"Can't believe I let him play me like that, again!"
Lusa cursed her father for the umpteenth time in a row. She ran, late for class, even though she had been on time as she left their grubby, far-too-small apartment. He stopped her while she attempted to go and watched her struggle with the broken knob before engaging in a conversation.
"Dad," she sighed and halted her frantic jiggling of the door handle, "you know I can't keep giving you cash, only for you to waste it on your stupid gambles, or investments, or whatever you use it for."
He had dared to look somewhat guilty, although the look disappeared as he gently took the junk metal from her grasp and spoke softly to her:
"This time, kid, this time, it will work out - I know it will. I don't even need the usual amount, just like two hundred bucks or something - whatever you got." The look in his eyes wasn't the usual greedy or even manipulative. For the first time in a long time, his words seemed genuine, "This time I'll be able to help us. I promise."
She looked at him with guarded disbelief, but his words were more coherent than they had been in weeks, and Lusa noticed the faint smell of aftershave as he shifted from foot to foot. The overwhelming feeling of fondness washed away all common sense, and she let out a breath of air through her nose as she lost her inner battle.
"I'm going to be so damn late," she grumbled.
He laughed giddily and backed up, which allowed her to pull out her phone from her back pocket.
She unlocked the device and asked, "How much did you say you needed again? Two fifty?" She was baiting him; they both knew he had only said two hundred.
His mouth opened, and just as he was about to reply, his brows furrowed, and he shook his head. "Nah, kid, only two hundred. I got the rest saved up with Jon last week."
Lusa felt her shoulders relax at his honesty, and she tried to hide her relief behind the small phone in her hands. A beep from her father's back pocket signified the money transfer, but she still announced,
"Okay, there you go. Now I really have to get going, or my prof will target me all week."
They said their goodbyes with weak smiles, and as she scampered down the main strip, there was a slight lightness to her step that had been missing for years.
Her classes were boring and seemed to go on forever; however, with her father's sudden change of attitude, she was grateful for the monotony. Conflicting emotions rolled in her belly, making it difficult to swallow any food from the already unbearable cafeteria she sat in once her final class was dismissed. Reasons for his complete one-eighty in attitude swam through Lusa's head. Her musings didn't stop until there were fingers waved in her face.
She startled, and loud voices laughed at her. The table she sat at shook as her two friends, Rob and Eli, dragged over chairs and sat heavily on them. The legs screeched against the floor and made Lusa wince, but the sight of her best friends soothed the turmoil that now threatened to bubble into her esophagus.
"How's it going?" Rob was loud, and his voice cut through the dull murmurs of the cafeteria atmosphere. Other students glared at him, but he ignored them and focused his twinkling eyes on Lusa.
She smiled at his familiar voice. "Well, you know, it's going."
The two boys winced; they had been friends with her long enough that they knew "it's going" meant "my-dad-asked-me-for-money-again"; they looked at her sympathetically.
"Doesn't he know that you're paying for the apartment that HE lives in as well as your tuition?" Eli growled.
Lusa glared at him and hissed, "Keep your voice down, or else, we'll have weirdos like Havier over again."
The three of them shuddered at the mention of the older man's name. He had propositioned Lusa a couple months into the first semester. Apparently, he had overheard Eli and Rob ranting to each other about the injustice of poverty or whatever they were upset about that day. He somehow found Lusa on social media the next day. He followed her everywhere, even going so far as to show up at her apartment. Thankfully, her father answered the door and deterred him from ever showing his face at her place of residence again. The man kept his advances on college grounds and offered large amounts of money for awkward and disgusting sexual requests. Because it was their fault - according to Lusa - she made the two boys act as bodyguards for the rest of the month until Havier stopped his stalking.
The three laughed at the memories, and their conversation steered far away from the topic of money.
Lusa's phone buzzed, and her father's ringtone informed the group of the caller. They all looked at the object that interrupted their gossip with unimpressed glares, and Rob snorted.
"What are the chances you think he's calling to tell you about the bad news, Luce?" He made air quotation marks with the words 'bad news'.
Eli intercepted Lusa's hand as she reached to pick up the still ringing mobile.
"If it's important, he'll either leave a voice message or call again."
The words were firm, but there was a gentle smile on his face, and so she eased her hand back to her lap. The ringing stopped, and a final vibration announced that he had followed up with a second form of contact. Eli looked at her knowingly, and she sheepishly rolled her eyes, not wanting to admit he was right.
For a moment, the table was quiet before Eli broke their silence by slapping his palms onto his thighs.
"Well, I'm off - I promised Cathy I would help her finish her lab, but do you guys want to meet up later tonight for drinks, at our usual spot?"
Rob readily agreed, and then their attention was on her. Their eyes were patient, and she knew that they would be respectful of any answer she gave. Lusa chewed her lip, weighing her options.
On one hand, if she went, she'd have to pay with cash so she wouldn't have to use her credit card. That meant withdrawing money from the ATM all the way across campus, and she had already used most of her 'spendable' money from her last paycheck that morning. But, on the other hand, Eli and Rob would be disappointed and lonely without her. Plus, she wouldn't be able to see the hot bartender, Mat, whom she'd been crushing on the past semester. There was a reason she recommended that spot every time the three voted on where to hang out.
As if they could sense her internal disagreements, they simultaneously bribed her,
"You'll get to see Mat there." Their voices cooed at her, and Rob made kissy noises while Eli added, "if he doesn't give you your drinks for free, we can pay for them today, Luce."
At his words and Rob's nonchalant nod, the heat from her blushing cheeks crept up to the backs of her eyes and made them sting. Lusa quickly rubbed the corners of her eyes and sniffled. Their kindness and understanding meant everything, and it was one of the reasons the three of them had stuck together for the last couple of years.
"Thanks, guys, you know that means a lot to me," she croaked, her voice thick with emotion.
She collected herself enough to say goodbye to Eli, and shortly after, Rob left as well for class. She stayed at the table, and cleared up the disorderly spots the two boys had left behind.
Having finished classes for the day until her lab at 6, Lusa headed to the library to finish some work. Assignments started to flow, and soon, the friendly librarian reminded her of the time, just before five-thirty. Kind smiles and gentle words calmed Lusa's building concerns about her financial situation. They gave her enough confidence to immediately withdraw money from an ATM rather than wait until after her lab when she was more likely to back out of her plans.
She attempted some deep breathing exercises she found online for the anxiety that began to grow. Her fingertips tingled as she shakily took her wallet out of her bag and shook her head to remove the negative thoughts.
What is the worst that you'll see? Just 200 dollars less than yesterday, but you were aware of that because it was your decision to give him the money. At most, you pull out a twenty and enjoy the boys' company.
The pep talk seemed to work, as she got the courage to insert her card and information. A squawk from one of the street birds to her left caused Lusa's eyes to shift away, and when she glanced back at the screen for the total balance, she could only blink.
She rubbed her eyes and looked again at the number that stared back at her. A five-digit number teased her, and unwilling to believe the likelihood of the amount, she removed her card and re-entered her pin.
As the machine took a second to reload her banking information, she frantically dug her phone out from the bottom of her bag where it had been shoved. Looking at the screen, she saw two missed calls from her father and a voicemail from the same contact. Putting the device against her ear, she listened to the dial tone.
"Hey, kiddo, I know you're probably busy right now, seeing as you didn't pick up my calls. Just wanted to let you know that Jon and I managed to get the gig we've been working on afloat, and we got some kind of starting bonus or something. I had most of it sent to your account 'cause I know you need it way more than I do. I just wanted to let you know that I'm pretty proud of you, Lusanna, and grateful that you're in my life, kid. I hate that you've had to shoulder providing for us, and I want you to know that this will last for at least a year, or at least that's what the contract says, so you'll be able to focus on your school and living your life as a young adult, rather than having to take care of your old man. Well, we can talk more when you get home. Be safe out there kid, love ya."
The sound of the voice message disconnecting broke the dam behind her eyes, and a free flow of tears streamed down her cheeks. With shaking fingers, she withdrew fifty dollars, still skeptical of the amount. Lusa stepped to the side and stuffed her wallet back into her bag.
Immediately, she dialled Rob - because he was in her lab group - and squatted next to the machine. As the phone rang, she leaned her back against the cool metal of the ATM. Tears again blurred her vision, and Rob picked up with his usual " 'Ello?"
"Rob, I, I need you to come and help me..." her voice broke, and she could hear the sound of frantic rustling.
"Is everything okay, sweetheart? Where are you? I'm coming right now. I'll come to get you, Luce, just stop your crying, okay?"
"ATM by the library," she said simply and sniffled into the receiver. They stayed on the call as he ran, and once she saw him in view, she didn't even bother to hang up before she launched herself at him.
He shushed her and wrapped his arms around her head, squeezing it to his chest.
"He did it, Rob, he actually did it. I didn't believe him when he said him and Jon were up to something big, but he actually did it."
Thankfully, she didn't have to explain who or what she blubbered about, so he held her and let the waterworks ease to a stop. No spoken comfort was needed, and the two simply walked to their lab building, Lusa's face puffy and Rob's shirt tear-stained, but both of their walks bouncy and radiant.