True to form, Jessie had surprised Jolie after school one day, announcing that they were moving. The apartments weren’t far from the trailer park, probably not far enough anyway, but Jolie had begged her mom to be able to finish the year at Chaparral, and Vegas was not a small town.
Jessie Lynn Figg was an expert at disappearing. If Rick came by their old place, he wouldn’t have realized they were gone until it had been re-rented and someone else had moved in, parking their cars in the driveway, and putting up their stuff.
The same hour that Jessie was approved for the new apartment, she had quit her job at the bar where she’d met Rick. She and Jolie had tossed one quick load into their old pickup truck and were gone. They didn’t have much worth packing. They moved too often to acquire stuff, and the less it looked like they had left, the less likely the most recently dumped boyfriend was to start looking for them. The colder the trail when they started, the safer Jessie and Jolie were.
A few days after they had moved, Jessie had a new job, working the night shift at a new bar.
As much as Jolie hated the trailer park that she and her mom had lived in when they first moved to Vegas, the apartment complex they traded it for was a questionable improvement. They had an actual bathtub now, one you could sit in with your legs straight out, and the doors to the bathroom weren’t made of accordion-folded mystery fiber, but it was far from the tropical resort the advertisements claimed.
It wasn’t that the new apartments were bad exactly; the worst neighborhoods in Las Vegas looked good compared to the low rent areas in big East Coast cities, but the skinny overgrown palm trees that lined the driveway had skirts of brown fronds below their new growth, and the misshapen boxwood bushes along the walkways protected patches of grass that were only green in little circles around where the sprinklers managed to spit a little calichi infused water.
Ground floor apartments each had an eight by ten concrete patio. Upper floors had similarly sized worthless balconies; most of them piled high with boxes of junk, the standard satellite dish, and a dead Christmas tree.
The complex advertised having a swimming pool, which residents were informed opened on Memorial Day, in spite of the fact that by April it would be as warm in Vegas as it would be on the fourth of July in most of the rest of the United States. The water in the pool currently was too green for swimming but showed real promise as a science project involving tadpoles and algae, so Jolie’s emotions about it were mixed.
The apartment’s other facilities were basic: a communal laundry room where the savvy never let their clothes touch the ground for fear of diseases, and a seventies era clubhouse fitted with cheap retro metal frame furniture. On Thursday nights, the wifely half of the management team ran bingo games there, justifying the little gold nametag she wore with “activities director” engraved above her name.
In the trailer park, people understood that there was no privacy and therefore no anonymity for bad behavior. If you did something wrong, people would know, and word got around, so you could expect to be treated accordingly. A person might choose to pretend they didn’t care what their neighbors thought, and some chose that path, but the creed of helping out required the community’s goodwill. If you were living on the edge, at some point you were going to need a hand. It was a given. People paid into the system in advance, helping others so that when they needed it, help was there for them. People who interacted every day, felt comfortable borrowing a cup of sugar, or jumping a dead battery, or loaning a spare propane tank when someone ran out before pay day. A trailer park was a village.
Apartment people were a different breed. If someone was being mugged in the apartment complex, Jolie figured the neighbors would draw their curtains and turn up the music.
Apartment people were very important and busy, always on their way somewhere, their hard heeled shoes clicking self-righteously against the cement walkways, clothed in the determination of their ambitions. No one admitted to planning to stay. No one believed that they belonged there. The apartments were a temporary stopover in the upward mobility of their lives, and they furtively snuck in and out like they were hiding gold bullion or dead bodies behind their doors.
It didn’t take long for Jolie to realize that the apartment’s walls were only slightly more solid than a trailer’s, but apartment people clutched the pretense of privacy as if it was written in their lease. No one would ever acknowledge hearing or seeing anything that happened behind closed doors.
Jolie unlocked the apartment door and went inside. A damp towel had been tossed over the back of a chair with another thrown carelessly on the kitchen floor. The scent of Herbal Essence shampoo, Aquanet hairspray, and leftover Chinese food made her want to gag. The empty boxes from Chinese take-out made a paper model town on the chipped dining room table. The sink was a junkyard of dirty dishes. To Jessie Lynn Figg, having a girl-child meant having a live-in maid.
“I work to keep this family going,” she justified her actions when Jolie complained about her mom’s messy habits.
“And I go to school,” Jolie countered. “It takes about the same amount of time, minus your extra-curricular activities.”
“You can’t possibly compare the two,” her mother objected. “I’m on my feet all night, bringing drinks to jerks who think giving me a couple of bucks means they can grab a handful of whatever part of me is closest. I think that trumps your little high school social scene.”
“There was plenty of uninvited groping in school hallways, and I haven’t gotten a tip yet.”
The old Betty Boop clock on the kitchen wall had one leg up over her head in a Rockette kick while the other leg was stretched out to the side.
“Three o’clock.” Jolie sighed. She had pulled the spunky clock-girl off the wall and stuck her in a box herself, to make sure that Betty didn’t get left behind. There was something determinedly sassy about the cartoon character’s painted on smile, no matter what position time forced her legs into. Jolie felt oddly inspired by Betty’s ability to return to normal twice a day between five twenty and five forty, no matter what gyrations her legs visited the rest of the day.
Jolie threw her backpack onto the tweedy couch they’d snagged at a moving sale a few doors down, and went to check the fridge.
When people left the apartments, they left the past behind, especially their make-do furniture. Whether they were leaving because they were accepting their failure in the big city, or because they had made it and now they were moving up in the world, the crappy furnishings they had collected had no value other than providing a little cash.
Jolie gave up on the contents of the fridge, downed a glass of water, and checked the chalkboard she’d bought for a dollar at the same moving sale. The note she’d written to Jessie three days ago saying she had gone to the library after school, was still the only thing on it. Jessie never used it. Next time they moved, it would be left behind.
Jolie headed to her room and dropped onto the bed. Staring at the ceiling, her mind rewound to the problem of what she could do about Skateboard Boy and his impending death without coming off like a psycho.
There’s something about the sister, she thought, sure that she’d seen the girl somewhere before. Closing her eyes, Jolie imagined the girl’s face, accessing the memory, then noted the surroundings. Chemistry. They had Chem class together, fourth period.
Jolie considered how she might approach the girl; “Hi. I know we’ve never spoken before, and you’d probably rather be dead than be seen talking to me, but I just wanted to let you know that I think your brother is going to die in a fatal accident pretty soon.” Yeah, that would work well. “Yes, I’m serious.” She played through the scenario a little further. “No, it’s not a bad joke. How do I know? I’d rather not say because I saw it in a vision.” And at that moment all the anonymity Jolie had regained in the last few months would vanish. Every detail of her life would be chewed on, digested, and regurgitated for the consumption of the general student body. It would be complete social suicide.
Just stay quiet and keep your head down, a small voice in her head advised.
It would be so easy. It would be so wrong.
Still trying to work out her plan, Jolie fell asleep to the sound of the drunk upstairs starting his evening tirade.
The gangly creatures crushed the low rocky hills like a mass of soldier ants, climbing over each other, biting, and pushing to get on top. The desert floor writhed with black shadows, a noxious miasma of evil intent that completely covered the ground. Behind Jolie was the circle of celebrants, ignorant of what approached. Jolie stood on the hill petrified by the realization that she was all that stood between this mass of demons and the innocents who had come to celebrate the return of the sun.
Jolie turned to the circle of Solstice celebrants and shouted a warning, but the scream went deep inside her, not out. She lifted the cell phone in her hand, but when she spoke, all that came out was nonsensical garble. She put a hand to her mouth. Her lips had been sewn shut.
The black creatures swarmed past her, over the hill, and down into the bowl where the celebrants were circling. Clamping their tentacles onto the people, the creatures began to feed.
“What is it, Jolie?” Faith’s voice asked worriedly from the phone. “What’s happening?” Jolie screamed into the phone, unable to form words with her stitched up lips.
She woke up. Her cell phone read two o’clock AM.
Jolie got up and stumbled to her mom’s room. Jessie Lynn was still not home.
She went back to her room and texted. “r u ok?” Then took out her Chemistry homework, looking over her notes while she waited for Jessie’s answer.
At three, she gave up and called the bar.
“Hi, I’m sorry to bother you, but it’s Jolie Figg, Jessie Lynn’s daughter? Is my mom, there?”
“She left at the end of her shift,” the bartender told her.
“No. She was with some guy.”
“Thanks.” Jolie hung up, turned on the TV, and opened her Social Studies book. She never slept well when Jessie wasn’t home; she might finally fall asleep, but she didn’t sleep well.
At six o’clock in the morning, Jolie had finally nodded off when she heard keys turning in the front door. Her stomach knotted as her mind flashed back to last winter when Rick had come in uninvited, and forced her to get in his truck to go to the Solstice ceremony. Jolie relaxed when Jessie Lynn came through the door. She was still dressed for work in a short tight black skirt, a low-cut tank top, and black heels.
“Hey, Baby.” Jessie threw her leather jacket on the couch. “Are you up already? Have you got a test today or something?”
Jolie ignored her mother’s attempt at cheerful deflection.
“I thought we agreed you’d text me if you were going to stay over somewhere?”
Jessie sighed as she stepped out of her high heels. “I didn’t stay over. I’m here aren’t I? I came home.” Jolie gave her mom a disgusted look. “I met a really nice man.” Jessie Lynn wiggled her drawn-on eyebrows. In Jessie’s world, men came in many flavors, and she was making it her life’s work to try them all. “His name is Brett.”
Jolie frowned. “He sounds like a high school quarterback. What is he, twenty-five?”
“No. He’s a grown man with responsibilities and everything.”
“Responsibilities like a wife and kids responsibilities?”
“No.” Jessie pouted. “Give me some credit, Jo.”
“Well, you know what they say about old dogs and new tricks. So this guy is not young, he’s responsible which I’m guessing means old?”
“No. He’s cute, in a western gentleman kind of way.”
“If he’s so responsible and gentlemanly, what’s he doing at a dive like the Golden Horseshoe?” Jolie gathered up her homework and stuffed it into her backpack.
“Meeting some guy on a business deal.” Jessie shrugged. “Just my luck, huh? But he’s not a bum. He’s got property and his own company and everything.”
“Everything but a good woman, like you.” Jolie could just hear the lines this guy had been feeding her mother. “So did this businessman with his own company ask you to play secretary?”
Jessie Lynn picked up a shoe and threw it at her daughter, laughing. “Be nice. You should be happy that I finally met a nice man.”
“That remains to be seen, ” Jolie muttered.
“What did you say?” Jessie looked up, unbuttoning her blouse.
“I am happy for you, Jess. Can’t you tell? I can hardly contain my excitement.” Jolie yawned. “So are you two kids going steady now?”
Jessie stuck her tongue out at her daughter. “You watch too many old movies.”
“I outgrew Sesame Street,” Jolie quipped. “But seriously, Mom, you could at least have texted, so I didn’t worry.”
“God, how did I raise such a straight-laced pain-in-the-ass kid?” Jessie Lynn dropped onto the couch and pulled off her skirt so that all she was wearing were her skivvies. “I’m not going to stop and tell a hot guy that I have to text my kid because I think this is going to take awhile. Get real.”
“You’d expect me to do it.”
Jessie Lynn raised an eyebrow. “Is there something you’re not telling me, Jo? Do I need to get you a doctor’s appointment? Because I am not ready to become a grandmother.”
“No. I’m not stupid,” Jolie assured her mom.
“And I’m not a high school kid breaking curfew,” Jessie countered. “You’re the kid. I’m the parent.”
“It’d be hard to prove it by me,” Jolie mumbled. If Jessie heard, she ignored it. “I saw Rick today.”
“Where?” Jessie was suddenly sober.
“He was driving past the apartments. Don’t worry; I didn’t let on we lived here.”
“You talked to him?”
“Are you kidding? I just ducked into a shop at the mall on the corner. I don’t even know for sure that he saw me.”
“Maybe he was just driving by, you know, and it had nothing to do with us,” Jessie said, hopefully.
“Maybe.” Jolie didn’t believe it.
“Do you think he followed you from school?”
Jolie shrugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t see him until I was almost here.”
“Well, we always knew he could find us if he tried. We should have moved across town--changed schools.”
“I’ve got seven weeks left before the end of the school year, Mom. That’s not too long to dodge a sleaze ball like Rick. I think we can manage it.”
Jessie Lynn nodded, yawning.
“It’s been a long day, Jolie. I’m going to bed. I’ll see you tomorrow night after work.”
“Unless Brett wants to go out again,” Jolie added.
Jessie stopped. “He’s not a bad guy, Jo, really. This one is really decent.”
“They always are, in the beginning.”
“Screw you.” Jessie Lynn flounced into her bedroom and slammed the door.
Jolie went back to her own room and sat on the edge of the bed. There was no point in trying to sleep now. It was almost time to get ready for school. She headed for the shower.