1. Chapter 1 by JaneLebak
2. Chapter 2 by JaneLebak
Catholics filled the aisles and doorways as Jun made her way through the side entrance of Utoland City's St. Augustine's church. The congregation all wore Easter dresses and suits, the children with bonnets or boutonnieres, the adults looking especially trim. Most of them carried umbrellas streaked with rain. Jun had worn a pleated plaid skirt and white blouse; the few times she'd seen a Catholic school in session had left her with the indelible impression that Catholics love plaid. She didn't dip her fingers in the holy water font or stop in the body of the church but went straight to the preparation room. Ministers from the last Mass cleaned chalices and patens while ministers for the next portioned Communion hosts and poured wine into a decanter. Everyone was talking at once, and four altar servers were trading long white garments.
"Hey, it's Asakura's sister! Asakura, your sister's here!" The boy Jun recognized as Masahiro grabbed her by the hand and dragged her through the tumult. "Asakura! Aw, man, where is he?"
Jun found a spot in the corner. In the confusion, Joe didn't see her as he returned to the sacristy and got a drink of water. He walked as if hobbled. One of the Eucharistic Ministers said, "Losing your voice?"
Joe sounded raspy. "Five Masses so far." He pushed his heavy glasses back up to the bridge of his nose, then ran a hand through his short hair.
"Yeah, but this is the last one. You'll make it." Masa inserted himself into a small space before Joe. "Your sister's here." Then he scampered off again.
Joe scanned the room momentarily until Jun stepped forward and gave him a hug. "Happy Easter!"
He chuckled. "You didn't have to come. This is the craziest day of the year."
She shrugged. "Thought you could use a friendly face."
A second priest showed in the doorway behind Joe, who said, "You've got to meet Father Patrick--sent directly by God to save my life."
The second priest laughed. When he spoke, he revealed a Nigerian accent so thick with character that Jun wished she could bottle it. "I assure you, that's not quite the case."
Joe looked extremely tired. "Even if an entire choir of angels came down from Heaven and set you on my doorstep, I couldn't be any more serious. Jun, he's my new associate pastor."
Jun's mouth opened. "Really? That's terrific!"
Masa returned and started talking as though the world had been waiting for him. "Hey, Asakura, all the servers showed up, so I'll go sit with your sister and make sure no one hassles her."
"Good thinking. There's no telling what might happen to her in the church." Joe's voice cracked a bit toward the end, and Masa missed the sarcasm. Jun only giggled as Masa grabbed her by the hand. Behind her, Joe gathered the ministers to pray briefly before the service.
Masa gave Jun a whispered commentary through the Mass, and he bragged to anyone who would listen that he escorted Asakura's sister. Joe looked energetic once the service started, but Jun could see past the facade to the fatigue. For one thing, he didn't sing when the congregation did, and usually he would. The second priest frequently whispered something to Joe and then assumed one or more duties Joe generally handled on his own. He hesitated when he mentioned the Mass intention for Giuseppe and Catarina Asakura. At the sign of peace, Joe walked only past the first few rows shaking hands rather than half the church. Masa didn't shake his hand--he high-fived him. Joe chuckled, but Jun could hear the strain in his voice. Separating the Communion hosts onto the patens, Joe's hands shook so much that Father Patrick took over and finished the job for him.
Afterward, Jun returned to the sacristy and hung up the vestments as Joe removed them. He looked pale, and she'd been right about his hands trembling. Several parishioners asked if Joe had anyplace to go for Easter dinner, and Joe said he had plans. Jun frowned but said nothing until everyone had gone. In the empty church, Joe said, "Would you mind doing me a favor?" He handed her the keys and asked her to lock the doors. Then they made their way to the parking lot where rain pattered in an unending drizzle. "Do you have an umbrella?" Jun asked as she opened hers.
"I work for St. Gus," Joe rasped. "I can't afford an umbrella."
As they stepped outside, Jun held her umbrella so both fit beneath. "I thought that was the last service. Why's the lot full?"
"Sugar and caffeine social--I mean, coffee and donuts downstairs." Joe blinked unsteadily in even the sparse light diffusing through the uniform cloud cover. "Even for free coffee, I don't think I can deal with it right now."
"You said you had plans for the rest of the day?"
"Sleeping until whenever I happen to wake up, even if that's Tuesday."
Jun could see why. "I planned a little Easter dinner out at the mansion."
Joe swallowed. "It's not necessary."
"It'll be fun! The junior members are looking forward to it." Jun rested a hand on his arm. "Why don't you pack and stay overnight? I can drive you here tomorrow before daily Mass."
"There won't be one. One of the EMs is doing a communion service." Joe bit his lip. "If you don't mind me falling asleep in the car--"
"That's fine." Jun smiled. "Dinner won't be until six, so you can get a good nap beforehand. You're bushed."
Jun insisted Joe stay upstairs while she packed his overnight bag in the basement apartment. She returned to find him holding a small black box. "I got you all the normal things, but are there any priest-things you need?"
Joe held up the case. Jun grinned. "Is that what Ken called Mass-in-a-box?"
"If only it came with its own priest-in-a-box."
At Jun's white convertible, top up, Joe found Ken in the back seat reading the Sunday paper. Joe returned his greeting half-heartedly with his voice still hoarse. While Jun and Ken carried the conversation, Joe settled into his seat and tried to relax. The talking kept him from drowsing.
Joe had only recently realized how Ken and Jun had achieved an intimacy beyond that of many married couples. During Joe's second year at seminary, Jun had gone for therapy to settle some personal issues. One was why she kept clinging to Ken hoping he'd notice her. When she'd ended therapy, she had taken a walk with Joe around the seminary grounds and confided that she no longer expected nor wanted any kind of romantic attachment to Ken. "He doesn't make me a better person when I'm with him than when I'm alone. I haven't found anyone who does." Joe had asked, a little amused, whether Ken even noticed her resolution. Maybe Ken never did. Once Jun had relaxed and stopped getting angry at him for not loving her, she had become better able to act as the very competent and capable second in command the Gatchaman team needed. Questioning Ken's orders no longer threatened the possibility of a relationship.
As they drove, Jun was saying, "Ken, you really should see him in action. At the end of the service, he got up at the podium or whatever Catholics call it and waved a paper and said I have in my hand a copy of Mrs. D's grandmother's recipe for dandelion soup, and I'm not afraid to use it."
Ken said, "For the Cafeteria?"
As Joe nodded, Jun said, "You called it seed-time, right?" When Joe didn't reply, she continued, "He said he'd volunteered the youth group to tend the parish garden and that a dollar in seeds equals something like forty dollars in tomatoes, and that something was going to grow in the parish garden and whatever it grew was going into the Caf." Jun glanced over her shoulder as she drove. "Joe, you're awfully quiet."
"I'm awfully tired."
"I'm sorry. We should let you sleep."
Joe shrugged. "The Caf was in serious trouble last week. I hate asking for money, but on Palm Sunday things had reached a head. I had to announce that if we didn't get money from somewhere, we wouldn't be able to keep the Caf open all seven days. And that's a shame, because so many people depend on it."
Ken said, "Let me guess. The little children of the parish gathered together their nickels and dimes, and when you counted it up, you had ten thousand dollars?"
Joe's voice was giving out rapidly. "When we counted, it was about ten bucks. A couple of new people asked if they could eat there, though. A lot of people come on Palm Sunday who never show the rest of the year. Oh, thanks." Ken had just leaned forward and handed Joe a cough drop. "After the last Mass one man asked lots of questions, like what we serve and how many people attend. I was annoyed. If you're desperate, who cares what we're serving? It doesn't need to be gourmet. The man wrote in his daytime planner and another parishioner talked to me until the man suddenly interrupted and handed me a voucher for three hundred pounds of rice, a hundred pounds of beans, a hundred pounds of spaghetti--"
Jun's jaw dropped. "You're kidding!"
Joe's voice was low. "I'd just met Jay Soucy of Soucy's Groceries, about five blocks from the church. I had no idea what to say. Apparently he usually goes to church over at St. A's. I'd been trying for weeks to get to the man, but his secretaries always stopped me."
Jun whistled. Ken said, "Lucky break."
"He also gave me," Joe said, "the personal home phone numbers of the owners of Five Star Markets and Food 4 You, both of whom had conveniently avoided me too."
Jun choked on a laugh. "Joe, that's terrific!"
He nodded. "It's been an up and down week."
"I'll say." Ken leaned over the front seat. "I notice you got married."
Joe's laugh sounded a little less gravelly now that the cough drop was doing its job. Raising his left hand, he showed Jun and Ken he was wearing a plain gold band. "Nuns always got to wear wedding rings. Now they're encouraging priests. It's my mother's. One of my parishioners works in a jewelry store and sized it." Joe's brows furrowed. "Then he wouldn't take any money."
Jun said, "They size any ring you buy. No big deal."
Joe said, "There was a price posted for sizing. I don't know why he didn't charge it."
Ken said, "Because it's you. People think God will take care of them if they take care of you."
Joe winced. "I'd like to think they have loftier motives."
Jun said, "To some extent, he's right--that it's because of you, not that everyone's bribing God. You don't think I'd help the St. Gus Cafeteria if it weren't your church, do you? I might help some soup kitchen, but this one isn't especially better than the others."
Joe's chin dropped. "I don't like that."
"Your parishioners want to say thanks, that's all." Jun smiled. "It's okay. If it's something little they can do for you when you're giving so much for them, why shouldn't they?" When Joe didn't answer, Jun said, "How'd you finally get an associate pastor?"
Joe said, "After you left last week, I got on my knees and begged God for someone to help. Then I said, This is stupid, and I got on the phone and begged the diocese for someone to help. One or the other came through."
Ken chuckled derisively, but Jun smiled. "See--I told you it would work out."
* * *
The days before Easter always kept Joe far busier than any others in the Catholic calendar, including Christmas. The Sunday before, Palm Sunday Mass was always the most crowded because of those who went once a year to get palm. Joe had never seen the point in that--when he'd left the church, he'd left completely--and ironically that day had the longest Mass in the lectionary. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday he'd participated in Lenten penance services at four different parishes, the next night was Holy Thursday; the next night started the Triduum: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Each day had its own services, all of them as long as or longer than a Sunday Mass. Each had its own homily, its own preparation, and its own set of rules. At the end of this grueling week, Joe kept remembering those days with the vivid fear of a flashback.
After the Holy Thursday service had let out (and that was another long one) Joe had chatted with the folks in the sacristy: the altar servers, the Eucharistic ministers, the lectors. He was tired already, and it was only the beginning. A full night's sleep sounded increasingly appealing. As he removed his vestments, one of the EMs said, "Father, is it wrong to receive Holy Communion if you haven't brushed your teeth?"
Joe's eyebrows raised.
"I mean," and the middle aged woman giggled nervously as a few others also chuckled, "what if someone has garlic breath?"
Joe said, "Do you think garlic breath offends God?" He took a deep breath and tried to act like Father Ron would have. "I don't mean to disparage the Presence, but you chew the host, don't you? And that doesn't cause Christ any pain."
The woman gaped. "The nuns told me never to chew the host."
Joe blinked. "The nuns were wrong. Jesus wants you to receive the sacraments. He's not going to get upset over a little plaque or onion breath."
That silly conversation had kept repeating in Joe's tired mind as he made his way to the rectory. As he'd reached the front door, he had noticed the motion sensitive light was already activated, and he'd stopped. A shadow had skulked beside the doorway.
Joe said, "Who's there?"
A large, muscular man stepped from the darkness. The hair stood on the back of Joe's neck, and he noted the way the man carried himself. This was a Gallactor.
Joe tried to keep his voice neutral. "What do you want?"
The man said, "Please... I need to talk to you. I have to talk to you."
Joe could see it. He recognized the truth instantly, and his stomach tightened at the thought. All he wanted was to collapse into bed. For a moment he thought about casting the entire weight of the Roman Catholic Church between himself and this man. The Holy Thursday service officially began the Triduum, the holiest three days in the calendar, and until Easter Sunday he wasn't allowed to celebrate any of the sacraments. His hands shook even as he found his keys in his pockets. "What do you want to talk about?"
The Gallactor said, nearly a whisper, "I want to go to Confession."
Taking a deep breath, Joe unlocked the rectory door. "Come on in."
He turned on the main office lights and then guided the Gallactor one room further, to his private office. He gestured to the sofa and took a seat not behind his desk but rather facing the Gallactor. In the light of the office, on the old couch, the man looked less imposing. He had careworn clothes, ragged hair, and stubble on his chin. He probably had head lice or body lice. More important than any of that, though, Joe could see the haunted expression on the man's face.
I should tell him no. Joe said, "Do you need help starting?" The Gallactor stared at Joe's feet. Joe said, "Are you Catholic? Were you raised Catholic?"
The man nodded again. "But I left. Years ago."
"All I need to know is if you had your first Confession."
The man swallowed as he assented. Joe found a pamphlet on his desk and handed it to him. "That's got the formula on it. You can use it if you want."
The Gallactor wouldn't raise his head. "Do you know who I am?"
You're a murderer. You're probably someone who took shots and me and my teammates. You're a conspirator who wanted to end the world.
The words choked Joe. "You're a child of God."
The Gallactor looked at the paper in his hands and read, "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been seventeen years since my last Confession."
Trying not to flinch, Joe listened as the man detailed atrocity after atrocity. His heart pounded. He repeatedly reminded himself that Jesus said there was more joy in heaven over one conversion than over ninety-nine saintly lives. His jaw was clenched, and he had to keep his palms pressed against his legs to keep his hands from shaking. "Your brother was dead, but now is alive," Jesus had recounted, but Joe found that theoretical joy so far from what his heart told him. He prayed and tried not to hear too much of what the man said. He kept telling himself, Right now, I am the Catholic church. I am the face of God. If I turn my back, he's truly hopeless.
All the same, God was listening--there was no real need for Joe to listen. So he sent his mind back in time, back eight years to when his broken body had lain in a hospital and his broken soul was just beginning to toddle its first steps toward Catholicism.
And during that one lonely day, Father Ron had heard worse from him. Joe believed that. Six months after Cross Karacoram, Joe had finally voiced a desire to rejoin the Church. Father Ron had suggested that if he was sure, he should start with the sacrament of reconciliation. Joe had stammered that he hardly would know where to begin, so that evening the chaplain dropped off a booklet with an examination of conscience, plus another pamphlet on the sacrament of reconciliation and one on receiving Holy Communion. Joe had studied all three in disconnection and futility. Even the formulaic responses didn't seem familiar. He'd always said the words in Italian ten years ago. The next day, when Father Ron had visited, the priest had shut the door and left instructions with the nurses that no one be admitted. Joe had balked. "If I tell you," he said, "if I Confess to you, you'll know everything. You'll know all about who I am, and what I did, and you'll never want to talk to me again." There had been a genuine panic in Joe's heart, and perhaps Father Ron had detected it. The priest said, "All I see now is someone very frightened and needing God in his life." Joe had said, "Do you know who I am?" Father Ron said, "You're Joe Asakura." Joe had said, "I was Condor Joe of the Kagaku Ninjatai," and Father Ron had replied, "That's who you were. Do even you know who you are right now?"
So Joe had agreed. That first Confession took over an hour, and at the end of it Joe sat pale, head bowed, spent inside and out. Still very sick, he needed a lot of stamina to sit up that long and work that hard. Father Ron had intoned the prayer of absolution, "God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to Himself..." and Joe had listened with raw exhaustion. He'd just confessed everything. From the time he'd walked into an abandoned church at age ten and screamed to God's face that he hated Him, to the time he'd shot a priest through the heart, to the rage and the passion that had driven him to hunt and hunt and hunt Berg Katse to the exclusion of everything else he valued, and even to the point of being willing to cast his own life away in the service of the wrath. The sacrament finished, Father Ron had remained silent, and Joe also kept quiet, tired of talking, abiding in motionless fear as he waited for the man inside the priest to tell him that even though God had forgiven him, he never could.
And then, "Joe," the priest had said softly, "would you like to receive Holy Communion?"
Mute with surprise, Joe slowly raised his head.
The priest had removed a small round box from his pocket. "I brought a host with me."
Joe had bit his lip. His throat was too tight to say yes.
Father Ron had said, "The body of Christ," and Joe could only whisper his Amen.
With a tiny click, Father Ron had closed the pyx and slipped it back into his pocket. Joe had his jaw clenched, his hands tight in fists. With his head down, he swallowed shallowly, then shuddered, and there in the hospital bed he cried. Father Ron laid his hands on Joe's head and prayed softly over him, and still Joe felt the tightness in his chest, the cleansing salt of the tears, and a horrible relief he hoped never would end but which he feared feeling fully. It took a while to come back to himself. After Father Ron left the room, Joe shut the lights. It wasn't even three o'clock. He curled on his side to stare at the wall. Then, for the first time, he'd tried hard to feel, and he'd wondered then if he'd ever be able to pray.
Joe coaxed his thoughts back to the present, back to a dusty rectory office and the things this Gallactor was still confiding to him--or rather, to God through him. The man had gotten to the years after the war, and Joe listened yet again to the same story. This had happened to him five times in the year since Gallactor had located him, often enough for the bishop to grant him authority to lift excommunication. Ex-Gallactors sought him when they wanted to change their lives. Three of the burly, shifty-eyed men came to St. Gus every Sunday, driving all the way across Utoland City with kids in tow to come to him. It was as if they felt only he could understand them, since he had been their Enemy all those years.
When the man had stopped for a while, Joe took a deep breath and tried to listen to God in the silence. He regarded this unclean, bedraggled man sitting on his office couch and probably leaving fleas in the carpet. "And now?"
"And now," the man whispered, "I want to be forgiven."
All Joe wanted was to scream, You scum! You horror! You've renounced your humanity! Instead, trying hard not to hope the man would languish in hell, he prayed softly, "God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son..."
After Joe finished the closing prayer, the man wiped his eyes. As they stood, the man babbled, "I'll come back. I'll be here Sunday, for Easter. I never dared, even though my kids go to Catholic school. I've wanted to come back so long now..."
As they got to the door, the man said, "I didn't think you'd do it. I thought you'd turn me away."
Joe took a deep breath, then reached forward and embraced the man.
Five minutes later, after shutting all the lights and heading to the basement apartment, Joe stopped in the bare, vinyl-floored laundry room and stripped off his clothes. Child of God or none, he didn't want to pick up the man's head lice. As late as it was that Holy Thursday night, he'd stripped in front of the washer and started the load. Then he had showered as if he could scour away with water and cheap shampoo all the inhumanity a former enemy had divulged.
By the time Jun's car reached Nambu's mansion that Easter morning, Joe slept in the front seat, but he roused groggily as she pulled into the garage. Ken carried Joe's duffle bag and Mass-in-a-box and set him up in one of the guest rooms. Jun told Joe to lie down for a little while, and what happened was he fell asleep for four hours. Following the scent of roasted leg of lamb, he descended the marble steps to the first floor and found everyone else in the midst of dinner preparation. The housekeeping staff had off Sundays, so Jun coordinated the cooking much as she did at the Snack, only this time her staff were the junior Gatchaman team, including one new face.
Putting a Corningware pot into the oven, Jun said, "What was that song they sang at church today?"
Joe took a seat at the kitchen table the better to stay out of everyone's way. "Which one?"
"If I knew, I wouldn't be asking...the one where everybody got up."
The hoarse, sore sound vanished from Joe's voice as he sang slowly, "Those who were / In the dark / Are thankful for the sunlight..."
Jun said, "No, the other one."
"Oh, you mean Something Which Is Known." He sang a few lines, and she nodded and hummed along with the tune. When they reached the alleluias in the middle, though, the one junior member Joe didn't recognize suddenly joined. Jun turned and stared, and the boy stopped.
"I forgot you were Catholic," she said.
"That was my mother's favorite song." The boy hunched his shoulders and walked quickly from the kitchen. Jun swallowed hard, then turned back to the stove.
Ken pulled Joe aside and brought him to the rec room. "You'd never met Goro, had you?"
Joe shook his head. "He's Atsumi's replacement?"
Three weeks ago, the junior owl had been killed during a mission; Nambu had said he would wait to find a substitute, but then Goro arrived only a week afterward. "I've got no idea what to do about him, and he's not even sure he wants to stay on the team. He's only twelve, so there's about five years between him and the others. That's about Masa's age, right? I thought maybe you could get him to open up a bit while you're here. Maybe get him to talk during a driving lesson."
Joe eyed Ken critically. "If I can see straight. What changed Hakase's mind?"
"Goro's parents were ISO antiterrorism. He was already under consideration for the team when they got gunned down by the group they were investigating."
Joe turned as he heard Jun calling everyone for dinner. "No wonder he reacted to the song."
In the dining room, Joe found a meal straight from the pages of a magazine. Jun had scanned the newsstands until she'd found a publication detailing the necessary culinary elements of a Sicilian Easter, and she'd faithfully recreated the entire thing, even to having Ken find the only Italian bakery in Utoland City with the right kind of pastries. Delighted, Joe enjoyed the camaraderie and the food, drank wine with the others and listened to their stories. Around the table had gathered all the original Gatchaman team, plus Nambu, Eric Getz and his wife Mako, their two children, and the five members of the junior Gatchaman team. The general noise level escalated the longer they lingered, and Joe smiled more. He hadn't eaten this well since the last time he'd visited the mansion: taking the vow of poverty to extremes, Joe lived barely at the subsistence level. Wine and coffee felt positively opulent, as if Joe were being entertained by an emperor rather than his ex-teammates.
Afterward, Jun chased everyone from the dining room but the junior team, responsible for clean-up. As Nambu left, Joe caught him briefly and said that whenever Nambu had a moment, he needed to speak to him.
Eventually they gathered in the rec room to watch a movie on the home theater. Ken looked uncomfortable as he negated a few of the suggestions; Joe realized Ken thought he might be offended by the content, and he nearly laughed. A few low-voiced words to Ken set straight the matter, and shortly a selection was made. Five minutes into the movie, however, Nambu returned for Joe, and Ken stopped the film.
"Don't worry," Joe said. "I'll catch up on the plot when I get back."
Ken studied Joe momentarily, clearly not asking a question. Joe forced a grin and left.
In Nambu's office, Joe sat on the opposite side of the desk, glaring at the far wall, and folded his arms. "I was wondering if you could give me a physical," he said after a little hedging. Looking concerned, Nambu asked some questions, then escorted him to the examining room and tested all Joe's known trouble-spots: his eyes, then his reflexes and finally his heart and lungs. This Joe found familiar, although he had to remind himself to answer honestly. Even eight years and ten thousand mortifying medical questions after Cross Karacoram, he still had the urge to run rather than talk to a doctor.
Nambu told him to get dressed and join him in the front office.
Joe found Nambu poring over his medical records. "Sit." Nambu looked up, a bad sign. "We need to talk."
By now it was too late to run. "What's the verdict?"
"Diagnosis is, you're right. Your eyesight is deteriorating far too rapidly for my peace of mind, and your nerves aren't responding properly. This isn't anything new. It's all the Cross Karacoram injuries acting up again."
Joe said, "Why?"
"I can make an educated guess," Nambu said blandly. "You arrived this afternoon completely worn out, then slept four hours, and yet you still look like you could use another nap."
Joe chuckled. "Holy Week is a wringer."
"Were the previous weeks any different?"
"All of Lent, really."
"And before that?"
Joe twisted his mother's ring on his finger. "Before that--we had a lot going on during Ordinary time, too, and Christmas, and Advent. I know what you're implying. But what can I do about it?"
"There isn't a pill or a procedure, Joe. I think you know that."
Joe glowered. "Spell it out."
"You need to do less. Your health is precarious even in the best of times, and you need to take better care of yourself than the average person. The only good thing I can see is that you're still working out a little and you haven't lost any more weight in the last year. I know you joke about having the body of a man twice your age, but in some respects it's true. You're wearing yourself out by working far too hard without any relief."
Joe said, "Honestly, I don't have a choice."
Nambu said, "And honestly, I don't see that you can't have a choice. You must make the option for yourself."
Joe turned away. "Is there a vitamin or a therapy or a drug?"
"Overmedication is malpractice the way unnecessary surgery would be, and at any rate, there is nothing I can do. And there's nothing you can do. There are things you can not do, and you have to not be doing them. I'd start by insisting you get eight hours of sleep a night and take reasonable breaks during the day."
Joe only shook his head.
"What's the objection?"
"My parish needs me."
Nambu steepled his fingers. "I know God and I aren't always on the best of terms, Joe, but I think God would rather have you work at eighty percent for thirty years than one hundred percent for three."
Joe huffed. "It's not quite that bad."
Nambu sat forward. "What did you suspect when you came to me?"
Joe inhaled sharply.
Folding his arms, Nambu said, "Have you talked to any other physicians?"
This time Joe only stared at the dull gold band on his finger.
"At the very least, right now you're in such shape that I want you here the rest of the week."
Joe shrugged. "I'm scheduled up the hilt. Maybe later in the summer."
Nambu leaned into the desk. "Look at me," he said softly, in that iron voice which had steeled five children through the most rigorous training ever devised. "I want you to listen to what I have to say, because I'm not joking."
Two minutes later, Joe exited Nambu's office white as a sheet.
* * *
He would not think about what Nambu said. He would not think about what Nambu said. He would go to bed.
Like a nightmare, though, visions of Holy Week kept Joe from sleeping; when eventually he got to sleep, they kept him restless. It seemed everything impacted his sleep nowadays. On Good Friday morning, at least, Joe had let himself stay in bed an extra hour. There would be no morning Mass, and he'd showered the night before after the Gallactor left. He wouldn't have breakfast because Good Friday is a day of fast to Catholics. That had left the morning empty, and he'd figured the extra rest wouldn't hurt.
After morning prayer, he had phoned the diocese headquarters. He could hear the sky drizzling with a grim drumming on the cracked pavement of the parking lot. It always rained on Good Friday. On Bishop Sato's voice mail Joe left a message saying, "I'm sorry, your grace, but I wrecked Easter." He gave the barest detail he could. A priest must never reveal anything confided during Confession, and in fact Joe wasn't supposed to even use that information ministering to the parishioner who'd made the confession. It was like keeping a secret from himself. He'd broken the rules about the Triduum, though, and he felt he had a duty to tell his superiors.
Every Friday, Joe did housekeeping. Laundry was just as easy now as it was on the Kagaku Ninjatai: Joe had gone from one profession straight to another where he seldom had to decide what to wear in the morning. The black clothes, unfortunately, required ironing, and that he took care of first.
Shortly after Joe had started, the window slid up and a scrawny blond boy wriggled through. Joe didn't turn his head. "Hi, Masa."
"Hey, man, could you help me out?" Masa dropped his bookbag on the floor and started unbuttoning his shirt. "The headmaster said if I showed up all wrinkled one more time I'm suspended, and Mom didn't iron nothing anyhow."
Joe finished a black shirt while Masa handed him his smaller white one. Joe said, "It'd be a shame, after St. Gus scraped together the tuition for you."
"Not next year, though. I think I'm going to get an A in Literature, man!" Masa grinned. "You saw last semester I got all Bs and Cs. I never got a C before!"
"Impressive." While smart, Masa had never applied himself in grammar school. Joe had pulled enough strings to get him admitted to Utoland City Catholic Middle School, but the admissions board refused a full scholarship because he'd had over a hundred absences the year before. He got a partial, but Masa's mother hadn't had even that much. This year, with only ten absences, Masa might well get a free ride, and Joe wouldn't have to finagle the church's budget to create an "emergency" tuition fund after Masa's mother made the first installment and ran out of money. It helped that several other Archangels already attended UCCMS, and Masa had started another chapter of the gang over there, policing the school grounds much as the first group patrolled the church. Joe looked at the boy sitting on the steps adjusting his red armband. "Should you be wearing a gang emblem to school?"
"Who's going to take it off me? Not those dweebs who keep saying they're going to kill us, that's for sure."
"As long as they don't come after you with guns." Joe tossed Masa the warm, pressed shirt. "I was thinking about the faculty, actually. Make sure you get the bus on time."
"Yeah." Masa stopped buttoning his shirt to think a minute. "You know, you'd have been a cool dad."
"I am a dad," Joe said. "I've got all you guys."
One hour later, still cleaning, Joe heard his secretary arrive. The middle-aged woman stuck her greying head into the bathroom and sang to the tune of Jesus Christ is Risen Today, "Joe's in trouble with the bishop again... How surprising!"
Startled, Joe knelt up from where he'd been scrubbing the bathtub. "He called back?"
"Twice. The ringer was off." They had to do that because so many people phoned the rectory to get the holy week Mass schedule. She squinted. "No joke? You're in trouble?"
"I must be, if he called twice."
"What did you do?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Why does the upstairs smell of bug spray?"
Joe shook his head. "I really don't want to talk about it."
"Poor Father Joe." Teresa laughed as she returned upstairs.
Joe put away the cleanser and sponge and tried to call again. He shortly found the bishop was no longer at his desk. After that he had to take care of preparations for the Good Friday service. Next he went to cook food he wasn't allowed to eat at the Cafeteria.
Joe was in his office talking to two sacristans when he heard Teresa take a call in the main office, and he paused in case it was the bishop. He'd apparently missed another call while in the Caf. This time the message had said, "Keep trying. We need to talk before Sunday." Joe felt queasy, and his hands trembled again. He was desperately hungry, but he was saving his one small meatless meal until after Good Friday services. The other parishioners also looked pale and hungry.
In the outer office, Teresa kept saying, "That's awful!" and then waiting and saying, "Of course. Oh, no..." and so on in that vein. It sounded like he'd need to say a funeral on Monday. He excused himself from the sacristans and went to Teresa's desk as she hung up.
She looked pale. "Father Joe? It's Enrique Hoyos."
Joe's mouth opened. "Oh no--" He and Enrique had worked together at Our Lady Queen of Angels when Joe had been an associate pastor, but they hadn't seen each other in two and a half years. Enrique ran the youth group there.
"He's okay." Teresa lowered her head. "His family scraped together enough money for his mother to come visit from Equador. Only she died suddenly during her visit. They don't have money to bury her here or to send her body home, and OLQA wanted to know if we could help."
A ringing began in Joe's ears. "And you told them we could." There was no accusation in his voice. Teresa nodded. Joe ventured further. "How much do they need?"
"Three thousand dollars. He'll come by for it tomorrow."
Joe felt the blood drain from his head. He was already doing the math.
Teresa froze. "Wait a minute. We just paid all the bills, didn't we?"
Joe said, "Don't worry. I'd have said the same."
Teresa pulled out the parish checkbook and rifled through the register. Joe said, "$254.72."
"Close. $257.42." She looked up. "I don't have it either."
"You don't have it because I don't think we've paid you recently." Joe frowned. "I have less than the parish does."
Teresa said, "Is there anyone we can ask?"
Joe shrugged. "I asked any of our large donors last week to keep the Caf open. No one's got anything. It's a hard time for everyone right now."
Teresa whispered, "What do we do?"
"We pray." Joe checked his watch. "But right this minute, I've got Good Friday services."
The Easter collection was usually a large one, and Joe suspected St. Gus would net three thousand easily. The trouble was, Enrique needed the money Saturday. Joe could surprise the congregation with a Good Friday collection, but it probably wouldn't get enough, and it would make light of the most solemn day of the year.
Joe prayed before the tabernacle fifteen minutes before the service. Hi, God. Remember last Sunday when I got down on my knees and begged for an associate pastor? Put that on the back burner. Right now I need three thousand dollars, and I know you've got it. You came through for St. Gus about the Caf, and I'm sorry to ask again, but I've got no idea where the money's going to come from. Then he vested up in the sacristy. He was hungry and tired and had a headache, and now he found himself distracted by money. He cleared every stray thought, then probed for God wherever he might find Him. It took a while.
* * *
Monday morning at Nambu's mansion, Joe awakened with the odd feeling of his fingers being sniffed and nibbled. He opened his eyes and found himself face to face with the blurry white and brown shape of a rodent.
Joe leaped up and away from whatever it was, gasping twice before hitting the ground, and once away from the bed he groped for his glasses to figure out what that thing was. Hakase never had rats in here! Hoqshi must have done this!
Once Joe had his glasses, he found the animal was in fact a spiny grey-white and brown sphere of quills. It quickly waddled under the blankets to hide.
Someone's going to pay. Joe grinned. On second thought, Hoshi didn't have this kind of charisma. It was probably Miyagi, if anyone, although Jinpei or Ken weren't beyond silly pranks.
If nothing else, the spiny specimen in Joe's bed deterred him from sleeping any longer, so he sat at the desk and said morning prayer, then got a shower and shaved. While he finished up, the second door to the bathroom opened and the newest junior team member stood squinting at him in puzzlement.
Joe said, "Goro? I didn't know you were my sinkmate."
"Huh?" The kid studied him momentarily, rubbing a hand through his crew-cut brown hair.
"Do you need me to get out of here for a bit?" When the boy only shook his head, Joe kept shaving. The boy perched his awkward adolescent body on the side of the tub and watched Joe while he went through the ritual. Joe said, "Do you guys still call each other sinkmates?" When the boy didn't reply, Joe said, "Every pair of rooms shares a bathroom. Ken and I were sinkmates until we moved out. Come to think of it, why are you down this corridor? I though the juniors were up the other way."
Goro said, "Hoshi threatened to kill me if I moved into Atsumi's room."
After a moment, Joe said, "You wouldn't happen to have lost a rodent, would you?"
Goro's mouth opened. "You found Yuji? My hedgehog?"
"Yuji found me. Under my blanket."
Goro ran into Joe's room and returned holding the quilled creature, somehow not being stabbed. Joe saw he'd cupped the hedgehog gently from either side and was carefully keeping his fingers clear of the center in case the hedgehog curled into a ball. "I must have left the bathroom door open, and they like to explore. I've got three. This one climbs into anything."
Chuckling, Joe relinquished the bathroom to Goro, then dressed and headed to breakfast. His head had started aching, and his vision swam. Throughout breakfast, a tense Joe said nearly nothing. Ken beside him remained equally quiet, although Jun seemed to be enjoying herself. She turned to Joe and said, "What time did you need me to drive you back to St. Gus?"
Nambu said, "Actually, Jun, Joe's going to stay for the week."
Joe's hand tightened on his coffee mug. "That's not certain."
Slowly, Jun said, "It'd be wonderful to have you here, Joe. You know that."
Nambu said, "We agreed you needed some time off."
"I didn't agree to anything." Turning to Jun, Joe still seemed irritated. "Actually, if you have the chance, could you drive me to the bishop's office sometime today?"
Ken said, "I can. I've got a few errands to run anyhow."
Joe said, "Whoever. It might take a while."
Jun said, "He'll approve a vacation, especially now that you've got Father Patrick."
Nambu pushed his chair back from the table. "Given what we talked about, I'm sure he will."
Joe stared daggers at the man as he left, then rose and followed him. In the hallway, Nambu stopped to let Joe catch up. "I can't believe you!" Joe was breathing unsteadily. "Aren't you a professional?"
"You have to learn to accept help," Nambu said flatly. "Speaking of help, Jun mentioned the parish garden. We've got lots of open space, if you'd like us to grow some vegetables for the Cafeteria."
Joe's face was flushed. "I approached you as a doctor, and you turned around and used patient information in public! So much for confidentiality! And I know a lot more about confidentiality than I did eight years ago--I've lived both sides of the story, and Hakase, it's a right and not a privilege."
Nambu averted his glance. "What kinds of vegetables could the Cafeteria use?"
"Don't change the subject!" Joe shook his head. "Consider my trust lost. I've got a lot more options now than I did when I was eighteen and had to resort to unlicensed doctors." It didn't feel good when Nambu winced, but Joe knew the barb had struck. He knew he was being unchristian even as he spoke. "I'll take my medical records with me when I leave so they don't make the front page of The Utoland Times." A forgotten rage churned in the back of his throat. There were words he once used to vent it, words a man in his vocation really shouldn't be saying, words he'd never said to Nambu to begin with.
He made his way back toward the kitchen. Behind him, Nambu said, "Joe, I'm sorry."
Joe wouldn't speak. He had no idea what would emerge if he did.
"I forget I can't act for your own good the way I did before. But I still want you to stay."
Joe kept his teeth locked as he stalked back to the kitchen.
* * *
Nambu's remarks had been a blow. Maybe he should have expected that kind of behavior, but it had been so long since he'd been on the team. Nobody manipulated him nowadays--well, nobody ranking him. He avoided the others to avoid their questions. To avoid his own, he instead remembered the past week like an obsession.
On Holy Saturday, Joe had awakened to another rainy morning with no answers to the Enrique money problem. The best he could do would be telling the funeral parlor to bill St. Gus and finding the money whenever they could. Enrique would know what had happened, of course, but Joe hadn't seen a way around it. An emergency fund was a parish luxury St. Gus and OLQA just didn't have.
On the other hand, after a day of fasting, the same old breakfast had tasted unusually good.
Joe shaved and showered quickly because of all he had to do today, but when he looked back he found the toilet filled with rusty water.
Joe examined it more closely. Definitely rust. He flushed and watched the basin fill again with rusty water.
It wasn't summer yet. It wasn't hot enough to justify rust washing out of the pipes. He didn't think the constant rain could have anything to do with it either. He checked the water in the sink, and it ran clean. That wasn't good. He opened the top of the toilet tank, but to his pinpoint vision, everything looked normal.
With a ceramic clank, he set the top back on the tank, then craned his head toward a spot on the ceiling. "And who do You think is going to fix this?" he thundered. "I don't have the money to fix this, that's for sure! Well?"
It was a good thing there weren't any parishioners in the parking lot. Joe's heart pounded, and his chest hurt. He tossed his towel over the shower curtain and walked away until he could come back calmer. The next time he flushed the toilet, the water ran clear, and he decided not to press his luck.
The telephone tag with Bishop Sato's office had gotten ludicrous by mid-morning. It would have been faster to write a letter, Joe fumed. He wasn't mad at the bishop for being busy. He knew Easter weekend was a harried time for everyone, and secretly he gladdened that the bishop worked as hard as the rest of them. On the other hand, he really wanted to get the reprimand over with so he could say the Vigil with a clear conscience.
Some parishioners gathered at noon to decorate the church for the Vigil, and Joe helped. Teresa had orders to get him if the bishop phoned. While he wasn't useful for climbing ladders and was even less useful for planning tasteful decorations, the parishioners enjoyed having his help anyhow, particularly the adolescent Archangels with their red armbands. They laughed as they worked, and meanwhile the choir rehearsed. Joe glanced up whenever they said the "A-word." Catholics have an "alleluia-drought" during Lent (when it shouldn't be said or sung) but the choir had to rehearse for Easter's songs anyhow. He teased them before returning to the rectory.
As Joe left the church, he saw a red car leave the parking lot, and he walked back to the rectory wondering who that had been. Hopefully not Enrique. Teresa would have summoned him.
He walked into the office to find Teresa staring with tearful eyes. "Father Joe," she whispered.
He realized suddenly that God had come through. Somehow, either they didn't need the money any longer or else they had it right here in the office.
She grinned. "We have the money."
Joe felt the smile unfurl in a way he couldn't contain. "How?"
"It's an extremely anonymous donation. I've been sworn to secrecy." Teresa clutched the check. "I'm not kidding, either."
"Tell me!" Joe found himself laughing as he made a half-hearted grab.
Teresa darted just beyond arm's reach. "Wouldn't do you any good. It's a bank check. Just an account number."
"You're cruel," Joe said. "Who was it? I didn't tell anyone."
"Neither did I. But someone just walked into this office and handed me a check, saying 'Here's my donation for the season.' I said, 'You know, we've already spent it,' and the person replied, 'I figured you had.'"
* * *
Joe lowered himself into one of the chairs by Teresa's desk.
"Exactly three thousand," she said.
God-- He didn't even have the words. Trying to come up with a thank-you, he kept finding nothing at all.
Teresa was saying, "We won't even have to wait for it to clear."
Joe said, "And now you've got to--"
"Already filled out the deposit slip. I'm off!"
Joe said, "Speed all the way to the bank. Maybe God will get you out of a traffic ticket too."
She laughed as she departed.
As Joe retreated to his office, he felt a tingling pain shoot up his right leg. His hands were numb, and now that he thought about it, his vision had gotten blurrier in the past few days.
Please, no, not now. I've got so many things to do in the next two days.
Before he made it all the way to his desk, the outer door opened, and Joe found a rain-dotted Enrique Hoyos standing meekly in the doorway. Joe offered a smile, and Enrique tried to shake his hand and ended up hugging him instead and getting rain and tears all over Joe in the process."I'm really sorry. I wish it wasn't something awful that made us get together again."
Enrique swallowed. "Thanks so much for helping, Father Joe. I know you don't have the money any more than OLQA does."
Joe shrugged. "God had it."
Teresa had written the check and left the envelope on her desk. Joe spent a few minutes talking with Enrique, then spent another few minutes in the empty rectory after Enrique's car hummed out of the lot. Suddenly solitary, he listened to the quiet. He checked his watch: only three o'clock. The Vigil began at eight and ended around eleven, but Joe had no expectations of getting to bed before midnight. Tomorrow he would have to say five Masses, starting at 7:30. At his desk, Joe removed his glasses and slipped them into his pocket. He had a headache. Because it would be Easter, he knew the church would be packed for every Mass. The "A&P People," as Father Ron so cheerfully called them. He would see faces he wouldn't see again until Christmas, people who had no idea how to follow the missalettes and didn't know when to sit and stand, who thought a standing-room crowd was normal--in short, people on a totally different spiritual level from the regular congregation. Somehow he had to reach them all.
As he sat, the phone rang. Joe waited until he remembered Teresa was on her way to the bank. "St. Augustine's."
"Joe Asakura! At last I reached you. You're answering your own phones now."
Joe said, "We did away with the secretary. It's cheaper like this. Plus I got her life insurance policy." He replaced his glasses and sat up straighter. "I'm glad we finally got hold of each other, your grace."
Bishop Sato sounded happy. "These are the busiest days of the year. How are you holding up?"
Joe sighed. "Things keep working out, somehow."
"Hm." The bishop paused momentarily. "There's something I need to talk to you about."
Joe said, "I know I shouldn't have heard that Confession."
"Don't think twice about it. I'd have done the same thing."
Joe stiffened in his chair. "But--"
"Remember about the sabbath being made for man and not vice versa? You did fine. Christ died to save the sinners, not the lawyers. Besides, I know you wouldn't break a rule unless you thought you could get away with it."
Joe found himself laughing. "In that case--"
"In that case, why am I calling every couple of hours? Tomorrow morning you're getting your very own associate pastor."
Joe nearly jumped out of his chair. "I'm getting an associate?"
"In the flesh. Borrowing him, I suppose. Last week after you harangued my secretary, we struck a deal with a diocese in Nigeria. A priest of theirs is attending Utoland City University Divinity School, and they wanted room and board from us. We agreed, but we're putting the man to work. His name is Patrick Onasanya."
Joe cautiously said, "Will he and my congregation be mutually intelligible?"
"I hope so, since he's taking classes here." The bishop chuckled. "You have nothing to worry about. You still sound tense."
"I'm in shock." Joe took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. His hand tingled. "Thank you. Everyone else must have been clamoring to get this guy."
"The truth is," the bishop said, "I'm worried about you. You need him. Use him as much as you can, letting him pass his classes, of course. Make him say daily Mass for you so you can sleep later. Find something. Don't just create more work so you don't get your own load lightened and then in December you have to do the work of two priests."
Joe took a deep breath. "Thank you, Bishop Sato."
"The other thing I wanted to do was make sure we get a chance to talk sometime next week."
Frowning, Joe wound the phone cord around his finger. "What about?"
"I'd rather explain in person. You don't need an appointment. Just drop by."
"You're moving me?" Joe's heart pounded. "What have I done wrong?"
"Nothing--nothing, Joe. You're not needed anywhere else right now. Relax. You're extremely tense, and I'm sure you don't have to be. Don't think twice about it, but just make sure you drop in. And have a happy Easter."
Joe sounded disbelieving. "You too, your grace."
As Joe had hung up the phone, he'd found his hands still shaking. He'd need at least a short nap if he was going to make it through Saturday night for the Vigil. With the ringer off, he'd locked his office and headed down a staircase blurry and doubled once again, doubled for the first time in eight years.
* * *
The Monday afternoon after Easter, Ken dropped Joe off at the entrance to St. Savior's Cathedral, the headquarters of the Utoland City diocese. Joe fingered the junior owl's wristband in his pocket and said, "I'll buzz you when I'm ready."
"Such cheer," Ken said. "It's too bad the bishop can't make you run in and salute like old times."
Joe just walked up the rain-glistening steps. He stayed a few minutes in the cathedral, then walked outside again to the main building and from there to the bishop's office. Wearing the priest uniform into such a grand office, he felt more comfortable than he would have in plain clothes; maybe he shouldn't have. The bishop had said to keep it informal. Joe waited only five minutes before the bishop admitted him.
Joe felt Bishop Sato's scrutinizing gaze land on him like a wet windblown newspaper, but he forced a smile anyhow. "Happy Easter, your grace."
"You too. Please, sit." The bishop settled on the couch. "Don't look so nervous, Joe. It's not good for you." He took a deep breath. "I want you to take some time off."
Joe jumped. "Who's been talking to you?"
The bishop started at Joe's reaction. "I said I was worried about you. You've got all the signs of burnout, and I can't afford to have any of my priests burning out, especially not three years out of seminary. That message you left for me Friday morning clinched it. You probably can't even hear it in your own voice, but I can. You're desperate. You're losing perspective. You've been working hard, but you need a break."
Swallowing, Joe realized how his throat had tightened. "Who broke confidentiality?"
The bishop said, "Nobody. But maybe there's something else you need to tell me?"
Joe folded his arms. No, it couldn't have been Nambu, because Nambu hadn't known about the tingling or the blurriness before Sunday, and the bishop had asked to see him on Saturday. The other doctor, then? The one retained by the diocese? He'd never trust a medical professional again.
"I'm not quite sure what to think," the bishop said. "What's going on?"
Joe explained softly, but with a steel edge, what Dr. Nambu believed about the continuous stress.
The bishop seemed extremely disturbed. He was too genuine to have faked that kind of surprise if he'd been forewarned. "In that case, you've got two very valid reasons to take a few days off. You haven't had any vacation at all since your ordination, have you?"
Joe said, "I'm needed."
"You've got an associate pastor now. He can handle the sacramental duties for the parish, and anything else can wait a week. That's all I'm suggesting." The bishop's voice was very gentle, peaceful, almost soothing. Joe started to unruffle. "I need every priest I've got. We're losing three more this year to retirement, and we're only ordaining two."
Joe tried to take a deep breath. His hands were trembling in his lap.
The bishop said, "Do you have someplace you can stay?"
Swallowing, Joe nodded.
After a moment, Joe said, "Is that all?"
"In light of what you just told me, no." The bishop leaned back and folded his arms. "Do a rough calculation of just how much work you're doing for your parish."
Joe listed off the activities of a typical day, and the bishop watched with a studying stare. After Joe finished, the bishop said, "That's at least ninety-five hours a week."
"It's never-ending. You can't maintain that pace. No wonder your health is going downhill."
Joe opened his hands. "Every priest does as much. I'll be all right."
"I'm not going to take the chance you won't. And I dispute your assumptions about your fellow priests--they work hard, but not to that extent. I want you to cut that down to forty hours a week."
Joe's jaw dropped. "I can't--"
"Find a way. Figure out your priorities in the parish and meet those needs first, then let the rest slide."
Joe's fists clenched. "But they need me to--"
"Joe," the bishop said softly, "do you remember that vow of obedience?"
Joe inhaled sharply.
"I don't like to overrule you that way, but if you must, think of it as a direct order. You are to immediately reduce your work week to forty hours. You're acting as if God Almighty can't get a thing done unless you do it yourself." The bishop leveled his gaze on Joe. "Next item on the agenda, stop donating your salary back to the church." When Joe protested, the bishop raised a hand. "It wasn't hard to figure out. I do look at the parish budgets, although I have to admit you were clever about hiding it."
"We'll go bankrupt," Joe said.
"God will find the money somehow."
"God did find it. By giving it to me."
"That salary is yours. You already give enough to the church. You aren't eating enough. You don't ever get any extras for yourself. It's not as if eleven thousand a year is the lap of luxury, but at least it gives you some 'wiggle room'." Joe wore a deep scowl as the bishop continued, "You're a priest, but before that you're a human being. You do have limits. You'll accomplish more if you're energetic and happy with your vocation."
Joe said flatly, "Yes, sir."
After a moment, he added, "I'm sorry."
Something in his tone coaxed the bishop to look back at his ashen face.
"And you're a very good priest." The bishop stood from the couch and made his way back to his desk. "I can't say that enough. You're well worth the three dispensations you needed to get ordained in the first place, at age twenty-three no less, and you've already surpassed my wildest expectations. I'm astonished by you and all you're accomplishing at St. Augustine's. Their last pastor burned out and is still bitter about the experience, but you turned that church around. Your people love you."
Joe had his arms folded and his chin down. He said nothing.
The bishop said, "Your name frequently comes up on the short list of candidates for the next bishop."
Joe bit his lip. "Don't do that to me."
"A successor won't be my choice. It wouldn't happen soon, at any rate, and you don't stand a chance because you don't play politics. I just think you ought to know I'm not the only one impressed. If you take it easier for a little while, it'll be better in the long run. Trust me."
In the lobby five minutes later, Joe buzzed Ken's bracelet and said he had a few errands to run. If Ken didn't mind, could he pick him up at St. Gus in an hour? Ken said, "I can drive you there," but Joe said, "I get around town fine by myself, thanks."
He caught the crosstown bus from the steps of the cathedral. Ordinarily he'd have prayed the rosary during the ride, but today an elderly woman recognized him. She changed seats to be near him and talked enthusiastically about the holy week services, then followed up with an invitation to dinner with her family. Joe was just as glad that when he got off the bus, she stayed. The crosstown route left him a mile from St. Gus, and he could transfer to a second bus that would bring him closer. Despite the rain and his aching legs he wanted to walk, but just then the bus pulled in. The driver hollered, "Hey, Father Joe, get in! We'll wait!"
He slowly climbed the steps. As Joe handed the driver the transfer, the driver turned to one of the kids in the first seats and barked, "Get up! Can't you read?"
The seat had a sticker stating, "Please save these seats for the elderly or handicapped." Joe tried not to think as he sat. Unlike the crosstown, this bus was crowded. The route ran directly through three inner-city neighborhoods that had earned the nickname "the devil's corridor." Someone in the back had a loud radio, and the interior had accumulated a general body odor.
A young woman had pushed her way up to the front of the bus, and finally finding Joe, she beamed. "Father Joe! Happy Easter!"
Joe nodded. "You too, Linda."
Grinning, she said, "You'll never guess what happened! I got a real job--I'm an overnight accountant at the clinic downtown! It pays so much better than fast food, and I'll be able to stay home with Jocelyn!"
Joe blinked. "That's good. Then your mother can watch her at night? But aren't you going to be burning the candle at both ends?"
"It's only a few years. I couldn't stand to leave her in daycare where there might be rats or someone might hurt her." Linda smiled broadly. "She's so sweet, Father. Thanks."
Joe said, "Do you have a picture?"
Linda fished in her purse momentarily, then showed him the smiling face of a six-month-old wearing a bow in her silky fine hair. One year ago, a pregnant Linda had turned up at the rectory deserted by her boyfriend. She didn't want an abortion but thought she had no options. Joe had pounded on enough area agencies for social services that she could have the baby if she wanted, and she'd decided to have the baby. He'd mediated between her and her mother so Linda could have a place to live while she finished high school. This was the result: a third shift accounting job, that chubby face in the photo, and a young woman who had pushed her way through the crowd on the bus to thank him for it.
Five minutes later, Joe walked into the rectory and went straight to his office. "Teresa, I need to talk to you now." She followed, closing the door as he sat behind his desk.
Looking at his drawn face, paler still in contrast to the black shirt, she said, "What's wrong?"
Joe directed his glare like a Las Vegas spotlight out the window. "I'm going to be gone the rest of the week." He gave her the briefest explanation possible. She sat looking serious, saying nothing until he finished.
Teresa said, "I'll handle everything."
Joe just stared through her in exhaustion.
"I've worked here longer than you have. I've seen three pastors already. I know what needs to be done."
Joe cast his gaze at his lap. She added, "Go pack for the week. I've been scared for you too."
Downstairs, Joe radioed Ken, who said he'd probably take another hour to get back to the church, so Joe made lunch and packed while his soup heated. He didn't have much to prepare. A week's worth of clothes emptied the drawers, but he did need a few reference books to write Sunday's homily. That done, he choked down lunch that didn't taste like anything.
Without something else to accomplish before Ken returned, Joe headed to the church and unbolted the door, then locked it again behind himself. Kneeling in the benches before the tabernacle, he started the rosary but didn't get further than the second mystery before he found he had no idea where he was in the prayer. He stared at the beads, blinked rapidly, then huddled forward against the back of the next bench. "I'm sorry," he whispered, then said it again as tears started to come. A grief as real as the death of his parents, as the death of the Condor: he let go and sobbed, hating the way he couldn't stop, his rosary crunched together in his hands, his shoulders and arms tight like steel cables. "I just couldn't keep going. I failed you again."
What a useless, useless crybaby--couldn't do a damned thing for anyone. Joe made his way to the sacristy and found the box of tissues, then stood for a while with his hands over his eyes, breathing deeply. He'd only been at this job three years. It was all dissolving so fast.
He was just as glad that when he returned to the rectory, Teresa was away from her desk. His locked office door insured no one would walk in as he phoned Father Ron.
After listening to all Joe had to say, Father Ron said briefly that he agreed with Nambu and the bishop.
Joe said, "What should I do?" His voice surprised him by holding steady. There was a knock at his door which he ignored.
Father Ron said, "Relax for a week. It's not like you have a choice about the hours. Burnout's a bad situation, Joe. What was the first thing Father Martin said when you took over St. Gus? 'Sure you look happy now, but you'll never get anything done again.'"
Joe said, "Close enough." Someone knocked again, and Joe swiveled his chair so he faced the back wall.
"Try to remember what it was that attracted you to the vocation. Do what you'd tell a married couple to do: remember why you fell in love."
"There's so much else to do." This time, the bracelet chirped, so Joe figured it must be Ken outside. Well, Ken could wait. "The parish--"
"No, no, Joe. You're like a neurotic new mother who comes in saying her baby needs her so much she can't even take a shower." As Joe smirked, Father Ron continued, "Keep some perspective. Set your priorities."
They spoke a few more minutes before Joe returned to the front office. Ken sat on one of the couches, and Teresa talked on the phone. She told the caller to wait, then turned to Joe. "Pretty much everything fell into place. Father Patrick said he can take all the daily Masses except Wednesday, and I've got Amelia lined up to do a service instead. Father Patrick will handle confessions, so you don't need to come back until the Saturday five."
Joe shook his head. "Youth group."
"Enrique Hoyos will run youth group for you on Thursday." Teresa nodded as Joe started. "He happened to call while you were at the church, and he asked if there was any way he could repay us. I told him what was going on, and he volunteered to handle the kids."
Joe blinked. "Oh."
Teresa stood and smiled. "I've got your number out there, but I won't call unless there's an emergency. Have a good week. And take care of yourself."
Ken took Joe's suitcase and carried it through the rain to the car. As they settled in, and still thinking about Enrique's sudden return, Joe noticed the car's color like a thunderbolt. Red. No, he thought. There have to be a hundred thousand red cars in the city. It can't have been Ken.
They drove in silence for a while, weaving through the city streets with the tires hissing against the runoff water, and then taking off once they reached the freeway. Shortly the graffiti-covered buildings yielded to cleaner row-houses, followed by cookie-cutter subdivisions, and shortly afterward they'd reached the seacoast where the houses stood far back from the highway and had generous portions of land surrounding them.
Ken glanced at Joe over his shoulder. "Long day, huh?"
Joe nodded without returning the glance.
They drove in silence for another mile until Ken said, "I never really apologized to you for staying away all those years. I just returned and you took me back without question."
Joe's stomach tightened, and he swiveled to look out the side window. He didn't want this now. He didn't want to hear it. But maybe it was like the Gallactor's confession; maybe Ken needed to say it. Joe didn't prompt him to continue, but he didn't derail him either.
After a moment more, Ken said, "When I saw that your people were willing to die for you...the least I could do was call you my friend again. I'm sorry. There I was, being a total heel, and you were probably praying for me."
Joe laughed darkly. "I'm not that holy. Every time I'd try to pray for you, I'd start saying things like, 'And God, make that idiot come to his senses,' and I'd have to stop."
Ken laughed out loud. "Really?"
Joe waited to see if Ken had finished his agenda.
"So what's all this about? Why'd you have to go talk to the bishop today? What did Hakase tell you last night?"
Joe's hands tightened in his lap. "It wasn't much."
"You're lying to me." When Joe didn't object, Ken said, "You didn't tell me last time everything started falling to pieces on you, and look where it got us."
"Is that why you apologized to me, as prepayment for confidences received?" Joe glowered through the floor of the car, as if he could see the road passing under their tires, and when he looked back he found Ken biting his lip.
"That's not fair."
"Maybe it's not. But you're manipulating me."
"You're leaving me out of it again, and I think maybe I ought to know, even if I'm not your closest friend any longer."
Apparently unfair shots were the weapons du jour. Joe relented. "All the old problems are back. The double vision, the tingling, the numbness. Hakase says it's stress."
Ken said, "Can't you take it easy then?"
"That's why the bishop wanted to talk to me."
"Doesn't sound so bad overall."
Joe said, "Hakase said if I don't take time off, in six months I'll be totally blind."
Ken sat up straighter in the driver's seat. "No kidding?"
"A few months beyond that, I'll be test-driving the leading brand of wheelchair."
Ken's eyes shone against his pale cheeks. "You're sure he wasn't trying to scare you?"
"He succeeded. I suspected as much, though. My eyes have been going to hell on me lately."
"You've been trembling too." Ken hummed. "So why not do what they say and take it easy for a while?"
Joe's eyes lowered. "I don't really have a choice. Not that I like it. But I'm under orders."
Ken choked back a "Hah!"
Joe said, "I promised Nambu I'd be a good science ninja, but sometimes going off on my own and taking care of the dirty work myself was the way to be a good science ninja. It's different now. I made a promise to God to obey, and you shouldn't break those promises."
"All that aside, I don't see why you need to be under orders. Taking it easy is the sensible thing to do."
"I'm an old man now--I have to do the sensible thing."
"Was it sensible to do exactly the same thing before Cross Karacoram, knowing your body was failing and working yourself to death anyhow?"
Joe turned his head. "When you came to St. Gus the first time, you accused me of running away to find a soft and cushy life for myself. That's exactly what I'll have."
Ken slapped a hand into the dashboard. "Damn it, Joe, when did you ever start listening to me?"
In a low voice, "I've always listened to you. Even when I didn't agree."
"So you pick now to start agreeing?" Ken shook his head. "Look, I just told you I'd been a heel. I don't think anything of the sort, and I can't see how anyone would accuse you of doing anything other than saving your life."
"At what cost? Who pays the price for my surviving yet again?" He swallowed. "It doesn't matter. Everything will get done. Somehow. If it doesn't, it doesn't. I've saved the world often enough. It's time for someone else to get a turn." Abruptly he turned aside and stared directly away from Ken, squinting hard through the glasses and finally putting his hand up to his eyes . He murmured, "I wasn't a very good science ninja either, and the world went on."
Ken hadn't heard him at all.
When they reached the mansion, Ken brought Joe's bag upstairs, and once alone Joe meticulously unpacked, choosing drawers with far more care than he possibly needed. Goro showed briefly in the doorway but then melted into the shadows, so Joe took the opportunity to shut both doors. He lay spent on the bed listening to the rain until it came time for dinner, although when he headed downstairs he didn't eat much. Jun looked concerned, but he assured her he didn't feel hungry. The juniors broke off for an evening training session, the Gatchaman team held a planning meeting, and Joe found himself alone. He put himself to work.
At the kitchen table with his lectionary and a few reference books, Joe jotted notes in unsteady block print on a legal-sized yellow pad. He had a scowling concentration as he focused hard enough to read the small type. He'd worked longer than he realized when Ryu walked in.
Getting himself a glass of milk, Ryu paused. "What are you doing?"
Grim-faced, Joe shrugged. "I've got to prepare the homily for this weekend."
Ryu chuckled. "It's kind of like divine revenge for all those times you didn't really study. Now you've got to write a book report every week."
Joe laughed, but it had a hollow sound. Ryu wandered up behind him. "Your hands are shaking again."
Apparently the grapevine was no longer functioning. "I'm sick."
"That's no good." Ryu put down the milk and rested his hands on Joe's shoulders. As Joe sat straighter, Ryu started probing with his fingers at the muscles in his neck and back. "You're so tense. Is this all right?"
"Fine." Joe leaned forward a little so Ryu could get at the rest of his neck. Warmth spread from the larger man's fingertips, and Joe felt all his muscles slacken. It seemed nowadays he could go for weeks without another human touch, and at times he hungered for it. The team had always had their hands on one another: wrestling, helping, reassuring, shoving, hugging. No one hugs a priest. It was as if the vow of celibacy ensphered him from all human touch, everyone thinking even a handshake might lead him astray. Or maybe it was society, he thought, and everyone spent entire days fighting a yawning need for physical contact but never admitting to it. "You give great back rubs," he murmured as Ryu attended to a tight spot on his shoulder.
"Learned them on my Dad after a long day fishing."
Joe's body was liquefying, melting into pleasant relaxation. "Right after Cross Karacoram, they made life worthwhile."
"Huh?" Ryu stopped momentarily. "Really?"
"You'd always know where to do it." Joe crossed his arms and laid down his head. "I couldn't talk because of the tubes, but you'd know anyhow."
How many times had he roused groggily to find Ryu raising the head of the bed, guiding him up to slouch like a boneless doll against his strong left arm? Joe couldn't sit up on his own in the early days. Ryu would cradle him in that upright position so the right hand could knead out all the soreness in his back. While he worked, Ryu would talk brightly about the team's home life, as if Joe would be heading home the next day and needed to know the most recent squabbles or jokes. Joe would listen, dazed and drugged, and all his frustration would crumble beneath the friendly onslaught. There had been peace in those moments. Afterward, with Joe so relaxed he was nearly asleep again, Ryu would gently lay him back, lower the head of the bed, and turn out the lights. For the first month, Ryu had come every single day, once in the morning and once in the evening. Now Joe knew what it had cost the man.
Ryu said, "I thought it annoyed you. That's why I stopped."
Joe grimaced. "I didn't know how to ask for help. Or how to say thank you."
Ryu had found a troublesome muscle near Joe's spine, and he stayed there. "You know, I never got that Catholic stuff, but I remember that first time you did a church service. You got up there and said there wasn't anyone in the church less qualified to tell other people how to live."
"You were nervous as hell. They probably couldn't tell, but I could. Do you still get nervous?"
"Only when I think about it." Joe yawned, then flexed his shoulders as Ryu paused.
"You looked so thrilled afterward. I couldn't figure out why."
About to answer, Joe stopped.
"I mean," Ryu said, "that's what your whole job is about, so it's good you're thrilled, but I don't get it."
Of course it's a thrill, Joe thought. Isn't that why I started in the first place: because God was right here, and if God was right here than I wanted to be standing right here too? Didn't I want never to go away, just to be right here were God was? For the first time, I liked who I was. It didn't matter that I had to vow to work where others sent me, that I was going to relinquish rights every other human being has. I'd found the most important thing in the world, and I wasn't going to wander away from it ever again. And I still have that. I'll always have that.
Ryu suddenly laughed. "I talked you to sleep."
Joe groaned and sat up. "You relaxed me too much. I've done as much as I can tonight." He started closing the books, and Ryu helped him gather them together. The larger man carried them up the steps and left them in Joe's room. Five minutes later after evening prayer, Joe had shut the light and fallen asleep. But in his sleep he was smiling.
* * *
On Tuesday morning, Joe awakened to a regular ticking he couldn't quickly identify. He snuggled closer under the blanket and let the regular hiss and skip pervade his thoughts, still half asleep, until he recognized the automatic sprinkler system on the lawn. Like a forgotten foreign language, he recalled the gentle arcing motion of sprayed water, the endless circling and returning of the sprinkler heads. Tik-tik-tik-tik-tik-sk-k-k-k-k-k... Above that sound he heard the calling of dozens of birds he couldn't recognize by their cries alone, seagulls and sparrows, starlings and cardinals, mockingbirds and bluejays. He'd never noticed the birds while growing up in the mansion. Stretching, he squinted toward the windows and listened for the rain only to discover he couldn't hear it any longer.
Shortly afterward, he detected sounds of the junior team preparing for their early morning workout. He luxuriated in sleepy warmth and comfort a little longer, then got out of bed to say morning prayer. Ten minutes later, he found one of the unused bedrooms and locked himself inside. He opened the Eastern windows and cleared the drop cloth off the desk, placed the desk right before the window, and said Mass while the sun rose.
Feeling warm and delightfully awake with a good tingling rather than a numb one, Joe removed the drop cloth from one of the chairs and prayed however he felt led to. Shortly, the world vanished. When Joe heard the juniors returning, he rose gradually out of the meditation, found he had been "gone" thirty minutes, and returned to his room to get ready for the day.
At breakfast, Joe participated in the general uproar of fifteen people getting fed. He dressed as they did for now, in shorts and a t-shirt, and even his glasses didn't make him look as old as he was. Momentarily, a 26-year-old could pass as someone barely out of his teens, especially when he laughed. He could laugh this morning.
During a lull in conversation, Nambu said, "Joe, the junior team has decided they'd like to keep a vegetable garden to help the Cafeteria." They'd probably been told some volunteer work was forthcoming and figured it might as well be on the premises. Joe turned his head as he said thank you.
Afterward, Nambu guided Joe aside. "If you don't object," he said, "I'd like to consult the other physician you're seeing to coordinate a few tests."
With a deep breath, Joe agreed and provided the doctor's name.
"Thank you," Nambu said. "Secondly, if you're looking for something to do, why not scout the grounds a pick a spot for your garden?"
Your garden. It wasn't that Joe objected to the juniors helping the Cafeteria. Considering they weren't giving the proceeds to him personally, there was no sane reason for him to turn down the help. Ken's words had haunted him as often as the flashbacks of Holy Week: they do it because of you. Did people help his church because of him, not because of God? Joe was sure it still "counted," if and however God kept score. Certainly his parishioners benefitted every time Jun dropped by with some "old" equipment she "no longer needed" at the Snack. Someone had appeared on Saturday, however, and handed over an amount half Joe's annual salary (whoops--now it would be a quarter his annual salary) to the church and taken care not to identify himself or herself: was that also for Joe? Certainly when the Archangels patrolled St. Gus, they did so because they knew Joe.
The mansion's grounds had a thick green lawn, dandelion- and crabgrass-free, the earth soft and springy beneath. Joe now knew what it took to create a lawn this lush. It seemed like a crime to attack this turf with a sod knife to clear a bare spot for zucchini. On one of the hills just behind the mansion, however, a ten-year-old Joe and Ken had been forced to clear an expansive flower bed. They'd been wrestling; one had thrown the other into a very old and costly variety of rose bush which hadn't survived. When Joe reached the spot, he found the bed still there, at least in part. During the war, Ken and Joe had allowed it to run wild, and Jun had assumed its care as a hobby. Her efforts had kept most of the wilderness at bay. There were no flowers in the bed now, only a couple of bushes that could be transplanted. The bed's newest tenants were thistles.
Cute. You cursed me with finding spiny things in my beds. Joe chuckled and worked his fingers underneath one of the thistles, found the tap root penetrating deep into the soil, and gave it a tug. After the recent rains, the root yielded with only a little resistance. Tossing the plant aside, Joe scanned the rest of the bed. This will do, I think. I'm sure Ken wouldn't mind.
He got on his knees and started weeding the corner furthest from the mansion. Teresa had found the same thistles in the derelict parish garden last year and said, "No one ever won a war against thistles." Joe had. Every other day, he'd taken half an hour to patrol the garden and pull any thistle roots that put up new leaves. It was almost like a meditation. After a while the roots that wouldn't come up had expended all their energy and perished silently underground, while the vegetables had thrived.
Weeding, Joe kept recalling "Whoever receives a small child such as this has received me." It was too distracting and too pervasive. Joe chuckled. Okay, God, bring it on. See if I'm still any good at anything.
Ten minutes later, Joe noticed a shadow falling across the flower bed. Looking up, he found Goro.
Ah. He studied Goro with an open expression. "What brings you out here?"
Goro shrugged. "So, you want me to get the gardening tools?"
"That would be good."
Goro walked away.
What do I do with him? Joe remembered the nightmare Goro must be living. Only last week he'd once more endured the horror, the terror, awakening alone in the rectory wondering if he'd heard the returning three-AM steps of an assassin who hadn't finished her job. The dreams usually recurred under stress. Maybe God was using the dreams now.
After a while, Goro returned. He squatted watching Joe work, then took a spade and started pulling thistles. Joe said, "Make sure you get the root, otherwise it'll have to be weeded again."
"Thistles have tap roots, big roots that go all the way down. If you just pull off the leaves, the thistle grows back."
Goro tugged too hard and broke the root. "How do you do that?"
"You'll get a feel for it. Try a more gentle pull and twist, and see if you can get your fingers around the root."
They worked in silence. As the sun grew higher, Joe wondered how badly sunburnt he'd be, but he persevered. After a quarter of the bed was clear, Goro's slightly nasal voice said, "So, you talk a lot with God, right?"
Here goes. "I guess."
"So why is there evil in the world?"
Sure, start with the question that is the single biggest argument against the existence of God. "I have a different answer for that every time I think about it, and I've got no reason to suspect my current answer is any more right than the last ones."
"But really. I mean, why does God let awful things happen?"
"Goro, there's theory, and there's your life. I could give you a lecture about free will and the fall of Adam, but you already know all that. Theory could never answer your real question, which is 'Why me? Why my parents?' And no one's theory can answer that completely."
They kept working. Joe groped for the right words to tell the kid his parents hadn't died purposelessly and found his mind blank, so he said nothing. The Bible said the Holy Spirit would tell the disciples what to say; he figured this was as good a cue as any that the Holy Spirit wanted him to shut up.
Goro said, "So what am I going to do?"
Joe murmured, "What are you going to do?" The sun had gotten still higher, and they'd lost any shade from the nearby trees. He touched the gold band on his hand. "You'll be a survivor. You'll plug away automatically at things for a while, and one day it'll come right down to it and you'll have to decide what you want. It may take years. You'll feel like you survived for a reason, and you'll have to figure out what that reason is. You will never get over it, but you'll carry it forward with you. Without their deaths being good, you'll have made good come out of it. It'll probably grow so deep down inside you that eventually you can't imagine yourself without it."
Goro said, "I can't imagine going on."
"It's hard at first."
"Ken said the same thing happened to you."
Joe said, "I hated myself for not being able to stop it."
"I wasn't even near when it happened."
Joe said, "Do you hate God?"
Goro looked up in fear.
"I think that's understandable," Joe said, "to be so mad you can't even speak to God for a long time. But you've got to do something with the rage, if only to keep it from burning yourself out."
"So you think I should stay on the team?"
"I think you should do whatever helps you grieve best," Joe said. "Even if it's weeding a flower bed."
Goro turned his head aside. "Well, I'm not becoming a priest." When Joe laughed out loud, Goro said, "I like Ken's job better."
"Ken and I are doing the same work." Joe sat back on his heels. "He's cutting off the leaves and I'm pulling out the roots. What you're going to learn, Goro, is that evil has tap roots. You can slice it apart all you want, but if that root's intact below, the leaves will show up again. There are times you pull up the wrong root and get a good plant rather than a bad one. You've never completely weeded a garden. But it helps to be doing something, and both kinds of work are worthwhile."
Goro said, "I don't really get you. You became a priest just to keep fighting Gallactor?"
Joe said, "I became a priest because I fell headfirst into something I didn't understand but loved anyhow. Keeping up the fight is an unexpected bonus. It's like getting back something you thought you'd lost forever."
Goro said, "I want my family back."
Joe winced. "If I could, I'd give them to you."
The boy wrapped his arms around his stomach and swallowed hard. Joe said, "It's a real physical pain. I remember that."
"It's not so bad," Goro said. "I'll live. You lived. You said I'd survive."
Without another word, Goro arose and walked away.
There isn't anything I could have said that would have helped him, was there? Joe weeded faster now. Nothing anyone said helped me. But remind me to pray for him. He needs all the help you can give.
Five minutes later, Ken showed up.
Joe very carefully slipped his fingers into the ground along the stem of a weed, gripped the top of the root base and twisted just a little to loosen it before pulling upward. He felt the root snap far below ground, but he pulled out the the plant with a decent enough tap root that he felt it wouldn't return easily. He moved on to the next, and the next, ignoring Ken's presence. With his pinpoint vision focused on the plant bed, it was easy to leisurely pretend he hadn't noticed Ken, at least for a while. "That was your idea, wasn't it?"
"You have the best chance of getting through to him."
"Well, I waved my rosary and snapped my fingers and chanted in Latin, and now he's ready to sing lullabies in French to his teddy bears before putting lacy pink ribbons on his hedgehog collection." Joe looked up to find Ken squatting, almost at eye-level with him. "What's so funny?"
"You are. I was going to swim and thought maybe you'd like to join me."
It was hot, and Joe looked at the flower bed. It would take hours to finish the job alone. He got to his feet and dusted the dirt off his knees and hands. "Sounds like a good idea." He took a step toward Ken, and as Ken turned away, Joe said, "But first--"
Joe jumped Ken. With his back turned, Ken was completely unprepared, and he yelped as he went down. Joe grappled with him, taunting at first and then suddenly threatening and finally struggling as Ken overpowered him and got the upper position. Joe twisted with the roll and found himself on top long enough to toss his glasses onto the soft weeded earth, then yelled protests as Ken got the better of him again.
For a while it went that way, and Joe knew Ken was holding back because Ken could easily have ground him into the dirt. Some of the moves remained ingrained in Joe's body, though, and maybe it wasn't vanity to think a couple of times he escaped Ken's grasp when Ken wasn't entirely letting him.
Finally Joe couldn't continue, and he laid on his back with his ribs heaving. Sweat glistened in his hair and on his face. Ken disengaged and sat a few feet away while Joe gasped.
"You lunatic!" Ken said. "Even at your best I could kick your ass!"
"What?" Joe stared at Ken open-mouthed. "Never!"
Ken arched his eyebrows. "You're delusional."
"I let you win."
Ken throttled Joe again, then let him go. Joe made his way to where he'd tossed his glasses, then staggered back to a seated position. A long stitch burned under his ribs. His hands were quivering, and he ran them through his wet hair.
Ken said, "Now, Wonder Boy the Wrestling Priest of Doom, can we finally go for a swim?"
"Love to," Joe gasped. He got to his feet and walked slowly alongside Ken, who realized halfway to the mansion how Joe was struggling to maintain even the moderate pace. He dropped to the grass without a word, and Joe followed gratefully. A little later the air conditioning downstairs revived Joe some more. They did laps in separate lanes, Ken far faster and more efficient than Joe, who tired quickly. In the middle of the third lap Joe slowed dangerously and finally started treading water while reaching gingerly for the ropes. Ken swam to him and guided him to the side.
"I wore you out."
"I'm doing too much." Joe smiled like a rogue. "Hakase would kill me for this. I'm supposed to be relaxing." When Ken started to speak, Joe said, "This is relaxing, believe it or not. I don't get too much time to work out any longer, although that'll change."
Ken said, "How often do you get any time?"
"We've got some old equipment the kids use after youth group: a treadmill, a sand bag, some weights. I use them when I have an hour or so to myself."
"Maybe you could join a health club."
Joe said, "I'll even be able to afford it now. Don't worry about me." He pulled himself hand over hand to the ladder, not moving his legs as he made his way through the water. Ken hovered close while Joe hauled himself up out of the pool. It took a while. "I think I'm finished for now."
Ken swam for another hour, then returned upstairs to shower and change. Afterward, Ken walked into Joe's room without knocking. Just inside the door, he stopped when he found Joe lying on the bed, sleeping on his back like a ragdoll tossed aside. He must have been sitting on the edge of the bed and lain down for a moment's rest. One leg lay tucked up under the other like a number four, and on that same side his arm was bent at a right angle. His glasses stood on the nightstand, and he'd dropped his towel at the foot of the bed like he always had years ago. Without his glasses, he looked younger, fiercer, more familiar.
Eight years ago, it had been Ken who found Joe's corpse in the wreckage of Cross Karacoram. Down at the bottom of a crater, Joe had lain just as he did now, only bleeding, arms splayed, one leg pinned beneath the other like a number four, twisted but thankfully not broken. His neck had craned backward so his lips had parted. The same blood matting Joe's hair and clothes had seeped out fresh onto the rocks. Ken had jumped to the bottom of the crater, knowing Jun followed and not wanting her to verify the death. He'd checked without hope for a pulse. And then came the surprise when the vein throbbed under his hand.
Sometimes Ken knew beyond all doubt that Joe had been saved by God, his life if not his soul. Flying Joe back from Cross Karacoram, Ken had even tried to pray because he remembered praying for his mother: God, if you exist, please keep him alive. It hadn't worked to save his mother, but the second time around, it had. Something had. But then it looked as though Ken's prayer had served only to keep Joe trapped in a crippled and useless body, a souvenir of a life once lived and never again to be cherished or enjoyed, preserved to be gawked at and have its IVs changed every six hours.
And what kind of life have I prayed up for you? Ken had wondered. He'd tried to hope, though, that if God did exist, then God had ignored his silly, feeble prayer and done whatever had been in the plan to begin with, and that maybe there was something of a reason in Joe's survival.
Ken lifted the damp towel, draped it over the door knob, and softly left the room.
* * *
A couple of hours later, Joe found Ken at a table in the library reading a newspaper. "You're back among the living," Ken said.
"Yet again." Joe sat in one of the leather chairs looking like he'd still be asleep if he had his way. "I can't believe I thrashed you like that."
"You can't believe it because it didn't happen." Ken sat back from the table. "All kidding aside, if that much activity wore you out, maybe you really need a long break."
"I can't." Joe sighed. "No, I guess it's better to say I don't want to. If I show I really can't handle my parish, they'll pull me out and stick me in a desk job somewhere."
Ken's eyebrows arched. "Priests can have desk jobs?"
"What do you think the bishop does?" Joe abruptly shivered. "Oh, good grief, the short list..." He shook his head. "I'd be put to work processing annulment papers or counseling people for Catholic Charities. They're okay jobs and I'm glad someone does them, but I'd really rather it not be me."
Ken said, "How's running a parish any different? You told me you counsel people there too."
"It's the difference between owning a car and pumping gas at a rest stop. God didn't save my life to alphabetize files or listen to divorced couples gripe about their emotional immaturity."
Ken chuckled. "I'll buy that. Why did you survive?"
Joe regarded him curiously. He could always hear the things Ken didn't say, and Ken knew it. "Whatever reason God had," Joe said, "only God knows it right now." When Ken's eyes dropped, Joe added, "The bishop reminded me today of all the hoops I had to jump through to get ordained. There are rules about who can become a priest. I was too young, too blind, and too crippled. He gave me dispensations, Catholic waivers, for all three. I guess he thought God had something in mind for me too."
Ken shrugged. "Just as long as you don't cut that out while you're trimming your hours like the bishop said."
"That's bothering me too." Joe turned the gold band on his finger. "Everyone's telling me to prioritize, but everything is top priority to someone. That's part of what I want to figure out this week. The other things I'll hand over to volunteers or simply end."
Ken said, "Then you really have changed."
Ken added, "If I'd told you to lessen your workload on the team, you'd have been pleasant about replying politely and then gone and done whatever the heck you wanted."
Joe looked tired. "I told you it's different now."
Ken said, "I can't believe you're not thinking of a way out of it."
Joe didn't say anything this time because Ken had always known him best, and of course he had thought of a way.
* * *
Wednesday and Thursday passed the same as Tuesday. Joe awakened early and had a spiritual regimen to match the physical workout of the two teams. After breakfast, he worked in the garden until Ken grabbed him for an activity: jogging on Wednesday and bicycling on Thursday. Goro joined them both times because he was able to keep pace with Joe. Joe found time to play with Eric and Mako's two children, reading to them and building with blocks. Ryu gave Joe another back-rub on Wednesday night.
Several times more, Joe spoke with Goro, but they never discussed his parents directly. When Joe finally got around to asking the standard Catholic question ("What parish are you from?") he learned Goro had come from one of the upper-middle class neighborhoods on a bus line that never crossed the devil's corridor. Goro's church had a nice Sunday service and very little happening on weekdays. The old priest often muttered that he had no rapport with the youth of his parish, and after hearing the supposedly comforting things he'd told Goro before his parents' funeral, Joe was inclined to agree. Better to have said nothing at all, he thought. In their everyday pursuits, Joe noticed how junior Condor Hoshi took great pains to taunt and tease Goro, but so far the boy did little more than avoid her. The junior Eagle didn't put a stop to the harassment, and neither did Ken, although Joe understood Ken's reluctance.
No matter how often Joe had combed the bishop's words to him, he still hadn't come up with the perfect way to avoid doing what he'd been told. Every time he tried to find a different way to interpret it, the simple clarity of the instructions stopped him cold: cut down what you're doing to 40 hours a week wasn't easily deconstructed. For the first two days, Joe remained convinced he had no choice. He could obey the order or else he could flagrantly break one of his three vows. While that would certainly get him off the short list (the idea still nauseated him) he didn't want to. He'd rather something silly made him ineligible for bishop, like publicly arguing for Confession and absolution by email.
Instead, the only recourse he could think of was the Catholic trump card: pleading conscience.
Conscience always took precedence over obedience. It had to, and Joe respected that. The bishop would too, although he'd argue it wasn't a matter of conscience. That was where Joe kept coming up short. He knew his people needed him--or was that pride? His conscience told him he had to work all-out as long as he possibly could--or was he mistaken? The whole doctrine of following one's conscience was predicated on having a well-formed conscience, and Joe couldn't say for certain his was. He'd seen too many parishioners telling him their consciences allowed them to disregard any law of the church they wanted to at the time being, including abusing their children or abandoning their spouses. Without any prayer, thought, or research, they would give him a smile full of smug innocence, "I just don't see anything wrong with this," and be absolutely certain that two thousand years of church teaching pertained not at all to Themselves. It made Joe want to hit something.
If I do break the vow of obedience, he prayed, am I any better?
Father Ron hit the ceiling when Joe called and asked. This Joe had expected.
"And rather than disobeying," Joe's spiritual director said urgently, "haven't you thought about returning and asking if there's another way? Some way you can compromise?"
Joe said, "Such as how?"
"Such as however you were planning to manage the stress if you keep working at a drop-dead pace?"
"I thought I'd work out every day. That's helped a lot this week."
"Where were you planning on finding the time? In your sleep?"
Joe sighed. "I can't just abandon my people."
"If you do this," Father Ron said, "you realize Bishop Sato will pull you from St. Gus faster than you can call a parish council meeting?"
Momentarily, Joe sat in silence. "But if I really can't handle it full-time, he'll do the same."
"You haven't proven you can't. Your church is chock-full of people who can volunteer a lot more than they're doing. When you moved into that parish, Father Martin had done next to nothing in quite a while. Do you think he went to every one of the meetings--liturgy, music, education, parish council, finance? Of course not! He let them run themselves."
"But nothing ever got done! The parish council rubber-stamped an incorrect budget every year and that was all! There were three half-empty Masses a weekend and one nerdy kid and one pious old lady showing up every week for youth group and confession."
"It isn't all or nothing, Joe. I know you grew up told exactly that, but I promise you that God isn't Doctor Nambu." Father Ron took a deep breath. "You're no longer fighting a war. It's time your heart realized that."
Joe drummed his fingers on the desk. "What happens to St. Gus while I put up my feet and watch ESPN?"
"You can keep your people motivated. They'll be motivated to keep you around because they love you. They'll be motivated because you'll still be involved, even if it's every third meeting rather than every meeting. They'll understand. You can cut counseling sessions back from an hour to thirty minutes. Find someone else to run the youth group. Let volunteers run the Cafeteria. Tap a few young men for the permanent deaconate."
Joe muttered, "Then why did I become a priest in the first place?"
"The sacraments. You'd still be a priest even if you washed up on a desert island with only two palm trees for a congregation." Father Ron sounded more stern than Joe had ever heard. "Get it out of your head that you're going to die for your people. Automartyrdom has never been recognized by the church."
Joe ruffled the pages of the phone book on Nambu's desk. Father Ron said, "The bishop told you to prioritize. Before you run around breaking vows, I recommend you sit down and seriously look at what's most important. As for the rest, let God take care of it. God made the world. I'm sure God can keep the finance committee meeting on schedule."
* * *
Thursday at midnight, Joe awakened suddenly when the bathroom door opened and a trapezoid of light split his room. "Are you awake?" Goro whispered. "Joe?"
Joe pushed up onto his hands and found his glasses. "Now I am."
"I think someone's in the building." Goro's scared voice barely reached Joe's ears. "I heard something."
Joe sat on the side of the bed. "The mansion's pretty secure. I don't think anyone could get in."
"I heard someone."
"What kind of sound?"
"Like a thump."
Joe took a deep breath. He knew exactly what was going on. He'd felt the same twenty years ago. "Let's look."
Goro stayed behind Joe, as if Joe could fend off an intruder and save both their lives. Goro had one of his hedgehogs clinging to his shoulder. Joe took them at a slow walk to the end of the corridor, then back to the other wing where the juniors stayed. He didn't go upstairs to the Gatchaman team's quarters, but he did head to the main floor where they inspected the rec room, the library, the kitchen, and the dining room. Joe pronounced the mansion intruder-free.
"It's so big, though." Goro shivered. "Maybe someone's hiding."
Joe showed him the security system, which blinked assuringly blue. "No one's entered or tampered with the mechanism. We're okay."
A reluctant Goro followed Joe on the stairs, but he wouldn't return to his own room. The hedgehog climbed down his back and disappeared beneath Joe's bed, and Joe noted not to awaken in midair if he felt his fingers getting nibbled. Goro went to Joe's window and looked outside. "It's so dark without the moon."
Joe said, "It'd be easier on you if you could move into the junior team wing."
"Hoshi should shut up. Better yet, you should shut her up."
Goro stepped backward. "She's five years older, lots taller, and lots better trained."
"It wouldn't matter. You have to stand up to her once and let her know you don't care what she can do to you. You'll have your self-respect intact."
Goro shook his head.
"Sit," Joe said. Goro pulled over the desk chair. "Nambu claimed me about two months after Ken moved in. Ken got totally cheesed off when I arrived. He's not good at sharing or adjusting to new situations, you may have noticed."
Goro chuckled. Joe said, "He had a cap gun he liked to fire when I wasn't expecting it, and every time he did it, I'd jump. The thing looked and sounded real. All I'd heard of my parents getting killed was the gunshots, and once he knew that, he started looking for the perfect sound. He found it one day: dropped a dictionary on the bathroom floor right by my door. I shrieked and went under the bed. I knew the assassin was coming back for me."
Goro said, "So what did you do?"
"Stayed there five hours." When Goro choked on a laugh, Joe said, "It sounds funny now. I was terrified. Anyway, Ken slammed it twice, and after the second he gave an agonized shriek and then stayed totally silent the rest of the night. I couldn't sleep, and I didn't dare move. I knew Ken was playing tricks on me, but it didn't help."
Goro said, "So you didn't answer: what did you do?"
"In the morning," Joe said, "and I'm not proud of this, I went into Ken's bedroom with murder in my heart. He picked up that gun and pointed it straight at me. This was exactly what I'd just lived through. But I forced myself to walk right up to him, and he pulled the trigger, and of course nothing happened except that awful noise. When I got to him I beat the living daylights out of him. It was too easy. I'd been mascot to a Sicilian gang while he'd been cooped up with his sick mother in the hospital and in an orphanage. Finally he started bawling, and I grabbed him by the collar and jerked his face close to mine and told him he'd never do anything of the sort again."
Goro said, "I can't beat her up. I would if I could."
"It wouldn't be the right thing." Joe shook his head. "What kind of precedent does that set? It took months for me and Ken to be civil to one another again, longer for us to trust each other. The competition was awful. There had to have been a better way."
"And if you come up with one," Goro said, folding his arms, "let me know."
Joe smirked. "When I came back from my first year in seminary, Ryu let me in and ran to get Jun. I didn't think anyone else was home, but I found Hoshi and Miyagi watching TV. Hoshi mouthed right off at me, gave me a hassle, told me soliciting wasn't allowed and quite a bit more. Should I have beaten her up too?" Goro snickered. "Then Jun walked in and said, 'Joe!' and Hoshi felt like an idiot. I never had a problem with her since."
What had actually happened was Jun had come in behind Joe and whispered, "Joe, you look great!" and tentatively hugged him. Joe had squeezed back and said "I don't look great. I just don't look like I'm about to die." Jinpei had immediately returned to the mansion to stay until Joe went back to seminary, but Ken hadn't come at all. He hadn't even phoned.
"Earth to Joe," Goro said. "So what do I do about Hoshi?"
"I'd move into Atsumi's room," Joe said. "Then she's got to put up or shut up: either she makes a move on you, in which case everyone will get her in trouble, or she backs off. Call the girl's bluff."
"She might hurt my hedgehogs." Goro looked down. "She threatened."
"Hmm." Joe's mouth twitched. "That makes it tougher. What other options do you think you have? Would the others stand up for you?"
Goro nodded. "The junior Eagle and junior Swan seem okay."
"So ally with them. Make it clear you're not alone. It doesn't matter which crowd, as long as you're yourself. That's where the danger is--in being alone." When Goro nodded, Joe said, "And you're definitely alone down this stretch of the hallway. Too many sounds can seem like things they aren't."
With his hands gripping one another, Goro said, "So you think it's safe?"
"I do. Go to bed." As Goro hesitated, Joe walked over to him, then gave him a hug. The boy clenched his arms around Joe's waist and pressed his face into Joe's shoulder. He didn't cry into the soft fabric of Joe's pajamas, though, and after a few minutes standing still, he let go and walked out without meeting Joe's eyes. Joe heard the boy shut his own door to the bathroom and turn out his light. Then the house remained completely quiet except for the gunshots Joe could hear in his head.
* * *
As Joe lay awake after Goro's departure, his thoughts returned to the matter of obedience.
He'd made three vows. Poverty. Chastity. Obedience. For no other reason than that, the bishop's words needed to be obeyed. On the other hand, though, Joe couldn't help thinking the bishop was being unreasonable. The sacraments themselves took twenty hours a week, Joe reasoned. Even splitting those with his associate pastor, he couldn't imagine running the parish on fewer than fifty-five. To keep everyone involved and vital would take as much time as he currently invested. He disputed the bishop's estimate that he worked ninety-five hours a week. Maybe seventy. There were always emergencies. If he didn't budget for those, he could justify getting his hours up to fifty a week.
His silly, nagging conscience hit that rationalization like a spotlight. Better just to defy orders than live lying to everyone, lying to himself.
I hate this. Joe got out of bed, taking care not to disturb Goro with any noise, and groped for his glasses in the dark. With the light on, he sat at the desk flipping pages in his Bible hunting for a verse he could barely remember in these small hours. It unnerved him how members of some denominations could recite the verse and chapter numbers for even the most obscure lines. A relative newcomer to the Bible, Joe figured the first thing he needed to learn was how to live the words, not be able to look them up on a second's notice. That kind of photographic memory would have come in handy now as he hunted Isaiah for the elusive snippet.
Father Ron had unfairly made Joe's concerns sound frivolous by telling him to cut the finance meeting, the liturgy committee meeting... But what about the Cafeteria? They were up to ninety people a day for lunches. What about the two Bible studies? What about the RCIA? What about the bereavement group, the separated and divorced Catholics group, the youth group, the SIDS group, the dozen support groups that had sprung up like weeds after Joe had encouraged his people to lean on one another? He didn't attend all of them, but when he could he'd show for the first few minutes, open for them with a prayer, and then leave them to their own healing. Many had said they appreciated his involvement.
Too many ex-Catholics cited one person as the reason they left their faith: the offhand words of one priest, the unconcern of one nun, the harsh words of one daily communicant. The good words, deeds, prayers and genuine faith of hundreds could get wiped away in a moment by one oafish mistake. If he backed down now, who would take scandal? How many people who could have hung on would drift unloved into the darkness like soot from an embered campfire?
Where could he cut? He could cut the committee meetings, except that those formed the structure of the parish and enabled it to function. The committees sounded frivolous, but someone needed to look after the finance, someone after the liturgy, and the committees needed guidance. He could cut the support groups, but the church was built of the people who attended, and the people needed love, and love took energy. Love most of all took time. He couldn't cut the sacraments because the sacraments formed him as a priest, and the strength he drew from the Mass kept him alive; there was no church without the Eucharist, and other than his temporary associate pastor, he truly was the only one in the parish who could administer the sacraments. Every time he tried to make a new series of priorities, he ran into this circle, and every time he made the mental circuit his heart raced faster.
The last time St. Gus had this large a membership, it had staffed three priests.
He knew he should calm down to pray over it, but Joe's heart cringed at the idea of asking God for a loophole to break a promise he'd made to God in the first place.
Joe scanned the paragraph headings. He couldn't even imagine where the passage would be at this point. It would take about ten minutes with his concordance, or else he could dig out the lectionary and check the week he thought the line had appeared in the readings, but both seemed like too much work for the middle of the night. If he hadn't found it in a few more tries, it could wait.
He loved his parish more than he'd ever expected to. Saving the world on the team hadn't felt like this: deep down, he'd felt the world deserved whatever it got. Not so at St. Gus. Every day he prayed for his parishioners, moreso when he knew their individual needs. The bishop wanted him to separate from them, even if only a little bit. Worse than that, the bishop had the power to remove him completely, something that had already happened wwith his associate pastorship at OLQA. Joe had promised to serve wherever the bishop sent him--but if he had known how much he'd love St. Gus, could he have promised? Isn't that what couples say during annulment proceedings, that they had no idea what effort a marriage would take? Isn't that the basis of emotional immaturity? But isn't the more honorable track to steel your will and do the difficult work even if you didn't know at the start how much it was going to cost?
During the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night, Joe had just begun the homily when a drunken, muscular man had staggered up the center aisle of the church. Joe had tried to continue, but the man yelled profanities and ranted about Joe's sins against Gallactor during the war. Joe had stopped, appearing as if he knew what he was doing and in reality wondering what the best course was. With everyone's eye on him, the interloper had advanced, slurring that he hated Joe and hated God, and why hadn't God struck him down? At that point, two equally large men had stood from their seats, left their families, and stepped into the aisle; they apprehended the man and guided him out of the church. Joe knew both: converted Gallactors. His heart had pounded as he watched them take the man outside, they all the while insisting he be respectful during church. It had only taken sixty seconds. After the service, he met the two men outside. "He won't bother you again," one said. Joe couldn't say anything that revealed he knew they were ex-Gallactors. He thanked them both, and they'd flashed chilled smiles. "He'll learn," one said, and Joe had replied, "You don't do something like that unless once a long while ago, you really loved God."
What would those men have done if, under orders to limit his contact with the parish, Joe had turned his back on them? What if Joe hadn't agreed to accompany them to the minivan where the drunken intruder awaited, sobbing in frustrated fury? The man had wanted nothing to do with Joe then, but maybe Joe's willingness to talk after midnight would one day bear fruit, and the man would learn to forgive himself and the rest of the world. If Joe obeyed orders, how many doors would he have to shut in front of how many needy faces?
As Joe started to close the Bible, a few words caught his unfocusing eyes, and he hesitated. "The Lord made of me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm. He made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me."
Joe frowned. I am a sharp-edged sword. I am a concealed weapon.
Further down the page, he read, "I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly spent my strength."
He couldn't read the rest of the sentence. For a moment two urges warred within: one that no one could do the job he did; the other, that anyone with the grace of God could do his job equally well. Hadn't he, the irreplaceable Condor Joe, been replaced once already? But hadn't he also been told that the only thing he alone could give God was himself--and why give only half of his sole gift? On the other hand, wasn't it a failing to give only half of his obedience, his will?
What am I thinking? Joe wondered to the two AM darkness. Can I live with myself if I disobey? Can I live with myself if I don't?
Immediately after breakfast Friday morning, Nambu escorted Joe into his office and repeated the physical examination. As predicted, Joe's eyesight had bounced back once the stress eased, and even his reflexes seemed much quicker than before. The trembling had vanished. He'd even gained two pounds. "Your body is giving you a message," Nambu said. "Sometimes less is more."
Shortly before eleven, Jun paged Ken on the bracelet and told him to hurry to the garden. He found her concealed behind some trees.
"Take a look at this," she whispered, pointing over a branch. "Watch them."
Ken focused through the foliage on Joe and Goro near the old flower bed even as Jun shielded her eyes with one hand and squinted. Goro was practicing a martial arts maneuver Ken hadn't taught him yet, a jump and high kick with a specific kind of spin that left him facing in the other direction. Ken used to remember all the names for the maneuvers, but knowing how to execute them properly surpassed their classifications in importance, and he'd allowed himself to forget the taxonomy in favor of the practice. After every attempt, Joe would come in close, adjust Goro's positioning a little, show him how his arms and legs were supposed to be moving, and then step back for the boy to try again.
Ken murmured, "I'm glad he's getting through to him."
"Don't go yet," Jun said, keeping her voice low. "That's not why I called."
After Goro tried twice more, his attempts near the mark but not quite there, the boy sat in frustration. Joe pulled him to his feet, then demonstrated the starting stance again. Goro imitated the position. Then, to Ken's astonishment, Joe leaped up and did it himself.
"Look at the height on that!" Jun giggled into her hands. "I wouldn't have bet he'd get off the ground."
"Maybe he still practices--there he goes again." Ken whistled lowly. Goro was watching critically, and then Joe set him up again. The boy tried it. Joe tried it. The boy tried again. And then they both sat cross-legged on the grass.
Ken lowered his gaze. "He should have come back to the team."
"Don't think like that." Jun turned to lean her back against the tree. "He doesn't have the eyesight or the reflexes. Or even the flexibility. He's not really getting that high. It's one thing to demonstrate a move standing in a field, quite another to pull it off in the middle of armed combat."
Ken pursed his lips as he studied Joe again. "His stance is all wrong, too. You can tell he's not getting enough speed or power on the jump, so he's compensating. There's no balance or control. He couldn't do two in a row." He huffed. "I hope he's not teaching Goro any bad habits."
"Nothing you can't correct later." Jun bent one leg beneath her against the tree trunk. "You had such a good idea, getting them together. They needed each other."
Ken sighed. "I was wondering."
"They were both so damaged only a few days ago."
Lips pursed, Ken could see Joe talking fluidly to Goro, who wore something of a sardonic grin. "What's he saying, I wonder?"
"Something neither of us could. That's all I know." Jun rested a hand on Ken's arm. "And I think it's wonderful."
Ken at first didn't move as Jun walked from the tree, then turned to watch the pair again. Goro had started to tussle with Joe, and Joe's face had something of its old ferocity as he grappled with the kid.
A beep from the bracelet brought Ken up short, and he raised it to his ear even as Goro separated from Joe and did the same. In a few sharp words Nambu called the whole team to his office, and Ken bolted for the mansion.
Shortly Ken met Joe in the main entrance. "There's a situation downtown," Ken said, looking extremely tense. "I need a favor. I need you to stay here with Goro." He handed Joe his car keys. "Give him a driving lesson or something to take his mind off things. It's too soon for him, but we need the rest of the juniors on this mission."
Joe nodded. "No problem. Go take care of it."
Joe found Goro in the TV room flipping channels. The kid turned off the television fast when he heard Joe behind him. Joe leaned in the doorway with a gentle smile. "Do you want to learn to do some world-class damage?"
Goro turned, eyes brooding. "How?"
"Ken left some car keys and said you might learn to drive."
Goro huffed. "Whatever."
Joe nodded toward the TV. "Turn it back on. Maybe we can find out where the team went."
Goro shook his head. "No--no, let's just go."
Joe studied him momentarily, and the boy shuffled his feet. Deciding not to force the issue, Joe made his way to the garage. The boy trailed him to where Ken had left rather than parked his car. As usual, it hadn't made it all the way into its space. That used to drive Joe nuts, when he had to squeak his own car into its spot because Ken couldn't be bothered to put his into reverse for a second try. Nowadays Ken didn't even do that much, just left it wherever it stopped. Joe opened the door and looked back at Goro, who had stopped twenty feet from the vehicle.
"No kidding around," Joe said. "What's bothering you?"
"You want to know where they went?"
Joe tilted his head.
"There are some kids shooting up a school. Call themselves Young Gallactor."
Joe's eyebrows shot up. "Which school?"
"Utoland City Catholic Middle School."
Joe spun and kicked the door. "Ken, you rat!"
"They told me to keep you here and give you something to do."
Joe kept his teeth clenched because if he said something, anything, he'd regret it.
Goro folded his arms and nudged a stone in the driveway with his toe.
Joe said, "Have you got your junior Owl uniform yet?" Goro nodded. "Go put it on. I'm going to teach you something much more useful about being a Science Ninja than learning to drive."
Two minutes later, Goro ran into the foyer in his uniform t-shirt and jeans to find Joe standing all in black and adjusting his collar in the mirror. Joe shot him a glare. "Are you ready?"
"What are you doing?"
"I'm in uniform too."
Joe got into the driver's seat and told Goro to buckle up. With a dark grin, Joe said something under his breath, and started the engine. Trying to put the car in first gear, he stalled it three times. After the third try, he looked at Goro and said, "If you ever tell anyone I did that, you're in trouble."
Goro shrugged. Joe succeeded on the next attempt, and they took off down the road.
"So this isn't a driving lesson?"
"Not really. Tell me if anyone's coming."
Goro looked behind them. "In front," Joe said.
"I'm legally blind."
Goro's fists clenched into the leather seats. "You're what? Oh my God!"
"Watch your language." Joe had the car in fifth gear by now, and he had a manic grin. This was the winding, oceanside road he'd last driven--driven on his way out to Cross Karacoram. "It's been eight years. Don't worry. I took this road so often I could drive it in my sleep. They repainted the lines, too, so I can see where I think we need to be."
"Ken loves me. He won't mind if I wreck his car."
Goro whimpered. Joe sat forward squinting at the road, but he kept the car under good control. Adjusting his vision to check the dashboard and the mirrors proved the hardest part of the drive. That and his total lack of peripheral vision. A few times he needed to ask whether the road ahead was going to curve left or right, but Goro aided in a squeaky voice.
At the end of the winding road, Joe got onto the highway. Goro forced himself to stop shaking enough to spot for him by then, letting him know which lanes had cars in them and who they were likely to be near soon. Joe started passing people. At one point, someone passed them, and Joe's mouth twitched. "I wish we had a checkered flag."
Goro said, "Ken said some lunatic he knew used to keep them in the car. For when people blew by like that."
Joe laughed. "That was me!" When Goro yelped in fear, Joe said, "Don't worry. I know he thinks I'm a lunatic. I didn't know he remembered the checkered flags."
Joe pulled them off the highway, but Goro protested it was the wrong exit. Joe said, "I know a shortcut to the school--" and proceeded to take them far too fast down far too many city streets for Goro to keep track. Joe grinned at how good it felt. I don't regret the things I vowed to give up--but I regret losing the car. I miss this so much. They were right about not letting him drive. Parked cars blurred insignificantly alongside the road, and Joe hadn't a prayer of reading any of the signs or even recognizing their shapes. Some of the intersections had changed dramatically in nearly a decade, but for the most part the city remained as he had left it, and Joe knew every one of the back routes.
At a new four-way stop, however, Joe blew through the intersection without even slowing. Half a block later a cop pulled him over.
Goro was sweating. "Thank you, God," he was murmuring. "Maybe they'll arrest us and take us to prison where it's safe."
The officer came up alongside the window. "Do you have any idea--" He stared at Joe. "Father Asakura!"
"Don't bother asking for license and registration." Joe shrugged. "I haven't got either. There's a Kagaku Ninjatai action going on at UC Catholic. I need to get over there."
"Sure!" As Joe shut the engine and stepped out, the officer went to his car and radioed the dispatcher. "I've got us cleared to go right in. You couldn't get through with a civilian vehicle anyhow. It's totally barricaded."
Goro kept his hands clasped between his knees as the officer drove with the siren blaring. He drove, Goro murmured to himself, slower than Joe had. When they reached the barricades, another officer let them through, and Joe got escorted to the control van from which the police were coordinating the SWAT teams and the Kagaku Ninjatai.
Ken turned when he heard the two newcomers. "Joe!"
"You're still a snake," Joe said. "Let me in there."
"I can't. There are at least three boys heavily armed, and they've already shot anywhere from fifteen to twenty students and teachers. All the rest of them are locked down in their classrooms, and we're trying to get them out without more bloodshed. I don't need any extra hassles to deal with right now."
"This is my school," Joe said, "and a large number of my parishioners take classes here."
A police sergeant came up to Joe. "I'm afraid we can't let any civilians into the school at this time."
Ken said, "He's not a civilian. This is Condor Joe." The officer's eyes widened, and he backed away. "However," Ken said, turning back to Joe, "you're out of your mind if you think you're going to do anything here." He glanced at Goro. "You have one young person I put in your care, and you brought him right where I told you to keep him from coming."
"Forget the hypocrisy," Joe said lowly. "You're throwing four other young people into a shot-up school when they saw their fifth member get killed only three weeks ago. Give me a rundown. What's going on?"
Jun put her hand on Joe's arm, and he startled because he hadn't seen her there. "It's what Ken said. Right after third period started, three boys entered the school with a small arsenal and started taking shots at the students."
"It's totally random?"
"They said they were a group called Young Gallactor, which is why we were summoned, but now it's looking more like they're just a bunch of kids."
"They're shooting gang members!"
By now Joe was ready to curse his lost peripheral vision, because he recognized this voice. "Anatol?"
A boy had broken free of two police officers, and Joe caught the flash of the boy's red armband. This was one of the Archangels. "I know who they were--they challenged us to be here today. They're the biggest bunch of losers. We wouldn't let them into our gang, and I don't think they could get into any other gangs either, so they challenged us all."
Joe snapped, "Is that why Masa didn't cut today?" When Anatol nodded, he said, "If that's true, why aren't you in there getting hunted down too?"
Anatol shuffled his feet. "I forgot."
"Great. Stay with me--I want you around." He looked at Ken. "What are you planning?"
Jun said, "When we tried to approach the building before, one of them shot a hostage and pushed him off the roof." Joe winced: that was three stories. "They've got this really well set up, so as far as we know they may really have had Gallactor backing. They know who's coming and what to look for. They've got radio contact, and we're monitoring it, but any time we try to break in and talk, they change frequencies. They've got at least one stronghold on the top floor, and they're well enough organized that approaches from two sides got warning shots. They shot the hostage on our third attempt, and we haven't tried again."
Ken said, "We're going to try through the sewers."
"Won't work," Joe said. "That school is secured three ways from Sunday. Remember, I did my formation year here."
Ken's eyebrows raised. "I didn't know that."
"You never read any of my letters, did you?" The old hurt flared for a moment. Joe folded his arms and tried not to sound stung. "They had four break-ins the first week, so I analyzed the building's integrity. It would take the national guard to break in at this point."
"Good going," Ken said.
"We needed to stop the kids from breaking in. I didn't think we'd ever need to break them out!" He sighed. "But I can get in."
"How many of us can you take with you?"
"Me. Not you."
Ken said, "How? With your magic rosary beads?"
"They won't shoot a priest."
"How often are you going to count on superstition to protect you?"
"For as long as it works." Joe frowned. "It's been drilled into them by now, Ken. They're attending Catholic school. The only person who'd have a better chance is a nun, and you don't happen to have one."
Ken said, "And what are you going to do inside?"
Joe looked at Anatol. "Take off your armband." This Anatol did reluctantly. Joe pointed to Goro. "Give it to him."
"No!" Jun put her hands on the junior Owl's shoulder. "He's not well enough trained! Take one of the others."
"They're all too old. There's no way any of them could pass as a middle school student. All the Archangels are adolescents--altar servers." Joe looked at Goro. "Are you willing to give it a try?"
Ken said, "I don't care if he's willing. I'm not going to let him."
Joe said, "You haven't got a better plan. My parishioners are inside bleeding and dying while you stand here thinking--are you listening to me? I don't want to have to say funerals for more children!"
Ken said to Jun, "Go get Hoshi." He faced Joe. "I've got blueprints of the entire building. Where were the kids breaking in, and what are the places you secured?"
The metal detectors and video cameras had all been combined in one central location, through one computer. Anyone who wanted to seize the school would work through the security office to continuously monitor the entire property. Joe had made sure all the cameras covered all the grounds. The school had its own generators, which was why cutting the power had given them no advantage. The sewer lines had been barred, although admittedly someone very determined could blowtorch his way through. "Not undetected," Joe said. "Everything was designed to give the police time to arrive. They're mostly nuisance measures, but right now you need to get in there quickly and undetected."
"Granted." Ken shrugged. "I'm content to have the team go up in police choppers and fly down to the roof."
"You said at least one attacker is on the roof," Joe said. "He'll see the descent and shoot everyone he has. Let me walk up to the front door. They'll let in one man, or one man and an escort, who doesn't look like a threat."
"Which raises my objection," Ken said. "You aren't a threat. What do you think you'll do inside? Lecture them to death?"
Joe said softly, "That's your job."
White-faced, Ken whispered, "If you haven't got a better plan, I'm having someone escort you off-premises."
Jun had returned with Hoshi, but Ken didn't address her. Joe said, "I can smuggle Goro in with me if I can convince them he's one of the Archangels. They want gang members. Goro's civilian birdstyle will provide some measure of protection. Goro can subdue one or possibly two attackers and make it possible for you to run for these windows." Joe pointed out a row on the diagram. "You can leap to the second floor. I'm betting they're only guarding the first and the roof. If there's only three, they're stretched pretty thin. At least one has to be going from classroom to classroom flushing out gang members."
Goro said, "I'm willing to try."
Ken sighed. "Hoshi, give Joe your wristband. Joe, I want that transmitting to me constantly--and turn up the sensitivity as high as it gets. I don't care if it picks up your heartbeat, but I want to know what's going on at all times. I won't talk to you in case they'll hear it." Anatol handed the armband to Goro and fastened it in the Archangel knot. Joe slipped the wristband into his shirt pocket and spoke in a normal voice, and Ken nodded when his bracelet picked up the words. Ken adjusted Goro's bracelet to do the same.
A police officer handed Joe his sidearm, and Joe shook his head. "They'll frisk me the instant we get inside. I'd rather not provoke them." He turned to Goro. "We're going to need to play along with them as long as possible so we learn exactly how many attackers there are and where students are locked down. As we go through the rooms, if you see people hurt, just tell me how many and where."
Ken grabbed Joe by the arm and walked him apart from the others. He said in a low voice, "Are you sure about this?"
Joe said, "There isn't a choice. If it doesn't work out, you'll know I was prepared to die."
"I'm not prepared to lose you." Ken opened his hands. "I already lost you for six years."
Ken hugged him suddenly, and Joe pushed him away. "That's not my fault. I've got a job to do. So do you."
Joe and Goro stepped through the barricade and walked at Joe's deliberate pace up the main pathway to the front entrance. Not ten steps there, a shot rang from the roof and hit the cobblestones three feet in front of them.
Goro had gone white. Joe looked in the general direction of the sniper and shouted, "What the hell kind of aim is that? That's not a toy! If you're going to fire, you'd better be prepared to hit me."
A voice cried out, "Father Joe?"
"Yeah, it's me--and you're letting me into that building now!" Joe started walking again, and it took Goro a moment to keep pace.
"Stop!" The voice on the roof sounded uncertain. "Wait--"
"Let me in." Joe folded his arms. "You've got one minute to make up your mind. Are you afraid of someone who's legally blind and can't walk very fast?"
Over the bracelet, Ken's voice said, "They're debating on their radios, Joe. One wants to shoot you outright. The one on the roof is objecting. He thinks they can use you for negotiating."
Joe grimaced. "They're hardly Gallactors."
"They're going to let you in."
From the roof, the voice called, "You can come in. The other kid can't."
Joe said, "I need help climbing the steps."
Ken said over the bracelet, "They just noticed the armband. They want Goro dead too. Whatever your Archangels did, it must have been awful."
"I don't even want to know," Joe muttered.
Ken said, "Radio silence on my end starting now."
Three steps from the front door, Joe looked at Goro. "Are you scared?" When Goro shook his head, Joe said, "I am."
Momentarily the entrance opened enough to admit them. The kid at the door wore a ski mask and carried a semiautomatic rifle over his shoulder on a strap. In his hand he held a pistol, and he kept it aimed at Goro's head. "One wrong move and he dies."
Joe said, "Tell us how to move right."
The kid frisked Joe, then frisked Goro. "Okay, go up the stairs side by side, slowly."
"As if I have a choice," Joe said. He had a hand on Goro's shoulder as they climbed. At the second floor, the boy prodded with the gun until Joe opened the door and let Goro through ahead of him. "Why the second floor?" he said. Ken's first location bulletin.
"None of your business," the kid said. "Keep walking."
They headed down the hall, Goro murmuring almost to himself: "There's blood on the walls at 214. I think that's where I took geometry..."
Joe shifted his gaze into each of the classrooms but found it hard to focus. The students and teachers had taken cover beneath desks, and the entire floor kept an eerie silence. At this time of day, the normal sounds of class in session should have set the tiled hallway reverberating with good-natured talk and the sounds of adolescent bodies fidgeting and writing and looking around in boredom.
At the end of the hallway, the kid with the gun called to be let in, and a classroom door opened. Joe said, "All the rooms to pick and you had to get the library?"
" This isn't for your convenience." The kid pushed Goro, who stumbled through the threshold and landed on his knees. Joe took two fast steps and ended up beside Goro as two other boys stood with pistols pointed at the boy's head.
"Don't shoot," Joe said. "Talk first, all three of you--what do you want?"
"I want those gangs dead," one boy said. "All of them."
Joe said, "It's not going to accomplish anything. I can help you get out of here, but you're not making it any easier on yourselves by threatening and waving those guns around."
The tallest of the gunmen said, "Does this look like threats?"
Joe scanned the peripheries of the library where students huddled mutely. In a few spots, bodies lay on the beige carpet in little red stains. His heart caught when he saw Masa propped against the wall with one hand pressed to his right side beneath his ribs and blood soaked into his shirt.
What do I do? Joe stood, and one of the boys pushed his gun into Joe's face. Joe shoved it aside. "Get that thing away," he said. "How many people have you lunatics hurt? There are probably ten right here."
"Who cares?" one of them snapped. "They deserved it."
Goro moved to follow Joe, but the boy behind him barked not to move. Joe looked back, then continued toward Masa. Along the way he stopped at two of the prone bodies, both dead. He gently laid his hands on them.
Masa took his hand when Joe got to him. "Asakura," he coughed, "I knew you'd come get me."
The boy behind Joe said, "No talking."
Joe glared. "You're going to stop him from getting last rites?"
"I should shoot him dead and send him straight to hell," the boy spat.
"He's a waste of ammo," snapped the other armed boy, who looked to be the ringleader.
Joe chilled at the long-remembered words. Maybe this one was a Gallactor after all. "Leave us alone," Joe said. "He'll be just as dead in the end either way."
The ringleader snorted. "Wow, and I thought my dad was cold."
Joe put his head close to Masa and whispered the rite of absolution as quickly as he could. Masa said, "Listen, Asakura, there are three more--two in with the hostages. They've got knives, so no one wants to talk."
Joe didn't recoil. "Which ones?" he breathed.
Masa gave three names, then weakly described the two in the room. The last must be in the control room. Masa smiled as if falling asleep. "You're good, man. Take care of my mother."
"Hang on," Joe said. "That's not a fatal wound. We'll get help. Masa, look at me." He met Masa's gaze in a locked stare, then said, "It's time to stop bleeding."
Masa said with a smile, "Okay."
Joe moved to the next victim, only this one was unconscious. Behind him, he knew Goro stayed kneeling on the floor with his hands locked behind his neck. Whatever happened, now Ken knew how many attackers, their names, and their locations. They had the beginnings of a body count.
One of the boys said, "Hurry it up, Asakura."
"If you hadn't shot so many, I'd be done by now." Joe glared. "How did you intend to get out of here?"
"We didn't," the boy said.
Joe went cold. "You've got a bomb in the basement?"
"Doesn't matter where we have a bomb. Besides, now we've got you, and Gatchaman won't come shooting if we've got you."
Joe said lowly, "There are only three places to put a bomb in this building."
"Maybe," one of the boys said. "Maybe we have more than three."
"And maybe you don't have any at all," Goro said.
The kid behind Goro shoved him to the floor. "Shut up."
Goro didn't move, but he said, "You couldn't challenge us to a fair fight, so this is how you try? You're such losers. Now you're losers with guns."
"Both of you, quiet." The ringleader rushed Joe back across the room. "Sit right here. Don't move."
Joe sat near Goro, who moved so his back was up against Joe's. The ringleader sent one of the other boys out of the room, and Joe said, "Where's he going?"
"Never mind. Just stay still and shut up." The ringleader raised his field glasses and looked out the window, then raised his walkie-talkie. "What are they doing out there?"
"Everyone's staying put. You think the priest was supposed to negotiate something?
Joe said, "You didn't plan this very well. You're supposed to tie up your hostages." He figured Ken might want to know they were unbound. The ringleader told him again to shut up, then returned his attention to the radio. Goro shifted closer to Joe, then breathed, "Now what?"
Joe replied in a very low whisper, "There are two more in the room." He had Masa's descriptions, but all the kids wore their green and yellow plaid uniforms. He couldn't see well enough to pick the faces apart. Too much talking and they'd grow suspicious. Joe said, "You aren't hurt?"
"Fine." Goro chuckled, but Joe didn't ask why.
The ringleader walked the room with his gun on his shoulder. Joe studied him as he moved. As far as he was concerned, the only thing keeping him from grappling with the boy himself were the two hidden comrades in among the unarmed students. Why thirty livid students couldn't strike down these boys he didn't understand. At the start, why hadn't they rushed the boys with the guns? The body count would have been high, but no higher than it had already grown. The trouble is, Joe realized, none of them wants it to be himself. It's instinctual to freeze rather than rush at someone spraying bullets into a room. The boys had so much ammunition, and the ski masks gave them so much of a fear-advantage, that the only ones who might have moved against them at all were the gang members; and them the gunmen had shot first. But Joe recognized the difference between the heat of battle and the current situation. In cold blood, they were less willing to perform executions. Otherwise Goro would already be dead. As would Masa. Whatever he accomplished mustn't provoke them to action.
Masa sat looking unbelievably serene, slipping behind a psychic barrier of blood loss. He's here because of me. If I hadn't gotten him into this school--if I hadn't allowed the Archangels to adopt St. Gus in the first place--but it kept them off the streets, and it kept them near enough that I could guide them.
Joe said softly, "It's not too late."
The ringleader said, "I told you to be quiet."
"You could relent rather than die. You're not really Gallactors. You don't even have a cause to die for. Is that how worthless you think your own life?"
The ringleader came closer and shoved the barrel of his gun in Joe's face. Masa and Goro both cried out, and Goro leaped up only to find a gunman behind him with a knife against his throat.
"No!" Joe looked wildly from one to the other. "Killing him won't accomplish anything! It's just one more kid. But how many kids are there who never accepted you? Hundreds? What are you going to do--kill a hundred kids? A thousand?"
Goro breathed unsteadily, a pale sweat shining on his face. Joe's heart hammered. The ringleader said, "If that's what it takes. We're not turning back."
"You can always turn back! Look at me," Joe said.
"Not me," the ringleader said. "I'm the son of a Galactor!"
"So am I!" Joe cried out. Goro was cringing backward to avoid the knife, only the boy behind him blocked the way with his body. "I'm the son of Gallactors!"
The ringleader said, "I shot a priest."
Joe's voice had gotten frantic. "I shot a priest too! God can forgive anything!"
"Prepare to die." The ringleader snarled as his hand tightened on the revolver. "There's no forgiveness for Gallactors."
Even as Joe gasped, another boy rushed forward screaming, "That's not true! My dad was a Gallactor--he went to Father Joe for Confession--Father Joe forgave him--Father Joe hugged him!"
The ringleader whipped around his gun at the boy and squeezed the trigger.
Joe came up off the floor with an anguished cry and kicked the gun from the ringleader's hands. He couldn't hear anything over the report of the bullet. He hadn't landed before he was pivoting in midair to knock the knife-holder away from Goro, but he found Goro had driven both elbows back into his attacker and sent him sprawling. "Grab that gun!" Joe shouted, then sent his useless eyes scanning the room for the two hidden boys. Both had rushed at the fracas. The ringleader got to his feet and charged, but Goro tackled him.
The first undercover attacker reached Joe, and Joe struck the kid's diaphragm even as Goro grabbed the gun and hurled it at the window, shattering the glass and sending it cascading down the wall like an avalanche. Joe didn't have to hit hard, just accurately. His attacker had dropped, curled like a pill-bug. Several of the students were screaming. Joe looked wildly about, and then Goro in birdstyle hurled him into the floor and covered him with his wings.
Like an explosion, every pane of glass in the library burst inward as the Kagaku Ninjatai erupted into the room. Joe struggled forward toward Masa, but Goro kept him pinned. Ken had the ringleader face-first against the wall while the junior Eagle subdued the other masked gunman. The instant Goro released him, Joe scrambled for Masa, then shouted, "Goro, here, now!" He positioned a slack-faced Masa in Goro's arms. "Get him to an ambulance."
Goro paused a moment on the windowsill to get his balance, then leaped from the window with his armful. Joe stared out after them, unable to see more than shadows as they descended.
Ken said, "Jun's searching the basement for the bombs. Thanks for reminding us there were three structural integrity points--"
Joe said, "You got the two undercovers--?" He put his hands up over his eyes. "My God--"
"All accounted for. You got us the time, head-count, and distraction we needed." Ken tried to take a deep breath. "We've got these kids. Do whatever priest-stuff you need to."
A pain burned in Joe's heart as he looked around the room, and then he made his way to the other child of Gallactor. The boy was curled, hands pressed into his shoulder. Joe lifted him and realized the boy was in pain but not in danger of death. "You're going to be all right," he said. "You're brave."
"You saved my dad," the boy whispered.
No, God did that. Joe brushed the hair back from the boy's forehead. This is what I get for breaking the rules on Holy Thursday? For listening in disgust to everything the man said, to counting the parasites he could leave behind and then showering afterward as if the man was a leper--I get his son defying pain in order to thank me? In order to save me too?
The boy said, "Am I going to die?"
"No." Joe wiped the tears from his eyes. "You're going to live."
* * *
Just inside the police lines, Joe sat on a bench along with several other teachers, students, and staff. Someone had walked through handing out styrofoam cups of coffee, and Joe had taken his without thought, a knee-jerk reaction from someone who hadn't permitted himself the luxury of buying his own coffee for over a year. The drink was tepid, though, and overly sweetened, so he sat staring at it rather than drinking.
The police had finished escorting students out of the building ten minutes ago, and since then SWAT teams and the Kagaku Ninjatai had combed the building searching out any more explosives. As students and teachers had reunited with their families and drifted away, the noise from the crowd had lessened, and by now Joe could almost think. He slipped a finger up to his collar and removed it, then loosened the buttons at his neck.
Figure out your priorities, Bishop Sato had said.
And I think now I know what they are, Joe prayed. I still don't know how I'm going to get everything done, but after the sacraments--the kids are what's important. Without them, there won't be any church. I need to be at their sides, working with them, guiding them, living alongside them. And that means strengthening their parents as well. That means being there to spot the hurt and gentle it before it consumes the soul. Everything else You can take care of for me. You've been telling me all week, and I never listened. You found money for us when we needed it. You found a sponsor for the Cafeteria. You even found me another priest. We can find people to work in the Cafeteria. I can step back from all the meetings, and we can find outside sources to counsel the parishioners. The one thing I can't get anyone else to do is to be me for the kids.
Goro crossed the police line and made his way to Joe's side, then took a seat beside him in silence. Joe didn't speak either, just sat looking at the coffee cup as best he could through nearly blind eyes.
"I think I learned what you meant," Goro said. "About being a member of the team. About surviving. About knowing when to resist orders."
Joe smiled dryly. "It takes a longer time to learn when to follow them."
"I should stay with the team." Goro still hadn't looked at Joe, nor Joe back at the boy. "My parents died, but I survived for a purpose. Like you said. So maybe this is it."
Joe rested his arm over the boy's shoulder. "Maybe so. Time will tell."
Goro swallowed. "And so maybe God isn't so bad after all. But I'm not making any promises."
Joe chuckled. "Maybe that's for the best."
"I didn't realize how much people need us."
Joe said, "You do it for them. But in the end, you find they're working just as hard for you."
Several minutes later, Ken came through the crowd to find them. "Scram," he said to Goro. "Jun wants you over at the command center. And give Hoshi back her bracelet."
Goro had a glimmer in his eye, and Joe had a sense that he'd be helping someone move his belongings into another room later tonight.
After a moment, Ken sat beside Joe. "You're sure you don't want to be checked over at the hospital?"
"I didn't get hurt. Nambu can examine me later, but right now the emergency personnel need to be looking at the critical cases."
Ken looked off into space. "You're teaching the kid to break orders. To put himself in jeopardy."
"It's going to get him through the crisis." Joe shrugged. "It helped me."
"And when the crisis ends?"
"He decided to stay on the team. I gave you what you wanted." Joe waited a moment. "What's really on your mind?"
"Nothing." Ken looked sideways at him. "That kid Masa got to the emergency room, and he's in serious condition but looks to be improving. He said you made him stop bleeding."
Joe said, "Yeah. Miraculously."
"Hey, if it worked..." Ken's mouth tightened. "Too bad you couldn't do that for everyone. They're talking about twenty-one deaths already, and at least that many injured, including a priest and three teachers."
Joe swallowed in a wordless prayer.
Ken cleared his throat. "You hear Gallactor confessions, huh?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Did you really hug an ex-Gallactor?"
"I hugged my father and my mother." Joe said, "You hugged me, and I'm technically an ex-Gallactor. I don't want to talk about it anymore."
Ken gestured to the coffee. "I'm being rude, but are you going to drink that?"
Joe handed him the cup. "Remember the time you snuck coffee into the hospital for me?"
"You were off the respirator two days." Ken laughed. "You needed a reward for continuing to breathe."
"The nurses were so pissed, so you promised that mega-sized coffee was all for you."
"And you signed at me Like fun it is." Ken grimaced as he sipped some of the coffee. "This is an awful trade, though--what I gave you was hot and not too sweet."
"I didn't promise it was any good." Joe rubbed his forehead thoughtfully. "Monday morning, I'm buying a can of coffee and some saline solution for the contact lenses."
"So you made up your mind to be an obedient Science Ninja Priest-man?"
"Shut up." Joe grinned. "Keep needling me and I won't tell you where I parked your car."
"I was wondering how you got out here." Ken stopped short. "You parked my car?"
"No one can teach parking on the first lesson. Or highway driving, for that matter." Joe got to his feet. "Well, if that's it, I probably need to go check up on some of my parishioners--"
Ken grabbed Joe by the shoulder. "And my car?"
"I parked it about as well as you ever did." Joe folded his arms and shrugged. "Left it wherever I stopped it."
"You idiot," Ken said.
"At least I don't go around telling the new recruits you were a lunatic."
Ken said, "Probably because you're too busy telling them I can't adjust and never learned how to share."
Joe burst out laughing, and Ken joined him. "Come on," Ken said. "Let's get back to the mansion. Nambu will want to read you the riot act, and after him you'll probably be needing to do some Catholic wrestling with your bishop."
They turned their backs on the crowd and headed toward the rest of the team, Joe firmer in his steps than he'd been in a long time.