She was just a baby; Just a wisp of a girl. Yes, wisp was a good descriptor; she had wispy bangs, and wispy, long eyelashes framing eyes made bigger by her slight, wispy frame.
She looked hunted, and haunted, and hungry. She seemed dead on her feet, and she was jonesing. That much was obvious. Her name was Shawna (or was it Kayla? Oh, yeah, that’s right. Shayla.) and there was bound to be a sad story behind her arrival here; there was always a sad story. But Deb had been watching people come through that door for over 16 years, and she could spot a con every time.
Takes one to know one.
People got here all sorts of ways. Some came for signatures required by the court system. Others came to placate family members. A lucky few came in dying-truly dying-and willing to try anything to live. Those desperate souls, oddly enough, seemed for once in their lives to be carrying the advantage. God help them, they’d earned it. And then, there were those, like the girl, who came here for the cookies and coffee and to run a game on anyone who’d play, because they’d run out of places to score, and they’d run out of anything else to eat.
Deb had been one of those. She used people indiscriminately to get what she needed in order to get by. It wasn’t personal-she just figured everyone operated the way she did, so it didn’t feel to her like victimization. It was just…well…
It was just what it was.
She wandered in one Saturday morning in February of 2000. She’d been up for three days. She’d put all her money up her nose and had resorted to trading her guy sexual favors to keep her awake. She needed a shower and a sandwich and some serious shut-eye, but it had been a long time since Deb gave a shit about what she needed. What she wanted was all that had mattered for years. And all she’d wanted for all those years was anything that would take her away from wherever she was.
Booze. Pot. Coke. X. Whatever she could get her hands on.
Up or down or sideways didn’t matter. Just away. But that Saturday morning in February, something changed. To this day she couldn’t explain it, but that day what she wanted was to be free. To live her life, instead of running away from it. It was a Goddamned miracle, is what it was, and there wasn’t a person on Earth who would ever convince her otherwise. People like her didn’t change.
But Deb had changed.
She knew Shayla wasn’t there to change. Not yet. They’d had a run-in last week; Deb was sure she’d seen the girl swipe a twenty out of the basket, and so she’d cut her off on her way out.
Should have let it go; she knew that now. The girl had been spooked, and practically tore the door off its hinges to escape the accusation. Deb wondered where she’d be now if someone like Now Her had gotten in Then Her’s face the way she’d done to Shayla that day.
No. She didn’t have to wonder. She’d be six feet under; done in by cirrhosis, or a heart attack, or a gunshot wound. And those would have been but symptoms of her true nemesis — Pride. Her foolish pride and her Gotta-Have-It sized ego would rather have died than walked back through the door of any room where she’d been accused of stealing right there in front of God and everybody.
She had worried, then, that Shayla was gone for good. She was supposed to mind her own business, and this was why. It had been eating at her ever since, so she was relieved to see the girl — only a little worse for wear — shuffle in tonight. She watched Shayla slide silently into a seat near the door, look around until her glance settled at the coffee station at the back of the room. She stood and made a beeline for the caffeine, eyes straight ahead, and Deb did the only thing she could, short of tripping her, as she sped by. Just a tiny wave and a smile, but it was enough to draw Shayla’s eyes to hers. Instantly, the girl’s gaze darkened with a hardness Deb recognized. She stopped abruptly, spun around and headed out the door.
Deb hadn’t even had a chance to wipe the smile off her face when the chilly draft from the slamming door whooshed past her.
When someone asked later what she was thinking at this moment, Deb responded that clearly, she wasn’t thinking at all or she’d have stayed in her seat.
Instead, she followed Shayla out the door.