Kayla had checked the weather forecast to make sure the pipes didn’t freeze before the electricity company arrived in the morning. It wasn’t supposed to drop below 30 F tonight. At least she had a break there. Instantly she felt ashamed. She had a break, but it would be a cold night next door. That wasn’t her fault, but little Stephanie would suffer along with the others. That wasn’t right.
She stood and paced the room for a few minutes, trying to work up the courage to do what she thought was right. Finally, she grabbed her coat and went next door. She knocked hesitantly on the door. What if Marcie said no?
Marcie opened the door and then slammed it in her face. Kayla wanted to leave, but the picture of Stephanie shivering gave her the nerve to knock again.
Marcie opened the door and glared at her. “What’s the matter? Did your shack-up go home and now you need entertainment? She started to shut the door again and Kayla put a hand on it.
“I thought Stephanie might be more comfortable at my apartment tonight.”
Marcie rolled her eyes. “And the rest of us can just freeze. Is that it?”
Kayla met her hostile gaze. “Stephanie had no choice in this. They are going to turn the electricity back on tomorrow morning I paid your bill and you can pay me back.”
Marcie glared at her. “It was none of your business. You didn’t have to pay it. You’re getting as intrusive as Drake. Is he teaching you?”
“For your information, the electric company called me.” She clamped her mouth shut. If she told Marcie that the electric company held her responsible for the bill because she owned the property, she would have no hope of getting her money back. Of course, hope was slim to none now anyway. Marcie seemed to think she should be paying for everything.
“Mommy?” Stephanie’s voice came from behind Marcie. “Can I go stay with Kayla? It’s cold in here.”
Marcie rolled her eyes again. “Since she pulled the plug on all of us, you might as well. Someone should be warm. Go get your jammies.”
When Kayla looked past Marcie, she was shocked at the condition of the room. There was bedding and clothing all over the floor and the counter top was covered with candles. Wax had dripped over the edge of the counter. An electric heater sat precariously close to the bedding. Was everyone sleeping in the living room?
“I’ll send her over,” Marcie said as she shut the door.
Kayla walked back to her apartment. Had Marcie taken a plunge since she moved, or had she been this way all along? Drake’s rental contract prevented other people from moving into the apartment without paying additional rent. Of course, Marcie could ignore that rule too. She wasn’t paying rent anyway, but…how many people were living with her?
Later, a timid knock on her door alerted Kayla that Stephanie had arrived. She let her in and asked if she was hungry.
Stephanie nodded vigorously. “Mommy says she can’t use the cook stove.”
Or microwave. There were so many things that required electricity. Stephanie would probably appreciate a hot meal. Kayla searched through her refrigerator and cabinets, finally coming up with the makings for a nice hot meal. Later, as they sat at the table and ate, Stephanie wolfed down more food than she thought possible for such a small child. How long had it been since she had eaten? What were Marcie and all her roommates doing with their money?
In spite of everything, she would have taken a warm meal to Marcie if she hadn’t been certain Marcie would slam the door in her face again. Even that didn’t bother her as much as a hot meal going to waste.
Stephanie smelled like she hadn’t had a bath recently and her clothes smelled like mildew. No electricity – no hot water – or dryer. It reminded her of the question her father had asked. Marcie said she had to wash her clothes by hand and hang them in the bathroom. Had that been another case of not paying the electric bill? No, Drake said he paid the utility bills. Had he cut off her electricity because she wasn’t paying rent? She’d have to ask about that.
Kayla ran Stephanie a warm bath and, while she was bathing, washed and dried her clothes. Stephanie was being neglected. How long could a person look away and say it was none of their business – especially where a child was concerned? Surely Marcie could get financial help. Why wouldn’t she?
Kayla used some extra sheets and blankets and made a bed for Stephanie on the couch. She used one of her pillows and, after Stephanie fell asleep, she searched the internet to see what kind of help was available. There were actually quite a few community programs. Maybe Marcie wasn’t aware of them.
That evening she lay awake a long time, thinking about how to help Stephanie and Marcie instead of how to get them out of her apartment. There were far more options for getting help for them than there were for her mortgage payments. Finding ways to help was more rewarding than finding ways to deprive them of a home.
Kayla got up the next morning and dressed for work before she woke Stephanie. She had allowed herself a little extra time to cook a hot breakfast and was on schedule when she discovered that there were no cars in front of Marcie’s apartment. Maybe the babysitter was there alone.
She knocked on the door repeatedly but got no response. Surely someone was there. What were they using for heat? Had they succumbed to fumes? She used her key and unlocked the door. A thorough search of the apartment revealed three things.
The first was that no one was there. The second was that they were trashing the apartment. There were holes in the walls and the carpets were matted with filth; the sink and counters were full of dirty dishes and there were clothes on the floor at least an ankle deep everywhere except the kitchen. It was the third thing that troubled her the most. There were sleeping accommodations for at least five adults. Most were bed rolls on the floor, but some were inflatable beds – and then the double bed in Marcie’s room, which she was obviously sharing with someone.
She looked at Stephanie. “Do you sleep here with mommy?”
Stephanie shook her head. “I sleep over there.”
The room was so cluttered that Kayla had not noticed the large dog bed in the corner.
By the time they left the apartment, she was so angry that she was nearly in tears. How could she have let it get to this point without noticing what was happening?
She called Marcie’s phone number and got a message that it was no longer a working number. She had no choice but to call Marcie at work and let her know that the babysitter was gone. A cheerful voice answered.
Yavon’s beauty shop. This is Rena. How can I help you?”
“Could I speak to Marcie?”
“Marcie doesn’t work here anymore.”
Kayla was too stunned to speak for a moment. “When did she quit?”
“Honey, she didn’t quit. She was fired – about three weeks ago. I thought everyone knew that.”
“Do you know where I might find her?”
“I sure don’t. I heard she was living with her boyfriend.”
Kayla wanted to ask why she was fired, but that really wasn’t any of her business and the girl might get into trouble for telling her. “Thank you for the information.”
In desperation, she turned to Stephanie. “Do you know where mommy works now?” It was unlikely that a child that young would know where it was located, but she might know the name of the place.
“Mommy doesn’t go to work anymore.”
“Do you know where Daniel works?”
She shook her head. “He doesn’t go to work either.”
Neither did the babysitter, so no one in the apartment was working? No wonder landlords had the reputation for being so nosy. If they hadn’t allowed Stephanie to stay with her, she would have been totally unaware. Had they abandoned Stephanie? The dog bed came to mind and her heart beat faster. She couldn’t leave Stephanie with anyone, but she was already late for work. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Calm down. Panicking wouldn’t help.
She took Stephanie into her study and turned on her computer. Once she was convinced that Stephanie could play the children’s game, she left her in the room and shut the door.
She called Sadie and said she had an emergency and needed to take care of some personal business. Fortunately, she didn’t ask what the business was. It was so rare for her to call in that Sadie didn’t question it.
She didn’t know whether to call the police or what. Her parents still didn’t know she had a problem with the rental, so she called Drake. He didn’t answer his phone, so she left a message.
“Drake, this is Kayla. I need to talk to…someone. I don’t know what to do. Could you call me when you get a chance?”
He said to call him, but she wasn’t sure she should have. This wasn’t his problem and he probably didn’t know any more about it than she did. She needed to call the police and start from there.
Her phone rang and she answered it without looking at the ID, thinking it was probably Drake. It wasn’t.
“Is this Kayla?”
“This is Tom Langley.” He paused a moment. “Am I catching you at a bad time?”
“No. I’m at home right now.”
“Mom wanted me to call you…to let you know if…when…”
He was obviously uncomfortable about telling her something. Had they learned of the situation with the apartment? She wasn’t even late on the payment – yet.
He was silent a moment. “She wanted me to tell you when she passed.”
“Passed?” Mrs. Langley had talked about taking some art classes, but surely she wouldn’t have her son call and… Passed. He wasn’t talking about a class.
Her phone beeped. She was getting another call – probably Drake.
“Yes,” Tom said. “She passed on about an hour ago.” His voice broke.
“Oh Tom, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize she was that ill.”
“She caught that flu going around. She went really fast. I brought her to the hospital last night. They said her kidneys were shutting down. She was dehydrated and…I didn’t know.”
He was probably blaming himself. “You couldn’t have known. I know how she was about hiding things when she was suffering. I’m sure it was a comfort to have you there. I know she was looking forward to spending time with you. She was so proud of you.”
He was silent for a few minutes and she was certain he was crying. She waited patiently for him to get composed. Mrs. Langley had been ill for a long time and she had spent so little time with him.
His voice sounded strained when he finally spoke. “I need to talk to you about the house, but I don’t feel up to it right now. I’ll call you later.”
“Of course; I understand. Try to get some rest. You did all you could.”
She could hear him crying before he ended the call. His agony brought tears to her eyes even before she fully absorbed the import of his news. She sat on the couch and looked around the room at all Mrs. Langley’s things. When Mrs. Langley left, Kayla knew she might not ever see her again, but somehow, she hadn’t accepted the fact that she would die and no one would see her again – especially this soon.
She never told her that she loved her. She should have. It was important to tell people. Mrs. Langley had told her that she loved her like a daughter – and she had not told her how much Mrs. Langley meant to her. They had been close and each understood the way they felt about the other – hopefully.
She glanced up at the clock – Mrs. Langley’s clock - carved from a cypress knee. She had so many stories about places she had been with her husband. She had wisdom born of experience in a life long ago. Kayla had missed those stories.
A tear coursed down her cheek and dripped on her dress. She grabbed a tissue as a sob forced itself from her lungs. Mrs. Langley was dead – gone – never to return.
She was still sobbing when someone knocked on the door. She wiped her eyes and headed for the door. Maybe it was Marcie.
It wasn’t. It was Drake.