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       The Saint, p.23

         Part #5 of The Original Sinners series by Tiffany Reisz
 

  “And a pleasure to meet you at last,” he said. “I look forward to you making the acquaintance of my ceiling.”

  He turned on his booted heel and, whistling the French national anthem, again headed to the door.

  “I want to be his best friend.” She grinned broadly at Kingsley’s retreating back.

  “Don’t let your guard down yet. He’s not finished,” Søren said.

  Søren was right. At the door Kingsley turned on his boot heel and strode back to her. He looked down into her eyes. A moment before he’d worn the air of a dashing rogue like something out of a romance novel. No more. Now he seemed dangerously sober to her.

  “A word of warning.” Kingsley looked at her and only her. “Your shepherd is a wolf. You will learn that eventually and you will learn it the way I learned it.”

  “How?”

  “The hard way.”

  “Kingsley, that’s enough.” Søren wasn’t joking anymore. Neither was Kingsley.

  “Tell her what you are, mon ami,” Kingsley said to Søren, his eyes never leaving her face.

  “You’ve either had too much to drink tonight, or not enough.”

  Kingsley smiled broadly, but Eleanor saw no amusement in his eyes.

  “Never enough.” He bowed his head at her, turned on his heel again and left the room, this time without whistling. As he walked away she heard the sound of his military-style boots echoing off the floor.

  Søren exhaled as if he’d been holding his breath for the entire exchange.

  “Eleanor, allow me to finish apologizing—”

  “What did he mean my shepherd is a wolf?” She turned her eyes to Søren. He didn’t blink, blush, laugh or demure. But he didn’t answer the question, either.

  “The wolf eats the sheep,” she said. “Should we, the sheep of Sacred Heart, be scared of you?”

  “No.”

  “No?”

  “I only eat other wolves.”

  “That’s a comfort, I guess.”

  “It shouldn’t be,” he said.

  “Why not?”

  Søren gave her a look so dangerously hungry she’d almost describe it as wolfish.

  “Because, my Little One, you aren’t a sheep.”

  After that, Søren bid her the most perfunctory of goodbyes. She didn’t blame him for leaving so abruptly. If that Kingsley person were in her house, she wouldn’t want to leave him unsupervised, either. No telling what, or whom, he would get into. So that was the brother of Søren’s dead wife? She had to sit down again while the reality of Søren’s revelations sunk in. It didn’t matter really, did it? Didn’t matter that he’d been married once twelve years ago? No, it didn’t. The dead wife was a dead issue. Buried. Gone. Eleanor shoved her out of her mind and resolved never to think of her again.

  But Kingsley—now, he interested her. Søren had admitted to jealousy over her and that Lachlan guy getting to third base. But Kingsley had stood six inches in front of her and joked about beating her, raping her, fucking her, losing his watch inside her, which she didn’t even understand…. Oh, fuck. Yes, she did.

  Ow.

  Kingsley had eye-fucked her, word-fucked her, teased and taunted her, and all the while Søren had stood by doing nothing except trying not to laugh.

  And what had Kingsley meant when he called Søren a wolf? What had Søren meant when he admitted to being one? Too many questions. Not enough answers.

  Eleanor finished cleaning up. It didn’t take long, as Diane and James had a small wedding with fewer than a hundred guests. They couldn’t afford much more than that, but neither of them seemed to mind. They’d both smiled so much today Eleanor’s cheeks had sympathy pains. It had caused some controversy when Søren had hired twenty-five-year-old Diane. She was black, for starters, and Wakefield was a lily-white town. Black and very pretty, which also raised eyebrows. Even more shocking, she’d been divorced. A divorced woman working for a Catholic priest. Søren had helped her get her first marriage annulled so she and James could marry in the church.

  If only all priests were as rational and open-minded as Søren. Never once in his year and a half at Sacred Heart had she heard him give a homily condemning homosexuality, premarital sex or abortion. Instead he focused his attention on social justice issues—feeding the hungry, helping the needy, visiting the sick and the dying and those in prison. He was a good priest, the best priest. No matter what his secrets, no matter that he desired her as much as she desired him, he was still the best priest on earth.

  A little after 3:00 a.m. Eleanor finally made it home. Mom had no doubt been in bed asleep for hours. Alone in her room, Eleanor stripped out of her shoes and jeans. In her T-shirt and panties she sat on her bed, the radio tuned to the classical station. She wanted to sleep, needed to sleep, but her mind wouldn’t let her. She wanted to talk to someone, but there was no one to talk to. No one but God. Might as well give it a go.

  When Søren had been taking her through the Spiritual Exercises, he’d taught her a specifically Jesuit way of praying. Søren said most people couldn’t concentrate during silent prayer. The mind wandered here and there. Speaking prayers out loud helped with the focus. But Jesuits didn’t stop there. One technique, Søren told her, involved standing before an image of God or Christ and speaking the prayer aloud to it. Some Jesuits even sat empty chairs in front of them and spoke to the chair as if God sat there.

  “And this really helps them get through to God?” Eleanor had asked with more than the usual level of skepticism.

  “No. It helps God get through to us. To quote my grandfather’s namesake, Søren Kierkegaard, ‘Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.’ All these tricks and techniques are for our benefit, not God’s. God’s a parent. Call Him, send Him a letter, go to His house, it doesn’t matter how you reach out to Him, He wants to hear from His children.”

  Tonight Eleanor wanted to hear from God. She didn’t expect an answer, but those few minutes she’d spent in Søren’s arms had been like a gift. The embrace, the words of comfort, they’d come from nowhere. She hadn’t asked for them or expected them. When given a gift, she’d been taught to say thank you. She didn’t know who to thank for the gift of comfort she’d received today so she thought she’d give thanking God a try. She put a chair in the middle of her room and sat on the edge of her bed staring at it.

  “I feel like an idiot,” she said to the empty room.

  The empty room didn’t answer.

  “Something’s not right here. Søren’s getting drunk tonight with the second-hottest guy on the planet, and I’m home alone praying. I think we accidentally switched our to-do lists.”

  Still silence.

  “Tough crowd,” she said and pulled a pillow over her lap, squeezing it for comfort.

  She considered giving up and crashing, but her heart hadn’t stopped racing since the moment she’d stepped foot onto that rose-petal–strewn carpet today. And today, after a year of ignoring each other to the point of pain, she and Søren had finally had a real conversation. She’d been living with a question mark for a year now wondering what, if anything, would happen with Søren. And tonight with a hug and a few words he’d proved himself worthy of her devotion again. She couldn’t loiter in limbo anymore. She had to make a decision.

  “Look,” she said, once more addressing the nobody in the chair, “I know he’s a good priest. Fuck that, he’s an amazing priest. Have you seen how many people show up at church now? It’s like twice as many as when Father Greg was here. And you and I both know it’s not just because he’s pretty. Although he is pretty. God damn, is he pretty. I mean … You damn.”

  She glanced up at the ceiling. “Sorry,” she mouthed.

  “Anyway, thank You for tonight.”

  She took a deep breath.

  “So he says You want him to be a priest. He says he didn’t really feel like himself until he became a priest. I can’t ask him to give that up. Not for me or anyone else. I can’t. I won’t.” She felt immediately b
etter once she’d made that part of her decision. She loved him and he was a priest. She wouldn’t ask him to change for her. What if it was the priest in him who cared for her? If he left the priesthood for her, maybe he wouldn’t care about her anymore?

  “About the priesthood thing … be straight with me here. Celibacy? You and I both know it’s made-up bullshit, right? We Catholics want to be special, want to be different. God forbid we’re too much like Protestants with their married pastors. The entire church harps constantly on how important the Catholic family is, Catholic marriage, Catholic babies and then we don’t let our own priests have Catholic marriages, Catholic families? We’re making it up. There’s nothing in the Bible about this, right? I’ve read it. You’ve seen me.” She held up the red leather Bible. For the past year she’d immersed herself in the Bible, reading from it every night. She zoned out through a lot of the begetting, but she’d more or less conquered a big chunk of the Old Testament and had worked her way through all the Gospels.

  “Jesus didn’t say anything about how people shouldn’t get married or why it’s better to be celibate. Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff in there about not fornicating, but there’s also a lot of stuff in there about not eating shellfish or having poly-blend fibers. Seriously? What’s Your problem with spandex?”

  She raised her hands in surrender.

  “I know, I know. It’s not You. This was our baggage and we put Your name on it and we blamed You. Our bad. Søren said to treat the Bible not as a work of history or a science textbook and to treat it instead like Communion. Communion is a spiritual meal, not a physical meal. So the Bible’s the same thing—it feeds our soul. It’s not a how-to manual.”

  Eleanor realized she’d gotten off topic. She’d never talked to a chair before and rather enjoyed having a captive audience. She should do this more often. Maybe she’d stick a real person in the chair next time. She could gag him and get the same sort of undivided attention.

  “So to my point, God. I have one. I love Søren. I love him, and I’m in love with him. I love everything about him, even the stuff I don’t know about him. He’s proved to me that he’s a good person no matter what it is that he’s scared to tell me. I don’t care if he’s a wolf. He says I’m not a sheep, which is either a compliment or a threat. Both, probably.”

  As soon as she said “both” she knew that was the right answer.

  “In Hebrews … I think. I think it’s Hebrews, it says that ‘faith is the assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.’ Something like that. So I’m saying now that I have faith in Søren. And he has faith in You. It’s the best I can give You right now so I hope it’s enough. I know he has secrets, stuff he’s not ready or willing to tell me. It’s okay. I still believe in him. He believed in me, so the least I can do is return the favor, right?”

  Eleanor took another deep breath as she came to the conclusion of her rambling, barely coherent prayer.

  “So here’s the deal. I promise that if You let me have him, even in a small way, if You let us be together like we want to be …” She decided to not go into excruciating detail about exactly how she wanted to be with him. Surely God, if He existed, was well aware of the sexual fantasies she entertained on a nightly basis about Søren. “If You do that, let us be together, then I promise You I will never let him leave the priesthood for me. I don’t need to get married. I don’t need to have kids. I don’t even need him. But please, God, let us be together.”

  The words hurt coming out. And because they hurt she knew she meant them.

  In her mind she wore a wedding dress—white and made of silk—and held two pairs of baby shoes in the palm of her hand. She kissed the toes of the tiny shoes and sat them gently inside a large wooden trunk. Then she took off the wedding dress and carefully folded it, laying it over the baby shoes. She closed the trunk and locked it with a key. With all her might she tossed the key into the sky, flinging it a thousand miles away so it landed into the center of the ocean and sunk into the black waters of night. And on the off chance someone found that key and brought it back to her, she doused the trunk with gasoline, struck a match, set it on fire and watched it burn.

  The tears came in silent waves as inside the privacy of her own mind, she burned her dreams to ashes. What would rise from those ashes she didn’t know—she only knew something would be born from them, something she’d never seen before.

  A new dream. A better dream.

  A wind rustled the ashes at her feet. She opened her eyes and stared again at the empty chair.

  “Deal?” she asked God. “Let’s shake on it.”

  She held out her hand as a whistle blasted and a train barreled past her house, shaking the walls, the floors, the ceilings, everything to the very foundation.

  Eleanor glanced at the clock—3:26 a.m. She stared at the clock in confusion. For seventeen years that train had rattled by the house at the same time every time—12:59, 6:16, 3:38, and 7:02. Never in all the years she’d lived in this house had the train rattled by this late at night.

  Never once. Never ever.

  Turning back to the chair she lowered her hand.

  “Okay, then,” she said. “It’s a deal.”

  19

  Eleanor

  FOR THE THIRD TIME IN TWO HOURS, ELEANOR REFILLED her bucket with cold water and poured in a cup of wood soap. She lugged the heavy bucket back to the sanctuary and sat it on the floor next to the center section of pews. For the past three weeks, she’d been washing the woodwork in the church in an attempt to pay Sacred Heart back for her legal fees. Maybe her dad was right. Turning tricks would be much a much easier way to make money.

  As she washed the wood on her hands and knees, she let herself fantasize about her future. Søren had ordered her to apply to five colleges and she had. Now she couldn’t stop dreaming of a life at NYU. She’d been in love with the Village and the NYU buildings since she’d first seen them as a little girl walking through the city with her grandparents. Still she knew it was a waste of a dream. She had good grades but not good enough to get a scholarship. Student loans would only cover a fraction of what she’d need to pay for NYU. Maybe she could find a hot dean or something and trade her body for tuition money.

  Eleanor couldn’t believe how hot it was in the sanctuary. Sweat beaded on her forehead and spilled onto the floor. She’d already soaked through her shirt.

  For another hour she washed the pews until she could hardly see straight. Her mascara burned her eyes. What the hell was going on?

  Eleanor dragged herself off the floor and stretched her back. She shouldn’t be this hot. She’d changed into a sleeveless T-shirt, her cutoff denim shorts, and other than a pair of kneepads, she didn’t have anything else on except for sneakers. She walked over to the wall and squatted down by the vent. Boiling hot air poured from it into the sanctuary.

  That wasn’t good. Was the heat broken? She stepped out into the foyer and found the heating controls. Someone had jacked up the temperature to ninety degrees. Ninety. Fucking. Degrees.

  Her priest was a dead man.

  She stalked down the hall to Søren’s office. Luckily they were alone in the church this fine Thursday evening so she could kill him without anyone trying to stop her.

  She found him in his office sipping from a dainty teacup.

  “Are you some kind of sadist?” she demanded.

  He made a notation onto a piece of paper.

  “Yes.”

  “You turned the heat up in the sanctuary?”

  “I didn’t want you getting chilly.”

  “You turned it up to ninety.”

  Søren looked up from his notes.

  “Did I? My apologies.”

  “That was the least sincere apology in the history of the universe.”

  “Possibly.”

  “I’m working my ass off in the sanctuary scrubbing two hundreds years of farts off the pews and you’re sitting in your seventy-degree office drinking tea and writing homilies. It
s hot as Satan’s balls in there, and I’m sweating like a whore in church. Do you have anything to say to that?”

  Eleanor crossed her arms over her chest and stared daggers into the office.

  Søren looked her up and down before turning his attention back to his Bible.

  “I like the kneepads.”

  “I hate you.”

  “Forty-two,” he said, as he pulled a file folder from his desk drawer.

  “Forty-two what?”

  “I’ve been keeping track of how many times you’ve declared your hatred of me. That was forty-two.” He opened the file folder and scanned something inside. “No, forty-three.”

 
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