“I hate everything,” I remark dully to my co-worker as I pull the ugly green smock I am required to wear as a picker over my head and stuff it into my locker. Warehouse work is tiring, unglamourous, boring, and dirty.
“Careful, Sunshine,” Drea says as she slams her locker shut. “Don’t wanna use all your happy in one place.”
“Screw you.” I close my locker and press my forehead against the cool metal. I swear, some days, it just does not pay to drag myself out of bed and into work. Today was definitely one of those days where I would have been better off calling in sick and celebrating my freedom with an extra round of sleep. I sigh, rather loudly, and hear buttons being pressed on Drea’s phone.
I hate text messaging. There’s too much typing with thumbs involved.
Drea says, “Sweet!” and then says my name. I close my eyes and frown. I know what’s coming, and I need to find the energy to respond.
“Are you drinking with us to-”
“Layla, come on! You never come, and I know for a fact that all you’re going to do is go home and sl-”
“Layla! It’ll be fu-”
“No, dammit! I don’t drink, I don’t socialize with you people outside of work, and I don’t feel like being bothered,” I snap in what I hope is a friendly tone. I push myself to a upright position and swivel my head toward my nosy, meddling co-worker. “See you next week. Maybe.” Slipping my messenger bag – purse – over my shoulder, I drag myself out of the employee lounge and toward the exit. I walk quickly, with my head down, hoping that I can escape unnoticed.
Of course I get stopped. This wouldn’t be my life otherwise.
“Layla! You comin’ to the bar with us ton-”
I manage to make it to my car without any more interruptions. Opening the passenger door, I slide in and crawl across to the driver’s side. Tossing my bag into the back seat, I jam the key in the ignition and start my old Neon up. The car roars to life, and I feel myself relaxing. Reaching under the seat, I find my mp3 player and drop into the holder. Turning it on, I find an excellent song to keep me company on the drive home and push play. As the bass line explodes from the speakers, I roll my windows down and ignore the shocked expressions of my co-workers standing around in the lot.
I buckle my seat belt, put the car in drive, and stomp on the gas. Peeling out of the parking lot, I offer a single-digit salute to my workplace and remind myself that I am officially on vacation.
My first stop is the liquor store. I feel a smidgen of guilt that I lied to Drea about not drinking, but I’m over it by the time I push open the glass door and hear the little bell jingle. Nosy people don’t need to know everything about me, now do they?
“Layla, my love!” the clerk greets me. It galls me to admit it, but I’m a regular patron of this establishment. Very regular. They ought to just paint my name on the curb and call it a day.
“Jackie, baby!” I greet the queen. “Love the hair,” I add, hoping to butter her up. When she’s feeling good, she gives me great discounts.
Jackie Black, the drag queen that owns the store, brightens up considerably. “Girl, I know! It took me 12 hours to complete this, but I love it,” she says as she plumps her ornate braided hairstyle. I spot pearls and small silver rings woven into the elaborate masterpiece.
“Is that for the show?” I ask, grabbing a hand basket. I plan to do some serious shopping tonight, and I hope my debit card doesn’t fail me.
She droops. “Sadly, no. I won’t be performing this weekend. My mama’s flyin’ in to see me.”
I wince in sympathy. She sees my look and nods. “Mmhmm,” she says with pursed, red lips. “Says it’s bad enough her son wears a dress; she doesn’t wanna see me ‘prancin’ around in front of folks’ in that dress.” Despite Jackie’s nonchalant attitude, I know that her mother’s rejection of her burns her.
“Sorry, doll,” I say, dropping several bottles of cheap wine into my basket.
She squints at my selections. “What are you drinkin’ that mess for?”
I shrug. “My wallet can’t handle the good stuff tonight. Rent’s due,” I tell her.
“Hmph,” she says, then turns to face the shelves behind her. Scanning them quickly, she pulls two bottles of my favorite vodka off the shelf and places them on the counter. “Put that nasty shit back,” she commands. “Go get some juice from the fridge and come on. My treat.”
I try to stop myself from being too obviously happy, but I know I fail miserably, even as I try to protest. Jackie waves away my half-hearted concerns and directs me to the refrigerated section in the back of the store. Almost skipping, I hurry to do as she says, hoping she won’t change her mind before I get back to the counter.
Ten agonizing minutes later, my prize is wrapped in brown paper and cradled protectively against my chest. I swallow a mouthful of saliva and hope that I’m not drooling. I can’t check; my hands are clutched tightly around the bottles, and I don’t want to risk dropping them. I’m sure my heart would shatter as surely and easily as the glass containers if they struck the ground.
I hurry back to my vehicle, place the carefully bundle on the seat, close the door, and do my award-winning climbing-over-the-seat act. Back behind the wheel, I listen for the delicious sound of the engine turning over on the first try, check my mirrors, and pull away from the curb.
At every red light and stop sign, I feel my impatience grow. My eyes keep sliding to the right, glancing at the bagged alcohol. My mouth waters. Just one sip, I hear the voice in my head cajole me. Just one sip. But I can’t bring myself to indulge in the car. Open container laws are in effect in this state, and I can not afford to catch the attention of law enforcement officials. I need to keep my head down and my record clean, at least for the foreseeable future.
With a squeal of tires, I pull into my long driveway. At long last, I am home! I shove down the guilt I feel at what I said to Jackie about having to pay the rent. (I reason that the bank owns more of my house than I do, so it wasn’t a complete lie that I fed her.) I back my way across the seats, exiting my car butt first. I reach back in to grab my drinks and my bag. Kicking the door closed, I squint in the dying light at the monstrosity that I call home.
It’s a big, old house, probably six or seven bedrooms. I’ve never counted them. I only use four rooms: bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and a room I’ve set up as my living room/office. I’ve been living here since I came to this city, so about six or seven months now. That’s a long time not to explore my own house, but I have my reasons. Well, reason.
Confession: This house is haunted. And I don’t mean just suspicious noises and strange shapes, either. I mean haunted, as in, whatever happened in this house, the house remembers and it’s scared shit-less.
No wonder it was so cheap.
I walk toward my home, solemnly intoning the calming words I had stumbled upon after days of being chased away the minute I pulled into the driveway.
“I am a friend who comes in peace,” I told the house. “Grant me sanctuary, as I mean you no harm.” I slipped one of the glass bottles out of the brown bag and clumsily twisted the cap off. I poured a small amount on the back porch in the four sacred directions – north, south, east and west – and finished my heartfelt plea. “I mean you no harm.” The house seems to shudder, and the back door opens, just enough for me to slip inside. I pour another offering of the clear liquid onto the kitchen floor, and watch it be absorbed by the thick wood. “Thank you,” I say. The door closes behind me, and I tip the open bottle up to my mouth and drink deeply.
The vodka burns going down, and I cough. I recall that I have not eaten anything since the stale bagel I choked down for breakfast, and I sigh. Kicking off my shoes, I walk deeper in my house, checking for any damage that may have occurred while I was off earning the bill money. I drop everything in my hands on the scarred oak table in one corner of the room, and slip my bag into one of the two chairs. Surprisingly, the house seems to be quiet, and I relax, just a tad. I haven’t left the kitchen yet, so who knows what might be waiting for me in any of the other rooms. Inhaling deeply, I push open the swinging door that separates the kitchen from the rest of the house and walk smack into a wall of blood.
A wall of blood? Okay, that’s new.