“You’re useless. You’re not helpful. Nothing you do matters.”
My self hate and fears whirled around my mind as I sat at the kitchen table, picking through my finances and trying to figure out how to make ends meet that month. I’d been trying to launch a consulting business, but between my spouse’s debt and my poor health, the insistence that I push through and find work was growing in my mind. I glanced at my half-completed disability application before thumping my forehead into the table. Did it have to come to disability when I was so young? I was only 25 and the idea of giving up having a career was still more than I could stomach.
I’d been diagnosed with a rare degenerative collagen disorder three years prior, just in time for the major health problems to start. At 23, I experienced my first vascular issues. My arthritis had started deepening its grip around the same time, but I’d muscled through the cold winters and continued to work. Finally laid off after working myself out of a job, I’d decided it would be wise to start working for myself. With no support, it was tough going but I was able to make myself useful doing upgrades on the house, running a rental unit out of the basement apartment and making sure my spouse had nothing to worry about save for work.
It was also apparent that my nerves were beginning to degenerate. When electric nerve pain and seizures began taking over my sanity, I enrolled in the university pain clinic. I’d begged the doctors to find a cure for me rather than teach me to manage what I had. My greatest fear of not being of use was slowly becoming realized. ‘I need a drink. Maybe some chips.’ I thought to myself.
I needed to get out of the suddenly stuffy house. Locking the front door, I trudged to my car. The door slammed and engine moaned to life; soon I was rolling through my neighborhood to the closest corner store.
The neighborhood, previously considered to be a high crime part of town, was quickly becoming the next re-gentrified suburb. Five minutes from the city, each block was seemed to be in a different state of conversion. One street passed and I watched house-flippers crawl over several properties. The next contained homes with sagging roofs, garbage and police cruisers parked along the street; this was my kind of place.
I pulled into the corner store closest to the freeway. Across the street was an hourly motel where one could find any drug or sexual service imaginable. The store had bars over each window, usually many cops in circulation around the block and it was unusual to not see junkies stumbling over from the nearby motel for smokes, beer and junk food. I unclipped my seatbelt and slid out of my hated Prius, making sure to lock the doors as I pulled open the heavily barred door and strolled inside.
After having lived on the streets, I felt perfectly comfortable making my way through the open air drug market and the grimiest of places in the city. This was no exception, and grumpy as I was, I noticed little as I strode down the racks of junk food, scanning for anything that might look appetizing. Truly, this was a venture of complete boredom. I grabbed a bag of Fritos and some bean dip, walked a few more aisles and headed for the checkout counter.
I knew all the cashiers at the convenience store; most of them had just arrived from Mexico but there were a few overly friendly Pakistani men as well. One of the Pakistani guys that especially liked me was manning the register and as I slapped the chips on the counter, he gave me a nervous smile. I frowned inwardly, glancing in the ceiling mirror behind him. What was the off grin for?
I hadn’t noticed my surroundings through my muttering and preoccupation, but as I looked in the mirror I immediately recognized a few ‘hondos’ aimlessly walking through the aisles. This was normal enough, however, none of them were looking at the racks. They were looking at me, watching.
I made a quick calculation as the cashier scanned my chips and took my card; I was very close to the door so I could easily leave before they got to me. I was armed with my usual hidden knives, but most hondos in the city knew and liked me. A hondo, or ‘street escort’ was one of the lowest positions one could achieve on the streets. Near the drug markets, they were known for approaching strangers and offering to locate whatever drug or services the visitor could want for a small cut of whatever they planned to spend. They were the messengers, carriers, mules of the black market but by themselves, they were for the most part friendly once one got past their filthy appearance. These hondos served the area around the motel, and it was unusual to see them working in the store. ‘I’ve interrupted an exchange’, I realized.
I didn’t care.
As I finished paying, the cashier gave me an odd look. I’d always been conversational with him, and his eyes held a small plea as he spoke.
“My friend is very sick. Can you take her to the homeless clinic?” His English was broken and as he spoke, he glanced towards the door, again nervous.
“Ah I’m so sorry, but I have company and I need to get back.” I lied lamely, not wanting to interrupt my own misery.
He looked at me, saying nothing. My heart dropped and conviction flooded in. The homeless clinic was only two miles away.
“I’m sorry, I’ve just got too much going on.” I lied again in spite of his lack of response and the guilt intensified.
At this point, the cashier stared at me in confusion and I stood at the counter, frowning and arguing internally. People in this part of town asked me for help often, but I usually knew how to handle the requests and it never bothered me to set a safety boundary. Why then, did this one time I feel like my own ‘no’ was tearing me apart? ‘God,’ I thought. ‘This always happens when I’m supposed to be doing something in love.’
“Fine. I’ll be in the car.” My tone held a tinge of resentment as I picked up the bag and glanced around; which friend was he talking about?
As I headed towards the exit, I saw the friend he was probably referencing: A scruffy-looking person in stained men’s clothes was lying on the floor at the end of a display counter. As I walked by purposefully, they looked up at me but I didn’t return the gaze.
“Let’s go.” I said curtly, stepping around the person.
At 25 years old, I’d learned to carry myself properly on the streets and when doing favors, being a little rough was expected. I looked far younger than 25 and as a woman myself, it usually took quite an edge to let the street-people (which I once was) know I wasn’t to be messed with. I unlocked the car, slid into my seat and tossed my bag of chips in the seat behind me.
As I clipped my belt into place, I watched as the person walked painstakingly slowly in front of the car and opened the passenger door, plopping in beside me with a loud moan of pain.
Before I could assess the person any further, the smell hit and I fought my gag reflex. This person had something going on much worse than a lack of bathing, I realized. I glanced over as they slammed the passenger door shut.
‘Oh God,’ I thought again.
It was a child.
I stared at the young girl in my car, no longer aware of the intense odor. If there was something I had a heart for, it was homeless kids.
“You’re really young. Did you run away?” I knew what the answer would be.
“I’m 18.” The girl was a terrible liar, but I knew better than to press her only to have her flee from the car.
“So you need to go to the homeless clinic?”
“Sure thing. It’s not far from here. Buckle up. What’s your name?”
“I’m Paloma.” The girl seemed to struggle for a moment to remember her name; it was likely made up, but as she spoke, her eyes flitted and her chin dipped. She was definitely very sick.
“I’m Skye. I used to live out on the out too. Kind of rough for a kid like you. Is your family worse or something?” I was going to keep casually calling her out and then changing the subject; it usually worked very well in building trust with street kids.
“I’m 18. My dad got me a ticket to come out here so I wouldn’t have to tell my mom I was using meth. I think she was gonna beat me to death.”
“Where is your family from? I just got these chips but I’m not really hungry; want them?”
“California. I can’t. My mouth hurts and I’m really cold.” Her mouth, I suddenly noticed, was covered in deep, weeping meth sores.
“The clinic can help you get fixed up for sure. What’s your favorite food?”
As Paloma described her favorite German snack, we pulled up to the clinic. Though I’d promised myself that I’d drop the mysterious ‘friend’ off and pull away back onto the street, I knew I couldn’t leave a child in such a state and parked around the corner from the clinic.
“Listen, I can give you a ride back or wherever when you’re done here. I want to make sure you get what you need. How about I go in with you and find out if I should stay or leave and come back?” I used my best big sister voice and breathed inward relief when she nodded.
I hopped out of the driver’s side and opened the door for her. As she climbed from the car, the pain on her face was evident. As we walked the short distance to the clinic entrance, she doubled over repeatedly, pausing to lean on the building next to us.
“What do you think is wrong?” I asked as brightly as I could.
“I have a fever and I think I have an STD.” She grunted between steps. That would explain the stains all over her blue basketball shorts, I thought to myself. I let her take a slight lead, moving at her pace.
The girl’s hair was sandy brown and shaved on both sides. Her weight seemed fine and she seemed to match my small stature. She moved slowly, intentionally, not wasting any of her energy on extra movement. We arrived at the clinic.
“Closed at 6pm” the door sign read.
It was 6:05.
Well shit, I thought. As options ran through my mind, I guided her back to the car gingerly. One thing was certain: I couldn’t in good conscience not help this kid.
I helped her back into the passenger seat, deciding on a course of action. Plopping in the driver’s seat, I started the car and we pulled away.
“Ok kiddo, here’s the deal. You can stay with me for the night. You can have a shower and I have a nice guest bedroom you can sleep in. We can wash your clothes and I’m sure I have some that will fit you. We can come back tomorrow when they are open. Do you have any meth on you now? Anything illegal at all? I’m not the kind of person to take it away from you, but the rule is that is can’t come in my house.” I drove as I spoke and glanced over at her as I finished.
She cracked the window, pulling her hand out of her pocket. There was a small telltale baggie in her hand and I tried not to laugh as she stuffed it out the window and turned back to me with a serious face.
“I don’t have anything.”
“Where have you been sleeping?”
“At the motel. The cashier and his brother got me a room there for a couple days. Can we go get my stuff?” She seemed suddenly anxious.
It wasn’t likely she had more drugs than what had just sailed out the window. Most addicts knew to keep their stash with them for fear of theft. I looked down at myself. I was wearing pajama pants, a t-shirt and glasses, certainly not what I would usually wear heading into a situation that likely involved being around the kind of gangs that lingered and fought in the motel parking lot, but I was anxious to be back at the house and hustling Paloma into the shower.
“We can do that, but I’m going with you.” I tapped my blinker and headed to the nearby motel.
Paloma directed my fairly new and conspicuous car into the back recesses of the parking lot behind the motel. As soon as we whipped into a parking space, several cars pulled in and blocked the exit. Great, I thought. Time to play it low key.
Opening the door again for her, I grimaced as she pointed up to the second story; we would have to very slowly make our way to the end of the building, up the stairs and halfway down the series of doors to get to her room. That would leave us uncomfortably far from the car. I glanced over at the cars blocking us in; roughly eight Hispanic and white ruffians had emerged from the vehicles and stood, talking quietly to each other and occasionally glancing over at my car. We were sitting ducks. Discretion, respect and lack of fear was the only thing that would protect us.
We arrived at the motel room door and she pushed it open; it hadn’t been locked. She stepped inside and I followed as far as the threshold. I didn’t like having the car or her out of sight. I peered into the room and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness and the pit in my stomach twisted hard. There was a lot more to the story than she had shared, which was to be expected, but I’d hoped it wouldn’t be this.
The room was stained ceiling to floor in filth and bodily fluids. Blood splatter coated all but one wall in spite of having been clearly scrubbed with strong chemicals. A double mattress was crammed in the corner, completely bare save for more stains and a crusty duvet cover. My eyes traveled to the rails on the head of the bed, settling on the restraints that dangled from each corner.
I was no stranger to human trafficking and remembered what one of the toothless old pimps had told me back in Michigan while living in the shelter: It’s a game if the ropes are close together. A person could reach each hand still to untie themselves. When the restraints were too far apart to do such a thing, it was likely a captive situation. Why then, was she free now? Possible scenarios and explanations whipped through my head.
Shouts and screams outside jarred me back into reality. Paloma was stuffing a few ragged items into a disgusting pillowcase. I stepped out of the room to see what was happening in the parking lot, keeping my profile low so as to not attract attention.
The Hispanics and whites had separated and stood toe to toe with one another. A few prostitutes looked on from their doors, casually smoking. If a fight broke out, I reasoned, we could hole up in the room. I stepped back inside. Looking down for the first time, I noticed the cheap linoleum had been almost entirely stripped away in curls to reveal the rotting, bloodstained subflooring. I retreated into the room, holding my breath against the sour smell of spilled beer, and the bitter taste of heroin and meth smoke.
“Ready to go?” I glanced into the rancid bathroom. The toilet, clearly out of order, was being utilized as a cooler. The shower was ripped out entirely, leaving the occasional hanging tile and brown stain pointing towards where the drain had once been. A microwave sat atop the sink counter and I wondered if it was the only thing in the room that worked.
“Yeah.” Paloma weakly hefted her pillowcase onto her shoulder, not even half full. She reached down and picked up a pristine, unopened case of longneck beer bottles.
“Like I said, kiddo, I am not the kind of person to take things away from you, but you can’t have that in my house. If you want, we can bring it but it has to stay in the car and you can’t drink it on my property.” I kept my heartbreak out of my tone.
“I know. Can we keep it in the car?”
“That’s fine. Ready for a nice meal and shower? Let’s go.” I picked up the beer for her and headed out the door, assuming she was right behind me.
As I walked quickly to the stairs, I kept my head low and continued to listen to the shouts in the below parking lot. With relief, I noticed the whites were climbing back into their vehicles, clearly furious. I arrived at my car, thunked the beer into the back seat and got ready to pull out.
Paloma was far behind me and I coaxed my patience to return as she made her painstaking way to the steps. The Hispanics were staring, so I pretended to check my phone and ignored their stares.
Paloma finally got to the car and climbed inside. Again, I fought the urge to gag.
“Do you like pizza? How does that sound for dinner?” As I backed the car out of its spot, I noticed with relief that the whites had driven away, leaving our exit clear. We sped through and were soon in the safety of traffic once again.
“Yeah. I’m really cold.” Over a hundred degrees out, I frowned. It was certainly a worrisome symptom.
I picked up a couple of pizzas, ice cream and milk and back to the house we went. I parked, helped her from her seat and walked her into the house. Though it was a relatively old brick house, the interior was updated. She stood and rotated slowly, drinking in the stainless steel, new carpet and furniture. This kid has had a terrible life if she thinks this is upscale, I realized.
Immediately I bustled around, finding clothes, a towel and extra toiletries for the girl as she played with my small puppy. As I returned downstairs, fresh linens in hand, my heart uttered a small cry to see her sitting on the white linen couch. I pushed the snobbery from my mind and set the bundle beside her.
“How are you feeling? Do you think you can shower? I can wash your clothes. Would you like to try eating something first?” It was harder than I thought to not smother mother this kid, I thought.
“Can I have a milkshake?” She seemed far more confused than when I first picked her up, I realized.
“For sure.” I turned on the television for her and went to the kitchen to mix up a shake. My mind turned. It was becoming very apparent that Paloma probably needed to go to the hospital.
I set the shake carefully on the coffee table before her, choosing my words with care.
“You have some pretty bad symptoms going on, kid. Would you let me take you to the hospital?”
Paloma’s hands shot out and wrapped around the shake, bringing it close to her face and drinking deeply. If she had heard me, she didn’t show it. I took a more direct approach.
“Hey kiddo. Paloma. I took your vitals and I’m worried. Your fever is really high and your heart is racing. We need to get you to a hospital. This looks serious.”
“I don’t want to go.” She stuck her chin out in defiance. Her eyes glinted with poorly hidden panic.
“You could die. You’re really sick.”
“I’m not going. I don’t want to be alone.”
“I’ll go with you. I’ll stay with you the whole time and if I have to leave I’ll find someone to come stay with you. I promise.”
“Promise promise? Pinky promise?” Her eyes, huge in fear, looked up at me, searching for the safety she likely didn’t feel.
I signed and stuck out my pinky. Whatever it takes, I thought.
Night had fallen already. Twenty minutes after the solemn pinky vow, we pulled into the hospital parking lot. Insisting she walk in with me rather than be dropped off at the entrance, Paloma eased herself into the wheelchair I had retrieved from the emergency room. Clutching her second shake, she begged for a blanket while waves of summer heat emanated from the asphalt. I quickly wheeled her inside and headed straight to the check in.
“Um, so I have kind of a weird situation. I picked this gal up to take her to the homeless clinic, but it’s closed and I’m pretty sure she needs to be seen urgently.” I spoke over the counter in a low voice to the triage nurse.
We went through a quick bustle of paperwork with Paloma using her clearly fake name and age. At this point, I realized, getting her help quickly mattered much more; her head dipped more and more often and her speech slurred heavily as she shook.
“Did you know Paloma means ‘Dove’ in Spanish?” She drawled proudly at her chosen name.
The nurses wasted no time after taking her vitals; her fever was 105. Another nurse took the wheelchair from me and I followed the small entourage into the underbelly of the massive hospital.
I was terrified of hospitals because of my own past, so I gritted my teeth and pushed Paloma along the halls behind the nurse, counting my breaths.
“And who are you?” The nurse stared at me curiously as we helped Paloma into a gown and nestled her into the gurney.
“Uh. I guess I’m her friend. I came across her this afternoon and she asked me for help.” I tried to keep it honest and general.
“Sure you are.” the nurse turned to Paloma. “We are going to ask your friend here to step out while we perform an exam.”
Paloma’s reaction was immediate, causing both nurses and the doctor to jump with me.
“No! She promised! She pinky promised!” The heartbreak wailed through the curtain.
“That’s fine honey! She can stay as long as you’re ok with it.”
I held Paloma’s hand as the exam began. She screamed in fear and pain as the doctor discovered the source of the infection and fever, pulling it from her in spite of her desperate pleas to stop. Toxic shock, he explained as the nurses and I tried to contain our last meals from the blast of odor, was possible after 9 hours. It had been over 94; my gut twisted and I signed to the nurse to carry the trash to me so I could vomit without breaking the girl’s ironclad grip on my hand.
Too upset and preoccupied to see my struggle, Paloma covered her face and sobbed after her blood was drawn. I held her hand, stoked her hair and soothed her the way I had needed years ago. I didn’t hear the crack in my chest as my heart broke. More of the story came out as we waited together in the dark room for the bloodwork to come back.
Paloma had worked up a very large drug tab in the drug markets and had been taken to ‘work it off’ by a large, well known and feared gangster known as ‘Texas’. When he was done with her weeks later, he had sold her to the Pakistani cashier’s brother. The brother had kept her in the motel room, though she had adamantly referred to him as her ‘friend’ for feeding and housing her, even though she was restrained. He had told her that she needed to be tied up to control her erratic behavior and that it had saved her. Believing him, Paloma did not fight him as he brought his brother as well. By then, infection had already set in. After two days, the brothers had called the hondos that worked for Texas, demanding a return and refund when they arrived at the store. It was during this argument at the corner store that I had entered the store, grumbling to myself about bills and uselessness while slapping my chips on the counter.
I grimly held her hand, listening as the doctor returned, followed by two nurses. They were heavily armed with several IV bags and syringes, setting them up around her with incredible haste.
“Your bloodwork came back. Looks like you have a thing called sepsis, kid. It’s pretty bad. We are getting everything in you to get you better though, so stay calm and try to get some rest.” The doctor stared at me, then flicked his eyes to the door: He wanted to talk.
“Does that mean I have to stay here?” Her voice, reedy and afraid, piped up.
“Yeah it does. Your friend here can stay though and we are going to take really good care of you. We are going to talk to her for a couple minutes outside; is that ok?”
Paloma looked at me, eyes wide.
“Promise you won’t leave?”
“I pinky promised, kiddo. I’ll be right outside the door for just a minute and then I’ll be right back in here with you.”
As soon as the door closed behind me, I gasped lungfuls of clean air.
“How do you know this girl? Do you know her family?” The doctor pressed me urgently.
“I really don’t. I met her this afternoon. She’s definitely not 18, but she has no ID and I can’t prove it. How bad is it?”
“It’s bad. We are doing everything we can, but her heart is getting weak. You brought her just in time, hopefully.”
I stared. Was he saying the girl wasn’t going to live?
“What do you mean? What kind of prognosis are we looking at?”
“She’s completely septic. Her bloodwork is bad. That doesn’t even count the STDs we just caught. Are you sure she doesn’t have family?”
“I am sure she does but unless she gives more information, I wouldn’t even know where to start looking.” My voice was hoarse.
“Are you planning on actually staying with her?”
“Of course. I can try to learn more.”
“That’s ok; rest is going to be critical here. My guess is we will know how she’s going to do in a few hours. Just stay with her and call us immediately if anything happens.”
“You’re not going to move her to the ICU?”
“Lady, I’m still trying to make sure she makes it out of the emergency room.”
“Thank you. Yeah, I guess I’ll just…stay with her….then…yeah.” I dumbly turned and stared at the door, trying to figure out how to reenter the room.
Taking her hand, I stroked her hair until she fell asleep.
I pulled my phone out, messaging everyone I could think of who believed in a God and pleading for as much prayer as I could find for the girl. When I was finished, I settled down in the rock hard visitor chair, tipped my head back and prayed more as I slid into a 4am stupor.
I was sharply awakened four hours later as a nurse bustled in and started taking Paloma’s vitals.
“Good news kid- the Tylenol we gave you seems to be dropping that fever!”
My head shot up. It was 8am. As the nurse left, I gave chase.
“Her fever broke?” I couldn’t hide the hope and elation in my voice.
“Mostly. She is coming back from death’s door so far. We’re going to move her up to the ICU once she is a little more stable.”
YES!!! She would live! There was something else very urgent, but my mind fished for a moment before remembering.
My puppy! I’d left my puppy unfed and alone all night, I realized and cringed in guilt.
“I have to check on my pup but I promised her I wouldn’t leave her. I also need to call the police; she has been trafficked. Do you think she’s going to sleep for a while?”
“She definitely will; we are going to help with that a bit. Since you stated she was probably underage, we gave the police a call as well. Let me get the case information they gave us before you go. Come with me.”
“Let me tell her really quick and get my bag.” I didn’t want her to wake up not knowing where I’d gone.
I scribbled a quick note to Paloma, carefully tucking it under her arm for when she woke telling her I would be back as soon as I could. Grabbing my bag, I threw one last look at the sleeping child’s face before scurrying out after the nurse.
I took down the detective’s name and case number, then wearily made my way out to the car. The door thudded shut and I sat in the silence, finally letting the waves of flashbacks, heartbreak and rage crash shut over my head.
As I started the car and got on the freeway ramp, all I saw was the bloodstains in the motel, Paloma’s body collapsed in the store and my own old traumas. I drove home, finally letting the tears roll.
What was I going to do now?