by David Dean
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 2009
Father Gregory was a speck of darkness on the wide white sands of the deserted beach as he trundled northward against a slight headwind. To his right, the great Atlantic broke into pieces some twenty yards out, releasing a flat, rushing wash of saltwater that sought his shoes and cuffs, and though a short, rotund man, he danced lightly out of its reach each time, chuckling at every success; delighted as a child.
He inhaled the salt-washed air greedily, as he did each day that the weather allowed him to walk to morning Mass, and was doubly rewarded with that mysterious tang of wood smoke and dying leaves that he had been reliably informed constituted the aroma of autumn. It was like nothing he had ever encountered in his native India and he found it quite alluring, entrancing really, as it awoke those feelings of loss and mortality that made each moment of living all the sweeter. In his native land, the odors of decay were cloying and carnal; difficult to romanticize, the physical manifestations of death being swift and ugly, victim of the unrelenting heat.
As the sun broke free of the horizon, Father Gregory stopped for a moment to admire the palette of colors unleashed across the sky to rout the last vestiges of the night and smiled hugely. And as he turned away to witness the effect upon the dunes, the goldenrod glowed into life as thousands of Monarch butterflies finished drying their wings and detached themselves to flutter aloft like a silent “Te Deum” picked out in black and orange.
“Well done,” he congratulated God delightedly, even as he fingered the crucifix hung round his neck as a reminder not to fall too much in love with the glamour of this world.
At that moment, the sea caught him off guard and swept across his shoes, depositing the journal there as if in offering. It lay open across his feet, drowned, yet intact, its pages decorated with leaves and tendrils by the publisher while the owner’s scribbled writings competed for space on its crowded pages.
Without conscious thought, Father Gregory snatched up the sodden book before the next wave could reclaim it; so astounded at his improbable discovery that his shoes and socks took a second soaking before he recovered himself and hastily, if belatedly, backed out of reach of the tide. Once safe, he stood for several moments with the splayed-open journal dripping in his hands, and looked both right and left, half expecting someone to run up exclaiming, “That’s mine! Give it back,” and snatch its secrets from his grasp. Yet, no one did.
Off in the distance, however, a man stood at one of the beach paths and appeared to be looking in the priest’s direction. He was too far away for Father Gregory to identify, though he suspected it was Chief Hall, who sometimes met him on his walks and escorted him to morning Mass.
He looked back down at the dripping book he held in his hands and was thrilled anew at his discovery. What mystery might lie in his hands! The finding was like something from a pirate novel—perhaps this was a modern-day buccaneer’s journal and the map to a hidden treasure lay within! As silly as it sounded, it nonetheless made his heart leap, and he felt as he had as a boy in Goa, standing at the edge of the Arabian Sea contemplating all the mystery and adventure that lay just beyond its horizon and his small reach. Now he lived beyond that horizon in a foreign land and, perhaps, adventure had found him at last!
He resumed his walking carrying the waterlogged diary, or whatever it might be, before him, much as he might the Eucharist. The man at the beach path held up one arm and with the other pointed exaggeratedly at its wrist, tapping it several times.
“Mass,” Father Gregory said aloud as the meaning of these gestures occurred to him. “What time is it?” He glanced at his own watch and saw that he had less than fifteen minutes; if he hurried, there was still time. He broke into a trot made awkward by the journal and shoes that extruded water with each step; his short, plump body rocking side to side as he hurried towards his friend, the policeman, and St. Brendan’s, its slated steeple and ship’s bell appearing very far away in the brilliant autumn sun.
It had become a ritual that on those mornings when Father Gregory officiated at Mass, he and Chief Hall would breakfast together. As they both loved watching the sea, they invariably found themselves at the Luna Boardwalk Cafe, within sight of the great, moody Atlantic. Here, Julian Hall sat across the small, wobbly table from the little white-haired priest and marveled, not for the first time, at his remarkable friend, who had left behind everything familiar and dear to him to minister to the souls of foreign men in a strange land. It occurred to Julian, also not for the first time, to wonder whether he would be capable of such a sacrifice, and he concluded, as usual, that he would not. But he could see that these were matters far from the priest’s mind at the moment; he was busily recounting his finding of the sodden journal even as he made hasty work of the last of his Western omelet, liberally doused with pepper sauce.
“It was as if God wanted me to find it,” he said again in his thick, sing-song accent. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
Julian set his coffee mug down and smiled. “Acts of God would be more in your line of work, Father. Let’s just say it’s highly unusual—I’ve never heard of anyone, ever, finding a diary washing around in the ocean before, and I’ve lived here all my life. If I were you, I’d give some thought to running up to the casinos—just might be your day.”
The object of their discussion lay by Father Gregory’s elbow, drying on the tablecloth and leaving a large wet spot. He had laid it open and facedown to facilitate the effort and Julian could read “Journal” printed on its pink spine. A publishing-house logo was just discernible near the bottom edge and a variety of flowers graced its cover. It’s something a young girl would write in, he thought. He noticed a rust-colored blotch staining the lower portion of the cover that appeared to have seeped into the pages within. It could not have been in the water for long, he surmised, otherwise the waves would have torn it to pieces.
Father Gregory giggled nervously and covered his mouth with one hand in case food had stuck between his teeth. “I see, yes, you are a funny man, a comedian. Monsignor Cahill would definitely appreciate the humor of my visiting the casinos with parish funds.”
The monsignor was renowned for his dearth of humor and generally bleak demeanor. It was rumored that the old prelate had once been a keen and devilish prankster but that enforced sobriety had displaced this characteristic.
“So,” Julian asked, “what shall you do with your find? Do you intend to return it to the owner; that is, if you can find her?”
Father Gregory dabbed at his lips with a napkin and held up a surprisingly long finger, “You have concluded that the writer is a woman, Chief J? Is that not judging a book by its cover?”
Julian always found it amusing that Father Gregory, a circumspect and reticent man in most instances, insisted upon this unusual and familiar moniker with him—Chief J. He smiled and glanced out at the deceptively summery sea. “I’m probably stretching on this one, but I’ll chance it. Have you looked for a name yet?” He reached for the book.
The priest placed his hand holding the napkin protectively atop the journal and said, “Oh no. I must insist that I have the pleasure of this investigation. You may have the entire Camelot police department at your beck and call, such as it is”—he risked a sly glance at his American friend—“but this mystery is mine by the immutable law of the sea, and you, Mr. Policeman, have no jurisdiction.” He chuckled quietly, then looked away to avoid giving offense.
“Besides,” Father Gregory resumed, “whatever is written in this book was not meant to be public, and you, after all, are a public servant. But as it was delivered into my hands, I will read it and consider what’s best to do.”
Julian stared flatly at his friend. “I see,” he murmured. “I had forgotten how pompous . . . I meant important, of course, priests can be. Please do carry on, Father.”
“I will do just that, I assure you,” Father Gregory answered airily.
Julian noticed their waitress hovering close by and signaled her over. She was a tall, slender girl with an abundance of dark curls who appeared to start awake at his gesture. She stumbled mechanically in their direction, the coffee-pot assuming threatening potential in her hands. The police chief raised his hand like a traffic cop. “The check, please.”
This halted her and she turned as if she had forgotten something. After a few moments she came back with their check. Julian took it from her and hurried to the cash register to settle up the bill.
In spite of Father Gregory’s protests, the chief always insisted upon paying, as he knew that the Indian priest sent nearly his entire paycheck to his home parish in Goa. The difference in pay he made by coming to America had financed the addition of three rooms to his parish school and provided scholarships for six children. Julian understood that his friend’s exile was made bearable by the good he was doing from afar, and would not allow him to spend a cent in his presence.
“They do pay priests, you know,” Father Gregory admonished him from behind his back. “Not as much as police officers, especially police chiefs, of course, with the supplementary gifts and favors they receive from the public.”
Julian glanced over his shoulder at his antagonist and said, “People do disappear in New Jersey, you know.” He saw that Father Gregory had wrapped the diary in a cloth napkin and asked, “Do I have to pay for that, too?”
His friend ignored him and smiled sweetly at the owner of the small restaurant who had taken the money. “Mrs. Colluzzo, may I take this along and return it upon my next visit?” he asked. “It would be most helpful.”
She nodded distractedly, all the while staring past them. “Sweetheart,” she called out impatiently to their waitress, “there’s people at your tables! Shake a leg, honey!” She patted Father Gregory on the cheek and said, “You just keep prayin’ for us and you can have a napkin every time you come in.” The middle-aged priest beamed at the older woman like a child.
As the policeman and the priest walked out onto the boardwalk together, Chief Hall muttered, “Payment for prayers, is it? I begin to see Martin Luther’s point.”
As it was a weekday, Father Gregory was able to retire to his tiny room in the rectory by eight o’clock that evening. The pages of the journal, which had rested in the open position on his window sill all day, fluttered to and fro in the dry September air, and now felt only slightly damp to his touch. The paper, he noted, was thicker than normal writing paper, almost as if it were expected to be used out of doors; perhaps this explained its miraculous salvation from the sea.
Taking it carefully into his hands, he sat down in the room’s single armchair and turned on his reading lamp, creating a cozy cone of light in the darkening room. A cup of chai tea rested on the small table at his elbow and released the aroma of cloves and ginger into the soft fall air, and he thought briefly and longingly of home. Then, after a whispered prayer that he might be granted wisdom and understanding, he opened the journal and began to peruse its pages.
His first reaction was one of disappointment.
On the very first page, within a small rectangle drawn expressly for the purpose, was written the name of the journal’s author—Erin. The lettering was in a childish script and written in pencil. An exuberant star capped the letter i.
Chief J was correct, he thought sadly, I have discovered a young woman’s diary and nothing more; no adventure awaits within these pages, no map to buried treasure. With a sigh, he riffled through the pages like a deck of cards and was rewarded with page after page of inconsistent penmanship, sometimes in pencil, sometimes in ink, slanting and sliding across the yellowed paper and often sharing the cramped space with talented, if immature, sketches of elfin females in poses and attitudes that ran the gamut from rapture to melancholy. He closed the book, took a sip of his tea, and considered anew whether he should continue.
As he had grown up with several sisters, he knew how silly, hopeful, dreamy, and, yes, fiercely private, young girls could be—their hearts glowed into life long before the boys they were smitten with grew hearts at all, he reflected. Perhaps, he thought, I should put this journal away unread; it is, after all, truly none of my business. In the silence of his room he became aware of the distant booming of the surf on the nighttime shore but a short distance away.
He picked the book up again and flipped through to the last twenty or so pages. They were blank—the ruled lines empty of Erin’s thoughts and words. Why did she not finish out this journal? he wondered. What had made her abandon her effort? Had she meant for it to be discovered and read, or had she consigned it to the sea and the obscurity of its depths? There is a mystery here, Father Gregory decided, if only in how the journal and he had come together. Additionally, he reasoned, he might gain insight into the youth of his American parish. Though Camelot was sparsely populated from November to April, and those citizens remaining were mostly of the retired ranks, come the warmer months the island was invaded anew by vast hordes of the young in search of sun and romance. I will read it after all, he concluded, and once more opened its pages.
The first entry was dated April 22 of the previous spring and opened the journal without introduction. It read: This is what my mother does when I try to help. She tries to turn the situation around so that I’m the one who needs help. I clam up on her when she does this.
That was all for that date. Father Gregory shook his head—the writing was crabbed and hasty. The next entry was almost a week later and revealed the author’s home town: It’s an overcast, chilly day in Manhattan today. I just stuck my tongue out at some assholes walking by my window, harassing me on my newest bad habit. Father Gregory winced at Erin’s casual profanity and nonchalant provocation of strangers. It seemed a risky thing to do in a large city; perhaps any city. The rest of the entry spoke of a protracted effort to actually clean up and go out and find something worthwhile to do. A short and badly rhymed poem (Bess/mess/lazy/crazy, etc. . . .) completed the day’s efforts.
So, her home is in New York City, he reflected. Even so, she must be here now, he reasoned, for surely it was impossible for the journal to have traveled the currents intact all the way to southern New Jersey. Also she fancies herself something of an artist and a poet, Father Gregory reflected, and is bold. Likely she lives on one of the lower floors of her building, otherwise how could the passersby harass her, he concluded.
But, what was her newest bad habit? he wondered. He might have thought it odd that she should fail to disclose such an enticing tidbit until he remembered that he was reading her diary; it was not intended for anyone’s eyes but her own, and she already knew her own habits. Still, he was disappointed to be cut out and could only conclude that she had taken up cigarette smoking, which would explain her sitting in the window to indulge it—she was attempting to keep the smoke out of the apartment and her mother unawares.
Though he read nothing that could yet decide the issue, Father Gregory felt the circumstances so far appeared to place his mysterious writer in her teenage years, or early twenties, at most. He could also guess that she was, perhaps, not unattractive—would the passersby have really concerned themselves otherwise? His experience with human nature, sadly, convinced him otherwise. Feeling pleased with deducing so much from so little, Father Gregory sipped his tea and flipped to the next page.
Here he found a terse entry regarding the pomposity of the patrons at the “New Dawn Restaurant.” It was impossible to tell from the few lines she devoted to this subject whether she was a patron herself or, possibly, a server.
From somewhere deep in the rectory, Monsignor Cahill could be heard coughing and Father Gregory reflected that the old man had not looked well of late. It was too bad, he thought sadly, that being a reformed drinker, the monsignor could not even avail himself of the comfort of a snifter of brandy.
He came to the next passage; it was dated April 26: I learned something at work the other day, which is: When in doubt, kiss ass. It’s an important lesson in survival in the work force. If Rafe yells at me, just apologize and try to do better. I need to be able to take constructive criticism without having a meltdown. I really am too defensive. I have to stop freaking out so much. It’s freaking other people out, too. Then they look at me funny. Look what it did to me and Adam!
It continued: Work really is boring because no one ever talks to me. It’s not like I’m uninteresting. I wonder if it’s just because I’m the prettiest here . . . ha, ha! So bored.
A series of passably good flower sketches occupied the next several pages followed by lists with such headings as Diet, Exercise, and Medical. Under this last she had written: Get teeth bonded, get check-up. Next came page after undated page of exhaustive descriptions of semiprecious stones and their purported benevolent influence upon human nature, decision-making, sexual function, health, confidence, etc. . . . A number of them, such as aventurine and carnelian, Father Gregory had never heard of before and he shook his head at faith in such baubles. A small worm of worry for Erin began to make itself felt behind his eyes.
The following page bore a startling burst of color that appeared to Father Gregory to be a drawing of a purple flower, or, perhaps an explosion of some sort. Written next to it in the same bold hue were the words, I see this when I close my eyes. It was dated May the third.
A narrative followed that might have been apropos of the artwork. It read: I tried to hypnotize myself today. This is a new interesting world to explore, tinkering with my mind and seeing what’s in there. I find if I concentrate very hard on a tiny spot, and let my mind go blank, that my vision changes and I can just feel it, a hint of a taste, a new way of seeing.
Just visible within the writing, like a ghost barely manifest, was the pale inked drawing of the elfin female figure Father Gregory had noted earlier. It appeared to have bled through from deeper within the journal and now regarded him with a resolutely inhuman quality in its first appearance within these pages. He examined it uneasily.
The passage concluded with a quote that did not credit the author: “Turn your mind away from things which are not permanent.” Father Gregory could think of no better advice for Erin than this, nor more inappropriately placed. It was apparent that its irony within the context of her written thoughts was lost on the girl. He brought his cup to his lips only to find it empty and set it down once more to continue his reading.
May 5: Well thank god (literally), my plumbing problems have sorted themselves out. Whenever I decide to stop thinking about something, good things tend to happen. That is living life. I prayed and meditated for a long time about it, too. Another note to self: Prayers are powerful!
Father Gregory smiled to himself and silently congratulated Erin. Yes, he thought, in this you are, at last, correct. See how prayer and meditation have healed your . . . (here his mind danced away from specifics, as he could only conclude from his own experience with his sisters that Erin’s “plumbing” problem was a euphemism for female complaints) afflictions, he settled on. Also, avoid magic stones and self-absorption, he silently advised, and spell God with a capital G: It is more respectful, he could not refrain from adding.
Father Gregory turned to the next page with more confidence. It was dated May 10: That’s it for acting class! I’m not going back. I can’t go back and watch Adam and lovely little Lisa another day. He doesn’t seem to have any idea whatsoever how it hurts me to watch him flirt! Is it that easy to get over love? It isn’t for me. I didn’t say anything to my coach, after all, he’s the one that told me a few weeks ago I was making everyone uncomfortable and that I should just lighten up some, so I left at the end of class without selecting a scene to prepare. He’ll probably be glad when he realizes I’m not coming back. I kept it all together until I got in the cab, then I starting crying so hard that the cabbie got annoyed and asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital. Everything is so easily undone.
The priest nodded his head in sad agreement with Erin’s broken heart. We forget how terrible being young can be, he thought.
The next page featured spirals drawn in various colors. There was no explanation; only a caption that read, The Tunnels. It reminded Father Gregory of the purple flower drawing and he turned quickly to the next page.
The elf-girl adorned the next several pages, depicted in various styles of clothing and physical attitudes, her mass of curls tied up for formal attire and let down to cascade wildly across her small shoulders when sporting more scanty, elfin fashion. The theme, if one could truly be discerned, was a certain militant watchfulness, Father Gregory thought—no matter the pose of the imaginary and pointy-eared model, her heart-shaped face was always turned toward the viewer, the inhumanly large, slanted eyes defiant, yet hungrily eager. It was a face replicated in dozens of cartoon characters in both print and film and in this revealed little of originality, yet, a spark of recognition beyond these common renditions hung like a flare in Father Gregory’s mind, then sputtered into darkness before he could retrieve the memory. Did Erin resemble this creature? he wondered. Is she depicting herself in this alien form, and have I seen her? He sat up straight for a moment. Is it possible that I have held the Eucharist to this poor girl’s lips?
With the turning of a page, he leaped a month into Erin’s future—June 10.
I had forgotten how much I need nature, how centering it is to stand by the sea.
Ah-ha, she has come to Camelot, Father Gregory mentally exclaimed.
It seems ages ago that I finally summoned up the energy to call that number I had pulled off the corkboard in acting class. It’s not the kind of thing I normally do, but I just couldn’t spend another day lying on my bed listening to Mom talk to me through the door and cry. She even threatened to call Dr. Holland. That’s when I promised to take my meds again and opened the door. I spit them in the toilet as soon as I got to the bathroom.
Danny, Francis, and Harpo (his crazy yellow curls, I guess?) are all film students at NYU and they have to complete a film project by the fall. Danny seems to be the guy in charge and is going to be the director. I guess Francis and Harpo will do sound and camera. The script isn’t even finished yet, but I auditioned off a couple of pages and they said I was perfect. From what they told me so far, it’s mostly about two girls and their friendship over a summer at the Jersey shore. It’s been done before, I know, but it’s only a student film and who am I to turn up my nose? There’s no money involved, naturally, but we’ll (Joanie and me—she’s the other girl; she’s from an acting class in SoHo) get copies of our best scenes to send to agents and producers. If the film makes any money, we get a percentage, ha-ha, fat chance, I think. So we all went in together on this place and I’m doing what I do best to hold up my end. Once a waitress, always a waitress.
In any case, it’s so good to be out of the city! I wish I never had to go back! It gets a little crowded here sometimes with five of us in one apartment, but Joanie and I, being the only girls, get to share one of the bedrooms. Danny gets the other bedroom to himself as he organized everything. The other two sleep on the sofa beds in the living room. As we all work different hours, have company, and generally come and go as we please, they don’t get a lot of sleep. Nobody does, really.
Everyone here knows me as Erin. I even wrote the name in front of this journal. I’m not sure why, but it just seemed to make the transition real to me. In any case, I just couldn’t resist a chance at really starting over, at remaking myself. I definitely need the improvement!
Father Gregory repeated the words in his mind to make sure he had the sense of them. “Everyone here knows me as Erin,” and a chill ran down his spine. “Oh foolish girl,” he whispered. “Oh foolish, foolish girl.” He returned to her words.
June 15: Everything is fitting together too perfectly to be merely coincidental. This is my quest, I’ve worked so hard and suffered so long. Now I get to find out if it was enough, and I’m a good person. I pray for the strength to grab this opportunity with both hands.
Father Gregory flipped ahead for an explanation, but found the passage ran on in the same giddy but unenlightening vein. She must be referring to the film project, he thought. Had they begun filming already? He scanned through until his impatience was arrested by a sentence.
Do I believe in magic? Yes, of course. I always have. I lost it for a bit there, but I know there’s magic now. I’m shaking this morning I’m so excited. My acting teacher will feel his foot in his mouth and my success will make others happy. I believe in magic. I believe in divine grace.
The little priest winced at Erin’s careless use of words, tumbling Grace and magic together as if they were related and one the flip side of the other. My dear child, he thought, how did you ever become so confused? He wondered fretfully if she had taken her medications with her to her new address. If the roller- coaster nature of her entries was any indication, she had not.
I’m so relieved to be awake all the time now! I’ve been sleeping for so long. I feel it getting ready to burst through its restraints. I feel so at peace. I’m not going to be the broken bird. I’m not going to be the broken bird. I always knew that life is good, I’ve just wanted to feel it.
Danny says the grant has come through for our film! Things are coming together now and I’m ready!
Ah, Father Gregory, sighed. So that’s it after all.
June 17: Shooting started two days ago, and things have been great and so much fun since then.
June 26: Things are going to happen for which I need to be prepared. We’re shooting today in Savannah’s sweltering apartment. I’ve been having the utmost restraint in my more animalistic inclinations. Why are things so complicated? I know everyone wishes they could just take what they want. I’m going to be professional about it. Besides, the last thing in the world Danny needs right now is another girl making over him. What is it with us females? Why do we always go for the stuck-up, arrogant ones? He’s not even that good-looking, really. It’s just that air of command about him, I think. Yum, yum. I can see others feel the same way.
She closed the entry with what Father Gregory thought could almost pass as a prayer: God help me take what I want out of life, so that I can give even more back.
“Amen,” he said aloud. From beneath his feet he could feel the rumble of Monsignor Cahill’s recitation of the Rosary, interrupted occasionally by coughing spasms. If he grows worse tonight, I will insist on the doctor tomorrow, Father Gregory promised himself.
Now, what am I to do with this little girl who calls herself Erin? he wondered. Of course, he understood his own question to be rhetorical, as he had no idea of her true identity or current location. Most likely, she has long ago returned to New York City, he guessed. Even so, the clues and tidbits of information and emotional monologues were as worrisome to him as if they were occurring before his very eyes. It seemed that Erin’s assumption of a new identity, and the rejection of her own; her choosing to dwell amongst strangers rather than with her own mother; her abandonment of her medications; and finally, though certainly not least in Father Gregory’s estimation, her confused approach to spirituality, were all unsound planks in what must become a dangerous home for her mind and soul. And now, he fussed unhappily, a new love interest that was probably both unwise and too soon after her emotional breakup with Adam. Irrationally, as he knew neither young man, he found himself disliking both, and regretting his decision to read the journal that had washed up at his feet, even as he reluctantly turned to the next page to continue. It was dated June 30.
Do I see with my sight or with my mind? Yesterday, while we were shooting, I had a visions attack. I started feeling dizzy and out of it. When I closed my eyes Images and colors were flashing like a strobe light and people and faces, disembodied expressions, stared at me through the electric purple, strobing well. Tunnels, tunnels everywhere. My mind was flying through like a hawk through clouds. Danny and Harpo sat next to me as the images were overwhelming me. It felt nice to actually have people around. It felt safe.
Danny whispered in my ear not to lose it, as he really needed me for this film and tomorrow’s shoot is a really important one. That made me feel good and needed and isn’t that what we all want. But he’s right, it will be my first nude scene. Joanie’s too, I’m pretty sure, though she seems a lot less stressed about it than me. I didn’t even know until last night, as Danny feeds us the script page by page. He says it’s often done this way in film.
“Run,” Father Gregory urged Erin. “Run away, right now.” The clock downstairs struck ten and he noted that the house was silent all around him. He had not noticed when the monsignor completed his mumbled decades.
The following day she wrote: I don’t really feel all that nervous at all today. It’s not that awkward for me. I definitely am not worried about how I look. I’ll look good no matter what in a room full of guys, ha-ha. Danny says he’s not looking for anything graphic, it’s just a love scene between the two main characters played by Joanie and me. We didn’t even know we were supposed to be romantically involved until two days ago, though Joanie didn’t seem as surprised as me. She’s a pretty cool mama, though. In any case, it’s not going to be any worse than those videos of high school girls getting sloshed on beer showing what they got and making out for the camera! Probably a lot better, really, as our film deals with relationships, not just sex. I’m really kind of excited about today.
The next several pages provided no titillating follow-up to Erin’s previous entry, giving Father Gregory hope that she had decided against going through with the scene after all. A week’s worth of pages was adorned with nothing more helpful than sketched portraits of the elfin girl and these revealed nothing to the priest’s eyes other than a subtle humanizing of the features. The pointed ears had been diminished and rounded to almost normal shape and dimension. The same could be said of the eyes, as well. Again, Father Gregory felt that jolt of recognition, but his mind could not capitalize upon it before it faded away into caricature. He was both relieved and puzzled by the absence of Erin’s own commentary on her first nude scene.
The next written entry he came upon, however, failed to soothe his worries, but rather served to inflame them. It was dated July 5.
Danny has been so sweet to me since we finished that last scene and I began to lose it again—the tunnels. I guess I should have suspected he felt something special for me. After all the fuss I made (I just had no idea how stressful it would be for me—I guess I’m more old-fashioned than I thought) I’m surprised I wasn’t fired. Instead, he said the “shoot” was a good one. I really didn’t lose it till afterwards. It’s the professional in me. He also gave everybody the rest of the week off. He thinks we’ve earned it. Besides, it’s Fourth of July weekend and the town is packed and I couldn’t get off from work if I wanted to! But every moment I do get off, we’ve been together—lots of beach time and even some “alone” time, though this isn’t easy to come by in our place, even with Danny having his own room. He says Joanie has a little crush on him and he doesn’t want any more trouble on the set, so we have to wait for her to be out. I don’t like the secrecy part, but I love what we’re hiding! I’m feeling so alive again!
On a slightly downer note, the living room has become party central for the long weekend courtesy of Francis and Harpo. Everybody’s having a great time, which is why most all the kids are down here at the shore anyway, but it makes it hard to get any sleep or privacy and also not to wake up with a hangover, which I have at this moment. I feel like any second I’m going to throw up everywhere. Harpo says the best cure is a hair of the dog, by which he means a Bloody Mary first thing in the morning. Yuck!
The etching that adorned this page showed a young woman who had been, at last, divested of her otherworldly features and now gazed out at Father Gregory in human form. The idealized face revealed the pierced eyebrow and nostril that had become so favored of the current generation in America and was so familiar a sight to Father Gregory in his homeland. Clearly, Erin was in love, the priest thought sadly, for when else do we see ourselves as beautiful as angels?
He tapped the page with one of his long fingers and said, “I have seen you, young lady. I know I have.” Still, the familiarity refused to coalesce into conscious memory and he sighed with tired frustration. “You are looking in all the wrong places for what you seek,” he admonished Erin. “I wish I could help you, child.”
The wind picked up from the east and the sound of the distant surf suddenly drummed outside his window as if the great ocean had crept up to the rectory’s foundation. His curtains billowed out to tickle his cheeks and drape his shoulders like ghostly hands and he arose quickly to shut the window on the cooling night air. In the room below, he heard Monsignor Cahill cough, then call out something incoherent in his sleep. Father Gregory felt as if an evil thought had made itself felt across the dark world and he grew afraid for Erin—afraid for the possibilities she had allowed to creep up on her like wolves to the very edge of the campfire’s light, just out of sight, but edging ever closer as she allowed the flames to die down. He had no faith in Danny’s love.
With a great dread, he resumed his seat and returned to the journal, and when he saw that the next entry was dated two weeks after the last, his heart sank, for what young woman happy in love would fail to write of it for so long?
July 19—Danny’s friend from New York has been keeping us all stoked. It seems he’s everyone’s connection at film school and now that Danny’s invited him down to stay for free, he’s been very generous. Too generous. I can’t remember the last time I was really straight. Not sure I like it altogether.
Joanie’s not talking to me much anymore. I think she found out about Danny and me. It was inevitable, I guess. In any case, since Canton’s arrival, Danny and I haven’t spent much time in private—Danny shares his room with him and they’re always together. I wonder how long he’s been invited to stay. I hope not much longer. Strange days have found us.
July 23—I’m not believing this! Joanie comes storming in today and confronts Danny and the boys, demanding to know if it’s true what she’s hearing about the website. Danny’s not one for confrontation, so he just gave her that lazy smile of his and walked away. I don’t even know what website she’s talking about. Harpo and Francis were already stoned and a little drunk and thought the whole thing was hilarious. I have no idea what’s going on! Joanie said she wasn’t surprised at that and that maybe I should ask my boyfriend. She also told me to ask him why ever since we did our “famous” scene Danny and crew no longer seem interested in finishing the movie. It is odd. I just thought it was because we’re all too stoned to concentrate just now. Yet another reason for Canton to clear out of here and take his dope with him! When I ask Danny about him, he just smiles and says, soon, darling, soon
I should not have taken up the diary, Father Gregory admonished himself angrily—how foolish of me! He could do nothing for this deluded girl, he reminded himself, as all these events had already occurred and he knew neither her identity nor current whereabouts. He had no wish to complete the brief and disjointed chronicle of Erin’s days at the shore and add to the knowledge he had already garnered and the sad helplessness it produced. Her casual and unwitting commentaries served only to illuminate the predatory nature of man’s relationships when not informed by love—she mistook the dark grey bodies that brushed against her flanks in the murky waters as fellow travelers while Father Gregory stood unnoticed on shore waving his arms in futile warning. What a ridiculous state I’ve gotten myself into, he thought, and pushed the journal away.
The bedside clock showed that the midnight hour was fast approaching and the house was completely silent now—Monsignor Cahill had, at last, settled into a restful slumber. Father Gregory opened the single drawer in his bedside stand and removed the small, flat box of Indian cigarettes from the clutter within and extracted one. Somewhat guiltily, but without hesitation, he struck a match to it and then hastened in his stocking feet to throw open his window once more.
The ceaseless turmoil of the sea and its assault upon the land returned to his ears with astonishing power and closeness as he blew out a stream of clove-scented smoke. The titanic struggle lay just the other side of the great dunes, with their thick covering of wind-twisted, maritime forest. A large autumn moon picked out everything in minute and silvered detail, casting shadows so black that they appeared as holes in the world.
Father Gregory leaned out into the soft, juddering night and smoked his secret cigarette until his own actions reminded him of one of Erin’s first entries. A young American girl and a middle-aged priest from India both sneaking cigarettes, he mused; exposing ourselves to the great, indifferent, and carnivorous world. How weak and human we all are, he thought. He stubbed out the cigarette and placed it in a tin he kept for that purpose; then returned to the journal, determined to complete his reading of it
The next entry was a week later, July 30—What Joanie warned me about is true! I caught them sniggering and giggling over Harpo’s laptop and snuck up on them and there it was. The scene of me and Joanie. They were all so stoned and drunk they never noticed me standing there. There was a whole bunch of guys crowded around (the party never stops here!).
I’ve never seen it before, at least not all of it. Danny showed me little snippets but kept putting me and Joanie off, saying he was still working on the editing. Then Canton showed up and, somehow, it all got lost in the shuffle of nonstop partying. It wasn’t like I had pictured it to be. It was pretty much like I thought it wouldn’t be. Now, I know why Danny insisted we all get a little high before the filming. I also know why we’ve never exactly gotten back to completing the film. It is complete. At least the scene he wanted. Now I understand. Our scene on his website is paying for Danny and the boys’ summer.
I don’t know why I didn’t start screaming—I just couldn’t. All I could do was slink away again. I grabbed a blanket and walked right back out. None of the guys even noticed me they were so busy hooting and hollering over the video. It only sunk in later that Joanie had moved out without saying goodbye. Her bed was stripped and her closet stood open, empty. I didn’t much like her, but now I feel so abandoned and miss her so! I hope she didn’t think I knew what was going on or that I was a real part of this. I’m sleeping on the beach tonight and that’s where I’m writing this. I’ve got a few bathroom things in my bag and can clean up in the ladies’ room at work.
I wish Danny would find me and just explain all this away. I know that makes me sound so stupid, but I can’t help it. I still love him, I think.
August 10—He was in today and sat at my station. I thought he had come looking for me until I came to take his order. When he looked up from the menu he seemed kind of surprised, like he didn’t expect to see me there. I don’t think he was all that happy to see me, really. I looked a sight, I know, but it’s just about impossible to stay clean living this way. My boss looked at me funny this morning and asked if everything was all right, and Danny was giving me that same look—like he smelled something bad. It’s probably me.
There were two guys with him that I had never seen before and they gave me that blank look you get a lot as a waitress; then one of them suddenly starts to grin, nudges his buddy in the ribs, and whispers something in his ear. Then they both start to giggle like little girls. Danny gave them a look that shut them up and I just wanted to hug him for it, but before I could say anything he fired off his order for breakfast, and then, like an afterthought, asked if I was planning on coming back to the apartment.
I stood there like an idiot with my stupid pen in my hand, like I was going to write down his every precious word, hoping, I guess, that he was about to ask me to come back. No, to be honest, that he was going to beg me to come back. But all I could think to say was, “Why?”
“Because you never have paid any rent and I have interested parties for that room.” His expression never changed; still the same cool, go-to-hell look I thought was so yummy just a few days ago. Then, like he was doing me a real favor, he added, “If youreally hard up for a place, you can stay in my room for a while.” His buddies started their giggling again.
I don’t know what I was thinking. Maybe I was picturing driving my pen through his eye, but all I can remember is a kind of darkness dropping over my face like a veil; then suddenly I was leaning over and whispering into his ear, “My name isn’t Erin, you bastard, and I just turned sixteen last month.”
When I stood back and looked down on him the color had gone from his face and he didn’t look cool anymore. For once, he didn’t look cool at all, and it made me feel good.
“I didn’t know that,” he croaked like a frog. “You never told me that!”
“You never bothered to ask, you son of a bitch,” I hissed at him. His buddies just sat there looking uncomfortable and confused at not knowing what was going on.
“We’ve got to talk about this,” he whined.
“You’re damn right we do,” I said. “You owe me for the video and a ticket home! You meet me after work at the 45th Street beach.” I’ve set up a little lean-to in the high dunes there and that’s where I’m writing this. He nodded his head like a little boy caught doing something wrong, but when I looked back over my shoulder at him, he was looking at me hard . . . real hard. “Eight o’clock,” I said, and he dropped his eyes real quick.
“Sixteen,” Father Gregory groaned. “Dear God,” then, with a shudder of real dread, he turned the page to discover that he had arrived at the final entry. He noticed a slight tremor in his hands. Only a few lines remained and were not preceded by date or time.
He’s been walking up and down the beach for about half an hour looking for me in the bright moonlight. Every now and then I can just hear him calling my name over the crashing of the surf. I don’t know why I just didn’t walk out to him when he first got here, but I didn’t. Instead I’ve been watching.
Just when I had worked up the nerve to come out of the dunes and let him know I was there he picked up something from the beach. It looked like a long piece of driftwood and I stopped. It’s nothing, I know. People pick up things from the beach all the time. Yet, somehow, in the moonlight, it didn’t feel the same, so I came back to my little hideout to write this and work up my nerve.
I’m gonna go back down and talk to him ’cause I can’t let him get away with what he’s done. He’s going to pay me what I’m worth! Once he sees this journal he’ll know I’m serious as a heart attack—so here I go!
Father Gregory thumbed through the remaining pages but found no further entries or drawings. It simply ended with her brave little declaration, “So here I go!”
The priest closed the journal and looked over to his bedside clock then back to the crimson-stained tome he held in his hand. It was nearly one. He sighed as he contemplated the eternity of hours that stood between him and daylight, and knew that he would not sleep until he had spoken once more with Chief J. “What fools we are,” he murmured. “God help us all.”
Father Gregory sat over his now-cooling third cup of tea awaiting the police chief’s pronouncement. It appeared to him that his friend was a slow reader and he tapped the tabletop with impatience until he noticed that Chief Hall had ceased reading altogether and was staring at him over his glasses. He stopped immediately and murmured, “Sorry.” The chief said nothing and returned to his interrupted study.
The little priest allowed his eyes to roam through the interior of the Luna Cafe. There were even fewer people than the last time they were in to breakfast together, the cooling season signaling the continued migration of non-islanders to their primary homes, or to warmer climes altogether. Those that remained seemed to speak and laugh too loudly, the forced gaiety, Father Gregory thought, of those left behind. Even their waitress appeared affected by the atmosphere, spilling coffee, mixing up their orders, and forgetting their silverware. It was an altogether frustrating morning after a sleepless night. The closing of the book snapped the little priest’s attention back to the matter at hand. “Well,” he asked impatiently, “do you not see why I am concerned?”
Julian removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his long, narrow nose without answering.
Father Gregory could not contain himself, “Can you not see for yourself? I believe a crime may have been committed against this poor girl, that her life may be in danger . . . or worse.”
“Yes,” Julian agreed, “if this journal is to be believed, I think a number of crimes have been committed.” He paused and turned the book over in his hands, flipping it from back to front, as if the covers might reveal something the text had hidden. “Father, you know that this journal could not have been in the water very long, no more than a few hours, I think.”
The implication was lost on the excited priest. “But the circumstances, Chief J,” Father Gregory exclaimed. “Her last entry has her meeting this young man in the darkness of the beach. He is waiting for her with some kind of club, to do her harm, I’m thinking.”
“Driftwood,” the chief corrected him quietly.
“Pish posh, Mr. Policeman,” Father Gregory shot back, making Julian smile in spite of himself. “Certainly, a piece of driftwood may serve as a cudgel!”
“Yes,” Chief Hall agreed, quickly recovering his composure, then added, “Almost anything might serve as a weapon, but I have no body . . . no female victim, Father.”
“Well, thank God for that,” the priest cried with relief. “Though I guess that it is possible she may have been thrown into the sea and never . . . ” He dribbled to a halt as the full import of Chief Hall’s remark sunk in. “No ‘female’ victim, did you say, Chief J? Does a male victim exist?”
The policeman looked evenly at the priest and answered, “Yes. He’s in the county morgue these past two weeks. He washed up a few towns south of here at the end of August and has been a John Doe, or should I say, a Danny Doe ever since. The only identification on him was a tattoo of that name and, so far, there have been no takers . . . until now.”
“Danny,” Father Gregory repeated softly. Several moments went by and neither man spoke. Then, at last, the priest broke the silence. “He drowned, perhaps?”
Julian shook his head and smiled ruefully. “Oh no,” he answered. “Though with all the holes in him, I’m certain he would have. He had been stabbed many times with a serrated blade—many, many times, Father. Something like a steak knife, the M.E. thinks. Once his carotid artery was punctured, he had only moments left.”
“Oh, I see,” the little priest murmured. “I see.”
They were both quiet for several long moments. This time it was Julian who interrupted their reveries. “It may not have been ‘Erin,’ Father. I suspect our victim made many enemies along his merry way. In any event, she’s probably a long way from here by now and we don’t even know her real name.” He signaled for the check.
When their dizzy waitress arrived, she thrust the bill at Father Gregory before the policeman could stop her and fled to the kitchen.
“Let me get it, Father,” Julian pled, reaching for the check in the priest’s hand.
Father Gregory clutched it to his chest with a gasp, then held it out once more, studying it closely, as Chief Hall looked on in alarm. At last, he whispered, “For there is nothing hidden.”
The chief leaned forward saying, “Pardon?”
“A quote from the Scriptures,” the priest mumbled distractedly. “ ‘For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light.’ ” Father Gregory raised his eyes from the extravagant, familiar writing on the check that read, “Thanks! Brittany” (the i in the name surmounted with a jubilant star instead of the usual mundane dot) to find their server returning for their payment; unable to take her eyes from the journal clutched in the policeman’s hands, her curls bedraggled by the steam of the kitchen, her elfin face drawn with exhaustion and lack of sleep.
Julian eyed his friend suspiciously and said, “Meaning?”
“Just what it says,” Father Gregory answered sadly, and slid the check across the table to test the truth of his pronouncement.