I followed Jonny through the dark streets. The sun had gone down an hour ago and there was still a little bit of pink dancing in the clouds on the horizon. I wanted to ask him where we were going, but I knew I shouldn’t; he’d just get angry with me. He always got mad when I asked questions.
He stopped at a door along the side of the alley and pulled it open before grabbing my shoulder, making sure I wouldn’t go far. He thought I’d leave him as soon as I got the chance. And I wanted to, more than anything in the world; but I didn’t have anywhere to go, no family to go home to, nobody to help me out once I got out of his reach.
I was terrified of Jonny. He was half a foot taller than me and built like a wall. Abusive was a polite word for how he treated me, although somehow that wasn’t a strong enough word for what he did to me. But he gave me food when I was starving, clothes when mine were thread-bare, a roof that didn’t leak on me and although he was the most dangerous man I’d been with, nobody had ever given me all three of those things before.
Despite the fact he was the best guy I’d been with, he was also the most violent. I could set him off at the drop of a hat. Just earlier that day, I’d dropped a plate unloading the dishwasher. The plate hadn’t broken completely, but it had been chipped. He’d bounced my head off the counter, telling me to get a grip and stop breaking his shit.
There was still a goose egg on the side of my head that throbbed painfully. It hadn’t needed stitches, thankfully, because as well as I could bandage myself back together, I hadn’t yet mastered the act of sewing my head backward in a mirror.
Behind the door in the alley sat a small entryway. If this had been a house, this would’ve been a type of mudroom. Chairs were lining the room, four to be exact. Three of the chairs were filled by girls that belonged to another man in the room past the entryway that Jonny was about to enter. Jonny and his friends forbid the girls to do anything past sitting here, waiting for them to finish. We’d have to wait in silence because if they heard us talking to each other, we’d get punished. I had flashbacks to the first time the men inside had caught Emerald and I talking. Instinctively, I moved my hand to touch my neck. I knew a long, slightly puckered looking scar poked out from the neckline of my shirt and I shuddered to myself.
Jonny told me to get into the only open chair, the one closest to the door from the alley. I sat quietly in the way I had painfully mastered. The silence never bothered me anymore. I knew we’d all be sitting here for a couple of hours. Both doors, the door to the poker room and the door to the alley, had a double-sided deadbolt, meaning you had to have a key from either side of the door if you wanted in or out. Jonny had locked both doors behind him, so there was no way any of us could’ve gotten out.
I caught the eye of Emerald, the pretty blonde who was dragged around by Randy Smith. She gestured to my shoes and in Sign Language, told me that she liked them. I thanked her silently. The shoes were black and silver and I’d only gotten them the day before, as a gift since my old shoes had been worn to the threads.
Emerald had taught me Sign Language during the guys’ poker sessions. The other girls refused to learn, fearing getting caught. But sign language was silent and that was the beauty of it. We could talk without fear of getting hurt. I didn’t know a lot of the signs, but I knew the basics; How are you? Doing good. Thank you. You’re welcome. How to tell her she looked good today. And every couple weeks she’d teach me a new sign so I could say something else.
I signed to her that I liked the shirt she was wearing. She smiled and signed ‘thank you’. I didn’t think Emerald was her real name, but the guys pretty much called us whatever they wanted. I didn’t even remember my old name. I doubted she did either, as she had lived much the same life as I had. Druggie parents, a line of abusive owners, people that looked down on her and called her all kinds of names.
After a few minutes, Emerald caught my eye again and I noticed she was kind of forcing a smile. She signed something to me that I hadn’t learned just yet. She made a motion with her arms as if she was rocking them back and forth, and then she gestured to her stomach.
I covered my mouth, eyes widening. A baby? I mouthed silently, moving my hands from my face.
She nodded her head with a smile I knew she didn’t mean. I could see the look in her eyes. She was terrified.
I held my hand out for her, trying to convey how much I’d try to help her. Her eyes watered and she smiled, signing ‘thank you’ before taking my hand. I nodded, squeezing her hand before letting it go.
The other two girls didn’t pay much attention to us, but I knew they were thinking the same thing. They’d help as much as they could because that was what we did. We had to stick together; we didn’t have anyone else watching our backs.
I couldn’t even bear to think about Emerald’s dead body lying in the street somewhere. I shook the thought away. It was nearly another two hours before Jonny came out and told me to get off my ass. He was the first to exit, but the others followed shortly. I knew Randy wasn’t as violent with Emerald as Jonny was with me, but all four of the men were so much more abusive than any of us wanted.
Jonny gripped my arm tightly and I knew it’d be bruised in the morning. He pulled me out the door, into the alley and I followed without a word. I wished I’d been able to say goodbye to Emerald, but I knew it wasn’t possible. Jonny led me down the path until we got to the main road where we caught a cab and rode it back home.
Even at three in the morning, New York was awake and buzzing. I’d always thought it was beautiful, even if I only saw the nice parts of it from the highways. Jonny and I lived in what most sane people would’ve considered the slums, but I didn’t mind it. We didn’t have rats and cockroaches, so that was better than some of my other homes.
I stole a brief moment to glance over at Jonny. His shaggy brown hair hung almost too far into his eyes for you to take him seriously. His hands were always rough from the construction work he did in the city, and his skin made him look older than he was. Drugs and whiskey had taken years off his face, making his once attractive appearance turn slightly wrinkly and constantly tired looking.
“Whatcha fixin’ me when we get home?” Jonny spoke up, breaking my trance of the city lights.
“What would you like?” I asked politely.
“How about steak?” He asked, but it wasn’t a question. He was putting on a show for the cab driver.
“Alright. I’ll have to thaw one out though.” I said quietly.
Jonny nodded like he already knew this was a fact.
Silence fell back upon the cab until it stopped at the intersection closest to our apartment. Jonny paid the man and I briefly wondered what it’d be like to have a guy who wouldn’t have hurt me for my previous comment if he’d been in a bad mood. If Jonny had been in a bad mood when we’d got into the cab, he might’ve knocked me out right then and there.
He must have won the game earlier. I internally nodded to myself. That would explain his forgiving mood. “I’ll be in the living room.” He told me, kicking off his shoes and throwing down his jacket.
After he made the corner, I picked the jacket up and hung it on the coatrack before straightening his shoes. I slid out of my shoes, putting them next to his then hung up my coat and made for the kitchen to pull the steak out of the freezer. I unwrapped the plastic and put the meat on a plate, sticking it in the microwave.
The microwave beeped and the steak was still cold, but no longer frozen. I preheated some olive oil in a skillet on the stove. I seasoned both sides of the steak and when the oil was warm enough, I put the steak in the skillet. I took a moment to brace myself before I dared to venture into the living room.
I wasn’t allowed to watch the TV, but I could talk to Jonny if my back was to it. Another problem came with facing him because he didn’t like being stared at for too long. He’d usually snap at me and tell me how I was doing it just to make him angry. “Is there anything else you’d like to go with your steak?”
“No, thank you.” Jonny smiled up at me. “Come here.” I obeyed, coming to sit on his lap as he gestured. “Thank you for taking care of me.” He said, kissing my cheek, slowly moving down to my neck and collar bone.
“Of course,” I told him quietly. It wasn’t like I had much of a choice…
He grinned at me. “You’re such a good girl today. Maybe you’ll even get a good reward.” He told me, sliding his hand between my legs to rub my crotch through my jeans with his thumb.
I hummed out some mock-happy noises because I knew it was what he wanted. The rough stuff never aroused me anymore; it was just an obligation I had to fulfill. If he didn’t think I was happy, I’d get hurt again.
“Yeah, you like that, don’t you?” He cooed, biting my neck.
I forced myself not to cringe as I nodded.
He smirked, obviously thinking he was pleasing me. “Don’t burn my steak, lover.” He told me, pushing me off his lap.
I returned to the kitchen, gently rubbing at my sore crotch. The steak was nearly perfect, so I flipped it over and leaned against the counter, seeing the city lights off in the distance. I liked to imagine what it would be like to live in one of the high rise apartments with all the fancy things. A butler to answer the door for you, a cook to make whatever kind of food you wanted, enough money to buy nice things and not have to worry about it.
The steak was done when I checked it. I plated it and grabbed a fork and knife, carrying it in and putting it on the tray table for Jonny.
He grinned at me like I was the best thing ever and thanked me for making him food. I returned to the kitchen to do the dishes and clean up the mess I’d made. So when his arms snaked around my waist a while later, I jumped a little.
“What’s got you all jumpy, baby cakes?” He whispered in my ear.
“I didn’t hear you walk up. Just startled me a little.” I told him.
“Come to bed.” He said, probably in what he thought was a sensual way, but it never was; it was just another command I had to follow.
“Okay,” I said quietly, letting him lead me to the bedroom.
As he closed the door behind us, I silently prayed to whatever God was listening that he’d be quick and as painless as possible…