Hope is an expensive thing by Corrina O’Beirne

Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

Missy is no stranger to being stood up. Occupational hazard. The podiatrist from Nebraska, with the cerulean eyes and dick-flasher coat. The Danny DeVito lookalike with the dime-store aviator sunglasses.

Maybe he had every intention of turning up, tyres wailing, fingers tight around the wheel. A sizzle of static and a song comes on the radio – reminding him of happier times, like a 4th of July picnic as he hot-tails it home. Some days she would like to change her mind too, but there are things she needs to put right.

She checks her lipstick in her heart-shaped compact. Unravels a curl of her recently dyed hair; Midnight Ruby. She wanted the Blowout Burgundy, but 7-Eleven was out, and she’d grown bored of Copper Shimmer.

He’s got two minutes.

Graffiti-strewn planks hang low over her head. The usual: suck this, eat that. The lack of imagination. Two million words in the Collins and this is the best they can come up with. Bolted to the deep-red wall is an enormous taxidermy buffalo head, a beer-soaked Lucky Strike poking out from its lightly feathered ear. Its eyes are only half-open, but she feels it looking inside her, poking around:

I know what you’re up to, Missy…

She doesn’t care for his tone. She takes the lighter from her purse, holds the spitting blue flame to his black snout. It does the trick: Mr Buffalo shuts his fat trap.

Hudson Boyd steps into the bar. Missy watches as a blade of midday sun cuts through his body like a scalpel. One boot on the parking lot gravel, the other pressing down on the sticky, puce-coloured carpet. Together they stare at the ACES AND EIGHTS neon sign swinging above the bar, then sharply at a couple of dusty, hillside, open-mouthed locals, hypnotised by a slowly scrolling Panavision TV circa 1978. She has a pretty good idea of what’s running through his mind: will he get out of this dump with his kneecaps? Roll the dice and find out, friend.

Missy isn’t a fan of dive bars either. Nasty little swill-slinging holes where bikers and metalheads slurp shots and eat shit. But what the bar lacks in craft cocktails and toilet cubicle doors it makes up for with low-wattage lightbulbs and indifference. It’s best to be pragmatic about these things.


‘Nina, hi.’

He looks at the scar running across her forehead, they always look at the scar. She doesn’t attempt to cover it with make-up and keeps her fringe short, so she has to see it in every reflection. It’s a reminder, a date-stamp of a promise she made to her kid brother, Beau.

‘Nice spot you’ve picked,’ he says.

‘You like the way the walls are dripping in Hep C?’

‘I really do.’ He pulls a fresh packet of cigarettes from his jean pocket. She notes the crisp cut of the denim, the black and gold contrast stitching: expensive. ‘Want one?’

‘Trying to give up.’ Missy used to enjoy a Marlboro before the crash, but since then it’s felt like the cigarettes are smoking her.

 ‘Nothing to it. Done it a thousand times.’ He puffs hard, like it’s the last cigarette on earth. Stringy clouds of smoke linger above their heads. ‘Get this: I can ask for a pack of cigarettes in five different languages.’ He licks his lips. ‘¿Puedo tener un paquete de cigarrillos. Mag, wait… Mag ik een pakje sigaretten.

‘I’m no linguist, but that was two.’

‘You want my Italian? It’s probably my best, my grandmother–’

‘I’ll just have to believe you. Trust is a wonderful thing.’

He slips off his brick-red leather jacket, orders a whisky. The sponge-faced bartender half-fills a cloudy glass with dark brown liquid, slides it into Hudson’s waiting hand.

‘This place isn’t famed for its single malts,’ she says. ‘Don’t sniff, don’t sip, don’t chew. Knock it back.’

 ‘Sorry, Nina, you want a drink?’

The bartender slumps on the edge of the bar. ‘Yeah, Nina. You look real thirsty.’ His jeans are every shade of brown and his vest, emblazoned with 49% SON OF A BITCH 51% MOTHERFUCKER, is held together with duct tape. He jerks his thumb over his shoulder, to a naked Barbie doll perched on a framed certificate awarded to DOUG – WINNER OF CHICKENSHIT BINGO ‘96. Around Barbie’s neck is a laminated sign: DON’T MISS OUT ON OUR BOOZE FOR BOOBS OFFER. ‘Flash gets you a shot. Throw your bra on the stag, I’ll do you up a bucket.’ His blurry eyes run up and down Missy like a searchlight. How easy it would be to pop them from their greasy sockets, sling them in a blender, blitz them to paste.

She removes a tiny piece of lint from the cuff of her roll-neck. It dances into the air. The bartender grabs his saggy crotch, shakes it around like a bag of gold coins, slowly mouths: bitch.

Hudson drums his fingers against his knees. ‘Should I tell you about me?’

She notices a coral-pink lipstick print on the chipped rim of Hudson’s glass. An unwashed glass is a petri dish of possibility; nooks and crannies where bacteria and parasites can set up camp. Missy knows about parasites, she’s read Parasite Rex four times. They invade, control, rewire, from deep inside.

‘I’ll give it to you straight.’

She slips a yellow pill under her tongue. ‘Not interested in stories.’

‘I mean, I’ll tell you the truth.’

‘Your version of the truth.’

‘The deeper you delve, the darker it gets.’ He lets the words ride off an exhale of silver smoke. He takes a sip of his whisky, his lips touching the lipstick print. Missy swallows back a little vomit.

‘Motives are mundane,’ she says.

He looks disappointed; he’s got his speech prepared. Why do they always want to talk? She isn’t interested in their life.She’s interested in their money and what that can do for Beau. That’s it. She doesn’t want to sit there, inhaling mould spores, piss fumes, while they drag over a tale of betrayal – a nasty lie, a paternity test, financial fuckery.

‘When you go to McDonalds, do you explain to the server why you’re hungry?’

He shrugs narrow shoulders. ‘This is different.’

She slips a red pill under her tongue. ‘This is exactly the same.’ Some days she wants to take a craft knife, cut a door in her stomach and let whatever is crawling around inside free.

‘I don’t understand.’

‘I’m not here to explain how this works, this isn’t algebra class.’

‘Am I allowed to ask how?’

‘What do you do for a living?’ She waves the question away.

His eyes light up. ‘I’m an FBI informant.’ He waits for her to laugh. When she doesn’t, his face swells with panic. ‘Joking! Let’s just say, I have an understanding of supply-and-demand economics.’


‘Do I look like a pimp?’


He takes a victorious inhale of his cigarette before reaching across her and stubbing it out. The smell of his cologne fills her nose – sweet and sickly, like cheap orange juice. It reminds her of hot summer evenings spent sat on the front porch, just her and Beau, devouring homemade Sunny D popsicles.

He snatches a look at her scar again. ‘You don’t look like the kind of person who has them but let me tell you, nothing prepares you for how much you love your kids. Then one day some old bitch, who knows shit about your life, drags you into court. Tells you when you can see your girl.’ His eyes bubble with tears. He pulls another cigarette from the packet, lets it bob in his mouth as he talks. ‘I can see her out the corner of my eye. Celeste… standing there like a saint, like she’s fucking Oprah. The room is lapping up her story.’ He stares at a jar of grey pickled eggs behind the bar. ‘For shit’s sake. I’m getting this all wrong.’

Missy’s temples throb. She tells him what he wants to hear: ‘I’m sure you’re a stand-up guy who has just run out of rope.’

‘That’s it. Exactly.’ He looks triumphant. ‘You’ve taken the hammer, you’ve beaten the crap out of the head. Clean out of rope, clean out of hope.’

Hope is the only thing that is stronger than fear, Missy knows that. Life has tried to take hope away from her and Beau. Like when their dad went out for a carton of cigarettes and forgot to come back. When the brakes on her Chevrolet Impala failed, flipped three times, wrapped Beau around a giant redwood. Life can be a monster. Hope was nowhere to be seen, until Missy went out and found it. Him. Doctor Schiff and his team of neurosurgeons, maxillofacial surgeons and reconstructive dental specialists. Beau’s face is stitched together like a baseball, but now he can eat. Mashed banana, but he can eat. And this is America, the land of the free – if you want hope, you can damn well pay for it.

‘Tia is my daughter. Celeste thinks because she’s with a new slick-rick, I’m gonna disappear up my own ass.’ He wipes fat beads of sweat from his face. His nails are painfully short – hacked and pink from what looks like months of serious chewing. Missy can see the bacterial colonies racing through his mouth. Fingernail fragments burrowing deep into his gums. He’ll be saying hello to a peptic stomach ulcer before sundown.

Hudson signals to the bag between his boots. Eighty thousand. Another eighty when it’s done. Scrubbed, scoured and over to Doctor Schiff within weeks. Final round of craniofacial reconstruction for Beau.

‘I counted it in the car. Three times.’

Missy’s voice is flat. ‘Haven’t been skimmed yet.’

‘Right. You must be sitting on a fat chunk of change. You need any help cleaning it, I know a guy.’

‘I’ve got all the financial detergent I need.’

He flashes a quick smile. ‘Doesn’t hurt to switch it up, I could save you–’

‘Do you know what my mother used to say? Buy cheap, buy twice.’ She deals the words quick and sharp like cards.

‘Oh. Are you close to her?’

‘She let us live in shit. Literally. Her dumpster truck of a cat, Pawdrey Hepburn, made our house its litter tray. Toxoplasma Gondii… Google it. Cell invasion, dopamine secretion. There’s this study, scientists infected rats with Tox G; turned them into kamikaze pilots.’ Missy stops, adjusts her hair. ‘Look at me reminiscing! Let’s focus.’

‘Listen, I apologise. What you do with your money–’

‘You think I do this for the money?’

He lets out a breathy, half-laugh. ‘This is a freebie?’ His nervous eyes dart about like pinballs. ‘Money… I don’t know, it takes the sting out of being broke.’

‘Because I’m not wearing Louboutin heels. This is about family, responsibilities. Nothing is ever about one thing. There’s always another thing within the thing. You should take some time to learn that. That’s basic. If I bring forth what is inside me, what I bring forth will save me.’

Hudson raises his palms in mock surrender. ‘If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. Gospel of Thomas. I was brought up by my aunt. She had God on speed-dial. Not just emergencies, I’m talking everyday situations like should she switch to Sweet’N Low. She had big plans for me. Hud was going to walk in spirit, not in the flesh.’

‘How’d that work out?’

‘Hit thirteen. Liked to smoke and hangout. Riddled with lust, greed. All ten and then some. Got myself a smart mouth and lots of attention.’

‘Nobody likes it when the spotlight shines brighter on the sinner than the saint.’

‘She tried to beat those nasty feelings out of me, but they weren’t going anywhere. What’s so great about salvation anyway?’

‘Jesus didn’t want you for a Sunbeam?’

‘Didn’t want my sorry ass for anything. I’m a false prophet.’

‘Your day of debt will come. I’m still paying.’ The grip inside her is tighter today, deeper somehow. Seeping into the marrow of her bones, swimming in her spinal fluid.

He leans forward so his stubble scratches her hair, his wet breath on her skin, crawling into her ears. ‘Should I give it to you now?’

 ‘This is your last chance to change your mind. You’ve got one minute.’

Someone shouts ‘Gimme a dollar!’ Two women, head-to-toe in crushed denim, jump to their feet. Their matching suede ankle boots crunch down on a spray of broken glass as they swivel and sway on the dancefloor.

‘Put something on!’ they shriek.

A biker in a black cap hits the jukebox with his heel and Hotel California blares out, mid-chorus. Hudson mouths a few lines into his lap.

‘Money equals deal.’

He stares blankly at the watery dregs of whisky sitting in the bottom of the glass – the throbbing music makes it shake.

Missy puts her hand over the rim. ‘Whisky can’t speak. And if it could, it wouldn’t be that hot with advice. Think. Here.’ She taps the side of her head. ‘Forty-five seconds.’

The scratchy, tangled, persistent plucking of guitar strings – prolonged and melancholy is trapped in the bar, like fog. It saws along her nerves.

Twenty seconds. Squeezable condiment bottles jump like a mosh pit before falling off the edge of the bar.

Drums reverberate with her heartbeat.



Endless echoes deep inside her head.



He pushes the bag into Missy’s waiting hand.

People imagine cinematic locations: smoke-filled jazz bars, casinos, weddings. Sex-soaked sepia. That’s Martin Scorsese, gangland stuff. It’s never like this in real life. It’s at a drive-thru. An abandoned car lot. A restroom cubicle.

Tonight, it’s an apartment, overlooking the hustling end of a kid’s play park. Despite her overalls, latex gloves and disposable overshoes, Missy still feels uneasy about germs seeping through, getting under her skin.

Celeste’s bedroom is two hundred degrees. Dust-caked shelves brim with piles of dimes, Cheez-it Crackers, a plastic Jesus – the kind you see on car dashboards.

Twin ceiling fans whir like irate dervishes, their blades slicing the air, wap wap wap. Celeste is spread-eagled on a salmon-pink mattress, wearing only a pair of black panties, a blister pack of pills tucked under the elastic. Cheap-looking gold necklaces loop the flabby folds of her neck, winking in the half-light from the hall. Her little toe, barely the size of a sweetcorn kernel touches a coffee cup, a spongified mouldy crust floating on top. Silvery-white stretch marks stripe her thighs. Her belly button pulls her gut in, like quicksand. The woman is the size of a wrecking ball. Hudson neglected to mention that small detail.

Celeste’s cheekbones are plump. Two round pits sit close together under her right eye. Chicken pox scars? They seem deeper somehow, angry. Cigarette burns? Twenty-four years old and her face is written over with a hundred broken promises and as many nights of regret. Her black locks of hair are coiled tight as bedsprings, long eyelashes curl into her cheeks. She is almost pretty. Almost.

Three orange pill bottles lie on the floor – Ambien, Lunesta and Temazepam – all prescribed for a MR DAVID E CHANG. Hungry bite marks in the white snap-caps. Missy slips the Lunesta into her overall pocket. We all need a little something, once in a while, to drown out the noise.

Above the mattress, a patch of fresh yellow paint has been applied in light strokes, bright and sunny against meat-brown walls. A giant heart-shaped photo collage. A girl, maybe six-years-old with braided pigtails, smiles into the camera. Tia. Her t-shirt reads, Mommy says I’m a keeper! Her dimples look smooth, soft. Missy slips a blue pill under her tongue. Doctor Schiff will mould Beau a new set of dimples, make his green eyes shine again.

She drained a bottle of Pepto-Bismol before heading to Celeste’s apartment and her stomach is still a raging inferno. Swollen lymph nodes: check. Constant gnawing in the abdomen, vomiting blood, impulsivity: check, check, check. Toxoplasma Gondii. All thanks to Mummykins’ Persian bitch-cat. Showering the house with its own lethal brand of parasite. Down Missy’s ear canal, through her nasal cavities, growing to form a cyst, a massive cyst, planted deep in her warm beating heart. Spreading its angry roots, her hot pulsing blood feeding it, making it stronger so they can invade, control, rewire, from deep inside.

As Missy kneads her clenched fist into the pit of her stomach, she hears the psycho-clown jingle of a Mister Softee ice-cream van prowling the street. She imagines her stomach bathing among the glacial pineapple sundaes and cooling milk tea floats, gently lathered by soothing butterscotch syrup, a light drizzle of rainbow sprinkles. Raspberry slush swimming through her pyloric canal, breezing through her ventricles, leaving everything sparklingly clean.

Missy teases out a book from under Celeste’s mattress. 11 Strategies for Wealth and Happiness. Neon pink bleeds through the junky paper, inky fingerprints at the corner of each page. Shit-eating platitudes float in highlighter residue:

Learn the miracle of personal development!

She presses her thumbnail through the paper of the inside cover, piercing the eyeball of some self-righteous looking bastard. For the record, Missy is a great believer in self-improvement. Just not via the parasitic, soul-sapping snake-oil peddlers like this sack of shit. Positive thoughts do not cure cancer, chanting will not regenerate your kidneys. But after tonight, she will peel off her old skin and Missy will be reborn. Doctor Schiff will iron out her frontal lobe, pull out her infected organs and shake them free like a rug. She’ll take Beau to Idaho or Big Sur, they’ll rent a beach house and do normal things: cook chilli together (Beau’s favourite), get lost in a Netflix series and the last two years will vanish as quickly as a papercut.

A siren interrupts, like a slap in the face. The urgent rumble of wheels. The sound is echoless. She takes off her right glove. The cold metal of her Ruger SR9 feels good against her clammy skin. 17+1 capacity, light polymer frame, D-shaped magazine release. It does what it needs to do.

It’s better this way. What’s the alternative? Celeste gets driven out to the desert by a couple of sweating meth-heads? Beaten? God knows what else. No, there are good deaths and bad deaths. There’s some dignity this way – it’s quick, it’s clean.

She leans in close to Celeste, watches her dreams flutter behind puffy eyelids. It’s hypnotic. The beauty of nothingness takes Missy’s breath away. She wants to see what Celeste sees, just for a few seconds. Try her on. Slip under her skin. Mouth over mouth, heartbeat against heartbeat… Oh, to feel like someone else.

The night’s hot stars fall into the bedroom, the pulse of revving engines on the street below.

Pull the trigger.

Celeste exhales deeply, her breath fogs the stainless steel. Missy wipes the moisture from the gun on the forearm of her overall. Warm droplets soak through the polypropylene and she realises Celeste’s breath is seeping into her.

Pull it.

Eyes gently swimming, rolling over soft waves of sleep.


Heartbeat against heartbeat. Celeste’s eyelids stir. She looks at Missy, dreams still clinging to her. Such pretty eyes, almost as green as Beau’s. Missy’s seen a lot of eyes staring back at her like this. Eyes full of questions, eyes full of fear. Eyes that say more than their mouths ever could.

About The Author

Corrina is a writer-playwright based in Brighton. She recently completed a writers attachment programme in association with Oxford Playhouse. Her play ‘Come on in, we’re open’ was shortlisted for the 2017 Kenneth Branagh award for new drama writing. Her short stories have been published by Bridport Prize, STORGY, Retreat West and she was shortlisted in the Fish Publishing Short Story Award 2020.

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