Ken Schultz had "retired" from altar serving a few years earlier. He felt he had 'aged out' of the exclusive club and that it was weird for a college guy to serve on the same altar with twelve year olds so he returned to the pews of St. Kenislaus Kostka Parish, the church he had grown up in.
Ken's aunt no longer nagged him about attending Mass. He had received the Sacrament of Confirmation and that meant his religious Faith-life was now his responsibility. Ken still attended Sunday Masses most weekends and occasionally he came to Mass on a weekday if his schedule allowed.
On this evening only about twenty people were in he church for the 5:30 Mass. Ken went to confession (first in line and last in line on this day!), said his penance kneeling in front of the Holy Mother Mary statue, and then went to one of the pews in the back of the church.
Ken noticed Marie Krzanowski enter the church just a few minutes before Mass started. She was wearing a long brown cashmere coat with black tights coming out from underneath the coat. Ken thought she had put on a few pounds but she still wore her wavy black hair long on her back. She slipped into the pew a few rows in front of him.
Ken tried to focus on the Mass when Father Misiaszek rang the bell and entered the altar with three younger altar services. Ken recognized Ben Fluery and Andy Hightower, two mid-teens he had previously served with but not the third kid who looked to be about nine years old.
It was natural for the altar serving veteran Ken to critique how the current altar servers were performing – did they look respectful, did they know their jobs, were they on the altar instead of goofing off out back? He also liked watching Father Misiaszek who celebrated each Mass as if it was his first one. Father was getting a little older now but Ken had been around him for nearly fifteen years so it was natural to notice the priest getting a little slower.
Ken tried not to steal glances at Marie but it was hard not to. He had known her for at least fifteen years and she had once been his best friend at the parish. They received their First Communion together and they had gone through the catechism ranks as buddies. Marie was 'burly' as a youngster, overweight and picked on and because Ken was a dweeb they got along well and became allies. Marie sat next to him in catechism class and she helped him learn and understand their Faith. In truth, aside from Father Misiaszek, the only reason Ken went to church was because of Marie Krzanowski. They went to different schools so the only time Ken saw her was at church and at church-related activities. He loved going to the parish picnics so he could hang out with her and he attended the other parish events in hopes Marie would be there too.
But, seemingly overnight, Marie shunned Ken when they reached high school for reasons he never understood. She had grown about four inches over the summer after eighth grade and she lost about fifty pounds. She looked great and apparently she decided that Ken was no longer worthy of her attention and that hurt him deeply. Even though they were in the same Confirmation Class the two rarely talked anymore and Marie's rejection was one of the most painful events of Ken's adolescence.
Marie graduated from St. Anne's Catholic High School while Ken got his diploma from Hillsboro High. Now he was finishing up his two-year degree at Blue County Community College while the last he heard Marie had gone off to a Catholic college in Florida but she was now back in the area for unspecified reasons.
Ken thought Marie was pretty but he decided after she dumped him that she had turned into one of those stuck up Catholic girls. He tried not to resent her for her less than Jesus-like attitude toward him and now that he was a little older maybe she wouldn't see him as the annoying, irrelevant, zit-faced loser she apparently considered him in high school.
Ken previously served with Marie's two older brothers on the altar – the elite Mark and Paul Krzanowski, two stellar performers who were among Father's favorites who could do no wrong even when they slighted Ken with indifference and dismissal. They were both married now and Ken saw them at Mass most weekends with their wives and young children.
The Krzanowski family was very popular at the parish. In addition to Marie's brothers Mark and Paul she had two older sisters – Elly and Amy – pretty girls who ignored Ken just as much as the youngest Marie did.
Ken wondered if Marie was even aware he was behind her as Mass progressed but she turned during the sign of peace and gave him a wave with a polite smile although Ken didn't think she was being all that sincere. He gestured back with a half wave and a nod although he was pretty sure she was thinking 'Peace be with you, you jerk'.
When it came time for communion, Ken ended up behind Marie in the line and he tried not to stand to close to her. Father Misiaszek was a traditionalist who had re-installed the altar rails in on the foot of the altar and parishioners were welcomed to kneel and receive the Eucharist like the old days. Ken knelt next to Marie and waited for Father to make his way down the rail. Ken could smell Marie's perfume and he glanced out of the corner of his eye to see Marie with her head bent in reverent prayer with her hands folded in front of her face while she waited to receive.
Father Misiaszek arrived and gave Marie communion. And then he side stepped along the altar rail to Ken.
"The Body of Christ," the priest said as Altar Server Ben Fluery stuck the communion plate under Ken's chin, almost hitting him in the Adam's Apple.
"Amen," Ken replied as he swallowed the host.
Marie had been so slow to leave the altar rail in her post-communion prayer of thanksgiving that Ken was right behind her as they slowly shuffled down the side aisle back to their respective pews. For some strange reason, Ken felt spiritually close to Marie at that moment having shared such a personally intimate moment together.
Back in his pew, Ken silently said his post-communion prayers of gratitude and adoration and then read the prayers printed on the back of the missal while Father finished communion and then cleaned the chalices and altar table, returning the chalices to the tabernacle in the center of the high altar. Ken threw a few quick glances at Marie who was on her knees in her pew with her head buried in her hands saying her silent prayers too.
"Let us Pray," Father Misiaszek said, drawing Ken out of his thoughts.
Ken stood with the rest of the congregation as Father said the closing prayer. The automated organ music began (the organist wasn't in the choir loft this day) and after a few moments Father and the three altar servers genuflected and left the altar. The Mass was over (go in peace).
Ken knelt for one final prayer, watching Marie who did the same. He really wasn't praying. He was actually stalling for time so he could follow Marie out of the church. Not that he'd say anything to her but at least he'd feel like he was close to her for a moment, just like the old days.
Marie finished her kneeling prayers, stood, and left the pew, but instead of heading for the exit at the back of the church like she usually did she headed for the front of the church. Ken was momentarily confused but then he realized he had every reason to follow her. He could say hello to Father who he hadn't spoken too for a while. The priest was one of his few mentors, a guy Ken enjoyed talking to, especially when he wasn't feeling particularly popular or understood.
Ken stepped into the sacristy to find Marie standing with Father. She had a rosary in her hand and Father was blessing it with holy water and a quick prayer.
"Thank you, Father," Marie said. "It was a gift from my grandfather."
"You're quite welcome," Father Misiaszek smiled as he put the holy water away. "Always glad to do it."
She nodded and smiled before turning, surprised to find Ken standing behind her.
"Excuse me," she said with coolness in her voice as she stepped past him and left.
Ken wanted to follow after her but he realized he needed to at least say hello to the priest. The altar servers were doing their after-Mass chores and Ken and Andy nodded their hellos to Ken.
"Hey, Father," Ken said to the priest who was hanging his vestments in one of the closets.
"Kenneth!" Father Misiaszek grinned. "How's it going out there in the big cruel world?"
"Okay, Father," Ken replied. "Almost done at BCCC."
"Good, good," Father replied with enthusiasm. "Then what?"
"Green College, I guess," Ken replied.
"What about the Monastery?" Father asked with a grin.
"I don't think I have what it takes, Father. Nobody would be able to understand me saying the Mass. I tend to mumble."
"There are many ways priests serve, Kenneth," Father replied.
"I know, Father," Ken replied sheepishly. "Please don't pressure me!"
The priest laughed. "Never any pressure, Ken," he said. "But I have to do my job, you know!"
"I know," Ken said. "Well, nice seeing you, nice Mass as always. I'll see you around."
"God Bless, Ken," Father replied.
Ken headed for the exit door certain that Marie was long gone. Not that it mattered. She wasn't going to say anything to him anyway and he definitely didn't have the guts to approach her anymore either. It was already become dusk outside the church and the late March temperature was quickly falling now that the sun was going down.
Ken was surprised to see that Marie hadn't left yet. She was standing in the parking lot talking to an older gentleman who was leaning against his car with the hood up.
Father Misiaszek came out of the church and approached the scene. "Mr. Schab, is there a problem?" The priest wanted to know.
"Car won't start," the old man replied.
"Is there anybody we can call?" Father Misiaszek asked.
"Ah, I'll get the grandson to come down tomorrow and take care of it," Mr. Schab replied. "But we could use a ride home. The Mrs. needs to have her evening pills and it's almost bed time."
"Marie, any chance you could give the Schabs a ride home for us?" Father Misiaszek asked hopefully. "I have a meeting."
"Ah...yeah...sure," Marie said, obviously not expecting the suggestion. "I...I'll just go get my car."
Ken watched Marie stroll off at a quick pace.
"You go with her," Father Misiaszek told Ken.
"Ride shotgun for her," Father explained. "Help out." The priest pointed his finger at him as if to say 'just do it' before heading for the rectory to get ready for his meeting.
Ken looked at old man Schab. The guy had to be in his eighties. He was frail and hunched over with a cane and Ken wondered how he was even able to drive. His clothes hung from his body and his thick glasses hung low on his crooked nose.
"Okay, Mother, we got a ride home," Mr. Schab said as he waddled around to his wife's side of the car.
Mrs. Schab looked even older and frailer than her husband. She probably didn't weigh ninety pounds and her gray hair hung in strands from her head, strategically covered by a hat. It took the old woman a few minutes to gather the energy and power to lift herself out of the car. Ken reached in and helped her to her feet just as Marie pulled up with her four-door green ten year old Honda that still looked brand new.
Marie got out of the car and aided Ken as he helped the older couple to Marie's car. Both of the elders were safely secured in the back seat and Ken opened the passenger door to Marie's car.
"What are you doing?" Marie asked with surprise.
"Father says I should go too," Ken said awkwardly. "To help out."
"Great," Marie mumbled. "Now I'll have to drive you back."
"Sorry," Ken shrugged. "It's kind of hard to say no to a priest."
She rolled her eyes but didn't say anything as she climbed into the car.
The Schabs were comfortably nestled in the back seat, appreciative of the help.
"Where do you folks live?" Marie asked as she drove the car out of the lot.
"West County," Mr. Schab said. "We've been coming to this parish for sixty years."
"That's a long drive," Ken remarked.
"Worth every mile," Mr. Schab replied.
Mr. and Mrs. Schab spent the entire trip relegating stories about the parish. It was like listening to an oral history as the couple told stories about different priests, different eras, and the church "in the old days". They also talked about their sixty-five years together as a married couple which Ken found fascinating. He had seen the couple in Church for years but had no clue who they were or what their story was. Now he was listening to them talk about their parents – Polish immigrants who came to America at the beginning of the last century to start a new life and raising a family in Blue County.
Mr. Schab kept giving Marie directions to their house. Ken hadn't been paying much attention, his head cranked back to the Schabs for most of the trip so he had no idea where they were. All he knew is that they had taken a series of turns on back roads through the farm country and woods of West County.
"Okay," Mr. Schab said after numerous turns and traveling. "That large farm house on the left ahead is ours."
Marie, who hadn't talked much, slowed the car and turned into the driveway of the huge old white farm house with black shutters. "You live here alone?" Marie asked with surprise.
"It's the family home," Mr. Schab replied. "How can we leave?"
There had to be fourteen rooms in the place. There was large red barn behind the house.
"We sold off most of the land," Mrs. Schab said. "But we couldn't give up our home."
Marie and Ken helped the older couple from the car and escorted them into the house. The elderly couple smiled and gave their appreciative thanks, insisting that Marie and Ken take some cookies with them or the ride back to Hillsboro. Marie and Ken both thanked the couple and once they were sure the Schabs were safely situated, they left the farm house.
The ride back was pretty quiet without the Schabs to entertain them with their amazing stories. Marie put a CD of Christian music in the player but she didn't say much.
"Do you know how to get back to Route 4?" Ken asked after a series of turns and twists.
"I think I know a shortcut," she said. "We used to go apple picking around here and my Dad would take a back road that came out practically in Hillsboro."
"It's getting kind of dark," Ken replied. "Maybe we should play it safe if you're not sure."
"God is my co-pilot," Marie responded. "I'm sure I can find it."
Ken wasn't going to argue. It was her car and he was just along for the ride thanks to Father Misiaszek. He glanced out the side window at the darkness trying to recognize something familiar. Marie took a series of turns and the car zipped around corners and went over hills but it seemed to Ken that they were only going farther into rural nothingness and not getting closer to the state road of Route 4.
When he saw a sign that read 'Mt. Griffin' with an arrow Ken knew they were way off track.
"I don't think we're going in the right direction," he told Marie.
"I'm pretty sure we are," Marie said with confidence. "There should be a road with a bridge soon."
"I think there's going to be a mountain soon," Ken replied.
Ken hadn't seen a farm pasture in miles. It was all forest and woods now with very little light in the darkness of night.
"I really think we may be off course," Ken let her know.
"Well, which way should we go then?" She asked with annoyance.
"I think we're going north when we should be going east," Ken said. "I would start taking rights. Maybe we'll come out somewhere near Sun Rise Lake."
Marie didn't reply as she navigated the car around an unexpected bend in the road but she was going faster than she realized and the car failed to negotiate the sharp turn.
"Oh My…." Marie screamed, nailing the brakes which sent the car into a spinning skid.
The Honda careened off the road and sailed down an embankment.
"We're going to die!" Ken said as he grabbed the dashboard with one hand and the door with his other.
"Hail Mary Full of Grace the Lord is with thee…" Marie began to pray as the car flew through brush, bounced off tree trunks, and continued to crash down the side of the embankment.
Marie had both feet on the brake pedal and Ken leaned over and downshifted the gear shift to low to help decrease the car's throttle but the car was still flying and it was only a matter of time before they smashed into a tree trunk head on.
"Our Father who Art In Heaven," Marie said through her sobs.
The car sideswiped a tree, bounced off a large rock that sent it spinning sideways and Ken looked out his window to see a river rapidly approaching. The back end of the car struck another tree trunk which spun the car in the opposite direction but Ken sensed that the speed had greatly decreased and he hoped the Honda might come to a stop before they reached the river.
"God Grant me the serenity…" Marie was wailing.
The front end of the car hit a tree and the car did a 180 spin but it had almost come to a stop and Ken thought they were going to be okay even though he was dazed and dizzy. But then he felt the sensation of the car rolling over.
"Hold on!" Ken yelled.
He put his hands up to the roof and it felt like they were a clothes dryer as the car flipped two or three times and then there was a loud splash and the car came to a sudden stop, knocking Ken senseless., especially when the air bags deployed.
When he regained his bearings, Ken realized that the car was in water – perhaps a pool off the river he had seen. The vehicle was tilting to the left and slowly sinking in mud and muck. Water was coming in through Marie's side of the car. Ken tried to move but the car's dashboard had crashed down and was pinning his legs.
Marie moaned in the darkness. She looked half knocked out.
"Marie!" Ken yelled, reaching out and shaking her. "Marie! Wake up!"
At first, she didn't know where she was or what had happened but once she opened her eyes completely she became aware of the dire situation.
"We have to get out of here," Ken told her with urgency.
"I'm stuck," she said, her voice panicked and high pitched.
"Get your seat belt off," he ordered. "Hurry."
She did as he instructed while Ken put both his hands on the dash board and he desperately tried to lift the damaged piece off his legs. The huge dashboard moved slightly and he was able to slide his legs out although there was pain in both of them.
"Slide your legs out from underneath," he said.
"Ouch!" Marie cried out. "Ow! Oh! Ow. Ouch. My ankle!"
"We have to get out!" Ken said as he struggled to open the passenger door as the car continued to tilt.
Marie was now half-submerged in water. Ken got his door open and he climbed out of the car, lying on the outside and sticking his hand back into the interior.
"Take my hand," he ordered.
"I'm afraid," Marie cried.
"You'll drown if you don't get out now!" He warned.
"It hurts!" She sobbed.
"I'm sorry," Ken said. "Grab my hand."
Marie struggled to climb out of the seat and she reached her hand up. Ken grabbed it and pulled her from the sinking wreck. She was soaked and she was starting to shake from both the cold water and the chilly night air. The car was close to a bank and Ken stood on the side of the car to judge how far of a leap it was to the bank that was almost parallel to the car.
"Can you walk?" Ken asked Marie who was sitting dazed on the side of the car, her feet dangling into darkness.
"I don't know," she said.
Ken helped her to her feet and Marie yelped when she put her right foot down. "It's my ankle," she cried.
Ken glanced down and noticed that she was missing a shoe. Her ankle looked bruised and swollen.
"Okay, I'm going to jump to the bank and then I'll catch you when you jump," Ken told her.
"I don't know if I can," she wailed.
"You have to try," Ken said.
He jumped to the bank without difficulty. "Okay," he said. "Now you."
"I can't," she cried, her face racked with panic.
"You can do it," Ken assured her. "Hurry before the car sinks more and then it will be really hard."
Marie was standing on one foot. She looked desperately at Ken, sucked in her breath, and then leapt from the car. The force of her flying into Ken knocked him off balance. He fell on his backside but managed to grab Marie and take her with him, relieved that she was safely on the bank and hadn't tumbled into the water.
Marie looked at Ken underneath her with shock, her face almost in his. She quickly rolled off of him onto her side and she fished her cell phone out of her soaked pocket. It still lit up but the screen was smashed in the crash and she was unable to use the phone function.
"Do you have yours?" She asked hopefully.
Ken shook his head no. "I left it in the car for Mass," he said with a sigh as he stood.
"Great," she grumbled. "What are we going to do now?"
"I don't know," Ken admitted, rubbing his side and trying to catch his breath.
"You okay?" She frowned.
"I think I cracked some ribs," he said. "My legs hurt from the dashboard but I don't think it's anything serious."
He glanced around and noticed a clearing through a thin line of trees. He squinted through the darkness and with the aid of the stars in the sky he thought he saw the outline of some sort of structure in the distance.
"I think there's something over there," Ken said. "Can you walk?"
Marie reached her hand out and Ken helped her to her feet. "I can hop," she said.
Marie put her arm around his shoulder for support and Ken awkwardly wrapped his arm around her waist as they started to make their way toward the building. After a fair amount of hopping, Marie was laboring for breath.
"I'll just carry you," Ken decided.
But it was too late. Ken swooped her up in his arms.
"Oomph," he groaned, surprised by her weight as he lifted her.
"I know, I'm fat," Marie said with disgust in her voice.
"You're not fat," Ken said. "It's my ribs." (A sort of lie).
"I'm hefty and chunky," she said. "You don't have to be polite."
Ken didn't have enough breath or strength to reply as he concentrated on not dropping her as they got closer to the structure. It looked like a tiny little hut as they approached. There was a door over a couple of steps and a small window in front of the wooden shack with a tin roof overhang. Ken set Marie on her feet on the steps when they reached the structure and he pushed on the door. He was surprised that it gave way so easily, opening into a small dark room. He could hear the scattering of mice.
"Gross," Marie said.
"Get your cell phone out," Ken said. "Use the light."
Marie dug into her coat pocket, retrieved her cell and flashed the light into the small hut that was no more than ten feet by twelve feet. Ken saw a couple of kerosene lanterns and he was relieved to find some matches nearby. He lit the lamps and the hut illuminated into a dim glow. A few more mice scurried away causing Marie to shriek.
'I hate mice," she explained with disgust when Ken gave her a crazy look.
There was a window in the back of the hut with a small kitchen counter and sink, a chemical toilet, a wood stove, and a double bed. There was a table with several notebooks and a portable typewriter on it. The hut had no electricity or running water – a hand pump was in the sink. All sorts of fishing equipment were stored in the hut too.
"Is this guy a writing fisherman or a fishing writer?" Ken asked.
Marie hobbled to the bed and sat while Ken closed the door. Her head throbbed, her ankle hurt, she was sore all over, she was soaked, and she was scared. Her breath caught in her throat when she realized she was stranded in an abandoned hut with a guy she had shunned long ago. Her guilt almost outdid her awkwardness.
"You should probably get out of those wet clothes," Ken advised as he stepped to the stove. Some firewood was stacked in the corner along with old newspapers. "I'll get a fire going to warm this place up."
Marie's heart pounded in her chest and she rubbed her forehead in an effort to soothe her headache caused by the accident. Her hair fell in her eyes as she watched Ken get the fire going. She knew she was chilled but she couldn't imagine undressing in front of him in this tiny little space. She could ask him to wait outside but the thought of little hairy mice running around terrified her.
"Ken," she said, staring at him through her strewn hair.
He glanced up from where he was squatting on the floor in front of the woodstove. "Huh?"
"You have to promise never to say anything," she whispered.
"About what?" He asked with confusion.
"Any of this," she replied. "Don't look," she murmured, delicately standing from the bed while grabbing the quilt and wrapping it around her.
Marie kept her back to him and shielded herself with the quilt as she peeled out of her wet clothes. She wrapped the quilt around her naked body and sat on the bed again.
She arched an eyebrow at him. "You didn't look, did you?"
"No more than necessary," he joked.
Marie's eyes widened. "This is very awkward for me," she said with annoyance.
"This is survival mode, Marie," Ken said as he stood, satisfied that the fire had started well enough. "We may have to sacrifice a little humility."
"I'm a modest person," Marie remarked.
Ken closed the door to the stove and went to where her clothes were piled in a heap on the floor. She was embarrassed that he was looking at her unmentionables.
"I'll put these closer to the fire so they'll dry," he said as he balled up the clothes and returned to the stove.
"I can't believe you're looking at my underwear," Marie groaned.
Ken blushed when he realized how embarrassed she was. "Don't worry," he said. "I won't tell."
She felt overcome by awkwardness and humiliation. "How long are we going to be stuck here?" She asked.
"I don't know," Ken shrugged. "At least until morning. Maybe I can walk out when it gets light."
"They'll come looking for us, right?" Marie asked hopefully. "I called my parents from the church and told them what I was doing. They'll figure out where we are."
"Well, you drove us twenty miles in the wrong direction," Ken said sounding more critical than he meant to. "It might take a while."
"Oh, so it's my fault," she muttered unhappily.
"It's nobody's fault," Ken replied.
He turned the chair around that was at the table with the typewriter and notebooks and took a seat, facing Marie who sat cuddled underneath the quilt. She hated that he knew she was naked underneath the covering like some temptress.
Ken felt just as awkward and he wasn't sure what he was supposed to say now that they were stuck together after what happened between them.
"I'm sorry," Marie sighed out of the blue.
Ken peered at her with confusion. "What do you mean?"
"I know you don't like me much," she said.
"Why would you say that?" Ken asked, trying not to let his resentment reflect in his voice tone.
"I wasn't very nice to you," Marie told him. "You don't have to pretend nothing bad happened between us, Ken," she added, not quite looking him in the eyes.
"Wow," a surprised Ken replied. "I guess I never thought I'd hear you actually admit to it."
"We grew up together in the parish," Marie said with sadness. "We went to CCD together. We were friends"
"We were," Ken agreed. "You were my best friend," he added. "We talked and got along great," he sighed. "Then all of a sudden I was a nobody. You stopped hanging out with me. You wouldn't talk to me. You stopped including me in the activities and you ignored me at the church picnics and at the Youth Group meetings. I remember once I saw you at the Greenville Cinema and you acted like you had no idea who I was."
"I…" Marie's voice broke.
"It's okay," Ken said with a brave smile from his chair. "I know how popular you are."
She laughed out loud at that one. "Right. I'm Miss Popularity," she said sarcastically.
But she had no defense for how she treated him and she knew how much of a jerk she had been. She regretted it but she knew there was no way she could convince of him of how badly she felt now.
"I'm sorry," Marie offered lamely. "I have no excuse."
"Don't worry about it," he grumbled, hurt in his voice. "I probably wouldn't want to hang out with me if I was you either." He stared down at the floor.
"You must really hate me," Marie sighed after a few quiet moments as she sat on the bed peering at him.
"No, I don't," Ken replied quietly. "It hurts but it's my problem not yours."
"Yes it is so my problem," Marie said, shaking her head with disgust. "I should have been more humble and less egotistical. I should have stood up to my family and friends."
Ken looked up from the floor and he looked her in the eyes. "Why didn't you?"
"I don't know," Marie admitted. "Your family wasn't involved with the parish. My family and friends didn't think you were a good enough Catholic." She looked ashamed and embarrassed by the admission.
"I'm not a good enough Catholic!?" Ken couldn't help but laugh. "I'm treated like I'm a leper and I'm not a good enough Catholic?"
"My parents didn't think you knew your Faith very well," Marie sighed from her spot on the bed. "That you didn't come from a strong Catholic family. That you really didn't practice the Faith."
"They just didn't like it that I liked you," Ken replied with annoyance. "That I might somehow contaminant and violate you because I wasn't good enough."
Marie tilted her head as she peered at him. "Why did you like me?" She whispered.
"You're pretty for starters," Ken replied.
"No I'm not," she sighed. "Not like my sisters. Not like Karla Daniels or Rosa Stedman."
"I think you're prettier than any of them," Ken said.
"I'm fat," she moaned.
"No you're not."
Tears formed in her eyes. "Yes I am," she insisted. "My sisters weigh 110 pounds," Marie cried as she pulled the quilt around herself. "I weigh 180. I'm a fat hog." She fell back on the bed and sobbed uncontrollably.
"No one thinks that," a stunned Ken replied.
"Yes they do," she sobbed. "I've heard them talking behind my back. I see how they look at my sisters and Kayla and Rosa but not at me."
"I look at you," Ken assured her.
"Well, I guess you're dumb enough to like fatties," Marie cried, her tears streaming down her face.
Ken left his chair and nervously approached the bed. "Marie," he said. "Please don't cry. And please don't talk about yourself like that. You're a beautiful woman."
"Just shut up," she requested as she lay in fetal position on the bed, clutching her knees to her chest with her arms wrapped around her legs as she cried.
Ken dared to sit on the edge of the bed and he watched her cry. She must have needed to clear her system because she cried for at least a half an hour. When she was all cried out and too exhausted to cry anymore she finally sat up on the bed, not quite looking at him.
"I can't believe you think about yourself like that," he said. "Jesus wouldn't want that."
"Since when have I been listening to Jesus?" Marie sighed. "A good Catholic girl would never treat you the way I did."
"I always thought you guys thought of yourselves as Entitled Catholic Girls," Ken admitted. "Elitist Catholic Girls."
"Really?" Marie asked, wiping her tears from her cheeks.
"I was envious," Ken said. "You and your sisters and Rosa and Karla were all so beautiful and popular."
"And stuck up," Marie frowned. "I guess I was just so wrapped up in going along with the flow and being accepted by the others that I was willing to sell you out. I figured I wouldn't be so fat if I was in with the cool group."
"I found it ironic that you girls who acted so holy and did such good stuff in the parish – the fundraisers and youth group activities and stuff – could be such prima donnas when it came to unpopular and unimportant people like me," Ken said.
"I hope you'll forgive me," Marie replied. "I'm going to confession as soon as we're found."
Ken's eyes drifted to her exposed neck line that wasn't quite covered by the quilt, noticing the necklace she was wearing. It had shined in his eyes like a beacon.
"What was that necklace you're wearing?" Ken asked.
Marie pulled it out from underneath the quilt. "Mother Mary my protector," she said, showing it to him by twisting it back and forth like a pendulum. "My grandmother gave it to me for Confirmation."
"Did you get a confirmation present?" Marie asked.
"I think the actual sacrament was my present," Ken said.
"Yeah," she agreed.
"The only reason I made it was because of my Aunt Jennifer," Ken revealed.
"My mother died when I was young and my father's Protestant," Ken explained. "My Aunt wasn't practicing Catholicism but she's the one who made sure I went to Church. Father took me under his wing and I met you and I'm pretty sure my life would have been much more miserable if you and Father and St. Kenislaus Kostka Parish hadn't saved me."
"I didn't save you," Marie said, rolling her eyes.
Ken shrugged. "I might have stopped coming if you hadn't been so nice to me early on," he revealed. "You were one the main reasons I showed up every week."
"Holy Cow, Ken," Marie said with amazement. "I didn't know that."
"Anyway, Aunt Jenny made me stay until I got Confirmed," Ken continued. "She moved away and nobody's making me go to church but I keep going anyway."
"To see you," he admitted openly, causing her to blush. "It makes me feel better too," he added.
"Me too," Marie smiled. "My family's very religious as you know," she said. "Hard line Catholics. I was raised strict. Went to the pro-life marches starting when I was ten. Couldn't date until I was sixteen. Pray the Rosary every night. Retreats. Sabbaticals. Pope Youth Day. Daily Mass and sometimes twice or three times on the weekend. You name it I've done it."
Ken picked up on the sadness in her voice. "But?" He asked.
"But I'm fat and lonely," Marie sighed.
"You're not fat," he said.
"I went off to Catholic College like I was going to solve all the world problems. Maybe even receive a religious vocation, my mother hoped. But I stressed out, got depressed, and went off the deep end. Now I hang around the house like I'm an old maid. Everybody's gone but me."
"Maybe you have a different calling," Ken suggested.
"I can't image what that might be," Marie sighed.
"Maybe it's this," Ken said.
"You mean you?" Marie asked with confusion.
Ken slipped off the bed and went to the stove to stoke the fire, throwing a few more logs into the stove's belly now that the fire was going pretty good. He glanced down at the floor where he had spread Marie's clothes out to dry. The pieces looked like giant doll clothes, one next to the other – her long sleeve jersey, her black skirt, her white undies, and her black tights (plus one shoe).
Ken turned to the bed and saw Marie sitting there wrapped in the quilt looking like a Native American Tribal Chief.
"So," he said as he returned to the bed and took a tentative seat on the edge not all that far from her. "How was Florida?"
"Things didn't work out so well down there," Marie revealed heavily.
"It was beautiful," she said. "The skies were blue and crystal clear every day. The ocean was practically bath water. It was always warm."
"But?" Ken asked.
"But I wasn't there on vacation," Marie replied. "I was far from home going to a strange new big school and I felt so lonely and far away. I thought all of the students would be like people from our parish. Nice. Faithful. Spiritual. Religious."
"Not everybody," Marie sighed.
"So, what happened?" Ken asked.
"I struggled," she said with a shrug of her shoulders. "The classes were harder than I thought. I was slow to make friends. I was homesick. I got depressed. I couldn't afford to come home that first Christmas and it was the most miserable experience of my life. I thought things would get better but they didn't. I prayed. I went to Mass. But nothing got better. I made wrong choices. Trusted the wrong people. Made mistakes." She looked sad.
"So you came home?"
"My father had to come and get me," Marie revealed quietly. "I was in the hospital. Couldn't function. Couldn't get out of bed. She dropped her head. "I wanted to die."
"Oh, Marie," Ken sighed. "I'm sorry you had to go through that."
"I had a miscarriage," She whispered. "All the right to life and wait until your married and chastity and modesty and good Catholic girl stuff drilled into my head all my life and I got pregnant by some song and dance man who claimed to be a great Catholic but was nothing but a slime ball."
Marie couldn't dare to look at him and Ken was definitely shocked by the news but he wasn't about to judge her. Instead, he gave her a confident look. "You're better now."
"Am I?" Marie wondered, looking at him. "I don't do anything, you know," she sighed. "My brothers work for my father. Elly is married. Amy is on the Dean's List at Holy Cross. I sit at home and read the Bible. Go to Mass everyday. Pray for a miracle. Somehow, I don't think driving into a river was an answer to my prayers."
"Maybe it wasn't the answer you were expecting," Ken theorized as he reached out and lifted the necklace up from her neck. "You can never go wrong when the Mother Mary is with you."
Marie arched an eyebrow. "Since when did you become a prophet?"
"You were the one who taught me everything I needed to know about our Faith, Marie," he reminded her. "If the roles were reversed, you'd be telling me the same thing."
"No," she sighed. "Because I'd still be being a jerk, probably."
"You don't know that," Ken said.
"This is all still very painful for me to think about," Marie remarked, staring off beyond Ken.
"You don't have to talk about it," he told her.
"But I need too," she said. "Nobody in the family talks about it. It's like it never happened. Florida is never mentioned. What happened to me is never discussed. People just pretend I never left home. Otherwise, I'd scandalize the family. Shame our religion. Embarrass people so everybody just stays in denial instead"
"Sounds like they're doing to you what they wanted you to do to me," Ken noted with disapproval.
"It feels like forever since I felt normal, embraced by the people who truly love me," Marie admitted. "I'm looked at differently now because I violated the code, broke the commandments, brought scandal to the family."
Tears came to her eyes and Marie wrapped her arms around her legs, holding the quilt tightly to her body. She closed her eyes wishing she could escape from the painful memories and truths.
"Why don't you try to get some sleep?" Ken suggested.
"I have nightmares," Marie revealed. "I'd rather not right now."
"Have you been seeing a therapist or anything?" Ken asked.
"I go to confession," she said. "Almost every day."
"Maybe you need to talk to someone else about this," Ken advised. "Father's great and I'm sure he's healing you spiritually but you need to talk to someone emotionally."
"A shrink, you mean?" She asked with a frown.
"No, a therapist. A counselor," Ken replied. "My aunt made me see one when I was in high school and it helped me some."
"Really?" Marie's interest perked up. "What was wrong with you?"
He gave her a deadpanned look. "Gee, let's see. My mother died when I was three. My father drinks too much and works to hard and doesn't have time for me. My best friend dumped me. I was a dweeb and a loser with no friends. I can't imagine what I could possibly talk to a therapist about!"
Marie rolled her eyes. "Well, if it makes you feel any better, I feel like I'm totally alone too."
Marie pulled her knees to her chest and rested her chin on them. "Maybe things would have been different if I hadn't listened to everybody else and had just gone with my gut, heart and soul," she sighed.
"What would you have done differently?" Ken asked.
"I would have stayed friends with you of course, you sap!" She groaned, letting out a long slow breath.
Ken raised his eyebrows. "Really?"
"Look at me, Kenneth," she replied. "Do you think my life would have ended up this way if I had made different choices?"
"There's nothing either of us can do about the past now," Ken told her softly.
"Don't you get it?" Marie frowned. "I should have been a better person. I should have lived my Faith instead of just talking about it. I should have done more to be a better person but I didn't and I got what I deserved."
"You don't deserve what happened to you," Ken insisted.
"Maybe God thought I did," Marie said.
"God doesn't punish," Ken replied. "You know that. We punish ourselves."
She sighed and nodded her head in agreement. "You're right," she decided. "I did this to myself."
"The good news is you can get better too," Ken said.
"With God's help," Marie agreed.
Her stomach rumbled so loudly that Ken heard it. Marie blushed. "I guess we should have rescued Mrs. Schab's cookies too," she said.
Ken stared at her for a long moment. "I'm glad we've reconciled," He finally said.
"Me too," she smiled. "Thanks for forgiving me, Ken."
"What about the others?" He worried.
"It's not about them anymore," Marie told him. "It's up to me to make the right decisions in my life. Karla is in California. Rosa is in Wisconsin. What difference does it make what they think now anyway?"
"And your family?"
"They'll need to let me live my own life," Marie decided.
"You really are beautiful, you know," Ken remarked.
Marie shifted on the bed with embarrassment but she didn't say anything. Her hair fell across her face and that gave her an even sexier look. The room was dim but Ken was sitting close enough to her to feel her presence and her aurora. He slowly lifted his hand to her face in a gentle even unsure gesture. Marie let him slip his fingers through her hair and she was the one who leaned in and gave him a soft kiss.
"I wanted to do that since the parish picnic in eighth grade," she smiled.
That was the year that she and Ken wandered off on some of the paths in the woods away from the picnic grounds. She had taken his hand in hers and it was the most innocent, romantic, peaceful, spiritual moment of Ken's life. That's when he first realized that he loved her.
"Me too," he smiled, a glint in his eyes that made Marie smirk.
"I hope you'll let me try to make it up to you for how badly I treated you," Marie said. "I don't deserve you after what I did."
"You've already made me forget all that stuff," Ken said, his mouth tickling her ear which sent an electrical current down her spine, the pain of her ankle and her heart replaced with hope and contentment.
Marie began to feel dizzy as her new reality sunk in. "Ken," she sighed.
"What?" He asked, pulling away.
"I've made mistakes in the past but I still consider myself a virtuous, respectable, honorable, chaste person even if I'm not a virgin anymore," she whispered.
"I read somewhere that virginity is a state of mind and not a physical condition," Ken said.
Her eyes watered up. "Thanks for saying that," she said. "Anyway, the point I was trying to make is that I'm not about to make a mistake like that again."
"I'm a virgin too, Marie," he replied sheepishly. "I'm not about to make any violating moves on you."
"Oh," she said, caught by surprise. "Okay, then," she said with relief.
"I've waited a long time to hear you say my name like that," he whispered happily.
Marie searched his face wondering if he could see into her soul. "Once I was a happy faith filled person living my life without a care in the world and the next thing I knew I was a miserable, unhappy, fake talking about God and Spirituality and religion and making all the overtures that made me look like I was a Saint while the whole time I was living a lie," Marie sighed. "How can you even look at me?"
"I can never stop looking at you," Ken replied.
Marie let out a slow breath. "Are you my Amazing Grace?" She wanted to know.
"I don't really know for sure," Ken replied. "But I hope so."
"They say God and Jesus work through other people," Marie said. "Maybe when I stopped talking to you I stopped hearing them."
"Do you hear them now?" Ken asked.
"I think so," she smiled. Then she stared at him for a long moment. "Do you really forgive me, Ken?" She needed to know.
"Seven times seven times seventy," Ken replied calmly.
Marie wiped a tear from her eye. "Are my clothes dry yet?" She wondered. "I can't go to sleep naked!"
Ken left the bed and went to the stove. "I think your coat is dead," he reported as he leaned over and felt the soaked rag. "But I believe the rest of the stuff has dried out pretty well."
"Good," Marie said as she got off the bed and hopped to the stove still covered by the quilt.
"I'll wait outside," he said.
"No, my ankle," she said. "I might fall over."
Ken stepped away to give Marie her privacy. She kept her back to him and he was surprised when she dropped the quilt to reveal her naked backside.
"Try to tell me I don't have a fat ass," she sighed as she glanced over her shoulder at him. "Try to tell me that my waist isn't the same width as my hips."
"The only thing I'm telling you is that you're beautiful," Ken replied, not even blushing this time.
"Could you get my clothes for me?" She asked.
Ken nodded, leaned over and picked up her clothes from the floor behind her, handing them to her. She quietly dressed with her back still to him. Ken tried not to look but he couldn't help himself.
"Are you going to tell the priest you mooned me?" Ken wondered.
Marie blushed. "Maybe I'll just say I was momentarily immodest," she said. "I have to go to the bathroom," the fully dressed Marie said when she turned to face him, motioning toward the chemical toilet.
"I'll wait outside," Ken said.
"What about the mice?" Marie worried.
"Jesus will protect you," Ken grinned.
"Wait a second," she said as she hopped her way to the toilet. "Okay," she said when she reached it without falling and then Ken left the hut.
It was cool outside but Ken was feeling warm on the inside. The pain of Marie's rejection had evaporated from his body as if it had never happened. They were back together again more intimate than ever before. He smiled as he went behind the hut to water a tree so he wouldn't have to ask Marie to leave the shack for him to use the portable toilet.
He circled around to the door just as Marie opened it. "Okay," she said. "I'm done."
Ken stepped into the shack as Marie hobbled back to the bed. She sat on the mattress and examined her ankle. "I must have sprained it," she said. "I don't think it's broken."
"Good," Ken said.
Marie pulled back the covers of the bed and slipped underneath them.
"Give me one of those pillows and the quilt and I'll sleep on the floor," Ken offered.
"Oh, we have our clothes on, Ken," Marie said. "I don't think you need to be that Puritanical, do you?"
"I was just trying to show you the reverence and respect you deserve," Ken explained, his face turning red.
"I appreciate that," Marie said sincerely. "And I trust you."
"Can I trust you?" Ken teased.
Marie laughed. "You can now," she said with a serious tone to her voice.
He smiled and then slowly walked to the two kerosene lamps, dimming one and shutting off the other. He then walked to the bed, kicking his shoes off in the process. He felt nervous but as he had said before they were in survival mode now.
"I always knew there was something special about you," Ken told her as he carefully snuck under the covers next to her. "From the first time we met. At first I thought it was just innocent friendship but my feelings slowly turned into something more as we got older."
"I felt the same way," Marie admitted. "Which is why my behavior was so horrible when I got to high school. I traded my innocence for ego and pride and greed." `"Well, at least it wasn't all seven deadly sins," Ken joked.
"You know, I can tell you anything you want to know about most of the major Saints," Marie told him. "I can recite just about every official prayer ever written. I know half the Bible by heart. I can recite the Mass in full. But what good does any of that do when I messed my life up so totally?"
"Tell me some bible verses that might make you feel better," Ken said as he lay on his back with his head turned toward her.
Marie was lying on her side facing him. "I've been obsessing on those in recent times," she admitted.
"Give me a few," Ken urged.
"'For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins'. That's from Matthew."
"What else?" Ken encouraged
"'If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness'. That's from John."
"I like that one," Ken said.
"I like Isaiah," Marie told him. "'I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more. Review the past for me, let us argue the matter together; state the case for your innocence'" She smiled to herself. "And Acts. 'Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.'"
"Very nice," Ken said.
"Back to Isaiah," Marie remembered. "'Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.' And Ephesians. 'In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace.'
"The Lord's Prayer has always been my favorite," Ken revealed. "I remember how you helped me learn it in First Communion Class."
"That comes from Matthew," Marie told him. 'This, then, is how you should pray: " 'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. ' For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins'."
"So," Ken asked. "Feel a little better now?"
She giggled and that made Ken grin. "I guess you're right," she decided. "Maybe If I'd just forgive myself I'll be able to move on."
"Bingo," Ken agreed. "Do you want to hear my favorite Bible quote?"
"Do you actually know one?" Marie asked with surprise.
"Love is patient and kind. It doesn't envy or boast, nor is it puffed up with its own importance. Love is never rude nor does it behave disorderly. It's not interested in itself, does not become angry or keep a record of wrongs. Love doesn't enjoy evil, but is always happy with truth. Love bears all things, believes all tings, hopes for all things and endures all things. Love will not fail."
Marie was stunned by his ability to recite the entire verse. "Wow," she said. "But you forgot a line."
"'There are three important things that will last forever: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.'"
"Oh, yeah, that's right!" Ken grinned.
They stared at each other wondering if they had Faith, Hope and Love together.
"So how are you feeling now?" Ken finally asked.
"Better," Marie admitted. "Starving, but better."
"Where's the Manna from heaven?" Ken teased.
"When I was a kid, we always ate as a family at the dinner table," Marie sighed. "All seven of us for dinner, every night after 5:30 Mass. Now there's just me. With my parents."
"I can't remember the last time my father and me sat down for a meal together," Ken responded. "It's usually fast food or frozen crap on the tv tray in front of the television."
"I don't suppose you say grace," Marie said.
Ken shook his head no.
"I don't think your Dad liked me much the few rare times we met," Marie remarked.
"He thought you were way too religious," Ken revealed. "You were always bringing the school fund raisers over and he nearly had a cow that time you wanted me to go on the pro life bus trip to DC. He didn't want you pushing The God stuff on me. He thought Aunt Jenny was bad enough." He smirked at her. "Sorry my father is a heathen!"
"I'll continue to pray for him," Marie said. She thought a moment. "We should probably stop talking so I can say my nightly prayers."
Ken smiled. "Remember when we used to pray together?"
"I do," she said with warmth.
"Do you want to pray together now?" He asked.
"I thought we already were," she replied.
Marie closed her eyes and began to pray in a whisper, her voice barely audible to Ken even though he was only a foot away. After fifteen minutes of this she opened her eyes and was surprised to find that Ken was still awake, staring at her and watching her pray.
"I wrecked my car and my ankle is killing me but this has turned out to be one of the best days I've had in a long time," Marie told him. "Thanks for helping me free my tortured soul."
"I didn't do anything," he replied.
"God works in mysterious ways and I know tonight happened for a reason," Marie said with confidence. "Nothing had been going right for me in a long time but now everything feels right."
"Maybe you're finally starting to heal," Ken suggested.
"I haven't felt happy in a very long time, Ken," Marie told him. "But now I feel a whole new freeing attitude. It was as if before I was cut off from everything I believed in and hoped for but now I feel happier than I've felt in a long time and I honestly believe that I can start enjoying life again."
"You're entitled to be happy, Marie," Ken said.
"I was going to stop going to Church but my parents wouldn't let me," Marie reported. "If I was going to stay in their house I had to follow their rules and attending Mass was one of them. So, if I hadn't been at Mass today we wouldn't have ended up together."
"One of the reasons I still go to Mass is because I always hoped I'd see you there," Ken confessed.
Marie took in a deep breath. "Do you want to start going together?"
"Yes," Ken said happily. I work part time at Fontaine's in addition to BCCC but I'm usually available for 5:30 Mass."
"Good," Marie smiled. "You know, if I hadn't lost my way we could have stayed friends all this time and maybe I wouldn't have fallen so hard," she sighed.
"Sometimes we have to fall in order to get up," Ken said.
"Maybe I should thinking about BCCC," Marie decided.
"How 'bout Green College?" Ken suggested. "I'll be going there next fall."
"God will figure it out for me," Marie smiled. "He knows where I need to be."
"You've always been so strong in your Faith," an impressed Ken commented.
"I think I've been faking it since Florida but I guess I had to walk through the wilderness until I found my way back," Marie remarked.
"There's something deeper," Ken insisted.
Marie moved her head on the pillow and pressed her lips against his. "Thank you, Kenneth," she smiled.
He looked at her with warm eyes. "Good night, Marie."
"Good night," she breathed.
Marie was curled into Ken's body with her back to him when he awoke in the morning. He was momentarily startled but then he felt warm and at peace. Marie stirred and turned her head to face him. The stove had gone out but the morning sun was shining through the windows of the shack and the covers had kept them warm.
"Good morning," Marie smiled.
"Good morning, Ken replied. "How's your ankle?"
Marie sat up in the bed and stuck her foot out from under the covers. Her ankle was swollen and looked discolored.
"You stay here," Ken said. "I'll take a walk and see if there are any houses around or something."
"Or a store with food!" Marie laughed.
Ken kissed her on the forehead before he climbed from the bed. "You going to be okay?"
"I'm going to be fine," Marie said with a warm smile of confidence.
Ken smiled and headed for the door. It was cool outside but not intolerable in his rather light jacket. He went into the woods to go to the bathroom, not wanting to deal with that in front of Marie or make her limp outside so he could have his privacy. He assumed she was doing the same thing inside the hut. When he was finished he made his way up the path that led up the embankment the car had tumbled down the night before. It was a surprisingly long hike up the hill and Ken was slightly winded by the time he reached the road. He looked both ways and saw nothing but woods. He also saw the skid marks of Marie's car although there was little evidence of the car leaving the road. He couldn't recall seeing a house the night before so he decided to walk in the direction the car was headed in hopes that he would come across a house or a car.
Back at the hut, Marie was humming some of her favorite psalms while praying. She used the toilet and splashed some water on her face from the pump although she dared not drink any water even though she was thirsty, not quite sure if the water was safe enough to ingest. Her ankle was hurting but somehow she didn't mind the pain because the real pain she had been feeling for a long time had left her as if Jesus himself had touched her on the head. She felt blessed, forgiven, reunified, and as though she was in the presence of God. Ken had been the savior she had rejected and he had taken away her cross. She knew she was going to be okay and she knew that Ken was going to help show her the way.
Ken saw the state police trooper car approach and he waved to make sure the car stopped. The officer turned on his blue lights as he reached Ken.
"Are you Kenneth Schultz?" The tall thin state trooper with a butch haircut asked as he got out of the car.
"I am," Ken verified.
"Where's the girl?" The cop asked.
"In a hut down by the river," Ken replied. "Our car went off the road last night."
"We only had one cell phone ping to go off of," The cop explained. "It was hard to narrow down. Get in the car."
Ken obeyed and listened while the officer radioed in his location for help while driving toward where Ken was gesturing. The trooper stopped when he saw the skid marks and Ken pointed to where the path was.
"She's going to need a stretcher," Ken said.
"The paramedics are going to love that walk," the cop laughed.
When Ken and Marie married three years later they were both graduates of Green College. Marie had a Bachelors in Sociology, Ken earned a degree in Accounting. They were seen at Mass every Sunday and most weekdays. Marie taught first grade catechism and Ken co-facilitated the Youth Group and served as an Eucharistic minister. They followed the church teachings of chastity and Ken remained a virgin until his wedding night. Marie was a 'born again' virgin although the engaged couple had occasionally partaken in 'momentarily immodest' activities together.
Father Misiaszek took public credit for bringing the couple together.
"I knew they were right for each other and God did the rest," the priest told those gathered for the Wedding Mass. "When you find your Faith again, everything is possible." He threw Marie a look. "Don't you feel entitled, Marie?" The priest asked.
"I do," she smiled from her wedding chair on the altar.