The ring of the bell came like a hard shove, tipping June off her imagination into the decaying, wooden walls of the bar. She looked over at the figure and immediately got to pouring cheap rum into a mug. It was what he always ordered. She pressed her palms to her dress, wiping off her fear and disgust for the man, and prepared herself for his intruding touches. It’s what he always did.
He bared his teeth at her in a smile more feral than human. She smiled tightly and pretended to go back to wiping the coffee rings off of the countertop.
“Your dad ain’t here today?”
She had no idea where her father was but she knew better than to say that.
“He’s out in the back fixing the broken tables.” She prayed he hadn’t spotted her father lying drunk in an alley somewhere.
“You should let your old man wait on people sometimes and enjoy a good day out with me.” A touch on her waist. She stepped slightly to the left, stabbing another coffee ring with her rag.
“Perhaps someday when Macy and Ed are old enough.”
“Eh. Let your father take care of his kids for once.” He leaned forward over the counter trying to touch her hair.
“She’s good at what she does though”, a voice chimed in. She had almost forgotten Old Wade lying slump against a beam in one of the corners. “Let’s get back, Chief.” He stood on unsteady legs and gestured to the man at the counter.
It was only when she had seen Chief Gleemen’s silhouette fade into the road that her hands stopped shaking. She hung the rag on the nail inside the cabinet, knowing she’d need it to save her again.
Her father wasn’t out in the back after all. He was lying face down on the floor, still drunk from yesterday. Macy stepped from behind her, quietly taking away the knife she recognized from the previous night.
“Tell us a story, June.” Ed had beamed at her flashing the dark space where his tooth had been. It was the first tooth he had lost.
From behind the partition, Macy whined “Not yet, not yet, not yet. I’m almost done with my school work.”
Ed had his head on June’s lap while she was scribbling away in her ruddy diary.
“Shall we now?” Macy said, slipping under the covers.
“The story is called Treasure Island.” She told them about one innkeeper and his son Jim and how he ran off on a ship one day, looking for gold.
“Did the innkeeper beat Jim too?” June looked down at Ed, knowing he was thinking of their father.
“I don’t know, midget.”
“I think it’s a good thing Jim did, running away on the ship.” Macy murmured. “We’ll do it too someday.”
“If you two are done, shall I continue with the story?” June pinched Macy’s nose, smiling.
It was then that the door flew open and Flynn strutted in, dragging his dead left foot. Macy gripped Ed and pushed herself further down the covers.
June stepped out of bed between her half-siblings and her father.
“Where’s the money from today?” He slurred.
“There were no customers today.” It had been pouring the entire day. Even a drunken man would know nobody could have been out in a storm like that. But clearly, this drunken man would have none of that.
“Stealing”, he shouted. “You’re stealing from me.”
“We’re not stealing from you.”
“Then where did you get that thing you keep scribbling on?”
“A woman gave it to me when I helped her set up her shack at the camp.” She hoped drunken men were as bad at detecting hate as they seemed to be at detecting theft.
That was when he had whipped out the knife. Everything happened at once. Macy screamed, Ed’s head popped out from under the covers and Flynn lunged at them.
“If I find out you have been stealing, I will carve out ‘thief’ on your arm for everyone to see you are a whore and a thief.” His breath on her face made June’s eyes water and fear drowned out the faint voice of reason that kept telling her that Flynn needed her as a barmaid. No. No. Flynn can’t afford it. He knew that a lot of the rogue army scouts and most of the refugees in the camps came in for her as much as they came for cheap alcohol.
He was out of the door as suddenly as he had come in.
Behind her, Ed was weeping.
“We need to find our ship, June” was the only thing Macy said that night. It was the only thing anyone said.
The rains had subsided without so much as a whisper. The sun came out bright, fuming, and with it, the steady stream of customers, refugees and scouts alike. More people generally meant fewer stares, as men got caught up in stray conversations floating between tables, and for that she was grateful. She sat perched on the stool, diary in hand, eyes far away, catching bits of conversation she found hanging that she would carefully file in between the pages.
A knock on the wood, and she stumbled out of her thoughts. The man in front had a mop of straight black hair, with white dust sprinkled all over it.
“Do you happen to serve tea here?”
She just about grinned at the man. He had to be new. He was too polite not to be. And did he just ask for tea?
“We don’t really. But I could fix you some tea.”
“Yes, please.” How quaint.
She placed the cup on the counter. It had a broken handle. It was likely to scald his hand. Yet, it was the best she could find.
“Thank you.” There it was again. That unsettling politeness. Almost as if he hadn’t been scalded yet. How could that be? The hooked nose and the strange grey-brown eyes told her he was a refugee. He must have had his home razed to the ground by strangers; he must have lost people he had loved. And yet…
He looked up over the rim of the cup. “I’m really not. But it’s the first time I’m here.”
She wondered why he had come now. He may not be a drinker, she thought eyeing the tea.
She slipped back to her diary, letting the edges graze her finger softly.
“I’m a teacher here. Macy had mentioned this place one too many times. So I decided to come.”
Oh. This was Macy’s teacher. Noah. Macy had been singing his praise for nearly a year now. The refugee with straight black hair and white dust sprinkled on it. Chalk. The man who had taught Macy math and geography and that women weren’t less, just because they had learned to be quiet.
She smiled. “Hello, Mr. Noah. I hear you’ve turned the whole class around. Macy had never liked a teacher before. Almost didn’t believe you were real.”
He grinned and then pointed to the diary “I don’t imagine that’s for inventory.”
“It’s for when I want someplace to go.”
The corners of his lips quirked up in apparent amusement. “Where has it taken you so far?”
It was then that Gleemen walked in again.
“June, bring the drink over to my table.” He pulled a chair facing two other men.
It was the cold, icy feeling of reptile skin brushing up against her leg. Noah studied them, still wearing the calm, pleasantly happy face that was so strange in this land.
June shrunk back behind the counter, pulling out what he always ordered.
She eyed Noah for one fleeting moment, embarrassed that a gentleman such as he would now see her for what she truly was.
“You should join us someday.” His fingers brushed against her arm, rough like sandpaper chafing her skin. She smiled thinly, pointing to the counter, and stepped away, fading back into the decaying wood. When she turned, Noah had finished his tea. The cup sat on the table far away from him.
“How much do I owe you for the tea?”
She looked over his shoulder for a fleeting moment, the only polite man on this forgotten stretch of land. “Don’t worry about it. Consider it a gift for teaching Macy.”
He shook his head. “I must pay.”
When she started to object he said, “Besides, if you were to give me a gift, wouldn’t you rather give me something of my liking?”
June almost smiled. Despite Gleemen.
“What would you like then?”
“I’ll need to sleep on it.” He pushed the money on the counter smiling and walked away.
“Mr. Noah was here today.”
Macy turned, beaming wide “He was? How was he? Did you like him?”
“He’s very polite.”
Macy nodded and leaned against June’s knee.
“I’ve told him about your stories. I’ve told him how beautiful they are.”
“He’s a teacher, Macy. Stories are not so impressive to learned men.”
“On the contrary, Miss June, I think they’re even more impressive to learned men.”
June laughed recognizing the pretentious tone Macy had picked up from someone at school. “Close your eyes, midget.”
Noah came again, two weeks later.
“Tea?” she smiled.
“Yes, please.” He slid onto the stool across the counter.
She returned with the broken handled cup, his cup, to find him eyeing her diary.
“You write, don’t you?” he gestured to the diary.
“That’s where you are when you aren’t here. Lost in your stories.” His smile is beautiful. It didn’t belong. She shook her head. “I’m always here.” Her smile was bitter. It fit.
It felt like forever since she had last felt the evening sun on her face. Their father had gone to the neighboring town, nearly five hundred miles away and she clasped that chance with both hands.
The sun was descending into the horizon. Macy and Ed were building a pebble palace with their friends. Perched on a rock under the sky, she didn’t feel like the weight of hundred decaying wooden beams was crushing her, like ducking under the counter and counting seconds until the eyes crawled off of her skin. She felt like an ordinary twenty-year-old, out to catch the last of the dying sun in her diary, the laughter of her siblings bouncing off the rocks.
“Enjoying the sunset?” Noah’s voice came from somewhere behind her.
“It’s a good day.” She said simply, her eyes taking in the stray groups of families, both blood and makeshift, all lost in their own versions of the sunset.
“They come here every day. Almost religiously.” He sat down on the ground a few feet away from her.
“I cheat. Sometimes, I’m reading a book and time just flies until it’s morning and I have to rush so I don’t wait too long in the line to the bathroom. Although, I do often turn up to class smelling like yesterday’s smoke and sweat.”
“You must blend right in then.” June smiled wryly.
He chuckled. “I should hope so. At least the children don’t complain even if they might mind.”
She looked at the children. Macy and Ed, with their drunk, absent father, Maya, with a grandmother and two dead parents, Gus with his paralyzed, dying father and four brothers who ran errands for the scouts in return for food.
“They don’t have much to complain about.” She looked at him. “Not after everything.”
He was quiet for a while.
“There’s a world out there, you know? There’s more to life than just makeshift schools and houses and long lines for a bathroom and starving to the point of death. There is one. I know because I had been there. We had all been there some time, hadn’t we?”
She studied him for a moment. “I’ve lived here all my life. Even if there was a world out there, I’d not be part of it. I never was.”
He shook his head. “I don’t think so. I think you’d venture out. I think you’d be so tired of staying in that you’d finally come out to feel the sun again, and once you did, you’d never go back. Nothing else would be enough. Nothing but light and freedom, and knowing you have possibilities.”
It was suddenly so quiet. The sky was up in flames. Dying, beautiful. It had already been half a year to the day their father had threatened to carve into her skin while her siblings wept behind her. Her fingers instinctively went to trace one of the scars on her arms.
“You know what proud flesh is, Noah?”
He shook his head.
“It happens when a horse gets wounded. Actually, it happens when it starts to heal. The place where the wound was supposed to be, smoothes over. The flesh slowly grows back and becomes this pale, raised tissue. You could tell with one look that the horse had been wounded there. But it no longer hurts. It’s almost like the flesh knows it wasn’t meant to be there, but it grows back anyway, forcing its way out. It’s called proud flesh.”
It was suddenly so quiet. The flames had died out in the sky. She couldn’t believe it had been half a year to the day Noah had first walked into the bar.
Noah studied her for a long moment. “Do you remember that you owe me a gift?”
June laughed. “I thought you had to sleep on it.”
“Six months is a long nap.”
“What can I say, Miss June, except that time gives you perspective.” He mocked. “I want you to write me a story.”
“I’ve told you plenty of stories.”
“You have. And I don’t think it’s fair that when you go, you take them with you. I want at least your stories to stay behind with me.”
She searched for her breath through the lump in her throat. “Okay. But only because it’s bad to say no when someone asks for a gift.”
“Right, yes. Only because of that.” He smiled and looked down.
Their father was uncannily quiet that night. She was glad he wasn’t strutting about flinging things or threatening to beat them. But it was still an unnerving quiet, like the sky before lightning.
She placed some bread and stew on the table and turned to leave.
“How is Macy?”
“She is well.”
“Does she still go to that wretched shed?”
“Her school? Yes.”
“Send her in.”
Her heart felt despairingly heavy in her chest. In their room, Macy was hunched over Ed’s coloring book.
“Yeah?” She said without looking up.
“Flynn asked for you.”
Her head snapped up immediately and June could almost taste the terror in Macy’s eyes.
“What does he want?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know.” It was almost a wail.
She held Macy’s hand. “It’s alright, midget. I’ll be right beside you. Won’t let him hurt you, I promise.”
They grabbed each others’ hands in the dark and the door creaked open loudly, as obnoxious as Flynn.
“Macy, my sweet girl.” Macy gripped her hand tighter. “Been wanting to talk to you since I came back from the town.”
His smile was as dead as his eyes, rotten teeth spiking up, one over the other.
“I met this kind woman who agreed to take you in. You’d live with her. She’d teach you everything. It’d be better than the sorry learning you get in that cowshed.”
June’s heart was like a dead weight in her chest. She knew what woman Flynn might have met.
“You’d have a beautiful place to live, your own room, your own bed and mirror and nobody would ever disturb you.”
Macy’s voice was so small. “What about June and Ed?”
“They’ll go over to see you often. You know June. She never was a quick learner like you. That’s why she takes care of the bar. It’s the only thing she’s good at. So she’ll stay here, do her job and visit you from time to time.”
Flynn’s dead eyes passed over June.
“What did you say?”
“You are not selling Macy. Or did you sell her already? How much did you get for her?”
“You bitch. Stay out of this.”
“You couldn’t have sold her yet. They don’t give the money until they have the item, do they? You don’t want any marks on Macy. It’s why you haven’t dragged her out already.”
Macy’s fingers went loose from around June’s wrist and she ran as quickly as Flynn lunged at them. June shut the door and held it in place with a chair. It wouldn’t hold for very long.
“Macy, take Ed and run to the camp. Go to Noah.”
“You..come..Ed..Me.” Macy was shuddering.
“I will. Go now. Run. There isn’t time.”
June ran through the corridor into the bar and emptied the cabinet of whatever money she had saved. Her hands shook, no longer a part of her body.
She heard Macy and Ed’s feet shuffling in the corridor.
The door flew open. Flynn fell forward and stood up immediately flinging the chair in her direction. She had to distract him long enough so Macy and Ed could make it around the corner. Then, the floodlights of the patrolling points around the camp would save them. Flynn couldn’t touch them there, with everyone watching.
She picked up the piece of dry wood that had hung off the frame of the chair and threw it at him. When he turned, June knew he was going to kill her. It didn’t matter that she ran the bar and brought in the customers and their money. He’d kill her.
He sprung. She jumped out of the way, going behind the counter to grab a bottle.
“You filthy whore, you think that will save you?”
Outside, the sound of Macy’s and Ed’s feet had faded into the gravel. Now it was just the blood pounding in her ears, and Flynn’s dead foot dragging itself on the wood.
When he lunged again, she banged the bottle hard on the wood. The sound of shattered glass hitting the floor and Flynn’s strangled curse as he stepped on a shard dissolved in the adrenaline in her veins. She ran past the counter into the corridor.
But Flynn sounded so close. How did he get so close when he was wounded? She turned around and blindly pushed the shard of the bottleneck into the air. Flynn’s scream was all she heard before she began running until the floodlights blinded her.
Noah all but ran to her when she came into view and she was grateful. She didn’t think her legs would carry her any longer.
“Come on, June. Let’s go. Just a couple more steps.” He murmured as he stilled her shaking form. She wanted to say something but the words stayed glued to her throat.
“Macy and Ed are alright. Ed has a small cut from a thornbush. But that is all. They’re there with Aman and his wife. They’re alright, June. They’re alright.”
Then the tears started streaming down from and strangled sobs began floating out of her into the night.
“We’ll all go away, June. We’ll find our light. We’ll go out into the world and it’ll be terrifying but it would be alright because we’d watch each other. We’d look out for each other. We’ll have light, and freedom and possibilities, June.”
She let his words sew themselves in beside her scars. She let them settle in her heart, grasping at them, trusting them. She let him hold her as they walked into a tarp held up by a wooden frame behind which she could hear Macy’s voice telling Ed nobody would hurt them now.
When June stepped in, they rushed to hug her. She hadn’t realized that Ed came up past her belly now, and Macy came up to her shoulders. They were so much bigger than when she could lift both of them in her arms together and swing them around.
Macy kissed her cheek and whispered. “We found our ship, June.”
June held them both and sobbed until Aman’s wife stroked her hair and asked her if she’d like some bread.
The sky was eerily clear that night. And the stars shone as though it didn’t matter to them at all, that in the past few hours, their father had nearly sold her half-sister to a pimp and she had probably left him to his death.
Her eyes ran over the barren ground, littered with a few thorny bushes, the same place where her siblings had been building a castle a week ago. “Do you think he’ll live?”
“I don’t care, June.” Noah leaned against the stone. “I’m actually relieved. We’ll be gone in the morning and we’ll not have to worry about him stalking up behind you, we’ll not have to remember any of this.”
She brings her knees close to her chest. “I’ve only been to the town once and I don’t remember what it was like.”
“We’ll find out together. We’ll keep going until we find a place that calls to our hearts. And then we’ll make a life there.”
“What will we do?”
“Aman says he’ll try to work for a builder in one of those construction sites. Lena is a brilliant seamstress and I’ll try to find a teaching job. Macy and Ed could come with me to the school. I’d keep an eye on them. We’ll be good.”
Her heart was still beating erratically, like it wasn’t quite her own yet.
“What will I do?” She murmured.
She wasn’t a good seamstress – she only knew enough to make do. She hadn’t learned enough to be a teacher. She hadn’t learned at all. She had only ever learned to be a barmaid.
“You could write, June.”
“I really mean it. There’s so much you can do with your words, June. You could start with writing for a small newspaper. It’d pay until you could write your own stories.” His hands were comfortingly cold on her skin. “You just need to know that you’re not alone anymore. In all these years, you’ve taken care of yourself and your siblings all on your own. You’ve had to face that monster you have for a father and men touching you, leering at you and you’ve had to keep doing it over and over because there was nobody else and there was nowhere to go. But there is now. You have us now. We’ll watch each other, June. You never have to be alone again.”
The starlight shone off of the tears in her eyes, hopeful little pools. She rested her head against the rock. She didn’t know what lay ahead, didn’t know if the world really was full of possibilities for someone like her. But she knew that she had never felt safer.
“I did write you the story, you know.”
“Oh?” She heard him smile.
“If I’m going to be a writer, I might as well start. Who knows, it could be a huge success if I ever publish it.”
He grinned. “Do I get to read it before it gets published?”
She beamed. “Oh yes, I was hoping you’d be the first.”
“What’s the story about?”
“It’s about a girl and a boy. Mostly the girl though. The boy is just a tag along.”
His laugh rang through the night. “And?”
“Should I give away the whole story now? It’s about a barmaid who never had a home and a refugee who lost his.”
He smiled, “Very intriguing.”
“Yeah? I don’t know what to call it though.”
His fingers were tracing one of her scars.
“Call it Proud Flesh.”