Chapter 1: Love You Goodbye
"Well," the stout, pock-marked old man said from around the cigarette hanging from his mouth, "here's your last paycheck, Gracie."
Grace Stewart smiled grimly as she took her final paycheck from his outstretched hand, and placed her folded waitress outfit in his large palm-- replacing the vital piece of paper that, had he not agreed to give it to her so soon, her entire plan would've soiled like the two other times she'd considered leaving.
Mr. Russo, an older man with a large beer-gut and a plump nose, grinned from around his cigar as he turned slightly and threw Grace's former-employee outfit onto his desk. When he turned back around to face her again, Grace saw the pride shining in his eyes, but also the wariness that he allowed past his stoic, no-funny-business exterior.
She felt the dread that had been weighing down on her for days now, rise up in her throat, threatening to flood her eyes and close her throat. She didn't want to leave, not really, but this was the day she had yearned for since she was just a little girl. She was getting out of this little town of broken dreams and pain, but she, unlike what her younger-self had imagined being a time of excitement, journey, and independence, was worried that this could, very possibly, blow up in her face.
Shaking her head internally, she pocketed her final check, pulled back her shoulders, lifted her chin, and flashed Mr. Russo a close-lipped smile.
Sitting on the edge of his desk, her former boss and only true father figure, removed the cigarette from his mouth and placed in on his ashtray beside him. His voice was hoarse with a lifetime of smoking as he stared at her with dark, caring eyes.
"Where you headed off to?" He asked, his thick fingers drumming against the desk as he continued to study her.
Grace ran her fingers through her auburn hair as she let out a heavy breath, "anywhere but here. Texas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Georgia... anywhere that'll take me." She let out a breathy laugh, but she couldn't hide her fear or nervousness from her voice. She honestly didn't care where she went, but she had to leave this little town, and, preferably, the entire state of California.
The man cocked his head at her curt, undescriptive answer. She could practically see the wheels turning in his mind-- could see the hidden judgment in his eyes at her poorly constructed plan. But, truth be told, she didn't care what he thought. He didn't know why she had to leave so abruptly, didn't know why, exactly two days after her eighteenth birthday, she decided to just up-and-leave. She knew that he was aware of her poor home life, but she had a strong inkling that he didn't fully grasp how poor that life at home was, and had always been.
"How much money do you have on you? For the drive, food, gas, motel, restaurant... and a place to stay once you've stopped somewhere?"
"Nearly five thousand-- I've already stocked up on drinks and food already, so I won't be stopping much. I've bought extra cans of gas as well in case I run out while driving. I also plan to sleep in my car rather than to stay in a motel to save some money..."
When Mr. Russo stood up from his desk and gritted his teeth, he folded his large arms across his chest, the veins on his hands seeming to enlarge, then shook his head.
"With almost five grand on you," his voice was gruff, "you have more than enough to pay for a cheap motel night, and stop for a decent meal. You can't survive on just energy bars, trail mixes, chips, and Gatorade."
'Then you don't know what I eat at home then if you underestimate my ability to thrive off cheap snack foods.' She grumbled to herself, but knew better than to verbally mouth him off, even if it was something as simple as disagreeing with his statement... she'd made that mistake once, and quickly learned that she'd never do it ever again. He may be a big ole' teddy bear at times, especially when it came to her, but he wasn't afraid to put his foot down.
She could, sometimes at night when her room was quiet enough, still hear his cursing and screaming and angry grumbling. She'd get real quiet whenever she thought back on that blasted day.
Plus, she didn't want their last interaction to be scarred with the memory of an argument, especially since she was almost positive that she'd never see him again. And, even if they weren't blood-related, nor had she known him all her life, he was like a father to her-- in fact, he was the only man she could ever recall truly caring about.
Grace's throat constricted with emotion, but she choked it down as she took a step towards him, but she didn't meet his gaze, instead, she looked down at her dirty and worn shoes.
When he placed a hand to her shoulder, she nearly lost control of her frantic, heavy emotions, but, by some miracle, caught them before they could climb any further than the back of her throat.
"Look at me," he commanded, but his rough voice was gentle, loving even.
Lifting her eyes from their place on the floor, she met his warm gaze with the glassy one of her own. He smiled kindly down at her, his dimples standing stark against his aged and marked face.
What she would've given... sacrificed, to have had him as her blood, real father. Yes, he had his problems, as everyone did, but he was as loyal as an old farm dog. He had anger issues, and had shown his teeth multiple times, but, every time that he had puffed out his chest and, quite literally, kicked someone out of his pub, it had been to either protect her, or his other employees. Yes, he had his issues, but he was a good, true man... a man who'd had his fair share of heartbreak and loss.
His thumb brushed away a tear trailing down her freckled face as he kissed the top of her head. Against her hair, he spoke, "I'm not gonna say that I want you to leave. I'm not gonna say that I won't miss you-- because I will-- but I'm not gonna try to force you to stay." His arms wrapped around her back, squeezing her tighter to him. She knew that her tears were beginning to soak his shirt, but she didn't care. "You're eighteen now, and this is your life-- no one else's. This is your life to live, your life to do what you want when you want."
Curling her fingers into his back, she trembled with the pain and sorrow wracking her heart, body, and soul. She didn't want to leave, but, deep down within the aching organ trapped in a cage of ivory, she knew that she had to go. Grace needed to live her own life-- not the one her mother lived... a life that she spent living with a bottle in her hands and her back to the only person who still cared about her.
Pressing another kiss to her head, Mr. Russo pulled back from her grasp, and placed his smoky, rough hands on her shoulders. Keeping her at arm's length, the old man squeezed her shoulders once, "I want you to live your life how you want to live it. Settle down in a place that calls to your heart and soul-- whether it be Nevada or Maine, promise me that, when you settle down, you enjoy it there. Trust me on this, once you find a special place, you'll feel it in your chest-- it'll feel different than any other... it'll... it'll feel like home." When he smiled at her once again, the light didn't reach his eyes.
Releasing his hold on her, Mr. Russo maneuvered around his desk, bent over, pulled out a drawer, and placed it on top of her old work-outfit. Fishing around for a moment, he pulled out a small black bottle, and a medium-sized blue bag that read 'happy birthday' in yellow glitter.
"Here." He murmured, rubbing the back of his neck. "These are for you. I meant to give them to you on your birthday, but," he smiled sheepishly, "I may have forgotten about it."
Opening her mouth to protest the gifts, she quickly shut it again when he glowered at her. "You're leaving and I may never see you again, the least you can do is accept these gifts."
Guilt twisted in her chest again at his harsh words, but she knew that he hadn't meant it in the way they'd come out. She'd be mad too if she were him.
Deciding not to push his short fuse any further, she stepped closer to him and picked up the item he held in his open palm.
She grabbed the little black bottle with a clip to the back of it. Rolling it in her hands to read what the front said, she nearly snorted when she read what it said in bold, red letters, 'SABRE PEPPER SPRAY.' Even though it had already been opened, she could feel the weight of it and could tell that it'd never been used. But, even though that was good and dandy, there was one little problem... she didn't know how to use it.
As if he could read her mind, he slipped it from her hand, "here, this is how you use it. First, when you use pepper spray, always use it in self-defense, never play around with this thing-- trust me, it hurts like a hell, so no messing around with it unless absolutely necessary." Switching it to his right hand, he held it upright, slid the safety-switch over his thumb, and lightly tapped the button on top of the tube, but not hard enough to set it off. "Did you see how to do it?"
Grace nodded hesitantly, watching the black tube cautiously, ready to dive onto the floor should it turn on its own and empty itself onto her.
Seeing her hesitancy, he walked her through the steps two times more, and when he was done, he showed her where, should she have to deploy it, she should aim for. "Always spray for the face-- especially the eyes, nose, and mouth. It might take a moment for the pepper spray to affect your attacker, but, within thirty seconds, you should be good to escape."
After showing her one last time, he closed the safety-switch over the trigger, and tossed it to her. She caught it easily, and slid it into the pocket of her sweatshirt.
"Thank you," she uttered, hoping that he could hear the gratitude in her thick voice. Grace wished that she could say more, but she knew that, if she tried to use her mouth, nothing but ugly sobs would escape. She'd already cried enough today.
He nodded once before picking up the blue bag and letting it dangle from the tips of his fingers. When she reached for it, Mr. Russo curled his fingers over the handle and pulled it from her grasp. "Promise me this, Stewart. Promise me that you won't open this until you get onto the road."
Grace's eyebrows drew together in confusion, "why?" She asked, cocking her head.
He shook his head, "just promise me, Gracie. Promise me that you'll open it once you see this damn town in your review mirror."
With tear welling in her eyes, she nodded deeply once before spinning around the desk to embrace him.
Even though, as she hugged him harder than she'd ever hugged anyone before, she told herself that she'd see him again someday... she knew that, deep down, should she ever return to this little town, he wouldn't be waiting for her.
Once she released him, pressing a gentle kiss to his cheek, she wiped the tears from her face-- but, as she pulled back, she could've sworn that tears were stirring in his own eyes. As she picked up her gifts and walked to the door to his office, and looked at him one last time... she saw that his dark eyes, once so stoic and strong, were indeed flooded with tears.
Tears that were beginning to roll down his scarred, tired face.
With a small, true smile of her own, she grasped the doorknob and pulled the door open. From over her shoulder, she looked at him with all the gratitude and love she could muster from her crying soul, "thank you, Tony Russo... thank you for everything."
And, with that, she stepped past the doorway, and softly shut the slab of oak and memory behind her.
The darkness in her mom's apartment was, for some odd reason, a welcomed relief. She didn't know if it was because that meant her mom, Olivia, was asleep-- and, in turn, wasn't busy drinking herself to death-- or she wasn't even home at all, but, either way, it was a calming sight.
The quicker she could get out of here, the better. She didn't need to be distracted with Olivia's nonsensical ramblings about the, apparent, paranormal population.
Quietly shutting the door behind her should her mom being sleeping, she immediately began moving through the apartment, looking in every nook and canny to make sure that she had everything that she needed. She already had food, drinks, gas, money, hygiene products, and bags of clothing packed in her car, but she didn't want to risk the chance of returning because she had been foolish and had forgotten something.
Combing through the kitchen and everything within it, she grabbed two slices of pizza from the fridge, put them into a plastic baggie, and tucked them into the purse hanging from her shoulder. Those slices of pizza will be her dinner for the night-- she didn't want to stop for anything until she was hours out of this town.
Once she decided that there was nothing in the kitchen worth taking, she walked down the short hallway until she made it to the bathroom. She'd already bought a box of tampons and pads for the drive, so she left the boxes there beneath the sink for her mother. She wasn't going to take anything that she didn't need-- after all, she still had nearly five grand on her-- if she absolutely needed to spend the money, she had the means to do so.
There were only four small rooms in the apartment she shared with Olivia, so she was nearly done when she reached her own bedroom-- a bedroom she'd slept and lived in for as long as she could remember.
Stalking through her nearly empty room, she paused for a moment as she glanced around the tiny room. She hadn't wanted to stop and think while she practically ransacked her mother's apartment, because she knew that the longing, the love for both her home and broken mother, would make it all the harder for her to leave. But, as she came to a halt in the center of her room, she couldn't seem to move an inch.
Staring at her bed, a bed she had bought with her own money when she was fourteen because her old mattress was a foot too short, she sucked in a staggering breath. She had cried herself to sleep, had dreamed about leaving this damned state, had imagined screaming at her mother and the bottles she loved more than her, in that very bed.
Closing her eyes, she pushed down the sob trying to work its way past her lips. She wouldn't cry, not now at least. May once she'd stopped for the night, hours away from home, she would cry, but not now. Not when she had to get out of here.
Curling her fingers into the palms of her hands, she welcomed the pain of her nail slicing into the flesh there, welcomed the much-needed anchor allowing her to regain reality.
Opening her eyes, she finally forced her legs into motion.
Walking over to the dresser that her mom had picked up off the side of the road when she was four, she patted the top once before picking up the note she'd written last night and the three twenty-dollar bills.
Not allowing her to remain in her room any longer, she pulled her shoulders back, lifted her chin, straightened her back, and left her childhood behind.
Since her mother's room was right across from her own, she easily pushed the door open and slipped into the silent, pitch-black room.
Grace didn't even need to feel around the room to locate where Olivia lay-- she had this damned room branded in her memory. After all, when she had to carry her mom from the coach to her bed nearly every night for the majority of her life, she got the layout of the room very quickly.
In just three strides, she was at the dresser beside Olivia's bed. She didn't want to look down at the peaceful form of her mom-- didn't want to acknowledge that sleep was the only time that her mom was ever in peace-- but she couldn't resist the urge. She needed to, even though she knew that it'd haunt her later on, look at her mom one last time.
Gripping the corners of the dresser, she slowly looked down at the woman cradled in a dirty grey blanket. Olivia's high cheekbones, once so angelic and regal, were casting shadows on her pale, sharp face. Olivia, after years of drinking, was nothing more than a breathing, moving skeleton. The woman had once been healthy-- she had once had a golden glow to her skin, and full curves that any man would die to explore, but now she was ghostly pale and just skin-and-bones-- there was nothing attractive or appealing about her.
Clenching the note in her fist, she quickly tore her gaze from the woman who had birthed her, and settled it on the countless bottles decorating the dresser. She wanted to send them all crashing to the floor with a grand sweep of her arm, but she didn't want to awaken her mother and get her butt chewed out.
Under her breath, Grace hissed with the wrath of a feral street cat, "damn.you."
With that, she smoothed the paper out to the best of her ability and set it on top of the many bottles laying on the surface of the dresser, empty and useless. Then, once she had placed her curt note, a note explaining why she was leaving and not to go after her (not that Olivia would-- she didn't even drive anymore, and she thought that the police were spies working for blood-sucking vampires,) she reached into her pants' pocket and grabbed three twenty-dollar bills and laid them across the folded piece of notebook paper. She knew that her mother would most likely use the sixty-bucks to buy more alcohol, but a small part of her hoped that Olivia would use it for food, bills, or even something as small as a book even-- anything to distance the woman from her disease called alcoholism.
But Grace knew better. Olivia was too far gone. She had drunk all of her memories, hopes, dreams, and love away-- the only thing that could stop her mom from drinking now was death itself.
Her chest tightened, her heart beating painfully against her lungs as she looked down at her sleeping mother one last time...
For the last time.
Kneeling down to be eye-level with her, she gently brushed the auburn hair, a shade that was just slightly lighter than her own, away from her face and tucked it behind her pale, clammy ear. Grace's lips trembled as she pressed her forehead against the mattress and closed her eyes.
'I don't want to leave, mom.' She whispered in her mind, hoping that somewhere in Olivia's slumber, she could hear the words that she couldn't physically put together. 'I don't want to leave, but I can't stay here anymore.'
Trembling with the force of her silent sobs, she lifted her head and stared at the deathly pale face of her only remaining family member-- she loved her mother, she really did, but she knew that if she were to stay here any longer that love would only continue to dissipate.
She didn't want to hate her-- she loved her mother-- but how could she love her, how could she continue on the way she had lived all her life, knowing that it was only a matter of time until Olivia succeeded in drinking herself to death?
"I-- I can't do this anymore, mom." She cried. "I love you, mom, I love you so much, but I can't continue on like this. I can't watch you drink another bottle-- I can't watch you continue to kill yourself."
Letting her forehead fall back to the mattress, she let her weight rest against the bed, allowing it to hold her up.
With closed eyes and trembling lips, she fisted the blanket between her hands as she forced the words that had sat so heavily on her stomach flow free. The words that had churned in her mind since the day she realized that there would be no getting better for her mom, not unless Olivia truly wanted it for herself.
"I love you, mom..." She forced through her teeth as she forced herself onto her feet.
Not letting her look back on the dying woman she called mom, she walked to the doorway with her back facing the room's darkness.
She swallowed down her emotions as she gripped the doorframe. "I love you... goodbye."
And, with that, she gently closed the door behind her before stalking through the apartment, locking the front door before closing it, and making her way out onto the street.
Just as she hopped into her car and turned on the ignition, she looked up at the apartment building looming over her. The sun was beginning to set now, and it was casting a sea of blue and pink across the sky.
It was a beautiful sight...
And she couldn't wait to never see it again.
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