Scorching late-afternoon heat pressed into Lucile Rana’s back as the twenty-three year old fashion designer trudged up the weathered flight of stairs leading to the Seattle apartment that had come to be her and her mother’s thirty-second home of the decade. She’d definitely chosen the wrong work day to rock a ruffle white blouse. Sure, Billie insisted she looked sexy as hell as she raced out of the door to catch the eight am bus, but looking back, she regretted not just wearing a tank and saving sexy for someone who could afford private transport with air conditioners. The dank stains gracing her armpits were not in the least the attractive, easy going look she had strived for when she’d slapped on the shirt this morning. Even her once lively pony tail was feeling the effects of the day’s humidity, hanging down limply at her back.
It’d been a sauna in Star haven apartments these last few months, courtesy of the crappy air con unit that had been out-of-service since the December of the previous year. Barry – the crusty, chubby landlord with seven children and an overbearing, Jamaican wife– kept claiming he would get on it soon. Hence the clutter of tools by the overturned window unit and the air so hot it practically wobbled. For now, the long-suffering tenants made do with keeping the Star haven’s ancient barred windows unlocked and dealing with the slightly more forgiving Seattle breeze – as well as the roaches that came with it.
Lucile stopped on a faded cliché welcome mat gracing the doorway to apartment 3B. Home sweet home. Or, as sweet as her step-father’s place could get. Which, being a dilapidated residence in a poor-maintenance building on the corner of the worst backstreet in Seattle, was aiming for the title of barely. She used the arm not clutching the purple parcel jutting out of her moist armpit to dig through her HNM jean pockets for the house-key she’d wheedled out of Carlos – her step-father – with multiple crates of Budweiser when she’d hit eighteen. It didn’t matter that she blew half a month’s earnings on the bribe only – having a house-key meant having a rock which she could lean back on when the tides of her mother’s horrible marriage came rolling. It was a stretch, she knew, but in her defense Carlos had tried to lock her out before. Though she was only five then. He hadn’t made an effort with the little tidbit in a while. It didn’t matter. Life had taught Lucile to always be prepared for anything –
Especially with alcoholic step-dads and naïve mothers. She knew she’d be better off safe than sorry, especially with Billie depending heavily on her.
She finally found the key buried under a brand-new packet of trident gum – watermelon, because it was a hundred per-cent guaranteed that Carlos wouldn’t swipe this flavor from her purse when she wasn’t looking (he hated watermelons) and shoved it in the slot, ignoring the roach that skittered past the toes of her Reeboks. There was always some type of pest running around this particular hall – the one inhabited by various drug lords, alcoholics and gangsters of Seattle. She’d gotten used to seeing them scurrying around in the dim glow of the fluorescent lightbulbs swaying from the ceiling beams, and rarely ever movie-set screamed anymore like she used to.
The key jammed in the lock as she twisted it, like always, then gave, and with a squeak the screen door pulled open. Like the layout of every other apartment in Star haven, the Velazquez’s front door opened directly to the living area. Unlike the layout of every other apartment in Star haven, their living-room – or Carlos’s man cave - was a breeding ground for empty pizza boxes, Chinese food cartons, beer bottles, red cups, and cigarette butt chaos - grave reminders of the poker party Carlos threw the night before.
Lucile had to drag Billie out to the corner park for ice-creams when she came home from work to find their house packed with tattooed bodies, rock music, and Nicola parading around in her best sequined mini-dress with her face – which she never bothered with and felt fine looking like a zombie mom – done up as if she were attending some gala.
Keeping them away from the house was her way of ensuring that Carlos’s ‘buddies’ – or should she say fellow blue street drug-dealer acquaintances – never leered at Billie the way they did to her and her mother. Trying to shield her younger sister from the evil of her father was as common a job as the 9to5 one she had at Roca’s fashion parlor downtown. The only difference was that one actually paid her bills.
She sighed in exhaustion from her hours’ long day at work spent dodging the mannequin’s Madame Rocio hurled at her in the staff room of the parlor, dumping her messenger bag and the parcel on the chair of the unsteady dining table. The apartment was eerily silent - quiet enough to make out nosy Mrs. Walter’s agitated footsteps a flight down through the floorboards. Luce knew Carlos wouldn’t be home from whatever-criminal-activity-he-did during the day yet, and Billie was celebrating turning the big one-eight at some friend’s house, but she had at least expected to see her mother, sprawled out on the couch in her Chinese bathrobe, seeing but not watching the latest E! News report, or heating up a can of the many soups Luce purchased at the corner shop last week on the rickety stove for lunch.
Her mother could cook about as well as a blind-folded orangutan hanging upside down from a palm tree. Luce had learnt from previous weeknight dinners featuring burnt turkeys, over boiled potatoes and blackened mac n’ cheese dishes that it was better to stock the freezer with frozen meals and save all the fancy cooking for the French chefs on the food channel shows her mother flooded their ancient DVR with. At least with that, Billie and she didn’t go hungry to bed.
Nicola Velazquez didn’t clean, do laundry, or take care of the house either, so you couldn’t necessarily call her a housewife. But that was what she was. A woman that stayed at home and depended on the income of her oldest daughter and whatever money her sleazy husband could scrape for her premium cable channels and cigarettes’.
The kitchen was empty, save for the month worth of dirty dishes spilling onto the counter from the chipped sink. Life was out of whack and it was too easy to tell. The scent of burnt toast, ripe garbage and pesticide hung heavy in the already foul, cigarette smoke smelling air. A stack of unopened mail was tossed across the island. A pile of balled up papers created a mountain on the wooden oval table. There was definitely no place like home. Her home, really. Lucile snatched up a bottle of water, took a bite from the only non-bruised apple she could find in the fridge, and then stole off to the bedroom that she shared with Billie to work on her fashion designs.
She could have worked in the living room, where there was a glorious ceiling fan to stir the afternoon’s heat instead of the crummy two paned windows provided in the bedrooms, but there was always the chance Carlos might come home early today.
There’d never been a day Luce had known the man when he returned from the streets sober. And high = angry. Angry = a stronger risk of getting slapped for sass. She’d learned those equations during her mother’s and her first of many nightmarish months at casa de Carlos. She wished she could tell whoever said math couldn’t save lives that they were wrong. Her math had done that countless times. Knowing when to duck under the sink and hide from Carlos’s belt-seeking wrath was a certified life-saver in Lucile Rana’s book.
There were only three other rooms in the apartment - down a narrow, stuffy hallway that ventured straight out of the living room. Billie and Lucile’s room, the devil’s chambers - a.k.a the room were Carlos and their mom slept, and a bathroom split between them. The Easter-egg-yellow walls were lined with an almost straight wallpaper border of little cartoon angels, from the time when their mother become enraptured with Christianity and God. She claimed Jesus’s light was the only way to save their family, and insisted on them dressing up to visit a Sunday service every week at the chapel downtown. That lasted for about four months, until Carlos grew sick of the early awakenings and constant preaching and made it clear he would not be driving them again. Then the desire plunged to low-rent Christianity programs, followed by short nighttime bible readings.
Soon after, Nicola dropped the idea all together. Still, all Lucile learned from that short period of church about heaven and Jesus stuck with her, and so she prayed every time she felt herself in need of a desperate miracle.
Like the five thousand dollars she was currently short off to start up her fashion brand. Just a few more years, she’d tell herself as she painstakingly sketched out the designs from Madame Roccio’s lavish ever-changing ideas. I can do this.
Feet bare and newly hydrated, Lucile bent over the sketchpad sprawled out on her bedroom desk with her lucky violet 2B pencil clutched between her fingers. She’d owned the 4 inch thick sketchbook since the day she first took interest in fashion design. Bought with her own money from a garage boot sale in Maine six springs ago, the book was a colorful collection of loose paper outfit outlines, magazine cutouts of the latest fashion trends, textile samples and self-taken photographs of all the things she found inspirational, bound together in a mess of glitter, glue and sticky notes.
Cool air prickled her bare arms from the opened window before her that lead to the fire escape. Luce loved to draw looking out at the city, imagining how life would be from the top floor of her dream office building in NYC.
She tossed the apple core in the waste in beside her and leaned back in her chair to begin flipping through the glitter heavy pages of her sketchbook glowing yellow under her lamp light when the bedroom door burst open with enough force to rattle the shelf of pictures fixed on the flower-papered wall next to it. Luce swore and nearly hit the ceiling. She didn’t have to turn to know Billie was back home from her party. No one else would dare to cause such a ruckus with the type of tenants living in this building. Criminals and low-rent workers who reveled in peace and quiet in which they could easily mooch on takeout in front of their television screens and pretend they didn’t just hear the sound of someone getting murdered outside.
Billie skipped inside their room with an I just won the lottery bitches glow, a manila envelope clutched between her violet-painted fingers.
Though Billie was a solid four years younger than Lucile, anyone with half a brain could tell we’re sisters. They sported the same tanned skin, the same round, plump lips, the same blue eyes and straight raven-black hair – though Billie had dyed hers a cheap dollar-store strawberry in their tiny bathroom on Monday as per the Fashion Now magazine article that stated red was the in-nest color of the week for sexy teens in America.
And Billie was all about sexy. Looking as zaftig as A-List celebrities like JLO, Hallie Berry, Angelina Jolie, Zendaya and of course, Prudence Gonzales on the daily was her self-proclaimed life’s purpose. Make-up, the thrift store downtown that advertised trendy clothes for cheaper prices, and weekly diets were her tools of accomplishment.
“I did it!” She declared with a fist thrust to the air, the platinum good-luck charm bracelet she’d never left home without jingling down her arm. Because, in the words of Billie herself - everyone needed a little fortune to go about their day right.
Lucile raised an eyebrow at her blank page. Someone is in a good mood. She wasn’t sure whether to be scared or glad. Usually, when Billie was this jovial, she’d just won an insult row with the handsome enough-to-model-for-Abercrombie and Fitch-but-scary gang of college boys that hung out in the parking lot of her favorite strip mall downtown. Or when she came first class on a test at her high school. But since she graduated nearly two months ago, there wasn’t a high chance for the latter. “If you mean you’ve freaked the neighbors enough to think we’re being burgled, then yes, you did.” Luce pressed the pencil onto her sketchbook and began etching out the flower design she had come up with during her lunch break, gnawing on her lower lip in concentration.
Billie always told her she got this look when she was drawing - like you’re determined to capture the world on a page, Lucie-goosey.
She would, if she could. With a whole lot of black and red oil pastel.
“No, my sweet, amazing, beautiful sister! Something much, much more exciting than the bugging tenants of this crappy building!” Lucile’s jaded ergonomic chair squealed as Billie gave it a powerful twist. Suddenly Lucile’s vision was a swirling mass of a tidy purple room and her smiling sister’s face instead of a fashion model, her ponytail slipping from its hold. Her toes curled and her stomach knotted. Round and round she went, like a horse figurine in a carousel. Luce hated carousels. “I’m warning you to stop, or else Billie Maria Velazquez!” She threatened, but there was no steel to it.
Billie released the chair and Lucile pounded her foot on the magenta rug to stop the gyrating.
“What’s all this about, Billie?” She asked, pinning her hair back up.
Billie looked about ready to explode with giddiness as she pranced to the cheval glass mirror standing beside their closet and struck a sultry pose, imitating the Prudence Gonzales poster hanging beside her bed. “Make a guess.”
Lucile frowned, turning back to her sketchpad. The skirt was nearly complete, and the pattern looked beautiful on the female figurine, even in plain black and white. She couldn’t wait to add the color. “I don’t like this game,” She reminded her sister.
“Oh, come on.” Billie leaned forward and slung an arm around her older sister’s shoulders, pouting. The tips of her fiery hair brushed Luce’s neck, and the scent of roses and varnish and coconut shampoo washed over her. ”For me?"
From somewhere below the window the faint roar of gunshots rose up to them, followed by the squeal of tires against asphalt.
Yep. It was nearly always a party round these parts.
Lucile groaned. “Okay,” She gave in. “You got free backstage passes to a Harry Styles concert?” She inserted tiny flowers along the hem of her skirt.
Billie sighed wistfully, stepping back and doing a Disney-princess pivot on the rug. She’d had an ’I want-to-date-you thing’ for British guys since she hit puberty. More specifically, 1D members. The many magazine cut outs of ZAYN, Harry, Neil, Louis and Liam taped to their closet door in a collage of glitter, felt-pen and paper flowers said it all. I’m obsessed with one direction. Call me. She even taped the People’s magazine article featuring rare paparazzi shots of Harry’s night out with Prudence Gonzales in Mykonos, the February of last year.
“I wish I were Prudence,” She decided one night as she stared at it with earnest eyes. Her fingers traced hearts around Harry Styles signature smile beaming down at her from the shrine on the door. When Lucile had glanced up at her from the top of her sketchbook and asked why, she answered,
“Because she’s the most perfect thing since chocolate. Money, good looks, a killer body...” Her voice trailed off on the last point, and she instantly wished she could take those words and shove it back down her throat. There was no hiding the fact that Billie had suffered severe issues with her appearance over the past few years. Everyone in their neighborhood had seen her leaving the apartment building on a gurney the night of her overdose. Seen the ambulance that pulled up to the Star Haven at twelve am. Seen the franticness on Lucile’s face as she screamed at the poor responder who tried to make her understand why she couldn’t come to the hospital in her Victoria secret night-gown. Seen the zip top bag of nicotine the nurse carried out of the apartment and handed to the grumpy police officer who’d interrogated Luce. It was the most mortifying day of her life. Those were memories of a past Lucile made her swear to never go back to when Billie recovered from her coma.
Billie tried to laugh it off, and Lucile let it slide, only because she didn’t want to make her feel worse.
“That’d be the day.” Billie said. “But no. What I did get though, is the scholarship to Waverly!”
Lucile pencil fell out of her hand and rolled from the table to the ground with a thud. She turned around and shot out of the seat, sketchbook forgotten. “En Serio?” She asked, clutching her sister’s hand, eyes sparkling.
Billie nodded enthusiastically, smiling so hard her cheeks had to hurt. It was the happiest Lucile had ever seen her. “The letter came in this morning, before I left for Cam’s! Oh, Luce – I’m so excited! Imagine me, walking the grounds of the top university in America with the best performing arts course as a student two weeks’ from now!” She glanced at the Waverly university poster hanging over her bed as if a portal to L.A could open up that very minute and transport her to the land of dreams.
“You earned it, chica,” Lucile pulled Billie in for her patented sister side hug, too proud to put in words. She’d beaten it. She’d beaten the stigma. All her nights spent nestled in the local library between books whilst her classmates were out partying and living like there was no tomorrow finally pulled off in the end, just like Luce had told her it would. How many kids from their hood could declare they were accepted into one of America’s most prestigious universities for a performing arts scholarship? Only one. Her. “So tomorrow I’m going to go out and get a shirt that says, ’my sister is a waverlian!” In big bold letters, so everyone can know that my younger sister is awesome!”
Billie moved away as if Luce suddenly contracted the black plague. “Don’t even think about it.” She warned.
Luce laughed. And then a realization dawned on her. It was as slick as a feather in the wind and as strong as a bottle of scotch. The smile dropped. Ice sliced through her stomach, the feeling of a dirty premonition. “Have you – have you told Carlos, yet?” She asked. But she was aware of the answer already. They both knew that Billie wouldn’t speak ten words to Carlos even if he were on his deathbed. Her seriousness seemed to strike some chord. The corner of Billie’s lips anchored as she turned back to study her reflection in the mirror, flattening the torso of her wife beater with her palms.
Luce sighed. “You’ll have to, soon. Waverly is in L.A, chica.”
“I know!” Agitation kicked the volume of her voice up a few notches. Not at her sister, but at the situation. She’d dreamed of becoming an actress for as long as she’d been old enough to store knowledge. The thought of Carlos ruining what very well could be her only shot out of the slums and to the glitzy carpets of Hollywood sent fiery, desperate heat marching through her bones. She went to sprawl face-flat onto her bed without bothering to take off her Doc Martins. It was covered in a matching comforter and pillowcase set embroidered with one of Luce’s old designs - her way of sprucing up their bare room. The antique posters and trinkets that she’d collected from flea market trips with any spare money she could squeeze out of her fund over the years served the same purpose. At least their room looked sort of lively. Compared to the rest of the house. “I know. But he’s Carlos! There’s no way in hell he’s going to let me go.”
Luce moved to sit by her distraught sister, avoiding piles of medical books and opened magazines and Twix wrappers littered around a stuffed bear named Clarke. She stroked Billie’s hair like she used to do when the eighteen year-old was young enough to believe in nightmares. She was so used to being the mom it was almost like a second instinct. “Hey, It’ll be alright,” She soothed.
Billie huffed into a pillow. “I just don’t get why he had to be my father. Over all the men in the world, Nicola had to shack up with that guy.”
Luce laughed softly at her sister’s wailing. Billie could sometimes forget how fortunate she was. At least she knew who her father was. She never had to spend nights crying to herself, wondering about her father’s identity and why he wasn’t with her. Why he didn’t care. But Luce herself stopped caring years ago. Who knew, with her mother’s taste in men, Luce’s father could very well be a mafia boss or a bank robber. Maybe it was better not to know, like Billie always said the rare times they’d ever discussed the topic of birthparents. At least with that her fantasies of him being a relatively good person with no criminal background could stay pristine in her mind, despite how unlikely it was. Her fingers unconsciously began reaching toward the birthmark on her waist. While he gave Nicola the slip the morning after their frat party hookup, her biological father also left Luce with the unusual K.D shaped blemish on the skin just under her left ribcage. It was the only thing her mother ever told him about her.
Luce opened her mouth to say something when the sound of their front door slamming shattered the peace of the apartment. Her breath caught. Fear writhed through her veins like something sour, setting her senses on high alert, her head thrumming like the beat of a drum. She knew Carlos was home. That wasn’t what frightened her. It was the shouting – Carlos’s voice – followed by pleas – their mom’s voice. Luce and Billie exchanged wide-eyed glances. When Carlos came home angry it was never good. When Carlos came home shouting, it was even worse. When Carlos came home shouting with their mother crying, it was the epitome of a nightmare. Someone was going to get hurt tonight, and it wasn’t going to be Carlos. It never was.
Luce jolted to her feet as an agonized cry sounded, and Billie jerked up, startled out of her self-misery. The light, amusing atmosphere that had formed between the two sisters wilted into a heavy, suffocating familiar awareness of what was happening. It was times like this that made Billie wish she was still small enough to hide in the dusty shadows under bed, where she could curl up with Clarke and shut her eyes and pretend all the shouts and screams away. Times that made Luce wish Nicola hadn’t been naïve enough to bring the three of them back to this nightmare four years ago after deciding to leave Carlos for good. All it took was one phone call, and she was running back into his maltreating arms from another round of boyfriends and shady flats feeling like a right Cinderella, her children dragged behind her, lugging regret and sorrow in the shadows of their failed marriage.
A silent agreement passed between the two as they both sprung for the hall, Luce pushing Billie behind her instinctively. Let the oldest handle it. Let me be first. That was how it had always been with them. Whenever Carlos got antsy, Luce would be the one to volunteer to receive the brunt end of things. What they saw in the living room made the pair stop short at the end of the hallway. Billie clutched Luce’s arm with an inaudible gasp, suddenly glad Luce was in front.
Carlos had their mother by her hair, a murderous look in his bloodshot eyes, and his fist inches away from her already bruised face.
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