She ran from her perp and every perp that had ever abused her—had his way—not her way. She had no way. Nowhere to go. No one to call. Not even a place to sleep.
So, she ran to nowhere...
Panting. Sweating. Lungs screaming. Silence followed her, surrounded her, swallowed her. And she drowned herself in grief, fear, and utter loneliness. Her feet slapped the filthy street as she ducked around corners, hid behind trees, buried herself in shadows.
Lonely as she was, loneliness felt like her only friend. Trust no one. She'd whispered those words to her soul over and over. They were part of her now. Would she ever trust again? Could she?
She slid around a corner and stumbled into a sign with a cross on top. One of those cheesy, not-worth-reading, certainly not-worth-repeating quotes from the alternate universe of churchiness. The sign, the cross, the stale words, and the church behind them made her feel smaller, lonelier, and empty.
But she needed a place to hide, and the church was open.
Some people feel under-dressed when they enter a church. She felt undressed. Naked. Exposed. The church seemed empty—felt empty, but she imagined it full—full of eyes staring at her and through her. A naked whore, discarded, forgotten, unwanted—from conception to the grave. And she wished one of those graves outside was hers.
Life had taken everything from her. Death could do no more. And, at least, death would stop the abuse, the neglect, and the contempt.
Her breathing slowed as she rested her hands on her knees. Sweat began to dry. Her pulse slowed. And she looked up at the cross hanging on the far wall. The strange symbol of despair and hope—the symbol of death and life—the symbol that dangled around her neck.
She collapsed onto an empty pew.
Tears dripped onto the aged wood. She lay trembling.
She clutched the cross in her hands.
A gift from her forgotten past. A hope she had buried with her soul—with her feelings.
She wanted it to bring hope. She wanted to feel forgiveness. But the forgotten cross felt like a weight she couldn't bear. Guilt, frustration, anger, and bitterness grew as she held onto that cross and remembered the pain and the shame of living.
She stood, let go of her necklace, and stared at the cross on the wall. Surrounded by stained glass saints. Ancient eyes and expectations peered at her naked soul. She wanted to run as fast as she could—fast and far.
But she had nowhere to go. No one to run to. So, she plopped down on the pew and dropped her face into her hands. God, help me. She couldn't stop her thoughts. Desperation had been her life. Now every desperate thought, desperate hope spilled out.
A door creaked, and the hair stood on the back of her neck.
Footsteps patted across the floor flooding her with memories.
Haunting footsteps. Haunting memories.
She remembered that little girl, the one she'd buried deep inside, the one her drugged-out, dazed, unfazed, disinterested mother had abandoned. Her too-lazy-to-take-a-pill, too-stoned-to-go-to-the-clinic, too-incarcerated-to-get-out-of-it-now mother had passed out on the floor behind the sofa like so many times before—too many times before. And each time opened the door for her pathetic-excuse-for-a-mother’s sleazy boyfriend, Mr. Can't Get Enough, to take his turn again and again with that little girl. That little girl curled up into a ball and hid deep inside her. The little girl who grew up to turn her affections to anyone she thought might want her. They all wanted her. No one wanted her.
They only wanted what she could give.
And she'd given everything she had.
There she sat, spine tingling, wishing she was alone, wishing the little girl inside would just go away. But she was not alone. The footsteps grew closer. It's not him. It can't be him. She whispered to herself and clutched the cross once more. No memories of faith. No memories of hope.
But the cross to her was the one slender memory that left a smile.
Her mother's sister, Anna had given her that cross, and a hug, and a smile. She still remembered the sadness in Anna's eyes when she looked at her then looked at her mother, wasted and uncaring, uncaring yet unyielding. In her heart, she knew her aunt wanted to take care of her, but her mother and the courts wouldn't have it. All she had of that glimmer of love was the cross she wore around her neck and held in her hands.
And she held it tightly as the footsteps stopped beside her.
"Mind if I sit down?"
She jumped. A woman's voice?
She looked up and saw the kind eyes of a forty-something woman in jeans and a dress tee shirt. Without a word, she slid over.
The woman sat beside her, folded her hands, and bowed her head. Her lips moved without a sound, then she looked up at the cross on the wall. Crying and smiling at the same time.
Their eyes met. When the woman looked at her, she couldn't help but smile . She didn't look like the perfect-on-the-outside, churchy woman she would've expected. This woman looked real. Makeup couldn't hide the lines on her face. And she wasn't overdone or outspoken. This real-life, down-to-earth-looking woman just needed someone to sit beside her while she prayed.
The woman smiled and nodded, then started to slide out of the pew, but turned and said, "I feel like I should ask if you'd like me to stay while you pray."
"Oh! I'm not praying." The young woman looked down and shrugged. "I wouldn't know how, and I'm not sure I'd want to."
The woman sat beside and slid closer. "You don't have to pray. Let me pray for you."
The little girl curled into a ball again, skin tingling—crawling, afraid of being exposed again. She tensed without sliding away and nodded, thinking just get it over with. She almost jumped when the woman placed her hand on hers.
"Dear Jesus, I don't know this young woman, but you do. I don't know her hurts or where she's been, but you do. Thank you for loving us just the same. You know us inside and out, everything we try to hide, everything we bury, everything that scares us, and everything we run from, but you sit beside us to hold our hand. Free us from shame and guilt. Free us from hate and bitterness. Where the world shames us, you take our shame. Where the world forgets us, you always remember us. Where the world refuses to reach out to us, you hold us close in your warm embrace. There is no shame, no guilt, no burden too great, no hurt too deep that your love cannot wash away our shame, erase our guilt, lift our burdens, and heal our hurts. I pray for my new friend that you would begin this beautiful work in her. Wash away her feelings of shame and guilt, and heal every wound in her heart."
The young girl stayed curled up in a ball, but for the first time in a lifetime, she felt that hint of a smile and felt the same love she had felt when that cross necklace lay across her hand for the first time.