Friday, March 8, 2024

“The Confession” • by Ed Ahern


He never took communion, never knelt in prayer. Never struck up a conversation, answered tersely when asked something. But he was there every Sunday at the last mass, and put a hundred-dollar bill in the basket, every time.

My chores, such as they were as an usher, were to say hello to church comers and collect money halfway through the service. And otherwise leave the parishioners to hide their sins. But this man intrigued me.

His expression was never angry, certainly never happy, just sad and inward looking, like a dog licking an open wound. One Sunday I stepped in front of him as he was leaving. “Hi, I’m Jude, equally obscure.”

My intro usually gets a quizzical look, because who reads Thomas Hardy anymore? But he smiled wryly. “Of the stone mason Judes, I presume?”

I smiled back. I understood him better than he knew.

“Call me Ishmael,” he said.

I let the Biblical/Moby Dick allusion slide. “Just wanted to say thank you for your regular donations and see if there’s anything I can clarify for you.”

His smile flattened. “I think I’m well beyond help., but thank you anyway.” He paused. “In a year, you’re the only person at this church to engage with me. I’m leaving town this evening, but before I go, I wonder if I could share something with you. Join me in a pew?”

We walked back into the church. There were wafts of leftover incense. The lights had been dimmed, and I could just hear the choir master in the loft putting away music and hymnals. Once seated, half-turned toward each other, he started talking quickly in a soft voice, as if deprived of conversation.

“I’m waiting for my damnation to take effect.”

My poker face held, but inside I cringed. I was pew-bound with a repenter. “Oh?”

His eyes narrowed, as if sensing my reluctance to proceed with him. “No, I’m not demented, not in the way you think anyway. Take out your phone, please.”

Once my phone was out and on, he said, “Look up Gerald Lockheart of Lockheart Graphics.”

 I did, and a younger him, more hair and many fewer wrinkles, was on screen. “You’re rich and famous.”

“Still rich, mostly forgotten, which is the way I want it.”

I read a little bit. “But this dates from the Sixties, and you can’t be that old.”

“Can’t I? I cut some corners back then, made some deals that still fester in me like leprosy. I got what I asked for, but then realized that the price was much too high, and that I didn’t really want what I’d received. I’ve spent the years since looking for a way out.”

“Your donations are a good start.”

“Please, Jude, don’t be facetious.” He turned the palms of his hands toward me. “I’ve been to shrines of every legitimate faith and some bogus. I’ve done good works and flagellated myself. I’ve confessed to yogis and bishops. Dear God, I’ve talked to strangers like you in blind hope. It’s worse than a curse—that would end with my death. It’s an agonizing prelude to the actual damnation.” He was gently weeping, the tears trickling halfway down his cheeks.

The already-dimmed overhead church lights went off, and the sunlight through the stained-glass windows was dim. The choir director had left. Our appearances shifted in the gloom, his a rounded gray, mine an angular and taller black.

“Do you really want an answer? Could you handle it?’

His look was quizzical. “Of course, that’s why I asked.”

“Very well. The pain you’re undergoing while still alive is part of your tormentors’ pleasure, Ishmael. Something like tasting the cooking as it’s being prepared.”

His head jerked back. “How could you know this? How do you even believe what I’m telling you?”

My smile was wide. “Oh, I believe you. Perhaps because I know that the girl, Natalie, killed herself two years after you were done with her. Just as I believe that you’re a gaffed fish, still struggling even though you’ve been skewered. But please, continue to flop about.”

His damp eyes narrowed. “Who paid you to approach me?”

“No one. I serve pro malo. Should I tell you about what’s become of your brother?”

“Who the hell are you?”

My laugh was shifting scree. “One of your herders. You may recall that we are legion.”




Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He’s had over 450 stories and poems published so far, and ten books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories where he manages a posse of eight review editors, and as lead editor at Scribes Microfiction

If you enjoyed this story, you might also want to read “Hunter’s Moon,” elsewhere on this web site, or one of our all-time favorites, “Happily Ever After,” which you’ll find on the original SHOWCASE site.