The creak of the church door was a familiar sound—it was common, normal, entirely expected when one practically lived in the house of God as Father James did. And when the tapping came he saw no reason to turn, no reason to look upon this joiner; after all, he had heard the same many taps from the many heels the many mothers wore when they visited.
But the taps did not stop at the first row of the pew. They did not stop at the midway point either, where Mrs. Davis sat, nor did the heels stop their rhythmic tapping when they reached the front. Father James even heard his coworker, Father Anthony, shuffle closer to himself and away from the tapping. Blinking, eyebrows furrowed at his colleague's behavior, the Father turned. At the bottom of the steps that lead to the speaker's podium stood a young woman.
The last to notice her, Father James put down the bibles he had been organizing and walked the same path she had. He nodded to Mrs. Davis, her unknown thoughts filled with disdain - 'Such a fat girl shouldn't be wearing those clothes and neither should any decent woman!' - though she easily smiled back as though her eyes were not icy in disgust. He passed Joe, the other man's eyes big and round, who had fled to the confessional, his perverse thoughts leaving him red in shame. He passed darling Jasmyne, her dark eyes curious and her mind loud, both trained upon the woman at the front. And the woman, Father James noticed, was completely unfamiliar.
Her feet were covered by the heels he had expected, but everything else was less so. The stranger was fit more for a club than a church but, while Father Anthony flew from her short dress and violently blue hair, Father James had made a point to never presume anything. He walked, slowly and heavily, hoping to give her time to relax, and took a position next to her. She did not speak, so he took the silence as an opportunity to look at her. Her dress ended at her thighs, the white fabric laid gently on her pale skin, while the black of the corset and lace sleeves somehow made her hair shine brighter. And, tucked away in her clenched hands, was a simple cross necklace.
He didn't think for a second that it was her's.
"Hello," he said, his voice low.
"Hello," she whispered back, her voice airy and high. She took a deep, shuddering breath and asked, "How do you do... this?"
Father James watched as she raised her right hand, her rings catching the light from the many candles, and gestured at the church itself. Eyebrows raised, he wasn't too sure what she meant until she continued. "I'm just so lost." Her voice sounded as though it too were lost.
Father James sighed, though there was a smile on his face. "Well then, you have come to the right place. I assume you've never prayed before?"
Shrewd eyes poked at him from square frames and she laughed humorlessly. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess."
"What do you mean?" Father James asked, befuddled.
It was the woman's turn to sigh. "It's just been so long since I've last been here. In a church. And I just don't know what to do."
"Why, you pray of course."
"Yeah, but to what? To who? Do you guys just ask the big man for favors? I've never—!" She cut herself just as her voice began to rise.
He laughed, unmeaning to but unable to get past her exasperation. It was as if God Himself had personally wronged her. "I do apologize, but it's not every day we get an atheist in church."
She shifted, as if the mention of her belief shook her somehow, and her hands tightened their grip upon the necklace. "Yeah, well, I don't know what else to do at this point."
Father James was hesitant to ask for clarification. Her voice was filled with a bitterness he had never dealt with; most people were saddened or angry or lost. 'Well,' Father James thought, 'I wouldn't say she's not angry.'
Before he could get another word out, the unknown woman began again. "Look, I really don't believe in any of this - this nonsense. I don't understand how people can have faith in something that isn't proven to even exist in the first place. Don't get me wrong, science isn't perfect either, but that's something I can see—something I could study if I wanted." She took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "A... a good friend of mine recently got into a car crash."
Father James made a startled noise in the back of his throat.
She laughed. It was an ugly thing. "God, saying it out loud doesn't really make me feel any better."
"Sometimes things must get worse before they get better," Father James said. "Please, if you can, continue. You might find that it rests easily on your soul if you said it aloud."
"My soul, huh?" She snorted, as if she did not believe in that either, and shrugged. "My - my friend is still in the hospital. She was driving just fine, the other driver was drunk and had crashed into her. If the asshole wasn't already in the hospital, I would've put him there." The woman ignored Father Anthony's disapproving glare at her language and looked Father James in the eye, daring him to tell her she was in the wrong.
All the man did was shake his head in amusement, a smile playing around the corners of his lips. He motioned for her to go on.
"...well, that was a week ago. The doctors all said she would have been just fine and that she was suppose to have woken up by now. They're not too sure why she hasn't, why she's not getting better. Her mom basically ordered them to give her any test they could think of - amazing woman, Ms. Skye is - but nothing's worked." She looked to the necklace in her hand and whispered to it, "She was Catholic, you know? Was wearing this when she got hit. And I thought, well, nothing was working. The doctors didn't know anything and all they could tell us was that we needed to wait. I don't want to wait."
She looked up and made sure to look Father James in the eye. Her eyes were brown. "If science is gonna fail me, Father, then maybe Rosie was right to believe in God. But I don't know how to tell Him that."
Father James was lost for words. Thankfully, he didn't have to say anything.
"I can try to help, if you want." The two turned to Jasmyne. "I don't know if I can do much, but you never know."
The stranger nodded and moved to walk to the other girl. Before she got too far, she turned back and said, "Thanks for listening, Father."
"It was my pleasure," Father James replied.
The next hour was filled with silence yet again. Joe and Mrs. Davis had left long ago and Father Anthony had hid himself in the back room. Father James had kept a steady eye on the two girls, their heads close together and hands intertwined. Father James knew the friend of the new prayer's story was most likely an intimate companion rather than someone platonic. It pained his heart to see a stranger try to lie about such a thing, but he knew many good people who had a bad reputation and couldn't be surprised.
It felt as though only seconds had past when the woman stood back up. Jasmyne stayed seated and Father James knew she would be there for as long as he would allow it. The steady tapping of her heels followed her as made her way to the door. However, she did not immediately leave. Instead, she turned and walked over to Father James.
"You know, I have to ask you something. Why were you so nice to me?"
"Why wouldn't I be?" Father James asked in return.
She opened her mouth to reply, but no words came out. She huffed, a wry smile on her lips, and said, "'Cause I'm bi? 'Cause I look like this? 'Cause I literally cussed in church? Pick one."
Father James' eyebrows rose and he blinked, not prepared for her to be so blunt. "Well, I wouldn't be a good Christian if I were rude to anyone different than me."
"Damn," she said, the usually crude word soft, "the world would be a better place if more people like you were in it."
"Why thank you."
"Don't mention it. Seriously, I don't want anybody knowing I visited a church." The glimmer of humor in her eyes told him everything he needed to know. "Thanks for letting me stay in here, my friend—my girlfriend was right. God might actually know what He's doing."
Father James laughed as she walked away, her hand lazily waving behind her. Before she made it to the door, she paused and looked back over her shoulder. She winked and said, "Oh, by the way, my name's Ryane."
"It was nice to meet you, Ryane." Father James said, Jasmyne echoing him.
She nodded. "It was nice to meet you too." The door, unlike her entrance, barely made a sound as she slipped out into the night. Weeks passed and she did not enter again.
And if Father James saw her in his morning newspaper, the headline blaring a miraculous recovery for one Rosaline Summers, a young dark-skinned woman pictured with a blue-haired girl, well.
He never said a word.
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