An Army of Angels: Alex

3 – As Fate Would Have It….

I shifted uncomfortably in the seat of the crowded Greyhound bus as it approached the city from the east on the San Bernardino Freeway. In the darkness, most of my fellow passengers slept. Sleep for me, however, did not come easily. A woman seated in the back of the bus with a crying baby was having the same problem. I smiled to himself, a weary little smile. The kid was proof of perpetual motion: he never stopped crying. I was surprised any sound could come out of that throat after all this time.

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I sat up and attempted to refold my jacket into a more comfortable pillow. What’s the use? I asked myself. In another fifteen minutes, the bus would be stopping, and I’d be looking for someplace else to call home, however temporarily.

Home. I don’t even know the meaning of the word.

I looked up at the lights. Lights illuminating the freeway, lights in buildings. I tried to imagine what the people inside those buildings were doing. Office buildings, with workaholics burning the midnight oil, trying to get rich. Hotels, filled with weary travelers, families on vacation, cheating spouses having trysts. No matter who they were or what they were doing, those people had somebody with them, or somebody to go home to.

I had no one. Not anymore.

I looked down at the folded newspaper in my lap. It was three years old. The headline read: SCIENTIST SOUGHT TO TESTIFY IN GEN TECH CASE. The caption under the photograph read Dr. Andrew Stewart, but the face was my own. The same light brown hair, the same blue eyes, the same bone structure–everything was the same. We were identical twins, even though we had been born to different mothers in different countries, ten years apart.

Some would call that a miracle, others an abomination. My mother had seen it as the latter.

The bus left the freeway and headed downtown. Los Angeles suited my needs perfectly. It was the perfect place to lose oneself. I wanted to drop off the face of the earth. What better place to do it than this city of dreams? The City of Angels. I found it amusing. If this place were indeed populated by angels, if angels existed, if Heaven existed, I would certainly be banned. I’d never be permitted to set foot on holy ground. I’m a walking, talking sacrilege, I thought miserably. Man’s slap in the face to God.

By the time the bus pulled into the station, the crying baby in the back had finally drifted off to sleep. His mother’s peace would be short-lived. The moment she moved, rising from her seat to disembark, the howling began all over again. I hoisted my backpack onto one shoulder and slipped into the line in the aisle. As I stepped off the bus, I was assaulted by a variety of sights and sounds. Los Angeles was truly a melting pot, populated by people representing a wide range of cultures and speaking a multitude of languages. I made my way through the crowd and entered the large, cavernous station. There were faded fiberglass chairs in lines in the center, some taken, most empty. A row of vending machines lined one wall. There was a snack bar that was now closed, and small TV sets that operated on quarters. Homeless people slept on the floor at the far end, their worldly belongings stuffed into tattered backpacks, duffels and totes.

I lowered my own backpack from my shoulder and looked at it for a moment. I’m one of them, I thought, drawing in a deep breath before moving forward. Might as well join the crowd.

I found a spot in a corner and lay down, drawing my body into a fetal position. I rested my head on the backpack and finally began to drift off to sleep. Had I become so accustomed to this life that it no longer bothered me?

I hadn’t been asleep long when the shrill whistle issued by a policeman roused me. I sat up as a group of people rushed into the terminal and started rounding up the homeless. I thought they were cops at first. I scrambled to my feet.

“Come with me.”

I turned. Behind me was a young woman who looked to be in her late twenties, dressed in an Old Navy T-shirt and faded jeans. She had warm brown eyes and long auburn hair that hung in messy curls about her shoulders. “You sure don’t look like a cop,” I told her, confident that, unless she was armed, I could easily get away from her.

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“I’m not,” she said, looking mildly insulted. “I’m from the Guardian Angel shelter. You need a place to stay?”

I regarded her with amusement. “Do I look that bad?”

“You’re sleeping on the floor in a bus station,” she reminded me. “It’s a no-brainer.”

I scratched my head. “Yeah, I see your point.”

She pulled herself to her full five feet two inches. “Well?”

“Well what?” I asked.

“Does a warm bed and hot food appeal to you or not?” She looked around. The people she’d come with were already leading several others out of the terminal. “We only have limited facilities.”

I nodded. “You talked me into it.”

She gestured toward the door on the opposite side of the building from which I had entered. “Our van’s outside.”

“My mother always taught me never to get into a car with strangers,” I said then. “I don’t even know your name.”

She shot me an impatient look. “I’m Robyn,” she said. “Robyn Cantwell. And you?”

“Alex Stewart.”

***

“More soup?” Robyn asked, refilling my bowl without waiting for an answer.

I nodded, unable to speak with my mouth full. Until she had put the bowl in front of me, I hadn’t realized how hungry I was–or how long it had been since I’d last eaten. I was sure my table manners were deplorable, but she didn’t seem to notice–or to care. She sat across the table from me, watching me intently. “So where are you from, Alex Stewart?” she asked finally.

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“Nowhere,” I answered, my attention remaining on the soup.

“You have a family.”

“Did I say that?”

“You said your mother taught you never to get into cars with strangers,” she recalled. “I have a photographic memory.” She tapped her temple for emphasis.

I grinned. “I was being sarcastic,” I confessed.

“So there’s no family back home?” she pursued.

“No family, no home.” I went back to my soup.

She didn’t give up. “Everybody comes from somewhere, Alex Stewart.”

“I come from a test tube,” I deadpanned.

She laughed. A beautiful, open laugh. I liked the sound. It had been a long time since I’d laughed–or heard anyone else laugh like that. It was funny how something so simple, so often taken for granted, could become so precious when one was deprived of it.

“More sarcasm?” she wanted to know.

“What do you think?”

“I think you’re not like most of the people I see come through here,” she answered honestly, offering me some crackers.

“Yeah? How so?”

She considered her answer before giving it. “Most of them are out on the streets because they can’t take care of themselves. Mentally ill, handicapped in other ways. They can’t work, can’t pay the bills. Society’s cruel, so they end up out on the streets.”

“And I’m not mentally ill? How do you know?” I asked.

She smiled. “It’s not that hard to tell.”

I finished the soup. I would have liked another bowl, but was reluctant to ask for it. Instead, I pushed it away to let her know I was finished. “Do tell,” I urged.

She took the bowl and put it on a cart, then sat down with me again. “If I had to venture a guess, I’d say you’re above average in the brains department. Which makes me wonder how you ended up here,” she said.

I hesitated. “Family problems.”

“So you do have a family.”

“Yeah, I guess you could call what I had a family.”

Her expression softened. “That bad?”

“That bad.” I changed the subject then, unwilling to say anything more. “You said something about a soft bed. I’m really beat….”

***

When I spotted her dishing out breakfast the next morning, I asked, “Do you live here, too?”

She laughed. “Sometimes it feels that way,” she admitted, “but no. I live in the Valley. I’m filling in for a friend this morning.” She heaped eggs and bacon onto a plate for me. I took it, nodding in appreciation. I moved along in the line, figuring I’d probably seen the last of her. I took a seat at one end of one of the long, cafeteria-style tables that filled the lunchroom and ate alone, lost in my own thoughts.

“Need a job, Alex Stewart?”

I looked up. Robyn stood there, smiling down at me. Her smile was as warm and inviting as her laugh. “Am I now your pet cause?” I asked, regretting those words as soon as they were out of my mouth. She’d been concerned about me, and I sounded as if I resented it–which couldn’t have been further from the truth.

“Maybe you are,” she said with a slight nod. She didn’t wait to be invited to join him. “So, about that job.”

“What job?”

“At the animal shelter. There’s an opening. It doesn’t pay much, but it’s a start,” she told me. “Do you like animals?”

“I don’t know,” I answered truthfully. “The closest thing I’ve ever had to a pet was a lab rat, and you can guess how he ended up.”

She frowned. “I’m sorry.”

I grinned. “Not as sorry as he was.”

Robyn was silent for a moment. “Think you’d want to give it a shot?” she asked finally.

“Why not?” I said. How hard could it be for them to replace me when the time came for me to move on?

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