AN: I don't own any thing. Biggest thank you to the wonderful Monica for correcting my many, many mistakes and Maria and Heather for pre-reading. Literally wouldn't have the confidence to post if it wasn't for your encouragement and feedback.
So, warnings. This story is heavy on swearing, drugs, domestic abuse, violence and some angst. If this isn't your cup of tea then this might not be for you.
The diner is sticky hot, ceiling fans twirling round like synchronized dancers, futile against the humid still air. Customers are few and far between especially on a day like this; when the temperature is in the nineties and everyone is taking advantage of the heatwave to be outside, soaking up every last drop of sunshine.
Adjusting thick pink polyester, I try to let my skin breathe, sweat on my back, between my legs as the tops of my thighs rub together; every cell protesting at the heat. Faint sounds of Fat Bob whistling tunelessly as he clatters around the kitchen breaking the silence.
I'm not sure what the hell he's doing in there in this weather. Fat Bob has the gut the size of a couch cushion. He blames it on eating his "chefing" but in reality, it's because his "chefing" is deep frying every-fucking-thing, so it's no real surprise to anyone.
I sigh. The clock on the wall opposite doesn't move, no matter how often it draws my eyes. It stopped working a few days ago, and no one has bothered to change out the batteries which is typical of this place, I guess. Nobody is bothered, not even me.
The mirrored door swings open, throwing streaks of sunshine across the room. Straightening up, I'm half expecting some of the neighbourhood kids to come trailing in with their sweaty fists stuffed full of quarters so they can share a slushy and try to chat me up, in that way, like they know how to get a girl.
It's not them though.
"Hey," I say. "Whatcha doing here?"
Red pouty lips curve into a smile as Charlotte walks over, hips swaying, and hops up onto the bar stool. She's all sass and mouthy confidence, though she tells me she wasn't always like that. Back in high school, before God had blessed her with an hourglass figure, they had teased her for her flat chest and curly hair. She had reinvented herself she said, like freaking Madonna.
"I've come to rescue you from this shithole," she jokes. "Seriously B, it's warmer than the fires of hell in here." Her nose wrinkles as she brings her cell out of her back pocket and glances at it. "I ain't sure how you're not passing out in that dress, to be honest. Is James too tight to fork out for aircon?"
I lean over the countertop towards her. "I'm literally so sweaty my thighs are chafing."
"Mine do that anyways," she laughs, slapping her bare thighs. "These thunder thighs don't need hot weather to make that happen."
"Don't give me none of that bullshit Char, your legs are lush."
Charlotte barks a laugh and pats my arm affectionately.
"Your one to talk, you fine ass bi—"
The door behind me opens, interrupting.
"Speak o' the devil and he shall appear," Charlotte mutters, loud enough to know she'll be heard.
She's like that. Not afraid to speak her mind. I frequently wish I could do the same. She gets a real kick out of pissing James off though because she hates him and I don't even blame her. I think sometimes I hate him too.
"You talkin' shit about me, skank?"
He's tattooed heavily, from his knuckles to his neck, his face hard and his arrogance visible. Tucked behind one ear is a cigarette. Once he would make my heart skip, skip, skip. Now? It only thrums anxiously.
Today his hostility is blazing like the sun outside. He's in a foul mood and that ain't fun for anyone.
"Always," Charlotte says giving him a sardonically sweet smile, my own tightening to my face.
I feel his body heat before he slides a hand around my waist. Leaning in he kisses my cheek, dragging his mouth to my ear, hot breath on my hot skin.
"Got a job for you, B," he whispers. "Come see me in the office after you finish up."
I nod mutely as he lets go and saunters into the back, leaving us alone again.
I release a long breath, ignoring Charlotte's jibe and glance at the time on the till. Only three whole hours till I can get out of this hideous, suffocating polyester. Charlotte puts her cell face down on the counter, scowling.
"Bloody Maria, did ya know she split with Petey again? Now got her chewing my ear off askin' for advice. I said to her, 'Honey, yous are cheating on him every other day. What do you expect?' Like, she's only herself to blame."
I only saw Maria and Petey last week at one of Janie's parties and they were all over each other. Petey is a sweet guy, but she treats him so bad. I mean, I'm not sure how much more he can take.
Charlotte snorts when I tell her this.
"Like James does you? Only you take his shit and ask for more." It's a verbal slap to the face that leaves me floundering and when I don't say anything immediately, she looks up.
"What? It's true."
"I'm not getting into this again, Char," I say, finding my voice. "I mean it. He's really... trying. Just—Just leave it alone, yeah?"
I pray she does.
Charlotte looks at me with her lips pressed together. She's picked me up more times than I can count; my rock, my soul sister. She begs me to leave him before he goes too far, says I can do better but she doesn't understand. He's all I have.
She returns to her phone and we spend the next couple of minutes in silence; her tapping away furiously as I preoccupy myself with cleaning the coffee machine for the third time that day, just for something to do.
I know she wants to say more. I'd bet my last twenty dollars on it. She's probably bitching me out to Maria right now but I'm so glad she doesn't say it to my face. I know everything she says is the honest truth, and it's nothing I wanna hear right now.
"So anyways," I call over my shoulder as I check the milk levels, trying to move on and remove the tension. "What's the deal with you and that guy?"
Charlotte looks up at me with defeated eyes, huffing. I'm half expecting her to carry on but she surprises me by smiling. She starts talking about Troy; some mechanic guy she met at Janie's party last week.
"Oh, B, I think he might be the one," she exhales breathily, her eyes bright, her excitement palpable.
For a second I'm jealous, wanting to feel that way. Because I don't, not when I think of James. I can't take this away from her though, she deserves to be happy.
"Are you being serious? Oh my God, you totally are. You need to spill, girl."
A wicked smirk creeps on to her lips.
"Ya should see the size of his dick, B, my days!"
Laughter bubbles up.
And everything feels normal.
It's 8 o'clock in the evening when I clock out, gladly ridding myself of the godforsaken pink uniform and shimmying into a pair of denim cutoffs and a vest top. I exit the toilets hastily, eager to get home and have a shower to wash the day's heat off my skin.
I see James standing outside the office down the narrow hall, talking closely with Vicky, a new waitress he hired a few weeks back. She's got the most outrageous dyed red hair, like a Mary-Jane Spiderman cartoon character. My stomach knots as I see her gently shove his arm and look at the ground, her moonlight pale skin flushed pink. She's pretty.
As I get closer they both look up, shifting so they're not as close as they were and I ignore the vibe between them, the one that makes me want to punch something.
"Oh. Hey, Bella," Vicky greets casually, her eyes flickering back and forth between us.
"Hey," I say to Vicky with a forced smile, my attention quickly turning to James.
"You needed me to do something before I head home?"
"Yeah, let's go," he says, jerking his head toward the door of the office. Paint is peeling off it and there are dirty watermarks from it being opened with wet hands. Like the rest of this place, it's grim. I tell Vicky to have a good shift and she stalks off to front of house, giving a cursory glance over her shoulder and it makes me feel a sort of sick satisfaction she's so easily dismissed.
The feeling vanishes when we step inside the office. The desk is littered with large parcels of coke, weed, and pills. Smaller baggies, papers, a set of scales, and some other powder I don't know the name of all laid out methodically. If I had to guess, I'd say he was cutting the coke.
It's really not my place to ask though.
I bite my bottom lip. Half of me wants to laugh, the other cry.
My eyes dart from James, comfortable in this place, surrounded by this shit, to the windows and I'm seriously hoping there's no cops waiting to bust in right now because how do you plead your case when you're guilty as sin?
He'd only call me irrational if I brought up the stupidity of doing this stuff here, of all places, so I say nothing. I've learned when to be quiet—my opinions don't count for Jack.
James pushes the door firmly closed and moves behind me, sliding hands around my waist and up to cup my tits, giving them a squeeze.
"You look hot." His voice is little more than a low whisper into my neck as he places a kiss there.
"Hella hot, it's fucking roasting in here, out there, everywhere." I pull away from him not meeting his eyes. I'm not in the mood. His breathing pinches and I know he's annoyed but I can't help it. I'm annoyed too.
I want to ask him about Vicky, but I don't.
"What did you want me to do? Do you need me to clear out the cold chiller again cus I did that the other day—"
"Nah," he interrupts. "Not that."
I frown at him.
"I need you to do me a favour."
He's behind the desk, momentarily sliding a drawer at the bottom out before placing a thick brown envelope on the table and drumming his fingers on it.
"I need you to drop this off for me."
My mind stutters blankly. "Drop it off for you?" I repeat stupidly, looking between the package and him, my stomach twisting. "Is it drugs?"
"Not drugs, babe, just money," he says nonchalantly, like he's just asked me to do something normal, like go to the mailbox or pick up groceries.
I flush with heat. "Drug money? Are you—are you fuckin' kidding me? I told you when you first started doing this—this shit—I want no part in it!"
"I wouldn't ask you if I weren't desperate!" he snarls. He walks around the desk until he's standing in front of me but I refuse to look at him.
I'm staring hard at the grimy beige floor as he brings his rough hand under my chin and forces it up to look into his eyes.
"Look it's no big deal."
"Then why can't you do it?"
"I've got somethin' that needs doing. I'd ask Marcus but I need him and I don't trust any of those other fuckers."
I say nothing. Again. Afraid of the words on the tip of my tongue. He tucks a stray hair behind my ear and leans in, kissing me. His lips are oddly cold and when I don't respond he pulls back, his whole body tensing. He takes a step forward and I take one back instinctively, anger giving way to a pang of fear.
My back hits the solid door and I flinch as he brings his hand up and palms my face gently. For a split second, I'm craving loving touches but suddenly he's gripping my cheek and chin roughly, fingers tight on my skin, pinching to the point a whimper escapes. He ducks his face close to mine, teeth gritted.
"After everything I've done for you?"
He utters those words and I know he has me. He pinches my skin harder and I squeeze my eyes shut wanting to block him out, wanting him to stop. When I open them again, he pulls back a little shaking his head.
"There is no one else, B." He releases my face and instead places his hands hard around the tops of my arms. "And I know you're not about to fuck me over."
"You love me?"
I want to laugh because I don't know what the fuck love is anymore. Is this love? It doesn't feel like it, but instinctively I say:
"Then you'll do this."
Answers die in my throat. My heart thumps hard. There is no choice but his here.
Wearily, I ask him what I have to do.
He smiles victoriously.
"They'll text the place and the time to this burner at some point tonight," he says pulling out a cheap black cell from his back pocket and holding it out. Reluctantly I take it from him, turning it over in my hands loosely like it'll burn me if I keep it still too long.
"And they'll be expecting me?"
He licks his lips, shrugging, pulling out a black handgun from behind his back, pressing cool metal into my palm. I push it right back, panicked. It only makes me wonder about my Mamma. James presses it to me again.
I'm shaking my head. As if adding weapons into the mix in any way makes this situation better. James sees it as his goddamn right. Says it's for his own protection but I've stared down the barrel to know that ain't true.
Reaching for the packet, I swing my bag from my shoulder and stuff it in hastily along with the cell. I hand him back the death metal.
"C'mon, Bella, just take it for my peace of mind, yeah?"
I breathe out the question I want an answer to.
"These guys are dangerous?"
"B, these fuckers run this town; quit asking dumb shit," he snaps. "Look, B-"
I don't let him finish. "And here you are forcing me to do this."
This is really so dumb. So stupid. So fucked.
I slam the door hard behind me as I leave.