The weird men came and went, too. Some of them looked thuggy like Justin; others looked kind of normal, not at all the type of guys I expected to hang out with my mother’s loser boyfriend. All of them came in and sat around on the couch with Justin while he channel surfed. Then they would leave together for a little while, and Justin would come back alone. I stuck my head out the bedroom door sometimes to see who was there because I couldn’t stand not knowing who was in my living room. I tried my best to stay invisible. No matter what they looked like, they all gave me the creeps.
One hot August afternoon, I had gotten brave enough to leave the closet. I was sitting on Sydney’s bed with her, looking over the school supply lists that had come in the mail. I hoped Momma had money for all of this. She didn’t seem to be too worried about money lately, but I wasn’t sure if she was relaxed because of the grownup Kool-aid or because we actually had money.
“I’m hot,” Sydney whined. We had the window open because the cool air from the air conditioner in Momma’s room didn’t get into ours when the door was closed. It did no good. The air was just as sticky and stiff outside as it was inside.
“There’s your water,” I said, pointing to a cup on the nightstand.
"All gone,” she said. A single butterfly fluttered sluggishly through the window and hung out for a second, but then it went away.
“You know we can’t go out there. Jerkface is out there with his friends.”
“Yeah. I firsty.”
“You know what sounds nice? A popsicle.” I looked her directly in the eyes as I said this.
Sydney’s eyes got wide for a second. She got it. Then she squeezed them shut and made her floppy-tongued concentration face. She opened them and looked into her hand only to find it empty.
“Aww, man!” she huffed.
I rubbed my shirt against my side to rub the sweat off so it wouldn’t tickle. “Would it help if you could see one?”
Sydney shrugged. Of course she had never thought about it. I went on, “Let’s find a picture of a popsicle, and then you can wish for that.”
“Let’s try your books.”
We looked at every picture on every page of every book in the room. No popsicles. Now I wanted one so badly, I felt almost angry about it.
“Hot,” Sydney repeated under her breath.
“Fine,” I snapped, thumping the list down on the bed. “I’ll go get you some juice. Stay right here.”
Sydney bounced on the bed, grinning. I shifted the furniture just enough for me to squeeze through, and I tiptoed down the hallway with Sydney’s cup. I heard our bedroom door open and turned to wave Sydney back. I didn’t want her out here. I could take a few hits without falling to pieces, but it just wasn’t right for her to have to get hit, too.
The hallway was wonderfully cool compared to our stuffy bedroom. I took a deep breath through my nostrils as I tried to tiptoe down the hall. My heart beat faster than usual, probably because I didn’t want Justin to see me. I hated the way he looked at me. Most of the time I saw hatred on his face. But then there were those other times when I wasn’t sure what I saw. Fresh sweat ran from my armpits down my sides.
I made it all the way to the fridge without anyone letting on that they saw me. Several loser-looking guys sat around the room, some on the couch, some on the floor, and some on kitchen chairs. I turned my face away. I didn’t want to know who was there, or how many were there. A weird, different smoke smell hung in the air.
Just as I was pouring the juice, though, I heard Justin say, “Look what the cat drugged in.”
The guys with him laughed. One said, “Dragged. Not drugged.”
“Same thing,” Justin said. Everyone laughed. A can popped open with a hiss.
“She might just be as hot as her mom someday,” another voice said. Someone whistled. I stuck the juice back in the fridge, careful to keep my back to them. My face was red and felt too hot.
“Hotter,” someone chimed in.
“Jailbait,” someone else muttered.
“Looks like she’s thirsty,” Justin said. “Let’s get her a drink, boys.”
Everyone laughed again. I tried to make a beeline for the bedroom, but someone was standing in my way. He was tall and wore a black T-shirt with green leaves on it. I’d seen the same leaves on the tattoo on the back of Justin’s neck.
“Whoa, there, little lady. Why don’t you hang out with us and have a nice cold drink? Huh? Doesn’t that sound good?”
I didn’t look up at the guy. I just held up Sydney’s cup and said, “No thanks, I’ve got a drink already.”
The man took the cup out of my hand. I tried to hold on, but it was slippery from being cold.
“Come on over here and sit down. Just for a few minutes. We’re not going to hurt you.”
I tried to say “no,” but my voice wouldn’t work. This guy smelled horrible. I tried again and again until a feeble “no” escaped my throat.
Justin called out, “Hey, little girl, better sit down. I said, sit down. Right here on the couch. Your mom wouldn't want you to be rude to guests.”
I looked over at Justin. He was giving me a weird stare. The guy next to him on the couch slid over to make room.
“Cara,” Sydney hollered from our room. It was weird how the w sound had disappeared from my name in such a short time. She was suddenly learning how to talk right.
I cleared my throat and called, “Go back in there, Syd. I’ll be right there.”
“Another one, huh?” the black T-shirt guy said.
“Just a retard,” Justin spit the words out instead of actually saying them. “Don’t pay her no attention.”
The black T-shirt took the juice cup down to Sydney, who was standing there with her door cracked open. “Here ya go, honey,” he said. I started to walk after him, but someone grabbed my arm. I tried to tug away as I prayed silently that God or anyone else who heard me would not let that man hurt my sister.
“Fanks,” Sydney said. Thankfully, the man came right back to the living room without even touching her.
Whoever had my arm –red baseball cap, white T-shirt with skulls on it―pulled me toward the couch. I had to walk backward to keep from falling over. I wasn’t sure which would have been worse―fighting against him and getting hit and embarrassed in front of everybody, or having to sit crushed between two nasty, stinky men. I wished desperately that Mrs. Johnson next door would turn off her stupid loud TV and come over to see what was going on. I ended up falling into the couch, nearly onto the lap of a guy in a white tank top like Justin’s. The guy gave me a little room to sit up.
In front of me on the coffee table was a glass tube with a bulb shape on one end. It looked burned. Next to it were a few lighters. I wondered what they were smoking in that pipe. Whatever it was, I bet they would have gotten into a lot of trouble if the cops had shown up.
Justin followed my gaze to the tube and said, “Nuh-uh. Not for you, little girl. Hey, Frito, get her some Kool-aid.”
The men snickered and said “Kool-aid” in silly, high-pitched voices.
“On it,” skull T-shirt guy said. He tipped his hat up a little bit, and I could see that he looked Mexican. He went to the counter and got a red plastic cup, which he started pouring stuff from glass bottles into. Both Justin on one side of me and the stranger on the other were sweating and warm. I crossed my arms over my chest and tried to make myself as small as possible so I wouldn’t have to touch them.
Frito handed me the cup. I didn’t reach for it, so Justin took it and thrust it at me. “Take it,” he demanded.
Terrified, I took the cup. My mouth wrinkled up and I tried hard not to cry.
“Oh, come on, kid, cut it out. It’s not like we’re going to poison you or anything. It’s just Kool-aid.” Justin looked both frustrated and angry in a way that made me feel like throwing up.
I looked into the cup. It looked like red Kool-aid, but there was a sharp smell to it. There was alcohol in it. I didn’t know what kind, but I wasn’t a fool. I knew what booze smelled like.
“Drink it,” Frito said. A chorus of voices joined him: “Yeah, drink up!”
Justin leaned in closer to me, ignoring the fact that I leaned away. “Look, kid. If you don’t want any trouble, you’ll do what I say. You don’t want anything to happen to your little retard, do you? Do you?!”
I shook my head.
“Then drink up.”
I put the cup to my lips and took the tiniest sip I could. It tasted mostly okay at first, but as soon as the stuff hit the back of my tongue, it tasted like the rubbing alcohol in the medicine cabinet smelled. I winced.
“Good girl,” Justin laughed. “Keep going.”
One tiny sip at a time, I drank the entire cup of that disgusting mixture, all the while thinking, Momma, please come home and stop these guys. Why wish that, though? I knew she wouldn’t come, and she wouldn’t help me if she did. My face grew hotter and hotter, like the air conditioner had stopped working altogether. As soon as I drained one cup, Frito took it away from me and filled it again. I wasn’t sure how many cups I drank after the first one.
“No more,” I finally whispered. My head felt funny. Like it wasn’t attached to my body anymore. Frito put another cup into my hand. The black T-shirt guy told me to drink again. Justin was back to ignoring me. I started to drink again. My head felt funnier than ever, and my stomach started gurgling. I thought I might throw up, so I tried to stand up to go to the bathroom. My legs wouldn’t work, but even as I tried to get up, the man next to me pulled me back down onto the couch.
“Don’t go anywhere. The party is just getting started!” the man said. I struggled against his arms, but it did even less good than before.
"Hey, hey, hey, shhh, it’s alright,” the guy said. He put his arms around me. He smelled like armpit. I reeled all over, from head to toe. The guy put his lips on my forehead. I tried to push him away.
“Stop it!” I screamed, but the words came out fuzzy like “Soppeh.” A few people laughed. I didn’t. I had never kissed a boy, and that man right there was not going to be my first kiss, no way. Justin was talking on his cell phone and not paying a bit of attention to what was going on next to him on the couch. Not that he would have helped me if he had been paying attention.
“Soppeh, soppeh,” I said weakly. The man’s arms tightened around me and he kept feeling around my face with his lips, looking for mine. I turned my head as much as I could, making him miss. He tried to grab my head to force me to turn it. People kept laughing and whistling and saying things I didn’t understand anymore. I heard my heart thudding in my ears. I thought I heard Justin laughing too―no surprise there. But then suddenly I heard Momma’s voice in the confusion too. She was not laughing like the others. She was screaming and shouting.
During a pause in all the hubbub, I heard Momma shout, “What are you DOING to my daughter? Get off her! You get out. You get out! All of you! Now! Get out or--or I'll call the police!”
The men stopped talking right away, and the man who had me in his grip let go. I tried to stand up, but I couldn’t. I looked down at myself and saw a wet spot growing at the crotch of my shorts. I was peeing myself, and my legs wouldn’t work to get me to the bathroom. I started to cry openly, like a little kid. “Momma!” I cried.
“Oh, baby, I am so sorry!” Momma was crying, too. She scooped me up in her arms and carried me to the bathroom, whispering “I’m so sorry, so sorry, so sorry” into the top of my head. She set me down. “Stay here for a minute, baby.” I obeyed, leaning against the door frame.
Momma marched out into the living room and yelled, “Don’t you ever come back here! You hurt my baby. This is OVER!”
“I didn’t do anything to her,” Justin yelled.
“Well, you let this happen to her! That's just as bad! I TRUSTED you!”
“I ain’t no babysitter,” Justin said. I heard a slap. Momma didn’t cry out; she growled. Momma must have slapped Justin.
“You get your stuff, and you get out of this house right now. I don’t ever want to see you again!”
“Yeah? Who's going to pay your rent? And your retard's doctor bills?” So that was why Momma hadn't been worried about money.
“We'll work it out. Just go. Get out of here right now. You are such a―” Momma said words Sydney and I were not allowed to repeat, and growled again.
Justin stomped down the hall and stepped over me. He took a bottle of shampoo and a few things out of the medicine cabinet. Then he stepped over me again and left.
Momma kept yelling at Justin, but I could not make out what they were saying. My stomach bubbled and hurt and started to lurch. I leaned over the toilet, waiting for all of Frito’s awful Kool-aid to come back up.
Just then, I felt small hands on my shoulders. I looked up through the tears that kept blurring my vision. Sydney looked down at me, smiling a little. She put her cool hand against my hot face. I closed my eyes.
“Love you, Cara,” Sydney said. “Love you two, three, four, five, six.”
My stomach gave a final lurch, and I started heaving into the toilet. Sydney did not let go of me. Instead, she gathered up my hair and held it back so I didn’t barf on it.
After a long spell of upchucking and dry heaving, I finally had nothing left in me. My stomach gave up and quit puking. I let go of the toilet and slid down to the floor. Sydney flushed the toilet. My eyes closed and I dozed a little until the front door slammed.
Momma came running into the bathroom and started crying all over again. Her breathing came in short, crazy-sounding gasps. She got a washrag wet and wiped at my face and mouth, lifting my head as carefully as she could and apologizing the whole time.
My eyes opened. The fuzziness in my head cleared up some. Momma’s mascara had run in streaks all the way down to her chin. Her hands were warm instead of cool, but I didn’t mind. The cold bathroom floor had cooled me down. I was actually shivering instead of sweating for the first time in months.
“Momma,” I whispered. “Am I drunk?”
“I think so,” she said softly. "Did they give you anything to smoke?”
“No. But they made me drink stuff.”
Momma nodded. “Then you’re drunk.”
“Not gonna do that again,” I mumbled.
“I am so sorry I didn’t believe what you said about Justin, honey,” Momma said. She looked up at Sydney, who had stayed by my side in the bathroom. “Both of you. I wanted―I wanted this to work out so badly, I couldn’t believe anyone could be so mean. Could hurt you like that. He promised to take care of us. And to think I actually believed him!”
“We love you,” Sydney said. She was folding a towel and unfolding it repeatedly, not looking at anyone. “Two, three, four.”
My momma had messed up tons of times that I could remember. Missing school open house, getting us kicked out of apartments because she didn't pay the rent, making us eat peanut butter sandwiches for a month because she spent all the money. All those things I could forgive. But this time, something felt different. She let her stupid boyfriend hurt me. She blamed me for the awful things he did. She had loved a man more than me. More than us. What if something had happened to Sydney? It wasn't like the kid could defend herself. A cold wind seemed to blow between Momma and me as she lifted me off the floor, and I was the only one who felt it. It wasn't the air conditioning. It was a tiny ball of anger, or maybe hate, that was growing, throbbing, threatening to burst someday. I felt bad for letting it be there, but I didn't know how I could stop it. Momma wanted me to forgive her, just like all the other times. I decided it was better to pretend I could still do that.
“It’s okay,” I said hoarsely. My throat hurt.
Momma shook her head fiercely and sobbed. “No. No, it’s not. No one is ever going to hurt you again. No one is going to touch my babies.”
Momma helped me stand up and change out of my gross clothes and helped me get into bed. That was quite a job because she had to squeeze through the tiny opening left from Sydney and me barricading ourselves in. She slammed the window shut and locked it, telling us to leave the door open so the air conditioning could get in. Then she promised me we would never have to block our door like that again because no man was ever going to walk through our front door again, ever. I wanted to believe her, for things to go back to the way they had been before this awful summer, but my head hurt too much to think about anything much. As I watched her set up a fan in the doorway, I did have one question that I could remember.
“Momma,” I asked.
Momma was at my side quicker than she’d ever moved before. She pushed the sweaty, dark hair out of my face and said, “What is it, baby?”
“You're supposed to be at work. How did you know to come home?”
She looked thoughtful for a few seconds. “Y’know, I didn’t. I just felt like coming home on my lunch hour to bring you two some popsicles.”
I glanced over at Sydney. She no longer had that faraway look on her face. She waggled her eyebrows at me and grinned, with the point of her long tongue poking out between her teeth.