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on strike against god

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A list of six things regarding Nicholas Esteban Hemmick:

  1. He wore a white tux to his baptism. The church was crowded that morning, heat radiating off the parishioners in waves. A ceiling-high portrait of La Virgen loomed over them behind the altar. At the time, Nicky felt protected, but that was before he learned to be wary of mothers.
  2. Maria kept a picture of that day on her nightstand alongside a scene of the Sistine Chapel, where God was creating Adam; the material of it was cheap like she tore it out of a catalog, leaving Nicky with blue thumbprints whenever he picked it up. She also hid a blurry image of Chapultepec Castle, taken by the shaky hand of a child, under her lamp. Nicky used to sit at the edge of her bed and stare it for what felt like hours, and he never quite understood why.
  3. He attended a private Catholic school until his freshman year of high school, and in first grade, his teacher taught the class a prayer. Dear Saint Anthony, she said, please come around. Something is lost and it cannot be found. Anytime you feel like you have misplaced something, she added, you recite that prayer to our holy saint. That, among many other things, is a habit he, at eighteen, has still yet to shake.
  4. Despite everything, he loves his mother.
  5. Every Monday, she would pick him up early from school and sneak him out for ice-cream or for an afternoon at the theatre. Sometimes she didn’t drop him off at school at all. Instead, she packed them lunch and drove them to the Latin American Art Institute, where they would spend the day wandering between portraits. No matter where they went, she always spoke to him in Spanish. No more glancing over her shoulder, no more whispering, no more lies. Ya me hacías falta, mi amor, she would say. I was beginning to miss you.
  6. He can’t make himself let go of that, either.

 

***

Nicky, after four days in Germany, has tried to meet Erik Klose three times.

The Kloses are from a small town north of Stuttgart. They live in a bright yellow, one-story house that overlooks a stream. A fenced garden sits in their front yard and a handmade birdhouse is tucked on the high branch of an old tree. It might just be the Columbia in Nicky’s bones, but his first few hours on German soil are spent staring at the large expanse of green grass and high hills, the houses with roofs the color of spiced rum. He thinks for a moment that the birds sing differently here.

Mr. and Mrs. Klose, as they show him to his room, tell him that their son, Erik, is at the gym doing laps, but hopefully, both of them will meet properly once he’s back. Nicky agrees politely but thinks to himself that if by some miracle he leaves his bed in the next twenty-four hours, it’ll be by divine intervention alone.

He sleeps the rest of the day and wakes up early the next morning ravenous. As he slinks soft-footed as a cat to the kitchen, he takes time to absorb what he sees: mismatched furniture in the living room, artwork decorating the walls, and silly magnets hanging certificates on the fridge.

Nicky, sitting at the breakfast bar, is in the middle of shoveling cereal into his mouth when Erik pads into the kitchen, takes one look at Nicky, and freezes.

Nicky, perplexed, stops chewing his mouthful of corn flakes to stare back.

His first thought is that Erik looks exactly like one of those boys you’d take home to meet your mom. Clean face. Tall, but not lanky. Some stubborn baby fat still sticks to his cheeks. Nicky saw a picture of him only once. The Kloses e-mailed him a family picture when they were first assigned to each other months ago. The Erik in the photograph struck Nicky as someone who considered his body to be an ill-fitting glove, and Nicky recognizes the Erik standing before him now as no different from the Erik he saw on his computer screen.

His second thought is that only a boy like Erik would wear a t-shirt two sizes too big that says, I bee-lieve in you! across it in big, blocky letters. A cartoon bee spirals toward his armpit.

“Ähm,” Erik says, and stops there. 

The tension is thick enough to chew, the silence almost a physical weight over both of them. Nicky, being an expert at icebreakers, goes to say something, remembers too late there’s still food in his mouth, and immediately snaps it closed, but not before he swallows an unchewed mouthful and promptly begins choking.

As far as first impressions go, it’s not the best, especially since Erik’s parents come in just as Nicky starts coughing his lungs out. Mr. Klose slaps Nicky on the back while Mrs. Klose greets Erik in murmured Arabic and with a kiss to the cheek. Then she leads him out of the kitchen and Mr. Klose asks Nicky how he’s feeling, so it stays at that.

 

 

Nicky is in the middle of a wet dream about root beer and peanut butter M&Ms when someone kicks his door open so hard the door handle bangs against the wall, loud as a gunshot.

Nicky does the only sensible thing, which is shout, “Jesus Christ!” and fall off the bed on his ass, the covers tangling around his legs. He glances at the alarm clock he toppled; it’s barely eight in the morning.

He hears footsteps racing down the hall, then when they skid to a stop at his open door. Mrs. Klose huffs under her breath. “What—?”

“You didn’t say he was staying here!” A voice cracks in defensively.

Someone else asks, genuinely curious, “Where else would he be staying?”

Nicky untangles himself enough from the sheets to poke his head out and watch Mrs. Klose, fully dressed and caffeinated, send Erik and the girl who just kicked a boot mark on his door away, rubbing the bridge of her nose raw. He thinks he catches her mutter, “This is not what I meant when I said break him in, Louisa,” before turning her dark, sharp eyes on Nicky.

“Are you all right?” she asks.

He’s clad in boxer briefs, has bed head, and recognizes the dull burn of a bruise forming on the spot where his hip meets his ass. Nicky feels “all right” in the same way Mary felt “all right” standing before the Archangel Gabriel—meaning not at all.

“Sure,” Nicky lies anyway.

Her mouth twitches, twinkling with silent amusement. “Have you ever played chicken?”

“I—yes?”

“Good,” she says, then adds, as if as an afterthought, “Breakfast is waiting. Come down whenever you’re ready.”

 

 

Louisa won’t stop staring at him.

He spends the first five minutes at the table pretending he hasn’t noticed it, and then the next two realizing she doesn’t care if he does either way. He stabs at the pancakes on his plate and spares her a glance.

She has dark hair she keeps tied in a messy knot at the top of her head with a bright orange scrunchy. The rimmed glasses on her face sit just a touch crooked, and she nudges at them with the heel of her hand every few minutes like it’ll do anything. She wears jeans and high boots and a flannel over her t-shirt. Nicky, absorbing her long eyelashes and squarish jaw, half expects her to smell like hay.

“Louisa,” Mr. Klose says, “stop trying to intimidate him.”

“Let her,” Mrs. Klose suggests, putting her hand gently over her husband’s. “It’s the only way we’ll get through the rest of the year.

Another few beats of silence pass between everyone.

“So. Nicky,” Mr. Klose says after apparently realizing no one else is going to say anything. He lifts his coffee in Nicky’s direction. There are bits of dried clay on the fingers he has wrapped around his dragon-themed mug and apron, which hangs a little awkwardly off his shoulders. “This is Erik’s friend, Louisa. As you can see, she was raised in a barn.”

"Hilarious.” She turns her gaze back to Nicky. Beside her, Erik is staring off into the middle distance as if he would rather be anywhere else. “I usually take a nap in the guest room while Erik gets ready. I didn’t realize it was occupied.”

A beat passes.

Some might argue it doesn’t count, but the moment he makes brief eye contact with Erik is the third time he tries and fails to meet—or make sense—of Erik Klose. Nicky’s unsure if this is Louisa’s way of apologizing or if she’s accusing him of something, so Nicky stares at Erik, terrified, which Erik ignores in favor of looking down at his plate.

“Don’t worry about it,” he says.

She holds out her hand. There’s an obscene amount of syrup on her plate. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Nicky takes it, his own probably still sticky with juice and jam. “Likewise.”

 

 

Nicky finally relents and decides he’s procrastinated unpacking his stuff long enough on account of (a) it being true and (b) he’s still pretty petrified of stepping out of his room.

He spends the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon organizing, moving furniture around, and throwing his shit wherever. By the end of it, he feels sore all over and he’s willing to tackle anyone in the house to the ground if it means dibs on the shower.

Erik runs into him in the hallway—literally. He turns into it just as Nicky makes it past the corner. Nicky flails, trying to keep his balance. Erik merely wavers on his feet, wide-eyed and wincing. He’s surprisingly strong under his tucked-in button-ups, Nicky thinks.

Erik rubs at a spot on his forehead. “Sorry.”

“You’re fine.” He’s hyper-aware that his hair is sticking up, his face shiny with sweat and oil. He sighs, eyes fluttering closed in a half-formed wince. Usually, he’s not so bad at this. “It’s nice to finally know what your voice sounds like.”

The joke lands wrong. Erik stiffens, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m sorry. That was rude.”

“No, it wasn’t.” Nicky would’ve been lying a few hours ago; he thought Erik was an asshole at first, but after watching him scrub his face and avoid making eye contact with everyone, Nicky’s starting to realize he might just be shy.

Erik looks down at his shoes. “I wanted to let you know what Louisa did—she didn’t mean anything by it. She was trying to be—“ he grapples for a word “—protective.”

“Protective of what?”

Erik’s eyes widen. “Ähm,” he says. “We dated for a while a few years ago, and we’ve been friends for longer. Neither of us makes other friends very often, I guess, so she—”

“Wanted to know if I was a piece of shit,” Nicky finishes for him.

Erik huffs a laugh. “Yes, exactly.”

There’s fondness creeping into Erik’s expression as he talks about Louisa, transforming his grimace into an almost-smile. It’s the kind of expression you get when you talk about someone you love, the kind of look you get when you talk about family. Something dark and sad pangs in Nicky’s chest to see it. He wonders briefly if that’s what he looks like when he talks about his parents, though he discards the idea as soon as it comes.

(Waste not, want not. It’s his father’s favorite proverb. If Nicky doesn’t waste time thinking about something he’ll never have, its absence will never hurt.)

He nods, wiping his sweaty hands on his jeans before sticking one out. “It’s nice to meet you, Erik.”

Erik takes it hesitantly. “Pleasure to meet you, Nicky.”

 

***

 

The next few weeks pass by gradually.

Nicky never considered his German to be bad, but he’s quickly starting to realize the difference between speaking a foreign language in a classroom full of beginners and throwing himself into a German-speaking country. It’s frankly a miracle he can keep up with anything at all, and he often asks Mr. and Mrs. Klose to slow down or repeat themselves.

He calls his mom regularly, half because he knows it makes her happy and half because he knows his being here makes her uncomfortable, that she only ever agreed to let him study abroad because of his father. Before his first year of high school, she tried to convince him to take four years of Spanish instead of German.

(I could help you, she said as she set the stove on low to heat up dinner. Nicky sat at the breakfast bar, swinging his legs back and forth. His father was working late, and Nicky couldn’t help but think her timing wasn’t a coincidence, as if she planned for a private conversation.

I barely speak it anymore, he reminded her. His father never liked his mom speaking a language he couldn’t understand under his roof, and once Nicky was too old for his mom to find ways to teach him through lullabies and secret trips, the language fell away from him like water through a sieve, leaving behind only pebble-sized memories.

She turned away from him. You never know, she said. It might come back to you.

Maybe, he said noncommittally, remembering what she told him once about missing someone to the point of deprivation. He wondered if that expression extended to other things.)

All in all, Nicky spends most of his time either pretending to do homework, watching highlights of last year’s Exy season on YouTube, or sitting in his new room, staring endlessly at the empty walls and clean carpet.

(White walls, white floor, white sheets.)

The only problem—the one that follows him around, the only constant in Nicky’s life—is mass.

 

***

 

There’s a church by Nicky’s school. Its bricked walls have gone brown with age, the sign out in front yellowing and peeling. It’s a juxtaposition against the memory of his father’s church, golden and huge.

As much as Nicky would prefer to just lie to his mom about the whole thing, he knows he won’t be able to keep it up all year. Either he’ll break or let something slip, so lying is strictly out of the cards.

He has a strange, recurring nightmare that he’ll gather his courage to walk inside only to find that the doors are locked, and an even stranger one that the locks aren’t meant to keep him out but to keep something else in, something with gnashing teeth. Something that demands blood. Something that would otherwise hunt him.

He hovers, uncertain, at the curb staring at the church a few times. His thoughts running a mile a minute while he tries to shake the odd sensation of eyes boring into his back. As if someone is going to come running out after him and—and what?

He prefers the days when he sits in bed and thinks of nothing at all.

After two weeks of probably driving the St. William secretary to the verge of tears, Nicky shoulders his backpack and walks inside.

The church is empty, his footsteps echoing louder than gunshots as he makes his way through the foyer, past the office. Dipping two fingers into the stoup, he steps inside the nave. There are only four rows of pews. An organ cramped into the corner. A carpet worn down to the same pale, washed-out color of the walls. The stained glass does little to brighten the green-lit room, and there’s no gold anywhere in sight.

He’s beginning to think he’s alone when someone pops their head out from behind the altar.

“I’m sorry,” Nicky blurts out.

The priest must not have noticed him come in; he freezes at Nicky’s voice, blinking where he stands.

“I didn’t realize, um.” Nicky waves his hand around vaguely. “Forgive me, Father.”

The priest recovers easily, pinning a smile on his face. It’s a kind smile, one that smoothes the lines at the corners of his eyes, at the center of his forehead. “This isn’t reconciliation. No need to apologize. Please, sit down.”

Nicky still feels caught, but on autopilot, he follows the order and sits down.

“I’m Magno Moreno, though you can call me Father Magno if you like. Are you here just to sit?” he asks.

Nicky is expecting the question in German. Maybe even English—some native speakers find Nicky’s accent tricky, and it wouldn’t be the first time someone’s decided it was just easier to speak to Nicky in his own tongue.

The last thing he’s expecting is for the priest to open his mouth and start speaking Spanish.

Luckily, he uses words Nicky’s brain still foggily recognizes. Hearing it is like blowing cobwebs off the cover of an old book he blurrily remembers but can’t quite place or wrap his head around. He says, “I don’t, actually—I mean, I used to, but not anymore.”

“Oh. Excuse me. I just assumed.”

“Where are you from?” Nicky asks. Then winces. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”

Instead of telling Nicky to get the fuck out of his church, Father Magno considers him quietly before answering, “Jalisco. Before that, el Distrito Federal. You?”

“South Carolina,” he says. “I only asked because I, um. My mom, you know, she’s from Oaxaca, and she—there’s not a lot of people from there where I live.”

It’s beyond an understatement. Nicky’s suburb is filled with white picket fences and stay-at-home moms. All of his friends growing up didn’t look anything like Nicky, and sometimes he thinks his father wanted it that way, separating his mom from everything familiar until her only connection back to Mexico was a museum two hours away.

Father Magno pauses again. “It’s perfectly all right.”

Jesus Christ.

“I’m sorry. I think I’ll,” Nicky says, gathering his things off the floor, “um.”

“Of course,” he says.

 

 

Nicky feels eyes on his back and a presence at his heels his entire walk home.

 

***

 

Somehow, Erik and Nicky settle into a strange kind of friendship on complete fucking accident.

One Saturday as Nicky is scrolling aimlessly on his phone and avoiding the huge stack of math homework piled on his desk, he hears Louisa very clearly snap, “Erik, for fuck’s sake!” and then a thumping noise like someone getting shoved.

Nicky meerkats his head at the soft knock on his door, so soft he doesn’t know if he imagined it. Then there’s another rap of knuckles, this time harder.

“Yes?”

The door opens slowly. Erik pokes his head in and stares at Nicky for a few moments before simply saying, “Hi.”

“Hey?” Nicky hazards.

“Are you busy?”

“Very,” Nicky says, who hasn’t moved from the bed all day. When Erik keeps staring like he can’t decide if Nicky is being serious or not, Nicky clarifies: “I’m very busy doing nothing. What’s up?”

“Louisa and I are taking English as our foreign language credit, and we have an exam on Monday, but neither of us understands most of what’s going on. We were hoping you might be willing to help us.”

Nicky mentally loses his step. It’s the first time they’ve asked him to join them on something. He’s aware his German is still pretty trashy compared to theirs, and they’re so close, have known each other for longer than Nicky’s known almost anyone. If it was him, he would be covetous of a relationship like that, too. A spark of hope flares in Nicky’s ribcage.

“Sure.” Nicky tosses his duvet to the side and gets to his feet, stretching his arms up high over his head until he hears his spine pop. Erik is rubbing the back of his neck and looking everywhere but at Nicky’s face. He has the same look on him that he did the day they met: uncomfortable, wary, and more than a little panicked.

“Erik?” Nicky asks.

“Yes?”

“You don’t have to be nervous about asking me for things, you know,” he says. “It’s just me, and I’m only, like, half as bitchy as I sound.”

Erik smiles into his hand, relaxing incrementally against the doorframe—which isn’t a whole hell of a lot, but Nicky takes satisfaction in the small things. “Half?”

“Oh, you have jokes. That’s cute,” he adds, before pushing Erik down the hall.

Fortunately, Nicky isn’t dumb enough to not know what they’re going over. Most of it is vocab with a few grammar and conjugation rules thrown here and there, and he’s able to answer most of their questions without having to scan the book. At some point, Louisa ends up stomach-down on the floor with Nicky’s knee serving as a cup holder for her hot chocolate. Erik sits on his other side, back reclined against the couch. He gets up once to refill their mugs—one covered in silly, hand-drawn roosters, the other glazed green—and comes back with a third for Nicky, the handle heart-shaped.

The following Saturday, they do the same thing: a knock on Nicky’s door, a mug already awaiting him on the coffee table. The Saturday after that, they take Nicky’s breakfast upstairs to Erik’s room. The one after that, Nicky sets an alarm and meets them in the kitchen.

(None of them talk about it, mostly because Nicky wouldn’t know what to say. Erik and Louisa, on the other hand, seem to think there’s nothing to discuss.)

During the weekdays, Erik and Nicky sprawl themselves across Nicky’s bed and trade papers, homework, and notes. It turns out Erik is single-handedly responsible for keeping the publishing industry alive, so he does Nicky’s Socratic questions on Conrad while Nicky corrects his English homework.

If asked, Nicky would say he didn’t expect this to snowball the way it did, but it’s a nice change considering they rarely spoke to each other and now spend hours together daily.

“I would’ve asked you sooner if I’d known you’d agree,” Erik insists, though Nicky already explained he isn’t arguing that point. “That and if I knew you didn’t hate me.”

“I’ve literally never heard anything dumber than what you just said,” Nicky says, “and I grew up in a conservative suburb in South Carolina.”

“You say that like I should know anything about U.S. geography. Or the U.S., for that matter.”

Nicky draws a red x over one of the answers Erik puts down on his homework. “Why would I hate you? I’ve only been here a month.”

“Seven weeks.”

“What?”

“You’ve been here for seven weeks, not a month.”

For the sake of his sanity, Nicky ignores that. “Why would I hate you?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugs. “You seemed... skittish, I guess. I thought I might have offended you.”

“Oh,” he says, biting his mouth. “Maybe it was because I was afraid there wasn’t enough room for both me and your ego in any given room,” he adds, partly to add some levity and partly to hide his guilt. Though, with his luck, Erik will be able to read it off him anyway.

Instead, Erik’s expression is the one that shutters. He turns his face away and says, “Right.”

A few beats of awkward silence pass between them, which Nicky spends fidgeting. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Nicky tries again. “Hey. What do you think my chances are of bullshitting my quiz tomorrow?”

Face downturned, Nicky nearly doesn’t catch the way Erik’s mouth twitches. “You couldn’t even tell me the main character’s name.”

Relief pulses through Nicky. He relaxes against the wall with an inaudible sigh and shrugs, let’s his shoulder brush against Erik’s. Erik doesn’t back away. “It’s multiple choice.”

“That just means you have a 75% chance of being wrong.”

“Jesus Christ,” he says, shoving Erik until he breaks, laughing as he half-dangles over the mattress. “Go be smart somewhere else.”

 

***

 

There are a few things you should know about Erik Klose:

  1. He doesn’t practice a religion, even after a lifetime of following his mom in and out of mosque and his dad to temple once a year. But he does believe in God.
  2. From first glance, he resembles his dad: tall Black men who like to grow out their hair and dimple when they smile. But upon closer look, the topography of his face is eerily similar to his mom’s: the slope of his nose, his cheekbones, his soft jawline.
  3. The first time he kissed a girl, he was thirteen. His class was on a field trip to the roller-skating arena, and Louisa plopped down next to him in the corner as he tied his skates on. She was uncharacteristically hesitant when she pressed a chaste kiss to his mouth.
  4. The first time he kissed a boy was his junior year in the greenhouse. He was taking notes on his planetarium project when his partner caught him mid-sentence and cupped Erik’s face in his hands.
  5. Following his tradition of all or nothing, he decided he liked both.
  6. Louisa invites Nicky to her farm for the first time the summer after their graduation. She manhandles him onto a horse while Erik stands a safe distance away. Nicky, wrapping his absurd octopus arms around the horse’s neck, spends the entire time cracking jokes about looking like a brown Zorro while trying desperately not to lose his shit. Louisa hooks her arm in Erik’s as they watch and says, I kind of like him, to which Erik answers, Well, good. I was planning on keeping him.
  7. He only ever gets drunk once in his life. He’s twenty-one and standing in the living room of his apartment avoiding his bedroom because he can’t stand the thought of crawling into a cold, empty bed. He generally hates drinking, but Nicky liked to keep a bottle of red wine in their kitchen for special occasions. Erik only ever knew the taste from what he could lick off the back of Nicky’s teeth, but right then, he chugs it down in gulps, wanting it to wash over him until the wine is the only thing he can taste for days. He has a nagging feeling it’ll be the closest he’ll be to Nicky for a while.
  8. He ends up being right about that. Seven years filled with frustration, wonky Skype calls, mismatched schedules, and rushed vacations culminate like a thunderous storm and finally break to reveal this: Nicky stepping off a plane, holding a one-way ticket, and saying to Erik, “There you are,” like he found something lost in the last place he thought to check.
  9. Erik never meets Nicky’s parents. He can’t say he minds.

 

***

 

Nicky doesn’t think about church.

Rarely. He rarely thinks about church.

But on the days he does, he thinks of Father Magno’s accent, the way it rounded his vowels and reminded Nicky of his mom. The second Father Magno spoke Spanish, Nicky was suddenly seven years old again and sitting in his mom’s lap as he ate his melting ice-cream under the sun. She pointed once at the sky and said, Mira el cielo, mi amor. Mira los pájaros. Look at the sky, my love. Look at the birds.

He remembers smacking his lips together and telling his mom, Sí, Mamá. Sí los veo. Yes, he sees them.

It’s pissing down rain outside, but Nicky runs out in only his sweater. He arrives at St. William’s completely soaked, his tennis shoes squeaking against the old tile. (Tracking the outside world into God’s house, his mom would scold.)

The only person he finds is Father Magno, lingering outside the confessionals with his head bowed toward the tabernacle.

Nicky makes considerably more noise on his way inside this time, trying to slow down his breathing and chattering teeth enough to get a word through.

Father Magno takes one glimpse at him and asks, “Are you all right?”

“Fine,” Nicky answers through his chilled fingers. He rubs his hands together, trying to create some friction. Rain drips softly from his clothes to the floor. “Do you mind?”

“No,” he says wryly. “I had just been thinking it had gotten too quiet.”

Outside, the rain continues beating against the windows, muted like the sound of a heart beating—like Nicky’s own heart beating, strong but steady against his ribcage. For a single moment, he wonders what the fuck he thinks he’s doing. There’s no reason for him to be here, making a puddle on the floor on a rainy Friday night, a bad guest in a sacred home. His father would say he’s making a scene.

Then Nicky remembers his mom in the museum, his mom with her arms wrapped around him in the grass.

“I wanted to ask you for a favor,” he says.

Father Magno doesn’t say anything. He stands there and waits patiently as Nicky takes a few more steadying breaths, tries rubbing some heat back into his hands. Tries to remember what it’s like to be warm.

“I want to learn how to speak Spanish again,” he goes on. “I don’t know anyone else who can help me. I thought about doing it myself, but—well, I’m a bad teacher, but I’m a quick learner, I swear. I could help around here with anything you need in exchange, if you want. I know a lot about—”

“Yes.”

Nicky stops. “Yes,” he echoes, inane.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt, though I should say I would be happy to help you before you continue,” he says, smiling. The wrinkles in his face soften again. He must smile a lot, Nicky thinks. “I only ask for your name in exchange.”

Nicky blinks.

“It’s Nicky,” he says. His voice rings in the empty church, bouncing off the walls and leaving a pleasant hum like the last notes of a hymn. “Nicky Hemmick.”

 

***

 

Because his life literally cannot get any weirder, Nicky ends up spending whatever time he isn't with Erik and Louisa with a priest.

At least he thinks his life cannot get any weirder until the day he shows up to church after school and the secretary tells him Father Magno is not currently there.

Half an hour later, Nicky is standing in the middle of a bar six blocks away, saying, “I don’t even want to know what a priest needs a side hustle for.”

Father Magno looks drily at Nicky from the other side of the pool table. He’s wearing a coat that conveniently hides his clerical collar.

The man he’s playing with stares blankly between Nicky and Father Magno, and it’s only once Father Magno sets his cue stick aside and slides their bets in the man’s direction that his confusion manifests into shock, followed quickly by sheer terror.

“It’s lucrative,” Father Magno explains.

“I can’t believe this. I come to you to replenish my soul,” he says, just to show off; he only recently learned the word for “replenish” in Spanish. “And I find you here.”

Nicky takes a seat at the bar, ignoring the way his jacket sleeve sticks to the counter. “Also, you do know that your secretary just works on her thesis and streams college Exy games on your dime, right? Why do you even keep her? Every time I ask her, she never hesitates to tell me where you are.”

“I like people who lack manners,” he says.

Nicky ignores that. An idea pops into his head. “Hey, what’s the drinking age here?”

Father Magno fastens his coat and motions at Nicky. “Come on.”

The chilly afternoon breeze hits them on their way out, a counterpoint to the warm, salty air of the bar. It’s late enough into the year that the sky has dimmed into a soft, muted orange. The handful of restaurants and bars still open turn on their flickering neon signs. They blink against the sky, humming. 

Nicky asks, genuinely curious, “Isn’t gambling a sin?”

“Excessive gambling,” Father Magno corrects him, “but look at where we are, in the heart of this town. How can this be a sin, enjoying the company of everyday people?”

Nicky says, “The part about hustling them out of their money.” Father Magno huffs out a laugh just as Nicky adds, “Or them taking pocket change from one of God’s servants. Pick and choose.”

“They rarely take my money.”

“And you never take theirs,” Nicky guesses.

Father Magno looks extremely affronted. “I obviously take the money.” 

Nicky’s laughter echoes in the empty streets. He wonders if this is how those birds in the sky his mom pointed at felt while flying: As if gravity has released him, left him weightless. 

 

 

Before they part, Father Magno says, “Oh, I almost forgot. Here.”

He hands Nicky a prayer card. It’s old, crinkled at the corners, and soft to the touch. Age has done to the paper what sunshine does to a book cover, but Nicky can still make out the shiny background, bright red like the skin of an apple.

Nicky looks at Father Magno skeptically. “St. Anthony?”

“You know the rhyme?”

“Everyone knows the rhyme,” he answers absently, flipping the card over. The print is in Spanish. “Where did you get this?”

He smiles. “Home.”

Nicky swallows. The inside of his mouth tastes like sand.

The card resembles those free ones youth pastors hand out, like this was an impulse purchase from a drugstore decades ago. The ink smears and the material is thin, but it’s also worn through with love. Father Magno probably knows every tear and wrinkle in it to the finest detail, would recognize it blind. Nicky’s never had anything like that, never carried around a rosary or his scapular like a good luck charm.

Nicky should tell him he can’t take it. He should give it back.

Father Magno must sense the protests on the tip of Nicky’s tongue. He presses the card into Nicky’s palm with his thumb. “Keep it,” he says in a voice that’s kind but no less unyielding for it. 

Nicky worries it between his fingers as he watches Father Magno disappear inside the church. St. Anthony, the patron saint of everything lost and stolen. Only certain breeds of Catholics turn to this prayer for any reason other than pure habit, and Nicky wonders which one Father Magno is of the two: lost or stolen. Does Father Magno, like Nicky, wander aimlessly through life feeling unmoored, or does he feel cheated out of something else altogether?

More importantly, what is he hoping Nicky finds? Himself or God?

 

***

 

Usually, they talk about moral relativism.

“It makes no sense,” Nicky argues from where he’s replacing burned-out candles from La Virgen Maria’s altar. She looks down at him, kind and loving and sad. Father Magno gave him an unreadable look when he mentioned it, but Nicky thinks all moms are sort of like that. Just a little bit sad.

“Is this going to be another one of your conniptions about the Sixth Commandment?”

“No,” Nicky straight-out lies.

“Ok,” Father Magno sighs, not believing a word.

“It’s just that it’s dishonest.”

“Dishonest by your lights. The point is to discourage ambiguity.” He shuffles through his thick stack of papers in the pew. Behind his reading glasses, his eyebrows scrunch together. He scribbles something down in the margins. “Exceptions inspire debate.”

“Nothing is ever clear cut.” Nicky genuflects before following Father Magno into the pew. He plops down and starts in on the second pile of work.

“This is true,” Father Magno agrees, flipping back and forth between the packet listing the volunteers for next Sunday and the monthly bills, “but where do you draw the line? How do you separate the moderate and the extreme?”

“Common sense?” Nicky says. “Anyway, it’s hypocritical to pretend the Church doesn’t somewhat embrace relativism. It’s not human nature to deal in absolutes.”

“Hm.” Father Magno looks up from the papers. He slides off his glasses and taps them against his mouth, considering. He gestures at Nicky, asking, “Are sins ranked?”

“I’m just saying,” he insists, “that if you go by black and white, you just hurt more people than you help.”

Father Magno raises his eyebrows. “Is this really what you look forward to all day? Running through religious talking points with a middle-aged priest?”

“You’d think you’d be more flattered. I’m extremely popular, you know.” Nicky grabs a calculator out of his backpack once he gets to the finances. He got a B-minus in Calc last semester, and he doesn’t want to be the reason Father Magno goes bankrupt.

He scratches a spot on his chin and adds, “Anyway, I like being here. You—uh. I like talking to you. You don’t spray me with holy water for being honest with you. It’s nice.”

There’s a beat of silence before Father Magno lays his hand carefully against Nicky’s shoulder. He says, “Thank you.”

It would be funny if Father Magno didn’t look so sincere, staring at Nicky with his bleeding eyes. He could be talking about anything: the paperwork, the company, the compliment. Nicky can’t help but feel that there’s a meaning here he’s failing to grasp, but still, he answers, “Of course,” because it’s the truth, because there’s nothing to thank him for.