Trading Favors

by K.C. Hutchinson

    Heather Wylie stopped short in that way that petite, five-foot-tall eighteen-year-old girls often do, where they appear to be still moving along with a bouncy step even though they are actually standing quite still. She did this stopping-but-still-moving thing directly under one of a long row of recessed lights running down the bare, dim corridor as she needed every bit of extra light available to find her compact in her purse. 
     She had already tried fishing her hand along the bottom of her large leather bag to locate it by touch. Now she shook the contents a couple of times under the light, hoping it might surface, but the compact stubbornly stayed out of sight. Sighing, she began to search in earnest now, pulling out lipsticks, two fake IDs, a hairbrush with puppy teeth-marks in the handle, a couple of party snapshots with former friends crossed out, old concert ticket stubs, keys and similar necessities one after the other. Her purse nearly empty, she finally spotted the elusive compact peeking out from behind a broken package of blush held together with a rubber band. 
     Heather snatched the compact out and flipped it open. It was just as she had suspected. There was a streak of black mascara out of place under her left eye. Keeping the stuff from smearing all over was a never-ending chore, but it was worth it. Without it she simply felt too pale. Pale hair, pale skin, pale green eyes. If it weren't for her thirty-minute makeup routine each morning, she was certain she would fade away completely, maybe not even exist at all. Her mother thought black mascara was too harsh for her and she never missed a chance to bring it up, but Heather had stopped listening to her mother long before she moved in with her father and stepmother, anyway.  
     Life at her dad's was a lot better. He lived in a newer, bigger house in a better suburb, one where the guys drove much nicer cars. The best thing about living there, though, was that he was always away on business and her stepmother never cared what she did, so she could come and go pretty much as she pleased. 
     She wiped off the smudge and daubed a little cover stick under her eye, ignoring the powder in the bottom half of her silver compact. She really only used the compact for a mirror. After one last check, she closed it, brushing off the lint it had gathered from the bottom of her purse. She turned it over to read the inscription on the bottom for the ten-thousandth time. Most of was worn away except for the words "To my darling" and the date, October 9, 1928.   
      She had found it in a dusty little pawnshop downtown, on a block with a lot of boarded-up stores. She was on her way to a party, looking around at the jewelry case without much interest, killing time while the guy she was with bargained with the shopkeeper over an expensive watch. The compact caught her eye and held it. She had to have it. Without a second thought, she asked the guy  was it Randy? - to buy it for her right then and there. He laughed at first, surprised, not believing she was serious, but after a few minutes of teasing and begging he caved in. Later that night, after the party, she paid him back in the way she knew best. She smiled at the memory.
     Heather touched her lips gently to the compact's cool relief before tucking it back in her purse and zipping the top with a snap. She hitched the purse's knotted leather strap a little higher on her shoulder as she started towards the elevator. Without the knot in the strap, the purse hung almost to her knees. She fell into actual motion now, step-hopping down the hallway, with the same innocent energy she might have had going to play Barbies when she was six. If she'd been wearing a ponytail, it would have bobbed behind her.  
    Downstairs, the elevator doors slowly revealed the lobby's parquet floors. There weren't many people around, as this was a hotel that catered mostly to business travelers and it was a Friday night. She checked her watch. It was ten after eleven, early for her but probably late for the few remaining businessmen. Not knowing what she wanted to do next, she flopped into one of the overstuffed chairs in the lobby and pulled a half-smoked package of cigarettes out of her inside jacket pocket and lit one.   
     In the smoke glass mirror across from her, she noticed the doorman checking her out. She returned the compliment for a second, then wrinkled her nose into a funny-face and stuck her tongue out. One side of the doorman's face turned up in a smirk as he moved on, heading out the revolving front door to pace up and down the sidewalk.
     Down the hall, the banquet room doors swung open and a busboy wheeled out a wedding cake on a linen-covered table. The two large bottom layers were mostly eaten, but the upper tier was untouched. The little plastic bride and groom stood side-by-side on top of their world, undisturbed. Before the doors swung shut again, the wedding band began to blat out a rock-polka version of Proud Mary, accompanied by the hoots and stamping of party-happy wedding guests on the dance floor. It sounded like they were having a good time. She closed her eyes and imagined the bride in her floating white gown, visiting with table after table of well-wishing friends and relatives, glancing across the room now and again, trying to catch her new husband's eye. Finally, their eyes meet over a room full of laughing, noisy guests, and between them passes a look that says forever.
     "Hay-ther! What're you doing here?" She opened her eyes again. A tall girl in a clerk's uniform sank rag-doll-like into the sofa beside her, loosening her uniform tie and shaking back her long brown hair. "Haven't seen you around anywhere in awhile. And here you turn up at work! What'cha been up to?" The girl's voice bubbled with a laugh just under the surface. Vicki always sort of laughed and talked at the same time.
     "Nothing, really. A couple of parties, but no big deal. You know, same old."
      "Yeah, it's pretty dull lately. But how come you're here tonight? You at the wedding?" Vicki eyed her casual attire.
     "Nah. A friend had a little party upstairs, but it broke up early. I'm just havin' a smoke before I go home." She gestured with her lit cigarette as proof.
     "Home? It's way too early! Your parents might still be up! Look, a bunch of us are heading to the Metro Bar. C'mon with us."
     "I dunno. I've got my car." She didn't want to go home, but she wasn't sure she wanted to go out to the Metro, either.
     "Well, meet us, then. Whatever. We'll be there 'til last call." A great-looking guy with dark hair and eyes, older than both of them by five or six years, stepped out of the employee door and motioned for Vicki to hurry. She answered him with a wave. "Gotta go. That's my ride. Isn't he hot?" She giggled like a junior-high girl, then rose and walked with the assurance of a woman towards the door. Just before reaching it, she turned and waved at Heather, mouthing "See 'ya over there."
     Heather smiled and waved, relieved that Vicki was gone. She finished her cigarette and stamped it out in the ashtray.
     She wanted a drink. She got up and started looking for the hotel bar, walking down a quiet hallway until it dead-ended into another corridor and she had to choose a direction. It took a few minutes for her to figure out that she had chosen the wrong way, and by then she was lost. Twisting and turning around the empty indoor pool, she noticed a man in a dark blue suit following her, just a few yards behind. She avoided looking at him directly, squaring her shoulders and trying to look taller and tougher than she felt. She continued on her way, pretending not to notice him, and headed towards an exit door. A moment later, he disappeared.
     Eventually, she found her way back to the lobby and started her search for the bar over, this time making the right turn and locating it easily. The room was dark and small. Murky reflections bounced between the bar and dark glass panels along the opposite wall, creating an uncomfortable feeling of being watched. It was a quiet night in here, too, with only one businessman over in the corner, and a bartender counting the till. Heather pulled herself up tall again and approached the bar. She chose a stool in the middle and sat on it. She set her purse on the bar, followed by an involuntary breath of relief at having the weight off her shoulder.
     The bartender ignored her for a long time, lining up glasses in the overhead rack.
"Excuse me. Can I have an Absolute and tonic, please?"
     "Gave last call five minutes ago." 
     "But it's still early! Look, it's only eleven thirty." The bartender continued stocking. She tilted her head and smiled at him. "Just one. Promise." 
     The bartender looked up. "Are you a guest?'
     "Checked in a couple of hours ago." It was pretty much true. 
     "Well, the rules say I've got to stay open until one-thirty if I've got two guests." He turned and squinted at her in the semi-darkness.  "You sure you're old enough?"
     "Hey, c'mon. Don't pick on me just because I'm short!" It was a line that almost always worked.
     The bartender smiled and fixed her the drink. 
     It wasn't until the bartender mentioned the other guest that she could sense the man in the corner. She could feel him studying her. He stood and started making his way to the bar, not quite toppling over a chair on the way. She pretended not to pay any attention to him, sipping nonchalantly on her drink and lighting a cigarette. The man slipped quietly onto the stool beside her and sat facing forward for a few minutes, saying nothing. He was about thirty, well dressed and groomed, and nice-looking in a boring sort of way.
     "I saw you earlier. Going into your room," He took a sip of his drink, still looking ahead. "Are you here on business?"
     "No." Heather hoped he wasn't going to stay. She didn't feel like talking.
     "I was held over tonight for a plant tour in the morning. I'd planned be home with my wife and kids, but I'm stuck. If I don't go watch a bunch of rednecks make seat belt buckles tomorrow, I'll lose my sale."
     "It doesn't sound like much fun."
     "It's not. But it's a living."
     The conversation lapsed into silence. Heather finished her drink, and started to get up. The man spoke again.
     "I could buy you another, if you like."  He looked at her, then away again.
     Heather shrugged and shook her head. She stood and picked up her purse. 
     "Well, then, how about if we go upstairs? We could have our own little party."  There was a certain tone in his voice as he said this, kind of nervous and sad and lonely. He sounded the way she felt tonight.
     "I don't know."
     "I could make it worth your time." He said this staring straight at her, with an edge in his voice, as if he felt more in control. It caught her by surprise.
     She set her purse down on the stool, not as a sign that she was staying, but just to give herself a chance to think.
     All of a sudden, someone grabbed her elbow. She tried to pull away, but she couldn't.
"I'm sorry, sir." The voice behind her was big and stern. "I need to speak to the young lady for a minute." Before she could say or do anything, whoever had grabbed her yanked her out of the dark bar into the light of the hallway.
     To her amazement, the man dragging her along was the same one who had followed her earlier. He was walking so fast that she could barely keep up; she had to make two or three running steps for every angry stride of his. He pulled her arm, forcing her to his pace.
     "Hey! Wait a minute! What's going on?"
     "I'm hustling you out of here, that's what." The gold pin on his navy jacket read Security. "I thought you left already."
     "Let me go! You can't do this!" Her thoughts were as jumbled as her feet were, running and floundering along. She had never been dragged out of a bar, or anywhere, before. She thought she might start to cry.
     "Oh yes I can. Don't push me, or I'll do worse."
     "Like what?"
He stopped and looked down at her with a sneer. "Like to spend the night in jail?"
     He started dragging her along again. "Jail? What for? What did I do?" She was almost crying now. Her whole body was shaking in the security guard's grip, and she could hardly catch her breath.
     "What did I do?" He mimicked her with a nasally whine. They had stopped finally, at a back door, but he kept a firm grip on her arm, jerking it up into her shoulder socket. It hurt, but she didn't dare complain. "Look, you check in with one guy, and no bags. Then I catch you wandering around looking for another room. Then I find you at the bar trying to pick somebody else up." He pulled her arm up even higher, holding it at an unnatural angle. "Now, what does that seem like to you?" His voice was mean. It sounded like he was enjoying this.
     "I - I wasn't! I didn't do anything!" Little whimpering sobs began to escape. She didn't know how to stop them.
     "Yeah. Right." He shoved her purse at her. She realized he had been carrying it from the bar. "You want to peddle it, little girl, do it somewhere else. Don't let me see you back here." The guard shoved her through the door and slammed it behind her. Flung out, she tripped on a stone and lost her balance. She fell, landing on her knees next to a dumpster.
     Heather sniffled and rubbed her elbow. Her best jeans were torn, and the heel of her hand was skinned. She got up, brushed the gravel from her hands and started looking for her car, wandering around, addled, in the parking lot. For some reason, she couldn't remember where she'd left it, couldn't recognize anything in the shadows. Finally, she stumbled across her little blue two-door by accident, crawled inside and locked the door behind her. Feeling safe again she put the key in the ignition lit a cigarette and turned on the radio.
     She stared into the semi-darkness at the other parked cars around her as she smoked, turning the volume up to let a syrupy ballad fill up the car and soothe her nerves. When she finished her cigarette, she tossed the butt out the window, then dug into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out a crisp one hundred dollar bill. She unfolded it slowly and spread it across the center bar of the steering wheel, staring at it. The man earlier tonight, the one she'd checked in with, had been older but sort of handsome, even if he sweat a lot and dripped on her shoulder, but she had never thought...
     For a long time, she didn't know how long, she just sat there staring at the picture on the bill. She couldn't remember for sure who it was. A deejay came on and started his between-songs patter, which brought her back out of her daze. She folded the bill again, stuffed it back in her pocket, and reached in her jacket for another cigarette. The dashboard clock flickered 12:00 as she started the car. The battery must be on the fritz again.
     There was still time to meet Vicki and the others at the Metro Cafe, and if she were lucky, maybe she'd find a good party afterwards. If she ever wanted a drink, deserved one, even, it was now. And she really didn't want to go home tonight.

K.C. HUTCHINSON was born and raised in the States, but married a fellow writer and moved to Canada, where she attended the University of Windsor creative writing program and studied with Alistair MacLeod. She currently divides her time between a small town in Ontario and a small apartment in Montréal, and she writes fiction, screenplays, drama and other stuff pour gagner de l'argent.
TAR
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