The parched sand soaked up the deluge. But some areas were rocky or hard-packed from months of blistering sun, and in those places the water spilled off slopes, forming rivulets in every shallow declivity. Rivulets became streams, and streams grew swiftly into rivers, until every bridged arroyo they passed over was soon filled with roiling, churning torrents on which were borne clumps of uprooted desert bunch-grass, fragments of dead tumbleweed, driftwood, and dirty white foam.
Father Geary had two favorite cassette tapes, which he kept in the car: a collection of rock-’n’-roll golden oldies, and an Elton John best-of. He put on Elton. They moved through the storm-hammered day then through the rain-swept night to the melodies of “Funeral for a Friend,” “Daniel,” and “Benny and the Jets.”
The blacktop glimmered with quicksilver puddles. To Jim, it was eerie that the water mirages on the highway a few days ago had now become real.
He grew more tense by the minute. Boston called to him, but it was far away, and few things were darker or more treacherous than a blacktop highway through a storm-wracked desert at night. Unless, perhaps, the human heart.
The priest hunched over the wheel as he drove. He studied the highway intently while singing along softly with Elton.
After a while Jim said, “Father, wasn’t there a doctor in town?”
“But you didn’t call him.”
“I got the cortisone prescription from him.”
“I saw the tube. It was a prescription for you, made out three months ago.”
“Well... I’ve seen sunstroke before. I knew I could treat you.”
“But you seemed awfully worried there at first.”
The priest was silent for a few miles. Then he said, “I don’t know who you are, where you come from, or why you really need to get to Boston. But I do know you’re a man in trouble, maybe deep trouble, as deep as it ever gets. And I know ... at least, I
I know that you’re a good man at heart. Anyway, it seemed to me that a man in trouble would want to keep a low profile.”
“Thanks. I do.”
A couple of miles farther, the rain came down hard enough to overwhelm the windshield wipers and force Geary to reduce speed.
The priest said, “You’re the one who saved that woman and her little girl.”
Jim tensed but did not respond.
“You fit the description on TV,” the priest said.
They were silent for a few more miles.
Father Geary said, “I’m not a sucker for miracles.”
Jim was baffled by that statement.
Father Geary switched off Elton John. The only sounds were the swish-hum of the tires on the wet pavement and the metronomic thump of the windshield wipers.
“I believe that the miracles of the Bible happened, yes, I accept all of that as real history,” the priest said, keeping his eyes on the road. “But I’m reluctant to believe that some statue of the Holy Mother wept real tears in a church in Cincinnati or Peoria or Teaneck last week after the Wednesday-night bingo games, witnessed only by two teenagers and the parish cleaning lady. And I’m not ready to believe that a shadow resembling Jesus, cast on someone’s garage wall by a yellow bug light, is a sign of impending apocalypse. God works in mysterious ways, but not with bug lights and garage walls.”
The priest fell silent again, and Jim waited, wondering where all this was leading.
“When I found you in the church, lying by the sanctuary railing,” Geary said in a voice that grew more haunted word by word, “you were marked by the stigmata of Christ. There was a nail hole in each of your hands—”
Jim looked at his hands and saw no wounds.
“—and your forehead was scratched and prickled with what might have been punctures from a crown of thorns.”
His face was still such a mess from the punishment of sun and wind that it was no use searching in the rearview mirror for the minor injuries the priest had described.
Geary said, “I was ... frightened, I guess. But fascinated, too.”
They came to a forty-foot-long concrete bridge at an arroyo where the runoff had overflowed the banks. A dark lake had formed and risen above the edge of the elevated roadbed. Geary bulled forward. Plumes of water, reflecting the car’s lights, unfurled on both sides like great white wings.
“I’d never seen stigmata,” Geary continued when they were out of the flooded area, “though I’d heard of the phenomenon. I pulled up your shirt ... looked at your side ... and found the enflamed scar of what might have been a spear wound.”
The events of recent months had been so filled with surprises and amazements that the threshold on Jim’s sense of wonder had been raised repeatedly. But the priest’s story leaped across it, got to him, and sent a chill of awe along his spine.
Geary’s voice had fallen to little more than a whisper. “By the time I got you back to the rectory and into bed, those signs were gone. But I knew I hadn’t imagined them. I’d seen them, they’d been real, and I knew there was something special about you.”
The lightning had fizzled out long ago; the black sky was no longer adorned by bright, jagged necklaces of electricity. Now the rain began to abate, as well, and Father Geary was able to reduce the speed of the windshield wipers even as he increased that of the aging Toyota.
For a while neither of them seemed to know what to say. Finally the priest cleared his throat. “Have you experienced this before—these stigmata?”
“No. Not that I’m aware of. But then, of course, I wasn’t aware this time until you told me.”
“You didn’t notice the marks on your hands before you passed out at the sanctuary railing?”
“But this isn’t the only unusual thing that’s been happening to you lately.”
Jim’s soft laugh was wrenched from him less by amusement than by a sense of dark irony. “Definitely not the only unusual thing.”
“Do you want to tell me?”
Jim thought about it awhile before replying. “Yes, but I can’t.”
“I’m a priest. I respect all confidences. Even the police have no power over me.”
“Oh, I trust you, Father. And I’m not particularly worried about the police.”
“If I tell you ... the enemy will come,” Jim said, and frowned as he heard himself speaking those words. The statement seemed to have come through him rather than from him.
He stared out at the vast, lightless expanse of desert. “I don’t know.”
“The enemy you spoke of in your sleep last night?”
“You said it would kill us all.”
“And it will.” He went on, perhaps even more interested in what he said than the priest was, for he had no idea what words he would speak until he heard them. “If it finds out about me, if it discovers that I’m saving lives, special lives, then it’ll come to stop me.”
The priest glanced at him. “Special lives? Exactly what do you mean by that?”
“I don’t know.”
“If you tell me about yourself, I’ll never repeat to another soul a word of what you say. So whatever this enemy is—how could it find out about you just because you confide in me?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know.”
The priest sighed in frustration. “Father, I’m really not playing games or being purposefully obscure.” He shifted in his seat and adjusted the safety harness, trying to get more comfortable; however, his discomfort was less physical than spiritual, and not easily remedied. “Have you heard the term ‘automatic writing’?”
Glowering at the road ahead, Geary said, “Psychics and mediums talk about it. Superstitious claptrap. A spirit supposedly seizes control of the medium’s hand, while he’s in a trance, and writes out messages from Beyond.” He made a wordless sound of disgust. “The same people who scoff at the idea of speaking with God—or even at the mere idea of God’s existence—naively embrace any con-artist’s claim to be a channeler for the spirits of the dead.”
“Well, nevertheless, what happens to me sometimes is that someone or something else seems to speak through me, an oral form of automatic writing. I know what I’m saying only because I listen to myself saying it.”
“You’re not in a trance.”
“You claim to be a medium, a psychic?”
“No. I’m sure I’m not.”
“You think the dead are speaking through you?”
“No. Not that.”
“I don’t know.”
“But you don’t know,” Geary said exasperatedly.
“I don’t know.”
“You’re not only the strangest man I’ve ever met, Jim. You’re also the most frustrating.”
They arrived at McCarran International in Las Vegas at ten o’clock that night. Only a couple of taxis were on the approach road to the airport. The rain had stopped. The palm trees stirred in a mild breeze, and everything looked as if it had been scrubbed and polished.
Jim opened the door of the Toyota even as Father Geary braked in front of the terminal. He got out, turned, and leaned back in for a last word with the priest.
“Thank you, Father. You probably saved my life.”
“Nothing that dramatic.”
“I’d like to give Our Lady of the Desert some of the three thousand I’m carrying, but I might need it all. I just don’t know what’s going to happen in Boston, what I might have to spend it for.”
The priest shook his head. “I don’t expect anything.”
“When I get home again, I’ll send some money. It’ll be cash in an envelope, no return address, but it’s honest money in spite of that. You can accept it in good conscience.”
“It’s not necessary, Jim. It was enough just to meet you. Maybe you should know ... you brought a sense of the mystical back into the life of a weary priest who had sometimes begun to doubt his calling—but who’ll never doubt again.”
They regarded each other with a mutual affection that clearly surprised them both. Jim leaned into the car, Geary reached across the seat, and they shook hands. The priest had a firm, dry grip.
“Go with God,” Geary said.
“I hope so.”
AUGUST 24 THROUGH AUGUST 261
Sitting at her desk in the
newsroom in the post-midnight hours of Friday morning, staring at her blank computer screen, Holly had sunk so low psychologically that she just wanted to go home, get into bed, and pull the covers over her head for a few days. She despised people who were always feeling sorry for themselves. She tried to shame herself out of her funk, but she began to pity herself for having descended to self-pity. Of course, it was impossible not to see the humor in that situation, but she was unable to manage a smile at her own expense; instead, she pitied herself for being such a silly and amusing figure.
She was glad that tomorrow morning’s edition had been put to bed and that the newsroom was almost deserted, so none of her colleagues could see her in such a debased condition. The only other people in sight were Tommy Weeks—a lanky maintenance man who was emptying wastecans and sweeping up—and George Fintel.
George, who was on the city-government beat, was at his desk at the far end of the big room, slumped forward, head on his folded arms, asleep. Occasionally he snored loud enough for the sound to carry all the way to Holly. When the bars closed, George sometimes returned to the newsroom instead of to his apartment, just as an old dray horse, when left on slack reins, will haul its cart back along a familiar route to the place it thinks of as home. He would wake sometime during the night, realize where he was, and wearily weave off to bed at last. “Politicians,” George often said, “are the lowest form of life, having undergone devolution from that first slimy beast that crawled out of the primordial sea.” At fifty-seven, he was too burnt-out to start over, so he continued to spend his days writing about public officials whom he privately reviled, and in the process he had come to hate himself, as well, and to seek solace in a prodigious daily intake of vodka martinis.
If she’d had any tolerance for liquor, Holly would have worried about winding up like George Fintel. But one drink gave her a nice buzz, two made her tipsy, and three put her to sleep.
I hate my life, she thought.
“You self-pitying wretch,” she said aloud.
Well, I do. I hate it, everything’s so hopeless.
“You nauseating despair junkie,” she said softly but with genuine disgust.
“You talking to me?” Tommy Weeks said, piloting a push broom along the aisle in front of her desk.
“No, Tommy. Talking to myself.”
“You? Gee, what’ve you got to be unhappy about?”
He stopped and leaned on his broom, crossing one long leg in front of the other. With his broad freckled face, jug ears, and mop of carroty hair, he looked sweet, innocent, kind. “Things haven’t turned out like you planned?”
Holly picked up a half-empty bag of M & Ms, tossed a few pieces of candy into her mouth, and leaned back in her chair. “When I left the University of Missouri with a journalism degree, I was gonna shake up the world, break big stories, collect Pulitzers for doorstops—and now look at me. You know what I did this evening?”
“Whatever it was, I can tell you didn’t enjoy it.”
“I was down at the Hilton for the annual banquet of the Greater Portland Lumber Products Association, interviewing manufacturers of prefab pullmans, plyboard salesmen, and redwood-decking distributors. They gave out the Timber Trophy—that’s what they call it—for the ‘lumber-products man of the year.’ I got to interview him, too. Rushed back here to get it all written up in time for the morning edition. Hot stuff like that, you don’t want to let the bastards at
The New York Times
scoop you on it.”
“I thought you were arts and leisure.”
“Got sick of it. Let me tell you, Tommy, the wrong poet can turn you off the arts for maybe a decade.”