Jessica got in touch right after I went to bed Tuesday night.
“Hey there,” I responded, biting back the “So, I see your phone still works” comment hovering on my lips. Silence fell between us, all weird and uncomfortable.
“How are things with your mom?” I asked finally.
“Things are good, I guess. I mean, she isn’t here very much. She’s really busy with her friends and stuff, and she doesn’t like me to be around when her boyfriend comes home. I don’t have a car or anything, so I’ve just sort of been hanging out by the pool. They’ve got me in the guesthouse. There are a few others staying there, but I have my own room.”
“Well, I’m glad things are good,” I told her. “I want you to be happy.”
“I was wondering …”
“Yes?” “Do you think you could pack up some of my things and ship them down? I left all my clothes up there, and Mom has been loaning me shit, but I don’t feel quite right borrowing from her all the time.”
I glanced toward her bedroom door, wondering if I’d be a horrible person if I said I’d set all her things on fire. Yes. That would be horrible. Pity, because a small, hateful part of me wanted to hurt her.
But even with Ruby Fusion hair, I still had to be the adult.
“Sure, I can pack some things up—but not everything. That would cost a fortune to ship. If you want more, you can get a job and earn the money to pay for it. I’ll get some clothes for you, though.”
“And maybe some of my books and pictures?” she asked. “You know, like the scrapbook I made of the kids at the community center? I’m kind of missing them, especially since I didn’t get to say good-bye. I wanted to find somewhere else to volunteer, but Mom thought that was a bad idea.”
My heart softened a little. Amber was a Class A bitch, so staying with her had to be a punishment in and of itself. My Jessie girl had some hard lessons ahead of her.
“I’ll pack some things up and send them soon,” I told her firmly. “But it’s late and I need to sleep. I’ve got work in the morning.”
“Okay,” she whispered. “Loni?”
Wednesday morning I opened her bedroom door, midsized cardboard shipping box in hand. I’d come in here right after she ran away and picked up the worst of her mess from the tantrum, just so nobody would accidentally cut their feet on the broken glass. But beyond that I’d left everything untouched. Jess was a slob, and we’d come to an agreement years ago. She’d do her part to keep the rest of the house clean, and I’d stop bugging her about her bedroom.
The system had worked well for us.
Now I looked around, wondering where to begin. Most of her favorite things were strewn across the floor in dirty piles. I could either grab the things from her drawers (already clean) and pack them, or collect up what she really liked and give it a quick wash.
Well, she had said “thank you,” which was a big step up for Little Miss Entitlement.
I grabbed the dirty clothes, tossing them into the box like a makeshift laundry basket. I carried them into the kitchen, where a washer and dryer took up one corner. Then I started sorting through and checking the pockets.
That’s when I found the money.
A hundred-dollar bill, wrapped around a scrap of paper with a note on it.
Seven tonight, downtown. No bra, no panties.
What. The. Hell.
My hand trembled as the implications hit me. Jessica had some sort of secret boyfriend, the kind of man who gave her money. Enough money that she could afford to leave a hundred-dollar bill stashed in her pants.
Amber had boyfriends like that, too.
The thought made me sick, and I swayed, reaching out to clutch the counter. I stumbled into the living room, sitting down heavily on the couch, trying to think.
Mellie. She’d know what was going on.
The phone only rang once before she picked up.
“Hey, Loni,” she said, sounding pathetically eager to talk to me. I felt a twinge of guilt—I hadn’t given her much thought the past couple days, even though she’d spent two or three nights a week at my house over the last year.
“Hey, Mel. How are you?”
“Okay,” she replied. “I miss Jessica, though. I’ve tried calling her but she hasn’t answered. I guess she’s too busy doing cool things with her mom.”
Not so much, but I decided not to go there.
“Maybe. Hey, I was just going through some of her laundry and I found something strange. I thought I might ask you about it.”
“What?” Mellie asked, her voice cautious. I smelled a secret. Excellent. Now I just needed to get it out of her, which shouldn’t be too hard. Mellie never lied directly, only by omission.
“A note, along with a hundred-dollar bill. It’s from a man, making arrangements to get together with Jess downtown somewhere. Do you know of anyone she was seeing? Someone who would have a hundred bucks to spare?”
Mellie didn’t answer immediately, so I waited, letting the silence grow between us.
“I don’t know his name,” she said finally. “I mean, I know he’s older, but I don’t know any more than that. She said he was her sugar daddy. Said he took care of her.”
I sighed. “And you didn’t think that was relevant information to share with me when she went missing?”
“I didn’t want to get her in trouble,” Mellie replied, her voice miserable. “I knew how pissed you’d be, and I don’t think he had anything to do with her taking off. It’s not like he’s dangerous or anything—not like those bikers she hooked up with. She says he’s really good to her. And they didn’t start sleeping together until after she turned eighteen, at least not that I know of. She says he respects her.”
“Okay,” I said softly. I felt like I should press her for more information, but what was the point? God, this sucked. “I appreciate the heads-up.”
“Sorry,” Mellie whispered. “Hey, Loni?”
“Can I come over to your place sometime? I sort of miss hanging out with you.”
“Sure, sweetie,” I told her, feeling my eyes start to water a little. “You’re always welcome here, okay?”
“Thanks,” she whispered. “You know how it is …”
“Yeah, baby, I know how it is. You’re safe here. Always. Just because Jessica left doesn’t mean you aren’t welcome.”