Chapter Thirteen
“Weave in faith and God will find the thread.”

“Knock, knock.”

Aria glanced up from her bed. “Come in,” she answered and watched as her grandmother opened the door, only a crack at first, then fully. Aria knew by looking at Sally what was coming. “It’s church time. Sure you don’t wanna come?”

Aria shook her head. “No.” She was still angry at God, angry at Him for what He’d allowed to happen to her. Angry at him for choosing to ignore pretty much all of her prayers. She couldn’t pretend to be devoted to Him as the people in church did. Hearing about how great He was could easily snap her fragile grip on anger. She’d be better, and her grandparents would be better, if she stayed away from the church. “I’m going to stay here.”

Sally hesitated but, eventually, nodded. “Okay, sweetie. We’ll be back in a few hours, then.” She started to close the bedroom door but, before she did, hesitated. “Aria?”

Aria glanced curiously towards Sally in time to see her grandmother frown, her thin eyebrows creasing together over her wide eyes. “What’s that?”

Aria’s eyes fell to her wrist, around which she wore the red bracelet the homeless man gave her. “There’s a homeless guy that hangs out by the station, where I got hired. He made it and gave it to me for free. He said I just had to make him a promise to help homeless people.”

“Hmm. Joey.”

“You know him?”

Sally smiled, her head lifting. “No. I know of him. I’ve seen him. But he’s never approached me. Smitty told me his name and that he’s trying to help the homeless.”

“He is. Don’t you think that’s odd since HE is homeless?”

“Is he?”

Before Aria could remark on how blatantly obvious Joey’s homelessness was, Sally backed quietly out of the room, closing the door and leaving Aria with the odd feeling that, before she’d even asked about the bracelet, Sally had known what it was and who had given it to her.

Aria frowned and looked down at the red bracelet. It was red yarn, only about an eighth of an inch in thickness, not very big – but it had been twined in a very pretty and delicate way. Aria’s thoughts returned to Joey multiple times that day as she found herself unable to think about much else. Why was a homeless man trying to help the other homeless when he should have been more focused on getting himself a job, and a house? How could he not ask for money? Was it just a clever ploy—a homeless man who approaches people giving them bracelets and asking only for a promise in turn would almost certainly find himself the recipient of more offered donations than if he just asked for the money to begin with. Something from the look in his face, though, made Aria believe it wasn’t a ploy—he was genuinely trying to raise awareness to the plight of the homeless while at the same time ignoring his own plight. Was that sacrifice noble or ridiculous? He was probably the first person Aria ever met who just didn’t seem to care about money. His eyes, which Aria could still vividly recall, shone and his smile, that wonderfully warm and alive smile, had been genuine. He sincerely seemed and acted happy. Was he the bearer of some mental disorder that made him loss touch with reality? Was he homeless by choice? Who would make such a choice?
Aria exhaled and glanced away from her bracelet. She looked around her room to distract herself until her eyes fell on the shadow box she’d brought down from the attic, the one that held the mementos of her father’s childhood. She sat up and reached down to pick up the box. As she stared at the transformers and the G.I. Joes she wondered what it was that her dad had needed. What had he needed in himself, or from Lianna, to transform?
Aria put her hand over the glass and then slowly lowered it back to the floor. She needed to get out of this house, something to take her mind off her father and Joey.

***** ***** *****

Holding her breath, Aria turned her ignition in the car given to her by her grandparents. As promised, their mechanic fixed its mechanical problems but, as also promised, the car was ancient. It was a 1960s Chevrolet with chipped pale blue paint and a passenger’s side door that only opened when it felt like it. Sometimes the car cranked and sometimes it didn’t, which was a major problem the mechanic couldn’t explain without a diagnostics test. Eventually, she’d have to drive to the nearest town and have that done. For now, though, she kind of liked that her car had a personality well-matched to her own. Like the car, sometimes she was compliant and sometimes she wasn’t.

Thankfully today, however, it started and Aria pulled out of the driveway. She didn’t know where she was going or what she wanted to do. All she knew was that she needed to get out of the house and that driving provided her mind with a welcome distraction. Soon she was driving the two lane road towards town, and absently flipped the radio on to the local pop staion. When she did she heard someone whose voice she didn’t recognize singing “Amazing Grace.”

Aria’s entire body stilled. How did that happen? The radio had been turned to a pop station, not a gospel one, and yet, there it was, the song she always loved and sang with her mother, blaring out of the warbly static-filled ancient radio speakers. Aria slowly pulled her hand away from the radio knob and listened to the second verse. Then she swallowed past the lump in her throat and gripped the wheel with both hands. Her mouth opened.

“My chains are –“ but then she cleared her throat, unable to complete the sentence. Her chains were not gone and, besides, she didn’t even want to sing. She had a cough that appeared quite suddenly now, too. Irritated and more deeply troubled than she wanted to admit, she reached out and turned the radio. She didn’t want to listen to music right now, anyway.
The silence, though, only amplified the sound of her racing heart. Her insides felt quivery, as though she were on the ocean, on the verge of getting seasick. She was vaguely uncomfortable, but she didn’t want to know why. She could feel the thud-thud-thud of her heart, too, as she heard the sound of the other cars whizzing past her. It amazed her at what speeds the locals traveled this two lane road with its unimaginably horrific sharp turns. She blinked, reminding herself that not paying attention to the road was as dangerous as traveling it at crazy high speeds. She gripped the wheel with both hands and focused on the road stretched out ahead of her. She could feel the wheel’s warm vibration beneath her hands. Suddenly, the car began to make her feel claustrophobic: she needed fresh air. Swallowing the anxious lump in her throat, she quickly turned the ancient handle and rolled the window down. The wind slapped her in the face but instantly made her feel better. The roar of the wind and the road seemed to calm her nerves and she took a long, deep breath, grateful for the crisp, fresh air.

She drove a few more minutes when a she saw an old woman, sitting on the side of the road. Aria’s jade green eyes slid towards her without turning her head. The old lady was humped over, her arms clutching an old bag. Her mud-brown hair stringy, and in bad need of a brush. She wore a gray, old and torn baggy shirt and a pair of equally dirty and faded pair of jeans. She was homeless. Aria groaned and frowned but kept driving. As she passed the old woman, she eased her hand up higher on the steering wheel, gripping it, and as she did, she caught sight of her bracelet. She’d made a promise.

How was she supposed to help someone who didn’t appear to even really want help? Besides that, how big was this town, anyway? How had the only two homeless people in the vicinity find their way into her world? In a town just barely big enough for a Wal-Mart, why were there any homeless people at all? Suddenly, Aria turned onto a small, narrow side road. She did not know where he was going but that was okay. She just wanted to go somewhere quiet, somewhere she’d never been.

She wished she wouldn’t keep picturing Joey’s face. It bothered her that Joey was happy. It bothered her that he smiled at all. Maybe being homeless wasn’t as bad as she’d always assumed it was. She scratched that idea, though, the moment her stomach muscles tightened and growled with hunger. Being hungry and unable to buy a meal would be terrible any way it was looked at.

The road was narrow now, blanketed by thick trees on either side. It was gravel, too, and seemed to be especially windy, like the other road. On up ahead was a guardrail on one side and a tall mountain of rock on the other. When she glanced to her right, she saw light clouds over a sun that was slowly sinking below the horizon. In her mind’s eye, she saw her father’s old toys.

Transformers.

Making something into something else. She thought of Joey, the homeless bracelet-maker but before she could dwell on him, she noticed an entry to a park. Without thinking twice, she turned the car into the entrance. Dense trees greeted her on both sides of the one lane narrow drive. She passed a pasture and finally saw the sign that read “Picnic Area” along with an arrow pointing to the left. Aria followed the sign, and soon came upon a small playground and about a dozen picnic tables. She also saw a trailhead. She parked and, as she got out, her eyes scanned her new surroundings. It looked deserted – she didn’t see another car and couldn’t see or hear any sign of life around her. She supposed most everyone in the town was at church. She headed for the trail – a day alone in the sanctuary of a quiet park sounded like just what she needed.

***** ***** *****

Slowly, Aria opened her eyes and stared upward. She’d been in this same spot all day. The sky now looked gray and a few stars had popped out of hiding. She guessed it was about dinner time now. She must have fallen asleep, she realized, as she slowly sat up from the ground. Along the trail she’d hiked up, she’d found a patch of land perfectly manicured, with nothing but a picnic table in its midst. She’d sat on the ground for a rest but the shade of the tree above her and the sweet song of the birds lulled her into lying down on the soft grass. The next thing she knew, her eyes drifted shut.

Now it was dinnertime. She needed to get back. Sally and Frank would be worried and would never even think to look in these woods for her. Still, she knew she’d found what was to become her secret place, for the secluded park gave her solace and peace. Minutes later, she slid back into the car and was wondering if she’d find her way out when she turned the key. The car choked, spurted and died.

“Oh man, come on,” Aria coaxed and tried again, this time pumping the gas a little. It choked again, and died. Aria exhaled and sat still, staring at the wheel. Then she leaned forward and turned the key again. It spurted but started this time. Relaxing, Aria reached out and turned the air down and her lights on. What a peaceful and relaxing day she’d had. She couldn’t help but wish she could just stay there in the hideaway park. Back at Allen and Audry’s, she probably would have, all night, and let them worry. But she still didn’t want to unduly upset Sally and Frank, who were being so kind to her and were making every effort to make her comfortable.

Suddenly, the car spurted again. Aria gripped the wheel with both hands and frowned. “Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it,” she muttered. When she leaned forward to peer outside the windshield, she could see a small line of smoke coming from under the hood. “Uh-oh.”

She was back on the main road. Unfortunately, the “main” road was the two lane gravel road townsfolk probably had long ago forgot existed. Aria slowed but kept the car going. Suddenly, it jerked forward and came to a screeching halt. Aria leaned back against the car, biting her lip and frowning. Now what? She knew she was too far from the house to walk. But ahead, about two blocks, was a gas station. She remembered passing it on the way up the steep road. She could walk there and call Sally and Frank to come get her.

She was glad the weather was pleasant: warm but not hot. The street was dark but not completely black, thanks to the stars that now covered the entire sky. In the city, or the suburb, there were not stars like there were here. Here, it looked like every inch of the dark night sky was covered with a bright white star, always blinking at her. Back at Audry’s, it seemed like the stars only sparsely decorated the night sky. The astronomy class she’d taken told her that was because of the pollution and business and street lights of the cities as opposed to small towns and countrysides. Whatever the cause, Aria was thankful that out here the stars shone brightly.
She dug her hands into her pockets and lowered her head. The only noise she could hear were the sounds of her feet crunching the gravel road and locusts in the trees. Crickets too sang. Every so often, she could hear movement in the trees as a deer or some other type of animal darted across the fallen leaves and branches deeper into the woods. Relief flowed freely through her when she finally reached the top of the hill and could see the gas station. She knew it was closed but there might be a payphone on the other side from which she could call home.

She didn’t, at first, notice the figure sitting on the porch steps of the gas station. Her feet picked up speed as she walked towards the pay phone she’d finally spotted. The figure on the steps grew more pronounced and some part of her mid registered that it was Joey but still, she ran ahead. All the way back on the other side of the store she’d spotted the phone and her only concern was getting to it. She didn’t know this town yet and being alone in the dark certainly wasn’t her idea of fun. She reached the payphone and picked it up. That’s when it hit her: she did not have any money with her. She’d left the house this morning with non – the way she saved money was by controlling the amount she was able to spend. If she didn’t have any on her, then she couldn’t spend it. Usually, that worked in her favor because it meant that when she needed money, she had it.

Not now.

Now, she didn’t have the .35 cents it cost to make the call to Sally and Frank. She was really stranded now. Her only hope, and it was a slim one, was to return to the car and hope it cranked, after having over an hour to cool off. Suddenly overwhelmed with despair and fear, Aria sat down on the concrete, in front of the phone. Why couldn’t she have a good day, from start to finish? Just one? Why didn’t something always have to go wrong? She covered her face with her hands and leaned forward. She just wanted to cry. After having such a peaceful time in the park why did the night still bring its customary heaviness and sense of hopelessness?

“Miss?”

Aria’s head jerked up. Joey stood several feet away from her, his head tipped down. He wore the same gray and filthy clothes as before, his hands were deeply darkened by the sun. He looked old tonight and weary – except for his eyes, which still shone brightly.

“Look, I don’t have anything to give you.” Aria said pointedly, irritated that he’d ask her for money now, when she didn’t even have the thirty-five cents it took to make a telephone call. “Nothin’.” She repeated and buried her hands in her face, hoping he’d go away.

“I — I don’t want anything,” Joey said haltingly, his voice sandpaper rough, his tone remarkably gentle, his eyes genuine and soft.

Aria lifted her head again and scowled. “How can you say that? You don’t even have a house. Or a bed.”

He smiled brightly, the effect awesome in the way it totally transformed his sun-damaged, aged and filthy face into something beautiful. “Nope, I don’t. You’re right. That I don’t. But,” he shrugged. “Then again, Jesus didn’t have a house either. That’s why He went to the mountains, you know.”

“Oh, now I get it. You’re just crazy.”

Joey laughed and sat down beside her, exhaling harshly. Still, his smile remained. Aria looked down and then closed her eyes. “I just want to go home,” she said softly.

“And why can’t you get there?”

“Because my car broke down and I can’t call my grandparents. I left my money at home. So stupid,” she muttered, shaking her head.

A long moment of silence.

“You have feet, don’t you?” Joey asked and Aria slanted him a glacial stare. “Yes, I have feet. But it is a very long way back to my house. I cannot walk there. It’d take me all night, at least. I know I can’t do it because when I ran away I wasn’t able to walk as far as I’d intended before I had to call a cab.”

“Huh,” Joey grunted.

Joey looked down at his hand and used one fingernail to clean a smudge of dirt out from under a fingernail on the opposite hand. Idly, Aria wondered why he bothered. “I’m Joey.”

“I know. My grandma told me your name.”

“And who might she be?”

“Sally.”

He frowned and shook his head.

“She doesn’t really know you. She’d just heard of you. The bracelets and all.”

“Right.”

“My name’s Aria.”

He smiled again and nodded.

A long moment of silence passed before Aria sighed heavily and stood. “No sense sitting here. I guess I better walk back to the car anyway.” She held up a hand. “See ya.”

She’d taken four steps when she heard him shuffle his feet into a standing position. “Aria?” his sandpaper rough voice asked and she turned halfway around to see him reaching into the pockets of his gray pants. She frowned and turned completely around to face him, taking two steps towards him.
“What are you—“

“Let’s just see what I’ve got here,” and he pulled out his hand, with several coins in it. Picking one up with a grubby finger, he began to count. “Let’s see now, this here’s a quarter. That’s twenty-five and I’ve got one, two nickels. Hey,” he added brightly, looking up with a brilliant smile. Aria dryly noted he actually looked proud. “That’s about just enough for the phone, ain’t it?”

Silence.

Aria looked to the side and then back at Joey.

“I—“

“Here ya go,” he added, his tone happy and sincere, without any trace of resentment or reluctance. Indeed, the pride he felt for having the amount of change she needed now resonated in his voice. He seemed so genuinely happy, even though that thirty five cents would have got him a can Coke to drink the next day.

“But….but….” Aria took a step closer to him and looked at his outstretched hand. In it, the three coins glittered as the man’s hand slightly shook. Suddenly the realization hit Aria hard. She did not want to take Joey’s money. She knew he needed it far worse than she did.

“Go on, now, your grandma’s probably worried.”

“But how will you—“

“Oh, I’ll be alright. It’s thirty five cents. I reckon I’ve been without thirty five cents before and I’ve been okay.”

Silence.

“I don’t want…I mean….”

“Come on, Aria, take the change and make the call. Really.”

Before she could convince herself not to do it, Aria took the selfish route and reached out, taking the coins. Joey grinned brightly at her, his dazzling smile stretching from one of his ears to the other. Bending her head, she hurried to the phone and dialed home, trying to stomp out the guilty that was quickly devouring her insides. When she got off the phone with her worried grandmother, Aria turned to find Joey. He’d walked away and was sitting again on the store’s porch step.

Aria headed that way. “She’s coming.” She announced and Joey’s head lifted. “Good.”

“Thank you for the change. If you’re gonna be here tomorrow, I’ll—“

But he shook his head and smiled again.

“I guess – I’m supposed to meet her at the car.”

Joey nodded and looked down at his hands again.

“So then….you’ll be okay?” she asked, uncomfortably.

“I’ll be fine, miss.”

Aria nodded. Her heart heavy and confused, she turned to walk away. She’d taken several steps before she turned back to look at Joey again. “Joey?”

He lifted his head.

“Why’d you give me that change?”

He smiled, more gently this time. “Go home and read Matthew, Chapter twelve.”

***** ***** *****

Aria put the Bible down and then frowned and picked it up again. This would make the third time she’d read the passage.

“Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.
Calling his disciples to Him, Jesus said, ‘I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all of the others. They all gave of their wealth but she, out of her poverty, put in everything.’”

The first time she’d read it, Aria immediately thought it was Joey’s way of telling her that he just wanted to be like Jesus. That, even though he didn’t have much, it was still all he had and was, therefore, worthy. The second time she read it, she wondered briefly about what the disciples would have thought. After all, the more money a church had, the more good it could do for the people. Half a penny wouldn’t accomplish anything. The third time she read the passage, Aria thought of the widow. How terribly frightening it would have been to put in her last coin. Yet, she did it out of love for God, and out of faithfulness and hope. Jesus must have cared more about one person than He did about the church as a business. To give all one had showed a great deal of sacrifice. And love.

Love?

Joey didn’t even know her. He gave her his last coins because he wanted to help, because thirty-five cents wouldn’t have been able to get him anything significant anyway, because she was young and he felt sorry for her. But not because he loved her. He didn’t know her. Still, suddenly, Aria felt even more guilty and worried about accepting the thirty-five cents than she’d been in the first place. She didn’t want anyone, let alone a homeless stranger, giving her all he had.

Go find him. The directive came from somewhere deep within her heart, almost as though someone had whispered it to her. Inhaling deeply, she nodded.

***** ***** *****

He wasn’t hard to find. He’d returned to his old haunt, the gas station she worked at. He sat there, on the porch step is his only pair of clothes, with a look of contentment on his face. With one finger, he scraped under the nail of a finger on the opposite hand, just as he had the night before. It must be habit, Aria decided. He glanced up when he heard her footsteps.

“Howdy,” one of the checker players greeted and she smiled at him briefly.

“Hi,” she returned but her eyes were trained on Joey.

“Umm, Joey?” she asked and his brilliant blue eyes lifted to search hers.
“Can I….” she trailed but he seemed to understand, as he lifted himself off the porch and sauntered towards her. She held out a dollar bill. “Here’s the change you lent me back….with interest,” she added with a smile. He shrugged both shoulders and shook his head. “That’s alright, you don’t have to do that.”

Aria hesitated. “No, but I want to. It was your last bit of change and…I…” she shrugged and outstretched the dollar bill. “I just mean…really, it’s okay…just take it.”

Joey smiled at her but shook his head. “How about we make a deal: if I need something to eat real bad or something else sometime, you help me out. If not, we just call it even.”

Slowly, Aria put the dollar bill away, in her pocket, shaken. Never had she ever been able to imagine a homeless person refusing money. She looked down at her shoe; she shuffled her foot and gave a slight inclination of her head.

Joey turned to walk away but had only taken two steps when he heard her voice. “Why’d you do it? You trying to be Jesus or something?”

Joey chuckle, the sound rough. “It was only thirty-five cents. I ain’t Jesus.”

“But you had me read the Bible, where the widow gives all her money away.”

“That’s right.”

Aria frowned and shook her head. “I don’t get it.”

Joey took a deep breath and started walking. Aria reluctantly followed him. When you give all you got, you’re showing trust and love and sacrifice. That’s the shortest and easiest interpretation of the widow’s mite.”

Aria nodded. “Yeah, okay.”

“Well, I try to live like that. Jesus’ teaching are some of the most peaceful and loving ever recorded.” Joey lifted a shoulder and walked across the road. Before she realized their destination, they were at the white church. Joey sat down on the church steps and put his elbow on his knee. Aria stood, arms crossed over her chest, guarded. Curiosity, though, kept her listening and interested. “I don’t need much to be happy. So long as I’m alive, I should be happy about it.” Joey shrugged. “People worship money. I don’t.”

Aria shifted her weight from one foot to the other and tipped her head to the side. “But you gotta eat. It’s not normal for you to give up the money you got. You need it more than me.”

“Lots of stuff ain’t normal.”

Aria couldn’t say anything about that. He was right. She finally took deep breath and looked down at her crossed arms. “So what do you think Jesus meant by the telling the widow’s mite?”

“He was telling us to happily sacrifice all we’ve got for somebody else because when you do that,” he shrugged, and started cleaning under a fingernail again. “Well, when you do that, it can change things for somebody. Make ‘em believe. Make ‘em hope. Cause the only thing anybody really wants is to believe that somebody cares. He was also telling us that it’s one of the greatest ways we can follow Him. If you put all you got into something then you usually pay attention to it. You usually end up loving it a little – or a lot. Bible says you can’t have two gods – you can either worship and live by money or you can live for Him and trust that He’ll take care of you.”

“And what if you do that and He don’t? You don’t have a house. You don’t have food. It doesn’t look like God’s taking too good of care of you.”

Joey smiled and tipped his head back, squinting into the sun. “Well, I reckon that sometimes my idea of what it means to be taken care of and His idea ain’t the same thing but I trust that He knows what He’s doin’. Even when I don’t. Isn’t that what faith is, anyhow?”

Chapter Fourteen
“The best view of a puzzle is from above. Let God put you together.”
Amethyst Snow-Rivers

Aria lay in bed, watching the shadows from the moon outside dance across her ceiling. She didn’t know what time it was, but she knew that she’d been awake since she’d laid down. Alls he seemed to think about was Joey.
Assuming there was a God, what did He think of her, in regards to what she gave to other people? Did she give at all? She tried to think of a time when she’d given something of value to someone else. She couldn’t think of a single thing. All she ever thought about, it seemed, was what had not been given to her. Along the way, she’d created more problems for the adults in her life than she had joy and she certainly hadn’t been friendly towards the other kids at school: she’d physically attacked the vast majority at one point or another. They hadn’t been nice to her, either, but, then again, the Bible didn’t put exceptions on the kind of people she was supposed to be nice too. She thought there was even a place in the Bible that said she was supposed to “turn the other cheek” towards those that wronged her. Ruefully, she laughed shortly to herself as she stared at the ceiling and thought of that.

The widow gave all her money to the church, even though she couldn’t guarantee it would be put to good use. She’d given them the coin out of hope and faith, she’d put it in the church treasury, but in her heart she was giving it to God out of trust, hope and love. She’d done it, too, knowing that it would mean she’d be penniless, with no way to purchase food or anything else she’d undoubtedly need. The only way someone would love someone or something enough to give up their last penny was if that person believed that they would, in turn, be taken care of. But the poor rarely became rich—or even financially stable. How could they, then, praise God for taking care of their needs?

Aria used the thumb of one hand to gently run over the wrist of her other hand. Her fingers skimmed the scars there and, for the first time, she felt…confused…over her cuts. She’d made them because she’d been hurt. She’d had good reason to be hurt. Yet…she’d always had a roof over her head, and food given to her. There had always been someone who took the time to care, even if she wasn’t able to recognize it at the time. Mrs. Dukakis from the school had cared – now Aria could see that. Audry had cared. Evelyn probably had, too: she’d just been overwhelmed by Aria’s needs. Her grandmother loved her, Aria knew, even if she couldn’t care for her. Now she was here, at her grandparents, and they made no attempt to hide their love for her: it had been abundantly clear since she’d called them, asking for help though she barely knew them. Suddenly, she felt as though she actually had quite a bit to be thankful for. Allen had done what he’d done, but hadn’t she allowed it? Even if not, even if she held no accountability on that point, did it give her the right to be selfish with her affections for others who were good to her?

Something felt off about the cuts, something didn’t feel quite right. Usually, whenever she felt the scars, a part of her wanted to find a razor to inflict more cuts upon her skin. Now she just felt….confused.

***** ***** *****

“How do you like the job?” Sally asked the next morning as she and Aria worked in the garden. Aria leaned down to pull a weed and shrugged. “It’s okay. We never get busy.”

Sally chuckled. “No, I don’t suppose you would.”

“It’s easy.”

“That’s good,” Sally used the hoe to dig up another weed on her side of the garden and then paused to look up at Aria again. “Have you ever worked a garden before?”

Aria smiled and, arching her brows, shook her head. “Is it that obvious?”

Sally chuckled, shaking her head. “No, no, just curious. I didn’t know if your grandma had a garden.”

“No.”

The sun was hot already, though it was still fairly early in the day. Aria could feel it beating down on the back of her neck and she wondered if the straw hat Sally wore really made that much difference. Sally didn’t look hot – at least, nowhere near as hot as Aria felt. Still, there was something satisfying about seeing the first stems break through the ground and knowing that that would be an edible pumpkin in a few months. There was something satisfying about yanking up stubborn weeds: it reminded her of pulling up the bad stuff in life so that the good stuff could grow. She’d yanked up her own roots by running away and, out here on Sally and Frank’s farm, she knew it had been a good decision.

“Did my dad like working on the garden?”

Sally smiled briefly and arched her brows. “When he was real little, he did. But then, he sort of grew out of it. At first, it was just like playing in the dirt – typical boy paradise – but later, when he realized it was actually hard work that involved commitment, what with the pulling up weeds and watering and all, well,” she shrugged and stood, pulling off a glove and using the back of her hand to wipe her forehead. “He decided there was other stuff he liked better.”

“Did he get into much trouble?”

“Not when he was young.”

“But he did as he got older?”

“Hmm, most boys get into trouble now and again, especially after they age a bit. Your dad was no exception.” A slight pause and then Sally bent back down to the weeds. “He was a good kid. He might have forgotten some of the things a farm teaches kids but….I don’t think anybody blamed him for wanting more. It is a simple life here.”

Aria was quiet for a long time, focusing on her work with the weeds and then, using the hoe to make a new row for new seeds. “It sounds like he changed a lot from when he was a really young boy to when he was a kid.” Aria said it carefully while, from the corner of her eye, watching her grandmother’s face for signs of something she couldn’t identify. Sally’s shoulders stiffened and she pursed her lips. After a long moment’s pause, she reached over for a hand shovel and arched her brows. Without looking at Aria, she said quietly, “People change.”

Aria opened her mouth to reply but, before she could, Sally smiled tightly.

“Well, I think we’ve done all we can do here for today.”

Aria frowned and watched Sally walk away from the garden, calling that she was going to fix herself a snack and Aria should, too. Instead, Aria pulled up several more weeds, thinking about the little Sally had said, before the heat finally propelled her up onto her own feet and towards the house. As she walked, she wondered if there could be a chance that she didn’t really want to know whatever secrets her grandparents might be hiding from her about her dad. Maybe they were right and it was better left unsaid. Then, she pictured her mother. She remembered singing with her. She remembered going to church with her. She remembered helping her clean the house. But when she tried to picture her father, the only thing she could remember was the night he’d shot her mother and then himself. Somehow, she remembered feeling love from him, but she didn’t have any concrete memory by which to know him and, as she walked, she still firmly believed she needed to know him.

***** ***** *****

Aria put her hands in her pockets and walked along the sidewalk. Across the street was the gas store she worked at, the old Kmart was in front of her. The white church wasn’t far behind her. The stars were out already and the shops vacant. Smitty would be closing the gas station in a few minutes and the checker players would go home. The town looked deserted in the evenings, like a ghost town. No lights, except for the stars, no people, no noise except for Ace who slept on the porch of the gas station and occasionally would trod along the town’s sidewalks, scavenging for bits of food or a rabbit to chase. It still awed Aria to think that a town, even a small one, could actually just stop. In the city, that didn’t happen. Most stores might close but even Kmart stayed open til at least nine or ten and the gas stations were mostly twenty-four hour in the city. Here, people would come out and sit in a chair on their porch for hours, without actually accomplishing anything. That still would drive Aria crazy within the first hour but she was slowly beginning to appreciate feeling as though she had plenty of time. She particularly enjoyed her evening walks. Sally and Frank didn’t understand why she didn’t take her walks closer to the house, where there weren’t any paved roads but Aria enjoyed looking at the empty stores and thinking about how, just an hour or two earlier, they’d been alive with noises and people. Even on the slowest day, someone, if only the employees of the other stores, milled about in the shops. She often found herself wondering who those people were and why they were here, in this one traffic light town where everyone knew everyone and where the most exciting thing the reporters had to talk about was when Ace chased a cat up a tree.

Aria tipped her head back to rest on her neck and studied the stars. She had never been able to find the constellations but she enjoyed trying. She also enjoyed the slight breeze that slapped her gently across the cheek and the feel of isolation. One moment, she wanted companionship and longed for someone to laugh with and talk to while the very next minute, she just wanted to be left alone. Odd how that happened.

Aria lifted her head and when she opened her eyes, she saw a homeless man shuffling his way down the street, coming towards her, his head bent, his clothes identical to Joey’s and the homeless woman she’d seen near the park. A picture of Joey came to mind, immediately followed again by the question of exactly how many homeless people did this small town have; how did the homeless manage to find their way here, to the one town without a homeless shelter. They must wonder in from the town twenty miles away but why would they want to stay here when they were likely to find more help in a place with more people?

The man had a coat on that was torn and dirty and, like Joey, several of his toes were covered by an ace bandage. In his hand, he carried a small cardboard sign. Aria’s eyes focused on that sign as she drew closer to the man. Even though he undoubtedly heard her approach, he did not lift his head or eyes towards her. The simple act filled Aria with tenderness. How hopeless he must feel, if he didn’t even have the heart anymore to try. Still, she said nothing, only kept her eyes trained on his cardboard sign as her feet walked, one in front of the other, along the road. The sign was upside down and sideways but Aria finally got close enough to read the words “homeless veteran.” The strings on her heart pulled, but still, she said nothing, swallowing past a lump in her throat. Then, from no where, as she kept walking the opposite way past the homeless man, she saw an image of Joey in her head. Joey had given her thirty five cents when he had not had thirty six. “I promise.” She’d made a direct promise to help these people.

However she could, whenever she could.

She sighed and turned around.

“Hey. Hey, wait,” she said and walked the few steps back to catch up with the homeless man. He stopped and turned his head to her but still he kept his eyes trained on the ground. Aria lifted a shoulder. “You a veteran?” she asked casually and the man lifted his eyes for the briefest moment, barely inclining it. “Yes.”

“Which war?”

“’Nam.”

Aria swallowed. Even teenagers knew how awful that war had been. She suddenly looked down and started fumbling in her pocket, finally pulling out her wallet. She withdrew a twenty dollar bill, frowning. She didn’t really want to give him twenty dollars – but the only other thing she had was a one dollar bill and some change. That didn’t seem like enough to have bothered him for.

She hesitated long enough that she pictured Joey as he’d handed her the thirty five cents. He’d been delighted, genuinely happy, to give her his last dime. Then she remembered how Jesus’ said that someone who gave their all gave more than someone who chose not to. The Bible, Joey reminded her, said she couldn’t have more than one god. It was either love or money.

Before she could think more, she held out the twenty dollar bill. When he stared at it without moving, sympathy crept into Aria’s heart. She’d felt the same way about taking Joey’s change as this homeless person felt about taking a twenty dollar bill from a teenager. Quickly, she reached into the wallet and pulled out the other dollar. Then she waited for him to take all twenty one dollars.

Still, he hesitated.

“Go on,” Aria said, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “That should give you a full day of food or….or something.”

Finally, the man reached out and took the money. His voice was gruff and hard as he replied quietly, “thank you.”

Aria smiled briefly and then waved. “You’re welcome. Good night.” And then she walked away. But as she did, she remembered the hopeful shimmer in the man’s eye as he reached out to accept the money with a hand that shook. Aria smiled. For the first time in a long time, she was proud of herself.

***** ***** *****

“The thing is, I was glad to give him the twenty one dollars,” Aria admitted later to Joey as she watched him take a bite out of the Double Pounder she’d bought him for lunch. “I just wanted him to see that he shouldn’t, you know, give up.”

Joey nodded. After a moment he lifted a shoulder. “Most people feel sorry for the homeless but when they look at their hard-earned money all they can think about is everything they’ve got to do with it. Bills, you know, makes them nervous about giving money to someone they hadn’t budgeted giving money too.”

Aria thought about that and then nodded seriously. “It’s really hard because they don’t know the person and can’t guarantee what the person will do with the money that could have done something important, like pay a bill.”

“Uh huh.”

Aria frowned and looked down at her hamburger. When she looked up, she squinted one eye. “But that’s kind of a selfish mentality…if you want to know where your money was used. You should just be worried about giving the person help. When I gave him my money, I was rewarded when I saw his eyes as he took the money. It was like he couldn’t believe I was doing it.”

“Hmm.”

“Maybe that’s what the widow’s mite means too. Maybe it was easier for her to give her all because she wasn’t thinking about food or bills or anything else that she could have used that penny for. She was just thinking about how much she wanted God to see that she loved Him.”
Joey smiled. “Now you’re thinking.”

“I wonder –“ but the rest of Aria’s words faded as her eyes lifted to scan the small diner they were in. When her focus didn’t shift, Joey turned his head to follow her gaze. When he saw that a young man, a few years older than Aria, with blonde hair and a cowboy hat, was the reason for her distraction, he rolled his eyes and redirected his own attention back to his burger.

Aria sat mesmerized by the tall, handsome cowboy who stood alone a few tables away from she and Joey.

“Oh for the love of heaven, just go say hello.” Joey demanded but Aria vehemently shook her head. “No. I couldn’t. I – I mean, he is—“ she shrugged, her eyes never leaving the guy’s face. “He’s okay and all but I’m sure he’s got, you know, a girlfriend.”

“How can you know that? Besides, if he’s just ‘okay’ what’s the harm in making a new friend?”

Silence.

“Did you know I once heard somebody say that we put a block in front of dreams when we let fear grow bigger than faith. You can have faith in a lot more than church.”

Aria scowled and dragged her gaze back to Joey. “What?”

Joey grunted, saying nothing. Aria’s gaze involuntarily slid back to the most beautiful thing this side of heaven. His blonde hair and lean cheekbones, his dark skin, the way he wore his cowboy hat. Aria would have continued staring at him except, out of the blue, he turned his head in her direction. Her eyes dropped to the table, a blush rose to her own cheeks and she pretended to study the fingernails on her right hand.
Joey scoffed and leaned back. “Okay, okay that’s about all I can handle. I am out of here. We’ll have to finish our conversation on the Bible some other time.”

“Uh huh,” but Aria couldn’t hear him because, from the corner of her eye, she could see Brad Pitt walking towards her. Butterflies flying in her stomach, she tried to breathe in deeply only to find that the oxygen level in the diner suddenly seemed to have been cut in half.

“Hello,” he said, his voice tinged with amusement. Obviously, she thought dryly, he was used to gawking girls. Tentatively, she lifted her head. “Hi.”
“My friends and I saw you before we came in, outside. It looked like you were having a pretty good conversation over here.”

Aria’s flush deepened. Before she could think of a reply, he added, “But I couldn’t help but wonder who you are. I mean, round these parts, I know bout everybody.”

Aria nodded, lifting her brows. “That wouldn’t be hard, though, would it? I mean, there’s, what—twenty residents, total?”

Brad Pitt look-alike smiled slowly and Aria’s heart skipped a beat as the oxygen supply in the diner decreased even more and the lack of air made her face flood with heat. He really was a masterpiece.

“Do you have a name?” he asked in a deep drawl.

Aria knew he’d asked her something but she couldn’t process what it was until she distantly heard Joey’s rough chuckle. Name! He’d asked her name, she frantically remembered, followed by panic: what was her name?
“Aria!” Then she smiled brightly. “My name’s Aria.”

“I’m Rhett, Aria.”

Aria nodded, saying nothing because she didn’t know what to say. Finally, Aria averted her gaze until he spoke again. “Maybe one day soon I can give you a tour of this town. Have you been downtown yet?”

Numbly, Aria shook her head, then blurted, “Rhett? As in Butler? You know, Scarlet and Rhett?”

He just grinned but Joey made a choked chuckle of surprise. His laughing eyes said he was thoroughly enjoying this. Mortified, Aria squeezed her eyes. “Uh, right. A tour. Anytime. I work at Smitty’s.”

He nodded. “I’ll come by.”

“You do that.”

Without another word, he turned and walked back to his group of friends. Aria watched him leave and then, slowly, shifted her focus back to Joey. The diner seemed to have regained more of its original oxygen supply and the heat slowly receded from her face as air finally filled her deprived lungs. “Whew,” she said, exhaling a nice, deep breath. Then, smiling like a kid, she added, “Gone with the Wind is one of the greatest love stories ever written.”

“Uh huh.”

“His name’s Rhett. Did you hear that?”

Joey laughed shortly, arched his brows and stood. “See you later, Scarlet.”

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