The whore was snoring. Her mouth half open, her eyes closed. She was flabby and past her prime. Her bleached blonde hair had dark roots. She had been, like so many decisions in Duane’s life, a mistake. He had not slept for two days. He had thought some company might do him good.
He poked the whore in the shoulder.
He got no response. He poked her again.
“Get the hell up.”
The whore snorted and grunted. He turned on the light. The whore’s eyes blinked open.
“You wanna go again?” She muttered.
She was a true professional. He didn’t have to tell her twice. She slid out from the greasy motel sheets and started pulling on her clothes. Her breasts reminded Duane of trash bags. He felt nauseous. The whore didn’t speak. She already had her money. There was no need for words. The whore wedged herself into her jeans and pulled on her shirt. She stepped into her heels and wobbled to the door without a backward glance.
Once the door had closed behind her Duane got out of bed and took a shower. The motel towels were small and rough, just like the ones in prison. At least here he could shower alone.
Duane sat on the edge of the bed, drying his hair. The clock radio on the bedstand said it was 4 a.m. No sleep again. He picked up the remote. Flipped channels. There was some soft core porn on one of the movie channels. He watched it for a few minutes, but the sick feeling in his stomach only intensified.
He turned off the television. Closed his eyes. Drifted off. Opened his eyes. Ten minutes had passed. He reached over and grabbed the book off his bedstand. He had never read a book before he went away. Now, he couldn’t imagine being without one. Books helped kill time, and that’s what life was, killing time. The book was by some guy called Charles Willeford. It was about a cop chasing a crazy man in Miami. Duane had known crazy men in prison. He wanted the cop to kill the guy.
He read for about half an hour, but tossed the book aside. He was having trouble concentrating. He opened the drawer of the bedstand and took out the Bible. He opened the front cover and removed the picture he had placed there.
The little girl had brown hair put up in pigtails. She wore a white shirt and purple jumper and she smiled at the camera while clutching a stuffed bunny. She was sitting in Duane’s lap. The picture was bent in the upper right corner. It had been taken ten years ago. Duane had given her the bunny for her third birthday. He wondered if she still had it.
He put the picture back in the Bible and put the Bible back in the drawer.
He got dressed and went to the Waffle House next to the hotel. It was one of the few places he felt at ease. It was one of the few places that he remembered from before prison that had not changed beyond recognition. He ordered coffee and a plate of hash browns from an obese waitress. Someone had left a newspaper on the counter. He leafed through it and sipped his coffee.
He heard yelling in the parking lot. He turned on his stool and saw the whore arguing with a large, balding man in the parking lot. Duane sipped his coffee and watched. The man pointed his finger at the woman’s nose. She slapped it away. The man punched the whore in the face. She fell. Duane swung his stool around. Not his concern.
The waitress waddled over with his food. Set it down in front of him.
"Every night,” she said.
"Those two in the parking lot. Every night. I don’t even call the cops no more, not unless it looks like he’s gonna kill her.”
“Always better to mind your own business,” Duane said. “Can’t make nobody’s choices for ‘em.”
“You said it,” the waitress told him. “I got enough problems in my life without worryin’ bout everyone else.”
She refilled his coffee and walked away.
Duane put some ketchup on his hash browns and wolfed them down. He took his time with the coffee. Paid. Left.
The sun was rising. Duane went back to the motel. He changed into a good white shirt and a clean pair of jeans. Retrieved the picture from the Bible. Put it in his shirt pocket. Patted it. Called a cab. Went outside, waited. When the cab arrived he got in, gave the driver an address.
The house was nice. It wasn’t stick built, but it was much more upscale than the double-wide they had lived in before. Duane told the driver to wait and got out of the car. His heart pounded as he went up the walk. It was like being punched from the inside.
He rang the doorbell. Heard footsteps inside. The door swung open. She was dressed for work. She had a coffee mug in her left hand. She looked him up and down, and then threw the mug at his head. She was still fast after all these years, but he was faster, and he stepped to the side. The mug landed on the sidewalk and shattered.
“Hello Amber,” he said.
“You got a lot of nerve showing up here,” she said.
“I came to see Katie.”
“You can’t,” she said, and started to close the door.
He put out his arm and held the door open.
“I’ve got a right to see my daughter.”
“No you don’t,” Amber said. “You’re a goddamn murderer. You don’t have any rights.”
She pushed on the door, but it didn’t move.
“It was manslaughter,” Duane said. “I didn’t murder no one, and I’d like to speak with my daughter.”
“Reggie’ll be home soon,” Amber said. “He’s working third shift and he’ll be home any minute.”
“That’s fine.” Duane replied. “I’d like to meet him, and thank him for taking care of Katie.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I’m not here to make trouble Amber. I just want to see my daughter.”
“Why the hell not?”
“She ain’t here.”
“She left for school already?”
“No, she just ain’t here.”
Duane pushed on the door and sent Amber sailing backwards. She landed on her ass. He stepped into the house and stood over her. She put her hands up to cover head. He reached down and grabbed her arm. Pulled her to her feet.
“I don’t believe you Amber,” he said. “Katie!”
“She ain’t here. I told you!”
Duane walked through the house, calling Katie’s name. He moved through the living room and down the hall. He opened the first door he came to. A young girl’s bedroom. Lavender walls. A matching bedspread. A white dresser. There was a bunny on the bed. Duane picked it up. The bunny was missing an eye and the fur was dingy.
“She ran away Duane.”
Amber was standing in the doorway.
He turned to face her. “How long’s she been gone?”
“A couple of weeks, this time.”
“She’s done it before.”
“You called the police?”
“They know,” Amber said.
“Why’d she run away?”
Amber shrugged. “How the hell should I know? She’s a teenager. I ran away too when I was her age.”
“Your daddy used to beat you.”
“Yeah, till you busted him up. But it ain’t like that. Reggie don’t hit her.”
“What’s it like then?”
Amber shrugged again. “I’m gonna be late for work.”
Duane’s grip on the bunny tightened. “What’s it like?”
“It ain’t like nothin.” Amber said. “It’s about a boy.”
“She’s been seeing this boy, and Reggie and I don’t approve,” Amber said, not meeting his eyes.
“You aren’t tellin’ me something.”
“You’ve always been a shitty liar.”
She met his eyes for a second. Then looked down again. “She came home late Reggie wouldn’t let her in.”
Duane squeezed the bunny harder. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Why didn’t you let her in?”
“You can’t argue with Reggie.”
“Duane please don’t make trouble.”
Amber reached out and put her hand on his arm.
“Where’s my daughter?”
“I don’t know.”
He shook her hand off his arm.
“I think she might be staying with her friend Dana.”
“Where’s her friend live?”
“I don’t know,” Amber said. “She works at Temple’s restaurant downtown.”
A car pulled into the driveway and the engine shut off.
“Reggie’s home.” Amber said. “Shit. Please Duane don’t do anything stupid.”
Duane went down the hall and out the front door. There was a man coming up the walk. Short and stocky, he wore a blue work shirt with Reginald embroidered in cursive over the breast pocket. He looked surprised to see a man coming out of his house holding a stuffed animal. He opened his mouth so say something, but Duane punched him in the stomach before he could get a word out. Reggie doubled over and clutched his gut. Amber screamed at him, but Duane didn’t break stride. He got in the cab. The driver looked over his shoulder at Duane. “You must really like that rabbit,” he said.
“Take me downtown,” Duane replied.
Temple’s had a pretty good breakfast business. It was early, but most of the tables were full of people eating eggs and grits. The hostess looked at the stuffed rabbit Duane held. He asked for a seat and then asked if Dana was working today. He tried to make it sound like an afterthought, like he was friends with her. The hostess said no and led him to a table. He ordered some coffee and a plate of eggs and sausage even though he wasn’t hungry. He pushed the food around on his plate and drank coffee until he was queasy and jittery. He realized he had no idea how old Dana was, or what she looked like. If Dana was friends with his daughter she couldn’t be very old. On the other hand, if she lived on her own, she had to be at least sixteen. He studied the waitresses. Tried not to be obvious about it. There were a couple who fit the bill.
The breakfast crowd started to clear out. He caught the hostess watching him out of the corner of his eye. Duane decided to get out before he made her more nervous than she already was.
He decided to go around the back of the building. Waitresses were smokers, and they would have to smoke out back where the customers couldn’t see.
There were three of them standing in the alley, outside the kitchen door. They were talking with a middle aged black guy in a grease spattered apron. All of them turned and stared at Duane as he approached. He looked at the youngest girl. She had shoulder length brown hair, and three earrings in each ear.
“Are you Dana?” he asked.
The girl took a drag on her cigarette. Exhaled. She flicked the cigarette away and crossed her arms. “Yeah. Meredith said you asked for me, but I don’t know you. What do you want?” As she spoke her coworkers moved in behind her to form a protective semicircle.
“I understand my daughter Katie is staying with you.”
“Her father’s in prison.”
“I was in prison.” Duane said. “I’m out and I want to see my little girl.” He took the photo from his breast pocket and showed it to her.
“That looks like Katie. Is that the same rabbit?” Dana asked, gesturing toward the toy Duane held.
Dana gave him an address. Duane thanked her and walked away.
Duane knew the neighborhood. It had gentrified while he had been away. He kept walking. Gentrification gave way to something more familiar. He found the address. It was an old, two-story Victorian with peeling paint, and Duane could tell it had been divided up into apartments.
He went inside. The foyer was dark and musty. The stairs creaked. Duane knocked on the door of the apartment. He heard someone moving.
The door opened. It took him a second to realize he was looking at the girl in the picture. She was wearing a loose hanging, gray sweatshirt that did not conceal the fact that she was pregnant. There was no glimmer of recognition in her eyes, until she was the toy he held.
“Where the hell did you get that?” Katie asked.
“No shit. How’d you get it? Who the hell are you? Did my mother send you? You tell that bitch to go to hell!” Katie started to slam the door, but Duane held it open.
“I gave you this rabbit.”
“My daddy gave me that rabbit, you son-of-a-bitch. Get out of here or I’ll scream.”
“I’m your daddy.”
“I went away to prison when you were four years old. I gave you the rabbit for your third birthday. Your middle name is Loretta. It’s your grandma’s name. You have a birthmark on your left thigh. Here, look at this.” Duane took his hand off the door, and pulled the picture out of his breast pocket. Handed it to Katie. “It’s us.”
She looked at the picture, then at Duane. “You had more hair then.”
“Can I come in?”
Katie stepped aside. Duane walked past her. The apartment was cramped and dirty. There were clothes scattered on the floor along with a couple empty pizza boxes. The couch was made up as a bed.
“Your momma wants you to come home.” Duane said, as Katie lowered herself onto the couch.
Katie laughed. “Is that what she told you?”
“She said you ran away.”
“She threw me out, cuz of this,” Katie said, pointing to her stomach. “Called me a whore. Told me not to come back. Ain’t been home in four months.”
“She said you ran away.”
“She’s a liar.”
Katie reached out and took the rabbit from him. Held it in her lap.
“Who’s the father?”
“I woulda thought your momma woulda kept a better eye on you,” Duane said.
“She don’t care about nothin’ but Reggie.”
Duane kicked at a pizza box on the floor. “Whose place is this?”
“A friend. How’d you find me?”
“Mom didn’t tell you where I was?”
“Said she didn’t exactly know.”
“I think I’m gonna have to have a talk with her.”
“You think you could get her to let me move back?”
Katie said. “I’m tired of living here. Dana’s nice and all, but I miss home.”
She looked like she was about to cry. She hugged the rabbit tight against her bulging stomach. “Is it true you killed someone?”
“Yeah. I did.”
“I didn’t know any better.”
“Mom always said you had a temper. She didn’t say much else, though.”
“That’s true enough.”
“What were you angry about?”
“I don’t even remember anymore. You gonna be all right if I leave you here by yourself?”
“Yeah. What’re you gonna do?”
“Go see your mother. Where’s she working these days?”
“She’s a receptionist for some insurance guy in the old bank building downtown. You know the one?”
“I think so. What’s the guy’s name?”
“Newman or Newsome or something like that. I met him once. He’s an asshole.”
Duane started for the door.
“Why’d you come looking for me?”
He stopped. “You’re my baby girl.”
Duane walked into the converted bank building and consulted the building directory on the wall. Newnan Insurance was on the third floor. Duane got in the elevator and pushed the button. The elevator door opened onto a narrow hallway, lined with frosted glass doors. The third one had Newnan Insurance stenciled on it. Duane opened the door.
Amber sat behind a beat up desk, punching away at a keyboard. When she looked up and saw him her eyes went cold.
“You messed up my marriage, already. Get the hell out of here before you mess up my job.”
Duane walked up to her desk. “We should talk.”
“We got nothin’ to talk about. I told you what you wanted to know and then you punched my husband, and I was late for work because I had to try and explain to Reggie what was going on. Get outta here before a customer comes in.”
“I’m sorry about hitting Reggie. I shouldn’t have done that. You told me he threw Katie out and I was upset.”
“Well you’ve apologized so now you can go.”
“I found Katie. She told me some things.”
Amber sighed and ran her hand through her hair. “I take lunch at one. Can it wait till then?”
“Fine. I’ll meet you out front.”
Duane left. Careful not to slam the door.
Amber came out of the building at ten after. Duane was beginning to think she was ducking him. After speaking to her, he had wandered the streets, getting angry. At about noon he had started circling the block, hoping to catch her slipping out the back. He realized he was getting worked up, though, and settled on a bench. Even if she did try to dodge him, he knew where to find her.
She stood and looked up and down the street. He got up and walked across the street. She was looking away from him when he grabbed her by the arm.
She gasped and turned toward him. “You’re hurting me.”
He pulled her down the street. She stumbled trying to keep up. Duane noticed people staring. He let go of Amber’s arm. She fell into place beside him.
“You didn’t tell me she’s pregnant.”
“Yeah, well. I didn’t know how to tell you your daughter’s a whore.”
Duane grabbed her by the arm again, and pulled her around a corner.
“Dammit, Duane. I’m wearing heels,” she said. “I’m coming.”
“You told me she ran away.”
“She did run away.”
“She said you threw her out. I don’t understand how you could do that to our daughter.”
Amber stopped. “Duane, this is really none of your goddamn business. You’ve been in prison for ten years. You’re not part of this. You should just go away and live your life. Things moved on without you. You should move on too.”
Duane stopped and faced her. “She’s my daughter. Now come on.”
“I’m not taking another step until you tell me where we’re going.”
“We’re going to see Katie.”
Amber shook her head. “We are not going to do this.”
Duane pointed his finger between her eyes. “Yes. We. Are.”
“No.” Amber crossed her arms.
Duane grabbed her by her upper arm and pulled her forward. “I’ll scream,” she said.
“No you won’t.”
He tightened his grip on her arm.
She didn’t scream. He felt her shaking, though. He didn’t know if she was angry or scared, or some combination of the two. He didn’t care.
They marched in silence to the house where Katie’s was. Duane pushed Amber up the stairs. Knocked on the door. Katie asked who it was. Duane told her. She opened the door.
Duane pushed Amber through the door. Followed. Closed it behind him. Katie retreated to the other end of the room, as far away from her mother as she could get. Amber and Katie glared at each other. Duane stepped in between them.
“It’s time you two came to some kind of understanding,” he said.
“Duane there ain’t gonna be any understanding.” Amber said, crossing her arms, and keeping her eyes on her daughter.
“Momma, I’m tired of living here.” Katie said, her voice quavering. “I want to come home.”
“Don’t you ‘Momma’ me!” Amber hissed. “You’re a whore! My own daughter.”
“Calm down Amber.” Duane said.
“I will not calm down!” Amber swung and faced him.
“You show up after ten years, poking your nose into things that aren’t any of your goddamn business, and drag me out here thinking you’re fucking Dr. Phil or some shit.”She pointed at Katie. “You have no idea what she’s done. She’s never coming back into my house. Never. She’s not a baby anymore. I shouldn’t even be here.”
Amber tried to get to the door. Duane blocked her.
“Get out of my way.”
“She wanted me to have an abortion,” Katie blurted out.
Amber whirled around and pointed at Katie. “You should’ve had an abortion.”
“You’re just jealous, I can do what you can’t you old bitch.”
Amber lunged at Katie, grabbing her by the hair, slapping her across the face, as the girl lifted her arms to try and shield herself from the blows. Amber called Katie a slut and a Jezebel over and over as she struck her. Duane was caught off guard. The viciousness of the attack stunned him. He ran across the room and tried to pull Amber off the girl, but she kept her grip on Katie’s hair. Katie kept screaming and clawed at her mother’s arm with one hand and tried to block Amber’s blows with the other.
Duane put one arm around Amber’s throat and grabbed her free hand with the other arm. Still, she kept her grip on Katie’s hair. Duane tightened his grip around Amber’s throat. She stopped screaming, but kept pulling on Katie, jerking her head back and forth. The girl was keening, a high, wordless wail, and her head was pulled back and forth. Duane tightened his grip again. Amber’s grip started to loosen. Katie was able to pull away and lift up her head. Her eyes were red. Snot ran from her nose, and drool dripped from the corner of her mouth. Duane was staring at her when he felt Amber’s knees buckle. He let go of her. She slid to the floor.
Katie sobbed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand.
“You okay?” Duane asked.
Duane prodded Amber with his foot. She didn’t move. Duane kicked her a little harder. Nothing. He reached down and grabbed her by the shoulder and flipped her over.
“Call an ambulance,” he told Katie.
Duane was honest with the police. There was no point in lying. They took his statement, handcuffed him and put him in the back of a cruiser. They brought Amber down on a stretcher, covered in a sheet. The ambulance driver didn’t bother with sirens.
Reggie pulled up in his pickup truck. He got out and talked to the nearest officer. The officer pointed at the apartment building. Reggie crossed his arms and stood next to him. After a few minutes a female officer brought Katie outside. She was holding the bunny. Reggie crossed the street to meet her. He bent down and embraced her. She rested her head on his shoulder. Reggie stood up and put his arm around her shoulder and led her across the street.
Blood roared in Duane’s ears. He banged his head against the car window and yelled, trying to get Katie’s attention. She didn’t look at him as Reggie helped her into his truck. He did get a cop’s attention. He came over to Duane and opened the car door. Duane tried to speak, but the cop doused him with pepper spray. By the time he could see again Katie was gone.