Part Two: Listen

CHAPTER TEN
In which Claire leads worship a little worse for the wear

Claire did sleep that night, or rather that morning, for all of fifty-three minutes before her alarm went off at 7:00. The adrenaline from the night before kicked in again and she was up and at the coffee maker without needing to hit the snooze button. Thank God the choir is singing the sermon today, she thought.

Claire left the house at 8:45, Bill Hill be damned. She left a note for Emma, reminding her to walk the dog, and telling her to ride her bike to church as she had a meeting after coffee hour and wasn’t sure when she’d be home. Better call Emma at 9:45, just in case.

By the grace of God Bill Hill did not greet her in the parking lot that morning; in fact, he and Gladys weren’t at church at all, which was surprising. Had they told her they were going out of town? Claire’s brain was still so scrambled she couldn’t remember.

Toledo Vader was there, though, right in front. This time Claire watched the women in the congregation – and a few men – stare at him as he came in. The oiliness she sensed after talking with him destroyed any attraction she had felt, and she managed the greeting with neither blush nor flutter.

“Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us worship well today. I apologize that there are a few mistakes in the bulletin. The opening hymn is not number 101, but number 365. Please stand as you are able, and let us sing.” Claire was grateful Bill Hill wasn’t there.

As soon as Claire sat down and the liturgist began the prayer of confession, she realized she had a little problem. When the choir sang in lieu of a sermon, she always sat in the front pew, and the pew on the other side was filled with the instrumentalists’ things. But there was Toledo Vader, smack dab in the middle of the front pew. She didn’t have to sit right next to him, she thought. Still, she knew there were yentas-in-the-making in the congregation who were dying to marry her off. What a nice visual she and Toledo would give them.

“Friends, this morning we are blessed to hear the choir’s presentation of ‘The Canticle of St. Francis.’ Listen for the word of God in their song today.”

Claire sat at the end of the front pew, smiled efficiently at Toledo Vader, and anticipated the choir’s offering, “The Canticles of St.Francis” based on some of his prayers.

The work started with the “Canticle of the Sun” – majestic, with the choir weaving six different parts. The effect was like a prayer shawl draping over Claire, and for the first time in many hours, she began to relax.

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To you, alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him….

The next movement was slower, in a minor key. It stirred up the new sadness in Claire and she found her eyes welling up again. She dug in her pocket for a tissue, only to have Toledo offer her his handkerchief. Of course he would have a handkerchief, she thought. She smiled at him efficiently again, but shook her head. She was just fine. She turned her attention to the “Prayer before the San Damiano Crucifix.”

Most High, glorious God enlighten the darkness of my heart. Give me true faith, certain hope and perfect clarity, sense and knowledge that I may carry out Your Holy and true command.

The third movement was a merrier one, the “Sermon to the Birds”. Claire thought of little Rex, and Emma with Rex, and smiled.

My little sisters, the birds, much bounden are ye unto God, your Creator,
always in every place ought ye to praise Him,
for that He hath given you liberty to fly about everywhere,
and hath also given you double and triple rainment….

The fourth movement was the “Peace Prayer.” Claire loved this words and the melody began with rich solemnity of the cello. As the choir came in, Claire bolted up straight. Shit. That’s why she knew those words.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Claire almost left during the last movement, “The Blessing of St. Clare.” Between her exhaustion, the revelation of the peace prayer, and the sweetness the choir showed her as they began the last piece, she almost ran out to her office to have a good sob. But she didn’t. She let the words wash over her once again.

What you hold, may you always hold. What you do, may you always do and never abandon.
But with swift pace, light step, unswerving feet, so that even your steps stir up no dust,
may you go forward securely, joyfully and swiftly, on the path of prudent happiness,
not believing anything, not agreeing with anything,
that would dissuade you from this resolution
or that would place a stumbling block for you on the way,
so that you may offer your vows to the Most High
in the pursuit of that perfection to which the Spirit of God has called you.

As Claire did not preach that day, and as Peggy had done all of the work, Peggy and not Claire greeted people after the service. Claire made her way to the office, took off her microphone and robe, and went to coffee hour.

People were drinking coffee, and thanking the members of the choir, but no one seemed to have a treat in their hand. Claire looked over at the table – Prune Drop Cookies. Great.

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN
In which Claire goes to the tunnels

“Claire, dear, I wonder if I might have a word with you in private.”

Alice made a point of coming to Claire, who was in a small group talking about the need to renovate the bathroom near the sanctuary. She was grateful for the interruption, but she knew what was coming.

“Sure, Alice. Excuse me, folks – and let me know what you decide.”

“How are you doing, dear?” Alice asked, as they headed to the boiler room.

“I’m furious, exhausted, overwrought, and damn curious. How does that strike you?”

“Just about right. Here we are.”

They entered the boiler room and walked toward the back. Alice turned to Claire.

“Are you ready?”

“No.”

“Then let’s go in.”

Alice opened the door. Claire was expecting a low-ceilinged, dimly lit tunnel with spider webs and dripping water. What she saw was a well lit corridor lined with cinderblock. The concrete floor was perfectly dry. “We keep saying we should redo this, maybe put up a little drywall and some marmoleum on the floor, but there always seems to be better use of our time and resources.”

Good God, Claire thought. Alice is talking to me like we’re having afternoon tea.

They went about fifty feet toward what seemed to be some sort of opening. Claire heard the murmur of voices. Evidently Alice and Bill Carr weren’t the only angel spies.

“Well, folks, here she is,” Alice said as she entered the room.

Claire wasn’t sure what shocked her more – the room or the people in it. Bill and Alice, of course. Sandy, the server. Frank, the copier-repair man. (I’ll stop jamming the damn copier, she thought.) A few faces Claire didn’t recognize.

And Toledo Vader. She knew he was a spy.

The room was elegant. There was no other way to describe it. A lush Persian carpet spread over the floor, an aqua-teal background with a tree shooting up the center, its branches carrying animals exotic and plants. Weavings of biblical scenes lined the walls. A circle of stuffed armchairs lined the room, and one leather couch. In one corner was a laptop, a flatscreen t.v., and a wireless router. A microwave and mini-fridge stood in the other corner. Floor lamps were strategically placed throughout.

Claire turned to Bill. “Home away from home? Come here to watch the game? Or maybe the rug is covering up a pentagram? What the hell is this?”

“Claire,” said a voice, which appeared to be coming from Toledo Vader, but it was a deep resonant voice devoid of any accent. “Claire, I know this is hard for you.”

“Excuse me, To-LAY-do, but you don’t know a thing about me.”

“Claire,” Alice said. “Have a seat. Let me bring you a cookie and a glass of water. We have a little bit of business to conduct, and that might help.”

“If it’s a Prune Drop, I’ll pass, thank you.”

“Oh, dear, don’t you think I know how awful those are? I just bring them when we’re going to meet, a confirmation that we’re on. I wouldn’t even give them to my dog. No, we have toffee shortbread cookies today. I think I remember you like those.”

Claire felt one ounce less vitriol toward Alice.

“Sandy, have you got the Skype ready to go? Let’s see, what time is it in Minneapolis – 3:30? Martha should be ready.”

Sandy ran the laptop and the Skype sign in screen appeared. The phone rang and to Claire’s shock, the image of her best friend appeared on the screen.

“Hi, everyone. Hi, Claire. Oh, I know that look. I promise we will talk later. Okay, here’s what I’ve got. The Doctors Without Borders guy in Afghanistan has been flirting with the waitress at the cantina. His wife back in France is on bedrest, six and a half months pregnant with early labor pains.”

Martha went on – she finished her report on the doctor in Afghanistan, moved on to two refugee children – a brother and sister – who were trying to find their parents. A social worker in Tallahassee. A secretary at an embassy in Berlin. Regular people all around the world who were in some sort of trouble. Claire started to wonder exactly what her best friend did at the State Department.

After half an hour, Martha finished her report and they said goodbye, but not before Martha promised to call Claire soon. The group started to talk about who they knew who could meet up with the doctor and the kids and the social worker and the secretary.

Claire stood up in the middle of their conversation. “I have to go,” she said.

“But Claire, dear, we’re not done.”

“Let’s be clear, Alice – and Bill and Sandy and Frank and Toledo, or whatever your name is, and all of you. I am not part of your ‘we’. I didn’t sleep last night. I was gobsmacked by the canticle this morning. I am still furious and after seeing my best friend on the screen, I’m feeling more than a little betrayed. So you will have to excuse me. I am going home to see my kid and my dog, and then I will turn off the phone and shut down my computer and crawl into my bed and sleep for as long as I want.

“Bill, I don’t know if you’ll have a job tomorrow, and frankly, I don’t know if I will want this job tomorrow.”

Claire made her way out, then turned.

“I hope to God you know what you’re doing.”

Claire walked in, said hello to Rex who bounded down the stairs, and called up. “Emma, honey, I’m home.”

“Okay.”

“What are you doing?”

“Researching recipes.”

“Okay. I’m going to take a nap – I didn’t sleep well last night. Did you get some lunch?”

“Yeah, Mom, I’m fine.”

“Thanks. Wake me up for dinner, okay?”

“Sure, Morag.”

Claire slept without dreaming of strangers, cookies, or dogs, although Rex took advantage of the situation and curled up with her. When she woke up it was dark outside. She looked at the clock – 8:07.

She got up and went to the kitchen where Emma was hovering over the stove.

“Hi, sweetie. I guess I was more tired than I thought.”

“That’s okay. I decided to make soup.”

“What kind?”

“Jar soup. Your favorite.”

It was Claire’s favorite, probably because it was the perfect balance of comfort food – a jar of alfredo sauce and a package of tortellini – and the healthy – low sodium chicken broth, sun dried tomatoes, and a package of fresh spinach. Good for the body and the soul, Claire thought.

She and Emma talked about regular, boring things over dinner – school, Rex, Emma’s new friends, some people at church. Emma mentioned that she missed seeing Gladys at church, and Claire made a mental note to call the next day.

I guess I’ll give it another week, she thought.

She cleaned the kitchen and sent Emma up to homework and bed. Then she didn’t know what to do. Normally under the circumstances, she would call Martha, who always had a great ear when Claire was in a crisis. She couldn’t talk to Alice, or Bill, or Gladys. I suppose I could talk to God, she thought. After all, I am a pastor.

Dear God, she began to say in her head, help. That was all the prayer she could offer.

 

CHAPTER TWELVE
In which Claire makes her own list
Reasons to stay at St. Rahab’s                                    Reasons to leave St. Rahab’s
I just bought a house                                                   There is a spy ring in the church
My kid is happy                                                             My best friend lied to me
I like this city                                                                  The Church Lady lied to me
It’s a job                                                                           The sexton lied to me
I don’t want to look for another job                          The copier repairman lied to me
Bill Hill has cancer                                                        I can’t lie to the congregation
Gladys                                                                              I can’t fix this

Claire had tried to fall asleep, to no avail. She tried praying without any success or spiritual comfort. So she decided to make a list, and by the time she finished, it was 2:00am and she thought she could probably sleep again. Her dreams were disjointed and unpleasant, but not scary. She woke up when she heard Emma in the kitchen.

“Mom, are you okay?”

“It’s just a little stressful at church, but I’ll be fine. Are you off?”

“Yeah, and don’t forget I have practice after school and won’t be home till 5 or so.”

“Thanks for the reminder. I promise I’ll make a good dinner tonight, okay? And I don’t have any meetings so we can just settle in.”

“Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

After Emma left, Claire sat down at the kitchen table and stared out the window for a long time. Rex sat on the floor, looking up at her expectantly. It was past time for his morning constitutional. Claire threw on her yoga pants and a sweatshirt, slipped on her flip flops, and headed out with the dog. She was grateful she ran into no one she knew.

When they got home she knew she could no longer delay the inevitable. She made coffee, showered and dressed, and turned her phone back on. One voicemail from Martha. She’d listen to it some other time, or never.

She arrived at church a little later than usual. Trystene looked up from her desk. “Good morning, Pastor Claire.”

Claire smiled. Trystene was so reliable. Trystene was so normal. Trystene didn’t know anything about the spy ring. “Good morning, Trystene. How was your weekend?”

“Oh good, I suppose. Robbie helped me clean out the garage and I took a bunch of stuff to Goodwill. We’ll have to have you and Emma over one of these days. How was your weekend?”

If you only knew, Claire thought. “It was fine, thanks.”

“Um, you probably already know this and I’m real sorry but somehow the bulletins were messed up again on Sunday. I swear I don’t know how it happened.”

“That’s okay, Trystene. I believe you. We will get to the bottom of this. For now, just keep doing the great work you do and I will figure out the mystery of the bulletin bloopers. I’m going to go in – could you hold my calls this morning?”

“Sure thing.”

Claire went into her office, closed the door, sat down at the desk, started up the computer, and stared at the screen. Her mind wouldn’t work – at least not on what she wanted it to work on. She needed to talk to someone and it couldn’t be Emma. She buzzed Trystene on the intercom.

“Trystene, do you have Pastor Jakki Smith-Hastings’ phone number?”

“Sure thing. Got a pencil?”

Claire took a deep breath and dialed the number.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Jakki? This is Claire Grayson over at St. Rahab’s.”

“Claire! It’s good to hear your honeyed tones! I have been meaning to call to see how you’re doing.”

“Thanks, I appreciate that. I’m wondering if I might take you to coffee or lunch this week.”

“That would be great. Have you ever been to the Steel Horse Diner? It’s in a funky part of town, but the wait staff is just terrific and almost as good as the burgers.”

“Actually, I have been there. Is there somewhere else you’d recommend?”

They made a date for lunch on Wednesday. Just knowing she had a colleague to talk to loosened the knot in Claire’s stomach, though the knots in her shoulders were as tight as ever.

She stared at the computer screen again, sighed, and checked to see what the readings for the next Sunday were. Great. The first part of Matthew 5.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted….

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’

Claire looked up at the ceiling so as to give said Father In Heaven a piece of her mind. Really? You want me to preach on this, after everything I have been through in the last two days? The freaking Beatitudes? She laid her head on the desk, mumbled a prayer for help, and got out her commentaries on Matthew.

After getting an idea for the direction of the sermon, she started to write the prayers for the bulletin. When she started on the prayer of confession, the knots in her shoulders started to loosen up.

Holy and wise God, we are your imperfect people. Forgive us when we keep secrets from each other. Forgive us when we lie to one another. Forgive us when we think we are more special than others. Make us humble in your sight, and help us to repent of our false ways. This we pray in the name of Jesus, the light of the world who exposed all the dark corners and tunnels. Amen.

Okay, she thought, I can’t use that but it sure felt good to write it. Claire gave it another try.

Gracious God, we need your help, for often we get it wrong rather than right. We hide our light; we hide the good that we do; we do not give you credit for the blessings in our lives. We conceal the truth from those we love, and we do not admit the fullness of who we are. Help us. Help us turn away from what is false toward you, the One who is true. This we pray in the name of the One who forgives us, again and again, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Claire finished up the first draft of the bulletin, and then called Bill and Gladys.

“Gladys? It’s Claire Grayson. Is this a good time?”

“Oh, Claire, it’s good to hear your voice.”

“I missed you in church yesterday and I thought I’d check to see if everything is okay, not that it’s not okay to miss church.”

“Actually, Bill was feeling pretty low yesterday, and he’s never much of one for those choir presentations. He prefers a sermon.”

“Well, it’s been a while since we caught up. Could I come by for a visit some time this week?”

“Are you free this afternoon?”

They agreed Claire would stop by around 2:00.

Claire went home to get some lunch and let Rex out, and as she sat down to her peanut butter and jelly sandwich, she congratulated herself for getting through the morning. One step at a time, she thought: one step at a time.

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN
In which Claire calls on the Hills

As Claire pulled up to Bill and Gladys’ house, she remembered how much she loved that space. If I were sick, I would want to recover here, she thought.

“Claire! Thank you so much for coming over. Come on in.”

“Thanks, Gladys. I appreciate the invitation.”

“Not at all. Between us, I think Bill has been wanting to talk with you but he wasn’t sure how to make the first move. This is perfect.”

Claire went in, and found Bill sitting in a beautiful Stickley rocker in the front room.

“Hi, Bill. It’s good to see you.” That wasn’t exactly true; Claire was glad to see Bill but he looked a bit worse for the chemo treatments he was undergoing.

“Claire, you’re my favorite liar. Have a seat. Glad? You joining us?”

“Do you want me to?”

“There are no secrets between us.”

And so they talked. They talked about Meri and Junie. They talked about the house. They talked about Gladys and Emma’s baking adventures. They talked about St. Rahab’s things, funny stories, sad stories, good pastors, bad pastors, crises and celebrations. And after a good hour, they started talking about Bill’s cancer.

“As you know, Claire, the lung cancer I have is one of the bad ones. It moves fast and it’s hard to treat. I’m doing the chemo because I’m not ready to give up, but I know the odds aren’t good. Glad and I are trying to make sense of what it might mean if this is my last six months. We’ve told the girls, of course – no sense in keeping it from them. We will do what we can, but there will be no heroics here. I have had an amazing life, and my faith is stronger than ever.”

To her embarrassment, Claire found herself choking up. Bill was such a decent man, and as she had discovered, his bark was much worse than his bite. The thought of losing that decency, and his kind truthfulness, was a bit much.

“Bill. Oh, Bill, I am so sorry you have this cancer but I have to tell you, the way you’re dealing with this is inspiring.”

“I just don’t believe we make the world a better place when we hide the truth about things, especially about the hard things. When I was first diagnosed, Glad and I talked about not telling the girls right away, and keeping it from our friends at church, but that just didn’t feel right. I can’t undo this cancer, and you can’t undo this cancer. I’m going to feel worse before I feel better, if I ever do feel better. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make some good come out of this.”

“What can I do to help?”

“Stop by and visit – but for God’s sake, not every week. My girls know I hate hovering. Keep me in your prayers. Bring Emma by now and then for Glad. Hell, for me too. That’s a great kid you’ve got there.”

By the time Claire left the Hills, she knew she was done for the day. “Trystene? It’s Claire. Say, I’m going to call it a day, so I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Okay, Pastor Claire. How was Bill Hill?”

“He’s doing just fine.”

“If anyone can beat cancer, Bill Hill can. That man is determined.”

“You’re sweet to think of him, Trystene. Have a good night.”

“You too. Bye.”

Claire resisted the temptation to take a nap, knowing that would mess up the good night’s sleep she was hoping to have. She took Rex for a walk instead, and when they got home, she saw she had a voice mail.

“Claire, dear, it’s Alice. I think you and I should probably sit down and have a good chat. I’ll invite Bill Carr, too. Maybe we could do lunch at the Steel Horse Diner – get Sandy to join in the conversation. I’m hoping you’re available Wednesday. Give me a call, dear, and let’s get something on the calendar. We have a lot to talk about.”

Now she owed both Martha and Alice a call. Who was next –Toledo? Would Frank the copier repairman request an audience with her?

True to her word, Claire made dinner that night, an inelegant scrambled eggs with toast and jelly. As she did the dishes after dinner, she started thinking about her conversation with Bill and Gladys. She’d never been very good at first impressions, and she was glad that Bill Hill proved to be a very different sort of man than the one she’d first met. He was not the first of her parishioners to face cancer; she’d lost count of how many of her people had lost their hair and gotten the sores. Some lived. Some didn’t. Some faced their illness with courage and some went any way but gently into that good night.

She thought about the integrity of Bill and Gladys’ marriage, and they way they cared for each other and had courage together. I’d like that someday, Claire thought. If I ever marry again, it will be for that. Otherwise I’d rather be alone.

She stood at the sink, her hands deep in soapy water, and thought about the honesty with which Bill dealt with his lung cancer. And then it hit her. Of all the virtues that Alice and Bill Carr and their merry band of spies extolled, honesty was not one of them. In fact, their entire operation was founded on one big deceit.

She dried her hands and called Alice.

“Hi, Alice, it’s Claire. I got your message and yes, we should definitely talk. I’m not available for lunch on Wednesday. Could you come by the office on Thursday afternoon? 1:30? I will tell Bill Carr myself. Thanks. I’ll see you then.”

The knots in her shoulders loosened just a tiny bit more.

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN
In which Jakki takes Claire to lunch

Claire and Jakki pulled up in the parking lot at the same time. “I know it doesn’t look like much, right in the middle of a strip mall, but trust me when I say this is the best Italian food for miles.”

“I’m sure it’s great. Thanks for the introduction.”

Cinghiale was, in fact, a fabulous Italian restaurant. It was so named because of the stuffed wild boar –a cinghiale – in the front picture window and because the boar stew was one of their specialties. But the stew was a little heavy for lunch, so Claire ordered the caprese salad with a chicken breast. She made a mental note to bring Emma for dinner some day.

“So, Claire, how is it going? Ready to quit yet?”

Claire smiled. She knew that Jakki had served a few pastorates in the city, and some of them were pretty tough. It was rather remarkable the woman had kept her sunny (if a bit flowery) outlook on things.

“Well, I hit that wall a few weeks ago – you know, where you wonder why you left a perfectly good life to try something new with no guarantee it will work. But there have been bright spots along the way. There are some terrific, kind people at the church, and my kid is doing great. And our secretary, Trystene, is fantastic.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that. I just started an interim position at St. Mark’s, and the secretary there, Denise, used to be the secretary at St. Rahab’s. She said she got treated terribly there and finally quit. I think Dale’s slide into dementia was really hard on her, and she couldn’t stand the sexton. She thought he was sabotaging her work somehow. Anyway, I’ve been there all of two weeks and she seems great, so I don’t know what happened over at your place. Sometimes it’s just not a good fit, you know?”

If you only knew, Claire thought. “Well, I’m not saying there aren’t a few administrative hiccups that need to be ironed out, but I try to treat Trystene well, and really so far, she’s very very good. I’m glad that Denise landed in a better place. So tell me about St. Mark’s.”

Their lunch lasted two hours, filled with denominational gossip, a suggestion for a hairdresser, and getting to know each other a little bit. By the end of lunch Claire wasn’t sure that Jakki would ever become her best friend (as she thought she was in the market for a new one) but she knew she would be a solid and trusted colleague. Still, she couldn’t trust her entirely. Not yet, anyway.

When Claire returned to the office, Bill Carr knocked on the door. “Claire, do you have a moment?”

“Yes, Bill. Come in. And close the door, please.”

Bill sat down in the chair on the other side of her desk, the same chair he had sat in the night she walked in on him and Alice.

“I appreciate your not firing me – yet. I understand that you feel betrayed and deceived, and none of us ever wanted that to happen. But I also need you to know that you are the first pastor in a long time to know about us, and we’re not sure what to do with that.”

“Well, I most certainly hope you’re not planning to create a little accident.”

“Claire, that’s not what we do. We are about doing good in the world, not adding to its misery.”

“And what about the fact that you’re adding dishonesty to the world? What about that, Bill? What about the fact that you sabotage the work of other decent staff members here, and never take the blame? What about the fact that what you do costs people their jobs? Tell me, Mr. Moral Spy, how you reconcile that?”

“Claire, I really do want to talk with you about this but now is not the right time. I understand you’re meeting with Alice tomorrow. Could I join you two then?”

Claire thought about it for a minute. Might as well get this over with. “Yes, you can join us tomorrow. And you will have a job for another week – but if I come in on Sunday and the bulletins are wrong, you can just hand me your keys and I will gladly write you your last paycheck. Do you understand?”

“Yes. Thank you, Claire. Have a good rest of your day.”

Claire was still fuming when she got home. All the peace she felt after lunch with Jakki vanished. To make matters worse, Emma was in one of her moods.

“Hi, honey. How was your day?”

“Oh, fan-freaking-tastic. Let’s see where do I start? I had no clean underwear because evidently you forgot that that is one of your chores. Then I missed the bus and had to walk and I forgot my phone so I couldn’t call you to ask for a ride. Then I forgot that my English assignment was due and it’s a letter grade off for every day late. Then Marsala and I had a fight, and it was a crappy day and I just wish we hadn’t moved and I hate my life.”

“You know what? I had a crappy day too. I wish we hadn’t moved. I’m not loving my life a whole lot right now either.”

“Fine. Whatever. I’m going up to my room.”

“Fine.”

That went well, Claire thought. “Come on, Rexie, let’s go for a walk. At least you still love us both.”

Claire and Emma were silent as they ate their grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, but when Emma brought out the toffee shortbread squares she made when she got home from school, Claire knew that all was forgiven.

“Honey, I’m sorry you had such a bad day. And I’m sorry I wasn’t very sympathetic earlier.”

“It’s okay. I wasn’t very nice to you either.”

“One good thing about today – another pastor took me to lunch at this fabulous Italian restaurant. I think we should go there for dinner on Friday. Deal?”

“Deal. Morag.” Emma kissed her mother on the cheek and went upstairs to finish her homework. Rex bounded up the stairs after her.

Claire smiled and had another shortbread.

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN
In which Claire meets with Alice and Bill

“How are you doing, dear?”

“How do you expect me to be doing, Alice? I just left my whole world and dragged my child through a huge change only to find out that the congregation I thought I would love and serve for a long time is not at all what it appeared to be.”

“I understand that, Claire. I really do. Hear us out. Give us a chance.”

“We have about an hour, so you should probably get started.”

Alice began. “My mother was widowed when I was in grade school and life was tough growing up. But Mother was rather extraordinary about some things, and she insisted all six of her children finish high school. I had hoped to go to college and study nursing, but there was no money and there weren’t the kind of scholarships back then that there are now. I had always liked medical things, so I went to work as an orderly at the hospital. And that’s what changed my life.

“At 18 I was the low man on the totem pole, so I got the night shift. My partner those first few months was an older African American gentleman named Sam. Sam had worked for years as an orderly, but given the color of his skin and the prejudice that ran rampant back then, the best he could do was the night shift.

“Sam was amazing. He had a heart of gold and the patience of a saint. In the three months we worked together, I never once heard him raise his voice to a patient or a staff member. There was something about him that let people trust him right away.

“I asked him how he was able to be so kind, because people were anything but kind to him. Some refused to let a black man touch them. Some called him awful names. One morning as he was leaving work he saw that someone had let the air out of his tires. But he never retaliated, he never called anyone a name they deserved; he was always, always kind.

“He told me that his kindness came in part from his faith. He had been raised going to church and believing in God; he knew his Bible back and forth. More than that, though, he once received help during a crisis and that changed him. He had been fifteen and all alone, and in desperation he went to the biggest, most intimidating church he could find. A mighty fortress, he called it.

“It was St. Rahab’s. He met Reverend Bouvier who took him in and patched him up and helped him find the job. Reverend Bouvier, they say, was an extraordinary judge of character and when he felt Sam was ready, he told him about the Saints of Francis – that’s our formal name, by the way, the Saints of Francis.

“Reverend Bouvier asked Sam to step in when someone was in trouble – to offer what he could which most often was kindness. You’d be amazed how far simple kindness can go to tend the wounds of the world. As Sam grew into his role, he realized he didn’t need to go far in his secret work. Desperate, terrifying, destitute, angry people came through those hospital doors every day, and especially every night. And Sam was there.

“Sam saw potential in my eighteen-year-old self. Maybe it was my own hardships that made him think I could be trained to offer light in the darkness. Reverend Bouvier was long gone by the time I went to St. Rahab’s, and later pastors were not told about the Saints. Back in the early 60’s, African Americans were still not welcomed at our church; Sam never attended, but came in through the tunnels. I, being a young white woman, was welcomed with open arms. It was a terrible segregation.

“So I started attending church in the morning and Saints meetings at night. I got promoted to the day shift at the hospital, and eventually was given a scholarship to study nursing. It was at the hospital that I met Garrett; he was my patient and the rules weren’t as strict back then as they are now. He said once he got well and left the hospital, he was going to give me a call. He did, and forty-eight years later, here we are, this old married couple.

“I’ve been with the Saints of Francis for forty-nine years. My role has grown as I have – I worked locally when my children were younger and once they were out of the house, I began travelling around the country and a few times internationally. Garrett doesn’t know – he thinks I am the consummate church maven going to ladies’ meetings, and I haven’t seen fit to tell him the truth.”

Claire sat in silence for a few moments. It was a compelling story and Claire sensed that Alice was telling the truth. Claire felt torn now – she was this woman’s pastor, and in that regard wanted to honor her story. At the same time, she hated the fact that Alice and the others had lied to her and so many.

“Thank you for that, Alice. Bill, I suppose it’s your turn.”

“I’m not a man of many words, Claire, but I figure we all owe you some kind of explanation. Sam was my uncle, and when I was a kid he saw me making some choices and hanging out with some people that weren’t going to do me any good. So he told me about the Saints and I started doing their work. When the sexton job at St. Rahab’s opened up I applied and got it. This place is everything to me – my work and my avocation.

“I think we are doing good, Claire. I know we are helping people. Half the time they have no idea what we’ve done. We intervene in subtle ways, and offer hope and help. All of us – Alice, me, Frank, Sandy, Toledo – all of us know what it’s like to have a second chance because of the Saints. We do this work to give back, to make the world a little more hopeful.”

Claire again sat in silence after Bill finished. She could not argue with the truth that these people were doing good, and making sacrifices to help others. But she also could not argue with the truth that they were all engaged in a deep subterfuge that hurt others.

“I appreciate the time you have both given me, as I hope you appreciate the time I have given you. I need to sit with this. For the time being, Bill, you still have a job. And now I’m sure we all have other things we need to tend to.”

“Thank you, dear.”

“Thank you, Claire.”

After they left Claire closed the door and stared out her window. She was entirely confounded about what to do and what to think. Then Trystene buzzed on the intercom.

“Pastor Claire? I just saw Alice leave. Do you have a minute?”

“Sure, Trystene; come in. Actually, I’ll come out to you.”

Claire studied Trystene’s desk; it was a marvel of organization and cleanliness. Everything was in a pile; there were no dust bunnies procreating under the keyboard. Things that tended to walk off, like the church directory, were clearly labeled “OFFICE COPY: DO NOT REMOVE 🙂”. It was the illusion of order in a world full of chaos. Claire felt better immediately.

“So Robbie and I were talking this weekend and we would really love to have you and Emma over for dinner sometime soon. I don’t know if that’s weird, having the boss over and everything, but I’d like Robbie to get to know Emma and I thought we might enjoy a meal, us two single moms. I totally understand if you need to say no.”

“We would love to; thank you, Trystene. When were you thinking?”

“Is a week from Friday possible?”

“It’s a date. Let me know what we can bring.”

“I hear Emma’s been taking baking lessons from Gladys Hill. Why don’t you bring dessert?”

When Claire went home that night and told Emma about their Friday night dinner date, Emma rolled her eyes. Claire assured her that neither she nor Trystene were trying to set them up; Emma could probably eat Robbie for breakfast.

“Alright. I guess. But we will have a signal if I want to leave if he’s too creepy. Deal?”

“Deal.”

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN
In which Claire and Emma receive a visitor

Saturday afternoon found Claire sitting in her bed, laptop in her lap, finishing the next day’s sermon. Emma was in the kitchen, trying to figure out the recipe for a dessert they’d had at Cinghiale the night before. She thought it might be good to take to Trystene and Robbie’s on Friday.

The doorbell rang.

“Ems ? Can you get it? Rex is snuggled up with me and I can’t move.”

“Nice excuse, Morag.”

Claire heard Emma open the front door, and then squeal.

“Auntie Martha! Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it’s you! Did you and Mom plan a surprise? Oh my gosh! I am so glad to see you! How long are you staying? Please tell me you’re staying with us! Rex, down! This is our dog, Rex. He loves you already. Rexie, down!”

“Hi, sweetie! Are you ever a sight for sore eyes! Your mom didn’t know anything about this – it’s my big surprise! I hope to stay with you guys a couple of nights, if that’s okay. Where is your mom anyway?”

“Mom! You’ll never guess who’s here!”

As if I can’t hear anything, Claire thought. I guess I should have listened to Martha’s voicemail.

“Martha – this is a surprise.”

“Hi, doll. Yeah, well, I left you a message.”

“Did you? I guess I forgot to listen to it.”

Emma watched her mother and her mother’s best friend engage in a strange and strangled conversation. “Um, I’m in the middle of cooking something and I’m going to go back to the kitchen. I’ll probably be there for a while. And I’ll be running the mixer so I won’t be able to hear anything. Like, if you needed me or something.”

Claire shot Emma a grateful look and watched her go to the kitchen, then turned to Martha.

“Really? You just show up on my doorstep with my daughter standing right there? I haven’t said a word to her. Thank you so much for putting me in this position.”

“Listen, Claire, I will be in town for a few days, and I can stay at a hotel if you would prefer. I miss you. I miss Emma. And you and I are overdue for a long conversation.”

In the course of the next ten seconds, Claire’s mind went into overdrive. There’s a part of me that never wants to see Martha again. There’s a part of me that wants to scream at her and another that wants to hear everything she has to say. I do not want to take her away from Emma, who adores her and needs an adult woman like Martha in her life. I hate her. I love her. I am furious with her.

I have to forgive her. I have to.

“Okay, you can stay here. The pull-out couch in the living room is the best we can offer.”

“Thanks, Claire. I promise I will be as honest as I can be with you.”

“That would be a nice change. I need about fifteen minutes more on my sermon. Why don’t you go into the kitchen and catch up with Emma for a bit.”

Claire returned to her office/bed and worked on the last paragraph of the Beatitudes sermon.

The beatitudes are as revolutionary today as they were when Jesus spoke them two thousand years ago, and in hearing them again, we are invited to become rebels for God. So I challenge all of us to live by the beatitudes. Pick one, and every day, live by those words. Be a peacemaker on the playground, at the office, around the dinner table. Pass the salt, light the candles, and be the word Jesus utters this day.

Meh, good enough, Claire thought. Now to go practice what I preach.

“What are you two up to?”

“I was telling Auntie Martha about Cinghiale and the dessert we had there.”

“Sounds delicious.”

“Oh, I think you’ll get to try it once Emma figures out the recipe.”

Martha, true to form, brought a great bottle of wine that paired perfectly with the stew Claire had put in the slow cooker that morning. As the three ate dinner, Claire’s fury melted away and her longing to talk to her best friend grew.

“Hey Mom? Marsala invited me over to watch a movie. I know it’s kinda late, but can I go? I promise I’ll be home by midnight.”

“That’s fine. Just text me when you leave her house.”

“Deal. Bye. Bye, Auntie Martha. I’m so psyched you’re here!”

The door clicked close, and Martha turned to Claire. “Do you want to talk now or do the dishes first?”

“Let’s do the dishes. I suspect that once we start talking we won’t stop till Emma gets home.”

“She seems really good. God, she’s a great kid.”

“I know. Most days I just try not to screw things up.”

“But you will, you know.”

“Yes, I know. And then I’ll send her to live with you.”

“So you’ve forgiven me?”

“Not entirely. But I’m working on it, because Jesus told me I have to.”

The wine glasses were drying on the counter and the dishwasher was humming. Rex had settled himself into Claire’s lap, and Martha began.

“Claire, the first thing I want you to know is that it was a happy accident that we met at that yoga class and became friends. I really do work at the State Department, and my job informs my work with the Saints of Francis, but the two are distinct things. I had nothing to do with your getting the job at St. Rahab’s – again, it was a happy coincidence.

“But yes, I knew that you were coming to serve a church that is one of our hubs. And Alice did ask me about you, once she found out we were friends. I’ve known Alice and Bill Carr and Sandy for about ten years. Frank is new to the group.

“And Toledo. Oh, Toledo. Before I moved to Minneapolis, Toledo and I were engaged. Tom – that’s what his close friends call him – Tom and I met in D.C. We started dating, and we fell in love, and we moved in together. We agreed we wanted to get married, but the reality of the demands of our jobs and of the Saints was too much. Neither of us was willing to quit, and I was going to be transferred, and he wasn’t willing to move and I wasn’t willing to stay where I was, so we ended things. But he is a really, really great guy. If I were to be perfectly honest, I would say there’s a part of me that’s still in love with him. But the fates have something else in mind, I guess. You weren’t supposed to find out any of this.”

“But I did.”

“Yes, you did, and now we all have to figure out what to do next. Have you made any decisions?”

“Not yet.”

“I think you should talk to Tom.”

“We’ll see about that. Here’s the thing, Martha: you all say you are doing all this good in the world, but you are hurting people along the way. You’re lying to them. You lied to me, your best friend. How do you reconcile that? ‘Cause it seems to me you’re all hypocrites. How many secretaries at St. Rahab’s were forced to quit because of your little bulletin pranks? Those women needed those jobs.”

“Does it help to know that we were part of them finding new jobs?”

“A tiny bit. But really, it’s the pretense of the whole thing. Inedible Prune Drop cookies? The church tunnels? Toledo’s accent? What the hell is that all about?”

“I know there’s a lot to explain and it’s going to take a while. Part of the pretense, as you call it, is our way of dealing with really hard and tragic and frustrating work. We help people who are at the end of their rope. Sometimes they let go, and we are left feeling useless and incompetent. Sometimes we fail. The silly stuff is just a way to lighten the load. I know it’s not much of an excuse. But there it is.”

Claire understood more than she wanted to admit. In the first church she served she was an associate pastor, and her colleague had a wicked sense of humor. The church also housed an AIDS clinic in Sunday School rooms that hadn’t been used in decades. The pastors were the de facto chaplains to the patients there, and the work was often heartbreaking.

Because there was an AIDS clinic on the premises, there were free condoms in every bathroom. (That had been an interesting discussion in the church council.) One year Claire came back from vacation and hanging from her ceiling were dozens of condom balloons, a festive – and safe – welcome back. It would have been funnier if the condoms hadn’t been pre-lubricated.

Claire understood that some tension needed to be cut with a knife (or popped like a condom balloon.)

Their conversation went on until Claire’s phone chimed and Emma texted that she was on her way home. Claire and Martha made up the folding bed, greeted Emma and said goodnight. Claire told Martha they would talk more after church.

“Wait a second. Is there a meeting tomorrow?”

“Yes, but just of the core group. I promise the bulletins will be fine and there will be no Prune Drop cookies.”

“Okay. Well, goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Claire. I do love you, you know.”

“I know. Good night.”

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
In which Trystene and Robbie entertain

“So what are we taking for dessert?” Claire asked Emma as they got ready to leave for Trystene’s house.

“Well, I tried the dessert we had at Cinghiale but it didn’t set right. Aunt Martha and I tried to fix it, but in the end I went with the turtle brownies. Everybody likes turtle brownies, and they’re easy to transport. Plus I saved a few for us.”

“You are my brilliant child. I guess it’s time to go.”

Trystene and Robbie lived on the outskirts of town, on the other side of the river and down a considerable freeway. Claire and Emma missed the worse of the Friday night traffic, but they did have some good car talk time. They caught up on school for Emma and church for Claire.

“Mom, is Bill Hill going to die?”

“We’re all going to die, but he might die before we’d like, honey. The kind of cancer he has is pretty aggressive. The odds aren’t in his favor, but as Trystene said to me the other day, if anyone can beat cancer, Bill Hill can.”

“I hope he doesn’t die. I mean, what would Gladys do without him? Not that she needs him; I mean, she’s totally able to do everything. But they love each other so much. They just like being with each other, you know?”

“I know. If you ever get married, marry someone that you love to be with. You couldn’t do much better than having Bill and Gladys as role models.”

“Do you ever think about getting married again?”

“Sometimes. It’s not like I feel my life is incomplete – with you and Rex and the church, it really feels kind of full. But especially since we moved and I don’t have any good friends nearby, I miss having a deep friendship, whether it’s with someone like Martha or with someone I could fall in love with.”

“Mom, did you and Aunt Martha have a fight or something? It was weird that day she arrived. I mean, it seemed like you weren’t all that happy to see her.”

The perils of having a perceptive kid, Claire thought.

“We had had a disagreement and that was the first time we had talked or seen each other since the disagreement. We worked most of it out while she was visiting, though. Martha will always be a part of both of our lives. I just need to figure out what it means to be friends when we live thousands of miles apart. And you need to figure out what it means to have an honorary aunt who lives thousands of miles away.”

“Yeah, but there’s email and Skype.”

“Yes, and airplanes. We’ll figure it out. Okay, here’s our exit. Are you ready for Robbie?”

“Sure, Morag.”

There was nothing fancy about Trystene’s house. It was a simple ranch built in a subdivision of other simple ranch houses in the 1970’s. But the lawn was mowed and potted plants dotted the doorway. Claire had the sense that it wasn’t just a house but Trystene’s home.

“You made it! Come on in. I thought maybe I should’ve asked you over for Saturday when the traffic’s not so bad, but I think maybe Saturday nights aren’t so good for pastors. Anyway, I’m really glad you’re both here. Emma, Robbie is going to feel a little shy at first so go easy on him, okay? What’s that –brownies? Listen, he’s in the living room. Take him a brownie – take one for yourself too. That should break the ice.”

“Thanks, Trystene. Which way do I go?”

Trystene pointed down the hall. “So Claire, I know it’s November and a little chilly but I made my specialty drink for us. The Kiwitini. I have this kiwi vine in the back and in the summer it is out of control. When the last fruits ripen, I peel them and freeze them so that all winter long I can enjoy my favorite cocktail. Are you game?”

“Sure. I will admit I’ve never had one, but I’m in an adventurous mood!”

Claire sat on a stool at the kitchen island; Emma and Robbie were in the room on the other side of the dining room. She heard low voices and then some laughter. Okay, they’re good.

“Can I help with anything?”

“My mom says this is a one-butt kitchen – small, but it gets the job done! No, I’m fine. What do think of the Kiwitini?”

“It’s quite good but I think I need to pace myself!”

“Don’t worry – I only made enough for each of us to have one and a half. Don’t need my boss landing in jail.”

Trystene was perfectly at ease entertaining the boss in her one-butt kitchen. She’s such a genuine person, Claire thought. She knows who she is; she doesn’t pretend to be anything she’s not. I’m glad I get to work with her.

“I thought I’d keep it simple tonight – mac and cheese – the REAL kind, not that crap out of the box. Green salad. Green beans, ‘cause Robbie loves them. The brownies will be the perfect end.”

“It sounds great. You’re very kind to have us over, Trystene.”

“We get so busy at work I thought it might be a nice way to get to know each other. So what do you think of all of this?”

They talked through the grating of the cheese, the boiling of the noodles, the assembling of the casserole, and the browning of the top. By the time dinner was ready, Claire knew all about Trystene – a native of the city who had her AA degree in desktop publishing. Robbie was twelve when Trystene divorced her “cheating son-of-a-bitch” husband, who paid no child support and sent Robbie $20 on his birthday and Christmas. She had lots of family around – parents, brothers, cousins, nieces and nephews.

“Robbie! Emma! Dinner’s ready! What do you think those two have been up to?”

The kids entered the room laughing. “Mom, guess what? Emma’s a Harry Potter geek too! We made up this totally fun game. Rock-paper-scissors Harry Potter. Emma, let’s show them.”

They faced each other and said together, “Rock paper scissors –
Robbie said, “Molly Weasley” as Emma said, “Pansy Parkinson.”

Emma laughed. “Molly Weasley would totally take Pansy Parkinson. You win that round.”

They sat down and served family style. Trystene gave Robbie and look and then waited. Claire gave Emma a look and waited. Finally Emma said, “Um, is someone supposed to pray?”

“Not me,” Robbie said.

Claire said a quick grace and they dug into the mac and cheese.

“Oh my God, Trystene, this is so much better than that junk from the box. Did you put mustard powder in it?”

“Just a bit, and a little garlic powder too.”

The conversation was lively, and after dinner Robbie and Emma started in on a vicious game of Harry Potter trivia. Claire asked if she could help with the dishes, and Trystene reminded her there was room for only one butt.

“So Claire, if you don’t mind my asking, what happened to your ex-husband? Was he a lying, cheating bastard like mine?”

“Actually, Trystene, he died when Emma was a baby.”

“Oh Jesus. I’m sorry. I mean I’m sorry for saying ‘oh Jesus’ and I’m sorry for putting my big foot in my big mouth. I had no idea. God, that must have been hard.”

“It was not the best time of my life, no. But we’ve managed.”

As they drove home, Claire asked Emma if she had a good time.

“Much better than I thought I would. Robbie’s kind of a doof, but he’s really sweet and he knows Harry Potter stuff better than I do. I think he could be my friend. I mean, not like a boyfriend friend but a friend. His dad sounds kinda like a dick, though.”

“Emma!”

“Come on, Mom – it’s not like you don’t know the word. I’m just saying he doesn’t seem to care about his kid at all. Twenty dollars at Christmas. Jeez.”

“Not everyone is meant to be a father, I guess.”

“That’s such a pastor thing to say. Why can’t you just admit he’s a jerk?”

“Because, honey, I don’t know the man. I don’t know his story. I believe that Robbie and Trystene have been really hurt by him. But maybe there’s a reason he is the way he is.”

“What was my dad like? You don’t really talk about him much.”

“Do you remember him at all?”

“No. I just have that one picture.”

“We were young when we got married. He was charming and smart and a smart ass. He was always a good time, and as the saying goes, women wanted to be with him and men wanted to be him.”

“I hate that he died when I was a baby.”

“Me too.”

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
In which Claire and Emma visit Martha after Christmas

Trystene and Robbie invited Claire and Emma to join Trystene’s extended family for Thanksgiving dinner. It was unlike any Thanksgiving they had ever had. Usually they made cinnamon rolls for breakfast, stayed in their pajamas all day, did a movie marathon, and had roasted chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, Brussel sprouts, and pecan pie for dinner.

This year was different. Trystene’s parents lived on a ten-acre farm about 45 minutes outside of town. The house wasn’t fancy, but the dining room was big enough for the big table with all its leaves plus two more card tables added at the end. There was no kids’ table. There was, however, the buffet, a makeshift contraption of 2×4’s and plywood that rested on the back of the couch. Once the football game was over, the buffet was created and soon laden with turkey, ham, goose, three gravies, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with marshmallows and oranges, green bean casserole, roasted green beans, roasted Brussel sprouts, creamed corn, oyster stew, green salad, fruit salad, jello salad, biscuits, rolls, ciabatta, butter, margarine, blackberry freezer jelly, and Irish soda bread.

Trystene’s Kiwitinis started the feast and Emma’s pumpkin with Chinese five-spice powder cheesecake ended it. As they left, Claire thanked Trystene’s parents effusively and genuinely, and asked if they would just give her and Emma a little push; they were so full they could just roll home.

“Claire, dear, might I have word?” Alice stuck her head in Claire’s office the Monday after Thanksgiving.

“Sure. Come in. Should I close the door?”

“Perhaps, yes, that would be good. Listen, dear, I wanted to let you know that the Saints take an extended holiday during the holidays. We don’t meet so there will be no Prune Drop cookies showing up at coffee hour.”

“Thank you for letting me know. I should also thank you for not messing with the bulletin.”

“When the core group met when Martha was in town in October, we agreed that we could get the word out in a different way. I know you think the world of Trystene. So you see, we’re not all bad, are we?”

Claire smiled ever so slightly. She still had not decided what to do. No series of lists had given her any insight. There were people meeting at her church for covert purposes. Even if their purposes were well-intended, even if what they were doing brought joy to the world, there was still the fog of all the lies they told.

“Is that what you wanted to see me about, Alice?”

“Not entirely. I wanted to make sure that someone told you about how Christmas Eve works here. We have our traditions and while we on the search committee said we wanted you to try new things, I did want to warn you that Christmas Eve probably had better not be one of them.”

Claire felt grateful as Alice described St. Rahab’s Christmas Eve candlelight service. What they did was beautiful and reverential. Singing. Light and darkness. Candle lighting. Perfect.

“Alice, that will be just fine. Thank you for the warning.”

“So dear, how is Bill Hill doing? I’ve noticed he and Gladys aren’t in church as often as they used to be.”

“They are okay. The treatment has taken a lot out of Bill. I think Gladys would appreciate a call from you.”

“I’ll call her this afternoon. Listen, dear, I know you’re busy. I’ll be off. Toodles!”

Toodles? Claire thought. Dear Lord, help me.

A few weeks later over dinner, Claire announced that she was giving Emma one of her Christmas presents a little early.

“But Mom, we always wait until Christmas to open our presents.”

“I know, but this year is different. Hang on a second.” Claire went to her desk, opened a drawer, and pulled out an envelope calligraphied with “Emma” on the cover.

Emma gave her mother a look and cautiously opened the enveloped. Her eyes got bigger and bigger and then welled up with tears.

“Oh my gosh, we’re going to visit Aunt Martha after Christmas? We’re going back to Minneapolis? We’re actually going to have a white Christmas? Oh Mom, thank you so much!”

“We both need a break, honey, and Martha invited us when she was visiting this fall. We agreed to keep it a secret from you, but before you made a lot of plans for Christmas break, I wanted to let you know.”

“You are the best! I’ll do the dishes tonight!”

“You will study for exams tonight. I’ve got the dishes. Now go.”

Christmas Eve was as lovely as Claire expected, except for the young man in the congregation who threw up during the prayer. The ushers were on it, and had him out and cleaned up, and the pew cleaned up and roped off, before many realized what had happened.

At the end of “Silent Night”, when all the lights were turned off and everyone in the congregation was illumined by candlelight, Claire stepped into the pulpit and read her favorite Christmas story, the beginning of John’s gospel.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

There’s that word again, Claire thought. Truth.

As the introduction to “Joy to the World” began, and as the lights came up, Claire looked out and saw the faces of those who had become quite dear to her. Emma, of course. Bill and Gladys, and Meri and Junie and their families with them. Alice and Garrett and some assortment of their kids. Toledo was there, thankfully in the middle of the pews. Trystene and Robbie were there, with one of her brothers and his family. Bill Carr leaned against the door at the back, and gave Claire a nod and slight smile.

“A very Merry Christmas to you all.”

“And also with you!” a tipsy voice shouted from the back. Everyone laughed, and went home to wrap presents and stuff stockings.

Claire and Emma had planned to spend Christmas day in their pajamas, but at ten the phone rang. “Claire? It’s Gladys. I am so sorry to bother you on Christmas Day, but Bill went to the ER this morning and they’ve admitted him. I know you’re leaving town tomorrow, and I hate to ask, but could you possibly stop by today and say a prayer with him? This latest bout has him a bit spooked.”

“Of course. Will you be there, and would it be okay if I brought Emma with me? She loves you both, you know.”

“Yes, a quick visit from both of you would be the perfect Christmas present. See you soon. And thank you.”

Claire and Emma had breakfast at eleven and then opened presents. Rex pounced among the wrapping paper, ignoring the new toys Santa had brought him. They dressed, and headed to the hospital.

Gladys was outside the room. “They’re just finishing up a few things. Emma, why don’t you come with me? I could use a cup of coffee.”

When the nurse came out of the room, Claire went in.

“Merry Christmas, Bill,” she said softly.

Bill gave her a weak smile. “Gladys shouldn’t have called. But I’m glad she did. Thank you, Claire, for coming by. Listen, I don’t think the Grim Reaper is on Santa’s heels; I will not have shuffled off this mortal coil before you get back from your vacation. And I’m glad you and Emma get some down time. But I did want to tell you that the doc thinks I’ve got a few months, tops. I don’t know how much energy or interest I’ll have in things as I get worse. But I wanted to have a little conversation with you. Think of it as my Christmas present to you.

“You are the best thing that has happened to St. Rabab’s in a long, long time. We – and I mean all of us at the church – we know that you love us, genuinely. You have shared your heart with us without getting all soft about it. You inspire us to care about things and people. The church has been blessed these last six months. And Gladys and I think of you and Emma as family. I just wanted you to know that.”

Claire began to cry. Bill handed her a box of tissues. They sat in silence for a good five minutes while Claire got herself together.

When Gladys and Emma returned, they all held hands while Claire said a prayer. She and Emma wished the Hills a Merry Christmas, and headed home.

“Shall we pack?” Claire asked her daughter.

“I thought you’d never ask.”

The next day Martha met them at the airport in full Christmas regalia. Red and green striped tights, a black knee-length sweater dress, and a velvet hat adorned with holly and ivy.

“Merry Christmas, my dears! Are we going to have fun or what?”

And they did.

Their last night in Minneapolis, Claire and Martha stayed up late talking. The two women had found the rhythm of their friendship again, though it was now underlined by the strange secret they shared.

“What are you going to do about the Saints, Claire?”

“Honestly I don’t know. I’m still so mad about the lies, Martha. I don’t understand why you don’t bring the truth out. What would be so bad? Doing all this good while lying makes you all hypocrites, not saints.”

“Claire, you are my best friend. For months I have heard you go on and on about how hypocritical we are, how we lie, how we undo all the good with do by keeping our light under the bushel. I have accepted the critique as valid. We have changed some of our ways. But my dear darling Morag Claire Grayson, I have now officially had it.”

Claire wasn’t sure she liked where the conversation was headed.

“How dare you accuse us of being lying hypocrites when you’ve never told Emma the truth about her father?”

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