The great martyrs of old tower over Pete, shimmering in the kaleidoscopic glow of stained glass. Resolutely, they hold their stoic gazes, even as the beat of time ripples and cracks their abounding robes. Each has been entrusted with a divine duty. One counts beads with the bowel-wrenching concentration of a Fields Medalist. One caresses a dove, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically. One adjusts his halo, failing to mask his smug, self-satisfied grin. Another raises her hand to cleanse the leprous sinners before her. And the final martyr—the one that truly captivates him—grapples with a vengeful serpent, locked forever in this cosmic battle, his Grecian musculature swelling with doomed beauty.
Aunt Jezebel squeezes Pete’s bicep reassuringly, jolting him from his trance. Stomach churning, he peeks over his shoulder to behold the phosphorescent smiles of his entire extended family, clad in their Sunday best. The expectant gaze of the congregation. His youth leader’s beaming thumbs up. Neck suddenly engulfed by a voracious itch, Pete loosens his tie and scratches furiously. In doing so, he spots a cicada shell clinging to his elbow. He flicks it away, looking again to the idols—the Lord’s devoted soldiers, casting His light into even the foulest, most rancorous cesspools of human sin and debauchery. He’s unworthy to stand before them. He can’t go through with this.
In the murkiest depths of his MacBook Pro, buried in subfolders of subfolders, there lies an Excel spreadsheet whose contents he dares not speak of. A sprawling ledger, its countless tabs overflowing with pie charts and pivot tables. You see, Pete wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of enduring an eternity of scorching hellfire in the earth’s most suffocating catacombs. Nor was he particularly curious to learn Lucifer’s barbaric torture methods, honed since the dawn of man on masses of screeching, thrashing sinners, begging for a second death. Tortures employing the perverted, twisted devices that haunted Poe’s most maddening fever dreams. Devices that made the Iron Maiden and the Judas Cradle look like prissy little massage chairs. The use of such devices was, undoubtedly, accompanied by a set of sadistic psychological games that brought the Prince of Darkness halfway to climax. Games that probed the darkest depths of the human imagination, warping each sinner’s psyche into an electrified cage from which there was no hope of escape. To shield himself from these horrors, Pete kept meticulous, time-stamped records of his transgressions, rating each on a 1-10 Severity Scale. Unimpressed by the softball penances tossed out by the priests (“Say one ‘Our Father,’ my child”), he resolved to truly atone for his misdeeds. So, he piled on additional penances, according to each sin’s place on said scale. These included poking himself with a thumbtack, scalding himself with bacon grease, and holding the contents of his bladder for uncomfortably long intervals. And, of course, he rattled off “Our Father”s during every idle moment, frantically stockpiling them for Judgement Day. Pete then calculated his Rate of Sin (RoS) and Severity of Sin (SoS) over time to ensure he was on pace for salvation. Since the only Confirmed Heavenly Ascensions (CHAs) were achieved by the Saints, he took down every recorded instance of their transgressions, modeling their RoS and SoS figures as benchmarks.
For many years, Pete was on pace for the Pearly Gates. For the opiate bliss of gold-tinged clouds. The saccharine nectar of angel serenades. But then, a fortnight ago, amid the booming cacophony of thunder claps, he committed an unspeakable act. A heinous deed that shot to the very precipice of the Severity Scale—that, in fact, forced him to recalibrate the scale as exponential, rather than linear. He crunched the numbers so many times he cracked the “enter” button. The result was always the same. He’d crossed the threshold of the damned. No act of contrition could ever bring him back.
“Today, we remember the vows your parents and sponsors pledged at your baptism,” Father Dominic’s voice reverberates through the cavernous stone walls. “Fourteen years ago, they showed you Jesus’s everlasting light. His healing glow. A radiant beacon, guiding you to the Kingdom of Heaven…”
As if on cue, a ray of orange-and-violet light sears through the chapel, blinding Pete. He rubs his eyes to behold a monolithic portrait of the Virgin Mary, her face a painfully symmetrical assemblage of glass panes. Dutifully, she cradles the Lamb of God. All is calm, all is bright—save for one nagging, brain-clawing detail. A single pane is missing from her left cheek. A black garbage bag is affixed in its place—a rippling, pulsating mole on Mary Magdalene’s immaculate flesh.
“…but it’s up to you to step into it and receive Him,” Father Dominic climbs down from behind the altar and paces among the pews. “Jesus made a commitment to you when he endured the cross. And since that little splash of water, hanging just out of memory, he’s guided you. He’s put people in your life who have helped you reach this fateful day…”
Pete sneaks a glance at Aunt Jezebel—sweet, sweet Aunt Jezebel—racoon-masked with worry. In his memory, she’s nearly inseparable from the bright chords of worship hymns. The joyous, C-major melodies she belted out on the parlor room piano, eyes closed, face lost in that blissful trance—the lines in her forehead finally, mercifully relaxing. Throughout his childhood, Pete found himself humming these melodies idly, the lyrics dangling just out of reach. Now, he can almost hear her milk-and-honey voice rising through the slanted pillars of afternoon light, dancing among the hang-dried laundry—their whitest linens.
After her last performance, she’d begged him to come sit on her lap, a request Pete obliged with an audible sigh. A sigh, he realizes, he has yet to atone for.
“You’d look so handsome with a part, Petey,” she cooed, combing his hair with her fingertips.
Pete rolled his eyes.
“Are you ready for your big day tomorrow?”
“I’m proud of you, sweetie.”
“Can I go now?”
Pete stares at the marble floor, running a hand through his crusty, too-gelled part. He’s failed her. He’s failed Him. He’s failed them all.
“…my children, I ask you—do you renounce Satan and all his works?” Father Dominic’s voice crescendos, booming with fire and brimstone.
The cicadas buzz ominously, filling the dramatic pause.
“At your weakest point, he will find you. He will tempt you, as he did Jesus in the wilderness.”
Now growing enraged, the insects roar with a menacing gusto.
“When he comes for your soul—for he will—my children, do you promise to resist him? To stand firm and refuse his empty promises? No matter how incessantly his voice throbs in your skull?”
The seething horde marshals together in the sky, darkening the stained glass. Pete twists his purity ring anxiously. He knows why they’re here. The Lord, in a bout of Old-Testament fury, summoned this plague to cleanse their quiet midwestern suburb. To eradicate its most heinous sinner.
Frantically, Pete scans the chapel. Two-hundred parishioners stand between him and the exit. To run is to crucify not only himself, but Aunt Jezebel. To throw her at the mercy of the town’s swirling cesspool of gossip. He can already imagine the wake of hushed whispers that would trail her through the supermarket, the hair salon, the idyllic streets of their neighborhood. She’s raising a pagan. The frigid, cold shoulder glares with which they’d shun her from Starbucks lines, PTA meetings, and her beloved TJ Maxx. The defeated slouch that would warp her spine as she sat at their living room piano, a hopeless leper, offering worship songs to a cruel and uncaring God. The hollow, pallid quality the notes would inherit, forever stripped of their luster.
But to stay is to face His black cloud of wrath…
As the buzzing intensifies, Pete rises to feet and begins to apologize his way through the crowded pew. Gritting his teeth, he stops halfway to the aisle. Then, amid a chorus of groans, he turns around. He plops back down next to Aunt Jezebel, returning his gaze to the doomed, serpent-wrestling idol.
“…at 1:36 PM on Tuesday April fourth I coveted Isaac’s new shoes. At 9:22 AM on Wednesday April fifth I killed a gnat. At 7:57 PM on Thursday April sixth I said ‘H-E-double hockey sticks.’ At 6:08 PM on April seventh—the last Friday of lent—I ate a hotdog.”
“Is that all?” Father Dominic asked, face fishnetted in shadow.
Pete couldn’t determine whether this was an innocent inquiry, or a hint at the dark deed that had transformed his every waking moment into an agonizing guilt trip. Could Father Dominic spot the glaring blemish on his soul? Pete opened his dry, stinging mouth. Then, almost immediately, he slammed it shut. Because what did he stand to gain from verbalizing the unspeakable act? The deed had already sentenced him to eternal damnation. There was no hope for salvation. Right? Or could Jesus find it in his gently beating heart to forgive him? To embrace the lost, pitiful sinner before him? To herd Pete, the lame black sheep, in the vague direction of His almighty Kingdom?
As Pete cleared his throat, the dust particles seemed to hang in limbo, charged with cosmic meaning. The ripples in the holy water faded, giving way to a reflecting-pool stillness. He could finally place the scent that filled the room—burning sage. On the other side of the booth, Father Dominic’s breathing grew hushed. At last, Pete coaxed his vocal chords into action.
“Yes, that’s all.”
“In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, my child, I cleanse you of your sins,” Father Dominic’s hot onion breath wafted over him in absolution. “For your penance, say one ‘Our Father.’”
Now, murmuring his twelve-thousandth “Our Father,” Pete climbs to his feet and follows his confirmation class’s dutiful procession. Aunt Jezebel grabs hold of his hand, unable to mask her giddy grin. Pete peeks over his shoulder to confirm that she is, indeed, the only sponsor taking this liberty. Heads bowed, they tread down the aisle, a row of candles lighting their way in the cicada-induced darkness. The tongues of flame send tribal shadows dancing across the great stone walls. Suddenly wheezing to life, the organ serenades them with a haunting tune.
“Petey, it’s your favorite!” Aunt Jezebel nudges him.
Pete tries to don an expression that conveys both recognition and excitement. An expression that doesn’t betray his complete and utter cluelessness. Nor his thought that picking a favorite worship hymn is like picking a favorite cold sore. That he hasn’t genuinely enjoyed one of Aunt Jezebel’s little parlor room concerts since he was in pre-K. That for the past decade, he’s been feigning interest through grit teeth, showering her with disingenuous applause. That he, frankly, has come to despise these trite, puritanical chord progressions masquerading as “music.” These syncopation-less melodies, hanging flaccid and soulless in 4:4 time. But how could he disappoint the woman who took him in without the faintest shadow of a second thought? How could he shoot down the one thing that seemed to bring her joy on God’s cruel and callous earth? How could he tell her he’s a Judas Priest fan, through and through?
Satisfied, Aunt Jezebel squeezes his shoulder, turning her attention to the altar. There, the first member of Pete’s class kneels before Father Dominic, her sponsor resting a faithful hand on her shoulder. Dominic, adorned in his lustrous red robes, anoints her with oil of Chrism, tracing a cross on her forehead. Even from their current distance, they can see her mouth a most humble “amen,” as she rises to her feet. The procession inches forward as the next classmate steps up.
As Pete and his sponsor creep down the aisle, now a mere fifty feet from the altar, the choir paints a rich mezzo-soprano over the organ. In each saccharine verse, they weave grandiose depictions of a life everlasting in a palace overflowing with spiritual riches. A mighty citadel whose great stone walls shield them from the forces of greed and lust and suffering. And, in the heart of this haven, there lies a sprawling banquet hall where all the generations join together in an everlasting feast, their appetites no longer bound by the strictures of the human anatomy. Each smile, each joke, each warm embrace is accompanied by the joyous blare of trumpets. Pete feels the sudden urge to kick over their goshdarn music stands. How could they taunt him like this? How could they dangle these unattainable visions before him, like scraps to a starving mongrel?
When they reach the foot of the steps, the hymn gives way to the vengeful hiss of the locusts. Father Dominic anoints one last classmate, and now the doomed boy and his aunt begin their ascent. With each step, the vermin grow more incensed. Pete wipes the sweat from his brow, as his heart threatens to burst through his sternum. For the first time, he notices the frailty of Aunt Jezebel’s interlocked hand. This hardly feels like the same hand that once steadied him, as he tiptoed to the precarious edge of the diving board. Nor the hand that adorned his back with obscenely tender pats, on the night Bowser went to the farm upstate. Nor the mighty, no-nonsense palm that slapped the midnight comic books from his grasp. No, in its place dangles this weak, withered husk.
Pete watches the shadows dance through Father Dominic’s deep, cavernous eye sockets. Holding his breath, he searches for some flicker of recognition. Some pinprick of disgust or repulsion or rage as Dominic spots the sickening jaundice on his soul. A scrunching of the forehead? A gritting of the teeth? A flaring of the nostrils? But the priest’s face remains uncannily still. As the buzzing crescendos at a decibel level he thought impossible, Pete gingerly kneels on the cold marble. Acutely, he can feel the chokehold of his tie. The pounding pulse in Aunt Jezebel’s fingers. The needling gaze of the congregation.
With maddening deliberacy, Father Dominic dips his thumb in the oil of Chrism. It takes him several attempts to soak up just the right amount of the stuff. As Dominic’s oil-dabbed finger slowly approaches his forehead, Pete squeezes his eyes shut, preparing for someone to blurt out an objection. To put a halt to this charade. To cast him aside like the wretched pariah he is. But there’s no such utterance. Maybe he can fake it. Maybe he can don the hot, rubbery mask of a righteous Christian. Maybe he can keep it affixed to his face for sixty-odd years, attending each 9:00 am Sunday service with staunch devotion, revealing nothing. Maybe he can keep his blood-curdling existential scream bottled up until the merciful day a tumor engorges his brain in Saint Vincent DePaul Hospital. It would shield Aunt Jezebel from the horrid truth, if nothing else. It would forever obfuscate the revolting, unnatural deed he perpetrated in his bedroom, amid the violent patter of raindrops. For, what started with a simple shampoo commercial spiraled into a great Caligulan orgy of sin and debauchery. That night—the night the floodwaters engulfed their unsuspecting suburb—he indulged his basest, most vile impulses. This act—this profane, unholy act—simultaneously soiled his innocent, pre-pubescent temple, while perverting the natural order of man and beast. As his head threw itself back in an involuntary spasm of pleasure amid a white-hot burst of lightning, he sealed his fate among the damned. Among the vile hedonists who raped and pillaged in search of nothing more than fleeting bursts of dopamine. He looked down at his hand—his sticky, defiled hand—hardly recognizing it, as a mighty crack of thunder rocked the house.
Just before Father Dominic’s finger touches Pete’s expectant forehead, the great plague of locusts erupts through Mary Magdalen’s missing cheek, plunging the chapel into pure, unbridled chaos. The undulating black cloud descends upon the congregation, gnawing at their flesh. Screams of terror ring out in the darkness as the beasts topple the candles, igniting a vengeful inferno. Flames lick up the tapestries without the faintest trace of remorse. Somewhere in the pandemonium, Pete’s sure he hears a voice speaking in tongues. As Father Dominic, Aunt Jezebel, and the rest of the parishioners flee, he remains frozen in place, pierced by the gaze of the serpent-wrestling idol.
“Your uncle and I, we…” Aunt Jezebel blushed. “We had some trouble… conceiving,” she managed.
Pete stared at the rug, trying to count its vast tessellation of flowers (including partial cut-offs). Despite his efforts, the imagery still permeated his brain—an impure thought he’d no doubt have to atone for later.
“After a few years, we just sort of… gave up,” she bounced Pete on her knee. “I think that’s when the rift between us started.”
Somehow, the hymnal notes still hung in the room, their bright reverberations saturating the billowing drapes, the fringes of the throw pillows, the rustling leaves of the potted ferns. Pete just about wanted to puke.
“In my darkest days, as the man I loved repelled me with frigid, Siberian shoulders, I prayed.” She finger-combed Pete’s hair back into that beloved part. “Do you know what I prayed for, Petey?”
Pete racked his brain for some excuse to escape. Coming up empty, he sighed. “What?”
“I prayed for God to send me an angel,” she laid a long, tender kiss on his cheek.
Now, amid the deafening roar of the locusts, the vicious lapping of the flames, the anguished shrieks of the parishioners, he hears her voice calling out to him. But he cannot go to her. He must atone for his sin. Pete looks one last time to the idols. Then, squeezing his eyes shut, he opens his arms and lets the beasts take him.
Derek Andersen is an Illinois Wesleyan alum, working as a copywriter in Chicago. His poems and stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Ghost Parachute, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Riggwelter, Shirley Magazine, and on WinningWriters.com.
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