The Soloist: Part Eight

Continued from Part Seven, or you can start from the beginning.

The Grove Street Church occupied a plot of land in a residential area a few blocks from the center of town. Not such a long walk from Jojo’s apartment over the tea shop, but a cold one on a dark December night. The lights were on, glowing golden over the front doors, and Talia slipped into the vestibule. Reilly held court on the steps to the choir, a group of teens sprawled around him. There were a couple of guitars, a hand drum, and a harmonica, and in the middle of a motley crew of kids, her son. Talia’s heart flipped over. Somewhere between moves, he’d developed a man’s jawline and long limbs that spoke of more height to come.

He looked… content. In a way she hadn’t seen in too long.

If only his father could see past what he believed his son should become to the young man he was.

If only Blaine could see life beyond his family.

If only.

And yet, her heart was still warm from boxed pinot grigio and Christmas cookies with Jojo’s friends, who, after a few goggle-eyed moments, embraced her. Reilly chose that moment to look up from a spirited rendition of Jingle Bells that included some actual sleigh bells, and Talia grinned. Not only her heart, then. There was probably a commandment about not coveting thy neighborhood pastor, but the dimple in his left cheek was enough to bring a strong woman to her knees.

“Talia,” he called across the hall. “Come in. We’re just waiting for everyone’s rides. You can pick up the harmony line.”

And there it was, the wanting something from her.

“I’m sorry, Reverend.” She made her way down the aisle; Eli scowled at her tone, and Talia’s resolve faltered. “We have to get home. I’m sure Eli has homework.”

Eli closed himself off. “I did it after school.”

The ease she’d seen in Eli from across the room was gone, and an awkward silence fell over the youth group.

Reilly set down his instrument and addressed them. “Guys, can you head down to the basement and put the chairs away? And Haley?” Here he singled out one young woman. “Can you take the bells and drum downstairs and make sure the lights are turned out?”

When Eli didn’t get up, Reilly gave him a look. “You too.” Eli slouched off, leaving Talia standing there, keenly aware she’d ruined everything.

“I didn’t mean—“ she began, but Reilly cut her off.

“You are both welcome here. It has nothing to do with whether or not you sing in the choir, or what your faith is, or what’s dogging you.”

Talia felt all the fear and hurt—and bone deep weariness—rise. “Who said anything about my past?”

“No one but you. Just now,” he said softly, and she knew he was right.

“You tricked me.” Even as the words escaped her mouth she knew how foolish she sounded.

“Talia.” He said her name with a tenderness that shocked her. “Maybe it’s what I do for a living, but I can see the hurt, the walls around you, from miles away.”

Her reply came out as a whisper. “I didn’t ask you to fix me.”

When he closed the distance between them, coming to within arm’s length, she wondered crazily if he was going to kiss her. “I don’t want to fix what isn’t broken. I just want to…”

He didn’t finish the sentence. She couldn’t look away.

Eli and Haley burst up from the church basement, laughing, his surly mood dissolved. The rest of the youth group thundered up behind them.

Reilly blinked at the pair of teens. “Lights out?”

The girl Haley laughed. “Yes, Pastor Hunt.”

Talia watched the way her son looked at the girl. They very way she’d been looking at Reilly a moment ago.

“Eli, we should go.”

Eli shrugged, but the girl only smiled. “See you at school, Eli.”

To be continued in Part Nine

The Soloist: Part Seven

Continued from Part Six, or you can start from the beginning.

When applause broke out at the end of Bill, Talia nearly dropped the chipped mug of chicken soup she’d been nursing in the back lot. She didn’t, but the soup sloshed over the rim and her spoon went clattering to the dirty asphalt. She turned to find Jojo Moretz standing in the kitchen door.

Jojo clapped enthusiastically again. “Oh, Talia. I’m sorry about your lunch! Though I’d be lying if I said I was sorry for lurking while you finished. I could listen to you all day, and nobody sings songs from Showboat around here.”

Talia flushed. “My mother had all those Broadway shows on records. I knew them all by heart before I even knew they were plays.”

Memories of her mother were like cigar burns on her heart.

Jojo sat herself down next to Talia. “My first job when I left here for New York was as a rehearsal pianist for an off-broadway production company. I’d hear a great old song in an audition and end up scouring this little record shop on Thompson Street for the cast recording. And leaving with five more the old guy who ran it recommended.” She fished a butterscotch from her pocket. “You want one?”

When Talia refused Jojo went on, the candy in her cheek. “I’m hosting book club this week. Tonight at my place. You should come.”

Talia started to refuse, but Jojo was faster.

“Nobody actually reads the books. We just have snacks and wine and gossip. And there’s a youth group social tonight at the church. My girlfriend runs it with Reilly. Eli will be welcome, and he’s over there already.”

If Talia’s laugh was touched with bitterness, Jojo was kind enough to overlook it. “You’ve sewn me up, haven’t you?”

Jojo inclined her head. Regally. “It’s my gift. I am a ninja-level meddler.”

“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” Talia said, bracing for Jojo to do exactly that, “but I’m not a joiner, and I’m not—we’re not—religious.”

Jojo leaned in close. “Half the folks who show up every Sunday would say the same. It’s pretty laid back, the way we do things. Lots of people come for company and free coffee, or a chance to sit with their thoughts. Reilly’s got enough faith for the whole town, but even he’s… well… Still waters, I guess. His God had room for Jasmine and I long before most people. He’s got more love in that crusty heart than he knows what to do with, but he’s never settled down.” She cackled. “Lord, I sound like such a yenta.”

Hank’s voice boomed from somewhere inside the diner. “Talia!”

Jojo stood. “Six tonight. 1280 Washington. Two blocks down on the left, above the storefront that sells all the teas and oils.”

Talia couldn’t think of a single argument. “Okay. Thanks.”

Jojo waggled her fingers and vanished into the kitchen, her voice cutting through the diner noise as Talia followed. “Hank, you work that girl too hard. Is there coffee?”

Inside, there were two orders for mid-afternoon breakfast sandwiches and a to-go mac and cheese. Talia split two English muffins and broke a couple of eggs on the griddle, and tried to ignore the bubble of nerves and curiosity in her belly.

Reilly was single.

Jojo wanted to be friends.

Eli hadn’t complained at all about his time at the Grove Street Church, not since before the first day, and now he was being invited to youth group socials.

Reilly was single.

Talia flipped one pair of eggs to break the yolks and shimmied the second to keep them from sticking while the sunny yolks set. She caught herself humming We Need A Little Christmas, and smiled. Jojo would like that one, too.

Book club. She didn’t go to book clubs.

Reilly was single.

To be continued in Part Eight

The Soloist: Part Six

Continued from Part Five, or you can start from the beginning.

A woman’s only day off in a week wasn’t meant to start hauling her son to church by his ear. Not literally by his ear, and not to church—in that sense, but to the church. The handsome, kind Reverend Doctor Reilly Hunt’s church.

If ever there was a man she shouldn’t have gone to bed dreaming about kissing, he was that one. And yet, she’d crawled into the bed in the bedroom she’d yet to really nest in imagining a version of the night that ended with his lips on hers, his hands—not as soft as you’d imagine a preacher’s hands to be—on her face, her neck. Her body.

It didn’t matter to her body that ultimately he was after her voice and her service to his congregation. His kindness in the dark of night seemed genuine enough. A perk of his career, she supposed.

And there was still the question of a wife. Didn’t small town reverends have wives? Children?

They approached the side door of the church, where a charming sign directed visitors to the office, and Talia shook off impure thoughts of the pastor. Eli trudged sullenly behind her carrying the baby doll in a paper grocery bag; his shame keeping time with his shadow in the late-morning sun.

The office stood empty, but a familiar melody swirled through from the hall. Someone, two someones, she realized, were playing Silent Night on piano and guitar. She held them both back in the doorway. Reilly and a fine-boned woman with vast and intricate tattoos visible up her arms were playing the duet, illuminated by a clear bar of light from the vaulted window over the front door. For a moment, the worry of their errand vied with hot jealousy in her belly.

Dust-motes danced around the pair while them while Reilly strummed and the woman’s fingers danced on the worn piano keys; as it always did, the music eased her heart.

Eli was always telling her she was singing when she hadn’t been aware of doing it, so when Reilly looked up, and the piano harmonies faded, Talia caught herself, flushing scarlet and snapping her mouth closed.

“You know the German?” A grin a mile wide spread on the woman’s face.

“Only the first verse,” Talia stammered.

The woman stood. She wore combat boots and thick wool socks, a huge fisherman’s sweater over patterned leggings, and a silver hoop though her nose. That’s the haircut I was trying for, Talia thought.

“Johanna Moretz.” The woman stuck out a hand. “But everyone calls me Jojo. Tell me you’re planning on auditioning for our choir? Please.”

Reilly must have seen the distress on her face. He interrupted, concern thickening his voice. “What brings you here, Talia?”

She pulled her son in front of her, planting him between the reverend and herself. “My son has something to say.”

“Son?” Reilly phrased it as a prompt, but Talia couldn’t help hearing it as a judgment.

“This belongs to you, sir.” She heard the squeak in Eli’s voice, a brutal reminder that he was on a cusp. That she had to stay vigilant.

Reilly rose, still holding the guitar, to take the bag Eli thrust out. He peered into the bag. “Where’d you come by this?”

Eli muttered something that sounded like it ended in, “Dare.” Talia squeezed his shoulder.

Her son lifted his chin and stared down the pastor. “Some kids from my homeroom were gonna take it on Christmas morning. I told them their plan was shitty… sorry, sir… Crappy, and they were gonna get caught. I was showing off, trying to get them to like me. Sucks being new all the time. So… one of them… told me where to find it, and I snuck in here and took it.” His defiance deflated visibly, then he stared at his feet. “I was going to bring it back.”

Silently, Reilly handed the bag to Jojo, who whisked it away into the back entryway. Reilly pocketed his hands and drew in a deep breath. “Eli, do you think it’s fair of me to ask that you help Jojo and me some around the church, by way of apology?”

Eli nodded assent without looking up, and the hard knot in Talia’s chest loosened.

Reilly looked over Eli’s head at Talia. “Maybe he takes the school bus out here next week after school, helps out until you can come pick him up?”

Talia nodded, blinking back the stinging threat of tears. “That sounds okay to me. Generous, even.”

“Maybe you both come to Sunday service? Eli can help Jojo get set up… and you’d get a chance to meet your neighbors.”

Talia shook her head.

Reilly smiled gently. “I don’t want to convert you, Talia. We don’t do much of that around here. Just think about it.”

To be continued in Part Seven

The Soloist: Part Five

Continued from Part Four, or you can start from the beginning:

Reilly finished printing requests and recipient numbers on the Gifting Tree tags somewhere between two and three in the morning. He yawned, set his desk back in order and left the pile of tags on Jojo’s desk for the morning. The need in the community broke his heart every year, but it was always mended when the congregation provided. On the way out to the barn to warm up the truck, he went through his mental checklist. There was one last Advent Sunday sermon to write, the baby for the Nativity to locate, a soloist to find…

He sat in the cab of the truck, watching the stars and thinking of Talia Benson. She wasn’t what anyone would call his type—if he had one—but there she was, occupying valuable real estate in his head. A beautiful voice, joy in the singing, engaging and vulnerable all at once. A mystery. And then there was his physical reaction to her. She was… striking. Reilly believed wholly that there were forces greater than himself at work in the world; he sensed that Talia was going to teach him something, but life, and God, had a way of throwing curveballs.

He swung the truck out onto the rural route where his parents’ place—he’d never been able to call it his, though it had been his since they left for Arizona—huddled near the State Forest tree line. The sky was infinite, the stars dizzying and brilliant, as he rumbled along past a small clutch of cottages that passed for a neighborhood that far from town.

It seemed his lessons didn’t observe daylight hours, for there she was, Talia Benson sitting on the stoop of Jerry Griffin’s rental under the yellow light of a bare exterior bulb. He couldn’t read her expression in the deep shadows, but he knew the bend of world-weary shoulders. He glanced at the dashboard clock with a sigh and eased the truck onto the shoulder.

Rolling down the window, he called softly. “Ms. Benson? Talia? You okay?”

She looked up and Reilly noticed a mug between her clasped hands. “Depends on who’s asking. And why.”

“A concerned neighbor,” he offered, letting the truck idle and making no move to leave the cab. He held still while she contemplated him.

“I wouldn’t mind some company.” The admission sounded defeated. “Do you do this a lot?”

Drop in on an intriguing, frustrating stranger in the small hours of the morning? “I can’t say that I do.”

He turned the key and left it in the ignition, grabbed a hat and mittens, lovingly if not tidily knitted by Jojo, and suited up for the cold. Talia was wearing shapeless shearling boots, and a parka over a sweatshirt, the hood pulled up to cover her bright hair. His lungs pinched, not from the cold, but from the sense of rightness about crossing the small yard in the starlight to offer her comfort.

He sat two steps below her, keeping as much of his rear end off the cold stoop as possible. “It’s late. And cold.”

She snorted. It was unladylike and delightful. “Did you master the obvious in divinity school, or do you come by it naturally?”

“Strictly a product of my upbringing,” he countered. “And it’s been a long day.”

Talia toasted him with her mug. “It really has. I’m tired of my problems. Tell me about yours.”

“Well.” He leaned his head against the cold railing and closed his eyes, “I spent the morning in the city. There’s an at-risk youth program I volunteer with. Holidays can be hard. The afternoon was mostly what passes for hard labor in my profession. This coming Sunday’s the last one before Christmas Eve, which means folks expect some garlands and wreaths, and I hate ladders.”

Her voice was soft. “Me, too.”

Reilly could feel sleepiness spreading out from his chest; the hour was finally catching up with him, but so too was a promising weight in the air between them. “And Jojo’s in a panic over Jesus—”

Talia cut him off. “Who’s Jojo?”

“The church’s Girl Friday, for lack of an official title.” Reilly shrugged. “So we spent some time looking for Him.”

“Like actually looking? As opposed to… searching?”

Reilly opened his eyes to find her looking hard at him, a touch of laughter in her eyes. He laughed too, opening up to her humor. “Millie Silver put it away last year, and we can’t find it. Jojo’s in a tizzy—“

“Did you just say, ‘tizzy?’” Talia’s laugh let fly. Timpani, he thought again. Steady, booming.

“Anyway, the baby doll is missing…”

Talia’s laughter stopped like she’d turned the tap off. The wariness was back. He didn’t know what wrong things he’d said, but he couldn’t help the happy thrill of connection they’d shared before he’d said them.

“I should go in,” she said, rising with a deep sigh. “You’re not too far from home?”

“Nope.” Reilly took the hint. “Goodnight, Talia.”

To be continued in Part Six

The Soloist: Part Four

Continued from Part Three, or you can start from the beginning:

Talia came home to a cold, dark house. There was grease in her pores, and her feet ached, but she had a day’s pay in her purse and hope in her pocket.

She deposited a to-go cup of coffee from Hank’s and a bag of pantry staples from the market next door on the chipped formica table that came with the rental. Her phone chimed—a text from Eli—and Butter, their rescue mutt, padded in from the back of the house. He yawned, stretched, and moved to sit by the door, his brindled backside sliding a little on the faded welcome mat.

“Your boy’s on his way home from somewhere. He’ll take you for a proper walk later.” Talia jingled his leash. “This is just to pee.”

Butter, so named because his first act as a member of the family had been to eat a full stick of the stuff right off the counter—wrapper and all, tugged in the direction of the sidewalk, but Talia pulled him back toward the door. The wind was up, and the cold had teeth.

Inside, she started the water in the shower, cranking the water temperature up to scald away the smell of diner food. She nearly screamed when she tripped over a baby doll on the floor in front of the toilet. How the hell had that thing gotten in the house? When her stomach returned to it’s usual spot, she bent to retrieve the toy from the floor. Butter had definitely loved on it some. There were distinct canine teeth-marks on the doll’s chubby elbows, and one foot was shiny with dog drool.

She opened the bathroom door to find Butter waiting for her, tongue lolling and tail wagging. “Where’d you find this treasure, hmm?”

Butter sat, watching the doll with adoring eyes while Talia inspected it. Other than the initials G.S.C. Sharpied on the bottom of one foot, it was a small, unremarkable doll. Another text from Eli pinged. Lost track of time. Home soon.

She closed the bathroom door in Butter’s face. “I’ll see you after my shower, tough guy.”

Under the hot water, it was easy to dwell on the preacher’s expression when she shot him down. He defied every image of a cleric she’d ever considered, with his outdoorsy clothes, kind eyes, and scruffy, handsome face. She wondered how the preacher’s wife felt about the sparkle she’d caught in his eye when he first saw her. That admiration had warmed her right through, until he’d revealed that he wanted something from her.

They always wanted something from her.

The dog was nowhere to be seen when Talia got out of the shower, so she wrapped herself in a towel and went to find some clean clothes. The kitchen door slammed, followed by pounding feet and the flush of the toilet. Talia smiled to herself. Eli mostly favored her, long boned and broad featured, but he had his father’s coloring. She pictured his dark hair falling over one eye while he–hopefully–washed his hands, and hoped that coloring was all he’d taken from his paternal gene pool.

She wasn’t prepared for the second door slam.

“Eli?”

When he didn’t answer, she swung though the bathroom to grab the doll, then knocked on his bedroom door. The house still felt like someone else’s, as though she were knocking on a stranger’s door, but they’d done this enough times that she knew they’d settle. A week wasn’t very long to make a house feel like home.

“Yeah.” She could hear the foul humor in his voice.

With a deep breath, she nudged open his door. Her thirteen your old son took one look at her, paused in his doorway in her yoga pants, oversized sweatshirt, and hair towel, holding the baby doll, and said quite succinctly, “Oh, shit.”

To be continued in Part Five.