by Susan Hughes
Ashley walked briskly against the blustery winter wind. Turning up her collar to shield herself from further onslaught, she quickly scooted into the bus shelter for protection. Tucked safely inside, she stomped off the mound of snow that had accumulated on her boots. The rapid falling flakes covered the bare trees and the dirty remnants of the last snowstorm. Looking out over the city street, the scene gave the appearance of a stark white sheet being laid over a corpse and made Ashley shiver. How she hated winter. Something about the bareness of the trees, the cold nakedness of the ground, coupled with putting on layers of clothing, was depressing enough; but the thought of being semi-sequestered in her small, cramped, one-bedroom apartment for nearly four months was enough to make one scream. Winter was just starting, and already, she yearned for the warmth of the summer sun. Its golden rays seemed to penetrate and warm her body as well as her soul, as if they were trying to fill all the dark recesses of her being.
Life had not been kind to Ashley as of late. The previous year had been difficult, to say the least, and any memories of happier times seemed far removed and bittersweet. As she stood waiting for her bus, her mind drifted back. She had had a wonderful job at the bank, and a man she thought loved her. She had landed the job of front desk receptionist for Continental Savings and Loan’s corporate offices soon after graduating from Wooten Business College. It was a small organization that catered to older individuals looking to secure or build their nest eggs. The employees were a close-knit group of people, and were treated by the CEO and management like family. In the months prior to losing her job, there had been rumors of financial difficulties brewing, but the “family” had been assured that there was no need for alarm and that everyone and everything was secure. So, it came as a great shock to everyone when, after being in business for over seventy-five years, Continental Savings and Loan fell into hard times, went through a swift and massive downsizing, with the subsequent closing of its doors. Ashley left the company armed only with her severance pay, monies from her 401k, and six months of medical benefits. It was small consolation because nearly a year later, she still hadn’t found a suitable job.
Her love life that same year, had taken a nose dive as well. When she first met Darnell, she hadn’t been instantly attracted to him. But he seemed kind and gentle, and he was great with the kids he worked with at the community center, where they both volunteered. He was also persistent; pursuing Ashley until she finally agreed to go out with him. Dating Darnell was like being with a big kid. He always had something exciting and adventurous planned, so much so that she knew whenever the two dated, they would have fun. The only thing that got next to Ashley was Darnell’s inability to return her phone calls to confirm their plans, and he was always late for their dates. However, she soon became accustom to it, and even rationalized his thoughtlessness as being busy doing community work.
Three months into the courtship, Darnell suddenly proposed on a weekend trip they had taken to Niagara Falls. Ashley remembered how she had turned down his proposal, maintaining that not enough time had transpired for her to make such a lifetime commitment; and how she had kissed him tenderly and asked him to ask again when they knew each other better. She also remembered how he had smiled at her with a knowing glint in his eye and said, ‘That, you can bet on.’ Nine months and many romantic dates later, he asked again, and Ashley realized that she had grown to care for and love him deeply; so without hesitation, she accepted. She was both excited and happy as she planned for her wedding day the following spring. Little did she know then, that her dreams would come crashing down around her head.
The signs had all been there. Even from the beginning of their relationship; the lateness, not responding to her phone calls, and even breaking some of their dates because he said that he had to work late at the community center; all these were red flags waving wildly in the air and Ashley had ignored them. The last flag, however, had been too big and too red to ignore. Patrice and Ariana had been two of her fellow volunteers at the center. She hadn’t considered them friends, but had socialized with them enough to consider them close associates. Both of the girls had had mad crushes on Darnell when he first started at the center, and had even competed with each other for his attention. So, it only stood to reason that their association began to wane when she and Darnell became an item. Lunches and nights out with the girls became few and far between, and their topic of conversation always seems to lean toward how her relationship was going. The time Ashley spent with Darnell also grew strained. When they were able to spend an evening alone, his mood was quiet and brooding; and whenever she tried to involve him in the wedding plans, he appeared distant and even nonchalant; his face buried in his cell phone.
Several times he would suddenly state matter-of-factly, “I have to go. I‘ll see you tomorrow,” give her a quick peck and leave. The next day, he would be his old playful self and acted as if he never wanted to leave her side for one moment. In the months leading up to the anticipated day, Ashley, moreover, began to notice that Ariana and Patrice were avoiding her altogether. Not only at the center, but Ariana was a no-show when they made plans to have lunch or an early dinner and movie. She and Patrice usually ended up going together, but when she would start to talk about her upcoming nuptials, Patrice would always change the subject. Then she heard the rumor. At first, she refused to believe it, but when his reasons to break plans with her started not jiving with what the kids were telling her, she had to investigate. It didn’t take long for Ashley to discover that Darnell had become romantically involved with both Ariana and Patrice, and that Ariana was carrying his child.
Their betrayal had brought such hurt and humiliation, the likes she had never known, that it caused her to spiral into a deep, dark, and long depression. She became morose and ending her life had become a regular fleeting thought. Ashley’s only solace was in the memory of her father. Daddy was the only person that she’d ever been able to count on. His smile was warm and gentle, and he was always ready to listen, and give sound and fair advice. His words were full of comfort, truth, and wisdom, and it was remembering those words that helped her through the darkest times.
A small gust of wind gently slapped her cheek and snapped her back into the present. Ashley shivered again, not so much from the blast of cold air that had just blown in her direction; but from the thoughts that were running rampant in her mind. She smirked as she watched the plows make a feeble attempt at clearing away what was now apparently becoming a full fledge storm. Checking her watch, she grumbled, “Where is that bus?” Ashley stepped momentarily to the curb and squinted through the blinding sheet of white to catch a glimpse of her bus. Just as she was about to retreat to the safety of the shelter; a car sent a wave of slush splashing up and over the curb leaving her cold, wet and angry. “You idiot,” she shouted to the driver, who was long gone and oblivious to her rage. “Great, now I’ll catch pneumonia,” she hissed to herself.
“Maybe, you’d better come inside where it‘s warmer and safer.”
Turning toward the raspy sounding voice, Ashley came face to face with an elderly man. He was wearing several layers of clothing, torn in many places, but clean. His brown boots also looked well-worn and painstakingly big. Over his layers of shirts and sweaters, he wore nothing more than a sports jacket to defend him from the elements.
Smiling a semi-toothless grin, he handed her a towel from a frayed gym bag that sat atop an assortment of plastic and paper shopping bags. She couldn’t recall having seen him when she first arrived at the bus stop, nor of his coming since.
“It’s old but clean, he said. You can use it to dry yourself.”
“Thanks,” mumbled Ashley. She looked at the old man and determined that she was not about to be bothered with this crazy loon. Besides, she ascertained, he was probably homeless and wanted money.
“Beautiful day, ain’t it?” grinned the stranger as he gazed out onto the street.
“What’s so beautiful about it?” she flatly stated as she finished gingerly dabbing her coat so as not to imbed the stains.
“You’re living, ain’t ya?”
“Humph, I’m living and that’s about it!”
“Well, the holidays are coming and I know you’re excited about that.”
“Look sir, I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t get excited about any holiday now. I could care less about Christmas, New Year’s or any of them. I just want the holidays to come and go. Besides, they have no meaning for me anymore,” she concluded matter-of-factly as she handed back his towel. The old man chuckled.
“Now I don’t believe that statement for a minute. I think you’re just mad at the whole world and you want to get back at everything and everybody. You’ve been hurt badly and now you’re desperately seeking a way to soothe that hurt.”
“Look, mister, you don’t know anything about me. So how do you know, and what gives you the right to say what I am or am not mad about?”
“I know, because I see it on your face.”
Ashley kicked at the mound of snow that she had previously stomped off her boots. She folded her arms tightly across her chest and was becoming more irritated with the man and at the realization that she was being drawn into a conversation that she did not want to have; especially with someone who looked as if he needed more help than she did.
“We all want the same thing. We want to love and be surrounded by love.”
“Some of us seem to get it and keep it more readily than others,” Ashley muttered.
“You’re a beautiful lady, with a lot going for you. You gotta have faith and believe that things will get better. The way I see it, faith ain’t nothing but an opportunity to move forward. Course, you gotta have the right source.”
“And what source would that be the personal ads?” she answered flippantly. The old man chuckled again.
“No, I’m talking about the source from where all things begin and end; the same source that gives us hope and the will to keep living.”
“I haven’t had anything to believe in for a long time. In fact, the only things I hope for these days are that my fast food order is right, and that a bus doesn’t hit me,” her voice tinged with sarcasm tinged and a hint of sadness.
“Well, he said as he shifted his weight and drew his jacket closer to his body, hope and faith don’t work like that. Faith is useless if you don’t use it. You gotta exercise it like you do with your body and mind. Hope is like a well, you gotta prime it and pump it til’ it spills out and overflows. Once hope gets started, it doesn’t stop.”
Ashley was taken aback by his words. This stranger, this indigent old man, had seen through her; and told her truths that had struck like a bolt of lightning. He was right; she was mad at the world. She turned away from him as if her back would drown out the sound of his voice and his words, but he continued to talk to Ashley, telling her about faith, hope, and the belief that good things can come her way. He told her about sowing positive seeds, of giving instead of receiving, which brings a harvest rich in joy, peace and love-the real love; unconditional. As she listened to his words, the layers of grief, hurt and pain surrounding her heart began to peel away as if someone were peeling an onion and expose all she had locked inside. Silently, hot tears began to form and fall quietly down her wind burnt cheeks. Her life had once been a fairy tale that had turned into a hellish nightmare. Life had snatched from her hands everything she had loved and cherished without as much as a warning. She cried for all the anger she felt and for what she once had, but was now lost.
“Do you believe in God?” His question landed on her ears.
Ashley nodded in affirmation, afraid her voice would give away the fact that she was crying.
“That’s the source that I was talking about, and this is one of the greatest times of the year to find Him and know Him daughter.”
Ashley wiped her face as she whirled around to look at the man who had just called her daughter. Her father was the only one who had ever called her that name. Truly looking at the man for the first time, she saw a face that was full of goodness and kindness. His snow white hair framed his face and although it was worn from time and perhaps weather, it bore a glow that resembled the halo of an angel. She knew that that glow could only come from inner peace and joy.
“We love because He first loved us. Just seek Him daughter; and you will find all the love and all the hope you’ll ever want or need. Everything you ever want will be given to you in due season.”
A smiled formed across Ashley’s lips for the first time. “You’re right; He is all the love I need.”
“Now you got it,” the old man responded as he patted her on the back, much like the way her father did to comfort her.
Ashley turned towards the street to see if the bus was nearing. The snowstorm was beginning to slacken. As she held out her gloved hand, the snow felled and disintegrated in her palm. A feeling of warmth surrounded her and along with a sense of faith that she hadn’t felt in a long time. Like the golden rays of summer, hope imploded and filled the dark spaces within her spirit.
“Well, looks as if our bus is finally here. Can I help you with some of your bags?”
Turning back again to help the man who had helped her, she stood there a moment, confused and dumbfounded. For just as mysteriously as he had appeared; he was gone. Ashley boarded the bus and found a seat near the back with a book bag on it.
“Pardon me, do you mind if I sit here.”
“Huh, no I don’t mind. Sorry, didn’t mean to take up so much space,” said the young woman sitting by the window.
Settling back into the seat, she glanced out of the window trying to get a glimpse of him; he was nowhere to be seen. She thought, perhaps, that one day she would see him again and thank him; but in all probability, she knew she wouldn’t. She reflected on her conversation with the man and of all that he had said. She remembered a scripture she had once heard, ‘Be careful to entertain strangers, for you may be entertaining angels unaware.’ “In due season,” she murmured and began humming a carol to herself. It didn’t matter if he was an angel or not because he had given her the best gift that holiday season – the gift of hope.
Susan Hughes is a mother of two sons, and a grandma to nine who enjoys walking barefoot and wildflowers. She loves cooking and sharing meals with family and friends. A recent retiree from the ECED field, she has had the opportunity to share some of her short stories with a local Zoom community. Susan is now working on a full-length novel entitled VARIANT-24.