We Are Not Saints: The Acolyte

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Logline or Premise
Randy Carter might as well be on his own. He’s an only child whose mother and stepfather have better things to do than raise him. When Randy’s life collapses around him, he’s forced to make some tough choices—about his faith, his career, and his relationship.
First 10 Pages

Chapter 1

Sunday, June 7, 2015

What is it about stained glass windows? Randy had to squint. The mid-morning sun streamed brilliantly through the window opposite him, painting his face with a kaleidoscope of color. The world seemed red, then purple, then blue, depending on how he turned his head. There were only two places he’d ever felt entirely at home—at the skatepark down the street, and here in the sanctuary of Saint Joachim’s church. Here, he was in his element. It wasn’t even summer yet, and already the sun was getting hot. He swore he could feel the heat from the window, even though it was on the other side of the building.

He straightened up. He’d been daydreaming again during Mass. He always did his best to pay attention, especially when Father Sean was preaching. His homilies made Randy feel grounded, more secure and at peace. He wondered if that was what it would have been like to listen to the apostles…especially Peter, his favorite. Daydreaming again. Gotta pay attention. As head acolyte, he needed to set a good example for the younger kids.

Despite the glare, he tried to watch Father Sean at the pulpit. What would it be like to stand up there in front of everybody? It must be scary…and hard. How did he know what to say? It was difficult for Randy to see with the light in his face, so he turned toward the congregation. As usual, his favorite people in the world, the Davis family, were sitting in the front pew. Papa Evan was nodding his head enthusiastically as if to cheer Father Sean on. He caught his big sis, Keisha, smiling across the aisle at a boy from her class. Hmmm. But Mamma Davis was staring right at him. She wasn’t scowling—yet—but she knew he wasn’t paying attention. He couldn’t get away with anything with her. She’d raised so many kids like Randy in her daycare that she’d developed a sixth sense for mischief. Yup—she was giving him the eye. He looked away.

The little guy on the bench next to him kept squirming. He couldn’t remember the kid’s name, but this was his first time serving Mass, and he looked terrified. Randy didn’t like having the newest altar boys assigned to serve with him. Maybe Father Sean had forgotten how intimidating a high schooler could be to a fifth grader. He couldn’t help feeling that the boy was more afraid of him than messing up in front of his parents and the whole congregation.

The boy fussed with his starched white surplice which was several sizes too big for him. Randy laid his hand on the boy’s knee, hoping it would quiet him. Instead, he turned toward Randy with a look of panic.

“Cool it,” he whispered. “You’re okay.” The kid didn’t look at all reassured.

They’d be standing up to help prepare for Communion as soon as Father Sean was finished with his homily. They’d both have something else to occupy their attention—with the boy trying to remember what to do, and him trying to watch the boy. Maybe next time Father’ll get someone else to break ‘em in. Just then, Father Sean left the pulpit. Randy had missed his whole homily. It would be one of those days. Mamma Davis said it came with being fifteen.

As he’d expected, as soon as they stood up to help Father Sean receive the offerings of bread and wine from some members of the congregation, the boy stood there, frozen to the spot, staring up at him wide-eyed. “We get the gifts now,” he whispered to him, trying to mask his frustration. “Come with me.” He provided a gentle hand on the boy’s back to guide him along. After Father Sean had washed his fingers in the bowl Randy held out for him, the boy was supposed to offer him a linen towel. Instead, he dropped the towel on the floor.

“Pick it up,” Randy whispered.

The boy looked like he was going to cry.

By this time, Randy was beyond frustration. He picked up the cloth to hand to Father Sean. He wanted to tell the priest this was all his fault, but he kept his mouth shut. It didn’t help when Father Sean bit his lip to keep from laughing. Priest or not, it was time they had a talk about this back in the vesting room after Mass.

At least the kid got the end of the Mass right. He stood where he was supposed to and took his place for the procession up the main aisle right behind Randy. Usually, Randy instructed the other servers to line up by height, but that would have put the boy at the head of the procession, and Randy wasn’t going to let that happen. God only knew where they would end up.

As he passed the front pew on his way up the aisle, Keisha giggled. If she had noticed what was happening, then her parents must have seen it as well. They’d make fun of him all through lunch. It wouldn’t be the first time.

The congregation was singing the hymn, “Be Thou My Vision” as they processed out. It was one of his favorites—positive, upbeat, and a great note to end the service on. As he glanced behind him to make sure his young protégé was still with them, something became entangled with his feet, and he lurched forward face-first toward the marble floor. Everything moved in slow motion. As he fell, a voice beside him hissed, “Faggot!” Instinct kicked in, and he rolled to one side before he hit the floor. He’d taken so many hard falls on the skate track that his body knew how to react before his mind grasped what was happening.

When he looked up, Father Sean was by his side. The boy was on his other side looking down on him wide-eyed, mouth agape.

The priest touched his shoulder. “Are you okay?”

In fact, he was a bit dazed, as much by the suddenness of it as from the fall itself. He took a quick mental inventory. Nothing hurt. “Yeah. I’m fine.” He rolled over onto his back and tried to sit up, but his feet were tangled in his long black cassock. Father Sean took hold of his arms to help him up.

“What happened?” the priest asked.

“I don’t know.” He looked around at the people who’d filed out of the pews to offer assistance—or gawk. Behind them, still in the pew, was his classmate, Billy Burke, eyeing him with a sarcastic grin on his angular face. He tripped me! He lunged forward, rage blocking everything else out except the image of Burke laughing at him.

Father Sean instantly stepped in front of him to block his way to Burke. “Not here,” he whispered. “Not now.” He tightened his grip on Randy’s arm.

He was breathing hard. His heart pounded. His fists were clenched, and it felt like every muscle in his body was taut. He wasn’t thinking straight. On the faces surrounding him, he saw concern, surprise, even some annoyance. But nobody was laughing—nobody except Billy Burke. He took a step back and adjusted his vestments. His white surplice had was soiled. When he tried to brush it off, that only made it worse. Father Sean motioned for people to step back so the procession could continue. He heard murmuring, and only then did he notice that the organ had gone silent.

He didn’t mind being up at the altar in front of everyone when he was helping Father Sean, but he hated being the center of attention. He felt his cheeks redden. Billy Burke had won this round.

He refolded his hands on his chest with determination. Father Sean gave a nod to the organist, and she resumed the hymn. As he led the procession away, he was bitter. From now on, that hymn would always be linked in his memory with the day he fell on his face at Mass. When they reached the vestibule, instead of joining Father Sean outside the doors to greet the people as they left, he went straight to the little room off to his right where they vested on weekends.

The door closed behind him and he slumped into one of the armchairs positioned around the room. He put his head in his hands. His mind spun a crazy quilt of rage and humiliation, hate and fear, a desire for vengeance and a yearning to hide. He didn’t know how long he’d been there before the door flew open.

“Child, what in the Lord’s name happened to you?” It was Mamma Davis.

He peered at her through his fingers. “Someone tripped me.” He looked around. “Where’s Keisha?” He didn’t want his big sis to see him like this.

“I sent her outside with Evan. Are you all right? Who tripped you?”

“A kid from school.” He lowered his hands. “Can we talk about this later? I just want to calm down. I think Father Sean is going to handle it.”

“What am I going to handle?” Father Sean had come up behind Mamma Davis.

Mamma turned around. “What’s this all about?”

“It looks like a boy might’ve tripped him on purpose.” He laid his hand on her arm. “Would it be okay if I talked to Randy in private for a few minutes? I need to find out what happened.”

She gave the priest a look that said, It certainly isn’t okay. “I suppose so,” she grumbled.

“I’ll tell you about it as soon as I get home,” Randy told her. “Promise.”

She didn’t look at all satisfied. “Mind you get your butt right back, then. We’re waiting lunch on you.” On her way out, she told Father Sean, “I trust you’ll see that something like this doesn’t happen again.”

“I’ll do what I can, Lavonda,” he said to her and closed the door behind her. He came and stood over Randy. “You’re sure you’re all right?”

Embarrassment took over. “I’m sorry, Father, I couldn’t help it. I spoiled everything.”

“Don’t.” Father Sean got down on one knee by his side. “It wasn’t your fault. You did nothing wrong. I’m just concerned about you. You took quite a fall.”

Randy shrugged. “I take falls like that all the time. It’s no big deal. I just hate that I ruined the Mass.”

The priest pursed his lips. “You didn’t. But you said somebody tripped you.”

“Yeah. Billy Burke.”

“You saw him trip you?”

Randy shook his head. “But I know it was him. He was laughing at me.”

The priest studied him for a moment. “But you didn’t actually see him do it?”

“No, Father. I was looking behind me at that new kid.”

Father Sean looked disgusted. “I tried to ask some of the people around you if they saw anything. Nobody did. It probably was Burke—it’s just the sort of thing he’d do—but we can’t prove it.”

“Why do we need to prove it? We both know he did it.”

“Maybe if we had proof we could file a report with the police, but we can’t. That kid’s been well trained to get away with stuff like that. He’s been that way his whole life.”

Randy gritted his teeth. “Doesn’t it count that he called me a faggot?”

He stood and pulled the surplice over his head. It not only looked stained, it felt dirty. Desecrated. He bundled it up and dropped it on the floor beside his chair. As he unbuttoned his cassock and let it slip down his arms, it felt as if he were shedding the weight of the world. Being head acolyte didn’t feel like fun anymore. Just being his old skater boy self was plenty. He sat.

Father Sean hung his vestments on a coat rack and then pulled another chair over and sat facing him. “You’ve never been called a faggot before?”

“Not in church.” He sniffed. “And nobody’s ever tried to hurt me before because I’m gay.”

“Billy knows you’re gay?”

“No. Maybe. I don’t know.” He shifted in his seat. “It’s not exactly a big secret, but I don’t go broadcasting it around school and I’ve never made a move on anybody.” He made a face. “None of them are that interesting.”

“You know gay-bashing happens.”

“Uh-huh. But I thought I was safe here.” He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “What happens when people do find out about me? I don’t care if they know, as long as they leave me alone. But what about the Church? What if everybody heard what Billy Burke said? Can I still be an acolyte?”

Father Sean frowned. “First of all, no one’s going to know unless you tell them. Secondly, even if anybody thinks they know, it’s still none of their business. It has nothing to do with your being an acolyte.”

“Okay, but what if a whole lot of people find out? Will that mean I can’t be a priest? You know I want that more than anything.”

“No, it doesn’t mean that.”

“I thought if the Church found out you were a gay priest, they’d kick you out.”

“That depends on who your bishop is. Some are better than others. There’ve always been bigoted people in the Church. But there have also always been gay priests.”

He hadn’t thought of that. He considered his own prospects. “What about your bishop? Is he okay with having gay priests?”

Father Sean stared at him blankly for a moment. “He’s never said anything about it, and he’s never asked anyone to leave.”

That’s a relief. “You won’t tell on me, will you?”

The priest laughed. “Don’t be silly.” His tone turned serious. “I’m still concerned about you. Even more after what happened this morning. People like Billy Burke can make things difficult for you. They thrive on it. I hope you know you’re not going to escape those people by becoming a priest. If anything, they’ll make it even more difficult for you because they know they have the power to take what you most love away from you.”

Randy tried to imagine what it would be like to be a priest with a congregation of Billy Burkes. He shuddered. “Maybe I shouldn’t even try.”

“If your heart tells you this is right for you, of course you should try. I just want to make sure you understand that becoming a priest won’t insulate you from those people. What does your heart tell you?”

“That I’m supposed to be here.”


“Here. In the Church.” He could feel how deeply rooted his connection to the Church was. He couldn’t imagine himself without it. “I think I know what people mean when they say priests have a calling. Like something’s got hold of you and won’t let go.”

Father Sean smiled and stood up. “That’s what it felt like for me. Without that, it’d be just another job. You’ll see. I know you will.” He offered Randy his hand and pulled him to his feet. “I have a proposition for you. Since you’re our head acolyte and the closest thing we have to a seminarian, what would you say to being our Master of Ceremonies for the parish jubilee Mass next month?”

That was the person who helped the bishop at Mass. His heart swelled. “I could do that?”

“I think you could. Also, you’d be in charge of four altar boys.”

“Trained ones?” He gave Father Sean a sly look.

The priest grinned. “Yes. Trained ones. What do you say?”

Take that, Billy Burke! “Sure, Father. That’d be awesome.”

“Good. Now that school’s out, it’ll give you something to do besides skate.”

Randy grinned. “I’m this close to breaking my record on catching air, Father. There’s nothing like the feeling of floating in the air when I do it right.”

“Nothing?” Father Sean looked down at the pile of vestments at Randy’s feet.

“That’s different. You know what I mean.”

“Yes, I do.” The priest laughed and drew Randy into a warm hug. “Don’t worry so much. We won’t let you down.”

Randy closed his eyes and leaned into the hug, enjoying how good it felt to be held. “We?”

“Me and God. We’ve got you.” He tightened his embrace. “Just try not to let your sexuality become too well known. You can’t control who’ll accept you and who won’t. We’d rather not have a repeat performance of what happened this morning. Know what I mean?”

Randy nodded. But when he glanced through the stained-glass window behind Father Sean, a familiar face stared back at him washed in red, purple, and blue. It chilled him to the core: it was Walter Burke, Billy’s father.

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