Happy Friday! To kick off the weekend, I’ve got a FREE short story for you featuring Terrence and his family from The Return of The O’Connells. See what happened after they were cleared out of the Livingston encampment. Plus, don’t forget to vote for your favorite O’Connells title to enter this month’s Great Giveaway, and also be sure to grab a free audio code. My best for a wonderful weekend! Be well– Lorhainne
It was the cold that got to him, the sound of his wife weeping, the desperation in his children’s faces as they looked to him to fix something he didn’t know how they’d fallen into.
Terrence took in the tent, the tarps around them. He stood near the fire, holding his hands up to warm them, lingering next to people he didn’t know. His wife was still sleeping, he knew, but he spotted his eldest son, John, whose eleventh birthday was tomorrow. He wore a heavy black coat and trudged his way through the snow, heading right for him.
“Your mom and brother still asleep?” Terrence said.
John leaned against him, and Terrence rested his arm around him, knowing they were being watched by someone across the fire. He did his best to avoid the man with the black knit cap, dark eyes, and beard, who he was sure would kill him without a second thought.
“Greg said he was too cold,” John said. “Mom is awake, though, I think. I’m hungry. She said to tell you the bottled water is frozen, and Greg ate the last of the peanut butter and bread.”
Terrence took in his son’s light blue eyes and the dirt on his face, hearing the words he wished he’d never have to hear.
“The shelter is passing out sandwiches at one today,” said a woman standing next to them by the fire. “Get over there early, because they run out fast. There’s not enough. Some take three or four so they can eat for a few days. Food’s passed out three times a week.” She was bundled up in an old red coat, a blanket around her, and a heavy wool hat. Her face was lined and aged, with the same lost look of everyone in the camp. “Saw you and your family come in here last night. Where’re you from?”
He could feel that man on the other side of the fire watching him, listening to everything. Who he was, he didn’t know, but he figured he likely controlled who stayed and who left in this camp.
“Missoula, Bozeman, then Livingston for a few nights,” Terrence said. “Heard Billings had some housing I could get for my family, some work.”
The woman gave what sounded like a laugh. “Not sure who you heard that from, but the shelters have wait lists. It’s first come, first served, if you think it would be better than out here. For housing, the little there is has a very long wait list, too, and again, conditions are not much better than living on the street.” The woman sounded so matter of fact.
Meanwhile, the man, whose name he wished he knew, didn’t pull his gaze from him. It was the kind of look that had him pulling his son closer to him.
“See you have a family, a wife, two boys?” said a young man nearby, staring at him.
Terrence wondered how old he was. All bundled up, he didn’t look more than sixteen, maybe seventeen. He never asked for names anymore, just something that had come with looking over his shoulder and not being able to remember the last time he’d actually slept.
“Hey,” the young man said to John, gesturing, and Terrence realized he wasn’t waiting for an answer from him. “You’re lucky to have two parents. Most here don’t have anyone.”
He could feel how tense his son was. He was thinking about what the woman had said about housing. Even the shelter he’d found just the day before had a sign posted out front, saying it was full.
“Is there a women’s shelter, at least?” Terrence said. Maybe then his wife and boys could sleep someplace warm tonight, have a shower and something hot to eat.
“Again, it’s likely full,” the woman said. “You can try over by the Y, but it’s first come, first served.” She glanced over to the young man across the fire. “Is the soup kitchen running today?”
“Nope,” he replied. “They were shut down by the city yesterday, some code violation. The door was locked, a sign posted. So there are just sandwiches, if we can get them.”
The woman only nodded in response.
“I’m Terrence,” he said to her, then dragged his gaze over to the young man. “This is my son John.”
The man on the other side of the fire walked away. There was just something about him, and Terrence couldn’t pull his gaze away, wondering where he was going. He was the kind of man he didn’t want sneaking up behind him.
“I’m Ian,” the young man said, pulling a blanket tighter around him, sitting on an old wooden crate.
“Everyone calls me Panda,” the woman said. She nodded toward the retreating man. “And that was Sarge who just walked away. He kind of runs things here. Watch out for him.”
Terrence wasn’t sure what to make of that comment, very aware of the sheer number of people staying there. Being on the streets, you could always find out where to go. “Is he dangerous?” he said, and he could feel his son looking up at him.
Ian said nothing at first. “That’s life on the streets. Although some look out for each other, Sarge takes what he wants.”
Panda lifted a dirty and cracked hand from under her blanket and pointed over behind him. “Don’t leave your things unless someone is watching them, or they won’t be there when you get back. Over there is where I am, and Ian too, along with a few of the kids. You’re welcome to move your things over there. We look out for each other.”
He only nodded as he took in the snow, the cold, the makeshift shelters, and willed something to appear to get them out of this hell. “You said kids?”
Ian was staring at Panda as if she’d said something she shouldn’t have. He didn’t pull his gaze from her.
“Ian, how old are you?” Terrence said. “How long have you been living out here?”
This time, Ian did look up to him. “You mean here or on the streets?”
He didn’t miss that Ian hadn’t told him how old he was. “Well, both, I guess. You said there are other kids here. How would you end up on the streets to begin with?”
He knew his own story all too well. He’d never understood how people could end up with nothing, but here he was.
“I wasn’t always out here,” Ian said, “but I have been since last winter. So long now. Used to sleep in friends’ garages, sneak in so their parents wouldn’t know. It worked for a while, until it didn’t, and I found myself here. This camp hasn’t been here that long. They pop up in a few places. We get moved out of one spot and find another. You never know when the cops will come in and clear us out. I’m always looking over my shoulder for when I have to run.”
He just didn’t understand how a kid could be out there. “You don’t have parents, someplace you could go? You’re just a kid.”
“My mother died when I was five, cancer,” Ian said. “I was shuffled around from home to home after that, a few relatives, and then I eventually moved out here to my father, who had remarried. Thought it would be a happy reunion, but it quickly went sideways. I was soon a disappointment, not good enough. I stopped hearing all the names they called me. Food was made for her kids but never for me. If something went wrong, it was my fault. One day I came home to find she had thrown all my clothes out. That was it for me. I left, stayed with friends
until I couldn’t anymore. I eventually fell behind in school, and that was when I did go. I couldn’t keep up. The principal pulled me into his office and pointed out that school likely wasn’t a good fit for someone like me.”
As Ian spoke, Terrence could feel his own shame, considering his boys had left their friends and school back in Missoula. But surviving was surviving. “What about social services, a foster home? Even that has to be better than this.”
Ian only shook his head. “They’d send me back to my dad. I’m not going back to that. As for a foster place, if you talk to Opal, she’ll tell you how bad it is—and that’s if you find a place where you’ll actually get fed. The good ones don’t take kids like us. I’m not ever going into that system.”
He just didn’t understand how a parent couldn’t be looking for his kid. Maybe that was why he was holding his son closer. “I’m sorry, Ian.”
The teenager just looked up at him and then over to John. “It’s fine. You said you’re looking for housing, work. How’d you end up out here?”
He wasn’t sure why he didn’t respond at first. Something about listening to this teenager had him wondering how he’d ever get his family off the streets. “John, go tell your mom we’re going to pack up, get moving,” he finally said, then waited until his son was walking away before he turned back. “I’m thirty-four. Been married for thirteen years. Never in a million years expected I’d be living on the streets. I had a job, working for a contractor. It paid the bills, the rent, but not much else. My wife was laid off from her job as a store clerk when the retailer downsized. Then our rent went up, and then I showed up at my job site one day to find that the contractor was out of business. I heard he closed his company, started another one under a different name. He was up and gone.
“We had no savings. I went to a lawyer to fight for the pay I was owed, but the contractor had done it all before. I was just one of many he owed wages to. I sold off what I could, and we still couldn’t pay the rent, so we were evicted from our place when I couldn’t come up with the money. We had a pickup, so we went to Bozeman, hoping to find something, but I parked someplace I shouldn’t have and my truck was towed. My tools were in it. I couldn’t pay the fine to get it out of impound. The impound fee is likely worth more than my pickup is now. I just want to get a roof over our heads. Not sure how much more we can take.”
He glanced back to see his son leaning in the tent. He didn’t know why he was sharing his story with these strangers. “It’s John’s birthday tomorrow. He’ll be eleven,” he said. He remembered his son’s birthday from the year before, when they’d shared a pizza after he worked a twelve-hour shift.
Ian left, walking around him, but Panda was still there, tracking his every move. “You seem like nice folks,” she said, “down on your luck. You should talk to Misty at the shelter, see if she may be able to point you to a trades job or something.”
He only nodded, looking around at everyone in the camp and feeling their uneasiness. “So does Ian really have no one? Foster care has to be better than this.”
The woman watched him. He wondered how old she was, what her story was. “You know, being homeless for a youth is far different than for an adult,” she said. “For adults, it’s about losing a job and not being able to afford a roof over your head, as you said. Many think homelessness among kids is about rebellion, attitude. People think homeless kids just don’t want to follow the rules. But nothing could be further from the truth. Most kids on the street are here because they have no other options. They’re running from a bad home situation.
“Worse, most adults around them know there’s something wrong. Many are already in the system and have been bounced around from foster home to foster home, ending up locked in a system that’s supposed to protect them but has failed them miserably. They have no ID, so they can’t even apply for services. As hard as it is for an adult, it’s worse for a kid. Then there’s Sarge, men like him. If you have something they want, they’ll take it. Be careful.” That was all she said.
Terrence spotted his wife walking around from the back of the tent, likely where she’d gone to the bathroom. She looked so tired. He found himself really looking at this place, the down and out, and wondered how he could find a way to get a roof over their heads again. “Thank you, Panda, but I think we’ll be clearing out. I’ll ask for Misty at the shelter.”
The woman only nodded and continued sitting on that crate, a blanket pulled around her. The odor that lingered around her, was it her or him? He didn’t know. He took a step to walk away.
“Good luck,” she said, turning her head.
He glanced back only once to find her looking into the fire. “Thank you. You, too,” he said. Then he put one foot in front of the other, heading back to his family. Both his boys were pulling their sleeping bags out, and his wife… He didn’t how much more she could take.
“John said we’re leaving?” she said.
He took in his boys in the tent, rolling up the sleeping bags, stuffing their backpacks. “Yeah. There’s a shelter. I may be able to get a job or something through the woman who runs it. But you and the boys need to get a bed in there tonight, at least.” He wondered whether she’d argue. She had before, but this time she only nodded.
“We need a bathroom to get cleaned up in. The boys are hungry.”
He ran his hand over her rounded cheek, the smudges of dirt there, feeling the cold. “Let’s pack up and get out of here,” he said.
He didn’t know what made him look, but as he turned back to the fire, he spotted the man they called Sarge dragging someone across the camp, hitting him and yelling.
“Hey, hey, knock it off!” someone called out, and a few others went running.
Terrence knew there was no way he could have his kids out there another night. This wasn’t a life for anyone. He didn’t know why, but he felt as if someone could be hurt or killed at any moment, or maybe they just wouldn’t wake up.
As his sons pulled their bags from the tent, he realized his wife was watching everything in the camp. Long gone was the smile she used to have.
“I swear to you, Lizzie, I’ll get us off the streets,” he said. “Today, one way or another, I’ll find us something.”
He just hoped it would be a promise he could keep.
Did you read Book 11?
Will life ever return to normal?
That’s the question everyone in the O’Connell family has asked since their lives were turned upside down by a murder charge. With their father now back from the dead, the O’Connells are coming to grips with the idea that justice isn’t equal. But despite the pending arrival of a new grandchild, and the fact that the family is settling into a new identity, trouble seems to always be one step away. This time, it could come from within, as a shadowy new enemy has found its way into the close-knit family and could ultimately destroy the bond the siblings share, forcing them to finally cut their losses and walk away from one another.More info →
Binge a Box
The O’Connells of Livingston, Montana, are not your typical family. Follow them on their journey to the dark and dangerous side of love in a series of romantic thrillers you won’t want to miss. Raised by a single mother after their father’s mysterious disappearance eighteen years ago, the six grown siblings live in a small town with all kinds of hidden secrets, lies, and deception. Much like the contemporary family romance series focusing on the Friessens, this romantic suspense series follows the lives of the O’Connell family as each of the siblings searches for love. This boxed set collection in The O’Connells series includes The Fallen O’Connell, The Return of the O’Connells, And Then She Was GoneMore info →
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