Seamus sat on the overlook parking lot and stared out into the forest below. The Ozark Mountains weren’t precisely mountains as he’d define them, based on other mountain ranges he’d seen in his life, but it was still pretty as the sun was setting. He picked up the empty pizza box and the two cans of soda he’d gorged on when he found the laundromat closed that evening after he went to order the pizza down the block.
He’d even banged on the door, hoping maybe Carter was inside and just hadn’t opened the place for the evening yet, but no one answered, and he’d heard no noises from inside. After waiting fifteen minutes while the pizza was being prepared, he got back into his hybrid, picked up his pizza, and headed out of town before someone called the cops after seeing him loitering at the laundromat.
He remembered seeing a sign regarding a scenic overlook a few miles outside of town, so Seamus drove there and parked to eat his food. He’d already decided to make the trek over to Brimlee again on Monday evening to see what had happened that caused Carter to close the laundromat on Saturday night. He wished he’d have thought to ask for the guy’s number, but Seamus wasn’t exactly on his game when it came to anything resembling attraction or hooking up.
But, then again, a priest wasn’t supposed to be now, was he? His current situation was not dissimilar to being engaged and cheating on one’s fiancé; he had promised to be faithful to the church until he took his perpetual vows, and he hadn’t exactly done that, had he? Seamus had definitely lusted in his heart… and in his shower and his bedroom.
The dreams he’d had the night before had Seamus messed up completely, and he nearly fell off the roof of the church that afternoon when he was thinking about Carter and not watching where he was walking.
“What are you doing, Mack? Get your head out of your ass,” he told himself out loud as he sat on the hood of his hybrid. It was almost as if the doubts he’d had in his heart about taking his perpetual vows and his fear of being alone in his old age had manifested into the handsome hunk of a man with the golden-brown hair and the huge grin.
Was this Seamus’ last temptation before he was forced to choose—the Church or Carter Lee? The priest didn’t even know for sure if that was the man’s last name. He damn well didn’t know the man’s story, but he’d told himself it wouldn’t matter anyway. Nothing the man could say would make a difference in the way he felt, and it made him hate himself.
Seamus was foolish. They’d shared an ironing lesson, a couple of dances, and a couple of kisses which could have grown more passionate but neither men took it there. Just the thought of kissing Carter had Seamus touching his tingling lips and wishing it was happening again.
Of course, there should never be another encounter. If Seamus was going to give his religion a fair chance, he had to stay away from Carter. He had to concentrate on his job which was to work for the good of the parishioners at Sacred Heart. Maybe it was God giving him a break by having that laundromat closed when Seamus arrived? He was coming to think it was for the best because there was no way he could reach a decision regarding his future while Carter continuously two-stepped through his mind and heart. It seemed Seamus had his answer. He had to get his head back into his mission, and that was to save Sacred Heart.
Seamus pulled his hybrid into the garage, having noticed the backyard lights were illuminated at the Riggs’ home. He decided to double check to see if he could bring anything besides a bottle of wine to the cookout the next day, so he walked up the path and let himself in through the back gate.
He saw Mr. and Mrs. Riggs sitting at the glass-top table with a few empty bottles on it. “Uh, hello. I should have knocked or something,” Seamus offered, feeling embarrassed for interrupting their private time. He saw the baby monitor resting on the table, and he immediately started to walk back to the gate.
“No, Father. Come have a seat. I need to talk to you anyway,” Mr. Riggs requested.
Seamus looked at his watch to see it was just nine-forty-five, so he had time to sit and have a beer with the man who appeared to want to talk. “If I’m not interrupting,” he accepted.
Just then, the baby monitor went off, “Mommy!”
Mrs. Riggs laughed. “That’s the drink of water call, followed by the potty call, followed by the fight that he’s not sleeping with us. I’ve got it. Maybe you should explain to Father about Rigger?”
Mr. Riggs nodded, so Mrs. Riggs stood from her chair and smiled at Seamus as she left the two of them, squeezing Mr. Riggs’ shoulder as she walked inside. Mr. Riggs got up from his seat and retrieved two beers from the small refrigerator near the back door. He opened one and handed it to Seamus, opening the other for himself.
Clearing his throat after he took a sip, Mr. Riggs began speaking. “I hope Monsignor O’Keefe remembered to tell you about sharing the garage apartment.”
Seamus smiled. “Yes, he did. That’s not a problem at all. I just wanted to thank you and Mrs. Riggs for allowing me to stay here while the work at the church and the rectory begins. I wasn’t looking forward to sleeping on Father Kozlow’s sofa. He’s not exactly a fan of mine yet,” he joked, though the words were more accurate than any he’d ever spoken at that point.
“Please call us Opie and Tasha, Father. We’re not formal around here at all—well, you’ll learn it for yourself the longer you live here, and we’re in no hurry for you to leave anytime soon. My brother, Rigger, came home tonight. We weren’t exactly expecting him for another week, and I was going to talk to you about it before he showed up, so I’m glad to have this opportunity before the two of you meet.
“My brother was a personal trainer and an MMA fighter when we all lived in St. Louis, but he doesn’t talk about it much because it was underground stuff. Anyway, there was an incident—the details are genuinely sketchy about what happened that morning because Rigger pled guilty to the charges, so there wasn’t a detailed explanation of what went down that brought about… well, everything.
All I know for sure is Tasha’s brother, Sebastian Davis, was attacked in the locker room of the gym where Rigger worked, and my brother walked in on it. He beat the living hell out of the other guy and put him in the hospital.
“Unfortunately, Bas suffered a spinal cord injury, and he’s partially paralyzed from the hips down. He’s had several surgeries, and he’s finally able to get around with the use of leg braces and special crutches. Bastian is going to go to graduate school in September, we believe. He’s had several offers to choose from, but he’s taking his time to make his choice,” Opie Riggs explained, surprising Seamus.
“Oh, my goodness. How did your brother-in-law sustain his injuries, do you know?” Seamus asked. There were too many questions to settle on just one; that was the first thing that came out of his mouth.
“There were metal benches anchored in front of the lockers, and the guy who attacked him rammed him into one of the steel poles that held it up. It fractured several vertebrae in his spinal column, and the cord was damaged. If it hadn’t been for Rigger, it would have probably been so much worse,” Opie answered.
Seamus was a bit surprised, but he wasn’t concerned about sharing living space with Opie’s brother. If the man had pled guilty to the charges, then he was at least a reasonable man with a sense of right and wrong. Seamus believed they could work out any problems between them with discussion and compromise.
“How long was your brother in prison? Wait, was Mr. Davis with your brother at the gym?” Seamus asked.
Opie shook his head as he took a sip of his beer. “No, he wasn’t. They were total strangers up until that day. It was a total coincidence they were there at the same time.
“That’s how Tash and I came to meet. Her family was grateful for what Rigger did to save Bas, and they showed up in court for the plea hearing. Tash asked me to pass along her family’s thanks, and I asked to take her for coffee so I could find out how her brother was doing after his first surgery. I owe the fact I have Tasha and Paul to Rigger as well.
“Anyway, he was released after four-and-a-half years. His original sentence was much longer, but I got a lawyer who asked the Judge to review the judgment because the guy who Rigger attacked had a long record whereas my brother had never been arrested for so much as a parking ticket.
“The new judge said he believed the original judge had a judicial prejudice against my brother’s lawyer at the time because the guy was his ex-son-in-law, but it never came up during the short trial. I wanted to get the whole damn thing thrown out, but Rigger had pled guilty and refused to change his plea, so there wasn’t much I could do about it without his cooperation.”
Seamus nodded in understanding. “It sounds like your brother is a good man, Opie. Sometimes we’re put in situations where we can’t see ‘why,’ which is what this sounds like to me. I look forward to meeting such an honorable man who stepped in to help a stranger when necessary.”
“Thanks, Father. Rigger’s been in a halfway house, and there was some trouble there—not his doing, mind you—so they released him early. He still has six-months of parole, but then it’s behind him. He’ll have to find a job after he does his community service at the church with you and the Nash boys I mentioned to you last night, but Rigger gets along great with kids, so he’ll keep them busy.
“I’ll be at the meeting on Tuesday morning with the Parish Council and the Finance Committee. I realize Father K is a pain, but he doesn’t have anywhere to go. He can pinch a penny until it squeals, and the parishioners are tired of sitting in the church and sweating through their good clothes or freezing their asses… excuse me, their fingers off in the winter. If there’s anything you’d like to know about my brother, I’ll be happy to tell you,” Opie Riggs concluded.
Seamus finished his beer and smiled at his host. “How about Mr. Riggs and I work things out on our own. I like to think I’m a reasonable man, and he sounds like he is as well, so I see no indication we’ll have any problems. I do appreciate the head’s up so things aren’t awkward tomorrow when we meet. Will he be attending the Mass with your family?”
Opie frowned. “That’s a little more complicated. I think that might be something I should let Rigger decide if he wants to share or not. It’s nothing terrible, but considering you’re a priest, he might just want it to remain private. So, uh, he’ll probably be settled into the apartment when you get home from Mass. At least you won’t think someone broke in and left stuff. If there are any problems, please let me know immediately.
“Rigger could stay in the house with us, but Tash said he might want more privacy than to have Paul running around in his business all the time. He’ll have his own room in the apartment, and we figured you’d be gone a lot, what with church business, so if we’ve made a mistake, please tell me. I don’t want either of you to suffer in silence, Father,” Opie reminded.
Seamus stood from the chair and grabbed his empty bottle. “Please call me Mack when we’re not at church. And, I’m sure your brother and I will be just fine. If there are any chores around here I can help with, please let me know. I don’t like to be indebted.”
The two men exchanged “goodnights,” and then Seamus went through the back gate and up to his apartment. He did a little sweeping and dusting since his roommate would be moving in the next day, and he didn’t want the guy to think him a slob.
That night, Seamus had a lot of problems falling asleep because he was worried about the next day. He would be helping with the Masses on Sunday, but he knew Father Kozlow didn’t trust him to celebrate them by himself. He hadn’t spoken with the elder man that night because Father was on the phone with the Monsignor, and Seamus was too chicken to stick around to find out how the discussion had gone.
The next morning would be soon enough to learn his fate. Just as he was finally dozing off, Seamus remembered he hadn’t bothered to say prayers yet again, and he was ashamed of himself. He needed to get his head together because he’d been a priest for too long to just forget something like that. Seamus had responsibilities, and it wasn’t his way to run from them. He was failing on too many fronts. He had to get Carter Lee out of his head and his heart. It was the only way.
Father Kozlow was in the middle of the Homily for the nine o’clock Mass, and Seamus’ eyes were having a hard time staying open due to his lack of sleep. The older priest had been in the Sacristy when Seamus had arrived at six o’clock that morning to have some quiet meditation before the seven o’clock service, but, he told himself he should have known Father Kozlow would already be there.
Seamus looked out into the congregation to see a few more parishioners than he’d seen at the Saturday night Mass, so he had hopes word would spread about him and people would want to come see for themselves. He saw two teen boys sitting in a pew between an older man and woman, both of whom wore sour faces.
The younger boy was fidgeting a bit until the older woman reached over to pinch his arm, hard. Seamus saw the boy’s face contort in pain, but he stayed perfectly still until the woman let go. The older boy tried to say something, but the man sitting next to him put his hand on the boy’s opposite shoulder and sunk his thumb into the kid’s trapezius muscle along the top of his shoulder.
Seamus could see the pain on his young face immediately. He would have to find out who those people were and why Father Kozlow only smiled at them and nodded in approval at the older couple’s behavior.
Seamus didn’t listen to the old priest’s sermon because he was busy observing the small crowd. The older parishioners nodded their heads in agreement as Father spoke about the disintegration of society’s morals due to divorce, children born out of wedlock, and disrespectful children as a result of the lack of corporal punishment used in discipline. He further said sexual deviants, parents’ unwillingness to take responsibility for the actions of the younger generation, and total disregard for the Church’s teaching was the downfall of society. He complained there were only three people who went to confession the previous evening and then he turned to look at Seamus, which pissed off the younger priest.
Father Kozlow finally finished the seemingly endless Homily, and it was time for the announcements. “I’m sure you’ve noticed the other priest on the altar this morning. His name is Father Seamus McCord, and he has been temporarily assigned to Sacred Heart to assist with the renovations of the rectory and the church. There will be a meeting of the Parish Council on Wednesday evening to discuss both projects. I hope you’ll make Father McCord feel welcome while he’s with us. Let us pray,” Father Kozlow stated.
Seamus had no idea what the Monsignor had told Kozlow the previous evening, but he knew he needed to stick around and speak with him that morning because something was going on that didn’t make sense to Seamus, and he needed to get to the bottom of it.
An hour later, he was sitting in the office of the church waiting while Father spoke to the older couple with the two teen boys. Sister Mary Luke came into the room and smiled. “Father Kozlow wants to introduce you to the Nash family. Their grandsons are going to be working here at the church for you doing odd jobs,” she informed.
The Nash boys. Opie Riggs had mentioned them by name, so apparently, the boys were infamous. If the older man and woman were their grandparents, it was no wonder the boys looked so unhappy during the Mass. Seamus adjusted his garments and went out into the sanctuary where Father Kozlow was speaking with the couple.
Seamus went to the front pew and sat down next to the smaller boy. “I’m Father McCord, but you can call me Father Mack. Your names?” he enquired.
“I’m Dennis, and that’s Donald. Those are our grandparents, Elsie and Morris Nash. We live with them,” the older boy spoke. The younger boy merely nodded and began fidgeting again.
Seamus glanced over to see the three older people engaged in conversation, so he looked at the younger boy. “Is something wrong?” he asked.
The boy looked at Denny, and the older boy shook his head. “He has to pee, and Grandma told him if he wets his pants, he’ll get a switch again. His butt’s still sore because he got one the other day. She’s trying to train his bladder because he has to go too much, she says. I told him not to drink so much water, but he won’t listen,” the older boy explained.
Seamus was shocked at what he heard. “What? No, that’s not healthy. Go to the restroom and come right back, I’ll explain things to your grandmother.”
The boy glanced at his brother again, but Denny shook his head. “You know what she’ll do and he ain’t gonna be there to stop her. Just think about somethin’ else, Donnie. I know it’s hard, but you can do it,” his brother told him as the three adults walked up to them.
Seamus stood and extended his hand to the older man dressed in overalls and a tie, which Seamus believed he’d only seen on television. “I’m Father McCord. Please call me Father Mack. Your grandson needs to use the restroom,” he stated, glancing between them and then looking at Father Kozlow.
“No, he doesn’t. You see, Father McCord, when Donnie was allowed to use the restroom during Mass, he decided to run away. Therefore, his restroom privileges are no more. He’ll have to learn to hold it, or he knows what will happen,” the woman explained as if she was delivering common information.
Seamus looked at Father Kozlow and raised a brow. “We don’t interfere with the way our members raise their children. These two boys stole the Tabernacle and tried to pawn it. They will be working here at the church over the summer, and you will keep watch on them and report back to me or their grandparents if they don’t follow the rules… that is until your replacement comes,” Father Kozlow stated, surprising Seamus.
Without allowing Seamus to inquire what the man meant, Kozlow turned to the Nash’s. “He’s a liberal, you see. I’ve spoken with the Bishop, and he’s only here for the summer. I’ll watch them and ensure the boys are behaving as you’d expect. What time will they be here tomorrow?” the pastor asked.
The older man in overalls, who had yet to say anything, looked at his wife as if he didn’t know the answer either. “They’ll be here at one o’clock. They have chores to do at home, and then I’ll drop them off. I’ll pick them up at four o’clock, and I expect them to be washed up and ready to go. They may use the bathroom one time, and that’s all,” she instructed, glaring at Seamus.
Father Kozlow cleared his throat. “As you wish, Elsie. Bless the rest of your day,” he told them as he shook their hands and started to leave.
“Wait just a minute, Father. It’s cruel to only allow a boy to use the restroom once in the afternoon, especially if he’s working outside. He’ll need to hydrate, and that means he’ll have to void his bladder. Refusing to allow the boy to use the bathroom when his bladder is full is child endangerment,” Seamus complained.
“No, it’s not. I’m a healer. The body can be trained to behave and not succumb to the temptations of the flesh. They’ll do as I say or they’ll die tryin’,” the mean old woman threatened.
“What’s a healer?” Seamus asked. No doctor worth his or her salt would ever tell someone not to void their bladder when it was full.
“Never you mind, Father McCord. Come along. We need to talk,” Father Kozlow demanded. Seamus watched as Elsie Nash took hold of Donnie Nash’s ear and dragged him out of the church with Morris and Denny following behind. Denny looked back at the priest with a pleading look on his face that made Seamus sick to his stomach.
He stormed down the aisle, genuflecting before he rushed around the altar into the pastor’s office seeing it empty. He then went into the Sacristy to see the priest removing his vestments and hanging them without turning to look at Seamus.
“You seem to have a high opinion of yourself, don’t you? How many teenage boys have you raised? Especially adolescent boys who have no discipline inside them. Boys will do whatever they can get away with, and apparently, your mother chose to spare the rod. I do not believe in the liberal view of not beating a child if it’s necessary.
“We closed the school because the parents were too lenient on the children and wanted to have parties to reward them for doing nothing at all. I won’t have juvenile delinquents attending a school God provided through His benevolence. It was better to close it.
“That’s why the Diocese wants to get rid of me, but it won’t be with the likes of you. I know your type, and I won’t allow you to bring your evil behavior into this House of God so from now on, you will not attend Mass here at Sacred Heart. You’re allowed to do the work on the church and the rectory, but you are not to minister to anyone in the parish. If someone approaches you for spiritual guidance, you are to send them to me.
“Bishop Lane told me to keep an eye on you, and I plan to do so, but you’ll not taint my congregation with your sinful ways. You’re dismissed. Be here in the morning at eight, after the Mass. There’s a lot of work to be done so don’t waste time. Laziness is a sin,” the priest told him. Seamus shook his head and left the church, not surprised at the old man’s admonishing tone. He hated him, so his behavior wasn’t exactly anything Seamus didn’t expect. Seamus drove himself back to his temporary home, and he left a message for Monsignor O’Keefe on his cell phone. Seamus was honestly at a loss of what to do next, but someone needed to help those poor Nash boys. Based on the short time he’d been able to observe them, he could see something was horribly wrong in that home, and someone needed to step in.
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