“Michelle, you gotta make sure little Jill’s oatmeal gets warmed up. Hear?”
“Mama, we don’t got no oatmeal.”
“Well, give her some of them corn flakes.”
Michelle, a gaunt eight, was the oldest of the four kids, all girls. Jill, the baby, was less than a year old.
Mama, Shayla, was twenty four, plump, disheveled, her tendency to being mentally a tad slow worsened by heavy substance abuse.
“Mama, can you come home on the last bus tonight? The kids gets scared when you don’t come back ‘til morning.” She didn’t try to explain how terrified she was herself when mama didn’t show. Shayla was the lifeline, the only source of contact with the outside world.
“Michelle, I only missed the last bus once or twice. Always brings back a few extra dollars…buy you kids something nice.” She stooped to pat Michelle’s cheek.
Michelle’s tired little eyes, wise beyond her age, studied her mother’s face furtively long after Shayla looked away. The kids hadn’t seen any extra money from mama’s prowling in the night in as long as she could remember. As was the case now, the cupboard had always remained nearly bare, no matter how late Shayla dawdled before drifting home drunk and stoned in the early morning.
Michelle had a vague idea of what a whore did for money and that men beat up her mama from time to time. The few times Shayla had brought tricks to the apartment, she’d made all four kids hide in a closet while mama spent time with the man on her bed. Mama usually came home on the last bus, which stopped out front at about 2:00 A.M., although Michelle, too young to tell time didn’t actually know the hour.
Shayla had more or less fallen into working the streets by natural progression. After two or three of her own mother’s men had raped and used her over the years, bedding a man seemed the natural thing to do. She actually enjoyed the sex, booze, and drugs. She could not have identified the father of any of her four children. On occasion, she spent her money on gin. Sometimes she was having such a good time, she forgot to come home on the last bus. Hell, them ungrateful kids could wait. What she did was none of their business.
Shayla stepped out on Crossroads Boulevard, the icy wind cutting at her bare, mini-skirted legs. She stopped, blew a kiss to all four girls hovered in the window above, and hustled as the bus driver waited for her a half block down. Tonight she’d work the Derby on 37th Street. Out behind the dumpster, she’d do a couple of quickies with boys who worked in the packing house down the street, pick up twenty bucks, and get a good snoot on.
Little Michelle lay trembling as the last bus pulled away in the small hours, Shayla not in sight. She’d parceled out the last of the corn flakes after Shayla had left and the three little ones would soon wake up hungry. Her growling stomach forced her to wish she’d eaten a few of those corn flakes.
At dawn, when busses began stopping, Michelle counted four, then five, and six. She bundled up the three younger ones with all the warm clothes she could find in the shabby apartment and carrying Little Jill, led the pitiful parade across to the bus stop, where they stood, braced against the cruel wind. Surely, mama would come soon. She had to.
Old man Murphy first saw them there around ten when he pushed out a cart of cabbages for the day’s run of his small grocery store. Murphy knew a decent man should give the children a bite to eat, but with riffraff, you give an inch and it becomes a mile. Sure, he’d visited Shayla upstairs a couple of times but he’d paid up and owed nobody a thing. Finally, watching the children still standing in the cold, at just past noon, he flagged down a passing squad car. Grubby urchins right in front of his door was bad for business.
“Dunagan, the trollop who lives above over there apparently didn’t come in again last night.” He leaned down to talk into the squad car window. “Dunno how many times she’s failed to show and left them little buggers alone. Why the oldest there insists on parading the smaller ones out in the cold is beyond me. Damned whores. She’s gotta nice little ass, but too bad we jes’ can’t put some of this white trash down like we do wayward dogs.”
Dunagan, a big man with kind eyes, stepped out, the cold wind fluttering the silver badge on his chest. He gave Murphy a long look. “You’d be knowin’ about her ass, huh, Murphy?” He flipped open a notebook. “Trollop, you say? The mama’s name wouldn’t be Shayla…? Shayla McGuire?”
“Didn’t know gutter snipes had last names, but yeah, I think I heard her name’s Shayla.” He evaded the cop’s expression at his self-righteous effort to distance himself from sin and degeneracy.
“Uh…looks like she won’t be comin’ this morning, Murphy. They found her butchered behind a dumpster up on 37th a while ago, scattered all over the alley. Wagon’s haulin’ off the pieces, now. I was comin’ to find her place.”
“Mother of Saints,” Murphy exclaimed, crossing himself.
Across the street, Michelle doggedly held Little Jill in her arms. Staring into the wind in the direction of oncoming buses, the lost little face was a granite copy of despair and equally as hard.
Dunagan caught the grocer’s eye. “Still workin’ on a plan to put ‘em down, Murphy?” He started across the busy street.