|Illustration by Mark Satchwill|
It was already dark when Shannon Garrick left work. She hated the changeover from Daylight Savings Time. Even as a kid, the early dark had depressed her.
These days it felt like she was living in perpetual darkness, even on sunny days.
It would have helped if she’d had someone to talk to but she was terrified people would find out she and her son were homeless. It wasn’t just pride. It was fear. The other woman she worked with, who fancied herself something of an “office wife,” was jealous of her and wouldn’t hesitate to use the information to sabotage Shannon. Shannon handled money at the office, a lot of it in cash, and all it would take is a whisper of need for the suspicions to start.
And once the suspicions started, there would be inquiries. And it wouldn’t take too much digging to find out that Shannon was skimming money. Not much and not very often, but a five for food here and a ten for gas there and suddenly, she was in the hole for a couple of hundred dollars; money she had no hope of being able to pay back.
I hate my life, she thought, not for the first time.
I just want to go to sleep and not wake up, she thought, and it wasn’t the first time she’d thought that, either.
The third time Liam Garrick wandered into the manager’s office to stare into the vending machine by the front door; Barbara Dinwiddy started to lose patience. She was doing her end-of-the-month paperwork and he was distracting her.
She looked at the clock. It was after eight. It was too late for the boy to be out wandering by himself. Hookers used her parking lot to set up their dates and at least one drug dealer ran his business from a car parked on her property. He often came into the office to buy candy bars from the vending machine.
As bold as brass, she always thought.
“Liam isn’t it past your bedtime?” she asked.
“Um,” he said, which was no kind of an answer as far as Barbara was concerned.
“Where’s your mother?” she asked.
Liam’s eyes began to well with tears.
Oh hell, Barbara thought.
Shannon Garrick and her son had moved into Barbara’s motel just after Valentine’s Day. Barbara didn’t want to know the story, but it wasn’t hard to guess. If it weren’t for the homeless families renting rooms week to week, the 10-unit motel would be standing empty. And then she’d be on the street too.
She’d inherited the place from her parents 20 years ago when it was already past its prime. The motel was near enough to Universal City that tourists on a budget used to stay there, but the rooms were bare bones, and offering “free HBO” was no longer the draw it once was.
In 2008, business got so bad, she signed up to provide Section 8 housing. That had been the beginning of the end. Most of the “transitional” guests she welcomed stayed only a night or two, but they all left huge messes. She found a bloodstain on the carpet in one unit, and in another, someone had dismantled the window air conditioner to huff the Freon.
The homeless families had started showing up a little later, their meager belongings crammed into their beater cars.
They weren’t much trouble. The parents all had jobs, sometimes more than one, so they weren’t around that much. She rarely saw them except when they came in to pay their rent each week.
She was a hard-ass about the rent. If a guest couldn’t pay after two days, they had to get out, no matter what the sob story. If she let one family slide, she’d have to be lenient with the others and she couldn’t get into that situation. It wasn’t like she was charging a fortune. And it wasn’t like she was living in luxury. Her own home was the tiny apartment behind the front desk, and the only difference between it and the units she rented was that her place had a tiny kitchenette.
“Where’s your mother?” she asked again, a little softer.
“She’s not home,” the boy admitted, snot starting to run from one nostril.
Barbara was disgusted.
She handed the boy a paper napkin left over from her Taco Bell lunch. “Wipe your nose,” she ordered.
He obeyed silently.
“Did she call and tell you she was going to be late?” Barbara asked.
“Her phone doesn’t work,” he said.
It was getting later and later and still no sign of Shannon Garrick. She’d told Liam to sit down in the office’s only chair where she could keep an eye on him. He’d sat down obediently, curling up sleepily.
Then she heard his stomach growl and realized he probably hadn’t had anything to eat.
This is not your problem, Barbara thought. Do not get involved.
“Liam,” she asked, “do you like tuna fish sandwiches?”
“No,” he said. “I like grilled cheese.”
Barbara was a little taken aback by his candor but then thought, Well, you asked him.
“I’m going to make us some grilled cheese sandwiches,” she said, “while we wait for your mother.”
Liam’s face pinched up.
Oh hell, she thought again.
“We’ll make one for your mother, too,” she added hastily.
“Okay,” he said.
Liam followed her back into her apartment and wrinkled his nose.
“It smells funny in here,” he observed.
Barbara felt a flare of irritation but couldn’t disagree. There was only one window in the tiny space and not much ventilation.
“Do you want tomato on your sandwich?” she asked.
He made the yucky face.
“Okay, no tomato.”
He watched her take butter and cheese out of her mini-fridge and whole wheat bread from the bread box on top.
“That’s the wrong kind of cheese,” he said.
Barbara just looked at him.
“Mom always makes it with little squares of cheese.”
Well, Mom isn’t here right now, is she? Barbara thought nastily.
“This is better,” she said.
Liam looked at her dubiously.
“Really,” she added.
Liam had watched her intently as she’d made the sandwiches.
He’d eaten his fast and drained a big glass of orange juice as well.
“Thank you,” he said when he was finished.
“Didn’t I tell you it would be good?” she asked, not quite believing she was fishing for compliments from a hungry little boy.
“It was delicious,” he said politely, and she could tell that she hadn’t converted him from his fondness for American cheese in slices.
“Do you want some pudding?” Barbara asked. “I have chocolate and butterscotch.”
He nodded his head.
“Which?” she asked.
Such good manners, Barbara thought. At least his mother did something right.
It was after ten when Shannon finally showed up. Liam had fallen asleep on the chair right after he’d eaten, collapsing in that boneless way of little kids.
Barbara had seen Shannon drive past the office and park.
She’d watched as she entered the dark unit. Barbara could have called out and saved the woman that moment of panic when she found her son wasn’t there, but she didn’t want to. She was angry at Shannon. Barbara had been within minutes of calling the police to report Liam’s mother missing.
Less than 30 seconds after entering the unit, Shannon came flying out, an expression of utter devastation on her face.
Oh hell, Barbara thought for a third time.
Shannon ran into the office and stopped short when she saw her son asleep in the chair.
“What is he doing here?” she asked angrily.
Are you serious? Barbara thought, her own anger flaring.
“In the future, if you’re going to be so late,” Barbara said icily, “I’d appreciate a phone call. I’m not running a babysitting service here.”
You old bitch, Shannon thought, shaking her son gently on the shoulder to rouse him.
“Let’s go Liam,” she said, hustling her son toward the door.
The little boy turned back to Barbara to wave goodbye but she was already looking down at something on her desk.