She sat counting the bills, putting them to her nostrils and inhaling the crisp, fresh smell that was common for a wad freshly printed. Like a junkie, she checked the serial numbers and smiled, pleased that all sixty of them were in numerical sequence. It mattered very little that she was supposed to collect seventy-five, as that’s what they had agreed to, but she was content to add the green notes with their iridescent blue ribbons to her growing stash.
“He’ll call you for the next drop” the burly gentleman said. “Be on 12th and Main at eighteen hundred hours on Thursday. The second phone booth”. With that, he descended the short flight of stairs and exited through the back door, the same way he came.
Olivia was hiding inside the small coat closet under the stairwell. Peering covertly through the wooden slats of the closet door, she’d seen and heard the entire exchange. She did not plan to eavesdrop as she was old enough to know that it was unmannerly to do so and that she could also be in big trouble if she were caught. She was supposed to be at Mrs. Manley’s today as the teachers had some conference or the other that was common at her school before the Easter break. Her father had dropped her off at the friendly neighbor’s before he left for work that morning, but she’d had a serious coughing fit that left poor Mrs. Manley very concerned. Olivia convinced her an hour earlier that it was okay for her to walk two houses back to her home as her step-mom would be in the house shortly. Mrs. Manley wasn’t the biggest fan of Olivia’s stepmom, "Momma", and she avoided having to deal with her at all costs. She’d heard her parents talking and they chalked up Mrs. Manley’s feud with Momma to the bitter ravings of a widow who secretly desired to be with "Pop" – her Dad.
Momma was not due back until around three o'clock and Pop would be home by five, but Olivia was comfortable with the idea of being at home alone for an hour before Momma came. She was twelve going on thirteen in a couple of weeks and was a rather mature, responsible and domesticated young lady as her Dad always boasted. Somehow she knew her Dad was being diffident and perhaps patronizing as everyone knew she was rather naïve for her age and she'd had a lot to learn when she started at her new school upon permanently moving in with her Dad. She knew Momma would fret if she came and met her at home alone, causing another rift between her and Mrs. Manley, so when she heard the car pull up in the driveway at two-fifteen, Olivia scarcely had time to switch off the TV, put away the pack of Lay’s chips she had just opened, as she silently slipped into the coat closet seconds before Momma burst through the front door.
She was on the phone again. Talking softly. This was something Olivia always found strange about her Momma. She had been living with the woman going on three years next November as she’d been back-and-forth between her birth mother and her Dad after their divorce four years ago. Her parents had joint custody but both remarried within a year of separating and she was always tossed between the two. She loved her Pop fiercely and wanted to stay with him instead because Momma was by far the better step-parent than Mr. George was. She didn’t like Mr. George, her step-Dad, very much as he seemed to want her mother all to himself. Shelly – as she called her mother – had started ignoring Olivia when Mr. George moved in and Olivia longed all the more to be with her Dad. Shelly never spent much time on the phone but was always locked up in the master bedroom with Mr. George, often laughing loudly above the sound of blaring music. Momma wasn’t like that with her Dad, but whenever Pop was gone, Olivia noticed she’d be on her cellphone, talking softly and always glancing furtively over her shoulder.
The guy had entered the house through the back door just as Olivia was contemplating emerging from the closet, after the fifth trickle of sweat rolled disconcertingly down the back of the spaghetti strapped camisole that she wore. She couldn’t see his face as he stood over Momma, who sat on the ottoman in the hallway upstairs, just outside her and Pop’s bedroom. The stranger seemed very familiar with the house and Momma was not startled by his presence. He handed her a white envelope and her teeth flashed a matching white smile that illuminated overhead from Olivia’s vantage point. What were they doing upstairs? What was it with all the cryptic talk concerning numbers? Twelfth Street in Eighteen Hundred Hours? Momma counting to Sixty and pleased about the order of the serial numbers?
After the burly man left, she made to come out of the closet again as she imagined she might die of suffocation and get poor Mrs. Manley in serious trouble. But the front door opened suddenly and Stanley entered. Stanley was her Momma’s nephew and her adopted step-brother and thankfully he was not wearing a coat. He was sixteen years old and the son of Momma’s only brother Pete. Pete was on the “wrong side of the law” as Momma had explained and she decided to help him by taking care of his only child. Stanley’s mother was in a nursing home after she had suffered massive head injuries from a car accident with Pete. Olivia liked Stanley a lot. He spent a lot of time showing her things that she never knew about, like how to stop the run in her stockings, how to make fake blood run from her nose, how to trigger a coughing fit (very handy when playing rookie was the aim, or getting Mrs. Manley to send her home). Stanley also stood up for her whenever Momma and Pop wouldn’t agree to let her do something she desperately wanted to. Like attend the fair with some of her classmates. Stanley had agreed to accompany her last time and her parents allowed it. He had a way about him that caused all the girls to swoon and Olivia wondered why he was so charming in their eyes.
“You did it again didn’t ya?” Stanley asked Momma, with a voice that was deeper and more commanding than the average sixteen year old boy’s. Momma ignored him and walked to the fridge to take out a bottle of wine. She filled up a glass as Stanley rounded on her and asked the question again, a little louder the second time.
“Yes I did!” Momma hissed, swirling the red liquid around in the champagne glass before quickly downing it in three solid gulps.
“Why won’t you stop Dee? Look at what happened to my Dad!” Stanley cried.
“What can I say? - I love the Benjamins” she replied facetiously with a smug look on her face and a dullness settling in her pupils.
“You know who I love?” Stanley asked her then, not really begging her to chance a guess or to reply.
“I love Livvy. She’s the reason I stick around here. She’s the reason I keep tabs on your drinking. She’s the reason I haven’t told your husband what you’ve been doing.” He stressed on the husband part.
“Just remember part of the reason I do this is for you okay!” Momma hurled. “Don’t you dare get all self-righteous and pull that 'for-the-love-of-the-innocent' crap on me”.
Her head began to swim. Not only had she grown scared and confused, but Olivia was getting dizzy and broke into a cold sweat as she shifted uncomfortably in the coat closet. Who was Benjamin? Certainly Momma was not talking about her Daddy. Her father’s name was Kurt. Kurt Dade. And Stanley - he loved her! What a confession! Those words played in her head and had her tender heart feeling ready to burst right out of her chest. Stanley only ever called her Livvy whenever she was really sad or something terrible had happened. Like that time when she was ten and had emptied three bottles of pills into the bathroom sink trying to separate the colours. She had seen Momma do it and thought it would be nice to help her with the task. Stanley was her hero but she had never seen him as anything other than a big brother until that moment. What was happening to her? Was her racing heart and wobbly thighs simply a result of everything going on outside of the closet or something else?
It was her third attempt to reveal her presence when the house phone rang. Momma picked it up quickly. “Dades’ house, good evening” Momma chimed. It was Mrs. Manley calling to find out if Olivia was ok and to let Momma know that she should mix some honey, raw brown sugar crystals and lemon for the child to drink.
As if on cue, Olivia coughed just then. Stanley, following the sound, opened the door of the closet. She froze like a deer caught in headlights as Momma and Stanley both looked at each other, then at her, then at each other again. There was a silent communication in their exchanged glances and Olivia feared what would happen next.
“How long have you been in there Livvy?” Momma asked her in the kindest voice, which was eerie given the circumstances.
“Since Mr. Benjamin came and you were counting and then Stanley came and you were fighting and…”
“Ssshhh” Stanley said just then, and placed his fingers on her lips. The gesture felt strangely inappropriate and Olivia felt her insides turn mushy as an unfamiliar heaviness settled simultaneously between her legs.
“You handle this” Momma said to Stanley then, as she grabbed the wine bottle and her favourite glass and headed back up the stairs.
Stanley placed his hands on Olivia's shoulders, leaned in to match her at eye-level and faced her squarely, pulling her close.
“Livvy" he said. "Can you keep a secret?”….