It's been ten years since my young niece died, and it's time to make my yearly pilgrimage to the basilica where her prayers were answered, and my nightmare began. I light a candle for her and her parents, a promise I made before they'd passed. An entire family—gone.
There's no peace after death. There is nothing.
I leave as unsettled as I came, shoving the church door with such force I almost hit somebody. Not just somebody. The mysterious man I had seen at the basilica years ago. For the briefest of moments, he had let me forget the pain and grief in my life.
He invites me out, and as we talk, he reveals a disturbing secret: he believes he can hear people's thoughts and answer their prayers. It's just my sort of luck the first guy I find attractive is delusional. But then, what he does and what I see are impossible and send me scrambling to learn more about him, to figure out how he tricked me.
Because what he did has to be a trick.
Step by step, I'm drawn into in his world until I no longer know the difference between reality and imagination. I can't fall for him. None of this is real. It can't be. Unless...
Gael Taylor is no ordinary human.
- 1 To Be Read list
“The angels and God will hear us, Uncle Aaron. Mommy and Daddy, too,” Teresa, my ten-year-old niece, assures me as we enter through the large wooden doors of the basilica. She finds comfort in these walls and in these pews and in her faith. I find nothing but haunting memories and a nearly unbearable urge to leave.
Compared to the ornate stained glass and ominous designs of some Catholic churches, the white walls, green trim, and painted floral designs in the basilica are simplistic. The grand retablo makes up for it. The golden monstrosity that represents the Trinity, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the four saints fascinates Teresa. When the forty-foot-tall gawk-worthy spectacle was revealed twelve years ago, our family had attended Mass to see it, as did many Southern Orange County Catholics. Since then, my memory of the joyous event has been overshadowed by caskets and flowers.READ MORE
Black-tinted tears streak the blush on my mother’s face as her mascara runs. Teresa swings her legs, restless, innocent, as we sit in the pew waiting for the service to begin. The acoustics of the basilica amplify voices just as they were intended to do, and the congregation’s whispers reach my ears, echoing the nightmare I can’t wake up from.
“I heard the driver was high.”
“Such an awful accident. It’s a good thing Teresa wasn’t with her parents that day.”
Today, an elderly couple sits by the sanctuary, and a young woman and child genuflect and slide into a pew. Aside from them, we are alone. Attending Mass is more than I could handle. Too many people. Too many of them believing I belong in hell. The Church and I had parted ways long before I stopped attending Mass and right about the time of my first kiss.
“Do you think they’re happy?” Teresa’s high voice bounces around as I dip my fingers in the holy water and make the sign of the cross, the symbolism no longer meaningful. But I’m not here for me, and Teresa would ask why I’d skipped the ritual. She’s observant even in her ill health. “Mom and Dad?” She whispers this time. The hope in her light brown eyes almost makes me lie.
They’re dead. Gone. They feel nothing.
Still, I’m not about to tell Teresa my dismal view of the afterlife. She needs comfort and I need her to believe, to hold onto something, to feel something for the both of us.
The ornate surroundings are a blur. The quietness of the basilica unsettling. I want to run from this place and the memories of death and pain it unearths.
“I bet they’re as happy as they can be.” It’s a crap answer. I know it. If I think too long about where we are and why, the very fibers holding me together and keeping me strong for her, and her next round of chemo and radiation therapy, will break. I’ll be an emotional, useless wreck. There isn’t time to fall apart.
“I miss them,” she says as we walk into the nave. The tragic honesty in her eyes brings a fresh cut to my grieving heart. My throat tightens, and I swallow my sadness, determined to be the rock she needs mßœe to be.
“As long as they are in here…” I point to the exposed skin beneath Teresa’s collarbone and above her heart. My finger looks a tawny brown against her fawn shade. “They are always with you.” It’s trite, and she eyes me with intelligence beyond her seven years, a reminder she’s no longer the innocent child who believes everything adults tell her.
“Do you believe it?” I see her mother’s determination in the way she lifts her chin and the challenge in her stare. I imagine Connie laughing at how much she takes after her. It almost lightens my heavy mood.
“I do,” I lie. I’m not proud of it.
“Here, Uncle Aaron.” Teresa tugs on my sleeve, pointing to the pews to the left. I genuflect and make the sign of the cross before scooting into the pew and kneeling on the pad below. Teresa does the same, then passes me so she’s on the inside; she prefers it to the aisle. We kneel, and I cross myself once more in the way my mother taught me before she went the new age route. Tiny hands mimic mine, then fold in prayer. Connie would have liked for her to make First Communion. I look upon the crucified Christ, his face in agony, and a knot tightens in my belly. I fear that day will never come.
I’ve forgotten the correct way to pray and I’m not on the best of terms with any deity. I’m a cliché, praying at the eleventh hour. I have more faith in Teresa than I do in any omniscient power. Desperate times, desperate measures. I’m out of options. I don’t care who’s listening: angels, devils, Buddha, Muhammad, God, Thor—if any of them can heal Teresa, I’ll grovel and do their bidding for eternity. I pour every bit of hope into my makeshift prayer.
Father, God of mercy and healing, forgive me of my sins. Teresa has enough faith for the two of us and trusts that You’re listening. I hope You are. I don’t know what to do. She’s not getting better. The doctors are trying everything. Please help. She’s just a child. You already took my papa, Connie, and Steven. Please don’t take Teresa. Please. I’ll do anything. Amen.
I clench my jaw, holding back a sob as grief claws at my throat. A tear escapes, slides down my cheek, and clings to my jaw. I wipe it away. I’m so tired. Tired of fighting. Tired of being angry. Tired of worrying. Tired of being alone. Tired of being strong. I stay with my eyes closed, kneeling, resting in the eerie stillness of the basilica before I fight with Teresa to leave. She never wants to. She always says she hasn’t heard her answer yet, and she has to stay longer.
The woman’s voice isn’t known to me, distant, raspy, and no louder than a rustle of newspaper blowing in the wind. I’m dreaming. I must be. I got home late after playing a gig last night and snagged four hours of sleep before picking up Teresa at my mom’s house this morning so we could come here and mourn the one-year anniversary of her parents’ death.
My eyelids are heavy as I open them and check on Teresa. She’s still praying. I wipe the remnants of another rogue tear and hear a whisper of a single chord played on an indiscernible instrument coming from behind me. It resonates through my body. I feel lighter. A burden lifted. No one is playing the organ and no one is singing. I can’t pinpoint the source of the tone, and I give up searching for it. That’s when a silver light appears in my peripheral vision and darts toward the back of the basilica. On reflex, I turn my head to follow it, certain I’ll find nothing there and affirm my imagination is on overdrive from lack of sleep. I’m wrong.
Sunlight blinds me as a figure enters. Footsteps approach. As my eyes adjust, I consider the possibility I’ve fallen completely asleep and any minute Teresa will wake me, for the man walking toward me is plucked from my fantasies. Tall, with dark, wavy hair, shaved on the sides, well-trimmed stubble accentuating his prominent jaw, and full, kissable lips. He’s older than me, possibly in his thirties, the last traces of youth giving way to laugh lines and crow’s-feet. A golden halo of sunlight surrounds him, diminishing as he walks deeper into the nave. He moves with a purpose in designer slacks and a navy dress shirt, and he’s unaware of my attention. When he’s within my reach, he looks at me and startles. The organ in my chest kicks to life with an erratic rhythm. It’s thunderous, urging me to move. To touch. I don’t remember standing. I’ve taken a step toward the aisle, a siren song drawing me to him. The stranger has now drawn up beside me, his focus no longer on me but straight ahead, and I reach for him.
“Where are you going, Uncle Aaron?”
I blink and look down at Teresa, wondering what the hell came over me. Why was I reaching for this handsome stranger? What did I expect to happen if I touched him?
He’s moved beyond my reach now and sits beside the woman and her child. His family. In hushed voices, they speak. He hands her a small object, a pink crystal, the kind that adorns the jewelry my mother wears. I’m the asshole checking out a man in a basilica praying with his family. He’s painfully attractive, and I’d give anything to have one night to escape in his arms, to get lost in kissing that pouty mouth, and fuck away the grief, sorrow, and anger that has become my life. For my blasphemous thoughts I doubt my prayers for Teresa will do any good.
“Nowhere, butterfly.” I shake my head and kneel beside her, cursing myself for forgetting where I am and why I’m here. I’d been free from the heartbreak, from the suffering, from the weight of reality, and as I look at my niece, guilt erodes the brief peace I’d felt when I was drawn to the stranger.
“Uncle, I think my prayers have been answered.” She no longer has the little divot between her brow, the one that deepens whenever she’s in pain. For a moment, I see her with a full head of dark curls and the inner fire that used to sparkle in her eyes before chemo. I see her healthy, happy, running in the park, and playing in the garden with the butterflies she so loves. Maybe God listened for her sake, and she’ll get better. A bit of peace inches its way into my heart.
“That’s wonderful, sweetie. What did you pray for?” I sit back in the pew, and she joins me. Her light brown eyes smile so much like her mother’s, and I indulge my newfound belief, feeling Connie smiling down on us.
“For the angels to take me to Mommy and Daddy.”COLLAPSE
One of the best moments of reading for me happens when I unexpectedly open a new book by an unknown author and run into a world of beautiful prose and arresting images. Suddenly, what has been a leap of faith up through the first few pages becomes the promise of reading pleasure.
I don’t know about other readers, but at this point, I’m torn between indulging in the prose and forgetting everything else I have to do or closing the book, afraid the newness, the freshness will die if I awaken the pages to the light of day.
Such is the feeling I had on reading the first few pages of this book. Should I run headlong into the story or squirrel it away for a time when I need good prose and didn’t have any at hand?
Since I was reviewing the book, I sailed on, and an amazingly enjoyable trip I took.
Classical guitarist and music professor Aaron Ramirez was heartbroken when his niece and her parents died ten years before the story opens. At that time in the church where the funeral was held, he peripherally noticed a somber figure who also seemed cloaked in sorrow. This time when he visits the basilica in San Juan Capistrano on a pilgrimage to light a candle for his lost family, the mysterious man is again there, and they strike up a conversation which turns quickly into a mutual attraction.
As they get closer and closer, however, retired Doctor Gael Taylor tells Aaron that he believes his dead wife has guided his life to find Aaron. In fact, Gael says he can communicate with the dead. At first Aaron shrugs off Gael’s assertion as fanciful and not truth. But the more Gael insists on it and the more strange things happen around Aaron, he starts thinking that Gael is messing with his mind. But why? Why would someone he feels such a bond with do such a thing?
Aaron starts to feel like he’s losing his mind, while Gael seems to be aging so quickly that he looks like he might be dying.
Delany’s lyrical style is imbued with a slight melancholy feel, just enough that skeptical Aaron’s unfaltering stance doesn’t become tedious, but instead translates into everyone’s search for the unknown. Delany asks her readers if it’s so difficult to believe in something intangible, the ghosts around us.
As I said at the beginning, this was one of those stories I didn’t want to see end with two characters I adored. Grace Kilian Delaney doesn’t have a big enough backlist, which is a real shame. I can’t wait to read her next book.