Church bells toll above my head, announcing the 6pm call to prayer. A sound that once brought memories of peace and purpose to mind.
Now it’s nothing more than a source of torment.
A cruel mockery.
The most condescending reminder of my place in this world.
At thirty-five-years-old, I’ve managed to achieve what most priests take decades to do in this world: I was appointed as rector of one of the largest cathedrals in this part of New York.
The neighborhood struggles, which makes the size and beauty of the cathedral stand out all the more, but that was part of my calling to this place.
Why I worked so hard to get here.
I wanted to help guide the people of my old neighborhood, where I grew up before signing up to fight in the Iraq War.
Although the truth is much more complex than that. It was originally my little brother’s calling. He’s the one who grew up wanting to serve the church.
But he signed up to fight in the war, too.
Only one of us made it back.
His death plays out in my nightmares most nights. That mortar ripped him right open.
I wish it had killed him on impact.
The memory of his guts hanging out while he pleaded with me to deliver his last message to our mother . . .
He didn’t ask me to take his place in the church; I decided that on my own.
Charlie’s memory deserves no less.
Besides, it’s a good calling. An honorable one. Perhaps more honorable than my decision to enlist in the war and fight on behalf of this country.
A life of purpose—that’s what I built.
It’s disappearing nowadays.
No, it’s being destroyed. Ruined by the very temptation we preach against. The temptation I swore to turn my back on when I became a man of the cloth.
You’ve failed, ricochets through my mind for the millionth time. Maybe I haven’t given in to the physical urges, but mentally I’m deep within hell.
I stare ahead at the massive Christ on the cross that hangs on the stained glass window in front of the altar.
That means something to me. It always did. Yet, lately, I’m having a harder and harder time remembering that.
Brown eyes . . . or are they hazel? Sometimes it seems like they flashed between either shade.
Which just proves how crazy I am. No one’s eyes change colors like that.
I turn and see Ms. Cortez smiling up at me. She’s a regular at the church.
In the confessional, too. It’s why I know almost everything about her life. Her history. Never met her around the neighborhood until I became a priest, but she’s a welcome fixture in my life at present.
Flawed, like all God’s children, yet her soul is pure. Grateful. Happy.
Considering where my thoughts just started to drift to, again, I feel unworthy of her caring presence.
“Ms. Cortez.” I dip my head in greeting. “How are you this evening?”
“Disappointed. If you’re standing out here, that means it’s Father Raul in the confessional tonight.”
As it is every Thursday night, which she well knows.
And as with every Thursday—or any day that I’m not the one taking confessions—she never misses her opportunity to chide me about it.
I take in the large confessional booth on the right side of the church. We’re one of the few remaining churches to still have one. Most use reconciliation rooms nowadays.
Soon, both versions might be gone. Catholics are confessing less and less. Ms. Cortez is one of maybe five parishioners that remains devout enough to practice the Sacrament of Penance.
“He’s an even better listener than I am, Ms. Cortez. I promise,” I say, playing along.
“Lourdes,” she admonishes, shaking her head. “I’ve told you a million times, my name is Lourdes.”
It’s another of her requests that remains unheeded. Keeping a professional distance from our parishioners is important.
“Besides, I feel more comfortable telling you my secrets. Only God knows why.” Her dark eyes dart toward the figure of Christ I was staring at.
If I believed that to be true, I would stop taking her confessions entirely. If she were just ten years younger, I’d probably be worried.
But she’s just an old woman that loves to tease, and to be honest, her jovial personality is one of the many things I like about her. She brightens up the church each time she walks in. “Ms. Cortez, confession is good for the soul. You aren’t forced to go, but—”
“It’ll help me unburden. I know, I know.” She smiles with amusement and turns to walk toward the confessional, her cane tapping against the marble floor. “Lord knows I need it.”
Ms. Cortez is a very kind woman who has lived a very hard life.
As most of the people around these parts.
It’s nothing compared to what low income people in other countries go through. As someone who was deployed to Iraq, I saw that first hand. But suffering is relative, isn’t it?
They don’t know anything worse and compared to the successful in this city, their plight is arduous and painful.
I watch her amble into the confessional with her cane, a small smile on my face. It’s the closest I’ve come to peace in a week, my soul realigned with my true calling—
Golden hair glows at the corner of my eye, in contrast to the nearly black interior of the church.
It could be anyone, yet I know it’s her before I even complete turning in her direction.
My new distraction is a lonely figure among the rows of dark pews.
I’m not surprised to find her velvet stare locked on me. It’s the same expression she gave me last week when she first came in here.
When I first sensed the isolation and longing leaking off her, the yearning to connect with something larger than herself.
That same bolt of heat that obliterated me the first time returns with a vengeance. It’s like our Lord has decided to smite me on the spot, and I half-expect to find myself melting into the ground from the brutality of it.
That lost expression is nowhere to be found. In a long-sleeved black sweater that blends in with her surroundings, she sits there and analyzes my response to her presence.
Like she can sense the irrational hunger she’s set off inside me.
Like she’s somehow feeding off it.
Turn around. Leave. Don’t engage. The rules of war sometimes dictate that retreat is the better option.
And this is war. I have no doubt about it. A test of my faith through and through.
Did I miss sex? Some days, yeah. I’m not going to say I got around much when I was younger. I enlisted at eighteen and went off shortly after. My brother came three years later. We had our fun with the guys while on base, yet it was war in a broken country. The chances weren’t as abundant, even with all the women that served alongside us.
For the last week though, it’s become a raging demon in my gut. A turbulent force that’s banging against what I now know is a fragile door.
All because of her.
I almost dredge up the willpower to walk away from her. Swear to God, I almost do. But then my eyes caress that elegant face. The curve of her lips, titled in an almost Mona Lisa-isque grin. Her body is hidden from my view, yet my twisted imagination has no trouble conjuring up the visual.
There’s something about her skin. It’s otherworldly. Perhaps a trick of her makeup. Nowadays the beauty industry is good like that.
No. It’s beyond that. Almost . . . unnatural.
Every bit of that woman’s beauty is fucking unnatural.
I haven’t mentally cursed in so long that the thought takes me by surprise.
It’s official. I’m back tracking into the old me. Slipping at a precarious rate. I don’t understand why God sent that woman here, but if it’s meant as a test, I’m going to fail if I don’t get away from her.
So what do I do instead?
What I didn’t have the courage to do last week.
With blood rushing viciously into my groin, the erection on the verge of becoming visible to everyone in my church, I walk to where she sits.
She watches me every step and her eyes are the only part of her that move to track me. Evincing a serenity that’s at odds with the other aspects of her, she sits and waits patiently.
Her smile is all-knowing.
I slide into the pew next to her, compelled by an urge that’s as old as time and somehow incomprehensible, and the truth becomes clear as day to me.
This woman knows I desire her.
And she wants me to.
“Good evening, Logan.”
Her voice is almost as much of a gut punch as realizing that she knows my name. Heat rushes up my neck and I cough into my fist, fighting not to choke on my breath. “Father Logan,” I correct her, because dear God, if she says my name with that silky voice again I’m going to—
“Logan,” she says again calmly, defying my request.
There’s something surreal about this encounter.
Or perhaps I’m just a dumbstruck fool in the grips of lust.
“Who—who are?” I ask, chest racing.
“Athaliah. But you’re welcome to call me Thali.”
That name leaves me reeling.
Athaliah. A biblical name. Old Testament.
The daughter of Queen Jezebel of Israel.
Yes. That Jezebel.
The woman before me—Athaliah—stands, and I’m left staring down the length of her body.
Jesus save me. It’s even more gorgeous than I imagined. Her tight black sweater hugs her midsection and leads down to a leather skirt. Her heels are open-toed and elegant.
This isn’t how someone should dress when in the house of God.
Then again, the first time I saw her, she was wearing a thin white tank top that wasn’t the most decent, either.
“Why have you started coming here?” I ask.
She turns her head to look at me over her shoulder, golden hair brushing the small of her back. “The first time? I wanted to see what all this”—she waves a hand around—“was about. But now? Well, you want me here, Logan. So here is where I’ll be.”