Rafael Parker





Rafe had always been a clean-cut kid – throughout middle school, high school, even college, his adventures with illicit substances had been minimal. It wasn’t because of any moral compunction. In some cases, he was simply too involved in his interest du jour to really notice there were other things to do. At other times, he was interested, but simply too shy. In this manner, he’d come to adulthood, to the priesthood, even, surprisingly inexperienced.

It probably hadn’t helped his eventual crisis of faith, either. There was resentment, of course, but he also had the overwhelming feeling that he simply wasn’t equipped to help his congregation. One didn’t necessarily have to be a sinner to help other sinners, but at least some knowledge of sin went a long way.

He didn’t even have that.

And so, his path of discovery, the downward incline – as some would put it, anyway – had involved some experimentation with substances. And when he’d been kicked out, the experimentation went a bit further…right up until he realized that bad habits cost money he could no longer earn.

Laying there on the mat, listening to the doctor explain how to smoke the pipe, it occurred to him that he was probably the least experienced in this sort of thing there. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on him, and not for the first time, he felt simply out of his depth. The only thing driving him on, in fact, (besides curiosity) was the knowledge that he had been – still might be – teetering on a precipice, and going back would also mean going over.

It wasn’t so much that he didn’t have the self-destructive tendencies of the others; he merely hadn’t had the knowledge, the access or opportunity combined with the desperation to act on it to the level they had. Knowledge had been acquired, access was available these days, and he was quickly reaching the level of desperation. If he went back, if he let this opportunity go, he knew in his heart of hearts that the downward spiral that he’d at least kept the breaks on would spin out of control.

How ironic, then, that the instrument of his salvation would be the very thing responsible for so much damnation.

The ways of the universe are beyond understanding.

He took the pipe, cautiously inhaling. The first bit of smoke set him coughing wildly, but the effect was almost instantaneous. His heart – which had been racing in some combination of anxiety and anticipation – slowed, his breath became even, the cough went away…and the most delicious languor crept over him.

Languor. The word struck him as oddly funny. Old-fashioned, but that described how he felt. Everything was beautiful. He could feel Bella’s heartbeat, even though she was several feet away. As everything else dulled, his sense of her seemed to sharpen. And just as he thought he would understand her fully…the universe dissolved.

He dissolved, the bonds that held the very core of his existence melted away, and he disintegrated into atomic dust, returning to the nothingness from which he had been made.

From dust we came, to dust we shall return, he whispered, and then all that was left of Rafael Alexander Parker were memories.

He was seven, playing outside with his new puppy. His birthday puppy. Mom had given it to him the day before, at his party. It was fluffy and brown, and it made the best noises and licked his face, and he called it Ruff. The adults at the party tittered when he announced the name, praising him for his cleverness. He didn’t know what they were talking about, but Mom was proud and she gave him extra cake, so he was happy.

Today, he was outside, tossing a ball to Ruff, chasing after it with him, tossing it again. It was a game that never got old. Mom kept calling out the window for him to be careful, not to run out into the street, but he didn’t really pay attention. Mom said a lot of things.

Then, he’d thrown the ball into the street, Ruff had dashed after it, and he’d run after both puppy and ball. Then, he and puppy and ball had scooted across the street, not even noticing the car that swerved, narrowly missing them. The only reason he’d known anything had happened at all was because Mom came out of the house screaming, hugging him and Ruff, sobbing. He didn’t know, exactly, why she was upset, but he let her pet him.

He just wasn’t paying attention.

This time, it was different. He heard the car just as he scooped up Ruff. Instead of running, he looked up, froze. He saw the little leaping cat hood ornament. Realized that the cat would kill him, him and Ruff…but he couldn’t move.

Then it was dark, the pain was excruciating, and the last conscious thought he had was that Ruff wasn’t making noises anymore.

Again and again it happened – he wasn’t paying attention, and only by the grace of god or the attentiveness of others had he escaped. Most of the time, he hadn’t even realized that he’d been in danger to begin with.

One scene, he remembered well. He was in college, a sophomore. Late at night, hungry, he turned on their electric plate to make ramen. He hadn’t cleared the crap from around it because, well, he wasn’t paying attention. He’d been reading something, wanted to get back to it – and he did, completely tuning out the rest of the world.

He just wasn’t paying attention.

The water boiled dry, the burner and the pot were overheated, and around the burner, the uncleared detritus began to smoke. Then, his roomie had woken up, sensing something was wrong, just as the wrappers lying near the burner burst into flame. His yell had woken Rafe out of his reverie, and they had stopped it before it could spread.

This time, his roomie never woke.

More incidents, one after another, and he wondered – with each death – how much he’d missed in life. Not just incidents like these, but in other things as well. If he’d been paying attention…would he have actually become a priest? Would he have come to the eventual conclusions he’d reached in time for him to realize that this was not the path intended for him?

Then there was most recent brush with death. That one he did remember, because it had been on purpose.

That had happened the night after he saw his mom on a talk show for the first time. It was one of those stupid, trashy daytime television things, catering to the lowest common denominator. It featured family members of priests who’d been excommunicated or defrocked for sexual misconduct.

With boys.

She never came out and said it, not directly. But she implied it, left it hanging there in the air. She willingly accepted the sympathy of the sleazy host, the audience and the other guests around her. She was a grieving mother with a beloved son who’d neglected her counsel, her warnings, and finally, had left her no choice but to speak with the diocese. She was the heroine of that little drama, and he was the unforgiveable villain.

In any other situation, he could have seen that for the farce that it was. Could have taken measures and dealt with it - if not with grace, then at least with some semblance of sanity. Then, though, it was the final gut punch in a series of blows that had already left him reeling.

He didn’t actually set out to kill himself. He merely walked. Walked and walked, the replay of the past few months’ events on endless replay in his mind. Let his feet carry him, directionless, until he found himself on the bridge, staring down at the water that shone in city’s glow.

He hadn’t known he wanted to die, but his feet had. In that moment, it seemed like the most reasonable, rational thing to do. It would be quiet, it would be peaceful. He wouldn’t feel anything, really – only the grace of a moment of flight before oblivion.

Then, he’d stood there for God knows how long, think of everything and nothing, inching closer and closer to the edge. Then, it had suddenly struck him, quite out of nowhere, howridiculously cliché dying this way would be.

That startled him at first; then it made him laugh. And once he laughed, the moment had passed. He stepped back, turned around and headed home.

That was then.

Now, he stood there, staring down into the water, inching closer and closer to the edge. Only this time, that moment of realization never came. There was no brief contact with sanity to hold him back, only the siren call of the dark.

Now, he stood there, heart pounding, his head throbbing with a dizzying swirl of emotion and panic and shame and hurt. Now, he stepped forward, stumbled, reached out blindly to grab a hold of something, to steady himself.

There was nothing.

Now, he was falling, and falling, tumbling down. The light was receding, and the darkness welling up beneath him. There was no peace, though. No moment of grace. Only terror, adrenaline…flailing madly at the air.

They say death in such cases is instantaneous. They say many things, but that particular thing, Rafe learned, was a lie.

It hurt.

He screamed in agony, could feel his body disintegrating, breaking apart, and returning to the dust from which he was created.

From dust we came, to dust we shall return

At one time, that had seemed metaphorical, but he could feel it now, beneath his fingers. Grinding into his skin. Scraping his face.

He blinked. When did death involve feet in sandals? he wondered. Especially feet that needed a pedicure like a skunked dog needed a bath. Eww.

He rolled over and looked up to see Doc Pleasant standing over him, looking as though he were about to prod Rafe with one of those fee… “Oh, God!” he whispered, and struggled to get up off the ground.

Doc Pleasant smiled, his teeth gleaming in the moonlight, and motioned.

Rafe followed.

Oh, God!

Rafe staggered to his feet, motivated by the intense desire to avoid those feet.

“The hell am I?” he said, looking around. He examined Doc Pleasant. “And who the hell are you?”

The man watched Rafe impassively, gripping a staff that seemed to have a hint of fire licking around its length. “I’m the goddamn Hoodoo man what brought you here.”

“No, no,” Rafe said, irritated. “I meant existentially. Are you supposed to represent some mythical or religious figure?”

“How should I know?” Pleasant said, taking off down the path at a rapid clip.

Rafe scurried after him. “If you’re some kind of metaphysical guide, aren’t you supposed to offer some sort of wisdom or guidance?”

Pleasant stopped in his tracks, causing Rafe to nearly run into him, and turned around. “You be so smart,” he said, with a hint of a growl, “find your own damned wisdom.”

“Fine, fine,” Rafe said, backing away, hands raised. “I was just asking.”

The Hoodoo man sniffed and headed on.

“What did I do?” Rafe called, confused. “I’m pretty sure I’ve offended you, and I’m not sure how.”

Doc Pleasant stamped his staff, and the flames leapt for a second, glowing brighter. He stewed in silence for a moment, but finally spoke. “You reek of incense, boy.”

The hell? Rafe sniffed the air, his shirt. “I don’t…wait,” he said, “you mean metaphorically?”

“Aren’t you the smart one,” Doc said, with a grunt.

“I don’t understand, though.” Rafe hurried after the man once more. “What are you talking about?”

“You forget them vows you took so quickly, holy man?” The sneer in Pleasant’s voice was palpable. “Some bit of hardship come your way and you drop it all like it don’t matter?”

That hit Rafe like a punch to gut. An image of Bella, sitting astride him, filling him withdefinitely sinful thoughts flashed through his mind, and his face burned.

His shame apparently even followed him to other worlds.

“Not a holy man anymore,” he snapped back. “They kicked me out, or didn’t you see that part? I’m not a priest anymore. I’m not allowed. I can fuck all the woman I want, now. And I don’t have to obey any goddamned person if I don’t agree with them, anymore.”

Pleasant spat into the sand. “I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout them vows, boy. You think the universe gives a goddamn where you stick your pecker?”

That brought Rafe up short. “Uh…those are the vows I took,” he said.

His guide made a rude noise. “Them’s the rules of men what ain’t got no sense and too much time. I’m talkin’ ‘bout the real vows you took. Bein’ a shepherd. Protectin’ them what can’t protect themselves, the widows an’ orphans. Ministerin’ to the sick, of body and spirit.”

“But…but… They kicked me out,” Rafe protested, his voice laced with bitterness. “I’m unfit for service.”

“You ain’t hearin’ a word I’m sayin’, boy,” Pleasant said, his voice rising. “The universe don’t give a damn about what them pious bastards say. You be a priest, son, an’ that’s avocation. A life’s work. That be what that word means, or didn’t you know? You took them vows to serve folks, and what you been doin’? Lazing aroun’, feelin’ sorry for yourself.”

His voice took on an edge of contempt. “You ain’t even made no offerin’s or devotion to that Tortured God of yours. What kinda priest be you?”

“I don’t believe in Him,” Rafe shot back, burning with anger. “He doesn’t exist. Why should I bow and scrape to some shit that ain’t even there?”

Pleasant sighed heavily. “You done missed the point, boy.” They’d reached the stairs and he started down them, a tired old man again. “Don’t matter whether he exists or not. Your belief make him exist, you understan’?”

Rafe shook his head, anger shifting to bewilderment. “If he doesn’t exist, then what’s the point of me creating him?”

“That be where your power come from. You offerin’ blessings, and castin’ out spirits and givin’ absolution…where you think the power to do that come from?”

“But… That…that wasn’t real,” Rafe whispered. “It just…makes people feel better.”

“Ain’t real?” Doc Pleasant raised both eyebrows. “Ain’t the whole purpose of priestin’ to make people feel better? Didn’t you see with your own damn eyes that you be makin’ folk feel better?”

“Yes, of course. But I thought it was just…you know…all in their heads…”

“’Course it’s all in their damned heads,” Pleasant snapped. “But that don’t mean it weren’t real. Don’t mean you ain’t callin’ on real power. Boy, you got no idea of the things you been messin’ with. Spirits, haints, demons…you be a baby among wolves.”

“Apparently, I am,” Rafe said, his voice low. “I…I didn’t know any of this.”

“Well, ‘course you didn’t.” Doc spat again. “You ain’t been paying attention.”

Rafe flushed, unable to defend himself. That seemed to be the theme of the day.

“You been sleepwalkin’ through life,” Doc continued. “Through life and death. You can’t do that no more, boy. You got to wake up. Now you playin’ with fire. You playin’ for real. You best be payin’ attention, ‘cause now, it ain’t just you you endangerin’.”

Rafe couldn’t argue with that. The point had been made quite clear during his journey across.

They’d reached the beach, and when Doc Pleasant marched on, batting away the fog with his staff, Rafe stayed behind, lost in thought.

The gondola that awaited them was white, gleaming in the moonlight, and a gilded cross was affixed to the prow. Doc Pleasant climbed in, waiting expectantly, then sighed, when Rafe didn’t follow.

“Fuck’s sake, boy. Get in the boat,” he called, shaking his head.

“Oh!” Rafe looked up and blinked. “Yeah, right. Boat. Sorry.”

At the other side, on the island’s bank, Rafe was unceremoniously dumped ashore. “Go on, get out, boy,” Pleasant said, prodding Rafe with the staff. The maybe-not-so-ex priest had been silent the entire way over, and seemed lost in thought again.

As he stumbled out of the gondola, Doc Pleasant called out a last word of warning: “Pay attention, boy!”

Rafe cursed under his breath, caught his balance and looked around. Expecting a sandy beach, he was surprised to find himself on a deserted street, late at night. The only building in sight was a large warehouse with a neon, animated arrow that pointed towards the entrance, and announced “Girls! Girls! Girls!”

That caught him by surprise and he blinked, watching the sign and trying to figure out where the hell he was and what he was supposed to do. When they’d talked about a visit to the isle of the dead, this wasn’t what he’d had in mind.

Dead strippers? He shuddered. That wasn’t weird at all.

He hesitated, unable to bring himself to open the door…but there didn’t seem to be anywhere else to go.

“What’s the matter?” a raspy voice said from behind him - a voice that sounded as if its owner had been around awhile and seen a few things. “The girls are hot. It’s clean inside. Classy, even. Worse places to go.”

Rafe whirled around, heart pounding. “What the fuck!”

He caught sight of the man and immediately stumbled back.

The owner of the voice definitely looked like he’d been around and seen a lot of things. He was taller than Rafe, dressed in well-fitting jeans and a tight white tank top…and shit-kicking boots. Heavily muscled, grizzled, he was covered in tattoos and scars. Short, buzzed hair lent a military air to the man, something that was born out by his erect posture.

Rafe started to speak, but a rustle in the air caught his attention and he stared as a pair of large black wings flickered in and out behind the man’s back. “W-who are you?” Rafe whispered, heart pounding.

“Peace, friend,” the man said, raising his hands. He smiled, and his face lit up, softening the hard set of his features. “No trouble from me.” He nodded at the sign above them. “Just here for a good time.”

“Oh…oh…good,” Rafe resisted the urge to sigh with relief. “I wasn’t sure about the place. Undead strippers sounds like the premise for a bad horror movie.”

The man laughed. “Nothing like that, friend. Just pretty girls and a good time. And a little more than stripping, if you catch my drift…” He held out a hand. “Name’s Az.”

“Rafael,” Rafe said, taking the hand, “but most people just call me Rafe.”

“Huh. I got a brother named Rafael.” Az studied Rafe for a moment, then chuckled. “You look like you’re probably nicer than he is. Why don’t you come in with me? Relax. Have a drink. Maybe get a dance or two. I know this girl in here, freeeeeeeeeeeeaky as hell. Knows how to show you a good time, even with her clothes on.”

It was still a little weird, but less so. Rafe nodded. “Okay, I’ll take your word for it. Let’s go.”

Azrael opened the door, and the deep thud of dance music poured forth, vibrating deep, down into one’s bones. The doorman smiled, recognizing Azrael and waving them in.

“No cover?” Rafe asked, surprised. “That’s got to be a first in the universe.”

“There’s a cover,” Az said, shaking his head. “But you’ve already paid it, just getting here.”

That made Rafe blink, but before he could think about it, they were inside, and he was once more distracted.

http://www-static.weddingbee.com/pics/24640/491490019_l.jpg (SFW)

The interior was as pleasant as Az had described. Nice furniture, an intimate atmosphere even in a large space, the sound system was perfectly clear and the sound level bearable, despite the heavy bass. And the girls…the girls

Rafe looked around, stunned. It was a ladies’ man’s dream come true. Tall girls, short girls, thin girls, curvy girls. Girls of every nationality and skin color. Girls of every natural hair color and a rainbow besides. Outfits ranged from the brief and tacky, to the elegant and restrained.

He stared. He couldn’t help it.

“Told you,” Az said, laughing, and jabbing Rafe in the side with his elbow. “Fan-fucking-tastic, right?”

Rafe couldn’t speak, only nodded.

A girl of indeterminate race, long, curly black hair, dark, sultry eyes, and a costume that seemed to consist of nothing but gold body paint sauntered up.

“Evenin’, boys,” she purred, then as she came closer, her eyes lit up with recognition. “Ooooh, Az. You naughty boy, you haven’t been in to see me in forever.” She pouted cutely. “Am I going to have to spank you?”

“Gods, yes,” Az said, giving her a fervent hug. “Long and hard, please. Listen, Shay, this is my new buddy, Rafe. Rafe, Shay. Don’t let the cute act fool you,” he said to Rafe in a stage-whisper. “She’s a holy terror with a riding crop.”

Shay giggled, pleased to have her skills praised to the new boy. “You’re cute, too,” she said, examining Rafe closely, and making him blush. “And I’ve got lots of special skills. It’s always fun breaking in a new boy…you should see me later..”

That sounded both terrifying and fascinating to Rafe, and it must’ve shown on his face, for Shay smirked, knowing she’d piqued his interest.

“Let’s get a seat and some drinks,” Az said, waving at Shay as they moved away. “You can take in the sights, see if there’s someone who catches your eye. Besides Shay,” he added, grinning. “She’s a ball-buster, fair warning. Her favorite part is spanking the birthday boys.”

Moving through the club, Rafe started when he saw a girl that - for an instant - he thought was Bella. She turned and he realized it wasn’t her, and he sighed in relief. It seemed a little odd to be in a strip club where she didn’t work, though, he realized. Almost like he was cheating on her. Which was a ridiculous thought. After all, it wasn’t like they were dating.

He had high hopes that they might, but until that blessed day occurred, he was technically a free man.

Az chose a comfortable seat near the stage and gestured for Rafe to join him. Rafe started to sit, then a horrified thought occurred to him. It must’ve shown on his face, for Az noticed and asked, “Everything okay, friend?”

“I just realized I’ve got no money,” Rafe said, suddenly struck by the ridiculousness of the situation. It sounded like the beginning of a joke: an undead strip club, a sadistic stripper, a new buddy with wings…and a broke ex-priest. Not ex, he corrected himself. Churchless.

That sounded better.

“Oh, not to worry, friend, not to worry,” Az said, waving it off as a mere trifle. “Put it on my tab. Tonight, you’re my guest.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Rafe said, surprised. “But I don’t know how I can pay you back.”

“Don’t worry about that, either,” Az replied, an enigmatic expression on his face. “You’ll be working it off anyway.”

That seemed a little worrisome to Rafe, but the music was good, the girls were fantastic and, to put it mildly, he was distracted. “Thanks, man,” he murmured.

Glasses were procured, and Azrael pulled out a flask of his own. Apparently, no one minded, for he poured them each a shot. “My private stash is much better than anything they’ve got here,” Az said, raising his glass.

Rafe touched it with his own, and took a sip. It was whiskey, and it went down smooth as silk. “My god,” he said, looking at the unmarked bottle. “I don’t know what this is, but I’m pretty sure I would sell my soul to take some back with me.”

“Yeah,” Az said, smirking, and taking a sip of his own, “it’s heavenly.”

They were soon joined by several girls, a cute little blonde, predictably named Kandi, an elegant, dark-skinned girl with a hint of an African accent, and pretty, innocent looking red-head, Angelica - who immediately pounced on Rafe, sitting in his lap and draping an arm around his neck.

Rafe didn’t want to ignore his host, but Az seemed to be off in his own little version of heaven - a girl on each knee, a hand on each ass, and a broad smile on his face. Figuring he was on his own for awhile, he turned his attention to the girl on his lap.

That this place was supernatural was made evident by the fact that Angelica seemed to know exactly who he was. “Bless me, Father,” she whispered in his ear, running her fingers through his hair. “I’m a very, very sinful girl,” and she squirmed in his lap, as if to prove her point. “Don’t you want to give me penance?” she asked, a little smile playing on her lips.

He swallowed, fidgeting in his seat. That was a new line of thinking, and one he wasn’t averse to, but it seemed to be lacking something.

She seemed to be able to read his mind, or at least his body language, with great accuracy, though, for she suddenly changed tactics. “Of course, I may be a naughty girl,” she said, examining him, watching his face, “but you’re an even naughtier priest. Maybe I should be the one giving you penance.”

Rafe’s mouth went dry, and his body went taut as images popped into his head of what form that sort of punishment might take. The other suggestion had been nice, but this was electrifying.

“So that’s how it is,” she said, raising an eyebrow. Accordingly, her teasing took on a rather different tone - leaving him to make a mental note to check the internet for…something…when he got back.

As much as he wanted to enjoy the scene, though, Rafe kept finding his mind wandering back to what Pleasant had told him. He felt a twinge of guilt at being in a strip club with a nearly naked woman on his lap, but that was reflexive. What really kept bugging him was the accusation that there were people who needed his help, whose care he had neglected.

Rafe was many things - easily distracted just one of them - but no one could ever have accused him of neglecting his congregation. He had, in fact, been very popular because of that. He made more pastoral calls than any of his compatriots, and he wasn’t hesitant to go to the more questionable neighborhoods, or to lend a hand when people needed practical help.

Thus, the charge that he’d neglected his flock hit him, and hard. More than anything else could have done. But I couldn’t do anything, he told himself. I had no authority

But if Pleasant was right, his authority came from a place far above and beyond the judgmental clergy who’d deemed him unworthy.

He realized he’d missed something Angelica said. “I’m sorry, sweetheart,” he said, when she looked at him questioningly, “I didn’t hear you.”

“Oh,” she said, giving him a wicked smile. Leaning in closer, she murmured in his ear, “would you like to go somewhere more private, Father?”

He decided that sounded like just the thing to get his mind off Pleasant’s stinging denouncement, and he looked over to Az for permission - it was his money, after all.
Az nodded and shooed him off, and Rafe followed Angelica back into a smaller, much quieter, intimate space - room for just two, a couch and a table.

“Let’s get you comfortable,” she cooed, helping him settle onto the couch. She gestured and music came on - something low, slow and grindy, and she began to dance for him.

To Rafe’s immense irritation, the lap dance didn’t serve as the distraction for which he hoped. Regardless of the enthusiasm for her efforts, his head stubbornly refused to let him focus on the beautiful distraction right in front of him. And enthusiastic, she was - writhing against him, somehow managing to be all over him without ever having touched him with her hands.

She was talented.

“Is everything okay, cutie?” Angelica asked, concerned, looking down at him. She’d straddled his thighs, and had pinned his wrists to the couch.

“I’m so sorry, sweetheart,” he told her, “I seem to be distracted tonight. You’re wonderful,” he hastened to assure her, “but something weird happened tonight, and I can’t seem to get it off my mind. I think I need some fresh air…”

She pouted prettily, but readily let him go. A distracted man was not a man who would be spending money. Making profuse apologies, he headed out into the hallway…and ran straight in Az, who had a girl on each arm and was heading to a private room, himself.

“You okay, friend?” Az asked, concerned.

“Ah, just distracted tonight,” Rafe said, waving Az off. “Don’t let me spoil your good time with my angst.”

Az examined his new friend, then pulled away from the girls with a little reluctance. “Looks like it’s more than a little angst,” he said, then shooed the girls away with a promise that he’d be back later. “Let’s go outside, get some air,” he suggested.

“I don’t want to pull you away from your friends,” Rafe said, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “You’ve been far too generous already tonight for someone you only just met.”

Az shook his head. “Not to worry, not to worry at all.” He grinned at Rafe, and his eyes sparkled oddly in the dim light. “We’ve all had to depend upon the kindness of strangers, one time or another. Hell, sometimes, the kindness of strangers is easier to accept than the kindness of kith and kin.”

“No kidding,” Rafe mumbled, following Az through what seemed to be an endless maze of corridors, doorways and patches of light and shadow.

At the end of one long hallway, a large EXIT sign blinked. “Finally,” Rafe said. “I was starting to think we were in a never-ending sort of purgatory…”

Az pushed the door open, gesturing Rafe through to a deserted loading area, with stairs leading down to darkness. “We are…”

“Oh… Fair enough, then,” Rafe said. “A purgatory within a purgatory, then.”

Az laughed and pulled out his flask, taking a swig. He wiped it off and offered it to Rafe, who took it with great pleasure. It burnt so beautifully on the way down, and its warmth was comforting, soothing even.

“So what’s on your mind, then?” Az asked, after a few moments of companionable silence.

“God, where to even begin?” Rafe said, shaking his head.

“Not with him, please,” Az said, dryly. “We’ll be here all night, and this place is nothingbut eternal night.”

Rafe laughed. “Fair enough. I suppose what’s really eating at me is that tonight has been full of revelations that aren’t…exactly positive, I guess you’d say, about myself and my history.”

“Those kinds of revelations are rarely pleasant,” Az said, leaning on the rail and staring off into the never-ending nothingness beyond.

“No kidding. I guess I feel like I’m being kicked while I’m down, you know?” Rafe said. He literally had, he thought, with a half-laugh.

“Tell me about it?” Az took another sip and passed the flask over.

Each sip made talk a little easier, Rafe found - and before he fully realized what he was doing, the whole story poured out. His struggle with belief, his defrocking, his mother’s abandonment, his depression and despair, the new job…and Doc Pleasant’s searing indictment of his worthiness.

When he’d finished, he was breathless, feeling as though he’d purged a huge poison from his system. Just the speaking of it left him lighter.

“I don’t know what to think,” he told Az, who was listening in attentive silence. “On one hand, I hate him. I think he’s full of shit. And it hurt. But…” he trailed off into silence.

“But what?”

“But part of me thinks he’s right, and wishes that he’s right about, you know, that I can still be…who I am,” Rafe said, shrugging. “I never quite felt like I was in the right place, but what I was doing felt right.”
“Sounds like he was right then.”

“I don’t know,” Rafe said, miserable. “I don’t want to think so. If he’s right it means that I’ve abandoned people who needed me…that I’ve failed them. I…I don’t know how to deal with that. How to even know if it’s true.”

“That part’s easy enough,” Az said, pushing away from the rail. “You want to know for sure, let’s go look and see…”

“You can do that?” Rafe asked, puzzled.

Az laughed. “Friend, for someone who is as intelligent as you are, you still manage to be dumb as a post, sometimes.”

Rafe flushed, kicking at the railing. “Sorry,” he muttered.

His guide slapped him on the back. “Don’t let it get to you. Just pay attention, friend.Think, you know?” He pulled the door open and gestured for Rafe to follow him. “Let’s go check up on your flock, Father.”