2013 Fiction Contest Winner
Those Who Trespass Against Us
A week before they were to give their First Confession, Sister Crump—an unhappy lady shaped like a bowling pin—had a party for the eight kids in her Sunday school class. For the first thirty minutes she gave a confusing and dull lesson that Jacob Lowell could not follow. He stared at the goodies Sister Crump had brought in. There was one plastic wrapped package of chocolate and vanilla cookies, napkins, dixie cups, and soda; Sister Crump had brought Chugg.
Chugg was a new soft drink, and a friend of Jacob’s who went to Lincoln Elementary with him said that he heard if someone drank one Chugg everyday for an entire year their heart would stop dead in their chest. This was the reason, Jacob was certain, his mother refused to let him drink it. Every time they went to the grocery or out to a restaurant he would ask, “Mom, can I get Chugg?” And she always said, “no way.”
Jacob couldn’t focus on what Sister Crump was saying. The two liter bottle of Chugg and collection of Dixie cups sat two unused desks away from him. He was wondering how much of his insides could possibly corrode from just one cup full of the Chugg when Sister Crump called his name. “Yes, ma’am?” he said, turning his head from the treats and looking up at her aged hobgoblin face.
“Try to pay attention,” she said. “It’s your turn to give an example of a sin.”
Jacob didn’t quite understand. He looked to his weekend classmates for help but their expressions were blank. “Sin, is when you do something you are not supposed to,” he told her.
“Well, that is correct. But I am looking for something you might be able to tell Father Ferrell during your confession,” she said. Her tone made his face hot. He had no clue what to tell the priest; Father Ferrell knew better than he did what a sin was. Sister Crump’s yellow eyes pinned him to his chair, and her mass of wrinkled chins sloshed with each breath; her foot began to tap impatiently. He said the first answer that seemed acceptable to him. “My mom tells me I talk back too much, does that count?” He said. He was constantly grounded for talking back to his mother.
“Yes, that is a sin of the fifth commandment given to Moses.”
Jacob swung his feet in relief.
“Then to reconcile for your sins Father Ferrell is going to ask you to say a number of Hail Marys and Our Fathers. Jacob, would you please recite the Hail Mary?” she asked.
Rather than try and become embarrassed, he was forced to tell her that he had not learned the Hail Mary and could not recite it. She balked and the sagging flesh under her chin collapsed with disappointment. He thought about telling her that he knew the Our Father and could repeat that, but she had shifted the subject to the importance of knowing both prayers by heart.
“On Saturday evening, before your First Communion, you all will give an account of your sins to Father Ferrell. You will sit in the confessional booth; the Father will listen silently, ask you a few questions about your transgressions, then assign the prayers you will have to say in order to cleanse your spirits in preparation to receive the Body of Christ the very next morning.”
Jacob was familiar with the procedures. Sister Crump had given similar instruction last week. Every time she mentioned the prayers a slick worry wrapped its way around his chest and squeezed; he may be asked to pray the Hail Mary to wash away his sin. This was far more serious then having to repeat it to Sister Crump in Sunday school. He debated about raising his hand and asking the consequences of not knowing the prayers, but asking a question would delay Sister Crump’s treats. If he just played along for a few more minutes he might be drinking Chugg. He simply stared straight at Sister Crump, following her every movement. There was a bookmark at home with the Hail Mary printed on it if he remembered right, so he relaxed and waited for Sister Crump to finish. Besides, the rest of the kids seemed ready to give their confession that day. He would just have to find the prayer and learn it.
Sister Crump concluded her lesson by passing out napkins. They were the same floral patterned ones they used for Delilah’s birthday party. Delilah was the last person in their class to turn seven and the only person to get a party. Jacob was positive she knew the Hail Mary; she spouted off every other answer.
Jacob was tearing the thin layers of paper apart by the time Sister Crump sat two cookies and an empty cup on it. While she moved methodically down the row of desks, the other kids in the class—as if they were pulled from a spell—began chattering. Jacob didn’t mind not being included in their group. He usually wasn’t. The other seven all went to school here and even sat in their same seats. He went to Lincoln Elementary across town: a public school. He asked his mother why this and she had only said cryptically, “You’ll thank me later.”
Jacob was glad anyway, because St.Mary’s Elementary was remodeled into a school from a dank colonial building. The interior had been turned into a labyrinth of suffocating hallways and peculiarly placed classrooms. It had floors of murky wood that were rutted and bumpy and corpse-gray walls with starch white trim that matched the banister, stairs, and Sister Crump’s habit. This was all drastically different from the long, breezy hallways, shiny linoleum and carpeted classrooms of Jacob’s school, but still the biggest difference was the light. The crooked halls, misshaped rooms, and dark colored paint of St. Mary’s trapped the amber glow from the wall mounted fixtures, cloaking the sparse blues and yellows found on the biblical pictures tacked around the room in shadows.
Sister Crump eclipsed the light fixture when she moved in front of Jacob’s desk with the bottle of Chugg gripped in her hand. He was busy trying to see how long he could keep the Dixie cup suctioned to his face. “Would you like some soda, Jacob?” she said. He nodded his head and sucked in his cheeks. The cup popped off his face and landed in his hand. Jacob righted it and Sister Crump poured the Chugg. It slushed to a stop nearly at the top.
“Thank you,” he said and added on impulse, “Mom doesn’t let me drink this.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes ma’am.” smiling despite the bold red outline the cup had made.
“Well, your confession is coming up,” she paused for a slight moment, “so I’m sure your mother wouldn’t mind just one cup.” Her voice sounded soft and wispy like smoke.
"He took some deep breaths. Slowly his thumping heart, the lump of guilt, the fire that had spread down his throat dissipated."
“Okay.” He was glad she wasn’t going to make him dump the Chugg out, but a lump was forming in his stomach as her words lingered, whirling in the air above him. His mom would mind. And thinking about being grounded made the lump almost hurt. He stared at the Chugg, examining its toxic green color. His heart began to thud, each beat felt like a hammer stroke, anxiety streaking out across his chest. He leaned his head back and poured the Chugg into his mouth. It was warm. The carbonation burned his nose and throat. It tasted like licking a hot, dusty rock. He wanted to cough but suppressed the urge and swallowed it in one gulp. His eyes welled and chest sizzled as the soda went down. He took some deep breaths. Slowly his thumping heart, the lump of guilt, the fire that had spread down his throat dissipated.
Sister Crump dismissed class after they had finished their cookies. St. Mary’s was conveniently two blocks away from The Annunciation, their church. Jacob walked the distance slowly, arranging his thoughts. He dragged his feet along the ground, afraid his mom would be able to read in his face with her sharp eyes what he had done. Jacob had decided the instant he drank the Chugg that he wasn’t going to tell her. Instead he would tell Father Ferrell during his confession: the worst he could do was give him a Hail Mary to recite. Jacob only needed to find the bookmark with the words printed plainly in the center of a tranquil scene. This was a far better alternative. He stuffed his hands into his slacks, satisfied with his plan to avoid all punishment and watching the sidewalk, taking care not to step on any cracks.
A few minutes later the brown triangular building and steeple of The Annunciation loomed in his periphery. His mom was not in the crowd of parishioners he scanned. The black and white sign with the church’s name on it was their meeting place, so he scuffed his heel on the ground as he paced, waiting on his mother. He enjoyed the sound and the free motion of his legs; his old cowboy boots he begged his mother to let him wear made a sound like rocks colliding when slapped onto the cement.
The bell tolled for Mass. He headed for the large wooden doors that were propped open by two men in suits. He thought maybe his mom had gone inside to get a seat, maybe he had walked a little too slow. His arm yanked and he spun around so fast he almost lost his balanced. His mother’s face came into focus inches from his. Her eyes were hard stones behind her glasses. “I told you to wait for me by the sign.”
“I thought you went inside,” he said and started to tuck his chin, but her fingers locked onto his jaw and forced his head up.
“I don’t want you to move from that sign until you see me. Do you understand?”
“Yes ma’am,” he said averting his eyes.
Father Ferrell and the Altar boys were getting ready to come into the church. His mom followed his gaze and turned him around with another yank and whispered a cold threat, “If you act up in Mass I’ll blister your behind.”
“Yes ma’am.” Jacob trudged through the great wooden doors into the sanctuary.
The sanctuary of The Annunciation was an elongated T-shaped room with a lofted ceiling. Two rows of entrenched pews lead up to the Tabernacle. Sister Crump and the other nuns sat on the right of the tabernacle in padded chairs, and the choir was set up opposite. Behind where Jacob and his mother were standing, while waiting on the usher to find them a seat, were two dark halls flanking the sanctuary door. One was a short cul-de-sac, ending with tiered candles placed above a stool and the confessional booth that stretched nearly the entire outer wall. The other hall led to stairs, which Jacob assumed led to the large pipe organ on the second floor balcony which he could hear being played during Mass. In front of him was a granite basin of Holy Water. The usher found them a seat on the left side of the sanctuary. His mother pulled Jacob along by the wrist and with her free hand touched two fingers to the Water then waved them in front of her face. Jacob wasn’t sure what the purpose of this was, but knew better than to touch the water. Last Sunday his mother caught him with his whole hand in the basin. She spanked him as soon as they got home; Jacob had thought the more water the better the effect.
Their seat was four pews from the back on the outside. The sanctuary doors opened and the clatter echoed off the high ceiling. The congregation turned their heads in unison toward the noise. Jacob could see the top of a large cross over the heads of the parishioners. It was swaying as if a gentle breeze was pushing it. An Altar Boy carried the cross, but Jacob couldn’t see him. He couldn’t see any of the procession. His scenery wouldn’t change for another hour or more. He was confined to stare at dandruff speckled shoulders, meticulously sprayed wax looking hair, and the back of a brown pew with hymnals jammed in it. This annoyed him. There were colorful, puzzle like stained glass windows on the walls that he couldn’t see, and if they’d gotten a seat near the front, two life sized statues hung in mid-air on both sides of the altar, and on the wall behind where the Father stood was a giant painting.
Mass was not an easy thing for him to sit through, and without any diversion he was forced to sit and listen. Father Ferrell had a clear alluring voice but most of the sermons he gave were convoluted and sounded more like incantations or gibberish to Jacob. To pass the time he decided to try to count to one million. He had recently read at his after school babysitter’s house that it was impossible. He was on seven hundred and fifty two when the congregation stood and started shaking each other’s hands. Jacob tried to get his mother’s hand first, but she was turned around already and a frightening woman, thin as a skeleton, snatched his hand, “Peace be with you,” she said. Her hands were all cold and bone.
“And also with you,” was his mandated response, and he pulled his hand away. A few more handshakes later and he was counting again. He couldn’t remember exactly where he had stopped, though, so he started over to avoid cheating. He watched the high rising smoke from the incense and knew Father Ferrell was swinging it out from a chain and again wished he was closer. The incense smelled like burning wood and leaves with an undertone of something magical and intoxicating. Jacob loved the smell. He lost track of what number he was on again—it was at least fifteen hundred he figured—when Father Ferrell started communion.
"The confessional was red from the ruddiness of the candles. It was a scrunched little box with two doors, one for the priest and one for the sinner. The thought made Jacob queasy."
Every week Father Ferrell raised a golden bowl and ornate goblet in the air and a sound like a thousand tiny bells ring in harmony. To Jacob an angel or God Himself was coming before them at Father Ferrell’s command. The congregation then said the Lord’s Prayer, he assumed to recognize that God had entered the church. Jacob had memorized the Our Father out of boredom and because it sounded powerful. He paid close attention to hear the Our Father one last time. He only wished that the congregation had to say the Hail Mary too. He twisted to let the people in his pew out. The congregation, his mother included, spilled out of the pew and stood in line before Father Ferrell. He fed each person a thin quarter-sized wafer called The Body and red wine called The Blood. The gleaming flames of light in the short hallway with the confessional caught Jacob’s attention while he was turned to allow people to pass through. He wondered why different candles were lit each Sunday; it seemed like many more than usual were lit that Sunday. The confessional was red from the ruddiness of the candles. It was a scrunched little box with two doors, one for the priest and one for the sinner. The thought made Jacob queasy. He felt he didn’t have much to confess. Drinking Chugg in Sunday school was all he had. Would that be good enough? Would he be forgiven if he didn’t say the prayers right? What if he sinned before taking the communion, but after his confession? Why did he have to confess at all? “Turn around and sit up straight,” his mother hissed in his ear as she settled back in to her seat. He spun reluctantly back towards the front. There was just enough time in Mass for him to start counting again and the numbers filled his head.
Saturday morning cartoons were a weekly ritual for Jacob. He woke up early, poured a bowl of Frosted Squares and switched on the TV. Because he was usually at his babysitter’s late Friday and his mother stayed in bed till the afternoon, Saturday was the only time he was allowed to eat away from the table and watch more then thirty minutes of shows. A gray rabbit was about to be roasted in a skillet by a hideous olive skinned witch when he heard his mother lumber into the bathroom. He quickly scooped up his bowl of Squares and hurried back to the couch. He didn’t want to be caught sitting too close to the television. A toilet flush later she was standing at the edge of the hallway with two green boxes, one deep and one shallow. Both looked like presents, and both looked like the type he hated opening on Christmas mornings. They were always clothes. “Come here, honey. I got you something.” she said with sleep thick on her voice and messy auburn hair.
He scooted off the couch, set his cereal on the floor, went over to her, and took the packages. He opened them on the floor in front of her. The first box, the skinny one, had a pair of khaki pants and plain white collared short sleeve shirt; he said thank you anyway. The second box was deeper because a solid black pair of cowboy boots was in it. Jacob stared at them, dazed, unable to differentiate from what he expected and the actual gift. This was much more than a boring shirt or bland pants. The design made them look like they were made out of snake’s skin. “Thank you, Mom. Can I wear them now?” He asked.
“For a minute, but don’t mess them up. They are for tonight,” she said watching, her piercing eyes a little softer.
Jacob grabbed them and stuffed his feet inside, kicking his heels against the ground to get his entire foot in. They fit. “Stick ‘em up miss.” He jumped up and threatened with his thumbs cocked. She played along lifting her hands up next to her head.
“Please don’t hurt me. I’ve got no money,” she pleaded.
He ran forward and hugged her. She was still warm from the bed.
“You were scared,” he said.
“Oh yes, you are the fiercest cowboy in whitey-tighties I’ve ever seen.”
“Thanks, Mom,” he said, his face pressed into her robe.
“You’re welcome. Now take them off and put them back in the box. I’m going to go back to bed. Wake me up at twelve. We’ve got to pick up Nana and Grandpa before your confession,” she said through a yawn as she peeled him off.
He flinched. “But Mom I don’t want to go.” It was his only hope. “I don’t feel well,” he said dropping the smile.
“A few seconds ago you felt well enough to shoot your own mother. I got you these new clothes, Nana and Grandpa are looking forward to going, so you are going.” She cut him off; infallible logic was on her side.
“Fine.” Jacob kicked off the boots.
“Watch the attitude mister and keep it down in here or you’re going back to bed too,” she warned him as she walked back down the hallway. He curled his fingers into a fist, pointed, and shot her in the small of the back.
Jacob didn’t go back to watching cartoons. He was sure the rabbit figured out he was about to be cooked and made his escape anyway. He spent the rest of the day searching the apartment for the bookmark with the Hail Mary printed on it. It wasn’t that he completely forgot about looking for it, but that he only remembered when he couldn’t do anything about it: when he would be at swim practice or school or the babysitter he would feel this hook in his chest that someone was tugging on. He would make a pact with himself that he would find and learn the prayer as soon as he got home. He had to. But something always made him forget. He thought about asking his mom, but he couldn’t. He didn’t want her to ask what he was going to say to Father Ferrell like Sister Crump had. She couldn’t know that he drank Chugg and waited until the last minute to memorize the prayer. That would be a disaster. He recalled a few words, the beginning, he thought, and recited them with the hope that the sparse words would inspire the rest. “Hail Mary full of grace,” but none ever came.
A little after Jacob woke his mother up, she called him to the table for lunch. He crammed grilled cheese and tomato soup into his mouth as quickly as possible to get back to looking for the bookmark. He asked to be excused and went back to his room. He searched everywhere, pulled out all the toys in his toy box, looked in the junk drawer of his dresser, and the one book shelf in the hall but couldn’t find it. His mother asked him what he was doing and he told her he was looking for a book. Not a complete lie because that was where he was sure the bookmark would be. He even started looking in places he knew the bookmark couldn’t be. Under mattresses, in the kitchen cupboards, the freezer; he searched everywhere with the hope that a miracle had placed it in an unlikely spot. An hour before it was time to leave to pick up his grandparents Jacob got in trouble for messing up his new clothes while looking under the bathroom sink for the bookmark and was forced to sit on the couch with no TV while his mom got ready. It was a terrible hour.
They left at four to get his grandparents who lived in the next town over. His Grandpa had a round stomach and sideburns and wore a golden eagle necklace everywhere he went. He gave painful noogies. His Nana had hair that was somewhere between white and gray. She talked a lot. The car ride was long and barely bearable. Jacob overheard his mom and Nana talking in the front seat about whether or not his father would be coming. He had not talked to his father for a few weeks, and it had been even longer since they had seen each other. Jacob thought it was because of work. He overheard his Nana say it was good his mother was raising him Catholic, raising him right, with a stern hand and that she was glad to see the money they gave her went to good use. Except for the cowboy boots.
Before the ceremony, they took pictures outside of The Annunciation. Jacob tried not to show how nervous he was. When it was time to start he followed his Sunday school class up to the first pew and sat down. The guys wore khakis with white shirts, and the girls had on white dresses. Since his last name was Lowell he was seated in the middle of the other kids. The families sat in two pews whispering.
Sister Crump stood in front of the class and gave them brief instructions. “The first child will walk down the center aisle to go into confessional. When finished you will come back up the far left aisle and kneel in front of the altar to say the prayers, come back to the pew and genuflect, then sit back down. The next child in line will stand when the previous kneels to pray. This process will last until the last child has repented.”
Delilah was first: she had her head down so a shadow was cast over her face while she walked silently to the back of the church.
"Jesus looked out into the empty pews, one hand touching his chest and the other stretched out in front of him with a pistol-shaped hand pointing towards the sky. Jacob’s favorite part of this statute was the exposed heart. A red Valentine’s Day shaped heart with a golden crown that resembled barbed wire."
Just three more students were before Jacob. He felt sick. He tried to get lost in the statues and the painting that he could now see clearly. The statue suspended on the left side was Jesus, Jacob was sure. Jesus looked out into the empty pews, one hand touching his chest and the other stretched out in front of him with a pistol-shaped hand pointing towards the sky. Jacob’s favorite part of this statute was the exposed heart. A red Valentine’s Day shaped heart with a golden crown that resembled barbed wire. He didn’t stare at it for long. A chill crawled through his skin. Looking at Jesus made him feel guilty. It felt like someone giving a hug that was just a little too tight. The painting on the back wall above the communion table that usually made him fell pleasant and relaxed, at that moment troubled him. The young woman kneeling on the ground, the pure white dove decscending and shooting a ray of light that surrounded the woman’s head, and some mysterious, gorgeous angel on dark clouds that held out a menacing hand. The angel appeared to want to help her, as if she was in trouble. Jacob imagined the young woman must be in the same pain he was in and regretted not paying attention more in Sunday school. He was still staring up at the mural when the weight of the empty seat beside him and the stooping kid below the painting pushed him to the confessional.
Jacob passed his proud looking family. His mother mouthed I love you.
In the hallway he noticed the candles on the far wall had changed again; they resembled a constellation he had seen in science class. He walked into the open door. Father Ferrell slid the door shut and asked him to be seated in the same follow-me-anywhere voice he used in Mass. Jacob was surprised to find him on his side of the confessional. He was a handsome man with aquiline features and brilliant green eyes. He wasn’t wearing the heavy embroidered robe he normally wore at Mass. He had on simple black pants with a matching shirt whose collar had one shock of white in the center underneath his chin. It would have been easier for him to speak had he been on the other side of the partition. Talking to a voice would have been less shameful.
The confessional crowded in on Jacob and a low pressuring light made him feel sticky with sweat. “Why are you here my son?” His voice was smooth and captivating. Jacob felt like he could trust him immediately. The way he trusted that if he broke a mirror he would get seven years bad luck. The way he trusted if he stepped on a crack he would break his mother’s back. In the same way if he couldn’t say the prayers this man gave him to say, he would go to hell.
“Forgive me Father for I have sinned.” He thought he was going to cry.
“What is it that troubles you?” he asked.
Jacob kept his eyes on his boots and dredged up every time he could remember that he had ever been called bad and told the Father: every incident where he had been grounded, spanked, sat in the corner at school, or put in time out at his babysitter’s. He told him everything. Everything except drinking the Chugg. He couldn’t do it. For a second it was in the back of his throat, but his chest felt like it was caving in. In the end it didn’t feel like something he had done wrong; Sister Crump had allowed it.
When he finished telling Father Ferrell his sins he felt dirty and exhausted. He told the Father doing all those wrong things made him feel guilt-ridden, nervous that he would go to hell for doing them. “Do you feel sorry for your transgressions?” Father Ferrell asked Jacob.
“Then go and repent. Say the Lord’s Prayer four times.”
“Yes, Father,” Jacob said.
Father Ferrell was silent, and when Jacob glanced up at him there was a delicate smile on his face. Jacob pulled open the door and walked up towards the altar. Jacob saw Sister Crump sitting quietly with her rosary draped over her hand in the pew behind the rest of his classmates. Had she told Father Ferrell that he didn’t know the Hail Mary? He kneeled and looked up at the mural with the young woman with the light encasing her head.
Our father who art in Heaven, he began and finished the prayer.
Our Father who art in Heaven, he began and finished a second time.
Our Father who art in Heaven, he began but stopped a little over half way through.
He didn’t even start the last.
Christopher McCurry teaches high school English in Lexington, Kentucky, where he lives with his wife and daughter. He is currently a student at The Bread Loaf School of English and a junior editor at Accents Publishing. His first chapbook of poetry, Splayed, is forthcoming from ELJ Publications.