I guess I don’t mind the snow. My whole life growing up in Los Angeles I had developed a permanent glow to my skin; my wardrobe had consisted of shorts and tank tops – when snowfall first arrived mom had taken me out on a huge winter-wear shopping spree; and, by true Californian default, I knew how to surf. The snow reminded me of my high school’s winter wonderland themed prom a couple years back. And even though the prom had sucked the memory still brought a smile to my face.
I remembered how after Jenny, my closest friend since kindergarten, and I had left the prom’s venue after Wizzard’s ‘I Wish It Would Be Christmas Everyday’ started blasting from the church hall’s loudspeakers and the most drunken of the teenagers had started a sweaty – and somewhat touchy-feely – conga we’d ran all the way down to Oilat Beach. I remembered how we’d collapsed in the sand, laughing because we’d felt so free and arguing over who had won our race. I remembered how we spent hours just giggling over the embarrassing antics of our schoolmates, then after the chat became dry and we’d sobered up a bit how we’d spoken about our futures.
I was so sure of where I was going, who I wanted to be and I could still remember how I’d wanted to cry over Jenny’s story and how she demanded I shouldn’t.
See, Jenny came from a poor family. The only reason she went to the same private high-school as I did was because she was a genius – smartest kid in the whole state, which, of course, won her a scholarship at the highest achieving school. She was the one person who got me through school, the only of my friends I could trust wasn’t just close to me for my wealth. She was worth so much and had the ability to do anything she wanted. But she couldn’t.
Her mother was dying of her drug-addiction, her father worked two jobs – the only two he could get – and still wasn’t making enough money to keep Jenny and her five siblings stable. I never told my parents of Jenny’s home life – I was too scared they’d forbid me from seeing her – so I gave Jenny’s family all my pocket money, every last penny I could squeeze my parents to give me for a day out. It helped; that little bit extra meant the kids got a decent meal, bought them some new clothes. It was all going ok for a while. But Jenny didn’t like it. She almost despised my generosity and told me I was robbing my parents, so she began to refuse my offers. I remember trying all different methods: using my money to buy the essentials myself and carefully place them in Jenny’s house so she wouldn’t notice and handing the money straight over to Jenny’s dad so he could pretend he had a raise at work. Both were amoung my desperate techniques. None of them worked – Jenny wasn’t granted that scholarship easily. She was sharp-minded and realised what I was doing all too quickly. She practically begged me to stop, so I did and she never mentioned her struggles again.
Oilat Beach that night was the first it had been brought up since. After I’d explained I was planning on up-ing to New York and one day hoped to write a column for the New York Times Jenny pulled me in for a hug. I was surprised, the unexpectancy of it all caught me out and I forgot to hug back.
“You deserve it, Erin,” was the first thing Jenny said when she pulled back, “and I believe in you.” Emotion clogged Jenny’s words, her voice sounded like it was drowning in unshed tears.
I still felt disorientated from all the spiked punch I’d drank earlier, so I was naïve enough to ask: “What about you, Jen? What’ll you do?”
That was when Jenny’s eyes hardened – she hated talking about herself. “I’ll just apply for whatever I can. I obviously can’t afford university or college and I need to look after the family, so I’ll find a few decent-paid jobs and I’ll do that.” She noticed the pain in my eyes. “That’s my life Erin – you know that.”
I turned away from Jenny’s forced mask and instead gazed towards the horizon. “But it shouldn’t be.”
I concealed a rogue tear that rolled down my cheek. All that potential, smart, drive, determination – everything Jenny had would be wasted if she didn’t get out LA! Jenny knew that, had accepted it; I knew that, should have accepted it. It was all such a waste.
“You’re right. It shouldn’t be like this. This shouldn’t be it.”
At that memory - Jenny’s tortured words - I stopped smiling and instead solely concentrated on putting one aching foot in front of the other.
The sight of the pier almost caused me to weep with relief. I estimated the whole hike had taken me over an hour and the only thing I felt like doing was going to sleep and never getting out of bed again.
I forced myself the last few minutes and, as I crossed over from the firm concrete to the rickety boardwalk, my eyes caught site of a figure in a suit half-dragging some poor drunk across the deck to a spotless Mercedez. “Ugh,” I rolled my eyes, “new-money wannabes these days.”
After the car had rolled off I turned my attention to my own and broke into a sprint in its direction. Well, as much of a sprint as I could manage in my boots and foot-deep snow. I’d had a sick feeling something would have happened to it and was beyond relieved to see it was fine.
I pulled for the keys from my jean’s pocket and then quickly remembered I’d left them in the car when my fingers didn’t close around the bumpy metal. Perfect, I hadn’t thought about what I’d do when I got here. I slowed down to a halt and contemplated my next move, before recalling my Prada had my phone in it, which I could used to call services to open the Rover for me. I set off for the ferris wheel and ducked behind the bench across from it.
My chalk and black Prada tote glistened with the snow that Lizzie had piled around it and was laid badge down. She’d done well in hiding it, as much as I tried not to think about it. I busied myself with swiftly wiping it down and drying it off on the hoodie, which left an ugly sodden patch before jostling around for my phone which was - thankfully! – unharmed.
I began strolling back in the direction of my car, distracted with deciding if I should call for the police or if the firemen unlocked cars for people.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
I yelped, dropping the phone into the snow as I stumbled backwards and thudded into the snow.
A towering, balding man stepped around the side of my car. From my position a few feet away I could easily see the scars that scattered his weathered skin like freckles; the suspicious stains on his clothes that were so numerous they could pass as the design and his trademark bullet wound tattoo on his left shoulder that was visible for the tank top he was wearing, even though it was the dead of winter. Stephen Waters.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I leaned back on my elbows to recover from the scare, but also to control my sudden burst of apprehensiveness. Had Lizzie told? Did Stephen know? Was he here to kill me in a revengeful rage?
Stephen had a lazy smirk on his face. Was he smirking because he was going to kill me like this – sprawled pathetically on the ground? I scrambled to sit up.
“Don’t look so terrified. I’m your friend’s uncle – I’m not going to kill you.” His smirk dropped. “At least, it’s not you I’m going to kill.”
My breath caught halfway up my windpipe. Was that a reference to Lizzie? That would mean she hadn’t told!
“What are you talking about?” I’d failed drama at school when I was fourteen so Lord help me I would be able to pull this off.
I scrambled to my feet as Stephen replied. “We had this deal and Lizzie-“ his eyes focused in on me and he quickly cut off, “you know what? It’s nothin’ you gotta worry about.”
I tried to look innocent and un-assuming as I reached for my phone and bag that was folded over beneath me. “But I’m part of the team. I think I have a right to know.”
Stephen’s gaze drifted down to my Prada bag that I was once again wiping down. He didn’t even say anything – didn’t need to; I wasn’t part of the team.
“So, now I’ve answered your question you can answer mine.” I stood there awkwardly as I watched Stephen lean back on my car, totally at ease.
I used my phone to point to Stephen. “You’re leaning on my car right now.”
A fleeting look of uncertaincy passed over his face. One I would have normally questioned, but Stephen wasn’t normal and I just wanted to get home so I instead took the opportunity to dial 911 on my miraculously-still-functioning phone.
“Hello, 911 services speaking. How may we assist you?” A smooth, controlled voice rang clear over the line.
I tried to channel the operator’s calmness. “Hi, I’m locked out of my car. Could you maybe send someone over-“ my phone was grabbed out of my hands before I could finish.
It was Stephen. “Hello, who is this?” His gruff voice had completely morphed into an unrecognisable feminine lilt. “Oh, that isn’t necessary. Yes, this is her mother….yes, yes I’ve got a spare key. I’ve got it taken care of. Thank you, bye.” He thrust the phone back towards me. “Are you fucking insane? I’m a wanted criminal and you’re calling the police right for me? What the fuck? If they found me I fucking swear..” His voice dropped back to normality just as I remembered stephen was wanted – probably one of the most highly-sought-after criminals on the west coast.
“Shit, I’m sorry I-“
“Forget it.” He turned away and instead faced my car, digging into his pockets. “I can pick the lock for you.”
We lapsed into a few moments of quiet, the only sound being the pin Stephen was using to pick the tiny key hole on the driver’s door. I could only wonder where that pin had came from and why Stephen had it with him – and I honestly didn’t really want to know.
“So, you were down here recently?” Stephen sounded distracted, but the curiousty was palpable.
“Yeah, it’s a good place to park when there’s no room on the side of the street. For shopping.” I was a really fucking terrible liar.
“Ok…sure.” Yup, he knew I was lying.
More silence. I thought back over what Lizzie had told me earlier – how she didn’t ever go to school. If I ever wanted to find out why Stephen hadn’t bothered it was now or never.
“So…Lizzie never went to school?” The scratching stopped.
“She told you that?” Now, if I was any smarter I would be able to tell that this was obviously a rough subject for Stephen – his tone of voice gave that much away; but I was fulled on this burning desire to understand this man – understand these type of people. Understand Lizzie. And Jenny. For Jenny too.
“Why would you do that – not send her? Don’t you relise how important education is? How, if Lizzie ever wants to leave this town she needs to have some form of a qualification? She can have that oppourtunity and you’re just…just stealing it from her!”
Now Stephen turned around. “She never wanted that. Everytime I tried to force her into that goddamn motherfucking building she’d just start crying about how she wanted to stay with me - learn how to fight, how to be a criminal. It’s who she is and she doesn’t need anything else.” The sudden anger that burned from his eyes should have frightened me, but I was too mad to stop.
“And it’s appauling that by the age of six that girl wasn’t learning her alphabet and was instead being coached on how to nail a headshot! It’s fucking appauling and it’s wrong.” I couldn’t help myself – I was shaking uncontrollably and I was so angry my head was pounding and I could feel my insides whirling over the wrongness of it all and it had clicked into place for me.
This isn’t what I want.
I wanted NYU. I longed for friends and coffeshops after class and kissing random boys at parties and the course I’ve wanted to take since I was just a little girl. I wanted to take Jenny and Lizzie with me, to show them what they could have if they could only just break free from the lives they are stuck in. I wanted LA – and everything that came with it – to just disappear.
I tuned back into the conversation just in time to hear Stephen finish his rant. “….and there’s Danny too – that fucking kid. She only wanted him and now he’s gone..”
“Wait – who’s Danny?” I’d never heard his name before.
“Shit. Pretend you never heard me say that.” Stephen went to turn back to the car but – surprising myself at my sudden boldness – I reached out and yanked his shoulder.
“Who is Danny, Stephen?” I pushed as much conviction into my voice as possible.
Stephen glanced down at my hand on his shoulder and I quickly removed it. “If you know what’s the right thing to do – and God hope you do – you’ll never mention it to Lizzie. If you respect her, you’ll never utter that name. Believe me when I say you don’t want to.”
Stephen didn’t wait for a reply, just went back to working the lock like nothing had ever happened – like that whole conversation hadn’t just taken place. I couldn’t forget it so easily though and just stood there, bag clutched to my chest and the most far from comfortable I had ever been. Sure, I had just come to the conclusion I was leaving but I knew, for Lizzie’s sake, I couldn’t go now. There was so much I need to figure out before I could leave – I had plenty of time anyway, as I was scheduled to start at the university next September. I just needed to sort some things out first.
A few minutes later Stephen stretched back up and popped the Rover’s door open. He didn’t even turn towards me – just walked round the front hood and started stalking off in the direction of his red truck I hadn’t even noticed was there before. With a sigh, I climbed in, grabbed the keys from the passenger seat and turned the ignition. Inching out from the boardwalk and onto solid road again I had a clear plan in my mind:
1) Find out who Danny is
2) Get Lizzie her drug money back
3) Talk to Jenny
4) Get the hell out of LA