Alex“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.
“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.”
“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?