What Mattered Most
By Derek Elkins
He wasn’t her regular sort of customer. Typically, they glanced around every few minutes like deer expecting a trap to thrust shut. And they always, without exception, had their mouths set in that wide leer while their corpse eyes scoured her body in anticipation. But he wasn’t like them at all. He was friendly, maybe a little too friendly: probably a cop.
But she could play that too. She wouldn’t get caught again. She knew her rights. And, anyway, if something happened, Diamond would get her out. He always did. He might hit her a little, but he’d get her out first.
“So,” he asked her, “did you grow up around here?”
Oh great, he was making small talk. Sometimes they did that: thought that made it all better or something, like now she was his girlfriend.
“Sure,” she answered, with a joke in her voice, “why not?”
These were the worst. She could handle the ones that got in and out, like they were ordering a hamburger from the drive through lane. But the ones that needed to make themselves feel all better were a different story. They took so long and kept her from scoring a lot in one night. But, she knew how to handle these too.
Her feet stopped as she turned to face the neon glare of the Greentrack Inn.
She gave him a little smile as she turned her head slightly. She had never lost the ability to feign coyness. “Well,” she prodded.
He glanced up at the sign and promptly returned to her face. The warm smile never fell from his lips. “Maybe we could just walk for a little while longer.”
Her coyness slipped and was immediately replaced with anger. “Did you just waste my time? What’s a matter? Aren’t you man enough?”
For some unknown reason, the smile never left. It should have. It would have on any other man.
“Waste your time?” He asked, almost to himself. “No, I didn’t waste your time. Why would you think that?”
She allowed uncertainty to wash over her for a moment before regaining a shred of purpose. She just had to picture sweet Anthony’s face in her mind. He was with her mama and she had to make money tonight. He was counting on her. So, she turned away and began to walk.
And that’s when he reached out his hand and gently touched her shoulder.
She was six years old, dressed in a thin, cloth shift and perched on her grandpa’s knee. She could smell his aftershave as he bounced her up and down.
“Faster, faster!” She cried with delight.
And the smile in his eyes matched, wrinkle for wrinkle, the laugh lines surrounding her eyes. They laughed together as she raced on her pretend horse, crowing with pure joy at the ability to play in freedom.
Grandpa didn’t always have time to play with her, but today he was especially happy. He had just received news from work and he was celebrating.
He cast her up and down on his knee with wild abandon and giggled when she flew too high. Mama was frowning, but Grandpa just kept on going, regardless.
And she didn’t care about anything. She was just enjoying the moment, enjoying being at the center of his attention, enjoying…
And the memory was gone as soon as it had arrived, leaving her standing on the evening sidewalk, her mouth agape.
“What happened,” she managed after a moment.
He allowed her a few additional moments to readjust to reality before speaking. “What did you see?” He asked gently.
“I…” But the memory was difficult to recall. Even now, reality was forcing its hold over her. “I don’t know. I was little. And Papa was there. I don’t…” She turned to his smiling face, demanding. “What did you do?”
“Why?” He asked simply.
“Because I…” But she caught herself. She couldn’t allow herself to go down that path. She had to think of Anthony. He needed her. “Never mind. It must have been…I don’t know. I’ve got to go.”
And she turned for a second time as he reached out once more.
She was four years old and running through the tall grass behind her apartment complex. The sun was shining on her face, but she didn’t mind in the least because the winter had been long and she had been shut up in that house forever.
As she parted the grass to peek through, her dog, Ralph, jumped up behind her and knocked her flat on her stomach. For a moment, she was frightened, surprised, but only for a moment. Then his tongue was all over her face and she laughed, pushing him away. But he came back again and again because he loved her and he loved being with her.
And, as she got back to her feet, she leaned over and gripped his neck fully, wishing that he would never leave her, wishing that this day would never end, wishing, wishing…
And she returned again to the night, to her adulthood, and this time she could barely stand. But the man held onto her tightly and guided her to a nearby bench, assisting her gently to sit.
This time, the memory was a too much. She held her face in her hands for a moment and let a few tears come as he patted her back gently.
“I don’t understand what you’re doing to me.” she said through the haze,” Why is this happening? Did you slip me something?”
He laughed then at her suggestion. “No,” he said, “this has nothing to do with drugs. This has nothing to do with now at all. I’m helping you get it back.”
“Get what back?”
“Your innocence.” He said and she believed him.
She looked up at him, the tears causing her mascara to run dirty streams down her cheeks. And he seemed taller then, like he had grown during the night somehow.
“Why?” She asked. “Why would you do that for me? And how…”
He interrupted her. “The why is enough. Haven’t you been brought low enough? Don’t you need a rest? Wouldn’t you like to go back to a time when life was simpler, where there was no guilt, nothing to frighten you, no shame?”
“No shame.” She repeated. “No shame. Yes, I…But my Anthony…”
“…will be fine.” He answered. “He’ll be even better when you’re better.”
Another thought darkened her face. “But what about Diamond? When he finds out…”
He smiled again. “You let me worry about Diamond.”
Like a little girl, she bit her lip, tossing the thoughts around in her head until another doubt bobbed to the surface. “Will it cost much?”
He smiled again at her kindly, and she saw the smile of her grandpa and her mama in there. “It will cost you everything.”
“Everything,” she gasped. “But what’ll I do without everything?”
“You’ll have so much more.” He promised, and she believed him.
“I want that. I want so much more.” She said, begging him to be true, to make good on what he offered. “I want so much to believe. What do I do?”
“You just live,” he said. “And you never look back.”
“Why would I want to?” She asked.
He smiled again and brought his face down a little closer to hers. His eyes shone even brighter now, brighter than the street lights that surrounded them, brighter than the cars that flowed by, not noticing them.
“Just look into my eyes,” he said, “and just keep looking.”
And his eyes were so huge, they were everything. They promised everything and she knew they would deliver everything. And he reached out with one tender hand and brushed her cheek.
She was a baby, just a few months old. And her mother looked down on her with so much love and hope in her eyes that it was hard to draw her eyes away, even for a moment.
Her mama rubbed her little cheeks and tickled her nose and she knew, she just knew, that she was the only thing in the world to her mama just then. And the world was right because there was love and nothing else mattered, nothing at all.
After a few moments had passed, she opened her eyes again to the night. And she knew, without looking, that he was no longer next to her. But that was all right. He would keep his promise, she knew it. If he could do such wonderful things, bring back such memories and offer such promises, she knew that he would never leave her.
In a little while, she would rise to her feet and return to get her Anthony. Maybe her mama would understand and maybe she wouldn’t. But it didn’t matter now. The only thing that mattered was that she had been given another chance. She was able to start over and, this time, she wasn’t going to lose what mattered most.
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