“Wrong about what?”
He acted like he was going to say something, then he must have changed his mind. He kissed her forehead instead.
“You go to sleep, baby. This is all going to work out. You’ll see. We’re going to work all this out.”
“But you’ll stay with me, right, Daddy?”
“Of course, but she’s your mom, Gracie, and you need her, no matter what you think.”
* * *
“I screwed up, Scot,” Lexi said again. She was in his office, pacing back and forth in front of the window, chewing on her thumbnail.
She stopped, faced him. “Did you say something?”
“Sit down. You’re making me dizzy.”
She went to his desk and stood there, looking down at Scot, who looked a little tired today. His hair was a mess and his tie was askew. “Are you okay?”
“Danny has colic. Jenny and I aren’t sleeping much. But I’m fine.”
Lexi reached down for the framed photograph on Scot’s desk. In it, a pudgy bald baby boy held a plastic key. It made her sad, seeing this baby, thinking of Grace, wondering if she’d had colic or if she’d slept through the night like an angel. “I don’t know anything about being a mom,” she said quietly, feeling defeated again.
“No one does at the start,” Scot said. “I kept looking for a manual with Danny, but all he came with was a blanket. And I’m pretty sure his grandma gave it to him. Sit down, Lexi.”
She collapsed more than anything, realizing all of a sudden how exhausted she was. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Scot handed her a newspaper. “It won’t do any good to dwell on your mistake. Now is the time for action, Lexi. We need to show the court, and the Farradays, that you’re here to stay and that you’re ready to parent Grace. The best way to do that is to find a job.”
“A job. Of course.”
“I’ve circled a few possibilities. I wish I had enough business to employ you here—”
“You’ve done enough. Thank you, Scot.”
“Jenny has a navy blue suit that she thought you might want to borrow. It’s hanging off the door in the conference room.”
Lexi was once again filled by gratitude to this man, and his wife. She got slowly to her feet. “Danny is a lucky kid. You know that, right?”
He looked up. “So is Grace.”
“I hope so,” Lexi said quietly, feeling a thin resurgence of hope. Saying good-bye to Scot, she went into the conference room and put on Jenny’s navy blue summer-weight suit. It didn’t look great with Lexi’s ice blue T-shirt and flip-flops, but it was the best she had.
In less than forty minutes, she was on her bike, heading to the local drugstore, which had advertised for a sales clerk. Full time, minimum wage.
Inside the bright store, with its array of colorful shelving, she paused and looked around. At the nearest cash register, a heavyset woman with a beehive-like gray pile of hair stood, talking on her cell phone.
Lexi went to the checkout line and stood there.
“You buying something, hon?” the woman said, lowering the phone just a little.
“I’m here for the job.”
“Oh.” The woman bent forward, pressed one scythelike red fingernail to the store intercom, and said, “Manager to register one, please.” Then she smiled at Lexi, straightened, and went back to her phone conversation.
“Thank you,” Lexi said, although the woman wasn’t listening.
Lexi saw the manager approach register one. He was a tall, thin man, very Ichabod Crane–y, with a nose like an eagle’s beak and spiny eyebrows that grew wild as blackberry bushes.
She moved toward him confidently, extended her hand. “Hello, sir. I’m Alexa Baill. I’ve come to apply for the clerk position.”
He shook her hand. “Follow me.”
She followed him back into a small, windowless office that was stacked high with cardboard boxes. He sat behind the metal desk and pointed to a stool in the corner.
She dragged the stool over to the desk and sat down, feeling a little conspicuous on the perch.
“Do you have a résumé?”
Lexi felt her cheeks heat up. “No. It’s a sales clerk job, right? In high school, I worked at Amoré, the ice cream shop. I’m good with money and even better with people. I’m a good employee, and I can work any shift. I could get you some recommendations.”
“When did you work at Amoré?”
“From 2002 to 2004. I … quit in June, after I graduated from high school.”
He wrote something down on a piece of paper that looked like an application. “And you’re home from college now? Is this a summer job for you?”
“No. I’m looking for full-time employment.”
He looked up sharply. His thick eyebrows veed together. “You went to Pine Island High?”
“Most local kids don’t work here full-time. Where have you worked since high school?”
Lexi swallowed hard. “Part-time in a library.”
She let out a quiet breath and lost her good posture. “Purdy.”
“You don’t mean—”
“The prison. I’ve been in prison for a few years. But now I’m out, and I’ll be a good employee. I guarantee you that.” She was speaking, but it was useless. She saw the way his face shuttered at the word prison, the way he wouldn’t meet her gaze now.
“All right, then,” he said, giving her his first smile—and it was pure fiction. “I’ll contact you when we’ve made our decision.”
“That means no job,” she said, sliding off the stool.
“It means I’ll contact you if we want to hire you.”
“Yeah.” She tried to stay optimistic; it was only the first of many potential jobs. Maybe other employers would be more liberal minded. “So, do you want my phone number?”
He looked at her finally. “You can give it to me if you want.”
She wanted to tell him no way and walk out with some stitch of dignity, but she had Grace to consider, so she wrote down her phone number and left the drugstore’s bright interior. Outside, she opened her newspaper and found the next opening. A waitress position at Esmerelda’s Mexican Kitchen.
For the rest of the afternoon, Lexi tried to believe in herself, even as one job after another evaporated in front of her. Most of the available positions were part-time, without benefits. She lost track of the times some employer had mentioned the economy as her enemy. Apparently she’d gone to prison in good times and come out in bad. Minimum wage was less than nine dollars an hour. That gave her maybe fifteen hundred dollars a month income, before taxes; well over half would go to rent.
But apparently none of that mattered because she couldn’t get a job. She’d spoken to twelve employers today, and every conversation ended up the same way.
What have you been doing since high school?
College, really? Where?
Who was your last employer?
Oh (and the look)—the prison library.
I’m sorry, the position had been filled … You’re too young … I’ll let you know …
One excuse after another. The hell of it was, she couldn’t blame them. Who wanted to hire a twenty-four-year-old ex-con?
And if that weren’t bad enough, after her useless job interviews, she’d checked out housing on the island.
There were only three apartment complexes, and one thing was sure: she couldn’t afford to live in any of them. The smallest of the available units rented for nine hundred fifty dollars per month. Plus, the landlord required first and last month’s rent and a security deposit in advance. Twenty-four hundred dollars, due on the day she signed the lease agreement.
It might as well be a million dollars.
A few phone calls confirmed that Port George was no better.
There were more rentals available on the other side of the bridge, but they were still way too expensive.
The whole day defeated Lexi. By the time she gave up, it was seven o’clock at night and she just wanted to be alone. She rode her bike through the quiet summer night and parked outside Scot’s office. Using her key, she walked inside. All she wanted to do was sleep. Or scream.
“Lexi? Is that you?”
She sighed and forced a smile. She owed Scot everything; it wasn’t his fault she was such a pathetic loser. “Hey, Scot,” she said, heading into his office. “You’re working late.”
“I was waiting for you. I have a surprise. Come here.”
He took her by the hand and led her to the conference room. On the long wooden table, a laptop was open. “Here,” he said, “sit down.”
Lexi did as she was told.
Scot left the room for a few moments and then returned. “Okay, we’re ready.” He pushed a button on the laptop and Aunt Eva’s worried face filled the screen. “I don’t know, Babs. How can you tell if it’s working?”
The sight of her aunt’s face was like a tonic. Lexi felt a loosening in her chest. For the first time in hours, she smiled. She wasn’t as alone as she’d thought. “Hey, Aunt Eva,” she said, scooting forward.
“She’s here, Barbara!” Eva’s face broke into a bright smile. “Come look! This is my Lexi.”
A heavyset woman with a head of steel gray curls bent at the waist and peered into the camera, smiling. “Hello, Alexa. My sister never stops talking about you.”
“Hey, Barbara,” Lexi said softly, overcome with emotion.
Barbara’s face moved out of view and Eva scooted closer to her computer. She looked different, older; her cheeks were deeply tanned and lined and her hair had gone completely white. “So, tell me everything, Lexi.”
Scot left the room and shut the door behind him.
“I met Gracie,” Lexi said. It was the first thing that came to mind.
“How is she?”
“Sad. Beautiful. Lonely.”
“Oh. That must be hard to see.”
“It’s all hard, Aunt Eva. I didn’t want to come here, because I knew it would be hard, but now I’m here and everything is a mess.”
“I suppose you’ve seen your young man?”
Lexi shrugged. “It’s been a long time.”
“You look tired, Lexi.”
“It’s been a bad day. It’s going to be hard for me to get a job and hard to afford a place to live. Impossible, maybe.”
“You just got out, Lexi. Maybe you need to come home and get taken care of. Barb and me got a hide-a-bed just waiting for you. You could get a job down here and save up your money. Floyd at the Tilt-a-Curl says he’d be happy to hire you to answer phones and clean up. Without rent to pay, you’ll have a nice little nest egg in no time.”
Lexi had to admit, the ease of it appealed to her. She needed to be wanted somewhere. “But how can I leave Grace again? She’ll never forgive me.”