It's not a problem. Waitressing every night from 4 to 10, dancing from 10 to 2, she needs something to keep her going.
She uses those wide straws she gets from Jack In The Box. Takes less work to hoover a line and you can cut one up into four or five to last you a week. She likes to recycle, after all. One of the other dancers, Francie, a real platinum blonde with drapes that match the carpet, tried to convince her those monster boba tea straws are better, but Francie's got nostrils like a goddamn mule.
Heather stands in front of the mirror in the dressing room. The highlights in her dark, brown hair are going brassy and the roots are coming through. Thank god for bad lighting.
She applies a thick layer of body make-up to her legs to hide the bruising Kevin gave her this morning when she got home. This job does enough of a number on her legs without having him go all apeshit on her.
"Can I borrow your lip-gloss?" Francie says, coming over and touching up her mascara. "I'm not having an outbreak."
"Sure." Heather hands her the bubble-gum flavored gloss. Like herpes is something she's going to worry about.
"The fuck was your brother thinking?" Francie says. "Doesn't he know you have to work tonight?"
Heather shrugs, glances at the clock. She goes on stage in a couple more songs. Hopefully the DJ will play something she can actually dance to, AC/DC, maybe some Nine Inch Nails. Something with some goddamn energy. Last night the he was in some kind of emo mood that just did not work with pole dancing.
"He wasn't thinking much." No, what Kevin was doing was tweaking. When she got home, he was pacing around the apartment, grinding his teeth and picking through the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. She's not sure why he went off. Took one look at her and started chucking shit at her. The puzzle box, a fan. Then he came at her, tripped over the coffee table and started slapping at her legs. She kicked him a few times in the head and he finally stopped. Yelled something about mom and ran to his bedroom.
The late nights are taking their toll. Heather walks to her car in the cold winter chill, coughing. Her meds always make her nauseous when she leaves the club around two a.m. If she can get home, and Kevin hasn't gone through all of it, she'll light up a spliff to take the edge off.
She drives the empty streets in a used, orange Volvo with a license plate holder that says World's Best Mom. She got it off a guy in Silver Lake.
She's got no kids, and she feels kind of guilty driving around with the holder, but she can't bring herself to take it off. She looks at it and sometimes it takes her mind off things. Like there's such a thing as a World's Best Mom. And if this is her car, then she must not be very far off.
Other times, it just makes her sad.
She hates the late nights, but needs all the money she can get. Every night, except Monday. Mondays are dead. Her best night's Saturday with the international crowd over from the airport hotels. They might as well be pissing cash.
And it all goes into her meds. Darunavir and Ritonavir are goddamn expensive. Six pills a day she's taking. Over a thousand bucks a month. Then there's doctor's visits, viral tests. And let's not forget the cocaine.
She knows Kevin's dipping into her stash, so she leaves some lying around as bait. He takes a few hundred from the coffee can she replenishes each month. Keeps him in crystal and jigsaw puzzles, and, more importantly, away from her real cash.
She parks at her building in Mar Vista, climbs the three flights to her apartment, wondering if Kevin's going to go all bugfuck on her again. She can't deal with that. Not tonight. She's got a doctor's appointment at 8:30 in the morning and she needs sleep.
But Kevin's not there. The door's wide open and all the lights are on. At first glance everything's where it should be, so she's not too worried, but she pulls out the mace she keeps in her purse, just in case.
She walks slow through the apartment. It's not until the second pass she realizes what's wrong. The coffee can on the counter for Kevin to dip into is gone. Not a big deal, only a couple hundred bucks in tens and twenties left, but he's never taken the whole can before.
Her gut sinks as the thought strikes her. She runs to her bedroom, yanking the futon away from the wall hard enough to wrench her back. The lockbox she bolted underneath is gone. Pried off by the look of it. The whole box.
With twenty thousand dollars in it.
Heather's not stupid. She knows she can't keep dancing forever. This was her buffer. Not exactly retirement money, but enough to see her through a couple rounds of her meds and tests, maybe a hospital stay if it went that far. Okay, a short hospital stay.
She coughs loud and hard. Chest burning with each one. On top of it all she's coming down with a nasty cold. With her immune system, if she's not careful, she's looking at pneumonia for sure.
She'd cry, but she knows it wouldn't help. So she gets angry.
"The fuck is he, Marvin?" Kevin's got his tweaker buddies on speed dial. He can't afford a cell phone so he puts them all on the landline. If anybody knows where Kevin is, it's one of these fucks.
"Wha-at?" He sounds like he's eighty with a voice like he's chewing broken glass.
"Kevin. Where the fuck is he?"
"Who is this? Do you know what time it is?" He's got the same tone Kevin gets when he's speedballing.
"Oh, like you weren't up. This is Heather. Kevin's sister. Remember Kevin?"
"Yeah. Course I remember Kevin. Hey, you know where he's at?"
She hangs up, hits the next one.
She goes through five numbers. Three disconnects, a pager and a voicemail she doesn't bother to talk to before she gets anyone else.
"Yeah," says a voice. Kevin's scrawl on the phone says his name is Dave. She's never met him.
"Hi," she says, trying to get her anger under something looking like control. "I'm looking for Kevin Dugan."
"Kevin? He's not here. Who is this?"
"This is his sister, Heather."
"Yeah, he's talked about you."
"Have you seen him?"
"Like, hours ago. Rented my car for a couple days."
A car. Kevin's got a beater that he uses to tool around the city, but it never gets far. It's got a leak that spills coolant onto the engine and it catches fire after about ten miles. If he needs a car, he needs to go further than ten miles. Her heart starts to sink the more she thinks about it.
"Any idea where he was going?" She knows the answer already. Hopes she's wrong.
"Yeah, that's it."
Heather doesn't have the phone number, anymore. Doesn't even have the address. But she's got a name. And in this day of the internet, that's all she needs.
The Reverend Paula Tooley, Church of the Savior, Redding, California. The address burns out of the tiny screen on her mobile phone. Been a long time since she went by Annie.
Heather knows the road to Redding. All she has to do is run back from where she left.
The doc wants to go over her last test results in the morning. Tell her how well the meds are holding things at bay, how many T-Cells she has this month, how much longer before she has to change cocktails. It'll keep. Not like the news is going to make much difference.
She throws together a bag. Packs for three days. Not sure how long she'll be gone. But figure one day up, a day to beat the shit out of Kevin, a day to come back home. She takes the rest of her meds, a couple days worth, the rest of her coke and pot, and some Pedialite.
There's one last thing she packs, after debating it for a full fifteen minutes, pacing back and forth and chewing on her nails. She doesn't want to. She tells herself she doesn't need it. But a woman alone on the I-5? Her car breaks down, what's she going to do?
The old .45 goes on top.
L.A.'s a different city at three a.m. The roads are open, the freeway clear. You get some stragglers, and the hookers are still out in force, but for the most part, people have to sleep.
Heather makes good time getting out of the city, the landscape changing from concrete to scrub brush, but she knows she won't get up there until the afternoon. And that's only if she doesn't have to stop.
The cocaine helps some, but the lack of sleep and her meds kick her ass around Bakersfield. She pulls over to the side, throws up the drive-thru breakfast she had an hour ago.
She just means to nap for a minute, head resting against the tattered vinyl. But a minute turns into three hours, and she wakes to the sweats.
The coughing is worse. Pneumonia for sure. Should have picked up some DayQuil or something.
"Twenty-thousand dollars," she says to herself. It's her mantra for this trip. That's why she's going. That's why she brought the gun. It's all about the money. It has nothing to do with Kevin.
It has nothing to do with her mother.
She knows the street. It's over by Benton Field, Redding's tiny airstrip. Not a big building, can't even call it a church, really. Looks like it used to be a bar that somebody gutted and painted white. The stained glass is real, though. Mom must be doing something right.
Two cars in the lot. A late model Lexus with a bumper sticker that declares "Born To Preach". Ain't that the truth.
And another car. Beat to hell and covered in dust. Of course, Kevin would have gotten here before she did. He had hours of a head start, probably didn't sleep the whole way. Heather drags her bag with her to the front door, breathing faster with each step.
It's been five years since she left. Eighteen saw her out the door fast as lightning. Kevin wasn't so lucky. He stayed four more years before he got too smart, or too wounded. Heather was never really too clear on that.
She startles at the roar of a Cessna landing at the nearby strip. That must really piss off her mother, having to compete with a noise she can't scream at to shut up. Probably bought some high end sound system just to be heard.
"Twenty thousand dollars," she says, and pushes the door open.
It actually looks like a church inside. Well, a cheap church. There's a pulpit and an altar, pews and candles. Thin, blue carpeting and the floral stink of a funeral home.
It's a long way from the tents of those Alabama revival camps.
Those were their own kind of hell. Her mom running scams on fundies who would sweat at the sight of some thigh. When Heather was twelve she got in on the cons. Quite the Lolita. Wasn't until halfway across the country that she realized how much she hated blowing guys for blackmail money. And how fucked up it was that her mom made her do it.
A door behind the altar opens and Heather roots where she stands, breath half caught in her lungs. The Reverend Paula Tooley, in purple robes and silver hair swept back, staring at her.
"You look like shit," her mother says.
"Annie," Heather says.
"That's not my name, anymore. Not here."
Heather won't rise to the bait. There's no time. She's tired, hungry and in no mood for bullshit.
"The hell should I know? Last I saw him he was cryin' on about how his big sister was going to take care of him. Ingrate."
"That's his car out there." She doesn't know that for sure, but the fleeting look on her mother's face tells her everything she needs to know. Mom's good with a con, but Heather's had years of practice reading her.
"Fine. Yes, he was here," her mom says. "I kicked him out. He probably ran out of gas on his way up and he's hitching a ride back to that sinner's den."
"Don't take the Lord's name in vain." There's a look Heather's never seen before on her mother's face, twisting it into something even uglier.
"No. Oh no," Heather says. "Don't tell me." She barks a laugh. "You finally bought into it, didn't you? You found Jesus. Well halle-fuckin-lujah. How's Jesus feel about finding you?"
"Don't judge me. You're in no position to judge me. Whore."
The word hits her like a slap. "You haven't changed. You haven't changed at all."
She closes her eyes, whispers her mantra again, lets the tension and anger drain out of her. Mostly. If the bitch won't help, she'll do it herself. Why should now be any different?
She shoulders her way past her mother, protests drowned out by another passing Cessna. Straight-arms her way through the door behind the altar.
And stops at Kevin lying on the floor, face down. A nasty wound in the back of his head, blood congealing in a puddle.
Shock, pity, but mostly, a certain relief. He won't be her problem anymore. "I was wrong," Heather says. "You have changed. You've gotten worse."
"He came up here. With money." Her mother's wringing her hands. "But there were strings. Wanted me to take him back, but-- but I couldn't. How would that look? My boy? Who ran away to come back a drug addict? I have a reputation. It was an accident."
"Where's the money?"
"Aren't you listening to me? He was going to ruin me."
"Just tell me where my fucking money is, Annie."
"You're heartless. Always have been."
Heather spies an open lockbox at the other end of the room. Steps over Kevin's corpse to it. Looks like all the cash is there. And then some. She unzips her bag and starts stuffing money in.
She registers the sound behind her almost too late. The whistle of metal through the air. She ducks, but not fast enough. The pipe crashes down on her, left arm going numb from the blow.
"It's my money," her mother screams, lifting the pipe high into the air. "It's Jesus' money."
Heather's hand falls into the bag at her side, finds the gun. She pulls the trigger.
The bullet rips through the cheap nylon, blasting most of her mother's ankle off, and she topples, the pipe landing hard on top of her. Her screams reaching a pitch matched only by the ringing in Heather's ears.
"Shut up," Heather yells. "Stop your goddamn screaming. Stop it." Before she knows it, she's emptied the clip.
The bar's like a hundred others. Peanut shells on the floor, neon beer signs, two dollar Budweisers. Willie Nelson scratches out of a jukebox that hasn't been updated since Reagan was in office.
Heather swallows the last of her pills with a big slug of Jack and hot lemon water. It helps her lungs, soothes the coughing.
She's not sure what she's going to do. Been in Washington two days now, staying in a motel room that smells like bear piss. Almost didn't make it. Hit snow just outside of Grants Pass in Oregon.
She orders another.
She doesn't think her arm is broken, but it's black and purple and green. Couldn't move it for most of a day, and even now it's next to useless.
"Don't run no tabs, here, darlin'," the bartender says.
She slides a hundred on the bar. "I'm good for it."
Maybe she'll just stay right here.