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Accidentally stolen ink pens and piles of crumpled receipts marked the distance between the discovery of the finger bone to the present. Time trickled, dripped, and tripped steadily onward yet Evelyn often found her mind wandering back to the events of that spring day while scrubbing a commode or struggling in and out of her Wellies on the stoops of the drab adobe houses of the Sheltering Arms Retirement Community.
As she left Barbara Goodlin’s house (which was piled with unopened UPS packages containing items ordered from the Home Shopping Network on countless credit cards) and turned to head home, she noticed a large chocolate lab bounding toward her just in time for the great muddy beast to place two huge paws on her shoulders and send her sprawling onto Mrs. Goodlin’s lawn. Her cleaning supplies launched into the air as if a grenade had gone off in the bottom of the bucket. Evelyn lay in the wet grass unable to breathe, surrounded by damp rags, toilet brushes, and bottles of cleaning solutions. The dog, delighted to have found a new friend, lay across her chest and proceeded to lovingly lick her face with a broad pink tongue.
Evelyn could just make out a man’s voice above the panting and slurping. The dog was suddenly lifted from her chest and hands grasped her shoulders to pull her upright. The hands belonged to a rather rumpled looking priest complete with a lopsided clerical collar.
“I am so sorry. Are you alright? Samson ducked out of his collar and took off.” The man looked down at her and blushed. “It appears that he’s done considerable damage to your clothing.”
It was only then that Evelyn became aware of her attire. The dog’s paws had not only covered her in mud but had also torn her blouse. She grabbed at her coat in an attempt to cover herself which only seemed to make the priest even more embarrassed. His blush deepened and he looked away.
“I would drive you home but I don’t have a car. I took the bus here and then just walked.” He told her as he helped her to her feet. Samson looked up at her with such apologetic eyes that she very nearly forgave him for knocking the wind out of her. “I’ll help you collect and carry the cleaning stuff to your car. Okay?”
She smiled gratefully, “That would be lovely. I live just around the corner and don’t have a car either.”
He immediately began picking up the brushes, rags, and bottles while she patted the dog’s head and stroked his ears. Why was she allowing this man to help her? Had she really just agreed to let him walk her home? And why on earth was she standing in Barbara Goodlin’s yard with a ripped blouse petting a mud-caked beast while a man at least twenty years her senior wearing a clerical collar cheerfully tossed toilet brushes into her cleaning bucket?
“People don’t walk anymore. Our society is so completely motorized that they assume that a person walking alongside a road must be drunk or part of a prison roadside cleanup. You know?” He grinned as they strolled toward her condo with Samson leading the way. “I had to get a dog so people would stop locking their doors as the drove by me.”
They chatted all the way to her front door and even as she fished for her key. She heard herself invite him in the house for tea and felt a surge of happiness when he accepted. In just a few minutes, she’d changed clothes, the kettle was whistling while Samson lay on her kitchen floor with his tail thumping and the priest was seated at the table telling her how he’d adopted Samson after the dog had wandered down the center aisle during an Easter vigil and shook mud and fur all over the kneeling parishioners and visiting Bishop.
“I just realized that I don’t even know your name.” Evelyn said as she introduced herself.
“Neil Hammond,” he said and shook her hand. “Rector at St. Andrew’s Episcopal. I came to the area to visit a girl I dated before I left for Korea. I shipped off just after we decided to get married and I always wondered what happened to her. We lost touch during the war and when I finally returned, she’d gone to Canada to visit family and I was told she’d met someone else. I never had the guts to hunt her down.”
How sad, thought Evelyn. “I know all of the residents. Who were you looking for?”
“She may have a different last name now. Goodness knows that enough time has passed. I’ve never forgotten her though.” He stared into his cup of tea so intensely and with such a lonely far away look that Evelyn felt an overwhelming urge to just hug the poor man. “Recently, I was told that she returned from Canada after the War with a child. I have to know if that’s true. Don’t let the collar or age fool you — there’s a chance that I’m the father. Helen was something else.”
Apparently all roads lead to the mysterious Miss Helen Clifton.