The Meek Shall Inherit

by D.R. Crowley

Preface

This is a melancholy story of two broken people.


Greg pulled into the liquor store parking lot. The shoddy building had places on its wall where the paint was obviously peeling off and one rain gutter had an end that had fallen several inches away from the roof, hanging by a thin wire. One window was broken and covered by cardboard that had faded to nearly bone white. He might have thought it a derelict building except for the bright neon sign that flashed the word "Open" in red on the door and the interior which was bright with harsh fluorescent light.

The store was in a bad part of town and Greg knew he shouldn't be there. But it was on the way to his destination for the night; an all-nude night club that was a BYOB by state law. Greg had never been to "Beaver City" but he'd heard about it, mostly from people who would never admit to ever setting a foot inside the place yet somehow had pretty good knowledge of it. Tonight was the third anniversary of his divorce and he'd be damned if he was going to spend it alone; even if it meant renting the company of a woman for a little while. On the other hand, he was taking a risk. If he was seen by the wrong eyes, not likely but possible, it would mean the end of his charity work and that meant a lot to him. He'd almost talked himself into just going home, several times, but loneliness and the burning anger at his wife had won out each time.

The sharp January wind stung his face and cooled his body, even through his heavy clothes and thick winter coat that he quickly pulled tighter. One of those bad cold snaps had come roaring in a day ago and dropped the temperature in the Texas panhandle from highs in the mid fifties to a high of only fifteen today. It was well after sunset and the temperature was dropping. Unfortunately the wind wasn't.

He slammed the door on his pickup, not bothering to lock it. No car thief would be out in this weather. Bending against the wind he trudged toward the double glass doors. As he stepped onto the sidewalk he noticed a pile of trash piled up by the wall away from the door. It seemed odd that the brisk wind had not blown it away. He looked again and saw what looked like a bare human foot slip out of the pile of trash and then immediately jerk back.

Walking over, Greg peered at the pile more closely. As he got closer, he realized there was a person under the layers of trash, and old newspapers.

"Hey buddy, you okay?" Greg said, raising his voice to be heard over the wind.

When he got no response he knelt by the pile and gently pulled a sheaf of newspaper back where he figured the man's head should be. Instead he found himself looking into a magnificent pair of beautiful green feminine eyes. The eyes stared at him and for a moment, Greg was terrified that he'd found a dead woman. Then they blinked.

"You okay, ma'am?" Greg asked.

She just stared at him, not moving. He reached a hand down to her face and felt her cheek. It was cold to the touch. She didn't move.

"I'm going to get you into my pickup. It's warm in there. I'm not going to hurt you. Okay."

The woman didn't respond. Greg pulled his jacket off, hurriedly; the bitter cold wind instantly biting into him. His thick flannel long sleeved shirt with a cotton t-shirt underneath didn't offer nearly enough protection. Sitting her up, he realized that she was only wearing a very light, threadbare t-shirt and ratty denim jeans. As quickly as he could, he wrapped the jacket around her and then slipped one arm under her legs and the other under her arms. Lifting her, he pushed himself to his feet. The woman was remarkably light and she didn't react at all to being lifted. Jogging back to his pickup, the wind whipped around him stealing the warmth from his arms and cruelly biting his exposed hands and cheeks. Rushing to the passenger side of his truck, he pulled the door open and lifted the frail woman into the seat. He closed the door and then jogged to the driver's side.

Once he was behind the wheel and his door was closed, Greg started the motor and turned the heater on full. He flicked the switch for the dome light and then turned to the woman sitting in the passenger seat.

"You okay, ma'am?"

Her head turned slowly toward him and then bobbed twice. He reached over and directed the heater vents to blow on her.

"How long you been out there?"

She just stared at him with those big green eyes. With the dome light on, he could see her clearer now. She wasn't beautiful. Thin, so very thin, sunken cheeks, cracked lips and freckles; so many freckles on her face it seemed she was more freckle than the pale white of her skin between them.

"I'm going to take you to the emergency room." Greg said after a moment.

"No! Please no. No. No. No."

He stopped at her words, the first he'd heard from her. Her voice had been faint but insistent.

"Okay. It's okay. Do you have someplace I can take you?"

"No. No. No."

Greg wasn't sure it was an answer to his question or her just repeating the same word. He wasn't sure this girl was all there.

"Can I at least take you home and get you warmed up? Once you are warm, we can talk and I'll take you where ever you want to go."

Her green eyes focused on him for a moment and she nodded slowly. She pulled his coat tighter around her. She should have been shivering uncontrollably but she wasn't. He took just a moment to survey her. Her tattered jeans were almost as much hole as material. The holes were not a fashion statement. She wore a pair of old ratty flip flops on her feet. Her top was hidden by his jacket, but he'd already seen the ragged t-shirt she had on when he wrapped her in his coat.

Unconsciously he shook his head and wondered how she ever got to this state. After reaching across her and fastening her in, he flipped off the dome light and started home, glancing over at her to make sure she was okay as he wheeled out of the parking lot and got on interstate 40 to cross the city. As often as he could he looked over at her, hoping she was still alive.

He lived on the good side of Amarillo between the major streets of Bell and Coulter in a small subdivision known as Sleepy Hollow. It was an older subdivision and not nearly as high class as many in the city, but it was a good area with almost no crime. Fifteen minutes later he pulled into his driveway and hit the garage door opener. That was one good thing about living in a small city like Amarillo; nothing was very far away, unlike Dallas where he might have been driving an hour to get back home. After lowering the overhead door behind them, Greg got out and unlocked the door into his house. Living in a low crime area, did not mean he was careless. With the door open, he retrieved the woman from his truck and carried her gently into the house. Somewhere along the way she'd started to shake and now she was shivering so bad she nearly shook herself from his arms. He took her to the living room and carefully lowered her to the couch. She curled up into the fetal position, lying on her side.

"I'm going to get you some blankets and then start a fire. We'll get it toasty warm in here in no time." Greg smiled down at her but got no response. She was shivering uncontrollably, but he thought that was a good sign. Her body was at least trying to get warm now.

On the way to get the blankets from the closet, he glanced at the thermostat. It read sixty-eight, he punched it up to eighty. By the time he returned to the woman with four blankets and a fluffy pillow, the heater was blowing full blast and the house was beginning to warm up.

After getting the blankets wrapped around her, Greg went to the fireplace and quickly started a fire. Having a gas fireplace was very convenient. Along with the blankets, fireplace, and heater, what else could he do to help the woman? He thought for a moment and then nodded to himself.

Turning back to the woman, he found her lying on her side, watching him. Her bright eyes followed him as he approached and knelt in front of her.

"Are you allergic to chocolate?"

She just stared at him.

"Do you have food allergies? I'd like to give you something warm to drink."

She shook her head lethargically.

"Okay, I'll be right back."

He rushed to the kitchen and quickly made a cup of hot chocolate. Stirring it he tested it carefully, not wanting to risk burning her. When the temperature was good he returned to the living room and knelt in front of the woman again.

"You'll have to sit up to drink it."

She just stared at him for a moment and then slowly pushed herself up into a sitting position with her knees drawn up tight to her chest. He handed her the cup and she took it in shaking hands. She was still shivering badly.

"Here, let me help." He took her hands in his, steadying them, and pressed the cup up to her lips, letting her sip.

Her lips, almost blue before, were bright red now and full. As the warm chocolate seeped down her throat she groaned and pushed the cup away.

"You okay? Is something wrong?"

"Hurts to drink." Her voice was weak and raspy.

"Is it too hot?"

She shook her head and pressed one hand to her stomach. "Not used to food."

Greg sat back, his eyes wide and mouth open for a moment. "How long has it been since you ate?"

She shrugged. "Three, maybe four days. Been cold." She leaned forward and took another sip. "Tastes good," she rasped.

Greg smiled. He'd have to get her a real meal soon, but it was late. Maybe a boiled egg and yogurt would be good for her though. He started to rise.

"Please." Her voice was a little stronger.

"What?"

She leaned forward and took another, larger, sip. Greg understood. It hurt so she wanted to go slow, but she wanted the hot chocolate. He stayed with her, holding the cup and letting her drink at her own pace. It was five minutes before she finished the chocolate.

Her eyes were fastened on something behind him. Turning Greg smiled. Grover, his two year old rescue mutt was sitting behind him, eyeing the girl as she watched him.

"That's Grover, my dog," Greg said. "I got him a year ago. He was at the pound."

"He bite?" Her voice was soft and Greg didn't hear any fear in it.

"Hasn't bitten me. He was abused before I got him. Took him a while to warm up to me, but now he and I are best buds."

The dog must have satisfied his interest because he trotted out of the room without looking back. Greg studied the girl. She was still shivering, even though it was getting uncomfortably warm in the room. Greg sat the empty cup down and touched her cheeks. They were still cold to the touch. She must have been very hypothermic.

Greg wasn't a doctor, but he had grown up in the mountains of Colorado. He knew he had to get her warm, but warming her up too fast could cause her to go into shock. She probably was in shock. That would explain the unfocused eyes and slow reactions. Starvation or hypothermia could explain that as well. He ran his hand down her cheek to her neck. He could feel her pulse, slow and steady, against the back of his hand. At least her heart wasn't racing.

"I think I need to get you into a warm tub." Greg didn't know if this was what he should be doing or not, but it was all he could think of. "I'll make sure it isn't too hot."

She stared at him.

"I'll get it ready and then come get you."

It was warm enough in the house now that the flannel shirt had become uncomfortable so he quickly took it off, leaving himself in just a short sleeved black t-shirt. A couple of minutes later he had the water running into the tub and the temperature adjusted. He hurried back to the woman. She was lying down, huddling under the blankets and shivering so hard her teeth were chattering. He had to get her warmed up. He knelt in front of her again.

"Come on."

She stared at him, her lips quivering. He slipped his arms under her and gently lifted while keeping the blankets tucked around her. In the bathroom he sat her on the commode and checked the water. The tub was half-full and the water was warm, but not hot. He unwrapped the blankets from around her a little surprised to find his coat. He pulled it from her shoulders and then looked down at her. She was so thin. Her arms were sticks. She must have been starving more than just a few days.

"I'm going to have to undress you to get you in the tub. Is that okay? We have to get you warm."

She looked at him, her eyes locking on his for a moment and then she nodded. He didn't really know if she understood him or not. What was he getting himself into? Taking a deep breath he grasped her t-shirt at the bottom and lifted it up. Amazingly she raised her arms, allowing him to pull the shirt off of her. It was so thin he felt his fingers rip into the flimsy material and he groaned. Tossing it to the side he looked at her. No bra. Her breasts were so small that he figured she didn't need one. God he hoped she was as old as she looked. All he needed was for her to turn out to be underage. He looked at her face. She certainly didn't look underage and he wasn't going to have sex with her or anything anyway.

He reached for her pants to unbutton them. She put her hand into the waistband and pushed. They slid down easily. Greg took the hint and pulled on the legs as she raised her rump off the commode. She'd kicked her flip-flops off and Greg got the jeans off of her in one smooth motion. After tossing them toward her shirt he turned to her and realized she was not wearing any panties. She kept her legs tight together but he could still see a thick bush of curly red hair above her crotch. Well, that answered that question.

"Can you stand?"

She shook her head slowly.

"Okay, I'm just going to lift you up and set you in the tub." Greg was as gentle as he could be.

When his arm slipped behind her back he felt rough ridges all along her shoulder blades but he needed to get her into the tub so he ignored them. Her legs were almost as thin as her arms and he wondered if she could have stood even if she wasn't hypothermic. Lifting her over the edge of the tub, he had to kneel down to lower her carefully. She gasped as her body sank into the water.

"Is it too hot?" Greg asked, lifting her back up.

She shook her head. Greg lowered her back into the water and this time she didn't react. When she was all the way in, he leaned her back, supporting her back and neck until she was resting. When he took a bath in this tub he didn't have room to stretch out like this, but she was able to lay with her legs straight and her feet pressed up to one end while her shoulders just barely touched the other end. If she bent her knees at all her head would slip under the water.

He looked her over, half expecting her to be dirty, but she was remarkably clean. Only her feet were dirty and he supposed that was from wearing the flip-flops. Her eyes were closed and there was a peaceful look on her face. He watched her for a few moments to make sure she wasn't going to slip beneath the water and drown and then reached for her jeans. He wanted to see who she was. Since there hadn't been a purse he supposed her ID would be in her pockets. He searched all through her jeans and didn't find anything. No ID, no money, no cell phone, nothing. There were holes and bare places all over the jeans. He didn't think they would even be decent to wear in public. The t-shirt was actually worse. It looked like it had been worn during a shark attack there were so many rips and tears in it. It was an extra-small. The way it had sagged around her shoulders he'd figured it to be a large. Off of her it looked tiny.

Glancing back over at her, she had relaxed so that only her face and knees were above water. He moved over and checked the temperature. It shocked him how quickly the water had cooled. He reached between her feet and lifted the plug and then started the water running again, adjusting it a little warmer than he had before.

Once the water was running he looked back at her face. Her eyes were open, watching him. Her lips were drawn tight, but there was more color in her face now.

"Are you feeling better?"

She nodded, less lethargically than before.

"I'm just warming the water back up. I don't want it cooling off too much."

She nodded again.

"Will you be okay if I go get you another cup of hot chocolate?"

Her lips flicked into a smile that disappeared as quickly as it came. She nodded.

When Greg returned from the kitchen, she pushed herself up in the tub and reached for the cup. Her small fried-egg breasts were above the water and exposed. She didn't bother to try and cover them as she carefully sipped from the cup.

"Thank you," she mumbled hoarsely.

"No problem." Greg tested the water again and then sat on the commode.

She drank the chocolate quickly and then handed him the cup back before sinking back into the water. He tested the temperature again and again refilled the tub with warmer water, bringing the temperature up a little more. Two more times he drained and refilled the tub. By that time he noticed her fingers were beginning to prune.

"I'm better. Can I get out?" She asked when he reached to test the water again.

"Of course. Let me get you a towel."

He pulled a clean towel from the cabinet and held it up. She pushed herself up into a full sitting position and tried to stand but fell back into the tub with a groan.

Greg flipped the towel over his shoulder and knelt down by the tub.

"Let me help."

She nodded. He reached into the water and lifted her out easily, setting her on the commode and handing her the towel. He tried to get a look at her back, but she turned and shrank back from him. He backed off, respecting her obvious wish. If she didn't want him looking at her back, he wouldn't force it. As she slowly began to dry off, Greg retrieved another towel and used it to squeeze the water from her hair. When she was mostly dry she looked at her clothes. Her expression was flat. Greg shook his head.

"Let me get you something clean to wear. I'll be right back." He went to his bedroom, returning with a thick XXL Long t-shirt with the AC/DC Dirty Deeds album cover on the front and a pair of gray cinch up sweat pants. It was the best he could do. He helped her dress. The shirt swallowed her, the neck, a crew, gaped open and exposed one bony shoulder. The sweat pants, tight on him, were huge on her as well and he had to really cinch the waist up to get them to say on. He stepped back and looked at her before he lifted her up and carried her back to the living room.

"Are you hungry? Would you like a yogurt?"

She shook her head. "Hurts." Her hand went to her stomach.

Greg nodded. "You need to eat. Let me get you a yogurt. Eat just a bite or two. Then we'll talk."

She nodded slowly. Her shivering had stopped and her color looked much better. Greg smiled at her and brushed her damp hair from around her face, letting the back of his hand touch her face. Her skin was still cool to the touch, but no longer cold. She didn't react to his touch.

When he got back from the kitchen with an individual sized cup of yogurt and a spoon, she was looking around the room. He stood in the doorway and followed her gaze as she studied the room. His living room was sparsely furnished with a mismatched couch and chair, a low coffee table and small entertainment center with a forty-inch television mounted on it. The fireplace took up much of one wall. The floors were hardwood but there was a thick rug in the center of the room. On the walls he had two paintings; both were of tall ships on rough seas. Grover had returned and was lying peacefully in front of the fireplace.

When she finally looked over at him, he moved to kneel in front of her and handed her the yogurt and spoon. She took it carefully and held it in her hands thoughtfully.

"Why did you help me?" She asked, her eyes boring into his.

Greg looked at her and gave her a smile as he shrugged. "You looked like you needed help."

"I'd given up. I knew I was going to die and that no one would care. I didn't care either."

Her words broke his heart. If he hadn't stopped, she probably wouldn't have lasted another hour, if that. He knew that. But to hear that she didn't think anyone would care was heartbreaking.

"I'm glad I came along then." His words sounded trite, even to him, but he didn't know what to say.

She shrugged. "It doesn't matter." She took a bite of the yogurt and then winced as it hit her stomach.

"Are you getting warm?" Greg asked.

"Yeah."

"Are you sure you don't want me to take you to the ER? You should probably be checked out by a doctor."

"No. Please." Her voice was flat and calm, but her eyes pleaded with him.

"Okay." He shrugged again as she took a second bite. This time she didn't wince after swallowing.

"Good." She said pointing at the cup with the spoon.

"Go slow. You don't want to make yourself throw up."

She nodded. They sat in silence for a while as she slowly ate. When the cup was empty he took it from her and set it on the coffee table.

"Do you have someplace to go or someone we should call?"

She shook her head and her eyes narrowed.

"I'm not going to hurt you." Greg said as he stood up.

To give himself time to think and the woman some space, he picked up the empty cup and spoon and took them to the kitchen. When he returned to the living room, she was sitting up staring at the fire.

"I'm Greg. Greg Michaels."

She looked at him, her eyes darting down to the ring on his left hand. "You married?"

"Divorced."

"Then why the ring."

He shrugged. "Just never stopped wearing it."

There was a long pause.

"I'm Ceansa."

"Key Ann Saw?" Greg asked bringing a small quick smile to her lips.

"Like Kyan-sa. The ka is very quick and no e sound."

It took him three tries before she nodded that he was pronouncing her name right.

"I think it's Irish." She shrugged. "My mom never told me what it meant. But then she didn't talk to me much."

Greg sat down beside her. He wanted to hug her and tell her that everything would be okay, but didn't know how she would react to that.

She yawned. "Thank you for the food and letting me get warm. I probably should go." Shakily standing up she looked around. She was unsteady on her feet and nearly fell, but she caught herself and stayed standing.

"Look, I have a spare bedroom. There isn't a bed in it right now, but I have an air mattress I can air up for you." Greg's chest felt tight.

"Why are you helping me?" Her eyes burned into him.

"Because you need help."

"Lots of people need help. You're not helping all of them." Her gaze never wavered.

"I can't help everyone who needs it, but I can help you. Please let me."

She didn't break her gaze for several moments and then she looked down and nodded. "I guess whatever scam your playing can't be much worse than freezing to death."

"Ceansa, I not trying to scam you. I promise."

She laughed. It wasn't a joyous sound and it didn't carry any real mirth. "I've heard that one before."

Her laugh and her words stung. What should he expect? She'd obviously had a rough life. Of course she assumed he was after something. Why was he helping her? He certainly wasn't attracted to her. She was so malnourished and well, homely, that he wouldn't be surprised if she were a virgin. But he couldn't have just left her there to die. He would have never forgiven himself. He only did what he had to do. As soon as the rationalization entered his mind, he knew it was a lie. He'd spent his whole life refusing to lie to himself and he wasn't going to start now.

He walked over to the fire. It was burning bright and hot and felt good. He turned to find her staring at him. He could have taken her to the emergency room despite her objection. She hadn't really been cognizant then anyway. He could have called nine-one-one and let them deal with her. Why had he brought her to his home?

"You can leave anytime you want. Tell me where to take you and I'll drive you there right now. If you stay, I'll get you clothes that will keep you warm and at least one full meal.

"Why are you helping me?" Her hands were on her hips.

He studied her. It had been three lonely years since his wife had left him. Three years of coming home to an empty house. Three years of heart wrenching solitude while he heard of his ex-wife's exploits through a few mutual friends. He wondered if they knew how bad it hurt to hear of her new boyfriends.

"Tell me." Her voice was stronger, but still raspy.

"I don't know." It was a lie.

"Let me get my clothes and I'll leave."

"Please don't go." A tear leaked from one eye and slid down his cheek.

On unsteady legs she wobbled to him until she was only a foot or so away.

"Why are you helping me?" She carefully enunciated each word.

Greg turned away from her. He was taller than her by a good foot or more. He outweighed her by a hundred pounds. He was successful by almost every measure. He had a home, money in the bank, a company to run, a life, but right then she frightened him. No, it wasn't her. It was the question. He didn't lie; even when it hurt or was embarrassing to tell the truth. He'd lied to her and she deserved better. Turning back around, he met her eyes.

"I'm lonely. I need to feel needed again."

It was as if he'd slapped her. She stepped back and her eyes widened. For a moment she stared at him. Neither spoke as they stood looking into each other's eyes.

"I'll sleep on the couch. I like the fire. Can I let it burn all night?" Her voice was softer.

He nodded, his eyes locked with hers. Her amazing green eyes were so beautiful, set above a too long and thin nose, high cheeks mottled with freckles. Her eyebrows were thick and bushy. Her broad forehead, also covered in freckles, was only partially hidden by her mass of frizzy red hair. His eyes flicked down to her lips, so full and red and now pursed as she studied him, then back to her enchanting eyes.

She turned and walked back to the couch. He fetched the blankets from the bathroom and covered her with them gently. She closed her eyes and her breathing evened out quickly. Greg turned the lights down low and retreated to the kitchen. Leaning on the counter he hung his head. What was he doing? She needed him. It had been so long since someone needed him. It felt good to be needed. He didn't know anything about her. She didn't have the strength to harm him. She might rob him. He didn't really have much worth stealing. She didn't have anything. He didn't have anything he wouldn't give her. What was her story?

His jumbled thoughts slowly sorted themselves out. She needed clothes, shoes, and a coat. Walmart was open twenty-four hours. It would give him something to do. Walking quietly, he slipped into the bathroom and used his hand to measure the flip-flops, trying to remember if they were big or small on her feet. He guessed they were about right. Then he checked on Ceansa, she seemed to be asleep so he grabbed his coat and crept back to the garage.

At Walmart he bought three pairs of jeans, two t-shirts, extra small, two heavier blouses also extra small, a package of the smallest women's panties, a stout pair of tennis shoes, and a heavy coat. It filled his cart. In the grocery section he grabbed pancake mix, bacon and orange juice. At two in the morning on a Friday night, he was a little surprised that there were any other shoppers but he still had to wait in line at the only open checkout lane. Even so he was only gone a little over an hour. By three, he crawled into bed.

The next morning he was up and showered by eight. It was still brutally cold outside and the windows were lightly frosted. In typical west Texas fashion, the sky was overcast but no moisture was falling. The wind howled and rattled the attic vents as he padded out of his bedroom in jeans and a t-shirt. He checked on Ceansa, she was still asleep and snoring softly. Sometime during the night she had turned the gas to the fireplace off and only glowing embers remained. The automatic thermostat had reset itself to a cool sixty-eight and he tapped it up to seventy-two. He thought that after what she'd been through she would appreciate a little extra warmth.

Back in the kitchen he was as quiet as he could be as he put bacon into the oven to cook and then mixed up a batch of pancakes. It'd been a long time since he'd made pancakes, even from a mix, but he still remembered how. Just after he took the bacon from the oven, he turned to see Ceansa watching him.

"Good morning sunshine." Greg grinned at her. "Do you like pancakes?"

She nodded. Greg fetched two plates from the cabinet, flipped three pancakes onto each plate, finished it with four thick slices of bacon and took them the table in the breakfast nook. Setting them down, he gathered up butter, syrup, and silverware and then grinned over at Ceansa.

"Come on. Let's eat."

She woodenly walked across the room and sat down. Greg sat down with her and spread butter on his pancakes and then doused them in syrup. She followed suit, her eyes constantly flicking up at him. After three bites she sat her fork down.

"I'm not your wife."

Greg sighed, sat his fork down on his plate and looked over at her.

"That's a very good thing."

"I'm not your girlfriend."

"I know. Look Ceansa, you don't owe me anything. I'm not trying to take advantage of you or hurt you in any way. I know we don't know each other. We may not end up liking each other, but let's give it a chance and see if we do. Okay? "

She nodded and picked up her fork. After a few bites more she sat her fork down again.

"Their good, but I'm full." She'd only eaten about a quarter of the pancakes and one slice of bacon.

"Don't overdo it. Give it a little while and eat more when you feel like it."

Grover trotted into the breakfast nook and Greg took a moment to scratch behind his ears, then got up and led the hairy mutt into the laundry area to feed him. He returned a few minutes later, sat back down and shoved the last of his pancakes into his mouth and chewed happily.

She watched him as he finished his bacon and then looked around the kitchen.

"You have a nice place."

Greg smiled at her. "Thanks." He looked around. He'd lived here for two years but it still seemed empty to him. There wasn't much on the walls, no knick-knacks, no frilly do-hickeys. Those had all been his wife's. He sighed and sat his fork down. He looked over at Ceansa.

"Look, I don't want to pry and you don't have to tell me anything, but I'd love to hear your story."

"My story?"

"Yeah, you know. Your life story."

"Not much to tell."

"Well, let's start with this, how old are you?" Greg met her eyes. God, they were beautiful.

"I'm twenty-five."

"Whew! That's a relief. I was afraid you were like thirteen or something and I was headed to jail." He said before his brain kicked into gear.

"You thought I was thirteen?" Her eyes were narrowed and her mouth had gone hard.

Greg put his hands up, palm out. "No, not really, I was just joking. I really didn't have any idea how old you were."

"Well you didn't molest me, even though you did get my clothes off."

"Yeah, sorry about that, but I needed to get you warm. I didn't know what else to do. The blankets weren't working." Greg looked down.

Ceansa picked up a piece of bacon and slowly munched on it. After she swallowed she looked at him. "You saved my life."

"Yeah. Why were you out there?"

"Didn't have anywhere else to be." Her voice was low and she was staring at her plate.

There was an uncomfortable silence between them for a moment and then Greg slapped his thigh.

"I almost forgot. I got you some things last night." He jumped up and hurried to his bedroom, returning with the Walmart sacks.

Back in the breakfast nook, he handed them to Ceansa who took them reluctantly.

"You didn't have to do this."

Greg winked at her. "I wanted my t-shirt and sweatpants back."

Her head jerked up and then she saw his smile and her lips curled up for just a moment.

"It's too much." She looked in the sacks again shaking her head.

"Go see if they fit. I was just guessing at your size."

She looked back up at him, her face somber. "I can't take this. I can't pay you for them."

"It's a gift, Ceansa. Take it, please."

She held his gaze for a long moment and Greg felt himself drawn into her eyes. So pretty. Then she nodded, breaking their connection. A few minutes later she returned wearing the long sleeved red striped pull over he'd bought and a pair of jeans. Her feet were bare.

"Wow, Ceansa, that looks really nice on you." Greg said as she stood in front of him.

The blouse was too large for her and the sleeves bunched up around her wrists, but the color was right for her complexion and it complemented her red hair nicely. The jeans were also very loose and too long. She handed him his t-shirt and sweatpants.

"Do the shoes fit?" Greg asked as he took his clothes.

"They are a little big and I don't have socks."

"Oh, crap. I forgot socks. Sorry. Tell you what, you can borrow a pair of mine and we can go shopping."

"No! It's too much. Why are you being so nice?" She turned and ran from the room.

Greg dropped his clothes and followed her. He didn't run, just walked to the living room where she'd disappeared. She was on the couch, huddled under the blankets with her knees clamped tight to her chest. Grover was sitting in front of her, his head resting on her bare feet. Greg sat on the couch next to her, turned so that he was facing her.

"It might not make much sense, but I'm so lonely, I'm desperate for someone to spend time with. Last night I stopped at that liquor store to buy a six-pack of beer. I was headed up to Beaver City and I heard you had to bring your own alcohol. I was so lonely I was willing to go to an all-nude club just to pay a woman to be nice to me for a few minutes. It wasn't what I really wanted, but I was going to make it make do."

She peered at him over her knees. He could see tears on her cheeks.

"I know you aren't my wife or my girlfriend. Right now, I don't know that I want either one. I haven't dated even once since the divorce. What I need is a friend who doesn't know my ex-wife and won't talk about her."

"You don't know me. I'm nobody. Nothing. I'm twenty-five and homeless, jobless, broke. I don't have anyone or anything. You should have let me die."

Greg shook his head savagely at her words. "NO! You are not nothing. You are Ceansa. It doesn't matter what you own. That doesn't have anything to do with who you are or what you are worth."

Her eyes searched his for a moment. Finally she shook her head. "That's now how it works, Greg. I'm worthless." Her head sank to her knees and sobs wracked her body.

"I don't know who told you that you were worthless, but they are wrong. You are special, unique, and that makes you priceless."

She shook her head without looking up.

"Let me explain it this way. There is only one you. There can never be more than one you. Right?" He waited until she finally nodded.

"But everyone can say the same thing, Greg." Her voice was sad, but even. The sobs had stopped.

"Okay, you know about baseball cards, right? What if there was only one Babe Ruth Rookie card left in the whole world. What would that baseball card be worth?"

Ceasa looked up at him, her brows knotted. At last she shrugged. "A lot?"

"It would be priceless, literally someone would pay millions for it, just because it was unique. Now what if there was a Mickey Mantle rookie card that was just as unique, would that make the Babe Ruth card any less priceless?" Greg shook his head and continued. "No, it wouldn't. So just because there are a lot of other unique people, doesn't mean you are any less priceless. Some people may not understand it, but it is true none the less."

Silence fell between them and then she looked up at him, her eyes sad.

"I won't make you happy, Greg. I never make anyone happy."

He ran his hand through his hair. What had he gotten himself into? He took a deep breath.

"No one can ever make another person happy. Happiness comes from within. If you have been around people who are unhappy, then it's on them, not on you."

"Are you happy?"

Her words cut him and he turned away. This woman had a knack for asking the hardest questions but she wasn't being mean. He could see that in her face.

"No, and it's time I stopped feeling sorry for myself and started being happy. Will you help me with that?"

"How? Do you want me to suck your cock? Will that make you happy?" Her words had a bitter tone to them.

He almost walked away. His eyes closed and he reminded himself that he didn't know what she'd been through. It must have been rough.

He took a deep breath and then opened his eyes and looked at her. "Let me help you."

"Helping me will make you happy?" Her tone had softened again.

"I think it will be a good start. Let me take you shopping. I'll buy you socks and shoes that fit. Jeans that fit, too, if we can find them. Those were the smallest ones they had in the women's section."

She stared at him and then looked around at the house. "Are you for real? No one has ever been nice to me. My whole life I've been the ugly little girl that screwed up everyone's life." She shook her head. "No, you must be scamming me. What's your game? I'm too ugly to be a whore for you. Nobody wants me. Why?"

"Ceansa, you are not ugly. Here, let me show you ugly."

He stood up and walked to his bedroom, coming back a moment later with a framed picture in his hand. He handed it to her. It was his wedding picture. He was standing beside Alexa. He was in his tux and she was in her wedding gown, her long blonde hair held away from her face by the band of her veil.

"She's beautiful. You make a beautiful couple. What's ugly about this?"

"Five years into our marriage she tells me she wants to have sex with other men. No pain in her voice, she just wants to be free to see other men. I'm not enough for her. She needs to experience more before she gets too old. That is what ugly is. Look at her. You are more beautiful than she will ever be. She is ugly, not you."

Ceansa stared at the picture for several more minutes and then reverently sat it on the coffee table.

"I'm sorry, Greg." She looked up at him. "You can take me shopping, if it will make you feel better. But can I eat more pancakes and bacon first?" She gave him a grin over her knees.

Two hours later they were in Dillards, in the young miss section and Ceansa was trying on clothes. She had tried on jeans, blouses, and dresses and Greg had a stack of clothes he was going to buy for her. She came out of the dressing room wearing a mid-calf length black and white polka dotted dress. It had long sleeves with white cuffs and a wide white collar that buttoned up close to her throat. It fit her thin frame well, showing off her lack of curves.

"Do you like?"

"It's beautiful. Do you like it?"

She spun around. "I don't know. It makes me look skinny."

"You are skinny."

She stuck out her tongue at him. Her eyes flicked to the pile of clothes and her face became serious. "It's too much, Greg."

"We've been over that, Ceansa. I get to say when it's too much."

"Well, I'm done here. I don't want this one. I don't like how it makes me look." She hurried back to the dressing room, coming out in the too-large jeans and red-striped blouse. As she got near him, her stomach growled and she giggled.

"Let's go get something to eat." Greg said, picking up the load of clothes and heading toward the checkout.

Fifteen minutes and six-hundred dollars later he led her out of the store with three stuffed bags.

They drove across town to an upscale Tex-Mex restaurant that Greg liked. Inside the hostess greeted him by name and quickly led them to a table. When their waitress stopped by they both ordered ice tea, Greg ordered the queso grande and the cute waitress hurried away.

"So, tell me about yourself." Greg smiled at Ceansa as warmly as he could.

He'd really enjoyed shopping with her. He'd always hated it with Alexa but that had been because of her constant complaining and whining. Ceansa had not done that until right at the end. He figured she just got tired of trying on clothes. He kept his eyes locked on hers, again marveling at how beautiful her eyes were. Her face wasn't pretty, too thin and sharp and too many freckles, but her eyes were stunning.

"Not much to tell," she muttered, looking uncomfortable.

Greg nodded. "Then I'll tell you about me." He shot her a grin and was rewarded with a brief smile.

"I was born in Colorado. I grew up in the high mountains of Buena Vista. After high school I moved to Amarillo to go to college. Worked my way through college. Earned my BBA in computer information systems. Worked at a couple of places before finally starting my own company, Yellow Rose Software. We make software for convenience stores. Now I've got twenty engineers and two other full-time employees working for me." He paused.

Ceansa was still looking at him. She hadn't looked away. When he stopped talking she glanced down at the wedding band on his left hand.

"How come you still wear your ring?"

He shrugged. "It still feels right. I don't know."

She nodded. "Do you still love her?"

He looked down at the table and shrugged again. She reached across the table and took his hand.

"It's okay, Greg. I wish someone like you could ever love me."

His head shot up. "Why couldn't they? You have the most beautiful eyes, I've ever seen."

Suddenly he felt very self-conscious and he felt the blood rising in his face. She wasn't smiling, in fact she looked sad. The silence grew between them and became awkward. Realizing he was still holding her hand, he smiled at her and gave it a squeeze.

"Your turn," he said gently.

She took a deep breath, but nodded. "I was born in Amarillo. I grew up in a tiny little house north of Cherry Avenue. I never knew my father. I don't think my mom knew him either, or didn't know who it was anyway. She had me when she was nineteen. The whole time I was growing up she had different boyfriends all the time. They usually didn't stick around long. We didn't have much and mom always resented me. I think she blamed me for men not sticking around. Maybe that was true. Who would want to date a woman with an ugly little girl hanging off her hip?"

When Greg started to speak she shushed him and then continued.

"At my high school graduation, my mom handed me a paper bag with my clothes in it and told me not to come back. I haven't seen her since then. I had a boyfriend in high school and I thought he loved me so I moved in with him. It was okay for a while, a year or so I guess. And then it wasn't. He started bringing home women and hitting me and stuff. Then he started making me do stuff with his friends so that they would give him drugs. Eventually he kicked me out. I didn't have a driver's license or a car or a job. I was totally broke. He threw me out with just the clothes on my back. That was in December. I've been homeless ever since."

Greg's heart wept for this woman. Leaning forward he gazed into her eyes.

"Let me help you. We can get you a driver's license. You graduated from high school. You can get a job. Leave that part of your life behind. I'll help."

Her smile was sad and that confused him.

"You don't know how much I want to believe you, but ..." Her fingers touched his wedding band and rotated it on his finger.

"I'm not asking you to marry me."

Greg felt his stomach clench but just then the waitress returned with their drinks and queso. She looked at Greg and then over at Ceansa and then back at Greg. Her face looked bemused.

"You've already done so much for me." Ceansa shrugged. "I can't get a driver's license. I tried. I don't have a birth certificate."

"You went to high school. You have a birth certificate somewhere. We just have to get your mom to give it to us, or get a copy from the city."

"I haven't seen my mom in seven years."

"Does she still live at her old home? I can go by and talk to her. Maybe I can convince her."

"I can't ask you to do that, besides I don't think she is still alive. I heard she died of an over dose about a year after she kicked me out."

"You don't know if she's alive or dead?"

"Ed said she died. He laughed about it, but wouldn't let me go to the funeral."

"Ed? Your boyfriend?"

"Yeah. He didn't like me leaving the house."

"I would never do that to you."

"You say that, and I want to believe you, but, you know, I know you're playing me. Everyone plays me." She looked down at her glass.

Greg didn't know what to say. He didn't know how to convince her he wasn't like that. They sat in silence for a while and the waitress returned and took their food order. Their conversation strayed to less uncomfortable things. They talked about the constant road construction, the town parks, the weather, almost anything to avoid talking about their own problems. The food came and they ate and laughed and Greg found he really enjoyed Ceansa's company. They had finished eating and were still making small talk when a gorgeous blonde approached the table.

"Greg! My God! I haven't seen you in what, three years or so." The blonde shot a sideways look at Ceansa but quickly returned her eyes to Greg.

He looked up, immediately annoyed. "Hi Tonya. Yeah, I'm not really in the 'in' group anymore."

"Nonsense. Just because you and Alexa split up, doesn't mean you aren't one of us. You should come down to Spiders sometime. We are having a wine tasting next Saturday. I know Jason would love for you to show up."

Jason had been one of the few good guys in their group of friends and Greg wouldn't mind talking to him again, but he knew the rest would just re-open old wounds. He shook his head.

"Nah, I'd be out of place."

Tonya touched his shoulder. "You know Alexa would be real jealous if you took me to dinner sometime."

"I don't care about making her jealous."

"Well why not? You should." Tonya winked. "She still talks about you, you know."

"I don't care about that either."

"Is that why you are sitting here with this homely little waif? Because you don't care? Or is she just another one of your strays."

Greg stood up so fast he knocked his chair over. He ignored it. His eyes were narrowed, brows creased, and his jaw was set hard.

"It's time for you to leave, Tonya."

"Ooh, I hit a nerve." Tonya laughed. "Toodaloo Greg, I'll see you around." She spun and walked away, her ass moving a little too much in her dress.

Greg looked around. Several other patrons were openly staring at him. As casually as he could he picked his chair up and sat down.

"Who was that?" Ceansa's voice quivered just a little.

He looked at her and saw the hurt in her eyes.

"Just a bitch. Don't worry about her."

"She's beautiful."

"No, she's ugly through and through."

"Greg, what are you doing with me? I'm not your kind. I'm poor and ugly. You belong with the rich, beautiful people."

"Been there done that. Don't want to do it again." Greg shook his head and then he looked back up into Ceansa's eyes. There were tears brimming in those beautiful green orbs. "Don't worry about Tonya, she is a bitch to everyone. Because her family has money, she thinks she can do and say whatever she pleases. Sadly, most of the time, she's right. That is what the rich and beautiful world is like Ceansa. It's shallow, superficial, rude, and ugly." He looked around for their waitress and found her already coming toward them. "Come on, let's pay out and go home."

"I don't have a home, Greg."

He looked at her but before he could respond, the waitress arrived with their check. It was obvious she wanted them gone as quickly as possible. The restaurant was upscale and didn't like people making scenes. He handed her his credit card and she briskly turned to go run it. He'd have to leave a good tip.

"My home is your home, Ceansa. For as long as you need it to be."

Ceansa shook her head but the waitress came back before she said anything. After signing the check and leaving a good tip, Greg took her hand in his and led her out of the restaurant to his pickup. They didn't speak on the way to his house.

At home, Greg carried the sacks of clothes into the house and put them in the spare bedroom. Ceansa followed him but she still didn't say anything. She appeared deep in thought.

"Why don't you put on one of your new outfits and we'll head over to Haverty's and get a bed. It'll be a lot more comfortable than an air mattress or the couch." Greg wanted to get Tonya's specter to disappear, so he forced a smile on his face.

"It's too much. Please let me sleep on the couch tonight and tomorrow you can take me to the mall. I'll find a friend to take me in until I'm back on my feet." Ceansa stepped back away from him.

"You already have a friend, Ceansa."

She shook her head. "No, Greg, I don't! I don't know you and you don't know me. It doesn't work this way. It just doesn't." Her hands went to her face and he saw her shoulders shake. Suddenly she ran to the bathroom and slammed the door.

Greg stood and watched her run off. After a moment he took a deep breath. What the hell was he doing? She was right, he didn't know her and she didn't know him. They came from very different worlds. She wasn't beautiful, nor even pretty, but her eyes, her eyes were enchanting. He walked over to the bathroom door. Through the wood he could hear her sobbing. The sound made his gut clench. The thought that he had added to her sadness was like a kick in the groin. He turned and went to the living room.

Mechanically, he folded the blankets and then sat the pillow on top of them. He busied himself cleaning up. He washed the few dishes from breakfast and as he put the last of the silverware into the drawer he heard Ceansa coming into the kitchen.

"I'm sorry, Greg. You've been super nice to me, but tomorrow the weather will be warmer and I'll be okay. I'll take the jeans and shirts and the coat, but I can't stay here with you. I just can't. I'll sleep on the couch tonight."

Greg nodded. He couldn't force her to stay. After that they watched television and talked about everything that was unimportant. Several times he felt tears well up but he was able to stop them before they fell down his cheeks. Around ten, Greg went to bed but he couldn't sleep. He laid there thinking about Ceansa, wishing he could convince her to stay. But he couldn't force her to accept his help. At least she now had good clothes, a coat, and proper shoes. Finally he drifted off.

The next morning he fixed breakfast. Ceansa was quiet as she ate, but she cleaned her plate. When breakfast was over he dug an old leather duffle bag out of his closet for her to pack her clothes in and then took her to the mall. Following her instructions he dropped her off at the food court entrance. Before she got out of the pickup he tucked three twenty dollar bills and a piece of paper with his name, address, and phone number on it into her coat pocket. She gave him a smile and a peck on the cheek.

He watched her walk across the parking lot. She didn't go into the mall, she went to the access road and started hiking toward downtown. When he couldn't see her anymore, he started the pickup and went home.

-

Ceansa walked away from Greg, the duffle heavy on her shoulder. She forced herself to look straight ahead when all she wanted to do was to run back to Greg and be in his arms. God, how she wanted the illusion that he offered, but she knew that's what it was, just an illusion. That woman was right, she was just another stray. A plaything he brought home to prove what a great person he was. A rescue dog for him to take in. It would be good for a week, maybe a week and a half, but then he'd get tired of her. By then her heart would be his and he would break it.

Her feet took her to the bar ditch. Down and then up to the side of the access road. Turning east, she headed toward downtown. There was a camp she knew about in Elwood park. The cops only rousted the homeless on Wednesday so she could stay there a couple of days. By then she could figure out something else.

Who was she kidding? The money he'd given her would only last a week or less and then she'd be starving again. She could sell the duffle for probably twenty more. It didn't matter. Within two weeks she'd be starving again, freezing again the next time a storm blew through. She had nowhere to go and no one to be with. God, why couldn't he have just let her die? She'd been ready for it. Now she had this dull ache in her heart. It was like a carrot was dangling in front of her, but she knew she'd never reach it.

The way he'd looked at her. No man had ever looked at her that way before. He'd treated her with respect and like a person. Her mother had always resented her. Her boyfriend had always been embarrassed of her. Later he had become cruel to her. He'd never looked at her the way Greg did. Without thinking she turned and looked toward the parking lot. She'd gone too far and a building blocked her view. She wondered if he was still there. Had he waited to see if she would come back? No, he was probably relieved she'd wanted to leave. He didn't owe her anything.

But he'd seemed so kind. He acted as if he really cared about her. That was what scared her. No one had ever cared about her before and she didn't know how to act or what to say. He had been handsome though. So tall. So strong. He'd lifted her like she was a rag doll. But then she was a rag doll. So skinny her hip bones stood out and her tiny little titties were flat. She'd looked at herself in the mirror of his bathroom. She wasn't pretty. Not like the women in the pictures she'd found in a drawer in the kitchen.

Why did he have them there? The women in the pictures were all so beautiful. They all wore such wonderful clothes and looked so healthy, like the woman in the restaurant. She'd been so pretty. And mean. Is that the kind of women he hung around with? Was he just playing with her? The questions spun around in her head until they almost made her dizzy. Finally she sat down in the grass in the bar ditch. She closed her eyes and forced Greg from her mind. It didn't matter. She had good clothes, a good coat, good shoes, and sixty dollars in her pocket. She couldn't remember ever having that much before.

She took a deep breath. She'd head to the camp in Elwood Park. There, she would have time to think before she would be forced to move. A tear slipped from her eye and she swiped it away. She had to be strong. He'd given her a second chance at life. She would make the best of it. If she could figure out how.

She made it across town to the park and found the camp. It moved around some, but it wasn't that hard to find if you knew what to look for. An old man watched her warily as she entered the camp and then approached her.

"You need somethin' missy?" His hands were crossed over his chest and he stank of beer and sweat.

"Just need to crash for a few days." Ceansa muttered, not meeting his eyes.

"Why don't you run on home? This ain't a good place for a rich girl, no matter what problems you are having with your hubby."

"I don't have a husband. Please, I just need to a place for a few days."

He looked her up and down. It was her clothes he was looking at, and the duffle on her shoulder.

"My old lady could use a new shirt. You got anything in that bag she could wear?"

Ceansa nodded, lowering the duffle to the ground. "Maybe."

She positioned herself between him and the duffle before she opened it. She pulled out one of the t-shirts that Greg had bought for her. She hated to give up anything he'd given her, but she needed to be allowed to camp. After zipping the bag she turned around and held out the t-shirt with one hand. Her other hand fished into her coat pocket.

"Can she wear this?"

A woman had come up behind the man and she stepped forward.

"Merl, whatcha doing to this child?"

"She wants to camp here." He reached out and snatched the t-shirt.

The woman grabbed the shirt from him and handed it back to Ceansa. "We don't steal, Merl."

"Weren't stealin' Lena, she offered it."

"Yeah, I heard how she offered it. You go back to the men and I'll take care of her."

Ceansa quickly shoved the shirt into her duffle. She pulled the small scrap of paper with Greg's name and phone number out of her coat and stuffed it into her jeans back pocket. She wasn't sure why but she didn't want to lose it.

Lena studied Ceansa for a moment. "You just on the street, girl?" Her eyes narrowed and she stepped closer. "No, you've been here a while. Where'd you get the fancy coat? We don't let thieves camp with us. Maybe you should just run on."

"I'm not a thief and I'm not a girl. I'm twenty-five." Ceansa faced the woman. "A man gave me the coat. He gave me everything."

"So a whore then." Lena shook her head. "Sorry, we don't let whores camp with us either. Run on back to your pimp." She pointed back the way Ceansa had come.

"I'm not a whore. He didn't even ask for sex. Besides, who'd want to have sex with an ugly like me anyway?"

Lena dropped her hand, but her eyes were still hard. "Tell me the story. If I believe you then maybe you can stay."

Thirty minutes later Ceansa was huddled next to a broken park bench. It was her spot in the camp. It was late afternoon and the sun was nearing the horizon. With the dipping sun, the temperature was dropping and the air already had a noticeable chill to it. Lena had believed her story; for that Ceansa was grateful. In every camp there was a leader and if they didn't want you there, they could make you leave. It was one of the lessons Ceansa had learned quickly after being kicked out of her boyfriend's home.

She pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. The coat Greg had given her kept her warm enough, but she felt so alone, even in the camp with twelve or so other homeless people milling around. Closing her eyes, she lowered her head to her knees. Tears leaked from her eyes and her shoulders shook.

---

Ceansa was twelve and her mother had just got home with another strange man. Krystal Donnell stumbled into the house giggling and then her eyes fell on her daughter.

"Get to your room, you little bitch!" Ceansa's mother hissed.

Ceansa scrambled to the small closet in the hall. They lived in a two bedroom rental home, but when her mother had a man over she wanted Ceansa to be in the closet. It wasn't that bad, actually. Ceansa stashed water and cereal in the closet so she would be okay.

"Wait! I wanna look at her." The man slurred.

Ceansa stopped dead in her tracks. This hadn't happened before and it scared her. At twelve she had a pretty good idea of what happened between her mother and the men she brought home.

"Turn aroun' girly" The man stepped forward.

Suddenly Krystal was between Ceansa and the man, crouching slightly her back bowed like a cat.

"No! You're here for me, not that scrawny little bitch!" Krystal spun toward her daughter. "You! Get in your room and shut the door!"

Ceansa didn't hesitate. She bolted to the closet, slamming the door behind her. The walls of the house were thin and Ceansa could hear everything that happened in the living room.

"What'd you do that for?" The man seemed truly confused.

"You don't need her. I'm more than enough woman for you."

"I jus' wanted to look at her. I wasn't gonna do nothin' wit' her." His voice was closer.

"Come on, baby, come to the bedroom. I'll make you forget you ever saw that skinny little bitch."

"No, I wanna see her. She yer daughter? We could have a real party with her." Then man's voice came from just outside her door.

"No, baby, just forget about her. She's nothing. She is just an ugly little skinny bitch. Forget her. Come on, I can treat you right." Her mom's voice was pleading, almost shrill.

The door knob rattled and Ceansa grabbed it, holding it from turning. Suddenly, just outside the door there was a crash.

"No!" Her mother shrieked. "Leave her alone. She's just a little girl."

"What the fuck, bitch!"

"Get out!" Her mother's screeched.

"Fuck you!" The man seemed to have sobered up some and his voice was less slurred. "You crazy bitch! I'm fuckin' bleeding!"

"Get out! Get out of my house! Now!" Ceansa had never heard her mother talk to a man that way.

"Fucking straight! I'm outta here, you crazy slut." The man's voice faded as he talked.

Outside the door there was a scratching sound that slid down the wall. She could hear her mother crying. Ceansa didn't know what to do. Something new had just happened but she didn't understand exactly what it was. She hesitated. She wasn't supposed to leave the closet until her mom said she could, but she could hear her mother sobbing just outside the door.

As carefully as she could, Ceansa cracked the door open and looked out. Her mom was sitting on the floor with her head in her hands. Ceansa watched her for a moment. Raising her head, her mom looked at her. Her eyes were narrowed and her mouth tight.

"This is your fault, you stupid bitch!" Her mom spat out. "Get back in your closet. Don't come out until I say. There are going to be some changes around here. You worthless little bitch."

---

Ceansa's head snapped up. Something was wrong. The camp was quiet except for the fading sound of footsteps hurrying away through the trees. It was completely dark now, but a light was flashing around out in the middle of the camp. A light flashed over her and then swept back.

"Well, what do we have here?" The voice was deep and rough.

Ceansa scrambled to her feet, her eyes darting around. She'd only been in the camp a little while and she wasn't familiar with all the escape routes. To her left there was a steep incline. Climbing that would slow her down. To her right was the path, but as she started to sidestep toward it, a dark form moved to block her.

"Looks like someone didn't get the message that this was our park." The same rough voice from behind the light.

"Let's 'splain it to him." The new voice was high and nasally and came from behind the first.

"I wanna bus' him up good." The dark form from the right spoke in a deep baritone.

The light stepped closer and Ceansa tried to step back, but her thighs hit the bench. She darted left, leaving the duffle on the ground. A smaller shape from behind the light rushed forward and she and it went to the ground. She kicked wildly, connecting with something and hearing a wheezy grunt. Then strong hands grabbed her coat and hauled her to her feet.

"Shit! It's a fucking kid," deep voice said.

The light hit her face.

"It ain't no kid, it's a fucking girl," the first voice said from behind the light.

"A girl? I wanna fuck her." It was the nasally voice.

"Ha!, Fuck Jimmy, you wanna fuck everything," the deep voice said behind her ear.

"I like fuckin'"

A face materialized from the darkness behind the light, peering at her.

"Damn, she's too damned ugly for me to fuck." It was the first rough voice.

Ceansa wrenched her shoulders hard, trying to escape but the big man behind her had a firm grip on her coat.

"Beat her, Milando. Bust this bitch up and show her why she don' come into our park." The man behind her jerked her up, lifting her feet off the ground for a moment.

"Here Jimmy, take this and make yourself useful." The man with the light tossed it to the nasally voiced Jimmy. "Shine it on her. I want to see her ugly face as I beat the shit out of her."

"Do it, Milando. Show this bitch." The man's breath was disgusting as he chuffed his hate filled words into her ear. "Milando is gonna' bus' you up bitch. Then I'm gonna cut you. I'm gonna cut you so bad."

Panic filled her and she thrashed wildly. Milando landed a punch into her middle and her breath whooshed out leaving her gasping in pain. His next punch hit her in the side of the face sending a searing flame of agony through her jaw and leaving a coppery taste in her mouth. Another strike landed on her chest, but her mind was too dazed to do more than register it. Then a kick, aimed at her crotch, but hitting her in the thigh as she twisted in agony.

"Don't ruin her pussy, Milando," Jimmy whined. "I wanna fuck her when you are done."

"She won't be alive when I'm done," Milando grunted as he hit her again in the face.

"I don' care if she's alive or not, I still wanna fuck her."

From behind her there was a deep chuckle. "You are sick, Jimmy. Jus' fuckin' sick."

"Get that damn coat off her. It's like hitting her through a fucking pillow," Milando growled.

Ceansa slumped in her coat, hanging from the arms. Her head was buzzing and she knew she was close to passing out. A vision of Greg floated into her mind. He smiled at her and she felt him brush her cheek. With the vision still in her mind, she felt the creep called Jimmy tugging her coat zipper down.

"Run, Ceansa, run!" The vision of Greg pulled back.

As the zipper released, Ceansa lifted her arms and fell out of the coat. Instantly she rolled to her feet and scrambled to the right, running down the path. Behind her shouts and pounding feet followed, but they were yards behind her. She ran blindly. One eye was swelling closed and the other was full of tears, but desperation fueled her flight. The path below her feet turned but she didn't and she tripped and fell, rolling down a sharp incline.

Hands grabbed her, one covering her mouth. More hands pulled her further from the path. They held her down and a soft voice whispered in her ear.

"Quiet. Lay still"

Ceansa recognized Lena's voice and she stopped struggling. The vision of Greg, still in her mind, smiled at her and she smiled back.

"Where'd she go?"

"This is your fault, Jimmy. You let her go!" Milando sounded truly angry.

"No, Milando, I was just doin' what you said. She was playin' possum on us."

"I'm gonna cut you, Jimmy." The deep voiced man sounded cold.

"No!" Jimmy's nasally voice faded as he ran.

Ceansa listened as the three thugs ran off. As their footsteps receded the vision in her mind faded, leaving only pain and despair. Tears ran from her unswollen eye.

"They're gone," an unfamiliar voice said and light sprang up.

"Oh, my! Merl, we need to get her to the E.R." Lena's face showed true concern.

Merl leaned over her, studying her. "They busted you up good. Why didn't you run when the signal came?"

"She hasn't been with us very long. She didn't know the signal," another voice said from the side.

"No!" Ceansa couldn't go to the E.R. She knew what they did to people there. "Please. I'll be okay." It surprised her that her words were so slurred.

"What did she say?" Merl asked, looking at his wife.

"She said 'no.' I couldn't make out the rest."

"Well if she don't want to go to the E.R. then what?" Merl shook his head.

She couldn't go to the E.R. She couldn't. Ceansa faded away.

---

Ceansa was thirteen. She'd been late coming home from school. Her math teacher, a thin woman who didn't like Ceansa, had given her detention for causing a disruption in class after she told a boy to stop touching her. She'd spoken too loudly, apparently. Her mom held a length of wire in her hand swinging it back and forth. It was from a lamp that Ceansa had broken when her mom had thrown her down a couple of months ago.

"You know the punishment for being late, little lady." Her mother's cigarette rough voice bit.

Ceansa nodded and lifted the back of her shirt as she turned around. The wire struck and she couldn't help but shriek from the agony that sprang up on her back. The wire struck again and then again, each time Ceansa tried to remain quiet, but could not.

"Now are you going to be late again, you stupid ugly bitch!" Her mom hissed.

"No, mother." Ceansa sobbed and her shoulders quaked.

"Go, to the bathroom. I'll wash the blood off your back. Don't ruin your shirt!" Her mother stomped to the bathroom.

Ceansa followed, blood dripping down her back. She bent forward, hoping the blood wouldn't drip on the floor. That would bring more punishment. In the bathroom her mother wasn't gentle in washing her back.

"Look what you made me do. I suppose you want to go to the doctor. You think I should take you to the E.R. Well, if I did, do you know what they would do? Do you have any idea what they do to bad girls who get taken to the E.R.? They punish them. That's what they do. And then they take them away from their parents and put them in prison with hardened criminals. That's what they do. I'm doing you a favor by not taking you to the doctor. You remember that."

Her mom finished taping four-by-four pads over the cuts on her back and roughly pulled her shirt down.

"I'm going out tonight. You be in your closet when I get home and don't come out. You hear me."

"Yes, mother."

"Get your chores done. And if you have homework, you get it done too. I don't want to hear from your teachers that you are failing at school."

"Yes, mother."

The pain in her back was horrendous, but nothing she hadn't felt before. She left the bathroom to go clean the kitchen.

---

Ceansa opened her eyes to bright lights and a loud murmur. A kindly woman's face was leaning over her. The woman brushed a warm, wet cloth over her face gently. As her mind focused, she sat up sharply and looked around. The room was large with a high roof. Large fluorescent lights lit the interior. Below the lights there were three long rows of tables with folding chairs spread along them.

"Ah, you're awake. It's okay. You're at the Downtown Women's Center. You're safe." The kind woman spoke softly and smiled at her, her white teeth contrasting with her dark skin.

Ceansa nodded. "How did I get here?"

"Lena and Merl brought you. You know them?"

Ceansa nodded.

"Who did this to you?"

Ceansa shrugged.

The kind woman sat back. "I'm Jean. We have a doctor we call to look at women who've been abused. I'll give him a call. He may be able to come down tonight. Do you want to lie down? We have cots in the back."

Ceansa nodded absently without hearing what the woman said. Her mind was on Greg. He'd saved her life twice. Once when he found her by the liquor store and the second when he'd come to her in the vision. She was sure that she would have been killed without his vision telling her to run.

The woman led her to a hallway lined with pictures. She could tell that her mind was still clouded and everything seemed to be moving faster than she was. Her face and stomach hurt. She could only see out of one eye and she could tell her lips were swollen and bloody. Ceansa idly looked at each picture as they passed. Then she stopped. There he was again, smiling at her from inside a frame on the wall. She stood still, staring up at him. Two steps ahead of her Jean stopped and turned.

"Oh, that's Greg Michaels. He was our volunteer of the year four years ago. One of the good guys, that's for sure. He was married to a real piece of work though. She left him three years ago."

Ceansa wrinkled her brow and nodded. That might explain the pictures in the drawers.

"Come on, I'll get you settled and call the doctor." Jean led Ceansa down the hallway and into a room with several cots. Two of them had women lying on them.

Ceansa sat on a cot in the corner. Leaning back against the wall she closed her eyes. She hurt all over and all she wanted was to drift off into sleep and never return.

---

Ceansa stood waiting for her name to be called. Her black matriculation gown hung from her small body limply. This should have been a day of joy for her. She was graduating high school, about to start her adult life. But instead she was terrified. Her mom had driven her to the school and let her out, handing her a paper grocery sack filled with two pairs of jeans, three shirts and a few changes of underwear.

"Don't come home. I never want to see you again. I got you through high school. I don't owe you anything more." Her Mother had pulled the door shut and driven off.

Ceansa heard her name and walked across the stage. She took the empty hollow tube from the school principal and shook his hand then finished her way across the stage. They would send out the real diplomas later. Unlike every other graduate, there were no cheers or whistles as she walked. There was no one there to cheer for her.

When the ceremony ended she left the auditorium and stood on the sidewalk with her small sack. An old rusty pickup pulled up. It was Ed Grady, a boy she'd dated several times. Leaning over, he rolled down the passenger window.

"Get in. I'll take you home." Ed opened the door.

"I can't go home. Mom, kicked me out."

"My home. Get in."

Ed lived in a trailer park on the northeast side of town. His trailer house was small, dirty, and run-down. As they drove from the school, he looked over at her and smirked.

"You can crash at my place for a while. You'll have to do dishes and shit, but at least you'll have a roof over your head."

Ceansa nodded.

---

A hand shook her and she opened her eyes.

"Are you okay?" Jean asked with concern in her eyes. "The doctor will be here in thirty minutes. I got you some ice for your eye."

Ceansa took the small rag filled with ice that Jean offered her and pressed it gently to her swollen face.

"Thank you." It was hard to talk with her lips busted up, but she'd had busted lips before. Ed had never been gentle when she messed up.

"Look, I know it's hard, but you need to talk to someone about what's happening to you. If your husband is hurting you, we can help."

Cenasa looked up at Jean with her one open eye and shook her head. "I don't have a husband."

Jean looked at her for a moment. There was tenderness in her eyes but a sternness to her lips. Ceansa suspected she'd seen more than most in her life.

"Boyfriend?"

Ceansa shook her head. "Kicked me out two months ago. Thugs in the park."

"That explains why Lena and Merl brought you in. But why here? Why not the ER."

Ceansa didn't answer, she closed her eyes and drifted off.

---

Ceansa was thirteen. She lay on the bed crying from the pain. Every time she drew a breath it hurt like someone was stabbing an ice pick into her side. Her mother was pacing back and forth at the foot of the bed. She coughed and tasted the coppery flavor of blood.

"You stupid worthless bitch! Why'd you make me hit you so hard?" Her mom spun and stared at her. "If you go and die on me, they'll lock me up for sure."

Ceansa wanted to tell her mother she was all right, but she couldn't get the words to come out. She hurt all over. Her mom had never beaten her this bad before. Her mom crouched by the side of the bed and grabbed her hair, turning her head so that she was staring in her mom's face.

"You listen to me, bitch, and you listen good. You may be hurt, but I can't take you to the E.R. Do you know what they do to stupid little bitches at the E.R.? They do terrible things to you there. They make you drink nasty medicine and then push things up your butt. Sometimes they put you in machines to look at your insides. You don't want to go there, ever. You hear me you stupid bitch?"

Ceansa could only nod.

"Good, cause if anyone saw you like this..." Her mom paused for a moment. "No, they'd throw me in jail." She shook her head slowly. "I don't want to go to jail." Her mother dropped her head and stood up. "Don't you die on me, you worthless little bitch."

Her mother stomped from the room, leaving her alone. She lay there wishing she could die. She hurt so bad. Worst thing was, she didn't even know what she'd done to make her mom so mad this time.

---

Ceansa felt someone touch her shoulder gently. She opened her one functional eye to see an older man wearing a long white coat. He smiled down at her and she realized she was lying on the cot, stretched out. Her stomach and chest had stopped hurting, though her chest still felt tender, but her face throbbed.

"That's a pretty good shiner you got going there, young lady." The man said and he smiled. "I'm Doctor Wheeler."

"Please don't hurt me. I didn't mean to get hurt." Her mind still felt cloudy.

He sat back and looked to the side before looking back at her.

"I'm not going to hurt you, but I would like to give you a full examination, if you will let me."

Ceansa shook her head. "I'm fine. I'll be fine. I need to get out of here." She forced herself to sit up and the world swam around her for a moment.

"I don't think that a good idea. I think you may have a concussion. Maybe even a broken jaw. Do you hurt anywhere else?"

Ceansa could feel the panic rising in her. She knew doctors wanted to hurt little girls. Her mother had told her stories about doctors that had horrified her. She now knew that most of those stories were lies, but still somewhere deep inside she was terrified of doctors. She swung her legs down off the cot and tried to stand but fell back onto the couch.

"Please don't hurt me." She pleaded, opting to roll off the cot and slide under it, balling up in the fetal position and hugging her knees.

The doctor stood up and backed off. Jean rushed forward and knelt in front of the cot.

"No one's going to hurt you." She reached in and gently stroked Ceansa's wild hair. "Dr. Wheeler is here to help."

With the doctor no longer close to her, Ceansa's panic faded and she was able to nod.

"Come on out and back up on the cot. It will be okay. No one is going to hurt you here. You are safe here." Jean's voice was soothing and her gentle petting helped to calm Ceansa.

Ceansa nodded again and slid out from under the cot.

"Sorry. Scared me. I won't do that again. Promise." Ceansa was able to stand up with Jean's help and after a moment the world stopped spinning.

"Can Dr. Wheeler, look at you? I promise I won't leave and he won't hurt you." Jean glanced over at the doctor and then focused back on Ceansa.

Just the thought of the doctor looking at her made her stomach clench. Somewhere in her mind she knew she was being silly. She knew this man wouldn't hurt her. She clenched her eyes closed. The vision of Greg sprang up in her mind. He was smiling at her with that beautiful sad smile.

"It's okay. You're safe." The vision said in her head.

Instantly the knot of panic in her stomach faded and she opened her eye and nodded.

Dr. Wheeler approached her cautiously. He pulled a pen light from his pocket and flashed it into her one good eye a couple of times.

"I need to feel your jaw. You really should have an x-ray, but you'd have to come to the office for that."

Ceansa nodded and he reached out and gently cupped her jaw in his hand, feeling along the bone.

"Can you open your mouth?"

Ceansa worked her jaw open. There wasn't any popping or crunching sounds. Dr. Wheeler nodded.

"I'm going to put a finger into your mouth, please don't bite me." He pulled a pair of sterile gloves from a box that Jean held out for him and pulled one on his right hand. Reaching a finger into her mouth he touched each tooth and wiggled it.

"I don't think your jaw is broken and none of your teeth are loose. The swelling in your eye should go down over the next couple of days. You really should come into the office and get x-rays done to be sure. Your pupils are responsive. Can you count to ten?"

Ceansa nodded and then realized he wasn't asking if she could, he was asking her to count to ten. She did and he nodded.

"You're very thin. Are you eating?"

Ceansa shrugged.

"Do you have a home?" Jean brushed her hair soothingly as she asked the question.

Ceansa shook her head.

"That explains the malnutrition." Dr. Wheeler sighed. "You can go to the downtown mission. They give meals to the homeless."

"They won't help me."

Jean looked at her with her brows drawn down. "Have you tried?"

Ceansa shook her head.

"I think someone has filled that head of yours with a whole lot of nonsense and I'd like to get my hands on them." Jean pursed her lips. "You can stay here a few days. Generally we serve victims of domestic violence, but I wonder..." She looked over at Dr. Wheeler.

He shrugged. "Without a full examination..."

A tear leaked down Ceansa's cheek from her good eye. "Why are you being nice?" She twisted, jerking her head away from Jean's hand and took three steps away from them. "No one is ever nice."

She clenched her eyes shut and there was Greg's face smiling at her.

"Leave me alone!" She shouted. It came out as a squeak and she dropped to her knees as sobs wracked her body.

Jean knelt behind her and put her arm around her shoulders. "It's okay. You're going to be okay. We'll figure something out."

Her hand caressed Ceansa's shoulders and back. Suddenly she stopped moving her hand.

"May I see your back?" Jean asked softly.

Ceansa froze. Jeans hand moved down to the bottom of Ceansa's shirt and lifted it slowly.

"Oh my God! Who did this to you?"

Dr. Wheeler was behind her now, pulling her shirt up higher.

"These are old scars. Some of them very old."

"What is your name?" Jean asked softly, her hand stroking Ceansa's hair.

"Ceansa."

"Who did this, Ceansa?"

"Mother. She had to because I was so stupid and worthless." Ceansa twisted away, her shirt back falling down. "She should have just killed me."

"What else did she do to you?" Dr. Wheeler asked, concern filling his eyes.

Ceansa backed away from him, putting her back to the wall and hugging her knees to her chest. She shrugged.

Jean crawled over to her and sat beside her, putting her arm around Ceansa's shoulder. The nice woman looked at Dr. Wheeler and then over at Ceansa.

Ceansa squirmed away from her. "I just want to rest and not hurt. Sleep and not ever wake up again. Please just leave me alone."

Pulling her legs up to her chest and wrapping her arms around her knees, Ceansa hunched forward.

"It's okay, Ceansa. Doctor, is there anything you can do for her tonight?" Jean said, looking over at the doctor

"She just needs Tylenol and rest. The Tylenol will help reduce the swelling a little, but mostly she just needs time to heal. She should get x-rays, but that probably isn't going to happen. Mostly she needs time to heal, physically and, well, in other ways."

Jean nodded. "Thank you for coming down, Dr. Wheeler." Jean pulled Ceansa to her and just held her as the doctor stood and made his way from the room.

---

On Wednesday after work, Greg went to Sam's and bought four cases of paper towels, four cases of toilet paper, and six big packages of paper plates. Earlier that day he'd got a call from Jean Amond at the Downtown Women's Center and she'd mentioned they were running low. With the paper goods loaded into the back of his pickup he went to the center. They had a couple of volunteers there to help him unload the boxes and once they were unloaded he went inside to talk to Jean. He found her in the common room leading a small discussion group and waited until they broke up.

"Hey, Jean."

"Hi, Greg." Jean gave him a smile as she approached him. "What's up?"

"Oh, I just brought some stuff over, so I thought I'd say hi."

"Thanks. You are such a sweetie." Jean grinned and gave him a friendly hug. "We're about to serve dinner. Can you stay and lend a hand?"

"Sure." Greg knew the drill on supper duty. They usually had twenty some women in the center at any one time and feeding them was a part of what they did.

Greg made his way back to the kitchen where he donned a white apron and bellied up to the serving line beside another volunteer. Jean called out for the women to come get in line and the serving started. Greg scooped big portions of green beans onto each plate as the women made their way down the line. He made sure to look at each lady and smile and talk to them as he served them. Some of the ladies were more friendly than others but he treated each of them respectfully.

He'd served most of the women when he saw Ceansa in line. She had a nasty bruise on one eye and her lips were slightly swollen. His eyes met hers and they stared at each other for a second. She was the last person in line. Greg looked at the woman in front of him and gave her a smile, but his mind was spinning. He dished up a generous spoonful of beans onto the plate in front of him letting her move on.

"Enjoy." Greg's mouth worked from habit.

He served the next woman and then Ceansa was in front of him.

"Hi, Ceansa." He ignored the bruising on her face.

"Hi, Greg."

"Do you want green beans?"

Ceansa didn't say anything. Their eyes were locked on each other. Greg wanted to bound over the counter and hug her. He wanted to tell her how much he'd missed her. He wanted to bundle her up and take her home. Instead he waited. Finally she nodded, and he scooped green beans onto her plate. She didn't move.

Jean came up and stood behind Ceansa.

"Is everything okay?" Jean asked, concern filling her face as she looked between them.

"Yeah, Jean. Ceansa and I met a few days ago."

Ceansa turned to Jean. "Greg saved me."

Greg turned his eyes to Ceansa. "May I sit with you while you eat?"

Ceansa nodded. Jean looked between them again, her expression had turned puzzled. Ceansa moved down the line to get the meatloaf and potatoes being served by other volunteers. Greg, his serving duties completed, removed his apron and then left the kitchen to join Ceansa at a table in the common room. He sat and watched her eat for a moment, smiling at the way she seemed to savor every bite. Jean was still standing in the front of the room by the counter, watching them.

"So what happened to your eye?"

Ceansa looked up at him and finished chewing before she spoke. He gave her time.

"I made a couple of thugs in Elwood park angry."

"They beat you?"

"Were gonna kill me."

"I'm glad they didn't."

She shrugged. "I got away, but I lost my duffle bag and my coat and the money you gave me."

"At least you're okay." Greg reached out and brushed her cheek gently. Not the bruised one. He thought it was a good sign that she didn't pull away.

"It don't matter."

"It matters to me." Greg took a deep breath. This woman was all he'd thought about since she'd left him on Sunday.

Ceansa took another bite. When she swallowed, she looked up at him. He felt like she was trying to peer into his soul. He hoped she liked what she saw.

"Are you real?"

"He's as real as they come." Jean spoke as she sat down at their table. "Ceansa, I only know a little of what you've been through, but I know this much. Not everyone is bad. There are good people in the world. Greg is one of the good ones."

"Thanks, Jean." Greg smiled at his friend. Just six years ago she'd hated all men, and with good reason. But she'd healed and grown past that. She still hated abusers, and rightfully so, but now she no longer thought all men were abusers.

Greg remembered when he'd first met Jean. He'd been volunteering at the downtown mission serving meals. Alexa had made fun of him for how often he volunteered, but the mission was providing a much needed service and they needed people to help, so he helped, as often as he could. Jean came through the line and the look of hate and fear on her face as she approached had broken his heart. He knew the look even if he didn't know if was because he was white, or because he was a man. Still, he knew Jean wasn't comfortable with him, so he stepped back and let a female volunteer serve Jean, only resuming his station once she was past. He watched her huddle in a corner, as far from any men as she could get, while she ate. She was wearing a threadbare t-shirt and equally thin jeans with tennis shoes with holes in the soles. Before he left that night he made sure she had good shoes, new jeans and two new blouses. He'd kept tabs on her from a distance, always making sure she had what she needed. He'd talked to the downtown women's center and got her into a small apartment in their halfway house. She'd had to share the apartment with three other women, but it was a roof over her head. Frequently he brought them all food, clothes, and other items they needed.

It was two years after their first meeting that Jean first spoke to him. By then her anger had dimmed to a slow burn and her self-confidence was improved enough for her to overcome her fear. She'd walked up to him in the common room at the center, paused, and turned away but then she stopped and looked back at him.

"They tell me you are the man who has been helping me for two years. Looking out for me, helping me. They tell me you put in a good word for me at the city and helped me get my job."

He nodded. "I may have helped you get the interview, but you got the job on your own merits."

"I was in a bad place and you helped. You never asked for anything in return, you just kept helping. I never asked you to and I never thanked you, but you didn't stop. You didn't give up on me."

"I knew you were worth helping," Greg said giving her a smile.

"I didn't know that. I didn't believe that. You're a good man Mr. Michaels. I don't say that lightly." With that she had walked off.

Since then they had become good friends. Greg had helped her get her first job with the women's center and now she was the director. She was, in Greg's estimation, one of the kindest, noblest women he'd ever met, working tirelessly to help other women who were in the same position she'd been in six years ago.

Jean put her hand on his arm and pulled him away from Ceansa. Once they were several yards away she looked up at him, shaking her head.

"I've seen that look in your eye before, Greg, but I think this one may be too broken to help."

"No one is beyond help, Jean. You of all people should know that."

"It's different with her," Jean insisted. "Have you seen her back? Her own mother did that to her and made her believe it was her fault. She's given up. I see it in her eyes. She hasn't given me enough to convince a judge to have her committed, but she's right on that line. I don't want to see you hurt again."

"You may be right, Jean, but I'm not going to give up on her. You need to keep her here so we can help her."

"I know you won't give up, Greg. You never do. But it's taking its toll on you too. Since Alexa left you've lost weight. You look like you never get enough sleep. You can't go on like this Greg. You help so many people, but who is helping you?"

Greg studied her face for a moment. It made him feel good that this woman who, only a few short years ago had hated all men, was concerned for him. He smiled at her and put his hands on her shoulders.

"You just did." He grinned at her stern face. "And I think Ceansa will too. Knowing that I helped her will make me feel better. Tell me you'll find her a place to stay and you'll let me know when she needs something. Please."

Jean shook her head but smiled up at him. "I'll do what I can. It would help if we could get unit six opened up."

"What do you need?"

"Paint and elbow grease mostly, but we could really use a plumber. The commode is still sitting in the middle of the living room. Oh, and dishes, we don't have any extra dishes or silverware to put in the kitchen."

Greg pulled out his phone, quickly scrolling through his contacts, then pressed the screen. Putting the phone to his ear, he gave Jean a smile.

"I know a plumber who owes me a favor."

"I should have known. You always know someone who owes you a favor," Jean laughed as she shook her head.

"Hey Benny, it's Greg. How about them 'Boys, eh! ... Yeah, I know, but next year Garrets going get them going, I just know it. Look, I know it's late, but do you have a guy who could install a toilet tonight?" He paused, listening. "How about tomorrow? Yeah? Great, have them talk to Jean at the Downtown Women's center and send the bill to me. Thank Benny."

After he hung up he grinned at Jean. "Toilet will be fixed tomorrow."

She shook her head, but she was grinning. "Thank you, Greg."

"I'll get a few guys rounded up and we'll get it all painted and squared away by the end of the week. I'll see what I can do about dishes and silverware as well."

"You are a saint."

"Nope, not even Catholic." He grinned. "Now about Ceansa, you'll get her a place to stay, right?"

"Yeah, we'll find a place." Jean glanced back at the table, but it was empty. "Where'd she go?"

Greg looked over at the empty table and shook his head.

"I don't know, she was there a minute ago. I saw her just before I called Benny."

"I'll find her. You head home, you look beat." Jean looked around as she spoke, trying to keep her voice calm for Greg's sake.

Greg shook his head. "I'll check in the back, she may have gone to lay down. Ask around and see if anyone noticed where she went."

Ceansa wasn't in the back and when Greg came back out Jean caught his eye and shook her head. A tight knot clamped down in Greg's gut and he headed out the door onto the street. The night air was chilly and the low was supposed to be below freezing. The cold wind assaulted his face and it brought with it the putrid smell of a feed yard but Greg ignored both as he bolted down the street toward the nearest alley. Turning into it, he walked past several odorous dumpsters and then midway down, he found her. She held a broken piece of glass in her right hand and blood flowed freely from her left wrist where she had made two long cuts from her wrist up her forearm.

As soon as she saw him, she cried out. "No! Please, just let me die. You have to stop saving me."

"Not today, beautiful," Greg growled out as he batted the glass from her hand and scooped her up into his arms. "Not today."

Running back down the alley, he met Jean right at the street. Jean saw Ceansa's arm and immediately grabbed her phone to dial nine-one-one.

"Get her inside. We've got first aid," Jean said, jogging behind Greg and waiting for the emergency operator to pick up.

Greg jerked the door open and ran inside. "Someone get the emergency kit. Hurry."

He laid Ceansa down on the first table, her body was cold but she was still awake and protesting.

"No, no, no," she kept repeating over and over again.

"Sorry Ceansa, but this time you went too far." Outside the distant wail of an ambulance siren grew quickly louder.

"I want to die."

"I know, but you are too valuable to give up on. I won't give up on you."

Tears ran down Ceansa's face. Someone handed Greg an emergency kit and he quickly tore into it and wrapped a cotton four by four around Ceansa's arm, holding it tight and trying to stop the bleeding. Jean was there and she wrapped a tourniquet around the woman's left arm above the cuts. It was only a few minutes later that two large EMTs entered and were directed to the table with Ceansa on it. Greg backed away as they checked Ceansa and then loaded her onto a stretcher. As they began to wheel her out to the ambulance, one of them turned to Jean.

"Does she have any relatives or a guardian?" the EMT asked.

Jean shook her head.

Stepping up, Greg said, "I'm her friend. May I ride with you?"

"Yeah, come on we're leaving."

The ride to the hospital was short, only about ten minutes. During that time the EMT got an IV started while Ceansa continued to confess that she wanted to die and beg for the EMT to just let her die. Tears streamed down Greg's face as he watched this young woman in such emotional pain.

At the hospital, Greg waited until the doctor came out. The doctor looked angry.

"We were able to stitch up the artery and save her hand. She'll have two long scars on that arm, but they will diminish in time," the doctor said. He glared at Greg for a moment. "Are you her husband?"

"No, I only met her a few days ago. I don't think she has anyone," Greg said softly. "I'm glad she is going to be okay. So now what happens to her."

The doctor's face softened immediately.

"Well, it's obvious she tried to commit suicide. I've ordered a physiological examination and based on her statements to the EMT and me I believe she will be committed until she is no longer a threat to herself." He paused. "Do you know where the scars on her back came from?"

"Jean said her mother abused her, but I don't know for sure."

The doctor nodded. "Jean Amond?"

"Yeah."

"You volunteer at the center?"

"Yeah."

"So she's homeless?"

"Yeah. Her boyfriend kicked her out in December. I think her mom is dead. No friends that I know of." Greg shook his head. If ever someone needed help, it was this girl.

"I don't mean to sound cruel, believe me I hate this as much as anyone, but I don't think your friend will last long," the doctor said softly.

Greg's brows crimped. "What do you mean?"

The doctor shook his head and lowered his eyes for a moment. Looking back up at Greg he said softly, "She's homeless. No insurance. No job or money. We couldn't even find an ID. She's obviously been abused, horribly. She's depressed. With no money, no one to take care of her, she'll most likely end up dead a short while after being released. People like her," he paused, "well, they fall through the cracks in our system. It's sad, but it's the truth."

"What can I do to make sure she doesn't fall through the cracks?" Greg asked, his voice hard.

"Unless you are willing to pay for care in a private facility and then take responsibility for her afterward, there really isn't much, but before you say you will, a private facility could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The bills add up fast, it could be a quarter of a million in three months or less and that is a cheap private facility. If you were married and you had insurance, it would help, at least, but you're not." The doctor spread his hands out and shrugged.

Greg nodded. "What is the best place in town?"

The doctor's eyes widened a little. "Well, I'm not supposed to give recommendations, but if money is no object then the Citadel is one of our best mental health facilities around, if they will even take her."

"Why wouldn't they?"

"She doesn't exactly meet their cliental standards. If you are planning on putting her in a private institution, assuming she'll agree to it, which I doubt, then your best bet is going to be Garden Home. They usually treat addicts but they will take in the hard cases too. They are partially supported by a few small charities so it won't be as expensive, but still be ready for a hefty bill."

Greg nodded again. He was on the board of Amarillo Outreach, one of the charities that supported Garden Home.

"What do I have to do to get her put in Garden Home?"

"Well the first thing is to get her to consent. If you can't do that, you might be able to speak to whatever judge ends up hearing her case. You might be able to petition as a friend of the court to get her committed to Garden Home if you agree to be financially responsible." The doctor eyed him for a moment. "If you don't mind me asking, why are you doing this?"

"Everyone this woman has ever met or known has abused her or given up on her. I don't mean to be rude, but even you gave up on her. You told me she wouldn't last long, like there was nothing that can be done about it. I'm going to do everything I can to prove all of you wrong. She deserves to have someone in her life who won't give up on her."

The doctor shook his head. "Even if she has given up on herself?"

"Especially because she has given up on herself. She needs someone to believe in her. She needs someone to show her that she is valuable and worth believing in. I'm going to do that for her. Can I see her?"

"No, I'm sorry," the doctor pursed his lips, "I can't let you see her. She specifically said she didn't want any visitors."

Greg nodded. He'd expected that. "Then I guess I need to call a lawyer and start the process of getting her into Garden Home."

It was three weeks before Ceansa agreed to see him. She looked much better. It turned out Greg knew the judge that heard Ceansa's case and he had not only committed her to Garden Home, but had made Greg her legal guardian until such time as she was determined to no longer be a threat to herself or others. As legal guardian, Greg was able to get her put on his insurance, which covered eighty percent of the cost of her care, after a substantial deductable.

Greg sat in the public waiting area until the nurse came for him. He'd had to leave his wallet, keys, and pocket knife in a small locker, but finally he was led back through locked doors to a small common area. Ceansa sat on a small couch by herself, her hands fidgeting in her lap. She wore the flannel pajama bottoms and cotton t-shirt he'd brought for her. There were other patients sitting at tables, some playing cards, some just talking. Greg sat beside Ceansa.

"Hi," Greg said softly.

She looked at him. Her cheeks were fuller, no longer sunken. Her face had more color as well and her beautiful green eyes shone brighter than before. She looked healthier than he'd ever seen her.

"Hi."

That sat in silence for a minute and then she turned toward him. "They tell me you come every day hoping I'll see you. Three weeks and they say you haven't missed a day. You are paying for this." She spread her hands out and waved them. "They say you even are now my legal guardian. What the fuck is wrong with you!"

Greg reached out and took her hands in his. "I'm not giving up on you."

"Why, Greg? Why? I'm not worth this. Look at me, I'm ugly as sin. I'm stupid, and uneducated. I'm worthless and all I do is ruin people's lives. Run away, Greg! Forget me. Live your life. Go be with your people. You belong in the world of the wealthy and beautiful people. God, Greg! You are so handsome and perfect. I don't belong with you." Tears streamed down her face.

Pulling her into his arms, Greg held her as she sobbed.

"You are the most beautiful person I have ever met. You have survived so much, and yet you are still here. I believe in you, Ceansa. I know people have lied to you and told you that you were ugly or stupid, but I don't believe you are any of that. You have not ruined my life, you have given me hope and helped pull me out of the well of self-pity I had allowed myself to fall into."

He held her for a long while and slowly her wracking sobs faded into soft crying. Still he held her in his arms, gently cradling her. Finally she drew back and he released her.

"Greg, promise me you won't forget me." Her eyes were still wet with tears but they held more hope than he'd seen in her before.

"I promise, I'll never forget you. I'll never give up on you."

"I believe you."

He visited her every day for two more weeks. They sat and talked for as long as the nurses would let them. At the end of the two weeks they released her into his care. He took her to their home. He'd purchased a full set of bedroom furniture and put it in the spare bedroom. It was the most girlish adult set he could find and when she saw it she spun around and around laughing. Leaping into his arms she hugged him tight.

Greg gave her some time to enjoy her room and then he took her hands in his.

"I have another surprise for you."

She cocked her head to the side and stared at him for a moment and then she smiled. "What is it?"

He led her over to the dresser. Lying on the top was an official piece of paper. She looked at it, reading it slowly, then turned her eyes up to him.

"My birth certificate. How?"

"It wasn't me. Jean got it from the city. I know she had to pull some strings but they like her there."

"Jean?"

"Yeah, but there is more. Look." He pointed to a small envelope to the side.

Ceansa slowly opened the envelope and pulled out a thick sheet of paper with her name and the state seal of Texas on it.

"It's not a drivers license, just an official ID. You'll have to go down to the city and let them take your picture before they can give you a permanent ID, but once you have that you can use it to get a bank account, register for college, whatever you want."

She held the paper in her hand, staring at it and then she turned and wrapped her arms around Greg again, holding him tight. He embraced her tenderly and held her until she pulled away.

"Thank you for everything. I'm so sorry for how I treated you."

Greg pressed a finger to her lips. "Shush. Don't be sorry. You reacted the way you had been taught to react."

"But now I know better. I'm not naïve, but because of you, I believe there are good people in the world. You can't imagine how that feels."

Greg smiled down at this beautiful woman in front of him. Her freckles, so prominent when her skin was too pale, were still there, but they just gave her face character. Her eyes were so enchanting and her full red lips were everything a man would want.

"You have given me the same thing. In my own way, I had forgotten that there were good people in the world too. All I saw was ugliness and cruelty, but with you I see all that is good."

Ceansa turned her face up and stepped back into his arms. He pulled her to him and leaned down. Their lips met for the first time. The kiss only lasted a little while, less than a minute, but both were smiling. She melted into him and he held her in his arms. After a long while she pulled away. Her hand drifted down his left arm until she reached his hand, and then on to the ring on his finger. Looking up into his eyes she took the ring from his hand.

"I don't want you to wear a ring again, until I give you one," she said to him.

He smiled down at her and nodded.

---

Four years later, Greg cheered as his wife walked across the stage and accepted her diploma from the local university. As she turned to finish the walk, Ceansa turned and waved to the crowd, her eyes searching for him. When she finally saw him, her face lit up in a beautiful smile and she waved before walking off the stage.

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