I turned the V. W. into the parking lot of the battered women's shelter, where I worked night shift. An icy wind rocked the car, typical for January in Denver. The weatherman predicted snow, if you believed him. I didn't. It felt too cold.
I heard the crunch of gravel under my tires as I pulled in. Then I caught sight of my soon to be ex-Volvo in the headlights. Roger sat in it alone.
What brought him here? He got out as I parked, and stood staring intently into my headlights. He looked suave in the same gray suit and topcoat he'd worn that afternoon for our session with the lawyers. His short dark hair stayed neatly combed despite the weather.
I took my time getting out of the car. I resisted the urge to smooth my own always-unruly, dark hair. No way I'd primp for him. But I belted my red woolen coat around me like armor, knowing how it flattered my olive skin. Then I methodically gathered my purse and papers together, trying to think why he'd come. He was supposed to be spending his time on Monday nights with our daughter, Hannah. Was something wrong with her?
I saw him smile at me, his teeth white and straight. No, he wanted to charm me into something. Still, I couldn't help worrying. "Where's Hannah?" I asked. "Is there a problem?"
He shook his head. "I dropped her off at a friend of hers on Alkire Street. She'll be home by curfew. I wanted to talk to you alone, without any lawyers."
Oh, right. "I've got to get to work." Nothing he could say would interest me, especially after that preliminary divorce hearing today.
"It's ten to, Kaye. You've got time to hear me out."
I shrugged and leaned against the VW, wishing I still smoked so that I could pretend coolness by lighting up. He and I had quit together a couple of years back.
"Look, if it's about me changing my name back to Berreano, I've already...."
"It's about the whole thing." He stared down at me, trying to look sincere. "I think we'd work things out better ourselves," he said. "I've read where couples can save thousands of dollars by arranging things to suit themselves. Let's leave the lawyers out of it. They only complicate things."
Thousands of dollars. Wouldn't his lawyer, Arthur Patterson, be thrilled to hear that? "I thought you liked Art."
He smiled that phony smile he used on clients that I hated so much. "I've been thinking about what you said about the car."
"Um hmm," I made my voice non-committal.
"You said," he looked at me as though he was a good little boy who had learned his whole lesson, "You needed a new car and new furniture."
"Roger, you know this. The way you've structured the agreement, you get everything, including the house, and all the furniture. It was pulling teeth to get you to give me the little bit of money you did. I had barely enough for a down payment on the house I bought. And there you sit with ten times that amount stashed away in the bank. You tried to make me feel lucky to get the kids' bedroom sets and the TV from the family room. I sleep on a camping cot, for heaven's sake."
"You ought to feel right at home--or should I say work?"
It took me a minute to realize he referred to the rollaway cot they kept at the battered women's shelter--an amenity I've never used. "Great, Roger. Just swell. Another slam at my job." He'd never liked my job from the day I took it over two years ago.
To hear him tell it, he'd never even contemplated an affair until I worked nights. I felt that after twenty years of marriage, he should be able to put up with a few nights without me.
"It's a wonder the kids see you at all. I'm going to put custody on the table here too."
I started to leave, but he grabbed my arm.
He looked at me, his face serious. "Look, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. I'm really here to try to settle things."
Roger shrugged. "The settlement...you know, everything."
"The settlement. What settlement? Have you heard anything I've said? Everything is yours. All you gave me were the mismatched linens. Why should you get the good car too, when I'm the one who will never have the money to replace the old one?"
"Hey, you made this decision here. You were the one who wanted this divorce."
"What did you want--a ménage a trois? I'm not moving in with Bambi."
"Brenna." He held his hand out to stop me. "That's water under the bridge. I'm trying to compromise with you here. Now hear me out."
I closed my open mouth and glared, arms folded over my chest. No way I'd want anything he wanted to give me, but I'd give him five minutes.
"As I said, I thought about you needing furniture. Why don't you take the stuff in the family room? You've always liked it."
True. In that whole miserable professionally decorated house, the family room was the only real place to relax. Roger and I bought the furniture together. The serene blues and sand colors of the room reflected the colors of the beach I grew up near back East. The room's casual, laid-back feel would look wonderful in my new house. No more lounging on floor pillows. And if I didn't have to spend money on furniture, maybe I could afford a good second hand car soon.
"I've decided to redecorate anyway."
He would redecorate for that bimbo and expect me to be happy with the castoffs?
I forced myself to look off somewhere else for a moment trying to master my anger. The cold crept into my bones, and I shook with it and my rage, equal parts. I heard the crunch of heels on the gravel.
Amanda Gannon, a tall athletic blonde, came around the side of the safe house and waved, then got into her red Neon. Normally we had a curfew for residents, but Amanda worked a night job at a factory manufacturing kidney dialysis equipment, so we made an exception for her--in more ways than one. Most of our residents were victims of abuse. But a judge, known throughout the Denver area for his quirky sentencing, remanded Amanda here for beating up her husband, George. She claimed self-defense--but I didn't see any bruises on her. George ended up in the emergency room. I waved back, but I couldn't make myself look happy. Luckily she didn't appear to be feeling chatty either. The red taillights of her car disappeared out of the driveway before I could make myself respond to Roger.
I drew myself up to my full five foot two, but I made my voice smooth, though I felt like gritting my teeth. "Sure, I'll take the furniture."
Roger put that fake smile on again, talking to me through it, giving the impression of a puppet with an immovable jaw. "That's great. Then it's settled. I'll talk to Patterson tomorrow, let him know. "
I held my hand up, trying to act calm. "But I want the Volvo too."
"Too? Yeah right, Kaye." Mister calm-and-collected's voice was rising. His smile looked more like clenched teeth. "That's not the deal."
"That's the deal I want."
"Listen, I'm not going to stand here while you try to take advantage," he shouted.
"Fine. Don't." I smiled now, as I hadn't been able to smile at Amanda just moments earlier; a heady, I've-won-this-one smile. I walked away with the satisfying conviction that I'd pricked Roger's sugary shell. At least I felt satisfied until I saw a cluster of women at the red curtained window of the brick bungalow, watching their night counselor have a fight with her estranged husband. Then like a balloon the day after the party, all the air came rushing out.
The kitchen felt warm after the chill outside. I closed the door slowly. The women had moved from the window to gather around the red Formica and chrome table, talking. The shelter had used the table long enough for it to develop retro-chic, like the rest of the room. I hated retro-chic. I would have loved to remodel the whole room, from its glass fronted birch cabinets down to its rounded top refrigerator. If we only had the money.
Right about then it felt as though the room was filled to bursting with every resident in the house. When I really looked, there were only three of them. They stopped talking abruptly. Somehow I faced them, making myself look every single woman in the eye.
Mary Ellen sat with her hands primly in her lap on one end of the table. In the middle, Nicky, Mary Ellen's young and pregnant roommate stretched her long, jegging covered legs. Closest to me lounged Barbara Washburn, wearing red sweats that warmed her cocoa skin, but did nothing for her short chubby figure.
"Look, guys, I'm sorry you had to see that." I felt my face getting hot with embarrassment.
"Way to go, Kaye," said Barbara, dunking a cookie in her mug, then raising the mug towards me in salute.
"Really. We have to show these SOBs what's what," said Nicky, her tiny, pointed face smiling. She looked tired. Harried as I felt, I noticed that. Tired, but proud of me. She swung her legs to the ground and got up to get another pop from the stash she kept in the fridge. She didn't even appear pregnant from the back.
Even Mary Ellen nodded and smiled, although I knew that her religion didn't believe in divorce. Dressed in a beige double-knit shirtdress, with her long mousy hair escaping from its tight braid, she looked like a caricature of the bookkeeper she was.
Embarrassed, I shook my head and headed for the office, hoping for some time alone to calm down. Unfortunately, the sleeping porch office was already occupied. My boss, Liz Windfield, looked up from her gray steel desk calmly. The woman had her shoulder cried on at least a couple of times a day. Her eyes narrowed in concern, as she pushed the sleeves of her soft plum sweater up to her elbows. She said, "Want to tell me about it?"
I didn't. I shook my head and made a business of taking my coat off so I didn't have to look at her. "Personal problems," I said.
She shrugged her sturdy shoulders and nodded as though she'd expected that answer, and proceeded to update me on the day's changes. Nicky had found an apartment and hoped to move in about a week. Cindy had a lead on a job, but seemed afraid to take it since the man who wanted to hire her knew her husband well.
We had a possible new one coming in. A shelter in L. A. had a woman trying to get away from a Crips gang member, and she could arrive that night or the next.
I frowned. "That's pretty dumb. The Crips have people here in Denver too."
Liz said, "If it's a problem, we'll pass her on to somewhere else."
I nodded. We'd done this kind of thing before, acting as a sort of underground for women who got involved with guys in gangs or organized crime.
I sighed, took Liz's notes and told her goodbye.
Most of the women settled down early. I had a few sporadic crisis calls. One woman wanted to know if slapping constituted abuse. When I assured her it did, she got quiet and got off the phone quickly. The house stayed peaceful except for the barely heard thump of a bass coming from someone's boom box. I took the time to catch up on some of the reading on counseling that I needed to do.
The phone rang again. "Beginnings, Battered Women's Shelter."
"What a crock. Ain't no battered women there," he whispered.
I leaned forward as though that would help me hear, but the only word I could make out next was dykes.
"Can I help you?" I knew I sounded irritated.
He laughed. "I'm gonna help you, Honey. Get all those ladies out of there and send them home to their husbands where they belong before it's too late."
"Too late for what?"
"That's all I'm gonna say. You just make sure you listen." With a click, he was gone.
Harassing phone calls were part of the routine, but we tried to be careful about them. You never knew. I called security, who promised to get with the phone company and the police. I also noted it in my shift log. In other words, I did what I could to make sure everything was all right. But I still felt unnerved. Glancing out the window across from my desk, I even thought I saw something move outside. I stood up so quickly, I almost toppled the rickety office chair. I pressed my nose to the window. Snow swirled against the cold glass pane. The fenced back yard was empty.
I was letting this get to me. I needed to think about something else for a minute and calm down. I looked at my watch--nine o'clock. I decided to call home to see if Hannah made it in. She might be fifteen, but she thought she was an adult and should not be subject to curfew. My hand was on the phone almost before I completed the thought.
"Hello?" RJ dropped his voice an octave, trying to sound older, I guess. Mostly he sounded out of breath.
I heard Hannah say loudly enough to compete with the music in the background, "Oh yes, RJ, you jerk. Give me the phone."
"Don't fight, kids," I said automatically, for what good it did.
He dropped the phone, and I heard them scuffling and breathing hard. Just when I was wondering if I should call someone in to work to cover for me so I could go home, RJ shouted, "Hannah, you dork, it's Mom."
Then the heavy breathing stopped, and the music volume went way down. RJ came back on the line.
"What in the name of all that's wonderful is going on?" I asked, gritting my teeth so I wouldn't yell.
"Nothing," he said in that innocent voice that would have tipped me right off, even if I hadn't heard the scuffle. Right now it was play, but Hannah wouldn't take much before she got mad.
"RJ? Hannah does not have to have your permission to be on the phone."
"She's been on the phone all night with Josh. I'm sick of it."
"All night? I thought she just got home."
A heavy sigh came over the wire. "She's been on the phone ever since," he said.
"RJ, you leave the phone alone. Do I have to call your father to go over there and baby-sit you two?"
I'd never threatened that one before, and RJ definitely didn't like it. I filed that away for future reference. Not that I was likely to carry it out, considering Roger's attitude toward my job.
"Then leave the phone and your sister alone."
His promise seemed genuine. I decided to take him at face value. "So except for this, how's it going?"
"Did you lock both doors?"
"Yes, Mom, we locked the doors."
"Got your homework done?"
"I'm working on it."
"How about Hannah? Is her homework done?"
"She's doing hers, too."
I could tell from his long-suffering voice as I questioned him that he wished he had let Hannah have the phone. He kept it perfectly polite, but he sounded bored.
"All right, I'll stop nagging you," I said. "But you behave."
"I always do, don't I?"
"I love you, RJ. Tell Hannah I said goodnight."
I missed the cheerful noise of home as soon as I put the receiver b
ack on the cradle. The phone seemed to be dead after that. I felt restless, and uneasy.
At two-thirty I heard a knock, and went to let Amanda in, her work shift done. She didn't speak, just waved a tired hand and took herself upstairs. She'd probably gone straight to bed. I wished I could do the same.
Not long after that, I heard noises in the back hall. Perhaps I was wrong. Sometimes Amanda headed to the kitchen after her work shift for a little snack before she went to sleep. It must be her. I got up and stretched cramped legs as I walked down the hall. The kitchen was dark. All I heard was the hum of the refrigerator. The noise I'd heard must have been the heater or the house settling or something.
I went back to the office and flopped down in the battered desk chair, wrapping the neon afghan around me. The house felt chilly and empty, and it was one of those nights when I wondered if Roger wasn't right about this job.
It must have been close to three when I heard a loud buzzing noise. I jumped up, flung the afghan back on the chair and raced into the hall before my conscious mind realized that the blaring mechanical drone was the fire alarm.
Smoke billowed from Mary Ellen and Nicky's room. I had to get everyone out.
"Mary Ellen! Nicky!" I roared out their names, pounding on their door with my fists. Smoke seeped out from underneath. I'd had enough training to know that I should leave it closed.
Oh, God, now what? I'd forgotten the fire extinguisher. Should I run back and get it? Thick dark smoke dimmed the hall light above me. No, first the fire department.
I couldn't handle this by myself. Our alarm would alert our security company, but I couldn't wait for them to call to confirm before they turned it into the fire department. The women and kids inside that room didn't have that long.
I ran back to the office and dialed 911. "It's Beginnings. I mean, this is Beginnings Battered Women's shelter."
"Yes ma'am," said the unruffled voice of the operator. "And you are?"
"Kaye Atchinson--Berreano, I'm the counselor. We've got a fire."
"We're on our way, Ma'am."
"Hurry." I banged the phone down then ran up the stairs for the rest of the women. I raced from room to room, thumping on doors, yelling over the screech of the upstairs alarms which were just starting. "Come on. Everyone out. Now. This isn't a fire drill."
The stairwell acted as a conduit, so the smoke already clouded the upstairs hall. Doors began to open, and a chorus of buzzes filled the air as individual bedroom smoke alarms responded. Shrieking dark figures stumbled for the stairs, some shepherding smaller crying shapes.
I followed close behind them. "Come on. Come on, hurry." Smoke caught in my throat, making my voice hoarse, but I tried to sound calm and authoritative.
I watched the last woman disappear down the murky stairs then inspected each room to make sure that everyone in the upper part of the house was out. Then I returned to the downstairs bedroom.
The door was still closed and the hall was, if possible, smokier than before. Oh dear Lord, why didn't either of these women wake up? Nicky had two kids as well as her unborn baby. It wouldn't take much of this kind of smoke to kill them.
I had to get them out. I ran to the bathroom and got a towel, wet it and tied it mask like around my face. Then taking a deep breath, I went in. Heat and smoke hit me in the face. My eyes teared about the makeshift mask. I couldn't see anything except the fire below the window.
Smoke billowed toward me, powered by the air from the open window. As I watched, the air from the open door fanned the flames to the ceiling. I felt the heat scorching me from here. Fear filled me. I had to get out of there. I had to get these people out of there.
"Nicky! Mary Ellen!" I screamed as I started feeling around blindly. Nothing but clothes on the floor. Thank God. I'd had pictures in my mind of children collapsed by the door. I felt around some more.
I heard the crackling of the flames as I searched. Why didn't the alarm go off in here? The bottom beds were empty--which meant Nicky's kids got out. Maybe they'd all escaped. I stood on a lower bunk and felt around one of the upper bunks one more time to make sure.
No. Someone lay still in the bed.
I felt around, since I couldn't see. Too slender to be Nicky's pregnant body.
"Mary Ellen," I screamed in her ear, and shook her. This had to be more than just a deep sleep. I grabbed her shoulders and tried to drag her out of her bed. "Unh," I grunted as I heaved as hard as I could. More tears stung my eyes. The upper half of her body moved with me, but her legs still lay tangled in the bed sheets. She dangled awkwardly from my arms. How could someone so thin be so heavy?
Where happened to the fire department? What was taking so long? I stood for a moment with Mary Ellen in my arms, screaming and crying. "God, what is going on? Mary Ellen, wake up. Help me, I can't do this alone." I shook her again and almost lost my grip on her. My knees buckled under her weight. I had to do something. Sweat ran down into my eyes, and I coughed uncontrollably through my makeshift towel-mask.
"Help!" I yelled through the smoke. The snapping, popping sound of the fire was the only response I heard.