Bryant spent most of the day cleaning his office and going through old patient files. Sometimes he’d groan at his dictation, sometimes he’d smile. But mostly he tried to find a good home for the kids who’d put their faith in him.
A couple of times he glanced into the parking lot he shared with the church and spotted a black Ford Expedition parked in the back of the lot with a man behind the wheel. He wondered who the man was or why he’d be sitting there for more than an hour—but not enough to act on the thought.
Instead, he tried to focus on his travel plans. Where would Kate want to go should she have the chance? He’d become a surrogate for her dreams as he sat hunched over his computer screen staring at a map of the globe trying to figure it all out.
Finally, he remembered a conversation they’d had about the Grand Teton National Park and how close it was to Yellowstone National Park. The same visitors pass worked for both sites. She was excited about the concept and even purchased airline tickets. That was two weeks before she’d discovered she was pregnant with Megan.
Two weeks later, they’d called it off. Megan’s health and safety was priority one, and there ended the traveling plans for good.
Now, Bryant pounded his computer keyboard with a purpose. He made airline reservations for Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in three weeks and was about to find a hotel when he felt his stomach growl. He looked up to realize it was past three o’clock and he still hadn’t had any lunch.
He opened his mini refrigerator and found a jar of mayonnaise and a can of Diet Pepsi. He glanced out the window and knew there would be food in the church kitchen. While heading across the parking lot, he noticed the man in the black Ford Expedition still in the vehicle, a phone to his ear, staring at him. This time Bryant stopped and stared back until the man looked away. Bryant didn’t know what to make of it, but this was a church, not a jewelry store worthy of casing, so he sidestepped a few puddles and kept moving.
Bryant pulled on the door to the employee entrance and was grateful to find it open. It led him into the employee kitchen where a tray of dried-up sandwiches sat on the counter next to the sink, waiting to go in the trash. Bryant grabbed two sandwiches and found a Diet Coke in the refrigerator. He was standing over the sink, halfway through the second sandwich, when a graying woman with a purple apron swung into the kitchen from the dining hall. She smiled a sad smile, then reached for him.
“Michael,” she whispered as she hugged him.
“Good to see you, Norma,” he said, hugging back. He looked down at the sandwich. “Is it okay?”
She waved her hand. “Of course. They’re from a Bible study group that left an hour ago.”
Bryant looked over her shoulder at the door leading to the church.
“He’s in there,” she said, smiling.
“Thanks,” he said, shoveling the remainder of the sandwich in his mouth and taking a final gulp of his soda.
He was still wiping his mouth with his hand as he entered the back of Saint Andrews. There was a stillness that brought a strange comfort to him. Maybe the familiar environment, maybe the lack of people. Only two people were visible. Father Joe was wrapping up the power cord of a vacuum cleaner, while a young female parishioner sat by herself in the second row of pews.
Bryant moved along the back wall of the church until he got to the row of candles that fronted an alcove displaying a statue of Christ on the cross. It was a statue he’d seen many times before, but now he viewed the image as if for the first time. He truly understood the agony Jesus must have felt, all alone, no one to trust.
Bryant knelt on the padded kneeler and silently prayed for forgiveness. He wanted to be forgiven for everything. Everything he’d done. Everything he thought he’d done. And everything he’d thought of doing. He desperately longed to be with his family once again and he prayed for that chance. All the while wondering what good it would do.
Behind him came a low sob. The girl in the second pew was crying. Father Joe was there next to her speaking in soft tones while her head drooped and her shoulders bobbed up and down with grief. The girl was in good hands. No one was better at consolation than Father Joe.
Bryant continued his prayer, conjuring up images of Kate and Megan. After just a few minutes he felt a presence. Not the spiritual kind, but the familiar dry cough of a former twenty-year smoker.
“Hey, Joe,” Bryant said without looking back.
Father Joe waited patiently as he always would, never a moment sooner than necessary. He almost never spoke first, as if he needed to hear your initial words to determine how best to guide you.
Bryant stared at Jesus and said to the priest, “What’s it like up in Heaven?”
“Are you planning on leaving us prematurely?”
Bryant shook his head. “You should’ve been a psychiatrist.”
“But I am,” Father Joe said. “I’m a guidance counselor, a gym teacher, a nurse, a hustler . . . and sometimes all in one day.”
Out of sheer habit, Bryant made the sign of the cross with his hands, then stood to face the priest.
“Anything I can do for you?” Father Joe asked.
“Just praying,” Bryant said. Leaving it at that. Even though deep down he knew it was merely a form of self-therapy.
“I’m glad,” Father Joe said, his Irish lilt sneaking out. “We could all use a bit of repentance now and then.”
“Who said I was repenting?”
Father Joe frowned.
Bryant glanced over the priest’s shoulder and noticed the girl still in the second pew, on her knees, head down. His curiosity took hold of him for just a moment, then he realized his mistake and looked away from her.
“She’s in deep despair,” Father Joe said, following his gaze. “She seems to have run out of places to go and people to trust.”
“That’s a shame,” Bryant said.
When Father Joe looked back at him, Bryant saw something in his face he didn’t like.
“No,” Bryant said, his voice echoing throughout the tall ceilings.
“But, Michael, you don’t even know what I was going to say.”
“Of course I do and the answer is no.”
“She’s young,” Father Joe said compassionately. “Still a teenager.”
“No,” Bryant said, holding up both hands and taking a step back.
“But Michael,” Father Joe leaned forward to compensate for lost ground. “You’re the reason she’s here in the first place.”
That one threw him. “Huh?”
“That’s right. She’s a patient of Frank’s and tried to see you, but was refused the opportunity. Rather rudely, I might say.”
Bryant squinted at the girl until he recognized her picture from the newspapers. She was the alien girl.
“Margo Sutter?” he asked.
“You remembered her name,” Father Joe said. “That’s a start.”
Bryant backed away slowly. “Sorry, Joe. I don’t practice medicine anymore.”
“Who says you have to practice anything? Just speak with her for a minute.”
Bryant watched Margo push off the kneeler and sit back into her seat. She didn’t appear to be crying anymore. It was his nature to help, but he was fighting a righteous battle.
“What are you so afraid of?” Father Joe asked.
“For some reason this girl seems to frighten you. I can see it in your eyes.”
Bryant thought about it. Then the obvious occurred to him. He cocked his head.
“You and Sully are conspiring to find the exact patient who would fit my area of expertise. A teenager. This is no coincidence. You want me to become engaged with my career once again, but it’s not working.”
Father Joe blinked innocent eyes. “I wish I had that kind of foresight, Michael. The fact is, there are a lot of teenagers out there with problems. Finding one who is searching for guidance is not that much of a stretch. You’d know that better than anyone.”
Bryant examined the priest’s expression. He was a cool customer. Not a trace of deception to be found.
Bryant rubbed the back of his neck, while tapping his shoe on the floor. Margo’s shoulders shuddered slightly. He stared down Father Joe with his index finger pointed at the priest’s sternum. “Just this once,” he said. “After that I’m making no promises.”
“Well, that’s grand, Michael. I will not intrude on your time ever again.”
Bryant groaned. “All right.”
“She’s an orphan,” Father Joe said.
Bryant raised his eyebrows.
“That’s right, just like you.”