My feet were killing me. All I wanted to do was go home, take a shower, and crawl into bed.
Work had been brutal tonight. I’d been working at the same diner for almost two years, but up until last week, I’d only been part-time. The day after I’d graduated from Morgantown High School, I’d switched to full-time.
I didn’t really mind waitressing, but my body was still getting used to being on the move constantly. The diner, a small family-owned business, was always busy with the same customers. Most of them knew me by now and usually tipped well. A few college kids would come in from time to time, but they usually went to one of the more popular spots in Morgantown. I didn’t mind though because they were normally the ones who would leave crappy tips.
I pulled into the driveway of my foster parents’ house and yawned. I hoped they were asleep. My foster dad, Rick, was an asshole to me most of the time. The only reason he kept me and the other foster kids around was because of the nice checks he would receive for taking care of us. I knew my time here would be up soon. Today was my eighteenth birthday. Hopefully, my foster dad hadn’t remembered. I didn’t feel like getting kicked out of the only place I had to go tonight.
My foster mom, Tammy, wasn’t as bad as Rick. She could even be nice at times, but her fear of Rick’s temper would keep her from defending any of the kids. Rick wasn’t physically abusive, but when his temper got the best of him, he’d go on a rampage that rivaled a three-year-old’s. Tammy had learned long ago to lock up anything breakable.
I’d been in twelve different foster homes since I was three. Tammy and Rick’s house wasn’t the best, but it definitely wasn’t the worst. I shuddered as I thought about my last two houses. Yeah, I could deal with Rick’s asshole ways. I didn’t give a gigglefuck about Rick’s temper as long as he wouldn’t try to touch me.
I climbed out of my piece-of-shit car and headed for the house. My car was the only thing I truly owned. I’d saved every penny I could and purchased it two months ago. I’d paid six hundred dollars for a 1989 Chevy Impala, and I definitely got what I’d paid for. The body was rusted out in several places. The right rear fender was an ugly green color while the rest of the car was a faded red. It was the ugliest Christmas-themed car I’d ever seen. Actually, it was the ugliest car I’d ever seen—period. But it would get me from point A to point B most of the time. Sadly, it wasn’t even street legal, but I didn’t have the extra cash to get everything I needed to make it so.
Once I reached the house, I stuck my key into the lock and turned it. I frowned when the door didn’t unlock. I pulled the key out, thinking that maybe I’d shoved it in the wrong way, and I tried again. Realization hit me when the lock still didn’t turn over. Rick had changed it while I was at work.
I sighed in defeat before knocking loudly on the door. Lights turned on in the living room, and then I heard the door unlocking.
Rick opened the door and frowned at me. “Yes?”
“Um…the door wouldn’t open for me,” I said.
“Probably not since I changed the lock.”
“Why would you do that?” I asked even though I knew the answer.
“You’re eighteen now, Claire. You’re no longer my problem.”
I laughed humorlessly. “Seriously? You’re kicking me out on my birthday?”
“Yeah, I guess I am,” he said without remorse.
“Can I at least get my clothes and stuff?”
He shrugged. “Make it quick.”
He moved out of the way, and I hurried past him toward the room that I shared with Shelly.
Shelly was a foster kid, too. She’d been here when I arrived. She was only ten, but I’d found myself gravitating toward her from the beginning. We would look out for each other. I hated to think about her being here alone. I was pretty sure I was the only person in this house who cared about her.
I passed by the boys’ bedroom on the way to my room. Besides Shelly and me, two other foster kids lived here. Kevin was thirteen, and Jerimiah was eight. I wasn’t as close to them as I was to Shelly, but I’d still miss them as well.
I opened the door to my room and flipped on the light switch. Shelly was sound asleep in the bottom bunk. I moved quietly around the room, shoving my clothes and personal items into the suitcase I’d carried around since I was first put into foster care. It didn’t take me long to pack. I had very few clothes and even less personal items.
My eyes misted as I picked up the only thing I had left of my mom—a locket. I opened it up to see the tiny photo of her and me. I was only a few months old in the picture. My mom had been killed in a car accident right before I turned three. Her parents were also dead, and no one knew who my father was. With no family to take me in, I had been thrown into the foster system.
I closed my eyes and tried to remember my mother. As always, nothing came to me, except for the way she’d smelled. All I knew about her was that she’d smelled like strawberries. I closed the locket and slipped it into my jeans pocket. Once it was safely tucked away, I closed my suitcase and glanced down at Shelly. I hated to wake her up, but I couldn’t leave without saying good-bye.
I crouched down next to her and gently poked her a few times.
Her eyes slowly opened, and she stared up at me. “Claire? What’s wrong?” she asked as she sat up.
“I have to leave, kiddo. My time’s up,” I said as I tried to smile at her.
“What? Why?” she asked, panic filling her voice.
“Rick’s giving me the boot. I gotta go.”
“He can’t do that!” she cried angrily.
“I’m eighteen, so technically, he can.”
Shelly’s eyes filled with tears as she sprang off the bed and wrapped her tiny arms around me. “I’m going to miss you so much.”
I hugged her back tightly. “I’ll miss you, too. Take care of yourself, and keep out of trouble, okay?”
“You know I will. Will I see you again?”
I pulled away and cupped her cheek. “I don’t know. Maybe someday.”
She nodded as her shoulders sagged in defeat. “Please be careful.”
“Always. I love you.”
“Love you, too,” she whispered.
I pushed her back into bed and tucked her in. I kissed her forehead before pulling away. I stood and grabbed my suitcase off the floor. I gave her one last smile before I opened the door and slipped silently into the hallway.
Rick was still standing by the front door when I walked into the living room.
“Did you get everything?” he asked.
“Good, because you’re not welcome back here. Got me?”
“Yeah, I got you.” I shoved past him.
I didn’t look back as I walked to my car. I tossed my suitcase into the backseat before climbing behind the wheel. I backed out of the driveway and headed toward the main part of town. I couldn’t stop the tears from falling as I realized just how screwed I was.
I had fifty bucks to my name until I would get paid next week. I just hoped that I could make decent tips until then, or I’d be living on air. There was no way I’d be able to afford an apartment, even a shitty one, for at least a few months. I had no money, no friends, no credit, nothing. I was completely alone. The only thing I did have was my car.
I gently patted the dashboard. “Looks like it’s just you and me now, ugly Christmas car.”
I drove back to work and parked behind the building. There was no way I would park on the street. With my luck, a cop would come by and notice that every sticker on my car was expired. I didn’t need a tow bill that I couldn’t pay for. I shut off the engine and reclined the seat back until I was looking up at the roof of the car.
At least it’s not cold out, I thought to myself as I closed my eyes.
My entire body was rigid as I tried to control the emotions raging inside me. I tried to find the positives, but aside from the fact that I wouldn’t have to deal with Rick anymore, there were none. I attempted to shut off my mind, so I could sleep.
I would be working the morning shift tomorrow. I needed the money too much to oversleep and miss my shift. Plus, I wouldn’t want to do that to my boss, Bob. He was a really nice guy, too nice for his own good sometimes.
I vowed to myself that I would figure things out when I woke up the next morning. I had no other choice. I had to make a plan, or I’d never survive.
Days had passed since Rick kicked me out of his house. I’d accomplished nothing unless I counted the tips I’d made. I had been living off of dollar cheeseburgers and washing myself in the restroom sink at work. A Laundromat was nearby, so I at least had clean clothes.
The first day, I’d left after my shift ended. I’d waited until the diner closed and everyone was gone before driving back and parking behind the building again. I’d made sure that I was up and gone before the diner opened the next morning since I was on night shift.
The second day had gone much the same way. Hiding at the local library all day, I’d lost myself in the pages of not one, but two books. The first one was a paranormal book about angels and demons that I’d read a million times. I would use it to escape reality. My problems would seem so small when compared to the main character’s issues. So what if I was homeless? At least I didn’t have to worry about stopping a hoard of demons from taking over the earth and enslaving mankind. The second book was a romance. It was about a girl my age starting fresh in college and falling in love with a man who was no good for her. I couldn’t help but feel sad as I’d read it. There was no fresh start at college and no love in my future.
It was the third day, and I was working the morning shift again. I was taking my daily sink bath in the restroom when one of my coworkers, Junie, walked in on me naked.
“Oh my God!” I screamed as I tried to cover myself. Apparently, I’d forgotten to lock the restroom door.
Junie looked like she wanted to die as she quickly mumbled an apology and slammed the door shut. After I dried off with paper towels, I walked back into the main part of the diner. I headed over to the coffee pots and started making both decaf and regular, praying that Junie wouldn’t mention what had happened. Naturally, she cornered me while I was dumping coffee grinds into the filter.
“Claire, why were you taking a bath in the restroom?” she asked.
I glanced up to see concern in her expression. Junie was older than me, probably in her late twenties or early thirties. With light-brown hair and brown eyes, she was pretty but plain. She’d recently gone through a nasty divorce and lost a lot of weight. I knew the stress from the divorce and trying to raise her two boys on her own had been taking a toll on her. I didn’t know much about what had happened, but I was pretty sure the bastard had cheated on her.
“I didn’t get a chance to shower at my house this morning,” I lied.
“Cut the crap, Claire. What is going on?” she asked.
I debating on lying again, but I couldn’t do it. Junie was always nice to me, and I couldn’t lie right to her face again.
“Rick kicked me out of the house the other night.” I looked away from her.
“He what? That asshole! I’m so sorry, Claire,” Junie said.
I looked up to see her brown eyes filled with anger. “Don’t apologize. There’s nothing you or anyone else could’ve said to stop him. You and I both knew it was coming.”
“You could call and report him though. I mean, he’s still getting paid for this month even though you’re eighteen.”
“Then, what happens if the foster care people decide Tammy and Rick aren’t suitable foster parents? Shelly, Kevin, and Jerimiah would be pulled out and put into a house that could be ten times worse. Rick’s an ass, but he’d never hurt them. I won’t be the reason they’re sent to a horrible home,” I said as I stared at her.
She sighed. “Fine, I see your point, but it’s still not right. What are you going to do?”
I shrugged. “I have no clue. I guess I’ll just keep saving my tips until I can afford a place to stay. My car will work for now since it’s summer, but I’ll have to find somewhere to stay before winter hits.”
“I wish you could stay with me, but I literally have no room.” She was clearly upset over the fact that she couldn’t help me.
“Don’t worry about it, Junie. I’ll be fine. I need you to promise me that this won’t leave the two of us. I don’t want anyone to know what’s going on with me. It’s embarrassing.”
“Claire…” She bit her lip.
“Junie, please,” I begged.
“Fine, I won’t say anything, but I wish I could help you somehow.”
“Don’t stress about it. Just focus on taking care of your kiddos. They need you more than I do.”
She gave me a weak smile before walking over to a family who had just walked in. I watched as she led them to a table and handed them menus. I smiled as the mom picked her baby up out of the portable car seat and cradled the little one in her arms. A wave of sadness swept over me as I thought of all the things I’d missed out on with my own mother. I hoped that this baby would have a better life than I had.
The rest of the morning went by quickly. By the end of my shift, I was dragging. Once my last table was cleared, I walked into the back room and grabbed my purse. I headed back out to the front and waved at Sarah, the waitress taking over my tables. She waved back before turning her attention to the two guys she was waiting on.
Our boss, Bob, came barreling out of his office and headed straight for me. “Claire, I need a favor,” he said when he stopped in front of me.
“Sure. What’s up?” I asked.
“I hate to ask you this, but can you work the evening shift, too? Stacey just called off. I’d ask Junie, but I know she has to pick her boys up from the sitter.”
My feet screamed at me to run away, but I couldn’t do that to Bob. Plus, I needed the extra money.
“Of course I’ll stay.” I smiled at him.
“Thank you. I owe you one, Claire. Don’t think that I haven’t noticed how hard you’ve been working lately.”
I nodded. “I try. I’d better go put my purse away and head back out onto the floor before Sarah gets overrun.”
He nodded before turning and walking back into his office. I hurried to the back room and shoved my purse in my locker. After making a quick stop in the restroom, I walked out onto the floor. Sarah was running back and forth, trying to take care of my new tables as well as hers. I gave her an apologetic smile before heading to my side.
By the time my second shift was over, I could barely walk. It was a Friday night, and we’d been especially busy. The diner didn’t serve alcohol, which kept away several potential customers, but we were constantly busy with families. Most of them would tip well, and I ended the day with almost a hundred dollars in tips. I smiled when I realized I would be eating something besides an artery-clogging hamburger when I left. I might even splurge on a salad.
“I’m beat,” Sarah said as we wiped down all the tables. “I don’t know how you’re still standing. You’ve been here since we opened.”
“Sheer will and determination. Plus, I made a ton of tips today.”
“Nice. Go buy yourself something pretty.” She high-fived me as she walked by.
I laughed and smacked her on the butt with my towel.
Once the tables were clean, the condiments and shakers filled up, and the floor mopped, I walked to the back room and grabbed my purse. After shoving my cash inside, I told everyone good night and headed out to my car.
I drove across town to Denny’s and ordered the salad I’d been desperately craving. I even ordered a Coke instead of water. I was a splurging fool tonight.
I glanced up from my salad and noticed two guys watching me from a few tables over. Both of them were good-looking, and they appeared to be around my age. I guessed they were probably students at West Virginia University. Morgantown was a college town through and through, and the streets were usually crawling with kids. I assumed that these two were local since most of the students had packed up and headed home for summer vacation.
One of them noticed me staring, and he gave me a smile that sent my heart racing into overdrive. Suddenly embarrassed by my gawking, I looked away and used my blonde hair as a shield between them and me.
I’d had a few dates in high school but nothing to get excited over. I wasn’t a virgin—I’d lost that to Scott Marks my junior year—but I definitely wasn’t skilled when it came to the opposite sex. One time in the backseat of Scott’s dad’s Ford truck didn’t really teach me everything I needed to know. Or anything I needed to know, really.
I quickly ate my food and paid my bill without looking over at the guys’ table again. My life was a disaster as it was. Adding a guy would only complicate things more.
I walked out to my car and unlocked the door before climbing inside. Once the doors were locked again, I started the engine and pulled away from the lot.
I couldn’t help but grin as I remembered the guy’s smile. From what I could tell, he’d been cute. His dark brown hair was shaggy, but it wasn’t so long that it looked messy. His arms were toned, probably from playing football or basketball. Those were the only two sports people really cared about around here, and football was the favorite. Once football season hit, that was what everyone would talk about. I wasn’t a big fan of sports, but even I cheered for the Mountaineers.
I drove back to the restaurant and parked, trying not to think about the cute guy or his smile. I yawned and reclined my seat. Yeah, there was no way in hell I could think about boys right now.