“What is that smell?”
The complicated mix of stink bombarded my nostrils as I held my son’s hand a little tighter. “The city,” I told him, because it was easier than saying ‘garbage, urine, wet dog, gasoline, and old hot dog water’. A car with a burnt-out headlight blew past us, and I shielded my son from the rush of cold air it brought with it.
“It stinks,” Avery mumbled, pulling the neckline of his sweater up to cover his nose. “And my feet hurt.”
Up ahead, pedestrians rushed this way and that, crossing the intersection we were coming up on with earbuds popped in and their eyes glued to their phone screens. Yellow cabs tore down the streets, the drivers making the best of being free from the traffic on the main arteries but still taking every chance they could to lay on their horns and shout obscenities out the window while they puffed on a cigarette. Most people wouldn’t have gotten slightly teary about it all, but I did. Because this was New York, the city that never slept but, more importantly, the city that was home.
Or used to be home, but now would be again.
“We’re almost there,” I assured my son.
He groaned, his pace slowing to that of a slug caught out in the sun too long. “You said that ages ago.”
We made it. We’re almost there. We just need to keep going a little while longer.
I kept those words at the forefront of my mind, using them to summon the last bit of mental fortitude I possessed. The relief of having made it to New York helped too, but it had waned a little when I’d given the taxi I’d ordered at the airport the wrong address and then realized I now had no idea where we were at.
My phone was almost dead, and Avery was barely lucid at this point, so tired that I had to drag him and our two suitcases along the sidewalk. But we’re still almost there. We still made it. We’re still here.
“Come on, baby,” I murmured soothingly as I squeezed his hand, fighting off less happy tears this time. “It’s just a little longer and then we’ll be at Heather’s house. I promise.”
Avery shied away from a vent blowing mysterious hot air from the side of a building, too exhausted to jump the way he had when we’d first climbed out of the cab. As he bumped into my side, he looked up at me, eyes red and bleary as he nodded.
“Okay, Mommy. Just a little bit longer.”
My heart squeezed. He was only eight years old. His little shoulders were caved in, and it looked like he was going to curl up in a ball and take a nap right here on the concrete if we didn’t make it to my friend’s place soon.
He doesn’t deserve this. He never has.
Despair threatened to take root in the depths of my very soul, but I took a deep breath and beat it away with a mental stick. So what if we’re tired? So what if I have to keep fighting the urge to look over my shoulder? We’re here! We’re finally safe.
Lifting my chin, I refused to take so much as a peek over my shoulder and smiled at Avery instead. He’d been through enough. I wouldn’t let him see that I was still scared, still anxious, and so exhausted that I could barely see straight.
I had to hold it together for him, and that was exactly what I was going to do. “You smell that?”
He frowned. “The garbage?”
“No.” I wrinkled my nose at him, still smiling. “The laundry. Every time we pass a building, inhale. Every once in a while, you should smell clean laundry. That’s one of the things I love about this city.”
“If you say so,” he mumbled, eyeing me wearily. “How much longer?”
“Not long now.” I had no idea if I was lying, but I sure hoped not.
Kicking myself for not taking Heather and my brother, Henry, up on their offers for rides from the airport, I kept dragging Avery and the suitcases along, praying for a freaking miracle. Although I’d probably used up my quota for those these last few days. Still, we’d made it this far. We just had to keep pushing a tiny bit longer.
I might’ve given that driver the wrong address, but we were in the right neighborhood, and we had to be close. My mind was still a jumbled mess after everything that had happened—which had no doubt contributed to my slight error in navigation—but I couldn’t allow the anxiety to overwhelm me now.
I was going to have to keep doing what big girls did, which was to bury that shit deep, deep down and keep trucking. Once I had Avery someplace safe and warm, then maybe I could let all my emotions bubble to the surface, but for now, my big girl panties were firmly on, and I was going to make it to Heather’s without dissolving into a fit of tears.
I checked the map on my phone again, my battery at three percent, and sighed in relief when I saw that her apartment building was only three more blocks from here, straight ahead. “Only a few more blocks, baby. Let’s do this.”
Avery didn’t respond, but I saw him rally when I glanced down at him, his shoulders pulling back a little and his jaw setting. My boy was a real trooper and now I was finally going to be able to give him the life he deserved.
Hopefully. If I can get a job. Make enough money to cover our basic expenses. Maybe—
I shook my head at myself, my teeth grinding as I forced my thoughts back into the other direction. All the money in the world hadn’t helped me when Avery and I had been living in hell. I’d learned firsthand that money didn’t buy happiness or freedom. I wouldn’t let the lack of it trip me up now.
“We will be fine,” I muttered to myself, focusing on my breathing as we walked down the final block to Heather’s and thanking my lucky stars that we’d had her place to flee to.
She’d been my best friend since high school and we were still close. So close that she was Avery’s Godmother and had insisted that we come to stay with her once we’d made our escape. As a travel nurse, she was away often and lived in a spacious rent-controlled, three-bedroom here in the city.
It had taken some convincing, but eventually I’d accepted her offer. She had the space, was gone often enough that we wouldn’t be that much of an imposition, and it was only until I got back on my own two feet anyway.
We wouldn’t be living with her forever. I dragged in another deep breath, finding a strange sense of comfort in the scents of hot exhaust fumes and even the garbage. At least it meant I was still alive—that we were still alive.
As my gaze scanned the buildings around us, I nearly cried out in relief when I finally caught sight of Heather’s. “There! That’s it.”
Avery whimpered softly, his shoulders slumping again now that the end was in sight. “We made it?”
“We did, baby. We made it. We’re here.”
I slid my phone into the backpack hanging over my shoulder and let go of the suitcases. Still holding Avery’s hand, I climbed the few steps to the buzzer. I’d barely pressed the button labeled H Banks before the door swung open and Heather’s face split into a relieved grin. She must’ve been waiting downstairs for us.
“You’re here! Oh, thank goodness. I was just starting to get worried.” She threw her arms around my shoulders and hugged me tight. “I’m so glad you’re here, honey. Welcome home.”
Those tears I’d been fighting pressed heavily against the backs of my eyes as I hugged her back, but I swallowed them down and released her, returning her grin with a tired, watered-down version of my own.
“Thanks,” I muttered as I tightened my grip on Avery’s hand. “Sorry we’re so late. I got your street number jumbled and the taxi dropped us off at the wrong place, but I didn’t realize it until he was gone.”
“You could’ve grabbed another one.” She took a step back, her gaze running across my face as if she was checking for injuries before it settled on Avery beside me. “Hey, buddy. It’s so good to see you. You look exhausted. Let’s get you upstairs and to bed.”
“If my phone had enough juice left in it, I might’ve called another cab but I knew we were close. I was too scared that my battery would die before the ride even made it to us and then I wouldn’t even have had a map.”
Heather smiled warmly. “Well, you’re here now. Let me help you with your stuff.”
“Thanks,” I said again, wondering how many more times I was going to thank her in the coming days and weeks. The truth was that she’d saved my butt with her support, encouragement, and offering us a place to stay.
I owed her about a hundred years’ worth of thank you’s, but she waved me off, gave Avery a quick hug, and then darted down the stairs to grab one of our suitcases. Following her out to get the other, I couldn’t help but wonder how she still managed to look so young.
We were the same age, but with her chin-length blonde hair, blue eyes, curves to die for, and that bubbly, sunshine personality, I felt like an old lady compared to her. Maybe that’ll change now that we’re here, though.
My recent life experiences felt like they’d aged me at least two decades, but I was only twenty-nine. Heather had already made it to thirty and my birthday was up next. I’d have been here a few months by the time that rolled around, so maybe by the time I made it there, I’d feel my own age again.
A lot of water needs to run under the bridge before that’ll happen, but it’s not impossible. I’m just going to keep hoping—and start healing.
Heather kept up a constant stream of chatter as she ushered us inside, helping me with the suitcases that contained everything we now owned in the world.
“I made up a room for each of you,” she said excitedly. “If there’s anything you don’t like, we can change it. Obviously. I just wanted you to feel comfortable and at home when you arrived. The water pressure in the building is awesome and we’ve got two bathrooms in the apartment. I’ve cleared the cabinets in the one with the tub for you. There are fresh towels on your beds if you’d like to get cleaned up and I’ve got some soup ready if you’re hungry.”
After a short walk down the hall from the elevator, she pushed open the door to apartment 4B, and for the first time, I saw her place with my own eyes instead of on a screen. The front door opened directly into a large living room with an open-concept kitchen on one side and a bank of windows on the other.
The first bathroom and bedroom doors were right next to the kitchen, with another door right next to the first two while the others were set against the back wall. Heather’s furniture was a comfortable mix between thrift store and trendy. Her bookshelves overflowed with well-worn paperbacks and all kinds of trinkets, and her couches were mismatched and fabric-covered, with cheerful yellow cushions and even a few blankets strewn around on them.
It felt like a home. A real, safe, inviting, safe place to land. I wondered how long it would take before I could create something like this for my son and I.
Without wasting any time, she walked straight to the first door and pushed it open, sweeping a hand out for Avery to go in first. “This is your room, bud. I really hope you like it. I put some pictures of your favorite soccer players on the walls, but if you don’t like ‘em, you can rip ‘em right off.”
Avery stopped just after he’d walked in, his grin tired but genuine as he flashed it at her. “I love them. Thank you.”
My eyes filled with tears when I followed him in and realized that she’d painstakingly prepared the room for him, with a box of Legos in the corner, the posters on the walls, some children’s books in a little bookshelf, and even a stack of puzzles and boardgames on the dresser.
I swallowed hard and turned to give her a grateful smile. She nodded, her own eyes misty as she backed out of the room. “I’m going to let you get settled. That little man looks like he needs a bed. Unless you want something to eat first?”
“I’m not even going to brush my teeth tonight,” he mumbled, kicking off his sneakers and walking directly to the bed.
Heather pointed at the living room over her shoulder. “I’ll meet you out there.”
With that, she closed the door and I unzipped a suitcase, pulling out an oversized shirt he liked to sleep in. Thankfully, I’d had the foresight to pack it right on top. After I handed it over, I checked in with him, making sure he was okay before I said good night.
“I’m just tired, Mom.” He swapped out his hoodie for the shirt and climbed into bed with his sweats still on.
I nodded, leaning forward to press a kiss to his forehead. “Sleep tight, baby. There’s no rush tomorrow morning, okay?”
I got up and drew the heavy curtains in his windows, hoping that having them closed would allow him to sleep in a little. I left the lamp in the corner of the room on for him, and by the time I made it to the door, he was already fast asleep.
So many emotions tumbled through me as I watched him for a moment. Relief, joy, lingering fear, anticipation, and even trepidation over the life we were about to start fought for dominance within as I finally pulled the door shut behind me.
Heather was waiting in the living room like she’d said, nothing but relief on her features as she watched me come out of the room and gave me another hug. “So this is it, then? It’s over? You’re safe?”
I knew what she wanted to hear, but I wasn’t sure where to start. I’d also become a pro at concealing my emotions and I didn’t want her to know how anxious I was. Plus, I was just too tired to get into everything right then.
“I’m okay.” I melted into her embrace for a moment before letting go. “Exhausted, but okay.”
She gave me a soft smile as she nodded. “I can’t even imagine what you’re going through. Can I get you some water? Coffee?” She pumped her perfectly shaped eyebrows. “Alcohol, maybe?”
I chuckled and shook my head. “Tomorrow. For now, I think I just need to go to bed.”
“You got it,” she said amiably. “I made up the room next to Avery’s for you and there are some spare toiletries in the bathroom if you don’t feel like digging through all your stuff for yours.”
“Thanks, I might just take you up on that.” We said good night and she headed to her bedroom as I went to the bathroom.
Internally debating grabbing a quick shower, bone-deep weariness eventually convinced me not to bother. I only just managed to splash some cold water on my face and brush my teeth without falling asleep standing up.
Forgoing the room she’d made up for me for tonight, I opted to sleep next to Avery instead. Just in case he woke up confused and afraid in the middle of the night. As I crawled in next to him, my eyes closed and I whispered into his hair.“I love you, baby. We’re going to be okay, I promise. We made it. We really are going to be okay.”