Mack walked back to the Sacristy with Monsignor O’Keefe that Saturday morning to assist the older man with removing his vestments and hanging them, while Father Stillwell, the parish pastor, thanked the altar boys.
Monsignor O’Keefe grinned at Mack as he closed the closet door. “It’s good to see you at the Mass, Father McCord. I respect your desire not to participate, but I’m glad you still came. If you’ve got some time, I’d like to speak with you and take you somewhere. I have an old friend who lives in the area, and I think it would be beneficial for you to meet him,” the Monsignor suggested. It wasn’t really a question.
Mack nodded before the man spoke again. “So, tell me what happened with Father Kozlow. I stopped at the hospital this morning, and he looked pale. The doctor said they’ll keep him for a couple more days so I’m going to stick around, and when he’s released, I’ll organize transportation for him to convalesce with the Friars in Washington, DC. He may want to go back to Croatia, but that’s for the Archdiocese to decide.
“He said the young man who was assigned to Sacred Heart for community service threatened to bury him under a flower bed. Is that correct?” the Monsignor asked.
Mack tried to keep from laughing because he’d witnessed the fear in Father Kozlow’s eyes after Carter’s tirade, but he really believed his Carter wouldn’t hurt a fly. “Uh, I’m sure it was a misunderstanding. We’d talked about plantings for the beds, so maybe Carter was mentioning those. Anyway, I’d like to discuss a situation with you, sir,” Mack remarked.
The Monsignor nodded and went to say goodbye to Father Stillwell. He thanked him for his courtesy and asked him to go to the hospital to visit with Father Kozlow, adding, “Don’t take much of what he says too seriously. The doctor believes he had a heat-related incident, though I’m not sure what that means. Some of the things he said are out of left field. Bless you,” the Monsignor told the man. They said goodbyes and they walked out of the church where Mack saw the Riggs’ family waiting for him.
Paul ran up to him immediately, so Seamus bent down to pick him up. “This is Paul Riggs, Monsignor. Paul, this is my boss,” Seamus responded.
Paul’s eyes grew to the size of silver-dollars as he turned to look at Mack. The little boy leaned forward and whispered loudly. “That’s God?”
Everyone in the group began laughing as Monsignor blessed Paul and smiled. “Not quite that high up in the company, young Paul. Soon enough I’ll be at headquarters,” the Monsignor joked.
Mack kissed Paul on the top of the head and put him down. “I, uh, I’m going to go somewhere with the Monsignor for the afternoon. Would you ask Carter if he could pick me up at Sacred Heart later? The Monsignor will drop me off there. I’ll be available to babysit tonight,” he told Opie and Tasha. They all said goodbyes and the Riggs left him there with the Monsignor.
“You ready?” O’Keefe asked.
The two men went to the flashy Ford SUV and got inside. The Monsignor immediately started the vehicle and turned on the A/C. “It’s hot this weekend,” he remarked.
That was all of an opening Mack needed to unload all of his frustration regarding recent events. The ride from Brimlee to Ozark took forty-minutes, and by the time they arrived at their destination, Monsignor knew the whole story about the Nash boys and their mistreatment by those evil grandparents which was not only known by Father Kozlow but supported, whole-heartedly. The Monsignor, not a stupid man, listened and nodded, but he didn’t offer any commentary one way or the other. Mack felt better getting it off his chest.
They stopped at the parking lot of what appeared to be a library, but there was no sign. Monsignor directed them to a covered pavilion where a man was sitting at a picnic table with some papers in front of him. He was reading something on his phone and laughing.
“So, I wanted to ask you, Monsignor, if it can be worked out, would you consider writing a letter recommending the Riggs family as foster parents for those boys? I don’t think Denny and Donnie have attended school, but Natasha Riggs is a teacher, and she could be quite helpful to them. She teaches at the public school in Beckett Creek and with her guidance, I believe they can catch up. I’d like you to consider it, sir,” he asked as the two men got out of the SUV and walked over to where the other man was sitting.
The sound of feet crunching the gravel parking lot brought the man’s attention to them, and he looked up and smiled, standing from the table and walking quickly over to the Monsignor. He kissed the man on both cheeks and turned to Mack. “I’m Creighton Jones-Alonzo. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Father,” he introduced.
Monsignor O’Keefe touched Mack on the back as they all went to sit under the pavilion. “Mack, Creigh and I go back to when I was a priest in Baltimore. He was a seminarian and was assigned to St. Elizabeth’s where I was the Vicar. We became friends, and that’s where Creigh met his husband. Where is Manny, by the way?” the Monsignor asked with a smile.
The man, Creighton, picked up his phone and smiled. “He should be here in five minutes or so. He’s bringing some lemonade and snacks. They’re going to be painting the basement rooms we’re going to use for small study rooms and Sunday school classes if we get more congregants,” the man explained to the Monsignor.
O’Keefe nodded and touched Mack’s shoulder. “I should tell you why I brought you here. I knew you were gay when I met with you and Monsignor Galati. He was the one who told me because he knows Father Giancarlo Fausto. Fausto was having some issues when Galati was in Italy, and somehow it came out that when you were in Italy, the two of you were very friendly.
“I didn’t care about your orientation because I believe our Lord is an equal-opportunity teacher and employer, but Galati? He’s leading a witch hunt through the priesthood to rid the ranks of gays. I think Galati’s position on the matter has more to do with his Italian ego than genuinely wanting to rid the Catholic clergy of gays, but I shouldn’t say that because it’s harsh and judgmental.
“Galati is sort of campaigning to be elevated to Bishop, and he wants to be reassigned to the Vatican, but he has few supporters. He thinks if he can get priests to come in on each other, he can garner fear and respect, but that one’s between you and me, please. Anyway, we knew we were going to lose Father Kozlow, and if you were prepared to stay in the Church, I believed it to be a good place for you to sort things out for yourself and make your decisions,” Father O’Keefe explained.
Mack wasn’t sure how to feel about it, but then the monsignor continued. “Galati, however, felt it was necessary to use you as an example and out you to Bishop Lane and me. When we didn’t make a fuss about it, he contacted Father Kozlow and told him you were a homosexual. That’s why Kozlow was so difficult and unkind to you from the beginning.” At least that was one question answered.
After Mack nodded, Monsignor grinned and finished. “Anyway, the negotiations for the sale of the land finally came together much quicker than we thought based on the hotel group dragging its feet in the past. The schedule to close the church moved up much sooner, and I’m going to guess you’ll be finished within a week and ready to move on,” Monsignor deduced.
Mack swallowed. “I’d like to be.”
O’Keefe smiled again. “I believe you to be a good man, and I know our Lord doesn’t restrict good men to only being in service to the Catholic Church. That’s why I brought you to meet Creigh and Manuel because they are former seminarians who left the Church but didn’t leave their service to our Lord or their fellow mankind. They just do it a different way, and you know, I’m a liberal Jesuit, and I believe you still have a lot to give, Mack. I believe there’s a lot of good that you could do in this part of the State,” the Monsignor speculated.
Mack was surprised by what the Monsignor had suggested because as he’d learned over the years, many in the Catholic Church clung tightly to the prescript that their way was the only way. Monsignor O’Keefe seemed to be showing him a way he still could be useful, but Mack wasn’t sure why.
He glanced between the Monsignor and Creighton Jones-Alonzo, who was smiling like he was in a toothpaste commercial. “I… This is a little…”
Creighton smiled and touched Mack’s arm. “I’ve been exactly where you are right now. I knew I was gay, but I went to the seminary anyway because I felt it was the best way to help those in need while running from my true self, in order not to disappoint my family. It worked well until the day Manuel was assigned to St. Elizabeth’s as a Brother. I would sit in the chapel and cry for hours after I met him because my heart was drawn to him. I couldn’t speak with him because every time I looked into his brown eyes, I was tongue-tied and I spent more time in prayer for guidance than anyone in the parish, I’d bet.
“I suffered in somewhat silence for two months while I worked with the CYO over the summer break and then when Manny started helping with activities, I finally went to Father O’Keefe and told him my problems. Long story short, he reminded me I didn’t have to wear the collar to serve, and I began looking for alternatives, what with the Catholic Church’s view on the LGBTQ+ community.
“Manny and I found our home in the Unitarian Church, and we moved here to set-up this new church to serve those in this community who are looking for fellowship and worship, but don’t exactly agree with the precepts of many other organized religions, including Judaism. We enjoyed a very diverse congregation at our last church, and we’re hoping to meet the needs of those in this part of the State as well,” Creighton explained.
“That… That’s a lovely idea. How does it work?” Mack asked, a little astonished at what he was hearing.
Creigh smiled. “Our worship services are less like homilies or sermons and more like thoughtful discussions and a comparison of ideas and teachings based on the principles of many faiths and beliefs. It’s energizing to exchange ideas and hear other’s views on God’s love for us. I wish you would attend service tomorrow. We’d be honored to have you.”
Mack looked at the Monsignor with a questioning eye, but before Mack could ask the man if he was serious, they heard a pickup truck pull into the gravel parking lot. A short, stout, Hispanic man hopped out and ran around the vehicle to the other side, opening the door and bringing out a large, glass container with a spigot. He grabbed a bag and walked over to where they were sitting with Creighton.
“Oh, Heaven’s help us! Monsignor, it’s so good to see you. My husband didn’t tell me you were coming to visit for our anniversary. It’s so good to see you,” the spry man stated. He put down his bags and the large container on the table and walked around it to hug Monsignor O’Keefe.
“It doesn’t seem like it was fifteen years since I attended your wedding, Manny. Where’s Julio?” he asked.
“He’s at the lake with Mom and Pop Jones. We’re going tomorrow after service, and we’re coming back late Monday night. We’re not supposed to know they’ve planned a party. My parents are going to be there as well. Who’s your friend?”
Mack watched the man walk around the table and kiss Creighton on the lips, both men smiling. “Darling, this is Father Seamus McCord. He’s thinking of leaving the Church, and Monsignor thought perhaps he might want to help out here. I think maybe we should get together one evening next week for dinner to talk some more. If you have the opportunity to attend church one Sunday or come to the midweek service on Wednesday, it might give you a better idea of what we’re about,” Creighton suggested.
Mack looked at Monsignor O’Keefe who offered an approving smile. “I hope you’ll consider their invitation. Maybe you can bring your friend, the ex-con, with you,” the Monsignor told him with a wink. Mack started laughing.
They all hugged each other, and Creighton Jones-Alonzo gave him a phone number if he needed anyone to offer support and counsel as Mack embarked on the often difficult road to leaving the priesthood. The ride back to Beckett Creek was quiet, but Mack was grateful for the contemplative silence.
When they arrived at Sacred Heart, he turned to the Monsignor. “Thank you for today. I was lost because I’ve grown up in the church, but I realize there are other ways to offer aid and comfort. What do I need to do about notifying the Bishop? I’d still like to wrap things up here at Sacred Heart, but I’m giving notice for after…I guess?”
“As with everything in this life, there’s some paperwork, but I’ll walk you through it. I’d imagine this can be closed in a week. I received the preliminary inventory, and there are more things than I thought. The Parish Council mentioned the stained-glass windows, and it would be lovely to have them professionally removed and protected somewhere in the event one of the parishes decides to renovate. Do you know anyone who does such work?” the Monsignor asked.
“No, but I know someone who will know someone. You’ll remember that letter of recommendation, please?” Mack reminded.
“Happily. Please keep in touch, Seamus. I’m very interested in the direction your life takes. You’re a special person. You gave no reason to feel ashamed. Go with God, my son,” the man offered before Mack hopped out.
He walked over to the back door of the church and used the key to unlock it, going in to check on things. It was still under his care, and he knew it would be his responsibility to see to her last days as a house of God. It was kind of ironic that the two would go out together, but it was what it was, and Mack wasn’t sorry.
He walked into the office and looked around, seeing nothing of concern. He walked through the Sacristy and out into the Nave. It was like a blast furnace in the church because the windows were closed, but when he glanced over to the side where the entrance to the quiet room was located, he noticed one of the windows was busted, and it was open.
Seamus knew he needed to board it up because there were expensive things inside the church, and he was responsible if everything wasn’t accounted for when it was sent to Springfield, so he quietly walked over to the glass-enclosed room and looked through the window to see the Nash brothers lying in one of the pews. They were both soaking wet, so he rushed into the room, touching them. When both boys jumped, Mack was relieved.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“We wanted to talk to you. We don’t like that family. They were nice, but they only wanted to keep us for the weekend,” Denny told him as he sat up in the pew.
“Well, it was what they call an ‘emergency placement.’ That family wasn’t going to be your foster family, they were just going to keep you until arrangements could be made for something more permanent. Are you okay?” he asked as he took Donnie’s hand to help him sit up.
“It’s hot, but we’re fine. We broke the window, but we’ll pay for it if we can work around here. Father Kozlow doesn’t have to know, does he?” Denny asked, worry on his sweet face.
Mack chuckled as he unbuttoned his collar and slipped out the tab, placing it in the front pocket on his shirt. “No, he doesn’t have to know, and we’ll work something out. You want to go for a walk with me?” he asked as he stood from the pew where the boys had been resting.
“Can we get some water?” Donnie asked.
Mack laughed and hugged the boy. “All you want,” he told him. They started walking to the Riggs’ house, but Mack stopped at the store on the corner before they started down the street where the Riggs’ lived. He bought each boy a thirty-two-ounce bottle of water and a small one for himself.
“I want those to be empty by the time we get to Paul’s house. We’ll call the social worker when we get there and let her know you’re okay. I’m not sure if you can stay with Carter and me, but we’ll see if we can make it happen. Let’s go, men,” he ordered as they started walking the quarter mile to the Riggs’ home. It had been quite a day. It had been a day unlike any Seamus McCord had ever experienced, but there was a promise at the end of it. There was a lot of promise.
Mack, Denny, and Donnie walked around to the back gate of the Riggs’ large house, and Mack heard two voices speaking in the yard. Denny looked at Donnie and grabbed his hand. “That’s Daddy.”
Mack opened the gate and watched as the boys dropped their bottles of water and ran to the stout man who was sitting at the patio table with Carter. They hugged him, but he looked quite awkward with them, so Seamus wasn’t sure what was happening.
“Did you come to get us?” Donnie asked as he stood in front of the blond man and shifted from one foot to the other. Seamus saw Denny put his hand on Donnie’s shoulder and pull him back as the man looked away from them.
“He ain’t here to get us and take us with him, Don. He’s gonna take us back to Grandma and Grandpa. I knew it was…” Denny trailed off before he walked back to where Mack was standing.
Carter stood and walked over to Mack, offering a gentle smile. “Take them inside, please. Dean’s considering allowing you and me to have temporary custody while Tasha and Opie figure out their shit. He’s not exactly thrilled we’re gay, and he’ll probably be even less happy you were a priest because I think he equates the Catholic church with his parents’ fanatical beliefs, but he’s not equipped to take the boys with him. After their mother died, he just gave them to those evil bastards because he didn’t know what the fuck to do with them.
“I think he regrets it now, though, after everything that’s gone down. I think he wants to do right by them,” Carter whispered as he touched Seamus’ shoulder, sending a shock through his body.
“Baby, I’m just getting out of the priesthood. I’m not sure I’m ready to become a father,” he answered, but he saw the irony when Carter laughed and took his hand.
“Dean, this is my boyfriend, Mack McCord,” Carter explained.
Seamus saw the man look at him, along with Denny and Donnie. “Boyfriend? Ain’t you the priest at that church? I thought Momma said you was a priest,” the man, Dean Nash, questioned.
Carter laughed. “It’s a long story, but let’s call Stefani Jennings and get her here to make sure this thing is done right. You’re willing to allow me and Mack to be the temporary guardians, right?”
“Well, uh, yeah. I mean, I never thought about two queers taking care of them, but it’s better than my parents. How’d you find ‘em, anyway?” the man asked Mack.
He glanced at Carter, and he knew his man had a plan, so he sighed. “They were waiting at the church. Are you sure you can’t care for them? They’re sweet, sweet boys, Mr. Nash,” Mack offered as Carter walked over to them and hurried them into the house with him.
The man sighed, sounding as if he felt a hundred-years-old, which was something to which Mack could relate. Some days were much harder than others. “Look, they deserve better than me, and I don’t want to stick around here. I came through because the boys were here, but I can get a better job out of Memphis, so I’m gonna move.
“I’ll sign papers for you to keep them. I guess I better tell you somethin’ I found out about Donnie. I’m not smart about stuff, but I hear stuff on the news and watch TV. I think maybe he’s one of those kids who is a boy on the outside and a girl on the inside? Momma told me he slipped around and would wear the neighbor girl’s clothes and she caught him with make-up once. Of course, she beat his ass with a switch because that’s all she ever knew how to do, but I read somethin’ about that not bein’ somethin’ he can control. Kinda like you bein’ queer? How’s that work with the church?” the man asked.
Mack exhaled and shook his head. “Not well. Do you want some more tea? Or maybe a beer?” he asked because he knew he could sure use one.
The man smiled. “If it ain’t too much trouble.”
Seamus went to the refrigerator and helped himself to two beers. “Sit tight. I’ll be back,” he stated as he went inside the house which was becoming a second home.
“Baby?” he called out.
Paul’s laughter couldn’t be missed. “Up here, Mack.” He rushed up the stairs and found them in Opie and Tasha’s bedroom, Carter going through their drawers like a bull in a china shop.
“What are you doing, Carter?” he asked.
Carter chuckled. “I’m finding something for Denny and Donnie to swim in. Stefani Jennings will be here in a little while, so we just need to keep Dean entertained until she gets here. Why don’t you go change into something cooler?”
It was another blessing in his life. He knew Carter wasn’t proposing they should try to foster or adopt the Nash boys, but they needed somewhere to be at the moment, and they could offer them a bed. Mack was sure Carter had plans that went beyond the weekend, and whatever they were, that was fine with him.
There were unexplored avenues along life’s path, as Mack was coming to learn, and he was quite excited for the next turn. He was pretty sure Carter Riggs would be there guiding him every step of the way.
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