by Emily Strempler

Light slanted through the bars on the hotel room window, dust swirling in lazy golden rays as they fell across the bed where The Boy dozed, curled up in a nest of blankets. An old computer on the desk in the corner, wedged in next to the hot plate and kettle, played the day’s football match over a stuttering internet connection. Leaning over the bathroom sink, The Woman applied makeup in between the streaks on the mirror. Magazines and old paperbacks were piled in a box on top of the toilet, moisture curling the pages. A garbage bag full of laundry sat on the floor by her feet. The fan rattled and wheezed, and mostly failed to keep down the damp, though The Woman had taken only a quick, cold shower.

Showers were one of the nice things about the hotel, along with the unlimited internet. At the last place, though smaller and more expensive, The Woman had paid for all of those things: the water, the internet, the electricity. And then there had been problems with the landlord. Not that the guy who ran the hotel wasn’t also a creep. He was, only a less awful sort. The kind that leered and joked but never actually did anything. Didn’t extort her for extra rent. Didn’t threaten to call the police, or demand personal favors, or steal her underwear from the common dryer.

Turning her face in the mirror, The Woman admired her work. She picked and pulled at her dress, adjusting it until it sat just the way she liked. She turned the towel hanging on the rack behind her to the nicer side, and posed, snapping photos until she was happy with how she looked in one of them. She used one of those smoothing filters—not too much, not enough that the men would notice. Sitting down on the closed lid of the toilet, she selected a list of clients from her contacts, copy-pasting message and photo from one to the next. Bored at home. Thinking about you! What are you doing tonight? followed by a string of cute little emojis, pink and red and sparkles.

The Woman never used real names for the men, didn’t ask for them; and if she ever heard them, she certainly didn’t write them down. She gave them all nicknames: The Business Man, The Butcher, The Foreigner, The Cyclist. She liked the way “The” names sounded, singular and grand. In her phone, she had notes for each man, full of little reminders—nicknames they wanted her to use, how they liked to pay, whether or not they tipped, places they preferred to meet. She didn’t take clients at home anymore, not since she’d taken in The Boy.

The day before, she had pulled the last of her money together to pay her rent, by transfer, and her phone bill at the shop down the street. The food was almost gone. And there were other expenses coming up—medication, new shoes, The Boy’s school books. She had resolved to purchase all of the books before the start of the school year, this time. She had the most important ones, math and science. And the homeschool booklets, those cost too, even if it was just printing costs at the library downtown.

She could have sent him to school. He was supposed to be in school. But The Boy was a slight, delicate-tempered thing, with a stubborn lisp, and the children had bullied him until he refused to go back. “I’ll run away,” he said. “I’ll run away and I won’t come back, I swear! You’re not my real mom, so you can’t make me!”

The Woman didn’t doubt he would, and so from then on The Boy had to be homeschooled. They did their classes together, taking turns with the laptop, watching instructors on video and filling out their workbooks. The tests cost money too, the ones you had to take to prove you’d moved up a grade. It wasn’t much, but sometimes The Woman found she didn’t have enough for both of them, and then only The Boy advanced.

The Boy knocked on the bathroom door asking about food so The Woman had to go find him something. Then she sat on the floor in the hotel room in her dress and her makeup. They passed the evening playing cards, empty instant noodle bowls and cups of cheap lemon soda between them. She kept one eye on her phone—didn’t tell The Boy off when he spilled soda on his sweater—and answered a slow drip of noncommittal texts from men who wanted to flirt, wanted more pictures, wanted to see her sometime but not right now.

Only The Business Man wanted to meet. He didn’t ask, wasn’t the type to ask. Come at 10. Call a car. Tell them to phone me. I’ll pay. The Woman called a car, checked her makeup, fixed her hair. She went out into the alley behind the hotel where she had told the driver she would be waiting. Curfew had started at seven. The city was quiet. Some of the other women were also leaving and huddled together, sharing cigarettes in the dark before their cars came. The mood was jittery and uncomfortable.

Before curfew, there had never been police in the neighborhood, except when there was a raid. Then the air would fill with light and noise, the street crowded with hazy-eyed revellers, government news cameras flashing. Just once, they had come through the hotel, banging on doors and overturning mattresses. More often, they were customers. Now, they arrived at odd hours without warning—large crowds of them—with cars and barricades, brandishing their batons, roaming the streets in search of violators to beat.

The President had announced the curfew at the beginning of the month, in a special 9am broadcast sent out to all of the country’s televisions and radios. There was a war on, he said, a war against “the criminal element.” Good, law-abiding citizens have no reason to be out on the street past dark. Good, law-abiding citizens would prefer to be at home with their families. Good, law-abiding citizens would be willing to sacrifice, to act in moral solidarity, to help stamp out the evils that preyed upon the country and threatened its way of life. The Woman hadn’t been awake for the announcement, and, anyway, didn’t own a television or radio to have heard it on. She watched it later, on the internet, after The Boy came running home from the market with bruises on his legs from police batons.

She gave The Business Man’s name, his real name because he was someone important, and phone number to the driver. The car was from a private taxi company, it’s interior softly cushioned and freshly cleaned. The driver put his phone on speaker, filling the car with the sound of ringing. The Business Man didn’t pick up right away. The driver looked back at The Woman and her stomach flipped. If he didn’t answer, she would have to dig up some money or something to pay this man who had surely gone far off his regular route to pick her up. She could tell by the way he was looking at her that he was thinking the same thing, thinking about what he might ask her to pay. The call connected and the Business Man’s voice boomed out, “Hello? Who is this? What do you want?”

“Hello, I have a woman here, she gave me your number . . .”

“Bring her around the back of the house. I’ll pay you when you get here.”

The driver frowned. “That’s not usually how—”

“You know who you’re talking to, don’t you?”

“Right, yes sir, but you know I need your card before—” The call ended. The driver sighed. “You wouldn’t happen to have a card on you, would you?”

The Woman shook her head.

“Didn’t think so.” He shifted the car into drive and set off at a crawl down the alley, past the bars and the liquor stores, turning out onto silent streets and picking up speed. His fingers drummed on the steering wheel.

Everywhere, there were blockades. Glitzy, imported cars careened obliviously through the empty city, full of the drunken children of the rich and politically connected. A few yards from one of the permanent checkstops, a woman in towering heels—her wrists and neck glinting with gold jewelry—vomited in the street. The men at the stop pretended not to see her and stopped a boy riding past on a bicycle instead, forcing him to his knees at the point of an automatic and rifling through his pockets. The taxi slipped through with a glance and a wave. As they turned the corner, a cracking hail of gunshots rang out through the night air. The driver turned on the radio, flooding the car with the fizzy sounds of pop music.

The Business Man lived on a palatial estate, down a long winding road at the edge of the city. Private security patrolled inside its towering outer walls. There were police cars in the drive, pulled up close to the front door. A member of The Business Man’s large staff, in a crisp blue uniform, spoke with several officers by the fountain under the trees. His wife was standing in the window, watching over the scene with her arms crossed. The Woman had only ever seen her from a distance, and thought her impossibly elegant, always dressed like one of those slim alien mannequins that stood in all the luxury shop windows downtown. The taxi pulled around the back and parked near the door to the guest wing. The doors locked before The Woman could get out.

“Not until I get paid,” The driver said.

The Woman had known The Business Man for a few years, and had been to the house only a handful of times. They usually met in hotel rooms, nice ones in the city’s tourist and business districts. Once, he had flown her to a different city, where he was attending a big conference, and put her up in a room across the street. He was a difficult man, demanding, and used to getting his way. But meeting him had been a stroke of luck for The Woman. She charged him five times as much as her usual clients, and he tipped her on top of that for extra time and services, little favors. When he was feeling generous, he would send her money for pictures, a few dollars per picture if she did exactly what he wanted.

They waited a long time, listening to the same songs over and over on the taxi’s radio. When The Business Man finally appeared—the sleeves of his monogrammed dress shirt rolled up past his elbows, buttons undone and his hair wild with sweat—he slapped his black card up against the driver’s window, and shouted at The Woman to get out. The door unlocked, and she jumped out. “Go inside,” he said. He leaned in towards the driver. “We’re going to have a word.” She walked quickly as their voices began to rise. “Do you know who I am? Do you? You disrespect me like this, what do you expect?” A security vehicle pulled up behind the taxi. The driver would be paid, probably. But not before calls were made to the police, or the licensing agency, or the taxi company.

The Business Man’s grown son stood by the door, watching the commotion, an unlit cigarette hanging from his lips and a lighter cupped in his hands. He barely looked at The Woman as she slipped past, down the hall, and into one of the many empty rooms. Turning on the light, she fixed her dress, and sat down gingerly on the edge of the bed. She didn’t dare take out her phone. Once, when drunk, he’d become frustrated with her for using it and smashed it against the hotel room wall. He had bought her a new one, a nicer one, the following morning. But still, the experience had frightened her.

She watched the minutes tick by on a little ornate clock sitting high on a shelf across the room. Tried to sit perfectly still. Tried not to look too tired or restless. Over an hour passed before he came for her. When he finally stormed in—seething with energy, doors slamming in his wake, his eyes drug wild and wide—she forced herself to smile. He paced wordlessly, up and down the length of the room beside the bed, one hand on his hip, the other waving in empty air. The Woman resisted the urge to rub her eyes. She reached out a hand, her fingers brushing across his arm as he passed. “What’s wrong, baby? You want to talk about it?”

He didn’t take her hand, but he did stop pacing. His hair was tousled. Pulling a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, he fumbled one out and stuck it in his mouth, then struggled with his lighter. Smoke curled into the dead air of the room. “What the hell isn’t wrong? Who does he think he is, huh? Who does he think he’s messing with? He. Needs. Me.” He stabbed a thumb back into his chest.

The Woman blinked. “Who?”

He called The President by his first name, and several ruder things besides. All he seemed to want to do was talk. He talked for hours, about his frozen foreign bank accounts and his wife’s cancelled trip, about some company The President was planning on nationalizing for “the patriotic effort,” how everyone seemed to think “he was made of money.” A long while after he had stopped making sense, he sat down next to her on the bed and fell abruptly silent, his arms resting on his legs, his head bowed. The Woman approached him with caution, smoothing his hair and rubbing his back until he would lie down. It wasn’t long before he was fast asleep on top of the covers, sprawled out and snoring loudly.

The Woman curled up in the leftover space beside him and lay awake until after the first light of morning drifted in through the window. A maid woke her gently, late into the day. “Miss, there’s a car here for you, just out back.”

The Business Man was long gone.

Traffic was slow on the way back to the hotel, the streets a crush of people struggling to get through the work of the day before sundown and curfew. The Woman rested her head against the frame of the car’s window, refreshing the inbox on her phone, waiting for a familiar message from his preferred transfer service. It wasn’t like him to make her wait. He was not a discreet man. He liked to pay for things. Sometimes he paid her before they’d even done anything, made her watch as he entered the amount, flashing his account balance and tipping generously.

The Boy was still in his clothes from the night before, an oversized shirt from the donation bin at the women’s charity in the apartment building down the street and a pair of old basketball shorts. He lay across the bed on his stomach, blankets piled around his bruised legs. A brightly coloured cartoon played on the screen of the laptop, propped up on the desk. He looked at her with hungry expectation. “You have money now, right? Can we go get food?”

“I have to pay for my pills,” The Woman said. Empty packaging from their last two packs of noodles sat on the floor by the kettle. The Boy was growing, always hungry, always irritable and sore. “I’ll pick something up for you on my way back. What do you want to eat?”

“Don’t you have some money?”

“Don’t you have some respect?”

The Boy shrank back into the bed, his face crumpling into disappointment. “Forget about it,” he mumbled, “I’m not even hungry.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Picking up a purse off a pile of clothes, The Woman dug loose change out of an inside pocket, counting it in her palm. “I can get a couple of those packaged dinners you like. Would you like that?” The Boy stared at his cartoon, his chin on his arms, his expression sullen and tired. “If you have a bit of change, I could get something nicer . . . What time is it?” She checked her phone—less than two hours to curfew. “Think about it, okay?” Grabbing clothes from a washbag, wrinkled but clean, she stepped into the bathroom to dress and fix her makeup.

The Woman was just touching up her mascara when The Boy knocked on the bathroom door. “Ma?” It squeaked open, and he leaned in the frame, sheepish and small, waggling a foot behind his leg. “I’m sorry, Ma. I didn’t mean no disrespect,” he said, and then, “I have five dollars I’ve been keeping. You can have it, if you want. Maybe you could pay me back . . .”

Later that night, after the pharmacy and the corner store, after an evening spent sitting on the bed eating snacks and watching shows among the blankets, The Boy slept curled up with both pillows in the dark. The Woman sat in the glow of the laptop, sipping a cup of cheap instant coffee, her legs pulled up onto the chair. She sent out messages to the men. Then she looked up The Business Man’s name online. She glanced over glowing press releases, skipped pages alleging corruption and crime, and watched an interview with government news where he talked fast and waved his hands, revealing little. There was nothing unusual. Nothing to explain his behaviour the night before, or why he still hadn’t paid. She checked her bank balance. Negative twelve dollars and fifty-six cents, after the ten-dollar overdraft fee she’d incurred when paying for her medication at the pharmacy.

Curling up in her chair, phone cradled in two hands, she typed a message to The Business Man. Hey, baby! I loved seeing you last night! I’m just a little confused. I haven’t received any money from you, yet. If you could get it to me soon, I would really appreciate it! She followed it with a string of kisses.

He didn’t respond immediately, so she went back to sweet-talking the others. None of them wanted to see her badly enough to do anything about it, though she sent pictures, and a few sent pictures back. As the night wore on, they dropped off one by one, retreating to bed, until she was totally alone, staring at the screen. She was washing her face in the bathroom, dressed for bed in a pair of old sweats and a baggy shirt when her phone lit up with messages from The Business Man.

I thought we understood each other. Are you really that greedy? Can’t you wait a day? And then, You’ll get your money. Don’t ask. It’s a bad look. And then, Low. This is low. It’s beneath you. A second later, It’s crass. Ugly.

She sat down on the toilet seat, the curling edges of a stack of magazines brushing up against the middle of her back. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be crass. You know I don’t work for free.

I’ve always paid you. I will pay you. You’ll just have to learn to wait your turn.

I know you will, baby. But I can’t come see you again until you’ve paid for last time. I can’t afford to give away my time. Especially not right now.

He didn’t respond, and he didn’t send the money, though she sat up waiting until it was almost morning. Before going to sleep, she sent one more message to a long-time customer—The Butcher—who worked in the market a few blocks down the road. I need money bad. You sure you don’t want some company?

She woke in the afternoon to a reply. Come by after curfew. I’ll see what I can afford.

They ate the last of their food for dinner, splitting a candy bar The Boy had bought from a vending machine in the street out front, with the last few coins scraped up from underneath the bed. They drank water out of refilled plastic bottles. Curfew came down with the sunset. Police prowled. The streets cleared. The Woman got dressed up and waited by the window until the city was dark and empty. She went out the back way, kept to the alley.

The Butcher greeted her with a bowl of hot food. Sitting her down at the table in the kitchen of his small apartment, he watched her as she ate. “You want some to wrap up for your kid? What’s his name? I’ll wrap him something up.” He rinsed out a discarded takeout container off the counter, refilled it with food, and put it in the fridge. “There. Boy could do with some growing.” He was a big man, The Butcher, grumbling and old fashioned. His wife had left him years ago, taking the children with her to live with family far from the city. He’d filled in the loss with a series of extremely young girlfriends. “This curfew. Let me tell you. It’s hitting us all hard—not as hard as those police, mind, but . . .” He laughed at his own joke. “You know they want us all cleaned up and cleared out by quarter to seven now? I heard they’re talking about moving it earlier! To six or something. Well fine, but guess what they tell me now? Can’t cut my meat the night before if I want to display it. Can’t come out early to set up. It’s like they don’t want to eat!” He settled down with a harrumph, leaning his weight against the edge of the counter. “Look . . . I know you’re hard done by, but you mind if I pay you half in the morning and half the day after tomorrow? I can pay. Just need to pick up the cash, sort out some accounts.”

The Woman nodded, still eating. “Fine.”

“Ha! I always liked you. You know that?”

The Woman was back out on the streets within a couple of hours. The night was breezy and cool. She took the long way home, ducking in and out of alleys, creeping around the sides of buildings to avoid a large group of police hanging around, smoking and talking, in the middle of the road by the entrance to the market. She slipped in the back door and ran up the stairs, her heart beating in her ears. Her hands shook as she unlocked the door. Stepping in, she closed it carefully behind her. The Boy lay sprawled out, fast asleep with his mouth open, the blankets kicked half off the bed.

The money was in her account by the time she woke in the morning. Fifty dollars, plus five for a tip and a note thanking her again for the accommodation. If I can find the cash. We can do it again next week. I’ll save up some and let you know.

The Boy wolfed down The Butcher’s food, hot out of the microwave. The Woman went out early to the market, returning after a few hours with the sort of groceries that would keep in the heat; she stacked them wherever she could find room—on the back of the desk, in the windowsill, against the wall in the corner. They passed a quiet week, stretching The Butcher’s money, venturing out rarely. The Woman texted idly with her regulars. Most were at home in the evenings now, with their wives and children and responsibilities. No one wanted to chance the police if they didn’t have to, and neither did The Woman. The Boy picked up odd jobs at the market, carrying groceries and running little errands, trotting back in long before curfew. His bruises faded. The food began to run out. The Butcher didn’t make enough money to see her again. The Woman’s worries returned.

She did her makeup in the bathroom. The night’s football game played on the computer in the other room, the volume turned up loud. The Boy lay on the floor beside the bed, playing a solo game of cards, half-watching the match. A dress hung from the hook on the back of the door, freshly pressed with an iron borrowed from the desk downstairs. Her phone sat face up on the edge of the sink, ringer on, so she wouldn’t miss any texts. It lit up with a payment notification, blinging cheerily into her inbox. Seven-hundred and fifty dollars, from The Business Man. There. You got your money. A minute later, Meet me downtown. I’m sending a car. Or are you too busy for me now?

The Woman picked up her phone. Thank you, baby! I would love to! I was just getting ready. I was hoping I’d hear from you.

Emily Strempler

Emily Strempler (she/her) is a queer, German-Canadian, writer of inconvenient fiction. Born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, she now lives and writes in the famous tourist destination and infamous party town of Banff, Alberta, inside beautiful Banff National Park. Her work can be found in numerous publications, including The Bitchin’ Kitsch, New Critique, and Luna Station Quarterly.