In which Claire goes to the tunnels
“Claire, dear, I wonder if I might have a word with you in private.”
Alice made a point of coming to Claire, who was in a small group talking about the need to renovate the bathroom near the sanctuary. She was grateful for the interruption, but she knew what was coming.
“Sure, Alice. Excuse me, folks – and let me know what you decide.”
“How are you doing, dear?” Alice asked, as they headed to the boiler room.
“I’m furious, exhausted, overwrought, and damn curious. How does that strike you?”
“Just about right. Here we are.”
They entered the boiler room and walked toward the back. Alice turned to Claire.
“Are you ready?”
“Then let’s go in.”
Alice opened the door. Claire was expecting a low-ceilinged, dimly lit tunnel with spider webs and dripping water. What she saw was a well lit corridor lined with cinderblock. The concrete floor was perfectly dry. “We keep saying we should redo this, maybe put up a little drywall and some marmoleum on the floor, but there always seems to be better use of our time and resources.”
Good God, Claire thought. Alice is talking to me like we’re having afternoon tea.
They went about fifty feet toward what seemed to be some sort of opening. Claire heard the murmur of voices. Evidently Alice and Bill Carr weren’t the only angel spies.
“Well, folks, here she is,” Alice said as she entered the room.
Claire wasn’t sure what shocked her more – the room or the people in it. Bill and Alice, of course. Sandy, the server. Frank, the copier-repair man. (I’ll stop jamming the damn copier, she thought.) A few faces Claire didn’t recognize.
And Toledo Vader. She knew he was a spy.
The room was elegant. There was no other way to describe it. A lush Persian carpet spread over the floor, an aqua-teal background with a tree shooting up the center, its branches carrying animals exotic and plants. Weavings of biblical scenes lined the walls. A circle of stuffed armchairs lined the room, and one leather couch. In one corner was a laptop, a flatscreen t.v., and a wireless router. A microwave and mini-fridge stood in the other corner. Floor lamps were strategically placed throughout.
Claire turned to Bill. “Home away from home? Come here to watch the game? Or maybe the rug is covering up a pentagram? What the hell is this?”
“Claire,” said a voice, which appeared to be coming from Toledo Vader, but it was a deep resonant voice devoid of any accent. “Claire, I know this is hard for you.”
“Excuse me, To-LAY-do, but you don’t know a thing about me.”
“Claire,” Alice said. “Have a seat. Let me bring you a cookie and a glass of water. We have a little bit of business to conduct, and that might help.”
“If it’s a Prune Drop, I’ll pass, thank you.”
“Oh, dear, don’t you think I know how awful those are? I just bring them when we’re going to meet, a confirmation that we’re on. I wouldn’t even give them to my dog. No, we have toffee shortbread cookies today. I think I remember you like those.”
Claire felt one ounce less vitriol toward Alice.
“Sandy, have you got the Skype ready to go? Let’s see, what time is it in Minneapolis – 3:30? Martha should be ready.”
Sandy ran the laptop and the Skype sign in screen appeared. The phone rang and to Claire’s shock, the image of her best friend appeared on the screen.
“Hi, everyone. Hi, Claire. Oh, I know that look. I promise we will talk later. Okay, here’s what I’ve got. The Doctors Without Borders guy in Afghanistan has been flirting with the waitress at the cantina. His wife back in France is on bedrest, six and a half months pregnant with early labor pains.”
Martha went on – she finished her report on the doctor in Afghanistan, moved on to two refugee children – a brother and sister – who were trying to find their parents. A social worker in Tallahassee. A secretary at an embassy in Berlin. Regular people all around the world who were in some sort of trouble. Claire started to wonder exactly what her best friend did at the State Department.
After half an hour, Martha finished her report and they said goodbye, but not before Martha promised to call Claire soon. The group started to talk about who they knew who could meet up with the doctor and the kids and the social worker and the secretary.
Claire stood up in the middle of their conversation. “I have to go,” she said.
“But Claire, dear, we’re not done.”
“Let’s be clear, Alice – and Bill and Sandy and Frank and Toledo, or whatever your name is, and all of you. I am not part of your ‘we’. I didn’t sleep last night. I was gobsmacked by the canticle this morning. I am still furious and after seeing my best friend on the screen, I’m feeling more than a little betrayed. So you will have to excuse me. I am going home to see my kid and my dog, and then I will turn off the phone and shut down my computer and crawl into my bed and sleep for as long as I want.
“Bill, I don’t know if you’ll have a job tomorrow, and frankly, I don’t know if I will want this job tomorrow.”
Claire made her way out, then turned.
“I hope to God you know what you’re doing.”
Claire walked in, said hello to Rex who bounded down the stairs, and called up. “Emma, honey, I’m home.”
“What are you doing?”
“Okay. I’m going to take a nap – I didn’t sleep well last night. Did you get some lunch?”
“Yeah, Mom, I’m fine.”
“Thanks. Wake me up for dinner, okay?”
Claire slept without dreaming of strangers, cookies, or dogs, although Rex took advantage of the situation and curled up with her. When she woke up it was dark outside. She looked at the clock – 8:07.
She got up and went to the kitchen where Emma was hovering over the stove.
“Hi, sweetie. I guess I was more tired than I thought.”
“That’s okay. I decided to make soup.”
“Jar soup. Your favorite.”
It was Claire’s favorite, probably because it was the perfect balance of comfort food – a jar of alfredo sauce and a package of tortellini – and the healthy – low sodium chicken broth, sun dried tomatoes, and a package of fresh spinach. Good for the body and the soul, Claire thought.
She and Emma talked about regular, boring things over dinner – school, Rex, Emma’s new friends, some people at church. Emma mentioned that she missed seeing Gladys at church, and Claire made a mental note to call the next day.
I guess I’ll give it another week, she thought.
She cleaned the kitchen and sent Emma up to homework and bed. Then she didn’t know what to do. Normally under the circumstances, she would call Martha, who always had a great ear when Claire was in a crisis. She couldn’t talk to Alice, or Bill, or Gladys. I suppose I could talk to God, she thought. After all, I am a pastor.
Dear God, she began to say in her head, help. That was all the prayer she could offer.