A note from the author:
This is an entry in the 2007 Winter Holidays Contest. The story is a collaboration from michchick98 and myself. We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it. Special thanks goes to Daniellekitten, t0nst3rs and MugsyB for their valuable feedback and input on this story. Thanks for reading and don't forget to vote.
"Oh my God! How could anyone let themselves get that low?" The questions and comments bombarded Gloria as she pushed her shopping cart through the streets of downtown, headed for the nearest shelter still seven blocks away.
"I'll never make it at this rate," Gloria thought to herself each time her cart would get stuck in a crack on the near crumbling sidewalk. She jerked the cart and cursed under her breath the last time she asked a passerby for the time.
She knew she was too late and opted for cover from the night's chill in the abandoned building just around the next corner.
Gloria was a woman down on her luck. She once had a wonderful career, a family and a wonderful home, but the loss of her husband and children that fateful Christmas Eve left her in a depression no one could rescue her from. Her family tried to no avail. Her parents were aged and neither she nor her husband had any siblings.
She was on her way home from a business trip when they died in a horrific car accident. As she rode in the taxi, the driver had the radio on the traffic report. She heard about a fatal accident, which closed the interstate. The cab driver followed the detours, exited the freeway and followed the directions Gloria gave him to get her to her destination.
"Happy holidays miss," the driver said as he retrieved her bags from the trunk and waited for her to get inside safely. It was late, and darkness filled the interior of the condo, but concern wasn't an issue as she turned her key and opened the door. The thought of her husband putting the kids to bed early so they could have some quiet time together before the rush Christmas morning to open gifts was a welcomed one.
Gloria walked into the den and set her luggage down. It was then she realized that wasn't the case. On the counter that divided the kitchen from the den she found a note that read, "Hi honey, took the kids to see Santa one last time. Stopping for pizza and will be home around seven. Love Alan." It was well after seven o'clock when she arrived and then the concerns set in.
She called his cell, but got the voicemail and left a message. "I'm worried about you. Call me when you get this," she said and ended the call.
The moment that call ended another came in. "Alan?" she answered.
The silence on the other end worried her. "Alan is that you?" she said, concern laced her voice now.
"Is this Mrs. Patterson?" a male voice startled her.
"Yes it is. Who's this?"
"This is officer Stillwater from the Michigan State Police. I'm sorry to inform you there has been an accident."
Gloria's heart sank as she listened to the officer tell her what to do next. That one single phone call sent her life plunging into darkness and depression. A semi- truck broadsided her husband's vehicle as he pulled out of the restaurant parking lot, killing all passengers instantly. Images of her husband Alan and her children, six-year old Alicia and eight-year old Alan, Jr. mangled in the minivan flooded her mind. The pain was unbearable.
Gloria's fall wasn't sudden, but within the two years since the death of her family she'd gone from an advertising executive to a homeless woman on the streets of this major city. Once living in a luxury condo to sleeping in a shelter if she arrived on time, and if she didn't, sleeping beneath a sheet of cardboard she'd salvaged from a department store garbage receptacle.
She couldn't see herself in any other light. She'd lost all touch of her previous existence as a glamorous wife and doting mother. Her chestnut hair, once vibrant and shimmering even in subdued light is now grimy and matted. Her green eyes that once sparkled warmly when she laughed are now cold, lifeless.
She now stands hunched over her cart; her once full lips - the color of fresh strawberries - are cracked and dried from the harsh elements of her life outdoors. Her clothes and shoes worn and ragged as if she just pulled them from the dumpster. This is Gloria's life now - a despicable sight in the eyes of some, but a human being suffering, in the eyes of others.
Within the days that followed the news concerning the accident, Gloria lost the will to survive in the life she once knew with her family. With the support of her parents and in-laws as well as the members of her church, she managed to get through the funeral. In the weeks that followed, friends and co-workers visited Gloria, but eventually she refused to answer the door.
She had stopped eating, surviving on coffee and crackers, just enough to get by. She couldn't force herself to get out of bed in the morning and eventually lost her job. Without a job the money she and her husband had saved was spent quickly just paying what few bills she managed to pay. She soon found herself bankrupt and the mortgage company foreclosed on her condo.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but if you had children living with you there would be more I could do for you," the agent said in an insincere tone as he handed her the eviction papers.
At this point Gloria was in such a deep depression, the thought of fighting to keep her home and file for bankruptcy never entered her mind. Her only words to the agent that stood before her were, "You bastard! If I had my children here with me I wouldn't be in this situation. I would give anything to have them back with me, but they are dead and my husband, their father died with them two years ago."
When those words rolled off Gloria's lips she fell to the floor, doing the only thing she'd been able to do in the past two years, sob. She cried for hours and then it was as if she knew she had no other choice as she pulled herself up, walked to her room and grabbed her duffle bag from the closet. She tossed in some clothes and undergarments.
She walked to her dresser and grabbed the photo of her family and placed it in between her clothing to keep it safe. She grabbed a few personal items from the bathroom and before she walked out of the front door she placed her keys on the counter. In a daze, she left everything else behind and just began walking.
"Oh dear, the city should do more to help people like that," a passer by whispered to her husband as they walked to the theater. "It's the day before Thanksgiving, no one should have to live like that," the woman continued, but didn't do anything to help the homeless lady.
"This is better than nothing, I guess," Gloria sighed as she huddled beneath her cardboard and searched her pockets for crumbs of food.
Gloria never begged for handouts, she couldn't bring herself to that, but if someone offered her food she would accept it graciously. After she had eaten the last bit of food found in her pockets, she would settle into a somewhat comfortable slump and in her nightly prayers ask God to keep her safe one more night and tell her family she loved them. After a while she'd doze off to sleep.
The need to protect what little she had accumulated over the years forced Gloria to sleep light as she guarded her possessions.
Tonight, cardboard protected her from the blustery, late November wind and below freezing temperature, but not the rodents that invaded her shopping cart. Gloria was awakened to sounds of scratching and chewing right beside her head. "Get out of there you bastards!" she shouted and swatted at the side of her cart to scare off the pesky rodents.
Sleep didn't come easy for Gloria. This would be the fourth Thanksgiving she'd spend without her family. Her dreams were filled with happier times, times spent with her family; birthdays, vacations, holidays; all just painful memories for her now.
As she finally settled in the corner, she belatedly allowed sleep to claim her as heavy eyelids resolved one more day of life. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and she hoped she'd at least be able to get a shower and a warm meal at the shelter.
Gloria awoke to the sun shining in through the broken windows above her and the cheerful sounds of the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade on the next block. She yawned and stretched then slowly rose to her feet. She gathered up her cardboard and placed it neatly in her cart.
The sunlight that shone through the windows was pleasant. Gloria stood there for a moment and drank in the warmth as she prepared herself for yet another blistery day outside in the elements. She took one last look around then headed back out to the street. As she rounded the corner on her way to the shelter, she encountered Belle, another woman who was also on her way to the shelter.
Belle didn't have near the upbringing that Gloria had of fancy schools and a master's degree in advertising, but she always tried to better herself. She married when she was young and became a stay at home mom to her 6 children, while her husband worked to support the family. She'd been on the street for 6 years, and those who knew her said she was a genuine person who made friends quickly.
Her husband and daughter were shot in a carjacking attempt gone badly and four of her sons were killed in the war. Her one surviving son wasn't much help to her. He chose a life of drugs and crime and walked out on her many years ago. Without the support of her husband Belle had no other choice but to try and survive on the streets.
After being evicted for non-payment of rent over a six-month duration, Belle no longer had a roof over her head. She attempted several times to get a job but without an address, or an education past high school hope for her was dismal. Who would hire a woman of her age and lack of formal education; not to mention pay enough so she could to support herself?
Even though Belle's misfortune led her to life on the streets she never stopped trying to better herself. She spoke with elegance and carried herself well. She was a proud woman and with that attitude she often tried to spread encouragement to those around her.
She was often found reading to youngsters or telling stories she'd made up. To the homeless on the streets Belle was known as a genuine person who would give the coat off her back to help another more destitute than herself.
"Happy Thanksgiving, Gloria," Belle said in her usual chipper tone.
"Thanks, same to you, Belle," Gloria replied grimly, keeping the afterthought to herself, "What's so damn happy about it?"
"Did you know the shelter's opening early today?"
"I heard something about that," Gloria replied in her usual melancholic tone as the women continued to walk down the sidewalk in the direction of the shelter.
"If we get there early enough, we might even be able to grab a hot shower!"
"That would be nice, Belle. But I'd bet the shelter's full and the people already there get first dibs."
As they rounded the next corner, Gloria's heart sank. The line for the shelter went halfway around the building. She'd never seen this many people in line before and wondered where they all came from. The shelter allowed men and women with or without children, but those in line were mostly women with children.
She and Belle took their places at the end of the line and Gloria sent up a silent prayer that they'd be able to get in to at least get a shower. That is one of the luxuries she missed most. As time passed, the heartache Gloria once felt with the loss of her family had lessened. Yes, she missed them terribly, but her goal now was to survive day-to-day life.
Gloria didn't recognize the man from the shelter as he rounded the corner talking to the homeless in the long line. As he spoke to them he jotted things down on a paper attached to the clipboard he carried. Gloria had visited this shelter previously, but never noticed this particular man before today. "I wonder if he's volunteering because of the holiday?" she thought to herself as he neared.
He approached Belle and Gloria and smiled warmly at them before introducing himself. "Good morning, ladies and Happy Thanksgiving. My name is Jonathan. I am helping out here today. I was asked to get a head count because the shelter only has so many beds. When that count is reached I must unfortunately turn the rest of the people away. But I have good news for the two of you. There are three spots left and if you would be so kind as to inform those who come behind you that we are now down to one cot I would greatly appreciate it so I can get things set up inside."
While they stood in line awaiting entrance to the cold but safe building, a young woman staggered up along with three small children; the youngest child was in her arms and barely a year old if that. Gloria and Belle felt the guilt sink into them. "I don't know about you Belle, but I just can't take a bed knowing there is a small child who might have to sleep on the street tonight because I wouldn't give up my night of comfort and a hot meal," Gloria said as she turned to speak to the woman behind her.
"The gentleman said there were only three spots left when we arrived and…" she paused to look at Belle who gave her that "I guess you are right" look then returned to the woman behind her and continued. "We can't take a bed away from a child so we will give you our spots. If the man comes back tell him we will look elsewhere for shelter tonight."
The woman, taken aback by the kindness of Gloria and Belle was speechless, but the look in her tired eyes said it all. She was eternally grateful as a tear fell down her cheek and she nestled her child closer.
As Gloria and Belle stepped out of line, the man with the clipboard returned. "Happy Thanksgiving, sir," Belle said. "My friend and I were hoping we'd be able to get a shower and a meal, but we couldn't find it in our hearts to take spots that children so desperately needed. We gave ours to that woman there," pointing to the woman with the children huddled close.
"Well, I don't know about the shower," the man started then glanced down at the paper on his clipboard, "But as far as I can tell from my list, if you hurry you should be able to get a meal and a cot for the night at the Lutheran church up the street. Do you mind if I ask your names?"
"My name is Belle Martin," Belle replied. "This is my friend Gloria -- um -- "
"Patterson. Gloria Patterson," Gloria replied. "Nice to meet you."
"I'll call there and tell them how generous you ladies were and ask if they can save two beds for you. When you get there tell them Jonathan sent you."
"Thank you Jonathan," Belle replied and Gloria smiled as they turned and headed up the street toward the church.
As before, Belle and Gloria encountered the same situation, however this time there weren't any children in line. Gloria took a place at the end of the line and Belle walked to the front door. "Excuse me sir, the man at the shelter down the street told us to tell you Jonathan sent us. My friend and I need a warm place to rest, a meal and hopefully a hot shower."
Just as Belle finished speaking the man's cell phone rang, it was Jonathan. After the man ended the call and returned his phone to the holder on his belt he looked up and smiled. "You must be Gl…" he started. Belle interrupted his words, "No, I'm Belle. Gloria is my friend," she said as she waved Gloria to the front of the line.
Gloria couldn't get her mind off Jonathan. He stood only a few inches taller than her; she suspected probably around six foot one. He had collar length jet black hair and dark brown eyes. She found his eyes particularly difficult to look away from, the morning sunlight hit them just right and she could swear she saw flecks of gold glittering against the dark brown of his irises.
"What's wrong with me? A man like that could never possibly be interested in me," Gloria thought to herself, a small smile gracing her dry, chapped lips as she thought of Jonathan.
Even with the large parka he wore, Gloria could tell he was well toned. The coat was unzipped, revealing a thin t-shirt beneath that did nothing to hide the rippling muscles of his broad chest.
She felt the heat of embarrassment rise in her cheeks when she realized how he invaded her mind when Belle's voice brought her back to reality. "I'm sorry, I must have been daydreaming," she said breathless and quiet after her run to the front of the line. "Happy Thanksgiving," she added, saying those words to someone for the first time since her family was taken from her.
"Welcome to Trinity Lutheran Church. My name is Pastor George. I'll be checking you in today." The tall but gruff man directed Gloria and Belle where to put their things to keep them secure during their stay at the church. He then showed them the sleeping area and the showers. The basement of the church housed the basketball court for the school and the homeless residents were allowed to use the showers there. A glimmer of hope returned to Gloria when she saw the large shower area.
After the tour of the basement, Pastor George extended his welcome by offering a hot cup of coffee and an area set up for relaxation and conversation. Couches and chairs lined the perimeter of the area and there was a small colored television set off in one corner. Books and magazines set in the opposite. Gloria and Belle opted for a shower before taking Pastor George up on his offer of relaxing with the other homeless.
Gloria found a private room off the main sleeping area. She asked Pastor George if it was okay to use the room and with permission granted, she quickly retrieved her cart. She closed the door behind her after pulling the cart into the room. It only consisted of a table, chair and sofa, but Gloria was happy to have even just a small bit of privacy.
She reached into her shopping cart and pulled out the duffel bag with the logo of the advertising agency where she formerly worked emblazoned across the side, which she had taken when she left her condo. She pulled at the rusted zipper of the old, worn bag, cursing its stubbornness, then gave one good yank, hearing the teeth of the zipper finally give way allowing her access to its contents.
The items she had originally taken from her condo had been replaced by items that Gloria has acquired during her time on the streets -- a clean pair of jeans, a new, unopened man's pocket t-shirt, shampoo, deodorant and a toothbrush. She pulled out the shampoo and the toothbrush and placed them on the table next to the chair she was standing in front of. She pulled out the jeans and t-shirt then zipped up the bag. She picked up the shampoo and toothbrush after she'd removed her coat and shoes then headed for the women's shower area.
There was a small changing area and Gloria found a spot there and began removing her clothing. She heard Belle's voice behind her as she removed her jeans.
"If we don't hurry, we won't get a good spot in line for dinner, Gloria! Come on!" Belle said as she pulled Gloria to her feet.
"Will you let me finish undressing?" Gloria replied, tripping slightly on her jeans that were half on and half off. "I want to wash my clothes while we shower," she added, gathering up the grungy clothes she'd just removed.
"Hurry up!" Belle shouted over her shoulder as she disappeared around the corner.
As the hot, steamy water cascaded down her tired, aching body, Gloria's thoughts turned to her family. She felt a sob rising in her throat and she struggled to hold it back. Gloria finished her shower and tried to block out all thoughts of that horrible night almost four years ago. She turned off the water and slowly made her way back to the changing area, grabbing a towel off the rack just outside the shower area.