“Lex, wake up!”
“Mmpf”, Alexa grumbled, as she imagined someone was yelling at her.
“Lex, wake up now or I’ll toss you overboard.” She then felt a kick to her gut.
“Ow, what the fuck is wrong with you?” She cursed. Alexa opened her eyes to see an impatient old man staring in her room.
“We dock in an hour, Lex. It’s time to go to work.”
“All right, all right, Wayne. Chill out, I’m up.” Alexa rolled out of bed, still somewhat asleep. She followed Wayne out of her room to go to the deck cargo area.
“This is the time when stupid people get caught. You get busted for smuggling and you spend the next ten years in the slammer if you’re lucky.” Alexa knew this due to Wayne’s repeated drilling of this lesson into her skull. She was still inexperienced with only three months of actual work on a cargo freighter, and less than a month doing this kind of explicit work.
“What should we do?” she asked. “How is this job different from last time?”
“Cause last time all you did was smile and look pretty for U.S Customs. This time I can’t move the merchandise by myself or else you would still be asleep. Probably dreaming about being discovered and making it big in show business. Or being born with rich parents.” Wayne chuckled to himself and she flipped him off while his back was to her. Alexa hated being treated like this, but she had to admit; experience was all that mattered, and she was lacking in it. Alexa remembered the last job. Because of her low-cut top and the extra makeup Wayne had her wear; all wavering eyes were on her and not him.
“Follow me to the cargo deck. I’ve paid off a few agents, but it is important that they okay our crate or else.”
“We get arrested? Ten years of prison time?” she asked, this time with conviction.
“That’s hilarious,” Wayne answered, rolling his eyes.
They walked through the ship, heading up the stairs to the deck.
“Ughh,” Alexa complained in disgust, gripping her nostrils as the stench of raw sewage and dead shellfish plagued the air. “How do people live when they are breathing in this crap?”
“Spoiled brat,” Wayne mumbled under his breath but she heard him. “Look there.” He pointed to the miles of shipping containers stacked in the shipping yard. Alexa peered to what he pointed at and she saw them, a small army of U.S. Customs agents, waiting for the ship to come in.
“Someone must have tipped them off,” Alexa panicked. “Those agents are waiting for us!” She looked to Wayne for guidance.
“Calm down, princess.” Alexa watched as Wayne reached into his pocket for something. He pulled out a pack of gum and offered it to her.
“Take a piece. It will help calm your nerves.” Alexa reached and pulled a stick to pop in her mouth. It was spearmint and she chewed it ravenously. She had to admit, it did help.
“What are we going to do, Wayne?” she asked. Wayne looked around then smiled. He had a plan.
“You have your phone on you right?” he asked.
“Yeah, but the signal has been crap ever since we got on board this piece of junk. Plus, you always said to only call if I had to. Won’t it look suspicious if we call your contact while docking in? We’ll get caught.”
“You think I don’t know that? That’s not what your phone is for. Use the flashlight on it and go stand over there. He pointed toward a row of four lights on a raised platform. Alexa did as she was told and stood in front of them.
“What now?” she asked.
“Hold it above your head and turn the flashlight on. Then move it up and down twice.” Alexa felt silly but she followed Wayne’s orders and raised and lowered her phone.
Something shattered nearby and she almost dropped her phone in the ocean because of the sudden noise. She looked behind her and saw Wayne had busted two lights with a wrench.
“Wayne, what the hell are you doing?” Alexa screamed in astonishment.
“Calm down, girl. That was just to signal my contacts. She looked at him in bewilderment.
“What are you talking about?” Alexa asked. “Do you have someone on the ground?”
Wayne nodded. “I paid off a few agents to look the other way and steer everyone else clear. Now the guys know which crate is ours.” He looked rather pleased with himself.
“You sure this is going to work?” Alexa asked. “It’s not every day that someone unloads a . . .”
“Shut up, rookie, and get down from there.” Alexa climbed down from her spot and looked to Wayne. She turned the flashlight app off on her phone and put it back in her pocket.
“What should we do next?” she asked.
“We go back down before someone catches us,” Wayne ordered. “This ship is going to be boarded so unless you want a cavity search, go back to your room and wait there until you get called. We will meet up after we get off the ship.” Wayne went back below deck and Alexa followed him inside. She did as she was told and went back to her room.
As she sat down on her bunk bed, Alexa heard the loudspeaker turn on. “Attention everyone. This is your captain. U.S. Customs will be performing a thorough search of this vessel. No one will be allowed to leave until the search is over and I expect you all to cooperate fully with their search. Would everyone gather at the galley, please?” The loudspeaker turned off.
Great, she thought, sarcastically. How did my life get like this? Alexa lied down and looked at the bottom of the bunk above her. Screw the captain. She just wanted to take it easy right now.
Alexa relaxed and pictured herself a few months ago. Back then she was in her third year at Stanford University, working toward a pretty communications degree with an attractive running back boyfriend, Connor Higgins. Alexa pulled out her wallet and looked at a photo of the two of them she had kept, arms wrapped around each other with smiles on their faces. Back then she felt like nothing could get in the way of her perfect life. So much had changed since then. Alexa put the photo away as a tear formed in her eye when all of a sudden; a loud pounding fell upon her door.
“U.S. Customs, open up!” Alexa jumped out of her bunk bed and opened the door to see two large, burly men burst into her room, knocking her to the floor.
Oh shit! She thought. Alexa got back up and tried not to look panicked as she greeted them. “Welcome, boys. How can I help you?” The two men grabbed her by the arms and nudged her into the hallway, almost tossing the young woman.
“Miss, we are with U.S. Customs. Why the hell aren’t you in the galley?”
“Well, I uh… I didn’t hear it. I was asleep,” Alexa replied. The customs agents gave her a once over.
“Well then, wait outside while we search your room for any contraband.”
“What do you expect to find?” she asked innocently. One of the men glared at her, trying to find a guilty look but this was no worse than Wayne’s ugly mug in front of her face. She knew how to not look suspicious. He turned around and joined his buddy in ransacking her room while she waited outside; watching as they turned over blankets, chucked her pillow on the floor, and ripped out the ceiling tiles.
“Is anyone going to put all this back or is it my job?” Alexa asked sarcastically. The two ignored her and continued to turn the place inside out, checking for anything out of the ordinary. It felt discouraging as she watched the mess they made grow larger and larger.
After several minutes and a large pile of sheets, clothes, and anything else in the room thrown on the floor, one of the men said to the other, “C’mon Larry, let’s move on. There’s nothing here.”
This was true, Alexa thought silently. What she and Wayne had hid was on another part of the ship and Wayne said he had taken care of getting it off. The two men from U.S. Customs left her room without saying a word, not even an apology for making such a mess. After they left, she walked in and rolled up her sleeves to put her room back together.
Alexa slowly fixed up her room, putting the blankets and pillow back on the bed and stuffing her clothes back into her duffel bag. She looked at the ceiling and sighed. There was no way to put it back together with all the tiles ripped out. She picked up the pieces and gathered them in the corner. When it was all finished, Alexa waited back on her bed, dreading the announcement of contraband being found on board. She stared at the clock on her phone waiting when the loudspeaker finally turned back on.” Moment of truth,” Alexa said to herself. She looked at the loudspeaker.
“Thank you everyone for cooperating with the search. U.S. Customs will be leaving and they have told me we are allowed to leave the ship. Thank you for your help on this voyage.” Alexa breathed a sigh of relief.
“Well done, Wayne. Now to get off this boat and back to solid ground.” She strapped on her duffel bag Wayne had made her buy and left the room, making her way back to the atrium where she had arrived days ago. Once she was off the ship, Alexa turned and watched as the cranes unloaded the cargo crates from the ship to the shipping yard. She saw her and Wayne’s container in the distance being hoisted off the ship and into the sea of other containers.
“You want to hide a tree, plant it in a forest,” Alexa heard Wayne speak in her head. Where the hell could he be? Wayne had given her explicit instructions to meet outside the ship but she didn’t see him.
“Move, kid. You look weird just standing there out in the open. People will notice.” Alexa turned around and saw Wayne, looking scruffy as usual. He grabbed her arm and hastily walked her away toward the parking lot outside.
“Well?” Alexa asked. “How did it go?”
“Smooth as silk,” Wayne replied, looking quite pleased with himself. She smiled in relief.
I don’t know why I was worried, she thought. After all, he had years of experience doing this and had never been noticed. Experience, this was what she needed.
“You will get paid tomorrow after the client picks up the cargo,” Wayne announced. “Until then, just go home. I’ll give you your cut at the usual spot.”
“Wait, tomorrow?” Alexa asked, taken aback. “I need the cash now, Wayne. My rent was due two days ago. I can’t go home empty-handed tonight.”
“Don’t care, Lex. Figure it out.”
“You can’t give me an advance or anything at all?” she pleaded. “If I return now, my landlord is going to toss my butt on the street with all my stuff.”
“I don’t give a shit, Lex.” Wayne answered uncaringly. “You’ll find a way to survive or else you would not be in this business to begin with.” Wayne left her and headed toward his car, a black Benz. He got in and drove off almost immediately.
Well, that’s just unfair, Alexa thought to herself in pity as she watched his car drive away. He somehow has got the spare change to afford a decent car like that while I’m scraping by on chump change and a piece of crap bike. Sure hope he’s not holding out on me. That’s not what partners do.
Alexa walked toward her rust-caked bicycle and stood it up. She checked the spokes and chain and they seemed to be in working order. She straddled it and the bike didn’t fall apart. “Well that’s something. Hope it lasts the ride home.” Alexa pedaled down the street; envious of the people she passed by. She watched them eating food she couldn’t afford to taste and drive in cars she couldn’t pay for. Alexa had dreamed of owning a car but with her minimal earnings from the shipping yard, it was a hopeless dream. It was why she turned to smuggling in the first place; a way to hopefully get ahead.
“I’ll think of something, I’ll think of something,” Alexa repeated to herself as she rode to her dumpy apartment. “Just cross your fingers he won’t be there and everything will be okay.”
After about twenty minutes of pedaling and even more praying, Alexa arrived at her apartment building, a decrepit brick boarding house with a number hanging off its hinges and a smell like dried cat food. She checked her phone for the time and saw it was almost midnight. “Well, here goes nothing,” she said to herself as she opened the door. Alexa had waited for midnight specifically because she wanted the landlord to be asleep. If he was, it bought her another day of time to come up with the rent as long as she had left before he woke up the next day. Alexa tiptoed over the rotted boards, trying to avoid the ones that creaked when suddenly, “Where’s my rent!” roared across the halls.
“Oh fuck. Think fast.” Alexa’s mind raced, trying to think of something quick to appease what looked like a beet-colored gorilla with more wrinkles on his face than a raisin.
“Well, look who’s here; cheap slut who is two days behind on her rent. Where have you been and where’s my money?” Alexa’s landlord grabbed her collar and pulled her close enough to smell the whiskey on his breath.
“I was working, Glen.” She stammered nervously. “I can get you your money tomorrow, I promise. I got a lot of cash coming in so I can pay you. It’s even enough for next month, too.”
“How is cash tomorrow going help me today?” Glen growled. “I don’t run a charity. You’re lucky I didn’t toss all your crap out on the street when you were gone.” He eyed her over lustfully. “Though since you are desperate, I suppose there is something you could do to keep a roof over your head tonight.” Alexa quickly realized what he was talking about.
“No way in hell, Glen. I’m not a whore.”
“Then get out of my building,” he demanded. “Oh, look at that.” Alexa looked out the window and saw it had started to rain as a thunderstorm had broken out. She hesitated.
“Well go on,” said Glen. “The door is right there. Get your stuff and go.” She looked at Glen and back outside.
It’s only one night, Alexa thought to herself. You can get through this, and then you never have to do it again. She did only need to buy one more day and no other options had come to her on the slow bike ride here.
“Fine,” Alexa replied cautiously. “I’ll do it.”
“Come with me then,” said Glen delightedly. He walked into his room and she followed; the pungent smell of sweat and spoiled milk wafted into her nostrils, making her gag. Glen lied down on an old mattress, looking damp from who-knows-what. “Well, go on then. I’m waiting.” Glen watched Alexa as she looked at him in revulsion. After a moment, she began to undress and threw her clothes on the floor. With a look of regret on her face, Alexa joined Glen on the dirty mattress.
Glen fell asleep soon afterward and Alexa immediately got up to gather her clothes in a pile. She felt her pants pockets for the key to her apartment and pulled it out. Without making a sound, she began to sneak out, desperate for a shower to wash off her shame. With her clothes crumpled in her hands, Alexa tiptoed out and opened the door, creating a strident creaking noise that awoke Glen. He raised his head to look at her, trembling and with a disgusted expression on her face. Alexa didn’t say a word; she just shied away, hoping to be overlooked.
“If you don’t have the money when you come back, you’re done here,” Glen whispered as she left. Alexa ran down the hall to her apartment, anxious for some comfort and hot water. When she opened the door and closed it behind her, she threw her clothes on the floor and bee lined for the bathroom. Alexa stepped into the discolored shower and ran the water, holding her blonde hair back and expecting hot water to wash her clean of what she had just done to keep her roof over her head.
After a half hour of washing and sobbing in the shower, Alexa turned off the nozzle and climbed out, wrapping a towel around herself. She fought to hold back any more tears and looked at herself in the cracked mirror above the sink. Alexa parted her hair away from her face and dried her face of shower water and tears.
“You’ll get through this; you’ll get through this,” she repeated to herself. “Just need to meet up with Wayne and everything will be better.” Alexa felt her confidence boost when she said this and left the bathroom. She did not feel well enough to eat anything so she decided to go to sleep. Alexa stepped into her room where set was a lumpy mattress and a dresser. She lazily pulled out a few clothes, put them on, and then fell onto her bed. Alexa closed her eyes and drifted to sleep; hoping tomorrow would bring something good because right now, she had a dire need of it.