by NEVA BRYAN
Walther PPS by Brandon Jasper | Flickr
The exotic dancer is more exotic than most. She has a vestigial tail that rests just above her butt crack.
It hangs over a wisp of translucent fabric that could optimistically be called a thong. The tail is a little nub about the length of my pinky finger. When the dancer wiggles it, her glitter- dusted tail shimmers pink and silver beneath the stage lights. The music is loud. Throbbing. Perfect for the way she dances.
Her stage name is Cosmic Flickers. From the looks of the crowd, she’s the club’s most popular dancer.
This whole scene makes me want to puke. I have to remind myself that I’m here to find my sister.
As I walk through the club, I think about the stats I found on the internet. There were more than 5,000 cases of human trafficking in the United States last year. Those are just the reported ones. God only knows how many people are really being trafficked.
I pass a table crowded with empty shot glasses and the greasy remains of chicken wings. Four men hunch over their beers, their forearms frosted with foam. They keep their eyes glued to Cosmic Flickers, but as I brush past them, one of the men pats me on the ass.
I halt and turn to stare at the creep who touched me. He’s already returned his gaze to the stage. This intrusion feels like a job for Walter. Walter is my nickname for the Walther PPS I have tucked inside my jacket.
I hear my mother’s voice in my head: You have to choose your battles, Sarah. I decide I don’t have time for this kind of fight. Sighing, I turn away from the creep and continue my trek through the club. A sucking sound trails me. The floor is sticky. Hopefully, it’s only spilled beer.
As I walk, the stats return to my mind, running like a text crawl along the bottom of a television newscast. California, Texas, and Florida have the highest number of reported cases of trafficking. Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Tennessee have the lowest.
Tennessee. My sister and I grew up in a college town in East Tennessee.
Our mom was a nurse. Dad worked as an assistant director of the university’s sports facilities. It was a pretty stable life. We had curfews. It was understood that Carrie and I would go to college. We were expected to work when we weren’t in school. We weren’t rich by any means, but we didn’t grow up hard.
How did she end up with this life?
Exiting the central area of the club, I start through a dim hall. I’m glad to be away from the music. Here it’s nothing more than a dull bomp-bomp-bomp.
I pause at a closed door. A dark rectangular outline decorates the door; it’s filled with the residue of tape. I wonder what happened to the sign. When I catch a whiff of urine wafting from beneath the door, I figure the bathroom sign must have been ripped away by some drunk who couldn’t get in to piss.
The hall gets darker as I move past the bathroom. I wonder if that’s deliberate. Thinking about all the places I’ve been these past eight years--places my sister has been rumored to be--it wouldn’t surprise me to find out the lights have been removed or destroyed. Human traffickers might as well be cockroaches...they operate best in the dark.
They’re everywhere. Motels. Massage parlors. Online, of course. Private residences. Clubs like this one. So-called spas. Carrie got pulled into the business at a spa when we were college freshmen. She was looking for a part-time job, and the place seemed legit. I didn’t find out it was a front until it was too late, after she disappeared.
The police tried their best to find her but came up empty-handed. I quit school and joined my dad to look for her. We could never quite get to her in time. All we found were people with stories of what she was doing. A year into the search, Dad had a stroke in a motel restaurant. The doctor said he was probably dead before he hit the floor.
Mom didn’t argue with me when I told her I would continue to look on my own. Mentally, she had already checked out. She spent a year stealthily stealing patients’ meds until she hoarded enough to kill herself. Carrie had been gone four years by that time.
So, here I am, in this club for exotic dancers, eight years on the trail of my twin sister. The things I’ve seen...I wish I could forget it all. Escort services. Strip clubs. Girls pimped out by men and women who’ve promised modeling jobs or acting gigs. Porno rings. Parents selling their kids to sexual predators in exchange for drugs or drug money. I want to kill them. I want to put a bullet in the head of every person who’s hurt these women and girls and boys.
I shake off all thoughts of what I’ve seen and try to focus on this moment. I’m close. So close. I turn a corner at the end of the hall and interrupt a couple in mid-screw. They are backlit by dim light emanating from a naked bulb at the far end of this new hallway.
The girl can’t be more than sixteen. He’s holding her up against the wall and doesn’t even miss a beat when I tell him to stop. I have to retrieve Walter and shove the barrel into the asshole’s ear before he takes me seriously.
I flick my head at the girl. Eyes wide, hands trembling, she pulls down her skirt and scrambles out of sight. The asshole is standing with his pants around his ankles. I run the gun down his back and let the cold metal come to rest against his butt cheek. He lets out a little tittering scream.
He turns his head and tries to look at me over his shoulder. When I shove him against the wall, he asks, “What do you want?”
“You work here?”
“I’m looking for your boss. Take me to that office.”
When he hesitates, I poke him with the gun. “Pull up your damn pants and take me to your boss.”
When he bends down, I kick him in the forehead, and he sprawls backward. A gun
skitters across the floor.
“Do I look stupid?” Without taking my gaze from him, I reach down and feel for his gun.
When I find it, I shove it into my jacket pocket. “Get up. Let’s go!”
Asshole climbs to his feet and pulls up his pants. He doesn’t bother to zip them. A red welt has risen on his forehead. I grin.
The guy trudges along, obviously reluctant. No doubt he’s wondering what he’ll have to pay for letting me through. We pass several closed doors. My heart starts to thump hard against my ribcage as I imagine people popping out like jack-in-the-box figures, only with guns or knives.
He stops at the next-to-last door, then looks at me. “This is it,” he mutters.
“Good.” I wave Walter at him. “Turn around.”
The asshole’s eyes widen. “You ain’t gonna shoot me, are you?”
“I got any reason to? Have you done something I should shoot you for?”
He shakes his head, and it seems he can’t stop. He offers a palsied denial. “No. No, I ain’t done nothing.”
“Turn around,” I say again, fumbling in my pocket.
As soon as he turns, I crack him in the head with his gun. He goes down on his knees but doesn’t fall. The guy groans and lifts his hand as if to touch the back of his head. I hit him again, and he falls face forward. I kick him, but he doesn’t move. I hit him one more time for good measure, then shove his gun back into my pocket.
My palms are sweaty, and I move Walter from one hand to the other as I wipe my hands against my jeans. They are shaking. I take a deep breath, shove open the door, and aim the gun at the boss sitting behind a huge metal desk.
My sister looks up from a stack of money she’s counting. She smiles when she sees me. “I’ve been expecting this for a long time.”
Carrie hasn’t aged much since the last day I saw her. My sister is fresh-faced...no make- up...and her hair is pulled straight back into a simple ponytail. She looks like a young missionary just out of college. I wonder how that can be, considering the things she’s done over the years.
Now that I’ve found her, all I can think to ask is, “Why?”
“Why not? I’ve made a lot of money, Sis. Way more than I would have if I had stayed in college and earned that business degree.”
“By hurting people. Degrading them. Exploiting them!” My voice rises, and I take a deep breath to calm myself.
“Better them than me.”
Acid rises in my throat, and I have to swallow hard to make it stay down. I share the same genetic makeup as this person sitting across from me, but she is alien to me. I have followed the trail of perversion and destruction she’s left behind her, a path as slimy as that of a morning slug, and it’s led me to this moment.
“You killed Mom and Dad as surely as if you had put a gun to their heads and pulled the trigger.”
She shrugs, then fiddles with a stack of money in front of her. “So, now what?”
“I’ve been asking myself that question for the past eight years. What would I do if I ever found you?”
“And what have you decided, dear Sarah?”
I shut my eyes tight for a second, then open them. They are wide and dry. “This.”
I pull the trigger.
More than fifty of Neva Bryan’s works appear in literary journals, anthologies, and online magazines. Selected publications include Weirdbook Magazine, Rat’s Ass Review, Shotgun Honey, and the anthology We All Live Downstream: Writings about Mountaintop Removal. Neva is the author of three novels, a children’s picture book, and a collection of short stories and poems. She publishes a blog about grief called “The Last Biscuit.” Neva lives in the mountain coalfields of Virginia with her husband and their dogs. She holds degrees from the University of Virginia and Chatham University.