Claire sat in her car for a minute certain she had the wrong place. God, was there a worse part of the city he could be working in? She imagined there probably were, but this was pretty bad. She almost didn't want to get out of her car.
She did, though, locking the door before closing it. She slid her purse over her forearm after adjusting her collar higher around her neck. It was so cold. It had barely hit twenty yesterday on Christmas. So depressing. On the plus side it seemed to be getting warmer out tonight. Hopefully it would be decent for Penny and Bobby's wedding on Saturday. Why anyone would choose to get married during the winter Claire couldn't comprehend, but she guessed it took all kinds. And Bobby shipping off to boot camp in a couple of weeks.
She scrunched her nose a little bit as she regarded the building. People actually brought their cars here? She supposed there was maybe truth to the not judging a book by its cover saying, but the building looked so rundown. The tow truck outside at least looked well maintained.
She opened the door, stepping inside. Of course the door squeaked a little, causing her to jump a bit.
What was she even doing here? He hadn't asked for her help. He hadn't even suggested he wanted or needed help. She would laugh if he yelled at her for sticking her nose into his business uninvited. It would serve her right.
"Can I help you?"
"Holy shit," she exclaimed, unable to hold it in. He was like half a foot taller than she was, and she wasn't a short person in the least. He was also a very large guy in general, height aside. And not that she usually went for blondes, but not at all bad looking either.
"Did you need something?"
"Yeah, uh, sorry, I didn't mean to," she stammered. "I'm looking for John Bender. Does he work here?"
If he didn't. If she had the wrong place she was screwed. She only had the name Dawson to go on that John had mentioned in passing. She assumed it was a last name, finding this place as a result. There were a surprising number of companies with Dawson in their name downtown, but only one garage. If it was a first name. Well, she'd just say fuck it and go home. There were a few friends of his she knew by name, they might know where she could find him. Beyond that, she had no way of finding him.
"He does. This is his job, though. You realize that? I'm not paying him to," he paused, letting his eyes travel along her body. Oh God, he thought, she was here for that. Great.
"I just need to talk to him. Five minutes," she said, reaching into her purse. "I'll pay you," she said, taking out her wallet. "How much would five minutes of his time cost you?"
He squinted a bit, regarding her and the wallet she held.
"Save it. I don't want your money, just don't monopolize too much of his time. He's in the middle of something."
"Right, sure, five minutes should be about all I need. Thank you," she said.
He stood there. He didn't say anything else. Was she supposed to stand here and wait for John? Was she supposed to go find him? What? John hadn't said his boss was quite so intimidating.
"I, uh, where can I find him?"
"You can have a seat in there, I'll send him in. What's your name?"
"Claire," she said. "You may be better off not telling him that part."
"You're not here to bring drama to my garage, are you, Claire? If he didn't call you back or something, that ain't my problem."
"What? No!" Oh God. "Nothing like that."
"Fine. Wait here," he said, walking away. She couldn't help but watch for a second. He was kind of scary, but he wasn't bad looking at all. She could see John working for him somehow, though, maybe not. John could be sarcastic and rude himself. She wondered how many times they'd butted heads while he'd been working here.
She stood there, glancing at the walls which had nothing on them and were more than filthy. Then she supposed this wasn't the type of place her father would bring his car to. People who came here probably didn't stay while they got their oil changed so they weren't expecting some place to sit or magazines to read while waiting.
She sighed, sliding her wallet back into her purse, forgetting for a moment that she'd pulled it out of her purse. She slid her gloves off then, tucking them into her coat pockets. She almost leaned against the wall, catching herself at the last second. Her mother would kill her if she had to bring this coat to the dry cleaners for a last minute cleaning before going back to school since she'd just gotten it cleaned about a month ago.
"Can I … Oh," he said with a frown. He was wiping his hands on a towel, much the same way his boss had been doing when he greeted her. Greeted was overstating what he'd done. Someone needed to give him lessons in how to treat potential customers. "Hey," he said.
"Hi," she said.
"What are you doing here, Claire?"
"I'm sorry. I know you're at work, but I had no other way of knowing where you were."
"And you needed to know where I was because?"
She reached into her purse again.
"I don't know if you are aware my dad's a lawyer."
"I do know that. Sure. Who doesn't?" he asked. She supposed that went without saying. Her dad had gotten pretty famous over the years defending more than one person of questionable morals and varying degrees of innocence. He was good at his job, so his name had been on the news and in papers more than a few times over the years.
"Okay," she said.
"Claire, what does this have to do with anything? I'm at work, you know? I can't have random women showing up here or I'm going to lose the job. I do have another mouth to feed, you know that, right?"
"I do, I'm sorry."
"So can you get to the point?"
"I did tell him I'd pay him for your time."
"You told him that?" he asked, surprised and perhaps a little impressed.
"Well, yes, I'm not trying to get you in trouble."
"Okay. Thanks. The point?"
"Sorry. Well, you said you can't afford a lawyer."
"I talked to my dad. He'd do it for you," she said. She slid her dad's business card out of her purse, holding it out for him.
"He'd do it for me. What does that mean?"
"He said he'd handle the case for you, as a favor to me."
"But your dad's a criminal attorney."
"Sure. A high paid one, too. Do you think she, Holly's mom I mean, can afford one better than him?"
"Well, put like that, no, of course she can't."
He still wasn't taking the card, though.
"I'm not exactly in a position to do anything about it right now, though."
"Well, I understand that, but I have no idea when I'm going to see you again or when you will be ready. So, here's his card. I told him your name, so whenever you decide to call he'll know who you are."
"Why are you doing this?"
She shrugged. "Why not? I also," she said, pulling a small piece of paper from her purse. "Have a friend's mom who does daycare out of her home. She's a former pediatric nurse who retired to take care of her grandchild."
"She's licensed and everything, so she only has the limit she places on herself for how many kids she takes care of."
"You know if I didn't know you better, Claire, I'd say you actually gave a shit about me."
"You can think what you want. I've given you tools. I can't make you use them. I can vouch for my friend's mother. She's not violent or anything else. She makes wholesome meals for the kids she takes care of. Since one of them is her grandson she sort of treats them all as if they were hers. She takes them to the park by her house every day. During the winter she lets them play outside for a while in her yard if it's not real cold. During the summer she takes them to the zoo and stuff. She has a minivan so has room for all of them. As far as I know she's never charged more for things like trips to the zoo. I wrote down the rate she quoted me for someone Holly's age. I told her your hours weren't set and she said she'd have no problem keeping Holly until seven o'clock, depending on the drop-off time. She said it'd be the same rate until she gets potty trained. I don't know when that may be."
"Uh, yeah, a year or so maybe. People say two, but I've heard three is more the average."
"You're over your five minutes," his boss said from somewhere nearby but not in eyesight.
"Sorry," she said.
"Don't worry about it. He just likes to be an asshole."
"He's kind of scary."
"He's not so bad as long as you don't piss him off."
"And I'm pissing him off by holding you up. I'm sorry."
"It's fine." He slid her dad's card and the paper into his back pocket. "I'll walk you to your car."
"You say that, but I wouldn't feel right letting you walk out there by yourself. Let me just tell him I'll be back in a minute so his head doesn't explode."
"Okay," she said, tugging her gloves out of her pocket to put them back on. She thought about going out to her car without him, but he obviously had a reason for not wanting her to go out there alone. He knew the neighborhood she didn't.
He returned a minute later, leading her to the door.
"Listen, thanks," he said when they got to her car.
"No, that's a lot you did for me. I appreciate it. I'll at least call your dad and see what he thinks he can do for me."
"I told him you already have her four nights a week."
"You did?" He sounded impressed she remembered that he'd told her that.
"Yeah, he seemed to like that."
"Yeah," he said. "I visited a lawyer about a year ago, just to find out what my rights were, you know? I had no clue. I've been giving her cash every month, but there's nothing legal setup. She tricked me, which means nothing I was told. I knew the chance still existed pill or not that she could get pregnant."
"Well, talk to my dad."
"I will. Really, thanks."
"Do me a favor, though."
"What?" he said, sounding like he was in a hurry. She knew he was. She'd taken way more than five minutes of his time.
"Just make sure you actually want her before you take that step."
"If you're doing it as a fuck you to Betty that's not the right reason."
"I know that. She's better off with me. I believe that. I don't want to take her away from Betty, I just want majority custody and the right to stop visitation if she can't clean herself up."
"She's into drugs?"
"Listen, I really have to go, okay or he's liable to fire me. I need the job. You know?"
"I do, I'm sorry. Do I need to give him money after all?"
"No, don't be ridiculous. I'll deal with him. It's hard for me to be mad at you when you did all this for me. Thanks."
"Yeah," she said. She got into her car then. He walked back to the entrance, but waited to actually go back inside until she'd driven off the parking lot he noticed. Just how bad was the neighborhood?
"Is she your girlfriend?" Dawson asked when he got back inside and returned to work.
"No, just a friend. She had some information for me to help me with my daughter."
"So, she's not going to be coming around here all of the time or anything?"
"No," John said with a roll of his eyes. It was the first time in the months he'd been working here he'd taken an actual break beyond a few minutes here and there for a cigarette. And lunch, which Dawson couldn't legally prevent him from taking.
"Good to know. I didn't realize you had friends like that."
"Like what?" he asked.
John sighed softly. He supposed it was obvious from what she was wearing and more than likely Dawson had taken a peak to see the Cadillac convertible she was driving. John didn't know cars as well as Dawson did (John was pretty sure his boss even dreamt about cars when he was sleeping) but even he knew it wasn't cheap.
"Her dad does all right."
"I'd say. College?"
"Yeah," John said.
"Out of state?"
This was the most chatty his boss had been since he'd started working there. It suited him just fine, John wasn't a natural conversationalist either.
"Yeah, Iowa," he said. "Why?"
"He thinks she's cute," the tow truck driver Pruitt, first name also John, said from the office.
Great. Just what John didn't want to think about, someone being interested in her. Why he was surprised, he couldn't say. She was attractive. His boss wasn't blind and as far as he knew was into women, though he'd never seen any evidence that he had a social life whatsoever.
"She's a little young, don't you think?" John asked his boss. He was at least four years older than they were. Maybe more, he wasn't sure. Dawson only vaguely ever referred to things that would give him any indication of what he'd done before owning this garage or even how long he'd owned it.
"She's legal," Dawson said to which the tow truck driver laughed.
"I guess so," John said, not knowing how else to respond. Was he wanting him to give him her number? That was not going to happen. Hell, John didn't even have her number anymore. He certainly didn't have her number at school. He set back to work then, best thing for him to avoid any conflict. He finally had a picture in his head worse than Claire having a boyfriend. (The guy she went to prom with didn't count, because John knew he was just a means to an end for her to get her crown. He wasn't a boyfriend.) A boyfriend he knew.
He got done fairly early.
He'd spent the rest of his shift going over their conversation. It took more than a bit of guts for her to show up here. He thought about her driving around in that fancy car of hers and it pissed him off she'd risk her safety for him. She didn't know the neighborhood. John didn't even like walking around outside after dark. He went to the bay doors to have his cigarettes, never wandering very far from the building.
If something had happened to her he'd never forgive himself.
He pulled the business card and the piece of paper out of his pocket she'd given him. The business card was pretty self-explanatory. The piece of paper was, too, except she'd written more than just the name of her friend's mom and the rate she'd charge him.
If you have problems getting a hold of my dad or Mrs. Kuzinski, call me.
She'd written both her numbers on there. He tried to picture her living in a dorm room, and had a hard time seeing it. She'd have to he guessed, most colleges he knew of required first year students live on-campus. He doubted even her dad could get her out of that.
"Hey, Dawson, I'm going to use your phone for a minute," he called out. Dawson was in the back getting cleaned up, where John had just come from.
"Just use the damned thing," Pruitt said.
"Yeah, thanks," he said. He picked it up, dialing Betty's number.
"Uh hi, Mrs. Cummings, this is John. I just wanted to let you know I'll be late picking up Holly."
'She's already asleep, John.'
"Oh, she is?"
'Yeah, she fell asleep about thirty minutes ago.'
That hadn't stopped him from picking her up for the night before, but there wasn't much point in waking her up just to get her to his apartment and put her back to bed. By the time he got done doing what he needed to do that's what her night with him would amount to.
"I'll pick her up tomorrow after work then."
'Okay. We'll be expecting you.'
"Thanks," he said.
He hung up, glancing at Pruitt who was watching him.
"Somewhere more important to be than your daughter?" he asked.
"I have to make sure she got home okay," he said, holding up the note he still held.
"Give her address to Dawson, he'll do it," Pruitt said.
"I'm not sure her old man would appreciate that," he said.
"Or you I'm guessing," Pruitt said with a soft chuckle.
"Makes me no difference."
Pruitt just chuckled some more, saying nothing else. He tugged on the brim of his old baseball cap with the hook that served as his hand. It was a little unsettling for John to see him do stuff like that with it. He expected the guy to poke his eye out or something.
"See you tomorrow," John said.
John Pruitt was an interesting guy. He was a nice guy, probably should've been the one running the garage. He at least tried to have people skills to treat the customers decently. Dawson was all business, almost to the point of losing future business. Evidently he didn't care and it was his garage so he could do as he pleased.
He made his way to the Standish's house, parking on the street even though there was more than enough room on their driveway for his car. He shoved his hands in his coat pockets after he rang the bell. It warmed up some, but it was still cold and evidently he'd left his gloves at the garage.
"May I help you?"
"Hi, I'm wondering if Claire is home."
"She's upstairs. Let me get her."
"No," John said.
"I'm sorry?" her mom said.
"I just wanted to be sure she got home all right. She came to visit me at work today and it's not the best neighborhood."
"She got home a couple of hours ago. That was nice of you to check up on her. What's your name?"
"John Bender, ma'am."
"Oh, yes, of course, I heard her mention your name to my husband when she was home for Thanksgiving."
Something told John she knew what the mention was in regard to, because she went from being stoic and polite to having a look of disdain on her face in a matter of seconds. There probably wasn't anything worse to her mom than John coming to look for her daughter. Can't get much more proof that he was sexually active than the fact he had a kid.
"I'll let her know you came calling then," she said.
"Sure," he said. "Thanks."
The last word was said to the closed door.
John stepped off the doorstep, glancing at the house for a minute before he headed back to his car. He started it and sat there for a minute, setting his head against his headrest while he thought on Claire's mom. He couldn't blame her for being rude to him, especially if she knew about Holly.
Her reaction was exactly the reason he avoided people finding out about her as best as he could. He didn't like the reaction. He was stupid. He'd fucked up. He'd been told a lie and bought it. He wasn't a bad guy, though. He didn't think so, anyway.
"Jesus," he said when his passenger side door opened suddenly.
"I'm so sorry," she said.
"My mom. I can only imagine what she said to you."
"She didn't say much. She didn't have to. How did you know I was here?"
"I saw you walking away from the house."
"And she let you come after me?"
"I snuck out my bedroom window," she said with a shrug.
"I'm not going to be responsible for you getting in trouble, Claire, go back inside."
"I just wanted to be sure everything was all right."
"Funny, that's why I drove here tonight. I wanted to be sure you got home all right."
"I can see that."
"Thank you for checking, though."
"I hope you never go back there again," he said. For more than one reason. He wanted her as far away from his boss as he could get her.
"I have no plans on it."
"Good," he said simply. "Now go inside."
"So that's it?"
"You were just here to make sure I got home all right?"
She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
"Good night," she said, drawing away and getting out of his car.
"Fuck," he whispered. What the hell was he supposed to do with that?
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com