Trust in Me Excerpt
Dios, por favor, she prayed, let this be the right choice.
Natalia Jimenez stood in the shadows of the pharmacy doorway, her breath trapped in her lungs as she agonized over her latest change of plans, uncertain if she’d made yet another mistake in a long line of huge ones.
As she watched, the battered Greyhound bus pulled away from the rest stop, clouds of dust billowing in its wake. The bus gained momentum, heading back towards the country highway leading straight to Charleston, South Carolina, thirty miles away. Had the driver noticed her absence?
A tremulous sigh shuddered through her when the bus rounded the curve in the road and disappeared from sight. If only her past could vanish as easily.
For probably the hundredth time in the last twenty minutes, she questioned whether she’d made the right decision. Instead of continuing on to Washington DC, a city large enough that she could get lost and never be found again, she was hedging her bets on the opposite end of the spectrum in small town Simsville.
Desperate people made desperate moves. The problem was, she couldn’t afford to make another wrong one. Her in-laws and their hired guns had tracked her down once already. Getting away again could prove impossible.
Closing her eyes, Natalia fought to silence her nervous doubts, focusing on what needed to be done. Allowing that to take precedence over her fears. One thing she’d learned after her years in the foster care system was that wallowing in “what ifs” got her nowhere.
“Mami, is it okay?”
She glanced down at the precious little boy waiting patiently beside her. “Sí, the bus is gone. We’re going back to the restaurant so I can talk to the owners. Okay?”
Mateo nodded, a solemn expression clouding her son’s honey-colored eyes. “So we can stop hiding now?”
A pang of anger and regret pierced her soul as she caressed Mateo’s smooth cheek.
“Esta bien,” she fibbed. “Everything’s fine. Nothing for you to worry about.”
It wasn’t right for a five-year old boy to live with so much upheaval. He should be running with those kids over in the park, or playing ball with his friends. Only, he didn’t have any friends. Or at least, none that they could contact.
For her part, no matter how badly she wanted to hear Father Thompson’s reassuring voice, calling the women’s shelter in Orlando wasn’t worth the risk. If her in-laws found them, they’d make good on their threat to take Mateo away from her.
She would never let that happen. Mateo deserved better than a life run by his power-hungry, controlling grandfather. And Natalia was determined to find it for her son.
Pushing aside her qualms, she glanced around her new hometown.
Simsville wasn’t exactly a bustling city. Bisected by the two-lane road leading off the highway, the sleepy town could almost pass for Mayberry, complete with the police station and town hall book-ending the north and south edges of the downtown area. Quaint, brick façade offices and businesses outlined Main Street, housing the likes of the local barber shop and beauty salon, along with the corner gas station where the bus had stopped and the pharmacy where she now stood, cowering like a lost puppy.
Nestled in the center of town lay a large grassy area with huge shade trees, flowering crape myrtles and beckoning park benches. The sound of children laughing and playing traveled through the humidity-laden air as kids ducked around the trees, a rollicking game of chase in full swing.
There was a homespun, safe, baseball and apple pie atmosphere in Simsville. After months of looking over her shoulder expecting to find her father-in-law wielding his money and power to bend her to his will, Natalia soaked up the Simsville air like a thirsty sea sponge feeding on the water necessary for survival. This felt like the perfect place to live the normal family life she had always craved.
No one would think to look for her in Simsville, South Carolina, population 3,000, if the welcome sign was correct. Especially not her in-laws with their warped family motto: What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine if I want it. Too late she’d realized the lengths, illegal or not, her husband’s family would go to ensure they maintained their expensive lifestyle. Forget about the necessity for love. People were pawns or possessions.
No way was she going back to that depraved world.
Frustration mounting, Natalia hefted their overnight bag onto her shoulder. Hand in hand she and Mateo ventured out from under the pharmacy doorway awning . The hot August sun beat down on her bare shoulders as they strode towards the diner, the humidity making the thin cotton of her sundress stick to her back. The summer heat here wasn’t much different than southern Florida. Too bad. It was one of many things she’d gladly leave behind.
As they walked passed an office building, she caught her reflection in the plate glass window. Her footsteps faltered.
Dios mio, how could she possibly pull off a successful job interview looking like this?
The humidity had turned her shoulder-length hair into a mass of frizzy curls. Wrinkles crisscrossed the skirt of her bright, floral print sundress. Fatigue lined her face, giving her eyes a hollow look. Spending fifteen hours on a bus tended to leave its mark.
“Mami, I hafta go to the bathroom,” Mateo cried, tugging on her arm.
He wiggled his body side to side and bounced up and down on his toes. Her son wasn’t practicing his salsa moves. No, the “potty dance” was in full swing, her sign that a bathroom stop was urgently needed. Pronto.
“I hear you, papá.” She finger-combed her hair, tucking it behind her ears as they hurried off.
Moments later they reached the Dinner Table diner. A bell jingled overhead as she and Mateo stepped into the cool air-conditioning. The smell of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and collard greens, the day’s lunch special, assailed her nostrils. It was a far cry different from the steak empanadas, plantains, and black beans and rice which were regular items on the menus of the Cuban restaurants she’d worked in over the years. A welcome reminder that she had left her old world behind.
Though it was an hour past the midday lunch rush, a group of elderly men engrossed in a card game occupied a booth along the diner’s front wall.
“Oh, honey, ya’ll just missed the bus!” Stuffing her rag into one of her apron pockets, an older woman wearing jeans and a button-down shirt scooted out from behind the counter and hurried over. Mateo pressed himself to Natalia’s side and she draped a comforting arm around his shoulders.
“Where were ya’ll?” the woman continued, concern knitting her brow as she drew near. “I’m surprised no one stopped the driver. Are you okay?”
“Yes, ma’am. We’re fine,” Natalia replied, relieved the bus hadn’t stopped or worse, turned around to get her.
“My name’s Emma Roberts. My husband Franklin and I own this place. Here,” she motioned to a nearby table, “you two sit down. I’ll see if I can scare up the phone number to the bus station in Charleston and give them a call.”
“No!” The word burst out more forcefully than Natalia intended. She winced as the old men playing cards turned to look at them.
Emma froze, her hand inches away from the phone next to the cash register. Straightening, the older woman sent Natalia a curious look.
Natalia gave Mateo a gentle pat on the back, then pointed him towards the side hallway. “Go use the bathroom, papá. I’ll be right here when you finish.”
She waited until the door had closed behind her son before turning to meet Emma’s inquisitive gaze. “There’s no need to call the station. We missed the bus on purpose. I’m hoping you and I can be of some benefit to each other.”
“Oh really. Well, you’ve got my attention, honey.” Emma pulled out a metal, red leather-backed chair from a nearby table. “Maybe I better sit myself down and see what your pretty little head has cooked up.”
Once again Natalia offered up a silent prayer, hoping she’d made the right move.
The way Emma Roberts looked Natalia in the eye, both earlier and now, a mixture of candid interest and understanding shining from within called out to the scared, desperation inside Natalia.
On a deeper level she sensed Emma was a woman who knew what familia was all about. One who understood the depths a mother would go to in order to protect her son.
The instant Natalia’s eyes had fallen on the “Help Wanted” sign in the corner window, her decision had been made.
Now she had to convince the older woman to not only hire her, but to pay her in cash to avoid any chance of her in-laws tracing her whereabouts.
All this while divulging as little information as possible.
That was the hardest part. Lies of omission. Skirting around the truth. She knew how awful it felt when someone lied to you. She’d lived through that betrayal countless times with her mother, then later with Geraldo and his parents.
But keeping Emma Roberts in the dark would protect Mateo. It had to be done.