Misty couldn't have imagined returning to the encampment voluntarily. The rag-tag bunch of teenagers had been living under that bridge abutment for months, sleeping bags, shopping carts, and empty water bottles littered everywhere. At first, the city let them be. Then, every so often, the cops arrived to roust them. The kids scattered, hooting and hollering, only to return later.
But when the street-toughened kids started hitting up tourists for cash and pilfering things from nearby stores to pawn or sell, people started calling the mayor. He told the police, "Get rid of them once and for all, any way you can, short of putting them in jail or beating them. I mean, they're kids -- how hard can this be?"
Misty had been with them almost from the beginning, from the minute she'd escaped from the Russians last year. She'd found Ratso (lover of Midnight Cowboy) and they'd become the de facto leaders, older than most of the others, a motley group of kids of every size and shade, some as young as thirteen. As bad as life was under the interstate, the lives they'd fled were unimaginably worse. At least here everybody shared, and no violence was allowed. Ratso made sure of that.
Then the police arrived in force. Those who couldn't run fast enough were scooped up by the cops and forced into white, windowless vans, brought to the station to see who had records and then sent to programs for the homeless. Hours later they repeated the process until none were left.
* * *
"Thanks officers," the social worker said. "You can just put her in that last interview room at the end of the hall."
"You got it, Amanda," Lincoln said. The young African-American cop frowned. "You're going to have your hands full with this one."
The two officers had brought in a young woman, each holding her under one armpit while she kicked and spit. She would have bitten them if her hands hadn't been cuffed.
"Says her name is Misty," said Hector, an older Latino cop who'd worked with juveniles for years. "No ID. No Social Security number. Gave her last name as Meadows. Misty Meadows." He chuckled. "Yeah, right, in her dreams. Seriously doubt she's ever laid eyes on a meadow."
The scruffy-looking waif screamed epithets all the way down the hall to the interview room. "Let go of me, you bastards," she howled, her arms flailing like windmill blades. "You fuckers, you're hurting me."
Lincoln sighed. "If you'd stop fighting like that you wouldn't get hurt." But Misty continued to struggle, periodically letting her legs go limp so she hung by her armpits from the officers' hands and had to be dragged.
Amanda went into her office. Five minutes later the officers joined her. "Have a seat, guys," she said, pointing to two chairs across from her desk. "You locked the door down there, right?"
Lincoln nodded and tossed a set of keys on her desk.
"What else do we know about her? Like, how old is she?"
"Claims to be twenty-one," Hector said, his lined face skeptical. "But I'd say not a day over seventeen. No previous arrests, so we haven't been able to get much info on her. Maybe you'll have better luck."
Amanda shrugged. "I'll see what I can do. Sometimes they just won't talk."
"She's gonna be tough," Hector said. "Good luck."
Lincoln got up. "Let's get on the road, Hector. Still got another couple kids from this bust to deal with."
Amanda grabbed some forms and walked down the hall to the interview room. She unlocked the door, looping the long cord with keys around her neck, and sat down at a small scarred, wooden table. "Hi, I'm Amanda. How's it going, Misty?"
The girl sat opposite her at the table in the small windowless room, refusing to look up as Amanda tried to engage her. "Where the hell am I?"
"You're at New Hope for Teens, a program for homeless youth," Amanda said. "We're going to try to get you some help, so you're off the street and safe. Let's start with your real name."
Studying her dirty fingernails the girl said, "Great," sarcasm dripping from her voice. She fingered the fraying cuff of her dirty hoodie. Finally, she said, "Misty Meadows."
Amanda considered her. Not quite emaciated. Long, choppy, dark hair. Skin-tight, flimsy jeans shot through with holes, the kind that came from years of wearing them day in and day out.
"Okay, let's go with that for now. So, Misty, how did you end up under that underpass with those other kids? That's gotta be a hard life.
"And by the way, everything you say will be confidential, unless you tell me you're going to hurt yourself or someone else."
Misty looked up, glaring into Amanda's eyes with her gray, wary ones. Her eyes darted around the room, settling on the table in front of her. She sighed. She'd heard all this before. Really didn't want to get into it. "Long story. You wouldn't be interested." Her voice had a melancholy, wistful quality.
"How do you know? I've got all day." Amanda moved her chair back and settled in. "By the way, are you hungry? Thirsty? When did you last eat?"
"Can't remember. Probably kill for a sandwich," Misty mumbled, motoring past her vow to keep her mouth shut. "And a coke."
Truth was, she was starved and filthy and cold. Living under an overpass had gotten old. She missed Ratso though.
"We can do that." Amanda grabbed her phone from her back pocket and texted the request to her secretary. "It'll be a few minutes. While we wait we can get to know one another."
v"So," Amanda said, "we were at the part where you were going to tell me how you ended up under the freeway."
Misty looked into Amanda's earnest eyes, sizing her up, trying to decide if anything could be gained by going into what had happened to her. What did these people want from her? She pulled her right foot onto the chair, she said, "It beat working for those drug dealers."
Amanda squirmed. With furrowed brows she asked, "What drug dealers?"
"See, here's where the story starts to get long." Misty slid off her hoodie, revealing a skimpy black camisole, no bra. Virtually no breasts, her ribs like a washboard.
"Told you I have the rest of the day. And besides, we're still waiting for your food." Amanda stared at Misty's upper arm, where a tattoo instructed "fuck me" in cursive. "But before we continue, Misty, I'm curious about your tattoo."
"Oh, this one," Misty said, looking down at her upper arm, slouching down in her chair, knee pointing toward the ceiling. Dirty feet clad in falling-apart sandals. "Yeah, when those Russians gave me this one, I started thinkin' maybe it was time to move on." She winced, remembering that day. The pain, the scuzzy tattoo parlor, the filthy scumbag who did it. Amazing it never got infected.
"So you've got more?" Amanda asked softly.
"None as visible as this one." Misty fingered the tattoo, working out whether to get into it or not. Whether to trust this young Amanda. This social worker, claiming to want to help her. She'd met a few of these types in foster care. What could she get out of this?
Taking a deep breath, she continued, "None that say, 'rape me,'" like this one." Sometimes she got a kick out of shocking these people.
"What do you mean?" Amanda shifted her position.
"I keep telling you. It's a long story -- "
"And I keep telling you, I'm all ears. Who're the Russians and why did they give you that tattoo?"
Misty considered how far back to go. The Russians, or what it was like living with her mom before that? Or maybe foster care?
Then the food arrived, buying her time. Amanda handed the bag to Misty.
Misty opened it cautiously, sniffed. She grabbed the plastic-covered sandwich, unwrapped it, and peeled off the top piece of ciabatta bread. "How do you know I eat turkey? Or cheese? I could be vegan for all you know." She ripped open the small bag of potato chips, a few clattering across the table top.
"I should have asked you what you wanted. Sorry. You can take out the turkey if you don't eat meat."
Crunching chips, Misty said, "Just messin' with ya. I eat, like, everything. It's not like the Russians gave us much choice. Hah, we were lucky to eat at all." She tore into the sandwich, mayo dripping down of the sides of her mouth.
"I want to hear more about the Russians and your tattoo."
"I prefer not to think about it as 'my' but rather as 'their' tattoo." She paused to take another mouthful, in no hurry to continue. Still unsure how much to say.
"Okay, fine, their tattoo." Amanda moved her chair in closer.
Misty popped the coke open. It fizzed and foamed onto the table. She swallowed a big slug and belched. Was there any point in getting into this? Dragging out all this shit? Another sigh. "Okay, I'm gonna start when I was last living with my mother, which was when I was, uh, let's see, fifteen I think. Before that it was foster care. Ancient history."
Amanda waited while Misty took another bite of sandwich.
"So things got pretty bad with Mom. She, um, got laid off after she hurt herself at the factory where she worked. That job is why they let me go back after foster care. It's such a cliché now, but she, like, got prescribed those painkillers and got hooked. And just like everybody else, uh, eventually heroin was, you know, cheaper, so . . ."
After another gulp of coke, she examined her sandwich, trying to decide whether to finish it or not. She was full, but she hated to leave part of a good sandwich. "Then she started staying out all night, probably hooking, so I was, uh, basically on my own. I was in another new school -- my fifth or my sixth. Ninth grade, maybe? Anyhow, doing horrible as usual." She stopped to rewrap the sandwich remains in plastic. "Always hated school, but now I was, like, failing. They sent notices home to Mom, which I, um, signed for her. She didn't give a shit anyhow. Always told me I'd never amount to anything, and . . ." She stopped there and laughed bitterly. "Guess what? She was right!"
Amanda shifted in her seat, tugging at her blonde ponytail and nodding for Misty to continue.
"By then I was, like, skipping school and stuff, spending my time hanging out with friends, surfing the internet, all that shit. We used to go to this coffee shop that, uh, had free Wi-Fi. It sucked, but you could play on your phone and drink as much coffee as you wanted for three bucks."
The only sound in the room was Misty munching on potato chips, washing them down with the last of her coke.
"After a couple months, this, um, nice looking white guy with an accent starts coming over to our table to visit. He'd come, like, every day. My friend Taryn thought I was interested in him, even though he was a lot older, like, probably his thirties or forties. So she'd always leave. Said his name was Andrei. No last name.
"He was super nice in the beginning. Always, like, paying for my coffee, offering to buy me food. Telling me how pretty I was. Buying me, like, really nice clothes." She stopped, shaking her head, remembering how nice it was in the beginning, how her mother never asked her where she got the money for those expensive clothes.
Staring down at the table, Misty continued. "Then he gave me, like, a brand-new iPhone." She looked up to see if Amanda was listening. "That's how I got sucked in. And he told me there were lots more goodies where that came from, that I could make a lot of money. Was I interested? Of course, I was interested! Shit, I was only fifteen. How else was I gonna make money?" Her voice trailed off and she dropped her head. "Note to self: when it seems too good to be true, it always is. What an idiot I was."
"You weren't an idiot. You were young and naïve, being neglected by your only parent."
"Still, I should've known better. I should've known that my 'job'" -- she made air quotes with her fingers -- "with Andrei would not end well. When I was supposed to be in school, he had me sell drugs -- heroin and meth -- to people in little towns outside the city that you could get to by bus. Piece of cake, right?"
She remembered those days, riding the bus, spending all day in these little shit towns, in these skuzzy neighborhoods he introduced her to, coming home each night with boatloads of cash. "I'd come back with, like two grand. He'd let me keep, maybe, a measly two hundred bucks from it."
"Don't forget about the tattoo," Amanda reminded her.
"I'm getting to it. Keep your pants on." She shifted in her seat. "After a month or so, Andrei told me he had, like, um, a new place I could live, away from my mother, now that I had all this cash. Sounded great. Every teenage girl's dream, right?"
She stopped and tried to take a drink from her empty coke can. "So I got some stuff from my mother's and moved over to this place." She flung the can toward a metal wastebasket in the corner. It clanged off the side.
"How did that work out?" Amanda said, eyebrows raised.
"Hah! First of all, it was a dump. Plus there were, like, all these other girls there -- and a few boys -- doing the same thing I was. Going on the bus out to these different towns where we sold drugs. Every day. I didn't even get my own room!"
"What was it like living there?"
Misty paused to think. "Parts of it were fun. Not the drug selling, but at night, like, with the other kids. Sometimes they'd let us go out together, to clubs -- "
"But you guys weren't old enough to go to clubs, right? How'd you get in?"
"I'm pretty sure Andrei's friends ran these clubs. I mean, like, we had no trouble getting in. And they let us dance and drink and do whatever we wanted to. Nobody to complain. We partied all night and then, you know, sold drugs during the day."
"How long did this go on?"
"A couple years? At first it wasn't too bad. Like, I knew I couldn't leave, couldn't just walk away from this. But I had a lot of money and we had fun at night. Then it changed." Shit, why did I even get into this?
Misty scratched at a gouge on the table. "I think it got taken over by some other Russians, 'cause all of a sudden Andrei disappeared. It was these other assholes, mean guys." Misty stopped, thinking about the next part. What was the point?
Amanda asked, "Do you need to stop? Do you want to take a break? This is some pretty intense stuff."
Misty thought about it. "Maybe just a quick bathroom break."
* * *
When they returned, Amanda said, "So you were telling me about how things had changed after a while, when some new, mean guys took over."
Misty sat bent over the table, her head in her hands. It hurt so much to remember those fuckers.
"Misty you're doing great," Amanda said. "This is some really hard stuff.
Misty exhaled sharply. "Yeah, right." She gazed off at some invisible spot on the ceiling. "So, um, with Andrei, we had to, like, sell the same amount of drugs each day and bring the cash home. But with these new guys, at least once a week they, like, increased how much -- "
"You had a quota to sell each day?"
"Yeah. In the beginning it wasn't too hard, but each time you reached your quota they raised it -- "
"And what happened if you didn't sell enough?"
"At first, they just slapped you." Misty stopped, staring down at her lap, her hair a waterfall covering her face, remembering when those beatings started. She looked up. "Then they realized that if the kids looked all bruised up people would wonder. So they graduated to punching in places that couldn't be seen -- the lower back, the belly, the thighs." A shaky sigh escaped. "Then it got much worse . . ."
A single tear left a trail of black mascara down her right cheek. Maybe if she got this out she'd feel better?
Amanda grabbed a box of tissues from a cabinet, placed it in front of Misty. "Take your time. You're doing fine."
"After the beatings started, a couple kids tried to run. They always found 'em and brought 'em back." Misty grabbed a tissue, wiped her eyes, and blew her nose. "At first, they just beat the shit out of them, not caring that they were covered in purple bruises."
"But they couldn't sell drugs again till the bruises healed. In the meantime, they still owed rent. And for food and stuff. If we didn't have the cash we had two options. "We could 'run a tab,' so to speak, against our future pay, whenever we started selling again, or we could agree to go to the, um, sex part of that club we went to . . ."
Misty heard Amanda's intake of breath and looked up.
"Oh, Misty, I am so, so sorry."
"Eventually, everyone, even the boys, whether they tried to run or not, had to agree to turn tricks. Which brings us to your original question, about their tattoo. If we couldn't make our quota, we got the tattoo, and had to go the club at night wearing just camies or a sexy bra and panties, allowing the 'guests'" -- air quotes again -- "to see the fuck me tattoos."
Misty batted away the tears streaming down both cheeks and shook her head.
Amanda leaned across the table and placed her hand on Misty's arm. She glanced at her watch and said, softly, "Misty, we need to stop for today. But I'm so impressed with how courageous you are. I know you're not done with your story -- I want to hear how you got out of there -- but that's enough for today. The important thing is you're safe now. I've got some paperwork, then I'll drive you over to the house where you'll stay tonight."
"There are four other girls there. You'll have your own bedroom. The house is locked, twenty-four seven. Surveillance cameras. How does that sound?"
Misty shrugged. She wondered where Ratso was right now.
"Then I'll be back tomorrow after breakfast to figure out a plan for the future -- "
* * *
Amanda drove Misty to the residence, a converted five-bedroom home. The staff let her choose some clothes. Misty took a long, hot shower, met the other girls, and sat down to a family-style dinner. Surreal how normal it seemed. She listened as the others talked about their days. Where they'd gone and what they'd done -- school, some kind of construction training program, learning how to drive. Was that her future?
Misty didn't say much -- she regretted how much she'd already said -- and no one made her talk. She watched TV with the other girls after dinner until she couldn't keep her eyes open. That coveted room, all to herself? She dreaded going there, where she'd have to think about everything that had happened and what might happen next. But it felt good to wash her face and brush her teeth and get into a pair of pajamas and think about an actual bed, alone. No beds under the interstate where everyone clustered together for warmth and safety. And the last place she slept with the Russians? A urine- and blood-soaked bare mattress, with other girls, who held one another for comfort.
So why didn't she look forward to lying in that soft, clean bed, a whole room to herself? She tried to remember when had she'd last slept alone. Must have been at her mother's apartment, a lifetime ago, on a pullout couch while Mom kept the bedroom for her "dates." It should have felt comforting, reassuring, safe. And yet as soon as she hit the sheets it felt as if she were free falling, no net to catch her. She couldn't breathe with that knot in her chest. Hostile thoughts invaded her brain, pinging like an arcade game. She couldn't decide what was worse, these marauders or the nightmares. As she lay on her back, arms folded behind her neck, struggling to keep the tears at bay, she heard a quiet knock on the door. Had anyone, ever, knocked on her door for permission to enter?
The house mother, Rhonda, poked her head in. "How're you doing, Misty? Settling in okay?"
Misty sat up and looked into her kind, brown face. "I guess."
"Let me know if you need anything."
"Thanks." Misty lay back down, exhaustion overtaking her, and fell asleep immediately.
* * *
The next morning, Amanda showed up at the house at nine-thirty. Using the fingerprints shared by law enforcement, she'd located Misty's foster care records and learned her real name: Britney Nowicki. Her last caseworker could find no information on her mother, which was moot anyhow, because Misty/Britney had just turned eighteen. So she'd aged out of the foster care system. School dropout. Essentially kidnapped and enslaved by an Eastern European or Russian drug gang. Sexually assaulted. But technically an adult. Facing the world on her own.
They sat in the empty, light-filled living room, furnished just like a house -- rugs, upholstered furniture, lamps, tables. Sipping takeout coffee, Amanda asked, "How are you this morning? Did you get settled in last night?"
"I did. Not a bad place. Where'd everyone go?" Misty slouched on the midnight blue sofa.
"They're all out at programming of some kind. In order to be in New Hope, you need to be completing your education or enrolled in some kind of training program so that you become employable."
Misty chewed on her lower lip. Is that what she wanted for herself? She wished she could talk it over with Ratso.
"That's why I want to talk with you about your future. Or we could continue with your story, how you escaped from the Russians. Your choice."
Crappy choice. Both scared the shit out of her. In her head, she flipped a coin.
"Okay, let's talk about the Russians."
"So, how did you get out of there?"
Misty regretted her choice immediately. Could she trust this woman? Amanda had promised her confidentiality, right?
Heaving a sigh, head down, Misty started. "There was this one guy at the club, one of the fuck-me men, who liked me a lot." She looked up. "I was a lot prettier then." She smiled, remembering her curvier self, with actual breasts and a soft smile. "He always asked for me. One night after I serviced him, I convinced him to take me to this place I used to go as a kid. It's up high, kind of on a cliff, and it looks down onto the city. At night, it's so beautiful. You can watch the lights of the city sparking below, like jewels . . ." Her voice dropped off as she remembered the multicolored, twinkling city lights.
"He was already pretty drunk before we left the club." She remembered his erratic driving up the winding road. "I persuaded him to bring a bottle of Remy Martin. When we got to the spot, I was surprised there weren't any other cars. Usually it's packed, but it was cloudy that night." Her heartbeat quickened as she recalled what happened next. "So I knew I had a chance to use my plan."
Misty studied the texture of the red throw pillow she hugged. "I'd managed to sneak a steak knife into my purse, hoping it would come in handy one day. It was so cloudy he wanted to leave. But I convinced him to stay and listen to music and drink some cognac." She recalled the cold, smooth surface of the knife blade.
"Soon he was so drunk he was snoring. So I stabbed him in the neck, over and over." She smiled, remembering how fucking good it felt. Asshole never saw it coming. "He started screaming bloody murder, running around like a madman, and I jumped out of the car."
"Then what happened?" Amanda sat on the edge of her seat.
Misty raised her eyebrows with surprise at Amanda's interest. "I waited a while, hiding in the bushes." Would she ever get that picture out of her brain? Him staggering around like a bull after a bullfight, holding his neck, blood spurting out like a fountain, bellowing. The metallic smell of all that blood. "Eventually, between how drunk he was and all the blood he was losing, he collapsed. So I got back into the car and took off down the hill."
"Where did you go after that?"
"First of all, I was covered in blood. I had to ditch my clothes. And I had to get rid of the car. I remembered my mother's apartment, not even sure she'd still live in the same place. It'd been a couple years. But sure enough, she was still in the same place. I got the key from where she hid it on the back patio and went inside. She wasn't home, so I grabbed some clean clothes and threw the bloody stuff into the dumpster out back. And I just left the car there."
Finally, Misty looked up at Amanda. "I knew they'd be looking for it -- either the cops or the Russians -- and I was afraid they might know where my mom's apartment was, so I knew I couldn't stay there."
"So where'd you go?"
"Jefferson Park is about ten blocks away, so I walked there. Just found a bench and stayed 'til it got light." She paused, thinking about that night, sitting on that bench, unable to stop shaking. "I met Ratso a couple days later. He saw me hanging out there, figured out I had no place to go. He introduced me to the other kids."
There it was, the whole story, start to finish. So how come she didn't feel better?
* * *
Amanda couldn't get that girl out of her head. She'd worked with tons of runaways, so how come this one had taken residence up there, nibbling at her sympathy? Misty was scrappy rather than pathetic, so that was one reason, a survivor, brave. Tough, but also vulnerable underneath. And now, having promised Misty confidentiality, Amanda had a dilemma. This girl had killed someone -- a lowlife, to be sure -- if in fact that was true. Should she look into it? Report it? What would be gained by confirming that Misty had killed him? But, more importantly, how could she help this girl?
* * *
Amanda returned the next morning to get Misty started on planning and paperwork. November rain rat-tat-tatted the windows outside, the sky a chilly charcoal gray. They talked about getting a Social Security number so she could work, signing up to get her GED, getting on Medicaid, working on getting her driver's license. They set up several appointments over the course of the next week.
"Sounds like I'm going to be busy," Misty said. She tried to imagine it, having a busy schedule. Was this how you got your life sorted out?
"You sure will be." Amanda handed her another form to sign. "Are you ready to talk about your future?"
"What does that mean, exactly?" Misty's future had rarely extended beyond the next day. With the Russians, all she thought of was getting out, and on the street, despite the freedom, she worried about the next meal.
"Well, what do you want to do with your life? What do you see yourself doing in five years, for example?"
Misty played with the zipper on her new blue hoodie. She couldn't imagine herself five years from now.
"I'm gonna have to think about that." She couldn't make eye contact.
She looked up to face the social worker.
"You need to do that quickly. In order to stay here you have to have a written plan that identifies your goals and a plan for achieving them. Use the rest of today to think that through, maybe talk to some of the women tonight when they come home. I'll be back tomorrow."
Goals? Nobody had ever asked her about her goals. On the street the only goals were finding food and a place to sleep. If only she could talk to Ratso.
"Oh, I almost forgot. Here are the rules for New Hope. Make sure you read them, because breaking them could jeopardize your slot here." She handed Misty a two-page document. "See you at nine-thirty."
* * *
Misty returned to her bedroom, curled up, and read the rules. A shitload of things could get her kicked out -- drinking or drugs, of course, but also leaving without permission, failing to sign out and say where you were going, not being back by curfew. Shit, her mother didn't even make her do that when she was fifteen. Almost sounded like jail.
But on the other hand, she loved her room, and her own bed. Decent food. The other girls seemed nice. She did need to figure out what would happen next.
All day long she tried to think about her future. Getting a GED. Learning to drive. What would a regular job be like, like in a store maybe? It would be so great to have her own place, a car.
At dinner, the girls talked about their days. Working as apprentices at a construction site or child care center, attending community college.
"What's it like, learning construction?" Misty asked Jolene.
"You know, it's pretty interesting. A lot of cute guys." She laughed.
"When will you be done?"
"I think I've got about another year."
Another year? Misty tried to imagine showing up at a construction site every day for more than a year. Or sitting in classes at community college. Never leaving New Hope without signing out. Following all the rules, day after day. Having no money except the small stipend they offered. On the street nobody told her what to do.
But she'd be safe! Nobody beating her up, forcing her to have sex. No stealing food or panhandling. No running from the police. A clean place to sleep every night.
She went to bed with all those bees buzzing around in her brain.
* * *
The next morning, despite a queasy stomach, Misty tried to eat breakfast with the other girls and watched them leave for their activities. The closer it got to nine-thirty, the more restless she became. She still had no clue about her goals -- did she even want goals? Her breathing speeded up.
After checking to make sure the staff person was in her office, she snuck into the kitchen and found a big, black garbage bag. Into it, she stuffed a loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter, some yogurts, the few articles of clothing they gave her, and whatever personal toiletries she could scrounge from the bathroom.
Then she slipped out the front door and hightailed it down the street, hair blowing behind her, heart racing. Free! Grinning, she wondered how long it would take to find Ratso and the gang.
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