Ella 2

“A job?” I asked, trying not to let my voice crack. It did.

“Yes, honey, a job,” the woman said, rolling her eyes, “a good paying job, too, better than the one you have in that factory. It’s a win-win here, and I have about a thousand documents to sign, so could we PLEASE hurry up here, hun, just a yes or a no.” the woman clicked her tongue and adjusted her winged glasses.

“I… uh…” not working in the factory with the creepy dudes any more was an obvious win for me. But trading that in for twenty armor-clad swat agents? I didn’t think so. “I think–”

“She’ll take it,” Max answered.

“What?” I asked him. I had been about to decline the job. Why did he want me to take it?

“El, you speak Spanish fluently. You can defend yourself. You’re smart and sharp like mom. And you’ll get some money, El, and that’s what a person like you deserves. To make money and be awesome. I would take it, if I were you.” Even after he stopped talking I still stared at him, trying to look directly into his soul. He stared right back.

The woman, who had been staring at Max as well, decided that this was the time for more information. “May I mention that it’s not a guaranteed job. You’ll have to pass an Initiation, which is just a written and physical test. But then yes, if you pass, you’ll have the job.”

 

About a half hour later, I sat at a round white desk with three other people–most of whom looked older than me. There was a girl with brown hair who looked as ripped as any dude I’ve ever seen, a lanky guy with bright orange hair and glasses, and the real competition–a twenty-year-old freshly-graduated-with-a-criminology-degree man whom I later learned was named Will. He had dark black hair and stark green eyes. I was going to crush him.

“You will see in front of you there are four sheets of paper. This is the first written test,” said the same woman who had burst into my house unannounced. “You have half an hour. Please use the number two pencils in front of you only, no pens or anything. And above all, no cheating, because I. Will. See. You.” she made eye contact with each one of us as she said the last four words. I cringed a bit in my seat. “Go.”

The other three turned their papers over instantly, but I hesitated, unsure. Looking back on it, I’m not sure what I was unsure of, but it was important enough that I had a split second of hesitation before grabbing it and flipping it over. On it, there was one simple question.

Why do you want this job, Ella?

It had my name on it and everything. I looked at my competition, writing furiously on their white papers, and then looked back at my own. Why did I want this job? What about it seemed to appeal to me? I mean sure, I hadn’t really signed up for it, but I did want this job and I wanted to crush the competition to a pulp. I could have said no at any point. I could have backed out, but I didn’t. What was keeping me here?

I waited for inspiration. And waited. And waited. I tapped my pencil on the table, which appeared to be plastic. I didn’t know why I wanted this job. Why on Earth did I stay?

I glanced at the clock on the wall, a round thing with a black border. Fifteen minutes left. What would I write?

I don’t want this job, my paper began, I need it. When I was little my dad left, and my family was poor and alone. We lived in a cardboard box, and all we had was each other. And then my mom left, and all me and my brother Max had was each other. And that was it. That was all we needed, at that time in our lives, to survive, to make it to the next day. But now, my hand started hurting and I flicked my wrist a bitwe need more than that. When you’re a kid, it’s easy to survive on your own because people pity you. But now that we’re grown-up I still held on to the hope that these people didn’t know I was sixteen, not twenty, it’s getting harder. So what I’m telling you is this–I don’t want this job. I want to be at home, with my family, snuggled under a blanket watching reruns of Seinfeld. I want to be going to school and making friends and having fights with my over-protective brother. But that option was ripped away from me by my dad, and my mom. And the only person who has stood by me all this time is my brother Max. I don’t want this job. I’m taking this opportunity because a brother who will stand by his little sister through everything–the time I had pneumonia and we couldn’t afford a hospital trip, the time I punched him because he got fired from his job and we couldn’t eat, the time I was chased by a cop and he had to save me. A brother who can not only withstand and endure that but also never get angry, never raise his voice, and always be back to hug me when I was hungry or angry or confused or sad, a brother like that deserves a better life than the one we got. So I don’t want this job. I’m taking it to repay a debt. I’m taking it to give someone what they deserve. I’m taking it to slap the devil in the face and tell him that he can’t always win and make the good people lose. I’m taking this job for my brother.

That was it. That was all the writing I could muster in those fifteen minutes. Sure it wasn’t the best paper if I wanted to actually get this job, but it was honest and true and from my heart and if they didn’t give me the job then so what? I could always take another job for my brother if I needed. I wasn’t sure it would make up for the pay this job had (the woman had told me at our apartment and holy heck it was a lot of money) but it would be something. Next, for the physical exam.

Ella

“No,” the man said, before he slammed the door in my face. Anger boiled inside me, like red-hot firey rage but I didn’t do anything. Momma had said not to, but people were being mean. I made a face at the closed door and sprinted back to where my mother and brother were sitting, waiting for me.

“Momma he said no, momma how are we going to eat today?” I asked, worried. My stomach growled. Ever since Papa had left us, we had been so poor. We couldn’t afford food or our house. Now we lived in a cardboard box, but momma always says we have each other and that’s what matters. But the little monster inside of me that I called hunger did not agree. “I want food momma, momma please.”

“Ella, take a breath,” my brother, Max said. “We’ve just got to wait a little longer, OK?”

“I can’t wait a little longer,” I cried, the monster was going to consume me–already my fingers shook, my arms felt weak, my skinny legs had trouble holding me up. And on top of all that, the Hunger Monster roared inside of me–growling and groaning and grumbling. “I’m sorry hunger monster,” I whispered, “I can’t feed you right now.”

I saw my mothers heart break from the outside, so obvious I couldn’t imagine what it must have felt like inside. “How dare they say no to a ten year old, what mean people they are.” tears streamed down her face and landed on her tattered skirt. “We just need food, how hard is that for them to give?” She got up and stormed off, leaving a trail of footprints behind her in the dust.

I didn’t know it, but that was the last day I would see my mother. Whether she died the day after, whether she just ran far away because she was ashamed of us, I don’t know. But at ten years old with just my thirteen year old brother to console me and a hunger monster consuming my stomach, it was the saddest day of my entire life.

I got my first job at the age of thirteen in a factory. Of course, I told them I was sixteen, and Max told them he was my dad, and then I had a job where I made pipes. My job involved a lot of fire and steel and while it was fun I worked the night shift and made very little money. I worked with a lot of people who were a lot older than me, many of whom were remarkably creepy, many of whom I hoped I would never see again.  The job wasn’t much but it was something, and in two years Max and I had enough money that we could actually move into an apartment on the outskirts of Philidelphia. Both of us worked all the time, neither of us had been to school since we were five, but we were scraping by and that was all that mattered. I learned to fend for myself–to protect me, at all costs, against large scary men and evil women. I toiled away at my factory job, and I had no friends, no family, nothing. All I had was Max.

Then The Day happened, the day when everything changed. It started with a knock on our door.

“Hello, my name is Meryl. I work for the FBI and I need a um… Ella Smith?” I only heard the words, Max had opened the door, but I quickly scampered into the bathroom and locked the door to the only hiding place in our tiny apartment. “You must be Max. Don’t worry, you guys aren’t in trouble. We just want to talk to your sister and maybe see about… a job opportunity.” at the word job, I unlocked the door to the bathroom a tiny bit, very slowly. There was a long silence. I tucked my knees up to my chest and tried not to breathe, swiping a finger through the short blonde hair that sat in a mop on top of my head.

“El?” Max called, out of the silence. “Ella?”

I panicked. I quickly looked around, flushed the toilet, washed my hands for no reason and walked confidently out of the bathroom… Or as confidently as you can walk if you’re walking out of the bathroom. “Yeah, hi. What’s up?”

I looked out the door and found that there was not one, not two, but twenty-one FBI agents, eleven of them with rifles, all of them with hand guns and twenty with bullet proof vests. The woman in the middle, the only one without a bullet proof vest, was short and pale with black hair and a pinstriped skirt suit. She looked incredibly official and she scared me more than any of the people with guns.

“We need you to come with us,” she said, forcefully. “We hear you’re a fighter and a fantastic liar and I think we have an opening for someone like that.”

Another long silence.

“We want you to go undercover. How well do you speak Spanish?”