Most nights lately she sat right there, looking out the only window on the front of the building. Through the scratched glass, through the bars on the outside of the old church, she watched the sidewalk in its amber glow from the curving streetlight overhead. She listened to the changing pitch of cars on the freeway beyond the chain-link fence that lined the street. She imagined them speeding off to dinner in one of the fancy restaurants on 6th Street or home from a party in the hills, miles from where she sat. She dreamed of those parties sometimes, where people with pretty faces danced under trees strung with white lights.
The church had been converted into a shelter long before she and her mother moved there. The echoes of passionate sermons and joyful choruses had faded into the arched ceiling and had been replaced by frightened tears and long silences. The pews had been removed to make room for metal cots, plywood cupboards and six foot tall dividers providing for the fugitives from violence the illusion of privacy but little more. The wooden altar still stood in the sanctuary but was joined on either side by long folding tables with metal chairs. Instead of Communion, dinner was now received there every night and lunches on weekends. Along each wall saints in colored glass peered down on the residents. The kitchen in the rear and the bathrooms along the front entrance remained as they always had, except the women used the men’s room now, too, since men were not allowed here.
Carmella and her mother had moved there when she was thirteen. When they first arrived she tried to disappear into the walls, but after two years of living anywhere you begin to feel a sense of ownership, even for a place like this. Now, when she wasn’t in school, she would sometimes wander about in the cavernous old church, seeking the dark corners out of curiosity rather than fear. Most of the residents kept to themselves and rarely went near the windows, especially that front window that looked out over 26th Avenue, hiding from the demons, both real and imagined, that may be watching. But Carmella sat in that window a lot now.
Her mother told her that her demon – their demon – couldn’t find them there, that he was long gone, but the timbre of her voice wasn’t so certain. He only appeared in Carmella’s dreams now, sometimes even invading the parties in the hills with all of the pretty lights and pretty people. His faceless figure would walk among them and seem to be moving toward her, but she would wake before he got to her, before her memories of brutality blended too completely with her dream world. Her mother was not so lucky. Her mother still woke screaming and would rush to Carmella, holding her close, yelling “Mija! Mija!” Such sounds were not uncommon here.
Carmella’s mother had tried her best to create for them a beginning. When they had escaped there she had told Carmella that it would only be for a few months. Months, as they so easily do, turned to years. Her scars and broken bones healed, but turned quickly to hunger and hopelessness. Finally, she had found a job, then a second with the aim of leaving town for good, but by then they had found a new school that would take Carmella even with this “temporary address” and things were becoming permanent. Now she was just hoping to find a place of their own, something safe and in a quiet neighborhood, where he couldn’t find them ever again. This wasn’t how she had wanted her daughter’s life to be.
At 11 o’ clock the lights of the gas station on the other side of the freeway went dark and Carmella sat up a little on her faded wooden window seat. She had been falling asleep, but now her eyes fixed on the bridge, waiting. Then she saw him. With a satchel slung across one narrow shoulder and hood pulled over his short, black hair, he stepped off the sidewalk and turned down 26th Avenue, coming toward the shelter. Carmella didn’t move. Her mother, noticing her daughter’s attention, walked to the window and ran her hand down the side of her hair, resting it on a shoulder. When he got to the steps of the shelter he stopped and pulled his hood down and looked up, passed the iron bars, into the window. His face was young and hopeful and smiling.
“Can I go, Mama?”
“Just for a minute. And just on the steps, OK, Mija?”
“Thank you, Mama.”
Carmella bounced off of the window seat and spun a circle around her mother as she ran to open the heavy double doors. The clack of the dead bolt ricocheted through the old church. Her mother followed her to quietly shut the door and then return to the window, keeping vigilant watch over the street and her young daughter. She sat down just in time to see Carmella skip the bottom two steps and land in front of the boy on the sidewalk. Their arms entwined and they kissed and her mother smiled. Even here, Carmella’s mother thought, even now, love still exists.