Taking Brook’s hand tightly, Fern kept her eyes on the floor as they walked to the back of the queue. The whispering voices of the greeters, one male and one female, followed them, making Fern think of a funereal party. In the growing late evening and the heavy rain, the town’s cast outs were just bodies bundled into filthy, ragged clothes. Fern saw a mixed of old boots, shoes, slippers and bare feet shuffling along the pavement.
Brook gently swung her around the last person and they came to a stop. Fern raised her eyes and looked at the hunched over red jumper wearing man before them. He was coughing loudly and rubbing his chest with a stuck clenched hand. Fern prayed he didn’t turn around and rested her head on Brook’s shoulder to make whispering to him easier.
Brook kissed her head then said into her hair, ‘remember what I said?’
She brushed her cheek against his shoulder in a nod.
‘Your name is May. I’m Seth. We are brother and sister, running from our abusive stepfather. Yesterday, we got arrested by police and we lost all our things in our escape. Got it?’ Brook asked, ‘but you only say that if we get separated. Actually, let’s…say you’re mute.’
‘Mute?’ Fern hissed.
‘Yeah. It works. Or deaf? But that’s more difficult to pull off.’
‘Deaf makes more sense than mute,’ Fern countered.
Brook hushed her as the man in front of them turned slowly.
‘Sorry. Couldn’t spare a smoke, could ya?’ his raspy voice muttered the words.
Brook patted his pockets with a single hand then drew his packet of cigs and lighter. He slipped his hand out of Fern’s and offered the man one.
‘Ah, thanks,’ the man spoke, ‘finished mine this afternoon and what with the weather, couldn’t scrape the pennies.’
Brook lit the selected cig and the flicking orange glow illumined the homeless man’s dirty, yellowed fingers. Brook closed the lighter then decided to have one himself. Counting he had four left and reminding himself to not offer anyone else one, he pulled out the fifth slender white cig and lit up.
Fern had been carefully avoiding the man’s eyes and had been fixated on Brook. Though this whole time, she could feel the man’s eyes on her. Don’t talk, don’t answer. You can’t hear him, she chanted in her head.
‘On the run?’ the homeless man asked.
‘Yeah. Stepdad and police,’ Brook stated back.
‘Never been to a shelter before?’
Brook didn’t answer. He took a drag of the cig and flicked away the ash.
‘You should keep an eye on her…’ the homeless man said in a softer voice.
Fern stole a glance at him and noticed he was staring longingly at her breasts.
‘She’s deaf. Kid sister, fucking dead weight. She’s like a puppy I can’t get rid of,’ Brook sneered, ‘but I’ll keep an eye on her. I always do. Wanna smoke?’
Brook offered Fern the cig. She paused, shook her head then twisting her neck, pressed the side of her face into Brook’s shoulder. Now looking behind them, she watched the thin trails of smoke drifting into the night and wished she could leave with them.
‘Thanks again,’ the man said and turned back around. Though Fern was sure his eyes keep wondering to the sides to try and look at her again.
Brook slipped his arm around her and guided her forward. The queue seemed to have picked up pace and as they neared the doors, Fern heard someone from just inside the doorway mutter to someone else that they were nearly full. She shot Brook a look, but he was hurriedly finishing his cig. They reached the bottom step and Fern tapped her toes against the cold wet stone.
Throwing the butt away, Brook led her up the steps and ignoring the welcoming from the greeters, followed the homeless man into a hallway. Fern glanced around, noticing that the bare floor and walls were a hospital dark cream colour. They came to a stop a few steps in and peering around the line of people, spotted another set of doors ahead of them and two women with clipboards.
Fern looked over her shoulder and saw that the two greeters had come in and were now shutting and locking the door. A sudden wave of panic and fear tickled her stomach. She swallowed hard and gripped Brook’s arm tightly with both her hands. She focused on something else and saw that the greeters were wearing matching dark green t-shirts with white letters stamped in the right corner. She read; St Louis’ Shelter.
‘We are out of beds now!’ a loud female voice shouted.
Remembering at the last second not to turn towards the voice, Fern stayed still. She felt Brook giving her a small squeeze and musing into her hair with his chin. A flutter of voices blew into her ears then the woman continued talking, directing them all to a smaller side room where they could sleep on the floor. The queue shuffled forward, whispering grumpy voices filling the tall ceiling above them.
The two greeters had taken guard places on either side of the front doors. Fern turned back and as she approached the second set, gave into the dreaded thought of; we’re trapped in here now. She looked at Brook, but he was keeping his eyes fixed on the smallest of the three women. She, like the other woman she was with, was handing leaflets to everyone. They approached her and watched her look them up and down before handing a paper out.
Brook took it from her and she hand gestured for them to go in.
Shivering, Fern dug her nails into Brook’s arm and scanned the large room they had entered. It was hard to tell what, if anything this building had once been. There were high set windows in the wall before them, but like the walls in the corridor the four here were bare. The floor was lined with metal cot beds at one end and at the other long bench tables and chairs. Double white doors in the far corner led into an area signed as the kitchen.
Most of the beds were occupied with people laying down or sitting up. The few that were empty had the leaflets placed on the blankets. The room hummed with voices, snores and soft rustlings of things. Fern couldn’t pick out many faces from those that were sleeping, but she was shocked to see a teenage looking girl curled on a nearby bed with two very young children.
Whilst many of the homeless seemed to be males of all ages, there were a few women and children dotted around. Fern focused harder and picked out an old woman pawing through a bin bag, an exhausted blonde haired woman who looked to be in her mid-forties and a young adult black woman sitting on the edge of a bed, which had the sleeping form of a boy about ten years old curled under the blanket.
Brook looked in the other direction and Fern followed him. There were two doors ahead of them now. One was marked bathrooms and the other, where the tail end of homeless people were heading, wasn’t signed anything. Brook stepped over and Fern refusing to let go of him, went along too. Through the doors was another room with more doors leading off it. This room was smaller and had darker yellow coloured walls. Scattered about were a few old canvas camping beds and air beds. All of them seemed to have been claimed already. Fern counted twenty-three people, including her and Brook, before she watched the red jumper man settling to the floor in the corner to their right.
Brook glanced behind at the doors then finally removing Fern’s fingers from his arm, pushed the door and half stepped back out. Fern almost moved after him, but stopped herself as she heard him striking a conversation up with someone.
‘My sister needs some help.’
‘With what?’ a really soft female voice asked back.
Fern wondered if it was the woman who’d given them the leaflets.
‘She’s….well that woman’s monthly thing. We have nothing. Is there anything you could spare for her? Please?’
Fern heard the woman make a pouting shape with her mouth and breathe through it.
‘She’s deaf and dumb,’ Brook hissed back, ‘please? I don’t know what to do.’
‘Alright. Where is she?’
Staying still, Fern let Brook slip his fingers into her hand and close around her palm. She felt him tugging and turned to follow him out. The woman behind the door was the same one as above. She was short and young looking, with black hair framing her face. She was wearing a dark green t-shirt and a floor touching black cotton skirt.
‘This way,’ she said after a few seconds.
They followed her down a few doors and into a store room. Brook got Fern to stand against the wall then helped the woman search through the pile of opened cardboard boxes. Fern watched them pulling out things like packets of tampons, wet wipes, tissues, underwear, basic washing kits, soap and some more things. From a deep box, the woman pulled out a second hand school backpack that was red and black in colour. She began stuffing all the things inside.
‘What about clothes?’ Brook asked in a low voice.
Fern saw the woman start to turn her head and quickly looked down at her shoes. She tried to fix a blank expression her face, but felt too overwhelmed by sadness and guilt to achieve it. She also pressed her hands to the wall and made a little rocking motion as if she was trying to comfort herself without anyone noticing.
The woman turned back and gave Brook the backpack.
‘Sister, Please. I don’t want anything for myself. But for her. She’s just a child still and she’s been through so much,’ Brook’s pleading filled the hushed room.
The woman sighed and giving Fern another look, shook her head and muttered back, ‘you must wait for the handouts tomorrow. I need to go, the food is almost ready.’
‘No, please! She’s probably already bleed through those jeans. Just give her a few things. We won’t take the handouts. I’m desperate! Sister, don’t turn a child of God away. She needs your help.’
Fern looked shyly up, recognising the smooth tone of voice that Brook had fallen into. He’s hands were resting lightly on the woman’s shoulders and he was staring hard into her eyes. The woman was still and watching him, her face slowly going sleepy looking. The backpack was at their feet.
‘You want to help her, don’t you?’ Brook purred, ‘God wants you to do this, Sister. Can’t you hear him? He needs you to help this poor girl. Please?’
The woman nodded.
Brook slowly raised his hand and with a finger summoned Fern over. Sensing what was happening, Fern’s vampire instinct kicked in and on silent feet she went over. Brook pushed the woman’s head to the side and moved her hair away. Fern touched her arm and lend in as the smell of blood pulsing just under flesh began calling to her.
‘Do it,’ Brook whispered into Fern’s ear.
She give a single nodded and opened her mouth. Her fangs pressed against her tongue and lip then the sweet soft skin of the nun.