Homeless, but helpful

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Homeless, but helpful

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May sunshine warmed my bones as my friends and I ambled along, when my wandering gaze landed on a woman sitting on a bench.

Settled comfortably upon the bench, the woman stared off into the distance lost in her thoughts. Smothered with layer upon layer of shawls, blankets, and a bulging trash bag nestled beside her all marked her as one familiar with living on the streets–homeless.

Like anyone else, I flew into a panic.

What if she needed food or water? I have chips– wait, no, she’ll be fine, right?

Tossing back an awkward glance while passing by, we reached the entrance to the Walgreens. A friendly, if drowsy greeting from the cashier clerk and the bell’s tinkling above the entrance welcomed us inside the store.

Maybe I should leave her alone, I don’t want to offend her.

Beau and Mariela were checking out the snack aisle, while Jackie protested the severely high prices on candy bars, eyelashes fluttering while she griped.

Maybe she’s the bait for some kidnapping plot, meant to attract poor, helpless (but curious) bystanders before snatching them away in one of the many suspicious cars passing by her bench.

In the checkout line, I bought a water bottle. Just in case.

Stepping outside, I swallowed my fears, my best intentions, and slapped on my best smile. If I got kidnapped, at least it’d serve as a darn good story for the newspaper.

Covertly, I shuffled over to the woman and waved my friends away. They gave me questioning looks, a little concerned, but ultimately left.

Gathering the meager confidence remaining, I asked, “What’s your name? I’m Ivy.”

Her lips broke into a sweet smile, wrinkling the dark skin around her eyes. “I’m Jennifer. It’s nice to meet you, Ivy. What are you and your friends doing around here?”

From here, we launched into an extensive discussion covering chiefly why my friends and I were in Austin (journalism conference known as ILPC at the University of Texas) and how I accidentally picked up journalism in the first place.

I loved how she hummed appreciatively when I divulged my newfound love for journalism, whenever she interjected a comment in her own motherly, discerning manner, her confidence in asserting her beliefs and opinions, and the odd sympathetic pat on the hand when I admitted my fears of leaving the comfort of high school and honestly taking a stab at making my writing into a career.

She made me felt heard, acknowledged. Not the other way around. My cheerful grin, however, soon dissipated once she recounted her story as well.

Under government orders, her family’s faces were accidentally swapped with black listees and hence assassinated one by one, until only she remained. Father, mother, sister, brother, husband, children, all gone forever.

Yet, her face revealed no hint of sadness, eyes bright with hope as she relayed the latter half of the tale, exuding delight for her plans to seek asylum in a south Asian country and learn a trade, “to live the simple life,” she said.

In all this time, I could never quite shake off my unease. Her sober attitude strangely conflicted with her dubious backstory, my own isolated location, and the tens of cars passing by the curb. My senses were at an all-time high.

Meanwhile, of which I would learn later, the teachers chaperoning the trip were hustling all the kids back on the buses to return home, but with one missing—me.

Distressed, and perhaps a little hysterical, my teacher, Mrs. Comstock, interrogated my friends on my whereabouts, for fear that their negligence had resulted in something far worse.

By now, my instincts were finally returning in full force, pointing out every possible red flag in the compromising situation I’d landed myself in.

Stranger danger. Stranger danger. Stranger danger. Stranger da—

Hold the phone, hadn’t she proved herself trustworthy enough?

No.

I sighed and glanced at the time, observing that I had precious few minutes until I had to head back. Jennifer, who had been regarding my silence for a few moments, bowed her head and smiled ruefully.

“You’ve got to head out now, amiright?” I shook my head, feeling ashamed for appearing eager to leave, especially when I had initiated the conversation to begin with.

“No, no, it’s really alright.” Even I thought my words sounded painfully feeble.

She fixed me with a knowing gaze, scarves and shawls shifting as she turned to me.

“I don’t mean you, and I’ve never meant anyone any harm, yet here I am. I know my story sounds unlikely, but I really do have hope. God is my hope; I must still be here on this earth for a reason, no?”

“Ivy!” Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Mrs. Comstock poised on the curb across the street, prepared to snatch me away should the opportunity arise.

“I’ll be there in a second!” Glancing back at Jennifer, I shrugged helplessly and grasped her hand in mine. It was so rough, yet so warm to the touch.

“Thank you for allowing me to talk with you, I wish you good luck on your mission. Godspeed. Jennifer.”

We shook promptly and I sped off, never once turning back, because her image would forever be branded in my memories. Thank you, Jennifer, for opening my eyes to what’s possible and inspiring me to take the leap.