She had a soft way about her and a pretty face. She looked happy and content in her white apron as she moved around the kitchen, peeping under pot lids, pulling a dish from the oven. She checked the time and quickly went to the door, calling a little girl from her play outside. She ran in, hair tousled, cheeks rosy, laughing.
“Help me set the table, sweetheart. Daddy will be home soon.”
The little girl set to work while her mother turned down burners and set the oven temperature at warm to keep the food hot until Daddy came home. The lady went to the window and looked out while the little girl finished. Her eyes weren’t seeing, just thinking. She did not look happy or sad, but somewhere in between. The girl finished her task and put her arms around her mother’s waist, looking up into her face.
“What are you thinking about, Mommy?”
The lady smiled down at her daughter and then stared back out the window.
“Oh, lots of things,” she murmured, stroking the girls hair. “Lots of things.”
She was far, far away…
It was a rainy day in April when Alan first saw her, leaning against a wall in the alley just opposite his window. Wanton. That was the first word that came to his mind. Then beautiful. She watched the passing cars with interest, a little too much interest. Under those thick eyelashes, her eyes smoldered and beckoned. It was hard for him to concentrate on lesson plans knowing she was out there and what she was doing. He thought of calling the police, but he knew a girl like that would be back at it later, somewhere else. It wouldn’t help her.
She stood there for an hour. Finally, one of the cars slowed down. She walked to it and leaned in the window. Alan watched as money passed from hand to hand. She opened the door to get in and then froze, seeing him for the first time. It was too late to turn away from the window. Her eyes locked with his, like a deer caught in the headlights, speaking of shame, humiliation, fear. The man in the car honked the horn, anxious to get his money’s worth. Startled, she blinked. She flipped her hair away from her face with a toss of her head, glaring at the young man in the window.
“Try and stop me,” he whispered to her. “That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it? If only I could.”
Slowly he turned and continued his lesson plans. He was a school teacher, fresh out of school, teaching rough kids in a rough neighborhood. His neighborhood. It was his first night in his first house. His first night and he couldn’t sleep for thinking of her.
He shoved her out of his mind the next morning as he got ready for work. He kept her out of his mind all day. Driving home through the rain, though, he saw her again. But she didn’t see him. She didn’t seem to see anything as she slogged along the wet sidewalk, hair hanging in a damp mess down her back, a bag of groceries dangling from her hand. In her jacket, she looked small and folded up inside herself somehow. Cars rolled by, spraying her with water and she didn’t flinch. He thought about stopping and offering a ride, but it didn’t seem wise. So, he continued home.
A few hours later as he sat inside eating canned soup, he was aware of her again, leaning up against the wall in the alley. She had changed her clothes and styled her hair. Her head was up, scanning traffic. One car had already slowed down and then passed. Alan stood up abruptly, grabbed the empty soup can and slammed it into the waste basket. He flipped off the light and went upstairs to bed.
Why it bothered him so much, he didn’t know. Women of the night were a common enough sight in his neighborhood. Sure it was bad, but bad stuff happened all the time. It was one of those realities of life. But he couldn’t shake it off. Somehow, in those brief moments the night before, she’d unsettled him with one look. He knew he could not sit by and watch this girl destroy herself.
“What can I do?” he asked himself in the stillness of the night. “What can I possibly do?”
Suddenly, he got up and looked out the window. She was still there in the rain. He put his shoes on, threw a bathrobe over his pjs, and pulled an umbrella out of the closet. He trudged down the stairs and out the front door, slamming it behind him. At the noise, the girl looked up and saw him coming. Her eyes widened in surprised and then narrowed again in satisfaction as he marched forward through the puddles. She stepped towards him.
“Here,’ he said, pushing the umbrella into her hand.
She took it slowly, staring suspiciously at him.
“Goodnight,” he mumbled, nodding politely.
Then he turned around and marched back across the street and into the house. When he got back to his room, he peeked through the window and saw her still holding the umbrella and gazing at the house, puzzled. He hopped back in bed and pulled the covers up, feeling foolish.
“Here I am aiding and abetting her. But at least she’ll be dry,” he muttered to himself before sleep found him.
The rain finally dissipated by the end of the week. Saturday was warm, sunny, and dry. Alan found himself once again working on lesson plans for the next week. When lunch time came around, he fixed some sandwiches and sat on the front porch to enjoy his lunch in the sunshine. He closed his eyes and leaned against the wall, soaking in the suns rays. He had almost drifted off to sleep when he experienced that uncanny sense of being watched. He looked up and there she was, standing on the sidewalk with the umbrella hanging from her hand, just watching him.
“Want a sandwich?” he offered.
She shook her head.
“Here’s your umbrella back,” she said, laying it down in front of him.
“Keep it. I have another. You sure you don’t want a sandwich? I made too many. Have a seat. It’s a nice day.”
“Okay,” she said and sat down beside him without a smile. She stared straight in front of her as she ate. He watched her, thinking of how pretty she was. If he thought hard enough, he could imagine her in a pretty sun dress at a church picnic, happy, sweet and innocent like the other girls. But instead, here was this worldly-wise stoic looking out over the street, elbows resting on her knees.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
Alan almost choked on the bite in his mouth.
“That’s a pretty name,” he said. “I’m Alan.”
“Most everybody calls me Cassie, though.”
She ate in silence, stealing a cautious glance at him from time to time. She brushed the crumbs from her jeans and stood up.
“Thanks for the sandwich.”
“You’re welcome. Take care.”
She walked down the steps and started down the side walk, then stopped and turned around, pushing some strands of hair behind her ear.
“I’m not so bad,” she told him. “Not really.”
The way she stood there looking at him, trying to convince herself, broke his heart. Because they both knew she was as bad as all that. That night, she moved farther up the street, away from his front window. But he saw her every time he closed his eyes. He couldn’t shake her loose.
Alan didn’t see her for a long time after that. He was busy with work, grading papers and tests practically every evening. In all the business, she had slipped to the back of his mind, until one Friday night two weeks later. He had stayed up late, doing some work at the kitchen table. He was nodding over a stack of papers when he heard a strange scuffling in front of his house. His head jerked up and he listened intently. Whoever or whatever was making the sound, seemed to move farther away, and he rubbed his tired eyes and went back to work. Then he heard someone yelp and curse in pain. At the same moment, a woman screamed. Alan jumped to his feet, the sound of it sending chills up and down his back.
“Alan! Alan, hel…!”
The scuffling continued, but the screaming stopped abruptly. Without thinking, Alan charged out the front door. He saw two shadowy figures struggling in the alley.
“Hey! What’s going on over there!” he shouted. “I’m going to give you to the count of five before I call the police.”
There was a loud clatter as some metal object hit the pavement, and then running footsteps. Through the gloom, he could see Cassie slumping to the ground. Alan ran to the alley and stooped down.
“Cassie?” he said, lifting her by the shoulders. “Are you okay?’
She looked up at him with wide eyes, shaking uncontrollably.
“I think…I don’t…I think so,” she managed. “Alan, he had a knife. He was trying to drag me back there. I bit him.”
“Good girl,” he said, leading her back out into the light of the street lamp to get a better look at her. Her arm was wet and sticky. There was a long, ugly gash down the side. “Oh, man. You’re bleeding. Come on, we’re going to ER.”
He grabbed a towel from the bathroom and wrapped it around her arm.
“Get in the car,” he ordered, hastily locking the door behind him.
“I hope he doesn’t come back,” she said.
“He’d be an idiot if he did that.”
Alan gripped the steering wheel until he could hardly feel his fingers. He wanted to punch something. He wanted to find that guy and kill him. Cassie kept rubbing and rubbing her forehead with her good hand.
“Does it hurt?” he asked.
“Yes it does.”
“No it doesn’t,” she snapped. “It feels good.”
She hardly said a word to the doctor at the hospital, just gritted her teeth and stared at the wall. Alan explained what happened while they stitched her arm.
“Don’t call the cops,” was all she said, anxiously. “It’s okay. I’ll be fine.”
She fell asleep on the way home, and Alan was left alone with his thoughts. He remembered the way the doctor and the nurses had looked at Chastity. Veiled disgust. They looked at him the same way when he told them he wasn’t her brother or her boyfriend, just a friend. They didn’t believe him.
“I don’t need this kind of trouble,” he said, softly.
But she was a part of his life now, whether he wanted it or not.
He pulled up in the driveway and nudged her awake.
“We’re here. Do you live close by?”
“Yeah,” she nodded. “But they lock the doors this late at night.”
“Well, they’ll let you in if you knock, right?”
She shook her head.
“You gotta be kidding me. They’d make you stay out all night?”
“Sure. Usually I’m with someone, though, so it doesn’t matter.”
She wasn’t going to beg, but there was fear in her eyes as she looked around the dark street. Alan’s heart sank.
“Great,” he muttered. “Okay. Well, you can have my bed and I’ll take the couch.”
He showed her where the bathroom was and handed her a pair of his pajamas.
“Holler if you need anything,” he said. “You sure you don’t want some ibuprofen or anything?”
“Okay. Well, goodnight.”
He turned to close the door when she stopped him.
“Alan, thank you.”
He threw himself on the couch, exhausted. He was still awake three hours later when the sun came up, drumming his fingers in a nervous staccato on the side of the couch. He got up, dressed, and paced around the room. He picked up the phone and dialed.
“Mom, I have a problem.”
When Cassie woke up and came yawning down the stairs, Alan had a plan.
“Cassie, how long are you going to live this way?” he asked abruptly. “It’s not right, and even if you don’t care about that, it’s not safe. Did it ever occur to you that the next time some guy decides to drag you into an alley, I might not be there to stop it? You’ve got to stop living this way.”
She wrapped her arms around herself and scowled at him.
“You got a lot of nerve talking to me like that. You’ve never been in my situation. And just how am I supposed to live? I gotta have money.”
Alan swallowed hard before he answered.
“I’m going to take care of you, if you’ll let me.”
She stared at him in shock, then her eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“What do I have to do?”
“Nothing!” Alan said in exasperation. “Nothing. After all that’s happened between us, do you really think I have ulterior motives?”
She dropped her eyes.
“If I told you I had a place for you to go, I mean, a better, safer place than here, would you go?”
Her arms tightened and she stared at the floor.
“I talked to my mom this morning and told her about you. And she wants you to come live with her. You’d be away from this place and get a new start. My mom’s a wonderful lady.”
“She won’t like me.”
“She already likes you, Cassie. It was her idea for you to come, not mine. And after a while, maybe you could get a job or go to school or something. Would you like that?”
“I think so. Would…would you come sometimes?”
“Of course I’ll come. As much as I can.”
“When do I go?”
“Right now, if you like.”
There were blood stains on her top and her jeans, so Alan stopped at a department store and bought her some new every day things to wear. They were nearly finished when he caught Cassie staring at a rack of brightly-colored dresses.
“Those are pretty,” she said.
“Well, you better try one on then.”
Alan sighed, feeling his paycheck shrink as she went into the changing room. But when she came out, he decided the money was well spent.
“It fits you real well,” he said, feeling a catch in his throat. There was the little girl at the Sunday school picnic. She smiled a little, catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror.
“Could I wear this one out?” she asked.
It was a long drive of three hours, and Cassie fell asleep during the first half hour. She hadn’t put any makeup on, and Alan could see the ring of dark that her eyelashes set off around her eyes. Somehow, she was still beautiful. Her arms were tucked in close to her face, palms of her hands pointing up, like a baby. But her sleep was troubled. Once she gasped and cried out.
Alan began to sing softly, and she quieted.
“My Shepherd shall supply my need; Jehovah is His name:
In pastures fresh He makes me feed, Beside the living stream.
He brings my wandring spirit back, When I forsake His ways;
And leads me for His mercy’s sake, in paths of truth and grace.”
It was getting on towards supper time when they reached their destination. Alan could smell good things coming out the kitchen window.
“We’re here, Cassie,” he said, smiling. “Are you hungry?”
“Mom, we’re here,” Alan called, as he pushed the screen door open.
She came out of the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron. She was youngish-looking for middle age. The only lines on her face seemed to be from smiling, because they deepened in the most pleasant way when she saw Alan. She planted a smacker on his cheek and looked past him to Cassie, still hesitating at the door.
“Cassie, how are you? I’m Rebekah. You look tired. Come in and sit at the table. We can eat right away,” she said. “What a pretty dress!”
Cassie smiled faintly.
“Alan bought it for me.”
Rebekah smiled and patted his cheek.
It was an awkward meal. Alan and his mother kept up a light-hearted conversation, trying to put Cassie at her ease. She pushed the food around on her plate after the first few mouthfuls and sat looking continually more nervous and stiff. When the meal was over and Alan helped clear the table, Cassie got up and went into the other room. He watched her cautiously as she paced back and forth like a caged animal. He felt his mother’s eyes on him
“Mom,” he said, as he dried plates. “I love her. I’m going to marry her.”
She didn’t say anything, just kept washing the dishes.
“I’m crazy, I know. It can’t end well. Someday, she’s going to hurt me really bad.”
“In any event, I wouldn’t marry her now,” Rebekah put in dryly.
“Mom, you know I’ve never been the kind of guy that’s always falling for girls. I guess, in a way, I haven’t even fallen for her. I mean, I know all about her. I know what she is. I know she isn’t likely to change any time soon. But I feel like I should marry her. It sounds ridiculous. I don’t know how to explain it. I thought about it all last night.”
“This is serious, Alan,” Rebekah said.
“Yeah, you better believe it’s serious! It might just ruin my life. But there’s a chance it might save her, and I have to take it.”
From the doorway, Alan could see Cassie sit down in the rocking chair and rock back and forth, staring at nothing again.
“Give her some time, Alan. Give her time to come around,” Rebekah said, looking anxiously at him.
“I intend to. I’m not doing anything stupid,” he said then laughed. “Nothing more stupid then marrying a former prostitute.”
“And if she goes back to that, what then?”
“That’s when I get hurt.”
When it was time to go, Alan went out on the porch with Rebekah and Cassie. He hugged his mom and took Cassie’s hand.
“Cassie, please stay here,” he begged. “I know it won’t be easy doing everything so different, but you’ll like it in a little while. I’m sure you will. I’ll come and visit you often, okay?”
She nodded, her eyes inscrutable, lips tight.
“I’ll stay, Alan. I promise.”
As he pulled out of the driveway, the last glimpse he had was of Rebekah leading Cassie indoors by the hand.
Alan kept his word and visited every Saturday he could get away. Sometimes, he stayed until Sunday and they went to church together. To Alan’s surprise, Cassie seemed to be settling into her new surroundings quickly. Over the next month, she became less nervous and irritable. When Alan came back for the first visit, she was eager to show him how she and Rebekah had fixed up her room with new curtains and matching bedspread. Every time he came, Cassie was standing on the front porch, waiting for him.
He’d smile and say, “Hello, Cassie! How was your week?”
“It was good,” she’d say and sit down to tell him about the things she’d done.
Rebekah was teaching her to knit, and she often sat in the rocking chair of an evening, keeping her fingers and her mind busy. But there were also those other times, the times Alan worried about. Gloom would fall over her and she’d become quiet and withdrawn and go away from Rebekah and Alan. She would sit outside on the lawn, staring at nothing, pulling up handfuls of grass.
He found her there one Sunday afternoon wearing the dress he bought her.
“Nice day, isn’t it?” he asked as he sat down on the grass beside her.
She didn’t answer him. She didn’t act like she even heard him.
“Did you like church, Cassie?” he asked. “Aren’t there a lot of nice people?”
“I don’t belong,” Cassie said, looking hard at him. “I’m not good like them.”
“Cassie, that’s all behind you now. You’ve left it all behind, remember? This is a new place.”
“No,” she said, hitting her chest and holding her hand over her heart. “I didn’t leave it behind. It’s all right here. It came with me, and it won’t go away.”
He knew she was right. If she’d only listen to him, though, he could show her the way out.
“It doesn’t have to be that way, Cassie,” he began.
But she didn’t hear him, and he finally stood up and left. A few hours later, she came back into the house, asking him to go for a walk with her, like nothing had ever happened. Alan had great hopes that these fits of hers would gradually fade away.
He bought a ring for her. He was going to ask her at the end of the summer. He knew a thousand reasons why he shouldn’t give her the ring. He repeated them to himself at night. She’d never shown anything like love towards him. He wasn’t sure that she knew how to express love. She was not emotionally stable. She was not fit in any practical way to be a wife and a mother. He would be the one giving and never receiving. He would have to be and do everything. In the darkness of the night, he resigned himself to give and never receive.
And then one Saturday afternoon, he said, “I love you, Cassie. Will you marry me?”
She stood there in her pretty dress, looking from the ring to him. There was such a strange look in her eyes, certainly not happiness. She didn’t say anything for a long time.
Then, finally, “You sure?”
She let him put the ring on her finger. She stood on tip toes and kissed his cheek, then turned and went inside.
For a while, she busied herself with looking at wedding dresses and cakes and things. She asked Alan what he wanted her to wear. She seemed happier. He teased her about the freckles on her nose and she actually laughed at him. They decided to have the ceremony very soon, before the school year started and he had to be back to work. Alan worked hard on the house, fixing a few things and getting it ready for her. He was working on it the Friday before the wedding when Rebekah called.
“Alan, I think you’d better come home. Cassie was gone when I got up this morning, and I can’t find her anywhere.”
Her clothes were still in the closet. Only a t-shirt and a pair of jeans were missing. She had left a note on her bed with the engagement ring on top. Alan picked up the ring and the note and read it, tears blurring his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Alan. It’ll never work. Go find a nice girl and marry her. Don’t look for me. It’s not worth it.”
He folded the note and put it in his pocket. Rebekah got him a piece of string, and he threaded it through the ring and hung it around his neck.
“I want it to be ready when I find her,” he explained.
School started, and Alan was busy once again with lesson plans and grading. But a day never passed when he didn’t go out with his car and search the streets of the city for her. He felt sure she must have made her way back to his city. It was what she knew. So he got a map and marked off streets as he traveled them. Sometimes, he got out of the car and showed a snapshot of her to people on the street, asking if they’d seen her. But no one had.
The months passed. Rainy April came again with its promise of warm weather and flowers. Alan was sitting at his kitchen table, trying to read, but not really paying attention to the words on the page. He listened to the rain drumming on the porch roof. The map lay spread out in front of him. There were pink highlighter marks on practically every street in town. He pushed the book aside and put his head in his hands. There had been no sign of her, no word of her, nothing. He stared at the map. There was one little quarter of an inch that wasn’t marked. It was the alley across from his house. It seemed so obvious to him that she wouldn’t be there. She was a smart girl, and if she really didn’t want to be found, there was no way she would come back to the alley.
All the same, he got up and looked out the window. Through the drizzle, he looked intently into the alley. In his mind’s eye, he could see her as plain as day, standing there watching men pass by. He remembered the way she looked at him the first time, her eyes challenging him, defiant. But she was not there. In her place was some homeless person huddled up in a rain coat who must have limped up while he daydreamed. Ragged jeans, dirty coat, face covered with a hood, coughing into a slender hand. It was the hand that caught his eye and made him look closer. The coughing stopped, and whoever it was froze, dark eyes burning into him underneath the hood.
“Chastity,” he whispered.
He started and ran to the door, throwing it open. She bolted, trying to run through the alley, but she was limping so badly.
“Cassie,” Alan called. “Cassie, wait!”
She slipped and fell. She was trying to crawl away on her hands and knees when he reached her.
“Cassie,” was all he could say, as the tears ran down his face.
She looked up at him, still crawling away, her hands stretching forward through the stream of dirty water running over the pavement. Her hair was matted and she trembled with exhaustion. She finally stopped trying and lay her head down. Alan sat down beside her, mindless of the filthy water, and cradled her head in his lap. He pushed the hair out of her face, so broken and fragile.
“You made me lose my touch,” she said, trying to smile. “They kicked me out, because I’m not worth much anymore. I didn’t want you to see me tonight. I thought you wouldn’t see me.”
“I’ve been looking everywhere for months,” Alan said.
“Come back, Cassie,” Alan begged.
“I can’t. I can’t be good.”
“You can with God’s help.”
“I’ll show you how, only come back,” he said, reaching for the cord around his neck. “Look, I still have it.”
He pulled the ring out and broke the cord. Seeing what he was about to do, she tried to pull her hand away. But she was too weak, and he put the ring back on her finger.
“No, Alan, no,” she sobbed.
“I love you, Chastity,” he told her, wiping her tears away. “Will you marry me?”
She could not speak.
“You must promise to be for me and only for me, and I’ll be only for you.”
With the only strength she had left, she reached up and pulled his head down to her chest, wrapping her arms around his neck. And there in the rain, he heard the words he had wanted to hear for so long.
“I love you, Alan. I’ll be only for you.”
“Mommy? Mommy,” the little girl, was shaking her mother’s arm. “Don’t cry.”
The lady smiled and dabbed at her dark eyes.
“Oh, it’s just happy crying, Becky.”
She stood up and looked around at the clock.
“Daddy and Grandma should be here soon. Come help me dish up the food.”
A few minutes later, they heard the crunch of gravel and a honk as a car drove in the drive way.
“Run out and give Grandma and Dad a hug. I’ll finish up in here.”
She worked quietly, glancing out the window from time to time. Little Becky took her Grandma off to see something, and her father came up the steps into the house.
“There you are, Chastity,” he smiled. “It smells good in here.”
He wrapped his arms around her and looked into her smiling face.
“You’ve been crying,” he observed.
“Oh, it’s nothing, Alan,” she said. “I was just happy.”
Becky and Rebekah came into the house, chattering. Chastity greeted Rebekah with a hug and they all sat down to dinner. That evening after the meal, they gathered on the porch, admiring the sunset. Rebekah sat with Becky in her lap, reading a story. Chastity leaned her head on Alan’s shoulder, watching her daughter. There was happiness, sadness, joy, pain, regret all written in her face. A tear slipped down her cheek and splashed on Alan’s hand.
“What are you thinking about?” Alan whispered.
She gave a soft laugh, wiping the tear off his hand, looking him full in the face.
“Then said the Lord unto me, ‘Go yet, love a woman beloved of her friend, yet an adulteress, according to the love of the Lord to the children of Israel, who look to other gods, and love flagons of wine. So I bought her to me for fifteen pieces of silver…And I said unto her, ‘Thou shalt abide for me many days; thou shalt not play the harlot, and thou shalt not be for another man; so will I also be for thee.’” Hosea 3:1-3