Copyright © 2014 Kate Sherwood
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
“You know God loves you, Alex.” Mark Webber waited patiently for a response, and was finally rewarded with a tentative nod. “Maybe you aren’t all that sure,” Mark said. “But I’m sure. And God is sure.” He wanted to reach out his hand to the boy in front of him, but he kept himself still. He knew his intentions were pure, but that didn’t matter—not to the world around him and not, even more importantly, to this confused teenager. So he couldn’t offer physical comfort and would have to do what he could with words.
“You feel alone. And I can tell you as many times as I want to that you’re never truly alone, but that doesn’t change the way you feel, does it?”
“No,” the boy said in a small voice that was cracking with the always volatile mix of emotions and puberty.
“You know there are other kids going through a similar struggle. I know that you don’t want to meet with them, but I don’t quite understand why. Can you explain it to me?” And now it was time for more patience. Mark wanted to throw this boy over his shoulder and carry him down the street to the youth center, but he sat still and waited instead.
And waited. Just when Mark was about to break and ask another question, the kid finally said, “I don’t want people to know.”
Mark nodded. “Not anyone? Like, if I could get you to a meeting without anyone seeing, would that be okay? Or do you not want the kids in the club to know, either?”
“Some of them are out. I’ve seen them at school, and they don’t care who knows. What if one of them said something?”
“Yeah. They’re not supposed to—and I think they’re pretty good about it—but you’re right, I can’t guarantee that it might not get out somehow. So you tell me: what if one of them said something? What would happen?”
“Everyone would know! It’d get all over school. And my dad would find out.” Alex looked ready to bolt out of the room, and Mark raised his hands in a quick gesture of surrender. He had a point he’d like to make eventually, but this clearly wasn’t the time.
“Okay. You’re right, that might happen. It might not be as bad as you think, but it should be your choice when you tell people. But I’m worried about you feeling so alone when we know you aren’t. How about meeting with some kids online? You could use a screen name for chats, and see how it goes. If you think you’d like to go a little further, you could use the cameras for a video chat or something.”
“What if someone found out?”
“I could work really hard to make sure they didn’t. I could contact someone in, I don’t know, British Columbia, maybe? Or another country, if you want. And you wouldn’t have to give your name, or tell the person where you’re from. So I guess it’s not absolutely sure that no one would find out, but it would be really, really unlikely. I think it’d be safe, if you want to give it a try.”
The boy nodded slowly, as if reluctant to surrender himself to the intoxication of hope. “Maybe. I mean, it sounds good. But I need to think about it.” He stood, ready to leave.
Mark rose quickly. “Okay. Absolutely. But, look, I’m worried about you. I don’t want to let this go for very long. Will you give me your word that you’ll come back tomorrow and check in? Just a check in, not more unless you want more. Will you do that for me? Will you give me your word?”
Alex looked uncertain, then raised his eyes quickly, the challenge clear. “You’re gay, right? That’s what I heard. Is that true?”
Mark smiled ruefully. It was amazing how often it was a factor in his chosen profession, one way or another. “It’s true.”
“And you just walk around, just…just…being gay…”
“I walk, I sit, I wake, I sleep. All gay, all day.”
“And it’s allowed? I mean, your job, or whatever. You’re allowed to be gay?”
“I am.” No need to get into the shades of reality, there. On the surface, the statement was true, and it was what this kid needed to hear. “And you’re allowed to be gay too. But you’re allowed to keep it to yourself if you want to, or share it if you want to. And no one else is allowed to treat you differently because of it.”
“They will anyway.”
“Yeah. Some of them will. But a lot won’t. And anyone who does isn’t just being a jerk—they might actually be breaking the law.” Alex looked curious more than anything else now, and Mark decided to push a little. “So you’ll think about the online stuff. And you’ll give me your word that you’ll be back here tomorrow to check in. Same time, same place?”
Finally, the nod. “Yeah. Okay. Tomorrow.” Alex squinted. “And it’s okay for me to say I’m working on a school project? You’re telling me it’s not a sin if I lie?”
There were times when Mark’s clerical collar felt especially tight, and this was one of them. “I can’t say it’s not a sin. It would be better if you could tell the truth. But God sees everything, and He is very understanding and forgiving. In this case, I think He would understand.”
The boy nodded. “Okay. Tomorrow, then.” He wasn’t exactly skipping on his way out of the office, but he seemed better than he had when he’d entered, and most days that was all Mark could hope for.
He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, trying to gather his energy. It had been a long day. A long week. He loved this part of his job and he knew he was good at it, but it was exhausting. He wanted to go home, have a quiet drink and crawl into bed, but he couldn’t do it. His parents would be expecting him to check in on them, and they might have visitors, all of whom would want some words of wisdom from him, even though he was just as confused as they were, if not more so. He was glad to be distracted by the ringing of his cell phone, and gladder still to see the name on the screen.
“Hey,” Will greeted him. “You doing okay?”
“Yeah. I’m okay. Just packing up at work, then going to my parents’ place.”
“Which will be more work,” Will said. “Have you eaten yet?”
“There’s food at Mom’s. People have been bringing casseroles and stuff over, just like…” Just like when it had actually happened.
“I already ate,” Will said, “but I could probably eat again.”
“You want to come with me to visit my parents?” Will was a friend, but he wasn’t usually that much of a martyr.
“Hell no. I was thinking of The Garage. We could have a couple drinks. You could have dinner, I could have dessert. I think wings count as dessert, don’t they?”
“I shouldn’t. My parents will be expecting me.”
“I’ll call them and tell them you’ll be by later.”
“You’ll call them?”
“Because if you do, you’ll wimp out. You know you will. And I should check in with them anyway. Express my condolences, or whatever it is I’m supposed to say.”
“Will—” Mark started, but he wasn’t sorry to be interrupted.
“I’ll meet you at The Garage in fifteen minutes. And, Mark—remember to take off the collar. It makes people nervous.”
“It makes sinners nervous to be in the presence of a righteous man?”
“They think you’re Catholic. It makes sinners nervous to be in the presence of someone they think is a thirty-four-year-old virgin.”
“Premarital sex isn’t approved of in the Anglican church either, you know.”
“And you have the nerve to call yourself a righteous man?”
“Shut up. I’ll see you in fifteen.”
Mark ended the call and frowned at his phone. Will was just kidding, and it wasn’t like Mark actually thought of himself as being without sin. But he shouldn’t joke about his weaknesses, shouldn’t allow himself to think of them as anything other than transgressions not only against God, but also against the congregation he served. He was a sinner, encouraging others to avoid sin.
He thought of what he’d told the boy: God sees everything, and He is understanding and forgiving. It was a comforting thing to tell a kid trying to navigate the tricky world of family, friends, and uncooperative urges. But was it something Mark should be counting on in his own life?
“I need a drink,” he said out loud, and headed out the door.
“She wants another kid.” Will groaned after the punch line to his long tale of domestic discord. He waved a sauce-covered chicken wing in the air. “Like that’s what we need! Another mouth to feed. More daycare bills!” He took a bite and gave it only the most cursory of chews before swallowing. “We have a boy. We have a girl. One of each means we’re done. Everything is in balance right now. Everything but the damn check book.”
Mark had lost some of his friends when he came out, and faded away from most of the rest when he declared his intention to become a priest. Will was about the only one who’d stuck around, and now Mark had to remember to treat him like a friend, not a member of his congregation. No sermons here. He had advice involving prayer, conversation and counseling, but he crammed some fries into his mouth instead. He’d taken his collar off literally and figuratively.
“How’re your parents doing?” Will asked, and his voice was quieter with the changed subject. “Your dad sounded okay on the phone, but I saw them on the news last night. Your mom looked…”
“Yeah. I know.” Mark could still see her shattered expression. She was almost as upset now as she’d been three years earlier. “It’s hard. I don’t know if it would have been that much easier if he’d served the full sentence, but this?” He shrugged and tried to look at it philosophically. “In a way, maybe the anger is good. Before, she was just numb and helpless. She’d lost her baby and there was nothing she could do about that. But now she’s talking about writing petitions and getting laws changed and all kinds of nonsense that’s never going to happen and wouldn’t do any good if it did, but at least she’s active, you know?”
“And you? How are you doing with it?”
How was he doing? He shook his head and raised his beer glass, eyeing the amber contents appreciatively before downing the few inches that remained. Will nodded like he’d heard and understood the answer, and he raised his hand to call the waitress over for another round.
“I shouldn’t,” Mark said. “I need to drive.”
“You live five blocks from here.”
“I have to stop in and check on my parents.”
“They live three blocks from here. It’s a small town, man, and your family likes central living. Take advantage of the fact.”
“What’s it going to look like if people see my car left overnight in a bar parking lot?”
“It’s going to look like the parish priest has the sense to be careful about drinking and driving. Or, given the piece of crap you’re still pretending is a functioning vehicle, it might look like the parish priest is hoping someone will take mercy on him and steal his car so he can cash in the insurance and get a new one.”
So they had another beer, and then another, and Mark wasn’t drunk but he was pleasantly lubricated when he finally decided he’d put off his parental visit long enough. He was walking behind his friend, heading for the front door, when Will stopped so suddenly that Mark ran right into his broad shoulders.
Will turned to face him. “Let’s go out the back,” he said.
“What? Why?” Mark peered over his friend’s shoulder, searching for an explanation. His whole body froze when he saw it. “Son of a bitch.”
Will shook his head. “Yeah. I know. Let’s just get out of here.”
“They’re having a party,” Mark said. He shifted to the side, staring at the scene in front of him. Three or four long tables had been shoved together like the bar did when sports teams came in after their games, but on this night, no one was celebrating a great pitch or brutal body check. This night, the guest of honor was a blond kid with cold green eyes, sitting at the head of the table with his hand wrapped around a mug of beer. He was smiling at the woman next to him as if she were the most beautiful and charming thing he’d ever seen. The rest of the extended table was lined with laughing, celebrating drinkers welcoming home their prodigal son. The man who had killed Mark’s baby brother was being treated like a hero.
“Let’s get out of here,” Will repeated, and this time, Mark let himself be led away.
He made it out into the parking lot and briefly wondered whether the beer and burger he’d just eaten were going to reappear, but he managed to hold himself together. “A party,” he said softly.
“It’s bull crap,” Will said. “The son of a bitch should still be in jail. He should be rotting in there.”
Mark had worked in prisons, and he still spent a lot of time at the Anglican-sponsored halfway house in town. He believed in rehabilitation, and he absolutely believed in forgiveness. But when he thought of those green eyes, the way they’d stared out from the prisoner’s dock in the courtroom, cold and emotionless, showing no remorse, no regret for having taken a human life? “Yeah. He should be rotting in there.” But he wasn’t. He was here, back in town. And the town just wasn’t that big. “I need to get over to my parents’ place,” he said. He couldn’t do a thing about the killer and his party, but at least he could be with his family.
He stopped suddenly and fumbled for his phone. He was giving up too easily, thinking of himself as powerless. Lucas Cain was a menace. Three years ago, he’d killed Jimmy, and now, on his first night out after serving his laughably short sentence, he was back in a bar, drinking and carousing just as he’d been before. He’d learned nothing, and that meant he was still dangerous. Mark needed to do what he could to lower the risk. And if Cain ended up back in prison where he belonged, that would certainly make things a lot easier for Mark and the people he loved.
“Just a second,” he said to Will. “I need to do my civic duty.”