He’s still wearing that backward baseball hat, and he looks like the cool jock from high school all grown up. I try not to be intimidated. I give him what I can only hope is a serious, no-nonsense glare. My hands go to my hips. My elbows bow out. It’s a power pose, it’s Wonder Woman, and I’m nailing it.
“I’d like to propose an alternate living arrangement.” His brown eyes try to sear through me. Still, I continue. “I passed a bunch of decent rooms on my way up here. There’s a bedroom down the hall—”
“None of the rooms in this house are available to you. I’m not running a bed and breakfast.”
Obviously. If he were, it would be called Bad Manners Manor, and the one-star Yelp reviews would read, Surly owner scares would-be guests away.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll be able to rent a better place after your first paycheck—if you make it that long.”
“Fine. When exactly is payday?”
He leans back in his chair and rubs the scruff along his jaw. “Payroll went out last Friday, so you’ll get your first paycheck two weeks from now, just like everyone else.”
Two weeks? I won’t last that long. I have one pair of underwear.
“I could really use an advance.”
I say this very calmly, like I’ve seen in movies, and I think he will respond in turn. He doesn’t.
“That’s too bad.”
He really laughs at that, cracks up like I’m the stupidest person he’s ever encountered. His laughter makes me feel a little sick, and my hands form little fists by my sides. If we were closer, I think I’d swing and try to give him a black eye, just to see how it’d feel. He’s at least twice my size, but I’m scrappy. He’d never see it coming.
“Why do you need the money? A new purse?”
The accusation wraps around my heart like talons and it pops like a balloon, deflating any courage I had left. God, he thinks so little of me. He thinks I’d subject myself to this humiliation for something as frivolous as a new purse?
I should tell him the truth, that I want the money so I can go into town and buy some essentials: a new pillow and a clean blanket. I need a pair of tennis shoes because my loafers have rubbed my feet raw. I have no clothes, nothing to change into. I am utterly destitute, and completely at his mercy. I came to Texas hoping to find some comfort from my sister and instead I found him—the rudest, most inconsiderate man west of the Mississippi.
I open my mouth, prepared to pour everything out, to make him feel terrible for the things he’s said to me, but I quickly realize I can’t. As soon as I speak, I’ll sob. I’m one of those people who inexplicably cries when angry. It’s annoying. Any time I want to shout at someone, it comes out as a teary mess. Anger and sadness comingle in my brain, no hope of harnessing one without the other. I won’t give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry; therefore, I have no choice.
Without another word, I turn on my heel and walk out of his office, slamming the door behind me. It’s a strange thing to do considering we were in the middle of a conversation. I’ve just given him more reason to think I’m insane, but at least I still have my pride. Do people with a single pair of underwear have pride?
I limp away on my blistered feet, repeating a short mantra over and over in my head: Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.
Amazingly, my brain listens. I don’t shed a single tear as I make my way downstairs, through the kitchen, and into the laundry room that leads to the back door. I’m so laser-focused on making it out that I miss the bags piled up beside the doorframe until I trip over one of them. I’ve apparently met my quota of embarrassing moments for the day, because the universe saves me from face-planting completely. I catch myself and check over my shoulder to make sure there was no audience for my little stumble—the coast is clear. I turn back for the door, prepared to whip it open and make my escape, but then I look down.
The trash bags aren’t filled with garbage—they’re filled with clothes, clothes that are undoubtedly waiting to be loaded up and taken to Goodwill for donation. I know this because there’s a little sticky note on one of them that says, DONATION! TAKE WHAT YOU WANT!
I have half a mind to fall to my knees and weep. Instead, I turn one ear to the stairs, confirm that Jack hasn’t followed me down, and then get to work rooting through the bags. I justify the fact that I’m stealing because the clothes are about to be donated to the less fortunate, and guess what? I’m currently the least fortunate I’ve ever been. These clothes are mine.
I find a few pair of worn but clean black socks folded into pairs. Maybe a few weeks ago, I would have balked at the idea of wearing a stranger’s old socks. Today, right now, they are more valuable than gold. I even slip a pair on right then so they’ll act as a buffer between my loafers and my blistered feet. I look like a mall walker headed to Nifty After Fifty.
Once I’m satisfied I have enough socks, I rummage through a collection of folded t-shirts and skim a few off the top. I unfold one to discover it’s an XL and will undoubtedly drown me, but it doesn’t matter; I’ll manage. I dump the shirts on the ground beside me and keep rifling through the contents of the bags right up until a voice speaks behind me and I jump out of my skin.
“As I understand it, the point of having a housekeeper is so they’ll clean up messes, not make new ones.”
I whip around, surprised to find the older woman from before, the one who answered the door when I first arrived at the ranch. She’s standing in the doorway of the laundry room with her arms crossed over her chest.
“You’re right. I swear I’ll put everything back.”
I start shoving clothes in bags, but she shakes her head, holds up a finger, and then disappears back into the kitchen. She’s gone for a moment before she reappears with a new black trash bag in hand. She whips it open then bends low beside me, starting to shovel clothes inside.
“Is that enough? You only have a few t-shirts here,” she points out.
“Oh yes, it should be just fine. I can wash them.”
“And you found some of the socks I put in there, that’s good. What size shoe are you?”
I’m dumbfounded by this turn of events, but I have enough sense to reply quickly, “Seven and a half.”
“Right, well, I’m a nine, so they’ll be a little big, but I put a pair of tennis shoes in that bag over there.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“I damn well know that, now shove over. You’re sitting on one of the shirts.”
I lean over so she can tug the t-shirt out from under me and then she stuffs it in the bag with all the others.
“Whose clothes are these?”
She scowls at me. “Silence is a virtue. Get virtuous.”
If they’re Jack’s—and I suspect they are—will I toss them aside? No. In fact, he’ll have to chop off my feet if he wants these socks back.
I’m surprised she’s taken the time to collect the clothes for me, and I have enough good sense to accept her charity. Unless…
“Does he know you took this stuff out of his closet?”
Her mouth flattens in a thin line. “They say there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but does that mean you have to try so hard to think of one? It’s damn annoying.”
I can’t tell whether she loves me or hates me, so I play it safe and just keep my lips zipped after that, watching as she continues going through the bags, taking things I wouldn’t have had the courage to grab before. There’s fresh white linen and towels. She gives me everything. My trash bag is bulging.
“I know this isn’t enough. I don’t have any shorts for you—you’re too damn skinny to wear mine—but those jeans you’re wearing should work until we can make it into town.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
I’m surprised by how overwhelmed I feel.
“No. Stop. If you cry right now, I’m taking all this to the burn pile. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s blubbering. Now listen, my grandson is a tough cookie, an arrogant devil through and through. I tried to talk him into letting you stay in the house, but he’s got his mind made up, something about teaching you a lesson. If you ask me, there’s more likely a lesson in there for him, but this is his house and I won’t disrespect him by sneaking you in here.”