She was curled up on the couch wearing most of the clothes she owned, huddled under a thin blanket and a couple of towels with her dog, Molly. Both of them shivered in the dark stillness that comes a few hours before dawn.
In a corner chair, her husband closed his eyes and tried to sleep. But even with layers of clothes and two pairs of heavy socks, he shook and his feet were numb. At 4 a.m., the temperature inside the house had dropped into the 30s. They'd lost their electricity and heat when a woman from Colorado Springs Utilities arrived without notice and switched it all off because of unpaid bills.
Mae Mills and Steve McCrystal came from poor, rural Kentucky. Mae's father "bush-hogged" or mowed hay on a 250-acre farm owned by someone else. Neither Steve nor Mae ever had much money. But until last week, when they cowered against the cold in the dark house, neither had known such misery.
"It's just so cold at night," Mae said the other day, sitting at the kitchen table as the late-morning sun began to warm the rented house.
Then she lowered her head and cried.
Steve and Mae, high school sweethearts in the 1970s who married others but reunited 15 years ago, have lived in Colorado Springs more than a decade. Their slide into hell began last November, when their landlord boarded a Greyhound bus and vanished. Audrey Blake, 51, was supposedly heading for Miami. She got off the bus in a rough St. Louis neighborhood and claimed her suitcase. Investigators say there hasn't been a trace of her since.
"There's been no body found," says Colorado Springs police detective Charles Kull. "There's been no activity on any bank accounts and no sign of any activity by her at all. She's listed on the National Center for Missing Adults. She just disappeared. For whatever reason, she's just not here anymore."
Steve and Mae saw the story of Blake's disappearance on the local TV news last December. Sure enough, Blake didn't stop by, as she always had, to chat and pick up the monthly rental check.
Blake also had been paying the utilities bill for the property.
"We really didn't know what to do," Steve says.
He was a salesman and installer for Sears before a back injury knocked him out of work a few years ago. He tried digging ditches, but that didn't last. He and Mae survived on a small savings and his $197 monthly Sears pension for a while, but the savings eventually ran out. Blake had let them slide on the last month's rent before she disappeared. Today, the couple is virtually penniless.
"We just figured people would work things out about the rent and the utilities, and they'd get a hold of us and we'd try to pay as we went along," Steve says. "I never meant to cheat anyone, not in my whole life."
No one called. No one wrote. No one stopped by. Until the woman from Utilities showed up April 14.
From Utilities spokesman Dave Grossman: "The notices about lack of payment and the disconnect notices are sent to the homeowner, not to the people renting the home."
Steve: "I guess from what the police say, Audrey wasn't getting those notices, now was she?"
And just like that, Steve and Mae were without light and heat. Steve rushed to the downtown Utilities office to plead for some help. Some time. Perhaps even some compassion. What he got was a demand for $745.
"I told them about Audrey and how she vanished," Steve says. "The woman at customer service said that was none of her business and that the bill was overdue and they wanted their money."
Grossman says Utilities offered to work with Steve and Mae. Representatives, he says, suggested the couple enroll in a program for those facing disconnection, as well as apply for aid through the federal low-income assistance program. Steve and Mae say no such offers were discussed.
"They wanted the money, and they wanted it right then," says Steve.
The first night without heat was cold. Down into the low 30s. The next several nights were cold or colder. It snowed one day. The couple started to panic.
"I called Utilities, and the woman said they hadn't even checked out the story about Audrey disappearing," Steve says. "They wouldn't even bother to call the police to see if the story was true."
Utilities did make another call. Mae answered.
"The woman at Utilities scolded me for not paying the bill," she said. "I felt like I was a 10-year-old in Kentucky again, standing at the chalkboard in math class and being scolded for not knowing my math."
The house is now in foreclosure. In a month it will be sold. Mae and Steve and Molly the dog would like some heat and light for the next few weeks, but then they'll be gone.
"Gotta go where I can find work," Steve says. "And someplace friendlier. This town has been a tough place to live."
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