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.

The Soloist: Part Three

Continued from Part Two, or you can start from the beginning

Hank’s was never empty unless it was closed, but Reilly rarely saw the afternoon crowd. His arrival was met with pleasant, but frank curiosity. For every nod, every hey Doc, every smile, there was a silent question. What’s he doing here at this time of day? They were—as was he—creatures of habit.

Creatures who sat quietly over coffee, pie, or sandwiches; quietly because they were listening to that voice. He paused to drink in the way she navigated We Three Kings of Orient Are, the kitchen noise her percussion. Surely whoever she was, she couldn’t be unaware of the effect her voice had on the patrons?

“Afternoon, Reilly.” Hank motioned to an empty corner table by the front windows. “I’ve got that table, but your spot’s taken.”

“I’m not here for biscuits. I’m here—“ The singer swooped into the chorus and Reilly’s skin tingled. “Has she been singing all day?

Hank’s smile was wistful, bordering on foolish. “She hummed for a while, but mostly, yeah.”

“Can I go back?”

Hank set down a plated meatloaf sandwich. “I’ll introduce you.”

Reilly followed Hank through the swinging door. She was washing dishes, humming over the steaming water in the vast sink. She was… a knockout.

Hank rapped lightly on the counter. “Talia?”

“Yeah, Hank?” She stopped humming, looked up, and blinked at Reilly. “Oh, hi.”

Her eyes were fiery blue. Reilly rocked back on his heels to take in all six magnificent feet of her. “Hi.”

Hank took over the introductions. “Talia Benson, the Reverend Doctor Reilly Hunt, pastor at the Grove Street Church. Reilly, Talia’s my new cook. Fresh off the bus from… Where’d you say you were from?”

“I didn’t.” Talia’a mouth tipped at the corners—Reilly wouldn’t have called it a smile—and she dried her hands. “Pleasure to meet you, Reverend.”

“I’ve gotta head back out front,” Hank said, returning to the register, where a short queue was forming. “Holler if you need me.”

An awkward silence threatened, so Reilly filled it. “Call me Reilly.”

“Reilly.” Talia took off a worn Boston Red Sox cap. She had carrot-red hair worn in a short, choppy cut that emphasized a long neck and strong cheekbones. . “Is this an official visit to save my soul?”

Reilly heard a wariness in her question, though her tone was light. “Official visit, yes. Your soul is your own. You have a beautiful voice, Ms. Benson.”

“Talia.” She corrected him with a blush. “Thank you. Sometimes I forget people can hear me.”

“Lucky us.”

She laughed at that. Her laugh was like a timpani roll. “You say that now.”

“I can’t imagine saying differently.” Reilly leaned against the door to the walk-in refrigerator.  “You’ve got a gift.”

Those blue eyes narrowed fast. “What can I do for you, Reilly?”

Reilly felt that gaze pierce his chest. Here was a woman who didn’t trust flattery. Best to come out with it then. “Sing with our choir. On Christmas Eve. We need a soloist.”

“No.” Her answer was so swift and decisive Reilly wasn’t sure he’d heard her correctly. She seemed to catch herself as well. “I’m sorry. But no. I’m sure you mean it as a compliment, but I can’t.”

“Ms. Benson. Talia.” He’d seen a flash of hurt in her eyes. He’d hurt her somehow. Or bought up an old hurt. The desire to make it right sucker-punched him. He reached out, as if to comfort her, but stopped just in time to save himself more embarrassment.

She snugged the cap back down over her hair and turned back to the sink. “I appreciate you coming by, Reverend, but I should get back to work.”

To be continued in Part Four

.

The Soloist: Part Two

Continued from Part One.

Reilly parked his truck in the old barn behind the church. At seventeen, the old Ford didn’t owe him anything, and Reilly knew it. He skipped his jacket; the heat in truck only had two settings: Off and Death Valley. Sure, the sweat might freeze in his hair, but the cold air was welcome after the ride in from his house outside town.

“Jojo?” He called out into the still, cool air of the empty hall.

He was answered by a deafening G-major chord from the organ. “Back here!”

The church’s administrative assistant, who also played the organ, taught Sunday School, led the choir and the weekly Bible study, popped out from behind the organ. Reilly knew she was somewhere in her forties—she’d only been a few years ahead of him in school, but you’d never know it. Jojo’s face was young, as was her heart. She dressed in long skirts and combat boots or short skirts and jeans together, her inky black hair was pixie short , her skin was a vibrant living canvas, and no amount of tsk-ing from his older congregants could convince her that a nose ring was unseemly.

“I was looking to see if I’d left Jesus in the cubby last year.”

Reilly couldn’t help laughing. “You don’t carry Him always in your heart?”

Jojo set her hands on her hips and gave him the stink eye. “The baby. For the Nativity. I can’t find him with the others.”

“Did you look in the office supply closet? Millie helped us clean up last January…” Jojo’s nod was understanding. “How was practice?”

He’d deliberately waited until after choir practice to come by and set up the Fraser fir he’d bought for the annual gifting tree. No fewer than four members of the soprano section were actively pursuing him – for themselves or for their daughters.

“Bad news,” she said, nudging a box of lights and garland toward the tree stand. “Nancy Elder’s daughter in Seattle went into labor early. She and Sid leave in the morning and Nance says they’ll stay through the New Year. We just lost our soloist.”

Reilly considered. For twenty-five years, Nancy Elder had guided the good Congregationalists of town through two Christmas Eve services with a clear, light soprano and a natural instinct for performing. This was a set-back, but nothing beyond their mortal scope. Jojo was watching him, waiting for a call to action. He grinned at her.

“He will deliver.”

Jojo hoisted a coil of lights and began to untangle them. “I sincerely hope He delivers an opera singer pronto, Doc.”

Reilly considered again. This time, it was the excellent breakfast sandwich and coffee at Hank’s. And the hidden voice he’d delighted in while he ate. He had a homily to write, the baby Jesus to find, and a shift at the food pantry, but he could drop in at Hank’s before the diner closed and introduce himself to the mysterious singer.

He just might have delivered already.

Continued in Part Three