As a little kid, you never notice the important things. Rather, you don’t notice the dark things. Either your parents do their damndest to hide it from you or you’re just oblivious, but regardless, you’re shielded from the evil in the world for quite some time. Innocence is something you want to hold onto for as long as you can.
I wish I had been able to hold onto mine.
At five years old I would watch my mother come home, stumbling through the door with stiletto heels in her grasp, the zippers of her short, tight clothes halfway undone, and sometimes she was barely even dressed. Those times I would see her come in the door were always times that I got in trouble. I was never supposed to be up that late, but I guess it’s hard to sleep as a little girl when you’re home alone in a sketchy apartment complex and your only guardian is out doing only God knows what at ungodly hours of the night.
Whenever I’d ask, “Mommy, why do you dress like that?” the only reply I’d get is, “To pay the bills, Carrie.” which was usually followed by, “Go to bed.” or “Get your homework done.”
After I hit seven, I learned to stop asking. I learned to pretend I was asleep as she would drink herself to sleep or open the window and light up a cigarette.
I remember my ninth birthday vividly. I wasn’t supposed to be home that night. The plan was to sleep over my friend Hannah’s house, but I had gone home early because she got sick after eating some bad Thai food.
I was sitting at the kitchen table drawing in the coloring book her mom had just gotten me as a present when my mother shoved open the front door, a hand clamped over her mouth as tears streamed down her cheeks. It wasn’t that late, maybe around dinner time, and she had just gotten home from working a shift at the diner.
She kept muttering a name. Jonathan.
I had set the crayon down and watched her for a moment. Finally I had mustered up enough courage to ask, “Mommy, why are you crying? Did someone hurt you?”
Her head snapped up at the sound of my voice and she quickly wiped away her tears and smiled. “No, Carrie. Why would you think someone hurt me?”
I pointed to her shoulder, at the large bruise. “Your shoulder.”
Mom glanced down at her shoulder and then tugged her sleeve up further. “I’m not hurt.”
“So why were you crying?”
She sighed and locked the front door behind her, shuffling over to the kitchen table and sitting in the chair next to me. I just watched her, wide hazel eyes curious yet concerned. “I went to the doctor today. You know how I’ve been sick lately?”
I nodded. She had been throwing up every morning, waking me most of the time. She had told me that she was okay, just probably ate some bad food.
Mom reached across the table and grabbed my hand. “I’m pregnant, Carrie. You’re gonna be a big sister. Isn’t that exciting?”
I remember being so happy that I couldn’t contain my excitement. I accepted that as my birthday present because I knew she’d never get me anything. We couldn’t afford it. At least I thought we couldn’t.
Months passed after that, and then I had a little sister. Jessica Justice Emerson, or JJ as I called her.
Nights where she’d come home crying happened often. Sometimes she’d have bruises on her body in places where I knew only married couples should touch each other and Mom wasn’t married, nor did JJ and me have a dad. I started to question her nightly activities the older I got, the older JJ got. And then, one day, I was in sixth grade and joking around with my friends and someone told me to work a corner if my grades weren’t good enough.
“The hell does that mean?” I had asked, eyes bright and wide and innocent. Though that was the last day they would ever be innocent.
“It means prostitution, Carrie. Y’know, where you sell your body to people. Where they pay you for sex,” Hannah had replied. She googled some pictures of prostitutes to show me as an example. The prettier ones dressed like Mom did.
I had confronted her two weeks later about it when I got home from school, surprised she wasn’t at the diner working an extra shift. “Mom?”
I looked around to make sure JJ was in her room—our room—before I asked, “Are you a prostitute?”
I thought she was gonna hit me. She choked on the water she drinking and stared back at me with wide green eyes. “A prostitute? Where’d you hear of such a thing, Sweetie?”
“Hannah and I were joking around after school last week and she mentioned prostitution. Showed me some pictures on her phone. Mom, they dress like you.”
She pursed her lips in thought before gesturing for me to sit at our little table fit for three. She sat down across from me. “I think you’re old enough to know now, Carrie.” She let out a deep breath. “I don’t just work at the diner.”
I furrowed my eyebrows, cocking my head to the side.
“I know that you’ll find out one way or another, especially now that you know about prostitution. Money’s tight. Always has been. This is the only way I make enough money to support you and your sister.”
I considered this. “Where do you go to do it?”
“The motel on fourth and Fremont,” she told me.
I nodded. “And you work at Murciano’s on New Hallandale?”
I was quiet for a moment. “Oh. Okay.” I didn’t dare ask about the bruises. I didn’t want to know. I was scared that if I knew I’d want her to quit, but I knew we needed this money.
When I was fourteen, I got a job at the diner alongside my mother. We’d work mostly the same shifts, though I worked late on weekends, and at exactly eight every night she’d change from her uniform into her night shift uniform and tell me she’d see me in the morning and to look after JJ.
I’d watch her leave with a smile and a nod and told her I loved her.
Our routine was pretty simple. Wake up, she goes to work, I take JJ to school, I go to school, I pick JJ up from school, drop her off at home, meet Mom at work, she leaves at eight, I close sometimes, and I go home and bring JJ leftover muffins that I scrounged up without my boss knowing.
And then, one day, it all fell apart. I was fifteen. Mom didn’t come home from one of her night shifts but I didn’t sweat it. Sometimes she worked until morning because her clients paid double or it was a particularly busy night.
After six months of no sign of Mom, and constant questions from JJ with lies in response, I took matters into my own hands. I knew that if something had happened to her and I told someone, JJ and I would be thrown into the system and most likely separated. People adopt cute five year old girls all the time, but how many would adopt a fifteen year old with horrible grades and an attitude?
JJ had been doing her homework, teeth chattering from the cold because of the lack of heat in the apartment, and I had been making dinner. “When’s Mommy gonna be back? It’s been a long time,” she asked.
“Mom’s on a business trip, JJ. I talked to her today. She says she misses you and she’s gonna try to get home soon.”
JJ sighed. “Alright. I’m done with my homework.”
I slid her a bowl of macaroni and watched her shiver, wrapping her tattered jacket tighter around her body. My paycheck from the diner just wasn’t cutting it. Hannah’s and Sheila’s hand-me-downs weren’t cutting it either. I needed more money.
I stared at the drawer that held all of Mom’s clothes before finally making a decision. “JJ, I have to go to work and cover someone’s shift. I won’t be home until late. Make sure you’re asleep by eight, okay, Hun?”
She frowned. “You’re leaving? I wanted to play with my Barbies with you.”
“I know, but I gotta go. I love you. Please, go to sleep on time. I’ll be back, I promise.”
JJ knew better than to argue with me. She kissed my cheek, I kissed her forehead, I changed into a bit of a more modest outfit of my mother’s, and then I left.
The first night was the hardest. It was easy convincing people I was legal, and getting them to pay me once I mentioned that I was a friend of Crystal’s, but it was hard going through with it. I was fifteen, I was a virgin, and I was terrified. Hell, I hadn’t even kissed anyone before.
That didn’t matter to the man who took my virginity. He didn’t seem to notice. He just enjoyed his time, paid me, and left. I stayed in the motel room crying for a good hour before getting back to work.
And the beginning of the end commenced.