Whether it was day or night, one must always exercise caution while walking the streets of Hat Island. Here, the law was weak. Pickpockets, burglars, murderers, rapists. This island was their playground. The police tried to stop them all, but couldn't keep the chaos contained. For with every criminal captured, two more ran amok.
That's how it was here. When the most dangerous criminal alive resided in your town, there was no rest for the wicked. If you were out and about, chances were you were going to lose your wallet…or your life.
And yet, what choice did anyone have? If no one left their home, they'd starve to death.
That's why Adelita Gris was out, walking the streets of Hat Island. A young Hispanic woman of twenty-five, she was determined to get to her evening shift. If she didn't, she wouldn't get paid, and she and her father wouldn't get to eat.
She always made sure to keep a low profile when she was out. Hence, the black zip-up hoodie and pants. She kept her hood up, her head lowered and her hands in her pants' pockets as she walked at a rapid pace, her black work shoes clunking on the sidewalk.
She carried no purse. They were too easy to snatch. Instead, a brown backpack hung from her shoulders. The flap was buckled, so a thief couldn't easily slip their hand in side, and if they tried to yank it off her back, they'd have to take her with them. But it didn't carry her wallet. That was safely zipped up inside her hoodie pocket. It was as her father had always taught her: never carry all your eggs in one basket.
Her bright blue eyes glanced sideways as an alarm went off. A masked thief was running out of a store carrying a television. Adelita just kept on walking.
As she turned a corner, another masked man ran passed her, carrying a bright red purse. An old lady soon followed after him, waving her fist in fury. Adelita just kept on walking.
Gunshots rang out as a car zoomed by. This was followed by a siren from a police car. Adelita just kept on walking.
This was nothing out of the ordinary. In this town, on this island, you did what you had to in order to survive. Whether honestly or dishonestly. The dishonest ones were the most desperate, but survivors like everyone else.
Adelita understood this better than anyone.
At last, the clothing store she worked at was in sight. She quickened her pace, practically running to the door. Once she was inside, she shut it behind her and let out a sigh of relief.
"Lita!" called a sixteen-year-old Hispanic girl with short black hair. She was folding blouses onto the display shelves. "You made it! When you didn't call, we were starting to think something had happened to you!"
Lita pulled down her hood, revealing her long black ponytail. "Sorry to worry you, Carmen. I'm only three minutes late."
"Yeah, but…" Carmen grew quiet. "You know. Anything could've happened."
"I'll help you with those after I put my stuff away and clock in," Lita said, walking past her to the break room.
She came out a few minutes later in a burgundy polo, matching Carmen's, and started folding shirts alongside her colleague.
"Am I doing this right?" Carmen asked, holding up her folded pink blouse.
"Relax, you're doing fine," Lita said, waving her hand. "Much better than I did in my first week."
The teenager sighed. "I just don't wanna lose this job, you know? My mamá and papá are having a hard enough time already with their jobs. Doesn't help that our house was robbed last month."
"Uh-huh," Lita muttered, folding a bright blue t-shirt.
"Just don't know how I can balance this with school." She turned to the older woman. "How'd you do it when you were my age?"
"I dropped out of tenth grade," Lita said bluntly.
Carmen's eyes widened. "That…may not be the best example to follow."
"Why'd you drop out?"
Lita paused in her folding. "We needed money. Had to work full-time."
"Gee." Carmen shook her head. "Why'd we have to live on this island?"
"None of us can afford to leave."
"True. Every time we try to earn a little cash, some thug steals it all."
"Can't say I blame them," Lita murmured.
The teen turned to her. "Say what now?"
The bell over the door rang, alerting the girls.
"Customer," Lita whispered. "Smiles up."
Big grins were instantly plastered on their faces. Carmen's was a little strained. A blonde woman in her thirties, wearing a purple pantsuit was coming up to them.
"You wanna get this one or shall I?" Lita whispered.
"I can do it." Carmen walked up to the woman. "Buenos noches, señora, welcome to Los Vestidos de Victoria! How may I help you?"
"Yes," the woman said, pointing at a red dress on the rack. "Does this dress come in purple?"
Carmen froze. "Um…I, uh…"
She glanced at Lita for help. Sighing, the older employee came to her rescue.
"Certainly, señora," Lita said, folding her hands behind her back as she grinned. "We don't have one on display now, but we'll have a quick look in the back, if you don't mind waiting."
She tilted her head towards Carmen. Getting the message, she raced back to the storeroom. She returned a few minutes later saying she couldn't find any purple dress in that style.
"Maybe you could try the red dress?" Carmen suggested.
"I don't like red," the customer said, crossing her arms.
"I can put in an order for one in purple, if you'd like," Lita said, her smile not wavering. "You could come pick it up in about a week."
This didn't seem to please her. "But I need the dress for my date tomorrow night!"
Inside, Lita was screaming in annoyance. But, she did her best to keep up her grin. She looked the woman's outfit over as she tried to think. So, she has a thing for purple, eh?
"Well then," Lita said calmly, "I'm sorry if we cannot get you that dress. But…" She held up her finger. "If you could wait one moment, please? I think I have just the thing!"
She came back a minute later with a purple dress. Like the red dress, it was sleeveless, yet the straps were thinner. While the red dress had ruffles all over the skirt, the purple one had ruffles at the hem.
"This dress is of a similar style," Lita said, holding it up for the customer to see, "and is purple, and, I believe, just about your size. Perhaps you'd like to try it on?"
The customer looked thoughtfully at the dress for a moment. Her frustration seemingly quelled, she took the dress.
"It is nice."
"I'll direct you to the changing room, señora," Lita offered.
The dress ended up fitting the customer perfectly. She ended up buying a pair of matching heels too, at Lita's suggestion.
As Lita rung her up, the customer asked, "Are you the manager here?"
"No, señora," she replied, handing the woman back her credit card. "I just work here."
The customer nodded in approval. "Well, you're very good."
Once the woman had left, Carmen stared at her associate in awe. "How do you do it?"
Lita dropped the smile to give her cheeks a break. "If there's anything I've learned in all my odd sales jobs, it's that any fire can be quenched with the right bucket of water."
Carmen scrunched her nose in confusion.
"Yeah, not the best metaphor. I just mean everyone wants something, and some people are gonna be difficult about it. Even try to bully ya into bending the rules. You just gotta show 'em ya can't be intimidated."
"But…what if I am intimidated?"
Lita laughed. "Well, you can't let them know that. And if you don't have what they want, give them a better offer and make them believe that's all they wanted in the first place."
Carmen tilted her head. "What are you? A salesperson or a con-artist?"
With a shrug, Lita replied, "Who says there's a difference?"
Just then, the door to the manager's office opened and a bald tan head poked out.
"Lita," the man said, his tone serious. "You're here. Come into my office. I need to speak with you."
When the door shut, Carmen looked over at Lita, who appeared nervous. "What'd you do?"
Lita shook her head and put up a smile. "It's probably nothing. You okay for a few minutes?"
Carmen nodded and Lita made her way to the office. Her smile faltered once she was sure her colleague wasn't looking.
Does he know? Her shoulders tensed. Relax, Lita. If you act like something's wrong, he'll know something's wrong. Just do what you do to chill.
So, taking a deep breath, she turned the doorknob and walked in. Her boss was at his desk. He pointed to the chair across from him.
"Have a seat, please?"
Lita smiled as she sat down. "How's it going, Victor?"
She saw that he was leaning back, his arms gripping the chair. She leaned back and did the same. It was a coping mechanism of hers. Whenever she was in an awkward encounter, she'd relax by copying the other person's movements. She wasn't sure why. Probably because the amusement made the situation less…tense.
"How are the wife and kids?" Lita said, keeping up her grin.
"I didn't call you in here for chitchat," Victor said, leaning forward and folding his hands onto his desk. "I'm afraid it's a…serious matter."
"Oh," she said, the corners of her mouth slipping. "I see."
She leaned forward to match his position. However, since it would be rude for her to fold her hands onto his desk, she placed them on her lap.
"I don't know if I ever told you," Victor said, glancing at a photo of him with a Hispanic woman and two young girls, "but my wife is a retired cop. She was in here the other day while you were on the clock."
Lita's eyes flicked to the photo, seeing that the woman was dressed in a police uniform. "Is…that so? Forgive me, I…didn't see her."
"She was just here to drop off my lunch, but…she thought you were familiar."
Her fingers tightened together. It was the best she could do to not appear nervous.
"And then she told me about a case she'd worked ten years ago. About a series of home invasions." His brown eyes locked onto her blue ones. "The suspect they caught was a fifteen-year-old girl by the name of Adelita Gris."
And there it was. Her smile dropped completely and her shoulders slumped.
"So," she muttered. "You know, then."
"Need I remind you," Victor said slowly, "that lying on your resumé results in immediate termination?"
"Would you have hired me if I hadn't?" Lita snapped before she could help herself.
Victor sighed. "I realize it was a long time ago, and this town can lead people to do crazy things, but that doesn't change the fact that you lied. And yes, you've been one of my best sales associates in the last five months you've worked here. You've even chased off the occasional shoplifter. However, our company policy states—"
"Please, Victor, I need this job!" Lita exclaimed, standing up and slamming her hands onto the desk. "It took me ages just to find—"
"Lita," Victor said, holding out his hand impatiently.
She stared down at his open hand. Once again. The same old song. She knew the tune.
With a heavy sigh, she unclipped her nametag and dropped it into his hand.
"I'll clear out my locker then," she muttered, heading for the door.
Before she slammed it shut, Victor called, "Feel free to keep the uniform!"
Like that fucking mattered.
It was getting dark by the time Lita had grabbed her stuff and stormed out of the store. She kept her hood up and her hands shoved into her zippered pockets as she trudged through the streets.
That had been the third job this year. The twenty-seventh in ten. They all found out eventually. Actually, she was surprised it had taken Victor this long to find out. One would think in a town crawling with criminals, employers wouldn't be so picky. But they were. Even the smallest criminal offense mattered.
She hadn't always omitted her brief time in juvie on her resumé. Many employers had been desperate. However, as soon as something was stolen—which was pretty much an everyday occurrence on Hat Island—the blame was put on the girl with the record. Of course, Victor's wife just had to be a retired cop! If he'd known the whole story, he wouldn't have been so quick to judge.
But no. Victor was one of those people who saw the world in black and white, evil and good. No shades of gray, no in-between.
"Fucking idiot," she muttered under her breath.
She was so angry, she hadn't been paying attention to where she was going. Or that she was being followed.
Her stalker grabbed her from behind, covering her mouth and holding a knife to her throat.
"Struggle and I'll cut ya open like a pig!" whispered a harsh male voice.
Lita groaned as she was pulled into the nearest alleyway. She did not want to have to deal with this right now!
So…pickpocket or rapist?
"Oh wow," her attacker said, his breath hot on her neck. "You're a pretty one, ain't ya?"
Definitely the latter. Didn't these guys ever quit? She swore if the schools in this town taught the risks of unprotected sex better, there wouldn't be so many sleazebags prowling the streets!
"Just relax, doll," he whispered, his knifed hand moving towards her hoodie zipper. "And we'll have some fun."
Without hesitance, she bit down hard on his hand. He cried out in shock and pain.
He didn't have a chance to cut her, for she thrust her bottom backward, pushing him away. She had enough room to reach into her hoodie pocket and pull out a switchblade. In one swift movement, she slashed his wrist, forcing him to drop his knife.
"What the fuck?!" he howled.
Spinning around, Lita roundhouse-kicked him in the ribs, knocking him to the ground. She then turned to leave.
"Hey, you bitch!" he cried, jumping up. "I ain't done with—"
He charged for her, but she faced him just in time to stick her knife in his groin. He stopped, his mouth open in an attempt to scream.
"Yes," Lita said, scowling at him with her bright blue eyes as she twisted her knife within him, "you are."
She drew the blade back, allowing blood to burst out of his pants. Wailing, he covered his bloody groin and dropped to his knees. Lita was about to retrieve her phone from her back pocket, but paused.
The police would be of no help. Even if she could prove he'd attacked first, they still had her on record. They might not believe her.
So, turning on her heel, Lita walked casually out of the alley, leaving the bastard to bleed. Noticing the dripping blood on her knife, she reached into her hoodie pocket for a Kleenex packet. She wiped the blade clean and tossed the bloody tissue into the nearest trash can.
On Hat Island, you did what you had to in order to survive.