WANTED: An Outlaw Anthology
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According to canon law, it is forbidden for a priest to betray the penitent for any reason.
“Have you ever tasted sin, Father?”
A deep rasp stipples the unfamiliar voice on the other side of the partition, dragging my attention from the benign thoughts spinning inside my head, to the dark shadow moving beside me. The sour burn of whiskey spikes the air, along with the odor of stale cigarettes that clings to his clothing, a combination I’m intimately familiar with. Except, I haven’t touched a cigarette in eight years, so the strong tobacco wafting off him slaps me awake.
“We’ve all sinned at one time, or another. It’s in our nature as human beings.”
The guy hasn’t given the sign of the cross, nor bothered to tell me his last confession, which indicates he probably isn’t familiar with Reconciliation, or he’s just too drunk to care. A drive-by looking to talk to someone. Considering Tuesday nights hardly draw much of a crowd, I can’t really complain.
“Tastes sweet to me. Sugary. Like that Ames girl. Pretty little thing with blonde curls, big doe eyes.” Alcohol weighs thick on his words, slurring them as he speaks over the creaking of the tired wooden kneeler beneath him. A quiet grunt gives way to more creaking, and I wonder how long I’ll let this go on for. At what point will I have him go sleep it off and come back when his head is clearer? “So innocent,” he continues. “Don’t find ‘em so pure these days, with all that technology and horseshit at their fingertips. Skin like the first snow, milky white. Reminded me of the lambs we used to keep back on the farm. How I’d sit and play with ‘em for hours. Stroking their fur. Listenin’ to ‘em bleat. Such a …” A scratching noise interrupts the brief pause. “… irritating sound. All that whinin’ and cryin’.” His voice grew tense, as if his teeth clenched while he talked.
I’m compelled to ask him more about the Ames girl, but I don’t. It’s not my position to ask probative questions, so I listen, as I’m tasked to do, and wait.
“Ain’t nothin’ bugs me more than the sound of ‘em cryin’. So I’d snap their little necks, and they’d sit quiet and still in my lap.”
Frowning, I tilt my head, as if that’ll offer a view of his face inside this cramped and claustrophobic box designed to conceal a penitent’s identity. All I can make out is his dark form, nothing more than a silhouette, and that sour odor assaulting my senses.
There’s a sound of amusement and more creaking, more shifting, more curiosity filling the box. “Used to tell my daddy it was the coyotes that got ‘em, ‘til one day, he found me in the barn. Lamb cut throat to belly with its insides spilled out all over. My daddy beat me ‘til I couldn’t walk. Blessed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground, and the fruit of thy cattle, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep.” The resentment riding on each word of the verse tells me his father must’ve spoken this during his punishments. “The flocks of thy sheep,” he echoes with derision. “That Ames girl, she was just like them lambs.”
It’s only then I realize the girl he’s referring to isn’t an adult, or some indulgent affair, like so many confessions I’ve sat through, but a child. An innocent lamb of the flock. And the pieces of his confession come together to form a picture I pray isn’t what I’m imagining.
“Innocent. Pretty. So young,” he prattles on, and I can practically see this girl in my mind’s eye. “And so damn irritating.”
A cold frost branches across my chest and wraps a fist around my lungs. Squeezing the air out of this box. “And what happened to her?”
He doesn’t answer at first, but I hear resignation in a heavy exhale, before he sniffs and clears his throat. “She was noisy, too. Told her to be quiet, but all she did was cry, cry, cry. Like a little lamb.”
The fist grows tighter, and I curl my fingers around the bench at either side of me. “And did you …”
“Lambs good eatin’. Soft and tender. Nothin’ like mutton. Some say it tastes salty, gamey, but not me. Add some potatoes and onion. Somethin’ special about eatin’ meat so tender. So innocent. One of God’s blessed lambs.”
I choose my next words carefully, knowing the more I engage him, the deeper I fall into a web that offers no escape. “What is it that you wish to confess?”
Giving a sigh that fans his whiskey breath, he reaches up a shadowy limb like he’s scratching his head. “How you carry all that weight around? Like your lips is sewn, can’t speak a damn bit a truth, can ya? Cheatin’, robberies, murder, you hear it all and gotta swallow it in silence. How’s all that sin taste, Father?”
“If you’ve hurt someone, I would strongly urge you to go to the authorities. Seek out some help.” It’s only my training, my devotion to the church that urges these things. There is a darker entity calling me to act on something I’ve spent the last eight years burying deep inside my bones. A primal instinct unfitting for a man in my position. A man who’s vowed never again to give in to such tantalizing thoughts.
My hands flex and ball into tight fists, nails scraping the old wood beneath me. The tugging inside my chest begs me to pray. Not for him, but for myself. For the strength not to crack through that partition and snap his neck like he did to those he’s described. For the strength not to see my own little girl’s dull and lifeless eyes on the face of the child of whom he spoke.
“I’m askin’ to be reconciled. Don’t that get me points with God?”
“I’m afraid I can’t offer the absolution you’re looking for. Not until you make good on those you’ve harmed. Go to the authorities. Confess your crime. Accept your punishment, and perhaps you’ll be at peace with God.”
“At peace with God.” His hand slams into the screen, thunking against the wood, and my muscles flinch, already poised in defense. Pale, bony fingers curl into the cross-shaped lattice design, showing unkempt nails and wrinkled skin. “You priests are somethin’ else. You ain’t nothin’ but a man. A man who sins as much as any other. You hide behind that screen, but I see you. I see what you are.”
He sees nothing more than what he imagines me to be—a man of the cloth. Simple and chaste in the eyes of most. Controlled and composed. He has no idea the complexities that divide my thoughts every day, the nightmares that plague my sleep, the circumstances of my past and what I’ve been robbed of, which have my head spinning with ungodly visuals of what this man truly deserves. The insufferable weight of pain I’ll carry to the grave. He has no clue what I am and what he’s stirred inside of me with his confession.
“The Ames girl. Is she alive?”
“Don’t you priests watch the news?” A taunting chuckle ripples down my spine, stoking the wrath I can’t control. “Girl been dead over a year. Gutted like a lamb. Her bones is buried up on Angels Point.”
“And you did this.” It’s not a question, yet something compels me to prod the answer from him. To affirm what has already sealed the tomb where my conscience lays trapped with his sins.
Fucking tell me, the man inside of me pleads, like a smoldering fire seeking out a single drop of gasoline. “Tell me.”
“Need me to spell it out for you? Can’t figure the shit out on your own? Fine. I killed her. Played with her a bit, and finished off everything but her bones.”
In the two years since I’ve been ordained, I’ve never heard an admission as disturbing and unjust. One that strikes a chord so sharply inside of me, I feel stunned and paralyzed, running merely on autopilot, as trained and familiar words tumble from frozen lips. “You can still redeem yourself. Confess your crime.”
“I did confess. And I don’t feel so redeemed. But now God knows, at least. Blessed is the fruit, ain’t it? Blessed and so damn sweet.”
I can see her, that girl, just as he’s described her. Small, curly-haired blonde, his dirty fingers digging into her throat. The echo of those cries pounding out an ache inside my chest, one that calls out to instincts long repressed, hidden beneath layers and layers of prayer and focus.
Science refers to us as sapiens, the wise ones, judicious and logical, but we’re born with a strange dichotomy—both a civilized and primitive mind with an innate proclivity to protect. In my most basic mind, the man confessing is evil, and even as a priest, my nature is to banish it. Banish him. Rid the earth of the rot.
He could be lying, though. Toying with me. Perhaps it’s the alcohol talking for him, spewing lies based on some fantasy. I’ve heard those before, too.
“Are you telling me the truth?”
“Now, why would I lie to a priest? You ain’t gonna tell nobody.” The chuckle in his throat grates on my nerves, like the aggravating buzz of a fly that needs swatting.
“You’ve been drinking.”
“Whiskey makes the noise go away.”
Of course it does. I know that as much as anyone. It makes everything go away—pain, guilt, regret.
“You go up on Angels Point,” he goes on, while my mind spins like a tilt-a-whirl in darkness. “Go on up there and see what you find.”
For eight years, I’ve kept my composure, and I can feel the threads thinning with every word that tumbles from his lips.
“Do you have any remorse for what you’ve done?”
There’s a pause that gives me some small measure of hope that I might be able to persuade him to go to the authorities, but the ensuing snickering withers my brief optimism.
“Remorse? Did God have remorse when he put cancer in that sweet lamb’s blood? He have remorse when he took her eyesight? No, y’all call that His doing.”
Sickness churns in my stomach, as his sin bloats inside my chest, expanding and writhing within me, like a living, breathing thing, stirring long forgotten memories. Standing beside a hospital bed. Holding one small hand in mine. Praying. Always praying. For a miracle. For more time. I hold the back of my palm to my mouth to keep from expelling dinner on the already worn and dappled wood that seems to be closing me in. The tickle in my chest threatens panic, and I chide myself to pull it together. Tamp down those memories and focus on the present.
“I’ll ask you one last time, go to the authorities. Confess your crimes there. This is your last chance.”
I don’t answer, my mind lost to an unbidden scene already crystalizing inside my head.
I fall to my knees and reach out for my little Isabella, dragging her small and lifeless body across the bedsheets. A trail of blood follows behind her, and as I turn her into my arms, tucking her against my chest, a new wave of misery pulls me under. I stroke a trembling hand down her sleeping face, over the delicate wisps of hair plastered to her temples by a smattering of blood there.
The wood creaks, and the click of the door breaks my thoughts. Jumping to my feet, I push through the door of the confessional and collide with a body. Not the man who’s stabbed at my conscience the last twenty minutes, but a woman. A slim, lithe form that I have to catch to keep her from crumpling to the floor with the impact, bracing my hands at each of her shoulders to hold her steady.
She gasps, and for one brief second, my eyes are drawn to the red of her lips sticking out from a pale face and her black high neck dress.
“Oh, my … I’m sorry, Father.” Taking a step back, she shrugs out of my grasp and straightens her clingy dress.
Slicing my gaze towards the door, I catch the man hobbling out of the church. The bright blue shirt he wears carries a yellow logo, but I can’t make out what it is, or the name of the company. “Excuse me one moment. I’ll be right back.”
“Father, I really—”
“One moment, please. I promise I’ll be right back.”
I jog after the man, slamming through the door of the church, and out into the dry summer air that steals my breath as I descend the stairs to the sidewalk. The encroaching darkness dims what little is left of daylight, as the sun hides behind the adjacent buildings. Scanning over the handful of bodies ambling about, I search for the silvery hair and blue T-shirt I noted when he exited the church. Rounding the corner brings the rectory in sight, standing still and unperturbed. Only the muted hum of traffic up and down the street interrupts the quietude.
At the approach of a young kid, perhaps seventeen years old, I pause. “Have you seen an older man? Silvery hair and blue shirt?”
The kid shakes his head. “Nah,” he says, without bothering to slow his pace and knocking me in the shoulder on his way past. “Sorry.”
I narrow my gaze on each individual form. A woman, hooker no doubt, in a short skirt and spaghetti-strap tank, leaning against the brick wall of the 7-Eleven. Two old men talking outside a cigar shop, neither wearing a blue T-shirt. Another woman, chiding a toddler, who runs ahead of her while an infant sits propped at her hip, as they make their way across a parking lot. About a dozen faces, none of which look capable of carrying out the kind of brutality I heard only minutes before.
He’s gone. A murderer walking the streets of Los Angeles. A wolf amidst the flock.
And I let him go.