This short story is also published in The Ambient Heights Anthology.
Tara picked at the grime under her chipped nails. She gnawed on the last piece of the stale bread she bought for thirty cents at the corner store and kicked a rock out of her path. It tumbled onto the empty road, covered in dust and soot. Sweat stuck to her forehead and slunk down her arms as the sun scorched her and the earth.
Beer cans littered the streets and piled around trash cans. It hit her with nostalgia. Tara remembered when she liked the taste of beer–or could afford it. Truthfully, she preferred whiskey, sometimes a nice, sweet Moscato for a special occasion, but the local gas stations didn’t sell those anymore.
Tara crossed her thin arms and rubbed the goosebumps rising on her skin. The place reeked of sawdust and smoke. Her shorts, torn and tattered, hung low on her hips. She wore her high school’s track shirt. Her bony wrists adorned an array of stolen bracelets.
She glanced at the new sign cluttering the corkboard outside the water tanker. The bold words on the paper beckoned her to read them.
GOOD NEWS IS COMING.
She pursed her lips and ripped it from its place on the corkboard. She’d find a use for the blank space on the back later.
Tara joined the growing line in front of the charity water center. It came once a week. People, barefoot and filthy, waited anxiously for their turn to fill their bottles from the tanker. She pulled another bottle from her backpack and sighed, melting under the heat.
Lilismith hadn’t had cheap, clean water for the past two years. Every corner store flaunted a small plastic container of the liquid on their shelves for a whopping ten dollars, and since most of the population rarely carried more than three nickels in their pockets, this transient water tanker was all they had.
She stumbled down the line. The heat began to creep up to her neck, rendering her burnt like an overdone piece of bacon on a frying pan. She read the sign to keep her balance, but the words only angered her. Good news is not coming.
She reached the front of the line.
“You have two minutes,” the man grunted. He wore a thick cap and a golden badge on his chest, branding him as the volunteer worker. She nodded and tipped the top of her bottle to the water tap. If a smidgen of liquid slipped down the edge, she caught it with her finger and drank it, not letting any touch the ground.
He frowned as she filled the last bottle to the brim. She salvaged the last bits of water before he twisted the tap, turning it off.
She trudged on as he shouted for the next recipient of their community service.
The backs of her flip flops nipped at her heels, slapping the damaged concrete.
Tara tipped the bottle into her mouth. Warm water streamed down her throat, but she didn’t complain. Throughout her childhood, her mother had boiled the water from the local creek to rid it of contagions, so it didn’t bother her anymore.
Her mother had said that good news was coming.
Tara had left the house four years ago to live with Brent. He’d enamored her. His chiseled jaw, classic, strong build, and a cocky smile swept her off her aching feet and flew her to Limbo. He bought her clean, cold water from the convenience stores. He splurged on Doritos for her. He said he loved her.
She droned on for another two miles. In the painful days after selling her body to the highest bidder, Tara wandered around the town, wondering if Brent noticed or cared.
A woman rattled an empty cup at her. Dust and soot coated her skin and her shoes had no soles. Tara looked away, hoarding the money weighing her pockets down. Charity wouldn’t do her good, it’d rob her of the cash she had. She found no business in dropping her hard-earned coins in a hobo’s can. She didn’t whore to feed someone else’s children.
Once she arrived at her apartment complex, Tara Yadayk gestured to the sleazy manager, who drooled on his hand, and trudged up three flights of stairs.
The door creaked as she stepped into her apartment. The grout between the kitchen tiles was dark. Lumps of unwashed clothing were sprawled out on the carpeted floor and on the floral sofa. She set her backpack under the cracked counter, stuffed her cash in the back pocket, and picked up the water bottle.
Tara cringed as the rustle of wind tickled her ear. She braced herself against the counter.
“What’d you buy?” Brent’s voice had always been his worst quality. A deep, raspy hiss that reminded her of her uncle, a creeping tone always prying for more.
She closed her eyes. “Nothin’.” She took the paper out of her pocket and smoothed it out, setting it on the table. Brent scoffed at its message.
“Good news my ass. They been promisin’ the same bullshit for two years now.” He dug his hands into his pockets. “The war ain’t gon be over and Jimmy ain’t comin’ home.”
His voice cracked at the mention of his brother. A flash of sorrow flickered across his features but dissolved into a frown.
“Did ya whore today?”
Tara nodded. “Got nicked,” she lied.
“Oh, you got nicked, huh?” he rasped, grazing a finger over her neck. She wrinkled her nose and the stank scent of alcohol buzzing from his breath. “Them bastards took my money.”
She didn’t bother clarifying that it was hers. She drummed her fingers on the crusty counter. Her eyes squeezed as he slid his cold hand over her shoulder.
“How much did them weasels pay you?” His whispers tickled her ear and rose the hairs on the back of her neck. Gooseflesh rose on her skin as he moved his finger down her arm.
“Four dollars,” she croaked. “Four dollars and a cent.”
He gripped her elbow and pressed his body up against hers. She stiffened.
“I ain’t jealous,” he chuckled, trailing his hand down her body. “They gotta pay to have you, but babe, I get you for free.” His hot breath rose up to her spine. His hand trailed up her navel. “Ain’t gotta pay a dime.”
“Get off me, Brent,” she gulped, urging him away.
“What’s the matter? ” he muttered, tightening his grip. “You’ll whore yourself off to any man with enough cash-”
“At least he has somethin’.” She shoved him away. “At least he ain’t no bum like you. Least he drops me off to the water tanker and gives me an extra bottle to fill.”
His laugh reverberated throughout the dim room. The lights flickered on and off. She glanced at the pile of long overdue bills splayed on the floor.
Before she could grip her water bottle, he snatched it from her. Shudders ran up her spine and a tear cascaded down her face. She wiped it away as fast as it came.
He grabbed the back of her neck and turned her towards him. He popped the water cap off and clutched it in his fist. Water spurted down and hit the floor. Tara choked at a sob and lunged into the growing puddle, trying to mop up as much water as she could with her hands.
“Listen here, whore,” he spat, curling his lip. “You’re livin’ in the house my grandad bought. My house. Without me, you be on the streets, prolly somewhere down in Mexico with the cartels, and you know it.” He yanked her up by a fistful of her hair and stared at her. Angry tears wetted his cheeks and stemmed from his bloodshot eyes. “You been mine since we was in high school, babe. You the only thing belonging to me…” His voice trailed off as his strong demeanor collapsed.
She looked at his beer belly and then his hollow, sunken face. It saddened her. Brent was a shadow of the charming southern boy he’d once been.
“It’s okay, baby,” she soothed, rubbing his shaking shoulders. Her heart hung low in her chest. He reeked of beer and regret. Old feelings of comfort and satisfaction flushed through her body as she allowed him to burrow his face into her shoulder.
“You mine, baby.” He shuddered and wrapped his burly arms around her. She felt like a muffin, encased in paper and not allowed to bloom to her fullest. “I need you.”
Those words trapped her every time. She became a soppy puddle of warmth in his strong arms, and once having held him, Tara gripped onto Brent as if he were the Sun in her solar system. Tears raced down her face and dampened his shirt. She’d fallen in love with this man.
Slowly, he slipped away.
She wiped her tears as he left the apartment. Her neck formed bruises from his tight grasp and her scratched knees sported spots of blood from her fall onto the tile.
Her back slipped down the wall. She rested her head on the peeled wallpaper, sparing two or three tears before swiping them off her face. Massaging her neck, Tara stayed put.
After Brent lost his job as a farmer, she’d reckon he became a different person. His father gave his brothers the family property, but him, they left him this measly apartment and a bag of quarters. Yet, with unprecedented pride, Brent treated this run-down space like a holy grail, something he owned. The sole thing he owned.
Other than her.
Tara appreciated his absence. She’d chosen to believe he went out to find a job. She knew it wasn’t true.
Unemployment reached astounding heights since the government shut down two years ago. Not any legal ones, but considering the failed legislature, all laws were void. The rare shipments of free goods and services sustained the impoverished population of Lilismith. Water once a week, charity canned food every month.
America was a free-for-all mess, ravaged by slingers and sin, as her mother would say. Tara contributed to the acts her mother vehemently scorned, but she had no way out. Her parents fell off the grid a years ago. No family, no support, no future.
Everyone with the money to get out did. The rest of them stayed here, stuck in the quicksand eating them away.
Tara hung on by the belt loops in her shorts and with the grit in her spirit, but emotional exhaustion wore her down. She hauled herself up and set her mind on finding Brent’s infamous stash of his father’s aged whiskey, a stash she failed to locate for years.
She hit the closets first, then the boxes and bathroom cabinets. Nothing. She threw chairs and pulled out clothing, her hands aching for destruction. A smile crept on her tear-stained face as she yanked at the containers he kept his magazines in.
Walking taxed her feet, but she endured. She needed that whiskey, the sting of bitter alcohol on her lips, the stench of spirits in her nose.
She almost slumped onto the couch in a heap of frustration before her eyes settled on the broken AC. It hadn’t worked since the banks collapsed.
She rushed to it and yanked the wire exterior off. Her face flustered at the thought of her blindness, wishing she’d noticed the AC before.
Tara looked up, and low and behold, a sack hung sulked in the vent. She trembled and heaved the unwieldy bag into her arms, heavy and filled with bottles.
When she opened it, dozens of closely packed cans spilled out. She shuffled through, tossing out Bud-Lites and sodas.
Her eyes settled on the golden glory at the bottom, a hefty, strong bottle of Jack Daniels Whiskey.
She didn’t think twice before uncorking the cap with her teeth and draining the bottle until her throat burned.
Her hands itched for more, but the shock of consuming that amount of alcohol after deprived of it for two years caught up to her. It bubbled up her throat, but she shoved it down.
On wobbly knees, Tara scooted over to the paper she’d ripped from the corkboard and reread the letters. She scanned it over and over again, praying that it’d be true, that she needn’t endure this anymore, that she could leave, that the government would come back, that something, somewhere, could help her save herself.
Because no matter how desperately she wanted to escape, she knew this old, smelly, non-operative apartment would draw her back, that Brent’s fake tears would pull her back. She didn’t refuse the fact that she had no other way, that no one would take her in, not when sin crawled on her like a parasite.
She crumpled onto the floor and sobbed into the paper until it dampened with her tears.
Good news wasn’t coming. Good news had been coming for the past two years. Good news had been promised to her her whole life. Good news meant nothing but words on a wrinkled piece of paper. Good news was reserved for the rich, the righteous.
Good news never spared the wicked.