Read Vacant Online

Authors: Evelyn R. Baldwin

Vacant (page 3)

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“Where were you living before?”

This time she’s a little quicker to answer. “We lived in shelters for a while. Then my mom got sick.” She takes another bite of her dinner then continues. “I know how things work. Since I’m almost eighteen, there isn’t too much the state will do for me. I would live in a home for a few months then get tossed out on the street. I figured I might as well get a jump on living, you know?”

I wonder how she’s able to be so light-hearted about this. Emily’s smiling which she tends to do on a regular basis. This girl—almost woman—has had some terrible circumstances, yet almost every time I see her, her smile brightens the room. I find her positive outlook on life is rubbing off on me.

“My next question was your age, but you’ve already answered that. When do you turn eighteen?”

“In a month,” she replies. I take several minutes to think about the information she’s just told me while finishing my own slice of pizza. Living in a shelter would explain her lack of inhibition. There is no such thing as privacy when you live with fifty other people. She’s used to being watched.

“Hey, I went to the grocery store you work at today and filled out an application. I looked for you, but you must have been on break or something.” I just nod; I don’t need this complication spilling over to my work. As soon as I think it, though, I regret the thought. I can’t think of Emily as a complication.

“They said they weren’t hiring right now, but will let me know if something comes up. On my way home I stopped at the convenience store on Jamison. I found out they are hiring, so if the grocery doesn’t work out, I could do that instead,” she finishes, and then takes a fourth slice of pizza. I know my face pales, and she doesn’t have a clue why. I have no idea how to tell this girl I don’t even really know, occasionally uses my shower, and who I just referred to as a complication, that I don’t want her to work in a convenience store because Dad was shot in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven.

~Payment~

We spend a quiet, comfortable evening and I can’t help watching Emily for most of it. It’s obvious she hasn’t seen television in a while because she’s mesmerized. We are watching some Cajun cooking show on public access, but to see it through her eyes, it’s like we are watching the most fascinating show known to man.

“Iput a little mo’ wine in here, maybe a little mo’ wine fo’ me,” the host says in a Creole southern drawl.

“Oh my gosh! Ethan, he is so funny! ‘I gar-un-tee’!” she laughs as she mimics the chef, and I can’t help the smile that cracks across my face. She could let the world swallow her whole with the weight of her situation, but she doesn’t. Instead she carries on, seemingly carefree, laughing at the talkative old cook with the gift of gab.

“Emily?”

She glances over at me, still laughing at the TV. It’s the moment I know I’m making the right decision. I take a deep breath, ready to lay things on the line.

“Hang on! He’s going to tell a story about squirrel hunting! This’ll be good!” Emily says with enthusiasm. While I really need to get my thoughts out, I can’t deny her this moment. It’s so pure, so I decide to indulge her for the final five minutes of the show.

As theCookin’ Cajunfinishes, Emily focuses her attention on me.

“You wanted to talk about something?” The light and sparkle in her eyes is amazing. She looks happy and carefree instead of nervous. She seems to assume the best of every situation. Given the circumstances, you’d think she would be nervous, but instead, she acts as though we’re going to talk about whether she’ll make oatmeal or chocolate chips cookies next. I suddenly feel something I haven’t felt in a very long time: content.

“Yeah,” I begin, though I’m not sure why I’m nervous, other than the fact she may say no. She may refuse my help. She may tell me to mind my own business, that she doesn’t need anyone to look after her, but I have to try.

“I want you to stay here.” Her mouth drops open, but no sound comes out. “With me,” I finish. I’m not sure whether her speechlessness is a result of shock or horror. I decide to play it safe with more justification. “You can’t squat next door. It’s not safe, it’s illegal, and you don’t need any hassles from the cops.”

She sits for a moment with her eyes trained on her hands while her fingers twist with each other on her lap. Her hair is frizzy from the humidity, and despite having it pulled back, there are tiny tendrils sticking up forming an angelic halo around her face. After a few moments, she finally speaks. “So, what do you want in return?”

What? I’m fully aware she has no money, so why would she think I would want her to pay-

I’m not even finished with my own thought when I realize she’s not talking aboutmonetarypayment. Nothing is ever free, and she thinks I wantherin return for providing food and shelter. The thought strips me down to the core.

“No!” I shout unnecessarily, but I can’t help it.I do not want that!She’s hiding her face, but I can see her scrunching her eyes closed. I take a breath to calm down and explain myself.

“No,” I start again, much calmer than before. “I don’t want anything from you, Emily. I want to help you. I know how…” I stop and take a deep breath. I need her to understand where I’m coming from. “I know how hard this situation can be.”

She flinches and snaps her head up to look me in the eye. “You don’t want…you know, then?” She gestures between us to further her point.

Lie.“No. Thelastthing I want is for you to be taken advantage of.” While the thought of being with her physically is an attractive offer, I would never want it under that set of circumstances. I know how easy it is to become a target when you’re young and in need.

“But, why? Everyone wants something, Ethan. There has to be something you want from me. I mean, it’s okay if you want…you know…” Her cheeks flame red as she says this.

God, she’s so naïve she can’t even say the word “sex.” It only solidifies my decision that I’m doing the right thing, but she’s right. People always want something in return, so I will have to give her a reason why I don’t want anything from her. I have to be honest with her and let her know that I’m all too familiar with her situation.

~Surprises~

After four months, I continue to be astonished by what Emily can do with a dented, often label-less, can. She says it’s all the Julia Child reruns on PBS, but I don't care who’s to credit. Dinner is on the table every night with mismatched plates and silverware, and our economy paper towels are always folded into decorative shapes. It hasn’t escaped my notice at how much I enjoy seeing our laundry mingled together, either. The bottom line for me is that she makes eventhisplace seem like home.

~

After Emily agreed to move in with me—which was no small feat—it took a month until she stopped knocking, then cracking the door and yelling, “Ethan?” before she would enter through the front door. It was as if she thought I would get mad if she didn’t practice her self- imposed ritual. While her discomfort with calling this her home still lingers, it’s just the tip of the iceberg concerning our...issues.

Initially, she’d been particularly insistent about getting a job and wanting to help financially. I hadn’t argued, thinking she was nearly done, if not completely finished, with school. I hadn’t bother to ask what her status was, figuring she was old enough to make that decision herself. So, it was with eagerness that I helped her look for a job.

One roadblock was her lack of identification. Employers want an ID, but of course, Emily didn’t have any. We spent an entire day at City Hall getting the required documentation and social security card, so we could then go to the DMV. That was the day I found out she was barely old enough for a driver’s permit—let alone a driver’s license. Emily insisted she was nearly eighteen when we met, but I found out she wasn’t even close. Shock didn’t even begin to explain what I felt at the revelation of her real age. She hadn’t lied about when her birthday was; it was a month after she moved in, as she’d first said. However, she was turningsixteen, not eighteen. While I was monumentally upset by her deception, I got it. She was living with the fear of being herded into a state system that could feel like you were being fed to the wolves. I couldn’t really blame her.

After I got over my initial anger about her lie and the additional guilt of some of the inappropriate things Imayhave fantasized about her, I realized Emily missed the milestone of sweet sixteen. I remembered a co-worker talking about her sister’s sixteenth birthday and the excitement that went along with the momentous occasion. Emily insisted she didn’t want anything special and maintained that by finding me, she’d already received more than she ever hoped for after her mother’s passing. The celebratory sad-assed cookie I had on my twenty-first birthday came to mind. I instantly knew it wasn’t good enough for Emily, so I went into work and ordered the most extravagant and girly cake our bakery had—regardless of the fact it was almost forty bucks, my usual weekly food budget. Her reaction to the cake was like a kick to the stomach. When I brought it home, Emily cried, explaining that even her mother had never gotten her a cake since cake wasn’t something you buy on a strict budget.

That was the moment I decided Emily would never go without again. Knowing that cake was so special made it all the more enjoyable when I ate it every meal the week that followed.

~

“Ethan, go wash your hands please. Dinner is ready.”

It never fails. The girl can literally watch me walk from the bathroom, knowing I’ve just scrubbed up, but she will still tell me to wash again, and I will. I know that she’s tied to the routine, not really the cleanliness factor. Many who have been in a homeless situation will cling to routines for the comfort and solace they bring.

We sit and eat in silence for the first few minutes of the meal. It’s always balanced, particularly since she’s taking a health class this semester and preaches the benefits of healthy eating habits and exercise. Sometimes it makes me laugh because she sounds just like one of those infomercials she occasionally watches in the middle of the night after she’s had a bad dream. There are times I think it’s more than just nightmares, though, when she wakes at night. She carries a lot of guilt around with her given our situation.Emilyfeels like she should contribute to the household with money.Ifeel like she needs to be in school, getting an education. Even though legally she could drop out, I’m constantly reiterating that school is her job, and there will be plenty of time for her to contribute in the future when she’s a full-fledged taxpayer.

“Hey, Ethan?” Emily asks cautiously, while pushing her cube steak around on the plate. I’m a bit nervous since she says it with hesitance. She hardly asks for anything, and when she does, she makes it seem like she’s about to ask for a million dollars, but it’s usually something small and relatively insignificant. This time, though, the accompanying look on her face indicates this isn’t simple. I put my fork down and look up, giving her my full attention.

“So, Christmas is coming.”

I inwardly groan, not because she’s brought it up, but because I participate in as little of theHoliday Cheeras possible. It’s been awhile since I’ve celebrated the birth of Christ, mainly because I don’t believe in God. Realistically, I see the holiday as an opportunity to earn extra money as I work all the shifts so everyone else can spend time with their families. I try to dislodge my anxiety about the topic but it doesn’t work. The holidays are about commercialism and consumerism. Plus, I can’t afford to buy gifts.

“Yeah, I usually work Christmas. I get double time.” My dinner still sits heavy in the pit of my stomach. I know I should give her a special day.

“Oh.”

Now I feel like a jerk who’s robbed her of the magic of Christmas. “Like all day or just part?”

“The store is open from seven until two, then closing early.” I know why she’s asking, but it doesn’t keep me from playing stupid. “Why? What’s up?”

Emily finally stops pushing her battered piece of meat around on the plate and looks up. “I was thinking…and you don’t have to…it’s just something that…I mean, you can, but if it makes you uncomfortable…” I finally stop her rambling by touching her hand. My hope is that she will refocus her thoughts with my unexpected gesture.

I’m successful. Emily sits up a little straighter, squares her shoulders, and wipes her mouth with her paper towel-slash-napkin.

“I want to spend Christmas at the shelter. You know…it’s the last place I was with my mom.”

~Tradition~

For the second time since she came into my life, Emily and I walk away from the Gale Street Shelter. After making the trip with her last year, which was her first Christmas without her mom, I know how important “giving back” really is especially where Emily is concerned. I can’t help but glance over at her as we make the journey home. This girl—woman—has been part of my life for 487 days, give or take a few hours. As I look back now, I realize I’m keeping track because the day I met Emily was the day I began to live, a rebirth in the form of a brunette angel who’s never asked for anything, yet I can’t help giving her everything I can.

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