Estimated reading time — 35 minutes
“Forgive me father, for I have sinned,” she giggled as she traced her fingers across his chest.
Heather Wilson; she was young, much younger than him. Eighteen to be exact, the singularity of youth and maturity, or at least the age where mistakes were bound to occur. She caught his eye immediately when she began showing up, staring intently as he would go on with his work. As he came to find out, her intent was one built upon desire rather than interest. She was temptation in the form of a seventeen year old when they had their first “private meeting.” It was morally incorrect, he knew it all too well, but that never stopped him from committing his actions. Desires, aside from some being too hard to ignore, come in large numbers, especially when you’re a priest.
“I absolve you of all your sins,” Father Wren said between a smile.
Reverend Wren Thomas, the community priest and worship leader of the Ascension Catholic Church. He was well known in the community, not for his sexual behavior but for his sermons, guidance, and spirituality to the catholic faith. The doctrine teaches that all humans are sinful in nature, and Wren was no exception. He had his secrets, all of which ranged from miniscule to somewhat troubling, but none more so than his clandestine sexual relationship with Heather Wilson. His position was the vital cause of the immorality, the fact that he was forty-six was just more fuel to the aberrant blaze.
Wren had been meeting with Heather in secrecy for over six months. He could remember the first time she came to his sermon; how she eyed him down the entire time, how difficult it was for him to not do the same. It wasn’t until the fourth week that she approached him in that tight yellow petal dress. Wren would come to find out that was her favorite choice of clothing, and as fate would have it, it happened to be his favorite as well. Her looks were enough to make any man swoon in her presence; the dress was what set Wren over the edge.
Ever since then their relationship had been a well kept secret, oblivious to the minds of the other members of the congregation. Even Heather’s parents, who attended just as much as she did, saw Father Wren as a champion for scripture and the path of righteousness. Had her parents (or anyone) found out that he was having sexual relations with a seventeen year old, he would have met a worst fate then excommunication. But she was legal now; the government could hold nothing against him now when their relationship was consensual. It wasn’t the government he was worried about however, someone in a much higher position stained his sense of guilt.
“God, eight-fifteen already?” Heather said as she observed the clock by her bedside. “My parents are supposed to get home around nine.”
“I don’t want to overstay my welcome,” Wren replied.
“Sometimes I wish you would,” Heather said as she leaned in for a kiss.
Wren met her lips as quickly as his body would allow him to move. He never understood why a girl so young was into a man as old as he was. Perhaps it was the inexperience of her age, making her clouded vision subject to wanting something she didn’t need. Maybe she just had a thing for older guys, or maybe she had a thing for priests. Wren had no idea what Heather’s motive for sleeping with him was, and truthfully he didn’t really care to know. He enjoyed it all too much.
After a quick succession of lip pecks, Heather slipped her way out of bed and made her way to the closet on the left side of her room, searching for a cute pair of night clothes she could throw on to tantalize Wren just a bit more. Wren followed suit, shuffling on his pair of Wrangler jeans, Abbey Road t-shirt, Nike tennis shoes, and black hoodie. It was the last kind of wardrobe anyone would suspect a priest of wearing. Wren wanted to keep spotting outside of the church to a minimum, especially in the company of one of the younger girls in the congregation.
As Heather slipped out from her closet Wren was able to catch a glimpse of the garments hanging from the racks. Shirts and pants were all part of a normal wardrobe to Wren’s eye, but seeing the line of different colored dresses made him want to stay just a little longer. A hidden rainbow of lust behind the doors of a teenager’s closet, he had to leave before his clouded judgment brought him back to the sheets of Heather’s bed.
“See you Sunday,” Heather said with a quick wink of her left eye.
“See you then.” He replied as he closed the bedroom door behind him, making sure to get one last view of the closet before exiting the room entirely.
And so it was once again that he was exiting the Wilson’s apartment, unbeknownst to the owners of his presence and purpose in their home. As he reached the hall leading to the front door, a phrase he had heard from an immeasurable amount of people for the vast majority of his life had filled his mind. A phrase uttered by Heather Wilson as she laid naked on her bed, a girl twenty-eight years apart from the man who against his moral code had committed one of the greatest offenses against his position in the church.
Forgive me father, for I have sinned.
Sins; Father Wren could have said it himself, he had far too many to count.
Outside the air was thick and still. It was early in the night, yet late enough for the sun to be overtaken by the moon. The forecast called for clouds to roll in by seven, and as Wren looked to the sky he could tell that they were abundant. The moon, wherever it was, had become blotted out by the clouds overhead. The only illumination erasing the darkness was the periodic street lamps and the storefront lights protruding out onto the sidewalk. Looking around Wren noticed that there weren’t many people walking about, just the way he wanted it. Wren pulled the hood over his head shrouding his face in shadow, content on making sure not a single person he passed would be able to recognize him.
Making his way down the street, Wren couldn’t help but wonder how he could get away with such an act as he was periodically committing. In his younger years, he felt devoting his life to the cause was something worthwhile. His faith was strong, and his willingness to help others achieve salvation was even stronger. But it seemed that with age came a new outlook among other things. He no longer felt the same connection to the spirit as he once did. At one time his connection with God was an adamant bond, but as he continued on the ropes had become increasingly worn down and used up. For all of his decreasing devotion however, Wren didn’t find it suitable to simply leave his position for reasons of deteriorating faith. The people believed in him, trusted him, and as he came to find out, were oblivious to a double life he could play behind their backs.
Wren noticed a man approaching from the opposite direction. As they passed, Wren noticed the man to be Brian Humphrey, a man who was a regular attendee at Sunday mass. Brian passed Wren without so much as giving a second look. He stopped just outside an alley and turned back to see if Brian had considered that his Pastor had just casually walked by him on the street. No sign of alteration, it seemed that Wren’s disguise was foolproof, it seemed-
“Excuse me, Father!” a voice from the alley called out. “Could you spare a moment of your time?”
Wren jolted with shock, turning his head down the alley to the figure that stood in the dark. He was dumbstruck as to how someone saw through his disguise, especially from the angle the figure was standing. That was another thing, who exactly was the figure in the shadow of the alley? Judging from the voice it was coming from a man, but aside from that Wren had no other guess as to who was standing beyond the veil. Wren calmed himself, knowing that making a scene would only worsen his position.
“Not at all my son,” Wren called out, “how may I help?”
As the figure called back, it slowly made its way towards the light of the street lamps.
“Oh, it’s not how you can help me; it’s how I can help you. Why don’t we take a walk?”
Emerging from the darkness of the alley came a young man wearing a blue letterman jacket accenting his grey cargo pants. His dirty blonde hair draped down to the cusps of his shoulders while his dark brown eyes became the stand out feature of his moderate complexion. He didn’t look like a mugger, nor did he really seem all that dangerous. Wren eased off his tension, if only by a small margin.
“Shall we?” the man said as he extended his arm towards the sidewalk.
The man had a cool demeanor about him, as if he was aware he was controlling the situation. Taking a few steps down the street, he turned back to Wren and gave a waving motion with his hand. Cautious as he was, Wren reluctantly followed, allowing himself to be the selfless man the community expected him to be.
“Pretty dark out tonight,” the man said, “don’t you think?”
“The night is black without a moon,” Wren replied.
“It sure is. How was your day Father? No doubt brighter than the current state of the sky I take it.”
Wren quickly thought back to Heather lying naked beside him, committing sin in grand fashion no more than twenty minutes ago.
“Uneventful,” Wren replied, “just a normal evening I suppose.”
“Say,” the man replied between a chuckle, “you do have a sense of humor. You’re always so stoic when you’re giving sermons; I guess you put up a pretty good act.”
More thoughts of Heather; the way her tongue twisted around every crevice, the little mole on her left thigh. He shook it off, observing the man in his entire mystifying swagger as they walked side by side down the block.
“Might I ask your name my son?”
“Back to the norm I see. Does it matter what my name is?”
“I have nothing to call you outside of ‘son,’ or ‘sir’ if you prefer. Or if you like I’ll-”
“Francis, just call me Francis. It’s what I’ve been using for a long time; don’t see why I should change it now.”
“You say that like you’re against it.”
“Well, let’s just say it’s not my favorite. Basically it was-”
He was interrupted by a subtle buzzing sound that emitted itself in a rhythmic fashion. Wren looked over to see Francis dig into his pocket to pull out his phone. Wren couldn’t get a good look at the screen, but he noticed a sudden shift in Francis’ facial expression when he looked at the caller I.D. The cool demeanor he had before was replaced by a look of apprehension. He pointed his index finger up at Wren, signifying he would need a moment to speak to whoever was on the other end.
“Yes? I’m aware of what I’m-… no… of course I can… I’ll get to that eventually, but-… yes… yes; I understand… whatever you say.”
With that he hung up and slid the phone back into his pants pocket. Wren heard Francis begin to say something under his breath. He wasn’t able to catch what Francis was saying, not only due to volume at which he spoke, but also because much of what he was saying didn’t sound like English.
“Is there an issue?” Wren asked.
“Hmm? Oh not exactly, my father just doesn’t like me lollygagging is all. He’s a very ‘straight to the point’ kind of guy. I don’t get out much, but when I do I like to take my time. You understand right?”
“…Uh-huh,” Wren replied with confusion, “I think I see what you mean?”
“Let me ask you something Father; do you enjoy your position? As a man of God I mean.”
“Well sure, I believe I have made the right choice in life. It’s not easy mind you, and I have given into temptations more than I would have liked, but I believe these are all just tribulations on the proving path.”
“Temptations you say? And here I thought a priest was supposed to be void of any and all temptations.”
Wren was getting suspicious, he had never seen Francis around the church before, but he seemed to be inquiring into a territory where most didn’t tread. He couldn’t quite figure Francis out; something seemed off about him, in a way a person may suspect a thief in their store. He had a lingering presence but displayed himself with decisive calculation. Wren figured he could play along for a little while longer; he didn’t want to do anything to set him off.
“We are human so yes,” Wren continued, “but nothing major I assure you. I’m not going out and killing people, but I have the occasional slip up where I’ll swear or become angry at something when it isn’t necessary.”
“Nothing major hmm?” Francis replied, his voice curled like the hissing of a snake. “Only petty curses and anger? I wonder what Heather Wilson’s parents would think of that statement.”
On the outside Wren continued to pace along with Francis as though he hadn’t missed a beat, but on the inside Wren’s reaction was that of complete distress. It didn’t seem to be mere coincidence that Francis would bring up Heather no more than ten minutes since Wren left her parent’s apartment. But how could Francis know that he was even there in the first place? Wren, though faintly panicking on the inside, continued his pace as though Francis hadn’t said a word, knowing full well that playing it cool would likely be his best bet.
He scanned his surroundings quickly and noticed a couple approaching them on the sidewalk. He recognized them as the Martin’s, a couple who regularly attends his services and would never expect to see him outside of church. Wren pulled down the brim of his hood as far as he could, just enough to see a few feet of the sidewalk before him. He had to keep appearances.
“Heather Wilson?” Wren asked. “I don’t see why she or her parents would care about my periodic anger.”
“I don’t know, you are a man of God after all. Doing His work when He Himself sits upon high heaven. How can you express living an honest life when you yourself are committing sins every day?”
Wren gave an inner sigh of relief; it must’ve been coincidence that Francis brought up Heather and her family. Perhaps he actually knew them personally, or maybe he-
“After all,” Francis continued, “you are fucking their daughter right behind their backs.”
Wren’s tension shot back up to one hundred as he stopped dead in his tracks. Francis took a few more steps before he realized Wren had stopped following him. As he watched Francis slowly turn to face him, he noticed the devilish grin etched across Francis’ face, as if he was letting all of it sink in.
“How do you know that?” Wren asked. “Who are you?”
“Now isn’t that the question of the hour?” Francis replied as he slowly paced his way towards Wren. “Such an interesting question to ask, who are you exactly, Father? That’s fitting isn’t it? Father. How many ways does that title befit you? You’re a minister obviously, if you keep fucking around with Heather you’ll likely become a father. Hell, the way I see it you’re old enough to even be her father. Does she call you father in bed, daddy maybe? As if I didn’t already know the answer, she was moaning it no more than a couple of minutes ago and-”
Wren made a quick lunge towards Francis and pinned him against the wall of the store before them. He moved with such speed that his hood fell back behind his neck, allowing him to clearly see the unchanged expression across Francis’ face, and allowing all others to see the irritated expression across his.
“Is this some kind of joke? Who the fuck are you!?”
“Come now Father, I don’t think the Martin’s would appreciate that kind of tone, especially coming from you.”
Wren froze as he heard the pair of footsteps inching closer and closer. He had completely forgotten the Martin’s were walking towards them, and in his shock he realized that his hood had fallen, exposing himself for the entire block to see. It was far too late now, he was uncovered, and the couple was close enough now that they likely witnessed the entire course of Wren’s aggressive actions. Regrettably, he turned towards the oncoming couple and formed whatever excuse he could think of.
“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” Wren began to plead. “I acted out of anger and I would never, expect, you, too…”
Wren slowed his speech as the Martin’s completely passed him without even acknowledging his presence. He knew what he did was out of his character, but it wasn’t enough for people to completely disregard him, especially those he knew. He heard dark giggling coming behind him, and turned to see Francis leaning against the wall Wren had previously pinned him against, savoring every second.
“Isn’t that strange?” Francis said. “It’s as if they didn’t even know you, like you didn’t even exist. But you’re wondering how that’s even possible; I can see it in your face. Why don’t we keep walking? There’s much to discuss.”
“No,” Wren replied franticly, “I’m not taking another step with or anywhere near you. Leave me alone!”
Wren swung his body towards the adjacent alley and ran as fast as he could. He had to run, get away from Francis as quickly as possible; it was the only thing he could comprehend. A quarter of the way down the alley he turned his head back mid run to see Francis eyeing him down from the sidewalk.
“Where are you going Wren?” Francis called out. “You can run all you want…”
Wren set his gaze forward anticipating he was now more than half way down the alley. He almost fell to the ground trying to stop himself when he saw Francis blocking his path in the shadows before him.
“… But don’t expect me to stop following you.”
“Wh-? What do you want from me?” Wren asked between heavy breaths.
“I just want to talk,” Francis said imitating a coy child. “Is that too much to ask?”
“Who are you?”
“Weren’t you paying attention back there, I’m Francis.”
“Then what are you? You’re clearly not normal given the fact that you just, miraculously, appeared.”
“Well you’re right about that, I’m anything but normal. Nor am I of this city, or this state, country… planet; though I do love spending time here. Taking in the sights, seeing the hustle and bustle, talking to the people. That’s all I want from you Wren, I just want to talk.”
“Screw you, I’m calling the police.”
Wren fumbled in his pockets to pull out his phone, his shaking fingers making it hard for the phone to be operated with any form of finesse.
“Is that the new iPhone model?” Francis asked. “Mind if I take a look at it?”
“You have a phone,” Wren said looking up from his screen, “look at your own.”
“Uh-uh, I don’t think so, I’d much rather look at yours.”
From the pocket of his letterman jacket, Francis pulled out an iPhone and began to tap on the screen. It wasn’t until Wren looked down and noticed that his phone was missing from his hand that he realized whose phone it actually was.
“You know I don’t really see all the hoop-la that comes with these things. Does this one have the voice that talks to you; Sammy, or something like that?”
“How did you-”
“Oh, what’s this? New message from Heather. ‘Enjoyed our time tonight, want to do it again sometime next week?’ Sorry Heather, Wren here is going to be a little busy for a while.”
Francis flipped the phone in his hand and tossed into the nearby dumpster with a clanging thud.
“Trust me; you won’t need that thing to bother you any longer. We can’t have your little sex toy interrupting our chat.”
His lips curled upon uttering the last words. Wren looked upon Francis with total confusion. In the shadow of the alley it seemed as though Francis was on his own turf, the field was his to control. The absence of moonlight from the clouds above gave an even more sinister vibe to Wren’s already worried suspicions. He had limited options, none of which gave promising options considering Francis’ proclaimed and displayed abilities. Wren had no other choice but to comply.
“All right then, I’ll talk. But if I have questions, I want answers.”
“Fair enough. In fact, I’ll let you start. Ask any question you want, I won’t hold back.”
“I want to know exactly who you are. Why are you following me?”
“Well you see that’s a bit of a long story, where to even begin? My name once again is Francis; no last name, no middle name, just Francis. I am not human, as I have already told and you have no doubt already inferred. My father is a powerful… I guess “subject” would be the appropriate word, and his father even more powerful than him. They are old, very old, and I like them am old, just not as old as them. You catch my drift, is that what the kids are saying these days?”
“These days? You don’t look a day over twenty-five.”
“Well aren’t you sweet. I can see that my form is quite convincing then. Who knows, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to see my true form and all its… well, don’t want to spoil the fun. It’s one of a number of skills I have at my disposal. The whole ‘jumping location’ thing that almost made you face-plant earlier was another.”
“And the Martin’s walking right past me, taking my phone right from the palm of my hand, what were those?”
“More tools in the box. Taking the phone was quite simple really considering you weren’t even looking. As for the Martin’s, well, people tend to look over what they don’t want to see.”
Wren had devoted most of his life to faith, strong confidence in what he couldn’t prove as factual, and yet even for all his capabilities Francis was an anomaly. How could he believe anything this guy was saying? Then again, how could he not believe him when he just travelled across an alleyway in the blink of an eye? Wren was lost for words, lost for any form of logical comprehension to explain his current endeavor. He recalled a particular doctrine he had taught at his sermons before: Put your faith in God and he will put his faith in you. Perhaps the same applicability could be given to sadistic youths in letterman jackets.
“Fine,” Wren continued, “assuming everything you are saying is true, why are you chasing me?”
“Like I said, I just wanted to talk.” Francis responded, his lips unable to capture his amusement.
“Well here I am, now fucking talk!”
“Language Father, watch the language. You never know who might be listening. Actually, have you ever considered that before? Who might be listening in on us at this very moment? Who might be watching us, who might be watching you? But of course you have, you believe in God don’t you? After all, he’s always listening, watching, judging. You do believe in him, don’t you?”
Wren knew the answer his position would give, knew what everyone would expect a priest to say. But it was not the response Wren had in mind. For all his unchecked debauchery, for all the unpunished revelry, how could he believe in a God when so much had gone by? He knew his true answer in his heart, deep in his mind, and judging from the glare of pleasure formed across Francis’ face, it seemed he knew Wren’s answer just the same.
“Is that doubt I see in your face Father? Strange for a man of the cloth to take so long to answer such a simple question.”
“I guess,” Wren began, “I guess you could say my faith in his presence has been tested. My belief has dwindled; it wasn’t what it used to be?”
“Oh really? As I recall that’s not what you’ve been telling people lately. In fact, judging from that response it seems you’ve been lying to every one of them for some time now. What did you tell little Miss Madeline the other day, the old widow who hasn’t been quite the same after her husband died? No wait, I think I remember, something like ‘believe in the lord as I believe.’ What a crock of shit, and the worst part is that she believed you; she ate all of that shit up without so much as a sneer. Do you see what I’m getting at here… Father? Priest? Man of God?”
Put your faith in God and he will put his faith in you. Wren began to fear that the reverse was just as true a statement.
“So what does that make you Francis?” Wren asked. “Are you God in the flesh?”
“Are you… Satan?”
“Not quite, but I serve them both. You see, those old codgers that wrote you’re precious, well maybe not you’re precious, little book back in the day got a lot of things right. But just as they got some things right, they got other things wrong. You may think God despises Satan for what he did, and maybe Satan isn’t too fond of what God did to him either. They don’t hate each other though; they’ve actually grown to become pretty good friends. God has more of a use for Satan then simply ruling over hell, God is a busy man, and needs assistance in situations he can’t attend to himself. There are a lot of bad people on this Earth, people that maybe deserve to be here less than others. God isn’t very happy with these people, but he’s a fair man, he’s willing to give them opportunities to change their ways. But when those opportunities run their course… well, that’s where we come in.”
To Wren’s creeping paranoia, the sky seemed to be growing darker above him, adjusting to the general vibe he was receiving from Francis and his words. Upon further inspection however, Wren noticed that it wasn’t the sky that was getting darker, but that everything around him was slowly becoming dimmer. As if some unknown force was gradually turning down the dial on the lights, allowing the shadows to flourish in a bitter blossom of decadence. Wren’s body began to shake with discomfort, while Francis seemed to enjoy every passing second.
“There’s a certain group I belong to,” Francis continued, “a group working on behalf of God and Satan. When Satan finds certain children who are evil in nature, when they reach a sort of boiling point, he contacts God notifying him that his domain is going to become a little more crowded. He sends him a sort of ‘naughty list,’ listing the possible candidates to be delivered to hell upon their death. If God agrees he checks them off the list, and their soul is damned for good. Now most of these people continue to live their lives as they are until the day comes when they die, when they reach their eternal home of fire and brimstone. There are some exceptions to this rule however. Some people are just too bad; they don’t know when to stop. Satan isn’t fond of these people; he likes to give them special treatment. He lets God know of these people, God determines if special action is needed, and if it is Satan informs his children, my brothers and sisters to act on his behalf. God, Satan, myself and my siblings. Judge, jury,-
“Executioner,” Wren said with disdain.
“Nice to make your acquaintance. I do so love meeting the ones that father finds to be the badest of the bad.”
It was safe to say that Wren didn’t fully understand all of what Francis was giving him. Not because of a lack of attention, but simply a lack of believability. To think that God and the devil were in cahoots with their own personal death squad. That Francis himself was a twisted vanguard of some demented order of demons, or angels, or whatever the fuck he was. He no doubt had something unexplainable about him, but for Wren to believe in every word of Francis’ speech seemed like the most foreign thing that lurked in the shadows of the alley he found himself in.
“Pardon me for my faltered trust in what you’re saying; I was never very good with holding a strong belief in things. You’re telling me I’m one of the worst people on this planet? I can think of plenty of more people worse than me. People who have committed murder, rape, cheats, liars-
“Not a liar, is that right? Last time I checked Wren, a liar is exactly what you are. A fraud of the highest order?”
“I have lied, I admit it. I have lied to my peers, my friends, even my congregation at times, I admit that. But that makes me one of the worst there is?”
“You seemed to have left out the most important figure. More than twenty years ago you dedicated yourself to live a life in the name of God. What kind of life are you living Wren, hmm? Are you the same man you swore to be all those years ago? Do you claim to be the man you really are? Openly, freely? Your life is nothing but a ruse, a sham!”
“Why does he make it so difficult then!? Why does he allow temptation to be so enticing!? What I have done is wrong, but I shouldn’t be condemned to hell so easily!”
In an instant, quicker then Wren could possibly keep up with, Francis appeared before him, his figure much more intimidating and his voice much deeper than before.
“You are in no position to make that call you filth!” Francis shouted with dark malice.
Wren reeled back in fear, throwing his hands up with what little protection they’d give against a demon from the pits of hell. He expected to be struck down for his outburst, for his insolence in the presence of such a figure. But he was left to shake in his fear for some time, eventually returning his sights back to Francis, standing before him as calmed and amused as he had been since they met.
“Is this because of Heather?” Wren asked.”Is this because of our time together?”
“It is a portion of it,” Francis replied, “but she is just the tip of the iceberg. A substantial tip no doubt, but only a part of the larger whole. You have to do a lot to get on the devil’s personal shit list, and trust me when I say you’ve done plenty.”
Wren was keenly aware of all he had done; he just didn’t want to admit all of it. But he didn’t have to admit it; Francis was more than willing to do that part for him.
“You remember your Father Wren?” Francis continued.
“He was a drunk, a pitiful excuse for a man.”
“If I recall, he was the head of his own global business. He was successful, he was renowned.”
“Outside of the home maybe, inside he became a monster.”
“Is that right?” Francis asked as he retreated into the shadows. “Tell me, if you got the chance to talk to him again, what would you say?”
“Nothing, he doesn’t deserve words from me.”
“So that’s what you think about me?” a voice from behind replied. Wren was paralyzed with disbelief, behind him came a voice he hadn’t heard since he was a young teenager. He didn’t want to turn around and face who was standing behind him, who he knew was standing behind him. But with a sense of uneasiness, Wren eventually turned to see his dead Father standing before him, wearing the same blood soaked clothes as the night they found him in his study with the bullet hole in the back of his head.
“You’re not real,” Wren said, “we found you in your study. I saw you lying dead just as you look now.”
“Does that make me any less of stain on your mind son?” his father asked.
“That’s a good word for you: a stain. You would come home from work and just start drinking like it was New Years. Every night for dinner you would have a bottle of whiskey and you wouldn’t stop till the bottle was empty. You didn’t even talk to us; mom and I would just try to avoid you because we knew how you would get.”
“You ever try running a Fortune 500 business? Do you know how much stress I had to deal with on a day to day basis? I would come home and be exhausted from work; I wanted to relax for a bit and even then I would still get phone calls about operations and concerns. I worked harder than anyone in that house. I put food on the table, I gave you a place to sleep and bathe, and I did all that! What the hell do you know about success you fucking pissant? You’re nothing but a priest who lives a sheltered lie.”
A sheltered lie, it was hard to believe his father saying something like that. Wren began to relive the moments in his head. The night when his father threw an empty bottle at him, only to miss his head by an inch. The night when his father came home and beat his mother so hard he broke her collar bone. He told the paramedics she fell down the stairs, and they believed it too.
“I became a priest because of you.” Wren replied. “I thought there was more to life than having a worthless father and I went out searching for it. You almost killed me, you almost killed mom, the only reason we’re alive is because you happened to kill yourself.”
“I put the bullet in my head because of the stress, the depression. My father built a business and I turned it into a global empire. You ever tried operating an empire, making sure every cog of the machine is turning just as it should? Become the leader of some national church and then come talk to me about stress. My business wouldn’t have gone bankrupt if you would’ve just taken over.”
“I didn’t want to be anything like you!”
“Is that so? How many times did you go into my study and find my gun?”
Wren thought back to his father’s study and the bottom drawer of his desk that held the Smith and Wesson revolver. How heavy and cold it felt in his hands, how quickly it could end his father’s life.
“How many times did you hold that gun and consider killing me with it?” his father continued. “I know that for a year you were contemplating whether you should unload the entire cylinder in me. All six rounds, right into my chest. You came close one night, walked right into my room while I was sleeping and aimed the barrel straight at my forehead. How old were you then, thirteen? You should have pulled the trigger, saved me the trouble.”
“But I didn’t, I put the gun back and went to my room. I cried for hours, lying there under the sheets praying that something would save us from the monster that came home at five every night. Who would’ve thought the monster was going to kill himself? I’m not the one who put the bullet between your eyes.”
“Does that make it any less severe to know you were considering it? What if your mother would have woken up and saw you standing at the edge of her bed with a gun pointed at me? What would she think of you then? After I killed myself you became a religious boy, you thought going to church and bible study could get rid of me. But you never forgot about me, you never forgot that night at the edge of my bed, a trigger pull away from ending my life. Even becoming a priest couldn’t keep me away. Like father like son Wren… you’re no better than me. You’ll find out soon enough.”
Before Wren could reluctantly utter another word, his father inched back into the darkness, removing himself from Wren’s life once again, just as he had so many years before. Turning around Wren was greeted to the sight of Francis sitting on top of the dumpster, his legs swaying like pendulums.
“Was that you disguised as that bastard? Cheap way to make me feel bad about the things I’ve done Francis.”
“If it helps, know that he suffered greatly for what he did. He was condemned; you had a chance to not end up like him. We were willing to forgive your decisions and thoughts towards your father; after all it was around that time that you devoted yourself to God. It was only a few years later that you made the decision to become a priest. If only you stayed on the straight and narrow, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“What’s next then? Are you going to show me putting my mother in a retirement home, or how I drank altar wine just because I was a little bit curious?”
“Need I remind you Wren that it was you who wanted to know all the marks against you. If I were to cover every single one of them we’d be here all night. Perhaps your old friend Victor could entertain you for a bit.”
The darkness closed in on Wren quicker than he could comprehend. For a brief time everything around him was submerged, he was barely able to see his own hand in front of his face. It was until the sound of chains rattling began that the darkness retreated, and from the darkness Wren could see his old friend Victor, dressed in an orange jump suit with cuffs around his wrists and ankles. This was a twisted game Francis was playing, one that Wren wanted to be no part of.
“Why did you do it Wren?” Victor pleaded. “I thought we were in it together, and yet you stabbed me in the back.”
Victor was a youth pastor and trustee at the last church Wren worked at before coming to Ascension. They struck up a friendship quickly, and when they noticed how easy it was to take money from the church, an embezzlement partnership wasn’t far behind. While Wren was busy pilfering the collection plate, Victor was diverting funds to help pay personal debts. What little they were stealing was quickly adding up, and with the surplus came suspicious eyes.
“We we’re in it together Victor,” Wren replied, “I just happened to notice people catching on before you did.”
“And so you just thought you’d rat me out, save your own skin while I was taken down for what both of us did? Do you know how much time I got for what we did? I’m still in prison to this day, and I won’t get out for another fifteen years. I haven’t seen my wife, my children; I’ve missed their entire childhood because of you.”
“You knew what you were getting into when you agreed to work with me-”
“As did you Wren! We agreed if we got caught we would go down together, and yet here you are on the outside while I’m locked in a cell every day! But you know what the worst part about it all is Wren? I know how you weaseled your way out of getting caught. Seems like Father Alwin was a man of the world just as we were.”
Wren was suspended in a state of disbelief. There was no way Victor knew about Father Alwin, how Wren bribed him with some of the money he stole in order to save his own skin. Only he and Alwin knew of that trade, but it seemed there were more eyes on them then Wren originally imagined, eyes that belonged to things that were not of this world.
“How much did you give him Wren?” Victor continued. “Remind me how much you gave up to save yourself.”
Tears began to stream down Victor’s eyes, falling onto the rusted chains securing his hands from the freedom they longed to seek. Wren could see the despair in Victor’s face, in the tears that rolled off his cheeks, he could see all that he had loss and suffered. He wanted to fulfill his request; he just didn’t want to admit that it only took five thousand to save his skin.
“Fine,” Victor said, “don’t say anything, because I know how much you gave to Alwin. How miniscule the amount was in comparison to what you took overall, and how you said you were just an accomplice to my ‘master plan.’ I know all too well what you did to me; I have to live with it every day. I don’t want your apologies, I don’t even want your sympathy; because I know what you are on the inside Wren, and that will reflect yourself far more than any bribe or lie could. We’re both being punished for what we did; the only difference is that I can see my restraints. Don’t worry though, you’ll get yours soon enough.
With his last words spoken, the rattling of his chains signified Victor’s decent back into the shadows. Wren was left alone, left to wallow in his past actions and current way of life. Victor was sent to prison only eight years ago, but to see his old friend standing right before him again made the years feel like mere months. Francis was sending the best examples to showcase the worst in Wren, or perhaps Francis was the one imitating the subjects. His father, Victor, Wren didn’t want to see what else Francis could become, he had been reminded of his past more then he would’ve liked.
“You don’t need to torment me any longer Francis,” Wren said, “I’ve seen enough.”
As if nowhere to be seen and yet everywhere at once, Francis voice encircled Wren from all directions.
“No Wren, you have not seen everything.”
“Were my father and Victor not enough? Were they not shining examples of my decaying piety?”
Silence filled the space for a time, Francis was nowhere to be seen or heard. At first Wren assumed that his words had stuck with Francis, that the findings were shown and the lesson had been learned. However, Francis had yet to show his entire hand. The tip had been enveloped, the enormity of the iceberg was about to submerge.
The silence was taken over by rhythmic clacking emanating behind Wren. From the abyss came the sound of high heels against the pavement. Their wearer, a seventeen year old girl, emerged from the shadows. Wren knew all too well who she was, for she was the very girl who forced him to transfer from his first church long ago. Jamie Alexis, the girl who wore petal skirts at every one of his Sunday masses.
“J-Jaime?” Wren said with disbelief. “Franics, don’t do this to me.”
“Hello Wren,” Jamie replied, “to afraid to face your past?”
She looked just the same as the day Wren had left her behind, as if she was suspended in time for this very moment, the culmination of more than forty years of immorality.
“I didn’t, I didn’t want to leave you Jamie, but I-”
“You left me without so much as a word Wren. We were going to get married; do you remember telling me that? We went to make love after mass, and you told me how much you loved and cared for me, how special I was to you. I always wore those dresses you liked so much, don’t you remember?”
Jamie gave a quick spin, allowing Wren to take in over fifteen years of repressed denial all at once. It was actually her standing in front of him, it had to be her. She looked just as she did when he left; same pale complexion, same blonde hair, even the same yellow dress.
“It was a mistake Jamie; we should have never gotten together. You were so young and naïve, and I was twenty one, I didn’t know what was right, I was-”
“You never loved me did you? You just used me for sex and lies.”
“I do love you Jamie… I did love you. We couldn’t keep our relationship hidden from the school, Sister Muller was getting suspicious. I had to leave or risk losing my position in the church for good.”
“You’re just a selfish fucking pig Wren, you care more about your fake status then you ever cared about me.”
“I did care about you Jamie, but I was stuck between you and my career.”
“And look what prevailed at the end of the day, you off to another town and me groveling in the dirt. And if you were so scared about our relationship getting out and risking your position, why is it that you’re sleeping with this Heather girl?”
“She’s just-, I needed-, she…” Turning his back to Jamie, Wren hid the shame that formed across his face.
“Your life is a joke Wren, a lie. You can have sex with Heather all you want, but the second someone might suspect something is going on you’ll high tail it to the next town over, or the next, or the next until there’s no one left who can accuse you of anything. You’re no better than a rapist, a killer, a fucking parasite-”
“I am not a rapist! I am not a murderer! I’m… I’m…”
Tears began to form in his eyes as Wren gazed upon Jamie staring back at him, disappointed and embarrassment merged into one cynical look. He fell to his knees and locked his watery sight on the tears hitting the pavement below him. As he quietly sobbed he heard Jamie’s footsteps approaching him from a far. He didn’t want to look at her, come face to face with his sinful nature in human form. Once the footsteps finally reached him however, he noticed that the clacking of the high heels were replaced by the pressing of sneakers. Jamie was gone, Francis was all that remained.
“Ever since you took up the cloth, you’ve been on the downward spiral Wren. You are right in saying you’ve never killed or raped, but you have killed and raped something far greater, God’s faith and trust in you. You indulge in every sinful pleasure you come across without so much as a thought to its purpose. The only time you even consider God is when you’re in church speaking to the congregation. And even then you wonder how people, you yourself at one point believed in such ‘idiocy.’ You hold the title only for the prestige, the admiration that the majority of the community looks upon you with. You are constantly distracted from your ministry, you spit curses as though you were a gypsy, you support no charities except the ones that benefit yourself, and you live a double life where the wrong side of you far outweighs the good. The people of your past and present signify your true nature. Your father, Victor, Jamie, and now Heather.
“Do you have any idea how hard it was to resist her!? How hard it was to leave Jamie behind!? They was beautiful, young, and they wanted me! Me! I know what I did with them wrong legally, and it was wrong morally. But it was consensual! How can God fault me on what I’ve done when she wanted it from me!? Heather was only five months away from being legal when I met her. What does age matter when she was that close to being considered legal?”
“I am not a cop Wren; I don’t care if you started banging her when she was ten. She may be legal in the eyes of the government now but she is still against your position in the eyes of God. And even now, when you’re being convicted of all these things, her safety and her punishment doesn’t even come across in your mind. You couldn’t give two shits about what will happen to your sweet little Heather, just as you didn’t care for all the others. At the end of the day you only care about yourself.”
It was true. For all the rebuttal and debate Wren brought to the table, it was all to save his own skin. Francis knew him, he could see through Wren’s words clear as day. Nothing Wren could say would justify his actions, and even if he did have something to come up with it would have no doubt been a fabricated lie. Pleading for understanding, pleading for guidance, they both seemed to be crafty evasions to deep into the rabbit hole. He wiped his eyes and stood up to face Francis. Pleading for forgiveness seemed to be the only thing Wren could do.
“I am sorry for what I’ve done. For all of it and whatever comes after this.”
“I’m not the one who you should be telling that too Wren. And I’m pretty sure the one you should be talking to is just about done with listening.”
”So that’s it then? You just come down here, label me guilty, and then just walk off?”
“You’re getting ahead of me Wren, I haven’t labeled you just yet.”
“You’ve been calling me a damned man ever since you found me; I think we’ve talked long enough to-”
“You’re right; I think we have talked long enough. Still, there’s one thing left for me to do before I go. Now is when the real fun begins. Don’t blink Wren, because you just might miss it.”
Before Wren realized what was happening, Francis jabbed his right hand towards Wren’s face and gripped it with other worldly strength. His index and middle fingers pressed against Wren’s forehead while the other fingers gripped against the cheekbones. Immediately Wren began to feel an intense burning sensation radiating from his forehead and surging throughout the rest of his body. As though surrounded by a dying mob, he could hear the screams and cries of hundreds of people rattling his mind. He attempted to grab Francis’ arm and push him away, but he found that all his strength had abandoned him, leaving him helpless to the dealings of his self-proclaimed executioner.
“Father Wren Thomas,” Francis spoke loudly as if he was aware of the screams plaguing Wren’s mind, “now is the time of your judgment.”
Between the fingers that gripped his face, Wren could see a grizzly transformation begin to slowly occur within Francis. Like pouring paint over a blank canvas, his eyes became blotted out in a vibrant red, with small wisps of crimson escaping from his pupils like smoke coming off the butt of a lit cigarette. His teeth became a row of jagged thorns, his tongue long and pointed like a viper amongst the newly formed thicket. Blonde hair decayed to an ash grey, two bone fins bore through the sides of his head where his ears previously were, and with each word Francis spoke his inflection seemed to descend in octave range, deeper and deeper, as if his own voice was the bridge from below.
“We have watched you Wren, as we have watched all. From the day you were born up until this very moment. You grew up fallible and we gave you a chance to change, a chance to prove your worthiness to God. Yet you took up the holy mantle only to spit in defiance to the God you swore to serve. You preach the doctrine only to live a secret life of sin and discourse. You are pathetic, you are feeble, and you are a waste of more deserving life. By God’s command you are banished from his kingdom. From this day forward till the day you join us in hell, you will walk the Earth a marked man. A scourge of the earth.”
An erupting white flash occurred, sending Wren onto his back against the pavement. The screams had stopped but his body was racked with pain, the epicenter surging from the center of his forehead. After a few seconds of recovering from his daze, he found himself exerting much more energy with any attempt to move his body. He was weaker than before, a husk of his former self. And against the walls of the alley, Francis, back to his young male form, looked down on Wren with a devilish smile.
“So it is done.” Francis said with malevolence.
“What, have you, done to, me?” Wren asked hoarsely, finding it just as hard to speak as it was to move his body.
“You are now as you truly are, a plague. Your body has become that of your soul. Filthy, stained, rotten. You can no longer hide your true nature. I have marked you this way, as I was tasked to do. This world has no more use for you, and neither does he. No one can save you; your existence is that of doom.”
Wren wanted to jump up from his position and leave his own personal mark on Francis, but he was powerless. To think he was getting away with everything for so long, especially in his position, was a fool’s gambit. It seemed that’s what he was all along; a fool. And now he was suffering for it, the way only a vengeful God could cook up. A God he served for more than twenty years; his God.
“This is,” Wren whispered, “this is…”
“What? Overdramatic? You know, I’m not a big fan of reciting the speech either but the big fella has a way of ‘keeping with customs.’”
Francis began to laugh to himself. Wren wasn’t sure if Francis was laughing at his own sense of humor, or laughing at Wren’s state of anguish. In his pain he could only think of possible routes to salvation, and in his thoughts he only came up with one. He began to drag himself towards the sidewalk beyond the alley, only knowing one logical place to go.
“Where ya going Wren?” Francis asked.
“I’ve, got to, have a talk, with someone.”
“Do whatever you want; you’re a marked man Father. Your judgment has already been passed.”
Francis stood there for a bit as Wren moved like a man who had aged thirty years in the last minute. He watched Wren writhe in pain the only way a demon could enjoy. It was reasonable to say that Francis enjoyed his tasks way too much. It made him happy, it made his father happy, and most importantly, it made the boss man happy. Sometimes Francis would wonder why the boss didn’t just smite down the sinners from His high perch in heaven. But Francis knew that his God was a kind God; allowing his children’s children to have a little bit of fun too. A moan of pain caught Francis’ ears. He turned to see Wren crawling his way towards the streets, every pull of his body a struggling effort. Francis’ grin stretched as far as his muscles would allow; all in a day’s work.
And there he stood, watching Wren drag himself to his feet and stagger around the corner of the building out into the faint light of the streets beyond.
The rain came down steadily as Father Wren Thomas approached the steps to the Ascension Catholic Church. He had no idea how long he had been walking. At some points he ended up in the middle of the road, unsure of how he got there. Other times he staggered along the sidewalk, using building corners to support his weight when he himself was too weak to carry it alone. He was drained, exhausted by the sudden loss of all his strength and will, and yet he was so close to the church that what little hope he savored had seemed enough to carry him just a few steps more.
At times during his staggering voyage he ran into pedestrians, some who recognized him through appearance rather than his rugged shambling through the streets. But even the ones that Wren recognized avoided him, as if his skin was a plague no one wanted to catch. And maybe it was, for Wren had been marked by one of the devil’s own. No one would go near him; no one would give him refuge or comfort, not even Heather Wilson. Wren gave out a sadistic laugh fit for a lunatic, ignoring the saliva dripping down the corners of his lips.
As he finally reached the steps of the church, Ascension loomed above him like a colossal monument; a monument to all his sins. He exerted what little strength he could muster, dragging his feet up the steps like a tranquilized slug. He would repent, pray all night if he had to. Pray to a God who he had turned his back on multiple times before. Who had declared him to be punished for all his selfish deeds. Who had marked him as impure, a scourge of the earth.
Upon reaching the top step, Wren hesitated before the massive doors of the church. He mustered a hoarse breath and moved his right hand towards the handle. A second chance was all he needed, a second chance to prove his worth to God.
He heard the sizzling before he felt the pain.
A surge of agony shot through his entire body, the worst of it coming from his right hand. He dropped to his knees and let out a tormenting scream. His right hand was shaking uncontrollably, his fingers locked and bent towards his palm as if he was gripping a cup that never existed. He turned his hand to examine the damage, and let out a sheepish cry when he was met with the sight.
As if he had grabbed an iron railroad spike drenched in magma, his palm was exposing the red muscle that hid underneath the now searing skin. Around the streak of red the flesh of his hand bubbled and blistered from the contact with the door handle of the church. His hand had been scorched, worse than any burn he had ever seen in his life, a burn worthy of the fires of hell. Though the pain from his hand was too immense to comprehend, he felt a sharp pain in his forehead, like a pulse, throbbing with the weight of a sledgehammer.
He fell onto his back, lying across the top of the church steps as the rain pummeled him from above. He was wheezing, unable to move any ounce of his body in any direction he desired.
“Tainted,” Wren whispered, “so unclean.”
The tears from his eyes mixed with the falling rain, the two becoming unrecognizable. Father Wren laid still in agony, the doors to Ascension shut firmly before him.
In the midday sunshine the city streets were lined with activity. Cars drove down the roads and intersections while civilians walked the sidewalks with personal conviction. Leaning against one of the buildings stood a lone man with graying hair and tan skin. Judging from his appearance he looked to be in his late fifties, but his clothes suggested that he had some sensibility of what the popular style was. He examined the people and the city around him, how much it had changed since the last time he was here. How quickly things could change in a matter of twenty years.
His train of thought was interrupted by a buzzing noise coming from his pocket. Taking the phone out he gave one glance at the caller I.D. labeled across the screen and answered as quickly as he could. Knowing who he would be talking to, the low rumble of the voice on the other end, like a cat’s purr, didn’t startle him in the slightest.
“Taking your time as always I see.” The voice on the phone said.
“I don’t see the point in rushing these things, besides I can see her just fine from where I’m standing. She’s wearing a yellow petal dress and kissing the guy she’s been seeing behind her husband’s back. Get this; she didn’t even take her wedding ring off, it’s like she has no issues sleeping with others behind his back.”
The voice gave a slight chuckle. “That’s why she was chosen and that’s why you’re there. Speaking of which, don’t you think that form you’ve taken is a little against your style.”
Francis formed a subtle grin before returning to the voice on the phone.
“It’s perfect actually,” Francis replied, “from what I remember she was in to older guys.”
Credit To – Mike Kane
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