If you’re not all winged-up and fingering a harp in the lap of the Lord by now, then maybe you’re here. Maybe you’re ghosting around the foyer that still reeks of burnt pine needles and cinnamon. The lingering spirit of Christmas mass incense. Maybe this new you, afterlife-Derek, is still zig-zagged with the imprint of tire tread across your pancaked jawbone. Your adorable dimples, cuter than the cherubs sweeping along the prayer room ceiling, pressed flat as Jesus wafers.
Passing the baptismal fountain, where they waterboard babies into the faith, I tickle the surface and smear a cross on my forehead. If you’re anywhere still on this Earthly plane, you’re here. With the abstract Jesus strung up on the wall, a silhouette of angles and squared muscles. The Son of Man, eyeless, nearly featureless, except for his severe brow. No toned-ab Christ like other nice Catholic girls get to eye during mass. Only The Prince of Peace pitched forward, a taut metal wire from his cubed head anchored to the wall. That creeper, swan-dive tilt above us on Sundays.
My pointer finger drifts over the Stations of the Cross, the fourteen flat sculptures nailed along the hallway, booping Jesus’ face on each one as I cruise towards the booths. Maybe you’re poltergeisting around these, the fourteen plaques, the how-to art installation on crucifixion. How Romans dealt with the heretic bad boy posing as the goodest good guy.
It’s the counterfeit purity for me.
Bad boys. The bad boys my friends stay with, they steal their laptops to hock for Adderall. They bunch my friends’ shirts up into their armpits and take pics when they’re passed out wasted. What makes a badboy now is a guy who plays dumb on consent. If you’re judging from their dating record, then these boys, this toxic strain of boy, is all my friends are after in life. Sticking it to your parents takes more than it used to.
You were my rebellion against rebelling. While my friends practiced deadening their gag reflexes for dudes with face tats, I simped for the good guy youth pastor. For you. You should have thanked God every day to have me.
This time of night, it’s long after the last priest has blown out the prayer candles and bolted the doors. The air makes the evaporating crisscrossed outline of the holy water icy on my forehead as I yank the booth’s curtain to the side. This isn’t some gothic-y stonework church. There’s no stained glass or organ pipes towering up to frescoed ceilings. This hunk of tan brick has no spires or church bells, it’s as boxy and functional as this Jesus, frozen in mid stage-dive. Underwhelming and bland enough to penetrate neighborhood after neighborhood. Gentle as a youth pastor. On you before you’d even know it.
It’s the smiling puritanical infestation for me.
You showed me the lockbox with the key to the youth group entrance on our first date, genius. Stabbed out the combination in front of me without hunching over. Big good guy energy, that was you. Walking backwards inside, swinging your arms like a spaz, you rattled off the weird old names of the church’s anatomy. My chatty little Jesus-freak, you led me through the narthex, then the nave, wheeling us all the way to where I’m sitting now, in the row of confessional booths wedged into the sanctuary. We got buzzy on sacramental wine and hollered at the ceiling to hear the echo. Then we did a lot more.
Nothing’s better for the soul than a good confession.
After-hours church tour guide, this was your go-to move with girls. Word got around. The good guy, just a different mutation of the bad boy. Just another shit-stain in sheep’s clothing. Ducked behind the wheel of my parent’s dinky hybrid, I watched you. Parked in the shadows, my fingernail scraping dried coffee off the edge of the driver’s side door night after night, I watched.
You let in Natalia Hansford.
Then Tricia Prinzi.
Then Marcella Deegan.
Forgive Derek his trespasses.
Mmmm, that’s a no from me.
Nothing’s more infuriating than a shit-stain being right. A church on a weeknight, graveyard quiet and wide open to just two people—it talked girls out of their clothes all by itself for you. Splayed back over the table where priests made crackers into Christ, my fingers knotted in your hair while your tongue wormed between my legs—it made my friends’ strategies to piss off their folks seem cute. All my parents’ God Fearing neighbors, bowing their heads to that same altar with hands laced tight, praying to where your pride and joy got drilled on Thursday night. No boy’s pierced wang or criminal record could top that for a ‘suck it’ to the parents. You, kneeling right alongside all the moms and dads, their hands folded together, their heads tilted to where you’d repeatedly gotten blown. A congregation on their knees like all their princesses were for you—I confess, I get the rush of it.
It’s the performative spiritual enlightenment for me.
My parents’ hybrid, it idles softer than the murmur of prayers during special intentions. You could sit on the hood with the thing running and barely feel your butt shimmy. At least you could until the time Dad thought he was in R, when really he was in D and throttled a parking garage wall. One too-hard step on the gas and he snarled the car’s front into a wad of metal and plastic. That’s how I got to drive it—I couldn’t possibly make more of a mess of it than Dad had. Still, even with the crumpled up outsides, the engine barely broke a hum. So last week, leaning over your turned-around seat, your hand over Maria Parr’s on the table outside Baskin Robbins, you wouldn’t have heard me peg the gas. With my one working headlight turned off, all you would have heard was the crackle of gravel on pavement popping faster and faster. The quiet whine of the electric motor closing in from the parking lot before the stealthy hybrid clunked over the curb and bulldozed your smirking face. On you before you even knew it.
It’s the environmentally conscious torpedo for me.
Maria couldn’t tell the cops what kind of car it was, what color. One second you were there, the next you were a mist of red settling on her scoop of brownie swirl. Speckling her eyelashes as her tongue stayed caught in the last motion her brain registered, looping over the blood glazed ice cream again and again. As the only witness, she was useless. Your worthless body, the new dents it made, the flaps of plastic it tore loose on impact, they were all invisible in the pre-wrecked front. What’s better than holy water for washing away sins is the high-pressure nozzle in a car wash bay. What gets all the Derek out of the wheel wells is that scrub brush that spits foam. The body and blood of Derek, which will be given up. . . for me. Amen.
Sitting in this booth right now I confess, God, that I don’t regret anything.
I knock on the divider that separates sinner from forgiver.
I’m ready to hear your confession, Derek. This isn’t for me. I know crowd-surf Jesus is on my side when it comes to you; to cheaters. I won’t be here all night, so spill it. Make whatever words your ghost-self can make and beg my forgiveness. Ask how many Our Fathers and Hail Marys it’s going to take to square things between us. I thump the meaty side of my fist against the screen divider and I tell you to get to it, goddamnit.
And from the dark of the other side it’s not a voice, but a cracking, like how you lace your fingers together and push away your palms. By my cheek, bulbs of dark gunk press through the jillion patterned holes in the dividing screen. Dead black, but shimmering, like the oil that pools under the hybrid every night. The ooze mashes through, piling over itself and squishing out a mop of black worms that twitch to attention as I scramble backward. The bone sound, the cracking, it never stops. Replacing the burnt pine needle and cinnamon smell: sweat. The rank potpourri of after-sex is everywhere. My heels squeak against the booth wall as I kick myself back, pulling my knees to my chest. Through my fingers I watch branches of the same glistening gunk pour in from under the curtain, corkscrewing up the sides of the booth. Wriggling towards me, a bristling coat of prongs flare to a stand on every shiny tentacle.
“Oh Jesus,” I say. “Jesus Chri-“
The worms are fire as they flood my throat. Razoring up my sinuses, throbbing and shoving to my eyelids and past. My arms snap straight at my sides. The cool touch of tears down my face is the only feeling that isn’t pain. Tinier now, the worms spread hair-thin, webbing deep into the hollows of my head and the camera of my mind, I don’t own it anymore. My hijacked thoughts play back a fast wash of faces I know, but these memories aren’t mine.
Natalia Hansford. . . .
A soundtrack of moaning, huffing breaths, warbles with the collage of girls racing in my head.
Marcella Deegan. . .
Fast, panting breaths. Begging whimpers: Don’t stop. Right there, yes.
Tricia Prinzi. . .
All of Derek’s trophies. Offerings.
There are sacrifices on an altar that don’t leave you dead. Not all the way.
I’m murdered right now. Dead as Derek in one breath if this slithering gob of muck decides I am. It wants me to know that. The thin gulps of breath I can take in through the black slugs crowding my voice box, every one is a gift. Without words it asks me something. Not a demand, but saying no—I can tell that’s as good as saying kill me.
It’s the damned if you do, damned if you don’t, deals you make to skip an afterlife of screaming for me.
“Okay,” I nod the bit it lets me. I gargle out, “Yes.”
My limp body piles to the floor of the booth as the thing retreats and gives me back the controls.
Spitting, I say, “I’ll bring you more.”
There’s a piece of paper handed to you when you leave mass on Sundays. A parish newsletter that tells you to bring canned goods for the food bank drive or asks for volunteers to help with the summer carnival. This week, there’s a small blurb in the corner with a picture of me. My mouth is arced in a gentle smile that reads like an invitation. Above me, the bold font header reads:
Meet our new youth pastor.