It was dark the next time Nate turned the TV on. He needed something to do. He felt like he would go crazy if he didn’t have something to occupy his mind. Tony was on the roof on watch. He hadn’t seen Jenna or Maha in hours. Santiago and Caleb were sitting at the dining table, drinking steadily, without talking, no expressions on their faces, like men intent on a very serious activity that required full concentration. Jordynn was still in bed. Tamara wandered in and out, drinking steadily as well.
Nate quickly flipped past the news channels, averting his eyes as he did so, and went to the HBO channel. Rambo was on, dubbed into some language he didn’t recognize. But the actor who was voicing Sylvester Stallone sounded completely wrong and the whole movie looked completely fake, though at one time he remembered loving it. On the screen, Rambo ran through the woods and shot a man and Nate flinched, the image striking too close to home. He was about to turn off the TV when the channel suddenly went dead. Kelly, who was sitting on the love seat watching said, “What happened to the channel? Did you turn the receiver off?” There was a bruise on her face from where Adam had hit her. Adam hadn’t been seen since.
“No,” Nate said. “Look, the green light is still on.”
Dying to get the whole book?
“What about the other channels?”
He flicked through them. They all seemed to be there still, all of them showing scenes of death and chaos. He turned the TV off and he and Kelly exchanged a look, neither needing to say aloud what they were thinking. Was it just a mechanical problem or was it something worse?
Tamara got up from the table and took her cigarettes from her purse. “I’m going for a smoke,” she said, looking meaningfully at Caleb. When he didn’t look up or acknowledge her she scowled at him and walked out. She was weaving slightly. She’d showered and put on fresh clothes, tight shorts and a halter top. The door slammed behind her.
After a couple minutes Nate got up and picked up his rifle. “I’m going to go see if Tony’s ready to be spelled on watch.” No one said anything.
Out in the warehouse he saw that Tamara was standing amongst the crates. She was smoking a cigarette and staring down at something. He walked over to her. She didn’t seem to hear him. As he got close he realized what it was she was looking at.
She heard him finally and looked up. He thought he saw guilt in her eyes, too deep to be covered up by the eyeliner and the perfume.
“Why are you following me?” she asked, dragging on her cigarette.
“I’m not. I was just going up to take my watch.”
“I haven’t touched the stuff in years,” she said.
It took Nate a moment to realize what she was saying. “You used to do heroin?”
“It happens, you know. People take drugs. At least where I come from they do.”
“I wasn’t trying to say…”
“You don’t have to. I can see it in your eyes. Heroin is something for the freaks and the poor people, not the good middle-class folks where you came from.”
Nate didn’t know what to say. He’d been to his share of parties, of course, and been around quite a lot of drugs, but the truth was he’d never even seen heroin. It lurked in the background, the boogie man that would come and get the especially bad children.
“Don’t be so quick to judge what you don’t know,” she said harshly, exhaling smoke through her nose.
He spread his hands. “I wasn’t judging.”
“Don’t bullshit me. You’re too transparent.”
“I just…I don’t know – ”
She cut him off. “You don’t know what it’s like where I come from. You’ve probably never even been in a trailer. The walls are so thin you can hear everything that’s happening everywhere in the thing, every footstep, every punch, every grunt and moan. You can hear and the neighbors can hear. There’s no secrets in a trailer park so there’s no point in hiding. The adults do their drugs in front of you. It doesn’t matter how young you are.” She took another drag on the cigarette. “The worst is in the summer. The AC is broken most of the time. It’s like being in a microwave. You lie on top of the sheets in a puddle of your own sweat, listening to the fucking and the fighting and the drunken laughter and wonder if there’s any escape at all, if there’s any way to get free of your own miserable, fucking life.
“You know what I remember most? The smell. I don’t know what it was, where it came from. The thirty-year-old carpet? The walls themselves? It was sweat and mold and smoke and sex all mixed together and rotted. It didn’t matter how much I showered or how much perfume I wore. I could never get that smell off of me.” She took a long, slow drag, staring him in the eye. “Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“No. Not really.”
“Not at all.”
“Okay. Not at all.”
“Then you don’t know why a kid might start drinking with the older boys down the street when she’s twelve. Or why she’d first try meth when she was fourteen. And why not heroin after that? People were always offering it to her. It doesn’t take too long to start using that shit every day.”
Nate felt way in over his head. He said the first words that came into his mind. “But you quit, right? You’re not still…”
She showed him her forearms. “I haven’t touched that shit in eight years. Quitting was a bitch, let me tell you. I got my wakeup call when I was seventeen.” She sat down on a crate and rubbed her leg. Involuntarily, Nate found himself noticing how smooth and tan her legs were and a thought of how they would feel to the touch drifted into his mind before he could stop it. “When I was in high school I was wild. I stayed out late, partying all the time, never went to class, failing school. My mom didn’t care. She was drunk most of the time. She never finished high school either. Partying was easy. My tits grew in early and I was pretty and older boys – men too – were always chasing me. I started smoking pot in seventh grade and drinking in eighth. By the time I was sixteen I was using heroin.
“One day I fell asleep in math class. It was the last class of the day. I’d been up pretty late the night before and I was exhausted. Anyway, I woke up and saw that class had ended. It was only me and the math teacher in the room, old Mr. Bloozer. He had this pointy gray beard and no hair. We called him Mr. Loser.
“When I got up to leave he called me over to his desk. I thought he was gonna yell at me but he didn’t.” She flicked her cigarette away. Her nails were very long and very red. “He said, ‘it’s all a game to you, isn’t it? You’re young and pretty and the party never ends because someone else is always paying for it.’ He never looked up from the papers he was grading. It was like he was talking to himself. Then he said, ‘It will end much faster than you think. Beauty fades fast, especially when you use it hard, like you are. You’ll be pregnant in a year and drop out of school. The daddy will leave you, or maybe go to prison, and you’ll have another baby with someone else. He’ll leave you too. By the time you’re twenty-five you’ll be fat, bitter and smoking two packs a day. The good times will be just a memory.’
“It floored me when he said that. I mean, teachers weren’t supposed to talk to students that way. Especially not this guy. He barely spoke over a whisper in class. He was weaker than flat beer. Then he looked up at me for the first time. He pushed his glasses up on his nose and he glared at me. ‘Go down to McDonald’s this weekend,’ he said. ‘Any McDonald’s, it doesn’t matter. Sit there for a while. You’ll see your future, fat, bitter, and pushing a stroller with a couple dirty kids in it.’
“Then he went back to his grading. Just like that. Like I wasn’t even there. I was shaking when I left his room. I couldn’t sleep that night. And I did, I went down to McDonald’s that Saturday morning and I saw women just like he described. Women you could tell were pretty, but it was all gone now, and they had hard faces, hard eyes. Screaming kids. I even saw one girl I knew, who lived down the street from me in the trailer park where I lived with my mom.”
She stopped talking then, staring into her past. She drew in a ragged breath and sat up straight. “I quit using right then. I started going to class and doing my work. I got my life straightened out. It took me five years, but I finished school. I started eating better. I even exercised. It was hard – I’m not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree – but whenever I felt like giving up I’d look at those girls around town, pushing their strollers, their dreams gone before they ever had a chance to be born. All I had to do was look at my own mom.
“As soon as I was done with school I got out of Tucson. I went to LA, planning to make something of myself. I’m pretty. I know that I am. I figured I could do something with my looks before they’re gone, make something out of my life.
“This show was my best chance. I’ve been watching reality TV my whole life. I know what kind of women they’re looking for and I know how to be that kind of woman. I did it. I played the part perfectly and I got the job. I’d already won before the show even started.”
She turned to him. “It doesn’t matter now, does it? Old Mr. Loser was wrong. I should’ve partied and had fun while I could.” She leaned closer. “It’s stupid to wait until tomorrow. Today is the only time we have.” She patted the crate beside her. Her lips were very full and red. “Come sit by me.”
Nate looked over his shoulder. They were alone. Then he went and sat down on the other end of the crate.
“Not there. Closer. I don’t like being alone.” Awkwardly he scooted closer. She hooked her arm through his and leaned her head on his shoulder. Her hair smelled good. She pulled him closer. He could feel her breast pressing against his arm. Alarm bells began to go off in his head but they were very faint and far away.
“Aren’t you and Caleb…?” he stammered.
“Fuck Caleb. I tried to get him to come out here with me. He doesn’t care about anything but partying. I’ve known too many guys like him.” She pulled back and looked up at him. “It feels good, sitting here like this with you. You’re a nice guy.”
“I really should go take my shift on watch. I’m supposed to relieve Tony.”
“Just a few more minutes. I don’t want to be alone.” She bit her lip, pondering something. Her teeth were fine and white. When she stood up and sat on his lap, Nate’s heart started to race. He didn’t resist as she wrapped her arms around him and gave him a kiss. Her breath was smoky, her lips very soft. She put her hands inside his shirt.
“I don’t know if we should do this,” Nate said.
“The whole world’s going to shit. Guys with guns are trying to kill us. We’ve got no way out of here. Why shouldn’t we get what we can, while we can? Tell me that.”
Nate couldn’t think of a reason. He couldn’t think of much of anything except how good she felt and how much he wanted her.
“Why don’t we go in the back? It’s a little more private.” She stood, took his hand and pulled him to his feet. Holding his hand, she started to lead him toward the back of the warehouse.
Just then the door to the living quarters opened and Caleb came out. “Tamara?” he called. Nate quickly let go of Tamara’s hand. Caleb came walking over. He gave Nate a searching look but said nothing. Tamara lit another cigarette.
“I wondered what happened to you,” he said.
She crossed her arms under her breasts and blew smoke at him. “You were too busy drinking.”
“It’s been a long day.”
“I don’t like being ignored.”
“I could never ignore you.” He put his hands on her shoulders and leaned in for a kiss but she turned her face away.
“I’ve got watch,” Nate said, backing away. They both ignored him. He turned and practically ran to the ladder leading to the roof.
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