In the belly of the Blue Moon room, two young prostitutes thrashed on the soiled floor, unable to fall asleep.
“Shh. You’ll never fall asleep if you keep talking.”
“Anna, I can’t stop thinking about her.”
“Ugh, don’t think about that,” Anna stifled a yawn and sat up, pushing her greasy mat of hair from her face. She glanced at the alien glow of the clock in the corner.
“Go to bed, Sarah. Don’t think about it. We have to be up in… four hours, Jesus. When they said the city never sleeps, they must have meant the hookers.”
Sarah didn’t move. She was sitting in the corner now, hugging her knees, staring at the stains on the wall. “I just can’t help thinking about her,” she said, her voice a whisper. “She was so beautiful, Theresa, and always happy. You know, she was going to go to college once she got out?”
Anna scoffed. “Sarah, there is no out. The only way out is—” she stopped herself.
“I just can’t help thinking, it could have been us.” Anna’s chin was trembling.
“No, it will never be us, because we’re smart, we look out for each other.”
“So was Theresa. She was smart too. She had people looking out for her.”
“Sarah…” Anna could feel her eyelids becoming heavy.
“You know what really fucks me up about this?” Sarah’s voice was loud and sharp. “When the detectives found her phone, they said she had been texting people, talking on the phone. That the fucking bastard let her reply so no one would be suspicious, but she couldn’t say ‘call 911’ or ‘help, I’m about to be brutally raped and murdered.’”
“What’s your point?” Anna said, half listening.
“My point is that Theresa could have survived,” Sarah said, with fire in her voice.
“Alright, goodnight.” Anna closed her eyes.
Sarah rose from her corner and straddled Anna on the floor. She grabbed Anna by her shoulders and gave her a shake.
“We need to think of a safe word,” she said, her eyes glowing like embers.
“We,” Anna said through another yawn “need to go to sleep. Besides, a safe word? Like that will stop men from fucking us up?”
“No, not a safe word for that, a safe word for us. A word that we could say to each other that means “send help, I’m not okay, call the police” or something, but a word that no one would suspect.”
“Oh my god, Sarah.” Anna sat up, pushing her off. “And what would I do? What would I do if something like that did happen, we both know the police aren’t going to help us.”
“Yeah, but at least we have it for each other. At least we can say we tried to survive.”
“Please, Anna! Even just for my own peace of mind. I won’t sleep until you agree.”
“Fine!” Anna lay back down. Sarah sat beside her. “What word did you have in mind?”
“I was thinking, some sort of flower,” Sarah said slowly. “Like, we could say ‘he brought me roses,’ and then we’d know that roses meant something bad was happening.”
“Yeah, except lots of guys these days bring roses. Funny, they think they can romance us.”
“Okay, well, what about sunflowers?”
“Yeah, they’re not a common type of flower, and they grow all big and scary sometimes.”
“Please?” Sarah lay on her side facing Anna, clutching her hands. “Please Anna, promise me, promise me you will remember the sunflowers.”
“Alright,” Anna said. “I promise.” She raised Sarah’s knuckles to her lips and kissed each one. “But I also promise you, that will not happen to us. We will be okay. Now go to sleep.”
“Okay,” said Sarah, and she rolled back to her corner. Anna’s eyes closed quickly, but she felt she could still make out the shape of Sarah, sitting, staring at the wall.
Warm summer months melted away. Business was booming, and the men were thirsty. Anna and Sarah hardly saw each other, when one girl came back, the other left. The Blue Moon room smelled filthy.
“I think I’m going to run,” Sarah said one night, while she and Anna lay on the floor, tracing ice cubes over their breasts.
“And go where?”
“I don’t know. Away. I’ve got enough money now. And this new guy, he’s scary.” Sarah rolled to her side to reveal the bruises painted across her ribs.
“Jesus,” Anna breathed. “Why don’t you tell Marco?”
“Because this guy pays good money,” Sarah said flatly. “But I can’t shake the feeling in my gut. Come with me.”
“Sarah, you know I can’t.”
“Why not? We don’t deserve this kind of life!”
“Nobody does. And it’s different for you. I’ve got my old parents to feed, they’d die without their monthly checks from me.”
“You mean it’s different because I have nobody, like no one would care if I went missing. Just like Theresa.”
“Sarah, fuck, how are you still remembering that? Go to sleep!” Anna turned over and dragged her hair around her ears and across her eyes.
Anna didn’t reply.
Sarah’s voice sounded so small.
“What?” Anna said, finally.
“Do you still remember?”
Anna paused. “Yes, yes I do. Please go to sleep Sarah.”
The next day when Anna awoke, Sarah was gone. She thought nothing of it. And that night when Sarah didn’t come home, Anna slept restlessly, tossing and turning in the heat. But by the second morning, she felt a seed of worry being to root in her guts. She called Sarah’s number, then hung up. She would have said something, Anna assured herself. She wouldn’t just disappear.
Another night Anna spent alone in the Blue Moon room, this time void of sleep and dreams. She was still awake when Marco rapped on the door at 10 am. “Anna, I got a new John for you!”
Anna groggily wiped spittle from her cheeks, sat up and stared at the figure looming behind Marco, eyes still blurry. He was a giant, so dark, and his mouth glistened with gold teeth. One hand was behind his back. Marco left, and the man stepped into the room, the door clicking silent behind him. There was something so familiar about him, his scent, the pungent reek of body odour and vanilla cigars, Anna forced her tired brain to remember. That was what Sarah smelled like when she was here last. Was this the frightening man she was so scared of?
“Have you seen Sarah?” Anna blurted out, too sleep deprived to comprehend the foolishness of her words.
“Yes,” the man said, grinning. “She asked me to give you these.”
And he held out a bouquet of sunflowers.