Vacant (Chapter 5 Payment)

We spend a quiet, comfortable evening and I can't help watching Emily for most of it. It's obvious she hasn't seen television in a while because she's mesmerized. We are watching some Cajun cooking show on public access, but to see it through her eyes, it's like we are watching the most fascinating show known to man.

"I put a little mo' wine in here, maybe a little mo' wine fo' me," the host says in a Creole southern drawl.

"Oh my gosh! Ethan, he is so funny! 'I gar-un-tee'!" she laughs as she mimics the chef, and I can't help the smile that cracks across my face. She could let the world swallow her whole with the weight of her situation, but she doesn't. Instead she carries on, seemingly carefree, laughing at the talkative old cook with the gift of gab.


She glances over at me, still laughing at the TV. It's the moment I know I'm making the right decision. I take a deep breath, ready to lay things on the line.

"Hang on! He's going to tell a story about squirrel hunting! This'll be good!" Emily says with enthusiasm. While I really need to get my thoughts out, I can't deny her this moment. It's so pure, so I decide to indulge her for the final five minutes of the show.

As the Cookin' Cajun finishes, Emily focuses her attention on me.

"You wanted to talk about something?" The light and sparkle in her eyes is amazing. She looks happy and carefree instead of nervous. She seems to assume the best of every situation. Given the circumstances, you'd think she would be nervous, but instead, she acts as though we're going to talk about whether she'll make oatmeal or chocolate chips cookies next. I suddenly feel something I haven't felt in a very long time: content.

"Yeah," I begin, though I'm not sure why I'm nervous, other than the fact she may say no. She may refuse my help. She may tell me to mind my own business, that she doesn't need anyone to look after her, but I have to try.

"I want you to stay here." Her mouth drops open, but no sound comes out. "With me," I finish. I'm not sure whether her speechlessness is a result of shock or horror. I decide to play it safe with more justification. "You can't squat next door. It's not safe, it's illegal, and you don't need any hassles from the cops."

She sits for a moment with her eyes trained on her hands while her fingers twist with each other on her lap. Her hair is frizzy from the humidity, and despite having it pulled back, there are tiny tendrils sticking up forming an angelic halo around her face. After a few moments, she finally speaks. "So, what do you want in return?"

What? I'm fully aware she has no money, so why would she think I would want her to pay-

I'm not even finished with my own thought when I realize she's not talking about monetary payment. Nothing is ever free, and she thinks I want her in return for providing food and shelter. The thought strips me down to the core.

"No!" I shout unnecessarily, but I can't help it. I do not want that! She's hiding her face, but I can see her scrunching her eyes closed. I take a breath to calm down and explain myself.

"No," I start again, much calmer than before. "I don't want anything from you, Emily. I want to help you. I know how…" I stop and take a deep breath. I need her to understand where I'm coming from. "I know how hard this situation can be."

She flinches and snaps her head up to look me in the eye. "You don't want…you know, then?" She gestures between us to further her point.

Lie. "No. The last thing I want is for you to be taken advantage of." While the thought of being with her physically is an attractive offer, I would never want it under that set of circumstances. I know how easy it is to become a target when you're young and in need.

"But, why? Everyone wants something, Ethan. There has to be something you want from me. I mean, it's okay if you want… you know…" Her cheeks flame red as she says this.

God, she's so naive she can't even say the word "sex." It only solidifies my decision that I'm doing the right thing, but she's right. People always want something in return, so I will have to give her a reason why I don't want anything from her. I have to be honest with her and let her know that I'm all too familiar with her situation.