DISCLAIMER: These characters have some similarities to some favorite ladies we all know and love, but no infringement is intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
On Hallowed Ground
Black heels clicked in a sure, steady rhythm as the legs that carried them descended the stairs. The exasperated voice appeared long before the mane of jet black hair.
She gave out an exasperated sigh, pissed that she couldn't enjoy the breathtaking view of the sun rising over the high-rise heavy skyline of downtown Chicago. The condo cost her a small fortune but it was worth it.
"I don't give a damn what Jack wants, Al! This is important!" Holding the phone away from her ear, she barely heard the rant on the other end, shaking her head as she reached for her daily dose of caffeine an extra tall travel mug of strong black coffee. "No, you can't talk me out of it. I'm going, period, end of story," she clicked her cell shut before her well-meaning co-worker could protest further.
Alonzo Perkins, junior editor and resident shit deflector for star writer, Riley Jacobsen, had been concerned for her well-being ever since Riley was captured by a drug dealer during one of her undercover stories. Jack Jessly, their editor-in-chief, was thrilled with the story because it had finally put his two bit Chicago newsrag, the Weekly Herald, on the map, but he was less than pleased with the massive doctor bills and lawsuits the paper had to cover after Riley had physically expressed her own displeasure at her captor. To say Riley had to work a lot of overtime to make up for that was an understatement.
Riley, in her own form of controlled recklessness, decided the only way to fix a bad situation was to snag another great story. Jack had warned her about going off on her own. That was how she ended up in the drug dealer situation. When she pitched her new idea, he drew a new line in the sand. First, he didn't want her getting into dangerous situations. Now, he didn't want her dealing with controversial subjects. She'd never get a job with a major paper if he kept holding her back. To Riley, news wasn't worth reading, much less reporting, if it didn't bother, scare, or unnerve you. On that principle alone, the determined brunette found herself packing a bag and catching the first flight out for Alabama.
Grabbing up her mug, she took one last look out her floor-to-ceiling windows at the sun barely peeking over the horizon, setting the Chicago skyline in rosy, warm hues. On the long ride down the elevator, she reflected on the life she had now being so vastly different from the one of her childhood.
Since leaving home six years ago for journalism school in Chicago, Riley maintained only one piece of remaining contact with Warrior, Alabama a subscription to the town's local rag, The Warrior Way. It was an ad in the paper that caught her eye and started the wheels turning. Sandwiched between announcements for the local councilman's daughter's wedding and the latest natural disaster in Sri Lanka was a full page ad for First Warrior Baptist Church's Real Life Through Jesus program. Riley followed the link provided on the Internet and learned that the Real Life program was really an ex-gay ministry. That alone didn't shock her, but it did unnerve her that she was on a plane bound for the one place she swore she'd never return to.
The last time Riley had stepped foot into Warrior First Baptist was also the last time she had seen the town or her family six years ago. When Riley was eight years old, a young, handsome, and enthusiastic preacher, Rev. John Porter, had taken over for the elderly, and quite frankly senile, older reverend, Frank Smith. As a child Riley had heard stories of Rev. Frankie, how his family had lived for generations in Warrior and founded the church he eventually assumed. The Reverend had never had formal education, most townsfolk didn't, but he knew the Bible word-for-word. There was little doubt among the locals that he was ideal for the job.
Rev. Frankie's family became concerned about his ability to continue much longer. After wandering off twice and one of those times being found naked and disoriented on the side of Highway 31, his wife and children decided to begin searching for a replacement. The natural place to look in those days was the nearest seminary. With his charms, good looks, and cutting edge ideas for developing the youth base of the church, a move that would ensure the growth of members for generations to come, John Porter wowed the search committee.
Quick to be good to his word, Rev. Porter and his family tackled the youth segment through local schools. The key leader was his talkative and outgoing daughter, Samantha Renee Porter, who set up a prayer group at her middle school. Her older brother, John Jr., started the first Federation of Christian Athletes. While Samantha won over the enthusiastic younger crowd, the ones yet to taste the larger world of sin, John Jr. made sure to show the rough and tumble country boys of Warrior that they could still be all male and Christian at the same time, or at least his definition of that. As cherubic and innocent as Samantha was, her brother was as troubled and crafty. The good looks he inherited from his father and the cover of being the preacher's son served him well in escaping many unsavory scrapes. To round out the family was the obligatory Sunday School teaching preacher's wife. Janet Porter, a petite and perky blonde of only 20, was key to bringing in and maintaining the family element. Her daycare services and eventual preschool drew in young families from all over town. Within five years of his arrival, Rev. John Porter and his family had nearly doubled church membership, more than half of which were under 25.
Riley felt a chill go down her spine at the remembrance of that enigmatic family and the death grip they held over so many. At 18, Riley had entered the double pine doors Warrior First Baptist for the last time, with little more than a duffle bag with a few mementos and clothes in tow. At the time, she had to remind herself that college students don't need luxury to succeed, only desire. Only two desires existed for Riley at that moment to succeed and to escape. The next day she would leave to start a new life, but as she sat in the hard wooden pews, she was letting go of an old one.
The quiet of an empty church always managed to fill Riley with a sense of awe. In her opinion, it was the best time to go to church. Her family had never been big on Sunday morning show-and-tell, as she remembered her father describing it, but as she grew she watched her classmates find a commonality in her small town because they all went to the same church. After much pestering, her mother finally agreed to let her walk to the church down the road, the same church all of the other kids went to. Over time, the lanky, dark-haired girl found a place to fit in. Sitting in a cramped window set, Riley recalled the emotions and feelings of belonging in those early days at the church. There were always games and music and fun. It was an emotion she had long let go of. As a young girl, Riley gave little thought to Mrs. Janet Sunday School stories or noticed how they changed over the years from generic "stay out of trouble" stories associated with Jonah and the Whale and the "bravery in the face of adversity" stories of David and Goliath to warning stories of "raging hormones" and "having a lustful eye" usually connected to Samson and Delilah. Looking back with an adult's eye, the pieces of the puzzle fit together.
The summer Riley turned 13 she finally understood what Mrs. Janet had been saying when a petite redhead named Susie Graham moved to town. Her father was in the military and her mom taught at the high school. Susie joked about being a wandering nomad, but the truth was moving so often made it difficult to have friends. Riley didn't mind. In fact, it encouraged her to make sure that her new friend never had to do without a friend ever again. Riley thought little about why she always wanted to see Susie or why it bothered her if a boy talked to her friend. Everything Mrs. Janet had said about lust was about men and women so Riley thought that was the only way a person could get into trouble. In spite of their efforts, Riley didn't pay much attention to boys so she figured she was safe.
It wasn't until one day after church when Susie's mother was taking Riley home that she learned that not only was it wrong to like her friend but it was worse than when a man lusted for a woman. At least that's what Mrs. Janet had said when Riley's mother forced her to go to a counseling session. Her friend became scared to be alone with her and one day, as she stood crying on the young girl's front porch in the pouring rain, Susie's mother slammed the door in her face, refusing to even allow Riley in her house. Who knew that leaning over and giving Susie a simple kiss on the cheek when she got out of the car would cause so much trouble? The moment was purely instinct. She didn't think it out, just wanted to give her friend a kiss. Riley never went back to church and never faced Susie again. When school started that fall, her redheaded crush wasn't there. She asked a couple of kids from the church, and they said she moved with her family to Atlanta. The images of a crying Susie, her angry mother, and a disappointed Mrs. Janet flickered in Riley's memory. She felt her stomach unconsciously flip and she felt like running. What the hell possessed me again to go after this story?
Riley contemplated on the flight down if her urge to go back to Warrior was revenge or simply a good story. There was nothing left for her there. Her father had walked out on her and her mother when she was only 10 years old. After the scene with Susie and her own mother's personal sense of failure and humiliation, Riley shut down. She refused to talk to her mother and made little to no effort to make friends. The whole town knew the story of her downfall. There was little she could do but focus on her escape from small-minded America. Even if it was painful, the best thing to come out of the experience was her education. She read every book she could get her hands on, spending endless hours at the town library. Anything to keep from going home to the preaching and disappointment. Not surprisingly, Riley's mother found religion and became an avid supporter of the very church that had banished her daughter. Needless to say, when Riley left for college, she cut all communication with her mother. The only way she found out her mother died two years ago was the very brief obit in The Warrior Way.
When she left Warrior, the striking brunette vowed never to return. Never say never, Riley mused. Being valedictorian earned her a one-way ticket to freedom. Now, the prodigal child exited the Birmingham airport and instantly knew why she had left. Taunting her from across the street was a huge billboard for First Warrior Baptist Church with the tagline: Spreading God's message of love to a lost world. She shook her head in disgust. Okay, maybe it is revenge that drives me. Still, if my gut instinct is right, this is going to make one hell of a story. No pun intended, of course.
Before the tall woman could even get her bags into the rental, her cell phone started ringing. Pushing aside pleasant images of chucking the contraption into the nearest lake, she rifled through her bags until she found the sleek piece of silver.
"What?!" The oppressive heat was already fraying her ragged nerves.
"What me! What you, Jacobsen! Where the hell are you?" Shit, fuck, damn! One of these days I'm gonna get caller ID!
"Heya, Jack, what's up?" Trying to be more nonchalant and pleasant than she felt, she slipped into the leather seats of the Jeep waiting for the inevitable explosion that didn't come.
"I'll answer you're question when you answer mine." Now, Riley knew it was going to be bad because Jack was way too calm, too fast. She could almost envision the red splotches breaking out all over his face as he tried to remain calm. Holding the phone to her shoulder, she effortlessly pulled back her long dark hair in a ponytail then started the car.
"I'm in Alabama," she held her breath waiting for it to sink in.
"Ala what the oh, no, no, NO, Riley!!! I told you not to do this! Are you deliberately trying to shoot yourself in your one and only professional foot? Have you completely lost your mind?"
Merging onto the highway, she had to nearly yell to be heard, "Probably, Jack, but it's not my sanity we should be worrying about here. Look, I'll get you one helluva story. I promise. Don't give up on me." She played it up, hoping a little over the top would work on the guy that thought and acted like he was a father to everyone, and not always in a good way.
She barely caught the sigh on the other end. Come on, Jack, bend a little. "Damn it, Riley. One of these days, I swear, you're going to give me a heart attack. Fine, I want weekly updates and if I don't hear from you, I'm calling a search party, got it? I'll blow your cover and won't feel bad about it, 'kay?"
The brunette let the smile show in her voice, "Thanks, Jack, you won't regret this."
"I hope not, kid. I sure hope not." Then he was gone. She snapped the phone shut and dropped it in the passenger seat. When she first met Jack Jessly, it had irritated her that he never said "bye," but now she knew it was part of his personality. An aggravating part, but a part nonetheless, and she was learning that his brusqueness was what made Jack, well, Jack. It actually made it hard to stay mad at the bear of a man.
Turning up the radio, Riley let the warm wind and scent of pine transport her to another moment from her childhood. Passing these same fields, she pulled a rare memory out, one with her riding with her dad on his motorcycle. When they were out of eyesight of her mom, her dad would let her stand on his legs, while he held onto the belt loop of her jeans. At that moment, she was happy and content, imagining soaring like a bird among the trees and fields.
Without realizing it, she had pulled over to the side of the road. The tears hung on the precipice ready to fall any moment.
"Excuse me?" Riley nearly jumped out of her skin. Lost in her reverie, she didn't hear the other car pull up beside her. A blonde head poked out of the window, holding a hand up to shade her eyes.
"Sorry, just thinking," the blonde tilted her head to the side, looking at the dark-haired woman with scrutinizing eyes.
"I know you. You're Riley Jacobsen," the other woman quickly slipped out of the car, "It's interesting to have you back in town. I'll be honest, I didn't expect it." She crossed her arms as the studied Riley. When she looked over the names of the incoming group, Riley's name jumped out at her. After Googling her name, the mystery was solved. Small town girl goes bad, runs away to the big city to live a life of sin and debauchery, her mom dies, the guilt eats at her until she decides to change her ways. She had seen this scenario many times over the years.
Riley felt uneasy under the scrutiny, "Yeah, well, I better get going."
"Where are my manners? My name's Samantha. Everyone calls me Sam," she held out her hand to Riley.
She stared momentarily at the small hand before finally giving a firm shake, "And some call you the preacher's daughter."
"Some, but it's not usually in a nice way. Well, you're in luck, Riley. I'm the church welcome wagon. Follow me and I'll show you where you're staying," Without even looking back, Sam got back in her car and moved ahead of Riley down the road.
Taking a deep breath, Riley shifted into gear, "No turning back now, Jacobsen."
Sam watched from her rearview mirror, contemplating her memory of Riley with the woman here now. Riley had been three years ahead of Sam in school, but Sam distinctly recalled that one day it seemed like Riley was happy and outgoing, the next she was withdrawn and sad. She remembered also that at about that same time Riley's mother coming often to their house, crying and upset. Deemed too young to understand what was going on, her parents shuffled her off to her room, leaving it all to Sam's active imagination, while they prayed with Riley's mom. Having Riley in the program made the past finally make sense. It also fit the piece of the puzzle into place about why her brother took a sudden interest in the tall, sad girl.
The brunette followed Sam at a reasonable distance trying to keep the dust and dirt from coating her in a fresh layer of travel grime. As hot as it is, Riley speculated that it could turn to mud pretty quickly. After passing through a row of trees, the fields opened up to neatly manicured lawns and row after row of white fence guarding nearly identical prefab houses. At the end of the road, a white steeple rose high in the sky, reaching for the unattainable. Easing to a stop at the third house on the right, Riley slipped her shades off and rounded the front of the Jeep.
Sam practically leaped from the car, beaming a bright white smile, "Home sweet home!"
Riley was already annoyed by her, "This isn't exactly a vacation in Tahiti for me, ya know?" The dark-haired woman cut into the petite blonde with ice blue eyes. Sam had the decency to look away.
"Well, guess we better get you settled in then," the blonde moved past Riley to the back of the Jeep.
"We? There's no 'we' in this," Riley took the duffle bag from Sam's hand and started to turn.
A small hand on her arm stopped her, "Riley, you can't expect to do this on your own," the blue eyes riveted on the gentle hand before rising to bore into soft green. Sam suddenly realized how her gesture looked and pulled away quickly.
"I just mean that we're here to help you, Riley. That's all. Let me help," Riley sighed and stretched to her full six feet. She was disarmed by the sincerity in the blonde's eyes. There was too much at stake to let emotions get in the way. She pushed down her desire to reach out to the other woman.
"Maybe some other time."
"How about next week?"
"Huh?" Riley stopped mid-step. This woman may be nuts in more ways than one.
Sam shuffled her feet and looked down at her tennis shoes, "Actually, it may be me needing some help. See, next week is the 4th of July picnic. Our church always puts on a picnic for the community, and well, I've kind of let time get away from me. There's so much to do and I could use the help."
"And ?" A dark eyebrow rose high waiting.
"Um, would you mind helping me?" Riley knew she should say no but any plausible excuses that would work under normal circumstances wouldn't work here. There were no deadlines, no visiting relatives, no trips to suddenly leave on, and nowhere she needed to be, except here at this moment. Besides, Sam looked terribly ill at ease. She couldn't keep torturing her.
"Okay, sure," If the sun hadn't already been high in the sky, Sam's smile would have lit up the entire encampment.
"Great! I'll call you tomorrow!" Before Riley could respond, Sam had hopped in her car and sped off down the street. Shaking her head, she turned to go in the house then realized she didn't get the key from Sam.
"Crap!" She leaned her head against the cool metal door and fumbled hopelessly with the handle, which surprisingly gave way, causing Riley to stumble into a small foyer.
"No keys?" Looking closer at the handle, she narrowed her eyes. "No lock fabulous. Well, this should be a truly interesting experience." She kicked the door closed with her foot, "What in the hell have I gotten myself into?"
To Be Continued
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