“Laina,” Artemis said as she dried her red hair with a cotton towel. “I need to go back home, report in, do you have other family where I can take you?”
Laina sat on the edge of the hotel bed watching a cartoon cast from the hotel flat screen television.
“Can I stay here?” Laina asked. She searched Artemis’s eyes from within a needy void. She stopped and slumped acceptance. “I can go back, I’m a big girl.”
“Let me think,” Artemis said. She thought Laina’s gaze brought back memories of Benjamin. His eyes where now Laina’s eyes. “Don’t want people thinking I kidnapped you, I’m not sure what to do.”
“I’ll go back inside,” Laina said. She stared forward like a battle tested solider. “But, my momma’s dead. She ain’t wakin’ up.”
“Let’s go over to see her,” Artemis said. “Tell her, and the nurses you’re with me. When’s last you were home?”
“I can’t remember,” Laina said. She fumbled with the television remote. “A few weeks, I’d guess.”
“Do you have a change of clothes at the hospital?”
“No,” Laina said. “I just wear this, I’m fine.”
“That’s not acceptable,” Artemis said. She paused for a few moments. She pointed at the bathroom. “Get in there, shower up, we’ll do our best with what you have for now.”
Laina shrugged meekly. She dutifully bathed, and put back on her dirty clothes. Artemis stopped her, and shared one of her long sweaters, it covered Laina from the turtle neck top on down her fragile body appearing like a long dress.
“Feel better?” Artemis asked. She examined Laina, and patted her on the shoulders. “You look spiffy.”
“Yes,” Laina said. Her hair still wet. She smiled up at Artemis. She hugged Artemis’ suddenly at the waist. “I like you.”
“No worries,” Artemis said. She patted Laina on the head. “Let’s get moving. I’ve got work to do.”
Artemis combed through Laina’s hair, and she slowly, carefully, unraveled Laina’s dishwater blond tangles. After Laina’s hair was dry, they got some hotel breakfast, and Artemis walked with Laina into the hospital. They made their way into the floor where Laina’s mother lived on mindless life support machines. Artemis walked up the nurse’ station. It happened to have been the same nurse from the night before.
“Yes,” the nurse said. She acknowledged Artemis. “Pulling a double, need the money, and we don’t have enough staff. Help you?”
“How long’s the lady got left?” Artemis asked. She pointed behind her with a right thumb. “You know…”
“Not long,” the nurse said, lowly.
“Well, if anyone comes looking,” Artemis said. “I’ll look after the little girl.”
“No bodies going to come, girls on her own,” the nurse said. She didn’t look up from staring down at the computer screen. “Find her a home. Or, better, give her up to protective services. Let them deal with the mess.”
Another nurse moved over next to the other nurse.
“Keep her out of here,” the new nurse said, bluntly. “She’s like a feral cat, they’ll use her.”
“Why?” Artemis asked. “I don’t understand.”
The nurses looked at each other.
“Sorry,” the new nurse said. She blew her stringy hair off her face. “These hospital walls have ears, and we need our jobs. Just disappear with her.”
“Yeah,” the other nurse said. “Walls have eyes and ears.”
“They’ll cremate the remains?” Artemis asked.
“That’s what were told,” the nurses said in unison. “Please, get her out of here, we’ve got to get along.”
Artemis walked over behind Laina who was standing at the patient room door staring over at her mother’s lifeless body.
“Laina,” Artemis said. She sucked in a deep, deep breath, she slowly let it release through her open lips. “Say goodbye to your mother, I think, I think it’s best.”
Laina stepped over toward her mother. As the life support machines rattled, they pumped oxygen, and the monitors blipped vital signs. She stared at the body covered with a greenish hospital sheet, and white cotton blanket. She touched her mother’s hand, she pulled back as if she had touched cold death. And then Laina quickly turned, and ran out of the room. Artemis let her pass, she looked inside and saw no signs that her mother’s spirit remained in the room. She was certain Laina’s mother was gone forever. She whispered a prayer for the dead even though she was a non-believer. She turned around, and saw across the long hospital hallway Laina sitting on a wooden bench, aimlessly staring forward. Artemis walked over to her.
“I’m sorry, Laina,” Artemis said. She kneeled down on her left knee, and gripped Laina’s tiny left hand. “We’ll figure this out, don’t worry.”
“What does it feel like to be alone?” Laina asked. Her eyes searched Artemis’ for answers. “I’m a big girl.”
“To accept the facts,” Artemis said. “And decide to keep a positive thoughts, and that you’ll decide to be happy. And then you no longer feel alone. That’s what I do.”
“Where will they take me?”
Artemis thought about her life. She considered the nurses recommendations. She turned to look back over at the busy nurses station as they investigated patient charts and exam rooms.
“Let’s take a road trip,” Artemis said. She nodded over at Laina. “Can you get inside your home?”
“I think so,” Laina said. “Mr. Sammons has a key.”
“Ah, Virgil. Let’s start there,” Artemis said. She stood up with her hand out in front of Laina. “I’ve met him, where’s his grocery?”
“Down the highway,” Laina said. She grasped Artemis’ hand. She slinked forward and walked with Artemis. Laina never looked back toward her mother’s room. She just walked stoically out of the hospital.
Artemis drove with Laina away from the hospital. Laina briefly then looked back, then she turned around and clicked in her safety belt.
“Laina, you’ll need to navigate,” Artemis said. “Can you help me?”
“I know the way,” Laina said. She pointed to turn right at the traffic light that was flashing a yellow caution.
“Florida?” Virgil asked. He grinned over at Artemis as if Florida was an imagined place for him with endless soft white sands, limitless palm trees, and skinny topless girls sipping rum based pina coladas.
“Bad idea?” Artemis asked.
“No, I think it’s great,” Virgil said. He jiggled the key to open the trailer door. “Laina you’ll be a good girl?”
“I don’t know,” Laina said.
Laina entered through the metal door dented at the bottom from frustrated nights. On the inside there was only a darkness, and strong odors. Artemis and Virgil cautiously followed in behind her.
“Damn,” Virgil said. He covered his nose. “Laina, you can’t live here.”
Laina scurried farther inside the single wide trailer as if she could run to an exact spot blind folded inside a dark coal mine. The trailer was stuffed from laminated flooring to black moldy blotched ceiling tiles with dusty items even unsellable at a low rent flea market.
“I guess mom was a hoarder,” Artemis whispered over at Virgil. She was careful not to touch anything.
“The state pays the rent,” Virgil said. He stared down at the floor. “I had no idea-“
“No child should live like this,” Artemis said.
“No kiddin’,” Virgil said. He kept his hand over his nose. “You just take her, get her away from here. This is no place for a child.”
Artemis nodded dutifully over at Virgil. Virgil stood quietly near the kitchen area, he continued to stare down at his dirty boots as Artemis stepped forward between indiscriminate magazine and musty newspaper piles, a well worn fabric couch covered with a ghostly white bedsheet hidden beneath with more magazines and boxes stuffed with junk. She moved down a narrow hallway. Within a small room on her left, toward the trailers far end, there, she found Laina’s bare room. But for the cardboard castle that Laina had fashioned as a hide away from depravity. Artemis kneeled down and discovered Laina hunched down from within her den with her lost eyes searching back hoping for sunshine but expecting darkness.
“Laina,” Artemis said. She resisted her tears. “Leave it all behind, just come with me, you’ll need to trust me. I’ll get you new things, I promise.”
“You promise?” Laina asked. “Momma never kept her promises.”
“I always keep my promises,” Artemis said.
Artemis held forward her hand. Laina scurried out, and they left the trailer that Virgil would soon set on fire and reduce to forgotten rubble.
End. Chapter 11.
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