Stay A Little Longer by Nicole York

 

1

Cameron

The back seat of the Range Rover smelled like leather and Cameron’s father’s cologne: dry wood, spiced clove, and oak moss. To him, it smelled like the first Christmas her mother had bought him his first bottle. He owned a few other scents but this was the one he reached for on a near daily basis and had for the last twenty-two years. To Cameron, it smelled like nostalgia.

He sat beside her with a crisp white folder open on his lap. Cameron’s gold-embossed initials were hidden under his thumb in the bottom right corner as he flipped through the pages of research she’d done on the business she was visiting today. Neither of them had spoken a word in over five minutes as he reviewed his daughter’s plan of action.

Cameron sipped her green tea out of her glass travel cup and pretended it was still hot instead of lukewarm as she leaned to the side to peer through the windshield. They were closing in on the soup-kitchen location she was hitting today to discuss her strategy of opening a women’s shelter here in the city for battered women fleeing abusive relationships. New York had plenty of shelters, sure, but Cameron saw a real need that demanded to be filled, and the city just wasn’t moving quickly enough to provide solutions for desperate women. Someone had to step in and do better by them. Someone had to protect them.

Why shouldn’t that someone be Cameron White?

After all, she was the daughter of the billionaire philanthropist Wayne White. Her daddy inherited the bulk of his riches from his father before him and so forth, all the way down the line to Cameron’s great, great, great, great grandfather, Reginald, who may or may not have earned his wealth in unethical ways like gambling and a bit of growing the green stuff. His son, Reginald Junior, became involved in booze smuggling during prohibition and never got caught. He was the one who nearly quadrupled the family’s already staggering wealth and purchased the family estate in Irvington, New York. On a good day, the estate was only a forty-five-minute drive into the concrete jungle. On a bad day? Well, let’s just say Cameron White spent a lot of time in the backseats of cars being shuttled into New York City.

She crossed one leg over the other in the back of the SUV and clasped her hands over her knee. She’d dressed down today on her mother’s wise advice. When Cameron had come down for breakfast this morning in her all-white pantsuit, her mother had looked her up and down, frowned, and insisted her daughter go back upstairs and change. If you were wondering, the exchange definitely reminded Cameron of being a teenage girl trying to leave the house dressed like Christina Aguilera to meet up with her friends. Only this time, her mother had better reasons other than Cameron being an only child. She’d explained showing up to a soup kitchen in a pristine white Dior suit that cost more than a lot of the people Cameron was trying to help had earned in the last five years was a poor way to make genuine connections with Cameron’s “flock.”

Wayne and Margaret White often referred to the demographic they chose to help and work with as their “flock.” Cameron’s father worked with children who were disadvantaged by poverty to give them post-secondary educations in hopes it would lift them above the poverty line and propel them into stable, successful, healthy futures. His program was extremely successful. He’d won a lot of awards for his work with children and youth. Cameron’s mother, Margaret, chose to work with children as well, specifically sick children who spent an atrocious amount of time in the hospital. She provided housing for families and invested a ton of money and time into cancer research.

Of course, with money like the White family, there were other pursuits Cameron’s parents had on higher shelves. Wayne was a big investor. He believed in doing his part to help the economy grow and he knew the best way to do that was to put money into the community.

Cameron had no problem doing that. In fact, she might say she was the queen of putting money into the economy. She went shopping on a weekly basis. Cameron spent money on her hair, nails, and skin on her Friday-afternoon pampering ritual. She had her favorite boutiques, coffee shops, and restaurant patios, and they all saw a pretty penny from her consistently enough for them to always be happy to see her.

Cameron wondered nervously if the women in the soup kitchen would be happy to see her when she arrived.

Her father closed the white envelope and passed it back to her.

Cameron fidgeted and opened it up so she could straighten the papers inside that weren’t even in need of straightening and watched him out of the corner of her eye for a hint of what he thought about her plans. He was impossible to read, so she plucked up the courage to ask him what he thought.

Wayne smoothed out his tie and straightened his navy-blue suit jacket with a sharp tug. “I think you’ve done your due diligence, Cameron. I also think you should be prepared to revise your strategies after meeting the women at the soup kitchen and getting some fieldwork in. Our ideas in our heads never seem to align with what the real needs are.”

That was exactly why Cameron wanted to go to the soup kitchen today. Getting in some fieldwork, as her father referred to work that included anything out of the office where you rubbed elbows with your flock, would be necessary. And it was among the first few steps of her plans.

“I’m prepared to make changes,” Cameron said.

Wayne nodded and his salt-and-pepper beard grazed the edge of the collar of his suit and jacket. “I hope so. Changes are the—”

“Bread and butter of success,” she said knowingly. “I know, Daddy. You’ve been telling me that since I started the first grade. Recalibrate, Cameron. Always be prepared to recalibrate.” Cameron dropped her voice a couple octaves on that last part to mimic the way her father used to give her pep talks when she was a girl.

Wayne chuckled. “At least you were paying attention.”

“I’m always paying attention.”

“Well, that quality will be put to the test today.”

Cameron’s parents had always wanted her to follow in their footsteps and use the family money for good. They knew she’d find a calling of her own one day. She doubted either of them thought she’d want to work with abused women and women in need, and when she announced this decision six weeks ago over a filet-mignon dinner in the dining room at the estate, Cameron’s mother had dropped her fork and her father had frozen with his glass of wine halfway to his lips.

Are you sure?They’d asked their only daughter.

Yes. She’d been sure. She was so sure that there wasn’t a single thing either of them could say to sway her course. When they asked her why, she told them about a personal experience she’d had weeks prior to that decisive dinner.

She’d been shopping—of course—when she passed the mouth of an alleyway in Manhattan that she passed all the time. It wasn’t a particularly rough alley, although she supposed all of them had a bit of that grungy, suspicious, not-quite-right vibe. Anyway, she passed this alley, and about twenty feet from where she stood were a man and a woman. The first thing Cameron had noticed was how large the man was. He had to be at least six foot four, perhaps a couple inches taller, and the woman was small and slender. The top of her head didn’t even reach his shoulders and she’d been cowering before him, shoulders drawn in, chin tucked into the collar of her sweater, eyes fixed on the ground and her worn-out sneakers. He’d had her pinned against the wall, and what Cameron at first assumed was a couple getting intimate turned out to be a couple fighting.

Fighting wasn’t the right term. She couldn’t defend herself against him, so implying there was a fight was incorrect. He was intimidating her. His voice was low, but Cameron could hear the anger in it, and she’d stopped in her tracks, her purse and shopping bags draped over one arm, and hollered down the alley at him.

They’d immediately broken apart.

Dozens of pedestrians brushed past Cameron. Luckily, nobody tried to treat her like a bowling pin and knock her out of their way. It had been known to happen. Cameron supposed her ruby-red jacket made her hard to miss.

The man had glared at Cameron like she was Satan herself, and maybe to him she was because there was no telling what his dark intentions had been had Cameron not stopped and said something. The woman, who Cameron realized when she looked up was just but a girl probably no more than nineteen, slipped out from between him and the wall at her back and slipped away into the crowd of pedestrians.

Meanwhile, her potential assaulter glared daggers at Cameron, who still stood at the mouth of the alley.

Cameron had smiled, waved, and told him to pick on someone his own size. Scaring young women with no way of physically holding their own made him a coward, and an ugly one at that. These words caught the attention of some of the passersby, and soon, they had an audience, and Cameron knew she was safe from any wrath he might want to inflict on her because of the onlookers. He’d shoved his hands in his pockets and walked off, and she’d wondered about the girl.

After a run-in with a man like that, where did she go? She didn’t look like she had much money. Was she homeless? Did she have a shelter to run to that would close their doors to a man like him? Did she have friends, family?

Did she have anyone?

After that experience, Cameron couldn’t stop thinking about her. So she started doing some research and discovered there was a growing need for shelters for women in this city. And it was a need Cameron could fill.

So here she sat upon the oiled-leather seats of the Range Rover while the driver, a long-standing White-family employee named Hugo, pulled over to the curb outside the soup kitchen. The sidewalk was packed with people in line waiting to get inside. An appalling number of them were children.

Cameron’s father made an uneasy sound in the back of his throat. “Are you sure you want to go in there alone, Cameron? I can go with you. Or if you’d prefer the absence of your father, which I understand, Hugo can accompany you. He can hang back and just watch to make sure.”

“I’m fine, Daddy,” she said as she took off her seatbelt. She put a hand on her father’s knee. “I’ll be just fine. I promise. You have things to do today. As soon as I’m done here, I’ll call you. And I’ll tell you and Mom all about it over dinner tonight.”

His lips pressed into a thin line. “You couldn’t have chosen something like saving dogs from shelters about to be euthanized, could you?”

Her father always wanted her to be safe. “Dogs can bite, Daddy.”

“There are worse things than a bite.”

She opened her car door and stepped out onto the curb. “There are city employees and volunteers inside. I’ll be perfectly safe.”

“Keep your phone with you at all times.”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“And don’t eat or drink anything in there.”

She rolled her eyes at him. “If they can eat it, I can eat it.”

“I don’t like it.”

Cameron shrugged one shoulder. “That’s the rub, isn’t it? You don’t have to like it.”

Feeling a little smug and proud of herself, she closed the door. She could feel her father’s eyes on her as she approached the soup-kitchen entrance, where a woman with a clipboard wearing a blue vest stood letting people in as others left.

She looked Cameron up and down and her eyes narrowed behind her glasses, which were in desperate need of a cleaning. “What are you doing here, miss?”

Cameron tucked her white folder under her arm. “I have an appointment to come survey the shelter.”

“Ahh, yes. Miss Wright, I assume?”

Cameron nodded. “That’s me.”

“Go on in. Good luck.” She winked.

For some reason, she sounded a little sarcastic. Cameron blew that off, stepped around her, and pushed through the grit-stained shelter doors.

The inside was lit by fluorescent lights in the paneled ceiling. The floors had that same glossy but worn linoleum look as public schools. In fact, it sort of felt like she’d stepped into a public-school cafeteria that was in desperate need of a renovation and some proper funding. Long beige tables ran together in parallel lines. There were a total of ten rows about six tables long. Each table sat six people. There was no decor, no pitchers of water on tables, no place settings, nothing. It was sterile and plain and everyone ate off of paper plates of various colors, likely donated from dozens of different businesses.

Several lights in the ceiling flickered and Cameron was reminded of a horror movie she’d watched a few weeks ago with her best friend, Pauline.

How uninviting,she thought as she moved through the hall.

Along the north wall to Cameron’s left was the buffet. About a dozen employees stood on the other side with aprons, hairnets, and large spoons in their hands, and they served heaping scoops of food onto the paper plates of people who’d been waiting in line for God knew how long. The food looked to be calorie dense but not at all nutritious: mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, tuna casserole, lasagna, buttered bread, hash browns, and other things Cameron couldn’t identify.

She stood dumbfounded as she watched people navigate the system she couldn’t decipher. After receiving their food, people claimed spots at tables where they ate ravenously before bringing their plates to garbage bins at the end of their row of tables. There were sinks on the opposite wall of the buffet where they washed their hands, and they were escorted out by more volunteers.

It looked like there might be a time limit in effect for how long people were able to stay.

Cameron didn’t love that, but looking at the numbers of people moving through here, it made sense. The place wasn’t big enough. Not nearly big enough. They needed ten times the number of tables and better food. Where were the greens and the proteins?

Cameron supposed those kinds of things might not be important to people who might not have been able to eat in days, but it was important to her. She opened her folder, flipped a page over, and started jotting down notes.

Better food.

Ceramic dishware.

Table settings.

Centerpieces.

Cameron’s shelter would be more than just a place to sit down and shovel food into your mouth. It would be a place to dine, rest, and connect with others. It would be a place to feel worthy, content, and, most importantly, safe.