by Corey Farrenkopf
Everything smells of incense. You know it’s from the censers, the burning frankincense, but you also suspect the scent is there to cover something. Like the innumerable skin cells shed by parishioners, a bad septic, something buried beneath the pulpit that’s been rotting for years. This is what you think about when you kneel in the pews for Friday mass, knees sore from the imitation leather and stiff boards. You’re wearing a light blue button down shirt, a navy tie, the same uniform you’ve worn the last four years of middle school. The stained glass window to your right, where you spend most of the hour staring, is laced with spiderwebs. Each week you watch as more of the crimson and sage rectangles are devoured. The incense might also obscure the fact the janitor doesn’t get paid well, and therefore is inattentive.
Your bet is still on the buried corpses.
You and Mark joke about it. “Every church has a crypt, right?”
“All the good ones,” you reply.
“No body, no miracles,” Mark says.
“And what’s the point of church without miracles?”
You and Mark are not particularly religious, especially after nine years of parochial school. No one, with the exception of the two diehard Christian Science chicks who are sick more often than they are in class, believe in God. Repetition beats it out of you. Mass multiple times a week. Bible study. Theology class. Rainy recess hours of cheaply drawn cartoons depicting Jesus strolling through sandy towns, puppet pals following him, singing hymns of the right and just. More than anything, you blame the puppet pals for pushing you away from God.
Or weekly confession, that too.
“Are you going to tell him about masturbating again?” Mark asks.
“I can’t think of any other sin this week. Haven’t killed anyone. No stealing,” you reply.
“I can’t believe you tell him that. What’s he say?”
“Father Peters doesn’t really comment, just tells me to do three Our Fathers for each time.”
“That’s a lot of Our Fathers,” Mark laughs as the line edges forward.
You and Mark haunt the back of the line, trailing the rest of your classmates as you snake towards the screen-windowed confessional booth at the rear of the church. If you didn’t already know what was inside, you would have thought it was a broom closet with two doors, but you’ve spent enough hours kneeling within, the candle in its crimson holder glowing besides your head, to know what’s up. Only the vaguest mutterings seep out, leaking back to the rest of the class. No one wants to be overheard. No one wants their classmates to know what they do after dark, with whom, for whom. Masturbation is one thing, but your class has some real weirdos. You can only imagine the dark stuff they get up to when no one’s looking.
When one of your classmates finishes up, they walk into the body of the church, skirting the pews, moving toward the altar to kneel before the tabernacle, ready to recite the appropriate amount of Hail Marys and Our Fathers. You assume most lie about how many they are supposed to do. Everyone kneels, bables a single prayer, then retreats from the carved Jesus hanging above them. You and Mark have spent many hours waiting for him to open his eyes, to really tell you of your sins, what Hell is going to look like, but he stays silent. No one likes to spend that much time with him, contemplating what those prayers are meant to save you from.
“I’m going to ask him about it,” you tell Mark.
“What?” Mark asks.
“The crypt. Who’s buried in it.”
“You sure you want to do that? Sometimes it’s better to not talk about our jokes.”
“But it’s not a joke. Someone has to be buried down there. It explains the smell, that dead fug hanging around.”
“A lot of things explain the smell. There’s no crypt,” Mark says before turning away, eyes ahead, waiting his turn.
You feel bad you took things to a place too dark for Mark’s liking. You always do this, push the joke from a comfortable place into an uncomfortable one. You’re silent as you wait, stepping closer to the confessional with each classmate shed from its innards. Eventually Mark takes his turn in the box. You hear his voice drift through the wood, the priest muttering something within. Mark leaves the gathered gloom, closing the door behind him. You try to smile as he moves into the church, loafers clacking over the stone floor, but he doesn’t look at you, his skin pale, lip clenched between teeth.
Ok, that was weird, you think as you open the confessional door.
Things are as they usually are. The red glass candle. The leather kneeler. The screen woven in the pattern of tiny crucifixes.
The shadow of Father Peters is just beyond, inarticulate. You imagine him smiling. You don’t like to imagine him smiling.
“Bless me father, for I have sinned. It’s been one week since my last confession,” you say.
“So what’s it going to be today?” Father Peters asks. “More masturbation?”
“Not this week,” you reply, knowing the way to get answers from him. “No, I want to confess to trying to get into the crypt. The one beneath the altar. I know I shouldn’t be doing that, but I just can’t help it.”
There is silence on the other side of the screen.
You count your breaths.
“I can’t fault you,” Father Peters replies. “Every child wants to know what’s in the crypt.”
“So there’s really a crypt?” you ask, disbelief coloring your words.
“I’d call it more of a burial hall. Crypt makes it sound tiny,” Father Peters replies.
“Would you like to see it?”
“See…?” you hesitate, stomach souring, the joke rolling far past your point of comfort. It’s usually you that takes things too far, that makes people uneasy. You don’t like it when it’s reversed.
“Yes. I think you will, as penance for all you’ve done this week, and all the weeks before. I’ve let you off too easy,” Father Peters replies.
Then there is the sound of the confessional door opening on the other side. Light plays over your face, your own door yanked open, Father Peters smiling down at you from beneath his thick mustache. He reaches into the booth, wraps his fingers around your biceps, and pulls you from the kneeler.
“This is the only proper penance,” he says as he half leads, half drags you into the church, towards the altar, the glass door you’ve never been permitted to enter. You catch Mark’s eyes as he kneels before the tabernacle. They go wide at the realization of what’s going on, where you’re being shepherded. You try to call to him, but you’re pushed through the doorway, the scent of frankincense swelling. “Maybe those below will have something more to say on the topic. It could be illuminating. Life changing.”
He plucks a lit candle from a metal wall sconce and hands it to you.
Your hands shake as you receive it.
“I’ll be back in two hours,” Father Peters says as he opens the final door, a door that shouldn’t be there, nothing but darkness on the other side, a staircase only visible in its culminating step. “And be careful with that candle. I don’t have any spare matches.”
He nudges you inside and closes the door.
You drop down the stairs until you hit a damp stone floor. There is no longer the smell of incense. There is must and rot and something far worse than anything you and Mark ever joked about.
Father Peters didn’t say how many Our Fathers you needed, so you start at one, then two, then three, praying the words will keep whatever lingers in the dark out of the candle’s flickering light.
Corey Farrenkopf lives on Cape Cod with his wife, Gabrielle, and works as a librarian. He is the fiction editor for The Cape Cod Poetry Review. His work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Southwest Review, Catapult, Tiny Nightmares, Redivider, Reckoning, Wigleaf, Flash Fiction Online, Bourbon Penn, The Arcanist, and elsewhere. To learn more, follow him on twitter @CoreyFarrenkopf or on the web at CoreyFarrenkopf.com