Linger by Minerva

Linger
by Minerva

Chapter I

I’ve lived in New Jersey all my life, and right now, I have a love/hate relationship with the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Today, I hate it. Don’t get me wrong. I love the smell of the ocean, and despite it being the middle of Summer, it’s not too hot. Living by the beach helps. I’ll get to that in a minute. The seagulls and terns are minding their own business because fascinated tourists aren’t throwing soggy McDonald’s fries and left over White House subs at them, so their sticking to the water and doing the occasional flybys, shitting on the heads of unsuspecting strangers. It’s not any of that. I actually find the seagull thing pretty entertaining.

It’s the fact that I’m sitting here on a bench watching the people all walk by like there isn’t a thing wrong in the world. They don’t even turn my way. These people almost sprint to get to the casinos with their gaudy lights, tacky shows, and fixed money. I get the occasional kid gawking and pulling on his or her mother’s shirt asking who the funny looking woman is. Then there’s the men that trip out of the casinos late at night or early morning drunk and smelly, offering me a fifty for a blow-job. I did it once, but the guy smacked me when I accidentally bit him. I hit him back. Hard. They are the only ones that really see me. I sit and watch as hundreds of old people walk by in a hurry to spend their life’s savings. They laugh, oh, and ahh at the fake Taj Mahal or replicated New Orleans, but they don’t see me. I’m a part of the city too, but not one of its attractions.

I don’t want pity or a hand out. Sometimes, I just want somebody to turn, smile at me, and say “hi”. It could happen one day, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m one of what the liberals and sociology text books call ‘invisible people.’ I’m not dumb you see. When I can, I read the occasional newspaper, and I’ve even read about those kinds of people in high school and college. Oops, I almost forgot I meant my kind of people. Anyways, yep, I went to college. Got a degree too, but you know what? They lied. A college education didn’t ensure me the American Dream. It was all one big fat lie. I want my money back. Well, my parents’ money back. I’m sure they feel like they wasted it anyway. To them, I probably got what I deserved. I’m not only a pervert now. I’m a homeless pervert. Yeah, I can say it. My parents disowned me because I like women. I know what you’re thinking. Why the blow job I just told you about? Oh, come on! The guy offered me fifty bucks! That’s all I’m saying about it.

Anyway, that’s not why I’m like this. I had a job. A good one, but because my stupid ass decided to be noble I lost it. I have a degree in Accounting, and I worked for one of the casinos. Guess where? Yesss, in accounting. Had a nice condo in Longport, where I lived with all the other bougie rich white people, a nice car, supposedly great friends, and a gorgeous girlfriend. Shit, I had a lot of other stuff too that kept me happy and occupied. Needless, to say I lost it all. Even Maggie left me before the ink was dry on the court document.

It all started simple enough. Caught a fellow accountant stealing. Yeah, he had his hand all the way up in the barrel, taking out handfuls. I told him that I would give him time to turn himself in, but do you know what the bastard did? I gave him two weeks to get himself together. During all that time, the fucker framed me: planted money in my desk, forged my signature, and messed up my books. Then to top it all off, he went and told, on ME! I tried to kill the little rat. It was all over the news and the papers They showed me being taken away in handcuffs on the 11 o’clock news! Let me see if I remember. They said, and I quote, “Sometimes beauty isn’t everything. Money is more.” I mean, come on. Isn’t that the suckiest of all lines you’ve ever heard? Then they went on to show a terrible picture of me. Yeah, I know that’s not the point.

Anyway, with the way I was living, I didn’t really have any money saved. My parents-safely tucked away in Trenton– refused to help, so I had to sell my car and use whatever money I could get my hands on by selling my belongings to make bail and find a lawyer. Hell, they had convicted me in the press before a trial was even set. All I can say is thank God or whoever that I had a semi good lawyer who had the sense to investigate all this stuff. They found that the signatures weren’t mine and that my computer had been tampered with. I got off before the Grand Jury even convened. I mean that would be front page news right? Oh, it was but not that way. They arrested Sam, but still didn’t really exonerate me.

Okay, this is the funny part. Instead of saying that I had been found innocent, the press reported that the evidence was inconclusive and that I might have been a partner to it all. I wasn’t arrested again, but I had nothing and nowhere to go. No one would hire me, and I do mean no one. I cried and screamed until my throat was raw. It didn’t help. I still had nothing, and tears weren’t going to fix it. I just had to face it and get back on my feet the right way that meant no drugs, no hooking, no hustling. But, oh man I wanted to. The temptation was great until I saw a pimp beat the crap out of one of his girls. I would have probably ended up in jail for murder this time.

So, I had the clothes on my back and a few other things that survived my selling spree. I took it all to the local homeless mission. I wasn’t too proud. I had to have somewhere to sleep, a roof over my head, and food. I had seen commercials and advertisements about the Mission. They all said how the people who worked and volunteered there were so helpful and how the environment was thriving. I’ll tell you what it was thriving with: thieves. I slept there for a week, and all those other things that I told you about were gone. It wasn’t anything much, some books, shoes, clothing, a portable radio, and some other knick knacks. Do you know what one of those oh so helpful volunteer/workers told me? “We’re not responsible for stolen items.” I wanted to smack her just for smiling while she said it. These were all the things I had left in the world, and I couldn’t let them go that easily. I was determined to get everything back.

Hell, I saw a wino listening to my radio; a couple of women wearing my shoes, and a mother wearing my clothes who was reading one of my books to her kid. Now, I don’t consider myself a fighter, but when your malnourished, dirty, and sick, a six foot tall, semi-muscular woman with wild blue eyes and long jet black hair has got to be intimidating. It was. Still, I had to smack the wino to get my radio back. I was even able to save good old J.D. Salinger from becoming someone’s pillow. Here is another funny part. I got caught and they threatened to kick me out for stealing!

Like I said before, I’m not really prone to violence, but I was going to make an exception that day until something just settled over me and calmed me down. I was able to get out of it with a snide remark, “You guys won’t take responsibility for my stolen belongings, so I did!” I shouldn’t have to tell you that I left that place. Hold on, I do go back everyday to take a shower, brush my teeth and get meals, but that’s about all. I have to say that I’m probably the cleanest homeless person you would ever meet. I may only have three changes of clothes, but I still like to be clean.

Now, back to the living by the water thing. I had to have someplace to go. For the past two years, The Boardwalk has been my home. No, I don’t sleep on the bench that I’m sitting on. I sleep under the Boardwalk. You see, The Boardwalk, is like a long stretch of wide sidewalk where vendors, restaurants, and the casinos are located. People use it to get from casino to casino, restaurant to restaurant or even for exercise purposes. I’ve seen many a bike rider and jogger. The good thing is that this sidewalk is built so that it is lifted off the ground by poles, panels or whatever you want to call it.

There is a lot of space, width wise, but the openings are just high enough for us ‘invisible people’ to crawl through and sleep in. I have a little room closed off with some cardboard. It’s probably about the size of your average dorm room. A couple of blankets that I got from the Mission are pretty much all I need in the Summer, and it has ample space for the rest of my belongings. I don’t have to worry about anything being stolen there even though other people live around me. We have this code where we look out for each other and share what little we have. So, whatever is taken, I know will eventually find its way back to me. I hope that this doesn’t sound easy because it wasn’t. I almost got my ass kicked by some of the guys protecting their territory. I even had some that wanted to fuck me in return for a spot. Couldn’t do it. If I wasn’t going to sell myself for money, I wasn’t going to do it for a piece of sand. I did end up sleeping on benches a few nights until I actually found some humane people in between the Taj and Resorts. I’ve been there every since.

It’s been two years, and I’m just biding my time. Everyday I used to ask myself, “How did I get here?” After a few months, I only asked that question once a week, but now, I don’t ask it at all. I’ve tried to get help, but the Mission is just that, a homeless shelter. Adult services is a crock of shit. They play with people’s lives by deciding who they want to see and who they want to help. How can someone making 24,000 a year be on a power trip? Suffice to say, I never got to be one of the chosen few. I’ve tried to get a job, but what do I put down for an address? Using the Mission was a big no-no. Some newbie volunteer forgot to give me the message about a job interview! A lot of that happens there. Still, I’m just biding my time. Something will happen. Something will change. It has to because I’m getting too tired.

Regardless of it all, here I sit on my bench, hating the Boardwalk, the topside anyway. There are just too many people who see me as invisible; who aren’t going to speak to me; who aren’t going to give me a chance. I don’t even want to look at them anymore today, so I turn my head only to see Gert heading my way. She smiles, and I see blackened teeth, the paper she’s carrying under her arm, and the bag she’s holding from here. I wave her over. She’s an old woman, early sixties with no family. I think that she’s probably mentally ill too, but that’s okay. We take care of her just the same, and I make sure that she doesn’t sleep far from me. I can smell before I see the gray work pants that have long since dulled and turned a dirty black and the ratty sweater covered with an overcoat of the same dank color. All of that’s no big deal. I’ve gotten used to it, being one of them now. As Gert sits down, I hear her grunt as bones crack, and I wait patiently while she unfolds the paper.

“Quite a morning ain’t it, Sly?”

I grin. She coined that name for me after my little fiasco at the Mission. Word gets around. It’s stuck with everyone and me since then, but the real name is Sloane Ford. “Yeah, it is. Too many people though. Makes me feel crowded.”

“Stock market is up. That’s why they’re here. They got money to spend. I tried to call my broker to tell him to buy fifty shares of Wal-Mart, but they never listen. He hung up in my face. Damn kids!”

Yeah, old Gert was crazy alright. I patted her on the knee. “Next time you have to make him listen, Gert. It’s your money.”

“Yeah, maybe you can talk to him next time. He’ll listen to a pretty lady.”

All of a sudden her face lights up like a child with a present.

“Was over there on California Avenue, and I found you some of those shoes that all the kids are crazy about these days.” She fishes them out of the paper bag near her feet, and I give her a quirky grin as I take the new pair of shoes: white Nike and black Reebok. She maybe crazy, but she was thoughtful. “Thanks, Gert. I’ll add this to my collection.” The old woman had been finding me shoes for the past year. It only meant that if I had shoes, so did the others.

At that moment a stomach chose to growl. I couldn’t tell if it was hers or mine. It doesn’t matter because it’s time to eat. “Come on, Gertie. Let’s head over to the Mission and get some breakfast.”

Her voice changes from sure to hesitant. “Sly, it’s twelve blocks. I-I can’t walk it this morning.”

“Arthritis acting up?”

She nods.

I grab her hand anyway along with my change of clothes. “Well, come on. Let’s go down to the arcade and see if we can pick up someone’s lost quarters. We’ll get a jitney and get you some Tylenol.”
Chapter II: Abbie
“Be courteous, but not condescending. They’re human too. You need to have a thick skin around here because most of the people who come here are regulars, and they don’t like new people. Be prepared to get yelled at, and if someone attacks you, please don’t retaliate. Just call for help. We know how to deal with them.”

I watch her lips move and I hear some of what comes out of her mouth. What is her name again? Jan, yeah that’s it. So, I nod my head and say, “Yes, Jan,” when I hear her sentence taper off. My eyes wander around as I follow her from room to room. For a heavy set woman, she moves quickly and with a lot of grace. I have to almost power walk to get my little legs to catch up. It only serves to speed up my heart more. We stop in a large room full of single beds and cots. They’re almost wall to wall, with belongings stuffed under beds and in the corners. I follow her to three more rooms like that. ” We do run out of room sometimes, but we try to never turn anybody away. We put pallets on the floors of the kitchen and cafeteria.” I shake my head again, “Yes, Jan.”

How the hell did I get myself into this? A twenty dollar bag of groceries cost me five hundred hours community service that’s how. I’m not a thief. I know I’m not, and I have never stolen anything before. I was so hungry, and I just couldn’t take it. My mouth felt like cotton wool, and my stomach clenched and ached every time I moved. The 7-11 was only a block away from me. I had to do something.

I walked in with my backpack just like I always did and said hello to Sid. They know me there. It was crowded with kids, and it just seemed like the perfect opportunity. Grabbed some spaghetti, tomato sauce, chips, small box of cereal, a couple cans of tuna, and a package of oreos. I was quick about it too, but Sid saw me in the hidden camera. We’d known each other for four years, so I figured that he would at least wait until the store was almost empty before calling me out. No such luck. He’s not a big guy, but he’s bigger than me. He used his extra bulk to push his way through the isles and grab me by the arm. He said something in Indian or whatever language people from Pakistan speak. Then he said it in English, loud enough for everyone to hear, “I’m calling the cops on your thieving ass!” To make this short, I ended up in jail, but got out the next day because the judge didn’t see me as a flight risk. I ended up with a court appointed attorney who was nice enough to make a deal. I got five hundred hours of community service.

“This is the cafeteria. As you see, we’ve already got breakfast going. People should start coming in within the next hour or so.” This is where I’m doing my community service, and I’m scared shitless. I feel like a hundred eyes are on me, mocking me, reminding me that this is what I’m a step away from. I can feel my heart beat faster. I don’t want to see this. I don’t want to be this, and I don’t want to do this. A man reeking of alcohol walks by us, but I look straight ahead. He sees me anyway. He smiles and rotten teeth greet me. I swear that he’s going to lunge for me, so I move to the side, hiding beside Jan and her thicker form. It’s hard for me not to scream. He does nothing but walk on by, and Jan doesn’t even notice my reaction. “You can start here by serving breakfast. If you like it, consider serving your job from now on.”

“Yes, Jan.”

This could be me. How can I have a job and have nothing? It wasn’t at all my intention when I first came here to Atlantic City. I used to look at this as just a trial that I had to go through as a price for being young, but I’m not that young anymore. I used to ask myself if I would be better off working at some mill in some part of Indiana. That used to be the tape I measured myself by. I’m not better off either way. I think deep down I know this and that’s why I left Gary when I graduated high school. There was nothing for me there anyway. I didn’t have many friends since I pretty much kept to myself. Had a couple of boyfriends who told me I was different from other girls. I believed them, so I gave them what they wanted. Those little boys turned out not to be so different from other boys. Either way, I didn’t feel a thing.

Parents were dead, and foster homes were useless after I turned eighteen. College was simply out of the question. Didn’t have the grades or the money. How did I end up here? It’s simple really. It was by word of mouth. A friend of mine– I use that term loosely since I never liked her-had a cousin who told me that jobs were a plenty here. The casinos were booming, and they were hiring for every position that you could ever think of. The pay was weekly, and it was good. Like a fool, I listened and didn’t ask questions. I’ve been working since I was fourteen and had pretty much gotten used to it. I bought my own clothes, shoes, and sometimes my own groceries. I just didn’t feel right living in stranger’s houses and taking their things. I was able to save some money, and with the little bit I had, I jumped a Greyhound with eyes full of hope and wonder. When I got here, the casinos looked so big and glamorous. Looking at them took me places that I knew I would never get too. There would be no Rome or Taj Mahal for me. Those casinos were as close as I was going to get. The first thing I did was find a place to live. Thinking it would be good luck, I went for a room in a building on Indiana Avenue. I gave Mrs. Tilly five hundred of the eight hundred dollars I had, so that I could move into the furnished room right away. When I say room, I do mean room. There was a bed, dresser, a closet, a table, a kitchenette that consisted of a hotplate, and a cable hook up if the tenant had a TV. Using up all most all I had left, I went and bought a new TV. Only to end up getting three channels. Cable was extra. The bathrooms were down the hall with the pay phones. It is a hundred eighty dollars a week for this lap of luxury. The good thing was that I didn’t have to pay utilities. I ended up getting a job in housekeeping, on the overnight shift, at one of the lesser casinos, The Claridge, because I didn’t hear back from the others. Here is where the fool part comes in. My friend’s cousin neglected to tell me that only the licensed casino jobs paid the good money. I got saddled with two twenty-five a week before taxes , lousy tips, and stepped over for promotion four times. I could have gotten one of those jobs but they took money out of your check for the license. I couldn’t afford that. You do the math. I was left with pennies to eat with. Indiana avenue didn’t end up being so lucky after all, since I’ve been stuck here for the past few years.

I look around to see Jan pointing at some guy she called Mike I think. “Okay, Abbie. He’ll take care of you and show you the ropes.”

Even though my head feels like it’s going to fall off, I nod again. “Yes, Jan.”

Mike gives me a toothy grin, and I immediately think that he’s got to be a volunteer. He seems to happy and too clean. His blonde hair is cut in the perfect blow dry position, and he smells like leather. Mike towers over me, and his chiseled face crinkles when he smiles. I try to smile for him, but it only makes my face feel warped. Without being offered, his hand engulfs mine. “Hey, don’t worry. I know it’s scary the first day. I’ll hang out with you as much as I can to make sure everything turns out.”

I immediately feel like a heel for making assumptions about him. I do the best that I can and grin.

He laughs, “See. They’re going to love you here with a smile like that. Makes your eyes greener. It will probably brighten most of their day.”

I changed my mind about assumptions and add cliché to the list. I took my hand from his. “Thanks. I appreciate you hanging around. I’m not sure I know what I’m doing.”

“All you do is dish out some food, but you have to take it to the ones who have trouble walking.” I see him look up and around, and I turn to see what it is. The place is filling up. Where the air was cool and scented with overcooked food before, it now smelled sweaty. I tried my best not to wrinkle my nose. I swallowed when several sets of eyes turned in my direction. Hadn’t Jan said something about not liking new people? I watch them turn back to each other and whisper. I try to swallow again and find that I can’t, so I turn to look for Mike and see him walking away. There’s a pressure on my chest, caving it in and making it hard to breath, and I feel sweat beads running down my t-shirted back. The whispers seem louder now like a buzzing I my ear. Mike is getting further away. Feeling like I don’t have any other choice I scream out his name, and he comes running. I’m oblivious to the continued stares now. Clutching at my chest, I feel him grab my hand again as I croak out, “Bathroom.”

Pulling on the little cord above the sink, I watch the light come on. This has to be the employee bathroom. It’s way too clean. Finally, I turn back to the mirror and see who I guess is me. I run my hand through short cropped blonde hair to try moving the bangs sticking to my forehead, and enlarged green pupils stare back at me as I take in flushed cheeks and chapped lips. With the loss of one paycheck, this could be me, and nobody would care. I let the fear come, and I even have the courage to watch it wash over my face, making it a bright red. Deep breaths don’t help my shallow breathing, so I turn on the sink instead and run water over my wrists. It’s not enough, so I splash some on my face. There’s a knock at the door. “Abbie? Are you all right?”

I clear my throat before answering him, “Yeah, Mike. I’ll be out in a minute.” Glancing back in the mirror, I see the fear still there. Maybe it’s what I need today. Maybe it will get me through this. I can’t be them. I will never be them. Abigail Sims, get it together. You’ve gone through too much crap to let this beat you. I whisper it like a mantra, and hopefully, it’ll work.
Chapter III: Meeting
We didn’t find enough change to get Gert some Tylenol, but I figured once we got to the Mission the staff would help her out. Finally, they were able to do something for somebody. I grab a tray and get at the end of a long line, and I hear Gert shuffle up behind me. “Nothing like a big scoop of pretend eggs in the morning, huh, Gert?”

“Oh, you know the sausage is fake too. I tell ya they’re trying to kill us with the chemicals and pesticides. The only real meat you can find around here is out of the dumpster by Danny’s restaurant.”

I cringe. I don’t want her to go dumpster diving. It’s too dangerous in this day and age with dead bodies showing up everywhere and it’s damn unsanitary. I bring her here to prevent just this. “Listen, Gert, I’m gonna call your broker and have him liquidate some of your assets. You won’t need to go in the dumpsters anymore.” I hear someone call my name, so I throw a wave in the general direction. Gert’s wrinkled face creases up in a smile. “Bless you, Sly. You’re the best.”

The line moves slowly, but we finally get up to Mike and the bacon, or whatever it is. As a hello, I give him a small smile and a wink. The boy really is too good to be true. He has the blonde good looks of a surfer, but the things that come out of his mouth are just. . .well, weird for lack of a better word. It’s like he studies a book of quotes, or what do you call them? Clichés. Yeah, that’s what I mean. I just keep waiting for him to say, “A stitch in time saves nine.”

“Hiya, Mikey.”

Hey, Sly. We have a shower stall all waiting for you. You know that being clean outside makes the inside feel better too.”

See what I mean? “Yeah? What will I get for brushing my teeth? Maybe the tooth fairy will grant me a couple of wishes.” The people in front of me snort with laughter. Old Gert, in a moment of lucidity, cackles. Mike grins, and his surfer boy charmed oozes out. I still ended up getting an extra strip of bacon out of it. My eyes squint as we go further up in line. I’m standing in front of big container of faux eggs, as I like to call them. Looking at the little blonde girl serving them, she’s way too young to have to see this, but it doesn’t look like she’s able to see anything at all with her head down like it is. Curiosity gets the better of me, and I had to satisfy it. I stop in front of the girl and give her the silent once over, hoping my presence will at least make her look up. No such luck. Used to the mechanics of the situation, I automatically hold my tray up, and luckily, she already has a scoop prepared. Maybe my natural charm will work. “Hey, kid? You’re new here aren’t you?” I hear a sniff then an almost imperceptible “yes.”

I look over at Mike, poised to give him a piece of my mind. “Ah, hell Mike what is she doing here? She looks all of sixteen and scared to death. What are you going to do if old Charlie gets a hold of her? You know how ornery he can be..” He pokes out his chest, and I barely resist the urge to roll my eyes.

“I’ll protect her. That’s what I’m here for.”

I catch her looking up, just a little, and stormy deep green eyes peer back at me from under blonde bangs. Whoa. Something drops in my stomach. I was wrong. She’s not a kid. I grab on to my fork as I feel it slipping out of my hand. No, she’s not a kid at all. No one young could have eyes that empty and scared at the same time could they? I swallow and open my mouth to speak again. I stop because I feel them, those eyes, zero in on my mouth, as if waiting. “Um.” Ohhh, that’s good Sly. You’ve invented a new language. The blonde’s head tips to the side slightly, still waiting. This time my stomach is tying itself in knots. I can actually feel my insides go through the ringer. It’s a sign. All of a sudden, I had to hear the real voice that went with those eyes. “Uhm, sorry about the kid thing, but I was right. You are new here?” I found myself holding my breath, not wanting to miss any intonation. Please say something. She finally lifts her face all the way up, revealing her features.

Good God! I try to swallow again, but the lump is entirely too huge. One word, “beautiful”, resonates through my head. The eyes were only one part of the package. They sit in a cherub-like face, soft and flawless, with a nose that I bet turns up when she smiles and a full-lipped mouth with tiny lines fanning the sides as if she smiles or frowns just a little too much. I’m so intent that I almost miss her response until the mouth I was studying begins to move. My gaze returns to the feature that first caught me. Her eyes question my scrutiny, while she finally speaks, “Yes, just started this morning.” Her voice is soft and fluid. It makes me want to close my eyes, and listen to it like the most classical of music. I start to grin and say something else, when groans from behind stop me. “Hurry up Sly! Damn fool woman! We wanna eat too!”

“Yeah, talk to your new friend later.”

I usher Gert out of the way and glare at the two men behind her, hoping that I add the right amount of ice. It is enough because it works. They hang their heads and turn with just a few slight grumbles. I do have a reputation to uphold. Everyone knows that I take no shit. Feeling that the situation was properly handled, I turn back to the blonde to find her head hanging again and a flush covering what I could see of her face. I feel my forehead scrunch, and I know that it has to go along with the confusion that I’m feeling.

The urge is strong to reach over and lift her chin. To compensate, that damn word comes out of my mouth again, “Um.” Someone taps me on the back, and I turn to see Gert pointing toward our usual table. That seems to be enough to get my motor skills running. “In a minute. Why don’t you go on over?” She smiles and walks gingerly over that way. I find myself moving to the side to let the next guy up, but I still feel that there is more left to say. Going by instinct alone, I stick out my free hand. “They call me Sly.”

I bend my knees and tilted my head to the side hoping to get a look at her. My chest flutters, when I see a ghost of smile form then just as quickly disappear. I observe as she sits the scoop down, rubs her hands on her apron, and then reach out to me. “I’m Abbie.” My hand swallows hers in electric warmth. I ignore the grumbles, gawks and stares of the others behind me, and there are plenty. The roughness of my hand makes me feel the softness of hers. I believe in universal truths. I am living one at this second of this minute, and the truth of the matter is that I don’t want to let go. Her eyes look into mine or should I say look through? The intensity of the gaze makes me want to turn away. I feel swallowed up and wide open, but something in me holds on enough to notice her pink flush and warbly, crooked smile. Her nose does crinkle, and the little lines around her yes and mouth expand, giving her face character.

I want to say something to show that I am utterly charmed. I can feel unfamiliar words bubbling up just waiting to get out, but they don’t. We both jump at a loud crash and raised voices. I, myself, turn to see Gert squatting on the floor throwing food back on her plate. I spun back with an apology on my lips, but again I have seemingly lost her attention, glancing at her bowed head. The sound of Gert’s voice moves me closer to the disruption. I feel the calluses of my own skin again as I pull my hand back. It was time to go see what trouble is brewing.

*****

Here I am in a line just like they are, but I’m giving instead of taking. Of that, I can be grateful. It still unnerves me: the smell, sound, and the feel of them around me. I don’t think I can look not even one in the eye. Them. They. I know they’re human beings just like me, but it is something that separates us. I have to keep that in mind, but I can’t make eye contact. They’ll be able to see my fear, my disdain, and my relief that I am in the giving line. I hear a woman talking to Mike, and I have to literally will myself not to take a glance. I feel her eyes on me, curious and unsettling. Her presence sits over me like a heavy blanket. Maybe if I look up, she’ll let me breath again. She asks me a question, and as if on auto pilot I answer, but even then I try to remain as small as possible.

She speaks again. Kid! She calls me a kid. The anger is quick to come and quick to go as I realize I am like a kid in a lot of ways either that, or I’m trying to hang on to some kind of innocence that has deserted me long ago. I think it left when I moved here. Obviously, Mike still thinks that I have that kid like quality coming from his remark. I don’t know whether to be flattered or affronted. Her voice drones on. Within the last minute, I discover that I like listening to it. It’s smooth and a little rough like the two sides of velvet. Curiosity gets the best of me, and I have to peek. Her eyes are just as wide as mine as we gaze upon each other. My first thought is she doesn’t belong here. Nothing that beautiful deserves to be living in the gutter. My thoughts on her beauty unnerve me to say the least, but she disturbs me more. I see pique, fire, and intelligence in her eyes. They are a pale blue that seem to glow from inside. Incandescent. Is that a word? If it is, it is the perfect one for her.

She doesn’t look like the others. Her hair is so dark it shines blue, and her face doesn’t have the dusty pallor. Her face is chiseled with angles and slashes but made softer by the fullness of her lips and roundness of her chin. Even without make up, she looks as though she could pose for the next cover of a famous magazine, with her exotic, model-like beauty. She even seems to be one step away from clean where the others look as though the hardest water wouldn’t penetrate. I think her clothes are the only thing that gives her away because they are well worn with small, tattered holes.

Her mouth opens to speak again, and I am somehow drawn to the full lines of it. The apology she gives me is sincere I can feel it. She’s the type of woman to admit when she’s wrong. I am taken aback. She seems flustered. Is it by me? I haven’t said a word. I am compelled to say something just because she seems to be affected by me somehow, so I tell her what she wants to hear. Someone yells at her from behind, and with a different fire in the pale blue, she turns to them. They either respect her or are scared because the yelling stops. Her hand takes mine as she introduces herself. Sly. Yes, somehow the name fits. It’s rough, tumble, and expressive. I feel like mine pales in comparison but I give it anyway. She embarrasses me with her scrutiny. It feels strange, so I lower my head hoping to make the new feelings go away. I have only felt fear or nothing for so long that this new feeling startles me. It startles me that I feel anything at all. Still, I can help but smile slightly with her attempt at cuteness. A loud crash distracts us both, and she turns to investigate.

The friend that I hardly saw is at another table in trouble. Sly turns back to me as another sincere apology leaves her lips. Part of me is glad she’s leaving. I need to understand this . . . whatever I am feeling. As best I can describe, I felt warmth, safety and comfort in a place that I felt was going to be the death of me an hour ago. She just made my day a little better. There is something else that I can’t identify. It must go on the back burner for now with the commotion going on.

**

I shake my head, trying to put the blonde in the back of my mind so the rest can focus. I see Gert legs shaking with the strain of bending over, so I pick up her tray so that she can stand. “Gert? What happened?” She looked up at me with frightened eyes.

“Charile said he was gonna kill my broker and steal my money. Then he took some of my food and threw the plate away.”

Anger made my blood boil. Charlie had gone too far this time. He’s a vet, who got hurt in one of the wars. From what I heard, his wife left him and took everything. Now, he’s mad at the world and gets back at the people in it whenever he can. I could hear him chuckling behind my back. I’m not a fighter, but I’ve picked up a few things living like I do. I know how to intimidate with a smile, with my voice, and with a glare. Only an idiot wouldn’t learn to protect themselves, but I need to protect Gert from any real or perceived threat. A crowd has formed, and they somehow know a fight is about to break out. Jan, Mike, and a couple of other guys come running. I glare at them.

“Now, Sly. Don’t do anything drastic,” Jan says to me.

I give her a smile that I’m sure is ice cold. “Me? I wouldn’t do that. I’m just going to help old Charlie out of here.”

I hear him cackle again, and my temper goes up a notch. I turn quickly and lean over the table supported by my hands. We’re face to face. He flinches but recovers fast. “You think you can beat me, girl? I’ll have your ass suckin’—-”

I make sure that he doesn’t finish his sentence. His breath is putrid, but I push on. Filling my eyes with menace, I looked him straight in the eye as one hand came up to find its place on the rim of the food tray. Without even a blink and a little push, it flew off the table and landed with a crash. His eyes widen but I continue to stare into his scruffy face. One of his gnarled hands reaches up to scratch his beard. I smirk, realizing his nervousness. In a low, scratchy voice, I finally answer his question. “You listen to me little man. I’m not sucking anything on you, but I will kick it. Which part would you prefer? Me kicking your head in or kicking your ass?”

I study his Adam’s apple and see it bob. He glances from side to side at the hushed crowd. Then at Gert, who has moved to another table to sit and eat quietly. His eyes come back to mine, and he chooses his own alternative. “I don’t have to take this shit. I’m leavin!” Charlie pushes his chair way back, trying to get away from me and lowers his eyes to probably escape the crowd’s scrutiny. Leaving a horrifying stink in the air, he heads for the hallway. I can’t help myself. I have to add the cherry. “Psst! Hey Charlie!” He turns, and I spot more than a little fear in his eyes. “Pull this again and shit will be coming out of you both ways.” He snarls through his nose then finally disappears down the hall. I hear a snicker from the crowd, then a clap. More laughter follows. Some of the others pat me on the back and I hear, “That’s our Sly.” Like I said, I have a rep, and it extends to protecting my friends.

*****

A lot of the others have left, and Mike told me some time ago that one of my duties was to clean tables. I’m doing that, but my eyes keep returning to a certain table where a certain brunette and her friend are sitting quietly. I decided after the little disruption that they all respect her. There are only a few that fear her, and I guess that Charlie guy was one of them. What is it about her? Why am I looking at her? Why do I want to? It could be the simple fact that she’s one of the most attractive women that I have ever seen, or the feel of the instant connection between us once our hands touched. I’m not ready to dive deeper into the reasons why, so right now, superficial answers will do. She was the first one to really speak to me, and Sly is so different from the others. Maybe that’s why I reacted to her positively and not the rest of them. Maybe.

I glance upward to see Mike staring at me in an all-so-familiar way. I don’t smile or acknowledge him in hopes that he will get the hint that I’m not interested. He waves anyway. My eyes scan the cafeteria once more only to zero in on pale blue. My breath catches as her scrutiny continues. Unable to break the gaze, I move to the next table, which just happens to be closer to her. She lays down the velvet again. “I’m really sorry about what I said earlier. It was a bad assumption. You just looked so small and shy. I didn’t think you belonged here.”

I pick up the towel that I’m cleaning with and fiddle with the frayed edges. It’s a nervous gesture I know. I want to run away from her, and the feelings that are so alien. I can’t help myself. I want to continue to hear her talk and see her smile, so I make a comment to her statement. “What do you think now? Do I belong here?” Her friend sitting next to her whispers something then gets up to leave. I watch her go and swallow. We’re almost alone. Sly’s attention is back now, on me. It literally feels like we are alone.

“Honestly?” I nod my head. “No I don’t think you do. You could barely look me in the eye, and I bet the others scared you shitless.”

I’m taken aback by her bluntness, but I should have expected it. Part of me wants to tell her why I was scared, but I know it’s too soon. I try to change the subject. “They don’t seem scared of you.” She gives me a smirk. The curl of her lip makes me think that she holds many secrets.

“I’ve known them longer than you, and I had to earn their respect.”

I lick my lips and contemplate that for a minute. “Will they treat me well if I have their respect? How did you-” She held up a hand.

“I fought, yelled and helped who I needed to in order to get it. I don’t think that’s for a little bit like you”

I feel my cheeks warm upon hearing the nickname. I like it, a lot. It takes me a minute to compose myself, and I look down at my fingers as they pull at the towel threads. “Um, well, I’m not here because I want to be. So, is that a strike against me already?”

“No,” Her voice is low and husky. “You’re here so you already have my respect.”

My composure leaves again and guilt comes. If she knew why I was here. . . I take a step back, but she reaches out and grabs my arm. I feel the calluses brush against my skin and so does the warmth from earlier. “Let me help you.” Her eyes implore me.

“H-how?”

“Let me introduce you to some people. If they think you know me, maybe it will get rid of some of your fear and their dislike.”

Only, if she knows why I am afraid. She probably wouldn’t even be talking to me, touching me. I don’t want this to end: this connection and these feelings. So, I hear myself saying, “Yes.” Her smile is striking.

“Good! In a little while, I’m going to go get cleaned up, and I’ll introduce you to the few people here who are worth knowing.”

I stare at her, and one hand lifts up to cover my mouth, showing that I’m confused by all of this. “Why are you helping me?” Where there was warmth in her touch and her eyes, she takes them both away. “I’m just trying. . .look, I don’t want anything from you.”

I didn’t mean to make her upset, and I try to show my apology through my tone of voice. “I-I didn’t mean it like that. I just wanted to know why?”

I get to see the blue fire again, but not her touch. “Because I want to. Because it looked like you needed a friend,” she whispers. A smile forms. “I hope I didn’t sound too much like Mike.”

I return her smile with a grin. “No, don’t think so.” For some reason, I think if she’s here every morning these next couple of months will go by better and quicker. “Um, are you a regular here? I mean, will you be here everyday?”

She gives me a little chuckle. “It’s not like I have anywhere else to go. I come here for all my meals. Do you stay here all day? Or. . ”

“Oh, no. I can only do this a few hours probably in the morning. I work during the night at one of the casinos.”

It’s her turn to look confused. “I don’t understand. Why?”

“Like I said before, I’m not here by choice. It’s just complicated.” I try to say it in a way that won’t require further questions.

Her eyes squint to slits. “You don’t want to tell me your story Little Bit?” Sly’s lips turn up in what I assume is a teasing grin. “I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.” She pulls my hand into hers again. “Why don’t you sit down? There’s nobody around.’ I watch her push out a chair across from her with her foot.

I give the cafeteria another quick sweep, but she seems to be right. I throw the towel on another table and sit down as graceful as my nervous limbs will allow. I hope I don’t look mechanical.

“If it will make it easier, I’ll go first?” Blue eyes look at me expectantly, so I nod. “It all started with a man, but then don’t most of these stories? Let me rephrase. It starts with a crook of a man, some money, and the media.”

Her story was a horrible tale of injustice, but I found myself laughing at the way she told it. Laughing is something that I haven’t done in a while. It sounds rusty to my ears, but apparently it doesn’t to hers as she chuckles with me. It’s almost as if she’s amused by it now. I have to ask, “It doesn’t bother you? All the wrong things that happened to you?” A muscle ticks in her jaw, but her eyes still shine with warmth.

“It bothered me at first,” she answers quietly, “but it’s been two years. I can’t live like this and be sane if I let it get to me now. I’m not going to lie. I haven’t accepted it fully because there’s something in me that believes that if I wait things will change for the better. Rules of the universe I guess.” Sly pauses for a minute. “Have I broken the ice enough for you to talk to me?”

I smirk at her nervously, and I feel her staring at it, my lips. That flusters me more because I like the feeling. I haven’t talked to anyone about my situation in so long that I have gotten used to it. It’s hard to let it go, usually, but she has made it so easy that I feel the meat of the story falling from my lips before I know it. I try to keep eye contact while I’m telling her, but the understanding unnerves me so my eyes lower. “So, I work, but I have nothing to show for it. I can barely eat, and that’s how I ended up here.” She squeezes my hand. That’s when I realize that the whole time we were connected. I look at our linked hands then slowly glance back up at blue eyes. They hold empathy and sadness. How could I not think she wouldn’t understand? Wouldn’t all of them understand? Haven’t they been there? I realize that in my fear I have been missing something all morning. I’m not just a step away from being them, but they used to be me.

We talk for what seems like hours, and I finally let her go clean up as a people start to refill the halls. I am even able to meet a few people, and where before I cringed, I found myself shaking hands. Sly stuck around until after lunch when her and the older woman left. It is kind of lonely now despite Mike’s attempt at good company, so I found my way to my room, to my bed.

********

My hands find their way through my hair for the thousandth time tonight. The smell of the salt air does not calm me the way it usually does. Neither does my little get away spot in between the beach patrol stations. The stairs are low, very close to the sand, and extend outward toward the water. The only things I can hear are the lapping of minute waves and hushed conversation of those passing by at this late hour. So much happened today, and I could have sworn it was going to be like any other. It was until I saw her. She looked so fragile, so vulnerable that I had to reach out and touch her, talk to her. It looked as though she was dying for contact. The feelings were instantaneous. I have to protect her and know her. I did it the only way I know how, by pushing my way through. Her eyes. I could see in them that she wanted to tell me everything, so I helped. Her story broke my heart. No one that innocent deserves to go through what she has to. I don’t think the universe cares who it is cruel to.

I couldn’t stop touching her, looking at her, talking to her. Her skin is the softest. . .God. Those eyes. I just felt like I could drown in them. I’m even drawn to the way she smiles. It’s crooked, full of secrets, and sadness. I had to offer my help, even if it was just a pretense to be close to her. Two years. . .all my life really, and I have never felt anything like this connection; this need to protect; this need to know everything. I stayed half the day sometimes just watching her while she walked. I like the way her hair bobs and rights itself when she turns. I hate the slump in her shoulders, and something inside me knows that I will do anything to get it out. Even when I left, for the rest of the day I stayed distracted. Where it is mainly used for exercise, I walked further than I usually do, and my stint at people watching was blown today. Every blonde blurred together into her.

I went from the bus station, train station, to the convention center in a fog. I know that I talked to friends in these places, but I don’t really remember what about. I met up with Gert at our usual place on the Boardwalk around 9pm. I knew that she was tired, so was I. Still, I was also restless. We walked the short distance to our home, ignoring the looks of disdain and the whispers that made my ears tingle as we walked by. We finally got there and took the steps down into the sand. I gave a wolf whistle to let them know it was us. Pauly was the first to crawl out. Then there was Stevie. One white man, the other black who both possessed similar stories. They are older men in their late fifties, ignored by their families, who refused to take them in when the jobs disappeared for the middle-aged. It’s something that I will never understand. They helped to raise children. Why can’t their children help care for them? Karma is a wicked thing, and I know they will get theirs.

“Hey you two,” Pauly smiles. I didn’t need light to know it showed off his missing teeth. “Yall, finished paintin’ the town red?” He laughed at his own joke. “Me and Stevie spent the day runnin from the po-lice. Old George saw us take some nanas from his stand.”

“You guys alright?” I looked from one to the other. Stevie was the one who answered.

“Sho, sho, old Pauly looked after me.”

“Why didn’t you two go to the Mission?”

“We did, but sometimes it just ain’t enough for a man. You know that Sly,” Pauly replies. That’s when old Gert decided she was feeling left out. “Crazy Charlie tried to take my money, but Sly fixed him up good.” The three of them laughed while I pretended not to roll my eyes. “Sly you somethin’ girl.” That time I didn’t pretend. I shook my foot as sand filtered into the holes in my shoes, and I knew it was probably happening to the others too. “Get out the slide, so we can get Gert to bed. Her legs were hurting today.”

Gert mumbled that she was fine as the other two walked off to the far left. The slide is what we use to get Gert under the Boardwalk. With her knees, there is no way she could bend and crawl under such a low space. I don’t know how she did it before I came here, but when I saw her struggling one night, we all went to go look for cardboard, wood, and any kind of string. Putting together several layers of cardboard under each other, we tied them off. Laying it flat and horizontally, we lowered Gert onto it. She laid down while we crawled inside our little den and pulled her through. Pauly gets one end, Stevie the other, and I get the middle. The smooth surface of the cardboard makes it easy to slide right over to her blankets. Then she just scoots over in them.

I got her settled and put the cardboard back up around her to try to block off any cold wind that blows off the ocean. I hear Pauly and Stevie laughing and talking about George’s red face as I open the make shift door to my space. The sand is hidden by blankets that are held down by shoes, books, and my radio. They’re scratchy, but I got used to that long ago. I hardly even had the chance to sit down before I hear Gert’s snores. They remind me of a fire engine, but I’ve gotten used to that too. We have a strange relationship,I think, but one that works. They are like the grandparents I never had, and I guess to them I’m the granddaughter that acts the part.

There’s no pajamas for me, just what I have on my back. I don’t even take my shoes off anymore. Less chance of a bug invasion that way. Lying on my back with my hands behind my head, I close my eyes, hoping that sleep will come, but all I see is Abbie. I closedthem again to wallow in it, but Pauly stops that.

“Hey Sly? Put on some tunes will ya?”

I didn’t bother to answer. I just feel my way around and flicked the switch. The Mission is kind enough to furnish me with cheap batteries when I need them. I turned the tuning knob to a station playing James Taylor, and I figured it lull them to sleep. I knew then that sleep wouldn’t come for me anytime soon, so I inched my way out.

Now, here I am still feeling restless. I glance up at the moon as it hovers over the water, and I have to laugh as my thoughts inevitably turn dark. Everything around here changes. It’s like the whole city is perpetually under construction. The moon changes as does the waves. The only ones that linger constantly is us. No one gets out of this life. More just fall into it. Am I stupid to even think that anything can change for me? I know I’m a fool for feeling the way I already do about Abbie. She feels something too. I saw it in her face, in her eyes.

I can do nothing for her, except bring her down. I can’t be her friend. Friends aren’t supposed to do that. I can’t be her lover. I laugh because that is too obvious for me even to comment on. She has a chance even though she doesn’t think so. So, what do I do with what I’m feeling? Squash it? Even I know it’s not that easy. I feel nothing for so long and then BOOM! It wasn’t like I didn’t want to feel. I just didn’t. I have to do something, because there’s no place for it out here. I know that I need to be there for her simply because she has nobody, and it’s the descent thing to do. Who am I kidding? I don’t know how to turn her away, but I know how to not feel. I just have to learn again for both our sakes. I taste the tang of blood as I bite the inside of my cheek, and my hands find their way back in my hair for the thousandth and one time. It’s going to be a long night.

*****

I pull the sheets sporting a big wet stain in the middle from the bed, but I don’t even have the energy to wrinkle my nose. Couldn’t sleep. All I could do was think—about her. Confused, ashamed, and many others, I felt them all tonight. How could it happen? How could a woman make me feel like no man ever has? When she left, I felt charmed and cherished like some princess being courted by the handsomest royalty. I opened up to her and told her how I felt about just about everything. The words spilled out like I had been waiting for her. I don’t feel dirty or sinful. For the first time, someone paid attention to me, listened to me, talked to me, and touched me. It was all safe and warm, sitting there with her. I’ve never been this way with any other woman. Even the ladies here, tried to befriend me, but something held me back. I didn’t trust them, and I didn’t want to. I just wanted to do my job and go home.

Tonight, I found myself speaking and smiling at them. They all seemed surprised to say the least. This is her doing. Sly. She fixed something in me today. Either that or she did a hell of a patch up job. I want to know her. Some parts of me crave it. That alone scares me. What does she want from me? She claims nothing. I can be her friend, and just because her touch burns doesn’t mean I can be anything else. I am curious. Sly’s opened my eyes, and I want to see how wide they can get. I finish changing the bed and cleaning off the bedside tables, sticky with some fragrant oil. So, I make my way into the bathroom. Upon seeing it, I sigh at its state. The tub is full of murky water that has sloshed all over the floor, along with hotel towels. I look closer to see obviously used condoms floating in the water. I sigh again. All this and no tip. I head back to the bedroom area to get a change of gloves out of my cart. I look up surprised when my name is called. I smile tentatively at Lola, one of the other housekeepers.

“Hey Abbie? We are goin to lunch in thirty minute. Do chu wanna come?” Her accent was thick and very Puerto Rican.

I found myself smiling wider not only at her, but at my sudden urge to go. “Yeah, sure, but it’s going to take me a while to get this one done.”

She walks in and waves her hand in a dismissive gesture. “Is nothing. I’ll help.”

Yes, I have learned a lot today if this is what I get for opening up even a little.
Chapter IV: Abbie-Road
As I leave my building for work with my awful gray and white doily uniform on, I actually take a moment to look up at the sky. I never have before. The stars twinkle back at me, almost smiling, giggling possibly. Maybe they know or see something that I don’t. It’s a possibility. I figure there’s a lot that I don’t know about myself and life in general. All I know is that at this moment, I can see colors again. I’m not color blind mind you. It’s just that for years now things have been hazy or kind of dull. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember. Okay, I’m lying. It’s been that way since they died, Bill and Gail Sims.

Names and muddled faces are all I remember sometimes, but there are other times when I remember smells and snatches of conversation. Still, it all seems so far away. My mom, Gail,I can’t help but smile when I say her name even now,was finally able to conceive after years of trying. When she was 44 and my dad, 50, I happened. Like most people, my memory doesn’t start until I was about six or so, but I recall warm hugs, smiles, and laughter. I knew my father was older but he still managed to keep up with me. We wrestled and played catch, and he helped me to grow into a real fine tomboy.

My mom was a different story all together. Where my dad was loud and boisterous, she was always somewhat quiet, except when she laughed. I used to love to make her laugh. It sounded as though she was singing. My father and I would put on little plays and lip sync her favorite music, anything by Patsy Cline, just to see her crack a smile. Her laughter wasn’t the only thing. There was also her touches. They were soft, warm, and always seemed to calm me. A caress of my cheek would make me feel like the safest person in the world. They made me feel that way.

Seeing the two of them together always made me feel so lucky. The touches and kisses between them signified the love that they had for each other. I know it was there. I could see it, feel it. It was like it came spilling over and couldn’t help but swallow up those around them. I had few friends growing up then because my parents were my world. I know that must sound strange, but it’s the truth. The only word I can think of when it came to them is everything. Within the span of a year when I was twelve, I lost everything. My father had a heart attack, and like that, he was gone. Then, I watched her waste away. It may have been because she loved him so much. I don’t know, but I do know that by the end of the year there was nothing left of her, no smiles, no laughs, no caresses, and no Gail Sims.

Everything was gone, and I was a big ball of hurt and tears. I had nothing except distant cousins who refused to take in a teen they didn’t know. After that, I skipped from foster home to foster home, keeping and doing for myself, but I had vowed at the end of that year that I would lose nothing ever again. I shut down, and that’s when things became a dusky gray. It sounds so matter of fact now, but it hurt like hell. Pain is something I really didn’t want to feel again.

For some reason, I turn back and stare at the building where I live. With the porch and street lights surrounding it, the multiple colors of it stand out. Standing tall, each side is painted a different color from light blue to yellow, to pink to brown. It’s as eclectic as those that live there. I glance further down the street only to see brick, beige, blue and brown. This place that I call home is a misfit compared to the tameness that colors the rest of the block. That’s probably why I chose this particular building it stands out and somehow blends in ,just like I did, in school, in life, everywhere after my parents died.

I have to ask myself, if I can see colors now what else have I been blinded to all these years? I didn’t exactly know that I was blind, not consciously. Last week, I was just going through the motions of living, and now, nine days later I see things, do things that I haven’t before. It’s because of her. It has to be. Sly. The ice blue of her eyes was the first color I saw. It was as though she shocked me into consciousness. I’ve only seen her four times. Four times and each time she smiles it’s like another truth is revealed.

Sly has introduced me to a world that is parallel to my own with so little differences that it’s sure to shock anyone who isn’t prepared. I’ve met a teacher, stock broker, a former housewife and her two kids, an actor, and so many other people who were dealt a crappy hand. Like me they were dealing with it; like me, they were barely surviving; and like me, they are like all of us. They are human beings. But, there was one thing that stood out. Unlike us, they banded together regardless of race and age. It was as if everyone knew everyone and helped them along when they could. At the mission, cliques would separate and make sure each individual was taken care of food wise. I even saw one man handing out mere pennies to his friends for some reason that escaped me. That one difference between them and us amazed me.

I saw this commercial once on racism once. It said that death was the great equalizer. I think they whoever they is should add homelessness to that equation. I don’t think that I’ll ever understand how people that have nothing can be so selfless. It’s hard to believe that a week ago I was so scared of these people, scared of myself really. Don’t get me wrong. I have no desire to be out on the streets. That in itself still scares the holy crap out of me, but there is a fine sliver of comfort knowing that if I hooked up with the right people many hands would be helping me. I heard somewhere a long time ago that there were six degrees of separation between all of us. I think the saying goes like that.

That’s a lie.

It’s more like two or three. As I make my way further up the long street, I realize that I knew none of this. My parents probably would have never wanted me to see it. They would have wanted me well educated and well moneyed so that I wouldn’t see them at all. I bow my head to apologize, Sorry mom. I’m one degree away from being them. The sadness I feel when I think about my parents is a dull ache not the sharp, needle point of years ago, but it still hung over me.

My thoughts fall back on Sly as I near the corner and the jitney stop. I have learned so much from her as she has about me. I don’t know what made me break my golden rule. I’ve opened up like a book to her. Maybe it was the irresistible splash of color in her eyes that drew me, like a starving flower to the sun, or maybe it was the smile that seemed to change her face from night to day that did it. It even maybe the way she makes me smile and laugh,something I haven’t had a grasp on in years. How could someone become so important to my well-being in a few short days? I don’t know, but it happened.

With opening my eyes, she opened a floodgate, and the only constant that’s keeping me from washing away is her and her alone. I feel happy and safe— feelings that have denied myself for ten years. I feel with her. I feel. I don’t remember saying that two word phrase so much. Now, it tumbles in my mind like it belongs.

Sly has become something that I never really had before. A friend. A very good friend. I won’t disillusion myself. There are things that I feel when I’m with her that go way beyond like the tingle between us when we touch; the need I have to study her, learn her; and the way I feel both lost and found when I look into her eyes. I know what she is. Sly told me about her girlfriend leaving when she got arrested. I see interest shining in her eyes, but when I look again, the look of banked fire is gone. She’s fighting it, but it still comes out in her constant need to touch me.

I have to be honest with myself. I don’t want it to stop, but I don’t want it to go further in fear that I will be overwhelmed. I’ve never been attracted to a woman, but I’ve never been very attracted to a man. Still, I’ve never felt this pull with another human being like I do with Sly. It excites me and scares me at the same time. I want to be her friend, but I can’t deny that there is so much more. I don’t know what to call us. The woman just moves me in ways that I never thought possible.

At the mission the past few days and admist the chaos of noise; silverware clattering, people laughing and talking, and seats scraping across the floor. I sometimes am little fearful because I’m so used to my own silence I guess. I scanned the room, and as if she knew her eyes found mine and turned almost silver with a smile. Somehow it was enough to calm me. I don’t know how, but it did.

It should bother the hell out of me that I’m interested emotionally and physically with a homeless person. A homeless woman no doubt, but I really don’t know how to explain it. She’s different. Sly stands out. I look at her and see that she’s never dirty and never smells. It’s as if by keeping her body clean her mind stays alert, bubbling with wit and intelligence. It is like she’s waiting and maintaining who she was until someone comes along and erases all that happened, so that she can be who she is. Despite her circumstances, confidence teems off her and engulfs those around her. She doesn’t stand above her friends. I think that would probably be dangerous, but she stands with them and around them, constantly giving of herself and asking nothing in return. Their protector. Their champion of sorts. I don’t think there is any other way to put it. Maybe I want some of that.

Sly has introduced me to so many people that it is hard to keep track of their names, but I do out of the respect that I want to earn. Some of them look at her in awe, others with affection, but they all have respect for her. They constantly ask her for help with getting things from shoes to books to bullies in the next cardboard box. Not one no came out of her mouth. I heard an ‘okay’ , an ‘I’ll try,’ and ‘give me till next week.’ Why wouldn’t I want to befriend someone like that as my first real friend? I know that this sounds cliché, but she is the most humane human that I have ever seen. I consider myself lucky to know this woman and have a small part in her life.

By associating with her, I’ve become more than the newbie. I think the door is open a little wider, and one foot is in. They call me by name now. According to her, I guess I know all the people that are worth knowing. She stopped introducing and even asked me about the situation so far.

“Talk to me. I know you have something to say.”

We sat across from each other at her table after the lunch crowd had left. I raised my head and glanced at her for as long as I could before finding my dust rag interesting. Sometimes it’s hard looking into eyes that could swallow you up. “Yeah, I do. Thank you for doing this. I don’t know how to re-pay you. . .”

From under my lashes, I saw her hand waving in nonchalance. “Eh, call it an act between friends. You looked so lost and scared when I first met you.” Long fingers found their way under my chin, lifting, and I closed my eyes relishing the hum of electricity that followed. Arctic blue moved rapidly back and forth searching my eyes and face. “You don’t have that look so much anymore.”

A thumb spiked up and caressed my cheek. The calluses on her hands only added to the flowing current. I held my breath, but it seemed like an eternity before she pulled away. While she touched me, I saw it. The fire of interest and acknowledgement. Then with a blink, she cooled it, but didn’t look away.

“Getting to know most of us will make your time here go by quicker.”

It was out of my mouth in a mumble before I could stop it. “I don’t know if I want it to go by so fast,” I murmured. Her eyes closed to slits and a red flush highlighted high cheek bones.

She heard me. She had to have heard me. I could tell by the reaction, but still, she responded in low tones with, “What?”

I pulled at the towel in my hands, hoping it would give me some sort of silent inspiration. All I came up with was, “Working. . . the nightshift before makes my time here go by faster.” They didn’t ever remotely sound similar, and the breathlessness in my voice probably didn’t help either. Instead of commenting, she simply smiled in a way that gave up nothing, lifting both sides of her mouth briefly. I turned away to gain some sort of composure then looked back deciding to pick up the last string of the conversation. “I don’t feel so scared anymore, but I don’t feel too comfortable either. I see where I could be, and I bet some of them see where they used to be. I don’t know if I could take seeing that for hours four times a week. I don’t know if they can.”

I tried to keep the distress out of my voice, but she found it. Her hand moved across the table to take mine. I contained a sigh as the warmth stole over me like a sophisticated thief.

Her eyes shone with understanding and conviction. “No, I don’t think all of us thinks like that. If that was the case, we would have taken out Jan and the others a long time ago.” Her sudden smile put the punctuation in the joke. I found myself grinning back. “The thing with that is don’t bite the hand that feeds you, just give it a harmless nibble when they need it.” Within a second the smile was gone and the fire was back. “Still, if anyone touches you. Come to me, and if I’m not here go to someone who knows me. It’ll get back, and I’ll take care of it.”

My breath caught and her protectiveness caused a pleasant flutter in my stomach. Perhaps it was a product of taking care of myself all these years. I’m not sure. With one word, I questioned her. “But,”

Her larger hand squeezed mine. “No buts, Little Bit. Do this please? Promise me?”

Blue eyes implored me just as her voice begged. I found myself squeezing her hand in return. The flutter in my stomach became a flapping. “I promise.”

Her smile creased her face and made eyes twinkle. It made me feel like a kid on Christmas to have received such a gift. Then without warning the sparks were gone, and she killed them further. “Besides, it will help your cause around here if people knew that we associated with each other.” Wide shoulders shrugged. “I’m just trying to help you.”

I don’t know what look I had on my face, but I tried my best to erase it. I wanted so much to snatch my hand away, but I held fast. Her keeping my hand in her grip was a message. The fire wasn’t gone just tapered down to a simmer. Still, it irked me that she could turn it on and off, up and down like that. I had no control over it. I was a little irritated after that, and I don’t think I hid it very well. Sly was in full protector mode after that for some reason.

Her tone was inquisitive, and I watched as she scratched her nose. “You work as a housekeeper at night right?”

I nodded.

“Which one? You don’t have to tell me if you . . .”

“Claridge,” I squeezed out through gritted teeth. It almost sounded like a growl. I watched as a sable brow lifted. Still, she pushed on. “You take the jitney?”

Trying to keep my face and voice as even as possible, I said, “Can’t afford it. I walk.” Hearing the biting tone of my voice, I realized that I had failed at the voice part.

She pulled my hand closer to her and began to rub the outside of my wrist with a thumb. I looked down at the wondering digit, mesmerized. Jolts of lightening shot up my arm down to my belly. I wanted to pull away so badly and wanted to stay just as much. So wrapped up in that one act, I almost missed her head shaking back and forth. The movement of hair over her shoulders alerted me. I glanced up to see disapproving eyes.

“You shouldn’t be doing that alone. This city has really gotten dangerous over the past year. If you want, I can walk you to work and stuff?” Her question was hesitant, almost tentative. Blue eyes had lowered and were hidden by long lashes and bangs.

My attention was caught again by the wandering finger. So distracted was I that my irritation was momentarily forgotten. “Yes.” It came out like a breathy whisper. Our gazes locked, and I felt it. I was drowning. No, not in water, but in feeling. Oh, God! I murmured to myself. My heart hammered against my chest and breathing seemed to be a thing of the past. The longer I looked the faster I fell into the river of emotions. From far away, a new feeling entered and shot its way up my back with quiet force. Fear. Fear caused me to pull my hand away and renege on my answer. “I-I meant no. Uh, been walking for years by myself. I-I’m okay.” Her eyes bore into mine beckoning me back. I wanted to go, but some part of me didn’t. I got up instead. The expression in pale eyes was hidden again, but I could see it in the hard line of her mouth. I had disappointed her. No, I hurt her. In just a week, I had gained that power. As remorse reared its head, I ran from it and her. “Um, Sly, I need to finish here and get home.”

Without another word, I turned and made my way across the room. When I turned back, she was gone. That was two days ago. In the morning, I will more than likely see her again. I don’t know what to do or say. I turned the corner just as a small blue jitney bus careened by, causing a brush of hot wind to blow against me. I barely felt it as I looked up at the stars again for answers. They didn’t offer any, so maybe I’ll do just like them and be, letting what comes. . . come.
Chapter V: Sly’s Dilemma
I’m quite a few blocks from where I should be, in my little hole in the ground, watching over Gert. Still, I’m here on Indiana Avenue, making my way beach side to Pacific Avenue and doing something I swore that I wouldn’t do. I’m going to Abbie. I know she told me not to, and I as much told myself the same thing. But, it’s as if I’m being pulled. There I was helping old Gert get situated when her name, Abbie, popped in my head like a whisper on the wind. The only way to explain it would be to say that I was compelled to come to protect her, accompany her, or whatever you want to call it. I just wanted to be near her.

My family, being of the older generation understood, but wouldn’t let me leave without a few immunities. Gert gave me her overcoat to ward off the chill. It holds the musky smell of the unwashed, but I pulled it on anyway. It would be an affront not to. I’m not to good for that.

There’s rain in the air. I can smell it, but I hope it blows over because all kinds of neat things come to bask on the wet sand. I don’t relish waking up to a bug or crab invasion, but I digress.

The coat wasn’t the only thing they sent with me. Showing that chivalry isn’t dead, Stevie came along. I was going to run to get some exercise, but he walks along side me now. He’s silent, and I think he knows that’s what I need right now, to struggle with my thoughts. Stevie knows that I’ll talk to him if I need to.

Why am I doing this? I keep asking myself this over and over with only one answer. I don’t want her to forget me like everybody else has. It’s been two days, and she left me so flustered. I know it must have been something I did. Did I touch her too much? Look at her too long? After we met, I made a promise to myself to keep all of this straight. Just friends. It was easier said than done. My brain screams at me to stop, but the rest of me just does whatever the hell it wants. I growl in frustration, and I feel soft brown eyes studying me. I suck in a deep breath of the salty air and ignore him.

In hopes of evening out my thoughts, I glance to the side, looking at the rooming houses and apartment buildings glowing in the harsh florescent light from the street. It’s almost laughable. They all look like shit, appearing dead and bare with broken windows, boarded up doors, gutted interiors, and burned exteriors. The ones where people live are just as bad with shingles hanging off the roof and paint peeling off the wood, giving them the abandoned feeling. The streets this way have a pattern to them. It goes shitty building, shitty store, shitty restaurant, and then the gaudy glitter of a casino, in that order. Tell me again why this is a tourist’s paradise? Oh, right the money. I turn my head back to see a small, lone figure, slowly moving toward us from the other end of the street. It has to be her. Yeah, it is. I know her walk.

Part of me wants to grab Stevie and go back to where I know we belong. That part knows that I don’t belong in her world. Being with me can only bring her down, bring her ridicule. The other, smaller part pushes me forward, urging me to take part in the friendship she offers. It reminds me of the curiosity in her eyes that may influence her to want more. The indecisiveness brings me to a stand still, and the two parts go to war. I clench my fists then in a nervous gesture scratch my nose. I stand here with voices screaming in my head. No one is winning.

“Damn it!”

I feel his eyes again, and this time I return the gaze. The bright light makes his matted salt-n-pepper hair almost glow, and it highlights the deep grooves, wrinkles and dry patches on his face. Whoever said black people aren’t really affected by the sun was wrong. I see the effects on him including the dark and light splotches and peeling sections around his nose and mouth. To be short, his face is well weathered just like I’m sure his body is. Still, I don’t linger there because his eyes draw me. They are alight with patience of a grandfather. My family. Who else do I have? I reach up to scratch my nose again then my eyes wander to the sidewalk. I hear him sigh.

“Yo gon tell me why we here so late, Sly?”

I resist the urge to draw imaginary lines on the concrete with my foot. Instead, I lift a finger to point down the street before putting both hands in my pockets. “Her,” I answered quietly. I can imagine brown eyes squinting over white brows as he looks down the street, but to my surprise and sudden irritation I hear a cackle instead.

“Hee-Hee. You done let some woman git under yo skin? Thought I never see da day.”

The irritation wins, and I start to feel like a teenager. “Look, I didn’t ask you to come. . .”

Narled hands raise up in front of my face. “Whoa there. Don’t get yo head all full of steam. She one lucky lady to have someone like you lookin’ after her.”

I feel the bigger part of me winning, and I end up shaking my head. “She’s not lucky at all Stevie. Cause all I can do is look after her. It’s all I can give her. We shouldn’t be here.” I glance back toward the Boardwalk then jump in surprise as pain shoots through my upper arm. “Oww, shit!” I reach up to rub it, but not before I figure out what caused the pain. He swings again, connecting. “Owww! What did you hit me for?”

“I ain’t smart. Never have been, but I know you is. Too bad you don’t have the common sense the Good Lord gave fish. Whatchu give to us, Sly? Ask yoself dat. Why can’t that girl there have da same thang?” He points at Abbie as she made it to the corner. “I’m a man dammit. ‘Pose to take care of myself, but you take care of me. You take care of me right fine. I ain’t felt good in a long time since my Pearl died but knowin’ you gone be there make me feel right fine. Go make her feel dat too.”

His eyes hold a fire and conviction that made them sparkle in the harsh lighting. I believe him, or at least that little part of me does for the time being. I smiled the first smile that I had in two days. “Thanks Stevie. What you said. . .”

He raises both hands and fans them in a nonchalant gesture. “Git outta here before I hit ya again.”

I throw my own hands up in mock surrender. “Okay, I’m going. Are you going to be okay on your own?”

He blows out a breath then tsks. “Hell, I ain’t by myself. Paul back there.” He points to the last building before the Boardwalk. “He was gone be back up if’in you got in trouble.”

I glance back to see a figure waving at us and bite my lip to keep from laughing. They really are the sweetest old men, and I love them dearly. I reach out to give his shoulder a squeeze. Being classic Stevie, he tsks again and turns to go. I watch to make sure they make it to the Boardwalk okay then I break into a run. That smaller part whispers in my ear, pushing me into a sprint. Within a few seconds, I turn the corner on Pacific Avenue to see her a few feet down the street. I run again, feeling the overcoat flapping behind me and the wind blowing through overly worn jeans. I can’t get close to her soon enough.
Chapter VI: Chance Encounters
It feels as though I’m running at break neck speed, when it hits me. I’ll scare the shit out of her like this. Slowing down, I cup my hands around my mouth and call out, “Abbie!” She stops and jerks around suddenly, so I lift my arm and wave it in the air. “Wait up it’s Sly!” I half expect her to take off the other way, but she holds fast. As I get closer, my nose starts to itch.

**

Breath lodges in my throat when I hear my name being called. I don’t know that many people, but the voice sounds so familiar. It’s Sly. I almost choke as my breath whooshes back into my lungs. A combo of excitement and apprehension balls itself into my stomach, making it protest in waves and flutters. I can’t believe it. She’s here. All I do is think about her, and she appears running toward me like some dark-swathed figure of the night. A dark-swathed figure here to protect and be with me. Me. My insides scream in relief that she didn’t take no for an answer. Deep down, I didn’t want her to. I watch as her feet eat up the inches. She’s so close now. What do I do?

Sly stops in front of me and holds up a finger, obviously taking a second to catch her breath.

“Abbie, hey.”

Following her lead, I reply with the first thing that pops in my head. “Hey.” That’s the extent of my speech at the moment, and other senses take over. Her sable hair is mussed and falling in waves over her forehead and shoulders, and the heat from her body almost forces me to step back. Instead of doing that, I wait and watch as she scratches her nose and chin then shoves her hands into coat pockets.

Lowering her head, she husks out, “Uhm, I know you don’t want me here, but I just wanted to make sure—”

I cut her off with barely a whisper, “It’s okay.” I want to tell her that I wanted her here in the first place, but something holds me back. Still, I now know how they feel, Gert and her other friends, knowing that Sly is going to be there. Safe, relieved, and important. I think that’s what I’ve been looking for all along. Her dark head raises and our eyes meet. With the help of strong street lamps and surrounding lights, I see the shock then pleasure illuminating them, making them burn with a heat that is new to me. It is just another fire I want to step into, but I feel my throat contract on a swallow as the my sensible side emerges. “We’d better get moving. I don’t want to be late.”

“Yeah, okay.”

I step back, missing her body heat instantly, to turn and give her room beside me. Quite covers us both for a minute, but it is the comfortable kind. She is the first to break it.

“The Mission has been dull the past couple days without you. You sort of light up the place, and besides you keep Mike distracted. He’s been following me and lecturing me on the benefits of organization. I keep trying to tell him that I don’t have anything to organize.” Her voice is full of mirth and laced with exasperation.

A giggle bubbled up before I could even thing about stopping it. At least the ice is broken, and I hope this is something reserved just for me apart from the others, her charm.

She turns toward me with wide, shining eyes as we pass by Bally’s. “Oh my God! Was that a laugh or did one of the taxi’s backfire? I’m gonna see if I can do that again and make it louder this time.”

I can’t help myself, so I end up laughing again. She turns, now in front of me walking backwards with a toothy grin, making the lights around us seem brighter.

“Ah, see I knew you could do it. Besides, laughing is good for you. You’ll live longer.”

Sly is at her most beautiful when she smiles. It was one of the first things I noticed about her. Something is different this time. I react to it. Before I can stop myself, I reach out a hand and pull on the lapel of her coat. It’s a dirty one, but I can’t help myself. Maybe the heat that comes off her in comforting waves finally got to me. My other hand follows suit, and we both draw to a stand still as people mill around us. One of her own callused appendages finds its way around my wrist. Our gazes lock as I shiver from her touch. I immediately turn away, knowing she saw it , felt it. Placing her other hand under my chin, she brings my eyes back level with hers. Keeping our eyes locked, she brings my hand to her mouth and kisses the palm. I shiver again, harder this time.

“You feel it too,” she whispers loud enough only for me to hear.

The heat in her eyes and from her body sears me, making me want to fall into it and forever forget the cold loneliness of the life I live. This woman that I have known for mere days has become my life line. She has brought me back from the dead. My heart feels as though it’s ramming a whole in my chest, and I’m sure she can hear it. Still, I have no choice but to answer her based on all these feelings. “Y-yes, but I’ve never. . . I mean, I don’t know how—”

I watch as that confidence shines through in her grin. “It’s okay. I know, but I’ve got one word for you, slow. As slow as you want. I don’t know if anything will become of us, but I know right now I want to be with you as a friend, as. . . whatever.”

I nod before I make any other comment. “I don’t know how this happened. I mean, why you and why now?” I need to know if she has any answers.

“I don’t know, Abbie. All I can tell you is that when I first met you it seemed like you needed a friend. I usually only associate with the people from the Mission, but you seemed so lost. I had to help, and it wasn’t out of pity or anything. Who am I to pity you? I can only tell you that I couldn’t stay away. When you think about it, it’s like the blind leading the blind really. I introduced you to a world you probably had never seen before, and you gave me a peek into something I had almost forgotten.”

“So, you’re saying that we need each other? It almost sounds like I’m using you,” She squeezed my hand and her eyes darkened with seriousness.

“No, no, no. It’s not that way at all. It maybe a matter of need, but I think it’s more of a matter of pull. I’m so drawn to you, and I can’t even explain why.”

I feel my brow scrunch. Is that what this is? An irresistible force between us? “I think I know what you mean.”

My body moves forward, accidentally bumped by a person trying to get around us. It’s enough to get us walking again. She squeezes my hand again before letting it go, and I immediately miss the warmth. Strolling side by side again, I continue. “But, I have to be honest with you, Sly. This thing between us scares me. I mean, I’ve hardly known you for two weeks, and I want to know you. I want to know all you’re willing to share, but you’re a woman, a woman.” I say it again as if trying to make myself believe it. Confusion sets in when things seemed so clear when I was walking down Indiana Avenue. I glance over to see her picking with blunt fingernails. She looks down at me with a crooked grin.

“Yeah, I am. Thank you for seeing me as a woman first and not destitute.”

I don’t feel like I could lie to her, so I tell her up front. “I didn’t. Not at first. You helped me with that, Sly. God, I was so scared. I mean you read in the newspaper and see on the news about the homeless, about how angry and volatile some are, and I guess I just assumed that it was accurate for everyone. I think I need to thank you for that.”

Her grin turned into a full fledged smile. “It’s what friends do, and we are that aren’t we?” Her voice is tentative.

It astounds me that someone so confident could sound so vulnerable with one question. I stop and turn to her. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, and I don’t want to get mine hurt. I want so much to learn what is behind those eyes, and I don’t think I can if things are rushed. The chance of pain going that route is too much. “Yes, Sly. We are that.” For the first time, I’m the one to take her hand. “Um, is it okay if that’s all we are right now?”

I see the hurt in her eyes before she covers it under hooded lashes and too long bangs. “Should I not have said how I feel, Abbie? I mean I can’t seem to keep much inside around you.” Her speech was small and unsure.

I reach up to caress a cheek and gasp in surprise at the softness of it. She leans into my hand as it trails down to her chin. “No, Sly. I’m glad you did. In fact, I was kind of getting irritated at the way you kept pulling away from me.”

Her eyes widened in surprise. “You knew,”

I put two fingers to her lips to silence her, but the wet heat the greeted me made me jerk them away again as if I were burned.

“I’m not going to deny that there’s something between us, but there is so much against us. I don’t want anyone to end up getting hurt. I just want us to establish something a little stronger before we go any further. You know what I mean?”

She nodded in understanding. “Yeah, I think I do.”

This time she was jostled by someone behind us. The streets were teeming with older people with a few sparse showings of the twenties crowd. I take a firmer grip of her hand as we began walking again. Finally, we come up to Sands with its new art deco look. I think that’s what it’s called. The building is all askew with jutting angles and lines in dark purples and light blues. Someone’s idea of sculpture stood out in front. I guess trying to give it a classic look. All I see is a naked body and something that looks like a wine bottle. My guess is that is what a lot of tourist see when they pass by. The money they spent was pointless because most people frequent the Trump casinos anyway. One more block and we’re at the Claridge. I don’t want to leave her, and I tell her as much.

“My stop is coming up. I wish I didn’t have to work tonight. We could—”

She smiles down at me, and I forget what I was about to say. “S’ okay Abbie. I probably need to get back to Gert soon anyway.”

Remembering where I am, I slowly remove my hand from hers as we round the corner to my casino. Claridge is run by smart people because they know that frills won’t get them business. The casino on the outside doesn’t even look like one. The building looks like a tall set of offices really, with red letters at the top spelling out its name. The color is even a nondescript beige, brown color. I guide her to the employee entrance, before speaking again. People I recognize walk past us into the building, but I turn to look up at her anyway. “I wish we had more time to talk.”

She reaches out, and I know she wants to take my hand. Still, she backs away as people move past us. Unable to help myself, I reach out anyway. She smiles as our hands meet.

“Abbie, we’ll have more time tomorrow after lunch.”

I grin as lunch brings an idea. “I get my first lunch in about two hours. You could stay on the casino floor, and I could meet you. . .” Her eyes turn a little sad. “What?”

” I can’t stay here, Little Bit. They pick out people like me from a mile away. Security is trained to get rid of us, sometimes forcibly.”

Realization hits me. Looking at her, I can hardly believe her situation sometimes. It’s so easy to forget, but something tells me I shouldn’t. Simply because it’s part of who she is. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think,”

She raises her hand and waves it away. “It’s okay.” He eyes light up again. “Um, if you want, I could meet you here in the morning and walk you home?” That tentativeness was back again.

Still, the idea of seeing her again makes my heart beat a little faster. Another light bulb went off. I bite my lip as my own nervousness makes itself known. Oh, yess. “Um, sure. I would like that. I get off at 7:30.”

Sly let go of my hand with one final squeeze. “You’d better get in there. I don’t want to make you late.” She backs away slowly.

It was now or never. “Hey, Sly? Can we do this every night that I work?” Her eyes round with brightness threatening to spill out, and a flush covers sculpted cheeks. It makes me feel giddy that I can do this to her. Her reply is breathless and is said around a huge smile. “I’d like that.” She moves forward again then stops. “Um, you’d better get going. I’ll see you in the morning.” Raising a hand in a gesture of departure, Sly steps back again with the oncoming crowd at her back.

I turn to go, but still feeling eyes on me when I got the entrance door, I spin around to see her standing there looking, with the crowd magically parting around her. My breath catches in my throat. After another second or so, Sly turns to leave, and I watch as her broad back moves through the throng of people.

She is out of sight now, and I find myself compelled to glance up at the stars once again. Maybe they did send me a message because I waited and the unimaginable came to me tonight. My very own protector, my own friend.
Chapter VII: Under the Boardwalk
I run back to my little cardboard home, and the rain meets me halfway despite my earlier pleas. This time I don’t care. I let it hit me washing me clean like a baptism of sorts. I run harder. My feet pound on the wooden planks of the Boardwalk, and the smell of cooling salt air hits me in the face. With each inch I go, I feel cleaner, lighter. Tonight, I received something that has been waning in me for so long. Hope. I still don’t know if I’ll ever get out of here, out from under my one scratchy blanket physically, but mentally, thanks to Abbie I’m walking among the ranks of the visible again. She sees me. I can see it reflected in her eyes. She really sees me for who I am. Doubt still nags at me. What we have is so fragile. It can be broken, bruised or wounded with just a slight of hand, but I have hope now that with a little time we can build something stronger.

Water dripping from my bangs stings my eyes, but I continue to move. Lifting a hand to my head, I smooth my hair away from my face, letting it slick down my back and blend in with the darkness. I haven’t prayed in a long time, but tonight, I want to. I pray that God gives this to me and doesn’t take it away. Maybe my former life of arrogance was a test, and somehow, somewhere I failed. Finally, after all this time, maybe I have made up for my past, and this is my gift.

In the distance, I see the beam of flashlights from the Boardwalk cops, and I slow down. I don’t want the hassle tonight. While I see myself as a person, they see a lazy animal primed to be the butt of their jokes, teasing, and sneers. No, I don’t want the hassle. I veer off to the right and take the ramp down into the wet sand. I feel it seep into the wholes at the bottom of my shoes and cake to the leg of my pants. I know that I’ll have to get up extra early to get to the Mission for a shower and change. After a few more minutes, I see a familiar stretch of Boardwalk, and I give a wolf whistle as I get closer. A few seconds later, two heads stick out.

“Damn Sly that must be some woman.” Pauly says in a sleepy whisper.

“That she is,” I reply as I crawl under.

“Good thang I knocked some sense into her though.” Stevie remarked as he made his way back to his corner.

“Yeah, you hit me just hard enough, Stevie.” I could hear him snickering over the sound of crashing waves. I didn’t ask about Gert because I could hear her soft snore a few feet away. Adjusting my eyes to the darkness, I glance over that way to make sure nothing is amiss. With my concern alleviated, I open the cardboard door to my little room. It is damp and cold against my skin as I know the sand will be.

A cold breeze blows in off the ocean, reminding me that sometimes one blanket isn’t enough. I lay on my pallet drawn in a fetal position in hopes of reserving some body heat. It isn’t very successful. My teeth chatter, and I squeeze my eyes tight not wanting to think about the bugs and worms getting closer with each passing minute.

“Pleasant dreams,” Pauly calls out.

I almost laugh at the irony of it. It would be a miracle if I got to sleep at all. “Night guys,” I say back.

It was quiet once again except for the rain and sound of the surf. My thoughts turn back to Abbie and the softness of her skin, the sparks in her eyes, and the quirk of her grin. It’s all I have to take to bed with me, and I realize that this, right now, is part of the doubt too. I hope she never sees me like this. While she sees past it, it maybe hard to do that once she actually sees how I live first hand. Hope. Yeah, I still have it, but it’s the size of a grain of sand right now with doubt being the other grains in a handful.
Chapter VIII: A Woman’s Work
I should have biceps the size of Texas as many years as I have pushed this housekeeping cart through these hallways, but there is only a slight hint of them. Not at all like Sly. Her shoulders are wide and her body looks hard. I can only imagine how she feels. I can’t help but smile when I think of her. Barely two weeks and things have changed yet again. I’m going down an unknown path that is probably full of twists, turns, and hills before the road is clear and smooth again, but I want to travel it with her. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I stop in front of a designated door and bring my cluttered cart to a halt. I knock then let myself in a minute later and cringe at the hurricane like display. Mirrors and razors sit on the eating table covered in a white powder that I’m sure isn’t sugar. Chairs are toppled over, bloody bed sheets strewn on the floor, used, leaking condoms litter the bare mattress, and beer cans completely cover parts of the floor. I move to call security until I realize this is a V.I.P. room, and it wouldn’t make any difference. I have to shake my head and wonder how people this stupid could have so much money to spend and giving people like Sly end up like they do. It’s sacrilegious, or does money really corrupt? It’s a question I can’t answer, and one I’m sure Sly has pondered considering what she has been through.

With a sigh, I finally finish in the living area and bedroom only to almost growl in frustration at the state of the bathroom. These people make me sick. They really do. This isn’t what I wanted for myself when I came here. I settled for the first thing I could get and now I’m stuck. If I quit, it would mean no money until I get another job. I can almost see my father turning over in his grave. He told me once never to settle. We were playing softball I think at the time.

He said, “Always go after the best shot. Wait for it if you have to, but it will come.” I remember that time as if it were yesterday. Why didn’t I listen? Now, here I am cleaning up somebody else’s crap. I live like a impoverished nun, living off ramen noodles and dry cereal in my little room. I’ve settled big time. I don’t understand it. I’ve been here for four years, and I’ve done a good job. Still, each time they have passed over me for promotion like I wasn’t even here.

Feeling a strong flash of anger, I launch the toilet brush across the room. It’s when I realize that it was my fault. I never said anything, never put myself out there. I cowered meekly in a corner because I didn’t want contact with anybody. Why didn’t I see this before? I almost laugh. Yeah, it was the blind thing. It looks as though I’m even seeing myself in color now, thanks to Sly. It’s all so new these feelings of anger, eagerness, curiosity, and attraction. It’s so much to process after being numb for so long, but it’s welcome.

I turn to the mirror and look back at the woman that I am and the woman I have become. Last time I did this, a skinny haunted waif stared back at me, and I didn’t look again for a long time. This time a still skinny woman looks back, but her eyes are alive; her face has color and animation; and I even see determination in a chin I thought was too round before. She’s almost beautiful. Is this what Sly sees when she looks at me? I look down at my hands and remember the warmth of her touch. It gives me strength. I look myself in the eye once more and decide to make a promise to myself. “I won’t settle anymore.” It came out as a whisper. I try again, “I won’t settle, not anymore.” My voice sounds stronger, but I want it loud enough to seep through my hard head. This time I scream it, “I won’t settle anymore!” To punctuate it, I pick up the plunger and hurl it across the room near the toilet brush.

I jump at the sound of a voice coming from the bathroom door. I glance over to see Lola shaking her head and tsking. “Aye, aye, aye, chu white girls are something else.”

I don’t know whether it is a release of tension or what, but I start to laugh uproariously. The brown eyed blonde continues to stare.

“Did chu get into the liquor cabinet?” She asks once I calm down.

I shake my head no. Lola is the only one of the housekeepers to react to my attempt at friendship. She has a way of saying the most interesting things at the oddest moments. “Nah, I just got into myself,” I tell her as I reach for the Windex to clean the mirror.

“I still don’t know whatchu mean, but let me help. It’s almost time for second lunch.”

In no time, we are finished and make our way to the cafeteria. It bustles with activity. Employees are laughing and going from table to table in camaraderie. It strikes me that this place is really not that much different from the Mission, neither are the people. We all relish the moments to catch up with friends and have a laugh to make the day pass a little quicker. It really is a shame that people don’t see the similarities.

Lola grabs us some trays as we get in line. This is the only place where I eat a real meal. That is one highlight of the job I guess. After a couple minutes deciding over the barbecue beef or braised pork chops, we finally find seats. I dig in immediately, only looking up when I feel eyes on me. Lola looks at me strangely.

“What?” I ask.

She gives me this little cryptic smile. “Soo, who is tall, dark, and pretty?”

I feel the blood running to my face, and I know she can see it. Maybe if I play dumb. . . “Who are you talking about?”

“Oh pleeze don’t give me that. I saw you holding her hand and giving her the goo goo eyes.” She bucks her eyes in example and stares at me accusingly.

Damn! I did want to keep her to myself a little longer, but I’m not ashamed of who my friends are, regardless of their situation, and as I said before, I like Lola. She comes across as sincere. “Um, she’s a friend I met a little while ago. She was just walking me to work.”

Lola winks as if we are part of some conspiracy. “Uh-huh. Not the way chu were looking at her. I wish I had friends like that.” She pauses. “Chu know, you can talk to me. I’m not like those other busy bodies around here. They stay in their own little snotty group. Whatever chu say is between us.”

Putting a spoonful of potatoes in my mouth, I give her the once over. I can’t believe I’m sitting here talking to someone. I’ve been keeping to myself for so long that it’s hard to believe that someone is actually interested in my life. We gaze at each other in silence until she smiles and winks again. I really do like her.

“Chu know, Abbie.” She leans in toward me. “Uhm, I’ve had women friends before. So, I know how it is. Bery, bery intense. I like men too, but is something about a woman. Aye, the taste and the smell.”

I watch wide eyed as the blonde closes her eyes and quirks a secret grin. I almost bite my spoon in half before spitting it out when she reaches across the table to cover my hand with hers.

“So chu see? We can talk.” After a moment of looking at my face, Lola smirks. “Oh, don’t look at me like that. I don’t want chu. I have a boyfriend!”

I can’t help myself and start to laugh. “Lola, you’re. . .God!” I cover my eyes with my other hand and laugh harder.

After taking my hand away, I see her eyes rolling and just barely miss her saying something about, “chu white girls.” Following that weird moment, I make the decision to talk to her. I place both hands on top of the table and glance down at them, hoping to gain some insight. “Um, I’ve never been with a woman before, and there’s something about her. . .” I take the chance and look up to find her engrossed in what I’m saying. “She makes me feel things that I never have before. I could talk to her for hours. She makes me laugh, and when she’s close, it’s like all this heat just swallows me. I want to touch. . .” Suddenly embarrassed, I bring my hands to flushing cheeks.

She nods her head. “Aye, chu got it bad chica. Does she know?”

“Yeah, she told me tonight. We agreed to take it slow. God, Lola, I’ve only known her a little over a week!”

Lola shrugs her shoulders and giggles. “Don’t matter. It happens like that sometimes. Just don’t you get carried away mommie. Is good to take it slow.”

For some reason, I feel compelled to tell her everything. “It’s just that there is so much against us. I’m living and hanging on by a thread, and she’s much worse off than I am.”

Her look turns inquisitive. “Whatchu mean?”

I take a breath before I tell her. “She’s homeless, Lola.”

I close my eyes and wait for the explosion, but all I hear is her sucking in a deep breath.

“Are chu sure about this Abbie? I mean, she could be taking advantage.” Her voice is soft and reverent.

I feel my head shaking vehemently. “No, no she’s not like that. I see it in her eyes. Sly’s good for me. Don’t you see?” I move my hands emphatically. “In the short time I’ve known her, she’s already changed me. You’ve been working here for as long as I have, and I’ve barely ever spoken to you until last week. She showed me that it wasn’t okay to be closed up like that. I opened my eyes and saw you and so many other things to this point that it’s amazed me.”

She inspects me quietly then reaches over for my hand again. “I saw chu all these years. Chu looked so sad, and now the smiles. If she does this, then she is good for you chica. Just be careful. I don’t want to see sad again anytime soon.”

I bite my lip and nod.

“She is lucky to have someone so gentle and giving.” Her eyes start to twinkle. “If I didn’t have a boyfriend, I might want to try chu out.”

For the umpteenth time tonight, the laughter bubbled forth. I can’t wait until 7:30.
Chapter IX: Desperate Times
It’s not a good morning. The only bright spot is meeting Abbie. I did finally fall asleep in the wee hours of the morning, and I said a little thank you for my always accurate internal clock. I woke with bugs caught in my hair and little red bumps on my arms from what I guess were sand fleas. It was too early to wake Gert, but the hacking cough she had in her sleep was enough to cause me concern. Before I left, I implored the guys to look after her until I returned to take her to breakfast. It seemed like it took forever for me to get clean. The staff at the Mission were surprised to see me that early. Thankfully, they accommodated me. I washed my hair four times just to make sure no tiny carcasses were using it for a graveyard. I hope I don’t look too terrible because I don’t have make up to hide the circles under my eyes.

Now, I find myself running again in fear that I’ll be late. That’s really how I’ve stayed in shape all these years. I walk and run everywhere. Sometimes no matter how far it is. Right now I could be running to the most important thing in my life, so I didn’t mind the bugs or the bites. They were both necessary evils or trade offs for today. People part for me like I’m Moses at the Red Sea, but I know its because of the dirty, scraggly looking woman they don’t want to touch.

To them, I ‘m still invisible representing some imagined stink in the air or trash on the Boardwalk. It’s okay. That doesn’t even bother me this morning. Abbie sees me, and right now, she’s the only one who counts. God, I hope I’m right about her. I hope she can take on all that’s involved with being with me. Will I be someone she introduces to her other friends or will she tuck me away from their view. I don’t know. I really don’t, but I’m hoping for the best.

Last night, I wanted to reach out and touch her, hug her anything that would give me bodily contact. We’re slowly getting to the point where holding hands may not be enough for me anymore, but we’re taking it slow. I have to keep all that under wraps until Abbie tells me that she’s ready.

I pass by Sands and move to the right so that I can take the ramp down the Claridge on the next block. After a small eternity, I make my turn, and dash down toward the employee entrance. I see her before she sees me. I want to stop, take her in, and watch the sunlight playing in her hair, but my need to be close overrides it.

She finally turns. Deep green eyes light up and beatific smile spreads across her face. This is a smile I hope that is saved especially for me. Abbie has so many from an infectious, amused smirk to a shy, gentle grin. The one she is giving me now, I haven’t seen applied to anyone else. This one is mine. As I get closer, the smile seems to grow, making my heart stop and breath catch. I stop in front of her holding my breath to contain my desire to engulf her in a hug. Regardless of that, I know I have a silly grin on my face because I’m beyond happy to see her. My breath whooshes out in surprise and relief when she wraps her arms around me.

“Hey, I missed you.” She murmurs to my chest.

I clear my throat, trying to dislodge the ball of emotion there before I speak. “Missed you too.”

Abbie glances up at me with the amused smirk plastered firmly on her face. I couldn’t help myself I grin back.

“You’re all warm and solid. How do you do that?”

I purse my lips in contemplation. “The warmth comes from my own special little brand of magic, and the firmness is from running and walking everywhere.”

Blonde brows raise over amused green as she gives me a Cheshire like grin as if I’ve answered a deeper question that she had been pondering.

“Ahh, I see.” She steps back and gives me the once over. “I’m glad you’re here. Um, I usually go home to catch a nap before going to the Mission, but I can skip that if you have something in mind?” Her question is tinged with hope.

My heart flies to the fact that she wants to be seen with me. I scratch my nose in nervous thought. I want to take her somewhere as romantic as possible this early in the morning. It comes to me to use what I have.

“Abbie, have you ever seen the ocean?” She looks at me strangely. “No, I’m mean have you seen it at this hour with the sun hanging and reflecting over it. The water looks so blue. . .”

“Take me,” she interrupts and grabs my hand in preparation for my lead.

I look down at her a little shocked and elated at her enthusiasm. Her head leans a little to the side, allowing wisp of blonde to come out of place, and she looks at me through squinted eyes.

“You look so tired.” Without premise, small, soft fingers reach up and rub the smudges under my eyes.

I try to turn away, a little ashamed, but she holds me with a firm grip. “It’s nothing,” I say.

Abbie steps close again, and her presence makes me want to tell her the secret of Fort Knox. “Yes it is, Sly.” Her voice was soft but firm. “Tell me.”

I bow my head, but Abbie brings it back up. “I-I had a bad night is all. It rained, and I was so cold.” I deliberately leave out the part about the bugs, thinking it too much. Her thumb caresses my cheek again.

“You’re an unbelievable woman. What you go through and survive is amazing.” Green eyes shine with conviction and honesty.

I expected many things to come from her mouth but that was not one of them. I look at her I awe, and I have to tell her. “I think you’re pretty amazing yourself.” She blushes and gives me the shy smile.

“Come on. I want to show you my ocean.” I tug on her hand and we begin walking in comfortable silence. Finally, she breaks it.

“I can’t believe I’m not tired. Some of the rooms looked like World War III, and I didn’t think I was ever going to get done. Good thing Lola showed up and helped me.”

I felt a little interest and a lot of jealousy over this woman that Abbie spends some of her time with. Despite the little voice in my head telling me not to, I ask, “Who’s Lola?” To my surprise, she threw back her head and laughed.

“A friend I made recently at work. She is funny, great to be around, and easy to talk to.” She pauses as if deciding what to say next. “And it’s because of you that she’s my friend now.”

I look down at her with my brow scrunched in confusion.

She bites her lip then finally adds, “You’ve opened my eyes in more ways than one, Sly. I don’t want to be alone anymore.” Forest green eyes look back at me sparkling with emotion.

I suck in a breath and decide to tell her my end of things. “Neither do I Abbie.” I try to crush the doubt nagging at me, reminding me that she said nothing about meeting her friend. I smile down at her nonetheless.

After a few minutes, we turn into the arcade, leading into what I call the Pier. We duck and weave through early morning tourists until we go out the back of the arcade, and walk onto an elevated section of land protected by thick, white iron bars as railing. I watch her look over at the empty bumper cars then glance outward, and I couldn’t help but grin at her gasp.

“My God, it’s beautiful!”

Abbie grabs my hand and squeezes it almost painfully as she drags me over to the railing. Before us, the ocean stands out in all its majesty. Blue and pure, the seagulls provide a shock of white or gray as they fly over. The noises around us are wedded. The cry of babies and birds mingle with the hum of adult voices and the gentle lap of waves on the shore. The sun hangs high as if looking over creation, feeding it, and protecting it with its heat and high color that turns to bright shadow over the blue body of perfection.

I turn to look at Abbie and find her staring open mouth at beauty newly discovered. “You like it then?” I have to ask.

She shakes her head I guess in disbelief and blonde hair raises and falls with each movement. “I didn’t know it was this beautiful. I’ve never really been out here. I mean I walk by it and smell it, but I had no idea. I’ve missed so much since I’ve been here. Who knew there was such beauty here?” She glances up at me pointedly, and for some reason I know that she’s including me in the question.

It moves me deeply that someone thinks of me that way. “Sometimes, you have to look past the shell to see what’s really inside. Not everyone can be like you, Abbie.” I do love that blush. It creeps over her skin like a lover’s caress, leaving a heated mark. She bows her head, but I can see her biting her lip and grinning.

“You’re so sweet. How did you get to be that way?” Abbie asks in a quiet voice.

I answer her as honestly as I know how. “I think it’s the company, Little Bit.” There it is again, that blush, but this time she looks back out at the water instead of hanging her head.

She leans toward me and wisps of her hair find their way against the long sleeve of my shirt. I just resist the urge to smell it, but the scent of it and her make their way to my nose anyway. The scent is one I vow never to forget. Jasmine. My thoughts are pleasantly interrupted by the sound of her voice. She raises her hand and points.

“Look over there, where the sun is shining on the water?”

I crane my head to accommodate her. Then I almost jump out of my skin at the feel of moist breath so close to my ear.

“It turns that patch of ocean the color of your eyes.”

I close my eyes to concentrate on the moment then I turn to her to make sure I heard her right. “Abbie, I,”

We both turn at the sounds of raised voices.

“Hey you! Get your lazy asses out of here!”

My eyes widen to see Boardwalk cops who have probably seen me here before siphoning quarters. My first thought is to run, but it is not an option since Abbie is with me. My brain stops its poll when I hear Abbie’s voice.

“Sir, we were just,”

“Hey Luke?” The fat red haired one asks the blonde one. “Did you hear something?” They both laugh. “I didn’t ask you to speak to me. I told you to get your filthy asses away from here. Your kind ain’t allowed to hang around!” They both move closer pointing with the Billy clubs.

I do the only thing I can do and pull her behind me. Fear and shame coarse through me. I don’t want her to get hurt just for being with me. I don’t want to ruin this any further for her, so I try her tactic once again. “Look, we were just looking,”

They come closer, and fat boy’s face turns bright red. “No, you look! Just shut the fuck up!”

He then does something that no cop has ever done to me before, even when I got arrested. Fat boy pokes me in the stomach with his club. My anger is quick and searing. It is born in shame and incredulity of the situation. I hear Abbie gasp then feel her clutch on my shirt as I reach out a hand to knock his invading appendage away. Unfortunately, it is all he needs. With one swoop and Abbie’s scream, Fat boy comes down on me hard. I let out a cry of pain as he punches me in the stomach, causing it to burn and cramp in almost unbearable waves. I go down on one knee then agony explodes over the left side of my face as he swipes my cheek. With the world spinning, I look over at Luke, I think that’s what he called him, and see him watching nervously. Somewhere in the background, I hear Abbie still screaming, but the mindless sounds had formed into expletives. “What the hell is wrong with you!?” “You bastard! You stupid, fucking bastard!”

I groan at the continued pain, but I almost sigh as her arms wrap around me again. From far away, I hear voices of other people, gasping and murmuring. I look up to see fat boy hovering over me and scanning the crowd nervously. Another cop runs from the Arcade exit.

“Bobby! What the fuck are you doing?!”

So Bobby is fat boy’s name. I almost laugh at the look of fear on his face.

“Man, Chuck, she was about to attack me. Right, Luke?”

I glance over to see the blonde cop shaking his head. “Naw, man. You started this. You went too far.”

This time I do chuckle only to groan again at the severe burn in my stomach. Small, soft hands wipe the hair from my sweating face, and I look up to see green eyes over run with tears, anger and fear.

Warm lips press against my forehead. “Shhh, I’ll get you to my place and take care of you.”

The guy they called Chuck hovers over us all of a sudden, and that soft voice turns to rage. “Get away from her! Don’t you touch her!” Abbie sounds so sad, so angry. I did this to her. Being with me did this. They could have gotten through me, and hurt her something awful. Just the thought of it springs tears to my eyes. I can’t do this to her. She’s too good. This can’t work. My conviction grows as the pain dulls. I grab her shoulder, signaling for her to come down to my level. “Get me out of here,” I whisper.

She nods, and with more strength than I thought she possessed, she helps me to my feet. The cops give us a wide birth, and the crowd had dispersed moments earlier, not too concerned after all. Leaning heavily on her slight shoulder, we move slowly back down to Indiana Avenue. Bile rose in my throat with each step. I don’t want this to end before it starts, but I have to think about what’s best for her.

**

What little faith I had garnered in humanity over the past few weeks is sinking slowly. I never knew anyone could be so cruel, so heartless. I have never wanted to hurt anyone in my life, but for the first time I wanted to see someone else’s blood on my hands. Visions of gouging that cops eyes out flash through my head, but it’s the listless look in Sly’s that is really frightening me. She hasn’t looked at me once since the Pier, and now we sit in my little hell hole. I stand in the far right corner going through the room’s only cabinet, looking for the first aid kit I bought so long ago. Out the corner of my eye, I see her sitting on the edge of the bed, pushing shaking hands through her hair. Still, she won’t look at me. My stomach sinks. I have such a bad feeling about this.

I don’t remember ever being so scared as I was when I saw her go down. I thought they were surely going to pounce on her while that sick, voyeuristic crowd watched and did nothing. I was so wrong about the them and us thing. There is a line in between separating the innocence that they have returned to, to the insanity that we live in.

I dried my tears long minutes ago because I wondered how she would take seeing them. Now, I walk slowly towards her and kneel down between her open legs. “Sly, you have to look up.” She blows out a pained breath and raises her head. I almost groan in frustration at her closed eyes. Instead of commenting, I raise a gauze pad dabbed in alcohol to her face, cleaning the tracks of dried tears. Her body tenses and shakes, but I move on.

I trail the gauze over to the small cut on her cheek. “This is gonna hurt, Sly. Hold on to me if you have to.”

I try to swallow the pain as she clutches her fist tightly instead. Grazing the cut, I hold my breath as she jumps. I clean it as best I could before applying some ointment and a band-aid. Sitting up on my haunches a little bit, I reach up to run a hand through her hair and almost smile at the shiver of reaction. In a bold move, I sit up even more and lean in to kiss her forehead. As if she gets a whiff of what I am doing, Sly rears back. I am determined though, so I wrap an arm around her neck to bring her back toward me. With a small kiss to her sweaty forehead, I whisper, “All done.”

Her eyes open but they avert mine. She looks around the room instead.

“I don’t have much. The furniture you see was already here.” I follow her eyes around to the small cabinet/chest I just came from. The stripped piece has cracks, chunks missing, and lacked lacquer. We move to the green threadbare carpet with the wooden floor clearly showing through in places, then, to the small eating table, broken on one side.

“Told you. I don’t have much, but,”

“You have more than I’ll probably ever have again.” Her voice was husky and deep.

It angers me to hear the hopelessness in her voice. “Don’t say,”

She rears up, almost knocking me to the floor. “How can you look at me and see a future? You could have gotten hurt today just because you were with me.”

Her eyes finally meet mine. They are wild with pain and listlessness.

“Because of me, Abbie. Me!” Violently shaking hands find their way through sable hair once again. “I was right at the beginning. I should have stayed away from you!” She points at me accusingly.

My anger grows at the lack of faith she has in me, in us, in herself. “But you couldn’t. Could you?! Neither could I. Don’t you see? I’m ready to take on everything I have to in order to be with you.” I walk up to her and poke her in the chest much like the cop was doing. “You make me happy, Sly. You do! I don’t care where you live. All I care about is that you’re here with me.”

She stares at me through disbelieving eyes, and the problem hits me like a ton of bricks. “You think that I’m ashamed of you? Don’t you?” When she doesn’t answer, I poke harder. “Answer me!?” My voice is loud and pleading, but I am beyond caring. “Will it disappoint you to know that I’m not?! I told Lola about you, and I would gladly tell all my friends if I had anymore!”

Her eyes are wide and shocked. “I-I,” Her lips form a thin line. “You still shouldn’t be with me. I can’t give you anything.”

I throw my hands in the air, feeling my patience wane. “You don’t get it do you? All I want is you. You’re the most kind, giving, loving person I have ever met besides my mother. You have so much to give!” All of a sudden, a two thousand watt light bulb goes on in my head. It should have blinded me with its brilliance. I walk up to her until we are face to face. “I know what it is, Sly. You’re ashamed of yourself. You’re ashamed of what you don’t have, what you can’t give, and you figure everyone else feels it too. Well, I got news for you. I..am not. . going. . anywhere!”

I take in much needed breath, and I almost miss Sly’s sob. Her eyes find their way to the ground again, and I lift her chin in order to see them. “Sly, talk to me.”

She opens her mouth, and another sob comes out. Her head begins to shake from side to side, whipping black hair across her face. “I can’t!” Jerking away from me, she spins and makes it to the door. With her hand on the knob, Sly murmurs, “I’m sorry.” Then she is out the door, leaving me dumbfounded.

After a few minutes, I find my way to the edge of the bed that she had abandoned, and I sit down heavily. New doubts flower in the back of my mind. Am I wrong? I make fists and squeeze my fingers until they throb. I know that I am right. I push the doubt back where it belonged, way down to a portion of my mind that isn’t used. My own conviction grows. I believe what I told her. I’m not going anywhere. With new insight, I get dressed for the Mission in hopes of seeing her there.

****

I walk into the now familiar non-descript building. I see Mike in the hall talking with someone. Instead of interrupting, I wave cheerily at him. He gives me a confused smile, almost as if he can’t believe my attitude. On my way to the cafeteria, I see the housewife and one of her kids that I met. She smiles at me, and I reply in kind.

“Hi, Sylvia.” I reach down to pinch the nose of her smallest daughter Peta before saying, “Did you get those books you needed?”

Her dusty, brown head nods. “Oh yeah, Sly always comes through. She even volunteered to teach Peta how to read.”

“Sly is something isn’t she?”

“Yeah, she is. Don’t know what most of us would do without her around.”

“Oh, I think that she’ll always be there for you guys.” The need to see her, touch her, and talk to her, nags at me. “Speaking of which, have you seen her this morning yet?”

“Oh, yeah. It was strange too. Instead of staying, she got her and Gert a bag breakfast and lunch, so I imagine that they’ll be around for dinner.”

“Mmm, okay. Well, thanks. I guess I’ll see you later.” She and Peta wave goodbye as they make their way further down the hall.

Smart move, Sly. Come back when you know that I’m not going to be here. I sigh as I walk into the cafeteria and grab an apron. I guess this is one of those hills that we have to get over to get to the open road, and I’m still willing to travel it no matter how bumpy it gets.
Chapter X: Family Problems
The past few days have gone by in a blur, a painful, mind-numbing blur. I splash water on my face from the bathroom sink and scream, “Someone’s in here!” as the obviously broken door threatens to swing open with a creak. I hear an apologetic mumble and all is quiet again. . .except for the sound of running water, announcement of pages for doctors, and ringing phones.

Today, is by far the worst that I’ve had to suffer through since I ran away from Abbie. Yeah, I can say it. I ran away like the idiotic coward that I am. I shake my head, knowing that now is not the time to think about her, long for her, want her. No, now is not the time. My family is in trouble. Gert’s cough got progressively worse over the last few of days. It’s so bad that she won’t eat now. Because she was too weak to go anywhere, the three of us, Stevie, Pauly, and myself haven’t really gone anywhere either. The furthest I’ve been is to the Mission to get food, but as Gertie’s condition worsened, I sent Pauly out for it.

They’re sitting in the waiting room while I hide in here. Gert begged me not to bring her here because of the last time. Last time, the security guard evicted her from the ER waiting room despite her attempts to tell him that she was a patient. She had cried in pain and had a limp for days on the sprained ankle, but this time it’s serious. We all had to brave the stares from “normal” people, and the sneers from the clerk. It was a small price to pay.

The three of us watched as Gert’s body shook with fever, and as she continued to cough so hard that breathing became a thing of the past. In a word, I’m terrified. I’ve never seen her like this. Never. I close my eyes, and I see her, Abbie, touching me and leaning in to kissing my forehead. She had made all the pain of the police attack go away in that instant with a smile, a touch, a kiss. I wish I had that right now, one of her grins or that smile meant only for me just to make it better, even only for a little while. Can I have that? Am I allowed? Did I just make the biggest mistake of my life by running?

These are questions I’ve asked myself over and over again the last few days. I also hear her words scalding me, lifting me, and opening me because I know she is right. I am ashamed. I used to think that I wasn’t that I had come to terms with the circumstances of my life, but when she whispered those words, I knew I had been lying to myself. I’ve been going through the last few years never letting myself be happy, never letting anybody extremely close. I’ve only been giving my family what they needed of me, protection and someone to listen. It is only a little part of me. Until her.

Being happy scares me. I was before now look where I am. For a brief moment, I saw the possibility of happiness with her, and it scared me shitless. If I allow this, how much further will I fall? I’m already destitute. What’s next? Death? Is she worth it? Taking this chance? I know the answer, but it’s just hard to face. All I can admit to right now is that I want her here.

I push down on the handle of the paper machine and brown paper towel comes out, so I dry my hands. I need to get back out there because they need me. Why? I don’t know. Despite what Stevie said, I haven’t been giving them much of anything. That’s what I think anyway. Yeah, I’m ashamed. I can’t buy Abbie anything, can’t take her anywhere, and I can’t give her the best like she deserves. Even more, I should be taking care of Gert, Stevie, and Paulie by providing them with proper shelter and buying the right food and medicines. Damn right I’m ashamed. I can do nothing but wait with them as I have done most of the night.

I throw the crumpled paper toward the trash can, but I miss. It doesn’t matter. There’s a lot more on the floor along with some toilet paper. I wouldn’t want to leave a glaring clean spot.

I make my way out but see Stevie gone. Both Gert and Pauly are slumped in the pastel green chairs, sleeping. The TV mumbles in Spanish, and about five or six other people glared at as if they understood, after several hours of waiting. Assuming it’s safe, I turn to get a drink of tepid water from the nearby fountain, but I jump at the sound of Pauly’s yelp.

“Hey there! Whatcha poking me for?!”

I glance to see a tall, lean faced security guard at the end of the black stick, and immediately think, ‘Oh God, this can’t be happening. Not now.’

He sneers and yells, “This isn’t a hotel, so get your filthy ass up!”

The guard moves toward Gert, and I make a bee line for them, hoping I can reason with someone who doesn’t want to listen. I know we make a sight with our tattered, dirty clothes and aromatic smells, making us stick out like a sore thumb, and this man picked us out as vagrants right away.

Slim taps Gert on the shoulder and shakes her when she doesn’t respond. I see her start then almost right away the coughing starts. I feel anger rise in me sudden and deadly and see differing shades of red before my eyes similar to the pinking sky outside. Why can’t they leave us alone? I know this is an oxymoron since all we want is to be seen, but I truly believe that what they get is partial sight, seeing only what the media has molded us into, rapid, roaming, begging animals. We’re people. We belong.

My hands ball into fists, and I feel my blood boil with anger like it belongs there. Still, through it all, I approach slowly, cautiously because I know that pummeling him to death will only make matters worse. Gert is sick, so I put my distaste and distrust aside for her sake. “Sir?” He looks at me with eyes full of contempt. “We’re here to see the doctor. Been. . .”

“Yeah, right. Heard that one before.”

I take a deep breath. “Look, why don’t you just ask the clerk?” Slim steps closer to me. I can see the lines around his eyes and mouth and smell the odor of his breath.

“‘Cause I know. Now, get out of here before I call for back up.”

Stinky holds up his radio with malicious intent. I’m at a crossroads. I don’t take shit, usually, not from anybody. That part of me wants to beat the blue off his shirt, but Gert needs me to be strong, responsible. So, I do the adult thing. “Yes, sir.” I motion for Pauly to help with Gert, but out the corner of my eye, I see Stevie shuffling from the men’s room.

“We gone see the doc now?”

“No, Stevie. We’re gonna leave.”

His craggy face is indignant. “Hold it there a minute, Sly. Gertie’s sick, and she be needin’. . .

“Now, Stevie!” I don’t mean to yell, but we need to get away so that I can think. There has to be a way. “Please?” I ask quietly. I don’t know what my facial expression is, but apparently it’s enough for him. He nods and follows behind us.

Once outside, Gert is bent over with coughs that sound deep and wet. She calls out my name in between them. “Sly?” Her voice is wispy and hoarse.

I bend down to her level and rub her back. “Right here, Gertie.”

“I need a doc. . .”

The coughing fits start again, and sheer terror creeps up my spine. I know that she’s really sick. Before, she didn’t want to go at all. I glance up at Pauly and Stevie with wide eyes. Their expressions must mirror my own,pale and shocked. Pauly is the first to speak.

“What we gonna do, Sly?”

I look up into his sunburned face crowned by matted, dirty blonde-gray hair and meet blue eyes. So much responsibility. I can feel it weighing on my shoulders, pushing me down, and there’s nothing I can do. “Let’s get to the Boardwalk and sit down. I need to think.” I peer at both men, hoping my next words will be convincing. “I’ll think of something. It’ll be all right.”

Once we get to Pacific Avenue, we have to practically carry Gert onto the Boardwalk. We lay her down on one bench, and Pauly and Stevie stand by me, waiting for me to find all the answers. I sit down and turn away from them, keeping them from seeing the indecision on my face.

The rising sun turns the pale blue sky into fire right before my eyes. It’s amazing that God allows us to see such beauty when ugliness goes on all around us. The irony of it astounds me. I ignore the sound of the guys murmured voices behind me in an effort to concentrate, but I almost laugh out loud at the sudden image that permeates my mind, Abbie.

It’s instantaneous. My body speaks her name, and I fill with a gamut of emotions. Closing my eyes, I finally admit that she’s worth it. Abbie’s more than worth it.. Immediately, I recall the feel of her touch, the timbre of her voice, and the smell of her. All aspects of Abbie fill my senses. It is then that I know that she is the key to everything: my sanity, my hope, my happiness, and my survival. I looked in her eyes days ago and saw the truth. She meant every word she said, “I’m ready to take on everything I have to in order to be with you.” In the face of one of my greatest humiliations, she offered herself to me. I am ashamed as I said before, but I am more so of my previous actions.

God is giving me beauty in the face of the ugliness that is my life, and in the biggest irony of all, I let pride and humiliation make me turn it away. I continue to peer into the sun as it rises higher and closer to its rightful place in the sky. It’s a new day and time for new perceptions, second chances, and renewed hope. How do I get all of this from a sunrise? Because that grain of hope that had been given to me somehow got bigger when I wasn’t looking. It’s time to face my fears, defeat them, and accept the beauty in my life. It’s time for, “Abbie.” I whisper her name and close my eyes. She IS the key. I turn to Pauly an Stevie with a slight smile on my face. “I have an idea.”

I give them both the once over, knowing that Pauly is younger and faster. “Pauly, my man, I need you to get to Indiana Avenue as fast as you can. It’s only a couple of blocks away.” I tell him about the colorful building and what bell to ring, but the confusion in his face is evident. “What?”

“Don’t understand, Sly. You want me to go visiting?”

I shake my head, “No, Pauly. You’re gonna get help. There’s a woman I know that lives there, and I think she’ll help if she can.” I glance at the sun again. Please let her be home. Not glancing back, I add, “Tell her what’s happened and that I need her. Her name’s Abbie.” I can feel Stevie’s eyes bore into my back.

“Don’tcha wan me to go too, Sly?”

“Nah, I need someone to help me with Gert. I would go myself, but if something happens, I’m stronger and can get her back to the hospital faster.”

The Boardwalk is mostly bare this morning except for a few bike riders. I could hear Pauly as he walked away.

“Sly?” Stevie’s voice is hesitant, wary.

“You reckon that lady yours gonna help?”

After what I did to her the other day, I’d doubt it if it was anybody else. This is Abbie. My Abbie, and despite the short time we’ve known each other I know her and see the generosity and gentleness underneath. “Yeah, Stevie. If she’s home, she will.”
Chapter XI: Inside Abbie
Tossing and turning has been the norm for me for the past few days. Last night and this morning is not any different. It is a good thing that I have today and tomorrow off because I don’t think I could make it through anyway. Lola asked me what was wrong, but what could I say? I saw Sly beaten by the police and now, she won’t talk to me? Won’t see me?

“I can’t! I can hear her scream it just as clear as day, and it still tears me up. Sly is so sweet and confident one minute, and the next, she has the vulnerability of a child. I saw it in her eyes when we were at the Pier and as she sat on my bed. I have replayed that morning back and forth in my head. I told her I wanted to take it slow that I wasn’t ready, but when I saw her walking toward me with the rising sun at her back, something clicked. All the pieces fit. We fit, and I wanted to grab hold of that knowledge with both hands. So, I did.

I wanted so much to go after her, but somehow I know that she didn’t want me to see, not yet how and where she lived. So, patience has been my best friend as of late. She kept me from exploding each time I missed Sly at the Mission. She kept me from crying, and she kept me in hope. Sometimes, patience is a good friend to have, but sometimes loneliness is a bigger foe. It’s an enemy I don’t want anymore. Sly is my protection against it.

I ache to see her. There’s a cramping in my stomach, and I feel. . .hollow inside. I don’t know how else to describe it. How can I feel so much? Maybe it’s overflow from the feelings I’ve blocked all these years. I almost smile because I know that I’m lying to myself. It’s her and her alone. In front of me is what I’ve hungered for and what I saw in my parents—the bond and the intensity. Could I know already that it’s meant to be between us? I don’t know.

All I know right now is that there is so much to get past, so very much. On the one hand, I want to reach out to her, but on the other, I want to smack her in the head just to make her see her own worth. Despite what she has been through, Sly has remained a whole woman, and she has used that knowledge to benefit the people around her, myself included. She thinks that she has nothing to offer. I can almost scoff at that, because when she turns the intensity of pale blue eyes on me I see a future, survival, hope, and a great capacity for love

I push the thread bare blankets off my shoulders and sit up to open the nearby window wider, hoping the cool breeze off the ocean is enough to battle the ever growing early morning heat. I turn over flat on my back and stare up at the lumpy ceiling. Maybe I should be asking myself what I can give her. Searching the room with my eyes, I then look down at my own reclining form. Nothing, but myself. Is that enough for her? Because I’ve always considered it the greatest gift of all. It’s “everything.”

This “everything” is what I have feared most all this time. Now, I am ready to hand it over. It’s what I have been holding out for, I think, a real chance to feel, to give, and to be. I watched my mother do it everyday, and she never lost herself. Although, I’m not afraid of losing myself in her. I’m afraid of losing myself in the pain if all is lost. Rolling over on my side, I find myself in a fetal position. Would the pain be greater if I decided not to travel the bumpy road with Sly? The ache inside resonates and starts to grow. Yeah, I think it would because I know what it is to see color, to have gentleness, to be protected, and to be cherished again. I can’t go back. I can’t. Somehow, I have to find a way to push through Sly’s pride and self-pity to show her the woman underneath.

With this admission, my resolve to follow this to where it leads is strengthened. My body that was wound so tightly before relaxes muscle by muscle, and finally, I can feel sleep claim me.

I nearly jump out of the bed in fright at the sound of a loud buzzer. My frantic eyes look around the room for its source, and I let out a little yelp at the second sounding of the cacophonous noise. Then it hits me, the doorbell. I have never heard it before inside this room anyway. Shock galvanizes me into action. Who on earth would be coming to see me this early in the morning? Who would be coming to see me at all? One word spills from my lips, “Sly.”

My heart flutters against my chest as I search for shorts or pants to pull over my panties. I stop, wishing I had a mirror to fix my hair. Settling, I push quick hands through it and am suddenly grateful for the shortness of it. Glancing down at my t-shirt, in an effort to make sure it is presentable, the infernal bell rings again, so I pull on cheap sandals, grab my keys and make my way out the door to meet whatever lay beyond.

I look through the downstairs door at a scruffy blonde man that seems vaguely familiar. I’ve seen him before with Sly. I snatch the door open and the first words out of my mouth are, “Is she okay?” He peers back at me, confused and a little winded. “Sly, is she hurt? You’re a friend of hers right?”

“Yeah, ma’am, I am. You must be Abbie. She sent me to get you cause we got some trouble.” He steps back a little and looks down at his shuffling feet. I can tell he’s distressed just by the blank look on his face.

“I’m sorry. Come on in.”

I lead him to take a seat on the wide expanse of carpeted steps. Please let her be okay. I turn to him and watch covertly as he wrings his hands and scans everything with watchful eyes. I have the feeling that I’d better start this. The man looks as though he’s about to come out of his skin.”Uh, yeah I’m Abbie, and you are?”

He jumps as if startled, “Oh sorry. I’m Pauly.” Pauly sticks out a grime covered hand for me to shake. Without hesitation, I do so, and he looks at me as if surprised that I did so. The act prompts me to smile. “You wanna tell me what’s wrong?”

Pauly almost snatches his hand back and looks away. “It’s Gertie. She’s real sick, and they won’t let us stay at the hospital.”

I could feel a frown tugging at my lips. That doesn’t make any sense to me. Why wouldn’t they take in an obviously sick person? Then as if my mind is linked to Sly’s I hear her saying, “Security guards are paid to pick out and kick out people like me, sometimes forcefully.” Inside, I rage and feel the blood rush to my face.

Who gives us the right to say some people are better? Who gives us the right to be cruel? Who gives us the right to remain apathetic? I don’t want to believe that we do it to ourselves, but I know it’s the sick, sad truth. I suddenly understand why some people separate themselves from society and form their own culture. Anything has got to be better than this. I glance back at Pauly to see him staring at me with a mixture of understanding and apprehension. “And you need me to see if I can get her in?”

Pauly nodded, “Yeah, I think that’s her plan. Not sure though, she just wanted me to bring you to her.”

Clenching my jaw to keep down negative emotions, I stand. “Let me go put on decent clothes, and I’ll be right down. You stay here, and if anybody bothers you just tell them your with me. If that doesn’t work, get up to 3B as fast as you can, and I’ll take care of the rest.”

He nodded, but the look of surprise returned. That I could understand since most people probably treats him like crap. I feel a protectiveness toward the craggy faced man. He looks as though once he used to be a tall, strong, burly man, but time, lack of food, and/or sickness has eaten that away leaving an overly lean body and sunken eyes. I see right away that he’s a lost soul, which is something I can certainly relate to. As I make my way back upstairs, I begin to wonder if Sly collects them then saves them. She certainly did that for me.

For an older man, Pauly moves rather quickly. We made it to Michigan Avenue on the Boardwalk in no time. As we walk up the ramp, I see her and my breath catches. It seems like ages, and I stop to drink it all in. Sable hair blows in the slight wind as though each strand was little pieces of night that the sun couldn’t get through. I see her sitting there with her back to me, but I can see so much.

Her body is slumped onto the bench denoting tiredness or lack of hope. I pray that it isn’t the latter. I don’t know if she senses me or what, but I would like to think that she does because she turns around. Her hair is in wild disarray, and her clothes look rumpled. None of that matters. Not now. Not ever. The breath rattles back into my chest then leaves again in a gigantic whoosh as silver blue bore through me like iced fire. Still, somehow the ice warms me from the inside out, and I move toward the warmth.

As I get closer, I see so much in the pale blue including tiredness, thankfulness, and misery. She is a tortured soul herself, and I mean to save her in return. The people milling about the Boardwalk disappear including her friends as I find myself standing in front of her. God, I’ve missed her. I stand in between slightly parted legs and gaze down at her. I hope she can read what’s there in my face. I am an open book. I need her, want her, and care for her, and I don’t hide that fact as I continue to hold her gaze, and I see her eyes darken. I know she has read my brand of literature and likes it.

Slowly, I bend down until I am almost on my knees, and she leans forward while opening her legs wider. The heat of her body threatens to burn me, consume me. I want it to. Before I can even think about stopping myself, I raise a hand toward her face. Fingertips brush against the smudges under her eyes. “So tired, so much pain,” I whisper. Her eyes close, and when they open again they are dark with unfathomable emotion. “Talk to me.”

A pink tongue slid out, moistening her full lips. “I’m sorry. So, sorry.” Her voice is small, scratchy. Two simple words made my heart drop. Her eyes start to water, and my heart jumps from my stomach to my throat as she brings my hand up to be caressed by warm lips.

I swallow before I speak, “Sly, I,”

“Say it again,” she says in that husky timbre of hers. My body responds in a shiver, “Um, say what?”

She turns her head to kiss my palm again before answering, “My name. Say it again. I’ve missed it. I need it and you.”

Heat bursts inside me at the admission. What does this woman do to me? With a few words and a look, she can rock me to the core. I give in to her request. “Sly, I missed you.” My own voice has acquired a breathless quality in this exchange.

Sly’s eyes close again as if savoring my words. When she opens them, “Please forgive me. I was scared, and I still am.”

I nod at her and give her a ghost of a smile, “I know. I am too, but we’re stronger together.”

She peers back at me in astonishment, “Is it that easy with you?”

Shaking my head, I reply, “No, not usually. I think it depends on who’s doing the asking.” I grin at the sudden feel of callused fingers brushing my cheek.

“Do you know how amazing you are?”

I feel the blush deep in my spine, and it works its way up my neck to my face. She traces the heat, making the crimson deeper with her touch, but I can’t tear my eyes away. “No, I’m not. It’s you that brings out this side of me. Didn’t even know it was there.”

Sly chuckles, and it sounds rusty as if she hasn’t done it in days. “Well, lucky for me then, Little Bit, very lucky for me.” Her head cocks to the side, and she gently pushes a stray hair behind my ear. “You know it feels like forever since I’ve seen you. I don’t want to let that happen again.”

I want to close my eyes and revel in her touch. It would be so easy. “Me either. Let’s just try to talk to each other from now on not matter what.”

Sly’s nod is almost imperceptible, but it’s the sparkle in her eyes that gives me my response even before she speaks it. “I’ll try, but I’m not used to that. You’re gonna have to help me. Give me a kick in the pants every once in a while.”

This time my smile is full, and Sly returns it with a brilliant one of her own. “I think I can do that.”

Just like that things have shifted between us again. I know for the better. I’ve led a lonely existence, but nothing has been lonelier than the past few days without Sly. In the span of minutes, she is back in my life. We are wrenched back into the world around us by the horrendous sound of wet hacking. I can hear the mews come from Gert as she tries to sit up. Fear colors pale blue to silver as she moves her protective arms to someone else. Sly glances at me in apology, but with an indulgent look, I let her know that we’ll talk later.

From somewhere beside me, I see two other sets of hands beside me trying to calm the older woman. In the excitement of seeing Sly again, I have almost forgotten why I was here, to help. I finally hear the gulls, the other people around, and feel the sun on my face after being in the world Sly and I created. It only takes seconds to recover, and I add my hands in the fray. Someone needs to take over here.

If they got kicked out before, the ER personnel will know Sly. They asked for my help, and I’m going to give them as much as I can. Looking at the woman, it is obvious that she’s sick. Her face is gaunt, almost gray, her skin is scorching, and she seems to be shivering. I suddenly want to take down the son of a bitch who had the audacity to do this to them, but calmer heads prevail. “How long ago did you guys leave the ER?” I try to keep the tight anger out of my voice. With relieved eyes, Sly looks over at me, while she pats Gert on the back. I can see the responsibility has been laying heavily on her. It’s time for me to take some of it.

“About thirty minutes, maybe more.” More pain shined in her eyes as if she is reliving the ER ordeal.

I sit down on the bench then scoot closer to her, hopefully giving contact that will help. “When you registered were there other people ahead of you?”

She nods, “Yeah, about six or so. They were all in the waiting room.”

I sigh in relief. “Good, we have a chance to go back without taking the time to re-register. I’ll talk to the clerk, and do what I can with the security guards.” God, I didn’t know I had this in me, to take over and put someone else’s problems on my shoulders. I think it’s just another thing I learned from Sly. “We need to get back as soon as possible. Can Gert walk?” Deciding it was disrespectful to talk about the old woman like she wasn’t there, I leaned forward and whispered her name, “Ms. Gertie? Are you okay to walk?”

She coughs a couple more times before speaking, “I-I think so. You gonna help me see the doc?” Her voice is dry and wispy.

I smile at her winningly, “Yep, I am.”

She gives me a warbly smile back. “Bless you. Gonna tell my stock broker about you. Have him put some money away.”

I look at her blankly then I turn to Sly at the sound of her chuckle. She smiles and winks at me, letting me know to play along. “Um, can you get him to hook me up with a few shares of Disney?”

I hear cackles come from above me. I glance up to see Stevie and Pauly grinning down at me. Apparently, I’ve passed some kind of test. Finally, Gert speaks again, “You’re a smart one. Can we go see the doc now? I think I can walk okay. Plus, I got Sly to lean on, and she’s a big girl.”

It’s my turn at laughter. “Yes, she is.” I tapped Sly on the back. “Let’s get going.”

As we make our way from Pacific onto Atlantic avenue, the warm vibes that I get from Sly’s friends let me know that they have let me into their circle. It’s nice to be a part of a family again, and I will do what I can to keep it whole.
Chapter XII: Confrontations and Healing
They like her, but I knew they would. She gives more in her smile and a touch than most people are able to give to a charity. She forgave me. Did I know she would? I was hoping. Hope is a strange word and a fickle emotion. A little bit goes a long way and a lot of it can move mountains they say. I can’t wait to see what I can do with Abbie back in my life. She gives me hope. It sounds like I’m dependent on her. I am in a way, but I’m okay with that because I’ve never depended on anybody for anything. It’s a heady feeling knowing that someone will be there for you no matter how you fuck up. I am a living witness to that. I have to agree with my earlier statement. I’m lucky, damned lucky, and I hope my luck never runs out. Hope. I might as well add it to my permanent vocabulary. I think it’s going to stay.

It felt so good to touch her, to feel her breathe on me, to look in her eyes, and to see my smile the one that’s only for me. I know that we have a lot to talk about. I’m looking forward to that actually, but I want to make sure Gertie is taken care of first. I am privileged to be able to do that, rich even. As far as I’m concerned, we all are Pauly, Stevie, Gert and me. Abbie held my hand all the way there as I helped Gert along, and she got more than one chuckle from Stevie and Pauly along the way. Hearing their laughter and feeling her touch, I could almost forget my troubles, my fears, but Gert’s hacking cough served as a reminder.

We’re back at the hospital now, sitting in the hard blue seats in the triage area. Stevie and Pauly are tending to Gert for the time being. I stare at Abbie’s back, waiting and hoping. She waits patiently for the clerk to get off the phone, and I see her eyes cut left and right, probably looking for security. I continue to watch as she stands there with small hands clenching and unclenching in what I can only guess is anger. What happened to the little scared girl I met a few weeks ago? Did I help do this? Did I help her to realize this courageous and giving woman that stands before me now?

I suddenly feel humble that I can help bring about such changes in someone I care about. Still, it’s imperative that I admit that she has done the same for me. The old Sly wouldn’t have given over responsibility, and if she had to, I know she would have resented it big time. All I feel right now is relief that Abbie is here for me, for us and fear for Gert.

I lean forward suddenly when I see the clerk hang up the phone and whisper loud enough for my ears only, “Come on, Little Bit. You can do this. I’m with you.” I shush the guys asking them to listen. The sound of her voice, even in anger, and there is anger there makes me smile.

“Excuse me? I was wondering what your real policies were? Because I could have sworn that I read a plaque on the wall that said you take in all patients even the indigent ones,” she says.

I would love to see the look on that woman’s face. To have this little spitfire barking at her must be an experience. I smirk remembering my own expression and wonder if it’s the same.

The clerk stutters over her words, “Uh-uhm, yes ma’am that’s our policy.”

I watch in silent mirth as Abbie puts a hand on her hip, “Uh-huh then why did one of your security guards kick my friends out?” She turned back to look at us and gave a sweeping hand motion. The clerk started to talk again, still bumbling, but Abbie interrupts her. “Not finished. They even told him they were here to see a doctor. Now, I know they speak English, so are you people just illiterate or stupid?”

I can almost see the smirk on her face and the slight raising of her eyebrows.

“Ma’am we get so many. It’s hard to tell who’s being truthful.”

Abbie waves her hand in irritation. “Ah, so I see. You just assume that they’re all lying then.” Her voice is thick with disgust. “God, you people make me sick. Some of them are saner than you are.”

Oooh, that’s my girl. That one had to hurt. I look over to Stevie and Paul and they stare at me in surprise. All I can do is shrug.

“I’ll tell you what, since you are here to serve me as the patron. I’m going to do all the talking and you just listen and reply when needed. I’m tired of talking to close-minded, ignorant people. Is Gertrude Evans still on the list of patients?”

With a red face, the clerk nodded.

“Good, we’re going to be in the waiting area whenever they decide to call her name to go in the back, okay?”

She nodded again.

I feel a brow go up at the stunned look that appears on the clerks face, but I chuckle, knowing that Abbie must have given her an all out smile, meant to disarm.

She turns to us, and the smile is now triumphant. Her face is flushed, and her eyes are aglow. She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. A lump forms in my throat, but I smile through it. It warms me when she turns her smile to include the rest of the gang. Somehow her grin gets wider, and I expect her to start jumping on the balls of her feet. She claps her hands together, and declares in a confident sure voice, “Let’s go. They’re going to call her from the waiting room.”

I am the first one up, and I engulf her in a hug. She fits against me perfectly, and I just keep myself from sighing as she returns the embrace.

I whisper in her ear, wanting to get a laugh to diffuse the seriousness of the situation, “You should only use those new found powers for good, you know.” I am right on the money as she starts to giggle.

After a minute, Abbie pulls away from the hug, and walks toward Gertie. My heart clenches as she kneels and takes Gertie’s hand. “You’re going to see a doctor as soon as one is free, okay?” Her tone is not condescending, which we have become used to, but full of warmth and caring. She helps Gert to her feet, and we all follow into the waiting room a few feet away.

The TV is still on the Spanish station, but now, there are only three people staring up at it with glazed eyes. Four of us sit down, but Abbie goes up to the vending machine. I watch as she puts quarter after quarter in and bends to get the snack out. What is with me? I can’t seem to take my eyes off her. It almost as if I turn away she’ll disappear like the dream she us. Until I am one hundred percent positive that she is real and not a figment of my imagination, she will be in my sights.

Turning back toward us, her eyes zoom on mine. I know that I’ve been caught staring. I’m not ashamed, and I don’t look away. Instead, I smile saucily at her and give her a wink. The blush that follows is the darkest I’ve seen on her so far. It’s the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen, and it goes so well with the shy grin I’m getting now. Abbie strolls toward us starting at the end with Stevie, handing out peanuts, candy bars, and chips.

The three of them, Gert, Stevie, and Pauly, turn to look at me. I glance up as Abbie deposits a bag of chips and a Snickers in my hand. I mumble a thanks. Right away I know that it’s not pity. It’s just Abbie taking care of us. Without preamble, I tear into the bag of chips, since I haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday. I peer out the corner of my eye and see Pauly and Stevie doing the same. Gert has dispensed her snacks to the boys, and I feel my brow wrinkle in concern. I hope to God that she’ll be okay.

After she sits down beside me, Abbie stares at us in confusion as four sets of eyes peer back at her. She tears open a bag of peanuts with her teeth, and murmurs, “What?” through the piece of plastic in her mouth. The four of us hold up packages of junk food.

“Oh, I figured you guys have been here forever. I know this hospital, and I wanted to get something to tide us over until we can get to the Mission.” Her voice suddenly turns shy. “Uhm, is that okay?”

I nod, and the rest of them mumble a yes around full mouths. We eat in silence until I see Pauly leaning forward looking toward us. He smiles big, showing missing teeth, and I raise a brow. He waves me back to let me know that I wasn’t the one the smile was for, so I tap Abbie on the shoulder and point down to the other end. She tilts forward.

“Your something else little lady. Who new all that fire would come outta you? Remind me of my Sadie. Only she had red hair.”

I could see her smirk. “Did she get on you often?”

“Yep,” he puffs out his chest proudly, “every time I left the toilet seat up. Times I think I did things sometimes just to see her all revved up. Mmm-mm.”

Her laugh is light and airy. “She sounded like quite a woman.”

“That she was. You’re gonna have to stay on this one right here just like that.”

I see him nod his head toward me, but I pretend that I don’t as I bite into the Snickers. I glare at them both from the corners of my eyes.

“You think so. Can I handle her?” She responds with a widening smile that crinkles her nose.

“Hell yeah, you’ve turned her into a big old puppy dog. I tell ya. Just keep doing whatever you’re doing. I liked the old Sly just fine, but I like the tame one much better.”

I bristle slightly at the sound of her full laugh. Are they talking about me like I’m not here? No one’s ever done that before and said something good. This is almost. . .cute. Almost. I feel my eyebrow raise way into my bangs at the sound of Stevie’s cackle.

“We used ta call it whooped back in my day. Can’t believe I had ta smack her ta git her to see sense. You a purdy gal, and she lucky ta have ya,” Stevie adds after the cackle.

Together they laugh, loudly. I decide not to ignore it anymore, so I turn toward Stevie and the gang to give them a glare. They only laugh harder, and I even see Gert trying to wipe a smile off her face. The blush is coming because I can feel it slowly creep up from my chest to my neck. Obviously, my glare has lost its effect. I rotate my head the other way, hoping to hide the blush from the stooges. I glance down to see green eyes peering back at me with indulgent affection. I don’t dare try the glare on her. I already know that it won’t work. She continues to gaze at me with a secret smile. I find myself mesmerized by the expression, and I’m sure it shows on my face.

I start to wonder if it is my imagination or does it seem like her face is getting closer. Before I have time to blink, two perfect lips caress the heated skin of my cheek. I blink maybe once or twice before my eyes return to hers, and a bright, shy smile greets me before her face disappears in my neck. Aww, damn. I feel my heart clench, pleasurably, and I wave off the sound of more laughter behind me. I run my hand through blonde silk, and it wants to stay there. I have to will the appendage away because I have something to say. “Abbie?” I feel her sigh into my neck and want to savor it. “Abbie?”

She slowly looks up, reluctantly meeting my eyes. It’s when I see that we have matching blushes. “Um, why did,”

She bites her lip and grins, “Looked like you needed it.”

I swallow. Can she read me like that already? I guess so. “Do it anytime you want. Don’t wait till then.”

She buries her face in my neck again, and mumbles, “Okay.” I pull her into my arms despite the divider between our chairs.

The moment is interrupted by the sound of Geritie’s entire name being called. I pull away and turn around to see a nurse in green scrubs. “Gertie, it’s time to see the doc.” I tell her. She gets up with the help of Stevie and Pauly. I watch as they leave, wondering if I should have went with her. As if reading my mind, Abbie interjects, “They won’t let you go back there until a doctor’s seen her. Is she coherent enough to talk to him?”

“Yeah, she knows what hurts, and if she has trouble I’m sure she’ll make them come get me.” I ignore the voice in the back of my head asking, “Like you tried to tell that guard she was sick?”

I feel a hand squeezing mine, and it makes me smile despite the situation. “I’m glad you’re here.” I tell her.

“Nowhere else I’d want to be.”

I didn’t really expect a reply, but as far as replies go that one was a killer.

It was several long hours later that my name was called. It was only through Abbie’s patience and constant chatter that I got through the time sane. I glance up to see who I assume is the doctor. He is a rather young she. I raise my hand, and she waves me over. The breath catches in my throat, and I begin to shake on the inside in sheer trepidation. I look down at the little doctor and wait.

Her eyes are honest and they meet mine without a fault. “We need to admit her. She has pneumonia in both lungs, and at her age and situation it can be dangerous. We’re going to give her medication to help her breath, and she’ll have to do breathing treatments to clear her lungs. It may be a week or it may be a few. They’re moving her upstairs now room 413, so give it an hour or so and you can go see her, okay?”

I nod numbly.

Her expression turns ultra serious. “If it doesn’t worsen over the next day or so, she has a chance. So, were putting her in a regular room right now. I’m going to be honest with you, and tell you that if it does her chances dramatically decline. We’ll do all we can, and the rest is up to her.” I nod again and feel the tears come as I shake her hand.

As if in some dream, I feel myself pivoting and walking back toward the waiting room. Before I have the chance to get all the way in, they surround me. I think the look on my face is enough to scare them all. Hands go around me, and I hear Pauly say, “Jesus Christ!” And right behind it is Stevie’s, “Oh lawd.” Abbie is the only one who is silent. I glance down at her and see something that makes my heart slam against my chest. Hope. Faith. Belief. She is telling me what to do without saying a word, but is it enough? I have seen so many people die from less. Is it enough? I look away and let the tears come. “She has pneumonia in both lungs, so they’re keeping her here.” I say in a choked whisper.

Pauly and Stevie speak in a jumbled simultaneous fashion, and I just barely make it out. “Yeah, we can see her in about an hour, room 413.” I hear them mumble something else then return to their seats, leaving me and Abbie alone and standing there.

Soft hands touch one of mine, hesitantly, but I don’t hesitate to let her in. I grasp her hand in a strong grip, as the tears continue. Then the sobs come. I hear her whisper my name through my hysterics. “Sly, please look at me.”

I do as she commands without pause. I don’t want to hide from her anymore. She brings her other hand up to my face, wiping away tears with velvet fingertips. I say the only thing that’s in my mind right now, “She’s gonna die.”

Abbie squeezes my hand, hard. “No, you don’t know that. You have to have hope that,”

“No, I’ve seen people die from strep throat, Abbie.”

Fingertips were now caressing my cheek, ” I can only imagine what you’ve seen, Sly, but think about this. If she sees that you have given up, what will stop her from doing the same?”

My eyes widen. Her obvious logic has struck me speechless. “I-”

“If you want her to live, you have to show her that you believe it. Show her that you have faith in her.”

She is truly amazing. “It can’t be that simple, Abbie.”

She shakes her head. “I’m not saying that it is, but what does it hurt to try?”

“I don’t know, but if I build myself up, it’ll hurt more if she does die.”

“If she does, you’re not alone. You have so many people who care about you, including me, but it helps so much if you keep positive. C’mere.”

She holds out her arms, and I go in willingly. I hunch my body over to engulf her body. She could make me believe anything as long as she’s here. Faith and belief. Those are other concepts that come with being with Abbie, but I’m willing to embrace them just as I have her.
Chapter XIII: Back Inside Abbie
I have never seen grown men cry before, but I did today. I have to admit they are very different from us. Where some women wail and sob, Stevie and Pauly shed silent tears, but the impact was no less. I have to almost drag Sly into the room because she heard the sound of beeping machines before we were a few feet away. I never thought she would show her fear to me openly, but I see it plainly in her eyes. It’s tearing me apart. She is so full of conflicting emotions: proud, confident, tenderness, gentleness, and every vulnerable feeling one can name. I have seen them. Today, I think I saw them all. Earlier, with just a few words, she gave herself to me, opened for me. I guess I get to see everything now. It is a blessing and a curse because her happiness is mine and so is her pain.

She held on to me so tightly before in the waiting room, as though I were a life-line. It’s was no different as we finally walk into Gert’s room. If emotion’s weren’t high, the bones in my hand would be dust, but right now it is a pleasurable ache. The beeping of IV’s great us, and so does Gert’s raspy breathing. I glance up at Sly to see tears streaming, but she holds firm just like I knew she would. I stare down at the woman that now looks so fragile where as before in layers of clothing despite the heat, she seemed bigger.

Matted white hair is spread out over the hospital issue pillow, and the grayness of her pallor is obvious with the white sheets surrounding her. I can understand Sly’s concern, and my heart breaks with the tears, and the sight before me. Sly senses them, and I feel her arms wrap around me. Always the protector.

As if moved by some unseen force, we all end up holding hands around the bed. My right hand is in Sly’s while my left is in Stevie’s sand paper grip. I know this is my family now. I feel it. In silent agreement, we close our eyes and bow our heads to say a few words to our gods in private. I’m not really a religious person, but I have seen what belief in prayer and faith in God can do for others. Why not for me?

A little while later the young, female doctor comes in. She gives us a slight smile and says things like “oxygen tent”, “breathing treatments,” and “antibiotics.” Her words frighten us and soothes us at the same time when she throws out phrases like “good possibility” and “strong constitution.” Finally, she leaves after giving Gert the once over and telling us only a few more minutes.

We find ourselves quiet, subdued, in the elevator going down. As we reach the exit, I stop them and say quietly, “Are you guys hungry? We can run to the Mission and get food?”

Sly shakes her head and whispers, “No, just tired.” She looks it too. The rings around her eyes have gotten more prominent, and it seems to be a chore for her to walk.

Both Stevie and Pauly speak up, “We can go get bagged food and bring it back.”

“I’m tired myself,” Pauly grumbles afterward. “Just want to crawl up in my blanket and sleep through tomorrow.” Stevie nods in agreement.

I glance up at Sly. I don’t want her to leave, and I don’t think I could stand it if she does. I fear that she’ll disappear again. My eyes are pleading. I know they are. An idea comes to me, and I hope she comes along with it. “You can stay with me. They can bring us food, and you can stay. . .with me on the floor or take the bed. Just please. . .stay?”

Her eyes bore into me, and I feel like I’m drowning in deep pools of heated ocean water. I do so with a sigh. I watch as she glances toward Pauly and Stevie. They nod their heads and smile down at me. Some unspoken words just passed between them.

“You take care of this-un, tonight, Abbie.” Stevie remarks with a crooked grin.

“Yeah, we’ll be back in the morning to go do visitation.” Pauly adds.

Still, Sly has not agreed, so I try simple logic. “I can give the nurse’s station the number to the pay phone by my room and have them call if something happens?” I murmur hopefully.

She smiles at me wistfully. “I was gonna come anyway, but that’s a good idea.”

Sly peers over at her two comrades. “Bring enough for the both of us, and guys stay close to our space. I could have to come get you. . if something happens.” Her voice becomes small, and I reach around her and rub her back in comfort. I ask them to wait for me while I go call the fourth floor.

In no time, Sly and I find ourselves in front of my building. I see her wary eyes look down at me then glare up at the building. “I don’t want to get you in trouble, Abbie. What will your landlord say?”

With a wave of my hand, I blow off her concern and pull her up the stairs. “I don’t care. She’s never here anyway. I forgot what the woman looks like. It’ll be okay.” Sly nods at my tenacity and gives me a ghost of a grin.

We get upstairs, and I watch her scan the room. My bed is unmade because of my rush and a couple of cups sit out unwashed. I start to feel self-conscious. “Um, I didn’t have time to clean. I thought it was you at the door, and when I ran down. . .”

She shushes me by bringing a finger to her lips. “It’s okay, Abbie. That kind of thing doesn’t matter to me.” Her eyes become luminescent. “You matter to me.” Her fingers brush a stray strand of my hair away.

I know I’m blushing, and if she keeps saying things like that. I’m going to turn red, permanently. I feel the urge to kiss her again, but shyness assails me. So, I smile instead, and she again traces my blush with a finger.

Finally, she lets me breath again when she looks away and moves to sit in one of my little chairs. This time, Sly looks to be the shy one. “Uh, Abbie? I don’t exactly have clothes to sleep in.”

I immediately answer, “Oh, that’s okay. We can just wash the ones you have on in the basement, and I have this huge robe that would fit you. It used to be my father’s.”

Sly hold’s up a hand in protest, “No, I couldn’t take that.”

“It’s okay. You need it, and I want to give it to you.”

She turns away quickly, and I instantly go to her. I stand over her looking down over her bent head. I can’t help myself, so I start to run my hands through the ebony strands. “What is it, Sly?”

When she looks up, her eyes are closed in pleasure, causing my stomach to clench at the sight. Slowly, pale blue opens, and she speaks, “I don’t want to ask too much of you.”

Is she afraid of wearing out her welcome? That’s nonsense. I push the bangs away from her forehead. “Don’t you know? I’d do anything for you, and it’s never too much. It could only slightly payback for what you’ve done for me.”

She doesn’t say a word, but her actions do. Sly pulls me close, wrapping her arms around my waist, and in reaction, I push her head against my chest. Against my chest, she mumbles, “It’s a good thing you were home then.”

I chuckle at that, “If I’m not at work or at the Mission nowadays, I’m at home. Nowhere else to go, and nothing to do.”

“Mmm, I know the feeling.”

At the most inopportune time, my stomach decides the growl. I feel her poking it, and I end up giggling. Sly looks up at me, and we both chuckle. Then her eyes become somber. “Do you think that she’ll be okay?”

My eyes project back my understanding of her fear, “We can only hope, Sly.”

We’re eating now, stewed chicken and vegetables with rice pudding for desert. I talked to the guys for a few minutes down stairs. They reiterated how good I am for Sly, but little did they know that she has been stellar for me too.

The long day has moved into night, and after some more debate, I went down to wash Sly’s clothes. When I came back, she was sitting in that same chair in a blue terry cloth robe. I smile at her, “See, knew it would fit.” I notice her almost dry hair, falling down her back, and I look forward to the inky strands in my brush.

She grins back. “Yeah, and I hope you don’t mind. I found some towels and the bathroom. Took a shower while you were gone.”

“No, that’s okay. Whatever you need. I’m going to take one myself soon.” I glance around the room, and it hits me that there is nothing for us to do. “Um, sorry that I don’t have cable.”

She nods and takes her clothes. “It’s okay. I haven’t seen TV in ages. Um, why don’t you go ahead and take your shower. I”ll be alright. Promise.”

I look at her to make sure that she is sure. She nods toward me, and I know that she is.

After returning, wearing my customary sleepwear, shorts and t-shirt, it hits me that I do have something for us to do. I put my clothes away and tell her. “Sly, I do have some books if you want to take a stab at those.” I watch as her eyes light up.

“Really? I only have one book Catcher in the Rye, and I try to read from it as often as I can. It’s falling apart, but it’s still mine, you know?”

My smile widens as I learn that we have something in common. “I know what you mean, and I love that book. I don’t have a copy of it, but I have some other stuff you can go through.”

“That’s great. What do you read?”

Dammit! I feel the blush again. “Uhm, I have corny romance novels, a couple of Patricia Cornwell books, and about three Sandra Scoppettone novels.”

Her eyebrows lift, “You have books by her? You do know that she’s a gay writer. I haven’t read any books by her, but I know who she is.” I watch as her lips quirk. “Interesting. Anything else you want to tell me?” Her tone is full of mirth.

Feeling flustered, I say the first thing that enters my mind, “Um, I like chicken.”

Sly throws back her head to laugh, and I feel a blush for the umpteenth time today.

“I like it too. You are really something else, Abbie, and I like you, a lot.”

I let out an embarrassed chuckle. It is good to see her laugh, especially like that. It makes me feel warm inside to know I caused it. “Um, I like you too. . .a lot.” Her eyes meet mine, and we stay stuck in a gaze that shoots electricity up my spine.

Finally, Sly clears her throat and asks, “How about one of those Scoppettone books?”

“Sure, I’ll get it for you.”

She grabs my arm as I walk by. “Will you read it to me?”

I nod and pause to allow the flood of warm inside at her touch.

We both stand and glance first at each other then at the small bed. I sense her reluctance. “Uh, why don’t you take the bed, and I’ll do the floor?” I ask.

She looks at me and shakes her head. “No, you go ahead and keep your bed. I’m used to the floor anyway. Besides, my legs would hang off it. I’m way to tall for that.” She points at the bed.

“Oh, didn’t think about that. I’ll get some blankets, and make you a pallet. I have a few extra.”

I make up her a make shift pallet, and sit on my own bed sideways so I can lean against the wall. I expect her to lay down, but to my surprise, she sits up against the bed with her back to me and between my legs. I tense realizing the intimacy of the moment. As if sensing it, Sly turns my way. “Is this okay?”

After a moment of thought, “Yeah,” I reply, “It’s perfect.”

“Abbie, can I ask you something?” Her face is still turned toward me.

“Anything.”

I see the indecision on her face. “Uhm, can I sleep in the robe?”

Immediately, I know that isn’t what she wants to ask me, but I don’t push. She’ll ask when she’s ready. “Sure,” I answer in as even a voice as I could muster.

Sometime and some laughter later. We bed down for the night.

“She’s hilarious. Do you have the first three books in the Laurano series?”

“Yeah, I do, and they only get better.” I add. “Been meaning to get the others, but I don’t have the money. They don’t carry them all at the library for some reason.”

“Cause they’re stupid.”

I watch her cinch the robe belt tight then cover up. I swallow hard, knowing that she’s naked underneath. Yanked out of my reverie by her sigh, I reach to turn off the overhead light and scoot up into my still unmade bed, bringing the blankets up to my shoulders. I turn to make sure that I’m facing her as if I can see her in the dark. “Goodnight, Sly,” I mumble softly.

“G’night, Little Bit. I’m glad I stayed.”

“Me too.”

“Uhm, you sure we can hear the phone from here?”

I feel her sudden distress. “Yeah, I’m a light sleeper, but Sly, they’re not gonna call.” She’s silent, but I can hear her smile. Sometime later all I hear is her deep, even breathing.

Sleep doesn’t come to me easy, but when it finally does, the sound of soft mewing and a whisper of Gert’s name wakes me. I let my eyes adjust to the dark. Then, without a thought, I am down on the floor right beside her. I see the brightness of the light blue covered shoulder in the dark, and I cover it with my hand. Her body is tense and shaking. Immediately, I know what she needs.

Bending down, I brush her cheek with my lips, and whisper a “Shh, it will be alright,” in her ear. After a minute, the tenseness and whimpers go away, but when I try to move to return to my bed, they return tenfold. Not knowing what else to do, I slide under the covers beside her, close to her. Throwing an arm over her torso, I snuggle into her back and bury my head in silky, black hair. Her body goes limp, and the deep breathing returns. Soon after, I feel my eyes get heavy, and sleep comes. My last thought is, “Please don’t ring.”
Chapter XIV: Abbie’s Heart
It’s been three days, and thank God the hospital never called. Gert’s been getting a little better each day and has been asking me how many shares of Disney I want. I know she’s feeling better. Sly’s been staying with me for the past three nights, and they have been the happiest and most torturous in my life. She makes me laugh one minute and the next she makes me quiver with just a look, a smile, or a gentle touch. Simply, Sly throws me totally off kilter. Totally. I don’t know if that is good or bad. All I know is that it’s happening.

She reads to me and I to her. We’ve gone through one and a half Scappatone books. Her voice mesmerizes me with its throaty, deep timbre. She ended up reading mostly to me while sitting on the floor leaning between my splayed legs. That only added to the torture. Believe me.

Religiously, Sly walks me to work. I feel protected from the shadows the casino lights hide, from the twenties crowd of men, heading to the strip bars, who get a little too boisterous sometimes. Like some dark swathed hero, she hovers over me, stands beside me, refracting the dark she is so fond of and giving me a little light. It’s what I need. She’s what I need. I have no problem admitting that now. I don’t give a damn about the stares we receive. Two women holding hands has become natural to me.

Lola has been off the past couple of days. I miss her, but knowing Sly is sleeping in my room has helped the past couple of nights fly by in a pleasant haze. When I get off work and see her standing outside waiting for me with the waking sun at her back, my heart does a flip-flop. She stands there tall and defiant, wearing just about the same clothes everyday, a sweatshirt or t-shirt, well-worn jeans, and that black coat. I don’t care about that. I wash them for her, and I know who she is under it all.

I have shifted my schedule at the Mission, allowing me to come in later. Stevie and Pauly meet us at my building, and I take them up to my room to feed them some of my meagre supply of Ramen noodles and mac and cheese. I wash their clothes too. Got them as clean as I could in case security decided to hassle us again, but we’ll be ready for them this time.

I don’t care that the other tenants gawk at the sight. They act as if they haven’t seen people before. That is who they are, people, who have become like a family to me. After eating, we all walk to the hospital to spend a couple hours with Gert. I hope she gets used to seeing me. I’m going to be around a lot. By the time we usually leave the hospital, it is lunchtime, and we all make our way to the Mission. I put my apron on, and they get in line for food. When I finally get to sit down, Stevie and Pauly are gone, along with the rest of the crowd, leaving Sly and me alone. It has been our routine for the past few days.

When we get back to the apartment, if she doesn’t read till I’m asleep we talk about everything and nothing until I get too tired. I have to sleep sometime before work. Sly isn’t shy when we talk. She is as bold as they come. I think I learned that when we first met, but the notion is solidified now. With one question she has the ability to ask me who, why, and how. One conversation stands out among the rest.

“What are you doing here?” She asked me as if I was some ghost that could disappear at any moment.

I smiled cryptically and replied, “I came from nowhere to nowhere.”

Her gaze was long and intense before she whispered, “I know what you mean.”

It is when the conversation started in earnest, and I opened up like a well-worn book.

“Grew up in the Midwest-Indiana, but I already told you that. My parents died within a year of each other when I was kinda young, and my relatives didn’t want some teenager they hardly knew. So, I became a ward of the state. Foster parents meant nothing to me. It wasn’t that they were not good people. It was impossible for me to feel that way again without ripping myself to shreds when I left.”

Her larger hand slipped around mine, swallowing it, and she leaned back against my thigh allowing dark hair to brush against me like silk. It was fast becoming her favorite place and mine. Her head was pillowed against me, angled upward, and I could feel blue eyes studying me. Still, I expected to feel some twinge of pain from going down memory lane but there was hardly none, only a sadness concerning days gone by.

Flustered, but trying hard not to show it, I pushed on. “They didn’t have much, and I didn’t want to take it so I worked for everything.” Her hand squeezed mine as if apologizing for my plight. “Grades weren’t good enough to do anything with. It was by word of mouth that I ended up here, from nowhere to nowhere.”

I looked down to see her face full of sadness, and at that moment, I didn’t know who it was for. Unable to help myself, I reached down and brushed sable bangs away from her forehead, where I longed to plant a kiss. I didn’t, but I’m almost sure that my eyes told her that I wanted to because hers darkened and sparkled with secret knowledge. When she spoke again, her voice was thick, “I take it you were close?”

I nodded and smiled grimly. “Yeah, we were. Everybody took a back seat to them. My dad died suddenly from a heart attack, and I guess my mom just didn’t want to stay here without him. I couldn’t even hold her here. When he died, all the laughing, playing, and all the good times went with him. It was hard on both of us. But, after losing her, I just couldn’t invest that much feeling into anybody or anything else.” Somehow, my hands found their way through thick tresses, smoothing them and messaging her scalp at the same time. While she is not the shy one, I know that I can sometimes be, especially when emotions are involved. It hit me right there and then, making the words come out in an ungraceful squeak. “Until the mission. Until. . . you.” I felt a flush redden my face.

Open book? Yeah, it was all laid bare for her to see. In a few words, I wanted her to know she made me see again, feel again, and be again. Her eyes locked with mine, and she brought my hand to her mouth, kissing the open palm. Her mouth was moist, warm, making me shiver. Her words were simple, but her eyes—her eyes told a different story.

“I know what you mean,” she said again, huskily, but her eyes whispered, “Thank you for seeing me, understanding me, and being with me.” Cobalt orbs held all the things that weren’t easy to relate. I couldn’t look away, so I just sank in, treading deep water easily. Then, she spoke with a voice thick with emotion, “You’re lucky to have what you did and to be able to hold on to that memory. I had everything and nothing at the same time. Rich parents who gave me everything and wanted me to be their picture perfect trophy in return. They didn’t want me to feel or to act, only to do their biding. I did for a long time, and I got everything money could buy in return, including cars, clothes, and Princeton”.

“The only thing I didn’t get or hear was, “I love you, Sloane.” And that one thing seemed like everything when you’re young and not sure who your friends are. When I told them who I really was, they called me every pervert in the book. I found out real quick who my friends were, who cared about me. It wasn’t them. One of the first things out of their mouths was a conversation between them on damage control.”

Her chuckle was derisive and caused me to cringe. It was my turn to do the squeezing. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When they opened again, there was calm where there was rising storm before. “I shouldn’t let it get to me anymore, but it’s hard when your parents treat you like you’re dead. They never called or showed when I got arrested. It was all over the papers. They should have known. Part of me wanted to go to them and renounce my lifestyle to get a little piece of my dignity and the pie back. It only took me a few minutes to realize that I would completely abandon what dignity I had left if I went back. So, here I am.”

She lifted her free arm, spreading it wide in a sweeping gesture. “I still only have that little piece left. It’s the only thing I do have besides the friends I made.”

I tried to hide the disappointment in my eyes. Was I just a friend to her still or something much more? I couldn’t hide for long. I could feel her eyes boring into the top of my bent head. She whispered my name reverently like it was some sacred word only known between us. My insides melted as I looked up. The hand that wasn’t holding mine reached up to caress my cheek. I leaned into it, and this time hid behind eyelids to conceal the longing to feel the fingertips brush over my lips and neck. Part of my heart was ramming against my chest while the other part shined in my eyes.

Sly wouldn’t let me hide there either. “Little bit, look at me.” I opened my eyes again and could only guess at what was in them. I heard her gasp, and my heart pounded harder.

“What are you feeling?” She murmured, hoarsely. I gazed down into eyes that must have been as dark and glittering as my own at that moment. I opened my mouth to speak and got one of my wishes. Deft fingers traced my lower lip gently. I swallowed the whimper, but could not contain the ragged breaths. “So. . . much. I can’t think.” Like I said before, off kilter, totally so. After a few seconds of almost total quiet, Sly’s fingers traveled to my chin, caressing the rounded tip. “I know. I feel it too.”

I swallowed then watched her do it in turn. “Sly, I-”

“Shhh, do you know what you are to me, Abbie?” She didn’t wait for me to reply. “Something I’ve never had before. Something I’ve been looking for, and something I didn’t think I could have.” She paused and sniffed. “I wanted to tell you that the other day, but was afraid it wouldn’t come out right.”

I didn’t know what else to say with her eyes and hands touching me like that. Instinct must have taken over. “You can have me.” When I heard the words come out of my mouth, I knew I meant it. It was the right thing to say too because her face lit up like a child on Christmas morning, knowing he or she had received the grandest of all presents. The look said it all.

****

Me and this woman are kindred spirits. We both know enormous pain with different causes, but pain is pain. Together, I think we’re trying to heal ourselves. I would give everything to this woman because somehow I know that I would get that and more in return. I knew right then that I was losing my heart to her, and it’s a part of me that I’m more than glad to lose.

Today hasn’t deviated from our now established routine that’s why I can’t believe I’m thinking about this right now, while I am, of all places, at the Mission. Despite what I felt at first, I have come to learn that every person that comes through the food line needs to be noticed, and usually, I am more than obliged to do so. They need to know someone cares and respects them, but as I use the scoop to pile mashed potatoes on Jeanie’s (I think that’s her name) plate, I can feel Sly’s eyes on me from across the room. I don’t even have to look up. They have been on me since we got here, and I think that I have been spaced out for just as long, making it a good thing the line has thinned out. I can feel all these emotions boiling inside me because of her, thanks to her, but for the past few days, I’ve been feeling like I’m about to explode. To regain some sort of equilibrium, I turn away and wipe fidgety hands on my apron.

I watch as Mike steps back from his post down by the meats to come see about me. His face is drawn in concern. I don’t know what I’ve done to make him think that I am interested in him. All I do is smile. Even though he has seen me leave with Sly numerous times, he has tried to give me a ride home or go out on a date. It has sorta been that way from the first day I came here, but it kinda ended up on the back burner with all the things going on with Sly. I’ve tried to ignore it, and I guess that’s what I’ll continue to do because he hasn’t really harassed me. He doesn’t seem like the stalker type after all. Still, today, his timing is perfect. Sometimes this uncontrolled feeling I get around Sly is overwhelming. Mike brings me back to earth quickly.

I feel his hand on my shoulder, but I step back from it. “You okay, Abbie? No one’s bothering you are they?” He asks.

He reaches for my arm, and I pull it away hastily. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just flustered I guess.”

He smiles and adds, “Well why don’t you let me take you out to lunch then? All work and no play. . .”

I give him a tight smile before responding, “Nah, not hungry.” The sound of someone clearing their throat behind us makes me turn around. I guess the line wasn’t that thin after all. I smile genuinely this time and push the bangs away from my forehead with my other hand before scooping potatoes on his plate. The frail looking old white man gives me a toothless grin. I haven’t seen him before, so he must be new and there is nothing prestigious about being a new member of the underclass.

Within the few weeks I’ve been here, I’ve noticed a contradiction in what the media portrays as the homeless and what I’ve seen so far. On TV, they show them as elderly and minorities. That’s not at all what I’ve seen. They’ve mostly been my age, white, and sometimes younger. Everyone else is few and far between. But, I imagine AC is a small sample. Yeah, right. Still, maybe we shouldn’t believe everything we see? It’s just a thought.

Coming back to things at hand, my smile widens, “You’re new here aren’t you?”

He nods his head in a wide arc up and down and scratches under his beard. When he lifts his head, I get a clear view of things that are growing or what has gotten stuck in his facial hair. It is simply a tragedy for someone to have to live like this. I hope my face doesn’t show pity. It’s not a popular emotion around here, and I can understand why. Pity is for the weak, and these people are among the strongest I have ever seen. They have to be to survive. By this time his grin has become a full smile. “Yep, yep, I caught a bus outta Philly was lucky enough to save nuff change. Name’s Curtis,” he finally says and sticks out his hand for me to shake. I take it without hesitation.

That’s another concept that’s not welcome around here. It translates to second guesses and afterthoughts of fear and disgust to the people around here. Still, I can’t help but think that maybe Curtis should have stayed in Philly. Anyplace has got to be better than here. “I’m Abbie, one of the volunteers. You’ll be seeing me around.” We chatted for a few more minutes. I guess Mike found better things to do because he’s not standing behind me anymore. I’ve come back to the ground with a thump thanks to him and Curtis. Unfortunately or fortunately, I end up glancing upward toward the right and see pale, amused blue eyes riveted on me. I’m soaring again.
Chapter XV: Sly’s Eyes
I don’t know what this food tastes like because my senses are otherwise engaged. It seems that way anyway. I can’t take my eyes off her. If this is some kind of new disorder or disease, they need to put my picture next to its definition because I have it, and I don’t want to get rid of it anytime soon. Abbie is beautiful, and she has no idea. I think this is one way my subconscious has chosen to tell her. The other way is the little touches.

She is the picture of strength just standing there. Abbie has changed so much, and I don’t think she even knew that strength was there. I’m glad she found it. It has changed a scared little woman into someone remarkable. Her eyes are open to all of us now, not just me, and the people around her respect her for it. Stevie and Pauly haven’t been able to stop talking about her. They even have the audacity to snicker like schoolgirls when they catch me staring. You see what I have to put up with?

Anyway, the past few days have been like a whirlwind of ups and downs. There is the thing with Gert. The doc says she is progressing slowly but surely, but I, for one, have never seen her look so frail and vulnerable. Abbie has been a lifesaver during all of this. Somehow she keeps my head up with just a word. I think she does that with the guys too. They really like her, and so do I. Abbie has done things for us that no normal person would even consider doing. She let Pauly and Stevie come up to her room.

They looked at her in surprise, but I could only look at her with pride in my eyes. They stink to high heaven, and they are loud. I can say this about them ’cause I love them, but she had them sitting on her furniture as if they were the prissiest of guest. Unbelievable. This woman is totally unbelievable. She’s is fast becoming the glue holding us all together. Thank God that I have her that we have her. I promised myself not to let anything, including me, come between us again. So far so good.

I watch her smile and sometimes laugh at and with each person that stops in front of her. Her nose crinkles in that little way I like, but I can’t wait until they all leave so I can see that special smile she saves for me. I know Abbie can feel me staring. It’s all in the way she refuses to look over here. It’s kinda nice to know that I can totally discombobulate somebody. I love the way she blushes, and I wonder does she know that I catch that little hitch in her breathing when I touch her?

I see Mike make his way over to her when she turns around, and I can’t help but roll my eyes. He’s been sniffing around her for a while now, but he’s a good, totally harmless kid. There’s nothing to worry about. I am more worried as Pauly decides to shove me, hard, but I hear his guffaws as Stevie and him point toward the food line. “Look there, Sly. You got some com-pi-tition!”

“Sho do. That lil white boy gone snatch her up!” Stevie adds with a laugh. I turn to them with the intention of giving them “the look” before I remember that it doesn’t work anymore. They laugh harder. A little imp starts to play around in my head. I let it. With a evil smile, I ask them, “Say, how do you think all that food would look on your nice clean clothes? I’m curious to know. How about you?” The glare at me in surprise and simultaneously scoot their chairs away a few inches. It’s my turn to laugh now. I give them a triumphant grin when Abbie turns away from Mike, leaving him flailing. Maybe somebody needs to have a chat with him after all.

I go back to my favorite pastime. There are others, but the big ones are sleeping next to Abbie and reading to her. I haven’t awakened with anybody holding me in a long time. In fact, I don’t think I ever have. The feeling of safety and security shot straight through me. I’ll never for get that first night. She has shown and told me so much of herself, but I feel lacking in that category. It’s nothing but fear that’s keeping me from showing her what she needs to see. I fear that she’ll be disgusted by the way I live. I fear that she’ll see that it’s too much to handle.

Something in the back of mind keeps reminding me that she sees the real me. She sees beyond all of it, but I am only human and with that frailty comes insecurity. I swallow as I realise that she needs to know, needs to see. It’s a test we both have to go through, and I have to have faith that we’ll pass. Tonight, it has to be tonight while I have the courage. I’ll come get her for work a little early. Unless, she lets me stay. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to.

Being near her is an addiction that I admit to having, and I’ll take it anyway I can get it. I smile at that, and I can’t help it. I’m pathetic, acting like a teenager with a crush. That’s when I catch her, Abbie finally looks my way and I can see her chest heave from here. I know how she feels. I don’t think I’ve breathed once since I sat down. Her eyes hold mine, and I see everything from her struggle for control to her acknowledgement of the pull between us. God, I want to go to her, and. . .ah, hell and do I don’t know what. I can tell you this much. It’s getting harder and harder not to really touch her. The only thing that’s keeping me at bay is the belief that she’s not ready, and something tells me that once I start my heart won’t be mine anymore. That’s a laugh really because part of it is hers already.

“You can have me.”

When Abbie said it, I knew it was the truth, but I have to be so careful. Her heart needs to be handled with kit gloves and tenderness. She doesn’t deserve any less, only a lot more, which is something I’ve never given– more of myself. I think I can give it to her, I mean, because she makes it so easy. These feelings are new to both of us, and I pray we go in the right direction.

Our gazes are still locked, and I can see her hands shake from here, along with the flush that covers her face. Abbie tries to hide her shakiness in the way she bunches the purple apron, but I see it just fine. Her lips are partially open, and I watch as she moistens them with her tongue. A liquid warmth starts in my belly, and it’s my turn to be flustered. The sudden heat in my cheeks doesn’t match the one in my stomach, but it is close enough. The need to go to her is compelling now, and I procure a white knuckled grip around the fork that has been sticking into the mystery meat for some time.

It’s only another hard shove from Pauly that snaps me out of it. I ignore their chuckles, as they finally get up to leave, to glance back up. She is looking down at something that is no doubt interesting, growing in the potatoes. Whatever it is, it has her total attention, but I can still see her chest heaving. Those potatoes have got nothing on me.

People are starting to leave now, and they are taking down the food bins. I can’t wait to see my special smile.
Chapter XVI: Smiling, Laughing, and Revealing
I’m glad I don’t work with Sly. Those blue eyes would be my undoing, and I would never get any work done. I need to clean off the tables before I sit down, and I can feel those eyes on me like cool fire. Good thing there are still a few people left in here putting up food. I think that is what’s keeping me from dissolving into giggles. She’s been ‘pssting’ at me for the past ten minutes. I wait until the last person leaves before sitting down at her table. She’s lounging there like some lazy cat with her legs stretched out in the chair across from her.

Sly’s grin is big and infectious, and I can’t help but return it. A large hand reaches out to touch my nose that I can feel scrunching. Then, long fingers caress the slight lines around my smile. Blue eyes are studying my face as if committing it to memory. I love it when she touches me. Each caress is getting bolder and longer. I wonder if she’s aware of this? I wrap my smaller hand around her wrist and lean into the touch. A flush covers her cheeks before she pulls away slowly. She is the first to speak. “Hey, saw you up there.” She jerks her head toward the now disbanded food line.

My smile gets bigger because I know her eyes hardly ever left me. I nod and say, “I noticed that.”

Silver blue eyes widened and her flush went up a notch. “Uh, you don’t mind? I can’t help it.”

She looks almost childlike with the admission, and I can’t help but be truthful. “No, I like it. It’s just sometimes I can’t breath when you do it.” I reach out and take her hand for emphasis.

Sly smirks as if I’ve told her something she already knew. “Mmm, good to know.”

That would be arrogance on anybody else, but it’s just all part of Sly.

“Mike likes you, not that I blame him. I like you too.”

Whoa, that was a total three sixty. I bet my confusion is showing. Is she jealous? I bite my lip to keep from grinning.

She holds up a hand and moves it emphatically. “I mean, I’m not jealous or anything. Just making an observation.”

The grin comes anyway, and I squeeze her hand. “Uh-huh, well, I think he’s harmless.”

Sly purses her lips and shrugs broad shoulders. “If you think so.”

I lean in a little closer and reach out with my free hand to wound a thick, dark, strand around my finger. “I like you too.” I watch as that smirk comes back—the one where the left side of her mouth lifts crookedly and her eyes sparkle. Why do I get the feeling she knows all of this already? I like this. I’ve never really flirted with anyone before. Don’t know where I learned the skill. Maybe some of Sly’s boldness has rubbed off on me. “Will you read to me today?” I see surprise in her eyes. She wasn’t expecting that one.

“You want me to . . come back with you? I don’t want to wear out my welcome.”

I can’t help but chuckle. “That’ll never happen. Please?” Her eyes are warm as she looks at me. I could get lost in them and wouldn’t care less.

“Yeah, no problem.” She gives me a toothy smile.

For some reason that makes me think of the toothless guy I just met not too long ago. “Speaking of problems.” I hate to end this. “Saw a new guy around that might need your help. He’s staying at the Mission, but. . .”

I could swear that I see disappointment in her eyes. Sly likes this banter just as much as I do. Still, she nods her head, and I reclaim my finger. “But he may not stay here for long. Most people go for the streets. It’s a little less crowded and we look out for each other. I’ll ask around and see if I can find him a good spot.””

I squeeze her hand and give her a crooked grin, “I knew you were the one to come see about that.”

Sly cocks her head slightly to the side. “You really care don’t you? When I first met you, I wasn’t so sure, but now. . .you do don’t you?”

I am a little taken aback that she would ask me such a question, but knowing, Sly, she has her reasons. “Well, yeah, how could I not? I’m human.”

She laughs but it’s without humor and it doesn’t reach her eyes. “That doesn’t mean a damn thing these days. I’d say you’re a little more than human, Abbie. You’re unique, and it takes someone like that to open your eyes like you have.”

For some reason, after she says her piece, Sly refuses to meet my eyes. In fact, her head hangs. She’s worried about something, really worried. I duck my head in an attempt to catch her eyes, but she evades me. So, I do it the old fashion way and lift her chin with the help of a few fingers. “Sly, talk to me. What’s wrong?”

Her eyes are dark with emotion and I see her swallow before her mouth opens to speak. “You’ve told me so much about yourself, Abbie. I feel that I know you. I don’t think I’ve told or shown you half as much.”

I shake my head in confusion and wonder where this is going. “It’s not a contest, Sly. I figured you would open up as we go along.”

“I want to, Abbie, but I’m scared. It’s time though.” Her voice has a note of finality in it that causes me pause.

Still confused, I ask, “Time to what?” That’s when I see it, her eyes are full of fear. “Time for what, Sly”

“For you to see how I live.”

It falls on me like a ton of bricks. She thinks I’ll see something I can’t live with, and we’ll be over. It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, but then, I rewind what she said about ‘being human.’ Now, it makes sense. I guess I’ll just have to prove myself. “If you’re sure?”

Sly purses her lips and her expression is more than serious. “Yeah, I know you need your sleep, so if we could leave a little early tonight? You’re gonna have to carry your uniform to work. Don’t want you to get it dirty.”

I see, now that she needs this too. “That’ll be fine. Do I need anything else?”

“A flashlight. We’ll get some batteries from here if you don’t have any.”

I pull her much larger hand into both of mine and smile to try and reassure her. “Do you believe in me? Trust me?”

Her brows rise in consternation. “Of course, how could you even ask. . .”

“Then trust that it will be okay.” I see that I have surprised her again, and I want to leave her that way. I lean in and do something that I’ve wanted to for days, I kiss her cheek before getting up. “I have to finish cleaning, and then we’ll go. We can give Gert’s room a call and talk to the guys to make sure she’s okay.” She doesn’t answer, and I don’t expect her to.

************

Even when we get up to my room, and find out that Gert is doing okay, Sly is still quiet. I’ve got to do something to bring her out of this funk. Barely looking at me, she grabs the light blue robe. “I’m gonna go take a quick shower. Didn’t get the chance to this morning,” she mumbles. I sigh, nod my head, and turn to give her some privacy. I hear the rustle of clothes being removed and folded and resist the urge to look. Curiosity is killing me. I’ve never seen another woman naked besides my mother and that doesn’t count. Do I want to see Sly naked? My breath catches at the thought of it. I thought I wasn’t ready for a lot of things a little while ago, but now, I’m not so sure. She does something to me, but now is not the time to think about it.

I hear her soft, “Okay.” And I turn to look at her. She has two deep grooves of worry in her forehead, and it causes me to walk up to her because I need to make them go away. I try to smooth them out with my thumb, and she sighs before giving me a warbly grin. Peering deep in her eyes, I see a sparkle return, especially when I stand on tip-toe to try and bring us eyeball to eyeball. Sly chuckles at my antics then adds, “I’m trying, Abbie.”

I grin back. “That’s good because there’s nothing that could scare me away, not now.”

She tweaks my nose and jerks her head toward the door, “Well, I’m gonna, you know. Be back in a few minutes.”

I sit heavily on the bed when she leaves, and it hits me. I’ve changed more than I originally thought. I’ve never been outgoing, but somehow it’s what I’ve become. I’ve never allowed myself to feel, but now, I do. I feel so much. I’ve never allowed myself to be attracted to anyone, and now, I am, unbelievably so. It’s been so much in such a little time.

I can’t wait to see what happens next. Grabbing my book, I turn the page to get to where we left off. Sitting it on the bed, I change into my sleepwear. I almost hope Sly will have another nightmare, if only so I can hold her. I wanted to the other two nights but didn’t have it in me. So, now, I scoot back on the bed and wait.

When Sly comes back in, she hangs her towel beside mine behind the door and rubs a hand through her water slicked hair. I love it like that. The way it shines and smells wet and just washed makes me want to play in it. I bite my lip and smile at her hopefully. She returns it and takes her place, sitting between my legs. Sly turns and pale blue catches me. Her eyebrows shoot up, and I wonder what my face is showing. Thank God, she doesn’t call me on it. “You ready to start?” She asks with that damn smirk on her face.

I resist the urge to narrow my eyes at her and hand her the book. Our fingers touch in the exchange, and an electric jolt shoots up my arm down to my stomach, causing me to suck in a breath. I glance down and see that her fingers linger against mine. A lone thumb caresses my knuckles almost absently. “Um,” my voice is a high squeak, so I clear it. “Um, I marked the p-paragraph.” The smirk turns into a grin that looks almost rakish.

“Okay, let’s get started then, and I’ll read till I know you’re asleep.”

I nod, deciding not to say anything, but at the last second, I add, “Okay, if you get hungry or anything just help yourself to whatever’s here.”

She turns to the side and only nods. I feel the jolt again when drying, dark silk caresses my thigh. It may be a while before I get to sleep.
Chapter XVII: Brooding and Trouble
I’m doing it again. It’s almost time for Abbie to get up, and I’m watching her while she sleeps. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this is getting a tad bit obsessive, but I know better. She dropped off about an hour into my reading, and surprisingly, I found myself napping too. Now, I’m awake and brooding. Worry is tugging hard at my brain.

She said nothing would change, but that hasn’t been my experience. Except for the friends that I’ve made in my current condition, everyone left me when things changed. It’s what I’m used to, and dare I say that I don’t know any better yet? I hope she proves me wrong. There’s that word again, and I’m putting it to full use tonight.

I look down at her as I stand over the bed. She looks so peaceful, and I wonder if this is the first time in years that, that peaceful look has carried over into the waking hours. Abbie looked so tortured when I first met her. I hope I don’t cause that look again, when she gets her first look under the Boardwalk.

I reach out and shake her shoulder gently. She makes a noise that isn’t half human. “Mmrrfffp?” It is beyond adorable. “Little Bit, time to get up. I wanted to show you some things, remember?”

Slowly, Abbie flips over on her back, and sleepy green eyes open to look up at me. She smiles dreamily. Her words come out a little bit slurred. “Oooh, riiiight. Can have a hug firsts?”

Way beyond adorable, especially with her hair sticking up in odd places like blonde mountains. My heart lurches at her request. This is something new. I would be an idiot to deny myself the experience. I’ve hugged her before, so I know what I’ve been missing. I lean down, assuming she would meet me half way, but with a hard jerk she pulls me down on top of her ,wrapping her arms tightly around my torso. “Oooh nice, warm hugs.” The heat of her body is incredible. It serves to move mine up a few notches. In an attempt to rectify things, I push up with my hands, which are planted on the mattress. “C’mere.” I almost groan when she pulls me down with a sharp smack. Thank the Lord she is covered. I don’t think I would survive her bare legs against mine.

Something must have happened. It is enough to wake her up. Our faces are as close as they can get without kissing, and her eyes are staring into mine while her lips form a perfect “O”. With the help of the lamp, I turned on a few minutes ago, I see her flush, deeply. I don’t know what to say, so something just comes out. “Um, hi?” And it is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. To top it all off, my voice was two octaves higher. Her nose crinkles, and I feel it coming before I see it, the giggles. In between them, she adds, “Fancy meeting you here, huh?”

I expected her to be embarrassed or even scared, but this is a total surprise. I’m sure it shows on my face because she giggles harder. I feel my mouth twitching before I can help it. Soon, I join her, but I don’t giggle. They’re chuckles. I could have sworn I was brooding a minute ago. I have to ask, “Uh, this doesn’t bother you?”

“No, I’ve hugged you before. It feels nice, very nice, but I’m sorry I pulled you down here. I get goofy when I’m real tired.”

Very interesting, but somewhere way back in my mind, the scared part of me hears a way out. “If you’re too tired, why don’t you get some more sleep? We can do this some other time.”

Abbie shakes her head no before she says it and smoothes away the worry lines that I know are on my forehead. “No, I want to. I’ve got somethings to prove to you.”

Well, I guess that settles that. The test is on. “Okay, I guess we need to get dressed then.” I move to get up, but not before I see her turn and bury her face into my hair that has fallen past my face and onto her. She’s smelling my hair! I have to admit. I don’t want to get up anymore, and I think it shows in my face because wide green eyes turn to study me unexpectantly. They are wide, dark, and her lips are parted and moist. I feel her chest rising and falling rapidly, or is that mine? Either way, I am again thankful that she is wrapped in the covers. It’s getting way too hot in here. I promised myself that I wouldn’t do this not until she’s ready. I won’t know that until she makes a move. I watch as she closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. “Okay, we’d better get moving.” The timbre of her voice is husky.

It’s not the time.

Nervousness assaults me as we move along the Boardwalk, but it is her hand in mine that’s keeping me from skittering away. This place really is beautiful at night with the moon hanging clear, and low. The water now looks black in the darkness but I can hear it lap against the sand and smell it perfuming the air. It is a shame to show her such ugliness on such a pretty night.

We pass a couple of Boardwalk cops. All they do is whisper because when I’m with her, they see me. Right now, I don’t care what they see, and I don’t think Abbie does either. She moves closer. “Check the flashlight,” I whisper to her. “We’re almost there. We’ll wake Pauly and Stevie. They’ll grumble at first, but they’ll be okay.”

I watch as she takes the flashlight from underneath her folded uniform. “It’s okay.” She stops, making me do so too. “And we will be too.”

I want to believe her, but as I see a familiar stretch of sand, doubt resurfaces. I swallow and nod my head instead of answering. We’re there, and she follows me down the ramp onto the beach. I don’t look back, but I hear a click and see a beam of light on side of me.

I stop abruptly as I see other beams of light and two people, shining the beams into my home. As I get closer, I hear whispers and realize that they aren’t Stevie and Pauly. They sound too young. I pull Abbie behind me and watch on. The two men bang on the wood and start yelling, “Hey assholes! We know somebody’s in there. We’re taking this spot so get the fuck out!”

Someone else calls out from underneath, “The fuck you ain’t!” It’s Stevie, and he sounds mad.

The two men turn to each other and whisper some more. My blood starts to burn when I see one of them crouch in an attempt to crawl under. This is our home, our territory. This is shit, and I don’t take it. Turning to Abbie, I grab the flashlight from her hands and whisper heatedly, “Stay here!” I take off before I get a reply. Running as fast as I can in the sand, I make it just as the man’s feet are about to disappear. His partner turns to me, and before I get any closer I smell them. It’s the horrid stench of boose, urine and puke. They’re the guys who give homeless people bad names.

I shine my light in his face as he screams, “So’ma bitch! Who da fuck are you?!”

“I’m the head asshole that lives here,” I growl in reply.

He cackles, and I hear him spit in the sand. “Well, lookey here. Got myself a girl. Wish Bob could see dis, but he’s a busy kicking yo friend’s ass! I’m gonna teach you some manners, girl!” He steps forward, but I hold my ground. Still, stinky decides to take a swing. Unfortunately, the sand makes me slow, and the punch connects with my jaw. It’s hard enough to make me fall on one knee. The flashlight fell in my attempt to move away. Now, it’s spinning somewhere near me. Where, I can’t see.

Stinky moves toward me again, but before he could get any further I hear a screech of, “NO!” And from what I could see, he falls to the sand with a groan. I look up from my kneeling position to see Abbie reflected in the flashlight beam. I’m angry and elated at the same time. “I thought I told you to stay put!”

She gets down on her knees in front of me and yells back, “I never said I would!”

Good point, but I don’t tell her that.

“Well, thanks, but we need to get under there. That other guy. . .”

“Yeah, I saw. Let’s go.”

I watch in silent pride as she gets on her hands and knees then to her belly. I don’t doubt it anymore. I think she’s here to stay.

I slide in beside her, but before we get half way, I hear Stevie scream, “Bastard!” Then there was a clunk. Fear races through me, and I wiggle under as fast as I can.

“Stevie! Paulie! You two okay?!” I hear another thunk.

“Yep, we are now!” Paulie calls back. “But we need you to help take out the garbage, Sly!” To my consternation, I hear them both cackling like arrogant roosters. You see? What I have to put up with?

I sigh in relief. “Well, me and Abbie will take care of that just stay put!” Like I have given her some silent order, I see the flashlight pan around until we both see a still figure.

“There he is,” Abbie whispers. “You two didn’t kill him did you boys?!” There was another cackle. Would you look at her, adding fuel to the fire. You’d almost think they’re enjoying this!

Finally, we get Stinky 2 out. With Abbie’s help, we drag them near the ramp, make noise, and run as the Boardwalk cops come. Walking back on the sand, I watch through the darkness as she rubs and claps her hands to get the sand off. “You okay?”

“Yeah, fine. You? I saw you go down. Scared me to death.” She is breathless.

I’d forgotten about that. I flex my jaw then suck in a breath at the pain. “Yeah, he got me good. Gonna need some ice.” She was something out here tonight, and I have to tell her so. “You did good, Abbie.”

“Just protecting you. I hope I didn’t hurt him. Well. . .bad.” She turns toward me and takes my hand. “Don’t worry about your jaw. After we make sure the guys are okay, I’ll take care of you back at my place.”

Shocked, I blurt out, “But, Abbie! You’re gonna be late for work.”

She squeezes my hand. “It’s okay. I’ll just call from the pay phone and tell them I’m gonna be late because of a family emergency. One point won’t hurt. I don’t have any.”

When my heartbeat slows, I know that this woman will do anything for me. It’s a heady feeling. “Um, okay.”

We slide back under the Boardwalk, and I reach to take the flashlight from her. I want her to see everything now. There’s not a doubt left in my mind. In silence, I show her my little area, cornered off with cardboard. I open the door to allow her in, and I crawl in after her. Without a word, I give her free reign, and watch her pick up my copy of Catcher in the Rye .

Abbie’s fingers trace over my radio gently as if it’s the most fragile piece of China in the world. She treats each item like that. My heart constricts as she finally looks up at me, and her eyes are so full of sadness and pride that it floors me. Sadness yes, but I did not expect her to be proud. I open my mouth to speak, but she shakes her head and points toward the cardboard door. Again, I crawl out behind her where she waits for me and takes back the flashlight. She pans it around until she comes to a jumble of blankets and cardboard. “Gertie’s,” I tell her, and I hear her hitch in breath. Is she crying? Why?

A minute later, I crawl after her as she heads for Stevie and Pauly. They’ve remained remarkably quiet. I think they know how important this is. Abbie moves the flashlight around until she has them in her sights. I hear the hitch in her breath again then a sob. Oh God, she is crying. “Abbie?”

She shushes me, and I hear her swallow like she’s trying to regain her voice. We are sitting up as much as we can. Finally, she speaks. “Sly? Remember today what you said about the human race?” She doesn’t wait for my answer. “You were right.” Her voice is thick with tears. “But, it goes for all of you too. You all are beyond human. No regular person could survive this. No regular person would want to, and I am so grateful,” she pauses, and I hear another sob. “I’m so grateful that you guys have included me in your family. I would do anything for you guys because I don’t think you could even begin to know what you’ve done for me.”

I wait a minute, but she doesn’t speak again. There are only sniffles. I follow the sound of them and take her in my arms as much as I can under here. It ends up being a one armed hug, but she holds on for dear life. There is silence. I imagine that the guys are as flabbergasted as I am. She’s here to stay, and we all know it. I do the only thing I can think of and whisper thank you over and over in her ear. We all passed the test.

“Damn, lil un. You sho something else.” Stevie adds. His voice is deep, husky. He’s touched.

“Yeah, you gotta good heart, Abbiegirl.” Pauly inserts. We all are.

We lapse into a peaceful quiet, and I know it is getting late. So, I ask, “You guys, okay?”

I could hear Stevie scratching his beard. “Yep, reckon we are. Damn shame about that bottle we broke over his head tho.”

Pauly and Stevie dissolve into chuckles. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. My eyes round when I feel the giggle bug bite Abbie. Unable to stop it, I join them. Chucking not giggling.

After a few minutes, I remind her, “Abbie, you need to go call your job.”

She jumps, “Oh yeah, almost forgot. I need to get my uniform first. Left it right outside. Then, I’ll take care of you.” She sniffs and adds, “Um, I’ll see you guys in the morning.”

She found her uniform, and we said our byes. This is turning into quiet a night. I guess there is more than one newbie in town. Pity, they picked with the wrong family to mess with, and Abbie, my God, she’s more than I hoped she would ever be. For once, I have someone to protect me and cherish me. I feel like I’m flying.
Chapter XVIII: Abbie’s Journey
We got back to my room in record time, but I am still reeling from all the emotions. It’s a combination of what happened here, the fight, and all the other stuff. One minute I’m aroused, next I’m in a fight, then I’m crying, followed by laughing. I feel like my blood is boiling. All the excitement is still right here in front of me. It’s Sly, and I want to fall inside.

Regardless of how I feel right now, something changed tonight. She knows that I’m on this road for the long haul. I don’t know how because she couldn’t really see my face. I guess it was something she felt. She didn’t really explain that part to me while we were walking here. Everything I said back there I meant. Everything. I would have scratched that guys eyes out if he had hurt any of them. It feels good to have that again, and I will fight tooth and nail not to lose it. It’s a promise that I’m making to myself right now.

I watch her as she moves around the room. She seems just as high energy as I am right now. I know how she feels now, when she does it to me. It’s like I’m absorbed in her and everything around her. I can’t take my eyes away, until I remember that I have to call my job. “Hey, get the first aid kit and have a seat on the bed. I don’t have ice, but the least I can do is bandage that cut.” We both didn’t realize that there was one until we got into the light. I go to take care of the phone call.

When I return, she looks up at me expectantly. “Told you it was okay. I told them I would be about an hour or so late. I’m gonna have to take a shower.” I walk slowly toward her, keeping her in my sights. Something is brewing inside me, and I don’t know if I want to stop it, especially since it involves Sly. She watches me move toward her, and I pause right in front of her. Sly has to look up at me, but her eyes hesitate somewhere.

I swallow because I don’t care where. I just need them on me right now. Reaching down, I take the band-aid and alcohol pad from her fingers. We touch, and my breath catches. I know she heard it because I can see her eyes darkening with secret knowledge. She knows that I want to touch her, be touched by her. I have to ask myself when did this happen? When did I become so greedy? There is an answer. The first day she touched me.

I kneel down, and blue eyes follow me just as my gaze is locked on her. I take hold of her thighs to steady myself, and I feel her whoosh of breath disturb my hair. Somebody needs to stop this or step forward. I don’t know how to stop it or start it. So, I try my best to remain neutral even though I don’t feel that way. “We make a good team. Don’t you think?”

Her eyes are drowning me, and I fall helplessly. She only nods to my question. Maybe she doesn’t know what to do either. I try again. “I’m glad those two are okay. They had me scared there for a while. Shoulda known they’d take care of it.”

She nods again, and I fall further inside the blue ocean. Help me. No, I don’t mean it. I cup her cheek and move her head to the side. Her skin is like fire, but it’s a burn I like. I lift the alcohol pad to my mouth and rip the top off. She watches the whole time. Her throat bobs and chest rises. Falling, and I don’t care how far as long as she catches me. I brush the cut with the alcohol, and she jumps and takes hold of my shoulder, as I swab the whole area. The wrapper and pad fall to the floor, and I tear away the covering of the band-aid, putting it on as quickly as possible.

Moving my hand away, I whisper, “There.” Then abruptly, all breathe and speech leaves me as her large hands push through my hair, sensitizing my scalp. Am I ready for this? My whole body quakes in a way that can’t be missed. God, yes I am. I need to tell her. With ragged breath, I watch as her lips open to speak before mine do. “Abbie.”

I hear it, and I whimper as heat curls its fingers deep in my belly. It wasn’t that she said my name. It was the way she said it like an ache or a need. “What are you doing to me?” I ask huskily as I push up from the floor in attempt to meet her. I come to my feet completely but shakily, and she wraps her fingers in the empty belt loops of my jeans, pulling me closer.

“The same thing you’re doing to me.” She replies. It’s enough for me. I go without hesitation and lean forward as I do so. On a husked breath, our lips meet softly. My hands mesh in her hair, and I groan at the fell of it. My lips cling to her and hers to mine. There is no move to deepen the contact because just like me, I think she wants to savor this moment. This perfect moment. After a few long seconds, I feel her hands snake up my back, and she kneads the covered skin then balls the cloth into her fists.

Somehow I think our eyes open at the same time because I suddenly find myself staring into hers. Her pupils are large, dark, and I see it. She wants more, but is letting me lead. For some reason, at this, heat slams a fist in my stomach, making my breath come out in a gasp. This is need. It has to be because I am compelled to brush her lips with my own. I brush and lift several times before I feel her fists flex at my back. Sly’s mouth opens. She moans, and I slip my tongue inside, needing to taste. It feels like it belongs there. My heart slams against my chest. This is desire. She is sweet to the taste, so I go back for more, moaning when her tongue touches mine.

The kiss never changes cadence. It remains deep, soft, but needy. Both my hands grasp the back of her neck, lifting her head in search of a different angle. It continues on for what seems like forever before my lungs burn with the need to breath. With a whimper, I pull away to draw in air. Leaning in, I lay my forehead against hers, and I hear her sucking wind also. I open eyes to see hers still closed, but I do see full lips, swollen and moist. As if Sly knows she is being watched, baby blues open, and the need I see in them makes me want to kiss her all over again.

Her hands find their way to my face, cupping my cheeks, running over my chin and lips. It was as if she thought I was going to disappear. “God, Abbie, I wanna kiss you again, but you gotta get to work.” Her voice is a pained whisper.

She is right, but I don’t want to. For some reason, I get an attack of shyness, and I close my eyes. “Can we. . . do this again?” I ask quietly.

Sly touches my lids, bidding them to open. I can’t resist her, and I see the most beautiful smile shining back at me. “Any time you want,” she answers.

I really don’t want to stop. “Right now?” I feel the grin tugging on my lips and let it come. She throws her head back and laughs. I love the sound.

“Work, remember?”

I don’t think I’ve ever had so much trouble getting to work.

*********

At work, now, even the roar of the vacuum cleaner does not stop me from reminiscing. While Sly walked me to work, we held hands, but all I wanted to do was feel her lips again. I don’t think I’m ready for much more, but this is quiet the beginning. We talked along the way, and she told me how nice it was. Sly even told me that she never had a kiss like that. I guess it’s a first for both of us.

I raise the bed covers to get under the bed. It’s been an easy night so far. I don’t think I care either way. She’s waiting for me, at home, and I know I’ll get to see her wrapped in the dark trench coat, waiting for me. For me. I’m so glad she finally knows that I see past the way she lives, the way she dresses to the outstanding person underneath.

Flicking with my foot, I stop the drone of the vacuum cleaner and turn around to see Lola leaning against the door. I smile at her what must be the goofiest smile ever, and she raises a blond brow. “Oookay, I’ve been standing here forever. Is lunchtime, girl. Chu ready to eat?”

She walks in because I know the smile is still there. Her eyes narrow. “What cloud chu hanging from, Abbie?”

I come back with a graceful, “Huh?”

Lola rolls her eyes and throws up her hands. “What chu don’t speak no English today? Maybe I’ll try Spanish, no?” She chuckles at her own joke. Snapping out of it, I join her. “No, I’m okay. Just a little dazed I guess.”

She moves closer and continues the squint. “Uh-huh, what’s going on with chu? Chu have this look. . .about chu.”

I bite my lip and try to move past her, but she reaches out her arm, wrapping it around my torso. “Ah, ah, is that woman isn’t it? What her name, Sly?” A weird smile starts to play around her lips. “Oooh, did chu rub monkeys wit her?!”

Oh my God, this woman! I can feel my face turn a horrendous shade of red. “Rub monkeys?! No, we did not!” Breaking free from her hold, I made my way out of the room with her close on my heels.

“Hey! Don’t chu run for me! Did chu rub something?”

I put my head down in order to walk as fast as I could. I don’t think she’ll give me a chance to eat tonight.
Chapter XIX: Inside Sly
I woke up to the pitter patter of rain against, Abbie’s window. It’s a good thing I have this coat with me. Only my hair is soaked. The rain seems to roll off the coat. I need to hurry because I don’t want her to get too wet, so I speed into a run. My thoughts race through my head just as fast.

Look what happens when I let her take the lead? I guess she was ready. . . just a few hours later. Still, I did not expect that! It felt like my head was going to explode and implode at the same time. I didn’t know a kiss would move me so, but when you think about it, I should have known that Abbie’s kisses would because she moves me. Everything that is wrong in my life felt like it was set right with her touch. I can’t help but think we’re helping each other, changing each other.

I run harder as I pass the Sands casino. I’m almost there. The sound of the Rolling Stones, blaring from The Hard Rock Café’s speakers, meet me as I round the corner. Seeing her at the side entrance, I come to a stop, letting the rain pelt me and sting my eyes. I don’t care. Abbie is huddled against the wall, trying to avoid the fat raindrops, but she isn’t very successful. Her hair is slick with it, and so is one side of her uniform. As if she senses me, her head jerks up and our eyes meet. Her arm lifts in a wave as her lips do the same in a smile. It pulls me forward, and I go to meet her. Abbie’s smile makes me forget about the rain. “Hey,” she says. “It’s raining.”

“Is it? Barely noticed.”

She rubs her hand through my wet hair. “Uh huh, sure. So how are we going to do this?” She points at the crying sky.

I open up a side of my coat. “Slowly. You can get under here. Good thing it’s clean, huh?”

She nods and flattens her hands against my chest. It rattles me, and I grab her wrists, holding her to me. I look down in her eyes. They are dark but pulsating with her own brand of light. I could live in them forever. Following the path of her gaze, I notice that it leads directly to my mouth. I smile because I can’t help myself. “Abbie, it’s raining.”

“No it’s not. You said so yourself. You said anytime I wanted too, remember?” She grins, and her nose crinkles. “Pleaase?”

Who am I to deny her? I nod, and before I know it, she is dragging me by my coat back toward Sands and The Hard Rock Café. The sounds of “Me and Bobby McGhee” meets us as she pulls me into a shadowed corner. I raise an eyebrow at her inquisitively. “Here? Someone will see.”

“I don’t care.” Her voice is husky, and I believe her. Without preamble, Abbie wraps her hands in my hair and pulls my head down. Our rain moistened lips meet, and she tastes sweeter than before, needier than before. Her mouth opens under mine without my asking. I take the invitation. She whimpers into my mouth, and I swallow it. Just as she does mine a second later. The rain, Janis Joplin, and kissing Abbie—I think I found a new favorite pastime.
Chapter XX: Contemplation
I just walked Abbie to work a while ago, and now, I’m sitting on her stoop just outside her apartment building. I have the key, and I could go in at any time. Still, I’m sitting here doing I don’t know, just contemplating life, I guess. It’s been a week since we first kissed, and we have kissed many times since then. It seems like a million times, but it’ll never be enough. In fact, she wanted to kiss me as we stood outside in front of The Claridge. She didn’t say anything to the fact, but I could see it in her eyes. I resisted because some part of me knew that she wasn’t ready to be outed in front of co-workers like that.

It’s been quite a week to say the least, and through it all, Abbie has been by my side. I’ve been staying here with her the whole time, sleeping on her floor. Gert is still in the hospital, but she is looking a hell of a lot better. So, part of my mind is at ease, but there are a lot of parts that are not at rest.

Invisibility.

I don’t have that anymore. Abbie has given me a voice through her acknowledgment. It makes me want things. It makes me want it all back. I miss it something fierce,life. It’s always been a goal to get my life back, but it’s never really been attainable. I feel that it is now, and I’m more than hungry for it. I miss sleeping in a warm bed, talking on the phone, wearing a nice pair of Levi’s, working out and playing b-ball at the local gym, eating good food including a decent cheeseburger, watching TV, listening to music, and most of all I miss the challenge of working.

I could never be as I used to be simply because I didn’t like who I was then. I like who I have become, besides the destitute thing. Abbie. She is the one responsible for this growing need, and I thank her for it.

Maybe I’ve been sitting on my hands for too long. I could help Stevie, Pauly, and Gert more if I had. . .anything. It’s a thought that has been tangled in my head for the past week. Now, that I have Abbie. I guess, I feel that I can have everything again. It maybe be fleeting whatever this is I long to reach for, but I know she is not. Knowing that, I feel that if I lose it all once more, I’ll still have the foundation to start anew because of her.

I lean back placing my elbows on the step behind me. My coat gets wedged between me and the concrete, so I yank it. I don’t know why I wear this thing anyway. It’s not that cold. I guess just because it’s Gert’s. It’s a way to be closer to her. I glance up to look at Abbie’s part of the sky, and it’s as radiant as she is. The stars are big and twinkling back at me through the clear skies.

“Beautiful.” I mutter. I miss her sitting beside me. We’ve become accustom to star gazing during the past week on her days off. She’s fascinated by them, and I fed her frenzy by pointing out as many constellations as I can see even made up a few just to see the joy on her face.

I must admit though, I miss hanging out with the guys, not the conditions, but they guys. I feel kind of guilty, sleeping in a nice warm bed while they rough it in the sand. I want Stevie and Pauly to have everything they need, and I wish to God that I could give it to them. Maybe someday soon I can. I feel kind of giddy at the thought.

“Abbie, you did this to me.” I smile up at the stars as if her face is in them. Still, I feel guilt nag at me. Those people in that stretch of sand count on me to protect and guide them. I’ve been lax in my responsibilities. Deep down, I know that Stevie and Pauly can take care of themselves, but what about the others? There are a few including that new guy Curtis that Abbie told me about. I found a spot over there by Resorts for him.

I feel the lines of worry crease my forehead, and I miss Abbie even more because I know she would be trying to smooth them out with deft fingers or soft lips. Still deep in contemplation, I think back, trying to remember how it started. When did they all start to depend on me? It’s hard to answer, but I think it was when I decided to let them in. In a way, I know it’s an effort to try to atone for the bitch I was.

The sudden sounds of sirens not far away catches my attention. I turn my head toward Pacific Avenue to see a cop car along with an ambulance speed down the Boardwalk. My heart lurches in my chest, and I rise to break into a full run. Something has happened. I know it has. The long coat beats against my legs, but I don’t care. Sirens this late means trouble usually with my people. Hardly anyone else is around this time of night.

My feet thump against the wooden planks of the Boardwalk, but I continue running as fast as I can, hoping I’ll get there before the authorities disperse whatever melee has started. I pray to God that it’s not Stevie or Pauly. I couldn’t deal if anything happened to them.

The sweat plasters my bangs against my forehead, but I don’t bother to wipe them away. I let it sting my eyes, hoping it is the only tears I shed tonight. Finally, after what seems like forever I get there just as they close the door to the ambulance. It’s my stretch of sand from Resorts to the Taj. This is my area. I protect and watch over it.

Tonight, I was remiss in my job. I see the others gather about, seven in all, peering at each other and shaking their heads. Pauly and Stevie are among them. I get to them and bend over clutching my stomach in the attempt to catch my breath and soothe the ache in my side. I hear a murmur over my wheezing breath. After a minute, I’m able to look up. Pauly and Stevie hover over me with grim looks on their faces. I straighten up to see the remainder of eyes staring at me accusingly. They’re blaming me for something, and I think it’s about time that I find out what it is.

“Pauly what happened here?”

Before he can answer another murmur passes through the crowd, I turn to glance toward the ambulance that is driving slowly away, but I see in the well lit back cab a sheet covered body. Surprisingly, the cops didn’t stick around to harass us. I swallow and turn back to face the angry eyes. “Old Curtis died, Sly. Guess it was a heart attack or somethin’. We was starting to like him too. Nice old guy.”

“Sho, sho.” Stevie agreed as he nods his head.

Other voices joined in the fray whispering accusingly, “Where were ya, Sly? We tried to come getcha. Figured you’d know what to do. You weren’t here so the man just died.”

Guilt rips through me, tearing a hole right beside my heart. I didn’t know it could hurt so much. They counted on me, and in a way, I abandoned them to enjoy my visibility, to enjoy Abbie. They continue to stare. I want to say something, defend myself. I can feel my mouth moving. Still, there is nothing coming out. I feel ashamed that I wanted something, reached for something that they haven’t seen in years if they have at all. I hang my head, but not before I see Pauly bristle and pump out his chest.

“You people crazy or somethin’? Sly, ain’t nobody’s momma here. She does what she can for us, and I’ll be damned if’in the minute she tries to have a life you all get shitty!” He spits on the sand and runs a hand through gnarled locks in disgust.
Even with all the emotions weighing on me right now, I feel pride because I know these two love me. I still want to crawl inside myself, but I hang my head instead and listen as Stevie adds his two cents. “Sho! Sly don’t gotta be here all da time, and it’s not her fault. It was da man’s time is all. She ain’t god!”

I look up tentatively at the sound of another murmur. I glance into the faces, some old, some young, but all craggy. The oldest ones are peering at me and shaking their heads. As far as they are concerned, I’m responsible as if I were a queen and this, my clan. The younger ones shrug it off and start to disperse. As they all began to leave, shuffling through the thick sand, I can’t help myself. I whisper, “I’m sorry,” to their backs.

Regardless of the fact that I could or couldn’t have prevented a death, something deep inside nags at me. I let them down. Someone needed me, and I let them down. I feel Pauly’s hand clap against my back. He gives me a rotten tooth smile and tries to pull me into a hug. I jerk away. I don’t want to find solace right now. I know my expression is closed. I can almost feel my eyes empty of emotion. I watch as Pauly and Stevie glance at each other. They know me well.

They know where I have gone. Stevie steps forward with an expression of understanding on his weather beaten face. “Now, you listen here Sly. For all the stuff you done did fo’ us, you deserve something fo yoself. You deserve to be separate from us—”

I shake my head vehemently, feeling it move loosely about my shoulders. “But I’m not. I am you.”

“Naw, naw you got somethin’ some us ain’t gone never have again. You gotta chance.” Pauly nods his head in agreement.

“Do I?” I husk back. “If I do, I can only take care of you three. What about the others?”

Pauly holds up his hands in defiance. “Now, Sly. You don’t have to do that for us,”

“Yess! I do.” I hiss. “You’re my family. More so than anyone has been.”

“Well, we feel the same, but you just ain’t responsible for every homeless person on the street.”

I don’t want to argue with them. I don’t have it in me right now. I know what my responsibilities are. I look up to see them whispering among themselves. I hear Abbie’s name along with “maybe she can talk some sense. . .” It’s out my mouth before I can think. “Don’t bring her into this!”

Unperturbed, Stevie looks back at me. “Why not? You two joined at da hip as of late. She’s good for you and good to us. Abbie wouldn’t wanna see ya like dis.”

I ball my hands into fist. I said it earlier tonight, and I meant it then just like I mean it now. “It’s her fault that I’m like this!”

Irritated beyond reason, they both shake their hands and brush me off with a wave. “Damn fool, bet not mess up a good thing. It ain’t wrong to wanna life, Sly.”

I cover my ears like a petulant child. I don’t want to hear this. I don’t want to feel this. Without another word, I turn and walk away. I’ve been doing that a lot with them these days.

I’m just walking. It’s the blackest part of the night or so it looks like it. Symbolic really. I find myself back on Indiana Avenue, as if I were some homing pigeon. I think that I’ve got some serious questions facing me. Already, I’ve promised Abbie so much, and I know—I KNOW she has promised to take this road with me. The simple truth is that I can’t give her up. She did indeed make me this way, and I have to be honest with myself. I don’t want it to end.

I’m sitting on the steps again and looking up at the same stars. I want my life back more than ever. I want a life that includes Abbie, but these people,my people– count on me. How can I balance that? If I could just make people see that we need, we want, we live, and that we are here, so visibly here, I could have it all. What is that saying? Yeah, I’m only one damn woman, and I can’t do it all. I just want my family taken care of, and as far as I am concerned Abbie is a big part of it.

I rub my open hands over my face in exasperation then push them into my hair. Glancing at the silent stars one more time, I get up and fish the key out of my coat pocket. As I unlock the door, I have to ask myself, “Is it wrong to want this. Is it wrong to want to live again, really live?” I take the stairs two at a time. God, I wish Abbie were here. Maybe she can make it all go away with a soft touch or an even softer kiss.
Chapter XXI: Woman’s Work
It’s almost time for my first break, and I find myself trying to hurry and meet Lola. Doing this is like an old habit, it leaves my mind totally free. I can’t help but think about how much I’ve changed. I used to be so down on myself, and I stayed away from people, knowing they didn’t want to get to know someone like me. Now, look at me. I have friends, real friends, and I have Sly. She’s in a category all by herself. I can only hope that she’s in my life to stay. She’s a woman. I know that, and so am I. It doesn’t matter after all these years, Sly fits into a puzzle that was as confused as it could possibly get.

As I bend over to clean out the toilet with the proper brush, my mind still wanders. I’ll be finished with my community service really soon, but I know that there’s no turning back. That place has become a haven to me. My problems seem so insignificant. I still barely have the money for the weekly rent or food, but things are better now since I am allowed to eat at The Mission. I don’t have a lot, but nowadays, I feel like I have everything. I have a family again. They will never replace the one that I lost, but Gert, Stevie, and Pauly hold a special place in my heart. I don’t pretend to understand everything that they have gone through, but I feel that I understand them.

Along with all of this, I have this confidence that I think has always been missing. I’ve been stuck all these years, but Sly came along and held out her hand. I see now. I feel now. I have the courage to want now, and so far, I’m two for two.

On my way to the locker room tonight, I saw something that I wanted,a position for head housekeeper. It would be a significant pay raise, but a lot of responsibility. There would be people under my command so to speak. It’s a scary prospect, but I want to take the chance. Not only does it mean more for me, but it also means the same for Sly, Gert, Pauly and Stevie. What I have is theirs. If I get this job, there may be something in it for Sly period. She could use my address and take the position I vacate. It’s just a thought, but extremely feasible.

I let down the toilet seat with a slam and sit on it, wiping wet hands on the bib of my gray/white maid’s uniform. I have to ask myself what will Sly accept. Among a lot of things, she is proud. She sees all of us as her responsibility, but I think that I’m more than allowed to take on some of the load. I need to do this just to show that I can. I want to do this to give back a fraction of what they’ve given me.

Sitting here on the toilet, I find myself smiling, just thinking of her and what she does to me. Sly’s been staying with me all this time, and that lonely feel to everything in my room is gone. It doesn’t seem so run down or threadbare anymore. She makes everything come to life, including me. She holds back when she touches me. I can tell by the way she fists her hand into my hair, along with the hitch in her breathing. I find that in itself endearing because Sly is letting me lead.

I don’t really know this road, but like everything with her, I’m willing to go down it. I want to. Kissing her, touching her is like the greatest of discoveries,soft, hard, rough, and sweet. I want to take my time and explore. I see so much now. All the world is in color, and Sly is the most colorful one of all.

I finish up in the bathroom and head back out to the main room to see Lola walking in. She gives me a soft smile. “Hey girl, I’m starving. How bout chu?”

I shrug, grin back and reply, “I could eat.”

Lola peers at me for a long time as she crosses her arms and leans against the door. Finally, she speaks, “Chu know chu look so different now, Abbie. This Sly woman is doing wonders.”

I feel the blush starting, but I’m not adept at hiding it yet. I’m not sure if I want to. “I’m learning a lot from her.”

Her smile is bright. “That’s good. Now, let’s go eat.”

I shake my head and chuckle, as I push my cleaning cart out of the way to follow her to the cafeteria.

I am quiet during our lunch, mulling over the possibility of changing things for all of us, for the better. I guess that I am quiet too long because Lola drops her fork in her mashed potatoes and looks at me with a combination of patience and exasperation. “Okay, what is it white girl? Chu being way to quiet even for chu.”

My eyes meet hers and I feel that it is okay to come clean. “I want that job. Um, do you. . .do you think I can do it?”

Lola throws up her arms in relief. “Is that what’s bothering chu? Hell jes! Chu have been here just as long as anybody else. Chu just got to get used to giving orders and stuff. Chu think chu can do that?”

I shrug. “I don’t know. I’ve never had a managerial position before.”

“Don’t worry too much. They do train chu, and I think it’s more organizational than anything. I think chu can do that. What does your Sly say about it?”

The smile forms before I can help myself. My Sly. I watch Lola roll her eyes at seeing the expression on my face. “Don’t know. I’m gonna talk to her about it this morning.” I hang my head and fiddle with the green peas rolling around my tray. I can feel her eyes boring into my head.

“Abbie? What else is going on?”

I glance up giving her a quirky smile that I can feel forming at the corners of my mouth. “If I go out for it and get it, I wanna see if I can get Sly to go after my old job.”

Lola whistles. “Oh, I see. S’pose it won’t hurt to ask her. I haven’t met her yet, but I bet she would dress up this place.”

I smile full out. “She would, and if you stayed around long enough in the morning, you would get the chance to meet her. But—” I look at her warningly.

Lola throws her hands back up in mock anger. “I know look but don’t touch. What do chu think of me, Abbie? She looks a little too butchie for me. Chu more my type.” She says with a lecherous grin pasted on her face.

I groan and roll my eyes, feeling another blush coloring my skin at her forwardness. “Lola! Behave!”

“I would, but chu make it so easy!” She shakes her head. “Tch, and chu turn such pretty colors too. I bet your Sly loves that.”

I turn a darker shade of red as I remember the way her fingertips traced the line of color from my neck to cheek. “Uh. . .um.”

Lola cackles. “See, she does.”

“Lola! I’m trying to be serious here!”

“Uh huh. Listen, chica. You already are.”

I stop talking and mull over what she said. “Yeah, I am.” I whisper softly but loud enough for her to hear.

“Though so. Just go for it, Abbie. See what she says.”

She picks her tray up, and I follow her lead toward the swinging opening of the trash cans. We don’t speak again until we leave the murmur of the cafeteria to go back down the long hall. Walking side by side, I touch her arm. “You really think so, Lola?”

She nods and turns to me. “Jes. Listen, chu will both be able to take better care of each other along with the familia chu have now. They mean a lot to chu too.”

We begin walking again, but not before I say, “You’re right. They do.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

I wait outside the employee entrance alone as usual. Lola’s boyfriend came to pick her up, so she will miss meeting Sly yet again. It doesn’t really matter. I want her all to myself this morning. We have a lot to talk about. I scan the Boardwalk for her presence. I don’t see her yet, so I lean against the concrete wall and smooth nervous hands over my uniform then through my hair. The early morning air off the ocean is brisk, but I’m used to it. I ignore the gooseflesh on my arms.

I’m more than a little excited about these new prospects. It could change a lot for all of us. It is such a revelation to be able to take this chance, to want to take this chance. I hope Sly is with me.

I see her not far away walking in her customary confident strides, with the long, dark hair and coat flaring around her. My heart speeds up, and I push away from the wall to go meet her. I see the flash of a soft, white smile as she spots me, but I also see the wrinkle in her forehead. Something is bothering her. As Sly gets closer, I notice a new wariness in pale blue eyes along with strained features. She tries to hide it again in a soft smile, but I see through it. I know her well enough to be able to. I stop in front of her, and her eyes devour me. Without a word, she tweaks my nose and pulls me into a fierce hug. Her arms are strong and clinging. I hear a slight intake of breath as she continues to hold onto me for dear life. Breathing in the clean scent of my own Ivory soap, I return the hug just as fiercely because I sense that this is what she needs. After long minutes, Sly lets me go, and I sit my feet on the ground again. I look at her waiting for her to tell me.

“I missed you,” she whispers huskily.

My heart thuds, and I reach up to smooth away the worry lines creasing her forehead. Sly closes her eyes, as if she had been waiting for me to do just that. “I missed you too.”

The worry lines won’t go away. I let my hand drop, but she catches it and brings it to her lips. Her eyes close once more as she brushes her lips over my open palm. Eyes the color of a semi- cloudy sky open, and in them, I see such pain and longing. “Abbie.” The emotions are reflected just the same in that one word.

My heart turns over in my chest, and I know that at this instant she needs me to touch her, hold her, and kiss her, if only for reassurance. I take her hand and pull her toward the Hard Rock Café to our little spot we found between buildings. It is close quarters, barely leaving an inch between our bodies.

Our eyes meet, and I see resignation. I touch her cheek with fingertips and don’t stop until I am outlining soft lips. She purses her lips and kisses them in response. On tiptoes, I lean forward, and as if it were the most natural thing in the world, I brush her lips with mine. Sly’s breath hitches, and her body caves in on mine. Unbelievable heat engulfs me, making me tingle from the inside out. I welcome it. I kiss her ear and murmur, hoping it to be the truth, “Whatever it is, it will be okay.”

She mumbles something I am unable to understand. After a minute, Sly pulls back, and tries to hide the worry and pain in her face that I have already seen. I have to remember that this is Sly. This is what she knows. I see through it all. I will give spot her this façade because of this. She takes my hand and leads me back to the Boardwalk. We don’t talk again for a few blocks. Yet, I saw her watching me out of the corner of her eye the whole time. Finally, she speaks. “How was your night?”

Part of me wants to shrug and get to what’s eating her, but I know this isn’t her way. Sly will tell me in time. I know this, so I go along. I turn to her, dividing my attention between her and the few people on the Boardwalk ahead of us. “It was pretty sedate. Same old, same old. I could do that job in my sleep. Lola keeps me on my toes as always though. I did talk to her about something I was planning.” I take a glance at her. Dark brows are still drawn. With the addition of high, slashing cheekbones, the combination made her look rakish. Regardless of her expression, I know that I have her attention for the moment. I’m taking the chance. It’s time to tell her. “Um, there’s this job that I want to apply for. It’s for head housekeeper. The pay is a lot better, but there is also more responsibility. It’s grave shift, so we’ll still get to see each other.” I pause and wait for her reaction.

I feel my hand being squeezed, and Sly turns to look at me with the scowl still in place. “That’s good. You should go for it.”

I hear nothing but sincerity in her voice, despite her countenance. I smile up at her. “You think so?”

For an instant, the expression melts, and that all knowing smirk comes through. “I know so.”

I’m so giddy that I skip a step, and I shiver at the sound of her chuckle. But, I know I have to throw the clincher. “There’s more, Sly.”

I swallow and look up into her face again. The smirk is gone. “Oh? What’s that?”

I feel my palms start to sweat and hope that she doesn’t notice. “Um, i-if I get the job, my old job will be open, and um, well, I want you to think about taking it. Y-you could use my address. No one would ever find out.”

Abruptly, we stop walking. Pale blue search my face for long moments, before one word is whispered. “No.”

My heart drops and so does my confidence level. I wonder if this shows on my face because all of a sudden Sly looks regretful. Her mouth opens and she flounders words like a fish does water. “Abbie, I-I —”

“No?” I murmur back confused, and I am so confused. I thought she wanted better. I thought she wanted a chance, and I thought she wanted everything again. Could I have been that wrong? What does that mean for us? I swallow hard. Leaving her alone, allows Sly time to think. Sometimes, she thinks too much. Has she talked herself out of us? Is that what this look means? It can’t be. She promised me.

“Sly?” I know my face and voice is laden with fear. So much so, that Sly pulls us toward a bench. I sit down on the hard wood and peer into her face for answers. She hangs her head then looks back up at me. I know she’s about to give me some.

Her hand still held mine as she began to speak. “Curtis died last night,” Sly says flatly.

My mouth opens wide in shock. “Wha,how did it happen?” I squeeze her hand, hard.

Sly shrugs. “I don’t know.”

I shake my head in disbelief. “What do you mean you don’t know?” I inquire softly.

Sly’s sudden laugh makes me jump. “That’s the point, little bit. That’s why I can’t take the job because I don’t know. I should have been there. Instead, I was,”

“With me.” I add sadly. “Ar-are you saying that we,”

Her grip on my hand turns to iron. “Oh God, no. I couldn’t. I mean, we. . .you mean too much to me. I’m just saying that I can’t do it all.”

Still confused and scared, I rub my brow in an attempt to make sense out of all this. “What are you saying? We can’t stay like this. I mean, living like this, neither one of us. I want things to be better for us, including Gert, Paulie, and Stevie,” I interject shakily.

She brings my hand into her lap, and blue eyes implore me. “It’s not just them. I have a responsibility to a lot of people. A lot of them depend on me.”

Realization dawns and hit me with a dull thud, sinking to the pit of my stomach. “Y-you want to stay in this situation in order to keep helping everyone. Is that what you’re saying?” I realized also at that moment that was what the resigned look was for.

Sly nods slowly. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

I want to snatch my hand away, but for the simple fact that I could understand where she was coming from. That alone was stopping me. There are other ways to approach this, and I have to make her see. “Sly,” I whispered softly. “If you had money, you could do a lot of things for a lot of people.”

The dark head starts to shake vehemently. “No, you don’t understand. Wha,” she pauses and takes a deep breath. “What if I become like I was before? Money did that to me. I can’t help anybody that way.”

Why didn’t I see? Is this what she is really afraid of on top of the other things? Her head is hanging again in attempt to hide in shame. I lift her chin with the help a few fingers. “No, that’s not going to happen. Do you know why? Because you have people around you now. People who care. We won’t let that happen.”

Sly peers at me for a long time before speaking. “I want to believe you, but how do you know.”

“Because I know. Do you trust me?”

“Yes.” There was no hesitation.

“Then trust me to help you just like you helped me.”

Sly turns away, and her free hand clasps into a fist. “It’s not that simple, Abbie. People depend on me.”

She needs answers for everything, and that’s what I’m going to give her. “Then teach them not to. Teach them to start depending on themselves. A lot of what you do can be done if they all just communicated with each other.”

Sly stares down at me. Is that pride I see in her eyes? “Where did that little girl I first met go? You have changed so much.” She tweaks my nose.

“For the better?” I ask as I wrinkle my nose in response.

“Most definitely. You make me believe that I can too.”

I trace a gentle pattern in her open palm as I glance up at her. “You have already. Ask your friends.”

Her eyes are shy and still unsure. “Could it all be that simple, Abbie?”

This time I bring her hand up for a kiss, and I can’t help but smile at the shiver I feel go through her body, sitting so close to mine. “Never said it would be simple.”

“I guess not.” I glance up to see that the lines have all but disappeared from her forehead, as has the rakish expression. “What if they don’t want to be taught? I’ve done things for them for so long. I don’t know how,”

“I’ll help,” I interrupt. “Sides, I may not even get the job, but I think this is worth doing to get us both on our feet again.”

Sly shakes her head as she looks at me with burning eyes. “You know, you just make everything seem possible. I guess, I think too much, brood too much on a lot of things. When I get around you, everything just changes.”

I smile at her, and murmur, “I think I know what you mean.”

A minute later, Sly pulls me up from the bench, and we are on our way again. “So will you consider this?”

Sly pauses and glances down at me with twinkling eyes. “Anything for you, for us.”
Chapter XXII: Watching and Waiting
Abbie is asleep now. I’m sitting in one of the folding chairs watching over her. Sometimes, I still think that she’s going to disappear. What did I do to deserve her? It’s a question I’ve asked time and time again. Whatever I did, I’ll keep doing it because I want her in my life more than anything else. This scares me life is in a precarious balance that could change for the worse or the better at anytime. I don’t want to drag her down with me. I want her at the top, where we should both be.

But, I have to keep the others in mind too. Teach them. I never thought about that before. Now, it’s an option that I cling to because the alternative is to give my life to them. I can’t, not if I want Abbie in it. It’s not a decision I made lightly, but it was made quickly.

She’s so quiet and peaceful looking. She was so animated before. Abbie gushed about this job. I hope she gets it. I really do. It could change a lot of things. Her mind was full of possibilities for us. For us. I have to smile at that because the old me would have been too proud, but I’m not that person anymore. After her shower, she talked. I listened, and we ate Ramen noodles and drank the last of the milk.

I grin again and shiver as I remember how I reached across the small table to wipe away the white mustache with a thumb. I saw the breath stop in her chest. With just that simple touch, I rocked her. She stopped speaking, and cradled my whole hand to her face, loving it with wet, open mouth kisses that rocked me in return. I don’t remember if it was the fire I know that was burning in my eyes or the tiny whimper that escaped my lips.

Somehow, Abbie ended up in my lap, touching my face and tracing my lips. She let out this little keening sound that was half way between moan and whimper when our lips finally touched. It made my blood boil, but somehow I had the strength to let her lead, let her explore with mouth and tongue, even though it left me ravenous. I fought like hell to keep my hips still. Her face was flushed, green eyes glittered, and her breathing was hard. It was a sight to behold. It’s a site I will cherish each time. After a few hard hugs and chaste kisses, things cooled down. I read to her until she went to sleep.

So I find myself, staring now, believing in her, in us, in almost everything. I reach out and push a stray blonde hair away from moist lips. She lays on her stomach with hear head turned my way. Arms are snaked under flat pillows, and her mouth is partly open, revealing teeth. Her features are line free and young, and she never looked more beautiful.

There are so many more questions to be answered, and so many more situations to face. Still, I think Abbie will make it easier for all of us. She makes us believe. I believe I am changed. Maybe it’s okay to want again. Yeah, I know it is.
Chapter XXIII: Black Water
“Abbie, are you sure that you want to stay with the Mission?”

I didn’t even have to think about it. “Yeah, it just feels right. I figure that they could use all the volunteers that they can get.”

Sly goes quiet and clutches at my hand in the semi-darkness. I’m off tonight and nervous, almost giddy about this new job. I’ve been fidgeting around for the past week, and Sly has been so patient with me, so quick with the smiles, the hugs, and the kisses.

I am also officially finished with my community service. Went to court and everything to present the judge with the paperwork. He seemed so surprised when I looked him in the face and told him I was staying on there. Probably thought I wasn’t the same person as before. He would be right. I’m as at home at The Mission as I am in my own little room. It’s almost like a second home now.

We spent some time there today, Sly, Pauly, Stevie, and me. Then, we went to go see Gert. She’s looking a lot better, and I have never seen her look so clean. Her face still has deep smudges that don’t seem to want to go away, and hair that had been denied treatment for so long is damaged and brittle. She was also a lot thinner. With the shock of white hair and still sallow features, she looked haunted, but she is still able to smile every time we enter the room. The doctor said that she’d be ready to go in a few days. She wanted to keep her longer to make sure we had a living situation arranged for her, even temporarily. The conditions under The Boardwalk could cause a relapse. None of us want that to happen. That was all earlier today.

Now, it’s night time, we are walking along the Boardwalk, holding hands, and about to do something I’ve never done in my few years here‹walk on the beach. The salt smell surrounds me, making me want to take big gulps of air to pull it in. It’s amazing that I could have missed this all before.

I feel her presence next to me all warm and gentle, and I still can’t believe that Sly’s all mine. I lace our fingers together, enjoying the tingles that result, and she turns to me with a smile that looks a little sad. I can tell by the grooves in her forehead. I know that something is on her mind. “Tell me,” I whisper even though I know she will. She usually needs time to fix it all in her head, but sometimes, Sly thinks too much.

Sly lowers her head and the light from the lamps around us makes her hair look blue in its blackness. She sighs and mutters, “It’s not because of me is it? You’re not doing this out of some obligation to me are you?”

My eyes widen, and it hits me that sometimes this woman thinks that she’s not worthy. But, she is, very much so. I snake my arm through hers around the material of the coat she always wears and lean against her as we walk slowly. “You’re not an obligation. You’re a necessity to me, but The Mission has nothing to do with you. I’m doing that because I need to. It’s sort of a reminder of where I am and where I could be. Besides, you guys could use a cheery face around there. Do you understand?” I lean in further as a brisk wind blows going right through the plain white t-shirt and the well worn khaki walking shorts that I am wearing. We pause and she looks down at me with unfathomable eyes.

“Yeah, I think I do.” She scratches her chin and drops her head. “Sometimes, I just—-”

“I know,” I tell her.

“Know me that well do you?” Sly asks with that all-knowing grin.

“Yeah, I do.” I tell her with a grin of my own. I follow her as we turn off toward stairs that lead to the beach. “Why are we out here at night again?” I have to ask.

“Mmm, let’s see. To start to relax you for your interview that you have in a few days; to show you what the ocean looks like at night; and to try to be a little romantic, I guess,” she added quietly, almost shyly.

I chuckle. She can be so sweet at times. “Sounds like a plan to me.” The job interview. I have to admit that I’m a little nervous about it. I applied last week, and I have an interview in two days. Things could change more than a little for both of us in two days. Even if I don’t get it, I still want her to apply for something in the casino. They’re always looking to hire. I told her that just the other day, and she nodded without hesitation. God, she’s wonderful.

Sifting through the sand now, we both look out at the dark water to see the beach deserted, while behind us a scattering of people still meander The Boardwalk. A sparse amount of cracked shells pepper the sand and glow in the moonlight, giving the area an unearthly facade. I feel them crunch under the weight of my feet, but it only adds to the ambiance. We both stop and glance down at them as the water laps around us. Then, I look up at her face, seeing the hard angles in shadows, but they soften for me as her lips curve into a smile.

“I would have loved to come out here barefoot with you, but the shells make it dangerous. They’re not many but they hurt like hell. You should really see it in the daytime too. All the terns and gulls swoop down. It’s a graceful thing to watch,” Sly whispers to me as she pulls me in front of her to stare out at the water. I see the bubbled foam gleam up but the rest looks black and almost tranquil between small waves. Sly wraps her arms around me from behind, and I feel at peace and on fire at the same time. “What do you think?” she asks.

For a full minute, I say nothing as I revel in the tingles and the feel of her against me. Her firm hug brings me back. “It’s beautiful,” I manage to murmur. “It’s amazing how you take the time to see all this. Most people don’t. I know I never did.”

I could feel her shrug. Then, a blast of heat meets my ear, causing me to shiver. I think she knows that it isn’t from the cold because she leans in closer. “When you live like I do, Abbie, you notice every little thing and most of it is the stuff that the rest of the world takes for granted. I’m glad you can see through my eyes now.” Her lips are so close that I feel them moving. My body erupts when I feel her mouth brush my ear moistly.

I cover the hands she has wrapped around my torso and mutter huskily, “Me too.” Her arms flex around me and I feel her sigh before it actually comes out.

“You’re gonna have to help me. You know that. I’m used to being the strong one for all of us. It’s gonna be a switch teaching instead of just doing.”

This has been on her mind for days every since she agreed to apply for a housekeeping job. It’s been gnawing at her. This is who she is, the worrier, the doer‹for everyone. I don’t want that to ever change. I trace a large hand with my fingertips. “I know, but you have to know that doing this won’t change who you are. It just adds to it. We’ll survive better knowing what you do.”

Sly pulls me into her body more snugly, and I can feel its imprint against my back from her breasts to hip. “You see the good in almost everything don’t you?” she asks.

I can almost laugh at that if she hadn’t stole my breath moments ago. How can I even answer her? I feel her. . .everywhere like a damp heat enveloping me. It’s overwhelming ¯ the feel of this. I have to ask myself does she know what she’s doing to me? Does she know that I can’t think at times like this? Does she know and get as much pleasure out of it all as I do? I want to just crawl up in her. When did this start? A few days ago? A week? Yesterday? I know I wanted to take this slow, but the heat, God it’s consuming. She calls my name again to pull me from this hold, but inadvertently or not, Sly pushes me in deeper as she places another kiss on my ear. Back to her original question. If I can only remember what it was. Oh, seeing the good. “I didn’t always. You know that. You met the woman I used to be—scared as hell. I didn’t see the good or the bad. I didn’t see anything. Now, it’s all around me.” I know for a fact that I didn’t see or feel until that moment that Sly came up to me in the food line. Things haven’t been the same since, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sly slumps over me like she wants to draw me in. Something else is wrong. I should have seen it when the lines on her forehead refused to disappear. I wait because I know it will come out. There’s no need to coax. For a while we stand there quietly listening to the lap of waves around us, the murmur of voices far away; watching the moon do her job; and feeling the connection between us.

I hear and feel her take a deep breath and the words just trickle out like slowly moving water. “I’m scared.” I feel the mild tremor in her body to coincide with her words.

“Of what?” I lower my voice to the softest register.

Sly responds. “It’s the same everytime, and it’s so damned hard to shake. I’m scared of who I used to be, of who I am, and of who I can become. I’m scared of failure. I don’t think I can handle another one. I’m scared of letting you down, of letting everybody down. I don’t want to get my hopes up about this job thing because I know for sure that it can be snatched away from me like the opportunity never existed.” She trials off in a shaky voice filled with emotion.

I have to ask even though I already know the answer; even though I told her the answer myself. “You’re scared that that will happen to me aren’t you?”

Sly doesn’t say a word. She rests her chin on my shoulder and I feel her head bob up and down. Her hands tighten around me. It should be painful but all I feel is heat and safety. “I know what you told me, but sometimes things are out of our control. Sometimes, I feel like I’m cursed. I want you. I want a life, but I can’t help but think sometimes that someone up there won’t let me have both without some big drawbacks.”

“Do you believe that? You make it almost sound like fate. I remember reading something about that in high school.”

I could feel her head shake from side to side. “I don’t want to, but it’s hard with all that’s happened. All strings seem attached and lead to the same place—fuckin’ with my life.”

I feel her words rumble through her chest to mine. She means every one of them. I look out to see the far away line of the black ocean and the crescent moon that hangs over it like some sort of bright guardian. It’s a sight to see, but it only distracts me for a second. Sly can distract me for what seems like an eternity. I bite my bottom lip as I soak in her previous words.

Then, I add my own. “I can’t agree with you on that. I think fate had me right where it wanted me in Indiana. I could have been like everyone else there—in a rut, but I don’t know. I just took a chance and ended up here. . . in a different kind of rut. Part of me wanted to stay and deal with things familiar, but I just couldn’t. I’ve had it hard since I’ve been here, but I met you. If I had stayed there, this. . .” I trail my hands over her forearms, “would have never happened. If fate is responsible for that, I think I made my own. I think you have to fight for what you want, and all the misery that comes with it, is just a part of it all. If I had to live the life I have since I’ve been here over again, I wouldn’t complain as long as it led to you. I would fight hard and even dirty to make sure that happens.” I say it with as much sureness in my voice as I can muster.

Before I know it, her face is buried in my neck, and I feel her mouth open over the flesh there. She can’t stop touching me. Even with the seriousness of the situation and the words, she can’t stop. I don’t want her to. Slow, I try to remember to tell myself that, but it feels so good. I gasp at the feel of the open mouth scraping against me. My breathing is rapid and thick. Suddenly, her lips are gone. I begin to turn to protest, but breathing that was rapid before turns ragged as her mouth brushes against the shell of my ear again. My nails dig into the skin of her arms as she whispers in a low, husky voice, “You’re amazing. You mean all of that don’t you?” I lean my head to the side, involuntarily giving her more.

“Y-yes,” I squeak out.

Large hands that were almost idle before start to move over my t-shirted stomach. An unbelievable heat brands my skin with each pass of her hands. As if I’m in some sort of trance, I stare out at the water, and for the first time I notice that with each wave the cast off is getting closer and closer to us. Will it be cold? Or hot like this is? I watch on, feeling all of this at the same time. Words spill from my mouth. “Fight for me?” I ask softly. I want so much for her to believe in us, in herself, in a lot of things.

Those appendages continue to spread fire inside me as she breathes out, “Yess,” against my ear.

For the first time, I notice that her breath is as ragged as mine. It makes me tremble. “Fight for. . .everything?” If I have to say the same thing everyday to keep her in the fight, to keep the fears away, I will. Thoughts flutter out of my head, making it hard to concentrate. I know though that it is an important request. This is serious, but for the moment that and the sensuous seemed to be intertwined where we’re concerned.

“Yesss.”

I could feel the moist heat of her breath against me. It makes me feel damp from the inside out. Somewhere, inside me, there is throbbing. I don’t know where. Right now, my body has many hearts. Her hands stop under my breasts, and her thumbs caress the sides gently. Unable to help myself I arch outward encouraging the touch. I hear a low growl and the fire in my belly turns to liquid as it trickles down to parts south. It’s never gone this far before—the touching, these feelings. It’s then that I realize that I want to feel more. Slow, maybe after tonight. Sly growls again but it sounds more like a keening animal. All of a sudden, sensation shoots through my body with intensity. Her tongue plunges in my ear, lapping at sensitive places I wasn’t aware of. I can’t help myself. I cry out. “Sly!” The knots and curls in my stomach make me whimper. Romance. This is romance? I like it.

The black water that I had been staring out at finally meets me. It soaks through my sandals and licks at my toes. The water is warm like Sly’s tongue. The thought of it makes me reach up and wind a hand through thick dark hair, pulling her to me. I whimper again. I don’t recognize myself. A woman is doing this to me. A woman is making me feel. A woman is making me need. This . . .woman the missing piece.

Just as quickly as the feelings started, they are gone. I turn to see Sly backing away from me. Her eyes are wide, apologetic, and she is holding her hands up in a gesture of surrender.

“I’m sorry. I’m not trying to push. . .”

Her voice trails off and Sly looks away trying to hid her flushing face. I attempt to move forward only to feel my feet sinking into the wet sand. Seeing my distress and despite her own, Sly reaches out to help. Her hand takes mine. Somehow she stumbles. I watch her free arm flail as she falls backward, taking me with her. I land on her with a hard smack, knocking the wind out of us both. Her coat is open and fans around us like a blanket protecting us both from the jagged pieces of shell. Surprised but still caught up in the moment, I put my hands in the wet sand and push up and over until I am straddling her and staring down into her face. She is visibly upset. Blue eyes are dark and glittering, and her lip is a thin line. Her chest is heaving with every breath making it brush against my own. I feel the tips of my breast harden and expand. “Dammit,” I hear her mutter. I immediately think that I have done something, said something to make her stop or make her angry. I stare over her head into the darkness as my mind flashes over the last few minutes, trying to find something to apologize for. Anything, I just want her to touch me again. I get my wish. Sly reaches up to cup my face. I take it as an invitation. My lips brush hers and we cling to each other. I make a sound in the back of my throat that I can’t identify. I only know that I want more. My hands find their way into her hair. I continue to graze her mouth with my own but she only lays there. I whimper in frustration and the throbbing inside me continues. “Please?”

Her face clinches up as if in pain. Sly pushes my bangs off my forehead. “It’s not you.”

I’m confused, and I am sure it shows on my face. “Tell me please.” Big hands trail through my hair, leaving my scalp sensitized. Everything is burning. I groan, and I hear a hitch in her breathing.

Her voice is thick, rough. “I want you. Been holding back. . .”

Realization dawns, I knew this. Words are out of my mouth before I can stop them. “Don’t. . .hold back. Touch me.” I didn’t know how far I wanted things to go, but I know that I want. . .things. I lower my mouth to hers, and I can feel our breaths mingle. “Please.” When did I become so bold and straightforward? Does it matter? This is who I am now.

Her moan is long and low, and before I know it, she is crushing me against her. Her mouth is open wide over my own, deliciously devouring. With each spear of her tongue inside I hear her whimper as if she loves my taste and can’t get enough. The kiss is rough, savage and all consuming. I realize that I want to be consumed by it, so I try to give as good as I get. What is she doing to me? What are we doing to each other? I feel like I’m flying apart and coming together again simultaneously. I moan at the heady feel of it– her around me, inside me, underneath me. I feel my hips start to lurch against her. Sly snatches her mouth away, and I feel her whole body shudder as she cries out, “God!”

Her hands.– oh my God, they are so hot‹snake inside the loose legs of my khaki shorts to palm my thighs. She pulls me to her roughly, and I feel narrow hips grind against me. Lava-like heat, that’s the only way I can describe it, flows through me molten and liquid. So good, and I tell her so with a loud groan. The lower half of my body is on fire, and it is spreading so quickly. It’s so intense. I should be scared. I should be. Maybe in a few moments I will be. This is what she’s been holding back from me‹this hunger, this need. Is it all for me? Before I can answer my own question, she says my name. “Abbie.” Her voice, it sounds so needful, so aching. I respond to it by covering her mouth with my own again. She cries out and I swallow it. Our noises mingle‹the little whimpers, keening sounds and moans, and all the time I grind into her like I’ve done this before, felt this before.

Her hands flex, kneed and pull my thighs, meshing me into her. It’s for me. All of it. I know it. I can feel it, and I’m all for her. I feel a dampness at my knees and have the coherence to know that it’s the water lapping against us, drenching her coat. I feel the same way, drenched and heavy.

The sudden appearance of flashing blue and red lights along with the sound of a car revving on The Boardwalk bring it all to a startling halt. We tear away from each other to peer toward The Boardwalk, hoping we aren’t the ones that have been spotted.

A loud speaker blared, “There is no bike riding at this hour.”

I groan in relief and agitation. Didn’t Boardwalk cops have something better to do? I glance down at Sly to see an amused smirk showing on shadowed features. “What’s funny?”

Sly chuckles. “I wonder what he would have said if it was us he caught? There is no groping on the beach at this hour!”

I snicker with her and shift to get more comfortable. It only brings our hips together again. I become aware of her hands on my thighs. She pulls me into her and I see her features sober.

“I-is this okay, little bit?”

I can hear the uncertainty in her voice. “Yes, I, um, I wanted to take things. . .”

“Slow,” she interrupts.

“Yeah, but it feels. . .” I search for words, “so good. I’ve never felt this good before.” Her hands continue to caress me. I shiver.

“I didn’t want to scare you, but I wanted,” she pauses. “God, its been so long since I’ve felt this, and its never been like this. . .so intense. Even when you look at me, I get. . .ugh.”

“Ugh?” I am teasing, but I really want to know.

“Hot and cold,” Sly clarifies.

I find myself nodding. “Yeah, I know what you mean, but I want to feel this. I want it to be okay to feel this.”

Sly chuckles again. “That’s good because I was walking around feeling like the top of my head was about to pop off.” Her voice trails off again. “Just tell me if I push too far.”

“Okay, I can do that. If you tell me too?”

I see her eyes widen. She wasn’t expecting that. “Deal.”

It is quiet again except for the sound of the waves. “So what do you want to do now?” She removes her hands from my thighs and pulls me into a hug. I sigh at the loss of heat.

I kiss her nose and answer, “I don’t know. You’re all wet, and. . .” Sly lets out a bark of laughter. I cant my head to the side in confusion until it dawns on me. I feel heat flood my face. “Um, oh.”

“Mmm, yeah oh.”

“Uh, I mean your coat is wet, so we should get you dried off.”

Sly tweaks me nose. “It’s okay, little bit. I know what you meant. Let’s go.” She helps me up, and I return the favor. I wade through the water for a minute cleaning off my feet and sandals. I do the same for my hands.

Holding hands, we find ourselves walking on the Boardwalk again but this time in the opposite direction. “So, Abbie? Did it work?” I turn to look at her in confusion only to see that smile that I’ve come to recognize as trademark.

“Did what work?”

With her free hand she splays it out to encompass all of outdoors. “You know, the Boardwalk, the beach, romance. Are you still nervous?”

Compared to the chance and the step I just took out there on the sand, I feel like I could take anything on. “No, ” I tell her. “I don’t think I’ve felt more relaxed, but I feel pent up at the same time with all this energy.”

Sly let out another bark of laughter. “I know that feeling well.”

I feel myself smiling, but I need to add this even though we already discussed it. “Will you go with me and put in an application if you can?” She’s quiet for a long moment then I feel a soft squeeze of my hand. “Yes,” she whispers.
Chapter XXIV: Home
I watch her as she tosses around in the bed in an attempt to get comfortable, and I have to be honest with myself. I wish that I was there with her. Who knew that my Abbie had as much pent up as I did? I quiver as my body remembers what happened on the beach. I know now. She’s still leading, but we seemed to have upped the ante a little bit. I like upping the ante, but not as much as I love touching and kissing her. It’s an addiction all to itself.

The words that come out of her mouth, they are so easy to believe. I find hope in them every time when old fears creep up on me, which they are prone to do. I think that I’m addicted to that too. Is that a bad thing?

I sit on the floor in my pile of blankets watching her as I towel my hair dry. She is so unbelievable and so damn smart. I don’t think she realizes that. I think it’s my duty to help her with that. It’s only fair. She’s given me so much. I’m changing. I have changed, and it’s time for even more change. Abbie is right. I know she is about teaching the others to do and fend for themselves within this screwed-ass system. It’s good to be the screwer and not the screwee. Are those words? Who cares, they are now. Anyway, I want to show them what it feels like to know where to go and who to talk to ¯ to keep their children up on their education; to keep their belongings safe; to keep themselves safe. That’s a good thing about invisibility. You can move through hard-ass walls unsuspected here in the country of denial.

A job. I could have a job soon. I have to say that I’m a little excited about that despite the fact that it could come and go like the wind. Either way, I’ve forgotten what money smelled like. So, my little Abbie believes that we make our own fate. It’s an idea to ponder I must say. Maybe this job can be my chance. Maybe I can get it and keep it. Hell, I’d be willing to kiss a few asses if necessary. Maybe I can get a room just like this one and sneak Pauly, Stevie and Gert in. It’s an idea. I’m tired of things just happening to me. It’s time to make things happen instead of waiting. Well look at that. There’s something to this fate thing. Is it as simple at that? I guess that I’ll see. Abbie girl, you’re one wise woman.

I glance back up at Abbie. She’s settled in and has her arms wrapped around the pillow like a lifeline. I smile. I remember when she did that to me. It’s a nice way to wake up. I pull the robe close around me and burrow under my own blankets. I lace my hands behind my head and look up at the ceiling. I grin in wonder. Despite the destitute thing, these have been the best few months of my life. Abbie was right when she said I feared her being taken away, but I said I would fight. I promised, and I refuse to break a promise to her even if it means doing things I didn’t think I was capable of. The guilt is still there, and I reckon it will be for a while until I see that they can do for themselves‹the ones that want to. Still, it’s good to know that I have the people who I can count on around me. Pauly and Stevie are a hop skip and a jump away, and Gertie. . . It’s so good to see her well again.

I find myself laughing silently at something she said when we were there earlier today. “You’re cleanin’ up, Sly.” Translation: She knows that Abbie and me are getting closer and likes the effect on me. I know she noticed long before by the little twinkle in her eye, but she never said anything just gave me a look. That’s okay though we don’t need words. I’m glad she’s getting out in a few days, but I’m scared too. She’ll have to stay at The Mission away from the elements. I’ve already talked to the doctor about it. There are some good things about The Mission. The counselors there will see that she gets her medication as well as keep her cool and dry in all this heat. They’re gonna try to anyway. It helps that I’m gonna be there everyday to make sure that they do. I know that there’s no other way, and I’m gonna have to get the gangs help to talk her into it. I need to get this job so I can take care of her properly.

I turn back to Abbie. And I need her. I groan as flashes of a few hours ago pummel me. Wrapping a pillow over my face, I moan again. That cold shower didn’t help. I guess that make out session we had on the floor in lieu of reading didn’t either. We talked, laughed, kissed and touched. Yeah, I like upping the ante.
Chapter XXV: Together Again
I hear the ding of elevators and the murmur of passersby around me, but I’m not really paying attention. The past two days have been, for lack of a better word, wow. I’ve learned so much about Abbie, and I think that I’ve been open about myself as well. I’m sure she knows all about my shitty past now, including my clueless parents. I know how wonderful hers were. After she related to me about her time in foster care, I feel like I was on a cake walk up until the jail thing. She makes it so easy‹this talking thing. I just look at her and the words just spill. It’s really something to see. There was something she said during that time that almost blew me away.
While sitting on the floor, Abbie lounges in my lap as we lean against the bedframe. Her ear is against my chest with her arms wrapped around my torso. She squeezed me while at the same time, murmuring, “Can I tell you something?”

“Anything little bit. You know that.”

She paused for what seems like a long time. “You gave me a chance to dream back.”

My heart flutters, and I think she feels it too.

“Did I do that? Just by saying. . .”

“Yeah,” I whisper huskily. “You did.”

She goes quiet again and I feel her ear pressed harder against my chest, listening to my heart spasm.

“For a long time there was just my parents. I wasn’t prepared for anything more. I just thought they would always be here. I didn’t want to run out and go to college or anything, but I’m sure they had plans for me. Then, there was a whole lot of nothing, and I realized that my dream was to be safe and loved. I never thought I would feel that again. “I just wanted to survive, but you make me want more. I feel like there’s so much that I’ve missed and just now get to see.” Green eyes peer up at me, pleading for understanding.

I nod. “I think I pretty much feel the same way. All I wanted was money, material things, and women. I got all three and then some, but something was missing. It just didn’t feel right. It took me until I got arrested to understand that. Boy, did I understand. The dreams I had were all selfish and self serving. Being out on the street changed me a lot made me see others as actual people rather than some hump I could take for a ride. After all these years, I didn’t realize that there was more I could have, more that I deserved. Then, I’ll be damned if I didn’t see this little blonde woman in line one day.” I pull her close and listen to her chuckle. I end up doing the same.

“You know I’ve never talked as much as I do to you.”

She grins in empathy. “I haven’t either. You think we bring it out in each other?”

“Mmm, could be. I know one thing. I wouldn’t trade any of this for anything.”
I’m brought back to the present by the sound of a doctor being paged, but still the conversation hangs with me. I gave her back the ability to dream to want more. She’s done the same for me, but I think she is my dream. I glance around. The four of us find ourselves sitting in the waiting room on Gert’s floor as the doctor gives her one last once over. There’s no danger of us being kicked out this time.

Abbie isn’t really sitting, she’s standing in front of the vending machine a few feet away. “I want those honey coated nuts,” Stevie calls out.

Abbie gives him a smile and puts in the change. I see her glance at Pauly. “Let me guess. The cheese and crackers?”

Pauly lets out a laugh. “Naw, little miss you know I have a sweet tooth.” He gives her a rotten tooth smile, and I almost laugh at the absurdity of it. Sweet tooth. I think Abbie gets the irony too. Green eyes twinkle and smile back at me. “Snickers it is,” she mumbles.

After procuring that treat, she turns to me. I smile wickedly and take in the simple green skirt that snuggles her hips perfectly along with the silky white top. She looks older and more delectable than ever. Who said they didn’t have good clothes at the Salvation Army? I smooth my hands over my own khakis and button down tee. Good thing Abbie only had to spend four dollars. I need this job. I want to be the one getting her things. I’m brought back by the sound of my name from her lips. “Sly, what do you want?” The wicked grin is back. I mouth ‘you.’ She becomes immediately flustered almost dropping the snacks from her hand, but I see that smile, that one just for me, lighting up her red face.

I glance out the side of my eye then turn to see Pauly and Stevie giving me knowing looks. I raise a brow at them. “What?”

Stevie cackles, “Shame on you, Sly. You dog.”

I repeat my question as innocently as possible. “What?”

Stevie rolls his eyes and peers over at Pauly who adds his two cents. “You’re embarrassin’ her with the googly eyed looks.”

I blink. “Googly eyed?”

“Yeah, look at’er. She’s a turnin’ nine different shades over there.” He points at Abbie. The flush on her face an neck darken.

My grin turns rakish as I give Abbie the once over again. I’m full of myself. I know. “Uh huh.” I swallow and my eyes widen as she saunters toward me red face and all. This new Abbie likes the unexpected. I scratch my nose and peer over at my comrades only to see the snicker at my sudden lack of comfort. I turn back to see green eyes staring down at me from a very close distance. Before I know it, she’s in my lap with her hands firmly wrapped around my neck. The two men beside me exploded with wheezing laughter. I feel my face turn the shade that Abbie’s was a moment ago. TouchÈ. I acknowledge my defeat with a wink and smile to the woman in my arms who chuckles and buries her face in my neck. God, this woman.

Pauly and Stevie continue to laugh. “Let’s not play kissie face and get all messed up for yall’s big day!” Pauly adds around a guffaw.

Abbie’s head lifts and we turn to each other and smile. “Wish me luck you two?” She asks shyly.

Their heads bob. “Good luck to you both bout time Sly done take the bull by the horns,” Stevie replies.

I turn to look at them both. I have to ask. “So you’re not mad? I wanted to tell you guys earlier, but I’ve been. . .” I feel her arms squeeze me in reassurance. “It’s for all of you too.” I hold up a free hand when they start to protest. “You’re my family, and you belong with me. What’s mine is yours. It’s as simple as that.” They nod and hang their heads but I see the soft smiles on their faces. Men. My thoughts turn to Gert. “Look guys. We need to figure out a way to get Gertie to stay at The Mission for a little while. I‹”

“Yeah, Sly we know. Me and Stevie was discussin’ it last night. We were thinkin’ that if we stayed there she would too. We don’t want her to be sick again.”

I smile. “Great minds think alike.”

We are interrupted by a throat clearing above us. Four sets of eyes turned upward to look up at the woman doctor. I glance down to see Abbie blushing again. I smirk. “She ready?”

The doctor nods with a smirk of her own. “Yeah, she’s up, dressed, and ready to go.”

Abbie slides off my lap and rises. I do too, but I grab her hand without shame as I bend to retrieve the coat I had tucked against the side of the chair. Our eyes meet, and I silently ask if the hand holding is okay. Her nose crinkles and she gives me a squeeze. It’s very okay.

Abbie is the first to enter the room followed by us stragglers. She greets Gertie with a beaming smile that the old woman returns. Right before my eyes, she releases my hand and engulfs Gert in a hug. Gert’s surprised eyes meet mine. I shrug and give her a thumbs up.

“You’re stock just went up, Abbie,” Gert tells her.

“That’s good to know,” Abbie mutters back with the smile still in place. “Now, let’s get you out of here and somewhere where you can call your broker.”

Within seconds, Gert is surrounded by the people who love her. Her clothes are the same, but she looks more rested despite dropping a few pounds. Pauly and Stevie pat her on the back in greeting. I drape the coat around her shoulders. “I think it’s time you have this back.” I glance at Abbie who just happened to be already looking at me. Giving her a soft smile, I continue, “I have other ways to keep warm these days.”

I watch the blush light Abbie’s features, and I listen to the warm laughter around us. Gert joins in. She may be a little crazy but she’s not dumb.

——————————————————————————–

It’s just Abbie and me now walking toward what I can assume are the Human Resource offices of Claridge casino. People mill all around us, and I think Abbie senses my discomfort. I see her about to reach for my hand. Indecision crosses her face. She squeezes my arm instead. That’s good. I wouldn’t let her hold my hand anyway. I want to get this job or any job for that matter.

“You okay?” Her voice is loud among the murmuring people, but it’s still sweet.

I swallow and nod my head. She knows that I’m lying. I need to fix it in my head before I say anything.

“I’m glad Stevie and Pauly’s little trick worked like a charm. If it hadn’t worked, she would be staying with me.”

I look down at this woman, and I am eternally grateful. She is truly amazing. “Thank you.” I pause and add. “I’m nervous.” I wasn’t till now. I really wasn’t. It’s just that it’s been so long. How the hell am I going to explain the gap in employment? Ugh. And what about what happened few years ago with getting arrested. God, I hope that’s water under the bridge. I was exonerated by the court at least. Thank goodness that I’m just filling out an application. I don’t think I’m ready to kiss ass as of yet, and thank God The Mission helped me keep my ID valid. Despite what happened to Curtis and the guilt I still feel over it, it’s time to join the ranks of the living and the visible again. It’s time. I’m tired of being kicked out and manhandled.

“I know.” She leans in and brushes the side of my body with her own.

Suddenly I feel like a totally selfish ass. She’s the one with the interview. “Are you?”

She looks up at me with twinkling eyes. “A little. I’ve never had an interview this big before. Any advice?”

I tell her the truth. “Just be who you are now, and it will go fine.”

Abbie bumps me with her hip. I raise an eyebrow in surprise. She smiles. “Take your own advice.” I shake my head in wonder and watch as she glances around. Suddenly, she jerks on my arm and we head toward what looks like the bathroom. “C’mon. I’ve got some different kind of advice.” My eyebrows raise high into my bangs. Abbie. You devil you.

Before the bathroom attendant could even look up, Abbie has us both against the wall of a very roomy stall. I try to keep my moan in check as she winds her fingers through my hair. I’m glad I wore it down. Very glad. Her hands form into fists and she pulls me to her. I can’t help myself this time. I moan loudly. She tastes so damn sweet even with the cheap lipstick we’re both wearing. Her tongue laves my bottom lip. I quiver and open for her. This time it’s her who whimpers when our tongues touch. I wrap my arms around her and pull her to me, needing to feel her closer. Our sounds blend, and finally, the need to breathe makes us break away. Abbie traces my now swollen lips with her fingertips and mutters, “A kiss for luck.” I could love this woman and what she’s becoming. I really could.
Chapter XXVI: Picking up the Pieces
It’s been two weeks since me and Sly visited the Clairidge Human Resource Offices, and it never occured for one minute that I wouldn’t get the job. I don’t know why. It just never did. I guess being with Sly makes me that optimistic about things, but then again you have to be given both our situations. I went in there with supreme confidence. There was no shyness, no stuttering, and I looked my interviewer right in the eye the whole time. After all of that, they gave it to somebody that had been there a shorter time than me. I was counting on this for us. I feel like a failure. Life can really be shitty sometimes, and I should know. I’m angry, and I think that I’m entitled to it. As we walk, I look up at the stars that usually twinkle back at me but right now, they seem to be a furious red. Perfect.

I found out this morning before I left work, and I’ve been brooding all day. I refuse to say that it’s pouting. Sly’s been a god send as usual. I don’t know what I would do without her. I guess it was like soothing the savage beast or something, but she read to me and even got me to laugh until I was finally able to go to sleep. I didn’t feel much like going to the Mission. I don’t know how she has put up with me. I’ve been snapping at her most of the day and night, and now, Sly’s walking me to work. I haven’t said a word to her.

I sigh and look up at the moon. It’s huge, white, dimpled, and I think tonight that she’s laughing at me. Sometimes the Fates can be as cruel as they are kind, reminding us that they may just be in charge after all. I breathe in the smell of the nearby ocean, and even that doesn’t help like it has as of late. Glancing around discreetly, I see the rows of delapitated houses and apartment buildings as we creep up on Trump Plaza. It really is amazing that these slums exist, I guess you could say right between the casinos. People mill about us going from casino to casino murmuring in delight and surprise. The jitneys and cabs speed by, rattling over the potholes. Oblivous. Still, I can honestly say that I’m glad that I’m not like that anymore. Why didn’t they build these God awful things where the rich people live? Probably to suck more money and life from people like me. I know that I sound bitter, even cynical. Maybe I am, because tonight I’m thinking that I’ll never rise above this. I know that I shouldn’t let this one thing dash my hopes, but I had so much riding on this. It’s kind of hard to see past it right now. I have a family that I need to help take care of. I should tell Sly how I’m feeling, but I don’t want to bring her down. Actually, I don’t want her to know that I’m feeling like these either. I’m usually the one with all the hope, but I’m only human. We haven’t heard anything about Sly’s application yet, and right now to me that doesn’t bode well.

I glance at her profile as we near Ceasar’s and Wild Wild West. More and more people run past us. They bump and jostle us continuously, and it is irritating me to no end. I feel like there is this red itch that can’t be scratched, and every little thing is causing it to inflame. I’m not going to be any good for work tonight. I wish we had taken the Boardwalk, maybe the waves would have calmed me. I look back at Sly. She’s walking by my side stoically, standing tall in her t-shirt and worn jeans. Suddenly with the help of the harsh light, I see her jaw clenching. She’s feeling something too. Is she mad at me for treating her this way? God, I hope not. I’ve never given her the cold shoulder before, and I don’t mean to now. I want her to hold me and tell me that everything will be alright, but we have never lied to ourselves. The only good things in our lives are each other and the little family we created. I need to break out of this mood. I promised myself that I wouldn’t do this anymore. So, I keep staring at her hoping for. . .something.

I guess she feels my eyes on her, and even in the darkness interrupted by the garish lights, I see those beautiful blues sparkling back at me. As always, my heart stops and my stomach clenches. Sly has given me so much. She has awakened the sleeper both physically and emotionally. Despite today’s disappointment the past couple of months have been unbelievable. She touches me, and I feel it to the core. She looks at me, and I melt. Sly kisses me, and I keep thinking that I will be hers for as long as she wants me. Even when I’m working at the Mission, we seem to gravitate toward each other. There is no pretense even there. I think we opened a floodgate that night at the beach. There have been so many close calls; so many times when I’ve cried out for more; so many times when I’m sure I’ve pushed her to the limit; and so many times that I was unable to cross that line. Not yet.

Sly looks away almost shyly like there’s something she wants to say. I see it in her eyes and in her face.

“Abbie?” She whispers my name just loud enough for me to hear, and I’ll never get tired of hearing it. There is a hesitancy in her voice as if she’s scared she will upset some balance.

I feel the red swath swell within me, but I bite my tongue to keep from snapping. It will accomplish nothing. “Yeah?” We stop walking, shocking some of the people around us, who murmur about our rudeness. The bright lights of a Cash for Gold shop flare and flash behind us, giving off all the illumination needed. I look at her expecting more. It does not come. My brows draw together in confusion, but I continue to wait. Sly steps closer to me, invading my space. That’s a laugh because as far as I’m concerned she can invade it anytime she wants to, even in my present state. The heat between us rises up to meet me, and I want to fall into it.

I glance up into her face, and I am shocked by what I see. Her eyes are stricken and sad, but still she doesn’t say a word. A large hand reaches out to me, and I watch in silence as it engulfs mine. I don’t care about the eyes of the passerbys buring a whole in my back. Why didn’t she let me see this before? I reach up to wipe at the wrinkles in her forehead, and she gives me a small smile in return. Sly squeezes my hand, and my own dark feelings fly out the window for the time being as I prepare to tackle hers. “Please?”

She ducks her head and nods. Strands of sable hide her face before it is revealed to me again when she looks up. “I know what it’s like to want something so bad and not get it. So don’t think you’re bringing me down if you want to vent.” Sly looks at me knowingly.

They are like magic words. I feel something let go inside. I step back from her and stomp my foot in irritation and anger. Something close to a growl escapes my chest. My hands ball into fists as if I’m preparing to fight some invisible war, and I pace back and forth in the little area where we’re standing. “How could this happen?! I know nothing was promised, but come on! I was so ready for that job. I never cared before about promotions! I think I was happy to be trapped. Well! I don’t want to be trapped anymore.” I throw my hands up in the air and growl again.

Her look is one of indulgence, understanding and toleration. It stops the growling and ranting but makes way for the tears. I hate this feeling, trapped. It’s like my insides are sinking along with every little bit of fight left in me. I hate it. I throw myself into her arms. I don’t care about the mindless, thoughtless people around us. I need this. Sly closes in, and I feel safe again. I rub my face into her chest, nudging into the sound and feel of her heatbeat. She smells like the outdoors and something wild that’s all her own. I need her. Her hands run over the pristine white collar of the housekeeping uniform before they tangle into my hair, pulling me close. “Why? All I wanted was a chance. Why does it have to be this way?”

I don’t intend for her to answer, but she does. Her chest rumbles as she speaks. “Because it is.”

It’s a simple answer. No sugar coating. Because it is. Those words are enough to break any spirit.

“So, you pick yourself up and keep trying. You taught me that,” Sly mutters.

Those words are enough to build any spirit up again. I glance up in alarm, and I am shocked even more. She’s smiling. It completely flusters me. Reaching up, I trace her lips just to make sure that it’s real. Sly kisses my fingertips, and her grin gets wider. “Why this?” I continue to trace her mouth, ignoring the gasps and murmurs of surprise and disgust around me. They mean nothing.

“Because you taught me that too.” Blue eyes sparkle with sincerity and something deeper.

Like some great epiphany, I suddenly realize the power I have over this woman, and the power she has over me. Every word, gesture, and touch could cripple or validate. It’s tremendous and extremly scary at the same time. Do I want this? All of this? Am I ready? I think of my days and nights without her, and that frightens me to the core. I’m ready for her; ready for this; and suddenly I feel ready for just about anything again. I have to be because the alternative will lead to nothing but despair.

I launch myself at her, and with an ‘oof’, Sly engulfs me into her embrace. Her hold is tight, but I don’t mind because I’m holding on for dear life too. She saved me. We save each other it seems. “You knew all this time didn’t you? How upset I was. . .am?” I mumble into her torso.

She nods. “Yeah, but I don’t think you were ready to let it out just then. So, I gave you the time that you seem to need.”

“Thank you.” I burrow into the softness of the well-worn t-shirt, and I feel her chuckling before I hear it.

“We should get moving. I think we’re becoming one of the sites,” Sly murmurs.

Glancing up at her, I ask, “Why isn’t this bothering you? I think it effects us both.”

She nods in the affirmative. “Oh, it does. It’s just that there will be other chances dangling right in front of us. I’m sure of it.”

Sly winks at me, and I swear that I see a twinkle in her eyes. I peer into baby blues for long minutes, hoping to read more. She’s up to something. I know it. Sly has that little smile on her face. It’s a crooked little smirk that means she knows something that I don’t or she thinks that she does. The smirk gets wider as I back away.

Sly grabs my hand, and we begin walking again. “C’mon! You’re gonna be late.” They are her only words as I continue to peer at her. Yeah, she’s definately up to something. I guess I shouldn’t be worried. At least, I’m not as angry and down as I was before. I don’t like going into work like that. It makes for a long night, a very long one. So, I let her pull me toward Clairidge.

As we get nearer, I glance up at the stars to see almost the same twinkle that I saw in her eyes. Funny that. Can you imagine? Anyway, as we pass Bally’s Park Place, Sly drops my hand. It doesn’t feel right. I need it there probably now more than ever. Maybe I think this fine line that she introduced me to minutes ago will disappear if she lets go. Maybe. I snatch her hand back up and tangle our fingers together, making my intentions clear. I have no intention of letting her go. I know what shame and humiliation is, and there is no place for it with us in any situation. This is something I should have known from the beginning.

Sly looks down at me, and her expression is one of surprise, followed closely by a full-fledged smile. She gives my hand a hard squeeze and pulls me close until our bodies are brushing as we walk. Yeah, I’m so ready for this.

Now at the Clairidge entrance, we turn to face each other. I hear a soft squeal from somewhere behind me followed by “Abbie! Abbie,” in a heavily accented voice. Before I know it, Lola is standing at my side giving Sly the once over and bumping me with her shoulder.

“So, introduce me. Don’t be rude. Aye, chu white girls are something else sometimes.”

I roll my eyes, then I glance up at the dark woman before me. Her eyes hold more than a sparkle. They hold me, and for a minute I get lost. That is until Lola bumps my shoulder again.

Sly raises dark brows and gives me a crooked smile.

I have to admit. I’m a little flustered. “Uhmm, Sly this is Lola. The, uhm crazy woman I keep telling you about?’

Lola gasps and mutters something in spanish. I should really learn that language. Lola nudges me aside and steps forward as she gives Sly another slow perusal. “Whoa, chu are a tall drink of water.” The petite blonde leans over and whispers in my ear, “Now she is just my type, chica.”

My eyes bulge, and I turn to glare at my friend who blinks back at me in false innocence. “Wha? I didn’t say annyting.”

I feel my face burn, hoping that the harsh lights don’t illuminate it too much. Just my luck, it does. Sly smiles down at me mischeviously before she steps forward to offer her hand to the Puerto Rican woman, and Lola takes it without hesitation.

“Nice to meet chu. This one here. . .” She points at me with her chin. “. . .has been talking about chu since chu first met.”

I can feel my face darken even more.

“I told her to go for it.” Lola leans forward and whispers so that only we can hear. “Cause, chu know she has never been with a woman. I tell her to go for it anyway.”

I glance at Sly for help. Her grin is down right devilish. “Really? You told her that? No wonder I’m having a hard time keeping up. She goes for it all right.”

I groan. This night is getting strange. I go from fury to embarassment.

Lola nods in conspiratory fashion. “Oh really? Then chu should have seen her when chu first kissed. Aye, I thought she was gonna fall out the clouds and break a hip. She was so high up.” She pointed to the dark sky for emphasis.

Okay, that’s enough.

“So!” I say rather loudly, causing them both to stare at me. It gives me enough time to send a hard glare Sly’s way. “What are you doing here anyhow. You’re usually already in the building.”

“Yeah, but I heard Jodi got the job, so I thought chu might need a shoulder.” Lola glanced at Sly. “Looks like chu have two broad ones already. I knew chu were counting on it.” She turns to look at me with eyes sparkling with sincerity.

The ire I could feel rising at their antics falls short. This friend thing is unbelivable. Emotion catch in my throat, making my voice screech. “Thanks for being here.” I end up giving her a quick hug that she readily returns.

“Don’t let it get chu down, chica.” She patted me on the back and backed away. Her eyes are again on Sly. “Tings have a way of evenin’ out.”

I look from one to the other. They know something, and I’m dying to know what it is. I stomp my foot in irritation and glare at them suspiciously. “Okay! Somebody want to let me on the little game here?” I almost scream. Today, I’ve raised my voice more than I ever have. It’s so unlike me. “Spill it!” I yell.

To my consternation, I watch as Sly’s smile encompasses her whole face. She steps forward and reaches for my hand.

“Abbie, I–”

I am nudged again, hard by Lola, who jumps up in excitement. “She got the job!” She spits out excitedly.

I stand there momentarily confused. “Huh?”

Sly’s expression is of great surprise. “How on earth did you know?” She asks the blonde.

Lola cracks a smile. “Aye, gossip is a beautiful thing.”

Again, I ask, “Huh?”

Still smiling, Sly grabs me by the shoulders and pulls me close. “I got a housekeeping job, Abbie!”

A loud squeal escapes my lips, and I found myself wrapped around Sly for the umpteenth time tonight. Throwing my arms around her neck, I bury my face into warm skin. From fury to embarassment to hope and happiness, all I can say is what a night. I pull back a little to peer up into her face. That wide smile greets me, and I have never wanted to kiss someone so much in my life. Warmth surrounds me, and I melt into it. I want to melt into her. I shiver, but I can’t help myself.

I see the recognition in her eyes. Sly knows what I want. There isn’t a hint of denial in her eyes. I lean in to taste her mouth, heedless of the people and employees milling about. She emits a small whimper, and I have to school myself not to go further, deeper than we should.

My eyebrows draw together at the sound of clapping. I cut my eyes sideways to see Lola as the source of the noise. My God, I just outed myself in front of all these people, and I could care less. There are more important things in life. Reluctantly, I pull back. I have some questions to ask. I glare at her, but it is only a mock one. “When did you know?”

“They called me while you were asleep this morning. I was just about to go check up on Gert, when the pay phone rung.”

I lightly smack her on the arm. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

Her smile falters a little bit. “Well, I didn’t want you to feel like a failure, but I you ended up feeling that way anyhow. So, I decided to wait until you were ready to talk. You’re not mad are you?”

I give her what seems like my first smile today. “I don’t think that I could ever be mad at you.” I attempt to hug her again, but Lola interrupts.

“Abbie, we’re running late.”

All of a sudden, I don’t want to be at work, but if I have to stay, I hope the night passes quickly. I glance at Sly, looking for the go ahead.

“G’wan, I’ll see you in the morning, and we’ll talk then. Maybe we could go to the Mission together and give the guys the news?”

I grin up at her in answer. I’m getting lost again. It’s so easy. I think I could drown in her.

“Abbie!”

Damn Lola! “I’m coming!” I give Sly a quick kiss on the cheek then turn to go. “See you in the morning.”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Sly mutters as I step away. They are the sweetest words. Our hands disengage, and I turn to go with Lola. I can’t help myself. Every few feet, I look back to see Sly standing there tall, dark, and defiant. This woman is my hero. This woman is mine.

Nothing could spoil my night. Nothing.
Chapter XXVII: Five Miles To Empty
I decide to use the Boardwalk on the way home. Home. I’m beginning to think of that little room as the best home that I’ve ever had. Pushing my hands deep into my jeans pocket, I soak in the salt air and glance up at the blinking sky. Abbie seemed so happy. I want to see that look on her face all the time. I’d do anything to put it there. It’s been over two and a half months since we met, and I wouldn’t take a day back.

I stop and lean against the railing protecting me from the sand to look out at the black water. Gray/white foam licks softly at the shore at almost the same spot we lay a couple weeks ago. I saw that look on her face then too. It was caused by me. Me. I never knew that I could do that to someone. I mean, I know that I help the others on the streets, and they are thankful. But, they are far from happy, and thanks to Abbie I realize that I can not take their happiness on my shoulders. Abbie. I would do anything for her. It’s become as simple as breathing, and it’s funny that in the process of doing just that I’ve become a different person.

Empty or damn near it. That’s how I would have described myself. I had no hope and no prospects. Now, I have seven bucks an hour. It’s chump change really, and I can’t believe these big wigs think somebody could live on it, especially four somebodies. I hold no illusions, and I am grateful for the chump change. Sixty thousands, that’s what I used to make. I’ll probably never get an accounting job again. No one likes an accountant who is accused of having her hand in the cookie jar, even if I’m not guilty. Where money is concerned, people at the top have long memories. I’m surprised that I even got this job. No, I hold no illusions. I want my life back, but it will never be like it was before. To be honest, I don’t want it to be. I just want to take care of my family.

The only thing that I’m worried about is being able to pull this off. I haven’t worked in years, and even then I didn’t have bosses around me telling me what to do. That’s something that I’ve never liked, being told what to do. I’ll have to swallow some pride and kiss some major ass.

I glance up at the moon. She’s hanging there as always, seeing all. I snort at the thought. Who am I kidding, that’s not the only thing. I’ll be cleaning up other people’s shit. Wow, how the mighty have fallen. I’ll have to swallow a lot of pride it seems. I’ll do it too. I have to. I don’t want Gert to end up sick again. I know for a fact that Stevie and Pauly have any families that don’t want them, but I have no idea what Gert’s story is not for sure. She’s never pieced together a complete story, not one I could follow. If I knew, I would try my damndest to get her off the streets and reunited with them. She doesn’t belong here, but if she has to stay, we’ll take care of her.

My thoughts turn back to Abbie. They seem to do that rather easily. I jump at the sudden sound of muffled laughter. It’s coming from behind me. There’s always people milling about the Boardwalk. Back to Abbie. I find it so easy to wax poetic about her, and I am no poet. Not by a long shot. Because of her and because of the chances she’s given me, my life is almost full again. It would be perfect if I had a steady roof over my head; if I knew where my next meal was coming from; and if I knew for sure what tomorrow holds.

Clasping my hands behind my back, I start to walk again. Abbie’s brought my body back to life, as well as my heart, with a vengeance. I’ve never burned for another woman, but I do for her. It’s an all out ache that gets more pronounced when she’s near. Saying that I want her wouldn’t be a strong enough phrase. I don’t think there is one to describe what I’m feeling. The way she shivers, whimpers and moans just fuels the fire. Abbie could own me if she wanted to. What she did tonight just endears her to me even more. I never expected it, and I would have been fine with our relationship just between us. Still, she just made me feel twenty feet tall. To accept me and us like she did took a lot of guts. I can help but to be estatic about that.

So, I stand proud and contnue walking toward one home so that I can immerse myself in a different kind of home in the morning.

*******

As I wait for her out front, I’m as positve as I was last night. It was a strange moment really. I almost had my head in a toilet while I scrubbed it, and I knew. I falling in love with Sly. It hit me like a mac truck. My stomach was all tied in knots, my heartbeat was erratic, and I couldn’t catch my breath. I know it as sure as the sun is shining and the sky is blue. Nothing has changed from last night to this morning.

It’s only been two months, almost three, but it feels like I’ve known her forever. God, that sounds cliche, but it is so true. How else could it be explained? So, I lean against the wall waiting for her. The sun kisses my face, and I feel its heat. It’s nothing compared to Sly’s. I can’t wait to wrap myself around it.

I don’t know how we’re going to work together. They’ll have to put her on the other side of the hotel because my job would never get done. That’s another fact. I am so happy about this though. It’s a starting point for all of us. Now that she has this job, we have to find someway to juggle it with her standing in the homeless community. Maybe it’s time to start teaching people what they need to know. That in itself is going to be a long road because so many people count on her. I know it’s hard to take all of that on her back. I’ve seen the results, when Curtis died. I don’t ever want to see her like that again.

I’m not stupid. I know this isn’t going to be all smiley faces and fresh flowers, but either way, I’m in it for the long haul. Now more than ever. How do I know this is love? I’ve never felt it before. There’s a fullness inside that I know Sly help to put there. Without her, my life would be utterly empty. I feel complete. Will I tell her how I’m feeling? I don’t know. Will I hold back? No. I don’t think I can anymore. I’ve never wanted or needed anything. . .anything like I do her. It was scary at first feeling this need, but I think that I’ve come to terms with it. I know that its not going away.

I glance up to see her coming toward me. My breath catches and my stomach quivers, sending sensations further south. This need that I have to be as close as possible to her is almost palpable. I can feel it hovering in the air, and it gets more pronounced as she gets closer. She’s wearing the same faded, well-worn jeans, but this time her t-shirt is yellow instead of purple. I can’t help but think about all that hot skin under there. I shudder at the thought. What has gotten into me? I feel damp, heavy. I think acknowledging my feelings have opened my eyes even more. I know what I want–who I want.

Sly raises her hand and waves, but I see her. I can’t take my eyes away. Before I know it, Sly is in front of me, grinning. She reaches out to tweek my nose. “Hey you. You ready to go?”

I continue to stare, barely hearing her words. I launch myself at her, engulfing as much of her body as I could into the embrace. I open my mouth over her neck and whimper at her hard shudder of reaction. “Whoa, Little bit. You okay?” Her tone is hoarse, and I feel each word rumble in her chest.

“Yeah, I just. . .just feeling a little needy I guess.” I murmur into her neck. The dampness turns into a slow trickel of moisture as I hold her.

“Mmm, it’s okay. I get that way often enough. God, you feel so good,” Sly groans softly and leans into me.

“You too.” I pause. “Can we take a jitney? I want to hurry. . .” I want to hurry and do what? I want more of this. That’s what.

“Do we have–”

“I got tips.” I interrupt her, breathlessly. I just want to touch her, kiss her. . .something. With this new realization, I feel as though something has been released in me, and it’s all for Sly. . .all of it.

**

There is a jitney at the stop as we cross over to Pacific Avenue. We end up in different seats. I’m sitting in the front, and Sly is about two seats behind. I can feel her eyes on me. They burn just like her touch. For once, I am glad that the jitney driver moves his bus like a bat out of hell. We get there in record time. Sly’s walking behind me, and those eyes are still following me.

I swallow as she gets closer and try to make small talk. “So, uhm, when is your processing date for the job? It is for grave shift isn’t it?” My voice squeaks with nervousness. I glance up to see her looking down at me with heated intensity. My knees go weak. I think she knows what I’m feeling right now. I tear my gaze away and search for the right words to ask the questions again. “I–”

“It’s a little over a week.” Sly pauses to clear her throat. ” It’s a little quicker than normal I imagine, and yeah, it is for grave.” Her voice is only huskier than it was a second before. With a shaky hand, I unlock the door leading into the building.

“Oh, that’s good.” Is all that I can think to say. My mind is a blank.

I have to remind myself to breath as I take the steps two at a time. I hear her behind me. I want to turn to her and beg her to touch me. But, I don’t dare. We’ll never make it to the third floor. So as if it were some game of cat and mouse. I speed up my decent in an attempt to get away, knowing that I want to be caught.

My breathing is ragged by the time I get to my own door. I’m not tired, far from it. Sly is behind me, and she sounds the same. I shove the key into the lock. Opening the door wide, I let Sly pass through first. Our bodies brush, and I tremble.

I walk in behind her, closing the door after I enter. I need time to think, to figure this out, but the room is alive with tension. I spy my father’s robe hanging over one of the folding chairs. Maybe a long shower would help. I glance at Sly to see her back to me. She is pacing, moving like a caged animal. I don’t know what else to do. “Uhm, I’m gonna go get cleaned up.”

Sly turns around but seeing me unbuttoning the gray and white uniform sends her spining around again. “Oh sorry. Okay.”

I sigh in relief and kick off my shoes and socks before turning my own back to her to finish undressing. I need to say more to fill the silence and ease this tension that seems to be going right to my groin. “Uh, I want you to know that I’m very proud of you.”

“Really?” Her voice is childlike. It makes me smile.

“Yes, really.” I stand there in my bra and panties, waiting for her to say more. The minutes seem to pass. Thinking she has said her piece, I reach for the robe only to feel an incredible heat encompass me from behind. I suck in a shaky breath.

“That’s good to hear.” Sly whispers hotly into my ear. That breath I took in comes out in a moan. My breathing turns harsh and ragged again. Her full lips caress my ear, and I hear that she is as breathless as I am. Large hands snake around to cover my bare mid-drift. I am branded by scorching heat.

“Abbie, I think I’m feeling needy too.”

I whimper loudly. It seems all I needed was for her to touch me. There is no space between our bodies, and I feel a wave of unbelievable pleasure as her hips start a soft grind against my buttocks. I reach behind to grab at her thighs, urging her on. The moist drip between my legs has turned into a faucet.

Sly’s groan is low and hoarse. “God, Abbie. Tell me to stop,” she pleads.

Oh God. “I can’t.” My heart is slamming against my chest and roaring in my ears.

They seem to be the magic words. Sly’s hands develop a mind of their own also. They cover my breasts squeezing softly but rhythmically. I cry out. I knew it would be like this–hot and intense. There couldn’t be any other way. There would be time for softness later. Right now, I want to be ravaged. I need it.

My nipples harden, and I can’t help but moan constantly as fingers brush over them, teasing and making the tips bigger. Sly’s breathing is hot and moist against my neck. It only adds to the pleasure.

” Little bit, I want you. . .so much. ” Sly husks out brokenly.

Spinning around, I look her dead in the eye matching the blue intensity with my own. I hide nothing. There is no way to disguise such an ache. “Show me,” I whisper. I want to see and feel it all, and I don’t feel shy about it.

Ignoring the surprise in her eyes, I tangle my hands in silky black locks and pull her head down to meet me. Our mouths meet in a moan–soft, wet, and sweet. Sly nips on my bottom lip and laves it with her tongue before sucking it into her mouth. I have grown to love that.

I pull back intentionally only allowing our mouths to brush lightly. Sly whimpers and brings me closer as her hands roam over my back, leaving a trail of fire there. I know that she needs more, so do I. But, I wait for her to take it. Sly doesn’t disappoint. Large hands cover my buttocks lifting me upward, I have no choice but to wrap my legs around her. Her mouth devours mine in a series of searing kisses. Our tongues slide past each other wetly.

My sex feels swollen, and I long for relief. I begin to grind against her stomach. The pleasure sends me reeling. I whimper again and again with each thrust. She helps by pulling me into her. I tear my mouth away and groan as large hands bypass my panties to frame bare cheeks. I glance at Sly only to see her looking down at out meshing bodies. She shudders and murmurs, “That’s it. Show me that it feels good.”

Our eyes meet, and I can’t look away. There’s sweat around her temples, dampening her hair. Sly’s tongue snakes out and flicks my lips and sweet breath caresses my face. “Abbie, you got me so hot, and you feel so good.” She leans in until our foreheads touch. “I wanna make this good for you. It’s been so long. . .need to slow down.”

“No. . don’t want to. Please.” I punctuate my words with a hard grind, shooting pleasure all the way to my fingertips. Throwing my head back, I moan loudly. I hear her whimper right before her mouth opens over my neck. Her tongue is warm and luscious against my skin.

We’re moving, and I open my eyes to see that Sly is backpedaling toward the bed. A pange of excitement shoots through me. The small bed groans under our weight as she sits down. I unlatch my legs from behind her to pillow my knees along side, leaving me straddled in her lap. With quick hands, Sly strips out of her t-shirt, leaving her chest bare. I look at her breasts with my hands, cupping and squeezing them before raking my fingers across brown, distended nipples. She’s watching me do it and groaning all the while. I have to have more. I follow my instincts. Before I have time to even think, my lips are on her, sucking her in. The nipple seems to continue growing within my mouth. I am soaked and, I can’t stop thrusting against her naked abdomen. The bed is squeaking in time with each movement. Sly cries out and her hips lurch against me.

I snatch my mouth away from one breast and head toward the other, but her hand wraps in my hair, bringing my lips to hers. Our mouths barely brush, and Sly starts to whisper things, sexy things that I’ve never heard her say. “Mmm, see what you do to me. Don’t stop.”

I moan and begin to press against her harder. Electricity arcs up my spine, leaving me tingling. Our bodies move together with abandon. My need for her urges me on, so it throws me when she suddenly pushed me away. I stand up and open my mouth to protest. The words get stuck in my throat as she wrestles out of her shoes and jeans. Sly stands before me now, naked and glorious.

I swallow, hard and let my eyes linger on each curve that I knew was hidden underneath. She is more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. Her body is covered with lithe, smooth muscle, beckoning to be touched. My hands itch to do so. Slowly our eyes meet again, and I see blue shining with affection and something a lot deeper. My face must mirror hers because she smiles and reaches out a hand for me. I move two sure steps forward to take it. I am in the fire once again. My bra and panties disappear, and Sly murmurs about perfection as large hands to roam my body, leaving a molten trail down my torso and thighs. I am not prepared for the feel of naked flesh on flesh. It shakes me, leaving me trembling, raw and exposed, but still, I want more.

Her hands swallow my breasts. I feel them swell and elongate under her touch as if they belong to her and her alone. They do. I do. Her fingers knead my flesh and pluck at turgid tips. I feel as though I’m being ripped apart by pleasure. I arch my back, and that is all the invitation Sly needs. Her mouth is on me. Her hands encase my shoulders, anchoring me to her. With each flick of her tongue and suckle of her lips, she groans. I sob. The sound of her enjoyment is making me light headed just as much as the feel of her is. My hands tangle in her hair, holding her to me. I couldn’t stand for her to stop. I would die.

Her mouth is everywhere tasting my shoulders, the hollow of my throat. She is ravenous as her lips open wide over my torso edging downward. My head is spinning with pleasure. I can’t breathe. I can’ t think. Sensation after sensation pile on top of each other leaving me a virtual slave to it. I feel hot breath against the fine hairs of my sex. I look down to see her kneeling as if in worship. Her face is a mask of concentration but still contored with ecstasy. I quiver in anticipation, and I can hear the incoherent murmurs escaping my throat.

At that moment, Sly’s eyes open. I gasp at what I see there. Such need, such caring. It oozes out of her. Her eyes drop from my gaze to become fixed on something else. Her stare is intense. I feel my sex open and swell under her scrutiny. My stomach clenches almost painfully. That’s when I hear it–the whimpering. At first, I think it’s me, but it just doesn’t sound quite right. It’s Sly. I brush a hand through her hair, and she whispers, “Can I Abbie?” Her voice is pleading, raspy. I shiver, swallow, and nod. I don’t think that I’m capable of words right now.

I spread my thighs further apart. The smell of arousal greets my nostrils. Probing fingers part my wet flesh. My hips buck, and I moan as I’m exposed to the open air. Sly’s scrutiny is even more pronounced than before. I feel her getting closer. Her breath fans out against me, teasing me. I grind my hips into the unforgiving air. Sly groans. Then, without warning she drags her tongue the length of my sex. I throw my head back and scream as I dig my nails into her shoulder. Her hands tighten around my hips as my knees threaten to buckle.

The pleasure is tremendous. Her tongue is hot, firm, and hungry. The muscle laps at me, leaving places even more drenched and tingling. She sucks at other places, bathing me in a heat that bursts from the inside out. Sly’s constant moans jolt my flesh and my world.

Somehow, we’ve ended up on the bed. I can feel the softness at my back, but that doesn’t compare to the inferno nestled deep between my legs. Her mouth is relentless–gentle one moment and firm the next. I wind my hand’s in Sly’s hair keeping her there as my hips grind to urge her on. The bed screeches and groans, but I don’t really hear it.

Long dark tresses spill over my thighs, hiding her face, but even though I can’t see her eyes. She worships me. She cherishes me. I hear her moaning. I hear and feel her tongue lapping, furiously. Lightinging flashes through my body making it arch and twist. I want it to stike again and again. It does with the force of a thunderstorm as Sly plunges her tongue deep inside. I hear her name at the other end of my scream.

With each plunge I edge closer and closer to the inevitable. I reach for it, and it floods me with its honey sweetness. My body convulses as it wrings out every last ounce of pleasure possible. From somewhere far away, I hear a hoarse cry that I recognize as Sly’s. I quake at the sound of it. To know that my own orgasm has effected her so much rocks me to the core.

It seems like forever and a day before I can move again. I look up to see her hovering over me. Her eyes are shy and the look on her face is one of satisfaction.

“Hi. Um, are you okay?” Sly asks.

I smile. I’ve never felt better in my life. “Mmm, yeah, I’m more than okay.”

She leans down to brush my lips with her own. I taste myself on her. A tingle shoots through my body. I can’t help but be honest with her. “I didn’t know it could be like that.”

Sly’s smile is slow and sweet. “Me either. It’s a first for both of us.”

I reach up to play with a strand of midnight. “I just couldn’t wait anymore. You make me feel so much. It just felt right.” My heart swells at the gentle look in her eyes.

“It is right Abbie. We’re right. I didn’t know I could have this. Now, I feel like I have everything dangling in front of me, and it’s all because of you.”

I don’t know what to say. Thank you does not seem strong enough. I don’t think there are words in the English language strong enough. So, I pull her down for a kiss hoping actions speak louder than words. I’m glad this door on our relationship opened. It makes it all the more richer.

***

As I lay here, my head and heart are reeling. Of all the things to happen today, I just didn’t expect this. Abbie never ceases to amaze me. I knew there was passion hidden under there, but until now I just didn’t realize that it was all for me. These few hours together will be burned on my brain forever. Somehow, I knew when we first made love it would be fierce and out of control, but the gentlness Abbie showed me the second time was something I’ve never experienced. There was tentativeness at first, but slowly she became more confident with each caress. To be touched like that, to be cherished like that I know I am the luckiest woman in the world. She held me when my body refused to stop shaking, and she whispered to me when I could barely speak.

I will do what ever I have to in order to keep this feeling, and I know that includes having Abbie in my life. Hope is here to stay. I believe and that belief is here to stay. I am as sure about that as I’m sure that Abbie is the one. She is.

She is sleeping now, curled against me. It’s where she belongs. She looks so peaceful and so beautiful. These few hours make all the bad things that have happened to me moot. My parents have made their choice. I have made mine. The man who helped get me here is in a small cell. I am in the arms of the most remarkable woman. It doesn’t compare. I have nothing to be angry about. Nothing. I drift off to sleep knowing this, believing this.

***

A very loud, shril alarm jerks us both awake. We look at each other in confusion until the sound of loud murmuring reaches our ears.

“Fire!” Somebody screams.

It galvanizes us into action. I jump up and reach blindly for any clothes in the vicinity. I finish dressing first. “Hurry, Abbie!” I don’t mean to yell at her, but I’m more than a little scared. I won’t lose her now.

I look up to see that her face is pale. It makes my own fear grow.

“I’m trying!” She yells as she pulls on a pair of shorts. Her eyes scan the room. “Should I. . .should I take something with me. This is all I have.”

I pull her into a quick hug. I don’t know what else to do right now. “Shhh, we’ve got to stay calm. Grab what you can, and I’ll help. It may not be bad, but I just want you to be safe.”

I lean into her as she sobs. I can imagine what’s going through her mind. The horror of possibly losing your home, your belongings. It twists like a hot knife. Abbie stands there in the middle of the room, staring into space.

“C’mon, little bit. Please?”

My eyes plead and I hold out a hand for her. It seems to be enough to spur her into action. She grabs books, her father’s robe, and some clothes. I make sure to get her uniform.

She runs to the door, flinging it open somehow. I follow behind. My heart is beating fast and furious. As I race down the stairs, I smell it, the acrid scent of smoke.

Before I know it, we are outside among a crowd of people in various states of undress. I scan the crowd to see that everyone’s face filled with loss, disbelief, and fear. I turn toward our building to see it engulfed in flame on the opposite side away from the room. The fire seems to take on a life of its own as it crackles, spits and spreads rapidly. The fire truck that is already here is surrounded by firemen, readying themselves for battle. I hear the sirens of other trucks not too far away.

One side of the building groans loudly as it caves in. Abbie turns to me. I don’t think she can watch anymore, but I have to tell her because despite what I’m seeing I still believe. “We’ll get through this.”

I watch as the place that I was starting to call home burn to the ground, but I hold fast to the woman who is my home, my salvation. She is devistated by this. I could see it in her face, feel it on her cold, clammy skin that was hot under my touch not too long ago. So close to everything and yet pushed so far in the blink of an eye. I should be completely flustered by this, but I refuse to feel defeated by it. I’ll help her save money and find another place. It’s as simple as that, but in the mean time, I refuse to let her live on the streets. There is the Mission. I sigh, knowing that sometimes you have to do what you have to just to get by.

I squeeze Abbie tighter, and I search my mind and heart for ways to convince her that there is still hope, just like she did for me.

***

I can’t believe what I’m seeing. I’m numb. I feel the heat of the fire, and I feel the heat of Sly’s touch. How can this happen when things were going so well? I want to believe that things will be okay. I really want to. I could see the conviction in Sly’s eyes. But, I stand here and watch as an old fear comes back to haunt me. The line keeping me from being homeless has just been erased.

I can’t help but sob. This day has been a rollercoaster. I’ve gone from anger to happiness to ecstasy, and now, I’m tettering on despire. I shouldn’t let it swallow me. Look at what I have in my life. I shouldn’t let it swallow me, but as stand here and watch it is so hard for it not to.
Chapter XXVIII: Winding Roads
I’m beginning to think of my life as some great irony. Irony. I hope I have the definition right. When I first started at The Mission, I knew that I was a step away from being destitute. It was my greatest fear, and as I watched my building burn it was all realized as if some playful, vengeful god was listening to me the whole time and waiting for the right moment to strike. Well, he or she sure picked an awkward moment. I can still feel the flames, smell the acrid smoke as if they were permanently absorbed into my hair and clothing.

A couple of weeks ago, I was falling in love with the most extraordinary woman. I made love to the most unbelievable woman. Now, I’m homeless, and I’ve been clinging to that woman like a lifeline. I haven’t stop falling. There is no stopping that. I just think I’m in deeper than before. Those few hours we shared. I keep with me, so I can go back again over and over. I need to.

Sly. What can I possibly say about her? She has been incredible both at work and at. . .home? Do I dare call this place that? Not too long ago, I viewed it as a second home, but now? I can’t afford to get complacent. Not again. I don’t want to be at the Mission or in another jail cell like room. I want my house with the garage attached, white picket fence, and big yard. Isn’t that the American Dream nowadays? Well, I want it more now than ever. I guess because it’s even further away from my grasp.

As for Sly, I know how she feels about The Mission, but she picked up her meager belongings and followed me there like it was the most natural thing in the world. The Mission has been more than accommodating. Maybe it’s because I’m a volunteer, but they allow us, Sly and me, our own secluded spot during the day to sleep. As she lays on the cot beside me, I can hear her breathing, deep and steady. Knowing she’s there, keeps me from falling apart. Does that make sense?

Everything I owned except for a few items of clothing and some books are gone. Gone, just like they didn’t exist. Just like I didn’t exist. That’s what it feels like. Regardless of my situation before, I was always somewhat self-reliant. I took care of myself the best I could, and when Sly and the rest of our family came along, I did the same for them. I don’t even have that anymore. The one thing that kept me from becoming one more in the throng of invisible people was the roof over my head, and the clothes on my back.

Now, I have neither. Yes, these people have become my family, my friends, and yes, I could empathize with what they were going through. Now, I know first hand, and I wish I didn’t have to. For the first few days after the fire, I was stunned and numb. I took a couple days off work and clung to Sly like she was air. I didn’t want her out of my sight or out of my range of touch. Then, I cried so hard my chest ached. It hurt to breath. My throat was scratchy and raw. It hurt to talk. She held me because I needed her to; because she wanted to; and because she understood.

Here I thought I was finally getting the breaks that were well deserved. I was wrong. Life is a screwball that zigs and zags around you. I was so sure that we make our own fate. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I was wrong about a lot of things. I felt like I had a grasp on things before. Now, it feels like I’m tumbling through with no control at all. It’s ironic how things can change. There’s that word again. I’m probably not using it right here either.

Listless. I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m feeling. I don’t want to do anything. I don’t want to be around anyone. Work is just painful to endure, even though, I could save up the money and get another room somewhere. But, that’s not the point. Lola’s been trying to get through to me, but I don’t want her to. I barely talk to anyone even Sly. I don’t want anyone to see me like this. God, I feel like I’m right back where I started all those months ago–scared and unsure. Still, she’s here by my side where I need her.

Things have been put on hold. I wanted to help Sly show the people around here that they can do without her– that they can learn where to go, who to talk to, an when to talk to them. I wanted to help her transition from the streets back to the workforce. I didn’t. I wasn’t there for her first night. She had to go it alone. I’m so ashamed. She’s always been there for me, and for her, I couldn’t. Lola got her through it just fine, and Sly didn’t seem disappointed at all that I wasn’t there. I don’t think she would tell me if she was anyway. She’s like that. Still, the truth is, part of me has shut down, and I don’t know how to get it working again.

So, I’m standing here in my apron and the same shirt I had on yesterday, serving the food, but in a little while I’ll be sitting at the tables just like everybody else. I am everybody else. Sly is watching me like a hawk. I feel her eyes on me and tingles assault me. Yeah, that’s still there. I want to get lost in her. Maybe that’s the way to find myself again, if that makes any sense. I just want things to go back the way they were. I am going to save money, but that doesn’t ease this ache. I wonder if anything will.

I wipe my hands on my apron and reach for the ladle to stir the gravy. It’s starting to get a film over it. I move like an automaton dumping mashed potatoes and gravy on people’s plates without really seeing them. A throat clears and it makes me look up. Stevie stands there. Wise brown eyes bore into me seeing a myriad of things no doubt. Just like real family, they’ve been here for me. I wish I could open up again.

He scratches at his gnarly beard. “Now, I’m gonna say this again, and I gonna keep sayin’ it until ya hear me. Ya can’t go ’round feelin’ sorry fer yerself. Ya have nothin’ to be sorry for. Things happen to people and they jump right back. Yous one of those people.”

It would be so easy to believe him, to hear him, but it’s not that easy anymore. Not right now. I try to smile at him but it comes out warbled. It’s like my face is frozen. “I don’t know, Stevie–”

He puts a hand up to stop me then points a finger. “You ain’t like us, lil’ miss, and neither is Sly. Been tellin’ her that fer years. She didn’t listen to me until ya came along. People don’t need the likes of me and Pauly, but they be needin’ you.”

Something flutters inside me, and some dark part tries to clamp down on it, snuffing it out. I know what it is. It’s hope. Just like it’s sister fate they are both so fickle. I don’t have a firm hold on either right now. “Why?” It comes out before I can stop it, before I can understand it.

Stevie’s eyes narrow and sparkle. I try to hold his gaze, but I end up hanging my head.

“Now ya look at me lil’ miss.” His voice is deep, authoritative.

I jerk my head back up, and our eyes meet.

“Ya got the nerve to ask me why?” He turns as quickly as his old body would allow. He lifts a wrinkled hand and points. I follow the appendage, and it leads to a pair of beautiful blue eyes that look straight at me. “Cause you make people believe. Lookit what ya did fer her. She was a good one for takin’ care of everybody else but hardly gave a good gaddamn about herself. She made folks believe everyday–in themselves and in others. But it wasn’t till ya came along that she felt that way ’bout herself.” His hand falls back to his side.

I am stunned. It was like knowing something but not really knowing it until it stared you right in the face. It is staring at me right now. I feel its burning gaze where I need it most in my heart and maybe as far as my soul. “I didn’t. . . oh.”

Stevie nods. “Now heap me a big ol’ glob of them taters and gravy on here.”

I give him a genuine smile then. One that he gracefully returns, but something nags at me. I am the one lost now. I whisper, “Who is gonna make me believe again?”

Stevie’s smile never falters and again, he points at a particular table where a very special woman sits. Then, he moves on down the chow line.

I glance toward Sly and our eyes meet. Is she my salvation? Am I hers? I hope it’s that simple.

I look up quickly at the sound of an unpleasant laugh followed by a deep, wet cough. It’s Charlie. I remember him, and I bet you Gert does too. I can see her looking over here. He hasn’t been around for a while not since Gert’s been in and out of the hospital.

“Don’t believe a word that old fart says.”

The two people in front of him hang their heads and move along quickly–maybe in fear.

I stiffen but refuse to speak as of yet.

“I hear you’re one of us now. Takes you down a peg or two, eh? Ain’t no comin’ back from that. Serves you right for being a friend of that witch over there.” He nods his head in Sly’s direction.

I glance that way to see her rising. I can see the anger in her face. Her hands are clenched at her sides, and her face is flushed red. I shake my head almost imperceptivity. I want to handle this. I think that I need to. For the moment, anger has replaced the self-pity. No one has the right to talk about my family that way. Heat rushes up to my face and through my body. It is a welcome change because inside it was cold before. “I’m not anything like you.”

Charlie’s eyes narrow. “Don’t you go sassin’ me little lady–”

“Shut up!” I am surprised by my own vehemence. “You are a pathetically, bitter, lonely old man who takes it all out on the world and the people in it. I could never be like you. As for my family, none of their names should leave your mouth because you don’t deserve to speak them.” I could hear the calm, menace in my voice. My words taper off, and I find that I’m breathing heavily.

His eyes goes from narrow to wide as saucers. Charlie glances around him to see if anybody heard. I watch his face redden as the people behind him snicker. He mumbles something intelligible and moves on down the line as if nothing happened.

Maybe there’s something in me yet. Maybe. I glance around to see Stevie standing at the end of tables where the dinner rolls are. Pauly is there with him. They both give me broken tooth smiles and hearty chuckles, and to my consternation, they start to clap. Like some wave of hysteria, the others in line begin to clap too as the continued to laugh at the retreating man. I catch my breath only to lose it again. Is that for me? The heat of embarrassment rushes my face. I push a hand through my hair, giving me a moment to try and gain some equilibrium.

“Way to go, Abbie.” Someone says excitedly.

I look up to see the familiar face of a woman, holding her child. Her smile is big and welcoming.

“You hang in there. Everything will turn out alright for you.”

Our eyes meet, and I am floored by what I see. Compassion. Compassion for me. This woman barely has clothes on her back yet she shows compassion for me. Unbelievable. Something inside me melts and fills me with a pleasant warmth. “I. . .thank you.” She nods and makes her way down the line.

I peer toward Sly’s table to see her staring right at me. Did she ever stop? I swear that I can see the pride sparkling in her eyes.

I want so much to believe.
Chapter XXIX: This is Your Life!
Again, my life has changed dramatically just over the past two weeks. I’ll start from lesser importance and go to greater. First off, I started working. I used to clean up people’s money. Now, I clean up people’s shit. The only difference being that I like myself in the morning. I didn’t like the arrogant twit I was back then. I don’t even mind taking orders or cleaning toilets, for right now at least.

On top of everything else she’s going through right now, Abbie feels bad about not being there for me the first night of the job. I know she does. That’s how she is. I wanted her there, but sometimes we have to do what we have to do. She needed me more than I needed her in this instance. Work was uneventful, the only thing I discovered is that my feet can hurt so bad that I want to chop them off and Lola is a hoot. The woman really doesn’t think before things come out of her mouth. It’s refreshing. We sit together during lunch— Lola, Abbie, and me. Abbie hasn’t been talking much lately, but I’m here to listen when she does and even when she doesn’t.

She looks so lost, and I feel like I’m tumbling with her. I don’t know what to do, so I’m just there when she reaches for me. I’ve helped other people, yes, but this is Abbie. She’s not like other people, so I moved to the Mission to be with her.

Here’s the kicker and the most important thing. As Abbie fell apart piece by piece, I felt it too and I clung to her to keep us both together. Stoicism be damned. That’s when I realized it–I love her. I know her pain, and I know her happiness. She is a part of me. I knew I was falling deeper the day we made love, but somewhere along the way I tripped and fell completely without my knowledge. The intensity of this epiphany slammed into me like a bomb, and I can honestly say it scared me. Those words have never left my mouth, and I always figured it was something that I would never feel. But, I do. This thing between us is living and breathing, and my God it’s beautiful.

As I watched the hope disappear from Abbie’s eyes, I became even more frightened. I was losing her, and I didn’t want to lose her completely by telling her something she couldn’t believe in.

That was a huge mistake.

Abbie has become my light, and now that brilliance has dimmed I need to be the one to restore it. I’m the one she trusts– the one she reaches out to. She can believe in me, find hope in me. I held her while she cried and while she slept. When she didn’t reach for me I held her with my eyes, watching out for her and waiting for her to call on me. I guess this is a start, but now, it’s time to get to the meat of things. She needs to know how I feel. I have never been so sure of anything in my life. The fear is still there, but this is something greater. My body hums with it just like it does with her touch. My heart and mind sing with it–an irresistible tune. If I can’t deny it, why should I deprive her of it?

I watched her today. It’s as if my body knows exactly where she is and points me there. So I sat there while my food got cold, while Gert whispered animatedly, I studied Abbie. She moved like a rickety old robot–un-oiled and rusty. Her face was a mask. That is, until Stevie got a hold of her. I know how that is. He gets a hold of me frequently. The man is a Godsend.

When Charile came up to her, my heart stopped. I didn’t think she could take anymore. I didn’t want her to have to take anymore. I can’t describe what I felt when she nodded at me. It was some kind of burst of imaginable feeling that took my breath away. I don’t know what was said, but I’m sure it was something about me. I was astounded when Charlie tucked his ass between his legs and sauntered off. Pride is often a dirty word. This time it wasn’t the case. I was beyond proud to know this woman was in my corner; in my life; and in my heart. It was like riding a roller coaster with your eyes open. The adrenaline is amazing. You feel every nuance as many senses engage simultaneously. Abbie is simply amazing, and she is my family.

They are breaking down the tables and food bins now, and Abbie seems to have more pep in her step. I’ll know for sure when I talk to her, and I have so much to say. I wanted to tell her earlier, but she seemed so tired. I held her while she slept. I’m glad we have one day off together. Suddenly, I’m as nervous as an inexperienced teenager. My hands are sweaty, so I wipe them against the legs of my jeans. The collar to my t-shirt seems too tight, and it’s a v-neck for goodness sakes. I’m starting to fidget. I don’t fidget. Well, not much anyway.

I can’t tell her here. That wouldn’t be very romantic. It is a homeless shelter, and she doesn’t need any more reminders of our current situation. My thoughts are interrupted as Gert pulls on my arm.

“Why is your upper lip sweating?”

I look at her in confusion until I wipe that area. My fingers come away moist. It’s weird for Gert to notice. Of course, she’s been almost lucid at times since she got out of the hospital. “Just things on my mind. I guess.”

“Uh huh. Well, don’t worry about your money. It’s safe.”

Those moments of lucidity are few and far between.

“That’s good to know, Gert. Why don’t you go find Stevie? I need to talk to Abbie, and I don’t want to leave you alone.”

She nods. “I can do that, and let Abbie know that I got her some of Disney like she wanted. But, it’s not doing so good. Their last movie bombed.” Gert gives me a toothless grin.

I chuckle. “You called that one. They should hire you as a consultant.”

“Been tryin’ to tell my broker that.” She rises. “See ya later.”

I watch her waddle away.

Then, I turn to observe Abbie as she sets the white bucket on the table. She reaches in and wrings out a towel. I have a strange sense of deja vu. This is where we started. This situation is where we opened up to each other for the first time. I can’t help but think it’s symbolic.

Abbie wipes the bangs off her face and begins to wash the tables. I watch as if it is the most interesting thing in the world. To me, it is. I know she can feel my eyes on her. She always could. She looks up at me occasionally, and I swear there is a small smile gracing her lips. I want to go to her, but I will wait until she reaches my table.

Finally, she’s here. I continue to sit as she washes around me. The air crackles between us like it always has. The energy we give off together must be something to behold especially now. I can’t help it though. My body just reacts to her and so does my heart. I haven’t stopped wanting her, but I know when to be patient. I clear my throat, and I’m glad she seems a little less tense. I decide to test the waters.

“Funny, but I think we’ve done this before.” I mutter teasingly.

Abbie glances up at me and blushes, but I see the sparkle in her eyes where they had been dull. “Yeah, it does seem familiar.”

“I’ll try not to flirt as much this time.”

A shadow passes over her face. “No, don’t change anything. I like the way things were.”

I’m not an idiot. I know that statement has a deeper meaning. “I know you did, Little Bit, and I did too. Not that much has changed. You still have me and the rest of our family.” I hear the softness in my own voice.

Abbie throws the cloth back in the bucket and sits down across from me. She hides her hands under the table. “I-I know that, but I can’t take care of you like I used to.”

Ah, I should have known that would bother her. ” You still are look at what you did with Charlie. Let us take care of you now. Let me. . .take care of you. Talk to me.”

She looks down at her lap. “I try to, but I’m just not used to this. I’m not used to letting somebody else take the reins.”

I nod in understanding. “Neither did I. Tore me up inside that you were giving me. . .us so much, but I couldn’t give anything in return.”

Abbie begins to shake her head rather vehemently. “No, you gave me everything. You gave me you.”

I smile. If only she could listen to her own words. “Yesss, I did, and I do.” My eyes widen in an attempt to help her to understand.

For a long minute, Abbie just looks at me strangely. Then, “Ohhh. Is it that simple?”

“No, it’s that complicated, but you’re talking to me. That’s a start.”

“I’m sorry. I just had so much going on in my head. It’s hard for me to let it all out, even to you,” she adds. “It feels like the tables have turned a little bit. Didn’t I do this with you? Have this talk?” Abbie turns somber, and a familar look caresses her features.

“Yeah, pretty much, and I’ll do what I have to do. ” I let my voice trail off. I wish I could get that lost look off her face. It tears me up inside to see it. It’s time for me to start acting and not reacting. “Listen, why don’t we get away from here for a little while? We could go to The Boardwalk. It’s late afteroon, and the sun is setting. I bet it’s beautiful.”

I hear her sigh. “I don’t know. Seems like all I want to do is sleep. I don’t know if I have the energy.”

I’m not above begging. “Come on. Give it a chance. Just for a little while?” Our eyes meet and hold, and I reach out a hand to her. Without hesitation, Abbie takes it. God, she is so soft. Everything about her is soft–her skin, her heart, her soul. I cant my head to the side and grin at her. I’m hoping to see one of her smiles. I haven’t been privy to them for the past two weeks or so. She bites her lip and gives me a shy one. My chest flutters. I love this woman.

“Okay, for a little while.”

***

Even though the heat has gone from sweltering to only baking, people on The Boardwalk are still scarce. I reach for Abbie’s hand. I don’t give a damn who knows. I don’t think she does either anymore. We stop to lean on the railing and look past the dunes to see the sparkling water. The sun glints across it, making the ocean look bright and luminescent. The sky was a soft blue, making it almost impossible to tell where the skyline ends. Big white/black seagulls wade through the shallow water at the shore and pepper the sand with their prescence.

Abbie squeezes my hand, and I turn to her. “What do you think?”

“It seems like ages since I’ve seen this, but you were right.”

Silence lapses between us as my stare returns to the water. I think it is a comfortable one, but I glance toward her and see the wheels in her head turning. Her nose is crinkled and lines mar her forehead. Abbie is thinking about something heavy.

I wait.

“After the trial was over, and you knew you didn’ t have a job or anything. Did you feel this. . .lost?”

I rewind time and search my feelings just because she needs me too.

“Yeah, I did. I was angry too. I felt cheated,” I answer.

“How did you make those feelings go away?” Abbie continues.

“Well, the anger went away with time. I was still lost, Abbie, for a long time. That is until recently.”

“What happened?”

“I met you.” My gaze had been steady on her. Finally, she turns to meet it with unbelieving eyes. “I know it sounds corny, but it’s true.” She shakes her head in denial. I feel my stomach drop. Things are not turning out like I thought they would.

“How? Why? How can you find yourself in me when I’m obviously not who I thought I was?!”

I swallow hard as her voice begins to rise. Abbie’s face is flushed and blotchy. Her eyes are wild with unshed tears.

“I thought I had become strong, confident. Don’t you see? If I had really been those things, this situation wouldn’t have destroyed me like it did! How can you find yourself in that?!”

I reach out to her, but she backs away. I panic as she turns and breaks into a run. My heart ceases as I watch my life run away from me. I can’t lose her. Fear moves my feet. Love makes my steps quicken.

“Abbie!”

I follow her out to the beach. We wade through the thick sand. It slows both of us down.

“Abbie, please wait!” The desperation in my voice is obvious. People stare at us. I can feel their eyes. I don’t care. I lunge for her but miss. I can hear her sobbing, and it breaks my heart.

Finally, exhausted, Abbie slows enough for me to reach her. I grab her arm and turn her towards me. Her face is full of devastation. It’s up to me to help her believe again. “Little Bit, can’t you see? You’re all those things and more, but you’re also human. You’re human, Abbie. We can only lose so much before we break, and you’ve lost plenty, including your parents.”

A sob rips free from her throat.

“It’s okay to cry and to hurt. You taught me that. How did you help me find myself? I’ll tell you. It’s because of the woman inside–the woman you want to be and the woman you are. I love her, and I love you, Abbie.” Oh God, I said it. I said it, and I meant every word.

Abbie sobs again, but it is broken by the sound of her sucking in a breath. “Wh-what did you say?”

She wants me to say it again? Hell, who am I kidding? I’d say it every second of the day. “I love you.”

Her eyes widen and she steps toward me. Trembling hands reach up and caresses my face. Fingertips linger on my lips. I whisper the three words again. Her eyes and fingers follow the movement of my mouth.

“You love me. . .this way. . .the way that I am?”

“I love you whatever way you are. Nothing can change that.” I can see it in her eyes, her features. She wants so much to believe. “Let’s go through this together. We can fix this. Believe in me. Believe in us.” I swear she said those same words to me not too long ago. I guess that’s ironic.

“Together?”

Abbie’s hands lower to my chest and so does her head. I wrap my arms around her. “Yeah, together.”

“Is it . . .that eas—”

I don’t let her finish. “No, it’s gonna be hard as hell. Do you think you’re up to it?”

She wipes at the tears in her eyes. “I can try.”

I guess I did the right thing in telling her after all.
Chapter XXX: A Road Now Taken
I never thought this path would be open to me so early. This kind of love is a road I’ve never been on, but I go down it gratefully. I know I’m falling for her. Maybe I have. It’s not like I have experience in these matters. All I know is when those words left her mouth, something inside me reconnected. Is it okay to be lost as long as you’re willing to find yourself again? Maybe so. As I lay here, a myraid of people surround me. Most if not all of them are sleeping and filling the large room with deep breathing and hard snores. I don’t really hear them. I don’t really feel them. I hear Sly behind me, breathing deeply, sighing occasionally. I feel her molding against me, touching me, holding me. As I lay here with her in the dark, I’m beginning to think all things are possible.

Maybe I was wrong in trying to take this all on by myself. Maybe I was wrong about a lot of things, but maybe. . .maybe definately, I can start to believe again.
Chapter XXXI: Good Love
I am loved. As I look into the murky waters of the porceline bathtub that I am bending over, it’s all I can think about. I am loved. Those words have reverberated through my head the entire week, even more so when Sly whispers them again and again.

I pull on the heavy duty gloves and reach for a sponge to tackle the scum around the tub. I’m smiling when I thought I’d never be able to again. I have something that I never thought I would. When I think back to seeing the way my parents looked at each other, the touches, and the kisses, I know that I have discovered their secret. To have that kind of love you simply give everything. Every single day Sly claims another piece of my heart.

When I start to think about my situation, when I get down about it, Sly refuses to let me stay there. She is there quickly with a hug, a kiss, and a promise that I take to heart. If she can believe, if she can hope then so can I. It was very dark where I was. For a little while the color had seeped out of my world. It’s coming back now.

My nose twitches as the smell of scrubbing bubbles teases it, and the sponge swishes through the substance, leaving behind a trail of cleanliness. My family. God, just that world makes my smile wider than before. I can feel it almost splitting my face. We make a rag tag bunch, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Gert, Pauly, Stevie, and Sly–they are my life, and they have taken good care of me. I find myself chuckling then almost crying as I think about the other day.

I was extra tired after having worked extra days, but the money was good that’s all that mattered. My limbs felt like lead, and I could feel the circles dropping under my eyes. Still, I had to do my part for the Mission. As I stood in the serving line, I glanced upward from time to time. They were all sitting there at our table eating and laughing away. The sight made my heart swell. I was so glad they snapped me out of my funk.

I absently stirred at the customary bins of mashed potatotes and gravy and adjusted the canned heat so the food wouldn’t get cold. I don’t even remember how it happened. All I know is that I started leaning forward, and all of a sudden I felt lighter than air. A hand on my shoulder snapped me out of it. I looked up to see Mike. His face was a picture of concern.

“You okay, Abbie? Should I get Sly?” Thank goodness he finally got a clue.

“Why what happened?”

“Well, it looked like you were falling asleep. You were about to take a header into the gravy.

“Oh, sorry about that. I guess I’m more tired than I thought.” I felt my cheeks blush in embarassment. I took a quick peek at our table to see four pairs of concerned eyes staring back at me. I offered them a warbly smile and a pitiful wave. I turned back to Mike. “No, um, don’t bother her. We’re about to break things down anyway. I’ll sit down in a few minutes to get a little rest.”

He nodded and turned away. I could still feel their eyes on me, but a few minutes later the chow line was dismantled. I put a little soap in a bucket and filled it up with warm water with the intention of getting to the tables after I had some time to myself. I stepped away for a few minutes to go to the bathroom.

I came back out and almost choked at what I saw. All four of them had found towels and were cleaning off my tables. They must have heard my gasp of breath because they looked up. Sly threw me a wink.

“Why don’t you sit and get some rest, Little Bit?”

“Yeah, take a load off Abbie we got this,” Pauly added.

Gert gave me a smile as she wrung out her towel before smacking it against the table once more.

With Stevie, there was only a gentle stare. It was all that I needed. I was stunned. I was flustered, and I was beyond grateful. I could feel the tears prickle the back of my eyes as I looked on. Before I knew it, Sly was at my side. She touched my cheek, and I turned to her, getting captured in her gaze. Her smile was dazzling. She leaned forward and brushed her lips with mine before stepping away and pulling out a chair.

“Have a seat, Abbie. Remember it’s our turn to take care of you.”

I sat down but with rapidly blinking eyes, I continued to look up at her. “I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything. It’s the little things that count. They add up to the big things. We just want you to feel better.”

I nodded and whispered, “I do.”

The whispered words of love, and all the little things those guys have done for me have added up to something huge. I’m ready to fight again. How can I not? Look at what I have. Some people who live on the street don’t even have this. I can’t feel sorry for myself when I know, I KNOW that I will have a roof over my head and my life back together as soon as I can. I am human, and what’s happened to me hurt. It hurt something awful, but I’m willing to go through the pain to get to the other side as long as I have my family with me. Sly taught me that. You know that’s kinda funny I helped her believe and find hope, and here she is giving it back to me.

Sly is an amazing woman. I often wonder if I would respond the same to her if I knew her the way she was before. Would I have the same effect on her and vice versa? I’d like to think that we are meant to be. There is no other way to explain it, but I don’t think she would be as ready to love me then as she is now.

I watch the water go down the tub drain. Sly loves me. God, I almost want to giggle. I miss being near her. I mean, I do get to be near her but we’ve had little time alone since the fire. I can’t touch her like I want laying curled up on a small cot in a room full of people. It’s been three weeks since we’ve made love, and I miss that too. Just thinking about that morning makes me ache. The way she sounded, the way her skin tasted, and the way she moved is imprinted on my brain. I want to cherish that–cherish her the way she should be. But, I want the real thing. After all that’s happened, I think we need to reconnect physically too. It deepens what we have. We have a lot to explore, and I know she feels this. The door has been opened. It can’t close again. I don’t want it to. She has been patient with me, and I guess that’s part of love. Then again, so is this.

My body tingles and I shake my head to clear it. I have more work to do, and I can’t keep this in my head. I’ll be a mess when I see her at lunch. I am in this so deep. There is no getting out. I want to be buried up to my eyeballs. This has to be love. What else could it possibly be? I can’t see my life without her. I sigh and get up from the area around the bathtub to start on the toilet. I look at it and cringe. How can a man’s aim be that off? I can’t help but ask as I look at the dried urine covering the lid.

***

It’s a little while later, and I’m back in the hallway pushing my cart toward the supply closet. I’ve run out of toilet paper. The wheels squeak and swish on the carpet, but I pay it no mind. I’m used to the sound. The tiny hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stand up on end. Someone’s watching me. I glance around the corridor. I don’t see anyone, so I try to shake it off. Still, my body is tingling with awareness.

I get to the supply closet and notice that the door is ajar. My eyebrows droop in consternation. Reaching to pull it open even more, I let out an undignified squeak as I am pulled inside. A dark but very familiar chuckle assails my ears. “Sly! What are you doing?!”

She chuckles again. “Getting some closet time with the woman I love. What are you doing?”

I can hear the smirk in her voice even though I can’t see her. I am amused. I can’t help myself. “Closet time? I didn’t think we were in the closet.”

“Consider this a special case. I was thinking about you, and I had to come see you.”

God, how could I be down with this woman around? “You’re gonna get in trouble if the boss lady finds out. I can’t believe you did this for me.” I reach out for her in the dark. I touch something soft. I hear her groan. My breath catches. “Um, I was just thinking about you too actually.”

“Oh really? What about?”

I hear my swallow. I’m sure she does too. What do I tell her? That I was having sexy thoughts? “Uh. . .”

Her laugh is low and throaty. She’s playing with me. “Mmm, that good, huh?”

“Well, I–” I can feel myself blushing and my heart skips.

“It’s okay, Little Bit.” Her voice softens. “How are you tonight?”

It makes me feel so good, hearing the concern in her voice. I haven’t heard it in anyone else’s since I was a teenager. “Just a little tired. I’m ready for lunch.”

“No bad thoughts?”

“No, I would tell you if I had any. I reminisced mostly about how good you guys have been to me.”

“Ah, but Abbie don’t you know we would do anything for you just to see one of your smiles? Especially me. You light up everything.” Her voice is so gentle.

I suck in a breath. “You are so sweet.”

“That’s easy when you love someone like I love you.”

“I’ll never get tired of hearing that.” I move as close to Sly as I can. I can feel her heat, and she meets me the rest of the way. It’s where I want to be –in her arms. “I miss being with you like this. I miss touching you.” I wrap myself around her.

Sly’s hands caress up and down my back. I don’t hide the tremble. “Me too, Abbie.”

I lift my face to hers wishing that I could see. I feel with my hands instead. They whisper over her forehead, her cheeks, then finally her mouth and chin. Sweet breath whooshes out over my fingertips. I lean in to taste it. Her lips are moist and so soft. I cling to them, brushing back and forth. My hands wind around her neck into the hair at her nape. Suddenly, I wish she didn’t have to wear the ponytail.

“Mmm, you taste so good,” Sly murmurs as she comes back for more. Her legs quiver. Yes, she misses this.

This may be enough to sustain me–this gentleness, this closeness. The brush of her tongue against my bottom lip catches me by surprise. Sly does it again, and I whimper at the luscious sensation. My mouth opens, and she slides inside, deep. I feel her groan roar in her chest before I hear it.

I was fine until she did this. It’s way to close to my thoughts of a few minutes ago. Too close and too much like what I wanted. My chest begins to burn as my breathing turns ragged. The kiss has gone from gentle to searing and intense. Her tongue is mapping my mouth and sliding over mine in tantilizing fashion.

My mind and body are flooded with memories of the previous time we made love, and my body reacts accordingly. The craving starts. The ache starts, and the throbbing starts. Liquid heat sluices through my body and lands between my legs. I groan loudly, and Sly pulls me impossibly closer. I need her. I need this to bring me all the way back where I belong. Right here. Right now. With a cry muffled by her lips, I put my all into the kiss. It becomes feverish.

“Mmm, God, Abbie.” Sly’s voice is harsh, needy. Her hips start to undulate.

We’re moving backward, but we stop once my back is against a cabinet. Before I know it, my dress is hiked up and my legs are wrapped around her waist. I am meeting her thrust for thrust. I whimper each time as pleasure jar my bones. How did I become so aroused so quickly? My sex feels swollen and slick, and I long for Sly to touch me there.

Sly tears her mouth away. Her hips continue their cadence, and her hands have found her way to my breasts kneading them through the fabric of my uniform. My nipples scrape against the material, making them more sensitive with each pass of Sly’s fingers. I arch into her, and she responds. Her moan is loud, breathy, and her voice is pleading, “We should stop. We gotta. . .stop.” She adds unexpectantly.

I can’t. I won’t. We need this. I don’t care that it’s some supply closet. Us. It’s all that matters. “No. . .please.” I grasp her behind and pull her into me. Sly emits a small cry as her hips fall into a hard grind. “Need you,” I whisper hotly into her ear before I caress the shell of it with my tongue.

“Uhhh, what do you do. . .to me?” Sly asks brokenly. I don’t have time to answer as her mouth seeks out mine again.

My inner thighs quiver in anticipation of the pleasure sure to come. I moan at the thought of it, but I need more. I want to feel her inside of me. It’s something I have yet to experience, and I ache for it. I feel empty inside, and somewhere deep I know she’s the only one who can fill me up. I wrench my mouth away. “Please. . .inside. . .please.”

I hear her groan. She’s eager to feel it also. Our positions change. My wobbly legs are back on the floor, but Sly is holding me up with one strong hand at my back. She drags her moistened sex over the outside of my hip. I feel the wet heat everywhere. Sly’s hands are quick but shaky as she moves the crotch of my panties aside. The air caresses my wetness. I moan, but we both do when her fingers come in contact with flesh. Without preamble, her fingers slide deep inside me. I throw my head back and bite my lip to keep from screaming. A warm wetness gushes over my thigh, where she is positioned, along with several hard grinds. Sly loves it too.

Her fingers retract slowly. The friction against my inner walls is tremendous, making it hard to breathe and think. Sly’s hot breath is on my ear. “Yesss, you are so. . .is it all for me, Abbie?”

God, the things she says could be my undoing. “Yes. . for you.” Sly plunges back inside, and I can’t help myself this time. I cry out as a stray finger rubs furiously at the sensitive bundle of nerves further up. The pleasure is unbelievable. My hips undulate wildly. Her speed increases meeting my heated pace.. All the while, she is grinding into me–hot, slick.

Our mouths meet again and cling. I am flying so high that bright light flashes in front of my eyes. Sly’s fingers curve upward. She hits a spot that sends me reeling. Again and again, she returns. I sob. The inner walls of my sex try desperately to suck her in as she retreats. Fire races up my spine and flushes through my body. She swallows my cries, and then suddenly I am flying and falling at the same time as orgasm pummels me off guard.. My thighs won’t stop shaking. My body won’t stop convulsing, and I hear a high pitched whine filling the little room as her fingers continue to move in me deeply, wringing me dry.

A few seconds later a hoarse cry fills my ears as Sly pounds her hips against me. I would do anythiing to see her face right now. She lets out a series of whimpers that shoot straight to my groin. My sex clenches in empathy and renewed arousal. Her body stills then trembles around me. “Unngh, Abbie!” I pull her close to me, letting her fall apart.

Long minutes later, I fall back to earth on a nice cushy cloud. Sly’s breathing has returned to normal also.

“Mmm,” she snuggles into me. “Not enough light in here. Wish I could see you. Let me see . . .there should be–” She pulls out of me, and my sex clutches at the empty air. I groan.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, just a reflex I guess.”

“Believe me. I didn’t want to leave,” Sly adds.

I’m blushing. I know it.

After a couple of minutes soft light gives us partial illumination. It is enough. Sly looks down at me with a smile gracing swollen, red lips. Her face is flushed and sweaty, and her eyes are a brilliant blue. “Hey.”

I grin back and meet her halfway as she bends down for a kiss.

“I guess we needed that, huh? It makes me feel more a part of you.”

Sly takes the words right out of my mouth. “I was just about to say that. Things feel more right somehow. I’m just sorry it had to be a supply closet. I didn’t expect that,” I murmur.

“Me either. I was just hoping to grab a few kisses and surprise you. Soon, we’ll be making love in our own bed.”

“You think so?” I ask.

“I know so. That is, if you want to be with me like that. You know I love you, and I know you care about me. But, I’ll understand if you need your own space.” I hear Sly swallow and watch her throat bob.

She needs to hear this. “I can’t see my future without you in it, and I do care. But, it’s more than that. I don’t know what else to call this but love. I’ve never felt anything like it. So, I do. I do love you.”

I have never seen her face light up like that. I have never seen her so happy. Sly squeals, and I find myself being twirled around in the air. “Whooo! I’d be lying if I say I haven’t been waiting to hear those words. I love you too, Abbie. Together then?”

I nod, and she starts talking excitedly. “That’s great! Once we save a few thousand dollars, we can start looking for an apartment. A two bedroom, a furnished one. Maybe something with a couch that lets out into a bed. That way everybody will have somewhere to sleep. I know saving that kind of money is gonna take a while with what we make, but we can do it. Don’t you think?”

Her enthusiasm and confidence is contagious. “Yeah, I believe we can.” I mean every word. We may not have everything right now, but we have plans and hopes. Sometimes that’s enough especially if you finally feel that you can make it all come to fruition.

“We probably need to open a bank account that would be easiest. Where are you keeping your money now?”

I shrug. “I usually keep it on me. It’s never that much especially after rent and groceries so I just pin it in my clothes. It’s become habit.”

“Hmm, I was starting to do that too. That’s too dangerous. We should definately go to a bank tomorrow.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I mutter in agreement.

Sly’s grin is a mile wide. I can’t help but return it. I look at her and try to convey all my feelings through my eyes. There is so much she has done for me. “Thank you.”

Her eyebrows raise. “For what?”

“For bringing me back.”

Her smile is gentle and soft. “Just returning the favor, Little Bit.”

Sly pulls me close as I lean my head against her chest before glancing upward again. I guess from the sudden somber expression on my face she knows that I need to talk. “When I first came to the Mission that was my biggest fear, that I’d end up living there one day. Maybe if it hadn’t happened like it had, maybe I wouldn’t have been so torn up by it, but that whole day was like a roller coaster. It was like going from one extreme to another. I just never experienced anything like that before. I wasn’t prepared for it. When you told me you got a housekeeping job and then we made love, it just felt like I touched the sun.” I watch as Sly’s eyes sparkle in agreement.

“It was the most beautiful thing to happen to me, Abbie.” Her voice is hoarse but sincere.

“Me too, but then with the fire, it was like somebody up there was laughing and saying, “Look, this is what you can’t have.’ I guess I thought I was going to lose everything. I’m glad you and Stevie talked some sense into me.”

“I’m here to stay, Abbie. I just wanted to make sure you knew that.” Sly murmurs above my head.

“It’s sinking in. It’s finally sinking in. You know the same goes for me. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Mmm,” Sly plants a moist kiss on my lips. “I’m glad to hear that on both our parts.” We both go quiete as if soaking in the surroundings and each other.

I watch as Sly looks around us. “I hate to say it, but you s’pose we should get out of here?”

“Don’t know. I’ve gotten all comfortable.”

“Uh huh, neither one of us will be too comfortable if we get caught in here.”

I pause for a minute. She’s right. “Yeah, Lola’s probably looking for us anyway. It was close to lunch time when I came this way.” I try my best to straighten my uniform and hair. “Let me go out first.” God, who would have thought I would be doing this? Wasn’t I the shy one months ago? I shake my head and step away from Sly to go. Before I get to the door, her fingers wrap around my arm and pull me back.

“Hey,” The look in her eyes is soft and loving. “. . .tell me again.”

I don’t hesitate. There is no need to. I turn to her and get as close as possible our faces are almost touching. “I love you,” I whisper.

Sly whimpers and captures my lips in a long, gentle kiss. I happily respond, wrapping my arms around her neck once more.

“Again.”

“Love you.”

“God,” Her voice cracks with emotion. “. . .I never thought I’d hear those words from anyone.”

I lift a hand to her cheek, trailing my fingertips over it. “You’ll hear it from me everyday.”

After a few minutes more of intense stares and even more intense kisses. I exit the closet, only to hear the sound of of my name being called.

“Abbie! Where are chu girl? I see your cart.”

Lola rounds the corridor, and I bite my lip before giving her a big smile. This woman has the weirdest timing.

Her eyes narrow. “I was jus here. Chu weren’t. What is goin’ on?”

My smile grows. Oh boy. “Um–” I feel a whoosh of air as the supply closet door opens behind me. I turn just as Sly is poking her head out.

“Is the coast clear?”

I groan inwardly. I’ll never hear the last of this.

“Ohhhhhhhhhh, Abbie you didn’t!” Lola’s eyes widen to the size of saucers as she gives me the once over, taking in the wrinkled uniform. “Jessssss, you did!”

I hear Sly moan behind me as she emerges out of the closet. “Noooooooo, we didn’t. Abbie was jes–just helping me find something.”

Lola puts a hand on her hips and taps her foot. “Un huh. I didn’t jes fall off turneep truck chu know. I know when sex has been had, and chu two are glowing. Sex has been had!” She adds with a triumphant smile.

I look from Sly to Lola hoping some way will come to me to nip this in the butt. Lola’s grin just gets wider. I throw my hands up in exasperation. “Arrghh! Okay, we were, but it’s not like we have anywhere else to go, you know?” I look at my blonde friend pleadingly. It glance a Sly to see her trying to hide her face behind a hand but peering at me from between the opening of her fingers expectantly. She expects me to take care of this!

Lola’s grin turns into a smirk. “Aye, chica calm down. I’m jes teasing. I’m so glad to see chu doing better. I know what chu two are going through, and if I lived by myself chu would be more than happy to use my place.” She looks back and forth between Sly and me. “Let me tell chu a secret.” She leans in, and I find myself leaning in also curious as to what she has to say. Sly is doing the same. “The closet in the section Sly works is much bigger and more comfortable. Chu could lay down in there.” Blond brows wriggle.

Blood floods my face leaving it unbelievably hot. The things this woman says! “Lola!”

Her face takes on the mask of innocence. “What? What did I say?”

I peer at Sly to find that her hand is covering her mouth this time obviously hoping to hide her laughter. It wasn’t working. I could see it in her eyes. The amusement in the situation is bursting forth. I let out a chuckle before I can contain it. They hear it and look at me as if waiting. I sigh and smile before rolling my eyes and decide to add my own bit of teasing. “And how do you know about this closet?”

Lola’s smile is sensual and rakish. “Let’s jes say chu are not the first women to take a quick. . .break.”

I look at her increduously. “Lola! Did you seduce women into going in there?”

“I not tell. It’s lunchtime. Let’s eat.” She walks off briskly toward the service elevator.

I glance at Sly who is as amused by this as I am. Her eyes are twinkling. “Tomorrow night. My closet?”

I feel my own eyes widen. Lola is rubbing off on her. They are both incorrigible”Sly!”

Both of her eyebrows rise knowingly. “Abbie?”

I can’t help it. I smile hugely. There is no way I’d pass up this chance. “God, I love you. Is 3 A.M. okay?”

Sly chuckles and looks at me affectionately. “It’s perfect.” She holds out a hand, and I take it immediately.

I’m back. We’re back. Everything is back, and it is good.
Chapter: XXXII: Square in the Face
Perfect. It’s almost as if my life is perfect. I have everything I ever wanted–a family who loves me. Now, it’s time to work on the secondary things. It’s late morning, and I sit virtually alone in the common room waiting for Abbie to finish washing up. We have a date at the bank. Abbie. My God, I can’t think about her without thinking about what happened last night. She is the most sensual person I have ever met. She bathed me in heat and in love, and being inside her was like coming home. It feels so new with her–making love. Each caress is like being reborn–a baptism of sorts. I’m finding my way to where I belong, and every time we touch the path is just a little brighter. I now know the difference between sex and making love. Nothing could compare with being with Abbie. Absolutely nothing.

I’m glad she’s back . . .no I’m elated because she definately spruces up the place, my family, and my heart. Nothing would be the same without those crooked little smiles that call to you, and before you know it, you’re smiling too as if you’re privy to the secret she knows. I chuckle at the thought of it. Looking up, I spot Gert waddling this way. She usually hangs around while Stevie and Pauly go out and about. She waves as she gets closer. I throw her a smile.

“Where’s your other half?” She asks. Ahhh, she’s lucid today. I can see it in her eyes, and other half, I like that.

“She’s getting cleaned up we’re making a trip to the bank. You wanna come?” I love seeing her and Abbie interact. They totally understand each other. It’s eerie. They talk and laugh about nonsense.

“Sure, I got some deposits to make myself.”

I raise a brow and smile at her indulgently. I would love to know Gert’s story, but I know that I probably never will. The way she talks about money all the time leads me to think she had a lot of it at one time and lost it all. Now, just the mention of cash is her way of holding on to something she doesn’t have anymore. “Well, have a seat. She might be awhile.”

We lapse into a comfortable silence, but I have some things on my mind. I clear my throat. “You had me scared there for a little while Gertie.”

She turns to look at me with her ragged face and wind burned hair. “You mean, when I was sick? I really missed being with you all.”

“We missed you too, and I don’t want you to be sick again if I can help it. You understand what I’m saying?” I look at her expectantly.

Gert looks confused for a moment. Then, she nods. “That’s why you got the job, then?”

“Yeah, I want us all to be together. You, Stevie, Pauly, Abbie and me–”

“Like family?” Gert finishes for me. Her voice cracks. I am tempted to ask a lot more. This is the most lucid she has been in a long, long time. I don’t know why.

“Yeah, like family. Do you. . .do you have other family maybe looking for you, Gertie?” I ask her softly.

Her head snaps up and her face hardens. “They didn’t want me.” To my surprise I see tears shining in her eyes.

“We want you, Gertie. We’ll take care of you.” Somehow, I end up hugging her. Seconds later, she is pulling away.

“I need to go call my broker. Be right back.”

I watch her as she leaves. Maybe I don’t need to know about her other family. I think she just told me all I wanted to hear.

***

Long minutes later, I spy Abbie coming down the hall. She offers me a half smile as she breezes in the room filling it with the scent of jasmine. I take in a deep breath then grin back at her.

“Were you making yourself all pretty for me?”

She’s standing over me now. A teasing grin steals across her face. “No, I was getting rid of that Ajax smell. It seems to cling.”

I narrow my eyes at her then purse my lips to keep from smiling. I bet my eyes give me away though. I can’t hide anything from her. It’s so nice to have her back. “You enjoyed that didn’t you?”

The grin widens. “Immensely.”

I snort. “Lola is rubbing off on you more than I thought.”

“Funny, I was thinking the exact same thing about you last night.”

I love being able to play with her like this. It’s damn stimulating. Making love has opened her up in more ways than one. I love this side of her. I’m sure I would have seen it sooner if it wasn’t for the fire. “You could think last night?” I whisper and glance around to see the other two people asleep. One is sitting awkwardly in a chair while the other has procured the couch.

She blushes. Score one for me.

“Um, well. . .after. . .you know.” Abbie hangs her head in an attempt to hide.

“Oh yeah, I know.” My voice lowers an octave without permission, and my body zings with memories.

Her head snaps back up and our eyes meet. The room suddenly crackles with tension, and I want nothing more than to grab her and kiss her senseless. I watch as her tongue snakes out to lick dry lips. I almost groan at the sight. Somehow my breathing has become slightly ragged. Abbie leans toward me, and my heart and stomach flutter in anticipation. I reach out a hand and trail fingertips up and down her arm. Gooseflesh rises. She moves in closer until I can feel hot, sweet breath caress my face. My gaze goes from her eyes to her lips to the rapidly beating pulse in her neck.

“Can we make that 2:30?” Abbie mutters thickly.

Oh God, I wish it was right now. “Uh huh.” I all but squeak.

A voice clears somewhere behind us. I almost jump out of my seat in surprise. Abbie’s eyes get huge. I bet she’s wondering how much this person heard.

“Uh, sorry to interrupt.” The voice is timid and very female.

Abbie moves out of the way so that we can both get a view of our visitor. She’s tall and way too thin. Stringy red hair falls over her shoulders and eyes, hiding them from me. She looks very familiar. I’ve seen her around. “It’s okay. Were you looking for somebody?”

“Actually, I’m looking for you. You’re Sly right?” She asks almost shyly.

I glance at Abbie, and I see that she’s just as curious as I am. “Yeah. Now that you know who I am. Can I ask who you are?”

“Oh, um, sorry. I’m Jen. I’ve been living here about a month. People told me that you are the person I come to if I need anything.” She walks foward and extends her hand. I take it gladly. Her hand is so small and fragile. It feels like I could break it if I squeeze too hard.

I smile at Jen. “Nice to meet you. This is Abbie.” I jerk my head in her direction.

Jen grins. “Oh, I’ve heard of you too.” She reaches out a hand to Abbie. My eyebrows raise. My Abbie is becoming a household name around here.

“Hi,” I hear Abbie mutter.

I turn back to the redhead. “What can I help you with?” Before I know it, my arm is being nudged. I look up at Abbie in confusion.

“Can I talk to you for a minute,” she whispers. I eye her in confusion but nod my head anyway.

“Be right back, Jen.” I get up and follow her to the other side of the room.

“What’s up?” I look into green eyes snapping with excitement.

“Now’s your chance. It can start with her. It’s time for you to teach and not just do.”

“Oh! I didn’t realize.” I pause. “But, she’s new around here. Maybe I should–”

“No, it’s perfect. If you show one person, she will show another and so on. It’s a good way to start. We’ve been putting this on the backburner for way too long. It’s time.”

I stare at Abbie for a moment. This is a huge step for me. I’m a doer not a teacher. At least, I don’t think so. “I don’t know, Abbie. I’ve never done this teaching thing–”

“That’s crap.” Abbie interrupts. My eyebrows spring high on my forehead.

“Huh?”

“Look at what you did for me. Look what you taught me.” Her voice is sincere and so is her expression.

“Oh, I didn’t think about that.” I take a deep breath. “Okay, I’ll give it a try.” I reach for her hand as we go back to Jen.

The redhead’s eyes are expectant. She glances down out our joined hands and looks back up at me with a big grin. Ah, that’s what she heard. “Sorry about that. What were you saying?”

“Um, I have a daughter who I want to enroll in school here come Fall, and I found out her books are gonna cost a lot of money. The Mission can help with some of them but not all. Is there any way you can get the rest for me?” She starts to dig in her pockets. “I have the list right here. I know it’s early, but I want her to start reading as soon as possible.”

I squeeze Abbie’s hand, and she squeezes back. I take another deep breath. “Um, I’m a lot more busy these days, so I can’t do it for you. But, I can tell you where to go. If that’s okay?” I look at her hoping not to see disappointment. I don’t.

“Oh, well that’s just as good! Can you write it down for me. I’m sure I can find my way around.” She starts fishing in her pockets again. “I have a pen somewhere.”

I am stunned for a moment. That was easy. I hope everybody else takes it this way. I peer down at Abbie to see a huge smile spread across her face. She knew I could do it. I grin back and unlatch our hands to take the pen and paper. “Um, there’s this old guy on Artic and New York avenue that owns a used book store. He lets me borrow reading material from there. Tell him I sent you. His name is Bob, nice guy, and he should have what you need. If he doesn’t, he’ll find it, but you have to give them back.” I look at her pointedly as I begin to write.

“I promise.” Jen nods.

“Good.” I finish writing the address and hand the paper back to her.

“Thank you so much! It was nice meeting both of you.” She gives us both another smile then turns to go.

I stand there looking at the empty hallway. “Well, I–”

“You did it,” Abbie whispers. “Was it as hard as you thought?”

I think for a minute. “No actually. I hope everyone else takes it like she does. I’ve walked around this city a lot. I have a lot of connections.”

I hear her sigh, and I glance down to see her expression somber. “A lot of people depend on you, Sly. Some of them won’t be that easy on you. They might say all kinds of nasty things including accusing you of abandoning them. Are you ready for that?”

I scratch my nose before answering. “As long as you’re here, I’ll be okay.” It’s the truth. I feel like I could take on anything.

Abbie smiles gently. “Good thing that’s a lesson we’ve both learned.”

***

We’re on the Boardwalk, heading toward the first bank we see. More than likely it will be Fleet. I shake my head and chuckle as I listen to my two favorite women converse.

“But, Gert, how do you know how much to put in what stock?”

Gert cackles as if she has the biggest secret in the world. “You have to find a broker who you can trust. They’ll know what to do with it.”

“But you said yours wouldn’t listen to you.”

Gert pauses and cants her head to the side. “I know. That’s what makes him good.”

Abbie stops mid-stride. I catch her eye, and I see green eyes sparkling with mirth. I smile crookedly.

“Gert did you just make a funny?” I ask.

She just cackles and walks ahead of us.

I laugh, and Abbie joins in.

We continue to walk slowly. The day is nice, and I find myself trailing behind those two as I watch the seagulls fly over head and land in the sand. My life is full of beauty and promise. That’s something that I’ve never had. Everything seems brighter, cleaner somehow. I glance ahead of me to see green eyes looking back. She’s the reason why. I grin, and Abbie returns it. “I love you,” I mouth. She blushes and stumbles. Abbie peers at me accusingly, but beams nonetheless as she mouths the same words back. My heart races, and I almost miss the street marker indicating our stop. Abbie is quite the distraction.

“Um, we need to turn and get on Atlantic, ladies.” I check my jeans pocket one last time to make sure I have the proper ID. I see Abbie doing the same.

Finally, we stop in front of the financial institution. I snort. I haven’t been in one of these in years. Didn’t think I’d be back either. What was the point? I didn’t have any money. Ahh, but life is funny the way it twists and turns. Here I am about to open a savings account. I look down as I feel a hand caress my back.

“You okay?” Abbie’s eyes are concerned.

I smile at her. “Yeah, I am. Um, do you want to do this jointly or. . .?”

She nods. “Jointly. What’s mine is yours. You know that.”

I am flooded with warmth. It’s quite a feeling to have someone trust you like that. “Okay, together.”

Now, inside, and after a few minutes wait, we both sit on the other side of the financial consultant’s desk. Me and Abbie are quiet as he types our information in. He stops and picks up the paper with the Mission’s address on it.

“Is this a permanant address?”

“No, it’s only temporary,” I answer quickly. I feel Abbie’s eyes on me, and I turn to see her smiling.

He looks at us confused. “Um, okay just notify us when you want to change it. So. . .” he trails off as he punches a few more keys. “You have four hundred five dollars to put in today? Would you like ATM cards for the account? There’s no charge for them here.”

“Sure,” we both answer almost simulataneously. That’s the one thing The Mission takes care of is people’s mail. I guess who’s ever in charge of it is really organized. God, this feels so good. Four hundred five dollars. It’s been ages since I’ve had four dollars. I need to sit down and do some figuring on how long is it gonna take us to save the money we need. We all need clothes for the upcoming winter, and we’ll need the little things for the apartment. . .

“Just sign here,” the man mutters, interrupting my thoughts.

We are finally finished. Abbie rises, and I see it in her face. She is about to bubble over with excitement. I chuckle at her, and she smirks crookedly as we walk toward the waiting area where Gert is sitting.

“It feels like things are finally starting to come together,” Abbie gushes.

“Slowly but surely they are,” I agree. “I just need to sit down and figure out how long it’s gonna take to save the money we need. I want to be out of the Mission before winter.”

“Do you think we can do that?”

“I don’t know. I’m going to do some calculating. We’ll need to save a few thousand dollars, which will be starting off money.” While I’m talking, I’m adding and multiplying in my head. I make less than Abbie because I’m just starting–$6.75/hr. Ugh, why didn’t I do this before? It’s gonna take us forever to save what we need. We don’t have forever. I sigh quietly, trying not to let dejection take over. We’ve got a long road ahead of us it seems.

Abbie hands slides into mine. She’s counting on me. Maybe this road needs to change a little.

I glance down at Gert. “You ready to go? We’re finished here.”

Gert grumbles. ‘Told ya. I got something to deposit.”

My gaze meets Abbie’s. She shrugs. Surely Gert was kidding. She stands up and starts to dig in the pockets of the tattered work pants. I didn’t notice before, but they are bulging. I peer at Abbie again. She’s looking the same place I am.

Gert starts to pull out the contents of her pockets. I gasp as I see what it is.

She had me going there for a minute. Gert piles waded up paper towels on the little table in front of her.

I lock eyes with Abbie. We seem to both let out a long breath. That would have been something if real money sat on that table.

Gert starts to mutter. “Don’t have all of it. Have to come back another time. I told that man to liquidate more!”

We watch as Gert stuffs her pockets again. Without another word, she gets up to leave.

“Whoa,’ I can’t help but utter.

“Yeah, you were thinking the same thing I was weren’t you?”

“Yeah, that would have been—”

“Something,” Abbie adds.

“Yeah. Um, we better go catch up with her.”

***

Abbie is as giddy as a child. It’s way past our usual bedtime. Her back is to me. I pull her close in an attempt to still her, but the cot groans as she continues to wiggle. “You know we’re gonna end up on the floor if you don’t stop moving around like that.” I whisper in her ear.

“I know. I’m just so—”

“Excited?” I finish for her.

“Yeah! Excited. It feels like I’m moving again. For a long time, I was just, you know, stagnant, and I didn’t have it in me to do a thing about it.”

“Yeah, I know what you’re saying.”

She turns over to look at me. A hand reaches up and fingers smooth over my forehead. That worried crease is there I can feel it.

“You’ve been awfully quiet about all this since we left the bank.”

I sigh. I have been, and it’s because I didn’t like what I saw. I need to do something about this, but I can’t go back to that life. I can’t be who I was. It would be an easy trap to fall into, I think, and that scares me. “I know. I did some calculations, Abby. It will be over six months before we save the money we need. I didn’t want it to take that long. It just hit me smack dab between the eyeballs.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize.” I hear her voice falter from its jovial tone. I didn’t mean to do that–get rid of that happy edge. Maybe I’m just being impatient, but it seems like more than that.

“Don’t get me wrong, Little Bit. We can do it. It’s just gonna take time. I figure we need five to six thousand to get all the things we need. Maybe more.” Suddenly I wish that paper towel in Gert’s pockets had been hundreds.

She looks at me with a confused expression. “Then why do you seem so worried about this?”

“To be honest, I don’t know. It’s a combination of things, I guess. I should be doing more. I mean, all the education I have. . . I should be doing more. I’m just–” I let my voice trail off.

The fingers on my forehead move down to my cheek, caressing softly. “You’re just what?”

“I’m scared, Abbie.” I lay myself bare for this woman. There is no hiding, and I think I’m better for it. “I was a real shitty person back then. Money was all I cared about, and now, it seems like it’s starting again. Everything goes back to money. Even with you in my life, what if I—mmmph.”

Abbie kisses me then pulls away to look me squarely in the eye. “No, you’re not that person anymore. Think about it Sly. Look what you had in your life then and what you have in it now. You had money, a girlfriend, and material things, but you weren’t happy. I think that’s what kept you going back, working harder. You thought the more money you made the happier you would be, but you know now that it doesn’t work like that. Are you happy, Sly?”

I don’t hesitate. “Yes. I didn’t think it was possible but yes.”

“Then that makes all the difference.”

I stare at her dumbfounded, and that damn saying starts to run through my head. The only thing to fear is fear itself. “I’ve got some thinking to do, huh?”

“Yeah, it sounds like you do.”

I lean down to kiss her. She hums against my lips. “You’re wonderful. You know that?” As an answer, Abbie blushes. “I love it when you do that.” Her blush deepens as I trace its path from her neck to cheeks. “And I love you.” She smiles through the flush and graces my chin with a kiss.

“Love you too. Now, go to sleep.” She adds with a grin.

“Hey! You’re the one keeping me up!” I tell her incredously.

“That’s not the point. Go to sleep.”

I grumble as she wiggles until her head is situated on my shoulder. I feel a slight kiss on my neck as she throws a leg over me. I’m trapped, but I have no desire to go anywhere. Pulling her into me once more, I let my mind wander. Is it time for me to really venture out into the world again? I’m giddy at the thought of crunching numbers. It’s what my mind was built to do. Would anybody hire me? It’s been two years, and that’s a big gap between accounting jobs. Maybe if I tell the truth. It will get me somewhere. After all, I was exonerated.

Abbie mews as she burrows further into my chest. For her, I would do anything. She believes in me, and I believe in myself. The stage is set. I’m trying to do right by the community by teaching them to fend more for themselves. That frees me up big time, and getting this kind of job will get us where we need to go so much quicker. Maybe it’s time for me; for Abbie; and for my family.

***

Two days later, I’m sitting in a chair as I survey the room I’m about to clean. It’s disgusting what people do or think they can do just because they have money. Hell, I used to be those people. Angry, I throw the rag that I am using to dust the table on the floor. My teeth grind as I try not to let the anger take over.

Why am I here? I can do better than this. Isn’t being here letting them, my parents, and that lying cheat, win? I’m not angry at them that would give them too much power over me. I’m angry at myself. I can do better than this, and I need to. Abbie said I had some thinking to do. I have been. I’ve thought enough, and something has finally clicked into place. Maybe it took seeing this shit to know that I’m still a doer, and it’s time to do just that. I glance at the digital clock on the nightstand. It’s 2:15 a.m. Almost time for me to meet Abbie in my closet. This time we’re going to do a lot more talking.

***

I open the door to the closet, and I am immediately yanked inside by a giggling Abbie. “What took you so long?” Her arms wrap around me, and I smile as I search around for the light.

I flip the switch. “Ah, there we go,” I mutter.

“So?” Abbie asks impatiently.

I smirk. “So what?”

Her eyes roll. “You know what I mean?!”

“Wellll, I was thinking.” I tell her cryptically.

“About?” I watch in amusement as her exasperation grows. Green eyes glint dangerously at me.

“I was thinking about how to put together my resume.” I look at her and wait.

“Ahhh!”

I didn’t have to wait long.

“You’re gonna do it?” Her arms move from my torso to around my neck. “I can’t wait to tell the others!” Abbie is wiggling excitedly. “You’re so. . .so”

My eyes widen as she crushes her lips to mine. My surprise changes to a groan of enjoyment. The kiss is intensly passionate. Her tongue plunders my mouth as if it was hungry for it. I let her have her way. Like I always do. Abbie whimpers, and her lips gentle until our mouths are just brushing. She pulls back.

“I love you so much, and I knew you had it in you–all that confidence and cockiness. The Sly I fell in love with–the one who doesn’t take shit. You’re one in the same. Your heart is just open now.”

Nimble hands start to unbutton my uniform. After three buttons, her hands slides in over my heart, and Abbie’s lips brush mine again. I smile into the kiss before pulling her into me and deepening the contact once more. Abbie moans, and her hand moves over to my left breast. Her fingers flick lazily over my nipple. I gasp at the spark the shoots through my body. “Abbie,” I say breathlessly. “I thought maybe we could talk. . .God!” I cry out as she plucks the aroused tip of my breast.

Abbie’s hot, soft lips move from my mouth to my neck. Her mouth opens wide over the flesh there, and her tongue comes into play. “Mmm, about?”

I try to think. “I-I don’t know. . .stuff?” How the hell does she do this to me? How the hell did I get so aroused already? My stomach clenches along with my sex, and my thighs are slick with a flowing wetness. She bites into my neck and my breathing stops then becomes ragged. I moan loudly as her other hand– that I had forgotten about- slides over my behind. I could have sworn I had on underwear.

“Mmm, I love that sound.”

My God, I’ve created a wanton, and she’s all mine. I smile slowly as she sucks at my pulse point.

“Now, shhh, and let me show you how proud I am,” Blunt nails rake over the flesh of my behind. “. . .of you.” With one hand, Abbie undoes more buttons and moves the material aside until skin is exposed. Good thing I don’t wear a bra. I watch as her head descends. I watch as her tongue flicks slowly making my nipple come up big and hard. It’s the most erotic sight I have ever seen.

“Oh yess, show me.” Her mouth engulfs me. I hiss and throw my head back. She moans. I have to see more. It’s too delicious a sight to turn away from.

After leaving both nipples red and sensitive to even the air, I watch as Abbie kneels. My heart races at the prospect. She’s never tasted me before, but I’ve been down on her enough for her to know just where to go. Just the thought of it makes me open my legs wide.

Cool air rushes over my wet sex. Then, soft, probing fingers open me. “Oh God, Abbie!” I hear her whimper in response. Oh yes, she is very proud.

***

It’s after breakfast at The Mission, and we sit here in the common room waiting for Stevie and the rest of the gang to arrive. Abbie stands over me rubbing my back. I glance up at her and smile. This is the right decision. I feel it in my gut, my heart, and my head. I blow out a breath. This is still a big step for all of us. I will work the housekeeping job until I find a new one. I may not get a big job like I had before, but I would be happy doing the books for a small store or any other kind of business.

I look up to see Stevie and Pauly filing in. Gert is right behind them. For some reason, their faces are wary. Did I miss something here?

Stevie and Pauly grab chairs and move them near us. Gert decides to stand to my left. She gives me a little smile before looking away. I clear my throat and open my mouth. But, Pauly raises a hand to stop me.

“Let me say somethin’ first, Sly.” He looks from Stevie to Gert then wipes his hands on the ratty khakis he’s wearing. “We’ve been talking. Been tryin’ to include Gert, but it’s hard to get stuff out of her, you know?”

I nod. That means she probably wasn’t able to tell them about my plans to have them live with us.

“Um, we see that you and the lil’ miss over there love each other. You picked good, and she has been good to us. But, you’re young and need to start off on your own. You don’t need us holding you down.” I see him glance at Stevie again. “We figured we’d tell ya this before you told us. So no feelings would be hurt. We understand that you can’t be with us anymore. . .”

My body jolts in shock, and I don’t hear another word. I look up at Abbie, and she’s as horrified as I am. I know I have to say something. “Whoa, Pauly! What the hell? You are my family all of you, and where I go you go. No ifs, and’s or but’s about it. You got me here to the person I am today, and I’ll be damned before I abandon either one of you. I didn’t ask you to meet me here to dump you. I asked you here to ask yall to come with us! I told Gertie the other day, and I’m sure if she could have she would have relayed all of this.”

Stevie and Pauly look at each other in surprise. “Sho?! Didn’t think ya meant it when ya said it a while back. Thought was jus somethin’ to say. I been hopin’. Yall’s my family. Don’t wanna lose none of ya,” Stevie announces as his eyes takes in all of us.

I take a few deep breaths to calm down. Abbie squeezes my shoulder. I look up at her and see a determined expression. She has something to say.

“I hope you know that Sly speaks for us both on this. You guys changed my world, and it wouldn’t be the same without you in it. It wouldn’t be the same at all. I’m holding on to you. You’re my family, and I love you all.” Abbie’s voice is emotion filled. A silence lapses between us.

“I always knew Sly would take care of us,” Gert is the first one to break into the quiet. “She didn’t care about my money like them others did. Not even like my broker.”

I look over at the older woman gratefully. All of them—they are something else. They love me enough to let me go. I’m guessing that’s a whole lot of love. I glance around the room, holding each of their gazes–Pauly, Stevie, and then Gert. “We all know where we stand, right?” The nod, and I continue. “We stand together.” I feel Abbie wrap an arm around me. I’ve never felt so safe, and so sure. “Okay, this is the plan. We’re gonna save money, and I’m gonna work as a housekeeper until I can get something better. It might take a while, but I’m gonna try. When we save enough, we’re gonna rent a house with enough room for everybody. I was thinking about an apartment at first, but we should go bigger since there are five of us. . .”

As I continue to speak, my heart swells. Here is where the journey leads me. I’ve had many twists and turns, and there may be many more. I’ve never been more ready for them. I could stumble somewhere in between, but I know someone is here to pick me up. I have an angel watching over me. I feel her kissing the top of my head now. I have family around me. I feel them loving me now, and most of all, I have hope.
Chapter XXXIII: At last
This is where I belong at Sly’s side. Right here is where I feel complete. Standing here, I feel like I could do anything. She motivates me. She moves me to want more out of life than I thought it would ever offer me. I may not have her education or intelligence, but I’m smart in my own right. I just need to go after what I want, and I will. As a part of this family, I have responsibility to them. There’s other jobs in the casino that pay more. I just have to save the money to get the license for them. It’s that simple now.

I glance around the room. I see Stevie and Pauly. I picture them clean, shaven, and flourishing like they should be. It’s quite a picture. My gaze emcompasses Gert. I want to be able to get her the help she needs. There’s a story in her somewhere.

I close my eyes and look within. My parents would be proud, I know that. They wouldn’t like me being homeless, but they would love the person I’ve become. I feel it somewhere deep down. It’s been quite a transition from helplessness to hopefulness. I have love in my life. I have family. I have everything. I may have been afraid before to have that. . .everything. I closed myself to it because I watched it crumble before my eyes as a child. I see again. I feel again, and I’m open again to everything. I pull Sly closer as she continues to talk. She’s still my hero, but I guess I rescued her too. Opening my eyes, I find myself bending down placing a kiss at the top of her head. Life is truly worth the struggle it takes to live it, and I know that I’m going to win.

 

The End

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