â€œThereâ€™s something you need to hear,â€ came a gravelly voice behind the wicker screen of the confessional. Wood creaked as a shadowy man knelt. â€œYou wonâ€™t like it.â€
â€œReconciliation is not about judgement,â€ Father Blake said. â€œGod knows whatâ€™s on your mind, so nobody will be disappointed.â€
â€œWhat if I told you Iâ€™m not sorry?â€ the voice grated. â€œAbout anything.â€
â€œWhy come to me if you feel no remorse?â€
The dark face leaned closer to the screen. Through the tiny holes, rows of small teeth gleamed in a wry smile. â€œWhy, Father, Iâ€™m here for your confession.â€
Father Blakeâ€™s stomach sank. â€œIf you are a parishioner with a complaint, I have office hours.â€
The voice laughed, deep and dark.
â€œI do not wish to turn you away,â€ Father Blake said, â€œbut your conduct is inappropriate.â€
â€œYou donâ€™t recognize me?â€ the voice growled.
Father Blake peered closer.
â€œNot my face,â€ the voice snarled. â€œThis face is any face. Insignificant. But my voice is everyone, even those who work so hard to bury me in distant memories and banish me to fleeting impulses.â€
Icy numbness crept over Father Blakeâ€™s shoulders. â€œWhy are you here?â€
â€œBecause you believe youâ€™ve found some pathetic balance. Youâ€™ve built a masterful illusion of discipline and service. While all along, deep inside, you ache.â€
â€œYouâ€™re here to tempt me.â€ Father Blake clutched black rosary beads at his side. â€œIâ€™m not impressed.â€
â€œI am impressed by the architecture of your self-delusions.â€ The other side of the confessional swelled with shadows. But the toothy smile grew wider, brighter. â€œLies are useless. I feel your blood quivering, your skin crawling at the truths I know.â€
â€œThis is a holy place. Youâ€™re not welcome.â€
â€œThere are no holy places, Father. Not the tabernacle where you sneak gulps of Christâ€™s blood to get you through the day. Not the classrooms where you fantasize about leaving bloody ruler marks on the hands of snot-nosed Twenty-First Century brats. Not seminary school where you and Jonas fondled one another.â€
Father Blake gasped. He wiped cold sweat off his forehead. â€œI committed no sin then. We were young. NaÃ¯ve. The act was consensual.â€
â€œThe real sin, Father,â€ the entity scratched the wicker screen with sharp fingernails, â€œis that you never repeated it.â€
â€œI devoted myself to God.â€ Father Blakeâ€™s voice trembled.
â€œDo you know the difference between me and God?â€ Raspy breaths heaved between words. â€œI really care. It matters to me what you do or do not do in this world. A human life is a blip in existence. It comes and goes like a flash of lightning. I want you to use this time. To strike so hard and flash so bright that the pathetic souls around you feel the ground shake beneath them. That their eyes will be blinded by your brilliance.â€
â€œSin is a shallow pleasure,â€ Father Blake hissed.
â€œHow would you even know?â€ Wide palms pressed against the wicker screen, pushed it inward. â€œYouâ€™ve but tasted carnal pleasure, when you could feast. You would sleep every night with a warm body against yours, but for the arbitrary rules that shackle you.â€
â€œI regret that,â€ Father Blake whispered. â€œBut that is all I regret.â€
â€œLike a criminal, you sneak pleasures that others take for granted. Youâ€™ve buried a powder-keg of rage deep within you.â€ Oily black claws stabbed through the wicker holes, tore at the screen. â€œUnleash your anger on those ungrateful hypocrites you call followers, and their spoiled brood.â€
Dark hands peeled the screen away. The toothy smile glowed moon-yellow beneath a pair of shining eyes. A hand reached from the darkness, but without claws. A warm, human palm, pale and pink.
The other side of the confessional smelled like soap and sweat. Father Blake felt the soft linens of St. Peterâ€™s dormitory against his skin. He heard Jonas blowing out the candle between their beds. Sulfur and smoke permeated the air.
â€œI wish to hold you, David. Will you take my hand?â€
â€œI want to.â€ Tears burned down Father Blakeâ€™s cheeks. â€œBut I canâ€™t.â€