New Year’s Eve, a sultry bar—The Rusty Anchor, the windows echoing the light tapping of the wind—the spirits of old fishermen looking for a leeward place to steady themselves from the bitter winds and frigid salty ocean spray that made their life so short. No rattle of bottles or clinking of mugs, at least not tonight.
Most old-time sailors were long-gone to their rest, of course, and the younger ones who fished on the big trawlers were tucked in with their families and friends for a night of celebration that was more about balls dropping, champagne, and movie of the year than any business on these gloomy docks.
He glanced at the clock, a few ticks after nine; a glance in the mirror gave up the bar’s only patron, himself. The bartender had disappeared in back. No matter, he preferred being alone.
How had he gotten here? Was he the victim of dreadful improbable events that should not have come together? What was that science program he had recently watched: the Kuiper belt? …in extremely rare circumstances a chunk of ice would get pulled into the gravitational vortex of the earth, collide with the atmosphere with such velocity that it would burst into flame, and leave nothing more than a brief flicker of light in the sky… He felt a smile begin to unfurl. Another sip of whiskey and the notion of a smile vanished. Few would see the chunk of ice disappear. None of the few that did would care. Was he that chunk of ice—here he was now: cold and alone, trapped in a situation too late for any possibility of escape?
He lowered his glass into one of the many spills covering the splintered wooden bar, and tapped the bar twice. The bartender appeared without a look or a word, and tipped the three-quarter-full bottle. He nodded, took a sip and allowed a furtive look towards the door. How long had he been here? One, two hours? And still no sign.
His left hand quivered. He pressed it against the bar; smears of blood. He had used his shirt to wipe away what he could before tossing the shirt into the bay. The t-shirt and black coat he wore were more suited for autumn that a cold winter’s night. There would be no going back to his room to get another shirt or a better coat. That ship had sailed, so went the old axiom: bridges burnt, horses or fucking cows leaving the barn with the doors open; whichever way the words went. His brain exploded in full realization that none of those ridiculous clichés gave any measure to the magnitude of what he had done.
“Bless me, Father…” The subtle aroma of spring flowers floated in through the small opening in the wall, lavender maybe; a memory of his sister popped into his consciousness. He pushed it away, but the smell lingered, as did the memory of Celia. He was unable to identify for sure what the wonderful aroma was, not being versed enough to tell one flower’s smell from another. His knowledge ended with telling the difference between a rose and a tulip, only then because he saw so many roses at funerals, and the lilies were always on display at Easter. He knew even less about women, coming from a family of four boys, and only one sister, she much younger than him. He had been shuffled off to the seminary at a very young age; his best memory of her was she as a child.
He came back to the present as he registered the woman stumbling with her words. “I don’t know when it was I had my last confession.”
He had given up long ago saying, “What are your sins, my child?” Maybe that was when he had found out early on that few of his visitors were in fact children, and their dumping of sins was often as repetitive as a drunk saying, one more time, he would never drink again as the last vestige of a relationship passed out his door, someone escaping the wreckage that would most surely continue. Not that he condemned anyone; he merely came to accept that the repetition of sin was not much different than taking a piss or a dump. You wipe your ass and move on until it happened again.
…and so he said, “You bring a most wonderful reminder of spring flowers. What is it you would like to share with God?” He would have liked to explain that he was not playing at being God. He was more facilitating a direct talk with God where one could be honest and sincere. He believed that to some degree. Yet, he knew somehow that the people who told him their sins looked to him to forgive them, as if he were the one in judgment. There was no amount of talking that could explain the difference, and so he allowed the sinner to follow through as they saw fit.
Silence, other than her breathing, labored short breaths, and then a small sniffle; different than the effect of a head cold.
He held back a smile as he realized he was sort of an expert on such things; sitting here in the dark, his ears became his eyes. He had learned to read what the penitents were feeling and groping to share, often in conflict with what their words depicted.
“Father! It’s… it’s okay if you hate me for what I’ve done. I’m sure God does.”
She was a young woman. Best he go slowly and not come across insincere. “God does not hate anyone. He hates sin, but he loves the sinner.”
“I have to tell you my sins before I can be forgiven, right?”
Her pain was almost palpable. “No, you may focus on your sin and then ask for forgiveness. Our church teaches that it might be best to share with a priest as doing so states clearly what the sin might be, and in granting absolution both the penitent and priest understand the sin being forgiven. The priest might then offer a suitable penance before granting absolution, such that the penitent might reflect on the sin so as not to repeat it.”
More silence. She blew her nose…, and stuffed the tissue in her handbag. She shifted on her knees, and in the dim light through the small latticed window he watched in his peripheral vision as she bowed her head.
“I didn’t want them to do it, but I let them.” She got up, pushed the door to where it slammed against the confessional booth. He could hear her receding footsteps echoing against the walls and ceilings of the expansive basilica as she made her exit, …and then silence.
The door opened, and someone else entered. “Bless me, Father…”
The young woman’s confession had taken place months ago, somewhere around the middle of July. His first assumption was that it was a young girl having her first sexual encounter. He remembered discussing that very topic with many of the other priests. He never saw it as temptation. He saw it as the natural urges of young men and women to pursue what the universe had given them—an incredible need to continue the species. How many got too mixed up in the sin and missed entirely the new responsibility of being sexually active? Once again he was no expert, but he had heard every view from it was God’s fault for making them want sex, to it’s not really sex unless there’s a child conceived.
He pondered in the weeks to come that the young girl might carry a more serious grief. The word that lingered with him from what she had said—them. That gave her sin a different possibility. Plus, her demeanor was one of total desperation. He thought of his sister then. No matter, the young lady was now long gone. He had decided to let the mystery settle in with the many others that came to him in the confessional over the years.
Now as he sat at the bar, even a small glimpse into her suffering soul resonated into a terrible sadness. He had not come here tonight for his usual escape; the finality of that flashed through his mind.
He loved the docks and he loved the water. He also loved to drink. Not to excess, just enough to keep the edge off of the strange life he led. It was by no means a hard life, but it had those few moments which shifted his very soul to scream stop; let me off. He had suffered the indignation of the priest scandal, where even a few of his pastor friends were shuffled away. He had scolded himself for being so naïve, even worse when he recalled some of the confessions where young men and women took on as sins of their own the cruel acts of the maggots and the filth of society. But even now he could not help but lift his glass to the true sinners. “May God forgive them.” There was no one about to even answer; so he did, “Amen.” And he allowed the priest inside him could forgive. It was a whole other matter for the man who had bared witness to so much. Was he and the priest even the same? Another question that would never have an answer. And so, he had found the docks, and the many bars in the area that asked no questions of him.
Growing up he had assumed he would be a fisherman like his father and two of his older brothers. When his mother died everything changed. His father became withdrawn and angry. His father’s love of whiskey went well beyond his hold on the bottle, and in many of those drunken stupors his father informed him that it was his mother’s wish he become a priest. In his final year of high school the decision was made, and he was shipped away.
His brothers, sister, and father had come to celebrate his ordination, and even though they were on different coasts they would find time to visit every so often, each telling him how their mother would be so proud of him. Still, he secretly longed for the sea and the life of a fisherman.
It did not bother him as his brothers started families that he could not. Families, he soon learned, often came with secrets and dark places in great violation of the love and safety they depicted to represent. The things they told him in the confessional scorched his soul to where he would come back to his small room, get down on his knees, rock back and forth, and dream of the sea: wind and rain, high swells and white water, hard work, far away from the sins of this world. And every time he would get up off his knees and move on; his mother had wanted him to become a priest, even though he never once remembered her saying that to him directly.
Perhaps the Nor’easter was the catalyst for all that was to come. And as one disaster might well insist on another, so it was that the second one went on to stamp a spot of darkness on his soul that knew no God or master. Two of his brothers on one boat, a hell of a storm, both lost at sea up along the coast of Maine. He had moved back here then to console his father, sister, and his only other brother. But his father was broken, and his sister soon found herself alone in a house with no parenting.
Instead of recognizing that Celia was a lost girl without a mother or father he had merely resented the shame that came when the principal of her school tracked him down to discuss his sister’s fall from grace, and his father’s apparent inability to deal with it. She was skipping classes, producing only failing grades, disrupting classes—the few she bothered to attend—and the principal informed him she was using drugs.
He talked with his brother, but Jared had family problems of his own. His father merely brushed him off as a priest who knew nothing about real life. When he finally spoke with Celia she screamed that she didn’t need a priest, she needed someone who gave a damn, not some prayer spewing robot who hid away safe and sound in some boy’s club. Her cutting remarks accused him of not being there for her. It left him feeble and useless. He took on her problem as his own, he the one being shamed, he the one having to deal with the circumstances—the school and the principal. He had totally missed the child that so needed help and guidance; he only saw the lashing out and the rebellion and his shame. He let his own feeling take precedence over the real guts of the situation. Returning to his parish, he researched the many forms of wayward behavior of teenagers, spending weeks on the computer looking for a solution, when he realized, too late, all he was doing was avoiding getting truly involved.
She skipped out one evening and was found overdosed on a park bench while he sat safe and sound in his parish rectory, becoming an expert on teenage difficulties.
Not a year later he received a call from the local police department asking if he was the son of Jack Martin. With the help of the many empty bottles spread about his house, his father had joined them there on the floor one spring morning. No need to research that one; he was dead; the alcohol had done its job.
He swore he would never leave a soul in need ever again.
This bar held a picture of his brothers and the others lost, but none knew they were his brothers, and none knew he came to drink not only for them, but for himself and his failure of his sister and father.
He gave another tap on the bar.
That smell again, spring flowers. “You’ve come back.” An icy chill shook his being.
“I have nowhere else to go.”
“Do you not have family?”
“I did, once.” Silence. Shuffling as she shifted from one knee to the other, clearly uncomfortable.
“Would you like that we meet outside the confessional where you might sit and be more comfortable? Something he rarely offered.
“Oh, please. Yes.”
“If you will sit in one of the pews in front, I’ll finish with the two other parishioners waiting outside, and we will find a private place to talk.”
“Thank you, Father. But I only have a few minutes.”
“I’ll be quick, promise.”
She got up and left. No footsteps echoing off the walls this time. He listened to his two parishioners’ confessions, gave them absolution and their prayers of penance. The Lord would forgive him that he might have sounded a little impatient with the second penitent. He took off his purple stole and exited the confessional to an empty church, other than the woman facing forward in the front pew. It was still two hours to the Saturday evening mass.
He gave a slight cough so as not to frighten her. She turned and stood up. She put her hand out, and then pulled it back. He reached out his, and when she took it he covered it with his other hand, and smiled. He saw his sister’s eyes, not the same color, very much the same sadness. “There’s a rectory in back where we can sit and share a tea while we talk, if that will be okay.”
She nodded, and followed him. He offered her a seat and readied the tea. He noted as she glanced at her watch, and he hurried with the tea. Otherwise she kept her head down until he joined her.
Mid twenties perhaps, maybe a little more. Those dark circles on her eyes told a story of its own. He took a sip of his tea. “You said you had family, once. Would you care to tell me about it?”
“I met you many years ago.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t remember.”
“That’s okay. You gave the speech at the service when my brother and father died. There were lots of people. You were even sadder than me. You had lost your two brothers to that storm.”
“Oh my, your brother and father were on that fishing boat. Oh, yes I remember… you and your mom, such red eyes, Stacey… Stacey Driscol.”
She smiled. The smile disappeared as quickly as it had come.
“The sorrow, ten people died…” He forced himself back. “How’s your mother?”
Another icy chill like the one in the confessional, dominos being stacked before they would all tip one against the other to some horrible finale.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.”
“You’re the only one I can talk to. I saw your grief and your pain even as I felt my own. I need someone who might understand what I’ve done. I don’t think anyone who has not suffered can really understand.”
He nodded and kept his eyes on her; no need to say anything, let her continue.
“Soon after the funeral, my mom… took her life, and with two months to go until I finished school I was alone. I wish they had left me alone. I gave up on God, the world, everything.”
“God will never give up on you.” Damn, I should have said nothing.
“Oh Father. I’m so far beyond needing God to do anything, including forgiving my sins. I could have handled being alone, the bottom of that hole would have been bearable.”
“What do you need?” Please don’t run. I can help you.
“I need you to take her away. …My daughter. She should not suffer for my sins. You have to help me.”
“I can get in touch with child services and…”
“No, no, you’re not listening. I came to you because there’s no one else who can help me.” She looked at the watch again, and got up to leave.
He grabbed her arm. “Wait, wait, I’m sorry. Tell me what you need me to do, please.”
She turned and stared into his eyes. “I have to go now. Can I come back tomorrow?”
“Yes, of course. What time?”
“Two, maybe three.”
“I’ll be here.
She turned and ran from the rectory.
He glanced at the clock on the barroom wall. Ten had come and gone. The bartender had made two more visits, and the bottle was now better than half-empty.
One other person had come into the bar, asking for directions to a cruise ship. The person had seemed excited and anxious he not be late for departure. The bartender had explained that this side was all about fishing boats; the cruisers could be found on the other side, and he pointed to where outside his barroom door would show the well lit piers on the other side of the bay.
Perhaps she had changed her mind. A deep remorse took hold. Not only for what he had done but that she might have to witness and withstand the terrible aftermath. And her daughter, and her baby, what would happen to them? He clamped his right hand over his left to stop the shaking.
Had he lost his way with God? What a silly question, as if God had some plan, some vision for everyone that lived or had ever lived. He had lost his way with mankind, and most importantly his family. He might not have been able to save his brothers, but he sure could have done more for his sister and his father. At least he had connected again with Jared; though the two needing each other might be a better take on the reality of the situation. And every one of their meetings brought along the ghosts of their pasts where no amount of talking and sharing could make them at peace. There was a bond of shared misery and guilt, and that somehow covered the shame.
The next day, a little after two, she returned. This time he had the tea prepared, and even added a few cookies.
“If you can’t help me, say so, and I’ll leave.”
“Of course, I’ll help you as best I can…”
“Okay, but once I tell you, that’s it. I don’t need you thinking and questioning, or wanting time to consider. If that happens I leave and never come back.”
“I’m not sure what you’re asking, but, yes, I understand.”
“After my mother died, I was three months from turning eighteen. There was no other family. Instead of carting me off, they thought it best I stay on in my home with a guardian, and finish my last few months in school, and as an adult at eighteen I could get a job and take over my family house.”
Stacey lowered her head and touched her belly. “I didn’t care much about living at the time, so I merely went along which what was arranged.”
Her story went from a sad tale of being left alone to incredible abuse at the hands of her guardian and the guardian’s boyfriend and his buddies. Even before school was out she was being fed drugs and alcohol to where she participated in anything and everything offered.
After school ended, the house was summarily sold, the money taken by her captors and she was moved to a house well isolated from any prying noses. Two other girls were added to the household, and the three were made to offer a consortium of sexual favors for paying customers.
She was cursed and beaten when found pregnant, and made to deliver her baby in the basement, the men watching and cheering her on, even as the girlfriend smacked the tiny child into life.
She was immediately after that put on the pill, a prescription that came without any visit to a doctor, the result being that four months ago she found herself pregnant again.
The only way she could get out to visit this church was because her four year old daughter was being left behind as a hostage, her captors too lazy to shop for themselves, their laziness at least providing the cover for her visits to him.
She went on to explain that one of the girls who had joined them had recently disappeared, and that the disappearance was final. They were none at all too subtle in explaining that the same would go for her and her daughter should she not do what she was told.
She believed that no matter who she went to for help, they would find out, first kill her daughter, and then kill her. She emphasized that a priest could not talk to anyone as this was a confession of sorts. So, he was the only one she would talk with.
The tears streamed down her cheeks as she told the last of her story. She continued to rub her stomach and wipe her eyes. “I can’t let them kill my daughter. And if I stay it will even be worse for her, and now…”
It was his head that went down this time. Celia had no one to talk to. His father in a drunken stupor, Jared lost in his own life, himself wrapped up in the work of God. His sister all alone sitting on a park bench trying to find some escape that perhaps she did indeed find; all because her remaining family kept thinking about dead people more than the living. The autopsy had showed her to be three months pregnant. The dark spot on his soul shivered as he remembered the details of the coroner’s report being read to him.
He reached out to hug her, to hug his sister. She recoiled and fled from the rectory. He followed. “Stacey, Stacey, please wait. I’m sorry. Please, let me talk to you.”
She halted but did not turn around. “I would kill myself. I should have. But then I would have given my daughter what my mother gave me.” She rubbed her stomach. “And this one pounds my insides. She wants so much to be alive. Even more than I want death.”
He went around to face her. “I understand what you’re feeling.”
“Then you know why I no longer want or need a God. But, I do need someone, someone that understands how desperate I am. Will you help me?”
A few clicks before twelve. The bottle was all but empty.
He had gone back to his room after that last encounter with Stacey, got down on his knees and tried to find the sea. But there was no escaping this time. Them. That was the same word his sister had used. “You’re no better than them,” she had screamed during their last encounter. He now understood what Stacey had meant when she used the word. And he finally understood what his sister was trying to tell him, and he had refused to hear. All the listening to sins, the kind words, the absolution, yet he had not heard his baby sister cry out that she had been raped, and then ignored by her own family. He might as well have done it to her himself. He had, and now his dead sister was coming back to witness his failure and suffer his weakness a second time. His heart cracked into pieces, his mind sped out of control: the insanity of it all, the hopelessness, the sundering of innocence into depravity and guilt, utter despair, …and then nothing.
It was dark when he opened his eyes again; his knees ached. He crawled toward the bed and cradled his head in his arms against the quilt. Tears followed tears until there could be no more, and he remained on his knees until the light came.
His brother had not believed him when he told him what he had to do. Of course he left out the details, but explained the circumstances many times over. The two had argued a bit about their sister, each wanting to take the blame that the other strived to embrace. He looked at his cell phone, knowing Jared would not contact him. He had demanded him not too. There would be no trace to what was ordained to happen. Stacy would call Jared when she arrived, from a disposable phone he had gotten for her; if she arrived. Dear God, please let her show up.
A change of name for her and her child, a new life with the two-hundred thousand that sat in his late father’s estate for him to claim. His brother had found a place where she would be safe. He knew of course that she would not feel safe no matter where they took her to. She firmly believed they would track her down and kill her, her daughter, and her baby. But Stacy carried another secret she had not shared with him.
The barroom door opened. He led her to a booth in the corner where she laid her daughter who was fast asleep.
“I’m sorry I’m late.” She looked down at her daughter. “She was sick and throwing up. I couldn’t take her out in the cold. I had to pay the clerk at the motel to go get her some soup. She finally fell asleep. She glanced at the clock over the bar. Plus, …getting a cab this late on New Year’s Eve.”
He sent the bartender away with two-hundred dollars in his hand, telling him they would be departing shortly. The bartender grinned with some evil conclusion he had made of the scene and headed to the back once again.
“You have to come with me. You know they’ll kill you if they find out you helped me, don’t you?”
“Stacey, make the call to my brother. It’ll take him a few minutes to get here.”
He passed her the disposable phone, the number ready to dial. “Yes, I’m here… We’re ready. She passed him back the phone even as she kept looking around, then at her daughter, and finally back at him. “I’ve never been more afraid in all my life. Please, take my daughter, and let me go back. I’ll kill them all, and she’ll be safe.”
He put his hand on her cheek. She shriveled and backed away a little. “There’s no going back. I watched as you pushed your daughter out through the window.”
“You were watching…?”
“Please, let me finish. I gave you a half hour to get on your way, and I climbed back in through the window you left open. You were right of course. They were all passed out, the extra strong dose of drugs and the crushed sleeping pills I provided did its job; even the other girl was fast asleep. Their early New Year’s party was meant to start early and end late. The extra dose of sleeping pills added to the dope made sure it ended early.”
He knew he couldn’t give her the details of what he did next; he couldn’t bring himself to believe it. Still it all flashed through his memory.
The immense amount of blood. He slit the girlfriend’s throat first. He didn’t want to see her eyes, but he knew who she was from the description he had carefully gathered from Stacey without her knowing his intention. She fell back onto the bed as the blood spurted out her neck. Her boyfriend was naked, his hand on his crotch, snoring in his stupor, a stupid smile on his face from some dream he did not deserve to have, the two lip rings that Stacey had described were holding onto something that had not made it completely in or out of his mouth. He pushed the pillow over his face and slit his throat, but he still sprung awake and grabbed his left hand. He tried to stab at the hand and did more damage to himself than the boyfriend. He finally managed a stab to the chest.
The second man in the bed tried to sit up. Covered from head to foot with etchings he looked much like an ad campaign for a tattoo parlor. He was the one who had raped her first. He screamed an obscenity. A slice to his throat turned the screaming to gurgles and he slid back down on top of the other two dead bodies.
The other girl was by now awake. Stacey has said they called her Blondie. She scratched her blond hair as she tried to focus on what was happening. He screamed for her to get her clothes on and get out; she did so and was out of the house before the blood stopped dripping from his knife. His white shirt was covered in blood. He poured the two gallons of gas over the bedroom, lit the match and left. He removed his shirt and tossed it in a ball on the floor of the car, and put his black coat back on.
He left the rectory sedan a mile or so from the docks, wiped his blood seeping hand with the remaining clean spot on his shirt, and tossed the shirt and the knife into the bay, then headed for the bar.
He had almost lost his focus as he recalled the events. Stacey was staring at him, and so he hurried to continue. “I got the girl out of the house, but the girlfriend and her two boyfriends are dead; I burnt the house down so it will take some time if ever to figure out who they were. I leave it to God to figure out what they were.”
“Oh, Father, no.” She shook her head, again and again.
“Stacey, you never have to fear they will come for you.”
“Oh, Father, no. I was going back to kill them once my daughter was safe.”
“Yes, I know your secret. I knew you had no intention of saving yourself, only your daughter. I could not allow that.”
Head lights flashed in the window. “Let’s go. He picked up the child and carried her to where his brother waited. His brother tried to talk with him. He pushed him back inside the car. “No, no, please go.”
She looked him in the eyes. “Father, this was not…”
“Go. It’s what needed to be done.”
She kissed his cheek.
They sped away.
He touched his cheek; the cold wind brushed the warmth of the kiss away. A bell tolled; he looked out across the bay as a cruise ship pulled away from the pier. He turned and went to find his penance; a penance that was not something a few simple prayers would satisfy.