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Silence in the Tortured Soul – Chapter Eight

Welcome to the next episode of Silence in the Tortured Soul, book eleven in the Operation Quickline series. The KGB has infiltrated a group protesting a satellite launch. Lisa and Sid need to find out how to protect their friends Frank and Esther – and to train them as their new recruits. You can read the first chapter here, or click here to read all of the episodes that have run.

Sid was up at five, as usual, and had run a couple laps around the perimeter of the camp by the time the waterfront opened for pre-breakfast activities at six-thirty. I know because that’s what he told me he’d been doing when I staggered down to the beach at that hour. Sid eased into the chilly surf and started doing laps around the small bay.

I had given up some extra sleep because Esther had said she wanted to go to the early morning prayer service that John was leading instead of mass that morning. It was Sunday, so we’d do that liturgy instead of the group game and seminar right before lunch. I’d do mass the next morning, and I had also promised to take Nick fishing at least one morning. But beyond that, I was hoping I’d get to sleep until the seven-thirty wake-up bell at least some mornings. I wasn’t sure if I was grumpy or worried when Esther didn’t show right away, but she did, along with two of the other teens.

Nick was up, also, followed by three girls and another boy whose name I didn’t know yet. The five of them walked around the rocky edges of the water on the side of the little bay in front of the camp, their eyes fixed on the ground in front of them. Nick was probably looking for a tide pool or two. I couldn’t tell if the others were equally interested or not. I decided it wasn’t worth worrying about and re-focused my prayers on Esther and Frank and the retreat as a whole.

Sid climbed out of the water right as we finished our little service and went straight to the hose at the edge of the beach to rinse the saltwater off him. I wandered over to my favorite rock on the water’s edge, climbed up, and just basked in the early morning sun for a few minutes. Soon the wake-up bell rang, and sleepy teens stumbled to the sinks to brush their teeth and to use the outhouses. From the main hall, I could hear Sid working again on that piano.

Even Nick, with his accelerated appetite, did not want to chance the scarfers’ table. Adam Mencia, a hefty sixteen-year-old, decided to try the sixth spot. I had pity on him and made sure he got seconds, but that was as far as he got.

I got KP that morning and Sid joined me. Okay. It was actually called OTS, or Opportunity To Serve. Yeah, like the teens didn’t see through that one. It was KP, and it was necessary. Wanting to serve had little to do with it.

At nine-thirty, the bell rang. The teens gathered. Dan passed out the study sheets for that morning’s discussion, and they dispersed to reflect and write. I stayed in the main hall, doing my writing as I listened to Sid continue to wrestle with the piano.

“It’s actually a pretty solid instrument,” he told me a few minutes before the bell would ring for discussion time. “Given the environment here, it’s survived a lot of torture. But there isn’t a string out of whack and there’s eighty-eight of them.”

Are eighty-eight of them.”

“Oh, for cripe’s sake, Lisa.” [That was not what I said. – SEH]

I glowered at him briefly, then the bell rang, and I and Maria went to gather our eight teens.

We had our discussion, then we did Sunday mass, then lunch. Sid flashed me his really hot smile that means he’s thinking about us making love, and we hurried out of the dining hall right after dessert and went to our room and actually didn’t make much noise at all until we both collapsed onto the bed, feeling pretty satisfied.

It was free time for the afternoon. I found a shady spot and got out a book. Kathy and Esther crashed near me. Jesse followed Frank to the waterfront, where Frank got busy getting into splash fights. Both Jesse and Father John got tossed into the water. Nick went snorkeling with the same group I’d seen him with that morning. Sid went back to the piano.

The waterfront closes at five-thirty. Leaders report to the main hall at the same time for the daily leadership meeting. Sid slipped out and made his second shave while we leaders went over the next day and that evening’s activity and talk. Sid came back, played with the piano for another several minutes, then pronounced the job done just as the dinner bell rang. He’d fiddle with the darned thing every so often over the rest of the week. [Well, yes. Given the damp environment and the length of time since that piano had last been tuned, it was inevitable it was going to go out of tune pretty quickly. – SEH]

That evening’s presentation really surprised me. It made sense, though.

“If we are going to talk about the Journey to Faith,” John announced. “Then we need to start with the journey away from faith. Many of you are here, Catholics in name only, believers because that’s what your parents want you to be. Some of you may not even be believers.” John looked right at Tim, Tobias, and Dean. The funny thing was, Sid and I had not told John about the night before. “Genuine faith comes when you question, when you seek out. So, let’s start with a couple stories about people who lost theirs and one who never had it. Sid?”

I all but gaped. But Sid went to the front of the room and looked at the kids.

“This is pretty weird for me,” he said. “As many of you know, I do not believe in God. But I do have a story that John thinks you need to hear, and I respect John. It’s about a woman who, in the early nineteen-forties, wanted to escape a father who debased her, who beat her brother, who continually groped her younger sister, and who beat her mother. When that mother went to the priest to seek escape from this man who was hurting her children, the priest condemned her to hell for even thinking about it. When the woman went to the priest to challenge him and tell him the truth about what her father was doing, the priest condemned her to hell. To no surprise, the woman left the town where she lived, left the Catholic Church, and became a communist. Later, her younger sister went to a party and became pregnant out of wedlock. The woman took her sister in, and then took care of the baby that was eventually born and took full custody when her sister was killed two years later. That baby was me. My aunt taught me that there is no God, that religion is the opiate of the masses. As I grew up, I saw little that contradicted what my aunt had taught me. I eventually saw some terrible, terrible things. Some asshole told me that there are no atheists in war. I knew a bunch of guys who became atheists because they fought in the Vietnam War. How could a supposedly beneficent Supreme Being allow that terror to happen? They couldn’t answer that, and neither could I. I still see the worst of what religion can do to people. Even recently, people hurt my wife and my son because they couldn’t see past their own self-righteous B.S., and I do not take that lightly.” Sid paused and took a deep breath. “At the same time, I’ve also come to see the best of what religion can do. This community has taken me in, accepted me as a friend, and most important of all, respects that I have no faith and am not likely to. There have been few direct attempts to convert me, which is good because I really hate it when people do that. I mean, think about it. How would you feel if I told you that you shouldn’t believe in God? That I knew the real Truth, and you didn’t? That’s exactly how I feel when you say that to me. I started without faith. But I’ve known an awful lot of people who have turned away from it, and almost always with good reason. Still, faith is the glue that holds my wife together. Faith is what kept her from letting me blow it with her.” Sid shrugged. “I have to be grateful for that much. Just don’t ask me to believe in something that, as far as I can tell, is not there.”

Okay. That one resulted in dead silence. I was not surprised that Sid didn’t quite mention the reason he’d known all those guys turned atheist was because he, too, had fought in Vietnam. The war is something he almost never talks about.

“Thanks, Sid,” John said, patting him on the shoulder. He turned to the kids. “You guys need to hear the other side if you are going to question effectively. You need to hear the other side to be compassionate. Now, we have a second story of moving away from faith, but this person found it again. Sister Maria, will you come up, please?”

Sid slid down the side of the hall and plopped down next to me.

“I’m amazed,” I whispered.

“You made it possible,” he said, and squeezed my shoulders. “John’s right. They need to hear the other side. I think that’s why too many of those self-righteous assholes don’t get it. They don’t really hear people like me.”

I pulled him even closer to me as Maria began her tale. Sadly, she had been molested by an uncle and no one had believed her.

“So, if sex was all I was good for,” she told us. “I stopped worrying about it and slept with everybody, and I was only fourteen. How I didn’t get pregnant, I do not know. But I had some problems with a couple social diseases that my mother insisted I picked up from a toilet seat. We all know that doesn’t happen in real life. As for God, what kind of God would let me be molested by an uncle I trusted? That my parents trusted? I went through the motions, but none of it mattered. And when I got out of high school, I got out of that house, got a job, and kept sleeping around. It took my second suicide attempt for me to recognize that things needed to change. I have been blessed because I ended up at a hospital with a good chaplain, who also happened to be a sister of the Carondelet order. Also, that she understood my story because she, too, had lived it. Some of you may have or be suffering the same things I did. I pray God not, but if you are, I will believe you and I will help you. The rest of you may be thinking, that’s not me. How does this affect me? Because you need to know, no matter how dark the place where you end up, there is light to be found. That sister? She helped me get into college, get my degree, and helped me become a teacher. And I have been able to help other children who have suffered what I did. But most of all, Sister Elizabeth helped me find faith in a God that I thought had abandoned me, helped me realize that this same God still loved me and wanted me. Which is why I am now a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Sid was right. We cannot understand why God allows horrible things to happen. None of that makes sense. It doesn’t have to. I don’t believe that faith means tossing aside your intellect and ability to think. People who do are almost always the obnoxious, self-righteous ones, and I will tell you a secret. Those are the people who do not have real faith. That’s why they’re so easily threatened when you challenge what they think is right. But that does not mean we’re going to understand the ways of God, either. Sometimes, you just go with it.”

As the group cheered, Sid leaned over to me and whispered in my ear.

“Believe it or not, I did not know her before.” Meaning before he gave up sleeping around.

I couldn’t help laughing, which got a few weird looks.

The next morning, I went to mass on the beach, which is one of those really great experiences. We ate breakfast, did our worksheets, then had discussion. Then there was the group game and Dan got tossed into the water. Then we broke up into four different seminar talks, then lunch.

Right after lunch, I made a beeline to the little window next to the kitchen where the camp sold film, flashlights, batteries, candy, chips, and sodas. After checking that Sid was headed for our cabin, I plunked down some money and bought a grape soda and a Mars bar. It was Heaven. I wolfed down the candy bar and drank the soda so fast, I almost barfed.

During free time, Nick went snorkeling again. Two of the girls had dropped out, but Ming Channing, a cute girl with Asian features, and Armando Espinoza, stuck with him. Kathy stuck with Frank while Esther watched Sid and some others play volleyball. Jeff Childs and Carl MacArthur each got grabbed from the volleyball court and tossed into the ocean. The boys tried to get Sid, but he wriggled free. I was going to go swimming when Barb DeMarais came up. She was in my small group, about sixteen, and this was her third year at camp, so we knew each other fairly well.

“It’s about last night,” she sighed, shaking her blond curls. “Father John keeps talking about how, like, faith is more than going to church, and there was Sister Maria’s story and the other ones. I just feel so lame. I’ve got it way easy. My parents like me. Mostly. I don’t have to worry about food or seeing horrible things. I just keep worrying about stupid stuff, like what the other girls are saying about me, and are my clothes right, and do the boys like me?” She sniffed. “I mean, I do worry about the world. There’s, like, that nuclear-armed satellite the government is trying to send up. I’m totally against that. I know I should be standing up against it and going to the protests, but I’m scared to go.”

“There are protests going on?”

“Totally. It’s this group called Stop Nukes Now. Remember Dave Atwell? He graduated two years ago and is at… UC Santa Cruz, I think. Anyway, he and my brother are still friends, and my brother said that he said I shouldn’t go to the protests because that group has some real crazies in it. But how am I supposed to be doing what’s right if, like, I’m too chicken, and it’s not like I’ve got any real problems to worry about?”

I sighed. I’d always hated it when people had belittled my problems when I was a teenager. I looked over at Esther shaking her head as Susie Talbot missed a spike. Somebody had tried to kill one of my best friends, and I was about to make things worse by putting her in harm’s way. Somehow, Barb’s problems didn’t seem all that important. Yet they were to her.

“Well,” I said slowly. “What do you know about the group? Have you done any of your own research on them?”

“According to the newspaper articles I’ve read, Dr. Levinsky is, like, a total pacifist.” She frowned. “But that doesn’t mean some crazies can’t be part of his group, right?”

“True. You don’t know for certain those crazy people are there.” I winced. I’d heard something was up, but didn’t know for sure, either. Just because they’d put out the list Esther was on didn’t mean they knew the KGB had tried to wire a bomb to Frank’s car. “Making those kinds of assumptions can get you into trouble. Of course, you don’t want to get into trouble because you assume they’re safe and they’re not.”

“Like, I know.”

“What do your parents say?”

Barb rolled her eyes. “I haven’t told them. Dad does not like the whole protest thing. He was doing grad school at Kent State when that big shooting happened. I was just born. He said it was really scary.”

“I bet it was.”

“It’s just I don’t want to be one of those people who whine and gripe about the world and don’t do anything. Or just worry about how their hair is fixed. I do worry about it because, you know, everyone around me does. But I want to be about real things.”

I had to chuckle a little. “You obviously are, Barb. Maybe you haven’t found your vocation or niche yet, and that’s pretty crazy making. But you’re not shallow, I can promise you that.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“You’re worried about being shallow.” I smiled at her and touched her shoulder. “Shallow people aren’t worried about that. Yes, you’re worried about some shallow stuff, but that is the larger part of your life right now. The big difference is you know that there’s more to think about. You’ll figure it out. Maybe that’s what you need to be praying about this week. Where is God calling you? Protests for good reasons with some potential crazies? Or maybe something equally deep and worthwhile. I can’t tell you that part, but you’ll find it. I know because you’re looking for it, and that’s miles ahead of a lot of kids your age.”

Barb blinked. “Thank you, Lisa. I knew you’d know what to tell me.”

“I’m glad you think so.” I smiled and saw Esther again shaking her head as she watched the volleyball game.

I was about to go in the water when Sid came down to the waterfront from the volleyball court. He was wearing a t-shirt, his bathing suit, and flip-flops and still looked dressed up.

“How long have you been standing out here?” he asked.

“Just a few minutes.”

Sid shook his head. “That’s how you end up sunburned every year. Where’s the sunscreen?”

I looked down at my towel. “Right here.”

“Alright. Let me get it on your back.”

There was a minor problem with Sid rubbing sunscreen on me. I suddenly didn’t want to go swimming anymore.

Sid chuckled. “Later. I promise. Let’s go swimming. In fact, there’s a nice little private cove just beyond that big rock there.”

“Sid.” My breath caught. “We’d better not.”

“Probably not. But I can get you good and worked up for after campfire. We’ll just make sure the sleeping bags are on the floor to spare Kathy and Jesse.”

“Oh.” I swallowed back the excitement and thought about something serious. “I just heard that rumor again about some crazies being affiliated with that Stop Nukes Now group.”

“Hm. We’ll have to check in with Angelique when we get back home. Want to race to the cove?”

“You’ll win.”

“Hey, give me one. I can’t beat you skiing. I can’t beat you shooting.”

“You’re better at codes and picking locks than I am. And you kill me at racquetball.”

Sid gave me a quick kiss, then I broke away and ran into the surf, while he yanked off his t-shirt. He beat me to the cove by a mile.

Later, right before I went to the leadership meeting, I saw Sid getting in his second shave of the day, and about five boys gathered around him, laughing and chatting with him.

Monday night was not as powerful, but filled with stories of coming to faith.

Tuesday, I went from lunch to the little window next to the kitchen and bought another Mars bar and grape soda as Dan Williams and a couple other teens watched.

“No snitching on me, guys,” I said, opening the wrapper on the candy bar.

Dan pulled me aside. “Lisa, is it a good example for the kids to be sneaking around behind Sid’s back like that?”

“He knows I’m doing it.” I rolled my eyes. “Seriously, Dan. He can smell a candy bar on my breath from fifty paces.”

“I most certainly can,” said Sid, coming up out of nowhere. “And you got one yesterday, too.” He winced. “Grape soda?”

“Come on, Sid.” I glared at him. “One week out of the year. One week when I do not have to deal with you giving me grief about what goes into my mouth. One week! Is that too much to ask?”

“Oh, so the honeymoon and that trip in June don’t count.”

“Even you fell off the wagon in June.”

“Yes, I did. For a full thirteen-course meal prepared by a master chef. This is cheap candy and artificially flavored sugar water.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Dan looking weird. I sighed.

“Here, Dan.” I handed him the candy bar and soda. “Enjoy.”

I stalked off to our cabin. Sid caught up with me.

“You capitulated awfully quickly.”

I looked at him. “So, I’m in trouble for eating something I like and now I’m in trouble for giving it away like you wanted.”

Sid winced. “No. I’m worried about you giving in to the expectations because we both know how miserable that makes you.”

“Then why are you worried about what I’m eating?”

“It’s not good for you.” He sighed.

“It’s one week. I never get candy.”

“You do, too.”

“But I don’t eat the cheap stuff I like. Sometimes at Halloween. A little at Christmas. It’s not going to kill me.”

He sighed. “I suppose not. But can you understand that I do care about your health and well-being?”

“I understand. You just take it to extremes. Why can’t I make my own decision about it? You might find that I’m a lot more open to staying healthy than you think.”

“You can make your own decisions.”

“Then why do you nag me?”

He winced. “I’m worried about you.” He winced again as I glared at him. “Okay. I don’t know.”

“You sure? Could it be you’re making up for depriving yourself by depriving me, too?”

Sid thought it over. “Possibly. Probably.” He suddenly sighed. “You know, it’s weird. I have been letting up on you for some time now. Then I went along with you on the honeymoon, and ate what was there, which was really good. Now that I’m having to watch it again, I’m kind of resenting it when you eat. I’m jealous, I guess.”

“You want me to give up the scarfers’ table?”

“Actually, I don’t. But do you mind avoiding the candy bars?”

“How about one a day and I don’t do the soda?”

“Can you do it when I’m not around? It’s not like I want a candy bar that badly. But just seeing you eat is enough temptation.”

I grinned. “Because you always give in.”

“Not always, but…” His smile got really hot, and yeah, he was giving in and then some.

Thank you for reading. For more information about the Operation Quickline series, click here.

Please check out the Fiction page for the latest on all my novels. Or look me up at your favorite independent bookstore. Mine is Vroman’s, in Pasadena, California.

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