Might as well cut right to the chase. The fancy D.C. attorneys ended up living in the Harbibi bunkhouse for the duration. As promised, they swept for bugs every day -- and not only the electronic kind. They dined on the finest of pork and beans. And after brief private preliminaries between them and several of Hardyville's arbitration services, they were chauffeured to the Hardyville One-Plex (site of the soon-to-be main proceedings) every day in various compartments of Mrs. Harbibi's crew-cab pickup. Everyone rode in silence to avoid giving away any strategies on either side.
And Jen Carolina, in her pursuit of shortcuts to self-responsible adulthood, ended up in the toilet.
On the toilet, actually -- the cracked pink one next to the statue of the Drunken Cowboy.
* * *
"And what exactly do you make of this?"
Gael Carolina thrust the opal necklace into his daughter's tear-stained face. "If you didn't steal it, how did it end up inside your pillow slip?"
Jen shook her head wildly, beseeching first Gael, then Mirabelle, whose necklace it was. "I didn't take it! I swear I didn't take it! I don't know how it got there!"
Mirabelle shook her head sadly and turned away. In the week Jennifer had lived with them, a number of minor items had gone missing. A decorative abalone-shell comb for pinning up long hair (which neither she nor Jen had). A gold-lace shawl. A roll of coins. Small things.
And at first, it was impossible to suspect Jen. Not only was she so pathetically eager to please -- bringing them cups of tea, making her bed every morning without fail, and adoringly aping Mirabelle's every style choice. She was ... well, she was rarely out of their sight. If Gael was in his study, Jen was looking over his shoulder, asking questions. If Mirabelle was at her mirror, Jennifer was there, probing her about her make-up, her origins, and which clothing designers were most popular in France and Italy. She worshipped them both and was so eager to be part of their lives. Perhaps the items were just misplaced.
Still, it was undeniable. Things went missing. And now a necklace of semi-precious stones had turned up, hidden in Jen's bed.
"I didn't!" She pleaded, mascara and eye-liner beginning to trickle down her face in twin streams of black and purple. "It wasn't me!"
But her cries were of no avail. The evidence was undeniable.
"We gave you a roof over your head, young lady," Gael reminded her sternly. "We took you in when your own mother didn't want you. I indulged your whims. Mirabelle and I tolerated your clinginess. And this is how you repay us?" He shook the necklace in his fist. Jennifer merely sobbed in choking gulps.
"Get out!" Gael ordered. "Pack your things and get out of my house. Now." Mirabelle turned back in silent concern. She reached toward Gael's arm as if to protest so much imperiousness. But he shot her a stern glance and she withdrew her hand.
"But where ..." Jen sobbed " ... will I go? I don't have any place."
"Go back to your mother. Move in with a friend. I don't care. Your dishonorable behavior merits nothing from me. Just pack and go. Mirabelle, please escort Jennifer to her room and make sure she takes only her own possessions. Then show her the door."
* * *
The streets of Hardyville aren't exactly mean -- unless you consider piercing winds, baking sun, and gritty red dust in every cranny of your skin or clothing to be perils. But to a 15-year-old girl without a home or family, our streets are plenty unfriendly. Jen walked a block from the Pickle Manse and flung herself down on a curb to get her emotions under control. And to try to figure out what do.
Where could she go? No way ... no way was she crawling back to her mother Charlotte to put up with a bunch of "I told you sos" and piles of dirty dishes to wash. But what else? It's not like she'd made any friends in this ugly Nowhereland. They're all a bunch of dorks. Every one of them. I wouldn't stay with any one of them if I was dying in the gutter.
Everybody had betrayed her, anyhow. Everybody was against her. She'd tried her best to be good and look what they'd done to her. They hate me. Everybody thinks I'm terrible no matter how hard I try to be good!
Jen burst into renewed sobs. She sat hunched on the curb a long, long time, not even trying to put herself together again. It was a neighborhood street. Hardly anybody passed. There were few to notice. Fewer to care. The sun, beating down on her head when she was bounced out of her father's house, began to swing toward the western horizon before her sobs settled into quiet despair.
Eventually, noticing an empty feeling in the pit of her guts, she stood, smoothed her rumpled clothing, and began to wander toward what little downtown there was. Outside the Hog Trough, she dug into her pockets. Not enough there even for a hamburger. She was about to cross the street in search of a candy bar when a message board outside the Hell-in-a-Handbasket Saloon caught her eye. Bits of paper fluttered from it, some protected by plastic slip-cases, others slowly tearing apart in the breeze.
"Pick up truck. For parts." "Babysitter needed. Must be mature and have references." "4 SALE: home-baked cakes and cookies." "Wanted: someone to mow and weed." The papers fluttered, white and yellow and blue, fresh and grubby, ungrammatically hand-lettered or impeccably produced on computer. Around the outside of the board were more permanent ads for local businesses. Jen scanned them until one in particular jumped out at her.
A light went on in her brain. Sort of a strobe light, actually, with overtones of ultraviolet.
Yeah, she thought, with a bitter rictus of a smile. That's what I'll do. I'll show them all. I'll earn my own living. But they won't like it and it'll be their fault. All their fault.
She began to trudge northward out of town.
* * *
Miss Fitz escorted the bedraggled child into the parlor (in her profession, one preferred "parlor" to "office," even though the function was strictly business). The pathetic adolescent with the puffy, purple-streaked face had tried so hard not to look awed as she entered the gilt-and-velvet realm of the Young Ladies Academy. She had tried not to stare at the young ladies in their beautiful gowns. She had done her valiant best not to look terrified by the men sitting in the downstairs bar, getting acquainted with a girl or two.
But Miss Fitz had seen a little of everything in her life. She might not have recognized who she had in front of her. But she recognized what.
The girl sank onto a Victorian fainting couch in the parlor, slouched back against the elaborately flocked red-and-gold wallpaper, and dropped her few tatty possessions with a thump.
"And your name again is ...?" Miss Fitz asked.
"Tiffany Devine." Jennifer was finished forever being Rosamund Carolina. Never again, after Dad and Mom's betrayals would she use their family names. "Tiffany Marisol Devine," she added. (Spanish remained appealingly exotic.)
"Well, Tiffany, can you tell me why you're here?"
"I want a job."
Jen felt Miss Fitz's eyes assessing her from her spiked and dirty hair to her pink tights and combat boots. She self-consciously shuffled her legs to hide a hole in the tights.
"And how old are you?"
Miss Fitz waited patiently.
"Okay, I'm 16," she lied, more plausibly. "But I know in this town my age doesn't matter. I'm grown up as long as I can earn my own living, okay? I know that, so don't tell me otherwise, 'cause it's a lie if you do. I'm 16 and I can do this kind of work."
"And what, if I may ask, leads you to want to choose this profession?"
Jen felt a momentary loss for words. Why else would anybody choose this kind of work? "Well," she said, as if she were stating the perfectly obvious, "I've done it ... you know, it ... lots of times. And I know all about birth control and stuff. Besides, I'm not qualified for anything else. But I can lay on my back or do, you know, whatever ..."
"Thank you," Miss Fitz waved a delicate hand. "That will be sufficient." She glanced at Jen's grubby suitcase. "Miss ... Devine, do you have a home you can go to? Family?"
Jen stiffened. "That's none of your business."
"True," Miss Fitz conceded. "It's not. I ask only out of concern."
"You don't have to be concerned about me. Just give me a job."
"Now that, I fear, I'm certainly not going to do."
"But why? You can't refuse to hire me just because I'm young. I already told you, I know my rights and ..."
"Please, young woman. Hear me out. I can and do refuse to hire 16 year olds. Routinely. Local custom on hiring is just that -- custom. I have my own policies. To interview for a job at the Young Ladies Academy, a woman must have reached the age of 22 or, if she is younger, have been self-supporting for at least two years. This profession, to practice it well, requires a certain amount of maturity, inner-strength, and independence."
Jen's face fell -- and her whole body slumped even further.
"So I'm sorry; you would not qualify on that basis alone. But if you'd like the truth, Tiffany -- or whatever your name may actually be -- contrary to certain opinions, this profession also requires a lively, engaging personality and an adventurous intelligence. You, on the other hand, appear to have the personality of a barracuda with an entire mouthful of abscessed teeth."
With a growl, Jen lurched to her feet, fumbling for her suitcase and backpack.
"But I'll be glad to call your family or a friend for you, and even ask one of my young ladies to drive you home if ..."
But by then, Jen was storming down the plush-carpeted stairs and shoving through the oak-and-leaded-glass doors of the academy into the chilling evening sun.
* * *
And thus it was that Nat Lyons found the former Jennifer Paris Rosamund Tiffany Marisol Devine Carolina, back in Hardyville, slumped on the cracked pink toilet next to the statue of the Drunken Cowboy. The toilet was all that remained of our former city government. It served as an apt symbol of all that remained of Jen's hopes. After the piercing summer day, the bleak desert night was descending on them both.
Nat spotted her after making a delivery of home-baked items to the new Lyons and Yale Good Foods Store. He was heading back to his ranch after a long day of trying to be both grocer and cowboy. But recognizing Jen and the deep dejection only a 15-year-old can feel, he parked his truck and stopped to talk.
And thus it was that Jennifer Carolina got her first shot at becoming, in the eyes and customs of Hardyville, a self-responsible adult. After hearing her story -- and her heartfelt denials about the opal necklace -- soft-hearted Nat gave Jennifer a job stocking shelves at the Good Foods market. With the job came a small paycheck -- very small -- and a cot in the storeroom. That first night, he also threw in the bonus of a hot microwaved dinner, for which the weary Jennifer was so grateful she didn't even bother to complain -- yet -- that the offered pay was below minimum wage.
She gobbled her dinner, then collapsed onto the cot fully clothed and slept the sleep of only slightly sullied innocence.
But Nat took care to warn all employees to empty every last dime out of their cash drawers at night and make sure both the office and the storeroom were locked. Jennifer could leave the building via the back door after the store was closed. She could use the facilities, including the small break room/kitchen off the storeroom. But no way could she roam the rest of the building, cadging apples, candy bars, or cash.
Warnings given, Nat then quietly called Charlotte Carolina and told her that her daughter was safe and sound -- but probably best left alone for now.
* * *
The next morning, the D.C. attorneys finally managed to spring the DEA Five from the discomforts of Hardyville's jail-built-for-one. There was no great trick to it; all the miscreants had to do was sign agreements to participate in, and abide by, arbitration -- with the Harbibi interests now and with Jasper Feldspar Clarke and friends later, if the additional victims so chose. The miscreants also had to select either constant electronic monitoring (yes, we do that here -- only for violent aggressors who haven't yet made restitution) or a 24-hour-a-day escort of armed citizens, paid for by the miscreants themselves.
They opted for the electronics, whose signals Bob-the-Nerd fed onto a public web site for all to view. Then we gave them -- as a bonus, gratis, but strictly for our own interests -- that armed citizen's guard. Our watchers remained at a discreet distance, but within effective firing range, should the need arise.
Staying within range was pretty easy, since the prisoners were moved from the cozy discomforts of the jail to the cozy discomforts of the Harbibi bunkhouse, where they doubled up with their attorneys while Mrs. Harbibi doubled the quantity of beans and pork in the pot.
And soon the arbitration was ready to "go live."
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB -- saving writers from themselves one typo at a time. And to Oliver Del Signore, faithful font of ideas for stuck writers.
Read More by Claire Wolfe
Comments regarding Claire Wolfe's articles may be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments may appear online in "Feedback" or in the "Letters" section of Backwoods Home Magazine. Although every email is read, her busy schedule does not permit a personal response to each one.