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The young ones, as a rule, were hard.
The young pregnant ones were heartbreaking.
Samantha Riggins watched the girl sitting in her office, clearly trying hard not to cry, and wondered how many more young pregnant girls Sam could help before jumping off the deep end.
There was a limit. There had to be.
"She hasn't said anything?" Samantha asked Deb, who'd checked in the girl while Sam taught an evening computer class.
"Nothing helpful," Deb said with a heavy sigh and arched eyebrows that reminded Sam that the young pregnant ones never said anything helpful. "Gave us the name Jane Doe and insisted she's twenty-one."
If Jane Doe was twenty-one Sam would eat her dog Daisy's dinner. "Anything else?" she asked, turning to watch Deb, who had walked in the doors of Serenity House Women's Shelter four years ago just like Jane Doe. Young. Pregnant. Terrified.
At least Jane Doe didn't appear beaten. Not like Deb had been, beaten to within an inch of dying.
"She's scared," Deb said, leaning against the kitchen counter. "But she's not talking. She's from the East Coast, maybe New York." She shook her head, her turquoise-and-rhinestone glasses catching the last of the light through the windows and tossing it around the room. "And that black hair is about as real as mine," Deb said, touching the blond tips of her long black braids. "She's got dye on her neck and hands. She's running, that girl, and she's not looking back."
Sam's worst suppositions were realized. Of course, young, pregnant women with bus-station dye jobs didn't show up at Serenity House because they'd heard the food was good.
They came because Northwoods, North Carolina, was the last stop on thesouthernmost tracks of a train heading out of the snarl that was New York, Newark, D.C. and Baltimore.
And they came because they were in trouble.
"For what it's worth, there's something about her that seems different," Deb said. "She's got a manicure. And a diamond ring she's wearing on a chain around her neck, that she ain't hocked yet. And them jeans she's got on cost two hundred dollars."
Sam shot Deb a dubious look. As if any of them would know two-hundred-dollar jeans if they came up and bit them in the butt.
"I read People," Deb explained. "They talk a lot about expensive jeans in that magazine. Can't help it if I've got an eye for fashion."
Sam smiled. Calling Deb's obsession with sequins and studding an "eye" was stretching it.
"All I'm saying is that girl is running from money," Deb said. "And that ain't ever a good thing for us."
No. It wasn't. It meant whomever this girl was running from had resources. Lawyers. Private investigators.
Luckily, Serenity House had a private investigator they could call, too, if they needed. But Sam was always careful about calling J.D.
"Thank you," she said to Deb, who, in the years since arriving and staying, had become the most valued asset Serenity House had. And not just because Deb's mother had taught her about plumbing.
"No problem," the young woman said and checked her watch. "It's eight o'clock. I need to pick up Shonny and get on home." She looked at Sam askance. "Unless you want me to stay here tonight?"
"No, thank you, Deb," Sam said, appreciating the offer. "We'll be okay."
"All right then, you want me to call J.D., get his help on this?"
The ripple that pulsed through her body was a familiar one. It happened anytime someone said his name.
"I'll call him after I talk to her," Sam said, making sure not to look at the shrewd Deb. Her secrets were under lock and key, but Deb was pretty good with locks, too.
Sam stepped into her cluttered office without looking at the girl who had gone rigid. While most people's offices were their sanctuary, Sam's was her garbage disposal. Her trash heap. Her storage closet. Her giant pounding headache. Books. Receipts. Sheets for the single beds, towels for the showers. Boxes of soap, all piled up around her desk.
And now amongst the clutter and flotsam was one thin, terrified, probably six-months-pregnant girl.
Just one more thing to wash up on her shores.
Sam made a big production of setting down her class notes, then cleaning stuff off her desk. Organizing files, throwing things out, all while watching the girl from under her eyelashes.
Oh, Jane Doe was scared. And Deb was right, the girl had cash. All the details pointed to money. She had good skin. Her face was full, as though she hadn't gone hungry a day in her life. No track marks on her arms. And, most telling, she had great teethsparkling white and straight. Dental hygiene, for the women who usually walked through the doors, was pretty far down the priority list.
Those teeth of Jane Doe's put Sam's instincts on full alert.
Sam had a responsibility to the rest of the women who used this shelter. While there were only two living here at the moment, they had all been brutalized in some fashion and they didn't need what this girl was running from to come hammering on the door in the wee hours of the morning.
"So," she finally said, studying her half-finished grocery list as though it was the girl's induction papers. "Jane."
The girl nodded, the flat black of her hair swallowing the light from the lamp on the desk. Dye job. All the way. "That's me," the girl said, her voice sounding as though it was dragged across sandpaper before coming out her lips.
"You want to tell me what's going on?" Sam asked. She sat back in her whiny chair and crossed her legs, careful to avoid the duct tape on the seat that snagged all of her tights. "What we can do to help you?"
"I just need a place to stay for a few nights," she said, the words tumbling out in a rush, as if she realized Sam might say no.
"We're not a hotel," Sam said. "And while I am happy to let you stay here tonight, I can only do so if you answer some questions."
"I already answered a bunch of questions," Jane said. "That other woman asked them."
"Well, I have a few more you need to answer."
"Or what?" she asked, the pale skin of her face practically vibrating, her whole body tuned to some high frequency. The edge of her Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt trembled, channeling the energy of the thin body beneath it.
"Or, perhaps you would be better helped by the police."
Jane swallowed and shook her head. "I can't go to the police."
"Does it matter?" the girl asked, her blue eyes flashing. "My name is Jane. I'm twenty-one and my boyfriend hit me. I am scared for myself and my baby so you have to take me in."
Sam's eyebrows rose in surprise. "I don't, Jane. This is not a government facility. We are primarily privately funded. And as the executive director, I choose who we help and who I send on to the police. I have a responsibility to the women who live here." Not that there were that many. Jane was their only new resident in two months, but she didn't need to know that. "I have to keep them safe and if you can't tell me what I need to know, I will have to call the police."
They locked eyes, a showdown that Sam had been in and won too many times to count. But she had to give the girl credit, she was not going down without a fight.
"Jane." She sighed. "I want to help you. I spend my life helping women in your position. If you answer my questions, I can take better care of you. I am not the enemy."
Jane's lip trembled before she bit it so hard the pink skin turned white. Samheldher breath and finally exhaled when Jane looked down at her hands, the battle over.
"What do you need to know?"
"Is there someone looking for you?"
Jane's throat bobbed. "He thinks I'm visiting my sister at school."
Sam didn't point out that sisters could be called. Cover stories could be blown.
"How old are you?" she asked.
Her blue eyes blazed. "I'm twenty-one and it was consensual and I want this baby. I want" Tears flooded those eyes, dousing the fire. "I want this baby," she whispered. "I just need a few days to think."
There was no question Jane had lied about her age, but the rest of it smelled like the truth. The truth doused with the acrid tang of fear. Whatever this girl had behind her it wasn't good.
"Have you broken the law? Is that why you're running?"
Jane's brow furrowed as if she were thinking. "No," she finally answered. "I'm pretty sure I haven't broken any laws. I didn't steal anything. I didn't hurt anyone."
"Does your family"
"They don't know anything," she snapped. "I made sure they don't know anything. My dad would" Jane stopped, stared hard at her hands and didn't say another word.
"Your dad would what?" Sam asked carefully, feeling the tension in the air like humidity.
"Nothing," the girl said, not looking up from her hands. "My dad's got nothing to do with this."
It was obvious the girl lied and the hair on the back of Sam's neck didn't like that one bit. She really hoped that baby the girl carried had nothing to do with the father she was clearly running from.
"It's late." Sam took pity on the poor girl. "I can give you a room for the night, but tomorrow morning you and I are going to have a talk."
"I'm telling the truth," Jane said, defensive and stoic. "I swear to you."
And if Sam had money for every time someone swore the truth to her, she would have retired to a tropical island long ago.
"Okay." Sam nodded. "For your protection and for the protection of the other women who live here I do have to notify the police. Chief Bigham will have a patrol car out front."
Jane's chin jerked. "You won't tell them"
"Sweetheart, I don't know anything to tell them. But if someone has filed a missing person report on you, it's only a matter of time."
"I know." Jane's shoulders bent under an unseen weight.
Sam had learned the hard way over the years that, with the young pregnant ones, the person who filed the missing person report was often the threat. Mothers or fathers so angry with their child's mistakes that they lost their minds. Or boyfriends. They could lose their minds, too.
Serenity House could help Jane until the police came looking for her. Laws protected women's shelters.
Too bad they couldn't do as much for the young pregnant girls who could use the protection. She'd seen a lot of girls beaten down by the system, chewed up and spit right back out to the people who abused them and Sam wasn't sure how much justice there was in that.
"Let's get you to bed," Sam said, unlocking the top drawer of her old metal desk and grabbing the key to room three. "Things will seem better in the morning."
She led Jane Doe of the bad hair and fancy pants, from her office right into the kitchen. Dinner had finished about an hour ago and the dishwasher chugged quietly in the evening shadows. The wooden counters, table and two high chairs were wiped clean and the smell of Deb's spaghetti lingered in the air.
"I thought a women's shelter would look different," Jane said.
"What do you mean?"
"This is like a house," the girl said, shrugging.
"I should hope so," Sam said, proud of the handsome two-story brick house with the stained-glass windows and the classroom addition built off the side. "It's my home."
"You live here?"
I rarely leave here, she thought, but only nodded.
"Is there air-conditioning?" Jane asked, pulling at the neck of her shirt. It was late June in North Carolina and the nights weren't cooling off the way they had a few weeks ago.
"Yes," she said. "We turn it off at night. Your room has a fan. Breakfast is at seven," she said. "On weekdays we serve breakfast to women and children in the community. But on the weekends it's just us. We take turns cooking and if you miss breakfast, there's nothing hot until dinner. But there's usually fruit and granola bars." Sam opened the big pantry cupboards and snagged two granola bars and handed them to Jane.
They were plucked from her hands pretty darn fast.
"The living room is through there," she said, pointing to the doorway on the far end of the kitchen. The sounds of canned laughter from the television seeped out from under the door and she knew Juny and Sue were in there watching TV. Sam would introduce Jane later; no need for everyone to get overwhelmed. "Our classrooms are on the other side of the living room. Tomorrow is Saturday so there are no classes. Though you are welcome to use the computers if you need to."
The computers had all been paid for by Sam's private benefactor two years ago. The modern age took a while to reach Serenity House but now that it was here Sam tried very hard to take care of it.
"And through here" she turned and opened the swinging door with her butt "are the bedrooms."
The young girl's eyes were wide, as if she'd not ever thought about the reality of shelters. The shabby cleanliness of it all. The communal reality of women coming together over hardship to make a new start.
Welcome to your new world, Sam thought.
"What kind of classes?" Jane asked, her hand tucked carefully over the small bump of her stomach.
"Computers, reading, clerical. As well as nutrition, child care"
Sam nodded, wishing just once a woman would come to this shelter armed with information. Knowledge. But they didn't and when she'd taken over the shelter ten years ago, teaching had become goal one. Not just for the women who lived in the three bedrooms, but for women in the community. They had started coming to the center for classes in droves, once the word got out.
"We've got lots of books, too," Sam said. "Have you been to a doctor?"
Sam saw the lie in the girl's eyes before it came out her mouth, but then something changed. Fear or pride or whatever it was that had put this girl on the road to Serenity House took a backseat and sense took over. "No," she said. "But I feel the baby move all the time."
"That's good," Sam said, turning around to lead Jane down the small hallway to room three. "But we'll get you set up with a doctor tomorrow."
Jane didn't say thank-you, but Sam could feel the waves of relief that rolled over the girl.