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Penance (short story)

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posted on Apr, 6 2012 @ 02:13 AM
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I suppose I have the devil to thank. He's probably not the most likely candidate for an old-fashioned, post-marked, lick-the-envelope, delivered-by-the-post-man thank you card. But if Hell had a street address recognized by the U.S. Postal service, you can bet your bottom dollar Lucifer would get one. From me.

My gratitude to Satan is odd. Odd in many ways, I guess. For one, I am a Catholic priest, and have been for the last half of a century. And for another, most people, except maybe for his worshippers themselves, would never thank the devil for anything—even if he were to hold the door open for them on a blustery winter day.

I'm a man of the Lord, though that hasn't always been the case. I grew up in the church. Not the Catholic Church, per se, but an Evangelical church where my father doubled as my pastor. It was always assumed from a young age that I, too, would become a pastor at the church. The youngest pastor Ely has ever seen, my father would say. However this fantasy of his - I suppose fantasy is a fitting word - was never meant to be fulfilled. I know that now because the Lord always had a different plan for me.

When I was a senior in high school I had an epiphany. This was the kind of epiphany that comes like a heavyweight's punch from your blindside and completely rattles your world. I didn't believe in the boogeyman, the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny nor fairytales. The reason? Well, there was no substantial evidence to any of these "stories." If no substantiation makes people disbelieve in these things, why then would people believe in a supreme being? All of these stories are designed to get children to mind their P's and Q's.

That's when it donned on me; the bible is a collection of fairy tales and God is the Santa Claus of the Great North Pole in the sky. And where did that leave Mary? I guess I always supposed she was the head elf, in charge of all the elves (saints).

Before going off to college - where I’d decided I'd study Evolutionary Biology - I had to have the painful talk with my father in which I’d told him I wouldn't be taking over in his stead. I can still, to this day, see the hurt in his eyes. Such a disappointment I must've been to him. And the worst part; he never got to see me recapture my faith. Even though I didn't end up taking over his parish that he had spent so many years building, I'm sure he's watching me from Heaven, proud that I've returned to the flock.

College was a bad time for me. Looking back on it, I regret those drunken

nights and one night stands that occurred far too often. At the time, though, I was living high on the hog, "banging every piece of ass" I could find, as we used to say. Though I have done my penance, I still hold a solemn remorse in my heart about those days. I suppose I'll live with that until the Lord brings me home.

The one good thing that did come from college was during my junior year. I suppose it was bittersweet at the time. But looking back I know it was all part of the Lord's plan.

One bitterly cold winter day at the coffee shop on campus as I was delving into my first brush with one Charles Darwin, reading his well-renowned book "The Origin of Species", when she walked in. Golden blonde hair with a bronze glow mostly reserved for girls from the sunny state. She was a knockout. Even though I had already gotten my coffee, I went back up and bought a pastry just hoping I could find a way to strike up a conversation with her. Sure enough, I was able to charm her into getting lunch with me sometime and as fate would have it (or so at the time I believed), she agreed. During that first brief conversation I had with her, fate threw me another bone - she too was an evolutionary biology major. Though I never admitted it to anyone, not even her, I believed we were supposed to get married. Even from that very brief, first meeting.

After our first date, for which I was very nervous because not only did she have the looks of a model, but she also had the brains of a Ph.D. the rest was history, as they say. She was, in essence, the total package. A real gift from the Universe. We spent many days that winter holed up in my dorm or hers’ studying away and building a bond on not only lust, but also of a commonality that I don't believe many people can ever find. By spring, our love had blossomed with the roses into a full, beautiful bloom.

Just as the seasons change and those roses die, so do many relationships. When fall came back around, I knew it wasn't the same, but we tried to make it work, like a doctor who knows in his heart of hearts he has lost a patient, but refuses to give up. We had too much time apart, or so I felt. I went back to Ely, and she flew back home to North Dakota. We only got to see each other a handful of times that summer, because we were both busy working and spending time with our families. I never dreamt that one summer apart could cause such a strong connection to become weak and frazzled like an analog T.V. whose reception is full of static, but then again, what do I know?

Things finally got worse right before Christmas break, and she broke up with me. She said things weren't the way they were and it hurt her not to be able to be fully committed to me. She also decided it was high time to tell me she had met someone else back home. An investment banker named Jeff, presumably worth millions based off her flashy new wardrobe and designer purses she carried-- things she never seemed to show any interest in before. I suppose her lack of

interest wasn't so much a genuine lack of interest, but more of a lack of access. Her family wasn't very rich and even though I tried to buy her nice things, I couldn't compete with what Jeff was able to give. But our relationship wasn't the only thing that was broken, my heart was too. She was the first girl I had ever loved and expected to marry. To have such a rock taken from your life is really rather odd. Even when my mother left me and my dad I didn't feel the complete and thorough aching in my heart the way I did when I watched her leave my dorm room that night.

When Christmas break came I decided I'd spend it alone at my dad's cabin just north of Ely to do some ice fishing. I figured I'd take the break to brood in my own self-pity and sorrow and wash it down with a few cases of beer for good measure. I had also decided I would leave the "poor me" bull# routine at the cabin. I was determined to go back to school as a rejuvenated undergrad ready to unlock the safe Darwin had only just put the key into. I was pissed at the world, I was pissed at Sarah, and most of all I was pissed at the non-existent God The vastness of the universe and the sound logic behind evolution were strikes 1 and 2 against him, and Sarah was most definitely strike three. He was out, and I was the umpire that called him looking at the third strike. While I didn't realize it at the time, this week alone was going to be another epiphany. Another blindsided punch that would rattle my world.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The headlights lit up the small cabin and I could see that there were no lights on, this wasn't surprising. My dad almost never came up to this cabin since my mom left, and he wasn't a big fan of ice fishing anyway, so he normally stayed in Ely in the winters.

I turned off the car and grabbed my duffle bag and tackle box out of the trunk of my Chevy Malibu and headed for the front door. I fumbled for my keys and




posted on Apr, 6 2012 @ 02:13 AM
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unlocked the front door. The air smelled stale and there seemed to be a layer of dust covering the room, it was clear nobody had been here since at least summer, come to think of it I actually had been the last one here during the last weekend before school started when me and a few of my buddies threw a real rager and gang-banged an incoming freshman. Again, I still live with the remorse.

I felt for the flashlight that we always kept on the table beside the door and flicked it on. I made my way to the back door where we had the generator that could power the whole cabin. It took a few tries, but it finally fired up and the lights in the cabin came to life.

After going back inside, I realized I was famished. I went down the short hallway, with, perhaps, the one remaining picture left that had my mother and father together. It was taken shortly after I was born and they looked genuinely happy, very much unlike the faux happiness they put on in front of the parish on

those Sunday mornings. I opened a cabinet door and to my chagrin, it was packed full with Ramen Noodles and a variety of Campbell's Soup cans. I concluded my dad must have been back at some point since the infamous rager because we had left those cupboards barren. I decided on vegetable beef soup and grabbed a can opener from the drawer.

I walked back into the living room to grab a beer from my duffle bag. I cracked open the frosty beverage and gulped it until it was gone. That was number one in a line of beers that I wasn't quite sure of the length at the time. I could feel my nerves ease as the alcohol swam through my veins. The warming feeling overcame me as I headed back to the kitchen.

I finished my soup while reading a 20 year old issue of Playboy that had been my father's. I had found it while rummaging through the master bedroom one summer when my parents and I still went there for weekend getaways. I suppose even pastors can relish in the pinnacle of God's creation.

After my soup was gone, I polished off my second beer and decided I wasn't much in the mood for drinking, so I wanted to go to bed. I wanted to get a good jump on tomorrow and planned on having a fresh caught salmon for dinner the following evening. That night I had a nightmare.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

"Sarah, you can't go," I pleaded.

"I'm sorry, I have to," she replied, fighting to keep the tears from spilling from her eyes.

"Please, you know we were happy and I know we can be again," I said, surprised at my own whininess.

Just then an enormous feeling of dread seeped into the room like poisonous gas.

"Do you feel that?" she asked, wiping away the tears, "God dammit I asked you if you felt that!" she said, not giving me a chance to respond. Her beautiful golden locks began falling out in clumps. I could smell her breathe then, it reeked of rotting bodies and I covered my nose with my shirt, fighting back the urge to vomit.

"I #ing asked you a question!" she boomed, her voice no longer hers, but rather sounding very mechanical. Her blue eyes began to turn a deep scarlet gray and it was like peering through the window at your family that had just been massacred. My stomach turned and I vomited up black goo that fought hard to choke me. Her skin began to crack and flake as if she were being sunburned in seconds.

"Sarah! Sarah! What's happening to you?" I yelled as I started to back away even though the horror gripped me with an iron grasp. I felt my heart in my throat and my stomach where my heart should've been. My knees felt strained and were

close to buckling.

A thundering crash ripped through the room as broken glass showered down around us. A giant tentacle flew past me and wrapped around Sarah. I could see her eyes bulge as the tentacle constricted its grip. Her now snake-like tongue flickered as she fought for breathe. Her eyes became two blazing rubies and they seemed to dance out of their sockets. A brutal crunching sound was emitting from her body as I realized it was her ribs and spine being pulverized, like chicken bones, as the monstrous tentacle continued to crush her like a baler.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The next morning, I awoke with a cloud of dread hanging over me. As I slipped the blanket from over me, I glanced out the window and saw nothing but black mountains. A soft scent of sulfur was hanging in the air and the memory of the nightmare immediately flooded back. Suddenly fear gripped me harder than it had before. I started to fight for breath and found my lungs did not want to function. I closed my eyes and told myself this was some kind of sleep paralysis and things would soon return to normal.

When I opened my eyes, I looked out the window and the normal Minnesota backdrop I was familiar with came back, quite unlike the volcanic landscape that had haunted me the night before. The sun was being reflected off the snowy ground at such a magnificent brightness I had to squint to look out. It was a beautiful day. The sky was a deep



posted on Apr, 6 2012 @ 02:14 AM
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blue and there was not even trace of a cloud. Perfect fishing weather, I thought to myself as I staggered towards the kitchen.

I knew there wasn't any milk in the refrigerator, so I opened up the cabinet once more and discovered several boxes of pop-tarts. Dear old dad never neglected to buy my favorites, even when our relationship was on the back burner. Though I wasn't looking forward to washing them down with a brewski, it was all that I had.

It was relatively warm for the season. A blistering 15 degrees Fahrenheit according to the Weatherbug on my smart phone (a great technology, that I still miss to this day). I still knew I should bundle up and bring plenty of supplies even though my fishing hole was only several hundred yards from the cabin. My dad always taught me to be prepared for every scenario. Taking this into account, I decided to give my dad a call. I felt I should let someone know where I was if anything should happen.

I rifled through my contact list and found his name. I couldn't for the life of me think of how long it had been since I had talked to him last. Christmas? Thanksgiving? Summer break? It could've been any of those and to this day I concluded it was most likely to wish him a happy Thanksgiving and to inquire of the turnout at the church's annual pumpkin pie social. He told me it went pretty well.

After the third ring I expected to get his voice mail. But then I heard his voice. It sounded somewhat reproachful.

"Kyle, is that you? Are you alright?" After several months of nil communication, those were his first words.

"Yeah dad, it’s me. How are you?" I replied, somewhat relieved to hear his deep, somewhat raspy voice. I suppose being a preacher, and an excitable one at that, the years had taken its toll on his old voice box.

"I'm well, I'm well, how are you?" he asked, the reproachful sound transforming into a relief that was definitely detectable.

"Not too bad, Sarah broke up with me," I said. After it came out, I was surprised at how blunt I had said it; I was planning to keep the conversation short and to the point. My dad knew about Sarah, he had met her only a handful of times, and I had even told him I planned on marrying her the first time I told him about her.

"Oh, wow, Kyle, I'm sorry to hear that. Did she say why?" he asked, his genuine concern blanketed around the question.

"Yeah, she did." I started, as disappointment and rage began to fill me up, like a glass teetering on the brink of overflow. I took a second to let it pass and began again. "She met someone while she was back home. A rich guy, I think an investment banker or something. Which is odd, because she never seemed like she was into any of that, but that could just be because she never had a means of acquiring it. I can't say I blame her."

"Now Kyle," my dad began in full preacher mode, "The Lord tells us that the meek shall inherit the earth and that we shouldn't be bothered by such earthly possessions. While I know your faith lacks now, I know that the Lord has a plan for you and you will find your way back to the flock."

"Yeah, but anyway," I hurried past the subject; a full blown lecture on faith was not something I needed on such a fine day to be on the pond. "I'm up at the cabin, I'm gonna do a little fishing to try to take my mind off things. I just wanted to let someone know where I was, I'll give you a call tonight around 5 to let you know I'm okay."

"Okay, Kyle, thank you for calling me."

"I'll talk to you later. I love you dad," I said, fighting back tears.

A momentary pause, and then "I love you too, Kyle." Then a click as I heard him hang up.

I'll be honest, I was somewhat sad when he hung up, his voice was rather comforting and I hadn't had anyone to talk with this about. I had a few buddies that I lived with. But they were all about pounding brew and banging bitches. The emotional aptitude of a pile of horse # I guess you could say. So they were of no help. Then there was Sarah, whom I shared most with my problems. However she

was gone. So that left me, myself and I. People say talking is the best medicine; I always found that to be grade A Tom Foolery. But after those lonely days following the break up, I realized it was probably true.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The cold, fresh pine smell was therapeutic on that December afternoon. The mountains were almost all white and the pines looked like upturned icicles. I hastily packed my gear and headed out the back door. The cold air was refreshing. It was like a baptism in that it seemed to purge the dread I got from the vividness of the previous night's nightmare and the seemingly real manifestation of it that morning in my room. I couldn't believe that I had told my father as much as I had. Religious as we were growing up, and as close of a relationship we had, we were never really big on emotional discussion. Even when my mom left the most he ever said about it was "Well, I guess the



posted on Apr, 6 2012 @ 02:17 AM
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Lord had other plans." That was also his reasoning for just about any terrible event bestowed upon him. Though on the surface I was somewhat embarrassed with my openness with him, I was also hoping it would usher in a stronger relationship between us. One reminiscent of what we had shared during my childhood. Though I wasn't going to hold my breath.

When I finally felt I had found a good spot, I set my gear on the ground. I grabbed my ice auger and began cutting the hole. I hoped the fish would come sooner rather than later. Though daylight was still plentiful, I knew fishing would get boring quickly with nobody to talk to.

After the hole was cut, I grabbed my tackle box. I rummaged around until I found the hooks that I wanted. I quickly tied the hook onto my line as my hands were already showing signs of protest after only being out in the cold air for a short time. Once the hook was tied on, I grabbed for the loaf of bread I brought in my hiking pack. Not the favorite bait of salmon, I hoped it would pique their curiosity enough to take a nibble. I dropped the hook into the water, sat down in my chair and popped in my earphones.

About 15 minutes and several Metallica songs later, I felt a jerk on the line. I felt slight vindication in knowing the bread indeed brought in some nibbles. I battled the little bastard for what seemed like another two minutes and felt like I was winning. Then, snap! The line broke and that fish got away, most likely to live out the rest of his life with my hook through his cheek.

As I searched for another hook, a weird chill began to fill the air.

The air outside was certainly frigid. But this chill felt otherworldly, the kind that can make hair stand on end on a hot summer day. The kind that shoots straight to your bones and sends fear careering through your nervous system, rending you momentarily paralyzed. Odder yet was these kinds of chills were normally over within seconds and all you're left with is nothing more than the normal reality that

existed before the chills. But this chill grew with intensity, not diminished.

That's when I heard it. A low rumbling began to shake what seemed to be the entire earth. It grew louder. My first thought was an earthquake, but I quickly ruled that out as Minnesota is eons from any fault line. The next thing that popped into my mind was the apocalypse. But I didn't see the New Jerusalem dropping from the sky. So strike two on my theorizing.

What I saw, however, made the stark reality of what was happening come crashing down like an avalanche. The ice was breaking apart, and I was well over 200 yards away from the shoreline, not to mention my legs had gone rogue and weren't responding to my brain's commands to book it. The jagged line raced towards me, ripping across the white sheet of ice like the tear through the paper of an author's hundredth attempt at getting something right. The jagged line forked like a bolt of lightning and I turned to run. As I was running, I turned to look where the line was and couldn't see it. I slowed from a sprint to a jog. As I took another step the ground disappeared and I went tumbling into nothingness.

I don't know how many of you have ever been in freezing cold water, but Jack wasn't #ting when he said "It feels like 1,000 knives are stabbing you all over your body." The initial shock of that water was even more paralyzing than the fear that gripped me in the dry world. The first thing I noticed was the red cloud seeping from my skull, just above my eye. I deduced I must've hit my head on the ice on the way into the water. The second thing I was aware of was the white sheet that blanketed out where the sky should be. The third, rather blunt, realization I came to was I would be subjected to drowning and, most likely, spend eternity in this watery tomb, being a temporary feast for the fish and bottom dwellers in the lake. Irony at its finest, I clearly remember thinking.

I fought my way to the surface ice and started trying to punch at it. If I managed to crack it I would be able to get through. This proved fruitless, and a waste of valuable time because I remember the ice being at least 8 inches thick where I drilled through, and I knew there was no way I was going to be able to break through it. Instead, I went to plan B, which really should've been plan A. I began swimming along, feeling for the break where I fell in. What felt like an eternity had already passed and I could feel the burning in my lungs begin to rage. This was the end and I knew that. I remember saying a little prayer to God, asking him for forgiveness and to have mercy on me for being so foolish. I remember my biological instincts taking over and taking in a deep breath.

Only, instead of it being water that would surely make me meet my demise, it was air. Absolutely putrid, foul smelling air. Air so tainted I imagined it was the actual gas rising from a thousand decomposing corpses



posted on Apr, 6 2012 @ 02:17 AM
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that had been left out in the sun. It made me puke. My puke hung in front of me as if it were in a zero gravity environment. I used my hand to turn away from it. I was still in the water. But I

could breathe. I figured that I was dead and this was my own personal hell. Then I saw a body swimming toward me at the speed of a dolphin. The hair was covering the face, so I was unable to see it. As it grew closer I could make out the petite figure of a girl. Would this be my hell? Floating in this wretched water for eternity meeting others who had met the same fate as me? Only time would tell.

As the figure grew closer my heartbeat began to rise. Again, I had that chill, the one I remember from the dry world just before the ice began to shatter. The figure swam right up to me and cleared her hair from her face, revealing a skull and empty eye sockets. I yelled, but the scream didn't register, only bubbles came from my mouth.

"I told you I would see you again, Kyle," the voice said, coming from inside my own head.

"Am.. am.. I dead?" I asked. I thought it was a fair question, given the circumstances.

The figure emitted the most blood curdling, evil laugh I have ever heard. What was worse was that it was coming from inside my own head. Covering my ears did nothing. The tattered clothing hung loosely around the skeleton. But I recognized them. It was the outfit Sarah had worn the day she broke up with me. And as the figure spoke again, I realized it was her voice too.

"No you're not dead, but you will be soon," Sarah began. "You see, I can help you, but as you might imagine, my aid comes with a price."

"I'm not ready to die," I responded, "What is the price? I'll do anything,"

"Your soul, it shall belong to me," she cackled maniacally.

"Ok, sure," I said. I figured this was a small price to pay, given the fact that I didn't believe in an immortal soul anyway.

"Very well, you will have 50 years to live from this date. Upon your death your soul belongs to me and you will spend eternity with me."

That is the last thing I remember before my vision faded to black.

I awoke coughing and completely soaked and shivering like a mad bastard. I was in my bed though and the experience I just had was already fleeting away into a dream-like experience. But I knew it was real. I had fallen into the lake and by some weird twist of fate the devil had offered to help me out of my predicament in exchange for my soul. It was then and there that I had two more epiphanies. The first was that God is, in fact, very real, and so is the devil. The second was that I should become a priest and serve the Lord for the rest of my fifty years. That was the day I decided to become a priest.

The life I have lived has been very happy indeed. It has been fully devoted to God since that fateful day nearly 50 years ago. I have talked with many of my fellow priests about the deal I've done with the devil, and they seem to think that my penance should be enough to save my soul. I am not so sure. Every night since

then I have fallen asleep to the sound of footsteps. These footsteps were very faint at first, barely noticeable at all.

However, over the years they have grown in intensity and now they sound very close indeed. As I write this, I can hear the footsteps they are coming down the hall toward my bedroom door. The clock reads 11:59 and when that hand ticks over to midnight my 50 years is up. I hope my penance has been enough.




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