October 15 was a Thursday, three days after my eleventh birthday. My father came home from work, smelling of cigarette smoke and booze, wearing that big goofy smile that was normally reserved for strangers. He kicked off his shoes, threw his Yankees cap at the hook next to the door and missed, then announced that he was taking me to the mall on Saturday to celebrate.
As with all of his grand pronouncements, he waited for me to show excitement at the prospect, maybe even a little joy, but my face remained in its usual dull set. The idea didn’t excite me. It made the hairs on my arms stand on end, churned in my stomach and sent sour little bubbles that burned into my throat. Malls were his favorite hunting grounds: all those shops, all those people, all those escapes. I would gladly give up birthdays and celebrations for the rest of my life if only I never had to set foot in a mall again.
He waited, and I tried to summon a smile, a hint of appreciation, any bit of emotion that would satisfy him, but nothing would come. I just felt sick. I couldn’t do it. Not again.
Of course he knew my thoughts. He always did. His jovial mood vanished in a heartbeat, his smile turning to a snarl. His right hand came up automatically, poised to strike my cheek the way he’d done a hundred times before, but with a muscle twitching in his jaw, another at the corner of his eye, he stilled the motion.
He wasn’t sparing me. I knew it, and the evil gleam in his eyes showed that he knew I knew. The punishment would come, just not before we went to the mall. He needed me to attract the kind of victim that excited him, and that attraction was always based on sympathy. Poor little waif, separated from her father, big brown eyes, trembling lower lip, fear in her voice—just the thing to kick maternal instincts into high gear. A bruised cheek, a split lip, a black eye—they earned sympathy, too, but not the kind he wanted. Needed.
Though I’d spent my entire life shrinking away from him, tonight I didn’t. Not this time. I stood tall and sullen and staring, but inside the shivers had started, and they wouldn’t stop for a long, long time. Saturday was only two days away. Some woman whose only fault in life was catching my father’s attention was going to suffer horribly and then she was going to die.
And then I would suffer, too, but I wouldn’t die. I didn’t know if that made me the lucky one.
Or the unlucky one.
—Excerpt, The Unlucky Ones by Jane Gama
Summer was a hell of a time to be in the lawn care business in Oklahoma.
With the air temperature hovering around ninety-five degrees and the humidity somewhere in the same range, Mila Ramirez was eager to escape the oppressive heat as soon as the battered pickup came to a stop. Opening the door required reaching through the window that wouldn’t roll up and grasping the outside handle, sizzling hot in the morning sun. She gave the door a shove with her foot, making it creak, then slid to the ground, her boots making solid clunks on the pavement. If the driveway had been blacktop instead, she was pretty sure they would have sunk into it.
You’re the one who wanted an outside job, remember? You should have become a lake ranger instead.
Alejandro and Mario tumbled out on her heels, bearing the smells of sweat, engine oil and unwashed bodies. If she didn’t smell just as bad, the odors might have overwhelmed her. As it was, she ignored their stink and her own and headed to the trailer.
Cheap plastic crinkled as Ruben handed out bottles of water from the cooler. He was a sour, taciturn man who worked hard, worked his crew hard and had little interest in chitchat. He had even less interest in Mila. None of the crews at Happy Grass Lawn Service did.
Which suited her fine. Hadn’t avoiding attention been one of her goals in life?
She slid the water bottle inside the insulated holder she wore bandolier-style, then grabbed the favorite of her trimmers and a garden trug filled with tools and headed around the corner of the house. Ruben didn’t bother to give them assignments; they’d worked together long enough to know their jobs. This customer was a regular, every Wednesday right after lunch.
The house was somewhere in the high six figures, but she paid it no mind. It was the yard she liked: spacious, more than five acres, with a sparkling blue pool and elaborate flower garden out back. She’d planted the garden herself back in the spring, coaxed the plants to grow from seedlings to strong lush specimens, full of color and fragrance and promise. The irrigation system took care of watering the rest of the week, but on Wednesdays, the plot got her personal attention as she watered and weeded and deadheaded, caring for it as if it were her own.