The girls was cold and alone and miserable. It had been eight months, almost to the day since she had left home. She had been with Billy as the two of them had headed for New York. He was gonna make it as a dancer, but they had only made it as far as Chicago. Her cousin had loved Chicago, but she was yet to be impressed. She had gotten a job as a waitress and he had taken up panhandling, but they couldn't seem to build up any extra cash, no matter how she tried. She had kept in touch with some friends back home, that's how she had found out her mother was sick. She had wanted to go back, Billy said no. She had insisted and he gave in. The next morning, he was gone, along with all their extra cash and most of their stuff. He had even cut the lease on the room for some extra cash, of course she didn't know about that until the pot bellied manager had come up to throw her out of the place. So here she was, nineteen, homeless, friendless, penniless and half the country away from her family. She sat huddled in the bus shelter as the late December wind whipped around her. She didn't think she could possibly feel worse.
She looked out at the street she was on, looking for something, anything to take her mind away from the fact that she was both hungry and cold. Most of the businesses around here were dark, but there was a bar nearby doing a good trade. She noticed a neon light shaped like a star in the window of the place. 'Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight' ran through her head. It surprised her at how easily something from so long ago in her life still stood out so vividly; wishing on a star, how long had it been since she had done that, or even just sat back and looked at the stars. She couldn't imagine that it had been any time recently. Well she had said the rhyme, now it was time for the wish. She closed her eyes and made her wish, but when she opened them, nothing had changed, and the bit of magic in her mind was gone. Her new, cynical, side reasserted itself and told her that it was doubtful the stars or wishes could do anything about the situation she was in.
Gary Hobson was aggravated. Here he was during McGinty's Christmas party trying to stop a hit and run that wasn't occurring. The paper had said the intersection of Dearborn and Maple, which was where he was. It said 11:30 PM, which was now, but there was nothing going on. Gary figured it would be tough to try and find a more deserted bit of Chicago. So far as he could tell it was just him, someone in the bus shelter (and she didn't look too lively), and a bit of light coming from a bar down the street. He shook his head in frustration and started to leave, but something about the lady in the shelter caught his eye; she was shaking. But not from the cold, this was a different kind of shaking, this was the kind he associated with crying or some deep emotional trauma. He sighed, as long as he was there, he might as well see if he could help. He walked right up to her, in her state she didn't even hear him coming. "Do you need a hand" he asked softly.
Her head shot up at his words, and she looked lost, as though she wasn't sure where she was, then anger, fear and hopelessness, all flickered across her features, coming and going as they warred with each other. "Go away" she finally managed "I'm fine".
"Sure" Gary replied "but you do realize that the busses stopped running at ten don't you, and it's supposed to be down near zero tonight. If you don't get out of this, you could die."
"Not buying the concerned act" she snarled, dipping her hand into her coat like she was going form a weapon. She looked at him, trying to seem threatening, but all she saw in his eyes were sorrow and compassion.
"Well, your choice, but I'm going to a Christmas party, you're free to come along if you want, if nothing else it'll get you out of the cold for a while."
"And what's this favor gonna cost me" she fired back "a little sack time, maybe a blow job, something like that stud?"
Gary recoiled a bit, but the look of sorrow never left his face "nothing like that, you can show up and leave, no strings; if you don't want to come then I guess that's your business, but I think you should."
"Why do you think that?"
"Because I don't believe you'd be better off dead" he said simply.
Her breath caught in her throat for a second, he really seemed to care, but then her spine stiffened, Billy had seemed to care as well, and look at how that had turned out. "Tell you what, you go there and I'll follow, how about that?"
Gary shrugged "like I said, that's your business, just yell if you need a hand or anything." With that he stood and turned and headed off down Dearborn.
She watched his back for a second, did she dare follow, and did she dare not to? Coming to a decision, she stood and started off after the man. "I never got your name" she said to the guys back.
Without breaking stride or turning he answered "my name is Gary, Gary Hobson."
"I just wanted to say thanks Gary Gary Hobson; especially if this pans out."
"You're welcome, by the way, who's thanking me" floated back from the man in front of her.
"Cheryl Thompson" the girl replied.
"Nice to meet you Cheryl, I hope things get better for you" Gary said.
Cheryl just grunted noncommittally, she sometimes wondered if things ever got better, or if she had screwed up so much that she didn't deserve for them to get better.
After what seemed to be hours, but was actually less than ten minutes, she saw Gary turn and open the door to a bar; he paused and met her eyes then went in. She hesitated, could it be a trap for her, maybe it was. But she asked herself if it was a likely option, and she had to answer that Gary had given her no signals that he was anything other than a nice guy. Caution warring with curiosity and the possibility of warmth and food, she finally stepped forward, opened the door and stepped through.
The first thing she noticed was the wood, it was everywhere; enveloping her in its natural brown warmth. This was immediately followed by the sound, which broke over her head like a tsunami, immersing her totally in its timbre and resonance. She stood still for a moment, stunned by the differences between outside and inside. Finally she felt as comfortable as she could and headed deeper into the bar. She felt strange, and not just because she was a stranger here, it was because she sensed something, something confusing her, something she couldn't place. She looked at the people around her, smiling and laughing and she couldn't quite place what it was that she was sensing. A handsome man turned to her and asked if she wanted something to drink, she had declined, but he didn't seem upset. He just smiled and told her to enjoy the party. It was then that she realized what was going on. It was caring, that's what she was experiencing, these people cared about each other. She had of course felt this before, but it vividly reminded her of the difference between it and the shallow imitation that she had had with Billy. She looked around at the people, there were no harsh words or taunting, just friendly banter and fellowship.
As she moved through the bar she had to fight to keep from falling to her knees due to the impact of memories that the Christmas party brought back to her. Baking with her grandma when she was a little girl, putting the lights on the tree with her dad, pooling her money with her sister so they could get something really good and have it be from them both. All of these and more came rushing back to her as she wandered through the Christmas party. She had looked around at first to see if she could find Gary Hobson, but there wre just too many people. What did surprise her was that while she was obviously a stranger; after all these people worked together, no one treated her that way. No one questioned why she was there, or what she was doing at a private party. She was so distracted that she ran into someone, literally.
She turned quickly and said "I'm sorry, I didn't see you."
"I believe that's my line" an elegant black woman said to her with a smile on her face. "I'm sorry but I don't recognize your voice."
The girl immediately noticed that the woman was blind, but she obviously knew her way around "that's not surprising since we've never met."
"Oh, did you come with someone?"
"In a way" she answered and proceeded to tell the woman about meeting Gary and his invitation.
"Well I'm glad he did, my name's Marissa by the way."
"Cheryl, nice to meet you."
"Can I get you anything?"
"Something to eat would be good" she blurted out before realizing how rude that sounded.
"Not a problem" Marissa said "there's some stuff left over in the kitchen."
Cheryl followed the blind woman back behind the bar and through a door. It was astoundingly quiet back here, where it was just her and Marissa. In the kitchen they found the remains of the buffet and Marissa told the girl to "tuck in".
Cheryl did, and while she ate she told Marissa about her past, about leaving her family to go with Billy and her regrets about that. "I can't imagine they'd take me back after what I've put them through, but I've got to see my mother, even if it's from a distance, you know what I mean?"
"I do indeed, so where's home for you?"
"Oregon, Bend Oregon; you heard of it?"
"Yes, actually I have, a friend of ours is working out there as a teacher."
"Small world I guess."
"That it is, so what are you going to do?"
"That's the question isn't it; I really need to get home, but I've just got the clothes on my back and no money. Do you think Gary would hire me, I mean I'll wash dishes, scrub floors, anything he wants."
"Somehow I don't think that will be necessary, I'll talk to him, you just finish up and I'll be back in a moment." With that the blind woman got up and left Cheryl in the kitchen.
"Sure" said Cheryl disappointed, she figured Marissa was about to go berate Gary for bringing home some skank stray and have her tossed out. Well, she mused, at least her belly was full, and that was a nice change from the past few months. Cheryl was savoring a last piece of pumpkin pie with real whipped cream when the door from the bar opened again. Marissa was returning, but she wasn't alone; Gary was with her along with a tough looking older man and a fiery little brunette. Cheryl mentally prepared herself for the assault she knew was coming as they sat down around her.
"Marissa told us you need to get home, all the way to Oregon" Gary said without preamble. His hand reached into his jacket and he pulled out a piece of paper. "We've booked you on a Northwest flight out of Midway that leaves in three hours, I hope you don't mind."
Cheryl was struck dumb, there was no way she had just heard what she thought she had heard. People just didn't do things like that for strangers. "That depends" she answered "what's the catch?"
"Catch, what do you mean, there's no catch you just get to go home. Oh, and we booked you on the same flight as our friend, so he can give you a ride to the airport."
Marissa spoke up "my daughter is about your size, she's off packing a change of clothing for you and bringing another so you can wear something a bit cleaner on the plane. And feel free to use the shower upstairs if you want."
"And I don't have to do anything for this, you're just giving me a ticket and clothes and feeding me and helping me get my life back together; and I'm supposed to believe you're doing this out of the goodness of your hearts."
"Whether you believe it or not is up to you, but that's pretty much what's happening, except the part about getting your life together, that sounds like a solo project to me" the brunette said.
Cheryl was unable to handle all this right now, the emotional roller coaster she was on was screwing with her head, and she needed some alone time right now just to process everything. "You said something about a shower."
"It's in the loft" the brunette answered "I'll show you."
Without another word, Toni led the young girl back through the party and up into the loft. As she stood there, the spray cascading over her body and taking away the last vestiges of cold, what was happening to her came back in full force. She didn't know if she could handle it. The one thing that the last eight months on the road had taught her was that no one did anything for the good of someone else. Everyone was in it for themselves, and to heck with the rest. But then in the depths of the proof of that learning, she meets a group of people that are willing to go to extreme lengths to help out someone that they just met. It didn't add up. As she stood there, a voice spoke to her.
"You're probably thinking there's no way this can be real, aren't ya?"
Cheryl was shocked to hear her thoughts coming from someone else "it is tough to wrap my head around. After what I've been through in the last eight months it's tough to believe anything but the worst in people."
"You don't have to tell me that, I'm a homicide cop, the worst is what I deal with on a daily basis."
"So is Gary for real, I mean I've never met someone like him."
"He's real all right, Hobson is the most compassionate man I've ever met, he'd help his worst enemy if he had to. There's not many guys I trust, but he's definitely on the top of the list."
"That's good to know" the girl said and ducked her head back into the shower." She heard the door close as the other woman left the bathroom. Cheryl finished up her shower and was drying off when it finally sank all the way in. She was going home, and a bunch of strangers were helping her get there. They had fed her, warmed her up and given her a plane ticket; she opened the door to the bathroom and saw clothes laid out on the sofa. At the sight of those clothes, all of her defenses came crashing down. She sagged to the floor tears pouring down her face, crying because at the depth of her despair, these people had restored her faith in humanity. They had saved her on every level and in every way possible. She contrasted them with the people that she had known for the last eight months and cried all the harder. Suddenly she felt two arms around her, and she looked up to see that Marissa was on the floor holding her. "I just can't believe it" was all she would say. Finally Marissa succeeded in calming her down; once she was under control, Cheryl got dressed in her new clothes and went downstairs with the blind woman. She was looking for Gary to thank him when she heard a masculine voice blurt out "Cheryl, is that you?"
"Patrick, what the hell are you doing here" she asked her cousin.
"I worked here for a while when I was living in Chicago" he answered. "What are you doing here, the last I heard you were headed to New York".
"Patrick, you know her" Gary asked.
"Well sure Mr. H, she is my cousin after all."
Everyone still at McGinty's was silent at that bit of news, after all what were the odds. Everyone backed off while the two cousins caught up with each other. Soon it was time for them to head for the airport. Cheryl thanked them all profusely, but feeling that she wasn't adequately getting across how much they had helped her and how much they meant to her. Finally she got to Gary "thank you for seeing me" she said.
"Just look for people in the same kind of situation and help them; that and treating yourself right are the only things you need to do to repay us" he said with his usual sincerity.
Cheryl hugged him one last time and headed out the door with Patrick.
She was on the plane over Colorado when she remembered something. She had wished on that neon star at the bar; she had wished for a miracle, and that's exactly what she got. A miracle named Gary Hobson.