It was a Friday night early in October and it was cold and raining. Ed was following a car at a distance down the lonely stretch of state highway Route 9. He saw the brake lights come on momentarily and then saw the car ahead of him speed up. When he reached the place where the brake lights came on he saw two people, one large and one small one, huddled by the side of the road. He slowed down as he approached and stopped a few feet before them so his lights would illuminate the two.
"Can I help you? You look like you are either lost or in trouble."
The woman, an adult spoke, "Would you give us a ride into town? Something happened to the steering on my car and it went off the road back behind you a ways." The woman was trembling and he could see a child shivering beside her.
"Get in. The car is warm and you can tell me where you want to go." Ed leaned over and pushed the passenger door open as the woman grasped the kid's hand and came around the car.
The woman was having trouble getting into the front seat and winced when the kid climbed onto her lap. "Thank you for stopping. Three cars went by and nobody stopped. I guess they didn't want to get involved."
Ed turned the interior light on and he could see a bruise on the woman's cheek. "Did you get hurt? Do you want to go to the emergency room? That bump looks pretty bad. How about the police? Do you want to report the accident?"
"No, I'll be all right. No police please. We are just cold and wet. I'm worried about my daughter Cindy. I'm afraid she is coming down with something and being wet and cold is going to make her worse. We will be okay just as soon as we can find some place to get dry."
"You don't have any luggage. Is your home in town?"
"No I don't live here. I was hoping there was a Crisis Center or maybe some church group would take us in."
Ed paused before he asked, "I guess you might be running away from something or someone." The woman seemed to be evaluating how much she wanted to divulge, so he said, "Look lady, I sense you are in real trouble. My name is Ed Bowen. I've lived around here forever. My home is about three miles up ahead. Town is about four miles farther on. If you want to stop with me temporarily, I have plenty of room. You can at least get warm and I can take you into town after that. Would that be okay?"
"Just to get warm would be wonderful. Thank you Ed. My name is Penelope. People call me Penny. I promise Cindy and I won't be any bother."
Ed started the car and turned off the overhead light. His thoughts turned inward as he drove. What had he got himself into? These two strays he had picked up at least took his mind off the memory of his dead wife for a time. He wondered what this woman would look like when he could see her in the light. Well he would know soon enough.
When Ed reached his driveway he said, "I live about a half mile up here and in the morning you can look out and see the town from the south window. The trees have just come into full color this week. It is beautiful now and even more beautiful in the winter with snow on the ground. You'll love it."
Penny thought to herself that Ed seemed to be a person she could trust. Anyone who talked about beautiful scenery that way had to have a good heart. Some different from the man she had just left. Why hadn't she left him sooner? She supposed that once you are in love with someone, it was hard to believe it had all gone wrong.
Ed pulled into the yard. Penny could see from the momentary glimpses that the headlights showed, there were numerous flower beds that had been fixed for their winter hibernation. Ed jumped out and opened the front door to the house and flicked some floodlights on. He came out and picked Cindy up into his arms and carried her inside to a couch.
He stepped to one wall and twisted the thermostat to a higher setting. He then came out and held the car door for Penny. She hadn't moved and seemed to be having trouble gathering her strength just to make it into the house. Ed took her arm and helped her in and across the room to a leather recliner. Penny murmured, "Thank you."
Ed went into the kitchen which was on the other side of the dining room, leaving Penny and Cindy basking in the heat that was fast penetrating their bodies. Cindy was coughing almost continuously now. Fifteen minutes later he was back with instant coffee for Penny and hot chocolate for Cindy.
Cindy took a few sips of her beverage, but appeared too sick to finish it. Ed felt of her forehead and said to Penny, "I'm going to get her some help." He went to the phone, punching in a number without looking it up.
"George, I know it's late and I hate to ask you, but would you grab your bag and come out? What I have here is at the very least a bad cold and maybe something more serious." Ed listened as the doctor said he would be there as soon as possible.
Penny wondered how this man could have a doctor at his beck and call. She never heard of a doctor making house calls in recent times.
"Penny, why don't you take a hot shower? You're cold and wet too. I'll get a warm blanket and hold Cindy until the doctor gets here. The shower is through the bedroom there. You will find plenty of women's clothes in the left hand closet and whatever under things you need are in the left hand bureau. The lady who used to wear them doesn't need them now, so she won't mind you using them.
"You can crawl into bed or you can come out when the doctor examines Cindy. The two of you will have to sleep together as I only have two bedrooms. My clothes are on the right, but I have other things in the spare bedroom where I've been sleeping."
Penny struggled out of the recliner after seeing Ed do what he said he would for Cindy. Penny went into the bedroom and marveled at the size of it. It was huge. This might be only a two-bedroom home but there was plenty of room. The shower was comparable in size.
Before she went into the shower, she opened the bureau and found some pajamas. When she went to the wardrobe she viewed the closet full of beautiful dresses and gowns. She found a robe that fit her perfectly. As she passed the night table on the right side of the bed, she paused to look at the woman that was enshrined in the portrait prominently sitting there. In the corner was the inscription, "To Ed, with all my love, Alice."
It was not long before the doctor entered the living room where Ed was holding Cindy. "What have you got there son, a little girl? Where did you find her?"
"She was out on Route 9 about three miles west of here. Her mother is taking a shower. I think the mother needs looking at too. She hasn't said, but maybe she got hurt when their car went off the road. Anyway, they were on the road so I picked them up. This is Cindy and the mother is Penelope, or Penny. I don't even know their last names."
"Ed, bring her into the bedroom and I'll see what I can find." Cindy had stopped shivering, but the fever was raging. Both Ed and George could hear the shower as Ed laid the child on the bed. "Go on Ed get out of here. I'll let you know what I find."
An hour later George came out of the room. "Ed, the woman has had a rough time. She has just escaped from an abusive relationship. I found some whip marks on Cindy that happened about six days ago and who by the way is twelve years old. The mother has a massive bruise on her thigh where she said she was kicked by the man she was living with. She has two and possibly three cracked ribs and of course the bruise on her head that you can see. She received those two days ago in a fight with the same person that gave Cindy the whipping. Penny is a widow and Cindy is an only child by her husband. Her husband was killed while in the service.
"I've given Penny something to sleep and Cindy has cough syrup. Cindy needs her medicine every four hours, so if you are awake, would you administer it? It is a bad cold, but her chest is clear. She just has to wear it out and being young, she should be okay in a couple of days. Would you keep them both here so I could see them both later tomorrow?
"I've left something stronger for Penny and if she starts coughing make sure she takes it. I've bound her ribs up tight, but if she coughs she is going to really know what pain is. Another fact, her name is Peters and when she heals up she is going to be as beautiful as Alice was. It startled me when I saw Penny in the robe that I had often seen Alice wearing. Outside of a different shade of hair color, they could have been sisters.
As George was going out the door he came back and said, "I asked and received permission to take pictures of the abuse both the mother and child show. I should turn them over to the authorities, but Penny asked me not to, unless her boyfriend causes her trouble, and then she said I could use them. I convinced her I did have to cover my butt by taking the pictures, so I guess we reached a reasonable agreement on this."
Ed didn't bother going to bed, he just dozed until it was time for Cindy's medicine. The first time he went in, tears came to his eyes when he could see the woman lying where his wife had lain the few years they were together. Her features were not that well defined by the dim glow from the night light, but this only enhanced the comparison.
Ed went through the bedroom in the morning to shower, first stopping to feel Cindy's brow. It felt to him the fever had disappeared. Glancing at Penny who had her face turned to cover the bruise, she did look remarkably like Alice. Not wanting to even think about this, Ed hurried into the shower. Coming out he found Cindy awake. "Are you feeling better Cindy?"
She whispered, "Yes I am. Would you tell me where the bathroom is, please?"
Ed pointed and quickly left the room, because he didn't know what the little girl had on. He knew her dress and under-clothes were drying in the laundry room as he had put them in the washer earlier. They were dry a few minutes later and he knocked softly on the door. He waited a minute and took the items and put them on the foot of the bed. Cindy gave him a big smile and a little wave from the depths of the blankets pulled up around her. Penny was still sleeping.
Mrs. Butler arrived just before eight. "Oh, good, you're home. I was hoping you would be." She looked at Ed, "Didn't you sleep last night? You look all tired out. I thought you had got over missing your wife."
"No, it wasn't that. I have a house guest and she is sick, or she was. I'll see if she is up so you can meet her."
"Well, it's about time you found someone. I was telling Tim the other day it was time for you to start dating."
Ed knocked softly on the door again and it was opened almost immediately by Cindy. "Cindy, my housekeeper is here. She is like a mother to me and I came in so you could meet her."
Ed put his hand on Cindy's shoulder and they walked into the kitchen. "Mrs. Butler, this is Cindy Peters. She is staying with me for a while. She is here with her mother and they have had a spot of trouble. George was here last night to look at them and he tells me they are both going to be fine after a bit."
"Hello Mrs. Butler, you look a lot my grandmother did before the Lord took her. She was pretty just like you. I miss her so much sometimes."
"Well bless you child, we are going to get along just fine." Mrs. Butler always referred to Ed as "The Master" when talking about him to others. "Would you like to help me get The Master's breakfast? I usually do when he gets back from his trip, especially now that he is alone."
"Okay, but you'll have to show me what to do." Cindy was so proud of her efforts and Ed ate more pancakes than he wanted just to see the joy on the child's face.
Ed heard the shower running. "Cindy, why don't you go in and help your mom get dressed. If she wants to put on some make-up, there is whatever she needs in the box under the night stand. Help her select something pretty to wear. I haven't really seen her yet and I want my first impression to be a good one."
Mrs. Butler was standing there taking this all in. "Okay Ed, you've got a woman sleeping in your bed and you don't even know what she looks like. What's the story? It has to be a good one."
Ed didn't want to give out too much information about his charges so he just said, "Penelope and Cindy had an accident on the road last night. It was cold and raining and I stopped to see what the problem was. I gave them a place to stay. Cindy was coughing and Penny was banged up so I called George. He medicated them and put them to bed. You've seen almost as much of Cindy as I have. We will soon meet Penny and then we will both know what she looks like. Oh yes, I wasn't able to retrieve their luggage, so Penny is wearing some clothes that belonged to Alice."
"Humph," Mrs. Butler said, "I knew there must be a reason you didn't get rid of Alice's clothes. I know why, now. The Lord sent you a sign. You're caught now and you can't get away. It's not fate; it's the Lord's doings." She went into the kitchen with the dishes.
Ed laughed at his housekeeper until he turned around and saw Penny standing there. Penny was wearing the last dress Ed had bought for his wife. Alice had only had time to wear it once and Penny did as much justice to the dress as Alice had.
Penny had used the make-up to cover the bruise on her face. The bruise was still there if you looked closely, but she had done a masterful job of concealing the mark. Ed stood and started to say how nice Penny looked when Mrs. Butler came back into the dining room. The plate of toast she was carrying hit the floor. "Oh my Lord, you look just like Alice. She has come back to be with you. Now you treat him better than you did last time. I won't have him sad and sick again, just because of how you treated him."
Ed spoke, "Mrs. Butler, this is not Alice. This is Penelope Peters, Cindy's mom. She is just wearing Alice's clothes. I admit I was just as startled as you when I saw her in that dress, but she looks very nice in it and I'm glad she picked that one to wear."
Mrs. Butler quickly returned to the kitchen and left the toast and broken plate on the floor. Penny came over and picked the bread and the pieces up, taking them out and asking where the trash can was and dumped them into it. Ed could see how much it hurt her to bend over, so he led her over and sat her down and asked what she would like for breakfast.
Penny said coffee would be fine as she struggled to get up saying, "I can get it."
Mrs. Butler had been observing through the doorway, this person who seemed to be intruding. Finally making up her mind about something, "No Dearie, I can see you are hurting. I'll get it for you. I'm so sorry I spoke so sharp. You just startled me so. You sit still. Cindy, your mom will eat some pancakes. You cook them for her and remember to turn them just when the bubbles come up through the batter."
"Okay, Mrs. Butler. Mom, Mrs. Butler is teaching me how to cook so I can care for you until you are well. For Ed too. I've already cooked his breakfast.
Penny was famished and Cindy had a chance to shine again. Cindy was much taken with Mrs. Butler. She was helping her in the kitchen by loading the dishwasher and generally being a "fetch-all" for the older woman. After breakfast Ed asked Penny to join him in the living room to talk. "I think I need to know a little more about your situation. I'd like to help you if I can and if you will let me. First, tell me about your car."
Penny looked down at the table. "Ed, I lied to you. I knew I was almost out of gas and I didn't have anymore money to fill the tank. I drove it into a hidden glen on a side road and we stayed in it to keep warm until the gas gave out. Then we walked back to the road and started hitch-hiking. As beat up as I am, I figured people would give me a ride if I said I had an accident and got hurt. I'm sorry I lied. You've been so good to us; I wanted to tell you the truth."
"That's okay. It was a good way to get a ride. It was just that nobody stopped until I came along. Do you have much stuff left in your car?"
"No we don't. I had the fight with the man I was living with and he beat me up. I just grabbed Cindy and got into the car and we ran. I didn't have much stuff anyway. His name is Bob Grover. He was pretty good to both of us until he lost his job about a year ago and started drinking. It has been all downhill for us since then. I really thought I loved him until he hit Cindy. I should have left then. His promises to be good only lasted five days until he did this to me. That's when we had to get out. If we had stayed until he woke up from his latest drunk, I was afraid he might kill us."
Ed thought about what Penny had told him. "Gosh, you've had a rough time. I think we had better go find your car. You can't have walked too far and I know the area pretty well. Tim will be here later. He's Mrs. Butler's husband. So basically you took off without any plans or any money. That took guts. Why didn't you call the police? I'm not really prying; I'm just trying to understand your situation."
"I went to the police the first time Bob hit me. Bob is related to the chief and has a brother on the force. I had no chance of getting anywhere. I just picked a loser and although Bob was dumped by his family, they weren't going to back me up. I'm just lucky the car is still in my name. Bob was passed out, but I found enough money in his pocket to buy gas to get us this far."
"Penny, you might as well know what my situation is. You could tell that I still have my wife's clothes. It isn't that I need them around, because they don't mean that much to me. I just haven't got rid of them and I never found anybody that could wear them. They are good clothes. I know I paid enough for them. In one way I paid too much, maybe.
"You met my wife's father last night. That is George and he is my best friend. He blames himself a lot for what happened to Alice and what she ended up doing to me. You see, while I was away on business, Alice was in an auto accident. She was with another man and it was pretty evident she wasn't being true to me. He was killed, but I got home to talk to her and hear her death-bed apology before she died. With her last bit of awareness she heard me forgive her. I was holding her hand and telling her I loved her when she died.
"George was in the room with us and since then we have been the best of friends. He said afterward that he didn't think under the same circumstances he could have forgiven her. George was her father and he doted on her. He gave her everything and let her do whatever she wanted. I think he was aware of her wild side which he always kept from me. He said he talked to her about it before we were married, but kept out of our affairs once we tied the knot.
"Things were good until my job started demanding I be away one week a month. This was just in the last year or so before she died. I have always made enough money, so Mrs. Butler has always worked here. Maybe if I had been here all the time, she wouldn't have turned elsewhere for excitement. I'll never know now.
"I do know I'm glad I was here to say goodbye to Alice. I did forgive her and I suppose I still love her on some level, just as I told her when she was dying. It just has taken me a couple of years to get over her. I'm not saying that she isn't in my thoughts a lot, because she is. I do think back now to the good times and happiness we had and give myself a pass on the sad times."
Penny reached over and held Ed's hand and said. "I know how much you can hurt when you lose someone. I felt that way when Cindy's father died so far away from me and on the other side of the world. I have always thanked God I have Cindy to cling to. She is my crutch more than I am hers I think." The two people sat without speaking, until they heard Tim come into the kitchen.
Tim drove his pickup into town and picked up five gallons of gas. He always carried jumper cables and said if Penny's car was out of gas, the battery might be weak too. It was a mile and the second side-road from where Ed picked up Penny that they found the ten year-old Volkswagen driven under some bushes and half hidden. When Ed told Tim what condition Penny was in when she started walking and how far she had gone, he shook his head, saying, "That's some woman."
The gas tank was empty and the car had to be cranked over several times before it started. In the back seat were several empty beer cans and bottles. Ed figured that Bob just drank and tossed the containers over his shoulder.
Cindy came out on the steps when Ed drove the beat-up old car in next to the side of his house. She was jumping up and down. This was an item that was almost as old as she was and she must have felt like a long lost friend had been found when it came up the driveway.