She lived on the streets, but she was not a vagrant or a streetwalker. Grace eagerly embraced the opportunity to be where people constantly passed, but she was not selling her services, or begging for leftovers. Unlike many forced to live exposed to the meaner things of life, Grace had chosen her path eagerly. Instead of darkness and despair, she radiated light and hope. As she walked the sidewalks and greeted each person who passed, those who bothered to pay even the slightest attention were impressed.
Day and night, summer and winter, Grace never abandoned her place in the thoroughfares of life. Most ignored her—an amazing error in judgment considering what she was offering. Her approach was never offensive though it often gave offense. People react oddly at times, so she discovered.
A few were tempted, but even among these there were some who thought her too good to be true, and walked away. They were half right: She was good, so good that she WAS true.
However, there were others who saw her charm, appreciated her willingness, saw the advantage of a closer relationship, and thought to take advantage.
"She's an easy mark. It shouldn't be hard to take her."
This from a shriveled little soul, with a slight green tinge around his mouth. He resented it when others had something he didn't. He wanted to be the first in line for this prize. However, the leader of his group enjoyed certain privileges, aided by his being a much bulkier man with weight to throw around. Calculation was etched on his face as he responded to his underling's prompting.
"Of course, adding her to our stables will represent a coup of huge proportions. She is special."
"Do you think her Master will object?"
"From what I hear, he wants us to take her."
The leader snorted. "Well, what did you expect? She's out walking the streets, offering herself to everyone who passes. My question is, how much is she worth?"
Another offered: "I heard he's offering her for free." He had left all his possibilities to pay for anything attached to a now-empty six-pack occupying space in a dumpster in a nearby alley. Free was a good thing as far as he was concerned.
That got the attention of a fourth member of the gang.
"What? She must be diseased, or undercover. Free? Impossible."
This comment came from a sly slip of a man who hoped that his suggestions, based on absolutely no facts, would divert the attention of the rest. He could use a piece of the action himself.
He continued: "Can't be as good as she looks, then. There's no such thing as a free ride, a free lunch, or "
The greenish man ruefully added: "Nope, seems legit. I know some people who know her intimately. Never seen such a haphapless bunch."
He had been about to use the words "happy" and "healthy," but caught himself in time. Such positive remarks about the band's rivals would earn him a cuff across the back of the head.
The comments bounced back and forth until at last, tired of talking, the parties came to a decision.
"Well, let's try her out. We don't have anything to lose."
They were wrong.
The gang approached Grace. The girl was sitting on the broad, stone steps of a church. She was well dressed, her hair shone in the sun, and she smiled invitingly at each person who passed by. As the men sauntered up to her, Grace looked up and smiled.
She said nothing more, waiting.
The leader reached out and took her hand in his and pulled her up, toward him. She didn't resist, but continued to smile, her brilliant eyes meeting his in open invitation.
"Come with me, baby—your beauty to my beast. We'll make beautiful music together."
"I'd love to go with you—with all of you."
Hopes rose. This should be easy pickings.
"But " Grace hesitated, pausing to bestow a warm look on each face that met hers. She then continued: " though I specialize in beasts, I don't do beastlies. You'll have to leave those behind."
Objections spewed from three sets of lips.
"Honey, I am what I am. I don't change for nobody."
"Freebies can't be fussy."
To this point, the leader of the band had been silent. When everyone else had finished protesting, he grasped Grace's arms in a vise-like grip.
"Look, little girl. Your boss sent you out on the streets looking for people like us. Joining the gang will make you look good, attract business your way, so to speak."
A piece like her on my arm would turn heads.
"Besides, a beast isn't a beast without his beastlies."
Grace's smile broadened.
"So, to have me, you have to let my Master deal with the beastlies."
The green-tinged man grew greener.
Another shook his head, thinking his drink-induced fog must be affecting his hearing.
"You're lying," objected a third. It takes one to know one, he added to himself.
Their leader released Grace, holding up his hand to signal silence among his companions.
"You do charge for your services then. Word on the street is that you are free, that your Master is offering you to any, and to all who want you."
"My services are free. But you are mistaken about the relationship. It's not me hanging around with you; it's you hanging on to me. You won't make me look good; your knowing me will make you not only look good, but be good. Your life will change from the moment you accept my Master's offer. You won't want the beastlies anymore."
Horror rose like smoke from hell at her words.
"What? Not want what I want? Impossible."
"Not be what I am? Nothin' doin'."
"Lose my identity for you? Dream on."
Grace picked up on the last comment, fixing her beautiful eyes on the bowed figure peering from behind his master's tattered dungarees.
"Do you honestly believe that what you are now is what you were meant to be? My Master's offer is to restore to you your true identity; that of a child of the King and a citizen of Heaven, free from beastlies and reborn to beauty."
Sensing the weakening resolve of his compatriots, the leader of the pack signaled his henchmen away from Grace. She sighed, sadness tempering her features. Reluctantly she returned to her duties on the street corner, amazed as she always was that people preferred a fatal disease to perfect health.
Grace sensed his approach and was already turning as he spoke.
"I heard what you said. I'd like to sign on, sign up, volunteer, joinwhatever the appropriate word is for taking advantage of your offer."
Grace made no judgment calls; that was neither her job nor her nature. If she had been one to distinguish between people, she would have preferred this one to her previous companions. He was well-dressed, casual but neat, sincerity gripping the hand of politeness.
"You understand the terms and conditions?"
"Oh yes. I want to be a child of the King and a citizen of heaven. I beg forgiveness and renounce "
He listed an impressive number of beastlies, the mention of each one broadened Grace's smile just a little more. As he finished his list, she touched his arm. A current passed from her to him, something like a rush of swift water over rocks. She linked her arm in his. Together they walked to the door of the church where Grace had been sitting not long before.
"Go in there, and they will teach you more of what you need to know about my Master and the step you have taken today."
He smiled and opening the door, disappeared from view.
Four pairs of eyes watched from an alleyway close to the church.
"There's another one gone," said the liar. "The big boss will not be pleased."
His comment was followed by a snort of disbelief from the leader of the gang.
"Don't believe everything you hear. Just watch and wait. Grace thinks she so smart. She ought to develop a little more savvy about the people she deals with."
"She saw through us, didn't ?"
Three turned on the fourth with savage disgust.
The leader of the band loosened the grip he had held around the throat of his talkative follower. He cocked a crooked smile. Then, looking back around the corner, said:
"Wait. You'll see. Keep Grace in sight."
And so they did. Day and night they watched. Days passed and so did they. They stopped to talk to her as she spoke to the passersby. She always looked at them with hopeful eyes, and renewed her offer. If they thought to waiver and consider what she said, their leader was quick to smash the idea to smithereens with his fists or his tongue during their nightly consultations at the back of the alley.
Time passed. They noticed that the man with whom Grace had spoken on that fateful day, entered and exited the church quite frequently. He stopped to talk to Grace and she would touch him again, just as she had done the first time. She often entered the building as well.
Then one day, the little green one sidled up to his boss. He had something to report.
"Hey, man. Gracie is looking a little peaked."
Sure enough, four pairs of eyes peering around the corner of the church all noticed the same thing. It was the same Grace, but different. Her dress was smudged. A tiny rip showed in her sleeve and her stockings had a run in them.
"I told you so," crowed the leader of the group, his eyes crinkled up with glee. "Now, listen."
Four pairs of ears became fined tuned to the conversation on the street. People passed Grace by. More than a few took a look at her bedraggled appearance and laughed. Some who seemed as though they wanted to stop and talk with her, moved away, doubt marking their faces. The only ones who lingered were some of the people from the church. They came more frequently than ever. Oddly enough, they were less polite now, and the silver of sincerity seemed more than slightly tarnished.
Grace began to look more ragged, though the brilliance of her eyes and her manner never changed. The rips were longer, the dirt more pronounced, and there was blood on a bruised thigh.
"Let's go. Let's find out if Gracie hasn't swallowed some of her pride. Maybe she'll like our terms and conditions better now."
The band of miscreants sauntered down the street, past the church, and stopped on the corner where Grace was working.
"Well, well, look what we have here. If it isn't our friend, Grace. Looks like you've been having a bad day, or should I say bad days?"
Chuckles followed the wisecrack of their leader.
She smiled too—without the evil intent.
"So, your new friends aren't treating you too well. Maybe you should call a cop, or better yet, report them to your Master. Looks like business is dropping off too. Looks like you've lost a little of that credibility stuff. People are convinced that you're too easy? Or cheap? Or ineffective? Give it up, Gracie, your grace-nics aren't livin' up to the advertising."
Not content with having the boss hog all the action, her cohorts chimed in.
"Yah, they're comin' too often "
" and takin' you too lightly."
"I hear they like studying Tai Chi more than theolo-chi in there," chortled another.
"Face it, Grace, they think you're a joke—and so do all the people who know them and see you. Those people in there don't care, Grace. So much for your 'terms and conditions.'"
"So much for them givin' up the beastlies."
"So much for even wantin' to give up the beastlies. Your Master's plan don't work. They took what they wanted and only gave up what didn't matter to 'em."
"They lied," exulted the liar, looking with friendly, longing eyes toward the church.
"They used yah and abused yah, Cheap Grace."
The insults and taunts at last brought tears to Grace's beautiful eyes. Nevertheless, though bruised by her own and battered by those she longed to make her own, she wiped her eyes on her sleeve, straightened her skirt, and her spine.
"I know. But I'll still be on this street this afternoon, tomorrow, and the day after that."
"You're the perfect victim, Gracie," sneered the head bully. "If I try harder, things will get better," he mocked.
"If you're so concerned about me, why don't you accept my Master's offer and make the difference? Yes, there are some who claim to follow in his light, but are still blanketed by your darkness. But right now you're here, and they're not. You could show them what walking in the true Light is really like. Take what I offer—what He offers. Take it with a whole heart."
Stunned silence responded to the gentle words. Before the band's incredulous eyes, the rips faded, the stains softened. The blood on Grace's leg glowed scarlet, pulsing with life. The light from those beautiful eyes pierced through layers of evil to strike at souls long shriveled and dry.
"You you still make this offer in spite of the abuse that you have taken?"
Grace smiled gently. The voice that then spoke was not hers. Deeper, and overwhelming in its compassionate, it reached down from the heavenlies and said: