"Father, can you help me with this?" The girl of about eight stood at the priest's elbow, trying to get his attention. He didn't turn. "Father?" she asked again, insecurity creeping into her voice.
An older boy noticed and took pity on her. "You must be new here. He's deaf, so you either gotta yell real loud or be in front of him when you're talking."
"Oh. I didn't know."
"That's okay. You'll get used to things soon." He reached out to tug on the priest's sleeve.
"Yes, my son? Can I help you with something?" Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy turned away from his desk to face the children.
"She wanted something, Father." The boy gestured with his thumb towards the little girl. "That's all."
"Oh! Thank you." Mulcahy smiled at the girl. "And what would your name be?"
"Kirsten Nolan. He said you couldn't hear." She flipped her brown braids over her shoulders, blinking at him a little distrustfully.
"That's because I can only hear very loud things. But I can read lips, so as long as you're facing me I'll be able to understand anything you say just fine."
Having explained that, the priest took her small hand and shook it. "I'm Father Mulcahy, Kirsten. I don't believe we've met before. Have you been at the home long?"
"No, just a couple days. Sister Theresa brought me here from across town."
"Well, we're very glad to have you." Noting the book the girl had clutched under her arm, he asked, "Were you looking for help with something?"
"Yeah." Remembering what she had come over for, Kirsten held open the book, pointing to a word. "What does this mean?"
"Well, let's see." Bending down to her level, Mulcahy peered at the word she had her finger under. "Ah, 'armistice'! An excellent word! You have some very advanced reading material there, don't you?"
"I like to read." The girl was a trifle defensive. She had been raised to trust men of the cloth, but was sensitive to being poked fun at.
"And that's an admirable thing, my child. I hope you never lose that thirst for knowledge." Seeing that Kirsten was still eyeing him slightly dubiously, the padre settled back in his chair, lifting her up to perch on his knee. "Now, about this word. Do you know what a war is, Kirsten?"
"Yes. It's when two countries decide to send lots of soldiers to shoot at each other." She answered readily, continuing, "And everybody's afraid the commies will drop bombs on us and start World War Three."
"Ah, yes, that may be a possibility, but I wouldn't worry yourself about that overly much." He was slightly disconcerted at hearing the warning coming from the child's mouth; it brought back memories of some wise-before-their-time children he'd known in the past. "But an armistice is what happens at the end of wars, when the generals decide they don't want to fight anymore and sign a peace treaty."
"Oh, okay." Assimilating the information, she asked, "Do you think we're going to have another war soon?"
"I don't know, Kirsten. I suppose no one does for sure, except God. But I pray every day for lasting peace." Father Mulcahy kept his tone light, remembering who he was talking to, but inwardly his thoughts were of a few darker memories. "I was in the last war, and let me tell you, peace will get my vote every time!"
This admission caught the girl's interest. "You were in a war? Did you ever kill anybody?"
"Goodness me, no! I was in Korea as the priest at a medical unit, not as a soldier. Any extra time, I spent at the local orphanage. It's a little like what I do here." Besides helping to run the Catholic home, he spent a good deal of time at the Philadelphia Center for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired.
"I'm not an orphan!" She was very sure on this point. "My dad died when I was little, but my mom just went on a vacation. That's why I'm staying here, but she'll be back soon."
"Is that so?" Now the padre remembered having heard about the girl. Her mother had disappeared with her boyfriend, leaving the girl alone. With no family to speak of, the Church had taken her in. He sighed inaudibly; these situations were always difficult, not to mention tragic.
Not noticing the priest's hesitation, Kirsten went on talking. "But lots of the other kids here really are orphans, aren't they?"
"Yes, many of them are. And some of them, like you, are staying here for other reasons."
"It's not so bad here," she acknowledged, but she had turned her head, and Mulcahy couldn't see her lips move.
"Could you repeat that, Kirsten? Remember, if I'm not facing you, I can't tell what you're saying."
Her head swiveled back. "Sorry. I forgot about that. I just said that it's not so bad staying here."
He smiled kindly at this. "I'm glad. We want you to be happy here."
"Have you always not been able to hear?"
"No, for most of my life I could hear just a well as you can. But while I was in Korea I got caught in an explosion that damaged my hearing." It was a question he'd gotten very accustomed to fielding over the past five years.
"I'm sorry." She looked up at him with big eyes, unable to conceive of losing one of her senses.
"Oh, don't be sorry. I get along quite well without my hearing. I just don't go to many concerts anymore." This was another response he was used to giving. Learning to get around without one of his senses had not been an easy thing to do, or to accept, but by now it was very natural. Reading lips accurately had been the hardest skill, but sign language had come easily enough. Despite early doubts, he'd found that he could still perform all of his priestly duties – even taking confession was possible, as long as the person didn't mind facing him while speaking. Some people did, but on the other hand, deaf parishioners often preferred him to other priests.
"Okay." Kirsten hopped off Father Mulcahy's lap, ready to head back to what she had been doing. "Thanks for telling me what that word meant."
"Anytime, my child. I'm here whenever you need me." He watched as she walked away. True orphan or not, her situation reminded him of the children he had helped to care for while in Korea. One parent dead, the other who knows where – it had been a common refrain during war. There were some things that could never be escaped, no matter where one was.
Mulcahy turned back to the ledgers he had been working on. He could have done the books in his office, but he preferred to sit in the common area so he would be more readily available. Of course, he thought to himself, he really should consider turning the desk around so no one could sneak up on him. Absentmindedly he worked the figures, noting that they were, as always, in need of more money. One more thing that never changed. It was hard to believe it had been five years since his main source of raising money for the orphanage had been playing poker with the staff of the 4077. At least here, he didn't have to resort to running long-distance races to get funding – not that he would hesitate to do so if he thought it would do any good.
But as many similarities as there might be, it was the differences that stood out more. The one for which the padre was the most thankful was the lack of last rites that he had to perform. "Sacred duty or not, if I never perform them again, it will be too soon for me." There had been too much death there, even with the surgeons' high survival rating, and he much preferred working with the children. Following the natural progression of things, his thoughts turned to his friends from Korea. They had been very dear once, and although he was no longer in contact with any of them, not a day went by when he didn't include each one in his prayers.
"Father Mulcahy!" One of the younger nuns hurried up to him, obviously alarmed. "Keith and Andy are fighting again and we need you to come handle it. You're the only one the tougher boys will listen to since you box and were in the war and all."
"Oh dear. I hope they don't hurt each other." Setting his pen down, he stood up and followed Sister Miriam. The bookwork and contemplation would have to wait until a later time. The past was just that, and in the here and now he was needed.