Nina Josten had never been particularly religious-in fact, she had made an effort not to be-but churches had always been comforting places to her. They provided warmth on cold Sunday mornings and served snacks between services. Many functioned as community centers and were open throughout the week for various activities and hosted food closets. But the best part about churches was that no one came around checking for vagrants living in their supply closets or Sunday school rooms during the week.
It was an early December night when Nina returned to an old but beloved cathedral by the highway downtown. She had been documenting the church’s schedule for a month or so while squatting in an abandoned house a couple miles away. She came here on particularly cold nights like tonight, since the house she was staying in had poor insulation and no heat. One of the church’s side entrances had been unlocked for the Tuesday night knitting circle or some other event involving cute, gossipy old ladies in unfortunate sweaters. Nina slipped inside and scanned the hallway for witnesses. Drying saltwater tracks told her that the knitters were in the last room on the right, so she quietly made her way to the hall on the other side of the sanctuary, where she knew stairs to the lower level would be.
But instead of disappearing into the safety of the dark stairwell, Nina altered her path and opened the door into the sanctuary. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she admired the beauty of the stained glass illuminated by the street lights behind it. Her mother had loved stained glass but hadn’t cared much for church congregations. Congregations were communities, and communities noticed you, cared about you, when they were done right.
Nina was so deep in thought that she hadn’t registered the light coming on.
“I don’t mean to startle you-” a voice began.
Nina jumped. To her left, a man stood with his hands up in a gesture meant to convey harmlessness. He was white, with brown hair going grey, and seemed to be in his 40’s. He looked tired.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” He paused, perhaps expecting Nina to say something. When she didn’t, he continued, “My name is David Wymack. I run a shelter on the other side of town. A couple staff members mentioned they’d been seeing you here at odd hours and referred you to my program. They think you might be more than just a homeless teen.”
They were right, but old habits kicked in and she grabbed at the first retort she could think of to throw him off of her scent. “What are you trying to say? Are you calling me a whore?”
To his credit, Wymack didn’t so much as twitch at her accusation. “No, but that wouldn’t matter. You’d be far from the first.”
His gaze was level, and his face and body language seemed to show an honest lack of discomfort, which was the most interesting part of this conversation so far. An older man talking frankly to a girl half his age about whether or not she was an escort-without a drop of sexual interest-was unheard of. Nina hadn’t known men were even capable of that. Fleetingly, she wondered if this would be what a real father would be like, but she pushed that ridiculous thought away.
She understood what he was trying to offer her, but it was too good to be true. It had been last time. “So, what? You want me to get into your car so you can take me to some secluded house where you have a bunch of other people my age and provide us with food and shelter? For what? You expect me to believe it’s just out of the goodness of you heart?”
“My organization is legit. Yes, we have other residents around your age. Nine others, right now. They each have their issues, but they’re working through them. We’re on the straight and narrow. Look,” Wymack said, taking a step toward her. “I know you’re not just any runaway. I know people are after you; I can see it on you.”
Nina thought about the scars on her torso and stuffed her hands in her coat pockets to keep from reaching for them.
“You can take as much time as you need to decide whether you want us to help you. I’m going to put my card on this pew for you. You can pick it up whenever you feel comfortable,” he said, slowly taking a business card out of his pocket and setting it gently on the pew between them.
Despite the careful, honest way he spoke, adrenaline was coursing through Nina. If her mother were here, she would hate Nina for staying to listen to this man’s spiel. This man couldn’t be real, sooner or later he would reveal himself to be like the others, like her father, and Nina wouldn’t-she couldn’t go back there-
She bolted to the back of the sanctuary. She pushed open the door the the main part of the church as she sprinted into the hall. Nina was halfway to the entryway when someone stepped out from behind a coat rack. Nina didn’t have time to stop before she saw a blur of wood and felt it smash into her gut. She was on her hands and knees, struggling to breathe. She wanted to get out of here, but all she could do was try to make sense of the buzzing in her ears.
“-amn it, Minyard! This is why we can’t have nice things!”
“Aw, Mack,” a voice said over Nina’s head, “if she was nice, she wouldn’t have any use for us, would she?”
Wymack didn’t dignify that with a response.
Finally, air hit Nina’s lungs and she scrambled away from her assailant.
Wymack had already said the girl’s name, but her face had been all over the news this past year. Nina recalled the most recent headline she’d read: “Accused Killer Andreja Minyard Accepts Deal to Rehab at Foxhole Court.” Suddenly, things began to make sense. Wymack. David Wymack, founder of the Foxhole Court, a sort of safe house for young adults who had committed crimes not of their own accord. From what Nina had heard, it had been mostly girls that were sex trafficked and would have otherwise been charged with solicitation. But hadn’t Andreja just straight up killed someone? The cheerful grin on the girl’s face made Nina have a hard time believing any murder she’d committed was forced.
Andreja watched Nina’s retreat with a satisfied smirk, and tapped two fingers to her temple in a mocking salute. “Better luck next time.”
Nina opened her mouth to curse but thought better of it. She’d probably get bad karma or something from taking the Lord’s name in vain in a church.
“Andreja’s a little raw on manners,” Wymack said, glaring at the offending blonde. Andreja backed off which an exaggerated shrug and went to lounge on the pew that had been hauled to sit across from the coat rack. “I’m sorry. Did she break anything?”
“I’m fine.” Nina hauled herself to her feet and started to walk out.
“Wait a minute, we’re not done.”
“I think the answer is a ‘no’ this time, sir.”
“You didn’t listen to my whole offer. If I corralled two people to come out and talk to you, the least you could do is give me a couple minutes, okay?”
Two? Shit. Shitshitshitshit- “You didn’t bring him here.”
“I did. What’s the problem?”
She should have known that Kevin Day would be here the second she saw Andreja. The latter was too much of a hazard to go anywhere alone, and the former was rumored to be glued to her side these days. “You can’t bring an assassin into a church!” Nina hissed frantically. Shit. Where were those gossipy knitters when you needed them?
“Apparently you can,” said an unimpressed voice from the back of the hall. He’d obviously seen the entire thing, and judging by the mild expression, he wasn’t impressed. Nina searched his face for recognition or suspicion, but didn’t find anything beneath his lofty boredom. That was a good thing, but it didn’t ease the icy fear in her veins. Did remember who she was? What she was?
Nina tasted blood and tried to mentally shake the sensation away before realizing she had clenched her jaw so tight she'd bitten her tongue. She tore her eyes away from Kevin and found that Andreja had been watching her reaction with interest.
Exhaustion washed over Nina. This was too much. This was way too much to have happen in one day, let alone just a quarter of an hour. “You know what. We’re not doing this today. I’m going to go in the sanctuary and get your business card. When I come back I want all of you to be gone.”
Wymack seemed to sense that she had been pushed too far and nodded. “Okay. Thank you for your time. I hope you’ll be in touch.”
Nina nodded and walked back into the sanctuary. When she came back with the card, the only other sign that the exchange had happened was the wooden shepherd's crook. It was lying on the floor, where Andreja had dropped it after using it to hit Nina. As she stared at it, the business card in her hand began to grow heavier, weighing Nina’s thoughts down with the possibility that her life on the run could be over.