Authors: Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Women
Georgie, it’s me. I’m aimless and undisciplined, and I need you to take care of me because I can’t take care of myself.
An rv chugged past, heading into town. She couldn’t face driving back to the gravel pit and spending another night trying to convince herself this was simply a new travel adventure. Sure, she’d slept in dark, scary places before, but only for a few days and always with a friendly guide nearby and a four-star hotel waiting at the end of the trip. This, on the other hand, was homelessness. One step away from pushing a shopping cart down the street.
She wanted her father. She wanted him to hug her close and tell her everything would be all right. She wanted her mother to stroke her hair and promise that no monsters lurked in the closet. She wanted to curl up in her old bedroom in the house where she’d always felt so restless.
But as much as her parents loved her, they’d never respected her. Neither had Dylan, Clay, or her uncle Michel. And once she hit Georgie up for money, her friend would join the list.
She started to cry. Big, drippy tears of self-disgust for hungry, homeless Meg Koranda, who’d been born with every advantage and still couldn’t make anything of herself. She pulled off the road onto the crumbling parking lot of a shuttered roadhouse. She needed to call Georgie now, before her father remembered he was still paying her phone bill and he cut that off, too.
She ran her thumb over the buttons and tried to figure out how Lucy was managing. Lucy hadn’t gone home, either. What was she doing to get by that Meg hadn’t figured out how to do for herself?
A church bell tolled six o’clock, reminding her of the church Ted had given Lucy as a wedding present. A pickup rattled by with a dog in the back, and the phone slipped from Meg’s fingers.
She remembered passing the country club when they’d driven there because Lucy had pointed it out. She recalled lots of twists and turns, but Wynette had so many back roads. Which ones had Lucy taken?
Two hours later, just as Meg was about to give up, she found what she was looking for.
he old wooden church sat on a rise at the end of a gravel lane. Meg’s headlights picked out the squat white steeple just above the central doors. In the dark, she couldn’t see the overgrown graveyard off to the right, but she remembered it was there. She also remembered Lucy retrieving a hidden key from somewhere near the base of the steps. She shone her headlights on the front of the building and began fumbling around among the stones and shrubbery. The gravel ground into her knees, and she scraped her knuckles, but she couldn’t find any evidence of a key. Breaking a window seemed sacrilegious, but she had to get in.
The glare of the headlights sent her shadow shooting grotesquely up the simple wooden facade. As she turned back to her car, she spotted a roughly carved stone frog perched underneath a shrub. She picked it up and found the key beneath. Tucking it deep in her pocket for safekeeping, she parked the Rustmobile, retrieved her suitcase, and climbed the five wooden steps.
According to Lucy, the Lutherans had abandoned the tiny country church sometime in the 1960s. A pair of arched windows bracketed the double front doors. The key turned easily in the lock. The inside was musty, the air hot from the day. When she’d last visited, the interior had been washed in sunlight, but now the darkness reminded her of every horror movie she’d ever seen. She fumbled for a switch, hoping the electricity was turned on. Magically, two white wall globes sprang to life. She couldn’t leave them on long for fear someone would see—just long enough to explore. She dropped her suitcase and locked the door behind her.
The pews were gone, leaving an empty, echoing space. The founding fathers hadn’t believed in ornamentation. No stained-glass windows, soaring vaults, or stone columns for these stern Lutherans. The room was narrow, not even thirty feet wide, with scrubbed pine floors and a pair of ceiling fans hanging from a simple stamped-metal ceiling. Five long transom windows lined each wall. An austere staircase led to a small wooden choir loft at the rear, the church’s only extravagance.
Lucy had said that Ted had lived in the church for a few months while his house was being built, but whatever furniture he’d brought here was gone. Only an ugly easy chair with stuffing showing through a corner of its brown upholstery remained, along with a black metal futon she discovered in the choir loft. Lucy had planned to furnish the space with cozy seating areas, painted tables, and folk art. All Meg cared about right now was the possibility of running water.
Her sneakers squeaked on the old pine floor as she made her way toward the small door positioned to the right of what had once been the altar. Beyond it lay a room barely ten feet deep that served as both kitchen and storage space. An ancient, silent refrigerator, the kind with rounded corners, rested next to a small side window. The kitchen also held an old-fashioned four-burner enameled stove, a metal cupboard, and a porcelain sink. Perpendicular to the back door another door led to a bathroom more modern than the rest of the church with a toilet, white pedestal sink, and shower stall. She gazed at the X-shaped porcelain faucets and slowly, hopefully, twisted one handle.
Fresh water gushed from the spout. So basic. So luxurious.
She didn’t care that there was no hot water. Within minutes, she’d retrieved her suitcase, peeled off her clothes, grabbed the shampoo and soap she’d pilfered from the inn, and stepped inside. She gasped as the cold splashed over her. Never again would she take this luxury for granted.
After she dried off, she tied the silk wrap she’d worn to the rehearsal dinner under her arms. She’d just located an unopened box of saltines and six cans of tomato soup in the metal cupboard when her phone rang. She picked it up and heard a familiar voice.
She set the soup can aside. “Luce? Honey, are you all right?” It had been almost two weeks since the night Lucy had run away, and that was the last time they’d spoken.
“I’m fine,” Lucy said.
“Why are you whispering?”
“Because . . .” A pause. “Would I be . . . like . . . a total skank if I slept with another guy now? Like in about ten minutes?”
Meg stood straighter. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Do you like him?”
“Kind of. He’s no Ted Beaudine, but . . .”
“Then you should
sleep with him.” Meg spoke more forcefully than she’d intended, but Lucy didn’t pick up on it.
“I want to, but . . .”
“Be a skank, Luce. It’ll be good for you.”
“I guess if I’d seriously wanted to be talked out of this, I’d have called somebody else.”
“That tells you a lot, then.”
“You’re right.” Meg heard the sound of water being shut off in the background. “I have to go,” Lucy said in a rush. “I’ll call when I can. Love you.” She hung up.
Lucy sounded frazzled, but excited, too. Meg thought about the call as she finished a bowl of soup. Maybe this would all turn out okay in the end. At least for Lucy.
With a sigh, she washed the saucepan, then laundered her dirty clothes with some dishwashing detergent she found under the sink amid a scatter of mouse turds. Every morning, she’d have to wipe out the signs that she’d been here, pack her possessions, and stow them in her car in case Ted stopped by. But for now, she had food, shelter, and running water. She’d bought herself a little more time.
The next few weeks were the worst of her life. As Arlis made her days increasingly miserable, Meg dreamed of returning to L.A., but even if she could have gotten back, she had nowhere to stay. Not with her parents, whose tough-love speech was seared into her brain. Not with her friends, all of whom had families, which was fine for an overnight stay, but not for an extended visit. When Birdie grudgingly informed her that she’d finally worked off her debt, Meg felt nothing but despair. She couldn’t quit the inn until she had another source of income, and she couldn’t move as long as Lucy’s church was her only shelter. She needed to find another job, one in Wynette. Preferably a job that provided immediate tip money.
She applied to wait tables at the Roustabout, the honky-tonk that served as the town’s gathering place. “You screwed up Ted’s wedding,” the owner said, “and you tried to stiff Birdie. Why would I hire you?”
So much for the Roustabout.
Over the next several days, she stopped at every bar and restaurant in town, but none was hiring. Or at least they weren’t hiring her. Her food supply was nonexistent, she was purchasing gas three gallons at a time, and she had to buy Tampax soon. She needed cash, and she needed it fast.
As she removed still another revolting hair plug from still another crusty bathtub, she thought about how many times she’d forgotten to tip the housekeepers who cleaned the hotel rooms after her. So far, all she’d picked up in tips was a measly twenty-eight bucks. It would have been more, but Arlis had an uncanny ability to spot the guests most likely to be generous and make sure she checked their rooms first. The upcoming weekend might be lucrative if Meg could figure out how to outsmart her.
Ted’s former best man, Kenny Traveler, was hosting a golf outing for his friends who were flying in from all over the country and staying at the inn. Meg might regard the sport with contempt for the way it gobbled up natural resources, but money was to be made from its disciples, and all day Thursday, she thought about how she could profit from the weekend. By evening, she had a plan. It involved an expenditure she could ill afford, but she made herself stop at the grocery after work and turn over twenty dollars from her meager paycheck as an investment in her immediate future.
The next day she waited until the golfers began trickling in from their Friday afternoon rounds. When Arlis wasn’t looking, she grabbed some towels and started knocking on doors. “Good afternoon, Mr. Samuels.” She plastered on a big smile for the gray-haired man who answered. “I thought you might like some extra towels. Sure is hot out there.” She set one of the precious candy bars she’d bought the night before on top. “I hope you had a good round, but here’s a little sugar in case you didn’t. My compliments.”
“Thanks, honey. That’s real thoughtful.” Mr. Samuels pulled out his money clip and peeled off a five-dollar bill.
By the time she left the inn that night, she’d made forty dollars. She was as proud of herself as if she’d made her first million. But if she intended to repeat her scheme on Saturday afternoon, she needed a new twist, and that was going to involve another small expenditure.
“Damn. I haven’t had one of those in years,” Mr. Samuels said when he answered the door on Saturday afternoon.
“Homemade.” She gave him her biggest, most winning smile and handed over the fresh towels, along with one of the individually wrapped Rice Krispies treats she’d stayed up until well past midnight last night making. Cookies would have been better, but her culinary skills were limited. “I only wish it were a cold beer,” she said. “We sure appreciate you gentlemen staying here.”
This time he gave her a ten.
Arlis, already suspicious over their dwindling towel inventory, nearly caught her twice, but Meg managed to dodge her, and as she approached the third-floor suite, registered to a Dexter O’Connor, her uniform pocket held a comfortable weight. Mr. O’Connor had been out yesterday when she’d stopped, but today a tall, strikingly beautiful woman wrapped in one of the inn’s white terry robes answered the door. Even just out of the shower, with her face scrubbed free of makeup and strands of inky hair clinging to her neck, she was flawless—tall and thin with bold green eyes and iceberg-size diamond studs in her ears. She didn’t look like a Dexter. And neither did the man Meg glimpsed over her shoulder.
Ted Beaudine sat in the room’s easy chair, his shoes kicked off, a beer in hand. Something clicked, and Meg recognized the brunette as the woman Ted had kissed at the gas station a few weeks ago.
“Oh, good. Extra towels.” Her splashy diamond wedding ring sparkled as she grabbed the package on top. “And a homemade Rice Krispies treat! Look, Teddy! How long has it been since you’ve had a Rice Krispies treat?”
“Can’t say as I recall,”
The woman tucked the towels under her arm and pulled at the plastic wrap. “I love these things. Give her a ten, will you?”
He didn’t move. “I’m fresh out of tens. Or any other currency.”
“Hold on.” The woman turned, presumably to get her purse, only to whip back around. “Holy Jesus!” She dropped the towels. “You’re the wedding wrecker! I didn’t recognize you in your uniform.”
Ted unwound from the chair and approached the door. “Selling baked goods without a license, Meg? That’s a direct violation of city code.”
“These are gifts, Mr. Mayor.”
“Do Birdie and Arlis know about your gifts?”
The brunette pushed in front of him. “Never mind that.” Her green eyes glittered with excitement. “The wedding wrecker. I can’t believe it. Come on in. I have some questions for you.” She shoved the door fully open and tugged on Meg’s arm. “I want to hear exactly why you thought What’s-Her-Name was so wrong for Teddy.”
Meg had finally met someone other than Haley Kittle who didn’t hate her for what she’d done. It wasn’t exactly shocking that this person would be Ted’s apparently married lover.