Authors: RICHARD SATTERLIE
For Tricia, Erin, Jake and Alison—my lifeblood.
And to my brothers, David and Bob (Ooglie
Googlie—sorry Bob, had to do it). Finally,
this is for our late parents, who live through us.
Published 2007 by Medallion Press, Inc.
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is a registered tradmark of Medallion Press, Inc.
If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment from this “stripped book.”
Copyright © 2007 by Richard Satterlie
Cover Illustration by James Tampa
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.
Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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I thank Tricia for her patience in putting up with me through all of my late night writing fits, and for being my main reader and critic (and main everything else). I also thank Alison—my other main reader, and a devout fan of the genre. Heidi Ernst deserves special mention. It was her strange quote on the screen saver of our laboratory computer that triggered this story, and my high-dive belly-flop into fiction writing. A hearty thank-you goes to Sandy Tritt, a master at turning rough wood into smooth planks. Her tool marks are all over this story.
Boyston, Tri-Counties, 1982
ABE LEANED FORWARD
in the confessional and eased the door open a crack. Light from the church flowed into the dark chamber in a narrow slash. He squinted the altar into view. In two years of early morning visits to the All Saints Catholic Church, Father Costello had never been late.
That wasn’t the only thing wrong with today. The air carried an abnormal chill for this far into the spring. Gabe had overheard his father talk about it—this growing season had more than its fair share of unexpected thunderstorms and strong, dust-laden winds. And then there were the fogs. They rarely extended more than a mile from the swamp up north, and hardly ever as far as Boyston. But this year, they were enveloping the town two or three times a week. Today’s was a doozy.
Gabe squirmed in the confessional, which he jokingly called the inhouse. It was the same size as the outhouse his grandfather had built at their farm. And even though the farmhouse had indoor plumbing, his father had maintained the structure for sentimental reasons—to teach a lesson on appreciation for what one has, his father had often said.
Gabe pushed the door open a little farther, enough to open a crack on the hinge side. Enough to get a view of the massive double front doors of the church. Nothing there either. He let the door slide shut. The hard wooden seat, and the near blackness, would help him think of another sin or two.
He wasn’t Catholic but he liked the idea of confessing his sins. The recurring comfort of the lifted burden and the cleansing feeling of official acknowledgement and forgiveness gave him a sense of reverent calm. As he had done so many times, he had left home early to ride his bike to town to confess his week’s worth of moral hiccups to Father Costello before heading up the street to join his family at the Lutheran church service.
Their interactions didn’t have the formality of the official sacrament. Father Costello was just a good friend. In the confines of the dark confessional, with a screen between him and the good father, twelve year-old Gabe could talk about anything, especially things he was uncomfortable discussing with his real father.
A door slammed and an unrecognized, high-pitched voice brought Gabe out of his search. It came from the back room, behind the altar. He pushed on the door and squinted at the business end of the church. For an unsettlingly long time, no one appeared, but he could hear the voice, muffled, at a distance.
I could run for it, he thought. But the inhouse was closer to the altar than the front doors, and the huge latch that bolted the doors was hard to throw open in a rush. His mind was made when the door of the back room opened and Father Costello walked out, in full white robe, followed by a small man, only three-quarters of the Father’s height. The small man leaned forward as he walked, apparently to counterbalance a half-full gunnysack that was slung over his right shoulder. A red stain wimpled the bottom of the sagging sack.
Gabe slid his butt back on the inhouse seat and closed the door to the narrowest crack that would allow a view of the two men. His breathing echoed in the small, dark space, so he switched to mouth breathing to avoid the occasional nose whistle that sounded an exhalation.
The small man dropped the sack on the first step of the altar and walked to the side of the church, out of Gabe’s sight. He reappeared in only a few seconds, carrying a bare metal chair that he unfolded and placed at the front, center of the altar. He motioned to Father Costello, who walked to it, robot-like, and sat, feet together, hands on his thighs.
Gabe leaned closer to the gap. Father Costello’s eyes seemed to follow the small man, but they were wide, unblinking, like the eyes of hypnotized people in the old black-and-white television movies.
The small man reached into the sack and pulled out a limp animal. It looked like a dog. He placed it on the top step, to Father’s right, and fished his arm into the sack again. Over the next minute, he pulled two more animals from the bag. One was definitely a cat. Then, he brought the sack to the center of the altar, right in front of Father Costello, and reached in. The bottom of the sack went limp when the object was lifted.
Gabe’s forehead pressed into the door as he strained to see, but his visual angle, and the railing of the first row of pews, prevented a clear view. Whatever kind of animal it was, it didn’t have fur. He was sure of that. The brief glimpse he got was of an animal about the size of a small dog, but with grayish-pink, wrinkly skin. Once it was set down, all he could see through the wrought iron railing was the tip of one of its appendages. He stopped down his eyes with an exaggerated squint, but the image still blurred.
An idea struck—a trick from school that allowed a better focus at a distance. He pinched the tips of his two thumbs and two forefingers together into a square and peered through the pinhole created by the space between the tips of the four digits. The view of the altar sharpened, but it didn’t help. The obstructions still prevented a full view. He pushed the door open a little more with his forehead and looked through his fingertips again. A little more came into focus. He pushed farther. When the image cleared, an involuntary breath sucked his lungs full. His back hit the rear wall of the inhouse just as the slit of light narrowed and extinguished. Knees to his chest, he strained for his next breath. He thought he saw toes.
Gabe’s mind swirled, accompanied by a dizziness that nearly turned the feeble light that seeped around the edges of the inhouse door to pitch black. When the sensation passed, he leaned forward for another peek.
This time, his vision was tuned to an acuity that was almost painful, as if vision were his only fully functional external sense. It was silent in the church, and there were no smells.