“One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil,
but a fool is reckless and careless.”
“The prudent sees danger and hides himself,
but the simple go on and suffer for it.”
The loud hiss of the opening bus doors jolted her from her sleep. Instinctively, she grabbed her lone possession, a Jansport backpack she had picked up from a previous stay at a homeless shelter. She quickly exited the Greyhound bus she had been on for the last 24 hours and stepped out into the warm summer morning, squinting in the bright sunlight. As the bus pulled away from the stop, she turned to take in a full view of her surroundings. After ten years of wandering around the country, she’d finally made it back to the place she used to call home.
This bus stop just happened to be across the street from her childhood home church, and her knees felt weak as she looked at this place she had frequented so often as a child. She walked over to sit on a bench and to take a moment to gather her thoughts. The Sister had felt homesick ever since she left this place twenty years prior, and the ache for her family had never dulled.
She had done a masterful job of pushing the grief down and barricading it within the prison of her heart, but doing so had cost her everything. For twenty years, she had not known true intimacy, and her heart had been untouchable. But now, she faced the greatest threat to her emotional stability…she was back in her hometown, where she had lived with her family.
This was why she had avoided this place for the last ten years — she knew she couldn’t avoid the tsunami of grief that had been building in her heart. This massive wave threatened to overtake her, and she knew that when it did, it would destroy her.
After a period of deep contemplation, The Sister gave a slight nod, as if to agree with an internal dialogue to which no one else was privy. She thought of the reason for her return here, and she knew it would be a long walk to get there. Before she stood, she unzipped her backpack to make sure everything was still in there. She rummaged through the bag, then she ran her hand along the shoebox tucked near the bottom. It was still there, just like she knew it would be. The shoebox had received some rough treatment over the last ten years, but the contents inside had never been disturbed.
The Sister took a deep breath, settling the nervous feeling in the pit of her stomach. She hadn’t been to this spot in twenty years. The overwhelming emotions grew in power, and she forced herself to begin walking.
Turning the corner, she moved to the edge of the sidewalk to make room for a couple approaching from the opposite direction. They avoided eye contact with her, confirming her own opinion of herself. She was merely a shell of a person, unnoticeable, unwanted. Her ratty clothes and unbrushed hair repelled people from her presence. She felt so alone, and the feeling took her back to a time ten years earlier when she had been in a similar situation.
She had never gotten over the kindness of Kyle and Jenny Hamilton. She remembered the excitement of her drive, freshly liberated from her aunt and uncle and ready to face the world alone. But once she’d pulled onto the twisty, crowded streets of San Francisco, the realization of being utterly alone nearly drove her to go back to them. Never before had she felt so completely invisible.
She’d parked her car near the Golden Gate Bridge, taking in the beauty of the view. The sun had begun its descent on the horizon, and her stomach grumbled from hunger. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten because she had been so excited to just get here. Wandering over to a bench, she curled up into a ball and let the tears of fear and sadness flow freely. It wasn’t often that she allowed herself such a public display of emotion, but she’d been powerless to stop it at that time.
As the sun drew closer to its dip below the horizon, The Sister began to feel unsafe where she was and quickly left the park to walk to a more populated area. That was when she had happened upon the Hamilton’s pizzeria.
What was it that drew Jenny to me that night? Why did she approach me while I sat alone in that booth? The Sister had never figured out an answer to her questions, and Jenny had not been forthcoming about what prompted her to approach the girl. She only ever said that she could tell The Sister looked like someone who needed a friend.
A kind smile and an attentive ear were not the only things that Jenny had offered The Sister that night. Before The Sister realized it, she had shared with Jenny that she was new to the area, without any family, and had no job or place to stay. That night, two of her most immediate needs were met. Jenny hired her as a hostess at the pizzeria, and she offered their garage apartment to The Sister, rent-free until she could get on her feet. The Sister never let on about the trust money she had in the bank, choosing to keep that money secret for her own personal use.
Kyle and Jenny were the kindest, most generous people she’d ever met, other than her own parents. Both in their mid-50’s, they had worked hard in their early marriage to fulfill Kyle’s lifelong dream of owning a restaurant. They’d opened the pizzeria some 25 years earlier, and it had become a trademark restaurant to the downtown San Francisco area. The Sister had been proud to work there, and she’d enjoyed her days as their hostess.
Though they would have made the most amazing parents in the world, Jenny shared with The Sister that they’d never been able to conceive children of their own. Then, after experiencing two failed adoptions, the heartache from their losses led Kyle and Jenny to help others in similar situations. Their story had intrigued The Sister. Jenny had not led an easy life, yet in spite of the great heartache she’d endured, she was still a very joyful person. The Sister could never understand her joy.
Kyle and Jenny were always very active in their church and often invited The Sister to join them. Their efforts were met with resistance, though near the end of her stay with them, she had softened to their invitations. In fact, she was considering trying it out before everything changed. Had she never met Jarod, she was sure her life would be completely different now.
The thought of Jarod brought a crushing sense of regret to The Sister. As she continued on her walk, a feeling of shame wrapped around her like a garment as the memories of Jarod flooded her mind.
He’d come into the pizzeria one night, tall, confident, and irresistibly handsome. Jarod and his group of friends were rowdy and obnoxious, but The Sister was undaunted by their actions. His looks captivated her. She could tell that Jenny was frustrated with their behavior, worrying about how they might offend other customers. But The Sister had immediately fallen for Jarod’s smooth talk, and she drank up his flirtatious behavior toward her.
When they had finished eating, Jarod had come over to the hostess table to ask for her number. She’d avoided Jenny’s eyes as she flirted back, resisting only a little to his offer for drinks after the restaurant closed. She shyly told him she wasn’t old enough to get into a club, but he had reassured her that he “knew a guy” who would help them out. The rest of that night was a blur, and she could only clearly remember waking up in Jarod’s bed the next morning.
Though she had mostly avoided drugs while she lived with the Hamilton’s, she quickly found herself back in that world as her relationship with Jarod developed. In high school, drug use had always been recreational for her, but with Jarod, it became a need, a compulsion…an addiction.
Her late nights with Jarod and his friends became more and more frequent, and The Sister started missing work. Kyle and Jenny were patient, loving, and gracious, pleading with her to avoid her new group of friends. They desperately tried to reason with her, warning her of the dangers her choices would bring. But The Sister had never been one to listen to the wisdom of others, not when she was having so much fun. As her behavior became more erratic, the Hamiltons eventually had to ask her to move out of their apartment. They assured her of their love, but they felt they were only enabling her addictive and harmful choices.
As she looked back on it all now, The Sister realized that Jarod had been the beginning of the end for her. The two years she had worked for and lived with Kyle and Jenny were two of the happiest years of her life, outside of the first eight years with her own family. But then, she’d moved into Jarod’s apartment, which felt like a dark and dirty hole compared to the comfortable and clean place she’d just left. But Jarod promised his love, and for a season, she felt blissfully happy with his affections.
It couldn’t last forever, though, and the day came when their money began to run out. With the pressure of financial strain came Jarod’s rage. Drinking and drugs only made it worse, and he became physically violent with The Sister. At first, she considered leaving. But just when she’d mustered enough courage to leave, he would come along and weep over his actions, promising he would never let it happen again. Thus began the season she had come to know as “the roller coaster.”
Money became so tight that Jenny allowed Jarod to sell her car. They were both desperate for the high that only drugs could bring, and eventually, The Sister confided in Jarod about her trust money. “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?” he’d demanded with a mixture of anger and excitement. From that moment on, he took control of her debit card, promising her that he would take care of all of their needs.
Living on her trust money had brought a new season of affection and "love" from Jarod. They had the best food, frequented the best night clubs, and did whatever they pleased. It was a time of many highs, though The Sister couldn’t always remember all of the details. Eventually, they emptied her trust completely.
With the end of her money came the return of Jarod’s rage, but this time, it was unbearable. Desperate to feed his addictions, Jarod began to prostitute The Sister, telling her that she needed to contribute her share to their rent. He used her as he saw fit, and she felt trapped in his dank apartment. He would take her out sometimes, and it was on those occasions that she felt everything might change. It never did.
One night, The Sister came to realize that if she didn’t do something about her situation, she would die in that horrible place. Jarod’s frequent threats that he would hunt her down and kill her if she ran frightened her, but now she knew she had to try and escape. That opportunity came quickly when, several nights later, Jarod lay unconscious on the floor after getting high. Fearful that she wouldn’t have much time, The Sister had grabbed the shoebox she’d hidden under her bed, stole some money from Jarod's bedside table, and fled into the night.
She felt too much guilt to return to Kyle and Jenny, and she also feared what Jarod might do to them if he learned she was there, so The Sister had hitchhiked out of San Francisco immediately. The years since her escape from Jarod were a mixture of terrible hunger and thirst; cold nights sleeping out in the elements; sexual exploitation; and fear. She became a drifter, without even one soul to call ‘friend.’ When her hunger became unbearable or her desperation to get high uncontrollable, she would find a truck stop and prostitute herself. It became an endless, hopeless, and inescapable cycle.
A car honked to her right, drawing her back to the present. That’s when The Sister realized she had arrived at her destination. Crossing the street without even looking both ways, she hurried into the cemetery. She remembered exactly how to get to their graves.
The Sister’s heart pounded as she saw the four graves in the distance. Her end was near, and she knew the tsunami of grief would hit her soon.
She remembered approaching these graves twenty years prior, an innocent girl of eight who was just becoming acquainted with the world of orphanhood. She pitied that girl now; if only she knew the hell her life would become. A gentle breeze blew, and she listened as the leaves danced in the trees. All was quiet around her, and she walked to her family’s graves in silence.
The time had come. After all these years…all of the running, the hiding, the avoiding of her grief…she was ready now to let it consume her. The weight of her reality was too much for her thin, malnourished frame, and she gave in weakly to the emotional turmoil she bore. Sitting on the grass in front of their graves, the first sob escaped her chest.
“I’ve never understood why you left me,” she said, and the sound of her own voice was strange to her ears. More sobs wracked her body, and she bent forward, pounding the grass. “How could you leave me here? Why did you make me go to that camp? I wish I would have died with all of you!” She dug her fingers into the ground, pulling out tufts of grass, raking her nails across the soil.
The full force of her grief was released, and The Sister felt the despair overtake her. Her sobs were fierce, her tears were full, and she wept from the depths of her soul. “You always told me how God loves me. Well you know what? I hate Him! I hate God! How could I ever love a God who left me abandoned? He made me an orphan!” She shouted the words, but only the silence of the cemetery and her own convulsions of grief greeted her ears.
Reaching into her back pack, she pulled out the water bottle and the bag of pills. The tsunami was upon her now, and she felt her body disappearing. All she wanted was non-existence. She swallowed the entire bottle of pills, laying down on the grass.
For twenty years, now, she’d been without a home. Though she had searched everywhere, she had only experienced homelessness, both physically and emotionally. She lay on the grass, the closest she’d been to her family in twenty years, and she longed for the moment she would no longer exist.
Pulling into the cemetery, The Friend looked over at the fresh flowers that lay on the seat next to her. She hadn’t been to Sarah’s grave in a while, but she had woken up this morning with a powerful compulsion to visit her grave. Why do I feel such an urgency to get to the gravesite? Her heart was racing without explanation. Maybe I had too much coffee.
She followed the winding road in the cemetery, making her way to the back plots. She spotted the graves of Sarah and Nick in the distance, and she pulled to a stop nearby. As she stepped out of her car, she looked around at the serene beauty and drew a deep, calming breath. She retrieved the flowers and began her walk to the graves.
As she walked, something in her peripheral vision caused her to look where the four members of the Anderson family were buried. It took her only a few seconds to register that laying across their graves was an unmoving human body. Immediately, all of her medical training kicked in, and she dropped the flowers to her side. Dialing 9-1-1 for help, The Friend rushed to render aid.