As soon as they started praying I got up. I was only a couple of rows from the back and I figured I could make it to the door and get out without anybody noticing. All I wanted was somewhere to sleep. Somewhere dry. Somewhere warm. But the bed wasn’t free. It came with a price. The price was sitting through the service.
I’d almost left when they said that. I didn’t want to hear about the road to hell; some days I was pretty sure I was already on it. I’d had enough of being told I was a sinner from my mother’s new boyfriend, Evan. I knew my mother well enough to know that she hadn’t found Jesus the way she told Evan she had, unless he was in the fourth aisle over at Payless. But she played the game well. That didn’t mean I had to play at all.
The third time Evan hit me I left. Evan said God talked to him. I don’t think he did. If God did talk to people, I didn’t see how he would choose Evan with his thin, bloodless lips and pinched face that never smiled. And I knew there was no way God would tell Evan to slap me across the mouth.
So I left and I wasn’t going back, not ever, because when Mom ruined things with Evan--and she would—there would be someone else. There was always someone else
This preacher had the same angry look that Evan had. He was warning us that God could see our sin; that God knew what was in our hearts and we should be afraid. All I could think was that if God knew what was in my heart, then he would know all I wanted was somewhere to sleep. And there wasn’t anything sinful in that.
The preacher on the other hand, seemed to have a dark place in his heart. Did he really think God didn’t know that?
Maybe I could have tuned it all out if he hadn’t started on a small, dark-haired girl in the front row, urging her to confess her sins and turn from her debauched ways. He actually used the word, debauched. I figured the girl was fourteen, fifteen tops. How many debauched things could she have done that were truly her choice?
She started to cry. Her nose was running and she swiped at it with her sleeve.
I hadn’t been in a church since I was maybe five, but the words to a song they had sung came into my head:
Jesus loves me this I know,
For the bible tells me so.
There wasn’t any love in this place. The pastor had his hand on the girl’s head, pushing down, holding her in the pew while he prayed for her sins to be forgiven in a voice that bounced around the room while she cried and hiccupped.
I knew I’d rather be cold than sit in the pew and watch. Couldn’t anyone see that what that girl needed was somewhere safe to sleep and food in her stomach? Not to be made a fool of like she was the entertainment before we all got to eat.
As I moved for the door a woman came toward me, waving me back to my seat. Her face was pulled into a frown, two lines carved into the space between her eyes and two more like brackets around her mouth.
“Sit down!” she hissed.
I took a step backwards, but only one. I didn’t need this. What I needed was a warm, dry place to sleep. That’s what everyone sitting in the pews needed. Somewhere to sleep. Something to eat. Not a lecture. Not judgment from people who knew nothing about our lives.
I stepped around the woman and pushed my way out of the door. She didn’t try to stop me. She didn’t ask me where I was going or if I even had anywhere to go.
I moved quickly along the front of the stone building, going by people who were headed for the lights. I rounded the corner to the parking lot and stopped to catch my breath, dropping my backpack on the ground and leaning against the rough stonework.
“Holy rollers get to you too?” a voice asked.
I looked around, one hand automatically pulling into a fist, the other folding around the jagged piece of broken beer bottle I carried in my pocket. The speaker was sitting at the bottom of a set of metal steps at the end of the back of the building where it widened out to almost the length of the small parking lot. Probably the fire escape I realized. I’d seen him around. He had long legs in dark jeans, some kind of equally dark hooded jacket, and shaggy hair poking out from a wool cap. He looked harmless but that didn’t always mean anything.
“It’s just not my thing,” I said.
“Are they doing the ‘you’re all going to hell unless you repent’ bit, or have they moved on to praying over some poor sinner who made the mistake of sitting in the front row?”
I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not. “The last part.”
He shook his head and stood up. I pushed off from the wall and began to ease the hand holding the shard of glass out of my pocket. He came a couple of steps closer to me then stopped. “You hungry?” he asked.
“I’m okay,” I said.
“I didn’t ask if you’re okay. I asked if you’re hungry.”
There were enough people around on the other side of the building I figured I wasn’t in any real danger from him. If I screamed, someone would come to see what was going on, even if it was just because they were curious.
He held out both hands. “I’m not going to try anything,” he said. “I’m just asking if you want something to eat. I know a place.”
“What’s the catch?”
“Well I’m not going to try to smite the devil out of you, if that’s what you’re asking.”
I could see that he was smiling.
“But you will have to walk a bit. Maybe fifteen minutes.” He shoved his hands in the pockets of his jacket. “If it’ll make you feel better I can walk on one side of the street and you can walk on the other.”
“So what is this place?” I asked. “If you’re talking about Pax, they’ll be full by now.” Pax was the other shelter in town.
“I’m not talking about Pax,” he said. “I know someone. He works in the kitchen over at the hotel. People send stuff back because it’s not exactly how they wanted it and it goes in the garbage. There’s nothing wrong with it. He slips it to me. There’s plenty. No strings, I swear.”
I hesitated. I had that piece of glass in one pocket and a whistle hidden on a cord around my neck. It was probably stupid to go with him but I was too tired, cold and hungry to care. I shrugged. “Okay.”
He pointed toward the street. “This way.”
We started down the sidewalk. It was bare and kind of dirty. Even though it was just the beginning of March there was no snow left. “I know it’s not very gentlemanly of me,” he said, “but I’m going to let you walk on the outside, that way you’re closest to the street.” He tipped his head and smiled at me. “You know, in case you want to go screaming into the night.”
He was keeping a couple of feet between us. “Why are you doing this?” I asked.
“Why shouldn’t I?” he countered.
“Because nobody does something until they’re after something,” I said.
“What were you after when you gave your scarf to that little girl at the clean station over at Pax House?”
I stopped walking. “You were spying on me?” I said.
He was a couple of steps in front of me. He swiveled around. “I watch people,” he said. “Don’t you?”
I did. It was a way to stay safe—to watch people, to try to figure out what they were going to do so you could be ready. I’d figured that out long before I came to the street. “I didn’t need the scarf,” I finally mumbled.
He gave a half shrug. “And I don’t need all the food I’ll get. It’s not like I can save it.”
I blew out a breath. “Fine.”
We fell into step again, walking in silence for a block. With his long legs he walked quickly but I didn’t mind, I walked pretty fast myself. We cut across the street at the corner and again he was careful to let me be on the outside and to keep lots of space between us.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“You can call me Q.”
For what I wondered. Quincy? Quentin? Or maybe nothing. Lots of people didn’t use their real names on the street.
“Quinn,” he said as though he’d been reading my mind. “But I prefer Q.”
“I’m Maddie,” I said.
I glanced sideways in time to catch him smiling at me. “Nice to meet you, Maddie,” he said.
We walked the rest of the way to the hotel in silence. The building stretched up into the dark night sky, and with the lights on, the front looked to me more like something from a horror movie than a fancy hotel where people paid hundreds of dollars just to spend one night.
I followed Q around to the back. He pointed to what looked like a picnic shelter at the edge of the pavement. The sides were covered, but both ends were open and I could see three benches inside. “Wait for me there,” he said.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Smoke shack,” he said over his shoulder. “Nobody uses it.”
I walked over, checking things out carefully to make sure no one was hiding anywhere. Turns out it was too well lit for that, and the only place to hide would have been under the benches. I sat down on the closest bench with my back to one of the side walls and set my backpack beside me.
Q banged on a heavy metal door and when it opened he disappeared inside. He came back out in maybe a minute, carrying a large brown paper bag. He straddled the bench across from me, setting the bag next to him. “You picked a good night to come,” he said, unfolding the top of the bag. “Lots of picky, picky people.” He handed me a clamshell takeout container. “You like lasagna?”
I could feel the heat coming through the bottom of the box. “Yeah, thanks,” I said. He tossed me a napkin-wrapped roll. Inside were a plastic fork, knife and spoon.
The lasagna was hot, spicy and cheesy. It was so hot it burned my tongue and it was so good I didn’t care.
“Somebody sent this back?” I asked Q.
“Yeah, apparently the server forgot to mention there’s spinach in it.” He shook his head. “It’s vegetable lasagna. What did they think was in it?” He took another bite and then held up one hand, fishing in his jacket for something with the other. I froze, ready to drop the Styrofoam box and bolt if I had to. Q pulled out a small, stubby bottle of water and held it out to me. It was icy cold, the outside wet with condensation.
After the lasagna there was a slice of chocolate cake to share. “What’s wrong with that?” I asked leaning over to look at the cake covered in plastic on a paper plate.
“The frosting is smudged,” Q said.
“Now I know you’re lying.”
He shook his head. “Swear to God—not the Holy Rollers version of God either—I’m not making it up.”
“But that’s such a waste,” I said. I licked the last of the tomato sauce off my fork and speared a bite of the cake. That thing about melts in your mouth? It did. I’d never eaten anything so good. It was creamy and chocolaty and sweet with a touch of dark chocolate bitterness. I slid down the bench a bit closer to Q and got another bite.
We took turns, a bite for him, a bite for me until there was nothing but a smear of frosting on the bottom of the plate. Q held it out to me. “Here,” he said. “No point in wasting that.”
I scraped every last bit of chocolate off the cardboard and then licked the fork clean. I was pretty sure Q didn’t care about my table manners.
He pulled the top of the paper bag open again. It made me think of one of those little cars at the circus that ends up having about six or seven clowns stuffed inside. This time Q took out a smaller brown bag and offered it to me.
I shook my head. “No thanks. I’m full.”
“Take it,” he said. “It’s just biscuits—cheese ones and I think raisins, or maybe cranberry. They’d be okay for breakfast.”
“What are you going to have?”
He pulled out a second bag. “There’s plenty.”
I took the food, setting it next to me on the bench. “Does this much get thrown out every night?” I asked.
“Pretty much,” Q said as he gathered up our garbage. “Sometimes less, sometimes more.”
I rubbed my hands together. They were getting cold again. “But it’s such a waste. There are people down there at the shelter that are hungry—children. Old people. Would it be so hard to take it down to them instead of just tossing it all in a dumpster?”
Q stretched his long legs across the space between us. “Can’t,” he said.
“Health department rules. All this food was already served to someone. They can’t give it to anyone else.”
I folded my arms across my chest for warmth. “What? They figure people spit in it or something?”
“Sneezed on it. Breathed on it,” Q said. He got up, walked over to a big dumpster by the back wall of the hotel and stuffed our trash inside. He came back across the pavement, stopping at the open end of the smoking shelter. “You have anywhere to sleep tonight?”
Here it was. The catch. I stood up. I should have known. “I knew there was no such thing as a free lunch,” I said. “Or a free dinner.” I fumbled in the pocket of my jeans and pulled out the last five dollars I had. I held it out to Q along with the bag of biscuits. “Here,” I said. “I’m not having sex with you.”