by Michael Kingswood
The fabric of his cassock was heavy brown wool, and even through the Underarmor long-sleeved t-shirt he wore beneath it, Gregory could still feel the itching want to break out all over his torso. Every timed he donned it, he wondered at the endurance of his brothers back in medieval times, wearing even rougher wool often times without any undergarments.
Fortunately, his newly-joined order had allowed some benefits of modernity despite their vows of chastity and poverty. He thanked God for that every day.
But despite the itchiness, the garment was warm, and today that made up for the other discomforts.
Winter had come on with a vengeance, and there was already a foot of snow on the ground inside the monastery. And more forecast for later this week. Thankfully after Christmas though, so Gregory and his brothers would be safe to make the two hour journey to Saint Jerome’s, where his order traditionally helped sing the midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
This was his first time making that voyage, in an old school bus that his order had purchased and converted for their use, and he didn’t entirely trust his voice to carry him through the chant without error. It didn’t matter, though; God would see his intent even if his delivery didn’t live up to standard.
Or at least that’s what he told himself. Or rather, what his faith told him he should be thinking.
It didn’t really help push his nerves down at all.
“Relax, Greg,” said the man to his right. Taller than Gregory by almost a foot and muscular—he had been a division one football player before the incident that brought him to faith three years ago—Brother Lawrence had a broad smile and eyes that twinkled with merriment and, too often for the Abbott’s liking, mischief beneath his curly black hair. But right that moment he gave Gregory a calm and serious look as he gave his shoulder a squeeze.
“You’ll do fine,” Lawrence said, and Gregory began to smile in thankful response.
Then he dropped the other shoe. “We’ll all be singing. No one will notice when you screw it up.”
The smile that had been beginning to form on Gregory’s lips stopped midway, and he stared flatly at the man who had become his fast friend almost immediately upon his entering the order.
The twinkle came back to Lawrence’s eyes then, and Gregory couldn’t help it. He burst out in a laugh, shaking his head at his brother’s quip.
In the seat in front of them, one of the older brothers—Gregory couldn’t remember his name—looked back at them with disapproval, and Gregory forced his laughter down.
It was difficult, but he managed it. Looking back at Lawrence, he said, “You have a singular wit, brother.”
“We all have different gifts from God,” Lawrence said, smiling in satisfaction.
* * * * *
As the van from her convent pulled up to Saint Jerome’s, Sister Agnes had to work hard to push down the butterflies that were threatening to fly out of her stomach.
This was her first Christmas with the convent; she had only taken her vows four months ago. And though she had always had a talent for singing, she had never been in this situation before: singing to praise God before all the world. What if she couldn’t remember the words? Or the notes?
Her convent had been coming to assist with the midnight mass at Saint Jerome’s for the last ten years, or so Mother Superior had told her when she first volunteered for the choir. It was a sacred duty, and an honor.
But now, as she stepped off the van and looked up at the towering spire of the parish’s steeple, she felt she may have made a mistake.
She wasn’t ready. Not even close to it.
“Get going, Sister Agnes,” said the sister behind her. Justine, her name was, and she was twenty years Agnes’ elder in the body, if not in the faith.
Agnes pulled the frock that was hanging over her habit closed against the cold of the winter night and hurried to follow the others of her convent who had already started up the flagstone stairs toward the church’s side entrance.
Candles and electric lights from inside made the stained glass windows that lined the church’s side shine, sending multi-hued projections onto the snow beneath that almost, but not quite, mirrored the images of holy men and women that the windows contained.
For a moment, Agnes could only look, the chill of the already late evening forgotten as she admired the simple beauty of that sight.
Until Justine chivvied her onward again, and again she hurried forward.
The relief she felt as she stepped into the church’s threshold was profound. Modern climate control truly was a miracle; a gift from God.
Oh sure, Agnes knew how it worked. She’d started out studying engineering before switching to theology and then abandoning the academic world altogether in favor of the convent, and the calling she felt. But knowing how it worked didn’t mean she couldn’t give credit where credit was due.
So she said a little prayer of thanks to the maker of all things as she stepped inside and doffed her frock, shaking off the few snowflakes that had blown onto it as she wiped her feet on the interior doormat. Then she hurried on, not waiting for Justine’s urging this time.
Even the feel of the chill from just outside the door was too much, now that she was back in the warmth.
That, and the beauty of the place.
She’d been in many churches; she knew them well. They all had high, lofty ceilings, and were lined with stained glass. They all had the alter at the joining point of the cross that the church’s construction was based upon.
But Saint Jerome’s was built in the old style, almost gothic. And it showed in all the little intricate details that modern building and design never quite got right. The leaf on the arches. The way the statue of the Blessed Mother, in a side alcove, was carved and painted.
It was all perfect, all down to the incense that was already burning, giving the entire place an exalted smell.
The choir galley was on the other side of the church from where she and her sisters had entered. As Agnes turned to walk over to it, she saw that a group of men in monks’ cassocks were already there, in three ranks on the left hand side of the galley.
She almost missed a step when she saw them. But she shouldn’t have been surprised. Mother Superior told her that the monks would be joining in singing the mass; it was their tradition as well. But still, it had been a while since she’d been around men. And now she’d be standing next to them, singing with them.
She didn’t object. Just –
As she approached, she spied one of the monks, the second-most man from the left in the third rank. Average height, with reddish hair that was cut short and a strong jaw. He was talking with an extremely tall and bulky monk to his right, and was smiling with good humor.
Justine again had to speak up, to move Agnes along to her place in the sisters’ ranks. Agnes shook herself and looked back at the older sister apologetically.
Justine just shook her head. “What’s with you, girl?” she said, not unkindly but with some irritation.
“I – ” Agnes began, but then her gaze went back to the young monk.
Their eyes met, and Gregory felt a bolt of lightning course through his body. He lost all track of what he had been about to say to Lawrence, lost as he found himself in the sight of her.
Her habit was not flattering; it wasn’t designed to be. But all the same, the graceful curves of her body were there to see, if one were to look. And he did; for a second. But then he got sucked back into her oval face, the bit of rose on her cheeks, the way her lips were seeming to want to rise in a gentle smile. The intelligence in her deep brown eyes.
“My God,” he said to himself, “she’s like an angel.”
Beside him, Lawrence said something, but Gregory didn’t catch it. Until his friend nudged him in the ribs. Hard.
He broke away from looking at the lovely sister and met Lawrence’s gaze, which had now lost all humor. “Be careful, brother.”
Gregory nodded. “I know.” He cleared his throat, then stole a glance back at her, to see that she was looking away now, toward the older sister standing to her left. “I know.”
* * * * *
There was some time to mingle after the mass, but Gregory told himself he was not going to go over to the sister. He’d sworn an oath of chastity, and he had no intention of breaking it ever. Let alone before he’d even been at the monastery six months.
But then he turned from admiring one of the stained glass windows’ depiction of Saint Steven, stoned by the crowd for his faith, and there she was.
She wasn’t looking at him; she too was admiring the workmanship of the window. But after a second, she lowered her eyes to meet his.
A flush of warmth went through Agnes as she realized his eyes were green.
She needed to get away from him. Now. She’d just taken her oaths, and she had no intention of breaking them. Especially not so soon onto her path.
But despite the inner warnings rushing through her head, she found herself saying, “Hello.” At least it was in merely a polite tone. “You sang well.” Why had she added that?
Gregory blinked, then let out a chuckle. “How could you tell?”
He immediately saw that his words had confused her, maybe caused a little hurt. So he quickly followed up. “Thank you. You and your sisters made it easy, beautiful as your voices are.”
Inwardly, he winced. That was cheesy. And anyway, he was not trying to pick this nun up. Not trying to do that at all.
So he gestured toward the window, and changed the subject. “This is very well done. I’ve always admired Steven. His courage in the face of the mob. His faith.”
Agnes thanked God he’d changed direction. For a moment she thought he was trying to pick her up. But then she saw the embarrassed flush on his cheeks, and realized he had merely put his foot wrong.
But part of her whispered regret that he hadn’t been making a pass. The part that had gotten her into trouble too many times before in the past, and that she had been working to expunge.
Apparently, she needed to work harder. She forced her eyes away from him, back toward the window, and caught the tail end of his comment about Saint Steven. Agnes nodded agreement.
“The center for needy children that I and my sisters support is named after him.” Thinking of that place, and the kids, mostly parentless, who the place served drove whatever carnal desires that might have been building within her away. She shook her head sadly.
Gregory saw the sadness in her eyes. “You don’t enjoy the work?”
The sister gave herself a little shake, then met his eyes again. This time the lightning strike was lessened, but it was still there. Still, the seriousness of her expression drove any untoward thoughts away as she shook her head. “No, I love it. But there are so many children in need, and not enough money or people to help. We – “
“Agnes,” came a voice from behind her and to the left. She recognized it as Sister Justine.
She turned to look and saw the older sister gesturing for her to come on, and she realized the others of her convent had already departed. Except for her and Justine.
Flushing, she looked back at the young monk and made what she hoped was an apologetic smile. “Looks like it’s time to go. Nice meeting you, brother.”
Gregory returned the smile. “You too.”
She turned to go, but before she could step away, he added, “I’m Gregory.”
Agnes looked back at him, his name ringing like a bell in her ears, and nodded. “I suppose I’ll see you next Christmas, Brother Gregory.”
Then she walked out of Saint Jerome’s, leaving him wondering what had just happened.
* * * * *
The Abbott was fifty-something, and despite the order’s vow of poverty, he had a bulging belly and flabby jowls. But he also had a sharp wit and a sharper tongue, and he didn’t tolerate fools or foolishness.
So when Gregory received a summons from him to discuss his proposal, he came expecting a rough meeting.
Instead, the Abbott sat with him in a pair of almost-comfortable chairs on the side of his office. The place where the Abbott took friendly meetings, not official ones. Or at least not official ones that would require disciplinary action, anyway.
Gregory had never had this particular honor before.
The Abbott got straight to it, not leaving Gregory time to ponder the situation.
“You want our monastery to begin sponsoring Saint Steven’s Center For Needy Children. With money and with labor.”
There was no sense denying it, so Gregory merely nodded.
The Abbott’s eyes narrowed, the bushy grey of his eyebrows practically touching as his brow crinkled. But he didn’t say anything for several seconds. He just looked Gregory over with that stare of his that could unsettle one of the guards at Buckingham Palace.
From what Gregory had heard, it actually had. Once.
“The sisters from Our Lady Of Lourdes are also supporting the institution.”
Gregory saw where this was going and decided he needed to put a stop to it before the Abbott got too far down the road.
“It’s a good cause, sir. The center does the Lords work with children, but they need help and – “
The Abbott cut him off with a chopping motion from his right hand. “I know their work, and I agree they are a worthy cause to support. That’s not my concern.” His eyes narrowed and he leaned forward. “I’m concerned about you, Gregory. Are you asking this because of the sister you met at Saint Jerome’s? What was her name…Agnes?”
Gregory blinked in surprise, and the Abbott snorted.
“Secrets are hard to keep around here, Gregory. Everyone there saw the affect she had on you.” His eyes hadn’t blinked; they hadn’t left Gregory’s the entire time.
Under the weight of that stare, Gregory couldn’t have lied if he wanted to. He nodded. “I suppose so, yes.” The Abbott opened his mouth to speak, but Gregory hurried to continue. “But not in the way you think, not entirely. I…”
He trailed off as the Abbott’s doubtful raised eyebrow cut off whatever excuse Gregory was about to make. The older man shook his head. “We’re not priests, Gregory. But our vows are real nonetheless. If you can’t live up to yours, you should leave the monastery and return to normal life. There will be no shame or guilt; this life isn’t for everyone.”
Gregory gritted his teeth. “Just because I think she’s pretty doesn’t mean I won’t keep my vows, sir.”
Silence lingered for a while, then the Abbott rose and walked over to his desk. He picked up a piece of paper from atop it and turned to face Gregory again. “The Mother Superior shares my concerns. She wrote me last week about this…whatever it was…between you and Sister Agnes.”
“Sir, there was nothing – “
The Abbott raised a halting hand, and Gregory shut up. “I didn’t say there was. And neither did she. But she went to Sister Agnes to be sure, and she reports that Sister Agnes says there is nothing between the two of you in any way, and there never will be.” He raised that eyebrow again. “Now, having heard that, do you still want to pursue this?”
Though not unexpected, it still hit Gregory like a ton of bricks, and he realized that somewhere deep down, he had been hoping that something might bloom between him and Sister Agnes. He lowered his eyes, looking at the floor in front of the Abbott’s feet, and cursed himself for a fool. And more than that, a faithless fool. To so easily be tempted away from his vows, so soon?
The Abbott spoke again, his voice more gentle. “We’re all men, Brother Gregory. We all get tempted. What I’m asking is whether you can get past whatever temptation you may have felt, since there will be nothing coming from it, and fulfill your vows. Or can’t you?”
Gregory drew a breath, then looked back up. He nodded. “I can. And I want to do the work at the Center.”
The Abbott looked into his eyes again, then he nodded. “Very well.”
* * * * *
“It’s good to see you again, Brother Gregory.”
Sister Agnes’ tone was completely friendly, but also completely detached, almost professional. And despite knowing there could never be anything here, and having set aside those hopes, the lack of warmth beyond mere friendliness poked at Gregory nevertheless.
“You too, Sister Agnes,” he said, putting on the same politely friendly tone even as he smiled in greeting.
They, along with two of her sisters and three of his brothers, were standing out front of Saint Steven’s. It wasn’t much to look at. A small, two-story building across the street from a strip mall that had seen better days. Painted blue, but the paint was fading, and the sign needed work as well.
The toys showing through the windows were new, though, and the doors were freshly painted with smiling faces and images of kids at play. So the Center wasn’t completely neglected. But it certainly could use the extra help.
“So,” Gregory said, “what do you need us to do?”
Agnes smiled then and said, “Come and see.”
She led the small group inside, and past a well-appointed reception area into the Center beyond. Then down a hallway that was painted beige and tiled in blue, until coming to the kind of double doors that Gregory remembered from school back in the day, facing to the right.
“The kids are in here. They need mentoring, and love, as much as the building needs upkeep.”
Gregory glanced to his left, where Lawrence looked back at him with a raised eyebrow. Of course Lawrence had come; he was always the first to volunteer for good works. Plus, Gregory was sure he would be looking for any opportunity to tease him about Agnes.
Well, small chance of that.
Inside, the kids were spread about, engaged in play of all kinds. There were books and toys and stuffed animals and a little plastic slide and mini-playground off in the back corner.
One look at the kids said they were from poor to dire economic straights. Obvious hand-me-down clothes, but worse a harried expression about them, even when they were at play.
But some of them were better off than others.
As the group entered, one of the little boys ran toward Agnes, arms spread wide. He was probably seven or eight, black, with a mess of hair on his head and a broad toothy grin on his face when he saw her.
She bent down to give the kid a hug, then after a moment, turned to look at Gregory.
She caught a flash of the expression that had been on his face when she was looking away from him. And as quickly as he schooled himself back to merely friendly professionalism, she knew the look he had, and it lit a warm fire inside her.
Well, a small match anyway.
Agnes had thought she was imagining things when she’d left Saint Jerome’s, and had alternated between relief and disappointment when the letter back from the Abbott had confirmed there was nothing and would be nothing between them. Mostly relief.
Or so she’d thought. But that flash of more on his face, even if just for a second…
Giving herself an inward shake, she gestured from Gregory to the boy. “Brother Gregory, this is Amos.”
Gregory bent over to greet the kid, and returned his smile. “Nice to meet you, Amos.”
Amos held out his hand, and Gregory shook it. Then he glanced over at Agnes’ face, and the sudden look he saw there before she could get her expression back under control sent another zip of electricity through his spine.
The Abbott was right. This was trouble, and he was just running toward temptation. He needed to back off, and get back to the monastery before he did something really stupid.
But then he looked back at the kid, whose expression was both so open and so needy at the same time…
Gregory drew himself up and focused on that.
The kid was what mattered. He’d help the kid.
* * * * *
It was amazing how fast ten years went.
Agnes had always heard older people talk that way, and she’d told herself she’d never do the same when she got older. That was dumb talk; years didn’t pass any faster or slower. They passed one year at a time, one day at a time.
But now here she was, thinking like an old fuddy duddy as she watched Amos stride across the stage of his High School graduation. He was tall, fit, and handsome, and he had given one heck of a valedictorian speech.
“And now he’s off to the Marine Corps,” Gregory said, from his seat next to hers in the bleachers overlooking the High School football field, where the ceremony was being held.
“Yeah,” she said, and couldn’t help the upwelling of concern over his choice from spilling over into her voice.
Gregory heard it and turned to look at her, saw the fear for Amos there beneath her outward good cheer. It tweaked at his heartstrings the way it always did when Agnes was distressed, no less now than it had when they first met, not so very long ago and yet also an age and a half ago, it sometimes seemed.
He wanted to reach out and take her hand, squeeze it to offer some comfort. But he couldn’t. He didn’t dare even approach that door, let alone let it open even a crack. If he did, it would be so easy to step on through. And their vows…
“It’s a good place to get started in life,” he said, putting on as confident a tone as he could, despite the concerns he also felt.
“I know. But…” She gestured toward the stage, where Amos had departed and the next to receive a diploma was coming up.
And when he said it, Agnes knew that he understood completely.
Later, after the official ceremony was over, Amos found her. Like he always had, since he was a little one.
“Sister Agnes!” he said as he approached. But this time, he was the one who bent down for the hug, lifting her up off her feet and giving her a little spin around.
She was laughing by the time he set her down, and she found all the concern had been swept away by Amos’ gesture. And she was quite sure he knew what she had been worried about, and what affect that hug would have.
Then Amos turned to Gregory and just like when they first met, he held out his hand.
Gregory took it and as usual these days found his grip firm to the point of nearly painful. He grinned through it anyway. “Congratulations, Amos.”
“Thanks, Brother Gregory. Couldn’t have done it without you.” He looked back at Agnes. “Both of you.”
Someone shouted Amos’ name from behind, and Gregory saw a group of Amos’ fellow graduates gesturing for him to come with them. To a party, no doubt.
Amos also saw them, and gave them a thumbs up. Then he turned to look back at Gregory and Agnes. “The mom and dad I never had,” he said, and pointed an index finger at each of them.
Then he turned and ran to his group of friends.
Agnes found herself tearing up over his words.
Gregory felt it as well, saw the affect it had on her, and again wanted to touch her, draw her into an embrace. Instead, he cleared his throat and stepped away. “I need to be getting back to the monastery. My flight’s early in the morning.”
“So you’re still going on the mission?”
Gregory nodded. “The Abbott put me in charge, so I can’t say no even if I wanted to.”
“Will you be back for Chistmas?”
Gregory grinned, and as usual that grin put little butterflies into Agnes’ stomach. “I’d never miss midnight mass. You know that.”
* * * * *
Lawrence was the Abbott now, but he still had the mischievous twinkle in his eye from time to time.
When he came to see Gregory the week before Christmas, though, the twinkle was gone.
“I just got a note from the Mother Superior over at Our Lady Of Lourdes.”
Lawrence’s hair had gone mostly grey, but there was a strand of black directly above his left eye. For some reason that stood out to Gregory just then, and for a moment he was glad for their vows of poverty. It meant he didn’t get to look into a mirror very often. But he was sure the spider webs around Lawrence’s eyes and the deeper cracks around his nose and mouth were nothing compared with his own.
Lawrence just drove a desk these days. Gregory spent most days dealing with troubled kids over at Saint Stevens.
He had devoted himself to the work completely after getting back from his last mission trip; he’d always missed the kids each time he’d taken a mission in the past. But for whatever reason, this time he felt their lack desperately.
And it wasn’t just Agnes; though Lord knew he still panged for her when he was away, even after all these years and despite neither of them ever making a move to dishonor their vows.
“Bad news, I’m afraid,” Lawrence said. “Agnes has taken ill. She won’t be coming to the center for a while.”
And there went that pang again. “And midnight mass?”
Gregory’s old friend shook his head.
“Sorry, brother. I know it was kind of a tradition for you two.” And he knew fully exactly what Gregory felt for her. And, he suspected, she for him.
“That’s ok,” Gregory said, feeling the lie even as he said it. It wasn’t ok. But things happen, and Lord knows he had been away enough times over the years.
But never on Christmas Eve.
As Gregory turned and walked away, Lawrence’s heart went out to his old friend, and he said a quick prayer that Agnes would get well soon.
* * * * *
Lawrence’s news struck Gregory to the core of his being, and he took a full step backwards until he struck the wall of his friend’s office. The office where his first Abbott had grilled him about Saint Stevens, more than thirty years ago. The office Lawrence had occupied for four good years.
“What do you mean?”
“Agnes has cancer. Mother Superior just told me.”
Lawrence shrugged and shook his head. “They’re not sure.”
* * * * *
Gregory passed the priest who had come to perform Agnes’ last rights as he exited her little bedroom. The priest was middle-aged, lean, and dark of hair and skin. His expression was sad as he pulled the door to and moved to step down the hall, but when he spied Gregory he made an obvious effort to conceal that grief.
“Brother Gregory,” he said, and Gregory nodded in greeting.
For a second, it looked like the priest was going to say something else. But then he just cleared his throat and walked past him.
Gregory stood outside Agnes’ door for what felt like an eternity. But it was really maybe a minute.
A huge part of him screamed for him to turn around, just get the hell out of there. Because he didn’t want to face what was happening inside that room.
Agnes, his Agnes, was dying. Any moment could be her last. And his heart wrenched to think on it.
“Coward,” he said to himself. And he was. He was a coward, for this at least.
He wasn’t sure he could face this.
But he knew if he didn’t, he would always regret it. So he forced himself to raise his hand and knock on the stained oak of the door.
He thought he heard a voice saying, “Come in,” so he did.
As he stepped through the door, Agnes was struck by how much he looked like the young man he used to be. Oh, he had the wrinkles to go with his—with their—age. The grey that had completely destroyed the youthful red of his younger hair. But he still stood proudly erect, and he moved with the same easy almost swagger he always had. And his eyes were the same green they’d always been.
He sat down in the simple wooden chair next to her bed and just looked at her for a time, and she could see the desolation in his gaze. Knew how what she was going through was tearing him apart inside.
In addition to the physical pain the cancer was causing, that the drugs could not have completely masked even if she’d bothered to take them, Agnes now felt a far deeper pain in her heart, to see him despairing so.
So she reached out a trembling hand and, for the first time, laid it atop his.
The touch of her hand sent the same lightning bolt through Gregory as he’d felt that Christmas Eve so many years ago when they’d first met. In all these years, he’d never dared let himself touch her, for fear of what that might lead to. And never mind how badly part of him wanted it. Some things were more important.
But now, here at the end…
No, not the end.
“Agnes,” he began.
“I love you, Gregory,” she said before he could say another word, and if he hadn’t already been sitting he would have collapsed from the shock of it. “I’ve loved you since the first time we met in Saint Jerome’s.”
His jaw dropped open, in shock Agnes thought, but she was sure it was from shock that she’d said it, and not from her feelings. He knew how she felt as well as she knew how he did, though they had never spoken it aloud before.
She managed a little smile. “It’s the one sin I didn’t confess to Father William.”
Gregory shook his head. “It is not a sin to love, Agnes.”
“Of course not.” She took a breath, but then a rack of coughing overtook her, and she could not speak for a while as she gathered herself again.
It was only then that Gregory truly saw the effect of the sickness. How it had eaten away at her body, made her thin and frail where she used to be so lithe and strong. But in her face she was still the smiling young woman he’d first laid eyes on, all those years ago. And her eyes were the same deep brown, full of intellect and faith.
Finally she got herself under control again, and she took that breath. Then she met his eyes, and he saw remorse, and guilt, there.
“My sin is that now I regret that we were never together. I wish I would have thrown it all away, and gone to you. And to hell with my vows.”
Gregory shook his head. “You don’t mean that.”
She kept her eyes locked on his, but after a moment, she looked away, and nodded. “No. No, I don’t. I wanted to be with you, but I wanted to keep my vow to God more. And I knew you valued your oaths as much as I did, so I would never have dreamed to impose on you.”
Her voice lowered, and she went on in a tone he could barely hear. “But when I think on what could have been. The children we could have had.” She looked back at him, and there were tears welling up in her eyes.
Gregory reached out and placed his other hand overtop hers, and squeezed gently. His deep eyes, filled with love that he couldn’t have spoken before, seemed to grow to fill her entire vision. “But Agnes, we do have children.”
That struck her like a blow, and she felt her mouth drop open.
“Amos, and Christine, and Sheldon, and Devon, and Lamont, and Keisha…” He shook his head emphatically. “Every child that made it through that center and is now living a full life, because of us.” He squeezed her hand again. “Really, because of you.” He smiled that crooked, charmingly self-effacing smile he had. “Because I never would have gone there if it hadn’t been for you.”
He saw wonder on her face, as though she had never considered that before. Then she smiled, and that smile contained such peace and gratitude that he couldn’t help but smile in return. Despite what was happening.
Agnes said, “I’ll be going soon.”
“I’ll wait for you with the Lord,” she said, and then another round of coughing took her. This one was longer, and worse than the last, and she stiffened beneath her blankets at the end of it, like her entire body was fighting against the coughing. Fighting, and failing.
Then she slumped back down onto the mattress, his hand still clutched in hers. But her gaze had left him, instead looking up past his head toward the ceiling.
Or toward something else.
A change came over her face. The tension that had been there during the coughing left, and a look of wonder—of awe—came over her.
“Gregory,” she said, barely above a whisper. “Oh Gregory, it’s so beautiful…”
Her words faded out, then the last of her breath left her body in a soft rattle.
He sat there, looking at her face, which had retained the look of wonder and joy despite the unfocused glaze of her eyes. He wasn’t sure what to do, so after a moment, he bowed his head to pray.
“Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women…” His voice broke, and tears welled up, blurring his vision.
It was like someone had twisted a red hot poker through his heart, and all he could do was fall forward, resting his head on his dead love’s hand, and weep.
* * * * *
The sheets were rough. They were very well-made, finely woven cotton. But they were rough. Rougher than his cassock had been when he first put it on all those years ago.
The sheets were rough, and Gregory wanted to get up out of bed and go do something. But he didn’t have the strength to even try. Even moving his hand to pick up a glass of water to drink from was an effort that took all his strength now.
“I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” said the priest who had come to perform his last rights. He was maybe thirty, still had baby fat on him. Reminded Gregory of the priest from that old Clint Eastwood movie.
That sent Gregory to chuckling, which was a mistake because the chuckles gave way to coughs, and he couldn’t hear anything else the priest was saying for a time, until he finally got his breath back.
The young man bent over him, concern on his face. “Abbott?”
Gregory waved him away. He wasn’t the Abbott. Not any more. He’d turned it over months ago. And anyway, he’d been a crappy Abbott compared with Lawrence.
Lawrence. He was gone now.
Agnes was gone.
Everyone Gregory had known and loved was gone, and younger men were carrying the torch now. It was time for him to go, and it seemed fitting that the same disease that took his Agnes away was now taking him to the Lord as well.
“About time,” he said under his breath, and was not at all surprised to realize he actually meant it.
He had no fear of death; he knew what awaited him. And who. But until recently he’d thought about all the things that remained, all the good works still to do…
Now, though, he was ready to go. Like he saw the road laid out before him, and all else was in shadows and didn’t matter. Step down the road to eternity.
That sounded like a good idea. So he did. One step, then another, and the road continued on ahead.
With each step, he felt strength returning to his limbs. Strength and vigor that he hadn’t felt in decades, and he found himself standing taller, shoulders thrown back the way he used to walk so long ago.
Light bloomed from ahead. Light and warmth that surpassed anything he’d ever known of conceived of. It was all colors and none, and should have been blinding, but he found he could look at it without difficulty. And it called to him, drew him onward even as it filled him with peace and a feeling of love and acceptance that was beyond description or understanding.
A shape loomed ahead of him. Tall, broad. A man.
Gregory felt no fear, only peace, and he continued forward until the man’s features resolved. A round, youthful face with a broad grin and mischievous twinkles in his eyes beneath a mop of curly black hair.
“Welcome home, brother,” his friend said, and clapped him on the shoulder as Gregory walked past.
And then there was another person in front of him. He didn’t need to wait for her features to resolve to know it was Agnes. Agnes, as young and beautiful and graceful as the day he’d met her. Agnes, who was gazing up at him with eyes full of love, and joy at finally seeing him again.
“Hello, my love,” she said, then cupped his face in her hands and pulled him down for a kiss.
The kind of kiss he’d dreamed about with her but hadn’t ever initiated in life. But here, now, in the presence of the Lord…
He supposed that made it alright, so he returned the kiss, and they held each other for a small eternity.
Then she released his face and stepped back, her hand trailing down his arm until it reached his hand, and she gave him a gentle pull.
“Come on,” she said, and led him further forward, into the light and their new eternity together.
And he heard in his mind a voice full of love saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: