The lights came on in the rectory after Roman had left. Father Purgeon leaned more than stood by the stairway’s banister. The girl woke, propped her head up, and rested it on the arm of the sofa, startling the priest.
He turned to her. “Hi.”
Father Purgeon’s limbs felt as if they had been asleep. The nerves pinched back to life and he winced with their waking.
“You’re going to be okay. You’re safe here. Everything is going to be okay.” He couldn’t decide if he said it for her or for himself.
“He’s gone isn’t he?”
“Yes, he’s gone now.”
“We’ll be seeing him again.”
She sounded sure of this. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. “When and if he shows up, I hope he has answers. Right now, you’re what’s important.” He made his way toward her.
“Are you Roman’s friend, Father?”
“Purgeon, its Father Randolph Purgeon. Yes, Roman’s a friend of mine. What’s your name?”
“That’s quite beautiful. I don’t think I’ve ever come across that name before.” He saw how filthy she was. “You can use the bathroom. Wash up if you like.”
“I wish I could.” She pulled back the sheets and showed him her leg. Father Purgeon didn’t like what he saw: her right shin was swollen and red. “It looks worse than it feels,” she said, reading his reaction.
“I’m taking you to the hospital.”
Avalyn grabbed his arm. “You can’t do that, Father.” Her eyes begged his. “What about Roman? The others? What about what he said-what he is?”
He thought she’d been sleeping during his conversation with Roman. Apparently not. Her words disturbed him. Made him feel anxious. Thinking of the girl’s safety had relaxed him. It had given him something else to think about. Sane things. With the mention of his friend’s name, came the dread. There was no doubt as to what Roman was. Father Purgeon wasn’t surprised at this acceptance, but his trepidation remained.
“Give me a moment, I’ll be right back.” He walked past the couch and made his way to the bathroom. Moments later, he emerged with a first aid kit tucked under his arm and a basin full of water in his hands. He took a knee by her and wrung out one of the two submerged washcloths, then, began to wipe away the dirt on her face. He noticed her upper lip, how there was no indentation there. It was probably some sort of birth defect. It didn’t look like it though. It wasn’t disfiguring, just odd.
“Thank you, Father.” She smiled, though it never reached her eyes.
He cleaned her forehead. Washed away the dirt and dried blood from the deep gash there. Wiped away the blood he’d missed from her ear, gently drew her hair back behind it as he did.
Half an hour later, Father Purgeon was sitting in his parked car, gripping the steering wheel and looking up and down the street. He felt like a criminal. He’d left Avalyn upstairs after dressing her wounds as best he could, but knew her broken leg would need real medical attention. He couldn’t believe that he was actually going to do this.
As expected, the church was empty. The hour was late and the evening mass had long ended. As he reached for the ignition, he looked up at his window. He should just take her to the hospital and be done with this nonsense, but Roman’s warning played over in his head. “There may be those who wish to harm her. If for no other reason, but to get to me.” Father Purgeon’s mind swam with those words, especially the word those. It was hard enough believing in vampires let alone Roman’s inference to others. However, after seeing Roman, truly seeing him, Father Purgeon found it difficult ignoring his supernatural friend’s request.
Avalyn was adamant on holding to Roman’s instructions. Why? He thought of questioning her. But his compassion had ended that argument. She’d been through a lot. She’d just lost her mother. When she was ready to talk, she would. No use in trying to force her. Might make matters worse.
Janelle would have been about Avalyn’s age, if she’d lived. She’d died before her tenth birthday, three years ago. Father Purgeon had met many children like Janelle over the years at the after school program he’d created at the church.
She’s late again. Two hours late. Father Purgeon peels his eyes away from his watch. He shoves the hand into his pocket. He feels the girl’s eyes on him and looks at her. She looks away, busies herself by collecting her books and belongings. Father Purgeon cannot help but notice that her hands are trembling. As if sensing this, Janelle hurries to complete her task.
“Lauren’s mom comes by around this time. They’re not far from me. I’ll get a ride with them,” Janelle says, eyes downcast. “I’ve got my own keys.” She brightens some with this last statement, almost sounds like your average nine-year-old girl, and Father Purgeon realizes that it’s a declaration of sorts. She’s proud of having her own keys, not having to rely on somebody else for something.
Although he doesn’t want to dash her resolve, kill her independence, he doesn’t think it’s appropriate for a nine year old to be home alone.
“Nonsense,” Father Purgeon says. “We could grab some pizza. Though I’m sure you can take care of yourself for a few hours, probably even fix yourself something to eat, why don’t you let me take you home? I can keep you company until your mother gets there.”
He’s not going to let her wait for her mother by herself, regardless of her decision, but he knows that it’s important that she decide. That she make the choice. If for nothing more than to give the girl a sense of empowerment, a sense of control in her otherwise chaotic world.
Janelle finally looks at the priest and smiles. “Ok, Father.” She throws her book bag over her shoulder and reaches for his hand.
He thanks God for that.
Back in the present, Father Purgeon knew he was wasting time. Either he took Roman’s warning seriously or he didn’t. Take the child to the hospital, as his conscience dictated, or secret her to the church.
What would Nancy think if she were alive? He could picture her clearly, as if she’d just died yesterday instead of a couple of years ago. The way she frowned without visibly showing it. The way he’d feel it more than see it, hear it in her voice. That mellisonant voice. Its melodic tilt, always sweet and harmonious. Even when she was angry. Even when she was hurting.
He’d hated disappointing her. He’d never wanted a crestfallen look to cloud her face. He felt his throat tighten and his heart pump. God, he missed her. He felt the remorse rise, shedding aside the sheets he’d shoved it under ever since she’d passed away. The regret for making the wrong choice. A choice he’d regretted making every day he’d lived without her. Back then, that sorrow had threatened to drown him. Promised to fill his lungs and disallow even the tiniest wisp of air entry. Those questions had plagued the priest throughout their relationship and long after her death, especially as he’d watched her wither to nothing, as the cancer had ate her up from the inside out. After her death, he’d blamed himself for not shedding aside his post, his consecration to God and the church, for her, for them.
Though he may never accept the choices he’d made, he accepted the pain now, as he hadn’t done then. Would she think him mad for even considering this, for endangering a child, by not taking her to the hospital, based on the word of a self-confessed killer? She’d want what was best for the child. But what was best for Avalyn? Would he be placing her in danger if he brought her to the hospital? Maybe. Seemed like doing the right thing might be the wrong thing. The worst thing.
It was a question of faith, not of practicality. Wasn’t it always? Hadn’t he asked the same from Roman? Wasn’t it what Roman was asking from him now?
“Killing yourself isn’t the answer, Roman.”
Six months in. It’s the first time Roman has mentioned it. Father Purgeon should have known it would eventually come up. After all, the signs were always there. Depression. Self-loathing. Aimlessness. Despair. He’s just glad that he’s not the one bringing it up.
“Just an option, Father. Besides, I hate everybody else too much for that.”
Though the priest knows Roman’s hatred isn’t relegated to himself, that he does, in fact, despise humanity, he believes that Roman only mentions his universal loathing to cover up his pain and the severity of suicide.
“It shouldn’t even be an option,” Father Purgeon says. “I don’t think anyone should give up. Nobody has the right to kill themselves.”
“That is not true, Father. People give up every day, on everything and everyone. They give up for the best of reasons and the worst. For the smallest of reasons and the biggest. As long as there is a reason, it does not really matter what it is. And as for rights, well, who has the right to live. Who is to say? Rights are a manmade concept. As all living things, we are given the chance to live, not the right, nothing more.”
“Then you believe that your life is your own; that you have exclusive rights to it. You believe that life’s not a gift. That it’s some random act. If you believe these things then I see your point,” Father Purgeon says, knowing he’s treading on dangerous ground, knowing Roman isn’t bluffing. He knows Roman isn’t just crying out for help, as most of the supposedly suicidal. No, Father Purgeon has been around more than his fare share of the unbalanced. Roman isn’t seeking sympathy. He’s seeking closure. Over what, the priest can only guess. But if he has to, he would say that Roman is seeking closure on himself.
“You call it a gift. I call it a curse. Perspectives, Father. Perspectives. Nothing more.” A flash of Roman’s face; the epitome of despair. “Life must be random. If it has a purpose, if we have a purpose, then why do we not know this purpose? Why do we not remember from whence we came? We do not embark on a journey without knowing why we do. Why should this one, the most important journey of all, rely on faith alone?”
“The soul already knows. But the information doesn’t make you wise. Living teaches us. Life teaches the mind more than it teaches the soul. You cannot truly learn or understand something without experiencing it. All the information in the universe won’t give you the wisdom to wield it, not without experiencing it.”
Roman sighs, heavily, exasperated. “If we were born knowing, then we would be doubtless. Then we would be faithful. Then we would believe.”
“But then, we’d have no choice to make,” Father Purgeon says. “For it would have been made for us already. Knowing would reveal the truth. Impossible to deny.”
“No, Father. I believe that even with that knowledge, man would deny the truth. Man will still have a choice to make. You would be surprised as to how many would still choose the dark. Choose suffering.”
“Well,” Father Purgeon says, “I think it’s safe to say that we’ll never know the answer to that one. Not on this plane of existence.”
“Yes, Father. Sadly, you are right. Within this realm, all we have is faith. Too bad. For faith is not enough for me.”
The memory faded.
Father Purgeon had asked Roman to have faith when he’d clearly had none. He’d asked him to keep living a life he’d given up on. If Father Purgeon could ask him to live a life that was clearly torturous for him, then how dare he not give Roman a single night?
Roman had saved Avalyn, and for that alone, Father Purgeon would trust him.
He pulled his hand away from the ignition, opened the door, and left the car. He walked to the rectory, his worries accompanying him.
When he got back upstairs, he saw that Avalyn had been crying. Her eyes were red, the skin around them puffy.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked. He wanted to take away her pain. When she didn’t answer, he walked over to her.
“My mother,” she paused, swallowing a sob. Her eyes were closing. She blinked back exhaustion. “There was nothing I could do.”
He sat next to her on the couch’s edge. “She will always be with you. She’d be happy that you’re alive. Happy that you’re safe. I’m sure she would have sacrificed anything for that.”
He felt like he should say more. Yet, what could he say? That it was her mother’s time? That it was part of God’s plan? That we had to accept it? She saved him the trouble.
“I know she’s in a better place. I know I’ll see her again.”
Though he believed these things, he understood why so many didn’t. After all, he knew how she was feeling. He’d mourned Nancy for quite some time. A part of him still did. A part of him always would.
“Don’t be afraid, Father,” she said, her voice sounding slurred and heavy, eyelids drooping. “Mom told me I talk in my sleep. She wanted me to see someone for it. But I helped her understand.” Her voice was no more than a whisper now. Her eyes closed. “You might hear me, but don’t wake me.”
He waited until her breathing was deep and steady. When he was sure that she was asleep, he rose with her in his arms and carried her to the stairs.