“And you know we will all be putting in,” Thad agreed as he picked up the ketchup to trace over his golden hash browns.
“Of course,” I agreed. “I owe you guys.”
“Shush,” Thad said, waving a hand that made four separate silver rings catch the light. “You’re family,” he said simply.
“So what’s your plan, Winnie?” Colson asked, checking the time on his phone because Jelly had a dance class he had to take her to after we ate. I tried – and failed – to picture my big, somewhat scary older brother full of a room of leggings and tutus.
“Find a job,” I told him. That was true enough. I couldn’t rely on Thad’s graciousness forever. And it seemed like it was going to take a bit to go through with my plan since a Facebook search hadn’t gotten me any closer to finding him. “Which I am assuming will not be easy.”
While I likely had a better shot than a man in my position, I knew no one saw ‘ex-con’ on the application and jumped for joy.
“This is Navesink Bank, boo,” Thad said, waving a hand toward the window at his side. “Got different employers here.”
“Right,” Colson agreed with an eye roll. “But we don’t want her to have to be in that life.”
“I wasn’t saying she should start selling…” he trailed off, gaze going to Jelena who was watching him with big eyes. “Tic Tacs,” he decided. “But the Tic Tac manufacturers have many legitimate places for her to sidle up to a desk. That’s all I’m saying.”
“Like Mallick,” Colson said, voice full of insinuation. Like it was Thad’s place to try to get me a job at the gym.
“Exactly. Like any of those yummy Mallick boys, actually. Grassis. That gym that’s owned by those… well… those hill people who all fill out their utility pants well.”
“I’ll figure it out,” I assured them with more confidence than I actually felt.
I’d never even been on a job interview before. I had nothing to put on a resume. I didn’t even have a valid driver’s license anymore. Or a bank account.
“Baby steps,” Colson said, seeming to read the growing panic on my face. “It’s not gonna happen overnight. Jelly, you about done? We got to get going.”
“Shit, me too. I mean shoot,” Thad said, when Jelena giggled. “I have a 90s Hip Hop Dance class to teach.”
“Who even goes to a class like that?” Colson asked as Thad stole the bill he was reaching for, leaving him to toss money on the table for a tip instead.
“Mostly the younger stay-at-home-mommies. You, dinner later?” he asked, offering me his cheek to kiss.
“Sure. I’ll cook.”
“Got your key?”
“Yep,” I said, fishing it out of my pocket.
“You want a ride?” they both asked in unison.
“I think I will walk,” I told them as we made our way up to the front where Thad dealt with the bill. “What? No,” I objected when Thad slapped some cash into my hand.
“Shush,” he said, slapping my butt hard before heading out the door. “Love you!” he called before disappearing.
I was still tucking the money into my back pocket when Jelena collided with my thigh, her arms wrapping around my leg as she left what I suspected was a syrup smudge on my jeans. “I stole some of your fat toast,” she told me in a hush like it was a big secret.
“That’s okay. I wasn’t eating it anyway,” I assured her, my hand pressing between the juts of her shoulder blades in a makeshift hug. “Go dance pretty, okay?”
“Okay!” she declared, turning to make her way to the door.
“I’ll text you,” Colson said, having gotten my new cell – a cell I wasn’t one-hundred-percent sure how to use fully yet – number when we sat down. “We’ll get together again.”
“Yeah, soon,” he agreed, giving me a one-arm hug before taking Jelena’s hand and making his way out the door.
I waited for everyone to leave, watching their cars pull away, before making my way outside, the crisp air making me wish I had worn a jacket. And about five minutes into the walk, I wished even more that I hadn’t worn the heels Thad had thrown at me. Another block later, I comforted myself that I would never have to wear them again seeing as I was darn near certain that the insides were now stained with my blood.
“Hey, baby,” a voice called at my side, a shadow emerging from the overhang of a front stoop. “Where you headed?” he asked, coming down the stairs.
Prison had been a funny thing.
It exposed you to a violence you likely hadn’t been around while free – violence from fellow women. But it also managed to shield you from the violence of men. Or, at least, that was the case in my prison where the male guards weren’t – as far as I knew – predators. Just people who had a job to do.