She was standing near Wally World. Another panhandler. On any given day, they stood at every corner in the shopping district. Most of them looked able-bodied to me, so I'd drive past. If they looked like they couldn't physically or mentally hold a job, I'd give 'em some cash and a tract. I probably got suckered more often than not--the cash going for drugs, booze, or cigarettes; the tract tossed on the ground or cast to the wind.
But something about her was different.
I wheeled into the parking lot and scurried over. When she spotted me coming, her eyes widened. Surprise? Fear? She probably didn't expect a face-to-face encounter. I half expected her to bolt like a scared rabbit.
I slowed my approach and smiled, hoping that would calm her. "Hi, I see you're looking for work."
Silently, she held the piece of cardboard with bold, black letters in front of her face, summoning it to speak for her:
WILL WORK FOR FOOD
Funny how they always stick in the GOD BLESS part. Appeal to the benevolent Christians.
"What sort of work do you do?" Hope she's not deaf--I can't sign. "Maybe I could help you out"
The bent cardboard flapped in the gusty wind.
She scowled and stepped back. "What are you, a pervert or something?"
She sized me up. I wore jeans, a wool sweater, down parka, boots, and knit hat pulled down over my ears; just average looking; nothing sinister about me.
"I'm not a hooker," she added, defiantly. She looked about twenty--close to my age.
"I didn't think you were." I shot back. Then, in a softer voice, "But I know a few people--got connections...."
She chewed at her chapped bottom lip; dried blood collected in the cracks. "Can't you just give me some money?" she begged.
I glanced at the Now Hiring sign in Wally World's window; her piercing eyes followed mine. "They're hiring for the Christmas season."
Shivering, she shuffled from foot to foot. No hat, boots, nor gloves. She was either really destitute or underdressed to play the "poor me" role.
"What do I eat 'til I get a paycheck--snowballs?" Her voice dripped with sarcasm.
"Tell you what--we're both starved--how about joining me for a hot meal at that restaurant?" I nodded toward Stella's Kitchen, across the parking lot. "Then we can talk about it--it'll be my treat."
"Are you Mrs. Claus or just some do-gooder trying to get to heaven?" She snuffed and smirked.
This girl was jaded.
"Nope, not Mrs. Claus; and I already got my ticket to heaven--it's via Jesus. Do want you to eat or not?" I turned and started walking toward the restaurant. "Meet you over there," I called over my shoulder.
She had already turned her attention back to the traffic.
The bustling waitress greeted me. "Dining alone today?"
"No, someone will be joining me. I'd love some coffee while I wait for my guest, though."
The waitress hurried to get coffee; I watched the girl from the window.
I sat alone for fifteen minutes--long enough get warm and pray for the girl; I asked for divine intervention.
She'll be along soon.
I was finishing my second cup of coffee when she arrived.
"Offer still stand?" she sheepishly asked. Her eyes avoided mine.
"Of course--I was waiting for you." Handing her a menu, I continued, "I haven't even ordered yet."
She slid into the booth, smiled, and scanned the menu. "Hey, I really appreciate this."
I extended my hand across the table, "My name's Faith Nelson--and yours is...?"
Her icy hand grasped mine. "Just call me Jane--Jane Doe." She brushed some hair off her face, exposing a bruise by one eye.
Take it slow, don't push her.
She wolfed down her food.
Hesitantly, she began, "It all started when..."
Over the next several hours, while we sipped coffee, she relaxed and revealed the details of her plight.
"...and that's how I ended up here," she concluded with a sigh. "Is there any hope for me?" Her eyes pleaded, questioned.