In a homeless shelter on Lafayette Street in downtown Nashville, Maria Santos sat in the administrator’s office, trying to keep her face from showing the fear building inside of her.
The man behind the desk was in his late fifties, though his wrinkled, sun-damaged face looked older. In the group sessions, she had heard him share his story, which somewhat mirrored her own: early success in a band that seemed magical at first, as though everything they touched turned to gold. A solo career that looked even more promising, then personal struggles that he couldn’t shake. For Maria, those struggles—and a string of bad luck— had landed her here, homeless and trying to stay clean.
But she was working night and day with every fiber of her being to get back on her feet.
Maria didn’t want to reclaim the fame and fortune she once had. She only wanted to be happy. To feel whole. To get up every morning filled with purpose and do something she loved. To be free of addiction and have a safe place to lay her head every night.
She had made a lot of progress toward those goals, but it was taking time. And time was something she sensed she was running out of. The look on the homeless shelter administrator’s face confirmed that. So did his words.
“I don’t make the rules, Maria. You either get a job by the end of the day, or you have to go. I’m sorry. I really am.”
“There’s nothing out there.”
“You’ll have to look harder. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing.
Washing dishes, cleaning buildings—”
“Tried that. The cleaning companies all want a background check—and a current address—and they don’t like this one.”
He nodded, gaze fixed on his desk. “I hear you. I do.” “Can I work here?”
“You know you can’t work here. It doesn’t work like that.” “Why not?”
“You make the rules.”
“I don’t, Maria. I wish I did. I just work here.” “You run the place.”
“That’s true. But I don’t make the rules. The people who fund the Music City Rescue Mission do. And they say you get two weeks, and if you don’t have a job, you have to go.”
She exhaled, mind searching for the words that might save her, finding none. “There are no jobs,” she whispered. “Not for somebody like me. Retailers, they’re barely hanging on. Can’t even keep their family members on. I can’t get some gig job—I don’t have a computer, or a car, or anything else. My prepaid phone is almost empty.”
“You can sing. Get a job—”
She put her face in her hands. “I can’t do that.” “I’ve heard you.”
“That’s not the problem. I can’t be in that environment, around that temptation. Not right now. Not until I’m stronger.” She looked up at him. “You know what that’s like.”
“Yeah. I do.” He stood up and motioned to the door. “Maria… just get out there and find something. Okay? Go on now.”
He didn’t meet her gaze. She saw regret in his face. He knew what he was doing. And she thought he was actually sad about it.
She stood and took a step toward the door but didn’t leave. There was something she had to say before she did. Something important. “I just want to say…”
The man tensed up, anticipating what was coming.
“Thank you,” she said, trying to make eye contact. “I really do appreciate what you tried to do for me. What you did.”
Before he could respond, she made her way to the stairs, descended to the ground floor, and walked to the large open room where twenty bunk beds were lined up in rows. At the bed where she had stayed for the last two weeks, she grabbed her backpack, opened the zipper, and peered in, making sure the notebook was there.
The worn, spiral-bound pad wasn’t her only possession in this world (she had a few more), but it was her most treasured. She had bought it at a dollar store, likely in a pack that cost a dollar and twenty-five cents, and she had been filling it for six years now, scrawling notes and ideas, lyrics and scenes for a new kind of art, a fusion of music, story, and augmented reality she called Worlds & Time. It was her opus. At times, she felt more like she was discovering Worlds & Time than creating it. In those moments, Maria got the sense that this work had always been inside of her, waiting to be unearthed. To her, the notebook and the cheap ink pen, with its frayed end she had chewed, were more like the tools of an archaeologist: a trowel and a brush. With each stroke of the pen, she cleared away more of what hid this work of art waiting to be discovered. When fully realized, Maria was certain that it would reveal deep truths about the human race, enabling people to see the world more clearly—and to change the world around them in ways they never thought possible. That was the potential she saw in the notebook. That’s what it meant to her. Everyone else just saw a used, frayed notebook full of scribblings. To her, it represented her future. And perhaps her only chance at a happy future.
When Maria was a child, her mother had said something that had stuck with her for her entire life: “This world will try to take everything from you, Maria. But they can’t take what’s in your mind. You guard your thoughts. Someday, it may be all you’ve got.”
The ragged notebook was full of her thoughts. And she indeed intended to guard it with everything she had.
She took one of the gallon Ziploc bags out of the backpack’s small pocket and slipped it around the notebook, just in case it rained today. Or tonight—if she had to sleep outside. And she probably would.
She exited the building onto a concrete porch with stained, cracking steps that led down to the sidewalk along Lafayette Street, which was bustling with morning traffic.
A guy with a shaved head and a white T-shirt and tats up and down his arms was leaning against the metal railing at the base of the stairs, smoking a cigarette.
“Hey,” he called as she descended the stairs. Maria ignored him.
“You want to make some money?” he asked in a Russian accent.
On any other day, she would have walked right on by. Today, she stopped with her back to him.
“Takes less than a minute. Pay you twenty bucks.”
She felt the rage building inside of her. She took a deep breath. Then another. The anger would pass. She had come to see her rage as a demon inside of her. If she let it burn out and didn’t act on it, she would be fine. It would die down. That demon had dragged her into the trouble she was in, and she was done letting it control her. She told herself she was in control of her rage demon. She just needed time. Time was toxic for it. Time smothered its fire.
But his next words were like gasoline on the flames burning inside her. “All you do is open your mouth.”
She turned, and she didn’t see the man. She didn’t see anything. Maria marched toward the sound of his voice, the words she couldn’t make out, and she swung at him, her fist flying, but he was faster. His forearm flew up, stopping her blow, connecting just beyond her wrist, the pain in her arm like a lightning strike. He grabbed her other arm and shouted, “Hey, hey, hey! What’s wrong with you?”
She was getting ready to spit in his face when he spun her around, trapped her arms against her body, and put one of his arms around her, then reached in his pocket for something. She rocked back and forth, trying to get free, but the little troll was stronger than he looked. She expected him to draw out a knife, and was about to scream when he held out a clear plastic bag in front of her. It had a CVS logo on it and a tube inside that held a long Q-tip. There was a page with three illustrations showing a person placing the swab in their mouth, then placing the swab in the tube, and finally sealing the bag.
“You just wipe it in your mouth. Twenty bucks!” “Let me go.”
When he released her, she took three steps away from him. “You’re crazy,” he muttered.
She studied his face. One skill she’d picked up on the street was sizing people up. It had saved her life a few times. And it was crucial in any negotiation. She sensed that twenty bucks was a lowball offer.
“Fifty bucks.” She practically spat the words. “Forty.”
He threw the bag at her feet. “Forty-five. Be glad you’re gettin’ that.”
She knew his type. Had dealt with them all her life. He wouldn’t let her set the price. He’d walk away first. It was a power thing for men like him. He had to have the final say, had to set the terms to feel like he was in control.
If she could, she would have walked away. If she had forty-five dollars in her pocket and a place to sleep tonight, she would have turned and left. But she didn’t.
So she bent over and picked up the bag.