Pancakes may not be the food of the gods, but when they’re your first real meal and you haven’t eaten in hours since acquiring a physical body, they taste better than any ambrosia ever could.
“Should I make a second batch?” Father Mike asked.
“And maybe a third,” I said through a mouthful of partially mashed pancake.
“Growing bodies need a lot of fuel,” he said, smiling, and turned back to the stove to pour on another set.
“Didn’t used to,” I said without thinking. Nightmare’s don’t exactly feed on anything. There’s a bit of a buzz from connecting with someone, either by really scaring them or giving them an avenue for catharsis, and while that can keep you afloat outside of a dream for a while, it wasn’t the same nourishing, full feeling I was delighting in as I stuff my belly with mindlessly simple carbs.
“Must be going into a growth spurt then,” Father Mike said and asked, “How long have you been on the street?”
“Just since last night,” I said. “I fell into Willowbrook, the river.”
“You fell into a river?” Father Mike asked.
“It’s ok, they were a nice one,” I said.
That’s when I recognized the look on his face. A lot of nightmares start with the dreamer worried, and Father Mike definitely found my words concerning.
“I’m not hurt,” I said. “Or the river didn’t hurt me.”
“Who did?” He asked the question quietly, like he was trying not to frighten me.
Laughing was probably not the right response there, but the absurdity of the situation demanded it. A human was trying to make sure I wasn’t afraid. People thought dreams were chaotic and disorienting but they had nothing on the waking world.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “This is just weird, and there’s a lot you wouldn’t believe even if I told you.”
“Try me,” Father Mike said. “I promise I’ll only laugh if you tell a joke.”
So I laid it out for him. Everything. It seemed fair. He’d given me new clothes and pancakes, and I was finally feeling warm. Even the ten thousand hook wounds the Fisherman gave me were only throbbing dully.
To his credit, Father Mike was true to his promise and never laughed. He asked to see my necklace, which I showed him but didn’t pass over. As far as I knew it still help my life in place and that’s a step beyond the trust I was willing to place in someone even if they did feed me.
“I’ll admit that’s not the story I expected to hear,” he said. “But it’s not hard to see you’ve had a rough time of things lately. Do you have a place to go next?”
“Not really,” I said. “I should try to find the Fisherman probably. Make him give back what he took, but I don’t know if I can.”
“It’s usually a bad idea to go looking for fights you’ve already lost,” Father Mike said. “What about your friend at the hospital? She must be worried about you right?”
“Penny? I don’t know,” I said. “We only met for a few minutes. She was there for another friend of hers, so she’s probably focused on that.”
“Seeing you run away and fall into a river might be the kind of thing that would stay on her mind though don’t you think?” Father Mike said. “Do you want to at least call her and let her know you’re ok?”
“I don’t know her number,” I said. Phones still had numbers I thought. Sometimes in dreams they just rang out of nowhere, but I had fragments of memory that showed a big dial with numbers and letters on it.
“Her friend in the hospital probably has it,” Father Mike said. “I’m going there after mass and the pancake breakfast today. Would you like to come with me?”
I could see he wanted me to say yes. I was a stray who’d washed up on his doorstep in dire need of help and he wanted me to connect with the people who would be able to help me long term. I wasn’t sure if that was a fair sort of thing to ask of Penny though.
She’d stood up for me with the Nightmare Queen, which meant she’d already gone above and beyond the call of duty. Taking advantage of her kindness again seemed selfish.
On the other hand though, I didn’t have to ask her for anything if I saw her again. I could just let her know that I was alright so she wouldn’t worry. It would be pretty silly if she wound up having nightmare about what happened to me after all.
“Thank you,” I said. “But maybe I’ll head over there next.”
“It’s a long walk, let me give you some money for the bus fare,” Father Mike offered.
“Umm, ok,” I said. “Thank you for being so nice. I was afraid you’d want to make me stay here.”
“I’d like you to, but that’s usually guaranteed to make someone in your position flee for the hills as fast as they can,” Father Mike said. “And pretty often you’d be right to do so.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Let’s just say that forty or so years ago there was a little boy sitting in a chair in this room. He’d been on the streets a bit longer than you, and people had pulled all sorts of stuff on him. Father Joe though, he just wanted to help, and he’d worked with enough people who were in hard situations to know that the last thing you want is to make them any harder.”
“So he let you go too?” I asked.
“That he did, but not before telling me something I’m going to tell you,” Father Mike said. “Whatever happens, whatever you do and whatever situation you find yourself in, these doors will always be open to you. No matter what, you’re always wanted here. So don’t feel like there’s no one you can turn to or nowhere you can go. If you need shelter, or someone to talk to you, we’re always here for you.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that. I was barely used to being a “me”, the idea that someone would accept and value that “me” was too much to take in all at once.
“I’ll come back,” I said.
It wasn’t much of a promise, but it was one I discovered I had every desire to keep.
I didn’t have a home, but if home was where people cared about you, then it felt like I was on my way to building one.