***Special thanks to Rick Roberson, The B&B Media Group for sending me a review copy.***
Michael John Sullivan graduated from St. John’s University with a communications degree and a promising future in the field of journalism after working for the official school paper the previous two years. Six months later, he found himself washing his hair in a toilet at the same university as he prepared for a job interview. He was homeless at the age of 23 after first watching his mother ─ his protector in a dysfunctional family ─ die from cancer. A year later his father asked him to leave. Riding a New York City subway train at night, his only companion was a green plastic bag of belongings. During these bleak days he began writing his most reflective and emotional childhood and adult memories now featured in two of his novels.
On a bitterly cold New Year’s Eve that year, Sullivan intentionally hid under a pew in the back of a church to stay warm for the night. After the doors were locked, he lay near a makeshift manger, writing and talking to the baby Jesus. It was a cathartic experience, one that would continue to resonate with him years later. He was eventually rescued by an aunt and uncle. After spending much of the past two decades raising their daughters while working at home, Sullivan returned to his notes in 2007 and began writing Necessary Heartbreak: A Novel of Faith and Forgiveness. It was published by Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books imprint in April 2010. The Library Journal named Necessary Heartbreak as one of the year’s best in Christian fiction for 2010.
He recently finished the sequel, Everybody’s Daughter, featuring more memories from his young adult life, including the day he walked to Forest Park as he contemplated taking his own life. Only the strains of a song prevented him from doing the unthinkable. Sullivan lives with his family in New York. He is a nominated board member for the Long Island Coalition of the Homeless.
Michael Stewart confronts these questions as he travels back in time through a mysterious tunnel in an old church when the Romans ruled with brutal violence and Jesus preached his peaceful message.
His teenage daughter Elizabeth soon follows Michael, but is surprised to discover that her father is nowhere to be found. Little does she know that Michael has returned safely to the present, leaving her to battle a vicious Roman soldier.
Separated by centuries, Michael is trapped to fight his own battles in the present day. Elizabeth’s disappearance, and the discovery of her blood in his car ignites a rush of judgment as the FBI focuses on him as a person of interest. Michael’s only hope for saving his daughter rests in the hands of his best friend – a local pastor with secrets of his own – and a mysterious old journal containing tales of miracles within the walls of the old church itself.
Thrilling and suspenseful, Everybody’s Daughter takes readers on a miraculous journey of their own, where salvation can be found in acts of sacrifice and hope remains forever eternal through the passage of a tunnel.
Jingling the silver coins between his fingers that he had retrieved so many centuries ago, Michael Stewart again thought about what he should do with the blood money. He leaned on his broom, transfixed in his holy land memories, only to be startled by an intruder.
“Hey, Judas. Pastor Dennis told me to bring this down here,” the young man said, stomping down the stairs. “Where do you want me to put this?”
“In the corner is fine.” He pointed to the area and continued sweeping the church’s basement floor.
The teenager set down a candle snuffer and tugged on Michael’s Boston Red Sox jacket’s sleeve. “Don’t work too hard, Judas.” He ran up the stairs, repeating Judas’ name and laughing. The sound broke the majestic quiet of the church.
Michael never took offense when his fellow Yankee fans teased him, accusing him of being a traitor.
If they only realized he knew Judas. Personally.
He relaxed, allowing the slight pain in his forearm to ease, and slipped his hand again inside the pocket of his worn jeans. He never left home without the ancient relics, touching them periodically, forcing himself to believe that the week he and his daughter Elizabeth lived in first-century Jerusalem wasn’t a dream.
It was real. It did happen.
On days when his financial responsibilities overwhelmed him, as insurmountable bills piled up on a weekly basis, he had been tempted to ask an antique expert about their value.
No. I could never sell them, no matter how much they could be worth. I’ll burn in hell.
He realized he would perhaps have to explain how he had come to own these unholy souvenirs some day.
“But who would believe me?” he whispered. “They’ll think I’m crazy.”
He heard footsteps upstairs. “Well, well, surprise, surprise,” called a voice from above. “Look who’s down there, again.”
Michael went to the stairway and glanced up at his daughter. “How did you know I was here?”
Michael smiled. “So what does my future say?”
She laughed. “I saw your car parked in front.”
“Wait a minute. Aren’t you supposed to be at your self defense class?”
“That was yesterday. I’m almost done with it. I can push around the biggest guys. But now I’m rocking with the history club. They want you to come in and discuss your coins.”
“You can’t be serious?” He stared at her in disbelief. “Not only will they not believe me, but they’ll think my elevator is not going up to the right floor. Did you tell them where they came from?”
She didn’t respond.
Michael walked up the stairs into the church, gave his daughter a hug and kissed her forehead. “Did you show them the coins I gave you?”
“You look good today, Dad.”
“Uh-huh.” Wonder what she’s angling for?
He sat in the first pew and gazed at the musical equipment behind the podium, gleaming in the late afternoon sunlight. Thoughts of finding another opportunity to travel to the Holy Land occupied his mind as he absorbed the peaceful beauty.
Elizabeth nudged his shoulder, shaking him out of his trance. “I didn’t show anybody the coins you gave me. They’ll think I’m crazy too.”
He slid over to give her room. “So, what do you need from me today?”
“Nothing,” she said. “It’s so quiet.” She looked around. “I haven’t been here in a while.”
“I think one church nut in the family is enough,” she said.
He gave her a surprised look. “Excuse me?”
“Just kidding. Why are you spending so much time in all the churches in town? Even a Temple.”
He didn’t answer right away, needing a few seconds to think.
“I truly believe Jesus doesn’t care whether I pray in a Catholic or a Protestant church, or even a Temple or the ice cream shop or a toy store or…”
“Okay, okay, I get the picture,” she said.
He touched her hand. “I saw God in Leah as much as any person I know. She showed us so much love. Real love.” He let out a sigh. “Going back to that time and witnessing what we did, well, it changed my life.”
He rubbed his forehead and closed his eyes for a few seconds.
“And losing your aunt also changed the way I think.”
“Yeah, I know.” She nodded slowly. “I miss Aunt Sammie too. It changed the way I look at things.”
For several minutes they sat in silence. Michael found the stillness of the church rejuvenating.
His daughter nudged his shoulder again. “So what’s bothering you? That whole Jerusalem trip was incredible. But you’re still sad.” She chewed her bottom lip. “I know the real reason why you’re here.”
“Oh, you do?”
“Yup. I do indeed,” she said with the grin of a typical fourteen-year-old. “I know everything.” She injected an air of pompous self-importance in her tone, but couldn’t keep a straight face. The giggle that followed told Michael she was having a good time ribbing him.
She fiddled with a strand of neon pink hair, twisting it into a small bow. “I’m glad we get along better since that trip.” She put her hand on his arm. “I’m kind of worried about you. You want to talk about it?”
Michael refused to grab the bait she dangled. “I’m waiting for the service to start.”
She clicked her tongue. “There’s no service today.”
“I enjoy being here. Dennis is one of my best friends now. He’s different from the others.”
“Oh, yeah, he is different.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, he’s kind of old to look the way he does.”
“What’s he supposed to look like?”
“Like a pastor.” She faced him and touched her ear. “That earring he wears, his long hair, and the loud rock music he plays on his iPod. It’s just weird. And the motorcycle.”
Michael touched his ear. “I’m thinking about getting one.”
“Yuck. You’re old too.” She crossed her arms. “No way do I want my old man to wear one.”
“I’m not old and I’m thinking a gold sparkly one would be nice,” he continued, nodding.
“That’s not gonna happen.” She sighed. “Let’s talk about something else, so I can get that gross image of you out of my head. How often do you think about her?”
He twisted nervously, his leg pinned hard against the side of the pew. “Who are you talking about?”
“Leah. Who else?”
He hesitated for a fraction. “I think about her often.”
She leaned her head against his shoulder. “I’m sure she’s doing okay.”
“We didn’t see her get away from that Roman soldier.” He shifted in his seat to ease his anxiety. “I’m worried that I left her behind to defend herself against that maniac. I should have gone back.” He looked upward, avoiding her gaze. “That’s why I come here so often.”
She pressed her hand around his arm. “Yeah, I get it.”
“I should have gone back once I knew you were fine.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened and she let out a gasp. “I wouldn’t have let you go alone. I love her too.”
“I know.” He glanced at her sideways and noticed another pink streak near her temple. Was that there this morning?
“We also didn’t know if that soldier was coming back after us in the tunnel,” Elizabeth said.
“I still should have turned around and made sure.”
She squeezed his arm tighter. “You’re still in love with her, huh?”
He grimaced, uncomfortable with the direction their conversation had taken and remained silent.
“Dad,” she said. “Answer me. Are you still in love with her?”
He kept staring straight ahead. “I guess.”
“You don’t sound sure.”
He cleared his throat. “Don’t get me wrong. I still miss your mom. I’ll always love your mom. I sometimes wonder if I should have let go of her a long time ago.” He lowered his voice and changed the direction of the conversation. “I also wonder if we should have waited until Jesus rose from the dead. I think about that a lot. But it would have been a big risk. I certainly wasn’t going to put your life in danger any more than I had to.”
Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know if there’s life after death, or whether someone can really rise from the dead like Lazarus or Jesus. But I do know what I saw. And I’m so happy to be home.”
“What?” she asked.
His heart swelled with pride. “You said you don’t know. But you really do.” He ruffled her hair. “By the way, I had to clean up part of your room.”
She shot him an angry glare. “What were you doing in my room?”
“You left your lights on. Again. I don’t have a money tree in the yard. Our electric bill was obscene last month.”
“You didn’t have to clean it up though.”
“No choice. I had to create a path to get to the lamps.” He nudged her. “Just the ones that were still on.”
She covered her ears with her hands and said through gritted teeth, “You’re going to make me crazy.”
“You’ll be even more crazy living in a dark house when they cut off our electric bill because I can’t afford it.”
An elderly man and woman entered the church, tip-toeing up the aisle, putting a temporary halt to their bickering. He whispered, “By the way, who’s this Matt fella?”
“Someone I met at school.” She shrugged. “How do you know about him?”
“Never mind how I know. Is he a boyfriend?”
He tilted his head heavenward. “No.”
“No. He will not be your boyfriend.”
“Why?” Her tone was loud and contemptuous.
He put two fingers against his lips. “Lower your voice.” He noticed the old man turning his head, obviously angling for a better position to hear their conversation as the lady gave Michael a disapproving glance.
“I don’t care if they hear what we say,” she said, raising her voice. “Why can’t I see Matt?”
He shushed his daughter again, wagging a finger at her. “I don’t like him.”
“You’ve never met him.”
“I don’t have to.”
“Ugh. I like him. He’s a great guy.”
“You’re too young.”
“I’m old enough to get married during Jesus’ time.”
“That was then. Different times, different rules. This is now. My rules.”
The elderly man was practically hanging over the pew to catch every word. Michael figured it was probably the most entertainment he had enjoyed in a long time.
“Let’s discuss this at home,” Michael said, trying to put an end to the conversation.
“I want to date him.”
Michael stood and gave an emphatic response. “Absolutely not.”
“Sit down. They’re looking at us again.”
“I don’t care.”
“Oh, now you don’t care?”
He waved to the elderly couple and sat.
“At least meet Matt,” she pleaded.
He looked at her adamant expression and saw how much this meant to her. “Okay,” he said, trying not to sound defeated. “I’ll meet him.”
She smiled. “When?”
“At least give me some time to adjust to the idea.”
“How about tomorrow?”
“Too soon,” he said. “How old is he?”
“Older than me.”
“How much older?”
“He’s a junior.”
He looked upward, concentrating on the church’s beautifully hand-painted ceiling. “Oh, Vicki, look at what your daughter is doing to me.” Taking a deep breath, he remembered something he’d been meaning to ask her. “Who gave you the chain with the locket?”
“Where did you find it? Did you go in my drawer?”
“You know I’d never do that. It was on top of your dresser.”
She huffed out loud. “A friend gave it to me.”
“Friend as in this Matt guy?”
She stared straight ahead, shifting in her seat. “It’s not a big deal at all.”
He breathed a sigh of relief. “Okay.” He winced, afraid to hear the answer to his next question. “Does this Matt guy drive?”
He put his hand under her chin, lifting her head. “Does he?”
“Yes. He drives.”
“Do not get into the car with him.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I can’t lose you. I won’t lose you.”
“Can you at least meet him?”
“Okay, tomorrow then, right?”
“I’ll let you know when I’m ready.” He shook a finger at her. “And no dating until I meet him.”
“That’s not fair,” she said, raising her voice again and piercing the sacred silence.
He nodded toward the elderly couple. “Shhh.”
“They’re old. They can’t hear us.”
“Have you ever heard of hearing aids?”
She frowned. “We’re getting off track. What about Matt?”
“What about him?”
“Ugh. Can I bring him over?”
“You won’t meet him. I know you. I know the game you’re playing.”
“I’ll meet him when I want to meet him and not a minute sooner,” he said in a stern tone.
“All right. All right. I can wait.”
Surprised, Michael made a pretense of checking her forehead for a temperature. “You feeling okay?”
“Very funny.” She smiled. “I know you have a lot on your mind, working so hard, trying to pay the bills. You deserve a break.” She leaned her head on his shoulder. “How about I cook us a nice dinner tonight?”
He moved away. “You’re too obvious.”
She backed away and formed an angelic look like she always did when she tried to look innocent. “Obvious? Why, I don’t know what you mean, Father.”
He shook his head and chuckled. “What do you want now, Elizabeth Ellen Stewart?”
She smiled sweetly. “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to go to the concert.”
“The one in New York City.”
“Where in New York City?”
“Madison Square Garden.”
“Who’s performing there?”
“Lady Gaga? Why would you waste your money on her? Wait until Springsteen tours again.”
“I don’t think so.” She shook her head. “Hasn’t he retired? Anyway, I don’t want to see an old dude on stage.”
“Hey, Bruce is not old.”
“Will you let me go to the concert? All my friends are going.”
They sat in an uncomfortable silence for several minutes though it seemed like hours. Michael broke the quiet of the now unholy atmosphere. “No.”
“Two reasons. Number one. You’re too young to go into the city with friends. Number two. You’re too young.”
She rolled her eyes. “What happened to the dad who came back from Jerusalem? That dad was way more easy going.”
“I’ve changed again. I’m a complex person.”
“Would you rather have me dating a seventeen-year-old or going to a concert with my girlfriends?”
“Neither. Oh, and he’s seventeen? Now the truth comes out.”
“I don’t care.”
Michael bobbed his head, gesturing to the old man and woman listening. “She wants to go see that Lady Goo Goo person in the city.”
The couple half smiled then looked away and whispered to each other as they fiddled with their ear pieces.
Elizabeth took the bait. “Don’t you think my dad should let me go? I’m old enough to get married.”
“You are not.”
“It’s in the Bible.”
Michael waved to the couple and faced Elizabeth. “Enough. Leave them alone.”
“What about the Lady Gaga concert?”
Michael didn’t answer. The old man and woman got up, and walked slowly out of the church, taking quick, nervous glances as they went by.
Michael stood. “C’mon. I’ll get you an ice cream sundae, whatever toppings you want.”
Elizabeth yanked on his jacket, pulling him back down. “I’m not a little kid anymore where you can pacify me with ice cream when we’re arguing.”
“Stop using that word.”
“The offer for ice cream is still on the table. Concert is closed for discussion. End of story.”
“I don’t want ice cream,” she said, folding her arms. “Told you, I’m past that now.”
“You’re sounding like an ice cream snob now.” He jostled her, trying to lighten the mood. “Let’s go. I promise it’ll be a quick trip.”
She looked uncomfortable. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to go there anymore.”
“Why? You always enjoyed going there with me before.” He tried to stand up again but Elizabeth pulled him down harder. “Hey, take it easy on the jacket. It’s a gift from Susan.”
“I saw Linda with a man the other day.”
“She was holding his hand and they kissed.”
Michael was quiet for a moment. “Oh.” He stood, banging his knee against the pew. “Ouch,” he said, trying to make a joke of it. “Look at that? Hurt twice in less than a minute. I guess I’m striking out in a couple of centuries. At least I’m consistent.”
He climbed over Elizabeth, tripping over the kneeler as he reached the aisle and headed toward the basement door.
“Dad, give it up.”
Michael stopped. “I need a minute, okay?”
“I know where you’re going,” she said. “The tunnel’s not open.”
“I have to finish cleaning the basement.”
“There isn’t a speck of dust left down there.”
He put both hands over his ears, not looking back at her. “You would be surprised how much dirt I find down there.”
Michael felt his daughter watching his every move as he veered toward the stairwell. He looked back and saw her shaking her head as she dropped her backpack on the pew and got up to follow him.
He rested his forehead against the door.
She stood beside him. “You’re going to go down there and nothing will happen. Just like the other hundred times.”
“I have to try one more time. Okay, kiddo?”
“If we had stayed in Jerusalem, we’d never have been safe.”
He put his hand on her shoulder and brushed the pink lock of hair from her eyes. For a moment he thought about grabbing a pair of scissors and cutting it off. “I know. But I’d feel responsible if Leah was hurt or had to live a life with that evil Roman. I know we made the right choice to come back. But I wish I’d gone back to be sure about her safety. I’m convinced of that now.”
She smiled. “By the way, where is your pastor buddy?”
“He’s never here on Friday afternoons. Takes off after lunch. Weird.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Probably goes joy riding on his Harley.”
“Maybe I’ll get one of those hogs.”
“Oh please, don’t.”
“Can you see me zipping along with the wind whipping through my hair? A lady holding onto me riding in the back. Baby, we were born to run…”
She ignored him. “Where does he go?”
“No idea.” He shrugged. “He never says and I never ask.”
“Huh, you sure you guys are BFFs?” They walked back to the pew and Elizabeth picked up her bag.
He shook his head and turned his back on the basement door. “Come on, I’ll drive you home.”
“I don’t need a ride. I’m going to catch a movie.”
“What are you going to do for dinner?”
“Pizza. Going to head over to Gino’s. RoRo’s working there tonight.”
They walked down the front steps to the sidewalk. “I guess you’ll need money.”
She held out her hand and smiled. “Twenty sounds about right.”
Michael took a deep breath, sighed, and pulled a bill from his wallet.
“You could make it easy on yourself and let me have your credit card.”
He ignored her. “Be home by nine and keep your cell phone on.”
“Relax. It’s not like I’m going to get stuck in Jerusalem or anything.”
“Very funny. What about your bike?”
“RoRo’s dad will give me a ride home. He can fit it in the back of the car.”
“Well, call me if you need a ride, okay? And don’t get in the car with anyone besides her dad.”
She gave a faint smile and Michael watched as she rode away. Once she was out of sight he unlocked the car and got in. The glove compartment door was open again. He saw his cell phone was still inside. He slammed the door three times before the lock finally caught. Got to get that fixed, he thought for the hundredth time. But it was never a high priority on his to-do list.
His stomach felt queasy as a sharp pain stabbed his right side. He wondered how he was going to spend his evening. I’ve done this routine a few times.
As he pulled into the driveway, he gazed up at the darkening sky. The stars twinkled more brightly than he had ever remembered. Rolling down his window, he whispered softly over the gentle breeze, “Which star are you under tonight, Leah?”
* * *
After a less than satisfying bowl of Cheerios for dinner, Michael was restless and still hungry. Despite his better judgment, he downed two boiled hot dogs, further agitating his upset stomach. He carried the salty taste in his mouth while walking aimlessly up and down the stairs several times, occasionally clicking on the television to channel surf for a glimpse of hockey and basketball scores. He sat on his chair and perched his laptop on his knees. Just as he started an email, he heard the sound of a car door slamming near his house.
Curious, he got up to see who it was. He opened the blind to the front window. “Great. Here comes hell in heels.”
He watched as his sister headed toward his front door. He stared in shock. What happened to her? Michael rubbed his eyes in disbelief, squinting to be sure. She carried an extra thirty pounds or so on her once stick-like figure. An oversized man’s sweatshirt and loose jeans were clearly an attempt to hide her extra weight. Her blond hair, usually neatly kept, now looked straggly, and the dark roots were visible under the porch light’s glare. Age looked like it had not only crept up on Connie but trampled all over her. Her wrinkles had wrinkles, which were usually hidden under a ton of makeup.
His sister had been a thorn in his side since they were kids. She was a control freak in the worst sense, always plotting for ways to hurl verbal shots to get under his skin.
He took his time walking down the stairs. “I need this like I need a hole in the head,” he muttered.
Opening the front door, he tried to sound enthusiastic but couldn’t control himself. “Ah, the last person I want to see on a Friday night. I’m kind of busy.”
She looked at him through the screen door. “Oh, my little brother is doing something on a Friday night? Armageddon must be just around the corner then.”
Michael cringed as he held the door for her. He could tell it was going to be a long night. “What do you want?”
She swept past him and into the kitchen. “I need something to drink. I’m thirsty.”
He followed behind her and watched as she stared at the dishes piled in the sink and the cluttered countertop. She snickered and his stomach turned. He was acutely aware now of the pot on the stove, with its one remaining hot dog.
She laughed, pointing to the pot. “I see the gourmet cook is hard at work again. Bet you’re waiting for the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to give you a call for a feature, huh?”
“That show is off the air.”
“So, apparently, is your life. How does my niece live in such a pig hole?”
“We like to think of it as a mud hole, and we love it.”
“Are you working?”
“Yeah, really? Where?” She reached into a cabinet for a glass and opened the refrigerator. “Oh, dear, Lord. Look at this mess. Old Chinese food, milk that’s expired. A cucumber? My poor niece.”
He grabbed the milk container away from her. “This is fine.” He put it back and closed the door.
She put her hands on her hips, her lips slanted in cockiness. “So where are you working?”
“At the church.”
“You? In a church? Hell hath frozen over.” She passed him and headed back to the living room. “I heard you talking to someone when I was at the door. Is someone here, or are you talking to yourself these days?” She danced a few odd steps around the room. “Are you finally dating? It’s about time. Where is she? Why haven’t I met her?” She laughed in the way that always grated on his nerves. “Are you embarrassed? Is she hideous or something? Does she look like one of the Teletubbies?”
I need a drink. “Would you like a glass of wine?”
She sat in his favorite recliner and pushed the footrest up. “Wow, my little brother is asking me if I want to have a drink with him. My goodness, life is certainly getting better for me.”
“Do you want a glass or not?” he asked, raising his voice as he headed back into the kitchen.
“I’d better take your offer since it probably won’t happen again.”
He reached into the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of white wine. He grabbed a couple of glasses and a corkscrew from the cabinet. He soothed his anxiety with a deep breath before returning to the living room. “Why am I blessed with your visit?”
“Blessed? Since when are you so holy?”
“Why are you here?”
“Do I have to have a reason?”
He plunged the corkscrew in and twisted. “You never stop by.”
“You never invite me.”
“And you really wonder why I don’t?” He pulled the cork out harder than he’d intended. “So, what gives?”
“Maybe I wanted to see how my little brother’s doing.”
“I’m fine. Nothing for you to worry about.”
“I am worried.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “When’s the last time you were with a woman? Don’t tell me you still haven’t been with anyone since Vicki?”
He dropped onto the couch, pulled the coffee table closer, and poured them each a glass of wine. “It’s none of your business.”
She scoffed. “It is my business.” She gestured toward the wine bottle. “Keep pouring.”
He filled the glass nearly to the top and handed it to her. “No, it isn’t.”
She took a long sip. “Are you going to tell me or not? Or do you spend your nights drinking yourself into oblivion?” She took another sip and placed her feet on the ground as if to make an important point. “Like Dad.”
Like Jim? What a sucker punch. “Knock it off.”
“Grumpy, just like the old man. And you’re living your life in that drunken illusion. How’s the writing going? Are you working for the New York Times yet? Did you win that Pulitzer?” She slapped her hand to her forehead in mock realization. “Oh, right, right. You’re a novelist now. One of those self-published people who can’t find a real publisher because your work is misunderstood. Shouldn’t you be a bestselling novelist by now? Oh, right, I forgot, it takes time,” she said, mocking the words he’d said a long time ago. “So, how many copies of the great American novel have you sold? Two? Three?”
Michael hadn’t talked much about his book nor had he shared the contents of the story with any member of his family. Apparently, word about the publication of his novel had made its way around his large group of relatives.
“Yup, you’re just like Dad.” She drained the last bit of her wine.
“You never change, do you?” He shook his head in disgust. “You come to my house, uninvited. And you sit here, drink my wine, and goad me.”
“Well, excuse me,” she said, drawing out the word. “Sorry for caring about you.”
“You call this caring?” He waved his finger at her. “I call it hateful.”
“Hateful? Oh, please. Come and join me in this great crap hole of life.”
She grabbed the bottle and filled her glass half way. They were both silent as he watched her take a long swallow.
“Look,” she said, her expression softening. “I really am concerned about you. This is how I show it.”
“Worry about yourself. I can handle my own life.”
He topped off her glass. Maybe she’ll shut up and snooze if I ply her with more wine. Yeah, a silent Connie.
She raised her over-plucked eyebrows as he refilled his own glass. “Drinking a lot there?”
“I’m not going anywhere tonight.”
“Maybe you should. You can’t find a woman while you’re sitting in your chair drinking wine on a Friday night.”
Can’t she stop her needling for five minutes? “Get off it.”
“Oh, did I touch a nerve?”
“I had a good woman in Vicki. I had a good woman in Leah . . .”
She slammed the footrest down. “Hold on. Who is Leah?”
He recoiled. He had never told his sister about his trip to Jerusalem, knowing she’d be on the phone to the nut house in a New York minute to turn him in. He struggled to come up with an answer. “She lives far away.”
“Far away? Where? California? Europe?” She laughed, sounding like her younger self when she taunted him. “Is Leah your drinking buddy?”
“She’s out of my life. Subject closed.”
“Yeah, right. Does she even exist? Or is this one of your fantasies?” She shook her head, twisting her mouth in a mean sneer. “Geez. Even Dad doesn’t make up this kind of junk.”
He held the bottle up. “Why don’t you stick this up…” He caught himself and stopped. She’s getting to me again. Michael stood and walked back into the kitchen.
“Why are you running away?” she called out. “I’m just curious about this Leah woman.”
“You’d never understand,” he shot back.
“Come back in here. I promise I’ll listen. I’ll understand. Tell me about Leah.”
Michael placed his glass down on the counter. She’s like Lucy to my Charlie Brown, always pulling the football away right before I can kick it.
He took a long sip of his wine, hoping it would erase the last ten minutes of their conversation and headed back to the living room. He sat and looked into his glass.
Connie threw back more wine as she settled herself comfortably in the recliner, crossing her legs. “C’mon. I promise I won’t tease you. Who’s Leah?”
Michael hesitated, downed more wine for courage, and chose his words carefully. “You’re not going to be a jerk about it?”
“I swear.” She put her hand over her heart.
He blew out a loud breath. “Leah is someone I met a few months back. Elizabeth and I took a short trip, we got into some trouble and she helped us out.”
“Hold on.” Connie leaned forward. “Trouble? Are you broke again?”
“I’m not broke.” He scowled. “It had nothing to do with money. She kept us safe.”
“Safe from what?” She looked concerned. “And since when did you start traveling?”
Michael sighed. “It’s hard to explain. We were in a different town.”
“Where? Here on Long Island?”
“Not even close,” he replied.
“Were you drinking before I came over? You’re not making any sense. I think the wine’s making you delusional.”
“It has nothing to do with the wine. I’m telling you the truth. We were in a different town and Leah helped us.”
“Well, then, where is she?”
“I don’t know. I can’t get in touch with her even if I wanted to.”
He rubbed his forehead. And I desperately want to know if she’s okay.
“Didn’t you get her phone number?” she asked and Michael laughed. “What’s so funny?”
He shook his head. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Well, where does she live?”
Michael waited for the football to be pulled away. He emptied the remaining wine in his glass. “Jerusalem.”
Connie’s eyebrows shot up. “Get out of here. When did you find the time and money to fly over there?”
“We didn’t fly.” He let out a loud sigh.
“Maybe I am, but I was there and I know what I saw and who I met.” He dug into his pocket and fingered the coins. Should I?
She laughed and sipped her wine, choking a few times. Michael stared. Connie continued. “Great fantasy you’ve got going there. This is better than the movies. So, did you take a boat to Jerusalem or did you drive?”
Okay, this is where I stop. “Actually, we rode our bikes.”
“Now you’re being a jerk.”
“It’s called payback.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes. After finishing her wine, Connie asked, “Were you serious about this woman?”
“It doesn’t matter. She’s gone.” He leaned back on the couch, rubbing the space between his brows. “I didn’t expect you to believe me.”
“Then why did you tell me?”
“Probably because I hoped that someday my older sister would be a friend.”
“Now you know how I feel when you’re around.”
“Then why did you ask me to come in for a drink? Why do you still talk to me if I’m such a pain?”
He opened a drawer in the side table, dusted off an old Bible and waved it at her. “Because I remember a time when we were partners in crime.”
Nauseous from drinking too much wine, eating Cheerios, and the hot dogs, he retreated to the bathroom, still clutching the Bible. He splashed cold water on his face, sat at the edge of the tub, smoothed the cover and closed his eyes.
He replayed a memory when he and Connie were kids and with vivid recollection remembered one time when they had each other’s back.
The memory was so vibrant, he could still hear his father’s deep voice, booming, “Connie. Michael. Get down here now!”
Connie ran from her room to the hallway, almost colliding with Michael. “We’re in trouble,” she whispered.
He shrugged. She ran down the stairs.
“Hi, Daddy. I’m here,” she said, standing at attention.
Michael took his time entering the room. He stood close to his sister and cowered.
Their father reached up and tugged Michael hard on his arm, his face only a few inches away. Jim’s eyes were bloodshot and his short sideburns were streaked with gray. The air around him was heavy with the smell of whiskey.
“What was the gospel about today?” Jim demanded.
Michael glanced at Connie.
Her expression mirrored his feelings.
His father tightened his grip.
“Ouch.” Michael rubbed the sore spot and Jim squeezed harder.
“Go to the basement,” Jim yelled. “And don’t come back up until you can tell me what you learned in church today.”
Jim let go of Michael’s arm and he followed his sister down the basement stairs, upset that he’d have to miss the football game on TV.
They headed toward the back room behind the boiler. “What do we do now?” he asked.
Connie fell to her knees, her short black hair bouncing as she peered into the crawl space behind the boiler. “No problem.”
“What are you doing?”
“Hold on, give me a sec.”
She reached in with her hand. “Got it.” She pulled out a small, dusty, pocket handbook.
“What else you got in there?” he asked.
He shrugged. “Whatever.”
Connie hopped up, wiping the dirt from the cover. She flipped through several pages. “Here, look. What’s today’s date again? Yeah, this is it.” Her cheeks were flushed with excitement.
Michael read the page and understood. “Nice.”
For the next few minutes, they sat and read the gospel from that Sunday together.
Michael looked at his sister, surprised they’d been communicating without tearing each other apart.
“Are you ready to go upstairs?” she asked, after quizzing him a few times.
He nodded with enthusiasm. “I know it now. It’s about Thomas doubting Jesus was alive and he wanted to touch his wounds. It’s gross but I guess that’s what Dad wants, right?”
“Yeah, right.” She dropped her hands down so he could slap a low five. He walloped her hand hard. “Hey, that hurt,” she yelled.
Loud, heavy footsteps crossed the floor above their heads. “What’s going on down there?” Jim called down.
“Nothing,” Connie said. “We’re ready to talk to you.”
“Then get up here.”
They ran up the steps, eager to share their newfound information. Standing before their father, they lifted their heads high with pride as Connie started the story and Michael finished it. They both stood in front of their father, grinning.
Jim stopped rocking back and forth in the recliner, and strained to see, like he did when he was suspicious. “Next week I’ll ask you again,” he said. “And you better know it the first time. No more trips to the basement.” He picked up his paper off the floor and held it front of his face.
“Can we go?” Michael asked with trepidation.
Jim’s eyes peeked over the paper. “Go.”
As they scurried back up the stairs, Michael leaned over and whispered, “That was a great idea. I really liked teaming up with you.”
“Yeah.” Connie smiled back. “Me, too.”
* * *
“Hey, did you fall in the toilet?” Connie’s voice brought Michael back to the present.
He opened his eyes, stood and splashed more cold water on his face, toweled himself off, heaved a deep breath, and returned to the living room.
“What were you doing in there?” she asked. “Did you fall asleep? Did you fall in the toilet?”
“Wasn’t sleeping. Just deep in thought.”
“I know I don’t visit a lot, but I can tell I’m not really welcome here.”
“It’s because sometimes you can be a pain in the backside,” he said. “But I hang on to the good stuff we used to do together.”
She put her glass down and wiped the corner of her eyes.
“Oh, no,” he said, surprised. “What’s wrong? I thought I said something nice.”
Tears ran down her face faster than she could dry them. “You don’t understand. My life is a mess. I’m lonely and scared.” She fumbled with her purse. “I’m sure that makes you happy. Right?”
“Of course it doesn’t make me happy. Why would you think that?”
“I’m a loser. My husband left me, I’m eating cupcakes and cookies for breakfast, I don’t even feel like putting on makeup anymore and I’m spending Friday night drinking with my little brother.”
“Oh, shut up, you know what I mean.”
He burrowed through his pockets and handed her a tissue.
She took it and dabbed her eyes. “Thanks.”
They sat in awkward silence until Michael felt she had composed herself. “I’m expecting Elizabeth home soon.”
“Oh, great,” she said. “I can’t let my niece see what a loser I am.”
“Stop. You’re not a loser. Elizabeth doesn’t think that either.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You think I don’t appreciate the times you helped me with her when she was young? The times you took her to the movies when I had to work. She told me how you spoiled her with candy and popcorn at the movies. She still remembers how you both laughed when you spilled a big bag all over the seat. She’ll always have those wonderful memories, and she brags about how fun and cool her Aunt Connie is.”
A peaceful understanding of silence fell between them. “Let me call you a cab. You’re in no condition to drive and I won’t let you anyway. You know how I am about that.”
She nodded and her body shook. “I miss Sammie so much.”
“I miss her too.”
She stood. “Look at me. I’m a mess.”
He walked over and hugged her. “I’m not much better.”
“Did Dad call?”
“Yes. Did he call you?”
“You’ve got to be kidding. Why? Is the old man dying?”
“That’s not funny.”
“Is he dying?”
“Now’s not the time to talk about this. I’m sure he’ll talk to you soon.”