True to nature, when the moment came, Marissa faltered. She sat before a vast mahogany desk, across from Pastor Tom, much in the same fashion she had sat across from Marg a few days earlier. Except, this time, she was expected to lead the conversation. And she had no idea what to say.
It wasn’t Marissa’s place to tell the church who they should, or should not, hire. How could she possibly know what kind of spiritual leader the congregation was looking for? She hadn’t regularly attended Sunday worship services in years. What gave her the right to think she had a voice in the direction of the church?
Besides, time passes. People change.
Pastor Tom broke the silence. “How have you been, Marissa?”
“Good. Good,” she said with a nervous nod of her head.
Looking around the office, it was much as she remembered from her youth. Cozy. Quiet. Inviting. She remembered the candy dish. The mountain of books spilling off his desk. So many books.
Marissa selected one at random, ran her hand across the cool leather cover. “Did you read all of these?”
“No,” he said. “Though, I have good intentions.”
She nodded again, feeling as stupid as a bird in a cage as she returned the book to the stack. His collection was varied, both fiction and non, classics mixed with newer releases. She pushed aside C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and picked up a 1992 edition of The Complete Cat Care Manual. As though never read, the binding cracked when she opened the cover. Absentmindedly, she thumbed through the pages.
“I found a cat out in a pasture the other night and took it in to the vet. It was pretty messed up.” Marissa set the book aside. “Dr. Hart says she’s pregnant.”
“It’s good you found her when you did,” Pastor Tom said. “Do you plan to adopt her?”
Marissa scoffed at the question, changed the subject. “Are you doing anything special for Christmas this year?”
“We’ll have the same service we always do. Will I see you there?”
Again, she did not answer the question. Instead, she selected a piece of candy from the dish, took her time unwrapping the foil. As the chocolate slowly melted in her mouth, she reached for another.
“How’s your mother?” Pastor Tom asked.
“She’s good,” Marissa said with earnest, proud to answer honestly.
For so many years, when Kitty’s hoarding had been out of control, when her emotional state had been so low Marissa had sat up at night worrying her silent mother had chosen to never see another morning, that canned answer had been a lie. It felt good to finally be able to speak the truth.
“She’s doing very good, actually. I’m really proud of her.”
“We all are. She’s been an inspiration.”
“Thank you for not giving up on her. Your weekly visits may have been the only thing that kept her from completely drowning in her own mind.”
“She never gave up on herself. That’s what truly matters.”
“In honor of her success this year, we have decided to make Christmas a non-present holiday. The only gift we’re allowed to give is the gift of experience and memory.”
“That’s a wonderful idea, one we should all adopt. Christmas has become much too materialistic, in my opinion.”
“Yeah, but gifting ‘experience’ is a heck of a lot harder than running to the mall for a shiny trinket. I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to come up with the perfect future memory for my mom, and all I can think of is how much she used to love the idea of going to the movies. How she’d get all excited about seeing Clint Eastwood or some other sexy leading man on the big screen. And she’d go on and on about the popcorn and Junior Mints, and that her hands would smell like butter for the rest of the night.”
Pastor Tom listened with his entire body, facing her, silent and attentive while she spoke. No one listened like that anymore. Everyone had their eyes on their phone, their mind on themselves.
“Growing up, we never could really afford to go to the movies. We’d see the previews on TV and make big plans to go, but we never did. There was always something more important we had to spend the money on. When I got older, I’d go with my friends all the time, like it was no big deal.” She shrugged, feeling shame. “I never once thought to invite her.”
“I’m sure she wouldn’t have wanted to intrude.”
“Maybe, but still… I think that’s what I’ll give her; a year’s worth of Clint Eastwood, or Chris Hemsworth, Junior Mints and buttered popcorn. Date-nights with her daughter.”
“Kitty will enjoy that, very much.”
“And apparently, Mike’s part of our family now.” Marissa rolled her eyes. “I’m supposed to come up with an experience or memory for him, too.”
She knew exactly what kind of experience the poor boy desperately needed, but she wasn’t about to allow that particular memory to take up residence in her personal dreamworld. The mere thought of it caused an involuntary shudder she could not hide.
“You don’t like Mike?”
“No, I like him fine. I just… I don’t know…”
But she did know. She was jealous of him.
In the span of a summer, Mike had been able to do for Kitty what Marissa had failed to do since long before her brother, Tommy, had died. Mike had been the one to dig Kitty out of the depths of her depression and bring her back to life.
Marissa felt bad lying to the pastor, so she spoke a bit of truth. “I don’t know that much about him.”
“This will be a good way to learn.”
Marissa had zero interest in learning anything about Mike. She was a little preoccupied with another guy in her life. She couldn’t leave the pastor’s office without asking, “Do you think people can change?”
“Life is a continuous opportunity for discovery and improvement. Your mother is a beautiful example of the power of faith, not only in God, but in one’s self. So is Mike.”
“No, I know people can learn and grow and overcome addiction, and all that. Decent people, anyway. But what about the bad people? The evil jerks of the world? Can they change? Can they become decent human beings?”
“I certainly hope so.” Pastor Tom smiled, his eyes kind, twinkling and merry as she always remembered. Like a father. Or Santa Claus. “It’s kind of why I do what I do. Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” she said dismissively.
“We all have sinned, Marissa,” he said, quoting Romans. “We all fall short of the glory of God.”
Pastor Tom leaned back, his leather office chair creaking from his shifted weight, and brought his hands together in the form of a temple below his chin as he studied Marissa. She adverted her eyes from his, uncomfortable under his scrutiny.
“In my experience, as a pastor, I have never met an evil heart, one without conscious or fear of God. Instead, what I see every day, are good hearts that fall to sin in weakness.”
She scoffed again. “You really need to get out more, Pastor.”
“I do.” He laughed as though in agreement. “It’s one of the many reasons why I’m retiring.”
“What are the others?” she asked, grateful for an easy change of conversation.
She stayed awhile longer, listening to his passion for travel and desire to explore Ireland. She discovered they shared a love of Muddy Waters and lantern fishing. He gifted her the book on cat care, ‘just in case.’ She gifted him the promise of attending church on Sunday. As the sun set low outside his west-facing window, they said their goodbyes.
In the hall, she merged with a small group exiting the library. As though second nature, she sensed Jimmy immediately. A step behind, Mike followed. Seeing the two together, she understood the anonymous nature of the meeting they had attended. She stopped searching for other familiar faces in the crowd. Besides, she would always choose Jimmy over any other man in a room.
“Missy?” He said her name on an exhale of amused surprise. “What are you doing here?”
“In a church?” she asked with a teasing laugh. “I could ask you the same.”
He shrugged, smiled that lopsided Jimmy-smile she loved.
Marissa took his hand and pulled him aside, giving herself a moment to simply enjoy the comfort of his presence. He kissed her cheek, tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, as was his habit.
He looked good. Incredible, really. Better than he had in a long time. He looked happy. Healthy. For so long, his face had been gaunt, his eyes dull. Now, as he looked her over, his crystal blue irises shone bright.
“Damn, Miss, you look ravishing, as always.”
She blushed. “Shush, you.”
“Seriously, though. What are you doing here?”
“I heard a rumor Pastor Tom’s leaving us. Had to check it out for myself.”
“I hear your old boyfriend is a shoo-in for the job,” he said, making fun of her childhood crush on the ‘ugly, rich boy.’
“Let’s hope not.” She rolled her eyes, playing it off lightly. “Come out with me tonight.”
The noise Jimmy made perfectly echoed her own longing and regret. “I shouldn’t.”
“Let me guess, you’re back with Ky?”
He shrugged. “We’re trying.”
“I’m happy for you,” she said. It wasn’t a lie, though it came out sounding like one. She only wanted happiness for Jimmy, the same as he wanted for her.
He ran a light touch along her jaw, gave her another lopsided Jimmy-smile. “Merry Christmas, Miss.”
“Merry Christmas, Jimmy.”
She watched as he walked away, his back straight, his shoulders high, and marveled at how quickly a broken man could begin to mend. Pastor Tom’s words replayed in her mind.
Good hearts fall to sin in weakness.
Jimmy was a good man, of good intention, with human failings. Never once had he set out to do her harm, cause her shame, or steal her faith.
He had left her broken, all the same.
Maybe the same was true of Tyler. Maybe what he had done to her was simply collateral damage of a good heart fallen to weakness and temptation.
There was one way to find out if a man was sheep or wolf. Come to church, listen to him preach.
She drew in a deep, unsteady breath and whispered to herself, “Baa.”