Authors: Lynn Cooper
Apple Pie Angel
Copyright © 2015 Lynn Cooper
All rights reserved.
If we weren’t standing in the middle of hell, I might believe you were an angel.
RUNNING LATE AS USUAL, Lacey Burke grabbed the box of freshly-baked apple pies and let the door to the duplex apartment slam shut behind her. She carefully set the aromatic, still-warm-from-the-oven desserts in the back seat of her Honda Accord. The old clunker was a hand-me-down from her great aunt Emma who had recently passed away. The pig valve in her heart had exploded. It was tragic, but she was on the high side of eighty-nine and had enjoyed a good life. Although Emma’s death was sad, it was somewhat expected. Unlike the community-service sentence Lacey received last month.
Fastening her seatbelt, she turned the switch over. The engine grumbled to life. It was already dusk, nearing darkness. The headlights only served to illuminate and amplify the silver paint peeling off above the Honda’s front fenders. The driver’s seat had rips in the upholstery, and the ear-numbingly loud muffler was loose. It was barely hanging on by a makeshift hook fashioned from a wire coat hanger. The whole undercarriage rattled every time Lacey hit a pothole; but she refused to complain about the car, her tiny apartment, her low-paying waitressing job at Finn’s diner or anything else after recently witnessing the devastating hardship of others.
Lacey was always in a hurry for one reason or another which inevitably prompted her to break the speed limit. She had been cited five times in the last few months. Knowing she didn’t have the money to pay them, she did what any gal in her predicament would. She shoved them into the compartment of the dashboard and hoped like the devil they would somehow magically disappear. They didn’t. Instead, an officer appeared at her front door with a bench warrant, taking her before the traffic-court judge who had issued it.
Judge Ashmore peered over the rim of his bifocals. “Young lady, you cannot just ignore a problem and expect it to go away. Blatant avoidance never solves anything. The way I see it, you have two choices: pay the tickets or do thirty days in jail.”
Lacey hadn’t meant to cry, but she couldn’t stop her bottom lip from quivering or her mouth from stuttering. “I—I don’t have the money to pay them. And I ca—can’t do jail time.”
She wasn’t trying to get out of speeding with no consequences, but she honestly didn’t have the money. Jail was for criminals, and she’d never make it on the inside.
“Isn’t there a third choice?” she asked, sniffling back more tears.
The judge let his head fall forward in what she interpreted as concession. Lacey would never try to work the system by crying, but she also knew most men couldn’t handle a weepy woman.
He grunted, then removed his glasses. “Lacey Burke, this court sentences you to thirty days of community service to be carried out immediately. You will serve food to the homeless at Eva’s Soup Kitchen down on Houston Street between noon and three o’clock daily. If you miss even one day, you’ll finish your sentence in a jail cell. Have I made myself clear?”
“Court dismissed.” The echo of his gavel slamming against the sound block jangled Lacey’s already frayed nerves, but she was thankful for the mercy he had shown her. She wasn’t cut out for prison, and there was no way she could come up with a thousand dollars for the speeding tickets. She was doggone lucky he hadn’t suspended her license.
If she couldn’t drive, she wouldn’t be able to deliver these pies to the homeless. Her community service at the soup kitchen had been the most humbling experience of her young life. In all of her twenty-four years, she had never done anything so emotionally rewarding. Lacey would have loved to continue volunteering even after she was no longer legally obligated, but she couldn’t do it and still hold onto her job at the diner. Her meatball-loving, Swedish boss—Finn—already begrudged her being away all last month during the lunch rush. He wouldn’t hold her job open indefinitely for her to keep doing charity work. But he couldn’t stop her from feeding those in need at night. True, the soup kitchen wasn’t open at this hour, but Lacey figured she could bring food to the less fortunate herself.
On her final day at Eva’s, she followed a few of the regulars, finding out where the majority of them were staying. It was one week ago today that she saw them congregating under an old train trestle. It broke her heart. The area was beyond rundown, surrounded by deserted streets on a block that wouldn’t meet the standards of a slum.
By comparison, she thought about how nice it was to be inside her tiny, sparse yet comfortable, safe apartment, having a piece of warm apple pie before bedtime. And how sad it was that the poor people she had been serving lunch to for the past month didn’t have the same luxury.
That’s when it hit her. If she went to the annual fall apple festival, she could buy bushels and bushels at a great price. It took her the entire week to peel, freeze and dehydrate them, but now she had enough apples to bake pies all winter. She had started tonight and was ever so anxious to get to the trestle and share them. The dirt-streaked, worry-creased, down-trodden faces she had gazed upon at the soup kitchen would break into smiles when she brought them a bedtime snack. A simple pleasure she had spent her entire life taking for granted. Lacey was certain they would welcome her with open arms.
CHANCE TAGGERT PULLED HIS threadbare jacket a little tighter around his neck. It was only early October in Stanton, South Carolina, but the evening air had a definite bite to it. Before he became an inhabitant of the streets, he was hot-blooded and had never truly felt cold. Having slept on concrete with little shelter from the elements for the last five winters had wreaked havoc on his internal thermostat. Now, the least bit of cool air left him chilled to the bone. He was only thirty-two years old but felt ninety-two. A few more years of living like this, and he would look it, too.
When Chance became a street urchin, he was shocked to discover the various reasons people had for living out of cardboard boxes. Having come from an upper-middle class home, he just assumed it was from loss of a job or home foreclosure. Now he realized homelessness was born out of anything from addiction to mental illness to unemployment and everything in between. He was most surprised to find that, like him, many were here because they didn’t believe they deserved to be anywhere else.
The group he hung with under the trestle was made up of a runaway called Skip because he had skipped out on his family; a former college professor nicknamed Shakespeare as he was always quoting the famous writer; an ex-football player everyone called Jock for obvious reasons; and a mentally challenged man who went by the name of Loopy.
The rest of the clan remained nameless by choice and never talked at all. Chance was really Chance. There was no use in trying to hide his identity. His name and face had been splashed across all the papers a few years ago. And contrary to popular belief, most homeless folks were literate and managed to get their hands on a daily newspaper, first to read, then to cover up with. When he fell in with the trestle troop, they already knew who he was.
Flipping the collar up around his ears, he sank even lower against a brick wall. Until a month ago, he had accepted his station in life. Hell, he had chosen it, never planned on changing it and hoped—sooner rather than later—he would die right here listening to Loopy’s repetitious mumbling.
“Chance got grumpy. Chance got grumpy. Pigs can’t fly. Monkeys won’t cry. Chance got grumpy.”
Even the insane could detect the change in Chance’s normally even-keeled demeanor. It was
He had been fine until he saw her behind the counter at the soup kitchen. Chance had heard Eva introduce her to the other servers. She wasn’t like them. They were dressed in designer clothes and never made eye contact. They were there to collect bragging rights. To rack up points for volunteer activities. To them, homeless people were just another checkbox on their resumé. But Lacey—just as pretty as her name— was warm and friendly. Her smile lit up the darkest recesses of his mind. Her big brown eyes grabbed his gaze and held it until he had to look away from embarrassment. Their soft, liquid beauty overwhelmed him, rendering him breathless. Every day she wore a bright-colored, fluffy sweater and faded Levis. He knew instinctively this sexy, voluptuous brunette was the real deal.
He loved how her curves went on for miles. Chance’s sister would have labeled Lacey a plus-size woman. To him, she was perfect. When he closed his eyes at night, he had visions of resting his weary head against her bountiful breasts. When he allowed himself a daydream, he imagined spooning her with that ample bottom pressed against his groin. Lying next to her, he would never feel cold, ever again.
Taking a deep breath, Chance vowed to rein in his tumultuous emotions. To put Lacey out of his mind. His moodiness was born out of missing her. She vanished from Eva’s Soup Kitchen just as quickly as she had appeared. He had gone back every day for the last week, but she wasn’t there. He was determined to downplay the effect she had on him. To tamp down the tiny seeds of hope that had begun to sprout through the hard, fallow ground of his heart. But he had failed miserably. Nothing new; he was really good at failing.
From this moment forward, he would have to put her out of his mind and make more of an effort to be amiable and approachable to his fellow street urchins. Since his first day under the trestle, Loopy had latched onto Chance, making him feel somewhat responsible for the young man. They had formed a mutual bond of friendship. It wasn’t fair for Chance to take his frustrations out on anyone other than himself. He had made his lonely, concrete bed now he would have to lie on it.
LACEY PARKED ABOUT FIFTY feet from the trestle and killed the headlights. She didn’t want to startle anyone, especially if they were sleeping. She had meant to get an earlier start. Although she felt no fear about being out at night, she did feel uneasy in this particular part of town. From the faint glow of several broken street lamps, she could see the silhouettes of the surrounding rundown buildings. The brick and wood alike was dark with soot. Closer in, she saw wisps of smoke wafting into the night air from fires that had been lit inside huge metal barrels.
Inhaling too deeply made her cough. There was no telling what manner of toxic material they were burning to stay warm. Carefully carrying the box of pies, she slowed her pace to take in the graffiti-covered walls. There were lewd curses, obscene images and symbols that were most likely painted by gang members. She didn’t dare try to decipher their meaning.
Garbage littered the cracked asphalt. She swallowed hard against the foul odors filling the night air, not the least of which was urine. What had she expected? Certainly not the Biltmore House. But seeing these poor, homeless people at the soup kitchen was a whole lot different than seeing them on their own turf. Just as she reached the trestle’s opening, she felt dizzy. She wasn’t used to these intense smells, and a sudden onset of nerves was making her weak in the knees. The hair on her neck prickled. Turning her ankle, she stumbled into a solid wall of muscle that reached out and caught her in a steely grip.
Lacey couldn’t make out his features as his face was as black as the night. When his mouth split into a wicked grin, the stark contrast of white teeth nearly blinded her. His breath was putrid when he spoke.
“Jock done hit the jackpot. Yes, sir! Gonna make that touchdown just fine. Gonna drive my big dick right between them chubby goal posts. Yes, sir! Gonna score that extra point tonight.”
Shaking, Lacey clutched the box of pies closer to her chest. Instinctively, she tensed every muscle in her body against oncoming waves of faintness.
“Please don’t hurt me,” she whispered.
His laughter sent shivers of dread up her spine. Nausea roiled in her belly as bile bit the back of her throat.
“Gonna make it hurt
A gust of wind fanned her face. For a moment she was confused because the night air up until that second had been as still as death. Then she saw
. The handsome face. The tousled brown hair. Steely eyes that were both seductive and predatory at the same time. In an instant his hand had whipped past her face and was now tightly wrapped around Jock’s throat.
“Let go of the lady or I
The mountain of a man immediately released her. Waving his middle finger at her rescuer, he shouted, “Fuck you, jailbird!” Then he trudged off deep into the darkness.
Before she could thank her hero for saving her, a wiry young man with stringy blond hair came bounding up to them like an overly-excited puppy. He looked to be barely out of his teens. Dancing around in a circle he chanted, “Chance is a jailbird. Chance is a jailbird. Smells like a big turd. Won’t take a bath.”
“Be quiet, Loopy before I permanently silence you. Now make yourself scarce. I have business with the lady.”
The devastated, crestfallen look on Loopy’s face tugged at Lacey’s heart strings. Heck, the whole situation did. It was pitiful and sad. And although she had been terrified seconds earlier, she couldn’t justify being angry at a person for acting like an animal when they were living like one.