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       The Saint, p.6

         Part #5 of The Original Sinners series by Tiffany Reisz
 

  “Those burns on your wrist will take months to heal completely. There are other ways of inflicting pain on yourself that don’t leave scars. You should learn them.”

  Elle looked down at her wrist. Her skin still reverberated with the pain of the vicious sting, but the redness had already started to fade.

  “Did you … You just …”

  “Your body is a temple, Eleanor. You should treat it like the priceless and holy vessel it is. I learned one thing and one thing only from watching my father’s wife. If you’re going to redecorate, either learn how to do it properly, or hire a professional.”

  He took his helmet off the handlebars and started the motorcycle. Its impressive engine roared to life and Eleanor felt the vibrations from the ground up to her stomach.

  “You’re not a normal priest, are you?”

  He gave her a smile that hit her like a slap to the face and a kiss on the mouth all at once.

  “My God, I hope not.”

  With those final words, he put on his helmet and kicked out the stand with his heel. Eleanor took three giant steps back. He rode out of the parking lot and left her standing there alone.

  She watched him until he disappeared from view. And then she listened until the sound of his engine retreated into silence.

  “I’m yours, Søren,” she said to no one but God, and didn’t know what she meant by it. She only knew it was true.

  She was his whatever the consequences. She was his.

  Amen. Amen.

  So be it.

  6

  Eleanor

  ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT, THE MIRACLE ELEANOR prayed for happened. Her mother had to go into work early. She’d be gone from five until midnight. Eleanor could leave the house for a couple of hours without anyone noticing.

  She’d seen on the church bulletin that someone was holding a Lenten prayer service at six that night. Perfect excuse. For twenty minutes, she worked on her hair until it resembled human hair and not her usual lion’s mane. She put on clean clothes—tight jeans and a V-neck sweater. In all her life she’d never walked so fast to church.

  When she arrived at Sacred Heart, she didn’t find anyone praying. She should probably ask someone where the service was. Maybe Søren would know?

  Eleanor tiptoed up to the door and found it ajar. Inside the office she spied a lamp on the desk and shadows moving.

  “Knock knock,” she said without actually knocking. The door opened all the way, and Eleanor took a step back.

  Søren stood in the doorway clad in his clerics and collar. He didn’t seem displeased to see her.

  “Hello, Eleanor. Nice to see you again.” He crossed his arms and leaned against the door frame.

  She peeked around his shoulder and peered inside. Books sat stacked on the desk and chairs.

  “You’re moving in?”

  “Father Gregory’s sister has asked for his things.”

  Eleanor took a step back. Standing so close to him meant she had to crane her neck to look up at him.

  “He’s really not coming back?”

  Søren slowly shook his head.

  “You have to understand that a stroke is a serious condition. Once he’s out of the hospital he’ll be staying with his sister and her husband.”

  “Are they nice people?”

  He seemed momentarily taken aback by her question.

  “His sister and her husband? I haven’t met them, but she and I spoke on the phone. She seemed very kind and concerned.”

  “That’s good.”

  Eleanor bit her bottom lip while trying to think of something else to say.

  “What are you doing?” he asked.

  “Oh, sorry. I was going to go to this prayer thing but I can’t find it. I saw—”

  “I mean with your lip.”

  “I don’t know. I bite it sometimes. Habit.”

  “Stop it. The only girls I’ve ever seen doing that are either not very intelligent or are trying to look not very intelligent. I refuse to believe you’re either.”

  “Really? You don’t even know me.”

  He smiled and took a step back into the office.

  “I know you.”

  Eleanor started to enter the office.

  “What do you mean you know me?” she asked, but when she crossed the threshold, he held up a hand.

  “Out.”

  “Out?”

  “Out of my office.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I said so.”

  Eleanor took a step back into the hallway.

  “I’m not allowed in your office?”

  “No one under the age of sixteen is allowed in my office without a parent present. No one over sixteen is allowed alone in my office unless the door is open. These are my rules.”

  “That’s kind of strict.”

  “I’m strict.”

  He pulled a book off the shelf and added it to a pile on the desk.

  “Why are you so strict?”

  He paused while removing another book from the shelf and gave her a searching look.

  “Can I talk to you like an adult?” he asked, shifting books on the shelf.

  “I’d be pissed if you talked to me like a child.”

  He glanced at her as he put an empty file box on the desk and one by one started piling books inside.

  “Last year an exposé was released regarding child sex abuse by Catholic priests and the churchwide cover-up by the bishops, the archbishops and even the Curia.”

  “Mom says those people, the victims, they’re after the church’s money.”

  “Your mother is wrong.”

  “So the sex abuse is as bad as they say?”

  “Eleanor, do you know why I’m here?” Søren asked.

  “I know Father Greg is retiring, and there’s a priest shortage in the diocese so they had to call the Jesuits for a loaner. You’re the loaner.”

  “It isn’t as simple as that. Recently, I returned to my community after my ordination. Things were tense. A Jesuit in our province had recently been convicted on sex abuse charges stemming from his assignment at an inner-city school.”

  A chill passed through her body.

  “He was messing with kids?”

  “Rumors circulated that one of the school officials, another Jesuit, was attempting to hide documents from the plaintiff’s attorney, who was suing the school and others in civil court.”

  “What happened?”

  “I called the attorney and told them everything I knew, everything I’d heard and everything to ask for during the discovery process.”

  “You ratted out another Jesuit to lawyers? Jesus Christ, how big are your balls?” Her father had “friends” who got themselves killed talking to cops or lawyers.

  Søren laughed softly.

  “I believe those were the exact words my superior said to me. But he didn’t smile when he said it like you did. I’m not telling you this story to impress you or shock you. I’m telling you this so you know why I’m here. I was to spend two weeks in New York visiting friends and family before being sent to India. Instead I’m here at this tiny parish in a tiny town in Connecticut.”

  “Oh, shit. You got in trouble.”

  “Me being here is the Catholic equivalent of ‘go stand in the corner and think about what you’ve done.’”

  “So you’re not letting kids in your office because—”

  “Of St. Paul and First Thessalonians 5:22. ‘Abstain from every appearance of evil.’”

  “I guess having kids in the office could look bad.”

  Søren rearranged some books in the box to make room for two more.

  “It could. I’m afraid Father Gregory was slightly lax in those areas. Of course, from everything I’ve heard of him, he was a good and gentle man.”

  “He was.”

  “I’m an unknown integer here, however. Being alone with a seventy-year-old priest and a twenty-nine-year-old priest give two entirely different appearances.”

 
“Doesn’t help that you’re like the hottest priest on the planet.”

  Søren looked up sharply at her. Eleanor went pale.

  “I said that out loud.”

  “Should I pretend I didn’t hear it?”

  Eleanor thought about his offer as the blush stared to fade from her cheeks.

  “I said it. I’ll go say some Hail Marys.”

  “Finding another person attractive isn’t a sin.”

  “It isn’t?”

  “Desire is not a sin,” Søren said, sitting on his desk and facing her. “Fantasy is not a sin. Sins are acts of commission or omission. Either you do some act you’re not supposed to do. For example, shooting someone. Or you fail to do an act you should do. For example, not giving alms to the poor. Finding someone attractive is no more a sin than standing on a balcony and enjoying a lovely view of the ocean.”

  “What’s lust, then?”

  “You ask excellent questions. These are the questions of a young woman who is not of the lip-biting variety.”

  “I’m going to bite my lip out of spite from now on.”

  “That is exactly what I knew you would do. Would you like me to answer your question?”

  “About lust? Yeah.”

  “Let’s go into the sanctuary. You can sit down there.”

  “I don’t mind standing.”

  “You’re wearing combat boots.”

  “They’re comfy.”

  “Where does a young lady in Wakefield, Connecticut, purchase combat boots?”

  “Goodwill,” she said.

  “You’re wearing Goodwill combat boots?”

  “Yes.”

  “Congratulations, Eleanor. Your footwear has achieved irony.”

  Before she could ask him what he meant by that, he stepped past her. She spun around on the heel of her Goodwill combat boots and followed Søren to the sanctuary. He opened the doors, putting the stoppers down to keep them open.

  “You’re really into this ‘avoiding any appearance of evil’ thing, aren’t you?”

  “I am. I wouldn’t want either of us accused of anything we hadn’t done.”

  “What if it’s something we have done?” she asked, kneeling backward on one of the pews to face Søren, who was seated in the row behind her.

  “That’s an entirely different situation. But we’re talking lust.”

  “I’m lusting for your answer.”

  “You aren’t, actually.” He gave her a steady gaze with his unyielding eyes. “You’re simply desiring my answer. Lust is overwhelming or uncontrollable desire that leads to sin. A man might desire another man’s wife. It happens. The question he has to ask himself is, given the chance, will he act on his desires? Will he try to seduce her the first time they’re alone? Will he attack her? If she came on to him, would he give in? Or would he honor her marital state, politely tell her no and suggest she and her husband go to counseling?”

  “So it’s a matter of how much you want something that’s the difference between love and lust?”

  “Partly. But it’s not only a question of degree of desire, but what you do with it. If I were to find a young woman stunningly attractive, intriguing and intelligent, then I will not have committed a sin. I could take that to my confessor, and he’d laugh and tell me not to come back and see him until I had something worth confessing. Now, if I acted on my attraction to this young woman, then we might have a problem.”

  “Or a really good evening.” She grinned at him. Søren cocked an eyebrow at her. “I mean, a really sinful evening.”

  “Better.”

  “So it’s okay to desire someone as long as you don’t act on it?”

  “There are many situations when acting on one’s desires is not a sin.”

  “Married couples, right? They can have sex all they want.”

  “Married couples can certainly engage in sexual acts with each other.”

  “And …” Eleanor waved her hand, hoping for more to the answer. “Nobody else? The rest of us are screwed? I mean, not screwed?”

  “I believe that is a question for your own conscience. I’m not dogmatic when it comes to sexual behavior in the modern world. The church can proscribe anything and everything it wants to, but the church is still made up entirely of human beings. Heaping rule upon rule on our congregations isn’t going to make anyone holier. It’ll serve only to add to the guilt that is endemic in our churches.”

  Eleanor pointed at the sanctuary doors.

  “You said five minutes ago you were imposing new rules on the church.”

  “The rules are not for the church. They are for me. If I were to allow you and I to be alone together in my office, I would be breaking the rule, not you.”

  “So what are all these rules?”

  “Nothing burdensome, I promise. Actually, you might be able to help me with one of them. I have a feeling it’s not going to go over well.”

  “Oh, no. What are you doing?” Eleanor knew her church well enough to know any sort of big change would be met with fear, anger and confusion. She couldn’t wait to see everyone freak out.

  “The rectory. I’m closing it off to parishioners.”

  “Whoa. Wait. You’re closing the rectory?”

  “No church members will be allowed inside it.”

  Eleanor’s eyes nearly fell out of her skull.

  “I take it from you look of wild-eyed horror that such a declaration will ruffle a few feathers?” Søren asked, a slight smile on his lips. He didn’t seem the least bothered by the prospect.

  “If you turned the church into a McDonald’s, that would ruffle some feathers. This is going to ruffle the whole fucking turkey. Pardon my French.”

  “Pardoned.”

  “Why close the rectory? The church uses it all the time.”

  “This church has a sanctuary, a chapel and a large annex. There’s no need to use the rectory for church services. I, however,
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