(Trigger Warning: Allusions/references to sexual assault)
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It’s been two weeks since my last confession.” The familiar lines flowed through the rattan divider to the old priest. Not looking up from the paperback novel he kept in his lap, he raised his hand and performed a perfunctory Sign of the Cross.
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.”
“I missed both my Sunday mass obligation and the holy day of obligation last week. I was short with my children three times. And I coveted my neighbor’s new car three or four times. I think that’s all for today, Father.”
Though the priest was only half-listening to the woman, the pause provided his cue. “For your penance, I would like you to pray one Hail Mary, one Our Father, and one Glory Be.” This was the only penance the priest ever gave, regardless of the contents of any particular confession. One boy in the parish had won thirty dollars of his friend’s offering money on a bet that he could confess to murder and Father Michaels would still give him just one Hail Mary, one Our Father, and one Glory Be. The priest waited for the woman to finish her act of contrition and then began to rush through the prayer of absolution as quickly as he could.
“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Waiting for the next parishioner, the priest made no attempt to hide his book, though it was certainly not of a church-approved stock. The confessional was really an old, empty office the parish had converted by setting up a divider three-quarters of the way down the middle of the room. While penitents could come around the divider if they wanted to sit and have a face-to-face confession, the priest knew no one in his congregation took advantage of this. No, they all preferred anonymity just as much as he did. The only eyes on his side of the confessional, then, belonged to Christ, frozen in perpetual agony upon an old crucifix that had hung in the confessional for ages. The priest had solved this problem years ago by simply taking the crucifix down and leaning it, Christ-first, in the corner of the room.
A rustling on the other side of the rattan let him know the next parishioner had arrived. “Bless me Father…” Another half-hearted Sign of the Cross, and the parishioner began.
“I, uh. Well. I masturbated five times, Father.”
At this, the priest set aside his book and turned his ear to the screen. “I see. And, did you watch or listen to anything while you abused yourself?”
“Did you watch or listen to pornography?” The priest felt a cool sweat rising on his temples.
“Does that matter, Father?”
“The sin of lust is a separate mortal sin from the act of self-pleasure, and must be confessed separately, my son, to receive the full absolution.”
“Okay. Well, then, yes.”
“Yes what?” The priest felt himself growing aroused as his heart rate rose.
“I watched pornography.”
“How many times, my son?”
“Five times, Father.”
“And what kind of pornography did you watch?”
“Father, I don’t see how-“
“It is necessary to determine your penance, my son.” The priest’s mouth was watering now.
“Just, you know, standard stuff.”
The priest sighed. That was all he was going to get. “Alright, that was a good confession, son. For your penance, I would like you to pray one Hail Mary, one Our Father, and one Glory Be.” This time, though, the priest did not rush the absolution, but took his time, and wilted a little as the parishioner left the confessional. Sighing again, he resumed reading.
Five minutes before the scheduled end of the confession time, Father Michaels rose and turned off the light. Walking out the door, he nearly ran over a young boy who was standing just outside the confessional door. The boy didn’t move.
“Good Lord!” Said the priest, “My apologies, you startled me! Is there something I can help you with, son?” The boy stood still, staring at the priest for a moment before responding.
“Confession time isn’t over, Father.” Something in the boy’s tone gave the old priest a chill.
“Oh, do you need to confess?” The priest asked the boy. The boy neither moved nor spoke nor took his eyes off the priest. Unsure of what else to do, the priest stepped back into the confessional. A moment later, the boy followed, coming around the divider to sit in the chair opposite the priest. Once he sat, the boy said nothing, staring at the priest with cool, blue, unblinking eyes. The priest’s discomfort grew. He could feel those cold, hungry eyes on him, and could not bring himself to return the gaze.
“Son, if you’ll excuse my saying, you look a little young for confession. Have you had your first communion?”
With an almost imperceptible tilt of his head, the boy responded. “Father, you know I haven’t. At least not yet. Don’t you remember me, Father? I certainly remember you.” A flash of recognition, followed by a blast of fear ran through the old priest. No, that wasn’t possible. That couldn’t be…
A mirthless smile played on the boy’s lips now, and though he had the voice of a boy, he spoke like a man. “Think, Father. This is important. I was the very first one you ever laid a hand on. Catechism Class? 1985? You had me stay after for your ‘special blessing’.” All the time he spoke, the boy never took his eyes from the priest, not even to blink.
Whether in fear or anger (he wasn’t sure which), the priest rose. “That’s not possible. How do you know… you… I mean, he… must be fifty by now…”. The boy raised a hand, and the priest’s legs suddenly gave out underneath him. He slumped back into the chair, staring back at the boy in disbelief.
“It isn’t only the final death that can create a ghost, Father. We all die piece by piece throughout our lives. Most lose so much of themselves along the way that by the time the ultimate death comes, they are nothing but a husk, being carried along by the sheer inertia of living. And each of those little deaths leaves something behind, Father. Something that lingers. WE are the things which linger. We owe our existence to you. And we’ve been waiting for this reunion, Father. We’re wasting time. Let’s begin.” The boy raised his hand again, this time making the Sign of the Cross over the priest. “Damn you, Father, for you have sinned.”
The boy leaned closer, narrowed his eyes and repeated slowly. “Damn you, Father. For you. Have. Sinned.”
Fear had won out over anger now. A pain began to blossom in the priest’s chest as he struggled to catch his breath. “This…this is sacrilege! This is an abomination!” He struggled to his feet, but once again the boy raised his hand, and once again his legs collapsed beneath him.
In barely more than a whisper, the boy said, “It’s time to confess, Father.”
“I…I have nothing to confess!”
“Now Father,” a new voice called from behind the divider, “That is a lie. One more mortal sin on your soul. Confess, Father. What did you do to me?” The speaker, a young girl in an old-fashioned First Communion dress, walked around the divider to stare at the priest. Her hair was out of place, her dress was ripped on one side, and a trickle of blood flowed down her leg.
Yet another boy, this one a bit older, with red hair and a blue suit stepped around the divider. “What about me, Father? Do you remember me? Alter boy, 1990? What did you do to me, Father? Time to make a good confession.”
More were coming in now, and faster. A brown-haired boy with glasses. A blonde girl in pigtails. Each one he remembered, and each one brought fresh bursts of shame, lust, fear, and guilt.
“Remember us, Father?”
“Time’s running out.”
“What did you do to us?”
There was a torrent of them now, coming around the divider. As if running into an invisible wall, they all stopped right behind the first boy, who was still seated just two feet from the priest. But they kept coming, and those in back began to crawl on top of those in the front. They all kept their faces to the priest, always with the same unblinking, devouring eyes trained on the old man’s face. The priest watched, unable to move, unable to scream, and unable to look away. The pain in his chest began to radiate down his arm as he watched a macabre wall take shape. More children continued to climb, crawl and squeeze their way in. Bones snapped and clothes ripped as they contorted themselves into unnatural shapes to let more join the pile. In a matter of seconds, a wall of twisted and broken bodies filled the room from floor to ceiling, with all of their heads facing the priest.
A wave of pain knocked the priest from his chair, and he lay, looking up at a sea of eyes, each one hungry, a vacuum, pulling his soul away from his body. The first boy leaned forward, and as he did, the hands and feet of the children on the bottom of the pile crept forward, so that the boy and the wall of bodies moved in unison, leering over the writhing priest.
“Too late, Father. Time for the absolution.”
The boy stood and raised his hand as if giving a blessing. When he spoke again, all the faces in the human wall spoke together with him.
“God, the Father of judgment, through the pain and suffering of his children, has sent their spirits upon you for the judgement of sins. Through the ministry of the Lingering Ones, we damn you for your sins. In the name of the Father.”
Pain obscured the priest’s vision.
“And of the Son.”
Darkness took him.
“And of the Holy Spirit.”
The room was silent then, and empty, save the priest. The ravenous eyes were gone. The eyes of the lifeless priest were fixed sightlessly on the ceiling. And in the corner of the room, the perpetually weeping eyes of the old wooden Christ were turned away and, as ever, saw nothing.