St. Mary Magdalene’s Catholic Church was not a large building. The outside color was a simple beige with brown roofs. There were large brown doors in the middle of the front. Material extended up with a bell inside and a cross on top. The priest’s office was in a room off to the right side. He had a desk with books and papers on top, all neatly organized. Bookshelves filled the room. There were religious materials and pamphlets. Decorations included oil paintings of Jesus and the Mother Mary.
Father Luke was a short, stout man. He had short brown hair and brown eyes. He wore thin-rimmed glasses. He donned the typical black priest clothes with a white collar. He sat at his desk with his hands folded, watching Cynnie intently. His gaze was unreadable.
The girl squirmed in her seat across from him. It had been a long time since she had visited a church. She used to go all the time with her family. Her father was a good Italian Catholic. But as the shop became busier, he had less time. Soon it was only Cynnie and John who attended mass. Cynnie eventually stopped seeing the point. She had left years ago. Her brother had tried several attempts to bring her back, but to no avail. But now she was here because of a boy. How that could change everything.
“It’s nice to see you, Cynnie,” Father Luke said in a slow, deep voice. “It’s been a while.”
Cynnie smiled nervously. “I know. I’ve been busy.”
Fr. Luke nodded. “I see. What brings you here today?” He raised his eyebrows in interest. There was a slight smile on his face.
Cynnie swallowed. There was something gnawing at the back of her mind. Maybe it was best to just spit it out. “I wanted to know your opinion about something. I want to know how you think I should behave as a Christian.”
Fr. Luke looked at her curiously. “What is it?”
Cynnie fidgeted with her hands in her lap. Why was this so hard? “I want to know about criminals,” she finally said. She looked up at him, a nervous smile on her face.
Fr. Luke’s eyes widened and his mouth opened slightly. Then he shook his head, a serious expression now covering his face. “Why would you want to know about them?”
Cynnie shrugged. “Just for practical purposes.”
Fr. Luke frowned. “Cynnie, have you run into one recently?” There was an edge to his voice. He leaned forward.
Cynnie shrunk back. “N-no!” she said. “I’m just curious.” She attempted to shrug her shoulders. “Do you think I should stay away from them?”
“Of course!” the priest said firmly. “They’re dangerous. They could get you into a lot of trouble.”
Cynnie frowned. She stared down at the desk. “So, do you think they should be shunned from society?”
“They could never belong in society,” Fr. Luke said. “The people need to be kept safe.”
Cynnie looked up, her eyes slightly sad. “But what if they’ve changed their ways?”
Fr. Luke chuckled. “Criminals cannot change their ways. If you think they have, they are deceiving you so that they can continue to commit more crimes. And if they honestly are trying, they’ll fall back to their old ways because they cannot resist temptation. That’s just the kind of people they are. They’re not like us. They don’t belong with us.”
Cynnie’s eyebrows knitted together as she thought. She was not very religious, but this sounded wrong. She remembered what Darko had told her before the Packers game they had attended together. Hadn’t Jesus come to save everyone? It seemed like church would be the best place for criminals. “But if they heard the Word of God, maybe they could really change,” she said. She looked at him earnestly. “Can’t God do anything? Maybe being at church and with Christians would be good for them. I think we should help them.”
Fr. Luke’s face had hardened into a deep frown. He shook his head. “That’s wishful thinking at best,” he said gruffly. His eyes blazed with intensity. “These people you are talking about are a lost cause. Most of them will end up back in prison. Perhaps some could be saved, but it’s not worth the cost. The parishioners must be protected from evil. Someone will end up hurt if criminals are let in. It is my duty to take care of them and watch over them. I must be ever vigilant for the wolf in sheep’s clothing. These are good people. I will rid my church of evil.”
His voice was so firm and absolute that Cynnie did not think it was useful to argue with him. He probably did not thinks he had any right after how long she had been away from church. She did not have any desire to return now. She had found the answers she was seeking. There would be no help here. She dipped her head. “Thank you for your time, Father.”
Fr. Luke’s face lightened slightly. “I don’t know what’s gotten these crazy ideas in your head,” he muttered. “There are rules that must be followed.”
Cynnie stared down at the desk. “I understand.”
But she did not agree.
The temperature was growing colder with each passing day. It was already the beginning of October. Darko had already spent one winter in the Midwest, but that was not enough for his Southern blood to grow used to the weather. Many locals were still wearing shorts. He thought they were crazy. Some days it was in the low 40s. How could these people stand it?
At least dancing kept him warm. He took Cynnie to the local swing club again one Friday night. He was glad that she seemed to enjoy. It was something they could do together that took away stress. And one did not have to think much while dancing. It always left him with a smile on his face.
It was late at night, but Cynnie agreed to go back to his apartment with him. He held her hand as he led her to his couch. Then he got some tea ready. As he waited for the pot to heat up, he took a seat beside his friend. He gave her a small smile. He could still feel his adrenaline pumping. “How’d school?”
“It’s great!” Cynnie said animatedly. “I love the little kids. They’re so adorable.”
“I bet.” Darko had never been around kids too much, but he liked them. He had once fantasized about having kids of his own. That was probably not possible now. People would be horrified at the idea, and his kids would be stigmatized and hated at school.
Cynnie smiled and nodded. “How’s Sports Authority?”
Darko shrugged. “It’s ok. It’s the kind of work I’m used to. I’m making enough to get by.”
“Don’t you get welfare?” Cynnie asked. She blushed and glanced down at her hands. “I’m sorry. That was rude.”
Darko touched her arm and she looked up at him. “No, it’s ok.” With his job, it was pretty obvious that he would qualify for welfare. It was no big secret. Most sex offenders needed it. Many could not find a job at all. He considered himself lucky. “I don’t get welfare. I don’t approve of the government and what they’re doing to me and others. Why would I take money from them? That’s just supporting a corrupt system.”
Cynnie stared at him with a sense of wonder. “Wow. That’s very principled of you.”
A smirk played on his lips. “Tell that to everyone else in the country, would ya?”
Cynnie chuckled. She laid her hand on his on the couch, keeping it there. He could feel the contact and found it hard to ignore. “Don’t listen to them. They’re wrong. They don’t even know you. I think you’re amazing.”
Darko gazed into her eyes. That may have been the most wonderful thing anyone had ever said to him. He could feel strong emotions stirring inside of him, made even more intense from their dancing. “You’re the one who’s amazing,” he breathed. No one else would have taken a chance on him like her. No one else had been able to see past his unfortunate status. He did not want to ever let her go.
A blush appeared on Cynnie’s cheeks. She leaned closer to him. He noticed a certain longing in her eyes. He could feel her breath on his face. He could feel his willpower weakening. Lord, help me.
He moved in slowly. When she did not seem to mind this, he cautiously lowered his head and captured her lips with his. This contact made his head spin. He had not kissed a girl since… No. He could not think of that right now. Stronger emotions were overpowering his memories.
Cynnie was kissing him back. This pleased him. He had not scared her away. He cupped her cheeks with his hands as he continued, not daring to deepen the kiss.
Suddenly, there was hesitancy. And then Cynnie pulled away.
Darko frowned. She was biting her lip like she did when she was nervous. She was not looking at him. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“N-nothing,” she stammered. She looked up at him and gave him a smile. He could tell that it was fake.
“No, there’s something wrong,” Darko insisted. He could feel his heart sink. “You don’t want to kiss me.”
A guilty look crossed her face. “No! It’s not that! It’s just-” She looked away again. Her eyes roamed around the room.
“You’re afraid. You’re afraid of me.” The words came out with a more bitter tone than he had intended. Of course it was true. How could she ever trust him?
Cynnie’s eyes widened. “I’m not!”
Darko let out a heavy sigh and shook his head. “It’s ok. I understand.”
Cynnie bit her lip and glanced down again. “Nothing’s wrong,” she mumbled.
But Darko knew better. Maybe she was deceiving herself, but she was not deceiving him. She viewed him differently because of his crime. She would always view him differently. She knew what he was capable of.
Sorrow clutched his soul. Was this the way it was always going to be? He wanted to try to be better than what everyone thought he could be, but he sometimes doubted it was possible. He did not know if it would do him any good. He could not change human nature. He could not control human psychology.
One thing bothered him more than others, though. It was something he knew the world desperately wanted to deprive him of. The question constantly lingered in his mind:
Would he ever be able to have a true relationship with a girl?
“Maybe I should go,” Cynnie said softly.
Darko’s eyes trailed he her body as she left. He feared the answer was “no.”