“Come on Bandit, time to go to work.” I said to my service dog Bandit as I took his vest out of the closet and headed to the living room. I had spent most of that entire early December morning chopping firewood and filling up the water containers inside the house getting ready for the onslaught of a massive winter storm that was sweeping down from Canada. Now it was time to go to town and buy the stuff I would need to last a week or more by myself in my cabin.

Bandit sat beside the fireplace, alert with his ears and eyes signaling that he was more than ready. His tail thumped excitedly on the floor of the living room and he was almost giddy with excitement at the prospect of having something to do today. When I am here at home, I feel safe and secure enough that I don’t really need him, but when I go out in public, Bandit becomes my furry, four-legged, sidekick and companion.

I retired as an Infantryman from the Army after twenty-three years about five years ago with the rank of Master Sergeant. When I retired, at the relatively young age of forty I was a wreck, both physically and mentally. Three tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan had taken their toll on my body and my mind. I didn’t do anything sleek and sexy. I was never a Ranger or a Green Beret, I was just a grunt who walked the soles off more pairs of combat boots than I cared to think about. I sound like a bowl of Rice Crispies when I wake up in the morning, and I finally, with the help of the VA and a small support group of other veterans, am coming to grips with the effects of what living with Combat Related PTSD is going to be like.

The later had taken a toll on my marriage and my daughter and son. My ex needed stability and a stay at home husband; or at least one who stayed home more than half the time. My five tours had taken place over a ten-year period and that was too much stress and strain for her. Combine that stress with the fact that I was a twitching wreck by the start of my fifth tour and the marriage dissolved. My daughter was sixteen now and my son was twenty and I had been estranged from them for over six years because my ex had me declared a danger to them all during our divorce in 2011, shortly after I got home from my final tour. Even though I had already dropped my retirement packet, the damage was done. Honestly, that was probably the truth because back then, I was a danger to myself and everyone around me.

That is the biggest reason that I had Bandit. He would let me know when I was starting to have an anxiety attack before I knew I was having one. He was four now and had been with me for two years. It could be anxiety, depression or anger; it didn’t matter because he could figure it out long before I could and when I saw him alert I knew to take a step back and figure out what was wrong. I had finally started slowly moving forward with my life because of him.

Today was one of the days where I had to go out and be around people and I really hated being around huge crowds, but the storm would be pushing through soon and hitting us hard for the next twenty-four to thirty-six hours. I really had to pick up a few essentials at Wally World to make sure I could get through the 8-10 inches of ice, snow and single digit temperatures that were in the forecast. The essentials in this case meant, bread, milk, toilet paper, a few cases of bottled water, maybe, maybe a twelve pack of beer and a lot of propane and kerosene, in case the power went out.

I live in a very rural area in the mountains of western Virginia. By rural I mean my nearest neighbor lives a mile and a half away and there are so many trees on my two hundred acers of property that for me to see the sun rise I would have to drive for two minutes to get a clear view of it. ‘Town’ is fifteen miles away over some very mountainous roads and has a population of just under six thousand. When it does snow up here the highway department doesn’t scrape the roads, they just let it melt naturally so making sure you have what you need to get through a big storm is a necessary evil. If the power goes out, you can be living on propane for heating and cooking and kerosene lamps and candles for lighting for a week or more.

As we walked toward my old Jeep CJ7, I mutter a silent prayer that the store wouldn’t be too crowded, and I could get in and out without any drama. Bandit and I were regulars there and most of the staff knew not to approach Bandit while he was wearing his vest; the other customers, not so much. Their reactions ranged from fear to amusement seeing a twenty-six inch tall, eighty-pound German Shepard on a leash in Wal-Mart. Even with a yellow vest that said, “SERVICE ANIMAL DO NOT APPROACH”, people were constantly walking up and asking to pet him and some, if not most, would get miffed when I said, “Please don’t.”

As we pulled into the parking lot I realized that my worst fear had come true. The place was jam packed with last minute shoppers who were trying to beat the ice and snow. I sighed, grabbed shopping cart and headed in to the chaos that was Wal-Mart, on a Saturday afternoon. This was not going to be fun.

Walking by the entrance to the store I noticed what appeared to be a young woman standing near the door. She wasn’t asking people for money or even remotely harassing the steady stream of customers going in and coming out in a rush. She was simply standing there with her jammed deep into the pockets of her jeans. She was wearing a light blue jacket, well-worn jeans and sneakers and what she had what appeared to be short blonde hair, peeking out of a pink beanie cap that was pulled down over her ears. She also appeared to be shivering somewhat, which wasn’t surprising, because the temperature had already begun to drop, and I estimated that it was in the lower forties by now. Bandit cocked his head looking at her as we walked by; oddly, he even turned his head to look at her once as we walked passed. Trudging past the Salvation Army bell ringer, we stepped into retail Hell; and he became all business.

As we exited the store forty minutes later with our groceries and other stuff in the cart, she was still standing there. I walked past her and looking at her I noticed that she still wasn’t making eye contact with anyone, she was just standing there shivering. I got a few feet past her and noticed that Bandit had turned his head back to look at her; only this time he whimpered. That’s when I decided to stop and see what was going on.

“Hey.” I said softly, not wanting to spook her.

She didn’t answer and continued to look down at the ground.

“Look I know this sounds awkward,” I said approaching her slowly, “but, if you are in some kind of trouble, maybe I can help. Seriously, If I can’t, I know plenty of people in town that can.”

She glanced up at me and when I saw her eyes. They were a vivid shade of blue, but I couldn’t help but notice that they looked far more tired than mine did on my worse day. They were almost dead; she looked up at me like a puppy that had been abused its entire life. It was sad considering that she had a very pretty face and only looked to be, maybe, twenty-five at the most.

“I’m okay.”

“Uh huh. Let me guess, you stand here until you can’t take the cold anymore and then you duck inside for a few minutes to warm up.”

“What’s it to you if I do?” she said defiantly, her eyes flashing angrily at me.

“Well, if you haven’t heard there is a hell of a storm on the way and that jacket isn’t going to protect you much when the temperature drops to single digits tomorrow afternoon. But, I know of a church just up the road that operates a woman’s shelter and they might have room for you for a few days. I can call and ask them if, you’d like.”

I could tell she had some sort of retort on her lips when Bandit raised his right paw and then sat it back down on the ground whining. That was an alert for anxiety but given my current surroundings I didn’t know if it was the young lady in front of me or if I was the one who was beginning to have problems. She glanced down at him, almost smiling so, I paused for a moment and then grinned at her.

“This is Bandit, be careful, he’s a real ladies man. My name is Sam, Sam Williams. So, do you want me to call the shelter and see if they have room?”

Before she could answer I heard a voice behind me say, “Sir? Is she bothering you?” I turned to see a kid not much older than she was standing there with his arms folded across his chest. He was wearing a nametag that said ‘Mike’ and below that ‘Loss Prevention’.

“No, I’ve got it.” I said looking at him as the girl shrunk back and tried to get small.

“Okay but if,”

“I said I’ve got it son. Don’t make me say it again.” I responded a lot more firmly than I should have.

Wal-Mart’s version of Paul Blart looked at my face for a few seconds and then trying to put as much distance as he could between the two of us, he almost sprinted across the parking lot.

I looked back to the girl and still couldn’t read her emotions. I couldn’t tell if she was angry or relieved that the LP guy had left us standing there alone. Just then, Mother Nature decided the issue for her and it started to mist a light, but very cold rain. Bandit sat there looking back and forth between us and then he leaned against my leg. Again, it was another alert that someone’s anxiety level was on the rise.

“So. Stand here, cold, wet and miserable or go someplace warm and safe and dry? It’s your call.”



“Why do you give a shit about me? Nobody else seems to.” she mumbled, looking down at the ground with a finality in her voice that said, “I gave up a long time ago.”

“Because four years ago, when I was at my lowest and thinking about jumping off a bridge in Richmond, an off-duty cop that didn’t have to, reached out his hand and said, “Let me help.” Maybe, just maybe it’s time I paid him back.”

She shivered in the cold rain that was falling and after a long while, softly whispered “Call them.”

“Thank you.” I said smiling and reaching for my phone.

“Sam, I am so sorry, but with the storm rolling in we are already over capacity. I have been on the phone with every shelter in town all day long. We are all scrambling to find spaces and there aren’t any. I wish I could help you but,” the minister said leaving it hanging.

“How about if I bought her a cot, pillow and sleeping bag? Could you take her in then?”

“I’m sorry Sam.” he said gently as the call disconnected.

I had the call on speaker, so she could listen in to and see that I wasn’t trying to bullshit her. I thought I had made a huge mistake when I saw her shoulders slump as the minister said there wasn’t any room in the inn, so to speak. She looked at me and with tears in her eyes said, “Thank you Sam, at least you tried. That is more help than I have had in over two years.”

“I’m not done yet, umm, sorry I haven’t asked before but, what is your name?”

“Misti,” she said, “Misti with an I. Misti Smothers”

“Well, Misti with an I, I have, what is known as ‘Plan B’ up my sleeve.” I said smirking at her smugly.

“What’s Plan B?” she said, looking up at me.

“We get arrested and go to jail. It’s warm and they will feed us there.”

“I hope to Hell that there is a ‘Plan C’, up another sleeve.” she said half laughing.

“Well, that depends on how daring you are.”

“I’m standing in a Wal-Mart parking lot, six hundred miles from where I was born, in the cold and rain, talking to a total stranger. I’ve got two dollars and thirty-seven cents to my name. The clothes on my back are all that I own and my only possessions in the world are a dead cell phone, a half a bar of soap, some hotel toothpaste and my toothbrush. Does that qualify daring or do I need more?”

“Plan C. You wait here in my Jeep. Bandit and I will go back inside, grab you a change of clothes or two and you can hang out at my place; at least until the storm blows past.”

She stared at me briefly and then said sadly, “No Sam, I can’t let you do that. It is sweet, but it is way too much to ask. I’ll figure something out, I always do.”

“You didn’t ask, I offered, now say thank you and help me load the groceries. I won’t be twenty minutes. I promise. I’m not a serial killer or a rapist and you’ll be a lot safer and warmer at my place than you would be here in town tonight.” I said walking to the Jeep.

She paused for just a second before she started following us.

“You are nuts!” she exclaimed. “And if you were a serial killer or a rapist would you tell me?”

“Would you?” I asked smiling at her.

“Probably not.” She said laughing.

“Can you cook?”


“Good! I can’t, at least not well. That is how you are going to earn your keep.”

“If you say so but I still think you’re nuts.” She said smiling and shaking her head as she grabbed a bag to put in the back of the Jeep.

“What sizes do you wear?”

“Extra small shirts and,” she began before I cut her off.

“Maybe you need to come in there with me instead.” I suggested, remembering what it was like to try to shop for a woman, “There might be a few more things you need that I wouldn’t think of on my own.”

“That might be a good idea.” She added after pausing for a minute to think things through.

We were in and out in twenty-five minutes. We did get some strange looks inside the store, but I cut them off with the best ‘Go fuck yourself.’ glare I could give them. Even my new friend Mike decided that discretion was the better part of valor and retreated a few dozen yards away. All in all, I spent just over three hundred dollars on a coat, gloves, shirts, jeans, a pair of pajamas, a flannel nightgown, a robe, underwear, two new bras (32C), hiking boots and some other things that I would have never thought about like; deodorant, tampons, pads, toothpaste, Emory Boards, a hair brush, a new toothbrush, a toiletry bag and a medium sized back pack.

“I have no idea how I’m going to pay you back for all of this.” She said quietly as held the Jeep’s door open for her and waited for her to climb up.

“Don’t worry about it and before you even think that I would suggest it, sex is off the table. So that is one thing you don’t have to worry about.”

“Thank you.” she said, blushing and looking down at the floorboard.

“Load up Bandit!” I said, opening the back door.

He looked at me as if to say “Dude! Really? Who is THAT tiny human and why is IT sitting in MY seat?”

“Load up!” I repeated pointing at the backseat.

He jumped in the backseat and lay down with his head on his paws, trying to figure out why he was being punished. I took his vest off and tossed it in the back with the food and other items and then got in behind the wheel. Once the vest came off, he became a different dog. He immediately sat up and then wedged his way between Misti and me in the front seats. His tongue was lolling out of the side of his mouth and he was bouncing around excitedly. He had gone from Work Mode to Pet Mode that quickly.

“Can I pet him?” Misti asked in what sounded like a hopeful tone as I backed out of the spot.

“Sure, just be careful because he may try,” I was too late. Bandit leaned into her and ran his tongue up the entire length of her face in one fell swoop, “to lick you.”

“You tried to warn me.” Misti said squealing with laughter, sitting back in her seat and pushing Bandit’s head away from her face. When she started scratching his ears, he was toast, he kept his head between us the entire trip and every time she stopped he would gently nudge her hand until she started again.

“Typical male; he steals one kiss and if you scratch his head and neck afterwards he will follow you anywhere, huh Bandit?” she said laughing as she softly scuffed his neck.

Bandit didn’t say anything, but the “Neener, neener.” look I was getting from him spoke volumes.

The sky had gotten dark with clouds by the time I backed into the garage. We were unloading the groceries into the kitchen as the first snow flurries started to fall. On my last trip I locked the hubs on the front wheels and shifted the transfer case into Four Low, just in case we did need to try and leave over the next few days. I didn’t want to be screwing with it when the temps were going to be in the single digit to negative range for highs.

I showed Misti the guest room and the bathroom and shut the bedroom door, so she could shower and change clothes. Then I went to the kitchen and started making plans for dinner wondering if I was doing the right thing by letting a total stranger into my house. What if she was the one who was the serial-killer and rapist? Seriously, a woman can kill you just as dead as a man can. That was painful lesson that I learned in Afghanistan years ago. I gave up on the dinner plans instead deciding to let her make the decision and went to light a fire in the fireplace instead.

I had just gotten the fire going when she re-appeared, freshly showered, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt with socks on her feet. She was holding the clothes she had worn, shoes and jeans and beanie in one hand and her shirt and underwear balled up in the other. I thought she looked a little dirty standing in the parking lot but the transformation to what I saw now and what she was then was amazing.

She was tiny! She might, maybe, be five two and looked she looked like she weighed about one hundred pounds at the most. The jeans she wore now were form fitting instead of baggy and loose and they fit her form perfectly. Her shirt was certainly filled out more than the shirt and jacket from earlier suggested it would be. Her hair wasn’t hanging down in her eyes anymore either; instead it was pulled back into a ponytail that pulled it away from a small delicate face with an ivory complexion and some seriously high cheekbones; it wasn’t as short as I had thought either. It was moderately long; she must have had it tucked under the beanie and jacket collar earlier. It was her eyes that grabbed my attention though, her eyes were still tired and dull, but I could tell now that she might be in her very early twenties at most.

“Washing machine and garbage can?” she asked.

“One is under the sink and the other is behind the big paneled doors in the kitchen, I’ll let you figure out which is which.” I said grinning up at her.

“Smartass.” she said grinning and her smile was beautiful.

“Right in one.” I replied laughing.

“Be right back.”

I heard the washing machine kick on a moment or two later but then, five minutes passed, and she hadn’t returned. I got up from the couch to see what was taking her so long and when I walked into the kitchen she was staring at the pantry with a blank look on her face. Bandit had plodded along beside me and was standing there silently looking back and forth between the two of us.

“Something wrong?”

“Um, no, not really, I was trying to decide what to make you for dinner and I got a little overwhelmed, that’s all. I haven’t seen this much food in one place in ages.” she said softly.

“When is the last time you ate a full meal?”

“Do you mean real food?”


“I had a Cheeseburger Happy Meal from McDonalds on Thursday afternoon.”

I stood there stunned for a moment realizing that she had just told me that she hadn’t eaten in over forty-eight hours.

“Go in the living room and sit down, I’ll handle dinner.” I said firmly.

“You said you couldn’t cook.”

“I said I couldn’t cook well. I can handle a salad, baked trout and some steak fries. Go in there and sit down, I got it. You can do the dishes later.”

“Okay.” she whispered and walked past me with her eyes downcast again.