Astrid was an underwear model when she was slender. It kept a roof over her head.
The gigs were all pretty much the same. Stand there, look bored and a little sad about being bored.
Not, obviously, too sad, or the consumers would be sad themselves. Sad men don’t buy things. Not for themselves. Not for the women they want to captivate.
On a regular Tuesday evening one summer, a gig that Duncan had set up got out of control. The photographer had been dumped by his second wife and sued in the same week.
Jake was high. He was that guy that pushed his vial into everyone’s nose when he was high.
Jake yelled cut, even though he wasn’t a director, in the middle of Astrid’s shoot.
“You are killing my buzz, sweetheart. Your eyes fucking haunt me. Here, have some of this.”
She looked at Duncan, who normally watched her like a hawk at these shoots. He was very protective. He had fawned over her openly until another model whispered bad directions into her town car driver’s ear and had Astrid dropped off alone in downtown Detroit.
Duncan wasn’t even looking. He had his face in the tits of a model from a different agency. Jake had given him some blow.
She began to tremble when Jake put the vial under her nose. She stopped breathing. How long could she hold her breath before she either blew the dust into his face or inhaled it?
Astrid had seen home movies of a few of Duncan’s friends who had overdosed. They never made it to the hospital. Hard drugs terrified her. Duncan knew it. He encouraged this fear.
But he wasn’t paying attention. And Astrid didn’t know how to deal with Duncan when he was high. It had only happened a few times since he had become her manager, and each time was different. She didn’t know what to expect.
She screamed his name in her head, afraid to breathe. Jake wasn’t letting up. He was convinced that her sad aura would disappear with cocaine.
Finally, after screaming silently for help as she held her breath for more than sixty seconds, Duncan’s head jerked up from the chest of his new friend.
“Hey, Stray, what’s going on?”
Fuck. Astrid knew he was beyond redemption that night. He never called her Stray where anyone could hear.
The two had first sort of met when Astrid had been living on the street for two days.
Her idea of living on the street at that point had been sleeping on a park bench by the lake in August and fighting an old man’s attempt to force a blow job after “free” McDonald’s.
Duncan watched the exchange from a picnic table but didn’t intervene.
Astrid told the man to fuck off. When he grabbed at her, she looked into his eyes and chomped her teeth.
The old man backed off. Astrid took her greasy burger to a stand of trees behind the dumpsters.
She spent the third night beneath evergreens and a few different types of deciduous trees.
Astrid had no way of knowing the connection between Duncan and that old man. As far as she was concerned, they didn’t know each other. They acted like strangers.
During her forth night on the streets, Astrid made friends with teens who had been homeless for a while. They were drinking. They said they would share.
She missed the kids in her class who shot spit balls into her hair.
Astrid thought maybe whatever they were drinking would tamp her hunger.
It tasted funny in the back of her throat. But then she was happy. Out of her body happy. Gently floating in the low sky without any fear.
The temporary absence of fear was happiness for Astrid.
While she slept in an alley, the kids must have left her and the old man must have scooped her into his car, because suddenly she was curled up under a dirty blanket on an old car bench in a workshop somewhere.
She heard the old man talking to Duncan.
“Fuck, man, fifty dollars.”
“She’s ten, asshole. I can’t do shit with that.”
“She looks at least twelve.”
Astrid passed out again.
She woke in a bed with white covers. The walls were white. The ceiling was white. And there was a beautiful chandelier above her.
Duncan moved to her side as soon as her eyes fluttered. He handed her a glass of water.
“Your daddy is not a good man.”
She thought of the family that she’d left. She was confused. How did this man know?
Then she saw an image of the old man trying to force her to give him a blow job.
Astrid shook her head. “That’s not my dad.”
She tensed. Waiting. She held her breath.
“Listen, that man was no good. He told me that he was going to bring you to the orphanage. I told him I’d kill him if he didn’t get lost.”
Astrid froze. Duncan stroked her cheek with the back of his hairy, calloused hands.
“Don’t worry, he did as I told him to do.”
She stared into space, waiting.
“You don’t want to be sent to an orphanage, sugar. Do you know what they do to little girls at an orphanage?”
Astrid shook her head.
“They tie them into burlap sacks and throw them into the river.”
This terrified her. She breathed so that no part of her moved.
Duncan laughed. A big laugh.
“I’m just joking. They don’t really do that.”
She remained stagnant.
“Either way, you don’t want to be sent to an orphanage.”
Astrid jumped as he clapped his big hands onto her shoulders.
He introduced himself then and told her that she could model for him as long as she was comfortable lying about her age.
Even though she told him her real name, he called her Stray whenever the two were alone.
He told her that an old junkyard between his apartment and the workshop was the orphanage. Astrid believed that street kids were sent to the place they drove by almost every day. She could hear the rush of the river above the noise of heavy traffic.
Duncan had called her Stray in front of another twice. Both times he was out of his mind high.
Astrid never wanted to experience that out of her mind feeling. But Jake had a vial in her face.
And Duncan was too high to care. She had no choice but to take care of herself.
The eleven year old with little street smarts pulled all the fierceness from her belly and shoved Jake out of her way. He was really high. Her might sent him flying.
This caught Duncan’s attention.
“Hey, what the fuck, Astrid? You don’t own the place.”
“I’m not putting that shit in my nose.”
“So don’t fucking put it in your nose. You don’t have to wreck the set.”
She put her chin out.
“I want to go home.”
“I’m not driving back tonight.”
“Not there. I want to go home.”
“Home doesn’t exist anymore, sugar. It’s a figment of your imagination.”
“Fuck you. I’m going home.”