Stockton, California, August 2018
Victoria Lynn Phelps signed on the dotted line with a grimace, then pretended to cough and covered her mouth so the motel manager wouldn’t see it. Then again, would it be so bad if he did? What she’d just signed was bad enough. What a sorry excuse for an employee agreement …
“How soon can you start?” the greasy manager asked with a leer. He was middle-aged, balding, with a wiry build.
Victoria – Tory to her friends – wanted to cringe and run. She settled for just cringing. Desperate times called for desperate measures. It was either a housekeeping job in this sleazy hourly-rate motel or use one of the establishment’s rooms for what most of its patrons did. She’d hit bottom, that was for sure, but she wasn’t about to start digging deeper. Her mind, however, liked to latch onto the worst-case scenario. “Tomorrow?”
“Fine,” he said in an oily voice, looking her up and down. “Follow me. I’ll show you where everything is.” He stood and walked around the shabby desk.
Tory got up from her chair and followed Mr. Smith (was that his real name?) into the lobby, outside, down a sidewalk and into a breezeway between two of the motel’s buildings.
He stopped in front of a door, pulled a ring of keys from his pocket and unlocked it. “Mops, buckets, brooms – all the cleaning stuff’s here.” He waved at the room’s contents, then opened the door next to it. “Linens,” he said, sans the wave. “Bedding, towels and all that.” He pointed to a wall of shelves loaded with supplies. At least the motel was well-stocked. “Soaps, shampoos. Stuff people like to take.” He turned to her with a smirk. “A set of keys hangs in my office. You have to check in with me and get them before you start work.”
A chill went up her spine. “Skeevy” didn’t begin to describe him, and she wondered what “checking in” entailed. Maybe she should flip burgers for a living instead. But this job paid more than minimum wage, and she’d much rather have one job with higher pay than two part-time ones at minimum. “Fine. What time?”
“Be here at seven a.m., doll.”
Doll? Ew! “Do guests check out that early?” The place didn’t seem the type.
“No, but the previous day’s laundry needs to be started.” He pulled a toothpick out of his shirt pocket and stuck it in his mouth. “Washing machines and dryers are through that door there.” He nodded at a door just down the breezeway.
“Laundry? You mean you don’t have a service?”
“What do I wanna service for when I can hire chicks like you to do it cheaper?”
The words “do it” and “chicks” stuck in her brain. She was sure a lot of “it” was currently being done by certain “chicks” on the premises. It was after 1 p.m., and the parking lot was full of cars. Wasn’t checkout at eleven? Had anyone left from the night before? Or, more likely, had all of them arrived since eleven?
“Any questions?” Mr. Smith asked. “As you can see, I’m a busy man.”
Tory forced a smile. If busy meant he was sweating, then yeah, she could see that. But it was over 106 degrees out, and she needed some water in her before she started dehydrating. Her new employer’s sweat was a timely reminder. “Tomorrow. Seven. Got it.”
“Good girl,” he said as his eyes roamed her once more. “See you then.” He shut and locked both doors, then brushed past her, his shoulder touching hers.
A shiver of revulsion went through her as she watched him head back to the office. “Blecch!” she muttered. “What am I doing?” A rhythmic thud-thud-thud, coming from the wall opposite where she stood didn’t help. That was no washing machine. She left the breezeway as she heard the muffled moans begin and hurried back to her car.
When she reached the street she wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans, unlocked the driver’s side door and quickly pulled it open. “Ow, ow, hot, hot!” She watched the heat waves pour out of the vehicle for a moment before climbing in. The little white VW Beetle had been her mother’s, and was all she had left of her. All she had left of anything, really, except the house. After quitting her last restaurant job – and swearing never to work in one again due to the harassment – she’d had to sell a lot of her stuff and downsize.
“Harassment,” she scoffed. “Like you’re not going to get harassed at this dump!” She started the car, put it into gear and was off. The sooner she got home, the better. If she was lucky, Benny had found work too, but she wasn’t going to hold her breath. Her no-good brother hadn’t worked in months. And every time he did find a job, he lost it in less time than it took to find it. Jobs were scarce, and without a college education Tory was turned down more times than she could count. Benny had a degree, but …
“Please be gone, please be gone,” she whispered as she pulled up in front of her ramshackle bungalow. She didn’t see Benny’s car anywhere and breathed a sigh of relief. Once he knew she’d found work, he’d lessen his own efforts. She didn’t have the energy to deal with that right now.
She glanced at her reflection in the rearview mirror. “Oh, Mom, I don’t know what I can do to bring Benny around.” Grey eyes framed with dark lashes looked back. They were Tory’s best feature and went well with her sable hair. Less of a good feature were the dark smudges beneath her eyes – she looked like she’d been out all night. Maybe that’s why Mr. Smith looked at her with such interest – he probably thought she’d come in to inquire about a room she could use for “business.”
Tory shuddered at the thought and got out of the car. Once inside the house, she opened a few windows in the front and back to get a cross-breeze going, then went into the kitchen to see what sort of mess Benny had left behind.
“Ohhh, Benny, you filthy slob,” she said, hands on hips. Dishes were piled in the sink, including a bowl with dried pancake batter in it. “That’s going to have to soak.”
“About time you got home!”
Tory yelped and spun around. “Don’t do that! What do you mean sneaking up on a person?”
Benny lit a cigarette that wasn’t a cigarette and leaned against the kitchen’s doorjamb. “I wasn’t sneaking. I was standing.”
“Sneaking is not standing, and you weren’t standing there when I got home.” She glanced around the kitchen. “And for Heaven’s sake, clean up after yourself! You weren’t raised in a barn, you know!” She grabbed a greasy frying pan off the stove and put it in the sink.
“Why when I have you to do it for me?” he drawled and took a drag.
“I’m not doing those dishes, you are. You made the mess.”
He just stood, watching her with red eyes. She could tell he was thinking up some lame excuse to have her do them for him. “So where ya been, sis?”
“None of your business … hey, wait a minute!” Tory said as realization dawned. “If you’re here, where’s your car?”
He went to the sink, blowing acrid smoke in her face as he passed. “Repo men were here, didn’t you know? Oh, wait, of course you didn’t,” he said mockingly. “You were out running around when you could have been here to help me KEEP MY CAR!” His last words were yelled in her face.
Tory held her breath and started to count to ten. If she didn’t, she was liable to clobber him with the pot still on the stove, and who knew what was stuck to the bottom of it?
“My car’s gone, Tory!” he bawled. “What are you gonna do about it?”
She smiled. “Not my car, not my problem.”
He headed for the small table by the front door where Tory kept her keys in a bowl. “Fine, then I’ll use Mom’s.”
“Don’t you dare!” She ran after him. “If you lost your car, that’s your fault.” He grabbed the bowl, but she grabbed his arm and yanked, causing her keys to fly through the air and land behind the couch. He began swearing a blue streak, and she gritted her teeth. Try as she might, her promise to her mother to get her little brother to stop swearing was failing.
Then he dove for the couch. “Benny! No way!” She moved to block him.
But he spun her out of the way. “I’m taking Mom’s car!”
“That’s my car – Mom gave it to me before she died!”
Benny sneered, grabbed the back of the couch and flipped it over. It landed on the rickety coffee table, smashing it. He snatched up the keys and dangled them in triumph. “I’ll be seeing ya!”
“Benny, give me those keys!” Tori ordered, trying to block his path to the door. He had four inches and sixty pounds on her, but she had to try.
“Not this time, sis. The car’s mine.”
By golly, she would hit him. She clenched her fist and was about to swing when the doorbell rang.
“Boyfriend?” Benny said with a smirk.
“Probably a bill collector, you lout!” she hissed back. “Pick up the couch!” She brushed her hair out of her eyes and took a deep breath.
Much to her surprise, her brother did as he was told, righting the couch with a loud thud as the doorbell rang again. Good, maybe whoever it was hadn’t heard. She went to answer the door.
A FedEx man stood on the other side. “Victoria Phelps?”
“Yes, that’s me.” She looked at the large white envelope in his hand. “What’s that?”
“No idea.” He took his electronic gadget and scanned the envelope before holding it out to get her signature. She signed and gave it back. Please don’t let this be legal papers, she thought. Oh Lord, no one’s suing Benny, are they?
Benny might have thought the same thing. He shoved past her and the delivery guy on his way out the door. “See ya later, sis!” he cackled and got in the car – her car! – before she could say a word. With a screech of tires he backed out of the driveway, just missing the FedEx van, and took off down the street.
Tory groaned, took one look at the startled Fed-ex guy, and shrugged, “Sorry.”
He shrugged back and walked away, got into his van and left. He’d probably had something like that happen twice today already.
Tory pushed the door shut with her foot and stared at the envelope in her hands. “Who is this from?” She tried to read the return address, but the print was tiny – even holding it close and squinting didn’t help. At twenty-five she thought she was too young to need glasses … but her mother started wearing them in her thirties, and her father had all his life.
Thoughts of her parents made her turn to the family picture on the mantle. It was from a trip to Disneyland. She was eight, Benny six, and it was one of the happiest times of her life. She dropped the envelope onto the couch, crossed the room to the fireplace and picked up the framed picture. “I miss you,” she whispered to it.
Her father died of cancer not two years after that vacation. Her mother, a housewife, had to work at whatever she could find to make ends meet. Dad’s small life insurance policy didn’t last long, so her mother had to save for the children’s college. When Tory was old enough to work and help out, things got better, and she, being the responsible one, told her mother to send Benny to school with the money. It would be good for him, teach him responsibility, he’d start to grow up. So much for that.
Despite Tory’s contributions to the family finances, they eventually had to sell the house. It was too hard to keep up the payments. She sighed just thinking about it. Her childhood home was a lovely two-story brick house near the university. She loved that house, cried when they had to give it up – and cried harder when she found out where her mother found another one.
But it was all they could afford, so Wanda Phelps put a huge down payment on it, and between the two of them they paid off the loan in ten years. It wasn’t in the best part of town, but it was theirs free and clear. Tory’s mother had achieved her goal. She died three days later, God rest her soul.
“Oh, Mom, what am I gonna do?” Tory glanced at the envelope and sighed. “And who do I owe money to?” She’d have to open the darn thing to find out. Benny had her so upset she couldn’t think. She hoped this wasn’t his doing, like the time he’d put her electronic signature on some student loan he’d applied for and it went through. When he didn’t pay on it, she got the bill. That was Benny for you. Though it had never occurred to her that he’d steal her car …
At times her brother felt like a noose around her neck. She wasn’t sure what to do about him other than toss him out. But she’d promised Mom she’d look after him, teach him how to be a responsible adult.
But he was such a lousy student. He was lazy, couldn’t hold a job, and blew through cash like nobody’s business. Lately he’d been pestering her to sell the house – he had the grand idea that they’d split the money and each get their own place. Yeah, right – like he’d be responsible enough to follow through on that. Most likely his half of the money would be gone before she could blink, and he’d be after hers. No. The house was all they had, and she wasn’t about to part with it.
She put the picture of her family back in its place, went to the couch, and picked up the envelope. She glanced at what was left of her coffee table, rolled her eyes, and sat. “Please don’t let this be for a lot of money.” Because if it was, she didn’t know what she’d do. And please don’t let this be something Benny did, because if it is, I’ll kill him. Not really, but the thought had merit.
With another sigh and a tear in her eye, Tory ripped open the envelope, dumped out the contents in her lap … and read them in increasing shock.