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Rated: 18+ · Chapter · Gay/Lesbian · #2275677
…and the cross is doubled.
Contents


Chapter Four


         “How’d you escape marriage for the evening?” Calanthe asked as he clunked two plates on the table.

         “Elizabeth’s bedridden. Headache,” Jesse said. Leaning against the fridge with a brown bottle of Bud Light in hand, it was the first time Calanthe had seen him in normal clothes. A black wife-beater, blue jeans, and Doc Martens straight out of 1996 morphed the youth minister into a real-life person emitting whiffs of Candies cologne and sexual magnetism. He was more country this evening, his chest almost as thick as his accent.

         “Is that the convenience in your marriage?”

         “Ah, hell naw,” Jesse said. “It’s the money.”

         “That’s it, though? Just…money?” If Calanthe kept talking, if he didn’t look directly into those portals of verdant green above Jesse’s nose, then maybe it wouldn’t be a struggle to feel numb to human characteristics such as emotion and attraction.

         “It’s a butt-load of money,” Jesse said shrugging and docking the bottle to his lips. The beautiful rose petals ‘neath his nose gripped the brown glass, those soft lips, fluffy and inviting, and Calanthe turned to the counter. He tripped over Spinky who raced into the living room, and stumbled in exactly the right way to find himself in front of the salad bowl on the counter. He snatched it and twirled to face Jesse as if this had been an elaborate and well-planned dance, and placed it on the table. Jesse put his drink on the kitchen table (made for two, by the way, and only sat one), and hauled the bowl of spaghetti to the aforementioned dining area.

         “How well do you sleep at night?”

         “What do you mean?” Jesse asked. Cheese, bread, and other parts of the meal were now on the table. Dinner just needed the two men.

         “You’re clearly gay, yet you’re part of an organization known to hurt gays and lesbians in Oklahoma, especially this county. How can you do that?”

         “What makes you think I have morals?” Jesse sat down across from Calanthe. “Why do I have to help everyone else? Have you ever done that? Where does it get you? I’m not a role model.”

         “Says the youth minister,” Calanthe said. He doled salad onto his plate before doing the same with the pasta. Were his unsteady hands noticeable to Jesse? He tightened his muscles, but he couldn’t stop the spasms, the shakes creeping into his reality more and more these days.

         “Who joins a religion to be some kind of star? I did it for the same reasons everyone else does: I want money, and I want to find the joy in my salvation.”

         “But people don’t know who you are,” Calanthe said. “They might recognize your name, but you haven’t offered any authenticity. They just know whatever plastic doll Tripp Goode is manufacturing.”

         “That’s all they need,” Jesse said. He wasn’t chewing as he forced unblinking eye-contact. “Why do I feel like you’re judging me? All I’m doing is surviving.”

         “Fair enough,” Calanthe said, but was it really “fair enough”? The Redwater First Baptist Church was the host of the nationally advertised two-year class on how to evolve into their picturesque perception of a personified All-American Adonis.

         “What’d you find out about the booklet?” Jesse asked.

         “Not much. Only the cover was there. Are sure it’s more important than the pictures and bank statements and -“

         “What do you mean it wasn’t there?” Jesse put his fork down, his body as rigid as Bernini’s delicious marbled David. His brow was even furrowed, teeth clenched. Would Jesse find offense if Calanthe shoved dinner to the floor so he could be dessert?

         The writer’s new phone rang from the counter. He apologized while he strode to the device, pressing the power button. The phone’s alarm silenced, but he couldn’t unsee Tripp Goode’s number. He turned, smiled, and shrugged his shoulders, but before he could sit, the phone alerted again. This time, he answered.

         “What?” he asked.

         “Hey, Eric, do you have a minute?” Goode asked.

         “I’m in the middle of something. What do you want?”

         “Have you seen my son-in-law? He wasn’t at morning service, and I haven’t been able to locate him. He’s such a scamp, you know.”

         “No, I haven’t seen him since you and I met in your office,” Calanthe said while making a face at the man in question. Jesse nodded.

         “Oh, I think you have,” Goode said. “Or maybe…you just can’t remember.”

         Calanthe opened his mouth and then shut it. Goode was now in this game.

         “What do you know?” Calanthe asked.

         “Enough, though apparently more than you. See? That’s a joke to lighten the mood about your condition. Tell me how you feel about this next joke. Are you standing up? I want to know if this counts as stand-up or -“

         “What, Tripp?” Calanthe closed his eyes and scraped his left pinky nail with his teeth, blood striking his taste buds as he ripped a sliver and winced.

         “I have to say, Eric, it wasn’t easy to find your records. Hell, even when you came to my place, I still didn’t have the what I needed. Everywhere I searched led to nothing concerning your health. I had my suspicions, sure, but nothing concrete. I was certain regarding your HIV status given your lifestyle, but-“

         “I don’t have HIV,” Calanthe said. He opened his eyes.

         “So it turns out. And for some reason, I could’ve sworn the doctors would be persuaded by money or fame, because…well, you know healers and their egos. But they didn’t budge, only swore they didn’t know anything about you. Then I discovered your secret. Just like that. A little birdie, if you will. In all the research, I did, however, unearth a literary name you might find familiar. Wasn’t Elijah Courtson the hero of your first book? Realizing you’d plagiarized yourself for a low-key pseudonym, it was a pleasure to find all your records. And I know your mom will outlive you. I think you know that, too. How will she survive without the money from what’s left of your estate? Can she?”

         This feels gross. I can’t do this on the phone.

         “Tripp, this isn’t the appropriate time-“

         “If you see Jesse, thank my little songbird, please, for informing me of your status, of the early onset of Alzheimer’s.” The phone went black, silent.

         Calanthe’s lips parted, a sliver displaying teeth pushed by his tongue while he tilted his head, squinted his eyes. Goode’s bomb exploded repeatedly into his brain. There sat Jesse, eating, sipping his beer: clueless. He dropped his fork at the writer’s bellow:

         “You son-of-a-bitch!”



         Smiling, Tripp placed his phone on the table beside Sarah’s bed. Was he in a good mood? He nodded while he sat on the bed next to his wife. He’d just given a writer a master class in irony. You bet life was beautiful.

         “Good thing for you,” he said, “I’m feeling better.” He put his hand on her leg. She hitched it, a large gesture of a small jerk, but she turned to him with empty eyes and a smile that made his hand itch to slap it into the wall. No, he thought, I’m in the best mood; powerful. I have a handle on my life.

         “How’re you feeling?” he asked. Her answer would decide where he would take this conversation. He smiled again as he congratulated himself on these minuscule psychological manipulations. He didn’t have an Honorary Doctorate for nothing.

         “I’m fine, dear,” was her reply, but the inflection ended her thought in a question. Good. She was still playing this part, this plastic facade he’d only discovered a couple of weeks earlier. When he’d “accidentally” opened Sarah’s mail, a bank statement emerged with some name he hadn’t known. Mistakingly opening the rest of her letters, the puzzle pieces fit. Biding time is hard, especially when waiting to extract a point, but here was a better offering than the preacher could’ve hoped for.

         “You were never clear,” Goode said, “about what happened. Was it a snake, or was it a person?” He squeezed her knee. He was a supportive husband, that much was evident.

         “Oh, I just stumbled into the coffee table,” she said with tight lips.

         “The window, Sarah, what hit it?” He spoke slowly, playing her game. He’d thrown her straight into his Mercedes and escorted her to the hospital when he arrived home the night before. She was disoriented and bleeding from her temple. Each time she told the story, it was different: in one, it was a snake striking the glass, yet in another, it was a person. The only consistent factor was the color of the eyes, neon signs of sinful red, and this part of her story made as much sense as the rest of her versions.

         “I couldn’t find the Alfa Romeo keys,” she said for not the first time.

         “Sarah, I didn’t take the Alfa or the keys. You did. It’s outside where you parked it, muddy as hell. The keys are hanging in the hall. You went out and took it down some muddy road. Can you remember that?”

         “I can’t remember much.”

         “That seems to be a theme lately,” he said as he leaned toward her. “Isn’t it exhausting, Sarah, to be this…secret person?”

         “I don’t know-“

         “Don’t tell me you don’t know!” In a flash, he was coiled on top of her, straddling her body while his fists pummeled the headboard against the wall. After a few seconds, he stopped and bent his face only inches from hers as he controlled his breath and this moment. His heart danced to beat of Sarah’s flinching, that he could be so benevolent as to offer the role of victim she’d liked to play for the last forty years. “Tell me…what happened.”

         “Oh, Tripp, what are you doing?”

         “Tell me!” He stopped. He was powerful, remember? Did he need to be this aggressive? “Look, I know you have a girlfriend. I know you’ve been stealing from me, from Gawd, and I know you went to see her last night. Tell me why. Are you making your last plans before you just disappear from the responsibility God has laid upon you? Are you just…that weak?”

         She shook her head as if an Etch-A-Sketch, then peered into his eyes. There were tears, of course there were always tears, but now they were more clear than ever. Wasn’t that how it happened, though? Once an aspect about a person changes in our eyes, and they’re no longer reliable, faithful, or consequential. He moved his head closer, almost touching.

         “Elizabeth Regine isn’t your daughter,” she whispered. “You weren’t the only person Luke was into.”

         Tripp sat back with slitted eyelids. What’d happened here? He was powerful one moment, God of His Domain, and then he was slouching over, slumping as if someone had punted him in the taint. Breaking the trance, he jerked his head to meet the gaze of her satisfied eyes.

         “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”

         “I knew it would break you.” She smiled.

         “Sarah, she’s my daughter because I raised her. This isn’t about that. You had a baby with Luke. Do you understand what that means? Have you considered the consequences?”

         “He promised everything would be okay.”

         “And you believed him? You conceived a child with the devil, yet you’re assured when he tells you everything will be rainbows and hearts? Are you that damned stupid?” He rolled from the bed, placed his hand on his forehead, then paced in front of the light from the mid-afternoon sun.

         “What are you doing?” she asked.

         “I don’t know! I’m going to my office. There’s a book that’ll help me figure it out. And when I get back, I swear to God I will impress upon you exactly what you’ve done.” He dropped his hand, shook his head while he looked at her one more time, then ran to the keys of his Mercedes.
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