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Authors: Brendan Kiely

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BOOK: The Gospel of Winter
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“Not every day.” I grinned. She laughed. It wasn't exactly a lie. I'd done it at school before, when I hadn't slept all night and I was nodding off.

“Should we go for it?” I asked.

“That's not my thing, dudes,” Mark said. “Not tonight. Man. I sound like a downer tonight. You know I'm not.”

“Fine,” Sophie said. “I'm game. I'm always game.” She raised her glass. “Let's finish these first.”

I raised my glass with her and took a big swallow, but I gulped too many ice cubes at once. One lodged in my throat, and the passage clamped shut. My mouth was full and airless. The soda burned into my nose. I seized up.

“Oh my God, are you okay?” Sophie asked, leaning forward.

I inhaled deeply through my nose but couldn't take anything in, or if I did, I couldn't feel it. I snorted violently after air. Soda fizzed in my mouth and nose, and my eyes burned. There was a belt going around my neck and chest, cinching one notch tighter at a time. Fear floated up from within me, because I could feel my head going light like it had when I'd tried that game where you make yourself black out for the hell of it and just before the darkness you wonder,
Shit, what if I've gone too far? What if I can't come back?

“Jesus, you sound like you're hyperventilating,” Josie said.

“He's choking,” Sophie said. “Is he choking?”

I tried to shake my head and leaned forward to spit something back into my glass, but the whole frothing mouthful came rushing out, and I sprayed Sophie on her blouse and skirt.

“Holy shit!” she yelled.

My eyes were so full of tears, I could barely see. “I'm sorry,” I managed. “I'm so sorry.”

“Shut up!” Josie said. “Pull yourselves together. Don't make a scene or we
get caught.”

“I'm sorry. I really am.”

“Did he ruin my skirt?” Sophie demanded. “Look at my blouse? What the hell?”

“Shut up! Seriously.”

Mark moved to the door and listened closely to the noises in the hall. I wiped my eyes. The burn still crackled in my throat, so instinctively I took another sip, then without good reason slurped down the rest of the drink, using my teeth as a dam against the ice. It chilled me to my toes, but it felt good, the fat syrup of vodka sliding beneath the soda. I put the glass down and grabbed tissues from a box on the desk. I handed them to Sophie, but they were useless. The music was loud in the other rooms, and people shouted over it and over one another. Nobody could hear us.

Josie pulled Sophie out of the chair, and they surveyed the dark spots scattered across the green skirt. “What am I going to tell my mother?” Sophie asked. “What's wrong with you?” she snapped in a hushed voice.

Josie grabbed my arm. “Do something! Get us to a bathroom a-sap.”

With my face burning, I led the girls out into the hallway.
Mark followed behind them. A group of Mother's willowy friends huddling in the foyer saw us. “Barbara. Barbara. Here he is,” one of the women sang. I was a step ahead of Josie and Sophie, but I could picture them scowling behind me as they heard the woman. I tried to ignore what she said, but that sinking feeling opened up within me again. I waved the girls on, and we went down the hall, away from the party and toward one of the spare bedrooms, the one Old Donovan had slept in for a few months, before he was finally gone.

I held open the door to the en suite bathroom. “This'll be private,” I told them. Josie brushed past me, and I stepped out of the way so Sophie could follow her.

“Why don't we just meet you out in the party later?” Josie suggested. “I'll clean her up.” She had carried the drinks with her, and she set them on the counter next to the sink.

“I'll make sure they're okay,” Mark said. They shut the door, and I could hear them whispering before the faucet ran. Eventually, they turned the water off but didn't open the door. They giggled. Glasses clinked. I wanted to break something.
Take your faces off, assholes.
I should have just said it, even if it was through a goddamn door.
Aidan's a fuckhead
was scratched into the back of a stall door in a boys' restroom at CDA, and I was sure they were saying something similar right then.

There was more giggling, but it came from the hallway. One of the women who'd seen us come out of Old Donovan's office stood in the doorway and blocked the light
coming into the dark bedroom. She beckoned those behind her. “Yup,” she said, “they're in here.” She leaned against the door frame. I couldn't see her face. She was only a silhouette of a woman speaking to me through the shadows. “Why are you hiding in the dark, Aidan?”

There was something cold and straightforward in her voice that instantly held me. Even though she could barely see me, I felt as if she'd caught me naked, and the emptiness within me was spilling everywhere, running out into the room and staining the carpet and the bedsheets and the wicker furniture. Another woman joined her, and then another, and again, one of them asked me, “What are you doing?”

One of the women pushed through the others and snapped on the overhead light. Barbara Kowolski, Mark's mother, marched forward. She glared at me over her round and flushed cheeks. “What's the matter with you?” she asked.

I remained silent, still fixed in the fear from the moment before. The other women laughed and began speaking with each other in the hallway, but Barbara put her hands on her hips. “Where's Mark? Where are the girls?” She glanced at the bathroom door and pointed. The bangles on her arms clanked as she gestured. “Are they in there? Is Mark in the bathroom with the girls?” I tried to say no, but she pushed past me and tried the door. It was locked. She glanced toward the doorway to the hall. The other women were gone. “Mark?” she said softly.

The faucet ran briefly, and then the toilet flushed. Josie opened the door and stepped out first. “Hi, Mrs. Kowolski.” Her cheeks were red. Sophie followed, holding an empty glass in her hands, and Mark followed her with his hands in his pockets. Hunched over like that, he looked much younger, like a dog cowering before a raised hand.

“Young man,” Barbara said to him.

None of them would look at me. “Mrs. Kowolski,” Josie said, “we're just hanging out. What's up? How's it going?”

Barbara frowned. Her skin was so permatanned and taut that her lips folded her face like an accordion. “Don't play nice with me right now.” She turned back to Mark. “Your father was looking for you. There's someone he wants you to meet. But like this?” Barbara glanced at the doorway again and then turned back to us. “This is what is going to happen,” she said. “We're not going to speak about any of this. We're not going to say anything to any of your parents. We're not going to mention any of this to Mike. Not any of it. Do you all understand me?”

“It's not their fault,” I finally said. “It's my booze.”

Barbara turned and pointed her bloodred fingernail at my face. “I know exactly whose fault it is, Aidan.”

“Don't take it out on him,” Mark said. Although he'd had the least to drink of all of us, his eyes still had a glassy look. I thought tears might have pooled in his lids. “It's not Aidan's fault.”

“It certainly is,” Barbara shot back. “Enough's enough.
I'm taking you home.” She swung her finger around to the whole group of us. “I'm taking you all home.”

“Ma,” Mark said. “Come on.”

“Enough,” Barbara said. “This is what's best for you. I'm taking care of this.” She pulled Mark in for a quick, lifeless hug. “You know your father, honey. Don't be stupid.” She pushed Mark and the girls into the hall as he was trying to say good-bye to me. “Just because your father's not here doesn't mean you get to do whatever you want,” she said to me. “Somebody should explain that to you.”

She left, and I flipped the light off in the bathroom and then the overhead in the bedroom and sat on the bed in the darkness for a while as the party stormed through the rest of the house. Eventually, I got up, wandered to the window, and looked out to the backyard. The moonlight made the crust of snow look moonlike—a gray, noiseless landscape, something like what I imagined death to be—a landscape where you would inevitably arrive, permanently alone.

I wished I could disappear, maybe even out there, but people were in the hall and on the stairs up to the second floor; they were everywhere. The party filled the whole house, pushing into room after room.
All those bodies and no one to really talk to,
I thought, until I heard a familiar laugh come rolling down the hall from the foyer. I'd known his laugh since he'd first arrived at Most Precious Blood, taking over the Mass from Father Dooley and turning the homily into a stand-up story hour. His voice, thick and low and
constant, like a foghorn chanting through the night, had begun to sound like home to me. With relief, then, I steered toward his voice in the party.

Nobody had a laugh like Father Greg, one that bubbled up and gained volume as it stretched out. He stood near the foot of the grand staircase, his ruddy face and silvery goatee shining in the glow from the foyer's chandelier. He palmed a thick rocks glass and swirled the scotch in it as he spoke to the crowd around him. Most of them had to look up at Father Greg as they listened, because it wasn't only Father Greg's voice that commanded attention. I think if you put him in the ring with Coach Randolf over at CDA, Coach would actually have a hard time finding the courage to lace up the gloves. Father Greg looked like a man who had played football in a time before helmets and shoulder pads and had come through it all without a scratch.

He laughed at his own story, and when he noticed me he beckoned me with a nod. I followed immediately. He was a regular on the party circuit, and everyone loved Father Greg. He didn't bother with any of that dancing-is-the-devil's-work kind of ministry. He understood very well that our Catholic town liked Mardi Gras and Easter brunch and preferred to skip the Lent in between. He never missed a party, either.

“But it isn't only about the money,” Father Greg was saying as I walked up to him. “Do you know what's hard work? Love. Love is hard work, maybe the hardest, but it's
what counts in the end. That's what our work is about with these kids. Teach a man to fish? Ha.” He waved a dismissive hand. “Teach a man to love, Richard. Teach a kid to love, to love learning, to love others. Then watch what happens.” Father Greg dropped a hand onto my shoulder. “Right, Aidan?” He was the real solicitor at the party—at every party. I was his assistant, and only had been for the six months I'd been working for him.

“Yeah, I know. The kids,” Richard said with a hard smile. “That's who I'm thinking of when I write my check every year.” Then he aimed that nose at me. “I haven't gotten the call yet this year. Aidan, you going to start making those calls soon? Father, going to put Aidan in charge now?”

Father Greg smiled at me. “Oh, that wouldn't be so terrible. Aidan's not so young anymore. How would I do it without him?” Father Greg put his hand out and I slapped it automatically, as if we were teammates on the field. “Aidan's a guy who knows you need coal in the fire to keep the train running.”

I nodded in agreement. I
helping him raise funds for Catholic schools down in the city. It was a stretch to call my organizing Excel spreadsheets and Crystal Reports “coal in the fire,” but even by opening envelopes and entering gift amounts in the database, I was a part of his vital endeavor.

“I haven't even said hello to my host yet,” Father Greg said.

“She's around here somewhere,” I said, looking toward the library.

Father Greg laughed. “No, I meant you.”

“Oh,” I said. “Yeah.”

He excused us from the group and steered me a few feet away, closer to the coat closet. It felt good to get a little direction. He smiled, then took on that serious expression he got before he found the right words to set the world straight.

“How are you holding up?”

It was the first goddamn honest question I'd been asked all night. I wanted to be somewhere quieter. I wanted to be somewhere we could take ourselves seriously, close the door on all the gibbering nonsense and speak as two people who cared about meaningful things. It was about time.

“Look,” Father Greg said, “I'm heading outside. I need a break, a little fresh air.” He fished out his coat-check tag and handed it to the doorman. “Why don't we step out for a minute?” Father Greg asked me. He took his coat and wore it like a cloak, without sticking his arms through the sleeves. He dug into the breast pocket and pulled out a cigarette. He always smelled like them. “Join me. Only if you want to, of course.” His coat billowed and flowed behind him as he walked onto the stoop. I found my ski parka and followed him outside.

He stood beyond the curve of the white stone semicircular drive outside the front door and looked down the
slope of the snowy front yard. “We have to find a way for you to enjoy your party,” he said.

I watched my breath mist and disappear in the cold air. “It's not really my party,” I said. I zipped up my parka. “I don't know what I'm doing tonight.”

Father Greg stepped closer and put his foot on the stoop. He exhaled from the corner of his mouth and blew the smoke away from me. “Yes you do. You're doing what you always do. You're trying to help. Don't beat yourself up, Aidan.” He always said my name a lot, and although at first it had sounded strange to hear myself referred to so often, I actually grew to like it. It made me feel real, as if he genuinely wanted to speak with me, as if I actually meant something to him—as if he might have needed me a little too.

I stared out at the island of manicured shrubs in the front drive. He offered me his cigarette, and I looked away from him as I took a drag. The nicotine went right to my head, and I leaned back against the column. “I'd rather be upstairs, reading for school,” I finally said.

BOOK: The Gospel of Winter
6.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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