the sticky jamb. I headed inside and dropped my purse on the dresser. Leo wasn’t parked in front of the TV, but I saw the light from under the closed bathroom door.

“Hey, Leo. It’s me. How did things go at the lumber yard?”

No reply.

“I brought home fifty-two dollars. Better than yesterday’s lunch. But I much prefer the dinner shifts,” I reported, putting a good spin on the day.

Still quiet.

I clicked on the TV and flipped through the brain-numbing programming on the screen while I waited for Leo to come out. I waited for about five minutes and started to get concerned about Leo in the bathroom after ten minutes or so.

I knocked on the bathroom door. “Leo? You okay?” I’d never known him to have a sensitive stomach or anything. “Babe? Can I get you anything?”

I pressed my ear to the door but didn’t hear a thing. Terror surged through me as I started imagining the worst. I couldn’t count the number of times I found my mother on the floor of our bathroom coated in her own puke. I’d found my brother high and having a bad trip. Had Leo gone out and gotten shit-faced or high instead of finding a job?

“Leo? Leo!” Practically hyperventilating, I turned the knob hoping Leo hadn’t locked the door.

The door wasn’t locked, and it flew open. And inside? Nothing. No Leo. No anything. Just an empty bathroom with the light on.

I slumped against the wall and thanked my lucky stars that Leo was just still out job hunting. After all, it was only a little after four. Maybe the lumber yard hired him, and he was working already, working toward his first paycheck. It also dawned on me that I shouldn’t expect Leo here since his truck wasn’t in the parking lot when I got home.

As my vision cleared, something struck me as odd on the sink ledge. Our toothbrushes were gone. The medicine cabinet was slightly open. I stood on shaky legs and opened it all the way. Leo’s razor, Edge Shaving Gel, and Axe cologne were missing, so was my deodorant and our toothpaste. I looked in the shower, and my two-in-one shampoo and conditioner wasn’t there. My heart pounded in my ears and adrenaline again coursed through my body making me sweat. Everything in the bathroom was gone!

I tore into the bedroom. There was a six-drawer dresser. In an attempt to make the place look and feel like a home until we found an apartment, we had unpacked. Leo had taken the three drawers on the left, and I took the three on the right. But now the left side drawers weren’t closed all the way—mostly, but not all the way. I walked up to the dresser and pulled the bottom one open. Empty. I pulled open the next one up. Cleared out. The top drawer. Vacant.

I dashed to the bed and looked where we’d stuffed our suitcases. Leo’s duffle bag was missing.

He… left?

Then I noticed that my suitcase was also gone. I scrambled back to the dresser and yanked open the drawers on my side. All of my stuff was gone too!

He left and took everything! Everything, everything! Or maybe he’d taken his stuff, and the cleaning lady had come and cleaned everything out ready for the next guest to check in?

Feeling unbalanced, my mind spinning a million miles an hour, I could barely catch my breath. And then I thought about the $4,276 we’d had between the two of us—most of it, $2,895 was mine. I stood and steeled my nerves. I knew the answer, but in the blink of an eye—an eye blinking back a tear—I convinced myself that it would be there. The bag I’d repurposed to store our money would be under the mattress, and the money I’d saved for the past three years would be there. The money I had earned babysitting and working the checkout at the grocery store. The money that was left over from paying the electric bill, the water bill, groceries… Maybe Leo got scared and took his portion and left. He would leave me some money, right? He wouldn’t leave me completely high and dry.

I squeezed my eyes shut and lifted the mattress. It wasn’t there. I lifted the other corner. Gone. Panic and rage poured through my veins as I flipped the mattress clean off the box-spring onto the floor. It was gone.

Wildly, I pulled all the drawers in the room open, the side table, and the dresser. I pulled the drawers clean out of the units searching for the small bag. I scoured the bathroom. I looked in the closet. Shelves. Behind furniture.

It. Was. Gone.

I was broke other than the fifty-two dollars I had earned today. No car. No place to live. No clothing or even toothpaste. No boyfriend or friend. Nothing.

Not willing to completely give up, I jumped to my feet and fished out my cell phone and pressed the option to speed dial Leo’s phone. The call went straight to voicemail.

“Ay-O. Leo here. Leave the deets, I’ll call ya back!” Beep!

I left a light and quick, “Hey, it’s me. Call me,” message and hung up.

And there I sat. For four and a half hours… in the dark… waiting. Feeling lost yet holding onto a shred of hope, I convinced myself that everything was fine. That this wasn’t happening.

Around nine that night I had a thought. I ran to the front desk. Maybe there was a message. Or maybe Leo had left but didn’t take my stuff, and maybe housekeeping gathered it! When I got there, the clerk told me that the account was closed, and he needed my key.

“Do you know where Leo went? Did he leave any message for me? Does housekeeping have my things?”

He just looked at me with his dead eyes and a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth and shook his head.

I’d been strong until then, telling myself that I had misunderstood something. Leo wouldn’t do this to me. But everything pointed to the fact that he did.

Then the tears started. I didn’t sob. I just leaked. Where would I go from here? Was I strong enough to stay here on my own without a friend? God, I could use a drink. No! I am not my mother’s child! I scolded.

Then I started to worry about Mom. I’d been gone for six days already. How had she handled my leaving? Did she even realize I had left? Was she drunk? Was she puking? Passed out? Was she alive?

I had no one. I had been abandoned. My mother was many things, but she’d never left me. She was ill, but it was a disease. Not her fault. And I’d left her. Abandoned her. How selfish was I?

I pushed the stupid tears from my face with the back of my hand and decided. I pulled my purse tight over my shoulder and hitched a ride to the bus station. From the fifty-two dollars in my purse, I bought my twenty-two-dollar ticket home.

~

So here I lie, seven years later. With a mother who is still sick and a slave to the bottle and has so little sense of self-worth she lets herself be used by every man who so much as looks at her. I know I’m her enabler. I had been to enough Al-Anon Family Group meetings. Maybe I should go back, but I can’t seem to find the will. Just like my mother can’t find the will to stay sober.

Instead, I allow and enable my mother to continue her reckless behavior. Along with her government funds and my stupid job at the customer service counter at the electric company, I buy the groceries, and I pay the bills. I also pay for one college class a semester at the local community college. I’ve already finished three classes. This semester I’m taking World History. I have class on Tuesday and Thursday nights from seven to nine. Finals are next week. At this rate, I’ll graduate with my associate’s degree in 2028.

But this is not what I want. I want out. I want a new life. I want to go to college—full-time. I want a job that makes a difference in the world. I just don’t know exactly what or how to get that life.

So, this Friday morning, April 13—yes, Friday the 13th—my alarm clock sounds at 5:25 a.m. and auto-pilot kicks in with my eyes on the future, not the past. I crawl out of bed and make coffee then check on my mother, who is sleeping it off, like always. Then I take my shower and get dressed in khakis and the navy polo shirt with the electric company’s logo we are made to wear. Finally, I slap together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch and mix up an instant powder pack breakfast drink with milk in my travel tumbler, a reward I’d received at work for perfect attendance.

I pedal my bike—a Schwinn I bought at Goodwill for eighty dollars and my only mode of transportation—to work grateful that it’s not raining the four-and-a-quarter miles to the neighboring town of Carlyle where I work. I know the farmers in the area would like the rain, but I prefer to ride my bike in dry weather.

As I lock my bike up to the light pole at the back door of the utility company, something catches my eye. It’s green. It’s money green. It’s not hidden. It’s in plain sight although folded into a small square. Holding my breath, I reach for it. Is it one of those clever ads made to look like money? An insurance guy who has an office in this strip mall had put out ads like that a few months back, and the entire parking lot was littered with his clever ‘Hire Me and Save Big Money!’ flyer.

Rubbing my fingers over the texture of the paper as I pick it up, my stomach flips. It’s definitely money, not a flyer.

My blood races and I’m trembling. I secretly hope it’s not a one-dollar bill. Not that I would mind a one-dollar bill. A one-dollar bill is a small coffee at the newsstand right across the street from the electric company. A five is a Value Meal at McDonald’s, and my mouth waters. For a fleeting moment, I hope it’s a hundred dollars. The memory of a sixty-five-dollar shirt I saw at the mall last week flashes in my mind. I would never dream of buying it on my wages with all the bills, but with found money… just maybe…

Smoothing the bill open, the corners of my lips turn up seeing a ‘1’ and a ‘0’—the number ‘10’ in the corner—and Alexander Hamilton looking off in the distance with his polite grin. I quickly survey the parking lot. Maybe someone dropped it, and they're looking for it. Finding no one around, well—no one looking for anything—I declare, “Finders keepers,” although I do feel a little bad for the person who lost the bill. I know it would put a real dark spot on my day. I feel a little like Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when he finds the golden ticket in his chocolate bar. However, I'm not imagining buckets of chocolates and candies. I could get a couple of Value Meals or a coffee, an extra-large, and maybe super-size my lunch. Yeah. That’s what I will do with this found money.

I smile to myself as I cross the street to Joe’s Newsstand, the aroma from the rich brew he serves wafting out, calling to me. But as I walk to the counter, the wall of scratch-off lottery tickets catches my eye—the wall with a flashing ‘LOTTO’ sign. Shiny tickets of all colors—green, red, pink, and purple—glimmer back at me, all with the hallmark gray squares hiding the possibility of riches. Above the variety of scratch-off tickets are posters declaring the amounts that people have won buying tickets from this very newsstand. I smile to myself. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

“Red!” Joe calls out with his bright and giant smile, a stark contrast to his ebony skin. He always calls me Red, even though my hair is more a brown with reddish highlights, rather than an intense redhead. “So good to see you. Small coffee, extra sugar, extra cream, yes?” he asks, his thick Jamaican accent making the drink sound far more exotic. Furthermore, I’m astounded that he has my coffee order memorized. I’m far from a regular making my way here only every other month, if that, when I feel like treating myself.

“You know something, Joe? I would like a lottery ticket,” I declare out of nowhere, surprising even myself.

“Feeling lucky today?” he asks, flashing his blazing white teeth at me. “Regular Lotto? Powerball? Mega Millions? The jackpot on that one is up to two-hundred and forty-six million. Can you imagine?” he asks.

“I think I want a scratch-off. I have ten dollars.”

“You could do a few dollar ones. A fiver and a few dollar ones…”

Inspecting the wall, I zero in on the ten-dollar section of scratch-offs. A one touting “$5,000 A WEEK FOR LIFE!” blazing across the top catches my eye. “Win for life, please.”

“The two-dollar one for one thousand a week, the five-dollar one for twenty-five hundred a week, or—”

“The five thousand a week for life,” I say, my voice shaking. Imagine winning that much! A long shot for sure but so was finding this money, I rationalize.

Joe shoots me a quick wink then tears the ticket from the ribbon. After punching a few keys on the register, I hand him the ten-dollar bill, and he hands me the blue ticket. “Good luck,” he offers cheerfully.

I slip the card into my purse, then run back across the street to work before I am late. I stash my purse in my locker and rush to clock in, but my rushing around is in vain. And Mr. Elson is quick to catch me.

“You’re late, Ms. Jameson. That’s what? The third time this month?” I look at my punch card and see that I’ve clocked in at 8:01 a.m. today, and twice at 8:02 a.m. I look up at the tray of punch cards and see that I’m far from the last employee to clock in. What’s his deal?

“I’m sorry, Mr. Elson. I just—”

“I don’t want your excuses. Just be here on time, okay?”

“Yes, sir,” I reply and collect a cashier tray before heading to my window in between Desiree and Troy who are already servicing a long line of cranky customers.

All morning, the ticket in my purse calls to me, but there’s a steady stream of customers disputing their statements, signing up for new service, canceling service, or paying their bills.

Lunch break. I sit in the bleak, gray, windowless break room, Dr. Phil is on the TV blathering on about some whiny kid who won’t listen to his parents. Listening to the drivel, I munch on my PB&J wishing I’d not bought the ticket and instead gone to McDonald’s.

After I finish my sandwich, I pull out the ticket. I read the instructions and find a nickel at the bottom of my purse. I start by scratching off the gray squares for my numbers, the ones I need to match to the prize numbers to win. After revealing my six numbers—10, 24 13, 5, 2, and 18—I start in on the fifteen prizes. The potential of winning “UP TO 15 TIMES!” has my blood racing.

One by one I reveal numbers that don’t match any of my six. Then I reveal the number ‘13’ in the prizes. A smile spreads across my face, and I’m hopeful that I’ve at least won the ten dollars back. What I reveal next causes me to stop breathing.

I look over my shoulder to see who else is in the break room. Tammy and Joel are talking about some club near St. Louis that they want to go to, completely oblivious to what I’m doing. No one ever notices me anyway, so I’m not really surprised.

I turn my attention back to the instructions again. The number ‘13’ is clearly in the top row. My numbers. The number ‘13’ is absolutely in the prize section. And under the number ‘13’… ‘$5,000/LIFE.’

Oh.

My.

God.

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