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Read more from WHEN HOPE IS LOST

 April 8, 2021

By  Lorhainne Eckhart

Who wants to read more about Terrance and his family?  You first met them in THE RETURN OF THE O’CONNELLS, and now you can read more of their unpublished short, WHEN HOPE IS LOST, below. And if you missed the first two chapters, you can read those here as well.

Plus, the first audio release from the Billy Jo McCabe series is here!  THE COLD CASE is now available exclusively from AUDIBLE.  See below for your chance to grab a free audio code.  And make sure to enter the great giveaways for a chance to win some fabulous prizes, too.  Have a wonderful weekend– Lorhainne


Chapter 3

Terrance didn’t have any tools with him, but he could see the water heater had been patched—and not well, looking as if it were held together by wire and gum. It was rusting at the edges, and he figured it was past its life expectancy by at least a decade.

“So what do you think?” Misty said. “Can you get it working? Right now, we have to heat the water up on the stove to wash dishes. If we don’t get this fixed, we could get shut down. Word is a bylaw officer is gunning for us.”

The stiffness in his back hadn’t bothered him before, maybe because the hunger was always there to distract him. It was a feeling he wouldn’t have wished on anyone. He couldn’t see his wife or his boys, but he knew they were in the kitchen. Eating, he hoped.

He tapped the water heater, taking in how old it was. “I’ll have to drain it. I think it’s likely an element burned out. This is pretty old and rusty. I don’t have any tools. Lost all mine…” He remembered the box in the back of his pickup, now impounded back in Missoula. The memory ached as if it had happened yesterday, how that man had looked at him and talked to him, how he’d considered breaking in to take back what was his.

“You can use what’s here, over there,” she said. “Some things showed up in a donation box, some tools from someone who died. I guess the kids thought it was junk, but there should be something usable, wrenches, screwdrivers. Hopefully, there’s enough to get you started.”

His knees cracked as he stood up. Misty was standing there in the open door. It looked like a back room, musty and old, but he could feel the warmth, something he hadn’t felt in so long. He scratched his head through the old knit cap. How many things had he taken for granted? A hot shower, a warm bed, a roof, a hot coffee…

He took in the old tool kit. The tools were from another generation, at least fifty, sixty or more years old. The quality was good, heavy but dirty. Someone had done Misty a favor. He picked up a wrench and a screwdriver, seeing one that would work, and walked back over.

Misty stood with her arms crossed over a worn brown sweater. She was short, and her dark hair had no gray. He wondered how old she was. Forty, fifty? Her hands were callused from a life of hard work. She didn’t pull her gaze from him.

“You said a bylaw officer is gunning for you? What’s that about?” he said, crouching down, unscrewing the plate to the electrical. He took in the mess, the wiring, checking whether anything was loose. Right, she’d said there was no money for a new one.

She only pulled her hand over her face. He’d seen that look before, lived through that frustration. “Oh, you know that saying, say one thing and do the opposite? Well, this city council has been telling the public and the media that they’re doing something to get people off the streets, giving funding, help, resources, but the ones on the ground who make things happen are of a different mind. Bylaw enforcers have the ability to shut anything down and keep us closed so we can’t help anyone.

“One keeps coming around, citing all these infractions every time we turn around. He’s looking for a reason to lock these doors. Thought it was personal at first, then realized hate was hate. Couldn’t figure out why, but every time he shows up here, based on everything that comes out of his mouth, he isn’t sympathetic at all. He’s convinced everyone here is just looking for a handout. He wants all the homeless, everyone on the streets, to just go away, and he’s doing his part to make sure nothing goes to them.

“You’d be surprised at the number of folks who see those on the streets as addicts and drunks, lazy. They fight against everything that would give us a helping hand. I guess I’m just on the side of trying to make a difference, but it’s harder and harder when you deal with that mindset where people say one thing one minute and then stab you in the back the next. I know some developer has been trying to buy everything on this block, too. Kenny said that was the word on the street. Went to the alderman and the councilors at city hall, but of course all I hear is that they’ll get back to me. They ask me where I heard it and say it isn’t true, but then, despite all their denials, that’s exactly how it happened with Fourth Street.” She gestured outside.

He already knew this was something he wouldn’t want to hear. “What’s Fourth Street?” He tapped the hot water heater again, knowing he was going to have to drain it. He spotted an old hose in the corner and dragged it over, then hooked it to the spout on the water heater and dragged the other end to the grate in the floor to drain into the sewer.

“It was an old building, providing low-rent housing for many of the people on the street now, some for over twenty years. Some developer and city councilors had it condemned and evicted everyone. The developer tore it down while it was still in the courts. A few of the residents hired a lawyer. The judge stayed the demolition but reversed his decision the next day, so the building was torn down as soon as the judge hit his gavel. It was a fight the city didn’t want, an eyesore.

“The developer basically got it for free. He was supposed to put in housing for the residents who were there, but instead he made a deal with the council and sold all the units at a premium for those who could afford it. Made millions. They cleaned up the area, put in some coffee houses, and the police moved out any of the homeless camping there. Leaves you with that nice warm fuzzy feeling, doesn’t it?

“Some days, it seems this fight is one we’ll never win. You know, the councilor I spoke to was the same one who said the Fourth Street residents would get a home again. So when he says no developer is sniffing around, I don’t believe it. I have a problem with a bylaw officer who’s looking to shut me down, handing out all kinds of tickets. He seems to know where to look for my problems here. I know someone is gunning for me and this place, which is the last place these folks have…” She pulled in a breath.

He could feel her worry. It seemed as if everything that had happened to him, to his family, where he couldn’t get one thing to go right for them, had happened to her too. “So you’re saying it’s just a matter of time before this building is gone and there are more high-priced condos in its place, and the city is making sure that will happen?”

She only inclined her head.

He listened to the water drain from the heater, noting the buildup of limescale. He stood up, wanting to stretch, when he spotted his wife walking his way with a steaming mug and plate. Something about the way the coffee smelled had his mouth watering.

“Thank you again,” Lizzie said as she stopped beside Misty, who only nodded.

“Wish I could do more,” she said. “Wish I could help more…” She lifted her hands.

Lizzie walked over to him, and he really looked at her face. Her cheekbones showed how much weight she’d lost. Her brown eyes didn’t have that spark of life that had always warmed his heart. He couldn’t remember when that light had dimmed.

“Here,” she said. “Greg and John are in back with some hot chocolate and a sandwich. All that’s left is tuna.” She held both plate and mug out to him. Tuna was far from his favorite, but, being hungry, he’d have eaten just about anything.

“Thank you,” he said. “Make sure you get something.” He took a swallow of the coffee and nearly groaned, missing the bitterness and the warmth.

His wife turned to walk out, her hat still on, likely to cover her hair, since he couldn’t remember the last time she’d been able to wash it.

“We’ll be awhile here, I think,” Misty said. “There’s a bathroom in my office, in back, if you want to clean up. No hot water, though.”

“Thank you,” Lizzie said. “I appreciate just having running water and a place to use the bathroom.” She glanced back to him, then walked away.

He could see that the woman who’d opened a door for them seemed to struggle with her own problems. It was humbling, being at the mercy of someone. “So you think someone on the inside here is passing along information? You said they seem to know where to look to shut you down. With enough infractions and tickets, you won’t be able to open the door and help anyone.”

She said nothing at first, then ran her hand over the doorway and said, “Something like that.” She nodded to his sandwich, his coffee, then to the heater. “You think it’s fixable?”

He could see that a build-up of sediment had likely plugged it, and he wondered how much longer it would be until it leaked everywhere. “I’ll flush it out and then check the elements, but I should have it working shortly, enough to get you by. It’s got to be replaced, though.” He rested the plate on top of the water heater, then lifted the sandwich to take a bite, but he stopped, as Misty lingered in the doorway.

“You said you worked in construction, trades. So you know how to fix things?”

Maybe it was the way she said it, but it gave him hope. He shoved a corner of the sandwich in his mouth and took a bite, chewed, then picked up the mug and drank it down to wash away the fishy taste.

“I can fix just about anything,” he said.

She nodded and then walked over to him, glancing around the back room, which was musty and old. “I can’t pay you, but I have a list a mile long of needed repairs. This is an old building, and just about everything is breaking. If you can fix it, you and your family can set up some cots in the back room to stay. You can use the kitchen…”

The knot in his stomach, which had been there for so long, tightened a bit more. He could feel his chest tighten too, and his eyes burned. He cleared his throat roughly. “That would help. It would mean everything.”

She nodded, her arms still crossed, and looked around. “Fine. Finish with this, and then we’ll talk about what else has to be done. I expect you’ll want to tell your wife.”

He pulled in another breath, wondering who would cry, her or him. “Yeah. And thank you.”

She stepped out of the utility room but stopped in the doorway to look back at him. “I’m not sure who’s getting the better deal here. But let’s give it a few days and see where this goes.”

Then she walked out, and Terrance took in his hands, which were shaking. In that moment, standing alone, he was so grateful that at least for tonight, they would have a roof and some place warm.

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