Mustard, crackers, or tartar sauce. Freaking great.
I draw a mustard smiley face on the slices and crumble crackers around the edges for hair. Maybe Sophie will think it’s fun and not realize this is a terrible meal with almost no nutritional value. Her little feet swing over the yellowed linoleum as she sits at our rickety table in the one unbroken chair. She’s not smiling, but not complaining either. I guess I can’t ask for more than that.
Somehow, I don’t think this is what Mom had in mind a month ago when she set it up for us to stay with her younger sister, Cynthia, until I find a job and get on my feet. It's definitely not what I expected.
When Sophie’s done eating, I turn on the television and park her in front of it. “I have to go out for a bit. Can you watch TV while Cynthia sleeps?”
She sits cross legged and pets the carpet like it’s a scruffy dog. “I wanna go with you.”
“Sorry, kiddo, but I have to walk and it’s ninety-six degrees outside, in the shade. That’s too hot for you right now. Try to be really quiet. Maybe when I get back we can have another snack.”
Her shoulders slump, so I kneel and straighten her t-shirt. “You can go in a couple of months when it’s cooler out.”
What I don’t say is, hopefully in a few weeks I’ll have a job and enough money that I won’t have to pick up cans on the side of the road anymore.
My first stop is the minimart three blocks over. When I pull open the door, cool air rushes across my heated skin. I rub the sweat from my forehead and wipe it on my pant leg. The idiot behind the counter creeps me out dragging his gaze to my sneakers and back up, his smile growing.
I ignore him because I need a job. Though the idea of working with this guy is less than appealing, I don’t have much choice. “I’d like to fill out an application, please.”
“You can fill it out, but we’re not hiring.”
Somehow this doesn’t surprise me. I’ve applied to twenty-six places over the last few weeks. No one’s hiring. What I wouldn’t give to win the lotto and finally be able to go to college. Of course, I’d have to spend money to even play the lotto, and I can’t even afford to do that.
“Thanks anyway.” I turn and push the door open. I step into the sun, and the heat all but singes me.
I tuck my hair under my ball cap, hoping it makes me less recognizable. Pulling the garbage bag from my back pocket, I walk the four mile stretch on the northbound side of the highway to the next exit.
As I cross under the overpass, a white SUV slows its approach. My heart hammers and I turn my back to the vehicle. As it passes, I catch a glimpse of the back bumper. Texas plates. Thank God. It’s not him.
Swiping the sweat from under the bill of my hat, I head along the southbound side of the road. Peeling my shirt away from my back with one hand, I lug my bag full of aluminum cans with the other. Luckily, there’s a place another mile up that buys scrap metal.
It’s a good thing people ignore that whole “Don’t Mess with Texas” antilitter campaign, or I’d have a hard time making a dime. As bad as it is, I’d rather be here than back home, under Dad’s thumb.
I sell the cans. Thankfully, it’s enough that I don’t think I’ll have to dip into my emergency get the hell out of town cash. It’s another twenty-five minute walk to the Dollar General. I seriously need to get job so I can afford a car.
Groceries for Sophie and me consist of two cans of soup, a mini-box of cereal, graham crackers, and a bag of popcorn. These should last through breakfast, maybe even lunch tomorrow, if I ration them. Hopefully, Cynthia will go food shopping soon.
Sophie jumps up from the floor when I walk in, her cheeks bright pink, the hair on her forehead damp with sweat.
“Let’s turn the air conditioner on. Why didn’t you tell Cynthia you were getting so hot?”
“She’s not here.”
Of course not. “Where is she? When did she leave?”
“I fell asleep watching TV. When I woke up, she was gone.”
What kind of idiot leaves a five-year-old home alone?
I grab the phone and dial Cynthia’s number. Holding it to my ear, I wait for a ringtone, but there’s no sound—no dial tone. Nothing.
Nice—real freaking nice. She must’ve forgotten to pay the phone bill.
In the hall, I tap the thermostat’s blank display screen. Jeez, is this thing on the fritz again? After opening windows in all the rooms, I unload my small bag of groceries with Sophie underfoot.
“Here, Soph, put these in the fridge, please.” I hand her the graham crackers.
She looks at the back of box, one eye squinting. “Why don’t we keep crackers in the cabinet?”
“The ants can’t get to them in the fridge.” I pull open the door and point out the magnetic strip around it. “See, this makes the door stick to the outside edge.”
“Why don’t you ever talk to Charlie anymore? I thought she was your best friend.”
Where’d that come from?
I look into her eyes. “Well, we moved. I’m just settling into our new home and leaving behind old ties.”
“But we left Mom behind. You’re not going to untie her too, are you?” Her bottom lip pokes out, like when she was two and couldn’t find her Bunny Buddy. My chest tightens.
Taking the crackers, I pull her into a hug. “Oh, no, sweetie, I’d never do that. I’m going to figure out a way to get her to come and live with us.”
I set the box on the shelf. The light’s out in the fridge. Crap, this thing’s not working either. How can everything break at once?
Great, I guess the phone’s not the only bill Cynthia didn’t pay.
I flip the light switch twice. Nothing. To double check, I go to the living room and hit the power button on the TV remote. Nada.
In Cynthia’s room, I search through the debris field until I find the electric bill under the bed, buried behind a pair of new boots. Boots? When did she buy these?
I push my anger aside long enough to find the other unpaid bills that need taking care of if we want to stay in this house. There’s also the water bill and a letter from the landlord saying the rent is late. Perfect.
Of course, the hot water is gone, so I take a cold shower. I step outside and look down the street in both directions, scanning for Dad’s white Expedition or any other car from North Carolina. Once I’m sure no one’s spying on us, I go across the street to the one neighbor I’ve already met. Mrs. Hennessey.
A potted plant maze clutters most of her front porch. I have to weave through the labyrinth just to get to her door. I get it thought. If I could put up an obstacle course between the world and my house, I’d do it in a heartbeat to keep Sophie safe.
I knock twice and wait for what seems like a reasonable amount of time, and then I bang harder. After a couple of minutes, I’m turning to leave when the door opens behind me. Mrs. Hennessey dries her hands on the hem of her neon orange house dress, her voice full of gravel when she asks, “What do you want?”
Her hunched back has me straightening my shoulders. “Hi, Mrs. Hennessey. Can I please use your phone?”
“I need to contact the electric and the phone companies. I promise it should only take a few minutes. Please?”
She pushes the screen door open and waves me in with a gnarled hand, blue veins scrawling across her oversized knuckles. “Best get that fixed. Poor Lee Roy—he lived down on the corner. I heard his air conditioner went out and he couldn’t afford to get it fixed. Heat got him.”
Some poor old guy sweltered to death. A shiver runs through me in spite of the warmth. I follow her through the indoor junkyard made up of more plants and stacks of magazines. Books and boxes of all sizes are stacked along the one clear path of avocado green carpet running through it all. The stale odor of cigarettes is almost overwhelming, but I choke down my cough before she thinks I’m rude and kicks me out.
I dial the ancient phone and it click-click-clicks counterclockwise to its starting position after each number. I’ve never used a rotary phone before, but Mom and I saw one in an antique store a few of years ago and she explained it.
Mrs. Hennessey stands beside me, cancer stick hanging from her paper thin lips while I talk to the utility people. They can only turn our stuff on if I have money to pay them when the service guys come out. I thank Mrs. Hennessey and make tracks across the street.
I’m almost back across the street when a short woman with gray hair calls to me from a couple of houses down. “Hello. Oh, wait, please. I wanted to introduce myself.”
At the end of our driveway, I stop and wait. I hope she doesn’t want to chat for long. I need to get inside and check on Sophie. I pull my cap off, and wipe my forehead on the back of my arm.
As she limps closer and comes to a stop in front of me. She seems out of breath. “Whew. It’s certainly hot enough out here.”
“Yes, ma’am. How can I help you?” I know it’s polite to talk about the weather, but standing in the sun just makes me wish I weren’t here now, melting.
“Well, I keep seeing glimpses of you and your sweet sister, I just wanted to let you know, I babysit sometimes, if your mom ever needs someone to help out. I’m Geraldine Dunlop.”
“You’ve seen Sophie?” Dang it, I shouldn’t have said that. I thought I’d kept her pretty much out of sight. I hope no one else has seen her.
The woman’s eyes widen. “Oh, was she not supposed to play in the front yard?”
“No—well, I try to get her to play out back, I think it’s safer that way.”
“Ah, yes, I guess so. She’s so cute. Reminds me of my granddaughter.” Her smile lights her round face, making a small part of me want to take her up on her offer to babysit. If I had a sitter, maybe I could find a job.
Of course, I’d have to pay her and that’s where I’m stuck in the never ending loop. Can’t find a job without a sitter, but I don’t have money for a sitter without a job—not to mention, I can’t afford the electric bill, or take a hot shower, or buy food. But who’s going to hire a stinky, sweaty, half-starved mess like me?
My smile feels more like muscle strain. “Thanks for letting me know. I’ll keep you in mind if we ever need a sitter.”
Anyway, I’m not likely to leave Sophie with a woman I don’t know. She could be a child trafficker or worse. Look how sweet the witch who trapped Hansel and Gretel looked—and that sure worked out for them. Not.
As I start toward the house, she says, “I didn’t catch your name, dear.”
I stop, slap on a smile and turn back to her. “Lily. Nice to meet you. I need to get inside. Have a good afternoon.”
Escaping into the house, I let the door slam behind me. As I head down the hall, I push both of my neighbors from my mind. I’ve got more important things to deal with at the moment. It’s getting late and, if I don’t get the electricity turned back on, we’ll be stuck in the dark with no way to heat our crappy dinner of soup and crackers.
Once in my room, I dive into my closet. Prying up the loose floor board, I pull out the backpack holding my emergency stash. I check behind me to make sure Cynthia hasn’t come in. Hiding it is the only way I’ve managed to save the little bit of money Mom scraped together for us.
It’ll be our safety net. If we get kicked out of the house, Sophie gets sick—or worse, Dad finds us and we have to run, we’ll need money. Of course, I can’t let Sophie burn up in the Texas heat either. So I’ll part with some of the cash. It should be okay, as long as I keep a couple hundred bucks. At least, I hope.
I slide the zipper open to find the stack of fives and tens bound with rubber bands. I count out the right amount for both the phone guy and the electric company. Please let them take cash, or we’ll be left in the dark, dying of heat exhaustion.
Well, yes. Look, I know Cynthia’s not got the best track record, but she’s all we’ve got right now. And staying here isn’t an option. We need to let him cool off and calm down for a while. You going to that party really upset him.”
Brushing the hair from my face, she took my cheeks in her hands. “Baby girl, just give her a chance. I haven’t seen her in years, but when she was little, she had a good heart.”
She paused and caught my wandering eyes with her own gaze. “And if she seems rough around the edges—well, just remember she didn’t grow up with me. After Mom and Dad died, I was too young to take her and she ended up stuck with our uncles. I’m sure they weren’t exactly easy to grow up with.”
I opened my mouth to protest again, but she opened my hand and crammed a used envelope into it. Folding my fingers over it, she squeezed them tight. “This is Cynthia’s information. You’ll meet her in Las Vegas. She’ll take you somewhere else from there. I won’t know where, so I won’t be able to tell your dad.”
“Figure this out? What’s to figure out? Dad’s a massive asshole, we all leave. Done deal.”
“I can’t do that. Life isn’t so easy. But you can get Sophie away, and that’s what you’re going to do. Now.”
Next, she went to Sophie’s room and packed for her, and then she took us to the station.
She handed me tickets and a wad of cash. Grabbing a hold of me, she crushed me in a hug. Her shoulders shook. My own cheeks were wet as I looked to Sophie, standing wide-eyed and tearful, her bottom lip trembling.
Mom took Sophie’s clammy hand and pressed it into mine. Then she hugged us both again, kissed us goodbye, and put us on a bus to Las Vegas.
A freaking bus. From North Carolina to Nevada? I mean, what was that?
Thirty-six stops, four transfers, one full sketch pad of every funny looking person Sophie pointed out, and two and half days later we made it there. I was traveling with a five-year-old for Heaven’s sake. If I never sing The Wheels on the Bus again, it’ll be too soon. Or play hangman. Or I Spy.
It was hell, pure and simple. But this is worse.