“Curtis,” I said into my cellphone, staring at the glass of wine sitting on the bar counter top. “I’ve reached my breaking point.”
“Vixen, where are you?” Curtis asked without preamble, worry evident in his tone. I ratted off the directions, leaning closer to the glass with every breath. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes. Don’t do anything rash.”
I was inhaling the scent of the glass of Bordeaux in front of me when Curtis entered the bar, racing over to where I was sitting and moving the glass out from literally under my nose. I sunk into my chair and for the first time during the month Mari had been missing, I cried. Not my usual sniffles as I lay in bed wondering where she is and what she’s doing, but a guttural cry that scared the patrons of the half empty bar. Even the bartender moved to the other side of the bar to give us some privacy.
“Curtis, you don’t understand,” I said between sniffles. “There’s so much pressure on me as we speak. I’ve spent every single day in the Bronx flooding it with pictures of Mari and no one has seen her. Then I go back the very next day and there those pictures of her are, haunting me. My daughter is out there somewhere in trouble and I can’t save her. Then today I got a phone call from the detective in charge of the case and they’re scaling back the search for her even father. Gino and I are the only ones out there looking for her,” I said, pounding my chest, “and I’m starting to feel like no matter how much we look she’ll always be so close yet a million miles away.”
“We all have a time in our lives when we’re feeling like the world is pulling us under and God is weighing us down with more trials than we can bear. You have been through more in this short period of time with your children than most parents do in a lifetime and it is perfectly natural for you to have come here and order that glass of wine.”
I opened my hand and stared at the crumpled picture of Mari from her sweet sixteen. She looked beautiful in her white gown, like a princess. At the end of the night she was so exhausted but didn’t hesitate to hug Gino and I, telling us that it had been the best day of her life. My little girl was missing and the world had stopped caring. The police had given up.
Today became the worse day of my life.
“What’s wrong, Mari?” Carla asked her big sister.
Mari sat on the small cot in the room Amir had fashioned for her. She was only allowed to the bathroom and back. Her meals consisted of dinner from Marisol, who stopped by everyday to talk but Mari turned a deaf ear, taking a few bites of food and shoving the plate back at her.
“Mari, you don’t get it,” Marisol said one day after Mari flipped the plate over at her in a fit of rage. “You don’t understand the control he has over me. You think I wanted him to hurt you? He had me tied up in my room so I couldn’t get to you.” She showed Mari the angry red marks that marred her wrists. As much as she wanted to sympathize with her biological mother she would risk being covered in a thousand welts and have her freedom than remain an unscathed slave of Amir.
“Mari?” Carla’s voice brought her back from a harsh memory to an even harsher reality.
“I’m sorry,” Mari cracked a small smile. “You said that today is July fifth, right?”
“Yeah, just like you told me to. What’s today?” Carla was curious, waiting patiently to hear the answer.
Mari looked up at the small patch of window Amir had left uncovered. Sunlight washed down onto her face for a brief moment until a cloud covered it. “Today is my little sister’s birthday.”
“Jade? How old is she turning?”
“Twelve.” Mari laughed sadly. “I wish I could see her right now and tell her how much I love her.”
Carla snuggled up to her older sister and kissed her on the cheek. “Don’t worry, Mari. I think she knows.”
The girls sat in silence for another hour when the door opened. Amir snapped his fingers as Carla impatiently. “Come on, it’s time for you to go to your mother. Tell Mari you’ll see her tomorrow.”
“Bye, Mari.” Carla hugged her sister and scrambled off the bed.
“See you.” Mari took in the scent of Carla — bubble gun and skittles — and held Carla at an arms length. “Tell me what happened on Fly Girls, okay?”
Fly Girls was a Disney show Carla watched religiously, detailing every event to Mari with the enthusiasm only a little girl could. Carla was the only person keeping her sane. Her eyes and ears to the world she had been deprived of for the past month and a half. Everyday that passed Mari felt more out of tune with the world. Amir’s apartment was so quiet it made her feel a little crazy.
“Mari.” Amir had sat down next to her, grabbing her hand and kissing it. “You love me, right?”
Mari felt her throat dry. She swallowed, nodding her head up and down to appease him until she could form coherent words. “Yeah.”
“Would you do anything for me?” Amir stroked her cheek with the finesse of a lover. Mari stilled; Amir had never asked her for anything that he didn’t already take almost every night. “Or better yet would you do anything for Carla?”
“Like what?” He knew that although she was unable to protect Carla most of the day, Mari would do anything for the little girl.
“You’re starting to become really expensive. I sold your clothes and found the stash of money in your jacket, but that’s not enough. It only paid this month’s rent.” He stopped stroking her face and sat against the wall. “You have to start earning your keep.”
“Excuse me?” Mari croaked, unsure of what he meant.
Amir flashed a toothy smile before continuing on. “Marisol doesn’t work right now because of this…situation. That leaves me with the responsibility of taking care of her rent and mine. I could just let you go, but then you would end up telling the police all about our relationship and I can’t have that,” he said amenably. “So now I’m left with having to share either you or Carla with some of my friends. Honestly, they like them young. Carla has those rosy cheeks and soft skin they’re more than willing to pay for, meaning she would yield more money than you. However, I am a reasonable man and since you’ve been so good to me I am willing to settle for allowing them to have you instead.”
Mari wanted to scratch and claw at him with everything she had except she was weak from a lack of food. So she did what she would do if it were Jade Amir had been trying to sell.
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