Buddy "Corny" Collins pulled his car into a slow stop. He screwed an unlit cigarette into the corner of his mouth while casting an eye out the car window. About five women dotted the sidewalk; all clad in short shirts and low necked tops. Corny cranked the driver side window down. He dangled an arm out the window, a clutch of dollar bills in his fist. "Hey," he called in a languid voice, "hey, who likes to party?"
One of the women raced up to the window, beating out the other ones rushing towards the car. She skipped on light feet. Dancer's feet. "Hey big boy," the woman drawled the clichéd line in a soft voice, batting her long eyelashes. Her blonde hair was backcombed and hair sprayed solid. Her cheeks wore bright blush, her eyes were painted heavily with makeup. The irises sparkled a hard blue. Experience and exhaustion swam in the baby blue. Corny's mouth dropped open.
"Amber?" he cried in a strangled voice. "Is that you?"
"Corny...?" she shrieked. "Oh my God!"
"What are you doing here?" He asked, quickly folding the bills and stuffing them into his breast pocket. Amber's face flushed in embarrassment, her cheeks looking even redder under the makeup. She looked away, hand flying to her neck and beginning to rub it. Corny noticed a dark bruise beneath her palm. "Amber," he said softly, "Get in the car."
"Get in the car," he repeated, "I'm getting you out of here."
Amber skittered around to the passenger's side. She cast glaring looks at the other women, who had started lighting up cigarettes and muttering amongst themselves. She slid into the passenger seat. Amber's movements were nervous, jittery. Corny new she expected something bad to happen, like he'd force himself on her or something. "Amber, relax," he muttered, "It's me. Come on."
She slumped in the chair, letting out a long sigh. Corny revved the engine as she clipped the seatbelt in. Soon they were speeding out of the red light district and into more friendly neighbourhoods. They drove in silence for awhile. Corny kept glancing at her from the corner of his eyes. Amber had certainly changed. She had grown a little taller it and much skinnier. Any excess fat had drained from her frame. Her shoulders jutted out from under her halter top like wings and her cheeks were starting to get a sunken look. She had matured also. She had lost the haughty look and pretentious way of holding herself. Ah, he thought to himself, it's probably the streets beating her down. Hard to be top dog even if men pay top dollar for your services.
"Corny?" She suddenly asked in a meek voice, "Can we get a burger or something? I'm starving."
"Of course," he replied, slapping the turn signal on. They pulled into the nearest fast food place. They both hopped out of the car and into the dark parking lot. Noticing the strange looks Amber was getting from passersby, Corny draped his suit jacket over her boney shoulders. She blushed again at his chivalrous gesture, knowing she was indecent. Corny held the door open for her and they entered the building. They chose the furthest booth from everyone they could find and settled in.
Picking up a gravy stained menu Corny asked what she wanted to eat. Amber stared at the menus like she had never seen one before. "Can I get anything I want?" She asked in a hushed voice. He nodded. She ripped the menu open and poured over it greedily. A waitress meandered over to their booth. "Hi, what can I get for you?" She asked cheerfully, flipping to a new page in her little notebook. Corny handed her the menu with a curt smile. "A cheeseburger and fries with water would be fine for me." The waitress made a few marks in the notepad.
"And for you?"
Amber turned her pale eyes to the waitress. "Can I get a cheeseburger with fries too? And a grilled cheese sandwich with a milkshake?"
"Sure thing, honey. What flavoured milkshake?"
Amber hesitated. "Um, chocolate please."
Corny waited until the waitress left for the kitchen before turning back to Amber. "What happened to you, Amber?" he asked quietly. "Isn't your mother loaded with cash? Why are you out whoring yourself on the streets?"
"Why are you out buying whores?" Amber murmured with downcast eyes. Corny stiffened and shifted uncomfortably. Amber's hand clamped over her mouth. "Oh, I'm sorry, Corny. I shouldn't be mean," she squeaked uncharacteristically between her fingers, "You're being so damn nice to me."
Corny allowed himself to relax. "It's okay, sweetheart. You have the right to be on edge. But will you tell me what happened?"
Amber nodded, lips clamped in a thin white line. She took a moment to compose herself. "After Mom got fired from the show, she was really angry. She got caught up in a bunch of lawsuits for stalking the new station manager, death threats and stuff," Amber said it plainly with no trace of awkwardness. It seemed her mother's deterioration was simply a fact to her now, an everyday sort of thing. "She spent a whole lot of money on lawyers and when she tried to get a job no one would hire. Obviously no one wants to hire a crazy person. We ended up moving out of our house, then in and out of this shitty little apartment and soon we were practically destitute. So Mom started... a business plan. At first it was sort of like escorting; men paid money to take me out on dates, to be seen with a pretty young girl, you know?" Corny inclined his head in affirmation as she continued, "But the money wasn't enough. Mom said I had to sell more, to think of it as... show business. I had to look good and act the part. Men would pay more for sex." Suddenly tears welled up in her eyes.
"She beat me up, Corny!" she yelped. "She beat me up until I'd have sex with those men!"
He settled his eyes on her numbly. Amber? Little Amber von Tussle who tripped up other girls and spread lies out of petty jealously, who was pampered by her mother and rich almost beyond belief... was a prostitute. A dirty street whore selling herself to disgusting men who wanted something warm to push into. Corny saw the tears come spilling down her cheeks in rivulets, smearing the dark mascara and eyeliner into tire tracks. He swung over to the seat beside her and wrapped his arm around her slim shoulders. He shushed soothing words into her hair as she cried hotly into his chest.
The waitress came back around with their orders stacked neatly in her hands the way only veteran food industry workers seemed to have. Her face went slack with discomfiture when she made awkward eye contact with Corny. She mouthed 'I'll be back,' and scurried away. Fifteen minutes later, the waitress came back. Amber had just finished crying and was wiping her cheeks. Setting the food down, the waitress pulled a twist of napkin from her apron pocket. She offered it to Amber along with a tiny compact mirror she had pulled from another pocket. "Here sweetie," she mumbled, "You can fix yourself up here without having to pass all those people."
Amber thanked her with a shy smile. The waitress smiled back, bouncing off to the demands of another customer. Corny and Amber ate their food silently, not at all perturbed by the lack of words. Corny set aside his empty plate and waited patiently for Amber to finish her milkshake. She had devoured the food, wolfing down large mouthfuls as if someone was going to take the food away. Amber set the milkshake down, half finished. "Done?" Corny asked, cocking an eyebrow.
"It's too rich," she said apologetically, "I haven't had something so sweet in a long time."
"It's fine," he waved her apologetic tone away, "I'm gonna go pay, alright?"
They both stood from the booth. Amber headed for the washrooms as Corny walked to the cash register. The waitress who had served them flounced to the register. "She gonna be ok?"
"Yep," he said easily, "I'll make sure of that."
The waitress's expression, perfectly etched out to please customers, suddenly darkened. "You better take good care of her, guy. She seems like a nice little girl, but a hurt little girl."
Corny promised and brought out the money he had originally planned to spend on a 'good night out.' The waitress shook her head at the cash. "Go buy her a decent shirt or a warm jacket," the waitress scolded, "forget about the bill."
Amber came to stand at Corny's side, shrinking against him at the look she was receiving from customers. Corny looped his arm around her shoulder once again, shielding her from unfriendly gazes.
"Ma'am, thank you for the mirror," Amber held the compact out. The waitress folded her thin fingers over it.
"Keep it, sweetie."
Amber thanked her vigorously, eyes dancing just the same as they would have been on Christmas. Corny thanked the waitress as well, who gave him a stern look and told him he was lucky to have such a nice girl. He laughed, saying "She doesn't belong to me, ma'am, but I get what you mean just the same. And you're right."
They left the restaurant on a much higher note than when they came in. In the car, Amber preened in the mirror, looking much like she had when she still danced on TV. Corny ran a hand through his hair, entertaining a quiet idea that had hatched in the back of his head. "Amber," he ventured, "why don't you come live with me?"
A frown creased her forehead. "As your girlfriend?" Panic snuck into her voice. Corny dispelled the notion with a bark of a laugh.
"No, not my girlfriend. Listen, I'll give you a place to live. You can stay with me as long as you want. I'll help you look for a job, and I'll even help you pay for an education."
"What's the catch?" She asked, voice suddenly cold. "You get to use me for free?"
Anger flooded Corny's mind. Just as it was about to burst from his mouth, he took a deep breath and calmed himself. She was right to assume that off the bat. She had no reason to trust men. "No. No catch. Amber, I watched you grow up for three years. And yes, you could be a little bitch sometimes," Amber didn't flinch, "But no one deserves to live through what you have. I'll take you in, okay? You cannot stay with your mother anymore."
Her fingernails dug into his arm, raking across the expensive fabric. "What about my mother?" She shrilled, "We can't leave her out on the streets."
Corny pulled his arm out of her grip. His thumbs traced up and down the steering wheel as he thought. "I'll put her up in an apartment for six months. That'll give her enough to get back on her feet. If she can't find a job and start paying rent once the six months are up, I can't help her anymore."
He saw the anguish on Amber's face, in the way she twisted the compact in her hands. "Amber," he said gently, "She sold you. You don't owe her anything. The moment she accepted money for you, even before the sex, she gave up the right to have you as her daughter."
Amber bit her bottom lip to keep tears from coming. She knew Corny was right and what he was doing was extremely generous. She had stopped believing a man could be plain old good. She rested her forehead on the passenger side window, breath fogging up the glass and eyes studying the landscape sightlessly. Corny was right, completely so. Her mother had turned into a revolting, miserly mess. Amber never wanted to see her pitiful face again.
"I'll do it," Amber whispered. "Thank you so much, Corny."
"Any time, kid," he reached over and squeezed her hand affectionately. She squeezed it back, almost giddy. A nonsexual touch from a man, the first one in months. A smile touched her lips. The future was looking bright and it could be all hers.