My post-communion meditation takes a backseat as I turn to see a very nervous Les Jacobs standing behind me. His anxiety is odd; Les and I get along well, and he's always asking questions. I know his parents, his brother, his sister, and their respective families, all very well.
"Les? Is something wrong?"
He sighs heavily. "I can talk to you about anything, right?"
"Of course. What's wrong?"
"And you won't tell my parents? Or treat me different?"
"It's not my place to judge you, and your secrets are always safe with me."
He glances over his shoulder, then leans close to me; my eyes water from his heavy aura of cologne. "Father... I have a boyfriend now. And I don't know how to tell my parents, or what's going to... happen to me. I don't know what to do."
For a moment, I don't speak. I can't speak. Les raises his eyebrows and bites his lip.
"I'm sorry. I knew this was a bad idea-"
"No, no." I put my hand on his shoulder and start to guide him outside to the gardens. The stars are already out, glittering prettily, like pearls floating in the blackest ocean.
"Can I confide in you, Les?" He looks surprised, and no wonder: I am the priest, the ear to lighten heavy hearts. And I'm the one confessing to him?
I smile and gesture for him to sit on a nearby bench. "I think this will help you -both of us- if I can tell you."
He blinks at me, wringing his hands between his knees. "... All right. Okay, Father. Tell away."
High school was not always easy for me. Back when I was still Henry Farmer, instead of Father Hank. I did well in my classes, and all my teachers liked me, but my classmates were not so kind. I came from a very religious family, and was very religious myself, so this either intimidated or amused my peers. Neither was good for my social life, which was pretty much non-existent until halfway through my junior year, when I met Sota Argaza. His full name was Minnesota, after his late mother's home state, and her two bachelor brothers, Mark and Daniel had raised him in a nearby town. They'd moved here after Mark got a good job and Daniel bought the land to start a new restaurant, and Sota, a loner himself, plopped down next to me at my lunch table and just started talking. I don't think he cared if I listened or not (though I did; if the things he said weren't interesting enough, the way he said them, talking with his whole body, was fascinating), just as long as I didn't interrupt. Which I didn't. I was too afraid of scaring him away; I was lonely and wanted to at least sit near someone, even if it was this new, eccentric character who was not going to fit into the quiet society that was Selmer City, and Selmer High. That was all right. I didn't fit in either.
Sota had a knack for breaking and picking locks; he was always snitching things from other people's lockers, mostly just for my amusement. Vengeance is a sin, but having Sota turn it into humor made it okay, and not quite so anger-filled. I started calling him 'Snitch' as a nickname, and he just jumped right back, calling me 'Skittery.' I was nervous a lot, and overly-cautious. It was as good a nickname as any. But we usually called each other by name: he was Sota, Minnesota when I was annoyed, and I was always Hank. He never called me Henry, like everyone else did. That was just Sota's way.
All around, Sota was good-natured and fun-loving. He hated the school uniform and was constantly getting in trouble for not wearing it properly. He had a sweet laugh, and large horsey teeth that he was completely unashamed of. He could talk your ear off if you let him, and was always more than happy to tell you some crazy story to cheer you up when you were down. He was just a generally good person. I adored him, practically idolized him, and was glad he considered me a friend.
We were close for all the rest of high school, even though my grades got me several scholarship offers, and Sota's stayed low, keeping him away from universities, who probably wouldn't have known what to do with him anyway. Sota didn't care; he liked things simple, didn't want some huge luxurious life. I admired him for that; my father wanted me to go into the clergy, but I was afraid to, afraid of giving up so many things I had come to expect and enjoy. And here was Sota, who had grown up with the world practically throwing itself at his feet, he was just so good, and he didn't want it.
The night of our senior prom, we went to a McDonald's and spent the evening there, feasting on Big Macs and french fries, the world's best vanilla ice cream. After that, our stomachs full to bursting, we took Sota's junker of a truck out to the empty lot by the school. We could hear music and cheering from the gym, but Sota drowned it out with his radio, and we lay down in the back of the truck to watch the stars move. After about an hour of gentle conversation, Sota shut up. It was the first time since we met that he'd let silence take over, and I turned to look at him, opened my mouth to ask what was wrong, but I never got to ask the question. His hand found my waist, and his lips found mine, and before God's watchful eyes, he kissed me and I kissed him back.
After a few moments, he pulled back, face flushed. "I been waiting to do that for months," he breathed, and I couldn't help laughing. It was just such a Sota thing to say, even when he knew it was my first kiss, and I'd been waiting probably just as long, if not longer, for him to do it. Yes, I'd grown up religious, and I knew sodomy was condemned by the church. But after a while, I realized my feelings for Sota were too strong, too devoted, for mere friendship. Personal study of the Bible led me to believe I could feel for him as long as sodomy never came into the picture. I was okay with a kiss, a hug, a fond look or touch. And I think Sota understood that, because he never tried to go that far, never even complained about it.
We spent prom night in the bed of Sota's truck, getting used to this new level of caring. He held my hand, I rested my head on his chest, and even though things were different, they were still very comfortable. They stayed that way the rest of the school year.
After graduation, we took off on a road trip, just the two of us. My parents weren't happy about it; I was leaving for school in Texas in August, and they wanted me at home for a final summer together with the family. But Sota's uncles were more than willing to fund the trip, get the two of us out from underfoot; we were always at Sota's house, getting in the way of whatever Mark and Daniel were attempting to do, getting kicked off the porch, out of the house, to go spend time by the rabbit pen. Sota loved his rabbits.
That trip was, and is to this day, one of the most treasured times of my life. Sota and I drove all day in his rickety old truck, no exact destination in mind, eating junk food and singing along with the radio. I developed a love for Olivia Newton-John; Sota teased me by changing the station whenever she came on. We slept in cheap motels, holding hands and nothing more. We were so in love, and wanted nothing more from the world than what we already had. I learned to swear, and refused to drink. Sota adopted a tawny kitten found by a gas station and named him Taniel, often Tanny or Tank for short.
We dreaded summer's end, the last bag of Lay's on the dashboard, the last good-night kiss before dreamless sleep in each other's arms. Sota was staying in Selmer City, helping his uncle Daniel with his new restaurant. And I was off to Texas, majoring in religious studies, my parents' influence finally coming through to become my own desire: to join the clergy.
The last night of the trip, Sota and I opted to save what was left of our money and sleep in the bed of his truck. The air was balmy, and we could smell the heavy scent of the summer's last flowers, late bloomers, more beautiful and stronger, longer lasting than the rest. The crickets were out, singing their songs, and Sota attempted to sing with them. We ended up laughing at his failures; I loved Sota's deep voice, the way his Adam's apple moved when he spoke, but he was not built for singing, not by a long shot.
The stars were high and clear, far away from the city, and I remember wishing on as many of them as I could that the summer would never end, and Sota and I would never be separated, that even if we were, we would find one another again.
Of course, wishing on stars does nothing. I left for Texas a week after we got back, and Sota came to see me off at the airport. I promised to come back for breaks, and he swore, "before God and on my mother's grave," that he would wait for me.
This arrangement worked all right while I was in college. He would write letters weekly, seeming to understand that whether or not I had time to reply, I always had time to read them. Once a month, he would call on the telephone, and we'd speak for an hour or so; my roommate always had the courtesy to leave when the phone rang and it was for me. I always came home for breaks, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring and Summer, and I spent as much time with Sota as my parents would allow. He liked to make me things, especially the summer between my sophomore and junior years, when his Uncle Mark taught him how to whittle. It seemed every other day that summer, I'd step out onto the porch to find yet another gift made out of wood, this one like Uncle Daniel's horse, Steel Pepper; that one like Taniel, now tailless after a fight with another tomcat; the next one like Spicoli, his half-blind rabbit, named after Sean Penn's character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I still have all of them, kept on the desk in my apartment behind the church.
But things became really difficult after I graduated. I came home that last summer with my Bachelor's in religious studies, and my parents were so proud, but Sota seemed constantly annoyed. He wouldn't smile as much, and always seemed too busy for me. Naturally, I was hurt. So I went down to Uncle Daniel's restaurant one night and dragged him out the back door to talk to me.
"You're not coming back next time," he said finally, after fifteen minutes of wheedling. "I asked Uncle Mark. You're going to seminary, you're going to become a priest, and dammit Hank, I don't want to lose you like that. I'm hurt too."
Of course, he was right. I'd told him before that there were two men in my life: him, and Jesus Christ the Lord. And I'd been raised to choose the Lord over everything else. It hurt like nothing else had ever hurt me before, and, to perhaps be blasphemous for a moment, I felt I knew the pain Christ our Lord had known while up on the cross, hands and feet broken but heart open and flooded with love and forgiveness.
So even though it nearly broke me, broke us both, I left Sota for the seminary. And while I do enjoy my life as a priest, I've always felt responsible for Sota's fate. I feel regret for leaving him behind. I almost left the church out of remorse when it happened, though I reconsidered, instead delving deeper to find God's forgiveness, to try and understand why this was happening.
I'd left him an address to write me at, a P.O. box nearby, in hopes I might get a letter or two from him, but that never happened. To try and escape my disappointment, I threw myself into my studies and chores. It was easier to try and forget him if I had other things to do. But I never really forgot him; Sota was always there, somewhere.
A few months before my time at the seminary was done, I received a letter from Sota's uncles, asking if I'd seen him. He'd run away the week before, just up and out with no reason. All his clothes and belongings were gone, including his precious truck.
If Sota had come to find me, he hadn't made it; I didn't know where he was, and this worried me greatly. The added stress was not helpful, as I was preparing to finish my seminary work and see a bishop to see if my services were necessary. I was twenty-six, and while the bishop liked me, and assigned me to Our Lady of Hope in Tabitha, a grimy, failing city near Chicago, and I was always busy with studies, confessions and sermons, there was always Sota. Wandering just under the surface, occasionally coming up for air, usually while I slept.
I had been at Our Lady of Hope for about a year when a few young men, all dressed in the same blue flannel shirts, started showing up for sermons on Tuesday nights. After a while, I stopped noticing them; we were never opposed to new church members.
One day, about a month after they first arrived, one of the boys, blonde and scarred, came early in the morning, pressed a note into my palm, and left without a word. None of the others in the hall that morning took notice; we were preparing for a wedding the following day.
After letting the curiosity get to me for an hour, helping Father Terry calm the bride down enough to give us a better idea of what she wanted our choir to sing, I stepped away and got the chance to read my note.
It was from Sota; my heart almost stopped when I saw his name. He admitted to being one of the boys in flannel, dragged to the church by a friend a week ago, and recognizing me instantly. "The white collar suits you, Hank," it read. "Better than I thought it would."
He said a lot had happened since I left Selmer City. He was sorry for the way things ended, and wanted to reconcile. He promised to be at mass that night, to talk to me afterwards.
The nerves almost drove me crazy. Father Terry sent me to our room to calm down, laughing jovially at my quivering hands. "You're shaking worse than you did before the first time you led mass" he teased. "Go lie down, before you break something irreplaceable."
I stood by the doors to welcome people just before mass, and when I saw him, I couldn't believe I hadn't recognized him earlier. His hair was longer and his face was dirty, but essentially he was the same. He smiled and shook my hand, murmuring, "Hank," as a greeting.
I corrected him automatically: "Father Henry."
He merely laughed, giving me a look that clearly said 'You are always Hank to me.'
After the ceremony, I wished everyone well as they left, chatting with some families I was close to. Sota's friends left without him, and after speaking with Father Terry, I left to walk with Sota for a while.
"You look good in that uniform," he said after a moment, smiling. And I started to laugh; I couldn't help myself. I'd missed him so much, worried endlessly about him, and when we finally find each other again, he can only comment on my priest's collar. It was a completely Sota thing to say.
I told him about the letter his uncles had sent, and how worried I'd been. He shrugged, pulling his flannel shirt off after noticing a few people staring at him. He was quieter than he'd been when we were young; it was unusual, and I called him on it.
"I can't tell a priest these things," he answered. When I told him I was sure I'd heard worse in confession, he smiled and altered his answer, "Then I can't tell the man I love."
The words hit hard; he'd never said that before, and I reached for him, aching for him. We held each other close, my chin on his shoulder, his breath on my ear, trying to make up for everything we'd lost over the last five years. His grip on me was iron tight, fingers clenching in the small of my back. My time at the seminary was forgotten; it was as if we were back in Selmer City, enjoying the summer nights with the frogs and crickets. I felt that God had brought him to Tabitha, to me, for a reason, and I was pretty sure I knew what that reason was.
You see, I had recognized the blue flannel shirt. Sister Mary Elizabeth, a thin, sweet woman with dark doe's eyes, ran the shelter across town and had mentioned boys in blue flannel to Father Terry and me before. She was one of the kindest women I've ever had the pleasure to meet, and her only sin was a defiant anger towards Lyle Goldquiver, a pimp who worked specifically with boys, marking them as his with blue flannel shirts. Sister Mary Elizabeth, having worked to help the boys and young men who had been attacked or raped under Lyle's command, prayed for the day he was taken off the streets. She was never specific with the procedure.
I couldn't get Sota to admit to it, though. We met the following week after the Wednesday night communion, and while we continued to enjoy each other's company, I couldn't make him tell me why or how. He knew by then that I had noticed the shirt; he had trouble looking me in the eye.
The week after that, however, I convinced him to talk to me. "I'm a priest," I told him. "I listen to other people and forgive them for their sins. It's what I do. If you can talk to anyone, it's me."
So he told me about the four years he'd spent at Selmer City without me. The loneliness was unbearable, he said; "I never had any friends there, except you." His anger at my departure eventually faded into a terrible longing, but he was still ashamed at how he'd treated me our last summer together, afraid that I was upset with him, or had forgotten him in my quest for priesthood. So he just up and left Selmer City. "I couldn't take it anymore. It wasn't the same, without you."
Carefully, trying to be tactful, I asked him how he met Lyle. He made a face at the name, and I laughed hesitantly. Lyle had approached him in a diner in Chicago, bought him food and made him an offer that couldn't possibly be refused by a homeless, penniless boy with just a high school degree and a dying truck to his name: a thousand dollars or more a night, a house to live in, and safety from the reckless underworld. Sota had agreed. "I don't like it, but it's better than the alternative."
I felt a flash of anger and slapped him across the face. Not very hard; I was never what you'd call strong. But the fact that I'd done it surprised him, and he demanded I explain why.
I told him he was an idiot, and there were other alternatives. "Sister Mary Elizabeth runs a shelter I could take you to. She'd be happy to have you; it gives her a great deal of pleasure to 'steal back' boys from Lyle."
He shook his head. "He'd find me. He'd kill me."
"No he wouldn't." But even I wasn't sure. Sister wasn't always successful with the boys she tried to save. Sometimes they ran back, too afraid of Lyle's death threats to continue trying. Others had actually ended up dead on the streets. I wasn't going to tell Sota this, though; I was certain this was why God had brought him back to me. I was going to save him, bring him back to the light.
"I shouldn't even be seen with you," he whispered. "I could get killed just for this."
"You'll risk your life to sit here talking to me, but you won't go to the shelter 'cause you're afraid he'll kill you?" His logic baffled me, but when he put one hand on my face and scooted closer on our park bench, my frustration turned to curiosity.
"When I can actually see your face," he said, "my life seems worth risking."
I kissed him, one hand on the back of his neck; in the three weeks since he'd first come to the church, we hadn't kissed. I'm not sure why. But that statement, so stupid but so sentimental and honest... I couldn't resist him.
Even when he led me to a motel room.
"A motel room?" Les interrupts me. "You..." he doesn't finish. It's all right. I know his question.
"Yes. I knew that I was doing something the church wouldn't be happy about if they ever knew I did it, but I felt that if Sota could risk his life for me, well, I could risk a few things too."
"What about what you said before?" He asks. "About sodomy and..."
"It wasn't important. I'd devoted myself to God officially, but I had never shown Sota how devoted I was to him."
Les is looking at me now, finally, no longer afraid or ashamed. I smile at him. "Shall I go on?"
"Oh. Sorry. Yes, please, Father."
It wasn't quick, but it wasn't slow either. Everything was a contradiction, except for my love for Sota, and all the love and gratitude I had for God, for bringing him back.
We both knew that Sota had put a lot on the line for this adventure. Part of his wages that Lyle expected to take had been used to pay for the room. He was not supposed to sleep with those who didn't pay him. And he was not supposed to fraternize with those involved with the church. If he was somehow caught, well, he knew what his punishment would be. He tried to use this knowledge as an excuse to keep me there the rest of the night, but I had to get back to the church. I left him in the room, wishing I didn't have to even as I started the short walk back to the church.
I've never regretted what we did. Other priests had done worse things, and I knew that this was real. I did not sleep with Sota merely for the experience of sex, as I've heard some priests will do. I slept with him because I loved him, and I felt it was something God had intended me to do.
Though we continued to meet for weeks after, we never went back to the motel. Once was enough to satisfy Sota's curiosity, and I wasn't willing to press our luck anyway. We would go back to our park bench and just talk. I kept begging him to go to the shelter, and he kept refusing. Seeing a priest was easier to explain if he got caught. Going to the shelter, well... that would just get him shot. He was sure of it, and I couldn't convince him otherwise.
One night, about the beginning of December, I was in the middle of Mass when Sota stumbled through the doors. Father Terry went to see what was wrong, and I somehow managed to finish the ceremony before going to tend to him.
He was bleeding from a cut on his forehead, had a black eye and was breathing heavily, clutching his blue flannel shirt around him; for the first time, I noticed just how thin he'd gotten, and was suddenly more frightened than I'd ever been before. When he looked at me, I could see that fear reflected in his eyes, deep and resonating. Between the two of us, it was almost contagious; even Father Terry seemed jumpy.
"He was attacked in an alley," Father Terry explained; he was aware of my close friendship with Sota, though I've never been sure of how much he knew. "I've definitely seen worse, but the boy won't let us help him."
"I shouldn't even be here," Sota added, but he didn't sound as certain as usual.
Father Terry left us alone, and I got the story out of Sota. Someone had approached him with cash, led him to a nearby alley, and proceeded to try and beat him senseless. Sota reacted well, and managed to run after receiving only a few wounds. "He must've been high," Sota said, "he let me off easy."
Sota was hurting and exhausted. It didn't take long to finally convince him to go the to the shelter.
Father Terry used the church van to drive him there, and promised me he'd been successfully delivered to Sister Mary Elizabeth, given new clothes and fed well. For once, I felt content, like I'd done what God had intended me to do.
I visited Sota from time to time at the shelter. He was older than most of the other residents, but Sister Mary Elizabeth would never turn away someone who wanted out of Lyle's employ. She made sure he was happy and felt safe, just like the other runaways and homeless children who showed up on her steps. He was comfortable, and that made me happy. It was all that mattered to me.
Christmas Eve arrived, and while on a short break between the 7:00 and midnight mass, I went out to the front steps for a breath of fresh air. Christmas mass was always overflowing, as was Easter, and with it came a sticky, sweaty, very warm church, despite the chill outside.
Someone said my name, and I turned to see Sota at the bottom of the stairs. He was dressed in a white t-shirt and khakis, and he looked cold, but he declined my invitation to go inside.
"I'm running, Hank," he said, "come with me."
I felt this idea was very stupid, and told him so. The shelter was safe and warm. Lyle might know he was there, but he would never make it inside; there was nowhere Sota could be safer. I could tell that he was honestly itching to run, that he really felt it was the safer route, but he promised to go back to the shelter. "For you," he said, "only for you."
I didn't see him for days after that. No time. The church was incredibly busy for the days after Christmas, visitors coming and going, preparation for celebrations and parties, mass. I really just was unable to get away.
Then, on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, I went for a walk. It was late afternoon. The sun was just starting to set, and the air was pleasant. I was hoping to see Sota before having to go back for mass; I missed him.
I turned and responded politely, unsure of who I was talking to. His high cheekbones and thick eyebrows seemed familiar, but I couldn't put my finger on it.
"You're that priest that's always talking to Soda Sweet," the man said. I raised my eyebrows, now cautious; Sota had mentioned once that he often twisted his name for clients, under Lyle's threats, and usually used 'Soda Sweet.'
I told the man that 'Soda' felt better after talking to a man of God; he felt it cleansed him. The guy laughed.
"Not anymore. He's dead."
At first, the words didn't register; I asked him to repeat himself, which he gladly did. It was only then, when I realized what he was saying, that I recognized who he was: Lyle Goldquiver.
"God will punish liars and perverts," I told him helplessly, not willing to believe what he was saying. "As both, I'd be afraid for my soul, were I you."
"You call me a pervert?" He responded. "Soda obviously never told you the things he'd do for a couple hundred."
And I felt a sudden burning rage, hatred like I'd never known. Whether he was lying or not, he had no right to talk about Sota that way, soften that sound to make it into a word that represented the part of Sota's life he'd always hated. The part of his life, now stolen so easily, that Lyle had created.
It took every ounce of self-control I had (and I don't doubt a little help from God either) not to jump on Lyle and kill him right then. A life for a life; that's how it used to be done, back before Jesus, when God was a vengeful God. But I contained myself; I wasn't even sure if he was telling the truth or not.
"Is he really dead?" I asked stupidly.
"Since last week." Lyle took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it, and all I could think about was how that must've driven Sota crazy; he hated cigarette smoke and the headaches it gave him. "You seem doubtful. Why would I lie?"
"Why wouldn't you?"
"Listen you," His voice was suddenly threatening, and he jabbed the cigarette at me, punctuating every other word with things you don't say in polite company: "I'm sick of your church getting in the way of my business. So butt out. I knew Soda was sneaking off to see you, so I had him knocked off. Teach you a lesson. He was expendable. There are always desperate boys looking for cash, especially in this area, and he wasn't particularly good-looking or talented anyway. I didn't need him."
The basic message disgusted me: to Lyle, Sota was merely a way to get money, to be tossed in the trash after it broke, like a calculator or printer. Sota wasn't working the way Lyle wanted him to, so he was tossed out and trashed. I put the palm of my hand against my forehead, hurt and confused, and trying to ignore the clouds overhead, tinted blood-red by the setting sun, as if to mock me. The only person I'd ever felt a real connection to, the one person who had ever understood me... he'd asked me to run with him, and I'd refused. Would he still be alive if I'd gone?
"Sister Mary Elizabeth will know about this," I managed to threaten. "And the police."
"The old nun doesn't scare me, and the cops have never been able to catch me." He took a drag on his cigarette and grinned sadistically. "They never will."
But with a little help from some of Sota's friends, who were given refuge at the shelter, Lyle was caught, four months later, and tried for selling boys to men. He was shockingly killed while serving his sentence; a few of his former boys found him and suffocated him in the library. I couldn't help wondering if it was God's vengeful hand, sneaking around a little.
Five years later, I went back to the shelter to visit the kids and Sister Mary Elizabeth. While poking around, she came across an old blue flannel shirt.
"I usually burned these things as soon as they came in," she said with a noise of disgust, holding it up and shaking it out. "Hm. This is a big one. Must've been Sota's."
At the sound of his name, I immediately reached for the shirt, clutching its hem in my fingers, feeling the soft fabric on my skin. I knew that this shirt wasn't exactly something Sota would have wanted me to keep, but it was all there was left; a body was never found, and no one had expected to find it. Street kids die every day in Tabitha, and most of them go unnoticed. When I asked if I could have it, Sister Mary Elizabeth happily handed it over; she didn't want it, and while she knew it was the mark of a prostitute, she also knew that Sota had meant a lot to me, and was more than happy to help me remember him.
I left Tabitha not too long after that, and came here. Selmer City, still tiny and quaint as it used to be when I was a child, is just a twenty-minute drive from here. I like to go there when I have a chance, and remember Sota. It's good to remember him. Because I miss him.
Les stares at me, his face expressionless. I don't know what he's thinking until he says, "I'm sorry, Father."
"Can I ask you one thing?"
He hesitates, then sighs. "Do you still regret not running away?"
I don't even have to think about it. "Yes."
I smile slightly. "I'm going to tell you something I tell the Sunday School children, because I actually believe it."
"People talk about conscience and regret. I've always felt that those are just the voice of God, advising you. I never felt regret or shame about my relationship with Sota; God approved. But after declining my chance to run when Sota offered, well... I've regretted it for almost thirteen years. I tried to choose God over love, but I forgot one of the Bible's most important lessons."
"And what's that?" Les asks after a moment. I brush a lock of hair out of my face.
"Don't you know?" He doesn't respond. "Les, my boy, one of the greatest lessons the Bible teaches is that God is love. By loving, you become closer to God. I shouldn't have tried to separate the two. They're the same."
He blinks once, then stands up, rubbing his palms on his pants, exhaling heavily. "... Thank you, Father. You really helped."
"I knew that story would help."
He smiles and gives a small wave. "I'll see you Sunday."
Two months later. Football season is coming to a close, and some of the dads involved with the church have arranged a picnic to watch the Orange Bowl together. I'm not a football fan, so I've volunteered to do the week's shopping instead.
It's been a while since I've done the shopping; Father Michael actually enjoys doing it, and makes it his job every week. But the store never changes, and it's not like we buy too much anyway.
But while leaving the store, I drop one of my bags. Cans of soup scatter over the tar, and with a defeated sigh, I kneel to pick it all up.
"Let me help." Someone leans down next to me, reaching for cans. I lift my head and smile.
"Not a problem." He looks up with a grin, and it's like I'm seeing a ghost, because I guess I am: this is Sota's face, Sota's eyes, and most of all, Sota's smile. I jerk back, away from him, bewildered and more than a little frightened.
"Who are you?" is all I can say, rubbing one hand over my face. He blinks.
"... Minnesota Argaza, Father. But everyone calls me Sota."
I can feel the warm tears rolling over my skin before I realize anything else. "But... you're dead."
"Excuse me?" He looks honestly confused. I know my hair has started to grey, and I wear glasses now, but have I changed so much he doesn't recognize me at all?
"Sota... it's Hank. Henry Farmer."
His eyebrows shoot up, and he leans closer, one hand cupping my face. His bold moves are classic Sota.
"Father Henry," he says quietly before smiling. "You got old on me, jerk."
"We're the same age," I argue without thinking.
"I know. But you actually look twenty-five."
"... I'm forty-one."
"I never would've guessed!"
We both laugh, forgetting the dropped groceries and any other shoppers. My hand falls over the back of his neck, touching his hair, still the same rich brown it was when we were sixteen, all those years ago.
"Lyle told me you were dead," I explain finally, unsure of what else to say.
"And you trusted him?"
"You'd vanished, after promising to stay at the shelter. All Sister Mary Elizabeth could find was that blue shirt."
He makes a face. "That thing. Of course I left it. I freaked out one night and ran. That was all." His thumb gently brushes my skin. "I'm not dead yet."
"Praise be to God," I answer, bringing him closer, pressing my forehead against his shoulder as his arms fall around me. It feels right. Like God has given me one more chance to make up for my mistake.
So this time, when Sota makes his offer to run, promising that he has plenty of savings, a house, and a car, I run. Like the hounds of hell are on my heels, I run.
"Where's Father Hank?" Les asks. "I haven't seen him in almost a month. Is he sick?"
"No," Father Michael answers. "He's gone. Up and left one evening. Dropped off the groceries and took off. I don't know where he is.
Les blinks once, glances around the church, then smiles. "He ran. Good for him."
The sunshine is bright and blinding as Sota pulls the curtains back from the window. I lift one hand to block part of the light and smile at Sota's silhouette. I keep telling him he's going to get a nice set of love handles if he doesn't start exercising more, and the proof is right there in front of me, hanging over his jeans. Always morning people, both of us, I get up out of bed and wrap my arms around his thickening waist. I don't care that he might be getting fat; we're getting older, so that's all right. As long as he's not as skinny as he was back in Tabitha.
"Good morning, Hank," he says, turning around and kissing my forehead.
"Good morning, Sota."
"I love Saturdays. You know why?"
I do know why; he says this every Saturday. "Because you don't have to work, and you don't have to go to church?"
"Exactly. I can do whatever the hell I want."
I laugh and brush my hair out of my face. We're back in Selmer City, where Sota runs his uncle Daniel's restaurant, living in the house his uncles had left him when they died a few years ago. The rabbit pen is still in the backyard, now with just two rabbits, though we're currently trying to buy more, and we've been considering fixing up the barn and using it as a guest room, since neither of us cares too much for horses.
And I just love being back. I love the church festivities and the friendly neighbors. I love that everyone knows Sota and I live together, but if they have problems with it, they keep it to themselves. I love the solitude of this house, of the town itself, so very different from Tabitha.
And I love being with Sota. I've never been this happy.
"What should I make for breakfast this morning?" Sota asks, pulling on a pink, collared shirt as I stretch and start pulling on my slacks. "Eggs?"
"Let's go out for breakfast today."
"You know I love their french toast."
"My french toast."
"... Right. Of course."
Life is good for us here. Sota makes a nice amount of money off the restaurant, which Daniel had handled well while it was his, and taught Sota how to do the same. We go to church Sunday mornings, at my insistence, though I know Sota hates it, and to church gatherings whenever they occur. I volunteer at a shelter in a nearby city. And I look forward to tonight; every Saturday evening, we take Sota's new truck (now faded yellow, but otherwise still a junker) and drive out to the middle of nowhere and watch the stars move. They still move the same way they did on the night of our senior prom.
There are no regrets anymore, no stress, no beatings. Just the typical worries of two men coming upon middle age, two men who love each other dearly. It's almost as if my fifteen years as a priest never happened; Sota and I immediately sank into a pleasant routine and became even more attached.
I love my life, and I love God for giving it to me.
I love Him for giving me Sota.
And I love Him for teaching me that loving Sota shouldn't have to take a backseat to loving God. Because it's enough just to love.