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emily topper

New Fiction


by Emily Topper

      The bus doors opened with a whoosh and the cold, November air hit me with a large gust. I grabbed my backpack and descended the steps into Loch Arbour, an upscale part of my home state of New Jersey.
      The bus stop was only about two blocks away from Café del Cerro, where I was a waitress. I had been working for the owner, Doc Hudson for about five years. He hired me when he thought I was sixteen, but in actuality I was two years younger. Doc hadn’t been upset when he discovered my real age though—there weren’t a lot of people who had my work ethic.
      Walking down 8th street to the restaurant, I glanced at my watch. 5:54 A.M—most of New Jersey was still snuggled warmly in their beds, enjoying the restful Sunday that they had been anticipating all week. Not me. If I hadn’t seen a gentleman on the bus with a paper, I wouldn’t have even known it was Sunday—the days all ran together for me. I woke up, went to work, and went home. And when I went home I crossed another day off my calendar, congratulating myself for making it this far.
      Using the word ‘home’ is ironic all in itself. My place of residence was in the shithole of Camden—the scariest ghetto New Jersey had to offer. My other family members (if you could even call them that) didn’t work much, so my paycheck was the only thing keeping us going.
      My “family” is pretty dysfunctional. I used to live with my mom and my brother, Tyler. But then Mom got addicted to meth (again—she had been off and on drugs since she was a teenager) and had to go to rehab (again), so Tyler and I got dumped with my grandparents, Marsha and Harold. That was when I was thirteen—I’m still stuck with them, but I’m dying to leave this place behind.
      But there’s no chance of that happening.
      When Mom had to go back to rehab, Marsha and Harold used their life savings to pay for it. Then they lost their house, and their cars, and their jobs—that’s when Harold started drinking.
      Luckily, I had Doc.
      Doc Hudson was my hero. He could run New Jersey with one hand if he wanted to. He owned a flower shop a few blocks down, at one time ran a popular Loch-Arbour based construction company before he sold it and dedicated every waking hour he had to his restaurant. Doc was a business mogul in every way. He was an Italian man, born and raised in New Jersey. He was from Camden like me and knew my struggle all too well. He worked in a deli when he was younger and paid for his own community college that way before eventually going to Arizona State University.
      “I just did business for my classes, ya know,” he would tell me. “Because I wanted to do everything. And now I am! I’m a Renaissance man, ha!” and then he would guffaw and go back to making a new sauce or working on a new design for a house or arranging flowers or whatever.
      But the restaurant. The restaurant was his pride and joy. Doc was a big man, about six-four and covered head to toe in tattoos with a thick Jersey accent—the restaurant served French cuisine and had the clientele of Loch Arbour’s most elite residents. For some reason, the contrast worked. He loved the restaurant, and the customers loved him.
      “Eventually people gotta learn to stop judging by what they see and start accepting people for who they are. It’s about the actions, not how ya look that makes you who you are, you dig?” And then he would tell me to hurry up and get out there, table 2 needed more water.
      Doc was the one who told me to go to college.
      I really hadn’t thought that much about it while I was growing up. Even when I lived with my mom, we were still short on money so it had never seemed like a possibility. In high school, my guidance counselor hadn’t even discussed college with me, instead just telling me the classes I would need in order to graduate and writing me off as someone who would flip burgers for the rest of my life just because of my past.
      And then there was Doc. Every week it was something new.
      While I was filling water pitchers, “Where have ya applied to, Anna girl?”
      While I was washing dishes, “Heard back from any schools yet?”
      While I was wiping down the bar at the end of the night, “Don’t you wanna get out of Camden?”
      So in early October I applied to his alma mater, Arizona State, just to get him off my back. I even used him as a reference. I wasn’t expecting to get in, but it would keep him out of my hair for a while.
      I opened the door to the restaurant and looked at the clock. Seven a.m. I had a short shift today—only nine hours. Doc usually tried to give me longer hours because he knew how much I needed the money. A nine hour shift to me was nothing, and the time flew quickly. All too soon I was back on the bus to Camden.
      I walked up the steps to my grandparents’ apartment and braced myself. I dreaded seeing them.
      They weren’t Grandma and Grandpa to me. They were Marsha and Harold, and I hated them both. I opened the door and climbed through the living room—a hoarder in the worst fashion. Marsha never threw anything away—she would sit all day in front of the old television with her boxes of stuff around her. And she had so much stuff—old scarves, broken porcelain dolls, small figurines of animals, vases, boxes of nuts and bolts, hat boxes filled with receipts, used wrapping paper, worn out sofa cushions, stacks of thin linens, empty cigarette cartons and tons of miscellaneous furniture. It covered every aspect of the small apartment, from the floors to the ceiling and every inch of wall space. It was overwhelming. I hated the darkness of the apartment, the obstacles I had to overcome in order for me to get to the kitchen or my own bedroom. The ghosts’ of all of Marsha’s past just lying there in the darkness while she stared vacantly at the television screen. I was nineteen now and hadn’t heard her speak since I was thirteen. That’s when my mother went to rehab for meth for the third time. She just didn’t say anything anymore. I would sometimes come in after a day at work and just stare at her—she had a face similar to that of a frog. It was round but long, and her tongue was thick from lack of usage. Her eyes were big as though she had something to say but just couldn’t find the words. Her face was pale from watching the television all day and sitting in artificial lighting. I think she had started to forget what it looked like outside. I felt like telling her she wasn’t missing anything—it was just as shitty out there.
      Harold was the opposite. He was always talking—always yelling, screaming because nothing was ever done properly. He told my grandmother on a daily basis that she was worthless, and she was. There was rarely food on the table and nothing in the refrigerator or the cabinets because she had stopped working years ago. The kitchen was always dirty, the house was always a mess and the bills were never paid on time. So Harold would go to work once a week at a packaging company and the rest of the time he would sit at the card table that made up our dining room and drink until he passed out. He was a violent drunk—he would slap me and Tyler if we simply looked at him wrong. It had been like that since my mom went to rehab that last time. By the time I was fifteen I was used to the slaps, though they had gotten much harder over time.
      So I went to bed hungry most nights on a scratchy blanket and worked night and day and tried to do the best I could. It was so unfair because my mother was in rehab doing nothing and wasting her life and I was left to take care of the shitheads that she left me with. My own life was suffering because she couldn’t manage to be anything but a drug addict who couldn’t pull her life together. And I hated her. I hated her and my ass of a brother and my sad excuse for grandparents and the shithole of a house that I lived in and I wanted to get out.
      I locked the door behind me as I crossed the threshold—I was never sure why I did that, because there was nothing in the house worth taking. But it was a habit. Marsha was sitting in the housedress that she had been wearing for the past four days and was watching a rerun of The Andy Griffith Show. Watching her gaze at the television was somewhat terrifying—she never reacted to what she saw on the screen, she just stared at it. She never reacted to anything anymore.
      I hung my thin coat on the old coat rack. It was scrawny and leaned over to one side when I let go of it, but it didn’t fall over. Harold was sitting at the table, drinking.
      “Your excuse for a grandmother hasn’t moved her fat ass all day,” he bellowed at me.
      Great. It was 9 o’clock and he was already belligerent.
      I didn’t say anything, instead just started unpacking the one bag of groceries that I had been able to buy for us this week: a few packages of ramen, some frozen vegetables and some soup cans.
      Harold glared at me. “That’s not food.”
      I ignored him, as I tried to do most of the time, and went about pouring the soup into a few paper bowls.
      “I’m not eating that!” I selected three rusty spoons and put them in the different bowls, handing him one to eat. He grabbed it and threw it across the room, the soup splattering on the wall across from the kitchen and the spoon clattering to the floor with a clang.
      I felt the rage bubbling up inside of me. The soup he had just wasted had cost close to nothing, but I already had nothing. How could he be so ungrateful? I didn’t want to be here as much as he didn’t want me to be here, but at least I was making an effort.
      “Clean it up, you piece of garbage.” I didn’t cringe—I was used to being told I was worthless. I put the remaining two soup bowls on the counter and began searching around for a rag to wipe up the mess with. We didn’t have one. The stain would have to stay on the wall. Picking up the bowls again, I brushed by Harold and went over to Marsha. Her eyes were still glued to the television.
      “Open,” I said and her mouth widened just enough so that I could spoon some of the cold liquid into her mouth. I had to do this every night. Harold had stopped feeding her years ago, so it was up to me. She didn’t know how to do it herself anymore—she didn’t know how to do much of anything herself anymore. Feeding her was a long, grueling process and usually took at least ten minutes to do because often she refused or would get scared and forget who I was and what I was doing.
      Afterwards, I turned towards my own cold meal and gulped it down, deciding against using the spoon completely. It was terrible, but it was the only meal I had had all day. I glanced at the card table. Harold had passed out a while ago, his snoring muffled into the card table. I took his empty beer cans—five in total—and threw them as well as the paper bowls into the trash can. It was ten-thirty, and Tyler was still nowhere in sight. This was normal though. He was sixteen now; why should he stick around for his sister who had provided for him since he was born?
      Pushing the thoughts out of my head, I began climbing through the cluttered hallway filled with Marsha’s things to my room. I stopped momentarily and looked at the two photos on the wall. They were the only two in our entire apartment. The first one was of Marsha and Harold on their wedding day, nearly forty years ago. They looked so happy together, smiling at the camera, their hands poised over their wedding cake. But I had learned long ago that looks could be deceiving.
      The second photo was of my mother. I think it had been taken in the eighties when she was about the age I am now. She was tall and lanky like me, and her dark brown curly hair that she had also passed on to me was thrown over her shoulder. She was laughing at something the photographer had said.
      Whenever I looked at that photo, I liked to think that the photographer was my dad—whoever he was—and that at one point my mom had actually met her soul mate and fallen in love. I liked to think that they spent a lot of days like that together. Having lunch on the brick wall where my mom sat in the photo, in her red t-shirt and cut-offs. She looked so happy. But maybe she was only pretending, just like she had pretended she really wanted my brother and me.
      I finally reached my room. It wasn’t much, but it was all I had. There was a twin bed with a brass post that took up most of the squalid room, and it had a thin mattress on it with one simple sheet and a scratchy blanket. Across from the bed was a dresser that had once been my mom’s—it was a light wood and the mirror it was dirty, but I didn’t mind. And that was the only furniture I had in the room—there wasn’t space for anything else. But that was okay; I didn’t have anything else anyway. No posters. No CD’s. No fancy purses or an excess of shoes that most girls had. Those were all luxuries. I was poor, but I was a minimalist. The scarcity worked in my favor.
      There were two windows in my room and they both overlooked the Camden skyline. It was constantly dirty from all of the pollution—the sunset was never pretty, just dull and faded, composed mostly of streaks of gray because the windows hadn’t been cleaned in a long time. The apartments across the street from ours was one of the worst ones in the district—all night, I heard ambulances go by and guns being shot. If I looked down, I could see the train tracks. I had no need for an alarm—I awoke every morning to the sound of the train going by.
      I set my bag down and sat on my bed, facing my calendar. Another day. I closed my eyes and tried for a little while to escape the nightmare that was my life.
      The next afternoon I had work at one o’clock, so I checked the mail on the way to the bus stop. It was up to me to stay on top of the bills—the power had been turned off one too many times for my liking.
      Flipping through various advertisements and the PennySaver, I felt a thick envelope at the bottom of the mail stack. When I saw the return address, my breath caught in my throat.
      Arizona State University.
      The envelope was larger than most, and heavy. I couldn’t remember what I had been told by my various non-committed advisors in high school if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
      I flipped the envelope over and debated opening it.
      I had no extra curriculars that I could have written down aside from my job at the restaurant and I was in dire need of financial aid. My essay had been okay, but not great. I had only two references instead of the suggested three. There was no way they could have accepted me.
      I stuck my finger in the side of the envelope and ripped it open. There were a few leaflets and a letter. I pulled the letter out.

      “Dear Ms. Anna Mackley,
      We are pleased to inform you that you have been awarded the Alexander “Doc” Hudson Full-Ride Scholarship for Exceptional Young People to Arizona State University for the spring semester of 2010. Upon a reference from Mr. Hudson himself, we heard about your unusual circumstances and are pleased to welcome you to Arizona State University… ”

      The letter went on for another few paragraphs, but tears blurred my eyes.
      I was getting out of Camden. Because of Doc. I ran to the bus stop and boarded, rereading the letter over and over again on my way to the restaurant. I couldn’t believe that my dream of getting out of Camden was finally coming true.
      The restaurant was in the middle of the lunch shift but was uncharacteristically slow. Doc was perfecting a duck sauce. He glanced up at me and smiled. “Yo Anna, come over here and tell me if this sauce needs more salt or—hey are you alright?” He saw the tears in my eyes.
      I lifted up the letter and grinned.
      His eyes lit up. “You got in! Yo!” He shouted to the various waitresses and line cooks standing around. “Joe! Sam! Brittany! Anna got in!” The whooping and cheering started, and everyone congratulated me on my acceptance. At that moment, I realized maybe I did have a family after all. We weren’t related by blood, but they cared about me. They were there. I handed Doc an envelope.
      “This is for you,” I told him “Because you got me here.”
      He looked at me quizzically, and then opened the envelope before quickly handing it back to me.
      “No way. Those are your savings. You got yourself to Arizona; you keep your money, okay?” He smiled at me for a moment. “You did it, Anna. And I’m so proud of you.”
      I felt tears well up in my eyes. There’s no way he would ever know how much those words meant to me.
      After finishing my shift and receiving more congratulations from my coworkers, I got on the bus and headed back to Camden. I knew what I had to do.
      Luckily, Harold had been called into work at the packaging company so I was able to sneak into my room without anyone noticing—Marsha didn’t ever unglue her eyes from the television. I packed a duffel bag with my few belongings and saw Harold when I walked back out to the kitchen. He was, of course, drinking at the card table.
      “Make me some fuckin’ dinner,” he growled.
      “Make it yourself,” I was feeling unusually brave.
      “The hell did you just say to me?!” His voice rose. I calmly walked past him and towards the door.
      “Where do you think you’re goin’?” He was really angry now.
      I didn’t turn around to look at him, and instead put my hand on the door. “I’m leaving.”
      He barked out a laugh. “Oh yeah? And where you gonna go?”
      I took a breath. “Arizona. I got accepted into a university, and I start in two weeks.”
      He glowered at me. ““You’re worthless. You’re not going anywhere, but you think that you’re going to college? Huh? Where you gonna get the money? You aren’t leaving this town! You owe us. You’d be nothing without me you piece of garbage!” Harold slammed down the bottle so hard that it shattered. I ignored it; finally this was a broken glass that I wouldn’t be forced to clean up. It wasn’t my problem anymore.
      “I never owed you a damn thing.” I kept my gaze steady with his.
      He took a step closer to me. “You ain’t worth shit.”
      I stood my ground. “I used to think that too, because no one was there for me. I didn’t have anyone and I was stuck taking care of your waste of a life. But I found people who taught me differently.” I took a deep breath. “I’m worth more than that. And I’m leaving.” I set the envelope on the card table. “That’s for you. It’s not a lot—only four hundred dollars. And you don’t deserve it, but it’s yours. I hope you use it how I would have.” I slung my bag over my shoulder and turned toward the door once again. Harold said nothing. I didn’t look behind me, but when I closed the door I felt his gaze on me. Maybe if I had turned around he would have convinced me to stay. Maybe if I had turned around I would have fallen back into my routine of worthlessness and self-pity, but I didn’t. I was going to do something for myself. So I walked out on to the threshold and shut the door behind me with a final click.
      Descending the steps of the building, I felt nothing. I was expecting some sensation—relief or happiness or even a wave of sadness but I felt none of that. I just felt like all that mattered were the steps I was taking now, moving onward. Starting new. Walking towards the bus stop to start my new journey, I counted how far I went. Another block closer to the life I had, for once, chosen.

Emily Topper is an aspiring writer/editor from Winter Park, FL. She currently studies Journalism and Creative Writing at Flagler College, where she is the copy editor of the student-run newspaper, the Gargoyle. After graduation, Emily plans to obtain her MFA in Editing and Publishing. “Something Better” is her first published short story.

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