Author's note: Thanks so much for all the encouraging comments so far. It really helps to keep me motivated to write.
Nathan Grant sat on his horse Newton, eyeing the schoolhouse in the distance. It was nighttime and the lights were on inside, their soft glow illuminating the windows in the darkness and signalling an occupant inside. Nathan inched his horse forward slowly towards the building. If he had thought it was Elizabeth inside he would not have done so. But he was the town Mountie and he knew the ebb and flow of his town. The habits and movements of its occupants. It was Saturday night and Nathan knew who was inside the schoolhouse on this day and at this time.
Below the schoolhouse steps Nathan dismounted his horse and draped its reins loosely around the railing. He removed his hat and slowly climbed the schoolhouse stairs.
"Nathan!" Pastor Joseph Canfield called the greeting as he turned from his place at the front of the room at the sound of someone entering the schoolhouse.
"Pastor," Nathan offered a quick nod of acknowledgement as he closed the door behind him and continued into the room with a deceptive casualness. "I see you're getting ready for church tomorrow," Nathan said, coming abreast of the other man and eyeing the room around him, noting the changes the pastor had already made. The tapestries on the walls, temporarily replacing classroom posters. The list of hymns written on the blackboard. The cross prominently displayed.
Pastor Canfield let out a small chuckle. "Yes, the transformation from schoolhouse to church takes a bit of work." As if to emphasize his point, Joseph turned and leaned into the large pulpit beside him, edging it into its place.
"Here, let me help you," Nathan offered quickly as he threw his hat onto a bench and moved to the opposite side of the pulpit, both men now lifting the large wooden structure into place.
"Right here," Joseph directed, followed by "thank you," when the pulpit was settled down. Joseph exhaled at the completion of the work, as he himself looked around, satisfied with his work and what had become his Saturday night ritual of readying the room for services the following morning. "Looks like I'm done," he said.
"Yeah, looks good," Nathan agreed, as both men grew silent eyeing the room.
When Nathan made no move to leave, Joseph turned his eyes from the room to the man beside him. "Nathan, is there something I can do for you?" he asked. It was not lost on Pastor Canfield that Nathan had made a deliberate visit here at a time when he must have known was Joseph's usual time to be at the schoolhouse.
"No, nothing," Nathan shrugged dismissively in pretended casualness. "Just out doing my rounds and saw the lights on," he said.
"Rounds at this time of night?" Joseph queried, prodding.
"Yeah, well, Allie's at a sleepover and the house was quiet so I thought I'd..." Nathan stopped, realizing belatedly how that sounded. Like he couldn't bear the quietness, the emptiness, of the house so he'd suited up and gone out on rounds as some way to fill the void. It sounded almost...pathetic, Nathan grimaced inwardly. That was certainly not the impression he'd meant to make.
But Pastor Joseph didn't seem to notice. "I know what you mean," the pastor was saying instead. "It's hard on men like us when our family is away."
"What?" Nathan blinked at the pastor, his mouth slightly agape. Men like us? What did the pastor mean?
"Men like us," Pastor Joseph repeated, explaining. "Family men. It's hard on us when our family is away. I'm like that too. When Minnie and the children are away I can hardly stand the quiet."
"But aren't all men family men?" Nathan asked, confused by this conversation. "I mean, if they have families."
Pastor Joseph was shaking his head. "Not necessarily. Not all men are family men. For some, it's more of a calling, like it is for you." At Nathan's continued look of confusion, Joseph explained, "You're a family man Nathan, didn't you know that?"
"I..." Nathan started, then stopped, not sure how to respond to what felt like some sort of compliment, one he wasn't sure he deserved.
"So what can I do for you?" Joseph interjected to ask. "Why are you here tonight?" he asked bluntly.
"Like I said, just doing my rounds. I should go..." Nathan gestured towards the door.
Joseph eyed his companion silently for a moment, then sighed. Deliberately, he moved to a bench and sat down, gesturing to the bench across the aisle, nothing subtle about his movements.
Nathan sighed in return, then moved to fulfill the pastor's silent direction, sitting opposite him. I mean, really, was it even possible to refuse? He was a pastor, after all.
The two men eyed each other across the aisle, the pastor with an expectant look on his face. Nathan had his hands on his knees, his arms stretched out, an uncomfortable expression on his face.
"Maybe it will help if I start," Joseph broke the quiet. "Nathan, I can't help but noticing you've been...troubled...lately," he said, hesitating over the word.
"Troubled? Me? No!" Nathan was all denial. "Why would you say that?" Nathan was troubled, now moreso that ever because the pastor mentioned it. If he had noticed, had other people too? He thought he'd hidden it well, or so he'd thought.
"I'm a pastor Nathan, it's my job to notice when one of my flock is troubled. Don't worry, I don't think anyone else knows," Joseph was quick to allay Nathan's worry on that score. No, on the outside Nathan was the calm, cool, composed Mountie everyone expected him to be. "But I'm a lot like you, Nathan. I'm trained to notice human behaviour, although your training is more for the criminal element and mine is in the spiritual."
Nathan sighed, maybe it was in relief. Relief that he was finally free to speak of it. Leaving aside the "troubled" comment for now, he said instead, "There has been something I've been trying to figure out. Something I need to know how to do, but I don't know how."
"What is that, Nathan?" Joseph asked, his tone softening now that he had gotten past Nathan's defences and he was about to open up.
Nathan swallowed, looking down. "I need to know..." he swallowed again, but pressed on, now that he'd come this far. "I need to know how to stop loving someone," he finally managed, then looked up, meeting the pastor's eyes directly. "Can you tell me how to do that?"
Pastor Joseph almost gasped a little when Nathan raised his head to look him in the eye. Almost gasped at the desperation he read in Nathan's eyes, and the pain behind it.
"Well, Nathan, it's not usually a clergyman's job to get people to stop loving each other. Usually we're more on the side of getting people to love each other," Joseph said lightly..
"But I can't love her anymore. It's not right," Nathan said. Oh, he'd tried. He'd tried to stop. It was 6 weeks already now that Elizabeth had told him she was not in love with him, that she'd only been looking for Jack in him. There was nothing else she could have said to break him more than that, and it had. To know that for 3 years she had never seen him, the man beneath the serge, that he was only some sort of stand in for a loved and cherished husband taken too soon from her. But yet, in the 6 weeks since that day his love for her had not diminished, even as it had morphed from once hopeful to solidly and implacably unrequited. "I can't love her," Nathan repeated, shaking his head in the negative as if to cast out any lingering hope.
"Her? You mean...Elizabeth," Joseph accurately surmised.
Nathan's jaw clenched but he nodded. It was no secret, and he knew it.
"Nathan, have you...have you told Elizabeth how you feel? Does she know that you love her?" Joseph asked.
"She knew once," Nathan replied. "She doesn't anymore."
"What? Can you run that by me again?" Joseph asked, perplexed. How was it possible Elizabeth knew Nathan loved her once, but didn't know it now?
"I told her I didn't love her anymore. She is courting someone else and she told me she isn't in love with me, so I told her I wasn't in love with her anymore," Nathan confessed the convoluted situation.
"Why did you do that?" Joseph wondered. Why would Nathan deliberately remove all hope of love by telling the women he loved he no longer loved her?
"Because...because I couldn't let my love be a burden to her," Nathan replied. Oh, he remembered well the day he'd done it. It was about a week after Elizabeth's declarations to him. The few run-ins between them in town had been awkward and Nathan knew, he just knew, that Elizabeth was harbouring feelings of guilt over hurting him. And he knew what he'd had to do. Just like he'd gone to Lucas that night, encouraging him to stay for Elizabeth's sake, lying when he said he'd known Elizabeth had always loved Lucas, he now had to repeat a similar performance but to Elizabeth this time. And so he'd gone to her and said it all, and quite convincingly, he was even proud to admit. Said that he understood about her looking for Jack in him, that is all made sense now. And that maybe it had even been the same for him. That he'd gone looking for absolution from his guilt over Jack's death in her. That his love, or what appeared to be his love, was really born out of that guilt and not true abiding affection. That both sets of their eyes were open now and they could be what they were always meant to be to each other: just friends. Elizabeth had embraced his explanation, her palpable excited relief almost painful for him but he had continued the farce successfully until they parted that night and that's where things had stood since.
"Anyway, none of it matters anymore," Nathan said to Joseph. "She is seeing someone else and I need...I need to move on," he said.
"What would help you move on?" Joseph asked. "What do you need to move on, Nathan?"
"Me?" Nathan expelled his breath on a puff. "What do I need? Well, I think a fresh start. A fresh start, in a new place, somewhere where I wouldn't have to see her every day," he answered. Yes, that would help, he thought. That would help immensely.
"So what's stopping you from that?" Joseph asked.
"Allie," was Nathan's quick and forceful reply. "This is the first place that's been home for Allie, and I can't take that away from her, no matter how hard it is for me," he said.
Joseph nodded. The understanding, the recognition was immediate. Family man. He had called it only a short time ago and here was more proof. Nathan was a family man. He would put his family first, always, before himself or his job or anything else.
"Nathan, I don't know that I have an answer for you. Other than to say that God has a plan for you. That whatever difficulties you are experiencing now, that there is a reason for it. And to just trust in Him, and to keep your heart open to His will."
Nathan nodded and drew a breath. He didn't really expect a quick answer to his dilemma. Slowly he rose to his feet, with Joseph following suit.
"I'm sorry I couldn't be more help," Joseph said.
"No, no," Nathan countered. "You've been a great deal of help. It's been a relief to say it all out loud, and not to have to keep it..." Nathan trailed off, bumping a fist to his chest with unspoken meaning.
Pastor Canfield reached a hand and squeezed Nathan's arm near his shoulder. "God bless you, Nathan," he said in parting. Nathan turned, retrieved his hat, moving down the aisle and out the front doors.
Joseph watched him leave, then looked skyward a second, then changed his mind. This required more than a quick salutation to the heavens. Instead, he dropped down to one knee, right there in the aisle of the schoolhouse cum church, his head lowered and one arm braced across his knee.
Dear Lord, he began out loud. Pastor Canfield was not a conventional pastor and this would perhaps not be a conventional prayer. Please help your child Nathan Grant. Please ease his suffering and show him Your plan for him. He is a good man with a good heart, but I guess You already know that since You made him. Please show me how to help him so that I may be a comfort and a guidance to him. Oh, and please let Minnie not be mad because I'm getting home so late. Amen
Joseph made the sign of the cross and rose from his knees. He looked about the room, satisfied all was in order, and headed down the aisle, flipping off the lights as he exited the doors.