At the Threshold
When I was a boy, I would go out at night like a wraith through my bedroom window. I'd climb down to the little overhang and stretch my leg to a limb of a tree my father planted in the year I was born. It was as if that tree and I were linked to allow for this moment. After I had one foot on the branch, I was able to grab another and swing my other foot over. I was twelve, and I did this in the small hours of the night. There was a large area of woods near the house with an old burned-out building at its center. It had four complete walls of brick, an open doorway, two windows, and no roof. I have no idea what this building had been used for. It had only one room. Within this little building, I had set up a table with a chair and a cot. Before leaving my yard, I would swing by the detached garage and open the door I had left unlocked and grab my backpack and lantern. From the edge of the woods, it was about a mile of darkness to the building. The terrain was filled with gullies and jutting rocks. I had made this trek many times in the dark and during the day. At the building, I would take my sleeping bag out of my pack, lay it across the cot, and start a fire in the far corner of the building. I always kept a stack of firewood nearby covered with canvas. Under cover of flickering orange light, my thoughts wandered from one thing to the next until I fell asleep on my cot. I thrived on the feeling of being remote and alone. And I was unafraid.
Just before dawn, I would cover the embers of the fire with dirt and pack my backpack and head home. Climbing the tree to my bedroom was easy.
"Sounds like you had an interesting childhood," said Father Timothy in his deep but relaxed voice.
"My parents left me alone to do what I wanted," I replied.
"What do you mean by left you alone?"
"Just that. They never offered anything to me beyond what I needed to live, but never denied me anything I wanted to do or what I was able to provide for myself."
"What about love and kindness?" asked Father Timothy.
"They were not affectionate people, but they were not cruel to me. I was an obligation until I wasn't."
"What did you do after high school?"
"I left, and never saw them again," I said.
"Where did you go?" asked Father Timothy. "What did you do?"
I didn't answer him. I told him I was feeling tired and asked him to come back tomorrow. The truth is, I wasn't sure I wanted to talk about it. How can I explain to a priest the things I've done? I wasn't sure why I was even talking to him.
After high school, I hitched my way south, where I settled in the small gulf side town of Watercolor on the panhandle of Florida. The area was filled with the second homes of the wealthy from places like Greenwich or Manhattan, who would venture down in the spring and summer months, booze it up, frolic on the beach, and leave tanned and tired. I started off working for a hotel on the beach, where I would set out the lounge chairs before dawn and bring them back in at sunset and wait tables at a local restaurant in between. I was tanned, hard, and stood six foot two. The wives and the daughters of these Emperors of New York were always slipping me pieces of paper with room or cell phone numbers. When I wasn't working or fucking these drooling women of privilege, I was alone most of the time in the room I rented from an older woman who lived alone and never had visitors. Her name was Cathy, and she liked to take care of me, and I took to caring for her, too. Her house was light yellow and large with an elaborate, blue front door. It had many rooms, with a wide double-decked spacious porch that I loved to sit on in the evenings drinking beer and watching people on their evening walks. Cathy sat in her large, cushioned chair as she read her tabloids. We rarely spoke during this time. Cathy told me she had inherited the house and her money from her daddy. She never married. She was fifty-two when I met her. I rented that room from Cathy until she died, weeks before her fifty-third birthday. She left me her entire estate, with no one to challenge the will. Cathy was cremated, as was her wish, and the urn was left to me. I discarded it in the dumpster behind The Red Bar in Grayton Beach, after a night of drinking vodka to my good fortune, and drove back in Cathy's old station wagon to her house - now my home. My parents passed away several years after Cathy, leaving me their life savings and house, which I sold right away, contents and all.
Father Timothy returned as promised the next afternoon, and we shared the lunch he brought of deli meat sandwiches and potato salad. We washed it down with sweet iced tea. He didn't say anything as we ate; he just looked at me with a curious expression on his face. I knew I was an enigma in the town that has been my home since I arrived. I had kept to myself, never needing to work. My life was rich but simple. I took to backpacking parts of the Appalachian Trail once a year and hunting in Montana.
After lunch, I watched Father Timothy settle into his chair beside me, holding his Bible in his lap, and once he was certain of his placement, he asked, "Are you ready to confess to the murder of Cathy Amish?"
The question didn't surprise me so much, it was his directness that did. For years, I knew many in the town speculated about Cathy's demise and my hand in it. I could see in Father Timothy's eyes his shock that his question seemed not to elicit any noticeable sign of concern from me. Without moving a muscle, I responded, "As I have already told you, Father, these sessions are a waste of our time. I am a non-believer."
Recovering, Father Timothy asked, "So, does that mean you were free to do as you wished without fear of consequences at your death?"
"Why are you really here, Father?" I asked.
"I am here only to offer you absolution if it is your wish to receive it."
It was now me who studied Father Timothy. Although he was older, he had a youthful disposition. He was athletically built and tanned. He looked like he spent his days on the beach, not in a church. He had a relaxed confidence that was enviable. There was nothing for me to be worried about from anyone. But he seemed very certain of my guilt, and this fascinated me.
"Father, isn't it a sin to bear false witness on thy neighbor?" I asked.
"So, you do know something about my profession, I see," said Father Timothy. He lays his right hand on his Bible as if to add emphasis to saying, "Lying is also a sin."
"So, what am I lying about?" I asked.
"Your parents died together and rather young, didn't they?"
"And they left you a sizable inheritance?"
"I was their only child, and as you said, they died young. How is this a concern?"
"Where were you when they died?"
"I was staying in my cabin in Montana, hunting. My mother's sister left a message on my cell. Wait a minute, how do you know about my parents? I have never spoken to anyone about them."
Father Timothy's face was expressionless. No hint of nervousness. I didn't like the way this was going. I was losing control.
He coolly replied, "I spoke to the priest of the church close to your parents' house. I was looking for background, thinking your parents attended the church. Father Michael was very familiar with the deaths of your parents."
I replied, "Look, Father, I am growing weary of this. If you have something to say, get on with it."
Father Timothy stood and paced in front of my bed.
"I do believe this is the largest private room here at Mercy Hospital," he finally said.
He bent his head and touched his forehead, and added, "When I was asked to visit you, I was a bit surprised."
I was feeling impatient. I replied, "I didn't ask you to visit me, Father."
Father Timothy returned to his chair and crossed his legs and said, "I know, it was the hospital administrator. I think she is hoping you will consider leaving a portion of your estate as a gift to the hospital. We both know that will not happen."
"How can you be so certain of that?" I asked.
"Because I know who you are, Mr. Roth," the priest retorted.
Curiously, I asked, "What is it that you think you know about me?"
"Mr. Roth, I have lived in this town all my life. You see, I remember you. My parents lived next door to Cathy when your parents rented rooms in Cathy's house while on vacation. You were around thirteen, and I was twenty-one, visiting from seminary school. I knew what Cathy was, and I am sure you did, too. But I am different than you, Mr. Roth. And you are like Cathy in many ways, but much different in other ways. You are capable of so much more."
Yes, this priest is direct. But what did I care?
I was beginning to get irritated, and I responded, "You seem to think you have a lot figured out, Father. Given my situation, I don't see how it really matters, though."
Father Timothy considered my response and said, "Yes, you are ill, Mr. Roth. And death seems to be lurking just outside the threshold of your door."
Father Timothy smiled, eerily, as if he knew something I didn't.
His eyes narrowed, and he asked, "Are you so arrogant that you are certain there is no reward for confessing, in receiving absolution?"
"Let's say you are right, that I did have a hand in the deaths of Cathy and my parents so that I could take their money and possessions. Yes, I knew who Cathy was. She was cold, ruthless, and she had very specific needs. Sounds like you know of what I speak of, Father. If I did hasten her journey, wouldn't you say she was deserving?"
Father Timothy's smile disappeared, and he asked, "And your parents? Were they deserving as well?"
He had me drawn in, and I responded, "You seem to think I am something more repugnant than Cathy, so how can a person like me receive absolution? Aren't you describing me as something that is utterly dark, a person without a conscience and a soul?"
Father Timothy uncrossed his legs and replied, "Without a soul? No. Mr. Roth, we are all born into this world within the confines of our deeply flawed human bodies, some more than others, but you most certainly have a soul, and your deliberate evasions have shown you know right from wrong. You have ignored the nature of your soul repeatedly. Those were your decisions. But it doesn't have to be your final decision."
I felt a tinge of unnerving anticipation, and I asked, "If I did have something to confess, does my absolution come with a price, like the good old days?"
"You surprise me again, Mr. Roth."
"Father, I don't have the energy for this nonsense, and I do not wish to spend what time I have left in a religious debate with you. You have nothing more than suspicion. You have no proof."
I watched Father Timothy stand and place his Bible on the table under the television, remove his priestly white collar, and with a smirk on his face, he said, "You're right, Mr. Roth. Time to stop playing games. When I first saw you with Cathy, I knew instantly what you were. Our kind can easily spot each other. I was in Cathy's will before you came along. It was I who should have inherited her fortune. I poisoned her, thinking I was still to inherit everything."
To say I was surprised is an understatement. I had been conned. No doubt about that. The man standing in front of me now had completely relinquished his mask and stood there with a look of complete satisfaction and immense confidence. He had driven the knife in, and I waited for the twist. I sat up in my bed and asked, "No need to beat around the bush, whoever you are. What do you want from me?"
He placed a hand in his coat pocket. His sharp blue eyes focused on my face, knowing there would be nothing to read from me. He removed his hand from his pocket. His face turned to stone, and he said, "Mr. Roth, your parents had been shot while they slept. I watched you bury the gun in a box under a window of a burnt-out building in the woods a mile or so from your parent's home. After you left to drive back to Montana, I retrieved the gun. I don't want everything, Mr. Roth. I am a reasonable man. I just want what was mine. You can keep what your parent's left you. Do you want to spend what time you might have left locked up?"
The man calmly fitted the white collar back in place like he had been doing it for years. He retrieved his Bible, transforming back into Father Timothy with the expertise of an actor destined for an Oscar.
As Father Timothy again, he said, "Mr. Roth, I have a one-time deal for you. No need to confess. Absolution is yours by purchasing my humble shack far from the beach for one million as a land speculation investment and selling me your home for twenty thousand - to give it an air of legitimacy, of course. Honestly, it is not a crime to make stupid investment decisions."
"And the gun?" I asked.
"Once it is all done, the gun is yours to dispose of as you see fit."
I saw in the man's eyes his recognition of the anger on my face. Before I could respond, his granite face returned, and his voice cut like a rapier— light, steely, swift, and cold. He said, "Mr. Roth, I am a simple man with simple pleasures." He pulled out my large hunting knife from his coat pocket and added, "I can use this knife on you, as you have used it on others, like a wraith in the night along the Appalachian Trail."
The man transformed back into Father Timothy, and he asked, "Now, do we have a deal or not?"
About the Author
R.F. Mechelke holds a B.S. from Marquette University and a Masters from Cardinal Stritch University. He was born and raised in Florida, and now lives in the Chicago area. His short stories were published in the April 2019 issues of the Blue Lake Review and the Foliate Oak Literary Magazine and the summer issue of the Sci Phi Journal. His short story, "Puzzle Pieces," is forthcoming in the fall issue of the Loch Raven Review. More about R.F. Mechelke can be found at www.RFMechelke.com.