There are just two weeks to go until the April 24th release of Love and Squalor!
To tide everyone over until then, I am sharing a preview of the book: the first chapter in its entirety. Hopefully it will leave you wanting more! (And don’t worry about the formatting – WordPress is a bit finicky about these things, but I promise it looks perfect in the print and ebook versions!) Let me know what you think in the comments, and feel free to share this post with your friends! :)
Love and Squalor
By Jessica A. Scott
“Hey, White Girl!”
“Hey, DeAndre…” I said with a sigh. Marcus giggled as I locked the rusty door behind us and we stepped out into the small alley behind the YMCA building. I had been working there for six months, but everyone I met refused to learn my real name. I was twenty-six years old – hardly a “girl” anymore – and I was certainly not the only white person in the (admittedly predominately black) neighborhood, but something about me seemed to scream “STEREOTYPE!” to the locals.
“How the kids treatin’ ya today?” asked DeAndre, rearranging his nest of old newspapers and ratty blankets. He was homeless, and had been for fifteen years, but every time I offered to help him carry his things to the shelter a few blocks away, he just laughed and said “white girls…” like I was a grown woman believing in fairy tales.
“The kids are treating me fine. It’s the parents that are giving me trouble,” I replied, and Marcus giggled again. He was a chubby little guy; just six years old and already almost as heavy as I was. He looked like a little Buddha statue, with squinted eyes and an enormous smile full of missing baby teeth, and his skin was as dark as crude oil. He hardly spoke a word – he just giggled, as if everything in the world was delightful, and I couldn’t help but love him.
What I didn’t love was his mother. In the past six months, she had come to pick him up from my after school care class twelve times. I had offered to walk him home once, when she had called to tell me she had company at her house and “just couldn’t get away,” and ever since then, regardless of how many notes I sent Marcus in the house with, or how many voicemails I left her saying otherwise, she seemed to think it had become an established routine.
So, once again, I was holding Marcus’ plump little hand as we made our way to Woodlawn Avenue, the spooky, halogen-lit street in the center of what many of the borough’s residents called “The Wasteland.”
Although it was 7:00 p.m. and twilight was quickly fading to full, early October darkness, the area was buzzing with activity. There was a strange mixture of “day people” and “night people” milling around: tired-looking Indian men selling the last of the day’s smelly fish from the trunks of their cars, scantily clad prostitutes taking their places near the gas station and Lowman’s Hotel on 6th Street, and a junkie on every corner, each in various stages of dead-eyed euphoria.
To be honest, I didn’t mind a little company as I traversed the minefield of ethnic and moral diversity. I had been living in Luthertown Heights for almost half a year, but I didn’t think I would ever get used to the aggressiveness of the squalor. Everyone I saw seemed to be crying out for help in some way. Some, like DeAndre, were homeless. Others were destitute, and had turned to hooking and dealing to find money to live on. Some were addicted to drugs ranging from heroin to crystal meth to some combination of both (Luthertown Heights had more strains of drugs than I had names for), and yet still others were just weary, down-on-their-luck miners or fishermen or fruit vendors who had long ago given up on any dreams they might have once had for doing better.
It was depressing, to be frank. It was a cesspool of the forsaken, and my heart cried out for each and every one of them. There was no hope to be found in Luthertown Heights – except in the faces of the children.
Back in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, forty minutes away and twenty years into the future, I had been a sixth grade teacher at a private school. I had worked there for four years, right out of college… and had hated every single second of it. I had had so much love and knowledge and enthusiasm to share with my students, but they hadn’t wanted any of it. Aside from six or seven boys and girls, they had been spoiled, pretentious, irredeemable little brats, all of them. They had cared more about lipstick and money and gossip and sticking their hands up girls’ skirts than they had about learning anything. Humiliating each other was the one and only subject they were interested in, and they all excelled at it. By the time I left St. Regis Academy, I had seen twenty seven girls burst into tears in the middle of class, and intercepted fifty-six cruel, coldhearted text messages – several of which had referenced their “carrot-top virgin” teacher, and guessed at either a) how many cats I must own or b) whether my carpet matched my drapes.
After six hundred and eighty-two endless school days, I had had enough. I had seen an ad for the after school care teacher position at the Y in the local newspaper, and I had packed up my things, turned in my resignation letter, and left town, praying that I was headed for somewhere where I would be needed.
The position paid half of what my old job had, so I had had to take on a side job cleaning house for a woman named Carmella Jones on the weekends, but seeing the light and innocence in the eyes of Marcus and the other neighborhood kids made it all worth it. There, in the middle of that broken-down town, I was making a difference. My life finally had meaning.
“Hey, White Girl!” shouted a chorus of grizzled, grey-haired men standing around a barrel fire outside of a liquor store.
“Hey, fellas!” I called back, waving. “I stick out like a sore thumb here, Marcus,” I whispered to my escort. “Maybe I should dye my hair…”
He giggled in response.
It wasn’t far from the Y to Marcus’ house, just three blocks. One day, he would be old enough to walk it himself, but the thought of that made me nervous.
“Well, here we are!” I said, as we came to a large, lopsided brick apartment complex at the corner of Woodlawn and 44th Street. “You got your key?”
Marcus dug in the front pocket of his puffy red coat and came out with a chipped silver key. He held it up and grinned, his crooked baby teeth shining in the street lamp above us.
“Great! Now you’ve got it from here. I’ll see you tomorrow!” He giggled again and gave my hand a quick squeeze before letting go and running up the steps of the building. “Oh! And don’t forget to bring your backpack to school tomorrow!” I called after him, knowing he’d probably forget it anyway.
He threw me a wave and went in the front door, slamming it behind him with a bang like a gunshot.
I put my now-empty hands in the pockets of my own long, brown coat and waited. We had an agreement – if everything was alright when he got inside, Marcus would give me a wave from his bedroom window on the second floor. If it wasn’t, I’d wait two minutes, and then come in to check on him. On the twelve occasions that his mother had come to pick him up, she had been high as a kite and almost as thin, so I worried a bit every time I had to turn him back over to her. I had no idea what went on in that apartment, and I didn’t have the authority to check. And even if I did check and find something off, there was no real police force in Luthertown Heights to report it to, only a satellite office of the police from the next town over, and they rarely had someone on staff with the training to deal with a real-life crisis that didn’t involve computer coding or taking messages.
After about ninety seconds, a pudgy little face appeared in the third window from the left on the second floor of the apartment building, and I grinned as we waved goodnight to each other.
I sighed, feeling a bit wistful, and began my long trek home.
There were twelve blocks between Marcus’ home and mine – twelve street corners to pass, seven intersections to skirt, hoping not to get hit by a cloud of noxious exhaust fumes from someone’s broken down old Chevrolet Cavalier, twelve different roads all marked with numbers I could never memorize in an order that didn’t make sense, and all lined with houses in varying shades of grey.
As night fell over 27th Street, three blocks from my apartment building on 7th, I couldn’t help but to admit that there was a strange sort of beauty in the shadowy wasteland in spite of all its flaws. The street lamps cast a fiery orange glow on the pavement beneath them, all dancing to different pulsating rhythms, but no matter how much they might flicker, they never went out. Full dark never came to Luthertown Heights, not even at midnight. Not even in the dead of winter. That city would not be claimed by the darkness, no matter how thick and insistent it became.
There was graffiti on several of the storefronts in town, but my own neighborhood looked like a Renoir art gallery. Every building, every fire hydrant, every tree, brick, and roof shingle was the canvas for some unknown artist to express himself on. Most people grumbled about it to each other on their way home from work, but I secretly enjoyed it. It never ceased to amaze me when I found a new face in the sea of neon-bright caricatures on the side of the mechanic’s garage next door to my apartment, and I couldn’t help but smile at the rainbow of pain and humor and pure, unadulterated expression splattered across the concrete. It was another, stronger light in the darkness that haunted the Wasteland, and I loved basking in it.
“Ay, it’s our White Girl!” whooped a loud, booming voice that carried the entire length of 7th Street.
I felt my stomach clench.
For the most part, I wasn’t afraid of anyone in Luthertown Heights. Sure, there were some people I wouldn’t like to meet in a dark alley, and I probably wouldn’t intentionally seek out the company of one of the hookers or junkies on 6th or 2nd Street, but usually, I felt as if I could handle myself around any person I came across.
The Uewatsu, though, were another story.
There were seven gangs in Luthertown Heights: the Sixes, a crew of burly, black factory workers who all miraculously had six fingers on one hand for some reason; the Dirty Dozen, a white gang whose uniform was comprised of scraggly, crotch-length beards and Confederate flag bandanas; the Creepers, whose turf consisted pretty much exclusively of the run-down cemetery on 8th Street; the XXX Runners, made up of former prostitutes who (according to town scuttlebutt) spent their Friday nights chopping off the testicles of men who had wronged them; a small Mexican crew who called themselves Los Caballos; an offshoot of the Crips; and the Uewatsu, an exclusively Native American gang whose name meant “death” in Cherokee.
Due to some sort of shake-up in the gang community, the Uewatsu had lost their former territory near Luthertown Park on 19th Street, and now apparently owned the rights to the patch of sidewalk right outside my apartment building.
Every night for the past four and a half months, they had gathered there, staying up until dawn, plotting or planning or scheming or whatever gangs did, laughing at the tops of their lungs and shouting at passersby every time I was right on the verge of falling asleep.
I usually managed to make it home before they began their nightly vigil, but Darrel McCaid had drunk three juice boxes that day and ralphed all over my classroom set of foam blocks, so Marcus and I had been late leaving that evening.
“Hey… guys,” I said, giving them an uncertain wave as I fell into my carefully practiced walking pace that was slow enough to make me appear casual and unthreatened, but also quick enough to discourage lengthy conversations.
There were seven of them there tonight, all wearing black, all bearing the tell-tale dreamcatcher tattoo on their bare, muscular arms (in spite of the forty degree weather), and all standing directly in front of the gate that led to my front yard.
“Long day at school, teach?” asked Lars, whose long, shiny black hair hung to his waist, and who, my landlord had told me, had once killed a man with a tree branch.
“Yeah, one of the kids lost his lunch.”
“Where did he leave it?” asked the one they called Goon because, well, because of questions like that. He had short, messy hair and a blank expression that made me wonder just what (if anything), went on in that curly head of his. My landlord had told me that he and his twin brother, River, had once hung a man by his ankles above a pen full of starving Rottweilers just because he had called them something racist.
The entire gang laughed uproariously at Goon’s idiocy, and I smiled, uncomfortable, as I tried to look past them to the gate.
Aside from Lars, Goon, and River, there was Strongbow, who allegedly shot enemies of the gang with arrows coated in acid, and the gang’s arrogant leader, an enormous seven foot tall man-mountain suitably named Bear.
He smiled back at me in silence as I stopped a respectful distance away from them, hoping they would move.
“Goon is a moron,” he said finally, in a smooth, sultry sort of voice that made my skin crawl. “Don’t listen to him.”
“Hey!” shouted Goon, offended.
“It’s okay.” I shrugged, still smiling politely.
I saw movement out of the corner of my eye as someone on the edge of the group shifted his feet.
My smile faltered as I caught sight of the tall, lean, muscular Uewatsu referred to only as Slipknot – the most fearful member of the tribe. He wore a length of frayed brown rope around his throat like a sick sort of turtleneck, and had a long, jagged purple scar under his left eye that looked like dripping blood. They said he’d been to jail four times, and that they kept letting him out because he kept killing his cellmates.
He was a Luthertown Heights legend, and it was said that he had killed twenty men to earn his nickname – strangling them all with a noose fashioned out of the same rope he wore around his neck.
He was watching me as I took another tentative step toward the gate, and I realized then that I had never heard him speak before. I had also never noticed how his bright, emerald green eyes seemed to glow with a mysterious inner light in the falling darkness.
“How are you tonight, White Girl?” Bear continued, uncrossing his arms and advancing on me. The rest of the group followed suit.
“And how bout ‘dem tittaays?” Goon shouted, before erupting into shrill, hyena-like laughter that was soon drowned out by the (much lower-pitched) laughter of the rest of the gang.
“They’re…uh…hangin’ in there,” I replied, feeling the color rush to my face.
“Maybe we should check and see,” suggested River, uncrossing his arms too, and licking his lips.
I instinctively crossed my own arms over my chest, then quickly let them fall as they all howled with laughter again. I was thoroughly embarrassed now, and had lost any sense of stability I might have had. My only option was to get past them and get into my apartment building as quickly as possible… but without seeming like I was in a hurry to get away.
“Well, it was nice seeing you all,” I said, with another stupid wave, as I made to skirt past them.
Bear cut me off at the last second, stepping over to block my path to the gate. Just as he was opening his mouth to say something else suggestive and unnerving, though, Slipknot appeared on my left and jerked his head at something up the road.
“Well I’ll be damned…” Bear muttered, stepping away from the gate.
I looked back the way I had come, and saw a young man limping up the street.
I glanced back at Slipknot, feeling oddly grateful to him for clearing me an escape route, but he swung open the gate without meeting my eyes.
Once I was inside the small, weed-pocked front yard, he nodded at the apartment building and closed the gate behind me.
With sweaty palms, I walked up the sidewalk and opened the front door.
I didn’t look back.