Thirteen-year-old Emily’s backpack was stuffed full of her essential belongings. She also had forty dollars of babysitting money hidden in her shoe, the iPhone her mom gave her on her last birthday in her pocket, and the phone number of an aunt she’d never met at the top of her contact list.
She turned out the light and watched Roger and her mom in the living room from the open slit of her bedroom door. A look of euphoria crossed her mom’s face after she inhaled the second time from the pipe Roger passed her.
Stepping back from the door, Emily closed it quietly and punched in the lock, knowing what would happen next. When they were high on meth, they thought up ways to get more money to buy more drugs. She hoped they would forget she was there, but knew their plans usually involved her, and that’s what scared her. She got into bed, fully clothed, and slipped in one ear bud from her iPod.
Roger had moved in with them two months ago, after hitting it off with her mom at Nancy’s Cafe in Portland, Oregon where she worked. He left her big tips for about a week, and then they started seeing each other whenever she was off work. Roger said he was an accountant, but Emily had never seen him go to work.
The way Roger looked at her creeped her out. When he touched her arm or shoulder in passing, she felt her skin crawl. She couldn’t understand what her mom saw in him. If he tried anything, she had her backpack ready and she was prepared to run.
Emily’s hands balled into fists. She and her mom had been doing great, just the two of them, before he showed up and introduced her mom to meth. They had a solid Mom-and-Daughter relationship. Emily trusted her mom’s decisions—well, most of them anyway. But now, when they were high, she didn’t recognize her.
She’d been able to avoid their small apartment when they were using by staying late at school or sometimes walking through the large department stores downtown—anywhere else but with them. She didn’t trust Roger.
Emily heard them in her mom’s bedroom down the hallway next to hers. When their bed started banging against the wall, she slipped the other ear bud in, letting the music soothe her to sleep.
“Honey? Emily?” Her mom called, knocking on the door. “Get up, we’re going out.”
Emily came awake and looked at the glowing numbers on her clock radio. Eleven-thirty. She sighed and finally got out of bed. It was no use—her mom would keep knocking until she answered the door. Yesterday, Friday, had been the last day of school for the year. She hoped they wouldn’t stay out all night—her mom had to work in the morning.
Emily grabbed her backpack, walked through the living room stepping over empty fast-food containers and dirty socks, and followed them out the front door. “Can we get something to eat? I didn’t get dinner.”
“Maybe later. We’re meeting a guy at Walmart.” Her mom pulled forward the front passenger seat of Roger’s red Toyota Camry so Emily could get into the back. Her mom’s brunette, shoulder-length hair looked as messy as her makeup. The pain in the back of Emily’s throat intensified as she stared at her usually perfect mom.
“Plus we’ve got some shopping to do,” Roger added, nodding his head.
Emily watched his whole body vibrate with jerky movements as he tried to insert the key in the ignition. When he backed out of the parking lot without looking behind him, she grabbed a hold of her seatbelt strap, closed her eyes, and prayed they wouldn’t crash into anything.
They pulled into the Walmart parking lot. “There’s the car—the green one in the last row.” Roger parked next to it leaving the car running. He pulled out his wallet and handed her mom some cash. “That’s all I got. You have to cover the rest.”
Emily watched her mom approach the driver’s side of the green car. The window slid open a few inches and fingers reached out for the money. After it was passed through, a small bag appeared. Her mom stuffed it in her purse and got back into the car.
“Quick and easy,” Roger said. “Now give it to me.”
He drove to the farthest row in the back of parking lot next to a grouping of large shrubs and scrub trees. When they got out of the car, he grabbed Emily’s backpack. “You’ll keep this safe for us.” He stuffed the small bag into one of the zippered pockets.
Emily’s jaw dropped and her eyes widened with shock. “I don’t want anything to do with this.” She swung away from him, grabbed her backpack, and opened the zipper where he’d put the baggie.
"Do as he says,” her mom said, dismissing her panic. “I’ll take it out when we get home. You keep it safe for me."
Roger gripped her mom’s arm. “Follow me and when I hand you something, slip it into your purse. Emily, you stay close and try to block the view. We’ll make some easy money tonight.”
“Lame, Mom. Shoplifting?” Anger coursed through her body causing her face to flush. “Just for more of that stupid drug?”
“Roger and I planned this one out.” Her bright red lipstick flashed, garish in the parking lot light. “Don’t worry, he knows what he’s doin’.”
Emily sighed. It was no use; her mom no longer listened to her. She knew there were cameras in Walmart’s entrance, so she pulled the black sweatshirt hood up over her shoulder-length red hair before walking through the door.
“I’ll grab a cart and we can load it up with stuff—make it look like we’re shopping. When we’re ready to go Emily’ll take it to a back aisle, leave it and meet us back at the car.” Roger’s forehead shone with sweat, his armpits were soaked, and he gave off an odor of ripe cat pee.
Emily’s stomach churned as she followed them, her footsteps dragging. She didn’t know what else to do. She saw her mom slip a watch into her bag while Roger sorted through DVD’s on a sale table next to it. He tossed several in the cart and motioned them to move forward.
After half an hour, Roger nodded at Emily. “Take the cart over by the toys and leave it. Go out the other door. We’ll wait a minute and walk out the main entrance. Meet you at the car.”
Emily did as she was told, and a few minutes later hurried out of the store. She ran to the car and tugged at the door, but it was locked. She pulled on it again but it wouldn’t budge. Her eyes darted around the too-dark area of the parking lot, sucking in a quick breath when a car backfired in the distance. Seconds later, she heard the alarm go off at the main entrance, and saw Roger and her mom running toward the car with two security guards in close pursuit.
Panic seized her. She dove behind the bushes in front of the car and crouched down. The security guards grabbed both of them and they argued briefly before Roger wrestled free and took off running. One guard gave chase, but soon gave up. Emily watched in shock as they handcuffed her mom and escorted her back into the store.
Sinking down on weak knees, she tried to calm her racing heart. She stayed hidden in the bushes until two Portland police cars turned into the parking lot and stopped at the entrance, lights flashing.
“I’m so outta here,” she said under her breath. She had no idea what would happen to her mom. After the policemen entered the store, Emily jogged to the street and started walk-running toward home. Surely they’d take her mom there. She didn’t know what Roger would do now; she hoped he’d stay away. She reached in to her pocket and pulled out her phone. Her heart sank when she saw that the battery was dead. She was on her own.
The two-mile walk home in the dark after Portland curfew wasn’t something she was looking forward to, but she kept to the side streets and hoped not to attract the attention of anyone else out at this hour. She shivered as the wind picked up and stopped in front of a house with open blinds to zip up her sweatshirt. Through the living room window she could see a young couple cuddled together on their recliner couch watching TV. Her stomach growled in protest when she saw the half-eaten pizza sitting on the dining room table.
An hour later, Emily turned down the street to her apartment, but stepped back into the shadows when she saw the police car parked outside her unit. She watched for a moment, wondering if the police might have brought her mom home. But the lights were out in the apartment and a female officer stood outside. Maybe they were looking for her—just like they did three years ago. She ended up in a foster home then. It had been the worst experience of her life.
Emily’s eyes teared and her chin trembled. Her hands sought the key to their storage unit hanging with her apartment key on a chain around her neck. She always stored her bicycle in their unit behind the apartment. She crept along the side of the building, stopped at the corner, and glanced around for anyone else outside. Alone, tired, and hungry, she just wanted a safe place to hide for the night.
Emily unlocked the padlock and opened the door quietly. Their storage unit was one of the smallest and cheapest available—eight feet square with an oversized man-door. She closed the door behind her and pulled on the string attached to the single, bare light bulb. It lit up the small space; between their stacked storage boxes and her bicycle, there wasn’t much room left. There was no way to lock it from the inside, but it would have to do for the night.
Emily removed her backpack, leaned her bicycle up against the door, and re-stacked the boxes to make a place to lie down. She pulled an old comforter out of one of the boxes and wrapped herself in it. She buried her nose in its softness and breathed in deeply, smelling her mom’s signature scent. She grabbed the water bottle from the holder on her bicycle and shook it. It sloshed. Relieved she gulped the lukewarm, stale water left from her last ride.
Tomorrow morning she’d make sure the police car was gone and hope that Roger wasn’t there so she could sneak in to get their address book. She wouldn’t call her Aunt Sarah. If she just showed up at her house she’d have to let her stay. She tried to ignore the emptiness in her stomach as she pulled the string, plunging the small space into darkness.