David Peters gripped tighter on the wheel. His hands held on at two and ten o'clock but the careful driver couldn't resist the urge to speed down the virtually empty highway. He tugged at his collar. Sweat dripped down his brow. If he pulled over he could take off his blazer, but there was no time for that. He was only an hour away from Toronto.
He looked to the passenger seat at his recent purchases. In one of the two white plastic bags were bagels from one their favorite hangout spots. In the other, bottles of her favorite orange juice and jar of jam. He would have to buy the cream cheese in the city. The words were echoing in his head: Nothing makes a person feel better than good food and good friends. It was doubtful she was given a good breakfast anyway.
A sign slowly came into view. A rest stop lay 20 kilometers ahead. He shouldn't pull over, but too many hours on the road can be difficult to handle. Then he remembered Alex. David just left leaving him all his work. The least he could have done was told Alex before he left. All he could think about was the calling card in his wallet. He didn't even have lack of change as an excuse. Signaling he changed lanes, turning right. He eventually pulled into the parking lot of a small twenty-four-hour diner. All sounds of civilization had faded away, until the doors opened to let out a few patrons.
Once the car was parked, David lifted his toiletry bag from the trunk. It remained perfectly packed at all times, making it easier to store his morning preparations in his modest room. He placed the strap across his left shoulder, the bag beneath his arm and carried it into the diner. Upon his entering a woman greeted him by smiling sweetly, fined line framing her glowing gray eyes. Her soft voice flowed from her lips.
"Good morning Father. What can I get for you?" She pulled out a seat for him at a small table. The temptation to sit was overwhelming. Visions of caffeine crowded his eyes. He needed a way to get through the next hour.
"I could sure use a coffee, but I'm looking for a phone and a restroom." He feigned a smile.
"Washrooms and a payphone are around the corner," she motioned. "How do you take your coffee? I can prepare it and save you a table."
"Oh uh, black sweet. Thank you." She nodded as he rounded the corner. The telephone was occupied so he continued into the men's room. As he put down his bag he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. His dark hair stood on end, frazzled from lack of sleep. His cheeks hung like little sacks at the corners of his mouth. Purple lined the lashes of his tired eyes. The circles beneath became luggage of their own. A metal taste stained his mouth.
He drew cold water. It helped his hair but even a cleansing scrub-down did not return any vitality. He pulled out his blue toothbrush. The mint toothpaste refreshed him little. Hopefully the worries on his face wouldn't be too apparent in his voice. He packed up his bag, walking out to the telephone. David fished his wallet from his bag, withdrawing his telephone card. Every ring brought a pang of guilt, until the church secretary finally picked up.
"It's David. Is Alex indisposed?" He spoke over the lump in his throat.
"No he isn't, Father Peters. I showed him the note you left on my desk. Father Mitchell delayed confession since he suspected you'd call." Her purposefully monotone voice came through the other end. She was upset over his sudden departure, and he knew it. Damn it, as if it isn't bad enough she's irate with me he's probably downright angry with me, David thought to himself. It seemed like an eternity until Alex picked up the telephone.
"Where are you?" Alex's voice seemed equally monotone and deliberate.
"What, I don't even get a hello?"
"Don't fool around with me; where are you?"
"I'm an hour outside of Toronto."
"When will you be back?"
"Probably in a few days."
"Will you be back in time for mass on Sunday?"
"I don't know." Alex sighed at David's response. They both paused to collect themselves before speaking again. Alex beat him to the punch.
"No warning, just a note saying I'll have to cover for you in confession today. You have responsibilities here David."
"I know that, hence why I left my sermon on your desk if you'd like to use it. I don't like the idea of leaving either, but you have to understand Alex, I am here out of responsibility and conscience. Her family doesn't have the means to go see her but I do. I had to." David paused for Alex's response. When there was none, he continued.
"Alex, she's a good person. As a compassionate colleague and friend, let me do this."
"I hope you left your appointment book in your room. Otherwise, I'm not quite sure what I'll need to do to cover you for the next week." Alex reluctantly said with another sigh.
"Thank you. This means a lot to me."
"Yeah, yeah, just call me from the hospital. I want to know how she's doing too."
"I'll give you a full report when I get there."
"And if there is a next time, God willing there won't be, tell me you're leaving even if you have to wake me up."
"I will, I swear. I owe you one."
"You owe me more than one. Tell her our prayers are with her."
"I will. 'Bye Alex."
David hung up the telephone. He leaned his forehead against the wall. His chest went up and down with every breath, slowing until he could bear to pry himself away from that spot. Putting his calling card back in his bag, he rounded the corner. At the sight of him the waitress smiled. She held out a paper cup with steam escaping the hole in the lid.
"I couldn't help but overhear your conversation. I figured you'd want to get back on the road." She handed him the paper cup and walked back behind the counter. He pulled his wallet out of his bag, following her. She shook her head, "I couldn't charge a man of the cloth, and I certainly couldn't charge one on the way to visit a friend at the hospital. She must be quite a woman to warrant all this." He smiled.
"You have no idea."
David put the coffee cup on the roof of his car. He pulled off his blazer and the tight white collar around his neck. A few buttons undone gave him relief. He stared at the coffee, still steaming. Maybe an iced tea would have been a better choice. He widened the hole with his key before putting it in his cup-holder for later. It might be cool enough by the time he arrived.
It was only a year ago that David found himself upon the couch in her apartment. Two mugs of Earl Grey tea sat cold upon her table untouched. She hadn't spoken in an hour; he hadn't in a quarter of one. They sat there with his hand in hers. She reached over and brushed hair out of his face. He looked up to see pain and compassion in her eyes. She watched him questioningly. Instinctively, he nodded his head.
She retrieved a blanket and sheets from her linen closet. Without a word, she picked up his hand again, leading him to her bedroom. From her dresser came a baggy pair of joggers and a loose shirt. When they were laid on the bed, she left and closed the door.
He came back out to the living room to find a bed made upon the couch. An unopened package with a blue toothbrush was on the table with a disposable razor were upon the table. He was just getting under the covers when she came out of her home office. Tonight, as her guest, he would sleep in her room. They both sat back down when she peppered him with things she wanted to hear him say. Of course he wouldn't do this alone. Why wouldn't he do his best to help them out? No, he wouldn't let this interfere with anyone else he helps through the parish. Finally, she confessed she had only one more thing she wanted to hear him say.
"Of course I love you and not just because you let me cry on your shoulder." She smiled at his words.
"Thank you, I appreciate it but that's not what I wanted to hear." She replied. He raised an eyebrow.
"Then what was it you want to hear?"
"Promise me, no matter what, you won't let yourself get hurt. You've been through enough."
"No, say the entire thing or else I don't believe you."
"I promise I won't let myself get hurt." He looked straight into her eyes, filled with an odd delight at the words. She squeezed his hand before heading off to change. She hadn't told him what to do, or made it seem like nothing. She just listened until it was all out of his system, then let him bask in the feeling that someone was there for him. She encouraged him to do what he wanted: to help. Then, with a simple conversation and squeeze he was left with a warm feeling that stayed the rest of the night.
David sucked down the last of his coffee. Once parked close to the hospital he put his luggage in the trunk. Back on went his collar and black blazer. It might be useful to look somewhat presentable. He peeked inside the white plastic bags. Everything he wanted was there: the bagels, cream cheese, jam and orange juice. With a deep breath, he walked up to Hospital Admissions.
When he got to her floor, he asked a nurse if she could point him in the direction of her room. Graciously she offered to take him there. The hallways seemed long and sterile. Only the numbers engraved in black plate upon the door served as a distinction of one hall to another. Without warning the nurse turned and opened a door. He followed her in.
In the bed on the left side of the room sat a young woman, with pillows propping her up. Her bruised arms held up a magazine. At the sound of company she put it down. Her long, light red hair cascaded down her shoulders, lying limp against the blue hospital gown. Even a smile couldn't distract from the immense, purplish black eye above her small nose. She laughed as tears came to her eyes.
"No matter what you say I'm not converting to Catholicism. Can you believe it nurse? Like Christmas isn't enough advertising, they now come to your hospital door." He smiled as he walked to her beside.
"I'm glad to see you didn't lose your sense of humour along with all that blood." His voice dripped with sarcasm.
"Look at this, him pretending to like my jokes. I should get stabbed more often." She motioned to the nurse giving her a needle in her I.V. "They're keeping me drugged in hopes I'll remain compliant."
"Maybe they'll give me some for our next rendezvous." He opened his bags. "I brought your favorite bagels, cream cheese, jam…"
"You drove all the way to Toronto to bring me breakfast?" She smiled with his nod. "Whatever it is you want I'm in no condition to give it to you. I don't need to be fed but I'd love some company."
David pulled up a chair as the nurse left. He picked up her hand and held it in his. He wiped her hair from her eyes waiting for what he knew was coming next. She told him everything, from details of the case to her feelings handing in her recommendation for the child's placement in foster care. Her eyes stared into the distance, remembering the look in his eyes when the father attacked. The tears came as she described the emergency room.
"The irony is he could have had his daughter back in months if he hadn't done this," she managed to get out. He squeezed her hand.
"I guess I should have made you promise to not let yourself get hurt." She chuckled at his response. Her tugging at his hand made him come closer.
"Tell me you'll stay. Tell me you'll be here until they say it's okay for me to go home to Ottawa." As he looked into her eyes, he saw what she had seen so many times in her job, the fear of being alone and unprotected. She had always tried to be that protector for the children in her cases. Somewhere she lost it. Although she would be safer in that hospital, it just didn't feel the same. He did what he had to do.
"Jennifer, I'm not going anywhere."