Sara Taylor glanced down at her ringing phone. It was her son’s school, calling again. Normally, she’d answer the call immediately, but she knew it didn’t have anything to do with Ian specifically.
By the third ring, she couldn’t ignore it anymore. “Hello?”
“Is this Mrs. Taylor?” the woman asked.
Saracringed. How many times had she explained this to them? “Miss Taylor, yes.”
“Miss Taylor, I’m calling from the school’s billing department.”
She’d already tried playing dumb. Oh, gee, she must’ve have forgotten. But she couldn’t use that excuse again. Not after they’d already called to tell her she was late. What excuse could she give this time?
“I know my payment is late, but Christmas is coming and I—”
“Miss Taylor, your payment is more than late. You’re several payments behind. Are you aware of the balance on your account?”
“Umm…” she gulped. She tried not to think about it, tried to put it out of her mind. Ian’s schooling was important, of course, but the rent needed to be paid and they had to eat. She could only pay the electric bill late so many times, buying gas for the car had maxed out her credit card, and her next paycheck wouldn’t even be for as much as she owed the school.
“You owe $2,850.”
Sara closed her eyes and swallowed. More than she made in a month. How in the world would she ever pay it? Ian had to go to this school. The area that they lived in had horrible schools. The teachers were overworked and underpaid, the classrooms poorly supplied and overfull. But that wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was the violence. She’d heard that the school’s metal detectors hadn’t worked properly in years and there was no money for new ones. Which meant that in the inner city schools of Chicago, the kids were in class armed with guns, knives, pepper spray, and who knew what else.
The school she’d managed to get Ian into made a world of difference. It was a little expensive, sure. Okay, it was a lot expensive. But the teachers were great and the school had won awards for their high quality of education. The students flourished, got all the help and attention they needed, and were successful after leaving school. Not like the public school that had a low literacy rate and even lower graduation rate. This school had a graduation rate in the 90s. And most of the graduates went onto college or high-paying jobs.
Most of all, this school was safe. They had working metal detectors, security guards on staff, and a zero tolerance policy that meant if a kid was caught with a weapon of any sort, they were gone immediately. This was the place Ian needed to be. This was the type of school he deserved to be in, even if his mother couldn’t afford to have them live in a nicer neighborhood with better public schools.
“Isn’t there some sort of scholarship program we might qualify for?” Sara asked.
“You’re already on the lowest tuition available because of your income. There is no other help for you.”
“I’ll make a payment this week, I promise.”
“We have a policy, Miss Taylor. If more than 60 days pass with the account past due, the student is asked to leave.”
“Right. I know that. And I’ll make a payment. This week.”
“Will it be for the full amount?”
Was there any way she could do that? Get a cash advance on her credit cards or ask her brother for a loan? It seemed impossible. “I don’t know for sure yet, but—”
“I don’t know how else to say this. If your account isn’t paid in full before the start of the holiday break, Ian will be asked to leave. And your next payment will be due the first of the year.”
“I’ll do the best I can.”
“Have a good day, Miss Taylor.”
“Thanks,” Sara muttered and hung up the phone.
She sat at her small round kitchen table, staring at the refrigerator that didn’t contain enough food. She needed a better job, more hours, something. There had to be a way to make this work. A way to let Ian stay at his school and not starve his way through his classes. She needed some kind of miracle to help her make this payment.
She stood up and went to shower so that she could be ready for her second job. She pulled on her waitress uniform and walked out to her car. Her drive to work flew by without her noticing. Her mind was so tangled in figuring out ways to shift bills and scrape up some money that she pulled into the restaurant parking lot with no recollection of having driven there.
She put her purse in her locker and went to punch in.
“Hey,” Jessica said.
“Hey,” Sara muttered back.
“What’s wrong? You don’t seem like your usual cheerful self.”
Sara let out a sigh. Jessica had been her friend long enough that she couldn’t hide from her. The truth was best, or she’d just have to keep lying to her friend. “Got another call from Ian’s school today. I owe them a lot of money.”
“Aww. You can have some of my tables tonight.”
“Thanks,” Sara said flatly. She turned from the punch clock and dug in her apron for her notepad.
“Wait a minute,” Jessica said.
Sara paused and turned to her. “What?”
Jessica stood in the middle of the busy kitchen, waitresses and busers scurrying around her, the cooks calling out orders, the dishwasher clanging the plates and silver wear noisily. She spoke quietly compared to the clatter of the kitchen, but it was loud enough for Sara to hear.
“How much do you owe them?” Jessica asked.
“A lot. More than I make in a month.”
“Well, that’s not even the worst part.” Sara bit her lip. She was not going to cry at work. She took a few deep breaths to loosen the tightness in her throat. “If the bill isn’t paid in the full by the start of the holiday break, Ian will have to leave.”
“But it’s almost Christmastime! Don’t they realize that?”
“I guess they don’t care.”
She had been saving up extra tips when she could. A few dollars here and there, to buy Ian something for Christmas. It was now just three weeks away. There was less than $30 in her jar. Maybe enough to buy a decent gift. Nowhere near enough to keep his school from kicking him out.
Usually, working in restaurants this time of year was great. Lots of holiday parties and extra tips. Opportunity for extra hours. But it wouldn’t matter this year. It wouldn’t be enough. On top of the $2,850 that was due in just two weeks, the next payment of $950 would be due only a week later. There was no way she’d be able to pay the rent, buy groceries, and pay the bills that were the most past due and pay the school $3,800 by the first of the year.
How in the world would she tell Ian that he had to start in a new school after the holiday break? It would crush him. He loved his school and had several friends there. But more than that, she knew how hard it could be on a child to change schools. She’d had to do it often as a kid. Her mom bounced them around from place to place, living with this boyfriend, then that boyfriend. She’d hated starting over and changing schools all the time, and she’d vowed to never do that to Ian. But now she would have to.
“There is one way,” Jessica said. She pulled her mouth to the side, looking hesitant.
“I’m not robbing a bank.”
Sara expected Jessica to laugh at that and say she was crazy. But Jessica just blew out a breath.
“It’s not quite that bad, but it might not be much better. It’s mostly legal at least.”
Sara raised an eyebrow. “Mostly?”
“Well…” Jessica stepped closer and put her mouth to Sara’s ear. “There’s this auction tonight.” Jessica gave her a look like Sara was supposed to know what that meant.
How in the world would an auction help her? She didn’t have anything of value to sell. “What good is an auction to me?”
“It’s for… you know.” Jessica made her eyes wide, but Sara was still confused.
Then it hit her. There was one thing she could sell. One thing that might bring in some money.
Sara gasped. “What! It’s not.”
Jessica shrugged. “You’re really pretty and you have a nice body. I bet you’d make a ton of money.”
“I can’t do that!” She leaned in closer. “You want me to sell my body?!”
“No, I don’t want you to. It’s an awful thing. I never would have mentioned it except that, well, you can really make a lot of money in one night.”
“Some girls make several thousand dollars.”
Sara gulped. Several thousand would be enough to pay the school. Maybe enough to make the next payment, too. It would at least get her close. And right now, she was the furthest from being able to pay that she could be. $30 of a $2,850 bill, really a $3,800 bill, was nothing. If she gave the school that, they’d laugh at her. Probably wouldn’t even cover the administrative costs to process them kicking Ian out.
But could she do it? Have sex with a stranger for money, even if it was a lot of money? What kind of man would pay for a thing like that? No one normal. So that meant it would probably be some creepy guy who wanted to do awful things.
Sara shook her head. “There’s no way. Besides, I just got to work.”
“It starts late. But I understand. Just thought I’d mention it.”
Sara went out to the hostess stand to report in and get her tables for the night. As she went about taking orders and serving customers, the thought kept coming back to her. This was the way to solve all her money problems. She could pay off the tuition and keep Ian in his school. One night. Couldn’t she handle one night?
It wasn’t like she was a virgin or a saint. She’d slept with plenty of guys, and some one night stands. Some drunken escapades she barely remembered. Maybe if she got drunk enough, she could do it. Wasn’t she crazy to turn down all that money? It was only sex. Only a few hours of the use of her body. How bad could it be?
Every time she pictured it, though, the idea turned her stomach. She’d be bid on by men who wanted to screw her. Then they’d take her who knew where and do it. And she would have no say over the guy. What if he was too rough? What if it was painful? No, there was no way. No amount of money was worth giving up that much self respect.
As her shift ended and she collected her tips, there seemed to be a thick wad in her pocket. But as she counted, there were a lot of ones. More than she thought. She walked out with a few hundred in tips, but that wasn’t enough to cover even the rent and groceries, let alone have extra for the school bill.
Sara sat in her car, clutching her wad of cash, staring ahead at the brick wall of the restaurant. It was only one night.
She picked up her phone and sent a text to Jessica. “Where is this auction?”
Jessica texted back a few minutes later with the address and added, “It’s in some warehouse.”
The address was in the city, in an area that was one of the worst. She swallowed hard and again weighed her options. One awful night to keep Ian in his school, or have to tell him he’d be going to public school in January. With all the violence and drugs and lack of real education. She shook her head. She would do anything for her son, and apparently, she’d do anyone.
“Thanks,” she sent back to Jessica.
“You sure about this?”
By the time she got home, she’d decided the only thing she could think of was her next step. If she let her mind wander too far into the future, she felt sick. Right now she needed to call her neighbor.
“Hey Patty,” Sara said when the woman answered. “Would you be able to keep Ian overnight by any chance?”
“Oh sure, honey. Do you have a date?” Patty’s voice dripped with hope and excitement.
“I do.” Sara forced a smile, hoping it would make her cheer sound genuine.
“Oh, I’m so excited for you! How nice. Don’t you worry. He’ll be just fine here.”
“I’ll get him in time to take him to school in the morning.”
“Okay, that’s just fine. Have a great night.”
When she got home, Sara went inside and took a shower. She did her hair and makeup like she was going on a real date. She guessed she had to make these guys want to bid on her. She stood in front of her closet in her lacy underwear, deciding what to wear. She settled on a tight-fitted dress that she normally wore a cardigan over. It was a little short and a little low cut and very tight.
When she thought she looked as slutty as possible, Sara got back in her car and drove to the address Jessica had given her. The apprehension welled in her chest. Good thing she hadn’t eaten tonight. She’d be puking it all over herself.
She pulled up to the warehouse and watched the people heading into the building. They certainly didn’t look like nice, upstanding citizens. They weren’t the classy parents at Ian’s school, or even the customers at the high-end restaurant she waitressed at in the mornings. But they also didn’t look like some kind of street thugs. There were a lot of motorcycles, but these guys looked okay. Maybe like the guys who came into the restaurant where she worked with Jessica. Sometimes they got drunk and said crass things to them, but mostly, they were harmless.
One man wore jeans that were clean and loose-fitting, but not too baggy. He had on a button down shirt and a leather jacket. He was dressed decently. When he turned back to get something from the pack on his bike, she saw his face. Whoa. This guy was actually gorgeous. Short dark hair, a close-trimmed beard, and eyes that even from this distance looked intense. As he moved, his muscles strained his jeans and jacket. He looked tough, but she thought if she ended up with a guy like that, maybe she wouldn’t mind sleeping with him so much.
The hot guy went inside and as she got out of her car, another man on a motorcycle pulled up. This one almost sent her back to her car. He was exactly what she didn’t want. Long, scraggy beard that looked both unkempt and greasy, t-shirt dirty with grease smudges and stretched over his round belly. Jeans that needed a belt, they were falling down so bad. Maybe hadn’t shaved or washed his hair in a week. When he saw her, he gave her a leering grin and made a kissy face at her.
Somehow, she sucked up the courage to go inside.