I held Caleb on my hip while I dug through the trash behind the diner. I had a box of peanut butter crackers and a few packages of snacks in my backpack, but I was saving those for my son. They weren’t nutritious, but at least they hadn’t come out of the dumpster. I might eat whatever I had to in order to survive, but I refused to let Caleb do that. He was only two years old, and he needed real food. Hot food, and a clean table where he could sit and enjoy a meal. That wasn’t going to happen, though.
Giving up on finding myself something to eat that wasn’t rotten, I backed away from the smelly trash bin and headed back up to the street. It was late, and even though the diner, Laundromat, and a bar up the road were all still open, the sidewalks were pretty empty. Not that the sleepy little Florida town where I lived was ever truly busy. We were off the path a bit. Not close enough to the beach to get a lot of tourists, and too small for anything else.
I hitched the bag on my back and tried to find a relatively safe place to sleep for the night. We didn’t have a local shelter, and while the churches would sometimes let people stay there, I couldn’t ask every night. I worried they would take Caleb from me. Maybe I should have let him go, found him a home where he’d have clean clothes, a roof over his head, and food in his belly. But my heart ached every time I thought about parting with him.
I had no one. My mom had died when I was two, and when my dad remarried, he’d chosen a woman who liked to pretend I didn’t exist. Soon enough, my dad decided I didn’t exist either. Once his new kids starting popping out every few years, I was pushed to the side, and eventually I left. I’d been sixteen when I’d hit the streets, and no one had come looking for me. I was sure that my dad was relieved I was gone. It hurt, but crying over it wouldn’t change anything.
I’d thought I was doing okay when I found a man about five years older than me who offered me a place to sleep and help getting a job. I should have known not to trust him. Things had been fine for a while, but then he’d started asking to be repaid for his kindness. Blowjobs mostly, except for the night he was high on who knows what and decided to take more than I was willing to give. Caleb was the result of that night. Once I’d found out I was pregnant, I’d taken off. Even though the man hadn’t touched me again, I hadn’t wanted to take any chances.
A women’s shelter had helped at first, even found me a job and a place to live. Things had been going pretty well, until two months ago. The little thrift store where I’d been working shut down without notice. I’d had enough in the bank to keep our tiny apartment for another month, and then the money had run out and I hadn’t been able to get another job. So we slept where we could, ate what we could, and just tried to survive.
The church over on Pine Avenue would let me take a shower and would give me a dress out of the donations to wear for interviews, and the nice lady who worked in the church office would watch Caleb for me. I’d applied to every place in town that was hiring, and no one had wanted me. Our situation was bleak, but as long as we had each other, then I’d keep fighting. If Caleb weren’t with me, I might have given up by now. Or decided to join the ladies who worked the street corner on the other end of town. But I’d been a virgin when Caleb’s dad had raped me, and I couldn’t bring myself to take that step. Not yet. I didn’t think badly of the women who made their living that way, but I didn’t think I could do it.
An auto repair shop was just a few more steps away, with a large enough doorway that Caleb and I could hide in the shadows and get some sleep. I checked the hours on the window and saw it wouldn’t be open for at least five more hours, which meant I could rest a little. I’d learned to sleep lightly, so that I’d wake up at the first sign of trouble, or whenever Caleb stirred. I was always scared I’d sleep so hard that he’d wander off and I’d never see him again. Hunkering down into the corner of the doorway, I settled Caleb on my lap and used my backpack as a pillow. My son snuggled against me and closed his eyes.
I didn’t think I’d been asleep for more than an hour when I heard a loud rumble. My eyes opened as a single headlight focused on us, making it hard for me to see. I held a hand up to my face, and shielded Caleb with the other. The light stayed on, but I could barely make out a shadowy figure dismounting from what I’d figured out was a motorcycle. The man approached and loomed over us.
“This is private property,” he said, his voice deep and raspy.
“I’m sorry. We’ll go,” I said, struggling to stand.
I could feel his gaze raking over me. I managed to get to my feet without stumbling, got my backpack straps over my shoulders, then hefted Caleb into my arms.
“Where are you going to go?” he asked.
“Doesn’t matter. I’m sorry we trespassed,” I said. I hitched my backpack a little higher over my shoulder and clutched Caleb to me. I tried to step around the large man, but he reached out and placed a hand on my shoulder.
I froze under that touch, tensing and waiting to see what would happen. Is this where he offered me a place to sleep in exchange for the use of my body? Wouldn’t be the first time I’d had that offer made to me, and I doubted it would be the last. I would do anything for my baby to have a place to rest and food to eat, or nearly anything. We’d struggled and things were bad, but I didn’t think I could handle having strange men touch me. Not after Caleb’s dad, or more like sperm donor. I didn’t think he would come after Caleb, even if he knew my baby existed, but I’d decided not to take any chances. Thankfully, I hadn’t seen him since we’d left. For all I knew, he wasn’t even in town anymore.
“Christ, you don’t even look old enough to have a kid,” he muttered.
My chin raised a notch. “I’m nineteen. Well, almost nineteen. Not that it’s any business of yours.”
I saw a flash of white teeth as he smiled in the darkness. “All grown up then, aren’t you? Eighteen, nearly nineteen, and think you know everything I bet. Why are you sleeping in the doorway of my business?”
I glanced behind me before facing him again. “I told you we didn’t mean to trespass.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“We didn’t have anywhere else to go,” I admitted softly, my arms tightening around my son.
“There’s a lot of expensive equipment in there. Going to steal anything?” he asked.
I felt fire ignite inside me and I clenched my teeth a moment. I might be broke, but I wasn’t a thief!
“Come on.” He walked up to the doorway I’d just vacated, then he unlocked the front door and pushed it open.
I hesitated. I didn’t know if I could trust him, and figured my chances were better out here in the open than inside, but what if he was going to offer food for Caleb? Or maybe there was a couch in the waiting room and he’d let my baby rest there for an hour or two. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, but at the first sign he was going to be a perv, I was out of there.
I stepped inside as he flipped on the lights, and I blinked at how bright they were. There was a beat-up leather couch with duct tape holding it together, and a scarred table with a few magazines on top. But the man didn’t stop in the front room. He kept going, so I followed at a slight distance. If I needed to run, I wanted a head start.
He entered a small, cluttered office and turned on a lamp. It glowed softly, the light dim, but there was a huge couch on one wall that looked a little too inviting with its overstuffed arms. It was leather, but unlike the one out front, it didn’t have so much as a scratch on it that I could see. The man pulled a blanket off the back and motioned toward the couch.
“You can rest here a while. I can either lock you in and reset the alarm, or I can stay until you’ve had a chance to rest. I’ll leave it up to you. But know that if you steal so much as one thing, I will track you down,” the man said.
I focused on him and noticed he wore one of those black leather vests I’d seen the local bikers wearing. Scratch -- VP was stitched on the front. He was an older man, a bit of gray at his temples and in his beard. I was horrible at guessing ages, but if I had to, I’d place him in his late forties or early fifties. He had the kind of eyes that looked like they had seen far too much, like he’d fought wars I could only imagine but was still standing. He was strong, his muscles stretching the sleeves of the T-shirt he wore, and his jeans encased muscular thighs. He could easily overpower me, and yet he hadn’t come close to me since grabbing my shoulder earlier.
“You can lock us in,” I said. “We won’t take anything.”
He nodded and looked at Caleb, who was yawning on my shoulder.
“When’s the last time the two of you ate?” he asked. “And I mean real food, not something you’ve scrounged from somewhere.”
“A while,” I admitted.
“There’s not much here. Some bottles of water in the mini fridge,” he said nodding to a small black one in the corner I hadn’t noticed. “I’ll bring you something to eat when I get back. He allergic to anything? Are you?”
“No, we’re not allergic to any food, but you don’t have to get us something. Just giving us a place to sleep for a while is more than enough.”
He grunted and looked around the room a moment before locking his gaze on me again. “We’ll talk when I get back. For now, get some sleep. Both of you. There’s a bathroom through there,” he said pointing to a door behind his desk.
“Thank you,” I said grudgingly, still not knowing what this would cost me. Or rather what he’d demand. Didn’t mean I’d give it to him.
He turned to leave but paused in the doorway. “I have a daughter, a bit older than you. And a grandson close to your son’s age. She was in trouble a while back and someone helped her. Just think of this as my way of paying it forward. If you’re worried I’m going to ask for some sort of repayment, you don’t have to be concerned about that.”
My cheeks warmed and I wondered if I’d been transparent.
His lips twitched as if he fought back a smile. “Pretty thing like you, I imagine you’ve had a lot of assholes try to get into your pants. Didn’t want you anxious I would be the same. When you wake up, you can tell me how you came to be on the streets, and maybe I can find a way to help you in a more long-term way than loaning you a couch for the night. The bathroom has a small shower if you want to clean up. Use whatever you need in there. Towels are in the cabinet and there are a few new toothbrushes in there too.”
“You loan your couch out to people often?” I asked, wondering why he’d have spare toothbrushes at his work of all places.
“No, but I’ve crashed here a few times. I keep a lot of toothbrushes on hand for the guys who work out in the shop. They’ve come in one too many times with their breath smelling like they last used a toothbrush a decade ago. No one wants that in their face all day.”
I bit my lip so I wouldn’t smile and just nodded.
“Get some sleep, sweetheart. You can lock the office door if it makes you feel safer. I have a key, but I won’t come in without knocking first.” He gave me a searching look. “You’re safe, all right?”
“Thank you,” I said again. “I mean it. No one’s…”
He held up a hand. “I’m not a saint, but I don’t like thinking about what could happen to a pretty thing like you and that sweet little boy out there on the streets. This might be a small town, but bad shit still happens.”
I nodded and eyed the couch. As much as I wanted to sleep, Caleb and I were both rather dirty. After Scratch left, I locked the door behind him, then pulled out a clean outfit for both of us and carried Caleb into the bathroom. Tiny was right, but it would be heavenly to have a hot shower and get clean. I tried not to abuse the kindness of the local churches by asking for things too often, so it had been a few days since we’d had a chance to get clean.
I stripped us both down, made the water just the right temperature for my sweet boy, then climbed in with Caleb splashing at my feet. I washed him first, then wrapped him in a towel I’d found in a cabinet, letting him sit on what looked to be a clean bathmat. Then I scrubbed myself until my skin turned red. I kept a disposable razor in my backpack for the times I was able to shower and I shaved as best I could since the blade was getting a bit dull.
Once we were both clean and dressed in fresh clothes, I bundled up our dirty stuff, pulled a plastic bag out of my backpack and put the dirty things in there. I tied it off and shoved it into my backpack before curling up on the couch with Caleb. I put him between me and the back so he wouldn’t fall off while he slept, then covered us with the soft blanket. Once my baby was breathing evenly, I let myself relax enough to fall asleep.
My eyes popped open every now and then as I looked at our surroundings, making sure were still alone and still safe. There wasn’t a window in the room and I didn’t see a clock anywhere. I had no idea how much time had passed since Scratch had left us, but it felt like hours. Caleb still slept soundly, and I eventually went to sleep again. The next time I opened my eyes, I heard loud noises from the other side of the office door.
I held Caleb a little tighter, wondering if someone would try to come in. What would they do if they found me in here? Scratch had been nice, hadn’t demanded anything for his kindness, but it was my experience that most men didn’t act that way. The ones I’d been around had thought they could have whatever they wanted from me, even if I didn’t agree.
I curled into a ball in the corner of the couch, Caleb clutched in my arms. There was a loud knock at the door and I fought back a whimper.
“It’s just me,” said a gruff voice I recognized. “I’m coming in.”
I heard the rattle of keys, then the knob turned, and Scratch stepped into the office. There was a paper sack clutched in one hand and a plastic bag hanging from the other. His eyebrows lifted when he saw me cowering on the couch, and he glanced over his shoulder before focusing on me again.
“Anyone bother you?” he asked.
“N-no. It was just really noisy out there. I didn’t know who…” I trailed off.
He nodded. “It’s all right. I picked up some breakfast for both of you. Probably not the most nutritious meal, but this early in the morning it was either the diner or the only drive-thru open this time of day. I got both of you a chicken biscuit.”
He handed the paper sack to me and the smell made Caleb’s eyes pop open, his little nose twitching as he looked for what smelled so good. His eyes went wide when he saw the bag in my hand, and he slowly reached for it, then jerked his hand back at the last minute, looking up at me for permission.
“It’s okay, baby,” I assured him. I reached into the bag and took out a sandwich, unwrapping it for him.
Scratch handed me a bottle of orange juice and a bottle of milk. I assumed the milk was for Caleb and opened it for him. I watched as he devoured his sandwich then gulped down his milk. My heart ached that I hadn’t been able to give him something this simple in quite a while.
“You need to eat, sweetheart. If he’s still hungry, I’ll get him something else, but you can’t starve yourself.”
“Clarity,” I said. “My name is Clarity.”
He smiled a little. “Nice to meet you, Clarity. People around here call me Scratch.”
“You’re part of the biker gang in town,” I said as I unwrapped my sandwich.
“Club. We’re a club. The Devil’s Boneyard, but don’t let the name scare you. None of us would ever hurt a woman or child.”
“So, Scratch as in…”
“Like Lucifer, but I promise you’re safe with me.”
I nodded and finished my sandwich slowly so I wouldn’t get sick. It had been a really long time since I hadn’t had to share my food with Caleb, and I wasn’t sure how my stomach would handle it. I managed to eat the entire thing and slowly sipped my juice. When I was finished, I tried not to fidget. Scratch had said he wanted to talk to me this morning and I didn’t know what to expect.
He was leaned back against his desk, his arms folded, and one booted foot crossed over the other. While he appeared relaxed, there was a coiled tension in his muscles that probably came from years of having to watch his back. Just looking at him, I could tell he was completely in tune with everything around him. It made me feel safe, something I hadn’t felt in a while. I relaxed back against the couch cushions and Caleb rested against my side.
A knock sounded at the door and it pushed open, a mechanic covered in grease stepping inside. His eyes widened in surprise as he saw me and Caleb, then he focused on Scratch.
“Sorry to interrupt, but there’s some guy out front causing trouble. I’m surprised you didn’t hear him shouting all the way in here.”
“I’ll be out in a minute, Killian,” Scratch said.
Killian looked at me again, swallowed hard and looked back at his boss. “Um, he’s armed, and I don’t think he’s completely stable if you know what I mean.”
Scratch nodded and pushed off the desk. I saw a flash of a gun under his vest and my heart nearly stalled in my chest before it took off at a gallop. Scratch looked at Caleb before meeting my gaze. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t have to. There was a promise in that look, one that said he would keep us safe.
“Be careful,” I said softly.
He smiled faintly, then followed Killian out of the room. He shut the door behind him, and I was left with my chaotic thoughts, trying to figure out if I’d just landed myself in even more trouble than when I’d accepted help from Caleb’s sperm donor.