Chapter 1: Happy Birthday
Frantically, Charlene Griffin searched her room for Joyce. She looked under the bed, between the mattresses, in the closet, opened and closed the bureau drawers….
“Time’s up. This is no longer your room. Out!”
Charlene looked up to see her mother, Erica, leaning against the door frame. “I can’t find Joyce.”
Erica shifted her weight slightly. “Oh that old ratty thing. You mended it so often it was hardly more than a bunch of thread. The stuffing was coming out again, the seams pulling apart—I threw it in the incinerator.”
“You what?” Charlene crouched, extending her arms.
“You’re eighteen now, act like an adult. I gave you breakfast, which is more than generous. Happy Birthday,” she added blandly. Stepping away from the door, she extended her arm.
Stunned, Charlene remained frozen.
“I told you all along, when you turned eighteen, you were on your own. Now get out before I call the cops.”
Charlene straightened, grabbed her backpack, and walked out of the room. Erica silently followed her until she stood on the front step of the house. Charlene heard the door slam behind her.
After taking a breath to steady herself, she plodded down the street to the bus stop, weeping silently. Since her father’s death, she had learned to cry without any outward display, because no one cared. No one was on the bench at the stop, for which she was grateful. She slumped into it and waited.
It gave her time to think. She found herself shaking her head. How could her mother throw out her best friend? No, Charlene knew why: the counselor at school had told her that it was not her fault. Her mother could not cope with her father’s death, so took out her grief and rage at her. Joyce Lennox met with her every week for a long time, and without her constant compassion and advice, Charlene would not have been able to cope with her mother’s abrupt change. The other kids made fun of her, called her “mental” for seeing a counselor, but Joyce showed her how to cope with that, too. She gave Charlene a Beanie Baby (not really a Beanie Baby, but an imitation brand) and Charlene had named the stuffed rabbit after her. Then she graduated, and the rules prevented her from seeing Joyce again. She saw on the news that Joyce had been appointed to something or other anyway, and had moved to the capital.
Charlene was calmer, but still downcast, when the bus arrived. She put in her coins, grateful that she had coins to put in. Her mother insisted on her getting a job before she graduated, so she worked nights at a bookstore. (She had earned enough credits in accelerated courses to graduate at seventeen. After graduating, she worked days.) She had a bank account, but no credit or debit card because she was not eighteen yet and her mother would not cosign for one.
She got off the bus at the L-shaped strip mall. The stores bordered a large parking lot, which had few cars at this hour, except for the sandwich shop at the end of the smaller line of the L. They also served breakfast and had a steady stream of customers. Charlene headed for the third shop from the end of the larger line of the L: the Zephyr Butterfly Bookstore. She had a key, let herself in, and locked the door behind her, making sure the sign on the door still had “Closed” facing out.
A ceramic model of Zephyr Butterfly stood prominently opposite the entrance. Charlene stroked a wing for luck. The wings had worn down only slightly from all the touching over the years. One wing had broken off when a clumsy customer had stumbled against it, causing it to drop to the floor.
Fortunately, Hiroshi Takahashi, of Takahashi’s Repair Shop, just two doors down, had cemented it again, showing only a thin golden line where the seam was. He told them that this showed that Zephyr was all the stronger for having been mended in the broken places, just as people were. Certainly the customers seemed to love Zephyr all the more for its golden seam.
Charlene looked around. The store was orderly and ready for opening. Destry Harris, their usual cleaner, always left the store spotless. Three-quarters of the store consisted of bookshelves, plus two tables: a low one in the children’s section, and a higher one in the section for grown-ups. They could add chairs and use either for autographings or readings. The remainder of the store held Zephyr merchandise: jewelry (rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, pins, buttons) and shirts (t-shirts and golf shirts). There were days when the Zephyr merchandise outsold the books.
Charlene walked to the back and opened the door to the employee lounge. That held five lockers, a table and chairs, an old threadbare couch with an only slightly less threadbare covering, a counter breached by a sink. A small refrigerator had been tucked under the counter and a microwave sat on top of the counter. The employee bathroom had been built in one corner. The public one was near the registers. The one for employees was small and functional, with a toilet and sink only.
Because the bookstore only had three employees, Amy Snow, the owner, let Charlene have two of the lockers. She had moved some of her stuff into the second locker already. Why, oh why, had she not put Joyce there for safety? Sighing, she worked the combination lock and set her backpack inside. She smoothed her work shirt, a knit shirt all the employees wore, with the butterfly embroidered on the upper left and “Zephyr Butterfly Bookstore” lettered under it. Taking her employee nametag, she pinned it on the upper right.
Amy walked in with a box under her arm. She set it on the table. “Did your mother change her mind?”
Charlene numbly shook her head.
“Damn.” Amy shook her head, too, in sympathy. “Do you have a place to go?”
“The Teen Shelter said they’d take me.”
“Good. Do they give you a room?”
Charlene nodded. “I have to share it, but yes.”
Amy put a hand on Charlene’s arm. “I am so sorry.”
Amy opened the box and took out a cupcake with a candle stuck in the middle. “Chocolate cake with vanilla icing, your favorite?”
Charlene managed a slight smile.
Amy brought out a lighter and lit the candle. “Happy birthday!”
Charlene took the cupcake.
“Make a wish!”
Home. That was her wish. She blew out the candle.
Charlene almost forgot that Wednesday morning was story time. She remembered far enough in advance to arrange the chairs (the preschoolers sat on the floor, but the adults accompanying them needed chairs), and she found that the activity calmed her. Right on time, the usual attendees came, along with some unfamiliar faces. Olivia Moss sat on the floor nearest Charlene, holding her Beanie Baby lamb in her lap. Tim Xiong brought his plastic dinosaur. Rita Martinez cuddled her fuzzy toy ladybug. In all, ten children gazed up at Charlene as she read the latest dinosaur book from a famous children’s author.
When she finished, Olivia walked up to her. “Where’s Joyce?” Joyce generally was in Charlene’s lap as she read.
Charlene had to take a breath before answering. She smiled and said, “I’m afraid Joyce went away.”
“Is she coming back?” Olivia asked innocently.
Charlene shook her head. “I wish she could, but she’s gone.”
Olivia frowned and turned to her grandmother, Leonetta.
Leonetta smiled at Charlene, then bent down and patted her granddaughter’s arm. “Joyce might come back someday. Let’s go buy the book.”
Olivia brightened and they walked away. Leonetta Moss was one of their most valued customers. At every story time, she bought six copies of the book Charlene read, to give to her grandchildren.
When Charlene stood, Isabel Martinez, Rita’s mother, approached her. “Rita wants another book on ladybugs. Do you have anything new?”
Rita held up her ladybug to emphasize the point.
Charlene grinned. “We happened to get a couple this past week.” She led them to the shelves, took out two books, and showed them to Rita. She grabbed one and looked up to her mother, who smiled and walked toward the register with her.
The rest of the day was routine. At lunchtime, Charlene bought her favorite sandwich at the sandwich shop and brought it back to the employee room. She ate while reading a book. For dessert, she had another cupcake. Out on the floor, she saw people using their smartphones to scan the books, so they could buy the books online. She and Amy had long since resigned themselves to this—at least they were in the store, and some might come back to buy a book or jewelry. A customer asked for a book with a “blue cover.” Charlene, who checked in the books, had a file on their computer where she entered books by cover color, and showed the file of cover images to anyone who asked. Sometimes the customer saw the book they wanted on the screen. Sometimes they went away without finding what they asked for. Other times, the customer did not seem to find the particular book they were looking for, but saw one on the list they wanted anyway—which is what happened this time. In all cases, the customers were at least grateful for the effort, and this sort of attentive service often brought them back again.
Rachel Park, grandmother of three, came in at 5 pm to take over from Amy and Charlene. She wished Charlene a happy birthday and the best of luck as Charlene hoisted her backpack and prepared to leave.
The Teen Shelter was about 10 miles away, so she stopped again at the sandwich shop to buy dinner. This time she sat at a small table in the shop to eat.
When she was done, she strolled out to the sidewalk and waited for the bus. About halfway to the Teen Shelter, the engine started to make loud noises and the bus came to a stop. The driver stood and told them he had radioed for help, but it was best to get off and wait for the next bus. Charlene sighed and got off with the rest of the passengers. Fortunately, she knew the Teen Shelter had someone on duty at all hours, and because they were expecting her, they would open the door for her.
She arrived after 7 pm. The shelter was a five-story brick building that had been a hotel before a nonprofit remodeled it. After identifying herself to the door warden, she walked inside. The first floor still resembled a lobby. A check-in desk stood prominently at the front. Couches had been neatly arranged between the door and the desk. Offices were to the left. She noted as she walked by that a woman and a girl younger than she sat next to each other on one of the couches. The girl seemed to be crying, and the woman had an arm around her, speaking in a soothing voice, though Charlene could not make out the words.
The woman at the desk looked up as Charlene approached. She wore a tag with the name “Bella.”
Charlene took off the backpack and laid it on the counter. “I’m Charlene Griffin. I believe you’re expecting me?”
Bella consulted her computer screen. “Yes.” She smiled. “Let’s get you checked in.”
Charlene hoped it would not take long. She was tired after the events of the day.
Bella appeared to be entering Charlene’s name. She looked up. “Date of Birth?”
“I’m eighteen today.”
Bella frowned and turned to her. “Oh.”
Charlene put an elbow on the counter and rested her head on it. “What’s ‘oh?’”
Bella leaned back and turned to another woman who stood near an office. “Um, you have to be under eighteen to stay here?”
Charlene snapped to attention. “What?”
Her exclamation brought the other woman over. Her tag identified her as “Natalie.” She turned to Bella. “Is there a problem?”
Bella nodded to Charlene. “She's eighteen.”
“Just today,” Charlene quickly added.
“I’m terribly sorry,” Natalie said, “but we can't take residents after they reach the age of eighteen. It’s in our charter.”
Charlene looked Natalie in the eye. “I arranged this with Janelle Fletcher months ago.”
Bella nodded. “When you were seventeen.”
Charlene turned to her. “Yes, I told her specifically that my mother might throw me out of the house at any time, though I was hoping she'd hold off until I was eighteen. She said that she could still do something for me. You can call her and verify it.”
“She's on vacation in the Bahamas, with her phone deliberately off,” Natalie said.
Charlene swung around. “She must have left some notes or something.”
Natalie spread her hands. “There's nothing we can do. I'm sorry.”
Charlene tapped the counter. “Janelle promised me I could stay here, and you're going to find a way for me to stay.”
“I wish we could,” Natalie said.
“What if I slept on a couch?”
“We can't do that, either,” Bella said.
“Then you're going to tell me where I can sleep tonight.”
Natalie and Bella looked at each other. “Well,” Natalie said, “there's the women's shelter on First and Elm….”
“Do you think I haven't checked the policy of every shelter in town? The one at First and Elm is for women with children only. It's after 7 pm. Most shelters are full by 6 and close by 7. You're supposed to know these things.”
“We're not a referral agency,” Natalie said apologetically.
“So what am I supposed to do?”
“Well, you might go to a motel…”
Charlene glared at her. “There isn't a motel in the city that charges less than $51 per night. I don’t carry a lot of money with me, and I don't have a credit card. Can you advance that much?”
“We aren't allowed to do that.” Natalie said meekly.
“You messed up this situation, you fix it,” Charlene insisted.
Natalie and Bella exchanged looks. Natalie turned back to Charlene. “We feel really badly about this.”
“How is your feeling bad going to get me a place to sleep tonight?”
“We wish we could help you, but our hands are tied,” Bella added.
She turned from one to the other, looking each directly in the eye. “You are going to get me a place to sleep tonight.”
“We just told you, we can't, as much as we want to,” Bella said.
“I'm staying here until you do.”
Natalie sighed. “I'm afraid we'll have to ask you to leave.”
They didn't answer. They only stared at her.
Charlene knew that the best that could happen was they would call the police to throw her out. The worst that could happen was jail, and she had no intention of going to jail. She shouldered her backpack and turned to the door.
“Good luck,” Bella called after her.
“Fridge you,” Charlene replied without looking back.
As she was walking out, the woman on the couch said to the girl, “We have an opening for you now, Tina.”
Charlene turned and walked backwards, calling, “Watch out, Tina, or when you’re eighteen they’ll stab you in the back, too.”
“Get out!” Natalie called.
Charlene pivoted and opened the door. “Done!”
The door warden watched her as she descended the steps and walked away. When she reached a bench at a deserted bus stop, she sat, cradled her face in her hands, and wept. Happy Birthday, she thought.
When she had composed herself, Charlene sat upright and took out her smartphone. Technically, it was a business phone, and Amy did use it to call her about her working hours, and vice-versa. But for practical purposes, it was her phone and Amy got it for her because her mother would never have done so. Charlene reimbursed her monthly for the fees.
Amy's number was first on her list. She called, whispering “pick up, pick up,” as the rings accumulated. Finally, it went to voice mail. “Amy, can you call me when you get this?” She tried not to sound too desperate. “Any hour, it doesn't matter. Thanks.”
Next, she tried to locate a shelter, any shelter, nearby, but it confirmed what she had already researched: none that she could use, not at this hour. Maybe an all-night coffee shop? None nearby. Libraries closed soon. Unfortunately for her, the Teen Shelter was in a part of town with infrequent bus service. Nothing would come until morning.
She still had her key to the bookstore, but it would be opening time by the time she walked there. Having nothing else to do, she started in that direction anyway.
As she went, thankful for the warm summer night, she scanned all around her to see if there was someplace that she could sleep securely. She passed a couple of churches and tried their doors. Locked. Not that she blamed them—churches got looted if they remained open after hours, and how could they know that all she wanted was a pew to lie down on?
As time passed, she made more frequent stops on benches to rest. Soon, she knew, she would fall asleep and be vulnerable to attack. Surely there was somewhere she could rest. She trudged on.
Tired as she was, everything—houses, cars, passersby (not many of those now)—just sort of melded together. Until something drew her attention and caused her to stop. Or, rather, nothing did.
Until that moment, the usual city noises: birdsong, cars shushing by, pedestrian shoes slapping the pavement, had been in the background. Now—quiet. Looking up and then from side to side, she saw no cars. No pedestrians. No sound of bird or dog or even crickets. The absence of cricket sounds felt strange because there was a park with a small lake nearby. At least she would hear frogs, wouldn’t she?
She scanned the area. Offices on the other side of the road, small, two-story buildings, no lights at this hour. Streetlights on the road and some in the park, of course, though they seemed dim. A thin fog seemed to issue from the lake, softening the effect. The vapor did not noticeably cool the air. She continued to feel warm and dry.
Next to the park, mostly in silhouette, she saw a Victorian-style two-story house. An iron fence bordered the yard. No lights in the house. From what she could make out, the windows were intact, the shutters sound, the doors solid.
Checking again to confirm that no one was nearby, she approached the front gate. No lock, but there was a chain. She reached out to grab it, but drew her arm back quickly when an arc shocked her hand. Geez, if the fence was electrified, there should be a sign, at least. Looking around, she saw no signage whatsoever, though she did spot a camera on top of a fence post. Peering through the bars, the lawn seemed to be well-kept, the front stairs and porch in repair. The house was not abandoned, not obviously, anyway. Someone must live there. Maybe they were on vacation.
She followed the fence to the park, thinking perhaps she could find a boat or a shed to sleep in. Instead, about 50 feet from the lakeshore, a gazebo came into view. Inspecting it, she saw that an iron grille surrounded it, and that, too, was chained shut. Gingerly, she tested the gate, but was not shocked this time. That would make sense: a homeowner might have an electrified fence, but the city would not electrify a public building.
Pulling the chain caused the gate to open, a little. At 5'6” and 135 pounds, Charlene was not rail-thin, but she felt with a little work, she might squeeze inside. She tugged, and pulled, and eventually got an opening large enough to put a leg through. Then, painfully, she eased the rest of her body inside, hearing her clothes tear. Once on the other side, she reached through the opening and massaged her backpack until it, too, was narrow enough to slide in.
By using the smartphone as a light, she found a curved, padded bench. She brushed off the leaf debris, pocketed the phone, and stretched out. Facing the chain, she reckoned that even if someone tried to come in, she would have adequate warning. She settled in and fell asleep.
“You! Out! Now!”
The voice startled her awake. In the dim pre-dawn light, she saw a short, stocky man, wearing a t-shirt from which sprouted heavily muscled arms. He stood next to the bench.
“Out!” He gestured toward the park.
She quickly grabbed her backpack and started squeezing through the chains again. Something hit her on the back, then her legs, then her ribs. When her arm was struck, she realized he was throwing mud at her. Desperately, she struggled through, tearing clothes again. Her backpack ripped as she finally pulled it through the opening.
She sprinted toward the nearest street, not stopping until she reached a streetlight. Pivoting, she saw no one following her. After catching her breath, she trudged on, hoping the nearest bus stop was not too far away.
Only then did she wonder how such a muscular man could have squeezed through the chain opening.