(Part III)


Copyright © Minerva 2000

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Part I


Chapter X: Family Problems

The past few days have gone by in a blur, a painful, mind-numbing blur. I splash water on my face from the bathroom sink and scream, "Someone's in here!" as the obviously broken door threatens to swing open with a creak. I hear an apologetic mumble and all is quiet again. . .except for the sound of running water, announcement of pages for doctors, and ringing phones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hey there! Whatcha poking me for?!"

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

He sneers and yells, "This isn't a hotel, so get your filthy ass up!"

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

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

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

"Yeah, right. Heard that one before."

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

"'Cause I know. Now, get out of here before I call for back up."

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

"We gone see the doc now?"

"No, Stevie. We're gonna leave."

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

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

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

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

"I need a doc. . ."

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

"What we gonna do, Sly?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Don't understand, Sly. You want me to go visiting?"

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

"Don'tcha wan me to go too, Sly?"

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

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

"Sly?" Stevie's voice is hesitant, wary.

"You reckon that lady yours gonna help?"

After what I did to her the other day, I'd doubt it if it was anybody else. This is Abbie. My Abbie, and despite the short time we've known each other I know her and see the generosity and gentleness underneath. "Yeah, Stevie. If she's home, she will."

Chapter XI: Inside Abbie

Tossing and turning has been the norm for me for the past few days. Last night and this morning is not any different. It is a good thing that I have today and tomorrow off because I don't think I could make it through anyway. Lola asked me what was wrong, but what could I say? I saw Sly beaten by the police and now, she won't talk to me? Won't see me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I'm sorry. Come on in."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I swallow before I speak, "Sly, I—"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you know how amazing you are?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smile at her winningly, "Yep, I am."

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

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

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

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

As we make our way from Pacific onto Atlantic avenue, the warm vibes that I get from Sly's friends let me know that they have let me into their circle. It's nice to be a part of a family again, and I will do what I can to keep it whole.

Chapter XII: Confrontations and Healing

They like her, but I knew they would. She gives more in her smile and a touch than most people are able to give to a charity. She forgave me. Did I know she would? I was hoping. Hope is a strange word and a fickle emotion. A little bit goes a long way and a lot of it can move mountains they say. I can't wait to see what I can do with Abbie back in my life. She gives me hope. It sounds like I'm dependent on her. I am in a way, but I'm okay with that because I've never depended on anybody for anything. It's a heady feeling knowing that someone will be there for you no matter how you fuck up. I am a living witness to that. I have to agree with my earlier statement. I'm lucky, damned lucky, and I hope my luck never runs out. Hope. I might as well add it to my permanent vocabulary. I think it's going to stay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The clerk stutters over her words, "Uh-uhm, yes ma'am that's our policy."

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

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

"Ma'am we get so many. It's hard to tell who's being truthful."

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

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

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

With a red face, the clerk nodded.

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

She nodded again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That she was. You're gonna have to stay on this one right here just like that."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She slowly looks up, reluctantly meeting my eyes. It's when I see that we have matching blushes. "Um, why did—"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Nowhere else I'd want to be."

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

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

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

I nod numbly.

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

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

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

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

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

Abbie squeezes my hand, hard. "No, you don't know that. You have to have hope that—"

"No, I've seen people die from strep throat, Abbie."

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

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

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

She is truly amazing. "It can't be that simple, Abbie."

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

"I don't know, but if I build myself up, it'll hurt more if she does die."

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

She holds out her arms, and I go in willingly. I hunch my body over to engulf her body. She could make me believe anything as long as she's here. Faith and belief. Those are other concepts that come with being with Abbie, but I'm willing to embrace them just as I have her.

Chapter XIII: Back Inside Abbie

I have never seen grown men cry before, but I did today. I have to admit they are very different from us. Where some women wail and sob, Stevie and Pauly shed silent tears, but the impact was no less. I have to almost drag Sly into the room because she heard the sound of beeping machines before we were a few feet away. I never thought she would show her fear to me openly, but I see it plainly in her eyes. It's tearing me apart. She is so full of conflicting emotions: proud, confident, tenderness, gentleness, and every vulnerable feeling one can name. I have seen them. Today, I think I saw them all. Earlier, with just a few words, she gave herself to me, opened for me. I guess I get to see everything now. It is a blessing and a curse because her happiness is mine and so is her pain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yeah, we'll be back in the morning to go do visitation." Pauly adds.

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

She smiles at me wistfully. "I was gonna come anyway, but that's a good idea."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sly hold's up a hand in protest, "No, I couldn't take that."

"It's okay. You need it, and I want to give it to you."

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

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

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

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

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

"Mmm, I know the feeling."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That's great. What do you read?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Sure, I'll get it for you."

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

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

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

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

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

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

After a moment of thought, "Yeah," I reply, "It's perfect."

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


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

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

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

"She's hilarious. Do you have the first three books in the Laurano series?"

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

"Cause they're stupid."

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

"G'night, Little Bit. I'm glad I stayed."

"Me too."

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

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

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

Bending down, I brush her cheek with my lips, and whisper a "Shh, it will be alright," in her ear. After a minute, the tenseness and whimpers go away, but when I try to move to return to my bed, they return tenfold. Not knowing what else to do, I slide under the covers beside her, close to her. Throwing an arm over her torso, I snuggle into her back and bury my head in silky, black hair. Her body goes limp, and the deep breathing returns. Soon after, I feel my eyes get heavy, and sleep comes. My last thought is, "Please don't ring."

Hope you enjoyed the latest part. Let me know at Minerva

Part 4

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