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The car lights passing by the side road kept Mary Crandall awake. She glanced into the backseat where her son, Bob, and her daughter, Ann, were finally asleep. Sandwiched between them, the toddler, John, was sound asleep in his little car seat. Mary pushed back a strand of dark hair and glanced worriedly out the window. She'd never in her life slept in a car. But she and her children had just been evicted from their rental home, by a worried young policewoman with a legal eviction notice. She hadn't wanted to enforce the order but had no choice since Mary hadn't paid the rent in full. The rent had gone up and Mary could no longer afford the monthly payments.
It was Mary who'd comforted her, assuring her that she and the children would manage somehow. The order hadn't mentioned the automobile, although Mary was sure that it would be taken, too. The thing was, it hadn't been taken today. By tomorrow, perhaps, the shock would wear off and she could function again. She was resourceful, and not afraid of hard work. She'd manage.
The fear of the unknown was the worst. But she knew that she and the children would be all right. They had to be! If only she didn't have to take the risk of having them in a parked car with her in the middle of the night. Like any big city, Phoenix was dangerous at night.
She didn't dare go to sleep. The car doors didn't even lock.…
Just as she was worrying about that, car lights suddenly flashed in the rearview mirror. Blue lights. She groaned. It was a police car. Now they were in for it. What did they do to a woman for sleeping in a car with her kids? Was it against the law?
Mary had a sad picture of herself in mind as the police car stopped. She hadn't combed her dark, thick hair all day. There were circles under her big, light blue eyes. Her slender figure was all too thin and her jeans and cotton shirt were hopelessly wrinkled. She wasn't going to make a good impression.
She rolled the window down as a uniformed officer walked up to the driver's window with a pad in one hand, and the other hand on the butt of his service revolver. Mary swallowed. Hard.
The officer leaned down. He was clean-shaven, neat in appearance. "May I see your license and registration, please?" he asked politely.
With a pained sigh, she produced them from her tattered purse and handed them to him. "I guess you're going to arrest us," she said miserably as she turned on the inside lights.
He directed his gaze to the backseat, where Bob, Ann and John were still asleep, then looked back at Mary. He glanced at her license and registration and passed them back to her. "You can't sleep in a car," he said.
She smiled sadly. "Then it's on the ground, I'm afraid. We were just evicted from our home." Without knowing why, she added, "The divorce was final today and he left us high and dry. To add insult to injury, he wants the car for himself, but he can't find it tonight."
His face didn't betray anything, but she sensed anger in him. "I won't ask why the children have to be punished along with you," he replied. "I've been at this job for twenty years. There isn't much I haven't seen."
"I imagine so. Well, do we go in handcuffs…?"
"Don't be absurd. There's a shelter near here, a very well-run one. I know the lady who manages it. She'll give you a place to sleep and help you find the right resources to solve your situation."
Tears sprung to her light eyes. She couldn't believe he was willing to help them!
"Now, don't cry," he ground out. "If you cry, I'll cry, and just imagine how it will look to my superiors if it gets around? They'll call me a sissy!"
That amused her. She laughed, lighting up her thin face.
"That's better," he said, liking the way she looked when she smiled. "Okay. You follow me, and we'll get you situated."
"Hey, I'm not that old," he murmured dryly. "Come on. Drive safely. I'll go slow."
She gave him a grateful smile. "Thanks. I mean it. I was scared to death to stay here, but I had no place I could go except to a friend, and she lives just two doors down from my ex-husband.…"
"No need even to explain. Let's go."
He led her through downtown Phoenix to an old warehouse that had been converted into a homeless shelter.
She parked the car in the large parking lot and picked up the baby carrier, motioning to Bob and Ann to get out, too.
"Dad will probably have the police looking for the car by now," Bob said sadly.
"It doesn't matter," Mary said. "We'll manage, honey."
The police officer was out of his own car, having given his location on the radio. He joined them at the entrance to the shelter, grimacing.
"I just got a call about the car…" he began.
"I told you Dad would be looking for it," Bob said on a sigh.
"It's all right," Mary told him. She forced a smile. "I can borrow one from one of the ladies I work for. She's offered before."
"She must have a big heart," the policeman mused.
She smiled. "She has that. I keep house for several rich ladies. She's very kind."
The policeman held the door open for them as they filed reluctantly into the entrance. As she passed, she noticed that his name tag read Matt Clark. Odd, she thought, they had the same initials, and then she chided herself for thinking such a stupid thing when she was at the end of her rope.
Many people were sitting around talking. Some were sleeping on cots, even on the floor, in the huge space. There were old tables and chairs that didn't match. There was a long table with a coffee urn and bags of paper plates and cups, where meals were apparently served. It was meant for a largely transient clientele. But the place felt welcoming, just the same. The big clock on the wall read 10:00 p.m. It wasn't nearly as late as she'd thought.
"Is Bev around?" the policeman asked a woman nearby.
"Yes. She's working in the office. I'll get her," she added, smiling warmly at Mary.
"She's nice people," the policeman said with a smile. "It's going to be all right."
A couple of minutes later, a tall, dignified woman in her forties came out of the office. She recognized the police officer and grinned. "Hi, Matt! What brings you here at this hour?"
"I brought you some more clients," he said easily. "They don't have anyplace to go tonight. Got room?"
"Always,"the woman said, turning to smile at Mary and her kids. She was tall and her dark hair was sprinkled with gray. She was wearing jeans and a red sweater, and she looked honest and kind. "I'm Bev Tanner," she said, holding out her hand to shake Mary's. "I manage the homeless shelter."
"I'm Mary Crandall," she replied, noting the compassionate police officer's intent scrutiny. "These are my children. Bob's the oldest, he's in junior high, Ann is in her last year of grammar school, and John's just eighteen months."
"I'm very happy to have you here," Bev said. "And you're welcome to stay as long as you need to."
Mary's lips pressed together hard as she struggled not to cry. The events of the day were beginning to catch up with her.
"What you need is a good night's sleep," Bev said at once. "Come with me and I'll get you settled."
Mary turned to Officer Clark. "Thanks a million," she managed to say, trying to smile.
He shrugged. "All in a night's work." He hesitated. "Maybe I'll see you around."
She did smile, then. "Maybe you will."
Phoenix was an enormous city. It wasn't likely. But they continued smiling at each other as he waved to Bev and went out the door.
An hour later, Mary and the children were comfortably situated with borrowed blankets. She realized belatedly that she hadn't thought to take one single piece of clothing or even her spare cosmetics from the house. There had hardly been time to absorb the shock and surprise of being evicted.
Mary looked around, dazed. The homeless shelter was just a little frightening. She'd never been inside one before. Like many people, she'd passed them in her travels around Phoenix, but never paid them much attention. The people who frequented them had been only shadows to her, illusions she remembered from occasional stories on television around the holiday season. Helping the homeless was always a good story, during that season when people tried to behave better. Contributions were asked and acknowledged from sympathetic contributors. Then, like the tinsel and holly and wreaths, the homeless were put aside until the next holiday season.
But Mary was unable to put it aside. She had just sustained a shock as her divorce became final. She and her three children were suddenly without a home, without clothes, furniture, anything except a small amount of money tucked away in Mary's tattered purse.
She was sure that when they woke up in the morning, the car would be gone, too. The policeman, Matt Clark, had already mentioned that there was a lookout for the car. She hoped she wouldn't be accused of stealing it. She'd made all the payments, but it was in her ex-husband's name, like all their assets and everything else. That hadn't been wise. However, she'd never expected to find herself in such a situation.
She'd told Bev that they were only going to be here for one night. She had a little money in her purse, enough to pay rent at a cheap motel for a week. Somehow she'd manage after that. She just wasn't sure how. She hardly slept. Early the next morning, she went to the serving table to pour herself a cup of coffee. The manager, Bev, was doing the same.
"It's okay," the manager told her gently. "There are a lot of nice people who ended up here. We've got a mother and child who came just two days before you did," she indicated a dark young woman with a nursing baby and a terrified look. "Her name's Meg. Her husband ran off with her best friend and took all their money. And that sweet old man over there—" she nodded toward a ragged old fellow "—had his house sold out from under him by a nephew he trusted. The boy cashed in everything and took off. Mr. Harlowe was left all on his own with nothing but the clothes on his back."
"No matter how bad off people are, there's always someone worse, isn't there?" Mary asked quietly.
"Always. But you see miracles here, every day. And you're welcome to stay as long as you need to."
Mary swallowed hard. "Thanks," she said huskily. "We'll find a place tomorrow. I may not have much money or property, but I've got plenty of friends."
Bev smiled. "I'd say you know what's most important in life." She followed Mary's quick glance toward her children.
With the morning came hope. They'd had breakfast and Mary was working on her second cup of coffee, trying to decide how to proceed. Mary watched her brood mingling with other children at a long table against the wall, sharing their school paper and pencils, because they'd had the foresight to grab their backpacks on the way out, smiling happily. She never ceased to be amazed at the ease with which they accepted the most extreme situations. Their father's addiction had terrorized them all from time to time, but they were still able to smile and take it in stride, even that last night when their very lives had been in danger.
One of the policemen who came to help them the last time there had been an incident at home, an older man with kind eyes, had taken them aside and tried to explain that the violence they saw was the drugs, not the man they'd once known. But that didn't help a lot. There had been too many episodes, too much tragedy. Mary's dreams of marriage and motherhood had turned to nightmares.
"You're Mary, right?" one of the shelter workers asked with a smile.
"Uh, yes," Mary said uneasily, pushing back her dark hair, uncomfortably aware that it needed washing. There hadn't been time in the rush to get out of the house.
"Those your kids?" the woman added, nodding toward the table.
"All three," Mary agreed, watching with pride as Bob held the toddler on his lap while he explained basic math to a younger boy.
"Your son already has a way with kids, doesn't he?" the worker asked. "I'll bet he's a smart boy."
"He is," Mary agreed, noting that Bob's glasses had the nosepiece taped again, and they would need replacing. She grimaced, thinking of the cost. She wouldn't be able to afford even the most basic things now, like dentist visits and glasses. She didn't even have health insurance because her husband had dropped Mary and the kids from his policy once the divorce was final. She'd have to try to get into a group policy, but it would be hard, because she was a freelance housekeeper who worked for several clients.