The burned out cathedral stood on the street corner like a tombstone announcing the death of the city’s lower east side. Artie found a broken basement window in the rear of the church, and scrambled inside to escape the February evening’s bitter wind.
A fire gutted the church months earlier, leaving it empty until the Parrish could demolish and rebuild it. But even with insurance, hard economic times indefinitely postponed their plans. The homeless and transients occasionally laid claim to the vacant building until neighbors complained and the police evicted them.
As Artie climbed the steps to the sanctuary, the aroma of melting candle wax strangely cut through the lingering stench of smoke and water-damage. In the gutted sanctuary, numerous lit candles lined the sooty, ash-stained alter. Artie wondered who the hell else was here, and why the candles?
Artie hurried down the aisle to a graffiti-covered confessional. The dark, empty space smelled of urine and soiled clothing, but it would ward off the chill so he could get a good night’s sleep.
He peered through a heavy mesh screen on the wall dividing the polished oak cubicle, wondering about all the sins privately revealed there over the years. Then, the other confessional door opened and a shadowy figure stepped inside.
Artie leaned back, and pulled a switchblade from his pocket. He watched as the figure removed a small candle from a large briefcase, and lit it. He recognized a priest’s smock and white collar square, and put the knife away.
After whispering a short prayer, and crossing himself, the priest said, “Have you come to confess your sins, my son?”
“H-how did you know I was here, Father?” Artie asked, surprised he could be seen in the darkened cubicle.
“I saw you enter the sanctuary. I sometimes come here to offer salvation to wayward souls such as you.”
“Well, you’re lucky you’re a priest. I might have hurt you,” Artie said.
Artie revealed his switch blade, and waved it. “I thought you were some goombah invading my turf.”
“Sounds like you need to seek absolution.”
“Nah,” Artie replied. “I just want to spend a night out of the cold.”
“I see,” the priest replied, sounding disappointed.
“But, you know what, Father?” Artie said. “As long as we are here, let’s do this confession thing!”
“Great. When I leave, I’ll make sure no one knows you were here. And don’t worry about the police. They don’t come around anymore.
“All righty then,” Artie said. “Forgive me father, for I have sinned. I haven’t been to confession in many years.”
After several silent seconds, the priest said, “Is that all you have to confess?”
“Well Father, I haven’t exactly lived the life of an alter boy. If I confessed everything, we’d be here for a month.”
“I have all the time in the world. Receiving absolution requires you to confess your sins, regardless of their significance.”
“But what if it’s a felony, like rape or murder? Won’t you have to report it to the police?”
“No. Your confession is between you and God. I’m only the facilitator.”
Artie rambled on about petty crimes, like shoplifting and stiffing restaurants for a meal.
Finally, the priest said, “Look, isn’t there some serious sin you have to confess?”
“Well, Father, once in the park across town, I mugged and killed a guy. Another time, I stole a car and robbed the First Federal bank; shot the guard on that one, but he lived. The cops never found out who did either of them jobs.”
“So,” priest said, “you’ve lived your life by dealing with the devil, and now you want God’s forgiveness.”
“Yeah, something like that,” Artie said. “How about it Father? Am I forgiven?”
“It’s not that simple. You need to turn yourself in to the police.”
“But I don’t want to go to jail,” Artie replied. “I just want you to forgive my sins.”
“The wages of sin are proportionate to your crime, and it will require the harshest of penance. Are you ready to accept that?”
“Anything,” Artie said. “I just want absolution.”
“When is the last time you received communion?”
“It’s been so long I can’t remember.”
“Then, follow me!”
“Where are we going?”
“You need to first receive communion, and then your penance.”
“Isn’t it usually the other way around?” Artie asked.
“Yes, but your sins must be dealt with differently.”
Artie followed him, figuring he’d at least get a free drink out of it. He kneeled while the priest laid the briefcase on the alter. He fed Artie a wafer, and poured small goblet of dark wine.
“Drink all of it, my son.”
Artie remembered communion glasses being more like thimbles. But, he drank the goblet’s contents. Its bitter aftertaste reminded him how lousy sacramental wine tasted.
Rather than bless him, the priest said, “Now, you shall receive your atonement.”
As Artie stood, the room suddenly began spinning, and he passed out. When he regained consciousness, he was lying bound and gagged, naked on the cold, marble alter.
The priest stood over him in the candlelight with a wild-eyed grin. Artie noticed he’d removed his collar and smock, and donned a rubber apron.
“Forgive me Father, but I have sinned,” the man sniveled. “Guys like you, are a hoot!”
Duct tape muffled Artie’s horrific screams his tormentor removed a large meat cleaver from the briefcase and swung it toward him in a swift, fluid arc.
Harold 'Hal' Kempka is a former Marine, and Vietnam Veteran. He lives in Southern California with his wife, Celeste, and son Derek. Except for the exciting times they spend as a family, he is bored by all the warm weather and sunshine, the occasional earthquake (a good adrenaline starter), and all the crimes being committed (great story fodder). He is not bored, however, with barbeques, swimming, camping, and his writing. Hal is a member of the FlashXer flash fiction workshop.
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