December 14th
3:35 AM
New York
– – – – – – – – – –

Michael shamelessly watched her wear the rest of her clothing.

Whereas she withered under his stare, he was satiated, actually elated, at the way the night turned out. “Can you stop staring at me?” she asked and pulled the last article of clothing over her body, the fabrics providing a barrier from his prying eyes.

Those long hours had been a chore she forced herself to see through until the end. She felt like a distortion of what she once was, unable to find her way back to the right path. She could still smell the sweat and feel his cold lips kiss and nip at her tender skin, marking her like she was his property. So many times she wanted to let out a sound of panic, she wanted to scream, to push him away, but she shut her eyes as he finished with her over and over again, trying to block him out.

He left abrasions–physically and otherwise. His grip had been too tight on both her arms and the emotional hold he had on her killed whatever was left of her innocence.

The alarm clock at his bedside flashed 3:35 in bold red and worry for her daughter began ebbing at her.

“Easy money comes with things like this,” Michael blurted. The sheets behind her rustled, peaking her misery. “I got a friend who’s got experience in this business. You’ve got a pretty face and you performed like a champ all night, doll. I think he’d like you.”

Audrey’s heart rate accelerated as she attempted to control her breathing. “I don’t want to be pimped out, Michael. I’d never be that kind of girl.”

“You never know, Audrey. Most people like to believe they wouldn’t do shit like that,” Michael’s voice held a distant quality, one she’d never heard. It was as if he were too afraid to speak. “But you do what you can to survive. Plus you’ve got that kid to think about.”

Her eyes glimmered with hot tears and the world felt like it was crumbling around her. She hugged herself, her chest heaving up and down. One word would be enough to set her over the sharp edge she was treading on.

“Why the tears?” he asked, his hands sending a jolt down her spine as he caressed her back. She didn’t want to stop him for fear that he might change his mind about the rest she owed.

“I just cheated on my boyfriend.”

“You didn’t cheat on him, Audrey. You’re helping your family out. Honestly, how did a girl like you end up with a deadbeat like him? You’re so…innocent, y’know. And he’s just taking advantage of you. If I were him, I’d do anything to keep you happy.”

Michael’s warm breath fanned the nape of her neck and gooseflesh dotted her skin. She grappled the sheets on either side of her thighs to conceal her shaking hands. “I’d love you in ways he couldn’t.”

“Michael, don’t.”

“Don’t what?” he smiled disparagingly. “Tell you the truth? Gunner doesn’t give a shit about you, Audrey. He’s using you, and you just let him. I couldn’t do the things he does to you.”

He trailed kisses down her cold skin, filling her with shudders. “Think clearly here, doll-face. Use your head. You know he’s not a good person; you know he’s incredibly selfish.”

Audrey finally rose to her feet and tucked her hair behind her ears. No matter how hard she worked to give herself an excuse to hate him, all he did to her, she understood the truth behind his words. Perhaps Michael was just surviving too. “I have to go.”

“Think about what I told you, doll. The world is a bad place and sometimes we have to do things we don’t like.” He relaxed on the bed and crossed his arms behind his head. His eyes were fixed on the ceiling, thoughtful. Surveying him beyond the surface of his demeanour, she noted the uncertainty in them. “A lot of people have been where you’ve been.”

“Right,” she whispered, eager to get this conversation over with.

“Let me know if you change your mind about working for my friend. I’ll be here.”

“Are we done?”

His head suddenly snapped to her. “I don’t usually help people like this. So, maybe you should leave before some tenant wanders through the lobby. You really never know with these people. They’re always causing a ruckus.”

“Yeah,” Audrey couldn’t have been happier to leave his bedroom. “Um…”

“Congratulations, doll,” a smile chased away the angst he once showed. “You’re officially rent-free for two months.”

Was she supposed to say thanks?

Instead, she left him with a small nod and shut the door behind her. She trudged through the living room and out of the apartment. The air was breathable.

But you don’t have to pay rent anymore. You did the right thing.

It didn’t feel that way at all. She was more rotten than ever.

The rest of the journey home was automatic. She soon found herself using her spare key to enter her apartment and releasing a breath she didn’t know she was holding. Everything was stagnant here–there was no life. Neither was there life in her.

The light from the TV cast a glow in the room. She paced towards the couch and grabbed the remote to turn it off. Tossing it back onto the cushions, then made for Leah’s bedroom. She didn’t knock before entering, she just had to make sure she was unharmed.

Audrey lugged in as carefully as she could and without Penelope in sight, she deduced she must have left once Leah dosed off. Here her daughter was with a stranger while she chose to try and bring home the father who cared about neither of them and slept with the superintendent of their building.

There was a note on the coffee table her friend left. I stayed until Leah fell asleep. Sorry I couldn’t stay any longer. Marcus kept calling.

She walked into Leah’s room. As she sat by Leah’s bedside and stroked her hair, the tears washed a straight path to her chin and dripped onto the thin covers. She was exhausted from all the crying because it truly wouldn’t make their situation better, but it seemed the emotion she held was infinite and always came to bite her back when she least expected it.

Leah had already been changed into her pyjamas and clutched her stuffed penguin to her chest. Gunner gave it to her on her first birthday, though at the time it was a little too large for her to hold. It was perfect now and it was her best friend. It was the only piece of her father that never disappeared.

“I’m home, Leah.” Audrey alighted her lips on Leah’s forehead and her wet eyes admired her image. Her dark hair and fair skin, and if she were awake, the sparkle in her bright hazels. She smiled at her. They were so similar in spite of their physical features.

Leah reminded her of herself as a child, naïve and sheltered from the dangers of the world. Back then, she didn’t get why her parents were so insistent on keeping her safe, but now she knew. And now it was too late. Audrey simply wished Leah could say that her parents protected her too when she grew up to be her own person. She hoped there would be no resentment between them. She tried her hardest and sometimes it felt like it wasn’t good enough, but there was only so much she could do.

I’ll work harder for you, Leah. I want you to be proud of me too.

Audrey withdrew slowly and shuffled towards the door. She smiled sadly even though Leah couldn’t see it and exited the room, wandering into hers. She didn’t bother changing out of her clothes or washing Michael off her skin.

She shut her eyes and slept the instant her body hit the mattress.

* * *

December 14th
6:09 AM
New York

Gunner knocked on the front door relentlessly for the past half-hour.

He listened to his girlfriend and spent his night on Ace’s couch, but before the sun dawned on the city he was on his way home with a genuine desire for Audrey. A simple desire to see her, to hold her and to revel in her presence.

There were instances when he may have gone days without contact from her, yet the moment she walked out on him in tears because he was the cause, it pained him. It pained him to the point where he had to repress it.

So this morning he turned to heroin. Ace’s idea, really. He had enough to spare Gunner after witnessing the agony he had been in since Audrey left him behind.

Fucking open the door, Audrey!

He continued knocking as the tremor in his hands worsened and panic burned inside him. If it was one thing he’d never be able to cope with, it would be chasing Audrey and Leah away. Then he’d truly have nothing else to live for. But as he motioned to tap his knuckles against the door, it was pulled open.

Gunner was face to face with nothing until he heard a small, tired whisper. His gaze travelled to the source of the voice and brows drew together, astonished and devastated to meet the weary eyes of his daughter.

“Daddy, you’re home…” She was still clad in her purple pyjamas, sporting immense confusion as if seeing her father was such a shocker. He couldn’t blame her though. He was rarely around, and on the days he chose to stay home, he resembled a visitor rather than her parent.

“Why did you open the door? What if it wasn’t me? Something could’ve happened, kid, and nobody would’ve known! You get your mom here, you don’t let anyone in.”

Leah shrank away at the severeness of his voice.

“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell…that came out wrong. I was just looking out for you.”

Her face was drowning in sorrow but she looked away as if to avoid witnessing his own sadness. She cradled the stuffed penguin in her arms as a pout adorned her lips. “I thought you left forever.”

Stepping aside for him to enter, Leah watched him oddly, assessing him as he fully emerged inside the apartment and locked the door.  And when he crouched to reach out and embrace her, she distanced herself cautiously.

Whatever shreds of his heart remained were torn into smaller pieces.

“I was out with my friend,” he spoke softly. “I wasn’t gonna leave you guys. Is that what your mom told you?”

“You didn’t come back yesterday and mommy was really scared so she went to look for you.” Gunner discerned that it worried her a lot more than she showed. “She’s sleeping inside now, but I haven’t seen her because the door’s locked. I think she’s sad.”

Her beady eyes stared into the crevices of his soul and he was convinced she could see right through the walls he upheld—at least tried to uphold. “She’ll be up soon, kiddo. Don’t worry too much about her.”

Yeah, it seems you don’t worry about her either, his guilty conscience remarked. However, he pretended like being distant from her didn’t bother him.

“I’ll talk to your mom, Princess. We’ll… figure everything out.”

Leah’s expression bordered on hope and disappointment—she was too afraid to believe that he would keep to his promises. “You will? You and mommy will be happy again?”

An explosive cough erupted from his throat, a forceful sound that caused a rattling wheeze in his chest. Those fucking cigarettes. Leah was instinctively at attention and ready to help him somehow. But she didn’t know how to do it. Her mother was always around when he needed her, she knew what was best for everybody.

“Are you okay, daddy?”

Gunner dismissed her with the wave of a hand and stood up. “I’m fine, baby,”—he coughed again— “I promise. I’m gonna go check on your mom, so wait for me out here.”

He began treading toward his room, but Leah threw herself at his legs and hugged him close. “Don’t go. I missed you.”

Oh, right. He couldn’t just walk away from her. He had to do something. He wasn’t sure what exactly, but something. At least that was what he understood by the look that she gave him.

“I missed you too.” He knelt in front of her and pulled her into his arms. “You know I love you, right? Even when I act pretty shitty.”

“That’s a bad word,” she giggled and squeezed him back. “Mommy yelled at me when I said it yesterday.”

“Good thing mommy’s asleep then or she would have lost her shit—oops.” A half-smile embellished his mouth. “Uh, forget I said that, okay?” He chuckled at his own mistake, nuzzling her closer to his body. “Don’t use those words, baby. At least not when she’s around.”

Gunner’s eyes fluttered closed and he breathed slower, happier. “I’m sorry about forgetting you at school, kiddo. Can you forgive me? I know it made you upset and everything. Fuck, I’ve felt so crappy for days just thinking about it.”

“You keep saying bad words.”

Gunner laughed softly and ruffled her dark hair. “My bad.”

“Um, daddy?”

He paused and met her questioning eyes.

“Are we gonna have a Christmas tree this year? Santa needs to put our presents somewhere.”

Gunner’s heart lodged itself in his throat as all the blood in his body rushed to his ears. Shit, I need to talk to Audrey about it.

There was the memory of decorating a tree in Gunner’s mind. When he was six and his father had let him put the star at the top. He felt so important at the time, so noble. There was so much smiling and laughter and love in his house. His mother made them dinner, his father shooed him and his sister away from the presents, Santa ate the cookies they left out, and he was so happy. It was picturesque; perfect down to the snow dusting their front yard.

His daughter would never know what that felt like. Not with his addiction, and not with Audrey.

“I’ll ask your mom,” Gunner replied. “She’ll figure it out for us. She’s good at that kinda stuff. Planning and all that shit—uh, sorry, I said a bad word again.”

He wasn’t sure where he was going with his rambling, but it would get him somewhere eventually. Right? “Just ask mommy and she’ll tell you if we can have one. Don’t ask me ’cause I’m basically shit at everything—sorry again. Don’t use that word.”

“And a star! I wanna put it all the way on top of the tree.”

He smiled. “I did that when I was your age too, y’know. My daddy used to lift me up ’cause I wasn’t tall enough, or I had stand on the edge of the couch. I broke my arm one time when I fell. I celebrated Christmas with one arm in a cast.”

Leah drew back, wrapping her small fingers around his wrist as a sheepish grin appeared on her doll-like face. “You used to be six? Woah…you’re old now.”

He was more apologetic than he’d ever made himself out to be. His gaze softened, just a fraction. Using his other hand to hoist her into his arms, she stared off to the side at the dull morning light behind the window.

“I’m not old, Leah. One day you’ll be my age and your kid’s gonna tell you the same thing.”

“So I can have a baby?”

“I already said no,” he asserted. He tamed a smile but his eyes betrayed him. “I don’t want to see you around with any babies.” And I’d kill whoever puts a baby in you.

“But I want one.”

“Fuck no.”

She laughed. “You said it again!”

Gunner grinned, “don’t go around saying it.”

“Fuck no,” Leah mimicked him, unable to contain her laughter. “That’s shitty.”

“No more bad words, princess. We don’t want mommy to find out, okay?”

Gunner strolled to her bedroom and pushed the door open. He set her down on her bed, kissed her forehead, and pulled the thick blanket up to her chin. A gesture he hadn’t made since she was an infant. Once Leah was old enough to walk, he had forgotten about her. She became an afterthought, as did her mother. To think all that time passed and that he missed the most crucial moments of her childhood. Leah was old enough to have known how distant he was when it came to her, so there was no pretence between them, but nothing he could do would make up for how horrible he’d been for putting his drugs first.

He didn’t teach her right from wrong, he didn’t take her out for ice cream, he didn’t teach her to ride a bike, he didn’t teach her how to be confident or resilient, he didn’t teach her kindness, he didn’t teach her any important values, he didn’t encourage her to do well for herself, he didn’t teach her… anything. He didn’t do anything.

He couldn’t do the bare minimum and provide warmth and security for her.

A complete failure was what he was.

“I’ll see you later, Leah.”

As he began heading for the door, her voice stopped him in his tracks. “Where are you going?”

“You should still get some shut-eye, kiddo. It’s still too early for you to be up. You’ve got school in a couple hours.”

“But…” she clutched her stuffed toy, eyes downcast. “But I said I missed you.”

When Gunner looked at her, he saw Audrey. He saw the Audrey he missed and wanted to cherish; his daughter was always here to remind him of it. There was nothing he could do to avoid staring into her eyes and watching all the hurt he caused reflect back at him.

“I know, Leah. I just…” He had no excuses to spare. “I gotta talk to your mom.”

“Can you stay with me until I fall asleep?”

Gunner hesitated, but he obliged and walked over to his daughter, settling into the small space she made for him. Leah smiled and rolled on top of his warm body instead. The contact was foreign, but his arms tightened around her, his presence bringing security.

“Leah.” He tried to shrug her off. Unfortunately for him, she clung on to him like a koala bear, determined not to ease her grip as if she feared he would disappear again. “Leah, I need to go.”

She tucked her head under his chin and subconsciously wove his blonde hair between her little fingers. “I don’t want to be alone, daddy,” his daughter whimpered. “Stay with me. Please.”

This was just… odd. He felt suffocated. “Leah, you don’t need me here.”

“I haven’t seen you in a long time,” Leah stopped stroking his hair, nuzzling her face into his neck instead. “And mommy’s not here to stay with me. Sometimes I get scared that you’re gonna leave and not come home. I’m scared that I won’t have a daddy if you go.”

He didn’t usually stay close to his daughter or try to know her. Audrey took good care of her and that was all that mattered to him. He wasn’t a father figure. He avoided Leah most of the time because he felt that he wasn’t cut out to be a dad. He loved her, but from a distance.

“Alright, I’ll stay.” He didn’t have much of a choice in the matter seeing as her grip wouldn’t let up. “Now, go to sleep. I’m here.”

“Love you, daddy.”

Defeated, he sighed, “I know, baby.” He gently stroked her hair.

He didn’t object to this tender feeling clothing his heart with warmth. He held his daughter closer and watched her ease into sleep. Then he, too, closed his eyes and thought of his broken family, of how fast Christmas was approaching, and how his only wish would be to see them all happy again.

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