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Having just confessed his sins to his priest--more sins than a kid his age should have--Jarret jumps in his Chrysler 300 and races to the outskirts of town. Emotion overwhelming him, he pulls off the road and flings himself face down behind an outcropping of rocks. Ever since that life-changing night in the canyon, Jarret has felt the presence of the Lord in his soul. Now that presence is fading. Is it his fault? How will he remain faithful without it when he still struggles against the same temptations?Meanwhile his twin brother, Keefe, questions whether he has a calling to religious life. He's gone along with Jarret's bad schemes for years. Is he worthy of such a calling? What would he have to give up to pursue a vocation? Keefe reads everything he can about St. Francis and the Franciscans, but he’s afraid to talk to his father about the Franciscans' upcoming discernment retreat because his father seems closed to faith. Is he ready to go all in?Follow the West brothers in this contemporary teen fiction as they struggle through temptations and trials down paths they can barely see, toward goals they desire in the depths of their hearts.
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JOURNAL PAGE 1
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JOURNAL PAGE 3
THE BROWN SCAPULAR
JOURNAL PAGE 4
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
S T A N D I N G
S T R O N G
PRAISE FOR STANDING STRONG
“Theresa Linden first won my high school students’ hearts in Roland West, Loner. When they read the inspiring and enthralling Battle for His Soul, they were even more hooked. A seventeen-year-old student specifically asked if Linden, his new favorite author, could write another book showing Jarret’s struggles to stay on the right path after his dramatic conversion. This is that book! Here is a novel that will not only entertain, but also greatly help today’s teens in their own daily lives.”
~Sister Mary Louise, high school teacher
“In a society where many sell themselves short in striving for greatness and virtue, Theresa Linden's Standing Strong continues to exemplify how relatable members of the West family are to us, and moreover, how untiring is the pursuit of our merciful Lord in His quest to give us every good thing when our soul is free to receive Him.” “God enriches the soul which empties itself of everything.” ~Saint Pio of Pietrelcina
~Brother Conrad Richardson, fbp, Franciscan Brothers of Peace
“Another chapter in Theresa Linden’s masterfully-developed series for teens that will resonate with everyone who has struggled to find his place in the world, been tempted to take the easy way out, or doubted the work of God’s hand in his life. A realistic portrait of the slow and subtle work of grace in our lives.”
~Carolyn Astfalk, author of coming-of-age romance Rightfully Ours
“Linden is a master at getting inside the heads of today's teenagers, and her own deep faith and love of God shine through and inspire on every page. After reading Standing Strong, your own spiritual life cannot but be strengthened, making you also want to stand strong for God. Highly recommended!”
~Susan Peek, author of St. Magnus: The LastViking and other saint stories for teens and children
“Standing Strong is a beautiful testament to how God works—in the whispers, in the quiet moments, in the gentle guidance of our hearts. It's a reminder that Jesus is with us in ways we may never understand, and that, if we allow it, the Holy Spirit will give us the strength to stand strong for God!”
~Lisa Mayer, author of The Aletheian Journeys Series
“It's not easy to reinvent yourself while you're still in high school, as Jarret West discovers as he seeks a way to turn his life around after an intense spiritual experience. His twin brother couldn't be more different: Keefe contemplates joining the Franciscan friars. Theresa Linden recounts twin spiritual quests in her newest novel, Standing Strong.”
~Barb Szyszkiewicz, editor at CatholicMom.com
“Theresa Linden is an amazing talent in Catholic teen fiction. The ease with which she draws the reader into each scene, with outstanding descriptions and her ability to capture the heart and soul of the tough Jarret West, make Standing Strong her most powerful and gripping book yet. I devoured this novel, needing to find out what happened next.”
~Leslea Wahl, author of award-winning YA fiction, The Perfect Blindside
“Standing Strong refutes one-dimensional stereotypes and redefines the power of Bro. Recommended for teenage boys as well as for anyone who would like to fathom their world.”
~Virginia Bliss, Catholic author
BOOKS BY THERESA LINDEN
CHASING LIBERTY TRILOGY
Fight for Liberty
WEST BROTHERS SERIES
Roland West, Loner
Battle for His Soul
“Bound to Find Freedom”
“A Symbol of Hope”
“Made for Love” (in the anthology Image and Likeness: Literary Reflections on the Theology of the Body)
“Full Reversal” (in the anthology Image and Likeness: Literary Reflections on the Theology of the Body)
Copyright © 2017 by Theresa A. Linden
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events or places is purely coincidental.
Scripture quotations are from The Revised Standard Version of the Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1965, 1966 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Library of Congress Control Number: 2017909653
eBook ISBN: 978-0-9976747-3-6
This book is dedicated to my teenage boys, Joseph, Justin, and Cisco. You might not always feel the presence of God but know that He is with you and He has a plan for your life that will give you far greater happiness than you can ever imagine. Trust and surrender.
I am grateful for the encouragement and assistance I have received from several talented authors: Carolyn Astfalk, Virginia Bliss, Susan Peek, and my editor Lisa Mayer. These authors have helped me to grow as a writer and have encouraged and supported me through this project. I also wish to express my gratitude to Barb Szyszkiewicz for reading an advanced copy of this story even with all her new obligations. Last but not least, I will always be thankful for the love and support of my husband and three boys; I wouldn’t be able to write my stories without them.
“Be strong and of good courage...
for it is the Lord your God who goes with you;
He will not fail you or forsake you.”
“Do not be conformed to this world
but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,
that you may prove what is the will of God,
Heart racing out of control, seventeen-year-old Jarret West swung open the door to the confessional with a sweaty hand and stumbled out. Eyes to the floor but not really seeing, he staggered to the front of the quiet church and slid into a pew. He lowered the kneeler, dropped to his knees, and slumped over. A bead of sweat dripped down the back of his neck. Too exhausted to care, he let it trace a path to the neckline of his shirt.
“Hail Mary, full of grace...” He moved his lips as he prayed his penance, his voice less than a whisper. The weight of the sins of his past had lifted as Father had spoken the words of absolution, transporting him to the clouds. The effect was similar to the first time he’d confessed them, back in Arizona, after piling up more sins than he should’ve for a kid his age.
Now he couldn’t think straight. But he had to. He needed to plan.
Jarret opened his eyes and caught sight of his hands trembling, dangling over the pew in front of him. He clasped them together and lifted his gaze to the tabernacle. His teary eyes and the spotlight shining on the tabernacle’s gold finish made a starburst.
“I know You’re in there. Won’t You speak to me?” he whispered, hoping vainly for a reply, a feeling, a holy thought popping into his mind. Anything.
Whispers came from the back of the church. And footfalls. Someone coming down the aisle to do their penance, no doubt.
Not wanting to meet up with anyone he knew, he pushed himself up and dashed out the side door of the church. The air cooled his sweaty neck and invigorated him a bit. Squinting against the setting sun, he jogged around the church and glimpsed his red Chrysler 300 on the far side of the parish parking lot. Sun drenched the old blacktop with faded parking stripes. He counted several cars but no people.
As he hustled across it, he dug his keys from his pocket. He pressed “unlock” on the key fob several times, though the headlights had flashed at his first touch, telling him he’d unlocked it. He yanked the car door open. A pungent odor assaulted him.
Irritation and foul thoughts threatening to disrupt his calm, he collapsed into the seat and shoved the key into the ignition. He peeled out of the parking lot with a hand to the window controls, lowering all four windows.
Doggone thing still reeks of Limburger cheese.
He’d discovered the smell three weeks ago, the day he, Papa, and his younger brother, Roland, had returned from Arizona. He’d offered to pick up pizza for their live-in maid and caretaker, Nanny. He’d opened his car for the first time in weeks and gagged. Breathing through their shirts, he and his twin brother, Keefe, dug through the car until they found the source of the smell: a huge block of spoiled Limburger cheese under a seat.
Immediately suspecting Roland’s friend Peter, Jarret’s anger had propelled him toward the house. Peter was always messing with Jarret, taunting him, and Jarret was tired of him getting away with it. To his irritation, Keefe had stopped him in his tracks and told him to let it go. It took a massive amount of self-control, but he did let it go. At least for that moment. Keefe sprayed air freshener in the car, and they rode with the windows down. The next day, Jarret paid to have the interior cleaned and detailed.
Doggone thing still reeked, especially when closed up for more than an hour.
Jarret turned onto a main road. He hadn’t seen Peter since. He’d just confessed indulging in feelings of hate and revenge—and visualizing his fist removing the smug smile from Peter’s face—along with everything he’d confessed to the priest in Arizona. That had been his first real confession in years, probably since he’d made his first confession in grade school. Back when Mama was still alive. “Once you’ve sincerely confessed,” Father Carston, their white-haired, forty-something parish priest, had said today, “it’s forgiven. You can let it go. And work on forgiving yourself and others.”
Easier said than done. But he’d only confessed it all again because he figured if Father Carston was going to be his spiritual director, he should know the real Jarret.
Spiritual director... Jarret shook his head and sighed. Had he lost his mind? The priest in Arizona told him he should get one. Jarret had been going to Mass on Sundays since then, but he’d put off finding a spiritual director. Until today.
Squinting at the sunlight that reflected off the road, Jarret took a deep breath and exhaled. He willed himself to relax, to come down from the emotional state his confession had left him in.
In the canyon in southern Arizona, he’d promised himself he’d make up for his sins, especially for the way he’d treated his younger brother, Roland. He didn’t feel the commitment as zealously now. But he still intended to do it. Having a spiritual director would help. And not seeking revenge on Peter was a good first step. He’d work on actual forgiveness later.
Please, God, don’t let us cross paths for a while.
Jarret sped past the high school and toward the outskirts of town. On one side of the road, puffy white clouds floated in a blue sky over distant hills. Well-spaced houses sat back far from the road with a few clusters of trees, granite outcroppings, and long stretches of grassy land. Peaceful surroundings that didn’t overwhelm the senses. A long drive might help him pull himself together.
Hot wind blew through the open car windows, ruffling Jarret’s shirt and bringing in fresh air. He pulled the band from his ponytail and let his hair go wild, curly dark locks slapping his face and neck.
Jarret zoned out, thinking of nothing for a while, just pressing the pedal to the metal and steering the Chrysler 300 around curves. The road wound a lot more out this way, twisting and turning like his mood. As he drove further, the landscape developed character: more hills and evergreen trees, a log cabin or ranch here and there.
Warm wind on his face, hair flapping around his head, noonday sun in his eyes...
Fifteen or twenty minutes from town, Jarret realized with a hint of pride that he’d put himself back together. He tried to think of what road he’d cross next, so he could turn around. But without warning, his heart betrayed him.
Emotions erupted, stinging and rattling him to the core. The grace of forgiveness and a clean soul sent his spirit soaring to the clouds, but the weight of his weakness dragged him back down. How would he find the strength, the power to remain on the right path?
Anguish brought tears to his eyes and blurred his vision. He stepped on the brakes and eased the Chrysler off the road, to the only section of grass he could find that would accommodate his car. Skinny evergreens lined the road, most growing close together. A granite outcropping, low on one side and high on the other, like a split-level house, rose up a stone’s throw away. He wouldn’t ordinarily park so close to a road, but his emotional state left him no choice.
Jarret glanced over his shoulder, fortunately having enough sense to check for cars, then he jumped out of the Chrysler and dashed to the split-level outcropping. Anguish driving him onward, he staggered around behind it to where he couldn’t be seen from the road. Shrinking and helpless against a wave of emotion, he rested a hand on the warm granite and fell to his knees.
“Jesus,” he whispered, collapsing to wild grass and hard-packed earth. How could he return to his old life, to school and his friends, and stay on the right path? What would keep him from picking up his old ways? Weak and alone, he longed to experience Jesus’ presence again, the way he had in the canyon. But he didn’t deserve it, so he didn’t dare ask.
The canyon... He tried to call it to mind: the dark, the fear, the chill in the air and in his soul, the exhaustion from having poured out his sins, then the Lord drawing near. His wounded hands. His burning heart.
The memory, fuzzy around the edges, drifted to a distant corner of his mind.
“No.” Jarret dug his fingers into clumps of weeds and grass. The memory slipped even further, resisting his efforts to reclaim it. Would he lose it forever?
“Where do I go from here?”
“God enriches the soul which empties itself of everything.” ~Padre Pio
Keefe leaned his weight into the dresser and pushed, struggling to slide it across the hardwood floor. He’d managed to pull it away from the wall on one side, but now he needed to keep it at an angle so he could maneuver it around his bed. He’d put t-shirts under the feet, thinking it would move more easily across the hardwood floor. Didn’t seem to help. Maybe he should rest and wait for Jarret to get home. Meanwhile, he could take care of that email he’d been putting off.
Turning his head, he glimpsed his laptop out of the corner of his eye. No. He wasn’t ready for that.
Keefe renewed his efforts and shoved again, grunting as he slid the dresser several feet. He probably should’ve removed the drawers, but he hadn’t wanted to make extra work. It had taken long enough to clear all his new books off the top.
Not new. Old. But new to him. He’d spent the last few weeks searching for anything on St. Francis of Assisi that he could get his hands on. His favorite was the 2000-page Omnibus of Sources. The readings really spoke to him, took him back in time to the little town of Assisi and the sandaled, brown-robed saint.
Sweat dripped down his back, between his shoulder blades. Halfway to the adjacent wall, he stopped pushing, scratched his back furiously, and wiped his sweaty hands on his sweatpants. Then he lifted the hem of his rock-band t-shirt and wiped his face. If Jarret were home, this would go much quicker. It had taken him half an hour to box up all the junk on the old entertainment center. Then another ten minutes to move the awkward thing out into the hallway. Moving one of the two armchairs out hadn’t taken much time, but boxing up his old toys and moving his desk had. He’d be glad to finish.
As Keefe leaned into the dresser again, Papa’s bedroom door creaked open.
Papa clomped out into the hallway. For years, the distinctive sound of his old cowboy boots had served as a warning when he and Jarret had been up to no good.
“What’cha doing in here?” His father stopped in the doorway, rested a shoulder on the doorframe, and adjusted his Stetson.
Keefe wiped his forehead with his arm. “Oh, just rearranging. Getting rid of a few things.” They both looked at the clutter of boxes and furniture in the hallway. “Can I borrow the car to drop that stuff at the thrift shop?”
Papa’s brows drew together. Squinting at the pile, he rubbed the back of his neck. “Naw. Let’s hold onto it. You boys are nearly grown. You might want it when you move out.”
“Uh...” Keefe wasn’t going to want it when he moved out. He wasn’t going to want anything. The desire to give it all away grew inside him daily. He wanted to be like St. Francis. But he couldn’t tell Papa that. Papa had grown up in a tiny ranch house. They’d never had money to spare. He’d struggled to make college happen. Then he struggled to find work as an archeologist. Years later, his determination and hard work paid off. But it had turned around only after a series of fortunate events that had little to do with hard work or determination and everything to do with the generosity and blessings of God. Papa was a poor man in a rich man’s house, a cowboy in a mansion. He wouldn’t want to go back.
“Sure, okay,” Keefe said, resigned. “What’ll I do with it then?”
Papa lifted the flap of one of the boxes. He pulled out an action figure, The Doctor, and smiled. “Getting rid of everything, huh?”
Keefe shifted, the heat of embarrassment warming his neck and cheeks. “Well, it’s not like I play with that stuff anymore.”
“You told me they’d be collectibles one day.”
Keefe shrugged. “Maybe they are.”
Papa dropped it back in the box. “Put it all in the basement, behind my field gear.”
“Maybe you can get Jarret to help you.” Papa glanced at Jarret’s closed bedroom door. “He home?”
“Uh, no. He went out this morning.”
“Uh...” Years of making excuses for Jarret had him struggling to think of an answer that Papa might like. Better to go with the truth. “He didn’t tell me. I saw him with his keys around nine or ten. He said he had things to do, that he’d be back before lunch.”
Papa gave a single nod. “Hmm.”
“We’ll probably take the horses out later. Roland’s too.”
“That’s good. No reason that Roland can’t clean out the water troughs and feed buckets.” With a final nod, Papa moseyed down the hall and thumped down the steps.
Keefe turned back to his room and the mess he’d created. Books sat stacked against the wall by his desk, a broom and dustpan by the window, a pile of dirty laundry between the closet and bedroom doors. He might need to move the pile to get the dresser past. He sighed. Simplifying was hard work.
Unintentionally, his gaze turned to his laptop, his thoughts to the email that he should’ve responded to. Would his delay make the Franciscans doubt his sincerity? He wouldn’t be able to go there without permission. Maybe he should mention it to Papa first and see what he thought. Was Papa open to one of his boys becoming a Franciscan Brother?
Lord, what should I do?
Waiting for the answer, he made himself aware of the presence of the Lord. At the same time, he kicked the laundry pile aside, shoved the dresser the rest of the way to the wall, and eased it toward the desk in the corner.
Still waiting for an answer, Keefe stripped the sheets off the bed, tossed them into the dirty laundry pile, and slid the mattress off the bed and onto its side. He wanted his bed against the wall with the door so he could have plenty of space for a prayer area by the window. Wrestling with the mattress, trying to walk it toward a wall, he stumbled on the sneakers he’d kicked off earlier. He lost his grip on the mattress and his balance, and he tumbled to the hardwood floor. The mattress fell over him at an angle, landing partially on the bed and partially on his legs.
Lying on his back, Keefe caught his breath and stared at the satiny blue mattress balanced a few inches above him. He should’ve waited for Jarret to help him. Jarret wouldn’t have wanted him to rearrange his room in the first place, but he would’ve wanted to help if Keefe was determined to do it anyway. Keefe considered crawling out from under the mattress and leaving his room in its present state of chaos until Jarret returned home.
Keefe chuckled, imagining how his twin brother would react. Then he thought of what Jarret would say, questions laced with curse words. Keefe laughed harder. Jarret would think he’d gone off the deep end. Then he’d get distracted by the boxes in the hall, his sentimental side not wanting Keefe to give away anything. His control-freak side wouldn’t like that Keefe had started this without consulting him first. But his new “struggling to do the right thing” side would try to let it go.
Keefe’s laughter bordered on hysteria now. Tears dripped from the corners of his eyes and his chest hurt. He took a deep breath to force himself to calm down, and then he slid out from under the mattress.
Not wanting to put Jarret to the test, he decided to move the bed and carry the boxes and unwanted furniture to the basement himself. Jarret had really been trying. He didn’t need the extra trial.
As Keefe grabbed a corner of the mattress and prepared to heft it, his thoughts returned to the email. He needed to reply. And he should stop putting it off.
He dropped the mattress and stepped to his desk. After wiping his hands on his sweatpants, he opened his inbox and reread the message from Brother Lawrence.
Just sending a quick note. Our new monastery in Arizona is keeping us all busy and coming together slowly, but all in God’s time. Would love for you to come down one day and check it out.
For now, thought you might be interested in a discernment retreat. You can learn a lot about our community and the Franciscan way of life. The retreat is in the middle of September and it’s in Minnesota, which is much closer for you than Arizona.
If you can’t make it, don’t worry. Remember the steps of discernment I told you about in a previous email.
Keep in touch.
Pax et Bonum,
Hesitancy overtaking him, Keefe rested his elbow on the desk and combed his fingers through his hair. He’d put off replying for so long; maybe he’d missed the registration date. Maybe they’d have another one in a few months and he could catch that one. It would give him time to talk to Papa.
In the meantime...
Keefe clicked through emails until he found the steps of discernment that Brother Lawrence had sent. The first step had inspired him to simplify his room and set up a prayer corner.
Step one: be quiet
Moved to rest in the presence of the Lord, Keefe closed the laptop and shuffled to the area that he planned to turn into a prayer corner.
A siren blipped nearby. Jarret lifted his forehead from the hard ground and pushed himself up from clumps of weeds and dirt. He brushed gritty dirt from his hands and then wiped his hands on his jeans. His skin crawled at the sounds he heard, the hum of a car’s engine, tires rolling off the road and crunching onto the uneven ground, a car door slamming…then a voice announcing Jarret’s license plate numbers.
Jarret stepped out from behind the granite outcropping, his gaze snapping to the police officer at the rear of his red Chrysler. The officer had parked his vehicle behind Jarret’s.
The police officer’s gaze snapped to him at the same instant. He squinted. Then he gave Jarret a crooked smile that creased one side of his face. “What seems to be the problem here?”
“Uh.” Jarret strode toward him, forcing himself to walk straight. Praying face-down on the ground had left him shaken. He stopped a few feet from the passenger side of his car. “No problem.”
“Had a bit of alcohol?” the officer asked, stuffing a notebook into his chest pocket. “Kind of early in the day for that. How old are you?”
Jarret felt his face scrunching up with his disbelief. “No, I haven’t been drinking.” He hadn’t meant to sound irritated, but he couldn’t keep it from his voice. “What is it, like 1:00 p.m.?”
The officer stepped closer, peering at Jarret, hands moving to his hips. “Drugs?”
Eyes narrowing and jaw set, Jarret shook his head. “No drugs. I wasn’t feeling well, so I pulled over. That’s all.”
“Hmm.” Not looking convinced, he came even closer. A breeze ruffled his short dark hair, making a few tufts stand on end and emphasizing his widow’s peak. His pink complexion and the sprinkling of white whiskers in an otherwise dark, scruffy beard reminded Jarret of the officer who’d given him a speeding ticket a month or so ago.
The officer glanced inside Jarret’s car and then turned to Jarret. “I’ll need to see your license, proof of insurance, and registration.”
Jarret’s stomach flipped, certain now that he recognized him. Just his luck; it was the same officer. “Yeah, okay.” He shoved a hand in his back pocket, going for his wallet.
“Are you sick or something?” His gaze remained fixed on Jarret as he took the license and insurance card.
“No, I don’t know. I just needed to pull over. I’m fine now.” Jarret opened the passenger side door and grabbed the registration from the glove compartment.
“I’ve seen you in my neighborhood. Mostly at the Jenkins’ house.”
“Oh.” Great. His friend Kyle Jenkins lived on the same street as the cop. Jarret tried to recall his visit last week. They’d sat out back with a few other kids. Jarret hadn’t stayed long. He sure hadn’t noticed the officer.
The officer returned to his car, and Jarret leaned against his Chrysler. Was it against the law to park on the side of the road? He should’ve just gone home.
A few minutes later, the officer sauntered back to him. “You feel good enough to get home?”
“Okay, then. Stay out of trouble. Drive safe.”
A weight lifted. No ticket. Not even a warning. “Yeah, thanks.” You too, he almost said. But that could’ve come across as sarcastic.
Jarret dropped into the driver seat, slammed the door, and shoved the key in the ignition. He pulled onto the road and made a U-turn under the police officer’s watchful eye. A glance in the rearview mirror showed the officer following him, probably wanting to make sure he wasn’t high or drunk.
Gaze flicking between the speedometer, rearview mirror, and the road, Jarret headed back to town.
Fifteen minutes never felt so long. Once he reached the outskirts, he stopped glancing back at the officer’s car and paid less attention to his speed. A few minutes later, he glimpsed a bookstore to the left. The bookstore! Remembering what Father Carston had told him to do, he slammed on the brakes and made a hard turn across an empty road, tires squealing as he pulled into the parking lot. As the car decelerated, his heart leaped into his throat. He glanced in the rearview mirror and over his shoulder. Seeing an empty road and no police car, he let out a breath.
Jarret drove to the back of the little parking lot, not wanting to park too close to the other cars. He hated how careless other drivers were, how they’d open their car doors without paying attention and ruin the finish on someone else’s car.
He gave his heart a moment to calm down and then strutted into the store. Yanking open the door, little bells chimed, and a nostalgic mood struck him. The smell of old and new books, the few slow-moving customers, the rows and rows of bookshelves... When was the last time he’d visited a bookstore? He couldn’t remember. He usually bought stuff online and rarely bought books.
A table with a display of children’s books stood off to the left, angled to invite customers to a larger, carpeted area of kids’ books. A solar system mobile hung from the ceiling. Two small children sat with books on the floor, their mother nearby.
Mama used to read to him, Keefe, and Roland several times a day and always before bed. He could hear Mama’s sweet voice telling the story of a pig making friends with a spider. Then she died... how he missed hearing her read. He’d never wanted Nanny or their tutors to read to him.
Sucking in a breath to push back the memory, Jarret scanned the rest of the store. Bookshelves lined every wall and formed rows off to the right. A freestanding table with a display of some sort—journals and diaries?—stood in the middle of an open area. He wanted to check it out, if not for the customer browsing there: a blond girl about his age in a denim skirt that showed off her legs.
He bristled at the thought of anyone he knew seeing him shop for a journal. Granted, guys bought journals too. And it wasn’t the same thing as a diary, was it? The word “diary” made him think of preteen girls giggling and painting their toe nails.
Moving toward a row of books, Jarret scanned a few titles, momentarily wanting to pick up the reading habit. He pulled a Western from the shelf and smiled. Louis L’Amour. Papa must’ve owned every Louis L’Amour book available, and Jarret had read most of them out of boredom. Some of them twice. Okay, maybe it wasn’t out of boredom. Papa always had that cowboy image, so the books made Jarret curious. Maybe Jarret would get a set of Louis L’Amour books of his own someday.
Strolling down one row and another, Jarret ended up in a nonfiction section with cooking and gardening books. Further down the row, he glimpsed a book with the word “Cyclist” on the spine. Hoping it referred to motorcycling, he pulled it from the shelf. The cover showed a lanky man hunched over a racing bicycle. He flipped through the book, glanced at the pictures, then returned it to the shelf. He strolled to the end of the row and found himself back at the journal display. The girl had gone.
Jarret stepped out, scanning for the girl but not finding her. Maybe she’d left. A box of pens at the end of the table caught his eye. He picked up a silver one with a red stripe and clicked it. A notepad lay on the table, so he scribbled on it, liking the smooth feel of the pen.
After another sweeping glance and not finding any customers nearby, Jarret stepped around the table to browse the journals. Several rugged, manly journals lay among the ones with flowers and butterflies. A leather one with a cord wrapped around it caught his eye. He picked it up, undid the cord, and flipped it open. As he lifted the open journal to his nose—to smell the off-white lined paper—the hair on the back of his neck twitched.
Someone else had come to the table.
A strong temptation to drop the journal, move on, and order one online struck him. But he resisted. He didn’t want to wait for it to come in the mail.
Jarret set the brown one down and grabbed a black one. He glanced to the side as he picked it up. A hint of mortification stirred in his chest. It was her.
She shifted her gaze from the table to him, a smile in her aqua blue eyes but not on her lips. Full lips. Long wavy blond hair falling around a shapely face. Pretty. She didn’t look familiar but, guessing her age, chances were she went to River Run High.
Jarret tilted his chin and gave that look he couldn’t help but give to a pretty girl. Then he snapped his attention back to the journals. Maybe she’d think he was shopping for a girlfriend.
“Do I know you?”
He waited a second before looking up. “Do you go to River Run High?” He asked it in a cocky way, as if she should know him simply because they went to the same school. He’d put a lot of effort into making a name for himself. Every kid in school must know him.
She scanned his face, then looked him up and down. “That’s my school.”
Her answer stung. She went to his school and didn’t know him. On impulse, he grabbed her arm and clicked his pen. She didn’t pull away so he wrote his phone number on the underside of her forearm. “You’ll know me soon enough.”
Giving her a sly smile, he dropped her arm, grabbed the leather journal, and headed for the checkout.
Psyching himself up, Keefe curled and stretched his fingers, then he shook his arms as he strode toward the front hallway. He was going to do it. He was gonna talk to Papa. Mama had had strong faith—she’d taught them the Catechism, turned the walk-in closet off the veranda into a prayer room, and celebrated a gazillion saint days every year. Maybe her faith had drawn Papa from the start. Maybe that’s what he’d loved most about her. If so, he shouldn’t have a problem with Keefe joining a religious order.
Keefe turned down the front hallway and slowed his pace. His socks silenced his steps. Besides, going on a discernment retreat didn’t mean he absolutely would become a Franciscan friar. It only meant he’d find out more about it. He’d have to emphasize that point.
Light seeped from Papa’s study and onto the shiny hardwood floor in the hallway. Papa’s low voice traveled, his words unclear through the half open door.
Palms sweating and pulse kicking up, Keefe crept to the doorway and flattened his back against the wall. He’d stood outside the door to Papa’s study in years past, waiting and listening, always at Jarret’s command. Jarret often sent him to spy out a situation. But he just needed to calm himself for a second now. He just wanted to appear relaxed, didn’t mean to eavesdro—
“No, really I can’t. Sounds like a job I’d like though, so I’m mighty thankful you kept me in mind. You’ve always been a man I can tie to.” Papa paused but his chair squeaked and something tapped, maybe a pen against the desktop.
Keefe pressed his lips together, curious. What job had Papa turned down and why? He didn’t seem to have any real commitments lately. That was odd for him. He always liked to keep busy.
“Naw, you’re all down but nine.” Papa’s way of saying someone was clueless. “But it’s not something I care to discuss. Let’s just say I’m laying low for a year or two.”
Keefe jerked back. Laying low for a year or two?
“Yup. Okay, glad to hear it. Take it easy.” The old phone clattered as Papa hung it up. His chair squeaked again.
Keefe took a breath. He could do this. It was time. He swung into the room. “Hey, Papa.”
Papa stood staring out the tall window by his desk, sunlight turning him into the silhouette of a cowboy. One hand shooting to the brim of his Stetson, he turned and cleared his throat. “Howdy, Keefe. Get your room squared away?”
“Yeah. Mr. Digby helped me move the furniture to the basement. We put it back where you told me.”
Papa nodded, looking satisfied. “Jarret home yet?”
“Uh... don’t think so.”
Papa’s eyes narrowed. His lip twitched. “He needs to let me know before he runs off.”
Keefe nodded. Papa had spent so much time away from home over the years, and Jarret had always resented having to report to Nanny in his absence. Taking off at will had become a habit for him.
“What’s on your mind?” Papa shuffled to his desk, pushed a little globe on a brass stand aside, and sat on the corner of the desk.
“I...” Keefe stepped further into the room and shoved his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. The question bounced around in his mind: “Hey, mind if I go to a retreat?” But he couldn’t get it past his lips. He could imagine Papa’s silent response, the squint of his eyes that Keefe could never interpret. Did it mean the question irritated him or that he needed a moment to think?
What would he think of Keefe’s request? After Mama’s death, Papa had stopped going to Mass. Now that Keefe, Jarret, and Roland had made a comeback, Papa had given it a try a time or two. But he never went up for Holy Communion. At home, he rarely mentioned faith and God. Maybe he blamed God for Mama’s death. How would he feel about one of his sons joining a religious order? Would he think of it as God taking another loved one?
“Cat got your tongue?” Papa smiled and shifted on the corner of the desk, stretching a leg out.
“No, I...” Keefe ran a hand over his hair. “I kind of wanted to talk to you about something.”
“I figured that.” Papa gave a crooked grin. “So spit it out.”
The question slipped from his mind. How had he planned to ask? Keefe lifted a hand, trying to bring the words together. “So... remember those Franciscan Friars that stayed at the Brandts’?” Heat seemed to radiate from his body, and his gaze slid to the half-open window.
“Well, I’ve been emailing them.”
Papa nodded, not looking fazed. “How’s their work coming along? They were forming a new community in Arizona, right?”
Keefe took a breath and released it, wanting to relax. “Right. It’s a lot of work, I guess, but going good.”
“Wish you’d gone out there this summer?”
Keefe’s temperature spiked, overwhelming him with heat. “Uh...” Did Papa already know?
“It’d be quite an experience. I thought about it myself. I never did catch the details. Were they moving into an existing building or were they gonna build from scratch?”
A tingling sensation ran through him. Papa hadn’t guessed Keefe’s interest in the religious order. He only saw the construction side of it. “Both, I guess. They found a suitable building, an old school that they converted. They’ve got a temporary chapel. But they’ll be building a better one soon.”
Papa folded his arms and nodded. “It’d be an honor to help them out. A lot of work, no pay, but an honor.”
“Yeah.” Keefe dropped his gaze. Didn’t seem like Papa would mind him heading out there to volunteer his time. Any way that could happen? He’d end up missing the beginning of the school year, but Papa had never seemed concerned about that. He’d pulled them all out of school once last year—Keefe and Jarret twice—to accompany him on one trip or another.
Keefe’s mood lifted with a glimmer of hope.
“What kind of help are they looking for? What time frame?”
“Oh, uh...” He couldn’t make something up, couldn’t lie about it. “They didn’t ask for my help. I was just wondering, I don’t know.” Knowing for certain that he could not have this talk now, he shook his head.
“Well, find out. Let me know.” He glanced at his watch and at the antique pendulum clock on the opposite wall, then he straightened and reached into a pocket. “Hey, uh...” He drew his keys out and offered them to Keefe. “Mind picking up Roland?”
He tossed them before Keefe could answer.
Keefe caught them, but they started to slip through his fingers. “Yeah, sure.”
“He’s at the Brandts’. Said he needed to be picked up at one or two.”
Glancing at the array of keys on Papa’s 30-30 Winchester bullet keyring, he backed to the door.
“Oh, hey, Keefe?” Papa put one hand on his hip and talked to the floor. “You know the arrangement I had with Jarret for getting his car, right?” He glanced.
“Yes. He did some work for the Finns and you matched the money he had saved, right?”
Papa nodded. “Well, that offer stands for you too. If the Franciscans will have you, that’ll be a right good way to do it. Otherwise, we can come up with something else. There’s no reason you shouldn’t have your own wheels.”
A mix of emotions struck Keefe, none of them the ones a seventeen-year-old should feel at that offer. But Keefe gave the biggest smile he could muster. “Thanks, Papa. I appreciate it.”
And he turned to go.
~ ~ ~
Gripping the steering wheel and glancing at the speedometer, Keefe drove down the long winding driveway toward Forest Road. He liked driving Papa’s silver Lexus, but he didn’t want a car of his own. He didn’t want anything. He wanted to get rid of things. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of Saint Francis and give it all up.
He’d just read a story about Brother Bernard’s decision to join Saint Francis. Wealthy and successful, Bernard was so touched by the saint’s faith and sincerity that he longed to relinquish his worldly goods. To know for certain that God willed it, Bernard met with St. Francis and they opened the Bible randomly.
Keefe’s mind paused on the thought. That was it! He would do the same! As soon as he got back from the Brandts’ house. Or maybe at the Brandts’ house. Bernard and Francis had prayed first. Maybe he should ask Peter and Roland to pray with him. Then he could open the Bible randomly and find God’s answer. If the verse convinced him that this was God’s will, he would make himself talk to Papa about his desire to join the Franciscans, and get permission to go on the retreat. If this was God’s will, he had no reason to worry.
“Lord,” he shouted, excited with the idea, “please give me a sign and show me what You want.”
As he snapped from his thoughts, he found himself barreling toward Forest Road. He slammed on the brakes. A car zoomed past. Keefe’s heart raced, whether from almost pulling into traffic or from the hope that he would find his answer, he didn’t know.
A few seconds later, he reached the Forest Gateway Bed & Breakfast and pulled in the driveway on the Brandts’ side of the odd-shaped house. They’d converted a bungalow or something into a bed and breakfast by adding a long addition of guestrooms.
Keefe shut off the engine and jumped out of the car. A campfire scent carried on a warm breeze. Women’s voices traveled from the kitchen through the screen door as he stomped up the porch steps. He knocked on the door frame.
Laughter erupted. Then a feminine voice. “Oh, hi, Keefe, come on in.”
Keefe swung open the screen door and stepped inside, the aroma of baked bread welcoming him.
Mrs. Brandt approached, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. Her smile always made Keefe feel as if he were special to her, but he knew she gave everyone the same smile.
“Good to see you, Keefe. Are you hungry?” She glanced behind him, probably wondering if Jarret had come too. But Jarret’s dislike of Peter had him avoiding their house.
“No thanks. Just came to get Roland.”
“Oh, okay.” She glanced at the living room.
A stack of folded laundry sat on the arm of the couch. Peter’s ten-year-old brother, Toby, stood facing the TV. He rocked back and forth as he flipped through scenes of a cartoon. He hit play and the cartoon voices drowned out the pleasant white noise from the dryer down the hall.
Keefe liked visiting the Brandts, maybe because he’d learned about the friars here. But he also liked the family. They were good people, generous, welcoming, and always willing to help anyone in need. He felt at home with them.
Mrs. Brandt led him to the dining room where two strangers sat at a booth. “The boys are out back goofing off.” She peered through the glass doors that separated the family’s side of the house from the guest side. “How’s your summer been going? Glad to have Jarret back?”
“Yeah, glad to have him back. Summer’s been slow. The way I like it.”
“Not in a hurry for the new school year to begin, huh? You’ll be a senior this year, right?”
“Yeah.” He knew what question came next, and he didn’t want to answer it, so he stepped toward the glass door and looked through the breezeway to the backyard.
But as she slid open the door for him, she asked it anyways. “Any idea what you want to do after high school?”
He sucked in a breath and met her questioning gaze. “Not sure. I’m praying about it.”
She nodded and gave that motherly smile. “That’s the best way to figure it out.”
Keefe’s attention snapped to two figures in the middle of the spacious backyard, one in sweatpants and a big leg cast, the other with a stocky, backwoodsman build. Wearing fencing face masks but no other safety gear, Roland and Peter crossed swords. Wait— What were they wielding? Not a metal foil or saber. They resembled walking sticks.
Using both hands to wield his sword, Peter swung like an uncivilized Orc. Roland parried and made a counter attack, his movements smooth and precise despite his long-leg cast. He also used both hands but he stood in one place, his weight on his good leg and his crutches sprawled in the grass.
The wooden tap tap tap carried.
Keefe couldn’t help but smile as he neared. He loved fencing with his brothers.
Roland, ever aware of his surroundings, swiveled his masked face to Keefe. He took one more swing and lifted a hand to Peter, signaling for a time out. Peter and Roland slid off their face masks. Peter dropped his to the grass and wiped his forearm over his dirty blond hair.
Keefe raised a hand in greeting. “Hey.”
“Finally!” Peter rolled his shoulders and struck a pose, raising his wooden sword and gripping it with both hands. “Some competition. Roland’s too feeble to offer any real fight.”
Eyes narrowed but with the hint of a grin, Roland muttered something to Peter that Keefe didn’t catch.
“I thought you had somewhere to go.” As Keefe drew near, Roland flipped his sword and offered Keefe the handle. Keefe grabbed the smooth handle, finding the sword sturdy and of a good weight and feel.
“Eh. I’m supposed to go with my dad to clean up some fire damage. It’s near the campsites. But that can wait.” Peter spun the sword to the left, then the right. “Care to spar?”
“What is this, bamboo?”
“Yeah.” He beamed with pride as if he’d made them himself. “They’re shinai. That’s Japanese for sword. I’m trying to teach Roland kendo. When he gets that lousy cast off, maybe we can play for real.”
“Here, you’ll need this.” Roland handed Keefe his face mask, a black steel net mesh. “Peter’s pretty rough around the edges.”
As Keefe took the mask, he pushed thoughts about asking them to pray with him to the back of his mind. He hadn’t decided if he wanted to spar or not, but he found himself lifting the mask to his head. The thought of a good fight thrilled him.
Roland limped over and retrieved one of his crutches.
Gripping the handle with both hands, Keefe stepped back and sliced the air on either side. He liked the feel of the bamboo sword, though it didn’t compare to metal foils or sabers or the one-handed grip he’d always used. “What do you know about kendo?”
“A lot. You can learn plenty on the Internet. You’ve got your cuts to the head.” Peter demonstrated, raising the stick overhead and coming down fast, then slowing as he neared Roland’s uncovered head.
Leaning his weight on a single crutch, Roland rolled his eyes and sighed. A breeze blew wavy black locks out of place and over his forehead.
“And your cut to the wrist...” Peter raised the shinai again. “Hold your hands out like we’re fighting,” he said to Roland, sounding impatient.
“No.” Roland shifted his weight and adjusted the crutch under his arm.
“Well, I’ll show you once we get started.” Peter stooped for his face mask. “You can strike your opponent in the gut or throat too. Plus, if Roland wasn’t so lame...” He grinned and waved his brows at Roland. “I’d be able to knock him down. So body slams are fair game.”
“Body slams, huh?” Egged-on by Peter’s challenging tone, Keefe whipped theshinaithrough the air in a series of dramatic moves.
Peter froze, his mouth hanging open. Then he grinned again, pulled the face mask on, and gave a nod. “Ready?” He sidestepped away from Roland, staying lined up with Keefe. Then he bowed and held his bamboo stick out, angling it toward Keefe.
Keefe swung his weapon up and imitated Peter’s hold. He’d only ever fought one-handed and with a foil, but he could adjust.
A split second later, Peter hopped forward, whipped the bamboo sword up and sliced downward. Keefe slipped to a one-handed hold and blocked the overhead attack.
“Two hands, man, two hands.” Peter laughed. “Lemme show you. Hold your sword out.”
Keefe did as told.
Peter showed him the basic moves, tapping him on the head and wrist, then slicing toward his abdomen. “And don’t forget about body slams.” He sounded happy about that. Eager.
“Got it,” Keefe said.
“Okay, let’s roll.” Peter bowed again. Keefe imitated. Then they began.
They clacked their bamboo weapons together with speed, Peter hopping like a boxer, Keefe moving like a fencer. The intensity of Peter’s blows reminded Keefe of Jarret. Granted, Jarret’s moves reflected a higher level of skill, but they shared the same over-confident energy.
The bamboo swords cracked together. This time Peter moved in closer, sliding his shinai along Keefe’s. Before Keefe realized his strategy, Peter slammed his shoulder into Keefe’s.
Keefe stumbled back.
Peter swung the shinai out, Keefe’s abdomen his target.
Fencing moves flipping through his mind, Keefe blocked, pivoted, and prepared a counterattack. He pictured his foot moving behind Peter’s, knowing he could catch him off guard. But he avoided the step and risked Peter’s next blow.
As he beat off Peter’s attack, his weak choice convicted him. Why hadn’t he made the move? He’d have scored for sure. How often had he avoided similar opportunities with Jarret and sometimes with Roland? Didn’t he have that same drive to win? Or had he always worried about the other’s pride or seemingly urgent need for victory? Always stepped aside so someone else could win?
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