One by one, Kaitlin wiped down the covers of the books she’d been reading over the past two weeks and slipped them back into the plastic Kroger shopping bag. Last to go in was the big disappointment, Thick Face, Black Heart. Her mouth turned up at the corner as it went into the bag.
Cool title though.
Maybe it lost something in the translation, but it sure took a lot of pages to say, ‘You have to be ruthless and not care what others think to get what you want’.
Preachin’ to the choir on that, Reverend Chu.
It seemed most of the book was concerned with justifying that premise., and it wasn’t anything Nicolo Machievelli hadn’t said in The Prince, four hundred years before Thick Black Theory.
The blurb that connected the book to The Art of War had convinced Kaitlin to give it a chance. She’d read the entire book, just to see if there were any nuggets to help her with winning her own wars. The best she had found was, A knife has great utility, and, without it, life would be extremely inconvenient. Yet a knife is also a deadly weapon.
To her way of thinking, the deadly weapon part was what held the greatest utility. Kaitlin checked to make sure Blondie was clear in the higher right pocket of her cargo shorts.
Kaitlin was well-read enough in Psychology to know that Mr. Matthews—the school psychologist who’d tried every week of her ninth grade year to get her to talk about what was bothering her—would probably consider Blondie a crime trophy. But Kaitlin preferred thinking of her as a rescued pet. The other prisoners in her step-father’s high-dollar knife collection had gone to better homes but had also brought in needed currency to help fund Kaitlin’s escape.
She’d stopped reading self-help and pop psych books lately. There had been a few helpful concepts she’d uncovered, but most of them seemed to have no understanding of what kept people chained in their minds.
The ones that did, she read twice.
Kaitlin put her things in her backpack, sliding the tablet and Bluetooth keyboard into the foil-lined layer where she kept the books she ‘checked out’ from the libraries she visited. Without the special section in her pack, she wouldn’t be able to get the books past the scanners at the door, and otherwise she’d never be able to read a paper book outside of library hours. Her other reading site, for when she had to find something obscure, was good old B&N with free access for all titles within their Wi-Fi range.
Since it was almost time for the library to open, she finished her coffee and left the McDonalds, tossing the cup in the trash as she exited. The library was a short trek across a parking lot, and she emptied the books from the plastic bag into the after-hours bin as she passed. As usual, she kept her hoodie pulled over her face and her unruly red hair when passing the security cameras.
Her ride out of town was leaving in an hour, so she stopped by the ATM, withdrew the $300 maximum from her account then caught the city bus to the stop closest to the address the people offering the ride had texted her.
She spotted another ATM and decided to stock up on cash since it was convenient, again, using the techniques she’d learned online to avoid being identified on camera. Though Kaitlin really didn’t need to hide anymore, since she was on her way back to Dallas to file for emancipated minor status, but she didn’t have a reason to stop using the habits that had kept her safe enough and off the grid for two years.
She wasn’t about to worry that her mother might contest it. Kaitlin was more than willing to drag Dan into court to show cause that the home environment was unsuitable. Kaitlin even had the name of a good lawyer in Dallas if it came to that. But it wouldn’t. She knew what motivated her mother, and that motivation would keep her from trying to rein Kaitlin back in.
Kaitlin sighed. The situation illustrated the point that your opponent’s fear was your own ally, and Kaitlin knew how strong her ally was. She had seen its power in her mother’s face for years.
Kaitlin pushed her long even stride to her fastest walk on the way to the modest ranch house in the suburbs outside of Atlanta where the church network had scored the rideshare to Dallas for her. It was an older couple heading out west to visit their grandkids during summer vacation.
Last week, Kaitlin had an extended phone chat with the woman, Beatrice Handy, a retired science teacher. No red flags came up during the talk, and Kaitlin’s story about traveling home from visiting friends went down without comment. Beatrice was more interested in talking about what Kaitlin’s interests were than her situation and family. When she’d learned Kaitlin was a writer who was actually paid for what she published, Beatrice vowed to go online and buy some of her books so they would have something else to chat about on the drive. “If she wanted to..,” Beatrice had said.
Kaitlin had warned Beatrice that her latest series was written for young adults, they weren’t kid’s books and included some rough-edged material and language. Beatrice had just chuckled. “I may be old, but I’m not made of glass. Honestly, Kaitlin, in every generation, young people think they invented sex, swearing and violence.”
When Kaitlin rang the doorbell, a tall, older man answered, looking down at her with eyes framed by white, bushy eyebrows only a few inches below the top of the doorway.
“Mr. Handy?” Kaitlin said.
“Good morning, and yes I am,” he said.
“I’m Kaitlin. I spoke with Beatrice on the phone last week about the rideshare.”
“Of course, of course. Come in,” he said. “I’m sorry, I was expecting someone older than you after reading your book. Beatrice said I had to and I’m glad I did.” He opened the door and stepped aside. “You certainly led your characters on a harrowing ride in that one.” He chuckled, turning to face down the hall. “Beatrice, our young author has arrived.”
“Well bring her in for breakfast, Bernard.” Footsteps sounded in the hall then a bustle of Beatrice came around the corner toward the door.
So that’s what ‘spry’ looks like.
Kaitlin made some mental notes. Most of her characters were younger. There weren’t many older people in her life to draw on for inspiration.
“Welcome, Kaitlin,” Bernice said, reaching out with both hands to clasp Kaitlin’s in a warm, firm welcome. “I made a batch of Welsh tea cakes, and they just came out of the oven. They can come along with us too for snacks on the way. How do you like your tea, dear?”
Kaitlin, sensed the right answer wasn’t ‘sweet and iced’—even though it seemed that was the only way anyone drank it where she’d grown up. She smiled. “In a cup with good company,” she said, using a phrase she usually applied to coffee.
“Oh, I can see you don’t save all your good words for your stories. Come in and sit down for a few minutes. Bernard has the bus all ready to go, but let’s sit down for a minute and we’ll see how my teacakes turned out. They should be cool enough to eat now.”
Kaitlin pulled her arms out of her backpack and set it by the door.
“I hope you aren’t allergic to eggs, wheat or currants?” Beatrice said.
“No ma’am,” said Kaitlin, taking a chance on the currants, which she didn’t remember ever eating. “It smells wonderful.”
She followed Beatrice into the dining room. The table was set with fine china and much more than just tea and cakes.
Beatrice bustled around the table.”Since we are traveling I thought we’d just have a continental breakfast and bring along all the leftovers,” she said. “Would you like some granola? I can’t drink dairy milk, but we have some they make from almonds now, if you care for any.” Kaitlin sensed the right thing to do was to let Bernice feed her. Though Kaitlin made sure to select plates and utensils that weren’t the first available and only ate what she’d seen them eat first. It didn’t stop her from enjoying the teacakes with the hot tea. She could see how someone might think tea was an acceptable alternative to coffee, provided you could have these incredible cakes at the same time.
As tea and cakes continued to disappear, and their conversation branched out, Kaitlin noted that Bernice was treating her with unusual deference. After thinking about it, she concluded that, her series of Young Adult novels—that paid for food and clothes while Kaitlin traveled under the radar—represented something besides a portable job in Bernice’s mind.
To Bernice, Kaitlin was a celebrity.
Kaitlin had been writing since she was thirteen. She wrote what she liked to read—gritty stories about teens struggling with their problems. Even after she’d abandoned hope of staying with her mother and chosen the life of a runaway instead of suffering Dan’s sexual advances and attempts to corner her, she would find a coffee house somewhere and pound out stories on her cheap Android tablet and Bluetooth keyboard.
That was how she’d met Brian.
Kaitlin had been on her way south, but had holed up in a little downtown coffee shop in a town in the middle of Virginia, trapped by an early snowstorm and cold snap. The group she was travelling with at the time, catching rides in boxcars, had decided to stay in a traveler community nearby. Kaitlin, unsure of her safety there, had decided to move on, but, she’d waited too long, and now she wasn’t sure which way to jump.
Traveling with cold or frozen water falling on your head sucked.
On her way back from the bathroom—in between cups of coffee—she’d noticed the book lying on the table where a guy was working at a laptop by himself. He’d been there all afternoon, attacking the keyboard.
She wasn’t sure why she stopped, but she’d just read that book the day before at the library where she’d been haunting the Young Adult section.
“Hey, I just read that book at the library yesterday,” she said. Maybe she’d grown too used to being around people from traveling in a group. Normally she wouldn’t have taken a chance on talking to a stranger, but she’d been watching him, off and on, for hours and hadn’t gotten a bad vibe from him.
He looked up and met her eyes. “Oh? Was it any good?”
Kaitlin pursed her lips and tapped her finger on her wrist. “I liked it that the author didn’t talk down to the reader, even though it was written for a younger audience,” Kaitlin said.
The man nodded. “Yeah, I hate it when they do that.”
Kaitlin spent a second sizing him up further. He didn’t dress in a business suit or business casual the way most of the weekday traffic did in this coffee house. Instead, he wore jeans, and a tie-died tee shirt peeked out from the collar of his black hoodie. She’d seen him here before too. He seemed too old to be a student at any of the nearby colleges
“Why is it on your table though?” she said. “It’s written for teens and you aren’t reading it. The binding hasn’t even been opened.”
The man grinned, white teeth splitting his sun-browned face. “Busted!” he said. “I’ll tell you why, but you have to promise to keep it quiet.”
She grinned in reply and nodded.
He pushed out a chair for her to sit down. “The evangelical college in town has a witnessing class as part of their curriculum,” he said. They send students around to coffee houses in the area to sell religion. They don’t usually believe me when I say I have enough already. Even though I pretty much believe what they do, it seems I still have to pass a quiz. I tried pointing out that their methods were alienating people rather than converting them, but that didn’t work either. It got to where it was keeping me from working. So now, when they ask if they can sit down, I change the subject from religion to books and sell them one of mine. They either buy or leave. I have no idea how many of them read the books, but I invite them to come back and discuss it when they’ve finished. A few actually did come back to talk, but only one had given up on trying to get me to come to their church.”
Kaitlin laughed then paused. “Wait a minute,” she said. “You mean you wrote that book?”
“Yeah, and I donated two copies to the library. My name is Brian, by the way.”
“That’s not the name on the cover.”
“I use a pen name. I promote my books, not my personal identity.”
Kaitlin pursed her lips. “My name is Kaitlin,” she said, surprising herself by using her real name instead of her street name.
It’s only a first name. It wouldn’t help anyone track her down, and this guy seemed okay.
“Pleased to meet you, Kaitlin,” Brian said. “I’ve seen you here before. What are you working on?”
“Um,” Kaitlin said, summoning her courage. “I write stories.”
“Cool! What are you doing with them after you write them?”
Kaitlin shrugged. “I’m not sure. I guess I’m saving them for now.”
Brian nodded. “Do you mind if I read a few pages? There aren’t many writers in this town.”
Kaitlin bit her lip then nodded. She had a handful of burner emails; she could use one of those. “Can you write down your email?”
Brian pulled a business card from his pocket and handed it to her.
The pen name was on the card along with some blurbs about his writing and his email.
Kaitlin walked back to her tablet, selected a short story she’d finished two days ago and fired it off to the email addy on the card with a note.
Let me know if you want to talk about it when you’re done.
Brian held up his thumb.
Kaitlin looked out the window, watching the snow plummeting from the darkening gray sky and piling up on the street. She frowned. Getting back to her tent in the woods by the river would be easy enough, but she’d leave tracks that would show until the snow covered them. She didn’t like leaving a trail for predators to follow. For six months, she’d been mostly on her own, but she was running low on cash and needed to get further south fast. No way was she going to hop the freights by herself. She used her browser to check the price of Amtrak tickets to Atlanta. She called the station to confirm the price, but she was nine dollars short unless she broke into her emergency cushion, and the train didn’t leave until 6 AM anyway. Her stomach sank a little.
Her tablet pinged. Brian had sent back an email.
Kaitlin picked up her tablet and keyboard and carried them with her. She sat, feeling oddly vulnerable.
“I liked this,” Brian said. “Do you stick to short stories, or do you have longer stuff too?”
“I didn’t think you had time to read my longer stuff.”
Brian grinned. “Maybe not today, but, judging by this, your writing could make you some money, if you had a good editor, a cover artist and a marketing strategy.”
“Nope. All I have is me,” said Kaitlin, frowning.
“Well, can you show me your portfolio of stories and describe them? We can go from there.”
“We may have to do that another time,” Kaitlin said. “I need to go before the snow gets too deep.”
Brian looked up and smiled as the entrance bell to the coffee shop tinkled. “Hang on just a second,” he said.
“Hey, Dad.” said someone behind her. Kaitlin turned to see a twentyish girl with snow sticking to her long eyelashes, melting on her wavy, blonde hair and dripping onto her black, knee-high Doc Martins.
“So, what is so important you dragged me out in this weather, and who is your friend?”
Brian pulled a chair back for the girl. “Kaitlin, this is my daughter Marlee. Marlee, this is Kaitlin, a potential client. She’s been riding with the travelers, but she’s decided to go out on her own and was about to head for warmer weather. I was hoping you could convince her to stick around.”
“What are you? A modern Sherlock Holmes?” said Kaitlin. .
“Pshaw! That was an easy one, not even elementary,” Brian said. “You don’t get rid of boxcar grime without some serious laundry and scrubbing, and with this weather, if you were planning on staying with the travelers, you’d be wherever they are camping now. Plus I heard you calling Amtrak ”
Brian turned to Marlee. “Kaitlin needs a place to stay, and you need a paying roommate. With her advance on her stories, Kaitlin can split your rent, and she’ll need your graphic arts skills when her work is ready to publish.”
Kaitlin studied Brian, eyes narrowed, then looked at Marlee.
“Umm, hi, Kaitlin,” Marlee said. “I’m a good roommate. The common area needs to stay clean and neat, but you can keep your room how you like it. It’s a basement apartment, but it’s dry and warm. No overnight guests allowed. It’s just too complicated. Your share would only be ninety-five dollars a month.”
Kaitlin rubbed her hands on her face. This was too weird. But it was snowing and cold, and a month’s rent was less than a trip to Atlanta. “You know, you are the ones taking a chance here,” she said. “You don’t know I’m not some psycho-klepto horror story.”
Brian snorted. “People say the eyes are the window to the soul, but eyes don’t compare to writing.” He pointed to his computer screen. No one writes a story like this unless they have the heart of a hero.”
That night—warm, clean and well fed—Kaitlin looked out the window of her new room and watched the snow piling up in drifts under the moonlight. Somehow—just then—it looked beautiful.