Mary-Ann Lewitt stood on the sidewalk outside the church. Mass had just let out, and so the congregation was dispersing out towards the parking lot, with a few people remaining to talk in the vestibule: Mary-Ann kept watching the street. The world felt very far away then, under the clear, cold sky of March.
There was another bluster of wind. Mary-Ann bunched her shoulders and drove her hands deeper inside the pockets of her black sweatshirt. Maybe it would be better to go back inside where it was warmer. But then they might get here while she was using the bathroom or something and it’d be one of those times where neither person could find the other and it’d just be awkward. She’d stay outside, then.
Ten o’clock, that’s what they’d said on the phone. Someone would be around to pick her up at ten. Probably a few minutes after ten by now: traffic must have gotten in the way.
And here she was: waiting for a ride from a stranger in the cold, with heaven and hell in equal measure on the other side of the trip.
Part of her mind still balked at all of this, all of this stuff with the Initiative. It hadn’t been nearly as hard to believe as it should have been, she thought in retrospect. Perhaps that was what made that little part of her mind question it all: Everything was too believable. It all made too much sense. Or at least, it made the right amount of sense for someone who had little more in her life than a cat and a little bit of faith. It made enough sense that she wanted a part of it, urged on by the itch in her soul, bruised as it was. She had spent the last night memorizing exorcism rituals and conjugating Latin verbs and reviewing the categorization of the orders of spirits.
All this did little to undo the knot of unease in her stomach. Unease at what was to come, and unease at what was behind her. Today would decide if she would be fit to join the Shepherds, and Mary-Ann had been second-guessing herself all morning. Book knowledge was one thing, practical exercises another: Mary-Ann had no doubts with either of those. The doubt that weighed her spirit down and twisted up her gut didn’t feel very holy, and that twisted up her gut. The Shepherds needed good people, and there were far better people in the world than Mary-Ann Lewitt.
She could still bow out. They gave her that option: Say the word and be returned to your old life. They’d find someone else, someone better, someone who didn’t sit in the back pew and had fewer “ums” and “uhs” in her prayers.
No…no, she’d stay. She already agreed to this, already decided that she wanted to do more. She tamped down her doubting mind and barred the door. No. She’d stick through it.
Time passed. The remnants of the congregation had gone, and Mary-Ann was well and truly alone. She checked her watch. Seventeen after ten. Should she call? Check to make sure nothing had changed? Ten-twenty, she’d give them until ten-twenty. Then she’d call.
At 10:19, a plain red sedan pulled up to the curb. The engine shut off, and a man stepped out. He was of average height and build, a few inches taller than Mary-Ann. Late thirties, Middle-Eastern. His hair was buzzed down, very recently by the looks of it, which made his ears stick out a bit. Neatly-trimmed beard. He was wearing a blue polo shirt and khakis.
“Hello!” He walked around the car and stepped onto the sidewalk. “Are you Mary-Ann Lewitt?” He had an accent, some fusion of the Middle-East and British.
“Yeah.” Mary-Ann nodded. “Yeah, that’s me.”
“Salah Zairi.” He smiled and held out a hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“I’m really sorry that you had to come and pick me up, I would have just taken a bus-”
Salah waved his hand.
“It’s no trouble at all. I’ve been needing to go back to the chapterhouse for a while now anyway.” He walked back around to the other side of the car. “Though it is something of a trip, we should probably be going if we want to be reasonable with time.”
Mary-Ann opened the door and got inside the car.
Some time later, the little red sedan pulled out of the toll both onto the interstate.
“Do you mind if I turn on the radio?” Salah asked. It was the first thing that had been said since they had left the church.
“No, it’s cool.”
He hit the dial. Smooth jazz crackled out of the speakers.
“Ah, come on now, work!” He slapped the dashboard and the sound cleared up. “There we go. If you want to change it, just go ahead.”
There was a pause. Mary-Ann watched a field filled with cows speed by outside the window.
“Are you originally from around here, Mary-Ann?”
“Hm? Ah, yeah, I’m a local. You?”
“Well, I was born in Pakistan, then I moved to Birmingham, then I moved here. So a local twice removed.”
It explained the accent, Mary-Ann thought.
“Ah. Never been to England.”
“The Queen’s Jubilee is this year, always a good excuse.”
“And the Olympics.”
“Bah. Bread and circuses, the lot of it. At the very least it will pull the crowds away from the things really worth seeing.”
Mary-Ann felt herself smile at that. The knot loosened a bit, the awkward, lonely feeling dissipated a little bit. Mary-Ann decided to keep the small talk going. It felt good to small talk.
“So…how long have you been working for the Initiative?”
“Are you in a branch, or do you just give rides to people?”
“I’m with the Shepherds, though that does involve a lot of driving around, all things considered.”
A co-worker, then. Potentially.
“Guess you’ve seen a lot, then.”
“There’s always more to see. We all run out of time long before God runs out of wonders.”
“Mmm. How’d you get involved?”
“A friend I met in university.”
“I just got the phone call. And, you know, it’s weird, how all of this makes sense. Like, when I was told over the phone ‘we are secretly a secret organization and we want to hire you to shoot demons in the face’, I didn’t even blink. You’d think I would be all ‘I can’t even handle the revelation’, but the first thing I said was ‘okay, how much does it pay’.”
“You’re good at adapting to things.”
“I think it was more ‘I’m broke and I don’t want to eat instant ramen anymore’.”
Salah laughed, and it was not a small laugh either. It was a big, space-filling laugh.
“You have no idea how refreshing it is to hear something honest that after all the false piety and ‘smite the heathens’ we often get. Wanting some fresh food in the cupboard is not a bad reason at all for joining.”
“You get a lot of those types?”
“Regrettably. The nuts get shunted off into the Wolves where they can be put on a leash. The others, well, sometimes they take a bit of humility, sometimes they don’t. Personally, I’d kick them back out on the street. Half of being a Shepherd is service to others, and you can’t serve people if you’re constantly reminding them of how holy you are in comparison.”
“Mmm.” The knot tightened itself again around the puckered emptiness inside Mary-Ann. These were good people, if they were anything like Salah, truly good people, and while she heard the little voice in her telling her it was okay, even though she believed, she didn’t feel it. The past could be forgiven, but the weight still had to be carried. Mary-Ann felt that weight, that weight that anchored her in that empty space, the weight that kept the world far away. The weight that dragged her down into the empty darkness, where there were no friends, where there was no home, where one reached for God because there was nothing left, and yet even God felt far away.
And so she sought God, and carried the weight.
“No, I’m okay. Just a bit jittery about the test.”
“Nonsense. You’re a Shepherd. You’ll do fine.”
“I haven’t even taken the test yet.”
“And I haven’t been wrong yet. Except that one time. And that other time. And then there was the incident with- no, forget that one. I have a good C average. C-plus.”
“Oh shut up.”
Mary-Ann paused for a bit. Had she really just said that? She had. He was laughing again. Less than an hour in the car and he was already acting like they were close friends. Somewhere, Mary-Ann felt a little light in the darkness. A friend.
The laugh petered out.
“Keep your chin up. You’ve got this.”
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