8 - Chicago
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO
Two thoughts immediately crossed my mind.
Your brother? followed closely on its heels by *Was?
But I voiced neither aloud, merely waiting. Sometimes, a priest’s training really did come in handy. I knew that those four words, simple as they were, would be enough to get him talking.
I didn’t have to wait long.
“He took his own life, a year ago last November.” He paused for a moment and I saw his shoulders slump slightly. “No one saw it coming. We didn’t even know that he was depressed. Really, we should have seen it, we should have known…” His voice faded. He was looking down at his hands. At the gun still held there.
When the silence had stretched on long enough, I gently prodded with “then why would you be looking for him here?”
The man looked up. His eyes were red, but that was understandable. What surprised me somewhat more was the lopsided grin that just kept growing more and more pronounced. “It was a miracle, padre, a miracle.”
There it was again, the use of padre rather than father. What was it that that was reminding me of? But no, no time to dig into it, I had a slightly more pressing matter. “A miracle?”
“He came back.”
I shivered slightly, thinking about the boy that not so very long had come into the confessional. He hadn’t seemed dead, far from it.
He looked me straight in the eyes. “Three days ago.”
He paused a moment to let that sink in.
The boy had not only been dead, but he’d been dead for well over a year. That wasn’t the sort of thing a person just got up from and walked away from. Even Jesus had only been dead for three days.
A part of me remained somewhat skeptical. True miracles were rare these days, with far more the efforts of frauds and charlatans, out to ilk the faithful out of a few dollars–or quite often far more.
None of the frauds would have gone for anything quite of this magnitude though. Not by a long shot.
“What happened?” I asked, not really sure where to go from here.
He looked at me for a moment before answering. It was only then that, although I had meant more recently, I could have been asking about the details of his death.
“He came home.”
He nodded, the hand without the gun waving vaguely towards the back of the church. “He’d lived with our parents, before… Well, before.”
I nodded, gesturing for him to go on.
“I’d moved out years ago, but I came to visit often enough. I think it helped my parents for me to be there. You know how it is…”
I didn’t of course, those with the honor of having experienced all seven Sacraments were rare indeed–and the pain that was almost always involved in such unusual circumstances… It wasn’t a calling that I felt strongly. Still, I could empathize.
“Well anyways, we were sitting there around the dinner table, having dinner, when there was a knock on the door.”
I nodded. I could feel a chill running up my spine.
“Well at first we ignored it, I mean who comes knocking during dinner time? Perhaps during election season…” He drifted off again, for a moment apparently lost in thought.
“But then the knocking changed. Three short knocks, then a pause, then two more. Our family knock.”
“It’s how we knew that one of the family had been locked out for whatever reason and need to get back in. When we were kids, it’s how our parents knew that we wouldn’t even go to the door if it was a stranger there.”
I nodded. Not a bad idea…
“But the thing was, there were only five of us that should have known that knock. Ever since we were children, our parents had made it very clear to all of us that the exact details of the knock were going to be our family secret. No one else was to know.”
The chill was back. Creeping.
“My parents and me all knew it. But there we were, all sitting around the dinner table. My father and I had already followed through to what the knock had to have meant, although my mother was still a few states behind. Her mind hadn’t been quite so sharp these last few years.”
“My sister. She lives with her husband out in Seattle. I guess she might have told him or maybe even her own children, but they were and still are two thousand miles away. We haven’t even told them…” His voice trailed off as he seemed to consider what he was about to say.
“Anyways. The only one left, the only one that could have been out there knocking was my little brother. And he’d been dead for over a year.”
9 – Rome
We walked in silence to a small deli down the corner. They were open, despite the hour. The other priest ordered a coffee for himself and one for me–or at least that’s what I assume he was doing; I don’t speak Italian.
While we walked and while he ordered, I took a moment to study my Italian counterpart. He was tall and broad shouldered, that much I had been bale to tell even through the screen on the confessional. And he was in surprisingly good shape. For whatever reason, many priests that I’d met tended towards a heavier build.
His skin was darker than my own and what was left of his hair was a steely gray. He likely had several decades on me. There was a scar running along his jaw, faded with age, but wide enough that it must have been one heck of a sight when it had been new.
After a while, he must have noticed me watching him, but rather than comment on it, he merely turned to watch me in turn. He didn’t seem bothered by the attention, in fact he looked slightly bored through the whole thing.
And there we sat, staring at one another at a cafe in the center of a city I’d always dreamed of seeing. Somehow, I hadn’t quite thought that I’d have been here under such circumstances however. Eventually, a young woman brought our coffee. She set it down, looked from one of us to the other, and scurried off without another word. A wise decision, that.
I picked up my cup and blew on it for a few moments, allowing it time to cool. Eventually, I took a sip. I could feel the caffeine cutting immediately into my veins.
I put the cup down.
Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer. “What are we doing here?”
One corner of his mouth curved upwards in the faintest corner of a smile. Or perhaps it was a sneer. “We are having coffee.” I hadn’t really thought about it until right at that moment, but he spoke without a trace of an accent.
I looked down at the table. It was still, sitting there, as if taunting me. I looked back up at the priest. “You know what I mean.”
He nodded. “Yes. All will become clear at the proper time.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Have faith Father. This is all part of God’s plan.”
I had to admit, at times I grew rather tired of that phrase. Of course everything was part of God’s plan, wasn’t that exactly the point of an all-powerful, all-knowing God? But that didn’t mean that one with a slightly less Godly perspective wouldn’t still want to be able to know what was going on.
Perhaps sensing my discomfort, the other man lowered his cup. “My name is Father Antonio. I have been a priest for more than four decades now, and in all that time, I have heard a great many strange confessions.” He smiled slightly, perhaps as if remembering some choice examples right then. “But only a scant few have been stranger than yours.”
I’ll admit, that took me aback for a moment. With all that I’d seen, with all that I’d done, I knew that the world was a far stranger place than most would want to believe, but to hear that there was stranger still out there than what I had confessed?
That was a bit unexpected.
10 – Chicago
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO
This time, I couldn’t help it. I had to make the leap. “Your bother?”
He smiled at my outburst, but it was a sad smile and he shook his head. “No. Not then. There was no one there.”
“But you said…”
“I said that it was the family knock. We’d all heard it, all three of us. But when I went up to go check, there was no one there.”
I thought back to how the boy had vanished after making his confession. The similarity was more than a little unnerving.
“So I went back to the table. It took a while to get everything back under control–mother was nearly hysterical–but eventually we managed to convince ourselves that we’d all just been hearing things. Some sort of mass hallucination.” The look on my face must have been more than enough to convey my disbelief. “At that moment, anything was easier to believe than the truth.”
I nodded. Slowly. At that point, I thought that the more likely explanation was that someone had just somehow managed to figure out their secrete not–it wasn’t that complicated after all. And he’d told me about it, hadn’t he. And I hadn’t even had to ask. Still, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“So what happened next?”
“We finished dinner. Went back into the living room to watch the football game. Mom didn’t care, but dad’s always loved football games.”
“And?” I didn’t want to push, but I found that my mind kept leaping ahead to different possibilities. I didn’t know which of them I was looking forward to, but I had a feeling that at the very least I knew which one the man with the gun thought was the truth.
“And then the knocking started again. This time there was only a few sporadic knocks before it fell right back into that same family pattern again. He didn’t repeat the pattern, but he didn’t have to.
The whole scene was already in my head. The family sitting down, still shaken from the events at the dinner table, only now beginning to really believe that nothing had happened after all. That it really had been just their imaginations. Or the wind in the trees. Or some sort of neighborhood critter–that had just managed to learn their secret knock… right.
In any case, then it had happened again.
“So who was it?”
He looked at me again, his eyes red but clearer now.
“This time it was him. Alex. My brother. Standing there in his jeans and t-shirt, looking just he always had.” I thought back; had the vanishing boy been wearing jeans and a t-shirt? I couldn’t recall. It seemed reasonable attire though, particularly for a teenage boy.
“Wait, what was he buried in?” If he’d just come back the dead, wouldn’t he have been in a suit or something?
“Well, that’s just the thing.” He hesitated again. I couldn’t really see why though, it’s not like his story could get that much stranger. “See… he was cremated.”