After Carter left the apartment, Seamus went to his room and closed the door to have a few minutes alone, hoping like hell to process what had just happened. The day Mack had already suffered through had been a catastrophe. The fact Monsignor O’Keefe hadn’t returned his call only compounded his stress. He wasn’t sure what was going on, and it was driving him batty how everything seemed to be so out of his control.
He walked over to his nightstand and picked up the rosary beads his father had given him when he’d graduated the seminary. They had been his grandfather’s beads from his first communion so many years ago back in Scotland. They were made of hand-carved Scot’s pine and had been made by Seamus’ great grandfather for his first-born son.
The beads had been given to his dad, Sean McCord, when Mack’s grandfather died, and Sean had taken Mack aside when he’d graduated from the seminary and had given them to him. They were beautifully primitive—giving credence to the story that they’d been hand carved—but to Seamus, they were priceless.
The rosary had been handed down in the McCord family and was currently in Mack’s possession, which brought a sense of obligation, as well, because the beads were smooth and slightly polished from being well used by those who came before him. There was a personal connection to those little balls of pine, and Mack felt even more guilty for having them and not using them nearly enough.
He remembered the rosary bracelet Father Akron had given him before Mack had moved to Beckett Creek, and he wondered why he didn’t wear it. He wondered why he’d stopped being so disciplined as to say his prayers in the morning and at night as Mack had done since he’d joined the seminary.
Something was definitely off, and Mack wasn’t sure how to get it back on track, so he closed his eyes and did as he’d always done… he prayed. He prayed for guidance, and he prayed for wisdom. He begged for God’s grace and forgiveness for succumbing to temptation when he’d kissed Carter.
“I don’t know what lesson I’m meant to learn. I’m trying to understand, but Father, I’m lost. I pray for Your guidance and mercy,” he whispered into the darkness.
Mack finished his prayers and walked into the living room of the small apartment, looking out the large window to see Carter in the pool with little Paul. Mack wondered what the Riggs family must think of him with what they’d just witnessed. He owed them an apology and explanation, but for the life of him, he didn’t know how to account for his actions.
Mack went back to his room and laid on his bed, thinking about everything that had taken place since the discussion he’d had with Father Wolfe in Chantilly, Virginia. St. Thomas Aquinas had been his home for two years, and in all that time, he’d never been tempted by anyone nor had his faith really been challenged the way he was being tested on day three of his new life in Beckett Creek. If day three had been so baffling, he was afraid to imagine what he’d be doing by day thirty.
Mack slowly walked down the stairs from the garage apartment to the back sidewalk. He was carrying the bottle of wine he’d stopped to pick up after Mass that morning as he approached the pool gate. “Knock, knock,” he called out by way of a warning.
“Come on in, Father,” Opie welcomed. Mack opened the gate, seeing Carter in the pool on a raft. Two men were sitting under the umbrellaed table next to Opie, and when Mack glanced through the sliding doors, there were two women working away in the kitchen.
“I promised Tasha I’d bring wine for Sangria. Should I…?” Mack questioned as he shifted his head toward the patio doors.
“Here, let me take it inside. Need to use the john anyway,” the older man stated. He took the bottle and extended his hand. “Jay Davis. Tasha’s dad, Father. Welcome.”
Before any response could be offered, Jay Davis disappeared into the house. Mack walked over to the patio table and pulled out a chair, taking a seat as he glanced at the younger man sitting there. Opie Riggs spoke up. “Mack, this is my brother-in-law, Sebastian. He’s our science prodigy in the family. Bas, this is Father Seamus McCord,” Opie introduced.
The younger man extended his hand and smiled. “Nice to meet you, Father. Tash has told me about you. I assume you’re still adjusting to the culture shock of being down here in the boondocks,” the younger man joked.
Seamus chuckled. “I grew up in St. Louis, so I’m used to the way we do things in Missouri, but this is quite a bit different from my last assignment. I was in Chantilly, Virginia.”
Sebastian nodded and smiled. “This is ironic. I’m considering going to UVA which isn’t far from where you were last assigned, right?” the guy asked. He looked a lot like Tasha Riggs, but he was at least seven years younger if Mack was judging correctly.
Sebastian Davis seemed extraordinarily level-headed and mature. Mack glanced down to see braces on the young man’s legs, and then he remembered what Opie had told him about the attack at the gym when Carter saved Sebastian but ended up going to prison for harming the man who attacked Sebastian in the first place. “So, you study science? Which discipline?” Mack inquired.
“Actually, I’m studying regenerative genetics and stem cell research, or I will be once I choose a grad school. I know stem cells aren’t a popular subject in your circles, but it’s the latest frontier with regard to curing neurological defects or in my case, spinal cord injuries. If we block scientists from using every tool in their toolbox to try to find ways to provide better healthcare options or to prevent many birth defects, we’re not using the gifts the universe gives us to the best of our abilities,” Sebastian stated vehemently.
It was yet another subject upon which Mack’s beliefs didn’t mirror Catholic canons. Of course, he believed life was sacred, but he also agreed with prevailing medical opinions that scientific research was the answer to furthering the quality of life for scores of people.
Mack wasn’t pro-abortion, but he was pro-choice. He was a firm believer that a woman’s body was her own private business, and nobody else had a right to force any woman into a decision regarding what she does with it.
Of course, Mack’s opinion was in direct conflict with the teachings of his faith. It seemed to him that something positive should come of a woman choosing to end a pregnancy for reasons all her own—like allowing the stem cells to be donated to scientific research–but he couldn’t voice his views out loud in front of people as devout as the Riggs. Hell, at the rate he was going, he would be surprised if Satan didn’t jump out of the bushes and point him out as the hypocrite he was turning out to be.
It occurred to Mack that he hadn’t really been quizzed on his personal beliefs for as long as he could remember. At St. Thom’s, it was assumed everyone was pro-canon law, and conflicting views were never discussed. They talked about upcoming soccer games or if they should have a fall pageant instead of a Thanksgiving play. It was all pretty vanilla—never a conflict in sight. What he was witnessing in his three days in Beckett Creek had caused him to question his faith and his beliefs as much as when he’d been in the seminary.
“Now, Bas, don’t question the nice priest on too many controversial things. It’s his day off, or at least his afternoon off. I do, however, have a question myself. How do you feel about queers, Father?” Seamus heard from the pool where Carter was looking at him from the raft with his sunglasses resting on top of his head.
Mack turned his chair to look at Carter and felt the blood rush south which wasn’t welcome at all in light of the situation. He could tell Carter was challenging him about how he answered the question based on the sharp bite in his voice, so he chose his words carefully. “I believe gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people are all God’s children, just like the rest of humanity. I’m not one who twists the Bible to condemn others. We were all created in our Father’s image, Carter,” he responded.
Carter slipped off the raft and swam over to the side, pulling down his sunglasses as he looked at Mack. “You think Father Crabby would like it if I told him I enjoy kissing boys and I kissed a very handsome one on Friday night?”
Mack laughed at Carter’s words. They were laced with venom, but Mack actually felt a bit of relief to hear Carter refer to the encounter as something he’d enjoyed, even if it was wrong of Mack to have eagerly returned the first kiss and initiate the second one. “Well, if by Father Crabby you mean Father Kozlow, I think he’d probably give you a sneer because, based on what I’ve witnessed, he doesn’t think anyone should be happy. I shouldn’t say that, but I’m not supposed to lie. Did you really enjoy kissing the guy on Friday?” Mack asked, immediately wishing he could roll the words back up and shove them into his mouth.
He didn’t expect Carter to laugh so hard, but he did. “Yes, he was an excellent kisser to boot. If I thought I’d ever seen him again, I’d take every opportunity to kiss him as much as possible. Anyway, guys, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go change. I’d guess, Opie, you should check with Tash to see when she wants to start the grill,” Carter suggested as he hauled his superb frame from the water.
Mack studied his muscular body and saw a few scars that brought questions to mind, questions he wanted to be answered. There was one on his neck that was still red and puckered, as was another one Mack had seen earlier, but he’d been too freaked out to see it was Carter than to inquire what had happened.
If he was ever given another opportunity, Mack would definitely ask, not only about the throat injury, the black eye, or the busted lip, but also about the few scars he’d noticed on the man’s exquisite body.
After Carter and Opie were gone, Mack turned to Bas. “Opie explained a little to me about your injuries. He said you’re doing better. Is that so?”
The younger man pushed up his glasses and closed his tablet, placing it on the table. “As a matter of fact, I am. My guardian angel made sure I knew the best exercises to help me build strength in my upper body so I could actually carry my legs with these special braces. He decided it was vital for me to see eye to eye with people who would try to judge me for the chair. He didn’t want me to feel inferior in any way.
“Carter became my guardian angel when he came into that locker room that morning and saw one of his friends, a friend he worked with and sparred with on a regular basis, trying to beat the hell out of a seventeen-year-old kid who liked to swim.
The man who attacked me did it for no reason I could fathom at the time. The truth came out much later. His reason for attacking me was that I was listening to music on my phone and the ‘roid-head psycho didn’t like the song I was humming.
“Carter beat the man such that he put the guy into the hospital. When he knew the other guy wasn’t getting up, he kneeled next to me and held me perfectly still until the ambulance arrived. I could have done a lot more damage to my spinal cord had I tried to move around or been moved in a careless manner, but Carter wouldn’t let me move millimeter, and he constantly yelled at the paramedics to stabilize me before he moved me, too. I owe Carter Riggs my life,” the young guy told Mack before he broke down in tears.
The patio door opened, and an older woman walked out, smiling and humming until she suddenly stopped. “Bas, honey, what’s going on?” she asked as she approached the young man.
Sebastian sniffled and wiped his eyes before replacing his glasses. “I was telling Father Mack how I know Carter. Remember what Dr. Graves said, Mother. The more I talk about it, the easier it will be to move forward from it. Is that the advice a priest would give?” he asked, looking at Mack.
Mack took a breath and smiled at Sebastian. “I think that’s solid advice, and I would also say using that example to pay it forward to someone you witness in need might also be a good way to move forward, too. People are put in our lives when we need them most. We might not know why, but that’s how God works. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get my sunglasses from the apartment. Mrs. Davis, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” Mack told the redhead as she stared at him with surprise.
Without another word, the priest smiled and walked around the pool deck, out the gate, and up the stairs. When he opened the door to enter the apartment, the radio was blasting country music, and he laughed. The bathroom door was open, so Mack went to stand in the door, leaning against the jam. “Did you seriously think I’d be a… what did you call it? A self-hating queer?”
Carter was trimming his facial hair into a little dusting around his jawline which was quite attractive. “I didn’t realize it was okay for a priest to be gay…like gays…kiss gays.”
Mack stepped into the bathroom and stood behind Carter, resting his chin on the man’s strong shoulder. “Where’d you get that?” he asked as he pointed to a scar on Carter’s ribcage on the right side.
“Shanked in the shower the first week I was in Farmington. The small guys have to look out for the crazy perverts who want to rape them. The pseudo-alpha pack mentality that is engrained in the prison system makes it such that the leaders of certain groups have to continue to defend their territory. Your size determines your threat level to the gang leaders, and every crazy mother fucker will try to beat your ass to show he’s the alpha on the cell block,” Carter responded.
“How about this one?” Mack asked as he kissed the scar on Carter’s bicep.
“Stabbed with a damn fork last November. I got between two trans girls who were fighting over a man. Since the State doesn’t recognize transgendered people, prisons are filed with trans women who were previously on meds to help with their transition, but they aren’t allowed to have access to the meds inside, so tensions run high. I was just walking by when I got stabbed. I probably saved the other girl’s life by getting between them, and then I got sent to the hole because I wouldn’t say who did it. The guards in that place suck ass,” Carter told him, making Mack smile.
“You are a guardian angel. How about this one?” he asked as he turned Carter to look at him and kissed the fresh cut on his neck.
“That was a hunting knife incident last night at the halfway house. I snitched on a guy running a smuggling ring out of the laundry room. Opie was working like hell to get my sentence reduced, and I wasn’t about to let some asshole black-market gangster wannabe mess anything up for me. The asshole showed up at Butler yesterday to settle the score and left that mark. He didn’t win, though,” Carter told him with a smirk.
Mack looked up the few inches into Carter’s eyes and gently touched his face. “I’m a mess right now, Carter Lee. I thought Lee was your last name. Why does Opie call you ‘Rigger’?”
Carter chuckled. “I had to wear braces from the time I was twelve until the end of my Junior year of high school. I had the worst teeth in the world, and Opie used to make fun of the headgear I had to wear all that time, saying it looked like an oil rig on my head. I hated that shit.
“Of course, I got my front teeth kicked out in an MMA match my senior year of high school and pissed off our parents. I actually laughed about it because they never let me forget how much my straight teeth cost them,” Carter explained as he looked into the distance over Mack’s shoulder.
Mack kissed the side of Carter’s mouth, feeling his own heart beginning to pound. “You have nice teeth now, are they fake?” he asked as he brushed his lips along Carter’s stubbled jaw.
“Implants. I got them in prison because someone stole my partial plate if you can believe that one. So, Father Mack, I’d guess this is against the rules?” Carter asked quietly.
Mack didn’t answer. They both knew it was against the rules when Mack wrapped his arms around Carter’s broad shoulders and kissed him again. It felt just as good as the first time they’d kissed when Carter asked permission, which had touched Mack to his soul. It felt too good to be held in Carter’s arms. How could it be a bad thing?
They were all laughing as Tasha told them about some of the things that happened in her kindergarten class the previous year. When she finished, Mack had a question. “Did you teach at Sacred Heart before they closed it?”
Mack heard Opie’s deep laugh before he began speaking. “From what Cybil Maness told me, Father Kozlow closed the school the year after he came to Sacred Heart. He’s not too tolerant of children, which is why we sit in the back in case poor Paul makes a sound. One of us can be out the door with him in a flash before Father calls us out.”
Billie Davis, Tash’s mother, spoke up. “Jay and I go to St. Rita’s in Brimlee. I just can’t tolerate Father Kozlow. He stopped the Homily one Sunday and walked from the altar with a tissue in his hand before he stopped in front of Bastian. ‘Spit it out right now!’ The man actually shouted at my son in front of everyone. I was so angry, I stood and led Bas out of the church, and we never went back. My son was thirteen at the time.”
Mack hated to ask the question, but he was curious, so he turned to Sebastian. “Why were you in the position to be assaulted in St. Louis? Your family lived here, right?”
The young man smiled. “I was attending a science camp at the St. Louis Science Center and staying with my grandparents for the summer. Grandma took a Zumba class at that gym where Carter worked as a trainer, and I would swim while she was in class. That’s the other part of the miracle… I wasn’t too far from a great hospital. I’m grateful I’m as far along in my recovery as I am,” Sebastian explained.
“Here, here,” Carter toasted as he held up his beer. Everyone joined in the toast, and the subject was changed Mack noticed.
After dinner, there were many hands to clean up the dishes while Mack went to the grill to scrape it as he’d seen Mark do for their parents many times. Opie walked over to stand next to him. “Is there something bothering you, Father? Is it Carter?”
Mack chuckled. “No, it’s not. I am bothered by something, however. You mentioned the Nash boys to me previously but not in a favorable light. What do you know about them?” he asked.
Opie sighed. “I know they live with Elsie and Morris who took them in unselfishly, or so Father Kozlow told me. Apparently, their mom died when they were little and their father, Dean, left them with his parents while he worked. He’s an over-the-road trucker, I believe. I don’t know if he even spends time with them when he’s in town, but I guess they take out the fact they don’t have parents in their lives on their grandparents and cause a lot of trouble,” Opie explained.
Mack had a feeling Opie’s impression was more formed because of what Father Kozlow told me more than first-hand exposure.
Opie continued. “Elsie and Morris are very old-school when it comes to raising those boys, but it sounds like they need it. I would never allow Paul to do anything like what Father’s told me those boys have pulled in the past. It’s no wonder they have to whip them. The little one was allowed to use the bathroom during Mass one Sunday and stole a bike from a house down the street and rode away. We searched for that boy for about nine hours before we found him hiding in a barn near his grandparents’ place.
“Father Kozlow has tried talking and talking to them, reminding them how lucky they are because their grandparents took them in, but I guess some kids just don’t appreciate pure generosity. I wish you the best of luck dealing with them over the summer,” Opie finished.
Mack listened and weighed the man’s words against what he’d seen that morning after church, but something was still bothering him. “That’s uh, that’s interesting. I took something totally different away from what I witnessed at early Mass this morning. Anyway, I think things will be fine this summer. Have you ever actually talked to the boys?”
Opie fidgeted for a moment. “Father, I’ve been so caught up in things within my own family, what with Carter in prison and Sebastian in and out of the hospital. I certainly don’t need to insert myself into another family’s issues,” the man responded.
Mack couldn’t blame Opie, really. Everyone was hesitant to get involved in someone else’s business, and never more so than in Missouri. Mack remembered a lot of people being that way from his childhood in South St. Louis. No one ever interfered with the way another family raised their children, even though sometimes Mack believed someone should have stepped in under certain circumstances.
Mack nodded to Opie, acknowledging the man’s logic, but he felt the need to speak out anyway. “Mrs. Nash, herself, insisted I was only to allow the younger boy to use the restroom once tomorrow because she’s training his bladder? Does that sound like they’re not being mistreated? Denny said if Donnie couldn’t hold it he’d get a switch when he got home. Tell me, Opie, what would it take for you to take a switch to Paul?” Of course, his question was rhetorical.
The look of horror on Opie’s face wasn’t a surprise at all if one had a heart. Mack had only known the man for a few days, but he could see how much Opie loved his little boy. It seemed logical that a parent would think of their own children when they heard about someone mistreating another child.
He watched Opie bend over and place his hands on his knees for a minute. Mack put his hand on the man’s back to comfort him. “I’m sorry for being so blunt, but I don’t think you’ve been given an accurate picture of what’s really going on with the Nash brothers. I don’t think anyone knows the truth of their situation. If they do and turn a blind eye because they think that kind of treatment is okay, I don’t know how they can sleep at night.”
Mack waited a few beats before continuing. “I plan to try to do something for those boys, but I’m not sure what or how I can help them. Those young men shouldn’t have to live in fear. That’s not what love and family are supposed to be about,” Mack asserted as he turned to see Carter walk out of the house with a grin on his face.
“What’s going on?” the handsome man with the beautiful eyes asked.
Opie stood straight and left the patio without a word. Mack turned to Carter and offered a cautious smile. “Tomorrow, we’re going to be working with the Nash boys. Have you met them or heard of them?”
“No, why?” Carter asked.
“Apparently, they stole the Communion wine once, and they stole the Tabernacle and tried to pawn it in Brimlee. They said it was a golden dollhouse or something. I met their grandparents today. I think we’ll have our hands full,” Mack told Carter.
He watched as the handsome man grinned. “I’m not worried about some little boys. I get along great with kids. At first, they’re afraid of me because of my size, but then they learn I’m not going to hurt them, and they usually want to have me teach them some ninja moves. It’ll be fine as long as that crabby priest stays away. What am I going to be doing?” Carter asked.
“I think we’ll start with cleaning up the garden and the flower beds around the church. I need to make a call, and then I’m going to contact the head of the Parish Council to send out a request for volunteers to put a new roof on the church next weekend. I’ll get my family to come down and help,” Mack began, looking at Carter’s face to see the concern.
“It’ll be fine, Carter. My family will love you,” Mack stated with confidence.
Carter chuckled. “As the gregarious ex-con or as the man who’s falling for you?” He then walked back into the house leaving Mack alone. That definitely threw a wet blanket on the night, though Mack was sure he’d revisit those words in his dreams over and over.
This free episodic story features every Friday through Sam E. Kraemer’s newsletter. Sign up now to be the first to read each episodes as they come out!