Authors: David Baldacci
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #FIC031000
“They ain’t nobody there now.”
Jarvis nodded absently as he tabbed down the screen. “Guy named Jackson signed the lease agreement,” he said.
“About my height with black hair, sort of fat?”
“That’s right. I remember him now. He seemed very professional. Anything out of the way happen during your interview?”
“Depends on what you call out of the way. But he was real professional to me, too. Anything else you can tell me?”
Jarvis studied the screen again, hoping to find a few more kernels of information with which to entice LuAnn. Finally, strong disappointment etched across his features, he looked at her and sighed. “Not really, I guess.”
LuAnn hoisted up Lisa and then eyed a stack of steno pads and a cup of pens on the counter. “Could I have one of those pads and a pen, Johnny? I could pay you something for them.”
“You kidding? Good golly, take all you want.”
“One of each is all I need. Thanks.” She put the pad and pen in her handbag.
“No problem at all, we got tons of that stuff.”
“Well, I appreciate what you told me. I really do. And it was real nice seeing you, Johnny.”
“Hell, you made my whole year walking in the door like that.” He took a peek at his watch. “I take my lunch break in about ten minutes. They got a nice Chinese place down at the food court. You have time? My treat. We could talk some more, catch up.”
“Maybe another time. Like I said, I’m kind of in a hurry.”
LuAnn observed Jarvis’s disappointment and felt a little guilty. She put Lisa down and gave him a big hug. She smiled as she listened to him breathe deeply into her freshly washed hair. As he pressed his hands against the small of her back, and the warmth and softness of her chest spread over his, Jarvis’s spirits were instantly rekindled. “You’ve done real well for yourself, Johnny,” LuAnn said as she stepped back. “Always knew you’d do just fine.” Things might have been different, she thought, if she had come across Johnny a while back.
Jarvis was now treading across fine white clouds. “You did? I’m kind of surprised you even thought about me at all.”
“There you go, I’m just full of surprises. Take care of yourself, maybe I’ll see you around.” She picked up Lisa, who was rubbing the stuffed animal against her mother’s cheek and jabbering happily, and headed for the door.
She turned back around.
“You gonna take that job?”
She considered the question for a moment. “I don’t know yet. But I expect you’ll probably hear about it if I do.”
LuAnn’s next stop was the public library, a place she had frequented when in school, but it had been years since she had last been there. The librarian was very pleasant and complimented LuAnn on her daughter. Lisa snuggled against her mother while she looked around at all the books.
“Da. Da, ooh.”
“She likes books,” said LuAnn. “I read to her every day.”
“She’s got your eyes,” the woman said looking back and forth between mother and child. LuAnn’s hand gently slid against Lisa’s cheek.
The woman’s smile faded when she saw no ring on LuAnn’s finger. LuAnn noted the look. “Best thing I’ve ever done. I ain’t got much, but this little girl’s never gonna be hurting for love.”
The woman smiled weakly and nodded. “My daughter is a single mother. I do what I can to help out but it’s very hard. There’s never enough money to go around.”
“Tell me about it.” LuAnn dug a bottle and a container of water out of her diaper bag, mixed some formula she had gotten from a friend together, and helped Lisa get a grip on it. “If I ever get to the end of a week with more money than I started with, I’m not going to know what to do with myself.”
The woman shook her head wistfully. “I know they say that money is the root of all evil, but I often think how nice it would be not to have to worry about the bills. I can’t imagine the feeling. Can you?”
“I can imagine it. I imagine it must feel pretty durn good.”
The woman laughed. “Now, how can I help you?”
“You keep copies of different newspapers here on that film stuff, don’t you?”
The woman nodded. “On microfilm. It’s in that room.” She pointed to a doorway at the far end of the library.
“Do you know how to use the microfilm machine? If not, I can show you. It’s not very difficult.”
“That’d be real nice. Thank you.”
They entered the room, which was vacant and dark. The woman turned on the overhead light, seated LuAnn at one of the terminals, and picked out a microfilm spool from one of the files. It only took a minute to insert the spool, and information appeared on the lit screen. The woman worked the controls and lines of text flashed across the screen. LuAnn watched her carefully as she removed the spool and turned the machine off. “Now, you try it,” the woman said.
LuAnn expertly inserted the spool and manipulated the controls as the film advanced.
“That’s very good. You learn quickly. Most people don’t get the hang of it right away.”
“I’ve always been good with my hands.”
“The catalogue files are clearly marked. We carry the local paper, of course, and some of the national ones. The publication dates are printed on the outside of the file drawers.”
“Thank you very much.”
As soon as the woman left, LuAnn carried Lisa, who was still slurping on the bottle, and started exploring the rows of file cabinets. She set Lisa down and watched in amusement as the little girl rolled to a cabinet, put down the bottle, and tried to pull herself up. LuAnn located a major newspaper in one of the cabinets and proceeded to check the boxes housing the spools until she found the dates corresponding to the last six months. She took a minute to change and burp Lisa and then inserted the first spool into the microfilm machine. With Lisa perched on her lap and pointing excitedly and jabbering on about the sights on the screen, LuAnn’s eyes scanned the front page. It didn’t take long to locate the story and the accompanying two-inch headline. “Lottery Winner Nets Forty-five Million Dollars.” LuAnn quickly read the story. Outside, the sound of a sudden rainstorm assailed her ears. Spring brought a lot of rain to the area, usually in the form of thunderstorms. As if in response to her thoughts, thunder boomed and the entire building seemed to shake. LuAnn glanced anxiously over at Lisa, but the little girl was oblivious to the sounds. LuAnn pulled a blanket from her bag, set it down on the floor with some toys, and put Lisa down. LuAnn turned back to the headline. She pulled the steno pad and pen out of her handbag and started scribbling notes. She flipped to the next month. The U.S. Lotto drawing was held on the fifteenth of each month. The dates she was looking at were for the sixteenth through the twentieth. Two hours later she had completed her review of the past six winners. She unwound the last spool and replaced it in the file drawer. She sat back and looked at her notes. Her head was pounding and she wanted a cup of coffee. The rain was still coming down hard. Carrying Lisa, she went back into the library, pulled some childrens’ books down, and showed Lisa the pictures in them and read to the little girl. Within twenty minutes, Lisa had fallen asleep and LuAnn put her in the baby carrier and set it on the table next to her. The room was quiet and warm. As LuAnn felt herself starting to doze she put one arm protectively across Lisa and gripped the little girl’s leg in a gentle squeeze. The next thing she knew she was startled awake when a hand touched her shoulder. She looked up into the eyes of the librarian.
“I’m sorry to wake you, but we’re closing up.”
LuAnn looked around bewildered for a moment. “Good Lord, what time is it?”
“A little after six, dear.”
LuAnn quickly packed up. “I’m sorry for falling asleep in here like that.”
“Didn’t bother me a bit. I’m just sorry I had to wake you, you looked so peaceful there with your daughter and all.”
“Thanks again for all your help.” LuAnn cocked her head as she listened to the rain pounding on the roof.
The woman looked at her. “I wish I could offer you a ride somewhere, but I take the bus.”
“That’s okay. The bus and me know each other real good.”
LuAnn draped her coat over Lisa and left. She sprinted to the bus stop and waited until the bus pulled up a half hour later with a squeal of brakes and a deep sigh of its air-powered door. She was ten cents short on the fare, but the driver, a heavyset black man whom she knew by sight, waved her on after dropping in the rest from his own pocket.
“We all of us need help every now and again,” he said. She thanked him with a smile. Twenty minutes later, LuAnn walked into the Number One Truck Stop several hours before her shift.
“Hey, girl, what you doing here so soon?” asked Beth, LuAnn’s fiftyish and very matronly coworker, as she wiped a wet cloth across the Formica counter.
A three-hundred-pound truck driver appraised LuAnn over the rim of his coffee cup and, even soaked as she was from her jaunt in the rain, he came away dutifully impressed. As always. “She come early so she wouldn’t miss big old Frankie here,” he said with a grin that threatened to swallow up his whole wide face. “She knew I got on the earlier shift and couldn’t bear the thought of not seeing me no more.”
“You’re right, Frankie, it’d just break her heart if LuAnn didn’t see your big old hairy mug on a regular basis,” Beth rejoined, while prying between her teeth with a swizzle stick.
“Hi, Frankie, how you?” LuAnn said.
“Just fine, now,” Frankie replied, the smile still cemented on his features.
“Beth, can you watch Lisa for a minute while I change into my uniform?” LuAnn asked as she wiped her face and arms down with a towel. She checked Lisa and was relieved to find her dry and hungry. “I’m going to make her up a bottle in just a minute and mix up some of that oatmeal. Then she should be ready to go down for the night even though she had a pretty big nap not too long ago.”
“You bet I can take that beautiful little child into my arms. Come here, darling.” Beth hoisted up Lisa and settled her against her chest, where Lisa proceeded to make all manner of noises and pull at the pen stuck behind Beth’s ear. “Really, now, LuAnn, you ain’t got to be here for hours. What’s up?”
“I got soaked and my uniform’s the only clean thing I got. Besides, I felt bad about missing last night. Hey, is there anything left over from lunch? I sorta can’t remember eating yet today.”
Beth gave LuAnn a disapproving look and planted one hand on a very full hip. “If you took half as good care of yourself as you do this baby. My Lord, child, it is almost eight o’clock.”
“Don’t nag, Beth. I just forgot, that’s all.”
Beth grunted. “Right, Duane drank your money away again, didn’t he?”
“You oughta drop that little sumbitch, LuAnn,” Frankie grumbled. “But let me kick his ass first for you. You deserve better than that crap.”
Beth raised an eyebrow that clearly signaled her agreement with Frankie.
LuAnn scowled at them. “Thank you both for your vote on
life, now if you’ll excuse me?”
Later that evening, LuAnn sat at the far corner booth finishing a plate of food Beth had rounded up for her. She finally pushed the dinner away and sipped a cup of fresh coffee. The rain had started again and the clattering sound against the diner’s tin roof was comforting. She pulled a thin sweater tighter around her shoulders and checked the clock behind the counter. She still had two hours before she went on duty. Normally, when she got to the diner early she’d try to catch a little overtime, but the manager wasn’t letting her do that anymore. Hurt the bottom line, he had told LuAnn. Well, you don’t want to know about my bottom line, she had told him right back, but to no avail. But that was okay, he let her bring Lisa in. Without that, there’d be no way she could work at all. And he paid her in cash. She knew he was avoiding payroll taxes that way, but she made little enough money as it was without the government taking any. She had never filed a tax return; she had lived her entire life well below the poverty line and rightly figured she didn’t owe any taxes.
Lisa was in her carrier across from her. LuAnn tucked the blanket more snugly around her sleeping daughter. LuAnn had fed Lisa parts of her meal; her daughter was taking to solid food real well, but she hadn’t made it through the mushed carrots before falling asleep again. LuAnn worried that her daughter wasn’t getting the right kind of sleep. And she wondered, Was putting her baby under the counter of a noisy, smoky truck stop every night going to mess up Lisa’s head years from now? Lower her self-esteem and do other damage LuAnn had read about in the magazines or seen on TV. That nightmarish thought had cost LuAnn more sleep than she could remember. And that wasn’t all. When Lisa turned to solid food for good would there always be enough? Not having a car, always scrounging change for the bus, walking, or running through the rain. What if Lisa caught something? What if LuAnn did? What if she were laid up for a while? Who would take care of Lisa? She had no insurance. She took Lisa to the free county clinic for her shots and checkups, but LuAnn hadn’t been to a doctor in over ten years. She was young, strong, and healthy, but that could change quickly. You never knew. She almost laughed when she thought of Duane trying to navigate the endless details of Lisa’s daily requirements. The boy would run screaming into the woods after a few minutes. But it really wasn’t a laughing matter.
While she looked at the tiny mouth opening and closing, LuAnn’s heart suddenly felt as heavy as the semis parked in the diner’s parking lot. Her daughter depended on her for everything and the truth was LuAnn had nothing. One step from the edge every day of her life and getting closer all the time. A fall was inevitable; it was only a matter of time. She thought back to Jackson’s words. A cycle. Her mother. Then LuAnn. Duane resembled Benny Tyler in more ways than she cared to think about. Next up was Lisa, her darling little girl for whom she would kill, or be killed, whatever it took to protect her. America was full of opportunity, everybody said. You just had to unlock it. Only they forgot to give out keys for LuAnn’s kind. Or maybe they didn’t forget at all. Maybe it was intentional. At least that’s how she usually saw things when she was more than a little depressed, like now.