Disclaimer: I do not own these characters.
Author notes: Prequel to Watch My Back. Fourteen-year-old Faith spends her first Christmas on the streets.
Faith wouldn’t have known the date, had it not been for the bell-ringer in front of the Macy’s entrance. She had walked past them a million times ever since she’d been living on the Boston streets, on her own for what she could only estimate as maybe three weeks or so. Every time it irritated her to see them, standing there in their warm hats and scarves and gloves and nice thick coats, with their bright red Salvation Army buckets and their cheerful grins, ringing their bells like a demented…well, actually there was really nothing she could compare it to, but it was damn irritating, even infuriating.
It was irritating anyway to walk downtown, as she did nearly every day to pass the time she now possessed in abundant qualities, or even to go inside stores…Christmas season was the worst time of the year she could have chosen to be newly homeless. Trust her to pick it, of all possible months…
Everywhere Faith looked there were people hurrying along, arms loaded with boxes and bags, the evidence of the excess of cash each and every one of them possessed. People in their cheery, tacky Christmas sweaters, their jingle bell hats and gaudy Christmas pins, people who talked entirely too loudly and cheerfully for Faith’s ears to be able to take. Everywhere she cast her eyes there was garland and tinsel, fake snowmen and cut-out paper snowflakes, models of Santas and elves and even worse, people dressed as the same thing. Christmas trees in store windows and the town square, in seemingly every store and business, bedecked with flashing lights and brightly colored glass balls, wrapped gifts that probably contained nothing at all, reindeer and toy displays, candy canes and mistletoe, Nativity scenes and Charlie Brown characters…it was completely impossible for Faith to be able to look in any given direction without some festive and cheery reminder of the holiday that she had absolutely not enthusiasm towards its passing.
All those people throwing money right and left on buying crappy gifts for people who didn’t want or need them and probably wouldn’t even say thank you…all those people in such a hurry, who would all be going home to their cheery decorated houses and their gobs of food and warm bed and showers and bathrooms…all those people who walked past her without so much as a glance, like she didn’t exist, wasn’t a person if she wasn’t holding a shopping bag or electronic device box. And yet, they’d take the time to stop and smile at the friggin’ bell ringers, to wish them a merry Christmas and drop change in their bucket like they were some generous bigshot.
It was irritating, yeah, but it was also vaguely depressing, whether or not Faith wanted to admit it to herself.
It was the bell ringers that were the worst. There they were with their scary-spirited smiles, ringing their ever-loving bells, calling out to her, wanting her to drop change into their stupid freaking buckets, and then narrowing their eyes at her with judgment when she walked by without responding. They wanted HER to give money for what THEY referred to as “needy people”- her, a homeless teenage runaway, her, who was poorer than every single one of them, probably, that they were trying to get her to give money to?! Faith, who was always too cold, too hungry, too tired, yet too alert to be able to relax into real sleep, Faith, who was always sick, sneezing, coughing, red-nosed, and sniffling in the December chill more often than not…they wanted HER to give them what little she had managed to scrounge up for the day?!
Fat fuckin’ chance. No way in hell.
But that one lady, that particular bell-ringer with her black ski hat and green parka, complete with the most godawful Christmas-tree-light necklace Faith had ever seen, hadn’t asked her if she wanted to make a donation, and when Faith had quickly walked by, trying not to let her catch her eye, she hadn’t looked disapproving or irritated either. In fact, she had just smiled at Faith with bright-eyed cheer.
“Goodbye, dear, and may you have a very blessed Christmas tomorrow!”
Until that point Faith hadn’t bothered keeping track of the date; there was no real need for her to know it anymore. Still, the woman’s words gave her pause for their meaning as much as the unusual seeming sincerity in which she had spoken them, and she almost stopped and turned to look back at her.
So tomorrow was Christmas… her first Christmas on her own. But it wasn’t like all the years before had been so special…really, Faith had been on her own for almost as long as she could remember in all the ways that counted.
Her parents might have tried when she was younger, too young to remember or appreciate it. Before her mother started drinking, they might have had an all-out Christmas extravaganza every year at the Lehane house, for all Faith knew. But she doubted it. And really it didn’t matter. Most of the years that Faith remembered, she would have almost preferred the times her parents couldn’t be bothered over the times they actually did try…it always ended the same anyway, with her mother raving and passing out on the couch or floor and her father trying to use whatever cheap crap he’d got her as a reason that Faith should, as he put it, “thank” him. They didn’t cook a big meal, or any sort of meal that required more complex directions than how to microwave frozen dinners, and they never invited family or friends…hell, they didn’t HAVE family or friend. From what Faith could remember, they’d never had a Christmas tree either, unless you counted ones less than two feet tall that were also artificial- her mother had said it was a waste to pay for something every year that you’d just throw away. The truth was that she wanted the money for booze and cigarettes- she’d never felt a need to be thrifty over THAT.
But as sucky as those Christmas had been, this year, with her mother dead, her father probably keeping an eye out for her so he could force her back, force her to be under his control, and a complete lack of what most people would consider necessities for survival…this Christmas, Faith’s thirteenth, would be her worst yet.
No…not thirteenth, she realized with a jolt, her eyes widening, and she buries her hands deeper in her pockets subconsciously, forgetting to keep walking, forgetting to keep walking, forgetting to hunch forward as a protection against the wind. If it was Christmas Eve already, then her birthday had already passed, over a week ago. She was fourteen now, another year into teenage-hood…and god, did she feel older.
Thinking about this, pain arose in Faith’s chest so suddenly and strongly she caught her breath, and hot tears stung her eyes…in spite of it all, and without really understanding why, she missed her mother, grieved her absence, her death, so strongly it was difficult to move.
Cold, she told herself sternly, almost angrily, she was just cold, cold and tired…and she better get a move on, find herself somewhere to sleep when night came. She hated how early it got dark now.
Sniffing audibly, Faith quickly swiped her hand under her nose and eyes, telling herself that it was the weather that made it necessary to do so. Sniffing again and then squaring her shoulders, setting her chin, she began to walk, searching for a place she could claim as her bed for the night.
Faith had nearly drifted off to sleep when she heard the bells. She hadn’t intended to. It was too early, for one thing, and for another, she hadn’t yet gone by the gas station, one of the last places open on Christmas Eve, to steal herself a Christmas meal which would likely consist of Vienna sausage in a can and a candy bar. She had wandered through stores until just about an hour ago, just to keep warm and out of the icy chill of the air outside, but everything closed by 5 or 6, and she had had to go back to searching for shelter, wondering what she was going to do to occupy herself for the rest of the night.
She had ended up making a place for herself on a fire escape outside in an alleyway; there was an overhanging that mostly sheltered her from wind or rain, and though the floor of it was hard and cold, when Faith sat down to rest her back against the wall, she began to drift off.
When she first heard the bells, before she had even opened her eyes, Faith assumed that it was more of the same, the doings of the bell ringers that she was so accustomed to. Peeved, she opened her eyes and sat up straight, turning her head towards the direction from which it seemed to be coming. What the hell, didn’t they ever give it up and go home?
But this bell was different from the ones that she was so used to hearing. This bell wasn’t fast and shrill, clanging in an obnoxious manner that jarred Faith’s nerves and automatically tensed her jaw, in a manner that made her speed her steps to surpass it even as it was designed to demand her attention. No, this bell, though loud in volume, was somehow softer in its tone. This bell’s chiming lasted longer, reverberated more slowly, and its vibrations did not rattle Faith’s ears, but instead slowly and steadily struck inside her chest. This bell was peaceful, gentle in its sound…this bell was lovely.
It took Faith a few seconds to realize, as she turned her head, squinting her eyes into the alley’s dimness in the direction of the sound, that it was not the bell of a persistent Salvation Army volunteer, but a much larger bell, a bell that seemed to echo over her head, over most of the block. Within a few more moments she realized that it was a church bell…it was Christmas Eve, and one of the nearby churches must be ringing their church bell for the start of their Christmas Eve.
A shiver ran through Faith that had little to do with the cold, and she hugged her elbows, listening intently as the bell sounded again. Rubbing a hand across her eyes and sniffing, then swiping the same hand under her nose, she stood abruptly, shrugging into her backpack and stretching. Without really knowing why she was doing it for what she would do when she arrived, she began to descend the fire escape intending to follow the sound of the bells.
Faith only saw two others as she came to the street front, both clearly also homeless, both who looked worse off than she in their dress and not all there in their demeanor. She avoided their eyes and gripped one of the straps of her backpack as she hastened along; the bell sounded its last chime, but she remembered the direction from which it had come, and she continued on.
The church was only about a block over from the alley she had been resting in; though the bells had stopped, she knew it was the right one. It was the right direction, and the only church she saw on the street- and certainly the only building with a bell tower. It was tall and white, with pillars and arches and stone steps leading to curved wooden doors, doors that, to Faith’s surprise, were painted bright red. Stained glass windows of vivid colors sparkled at its front and sides, and as Faith stood and regarded it, her eyes fell upon the open doors. Without quite realizing at first what she was doing, she began to walk forward slowly, ascending the stairs and then slipping inside.
The service had not yet begun, so no one looked up or seemed to notice Faith’s entrance. That was just fine with her. For a moment she simply stood in the doorway, taking it all in. The church’s interior was large, with tall arched ceilings and organ pipes that stretched up higher than she was tall from the very elaborate and expensive-looking instrument. The stained glass windows lined the walls from the church interior as well as exterior, and a large crucifix suspended from the ceiling at the church’s front. A Christmas tree stood in for the right corner, a life size Nativity scene in the left of the church front, apart from the stage. Poinsettias were lined up at the alter near a large candelabra, and lit candles flickered at each window ledge, the lights dimmed so that they stood out more noticeably. In the pews people knelt in prayer in their Christmas outfits, all well-dressed, most in red, green, or black, and their children sat in tights and velvet dresses, bow ties and cable-knit sweaters, either fidgeting and whispering or solemnly bowing their heads with open eyes, cut to the side.
Faith was the only person under the age of fifty, from what she could tell, who was here alone; she was also the only one wet jeans and a stained jacket, sneakers and a torn backpack, the only one not dressed in her nicest clothes…actually, these were her nicest clothes. Feeling awkward and out of place, she contemplated turning quickly and walking away, returning to her alley for the night. But instead, she found herself moving to sit at the edge of the pew in the last row, facing the front.
Faith still wasn’t sure why she was there at all. She’d never been one for church; she had gone perhaps twice in her life and only vaguely remembered either time, and she didn’t even believe in God. All these people getting together, getting on their knees to talk to an invisible being that never talked back, begging for its love and approval…it struck her as stupid, silly, childish. But at least inside the church, she could be warm for a while…it was the last place open, other than gas stations, on this night, and how long could she linger in one of those before someone got suspicious? And it was kind of nice inside…pretty.
As the preacher, or priest, or whatever the word for him was, came to the front and began to speak, Faith was at first amused by his goofy robe and tassels and his earnest voice and smirked to herself, slouching in her seat with her hands once more buried in her pockets. But as his speech continued, she found herself beginning to listen, her interest faintly piqued in spite of herself. His voice was loud enough to be clearly heard, but soft, warm in tone, somehow soothing and pleasant to hear, and as he spoke of a virgin giving birth, of angels and stars and shepherds and wise men all celebrating the birth of a holy child, Faith’s head slowly lifted and she sat up straighter, hearing it not as the gospel solemn truth, as the others did, but as a fairy tale she had previously thought of as boring now being told in a much more interesting manner. Of course she didn’t believe it…it wasn’t true, or anything she’d change her life for, but it was a better story than she had realized. And it was just occurring to her now, as the religious leader reminded them of a stable for a pregnant woman’s stay, of Mary’s youth in the face of her impending birth…this Mary, she really didn’t sound like she had a situation too different from Faith’s. Mary too was a young teenage girl with no home, getting by day by day the best she could. She had her husband, that Joseph guy, where Faith had no one, but on the other hand, she was also pregnant, a horror Faith had managed to escape. So far, anyway.
Faith found herself enjoying the story in a way, relaxing against the pew gradually as it wrapped up, almost lulled to the edge of sleep. But then as people in matching white robes began to line up across the stage where he had once stood, she sat up again, interested to see what would take place. And when they began to sing, her breath caught, and her features froze, an intense feeling that hurt as much as it warmed her spreading through her chest. Her heartbeat sped, her mouth went dry, and her eyes sparked and stung with a fierce need to give release to the intense and utterly puzzling emotion rising within her.
She couldn’t understand their words fully; she certainly couldn’t understand the reason for the pleasure entwined with pain coursing through her chest, stilling her entirely. She could only sit in silence, her breath rasping, eyes wide, blinking back the tears that threatened to spill.
When the first song ended and another began, Faith couldn’t take it any longer. Standing abruptly, she made her way out the door, down the church steps, and onto the streets, not bothering to notice if anyone had watched her go. The cold stinging her cheeks and chilling her frame was an instant distraction, and as she walked quickly, head lowered, sniffing hard, she thought with some embarrassment, some awe, how weird that had been. Crazy how something beautiful could hurt so much…
Sniffing again and wrinkling her nose, Faith lifted her head, the hood of her jacket falling back as she looked up into the sky…and that was when she saw it. A single star, standing out both larger and brighter than all the others, sparking and glinting above her, as though meant just for her.
Faith stared, her lips parting slightly, eyes focused steadily on that star. It was like the story…the star of David, guiding the shepherds to Mary and the baby Jesus. It was there now, right above her, like a sign, a message. Like…
It was just a coincidence, she told herself quickly, shaking her head. I’m no freakin’ virgin Mary, no holy mother of God. And any guidance I get is gonna be from me…I’m on my own, always.
Still, somehow Faith couldn’t bring herself to look away.