13 – Chicago
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO
“So what happened then?” I asked him after giving him a moment to recollect his thoughts. “After you talked?”
He turned back to me. “And then he was gone.”
“Gone? Like vanished?” I thought back to how he’d disappeared after in the confessional.
But the other man was already nodding. “Vanished. It was just so sudden. One minute he was standing there. I turned away for no more than a second and when I turned back, he’d vanished.”
“Obviously, I couldn’t quite believe it. It had all been so real and my parents had seen the entire thing as well, so there wasn’t much chance of it being a dream or something. But I looked. He was just gone.”
“I went back inside, managing for the most part to dodge my parent’s questions. I still couldn’t quite decide what it was that I’d actually seen. Let alone try to convince either of them about anything.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to believe. I wanted to be sure that not only was my little brother still out there somewhere, but he’d found a way to come back and visit. But I was having something of a Doubting Thomas moment. Without real physical proof, how was I going to be able to separate the two.”
“But then by next evening, I’d begun to change my mind. Perhaps it really had all been a dream. The details were starting to grow a bit fuzzy. The way details do.”
I nodded my agreement. Try as I might, I couldn’t remember what the boy had been wearing. And that hadn’t been more than a few hours ago. “So what makes you think he came here?”
He shook his head. “Don’t play the innocent, padre. I know just as well as you do that he was here.”
I couldn’t quite tell if he really did know or if he was just trying to force a confession out of me. Still, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to humor him. Maybe I would get some answers.
“I might have seen him.”
He sneered. “Might have, eh? And here I always thought that lying was a sin.”
I could feel my face warming, but tried to tell myself that it hadn’t been a lie. Not really. Just an… omission of the entire truth. Okay, fine, so I was on thin ground. But on the other hand, there wasn’t much that I could say without breaking the seal of the confessional.
But how did that even work if what the man was saying was true? If the one that had come to confession had returned from the dead? It wasn’t exactly something that came up in seminary school.
But by this point, there was really just one important question in the back of my mind. One that had been bugging me since he’d brought up that it was his brother he was after in the first place.
“So why do you have the gun?”
He looked at me as if I should have known the answer without thinking about it.
“Because I have to kill me brother.”
14 – Rome
Sitting in the square, pretending to drink my over-strong Italian coffee, I reflected on the strangeness of my situation.
A month ago, I’d been minding my own business back home. After coming home from Iraq, I’d been given an extended leave of absence and my own posting in the outskirts of Chicago–not by the same people of course.
A few weeks ago, I’d been visited by an impossible young man and his vengeful older brother. Even after everything, I was still having trouble believing everything that I’d seen. Perhaps this was what it felt like to those without a strong faith?
A few days ago, I’d landed in Rome. Scant miles from the center of the very core of who I was, of what I believed. Less than a mile and I could be in Vatican City.
And now here I was, sipping coffee.
The world was a strange, strange place.
“So which one sent you?” Father Antonio’s words were jarring, forcing me back to a harsh reality.
“Which… what?” I turned back to see an almost bored expression on his face. But the boredom wasn’t mirrored in his expression…
“The one that sent you to me.” He said, clarifying nothing. “Was it Michael?”
“Michael?” I asked. Who was Michael? That could have been his name, I guess. I thought; he hadn’t told me his name.
He gave no sign that he understood my confusion for what it was. “Gabriel?”
“I don’t know,” I said, raising a hand to try to forestall any further questions. “He didn’t give a name.”
“Oh.” At least he did stop. “Can you at least describe him?”
“Tall. Thin.” I shrugged. “Older, I think.” Honestly, it had been hard to put an age to him. But he had to have been older because “He had white hair. Long. Pulled back into a loose ponytail. Angular features.”
He nodded. I didn’t see a spurt of recognition, at least not yet. “What about his voice? What did he sound like?”
I opened my mouth to reply… And paused. “I… I don’t remember.” That was strange. I could still remember his words, as clearly as when I’d first heard them. Truth be told, I remembered them better than I would normally have. But I couldn’t actually bring to mind the voice that had said it.
He nodded. “I’m guessing it was Michael then.”
“Who?” I asked, but then thought better of it. “And does it matter? He said that you were going to help me.”
The corners of his mouth twitched upwards at that, more so as I finished. “He did, did he. And did he say precisely what it was that I was supposed to be doing?”
Again, I found myself with mouth open, ready to speak, but with no words coming out. “I… can’t remember.”
He shook his head. Neither in disbelief nor anger it seemed, but more with a sort of bemused expression on his face. “Now that is a conundrum, isn’t it?”
“But what does it mean?” I asked him. “And why can’t I remember?” I felt my hands creeping up toward my head. I didn’t like not being in control of my own mind. I didn’t like losing control.
15 – Baghdad
SEVERAL YEARS AGO
Over the course of the next few days, I made every excuse that I could to go see the woman at the museum. For the most part, the fighting had moved on to other parts of the city, so there was less for us to do. On top of that, my position as chaplain allowed me a certain degree of autonomy. Even then I’ll admit to sneaking out without permission on at least one permission.
To another man, it might have seemed like I was falling for her. And really, in a way I was. No, not for her body, although I’m sure that was perfectly fine. No, I was falling for her mind. For the life that she’d lived.
Her parents had been a British archaeologist and an Iraqi businessman, a rare enough pairing even then. He’d met her during his travels to Egypt and they’d fallen in love at first sight. One of those sorts of stories.
When they’d had their daughter, they’d been traveling in South American. His business efforts took him all over the world, often for months at a time and often to out of the way corners. I never quite managed to get her to tell me what he had done, whenever it came up, she always managed to either change the topic or find something that suddenly required her attention.
Whatever it was, the travels had given her the mother to visit sites that she would never have been able to afford on her university grants. She was able to visit sites in the depths of the Sahara, up into the headwaters of the mighty Amazon, far from civilization in the Australian outback.
That was the life Amira had been brought up with.
Truth be told, I was jealous. It certainly made my small-town Midwestern life seem even more insignificant than I’d always thought it was. Yet for every question I asked her, she had two for me. For some reason, she was absolutely fascinated with the Catholic faith. Her father was a devout Muslim and her mother a lapsed Buddhist, although before they’d been married she’d officially converted.
Officially, Amira was Muslim as well. She prayed five times a day and dressed in the traditional Muslim garb. But she had a feel of someone reaching out into the world, one without a strong core faith of their own. I was more than happy to share mine when she asked, although from the impression that I’d gotten of her father, perhaps I was taking my life into my own hands doing so.
One aspect of Catholic teaching that she was particularly interested in was the four Gospels, the stories of Jesus’ life. She told me that Israel and Palestine had been one of the regions that her father had often been sent to during her later teenage years and in all those visits she’d grown to fall in love with the area.
So when she’d been accepted to a university in Jerusalem, following in her mother’s footsteps in the study of archeology, no one had been particularly surprised. It had been an intense four years, with times both brilliant and terrible. Yet, she persevered, graduating with honors. She continued on to graduate school, electing to study the thousands of years of history that all lay within a matter of miles of the campus.
It took a few days, but she finally told me the name of the business man on the cards. The one that had donated the pottery from the Mount of Olives to the museum.
16 – Chicago
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO
There wasn’t much that I could do but stare at him, unable to believe that he’d said what he’d just said.
“You hear me all right, padre?” he asked after a moment. He knew as well as I did that he’d heard me. Hearing wasn’t the problem so much as believing.
“I heard you.” I glanced down at the gun.
He followed my gaze, smiling as he did–this time it was most definitely not a pleasant sort of smile. Instead there was something almost predatory about it, something dark. “Oh, don’t you worry about this. I know that he’s not here any more. So I’ll just be on my way.” He turned back toward the door at the back of the church.
Without even stopping to consider it, I followed him. He had a longer stride than me, but each step took longer as well. It wasn’t any problem keeping up with him.
“Where are you going?” I asked him, just after he’d passed the last rows of pews.
“To kill my brother,” he said. The tone in his voice made me think he thought me daft. Of course he’d just said much the same, but that hadn’t been the question that I’d actually had in mind.
“No, I mean where are you going to look for him next?”
That was enough to stop him cold. He turned to stare at me, only a scant few feet from the back door of the church. I stole a quick glance towards the windows, but the red and blue lights of the cops were gone. So that plan at least was out of the question.
“You’re not going to try to stop me?”
“Why would I do that?”
He looked askance at me. “Because you’re a priest. Isn’t that what you do?”
“Honestly,” I said. “I’ve never actually had the opportunity to try to talk someone out of a fratricide before.”
“So what’s stopping you?”
“Well–” I paused. I hadn’t actually thought about it. He did have a point, there had to be a good reason. “–it seems to me that you’d have to have a good reason.”
“A good reason…” His voice was flat.
“If I’d just seen my brother come back from the dead, I can’t think of anything that I’d less like to do then see him back there. Much less to be the one doing the sending.”
He nodded. Thought for a moment. “You have any brothers, padre? Any sisters?”
I nodded slightly. “Two younger brothers and an older sister.”
“Where you close to any of them?”
Honestly, I hadn’t seen any of them in several months. But growing up, my brothers and I had been neigh inseparable. It had only been in the last decade or so–when they’d gone to college and I’d gone to the seminary–that we’d begun to drift apart. I nodded.
“Then you know how it is. How siblings just tend to know things about each other. How the bond between siblings is closer than even that of a parent and child?”
I couldn’t say that I quite agreed with him there. At least my parents still talked to me from time to time. But I nodded anyways, I wanted to see where he was going with it.
“That’s the sort of bond I had with my brother. We were close. We did everything together.”
I nodded agreement, still unsure what his point his was.
“So when he started to drift away from me, I was worried. He fell into the wrong sort of crowd. Starting getting involved in all sorts of nasty things.”
I nodded, a suspicion forming in my mind that I knew exactly where this was going to go. Not only did I already know how this particular story ended, it was one that I’d heard time and time again.
“Then, suddenly, he got better. For a week, it was like having the old Alex back. I should have known… should have thought…”
I finished for him. “But then it was too late.”
He nodded. For a moment, he was quiet. Then he turned and started walking towards the door again. His pace was even slower than it had been, almost dragging his feet along with each step. His next words were abrupt, coming in a rush.
“When he came back, he was different again. Even in his worst, darkest moments, even when he’d fallen in with–those people–he hadn’t been cruel. He hadn’t had a mean bone in his body.”
“The boy that you saw earlier? He was brother. Not anymore.”