Early in the morning, while it was still dark, a truck had plowed the winding road to the Perkins Home for Adults. Father Daemon’s old Dodge now climbed the cleared path, the heater just starting to warm the car as he pulled into the Clergy’s reserved parking spot. A stand of trees surrounded the back of the low building; gusts of wind were scattering clumps of snow from their limbs. Inside the entranceway, Father Daemon added his galoshes to an assorted collection of muddy boots; he was not the first visitor of the day.
“Good morning, Lucy,” he whispered to the tired-looking attendant at the reception desk.
“Hello Father,” she said with a half-hearted effort to smile. “He’s been awake for a while. Upset about the snow or something.”
Father Daemon did not approve of her flagrant tone, eyeing her critically then walking down the bright hallway. The pastel wallpaper and faded flowers of the carpet found no forgiveness in the fluorescent light. It is a harsh hallway, Father Daemon thought – how many have lost hope here? A fake ficus tree in a plastic-lined wicker basket stood in the corner at the end of the corridor, not quite obscuring a dusty air vent.
The last room on the right was labeled “Vener, William”, and below the name was a list of food restrictions. It gave the place the feeling of a hospital, and the decorations and efforts of the staff to downplay this aspect only made it sadder. Father entered the room quietly, confronted by a stringent odor of some unseen antiseptic.
Monsignor Vener was sitting up in the bed, staring out the window and mumbling something under his breath. His wet lips moved unevenly, the right side of his face having been ravaged by the worst of his strokes a year ago. Wisps of white hair were combed back thinly against his skull, and his pale blue eyes were coated with a cloudy film. In his hands he worried a wooden rosary. Father Daemon moved into his line of vision, blocking the window.
“Good morning, Monsignor. The snow is pretty, isn’t it?” Father began. “I always enjoy the first snowfall of the year.” He waited for a reply. “And then my enjoyment diminishes with each succeeding storm.”
With a shaky hand, Monsignor placed the rosary on the bedside table. Father Daemon pulled up the metal chair beside him. It screeched along the linoleum floor. Monsignor jerked his head to the sound, as if surprised that someone else was suddenly there. He cast an annoyed glance at Father Daemon, who received it with a patient ache. “How are you doing?” Father asked.
Monsignor looked beyond him, out the window. The snowy scene seemed like a cocoon, all gauzy filament, silky strands, and impenetrable encasement. He would be gone soon enough, and with him his silent power. It no longer held much sway. One of the last of the cloistered priests, from a time when the church could keep the world at bay, when God was still feared and revered, he had somehow survived this long, but the end was near. Age and failing health had taken him away from the only home he’d known. This place was not home. God was not everywhere.
Father Daemon held the elderly man’s hand. His skin was thin but surprisingly warm; the veins were the color of bruises. Father explained that he was visiting his niece for her birthday the next week and wouldn’t be in to see him. He decided to take a chance.
“Would you like to meet Brother Logan? He’s been doing a fine job helping out. I’m hoping he thinks about coming back to us when he finishes.”
Monsignor cut him off sharply. “No, I don’t want to meet him!” he roared. “Don’t bring him here.” Then the old man started to cry, pulling his hand away from Father Daemon and hiding his eyes.
It was time to leave. He had been trying to find a way to explain to Monsignor that his health was such that he wouldn’t be returning to the church, but that would not come to pass today. For now, he allowed Monsignor to think that there was still hope – perhaps he would let him believe in that until… until it was done. He left the sobbing man alone.
The land was quiet beneath the blanket of snow. Father Daemon sat in the car without moving, relieved and guilty, reveling in and regretting the silent absence of the sounds of his mentor’s weeping.
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It was the second snowstorm that wreaked destruction – a violent Nor’easter, swirling and circling back over the town, a mass of unstable air hovering and dumping inches of snow and ice, accompanied by hurricane-force gales of bitterly cold air. The parking lot between St. Ann’s church and the rectory had been plowed twice, and Father Daemon was digging the Dodge out for his trip the next day. Brother Logan joined him. They piled shovelfuls of snow against the rectory wall, slowly freeing the car, and still the wintry mix kept falling.
“Think you’ll make it out tomorrow?” Brother Logan asked, brushing a coating of snow and ice off his shoulder and arm.
“Oh yes, yes – we’ve seen far worse in these parts.” He didn’t want to be absent from his niece’s birthday party. “I’ll be fine.”
The men finished and went inside. They watched the Winter Storm Warning advisory then went to bed.
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The first snow day of the year inspired John’s usual ruckus in the Crawford house. Jesse had listened wanly to the school closings at John’s repeated insistence – grateful to sign that school was cancelled, then to roll over and let his little brother rush downstairs to bug their parents.
Mr. and Mrs. Crawford were secretly upset that there was no school – it only made everything more difficult, but they indulged their youngest son, outfitting him in a heavy snowsuit and thick foam boots, setting him free in the gated backyard.
“Can you check in on them?” Mrs. Crawford asked as she watched John from inside the living room.
“Not today,” he said. “They’ll be fine. Jesse’s still asleep. I’ll talk to him… He’s old enough now. John will be okay. I’m home by three, I’ll make sure.”
“All right,” she sighed, uneasy but acquiescing. “I’ve got to go. I’m already late.” She threw her purse over her shoulder and waved good-bye to John from the back door. He wasn’t looking her way.
Mr. Crawford called upstairs, “Jesse! Jesse, we’re leaving. Your brother’s outside – keep an eye on him! Call the office if you need anything.” He didn’t wait for a response. In the backyard he waved his hands to get John’s attention. The boy was focused intently on making something, his back to the house and Mr. Crawford. His hands dug into the snow; it bit at the tender skin of his wrists, where the mittens didn’t quite meet the sleeves. He flung a handful of snow into the air and studied the pattern it made as it landed on the untouched blanket of white.
Mr. Crawford swore and put his coat on. His brown Oxford shoes sunk deep into the snow as he waved his arms wildly. Exasperated, he gathered a snowball in his hands and lobbed it in John’s direction. It fell short a few feet, while John continued to play, not glancing in Mr. Crawford’s direction. A second snowball flew through the air over John’s head, the boy still looking down.
“Goddamn it!” Mr. Crawford yelled, his hands raw and red and wet with melted snow. He packed a third snowball, rounding and solidifying it into a hard sphere of ice. Aiming to the right of John, he threw hard and watched with horror and immediate regret as it slammed into the back of John’s head.
The boy looked up, then around, and, feeling for the back of his head, started wailing. Mr. Crawford ran through the knee-high drifts of snow to his crying son. “Shit,” he said, trying to catch his breath. “Shit.”
He reached John and pulled his hat off, examining his head through the wet hair. There was no blood. He couldn’t have thrown it that hard. Mr. Crawford signed frantically to him, “Are you hurt? Are you okay? I’m so sorry… I was trying to get your attention…”
His khakis were soaked to a dark tan, and the cold was starting to register. John’s sobs had subsided. He returned to playing as if nothing had happened. Mr. Crawford put his hat back on and asked one more time if he was all right, explaining that he had to go to work.
“I’m good,” John signed, after impatiently removing his mittens.
After he had changed, Mr. Crawford went into the boys’ room and told Jesse to watch John. Jesse mumbled assent and listened to his father’s retreating footsteps. He wanted only to sleep.
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The Olin home was awake to the sounds of the radio and an endless list of school closings, the kitchen filled with the aromas of breakfast. A coffeepot perked away on the counter, releasing its pungent steam. Elise was standing over the stove, stirring a skillet of scrambled eggs. Her Mom sat at the kitchen table in a flannel bathrobe, idly flipping through a damp newspaper.
“These are almost done, can you get the toast going?” Elise asked. Mrs. Olin got up and pulled a loaf of bread from the pantry. She struggled with the small twist-tie, finally handing it off to her husband. “David? Would you? My arthritis today…”
He took it from her and asked, “How many?”
“Elise, are you having toast?”
“Just one piece, please.”
“One for me too,” Mrs. Olin said.
Mr. Olin brought out four pieces of bread, putting two into the toaster and laying two on the counter. He put the loaf back in the pantry. As he stood in the doorway, he watched his family. His wife and daughter moved together at the stove, Elise transferring the eggs into a bowl held by his wife. They were almost exactly the same height. Elise would be taller soon, but for now they were equally matched. He listened to their shared laughter as some of the eggs fell onto the floor, smiling at their good fortune. If spilled eggs were the worst part of the day, it was worthy of laughter.
“Elise,” her Mom said as she set the eggs on the table, “Would you walk Cooper after breakfast? You don’t have to go far in this snow. I am just feeling this weather today.” She rubbed her wrists in her hands.
“Sure.” The eggs warmed Elise’s stomach. Cooper trotted into the kitchen, staring up at Elise for a treat. She tossed him a bit of toast with jelly on it.
“Elise,” her Dad warned, “No eggs for him. He’ll get sick.”
“I know, I know.” She watched Cooper’s expectant expression. It felt good to be needed.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to go with you?” Brother Logan asked. Father Daemon had loaded his overnight bag in the car and was going over some last-minute instructions.
“Really, it’s fine. You forget that we’re accustomed to such weather – and this wasn’t even a very bad storm. You wait… but I don’t want to frighten you. Thank you, I’ll be fine,” Father Daemon reiterated. He paused and went over things in his head. “Now, just make sure that the church is locked by 8 PM. You probably won’t get anyone today anyway, not in this weather. People will brave the elements for food, movies, parties, but not for prayer. Maybe someone young like you will change that. We’ll need it, if we’re going to survive. I have faith!”
Father Daemon gave Brother Logan a friendly tap on the shoulder, crinkling his eyes with a benevolent smile. He believed in his church.
“Call when you get in, if you would,” Brother Logan said seeing him off. The Dodge started up and crunched through the plowed snow. He watched it turn out of the parking lot and disappear behind the snow banks and then the church.
There was all of today, tonight, and a bit of tomorrow. Opening his wallet, Brother Logan thumbed through a few dollar bills and retrieved the crumpled paper that had Jesse’s phone number on it. The hall clock chimed ten times, and then the rectory was silent.
The heavy snowfall had muffled the world. Jesse traipsed through the hallway to his parents’ bathroom, relieving himself at the toilet – the steady stream of dark yellow urine steaming on the cool porcelain. Why was their room always so cold? He shivered from the pissing and the air.
Pulling the drapes back from the tiny bathroom window, he looked down at the white landscape. In the middle of it sat John, the bright red of his snowsuit the only spot of color in the vast sea of snow – a trampled path radiating outward from him.
Jesse flushed the toilet just as the phone started ringing. He knew it wasn’t his parents.
“Hello?” he said weakly, then cleared his throat.
“Jesse? It’s Brother Logan.”
“Oh… hi,” he stammered, “How are you?”
“I need to see you.”
In a few years Jesse would recognize that insistence for what it was; for now he heard the urgent voice of a man he loved – and it was love, Jesse admitted to himself.
I love him.
He is why I live.
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He trudged through the thick snow. John had promised to stay in the backyard. He’d be in trouble for leaving him, but maybe he’d be back in time. He didn’t care either way. Brother Logan had asked for him, and he had to attend.
Not all of the sidewalks had been cleared, and Jesse found himself ankle-deep in some spots, not minding or even noticing the chilled, wet state of his shoes. Brother Logan had finally called on him, and they would resume their – he struggled for the right word – connection? Relationship? Affair? There was no name for it yet, and it didn’t matter.
The parking lot was empty – just the recent tracks of Father Daemon’s car remained. When Brother Logan swung open the rectory door, Jesse could not stifle a smile.
“Oh, you’re so cold,” Brother Logan said, putting his hands on Jesse’s cheeks, then cupping his ears. Jesse felt the usual rise when he was with him, and followed him silently down the hallway, kicking off his sneakers outside the bedroom. He closed the door behind him.
Elise opened the door and Cooper flew out onto the snowy walkway that her Dad had just finished shoveling. The dog ran into the thick snow, jumping up and shaking its head. Elise walked carefully to the sidewalk and turned right. She folded her arms across her chest and hunched her shoulders as bits of snow fell from the trees in the wind.
The sky was impenetrably gray. It felt like dusk despite the early hour. She cut through the back lot of St. Ann’s, not admitting to herself that she was going to walk past Jesse Crawford’s house. The old priest’s car was gone and she walked through its tracks, not noticing the footprints that led to the rectory door. At the corner of the building, Cooper lifted his leg and started peeing. Elise looked around guiltily, then hurried over to the patch of yellow, throwing some fresh snow over it with her mittens.
Figures moved in the window. A lamp glowed on a desk, and beyond that Elise could see Jesse removing his winter coat. She watched through the half-closed blind as he took a man’s shirt off. She stared and wondered and decided to wait for Jesse to tell her about it. She understood then that she would never have him. She didn’t know if it upset her, or if she felt relieved. There would never be tension between them. Yes, it was relief.
When Jesse and the unknown man kissed, she brought her fingers to her lips, then turned and ran. Cooper barked and followed her home.
Father Daemon had forgotten the birthday gift for his niece. He thought about it half an hour into the trip. Swearing, he turned around. It would cost him an hour at least, probably more with the bad roads, but the whole point of the trip was his niece’s birthday, and he had searched everywhere for the perfect present.
He pulled up to the church, not wanting to park and run the risk of getting stuck. He was also trying to avoid Brother Logan, who would probably riddle him with more concern about driving in the weather.
The door to the rectory was open a crack. Father Daemon cautiously entered. There were puddles from melted snow on the floor, the dirty wet tracks of sneakers, and then the pair of them outside Brother Logan’s door. One of them was lying on its side. Father Daemon bent down and inspected it. The brightly-colored high-top was the style that the kids were wearing. It belonged to a boy.
From inside the bedroom came a subdued creaking of the bed. Father Daemon put the sneaker back on the floor and quietly walked away. He stopped at his own room and picked up the birthday present, then closed the door on his way out. It was too cold to leave it open.
The bed that had at first felt frigid, starchy, and spindly now cradled them comfortably in warmth. It was done. The hopes that had spun happily out of control the night before felt foolish and frightening now, and though the warm body and strong embrace of the man behind him felt good, it offered scant assurance. Jesse was still alone.
The oil lamp was burning, the low blue flame almost invisible but for the thin stream of smoke that signified it was still on. Jesse went over and turned it up, trying to add some warmth to the room. The flame brightened and the smoke became thicker. Logan watched his naked body before the lamp, a scene of unbearable beauty, sickening in its temporal fleetingness. Jesse shuddered and jumped back into the cramped bed.
The joining of their bodies had felt glorious. He pulled Brother Logan close to his chest. The fingers of his hand were thick, and rougher than Jesse’s. Was this love then? Two people staving off the cold, uniting and separating and still bound to one another – and did Brother Logan feel the same? Jesse wanted to ask, to end his doubt either way, even if Logan didn’t return the feeling. But what would he do then?
There was emptiness behind the man’s eyes when Jesse searched them, a distance that spanned back to a time before Jesse was even alive. He could not surmount that past, and he didn’t know if he could make the present matter more.
“I have to get back and help my brother shovel,” Jesse finally said. He didn’t know what he was doing.
“So soon?” Logan asked. “Father won’t be back until tomorrow,” he pleaded, a sparkle of mischief in his eyes once again.
It was all Jesse had. How long would it be before the glint was gone? He kissed Brother Logan, moving down to his neck, to his chest, suckling on his nipples and the small patches of hair surrounding them. Logan closed his eyes, remembering his dead brother. The memories came at awkward times. Beneath the weight and moving tongue of Jesse, Logan shifted, and his gaze found the oil lamp, focusing on its wavering light and curling ribbons of black smoke.
For most of the ride home the next day, Father Daemon had tried to determine exactly what to say to Brother Logan, but when he pulled into the church lot he decided to wait. All traces of the boy, whoever it was, were gone from the rectory. Dinner was on the stove and Brother Logan came out of the kitchen to greet him.
Maybe that was it, maybe it was a one-time deal. He weighed the greater good with this single incident. There were unsaid rules and protocol that were followed at other churches – mysteries that could be cloaked in silence and a strategically-employed blind eye. At his most shameful he thought that Monsignor Vener could be blamed if it ever came to that – then he banished the idea, hating himself for the very notion.
Yet that would have been what the once-wise man did in this situation. No conflict, no noise, no messiness. It was easier then, though. No one questioned the church – all-powerful and all-knowing. Father Daemon felt himself spanning the old and the new. His greatest interest was preserving the institution that meant so much to him. The decision was made. There was no other way. This was the sort of mess that came from sin – it contaminated everyone, it stained everything.
She was waiting for him when he came out of the house the day after the storm. The snow was already dirty and gray. Parts of it had melted and frozen again in the night, leaving a rumpled, rough surface of bumps and ridges. The street was a muddy mix of salt and dirt, the pavement dark with wet run-off. It was no longer pretty.
Elise wore an old pair of boots, still caked with sediment from the last winter. Her hair peeked out from beneath a knit hat that she pulled down over her ears. Jesse joined her, zipping up his coat and shaking off his own damp hair. They walked together past St. Ann’s. She waited for him to tell her, but he never spoke. Already he was different, already he was removed, and if he seemed happier today, she knew why. The sense of loss she felt was something she did not understand, nor did she know why she moved closer to him, or why she felt safer in his presence. The love of friendship was pure and lasting; in many ways it trumped that of romantic love. That is what she told herself on the walk to school, as Jesse strode beside her – quietly and respectfully, and oblivious to her unkempt hair hidden by a hat, and the dirty boots that she’d wear throughout the day.
Brother Logan was sitting at the kitchen table – a small, mustard-tinted formica circle, edged with a band of ridged metal. He sipped at black coffee, unable to finish the second half of wheat toast on his plate. His thoughts went to the boy – flashes of smooth skin, the slippery gloss of his lips, the need in his eyes, in his actions, in the way he held onto him. It reminded him of the ones who came before, the small handful of men and boys he had almost loved – whom he could have loved if it had been possible.
A pair of rickety wooden shutters hung in front of the kitchen window, their slats slanted open to let in the light – so harsh at this time of the year, bouncing from sky to snow and everywhere in between, and so bright that the windowpane was only a square of brilliant white. It hurt to look out of it.
Father Daemon swept into the kitchen, fully dressed in his robes for daily Mass. It was not yet eight o’clock in the morning, and he did not want to draw this out.
“I saw what happened here yesterday,” he began, holding his hands up to quell any protest. “I came back because I forgot the birthday present, and… I know.” He paused there, standing next to the counter and looking down on the unknown man at his kitchen table. He breathed in deeply, folding his hands together, intertwining his hands.
“Brother Logan,” he began again, “I think you would make a good priest. But you cannot stay here. I won’t have you endanger this parish. I’m not going to mention anything to anyone, on the condition that you end this, and then leave. I will contact the Bishop and put in for a transfer.”
Father Daemon studied the face of the man before him. It hadn’t registered shock, or even surprise. Perhaps it had happened before. He refused to dwell on it, leaving the room brusquely and heading to the church. It wouldn’t be difficult to move him. There were always churches with dislocated priests, always empty spots to fill. And maybe he had learned his lesson. He said a quick prayer for him and entered the back door of St. Ann’s.
That Sunday an eerie thaw broke up the January chill. A thick fog settled over the area – swirling clouds gathered at ground level, and the morning had an other-worldly glow to it. The banks of snow oozed water vapor, seeping into the ground and revealing forgotten fences and the barren sticks of ice-ravaged brush.
The Crawford boys stood in the driveway waiting for their father to back the car out. They breathed in the ripe smell of ozone – a displaced scent of spring and summer storms. Mr. Crawford drove the short distance to the church, taking his time, waving other drivers before him. John was staring out at the foggy street. He could smell the freedom of spring already, even if it was months away, and he wanted to be outside.
The family sidled into their front pew. Jesse kept a furtive watch out for Brother Logan. He’d made up his mind to go to confession if he was hearing them this morning. He had to talk to him again, even if it was under sacramental guise. Craning his neck, Jesse turned to look at the new organ. Its main frame was complete but it remained under construction. Dusty drop cloths and scaffolding were stacked on each side of it, framing the rosewood façade. The middle three pipes, the largest ones, had been installed, soaring upward to the rafters, and Jesse studied the slits in them, about a third of the way up their length. He wondered what sort of sound they would emit, how the notes would fill the church, and if he would still be there to hear them. John never would – he could only gauge their power through the vibrations.
“Good morning,” Father Daemon announced from the altar, opening his arms wide and accepting the expected reply.
“Good morning, Father,” they answered.
“For all of our visitors, let me extend a greeting of welcome to our church, and to everyone who attends St. Ann’s. I’m glad to see all of you here.”
Jesse looked around impatiently, mumbling the prayers and moving his mouth to the hymns. The confessional was dark. As Father began his homily, the congregation sat back in their pews. After droning on for about fifteen minutes, Father Daemon changed his tone from the preachy to the practical, pricking Jesse’s attention.
“And on a bittersweet note, this week we bid goodbye to Brother Logan, who has been called onward to the next stage of his… journey. His training that is. I would personally like to thank him for all of his help.”
There was a brief spattering of applause, when in fact most people had no idea who Brother Logan was. Even now, he was nowhere to be seen. Father Daemon immediately launched into the next topic. Only Jesse noticed the jarring switch, the abrupt end of the mention of his name. With those few words, Father severed Brother Logan from the dominion, and protection, of St. Ann’s.
Jesse was stunned. His stomach dropped and turned inside out, while an oily sweat broke out on his forehead. He covered his mouth, thinking he might throw up, fighting the welling tears, lost so suddenly and inconsolably. John was kicking his leg; Jesse almost raised his arm to strike him, and then the loud shuffle to communion stifled his rage.
Why hadn’t he said anything? Surely he’d known. And for how long? It was a subtle betrayal, one that might otherwise have cut Jesse deeply enough for him to let go, but not now, not when he felt this way, not after having given so much.
Dazed, he let his mother out of the pew, following her to the start of the line for communion. He opened his mouth to receive the Body of Christ from Father Daemon, whispering “Amen” in a choked sob. He swallowed the brittle wafer with some difficulty, moving to the right and sipping, for the first time, the Blood of Christ. The stale red wine burned his mouth, and he was grateful for the pain. It cut downward along his throat, settling discontentedly into the bowels of his belly, smoldering there but offering no succor.
There was no way to explain his state to the family. They rode home in silence, unaware of the pain their eldest son was in, occupied only with the strange mellow weather in the middle of winter.
At the house, Jesse went directly to the phone book, looking up the number for the rectory. He waited for his mother to change out of her church dress and head downstairs, then slowly, quietly turned the rotary dial of the phone. Sliding down against the wall, Jesse sat on the floor listening to the distant ringing. Brother Logan picked up, his cautious voice small and removed.
“Father Daemon said you were leaving. Why didn’t you tell me?” Jesse asked. He didn’t want to sound desperate, but Logan recognized the panic in his voice, and part of him felt it too.
“I’m sorry, Jesse. I didn’t know myself. Father Daemon saw us the last time you were here.”
“It doesn’t matter. He knows about us and I have to leave.”
“Where will you go? Around here? Another church near here?”
“Probably not. I don’t know yet, it’s up to the Bishop.”
“Does the Bishop know why?”
“No, I don’t think so. Father Daemon has been very kind.”
“When are you going? It can’t be right away.”
“I don’t know, Jesse,” Logan sighed. “Most likely soon.”Jesse didn’t know what to make of the man’s tone – partly annoyed, partly resigned, and somewhat dismissive. He didn’t seem all that concerned about the situation. The phone cord was knotted; Jesse absently unwound it, then watched it curl back into a tangled mass.
“Can I see you? To say goodbye?” he asked timidly.
Brother Logan was struck by how young he sounded, how like a kid. He was almost three times as old as Jesse, yet he had allowed Jesse to lead him. Who was at fault? And, again, did it even matter?
“You can come by today after four o’clock, but you can’t stay long. Father will be visiting Monsignor and then the hospital,” Logan explained. “I’d like to see you too,” he added.
It was enough for Jesse. It had to be. He went into the bedroom to lie down, drawing the blind and shutting out the fog. A few months ago the world was open, and the idea of Brother Logan was a happy inspiration. This morning it was closed, claustrophobically contained by walls of fog, closing ever inward – an irrevocable suffocation. Jesse heard John coming up the stairs. He closed his eyes, pretending to sleep, as John burst into the room.
John found a light jacket in the bottom of the closet and rushed back out. The front door slammed shut. Jesse embraced the silence, grasping at its emptiness and giving in to the sorrow. Folding himself into a fetal position, he turned to the wall, silently convulsing, weeping for the first time since the summer he broke his arm, almost three years ago. It lasted for about an hour, subsiding and starting up again, until finally he welcomed sleep and momentary oblivion.
When he awoke shortly before three o’clock, he remembered the lack of consciousness, glad for the fleeting forgetfulness, and intent on forcing a way to find it again.
He told his mother he had to help Father Daemon out at the church for a while.
“Be back in time for dinner,” she yelled after him. “Five thirty!”
He was gone. In the backyard John was running back and forth. He had dug down through the snow and reached the lawn, but the ground was still frozen. The bottom half of his pants were soaked, and his boots were covered in a slushy mix. He looked to be having a swordfight, parrying and blocking his unseen foes. A heavy mist swirled around him, obscuring his face.
Jesse walked through the dense air, unable to see more than ten or fifteen feet ahead of himself, moving out of habit and instinct and a propulsion made up equally of dread and desire. He knew this would be the last time.
The spires of St. Ann’s were lost to the fog. Even as Jesse walked along the side of the church, its upper half could not be seen. As the rectory came into hazy view, Jesse gulped back another urge to vomit. He stopped walking. Brother Logan was waiting for him there, the door was half-way open, but he didn’t have to go in.
It was the first time he really had a choice, and a rare moment when he was fully aware of growing up. Sadness and resignation had been abstract ideas. He knew when he was supposed to feel that way, but had always pretended. The passing of a family pet, the death of a grandparent, the suicide of a classmate – his sadness had been one of principal and respect, but never of pain or loss. Brother Logan had awakened his access to sorrow, bringing him to life, even as it felt like it was killing him.
Jesse walked into the rectory. The fog closed behind him. Brother Logan came out of his bedroom at the other end of the hallway, his eyes swollen and red. Jesse ran into his arms and sobbed violently.
“Shh, shh… it’s okay. You’re all right,” the man whispered, stroking Jesse’s hair. He brought them into the bedroom, sitting down on the bed.
“You can’t… you can’t go. Please don’t leave,” Jesse sobbed into his hands. Brother Logan watched the boy cry and he joined him, pulling his shaking body close. The two of them rocked on the bed that way, holding each other, until there was nothing left to do.
Jesse stood up and stated calmly, “I’m coming with you, wherever you go.”
Brother Logan shut his eyes. He had imagined, even hoped, that Jesse would say that, and now that it had been spoken he was lost.
“That’s not possible,” he replied quietly. “You know you can’t. Your life is just starting.”
“I know what I want. I’m not a kid. And you know that.” Jesse started to cry again.
“Come on, let’s go outside for a bit,” Brother Logan said gently. He led Jesse to the back door, leaning his shoulder against it and pushing hard. It was stuck. He rammed it harder with his whole body and it gave way. The bright fog crept in as Jesse and Brother Logan stepped out of the rectory.
The kitchen was warm. Mrs. Crawford cracked open a window, picking out a few dead leaves from the pot of devil’s ivy that sat on the windowsill. The oven alarm went off, a low buzzing that grew into an excruciating screech. Mrs. Crawford turned down a boiling pot of broccoli and crossed the kitchen to the oven. She peered inside, a scorching wall of heat hitting her face, and saw that the chicken was done. She turned the oven off, leaving the door slightly ajar. Turning back to the stove, she ran into John.
“God!” she said, annoyed. She squatted down and held him by the shoulders. “Is your brother home yet?” she signed.
John shook his head no.
Mrs. Crawford hesitated, but there was still some light left, and it was only a few blocks to St. Ann’s. The smell of spring was making John antsy; he’d been tugging on her legs since he’d come inside, getting underfoot as she tried to finish dinner.
She signed to him, “Can you find him at the church and bring him home?”
John nodded vigorously.
There was quiet when he left. She turned the stove off completely and moved the broccoli to a cool burner. Dinner was almost done. She had a few minutes, and, guiltily wishing the boys would take their time, went upstairs to lie down. She only needed a few minutes.
The back of the church was littered with work lamps, and a thin coating of sawdust covered the floor. Tools and saw were scattered around the organ. John looked around but couldn’t find Jesse anywhere. He made his way up the aisle. At the front of the church he turned around and took in the organ, high in the back, its pipes running to the very top of the cathedral. They shined a bright bronze in the spotlights. It would be completed soon.
He went into the dark back room of the office, but no one was there. John walked past the altar and out the side entrance. Behind St. Ann’s stood the rectory. The front door was open and a sliver of amber light cut through the fog. John approached cautiously, unsure that Jesse would be there. He opened the door all the way and waited for someone to come.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Behind the rectory was a small cemetery. Brother Logan and Jesse walked through it, bits of wet ice crackling beneath their feet. Enough snow had melted to reveal an irregular path of slate stones that led into and among the graves. Naked trees framed the little yard, their girdling roots twisting around the wayward iron fence. It tilted precariously, bending low to the ground in some spots, rising upward at the posts.
“Jesse, when my brother died, I was with him. He told me to live my life. I didn’t really listen. Not like I should have. But you can. You remind me of him,” Brother Logan tried to explain.
“Did you fuck him too?” Jesse asked out of petulance and defiance.
Logan raised a fist and Jesse waited for the blow. Instead, he took the boy’s face in his hands and kissed him. Jesse pulled away, but Logan wouldn’t let go ~ he was glad to be forced, enthralled by the power the man had over him. He stopped struggling and spoke.
“You’ve shown me this life, what this life could be, and now I have to go on without it. How can you do that?” He pounded his open palms against Brother Logan’s chest. “You made me start to believe. You showed me that love… was its own form of faith… when I didn’t believe in anything else… and I still don’t believe… but I might, I might have, with you.”
Enveloped by the fog and hidden from the world, they held onto each other. The last moments with someone you love, knowing you will never them again, are different than saying goodbye to someone who has died. They will still be out there somewhere, living on without you, perhaps loving others and finding happiness on their own.
They kissed, tenderly at first, then desperately.
John walked into Brother Logan’s room, drawn by the flickering light of the oil lamp. He explored the small space, briefly touching the lamp that burned hotly into heavy black smoke. A stack of books was on the corner of the desk, along with an old wooden box bound by a lock and key. It opened with a click, and inside he saw a familiar gold rosary and a picture of Jesse from a newspaper clipping. It showed him in mid-air, going for a rebound at one of his basketball games. He doesn’t understand why these things are in this box.
Outside the window, he notices Jesse and Brother Logan and sees that they are crying. Frightened and confused, he is unsure what to do. He looks around and thinks about hiding under the bed before noticing the little closet in the corner. Opening the door, his eyes rest upon a pile of blankets. Not realizing how cold he is, he goes into the closet and crawls under them. He pulls the door almost shut and waits. It is cozy here. As the day fades, he falls asleep. The oil lamp burns on the desk, throwing long shadows across the room.
They had to go inside. This time, Jesse led them. He held onto Brother Logan’s hand, the pair of them moving as one. Amid urgent whimpers and kisses salty with tears, they stumbled back into the bedroom, grasping at each other, unwilling to separate. The two of them stripped, a ravenous tearing off of clothing, then struggled against each other on the bed, fighting off what little time they had left and taking it out on the other. It was almost over.
Bleed into me.
Cry all of your tears and blood and semen into me.
Fill me with you.
After this, I may die.
It would be all right, after this.
It would have been worth it.
From the hallway, the phone rang, breaking them apart. Logan thought about not answering it, then jumped up and scurried into the hallway naked.
‘I cannot leave him,’ Jesse thought.
He will not allow it to happen. They will not be parted.
Jesse stood up and walked over to the desk. He picked up the oil lamp and smashed it down. The glass broke, and burning oil ran over the wooden floor. He knelt down, pressed his hands into the oil and raised them, burning flesh and flowing blood before his eyes. He looked up towards the ceiling, flames refracting in his tears, tiny rivulets of fire running down his face. Grabbing onto the fractured base, he threw it against the desk, spraying fire everywhere. His hands felt for fiery glass, sweeping up shards of it, seering himself with the fire and the flood of blood.
Brother Logan moved rapidly, tackling Jesse with the bedspread and dragging him out of the room. He smothered the fire on him and tried to pry the broken glass from Jesse’s grasp.
“Jesse, please, please… Why!? Why did you do it?” he wailed, horrified at the charred blood on Jesse’s hands. The boy was still awake, eyes open but vacant.
Brother Logan rushed back into the bedroom and tried to pull the mattress over the fire, but it had spread beyond, engulfing the desk and chair. Choking on the smoke, Logan grabbed the clothes that weren’t burning and ran out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
In the closet, Jesse’s little brother slept, eyes closed to the flickering flames and ears cut off from the crackling roar, surrounded by a shroud of smoke, suffocating soundlessly in his sleep.
Father Daemon and the old Dodge arrived at St. Ann’s to the chaotic scene of fire-trucks and a fire unit spraying the back of the rectory down. Smoke billowed forth from the building, blending seamlessly into the thick fog. Near one of the trucks, Brother Logan and a tall boy huddled together inside a blanket, Logan in a pair of wet black pants, the boy naked but for the blanket. It was the new altar server. There was no pretending now; Father would have to speak with the family.
No one reported anyone else in the building until Jesse’s parents ran up the driveway, their faces turning from concern to panic to horror and disbelief.
Three days later, Father Daemon stopped by the Crawford house. Elise Olin answered the door, shaking his hand and bringing him into the living room. He stepped gingerly among the mourning family and friends, asking to speak with Mr. and Mrs. Crawford. Elise brought him to Jesse’s parents, then left them alone.
“I am deeply sorry for your loss,” he began. They eyed him warily. “I wish… I don’t… I don’t know where to begin. I want you to know that Brother Logan is being moved. If you want to go any further with charges regarding what he did to Jesse… that’s up to you. At this point I am just very sorry for your loss, and it is up to you. I don’t know if it would help. This is a terrible loss, none as worse as that of a child so young…” and he trailed off.
Jesse had been standing at the doorway listening. He entered the room. The three adults turned toward him. That it was Father Daemon who cared for him – enough to risk everything he was risking in offering the chance to charge Brother Logan – moved Jesse more than anything his own parents had done.
They couldn’t have saved him. They had forgotten that he still needed protection.
“I’m so sorry,” his mother sobbed.
He looked at her with wonder. He didn’t understand.
“I’m sorry for not protecting you, for letting this happen to you.”
It suddenly struck him – his vulnerability, his innocence, and his haphazard disposal of it. He was supposed to be sad. His own mother was sad for him, but he did not feel it. He only wondered why it was such a big deal. They had been quiet over things that seemed to matter much more than this; why the sudden flood of concern? It started to irritate him, and he walked out of the room.
Elise was standing in the corner of the kitchen, staring out of the window. She had been coming over every day, helping out with the food and answering the phone and door. They’d hugged the first time she was there, but he hadn’t spoken to her since. He went up to her and looked out the window.
“Do you think we have enough food?” he asked, referencing the overflowing counters of platters and plastic-covered dishes. Elise forced out a smile. He didn’t look at her. “I did it, Elise. He died because of me.”
She reached up and put her hand on his shoulder. Jesse withdrew from the touch, then hurried out of the kitchen. He couldn’t talk to anyone. As he walked through the crowded living room, people parted silently to let him pass. They looked at him strangely, a mix of pity and suspicion – this sad, tall boy who had just been made an only child, with his two bandaged hands and burned arms. He went upstairs as the doorbell rang again.
John’s bed remained unmade. His parents had not entered the room since he died. Jesse had had to live there, alone with everything that was left of John. His toys and action figures were scattered about the floor. A model airplane was propped up on the desk, unfinished – an act of creation forever stalled. Jesse couldn’t bear seeing it. He threw the plane into the metal garbage can, where it splintered into a heap of broken balsa wood and plastic pieces.
Jesse stood over John’s bed before crumpling onto it. He could still smell John as he cried into his pillow, writhing and wishing it had been him. Tears soaked his bandaged hands. His baby brother had been sacrificed, and the fire had cauterized Jesse’s heart ~ burnt and sterilized it, scoured and sealed it, removing any bit of tenderness that remained.
A few Sundays after John had been buried, the Crawfords returned to St. Ann’s for the last time. Jesse hadn’t spoken much to his parents, even when the three of them had gone to a professional counselor. His brother was gone and it had been Jesse’s fault. He couldn’t explain when they asked if he knew why John had been there. Their grief didn’t allow for them to notice Jesse much, and he was thankful for that. In his intentional, careless act he found the destruction he so desired. The craving had been satisfied, and he had inadvertently killed his brother in the process. Now there was nothing left to do. His fate was set, his heart hardened. All that remained was a cold ambition fueled by emptiness – an emptiness he knew would be his lot.
The counselor had suggested attending mass again, and Mrs. Crawford wanted to get it over with, to end it in some way, for good. It was early March, and the fractured family walked stoically to their front pew. The renovation of the organ had been completed and the interior of the church had been painted anew. It was brighter, but somehow colder. Jesse looked over his shoulder to the back of the church, where the magnificent organ shone brilliantly in the sunlight of the unforgiving end of winter.
The immense wooden monolith sounded, its upper notes falling then rising in rapid arpeggios. As the organist struck the lower keys, Jesse felt the moaning bass notes rumble through the church – sounds that hadn’t been heard in that sacred space for decades. It shook the pews and columns and stained-glass windows. It would have been what John felt. Pigeons flew from their nests, dust fell from the rafters, and the power of the sound rendered the congregation absolutely silent.
Jesse allowed the moment to overcome him. He began to cry – silently and convulsively – over his lost brother, his lost lover, his lost childhood. He couldn’t stop. His mother put her arm awkwardly around him and he pushed it away. His father pretended not to notice. There was no peace here. Jesse shut his eyes and slowly it subsided. He would not cry again.
The Crawfords moved away that Spring, not telling any of their friends. Jesse left his childhood there.
E p i l o g u e
A glass of red wine stood between them, deep burgundy in the candlelight. The man wore a tailored suit, a tightly-coiled tie knot centered precisely at his neck, and cuff links of jade framed with gold; the woman sat upright with crossed legs, her elegant black dress topped by a light sweater. She wore a thin necklace of gold, and a simple wedding band.
He would always be unknowable to her. It was part of his charm. He would never be predictable or safe. She loved it, but had realized early on that it was exactly what would keep her from being with him. Not that he had ever shown the least interest. The pull of such detachment kept her close. She accepted that and guarded it. She could be unknowable too, or at least pretend. His affection, though limited, was genuine, and few others had been granted that much.
They had been in sporadic contact, but had never spoken about that year. Now, two decades later, they found themselves crossing paths in a city not far from the town in which they were born, and Jesse had finally told Elise how it had all happened.
“So that’s why you left,” she said. “We never heard the story. Mom and Dad just assumed it was because of John. I wish you had told me then.”
“I know, I’m sorry. Didn’t feel like talking to anyone about anything.” Jesse tried to change the subject. “It’s good to see you.”
She gave him a perfunctory smile that soon faded.
“You know that wasn’t your fault, Jesse.”
She reached for his faintly-scarred hand. Drawing it away with a shrug, and his quick, sheepish laugh, he said, “I know… No, I know.”
His early prediction had come true – she was pretty, with short, bobbed hair, a ring on her finger and a new name – “Mrs. Abrams,” she said with a lilting laugh.
“Elise, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about Brother Logan then. I didn’t know if… I didn’t know how… and then John… it seemed, well, I don’t know…”
She did not mention that she knew, that she had seen them together. It didn’t matter; it was so long ago. “Have you seen him since then? Brother Logan?”
Jesse sipped at the glass of whiskey in his hand. “Once. A few years ago. Right after it all happened, I had tried to find him, but couldn’t. It wasn’t as easy then. And when I could have… it didn’t seem worth the bother.” He looked away.
“Well, how did it finally happen?” she asked.
“It was in a café, when I was out West. I was sitting there reading a newspaper and he walked in, and I knew it was him. He was still a priest, well, I mean, he had become a priest and was wearing the collar and the outfit.” Jesse took a quick sip of his drink. “He was balding, and heavier, and not as handsome as I remembered him, but still vaguely attractive to me – in the same way as when I first met him I guess. We looked at each other briefly, but he didn’t recognize me. He ordered a coffee to take out, then he was gone. That was the last I saw of him.”
“Did you ever think of finding him and pressing charges, or at least of calling him out on it? For what he did to you?” she wondered critically.
“Who’s to say it was wrong?” he asked seriously. “I was thirteen years old. I remember. I remember I wanted him. I wanted his attention. I wanted his affection. I wanted him to love me. I remember that he never forced me, never manipulated me. And I remember knowing the difference. Was it abuse if I wanted it? If I welcomed it? Not to sound full of myself, but I was quite an intelligent child, and at thirteen I was smarter than a lot of adults. I didn’t know it then, but now I see. And I’d always felt emotionally more mature than my friends, so I knew I could handle it. Who knows, maybe I’m still fooling myself. Maybe I’m a sad, sorry victim who can’t see the damage that’s been done to himself. But does anyone really believe that? You know me. I’ve always been too self-aware to be duped so grandly. And certainly not by a Priest.”
He had a playful sparkle in his eyes. He was enjoying this scandalous bit of his past. It was part of the myth. It was tough to tell whether he was really hurt by it, or whether it had happened at all. Elise had stopped trying to figure him out.
“I mean, I invited his advances. When he looked around furtively before we did anything, I disrobed proudly, daring the world to look upon what he was about to do to me. I wanted everyone to see what we shared, to see how beautiful it was, how pure and innocent and sacred it seemed. To this day I bear no shame for what we did. That doesn’t mean anyone else should be put in my position at such an age, but for me, well, it didn’t turn out badly. Not because of him.”
“So you think it would be okay for you to do that with a thirteen-year-old boy?”
“Even if he asked you? Even if you were invited? And he said he was all-knowing and aware of what he wanted?”
“No. Because the only person that I trust to handle that at such an age is… was… myself. I’m sure there are others that could, but I’m not going to be the one to test them. Besides, I like them older.”
Elise had listened to the story. She sipped her wine. He had finally told her what she had waited to hear. The boy she had loved had become a man, and he was still, somehow, in her life. She had not tried to escape the past like he had, and they had found their way back to each other.
“It’s good to see you too,” she said.
Jesse smiled and swallowed the rest of his whiskey. His lips engulfed an ice cube and he took it into his mouth, crushing the cold between his teeth. He had always been hungry for love.