4 – Chicago
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO
“Where is he?” the man attached to the gun growled, a rumbling in his voice hinting at a lifetime hard and painful.
I looked up, then up again. The man was huge, taller than me by a head and a half and wide enough that he seemed to fill the doorway. The red and blue flashing I’d seen before lit the regularly lit the door frame to his either side, but I couldn’t see past him to determine his source.
“Where is who?” I asked, my head spinning.
“You know who.” He dropped the barrel of his gun gun, but before I could so much as sigh in relief he came through the door.
The way he moved, I would have had more luck stopping an avalanche with my bare hands. Barely in time, I stepped aside and let him pass. As he swept by me, his eyes scanned from side to side, up and down the aisle and along the pews.
I caught a sight of cop cars, two of them, parked at half hazard angles across the street. Their lights were flashing–red and blue, red and blue–but no sirens. I couldn’t make out if either car was occupied though and couldn’t think why they would be there in the first place. There was no third car to have pulled over, nor anything more than the church parking lot.
Yet even then, the police outside were driving from my mind as two particular oddities forced their way into my thoughts, regarding the man with the gun.
The first was his outfit. My first thought had been that perhaps he was a cop but if he was, he was the strangest cop that I’d ever seen. He had on an old army jacket–a deep green with pockets all about–and faded cargo pants that may once have been black but had faded to an uneven gray. His hair was much the same, still black but definitely fading.
The second was the scent. Barely there, it was the sort of thing that you wouldn’t consciously notice but that could drive you mad once you had. It was vaguely musky smell, reminiscent of wet fur and leather that trailed in the man’s wake. There was something about that smell…
He spun. Growled. “Where is he?”
I realized that I was still standing in the doorway. I glanced outside, briefly considering running for the cop cars, but after a moment shook my head. After all, the man hadn’t actually hinted that he was in a particularly violent mood towards me.
Well… that wasn’t true, strictly speaking. He’d pointed a gun at me.
I blinked in surprise. The gun was gone.
“Where is who?” I repeated, letting the door swing shut.
“The boy. He was here, I know it.” He was rocking back and forth, rising first on the balls of his feet and then on his heels. There was a curious swirl to the motion as well; he was
“What boy?” I suspected that I already knew that answer, but I couldn’t tell if that was better or worse. I’d half convinced myself that the the boy hadn’t been real in the first place, but even if he had, I wouldn’t feel right setting this maniac on him. “And why do you want him?”
He paused, his weight forward. He just stood there for several long moment, stood there and stared at me, watching me with an uncommon intensity.
“Ask me no questions, Padre.” At the title, the almost mocking way that he said it, something brushed against the corners of my mind, but before I could catch it, it was gone. “And I’ll tell you no lies.”
5 - Baghdad
SEVERAL YEARS AGO
A thundering roar shook the air and the ground rushed up to meet me. The dust in the air seemed to thicken into a fist, punching me in the back, sending me sprawling forward.
I came to rest mere inches from another man, lying sprawled against the wall with an assault rifle held loosely in his slackening grip. I glanced up at the name emblazoned on his breast.
Private Dan Jackson, I thought. I’d met him a few times since we’d been deployed. A good young man. Solid.
A rattle of gunfire rang out entirely too nearby. I glanced up, but with the debris all around and dust in the air, it was hard to keep track of anything further than a few feet ahead.
Looking back down, I ran my eyes up and down Jackson’s prone frame. “How are you doing Private?” He didn’t actually look too bad. A bit stunned perhaps, but nothing more.
“Not so good, Padre.” He coughed. Blood. Okay, so maybe just a little more. “Found a little surprise when we tried to clear out the bus station.” He tilted his head as if to gesture off to one side, but stopped with a grimace of pain.
I winced. The improvised explosives they were using were getting worse every day. The early ones had been encased in pottery but the newer ones were wrapped in chunks of metal with razer edges already rusting.
More gunfire. closer this time. I couldn’t tell if it was us or them, but in the end it didn’t matter. Either way, we needed to move. I reached hand out to him, resting it lightly on his shoulder. “We need to get you out of here.”
I noticed a flash of gold around his neck, contrasting with the silver of his dog tags’ chain. The only necklaces were those with religious symbols, but I couldn’t have said which he was wearing. I vaguely remembered seeing him the previous Sunday at mass, but that could have meant anything. Maybe he’d just come for the social aspect.
But really, it didn’t matter. He was still one of God’s children.
I looked back over my shoulder. I’d last seen a medic–minutes? hours?–not so very long ago. But if I could just get Jackson back to the trucks, surely there’d be someone that could look after him.
I turned back. His eyes were closed, but I could still the ragged feel of his breath against my face. If I was going to do it, it was going to have to be now.
Carefully reaching under his knees and shoulders, I braced myself and leaned back. I felt a warmth on my hands from my shoulders and briefly wondering if moving him was going to do more harm than good.
But no. No time for second guessing. If he stayed here, he was going to die.
With a grunt, I lifted myself into a half crouch. Thankfully, Jackson had a wiry build, little more than skin, ropey muscles, and bone.
As I lifted, I heard his gun clatter to the ground. I ignored it. No time.
I took a step back across the packed earth of the street. Another. I thought I heard gunfire, felt a breeze that could have been a bullet. But it didn’t matter.
In the end, I made it back to the convoy. I’d had to stop only once, leaning against a wall for no more than a few moments to catch my breath.
Later, I would ask myself over and over if those few moments would have been enough. Enough time for the medic to have saved Jackson’s life. Rationally, I doubted it. With a wound like that, it would have been a miracle and in the Hell on Earth we’d come to, miracles were in short supply.
I laid him down in a back room that had been set aside for just this purpose. There were other bodies there, a half dozen of them at least, each covered with a thin white sheet. I found another sheet near the door and lay it on his still form.
“May the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life. Amen.”
A promising young life cut short. It was all I could do to remember that God had a plan for us all, that even now the young man would hopefully be Heaven.
I looked up to see the medic standing there, watching me. He had a haunted look in his eyes, a look I knew he had been carrying for far too long.
“Bless you Padre. Bless you and thank you.”
I didn’t have to ask him for what.
6 - Rome
The silence from the screen stretched on and on. In all likelihood it had been seconds, minutes at most, but it felt like far longer.
Finally, the man on the other side of the screen took a deep breath.
“Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”
Proverbs. Chapter 28 verse 13. The name of the verse flashed through my mind unbidden. A benefit of years of training.
“Your sins are many and your penance must be likewise, but if it is the will of God, you will be forgiven.”
That was a bit out of the ordinary, but I had a feeling that the
“You must say an Act of Contrition.”
I knew it had been coming and had been dreading it all along. To many, an Act of Contrition had become little more than just words, something you said because you were expected to say it. But I knew far too much for that, I had seen things I could never unsee, done things I could never undo. I had seen the powers underlying the modern world, the powers of faith–and otherwise. I choose my words carefully, considering each as I spoke it.
“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
I had to believe that Jesus’ mercy would be enough. He surely knew that I needed every scrap of mercy He had.
“I’ve examined my conscience and I’ve confessed my sins.”
The poor priest on the other side of the screen. Could he possibly have known this morning just what confessions he would be hearing before the sun had set?
“I am sorry for my sins–”
Yet even now I honestly didn’t know if, had I known what the outcome of my actions would have been, I would have done any differently. Was that necessary to truly be sorry?
“–and I’m determined to do my best to see that I live in You, and You in me.”
The worse was done. It had to be.
“I ask your forgiveness and your grace. Amen.”
And there it was, out in the open. All I had left was to see how the other priest would respond.
The wait was shorter this time before the other man went on, continuing with his part as he must have so many times before. “I absolve you from your sins.” I could see the shadow of him raising a hand, tracing the sign of a cross. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
I took a deep breath. Now what?
Several moments more passed as I considered the form on the shadow of the other man. I thought I could feel him studying me in turn.
“Come. Walk with me.” I wasn’t sure which surprised me more, his sudden words or the breach of protocol they entailed.
I heard the wood sighing as he rose, heard his door sliding open. He stepped back out into the church proper. The door slid shut. A moment’s pause, then I heard the soft sound of his footsteps. One, two, three, half a dozen.
Then the sliding sound of him turning back. He stopped. Waiting.
I couldn’t very well just sit here and wait for him to go away.
If it had been up to me, I would have been on a plane home right now, trying to sleep, trying to forget. Possibly even with a drink in hand. It had been many long years since I’d partaken in alcohol outside of a Mass, but given recent events…
I would have gone to a confession eventually–forgiveness was not optional, particularly for mortal sins–but not here. Not a thousand miles from home.
With a heavy sigh, I rose. It seemed that perhaps my trials weren’t quite complete after all.