In spite of being raised in a motel setting by a single mother, Marlene had a happy childhood. Mom managed Mountain Breeze Motel in south Georgia near the Florida border. Just off of the freeway, the motel was a hot spot for truckers. Some of the regular guests called the motel their home away from home. Mom worked hard to keep the place clean and inviting.

      “Traveling is hard work,” Mom often said. “People are tired when they get here and they need a comfortable place to relax.” Marlene couldn’t believe that traveling was hard work. She longed for the opportunity to go places and do things she only heard others describe. In all the years when she lived in the little apartment connected to the motel, Marlene had never had a vacation.

      Not that she ever complained. They were fortunate to have a nice place to live as part of Mom’s employment package. Besides, motel living was a good deal for Marlene too – especially after Mom convinced the owner to turn the vacant lot into a playground for the children.

      Many families stopped at Mountain Breeze Motel on the way to Florida’s entertainment center. When Mom wrote up the reservations in the guest book, she wrote the names and ages of the children in red ink. It was Marlene’s job to greet the children and entertain them. Every day she checked to see if any children would be coming. On days when the weather was bad, she played games with the children in the lobby. Like most of the children, though, Marlene preferred spending time on the playground.

      Of all her childhood memories, Marlene cherished her time spent with Leonard the most. His family stopped at the motel on the way to and from Disney World every year. As they sat on the swings, Leonard would tell Marlene all about the rides and fun things to do there. The two seemed to bond instantly although Leonard was a couple of years older than Marlene.

     One year as soon as Leonard left for Disney World, Marlene began to look forward to his return. As she checked the reservation register one day, she realized that Leonard would be back on her birthday. She asked Mom to bake some cupcakes for the occasion.  “I’ll be glad to do that,” Mom said. Just as she took good care of her guests, Mom did her best to make a good life for her only daughter. Marlene had always been proud of her mother.  On the day that Leonard was to return, Marlene waited eagerly for his arrival. As soon as the station wagon pulled in, Marlene met her friend with two cupcakes topped with thick chocolate frosting and a candle. “Today’s my birthday,” she said.  “How about that? Mine was last Thursday. I wish I had known about your birthday. I would have bought you a present when I was in Florida. Anyway, thanks for the treat and happy birthday!” he said as he accepted the cupcake.

       Seeing Disney World through Leonard’s eyes thrilled Marlene. Sharing magic moments with her friend nearly took her breath away. “I wish I could have been there with you,” she said.

      “Yeah, I do too.” He paused and then added, “It was great but it wasn’t as much fun as being here with you.”

      Leonard seemed like the brother Marlene always wanted, but all too soon he was gone. “I’ll be back next year,” he promised.

      After he left, Marlene wrote to Leonard in Kentucky a few times, but he never wrote back. She had formed friendships and even became pen pals with other children, but her heart longed to hear from Leonard. Would he really come back next summer? she wondered. Or had he forgotten her? Maybe she hadn’t meant as much to him as he had meant to her.

       One day, when Marlene had almost forgotten about Leonard,

       Mom finished a telephone call and said, “Marlene, guess what?”

       “I can’t guess. Tell me.”

       “I just got a reservation from Leonard’s family.”

      All the excitement came rushing back. Only three days until his arrival but it seemed like three weeks or three months.

      As soon as the family arrived, Leonard and Marlene headed for the playground. They sat in the swings and talked about everything that had gone on in their lives since they last saw each other. In Leonard, Marlene had found her soul mate – the brother she had always wanted.

      All too soon, they had to say good night because Leonard’s parents were ready for bed. “I’ll get up early to see you again before you leave,” Marlene said.

      Shaking his head, Leonard explained. “We’ll leave at five o’clock in the morning. Dad wants to drive through the city before the streets get crowded.”

      It was a long time before Marlene was able to go to sleep that night. When she got up the following morning, Leonard was gone. She began to look forward to his return. Each evening, she marked off one more day on the calendar.

      When Leonard returned from Florida, he handed Marlene a little package. With a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face, he said, “Happy birthday!”

      Marlene gasped. “You remembered. Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said as she jumped up and down.

       “I hope you like it.”

      Tearing off the paper, Marlene again gasped at the sight of the red tee shirt with a Florida beach scene printed on the front. “I love it.  It’s perfect. Thank you.”

      “Since you can’t get to the beach, I brought the beach to you.”  Before the two headed for the swings, Marlene changed into her new tee shirt. “I’ll think of you every time I wear it,” she said. “And I intend to wear it a lot.” 

     When Leonard left, Marlene treasured the tee shirt even more. It was hard to believe that such a cute boy would choose her as a special friend. Now she had something tangible to remind her of their time together. The only time Marlene took off the tee shirt was when Mom said it had to be washed. She even wore it when Leonard returned the following year, although it was a bit tight. That year he brought her a little vase made of sea shells.

      Each year Leonard brought her a birthday present to add to her collection she kept in a box she called her “treasure chest.” She often thought that she would grab that box first if a fire ever broke out in the motel.

      As the years passed, Leonard meant more to her than a brother – much more. She wasn’t sure when she first fell in love with him. Perhaps her diary held the secret but she no longer had the little book where she recorded her youthful fantasies. She remembered referring to him as her Prince Charming.

      For Leonard’s return from Florida, Mom had baked a birthday cake for her to share the special occasion with her boyfriend. Leonard had lighted the fourteen candles and said, “Make a wish and blow them out.”

      She didn’t share her wish with him, but her dancing eyes probably said that she wished she could marry Leonard and live happily ever after.

      When they finished the party, they went to the swings in their favorite place under the oak tree. It did not occur to Marlene to wonder why Leonard had not given her a birthday present as he had in previous years. She just enjoyed being with him and hearing about his experience on water skis. When he told her about his fall, she said, “I wish I could have been there to see that.”

      “Don’t be so happy about it. I could have been injured for life.”

      “But you weren’t. And I’m glad you weren’t hurt.” Marlene could think of nothing that would have been worse than for Leonard to be in pain.

      Several times Leonard started to say something and then just gave her a mischievous grin. What was he up to? she wondered. Finally, he stopped swinging and pulled a little package from one of the cargo pockets on his jeans. “I got you something special this year,” he said but did not hand her the package.

      She studied his face and decided he was stalling to make the moment last. “What is it?” she prompted, but he still did not respond. Her curiosity was mounting. “What did you bring me?”

      When Leonard finally handed her the package, she did not open it at first. It was now her turn to prolong the moment.

      “Aren’t you going to open it?” Leonard asked a bit impatiently. 

      “Not yet. I’m trying to guess what it could be. What makes it special?”

       “Give me the package,” he said.

       “No,” she teased. “You gave it to me and I’m not giving it back.”

        “I’m not fooling. I want the package,” he said in a stern tone.

        Somewhat startled, Marlene asked, “Why?”

        “I want to put it on you.”

      Handing over the package, Marlene anticipated his touch. Whatever it was, he would most likely have to touch her to put it on her.

      When Leonard started to open the box with a jeweler’s name imprinted on the lid, Marlene stared in awe. “Oh!” she gasped as she fixed her eyes on the necklace with a golden cross accented with Leonard’s and her birth stone. Were the rubies real? she wondered. No matter, though. Nothing could have been more precious to her.  “This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen,” she said.

      “It’s no more beautiful than you are.” On impulse, Marlene threw her arms around Leonard and kissed him on the lips. He kissed her back, much harder than before. Surprised by the intensity of her emotion, she backed away. As Leonard placed the necklace around her neck, she felt a tingling sensation throughout her body.

      “There,” Leonard said. “It looks good on you.” He squeezed both of her hands. “Wear it always and it will bring you luck.”

       “I’ll wear it forever. Thank you. Thank you.”

       Her necklace became Marlene’s most valuable possession.

       The cross was offset to one side and had a slight twist on each of the two intersecting pieces. Every compliment she received about the beautiful cross brought tender thoughts of Leonard.

     The following year Leonard did not return to the motel. She received a letter from him telling her that his mother had started a new career. Vacation time for her did not coincide with his father’s time off; so they probably wouldn’t be making any more trips to Florida. For two weeks, Marlene slept with the letter under her pillow and cried herself to sleep.

      Marlene’s life had gone downhill fast after losing Leonard. There were plenty of teens to hang out with but she never again developed the kind of close relationship she had with Leonard. It was during her time of grieving about Leonard that she found temporary relief from her pain by sniffing cocaine and smoking pot. Soon the desire to get high consumed her thinking and she needed more and more drugs to keep going.

      Her already mediocre school achievement record dipped lower and lower. It was touch and go as to whether she would graduate, but she did receive her diploma – just barely. After graduation, her only ambition was to find enough money to support her drug addiction. Oh, just to be a child again and swing on the playground with Leonard, she often thought.

      Soon after Marlene’s graduation, a dozen college men checked into the motel on their way back from the beach. “How many rooms will you need?” Mom had asked when one of the guys stepped up to the registration desk.

      “We probably need several but we want only one.” In response to Mom’s incredulous expression, he added, “Gotta save money somewhere.”

       “I’ll give you some extra supplies but I can’t provide twelve of everything for one room.”

       “That’s okay. We’ll share.”

        “And I’ll expect the room to be in good shape when you leave.”

        “Yeah. Okay.”

      After the men went to their room, Mom brought out four towels, two bars of soap, and two blankets. Shaking her head in wonder, Mom said, “Marlene, will you take these to our latest guests?”   “Sure, Mom.” Marlene was glad for an opportunity to spend a few moments with the bunch of cool guys.

     “Stay and talk to us,” someone said as Marlene started to go after delivering the supplies.

      “I’d like to, but I have to get back. We have several reservations coming in.” She smiled and then added, “Maybe later.”       

     “Is that a promise? We’ll party most of the night.”

      “Yeah. As soon as Mom closes for the night, I’ll be here.” A tingling sensation spread throughout Marlene’s body. She hadn’t been this excited since Leonard gave her the necklace. Even without a fix she was plenty high because she knew refreshments would be served at the party. Maybe she would have a chance to experiment with something new. She was ready for a night of adventure.  All of the guys took an interest in Marlene and made her feel special. While holding Marlene in his arms, one guy said, “I have yet to find a girl who is as much fun as you. Why don’t you go back to Atlanta with us?” The other men also began to urge her to accept the invitation.

      “That sounds exciting and I’d love to, but I wouldn’t even have a place to stay.”

      “We’ll hide you in the dorm rooms until you can find a place of your own.”

      Marlene hesitated only a moment. This was her opportunity for the excitement of life in the city. There was nothing for her if she stuck around the motel. “I’ll do it,” she said.

      “Why don’t you go pack your bags now? Bring them back here and we’ll grab a few winks of sleep before we head off in the morning before anyone else is awake.”

      The arrangement sounded perfect to Marlene. After packing her bags, she sat down to write Mom a note. She hated to disappoint Mom who had done so much for her, but she had to do what was best for her. “The guys invited me to go with them to Atlanta, and I hope you will understand that I need a change. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be all right. Thanks for all you’ve done for me. You’re a good mother.” She was about to place the note on the kitchen counter but Mom might get up in the night for a drink of water and spoil her plan. Instead, she took the note with her to place on the motel desk before she left.

      Everything was packed in the three cars that would leave for Atlanta. Which car would she ride in? Marlene wondered. None of the guys was in good shape for driving, but Marlene did not think of that then. The two near-accidents that happened on the way were only the beginning of living life in the danger zone.

      In Atlanta, the guys shuffled Marlene from room to room. They seemed to get annoyed every time she asked for drugs. After only a week, the man who had first extended the invitation to come to Atlanta said, “Marlene, it’s not working. We like to party too, but we can’t keep up with your addiction. You’ll have to leave right away.”

     “Where will I go?”

     “That’s your problem.”

      Sobered by the ultimatum given in such an uncaring way, she thought of an idea. “Maybe I could let the college know you brought me here.”

     The guy scratched his head. “Yes, I suppose you could do that. Ok. You can stay for a few more days. In the meantime, I’ll see if I can work out something.”

      Two days later, a man named Fred came to the dorm to meet Marlene. After they had a couple of drinks together, Fred said, “In exchange for sexual favors, I’ll give you a place to stay and keep you in drugs.”

      The offer was made in a matter-of-fact business manner with no tenderness whatsoever. That wasn’t really the kind of relationship Marlene wanted, but what other options did she have? “All right,” she said. To herself, she added, only for a little while.

      When she called home, Marlene found it hard to tell Mom that everything was going well for her. “I’m living in a nice apartment with a roommate,” she said. If Mom had asked the roommate’s name, Marlene was prepared to say, “Freda.” In her mind, that was at least close to the truth.

      At Fred’s suggestion that she find a job, Marlene went to work as a cocktail waitress and soon moved on to become a waitress and dancer in a nude club. By merely telling her mother she was a waitress, she could maintain the illusion of respectability. She didn’t like the person she had become but she wanted to spare her mother the heartache of knowing that her daughter had violated every facet of decency.

      After a few months of living with Fred, Marlene became pregnant. When her condition became apparent, her image didn’t fit the bar scene. Fred continued to take care of her through the pregnancy, but he warned her that she would have to leave when the baby arrived. “I’m not into being a family man,” he explained.  The first few months of life on her own with a baby were hard. Because Fred had supplied her with enough drugs to keep her satisfied, she had saved some money from her earnings, but that would run out soon. What would she do then?

      The man who had supplied her drugs since the breakup with Fred seemed to be attracted to Marlene. By using all the seductive powers she had learned on the street, maybe she could make an arrangement with him. It took little more than a week for her wiles to work. Not only did Bernie ask her to move in with him, he welcomed little Brittany as well.

     While living with Bernie, Marlene had a second child she named Ashley. She had a man and two children in her life but she certainly wasn’t living the American dream. During a heavy drug party one night, everyone passed out. Some time after midnight, Marlene woke up to see her children asleep in the middle of the floor. It wasn’t a pretty picture. Drug users were sprawled everywhere, the odor of liquor mixed with smoke permeated the air, and a hard-core pornographic film blared from the television. How did she get from the playground to this? she wondered. The worst part was she didn’t know how to get out.

      But one thing she knew for sure. She had to get her children out of that kind of environment. Quickly she went into action. First, she stole all the cash she could find from the others who were passed out and then she packed up the children’s clothes and caught a taxi to the bus station.

      At the bus station, Marlene learned that she would have to wait more than an hour before a bus would head for her hometown. Little Ashley was still asleep but Brittany woke up and asked, “Where are we, Mommy?”

      “We’re at a bus station, Sweetheart. We’re going to ride a bus to your grandma’s house.”

       “I don’t know Grandma.”

       “I know. I’m sorry you don’t know her, but you’ll like her. I promise.” Thinking about what she was going to do wrenched Marlene’s heart but there was no other way. Her children deserved better than she could give them.

      All the while they waited, Marlene battled fear. What if Bernie woke up and guessed what she was up to. He hadn’t abused her but she had never crossed him before. If he realized she had stolen money from him and his friends, no telling what he might do.

      Finally, she was safely on the bus with her girls. Breathing a sigh of relief, she leaned back in the seat, hoping to sleep. It would be another four hours before the girls could start a new life. And she?... She would not think about what the future might hold for her.

      The girls were awake by the time they reached their destination. In the taxi, they asked many questions. Often Marlene pointed out places of interest she remembered from her early years. Finally, Mountain Breeze Motel came into view.

      When they reached the playground, Marlene asked the taxi driver to wait while she gave full attention to her girls. It was going to be hard to pull off her plan when her heart was breaking. The girls’ enthusiasm at the sight of the swings, though, made it easier. “This is where Mommy played when she was a little girl,” she explained. “You’ll love it here and Grandma will love you and take good care of you.”

      Before Brittany could ask a question, Marlene headed back to the taxi. “Could I use your cell phone?” she asked the driver.

       When Mom answered, Marlene began to pour out the story she had never told her mother. “My life’s a mess and I have two children – little girls, Brittany and Ashley. I love them but I can’t take care of them. I need you to love them and take care of them like you did for me. They’re on the playground and I have to go. I’m sorry – so sorry.”

      “Marlene, wait. Please come home.”

      “I can’t, Mom. My life’s too messed up. Go to the girls, now!” With that, she hung up the phone.

     Marlene asked the driver to move away where she could watch the children without being seen. Mom stooped down to pick up Ashley and took Brittany by the hand. As soon as they went into the motel, Marlene had the driver take her back to the bus station.

      For hours, Marlene had been operating on nervous energy. On the bus headed back to Atlanta, she needed a fix and needed it now. She had been deprived of drugs for more than twenty-four hours and she was about to “crash,” but it would be four more hours before she could hope to satisfy her craving. In a panic, her breathing became labored. She put her head on her hands in an effort to control the tremors.

      A man seated across the aisle two rows back tapped her on the shoulder. “Do you need help?” he asked.

     All Marlene could do was stare at him with her eyes glazing over.

     “I have some meth,” he said softly. He took the nod of Marlene’s head and her smile as an invitation. He sat down beside her and allowed her to share his stash of crystal meth.

      As the drug began to take effect, Marlene relaxed. A sense of peace replaced the troubling emotions she had battled all day. “Thank you,” she said to the stranger who continued to sit beside her. “You saved my life.”

     “I’m glad I could help.” 

      It felt good to be traveling back to Atlanta with someone who understood her situation. She would need to find someone else to hook up with. Maybe he could give her some leads. For sure, she wanted to stay clear of Bernie. After stealing his money and walking out on him, she knew he would not think kindly toward her.

      Life back in Atlanta did not go well at all. Desperate for drug money, she ended up on the streets as a prostitute. Dancing in strip clubs was her only other source of income. Most managers of strip clubs allowed women to dance nude in the clubs for half of the tips they received. At first, the lifestyle was distasteful and she wanted out. In time, though, she accepted the degenerate lifestyle as the best she could do.

      Marlene phoned her mother and talked to her children occasionally, but she never let emotion get out of hand. When Mom begged her to come home, Marlene quickly changed the subject. It was easier to manipulate the conversation when she was stoned.

      While on the streets, Marlene learned about Pastor Kurt, who was always ready to help in an emergency. At first, she felt uncomfortable around a man of God, but Pastor Kurt offered hope and comfort instead of condemnation. He often said, “God loves you and has a plan for your life if you will invite Jesus into your heart.” The message sounded good, but Marlene could not quite believe it would work for her.