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Heart of Gold (The Golden Boys - Book 1) by Michaela Haze (1)


1

 

The bell rang out over the door of Judy's Diner. The sound was almost constant as the lunchtime rush pulled in. I wiped my sweaty palms down the front of my gingham apron and fixed my ponytail. I grabbed my trusty coffee jug so I could refill any empty mugs. Happy customers meant good tips.

It didn’t matter that I had been on my feet since three that morning, serving coffee to the all-night customers on the edge of the 603 into Goldryn Bois. I put on a smile and I got on my hustle.

Most of my paycheck came from tips. I was going to darn well do it if that meant wearing a shorter skirt and fluttering my eyelashes at the truckers that stopped off at the edge of our little town.

The days were long and the smell of bacon grease had become my perfume; it was all a rung on the ladder.

I was determined. Only a few more hundred dollars to go until I could put a deposit down on an apartment in the next city over. I would probably have to get a roommate starting out, but I didn’t care. I was twenty-four years old. It was more than time for my life to start properly.

My phone vibrated in the pocket of my apron, but I ignored it as I pulled out my notepad and pencil. I couldn’t help the real smile that took over my face as I walked up to Big Sal and Little Sue’s table.

“Ladies!” I opened my arms in a welcoming manner and, even though I smelt like a fryer and had a jug of lukewarm coffee in one hand, Little Sue stood up and wrapped her arms around me. The cut of her biker jacket smelt like leather, Chanel perfume, and weed.

“You scamming on my ole lady, Harry?” Big Sal winked as she offered her mug up for a refill of coffee.

I leant forward and poured as Sue shifted in her seat to lean over and place a kiss on her wife's cheek. “What can I get for my favourite customers?” I chirped. My maudlin musings were quite replaced with a crack of happiness that came with seeing Big Sal and Little Sue.

“You need to ask?” Little Sue winked.

I jotted her regular down on my pad and turned to Sal. “Gunna branch out and pick something different off the menu?” I teased.

“You know me, Harry.” Sal threaded her fingers into Sue's waiting hand on the table. “Always up for trying something new.”

I laughed, “Francois’ Jambalaya it is then.” I made a note on the pad but I probably could have just written S&S. H would have known what to plate up.

“How many days left until you leave Goldryn Bois?” Little Sue took a pack of cigarettes and placed them on the table. She asked me the same question every day. My answer never changed.

“Not long, I hope.” The veneer that I built up around me was cracking as I considered the biker's kind faces. I excused myself with a sedated smile as I as I put my coffee jug back on the warmer.

My phone vibrated again and I gestured to Mary that I needed to use the bathroom. I pulled out my smartphone and checked the incoming messages after slipping into the stall and locking the door behind me. My own face was reflected in the cracked screen. The glowing green text of my messages made my stomach sink.

Your mama just walked into The Steel Trap. Just a head's up.

The Steel Trap was a bar on the other side of town. It was the kind of place with bullet holes in the side from days gone by, and the kind of carpet that tried to claim your sandals with its sticky texture. The derelict hut backed into the edge of the swamp, and was surrounded by a chicken wire fence to stop the drunk’s from falling into the water and getting eaten by Gators. Hence the name.

My shift at Judy's didn’t end for another hour. I could not afford to lose the money. I would have to stay until the end. Lucky for me, my shift ended at 3pm; this meant I wouldn’t be hanging around after dark. Which was all too common for me.

I would have to get a water taxi around the edge of town to the Trap but it was better than the walkthrough to Main Street after being on my feet all day.

How much trouble could mama get into in an hour? I thought.

I had been dealing with her for years. I should have known better.

 

 

My feet ached and my skull burnt from my too tight ponytail as I hung up my apron in the staff room at Judy's.

Mary, on the register, handed me an envelope with my full name scrawled across the front in Sharpie. Harriet, but most people called me Harry.

It was better than 'Gilly the Drunk's kid. Ever since I had started working at Judy's about five years previously, people associated me with the gingham apron. I was sad to say that it was an improvement from the filthy kid, with holey shoes that always used to be hungry. Judy, the owner, always made sure I had a slice of cherry pie or a serving of François' Jambalaya if I decided that I didn’t care about the heartburn the next day.

I count my cash while standing under the alcove at the back of the diner. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to pay the rent for the week on the trailer, the electric and then enough to do the shopping. I thought about the lonely mustard bottle in the fridge door with a pang of sadness. I'd been living on condiment sandwiches for the past three days, refusing to touch my savings.

“You’ll have some delicious friends soon.” I promised the mustard bottle with a laugh as I pocketed my pay. My phone vibrated again and I scrambled to pull it out.

Gilly's wasted. Bentley's going to kick her out.

I silently thanked Tabitha, my high school friend and a bartender at the Trap for her updates, even if they made me want to tear my hair out.

The roar of a boat engine snapped me back from my imaginings of a condiment based reality. I watched as Markus toddled past on his hover boat. I shouldn’t have, but I was in a panic so I extended my arms and jumped up and down to get his attention.

Markus was a driver for the Gold Family. The namesake of Goldryn Bois. I guessed that the old man was heading back from dropping off one of the Gold boys down the way. Markus occasionally popped into the diner on Thursdays. Mary made key lime on Thursdays.

“What can I do you for, Ms Thompson?” Markus smiled and the corner of his eyes crinkled.

“I'm so sorry to ask, but could you give me a ride to the Trap?” I asked, placing my hands in a prayer position.

Markus' expression sobered. “You don’t want to be hanging around with that sort, Harry.”

“It’s my mama.” I explained on a whisper.

Markus' face melted in what looked like pity and he gestured for me to climb into the free seat. The ride was quick, but it would have taken over 45 minutes to walk it. I tried to give him some money for his trouble, but Markus refused.

Stepping in front of the Steel Trap, I swore that I spent more time pulling my mama out of the decaying bar than she did drinking there.

Beanie was at the door as the bouncer for the evening. The bulge inside his painted-on trousers meant he was clearly packing a firearm. Beanie waved me through. He didn’t bother to ask for cover charge or ID.

The Steel Trap was smoky, and it smelt of stale piss. The stark notes of some jaunty Elvis tune were made hauntingly depressing by the dark atmosphere. The mahogany tables were covered in rings, the ghost of beers of the past. The liquor behind the counter was a combo of cheap whiskey and Donovan's moonshine. The bottles were so dusty that the favourites were clearly marked with fingerprints.

Tabitha was wiping down the bar on the other side of the room. Every so often she shot Mama a look of concern and then eyed the clock. Mama Gilly's bleached head, with a three-inch dark root on her crown, was draped over the bar. Her forehead rested against the sticky wood. I would have thought that she was sleeping, if not for the shuddering that moved her shoulders. Mama was crying, but that wasn’t new.

Pulling on the strength I needed, I forced my emotions to the backseat and let my muscle memory take over. I shot Tabby a look of thanks and a small smile as I tapped my Mama on the shoulder.

“Mama, it's time to go.” I whispered, slamming a twenty on the bar to settle her tab. I prayed to God that it would be enough, because I didn’t have much more to spare. The utilities rattled off in my mind, and I eyed the crinkled cash with a pang of sadness and a hot flash of anger that I quickly buried so that I could focus on the task at hand.

Mama grunted but it tapered off to a whimper. I shook her shoulder gently.

“Mama. It’s time to go.”

“Fuck off, Harry. You fucking stuck up piece of shit.” She muttered to herself. Her eyes were glassy as she pushed herself away from the bar.

I was used to it. Mama staggered, unable to stay upright. I dipped down and tugged her emaciated arm over my shoulders to support her weight. She was thinner than she'd been last week, even though my fridge kept coming up suspiciously empty when Mama was left alone in the trailer.

I carried her onto the street. The afternoon sun was low in the sky and the midges hovered in clouds at the water’s edge. I navigated the gate as if it was second nature. Beanie waved as I began to the task of manoeuvring Mama back to the trailer off Dooley Road. It was about a ten-minute walk, which turned into an hour by the addition of a drunken koala attached to my body.

My feet throbbed and I was tired. I'd been at the diner since the early hours of the morning and my vision was fading with tiredness.

“Why do you always gotta ruin my fun, Harry?” Mama snapped. “I wanted a fucking drink. I just wanted one fucking drink.” Her words were slurs and grunts but I spoke fluent Gilly.

Mama pushed away from me, but then tripped over her feet. Her fingers grabbed at me like a newborn baby seeking a bottle. I ignored her. Locking away my emotions. I fucking hated the person Mama had become. She stumbled onto the sofa with a huff and managed to ferret a bottle of Jack from between the frayed sofa cushions.

The thing was, I had no idea when or why Mama changed. I just knew that she wasn’t always a drunk. But it was getting harder and harder to remember those days.

“Harriet Thompson, you get your sweet ass over here and give me some sugar.” Miles Gimbole was harmless, in a happily married way. His wife Ottalie gave him a placating smile as she pushed his wheelchair back behind the counter.

“You need to tell him off,” Ottalie waggled her finger, her Creole accent was thick. “It just encourages him.”

“You’re his wife.” I laughed as the Cajun woman battered me with her dusting cloth.

“What can I do for you?” O eyed the crumpled list in my hands and I pulled it out to survey it. Even without looking, I knew what Mama wanted from the Piggly Wiggly. It wasn’t rocket science.

I placed the list on the table, “One bottle of Jack, Ma’am, and a bag of potatoes if you haven’t sold out.”

Ottalie turned and walked into the back of the store. Her hips swayed and I knew it was for the benefit of her husband.

“How’s Gilly doing these days, Harry?” Miles asked, his tone was light but he cradled his fingers in front of him in concern.

“Gilly’s fine.” I smiled brightly and waved my hand as if it wasn’t important. “Now, tell me all about what your foxy wife is baking for the High Summer Fair next week.”

Miles shrugged with a cheeky smile. “What makes you think I know?”

I brandished my finger like a club. “Don’t think I don’t know your game, Mr Taste Tester.”

Ottalie returned from the back and planted a kiss on his wrinkled cheek. “Don’t be giving my secrets out, Cher.” She handed two brown bags over the counter, one with a bottle of Liquor. The other full of potatoes. The only thing I could afford that was going to keep me full enough to get to working.

I brushed my unruly dark hair over my cheek, and hoped to God that Ottalie hadn’t seen past my dollar store foundation to the glowing bruise underneath.

Courtesy of Mama. She hadn’t been best pleased that I come to drag her sorry ass home, even though it happened more regularly than I’d like.

I tucked my sack of potatoes under my arm and left before the Gimboles could ask any questions that I didn’t want to face

Leaving the air-conditioned walls of the Piggly Wiggly and walking into the Louisiana heat on Main was like being slapped in the face with a wet flannel that had come straight from Satan's bathwater.

I didn’t get two steps before I was greeted by the tapping foot of one of my best friends, Miss Rina Langley.

“Slinking around again, Harry?” Rina quirked a perfectly sculpted eyebrow.

“Wouldn’t want you to be seen with a peasant, Miss Rina.” I stuck out my tongue.

Rina put her hands on her hips and popped to the side. She hated being called Miss Rina. Being the only daughter of the Langley's, the only family rich enough to give the Gold’s a run for their money, Rina was an honest to goodness Heiress.

“You wouldn’t be a peasant if you took my money, ho.” Rina darted forward, short and spry like a pixie, and grabbed the brown paper bag from my hands. “You wouldn’t be buying booze for your good for nothin' Mama? Would you? Harriet Thompson.”

I shrugged and kept walking. Rina's little legs took two steps for every single one of mine.

“When are you working next?” She asked, reaching into her pocket and taking out a strawberry’s and cream Chupa Chup lolly. It was an addiction.

“Those things'll rot your teeth.” I growled.

“I got enough money to fix 'em. Plus, they’re sugar-free.”

I rolled my eyes. “Money waster.”

“Speaking of money wasting, are you coming to the Goldryn Bois Masquerade on Friday?”

“My invite must have gotten lost.” I drawled sarcastically. We reached a green bench on Main Street and I took an opportunity to take a load off. My feet were still killing me. I'd picked up a pair of nearly new shoes at the local Goodwill and they rubbed like hell. The soles had fallen off my old chucks and when I’d seen the golden high-tops, I’d fallen in love. They were worth the blisters.

“To answer your question, I’m working on Friday.” I replied, wiping my forehead with the back of my hand.

Rina took a seat beside me and swung her legs. “No, you're not.” She sang.

I blinked slowly. “What did you do, Rina? I can’t lose that job.”

“Judy loves you. I asked nicely and she gave you the night off.”

“I need that money, Rina.”

Rina fiddled with her hands in front of her. She looked guilty for a brief second before her chirpy mask slipped back in place. “I’ll pay for your time. Whatever you would have made at the diner. I can’t do it alone, Harry. Daddy wants to set me up with someone. He’s talking about marriage.” She hissed the last word like a cuss.

“You need me to run interference?” I wouldn’t take her money and I mentally tallied up how I could make it work.

“Better than marrying someone that Daddy picks for me. He’s blind to assholes, I swear. Do you remember Devon?”

Oh boy did I remember Devon. “Did his eyebrows grow back?”

“I have no idea.” Rina smiled cheekily.

“I wouldn’t want to get on your bad side.” I shuddered.

“What do you say?” she nudged me. “Be my plus one? You’ll have a dress. A mask. It'll be great.”

“The mask is a bonus. At least your Daddy won’t fret about the trailer trash getting in.”

“Fake name on the guest list. Bada-bing, bada-boom.” She said in a low, terrible, fake Italian accent.

“What did you go for this time? Please not Lina Rangley? Swapping your initials isn’t creative, Rina, it’s lazy.” I could ignore my smarting cheek and smile for the first time all day. Rina had that effect on people.

“Pepper Potts.” She said, wringing her hands. “Okay! Not my best work, but I’d just watched Iron Man and Robert Downey Junior just gets me so... Twirled.”

“Twirled?”

“Like when someone spins you around and all those cartoon birdies pop up. Twirled.”

I crooked a brow but did not refute her logic.

“Maybe I can find a nice gay guy to marry.” She mused. “I’d be a great beard.”

I shook my head, getting whiplash from her abrupt conversation change. “First world problems, Rina. Reginald Langley cannot walk you up the aisle against your will.”

“He’ll try.” She sighed.

“Where did my Rina go?” I poked her shoulder. “It’s not like you fret about things that ain't happened yet.”

“And you. You're walking around a cross between a wet hen and a wet cat. What's twisting you up in knots?”

I lifted my fringe from my face and showed Rina the seam of my foundation. I was fairly certain that the heat had all but washed it away.

I waited for Rina to make a joke. Say something witty and charming. But she didn’t. She opened her arms and wrapped them around me, stroking my hair. She was trembling.

“There I was talking about the stupid ball, when you're walking around with a bruise the size of St Ann’s Parish on the side of your face.” Rina's voice was watery.

I shifted uncomfortably. “It’s not so bad.”

“Your Mama?”

I nodded into her shoulder and patted her shoulder as if I was the one consoling her. My coldness slipped over my emotions like a glove. It was easier to wrap a barrier of ice around the screaming, poop slinging anger monkey inside my head then let him out.

“She got me with the edge of a bottle. Didn’t break, though.” My voice was without emotion.

“How much money do you need? How much until you'll finally leave that woman behind?” Rina had offered to give me the money so many times but I had always said no. I couldn’t take money from her.

“Soon.” I promised. “I’m almost there.”

 

 

Dooley Road, where the ‘Blue Sky Heights' Trailer Park' was located on the wrong side of town, was hidden in the overgrowth trees and off the beaten track. My flats slipped against the dirt path, as I walked further away from the quaint small-town vibe of Goldryn Bois and into the Sticks.

Rina had walked me out to the end of Main, but I didn’t like her going further.

The town was full of Mom and Pop businesses and dotted with random designer stores. It was easy to forget that Goldryn Bois housed some of the richest families to come out of Louisiana since the slavers owned plantations.

Goldryn Row, the hoity-toity gated community, was way on the other side of town; and it was Rina's home. I lived on the 'wrong' side of town, away from the iron gates and swimming pools on Goldryn Row.

We had both met at high school. I was one of the only poor kids in a sea of Louis Vuitton handbags and Louboutin’s shoes worn with our school uniform. Rina was the only girl at Goldryn High School to have outrageous hair and to wear her blazer inside out. Reginald Langley the Third, aka Rina's Daddy, had not been pleased when her rebellion started. He was even less impressed when it didn’t end and it became apparent that what he thought was a phase was just Rina.

Mama had a job until I was about ten. We never talked about why Mama lost her job, but it orbited the fact my Pop committed suicide by sucking a pistol.

I remembered fumbling through Mama's pockets, as a child, whilst she slept so I could find enough money for lunch at school back then. I'd been smelly and hungry and I’d quickly learnt how to take care of myself to stop social services from sniffing around.

It was an hour and a half of slogging in the heat. My flats would have stuck to it if the path had been cement. I checked my old-school Casio watch, my one belonging that had once been my father’s, and hurried home.

Not only was I hot and sweaty with deodorant that appeared to be failing, but I was greeted with grunting and the obvious sounds of fucking when I opened the door--which was just great.

Without emotion, I ignored the used condom on the floor in the corner and started boiling potatoes.

My suspicions had been correct. Any quick food that I’d bought for myself and Mama was the kind that could probably be cooked without burning down the trailer, even if she was three sheets to the wind. It had gone so quickly.

Mama's men had been eating it. I resisted the urge to slam the cabinet door.

I made mashed potatoes and I seasoned them with a spoonful of mustard from the bottle in the fridge. It wasn’t the best meal in the world, but I needed fuel. I ate out of the saucepan as I read a book on the Kindle app on my phone. I ignored the giant crack on the screen, even though it made it hard to see the top half of every single page. I had work soon and I needed a shower.

After finishing my strange meal, I stepped into the harsh boiling spray and washed all of the muck from my brief outing out of my hair and off of my body.

I needed to get a hustle on. I'd have to do my makeup at work because it was going to slide right off my face in the afternoon sun. I was on the nightshift and I would be lucky if I caught the tail end of the dinner rush.

Short skirt and a high ponytail. There were no streetlights on Dooley Road, but we were far enough from the water's edge that I didn’t worry too much about predators. The scaly kind, not the human kind. I had my pepper spray in my worn black handbag, but doubted it would do much against a gator if it came down to it.

My flashlight was pink and highlighted my route until I got to the safety of the main road, which was onto the edge of the 603 into town. I needed a car something awful, but I didn’t have the money to spare. At least I could function easy enough by walking, and the worst-case scenario would mean a bus journey into Lafayette.

I walked through the back of the diner. I didn’t want any of the customers to see me without a full face of makeup. I needed to make tips up somehow.

I'd been told by some people that I had a pretty face. Frizzy brown hair and wide hazel eyes that I couldn’t find on my Mama's face but must have come from somewhere. Mama’s were always bloodshot though, and the bags under my eyes from exhaustion and stress weren’t going away.

I paid extra attention to the bruise on my forehead and dabbed it with concealer. I knew that the fluorescents of the diner would hide my shame, but it didn’t hurt to be careful.

I put a little wiggle into my step as I went about my shift, refilling coffees and serving up food to the hungry folks passing through.

Not many Goldryn Bois residents came to the Judy's Diner. It was on the way out of town and there were plenty of fancier places to eat on Main. I couldn’t afford it but Rina had gone on tons of Tinder dates at Gio's, the Italian place next to Madam Wise's Tea Emporium.

There were a group of young men in my corner, suits and ties. Not the usual clientele. I was more at ease with the bikers that passed through, but you'd never know it as my smile was spread from ear to ear.

I put a swish in my step and pulled out my pad. “Welcome to Judy's, my name is Harriet but y'all can call me Harry. Is there anything I can get you?”

And just like that, the bottom fell out of my bucket.

The three men looked similar, eyes the colour of bluebells and hair as dark as night, but that was where the similarities ended.

My eyes met the harsh ice of the man in the centre of the booth. His jaw was square and his hair was combed back real nice. He looked like the kind of man that wore his indifference like a shield. He made my heart start beating really quickly. Doki-Doki was the Japanese term for it. I would have fanned myself but it wasn’t appropriate. Angry eyes that stared into my soul and left me feeling as big as a flea.

The man nearest to me wore a smile like a sunbeam, wiggling in his seat like a puppy, catching my attention and pulling it away from the silent giant.

“Hiya darlin’, you wouldn’t be able to tell me what that delicious smell is? Could you?” The smiley one asked.

I stifled a laugh at his easy charm. “That’s the key lime pie. Every Thursday on the clock.” I gave him a wink, pouring on the southern charm. For some reason, I just couldn’t help myself. I looked at each of the men and realisation slotted onto my face like a Tetris line. These were the Gold brothers. Julian the joker. Elliot the Iceman and Nathaniel the animal. They'd all been a few grades above me at school. Elliot was the oldest, Julian was the middle child and Nathanial was the tattooed baby of the family.

My eyes caught on the man at the centre of the booth again, Elliot Gold. The Iceman. Cold. Calculating. He was studying me as if he could see right through my facade and I did not like it one iota. I'd read an article in the Goldryn Shopper about all his business ventures. He was a shark.

I saw his expression darken as realisation dawned on my face. I swallowed the lump in my throat and turned back to Julian. I guessed he would be the safer option.

“It’s not often we get the Gold brothers on our side of town.” I winked, “I’ll get you some coffee and key lime pie. Just holler if you need anything else.”

I walked away from the three richest and eligible bachelors’ in Goldryn Bois. No wonder Julian had been so bouncy. He probably found it hilarious that the dumb waitress didn’t recognise the three people that owned most of the town.

My phone vibrated and every ounce of good feeling fled.

I plated up the pie and delivered it to the table with a smile. I excused myself and let Mary know that I’d be in the restroom.

I sat on the closed lid of the toilet and pulled out my phone.

Your Mama just left with a bunch of out of towners. I think she's taking them back to your place.

There was nothing I could do. I'd just come on my shift and I couldn’t get away. I couldn’t leave Mary to run the whole diner by herself. I also needed the money.

I rubbed my hand over my face and sighed. The kind of deep and bone-weary breath that felt like my soul was leaving my body.

I knew for a fact that I’d have to bleach the trailer from top to bottom, at best. I didn’t even want to think about the worst-case scenario.

At least I’d locked my bedroom door when I’d left.

I stood up and shook my arms out, letting my muscles turn to jelly. I took deep breaths and pulled my lips into a bright smile. I could get through my shift. I just needed to push all the shit that was flying around my head down to the balls of my feet and out of existence. I stepped out of the bathroom, but I didn’t look up until I found myself knocked back a step by a hard body in my way.

I blinked up, slowly, confused, only to find myself staring into the eyes of the Iceman.

Somehow, the stranger had the ability to make me shrivel back and want to curl into a ball. His bearing was so broad and confident that it highlighted everything that I hated about myself.

He had money and I didn’t.

He'd probably gone to college and had some fancy law degree. Harvard. Yale. One of those. Did it make him better than me? Not a chance. But I couldn’t tell my flaming cheeks and tummy full of butterflies that.

I squirmed on the spot and apologised with a mumble. I expected him to step to the side and let me pass. The thin corridor from the restrooms wasn't wide enough for two people. Elliot Gold did not move.

His eyes narrowed and flicked to my forehead. A shadow passed over his face and his lip curled in a way that I could only describe as distaste. The Iceman turned and walked away with a shake of his head.

I could only watch, frozen and confused.

I walked behind the counter and pulled the fresh coffee pot off the burner. I walked to their table to offer a refill, darting across the linoleum.

“This place is a dive.” Elliott’s voice dripped with distain. “Why did we have to come here? I can feel my IQ dropping just being here.”

“God, Elliot. Don’t pull any punches. You're in a shitty mood today.” Julian griped.

“You’d be in a shitty mood if you had to watch your brother flirt with a waitress of questionable intelligence. She’s smiling, for sure. But you can tell, the wheel’s turning but the hamster is dead.”

I didn’t feel anger the way that regular people did. I tended to shut down and go numb, but something about Elliot Gold's words hit me the wrong way. I was vibrating with fury and clenched teeth. My fists were right. Nails digging into the palms of my hands. That... Asshole!

I don’t how I did it, but I kept my lips zipped and my smile in place as I refilled their coffee mugs a few minutes later. I pretended that I hadn’t heard Elliott’s insulting words. After all, I was just a waitress. I wanted to spit in his pie. I wouldn’t actually do it, but it was so tempting.

I turned on my heel and walked back to the counter and pushed the pot back on the burner.

“What’s got you in a snit?” Mary laughed from behind the counter.

“Nothing.” I took out my cloth and started polishing the cake cabinet after glancing around to check on my tables.

“Doesn’t look like nothing.” Mary crossed her arms over her chest.

My eyes flicked to the Gold brothers in the corner of my section.

“Are those the—”

“Uh-huh.” I said, rubbing the glass harder than necessary.

“Maybe you should go over and ask if they want anything else, if you get my drift?” Mary waggled her eyebrows and I snorted in disgust.

“You see that one there?” My eyes flicked to Elliot, “The one with an expression like a smacked ass?”

“Oh, you mean Elliot Iceman Gold. Yeah. I know him.” Mary sighed dreamily.

“He’s an asshole.” I put my cloth down and excused myself to wash my hands.

I was more than a waitress. I was a person. I took photos in my spare time. I was a damn good friend and a caretaker to my Mama. I had straight As in school. There was no shame in being a waitress, but the way that the pompous rich boy had said it made me feel smaller than a flea. I was smart. I may have hidden behind a smile and kind words, but I knew my worth.

“I’m a Gold digger.” Mary winked. “Get it? Because his surname is Gold?”

I rolled my eyes.

I tried to get Elliot Gold's harsh words out of my mind but my anger was vast. Bottomless. I tried not to feel hurt but failed. His words echoed over and over. I hadn’t been a person to him; he'd identified me by my wage bracket.

I ignored their table as I refilled coffee and took orders; and, I instead asked Mary to take care of them. She was ecstatic.

My phone buzzed in my pocket and I ignored it as I placed a bowl of François’ jambalaya in front of an out-of-towner.

“You'll love it if you like your head blown clean off.” I laughed as I gave the man his cutlery.

“Who doesn’t like a bit of spice?” The middle-aged man in an ill-fitting suit joked.

“I don’t know about you, but I have to take a three-day break in-between bowls of that stuff.” I laughed. “I’m getting too old for all that heartburn.”

“You can't be more than twenty-one, Sugar.” The customer said. “Come back when you get heartburn from drinking coffee too fast.”

“You got me there.” I winked as I walked away.

Mary had gone on her break and time had whizzed past. I was clearing the Gold brother's table before I knew it. They'd left without a word.

I moved the coffee cup and balanced it the plate in my hands. Benjamin Franklin's face greeted me and went straight in the tip jar.

My shift had started at 8pm on Thursday and ended on 3pm on Friday. I was dead on my feet. Nightshifts were hard, especially with the long dull stretches in the empty diner. We got all sorts coming through the doors, but even so, it got tiring after a while.

I had ignored my phone the entire shift. The image of the open-ended used condom on the grey stained carpet caused a slow burning rage that didn’t falter and added to the sludge that Elliot Gold had created. I had no idea what my Mama was up to, but I’d had enough.

My tips were better than I expected and split between Mary and I. I had just about enough for ground rent on the trailed for the week and groceries. I tried not to think about my jewellery box full of cash under my bed but a tiny sliver of excitement pulsed through my chest.

It was happening. I’d get a greyhound from the bus station on the 603 to Baton Rouge, maybe even as far as New Orleans. I could get an apartment with a roommate. Bartend. Waitress. I did not care. I wanted to lose myself in the anonymity of the big city. I wanted to take photos again and capture something worthwhile.

I didn’t have money to waste on a water taxi, so I decided to walk home. My feet pulsated with every step but I made it. I had about three hours before Rina wanted to start getting ready for the masquerade. Part of me wanted to cancel, but she'd gone to so much trouble that it didn’t feel right.

Mama wasn’t in the trailer when I got home, and I couldn’t bring myself to care. I had expected beer cans out of the wazoo, but instead, everything was surprisingly tidy. Tabby, the bartender at the Steel Trap, must have gotten her information mixed up because it didn’t look like Mama had been home at all.

I pulled my hair out of its tight ponytail and fluffed it with my fingers. There was a skip in my step and for the first time in a long while, a light at the end of the tunnel. Cash. Bus. New life.

My bedroom door was open, which was strange because I was certain I had locked it. My barefoot caught on the sharp bobby pin on the threshold and I hissed a breath between my teeth. No. No. No. The denial echoed through my mind and my heart rose to my throat. I couldn’t breathe. My stomach started to roll and writhe like a pit of snakes.

My room was my pride. I kept my sheets clean and my bed made. All my books were in colour order and my Harry Potter Funko Pops (a gift from Rina) were all neatly displayed.

Or they had been when I had left home yesterday.

Goose down littered the floor as if someone had taken a knife to my pillows. Pages were ripped out of my books and there was broken glass on the floor from my vanity mirror.

No other part of the trailer had been touched.

I picked up the discarded innards of my favourite novels. Their words dotted around like ashes from a bonfire. City of Bones was shredded. Fault in our Stars was beyond repair. My Gryffindor edition of the Sorcerer’s Stone? Torn in two.

I sunk to my knees, unable to care when the broken mirrored glass sliced my flesh.

I was numb.

Until I saw the jewellery box under the bed was open. My tacky teenage necklaces were strewn about like shrapnel. A casualty in Mama's search for my stash of money.

My escape was gone.

Rina’s red BMW convertible looked so out of place on the dirt road that I would have laughed, if I had been in a better mood.

My best friend pushed her vintage cat eye sunglasses onto the crown of her head, and gestured for me to get into the car. I said nothing as I hauled my black duffle over my shoulders.

I had a hundred dollars to my name. The sum of Thursday night’s tips. Everything else was gone.

“I got your gown from Looky-Lu's; I hope you don’t mind.” Rina jabbered one, happy to fill the silence. “Your measurements haven’t changed since last year, have they?”

I shook my head and faced out the window as the tall iron gates of Rina’s neighbourhood drew into my vision. I didn’t want to argue about the cost of the dress, but Looky-Lu's, the boutique in town, had a waiting list about a mile long. A lump had sprung inside of my throat and it made it painful to swallow. I couldn’t ever afford to pay Rina back for the dress.

“Rina?”

My voice must have sounded as broken as I felt, because Rina stopped chattering away to herself and gave me her full attention.

“Why are you friends with me?” I asked on a whisper.

Rina’s eyes widened and her grip tightened on the steering wheel. “Do you remember the first day of classes at high school?”

I shrugged and said nothing.

“I was so nervous. Mom had made sure that I had the latest handbag and the newest phone, but none of that matters if everyone else has the same shit as you. Do you remember Sarah Mallory? Blonde, gap tooth? Her dad owns Mallory's Mill, the big lumber yard on the 603?”

I nodded, because I did remember but I had no idea where she was going with her story.

“Sarah made my life a living hell from day one, Harry. No one would even look at me. She told everyone that I had AIDS when I was out sick with Mono.”

“Fuck, that’s awful.” I hissed in sympathy.

“Sarah cornered me in the bathroom, remember?” Rina scratched behind her neck, her nervous tick. “You came in, and you have to admit it, Harry. You were a state as a kid. Wrinkled uniform. Worn out backpack that had been duct-taped together. Hair all over the place. You walked in that bathroom with your head in the clouds and the world on your shoulders. One of Sarah's minions had been dunking my head in the toilet.”

“Ugh. High school.”

“You scared Sarah off. You had a look in your eye back then. Everyone thought you were weird as fuck. But do you remember what you did?”

I snorted a laugh. “I didn’t do anything.”

“You swung your backpack at her face. And then when she left, you looked me up and down. Told me I smelt of piss and then pulled out a chocolate bar from your backpack. It was all squished. It was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for me. Best friends ever since.”

I knitted my fingers together. “You needed it more than me.”

“I kept the wrapper.” Rina said smugly.

“You did not!”

“It’s in my wallet. No word of a lie.”

I laughed to myself and ripped my head back, allowing the warm Louisiana air to run its fingers through the loose strands of my hair.

“Your Mama has never taken care of you, Harry.” Rina whispered. “But you've always taken care of her and everyone else.”

We pulled up outside of Langley Hall, Rina’s home. A large white McMansion complete with pool and eight bedrooms. I wanted to bury my head in my hands and cry but I couldn’t. Something prevented me from reaching out and telling her exactly what Mama had done. How she'd clipped my wings. How she'd made it all pointless. How I’d never escape.

How she'd made me want to die. For just a minute.

“I don’t know what she did this time, Harry.” Rina wrapped her arms around me and pulled me into a hug. The manoeuvre was awkward as we sat in the BMW as it idled on the driveway. “But, you'll be free of her soon. You're almost there.”

I couldn’t bring myself to correct her. Instead, I offered a watery smile.

Rina looked like she wanted to say something else, opening and closing her mouth. Her bright red lips pursed and her jaw clenched. Her fingers tightened on the steering wheel. All of the subtle signs that made me feel uneasy, because anger normally meant getting hurt in some respect. I took a deep calming breath and exited the car, reminding myself that Rina wasn’t Mama and that her anger wasn’t directed at me.

Rina wouldn’t hurt a fly. She was vegan for Pete’s sake.

The housekeeper, Rosa, greeted us at the door with a smile and wave. She’d been with Rina since her mother had left Reginald Langley the Third for an insurance broker that used to work in town. Last I’d hurt, Michelle Langley (now Smith) lived in Baton Rouge with her new husband and a Chihuahua named Kimchi.

Rina had shaken off whatever funk that I’d caused and danced in front of me as we walked through the halls of her mansion. She walked backwards, talking animatedly, as I navigated to her room on the second floor. Reginald Langley was old money, but despite not having a solid job description, he was never home.

“You’ll love your dress.” Rina gushed. “I couldn’t help myself.”

I chewed my bottom lip. “Rina, you know I can’t afford—”

She put her hand on the top of my arm and shook her head. “Don’t care. I wanted to do it. Indulge me.”

I laughed gently to myself and opened the door to her room. Rina dressed in a gothic vibe; there was nothing mainstream about her. Somehow her room reflected the opposite. Rina’s bedsheets were the colours of male peacock feathers and fake flowers dotted the canopy of her four-poster bed. I walked over and popped my butt down, sinking into the comforter with a happy sigh. My own bed at the trailer wasn’t uncomfortable, per say, but once I’d spent a night in Rina’s bed for a sleepover and it made it hard to get to sleep in my own single when I’d gone back home.

Rina disappeared in a flurry of dyed black hair and ripped fishnets, darting into her walk-in closet before I could say a word. She appeared a few moments later with a sleek silk dress, high neck with a dipped back to expose the length of my spine. The bottom of the dress was ombre, from bright red on the hem to the lightest blushing pink until it became pure as driven snow at the waist and above. I flattened my hands over my stomach, and my worries about fitting into the clingy material disintegrated.

Poverty lingers in a way that taints your every thought and decision. I would fit into the dress and there would not be an ounce of fat on me. Fat would imply that I’d had my share of good meals and was accustomed to the sensation of a full stomach. That was rarely the case. Even though the idea of wearing a dress that cost more than my whole trailer (and maybe Raul, my next-door neighbour’s trailer as well) was making me jittery, I forced a bright smile on my face as I took in the masterpiece. The stiffness in Rina’s shoulders dissolved, as if she had been waiting with baited breath for my response to her dress. The sparkle was back in her eyes for the first time since our talk in the car.

“The stylist is coming.” She said with a cheeky grin. “She's gunna love your ringlets!”