"Sunny Las Vegas; yeah, right; sunny and freezing with the wind chill factor of a human icicle."
Jolie didn’t care what her mother’s boyfriend thought; she and her mom lived here, he didn’t. The single-wide trailer they rented might be a piece of crap, but it was still warmer inside than it was outside, and she wanted in. She jumped up and down blowing into her cupped hands as if she could capture the warmth from her breath and hold on to it, then took out her cell phone and punched in her mom’s number. Jessie was at work and couldn’t pick up unless she was on a break, but there was always a chance Jolie would get lucky. She didn’t, and her mother’s voice mail kicked in.
“Call me or call Rick. I’m locked out of the house and he’s still got my key.”
A string of pathetic Christmas lights popped on at the trailer next door; the old fashioned kind that made everything look like a circus wagon. Scarred and chipped, like everything else in the run down trailer park, they hung in messy curves and loops, forcing the misery of the place back all of two inches. There had to be a better way for people to brighten their hopeless lives, but if there was, she didn’t know anything about it. Hope was something that, at fifteen, Jolie Figg had given up on. She scanned the bruised and beaten trailers.
“God, I hate it here.”
The “good life in Las Vegas” lie was just one more in a long line of failed schemes her crazy mother had put them through. Jolie had been there for the birth and death of so many, that she’d given up counting. Once upon a time, she had even believed her mother knew what she was searching for and that they would find it together--but no more. Jessie Lynn Figg was not going to be able to make her life better, and no one else, no matter how much they loved her, could fix it for her. The best Jolie could do now was hold on until she was eighteen. It might feel like abandonment.; it might feel like a betrayal, but it was survival.
It was a cold sunny day; the third week of December, almost Winter Solstice; the shortest day of the year. Not that it mattered much in a city whose glow could be seen from outer space.
“Las Vegas is the brightest spot on the planet,” Jolie’s mom had told her that it was a big selling point for them to move there. Some geek had actually done a study. After four and a half months, Jolie had the results of her own study; Las Vegas sucked. Its mad addiction to bling was a classic case of overcompensation--like small guys who drove souped-up muscle cars. The city was a playground for the rich and those pretending to be rich, but for people like her and her mom, it was just hot and boring. Except in the winter when it was cold and boring.
Along with the shortest day of the year came the longest night, and though Solstice would come and go without most people even noticing. Its approach always made Jolie a bit blue since its ancient importance had been buried under the newer traditions of its usurper: Christmas.
As a little girl in New Orleans, her grandmother, Mem Boulet, had told her about how ancient people used to stay up all night celebrating the holiday, telling stories and feasting, believing their actions would entice the sun to return--like the sun was just going to keep on going like a deadbeat dad, leaving the world in darkness. But Mem had kept the old tradition, throwing a huge all night party in her grand old New Orleans house.
Of course, nobody worried about stuff like that anymore. Most people didn’t even know the history of the odd date on the calendar; it was just another shopping day before Christmas. Even so, it seemed like something deep inside made people instinctively want to push back the darkness by adding some light to their lives this time of year.
Jolie hugged herself as the sun sank behind the Spring Mountains that bordered the valley to the West. The chill in the air sharpened, and her anger rose. Turning, she banged on the door again, rocking the trailer on its flimsy blocks. Rick would have to be dead not to hear her.
“Open up or I’m calling the cops,” she shouted.
She wouldn’t of course. Whatever he was doing, chances were her mother was doing it with him, even at four-thirty in the afternoon on a work day. It wouldn’t be the first time Jessie Lynn Figg had skipped her shift to hang out with some jerk wad, or the first time she’d get fired for it, but chances were, if Jolie called the cops Officer Wrangler from Juvenile Probation would show up and she’d be the one who got locked up. Still, a person could only take so much.
“Okay. That’s it.” Jolie dropped her backpack, jumped off the step and headed for the rusty storage shed in the back. The sign out front of the trailer park boasted that each site had its own private storage--like storing their many worldly possessions was a big deal to residents whose monthly income was lower than most peoples’ car payments.
Jolie pushed the dented shed door open a few more inches. It made a terrible scraping sound then stopped, unable to open any further. It wouldn’t shut all the way either; a victim of domestic violence or a D.U.I, no doubt. Jolie turned sideways and slipped in.
“Scorpions and spiders get out of my way, cause if I see you, I’m coming back with the biggest can of bug juice I can find,” she warned, kicking her way through the half packed cardboard boxes. It was all stuff she and her mom hadn’t needed since they’d moved here, and that would probably be ruined before they needed it again, but somehow it had gotten labeled “to keep” during the last move and escaped the Goodwill pile. Jolie took a breath and gagged.
“Oh God, it smells like something died in here.” Holding her nose, she reached up onto the top of the rusty metal shelving left by a previous tenant, and began feeling around for the tin can she knew had to be there. She had it in her hands when a dark figure rose from the shadows behind the door.
“Ah!” She dropped the tin, instinctively grabbing the amulet hanging around her neck. The key inside the tin clattered onto the concrete slab.
The figure froze half lit by the reflected light of the brightest spot on earth.
“This traffic report is brought to you by....” Jolie recognized the old Power Rangers blanket from one of the boxes, now wrapped around the shoulders of an old woman who hung around the trailer park.
“Shit.” Jolie let go of the amulet and let out her breath, lifting her sweatshirt to her nose. “You scared the crap out of me. Didn’t I tell you not to sleep in here anymore? If Rick or any of his ghoul-friends finds you in here, who knows what they’ll do; probably sacrifice you to the shit-faced god of pubic hairs or something.”
“Watch out for a four car pile-up at the Spaghetti Bowl…” The homeless woman muttered; her eyes unfocused.
“Look, I’m not mad at you or anything. You just scared me, but I’m serious, Rick’s not a nice person. You can keep the blanket. Take whatever you need it’s just junk, but you need to go.” Jolie turned the poor thing around, nudging her toward the door.
“Damn!” She pulled back her hands like they’d been burned. The moment she’d touched the old woman, an image of someone beating her had flashed in Jolie’s mind. She sucked in a cold breath and tried to steady herself. She hated it when this happened, and it was happening more and more now. When it did, it felt like she was there, looking through the other person’s eyes, feeling their feelings. Jolie couldn’t seen the attacker’s face, because his victim couldn’t, but she could feel his anger and she knew, as the old woman did, that this man would not stop. He liked to hit things and he would keep on hitting her until the last glimmer of life had left her body. In the background of the vision, someone was frantically calling the attacker’s name, trying to get him to stop. Jolie couldn’t make sense of the words any more than the old woman could.
Flashes of the homeless woman’s younger life were spliced between the images of the attack; like how people say your life plays before your eyes just before you died. The old woman had one clear thought: “They’ll never know.”
Jolie looked past the broken door. The homeless woman stood there staring back at her.
“I mean it,” Jolie said, without conviction. “Don’t come back here. It’s not safe.” Looking like a Power Ranger wrapped hot dog with skinny chicken legs, the blanketed bundle shuffled off, mumbling the weather report, through the six by six squares that park residents called their back yards. Jolie watched until the woman went into another shed, then turned back to search for the tin and the key.
“What next?” Jolie hated the fact that she saw private things about stranger’s lives. It made her feel like the worst kind of peeping tom, but it wasn’t like she did it on purpose. She had no control over the gift--or curse, or whatever it was. It just happened. The only thing she knew to do to keep it from happening, was not to touch anyone, and not to let them touch her, but that only worked part of the time. Sometimes lately, all she had to do was walk by someone and she knew every crummy thing about them.
As Jolie felt for the key on the floor, a shadow blocked the fading light from the door behind her.
“I told you not to—.” Jolie started to pull her sweatshirt up to her face again when the unmistakable masculine scent of men’s cologne and gasoline reached her nose.
“Hey, gorgeous, what’re you doing in here?” a mocking baritone asked.
Jolie stood up and turned around fast so Sean wouldn’t be looking at her butt. Too late: his gaze rose from where her ass had been, up to meet her eyes in an admiring taunt.
“I didn’t scare you, did I?” His voice was buttery smooth and too sexy for anyone’s good; especially hers.
“No,” she lied.
“You sure? Cause you look like an extra from the Night of the Living Dead with your eyes all bugged out like that.”
“Yeah, right, cause I’m so pasty white.” Whenever she started at a new school, which was at least once or twice a year, Jolie had to go through the mandatory “are you one of us” routine while people tried to figure out who and what she was. With skin the light creamy tones of heavily doctored chocolate it was hard to tell.
"You’re a little bit of everyone who came to New Orleans and made it their home,” Mem had explained once, when Jolie had asked about their family background. ”Chitimacha, French, African, Acadian, Irish, and more than a little Spanish. New Orleans was multicultural before people had a name for it, and our family has roots all the way back to the original people who settled here; the Chitimacha Natives.”
Jolie frowned as she pushed her pink streaked brown hair out of her eyes.
“You shouldn’t sneak up on people, Sean.”
“Sorry.” He smiled, unfeigned by her false show of ferocity.
Sean Flahretty was about the only thing Jolie did like about Las Vegas. Trouble was, she liked him too much, and she was pretty sure he liked her too much, too. She hadn’t asked, but he had to be at least twenty-four and that made her jail bait, even in Nevada. She tried to ignore the full bodied scent of him and the way his liquid blue eyes made her feel all soft and melty.
“Where’s your bike?” Sean not only dressed in the “rebel without a care” style of a biker, he had the machine to back it up.
“Over at The Well. Rick and I were gonna get a couple of drinks, but he said he wanted to drop in on your mom before she went to work. Haven’t seen him since.” He gave Jolie a knowing grin. There weren’t very many things two people could do in a nineteen-eighty-seven singlewide trailer.
“I don’t know which would be worse, him dropping in for a quickie, or him getting her high before she has to go to work,” Jolie said bitterly.
Sean shrugged. “I just came to see what was keeping him. Just my luck, I found you instead.” His eyes sparkled like he’d discovered buried treasure and she was it.
Jolie’s cheeks felt tingly and warm, and they weren’t the only places. The way he looked: sandy brown hair brushing his cheeks, tight buns, and a cover-boy face; he would have been hard to resist if he’d talked to her like she was an idiot, but he didn’t. Sean actually treated her like a real person, not just Jessie Lynn’s kid. That made him even more attractive and therefore even more of a problem.
“Rick’s inside,” Jolie said, hoping the half light hid her embarrassment. Tough girls didn’t blush.
Sean didn’t move. He just kept looking at her. Like a fool, she just kept looking back.
“You shouldn’t look at me like that, Jo,” he said finally, his voice husky. “You could get me thrown in jail.”
“I’m just standing here and you’re just standing there and as long as we both keep doing that, nobody’s getting anything,” she said, her voice sounding more firm than her knees.
Sean chuckled. “You’re something else, you know that? You’re not like the other chicks around here—you’re smart.”
Jolie liked the way Sean’s eyes continued to laugh even after his mouth had moved on to something else. She cocked her head to one side, giving in for a split second to the sassy flirt she might have been if she’d lived in a safer world.
“You’re right. I’m not like the other chicks you go out with; I’m younger.”
Most girls would have done anything to nail a guy with a body like Sean’s, but Jolie wasn’t most girls. She’d seen what happened to schoolgirls who got into relationships with older guys. There was no future in it. She might have a woman’s body but legally she was considered a kid and he was both young enough to be irresponsible and old enough to be held accountable--a dangerous combination. Impulsive choices ruined lives. Jolie understood that, even if Sean might be willing to forget.
“Guess I’ll just have to wait for you to grow up, huh?”
“You’re going to save yourself for me, Sean? Wow. Oops! Too late.” She brushed past him. His laugh rolled over her from behind. A half dressed Rick leaned half way out of the trailer door. Fitting, Jolie thought. Everything about Rick was half way.
“Hey, Jo, is that Sean out there?” The dim light from inside the trailer backlit him like he was some low rent trailer park god. He would have liked that image: Rick, the warlock god of Vegas.
Rick, with his snake tattoos and slithery pets, liked to talk himself up like he was some dark-horned Keeper of the Sacred Snake and his own personal anatomical version was the altar at which every woman should worship. In Jolie’s eyes he was just a snake—no godlike mumbo jumbo about it. He didn’t have any special powers or abilities no matter what he pretended. If he had, she’d have known. She knew way too much about other people’s private lives, and that went triple for Rick Shanks’.
Rick would have had no trouble convincing Jessie Lynn he was endowed with special powers. When he told her he was the reincarnation of the famous warlock Simon Magus, she would no doubt have gasped in utter belief. She’d probably kept on gasping for quite awhile.
“Sean, is that you?” Rick called out. “Hey man, you got any money? Jessie’s out of brew.”
“Uh, hello. Can I come in now?” Jolie crossed to the trailer’s doorstep and waited for Simon Magus’ reincarnation to move out of her way.
“Where’ve you been, Jo?” Rick grinned, undressing her with his eyes as she brushed past him. “Nice...jeans.”
The tight spring inside Jolie wound a turn. What would it be like to come home to a place where you felt safe? “Stop looking at my butt, you perve. Where’s my mom?”
“At work. They called her in early.”
“I need my key back.” She held out her hand.
“Sure, hon.” Rick answered all wide-eyed innocence. “Your mom just wanted me to make some copies.”
“A copy, Rick. A single copy and if you’re going to lock the door so I can’t get into my own house when I come home from school, I need my friggin’ key.”
“Sorry, babe, I didn’t hear you. I must have been in the shower.”
Jolie didn’t say anything about the spare key in the tin box. Jessie and her daughter didn’t have much in common these days, but they still had a few secrets: the tin box with the spare key was one of them. Jessie’s old phone book, buried somewhere in the bottom of one of the cardboard boxes, and the getaway money that would be stashed with it as soon as they could scrape it together again, were the others. These were the backups they always kept to themselves, no matter how close the boyfriends or other friends got. They had saved them more than once.
“Sure, babe. I’ll make a copy tonight.” Rick grabbed his shirt, the key, and a coat from the couch. “Sean,” he shouted. “We need to make a run.”
The two men quickly faded into the twilight.
Jolie shut and locked the trailer door. There was no telling how long Rick would be gone, a few hours, a few days maybe, if she was lucky. But he had a key and as far as he and her mom were concerned; that gave him a pass. All the lock on the front door did, was give Jolie a few seconds warning. It wasn’t much, but it was all that stood between the scumbags her mom dated, their friends, and her. A lone female without protection was considered fair game by these modern day predators, and Jolie had no illusions about what they were capable of.
She leaned back against the trailer door, rolled her head slowly to remove the tension, and tried to wrap herself in a moment of peace. You couldn’t live all wound up all the time. You had to let down your guard a little now and then.
She had told Jessie from the start that Rick was no good, but no matter how regretful her mom always was at the end of a relationship, she never listened in the beginning, or the middle, or any time it might do any good. Only after all the shit had come down, did Jessie see the truth. Before that, she doggedly believed in every loser who slipped between her sheets. To the users and abusers Jolie’s mother attracted, a single woman who liked to party, with the added bonus of a nubile daughter, was like getting the keys to a candy store. There was just no way the goodies were going to stay in their wrappers.
Betty Boop’s clock-hand legs were splayed in a Rockettes’ kick indicating it was five o’clock--seven hours until Jessie got off work, if she didn’t take an extra shift. Chances were, she wouldn’t be home until dawn. Jolie was sure that none of the preppy student council kids at school had to deal with this kind of stuff, along with all the book reports and Algebra tests, but she had stopped expecting the kind of life people said kids were supposed to have a long time ago. That didn’t mean however, that she didn’t notice the differences between their lives.
Jessie Lynn Figg worked as a cocktail waitress at the Little Lucky Casino on Boulder Highway at the Southern edge of the city.
“When I get off work, I’m all wound up, babe. I can’t just come home and go to sleep. I’d rattle around this box all night and keep you awake. You need your sleep so you can be smart and pass tests.”
Jolie’s argument that having Jessie come home at a regular hour so she didn’t have to stay awake worrying would do a lot more for her grades, fell on deaf ears.
“You understand, don’t you, honey?” Jessie whined.
And Jolie did. She understood that it was more important to Jessie to stay out than it was for her to come home. These days they lived in different worlds. Their problems came from the few parts that still overlapped.
Jolie looked around the tiny cluttered trailer. It was a mess. It was always a mess. It was too small to be anything else. Smells, like sounds, went right through the brown accordion doors, leaching from wherever they were supposed to be to wherever they could get and hanging out there--kind of like Jessie’s boyfriends.
Everything Jolie owned smelled like ‘Cologne de’ Hell’, a combination of stale alcohol, cigarettes, toilet, mold, dirty laundry, sweaty bodies, and weed. It was a scent designed by, and for, Rick and his “buds”--sub-humans hell bent on permanent residence in the underworld. Jolie could never figure out why a guy like Sean hung out with such a bunch of losers.
The sink was full of dirty dishes, as usual. Built for the convenience of a middle class woman with nothing to do during her husband’s fishing trips except tidy up, it had the dish capacity of two cereal bowls and was a nightmare for a working mom, her daughter, and the half dozen slobs who partied there. The little dinette booth table was cluttered with empty beer bottles, fast food bags, and half empty Slurpee cups that had been used for ash trays. A stick of dollar store incense burned in a cheap dragon incense burner on the kitchen counter. It didn’t help. The place reeked of pot.
Jolie weighed the drudgery of cleaning against the drudgery of doing homework. She hated both, but cleaning was a true act of futility. It didn’t get you anywhere, and getting somewhere--anywhere, was something Jolie was serious about. At least homework stayed done. She didn’t pretend to know much, but she knew that she didn’t want to spend her life mopping someone else’s dirty floors or getting her butt pinched while she served drinks to people who wouldn’t remember where they’d been in the morning.
Jolie checked the lock on the trailer door one more time, then checked her phone for messages. Becca, her one friend from high school had called. Jolie slipped her phone back into her pocket. She couldn’t deal with Becca right now. She made the rounds of the windows then headed to her room.
How long had it been since she’d felt safe, she wondered, fingering the leather amulet, or “hand” as Mem had called it, that hung around her neck. It was old now. She’d replaced the original leather cord twice, so now it hung by a cheap chain from the dollar store. The leather was stained with years of her sweat. Mem had instructed Jolie to “feed” it magic oil or alcohol to keep it fresh but even though she’d tried to follow her grandmother’s instructions, Jolie could feel how flat the bag had become. The herbs inside were dust. The magic was worn out and Mem was not around to fix it. Her grandmother hadn’t figured on Jessie Lynn bundling Jolie up in the middle of the night and leaving New Orleans, or on dying before Jolie could get back.
"We’ve got deep ties to this land,” Mem had said. ”You may go and live in other places, like your daddy did; helping people and learning other ways, but you’ll always come back. This land is your heart--your anchor.” It was hard to understand how, with all her gifts of seeing, Mem had not foreseen that Jolie would be set adrift with no one to guide her, or renew the protection amulet that she had been given.
Jolie wasn’t even sure what the bag was supposed to be protecting her from, really. She just knew that she felt better when she wore it and that the voices from other people’s minds were a little kinder and not as insistent--even now, with the magic all tired and faded. Maybe it was just the emotional connection Jolie felt to the past. Maybe there’d never been any magic about it; just a feeling that someone you loved gave something to you, believing it would keep you safe. Maybe all the bad things that had started piling up the last few years were just a coincidence and had nothing to do with the amulet losing its power. Maybe all that Mem had ever done for anyone with her healing ways, had been to convince people that someone cared.
Jolie pressed the little bag against her heart, trying to ignore the fear that rose inside her. If there really was magic in the world, even a trace of it, she desperately needed it.