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Estrella

Estrella watched the car pull up to the curb on the other side of the street. It was a new car and looked expensive, with a license plate that said California. Though she was terribly afraid, she forced her feet to start walking, crossing the darkened, deserted street diagonally as the driver's side door opened. The man who emerged was hispanic and well-dressed. The door shut quietly, then the lights flashed once as the car emitted a chirp. The man glanced at her but then began to walk away.

Her heart pounded fiercely and her stomach was knotted in dread as she hurried to follow him. "Señor!" she called. He stopped and turned to face her. She saw something in his expression. Startlement? "Do you want to buy me tonight, señor?"

He seemed to relax slightly. "How old are you, chica?" He spoke with a slight American accent. He had stated the question pointedly.

Estrella crossed her arms defiantly. "Dieciseis años." Sixteen.

"Go home to your madre," he said, waving her off.

"Sì, señor," she said. He had not been the first she had asked, and all had rejected her offer. She turned to go, adding, "But I have no mother."

"Wait," he said. He walked up to her. Estrella nearly trembled with fear, but did not retreat. "How long since you have eaten?"

"Two days," she said quietly. That had been some rice that a restaurant owner had thrown out. It had seemed like a feast at the time, but her hunger had returned all too soon.

"Come with me, chica." It took her a moment to realize that he had changed his mind, but she quickly scrambled to follow him. He walked a few blocks down the street, turned a corner, then went a bit further. Several times, he stopped to study his surroundings, as if to see if anyone were watching. They eventually arrived at a small hotel and a room that opened to the parking lot outside. With the key in the door, he paused one more time, scanning the street for watchers, then opened the door and motioned her in.

The room was spartan, with very few belongings to show that it was occupied. On the other hand, it was comfortably warm and seemed safe. Estrella walked over to the bed and sat on the edge of it, trying to nerve herself for what was to happen next.

But the man had gone over to a small refrigerator, pulling out an apple, some cheese, and a jar of peanut butter. He set them on the room's small table along with utensils. "Here. I don't have much, but you need to eat something."

Estrella all but ran over to the table and bit a slice of cheese, chewing enthusiastically as she sliced up the apple with a knife and dipped a piece in the peanut butter. She kept her eyes on the man as he dropped onto the bed, covering his eyes with one hand. She swallowed her mouthful so she could speak. "What is your name?" she asked.

He looked up. "Roberto. What's yours?"

She chewed several times, struggling with the sticky peanut butter. "Estrella."

He smiled. It was the first time he had done so. "Star," he said, the English word for her name. "That's a good name. So, what happened to your mother, then, Estrella?"

Estrella put down the piece of apple. "She got sick." That was all she could bring herself to say about the cancer. Her mother had suffered for months. Toward the end, she had begged anyone who would listen to kill her and end the pain. "Mì papà, he began drinking. It got worse after she died. He would come home very drunk and beat me sometimes. I finally ran away."

Roberto sighed. "I am sorry, chica. That must have been hard."

Estrella had finished the meal. Feeling weak in her knees, she walked over to stand next to the bed and Roberto. "Thank you for the food," she said. Then she stood there, at a loss for what to do next.

"Go ahead, sit," Roberto urged. She sat, folding her hands in her lap. "Under all the grime, you're a very pretty girl," he said. Somehow, he managed to make the statement sound non-threatening. "Now, tell me truthfully, Estrella. How old are you?"

Estrella let out a long breath. "Fourteen," she said.

He nodded. "That is about what I thought. And have you ever tried to be a prostituta before tonight?"

"No," she answered, looking down.

"You are a virgin, aren't you?"

"Yes."

He paused, considering something. "There is something I would like to tell you about, Estrella. You might not like me much after I tell you, though."

Estrella shook her head. "No, you have been good to me, señor. I would not think badly of you."

He licked his lips, then reached over and lifted up the sleeve of his shirt. On his shoulder was a tattoo. "Eme," she said, pronouncing the letter "M" at the center of the drawing.

"La Eme," he corrected her, "the Mexican Mafia."

She knew of it. It was a gang of sorts, a criminal organization that trafficked drugs, among other illegal activities. They were based in the United States. The one other thing she knew is that you had to kill someone to join. "You are a criminal," she said, suddenly more fearful than she had been earlier.

"I was," he said, "for four years in prison and six years out. I couldn't do it anymore. The things I have seen, the killings," he shook his head, "muy malo. But once you are in, you can't ever get out. They killed my girlfriend. Juanita was..." his voice broke. "That was four months ago. We would have had a new baby son or a daughter by now, but they killed her anyway. I hoped I could come back to Mexico and escape, but men are looking for me right now. They will find me tomorrow, I think." He sounded afraid, but also resigned to it. He turned on his side, away from her. "Why don't you go use the shower, Estrella," he said, "you can find some blankets and make a bed on the floor."

He wasn't going to use her, but he also wasn't going to pay her. "But you hired me--"

"I have no money, puta!" he shouted at her. Estrella recoiled fearfully. "I'm sorry," he said at once. "All of my money is gone, but even if I had it, I could do no such thing. You deserve better, chica."

Estrella could think of nothing more to say and retreated to the bathroom. It had been weeks since she had taken a shower and the feel of warm, cleansing water running over her skin was delightful. She closed her eyes and let the water run over her face and down her back. She could almost forget about what had brought her to this point, and that tomorrow there would be the same problems of food and shelter all over again. She wondered if what Roberto said was true, that he would probably be killed tomorrow.

When she at last felt that the weeks of sweat and grime had been washed clean, Estrella stepped out of the shower, her skin still tingling with warmth. A thought had occurred to her, which she agonized over as she slowly toweled herself dry. Finally, she made her decision, hanging the towel on its rack. The room was dark and felt cool to her bare skin. She flipped off the light and crept quietly across to the bed. Roberto's slow, even breathing never faltered, assuring her that he was asleep. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness as she stood over the bed. She could see that he had dropped his clothes on the floor. Not daring to breathe, lest she disturb him, she peeled back the covers. He shifted slightly in his sleep, but did not wake up.

Her heart was pounding in her chest again, but she smiled to herself, confident that she was doing the right thing. She got onto the bed on her hands and knees and crawled carefully over him, pulling one leg over to straddle him. He groaned and mumbled something, half-awakened. Estrella lowered herself down, pleased to find that he already had an erection. That happened to men when they dreamed. She maneuvered herself carefully and began to push him inside her. He mumbled something. "Juanita." But then he opened his eyes. "Estrella?" he said, confused.

She had paused in her motion, feeling the pressure of something obstructing him from going fully inside her. "If this truly is your last night," she whispered in his ear, "this is one thing I can do for you." Sighing, she sank back quickly, the hymen tearing with surprisingly little pain. She could feel him deep inside her, and slight tension in muscles that were unused to being stretched.

"Why would you do this?" he asked, then a moan came from deep within his throat as she began to move her body back and forth over him.

"Why not?" she said, "We're two strangers whom no one loves. Couldn't we be lovers for just one night?" It felt like the friction spread over her in a warm blanket, little jolts of pleasure leaking through in gasps. "Dios mios, Roberto, I never thought it would be this good. Never my first time."

"We fit together, Estrella," he said, "we were made for each other."

She leaned back and began to move faster, the feel of him moving inside her changing subtly, putting pressure on a different area. The tension and warmth at the pit of her stomach began to take on a kind of shape. She closed her eyes and saw a field of blue. She had lost awareness of everything in the outside world. Time seemed to disappear. And then the warm tension suddenly released. She let out a thin cry, not knowing what would happen next. A sudden, powerful clenching deep within her reminded her of Roberto's body still beneath her as her muscles squeezed onto him. A wave of pleasure passed through her like a shiver, followed on its heels a moment later by another, and another. Caught in its grip, she was not at first aware of Roberto's hands gripping her from behind, his long, loud exhale as he, too, came, slowly and powerfully.

It seemed to last minutes, but the waves finally melted away, leaving Estrella feeling as though she had just run for miles, but at the same time, pleasantly relaxed.

"Never. Like that," Roberto said. Panting, he hugged her tightly against him. "I think I could love you, Estrella."

Estrella could only nod her head weakly, still overcome. She fell asleep like that, still connected to him, but content, as if somehow she knew that tomorrow would not be the end, but the true beginning.



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