Sophie didn’t feel the sting of her skinned knee until she was standing still, waiting for a bus that didn’t seem to be coming. She reached down to scratch at an annoying tickle, and her hand came back sticky with just enough blood on the tips to make her stomach twist. She was such a weakling for the sight of blood. Ever since third grade, seeing Jimmy Porter’s nosebleed, watching it drip down his face in a fountain, she just couldn’t stand it.
Yet, she’d earned that skinned knee. So worth it. Some fantastic photos now lived on the film the old vintage camera. It was a risk, using film, but the payoff would be so good. It was going to be awesome to see them come to life in Mrs. Arkady’s dark room. She knew in her gut these pictures were special, worthy of the Lost Places' website.
She wasn’t a photographer, but she loved history. The stories hidden in the abandoned, lost, and neglected places since obsessed her with their possibilities since the day she watched a documentary on them at ten years old. She’d taken her photos on black and white film with a vintage camera and its two vintage lenses.
There was no guarantee that the planning she put into making this day happen would pay off. She had no way to be sure the film was good or that the photos would come out. But at least she’d done it. At least she’d come here, to this side of town, and see for herself the loss and waste of the place. It was worth a scraped knee, a bruised arm, and losing her coat.
It was worth all of it.
But where the heck was the bus?
Her phone died an hour ago. She’d tried to protect the charge, but her mom called her, and she’d left the map on so she wouldn’t get lost. Now it was done. Finished. She’d made it back the two miles to her starting point, but the phone was dead.
She’d be okay, if her mom hadn’t taken that money for her new battery. She’d still be fine if Katya didn’t routinely go through Sophie’s hiding spots searching for the extra just-in-case money. Her mom could smell cash. No matter where she hid it in their apartment, Katya found it. Took what she said Sophie owed her.
When the child support checks stopped coming, Katya gave Sophie two choices, pay her way or give her room up to someone who could. Not only did she take Sophie’s paychecks, leaving her just enough for the college food card and bus fare, she also felt entitled to the tips from Sophie’s job.
With an assignment due, Sophie brought along a sack lunch, her bad phone, and her bus pass, determined to satisfy her nine year old itch.
The last bus came through at 6:00. She’d planned it perfectly. There was an express home at the transfer station. They ran till midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. She should have time. It should be here.
It would be fine.
The mostly hot and muggy day now turned cold, the sky dark and looking like rain. She’d lost her jacket somewhere in the afternoon. There was so much to see. She’d gotten got distracted by one great shot after another.
Tee and capri jeans were not great wear for rain. But the bus would be here before that.
That morning, the one mini-market left standing on the street had its display out; oranges, apples, and tomatoes. All that was pulled in now, the windows shuttered.
The laundry and junk shop were closed, too. The liquor store was still open. She could go in there, make a phone call, but she’d have to get past the two men sitting right outside smoking. Their rapt focus followed her every move.
She shivered. Their attention crawled across her skin, sending up red flags of all kinds.
Who could she call? Her mother would be so pissed Sophie came to this side of town. A waste of time, a waste of energy. Free time from a short class schedule on Fridays meant a chance to go into work for extra hours as far as Katya was concerned.
Katya, who worked hard at her two jobs, would be pissed if Sophie ruined her night off with an interrupting phone call. She was seeing Kevin, or Javier or maybe she was back to Steele again. But either way, Mom would not want to drive into the no-man’s-land part of the city to pick her daughter up at the last bus stop back to civilization. No idiot came here. How could Sophie be so selfish, so stupid, such a waste of breath. The rant would go for hours.
Sophie felt that full success of this whole thing meant her mom never, ever knew about it. She’d walk home first.
Other than the blinking lights on the liquor store and those men, the street looked deserted. Businesses boarded up and closed down. There were some apartments where people lived above, the noise of their lives muffled by their old brick facades. Occasionally she heard yelling, music, a baby cry, but the sounds felt like they were leaking through cracks from another world.
Where was the bus? She tugged at her lanyard with her bus pass and house key, adjusted the bag with her camera, all the soon to be amazing photos, and her two precious lenses inside. Looked down the street and saw nothing.
Instead, she felt the first fat drips of rain.
Worth it. Worth it. This didn’t matter. She had done something. Followed through on a dream.
The sky opened up in one of its typical rain showers, soaking her to the skin in minutes. Five more minutes, then start walking. She knew the general direction of the big transfer station, and the buses ran till midnight.
Sophie waited what felt like another million years, feeling the sky darken, watching the shadows grow, before she admitted defeat and put her foot off the curb to cross the street to the liquor store.
She pulled it back quickly as a car came around the corner.
A big, old, gas-guzzling black tank of a thing. Older than her and her mom together, but well cared for. It’s paint glowing with a blue-black light, the rain beading on the hood. It was loud and showy, and Sophie instantly shrank away from the danger it represented.
This was not a good part of town. Written up several times in the newspapers as the lost part of the city, local citizens could barely get any kind of public services here. Criminals ran this part of the city. People complained that it took two hours to get a police car, if they showed up, and just as long for an ambulance. God help them if anything caught on fire.
The car slowed, the noticeable shadows of two men in the front seat. Stopped. Right in front of her.
Standing there with, stuck with curiosity and indecision, Sophie watched the window roll down. Slow and old fashioned on a hand crank.
Sophie loved vintage things, old things from the past that seemed better put together and more lasting than phones that were dinosaurs in four years. She knew nothing about cars other than there was a time they made of metal instead of plastic and had human powered windows and seats.
She watched the window, fascinated by the movement, and not the lean guy with the long nose and buzz cut who leaned out of it in her direction.
“Hey,” He said, eyebrow cocked as he examined Sophie from head to toe in a way that instantly put her on her guard. Switching to Spanish, long nose spoke with a drawling slowness, giving her a slow leer, leaving Sophie no doubt what he must be saying.
The driver's side door opened with a creek, a sound that made it seem old, strong and heavy all at once, “Quit it, Jumper,” the man said as he stood.
“Little girl. What are you doing?”
Sophie almost looked around. Little girl? She was a college freshman and not a little girl. Maybe he meant size because, even next to that old car, the driver looked big. His hair clipped, like the other guy, she saw tattoos and muscles and little else.
These guys had done nothing. Could be anyone. Maybe nice guys. She didn’t need to be afraid. But statistics and warnings rushed through her head. Every article and documentary she had studied about his side of town. Lawless. Gang ruled. Muggings. Random beatings. Human trafficking. Drug deals. Territory disputes. “Bus,” she squeaked.
“It’s 6:30; no bus around here past 6 and it’s a Friday night. A lot of time they don’t go past four.”
“Schedule says,” she managed. He was easily the hottest guy she’d ever seen, but coupled with that height, muscle, tattoos, and unfriendly expression, Sophie could barely talk to him. Blue eyes in a dark honey-gold face, lips too plump and sensuous for the masculine jawline, tattoos creeping up his neck.
“Schedule is shit,” he clipped out, like the idea disgusted him she would trust a posted schedule. “Someone coming for you? You call a- what the fuck are those guys you hire?
“Uber.” His friend supplied the answer.
“Okay. I’ll do that.” She waved the dead phone in her hand at him. “Thanks.”
He stood there. Watching her. The guy in the car offered her a knowing grin. The driver, he just stood there. Waiting. As if he expected her to make the call while he watched. As if he were making sure.
She felt her face redden, suddenly ashamed and embarrassed. Too good to look at, his attention sizzled, his handsome arrogance burning her like a predator's threat. His t-shirt bore some kind of faded design, but it was tight across his chest and to the curves on his upper arms. The muscles there big and pronounced, like he worked at them. Even his thigh muscles looked thick, straining his jeans. He’d have no trouble picking up the front end of his tank of a car if he wanted to.
They needed to go now. Why weren’t they getting back in the car and going? “I’m okay. Thanks.”
She blinked at him. Baby. Had he just called her baby? She was going to die. Her face was so red, her heart going even faster. Should she run now? It was a good time to give up on the bus. A good time to walk. She looked at the liquor store, back at the car, back to the liquor store, its yellow lights blinking, suddenly a beacon of safety, despite the obstacles seated out front, watching the show.
“You can go, I’m okay.” Sophie said.
“Call now.” His deep voice lowered with the command. The sound moved inside of her.
She didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t tell him her phone was dead. That she had no money for an Uber. She couldn’t tell him she didn’t want to call her mom. Katya’s wrath was a fate worse than death.
“Do you know the fucked-up shit you are in?” the good-looking guy asked.
Wincing at the rough sound of him, she took a step back. What had she done? Why was he cussing at her?
“Jumper, get in the back,” he said at his passenger.
“Micah, what the fuck?” The passenger twisted to look at the tall guy.
Jumper opened the door, leered at her again, pulling his gangly body out of the car and into the back seat, leaving the front door open.
The driver came around the front of the car, getting bigger with each step. There’d been a couple of tall sport guys in high school she’d had classes with, who made the teachers look like stick toys. This guy was like that. Only more. Confidence. Aggression. He closed the distance with a few long-legged steps.
Panic set in. She gathered herself to run. Five steps, canvas shoes slapping the wet pavement. And he was on her. Thick, tattooed arm wrapping around her middle, lifting her up, her legs kicking wildly, but her body stationary.
She must look like an absurd cartoon character. She must look like a girl in big trouble.
“Fuck no, little Starlight. I don’t think so. Where you going?” he asked, holding her off the ground with one arm. The thick bar of his forearm dug into her ribs, under her breasts.
He was touching her. Holding her. She kicked, trying to get that arm off her. A scream escaped. His free hand came up, covered half her face, blocking off all her air. Shaking her twice, hard, he said in her ear. “Knock that shit off right now. No one will help you. Not one mother-fucker on this street is going to help a little bit of lost starlight like you. You don’t belong here. Why are you here? No phone? No money? Are you insane?”
Never touched like this, just picked up, shaken and silenced, fear washed over her. He sounded like a beast catching a trespasser. Any minute now he was now going to throw her in his dungeon as punishment.
Mouth and nose covered, she couldn’t answer the accusations or take a breath. Her mind blanked, that rich, dark chocolate voice becoming the center of her world.
“I’m not gonna hurt you unless you make me. I’ll lock you in my trunk if I have to, cause you are not staying here to be gang banged by the dogs watching from the windows. Don’t scream again. And don’t run away on your short little girl legs, you’ll only piss me off.” Giving her another shake, he sat her down hard on her feet , unbalanced and dizzy she reached out to hold on to him to keep standing.
“Please.” She let go of his heated skin, stepped back. Shaking now from the fear and adrenaline, with no idea what to do.
“I’m wet, you're soaked, my leather is getting wet. No time for this fucking crap. Get in the car, I’ll take you home.”
“I don’t want that. Just leave me alone.” She tried to square her shoulders and tell him off, but she couldn’t make her spine straight, much less meet his eyes.
“No, baby. That’s not how this works.” He took her arm in a firm hold.
Sophie yelped, a half scream that echoed down the street and made him look at her in warning. Hand on her head, he shoved her into his car. Closing the door behind her.
“Hola pretty girl, what’s your name?” in Spanish from the back.
Sophie pretended she didn’t understand him. She pretended this wasn’t happening. Was she being kidnapped? Was he going to hurt her? Do things? Make her do things?
The big cab of the car shrank in size when the man named Micah climbed in. Even though the stick shift separated them, the seat was one, big full thing, all the way across the car, and she felt it along her body when he settled himself into the leather upholstery.
She couldn’t take it. He was too much. This man could crush her. Scrambling, she made a move to open the door.
“No!” he barked at her. His hand came down on her thigh in a painful, loud slap.
Sophie gasped, eyes tearing up instantly from how much burning hurt she felt through the worn material of her capris. “Don’t. Please.”
Turning her body to face the threat, she pressed against the door, as far away from him as she could get.
Not far enough. His hand easily reached across the seat to her face, caught her chin, forcing her eyes to his. They were granite, an intense pale light blue-gray, surrounded by tiny broken wrinkles etched in the skin at the edges, and long eyelashes.
Dripping confidence and authority, his hand was firm, almost painful. His control over her absolute. “Stop. Now.”
Dropping her face, he turned the car ignition on. “Not messing with you. You’re dog bait. You think I’m bad? What about ten guys like Jumper here, riding your ass all night long? You want me to leave you here to be played with hard? That why you come down here?
“You hit me,” Sophie accused. What was happening? What was he going to do? His words said one thing, promising help, as if he was saving her. Was he saving her from an attack on the street, or was he taking her, so that he could attack her himself?
“Ten guys like me, boss? No; there’s only one short guy with a big dick on this street. I’d fill her-” There was a laugh from between the seats as his friend poked his head forward. He didn’t get to finish, the driver pushed him back.
“Shut it,” he told his friend.
Looking at Sophie, “If I hit you, you’d have a broken neck. I won’t hit you. But I will spank that sweet ass red to teach you to listen.”
She felt that warning like a stab in the gut. She did not want to be where with this stranger could spank her.
Putting the car in drive, he pulled out into the deserted street. She felt his eyes go back and forth from the road to her and tried to make herself small. Unnoticeable.
“What’s your name?” he asked after a moment.
“I live in Hillbrook. You’re going the wrong direction,” she said quietly.
“I got something I need to do before I turn around. Hillbrook. That what you want me to call you?”
“No. I just- maybe I could just use your phone?”
He sighed. “Glove box.”
It took her a minute to figure out the catch. He didn’t offer any help, just kept his eyes on the road like he wasn’t noticing her fumbling to get his old-fashioned glove box opened. Inside was a phone, the cheapest thing she’d ever seen, but it worked. She dialed her mom. Who didn’t pick up. Sophie hung up without leaving a message. Her mom never checked them, anyway.
Micah asked, “No answer?”
“She must be busy.”
“Who's she, your mom?”
Sophie nodded without thinking.
He made a bearish grumbling sound. His light eyes, narrowing in on her from a face that was neither African American, Asian, or Mexican but the most beautiful parts of all three. He didn’t seem aggressive. He didn’t seem interested in her. Not like the guy who was leaning forward again trying to get his head between the seats.
“Wooo-eeeee. This is some fine jailbait we got right here.”
“Shit man, I just want to talk to her. Lemme get to know her before she gets all crazy eyed for you. Gimme a chance, man.”
Jumper was not ugly, but his attitude was one hundred percent sleazeball, and he’d lost all chance the minute he looked her over like she was dinner. And Micah… well, he’d just forced her into his car.
“Sit back, you idiot.”
With some ugly cussing, Jumper made his case.
“Jumper!” Micah barked, making Sophie jump. His eyes cut to her, then back to the road. “I need to tell you again, bro, we are going to have words.”
“Fuck. Fine.” Jumper settled himself in the back seat, hard, like a petulant child.
“I gotta do this thing.” He pulled the car over into an alley. Parked it. It was darker now, the rain coming down harder. “You’re going to come in with us, I think. I don’t want you running off, or some shit. You do what I say, not gonna hurt you. You’re going to come into the building, stand where I tell you and not say anything. Fifteen minutes. Then we come back, and you try your mom again. Okay? You can hold on to the phone if it makes you feel better. Hey, gimme my coat, Jumper, yeah?”
He reached an arm back, brought forth a leather jacket. Handing it to Sophie, he commanded, “Put that on.”
“I don’t- thank you. I’m fine.” She didn’t want it. Heavy and huge and distinctly masculine. She didn’t want it near her. In high school, wearing a guy’s clothes implied ownership.
It was a big thing, all the girls trying to get their boyfriends' jackets or hoodies, even their athletic sweatpants. It'd been a ridiculous competition of sorts and Sophie, with goals for her life, wanted no part of it. Girls would do anything to get a chance at the stuff belonging to the best-looking guys. Born to a teen mom herself, Sophie would not repeat that mistake. She would be different. Play it smart. Get independent. Get a good job with a retirement plan included and take awesome pictures as a side thing. She didn’t need no boy's jacket. She didn’t want this man’s jacket, even if she was shivering from the rain, from fear, from this whole stupid situation.
How had she missed the bus?
“Baby.” He pushed the coat at her, his voice lowering with warning. “You do what I tell you. Put. It. On.”
She wanted to melt into a puddle of fear.
She put it on.
He helped her move her braids out of the way and gave her a smile of approval. “Good girl.”
For some reason, that smile on his full lips, the brightness of his blue eyes in his darker warm toned skin, those words, all combined, caused a hot blush.
Jumper cursed from the back seat. “Fuck, Micah. Do you need to own all the pussy in town?”
Faster than she could process, Micah’s hand shot out towards the back seat. Jumper made a noise, a gasp, then more cussing. Sophie was afraid to turn. It sounded like he’d hit his friend. Hard.
“What’s your name, little girl?”
“Sophie.” He repeated it back. Warmly.
“This is Jumper. He’s a dick. I’m Micah, not going to be a dick to you if you do what I say. Okay?”
She couldn’t look at him, drowning in a jacket that filled her senses with his smell, trembling because something was happening here and she didn’t know how to stop it, how to wind back the clock, make the bus come and take her away.
He got out of the car, making it rock on its axles when he shut the door and came around the front to open hers, helping her out like a gentleman from a movie. Making her get out. He stopped her in front of him, tipped her chin up with a finger and gave her another smile of approval, a reassuring “good girl.” The smile that made her feel nervous and happy and crazy.
“You do what I tell you, yeah?” He made her meet his eyes, before dipping his, so he could fasten and zip up the jacket. Then he reached down, took her small white hand into his brown one, swallowing it in the big paw, tugging her close like they were familiar, and he could do this, would do this, whenever he wanted.
They’d parked in an alley between buildings. The place felt as derelict and forgotten as most of the buildings in this part of town. They went upstairs into the front door, pushing the heavy thing open, into a skinny hallway. These incredible brownstones were historic treasures, badly kept, in desperate need of restoration, with iron pipes, asbestos, and lead in the paint.
Built in the early 1900s, the place groaned out their story with each step they took inside. Sophie was good at looking past the neglect and use, to find the touches of original crown molding, the fancy woodwork on the stairs; broken in places, yes, but she could see the old beauty of it. She ignored garbage – that nasty smell- distracted by the pieces of the parquetry flooring.
Upstairs, Micah led her to a recess in the wall where she thought a chair, or something, must have once sat. “Stay here, Sophie. Don’t move. Not one step.”
She didn’t know what else to do. She wanted to be on a bus home. She wanted to turn invisible every time he looked at her. He called her little girl, but his voice, his eyes, said he saw her as a woman. Terrifying and exciting, she didn’t know what to do with that. This was not the kind of attention she wanted from anyone, especially an older guy she knew nothing about. And this world where he lived was dangerous. He’d already hit his friend, and she didn’t know why.
The two of them now knocked on a door, pounding hard. “Hey, Diaz. I got some fresh stuff. Let me in, man,” Jumper said.
“Jumper?” A man on the other side answered, with muffled cussing. In the alcove, Sophie couldn’t see anything. The door was unlocked and opened.
“Micah!” the man yelped in surprise and fear.
Then Micah and Jumper were pushing into his apartment. Cussing, yelling, and violence followed. Sophie had been. A familiar sharp sound from the other room, hand to flesh, caused Sophie to flinch in empathy. Slapped more than once in the face she recognized that sound. There was a loud crash, the floor trembled. She could only imagine it was a body sent flying.
“You got twenty-four more hours, and I know your sorry ass isn’t going to get it done,” she heard Micah say with a growl she could feel in her belly. The door was open a crack, letting the noise of their conversation into the hall.
“I’ll get it done. I’ll take care of it. Told you I would. Just haven’t had a chance. I still got time.” The man inside sounded winded and afraid.
“You still got time. But if I don’t get the call tomorrow and I have to take care of it, I’m taking out all the trash this time. You understand me? Not just your brother. The whole fuckin’ family. All of you are worthless shits, weak-ass cowards, and I’m done with you.”
“Micah, they didn’t-”
Another blow. Not a slap. A thudding impact sound, a fist in the gut or face, Sophie didn’t know, but it sounded like something from an action movie. The door was open. She could hear most of the sounds clearly. Sophie inched out of the alcove. Was he beating that man to death? Should she hide out here and do nothing?
Another door opened down the hall. More male voices. A different set of men talking loud and arguing, their words drenched in violence.
Some of these buildings had double exits, maybe there was an old servant’s stairs on the other end of the hall. Maybe she should try to leave, no matter what he said? Micah wasn’t helping her to be friendly.
Another blow inside the apartment. Groans of pain. It sounded so ugly. “Did I say you could talk? You had your chance. Your brother had his. And your father had his. Every one of you cockroaches. No more talking. Get it done or I will.” Micah’s angry voice.
She passed the open door to get to the other side. She told herself she wouldn’t look in, wouldn’t catch their attention by watching them, but stupid her, her eyes went to the interior of the apartment.
Micah, behind him, Jumper with his hands on the stooped shoulders of a shirtless skinny guy on his knees. And blood.
So much blood.
The instant she registered the sight, she could smell it too. Her throat closed, her stomach convulsed, and she was going to throw up.
Micah caused that violence. Speaking threats. She made some sound, and he turned, saw her bent over, mouth open, watched as she choked up her lunch.
He moved in front of her, blocking the sight. Sophie spit and choked the stuff in her throat and mouth onto the floor, cold sweat popping out on her face. She flinched when his hand came out, covering the back of her neck. “What a bad girl you are. Not following directions. Staying where I put you.”
A distressed sound escaped behind the hand wiping at her mouth. What was he gonna do? Would he beat her now, like the guy in the apartment? Was he going to hurt her? Why was this happening? Why her stupid dream to get those photos worth it?
There were no good answers.
She could barely form rational thoughts as panic filled up her blood stream like acid.
“Breath in through your nose, little starlight. You aren’t meant for this. Should have stayed home today, yeah?”
Latching on to the contact of the hand at neck, to the voice in her ear, so close she could feel his hot breath, Sophie did as she was told.
“That’s it. In through your nose, out through your mouth.” He brought her forehead somewhere against his body. Heat and hardness under a clean tee-shirt.
Each inhale filled her senses with the smell of him, but she couldn’t stop, instead grasping at his directions like a lifeline. She liked things simple with step-by-step directions. When she put the ingredients together at the bakery for chocolate muffins, following each step yielded the best results. Deviation resulted in a mess and a waste of ingredients.
When she followed her teacher’s directions, she got good grades.
When she did what her mother wanted, she avoided slaps, hair pulling, and red-faced yelling.
Clear instructions were good. Necessary. Important. “Sweet Starlight, that’s right. You should listen to me. That’s your last chance now. You see what happens when you don’t follow directions? You made yourself sick. Saw shit you shouldn’t. That can get you killed in this world. You are going to do what I say, aren’t you, baby?”
Panic receding, she looked at him, biting her lip. His finger touched the corner of her mouth and pulled it free. Touching her like he could do whatever he wanted, and she just would accept it. His whole hand engulfed her jaw, a finger brushed over her wet cheeks. She was wet from the rain in her hair, yes, but also wet from fear filled tears.
“Such a pretty baby,” he said.
Standing too close, in her space. “Too good for this place, aren’t you? Too young and innocent for a dirty man like me.” Two hands on her neck, collaring her. Making her feel oddly calm, as his thumbs brushed up behind her ears. Hot and calloused palms held her there for a heartbeat, branding her skin, looking into her eyes.
No one ever touched her like this. It felt intimate. Deep and raw, like he was taking control, taking all her options and choices.
He took her hand again, tugging her behind him down the hall and away from the apartment with impatient strides. “Come on. You need to try your mom again. Let’s get in the car.”
His friend, Jumper, didn’t come with them. Micah opened the car door for her, helped her in. Then went around the other side. The brisk instruction came before he even sat down. “Call her.”
Was he angry with her? She didn’t want this guy angry. Not after what he’d just done, what he was obviously capable of. Why was he angry with her?
Sophie dialed the number again. Katya’s nights off were sacred.
Sophie, a shy introvert, whose best friend since ninth grade now lived in California, spent all her Friday nights at home. She worked 4 a.m to 9 a.m weekdays at Bun Bun’s Bakery and Coffee place during the week. Classes after and kept weekends free leaving herself time to keep her grades up and hold on to her grants. Her mother assumed that she would be home, never checked on Sophie. When Katya was drinking, she turned her phone off and put it in her friends’ purse to keep herself from drunk texting old boyfriends. Her mother wasn’t expecting a call for help. Because Sophie never needed help.
It rang and went to voicemail, twice. Should she text? Could she say something that wouldn’t just make her mom explosively angry, forced to bail Sophie out of this dumb situation?
Looking at the driver of the car, she debated the message. Micah was an unknown. Her mother’s bad temper - a certainty. Katya couldn’t know Sophie deviated from the regular routine. Her mom’s anger would have no end, she might make good on her threat and kick her out of the apartment.
“No answer?” he asked, holding out his hand for the phone.
“No,” Sophie answered.
Micha held out his hand. “Give me.”
She clutched the phone to her chest, tried to think of something to say.
He just looked at her, hand open. An expectant, dangerous-speaking glance that reminded her she’d been told to do what he said.
Sophie moaned and felt fresh tears. In this car with an unpredictable scary and dangerous guy, she felt more stupid and helpless in this moment than ever in her life. But she gave him the phone anyway, too afraid not to.
He threw it out of reach, in the back seat. “Why you come to this part of town, Sophie?” he asked. The low sharpness of his voice was not politely conversational, but instead, sounded angry, exasperated.
His coat was on over the top of her camera bag, but she hugged it to herself in reassurance. No matter what, if she survived, the photos were good. She was sure of it. “Photos. I have a photography class. It was an assignment.”
“Teacher assigned you to come here?” An eyebrow went up. She didn’t know if it meant disbelief or outrage.
“No. No. I always wanted to come here. I did a photojournalism essay in high school but didn’t get the kind of pictures I wanted then. The abandoned part of the city -it has so many stories. Hard times. Good times from the past. I’ve been planning to come here for a while.”
“This part of the fucking city for pictures? Who wants to see that? No one cares about that.”
“That’s exactly why.” She frowned, ready to go into her whole passionate argument.
“Alone? Did you have to come alone? No boyfriend to drive you out? No older brother? What about your Dad? No decent friend?”
The question made her blush, heating her cheeks. Maybe she shouldn’t have come alone but there was no one to bring, was there? Sophie shrugged and looked at her lap, not wanting to admit to him how few people she had in her life.
“Words,” he demanded.
“I live in Hillbrook, but you can drop me off, okay? Just-”
“Leave a little white kitten like you in this hell hole for the dogs to come and gobble you up? Baby, that isn’t happening.”
Nothing to say to that. They drove a bit.
Earlier today, a rare satisfaction and pride filled her up her head. She had done it. By herself. Come to his place to explore the broken pieces of the past. Wander down streets that looked like war zones, with burned-out cars, gang graffiti, husks of buildings with crumbling walls and roofs that looked punched in by angry giants. Taken pictures that she hoped would reveal the poignant aching beauty in the ugly.
She had shots of children playing in the ruins of the grand old buildings. An old lady with the most beautifully, tragic face, dressed in garbage bags arranged to look like a faded wedding gown. And the jewel of Washington School, built in 1943 and abandoned in 1980 with the books still on the shelves. Sneaking into the abandoned, condemned school had been terrifying. She’d jumped and twitched, afraid an alarm would sound. But the things she’d seen. The photos. Such a fantastic day.
Now she was in a car with strangers driving into hell.
The streetlights here didn’t work. Lights glowed through windows, stuttered bursts of life. They passed an area that smelled like a garbage dump, she remembered it from the bus route, a street of houses where people had just started leaving their trash when the city didn’t come to pick it up or they couldn’t pay the bill. And then, five minutes later, a liquor store, and more lights. Streetlights that worked as if they crossed a boundary. She didn’t recognize this part of town. It differed from the bus route.
He pulled up to a lighted storefront with a blinking sign that said 24 on it. The car stopped. It looked like a restaurant. She had no money for food. Out of his car, he opened her door again, giving her no choice. She tried to decide what to do as they went inside, his grip firm but painless on her arm, directing her where to go. He led her to a booth and sat her down and slid in next to her. A skinny boy her own age came over and Micah ordered without looking at Sophie.
The waiter walked away, and she watched his back, feeling like her last chance at help was walking away. “Please. I don’t have any money. What are you doing?”
“Getting food. I’m hungry. You’re hungry. And you're gonna eat. Are you the kind that won’t eat in front of a guy? Want a salad so I can pretend I didn’t see those tits and ass?”
How to respond? She was so out of her league. High school boys were rude, but they didn’t talk like this, every word provoking confrontation.
He shook his head, laughing low to himself. His shoulder bumped hers. “Shit baby. What the fuck were you thinking? I say tits and you look like you’re going to throw up. You need a keeper.”
“I don’t need a keeper. I can take care of myself. I just missed one bus,” she told him, mumbling into the coat.
She went to unzip his jacket, take it off. Maybe she could go hide in the bathroom and he would just leave? He wasn’t the type to do that though, just walk away, not when he forced her into his car, made her go with him into that building, brought her in this restaurant.
“Leave it on,” he said.
“What?” She glanced at him, found her eyes captured by his light ones. They were blue with a dark ring around the edges, but the warm, caramel color of his skin made them stand out, so bright.
“You didn’t hear?”
“I’m hot. I want to use the restroom. I’ll just take it off, okay.”
“No. Not okay. Leave it on. You gotta pee? The bathroom's in the back. Go now before the food gets here.” He was a force of nature far out of her experience. So far, she knew he wanted her to listen to his directions, and when she didn’t, bad things happened. He caught her when she tried to run, shook her when she screamed, slapped her thigh when she tried to escape him again.
He also opened car doors, was nice when she got sick from the sight of blood and said things that made it sound like he wanted to protect her.
She didn’t understand him.
He got out of the booth and stood, waiting for her.
“Okay.” She went to the bathroom, unzipped the dam jacket because it was huge, covering her butt, and the camera bag was in the way.
When she went to the sink to wash her hands, she looked at herself in the harsh white light. Her hair still wet from the rain, the two braids she liked to wear slippery cold with it. That reflection looked frightened and weak, face splotchier than a bruised butterfly. She wanted to yell at herself to do something.
Until she saw her shirt. Her pale pink t-shirt, still damp from standing in the rain, clinging to the upper slopes of her chest, her white cotton bra right there, transparent. The rude pink of her nipples poking at the material. The old bra was thin and worthless, barely gave the support she needed, and with the rain, she might as well not be wearing it.
They’d both seen. The whole street saw.
Embarrassed. Ashamed. She zipped up the jacket.
He stood when she came back to the table, letting her know where he expected her to sit. She scooted into her place, looking at the cheeseburger, fries and strawberry milkshake he ordered for her. Trapped by him, his body a giant slab blocking all escape, Sophie could barely see around his broad chest.
His tattooed arm brushed hers when he took a bite of his own burger. It looked small in his hands, but huge in hers. She focused on the food. Trying to figure out what to say. What to do. What was going to happen. How she would pay for it. What he would expect for it.
He seemed to finish everything in twenty bites. She wasn’t half through hers when he asked, “You’re not in high school anymore? You don’t look old enough to be out on your own.”
“Fuck. Nineteen.” He said it like he didn’t like the answer.
“Not in high school? But taking photos for what?”
“An art credit. I go to community college.”
“Yeah? College girl? What are you taking beside an art credit?”
“I’m gonna be a pharmacy tech.”
“Sounds exciting. Something brave for a little girl who takes the bus to the wrong side of the town to get photos of how the other half lives.” His voice held all kinds of sarcastic snark. She didn’t know if he was making fun of her education or her choice to take pictures by herself in a dangerous place. She watched him snag one of her french fries and jerked her eyes to him.
“Are you going to take me home? What is happening? Are you going to let me go?”
His big hand caught her wrist, her own french fry lifted in the air, he brought it to his mouth, lips enclosing it until they touched her fingers. Soft and warm.
“I don’t know, Sophie. What is happening?” He said after a swallow. Still holding her hand.
She shook her head. Not sure. Afraid.
“You come to the worst part of the city for a sweet, young, innocent thing like you, a little kitten wandering in where the worst of the mangy, wild dog packs roam. You come here to take fuckin’ pictures, you miss the last bus, because half the time the bus doesn’t run past three, and now you’re stuck here, no phone, no money, and your mother doesn’t know where you are, does she?”
Sophie whimpered. She couldn’t help it. His eyes burned into her skin. Dangerous. Knowing. Below the table her legs twitched with the primal need of prey to run in the face of a predator. But there was no place to run. He was a thug. Something bad. Older than her, somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five, because he’d left all the weakness and softness of boyhood far, far behind. A man who took what he wanted and didn’t second guess himself.
And he wanted her.
Part 2: https://indulgentdesires.com/story-sophie-and-micah-part-2
Artwork: Sam Dalton: