Once she got her car moving, it went to the nearby Catholic church almost as if on its own, but when she was a child, the interior of a church, with its quiet and austere aura, comforted her.
She went inside, where it was warm, the air stifling. Candles flickered near the font of Holy Water. She dipped her fingers in the water and crossed herself. Old habits died hard.
She picked a pew about halfway up the center aisle and sat, after genuflecting and crossing herself again. Unlike the perverse Christian Identity places of worship she’d learned too much about, this church’s altarpiece wasn’t a tortured Christ, but it was one without blood, except for precisely placed drops on his forehead, hands, feet, and side. His uplifted face shone with rapture.
Christ had been thirty-three when he was crucified, the same age as the man executed almost twenty-four hours ago.
That’s a fine thing, she thought, in a church after so long and thinking blasphemous thoughts about Jesus and a domestic terrorist.
She heard measured footsteps, and, even though she could reasonably assume the priest approached, in reflex her hand slipped behind her back, beneath her jacket. Her fist closed on the butt of her familiar gun.
The priest adjusted his collar as he approached. Her entrance had caught him out of uniform, as it were. How had he known… Oh, her headlights had raked a house next to the church, likely the Rectory.
Tall, in his sixties, the priest had graying hair, combed off his face with his hands. She recognized him as the same priest when she’d been here seven years before, the same priest who’d confirmed a young man who’d grown up to be a mass murderer.
He made his obeisance, slipped into the pew in front of hers, and turned to study her, his eyes searching her face, possibly wondering where he’d seen her before.
“It’s late,” he said, but his tone was more welcoming than put-upon.
“Or early,” she replied, “depending on your perspective.”
He gave her a warm smile. “So true. What brings you here at this hour?”
“Peace and quiet.”
“I’ve been wondering that myself. I suppose you’ll tell me I must have felt some deep, spiritual need.”
The priest shrugged. “I don’t have to say anything. Excuse me. Have we met before?”
“Yes. Briefly, several years ago when I visited someone here in town.”
His forehead creased as he thought. Realization came to his face. “Yes, of course. You’re his friend Si—”
“Yes,” she said, cutting him off, not wanting, not able to hear the name spoken.
“Have you been to the house?” the priest asked.
“I’ve come from there. I had some things for his father.”
“How is he?”
“About as you’d expect.”
“I offered to be there today, but he wanted to be alone. I’ll stop by later.”
The priest studied her again, eyes narrowed as if trying to see inside her head.
“Were you with him when… When it happened?” he asked.
She wondered, as with her alias, if the priest couldn’t bring himself to speak the dead man’s name.
“Yes, I was there.”
“Are you all right?”
“You know, if someone else asks me that…” She broke off when she remembered she still gripped her gun. She clasped her hands in her lap. “He saw a priest at the end. He had last rites.”
The priest closed his eyes, and his lips moved. He crossed himself and looked at her again. “I thank God for that, and I thank you for telling me. Those of us who knew him, we’ve all had our moments where we felt we failed him and, therefore, the people he… I’ve searched my memory of every time we ever talked and tried to remember if there was something I said or didn’t say, or should have said.” He shook his head. “Maybe there was nothing any of us could have done to stop him, but, my God, he was such a good kid, and all those people, those children. He loved children, was so patient with them, always said he wanted a dozen of his own. How could he kill children?”
“He didn’t know children were there,” she said, not disguising her anger.
The priest raised an eyebrow in skepticism. “Shouldn’t he have found that out?”
Her hands gripping the back of the pew, she leaned toward him, but he gave her no ground.
“He told me he didn’t know, and he wouldn’t have lied to me,” she said. “Not like I lied to him. Over and over. It was all a lie, you see. All of it. He trusted me, he cared for me, and all I ever did was lie. All I’ve ever done for two-thirds of my life is lie and live a lie.”
She gripped the pew harder to keep from shaking in anger. The priest’s face was full of concern, but he said nothing. He allowed his eyes to drift away from her, to the left, and she followed his gaze.
The confessional? He couldn’t understand her full and sincere confession could take years and required a secular security clearance he didn’t have.
“It’s up to you,” he said. He stood, went to the confessional, and slipped inside his half.
She stared at the confessional. She looked again at the Christ.
She didn’t believe in this, none of this. Superstition was something an intelligent person saw right through. And this priest, so smug in assurance of his higher authority. It might amuse her to watch that conceit fade as she told him how many she’d killed and how and whom.
No, the arrogance, as usual, was on her part. He’d shown nothing except concern for her and compassion for a young man he thought he’d brought to God, only to have that failure become so public. Her failure was more personal and private and would have to remain that way.
Except, of course, the confessional was inviolable.
Was it truly a confession if you didn’t believe?
Perhaps unburdening herself after so long, regardless of her beliefs or lack thereof, would ease the darkness in her head, the darkness buried there since a moment of perfect hatred six years before.
Her decision made, she stood and gave the Christ a final, contemptuous glance. If the man, who’d been steadfast in his refusal to acknowledge his role in the death of hundreds could confess minutes before he died, so could she and without death’s being the compelling factor.
First, she went to light a candle for the memory of the soldier she’d known all too briefly and one for all the souls she’d failed. She went inside the confessional. It felt both alien and familiar, but her spine stayed stiff. She saw the priest’s profile through the grille, and the words wouldn’t come. She knew them. Saying them was the difficulty.
“Take your time,” the priest murmured. “Whenever you’re ready.”
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been, oh, a quarter century or so since my last confession,” she said.
“Don’t worry. I’m sure you don’t hold the record.”
“In the interest of both our backsides, Father, why don’t we stick to the last few years? I think you’ll see why.”
“It’s your confession.”
She hesitated again, knowing the implications of what she was about to do, but if she told someone…
“Today,” she began, “rather, yesterday, a man was killed, executed for a horrible crime he committed, but that’s not the issue.”
“I see. What is the issue?”
“I could have stopped him.”
She closed her eyes, the memory of that missed moment when she could have changed the future making her slump.
“Before he murdered?” the priest asked.
All she could do was nod.
His voice, ever calm and serene, no judgement implied, loosened something in her chest, and a hardness eased.
The next words, damning her, came with ease.
“If I had killed him when I had the chance.”
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