There were stars all across the sky, which struck her as strange because that same sky had been completely bright just a moment before. At least that's how it seemed, but it didn't really matter, and it didn't stick in her mind for long. Not much did anymore.
She thought about the strange way the sky seemed to be acting for just a moment, and then returned her mind to the task at hand.
She looked at him but saw nothing. He looked back at her, and he too saw nothing... Almost nothing. He was just like all the others.
'Ten dollars,' she said. Those two words had come from between her lips so many times before, in that very same defeated and foreboding way, that now it just rolled off her tongue like the words meant nothing. Like those two simple words didn't mean that again she had given up on the idea that she was better than this, that she was better than ten dollars.
But she felt it deep down. Ten dollars was all she was worth. She knew it, even though afterwards she would swear to herself - scream silently into the core of her heart as always - that that was the last time. But she knew.
And he knew too. Just like the others.
He said nothing, or she heard nothing he said. And he heard nothing that she said, because she said nothing. He handed her the ten dollar bill.She was nothing more than ten dollars to him, and she could read it all over his face.
Eventually she managed to concentrate everything within her being on one random point on the ground, just like she had learned to do so long ago. It didn't make things any better, but it made it easier. A little easier. For a brief moment she could become that point in the ground, transcend her body and soul and escape her mind, becoming stone and dirt and feeling and thinking nothing... for that moment she was better than the man, better than ten dollars. Better than anything she had ever known.
And then she would return, thrust harshly back into her situation, with the man grunting and rasping like all the others always did and that one muscle spasming inside her, and eventually - sooner or later - she would have another ten dollars. The man would leave without any words or acknowledgement of what had just taken place, and once more she would be mercifully alone, if only for a while. And she would swear inside like she always did that that was really it, that that was the last time. The last ten dollars.
She looked at the sky again. The stars were brighter now, and there were more of them. She lay down on her back in the dirt and stared up at them. They were moving steadily in front of her eyes as if they weren't stars at all, but some other unknown specs of light floating in the sky, and she realised then that the sky hadn't just changed from daylight to this new night-bright suddenly at all. It must have been hours.
She felt like crying but didn't have it in her to make that slight effort needed to coax the tears from her eyes. She lay there, head in the dirt, head in the stars, the man's earthy odour still resting in her nostrils.
She thought then of the first man - the one who first put that ten dollars into her hand all those years ago, and who left it there inside her head. Inside her soul. The same ten dollars that was now a heavy weight wrapped around her very being, dragging messily along behind her life. Dragging along always just barely behind, waiting patiently to take one more little piece of her soul. Always there.
He arrived into her head often, that first man. After each other one he would reappear, and the last man's image would fade away. His face and his hands and lips and everything else - his breath and smell and sweat and that patronizing way each and every one of them looked at her - would disappear. The last man would leave her now completely, replaced by that first one. The first man.
And that feeling she had felt that first time, just after that first time, when he had left her alone with what had just happened. With what had just been done to her. With what she had just done.
She didn't know what that feeling was. Even now after feeling it so many times she didn't know what feeling it was, but that didn't matter. She knew it better than any other feeling she had felt, and feared it more. It wasn't shame or pity or sadness or numbness, but something much harder and deeper and stronger.
Her mother had told her once to be careful about men. Her mother hadn't understood how right she was. She couldn't have.
But that was a long time ago, and now all that she could think of were those stars up there in the sky. They were moving still. They seemed to be moving with the rhythm of her thoughts. That too-familiar feeling that wasn't quite shame or pity or sadness or numbness was taking a deep hold of her mind now. She knew it better than anything else she knew, and that made it no easier. She looked at the ten dollar bill, crumpled and with a tiny tear on its dull green edge, soiled by the hands of strangers. Blackened by the hands of strange men.
Out of instinct, she lifted it to her nose and breathed in its special smell. It smelled like him. It smelled like all of them. She wanted the sky to be bright again and she closed her eyes and wished for it, but when she opened them the stars were still staring down at her, still moving up there in the blackness of it all. She worked up the strength to attempt a tear, but none would come. She stayed laying there in the dirt under the stars and sky.
After some time she sat up and took out the ten dollar bill again and folded it in half. When she had done this she again folded it, and then again and again, in a different way each time with a skill that showed her practice. When she was finished she gently pulled at two opposite corners of the now tiny bill. From it blossomed a bird, a tiny swan. Beautiful, but muddied still by the hands of strangers, by their sweat and fear and sins.
She could hear music in the distance, coming through the trees from the bar. She could make out the song. It was an old one, one she remembered from when she was a child. Still a child. She hadn't heard it in a long time. Since she had left.
She could hear their voices too. Through the trees and branches she could hear the men drinking and hollering and laughing. She could almost smell that sweet alcohol-smell on their collective breaths, and she knew that soon another one would come.
She wanted to leave. She wanted to grab herself, pick herself up and walk away and then run and run and run. But there was nowhere to go, and she couldn't move. The darkness in the sky continued to be sprayed by the movement of all those little specks of light, all those tiny stars, and for a while she was nowhere again, lost up there with all those stars a million miles away.
But she was right - too right - and soon another one did come. Again she said those two words. Ten dollars. She struggled deep deep deep inside herself not to say them, to be better than ten dollars, to be worth more than that, but again the words finally came out, and again he said nothing, or she heard nothing he said, and again she fixed her eyes on a random point in her eye-line - a rock this time - and again she smelled that musty and familiar man-smell and lay there pretending she was somewhere else, something else. And afterwards the man left like they always did and always would and that feeling came back. It hit her right in her heart and head and gut, harder than usual. He came back, the first one, and again she tried to cry but couldn't, stayed rooted to the dirt in that ground looking at the still moving stars and screaming silently up at the sky and into herself.
And again she took the ten dollar bill, inspected it and lifted it to her nose. She looked at the swan from earlier, still blackened and soiled by the hands of strangers, muddied just like her. Her father had taught her that ten dollar trick long ago, long before her mother had told her to be careful of men.
She had tried for hours to get it right, to fold the bill up in just the right way so that the tiny swan could be born. And when finally she had gotten it just right she had smiled and laughed at her. She hadn't smile in a long time.
That little swan lay there on the dirt in the breeze, stuck in that dirt, just like her, and she thought of her father.
Again she thought of him, as she always did, and again she could not cry. Her father stayed there in her mind, as always. Him. The first one.
Chris Connolly writes from Dublin, Ireland. Allegedly he is not as dangerous as he reads. His first collection of short stories, 'Every Day I Atrophy' (the SideCartel) is available now. If you need to know more about Chris Connolly, he has an excellent and excellently informative website here chrisconnollywriter.com