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Ryan sits in his upscale Soho apartment as he twists a piece of his hair around his rough index finger. The nail is gnawed down to the point of bleeding. He makes a mental note he could use a good trimming of his facial hair and a long shower. His cell phone has rung seventeen times since he dragged himself back into his unfairly acquired abode. He doesn’t bother to answer it; he knows that the calls are just words dripping with sympathetic tones and sorrowful sentences.
He has counted each hour since his sister had gone missing. It seems like just yesterday that he wrapped his arms around her small frame and gave her well wishes for a new day of scamming men and conning boys that deemed themselves her clientele. He was never proud of her profession, but it paid the bills and created a surplus of money that satisfied the siblings’ hunger for living the rich life that they had been blindly scraping for since they founded a lemonade stand in their younger years. However, his sister, Harlie, had always had a craving for mischief. It started with simply stealing candy from Old Man Sal’s country store back when the family lived in a trailer park just outside of Atlanta. As her younger brother, he was constantly dragged into her schemes, but he didn’t mind. His payoff was usually filled with nuts or caramel. Her lust for crime did not falter, however, in her teenage years. If anything, it grew with every glance at a girl donning the newest fashion shipped from a rich aunt or uncle in one of the rich counties. She glared at them with envy as she donned a hand-me-down pair of jeans and a worn oversized t-shirt. Ryan never understood how she was dressed in rags one day and then riches the next. He also didn’t know that the new strip mall on the corner of Maple and North Main Street had sub par security and a serious lack of discipline on shoplifters. Soon after she had turned seventeen, she sold her body to sketchy looking men that looked for a quick, yet not inexpensive, thrill. The smell of cheap, bathroom cologne burned Ryan’s nostrils when she threw open the screen door at obscene hours at night. His eyes reflected hurt and he gave his favorite sister knowing looks as she stuffed hundreds of dollars into a glass jar that she hid under her bed. He pretended to be asleep as she sat near the window and blew clouds of smoke into the night sky, and he pretended to not notice the mascara covered tears that silently rolled down her flawless face. On a rainy night in April, the chorus of the door slamming the change rattling in the jar filled Ryan’s ears as he tossed and turned in his bed. What he didn’t expect was her yanking him from his bed and throwing a pair of old jeans at him. She told him that they were finally getting out of their portable prison; she promised a better life. He trusted her for some odd reason that he has yet to figure out.
He paces into the bathroom and turns on the hot water handle ninety degrees counter-clockwise and the cold water handle one-hundred and eighty degrees clockwise. He’s never sure why he does this, but he can assume it’s some early form of another mental disorder he’s diagnosed himself with. He can blame his countless ticks and twitches on bad luck or say that he’s had a rough life. He can talk to hundreds of psychologists, but he’ll waste some more money to hear that “his mother never loved him” or that “you lived in an unstable home.” He’ll never place the blame on his sister even though the one thing that she taught him was, “It’s a dog eat dog world out there. You either win or lose, but losing isn’t an option.” He should’ve kept a book full of her “infinite wisdom.” It would’ve been a best seller. He blinks quickly and realizes that he was lost in his own thoughts again and sighs. He sits on the ledge of the bathtub and lets the water run. He silently counts the dollars, the amount of money that he’s letting down the drain. He lets his mind wander again.
Flip to page fifty of his life story, and you’ll find his sister and him standing on the side of the road with their thumbs facing high into the sky. Water has splashed on his young face seventeen times since they started their adventure, a last resort trip to a better place. A pick-up truck finally stops for them. His sister flashes her pearly whites to the driver and turns to grab his hand. He’s forced to ride in the tiny back seat littered with fast food containers. His stomach turns when he smells the familiar scent of aftershave mixed together with tobacco that lingers on the man’s bomber jacket. He has to remind himself that his sister is a businesswoman, but that doesn’t lessen the extent of the aching in his heart as he hears the man ask how much for a “full package.” Ryan wakes up with a note attached to a six-pack of Coca Cola next to his arm. It takes his mind a moment to register where he is. They’re parked in front of a motel, and his stomach sinks. The curly fries placed in the cup holder are no longer appetizing. He wills himself to fall back asleep and repeats his sister’s promise in his head.
Ryan focuses on his surroundings in the small bathroom and feels warm water pooling around his feet. He struggles to turn off the faucets and sinks back onto the floor. The water soaks into his old flannel pajama bottoms, but his mind is floating elsewhere again. He remembers his sister’s hair.
We’re on page sixty-four of the dysfunctional anecdotes now. Ryan lies on a lumpy motel bed as his sister rustles around in the small bathroom. She’s quietly muttering the instructions on the back of a hair dye box. Ryan thinks that she should know them by heart by now. Her hair has been every color of the rainbow. She’s learned a classic trick. With a different style of hair, she is almost a stranger to the men on the streets. They won’t remember that she was the woman that drugged them and stole their money. Ryan chuckles quietly when he hears his sister hiss as the bleach stings her scalp. She slinks out of the bathroom with a towel draped around her shoulders. She mumbles something to him about waiting a half an hour for the dye to work and that she has to wait another seventeen minutes for the other color, but he dismisses it as background noise. He tries to focus on the news with hopes that maybe, just maybe his mother would care enough to make a plea for her babies to come home or even acknowledge that they were gone. He stares at the screen for an hour and tries not to show a slight sign of sadness when his name isn’t mentioned once. He sees his sister’s hair. It’s bright red now. It’s the prettiest ruby color he’s seen, and it puts the pigment of the fall leaves that fell from the trees to shame. A smile grows on her face when she sees him admiring the new look, and she gently pulls the scratchy covers over his skinny body and whispers the same old promise. He smells her tangerine scented perfume and instantly relaxes.
Ryan pulls himself out of his flashback and promises himself that he’ll clean up the floor later. Right now, all he needs is a good night’s sleep. He sulks to his bedroom without looking at the door to the left. It was a room rarely lived in, but thinking about his sister hurts him nonetheless. As he slides into bed, the scent of her perfume, lingering on the bed sheets, laughs at him. Any other night, he wouldn’t have noticed, but everything’s different now. He scoffs and slides to the other side of the queen-sized bed and forces his eyes closed. Another vision pokes at his subconscious, and he lets it in.
They’re on the run again, and Ryan doesn’t know where they’re headed. All he can think about is the feel of the wind in his hair as they speed down a desert road in the back of a truck. It can’t be less than seventeen degrees below boiling outside, but he shivers in sheer excitement and anticipation. A long night’s rest filled him with ideas of city lights and maybe even some decent food. His sister sits in the front seat with her scarlet hair waving in the wind like a flag. He opens his mouth to finally ask where they’re going, but he’s instantly silenced by a sign that welcomes them to the city of Las Vegas. Geography was never Ryan’s best subject, but he was fairly sure that Nevada was nowhere near their supposed set destination, New York City. As if reading his mind, his sister told him about a short detour. Apparently, they needed more money. His fourteen-year-old mind couldn’t comprehend how he and his sister would be allowed into the endless casinos without some question of their true ages. His internal questions were again answered when he heard his sister speak to the female driving the car. She was platinum blonde with long, fake eyelashes that almost touched the top of her brow-line, and she couldn’t have been more than nineteen years in age. She talked to his sister about some “moves” of some sort. She was hired as a dancer. Ryan chuckled under his breath when he thought that it could possibly be demeaning to his sister. That wouldn’t have been the first time he let her blatantly ignore their taught morals. His thoughts were ignored when a pack of cards landed in his lap. He looked up into his sister’s pale blue eyes with confusion painted onto his face. She told him that he needed to learn how to count cards. Ryan smirked as he expertly shuffled the cards. He almost felt insulted that his sister had forgotten the long rounds of Blackjack played with at their drunken father’s friends’ houses. Ryan’s age, what would’ve been thought to pose a problem, didn’t matter when Ryan grew to be friends with the casino owner who admired his “spunk,” and he was granted a deluxe suite and unlimited hours of attendance Days and thousands of earned dollars later, Ryan and his sister rushed from the hotel with their pockets filled with leftovers from room service and countless valuables stolen from rooms.
A knock on Ryan’s door wakes him almost immediately, and he checks the clock, 7:17 in the morning. He slides on a pair of slippers, finds a shirt on the ground, and pulls it over his head. It’s a cool morning, and it doesn’t help that he left his window open the previous night. Cold air slaps him across the face, and he blinks through the hazy daze of being half-awake while pawing for the doorknob. A man stands on the other side with a notebook in hand and a police badge in the other.
“Max Markley, chief of criminal investigation,” the man introduces himself and taps his penny loafer on the hardwood floor in a steady rhythm.
Ryan stares at him blankly and opens the door wider as a wordless invitation to come in. The detective leans against the crème colored wall and opens his small notebook. He clicks his pen seventeen times and looks over his horn-rimmed glasses at Ryan.
“So, Ryan--it’s Ryan, isn’t it?” he questions and Ryan returns a small nod. The man scribbles something in his notebook and continues, “So, Ryan, when was the last time you’ve seen your sister--Harlequin, right?”
“I call her Harlie…” Ryan mumbles. “I just saw her. It couldn’t have been more than--” he chokes and has a moment of weakness as he stares at the wall and grips onto his hair, fighting back tears. “I haven’t seen her in about a day.”
“Ah,” the detective breathes and records the information. “How would you describe her usual clientele?”
Ryan closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. This man is right to the point. Ryan can see where he is headed, but there is a burning in the pit of his stomach. The only difference between a justifiable homicide and a crime is perspective. The family shot down in their vacation house in the Hamptons will undoubtedly gain more sympathy than a nameless prostitute killed while trying to escape a client’s house in Brooklyn after being paid upfront. He’s nervous, but experience shows that he’s good under pressure.
“I wasn’t involved in her business affairs,” Ryan says. It’s not entirely a lie.
“Hm,” the man mumbles and scribbles more. “I think I’m going to take you down to the station. You don’t mind riding in the cruiser, do you?”
Ryan shakes his head and releases a breath that he didn’t know he had been holding. He pulls a leather jacket from the coat rack and follows the detective into the elevator and into the cop car. Ryan lets his mind wander as the man starts another pointless story, and he breathes on the window, creating steam.
Ryan in his sister are in the mid-west somewhere sitting on the back porch of a future client’s house. He always loved the way that she blew the smoke from her ruby red lips as her fingers stopped their constant tapping. She had her own nervous ticks just like his own, but she was quieter about hers. She saw them as imperfections. Ryan always thought that his sister was too hard on herself, but then he realized that he did the same things to himself with even worse punishments. He was never one to call the kettle black, but his sister had problems. Ryan wished that he had solutions. His sister tapped his shoulder and asked him if he thought the sunset looked pretty. He nodded his head and leaned against her shoulder. If the good life was half as pretty as the sky was that night, he never wanted to go back to Georgia.
Ryan sits in a room with the detective, a tape recorder, and a cigarette between his chapped lips. He feels as though he’s being interrogated with the bright lamp shining into his eyes in the dark room. Still, the questions he’s asked clearly are meant to avoid any emotional response from Ryan, and he can tell. The workers are walking on eggshells; one wrong word could possibly cause a breakdown, or so they think. He’s feeling at ease all of the sudden, an odd sense of calm. It hasn’t set in that he probably will never see his sister again, but it’s better that he’s in blissful oblivion.
“Ryan,” the detective asks once more, “can I please know what your sister did for a living?”
Ryan looks at him coldly and exhales a large puff of smoke and lets a small chuckle escape from his lips. Soon, the chuckle becomes a fit of hysterics, and the detective looks at him in utter disbelief. He doesn’t stop the recording.
Ryan takes a deep breath and says, “She made a profession out of lying; deception was her expertise.”
“What do you mean by that?” the detective questions.
“Simply put,” Ryan begins and lights another cigarette, “she was a con artist.” He’s not sure why he’s using the past tense. He thought that he had convinced himself that she was alive, apparently not.
“What did she do?”
The tape recorder continues to roll.
“She was a streetwalker, a prostitute. She went to houses and promised that she would treat the men like kings. She didn’t. You know what she did? She got paid up front, drugged them, and then walked away with hundreds of extra dollars and anything she could find in their apartments. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s dead right now. All these years she’s been avoiding death like a game.”
“When did she start this?” the detective asks.
Ryan chuckles and leans back on his chair, reclining and placing his feet on the table. “She’s been doing this since she turned seventeen. She’s only twenty-four now. She dragged me on the road with her since I was fourteen. She’s been cheating death for so long,” he mutters.
The tape continues to roll.
“Our mother was never around, or when she was at home, she was asleep. And our dad, well he was the town drunk. I had such good role models. The only one that was willing to make my life better was Harlie, and it’s because of me that she got into that mess. It’s my fault that she’s gone missing…or dead,” Ryan chokes as the wave of realization hits. Warm tears steam down his face and he wipes his eyes on his shoulder.
The detective clicks the tape recorder off and goes to say something but is cut off by the door being flung open and another uniformed police officer stands on the other side.
“Markley, you should come look at this,” the officer says in a low voice.
Ryan’s heart sinks into his stomach as the detective jumps from his seat and rushes out the door. The room is eerily quiet; just the quiet noise of the tape rewinding is heard for seventeen seconds. He closes his eyes and his mind comes alive.
They lay in the grass on a hill as they wait for their next ride to their final destination. Ryan can’t say that he even wanted to live there anymore. Maybe it wasn’t worth risking his own safety.
“Harlie,” his voice squeaked quietly, “I don’t want to die.
He heard his sister laugh musically as she turned over onto her side and supported her weight with her elbow. “We’re all gonna die someday. I just hope when I go, it’ll be something exciting.”
“Like what?” Ryan asked.
“I dunno. I just don’t want to be old and dying in my bed. I want to be out doing something I love, and if I die, so be it. I don’t even care if it’s an honorable death. I want to fall off a building with seventeen stories, maybe. I hear you pass out from a rush of adrenaline before you even hit the ground. That’s how I wanna go, quick and painless with a nice view on the way out. It’s perfect.”
“You’re crazy,” Ryan muttered and looked up to the stars scattered in the night sky.
“I know,” she chuckled and ran her fingers through her newly chestnut colored hair, “but you have to be just a little mad if you want anything accomplished in life. You can’t just ride the wave.”
Ryan stared at her for a second and laughed. “You’re still crazy.”
Ryan doesn’t know how long he’s been in his own little world, but he does know that the detective is shaking him. He blinks his eyes and the world comes into focus again. He isn’t in the room with just the detective now. A tall man, his lawyer, and the police chief are standing in the doorway with sympathetic looks. They have no need to make things seem okay any longer.
“Mr. Rodney, we’re very sorry,” the officer says and sits down at the table adjacent to Ryan. “We didn’t find the body, but your sister’s clothes and purse were found in a nearby dumpster covered in her own blood.”
Ryan stares at them with a look that could make a man with a heart of stone tear up. He counts to seventeen before he lets more tears fall onto the wooden table. He can’t help but think about his sister.
Ryan and his sister finally made it to their apartment building, and he swore that he saw her shed a few tears filled with joy. She took him into his arms and spun him around so fast that the world seemed to be a blur after she stopped. They trudged up the stairs and Ryan just breathed. There were seventeen flowers in a vase on the counter as a housewarming present from the landlord. His sister wrapped her arms around his bony body and squeezed as hard as she can.
“We finally made it, Ryan,” she gasped.
He looked up into her eyes and smiled. There was still one question that he needed to have answered, but he wasn’t sure if it would’ve been the right time. The words seemed to slip from his mouth before he could stop them.
“Does this mean that you’ll stop doing your ‘job’?” he asked.
His sister released her grip almost instantly, and her eyes seemed to radiate with hate. Her face turned red as her previous hair color and she stomped out of the room.
“You ungrateful piece of--” she started to scream from the bedroom.
“Mr. Rodney, your lawyer is here. You sister has a will, and you are her one sole beneficiary.” the police chief says and yanks Ryan from his dazed state.
“How much?” Ryan chokes and claws for the piece of crumpled up notebook paper.
“Around $170,000,” the lawyer interjects. “I’m very sorry for your loss.
Ryan pushes his chair back into the wall, causing the metal to scrape against the linoleum floor. He breaks out of the station and counts his steps back to the apartment building in increments of seventeen’s. The wind blows his hair into his face as he reaches for the door, and his eyes burn along with the tears already staining his face. He turns the knob and reaches to push the elevator door open, but it opens on its own. He closes his eyes for a mere second as he steps into the elevator when he finds someone that doesn’t belong.
“Shh,” his sister laughs and quickly presses the “door close” button. Her hair is bleached blonde and cut in choppy layers right under her chin. She’s wearing colored contacts, and her clothes are matching and very posh. “I’m not Harlie anymore. I’m Susan Tredecker, and you’re David Tredecker. We’re going to Miami,” she says and throws a suitcase at him.
“You’re crazy,” Ryan chokes and leans against the padded wall.
“No, I’m just smart.”