It was a cloudy Sunday in the middle of May, and the torrential rain that had begun two days ago had since slowed to a steady drizzle. Nevertheless, as Reverend Will Tanner walked on the road overlooking the wide, rolling river that rested on the fringes of his small southern hometown, he knew this rainy afternoon would cease to be relaxing soon. The clouds looked angrier by the minute, and the pastor, who had turned twenty-six earlier that year, knew he should head home lest he become caught in the approaching storm.
There was something almost pleasant in the melancholy drizzle that dampened Will’s wire-rimmed glasses and inhibited his peripheral vision. While the approaching chill in the air made him shiver, he always liked the solitude of a lone walk after performing his weekly services in the small, white church on the side of a nearby hill. In spite of his career that often put him in the presence of others seeking the comfort of his words, he wasn’t an extrovert, and he often found being sociable tiring. Of course today, his had been a small, intimate service, as half of his already small congregation that consisted for the most part of elderly people had been kept inside by the current weather conditions.
He took a brief reprieve from his stroll, turned his back to the river, and looked up the short Main Street that was already almost vacant of people and vehicles in light of the upcoming storm. The roof of the only newspaper office in the county caught his eye. He thought of the woman who worked in that office and lived in the apartment above it, a woman he had almost loved for a few weeks earlier that year, and a wave of sadness washed over him. Will was a man of organization and careful planning, and for a personal relationship to not progress the way he’d wanted it to never failed to serve as a cutting blow to his self-esteem.
As Will turned away from the view that sparked a renewed dreariness within him, he was jarred from his reverie by screeching brakes and flashing headlights. With his rain-soaked glasses, he hadn’t even seen the car approach.
With a small whimper, he closed his eyes and braced himself for impact, but at the last minute it didn’t come. When he opened his eyes again, he was met with the sight of the county sheriff’s car that looked to have swerved away just before it might have hit him. If Will’s heart wasn’t pounding so hard he could feel it in his throat, he would have breathed a sigh of relief. As it was, he said a small prayer of thanks that he hadn’t been hurt, and chided himself for standing too close to the middle of the road.
A long moment passed before the car at last idled to a stop, remaining through some miracle on the road rather than veering into the river. As soon as the headlights turned off and the motor quieted, Sheriff Adrian Pike hefted his muscular body from the driver’s side and ran toward Will. When Adrian caught up to him, Will was met with the crushing sensation of the dark haired man grabbing him to make sure he was alright and that nothing was broken. His beady eyes hid behind thick glasses as square as his jawline.
“I’m fine,” Will promised, trying but failing to shake his arm from Adrian’s grasp.
Adrian nodded, and when he spoke, his voice had the trademark barking manner that never seemed to leave him, whether he was on shift or not. The sheriff of the large, yet scarcely populated, county of cornfields and gravel roads seemed as if he was always on the job. He hadn’t been at church that morning, and Will wasn’t surprised to see it hadn’t been the weather that kept him away. At the same age as Will but with the commanding air of a much more seasoned cop, Adrian Pike had been the sheriff for just over a year. Countless people had been arrested on petty charges since he came into office, and it was safe to say most members of the county, even those in his good graces, sat up a little straighter when he walked into a room. Will thought Adrian was overzealous in his work, but since the sheriff was an intimidating man, he seldom criticized him for this.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Adrian snapped. “You shouldn’t stand that close to the middle of the road, Reverend, or anywhere on the road when it’s raining. They’re slick when they’re wet, and you never know when someone might run into you.”
“I see,” Will said, swallowing a brief flash of anger at being reprimanded by a member of his congregation. “We missed you at church today.”
“I got called into work at five in the morning,” was the excuse Adrian gave himself. “I saw your car parked at the church when I drove that way a few minutes ago, and I assumed you were still in your office at the parish hall. You want a drive back to your car? I’d have enough time for it now. Since it’s starting to rain harder, I can even drive you right home if you want, and you can worry about the car later.”
A sudden clap of thunder startled Will but provoked no reaction in Adrian. Will began, “You can—”
His answer, however, was interrupted by what sounded like a low, grief-stricken sob somewhere to his right. At the noise, Will felt goosebumps rise on his arms. It wasn’t until the thunder subsided and left the cry to echo alone across the seawall that he noticed the protective arm Adrian had wrapped around him the second the cry began. Something about that irritated Will, for he had a strong conviction that he would be capable of defending himself if it came to that.
Of course, he was also prone to taking it for granted that it would never come to that.
“Is that what you sped up here for?” Will asked with a slight twinkle in his eyes.
“No,” Adrian replied, a tightness in his voice, “I finished what I had to do twenty minutes ago.”
“Well,” Will said, giving Adrian’s arm a gentle push away from him, “if it’s dangerous for me to stand on the roads, I’ll have to go with you to investigate whatever that was.”
If it wasn’t for Will’s respected career, he was sure Adrian would have refused to be accompanied to the bridge. As it was, Adrian grumbled something under his breath that sounded like a curse as he grabbed Will’s arm to lead him across the nearby sidewalk and then toward the burgundy bridge that lay beyond it. In this short amount of time, the drizzle that had been slightly troublesome before had reverted back to its original state, a hard rain that pelted the two men who strode together toward something they couldn’t yet understand.
Will couldn’t help but notice the creak of the wood and the feeling of slight swaying underneath his feet as soon as he stepped onto the bridge. Gulping, he wondered how long it had been since any of the boards beneath him had been replaced, if they even had been replaced at all since the bridge was built in the middle of the last century.
He didn’t have a long time to focus on this before Adrian tightened the grip on his arm and whispered, “Don’t make any sudden movements now, Reverend.”
Will furrowed his eyebrows, which seemed to grow bushier on his pale, thin face with each year that passed, and looked in the direction where Adrian had begun to gesture with his free hand. On the railing of the bridge stood a man who appeared to be just a few years younger than Will. He was at least six feet tall, and muscles rippled on the dark skin underneath his white, rain-soaked t-shirt. His back was to Will and Adrian, preventing either of them from seeing his face, but the continuation of his quiet sobs convinced Will that the man’s expression must be one of utter anguish.
The bridge itself was high enough above the river that, if the man just let his hands slip from the framework they were wrapped around, he would die from the impact of his fall before he could drown. There was no doubt as to what he intended to do.
“Hey, mister,” Adrian called out as he let go of Will and took a determined step forward, causing the man on the railing to start as if he’d been too preoccupied by his own dilemma to notice the two men behind him. “You know you don’t want this. Come on down from there.”
Amidst the pelting rain and rolling thunder, Will heard the man pull in a sharp intake of breath before he said in a voice that was raspy from either crying, yelling, or a blend of the two, “And where would I go?”
“There’s plenty of places for you to go, and an early grave isn’t the one to aim for,” Adrian replied, his voice sounding as close to sympathetic as it possibly could. “Turn around now. Let me see your face when I talk to you.”
With a great deal of reluctance, as if the act itself pained him, the man turned and looked at Adrian. The strangely silver eyes on his fraught, bearded face moved quickly to Will. His gaze only met the minister’s for a moment, and then it lowered just enough that Will knew he was looking at the white collar that stood stark against the minister’s black outfit. As an expression of horror settled on the man’s face, a look of recognition crossed Adrian’s features.
“There you are, Embry,” he muttered, almost as if he was talking to himself instead of to the man on the railing. “I knew you couldn’t have gotten very far.”
Will nodded, at last understanding what was happening, and whispered, “Don’t scare him, Sheriff. After all that’s happened to him, he must be hurting terribly.” To Embry, whose balance on the railing was beginning to appear shaky, he called, “Please come down from there. I know how betrayed you must feel by the town at this point, but there are plenty of people who know what you’re going through and who care about you. I care about you.”
“I’ve never talked to you before,” Embry accused, his eyes shifting to the left and to the right as if he was looking for any possible escape from this conversation, a dangerous thing to search for in such a precarious position, “but it doesn’t matter. You just want to fix me like the rest of them. I know you do.”
“That’s not true,” Will said gently, even as Adrian pinched his arm in an effort to silence him. “You don’t need to be fixed, you need to be treated with love and kindness. That’s what any child of God deserves.”
Embry made a noise of desperation that was somewhere between a laugh and a hacking cough. “Don’t come any closer. You owe me that one small dignity, after what—what one of you did to me.”
Will sighed. “Embry, the man who hurt you may have been a pastor like myself, but our similarities end there. I know you’ve never spoken to me, but if you knew me at all, you would know that I would never excommunicate someone from my church, not for loving someone in a different way.”
“A man, Reverend,” Embry growled, and Will couldn’t help but flinch at the ferocity in his tone. “I loved a man who turned everyone against me with a ring, then decided he was bored with me and left me with all my personal relationships destroyed. It wasn’t just what happened between me and Pastor Blake. My parents threw me out of the house where I’ve been taking care of them since my dad got sick a year ago. They said it makes them feel unclean to even look at me. And everyone around here’s been scared of the quiet, creepy kid since high school, so couch-surfing isn’t an option for me. I’ve slept in the backseat of my own car for two weeks, since the day I was thrown out of both the places that used to promise to keep me safe. Safe, ha. You think I’m just mad at men of the cloth like you? I’m mad at the world. I don’t—I don’t want to live in it anymore.”
“Most people in town feel very sorry about what happened to you,” Will answered. “Even most of the other pastors around here, very loving ones who are friends of mine, think people in situations similar to yours should be accepted with open arms, that love shouldn’t be condemned. Even this little part of the world is changing for the better, Embry, and all three of us here are young enough that we’ll watch it improve in the same direction a hundred times over before our time here is done. You don’t want to cut that short for yourself, do you?”
Embry stood completely still for a moment that would feel like hours each time Will looked back on this day in the years to come, and a thousand different emotions seemed to cross his face. Just as Adrian opened his mouth, presumably to bark another order for Embry to step off the railing, Embry let out a strangled cry and lurched forward onto the wooden planks of the bridge. He landed at an awkward angle, with most of his weight pressed on his right wrist, but he didn’t stay in this position for longer than a few seconds before he jumped up and stumbled toward Will.
Although Will told himself not to make any movements that might trouble Embry as the man rushed toward him, he flinched when it dawned on him how much bigger than himself Embry truly was. This would ensure that Will would be on the ground within seconds if it came to a fight.
However, Will didn’t have much time to worry about this, because instead of raising a hand to strike the pastor that, moments ago, he’d claimed to hate on principle, Embry wrapped his arms around Will in a desperate embrace and began to wail. Will couldn’t help but smile, even when he heard his shoulder crunch at the way Embry seemed to cling to him for dear life. Although Embry’s chin rested on top of Will’s head as the two of them stood, locked together as one entity, Will felt as if he was comforting a child when he began to pat Embry on the back.
“You’re okay,” he murmured. “You’ve made the right decision, as I’m sure you know, and you’re not going to sleep in your car anymore, wherever you have it parked. I have a perfectly fine apartment above my garage, and I would love to let you use it for as long as you need. Whenever you get to be in a position where you can pay rent—”
“Reverend,” Adrian said, giving Will a shocked look that seemed to warn against being hospitable toward an unhinged man, “that’s a, ah, generous offer you’re making, but you know you don’t have to go to any trouble. The police department could put him up somewhere.”
“He needs love, not a halfway house far away from where he’s always lived,” Will insisted. “And anyway, I’m sure he won’t be any trouble. Will you, Embry?”
Embry buried his face in Will’s hair and went from wailing to whimpering before he managed to squeak out, “No, I won’t be. Thank you. I’m sorry I’m getting your hair wet.”
“I’ve been getting rained on for almost an hour now, so I’m sure most of the dampness isn’t from you. We can each take a nice, hot bath when we get home, before I get lunch started. I’ll have the doctor who lives a couple blocks away from me come take a look at your wrist too, and make sure it’s not broken. Though, if that’s the worst injury you’ve sustained from today, I’d say you’re a very lucky man. I was thinking of making spaghetti with garlic bread. How does that sound?”
Embry nodded and repeated, “Thank you.”
He looked like he was getting embarrassed at the highly emotional state Will assumed must be rare for him, as his gruff air was similar to Adrian’s.
With a slight nod, Will looked at the sheriff and said, “Would you mind giving us a lift?”
With a look bordering on pure exasperation, Adrian shrugged and led the two men off the bridge and toward his car that was still pulled to the side of the slippery road nearby. With a smile, Will squeezed Embry’s shoulder as they made their way there. Lunch was waiting.