The hours of confession were ending and the last sinners of the Mary Immaculate Church headed out into the chilly September evening. The young girl waited for Father Michael’s confessional to be free. She cradled her blue school duffel bag close to her body, accustomed to shielding her generous flesh against the ridicule of her peers.
This was an old fashioned church of polished wood and high vaulted ceilings. Angels graced the beams. Statues loomed in beatific ecstasy. The girl shuffled from foot to foot, shifting the awkward weight of her bag to relieve her aching arms. Her head downcast, she watched the confessional from the corner of her eye. An old man drew back the heavy black curtain of Father Michael’s booth, his soul a clean slate, free to sin again.
The girl slipped in, leaving her duffel bag on a facing pew. She could be open here. She kneeled, letting the sweet darkness envelop her, breathing in the scent of oiled wood and melting wax. The church had been her refuge, her sanctuary when the screams at home made her tremble. Armor against all the nights she would lie in bed, curled in a ball. Her stepfather’s slurred voice accusing her mother of terrible things. Her mother crying and pleading. The slaps, the crash of glass, a thud and the bed springs squeaking in timeless rhythm. The girl would pull a pillow over her head; squeeze her eyes tight and repeat Hail Marys until God granted her sleep. She had felt wanted at the church, a family member, special.
The partition of the confessional slid open and the girl bowed her head, but stole a glimpse at Father Michael’s face. The screen made his features look soft and gentle, just the way a priest should look, she thought. She pictured his kind blue eyes.
She dropped her voice low and whispered, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been almost a year since my last confession.”
Silence. A trickle of sweat slid down her face. She tugged at her plaid school uniform. Her Sweet Sixteen charm caught a thread.
“Go on,” said the priest. His voice was smooth and comforting.
The girl could smell his tangy cologne. “I’ve done a terrible thing, Father.” She trembled. “I did it.”
“It?” asked Father Michael.
“You know. I never even kissed any of the boys at school…And then I…”
She could hear Father Michael swallow hard, the kind of pasty swallow that needed a drink.
“Are you pregnant?” His voice hardened.
“Not any more.”
“You know the church’s teachings on ab—”
“I know,” she said, her voice shaky. Then she stood up, pulled back the curtain and ran out.
Father Michael flung open the confessional door as the front door of the church eased shut. On the pew lay a blue school duffel bag. It wriggled, then moved in spastic jabs. Slowly, gently he parted the opening and peered into familiar blue eyes.