Ash and Cinders
Rodd Clark © 2018
All Rights Reserved
“Heaven wouldn’t know what to make of you, anyway.”
The words stung him and came as harshly as they’d been intended. But yet he knew they were an accurate assessment of his life thus far. There was no retort that Gabe could’ve come back with; the unwieldy truth was what it was, and he faced it every day in the mirror. Chris had never resigned himself to the fact that he was leaving just to protect him. Instead of trying to explain himself, he hung his head like a shamed puppy cowering near a piss-stained rug until he said, rather meekly, “You’re right, of course; it wouldn’t.”
“All those fucked-up parallels with a God you’ve never seen, one you’ve personally never seen evidence of anyway!”
Gabriel couldn’t fight the clearly obvious disapproval thrown in his face. Chris was dead-on correct in his appraisal of him, and he’d been too tired to fight with the man. He’d simply accepted the harsh punishment like the person who knew they’d let someone down whom they adored. And it was one he’d never dreamed he would have. So he’d left anyway, telling himself it was to protect the other man, when really it was to protect himself.
Gabriel Church was a wanted man, in more ways than other fugitives who might be running from the law. He’d landed in Sonora, California, but it was just the first stop in his journey from Washington. He’d been forced to stop there after the copious miles and endless blacktop nearly made him road blind and far too weary to continue driving. However, it was only a brief respite, and it wasn’t a place he’d ever call home.
Sonora was a ridiculously small town in comparison to Seattle, but it had a particular quaintness very akin to those upper northwestern states he’d traveled through before. It was a town that had first grown from the glorious days of the California gold rush, originally settled by migrant Mexican miners who went searching for a better life for themselves and their families. Once the glittery veins were all but extracted, the town was forced to turn to the vast tree lines and a fast lumber industry was born. It sprang from the deep woods and left a multitude of sawmills as the skies became smoky dark with new trade and commerce.
But all that remained today was leftover beauty, and since no one could push a fantastic view across the dinner table to feed their family, tourism had become the only thread holding Sonora’s tenuous fabric intact. But it was indeed beautifully picturesque. Tourists flocked through the tiny community, flashing photographs from car windows and spending their out-of-town dollars in shops and restaurants, buying postcards and memorabilia before continuing their journey out of the tiny hamlet.
It had charming qualities to boast about, with its tiny red-painted churches mixed alongside homes of every architectural style and size. It sat snuggly nestled into the rolling hillside and the raw, untainted splendor of everything surrounding it. Appearing a city out of sync with the rest of the world, it made one feel everything ran a few ticks slower on the clock and gave the sense of stepping outside of time. For Gabe, it meant a safe place to make a brief rest stop and take a needed breather during his journey to nowhere in particular.
The conversations with Chris, which had been replaying in his mind, were the only distractions from the pull of the highway. But as he drove through town, he, too, became mesmerized with the humble, tiny community called Sonora. It quelled the conversations that had been playing in a continuous loop inside his brain for hours as he drove along Highway 108, commonly known as the Sonora Pass Road. Gabriel passed cars filled to capacity. Each one appeared to be vacationing families finally bound for a week of holiday fun and enjoying the route between the Sierra Nevadas and National Parks. It was an idyllic setting for camping, horseback riding, and hiking in small groups, and was an iconic vacation spot for anyone wanting to escape the dingy streets of East Los Angeles or avoid heading to one of the national parks like Yosemite or Stanislaus. However, Gabe wasn’t on vacation; he was driving with no particular fixed point on the horizon line. And he was driving alone.
Gabriel never used to mind being alone in the cab of his Dodge. He was accustomed to the loneliness and being his own company for as many years as he could recall. But that’d been before meeting Christian Maxwell. Now it reminded him of the cold isolation of a prison cell, with him in solitary.
Absentmindedly, his palm rubbed at the bulge in his side pocket where he’d shoved his new mobile phone. It hadn’t rung once since he’d left Seattle, and his fingers ached with desire to feel it vibrate through his jeans. He had told himself he wouldn’t use it until he had better news to offer, but he still wanted it to ring. He needed to hear Chris on the other end. His familiar, comforting voice; that beacon in the dark he felt trapped inside; a thing that might break apart the normal repartee that usually played in his head.
He was exhausted with it all, and every conversation the two men had ever shared seemed to drone through his head like a recorder on playback. He tore apart each word and pilfered through its meaning, as if trying to comprehend all that occurred back in Seattle. His normally inquisitive mind was working overtime, and he was edging to the obsessive and compulsive sides of his nature. Try as he might, he couldn’t stop the discussions from playing endlessly as he drove in silence.
It was maddening. He felt he needed to pull the truck off the black asphalt road and jump out so that he might be able to scream and yell to the heavens without looking like a fool to those cars passing him on the highway. He wanted to express his rage and pray his shrieking demands would be heard and somehow stop the parade of images in his head. Because they were leaving him broken and scrutinizing every detail and emotion that remained. It was nothing if not draining. Had he not looked up and seen the Sonora exit sign in his path and chosen to take it, he might have found himself doing just that.
He’d been hammered by some heavy blows of late, and losing his lover was only one of many in that series of events plaguing him. He had to question his mission with this second loss of Christian Maxwell in such a short time. Wasn’t a heavenly soldier with his conviction intact supposed to be permitted some mercy? A loving God couldn’t have created anything as wicked as him on purpose and not promised him a reward for his efforts. It felt as if God were questioning his faith like those stories of Job he’d heard from that pedophilic priest back in Tennessee. He had used the parables of the Book of Job during his sermons many times. He recalled the priest reading from the scriptures: “…and it is written that he will rise again with those whom the Lord raises up.”
For the boy of ten who seemed spellbound with the story, his words sounded like music to his ears and were instantly carved deep into his young psyche. They became the words he would carry in his head for years to follow.
Then there was the sex: the sweaty entangling of naked flesh and saliva-traced spots of warmth that Gabriel remembered so well. Those were memories best enjoyed in the tranquility of the predawn hours or the dead of night. The time he spent with Chris was his favorite retreat, his recollections of guttural sounds of unbridled pleasure and the flashes of playful antics as they knotted the sheets and reached to gain purchase over the other’s erection like it was a baton handoff in a thirty-meter dash.
Finding partners to play with had never been a challenge. He was far too sexual an animal to live life like some Jesuit priest. But just as that idle thought hit him, another memory came rolling in like a wave crashing on the shore, and he was instantly reminded of another priest, one he met in San Antonio, a man who’d become a gratifying find. He’d been a kind man, all wrapped up in black robes, like an Inuit Eskimo protecting himself from the elements. He recalled Father Kait’s shuffling gait when they’d first met and the way he extended his hand in a greeting. How the palsy born from his advanced years became even more apparent in the slightness of that gesture. Gabriel had met few people in his life that he could say had actually surprised or inspired him. But this priest had been such a soul. And Christian had become another.
He’d been an ideal depiction of a grandfatherly type, with his thinning white hair and gently wrinkled smile. Like the grandfather Gabriel had been deprived of knowing because of Bennett’s irrational hatred of Sissy’s parents and theirs equally of him. A part of the family he’d never have the good fortune to meet or get to know, though he’d secretly always wondered what it would be like to have grandparents that he could spend some time with. For children in his predicament, this became a luxury and an unresolved hurt that Little Gabe learned to never speak about.
He’d seen a purpose and vibrancy still present in the old priest’s fading blue eyes. They practically sparkled with his humble, unspoken wisdom and, not unlike a whisper, they hinted at the wealth of every riddle buried there. Gabe saw the man’s eyes as some type of calm guarantee he couldn’t fully explain. They indicated to him this was a priest who was incapable of judging another harshly, as some in the clergy have been known to do.
Maybe it was due to how much those lovely eyes had witnessed over the years. And those ears of his—surely they’d heard countless intimacies, been privy to all those closely guarded secrets from a multitude of sinners. When someone sat across from Father Kait, they knew their confessions were safe and their confidences wouldn’t be broken or shared with another stranger. It became clear if they spent time with Kait and were witness to his gentle smile, and just understood this old man wasn’t judging them but, rather, dissecting parts of the whole, and it was their heart and soul he hoped most to expose. With him, they knew from the first encounter it would all be done with the precision of a surgeon’s blade and skill. That whatever cancer they carried was about to be excised, without even knowing it existed or how malignant it might’ve been.
Gabe knew this instinctually. He could tell by the way Father Kait introduced himself. How he spoke so methodically and compassionately and without expressing a need to have one rush into the nearest confessional booth and unburden themselves of their sins as they waited for absolution. Father Kait seemed more interested in the person as an individual rather than the current troubles they were experiencing or the moral wrongdoing they believed they’d committed in their pasts. Though he never had any real inkling of the severity of Gabriel’s crimes, or what his confession might’ve meant to either of them had he been given the whole, unsettling truth.
After leaving San Antonio, Gabe thought about Father Kait more and more, wondering how the old man might be getting on, almost as if they were close friends and not just strangers who’d passed each other along their journeys.
Gabe didn’t know Father Kait had already slipped his mortal coil and suddenly and unexpectedly died from a stroke. As if those things could ever be considered anything but sudden and unexpected. Mercifully for Father Kait, he made the transition from one life to the next rather quickly, as he was entering the cathedral late one afternoon shortly after Gabe departed the city. One of the last visions he’d had was that of the threadbare red oriental carpet runners that were so iconic to the congregation of St. Joseph’s Church of the Acclaimed. One of his last thoughts was of how worn-out the rugs appeared in that second his knees crashed upon the ground. The electricity of a passing neuron sparked somewhere in his brain, telling him he needed to remind himself to have those old rugs replaced soon.
For his part, Gabriel would’ve been truly saddened to learn the old man had died because he was someone whom he considered his ally. Though in reality, neither man knew the other by any of the degrees that counted most.
Father Kait was everything his priest back at his hometown church of St. Ignatius was not. A man whose name he could barely remember. Had it been Father Glenn, or possibly something similar to that? All he could recall from his initial introduction with his former priest had been a feeling he couldn’t quite place: a dark and sinister unsettling he was too young to voice. Even as a child, he suspected something awful was hidden behind the black robes. Sometimes a boy simply knew with certainty when they encountered a mocking snake: one with a devilish twinkle in his eyes that always shook the boy to his core and made his stomach ache when no one else was around. He’d felt gratified knowing there was no reason he had to be alone with the priest, and that his mother and father were always close whenever they walked out each Sunday after service.
He was too young at the time to understand what lust was, particularly coming from one he was expected to trust unconditionally, or what lurked behind those imitation smiles. But he learned it, nonetheless, as he grew older and became aware of what people could be capable of doing to one another, given half the chance. He wondered later how many other young parishioners felt the same awkward stirrings in their gut when they were confronted by this supposed man of God. Maybe they never fully understood, like he hadn’t exactly, what this man had in mind or the gift he wanted to give them that they’d carry for the remainder of their days. Many years would come and go before he considered how many boys that asshole priest had touched inappropriately, maybe offering them a tight conciliatory grip on their shoulders in comfort right before guiding their small hands to that growing bulge under his black robes. Or how many times he might’ve whispered a lie in their ears by telling them, “Go ahead and touch it, son. I know God wouldn’t mind. Not if it’s just this one time.”
It was enough to put one off the church for good. But he hadn’t turned away, not completely. He was surely twisted by the mix of emotions and confusion he felt as a boy, but he never discussed his feelings with anyone. Not until Chris. Even Sissy had been unaware, never knowing how her son felt going into church every Sunday. But it had been the windows that had transformed him into what he eventually became; those beautiful images that broke through the stained glass and adorned the main hall. The faces of saints shining through the sunlight with the deepest azure blues and the brightest of crimson shades he’d ever seen: a celestial second captured in time, a place where good and evil became irrevocably comingled inside his tiny, undeveloped young brain, where wires became inextricably crossed and reality mired in a fog of his own making. When a boy’s first inclinations were born of what it meant to be in service to God, with all that that entails.
Maybe it had been the window with the archangel Michael holding a sword in one fist while, in the other, he held a spear. He was pointing both weapons supposedly toward the earth below, and the figure was haloed in a bright iridescent light that danced around his head. It might have been that precise instant that caused the first break in the manufacture of his young mind. Maybe it was when his mother, Sissy initially confided in him that he’d been named after the archangel Gabriel that fateful Sunday sermon so many years before. He remembered how she’d pointed to one of the windows then gently whispered in his ear, “You know your father and I named you after the angel Gabriel.” And, after that moment, everything in his life changed forever. It had given him insight as to who he was and what he was supposed to be. It tied him to some religious prophecy, very undefined in those early days, but one that created a killer when he grew to adulthood.
A man could make himself crazy thinking about the twists and turns of fate. The meticulous route one takes when confronted by that first fork in the road ahead. He knew enough to know when the disease originally became introduced into the body, and knew what it meant to feel the contagion slipping in and yet have no way to expel it. But knowing a thing and preventing it are two very different issues. For “Little Gabe” it may have been the church and the way the light played in the aisle from those gorgeous windows high above his head that bent his will. But it was everything that occurred after that transformed him once again. And most of that would be later proven to be from a would-be author in Seattle and his first introduction to loving anyone completely. Something he hadn’t considered even possible because the writer was a man and very different from anyone he’d ever come across.