Any time now, Marybeth thought. Anytime now, her father would tell her this was all a bad joke—no, a terrible joke—and they'd laugh about it over coffee after she'd scolded him for making her drive all the way across town from her apartment in Sea Point over a stupid prank. But, a minute passed. The punchline never came. And she knew then that the one person she loved the most in the world, the only person she never thought would do her dirty, had gone and done exactly that.
"You can't be serious," she said as she collapsed in the worn, rickety chair at the dining table and held her head in her hands, her messy, carrot-coloured hair falling around her freckled face like leaves burning in the autumn sun. Furious didn't even begin to cover how she felt at that moment. She didn't even brush her unruly hair, let alone take a quick shower, because Danica, her stepmom, called at the crack of dawn, wailing about a life and death situation.
Now, as Marybeth sat there, scowling at the decades-old watermarks on the cheap plywood tabletop, she couldn't figure out which part of this hare-brained scheme was life and death. If she knew this was another one of her father's stuff-ups, she would have hung up on Danica and gone back to sleep. It was way too damn early for anyone to be awake, especially on a Saturday morning.
"Daddy, say something." Marybeth tore her gaze from the stains long enough to glance at her father, unspoken pleas pooling in her eyes.
"Darling—" he began in a smooth-as-honey voice he only used on the job when pulling a con on a mark.
"No!" Marybeth covered her ears, shaking her head in denial as a bewildered whisper shot through her suddenly parched lips. She didn't want to hear that voice. She'd heard it too many times in the past, whilst helplessly watching countless victims fall prey to her father's sweet words. Never in her wildest dreams, though, did she ever think she'd find herself on the receiving end of that voice. Yet, here she was, her father's latest victim, her life about to change forever because he never outgrew his lazy dreams of making a quick buck. And because of his greed, she'd have to head down to the Home Affairs office on Strand Street in exactly three hours and marry a man she'd never met. A man who could be twice her age for all she knew, perhaps a charlatan, or even worse, a hardcore criminal. All three were very real possibilities, considering the company her father kept.
"It's only a year, darling," Danica came in with a softer approach, her periwinkle eyes glistening with fake tears. She wasn't that much older than Marybeth. Eight years older, to be exact. But all the years of hitting the bottle hard were finally showing. She now had a permanently drunk face even when she was sober. Something she readily chalked down to a work hazard, with her being a waitress at Royal Lights, a casino as flashy as its name east of town.
"Seriously, sweetheart—" Danica said again, but quickly shut her trap when Marybeth glared at her.
Gnashing her teeth, she asked, "since it's only a year, why don't you do it?"
"Well, I would, but since your father owes a ton of money, only his most prized possession will do as collateral," Danica repeated what she'd already told her.
"I still don't see how I fit into this," Marybeth said. "I have my own life, you know."
"Yes, but you don't have a man, honey," her father roused to life with his unwanted yet accurate observations. "And you're not getting any younger, Sweet Pea. Your friends are settling down. Some already have babies on the way—"
"I'm only twenty-eight," she reminded him as she stood up and paced around the small kitchen. Twenty-eight was hardly over the hill.
"Yes, I know, honey. But please do this for your sweet old man?"
Marybeth pulled her attention from the window, an incredulous look in her eyes. "Sweet old man? Daddy, you con people for a living! And this whole thing is insane. Why can't you go to the bank and get a loan like normal people? Normal people don't make their daughters marry strangers just to pay off their debts!"
"Lionel's credit score isn't exactly in the green range, you know. And well, no bank will touch me after that card skimming incident, even though I was cleared of all charges," Danica explained as she vigorously ran her hands over her bony arms. Marybeth figured she was going through another withdrawal episode from Tik. She'd lost track of the vicious cycle where her stepmom would be clean for months, and then, without warning, fall back to her old ways, only to try to kick the habit again. It was a painful sight to watch, especially when she was in the withdrawal phase. She'd often scratch her arms or any part of visible skin until she bled.
Marybeth reached up, took her hands and placed them at her sides, stopping her before she could rehash ancient history. Giving her father a side-long glance, she asked, "how much do you owe this man?"
"A lot," he replied.
"Which is?" Her question was met by silence. But she pushed on. "R50k?"
He shook his head.
Another head shake, but a little more vigorous this time.
"Oh, my God, Daddy! Don't tell me it's a million rands?"
"Very close," Danica whispered.
"Daddy! What did you do? How the hell did you rack up such a huge debt? And why can't you just tell me the exact amount you owe?" Marybeth silently screamed in her hands as she sat down again, taking too many shallow breaths. She was bitterly confused at how anyone without a steady job or income could be so brazen.
"I'm sorry." It was all he'd say, no matter how long Marybeth sat there demanding full disclosure, and it only pissed her off even more.
Tired of trying to be the only adult in the room, she threw her toys out of the pram, spewing her anger and heartache as she dredged up all the ridiculous things her father had done in the past—from the people he'd hurt with his half-baked pyramid schemes to how his hefty fines had left them living just above the poverty line.
"Sweet Pea, you know I never meant to hurt you, and I wasn't sent to prison for any of those charges."
Marybeth could only snort bitterly at his response. "That's because you always knew how to get yourself out of a tight spot, Daddy. Not because you weren't guilty of your crimes!"
Her father wasn't the luckiest man on the planet, but he sure knew how to use his charm and street smarts to squirm his way out of any trouble and get away with just fines and suspended sentences. His silver tongue had earned him the nickname Slippy. Indeed, he was as slippery as a fish, and Marybeth was tired of his 'act now and think later' attitude. She was exhausted of his small-time crook ways, period.
"You know what?" she said, her voice a few notches above a whisper. "I used to hate Mom. I blamed her for leaving you...for leaving us. But I see now it was the smartest thing she ever did. God, I wish she took me with her!"
"That's not fair—" He didn't get to defend himself. Marybeth scooted out of her chair, turned on her heel, and flew out of the house, banging the flimsy front door hard behind her.
She ran down the short flight of stairs, only remembering she'd left the envelope with her future husband's contact details on the kitchen table when she reached her car in the driveway.
She didn't want to go back in there with her tail between her legs, not after that grand exit. But if she wanted to resolve this matter like a reasonable adult without entering into a lifetime commitment, she didn't have a choice. So she stormed back inside and snatched up the envelope, barely glancing at her father, wailing like a baby on Danica's ample chest.