Lois Cloarec Hart
My thanks as always to my wonderful betas--Betty, Carol, Glenda and Mom. And to my partner, Day, who not only edits my writing, but inspires it, my deepest gratitude and love. This one's for you, mslb.
If you'd like to comment on the story, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
"For heaven's sake, Angela! Turn around and quit staring at those women. I don't know what on earth you find so fascinating about them. Honestly, Mouse, you'd think you had no concept at all of how to behave properly in church."
Angela reflected sadly that the nickname that had once sounded so affectionate on her partner's lips, now sounded like an insult. Then the music swelled and the processional began. She pushed aside the growing disquiet over her personal troubles, and focused on the sacraments that always had the power to calm and console her.
When the service ended over an hour later, Angela followed quietly in Gretchen's wake as her partner greeted members of the congregation. She barely raised her eyes when the pastor took her hand and wished her a good week, mumbling what she hoped was an appropriate reply.
It didn't surprise Angela when Gretchen abandoned her during the after-service refreshments in order to buttonhole a fellow realtor. She was sure the only reason Gretchen even attended Sunday services was to network. They rarely ever made it out to the car before her partner would begin to mock the sermon, the music, the pastor...even on one occasion, the grape juice used for Communion.
For her part, Angela was long past the point where she tried to engage Gretchen in any spiritual message. These days she was simply content to attend and absorb the balm that the familiar rituals offered.
Trudging over to the church kitchen, Angela accepted a glass of punch and took a couple of cookies. Finding a chair along the wall, she munched on her snack as her gaze roamed around the room. Gretchen was deep in conversation with several men on the far side of the room. Her eyes drifted to the two women who had inadvertently precipitated her most recent chastisement.
Angela knew that Gretchen didn't understand what it was about the elderly couple that fascinated her. She was hard pressed to explain it herself. Two years prior when Gretchen first took her to church, Angela hadn't paid much attention to them, other than to mentally note they appeared to be the oldest members of the congregation.
It was only in the past several months, as her relationship with Gretchen had grown increasingly strained, that Angela found herself hungrily seeking them out each Sunday morning. On the rare occasions the two women didn't come to church, she found herself inwardly bemoaning their absence, and hoping that nothing had happened to them.
The two appeared even older than her late grandmother, and her big brother Augie had always said Grandma Beebe was as ancient as Methuselah. When Grandma Beebe died, Augie had predicted that their equally elderly Great-Uncle Randal would be the next to go. Angela figured her brother couldn't really have known that Uncle Randal would go off the road in a blinding rainstorm and hit an old oak head on. It had not stopped Augie from claiming credit for his prognostic skills, though.
Initially, Angela had wondered if the two women were sisters. They were both unusually tall for their generation, with short white hair. But that's where the physical similarities ended. The one with glasses had plump cheeks, a softly rounded body, and a smile warm enough to melt butter. The other woman, as lean as her partner was round, had sharply angular features and piercing blue eyes. She also had a distinctly protective manner towards her companion.
The way the thinner woman took her companion's hand as they walked forward to receive Communion; the way she placed a sweater over the other's shoulders when the air conditioning was turned too high; the way she carefully added precisely measured cream and sugar when fetching her partner's coffee after services--all signalled love and devotion to Angela. Lacking these qualities in her own relationship, she had become avid about seeking their reflection in others.
What warmed Angela's heart most was that the love so clearly did not go one way. The bespectacled woman accepted each gesture of her companion's concern with an intimate smile that conveyed tender appreciation. These two--seemingly long time partners--did not take each other for granted.
Suddenly Angela saw that both women were looking at her, one with a warmly amused smile and one with cautious assessment in sharp blue eyes. Realizing she had been staring at them openly as she wool-gathered, she instantly dropped her gaze. Staring at her feet, Angela didn't see Gretchen approach until she felt a firm hand close around her arm.
"It's time to go. I'll drop you at home first, but then I'll be out for the rest of the day. Have María make you some dinner. I won't be home until late."
Angela spilled her punch as she hastily set it down before being hustled out. Mortified by her clumsiness, she never lifted her eyes, and left unaware that her precipitous departure had been noted by at least two members of the congregation.
"It's just a darned shame, Ruby!"
"I'm not disagreeing, Hazel, but I don't see that there's anything we can do about it."
Smiling to herself, Ruby opened the sedan's door for her indignant partner. Hazel, an inveterate saver of lost souls, had found a new crusade. When Ruby got around to the driver's seat, she wasn't at all surprised to see Hazel furiously polishing her glasses. Familiar with her lover's idiosyncrasies, Ruby knew her companion was busily planning the opening salvo in her newest campaign.
"Sweetie, you know you can't just barge into Gretchen Grissom's multi-million dollar condo in the sky and rip that girl out of there."
"I know." Hazel settled her spectacles back on her nose. "Poor child probably doesn't even realize how shabbily she's being treated."
Ruby put the car in gear and smoothly backed out of their parking spot. "Oh, I don't know about that, love. For some little while now, she's been looking at us like we hold the keys to a feast she's been barred from. I suspect that living in loveless luxury has lost its appeal by now."
"How many times have we seen Gretchen do this?"
"This?" Ruby tried to concentrate on both the oncoming traffic and her partner's question.
"Yes, you know...seduce some beautiful innocent, get bored with her, and then toss her away like a used tissue in favour of her next conquest. You mark my words, Ruby Gaines! That child will be out on her keister by year's end."
"Sooner than that, unless I miss my guess. Jerry told me a couple of weeks ago that Gretchen's been tomcatting all over the city lately."
Hazel snorted. "Jerry is a gossipy old fool."
Ruby merged smoothly into the interstate's relatively light Sunday traffic. "True, he's Hedda Hopper incarnate, right down to the flamboyant hats, but he's also usually pretty accurate. You can be sure it won't be long before Gretchen finds another victim and that little girl will be out the door with nothing but the clothes on her back."
"You know the worst thing about Gretchen, Ruby?"
Ruby glanced at Hazel dryly. "It's a pretty long list to choose from, love. Which particular nasty trait did you have in mind?"
"She makes these girls totally dependant on her--to the point of not even allowing them to work--then she abandons them so completely that they have nowhere to turn. It's evil, Ruby; it truly is. We ought to get together as a community, and tar and feather her!"
Ruby laid her hand lightly on Hazel's thigh, which was quivering with agitation. "I'm pretty sure the law would frown on that, love. And though I agree her behaviour is cruel and callous in the extreme, I really don't think there's anything we can do about it."
"Organize a lynch mob and storm the witch's tower. I'll bring the rope!"
Ruby broke into laughter at her partner's declaration. "I do believe you would, Miss Hazel Barrow. I do believe you would."
Angela's gaze flicked between the large, plasma TV and the art deco clock. It was well after midnight as she waited in the sterile living room. Gretchen had not telephoned since Angela had been unceremoniously dumped following church.
Trying to ignore the sympathy reflected in the housekeeper's compassionate eyes, Angela had said goodnight to María hours ago. Right from the beginning, Angela understood that work came first with Gretchen, and that she was never to interfere or complain.
If only I at least came second. Angela pondered where and when things had gone so wrong. They had been deliriously happy at first... Weren't we? Certainly if a relationship was judged by the fervency and frequency of lovemaking. I'll bet that's not how those two women in church judge it.
Gretchen insisted that Angela not work. She would support her young lover in a style befitting a princess. Initially overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of a big city, Angela had agreed. She focused on trying to make the elegant condo a home, helping María with much of the cooking and cleaning.
Gretchen appeared to appreciate Angela's efforts early on, and she was often lavished with gifts and trips to exotic locations. But the time shared with her partner seemed to diminish. Gretchen bowed out of their last vacation at the eleventh hour. Angela went to Cozumel for two weeks accompanied by María. When the travellers arrived home, Gretchen barely acknowledged their return.
The life of unaccustomed opulence palled swiftly in the face of emotional abandonment. By the end of their first year together, Angela began to petition to be allowed to work or attend school. Every entreaty seemed to enrage Gretchen. The realtor made it clear that she considered it an insult for Angela to imply that life was anything less than perfect under Gretchen's roof.
Now, barely past their second anniversary, Angela had the uneasy sense that Gretchen had grown bored with her. Angela often wished she had another decade of experience and knowledge, but Gretchen had plucked her from her small town life when she was nineteen. She had little to offer in the company of her lover's sophisticated friends.
Except as eye candy...
The bitter thought was interrupted by the sound of the front door opening, and Angela stood to greet Gretchen. Much to her shock, her lover walked through the door with a pretty, young blonde on her arm.
Stunned into silence, Angela nevertheless noticed the distinct flash of annoyance that crossed her lover's face. Turning, Gretchen whispered in her companion's ear and motioned down the hallway towards the bedrooms. Then, with pursed lips and narrowed eyes, she advanced into the living room, facing Angela across the back of the sofa.
"I thought you'd be asleep by now. I hadn't intended to deal with this until morning."
Angela blinked in astonishment at Gretchen's accusatory tone. Before she could say anything, the other woman burrowed into her oversized bag and came up with a folder, which she peremptorily extended to the young woman. Angela automatically accepted it.
"I won't be unkind about this. You may stay the night--in the guest room, of course, but you're to leave in the morning. Preferably, before Moira and I arise. You know how I hate a scene."
"Guest room? Leave?"
"Why are you being so obtuse? Surely you knew this was coming. I've tried to make it work. Heaven only knows how hard I tried, but you simply wouldn't make any effort to fit in, and I absolutely cannot tolerate you anymore."
Angela felt her knees wobble as she tried to comprehend what Gretchen was telling her.
"You want me to leave?"
"Yes, of course." Gretchen gestured at the folder dangling from Angela's nerveless fingers. "There's a bus ticket back to your home in there, plus some traveling money. You're welcome to take the things I've given you, but leave your key with María."
"You want me to leave..." Stupefied, Angela felt the desiccated shape of the words in her numbed soul. "To leave..."
"Yeeeessss." Gretchen's over-plucked eyebrows arched scornfully. "I don't see what's so difficult to understand. It's a fairly simple concept."
"You never said... You don't love me anymore?"
"Oh, for God's sake! Do try not to be such a country mouse for just one moment. Let's just deal with this civilly and be done with it."
"You loved me once."
Gretchen sighed deeply and stopped just short of rolling her eyes. From the corner of her eye, Angela noted that Moira had returned, and was watching her humiliation from the shadow of the hallway. Suddenly the full impact of what Gretchen had planned hit her.
"You're going to sleep with her. Were you going to kick me out of my bed, or were you planning to just work around me?"
"I'll remind you that it's my bed, as are the ones in the guest room and in María's room, not to mention every other stick of furniture in my home. Don't be stupid!"
How many times had Gretchen warned her not to be stupid? Angela had lost track a long time ago, but this time it was the tinder to her long-simmering and injured sense of fair play.
Stiffening her spine and her knees, Angela summoned every mote of the dignity that had been eroded for months. "Give me ten minutes, and you can enjoy your...newest acquisition."
As she marched past Gretchen and a shrinking Moira, Angela heard the shrill words flung after her. "Damned right I will! And you can bet I'll have a helluva lot more fun with her than I ever had wi--"
The rest of Gretchen's venomous diatribe was cut off as Angela slammed shut the door of the bedroom they had shared for two years.
Ripping off her silk pyjamas and robe, Angela threw on an old pair of jeans and a hoodie her sister Louisa had given her.
Pulling clothes off hangers and out of drawers, she deliberately left behind anything that Gretchen had given her. From the far corner of the walk-in closet, buried under a mound of Gretchen's dirty clothes, she found the old canvas backpack she had left home with two years previous.
Angela stared at the Carolina Panthers ball cap, a gift from her little brother Duane. Gretchen never allowed Angela to wear it, but she couldn't bear to give it up. It had lain, abandoned, for two years, along with the Swiss Army knife she had won off Augie when he was twelve and she was ten.
Using anger to fight the tears that threatened to fall, Angela stuffed as much into the backpack as it would hold. Adding a few items from the en suite, she grabbed the folder Gretchen had contemptuously given her, and thrust it along with her wallet into the pockets of her jeans.
She hesitated over the cell phone, caution warring with pride. Gretchen had given it to her and paid for the service, and ultimately that fact won out. Angela left it behind.
It wouldn't matter. There was no one she could call. Angela had only ever used the phone for mandatory check-ins with Gretchen on the occasions when she went out of the condo alone, nothing else.
Without a backward glance, Angela strode down the hall toward the front door. She could hear the murmur of voices coming from the den, but she didn't pause in her flight. She didn't even slow down when María's door swung open and the dark-eyed housekeeper peered out blearily.
"Miss Angela? What's going on? Where are you going?"
Angela shook her head. Grabbing her pea coat and hiking boots from the closet, she walked out the front door, fighting the urge to slam it. That would be childish...and she was sick to death of being treated like a child.
Angela had never in her life felt so filthy. In five weeks the best she could manage was spit baths in public washrooms, using a T-shirt for a washcloth and towel. Her long, dark hair, now greasy and lank, was tied back with a cord from her backpack. The city's grime was under her nails, behind her ears, and between her toes. She was well beyond the point that she could pass as an ordinary resident of the city, carelessly going about her business.
Her business now consisted of stretching her diminishing funds for food, and finding a safe, concealed spot to sleep for a few hours each night. As the hollows under her dark eyes expanded, and the smell of her unwashed body burgeoned, Angela had become invisible, except to other denizens of the homeless underworld.
Angela wished she was invisible to them, too. They scared her. Few had threatened her; many leered at her until she learned to keep her ball cap pulled low, her hoodie pulled forward over her long hair, and her body hunched over as shapelessly as possible. One of her fellow unfortunates tried to rob her. She repelled him with the Swiss Army knife that was always close at hand. In these endless days and nights when simple subsistence was all that mattered, beauty, dreams, and ambitions fell to the wayside. Few ever reached for them again. Sex endured, but only as a survival tactic and with few attendant luxuries...like a bed.
In her worst moments, Angela wondered if the time would come when she too would be forced into the furtive encounters she had seen others engage in. Though she furiously rejected the possibility, she was acutely conscious of the sorry state of the contents of her wallet.
She had tried to get work, but the lack of a home address tripped her up with every potential employer.
Angela held on to the bus ticket for almost three weeks, holding the possibility of returning home, even in disgrace, as her escape clause. Each night, she had taken it out of her pocket and held it. But each night, the vivid memory of her father's parting oaths caused her to put the ticket away.
Calling Angela the devil's spawn, her father had informed her that she was severed from her family for all time.
Finally, a week after pawning her watch and with only twenty seven cents left in her pocket, Angela had taken the ticket to the bus station to cash it in.
Standing in line with strangers who pointedly kept their distance from her, Angela looked wearily at the purchase date on the ticket.
October 13th. So Gretchen had bought the unrestricted ticket three weeks before she threw Angela out.
The thought that her erstwhile lover had callously planned her eviction long in advance lacked any power to sting. It meant nothing to her now, except as the means to a few more dollars in her pocket.
Gretchen rarely crossed her mind. Angela thought that perhaps someday, when she was warm, well-fed, clean, and had a bed to lie down in every night, she would examine how she had fallen so low. For now though, how just didn't matter.
When she reached the head of the line, Angela hesitated. She was only three hundred miles and seven hours from her tiny South Carolinian hometown, and she held the key in her hand.
"Can I help you, Miss?"
Angela blinked at the clerk. For an instant his image blurred into the contorted features of her enraged father, flecks of spittle pelting her as he screamed imprecations on her bowed head.
"Miss...Miss, can I help you? There are others waiting in line, you know."
Jarred into action by the impatience in the clerk's voice, Angela slowly extended the ticket. "I'd like..." The sound of her own voice, scratchy from disuse startled her. Clearing her throat, she tried again. "I'd like to cash this in for a refund, please."
Making a moue of disgust at the grimy folder, the clerk plucked it gingerly out of her hand. "Are you the original purchaser?"
"Yes," Angela lied, praying that Gretchen had paid in cash. Having had her identity stolen once, the realtor was very careful where she used her credit cards.
When the agent offered no objection as he tapped on his keyboard, Angela's shoulders sagged in relief.
"Sixty four dollars." The agent counted out the bills, being careful not to actually touch Angela's hand. "Next."
Angela thrust the bills into the pocket of her now baggy jeans and hurried away.
Many days later, the sixty four dollars was almost gone. Angela accepted that the next logical step was the Union Mission, a homeless shelter. She had resisted the idea of the shelter for weeks; it seemed like surrender. Entering those doors meant conceding that she couldn't look after herself, and would be the final blow to her battered pride.
Angela sat on her backpack and leaned against a cold concrete wall. She was huddled in the dark beneath a rusty set of stairs, hands thrust under her armpits for warmth. A light winter rain had begun to fall, but she had picked her spot well and stayed fairly dry.
Wearily she tried to plan, but lately it seemed harder and harder to hold on to her thoughts and force them into some semblance of coherence.
Finally, Angela gave up and allowed herself to drift into a comfortable fugue. Thoughts floated in and out, circling in her mind like rain driven eddies around a manhole. She wondered what day it was. Time had quickly become irrelevant. Since she pawned her watch, Angela's only measure was the increasing shortness of the days, and the worsening of the weather.
A police siren wailed a block away. Angela ignored it, inured to the night noises of the city. It wasn't the big sounds that signalled danger. It was the small sounds. Footsteps stealthily approaching her nightly hiding spot; a whispered entreaty from an alley's shadow, offering a promise of short-lived oblivion in exchange for her purse or body; the sound of an icy wind beginning to rise--a gale that promised to drain her meagre warmth and freeze her soul.
These were the sounds that still had the power to frighten her.
Pulling her hood further forward, Angela wrapped her arms around her bent knees and tucked her head down. She didn't dare sleep deeply, but she would rest until dawn. Then she would make her way to the Mission--pride be damned.
Ruby grabbed the phone on the third ring. "Hello?"
"No, it's Ruby. Hazel is tied up at the moment. May I take a message?" Ruby grinned to herself as she pictured her partner in the bathroom, trying to give their dog his annual pre-Christmas bath.
"It's Essence Taylor, Ruby, down at the Union Mission. I think that girl that Hazel's been looking for just showed up."
Instantly Ruby stiffened. "Are you sure?"
"Well, I didn't ask her name, but she sure fits Hazel's description, and frankly we don't get a lot of pretty young white girls here. She don' exactly blend with the crowd, if you know what I mean."
"Is she okay?" Seeing Hazel come out of the bathroom, her hands dripping with suds, Ruby motioned her over. "Does she look alright?"
"Well, now, she looks about the same as mos' of the chil'ren that end up here. She's thin and dirty and scairt of her own shadow."
Ruby covered the phone's receiver. "It's Essence at the Mission, love. She thinks that Angela may be there."
Hazel grabbed the phone. "Essence, it's Hazel. Can you keep her until I get there?"
A dry chuckle sounded through the receiver. "The way she's shovelin' the food in, I 'spect she'll still be here. Better hurry, though, jus' in case."
"Thanks! I'll be right there."
Ruby took the phone back and hung it up. "We'll be right there, love. I'm going with you."
"Alright, but hurry! This is the first decent lead we've had in three weeks."
"I know, I know." Ruby hurried after her partner, who only slowed long enough to grab a purse, coat, and keys as she wiped her soapy arms on her apron. Ruby plucked the keys from Hazel's grasp, just as their soap spattered spaniel, belying his advanced years, streaked by them. "Hey, what about Andy?"
Hazel paused long enough to shake her head after the bath-phobic dog. "Do not think for one moment that you're getting out of it, Andy. We'll pick up where we left off when we get home!"
With that, she burst out of the side door in the kitchen of the brick bungalow and headed for the garage behind the house, Ruby following quickly in her wake. "Hurry up, Ruby! We can't lose her."
As Ruby scrambled into the car, her mind flashed back three weeks ago to when Hazel's quest had begun...
Ruby stood chatting with several other members of their church while Hazel's gaze swept the room. This was the second Sunday she hadn't seen Gretchen's young partner. The realtor herself was present, as always busily networking with the more influential of the congregation.
Hazel was about to suggest to her partner that they confront Ms Grissom and demand information on the young woman, when she felt a hand pat her sleeve.
"Oh, hello, Pastor Brad. Fine sermon today."
"Thank you, Hazel. If you have a moment, may I speak with you and Ruby?"
"Of course." Hazel caught her partner's attention and the two of them followed the minister to his office, where a nervous Hispanic woman sat in a corner chair glancing anxiously at the door.
"She cannot see me, senor?"
The minister closed the door firmly and shook his head. "No, María. She doesn't know you're here."
Hazel and Ruby looked at each other in confusion.
Pastor Brad gestured for them to take seats. "Ladies, this is Miss María Diaz. She works for Gretchen Grissom, and she's come to us for help. Two weeks ago, Angela Keane, Ms Grissom's former partner, was evicted from Ms Grissom's home."
Angela. So now we have a name. Hazel wasn't at all surprised, but she listened closely, intent on not missing anything.
"Apparently Miss Diaz got worried a few days ago when she called Angela's home in South Carolina, and she wasn't there."
"Miss Angela give me the number when she first come to live with Miss Gretchen. She ask me to call her family if anything happen to her."
Ruby leaned forward. "Miss Diaz, do you have any reason to think something has happened to her, other than that she didn't go home to South Carolina? Couldn't she be residing with friends?"
María shook her head emphatically. "Miss Gretchen never let Miss Angela to have her own friends here. Miss Angela not have any place to go if she not go home. I only call because I worry she get home safe."
Hazel felt her anger rising. "María, did Gretchen throw Angela out without any resources? No money or anything?"
"Usually, she give girls a bus ticket and a little money, but not much. Miss Angela take only her backpack when she leave." María turned to the pastor. "Padre, I think Miss Angela in bad trouble." She clutched her chest. "I feel it here."
Ruby interjected again. "When you spoke to her family, what did they say?"
"At first I talk to a girl. She say Angela leave long time ago, and ask did I know where she was. Before I can say, a man come on. He very angry. Tells me never to call again--that he has no daughter name Angela. Then he hang up." María's dark eyes filled with tears. "I think Miss Angela cannot go home, so where is she?"
Pastor Brad turned to the older women. "Hazel, I know you've done a lot of volunteer work with the homeless. Do you have any contacts that might be able to help? If Angela is indeed out on the street, perhaps someone has seen her or has an idea where she might be."
Hazel nodded grimly. "I know a few people; I'll get right on it."
Ruby laid a hand on her partner's clenched fist. "We'll find her, Hazel. I promise we will."
"You two have been wonderful about helping young people in the past," Pastor Brad said. "If Angela has been cast out by both her family and Ms Grissom, this is another member of our community who could really use your help."
"We'll help, Pastor. But first we have to find her."
Hazel seconded her partner's declaration with a firm nod.
But they hadn't found her, despite Hazel having been a veritable whirlwind of activity. Even Ruby caught the sense of urgency and had chauffeured Hazel around the least desirable areas of the city at all hours as they looked for the missing girl.
The two had discussed the possibility of appealing to Ruby's granddaughter--a junior lawyer in the district attorney's office, who had good police connections. However Hazel hadn't pushed her partner into it. She was keenly aware that Lianne Gaines, despite her devotion to her grandmother and Hazel, disapproved of their long time penchant for rescuing "strays." Hazel didn't want Ruby to be a target for further criticism from her opinionated granddaughter.
Now, as they sped towards downtown on the crowded interstate, Hazel was glad they had located Angela without invoking Lianne's help.
Once at the Mission, they slipped in the back door and down the hallway to Essence's office.
"'Bout time you got here," Essence scolded the two women, as she rose and walked toward the door. "That girl finally filled that empty pit of hers and was about to leave. I sent Alex out to ask if she'd be interested in earning some food to take with her, and she jumped at it. She's helping clean up in the kitchen right now. C'mon, we'll go see her."
Essence stopped and looked at Hazel in surprise.
"Can you ask her to come back here instead, Essence? I'd like to talk to her privately if I could."
"Awright. I'll go see, but don' blame me if she runs like a scairt kitty cat. Looks to me like she's coastin' on her las' nerve."
Essence left the office, and Ruby looked at Hazel curiously. "What's up, love?"
"If she has been on the street for the last five weeks, Ruby, then we don't know what she's gone through or what her current state of mind might be. I think we stand a better chance of reaching her without any kind of audience."
"That makes sense." Ruby settled into a worn wooden chair as Hazel paced nervously.
When Angela entered the room with her head down, Hazel stifled a gasp at the girl's appearance.
Angela's head snapped up and she appeared about to bolt. "I'm so sorry. I was sent back to get--" Then she froze and stared at the older women.
Hazel stepped forward, her hand outstretched, but she stopped moving as Angela stiffened. Instead, she spoke, her voice soft and reassuring. "I know we haven't been formally introduced, dear, but I feel like I already know you. My name is Hazel Barrow, and this is Ruby Gaines...my partner."
Angela's head turned and she gave Ruby a small nod. Hazel saw shame on the girl's pinched, smudged face. She sensed that if she didn't work quickly, this young woman would be out the door and off.
"It's Angela, isn't it?"
Angela's gaze returned to Hazel. "How did you..."
"María. She's very worried about you. She contacted our church and spoke with Pastor Brad." Hazel deliberately sat down, and saw Angela relax a bit.
"María's a good person. I miss..."
Angela shook her head fiercely and Hazel could almost hear the interior dialogue. She suspected the girl had resolutely put Gretchen, and everything attached to her, in the past.
"Angela, we'd like to speak with you for a moment, if we may."
Angela cast a worried glance over her shoulder. "I'm supposed to be working..."
Ruby spoke up. "It's alright, Angela. Essence is an old friend of ours. We asked her to let us know if you showed up here, and she called us this morning."
Hazel gave Angela a gentle smile. "Why what, dear?"
"Why did you want to know if I came here?"
"Because we've been looking for you ever since we learned what happened from María. We want to help you."
Angela appeared confused, as if the thought of anyone wanting to help her was a foreign concept. She swayed and Ruby instantly stood, caught her arm and steered her into a chair.
"Here, have a seat while we talk this out. It won't do anyone any good if you hit the floor."
Hazel smiled at Ruby's gruffness. It might fool those who had just met her; it had never fooled Hazel, not even for a moment.
Angela shook her head. "What's there to talk out?"
"Dear, are we correct in assuming that you have no place to stay?" Hazel watched Angela closely, reading the gamut of emotions that crossed her thin face, as humiliation and pride and weariness battled for supremacy. "If so, we would very much like to offer you a place in our home, for as long as you need to get on your feet."
"In your home?" Angela stared at Hazel, then up at Ruby. "But why would you do that?"
Ruby interjected. "It's what she does. Hazel has a soft spot a mile wide for youngsters that the rest of the world throws away."
"Ruby," Hazel chastised mildly. "They're not throwaways, just...temporarily displaced. Like you, Angela. Someone who maybe could use a hand up for a while."
"You've done this before?"
Ruby snorted, but Hazel ignored her. "Yes, dear. We've been on call with the church and the LGBT Association for many years. Sadly there have been far too many young men and women whose families have rejected them when they came out, though I do think that's improving somewhat."
Angela dropped her head and her shoulders slumped. "You know? That my dad...that I can't go home again?"
"We surmised, dear. María was very worried about you, so she called the number you gave her to ensure that you'd made it home safely."
A bitter laugh signalled Angela's understanding. "Then I'm guessing that dear old dad filled her in that I am no longer numbered among his progeny."
"She was given to understand that you weren't there, nor likely to be there anytime soon," Hazel agreed sadly. "That's when María went to Pastor Brad, and he called us in."
Angela looked up, concern in her eyes. "She didn't get in trouble with Gr...with her boss, did she?"
Ruby's voice was cold, her opinion of María's boss clear in every syllable. "You can rest assured that Gretchen Grissom does not know anything. Pastor Brad, María, Hazel, and I are the only ones who are in on this, and no one else need ever know."
"Well, Essence knows, love," Hazel clarified with a smile. "But, Angela, she's not about to tell your former partner anything. She has seen more young people in your straits than she can even remember--"
"That's the truth!" Essence's voice boomed from the doorway. She eyed Angela keenly. "So, young lady, I hope you realize how lucky you are. These two ladies are earthbound angels, and they'll have you back on your feet quicker'n you can spit. They done it for more los' souls than I can count over the years, and they're pr'pared to do it for you, too. So whaddya say, girl? Are you ready to go home with 'em?"
"I..." At an apparent loss for words, Angela looked at Hazel helplessly.
"It's alright, Angela. We don't have to speak of anything long-term right now. For the moment, we have a warm bed with your name on it, and a place at our table if you'll do us the honour of joining us for a bit."
Angela plucked at her grimy hoodie. "I'm so dirty. I'm sorry..."
"Nothing a hot shower and lots of soap won't take care of," Ruby asserted firmly. "Now, why don't we get out of here and let Essence have her office back."
"I need to get my stuff. I left my backpack in the kitchen."
"Got it right here, girl." Essence swung the backpack forward and dropped it in front of Angela. "Maybe some day you'll come back and help us out here. A lot of Hazel and Ruby's kids do."
Angela nodded mutely as she clutched her backpack and allowed Ruby to shepherd her out of her office.
Hazel hung back, offering Essence a hug, which was enthusiastically returned.
"Thank you, Essence. I don't know what would've happened to her if you hadn't called us."
"Pah, that was the easy part, my friend. Now the hard part's up to you." She peered at Hazel intently. "You sure you're still up to this? Been a couple of years since your last rescue, and as I recall, that boy didn't 'xactly work out well."
Hazel shook her head ruefully. "No, Terrell wasn't one of our success stories, but I like to think that maybe one of these days he'll leave the streets behind. And if he does, maybe it'll be because we showed him there was another way to live."
"That boy was a born hustler, from the day he draw'd his firs' breath." Essence paused reflectively. "Sometimes I think you got a lot more faith than good sense, Hazel, but I thank the good Lord that you do. Lot of kids got a chance now that din't have one b'fore, thanks to you and that stiff-necked partner of yours."
"Hazel! Are you coming? What's the hold up?"
Both women smiled at the sound of Ruby's holler from down the hall.
"And speaking of my partner, I do believe that's my cue to go."
They exchanged another quick hug, and Hazel left the office.
"I'm coming, Ruby. Just hold your horses!"
Angela tilted her head, allowing the hot water to sluice the last of the tears off her face. She had started crying when the car pulled into Hazel and Ruby's garage, and no matter how hard she tried, she hadn't been able to stop since. It was as if Hazel's warmth and Ruby's gruff kindness had uncorked the emotions she had pickled in self-preservation for the past few months.
Her two saviours had diplomatically ignored her muffled weeping, merely showing her to the large bedroom and adjacent bath in the finished basement. Hazel insisted on gathering all her clothes to wash, and offered her a clean, worn bathrobe and slippers to wear in the interim.
Once in the shower, Angela shampooed and soaped three times, until the water that swirled around her feet finally ran clear. It was the discovery of a new, disposable razor in the shower caddy that ultimately brought her tears to an end as she wielded it with glee.
Now Angela simply stood under the water, luxuriating in being clean and warm. Then her conscience prodded her about using all the hot water in the house. She reluctantly turned off the taps and stepped out of the stall where a thick, fluffy towel awaited her.
Drying off in front of the steamy mirror, she examined her hazy reflection critically. Gretchen had insisted that Angela stay slim and fit, so she'd had little excess weight to begin with. Now, she had none; her ribs, pelvic and collar bones were clearly visible.
God, I look like a half-starved cat--all black eyes and hair!
Angela took hold of a long, wet hank of hair that lay across her breast and twisted it. An unwelcome memory of Gretchen running her hands through it in the throes of lovemaking flashed through her mind. Gretchen had enjoyed the feel of Angela's hair whispering across her naked body. Suddenly, even though Angela had had long hair her entire life, she couldn't stand the thought of leaving it that way a moment longer.
Throwing on the robe and slippers, Angela left the bathroom, and surveyed the well-lit basement. Aside from her bedroom and bath, there was a small living area with colourful assortment of sofas and throw rugs, and bookcases lining the walls. She could hear a washer or dryer running behind the wall next to the staircase. From upstairs came the barking of a clearly unhappy dog.
Climbing the stairs, Angela peeked around the corner into the yellow and white kitchen.
Ruby was sitting on the tiled floor, holding a small, wet, squirming dog bundled in a towel as Hazel knelt stiffly in front of her and trimmed the dog's nails.
"Now just stop that, Andy! We're not hurting you and I don't know why you always put up such a fuss."
Ruby grimaced at Hazel as she got a frantic tongue across her face. "He puts up a fuss because he's hoping to convince you never to do this to him again! Frankly, I think we should've accepted Lianne's offer to take on this chore."
"Now, Ruby, you know that Andy is not Lianne's biggest fan." Hazel cooed at the dog before lifting another paw. "Not that it's her fault, mind you."
"No, it isn't. But I suppose getting your paw run over tends to prejudice you against the one responsible. Though there's no way Lianne could've seen him snoozing behind her car." Ruby took a firmer grip on the spaniel as Hazel finished her task. "I do think it hurts her feelings when he runs for cover every time she comes in the house."
"I know, and I feel badly for her. She's just like you, you know. Pretends to be all tough and hard-nosed--"
"Hey, who's pretending?"
Hazel chuckled at Ruby's protest and leaned across Andy to give her partner a quick kiss. "You are, my love. You're a much bigger mush than I am."
Ruby grinned, but cut off her response as she noticed Angela watching them. "Ah, our young guest has emerged. C'mon in, Angela. We're just finishing Andy's annual preening."
Angela edged into the kitchen, clutching the edges of her robe together. "It doesn't sound like he enjoys it much."
Hazel shook her head with a smile. "No, Master Andrew definitely does not like any facet of doggie-grooming, which is why we restrict it to special occasions."
"This is a special occasion?"
Glancing back at Angela, Hazel nodded. "Quite aside from your arrival, which is indeed special, Christmas is just around the corner. While we don't insist that Andy wear silly antlers or anything, he too must sport his best bib and tucker for the big day."
"Christmas..." Grief clutched Angela's heart as she thought of the gifts she had already bought and hidden for Gretchen and María. She no longer tried to buy gifts for her family since they had been returned each time she had sent them. But she had been gleefully anticipating Gretchen and María's expressions on Christmas morning.
Lost in misery, Angela didn't notice that Andy had been allowed to make his getaway, and Hazel and Ruby had risen to their feet. When a warm arm closed around her narrow shoulders, she flinched.
Hazel's soft voice comforted her. "I know it's hard, dear. This isn't where you wanted to be..."
"But it is better than where you were. So buck up there, girl. Things are looking up, whether you know it or not."
Ruby's brisk reminder braced Angela, and she allowed Hazel to steer her towards the kitchen table.
"I know it's not quite lunch time, but do you think you might find room for some soup and a sandwich?" Hazel's question was superfluous as she had already begun to set three places at the table.
"Yes, please. Can I help?"
Ruby laughed. "One thing you'll learn, Angela, is that Hazel rules the roost in here. The kitchen is her sole and undisputed domain, which is a darned lucky thing for me, or I might've starved to death years ago." Hazel gave her a pointed glance. "Aw, sorry, kid. I didn't mean anything by that."
"No, that's alright," Angela assured Ruby with a shy glance. "I have been pretty hungry at times."
Ignoring her partner's warning look, Ruby raked Angela's face with an analytical gaze. "Yeah, you don't look like you've seen too many square meals in the last five weeks. How did you manage out there, anyway?"
Hazel now glared outright at Ruby. "Ruby Ellen Gaines! You just keep your curiosity to yourself, and let the poor girl alone."
Horrified that she might have caused a rift between the two women, Angela shrank back in her chair, only to have Ruby pat her hand reassuringly.
"Don't pay her any mind, kid. I've been on the receiving end of that woman's tongue for almost fifty years and--"
There was a strangled noise from the stove where Hazel was stirring the soup. Ruby's face instantly reddened and Angela started to giggle. By the time she had broken into an outright laugh, both Ruby and Hazel had joined in. Even Andy ambled back into the kitchen to find out what all the commotion was about.
This time the tears that filled Angela's eyes were painless, and she dashed them away with a lighter heart. Grinning at Ruby, she quipped, "No comment!"
That set Ruby off again, and Angela chuckled as she saw the way Hazel shook her head at both of them with affectionate exasperation.
The mood lightened, and the conversation shifted to casual topics. By the time Angela had wolfed down a large bowl of soup and two grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, she was feeling a renewed sense of peace.
Nodding at Andy, who hovered hopefully near Hazel's feet, Angela asked, "What kind of dog is he?"
Ruby snapped her fingers and Andy trotted over to have his tri-coloured fur ruffled. "He's half King Charles spaniel, but his mama was fooling around where she shouldn't have been and we're not really sure what the other half is."
"Given the damage he wreaked on our yard in his puppy years, I vote that his daddy must've been a terrier," Hazel declared, her smile belying her stern tone.
The object of their discussion abruptly took off running, his excited yelps resounding through the house.
Sighing, Ruby heaved herself to her feet. "Mail's here."
A buzzer signalled from downstairs, and Hazel stood too. "That sounds like your clothes are ready, dear."
Angela trailed after Hazel down the stairs. She noticed how the elderly woman carefully used the handrail as she made her descent. Ducking around her as Hazel entered the laundry room, Angela opened the dryer door and lifted out the warm clothes.
"Here, let me give you a hand with that, dear."
"No, ma'am. You don't need to wait on me hand and foot. I'm perfectly capable of folding a few clothes."
Hazel smiled. "Then I'll keep you company, shall I?"
When they entered the basement bedroom, Hazel eased herself down on the bed and watched as Angela folded her clothes and put them away neatly. "It looks like you've been well brought up, my dear."
Angela nodded absently as she finished with her meagre belongings. "My mom always said she had better things to do than pick up after us kids all day long, and Daddy would've had our heads if we didn't mind." She stopped, her head bowed and her hands resting on the T-shirts she had just set in the small chest of drawers.
"Would you like to talk about it, Angela?"
There was no pressure in Hazel's voice, just a gentle invitation. Suddenly Angela was crushed by the burden of the last two years. She had borne the estrangement from her family stoically, in the belief that it was worth any sacrifice to spend a lifetime with the woman she loved. Now, with the disastrous end to that relationship, all the sorrow of being parted permanently from the family she loved poured over her.
Sobs began to shake Angela's body and she turned blindly to the woman who was barely more than a stranger to her. Hazel opened her arms as Angela stumbled into them.
Allowing Angela to cry herself out without comment or question, Hazel simply rocked the young woman as she would have a grieving child.
When the tears ended, and tissues had been dispensed, they started to talk. At least Angela did. Hazel sat quietly, listening without judgement as Angela poured out her anguished tale.
"...and when I look back on it all, I can see how unbelievably stupid I was, but I'd never met anyone as glamorous as Gretchen, you know? When she chose me, I couldn't believe it. She teased me about being a country mouse right from the beginning, but that really was the way I felt. I hadn't even had the nerve to kiss another girl up to then, and then two days after I meet Gretchen, I end up in her bed? I knew my family would be horrified. I knew if I wanted to be with Gretchen I'd have to give them up, but it was like my Princess Charming had ridden into town, offering a life I'd never dreamed of. I couldn't even think straight when she was around."
"So to speak," Hazel teased lightly.
Angela huddled closer under Hazel's comforting arm. "The day I told my parents I was leaving and why...it was just so ugly." She shivered at the memory. "My dad was so mad at me that I thought he was going to have a stroke."
"What about your mother?"
"She goes along with whatever Daddy says. Always has." A sudden insight occurred to Angela. "Just like I did with Gretchen. Damn! I never thought of that! I treated Gretchen just like Mom treated Daddy...like we all treated Daddy. His word was law, and you did not say no to him!"
She turned to face Hazel, amazement in her eyes. "I never once crossed Gretchen. Even when she threw me out, I just went like an obedient little lamb." Angela could feel the hardening of her resolve. "Well, never again. I will never, never be beholden to anyone, ever. I'm never going to jump when someone calls, or toe the line someone else draws for me."
"Good for you, dear, though you may want to temper that a little. We all make compromises in the name of love."
Angela shook her head vehemently at Hazel's cautionary words. "That won't matter. I'm never going to fall in love again. Ever!"
"Mmm hmm. How old are you, Angela?"
"I'll be twenty one in a couple of months."
"Then it may be a little soon to write off love forever, dear." Hazel held up her hand as Angela shook her head. "But, leaving that aside, let's deal with some practical matters. You'll need some more clothes. How would it be if we do some shopping tomorrow?" Interpreting Angela's worried look, she assured her, "Don't worry about money for the moment, dear. We keep a small fund for our special projects, and we're quite able to afford some basics."
"Am I a...special project?"
Hazel stood, and firmly kissed the top of Angela's head. "That you are, my dear. Very special. Now, why don't you see if you can get some sleep? I suspect you haven't had a lot of rest lately, and a nap will do you a world of good."
Angela suddenly felt exhausted, and the thought of a nap was very appealing. As Hazel walked towards the door, however, she called after her. "Would it be okay to get a haircut tomorrow, too? I promise I'll pay you back as soon as I get a job."
Hazel stood in the doorway and smiling at her, turned off the light. "Of course, my dear. Now get a good sleep."
But the door had already closed, and Angela wearily shed her robe and slipped between the fresh-scented sheets. From afar she could hear Andy barking again, but the awareness was transitory and she was quickly asleep.
Hazel entered the kitchen and saw Ruby seated at the table, an opened stack of mail and a fresh pot of tea in front of her.
Without asking, Ruby poured her partner a cup as Hazel wearily lowered herself into a chair. "How bad was it, love?"
"As bad as their stories always are, Ruby." Hazel absently added sugar to her tea. "Sometimes I think I'm getting too old to hear even one more tale of woe."
She lifted tired eyes to her partner, and Ruby gently picked up Hazel's hand and touched it to her lips. "I know, love. The endless ways we as a species find to be cruel to each other never fails to amaze me."
Hazel's fingers tightened around Ruby's hand. "But then there's always this, isn't there? I can't entirely lose faith in love and goodness when I have you in my life."
"You'd never lose faith anyway, love. You don't have a cynical bone in you."
Soft as her partner's words were, they sank deep into Hazel's heart. Ruby was the reason she could keep on doing this. Ruby was her bulwark against the inevitable disappointments. Practical, sensible, realistic Ruby, who grounded her and shielded her, always. Who, without a word of recrimination, picked up the pieces and put them back together again when one of Hazel's failures returned to the streets, or ended up in prison, or robbed them and ran.
"How do you do it, Ruby? Why do you put up with me and my missions?"
"Because I love you, silly old woman." They smiled at each other. "And then there is always that tongue thing..."
Hazel snorted and slapped Ruby's arm. Ruby just laughed and picked up the teapot to refill her own cup. "But back to business, love. What did Angela have to say?"
"Well, apparently she met Gretchen at a local softball tournament. The Wicked Witch of the South was pursuing some pretty young thing on a team that Angela's team was playing. Before the tournament was over, Gretchen had lured Angela into her bed and away from the only life she had ever known. Her father, who is apparently right out of the Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell mould, runs his brood with an iron fist. When Angela dared to cross him, he expelled her from the family. He won't allow her mother, sister or brothers to so much as write a letter or accept a phone call from her."
"So she had no one but Gretchen."
"Literally. Just as we suspected, Gretchen kept her so isolated and dependant that María was her only friend."
"No kidding. I guess Gretchen's friends are so accustomed to seeing the parade of young lovelies through Gretchen's life that most of them barely bothered to learn Angela's name. Apparently there were varying degrees of disbelief expressed when Angela lasted past their first anniversary."
"About that tarring and feathering idea of yours..."
Hazel nodded grimly. "Don't tempt me, dear. I'm not too old to pick up a bucket!"
Ruby grunted agreement, and the two women sat together in comfortable silence, lost in reflection.
Finally Hazel sighed. "Well, all we can do is give her the best chance possible to rebuild her life. I have a hunch young Angela won't need much of a hand up to stand on her own two feet. After the holidays, we'll see if any of our friends has a job opening for her. It'll be a good start."
"The holidays." Ruby winced. "Lianne."
"I know, dear, but she'll just have to understand that the timing wasn't of our choosing, or Angela's for that matter."
Ruby shook her head gloomily. "Lianne's not much in the understanding department when it comes to the holidays. You know exactly what she'll say."
Hazel deepened her voice and assumed a disapproving tone. "Holidays are for family. I work hard all year and I don't think it's too much to ask that I get to enjoy Christmas without one of your ragamuffin strays hanging around!"
Ruby gave a wry laugh, but didn't try to deny her partner's very accurate mimicry.
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