Night was falling over the rooftops and a chill brushed her neck and spread a web of cold under her thin cotton shirt. It had been a long walk to the park but it was a longer way back. She had to skirt the edge of the neighborhood either way but now she had to keep any eye out for Dell, her boyfriend. Or that’s what he called himself. He’d be looking for her; he wanted money. He was like a bloodhound; he always found her. But she needed to give the money to Granny Ella for the telephone. Grandpa Les needed orthotics. She could only work so many hours at the nail salon. It had been tough for a year since her grandfather had lost his job. But Jenna’s other work–the men, the dark, the sudden fear–that wasn’t so new. It had been like that one way or another a long time, and she had just turned twenty-three at 8:07 this morning.
Granny reminded her with a steaming mug of coffee and a giant cinnamon roll brought right to her bedroom on a wooden inlaid tray. Jenna was getting dressed for work, but she stopped to take a few bites, some sips.
“What do you think, Jenna? Getting your mother up in the middle of the night?And you coming so fast we barely had time to get dressed and say a prayer for smooth passage.” Granny laughed deep and long; it sounded like it came from all the way back to Jenna’s first day. “And then we waited and waited. You looked a little like a mewing kitten, all squinty eyes and little paws, so much hair on your pretty–well, we knew it would be!–head. Yes, and the rainstorm made everything look so good as we drove you home a couple days later, and the flowers started blossoming just for you. Decorated the whole neighborhood!”
Granny put her arms around Jenna. The soft bulk of her grandmother made her think of warm pillows. Jenna wanted to stay there and breathe her dusky rose scent. She didn’t know where it came from. Granny rarely wore perfume. But she smelled sweet, as though she wore a cape of warm red roses. Grandpa Les said it was because she had diabetes, that the sugar in her blood made her exhale sweetness. Jenna thought it was her heart breathing out into the world. She was that kind of person: sturdy and sweet.
Jenna would do anything for them. They had kept her with them since she was twelve. So she worked thirty-two hours at the salon and added to her income any way she could. She had worked two, three jobs at a time since sixteen until work got scarce.
Another way to make cash was to sell a few drugs, something she knew how to do by the time her mother disappeared. That ended when a detective came to her grandparents’ door. He took Jenna to the jail downtown where she was kept for seven hours despite the fact that she had nothing on her and he had not really seen anything. But they both knew what was going on and the whole ordeal cured her–she’d wondered if that had been the point. He had known her mother once, before she had taken a wrong turn, he’d said with a sneer.
But a third way was just selling herself, which was something one of the girls at the salon told her about, eyes averted. Then Dell showed up and Jenna thought, well, he had money and he had a good car and he knew what he wanted. What did she have? Would she ever have? A lousy story and barely enough to get by. But then it was too late to think about again. Every time Dell shoved her out the car door she turned her mind into a blank, a wall, a place where nothing happened and no one lived. Just like when she was a kid and the parties shook the house and her mother’s boyfriends smelled like whiskey and danger. It had all disappeared if she closed her eyes and thought about the starry sky outside her window. When she got a little older, she learned about the planets and thought of them, how beautiful they were and how far away. How she might live on one someday.
By now she had learned to make time stop. Nothing that mattered dared come near the corners of her mind. She had no name. She had no past or future until she took the money. And gave it to her grandparents when they needed it. They knew only that she worked too much, too many hours and Jenna agreed, but didn’t complain. They needed to know nothing. They had lived through enough.
The moon was shining. It’s light sliced across her path as she darted between cars, disappeared behind Carmen’s Coffee and the A and P, ran across the darker side streets. Jenna checked her watch: eight fifty-nine. Her grandparents would be looking out the window, worrying a little. They liked to know how she was at the end of a day when they didn’t see her, a quick check in. Tonight there would be no presents to open but they’d be waiting to share German chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream. And rainbow- colored candles. It was odd, how they still thought of her as a kid when she hadn’t felt one for longer than she could remember.
Jenna turned down the alley where all the garages were lined up behind the small, shabby houses. She could see Grandpa Les’ Chevy half-in, the red paint looking purple in the night. Her feet slowed down; she was almost there.
Dell’s hand grabbed her shoulder and it shook a scream out of her. The weight of his body dragged her down. She kicked until all the kick was gone and her back hit gravel. She saw the sky turn itself inside out and fall down around her. There was Dell’s grinning face right above her as he lifted his hand again. He smelled like good wine gone rotten. Jenna tried to push herself up from the ground but fell back. There were people barely visible behind Dell and he turned away from Jenna and stood up. They all got loud and the words split her head open, made her think of echoing canyons and each syllable felt like rocks falling on her head with alarming speed.
“Jenna, lay still!” Grandpa Les ordered. “I’m talking to Dell!”
Grandma Ella shuffled over and reached down to smooth her forehead. “There’s a girl, lie still, the police are coming, be good for grandma now, that’s my girl,” and her voice was water over wounds, strong but soft, clean and clear yet blurring the edges of everything. Jenna started to speak but the taste of roses stopped her. She put her hand to her mouth and pulled away a satiny petal.
“I’m so sorry, girl, the roses were for you, I had them in my hand when we heard you cry out. I hit him with the roses…stupid…they’re not much good now.”
Grandpa Les’ voice was the loudest Jenna had ever heard it. “If you put one foot on this property again you’re gonna make me use this rifle, boy!”
Dell let out a low cackle. “We’re in a public alley. You don’t know who you’re trying to save, anyway. You don’t know her at all! Have you ever wondered where she gets her extra money, old man? Do you think she can pay for your bills with nothing? She’s lucky to have me!”
Grandpa Les took a step forward and slowly raised his ancient hunting rifle level with Dell’s eyes. He spoke so quietly Jenna had to listen hard and it hurt.
“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll save your breath for the cops and judge. The whole neighborhood knows what you are and you took her where she never should’ve gone. You’re the sort that people cross the street to avoid, you know that? You think being poor is the worst thing? You need some powerful help. But your time with Jenna is done, you hear me? Finished.”
The neighbors had gathered one by one to see what Ella, Les and Jenna had going on and saw that they had their hands full, so they circled around Dell, arms looped and locked. Ella wiped a smear of blood off Jenna’s face and put the girl’s head on her wide lap. The police arrived, then the ambulance, flashing lights slipping over rapt faces. They put her on a gurney and Ella and Les gazed down at her. A dozen red, white, and yellow roses were laid on her chest and one unopened bud was placed in a pale curl at her ear. The EMT frowned.
“It’s her birthday,” Grandma Ella grumbled, and he shrugged.
Grandpa Les put his arm around his wife and pulled her close. “Girls who wear roses are the best ones, you know. We thought you were something wonderful long before you liked them.” He half-smiled sadly. “We’ll make up for things somehow. I was waiting to tell you I got a part-time job at the A and P. Yeah, your ole granddad’s not out of commission yet. That was the birthday present.” He pulled out his handkerchief and turned away.
Jenna tried to say that they’d had bad times before and gotten by. That she had made mistakes that would take a long time to get over. But before she could get it all out, Grandma Ella kissed her cheek. Jenna felt the roses warm up. Their scent filled the ambulance and made her dizzy but calm. She knew tomorrow would be terrible, a day of reckoning, with likely many more tough ones to come, but for now all the fear and regret flew away to the perfect beauty of the moon.
Copyright 2012 Cynthia Guenther Richardson