What happens when you turn left instead of right and later regret the decision? Do you bitch and moan or say to yourself, “Yeah, I turned left, so what? C‘est la vie!” But what if someone forced you down a path when all you wanted with every beat of your heart and breath in your lungs was to travel back in time to choose a different course?
If the choice was not your call, then what would you tell yourself? How accountable are you for what takes place next?
My dad knocked my mom up at eighteen, but they were both thrilled at the news. When my father died in a hit-and-run accident in the streets of Tucker City, I had just turned two, and it left my clueless mom to make decisions no twenty-year-old should.
My grandparents hated my mother. Charlie, my dad, had been a star athlete, straight-A student before Aria Codona came along and derailed his future. At least, that’s how they saw it because she partied a lot, showing up sloppy drunk in the middle of the night one too many times, and let’s not forget the marijuana they caught her smoking once while on vacation. They were bitter people and after he passed; they moved far away, pretending we didn’t exist. Harsh, but I was too little to remember them when their visits stopped. Her folks wrote her off the second she became pregnant, and just like that — we were on our own.
Alone in a three-story, one-room apartment with a toddler, Aria was at a loss about how to move forward. She had no education or job prospects. My father worked for the city, maintaining the highways and such, and although it paid well, the funds ran dry. She quickly discovered she didn’t have what it took to survive with no income and a child to support.
My parents named me Charlize, a spin-off of my father’s name. I would learn the hard way how my resemblance and surname caused her never to recover from his death. Without Charlie, she lost hope of living happily ever after with her soulmate. With me, she only experienced failure and disappointment.
But wait… there’s more!
After I entered kindergarten, doctors figured out I had colorblindness. Only partially, though. Reds and greens were difficult to differentiate, but I didn’t allow my disability to hinder my childhood. Even as a kid, I realized how broken Aria had become and tried my best not to burden her. We moved six times — all of them involving men’s homes. We never stayed too long because my presence couldn’t stay unchecked, and they did not intend on playing stepdaddy.
Aria turned heads when she walked into a room. Tall, with a lithe figure, she also carried gypsy genes she passed down to me. Men drooled over her, not taking into account the dark shadows behind her eyes. She eventually buckled to her assets and began working at a strip joint and the manager, Derry, persuaded her to marry him when I was eight.
Derry owned a small two-bedroom house in a bleak neighborhood downtown, and they never allowed me to play outside because of the gangs warring for territory nobody cared for. Aria continued to shake her ass for cash, and Derry lorded over his new family with an iron fist.
I despised him. I couldn’t understand why she married the brute. His attitude towards me was pretty shitty from the start. Barking idiotic orders, demeaning me when she wasn’t around until he quit caring if she witnessed his cruelty. Before long, mom joined in, tag-teaming me into submission when they assumed I had done something wrong.
I was too young to grasp what he expected, and I regularly hid in my room, afraid he’d hurt Aria or me if I fought back. Within six months, my fear evolved into terror when he started hitting her. They often drank too much, and at night, I would hide under a blanket in the tiny closet. Hearing her beg for him to spare her face while he wailed on her became the norm. We lived in toxicity, like every other household on our street.
Derry did not always mistreat us, and he didn’t use drugs, unlike the idiots he ran with. He may not have been the best stepfather, but he provided and left me alone as long as I completed my chores and kept my backtalk to a minimum. I wasn’t close to Aria, and after we moved in with her new husband, her parenting took another nosedive. If I thought she treated me like a burden before, the resentment tripled by the time I entered high school.
School sucked the fun out of life. I was smart, but my attention span never lasted more than a few minutes on anything the teachers spouted. Hanging around strip joints and gang-infected corners twisted my personality. My golden skin and pretty face offered perks, but my forthright character proved a solid reputation as someone you didn’t mess with, or if you did better bring down the hammer or find yourself in a world of hurt.
Freshmen year commenced with a bang when five girls held me down in the gym locker room and loped off my long chestnut locks because they felt threatened by my confidence when their boyfriends eye-fucked me while they hung on their arms. It took five, but they should have doubled down because two ran away with broken noses and a few others suffered from cracked ribs. I rocked a severe bob after that, hotter than ever. It was the talk of the semester until Staci Daniels zipped one of her boyfriend’s nuts in his jeans when her parents surprised them, and they had to rush him to the hospital.
School officials gave up phoning my mom anytime I punched a bitch for looking at me funny in the halls or if I handed in assignments. They couldn’t pin me down. I skipped classes for days at a time, and if anyone had a problem with my behavior, it wasn’t to my face.
Aria didn’t care, but Derry blew a gasket. When he dislocated my arm after a nasty argument, she stepped in, begging me to at least graduate. Why? The constant drinking, smoking, and stripping made a joke out of the woman she used to be. Worn ragged, she would pass out wherever she landed at home, and I’d long given up making sure her cigarettes didn’t burn down the house. I no longer saw her as my mother, but as a living corpse.
I often hung out backstage at the gentleman’s club Teaz — the joint Derry ended up owning. Aria, although she worked there for decades, never headlined. She wasn’t as fresh as the girls stumbling through the doors. Periodically, I watched them strut around in their glitter and tear-away panties, and wondered if I belonged there, shaking my ass, and tits for easy cash. I had no plans for college, but then I realized I didn’t need a stage to lure wealthy men into my web.
I offered my virginity at sixteen to a boy who hadn’t a clue where to stick it. We never dated, but he was so mortified that when he attempted to take me out, I asked for a necklace I had my eye on at the mall instead. Done. The awful blunder inducted me into separating my body from messy emotions. Guys did it, so why couldn’t I? There was no reason for either of us to feel shame, resentment, or insecurity when we both won. Sometimes they grew attached, testing my hard limits. Some boys promised anything I wanted if we became exclusive, but I quickly reminded them what a heartless bitch I was by pointing out I chose money over their over-eager dicks. I enjoyed sex, but the perks came in the form of gifts I amassed.
Aria eventually noticed the nicer clothes I wore and started questioning me. Where did I get the Prada belt and the diamond-studded belly button ring? Did I own my shit and tell her the truth? How boys at school gave me my heart’s desire if I cooed about how big their cocks were and how wet they made me? Nope. I lied through my teeth.
My looks surpassed Arias at seventeen. Derry worked his fists on me more, and that gnawing fear reached an all-time high. The club turned into a popular spot for illicit practices, which meant he wasn’t home as much, thankfully. Aria had hung up her tassels, switching to bookkeeping to help him out.
After my eighteenth birthday, a few months before graduation, Derry sat me down, claiming he controlled my future. Menacing in appearance, I’m sure women found him good-looking, but to me, his scowling mug made him appear constipated. He was stout and losing his once thick blonde hair. I caught him staring at himself in the mirror with a comb more than once. In fact, I avoided guys who resembled him. I should have realized why, but I never gave it much thought.
I should have.
Derry watched me closely over the years.
He heard what I got up to, his sleazy pals around the city reporting my activities. Aria warned me several times not to become a target for no-good men. Not to become easy prey. What did she know? Jack shit, since she allowed Derry to dominate every aspect of her life down to where she shopped and had her hair done. No man would control me. I held the reins. I told people what to do. How to do it, and when. If they didn’t fall in line, I cut them off and very few were willing to risk the connections I gained on the streets.
I was the girl everyone talked about behind cupped palms, and they were lying to themselves, denying how they secretly wished to be me, or kill me, depending on which guy they had their eye on. I didn’t give two shits if the boy vying for the next available slot on my calendar had a girlfriend. It was not my problem, and guilt took a backseat every time Derry and Aria raised their voices or hands in my direction.
Derry tried setting a curfew when I was fifteen, but I sneaked out until he caught on and beat the snot out of me. It taught me a valuable lesson. No one cared how he treated me or my mom. I refused to let my decisions lead him to strike me again. His punishments shaped my growing intelligence, and we began a violent game neither wanted to lose. I normally outwitted him, although I was careful not to provoke his vile temper. I might have resented Aria, but I hated when he hurt her in my stead.
Friday night, I had planned to meet my best friends, Gina and Jack. They escorted me to my prearranged dates. I quit seeing high school guys, currently entertaining college men. Calling them men was a stretch since their libidos raged like prepubescent boys.
Derry slithered home at five, catching me in the shower. I figured they’d both be at the club, blasting my music while I shaved. When it abruptly shut off, I knew at once Derry had arrived early. Aria turned my tunes down, not off.
When I emerged from the bathroom, he called out to me. I gripped the collar of my bathrobe as I took the few steps that made up the kitchen and living area. I had to cross the room in order to reach the short hall where the bedrooms were. The TV flickered on mute, and Derry’s beady eyes peered at me as he emptied a beer into a frosted glass from his favorite chair. The arrogant smile twisting his lips when he tossed the empty canister at my head was not good. I picked up the can, throwing it away, wondering if he had his fun and now would leave me alone.
“Charlize! Park that fat ass!” He barked.
He hardly ever used my name, usually spitting bitch or stupid girl, unless he wanted something. Gritting my teeth at his command, I backtracked to the tiny sitting room to perch on the edge of the sofa. His brown recliner squeaked under his shifting weight when he turned towards me.
“Things around here are going to change,” he told me with no warmth or fatherly humor, “and it involves you.”
I withheld my insolence, quietly asking, “Could you elaborate, please?”
Derry smugly nodded, wringing his gorilla-sized hands together. “I have a lucrative business with the club. I’ve maintained a steady reputation, too. My loyalty in certain circles has also paid off.”
I yawned, bored already. So what? Time was wasting, and I needed to finish getting ready for my night out. Gina would be outside before seven, and we’d argued earlier, because she had other plans. She’d blow a fuse if she came here for nothing. Gina hated my neighborhood as much as I did. The mousy girl I somehow formed a friendship with was beyond smart and had her choices of colleges before we even started our senior year. Side by side, no one would ever consider us besties, but we clicked like Lego pieces. She never dated, and talking to a guy? The shy gal would most likely pass out the second he opened his mouth.
“This hoity-toity fucker who frequents Teaz mentioned an unusual venture. He’s branching out, hoping I can help him.” Derry scanned me up and down with a sinister smirk. “I heard you fuck for money. For materialistic crap. Anyone else would go out and find a job flipping burgers, but not Charlize,” he snorts in derision, “Nope, you think your pussy is unique. Well, I’m here to tell ya, ain’t shit going on between those thighs men will pay for in another few years if you keep spreading them for every hairy set of balls you see.”
My face grew hot. “What?”
I foresaw this moment happening but hoped to squirrel away a few grand beforehand. My goal never included becoming the slut of Raspberry Lane. Part of my allure was that I was actually hard to get. You had to know how to reach me, and I didn’t make it easy. My safety came first, something Jack saw to it by beating the shit out of anybody stupid enough to cross me.
He chuckled, and I drew the lapels of my robe tighter against my throat. “This guy may be your new avenue out, kid. He’s recruiting, and you’re meeting tonight.”
I sat still as a statue, stunned speechless. Also puzzled, and a tiny bit curious, but I had no real idea what Derry meant. Was he telling me an old pervert held interviews at his club for sex? “Um,” I shifted with unease, “I don’t understand. You want me to sleep with him?”
He snarled, “Problem? It’s not like you haven’t done it for years. You can’t play me, bitch.”
My temper flared. “What if I say no?”
He stood up, towering over my seat, dark eyes boring into mine. “Not a choice. You’ll do as ordered or I’ll put you in traction. This innocent act ain’t fooling anyone. I’ve heard all about your scams, Char.”
I clammed up. Expressing my opinion was futile. Derry expected me to obey — and saying no wasn’t an option. Not if I liked my head where it was and not bouncing off the wall. Fuck my life.
“He wants to interview you for a special project. Told him how smart you are but refuse to use your brains, just tits.” He blew out a breath, ending our conversation before it got started, while my blood pressure rose higher and higher the longer he degraded me. “You will do this. Dress slutty, which shouldn’t be too hard. You’ll have to reschedule whichever idiot you planned to screw over.”
I never thought the day (or night) would come when Derry would speak to me like the pimp I avoided on Freshet Ave. If he noticed my outrage, he ignored it, settling back in his chair to watch the ballgame he’d muted before informing me some rando had requested to meet at his scuzzy club. What the hell? Why now? I should have seen this coming after turning eighteen, but the one thing I could always say about Derry, he never touched me sexually. Indifference ran rampant in this house. And besides, he had my mother and other willing women at his disposal.
My fists clenched. It’s obvious he had a game plan in place before approaching me. Why? To make me turn tricks? My brain hurt, along with my racing heart.
“Up!” he clapped his hands, startling me out of my stupor. “Let’s go! I’ll give you twenty minutes. Better call your friends while you’re at it.”
I sullenly obeyed, scurrying to my bedroom. His words kept replaying in my mind while I ditched the robe to dress. Although they met at the club, he didn’t actually mention I had to fuck the stranger. Wait, did Aria realize what he was up to? She must. Damn them to hell. While I texted Gina, I repeated my wellness mantra.
You are an awesome bitch.
Create your own path.
No one can break you.
They hold no power over you.
I calmed down with breathing techniques I learned at a yoga class last summer. When I wandered inside the building, bruised and battered, believing nothing mattered, I remembered the knife I stashed under my mattress the previous evening. Not for defense, but for myself.
After the lesson, I felt centered and focused on my goal of escaping my shitty home, no matter what. I was worth more than the bloody corpse Aria would find if she happened to crawl out of her drunken hole.
Dressing in a simple A-line black dress over silky lingerie, I followed Derry outside to his beat-up Chevy Nova. Teaz was a five-minute ride, and it dragged on for an eternity before we parked in the run-down lot. I traversed the cracked and uneven pavement to the front entrance with Derry’s creepy smile at the helm, making my stomach lurch.
“This gentleman is… weird,” he informed me. “He watches the girls as an art dealer would an expensive painting. Your mom thinks this is a great opportunity.”
There it was. Mother dearest knew, and my hope to avoid this nightmare vanished. “She wants him to like me?”
“What’s not to like?” he shot me a dirty scowl. “We both know you’re itching to drop school. I’m tired of supporting a lying bitch who hoards her riches. You never contribute to the house.”
I did, he just ignored my efforts. They never bought me food, clothing, or school supplies. I’ve taken care of myself for years, never asking them for a single thing. “Riches,” I snorted, “You keep telling yourself that.”
“You’re a greedy slut,” he retorted. “Couple guys told me they’ve had you in ways even I found disturbing, so quit stalling freak.”
I hated him. I haven’t ‘spread my legs’ for anyone in a year. If you’re good, you don’t have to. And I’m the best. As for his friends, no fucking way. I only saw high school or men enrolled at Tucker University.
Teaz wasn’t busy — shocker. It might advertise as a gentleman’s club, but the outdated interior and location in the heart of downtown meant plenty of competition sat just around the corner. I noted the black limousine before entering, wondering if it belonged to the mysterious investor. Derry ushered me through the unmanned entry, greeting the bouncers by the main stage. We made our way up the metal staircase where he lorded over the staff. Three VIP rooms offset to the left drew my gaze, and I flinched at the red light signaling a customer occupied one, probably getting his rocks off. Derry normally didn’t allow me up here, and the nerves I’d held in check threatened to overwhelm me the closer we strode to his office.
The bronze furnishings and sleek desk inside surprised me, but the wooden door to the right pulled my attention when I clocked shadowed figures moving behind the frosted glass. He had a boardroom? For what?
After inhaling several steadying breaths, I told myself whatever Derry thought of me; I was no whore. I chose my lovers carefully. Quite often, nothing happened beyond kissing. If they seemed lonely or depressed, I carried their burdens while I could. Lending an ear or offering a shoulder to lean on sometimes helped in a world where hate and bigotry were the new normal.
I once hugged a date for hours on end. His request was a simple but odd one — to pretend to love him. At first, I froze in unfamiliar territory, never experiencing motherly hugs and kisses from Aria, but as we lay together in a hotel room, I welcomed the gentle sensation of his embrace. Gina explained how a whole service dedicated to professional cuddlers existed, and I saw dollar signs, until concluding it would bore me to tears. I felt relaxed and happy afterward until returning home, where Derry knocked everything out of the fridge when he couldn’t find pickles, and I ended up cleaning the mess while he kicked items out of my reach while laughing his ass off.
Gripping the thin strap of my sling purse, I tentatively stepped into the conference room when Derry opened the door. In dim lighting, two men and a woman lingered at an elongated table. All three zeroed in on me.
“Hello, Mr. Golding.” Derry shook hands with a distinguished man dressed in a gray Armani suit. “This is my stepdaughter, Charlize.”
Holy fucking shit. I recognized the debonair dude ignoring Derry’s pandering right off the bat. Entrepreneur and millionaire Andy Golding turned to me and my heart tried to escape my chest. Word on the street alleged he didn’t care whose toes he trod on to gain a foothold in Tucker City. This was either really bad or really good.
I licked my lips, plastering a welcoming smile on my face.
Whatever he came to Teaz for, I wouldn’t leave unscathed. My hatred for my shitty parents grew into a mushroom cloud before I shut down my emotions, prepared to put on my best performance yet.