Our last night in Seattle didn’t go so great.
My babysitter, my emergency backup sitter, and my second emergency backup sitter all had the flu. I’d have been screwed if one of my new neighbors hadn’t volunteered to keep an eye on Noah. I didn’t really know her, but we’d been living next to each other for a month and no red flags. Not the best, I know.
You do what you have to when you’re a single mom.
Then Dick yelled at me for coming in late for my shift.
I didn’t tell him I’d nearly missed work altogether because of Noah. And no, I’m not just calling him Dick because he’s actually a dick (although he is). It’s his real name.
That night I actually understood why he was in such a bad mood, because of the six girls who were supposed to be on, only two showed. Two had the flu (genuine—half the city had it) and two had dates. Or I’m assuming they had dates. Their official stories were a dead grandmother (her fifth) and an infected tattoo.
Apparently none of the drug stores in her neighborhood carried Bacitracin.
Either way, things fell to shit fast. We had a band, which put the customers in a good mood, but the live music and drunken dancing made it even harder to keep up with my tables. Also made us busier than usual. We would’ve been stretched even with a full staff. To make things perfect, it was a local band and most of their fans were college students, which meant crappy tips.
By eleven I was already tired and needed to pee in a bad way, so I ducked into the bathroom. Out of toilet paper already (of course), and I knew damned well nobody had time to restock. I pulled out my phone, doing a quick check for messages, and saw two. One from Miranda, my babysitter, and a second from Ruger, the world’s scariest almost-in-law.
Miranda first. I held it to my ear and listened, hoping to hell everything was all right. No way Dick would let me off early, even for an emergency. Ruger could wait.
“Mom, I’m scared,” Noah said.
“I took Miranda’s phone and I’m hiding in the closet,” he continued. “There’s a bad guy here and he’s smoking inside and he wanted me to smoke, too, and they kept laughing at me. He tried to tickle me and make me sit on his lap. Now they’re watching a movie that has naked people in it and I don’t like it. I don’t want to be here and I want to go home. I want you to come home. I really need you. Right now.”
I heard his breath hitch, like he was crying but didn’t want me to know, and then the message cut out.
I took a couple of deep breaths, trying to control my surge of adrenaline. I checked the time on the message—almost forty-five minutes ago. My stomach twisted and for a second I thought I might puke. Then I pulled it together and left the bathroom. I managed to walk back into the bar and had Brett, the bartender, unlock the drawer where we kept our purses.
“I need to get home, my kid’s in trouble. Tell Dick.”
With that I headed toward the door, pushing through drunken frat boys. I was almost out when someone grabbed my arm, spinning me around. My boss stood there, glaring.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going, Williams?”
“There’s an emergency,” I told him. “I need to go home.”
“You leave me now with a crowd like this, don’t come back,” Dick growled. I leaned forward and stared him down, which was pretty easy considering the guy was hardly more than five feet tall. On good days I thought of him as a hobbit.
Tonight he was just a troll.
“I need to take care of my son,” I said coldly, using my deadliest troll-killing voice. “Let go of my arm. Now. I’m leaving.”
Driving home took at least a year.
I kept trying to call Miranda, but nobody answered. When I reached our ancient apartment building, I tore up the wooden stairs to the top floor, shaking with a weird mixture of rage and fear. Miranda’s place was right across from my little studio, and while my thighs and calves hated the climb, I loved how we were the only residents up here. Until now.
Tonight it felt remote and scary.
I heard music and grunting as I pounded on the door. No answer. I pounded harder and wondered if I’d have to break in. Then the door flew open. A tall guy with unbuttoned pants and no shirt blocked the entry. He had the start of a gut and bloodshot eyes. I smelled pot and booze.
“Yeah?” he asked, swaying. I tried looking around him, but he blocked me.
“My son, Noah, is here,” I said, struggling to stay calm and focus on what really counted. I could kill this asshole later. “I’m here to pick him up.”
“Oh, yeah. Forgot about him. C’mon in.”
He stepped aside and I ducked past him. Miranda’s place was a studio just like ours, so I should’ve seen Noah right away. Instead I spotted my useless neighbor on the couch, collapsed on her back with her eyes glazed and a dreamy smile on her face. Her clothes were rumpled, her long hippie skirt shoved up above her splayed knees. The phone lay on the coffee table in front of her, next to a bong made out of plastic pens, foil and a Mountain Dew bottle. Empties surrounded it, because apparently weed wasn’t enough to keep her entertained while she failed to babysit my seven-year-old child.
“Miranda, where’s Noah?” I demanded. She looked at me blankly.
“How should I know?” she slurred.
“Maybe he went outside,” the guy muttered, turning away from me as he reached into the fridge for another beer.
I caught my breath.
Across his back was a giant tattoo that looked kind of like Ruger’s, only it said Devil’s Jacks instead of Reapers. Motorcycle club. Bad news. Always bad, despite what Ruger insisted.
I’d think about that later. Focus. I needed to find Noah.
His voice was soft and trembling. I looked around frantically, then saw him climbing in through an open window facing the street. Oh my God. I moved toward him, forcing myself to approach oh-so-carefully. Four flights above the ground and my boy was clinging to a windowsill. If I wasn’t damned careful, I’d knock him off the ledge.
I reached out and clamped my hands around his upper arms, pulling him in and clutching him close. He wrapped around me like a little monkey. I rubbed my hand up and down his back, whispering how much I loved him and promising never to leave him alone like that again.
“I don’t get what you’re so upset about,” Miranda muttered, pulling herself up to make room for her asshole boyfriend. “There’s a fire escape out there and it’s not like it’s cold. It’s August. Kid was fine.”
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and forced myself to stay calm. Then I opened them and looked past her.
That’s when I saw the porn on the TV.
My eyes skittered away from the sight of a silicone woman screwing four guys simultaneously. Something terrible took fire in my heart.
Stupid bitch. Miranda would pay for this.
“What’s your problem, anyway?” she slurred.
I didn’t bother answering. I just needed to get my boy out of here and home safe. I’d deal with my neighbor tomorrow.
Maybe by then I’d have calmed down enough not to end her miserable life.
I carried Noah out of the apartment and across the hallway to my own door. Somehow I managed to get it open without dropping him, fingers trembling from suppressed rage and a health dose of guilt.
I’d failed him.
My baby needed me, and instead of protecting him, I’d left him parked with a druggie who could’ve gotten him killed. Being a single mom sucked.
It took a warm bath, an hour of snuggles, and four books to get Noah to sleep.
Me? I wasn’t sure I’d ever sleep again.
The summer heat didn’t help—I swear, the place had zero airflow. After an hour of sweating in the darkness, watching his little chest rise and fall, I gave up. I popped a beer and sat down on our couch, a thousand plans running through my head. First, I’d kill Miranda. Then either I needed to find a new place to live or she did. I also pondered whether to call the cops.
I liked the idea of throwing her and her stoner boyfriend to the wolves. They deserved a friendly visit from the boys in blue.
But since her man was in a motorcycle club, calling the cops might not be the smartest move. Guys in MCs generally weren’t fond of the police, a perspective he and his club brothers might feel the need to share with me once he made bail. Not to mention Child Protective Services would get involved, which could also get pretty ugly.
I loved Noah and would do anything for him. I was a damned good mother. When other girls my age were out partying and having fun, I was taking him to the park and reading him stories. I spent my twenty-first birthday holding him while he puked from stomach flu instead of hitting the bars. No matter how rough things got, I spent time with Noah every day and made sure he felt loved.
But I didn’t look so good on paper.
Single mom. Dad out of the picture. No family around, crappy studio apartment. Probably unemployed after tonight . . . What would CPS make of that? Would they blame me for leaving him with Miranda in the first place?
I had no idea what to do. I took a long pull on the beer and then turned on my phone, where Ruger’s message glowed at me accusingly. Crap. I hated calling him. No matter how much time he spent with us (and he made a point of seeing Noah regularly), I just couldn’t relax around him. Ruger didn’t like me and I knew it. I think he blamed me for destroying his relationship with Zach. God knows, I played my part. I pushed that memory away.
I always pushed that memory away.
If only I unnerved him, too, but apparently that was too much to ask. Instead he just looked right through me, hardly bothering to acknowledge my existence.
Even more frustrating? Ruger had to be the hottest guy I’d ever met. He was all danger and hard muscles, with his tattoos and piercings and that goddamned black Harley of his. When he walked into a room he owned it, because it only took one look to see he was a fucking badass, the type who takes what he wants and never says he’s sorry.
I’d been nursing a hell of a crush on him for longer than I cared to acknowledge, something he’d failed to notice despite his apparent fascination with every other woman under the age of forty within five hundred miles. Well, failed to notice all but once, and that hadn’t exactly ended well.
At least he never brought any of his club whores around (which I greatly appreciated), but that didn’t change the fact that he was one of the biggest sluts in north Idaho.
So that’s where we stood.
Presented with my nonthreatening charms, the panhandle’s sexiest, most prolific man-whore still preferred hanging with my seven-year-old child during his visits.
I sighed and hit the play button.
“Sophie, answer your fucking phone,” he said, his voice cold and unyielding, like usual. “I just got a call from Noah. I talked to him for a while and tried to keep him calm, but then some bitch started yellin’ and took the phone away. Nobody answered when I called back. I don’t know what the fuck you’re thinking, but your kid needs you. Get off your ass and go get him. Now. I swear, if anything happens to him . . . You don’t wanna go there, Sophie. Just fucking call me when you find him. No excuses.”
I dropped the phone and leaned forward on my knees, rubbing my temples with the tips of my fingers.
In addition to everything else, now I had to deal with Mr. Being-A-Biker-Isn’t-A-Crime losing his shit on me. Which he would do, I had no doubt. Ruger was scary enough in a good mood. The one time I’d seen him truly enraged still gave me nightmares, and that’s not a figure of speech. Unfortunately, he had a point. When my son needed me, I hadn’t answered the phone. Thank God Ruger had been there for Noah. But still . . . I really didn’t want to deal with him right now, either.
I couldn’t leave him hanging, though, worried about Noah all night. He’d called me a bitch the last time I saw him, and maybe he had a point, but I wasn’t a big enough bitch to torture him like that. I hit the callback button.
“He all right?” Ruger demanded, not bothering with a hello.
“I’ve got him and he’s fine,” I said. “I couldn’t hear the phone ring at work, but I found his message and left about forty-five minutes later. He’s okay. We got lucky and nothing happened, not that I can tell.”
“You sure that asshole didn’t touch him?” Ruger asked.
“Noah said he tried to tickle him and make him sit on his lap, but he ran away. They were completely cross-faded. I don’t think they even noticed when he took off. He was hiding outside on the fire escape.”
“Fuck . . .” Ruger said. He didn’t sound happy. “How high up was he?”
“Four stories,” I said, closing my eyes in shame. “It’s a miracle he didn’t fall.”
“Okay, I’m driving. I’ll talk to you later. Don’t fucking leave him alone again, or you’ll answer to me. You got that?”
“Yeah,” I whispered. I hung up the phone and set it down on the table. The room felt stifling and I couldn’t get enough air, so I crept softly across the floor to the window. The splintery wooden sash slid up with a groan and I leaned out, looking down at the street, sucking in the cool breeze. The bars had just emptied and people laughed outside, walking along like everything was fine and dandy.
What if I hadn’t checked the voice mail? Would any of these happy drunks have looked up and seen a little boy clinging to the fire escape? What if he’d fallen asleep out there?
Noah could be dead on that pavement right now.
I finished my beer and grabbed a second one, then sat on my ratty couch and pounded it. The last time I checked the clock, it said three a.m.