It’s real nice of ya, letting me crash here tonight.” The young woman dropped the stained backpack to the floor, then hesitated and looked around. The room was cluttered, with papers and books scattered across every flat surface and a half-finished crocheted afghan taking up most of the sofa. But despite the surface mess, everything in sight looked clean and new, evidence of a normal life. Her backpack, which held all her worldly belongings, didn’t fit. She hated to put it on the cream-colored wall-to-wall carpet. It was badly stained and smelly from an encounter with a tomcat who thought it should be his. Walking on the carpet in her ratty canvas shoes would be bad enough.
Her hostess didn’t appear to notice the discordant note in the comfortable room. “Not at all, I’m happy to help. I will say you’re a bit of a change from most of the visitors I get. We get so many unfortunates here in the winter, looking for warmth, and I suppose this is better than a sidewalk grate in the snow. Still, freezing’s freezing, whether you’re in Arizona or…Cincinnati, did you say, dear? Well, wherever, it’s much too cold to be sleeping under bridges tonight.”
“That’s for sure.” The younger woman shivered, the bone-deep shudder of someone who has been cold for too many days with inadequate food and clothing.
“We’ll see if we can’t find you something a bit warmer to wear before you leave. There really isn’t much in the way of help for the homeless in these small towns…” The gentle voice went on and on, as the speaker produced another handmade afghan, this one finished, to wrap around her visitor. The woman was old, with fluffy gray hair and a dumpy figure and a sweet smile. Everyone’s idea of the perfect grandmother. But most grannies didn’t make a habit of taking in street people, as the rumors had said this one did. For once, rumor was correct.
The chatter continued as she heated a can of soup, offered with an apology. “I’m sorry, canned is all I have at the moment. Don’t eat so fast, you’ll make yourself sick. How did you wind up on the road by yourself, dear? Mostly I see men alone, or families, I’m sorry to say… what did you say your name was?”
“Alice.” It was the first chance she’d had to say a word in at least five minutes, but she didn’t mind. The cream of tomato soup might have come out of a can, but it was hot and delicious. The old woman had added milk to it, and there was butter, real butter, for the bread. That was the fancy sort Alice had only seen in bakeries, one round lump instead of a regular sliced loaf. It was chewier than any bread Alice had ever eaten, but it was delicious as well. The soup and the blanket were making her feel warm, inside and out, but even more warming was having someone care about her, for the first time in years.