Vacant Chapter 1 Alone

I grew up in a small house in a lower-class neighborhood, just my dad and me. My old man worked a blue-collar job with shit benefits. I can't complain too much though, because I never went hungry and always had a roof over my head.

No, my dad didn't hug me every night or read bedtime stories by the glow of a nightlight, but he fed me, clothed me, and didn't knock me around. That's more than some of my friends had, so I was grateful. I hadn't known then, growing up, that there was anything more in life to want.

I was fifteen when my father left just after dinner to buy a pack of cigarettes. He never came home.

My dad was shot in a convenience store parking lot after he gave the wrong guy the wrong look. He walked down to get some smokes and didn't take his wallet, just five bucks for the cheapest pack he could get. He was shot at point-blank range, no cigarettes or money found on his person.

He was listed as a John Doe at the morgue. There was no burial and no identity when he moved from this life to the next.

I was on my own for a week before anyone realized I was alone. I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut, to get up and go to school every day. I figured I had at least three or four months before a bill collector came knocking, but the nosy bitch across the street hadn't seen the old man in a week and was "worried."

That's when I began my life in the system. It's not like on TV; when you're an orphan in an after school special, they ship your ass off to a relative and everyone lives happily ever after. In real life, though, if you don't have family that wants you - or family at all, you become a ward of the state. Sure, they have foster homes and pretend families that some kids get to live with, but there are a shit-ton of homeless kids and few foster families available. Many foster parents are in it for the money, so they aren't exactly the best option, either. Typically, you're stuck in a group home with other kids in the same messed up situation as you and a revolving door of caregivers. However, I had a bed to sleep in, clothes on my back, and I was not a victim of abuse. It wasn't all that different from living with my dad.

At eighteen, Children's Services kicked my ass out. There were lots of kids to take care of and not a lot of money. Luckily, I'd gotten a job at a grocery store as a bag boy at sixteen and began saving. I wasn't stupid or naive enough to think the state was going to take care of me forever. I was fortunate enough to have graduated from high school before I got the boot; some kids had to worry about finishing school in addition to being homeless.

My father told me many times I couldn't depend on anyone but myself, and I never realized how right he was before the day I was truly on my own.

With my savings in hand and a promotion to stock-boy, I got my first place. It was the cheapest place I could find in a neighborhood without bars on the windows. It was small and dirty, but it was mine. There weren't gunshots whizzing by my windows or the sounds of screaming every night, so I wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

My life hasn't changed much in the past three years. I get up every morning, walk to the grocery store, clock in, work a ten hour shift, clock out, come home, mind my own business, and do it again the next day.

I don't have friends because they create lots of complications and drama. I spend my time at work smiling at the customers and doing my job. Co-workers ask me out from time to time, but the truth is I don't have extra money to have a few beers with the guys or take a girl on a date. I'm always careful with my rejection. There's no sense in hurting anyone's feelings when it's not necessary. Plus, it would lead to questions I'm not willing to answer.

I'm sitting alone at my thrift store kitchen table, staring down at a day-old cookie. It's my twenty-first birthday today. I don't have any plans, and there are no cards in my mailbox. I'm having dessert for breakfast, a treat to myself, and I'm thankful for what little I have.

It's sad as hell, but I don't have any candles so I light a match and jam it in the middle of the damn cookie. I don't even make a wish before I blow out the tiny flame so it doesn't burn down and ruin my treat.

No sooner than the flame's gone out, there's a knock at my door. I look at my dollar store wall clock and see it's only nine. I can't imagine who would be at my door this early on a Saturday morning. Most of my neighbors sleep in after a late Friday night.

Even though I'm twenty-one, I tend to think of myself as more mature than most people my age, so when I open the door and see a girl, petite and fragile in appearance, I automatically think she's young. She may even be my age, maybe younger, but my experience makes me feel like I'm over thirty, so she seems like a girl to me.

She's standing there smiling as if she doesn't have a care in the world, obviously not knowing people around here don't smile. I peer at her through the ripped screen of my front door as the heat and humidity of the day filters in.

"Hey, what's up? I'm Emily. I just moved in next door."