Together, Kayla and Drake caught Marcie before she got to her apartment. Kayla squared her shoulders. This wasn’t going to be easy, but it had to be done.
“Marcie, I need to talk to you.” She was determined to talk to Marcie if she had to drag her into the house by the hair. It probably showed in her tone and expression. “Alone, in my apartment,” She added.
To her surprise, Marcie didn’t resist. She turned to follow Kayla. When Daniel started to follow, Drake stopped him. “She said alone.” He held out his hand. “I’ll take the car keys.”
Daniel looked from Marcie to Drake. He clearly didn’t want to hand over the keys, but he probably thought he would be in trouble if he didn’t. Marcie looked at him and nodded. He handed Drake the keys.
Marcie followed her into Kayla’s apartment Drake came in after them. Marcie looked around. “Where’s Stephanie?”
It occurred to Kayla that Marcie thought she had turned her in and Stephanie had been taken away from her. If that was what she thought, it probably explained why she had been so compliant outside. Maybe it would be beneficial to let her continue thinking that. She glanced at Drake and he nodded, a faint smile touching only his eyes.
“She’s safe, warm and happy.” She led Marcie to the kitchen. Drake locked the door and followed them.
Kayla poured Marcie a mug of coffee and refreshed the other two mugs before sitting down at the table. For a moment they all three looked at each other. Kayla strengthened her resolve. Drake was there for support, but this was her responsibility. She looked at Marcie.
“I called in a personal day from work so I could resolve this problem once and for all.”
For once, Marcie didn’t spout off some defensive response. She was frightened, and she was listening.
“When I took Stephanie over to the babysitter this morning and no one answered, I got concerned. I used my key and entered your apartment.”
Marcie glanced at Drake and then hung her head, avoiding Kayla’s gaze. She said nothing. She knew what she found.
“My first concern was for Stephanie. I couldn’t imagine such a sweet little girl living in those conditions. I knew I had to do something – for her sake.”
Marcie finally lifted her head. “I didn’t want them there. Lindsey kept bringing them in and Daniel told me it was heartless not to let homeless people come in out of the cold. They left during the day. I swear. I kept Stephanie in my room at night.”
So, she knew it was an unsavory bunch that was occupying her home, yet she did nothing to stop them. At least she did try to keep them away from Stephanie.
“In your room on a dog bed on the floor while you slept in the bed with Daniel.”
Marcie didn’t deny any of that. “He has a bad temper.”
“Why did you let him move in?”
“He said he would help me with the rent. He said Lindsey would help by babysitting. He did pay half of the rent the first month, but after that he didn’t pay.”
“Why didn’t you tell him to leave?”
“I did, but he wouldn’t go.”
Drake looked startled. “Are you telling us that he intimidated you?”
Marcie looked accusingly at Drake. “I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it.”
So, Marcie did know what it was like when someone refused to vacate. Drake was studying his coffee cup, the muscles in his jaws working. His lips had thinned and his eyes expressed the outrage that his lips were not permitted.
His response and Marcie’s information only reinforced her resolve. Marcie might be lying about it, but she had a feeling she wasn’t. How long had the boyfriend been intimidating her?
“I called you at work to let you know the babysitter wasn’t there.”
Marcie jerked her head around and looked at Kayla with a startled, if not guilty, expression. “I missed work too many times when the babysitter didn’t come home.”
“Marcie, we all make bad decisions sometimes, and then we compound it by refusing to communicate with the people who might be in the best situation to help us.” She looked at Drake. “We even get so wrapped up in our perception of how things are that we refuse the help.”
He lifted his head and looked at her, his expression uncharacteristically unreadable. She turned back to Marcie.
“Sometimes we don’t even see what we’re doing. We are so convinced that someone is being unfair. Sometimes our friends and acquaintances, in their own ignorance, even reinforce that idea. Everyone suffers.”
From the corner of her eye, she saw Drake watching her. Marcie looked at him with a thoughtful expression, and then back at Kayla.
“All right, so I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve suffered – and Stephanie most of all. Maybe I should have come to you.” She stopped and looked at Drake. “You did me a favor by not letting Daniel move in with me. I thought you were just jealous. He promised to help me pay the rent back then” She turned pleading eyes back on Kayla. “I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I’ll get him out of my house – and all the others. Just don’t tell them to take my daughter away. I thought she was safe with you.”
“She is. She’s here now, playing on my computer.”
Marcie let out a long breath in relief and started to cry. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t have any money. I don’t have a job and I don’t even have enough to eat right. When we could, we went to soup kitchens. We’ve been eating ramen noodles, mostly – until the electricity was shut off.”
At least that was one thing she couldn’t blame on her landlord this time. “Why didn’t you apply for assistance…food stamps and…”
“When I was working, I made too much money. Now I’m afraid, with all these people in our house, that they might take Stephanie away.” Either she was in the wrong career or her tears were genuine. “I don’t know what to do,” she repeated.
At that point Kayla’s problems looked minor. At least she didn’t have a young child to complicate things. Something else occurred to her. “Can’t you draw Social Security on Stephanie? You said your husband was a veteran.”
Drake shook his head and looked at Marcie but said nothing.
Marcie glanced at him and then lowered her head. “I lied. Her father has been in jail for a long time.”
“Pride goeth before a fall,” Drew quipped under his breath.
Kayla looked at Drake. “You knew?”
He nodded. “I thought the wife of a veteran should be getting better treatment, so I did a little research.”
Kayla looked at him. “But you said nothing about it.”
“No, I could understand why she would lie about it.” He looked back at Marcie. “It was all the other lies that bothered me, but I could see how one lie would lead to another in order to cover up the first. The problem with all that is that once you start lying to people, you lose their trust. If you tell one lie and get away with it, you don’t feel as guilty the next time. After a while you convince yourself that you have to lie – that everyone else is as dishonest as you are.”
Marcie looked at her hands, her voice bitter. “And then you’re no good.”
Kayla felt ashamed. That was the conclusion she had drawn. She shook her head. “No. And then you change – if you want to.”
Marcie looked up, her expression uncertain. “You’ll never trust me again.”
Kayla was certainly ready to forgive her but forgetting what she had done would be folly. If Marcie had made that turn before, she might do it again. On the other hand, she might have learned her lesson. Anyone might turn under certain circumstances.
“I forgive you and I want to help you, but I can’t do that without your cooperation. You have to decide if this is how you want to spend the rest of your life. You have to make Stephanie a higher priority in your life. I can’t make those decisions for you and there is no point in risking my investments and time if you’re not willing to try.”
Marcie sat up straighter. “But what can I do?”
Drake answered her. “The first thing you have to do is get rid of all those people in your home and help fix it up again. Then you can apply for housing assistance. As a single mother, you should be able to get it. I’ll help as long as you are trying, but if you start backsliding, I’ll do my best to see that Stephanie gets the home she deserves.”
Marcie’s wide-eyed gaze alternated between Kayla and Drake. “But if I call the police to get them out…”
Drake’s smile was sardonic. “I don’t think you need to call the police. I think I can convince them all to leave. Then I’ll change the lock on the door. From there on, you need to keep them out. I can’t do anything to keep them out if you welcome them back.” He looked at Kayla. “She broke her lease. If I was you, I’d have her sign a new one if you allow her to stay.”
He wanted Marcie to think that part was his idea – probably so that Marcie wouldn’t be angry with her. It was a sweet tribute, but Marcie needed to understand that Kayla was her landlord, and she wasn’t going to put up with this anymore. If she was going to give Marcie a new chance, she was going to have to lay down and enforce some new rules.
Marcie watched him as he stood. “If you get them out, I won’t let them back in.”
“And you give me permission to get them out of there?”
She nodded. “He’ll be angry with me.”
He nodded. “No doubt. Do you want him to control the rest of your life?”
She slowly shook her head. “No, but – what if he breaks in?”
“You call the police. Only you and Stephanie will be on the new lease agreement.” He waited, patiently giving her time to decide.
Marcie started to cry again. “I don’t deserve your help after all I’ve said about you.”
His smile was sardonic. “Probably not, but if you want out of this, I suggest you take it and follow all the rules next time. This isn’t Kayla’s fault. She has every right to evict you and turn you in to child welfare, but she chose to gamble the loss of her own home to give you another chance. She has known you long enough to have trust in you. I’ve known her long enough to have trust in her.”
Marcie looked from Drake to Kayla and back again. “I don’t understand what you have to gain from this.”
Drake leaned his hands on the back of his chair as he met Kayla’s gaze. It never occurred to her that he would have anything to gain by helping. His gaze was warm as he spoke.
“Kayla is doing it because she is a true and noble friend. I’m doing it because I hope to marry her.”
Kayla caught her breath. She didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing. Why hadn’t he said anything before now?
Marcie looked from one of them to the other in surprise. “Kayla, the landlord slayer and Drake the dragon?”
Drake chuckled. “I’ll go talk to Daniel while you two work on your agreement.”