It wasn’t as if Credence hadn’t dreamed of leaving. He’d had hundreds of fantasies about running away, how turning eighteen would change everything, or being swept up by some handsome man who would give him the kind of life he wanted, miles and miles away from Mary Lou Barebone. But they had just been fantasies. In reality, he would never have dared to run away, he hadn’t been brave enough before or after his eighteenth birthday, and particularly not with a man. He barely allowed himself to talk to anyone outside of Church, let alone the type of man he fantasised about. If such a man had ever attended Church, he would surely be Satan in disguise.
But it was Credence who had Satan inside him. He was the corrupted one, the sinner, the creature sent from Hell to corrupt the innocent people around him, and it didn’t matter that he didn’t mean to. He couldn’t be allowed to stay, not in the Church or in a house with children. So he was left with just a single bag, no money, and nowhere to go. It wasn’t as if Mary Lou had ever given him an allowance, or the time to get a job. He hadn’t even been allowed to attend school, instead being taught by Mary Lou herself and his older sister Chastity, sat on the floor in their living room, so he had never even had a chance to make the kind of friends he had read about in the books he wasn’t supposed to have read. His time was to be dedicated to serving his mother, his Church and his God. Except his mother, his Church and his God didn’t want him anymore. But perhaps he didn’t want them either.
Alright, so it wasn’t technically running away when he had already been exiled and excommunicated, but he had no desire to return to them. Surely having nothing would be better than being beaten every day, and while he didn’t exactly have any means of getting food, he’d gone hungry at home before. Mary Lou had locked up the fridge and worn the key around her neck alongside her cross for as long as he could remember, and he’d been denied food more times than he could count. Anger boiled inside him, and he kicked a loose bit of pavement hard. Fuck Mary Lou, fuck her Church, and fuck God. He could send Credence to Hell if He wanted, it didn’t matter anymore. Why should he try to redeem himself if he was already too tainted to be saved? It felt like he was already in Hell, anyway. Credence was done trying to be good. It didn’t matter. He was evil, disgusting, beyond redemption anyway, even if he tried to be good.
He wasn’t sure how long he had been walking or where he was, only that his legs ached, he was tired, and it was growing dark around him. Just a few feet ahead was a bench, and never before had a few faintly grimy planks of wood looked so inviting. People slept on benches, didn’t they? He was fairly sure he’d heard about those homeless, sinning junkies and whores taking refuge on benches overnight from Mary Lou, and he may not be a junkie yet, but she had told him in no uncertain terms he was a homeless, sinning whore. If a virgin can be a whore, anyway. He wasn’t entirely sure where to find the line between sexual deviance and whoreism. Not that it mattered, really. Why shouldn’t he become an all out whore? It might kill him and he might be eternally damned for it, but what did that matter? It was probably all he was good for now. It wasn’t as if he had much of a chance of earning enough money to get off the street any other way. Or maybe he would freeze to death out on the bench, and wouldn’t have to think about eating at all. Or starve before he learnt how people actually became whores in the first place.
As it happened, he awoke what felt like only a few seconds later to the first rays of dawn, having apparently been left to his unconventional resting place by any passing strangers. Which was a win in one sense, but it did now mean that he had to think about breakfast. It seemed like he had two choices: beg or steal. Both were sins, of course, but it would have to be a matter of which he felt would be the lesser evil. Or, more accurately, which he felt that he would be better at. Probably begging, then. He looked pitiful enough, a scrawny nineteen year old with a pale face and all his worldly possessions in a single small satchel. So he moved to the side of the street and curled in on himself as he looked up hopefully at the people passing by, most of whom seemed to be pretending that he didn’t exist. “Spare change? Excuse me, ma’am, do you have any spare change?” he asked, over and over until his throat felt hoarse and dry. It was almost good, in a bizarre way, that Mary Lou had trained him so well to go without food and water for extended periods. It made the whole experience a little more bearable.
In the end, he managed to scrape together just over two dollars by mid afternoon, which was just enough to find an old cafe and buy himself a sandwich and a big bottle of water. It also meant he got to use their bathroom, and to surreptitiously wash himself with barely functional toilet paper and some hand soap. Not the best, but it was better than nothing. He couldn’t expect much more, at least not until he had learnt his way around this new life. Perhaps if he could stick to just having lunch each day, he could save up enough to get some proper soap and a few extra luxuries.
This idea, however, did not go to plan.
On his third night of saving the afternoon’s earnings, he had settled down on his bench to sleep when a sharp shove drew him sharply out of the drowsiness. He shrunk back instinctively, his eyes screwed up. For a mad moment, he thought that Mary Lou had returned to punish him, even now he was out of her house for good. But it was not her.
The man before him was clearly one of the junkies Mary Lou had always spoken about. He had wild grey hair and looked faintly dirty, with unfocused eyes and - oh, dear God, that was a knife. He was holding a knife and Credence was sure he was about to die.
“You got money, kid?” the man growled, and Credence nodded, his eyes wide and fixed upon the man’s shaking hands. “Gimme. And gimme the bench. Or this-” He raised the knife slightly, “goes there.” He gestured towards Credence’s abdomen, and Credence didn’t doubt him for a second.
“I… Please,” he whispered, but the man just shook his head.
And with shaking hands, Credence pulled the selection of coins out of his pocket. But while lying with a sin, he deliberately missed a few out as he handed the rest over to the terrifying man. There wasn’t much more he could do wrong at this point, anyway.
“That all of it?”
Credence nodded mutely, and the man seemed satisfied. “Get off. This is my spot,” he said harshly, and Credence didn’t dare point out that he had spent four nights on it without this man claiming it as his own. Instead, he grabbed his bag and ran off into the night. He wanted to cry. A strange, hopeless feeling was overcoming him and it was all he could do to keep going. In reality, it was fear and fear alone that kept him upright and rushing through the streets.
He didn’t sleep that night, and the very next day, he resolved to save up for a knife of his own.
As time went on, Credence grew smarter about his sleeping spots. More secluded was better, but always near a cheap cafe with a bathroom. He’d noticed that the days on which he looked cleanest were the days on which he got the most money, although it was nowhere near enough even when he looked his best. And worst of all, a patchy beard was starting to grow on his face and he had left his razor at home, leaving him with no way to shave it. That certainly led to a drop in his income. People liked giving money to innocent looking children, not scruffy men, no matter how clean they were. Although really, he wasn’t that clean, even on his bad days. There was only so much that could be done in public bathrooms, after all. But by this point, he was resigned to simply surviving each day until something changed around him. There was no getting out, not until then.
“Spare change, ma’am?” he asked for the thousandth time that day as a young woman in a long coat and a pantsuit walked past, and to his surprise, she actually stopped.
“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” she asked, and her voice was strangely familiar. She had a thick accent and a sweet face, framed by straight, brown hair, and Credence’s eyes widened slightly. He had seen her before, he knew it. And then it came to him.
Almost two years ago, a pair of police officers had been called to his house after one of the neighbours had complained. A nice woman called Detective Goldstein, who couldn’t have been too much older than him, had interviewed him and asked him in such a soft, kind voice whether Mary Lou had ever hurt him. But he had been afraid and she had always told him to keep family matters in the family, so he had told her that Mary Lou had been nothing but kind to him. She had looked at him with such pity, but he had stuck to his answer all the same. And yet still, Mary Lou had been angry. Credence didn’t know what he was supposed to have done wrong, but he had still been given such a beating after they had left.
“You’re Detective Goldstein, right? My name’s Credence Barebone. You… You came to my house, once.” Except it wasn’t his house anymore.
Something dark crossed Detective Goldstein’s face. “I remember. Did you run away?” she asked, and despite the look in her eyes, her voice was still soft and kind.
“No, ma’am. I got kicked out.”
At this, her brow furrowed and she had a similar expression to the one Mary Lou had always worn whenever he had done wrong. “God, I hate that woman,” she spat. She hated Mary Lou, not him? “Beating and abusing you wasn’t enough, she had to make you homeless too? Come with me, you must be freezing out here. I’ll buy you a coffee.”
The idea of a warm drink was too appealing to pass up. “Okay. Thank you, Detective Goldstein,” he murmured as he got shakily to his feet.
“Call me Tina. Come on, I know a place that does the best coffee this side of Manhattan, you’re going to love it.”
“Thank you, Tina. I do have some money, if-”
“Nope. Not a chance. I’m paying, don’t worry about it,” she insisted, and he couldn’t bring himself to argue. But he would still be careful. If Mary Lou had taught him anything that he still believed, it was that people were rarely kind for the sake of it. She must have some reason, some other motive. He would have to do something for her sooner or later, and he could only hope that it would be something bearable.
The coffee shop was warm and quiet, with almost nobody else inside. It was nice. So much so, in fact, that Credence felt like he shouldn’t be there. The dirty, homeless whores of the world didn’t belong in such nice places. But Tina was smiling at him and buying him coffee, and he couldn’t have felt more welcomed.
“Do you want to be out on the street?” she asked, without preamble. It was such an odd question that Credence stared at her, wide-eyed, for a second before answering.
“I don’t want to go home,” he murmured, his eyes cast down towards the table.
“I know. But would you rather have somewhere better to stay?”
“I- Of course I would.” How could anyone ever want to live out on the street, where men with knives could take your money and dirt built up on your skin like an inescapable shame.
“Listen, my house- It’s pretty big. Huge, actually. And we’ve got two empty bedrooms, if you wanted…”
“But I don’t have any money.”
“You can stay free until you get a job, if you want. Look, I’ve seen enough of kids like you suffering and me not being able to do a thing about it, and just this once… I couldn’t do anything back then, when I first met you. But I’d like to do something now, if I can. Just… You can meet my housemates, and if you want, you can stay with us.”
This generosity was simply too much. He felt like he was going to cry, but he was scared, so scared. There had to be a catch, but could it be worse than any of the alternatives? Probably not. “Are you sure they won’t mind?” he asked nervously.
“Oh, definitely not. Well. Probably not. But they’ll like you, so it should be fine,” she said with a shrug, then downed the rest of her coffee in one long gulp. “What do you say?”
“I… I guess meeting them wouldn’t hurt,” he agreed in a low voice, and no matter how hard he tried to disguise them, he was sure that his anxiety was audible. Could this really work? If he had still been a member of the Church, he was certain that they would have told him no, that he was mad for considering it, that it was sinful to accept such an offer, and that Tina Goldstein was clearly a demon straight from Hell. But he was already damned and already mad. “Okay,” he agreed, his voice slightly stronger this time.
Tina’s face broke into a wide smile. “Brilliant!”