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By Edward Lee
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2007 Edward Lee
All right reserved.
Chapter One"I'm familiar with all the rectories, monasteries, and theological academies in New Hampshire, but St. John's Prior House?" Venetia commented from the backseat of the Cadillac SUV. "I've never heard of it."
"I don't even know what it is," her father remarked from the driver's seat. Richard Barlow, as he'd aged, re-minded Venetia of the father on that old black-and-white show called Dennis the Menace, but just a bit more cynical. He and Venetia's mother seemed perfect for each other in their oblivion. A pipe-which he wasn't allowed to light anymore, due to blood pressure-hung from the man's mouth. He chewed its end while he talked. "When your mother told me about the assignment, at first I thought she said fry house. I thought, That's just great. I put my daughter through college so she can work the fryer at a fish-and-chips joint."
"Your father's being ridiculous, as always, dear." Maxine Barlow thrust her bosom between the seats. Venetia's mother would be called "pleasingly plump" now that she'd arrived into her midforties: a stereotypical New England housewife who was always preparing for a Tupperware party or the Saturday night spaghetti dinner and fund-raiser at the church. She always wore smocklike print dresses andold-fashioned Earth Shoes. "Motherly" was a good word for her, chunky but still curvaceous, and with a hefty bosom that still turned heads. Her shoulder-length hair was a mix of blond, brown, and gray. "A prior house, or priory as they're sometimes called, is like a monastery. Surely, Richard, you know what a monastery is."
"Yeah, our bedroom." Then Venetia's father broke out into a very uncharacteristic round of laughter.
All Venetia's mother did was smile and bat her eyes. "See what happens when you let animals out of their cages, Venetia?" Her smile beamed. "We'll see how hard he laughs tonight when I stick that absolutely ludicrous pipe right up his-"
"Mom!" Venetia exclaimed.
Her father smiled back over his shoulder. "Don't worry, Venetia. Your mother thinks of herself as far too cultured to use the word 'ass.'"
"He's right, honey. And after we drop you off, I'm going to spend the whole ride home thinking of a nice alternate word for the thing I'm going to kick tonight."
Richard Barlow chuckled through the pipe. "Sounds like it might be a pretty good weekend after all."
Jeez, Venetia thought. Those two. She'd only been back home for several days, and her parents' jovial sniping was already wearing her out. But it had been her mother who'd gotten Father Driscoll to send the recommendation to the university. Most field studies for theology students involved little more than endless research at church libraries and diocesan archives. But ... restoring a Prior House by a famous Vatican architect?
The prospect sounded fascinating.
Since she'd been back, the neighbors had all parroted the same sentiment: "Oh, my gosh, Venetia, we're so proud of you! You're about to get a college degree after only two years! That's amazing!" It seemed, however, that the only person not impressed by this feat was Venetia herself. Big deal, she concluded. If I'd worked harder, I could've gotten it in a year and a half. She was at least proud of her discipline to remain goal-oriented. The rest of life will come later. For me, now, it's school, and then ...
That's what she wasn't sure about yet. The then.
She'd been worrying too much, and that wasn't like her. Why worry? She'd only just turned twenty-one. I'm young, she reminded herself every day. I don't have to decide right now if I really want to become a nun....
Up front, Venetia's parents were bickering over radio stations. "Come on, Maxine, the Sox have the damn Yankees at home!" "Just ... shut up, dear, while I find the gospel station." Venetia was grateful for the break. A bad night's sleep left her limp in the backseat. She tried to let her thoughts disband by watching the beautiful New Hampshire countryside sweep by in the window. Thank God it's summer. The summers up here were a marvel of nature; it was the winters that had dragged Venetia down during childhood and adolescence. Too depressing. She thought that going to school in Washington, DC, would be something of a relief from all the snow ... but all she got instead were ice storms and rain. At least the weather-not to mention the crime wave-had kept her inside most of the time, to focus on her studies.
Eventually, she caught herself nodding in and out of sleep as she tried to watch the rolling green fields beyond the window. That weird dream, she groaned to herself. I barely got any sleep last night. She rubbed her eyes, then briskly shook her blond head in hopes of rousing herself.
"Honey, are you all right?" her mother's face hovered between the seats again.
And her father added, "To tell you the truth, you don't look too good."
"Thanks, Dad," she said with a smirk. But she knew he was right. "I tossed and turned all night. I had this weird dream, and then I couldn't get back to sleep."
"I'll stop at a convenience store so you can get some coffee. It'll perk you up. You don't want to fall asleep in the middle of your interview with Father Driscoll."
Her mother: "It's not an interview, Richard. She's already been accepted for the assignment. They can't very well turn down a twenty-one-year-old senior with a four-point-oh average."
Venetia groggily leaned up. "I know, but that's still a good idea, Dad. I could use some coffee now that you mention it."
"Good. And I could use a chili dog." Richard looked to his wife. "No offense, sweetheart, but your hash and eggs didn't quite cut it this morning."
Maxine Barlow smiled. "You get that chili dog, Richard. Get several. Because they'll be following that ludicrous pipe right up your ... you-know-what."
Venetia winced. "You two really are a scream today."
"Don't listen to your moronic, stick-in-the-mud father, dear," her mother urged.
"Hey. I admit I'm a stick in the mud, but I'm not moronic."
"I'm sorry, dear. I meant imbecilic." Maxine turned back to her daughter, concern in her eyes. "But what were you saying before your thoroughly uncouth father interrupted? Oh, yes-it was a nightmare that kept you awake."
"Not a nightmare, really ..."
"Thank God," her father interrupted yet again. "Your mother's breakfast was nightmare enough."
Maxine's smile just kept growing. "I'll put the leftovers in the fireplace bellows ... and can you guess where I'll stick that?" The robust woman fingered the small gold cross around her neck and again addressed her daughter. "So it wasn't a nightmare, then?"
"No, Mom. It was just a weird dream. Nothing scary about it-it just bothered me for some reason."
"What happened in the dream?"
Venetia let her thoughts slide back. She dreamt of standing in a red-tinged darkness. All she could see before her were six boxes. Were they small coffins or vaults of some sort?
Then they vanished, and a voice from nowhere jolted her.
It was a man's voice, and he'd spoken loudly and with obvious alarm: "This isn't a dream! You must understand! You have to understand!"
The exclamation arrived as a half shriek, with an undertone of dread. It was sourceless.
The voice faded with these words: "Everything's opposite here. You must understand ..."
And that was it.
But now that she'd replayed it in her mind, it seemed weak, petty. A voice in a dream ... telling me it wasn't a dream? Stupid ...
"Can't really say why the dream kept me awake. Now that I think of it, it was kind of stupid."
"Oh, you mean like those soap operas your mother watches all day," Richard Barlow remarked.
"No, Richard, she means stupid like that ridiculous wrestling you watch all day," Maxine cut in through gritted teeth. "Venetia? So we can actually have a practical mother-to-daughter conversation, ignore everything that comes out of your father's mouth. It's easy. I've been doing it for twenty years-"
"To make up for what you haven't been doing for twenty years." Richard chuckled and boorishly elbowed his wife.
What did I do to deserve this? Venetia wondered through her fatigue.
"The Prior House is simply a piece of Vatican-owned property," Maxine began to explain. "It never functioned as a monastic domicile-Father Driscoll said that in the past the Church used it for important priests to take respites, a vacation between pastoral assignments."
Venetia tried to focus on the topic. When she'd done a quick Internet search on St. John's Prior House, she'd come up blank. "That's interesting. There are a lot of old priories in the DC area, but they changed most of them into hospices. I read somewhere once that dedicated monasteries are declining. Men don't want to become monks anymore."
"What about nuns?" her father piped up.
"In America? Interest in convent life is declining too. The overseas assignments are pretty rough-Third World countries, high death and disease rates, stuff like that."
"But that doesn't bother you?" her mother asked.
Venetia gave her textbook answer. "I just want to do what God wants me to do. The problem is, He's not exactly shining His guiding light in front of me these days." She rubbed her eyes again. I need that coffee. Now. "I'm not going to worry about it until I get my master's." She managed a grin. "Who knows? Maybe I'll just get a job in a fry house."
"What? What?" her father snapped.
"And it was great to see Father Driscoll after all these years," her mother went on. "If anything, he's more handsome now than he was fifteen years ago."
"He always struck me as a young punk," Richard felt the need to remark. "Now I guess he's-what-a middle-aged punk?"
"And you're an over-the-hill punk, darling," Maxine said. Venetia shook her head. "I don't remember him."
"He was the seminarian at our church for a year or two, the nicest man, very earnest, and serious about his devotion to God. You were only five or six when he became a priest. When he stopped at the service two weeks ago, he looked almost exactly the same. Handsome, even kind of dashing."
"Sounds like trouble," Richard murmured. "I can't wait to tell my bowling team my wife's got the hots for a priest."
Maxine sighed. "I wish I knew how to say 'shut up' in Latin."
"Silere, I think," Venetia said.
"Richard? Would you please silere? Thank you."
Her father looked over his shoulder again. "Hey, Venetia? How do you say 'pain in the ass' in Latin?"
"You two are impossible," Venetia groaned.
"But Father Driscoll certainly remembered you, and he was very impressed when I told him you were at Catholic University and wanted to become a nun."
"Might become a nun," Venetia corrected.
"Or a fry cook," her father said.
"He said that the only true theology student is the student who devotes their life to God. 'The Evangelists of the modern age,' he said."
"You'll be fine," her mother assured. "All through high school and now college, I don't think you ever got a mark lower than an A."
"A master's curriculum in theology and Christian thesis at a religious college is another story altogether." Venetia paused and wondered again why she was worrying about it. I feel confident, I feel ready.... So why am I fretting?
Could the sudden nervousness have something to do with this field assignment at the prior house?
What's wrong with me today?
"Here's a Qwik-Mart," Richard announced. "Let's get some coffee"-he winked at his wife-"and some chili dogs."
Maxine nodded as if an exciting idea had struck her. "I read once on AOL News about a man who unknowingly poisoned himself to death in his sleep because he broke so much wind...." She glanced swiftly to her husband. "Richard, get yourself a dozen of those chili dogs. I'll sleep in the spare room tonight."
"Oh, that's great. I'll finally get a break from your snoring." Richard cocked another snide grin to Venetia. "Your mother snores so loud it sounds like a chain saw crew in the room-"
"You two are killing me!" Venetia yelled, hands to her ears.
Her parents continued to bicker as Venetia followed them into the store. A man in his early twenties, with a black mop haircut and HIGHWAY TO HELL T-shirt, was tending the register. His eyes widened when they all entered. He took obvious glances at Maxine's bosom, and then at Venetia's. Eyeball us to death, why don't you? Venetia thought; but she scarcely cared. Even at a fairly rigid Catholic college, Venetia had learned to deflect the ever-rising tide of male sexism, but, conversely, she knew that a tiny bit of herself was mildly flattered by the boy's appraising glance. Venetia hadn't inherited all of her mother's mammarian allotment, but with a 36C, she supposed she was two-thirds there, and two-thirds was enough.
"Hey, son?" her father asked. He looked over the rims of his black-framed glasses. "You heard a Red Sox score?"
"Yankees are leading six to zip in the fourth," the kid answered.
"Richard!" Maxine objected.
"God-dang! I was going to say god-dang!" Then he stalked off to the chili dog rack. "Those goddamn, money-belching Yankees can kiss my ass."
"Excuse me," Venetia asked. "Where's the restroom?"
The kid pointed to a corner. "Right back there."
"I'll get your coffee, dear," her mother said.
Was it jealousy she felt next? The lanky clerk's eyes shot to her mother's bosom, not Venetia's, as Maxine bounced toward the coffee station. Venetia's eyes thinned when she turned toward the corner. I don't believe it! Maxine didn't appear to be wearing a bra.
I guess that happens when you get older, she reasoned. You do things to feel vital again, to reclaim some youth even though you know it's behind you.
But if that were so ... then how did Venetia feel, barely twenty-one?
Did she feel vital? Or desexualized since she'd been considering a nun's vocation?
All I feel right now is tired, she thought.
When she flicked on the bathroom light, the room filled with white light. It was a unisex bathroom. She locked the door, then washed her hands, fearful of all the germs on the doorknob, and when she recalled the shiftless clerk, she put toilet paper down along the seat's rim. That pervert probably pees on the seat deliberately, because he knows women will sit on it. A strange thought but, then, she knew she was in the real world now, for however briefly. On the wall someone had penned, NOT TO BE BORN IS BEST. That's Sophocles, she knew at once. I'll bet the guy at the register didn't write that one. While she relieved herself, something on the floor caught her eye, like yellow cellophane but with a ring. Oh, gross, she thought when she realized it must be a used condom.
A moment later, she caught herself jolting awake.
This is ridiculous! I almost fell asleep on a convenience store toilet!
She flushed with her shoe, then vigorously shook her head. Her fatigue seemed to be compounding. Get it together. You're about to meet a priest who's had assignments at the Vatican. Wake your butt up!
Tired eyes looked back at her in the mirror. She took a moment to appraise herself.
No wonder that creep outside was staring ... It occurred to her that the simple white blouse, which she'd only bought a year ago, was now tight. I guess they're still growing. She stepped back for a longer view and felt comfortable with the conservative attire: a pleated, black knee-skirt to complement the white blouse, and a cross about her neck. A white-blond ponytail, shining and straight, hung to the bottom of her shoulder blades. Her bosom straining the blouse was the only thing that might nix the austere Catholic schoolgirl-look she'd hoped for.
Just as she'd been rousing herself, more graffiti snagged her eye. What in the name of ...
She knew it was vulgar before she even looked at it all: a drawing in black ballpoint, craggy like a grade-schooler.
But no grade-schooler had drawn this.
Excerpted from House Infernal by Edward Lee Copyright © 2007 by Edward Lee. Excerpted by permission.
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