I rolled over to look out of the window, frowning at the sound of chirping birds, and then glanced over at the clock. I shouldn't complain, right? After all, everyone had been bitching and moaning about the dark, cold, snowy winter months. Chirping birds meant spring...and ultimately summer. So what if it was 8:30 in the morning? The birds weren't governed by human clocks...fucking birds.
There was no point in lying in bed, even though it was my day off, so I swung my legs off of my comfy futon and headed for the shower. I took a moment to appreciate the quaint studio. I liked the studio. The main room was huge. It had oversized windows that allowed for lots of sunlight, gorgeous hard wood floors that had recently been tended to, pristine butter cream walls...well, the wall color was my ex's favorite color, not mine. But the landlord painted this apartment, not me. The bathroom was just as nice, very spacious, a deep, claw-foot tub that easily accommodated my six-foot frame, an old fashioned sink with a porcelain base and separate faucets for hot and cold water (it took me months to adjust to that), and a gorgeous mosaic tile mermaid design on the main bathroom wall. I took the apartment because it was close to my job, moderately priced, spacious and sunny. Considering I was confined to a windowless, drab office all day, where my idiotic boss refused to allow any of us to brighten up our cubicles with personal knickknacks, I simply had to have colors and light at home. Not to mention, it was pretty far from the quaint little house I had shared with my ex in the burbs. In fact, center city Philadelphia was as extreme a contrast as I could get without switching jobs.
While I loved the bathroom, I didn't waste much time in there. It was already Tuesday and I only had four days left to my week of vacation. I didn't do anything but sleep all day yesterday, so I didn't intend to waste another day. I was going to shop till I dropped today. I had a list of CDs and books I'd been meaning to buy for months and now I finally had the time.
I rolled my eyes when the phone rang. I knew who it was. I loved this lady, but she really did drive me crazy. I pulled on a pair of form fitting jeans before snatching up the cordless phone.
She hated when I called her "ma." She preferred "mother" or "mom." I didn't give a shit. Besides, I loved to torment her.
"Kennifer Amelia Lewis, why didn't you call me back yesterday?"
My mother's insistence on using my full name, however, brought me out of my playful mood right away.
"Mom, I told you I was tired. I worked on that project until 2am Monday. I had to finish it before my vacation. I slept the entire day!" I was whining, I knew it. Sheesh, what this lady did to me was absolutely amazing.
"And you were too tired to find out if your mother needed something? What if I was dying and needed a ride to the hospital?"
I rolled my eyes again, "Mom, you live in Northern New Jersey. I hope you would call 911. I'm sure an ambulance would get to you in less time."
"And now you have nothing but sarcasm and hostility for your mother? Is that how I raised you?"
I sighed again, what was the point? I was 35 years old and my mother could still make me feel like I was right around six. So I slipped into "good daughter" mode and placated my mommy, settling in to listen to the list of complaints she always had. She just wanted someone to talk to, that's all. Her sister was on some cruise, my Dad had died about five years ago...she was probably lonely. I just wish she didn't annoy the hell out of me. She launched into the local gossip. Did she forget she'd moved there after Dad died and I had no idea who these people were? Next? Demands to know what I planned to do with the rest of my vacation. And finally, ah, there it was, the request for a visit. I managed to wiggle out of it strategically, but that would only buy me another day or two at most. I hadn't been up there in about two months, claiming I was too busy. It was time to pay my dues. I really was a shitty daughter...
Okay, the chat only cost me thirty minutes. Cool. I pulled on a black tee-shirt, a leather jacket, quickly brushed my closely cropped hair (I was virtually bald with just a little peach fuzz on my scalp, but damn if it didn't look good on me). I smiled at my dark chocolate reflection and then hurried from the apartment before the phone rang again.
I loved weekday shopping. Everyone was at work and I had at least two hours before the lunch time rush. The problem was parking. But then, parking was always a problem in Center City. I drove around for about 10 minutes, finally said 'fuck it' and coughed up ten bucks to park in a lot. At least I wouldn't have to worry about someone breaking into my Camry. The car was seven years old now, but I kept it in good condition and it still attracted attention. I walked over to HMV first and spent about an hour updating my CD collection. I would probably cave in and get an IPOD sooner or later, instead of wasting 15 bucks on a CD that only had 3 songs I liked, but for now I still enjoyed shopping for CDs. What I didn't like was trying to get the plastic off the damn things. What the hell was that about? Anyway, I liked shopping for CDs, especially when I found one that I'd been looking for. Like today, I found Luther's double-disc CD from the late 80s. I have no idea what it was doing in HMV, but damned if I snatched it up anyway. My ex had taken my copy and I hadn't felt like being bothered.
Next was Borders. There was a much larger, trendier Barnes and Nobles a few blocks away, but I liked the quaintness of Borders. Not to mention they had comfy chairs with high backs...a person my height always appreciated those kinds of little things. I selected about eight books, scoped out a comfy chair, and smiled as I planned to spend the next two hours reading. I might even opt to buy one or two of them...
It was 1pm when I finally left the bookstore and I was hungry. I figured I'd grab a medium pizza. I could eat half for lunch and half for dinner while I chilled out in front of the boob tube. Sounded like a plan. Except things didn't work out that way. What did I do to deserve to have my day ruined anyway? Maybe it was because I was a bitch to my Mom earlier? Who knows.
Anyway, I was walking out of the pizza parlor, digging for my car keys, trying to balance the hot pie in one hand in a way where I didn't burn my fingers, when someone slammed into me and the pie landed on the ground, face down of course. I sighed, trying to swallow down some serious profanity. It wasn't working and I was just about to kick the ever-loving shit out of the jackass who bumped into me when I looked over and my brain shut down. A total meltdown, that's what it was. I was struck dumb.
The woman was younger than I was, maybe in her late twenties. She was shorter, I don't know, maybe five feet five? What I do know, what was immediately implanted in my brain, was her creamy honey-brown skin and shoulder length black, silky locks. Her long thick, dark lashes that seemed to brush her cheeks, full pouting lips colored some fetching berry, high prominent cheekbones...and those absolutely amazing hazel-green eyes. Her body was deliciously lush with full, perfectly round breasts, a relatively flat stomach, curvy hips...she was a doll. An absolute doll. And when I got my hormones under control, I realized she seemed to be in some kind of trouble. Upon closer inspection her face was streaked with tears, her hair was a bit unruly, and she was struggling to carry a child of all things. A cute, milk chocolate, chubby little girl that was probably too heavy for her to carry. The kid was probably four of five, with long pig-tails and a cute pink and white dress that was stained with something that looked like...blood? Was that blood? Jesus.
The woman was looking around frantically, breathing heavily from running with the child in her arms. The child was staring straight ahead, kind of in a daze.
"Help me. I need help. Please."
You hear those words in a movie, not in real life.
"Yes, please. Do you have a car?"
Damn she was fine. And I did have a car. Although I no longer had a pizza.
"What's wrong? Do you need me to call the police?" I was a good citizen after all, trying to fulfill my moral and civic obligations and all that crap.
Well, that was pretty insistent. Someone in trouble who didn't want you to call the police? I probably should have walked away but...well, damnit, I did said she was fine.
"Could we—...I mean, could you—...I need to—"
She was out of breath, frantic. What was I supposed to do? I took hold of her elbow, escorted her to my Camry I had parked nearby, and helped her into the passenger's seat. Her and the cute kid. Because she seemed so worried, I hurried to the driver's side and slid in.
"Anywhere, please, just go, anywhere, I don't care, just go, please."
So I did. I pulled out of the parking spot (almost hitting a passing car, oops) and I headed east. I had no idea where I was going, but by the looks of things she just needed to get out of there quickly. I turned a corner after driving about five blocks, headed south for a spell, and then headed north. I would go back to my place. I wasn't sure that was wise, but I didn't know where else to take them. She didn't say a word and after looking around frantically for another minute or so, she let out a breath and closed her eyes. She clung desperately to the child who had not yet said a word. The child was still staring straight ahead with that strange blank look, her dark brown pupils glassy. It was more than a little spooky.
"You okay? Does she need to go to the hospital?"
The question forced the woman to blink and look down at the child as if surprised by the brownish-red stains on the pretty little dress.
"Kari, are you hurt?"
When the little girl didn't respond immediately the woman shook her a little, "Kari? Sweetie, are you okay?"
Seemed like a stupid question to me, considering the child had blood all over her and the woman seemed to be frantically running from some thing, or someone. The child shook her head no and then I saw her lips tremble just a bit before she closed her eyes and clamped down on her emotions. I've never seen a child so young do that. What kind of life had she led in her few short years that would force her to do that? I couldn't even manage to do that with such little effort.
That was the end of the chatting until I pulled into my reserved parking spot. I stepped from the vehicle and made my way over to the passenger side. Once I opened the door, I reached for the little girl to ease the woman's burden, but the little girl panicked, suddenly whimpering and clinging desperately to the woman.
"I've got her."
The woman took a deep breath and stood. I realized then that she also had smudges of drying blood on her form fitting black jeans and oversized pink men's shirt. There were some drops of blood on her pink loafers as well. I wondered what these two had been through. They followed me to my apartment door and both seemed to sigh with relief when I closed and locked it. They stood in the center of the massive room, looking at the bookshelves lining one wall, the massive entertainment system on another, and finally the king size futon bed/sofa. I hadn't bothered to make up the bed so I rushed about doing that now, directing them to the small table and chairs right off the tiny kitchen area.
"Sorry, I wasn't expecting anyone," I snatched up the linens, shoving them into a nearby laundry bag, and quickly rearranged the bed into a sofa. I shoved the laundry bag into the huge walk-in closet, retrieving two of my tee shirts before closing the closet door.
"Uh, I don't I have anything that will fit either one of you, but if you don't mind wearing huge clothes for a little while I can put your stuff in the machines across the street."
They both stared at me in silence and I rubbed the peach fuzz on my head.
"The bathroom is over there."
The woman looked in the direction I was pointing, nodded, and then seemed to make a monumental effort to stand. The child was still in her arms, clinging desperately. The woman took the tee shirts and made her way to the bathroom, closing the door behind her. Moments later she tossed their dirty clothes out and I heard the sound of running water. A bath would probably make them both feel a little better. I snatched up their clothes, grabbed some detergent and was about to make my way to the Laundromat on the corner when I noticed a pink leather purse on the futon. It matched her loafers. I hadn't noticed her carrying it before. I was tempted. Horribly tempted. Considering the woman was naked on the other side of the bathroom door, I doubted she would come dashing out and catch me ruffling through her bag, right?
So of course I looked. I mean who wouldn't? There wasn't much in there, but what I saw kind of threw me. Money. Tons of hundred dollar bills. A few thousand dollars easily. A black coach wallet. Her driver's license said her name was Lisa Monica Scott and she was 29 years old. There was a Germantown address on the license. She had a number of platinum and gold credit cards. And there was a key. A small key with a rubber orange ring around the top. Not the kind of key that would fit into a regular door. Lipstick, gum and a nice looking pen. That was it. Again, this sounded like something out of a bad movie and I was wondering how smart it had been to bring this stranger to my apartment. What if she was running from the mafia or something? I laughed at myself. Okay, yes, that was a bit stupid.
By the time I returned with their clothes and some take out Chinese, Lisa had rearranged the futon into a bed again and the little girl was lying down. Lisa was sitting in the only other chair in the room, an oversized, overstuffed chair my mother had given me years ago. They were watching cartoons. I dished out the Chinese food, hoping chicken and broccoli was okay with them. Lisa called Kari over and we ate in silence. I wondered how long it would take before Lisa thought to give me some hint about what was going on. I thought I would start with the basics.
"I'm Kenni. Kenni Lewis."
Lisa seemed startled at the sound of my voice.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I'm Lisa."
I noticed she didn't give me a last name.
"Kari, I know. You said her name in the car." I gave the girl a warm smile, but she continued to stare ahead blankly.
Lisa gave me a ghost of a smile. She really was an attractive woman. She'd pulled her hair back into a ponytail and it revealed more of her face. Her face was flawless, and those huge hazel-green eyes just jumped out and snatched at some part of me...I just didn't know if it was my heart or an area much further south. Maybe a little of both.
"Can you tell me what's going on?"
Lisa closed her eyes at the question and sighed, a deep sorrowful sigh. I waited patiently until she spoke.
"I don't know how much I should tell you. Your life could be in danger."
Didn't I tell you this was like a bad movie? She paused and licked her lips which were still enticing minus the berry colored lipstick.
"What I really need to know is whether or not you can drive us to Louisiana."
"I understand if you can't, but Kari's mother lives there and I need to get her there."
"You're not her mother?"
Lisa blinked, seemingly clearing her thoughts, and shook her head.
"No. I was dating her father. He's um—...he's uh..." She took a deep breath and tried again, "he's dead."
She choked on the word and I watched as she pressed her lips together, trying to swallow the tears. Kari, who had gone back to watching cartoons, visibly flinched when she heard the words, but didn't look our way.
I was getting a little frustrated with all the mystery.
"Look, can you tell me what's going on? I only have a few days off from work, I can't just—," I hesitated, trying not to sound brusque, "I mean, I could take you to the airport..."
I trailed off. Lisa was nodding vigorously, "you're right, I'm sorry. I'm so self absorbed sometimes. I'm sorry. Can we just stay here tonight? I'll think of something by tomorrow."
She was so apologetic and I felt like an ass right away. A woman and child asking for help, seemingly desperate, and I say no? What kind of monster was I?
"Of course you can stay here, I didn't mean to—"
"No, you're right. You can't just stop your life for us. You don't even know us and you already saved our lives probably. You've done more than enough. I'm sorry for even asking, it was inconsid—"
I felt like shit. I had plenty of sick days. I could spare a few days beyond my vacation. I cut her off, "I'll take you to Louisiana. What part? I can get directions off of Mapquest."
I was already moving to retrieve my laptop from the bookshelf.
"No. It's probably best if we go alone. Really. If I could just beg you for one more favor? Could you rent a car for us? I'll take good care of it, I promise. And I'll turn it in as soon as I get there. I can pay for it. I have plenty of cash—"
She was pulling money from her purse. I sat down at the table and set up the laptop. She wasn't making me feel any better.
"I can take you Lisa. Something weird is obviously going on and you're in no condition to drive. You both seem like you've experienced something horrible. I can drive you to Louisiana. I'd never sleep knowing I didn't help you guys out when I could have. What part?"
She hesitated. I could see she was really struggling. She clearly wanted to take me up on my offer, but since I'd raised some concerns she probably felt bad about it. I had a wireless connection so I was already on the Mapquest webpage.
"I just need the address Lisa. It's okay."
She only paused for a moment longer before giving me the address. I looked it up. It was a pretty easy route. We'd need to stop over night. She suggested we leave as early as possible in the morning to avoid traffic and...well, she stopped so I assumed she meant so we could avoid accidentally bumping into anyone. I agreed.
It was only 4:30 in the afternoon, but I could see they were both exhausted. I pulled out a sleeping bag (I used to go camping with my ex) and bullied Lisa into taking the futon. Before I finished showering, they were both asleep.
I watched them sleep, wondering what I was doing. I didn't know this woman and this oddly quiet child. Her father was dead and her mother was in Louisiana? Why was Lisa taking her down South? Why hadn't her mother come for her? And why did they need to drive? She seemed reluctant to fly, although judging by the cash and plastic in her wallet, she could probably afford first-class tickets. Something was going on. Something that had traumatized Kari and scared Lisa. Something she thought had endangered my life. I shook my head, so much for my humdrum life.
I was watching Law and Order on the boob tube hours later when a loud knock sounded at the door. Lisa bolted up, Kari jumped and I saw her mouth open to scream right before Lisa reached over to clamp a hand over it. An odd reaction for sure. Lisa looked at me, her eyes wild. She seemed absolutely terrified.
"Hold on!" I called as I pointed to the walk-in closet. Lisa quickly and quietly stood from the futon, grabbed Kari up into her arms and tiptoed to the closet. She closed the closet door silently as I tossed the sleeping bag into a corner and made my way to the front door.
"Who is it?" I asked, stalling for just a moment more. I doubt the visitor would think that odd considering the crime rate in Philadelphia.