Chapter one of a novel in progress
|Tasha pulled the beat up piece of junk some might call a car onto the side of the road. In her opinion, calling it a car was giving it a bit more credit than it was due. It was a heap. The paint peeled so badly that she could see the metal beneath it. The muffler dragged the ground, creating a horrid scraping sound, and every now and again, it sent sparks flying out from behind the moving vehicle. The windshield was cracked almost exactly in half. Whatever was wrong with the frame of the stupid thing, she was sure it couldn’t be fixed. It sounded like there was a damned dying raccoon beneath the car if she pushed it to go above thirty miles an hour. All that aside, it had wheels and it could get her as far away from the dump she’d called home as possible. At least that’s what she’d thought when she stole it. But now she was discouraged. The tire was flatter than a skinny woman’s boobs before puberty.
Tasha grabbed her purse from the passenger’s seat and set out on foot to find the nearest town. In less than two miles, she began cursing the heels she had been wearing when she’d left Chicago behind. It hadn’t taken much for her to decide to leave, just an opportunity. There were no belongings except what she had on her person—what she wore and the few things in the oversized carryall she carried and called a purse. The shoes though not practical had been a gift from Belle, the only person who’d ever genuinely tried to help her. Tasha would be damned if she’d lose them now, so she sucked it up and carried on, praying it wouldn’t be much further, and that her precious pumps would make it to wherever she ended up.
It had to be two hours later when she came upon a sign that read Jasper: population three hundred and seventy-six. Shrugging, not really caring where she was, she kept right on walking. More than anything, Tasha wanted to find a hotel. She didn’t have much money left out of what she’d taken from her momma’s purse and what Tez had given her, but the idea of a warm bed had her thinking a splurge was in order despite her dire situation. She’d slept in the heap three nights in a row now, and driven straight through until it had stopped working altogether. Her stomach gave a loud rumble reminding her she hadn’t eaten in three days either, but that was nothing new.
The town was dark despite the fact that it wasn’t all that late. She hoped this wasn’t one of those small towns where all the residents went to bed with the chickens and rose with roosters. A few minutes later, Tasha came across a street that was lit up. She turned. It had to be the main street of podunkville. Of course, because it was her luck, the first building she passed was a bar. “Lucky’s Bar” to be exact. Two men stood outside smoking cigarettes and laughing too loud for the otherwise quiet street.
“Hey, honey, can I buy you a drink?”
“No, thanks,” Tasha called back.
“Come on now, honey, I’m just trying to be friendly.”
“Leave her alone, Harley, she said she didn’t want nothing.”
The other man smiled at her. Tasha nodded and started to walk away, but the drunk grabbed her hand. With her free hand, Tasha reached into her bag, grateful that it had been tossed over her left shoulder as opposed to her right since it was her right hand the man grabbed.
The man obviously had no idea what she was about, and his companion no clue what she was capable of, because if she weren’t so tired, and the situation weren’t one she’d faced so many times and swore she’d never allow herself to face again—being manhandled and all, she would have pissed herself laughing at the look of stunned disbelief on their faces.
When the man dropped her hand, Tasha lifted it and placed it under her other, supporting the small handgun she held on the inebriated man.
“Put that gun down. What do you think you’re doing?” The kinder of the two men asked.
“What I shoulda done a long time ago. Ain’t no man ever gonna put his hands on me again if I don’t want him to.”
The man who had grabbed her chuckled nervously. His Adam’s apple bobbed. “I didn’t mean you no harm.”
“Do you make a habit of touching women who don’t wanna be touched?”
“Women? You look like hardly more than a girl.” The drunk man said, but not unkindly.
“Look, honey, you don’t want to do this.” The kind faced man said.
“Mister, you act like I got something to lose.”
* * * *
Mitchell Anderson gazed at the girl who stood before them struggling to act like a tough woman. Intense whiskey colored eyes stared them down. Mitchell wondered what had happened to this poor child to put so much anger in those pretty eyes, more than that though, he saw fear and maybe even a hint of desperation. Mitchell thought of his own little girl, Lila. What if it were his daughter who had been driven to such lengths? He shivered in the balmy night—a wave of compassion running through him. His gaze dropped lower to the girl’s dirty T-shirt. It was grey, but Mitchell suspected at one time it had been a pristine white. Filthy, torn sweatpants adorned her legs, but on her feet she wore a pair of jewel studded strappy heeled sandals that looked like they should be worn with pretty evening gown, not the grungy attire this kid had on. A plain black hobo bag was thrown over her shoulder, and of course there was the pistol. It was nothing special, certainly not fancy, but it’d put a hole in a man just the same. A young girl like this had no business with such a thing.
“Honey, you can’t just go pulling a gun on people. It’s against the law, you know.”
“What are you going do? Arrest me?”
“I could ya know.” Slowly, so as not to scare the young girl and make her pull the trigger by mistake, he reached into his pocket for his wallet. Luck was on his side because her grudge was against Harley, not him, so her attention remained on the other man. She didn’t appear to have seen his movement, and if she had, she didn’t seem bothered by it. Wallet in hand, he flipped it open and held out his badge.”Mitchell Anderson, Jasper County Sherriff.”
“Tasha Taylor.” Whiskey brown eyes pinned him in place. “Need me to spell it for you?”
“I think I can manage.”
“Good. Wouldn’t want you to get it wrong on the arrest warrant, then you might actually have to let me go, and I could use a bed to sleep in for the night and three square meals.” She raised an eyebrow. “I was going to look for a hotel in your one horse honkey little town, but I’m short on cash, if you’re offering free lodging and meals, I’m much obliged.” She smiled at him, the gun in her hand never wavering.
Mitchell nearly grinned. Tasha Taylor was one spunky little girl trying to act all woman. “Never seen you around here before, Tasha Taylor. Just passing through?” he asked trying to keep her talking, distract her so he could get her gun. Not that he couldn’t overpower her if needed, but if he played it right, he could have that gun before she could so much as blink and this would all be over with no one getting hurt by accident. He’d hate to see that little girl have to live regret over rash actions committed in desperation. Mitchell studied those intense whiskey brown eyes and his heart nearly broke at the pain he saw hidden behind the tough girl façade. What, or who, had caused this beautiful child such pain? She spoke, interrupting his thoughts.
“My car got a flat a couple hours walk back that way.” She threw her thumb over her shoulder in the direction of the back road into town.
“What’s a young girl like you doing walking out on a dark road like that this late at night?”
“That’s where my car stopped. I just walked along the road I was on. What else was I supposed to do? Crawl?” Tasha’s lip twitched, but Mitchell suspected there was very little humor in the gesture. If he didn’t know better, he’d have thought tears lurked. But, he did know better, and he saw the pride in those pretty eyes and this tough nut wasn’t about to let anyone see her cry, least of all the men she still held a gun on.
“Where ya headed?” Mitchell asked easing back into lazy conversation, hoping to set her more at ease, lower her defenses, get her drop the gun.
“Anywhere that looks good,” Tasha said, seeming desperate
Mitchell inched closer to her. “Where ya coming from?”
Tasha pierced him with those whiskey eyes again. She was silent for a few minutes, but then, very quietly said, “Chicago.”
“Is there anyone in Chicago who might be missing you?”
Tasha snorted. “Fat chance of that.”
“Hey, Mitch, what’s going on here?” Lucky Brooks, his friend, and owner of the bar came up behind him. In that instant, Tasha dropped the hand that held the gun just long enough that Mitchell was able to grab the weapon.
“Oh, nothing. This girl here thought she needed to protect herself from ole’ Harley here. He got a little, umm, forward.”
“Aww hell, Harley, she’s just a kid, any moron can see that.” Lucky said.
Mitchell elbowed the drunk man in the gut when he blushed a deep red. “I think he’s learned his lesson. Why don’t you two head on inside? The girl said her car got a flat a ways back, I’m gonna drive her back there and fix it for her.”
“Why you gonna do that?” Tasha eyed him. Her voice was heavy with suspicion, and a hint of fear. Mitchell suspected that this tough nut would be hard to crack, and if he wasn’t careful, he’d do more harm than good. He scratched his head, backed up a step, giving her plenty of space, before he answered.
“Why wouldn’t I, tough nut?” Mitchell asked.
“I don’t know.” Tasha kicked at a rock. “What are you gonna expect in return?” she said with a whole lot of sass.
“How about a thank you?”
“What else?” She narrowed her eyes at him.
“Nothing, tough nut.”
“Why should I trust you? And stop calling me tough nut. You don’t know me. How dare you presume a thing about me.”
Mitchell blinked. The girl had a point. This was a small town, and all the locals knew each other, but they were close enough to Daytona and Cocoa that they had plenty of tourists coming through all the time. Jasper wasn’t your average everyone knew everyone small town. Mitchell felt a twinge in his chest. It was obvious Tasha Taylor had been through far more than anyone her age should have to go through. He hated to see kids abused, and if he was reading her right, this youngster had seen a lifetime of it.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to presume anything. I’m only trying to help, and to set you at ease. I’m not looking to hurt you, to take advantage of you in anyway.” Mitchell stepped back another step, trying to show her his sincerity. He cleared his throat. Tasha still stood in her defensive stance. Her face was stone cold set in angry anxiety. Mitchell tried again. “Why don’t I call my wife and daughter and have them meet us here, they can go with us. Would that make you feel better about going with me to get your car?” Her face relax just a little and he was glad he’d made the offer. “Why don’t we go inside? I’ll see if Lucky can get you a burger and fries or something while I call Carolyn and Lila. Does that sound good?”
Tasha smiled for the first time since she’d come up to them. “Is a Root Beer included in that offer?” There was a spark of childlike excitement of her eyes. Not a lot, just a hint, and it was hidden behind what he believed was fear the offer would be snatched away. Mitchell frowned, again wondering what kind of monsters had raised this child to be so defensive, so distrustful.
He nodded. “I think I can arrange that.” He led the way inside, ignoring the fact that it was bar and she was under twenty-one and shouldn’t be there. He was, after all, the sheriff, and he’d make sure that no one bothered her and that she wasn’t there longer than necessary.
* * * *
Okay, so maybe she had over reacted. Pulling the gun had been a bit rash, but she was on her last nerve. Traveling with no destination in mind was tiresome, she was ready to stop. Even if she didn’t have a home to speak of, at least she’d be in one place—familiar setting.
“Why didn’t you come down ninety-five?” Carolyn asked. She was Mitchell’s wife and a beautiful woman. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a neat pony tail, and her jeans and black sleeveless sweater top were clean and tasteful. She wore pretty black sandals that Tasha hadn’t been able to take her eyes off of. They weren’t anything special, not really, but they were clean and neat, and they matched what she wore. Most of all, they showed off her pretty red painted toe nails. It was silly given her situation, but Tasha liked nice shoes and she liked painted toes. Somehow they spoke of elegance. That’s what Carolyn was—elegant.
“To be honest, I just drove. I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t care, I just wanted away from where I was.” Tasha tried to keep the attitude out of her voice when she spoke to the woman, but she couldn’t help it. She didn’t want to answer questions, and she didn’t want anyone calling nobody back in that hellhole. She wasn’t going back and if that was this woman’s plan she’d beat feat even if she had to walk another hundred miles to find safety from their prying.
“Were you running from something?” Lila asked. Mitchell’s daughter was about Tasha’s age. She was a nice girl, but Tasha could tell she was one of those girls who’d never had to struggle for anything. The girl wouldn’t know trouble if it hit her in the face, and the way she made the question sound, Tasha knew she was imagining Tasha had been on some dreamy adventure.
“My momma died a few days ago. Shot herself.” Everyone in the car except Tasha gasped. “It wasn’t no big deal really, she never took care of me anyway.” Tasha blinked against the burning in her eyes. She’d shed few tears over the loss. More so for the fact that she’d never really known her mother than for her loss. Her momma hadn’t wanted kids, she’d made that clear. Tasha was nothing but a burden, and there were no tender moments shared between the two to be remembered. Tasha had cried for that and that alone. With the death of her mother had come the death of the dream that someday her mother would love her. Now she was sure there’d be no one who’d ever care. She was on her own. It was a scary place to be, but that was life, what was she gonna do about it? Certainly not put a pistol in her mouth and pull the trigger like her momma had done. If nothing else, she’d be better than that woman in at least one way. The sting in her eyes got stronger. Tasha cleared her throat. When she looked up unease settled over her with all the eyes staring at her. Hoarsely she continued. “But her boyfriend figured on me taking my momma’s place. I wasn’t gonna go out and sell my body for no drug money. So I did the only thing I knew to do.”
“You got in your car and left. I don’t blame you, you poor dear.” Carolyn said emotion thick in her voice.
“Well, I left, but it wasn’t my car. I stole Mack’s car and I ain’t sorry.”
“Mack was your mother’s boyfriend?” Mitchell asked.
“Yeah, that was the rat bastard’s name.” Tasha ground out between clenched teeth. She’d hated that man. The way he leered at her every time she was around. He’d abused the hell out of her mother, and her being the weak addict that she was, her mother had just taken it. The man had been pure redneck evil and nothing more, and Tasha hadn’t been about to let him get his filth ridden hands her, no siree bob.
The car got quiet for a time. Mitchell drove along the road in the direction Tasha had pointed him in. Tasha tried to study her environment, but it was dark. When she couldn’t take the silence anymore she asked, “Where am I, anyway?”
“Halfway between Daytona and Cocoa Beach, Florida.” Lila answered her.
“Holy shit! I drove a long way.”
“Tasha!” Carolyn put her hand to her chest.
“I’m sorry ma’am.” And she was. These were kind people and she didn’t want to offend them.
They came up on the car on the side of the road. Mitchell pulled over, and they all climbed out. The man examined the car claiming he didn’t know how such a rattle trap had made it all the way from Chicago to Florida without having a major problem. Tasha almost laughed because she had wondered the same thing, but she was awfully glad that it had. “Is there a spare?”
“I didn’t check,” Tasha said, humiliated now that they’d driven all the way back to the heap and she didn’t even know if there was a spare.
“I’ll look in the trunk,” Mitchell said already making his way to the rear of the small lump of scrap metal. A few minutes later, he said,
“You’re in luck, if you want to call it that.” He put the spare on the ground along with a jack. “I’m going to get this tire changed and then I’m going to drive back to Jasper with you. We’ll follow my wife. Lila can come with us, if you feel better about it.”
Tasha nodded. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, child.” An awkward silence followed. They stared at each other, Tasha rocking on her heels wondering what to say or do next. Maybe she should just hop in the heap and hope that it would run until the next town where there wasn’t a man who looked at her with such pity in his eyes. She didn’t want pity. Before she could tell him that, he said, “I haven’t discussed this with my wife, but I know her heart, and I know she will probably skin me if I don’t ask. How about you stay with us for a few days? At least until we figure out what you’re going to do. I just wouldn’t feel right about letting you go on alone with no one to look out for you.”
“I couldn’t.” Tasha kicked at a rock on the side of the road. “I won’t. I can take care of myself and I don’t need anyone’s sympathy.” Tasha leaned against the side of the hoopty and gave her set her jaw. Narrowing her eyes, she hoped her look said ‘I don’t give a damn’, she stuffed her hands in her pockets and drawled, “I been taking care of myself all my life, what makes you think I need you now?”
“Don’t you?” The man asked quietly.
Tasha expected him to be angry but when she looked straight into his eyes, they were kind, not angry. There was understanding there. Not like any man her momma had ever brought home. Not like the men who sometimes leered at her on the streets they tried to pick her up in her wanderings. There was a genuineness that made her wonder what it must be like for Lila, to have a man like this as a father. Tasha didn’t allow her thought to linger in that direction long. She had no clue who her father was and she didn’t want to know.
“Look, thanks for changing my tire. When you’re done, I’ll just be on my way.” Tasha turned to walk away, but Mitchell’s hand on her shoulder stopped her.
“Tasha, look, tough nut, you got lucky that Harley is nothing but a big goof that had too much to drink. A young girl like you out in this world all alone is asking for trouble. That little gun isn’t going to save you if someone bigger and stronger wants to hurt you, and pulling it out half cocked like you did tonight is likely to only get you hurt that much quicker.”
Tasha wanted to scream and cry that she could do it. She would survive! She knew she could! But she had run because she didn’t want to end up selling her body to survive! If she didn’t swallow her pride and accept help when it was offered, who was to say that wasn’t exactly what she’d end up doing?
“Thank you for the offer.” With it seemingly decided, Mitchell went to change the tire so they could be on their way. With a glance toward Heaven, Tasha kicked at the front tire. She cursed her circumstances. Life had never been nice to her, but she’d learned to accept that and do the best with what she’d been given. Somehow, despite the crappy hand she’d been dealt, she’d always made it through and come out stronger than before. This was just another one of those things, she tried to think positively. Maybe the car had broken down, but at least she’d gotten out of Chicago.
A glance at the heap had positivity disappearing quicker than one of her mother’s tricks on payday. Where was she gonna go next? She had nothing. Maybe Mitchell and his family were willing to take her in for a night or two, but good folk like this family didn’t take in trash like her forever. It wouldn’t be long before she was back out on the streets and then what? Tasha sighed and thought about her mother. The woman might not have been worth much, but she was her mother, and the one thing she’d done right was make sure the low life’s that hung around the house kept their hands off Tasha. Tasha was grateful to her for that. Tasha had run to make sure it stayed that way. There was no way Mack was going to make her his next whore. But had Tasha been stupid to think she could make it alone? When she had left Chicago she’d had two hundred dollars she’d scrimped, saved, and yes, stolen. Out of that she had a little less than a hundred left. What kind of job could she get with no address, no education, and no prospects to speak of? Was she destined to be nothing more than a burden to people who pitied her?
“There. That didn’t take long.” Mitchell dusted his hands off on his pant legs. “You ready to head back? You look like you could use a good night’s sleep.”
Swallowing back the lump in her throat, Tasha forced a smile and said,“I could.” Tasha reached into her bag and felt around for the keys. She withdrew them and moved toward the driver’s side. “It will be nice not to sleep in the car,” she mumbled, embarrassed to admit that she’d been sleeping on the side of the road in a rusty old car that anyone could have broken into with little more than a plastic knife gotten at any fast food joint. The car was in that bad of shape, and she had seriously thought it was going to take her somewhere. Stupid. That’s what you are.
“Why don’t you let me drive?” Mitchell said, interrupting her negative self-talk.
Tasha shrugged. “Sure, why not.”
“Lila, you coming with us?”
The threesome climbed into the heap and followed Carolyn back to Jasper. It was late when they entered the sleepy little town and pulled up in front of what Tasha presumed was Mitchell and his family’s home. It was nice, better than anything Tasha had ever lived in. Out of the corner of her eye she studied Lila. She was lucky. What Tasha wouldn’t give to have such security. The outside was brick, and there were beautiful flower beds that lined the walkway. There was a completely glassed in pool room off the right side of the house. Tasha hesitated to get out of the car. These people belonged here, she didn’t. The streets of Chicago was where a no good like her belonged. What was she doing here with good people like this? Stop it, Tasha! She chided herself. If she was going to get anywhere in life she had to quit that attitude. Cortez had believed in her, he’d seen something worth saving, and for a moment in time, so had she or she wouldn’t have run. Now she had to make something of herself and she wasn’t going to do it by running herself down. Raising her chin a notch, she put her feet on the ground, closed the door of the car, and proudly walked toward the house behind Mitchell and his family. When she entered, it was welcoming. The furniture was a peach color that offset beige walls. It was soft, like Carolyn. It smelled nice too, maybe cinnamon. “Can you show our guest to the spare bedroom, Lila?” Carolyn asked her daughter.
“Of course, Mom.”
“We’ll talk more in the morning,” Mitchell said. He moved nearer to his wife and put an arm around her. “We have a lot we need to discuss. Like I said, we can’t just let you go, it wouldn’t be right. Is there anyone who might be worried about you? Anyone we should call and tell that you are safe?”
Tasha thought of Belle. Of course she’d be worried about her, but Tasha had no idea how to get a hold of her at this time of night. “No, no one.”
“Sleep well, Tasha.” Carolyn said gently.
Tasha made her way toward the steps along with Lila. She climbed one then two but stopped on the third. Tears came to her eyes as she studied the line of family pictures decorating the stairway. There wasn’t a single picture of herself that Tasha could ever remember her mother displaying. How sad was that?
“You coming?” Lila asked.
Tasha glanced at the pictures one more time. “Yeah” she answered quietly, wistfully, dreaming that someday she might have a family like this, but she shook her head. That’s all it was. A dream. Girls like her didn’t have families like this. It just wasn’t possible.