For LOST IN LOS ALAMOS Beta Readers Only - Please Do Not Share.
The Raven's Pew
Quick Chapter Menu
The height of the Los Alamos Canyon Bridge is 106.6 feet high at its center and is 820 feet long from end to end. Not really very high as far as suspension bridges are concerned, but the median height leading to death is considered to be only about 49 feet. After 90 feet of free fall, you are traveling over 50 mph. Survivability at that speed is just not that high.
Later, one of the very few things that would be allowed to be known by the public was that Dr. Wongsun was an avid swimmer at the National Laboratory’s olympic size pool provided for the Lab employees, with diving being a favorite discipline of the scientist and he was said to practice relentlessly on his form and entrance.
Dr. Wongsun had been coming up on 20 years at the laboratory. He had traveled from Hong Kong with his wife and two children to work as a nuclear epidemiologist. With the advent of digital epidemiology, Dr. Wongsun just could not make the transition and became bitter as he saw his opportunities dwindle, just as his son and daughter had left for Ivy League schools and his wife found community in various women’s auxiliaries and clubs.
As he helplessly watched his life dwindle, becoming almost claustrophobic, his singular solace became the freedom he experienced in the buoyancy and fluidity of water and the exhilaration of the leap off of the platform. It was known and understood off the record that many of the scientific staff at the Lab experienced a pressing isolation that comes with lives of intrinsically specialized research careers and thinking. As rumors of budget cutbacks became more prevalent, the Doctor became even more isolated than usual.
Only weeks before the day the scientist was visited by the men in black, his life had crossed paths with Father Adrian on the most common of grounds in Los Alamos.
Father Adrian made himself put up with the coffee served at CookieSheet’s. Even so, the other patrons could attest to many heated discussions about coffee between Father Adrian and CookieSheet herself. It often was a source of comedic entertainment as the Italian priest’s spirited and gestured, Italian-accented English collided with CookieSheet’s chopped and garlicky South Asian take on the bean and brew of her business. After all, the coffee craze and culture had already migrated to her home city of Bangkok in a big way, with brewers popping up as prolific as the 7-11 convenience stores, the latter being an ubiquitous staple of community corners all over the city.
On one particularly crowded morning, the only seat available to Father Adrian was at a table with a sole occupant. The priest’s Italian heritage provided an excuse to invite himself to the small and non-threatening scientist’s table.
Dr. Wongsun barely gave the priest notice. Father Adrian already had his take-away cup after interrogating CookieSheet on the time and freshness of the current pot. Momentarily irritated at the taste not being to his liking and looking to help her offer a better brew, he even went so far as to ask her how many beans-to-water ratio she had used.
CookieSheet had just stared at him, not saying a word. Out of the blue, she asked him, “When you get such nice glasses? They make you handsome a lot!”
As soon as Father Adrian humbly smiled, then laughed, embarrassed, CookieSheet took leave to turn around and go back into the kitchen, leaving Father Adrian to marvel at what she had just pulled off.
Encouraged and no longer irritated, he looked for someone to use the new technique on.
“I am not one to shy away from engaging a people,” Father Adrian said, waiting with a slight smile as Scott sipped his freshly hand-brewed espresso Father Adrian had handed him before moving to sit back down behind the simple thrift store metal office desk. His equally vintage but heavy chair swiveled toward him on five oak and metal castor-clad legs. The cracked leather seat squished and the springs squeaked as he heavily let himself down into it, swinging his big legs beneath the desk. Even through obvious emotional pain, Father Adrian’s eyes squinted behind the glasses and his mischievous grin spread.
“Oh, Si. God forgive me for lusting after this rich and luscious cup of coffee,” he said. Then he chuckled, “My substitute for the same in a woman.” He picked up and sipped from the small cup. The pain crept back into his face.
With this statement and his own taste of the priest’s coffee, Scott’s mind flashed on the magical java Alvin T. Bordois initiated him to in that tricked-out purple rig. Seemed like a lifetime ago. He was learning to appreciate more types and tastes of coffee. “Maybe I‘ll start up a coffee blog,” he thought to himself.
Earlier, when Father Adrian managed to leave the altar, he had come to Scott where he sat in the pew. He looked terrible, but there was something like a scab healing over a wound in his eyes. He was past the bleeding part but now the pain was throbbing as the covering became taught and while it was impossible to ignore, he was keeping away from it lest he pick at it and open it again.
“Would you like to pray with me, Scott?” the priest asked as he sat down in the pew in front so he could face Scott, a beefy arm draped over the pew back.
“No, I’m okay,” Scott replied.
Father Adrian nodded his head and reached over to pat Scott on the shoulder. “That is okay. I prayed for both of us. If you don’t mind?”
Scott didn’t know if he believed himself, but said, “I appreciate that. But, no, I don’t mind. Thank you.”
And he did believe his own words., he then realized. While he didn’t believe in prayer to a God he didn’t know, he decided to believe that prayer or directing one’s worthy intentions at anything had to have a positive vibe to it that made some difference.
Having gone upstairs to Father Adrain’s lamp-lit office, they each sipped their espresso. Father Adrian’s eyes yielded to a revisit of the scene at the bridge and he began speaking in his accent that broke some of his English.
“When I was at Rome, I had a counseling practice. I was a psychologist. This was at my younger days. I was allowed to do my counseling along with my duties as a priest. I did not wear my vestments during my counseling practice, be assured,” he swept a hand down the front of his clothes that he had changed into when they arrived at the church and he had led them to the sanctuary.
Scott had felt he did not want to leave the priest there. He told himself that it was because the man was still quite shaken from the death on the bridge. It was more than that, though. Scott didn’t want to think it. That would be too much of a cliché. But another observer would say it was because of the bonding experience they had just gone through.
“After all, I guess I just saved the guy’s life,” he thought. He came back to the room when Father Adrian next spoke.
“There was a older boy. Fourteen or so, I believe. My memory is failing me these days. It is quite disconcerting,” he began. Scott prepared himself for a long story. He remembered the other time when he had met the priest he felt like he’d been on a very long freight train which was slow to start and very difficult to stop once it got going. The saving factor was that Father Adrian’s stories were either very interesting or very funny.
“Do you wish to have more espresso? Or I can make a cappuccino for you?” he asked Scott, placing his hands on the table to lift himself up from the bottomed-out leather seat. He groaned and squinted as his torso muscles that had collided with the railing contracted to stand.
“Oh. Mi Madre,” he winced.
“That’s okay, Father. I’m good. Please sit down. No worries,” Scott offered.
The priest decided to sit back down, wincing and relieved. He inhaled, puffed out his cheeks and exhaled with a “Whew!” He took a sip of gone-cold espresso and made a face.
“Ah! I should not have more caffeine this late.” He reached into a desk drawer and brought out two small bottles of water. He handed one to Scott and opened his own, swallowed twice, wiped a cuff across his mouth, and leaned forward in his chair with a renewed intensity as his hands played with screwing the cap on and off. Scott was determined to just be, allowing the priest a sort of confessional, Scott pridefully thought.
“His name was... Oh, I should not say his name even though this is so long ago. He was an odd boy with many difficulties in his life. His parents came to me because it was becoming more difficult for him out in the world, I should say.”
He set the bottle down on the desk and raised his hands to gesture, a staple of the priest’s communication style.
“He was to the point that he had become quite compulsive about his hand washing. He would wash his hands over and over, but with an added component. Every time he felt he was finished washing, he would have to leave the sink walking backwards, so that he could be sure that none of the bacteria could follow him out of the toilet.”
Father Adrian looked away a moment, seeing an image of the boy. A young soul who innocently compiled his own list of things he required to maintain a sense of safety in his life.
“That need for a sense of safety soon became a matter of survival,” he continued. “When they brought him to me, he was having to walk backwards almost everywhere to make sure nothing could befall him from behind. It frustrated him because he could not protect himself from the front this way.”
Scott tried to imagine how this would work for himself, were he to be afflicted with something so odd. He had the impression that he already had some pretty odd things about him.
“We worked together over a period of three or four months and were making progress in discovering the source of this fear. But he wanted to go back to school. He also wanted to be free from being chided for his behavior. That was the part that was not working so well, even though the school and other students understood this problem and cooperated in things. Then the boy started experiencing anxiety attacks and his parents had to take him out of school again.”
Father Adrian unscrewed the water cap and took another drink to wet his throat. “Sorry, I’m getting a little dry in this cold weather. It needs to snow again to replace the moisture in the air.” He coughed twice, took another drink and began again. Scott thought that he, himself, could do without any more snow.
“One day, I received a very urgent call from the boy’s father. The father had taken him to work with him and while he was out getting lunch for both of them, the boy had washed his hands in the father’s personal office bathroom and could not get the ink from one of his father’s fountain pens off of his fingers. Later, the authorities found soap and water all over the bathroom as the boy had become frantic.”
“When I arrived at the father’s office, the boy apparently had had enough of the dysfunction and went backwards out of a window to stand on the ledge below the window. It was an overhang of the building’s dining room on the floor before. It was on floor ten.”
The priest went on to describe the scene. He had hung out of the window for almost two hours, talking to the boy. He prayed for the boy. He told the boy bawdy jokes that the boy could not resist, mischievously smiling at them. Eventually, he convinced the boy to come in and continue working with Father Adrian.
“It’s not every day that you have a chance to save a life,” he said. Then he followed with what he intended to be humor, “It’s not everyday that you fail miserably at it.” Father Adrian’s eyes smiled, but glistened nonetheless before his face broke into a grimacing sob.
“Please excuse me,” he asked, embarrassed.
“You almost lost your own life trying to save the guy,” Scott countered. “That was amazing how you just leapt at him!”
Father Adrian dropped his head into his hands, elbows pointed downward on the desk supporting his head. “True,” he said, his voice muffled. “But it was not his physical life I had a chance to save,” he moaned into his hands.
“What?” Scott asked, adjusting himself in his chair and scooting it forward toward the desk.
Father Adrian lifted his head from his hands and wiped the back of his right hand across his eyes and then folded his hands, staring at them.
“He and I had more meetings at CookieSheet’s after that first encounter. It surprised me. Usually the scientific types are not very inquisitive when it comes to the religion.” The priest stopped and looked past Scott toward the small, dimly lit stained glass above Scott’s head.
“He wanted to know more about my Faith. He was curious about what had saved my own life after I mentioned the trials I had gone through as a child. He wanted to know what gave me the will to go on.”
“Did he seem suicidal back then?” Scott asked.
“He hid it well behind his researcher’s rationality, but there is no mistaking a lost soul,” the priest said, looking directly into Scott’s eyes.
Scott was uncomfortable with this. The priest noticed. Father Adrian grinned again through the pain.
“Ah, dear Scott. You saved my life today. How does it feel?”
“Wha..., I..., What?” Scott stammered.
“I am not an easy weight to pick up off of the railing, but you lifted me as though I were a bird.”
“I did?” Scott asked, thinking he was not hearing the priest correctly.
“Are you a weightlifter or do you work out night and day?”
“No. I just... I just try to keep in shape is all. Why?”
The priest just chuckled. “Oh, my boy, God’s own hand is very strong in your life. Maybe you don’t know?”
“Well,” Scott demurred, “I just did what I did pretty automatically. It’s not like I had a discussion with myself whether I should see if I could grab you off the railing or not. Ya know?”
“Yes,” the priest said, the corner of his eyes wrinkling even further as he peered into Scott. “I can can see that you had no idea what went on in you or with you.” He laughed again. “I would just ask that you when you feel to, you might contemplate what you were feeling when you came to me. If you can.”
“Yeah, well. I’m just glad you’re okay. It’s not your fault the guy went over like an Olympian. He was determined.”
Father Adrian sighed and was wracked by another sob. “Yes, God have mercy on his soul, he was, indeed. But still...” He crossed himself, saying, “I know that I can only offer my testimony and witness and the rest is up to the Spirit but I will answer to His Holy Majesty for what I have done or not done.” His face became slack and his eyes looked like they had twenty-pound weights on the lids, but somehow still stayed open.
“Well, we aren’t perfect, are we? Man, I’ve got my stuff going on as well.” Scott yawned involuntarily and tried to cover it. Father Adrian yawned in response and eyed Scott. He straightened and put on a fake smile.
“Do you think we have had enough excitement for today?” Father Adrian asked.
“Yeah, just about. I have to hit it hard on the house tomorrow,” Scott said, tiredly. “Do you think we need to worry about the police or anything?”
“As they spoke, we will be hearing from them tomorrow. Then we will see. But no, I think not. At least for you.” Father Adrian’s eyes and mouth were carrying extra years. The smile he kept close at hand could not disguise the spiritual agony he was going through.
“You should be off the hook with the cops, too. You almost sacrificed yourself for the Wusong guy.”
“‘Almost’ is not a word very well tolerated for the shepherd of the flock,” Father Adrian informed. “It is a serious business when it comes to a soul that’s lost.”
With the tall front church door swung open to the night, Father Adrian took Scott’s hand with both of his big, soft and warm hands. The candlelight from within gave a yellow glow to Scott’s face and it outlined the priest’s figure.
“You are a dear servant for sacrificing your time and talents for Betty’s welfare. She is a deserving one, certainly. There will be recompense for you in time, I have no doubt. Let us speak again soon when you can.”
Scott left the priest and the rectory, curious about the peace he felt when he should have been agitated. Maybe he’d done something good for himself, after all, in coming to the priest’s rescue - however unaware of it he was.
The dark night was cold. The church door shut out the candlelight from within so that only the streetlight shown into the Jeep. The lack of humidity burned Scott’s nostrils as the vehicle warmed up. Man, he was tired of this having-to-warm-up-the-Jeep shit all the time.
He wished for the warmth of the beach. He wished it was in his power to magically complete the house and head back home to the life he was comfortable with. The life he had crafted for himself. He thought about the idea of praying to someone or something for it, then sarcastically admonished himself for the thought. But he did know he wanted more power over his situation than just wishing for it. Maybe he just needed to buckle down, maybe get more knowledge.
But this was something, wasn’t it, he thought to himself. There was something going on in him. What? What was going on with him? He’d just saved someone’s life, so it turns out. He laughed. He actually saved someone’s life who was trying to save someone else’s life.
“That’s a weird one,” he said out loud.
“The religious nuts say that their God saves souls. Now I just saved one of his priests. If God saves souls and I saved the servant of God, did I just save his soul like God would?”, Scott contemplated. “Does that get me something?”
As Scott put the Jeep in Drive and pulled away to head back to the dark, dirty, and cold house he had indentured himself to, he hoped that whatever the evening’s event might have meant, maybe he might get a break with things going faster and easier, instead of walking through concrete every day.
That concrete was hardening fast around his feet. Things had to get better.