| Dakota threw open the door of the apartment that her family called home. Six or seven full trash bags greeted her. Actually, what hit her first was the smell; her nose could detect the rotting garbage before her eyes could see it. Practically wading through the trash, Dakota pushed on through the tiny hallway and crossed the threshold to the kitchen.
The apartment ad had called the living quarters ‘family-sized.’ Sure, it was ‘family-sized’ – if your family consisted of one person. If not for the limited space, it might have been cool, because Dakota could relax on the couch while stirring the baked beans, and the bathroom was only an inch or so away from the couch. One stride from the bathroom would land her in the room she shared with her brother, Zane. A curtain divided the bedroom in half, not allotting either of them much privacy or space.
But it was all that their single, hard-working mother could afford, and that made it as good as home. Forget the noisy neighbors, the holes in the couch, and the peeling paint on the walls. They had a roof over their heads, a warm bed to sleep in at night, and food to eat. In Dakota’s mind, that was all they needed.
When Dakota’s mom came home from work that night, Dakota had soup, salad, and crackers on the table. Reese gave Dakota a weary but grateful look and yelled, “Zane, get in here! Dakota has dinner ready!”
Yeah, no thanks to you, Dakota thought silently. Zane was a typical 13 year-old boy. He never lifted a finger to help anyone else, unless it was some fictitious character on his Gameboy.
They had only been sitting at the table for about ten minutes when the doorbell rang. Dakota looked up from her plate, startled. No one ever visited them. Who could be ringing the doorbell?
Reese pushed her chair back and went to the door, fighting the garbage bags. She looked through the peephole before opening the door.
“Oh, hello, Mrs. Cooper,” Reese said uncertainly as the landlord peeked into the apartment.
“Hello to you, too, Mrs. Larson,” Mrs. Cooper responded. She tried to step into the apartment, but Reese smoothly slid outside into the hallway, shutting the door behind her.
Though Dakota and Zane could not see their mother or the landlord, they could hear them. That was the great thing about apartments if you loved to eavesdrop: the walls were paper-thin.
Zane amused himself by turning his crackers into an obstacle course for a noodle, but Dakota listened to the conversation carefully.
“Mrs. Larson, we’ve had many complaints about the smell coming from your apartment. The glimpse I had of the hallway was evidence of the complaints. Your apartment – my apartment - is a mess. Do you ever clean?” Mrs. Cooper asked frostily.
Dakota pictured her mother running her fingers through her quickly graying hair as she responded testily to Mrs. Cooper’s question. “I try, Morgan, I really do. My husband never sends child support, so five days a week I work three jobs from seven at night to two the next day. In those five hours that I’m not working during the week, I try to sleep. On weekends I visit my mother, who is dying of lung cancer in a hospital. When do you expect me to clean?” Dakota knew from her mother’s quickly rising voice that Reese was on the verge of tears.
“I’m sorry about your . . . um . . . situation,” Mrs. Cooper said sympathetically, choosing her words carefully. “But this is a business, and I’d rather have one family leave than four. Tomorrow, if I come here and even one garbage bag is in your hallway, I’m afraid I will have to ask you to leave on terms of disturbing the environment. I’m very sorry, Mrs. Larson. You are a wonderful, hard-working woman, but I can’t allow someone who can’t take care of their apartment to live here.”
Reese murmured something that Dakota couldn’t catch. The doorknob started to turn, and then Mrs. Cooper yelled, “The garbage man comes at ten a.m. tomorrow . . . it’s his last round for the month. You’d better have all of those garbage bags at the drop-off.”
“Okay. Thank you, Mrs. Cooper,” Reese called as she stepped back inside her apartment. A tear was sliding down her cheek.
Dakota sighed. She was accustomed to seeing her mother like this, and comforting her with soothing words and a hug. She got up from the table and hurried to her mother.
“Mom, it’s okay,” Dakota said softly, wrapping her arms tightly around her mother. “Zane and I will make sure all of the trash is out there,” she promised.
“What-” Zane began angrily. Dakota glared at Zane, and he closed his mouth.
“Thanks, honey,” her mother said. “Sometimes I wonder whether or not I’m really the mother. You take care of me more than I do you.”
“Mother, please don’t say that,” Dakota begged. The last thing her mom needed to start in on tonight was not being a good mother. It only amounted to tears and guilt.
Reese shrugged out of Dakota’s hug. “My hotel shift starts at eight, and then at ten I’m heading to the gas station. From there I’m going to the hospital to spend the next day with your grandma. I trust that you guys will take care of the trash matter. I’m afraid I can’t afford the rent of any other boarding house in Salt Springs.”
After Reese left, Dakota began doing the dishes and tidying up the house. She washed three loads of clothes, mopped the kitchen and bathroom floors, spot-cleaned the furniture, vacuumed the bedrooms, and that was only the beginning. Zane, who was acting like being kicked out of their apartment was no big deal, went back to his video games.
Dakota knew better than to ask him to help. She couldn’t waste her energy arguing. There was cleaning to be done, and a lot of it. She’d need every ounce of energy in her body to turn their tiny apartment into something halfway decent.
At two in the morning the apartment looked almost brand-new except for the trash bags in the hall and the unfolded clothes spread all over the couch. Dakota decided to sit down for minute, just to rest, before folding the clothes and taking out the garbage. I'll just close my eyes for a few minutes, she told herself. And a few minutes was all it took for Dakota to fall deeply asleep.
If Zane hadn’t been singing so off-key in the shower the next morning, Dakota probably would have slept until she was thirty. Fortunately for her, he was not only singing off-key, but singing loud.
He was halfway through the third verse of ‘Amazing Grace’ when Dakota jerked awake. “Zane, shut up!” she yelled, ignoring his angry response. As she fluffed her pillow and prepared to go back to sleep, she noticed the clock.
“Oh my God!” she screeched, jumping up out of her bed. “Zane, it’s ten o’clock!” Immediately after she yelled this, Dakota heard a grinding sound and with a choke, an engine roared to life. But it wasn’t just any engine . . . it was the garbage truck!
“Huh?” Zane replied, walking out of the bathroom in jeans and a t-shirt. He shook his wet head back and forth, water flying everywhere.
“Get a towel,” Dakota snapped. “You are not a dog.”
He made a rude gesture with his hand and Dakota sighed. “Please listen,” she begged. “It’s ten. The garbage man just pulled out. All of the trash bags are still in the hallway. We have to go after him.”
Zane snorted. “Yeah, I can just see that … you, running after the garbage man in a nightgown towing seven trash bags … I don’t think so, Dakota!”
“Oh, no, not just me. You are going to gather up all the trash bags and take them down to the first floor while I, free of any smelly burdens, will run after the garbage man,” Dakota told him. “Unless, of course, you’d like to be living on the streets next week. Then we could just stay home and enjoy one more day relaxing before we have to spend our lives eating out of garbage cans and living in boxes.”
Dakota’s last spiel seemed to make Zane nervous. “Whatever,” he said. “Just hurry up.”
Dakota grabbed him by the shoulders. “All seven garbage bags, down to the first floor in ten minutes.” She reached for her jacket and ran out the door, practically flying down flight after flight of stairs.
When she finally made it outside, she could just barely see the rear of the garbage truck down the street. It was getting ready to turn. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a little kid riding a bike. That was what she needed! She ran over to him and grabbed the handlebars of his bike.
“Hey!” he exclaimed. “What are you doing?”
“I need to borrow your bike,” Dakota gasped.
“Uh-uh,” he said stubbornly, shaking his head.
“No, really, I need your bike,” she pleaded. “It’s a matter of life or death.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “Who’s dying?”
“Never mind that. I’ll bring it back, I promise. Here, I have a sucker, some bubble gum, and thirty-seven cents. Go buy yourself an ice-cream cone,” Dakota demanded, pulling some junk out of her pocket. In one swift movement Dakota lifted the boy off of the bike and stood him on the sidewalk.
“Thanks,” she said, climbing on and beginning the pursuit of the garbage truck. She pedaled like crazy, flying past people walking dogs, vendors selling food, and children playing sidewalk games.
She never lost sight of the garbage truck, though. Minutes passed and the gap closed between the truck and Dakota. Finally, it pulled into a vacant lot and the driver stepped out.
Dakota put the brakes on the bike and hopped off, running up to the man breathlessly.
“I thought you were following me!” The man yelled, scratching his head. “Are you crazy?”
Dakota put her hands on her knees, panting to catch her breath. She shook her head. “No. But you have to turn around and go back to my house. You missed our garbage!”
The man shook his head. “There was no garbage out, little lady. You know the rules. I don’t go knocking on people’s doors asking for their trash. It’s either out there, or it isn’t.”
He started to climb back into his truck, muttering under his breath.
“Wait!” Dakota cried. “You don’t understand!”
The man turned, tapping his foot impatiently. “I understand that you have cost me five minutes already, and that I have lots of houses left to do.”
“Please, if you don’t go back right now and get the trash, my family’s going to be put out on the street,” Dakota begged. “Please, sir.”
The garbage man flinched. He wasn’t used to being addressed as ‘sir’. “What’s in it for me?” He asked gruffly. Though he sounded mean, Dakota could tell he was softening, for the angry lines around his eyes were beginning to relax.
She bit her lip. She leaned against the garbage truck. She put her hands on her hips. She sighed. She sat down on the ground. She watched the garbage man eat 3 chocolate-chip cookies, explaining that he couldn’t resist a good cookie. Then she jumped up and a smile spread across her face.
“Do you have a pencil and paper?” She asked the garbage man.
He nodded and reached into his front pocket, pulling out a crumpled piece of paper and a pen that had seen better days.
Dakota quickly scribbled something out and handed the garbage man the paper. “You’re a garbage man, so I’m pretty sure you don’t get many dates. On that piece of paper is a phone number of a lonely single woman who needs a man. If you go back and get the trash, she’ll be so grateful that you’ll be guaranteed to get a date with her.”
The garbage man’s mouth dropped open. He didn’t know whether to be angry or happy. “Fine,” he grumbled. “Hop in, and I’ll take you back to get the trash.”
“Yes!” Dakota exclaimed, throwing her arms around the garbage man. “Thank you so much! Because of you, I’ll have a warm bed to sleep in tonight and a roof over my head.”
“You’re welcome,” the garbage man said sarcastically. “And because of you, I’m going to be almost an hour late on my route.”
“But you got a date … how can being late on a trash route even begin to compare with a gorgeous woman?” Dakota pointed out.
“How do I know she’s gorgeous?” The garbage man asked skeptically.
“Because she’s my mother,” Dakota replied, grinning from ear to ear. “And even if she wasn’t gorgeous, you’d still want to date her, because she makes the best chocolate-chip cookies you’ll ever eat!”