It would be contested by none of the patrons within the West Side Catholic Church, Father Ellings was a godly man. He joined the congregation upon the passing of the priest before he, welcomed into the religious community at a time when he was most needed. Fresh from his years of religious study the man was in his mid-thirties, having devoted those years between schooling and now to his travels and to his work, to become a mouthpiece for Christianity in order to spread the word of God. Ellings was a quiet, reserved man. Average height and weight, blonde hair holding a gingered tint in the light, neatly kept at all times. He lived humbly as the church would have wished for a priest, taken care of by these people in exchange for the services he provided come Sunday morning.
The man carried no signs of addictions, not a single cigarette smoked in his life. Not a single drink of liquor in the last twenty years. He spoke not a foul word, nor a bitter statement, or so help him. He was a single man, having no wife, nor children. He succumbed to no temptation, and despite his young age, he dedicated his life to the work he had set out for. Within his three years of preaching on the less fortunate side of the city, he was a welcomed figure to those whom came and listened.
Then one evening, in walked the stranger.
Ellings hardly heard footsteps as he did his work behind the altar area, stocking the back room behind it for what would be needed for the ceremonies in the span of the next few weeks following. Yet the rattle of a curtain being pulled closed in an abrupt fashion would not be mistaken. His eyes immediately swept across the rows of oak pews, elaborate stained glass windows placed along the walls. The priest’s eyes came to rest upon the confession box that inhabited the side wall of the church. His eyes narrowed to look onward carefully, catching the movement of the fabric’s bottom edges.
It was approaching dark… it was a weeknight. There was no service of the sort to be carried out at that time of the day, nor later. Confessions were more often than not taken at midday, and he had no appointments that had been made. He had known few of his flock to come wandering in at such a late hour.
The second sweeping sound of the curtain came a mere minute or so from the first. Clearing his throat once as a muffled sound into his handkerchief, the priest took a seat. The opaque image of the stranger’s side profile hinted through the wooden panel separating the booths. The figure had made no gesture to kneel.
The voice exchanged through the paneling was male. Lower in pitch, possibly in his twenties or thirties. However, it was not a voice that matched any to his recollection. Father Ellings cast very few side glances to the divider.
“How can I help you this evening, my son?”
“You do confessions here. Tell me if I’m wrong, preach.”
“…but of course.”
There was a brief pause of contemplation on the other side. The man’s figure had not moved.
“To be real honest, I’ve never stepped into a church… let alone done this before.”
The priest’s head turned now to look at the silhouette past the divider. To his surprise, the man did somewhat of the same.
“Well, my son… let us begin and I will guide you. Repeat as I have done.”
With those words said, Elling’s hand would gesture to sign the holy cross. He watched somewhat pleased as the man did follow along.
Little did he know…The man’s hand moved in a similar pattern. Backwards all the same, impatiently done before he seemingly leaned back in the booth in a casual manner. Rather uncharacteristic of a man wishing to confess his wrongdoing to the heavens.
“Alright… what else?”
“Now you may speak freely as you wish… confess your sins, be right with the Lord and examine your conscience.”
“…and it’s confidential.”
“They say it’ll make me clear with the man upstairs, huh?” Such casual words were uttered in an entirely aloof and disbelieving tone of voice. “…and what if he’s not gonna like what I have to say?”
“As stated in John, chapter one. Verse nine. ‘But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all wickedness.” Father Ellings recited smoothly in response. A pause of silence came before the man spoke again.
“I will offer no interruption. Begin as you wish.”
“…hope you didn’t have plans.”
He heard an exhale through the dividing panel.
“Well… Father, I’ve done a lot of bad things. A lot… of bad things.”
The stranger had leaned forward ever so slightly.
“I’ve been told I swear too much. I drink too often. When I do drink it’s hurt some people around me. I’ve had a lot of nights where I didn’t remember them the next morning. Who I was with, where I was… what I said. And I know I’ve hurt people because of it. Hell… I’ve hurt a lot of people without it.”
“I’ve had a lot of bad habits. First, it was the drinking. A cigarette now and then… then it was a pack a day. Then it was the pot. Pills... Cocaine. At my lowest point, it was heroin. And I did a lot of shitty things to fund my addictions. I stole. Wallets. Jewelry. A lot of cars. Anything of value. Fought... killed. That was the first time I ever killed somebody. I was eighteen… no.., nineteen. But I didn’t feel anything from it.”
“Safe to say that I’ve let down a lot of women in my life, I know that. My mother died when I was younger. Before she did there weren’t too many good things I’d said at the time. I blamed her for a lot of things, and I regret that. When I was fourteen I left home, lived on the streets. Later on, there was a girl… I cared about her. I really did. But I was into some bad things at the time. Bad people. I let her down. I couldn’t tell you where she is, now. Wish I knew she was alright.
…I’ve had a lot of one night stands, hurt a lot of girl’s feelings. Haven’t been responsible for it. There have been times where I’ve just sort of… got angry. Lost control. I think I could’ve stopped myself, but I didn’t. Other times… I don’t know.”
The stranger in the booth leaned back. Head down.
“I let down somebody I used to call a friend. Maybe even a close friend. But a night at the bar was supposed to be a good time. Really wish it would have been... ended up south of that. I’ll spare you the details, but I’ve got a daughter I never acknowledged. Didn’t meet till she was eighteen. I know I should have been there, but I was angry at the time. I wasn’t in a good place. Neither was her mother, I think.”
Silence came yet again. While he waited for the priest’s approval to continue, it never came. The right half of the booth was motionless. So he continued. The man’s tone of voice had lowered. Before he spoke he cleared his throat. The emotion was lacking.
“I won’t sugar coat it for you, preach. I’ve got blood on my hands.
I’ve killed a lot of people, started at nineteen. Lot of 'em without hardly thinking
twice. Some for money… some because I was pissed off. Some because I could, and
I wanted to. I don’t have a number. I don’t care what the number is. If I did, I’d
sure as hell better not say it in here. The whole place would go up in flames.”
With that final sentiment given, the booth was silent. On the right side sat Father Ellings, every hint of color had drained from his face. Chills had traveled down his spine more times than he wished to count while the stranger had spoken. His eyes were stuck as wide open, staring forward to the confession booth wall. In his three years at the church, nothing had prepared the young priest. Not for this. He would not dare to look at the divider.
Whole minutes passed. He looked over to see the silhouette now sat upright as it had when he stepped into the booth. He watched the stranger’s head turn ever so slightly as he finally spoke up in a quiet voice.
“Son… do you believe in the Lord our savior..?”
He waited several nerve-racking seconds before an answer came.
“No, Preach… I don’t.”
The stranger’s head tipped back against the wall. It then turned ever so slightly as if to look through the screen.
“I’m gonna let you in on a little secret.”
No answer came. The priest’s hands shook in his lap.
“You’re probably sorry to hear it… I came to give a confession, but that's all I wanted. No, I don’t believe in your god... but take it from me that demons are real. They ain’t just some notion thought up to make kids behave or to convince the people to pay for the holy water around here. They’re as real as I am sitting here.”
On the left side of the booth, the man had shut his eyes briefly. In getting no response he ‘huffed’. Leaning forward.
“Preach, I’m leaving… unless you really want to test your faith I’d suggest you stay in here a little while.”
The sound of the curtains being drawn back was heard, almost to the relief of Ellings. He listened as footsteps tapered off as echoes in the corridor. The priest did just as he was told, unable to move despite the immediacy he felt to do so. By the time the man did move, it was dark. He uttered a quiet yet urgent prayer under his breath before he stepped out from the booth.