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Skin of a Sinner: Chapter 14



Roman: 22 years old – Isabella: 20 years old.

It’s my birthday today.

Not that anyone remembers.

It’s not like it matters anyway.

I’m three years older than when Roman left, but I feel I’ve aged at least ten years. They always said there is nothing worse than growing older, and I will live life chasing my youth, wishing for the day when I could drink as much as I want, party, and wake up without responsibilities.

I never had those four things, so I don’t long for them. Sometimes I miss the girl I was when Mickey was around. The one who was delirious and incapable, who questioned everything in the name of insecurity, but nothing that really mattered.

It’s kind of pathetic that I haven’t felt a glimmer of happiness since the day he disappeared, and there doesn’t seem to be any joy waiting for me in my future.

What’s even more pathetic is wishing he’d taken my virginity before he left so it could be forever immortalized as the day I lost everything.

“Thank you, love,” the customer, who has been eyeballing me since he walked into the store, says when I hand him the receipt. He drops his business card and smirks. “You should call me sometime.”

I give him a tight-lipped smile. “Thanks.”

He nods. When the door rings shut behind him, I drop his card in the trash without reading it. I found that one word works best. Thanks. Short, sharp, to the point. Say too much, and they think you’re leading them on. Say the wrong thing, and they might kill you.

The joys of womanhood.

Marcus is getting bolder with his advances every passing day. It’s only a matter of time until groping doesn’t cut it, then he’ll take another part of me I’ll never get back.

He’s developed even more entitlement now that I’m no longer property of the state. I live under his family’s roof without paying rent. In exchange, I work at this crappy hardware store while Marcus and Greg work in the garage next door.

I want to leave. With every fiber of my being, I want to escape this horrible family and abominable city and never turn back. The only thing holding me back is the knowledge that, if I leave, there’s no one to look after Jeremy. Millie is too busy most of the time, Greg and Marcus won’t take care of him, and the state isn’t doing jack about it, no matter how much I complain.

I’m losing more battles than I can win.

Scratch that; I don’t think I’ve won a single battle in a long time.

One day, I’ll get out of this god-forsaken city. I don’t know when, how, or where I will go, but anywhere is better than here. I’ll monetize any hobby I have, whether it’s knitting, painting, or sculpting. I’ll keep building on doing drawing commissions, and hope one day it’ll be enough for something.

I may not have any college plans like Roman did with fixing up motorbikes and cars, but I have my own aspirations… of sorts. I want to live a life with a full heart. As immeasurable as it is, I’ll know when I get there.

If I don’t, I’ll be a girl wasting away at a hardware store owned by a predator.

With no one needing me at the counter, I return to stocking the shelves. The place is rundown, with dreary brick walls and linoleum floors. The only good thing about the store is the big bay windows—with safety bars—mainly because of its metaphorical appearance. I pretend I’m outside, under the sun, and not a caged bird.

My days are monotonous. Wake up, make breakfast for everyone, work, make dinner for everyone, sleep, then repeat. But there are good days, too. Those are when someone pays cash, and I manage to pocket some of it without anyone being any wiser. Not much, though; five dollars here and there. Better than nothing when it’s the only money I’m saving after buying food.

Stale cigarette smoke and diesel fuel assault my senses, and bile lurches up my throat when Marcus grabs my ass.

“These jeans suit you,” he purrs in my ear.

The blood rushes from my body. He puts his arm on the shelf by my head, caging me in.

“One day, you’re gonna want me back.” He pushes his body against me, and I cringe back as far into the shelf as I can possibly go.

“I need to work,” I whisper, forcing myself not to gag.

He disgusts me. Just because I live under his roof—his parents’ roof—doesn’t give him any right to put his hands on me. But I can’t do a thing about it. I can’t push him or tell him to stop. I can’t scold him or give him a piece of my mind.

I slapped his hand away once, so he gave me a black eye in return.

He’s a pig. The weakest people are the ones who lash out when they get rejected. That’s another thing I’ve learned now that Roman isn’t shielding me from the world. I don’t forgive him for leaving, but it was the wake-up call I needed.

“You aren’t working tonight.” Marcus presses the bulge in his pants against my ass. “In fact, your bed’s been pretty empty. You must be getting cold at night; I can warm it up for you.”

I’d rather walk naked through the Arctic.

One day, he’s going to break the bedroom door down, and my makeshift barricade won’t stop him.

I swallow. “I’m okay, thank you.”

Why do these men need to be coddled when being turned down? Why do need to be polite when they’re the ones who started it? Can’t I just say ‘no’?

Sorry, I’m alright, thanks.

Thank you for your offer, but I’ll have to decline.

Please don’t touch me—because you can’t simply say don’t touch me.

I hiss through my teeth when he fists my hair and yanks my head back. “You’re going to stop saying no very soon, slut.”

I bite my tongue to stop myself from lashing out.

When she wants it, she’s a slut.

When she doesn’t want it, she’s a slut.

The biggest insult men like him can muster is telling a woman exactly what he thinks she is: an object that can be debased to the holes she has.

Fuck him. Fuck him. Fuck him.

And fuck Roman for leaving me here to deal with all this shit.

Marcus shoves me away as if I was the one who infringed on his space. I yelp and right myself before I lose my footing. My lungs fill with air, but it feels more like razor blades. And because I don’t have a choice, I have to smile at customers and go about the rest of my day pretending I didn’t just get assaulted. I have to live with this acceptance. I’m angry, but this is how my life is for now. I will get out eventually.

I used to think I was weak because of the stutter in my heart or the way it never feels whole. I thought I was defective somehow, like when God was making me, he shipped me off without putting me together the way he should.

It took losing Roman to realize I’m a survivor in my own way. Because this is what survivors do: they keep walking even if the sun is blazing or the sky cracks with lightning and rumbles with thunder. One foot in front of the other until, eventually, you can’t walk anymore.

My heart is still broken, but I’ve let the shadows take up the empty space and gave it a name: Rage.

The phone rings, and I groan internally. I fumble with my mandatory work apron until my fingers wrap around the indestructible plastic brick. “Good afternoon, Barfoot’s Hardware Store; how can I help?”



I know this game. No one is going to respond.

“Are you there?”


I shake my head and hang up. I’ve gotten a call like this almost every day for months. I don’t hear any breathing like in the movies, nor weird static. Just silence.

Whenever I consider snapping at whoever is on the other side, I think better of it. With my luck, it could be one of Marcus’s buddies trying to mess around and get me in trouble. So, I smile without my eyes and talk softly even when I want to throw up in my mouth and scream.

My own phone starts buzzing in my pocket. “Jeremy, is everything okay?” I say, answering the phone and checking to make sure no one is in the store.

“Yes.” The speaker crackles with his sigh. “I’m doing my twice-daily check in.”

I heard from him this morning when he wished me happy birthday and promised to make me breakfast once he’s back. “Have they been feeding you properly? Are you warm enough? That teacher has stopped giving you a hard time, right?” I ramble on.

“Just like I told you yesterday, yes.” His disinterest in this conversation is clear. “I’m fifteen, not five. I can take care of myself.”

It’s the biggest lie I’ve ever heard from him. If it weren’t for me giving him my food portions and bedding, he’d be both starved and cold. Nor would he have a life if I didn’t do most of his work in the shop. Or deal with Greg’s belt on his behalf, and help him with his homework, and make sure he has clothes on his back.

He’s fifteen and completely oblivious to everything I do for him. But I wouldn’t change any of it if it means he laughs along with friends as he walks home, and he goes to sleep without bruises, not worrying about what the next day brings.

I refuse to end up like Millie, completely dead inside. But I refuse to let Jeremy grow up thinking he doesn’t know what it feels like to be safe and loved.

I clear my throat. “What did you do today?”

That question seems to change his tone. “They made us do woodwork, so I made you a birdhouse. I painted it white so you can draw something on it. We also went—”

“Yo, Jeremy, pass the drugs,” someone yells in the background.

“Shut up, man, I’m talking to my sister,” Jeremy hisses at one of his friends, who bursts into a fit of laughter. “We went—oi, fuck off.” I pull the phone away from the loud shuffling noises that go on for a solid ten seconds. “I’ll call you later,” he pants like he’s just been wrestling someone.

“Yeah, okay. Let me know if you need anything, alright?”

“I’ll be good, I’ll—dude, I’m gonna beat your—” The line goes dead.

I shake my head and continue stacking the shelves. Nothing else of note happens as the hours roll by. Every day that passes seems to take longer than the last. When closing time finally arrives, I clean up, lock the door behind me, and pull the gate down to prevent any break-ins. Then, autopilot kicks in, and my legs take me home.

I pull my coat around me tighter. My feet are aching, and my back is killing me. The last thing I want to do is make dinner for Millie, Greg, and Marcus, but this is my life. I can hear my bed calling for me all the way from here. But even after everyone’s plates are piled and tomorrow’s lunch is made, I still have a commission waiting for me.

I’m behind on one of my character arts, and I kick myself every time I put it off. It’s the only joy in my day, but sometimes I’m too tired to even breathe, let alone draw. It started as a passion project, and now it seems more like a chore on top of everything else.

The sound of scuffed boots, followed by movement from the corner of my vision, snags my attention. I whip my head around, my heart pounding in my ear. A hooded figure decked in black follows from one hundred yards away, partially illuminated by the flickering streetlamp. His stature looks familiar. A customer, maybe? That doesn’t make this any better.

I walk faster as my pulse ticks up a notch. I know better than to zone out walking home at night. I’m too scared to turn around and alert whoever’s behind me.

What if I’m being dramatic? What if we both happen to be walking in the same direction? But alarm bells are going off in my head, and my gut tells me to sprint. Still, there’s that nagging voice in my head, though, saying, what if you’re imagining it?

Just like I’ve imagined the feeling of being watched every day for the past who knows how long. Or how my clothes are disappearing—like I couldn’t find my favorite shirt two weeks ago, and my good jeans have mysteriously vanished. Even things I swore I put away find themselves on the top of my table.

I fish my phone out of my pocket. I have no one else to call but the police, and they wouldn’t get here in time. No one would. I’m on my own for this one. The reality of my helplessness has me picking up my pace as I thread my keys between my knuckles.

The sound of footsteps behind me grows louder. Whoever is following me is quickening, matching my pace. That’s my answer. I’m not overthinking. I break into a run, and so does he. Heavy boots pound down the pavement behind me, and I push myself faster.

No, no, no. I’m not ready to die.

Why was I so stupid? Why didn’t I notice him sooner?

Another set of steps joins the first pair, and I push myself faster. Two people are chasing me. Two. I don’t make it far before my lungs burn from exertion. Not once do I turn around to check how close they are. I don’t exercise enough to trust that I won’t lose my footing.

I turn down another street. Even though I can’t hear them anymore, I don’t stop until I’m in front of the house. My wheezing breaths come out in big clouds of smoke. Only then do I glance back at the empty road. Who were they? Will they come back? What if it happens again and I can’t run fast enough?

I try and fail to get a hold of myself before I stumble inside, locking the door behind me with trembling hands, and checking it three times. Millie has started on dinner, and Greg is already in the lounge, beer in hand, while zoning out in front of the TV. Marcus is—I have no idea where he is. Locked away in his room, hopefully. Maybe I can get away with not seeing him at all.

Everyone in the house is completely oblivious to what just happened. I should call the cops or tell somebody. But who’s going to care? Who’s going to believe me?

The world seems to spin as I bolt up the stairs without a backward glance, passing Jeremy’s empty room on the way to mine. Nothing makes me feel any semblance of ease until the door to my room is shut. I lean against the wood and force myself to count to ten.

My heart still hammers away in my ribcage, and I’m worried it’s going to break bone if I don’t get a handle on myself. Adrenaline crashing makes me sway. My exhaustion isn’t just bone-deep anymore; I can feel it in my soul. I love Jeremy, but staying here is going to kill me.

I shiver from the cool breeze drifting through the room. With a defeated sigh, I push off the door and flick on the light. I alternate using my hands to rub my eyes and tug my jacket down my arms.

I blink away the fireworks exploding behind my lids, then stiffen.

A heart-shaped locket lies in the middle of my desk. The same one I took off a year after he disappeared. I haven’t so much as looked at it since.

I didn’t put that there.

I locked that thing away so I’d never see it again.

How the hell did it get there? Who came inside my room?

Rushing to the other side of the room, I yank open the closet door and drop to my knees to rummage around the bottom shelf, searching for the familiar fabric. When I can’t feel it, I pull everything out and go through every single article of clothing. Roman’s jersey isn’t there.

Marcus wouldn’t have known or cared that I hid it in Roman’s hoodie. Millie wouldn’t have been worried enough to do anything that doesn’t serve her immediate family, Greg wouldn’t have gotten off his ass for anything, and Jeremy isn’t home.

If someone broke into the house, surely they’d steal stuff of value? Not… not something this specific, something just in my room. Did I sleepwalk or something?

“Isa, hurry up,” Millie yells from downstairs.

I inhale sharply. “Coming.”

My body clicks in three places when I haul myself onto my feet. As my back muscles protest, I do my best to ignore the ache. It’s easy to ignore when my mind is still reeling from the appearance of the necklace.

I’ll figure it out later.

I drag my feet to the door and cast a longing look at my bed. For the third time tonight, every inch of my body seizes.

Because on my bed are two Mickey Mouse plush toys.

One that my mother gave me and one I’ve never seen before.


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