Vera had never had a pillow before. There wasn’t much use for one, or even chance to own one in their household. She lived with stark, naked walls in a stark naked room with a large table wobbling on unsteady legs in the corner. A half broken TV in the other corner, fizzled with unfocused static energy, churning out fuzzy grey lines when she turned it on for company.
Her daddy always shrugged when she asked for a pillow. “Who the hell needs something stupid like that? Be grateful you have the floor to sleep on sweetheart.” And then he would take a large wad of cash out from his pocket, count it contently, and hurry off behind their apartment building.
The Projects. Projects with a capital P. That’s what their apartment was called. Vera wasn’t the only one who lived there. There were others that took up residence, space, oxygen. They were all crammed together, person on top of another person, arms tangling, bodies entwined, and she could hear what everyone was doing at all hours of the day through the thin walls. Projects, like the government was watching them at all minutes of the day, observing them like little rats scurrying up and down, getting high and going down.
It was the government who owned the Projects and she heard tons about the government. “Lazy assholes” was what her father called them. “Sitting on their asses thinking that they shit out solutions when all they shit out is more crap,” he told her when she asked what a deficit was. Deficit was something she heard on the radio, along with ads for the Jingle Ball (“featuring,” as the chirpy radio announcer told her, “Demi Lovato and Lady Gaga all in one room!)
Then again, Vera’s father wasn’t all that reliable. He did seem slightly high when she asked him. Vera didn’t need drugs; she stayed away from them – and for the better. Floating euphoria didn’t seem as good as a pillow. Warm, soft, fluffy; she knew everything about the joys of a pillow, something that she had read about in a book. (Teddy bears lost their wonder after the radio crackled out the news that someone was watched by the government through one.)
She wished for a pillow with all her heart. And Vera finally got one when she summoned up the courage to sneak out. Shimmying down the fire escape with a stolen ten dollar bill stuffed in her sweaty little hand, she dropped onto the ground below. The crumpled bill was green with an old guy’s face staring somberly out into the distance. The old guy’s face was what attracted the two brothers.
They were walking, side by side, footstep in time with footstep. The O’Lear brothers. Their reputation in the Projects was by no means kind. She had heard stories, whispered, hushed stories about them stealing and kidnapping and all kinds of words that the book glossed over and the radio screeched in its crinkly voice. Stories that she had learned to avoid being in.
But now the O’Lear brothers were walking towards her. She stuffed the bill hurriedly into her pocket, and started to walk away, her heart shuddering as her steps turned heavy and strange; her legs becoming pillars of stone as she dragged them slowly away.
“Hey, you!” His voice was deep and gravely, the kind that reminded her of pebbles being crunched and cracked underneath the wheels of a massive truck.
She didn’t dare turn around. Instead she tried dragging her feet faster still, to get away, but the bill was calling to them in a shrill, snobby, pinched nose kind of voice, like the old president’s nose was stuffed.
“You!” He shouted and her short legs broke out of the pillars of stone, finding them to be only plaster and she began sprinting.
They followed, their footsteps slapping the pavement, beating it down as she was running out of breath. And then the brother’s hand was on her arm.
“Give us your money kid.”
Vera squeaked; her voice caught in a trap. Shaking, she pulled out the crinkled ten dollar bill and placed it into his hand.
He laughed, handing it to his brother. “Now what should we do with this little one?” he asked, shaking her roughly, sweating and stinking of smoke. “Think we should sell her to Vinny?”
The other brother eyed her. She tugged down her shirt, ragged at the bottom and rubbed the stain on her pants, uncomfortable and exposed in his piercing glare.
“Nah, she’s too young for Vinny,” he finally said, putting away the money. “Just let her go, John.”
John. She wasn’t even aware that the O’Lear brothers had first names.
John sighed. He let go of her arm and she felt it begin to throb. “Go home,” he said, pushing her into the fence and kicking her stomach. And then he laughed as she fell down and the two O’Lear brothers walked away.
She fell, onto the sidewalk which was strangely so soft and warm that she almost fainted in her shock. The kick had taken her breath away and she just laid there for a moment, trying to get the Earth to stop spinning. That’s why everything is so blurry; Vera rationalized, why the normally concrete and hard cement felt soft and inviting.
But it wasn’t that, she realized when she got up, clutching her sore stomach. The ground below her was not the ground. Rather, it was a dirt stained pillow. A pillow. The dirt she ignored; her joy almost palpable as she picked it up. It was still soft and slightly gritty and smelt of smoke.
She ran back to the Projects, watching warily for another sign of the O’Lear brothers even though they had left in the opposite direction. And scurrying up the fire escape once again she reached her room. Her box, her cell, her prison. But she had a secret now, something to comfort her in the darkness of her life. There was something cuddly and something to tell her secrets to; something that would listen and never sing those secrets to anyone else. And she did, telling it all about her daddy and about the Projects. Vera hid Pillow away (for that was what she decided to call him) when her father came storming in, complaining, and ranting. She didn’t want it to be taken away. She slept on Pillow, curled up into a tiny ball and kissed it at night like she used to kiss her daddy’s scratchy beard. She played with it, throwing it up into the air and watching the dirt sprinkle down on her.
It was a few weeks later, her daddy came in; a violent rage overtaking his entire body as he spotted the pillow. He shook with that anger, scratching himself furiously, reaching over his shoulder to attack his back and under his leg. When he saw the pillow, covering the room with dirt and his sweet baby girl Vera with scratching absentmindedly at her foot he snapped. Smacking Vera as she cried he dragged her to the bathtub, dunking her violently in, over and over again as she gasped for breath.
“Lice,” he roared, mouth gnashing and flecks of spit falling onto Vera’s face when he lifted her out of the water. “You brought fucking lice into our apartment, the one that I worked so hard for. And just for you. Ungrateful brat.”
He rubbed a persistent itch underneath his beard. “The pillow,” he said, “has to go.”
She cried; fat and swollen tears falling from her hazel eyes. But he wouldn’t be swayed. Instead, he took the lighter from his jean pocket and lit the edge, watching it burn in his violent fervor, laughing all the while to himself. Daddy sent her to bed.
As she curled up in her tiny corner that night, shivering in the missed warmth of her pillow, she made a silent vow. One day she would become rich and powerful. The type of rich that could buy thousands of pillows, each unique from all the others. The type of powerful that could lock up her father, help out “Project” kids, and could make new laws. She wasn’t looking to be the ruler of the free world; just someone who could help and had the power to.With those advantages and potent ferocity boiling inside of her, she would tell her father (her daddy dearest) to go to hell.
AGe 14, Grade 9
Stuyvesant High School