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Harmony King had been running for a long time. At first, she was always running toward something—more specifically, toward freedom. Growing up in the foster care system would not be how she’d chosen to start life, and she definitely wouldn’t have elected to remain a slave to that system until her eighteenth birthday finally set her loose.
But that’s exactly what had happened, anyway.
All those years as a little girl with no home to call her own, she longed to live life her own way, to be the master of her own fate. Somehow, though, she’d only managed to continue her lifestyle of drifting from one place to the next without feeling any real connection.
It made her wonder: was she born broken, or had that just happened along the way?
Because, no question about it, something was majorly wrong with her.
That was part of why she’d returned to Charleston. As much as she’d fought to escape the Holy City as a teen, truth be told, it was the only place she’d even come close to belonging.
Her homes had shuffled about faster than a magician preparing his cards, but a kindly agent at Child Protection Services had fought to keep her in the same schools growing up. It was the only constant she’d had up until that point.
When she could, she would sneak away to the Eternal Grace Church and listen to the pastor regale his congregation with tales of fortitude, forgiveness, charity. Jesus had been a poor wanderer, too—and Harmony liked that. It made him relatable, although when she’d mentioned this to her foster mother at the time she’d earned a cold, hard slap on the cheek and her fastest reassignment to date.
This experience strained her relationship with the church, but she still managed to attend services at least once per month by scraping together any spare change she could find to purchase a bus ticket that would deliver her to the service and hopefully, one day, salvation.
Sometimes she’d even pretend the pastor was her long-lost father and that one day they’d realize their relation and hug each other, sobbing big, ol’ tears for all the time they’d already lost. But Harmony knew this was just a dream. She knew nothing of her birth father other than that he could have been any number of men. Her mother, who had been the very worst kind of junkie, died when Harmony was just four. But sometimes, if she clenched her eyes shut real tight, she could call up the memory of her mother’s face.
And some other times she’d wish her mother had died much earlier. Because if she had, baby Harmony would surely have been adopted. Angry, dramatic four-year-old Harmony had tempted no one into taking such an action.
Of course, she often wished that she’d never been born, but then immediately prayed for forgiveness to the Almighty. As far as she was concerned, God had put her on this earth for a reason, and it was her failing—not His—that she hadn’t figured it out yet.
Most recently she’d been living in Alabama, but when she’d lost her job and gotten evicted by her landlord, she knew her time was up in that particular locale.
It was always her tongue that got her into trouble. Harmony could put the fear of God into just about anybody, which had been a necessary skill to fight off the unwanted advances of foster brothers and fathers, along with a fair-sized collection of schoolyard bullies, too. But it was also a skill she couldn’t control even now. If someone made her angry, they were going to hear about it—and with colorful language to boot.
She was sure God didn’t mind. The two of them had an understanding when it came to these things, but Harmony still wished she could learn a bit of discretion. It certainly would make her life easier. At least a little bit, anyway.
There was little she could depend on in this world, but God always came through in some way or another.
That was another reason she’d returned to Charleston now—to the church where she’d first discovered her faith, to the pastor she’d liked to imagine was her father, to the only place she’d really stayed long enough to form some good memories along with the bad.
And, oh, did she need those good memories now. She needed answers, too. Some kind of direction she’d yet to find in her nearly twenty-eight years.
Harmony dipped her head in reverence as she stepped into the sanctuary of Eternal Grace. After a quick glance around to confirm that she was alone, she did the only thing left to do. She dropped to her knees and prayed like her life depended on it. Dear God. I need you. I’m so afraid…
Harmony prayed so long and so fervently that she all but lost track of time. When at last she lifted her bowed head, opened her eyes, and swiped at the tears that had flown freely down her face, she saw that she was no longer alone in the sanctuary.
“God’s got ya,” the same pastor she remembered from her youth said with a kindly smile and a quick nod. “Whatever it is, He knows, and He’ll take care of you, too.”
“Th-th-thank you,” she stuttered. The embarrassment of being caught mid-prayer sent a sudden flash of warmth straight to her cheeks.
The pastor sank down a few seats away from Harmony and folded his hands in his lap. “Miss Harmony, it has been quite some time.”
“You remember me?” She eyed him cautiously. Just how much did he remember, and why did he actually seem happy to see her now? Of all God’s eternal mysteries, Harmony always found it most suspect when someone from her past welcomed her back into their presence with open arms. It had only happened a handful of times, but the most recent had been such a spectacular disaster that this situation now with the pastor gave her pause.
Pastor Adam carried on without even the slightest hesitation. He’d always had the gift of gab. Only he practiced it in far better ways than Harmony used her own version of the same… gift. “Of course I remember you. I’ve thought about you many times over the years, wondered how you were doing, sent up prayers. It’s good to see you now.”
“I didn’t know where else to go,” she confessed with a shrug. If she acted like this wasn’t a big deal, then perhaps it wouldn’t be. Then again, that ship had likely already sailed when she decided to flee her last home in the early hours of that morning and drive straight up to Charleston, with only the odd break here and there to use the bathroom and stretch her legs.
Pastor Adam smiled consolingly in that same way he always had whenever speaking of the disadvantaged, and Harmony King was definitely one of the disadvantaged—now more than ever.
“You did right by coming here. You’re always welcome at Eternal Grace.” He waited for her to say more, but when she didn’t, he added, “I’m still an exceptionally good listener if you’d like to talk about what’s troubling you.”
Harmony thought about this. She liked Pastor Adam—trusted him, too—and yet her burdens felt too big to offload onto somebody else. In truth, she already knew that only God could save her now.
“I never found talking about my problems to be an effective method for solving them,” she said with a sigh. “Instead, they just seem to shine a spotlight, make ‘em that much uglier.”
He chuckled softly. “True enough, Harmony. True enough.”
They sat in companionable silence for a few moments, leaving Harmony to wonder if she might just excuse herself and head home for the evening—provided she could find a spare room to rent somewhere near to here.
Then the pastor spoke again. “Of course, you shouldn’t tell me anything you aren’t comfortable sharing, but it’s been a long while since I saw you last and I’m mighty curious… What have you been up to all these years?” He watched her expectantly, hopefully, but she already knew that anything she chose to reveal about her life would surely come as a tremendous disappointment.
“I left the very first second I could,” she told him without even a single shred of regret.
He nodded, keeping his eyes fixed on his hands folded neatly in his lap. “I remember that. It’s why I’ve always wondered how you got on. Worried, too. Eighteen is awfully young to forge out and make a life for one’s own.”
“Yes, it was. After Charleston, I went up north. First to Tennessee, then Ohio. I worked as a waitress mostly, because I couldn’t afford schooling.” Harmony had gotten good at skimping on the details when presenting herself to others. She needed to say just enough to get the job, to snag the rental, but never too much. That would only make them suspicious, make them turn her away. For all of Harmony’s misfortunes, she was still a decent person, but folks who hadn’t been in her shoes often missed that small, important point.
“So you were in Ohio until now?” Pastor Adam continued, pushing her along slowly as was his way.
“Gosh, no. I’ve been all over the place. Every time I lost my job for running my mouth, I’d pack up and move again. But I never found a place that felt more like home than Charleston.” She marveled at how her old accent had come back out in full force. In all her travels, she’d never lost her Southern accent but had often adapted it to fit her current region rather than her roots.
“What brings you back now?” The pastor’s questions kept coming, and they were beginning to wear Harmony out.
“This time I wasn’t just running away. I was running from something, too. Or rather someone.” She shouldn’t have said that. It was too much for anyone besides her to know.
The pastor didn’t gasp or suggest she call the police. He merely nodded and said, “But running all the same. Are you here for good now?”
“I can’t say for sure. It’s hard to put down roots when the very nature of your childhood is hopping from one house to the next. It doesn’t take long for my feet to start itching, wanting to journey somewhere new, see what else is out there.” Yes, it was easier to pretend she wanted this life, because that made it easier to accept.
“I hope you find a reason to stay,” the pastor confided. “And if you need any help, I’m happy to provide it. A home, a job, you tell me what you need, and I’ll find a way to deliver. With His help, of course.” He pointed to the ceiling and smiled.
“Thank you,” she mumbled. “That means a lot.”
She almost asked if he knew of a room she might rent, but if the last two years had taught her anything, it was that she should depend on herself—and only herself—to get things done.
She’d prayed that Alan would never find her, that he wouldn’t hurt anyone else either, that she could find a way to belong and, like the pastor had said, a reason to stay and make her home in Charleston. She’d asked God to deliver her from the repercussions of her own mistakes, to once again set her free.
But she already felt the walls closing in, moving fast toward the Holy City, trapping her in the only kind of life she’d ever known and erasing any last vestige of hope.
Harmony twiddled her thumbs, spinning them in circles around each other. She was ready to leave the church, but the pastor stayed sitting quietly in her company. She was just about to excuse herself when at last he spoke again.
“Actually, if memory serves, you never were good at accepting help from others,” he said, scooting closer to her with a knowing smile as if she’d suddenly been found out. “And I reckon that hasn’t much changed.”
“No, sir.” She grinned, though it was strange speaking to someone who knew her well enough to call out her habits. It had been years since anyone had figured her out. Well, anyone besides Alan.
They shared a good laugh, although Harmony was beginning to feel rather discomforted by the exchange. The longer she stayed, the sooner the pastor would see through her, the sooner the final pieces to which she so desperately clung would shatter, thus leaving the puzzle of her life wholly unsolvable.
“Well, in that case,” Pastor Adam said, rising to his feet and motioning for Harmony to follow him. “I’m not going to wait for you to ask for help. I’m just going to up and offer it right now.”
She followed obediently as he led the way to his tiny church office, but she still argued against his offer all the same. “That’s very kind of you, but I’ll do just fine on my own. I really should be going. It’s getting—”
“Just you wait one second now.” He retrieved his phone from on top of his old, wooden desk and motioned for her to shush. His thumbs worked the digital keyboard quickly and deftly for a man of his generation. After a couple minutes of silence, he slid the phone back into his pocket and smiled over at Harmony.
“There. Now that’s taken care of, let’s have a chat.”
Harmony blinked hard. If she wasn’t careful, she’d be trapped talking to the goodly pastor for all of eternity. “Another one?”
A deep chuckle rose from his belly and shook his growing midsection. Age hadn’t been the kindest companion to Pastor Adam, but Harmony saw right away that the same honorable man she’d always known resided within the puffier, wrinklier exterior. “Yes, another one. Or, rather, a more specific one. Come.”
He led her out to the church foyer where they now waited within spitting distance of the front doors. “I just spoke with my daughter, Abigail. Do you remember her?”
Harmony nodded. “Yes, we had some classes together. She was always nice to me.”
“Good to hear it.” He pulled out his phone again and shook it demonstratively. “That was her I texted just now, and well, she’s on her way here.”
“She’s coming now?” She’d only wanted a place to pray, clear her head a bit, and regroup. She hadn’t meant for this quick church trip to turn into a whole big thing. But such seemed to be the Charleston way and Pastor Adam’s in particular. She figured his own personal motto should be if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. This afternoon was clearly proof of that.
“Right now.” He tossed his phone from hand to hand, catching it each time but worrying Harmony he’d drop it and crack the screen all the same. She cringed at the memory of all the good phones she’d lost being careless.
The pastor must have caught her discomfort, because he suddenly stopped and dropped his phone back into his pocket. “And she’s bringing Muffin,” he said with what looked like it may have been a wink.
“That’s nice of you both, but I’m really not hungry. I need to—”
He laughed again. “Not muffins, Muffin. Your new dog.”
“Dog?” Well, that couldn’t be right. Why on God’s green earth would Pastor Adam think she needed or wanted a dog?
He eyed her so contentedly after delivering his announcement that she had to put an end to this crazy notion immediately.
“No, no, no. I think there’s been some kind of mistake.”
“Well, he’s really more of a loaner dog, but—boy howdy—do you two need each other.” He was dead serious about this, and she was dead set against it.
“I’m not really in the position to…” She let her words trail off. If she explained that she didn’t yet have a job or a place to stay, then the pastor would no doubt spring to further action, call in more favors, keep her hostage until he was absolutely certain that she was fully provided for.
“Please,” he said firmly and with a sad smile. “You need comforting, Harmony. You need someone who understands and won’t ask too many questions. I’m only human, but Muffin, he’s a certified therapy dog and one of God’s most special miracles.”
This assertion shocked her into silence. Didn’t therapy dogs stay with their trainers? Why would the pastor—who hadn’t seen her in nearly ten years, by the way—thrust a dog on her mere minutes after becoming reacquainted? It just didn’t make any sense.
“This dog… Muffin… is a miracle?” she asked slowly to make sure she understood him right. Ten years was a long time. Perhaps Pastor Adam had gone crazy since she’d last seen him. Anything was possible, after all.
“Sure as I’m standing here. Have you heard the story of our church dogs before? It’s been about a year since they found us now, a very good year.”
“Um, no,” Harmony said. Don’t appear ungrateful, she reminded herself, but don’t get suckered into taking a dog, either!
Pastor Adam stood straighter and spoke animatedly with his hands. He’d clearly told this story many times before. “It was two Christmases back—like I said, just over a year. I forgot my phone at the pulpit after delivering the Christmas Eve sermon. When I went back—”
“Are you only telling Muffin’s origin story just now? I’d have figured that would be the first thing out of your mouth.” The pastor’s daughter, Abigail, swept into the foyer with a baby on her hip and two tiny dogs walking beside her on leashes.
Harmony hadn’t even heard her come in, such was the volume and the vigor of Pastor Adam’s storytelling.
“Dad says you and Muffin are destined for each other,” Abigail said with a big roll of her eyes. “Told me I had to be over lickety-split before you could second-guess things.” She pressed a leash into Harmony’s palm and closed her fingers around it tightly before stepping back and regarding Harmony with a grin. “So, here you go, this is Muffin.”
The little dog barked, perhaps to say hello, perhaps because he was equally confused about their sudden arrangement. One thing was for sure: Pastor Adam really, really wanted her to have this dog… and how could she say no to the man who had given her so much over the years?
Well, crud. It looked like Harmony had herself a dog.