I got off work at midnight. I was working 3:30 to midnight at a factory that makes electric motors for everything from fans to huge industrial applications. I had to get up for an eight o'clock class at the university the next morning. I was a second semester junior majoring in mechanical engineering and this was a tough math class. I was hungry and I stopped at an all-night diner for a bite to eat. There were about five customers in there and I sat in my usual booth until Florence came by to take my order. I got breakfast just like I always do; three eggs, sausage patties, hash browns and biscuits and gravy. She brought me my glass of milk and stopped to talk a minute.
"Eric, would you mind if I asked you for a favor?" she asked.
"Well, as long as it doesn't require me standing up, I'll do anything," I told her. "Is this a tonight favor or a some other time favor, Flo? You're my Mom's best friend and if I want to stay friendly with her, I better help you out."
"It's a tonight favor," she said. "It isn't for me, Eric. See that girl over there?"
I looked and there was this tiny little slip of a girl sitting in a booth looking out the window. She had this mane of dark blond hair swirling around her until I could hardly see her face but she looked young.
"What about her?" I asked.
"She's been here for two hours and Tony's complaining about her. He's going to kick her out. She's only ordered coffee and I don't know what's wrong with her. She's been crying from time to time and I think she's in trouble. I don't think she has any money and I was hoping you'd buy her something to eat. That way Tony can't kick her out. I'd do it, but Tony's watching me and he'd see me put the money in the till."
"Your boss is an asshole," I told her. "Take her what I'm having. No, don't do that, she might not like it. Get her a couple of cheeseburgers, some fries and a coke. Everybody likes those."
"Thanks, Eric," she said. "Can I tell her you bought it for her?"
"Don't do that, Flo. Just tell her it's on the house."
She went away and I heard her yell in the order. By the time my breakfast was ready the girl's order was ready too and Flo dropped it off at her table on her way to mine. The girl said something to her I couldn't hear and then Flo brought me my food. I saw the girl looking after her and she took a look at me too. I got the impression of huge brown eyes and freckles before she looked at her food and started eating.
Flo gave me a wink and went back behind the counter. I put salt and pepper on my food and began to eat. I was concentrating on eating when a shadow fell across the table. I looked up and that girl was sliding into the booth across from me. She had her plate and her coke and God she was gorgeous. She was obviously very young and her eyes were all red from crying. She looked at me and I just stared back. Those eyes were big enough to drown in. She had a little button nose and full, puffy lips that were made for kissing. She was thin, but she had something going on under that t-shirt that made it hard to look at her face. Her boobs probably weren't that big, but on that tiny frame they looked huge.
"Thanks," she said.
I wanted to hear her talk more. Her little voice was husky and low, sounding like wine, smoke and old jazz.
"Thanks for what?" I asked.
"Thanks for buying me some food," she said. "I was starving. I didn't have the money to buy food and I think the owner was just about to throw me out."
"It wasn't me," I told her.
"Bullshit," she said. "The waitress told me. I'm grateful; I'm not busting your chops."
"Flo has a big mouth," I said. "You're welcome though."
"She didn't really tell me, but I got you. So, the next question is why? Why did you buy me food?"
"You looked hungry and I had the money," I told her.
"Do you want something from me?" she asked.
"Yes, I want you to eat it," I told her.
"See that fat trucker over there," she said. "I was working up my nerve to ask him to help me. I'm glad I don't have to do that."
"What did you need help with?" I asked.
"Well, it's 27 degrees out there, I'm broke and I think I'll freeze to death tonight unless someone helps me," she said.
"Jesus Christ! How did you get in this fix?" I asked.
"I lived about five miles from here," she explained. "This afternoon, I came home from school and told my Dad I'm pregnant. He grabbed me by the hair, dragged me to the front door and threw me out on the lawn. He told me I'm a slut and to never show my face again."
"Can't you go to your boyfriend's house?" I asked.
"I don't have one," she said. "I told him at school today and he dumped me."
"You had a bad day, kid. I'm very sorry. Are you really pregnant?"
"Yes, I made a bad mistake. I'm not a slut, Mr ... Mr..."
"I'm sorry, I'm Eric Brand," I held out my hand.
"I'm Penelope Ring," she shook my hand. "Do you live around here, Mr. Brand?"
"About ten miles away. I work down at Brisco," I told her. "I go to school at the University."
"Well, you seem like a nice guy that won't hurt me. I'll make you the same offer I was going to have to make that truck driver. If you'll give me a place to stay, just for tonight, I'll be very nice to you," I saw a tear squeeze out and run down her cheek.
"I thought you said you weren't ... never mind, Miss Ring. Let me think about it."
I saw her stiffen up as I was about to remind her she wasn't a slut and I was glad I shut that remark down. More tears rolled down those little brown cheeks and she was breaking my heart.
"OK, here's the deal," I told her. "You finish that food, I'll get the check and you can come home with me. You're going to be nice to me, but not like that. I don't ever want to hear that again. You're not a slut. That's what you told me and I'm holding you to it. I'll put you up and you can get a good night's sleep. I have an eight o'clock class in the morning that I can't miss. I'll skip the rest of the day and we'll talk and decide what to do. Is that OK?"
She nodded and finished her second cheeseburger and the fries. We got her a coke to go and she went out with her hand in mine. When we got to the car she squeaked a little.
"Is this your car?"
"Yes, do you like it?" I asked.
"I love it," she breathed. "What is it?"
It's a Charger Hellcat," I told her.
"It looks fast. This is going to be fun," she said.
I opened her door and put her in. She buckled up and I went around and got in. When we got to the entrance ramp to the freeway I opened it up and we were doing 85 when we merged. The 700 horsepower from that supercharged hemi had her pinned to her seat and she was wide eyed and laughing. She was giddy with excitement and she looked like a vision, giggling and clutching the arm rest.
"Oh, my God; that was like being shot out of a cannon! Do you mind if I play the stereo?" she asked.
"My iPod is down there somewhere." I fished around in her floorboard and she stiffened up when my arm rubbed against her thigh. I took it away and she relaxed.
"Penelope, you're safe with me," I told her. "I won't hurt you or molest you. You're going to find out you can trust me."
She looked up at me with those big brown eyes full of tears. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm very grateful."
"How old are you, if you don't mind me asking?"
"I'm seventeen," she said. "Does it matter?"
"No, but I don't have sex with underage girls," I told her. "You're safe. Just relax."
"OK." She reached down and found my iPod. She put it on the stand and dialed up a song by Big Data called "Dangerous." The heavy bass beat throbbed and she laid her head back against the leather and closed her eyes. When I pulled into the garage she opened her eyes.
"We're home," I said.
We got out and I showed her around. My house is one of those log types and the inside looks the same. There's one bedroom downstairs and three upstairs. One is in a big loft area and I gave her that one. It opens out over the living room and there's a bathroom next door. I located her a toothbrush and showed her where soap and towels were.
"I'm sorry, Penelope, but I'm out on my feet," I told her. "If you're hungry or thirsty there's stuff in the kitchen and you can have anything you want. I'm sleeping right under you and if you need anything just knock."
She came and threw her arms around me and gave me a big hug. Her head came up under my chin and she stood on tiptoes to kiss my cheek.
"Thank you, Eric," she said. "I promise I'll find some way to make this up to you."
I patted her and went downstairs. I took a shower and crawled in bed. I heard her come downstairs and the refrigerator door open as I drifted off. When I woke up there was a delicious smell in the house. She was cooking breakfast and she fed me bacon and eggs. We talked for a few minutes over coffee and I had to go.
"Eric, do you have anything that I might be able to wear?" she asked. "I only have the clothes I had on last night. They're dirty and I don't want to put them back on."
I showed her the washer and dryer and told her to go through my closets. I was going to have to come up with something different though. She was just too little to wear much of my stuff.
I aced my test the next morning and took the rest of the day off. I called in to work and told them I had some personal stuff to take care of. I had 12 days coming and they didn't give me any grief. When I got home she had found a pair of board shorts with a drawstring and a University sweatshirt. It swallowed her up but she looked as cute as a button in it. She said she was pregnant but it didn't show. It must be very early. She made us roast beef sandwiches and we ate chips and drank apple juice. I lit the fireplace and we talked.
She was one of four children, the oldest, and she had two little brothers and a sister was the baby. Her Mom had passed away two years earlier from breast cancer and her Dad drank. They were strict Catholics and the whole pregnant before she was married thing was a huge no-no. That also precluded an abortion and she was determined to have the baby.
"I did something wrong. It was a huge mistake," she said. "I'm not going to make another by killing a baby."
I figured that was her choice to make so I didn't offer any comment.
"What about your baby's dad?" I asked her. "Are you sure there's nothing there?"
"Yes, he's a tool," she said. "I knew it when I went out with him. There was just something about him that I couldn't say no to. I wanted to, but he kept pressing me until I just let him do it." She was crying now and I pulled her over against me and hugged her.
She sobbed for a minute and I got her some tissues. "It was really bad and painful," she sniffed. "He was just the most popular guy in my class and all the girls were so jealous. I knew he slept with a bunch of the other girls in our class, but I just fooled myself into believing that it would be different with me. I'm so stupid and now I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm in big trouble, Eric. I would have had to fuck some greasy guy last night to keep from freezing if you hadn't come along. I'm just that desperate. What do you think I should do?"
"Well, I don't know enough about it to tell you," I said. "I know some things we should do. I think I should go and talk to your dad, for one thing. He might be regretting what he did. I think we should take you to a doctor and make sure you and the baby are following some kind of plan so you'll both be healthy. I think you should be going to school. There's only a month left and it would be a shame to quit in your junior year when you're almost through. You'll have the baby this summer and go back and finish after it's born."
"How will I do that?" she asked. "I think I need to get a job. I have three dollars in my pocket. My baby is going to need things. Where will I live? Oh, my God, I don't know what I'm going to do!" She began to sob again and I just couldn't stand it. This gorgeous little waif was heartbreaking. Right then, my life changed and it was never the same. I was going to take care of her. There was no way she deserved any of this. Being young and stupid shouldn't have consequences like this.
"Pen, do you think you might like to stay here with me?" I asked her. "If we can't talk some sense into your father, would you stay here?"
She looked up at me, her eyes full of tears. "Why would you do that?" she asked.
"Call it an investment," I said. "I think you're going to be someone special, Pen. I'm willing to take that chance. I'd like for you to meet my Mom. She's pretty special too. She raised me by herself. My Dad cheated on her several times and finally an irate husband beat him to death in a sleazy motel room when I was four. She taught me that if you have a chance to help someone you should. You'll never regret being kind to people. That's what she taught me and I try to live that way. You need help and I have the ability to help you. I'll do it if you'll let me."
She laid her head against my chest and closed her eyes for a minute. I saw her lips moving and she seemed to be praying. When she was done she looked up at me. "I've never met anyone like you," she said. "I can't believe I got so lucky. I think someone was watching over me. I promise you'll never regret helping me, Eric. I'm going to be so grateful that you won't ever have a minute when you're sorry you helped me. I think I should forget about school though. I need a job."
"No, that's one of the conditions of me helping you," I told her. "You're going to go to school and you're going to do well. I'll get you a job after school until your due date is close. I'm kind of a big deal where I work. I'll get you a job there. It will be decent money and I'll get you on the insurance so you won't have to worry about that. My company has big plans for me after I graduate and they'll bend over backward to keep me. I'm going to go over and talk to your Dad. Will you go and stay in the car?"
She was as nervous as hell about it, but when we pulled up where she had lived I just patted her and told her to stay put. I went up and pushed the bell but nothing happened. Evidently, it was broken. I beat on the sagging screen door and after a few minutes a large, hairy man answered it.
"Mr. Ring?" I asked.
"Who wants to know?" he growled.
"Sir, my name is Eric Brand," I told him. "Do you know what the temperature was last night?"
"It was cold,"
"Do you know that your daughter could have frozen to death?" I asked. "I think if I talked to the police they might be a little upset with what you did. I think they might even arrest you for child endangerment."
"That whore is no child of mine," he blustered. "She'll be plenty warm rotting in hell with her whore friends!"
"No, she's going to be just fine," I told him. "You're a real ass though. I made a mistake coming here. She's better off getting away from you. I just feel sorry for your other kids. Any time you want to get rid of them, have them call their sister. The way your breath smells, maybe you already have cirrhosis. You should have your liver checked."
I turned and walked down the sidewalk toward the car. The bastard actually made a big mistake then. He came out on the porch and grabbed me by the shoulder and spun me around. "You did make a mistake coming here," he snarled. "Did you bring the whore with you? Maybe she'd like to watch me beat your ass."
I buried my fist in his big, soft gut up to the wrist. All that foul breath exploded out in a rush. I eased him down to his knees and he doubled over and puked. I patted his shoulder. "You should be more polite," I told him. "You're setting a bad example. Some kid might hear you. Now you clean up that mess and think about your sins; if I hear that you've been talking nasty around the other kids like that, I'll come back. I won't be so gentle next time."
I left him there and we drove away. Penelope was looking at me with something like worship in her eyes.
"I can't believe you did that," she said. "He's twice your size. I've always been scared to death of him."
"Well, he should watch his language," I told her. "Not everyone is afraid of him. I suppose he can terrorize 100 pound girls, but grown men don't like to be talked to like that."
I drove along for twenty minutes and we didn't say anything. She got the iPod and played Thin Lizzy. It was "Black Rose." It's my favorite song by them.
"Do you know Thin Lizzie?" I asked her.
"No, but I liked the name," she said. "I really like this song too. Where are we going, Eric?"
"We're going to the mall," I told her. "You need clothes and stuff."
"We could just go to the thrift store," she said. "That's where Dad always takes us."
"I don't mind the thrift store," I told her. "The problem is that you need everything and we won't find a tenth of the stuff you need there. I'm pretty dubious about buying underwear there anyway."
She laughed. "I've never bought underwear there. I get that at Walmart."
"That's OK too, but I don't want to shop all day. We can get everything at the Mall."
To my dismay, we spent all day shopping anyway. All that stuff packed the trunk pretty good and we had to go to Walmart anyway to get stuff. I never realized that girls take so much different stuff than men. She seemed to think my toiletries were defective. I just use a bar of soap or shower gel for everything, but she needed stuff like cream rinse, moisturizer, body spray and all kinds of combs and brushes. I dreaded getting my credit card bill. I blew off school the next day and we went to the doctor. Patricia is a friend of Mom's and she agreed to see Penelope over her lunch hour so she could get in. She thought she was as healthy as a horse and the baby was coming along nicely. She gave us a list of things that Penelope should do and eat and got her some prescriptions for prenatal vitamins and things. We got her set up with appointments and I took her to see Mom.
I could tell that she was as nervous as hell. Her legs were bouncing and she squirmed like a worm on a sidewalk all the way over. When we pulled up in Mom's driveway she froze. She grabbed my hand and wouldn't let go.
"I can't," she started to cry. "She'll probably think I'm a slut and she'll hate me. Please don't make me go in, Eric."
"Nonsense!" I told her. "She'll love you the minute she sets eyes on you. She's really sweet and kind, Pen. I love her with all my heart. You don't have to go in, but I just want you to give her a chance. Will you try?"
She wiped her eyes and nodded. I went around and opened her door and she got out. I thought she was going to squeeze my hand off when I rang the bell. Mom answered the door and Penelope hid behind me. Mom is a tall, willowy redhead. She's put on a little weight over the last twenty years but she's still one of the world's ten most beautiful women. She has a heart to match and she threw herself on me and kissed me.
She looked over my shoulder at Penelope and she could tell right away the kid was scared to death. She pushed me out of the way and took Pen's hand away from me and hugged her like they were best friends.
"Penelope, this is my Mom," I told her. "Her name is Mary and she's my best friend. Mom, this is Pen. I told you how we met. Please be kind to her, OK?"
"Of course, Eric; it would be awful to do anything else. Come in here, honey. I made a pie today and I'll feed you. Pregnant girls are well known for liking ice cream. I'll heat up the pie and we'll have ice cream on it. If you want pickles I have some of those too."
Pen laughed. "Thanks, Mrs. Brand. I'm not craving pickles though. The pie and ice cream sound good though. What kind of pie is it?"
"Apple," Mom told her. "I love a good apple pie. It's Eric's favorite."
We sat and ate pie and got acquainted. Pen warmed up to Mom right away and Mom is warm to everyone. "You know what would be good?" Pen said. "A hunk of cheddar cheese." Mom laughed. "I love that too, Pen." She got a block out of the refrigerator and broke it into three pieces. We nibbled on it and talked. Mom was a little uneasy with Pen staying with me. She asked her if she wouldn't rather stay with her. I felt Pen immediately tense up and squeeze up against me. Mom saw what was happening and she came around and hugged her.
"I wouldn't dream of taking him away from you if that's what you need," she kissed her. "I'm sorry, honey; I just thought you might be more comfortable here. I know I'd love the company."
"Thanks, Mrs. Brand; but I want to stay with Eric," she said.
"Please don't call me that," Mom told her. "My name is Mary. Mrs. Brand sounds so old."
I think they fell in love with one another that night. We stayed for an hour and a half and I took Pen home. I went to work and when I got home she was asleep, curled up like a kitten on the sofa in front of the fireplace. I woke her up and she told me she wanted to go back to school the next day. She didn't want to go to bed before I got home. I scolded her a little.
"I don't get much sleep these days and I don't need as much as some people," I told her. "You're pregnant, Pen, and you need to rest. Don't you stay up like this again."
I was wasting my breath. She was always asleep when I got home but she never went to bed until I got there. Sometimes she'd be lying there with a book open on her stomach and papers scattered all around, but she refused to go to bed until I got home. I have a Dodge truck with the hemi in it and she drove it to school when the weather was bad. It's four wheel drive and I felt like she was safer in it. When the weather was good she drove the Hellcat and I drove the truck. I got her a little job working from three to five for my boss in his office. He loved her right away and she seemed to be a good worker. We got her on our health plan and she didn't have to worry about that any more. By the time school was out she was growing a little tummy. I don't think she gained more than ten pounds the whole time she was pregnant. She ate like a horse and I think her hair grew a foot. It was below her butt and it looked amazing. She brought her report card home the last day of school and it was great. She had all A's except for one. She had a C in Anatomy and Physiology and she apologized to me.
"I promise I'll work harder next year," she said. "I hate those kind of classes where you just have to memorize all that stuff. I can do better and I will."
"Hey, you can't be good at everything," I told her. "You don't have to apologize to me, Pen. If you're disappointed in yourself or happy with yourself, that's all that matters. I know it's been a tough year."
We spent every available minute together. As her tummy started to grow she made me rub it with lotion so she wouldn't get stretch marks. I rubbed her feet and ankles too. They were swelling a little and she loved me rubbing them. Her boobs were growing too. They became even more noticeable and that was saying a lot.
She was four weeks away from her due date when she waddled into the garage. We had been taking classes on birth and parenting and we sort of knew what to expect. We kept bags packed and she was carrying them. She kicked my foot that was sticking out from under the truck where I was changing the oil. I rolled out and saw her face.
"My water just broke, Eric," she said calmly. "I think I need to go to the hospital."