Gregory T. Janetka
Two years and here it was, unchanged. The breeze from a fan moved a curtain in front of a single light in the upper front bedroom, giving the appearance of a wink. Will breathed in the sticky air, ripped the collar from his throat, and laughed. The wink went out and he looked at his watch. Midnight on the dot, the timer on his mother's nightlight. That meant father would've been asleep for two hours. 10 o'clock every night ever since he was born, his father out as soon as his head hit the pillow, resting comfortably with his convictions. Even now he could hear the old man's snores pouring from the house. Endless nights of that sound penetrated his consciousness, filling his dreams and his nightmares.
The massive oak in the center of the lawn stretched up and opened like an umbrella. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, Will took refuge under its branches and stared at the front door. Four white columns framed the entrance, beams that supported a small overhang, shielding guests from the rain for the briefest of moments. Above it was three windows, each looking into the room where he had spent the first nineteen years of his life. At ten minutes to ten every night his father locked and double locked the doors, and set the alarm. Thus confined, the small overhang served as Will's only escape. When the sky was silent he would step out and breathe with the tree. Now only one of those nights remained in his mind—the last night before leaving for the seminary. The idea that bottle rockets and soft flesh could knock the gods from their heavens was as unnerving and wonderful now as it was two years ago.
As regulated and predictable as his father's nighttime routine, so was his mother's morning routine. Up half an hour before her husband, Mrs. Hillary Temple straightened up, shook off the sleeplessness of the past 21 years, descended the stairs—careful to avoid the three that creaked—started the coffee, shut off the burglar alarm, breathed to release the tension from her jaw, and went for the newspaper. Opening the front door, she was met by a wall of heat and lack of paper.
"Damn that kid," she muttered, searching the bushes.
Bleary-eyed, she did not immediately notice the black clad figure curled around the base of the tree. Hearing her voice, he turned over and stretched, causing her to cut the morning in two with an ungodly shriek. Will raised his head and smiled.
“Hi mom,” he said. Before she could answer, Mr. Temple, robe open, shotgun cocked, mouth frothing, filled the door frame.
“Good morning father.”
Rushed through the front hall and into the kitchen, Will, unable to get a word in through his mother's prattling, dove into the bathroom and locked the door, which did nothing to interrupt her monologue. He removed his button-down shirt. Soaked clean through. He gulped water from the faucet. That familiar taste of sulfur and chemicals. He should never have come back.
Seated at his designated spot, two eggs, three bacon, three sausages, coffee, milk, and orange juice were placed before him. Millicent entered and, seeing her brother, nearly strangled him amid her enthusiasm. Mr. Temple, now fully clothed, offered a hearty handshake. The family was whole once again.
Used to the acetic tenants of the seminary, Will picked at the outlandish meal, attempting to tread the line between insulting his mother and feeling sick the rest of the day. The yolks of the eggs ran over his fork and into everything else on the plate. He looked at his father—hair thinner and grayer, belly protruding, eyes watering—he looked to have aged 10 years.
“Hillary! Did you find the paper yet?" Mr. Temple said, stuffing his mouth with sausage, half of which fell back out.
“Here hon. That boy is not getting a Christmas card this year if he keeps that up."
Mr. Temple took the paper from its plastic sheath and separated the sections.
“Been getting my clippings, son? Been some good ones lately.”
“Yes dad,” Will said, hoping it would end at that.
“Good good good. Ah, here she is. Will, can you do the honors and read out my latest?"
“Oh, let the boy eat, he must be starved!” Mrs. Temple said.
“Nonsense, it'll only take a minute. Here you go Will,” he said, handing his son the paper and pointing to the black and white photo of a Mr. Harold McGee, dead at 68.
“Really dad, I'd rather not right now.” The bacon was cold and fatty in his mouth.
“Nonsense, you'll listen to your father and read it right now.”
Obeying the command, Will took the paper, cleared his throat and began to read:
“Mr. Harold McGee, 68, lifelong resident of Summit, died Thursday of a heart attack. A member of St. John’s Church, he valiantly served in the Army in both WWI and WWII. While taking part in the liberation of France, however, he contracted syphilis, an affliction which affected his health thereafter, and may have played a prominent role in his death. Harold is survived by his wife Laura, son Robert, and daughter Cecelia.”
Will tossed the paper aside. Mr. Temple laughed.
“Do you know how long it took me to dig that up? Two months! Two full months. No one can hide from their sins forever. Harold was 21 when it happened, same age as you. Makes you think, doesn't it?”
“Why do you have to do that dad? Why do you have to reduce an entire life to the worst thing a person has done? Can you imagine what it does to his wife, his children, seeing that in the paper? Why can't you celebrate the good he's done? He was the best Little League coach I ever had, he coached since before I was born. Two of his players made it to the majors. Why not mention that instead?”
Forks froze in midair and the room fell silent. Pushing his chair away from the table, Mr. Temple rose, leaned over and pointed a stubby finger in Will's face.
“How dare you. A sin is a sin is a sin. You should know that more that anyone. Acts of atonement cannot erase the past. What have they been teaching you in that place?"
“That forgiveness is divine, that Jesus, suffering, knowing he would die, asked that his tormentors, his murderers be forgiven.”
“Did they forget that little thing about honoring thy mother and thy father? My obituaries have taken care of this family and given you everything that you ever wanted. I have never made up anything—it's not my fault that people choose to live their lives as they do. I just expose them for what they are and let each one of them serve as an example—even in death the stain of sin remains and that is something we all need to remember. You think society would be the cesspool it is now if everyone remembered that? This man, this great coach of yours, had sexual relations with a prostitute and contracted a sexually transmitted disease that ravaged his mind and his body for the rest of his life. Now, I ask you, what is a better service to the reading public? Pretending that never happened? Holding up this sinner and pretending he's a saint? Or reminding people just how precious every choice they make is? That every moment of every day sin is lurking, and it is up to them to make the decision that could elevate or destroy them. Let God forgive them, let Jesus forgive them, but if people would read my obituaries more, God and Jesus would have a lot fewer people to have to forgive.”
At this point a piece of potato that had been rolling around in Mr. Temple's mouth lodged itself square in his throat. His face turned redder and redder with each cough. With no particular great speed, Mrs. Temple got up and began rubbing and patting her husband's back until he breathed easy.
“Now hon, Will's just tired. He's had a very long trip, he needs to eat and he'll see things much clearer. You know he appreciates everything you've ever done for this family, you know he respects you, don't you Will?”
“Of course,” Will said, staring at the table. His father was more of a caricature than ever. As his mother had learned long ago, acquiescence was the only way to peace in the house and Will resumed his duty.
“I'm very sorry, I spoke out of turn. Thank you for working so hard for myself, for Millicent, for mom. We wouldn't be where we are today without your years of hard work.
“All right then,” his father said, swallowing the remainder of the offending potato with a wave of lukewarm coffee.
“Everything was delicious, mom. Gotten so used to eating small meals I guess I can't handle your breakfast anymore. May I be excused? It was a long trip and I haven't slept much.”
Will waited for his father's gesture of approval. His mother wiped her hands on her apron and helped him up from his chair as if he were a cripple.
“I’ve left your room just as it was,” she said, leading him with a hand on his back, “only going in on Sundays to dust. Now, let’s get you settled. How long are you staying? I hope it's for awhile. I know they need you up there but it would sure be nice to spend time together. Didn't you bring a suitcase? Guess we'll have to take you shopping.”
She was exactly the same.
“I'm not sure. Hadn't planned this, got to missing you one day and made the trek down.”
Satisfied, she backed out of the room and shut the door. Good god, he forgot how massive his room was. And how many possessions he had. It was shameful, these piles of goods, sitting untouched for years when others could have used them. Pushing the thought aside he threw the pillows from his bed onto the hardwood floor and laid down to sleep. No. No, for the first time he would sleep in the bed. Growing up he never felt worthy of such a soft indulgence and hated its presence. Each night he allowed his mother to kiss him goodnight, waited five minutes, then slid to the floor below. Now he crawled into the silk sheets and wrapped himself up, determined to enjoy this luxury.
The numbers on the clock slowly came into focus. Eleven-thirty. His father would be at work, Millicent at school, mother at church group. He breathed in the quiet, rolled back to face the wall, and slept for another hour.
Despite beginning to sweat almost as soon as he stepped out of the shower, the water did him good. The windows in his bedroom were wide open and the ceiling fan was on, but it made little difference. From the clothes of a past life he picked out the coolest articles—a thin white T-shirt and bathing suit trunks. Now two sizes too big, he realized for the first time how much weight he'd lost since leaving home.
Downstairs he filled up a glass to the top with ice and water and drank it down. The newspaper remained strewn about the kitchen table. On the back page he found the weather report. A clear night ahead. His sigh of relief belied the large part of himself that longed for the fiercest lightning storm in a generation to light up the sky.
Dropping the paper, Will took his spot at the table. Nineteen years of conversations came at once. He shut his eyes, put his head on the table and cried.
Summit, Florida, held the distinction of the highest concentration of lightning strikes in a single location. Each year the storms brought fires and destruction, but the residents were proud of their trivial distinction from the rest of the world and held it up to prove their uniqueness. Will, however, was always terrified of the sky. One solid crack of thunder and he'd lose control of his bladder. The idea that places existed that weren't ravaged in such a manner was incomprehensible. His earliest memory was of a conversation with his father during a storm.
“Dad, what's happening? Why won't it stop?”
“That's God, son, reaching out to strike down sinners. He knows all, sees all. We are all born with sin, we baptized you to water it down, but it remains on you, a stain. Eventually he comes for each of us. The best we can do is refrain from sinning, and thereby continue to water down our original sin. But don't be fooled, it will never go away, and he will get you. There, hear that? That's someone answering for their wrongdoing now.”
Being the firstborn, as well as one of the few young children in town, Will was doted upon from birth, no more so than by his father, who loved to show him off. To this end, each week Mr. Temple took his son to the Benjamin Franklin National Savings Bank to deposit his paycheck. Standing on the tallest hill in the center of town, the bank sat sandwiched between city hall and the YMCA. The mustiness of decaying currency filtered through the streets and into the adjacent buildings, bringing with it the air of generations before, of fortunes made and lost, lives squandered and saved. When the breeze struck right it could be smelled for miles around.
For young Will the bank was a sensory treat of constant motion, fancy people, and high ceilings. As he looked around with wonder, Mr. Roberts, the head banker, inevitably produced a bowl of candy. Will was allowed to choose one piece to be tucked away for later. He placed it in his pocket with great reverence, anticipation filling his every thought.
While his father transacted his business, Will's eyes turned to the painting of Ben Franklin. There he was, the great man, young, handsome, running in the rain, kite in hand, large key dangling from its tail. A WPA Federal Art Project during the depression, its massive frame covered the entire wall behind the tellers. The blood red kite begged for attention among the otherwise muted series of browns and grays. In its shadow stood an ominous lighting bolt, waiting to strike.
One day, Mr. Temple noticed his son’s fascination with the painting. His authoritative voice echoed through the solemn chambers:
“That’s Benjamin Franklin, son.”
“Like the bank!”
“Yes, that’s right, this place was named for him.”
Will paused. He didn't know places were named for people.
“What’s he doing?”
“Well, you see that lighting there?”
“Franklin was a sinner, a horrible sinner. He thought he could avoid punishment by getting the lighting to strike the kite rather than himself. Figured he could attract it with that key.”
Will's eyes bloomed. “Did it work?”
“Certainly not. It hit the kite alright, but went straight down that string and struck Franklin as well. You can’t fool God, Will, and you’re a fool for trying. That painting hangs as a reminder. If you sin, you will be struck down. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day all of your sins will come home to roost.”
“What did he do to make God so angry?”
“He was a womanizer, Will, a terrible womanizer.”
A womanizer...it sounded like a product his mother would buy from an infomercial.
“He was married but went around with other women. Kissing other women, making love to them. Lots of women. Think if I did that to your mother. You would be ashamed of me. I would bring shame on our entire family. That's what Franklin did—brought shame on himself, on those women, on his entire family. You can’t fool God.”
On the ride home Will reevaluated his past actions. They seemed benign enough, but what if he inadvertently sinned? He didn't even know what all the sins were, how could he know if he committed one? At least he never kissed a girl, and he certainly wasn't married. Clearing himself of any wrongdoing, he popped the now half-melted candy in his mouth and took a deep breath. Each subsequent trip to the bank reinforced the omnipotent power of the skies, keeping him on the straight and narrow and in his father's good graces. And yet, the candy tasted sweeter with each passing week.
Despite years of growth, Will continued to wet his pants (or worse) during every lighting storm. To counter this he invested great time in studying weather systems and reports. When necessary he enacted Plan B—holing up in the bathroom until the skies cleared. Eternal vigilance was a small price to pay.
Despite avoiding any and all temptation, the stain of original sin haunted him. Wise men, his father said, stayed clear not only of sin, but also of the circumstances that lead to sin. Humans are weak and any small infraction can lead to a life (and afterlife) of misery. Such circumstances could be found anywhere and so, other than for school, he rarely left the house, rarely did much of anything.
Within these confines he had one friend—Rebecca. Set up as companions by their mothers out of sheer convenience, (her family lived next door), they were allowed highly regulated play sessions every Saturday afternoon from 1 to 4. The rest of Will’s days were lonely but it was for the best—a storm could always appear unannounced. He was glad when Millicent came along, but the seven year difference was often insurmountable. Will feared for the fate of his classmates but attempts to put them on the right path led to carefree laughter and nothing more. Fear turned to jealousy, which necessitated the constant search for absolution. Swimming in sin and the prospects of potential sin, Will determined the only course of action after high school was to join the priesthood.
The going away party of his mother, father, sister, and Rebecca, started joyously but, for Will, was muted by a nearly imperceptible crash of lightning in the distance. While no one else paid it any mind, the possible storm led Will to excuse himself numerous times to check the latest weather bulletins. After disappearing for a second time, Rebecca followed his each escape, watching his hunched over body shake as he listened to the radio and wrung his hands.
The clocks approached double digits, the night wound down and the revelry dispersed. Goodbyes were said. He thought Rebecca acted strangely, but the growing threat of the storm pushed her out of mind. Thunder rumbled in the distance. He gathered his things in preparation for another long night in the bathroom. BANG. The sound vibrated the walls of his room and Will turned to see, not lighting, but the top of a ladder against the overhang.
“Hey,” Rebecca said, climbing through the window.
He looked past her at the sky. The birds went quiet as a low hum rose. “Hi.”
“I'm not ready to say goodbye yet. I thought we could hang out, just us and the storm.”
His predictions, as always, were spot on, but with her there how could he hide? She insisted the lights stay off and he agreed—perhaps that would be enough to save him from embarrassment. They greeted the storm cross-legged on the floor, discussing the future as only two teenagers can. The sky lit up, the house shook. Will checked his pants—dry.
“Com'on out, the weather's fine!” Rebecca called out, halfway through the window.
“What're you doing?”
“Com’on Will. Come sit with me.”
He stood up with the resolve to save her, pull her back in, but he couldn't move. All he could do was watch. She held up her face and laughed through the rain. Her arms waved wildly as if conducting a symphony, sending lighting bolts to the ground with manic joy. She swayed in the flashes and he watched the slim outline of her body.
“Get my bag. Com'on, Will!”
Holding the bag out as he was told, he felt her wet hand slide over the handle and onto his fingers. It was the first time they touched since his father forbade it upon his tenth birthday. Her flesh was wet and warm and inviting.
“It’s time you grew up, Will. Com'on. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Muttering incoherently, he choked on the sounds, and promptly threw up in his mouth. Sick and tired of his inaction, she reached in with her free hand, grabbed him by the shoulder, and pulled him to the ledge. Water ran down her lips and onto his cheek.
“Look at yourself, Will. When are you going to stop believing your father's bullshit? If God created you in his image, doesn't that mean you're strong and courageous?”
Gusts of wind whipped rain through the windows. Will said nothing, grateful his wet clothes would cover up an accident.
“Will, show me you’re strong, show yourself you're strong, show me you're willing to fight your fears.”
As he continued to stare at her, she pulled on the bag handle and he followed as if it were a leash. The rain pelted him mercilessly. Everything was in motion except for her smile. He thought he could hear his father's snores through the din of the storm even though that was impossible.
“I brought you a present,” Rebecca said, unzipping the bag to show him a block of 180 bottle rockets. “Before I lose you for good, I’m gonna prove there's nothing to be afraid of. We’re gonna fight back. You're gonna fight back.”
“Look, I should be in bed. I should be in the bathroom. You should be at home. We can't hide from the storm forever but we can try. We certainly can't fight it. This is madness.”
“No it's not, it’s freedom.”
Placing an individual rocket on the ledge and holding one hand over it to keep the wick dry, she pulled a lighter from her jeans pocket, and, after some difficulty, lit it. SWISH. The rocket disappeared with a flash and a barely audible “pop.” While she was glowing, Will made the sign of the cross, closed his eyes, and waited.
Rocket after rocket flew off into the abyss alongside her untamed strains of laughter. Thoroughly soaked, he himself couldn't tell if he wet his pants. Taking the lighter he bent down. After several breathless tries Rebecca showed him how to use it and he touched the flame to the wick. ZIP - POP - FLASH. His own laughter pulled him out to sea. They controlled the lighting, they controlled the thunder.
And it was wonderful.
Other than the initial exchange of pleasantries with the driver and other passengers, Will didn't say a word during the 18 hour bus ride. Surroundings were hazy. He couldn't sleep. It wasn't until a rest stop well above the Mason-Dixon line that, stepping out into a world of snow, he realized the temperature had dropped dramatically. Snow was real. Cold was real.
Waking dreams weaved between thoughts of his father, Rebecca, and bottle rockets. The excitement and liberation of the night turned to doubt more terrifying than any storm, shame deeper than any he knew possible. Knowing that he was on his way to study at a great center of devotion and learning was his only salvation from the ever-increasing heaviness on his chest.
Miles from the secular world, the rigid routine of the seminary calmed and centered him. The cold stone walls harbored the great holy mystery of the divine. Old, dusty texts brought solace. Relationships among the residents were warm and cordial. An occasional storm brought a handful of lightning bolts, but nothing more. Torrential, unrelenting storms did not exist here. The idea of them, as well as Rebecca, faded into the softness of a distant memory, a childhood fantasy. Days passed comfortably.
The summer of his second year wound down with ease. Will focused his studies on the miracles of Christ, envisioning using them in sermons as parables for the positive acts and potential of daily life. Liked by all, Will was given the honor of serving as teaching assistant to Father Bernadine, who gave talks at local schools. Although they had had little contact, Will knew him as highly respected and spoken of. His chosen specialty, amassed over 23 years of practice, was the intricacies of sin.
“Good Morning children,” Father Bernadine said to the class of second graders, bathing them with a benevolent smile. “This is my friend Will and today we would like to talk to you about unforgivable sin. I know you are familiar with normal sin, but this is a bit different. Now, how many of you have been to confession?”
Every hand shot up, including Will's.
“Very good! So you know that by confessing and doing the prescribed penance, you will be absolved of your sins.”
A number of children nodded. Some were lost but continued to raise their hands at the appointed times.
“This is absolutely true. God is indeed forgiving. You must never forget that.”
Father paused, taking in the faces of his audience one by one before delivering the keynote of the address.
“However,” he said, building himself up to his full five-foot stature, “there is one unforgivable sin. One sin that, no matter what you do, God will never, ever forgive.”
Despite knowing the talk was coming, Will violently shot back to the age of five, sitting in his father’s lap on a lazy Sunday, listening to the birds before his father interrupted his reverie. The children in the classroom, meanwhile, slumped down in their small plastic chairs.
“To deny the Holy Spirit, to deny the existence of the Holy Spirit, this is unforgivable and, once committed, cannot be undone. It is, quite simply, the quickest route to hell. Please open to Mark 3:28. Now, who would like to read?”
As hands hid beneath desks, Father Bernadine surveyed the room. His mighty outstretched finger fell upon a blonde girl in the far back whose concern was apparent. Singled out, concern turned to dread.
“Verily I say unto you,” she began in a whisper, stumbling over ever other word, “All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation. Because they said, He hath an unclean spirit.”
She swallowed. Hard.
“Very good,” Father Bernadine said, having helped her with each pronunciation of blasphemy.
In an instant a fury of lighting lit up the room, transforming it into the storm of two years ago. Father disappeared. The children disappeared. Rain, pouring from the heavens, dripped off Will's body, soaking him and Rebecca, making their thin clothes cling to their skin. Rebecca’s actions—his actions—weren't they tantamount to denying God? They had made a mockery of Him, blasphemed. If he had denied God, even if only for that fleeting moment, even if only because he had been egged on to do so, didn’t that mean he denied the Holy Spirit as well?
The storm swirled, transforming into colors and flashes as beads of perspiration ran down his forehead. The heat, humidity, inability to breathe, thrown into an unknown body of water. Screams from his father’s bedtime stories, snores from through the wall, lording laughter—it all rose to a crescendo and died with a crack of thunder. Bernadine didn't exist. The children didn't exist. Nothing existed under his feet. He sprang up and ran.
Will spent the next four days in his room, leaving only to use the bathroom. Meals were delivered and every morning Father Bernadine brought the Eucharist. Everyone was kind and wanted to help, wanted him to confess, but Will, unsure himself exactly what had happened, could say nothing. He longed for the indifference and lack of understanding he'd always had from his classmates back home. Why was everyone trying to be so damn helpful? Sick of it, on the fifth day he resumed his duties if only to shut them up. No longer able to find solace in the comfort of a routine, he volunteered for every odd job, including taking the lead role on nights they opened their doors to the homeless.
These people were the most unabashedly candid sinners he had ever come across. Doing their best with what they had, they wanted little—a bed, food, conversation, to be heard. They told extraordinary tales, some of which were lucid. Occasionally one of them got violent, but most were peaceful and policed their own ranks. No one wanted to lose a free meal and shelter. He avidly listened to every story they had to tell.
Ever deepening doubts of faith, of family, of everything he had ever known, crept through the cracks in the walls of his room. He rambled the hallways and came to hate them, the ancient lights casting harsh shadows onto unevenly polished stone floors. He wanted to talk to Rebecca but she was 2,000 miles away. Still, he had to talk to someone. Hearing the clatter of dishes from the kitchen late one night, he stopped and peered in. O’Brien, one of the few who had never pushed him to talk, stood alone, elbows deep in soapy water, scouring away.
“Hey O'Brien, can I be of help?”
O'Brien put down the glass that was in his hand and turned to give Will his full attention.
“Will. Thanks, I’m fine. Don't mind it actually, manual labor's good for the mind.” He returned his attention to the sink. Although the same age, Will felt like a child in his presence, grasping for the right words.
“Do you ever have doubts? You know, about all of this? This life we've chosen?”
Once again, O'Brien put down what he was working on and fully gave Will his attention. Joy seemed to radiate from his face.
“Each of us have our doubts from time to time. But ever since I offered my life up without reservation, the way has been clear.”
“Look O'Brien, I don’t want the rehearsal for the confessional, I don’t know what to do. I feel like a fraud, like they should kick me out of this place.”
“Will, no matter how contrived it may sound, it isn’t a lie. Doubts are normal, but if you have trust you'll find the way. It's clear you have major obstacles to overcome. I've watched you float between faith and disbelief at a whim. The only advice I can give you is to look within yourself and seek guidance from above. Nothing I can say will abate your fears. You've learned the same things I've learned, what you do with them is up to you. And if that doesn’t sound contrived I don’t know what does.”
He was right. Fear and shame battled one another for control of Will's emotions. The blind faith of his youth—that's what he wanted. To be able to accept whatever he was told. Knowing that impossible, he swung to desperation. The veins on his arms and neck popped as he squirreled about, his face contorted and sallow.
“Truly, Will, I'm sorry I can't offer you anything more. I mean, well, there's always 25 Hail Mary’s and an Our Father,” O'Brien offered with a light laugh. He put a hand on Will's shoulder.
“Couldn’t hurt,” Will said, his body coming to rest under the touch.
Will sat on the bed, peering at the crucifix. When he did the dishes, Will's mind rushed to every possible thing other than the work before him, and yet O'Brien seemed to have found God there, right there, in that sink. For wasn't finding God finding peace? He fumbled with the beads in his hands. Bernadine seemed to find God everywhere. Will found him nowhere. The closest thing to peace he'd ever experienced was that night with Rebecca. Maybe that wasn't God, but maybe it wasn't blasphemy either. Standing, he paced the small room back and forth, touching each wall with his forefinger before turning around. His underarms felt wet, his stomach nauseous. Twisting the beads he began to recite, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…”
Finishing a full rosary, he collapsed onto the bed. Dreams came in incomprehensible flashes: people he knew but had never met, several random series of numbers, a blonde girl wearing a red jacket with indecipherable black writing on the back.
After each dream he awoke, continuing to see these images clearly, as if he brought them back with him to this world. They faded after a minute, but the feelings they invoked remained.
Finally, he got up, drank down a glass of water, put on his robe and sandals, and made his way to the chapel.
Windowless, the room was pitch black. An errant cricket filled the hallowed space with its familiar song. A drop of holy water ran down Will's forehead as he bent down to light three candles before the altar. The light brought life and he kneeled in the first pew. Years of burning incense and poor ventilation gave the air a musty, thick taste. Like stale candy.
The trite air, coupled with the hovering corpus, stilled his body and caused him to feel an affinity with the relics of the room. He raised his head and looked at the wooden figure of the body sagging under its own dead weight. The hazy emotions from his dreams clung tight. He made the sign of the cross, took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and exhaled the words:
“I deny the Holy Spirit.”
The declaration hung in the air as he hung onto the pew. Even as he said the words he didn't know if he believed them. But did that matter? Adultery was adultery even if it only took place in the heart. Surely he had denied the Holy Spirit through his past actions. He waited—for what he didn't know. Finally he opened his eyes. Nothing, just the constant chirp of the cricket.
He felt his chest, legs, heart. Rushing to the nearest exit, he hoped to find a raging, all-encompassing lightning storm, but knew there would be none. What he found was a cool breeze, that, and hundreds of crickets singing their songs, none of them in sync. The stars remained fixed in the heavens and his feet rested firmly upon the earth. It was finally clear that nothing was clear. No black or white, and there never would be, only years of muddling though grays as best as one could until it was time to return to the earth and then, and only then discover, if there was a heaven or hell.
Within an hour he was on a bus heading south. And so it was that he came to sit under the old oak tree again.
Waking in his childhood bedroom a second day brought the kind of comfort that never actually existed. Despite the ravages of adolescence, the idea of childhood retained its ability to call a grown man home, offering the promise of relief, even if it couldn't deliver. He hated himself for never sleeping on the mattress before, and for every time he denied himself some small pleasure out of fear, out of shame.
He couldn't deny the seminary had initially brought a kind of contentment, a peace, but it was a peace that could only occur in such a highly controlled situation, and if that extreme was necessary was it real peace? He wanted peace wherever he went, regardless of what occurred around him. Wasn't that true peace? Wasn't that God?
The rest of the day and whole of the next were a series of half-waking incidents. On the third night Rebecca joined them for dinner. Two years left her unrecognizable—porcelain skin like the statues in the seminary, eyes ripe with secrets. She never let herself be controlled. Throughout dinner his answers to questions rarely breached the monosyllabic as he pictured the life he could've had if he'd stayed. He wanted to watch TV with her in bed, he wanted to be a confidant and a confidence.
Mrs. Temple worked to rekindle the friendship—the friendship they had when they were nine. Forgetting her husband had only allowed them to play during a short window of time in the afternoon, she reproduced an amiable board game night that had never been. Even with the childish games, being around Rebecca was indescribable. If anything had been created in the image of God, in the image of perfection, in the image of life affirming joy, it was her. He waved her off into the black night with regret but there would be tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. An hour later a storm rolled in. He sat and listened to the cacophony. When he found himself waking with each lightning flash he crawled into bed.
Sleep and awake blended for hours until becoming indecipherable. He heard the ladder clang and watched her silhouette climb through the window. The storm raged on. Consciousness became illusory. Heat lightning enveloped the room and thunder vibrated the walls, the floor, the ceiling. Perspiration hidden by rain, clumsy movements lost in the dark. The storm receded and they lay, breathing in tandem. Hours later he woke, alone, unsure what was real. Bright morning sun poured through the window, showing large wet patches of carpet. It was 80 degrees and climbing.
The sickly sweet smell of imitation maple syrup grew stronger as Will made his way downstairs. Taking his place at the table he felt his father's caustic eyes. He knew. He had to know. Will stared at his plate, growing warmer and warmer under the watchful gaze.
“Look, Will,” his father said, shoveling in scrambled eggs and bacon, “I'm glad to see you, your mother's glad to see you, your sister's glad to see you, but...” Here it came. “What the hell are you doing here?”
His father didn't know. Will sighed in relief.
“Dear, your language!” Mrs. Temple cried out.
“Sorry, hon, what would you have me do with the boy? Look, Will, if you're having doubts, I understand. We all have our doubts, now and again, but coming back here isn't gonna help, not one bit. We're paying good money for that school, not for you to come running back home with your tail between your legs.”
“Dad, this is the first time I've been back in two years. What do you want from me? I'm doing the best I can and I came back hoping for some support but I see that's useless."
“Oh Will, you know we're always here for you, I couldn't be happier to see you!”
Pausing to wipe bacon grease from his chin, Mr. Temple held an outstretched arm to his wife, signaling her to be quiet. With some difficulty he reached into his back pocket, removed a folded paper and handed it to his son.
“Here. The number 12 bus leaves at 1:30 and you're gonna be on it. What do you need? Someone to tell you you're doing the right thing? You are, Will. Your place is there, communing with God, making us proud.”
“Your father's right, we're very, very proud of you,” his mother added, her teeth glistening. “No one else in Summit has a son in the seminary. Everyone always asks about you.”
“They never did when I was here. And no one's said a word to me since I've been back, other than Rebecca.”
Mrs. Temple wrung her hands on her apron. Mr. Temple stabbed at potatoes as if they were trying to escape. Millicent, happy the focus wasn't on her, sucked down her milk. Will waited for a response. None came. He took the ticket, kissed his mother, and left.
The thick early morning fog stuck around to create an overcast afternoon. Little could be seen from the terminal window. Will imagined it was what life looked like through a cataract. When a bus moved, its headlights cut ghostly beams through the scene.
“There it is—number 12.”
“And there it goes.”
Rebecca took his hand and squeezed.
“Vaya con Dios.”
At the ticket counter Rebecca simply said “West.” They switched buses in Shamrock, Texas, had a short layover in Raton, New Mexico, and stopped in Winslow, Arizona, to pick up passengers whose bus had broken down in the middle of the night. As far west as they could go, they stepped out at the San Diego station, expecting salt in the air but getting only exhaust and body odor. The morning sun was breaking and they continued on foot, expecting to find a beach, but instead wandered into a tourist trap on the water. Hours later, after three rides and much walking, they heard the sound of the surf. A few feet from the waves' end they stopped, took off their shoes and dug into the wet sand. Homeless, hippies, and early morning dog walkers scattered the beach. A bulldog ran barking at the water, only to run away as the tide rolled in.
From her shoulder bag Rebecca pulled a brick of bottle rockets. Will made the sign of the cross over the entire ocean as a cool mist sprayed his face. Building a proper firing ground out of seaweed and shells, they positioned the brick, lit the fuse and watched 180 rockets take their first, and last, flight.