Merry Christmas-in-July! If you're in the northern hemisphere, it's probably too hot to think about winter coats, snow, boots and mittens. But maybe it's just hot enough to make thinking about snow delightful (rather than shudder-worthy.) If on the other hand you're in the southern hemisphere, then maybe you can pretend you're having a "white Christmas" today.
This excerpt is from my Christmas novella The Boys Upstairs, the story of a jaded cop who's trying to help out three homeless kids. With the temperature below zero and falling three days before Christmas, he reaches out to the only person he thinks can help: his brother, a disabled priest, from whom he's been estranged for years. Only now they'll need to work together if they're going to save these kids.
I chose this scene, from Chapter 3, because the story Father Jay tells the kids was the first scene to come to me out of the whole novella; it's the reason I created all these characters. It doesn't get all the way into why he and his brother Kevin are estranged, but it's the start, and it shows a little of Jay's gentleness with the kids. He's carrying the knowledge he could do something a lot worse than any of his parishioners could ever do, and that's why he sacrifices so much to help them. Take a look.
Divine providence didn't have to alert Jay when the trio of newcomers tried to escape. The old rectory creaked with as many different tones as a symphony orchestra, and having been an escape artist himself as a teen, Jay knew what to expect.
And so it was that when Louis, Maria and Jamie got to the front door, one stuffed-full pillowcase in Maria's arms and Jamie in Louis's, Jay met them there.
“It's really too cold to leave in the middle of the night.” He gestured toward the parlor as the three children clustered together in fear. “I'd never hurt you, and I know I can't keep you if you're determined to go. But if you have to leave, you might as well leave in the morning.”
The kids shuffled into the parlor alongside the front entrance, and Jay turned on the lights so they could make their way onto the couch. He sat in a chair across the room.“Why are you leaving?"
Jay said, “I'm not a foster home here. The boys who live upstairs moved in because it was a warm place to stay. Most of them ran away from home too, or were thrown out.” He waited. “Where are you from?”
Louis answered, and Jay recognized the neighborhood, a twenty-minute drive from here. He asked if they had any family. They all looked at one another, and then Louis said no, they didn't.
Ah: so they did have family, but no one to take them in.
He asked if they went to school. Louis said sometimes. He asked if they liked school, and it turned out they did, kind-of.
Through all this, the kids looked at one another before answering, and Jamie never said anything at all. The youngest, he dozed against Louis's shoulder.
Maria looked right at him, frowning. “We don't want a new dad.”
Jay raised his hands. “I'm not anyone's dad. In the Church, priests are called Father, but I'm not anyone's father.”
There was a moment of quiet before Louis said, “And no new mom, either.”
Maria said, “Why are you doing this, then? Is it for the money?”
Maria said, “Why are you doing this, then? Is it for the money?”
Dear God, why did little ones have to get so cynical? He assured them that he received no money for having them in the house, nor did he want any.
“But you're crippled,” Louis said “So how are you getting money?”
Cynical and no punches pulled; an excellent combination for life on the street. “I'm a priest. The diocese pays me, and I do work for them.”
Maria said, “But if we run, you can't catch us.”
He shook his head.
“How'd you get hurt?” Louis said.
“I used to be a soldier. I was in Iraq, and I got hurt there.”
Louis sat forward. “A real soldier? Like you carried a gun and wore a uniform? Like GI Joe?”
Jay nodded. “Except I didn't have all that cool gear and neat code names like they do.”
Louis said, “And did the enemy shoot you?”
Ten years ago, a shattered army platoon had returned to base in a wrecked jeep with four of its soldiers barely alive. They'd driven over a land mine. A medical team had begun treatment the moment they'd stopped the vehicle, and shortly the wounded were transported to a combat support hospital. Within the hour the doctors passed the word back to their commanding officer that one had already died and the rest wouldn't survive the night.
The other three died before sunrise. Only Jay had survived.
“Did it hurt?” Maria said.
Louis shoved her. “Of course it hurt, idiot! He got shot bad enough to cripple him!”
Opting against explaining about ballistics, explosives and the more graphic parts of war, Jay said, “I was unconscious for a week, actually, so it didn't hurt at first. Later on, yeah.”
He'd been airlifted to Germany, where he stayed in a coma seven days. At every turn, the doctors had said, “We can try this procedure, but he most likely won't survive it,” and then they'd tried and he'd survived. But when they'd said he'd most likely have very little vision and no motion in either leg, that time they'd been correct. When Jay awoke, he couldn't see at all from his left eye, the right one unfocused spontaneously, and he was paralyzed from the waist down. At first his hands trembled so badly he couldn't write or hold a cup. It took another week to get him off the respirator.
Louis said, “You weren’t a priest back then?”
Jay nodded. “I didn't even believe in God back then. God was just something I said when I was mad.”
Maria said, “When did you become a priest?”
“Not until years later.”
Recovery had been so, so slow. Over time the tremors eased, the vision improved, and his strength returned. There had been physical therapy, tests, more tests, endless days in a hospital bed with a TV he couldn't see, medications that made him unable to think, and time. Lots and lots of time.
Louis said, “So you went back to the war?”
“I couldn't. I wasn't able to drive, I couldn't see, and I couldn't stand. I couldn't even read except by focusing on one letter at a time.” Jay sounded rueful. “If they'd put a gun into my hands, who knows what I'd have shot? The army sent me to a hospital in America.”
Maria said, “And then what?”
Jay let out a long breath. “Well--”
But these were kids. Telling this story to adults often made them say something tolerant like, “That's nice,” or Kevin's, “You've got to be shitting me!” But kids tended to trust in the bizarre. Would this cut through their cynicism, or would they also think he was lying?
“I hated it in the hospital,” Jay said. “I didn't want to talk to anyone. I hated the doctors, hated the nurses. I just wanted to leave.”
Louis sat forward, shifting Jamie on his lap. “Yeah!”
Oh, right, Louis felt like a caged tiger too. Jay nodded in response to his enthusiasm. “I wished I could escape, but I couldn't. Even if I left, I was stuck with myself.”
Louis and Maria were looking him dead in the face, waiting. Jamie snored lightly on Louis's shoulder.
“One day I heard some kids playing in the hallway. It sounded like they were saying, 'Take and read,' but they were really saying 'one-two-three.'“ He chuckled. “It was annoying me until I thought, 'Maybe I really should take and read something. It’s better than sitting here.' Someone from the hospital had left me a copy of The Lives of the Saints. They told a story about one hero for every day of the year, so I picked the hero for my birthday.”
Maria said, “Like firefighters and baseball players?”
“It was a different heroism,” Jay said. “The hero I found was a soldier, and he'd been injured just like me. His name was Ignatius Loyola.”
Louis was almost bouncing on the couch, Jamie bumping against him. “What did he do?”
Jay told them about Ignatius Loyola, how he was so vain that when he saw his broken leg was set crooked, he'd had his leg broken again to re-set it, and how during recovery he'd changed his mind and become a soldier for God instead; how he'd founded a group that sent priests wherever they were needed all over the world. He told them how another injured soldier had changed the world.
Because that night, Jay had been just as enthralled. He didn't get any sleep at all as he devoured the chapter one letter at a time, and then the next. By the end of August he had finished the entire volume, and several days later, steeling himself, he picked up the Bible. Again he opened at random. He read Mark 3:13.
“Jesus went up the mountain and summoned those whom he wanted, and they came to him.”
Jay had shut the book and lain still for an hour.
Louis said, “He just called anyone he wanted, and they came?”
Jay nodded. “Just like that.”
Maria said, “No one ever wanted us. They wish we'd never been born.”
“I want you here,” said Jay.
Ten years ago, that had been the first time he'd thought anyone had wanted him, too. Wounded and damaged, he'd had no more use in this world. His old friends had forgotten him. His family visited so infrequently that he could hear the renewed pain in their voices every time they saw him, as if they forgot between visits that fate had done the equivalent of running his life through a lawn mower. The army couldn't use him any longer.
By extension, God didn't need him to do anything—Jay knew that by rights he ought to have died in the Jeep. But what he'd just read belied that: God called those he wanted, not those he needed. And maybe, just maybe, Jay had survived for a reason. Maybe because he was wanted.
“And that's why you're here now,” Jay said. “If God called you and you came, I'm not sending you away. Even if God called and you didn't hear it, you're with me now. If you try to escape, you can always come back. But for now, I need to ask you to stay, at least until the sun's up and it's a bit warmer out there.”
Maria and Louis looked at one another.
“Can you do that for me?” Jay said.
Louis nodded. Maria consented as well.
“Then go back upstairs and get some sleep,” Jay said. “I'll show you around the church in the morning, and you can decide if you want to stay after all.”
Jane Lebak's first novel The Wrong Enemy (previously The Guardian) will be re-released this September by MuseItUp Publishing! She is also the author of Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children.