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A Wicked Chance


Chapter 1

Before she died the first time, Sam had tired her body with a dedication found in people possessed by a vision. She pressed away from the gym floor as if her life depended on it, jogged, ate balanced meals, even choked on broccoli, stayed hydrated, and studied hard to remain at the top of her class. Although, she’d dropped the ball on a couple of last tests.

Sam winced, shoving her sweaty hair out of her face with trembling fingers. In quick succession, she completed three reps with the weight she held in her free hand, trying to block out the unwelcome reminder of her failures.

Sighing, Sam waited for her friend Nicole, the usually perky law student, to speak her mind.

“What’s your motivation?”

At the question, Sam’s vision blurred. She cleared her throat, then forced her voice to come out strong and steady. “What motivation? Nicole, no motivation can compare to anger. Anger makes me work until bloody snot, until ripped-up skin.” Sam dropped some weights to a muted thud. The wooden floor would’ve worked better. “All I got in this life is thanks to the banal, effective anger.”

“Then you should embrace it.” Nicole jumped on a treadmill, still speaking as she hooked the emergency cut-off to her tank top. “Get angry, get the best grade on the next test, and you’ll keep your scholarship.”

“Don’t think it works that way. Money is gone. The board doesn’t do backsies.”

Nicole stopped. “Samantha Clark,” she leaned in, holding onto the handles of the machine, “you never know before you try.”

“I don’t need it. We are done in a couple of months.” Unable to hold tears back, Sam gave Nicole a winning smile, grabbed her water bottle, and headed for the showers. “See you over the weekend.”

Outside, the sky inked New York City into night, but car lights and commercial neon lamps pushed people around with a vicious buzz. Sam sat down on some worn stone steps and caught snowflakes with her mouth. It seemed to be the right thing to do, to save them from the dirty ground. The cold stung her tongue and disappeared.

She’d moved to New York City to become somebody else, someone better, but the city tried her ambition every step of the way. Sam found herself being not as smart or as quick on her feet as she thought she was. Every day, her wits went on trial. Every day, she seemed to fail that trial but, despite all the cracks in her self-esteem, Sam couldn’t bring herself to admit she was wrong on any point.

The phone vibrated and showed Dad. Sam pressed the green button. “Hi. What are you up to?”

“Nothing. Just checking in. Keep forgetting the difference. Is it late there?”

“No. I have time.”

“When are you coming home?”

“I thought we talked about it already.”

“We also had a deal that if you lose your phone you would go to the nearest morgue and stay there so I can find you quicker. You know my drill: morgues, police stations, hospitals. In that order.”

Sam chuckled. “It was last week. I got a shiny used one so—”

“I’m not comfortable with the once a week chat you are pushing on me. I like to know you are safe.”

“Oh, Dad, stop it.”

“I got a cat.”

“You said you don’t like pets.”

“I miss you, you know. I don’t want you in the force. Too dangerous, too many men, too many crazies. Did you consider how horrid the uniform is?”

“I plan to be a detective. They don’t wear uniforms.”

“A long road there. Why can’t you just be a lawyer like other sassy youngsters?” The air on the phone between them stilled. “That was the original plan, wasn’t it? I sheltered you for too long. You have no idea what you are getting into.”

“Daddy.” Her voice vibrated.

“Oh, Ducky. You don’t have to prove anything to me or anybody else. Can’t you find another purpose? Just start living, Ducky. You can’t make your mother’s death into the meaning of your life.”

“It’s like you don’t know me at all. What should be the meaning then?”

“Should it be any? Meaning is putting you in the box. You say you’ll find out what happened, and that is your meaning. Others say it is in money or love or God. We put ourselves in a box. I don’t think there’s a meaning in life. There is no finish line you have to reach, and this, I believe, is more important than any imagined meaning.”

Sam could hear him smile through the phone. She imagined him close to dancing with a cup of traditional evening tea. What does he know about not having a mother? He had both parents for a long time. “Do you understand we are talking about my life here?” She tilted her head back to avoid running mascara.

“I know. Come back home. We will figure out something else.”

“I lost my scholarship, but it doesn’t matter now. I’ll find the money. I picked up extra shifts.”

“Listen, you can try to do it on your own. I admire that—”

“Would you lend me some? We are talking about just a couple of months. I’ll pay you back.”

“I am not lending you a dollar to do this. You went to that city, screaming and banging doors to do the thing I do not approve—”

“I will ask my rich friends then.”

“Name one friend who isn’t a character in a book.”

Sam took the phone from her ear and disconnected the call. The fatigue burned a hole inside her. She struggled to put her backpack on and threw it on the wet asphalt. She dropped her arms and leaned her head back, but a clock on a building across the street flashed half an hour past resignation time.

Sam tramped down to the station as if she wanted to punish the ground. Thin sneaker soles gave way, forced her to lighten up the step.

Chapter 2

March snow cocooned New York in for the night. Dark poured into the bar each time a customer left. The phone showed past twelve, but the loyals stayed, scratched the floor with stools, lifted their fingers, and signed for a refill.

“Coming right up.” Sam shook her head.

“I like you better on the weekends.” Jack sat at the bar in his blue parka and sipped in the foam.

“You’ll have to get used to this,” said Sam. “I will work more from now on.”

“You are more fun on weekends,” he said, “and you ask me about my day.”

“How was your day?” Sam packed away the limes, lemons, mint, and syrups, items she took out at the beginning of each shift, along with the liquor, but the fancy guests never showed. The umbrella cocktail drinking people passed by the Scottish pub windows dressed in checkered curtains, probably rushing to the trendier places with loud music.

“…and that’s how I got the money.” He hit the polished counter.

Sam shook her index finger. “Mr. Jack, you better stay away from trouble.”

“No trouble here, ma’am.” He raised yellowed nicotine fingers above his head.

“I’ll watch you.”

“Know what?” Jack glued his hands to his drink, slurred the words, “You need a boyfriend.”

“Oh, no. Don’t start this again. Honestly.”

“A boy will bring back the smile.”

“Or he will bring me lots of trouble.”

“I thought a girl like you has only nice boys around.”

“A girl like me? It doesn’t matter if they are nice or not, Jack. I don’t have time for nonsense.”

“Ah, you are that kind.”

“What kind?”

“Today is Thursday, right?” Jack swallowed the rest of his drink fast and loud, made his Adam’s apple jump with excitement. “A weekday cleared everything up for me. You are fiery. You need a rich man. Only they can afford expensive excesses. I knew a wealthy man once. His wife was both beautiful and had a horrible temper. Many only dream about such luxury.”

“I had a boyfriend, but it didn’t work out.”

“Why?”

“Jack, it is time to go home.”

“I’m not leaving until you tell me.” He signed for another beer as a form of threat.

“Relationships are tricky. First, you see an amazing trailer, but what you really get into is a full-blown foreign art movie.”

“Not the answer I’m waiting for.”

Oh, Jack, so hooked up on others’ drama.

“You are a stubborn old man. I realized he was a bit too small for me, not the right size.” Sam put a tip from her apron-pocket in a tip jar. “In his eyes, my clothes were wrong, my thoughts and actions were out of place.” She lifted her pink nails. “He criticized the color of my manicure.”

Disrespecting my taste, that’s what it was.

“Huh,” said Jack.

“Right? I decided not to spend any more time on him. He prevented me from breathing, confined movement. What kind of relationship is it? An awkward movement, and it creeps at the seams. When I have to give up habits in favor of his jealousy and sacrifice my ambitions, well, it means a man is not my size.”

Just let it go, don’t say shit. It’s not worth it. “There are, of course, women who like this. A peculiar corset allows them to look weak and feminine. My position, a partner, should be like nice warm sweater, close to skin, but he can’t be tight.”

Or cheat. That son of a…

Sam tightened her grip on tip jar.

Jack chewed on his lower lip. “I might be stubborn, but I’m not tight.” He winked and pushed his empty glass forward with two dollars in it.

“Another one?”

Jack studied the empty benches. A guy in the corner snoozed over a full glass, dipped his nose inside and shook it off, fought to open closing eyes.

“Hey, Grey, Sam is closing.” He went over, shoved his buddy in the shoulder. “Up, you old rat.”

Sam wiped sticky moons off the bar counter. If they were to fight, she could put them out and close earlier.

“You know,” Jack paused in the door, holding Grey up, “there is always space for a new person or an idea in life. It can even be fun.”

As soon as the beer brothers stumbled out, Sam cleaned the tables and put chairs in place. She calculated the number of shifts needed to cover the tuition fee and rent. The numbers devastated, and she would need all her kidneys to pass the medical examination when she applied to the police academy. Sam needed a new plan. As she moved towards Grey’s spot, she hoped he didn’t stain it with urine like the last time he fell asleep.

The door behind her screeched open.

“Hi!” Sam cruised back to her original spot.

The crack widened, and a small man appeared in the gap.

“Come in, come in. Don’t let the cold in.”

The door closed behind him. He scanned the place. “Are you alone?”

“The Scott’s Pub is open until one o’clock,” she made sure to put emphasis on the one o’clock, “or the last customer. What would you like?”

“Dark brew.”

In a worn jacket, he didn’t look like a tipper. Holes in his gloves didn’t scream paying customer, either. Sam pulled a clean glass from a washing rack and held it under the tap, gave him time to show her a wallet as he came close. Instead, the man grabbed the tip jar and dashed out. A sudden coldness hit her core. Sam gasped, then chased him with a glass still in her hand.

Through the window, she could see him jump on a bicycle that could have been called a wreck on its best days. The bike was missing the back tire, and the guy rode on the rim, kicking-up sparks over bare asphalt. He progressed at a slow pace, and Sam could’ve reached him, but she hesitated to leave the bar. In desperation, she threw the glass.

Hit!

The glass bounced off the cyclist’s back and popped when it hit the ground. The hit didn’t do much, but the loud smashing of the glass made him fly off the bike into the road.

Sam checked both ways. No one on the street. She sprinted over to the spilled jar. The thief grabbed bills and waved a can opener at her. Sam picked up the jar and raised it above her head, assuming a threatening posture.

“Sorry, man. I am hungry.” He climbed up to the sidewalk on his knees. Sam stood with her hand in the air like the Statue of Liberty and sized the guy up.

The petty thief backed away, waving his weapon.

“Better get a job like everybody else. Coming here, taking my cash. I worked for it!” Sam motioned. “Stop shaking this thing in my direction. Take whatever you got there and go.”

The man walked backward.

“If I see you again, I’m calling the cops.”

When the thief ran, Sam grabbed cash from the ground and stuffed it back into her apron. No one around. Only some windows cast warm light into the March night. The cold crept in, pushed out adrenaline. The air froze inside her chest, and her body started sending strange signals to the brain—it seemed as if the wind got hot and burned her skin. There was no way those sensations were a good sign, she hurried back to the bar. Under buzzing streetlamps, she let the door fall into place and locked it.

Inside, her bare hands started to itch, she put the jar on a scratched-up table and did a couple of jumping jacks. She counted the rescued tip, checked her bank balance on the phone and, despite the wreck that night turned into, she decided to stick with the hand dealt to her. Her prospects narrowed, but the embarrassment from possible failure stressed her more.

In the toilet with a low hum from the light above the mirror, Sam washed her face with cold water. Lucky. No one knew which rusted tap would be working at any given moment. In the mirror, red eyes. More water. She wiped off running mascara with the last paper towel and made a mental note to fill up the dispenser when a hurried knock on the glass front door reached her.

Blue lights zoomed in and out of the bar as one of the officers continued his knocking. The man talked to his partner, gestured with a free hand, and nodded. He only stopped banging when Sam made it to the door.

“Ma’am, did you make the call about a street fight?”

Shaking her head didn’t help. The officers wanted in. She unlocked the door, and two huge men in dark blue, with weapons of justice in their belts, pressed inside and leaked in around her. One walked around the location as the other flipped up a notebook and showed her a seat.

“I’m Officer Johnson, and this is Doyle.”

Coaxed into telling her story, Sam gave them a report.

“Thank you for your time.” Johnson ran out of questions and slightly tapped Sam’s shoulder with a gigantic hand.

Sam twitched. The unexpected gesture from a stranger, more than she had gotten from anybody lately, filled her up with hope. Warmth spread throughout her body. Sam dreamed of being able to give that feeling to people in need, to bring comfort and peace to people in distress.

“We’ll contact you if we find your guy.” Johnson stood and motioned to Doyle. “Stay safe.”

“You too.”

You too? Very original.

She jumped up from her seat, high on compassion, pulled the handle, decided the right words would find her when she saw their faces.

“She got nearly robbed.” She heard Officer Johnson say as he opened the driver’s side door.

The other officer laughed. “Yeah. The kid got all shaken up.”

Sam closed the door with a smooth motion at a perfectly calculated speed to avoid a screeching door and locked it. What a night. And it didn’t strike one yet. She picked up the phone and logged into an online casino—her bank account needed a refill. The dealt hands were useless. she threw them off until a three and a six of hearts led to a flush and allowed her to collect the bank. There, half of the rent in her pocket. She always did well in poker at night. Encouraged, she popped up and went over to close. That was the most boring part of the job—a daily report from the register, counting of cash, writing out numbers on slips, and stuffing it all in a plastic bag.

She turned the key in the cash drawer and found it empty. After turning the place up looking for the money, Sam concluded that the bicycle thief must’ve been sent into the bar as a decoy. One lured her out, the other grabbed cash.

If I see him again, I will slap him so hard he will forget his own name. That sneaky ass.

Calling 911 didn’t help. A dispatcher kept repeating, “Officers already took your statement, ma’am. They will get back to you.”

Useless.

Chapter 3

A squeal of the wheels woke up Sam, who had fallen asleep shaming the cops in her mind. Like any responsible businessman, Scott Cabriolet promptly arrived to overlook the damages several hours after the event. He jumped off his bike, left Jess, daytime bartender, to finish her cigarette on the back seat and opened the door with his own key. For a man of square statue, Scott moved through space with a surprising grace. If not for a leather screech from his biker suit, he would’ve been undetectable.

“There you are.” He stood from behind the counter. “What the hell happened?”

Sam rubbed her eyes and tried to look alive. She never met the man. Jess handled all paperwork and payments. “We got robbed.”

“Your call made no sense.” He bent back down. “We had a crowbar. Where is it now?”

“I don’t know.”

“I thought you knew how to defend yourself. Aren’t you a cop wannabe or something?”

“I’m a student for now. And I don’t know how the money disappeared. I was out for a minute, getting my tips. Maybe someone got in while I was out.”

“Ahh. Well, Samantha, a student for now,” Scott punched buttons of the register and studied the daily sales report, “I suggest you work in the lost cash, and we can stay friends.”

Sam’s heart raced, and she couldn’t stop herself from blinking. “Excuse me, what? I do want to stay friends because I need this job, but I am not working in anything.” Sam crossed her arms and convinced herself to be rational. “You should be thanking me for being willing to keep quiet about it. I decided, I will not file a third-party negligence claim against you, which I could have done due to your knowledge of the high chance of crime. That is your responsibility to protect me, your worker.”

“Hey, I had protection for you right here. Do you know why they call me Cabriolet?” Scott stroked over an ear-to-ear scar at the back of his bald head. “I worked in bad places,” he bleated, stretching the a in bad, “with some bad people, who saw physical violence as a valid end-argument. The result, craniotomy of the temporal lobe. My point being, Scott’s Bar is not a dangerous place. The Bronx is not what it used to be back in my days. The bar has never been robbed before. Not once. You must’ve attracted the wrong kind of customer.”

Sam’s body tensed. She pressed out a closed-lipped smile. “How convenient.”

“What’s that?”

“I said it is convenient to blame the victim. You could’ve hired a bouncer, but you are cheap, aren’t you?”

“The victim here is me, but you don’t see me running around calling cops, do you?”

“Police have already been here.”

The vein on Scott’s neck bulged. “What did you just say?”

“Should I speak louder or slower?”

“Don’t mess with me. Did the cops stop by?” Scott came forward and stopped a couple of steps away from Sam.

“Yes, and I gave them my statement.”

“I would not bet on them sweating to find the man. I have a better chance of finding him myself. No cop has business in here.” Cabriolet stepped forward. “Did they go to the basement?”

“No.” Sam got up from the chair, stared Scott down. “Police have better things to do than to check if you water down the liquor.”

“That’s lucky for you.” Scott walked back to the bar and poured himself a beer.

Sam followed after him. “Mr. Cabriolet. Scott—”

“I don’t want you here. You can go.”

“I need this job.”

“Not my problem.” Scott turned, rolled the remains of his drink around the glass. “Listen,” he spun back around, “I’m not doing charity. Besides, you could’ve taken the money.”

“I worked here for over a year. I could’ve taken it before. And believe me, I do need money. But why did I wait until today to do it?”

“Jess told me you lost your fancy scholarship, that’s why. If you need money, you can go to Mickey on the corner, the store guy, he can lend you some. I like you. You remind me of me, except you are tall, have hair and, obviously, a woman, so I’m not gonna lie, Mickey is a soul sucker. It would be my last step, but hey, if you need some and can pay it back real quick, he is your man.”

“Thanks.” Sam ripped off the apron, tucked her T-shirt into her faded blue jeans, grabbed her coat and backpack, and headed out.

“You owe me three-seventy. I want it by the end of the month.”

Sam paused, pushed the door blade so it swung open all the way, and hammered the frame as she touched the sidewalk. Jess waved her hair at Sam, smiled, flicked a cigarette towards the other three buds already resting in puddles of snow soup.

“You okay?” she said.

“I’m fired.” Sam pulled out a bracelet from the backpack and put it on, closed her coat, and started walking. “See you around.”

“You got caught in a bad moment. Sam, don’t be sad.”

“See you around,” Sam repeated without turning.


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Chapter 4

Disappointment and anger surfed poisonous waves in her blood. Sam raged at Scott, the officers, and especially herself for being naive and getting robbed. The bar stood, nothing burned, no broken furniture. Scott could’ve let it slide one time. She lost more than a job, she lost tips. She always drew in money. And what about the police? Are they not going to bother? She gave them the description of the man.

Preoccupied with her thoughts, Sam reached Central Park as the sun rose over the frosted city and laid a pink blur over Harlem Meer. The Park—the green island—gave space for wandering thoughts. The allure of the city, with its sea of glass and concrete, with people closing off oxygen intake by ties and suits, wore off, stayed behind. She landed on a bench next to a person in a sleeping bag and considered her options. It would be optimal to avoid sleeping on the street. She couldn’t afford mountain gear equipment. By the time the previous semester started, she had cut down wherever possible, and she already had the last pair of shoes and pants on. 

I am a grown woman. I can’t get all upset about a job. Jobs come and go. I can fix this. I just need a head start. I need a loan.

Sam stood, hurried to the college library, and found a computer. She dived into research about tuition loans. By the time students had arrived to dig through the knowledge of ancestors, she had clicked the button and signed away a chunk of her future salary to official loan sharks, upholding her right to pursue whatever kind of happiness she pleased. The email receipt promised a follow-up call.

Sam retreated to a warm leather chair and took out notes from her last lecture. Her thoughts gravitated to the chair’s soft leather handles with a rubbed-out color of crusted dirt in the desert. Her father never allowed leather furniture to dry up. He had a bottle of special lotion and would massage both the table and chair every six months. And Sam? Sam could be in the office only during these rituals. She marveled at the books behind glass, onyx cat statues on the window shelf, and Persian carpet on the floor, a forbidden treasure cave.

By fifth grade, when Sam had started going home by herself and could do anything while waiting for Dad to come back from work, she would go into the office and rub the leather table and chair with the lotion. Sam had found a microfiber wipe and told herself she would just swab the lotion-runs if she saw any. Still, the table was all she had on her mind.

One of those days way back then, she had sat on the chair, warmed up by the late sun, and had touched the golden curl pattern running along the outer edge of the tabletop lined with green leather.

“Napoleon used to sit at this table,” Dad had once said as he patted the top.

Sam hadn’t cared for a person with a cat-like name, but the handles with women’s heads had glanced in the sun, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to let them be undiscovered. Sam pulled one and found nothing. The other had only papers. She rustled through the edges, one of the papers, a letter short enough to read for a child. Sam sang the words out. Tricky words tangled up in long and short sentences, but some of them stuck out. Elisabeth. Clark. Dead.

Sam had put the letter back and shoved in the drawer as her father walked in. He had strolled over, took her hand, and led Sam out. Dad had always brought a crisp smell of November with him, even in summer. That day, he had shared his winter with her. Mom died. He had moved far to raise her away from the city of sorrow. The brief discovery had left further questions for many years to come.

The vibration from her phone brought Sam back to the present. She walked out of the quiet zone of the library. In a spacious hallway, a woman on the other end of the phone promised Sam a loan.

Wow, that’s prompt.

The woman laid down the fee and chirped a goodbye.

Spring sun, still too far away from her place on Earth, sent what rays it could through the glass roof.

Sam smiled.

Damn. How long did I sit in the library?

Air pierced her skin on the way to the subway. Even the shallowest breath arrested her lungs and left nothing to cuss with and her hoops jingled as she shook fallen snow of her charcoal hair. Poster-covered walls of the passage leading underground screamed in orange writing at passersby to sell their gold for cash.

Sam ruffled up and hid her hands in her coat pockets, wondering about life. As an adult, she got to decide if life events were signs from the universe. She got to draw a line between never give up and this horse is dead, get off. If she had to cut her expenses to the bone, she’d surely have to sell personal items as well. She had little of worth. What she did have, she didn’t want to give up. On her wrist, the last keepsake she’d part with, a yellow serpent with green eyes and a body that made up the rest of the bracelet. It reminded her that she had decisions to make.

The train greeted her with a rush of commuters flushing out through the doors. Sam stepped into a faint dampness of ammonia and sweat, sat on the warm plastic bench, and glanced over the platform. The human swarm stormed towards the streetlights above, moving around a man with wings who lacked a halo. Plenty of lunatics in costumes roamed the streets of New York, offering a picture and bullying tourists for a dollar, but the winged man simply stood in place. His wings were magnificent, not paper cutouts, but broad and high. To carry wings of that magnitude must’ve been tough. He looked tired and out of place.

The train lurched forward and moved into a tunnel, away from the dim lights. The thick plastic window reflected Sam’s face. She pushed her left eyebrow back into place with her index finger, but it popped up again. The raised eyebrow had arrived two years before, a nervous tic from closing-up adulthood, and she had gotten a compulsion for change. Formally, nothing had changed—same IQ, same weight, same height—but the core had transformed. Toxic illusions disappeared, and anxiety level sunk, mostly because she permanently changed high heels for tennis shoes, but the desire to figure out her mother’s murder grew stronger. It became an obsession.

She got out to the fresh air of Burnside Station, ran down the iron steps, leaped across the street between honking cars, and raced to the corner of her apartment complex where Ro waited. Her admirer only started his path towards being a man. He was five years old and lived in the building next to hers. Once, he had carried her favorite purse. The massive belly of the bag scraped the asphalt, and the sound echoed in Sam’s heart, but she let him lug it to her door and rewarded his job with a candy. He had promised Sam to marry her when he was all grown up and had shown her his toy gun. Sam didn’t argue with men who had guns. The age difference was not a showstopper. Ro probably thought that in ten, fifteen years they would become equal. Maybe he didn’t think anything. Most likely, he just loved candy and associated Sam with chocolate.

“You are late.” The traffic swallowed his words.

Sam pressed candy in his palm. “Let’s go home.”

Ro hid the round chocolate in a pocket of his orange down vest, a dead ringer for boat safety gear.

“You know you are not supposed to be out alone, right?” She reached for the door. “Someone will make a call to Child Protective Services, and you will be taken away from your dad. Wait for me inside the building next time.”

Ro bowed his head and kicked at the dusting of snow, shivered, and looked down the street.

Sam browsed the same direction and noticed the subway angel, who cruised towards them, with wings pressed back by the wind. Feathers fluttered.

“I’m hungry. Do you want to eat?” Sam kicked the door, forced the orange vest inside, and hurried him up the stairs and into hers.

Inside, the boy climbed on a chair in the kitchen part of her studio and asked for eggs and bacon.

“I have tuna and rice with some broccoli and olives for taste. No? I can make you spaghetti and meatballs. It’s dinner time, after all.”

“So, no eggs?”

“Alright, Ro.” Sam opened the fridge and pulled out the breakfast set. The boy found safety in little traditions. She showed him respect by not arguing.

“And toast to dip. Do you have? I like to dip,” he said as the room filled with the lazy-Sunday tang of eggs and bacon.

Sam put a plate with a toast in front of him and watched. Ro’s ears moved up and down as he chewed.

“How did you do it?”

“What?”

“The eggs. They are very great. Dad makes them see-through and warm. Not good. I dip it with bread.”

“Glad you like them.”

“I will marry you when I’m big, I promise.”

Sam smiled. “Grow up first, and we’ll see.”

A knock on the door interrupted them. Sam shuffled her slippers to the corridor, peered in the peephole. Darkness. A neighbor must’ve stolen the bulb again…or covered up the door eye. Sam listened to her heartbeat.

“It’s me, Jay. Rohan’s dad,” came from the other side.

Sam opened the door, and the boy’s father panted out apologies. The extra garlic in his usual curry breath communicated that the flu season rolled over him, and a single dad had no time or money to be sick. He pressed on with the help of the old-day remedies. Yes, overtime. Yes, she understood. No worries.

“I fed Ro,” said Sam. “I need a few extra days to pay my rent.”

“Samantha, listen,” Jay rubbed his forehead and shifted foot, “the rent has to be paid on time. Don’t do that to me. Okay?”

“I will pay extra once I find a new job.”

“A new job?”

“Long story. We were robbed, I was blamed.”

“I understand, okay? But you have to see my side of things. You got the last rent-controlled apartment in the building. I can barely afford to keep you when you pay on time. Okay? Okay.”

“It’s this one time.” Sam slammed her hands on her hips. “Let’s move, Rohan,” Jay shouted over her shoulder. He turned to Sam. “Find the money.”

“Jay, please. If you can give me a week, you can raise my rent up to a new rate in July. Hell, you can put it over whatever others are paying now. I just need a few more months to get residency here and be eligible for NYPD.”

Ro peered out from behind Sam.

“This is out of my hands. I need the rent. You have until tomorrow.” Jay patted Ro’s head.

“I don’t want you to be sad.” Ro put on his vest.

“I’m not. I’m going to a party.” Sam squatted in front of him, helped put his vest’s zipper together.

“What party?”

“Birthday party.”

“Ro, we have to go. Thank you again. Have fun at the party.”

The lock on the door slid into position. She leaned into the door and listened to the disappearing steps. Sam wanted to scream. She clenched her jaw hard enough to numb her lips. The world revolved around money, and money is what it was going to get. She installed herself at the virtual table. Another night, another gamble. She lost. Lost all of it.

Sam closed the app, put on a countdown for fifteen minutes, and cried. She might not have agreed with Dad on big things, but he gave excellent advice about efficiency. When the time ran out, Sam put her phone down, washed her face, drew on a happy face with her makeup, and went out while her phone buzzed and lighted up with Dad.

She walked back to the station, where streetlamps remained, passed dusted shops and prostitutes with sad faces. Last dollars burned pockets. Sam swayed in doubt by a bar door but went in, ordered two shots of cheap tequila, bumped glasses against each other, and whispered, “Happy birthday,” gulped both down, “to me.”

Tequila was neither tasty nor fun.

Her deflated cheer must have caught the bartender’s attention. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Do you have a pen and a scratch paper? A napkin will do, please.”

He pulled a pen from his man apron. “Here you go.”

Sam drew a triangle and scribbled.

All right. The basic needs theory states one needs food, warmth, and rest. I’m warm, thank you, glorious liquor.

Sam nodded to the bartender, who caught her staring into space. Her stomach wrestled with other organs.

I have to remember to eat.

She put a circle around food.

The resting bit I will do in the grave. Skip it for now. What next? Safety, then close relationships, feelings of accomplishment, and self-actualization comes last. I put the school in accomplishments, and self-actualization will follow. I kinda screwed up my relationships.

“Would you like another round?” A new bartender stood in front of her.

“Do you need a bartender? I would like to cover my basic needs for food and shelter.”

The glossy man slipped a throaty laugh. “Good luck, girl.”

“I can drop my CV in the morning.”

“We have a family operation here. Try a different place.” He took the empty shot glasses and walked off.

Find out what happens next….

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