by Alex Ebenstein
Easy. You have to confess.
John took one step inside the crumbling brick walls with Mark’s words echoing in his head. Before John could register that the High Altar had been replaced by a torture table, his hand absently searched for the stoup of holy water. Never mind he was a lapsed Catholic. Never mind the church had been abandoned many years earlier, and if the basin still existed it’d be on the far side of church by the front door.
When John gave up on his search and finally laid eyes on what should have been the High Altar, he wondered about Jesus. Might he have preferred getting his limbs stretched past the breaking point on ‘the rack’ over being nailed to the torture device hanging on the back wall? Perhaps if what Mark and Yvonne said was true he’d get a chance to ask.
Once he looked past years neglect and rot, St. Mary’s Catholic Church was damn near a carbon copy of John’s hometown parish. The manifestations of torture devices were not what John expected to find when he broke into the boarded-up church by way of the priest’s quarters along the east side, but they were in line with his usual brand of hallucinations. What a psychologist might call demented.
On the other side of the table, an Iron Maiden stood in place where the Tabernacle should have been. Seeing that was a bit of a revelation to John: the interior of the church was lit. He’d left Mark and Yvonne outside to trip in the pale glow of the moon’s sliver—they refused to come closer than the edge of the road—while he took their flashlight to guide him inside. But now, that beam bounced lazily around the church, all but forgotten thanks to the red-tinged ambient glow surrounding him. A quick glance around the room revealed no obvious source or working lights, but John didn’t much care given the situation.
He took a step down from the raised platform, intending to head to the far side of the church and his destination, but the organ to his left caught his eye. The pipes reflected the ethereal light inside the room, but the reason why turned John’s normal grim-set line of a mouth into a grin. There was no gleaming silver metal, but rather lengths of gray-pink intestines hung from the ceiling to the floor, glistening with bodily juices as though just removed from their owners.
As much as he wanted to examine them closely, John would not let himself. He didn’t want to ruin the illusion—but also, what if it all was real?
The side chapels, which made the arms of the cross that was the church building, held no interest to John. He continued through the center of the cross, down the main aisle between the rows of pews. John could not see the confessional yet. There wasn’t much to the decrepit church besides the impossible additions made possible by his altered mind, but the building was long, and the dusky red glow was not quite enough to let him see the whole way. No matter; John knew where the confessional would be, same as most other rural parishes. He thought he could walk there with his eyes closed.
With that thought in mind, John stuffed the flashlight into his jacket pocket and let both hands dangle at his sides. A distant memory of running wild through church as a child, his mother whisper-shouting at him to stop, his hands out at either side to slap the pews as he flew past. In the present, John did the same, racing down the aisle, catching glimpses of rusted metal tools and implements instead of hymn books, narrowly pulling his hand back when a row of pews became a row of spiked chairs.
John reached the end, close to his destination. His thoughts briefly turned to Mark and Yvonne, what they might be doing or seeing outside. The first people he saw when he drifted into Woodville looking for work, standing against the outside wall of the only bar in town, sharing a smoke. King and Queen of the high school dropouts, full of ignorant charm and an aptitude for acquiring designer drugs. Not a whole lot different from John, aside from their complacency with a dead-end life. John rarely strove beyond his means, but he was a roamer, only stopping to accrue enough resources to get on the move again.
They were John’s only friends in the weeks since, hanging out to do drugs and not much else. Such was the case a few hours ago. Mark procured some chemically inventive pills known on the dark web by a derivative name John couldn’t recall, something like eyeopener.
As they waited for showtime, John asked them about a local legend he heard while working at the paper mill: a haunted church. The two shared furious whispers, debating something for a minute before coming back to John.
“The church isn’t haunted,” Mark had said. “That’s just a rumor someone started to keep people out. To hide the truth.”
Yvonne chimed in, still whispering. “It’s where you go to meet your maker.”
John scoffed but played along. “What if I don’t believe in a god?”
“Then you will,” Yvonne said.
“We should check it out then,” John said.
Steadfast refusals melted under the heat of John’s conviction and persuasion. Still, they would show him the church, and no more. When they arrived, the drugs started to hit. John tried once more to get them to come along inside, but they kept their shoes planted on pavement. Recognizing a lost cause, John asked what the rumor said he needed to do to meet his maker.
Mark said, “Easy. You have to confess.”
Reaching the west side of the church where the interior vestibule doors hung from broken hinges, John was surprised and a little disappointed to see everything looking like its normal rotten self. Then he realized the thing he mistook for an easel was in fact a Judas Cradle and his butt clenched reflexively. For the first time since entering the church John shuddered, then turned to the confessional along the wall.
The last time John made an honest and earnest confession he was thirteen. The priest, Father Martin, was a decent man who liked to drink more than he liked to fear monger—which was a lot—and had fallen out of favor with the parishioners for somehow being too old-school for Catholics. After John confessed his litany of awful and detailed sins, Father Martin gasped. He then laughed a mirthless, unholy sound.
“I can’t do anything for you, boy, and neither can God,” the priest had said. “You’ll be dancing with the Devil in the pits of Hell before long.”
John left that confession un-absolved and left the Church for good. He never told his mother what happened, and she never forgave him for abandoning the Church. At first, John was embarrassed. Then, he became emboldened. What was the point of it all, anyway? Heaven never interested him. Why would he want to spend eternity with the most inane, boring people from earth? Sure, Mark and Yvonne were a couple of burnout dipshits he’d forget the moment he left Woodville, but at least they were more fun than the stuffed shirts he’d find packing the pews on Sundays.
Staring at the confessional now, John felt his heart pounding in his skin, as though he’d see the fleshy shell of his body ripple with each thud were he to look close enough. Sure, his hormones were out of whack from the drugs, but could he actually be afraid?
John swallowed against the desert in his mouth, stepped into the right booth, and closed the curtain behind him. Except—
The curtain was not fabric, but rather swaths of human skin stitched together. He could feel it. Taut and leathery.
Suddenly inside the booth felt too close—a coffin. The walls vibrated as if made of visual sound waves. The screen to his left formed ever-changing mathematical patterns, pulsing at him like a cartoon sound box, though no one spoke.
John squeezed his eyelids shut. He needed to focus. None of it was real. It was a trip. Only a trip.
The motion around him stopped. Through peered eyes everything looked old and rotting, but normal.
He laughed uneasily, then noticed a discolored prayer cheat sheet pinned to the wall.
“Confession. Right.” He laughed again when he saw the scribbled correction on the sheet.
John read the altered version.
“Bless me, Satan, for I have sinned—”
The screen dissolved to reveal a crimson, swirling cloud that simultaneously tugged at John and exuded immense heat. But instead of rushing wind or crackling fire, John heard what sounded like a swarm of a thousand bees.
The collective buzzing spoke to him, asking a single question.
“May I have this dance?”
Alex Ebenstein is a maker of maps by day, writer of horror fiction by night. He lives with his family in Michigan. He has stories published in Novel Noctule, Tales to Terrify Podcast, The Other Stories Podcast, and Campfire Macabre from Cemetery Gates Media, among others. Find him on Twitter @AlexEbenstein.