Bean had grown for weeks without threat, but Jared and I weren’t fooled into thinking we would live the entire summer without event. We enjoyed the peaceful moments while we stil had them, and that afternoon was no different.
Jared was studying Shax’s book. He hunched over the ugly pages, knees up. One hand held the ancient leather apart while the other rested on my stomach. The book seemed out of place in our quiet, beautiful afternoon.
Jared’s phone buzzed. He barely glanced in its direction and continued reading. He did that often when Kim cal ed, resorting to ignoring her instead of repeating his reasons for holding onto the book. I could relate to her misery. Even so, it was easier to look the other way while Jared searched for answers while he could. To admit that to myself made me feel horrible, but it was a necessary evil. The choice to be a better mother than a friend wasn’t real y a choice at all .
A motor hummed in the distance. “You should probably get your sneakers on,” Jared said. “Bex is here.”
Bex was bringing firearms today. We would add target practice to our daily sparring session. His motorcycle came to a stop at the edge of my blanket.
I looked up at him. “That blanket is worth more than your bike.”
Bex took off his helmet and snorted. “Negative.”
“Sentimental value,” Jared said, keeping his eyes on the book.
Now fourteen, Bex’s body had fil ed out. He was an inch tal er than Jared, and could have been mistaken for a man in his early twenties. Except for the childlike sweetness that remained in his eyes and his occasional displays of inexperience, I would never believe that he was the same person as the eleven-year-old I had met a few years before. It was disturbing.
I must have looked ridiculous in my black leggings and white t-shirt with Bean bal ed noticeably in front, crouching and ready in front of what looked like a ful -grown man. Bex could have wadded me up like a piece of paper on my best day, and I knew if anyone had witnessed a pregnant woman trading punches with someone twice her size, they would have cal ed the police.
“Bex,” Jared warned without looking up.
Bex’s nose wrinkled, irritated at Jared’s instruction. “I know. The subtle distention of her middle section is a constant reminder not overdo it. I won’t hurt your messianic spawn, Nina.”
I shoved the heel of my hand into Bex’s stomach. He barely paused, but it was stil thril ing to me that I landed it. “Someone’s been reading the List of Big Words, again.”
Bex glanced to Jared, and then grabbed me. He twisted me around, more forceful than usual, pulling me into his chest. My neck fit snugly in the crook of his arm. “Okay. Now what?”
I stepped on his foot, jabbed my elbow into his ribs, and then threw my head back. Bex dodged, but had he been human I would have cracked his nose.
“Good,” he said, nodding.
We went over the same old moves dozens of times, and then Bex showed me a few more. They were more offensive than defensive. Bex seemed to enjoy teaching those more, and I certainly enjoyed learning to attack more than I liked repeatedly attempting to free myself from an assailant.
After an hour, Jared brought the bag of firearms over, and then handed me shooting earmuffs and safety glasses. We walked over to a smal hil , where Bex set up several targets. He was as excited as I was, but it didn’t occur to me to ask why.
I practiced with a handgun, a rifle, and a shotgun. When Jared and Bex were satisfied with my aim, Bex tied a rope to a branch of the oak tree and hung a large log from it. He unrol ed a paper target, and then taped it to the middle of the log. He gave it a shove, and it swayed in a large arc back and forth.
Jared handed me his sidearm. “Less than one percent of your targets wil be stationary. You need to learn to hit a moving target.
I lifted the Glock in both of my hand and looked down the sights.
“Anticipation is key,” Jared said.
I watched the log for a moment, and then squeezed the trigger. Bex leapt back with a yowl.
I dropped the gun and covered my mouth. “Oh, God! I’m sorry!”
Jared picked up the gun and tried not to smile. Bex, however, was rol ing on the ground, laughing hysterical y.
I glared at him. “Not funny, you little worm! I could have given birth right here in the grass!”
Bex immediately sobered, looking to his older brother for confirmation.
Jared laughed. “She’s exaggerating just a little.”
“Again,” I said, holding the gun in front of me once more. After six tries, I sighed with irritation and pul ed off the earmuffs, letting them fal to the ground.
“You’re thinking too much,” Bex said. He pul ed his gun from the waistline of his jeans and pul ed the trigger, never looking away from me. The target had a rip in the center where the bul et made contact.
I blew my bangs from my face. “You can’t anticipate something without thinking about it.”
Bex lifted his gun and pointed it at me, and I mirrored his action. We were at an immediate stand off.
Bex smiled. “Yes, you can.”
Jared palmed my arm and lowered it slowly. “It’s cal ed instinct. It’s in your blood, Nina. You just need to give in to it.”
I looked at the log. “Give in to it,” I repeated, raising my weapon.
Bex shoved the log again.
I shut out everything: the breeze; the birds; the strands of hair that kept sticking to my lip gloss. Everything was frozen, even my inner thoughts. My mind focused on the target, and I was in tune with everything. I could feel the movement of the log, the resistance of the rope as it rubbed against the tree branch, and even the wind speed and how it would affect the path of the bul et. I took in a deep breath and pul ed the trigger. Bex grabbed the log and it instantly stopped.
“Nice!” Bex said.
The bul et had landed just a couple of inches above Bex’s. I smiled, and Jared pul ed me to his side, kissing my hair.
After that, Bex took the spare tire from under the rear of the Escalade and fastened a target to the center. He walked to the top of a smal hil , and I stood halfway down. He let the tire go, and I took several shots as it rol ed down the grass to the bottom, fal ing on its side.
Bex sprinted to the tire and rol ed it over, offering a thumbs-up and a smile.
“You did real y wel today,” Jared said.
I nodded. “I know.”
Jared leaned down and touched each side of my stomach with his hands. “Mommy did good today, didn’t she Bean?” He waited a moment, and then stood. “Everything seems to be okay. Your pulse, Bean’s pulse, blood pressure and breathing are all normal. I don’t think Bean noticed.”
“So we can keep going?”
I gestured to the book under his arm. “Did you find anything?”
Jared’s smal smile faded. “Feel like a trip to Woonsocket?”
Bex helped us load the Escalade with our belongings, and then waved goodbye, peeling out on his motorcycle to head home to Lil ian.
Jared was quiet during the twenty-minute drive north. His eyes were locked forward, missing the incredible summer foliage on each side of the highway. I all owed it to distract me while Jared silently prepared questions for Father Francis. Poring over the same words over and over, not knowing what to look for, had to be frustrating. I reached my hand across the console, and almost instinctual y, Jared covered my hand with his.
Stil beautiful, he wore the stress and worry of the years since we’d met only in his eyes. He seemed tired, and desperate, but determined.
He squeezed my hand, brought it to his lips, then reached over to rest his hand on my stomach. He seemed to relax, then.
“Maybe...maybe you’re going about this all wrong,” I said.
“I’m all ears.”
“What if you’re reading the wrong book? It’s too late to stop the prophecy. What you’re looking for is a way to get Heaven on our side, right?”
“You aren’t going to find answers about Heaven in a book about Hel .”
Jared eyes flitted about for a moment, considering my idea. He didn’t answer, but he acknowledged my words with a nod. I covered his hand with mine, and let him return to his thoughts.
We passed the rocky wal that welcomed us to Woonsocket, and then made our way to St. Ann’s. Yel ow tape surrounded the church. The glass from the once exquisitely stained windows had been removed, and the holes that remained were covered with boards and plastic tarp.
Jared parked, and we climbed the steps. He tugged on one set of doors, but they were locked. He tried two others, but they were locked as wel .
The tarp blew in the summer breeze, flapping against the building. The town seemed otherwise quiet.
Jared turned and noticed a passerby. “Excuse me,” he said. “Is the church closed?”
The man shrugged. “Father Francis has kept it locked. He hadn’t been actin’ right since the explosion.” He walked away.
An explosion. Shax and his minions all but tore the church to shreds during our most recent showdown, and it left St. Ann’s looking like a war zone. Some construction had taken place, but Woonsocket was no longer the booming industrial hub it used to be. The community that had once pul ed together to fund the extravagant adornments of their social center with paintings and stained glass was now preoccupied with a recession and modern priorities.
We walked to a side door, and Jared gave it a light tug. It caught again. “I don’t want to leave without speaking to him, and I don’t want to break in,” he said.
Just as we stepped away, we heard a familiar voice.
“Wait!” Father Francis cal ed, walking briskly from the back of the church. “I’m here, lad!” He slowed to a stop, trying to control his labored breath.
“I’m sorry. I was in the back building, praying. It used to be the school, you know.” His face dropped. “I’m ashamed to say I feel safer there, now.”
Jared cupped the priest’s shoulder. “I understand, Father. Some things you can’t un-see.”
Father Francis nodded, and then gestured for us to fol ow him inside. We walked behind him, waiting patiently for him to climb the steps into the side door of St. Ann’s.
It was cold and drafty. The wooden pews and marble statues were covered with linens. An eerie feeling dwel ed within the wal s, and I could see why the priest didn’t want to be alone there.
The faces of the angels and saints in the paintings looked down on us. I couldn’t help but think they seemed sad, waiting for someone to restore their home to its former glory. “Father,” I began, pulling my pocketbook from my purse. “I brought this hardship on you. Let me help.” I scribbled six figures onto a check.
Father Francis’ eyes softened as he took the paper into his hands. “Thank you, my child. We need this more than you know.”
“Father,” Jared said, pulling Shax’s book from under his arm.
The priest’s eyes widened and he immediately looked away, shaking his head. “Oh, no! No, no, no. You mustn’t bring that here!”
A soft ringing in my ears grew infinitesimal y louder, sounding more like panicked whispers. I looked around the room, but we were alone. Just us and the hundreds of people in the paintings on the wal s and ceilings.
I looked up. In a scene in which God had cast out the rebel ious angels, the artist had drawn them in such a way that the angels seemed to be fal ing out of the painting—out of the ceiling. I looked at another mural at the back of the church, featuring Navy sailors drifting helplessly in a stormy sea, reaching out to St. Mary. In a moment of what had to be confusion, I could hear their panicked cries. I could hear them all , shrieking and wailing at the sight of the book that brought their home down around them.
I squeezed my eyes tight, and gripped my ears. Their cries became so loud I couldn’t hear individual voices, only their frenzied, col ective panic.
Jared’s fingers touched my arm. “Nina?”
At once, it all stopped. I opened my eyes and looked around. Insanity was the first thing that popped into my mind.
Father Francis nodded in understanding, however. “It gets too loud for me sometimes, too.”
I peered around to the different faces in the paintings, unsettled.
The priest looked to the book, and then to Jared. “You can’t have that, here.”
“I stil need your help, Father.”
“I’ve given all I can give.”
Jared shook his head. “I can’t accept that, I’m sorry.”
Father Francis left for the back of the church. Jared pul ed me to fol ow. We kept a quick pace all the way to his quarters, where he immediately made himself a drink. He threw it back, and then made himself another. His hands were shaking, causing the mouth of the decanter to clink against the rim of his glass.
The priest closed his eyes and lifted his chin, taking in another gulp of the amber liquid with one movement. The glass dropped from his hands, crashing into the floor. Some of the bigger shards made their way to my feet, and I stared at them for a moment.
“Father,” I said, looking up at him. “It’s almost over. I know you’re scared, but we’re taking the book back soon.”
His eyebrows furrowed. “To the Sepulchre?”
“Yes,” I said, reaching out to him. I touched his arm, and he placed a hand on mine.
“You won’t make it,” he said sadly.
Jared shifted in frustration. “Let’s deal with the issue at hand, shal we? I just ask that you sit down with me one last time to try to find another way.
Surely our only option isn’t to just wait until the baby is born and hope Heaven steps in.”
The priest shook his head dismissively. “We’ve searched every line. There’s nothing.”
“Just one more time. Please,” Jared said. “Before I take my wife and unborn child to Jerusalem, I have to know I had no other choice.”