It’s weird how ideas come about. My novel, A WORK OF ART, was based on a short story I wrote called TWO TWENTIES. The short story itself was based on a writing prompt—a photograph of a teenage girl in fishnet stockings sitting on a suitcase.
Though Tera is the main character in both pieces, A WORK OF ART took her down an entirely different path from the short story. That’s why I like to think of TWO TWENTIES as the story of what might have happened to Tera had she made different choices—specifically, what might have happened had she stayed with Joey.
Once I published A WORK OF ART, it was fun to go back and read the short story on which it was based. I hope you enjoy reading it, too.
by Melody Maysonet
The last traces of meth drained what remained of Tera’s energy as she dragged her worn blue suitcase to the curb. Last night had been good. Her high had lasted well into the morning, but now it was over and, thanks to her personal watchdog, she didn’t have enough money for next time. Tera squinted against the glaring sunlight as she propped up her suitcase and sat on top of it. Even out here on the sidewalk, she couldn’t escape her mom’s shrieking. Wrapped only in a bathrobe, her mom hovered on the porch like a mental patient, pleading with her to come back inside.
Tera did her best to tune her mother out as she fumbled her phone from her purse and checked the display. No messages. Where was he? He’d dropped her off so she could get her things and some money, but he was late picking her up and she’d had to suffer through her mom’s whining, her pleading.
She realized how quiet it was and looked toward the porch. Her mom had gone back inside. If she was lucky, she’d stay gone until Joey came to get her. She needed him. Bad. Her hands were shaking with how much she needed him.
Tera hit the speed dial on her phone and when he didn’t answer, she flipped the phone closed and squeezed it in her fist, gritting her teeth against the urge to call him again. She bowed her head and forced herself to let go of the phone, to set it carefully on the suitcase beside her. She picked at a loose thread on her fishnet stockings to keep her hands from trembling.
Tera, please. This isn’t you.
That’s what her mom had said when she’d caught her swiping two twenties from her billfold.
What’s happening to you? her mom had asked.
Tera knew exactly what was happening to her. For the first time in her life, she felt accepted. Her Goth-slash-punk sense of style made her stand out. Joey thought she was hot. And she’d started illustrating song lyrics for Joey’s band, so if they ever made it big, she’d be famous, too. She wasn’t Miss Shy Girl anymore. She wasn’t Miss Awkward. She had friends.
The bleep from her cell phone could have been a gunshot the way she jumped. One hand flew to her heart to keep it from flying out of her chest. She swallowed hard and looked down at the text message: Be there in 5
Thank God. She was about to send a reply when her mom rattled open the screen door and stepped onto the porch. She’d changed out of the bathrobe and into a faded purple t-shirt and a ratty pair of sweats. Tera shifted her position on the suitcase and pretended not to see her. She resisted the urge to hold her ears as her mom’s flip-flops snick-snacked down the steps and stopped beside her. From the corner of her eye, Tera glimpsed her mom’s yellowed toenails.
“Please,” her mom said. “Let’s talk.”
Tera didn’t look up. The meth was completely out of her system now, and the last thing she wanted was to talk. She shook her head. “I can’t. Someone’s coming to get me.”
“Can’t we talk until he gets here?”
“Fine.” Tera rubbed her fingers under her eyes, trying to wipe away some of her smeared eye makeup. She must look like a raccoon, but Joey wouldn’t care.
“I’m sorry I yelled,” her mom said.
Her mom squatted beside her and reached a hand to Tera’s cropped black hair. She winced and pulled away. When tears welled up in her mom’s eyes, Tera looked down at her feet. Black high-top Converses. Sadie said they were the coolest shoes ever invented, but right now her feet were sweating, heavy and hot, like they were glued to the concrete.
Her mom was whispering now instead of yelling. Maybe she knew how tired Tera was. The hand reached out again, and this time Tera didn’t have the strength to pull away. “What’d you need the money for?” her mom asked.
Tears stung Tera’s eyes. Guilt. Definitely guilt.
“You needed to buy drugs, didn’t you?”
Her mom’s certainty triggered Tera’s anger and with it came a burst of energy. She stood up, knocking her suitcase on its side. The sudden movement made her mom fall backwards on her ass. For a moment, Tera wanted to apologize, but then the blind urge rose up and all she could do was scream her frustration. “Get away from me!”
Her mom just sat there on the sidewalk, tears streaking down her face. The only thing she said was, “Oh, honey,” like she wanted to die.
Tera turned away so she didn’t have to see her mom like that. She wanted to hold her ears, too, to block out the pleading, but it wouldn’t have done any good because her mom wasn’t making any noise. Even her crying was silent.
Tera scrubbed her fingers through her hair, trying to calm herself down. “Go back inside, Mom.”
“Will you at least tell me where you’re going?”
She was moving in with Joey, but Tera didn’t want to tell her that. “I’ll call you,” she said.
“All right.” Her mom bit her lip and nodded. “All right,” she said again.
Tera turned her back, listening to her mom dragging her feet up the porch steps. When Tera heard the screen door open and close, she dug in her purse for her cigarettes. She needed something in her mouth, something to keep her hands busy. She was scrabbling with her lighter when Joey’s beat-up Honda turned the corner. The car jerked to a halt beside her, and Tera tried the door. It was locked. She knocked on the window, and Joey fumbled around on the driver’s door until he found the right button.
Tera tossed her suitcase in the back and slid onto the torn seat. “Please get me out of here.”
Joey grinned and stepped on the gas. He smelled like soap, and his dark brown hair was still damp. He put his hand on her thigh, and his fingers massaged her leg through the wide gaps in her fishnet stockings. Tera forgot her need for a cigarette as his hand crept further up her thigh. She leaned her head back on the seat and closed her eyes.
“So you got the money?”
His words had the same effect as a needle being torn off a record. Tera lifted her head and opened her eyes. When she didn’t reply right away, Joey withdrew his hand. “Tell me you got the money, Tera. You said you’d get it.”
Tera leaned toward him and gave a helpless shrug as she tried to explain. “She caught me trying to take it. I had the money in my hand, but then she saw me.”
“You could have still taken it,” he said. “Why didn’t you take it and leave?”
Because she looked at me like I wasn’t her daughter anymore.
Tera stared out the window, saying nothing.
Joey’s hands wrung the steering wheel. “I can’t believe this.”
“I’ll get it next time.” She knew the words were hollow, even as she said them.
“Next time?” Joey slammed on the brakes for a red light. He twisted his body to glare at her. “And what about now, Tera?” His voice got louder when he said her name. “What the fuck are we supposed to do for today?”
Tera winced and leaned forward to still the churning in her stomach. Joey would find a way. He always did. “Maybe they’ll let us pay later,” she said.
“You’re kidding, right?” The red light changed to green, and the car lunged forward.
She didn’t know what to say. The silence hung heavy and uncomfortable. She looked out the side window and saw a pink bicycle wobbling down the sidewalk. One girl sat rigidly on the handlebars while another girl pedaled. They were both smiling. God, how she missed that. When had she stopped smiling?
What’s happening to you? Her mother’s words.
Nothing, Mom. Leave me alone. She almost spoke aloud.
“I have an idea.”
Joey’s voice startled her. She turned toward him. She knew he’d find a way.
He smiled crookedly and touched her cheek. “You looked pretty hot last night.”
“So I was thinking…” He paused to chuckle like maybe what he was about to say was a big joke. “Some guys will take favors instead of cash.”
Fear, cold and blank, crept up her neck and prickled round her scalp. “What do you mean?” she asked, although she knew what he meant. She would make him say it. She could at least make him say it.
But he didn’t say it. Out the window she watched a woman walking her frou-frou dog. A plastic bag swung from the woman’s arm, weighted by the dog’s poop.
“They’d probably let you get high first,” he said.
“You know, to make it more enjoyable.”
Tera watched the dog tangle its leash around a stop sign while the woman tried to coax the dog back. Then she spoke the words he wouldn’t say: “You want me to have sex with our dealers so we can get high.” She moved her gaze from the window to watch his reaction.
His brown eyes were wide, sympathetic maybe, as he glanced between her and the road. “It’s the only way,” he said. “You want it, don’t you?”
She needed it, yes. But it couldn’t be the only way. Joey always found a way. Always.
Only this time, she was the way.
“You can do this.” He pulled her hand away from her stomach and kissed her fingers, squeezing them and stroking them. His touch felt good. Then a few fat raindrops splattered the windshield, and he dropped her hand to flip on the wipers.
Tera, please. This isn’t you. Her mom’s voice again.
Joey’s fingers grazed her cheek, making her shudder. “Maybe you wouldn’t have to do everything,” he coaxed. “Maybe just a hand job or something.”
She drew in her breath. “Yeah, maybe.”
His hand moved down her neck and over her breasts. “Who knows? You might like it.”
She summoned a laugh. “Yeah, right.”
The rain came down harder. The wipers swished frantically, making an obscene scrubbing noise.
He cleared his throat. “You can, you know.”
“Like it. I won’t mind.” He squeezed her breast. “It would kind of turn me on.”
The tears were coming. Tera felt them burning behind her eyes. She turned her face toward her window so he wouldn’t see.
He must have known she was crying. He stopped rubbing her breast and patted her thigh instead. “It’ll be okay, babe. You’ll see.”
“Look at me, Tera.”
“Why?” The word came out all choked.
“I want to make sure you’re okay. Look at me.”
She turned her face to him.
He puckered his lips, taking in the sight of her. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “You hear me?”
“Yeah.” She nodded to add emphasis to the word.
“Hell yeah. That’s my girl.”
They’ll let me get high first. Surely they’ll let me get high first.
“You’re beautiful, you know.”
“Thanks,” she whispered.
“And you’re even more beautiful when you don’t have black streaks running down your face. I’ll stop at a gas station so you can clean yourself up before we head over. You don’t want to scare them.”
“Okay.” Tera swiped her hands over her cheeks and shrank against the door. Her phone rang from the back seat. Maybe it was her mom, calling to ask if she’d come home.