100-Word Challenge: Chapter Nine


 

Stuck in Customs / Foter

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

I wake in darkness. The room is quiet except for the hum of a swamp cooler wedged into the room’s only window. Little streams of light peak around the edges of the pull down blinds. As my eyes adjust, I see a small desk with a chair, a couple of overloaded bookshelves, and a coat rack. I sit up, my shoulder aching, but not enough to keep me down. Swinging my legs off the edge of the ancient cot I’m on is a struggle. I haven’t felt this weak since the day of my fall. I head for the door, anxious to find Julia, afraid of where I may have ended up.

I open the only door and squint as bright light penetrates the room. I walk into the light, accepting that I am at the mercy of whoever is there. To my surprise, and disappointment, there is no one. The room has the too sterile feel of a hospital waiting room, minus the nurses, or the music piped in through decades old speakers. There are pictures of old California missions in black and white, and a small, uncomfortable looking bench pressed against a wall. Two other doors flanked the one I had come through. One leads to freedom, the other, answers. I choose the other.

I walk into the sanctuary of a church, pleased to see the small, tasteful place of worship rather than one of the mega-churches. I’ve never understood the appeal of so much splendor. The money spent on such complexes rivaled the greatest temples of ancient times. Worship, true worship, did not require gold and glass. It required faith, nothing more. Worn wooden benches line the sanctuary in perfect rows. I pass them as I head to the alter, the weight of my imperfect faith pulling me forward, drawing my eye to the simple cross hanging at the back of the apse.

I kneel at the steps leading up from the sanctuary and bow my head. Prayer comes hard to me. It always has, and I think it always will. Humans always assume that they are the only ones who seek God through prayer; they would be shocked to know that Angels musk seek his wisdom, and guidance, much in the same way. An eternity spent in His light makes it easier to understand His will, and to feel His blessing upon you, but He rarely speaks directly with all but the highest of hosts. I have prayed little since I left the heavens.

I am silent, uncertain where to begin, or even how. I remember the words of an old priest that I had been watching over nearly a thousand years ago. He said, “God does not care how beautiful your words are. He only cares that you speak.” It sounded better in old French, but the words were strong and true, or at least it seemed so to me. The priest died days later from smallpox. Few of his parishioners had been upset. I suppose that their own, personal, losses had been hard enough to bare.

“Lord, I have been away for many earthly years, and I still do not understand your ways. It has been pointed out to me that I have thought much of myself, and I’m afraid they are right. I wish I could set my doubts aside and rejoin you, but I have not been able to. I am still trying to understand, and I suppose that the trials I have faced will help guide me to the answer, but I am not ready to surrender myself back to you once more. Please, grant me the strength to help the people who need me. I can’t abandon them to the darkness. Julia is a good soul, who was lost, and I will not abandon her.”

“I don’t expect you to answer me, but I ask that you guide me to the truth and understanding I seek. I sense there is more here than I know, and I will be strong and persevere in your name. Though I question your methods, I still love you and wish to bring you honor in all things. Thank you for giving me the chance to learn.” I stop my prayer, uncertain how to continue. I stand and turn my eyes back to the cross. I am broken hearted and confused, so I turn away, only to find that I am not alone.

“Pardon me. I did not wish to interrupt you.” A tall, handsome man stands in the doorway. He is clean and modestly dressed; a human mirror of the church he presides over.

“You didn’t, Father. Thank you for waiting. Prayer does not come easy for me.” I step away from the alter, and walk to the priest. “You have a lovely church. It moved me to try.”

“It is a shame that it takes a church to make you speak to the Almighty, but I am glad it has done so just the same.” He offers his hand to me and says, “I am Father Gabriel.”

“It is nice to meet you, Father,” I say.

“Thank you. This church has been my home ever since I left seminary. I am quite attached to it.” He smiles as he speaks, and I find myself smiling with him. “I suppose you are wondering where your friend ran off to.”

“I was actually, though I don’t think she has gone too far.” As scared as Julia might be, I still don’t doubt her loyalty. She would stay close until she was sure I was alright.

“She is fine. I placed a cot in the church cellar, and let her rest once we had you patched up. You were in pretty bad shape, but you seem to have recovered very well.” He looks me over once before continuing. “Honestly I thought we would have to send for an ambulance, but your friend insisted that I not do so. She can be very convincing.”

“Yes, she can be.” Julia is hard headed and obstinate, whether high or clean. “Thank you for taking care of her.” I look down at my shoulder and say, “us, I mean.”

“You are welcome, though I have to wonder why she brought you here instead of the hospital.” he says.

“It is complicated I’m afraid, but the easy answer is to say that some very bad men are looking for us, and the hospitals are most likely being watched. The second is that I have always found comfort in churches.” I did not feel it necessary to share that being inside one assisted in my healing.

“The world is full of bad men. Perhaps the police could help.” Father Gabriel says.

“These bad men would not care if police were involved. They own some of the police, and they are not above killing those they don’t.” I look up at the simple stained glass windows of the church, seeking solace but finding none. “I’m afraid that hiding is our best option, at least for now.”

The priest looks at me, cocks his head slightly, and says, “I don’t know what sort of trouble you two are in, but you are welcome to hide here as long as you need.”

“Thank you, Father, but we won’t stay long. It is better for us to keep moving. I have a friend who may be able to help us if we can get to him,” I say before turning my eyes back to the cross. “Still, Julia has been through a lot lately, and if she can sleep for a while longer, that might be best.”

Father Gabriel scratches his head for a moment before speaking. “I would think that you are the one who needs more sleep. You should not even be up and around, much less worrying about someone else.”

“I’m a quick healer, Father, and I’ve always been more interested in helping others than in helping myself,” I say.

The priest laughs and says, “have you ever thought of a life in the priesthood? We care for the flock more than for ourselves, and there are a lot fewer bullets involved.”

I smile back at him. “Believe it or not, I had thought of joining the ranks of the priesthood, but my faith has been a little shaky for some time now.”

“If you ever meet a priest who doesn’t question his faith once in a while, you let me know, okay?” Father Gabriel said with a laugh.

“I will, Father. How long has Julia been asleep?” I ask. I want to let her sleep as long as she can, but staying here puts Father Gabriel, and his wonderful church, in danger. It won’t take long for Hector to hear about his men, and to start scouring the area for the two of us.

“It has been about six hours now. You were pretty hurt, so it took me a while to get you squared away.” Father Gabriel smiled as he spoke. “She was so tired that I think she fell asleep before she was even lying down.”

“She went through a lot yesterday. I wish I could say it was over, but I think it is going to get a little harder from here.” I want to let her stay here and sleep, but there is so much to do, and I know Alfred’s men will be looking for her as well as me. Of course now that she’s clean, they might not even recognize her. Give her a shower, a couple days of good food, and a change of clothes, and she could get out of here, maybe even head back home. A plan begins to form in my mind.

“Father, do you think she could hide here a little longer?” I asked, knowing there were risks for both Julia, and for the priest. It may end up less of a risk than if I took her back into the open with me.

“Of course, but didn’t you say someone would come looking for both of you?” he asks.

“Yes, but if they come looking after I’ve gone, you can tell them that we were here, but left after staying the night.” I pause and think for a moment before continuing. “You can tell them we’re heading into downtown.” It was the truth, though I didn’t tell him that.

“And they’ll just run off after you?” he asked.

“Yeah. The way I figure it, they are in a hurry, and they’ll move fast in order to catch up to us. Being out for as long as I was took away some of our advantage, but I don’t think we’ve lost it all yet,” I said. “Tell them I’m heading to the Hitaratsu building. That ought to put them in a frenzy.” I still haven’t figure out how Hitaratsu figures into all of this, but I know it is important to Alfred, so it should provide a distraction long enough for me to gain some space.

“And what about Julia, when she wakes up?” asks Father Gabriel. “I don’t think she’ll be happy to see that you’ve left.”

“No, I don’t suspect that she will, but she will definitely be safer. Tell her I will be back for her as soon as I can, or tell her to go home, and make sure she knows I mean her real home, not the one in the slums.” I pause and look into the priest’s eyes, letting the smallest trickle of power flow between us. “The farther away from this city she gets, the safer she will be.”

 

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