Jennifer was still shaking, and it wasn’t from sitting outside for so long.
“The officer is gone, Jennifer. And I think I convinced him you hadn’t been in that building.” The homeless woman’s voice…already the most beautiful, melodic stuff Jennifer had ever heard…was even prettier when she lowered her voice. “Not even last night.”
Not even last night? Jennifer darted a look at the homeless woman before returning to the seemingly endless job of cleaning the blood off her shoe. But Jennifer was in the storage-space building then; it was only this morning that she hadn’t made it into the building because she’d tripped over this blood-covered homeless woman.
Was this woman so out of it that she thought she’d been awake all night to vouch for Jennifer instead of passed out in what was undoubtedly a drunken stupor? Or… Was that why she’d dropped her voice before saying, “not even last night,” because that was her way of letting Jennifer know that she knew that part wasn’t true?
Jennifer shifted uncomfortably on the hard sidewalk, looking at the bloody woman lying beside her. Horrible.
Why had this woman protected her?
What did she want?
Jennifer opened and closed her mouth a few times, struggling to find the right words. Finally they came to her. It was hard to do, since her expensive shoe still wasn’t free of the blood that would undoubtedly now dry hard and fast, ruining it forever, but she made a point of setting her shoe aside and addressing the homeless woman. “Thank you.” The words almost hurt. But she smiled after saying them, quite proud of herself.
The homeless woman started to smile too, but stretching her lip cracked open a wound that started to bleed.
Jennifer sighed. This was really, really hard, but she sacrificed the only remaining clean piece of the tablecloth…that could have been used to finish cleaning her shoe…and used it instead to dab at the homeless woman’s cracked lip. “What’s your name?”
“Amelia.” Miraculously the name sounded absolutely gorgeous, even half-muffled by the tablecloth. It was that voice again. Like a whole symphony orchestra.
Jennifer spotted a twig under Amelia. Would that help get the blood off her shoe? She was about to snatch it up. Oddly, something stopped her. She looked at the twig more closely. It had wedged itself into a cut on Amelia’s arm.
Jennifer had an epiphany: that twig wedged into that cut on Amelia’s arm must be hurting Amelia!
Gently…very carefully…Jennifer removed the twig.
“Thank you.” That beautiful voice again.
Jennifer refrained from using the stick on her shoe, carefully setting it aside for the time being. Instead she frowned, concentrated, and then asked, “How did you get to be homeless?” Too late, it occurred to her that maybe she should have asked about Amelia’s current injuries first, but Jennifer was still delighted by her own kindness.
“Do…you really want to know?”
“Yes,” Jennifer said. “I…actually…really do!”
“Would that I could provide a rich and entertaining history of a great family gone to ruin. But what’s great is the mystery, because nothing is known of my family before the birth of my mother in 1898.”
“Yes. My poor, frail, delicately-wrought mother gave birth to her only child in 1948, at the age of 50.”
“I was born out of wedlock. My mother never deigned to mention him. And she never knew her own parents, or anything about them or any other family members. She was raised in a nunnery in Switzerland where all, apparently, had been sworn to secrecy.”
Jennifer struggled to remember the original question. “So…you became homeless because?”
“Possibly my own just desserts for being an incurable romantic.” Amelia’s injured lip warped her rueful smile. “But my excuse is my mother’s medical bills.”
“Aren’t there social service agencies that cover those kinds of things?”
“They try. And they do a lot. But there are limits.” Amelia stiffened her jaw. “My mother’s health was never good. After my birth it was a disaster. She once told me our roles had all but reversed by the time I was two. Prior to her death, at which point I’d already declared bankruptcy, I couldn’t remember a time when my life wasn’t devoted to taking care of her.”
Now Jennifer really didn’t know what to say. “Well…your injuries…I should get you some help.” With that she fished into her purse for her phone, but it wasn’t there. She darted another look at Amelia.
People were so unreasonable. Somehow, when she wasn’t looking, this stupid homeless woman had stolen her phone. Jennifer should have just kicked her again. Repeatedly and hard enough to silence her forever. Instead she’d tried to make friends so this woman would stick to her story about where Jennifer was the night before.
What a fool Jennifer had been. All this time wasted… All this time that could have been spent cleaning her shoe.