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Quality control. What this virgin needs is a little quality control.
Angelina Sandoval Ybarra had a way with words. For the umpteenth time, Father Mark Townsend unfolded the woman's letter and read her strange, engaging message. Mother Mary is making more appearances in the Yakima Valley than the Rolling Stones made on their last tour. And drawing crowds almost as big. She has appeared throughout the valley, from Selah down to Grandview. Each apparition is dramatic, unique and arresting, with only one thing lacking. Quality control. What this virgin needs is a little quality control.
The priest shifted uncomfortably in his car seat and glanced out the side window. They were passing Issaquah, just beginning the climb toward Snoqualmie Pass. He wondered if Emily would make it. As if he could read the priest's thoughts, the car's driver cleared his throat.
"She loves a good challenge." Tim Connell patted the steering wheel. "Emily may have a lot of miles, but she's still good for the long haul."
Mark smiled kindly, but he had his doubts. The Volkswagen's engine sounded like it was about to fall out on the pavement behind them. And with the weight of both men and their luggage, he did wonder if the old car could make it up and over the high mountains in front of them. The Cascades held no danger of snow in August, but the climb was still steep and Connell's 1965 Volkswagen Beetle was already sucking air.
"Why'd you name it Emily?" Father Townsend asked.
"Dickinson." Connell offered the Jesuit a sly grin. "When I bought this beauty I was getting my master's at Seattle U., writing my thesis on Emily Dickinson. I thought it fit."
Mark glanced around at the car's shabby interior. There were tears in the fabric and a large diagonal dent in the dashboard. A nasty crack jogged like a secondary highway across the windshield. The broken backseat was littered with books, magazines, and old newspapers. The Beetle's exterior looked no better. The car's paint job, once a bright orange, was now faded and splotched with rust. There were more dings, scrapes, and dents than Mark could count.
" 'How frugal is the chariot that bears the human soul,' " Mark recited.
"You Jesuits!" Tim Connell's grin grew wide in appreciation. "Where'd you learn Dickinson?"
Connell was a handsome enough man, with a square jaw and bright blue eyes. His red hair was thinning and he wore it overly long in a vain attempt to cover the damage. In another year or two it would probably start looking silly, but for now Father Townsend thought it looked okay. Tim's small frame fit inside the Beetle a lot better than his own. He had a disarming smile that made him look several years younger than his actual age, which the priest figured was about twenty-eight. Tim Connell taught English at a middle school in north Seattle and Mark imagined he was a popular teacher. According to his wife, Angelina, he had a weakness for beer. But Father Townsend had not been around the man enough to notice.
Tim and Angelina had joined St. Joseph parish four years ago, shortly before their marriage. They seemed like a nice enough couple, and Father Townsend had done what he could to introduce them and make them feel welcome. But the relationship between the couple and the parish had never quite clicked, at least to Father Townsend's thinking. There was always just a slight awkwardness to them, as if their Irish and Mexican backgrounds had never quite melded. They both went by their own last name, and as much as he tried, Father Townsend could never find a comfortable way of introducing the two. At their wedding he remembered asking the congregation to applaud the newlyweds, Timothy Connell and Angelina Sandoval Ybarra. Too many names with too many dissonant sounds. Even for a wordsmith as gifted as Emily Dickinson.
"How long has Angelina been in Yakima?"
Connell rolled his eyes. "Forever!" He squinted at the road rising up in front of them. Emily coughed daintily and Tim eased her over into the right lane. "That might be a slight exaggeration," he admitted. "She left Seattle on June eighth, the last week of school."
"That seems like a long time for just one article," the priest observed.
"Yeah, but it's a big one," Tim answered. "She thinks this might be the one to put her over the top."
"Make her career."
Father Townsend thought he detected a slight sour note in the man's reply. If so, it was not too surprising. Wedding rings do not prevent envy. He knew Tim Connell was a frustrated writer himself. 'Me man had his master's degree, but was teaching English to seventhand eighth-grade children while his glamorous wife got to travel the world as a freelance journalist, publishing articles in magazines and newspapers like Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and the New York Times. To the Jesuit, that sounded pretty over the top already.
"Does she know where she'll publish the story?" Mark asked.
Tim shrugged his shoulders. "New Yorker, maybe. Vanity Fair. Atlantic. Depends on how she writes it. Her agent says the editors are already drooling." He leaned forward over the steering wheel, as if urging Emily to move faster. "It's got all the right stuff. mystery, suspense, religion, money, and the millennium. All that's missing is sex."
Mark heard a definite sour note that time, no doubt about it.
They were past North Bend and Emily was laboring. Tim kept her to the right as traffic streaked past them on the way to Snoqualmie's summit.
Father Townsend continued holding Angelina's letter in his hands, absentmindedly turning the folded pages over and over, staring out the car window as they rolled past dense forests of evergreens. Tim Connell was right. Her story did have the right stuff. The letter she wrote did not describe everything, but it contained enough to capture his interest. And not only capture it, but draw him out of Seattle, over the Cascades, and into the Yakima Valley. There was no doubt about it, Angelina Sandoval Ybarra had a way with words.
Father, I need your help. An opening line like that would grab any priest's attention. There is much evil here, and I feel my life is in danger. Not only my life, but all that I hold dear and true. That includes my faith. I realize that I am asking a great deal, but I need to have you here.
The Jesuits were once called the pope's storm troopers. Father Townsend did not have much use for labels, but it still managed to capture some of the Society's sense of purpose. If Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, was willing to travel to Jerusalem for the sake of the faith, the least Mark Townsend could do was scrunch inside Emily for a three-hour ride to the Yakima Valley. Besides, a good friend was working there whom he had not seen in over a year. And in late August, St. Joseph was comatose. Most of the families at the parish were on vacation, as was most of the staff. The summer's wedding season was finally through and the school year had yet to start. Late August was the perfect time to escape the confines of his Capital Hill church for a couple of days of distraction. Especially if it could include helping a dama in distress.
Tim Connell's voice broke into Townsend's reverie.
"I'm sorry," the priest said, "I wasn't listening."
Connell nodded at the letter in Mark's hands. "I asked if you believe all that."
Mark lifted the letter. "Shouldn't IT'
"It's pretty dramatic, don't you think?"
Dramatic was an understatement. Angelina's letter was apocalyptic.
"Yes, it's dramatic. I don't see how the end of the world could sound anything but dramatic," Father Townsend replied. He stopped, as if waiting for Connell to disagree, then continued. "'Mere's all sorts of predictions about the world ending. Especially now that we're getting closer to next year. Everyone knew the millennium would be like this. Just about every day there's a new prediction in the newspaper. Either a giant meteor is going to wipe us out or a spaceship is going to beam everyone aboard. I read a story the other day that said Noah's ark had mysteriously appeared floating in the Atlantic. The papers are full of this kind of stuff all the time."
"So why should this one be any different?"
"That's a good question," Mark conceded, looking down at the letter in his hand, turning it over once again. "Why should it?" he murmured.
There are moments when I feel my story is writing itself I have no control. I do not know if anybody does. And Father, I fear the ending of it.
Angelina's letter described the article. She was writing a profile on a man who called himself Brother Gabriel. Although it was unclear what kind of a minister he was, there was no doubting his popularity. Since arriving in the valley a little over a year ago, Brother Gabriel had attracted a huge following, mostly Hispanics, but some Anglos, too. He refused to work in churches. All his preaching was under large tents in open fields or on the street in front of the established churches. Crowds of people swarmed around him as he warned of the End Time and the coming of the Rapture. Angelina wrote that Brother Gabriel referred almost exclusively to the Bible's final chapter, the Book of Revelation, although he also spoke of private revelations.
The most disturbing part of her letter described two phenomena that were occurring in the valley. Apparitions of the Virgin Mary, particularly of the Lady of Guadalupe, were being reported up and down the valley. Wherever her image appeared, huge crowds assembled, followed closely by Brother Gabriel, who kept insisting she was there to help prepare the people for her Son's second coming. And according to Angelina, at the north end of the valley, outside of a small town called Cowiche, the Rapture had already begun.
Several have already departed. I am told this by their own families and friends. Some believe it so fervently and with such devotion that I am convinced something is certainly happening. The believers who keep vigil are locked in a room for the night and in the morning they are gone. Brother Gabriel's believers claim they have been lifted into the Rapture.
Father, I do not believe this for a minute. But I have examined the Vigil Room myself and there is no way in or out except through the one door. I have gone over every inch of the space. There is no other way for these people to leave. And yet they do.
The small car veered sharply and Father Townsend was thrown suddenly against the side door.
"Son of a bitch!" Tim exploded. A large semi was only a couple of yards in front of Emily, but pulling away fast. "That bastard pulled right in front of us!"
Mark had been looking down, intent on the letter, and never noticed the truck. Apparently, neither had Connell until it swerved into their lane. 'Me Volkswagen was slowly creeping up a particularly steep grade of 1-90, Washington state's main east-west highway. Fortunately, they were nearing the summit. Emily did not appear to have much energy left for the difficult climb and her forward progress had slowed to a poky forty miles per hour. Tim was hugging the far right lane as the rest of the traffic zoomed past on their left. The passing truck had cut back in too close.
Connell's face was a violent red and contorted in rage, but the danger had passed and he was no longer cursing. He looked over at the priest and tried to smile, but it came off looking more like a grimace.
"I hate those things," he said. "They're so damn big and they think they own the road. They could roll over cars like Emily and leave nothing but a grease spot. Pisses me off."
"I can tell," said Mark. Tim's sudden, intense fury was startling. Father Townsend had seldom seen anyone's demeanor change as quickly and as dramatically. He folded up the letter and put it in his shirt pocket, studying his parishioner as if seeing him for the first time. "Would you like me to drive for awhile?"
Tim shook his head, his attention still focused on the truck disappearing around a curve in front of them. He was biting on his lower lip. Father Townsend decided to change the subject.
"I'm still not sure why your wife invited me along," he said, "although I don't mind coming. The priests at the Jesuit parish in Yakima would give her any help she needs. It's even called St. Joseph, just like home."
"And is there a Father Townsend at this St. Joseph?" Connell did not wait for a reply. "Ange isn't a great one for trust, Father. Maybe it's the reporter in her, but she tends to confide in only a few select people. Ever since we've joined the parish you've gone out of your way to make us feel welcome. I guess we haven't said it explicitly, but that's meant a lot. Ange and I don't have a lot of friends. We stick to ourselves most of the time."
The young man stopped and the silence felt awkward.
Mark tried feeding the conversation. "I thought you are from Seattle?"
"I am. Angie was born in San Diego, although her folks are Mexican. They crossed the border so she'd be a U.S. citizen."
Mark remembered meeting the quiet, elderly couple at the wedding. Angelina's parents spoke about as little English as Mark did Spanish, so their conversation together had been short and formal.
"What part of Seattle did you grow up in?" the priest asked.
"Edmonds, actually," Tim answered. "My mom taught at my grade school and my father taught at the high school. Which might help explain my lack of friends. When your parents are teachers at your own school, other kids don't hang around you too much. I guess coming over to our house felt too much like being at school. Anyway, I didn't make a lot of friends. And Angelina. .." Tim paused and again the silence hung awkwardly. "Well, I guess ... maybe her race is more of an obstacle than we'd like to think. But she hasn't made many friends either."
Angelina Sandoval Ybarra was a tall, slender, and strikingly handsome Chicana; bright, articulate and talented. Connell's accusation took the Jesuit by surprise.
"Do you really find that her race is an issue with people?"
The young man vigorously nodded his head. "Definitely." He pumped the gas and Emily gave a little shimmy. "For instance, last Sunday I was talking to someone after Mass and it felt really comfortable. Then Angie walked up and I introduced her. About a minute later the guy walked off. It was like he didn't know what to say to her."
"I'm sorry, Tim. That's disappointing to hear."
"Yeah. Well, it's not just at church, it happens all the time. We've talked about it and both of us can live with it. It's funny, but if there's just one of us, it doesn't seem as big a deal. Ange says she doesn't experience the same coldness from people as when we're together. I guess an Hispanic woman is easier to take if she's alone. But being married to an Anglo ... that's something else."
"That's too bad," Mark said. "I imagine it puts a strain on both of you at times."
The young man nodded his head but added nothing. Another silence settled inside the car and both men became attentive to the labored wheezes of poor Emily, struggling the last half mile to the summit. Mountain peaks rose up all around them, and in the thin air the bright sunlight was startling in its brilliance. A steep mountain slope, covered by snow in the winter, was now blanketed with green grass and alpine flowers. Highway signs, pointing to ski slopes, announced the coming exits.
Tim Connell glanced at his watch. "It's nearly noon," he announced. "Should we pull off here for a bite or do you want to go on? We can stop at Cie Elum or go on into Ellensburg."
"It makes no difference to me," Father Townsend replied. "I'm not hungry yet."
"We'll go on," Tim decided, pushing harder on the gas, urging his small car ahead.
They reached the summit and the highway leveled momentarily. To their right they could see steep-roofed ski chalets among tall evergreens at the base of a ski slope that soared hundreds of feet above them. The skeletal frames of the chair lifts, now immobile and empty, traced their way up the mountainside from a central lodge just off the highway.
Tim's eyes were shining brightly with success. "We made it!" he crowed triumphantly, patting Emily's battered dashboard as if she were a trusty steed. "From now on," he happily proclaimed, "it's all downhill."
If he meant that as a prophecy, Father Townsend would have preferred they turn around and head back for Seattle. And if he had known what awaited them in Yakima, he might have insisted.