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“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

We clustered inside the entrance of a ­warehouse-style Salvation Army, awaiting instruction. The dark concrete room was suddenly flooded with afternoon sun, and we were momentarily blinded. A darkly clad figure scurried toward us from the street. I assumed she was a patron of this supersized thrift store, but she hesitated at the entrance. She looked at us – a ragtag, sleep-deprived foursome of teenagers. We stared at her in our shorts and tank tops, clutching our itineraries, and she smirked.

“Are you the kids from the mission?” Her voice was unexpectedly rough, and I took an involuntary step back. Her electric-blue hair was buzzed so short it didn't even look like hair, and her tattered black hoodie sleeves hung far below her fingertips. Her ears were punctured beyond recognition, and metal chains hung heavy from her lobes. Her slender neck was stained black with images of wings and a mutilated skull. She wore old black tennis shoes, her toes poking through the ends. She looked like someone you wouldn't want to mess with.

The boy next to me glanced at me pointedly and raised his eyebrows. I nudged him and turned back to the mysterious woman. I noticed that she had gentle, warm eyes. And she was smiling at me, eyeing me up and down – no doubt analyzing my appearance, just as I had hers. She terrified me. I liked her instantly.

“Are you the kids from the mission?” she repeated, grinning at our reactions. We nodded slowly and she strutted past us into the building. “Rad. You'll be under my command today.” We looked at each other, shocked. “Oh, you thought I was here for the free s--t, didn't you? This used to be my stomping grounds. Nowadays, I mostly just run in the Castro.” We were silent. She laughed.

“You. You're with me.” She gestured in my direction. “And him, too.” She pointed to the boy next to me. He glanced at me, smiling. “You others will be with Nasty Mike.” She looked toward a man leaning against the back wall, intent on the clipboard in his hand.

We stood staring as she walked out the front door, pushing a food cart. “Well, you comin'? I don't have time for no bulls--t!” She stormed past the homeless men standing on the curb. With wide eyes, we followed her out into the street.

She led us nimbly through the San Francisco streets. We stopped every few blocks, working our way up narrow staircases, through creaky hallways, to apartments that reeked of desperation and mildew. She would knock gently on the rotting doors and coax the haggard residents from their windowless caves out into the hall. They always greeted her with a smile, sometimes a hug. They eyed us suspiciously as they reached out gnarled, dirt-encrusted hands to snatch the food bags from our clean white ones. As we walked away, she would whisper their ailments like they were last names. “AIDS.” “Chlamydia.” “Chronic arthritis.” “Polio.” Like they were old friends.

After visiting a limbless woman who yelled at us to leave her alone, we stood solemnly in a rickety old cage elevator. The lights flickered, and we froze twenty-one and a half floors above the street. Ten minutes. My breathing deepened and my head spun. Thirty minutes. I sank to the floor. Forty-five minutes. The woman squatted down between me and the boy. And for the first time, her voice lost its edge, and she started talking.

“I grew up in Detroit. It was a hellhole. I ran away when I was sixteen. I hopped a Greyhound bus, thought that I would live the California good life. Well, somewhere along route 169, that bus stopped in Nevada. We picked up a man who looked scarier than I do.” She laughed. “There were four of us on that bus, including the driver. And the next stop wasn't for another hundred and fifteen miles. It was just desert. I was sittin' towards the back, and a little fat woman was sittin' about six seats in front of me. The man sat toward the front, but he kept lookin' back at me and smilin'. He looked at me like I was a piece of meat, and I didn't like it. The fat lady saw him lookin' at me, and she walked back and sat right next to me. She looked me square in the eye and said, ‘We both know that ain't no friendly smile. Now, I'ma sit right here next to you but you gotta do as I tell you, all right now?' And I listened to her. I was scared. But she started talking, telling me about her Jesus. I told her I didn't believe in that bulls--t. But she just smiled and said, ‘Darlin', it's times like these that we all need a li'l bulls--t.' She told me to sing. She told me to sing any song I knew. So I started singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow' and she sang with me. And while I was singin' I felt something swellin' up inside me. Something powerful. I think that fat lady knew that I felt it, 'cause she was smiling and holding my hands. That thing was swellin' up inside me, and thank God, the man fell asleep. Slept the whole hundred and fifteen miles. But even when he woke up and got off, and me and the fat lady stopped singin', that thing was still inside me. You know what it was?”

I watched her with wide eyes and shook my head.

“It was my Jesus. And my Jesus hasn't stopped swellin' since.”

I smiled, and she smiled back. She held my hand tight in hers, and the boy took my other hand. And she started humming. She closed her eyes and lay back against the metal bars. The sound came from deep inside her chest, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” And the elevator jolted to life.

The three of us walked down the street, talking and laughing. Then she started to unwind her story. I could tell that she liked talking about it, about her Jesus and the things He had taught her. She had grown up in the Detroit projects, left her abusive father when she was 16, and come to San Francisco. She lived on the streets, sleeping with a knife tucked in her sock and selling newspapers to earn a few bucks to fuel her heroin addiction. An infected needle, shared with a stranger, made her HIV-positive when she was 20. All the while, her Jesus was swelling up inside her. A few weeks before the day we met, she had landed a job at a motel, cleaning rooms. She proudly showed us her employee picture ID card, and said that was the first photo she had seen of herself since her seventh-grade yearbook.

She asked us if we were surprised that she was a volunteer that morning. We both smiled sheepishly and nodded. She said that was always people's reaction to her. “I figured that even though my life has been far from perfect, I still owe my Jesus for puttin' me on this Earth. I can't fly to Africa and help those poor starving babies, so I do the best I can. Bringin' these people food twice a week has been the highlight of my life for a while now. Some people have it much worse than I do.” I nodded. I couldn't agree more.

She looked at us. “It's been a pleasure spending the day with you two. Maybe someday I'll see y'all in Africa, and we can help those babies together.” She laughed. “Y'all are doin' good work. It's good to see kids like you out here. Thanks for comin'.”

I stood before a woman who had overcome more hardships in her life than I could have ever imagined, and she was thanking me for giving a few hours of my precious, privileged life to help a few people who needed a hand! I felt something swelling up inside me. Whether it was her Jesus, my Jesus, or just good karma, I felt it.

We watched her until we couldn't see her anymore, the gentle melody of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” drifting back to where we stood on the curb.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.





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