With a tired sigh, Raven pulled into a vacant parking space and stared up at the stark white facade of the optimistically named ‘Oceanview Apartments’ building. A dozen blocks back from the sea there wasn’t much chance of an ocean view, but right now Raven couldn’t have cared less. After weeks of aimlessly wandering and purposely backtracking, doing battle with a geriatric hatchback and more unpleasant rest-stops than he ever wanted to recall, he was exhausted. He just wanted somewhere safe and secure to settle and start again. He sincerely hoped apartment twenty-one of the building in front of him would be that place.
Admittedly, it had looked more impressive on the website. In real life, the structure wasn’t anywhere near as stately or pristine as the images suggested. Here and there small signs of wear and tear marred the weathered exterior, and from front on, instead of the more flattering side angle the apartment rental site had used, the whole thing looked rather squat and dated. But then that was usually how these things worked in his experience—reality was always just a little less bright and sparkling than advertised.
Seconds later, Raven had to amend his cynical thoughts. Above the faded red roof tiles, the sky was a perfect blue. No amount of Internet research prior to making the gruelling drive from Chicago had prepared him for the Southern California sky. Today there wasn’t a cloud to break the pale blue expanse that seemed to go on forever. It was breathtaking.
Finally dragging his eyes away, Raven continued to check out the building and surrounds. While definitely older, it looked solid enough. Along the front, the tall, thin trunks of a row of palm trees were lined up like soldiers guarding the entrance. Their rough, shaggy crowns towering high above cast splotches of shade across the front of the building. Even at ten in the morning, the summer sun was strong and bright. It would be interesting to see what the temperature was like inside. Raven noticed the grass was a vibrant green against the white of the sidewalk. The grounds were obviously well-tended. That was a good sign.
“Is this where we’re going to live now, Daddy?” Ryan, his four-year-old son and reason for making it out of bed each day, asked from the backseat.
“Is there a swimming pool?”
“N-no. Sorry, buddy.”
The lack of emotion in Ryan’s voice bothered Raven. He suspected most kids would have whined, or commented, or…or something. But Ryan just stared out the window.
The caregiver at the last day care centre Ryan attended up until recently had expressed ‘concerns’ regarding Ryan’s social skills and lack of engagement with others. They’d left Chicago not long after, but the comments troubled Raven more and more. They really needed to make friends or people might start asking questions. Worse still, they might find answers and decide he was an unfit parent and take Ryan away from him and…
“So w-what do you think? Do you l-like it?” he asked, desperately fighting down the spiralling panic attack closing in on him.
“You w-want to see inside?”
As he looked up into the rear-view mirror he saw Ryan nod, but his son’s expression remained unreadable. Swallowing down the lump forming in his throat, Raven struggled against the inner voice that told him once again he sucked as a father.
“Okay. We’re just w-waiting for the property m-manager and we can go have a l-look.”
A fresh wave of fear washed over Raven at the mere thought. His heart began to pound, there was the familiar white-noise-like rush of blood in his ears and his palms started to sweat. He really wasn’t looking forward to the meeting. In fact, he’d give just about anything to get out of it. But it was a necessary evil if he wanted to rent an apartment.
He took a deep breath and tried to calm his runaway nerves. Fortunately, with the help of the Internet, he’d narrowed it down to two possibilities—two places they could pretty much move into straightaway. Which was a good thing—they couldn’t afford to waste any more of their money on motels, and two appointments like this were about his limit.
“There’s a playground,” Ryan said.
“M-Maybe there are kids your age h-here.”
He studied Ryan in the mirror, hoping to get more of a response, or at least some idea of what was going on in his son’s head as the little boy continued to stare at the swings, slides, and bright red climbing frame just visible, tucked in against the side of the building. The opportunities to get out and about in Chicago had been few and far between for various reasons. His own fears and difficulties in dealing with other people certainly hadn’t helped. But here in sunny California things would be different. He’d make sure they were. If nothing else, it was a relief to see Ryan taking an interest.
“Do you think you’d like to l-live here?”
It would have been nice to hear more of what Ryan thought of the place, but a vehicle pulling up a few spaces away instantly caught Raven’s attention. A slim woman with blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun got out. Her short black skirt, black tailored jacket and crisp white blouse contrasted painfully with the promise of another beautiful, hot summer day.
She tucked a portfolio under one arm, locked her car with the push of a button and stepped up onto the sidewalk, looking left and right before turning to face the street. Every instinct told Raven this was the property manager he’d been waiting for and he should get out and meet her. But his muscles were locked tight, pinning him in place.
He watched her glance down at her wrist and check her watch. Her expression grew pinched with exasperation before she looked back up and scanned the street again. She looked out of place in the neighbourhood that, while quiet and reasonably neat, was a million miles away from suit-and-tie. It only served to make her look even more intimidating.
Raven gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles blanched white. He knew he had to get out of the car. If he didn’t meet the woman and jump through the final hoops, he wasn’t going to secure a place for them to live. But he couldn’t seem to move.
“Daddy, can we get out?”
With every ounce of courage and determination he possessed, Raven unbuckled his seatbelt. He had the feeling, as long as there were no rats, meth labs or gaping holes in the floor, they’d take this one. He couldn’t face doing this again.
“Sure th-thing, b-buddy. I think that’s the l-lady we’re supposed to m-meet.”
Raven bit back another sigh. It was going to be a really long morning.