Excerpt from William Hillyard’s “Liberty Bonds”
Alyssa lay in bed, curled up, listening. She could hear the cartoons from the TV in the living room—her little sister Carrie was up, and her mother’s boyfriend, Bobby. She listened to Bobby’s clomping in the kitchen, his heavy shoes on the linoleum floor. She heard his footsteps muffled on the carpet in approach, then knuckles on her door. “Time to get up!” Bobby yelled from the hallway. He jiggled the doorknob. Alyssa froze, feigned sleep.
Bobby had been in her room last night. She’d smelled his booze. She heard his creak on her floor. Felt his hand on her. She went limp beneath his touch. She thought of the flags she had lying on her dresser, American flags with thin wooden dowels. She’d lunge for them if need be, she thought, send one through his ribs into his shriveled heart if he touched her again. But Bobby had backed away. She’d heard the catch of her bedroom door, then the toilet flush and the thud of his feet back down the hall. With that, she’d crept out of bed and pushed a pile of dirty clothes in front of her door. She’d wedged her algebra book under the stop.
Alyssa stood in front of the mirror staring into her own eyes. They were hazel today, not the green they sometimes were, the green they were on her best days. Today, brown fringed her irises. She saw herself reflected in her pupils, a tiny Alyssa in each one. Though she couldn’t see them, she knew those tiny Alyssas had Alyssas reflected in their pupils too, and they Alyssas in theirs. It went on that way forever, into infinity.
Out in the kitchen, she heard Bobby’s muffled voice over the television, the jiggle of his keys, his clomp to the door, its squeak, its catch. She let out a sigh. Quickly she yanked off her pajamas and slipped on a tank top and shorts. Over that, she pulled a satin gown, fern green and shapeless, a toga. She quickly wound her brown hair into a bun and on her head stuck a foam rubber tiara, exaggerated spikes like floppy knives radiated from its crown. She straightened it in the mirror, grabbed up her flags, pushed the clothes and the book aside and left, the front door closing behind her with a click.
Outside, the wind brought the drone of morning traffic. Alyssa cut across the parking lot and pushed herself up onto the low block wall that separated her apartment building from the strip mall on the highway. She threw a leg over, then slid to the other side and ran around the corner of the shopping center to the hydrant by the driveway. She straightened her toga there, then her crown, then stood facing traffic. She closed her eyes and calmed herself with a deep breath, then, slowly and precisely, she waved her American flags at the passing cars.
Bobby turned his smoking Celica into the parking lot. He stopped, “Hey Lady Liberty, I got doughnuts!” He held a grease-stained bag aloft. Alyssa didn’t look at him. “Hey, Miss America! Yoo-hoo! Earth to the Statue of Liberty!” Alyssa screwed her eyes up to look at him. “You’re going to scare off customers with that face!” Bobby sighed. “Why don’t you smile? You’d be a lot prettier if you smiled.” Alyssa blushed and looked away. Bobby clattered his smoking car forward and parked it. Alyssa heard his keys, then the jingle and squawk of the Liberty Bail Bonds door.
Across the highway, Daniel danced on the curb, twirling a big red arrow: CHICKEN AND WAFFLES, OPEN 24 HOURS. He smiled and shook, arms and legs and moves, his pants below his plaid boxers and the curve of his round ass. Alyssa watched him out of the corner of her eye while she waved her flags. Daniel had groped her once at school, she remembered, him and his friends. If he ever touched her again, she thought, she’d stab him with one of these flags. Just like Bobby. She’d snap the dowel off into a sharp point, and she’d ram the sharp stick between his ribs. She looked at the flags, then up at Daniel dancing across the street.
Alyssa sat against the corner of the building, behind the dumpster and out of sight of traffic. She pulled her knees to her chest and looked down at her legs. She raised the hem of her toga and rubbed her hands along them. They were tan from the hours she spent at the pool since school got out, the hours she spent before her mother made her do this. What mother does that? What kind of mother makes her daughter stand on the side of the road and actually try to attract criminals? She wedged herself tighter into the shade between the dumpster and the building, two walls of a private room, a room that reeked of sour milk. She closed her eyes.
Valerie, Alyssa’s mother, turned into the lot’s driveway, honked and waved. Alyssa knew how her mother was dressed without even looking at her, high heels and shorts, Alyssa’s shorts probably, but pulled up so her butt hung out the back. She had her boobs pushed up too, Alyssa knew. There were freckles and age spots on them, but she didn’t even care, didn’t care that she was old but still dressed like a teenager. So embarrassing. Alyssa heard the door jingle at Liberty Bail Bonds, her mother’s voice, a giggle. The light changed and the traffic droned again. Alyssa watched Daniel dance across the street.
The Liberty Bail Bonds door jingled. In the doorway, Alyssa saw her mother straighten her clothing. She looked back at Alyssa as she walked to her car. “I was going to make you a sandwich, honey, but we’re out of bread,” she called to Alyssa. “You’ll have to go and get something. And get something for Carrie too. I won’t be home until late, so make sure Carrie gets to bed at a decent hour.” Valerie opened the car door and climbed in. Alyssa heard the engine rev and the crunch of the tires on the asphalt as Valerie eased the car up alongside Alyssa and pulled her sunglasses from her face. Dark circles ringed her eyes “By the way,” Valerie said, “Bobby has your paycheck—I may need to borrow a couple bucks if that’s okay. Just for a couple of days.” She put the sunglasses on and smiled. “Love you!” Then she gunned the car onto the highway. Alyssa watched it disappear into traffic.
Daniel sat on the curb staring into his phone. The big red arrow lay in the gutter next to him, pointing at a Greyhound bus idling in front of the bus station next door. Paint covered the station windows, bright colors, destinations: MEXICO. LOS ANGELES, LAS VEGAS, BAKERSFIELD. SUMMER STUDENT SPECIAL $20.
Alyssa stared at the window. She’d been on a bus when they went to see her dad in prison. Carrie was still a baby then. Her father was dressed all in white when they visited, and they all sat at a table, he across from them. Alyssa could hug him only once, she remembered, and only when they were leaving. She cried a lot and, because of that, she never visited him again. Her mother said it was too hard on her, too hard on all of them. But Alyssa thought about him every day. High Desert State Prison, Susanville, California. Alyssa recited the name in her head. He’d be getting out soon, she figured. Ten years had passed. She’d go find him. Susanville. She’d buy a ticket with her paycheck and go find him and she’d never come back here again. Ever.
Alyssa faced traffic waving her flags. A tractor-trailer loomed by, rumbling the ground beneath her feet. Behind her, she heard Bobby’s smoking car rattle to life. She stopped waving her flags, pulled the foam rubber tiara from her head, unclipped her hair, and shook it free. As the car approach her, she lifted the toga over her head and rolled it into a tight package. The sun bathed her arms, her legs. She raised her face to it and closed her eyes. The throb of traffic crashed over her. Bobby’s car rattled toward her, and as it approached, she snapped one of her flagstaffs in two, breaking it into a sharp point. Bobby’s car eased up alongside her, “Want a ride?” He had her paycheck in his hand. She looked up at the window across the street: LOS ANGELES, LAS VEGAS, BAKERSFIELD. MEXICO. She caressed the sharp flagstaff in her hand, and looking again at the bus depot across the street, she smiled. The door to Bobby’s car creaked as she pulled it open. She slid in. Bobby looked over at her and patted her leg. “You hungry?” His eyes were like hers, green with a rim of brown around them. She’d never noticed that before. She looked at his hands on the steering wheel, his ribcage bare and exposed but for a thin, stained shirt. She said nothing.
Bobby smiled and lurched the smoking car out into traffic. Daniel stood on the curb staring at his phone, his big red arrow resting at his feet.
Read the rest of “Liberty Bonds” in apt‘s fifth print annual.
William Hillyard writes mostly nonfiction, what he likes to call “human disinterest stories,” stories about people and places that don’t register a blip on the mainstream radar. His subjects have included immigrant day laborers, Tijuana hookers, illegal aliens, and rural poverty. He recently completed a collection of linked essays set in Wonder Valley, a nowhere corner of the Mojave Desert. Hillyard has a BA in Literary Journalism from UC Irvine and an MFA from UC Riverside. He lives in Orange County, California.