Authors: Erin McCarthy
Tags: #Romance, #New Adult
by Erin McCarthy
2015 by Erin McCarthy
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the copyright owner and the publisher of this book, excepting brief quotations used in reviews. Purchase only authorized editions.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, businesses or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
2014 by Sarah Hansen, Okay Creations
Formatting by Polgarus Studio
I’m used to people staring at me, judging. They see the tattoos, the dyed hair, the piercings and they have an opinion. Slut. User. Bad mother. So as I grabbed the diaper bag and adjusted Asher on my hip, kissing the top of his downy head and murmuring to him to calm him down, I defiantly met the stares of the other people on the bus. They could judge me all they wanted. Babies cry. A fourteen hour bus ride with a twelve month old blows and I was doing all I could to keep him happy. Did they really think they could do any better? That if in my shoes they wouldn’t have a crying kid at some point?
They couldn’t do any better. They would have a crying kid because they were not Mother Mary perfect. No one was. The attitude, the judgy judgment was bullshit.
I tumbled down the stairs of the bus at the station in Portland and breathed a sigh of relief that I had made it. The hot exhaust from the bus hit my legs, but I felt chilled. It was colder in Maine than in New York and the crisp air made me shiver as I walked quickly to get inside. I didn’t have a coat for Asher. Only his pajama onesie that he was dressed in. I was going to have to deal with that. But first I needed to get him something to eat. He’d had his last bottle four hours earlier and I had just enough money to get to my sister’s house and live off of for a few days. I hadn’t eaten myself in three days and I felt foggy, lightheaded. I’d been awake for twenty-four hours and my mind felt sluggish, like my thoughts were constantly being dragged under in quicksand.
Which was probably how I had managed to leave my purse on the bus. I realized it as soon as I walked into the convenience store in the bus station and felt for it on my shoulder. Nothing but the diaper bag. No purse.
“Shit.” Turning around, I rushed back but the bus was already pulling away. Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out, Jesus. For a second I thought about chasing the bus, but I had the baby and I didn’t think my rubbery legs could gain any sort of speed. For a second, I felt like I might have a panic attack, my breath pushing in and out frantically from anxiety. The street in front of me blurred a little for a split second as the hunger, fatigue, fear overwhelmed me. This was it. End of the line. I had nothing. No one.
But by the sheer force of my will I dragged myself back from the edge of passing out and swallowed the bile that kept crawling up my throat. I wasn’t going down without a fight because I had Asher to take care of. I could do this. I could do anything for him.
The biggest accomplishment of my life is giving birth to my son, Asher. The biggest failure is my inability to keep a roof over his head and put food in his mouth. Part of me has wondered if I should give him up. Let him have a better life with someone who isn’t dead broke and without a true family or really any friends I can trust. But what happens to a twelve month old in foster care? I picture Asher confused, crying, missing me, and I know that no matter what, no one can love him like I can. No one will look at him and feel the intensity of emotion, that deep, straight down to my core desperate love and affection and urgent, violent need to give him the best life possible.
I no longer cared about what happened to me. Whatever. Hit me, rape me, humiliate me, kill me. Just don’t hurt my son. I would do whatever it took to keep him safe. To feed him.
Which was why I decided to go back into the convenience store and steal baby food. Just a couple of those weird pouches of pureed food they had now, that reminded me of the one summer where my foster mother had let me drink Capri Sun. I had sucked on those things for three months, a happy straw-slurping daily treat, glorifying in the obnoxious sound it made at the end, but also hating that the sound meant it was empty. That had been a good summer, the best one, really, where I had felt safe and cared for. Wanted. Somehow it always felt like I was trying to get back to that summer, and yet I was nowhere near to that mischievous little girl any more.
Entering the store, I casually moved around, like I was looking for something in particular, but nothing really. The art of allowing the clerk to see me, but not think too much about me, was hard to do because I stood out in Maine. In New York City, no one paid attention to me, but there, in the low key bus station shop, where only two other customers were moving around, I knew I looked the part of angry East Village singer in a rock band. Which I was, all of those things. I was wearing skinny jeans in black and a Ramones T-shirt I’d had since middle school. My hair was at last count four different colors, and I had a nose and a lip piercing, plus an array of studs in my ear. I should have taken the rings out on the bus. I hated bowing down to convention, but for Asher, I would go mainstream. I just hadn’t had the time or the money to fix my hair or my clothes.
The goal was to get to my twin sister, Chloe’s, house. The sister I had blown off and her boyfriend Ethan, who were nicer to me than I had any right to expect. They were living in an apartment by the university. They didn’t know I was about to show up on their doorstep and I didn’t have any minutes left on my disposable phone to call Chloe. Well, before I’d actually left the stupid phone on the bus. But I figured she wouldn’t turn me away even though I hadn’t called ahead. Chloe had reached out to me, but she’d caught me off guard. I hadn’t been ready to deal with the sister I didn’t remember. But now I didn’t have a choice.
The store didn’t have a huge selection of baby supplies since it was just meant for grabbing what you forgot to pack at home but there was applesauce and carrots in the squeeze pouches. I eyed the diapers, wishing I could figure out how to lift those, but it was too risky and once I got to Chloe’s I could borrow money for a fresh pack of Huggies. I felt a twinge of guilt for stealing, but I figured any mother in my position would do the same thing. There wasn’t a camera anywhere visible, but there was a guy at the end of the aisle, shopping the condom section. I fought the urge to roll my eyes. Because bus stations make everyone want to get their bang on. He was kind of hot, though, in a douchebag sort of way.
When he glanced over at me, I let my eyes sweep downward demurely. Direct eye contact was never good and he smelled like law enforcement. It was just something about the way he moved, the way he studied me. Too sharply. I wondered if he was a security guard or something. I grabbed two pouches of food and started walking down the aisle in the opposite direction. Rounding the aisle, I shifted Asher on my hip, dropped the pouches in my diaper bag, paused to look at something on the end cap, like I’d found what I was looking for then realized it wasn’t it.
Then walked out of the store and headed straight towards the women’s restroom.
I ignored the low man’s voice from behind me and kept walking. It was Condom Guy, I knew it was. When I felt his hand on my arm, I jerked away and spun around, instinct to fight strong, but I knew I needed to keep a cool head. “What?” I asked.
“I think you forgot to pay for that baby food.” Condom Guy was tall, with dark brown hair that looked like he’d been too lazy to get it cut in awhile, along with a five o’clock shadow and eyelashes so glorious they made me hate him. His eyes were mid-tone brown, the brown of tiger eye stones and lattes. He was wearing a leather jacket with a hood attached and well-worn jeans. He looked to be about twenty-six or so years old.
While his look wasn’t malicious or accusatory or judgmental, I knew he knew. I could just tell in his posture, the serious expression. But I couldn’t read his intentions and that worried me.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I lied. I debated whether to claim I had actually paid or I hadn’t taken any baby food at all. Why the hell did he care anyway?
“I think you do. I saw you put it in your diaper bag. Two food containers.”
Narrowing my eyes, I didn’t say anything. My arms felt numb from holding Asher and I didn’t have time for this. I needed to feed my baby then walk to Chloe’s apartment, which based off the map I’d looked up at the public library computer before I’d left New York was an easy five-minute taxi ride. That had been the original plan before I’d left my purse on the bus. Probably a thirty minute walk. So I just turned around and started walking again. The movement made me dizzy and I stumbled a little.
“Are you okay?” he asked, suddenly appearing in front of me, cutting off my progress.
“I’ll be fine if you just let me go to the bathroom. I have to change my tampon.” Usually invoking menstruation scares the hell out of men and they drop whatever stupid they have going on.
Not so with Condom Guy. “Look, I’m not going to say anything, but you know there are cameras in that store. I’m a cop, I know. So just go back and pay for the baby food and everything will be fine.”
“I didn’t take any baby food,” I said, through gritted teeth. Of course he was a cop. I could read that nosy interference a mile away. And I didn’t believe for one fucking minute he wanted to make things easier for me. No one ever did anything out of the goodness of his heart.
“I saw you put it in your diaper bag.”
“I already had that food. I was taking it out to feed my son.” I was done with this conversation. “Look, unless you want to arrest me, leave me the fuck alone. You forgot to buy your condoms, by the way. Better get those before you hit the club Friday night.”
“You know what? I’ll just pay for the baby food for you. You look a little down on your luck. Come back with me and we can ring it all out.”
Like I was falling for that. A shiver ran up my spine at his words. They were a reminder of all the times men had been nice to me, offered me a favor, then had wanted something in return. By thirteen I had figured out never to trust a kind gesture from anyone who possessed a penis. “So you can then blackmail me for a blowjob or whatever? No thanks. I’ll take my chances. You’re probably not even a cop.” Though I knew he was. He had the air of authority. Of righteousness.
His eyes widened. “Where the hell would you get an idea like that?” His mouth curled. “I don’t want a blowjob from you.”
Something about the way he said it, like I was disgusting, like he wouldn’t even stoop so low as to accept a blowjob from a “girl like me” made my cheeks burn with heat and my mouth sour. Story of my life. Not good enough. Not good enough to keep by my biological
adoptive parents. Not good enough to date by so-called decent men, not good enough to hire for a job. Not good enough to even suck this guy’s dick.
Down on my luck? Yeah, well,
It never ceased to amaze me how men could look at me like they thought I was a piece of shit, yet would jump at the chance to shove my head down on their dick. Fury, the one emotion I was comfortable with, smothered the humiliation, the insecurity that had momentarily risen in me.
Taking a step closer to him, I looked him straight in the eye. “Don’t do me any favors. You want to arrest me for stealing three dollars of baby food, you go for it. But I don’t need your bullshit Good Samaritan act and I don’t need your judgment, so take a step back or you’ll be arresting me for assaulting a police officer.”
My voice was strong, steady. I was so angry I had expected to hear a tremor or two, have my shoulders shake. But I was stoic, in control, powerful. It would have been a great speech if I hadn’t passed out at the end of it. I realized suddenly it was about to happen. The bus station spun around me and black spots danced in front of my eyes. Knowing what was about to happen, I reached out to the very guy I’d just vowed to hate, my hand grabbing his arm.
His jaw dropped and I could see his lips moving, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. Not wanting to drop Asher when I blacked out, I leaned against the guy, pressing my son against his chest.
Then my eyes rolled back in my head and I went under into nothing.
Thank God I have quick reflexes. There was about a split second between when I realized the girl was about to faint, to when she crumpled to the ground like a marionette doll off its strings. When she’d leaned on me, I’d instinctively taken the baby from her. Now I had the little guy safely on my hip and I glanced around the bus station for my sister, Kasey, who had wandered off in search of a coffee. The baby was crying, but I figured he was just startled. It was the mother I was more worried about.