Disclaimer One: Yes, these two resemble our famous warrior and bard. They don't belong to me because of that simularity. Universal/MCA owns them, but please don't use my version of them without permission.

Disclaimer Two: There is some violence in this one, and some of you my find it as disturbing as the subject matter itself. But, all in all the human spirit triumphs. There is also some subtext and strategically placed humor.

Dedication: To Camille and all the kids I work with who are looking for just a chance. I'm praying for you. This also goes out to Sloane, my every patient beta reader who loaned me her name. Thanks bunches. To friends I have made through email and egroups. Thanks.


(Part II)



Copyright © Minerva 2000



Chapter IV: Abbie-Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's a lie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Talk to me. I know you have something to say."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

"Which one? You don't have to tell me if you . . ."

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

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

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

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

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

Without another word, I turned and made my way across the room. When I turned back, she was gone. That was two days ago. In the morning, I will more than likely see her again. I don't know what to do or say. I turned the corner just as a small blue jitney bus careened by, causing a brush of hot wind to blow against me. I barely felt it as I looked up at the stars again for answers. They didn't offer any, so maybe I'll do just like them and be, letting what comes. . . come.

Chapter V: Sly's Dilemma

I'm quite a few blocks from where I should be, in my little hole in the ground, watching over Gert. Still, I'm here on Indiana Avenue, making my way beach side to Pacific Avenue and doing something I swore that I wouldn't do. I'm going to Abbie. I know she told me not to, and I as much told myself the same thing. But, it's as if I'm being pulled. There I was helping old Gert get situated when her name, Abbie, popped in my head like a whisper on the wind. The only way to explain it would be to say that I was compelled to come to protect her, accompany her, or whatever you want to call it. I just wanted to be near her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Damn it!"

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

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

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

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

The irritation wins, and I start to feel like a teenager. "Look, I didn't ask you to come. . ."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I glance back to see a figure waving at us and bite my lip to keep from laughing. They really are the sweetest old men, and I love them dearly. I reach out to give his shoulder a squeeze. Being classic Stevie, he tsks again and turns to go. I watch to make sure they make it to the Boardwalk okay then I break into a run. That smaller part whispers in my ear, pushing me into a sprint. Within a few seconds, I turn the corner on Pacific Avenue to see her a few feet down the street. I run again, feeling the overcoat flapping behind me and the wind blowing through overly worn jeans. I can't get close to her soon enough.

Chapter VI: Chance Encounters

It feels as though I'm running at break neck speed, when it hits me. I'll scare the shit out of her like this. Slowing down, I cup my hands around my mouth and call out, "Abbie!" She stops and jerks around suddenly, so I lift my arm and wave it in the air. "Wait up it's Sly!" I half expect her to take off the other way, but she holds fast. As I get closer, my nose starts to itch.


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

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

"Abbie, hey."

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

Lowering her head, she husks out, "Uhm, I know you don't want me here, but I just wanted to make sure---"

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

"Yeah, okay."

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

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

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

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

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

"Ah, see I knew you could do it. Besides, laughing is good for you. You'll live longer."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes widened in surprise. "You knew—"

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

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

She nodded in understanding. "Yeah, I think I do."

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

"My stop is coming up. I wish I didn't have to work tonight. We could---"

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

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

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

"Abbie, we'll have more time tomorrow after lunch."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She is out of sight now, and I find myself compelled to glance up at the stars once again. Maybe they did send me a message because I waited and the unimaginable came to me tonight. My very own protector, my own friend.

Chapter VII: Under the Boardwalk

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

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

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

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

"That she is," I reply as I crawl under.

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

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

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

"Pleasant dreams," Pauly calls out.

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

It was quiet once again except for the rain and sound of the surf. My thoughts turn back to Abbie and the softness of her skin, the sparks in her eyes, and the quirk of her grin. It's all I have to take to bed with me, and I realize that this, right now, is part of the doubt too. I hope she never sees me like this. While she sees past it, it maybe hard to do that once she actually sees how I live first hand. Hope. Yeah, I still have it, but it's the size of a grain of sand right now with doubt being the other grains in a handful.

Chapter VIII: A Woman's Work

I should have biceps the size of Texas as many years as I have pushed this housekeeping cart through these hallways, but there is only a slight hint of them. Not at all like Sly. Her shoulders are wide and her body looks hard. I can only imagine how she feels. I can't help but smile when I think of her. Barely two weeks and things have changed yet again. I'm going down an unknown path that is probably full of twists, turns, and hills before the road is clear and smooth again, but I want to travel it with her. I wouldn't have it any other way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What?" I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her look turns inquisitive. "Whatchu mean?"

I take a breath before I tell her. "She's homeless, Lola."

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

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

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

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

I bite my lip and nod.

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

For the umpteenth time tonight, the laughter bubbled forth. I can't wait until 7:30.

Chapter IX: Desperate Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hey, I missed you." She murmurs to my chest.

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

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

"You're all warm and solid. How do you do that?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"My God, it's beautiful!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It turns that patch of ocean the color of your eyes."

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

We both turn at the sounds of raised voices.

"Hey you! Get your lazy asses out of here!"

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

"Sir, we were just—"

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

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

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

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

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

"Bobby! What the fuck are you doing?!"

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

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

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

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

Warm lips press against my forehead. "Shhh, I'll get you to my place and take care of you."

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Told you. I don't have much, but—"

"You have more than I'll probably ever have again." Her voice was husky and deep.

It angers me to hear the hopelessness in her voice. "Don't say—"

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes are wide and shocked. "I-I—" Her lips form a thin line. "You still shouldn't be with me. I can't give you anything."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Sly is something isn't she?"

"Yeah, she is. Don't know what most of us would do without her around."

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

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

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

Smart move, Sly. Come back when you know that I'm not going to be here. I sigh as I walk into the cafeteria and grab an apron. I guess this is one of those hills that we have to get over to get to the open road, and I'm still willing to travel it no matter how bumpy it gets.

End of Part II. Alright folks, I hope you're getting something out of this along with enjoyment. Drop me a line at Minerva

Part 3

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