Before: Part 1: Before – Chapter: 2

Molly

His mum told him stories about dangerous girls when he was a boy. The meaner a girl is to you, the farther she runs from you, the more she likes you. You should pursue her, young boys are taught.

What those pushy boys grow up to find is that most of the time, when a girl doesn’t like you, she simply just doesn’t like you. The girl grew up without a woman to show her how to be. Her mum dreamed of a fast life, bigger than she herself could offer, and the girl learned how men were supposed to behave by observing the actions of those around her.

As the girl grew up, she quickly caught on to the game and became a master player.

I pull my dress down as I turn the dark corner to enter the alleyway. I hear the mesh fabric rip as I tug it, and I curse at myself for doing this again.

I’d taken the train to downtown hoping to accomplish… something.

What, I’m not entirely sure, but I’m so, so tired of feeling like this. Emptiness can make you behave in ways you could never imagine, and this is the only way to satisfy the giant fucking hole inside of me. The satisfaction comes and goes as the men ogle me. They feel entitled to my body since I dress in a way that purposely entices them. They are disgusting and entirely wrong, but I play into their lust, encouraging their behavior with a wink of my eye. A shy smile at a lonely man goes a long way.

Needing this attention makes me sick to my stomach. It’s more than an ache; it’s a scalding white-hot burn inside of me.

As I turn another corner, a black car approaches, and I glance away as the man behind the wheel slows down to look at me. The streets are dark, and this zigzag alley is located behind one of the richest parts of Philadelphia. Shops line the streets, each of them having their own back dock here.

There’s too much money and not enough pleasantness in the Main Line.

“You want to go for a ride?” the man asks as his automatic window rolls down with a smooth whir. His face is slightly wrinkled, and his sandy-brown-and-gray hair is neatly parted and combed down on the sides. His smile is charming, and he looks good for his age, but there’s a warning that sounds in my mind each and every weekend that I take this walk, follow this zombie routine for some unknowable reason. The faux kindness in his smile is just that, as fake as my “Chanel” bag. His smile comes from money; I know this by now. Men with black cars that are so clean they shine under the moonlight have money but no conscience. Their wives haven’t fucked them in weeks—months, even—and they search the streets for the attention they’ve been deprived of.

But I don’t want his money. My parents have that, too much of it.

“I’m not a prostitute, you sick fuck!” I kick my platform boot at his stupid shiny car and notice the gleam of a band on one finger.

His eyes follow mine, and he tucks his hand under the steering wheel. Douchebag.

“Nice try. Go home to your wife—I’m sure whatever excuse you’ve given her is set to expire.”

I begin to walk away, and he says something else to me. The distance catches the sound, carrying it away into the night, no doubt to some dark corner. I don’t bother looking back at him.

The road is nearly empty since it’s after nine on a Monday night. The lights on the backs of the buildings are dim, the air calm and quiet. I pass behind a restaurant where steam billows from the roof, and the smell of charcoal fills my senses. It smells amazing and reminds me of backyard barbecues we’d have with Curtis’s family when I was younger. Back when they felt like a second family.

I blink the thoughts away and return the smile of a middle-aged woman wearing an apron and a chef’s hat walking out of the back entrance of a restaurant. The flame from her lighter is bright in the night. She takes a drag from the cigarette in her hand, and I smile again.

“Be careful out here, girl,” her raspy voice warns.

“Always am,” I reply with a smile and a wave of my hand. She shakes her head and puts the cigarette back to her lips. The smoke fills the cold air, and the red fire at the end of the cigarette makes a crackling noise in the night’s silence before she tosses it to the concrete and loudly stomps on it.

I continue walking, and the air grows colder. Another car passes, and I move to the side of the alley. The car is black… I look again and realize it’s the same shiny black as the last one. A chill runs cold down my back as it slows, tires crunching on the trash covering the alley.

I walk faster, choosing to step behind a Dumpster to gain as much distance from the stranger as possible. My feet pick up the pace and I walk a little farther.

I don’t know why I’m so paranoid tonight; I do this nearly every weekend. I dress in a hideous smock, kiss my dad on the cheek, and ask him for train fare. He frowns and tells me that I spend too much time alone and that I have to move on in the world before life passes me by. If moving on were so simple, I wouldn’t be doing this quick change into this dress or shoving the smock into my purse to put back on during the ride home.

Move on. As if it were so simple.

“Molly, you’re only seventeen; you have to get back to real life before you’ve missed too much of the best years of your life,” he tells me each time.

If these are the best years of my life, I don’t see much point in living any longer than this.

I always nod, agreeing with him with a smile while silently wishing he would stop comparing his loss to mine. The difference is, my mom wanted to leave.

Tonight feels different somehow, maybe because the same man is now stopping next to me for the second time in twenty minutes.

I break into a run, letting my fear carry me down the pothole-filled street to the busier road up ahead. A cab honks at me when I stumble into the street and jump back to the sidewalk, trying to catch my breath.

I need to go home. Now. My chest catches fire, and I struggle to breathe in the cold air. I step back onto the sidewalk and look in every direction.

“Molly? Molly Samuels, is that you?” a woman’s voice shouts from behind me.

I turn around and see the familiar face of the last person I want to run into. I fight the need to bolt in the other direction when my eyes meet hers. She has a brown grocery bag in each hand as she walks toward me.

“What are you doing out here, and this late?” Mrs. Garrett asks as a chunk of hair falls down over her cheek.

“Just walking.” I try to push my dress down my thighs before she looks again.

“Alone?”

“You’re alone, too,” I say, my tone more than defensive.

She sighs and shuffles the grocery bags to one arm. “Come on, get in the car.” She starts toward the brown van parked on the corner.

With the click of a button, the passenger-side door unlocks, and I step inside hesitantly. I would rather be inside this car with her and her judgment than out on the street with the guy in the black car who doesn’t seem to take no for an answer.

My temporary savior gets into the driver’s side and looks straight ahead for a minute before turning to me. “You know you can’t act out like this for the rest of your life.” Her statement ends in a strong tone, but her hands are shaking on the wheel.

“I’m not—”

“Don’t act like nothing has happened.” Her response lets me know that she isn’t in the mood to dance around social niceties. “You’re dressed completely different than you used to, certainly different than your father would probably approve of. Your hair is pink—nowhere near its natural blond. You’re out here at night, walking alone. I’m not the only one who noticed you, you know. John, who goes to my church, saw you the other night. He told us in front of everyone.”

“I—”

She waves her hand at my protest. “I’m not finished. Your dad told me you aren’t even going to Ohio State now, in spite of all those years of you and Curtis preparing to go together.”

The name coming from her lips slices through me, breaking away at some hard shell I’ve gotten used to inhabiting. The thick nothingness I’ve been guarding myself with. Her son’s face covers my mind, and his voice fills my ears.

“Stop,” I manage to say through my pain.

“No, Molly,” Mrs. Garrett says.

When I look over at her, she’s flustered, like she has bottles upon bottles of emotions inside of her that have been shaken over the last six months and now are within an inch of exploding.

“He was my son,” she says. “So don’t you sit here and act like you have more of a reason to be hurt than me. I lost a child—my only child—and now I’m sitting here watching you, sweet Molly, who I’ve watched grow up, get lost, too—and I’m not going to be quiet anymore. You need to get your butt into college, get out of this town just like you and Curtis planned on. Get on with life. It’s what we all have to do. And if I can do it, hard as it is, you sure as hell can, too.”

When Mrs. Garrett stops talking, I feel like she’s spent the last two minutes tying my stomach into knots. She has always been a quiet woman—her husband has always done most of the talking—but in the span of five minutes she’s become less fragile somehow. Her usually soft voice has taken on a new tone of determination, and she impresses me. Makes me feel heartbroken, too, at the fact that I’ve let my life turn into this ghoulish existence.

But I was driving that car.

I agreed to drive Curtis’s small truck the night before I got my license. We were excited, and his smile was persuasive. I loved him with every thread of my body, and when he died, I came unstitched. He was my calmness, my reassurance that I wouldn’t end up like my mother, a woman who lived and breathed to be more than someone’s wife in a big house, in a rich neighborhood. She spent her days painting and dancing in our big house, singing songs and promising me that we would make it out of the cookie-cutter town.

“We won’t die here—I’ll convince your father someday,” she always said.

She only held up half of the deal and left in the middle of the night two years ago. She couldn’t cope with the shame that apparently came from being a mother and a wife. Most women would have trouble finding shame in that, but not my mom. She wanted all the attention on her—she needed people to know her name. She blamed me when they didn’t, even though she tried to deny the fact. She was always ashamed of me; she constantly reminded me of what I did to her body. She told me—many times—how her body looked so good before I came around. She acted as if I chose to be placed there, inside this selfish woman’s womb. One time she showed me the marks I made on her stomach, and I cringed right alongside her at the sight of her shredded skin.

Despite me hindering her lifestyle, she promised me the world. She told me about bigger, brighter cities with giant billboards that she wished she was pretty enough to be on.

And early one morning, having listened to her tell me about the world she wanted the night before, I watched her through the staircase’s thick metal banister as she dragged her suitcase across the carpet toward the front door. She cursed and flipped her hair off her shoulders. Dressed like she was going to a job interview, she had full makeup, blow-dried hair—she must have used half a can of hairspray to get it to look that way. She was excited and confident as she touched her hair to adjust it slightly.

Just before she walked out the door, she looked around her beautifully decorated living room, and her face filled with the biggest smile I had ever seen on her. Then she closed the door, and I could imagine her happily leaning against it outside, still smiling like she was going to paradise.

I didn’t cry as I tiptoed down the stairs, trying to memorize how she looked and acted. I wanted to remember every interaction, every talk, every hug we shared. I realized even then that my life was changing again. I watched through the living room window as she got into a cab. I just stared at the driveway. I guess I always knew she wasn’t reliable. My father might be afraid to leave the town he grew up in, where he has an amazing job, but he’s fucking reliable.

Mrs. Garrett touches the tips of my pink hair with a cautious finger. “Dipping your head in pink food coloring won’t change anything that happened.”

I smile at her choice of words and say the first thing that comes to mind. “I didn’t dye my hair because I watched your son bleed out in front of me,” I snap, remembering the way the deep pink dye resembled blood as I rinsed it down the drain.

I push her hand away, and, yeah, my words are harsh, but who the fuck is she to judge me?

As she takes in what I said, I’m sure she’s picturing Curtis’s mangled body, the one I sat with for two hours before anyone came to help us. I tried to rip his seat belt from the driver’s seat, to no avail. The way the metal bent when we hit the rail made it impossible to move my arms. I tried, though, and I screamed as the jagged metal tore into my skin. My love wasn’t moving, he wasn’t making a sound, and I screamed at him, at the car, at the entire universe as I struggled to save us.

A universe that betrayed me and went dark as his face paled and his arms went slack. I thank it now, grateful that my body shut off just after he died and I wasn’t forced to sit and watch the thing that was no longer him, watch and hope that he would somehow come back to life.

With a soft sigh, Mrs. Garrett starts the car and pulls out. “I understand your pain, Molly… if anyone understands, it’s me. I’ve been trying to find a way to continue with my life, too, but you’re ruining yours over something you had no control over.”

I’m baffled and try to focus by running one hand over the plastic of the car door. “No control? I was driving the car.” The sound of twisted metal colliding with a tree and then a metal barrier floods my ears, and I feel my hands shaking on my lap. “I was in control of his life, and I killed him.”

He was life, the very definition of it. He was bright and warm and loved everything. Curtis could find joy in the most stupid, most simple things. I wasn’t like him. I was more cynical, especially after my mom left. But he listened to me every time my anger fueled a mistake. On his birthday he helped my dad clean up my mom’s painting room after I’d trashed it by splattering black paint across the precious paintings she’d left for us. He didn’t ask me why I wished her dead on more than one occasion.

He never judged me, and he held me together in a way that I couldn’t do myself. I always thought he would be the reason I made it through college or made any friends in a new city. I was never good at hiding what I thought of people, so it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world for me to make friends. He always told me it was fine, I was fine the way I was, that I was just too painfully honest and he would have to be the one who took the role of liar in our relationship. He would pretend to like the pretentious, sweater-tied-around-their-waists rich kids at our school. He was always the nice one, the one who everyone loved. I was his plus-one. We were together so much that everyone began to accept me and my attitude. He made up for it, I suppose, with his charm. He was my excuse to the world, because apparently he saw something in me. He was the only person who would ever accept me and love me, but then he left me, too. It was my fault, just like I’m sure my mom left because she was tired of that town, of my dad’s normalcy, and of her blond daughter with the bow in her hair.

The last ounce of my need to pretend to be normal was gone as the sink turned pink and my blond disappeared.

“I have a friend with some clout out west in Washington.”

I had almost forgotten where I was, my mind reliving every shitty experience in my life in less than ten minutes.

“I could ask him if he could pull some strings and get you into a good school there. It’s pretty out there. Refreshing, green. It’s late in the year now, but I will try it if you’re willing,” she offers.

Washington? What the hell is in Washington?

I consider her offer, mulling over whether or not I even want to go to college anymore. And as that question spins through me, I realize that I do want to get out of this God-awful town, so maybe I should agree. I used to think about other cities when I was younger. My mom talked about Los Angeles and how the weather made for a perfect day every single day. She talked of New York and the way the streets are full of people. She told me about the glamorous cities she wanted to live in. If she could handle those cities, I have to be able to handle Washington.

But it’s far, across the entire country. My dad would be alone here… though maybe that would be good for him. He barely has any friends anymore because he’s always so worried about me, trying to get me to be happy. He’s given up even attempting to worry about his own life. Maybe me going away to college would help him. Maybe it would restore some sense of normalcy.

It’s possible that I could make friends, too. My pink hair might not be so intimidating to people in a town with some sophistication. My revealing clothing might not be so threatening to the girls my age in another city.

I could start over and make Mrs. Garrett proud.

I could give Curtis something to be proud of, too.

Washington could be just what the witch doctor ordered.

And so sitting in this woman’s car, this kind mother to the boy I loved and lost, I vow, right now, that I’m going to do better.

I won’t take trains to shady parts of town in Washington.

I won’t wallow in the past.

I won’t give up on myself.

I’ll only do things that will help my future—and I won’t give a shit what anyone says along the way.

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