NOT SO BARE AFTER ALL
Moses stepped forward hesitantly, baseball cap in hand. His T-shirt proclaimed he was a student of Yale when he was merely a student of life, old before his time. Twelve next month, he was cunning yet with a streak of honesty running through him. Careful not to let her feelings for individuals cloud her treatment of all her people, Sister Hannah still loved him.
In the crown of his cap were four dirty scrunched-up dollar bills.
"Where'd you get these, Moses?"
"Holy shi - ah, sorry, Sister - I did a good deed, downtown. This lady, her Chevy was bein' hitched to a tow-truck. Real upset she was, pregnant an' all. Well, I heard some bystanders sympathisin' with her, so I took my hat round, paid her on-the-spot fine straight off afore they could tow her auto away."
"But if you paid off the fine - "
"This is half of what's left over - "
"And the other half?"
His dark eyes crinkled. "The bystanders, they said she could keep the rest. But she insisted I took half. Nobody seemed t' object. Strange, really, ever'body seemed to feel good, giving away their dough to help th' lady. If'n I'd cut a purse or two, they'd've had th' opposite feelin' for sure, more'n like ready to lynch me outright!"
"More'n like, Moses." She took the grubby notes. "Thank you,"
He grinned, revealing a missing tooth.
The mischievous grin had not always been there. When he came into the hostel he'd been morose.
She gradually brought him round and Moses became invaluable; he was a useful go-between for the hostel and the street-smart neighbours. He did not join a gang, but was on fairly good terms with more than one.
Months ago, as she finished praying in the chapel just off the entrance foyer, she rose to see him in the doorway.
Rather sheepishly, he was holding a golden candle-stick.
"Where did you get that, Moses?"
"Does it matter, Sister?"
"Yes," she said, pursing her lips.
"Well, it sort of fell out the door of St Dominic's..."
Sister Hannah groaned. "You can't just take - "
"But the chapel's so bare, Sister! Holy shit, they're a rich church, they won't miss one lousy - "
"Pretty adornments don't matter, Moses. It's the feelings inside that count..." Her eyes glistened; he meant well, for God's sake! "What am I going to do with you?" she asked, embracing him.
Later, she telephoned St Dominic's. They were surprisingly understanding. The candle-stick stayed.
Sunset slanted red rays through the chapel's high narrow window above the altar, lending the crucified Christ a sanguinary appearance. Sister Hannah rose, prayers completed. She gathered her skirts just as the hostel's front doors clattered noisily open.
Swearing and shouting echoed in the entranceway.
Her heart sank as she opened the chapel door.
Four youths, attired in leisure-ware patterned with violent-looking transfers, stood in the hallway. In the arms of the tallest of the gang was Moses. Blood dribbled down the boy's outflung inner arm onto the foyer tiles.
She gulped in air, fought down the anxiety and shock. "What happened?"
"He asked to be brung here, Sister." The tall leader held the lad out to her as if he were a bundle of clothes. He couldn't be more than fifteen; over his shoulder was slung an automatic rifle; one of the others carried an Uzzi machine pistol.
She said austerely, "If you intend staying, leave your guns in Mario's office there..." And she stepped forward, arms outstretched.
Bracing herself for the weight, she took Moses in her arms, surprised at how light he was. She repeated, "What happened?"
"Moses was hit in the gang crossfire. Guy in a pickup shot him - didn't hang around for autographs..."
She carried Moses through the chapel door. He was already a deathly grey pallor.
Sister Theresa rushed down the stairs, alarmed. "I heard the - " She paled at sight of the youths, and of Moses's blood staining Sister Hannah's clothes.
"Don't worry, Sister Theresa, they mean no harm, they're friends of Moses. Now, go to the sickbay, call an ambulance and bring some dressings and pain-killers."
Nodding, the nun rushed through the double doors.
The youths stood awkwardly in the chapel's doorway; they'd relinquished their weapons. She said over her shoulder, "Come in, sit at the back, the religion won't bite you..."
As she stopped in front of the altar with its single candle-stick, the candle poignantly guttering, fighting for air, their chairs scraped on the floor.
She knelt with him cradled in her arms.
Moses opened his eyes, winced as frothy blood ran out the corner of his mouth. "Holy - shi - Sister," he coughed, "I'm sorry!"
"Sh, don't talk - "
He painfully coughed up blood onto her clothes. "Sister, I'm sorry t' make a mess an' all..." Each spasm sent knives into her.
"God won't really mind me cussin', will he, Sister?"
"No, Moses. Hell, no," and she forced a smile.
Sister Theresa rushed in, then, realising where she was, slowed her pace to a hurried decorous walk and knelt beside them. Sister Hannah shook her head to the offered bandages. Sister Theresa bit her lip, rested the medication in her lap, and couldn't stop blinking.
Moses smiled, weakly. "I'm dyin', ain't I?"
"Yes. The good die young." Like so many clichés, it held a grain of universal truth.
"Exceptin' for you, Sister - 'ceptin' you..."
Through a sudden skein of gauze across her vision she could see that for the first time he noticed where they were; "You know, Sister, it's not so bare in here, after all... I can feel - "
She commended his soul to heaven and closed his staring, empty eyes; eyes that had been so full of mischief, so insolent yet generous, so alive...
Sister Theresa sobbed uncontrollably; the youths mumbled something about only a bit of a lad and shuffled out.
The paramedics arrived but she hardly noticed.
Previously published in TV Choice, 2013
Copyright Nik Morton, 2015
I’m never comfortable writing in vernacular, as I reckon it’ll never be correct.
I’ve left this as it appeared in the magazine, for what it’s worth;
perhaps the motto should be: avoid vernacular like the plague!
This is a short story from St Anselm’s Hostel for the Homeless, Charleston, South Carolina, which is run by an order of nuns, presided over by Sister Hannah. Two out-of-print novellas feature Sister Hannah – A Sign of Grace and Silenced in Darkness.
Sister Hannah was my first incarnation of the nun who used to be a cop. I transposed the stories from New York and Charleston to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and London and renamed the main character Sister Rose, and the novel was published as Pain Wears No Mask (out of print).
If you’d like to see more of my short stories, please consider the collection, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat (2013), which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’. He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.
Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book.
Or you could try my co-authored fantasy novel Wings of the Overlord (by Morton Faulkner) currently available in hardback (5 good glowing reviews):
Floreskand, where myth, mystery and magic reign. The sky above the city of Lornwater darkens as thousands of red tellars, the magnificent birds of the Overlord, wing their way towards dark Arisa. Inexplicably drawn to discover why, the innman Ulran sets out on a quest. Although he prefers to travel alone, he accedes to being accompanied by the ascetic Cobrora Fhord, who seems to harbour a secret or two. Before long, they realise that it's a race against time: they must get to Arisa within seventy days and unlock the secret of the scheduled magical rites. On their way, they stay at the ghostly inn on the shores of dreaded Lake and meet up with the mighty warrior Courdour Alomar. Alomar has his own reasons for going to Arisa and thus is forged an unlikely alliance. Gradually, the trio learn more about each other -- whether it's the strange link Ulran has with the red tellar Scalrin, the lost love of Alomar, or the superstitious heart of Cobrora. Plagued by assassins, forces of nature and magic, the ill-matched threesome must follow their fate across the plains of Floreskand, combat the Baronculer hordes, scale the snow-clad Sonalume Mountains and penetrate the dark heart of Arisa. Only here will they uncover the truth. Here too they will find pain and death in their struggle against the evil Yip-nef Dom.