Act of Contrition By Mark Atley

Punk Noir Magazine

QUINN SPOTS THE CRUCIFIX on the wall above the altar as he enters the Cathedral, thinking it is as good a place to die as any. His car is out front at the foot of the concrete steps, which go with the rest of the place, all angles and grays, Gothic architecture mixed with the art deco the city’s known for. He found the heavy wooden doors unlocked because he needed a sanctuary, so he found one. Shuffling forward from the doors, he notices the crucifix is large and intricate. The smell of candle wax and incense permeates the air. While stumbling down the aisles his blue eyes take in the red carpet, white walls, stained glass windows, and brown-varnished wood. The eyes of Jesus Christ stare down at him as he collapses into a mid-row pew, his body hitting the wood hard, scraping down the back, echoing off the emptiness of the place. He wanted to make it to the altar, but this pew will be fine. 

Imagine, him, here, early for his own funeral. 

He’s telling himself, no, not yet, don’t lay down. Get up, that’s important. Keep the chin up. That’s what his mother told him. 

She also told him don’t die on your back. 

With blood on his fingers, body heavy, Quinn rolls to the side and pushes off the pew, putting in the effort, arm straight, to support his weight. He sits up, slumping slightly to the side, and settles into the pew, making more noise, more echoes, thinking he’s dying, that’s what’s happening now.

Or maybe not. 

But there’s so much blood, it’s hard to tell. It doesn’t matter; time’s short and they’ll be coming. He might as well sit down for a few, catch his breath, and figure out what comes next. Sitting’s an effort, although worth it, because he won’t die on his back, not if he can help it. 

A door opens behind him and then the door shuts and footsteps approach, moving down the wooden walkways between the pews; the footfalls show how empty the place is and they are closer now—behind him. 

It must be the priest and he’ll want to talk. Why not, the place is empty, no one else for him to talk to, Quinn thinks, laughing to himself about it, half-coughing, half-spitting as he does. A priest coming to talk to him, who’d have figured that?

Now the priest is at his side, a shadow looming over him, dressed in black, white collar, with a grave demeanor wrapped in a solemn presence, which weighs the rest of the place down. The priest’s voice reveals he’s not from here, not from Oklahoma, as he tells Quinn something about locking up for the night, but Quinn’s mind doesn’t track the priest’s words. Instead, he wonders where the priest is from, while also noticing the heavy amount of sweat on his own forehead, dripping down into his eyes. Or is it rain from outside? He isn’t sure, either it’s rain or sweat, and ultimately, it doesn’t matter, it’s not like he has the strength to do anything about it. Quinn drops his head back against his neck, eyeing the priest, holding his side, and asks, “Where you from, Father?” 

“Nigeria,” the priest answers, his words coming into sharp focus. The priest’s dark eyes study Quinn for a moment, hands on the ends of the pew, bald head, with his feet apart, shoes shined, and then he smiles, showing his bright teeth. “I’m Father Julius. I was closing up for the night.” Saying Julius like Jew-lee-us, singsong like, which gives his speech a beautiful quality and elevates his words, each coming slow and punctuated; Queen’s English mixed with his native tongue and Oklahoma’s drawl. 

Quinn drops his head to his chest and tries to stand. It’s the polite thing to do. But his legs don’t work, at least not right now, so he drops back into the pew, with his body tingly and fighting to keep his eyes open. Quinn says, “Oh, well, I don’t think I’ll be going anywhere any time soon. Don’t worry. Just let me rest here a bit, and I’ll let myself out.” 

“I don’t mind you staying,” the priest—Father Julius—says, his words bounce in and out of focus now like they are coming down a long empty hallway, “—oh God, you’re bleeding.” 

Quinn, trying to hide the wound, but not good enough, looks down at his hand, covered in something red.

Blood? 

Yeah, blood from the gunshot. 

Quinn tells the priest, “You know, you shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain. You shouldn’t say that…you’re a priest… and that’s like what, a commandment or something? Saying God, I mean.”

Father Julius steps forward, “You’re hurt.”

Quinn’s eyes drift back to the crucifix. “There’s blood on him too,”—lifting his other hand, pointing at the crucifix—“maybe you should go check on him. Look at him up there, nailed to a cross, wrapped in cloth.” 

“You’re hurt.”

Quinn waves the priest off and looks down at his side. “It’s nothing, just blood, doesn’t hurt that much.” Blood drops into the pew and drips to the floor, and both men watch it happen. “I’m sorry about the floor but go figure, me knowing my shit, huh, maybe it’s cause I’ve been shot. Do you think…” he lets his voice trail off because talking’s an effort, and come to think of it so is breathing. 

The priest sits down next to him. “Do you want me to call someone? Get you an ambulance?”

“No, I want to sit here for a bit,” Quinn says. “Figure out what happens next.”

Father Julius has a pleasant smile and he offers it once again as he asks, “What happened before? Care to tell me about it?” 

Quinn puts his hand on the priest’s knee. “This ain’t one of those times where you get me to spill my guts about all the things I’ve done, masturbation, Hail Mary’s and what for.” 

“You mean confession,” the priest says, “And I believe this is the best time for that.”

“Don’t be annoying, let me be here, bleeding, why do you got to go ruin it with all your talking?”

“If you die—”

“—without confession, yeah, I got that, without it, Hell. Damnation—” 

“—for eternity—”

“—what is confession good for?”

“Confession’s good for all things,” the priest says. 

Quinn peers over at the priest. “Try not to be such a holy man, doesn’t look good on you,” he says, leaning to the side, spitting more blood on the floor. 

“Try not to bleed on my floor anymore,” the priest says. “I’m going to have to replace the carpet as it is, and I don’t give a fuck what you think, you need medical attention.”

Quinn shifts in the seat, squaring the rest of his body to get a good look at him. He says, “Yeah, I can work with that,” and then pats the priest on the knee some more before removing a silver flask, with black plastic around the midsection. Quinn takes it from his jacket pocket using one hand, and his fingers unscrew the cap, flipping it to the side. He takes a hit and offers the flask to the priest. 

Father Julius takes the flask from Quinn’s hand and takes a drink. “So are you going to tell me your sins, or am I going to let you bleed out here and go to Hell?”

“Getting to it just like that,” Quinn says. “Hmmm, I getcha, yeah, sure what the hell, why not?”

“What happened?”

“Do you believe all this? You know, what the church preaches, all this?” Quinn motions to the empty church. “I mean really?”

“I believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ, yes, and I believe in the church. I wouldn’t be here if I thought otherwise.”

“Really, even the no sex part?”

“Even that.”

“You ever been with a woman, because if you’ve been with a woman, how could you give it up for all this? Don’t you want something different from life, more than this, talking to someone like me? How’d you end up here?”

“I imagine my path here was somewhat like how you ended up here,” the priest says but Quinn’s mind is having a hard time processing what he said so he doesn’t know what he means. Then the priest says, “But yes, I’ve been with a woman. I did live a life before all this.”

“Like what?”

The priest pauses. “I worked for the CIA,” he says, straight-faced, “killed people— an assassin.” Then he takes another hit of the flask before passing it back to Quinn.

“Really?”

“No,” the priest chuckles, “Although there’s a priest here in the diocese that did work for the CIA and I hear from other parishioners that he may have killed people…with knives.”

Quinn chuckles too. “You’re going to do that to a dying man, make jokes?” He forces his lips to form a smile and takes another drink.

“I think that’s the best time to do it.”

“I read a book once,” Quinn says. “Something about Viet-nom, that’s what the characters kept calling it, ‘Why Viet-nom?’like it was a joke or something. Anyways, there was this part about the war where this guy gets blown up from a mine or something. And the book’s main guy steps up because everyone else is new. And he lies to the guy about how it’s going to be okay. Both of them know it’s not. Like both of them know the guy’s legs are hanging off and chunks of him are scattered throughout the jungle—”

“—do you think you are going to die?”

Quinn remains quiet for a long time, sitting in the moment, and bleeds. The priest is good about it. Polite even. He doesn’t make an effort to go call anyone or do anything beyond sitting here. 

“What’s that priest say about bad people?” Quinn asks, “the one that was in the CIA?”

“That Jesus forgives all. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be a priest.”

“Is that how the church’s gotten around the little boy thing?”

The priest shrugs. “Jesus forgives,” he says. “And sometimes it doesn’t hurt to have good people willing to do the right thing.”

“Or cut your balls off.”

“Or cut off our balls,” the priest says, with more smiling. “But more hold us accountable.” His fingers close around Quinn’s hand forcing the flask back into Quinn’s grasp. “Take a drink. You need it.”

Quinn sips from the flask and then he lets it drop to his knee. “You’re trying to tell me things are going to be okay even though you and I both know they’re not.”

The priest is silent and then says, “Did this…” he leans over to try to see how bad it is but Quinn holds his side a little tighter. “…do you think you are going to die?”

“I don’t know,” Quinn says. “Feels like it….say, do you believe bad people can do good things? I did a bad thing, several actually, I knew better. My mother’s not like that, she raised me better, but she ain’t a saint or a nun, either.”

“My sister’s a nun,” Julius says.

Flashing lights shine through the stained glass windows, red on blue, no sirens. Both men shift their attention to the windows for a moment.

Quinn says, “They’re here for me, you know?”

The priest nods, while contemplating the lights for a moment, and then smiles. He asks, “Did you do a good thing, or are you a bad person?”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

Father Julius leans back in the pew, placing an arm on the back of the pew. 

Quinn hears a door open and close, and more footsteps, heavier, not like the priest, from somewhere behind him. He looks over at Father Julius, who seems distracted, but then he’s not and he’s back, looking at Quinn, saying, “I think you are looking at the world a little too two-dimensional. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the world is not black and white.”

“Says the guy dressed in black and white.”

That gets a smile. The priest starts to say something else, but Quinn holds up a hand to stop him. “Yeah, yeah, I know, Jesus forgives.” He takes a drink from the flask and hands it back to the priest. “That’s what you were ‘bout to say. You were about to tell me that he’ll forgive me for whatever I’ve done.”

The priest accepts the flask. “I don’t think you need this anymore,” Father Julius says, taking a final drink. He screws the cap back on and sits it on the other side of him in the pew. After a long silence, which gives Quinn plenty of time to think things over, not that things are going to improve any, Father Julius says, “What have you done?”

“There was a robbery,” Quinn says before his mind registers he’s talking, thinking that was easy but confession’s always been like that for him, everything else is just preamble. Fluff. Like getting the bra off a girl. 

His mind flashes to Donny pointing his gun at everyone in the bar and yelling, “Eeny, meanie, miny, moe, which motherfucker’s got to go?” 

Father Julius asks, “How did it go?”

“Bad, like all robberies,” Quinn says while his mind takes him back to Donny turning to him, surprised, and then sinking slowly to the floor, face full of shock. Quinn explains, “We’re at this whiskey bar in the Village. They serve coffee there too. I like going there so I guess that’s why we chose it.” 

The priest gives him a look. 

“Donny and me.” 

Quinn neglects to mention his little brother, Reggie. He wonders if he got away. Quinn told him to run, yelled, “Get out of here,” and he did. Reggie ran.

“What happened?”

“Things went the way they were supposed to,” Quinn says, “We bust in, we get everyone that’s there to do what we want, and there’s not a lot…it’s a Wednesday night. Anyways, we’re there and Donny starts waving his gun around, screaming at people.”

“Did you have a gun?”

“I had one then.”

“Do you have one now?”

Quinn pats his pocket, showing him, and then uses his free hand to take it out, revealing the revolver. Quinn doesn’t remember where he got it. 

Donny, maybe? 

No. 

Yes, Donny gave it to him a couple of months ago when they did the gas station in Little Mexico. 

The priest takes the revolver out of his hand and Quinn lets him. The priest sits it next to the flask on the other side of him while Quinn continues: “Things went like they were supposed to, but then they didn’t. We got everyone in the corner. No one was doing nothing they weren’t supposed to. The girl behind the bar was listening, taking the cash out, and putting it in a plastic trash bag. But Donny started waving his gun at everyone, getting more amped up. His eyes…”

“Have you heard the maxim about power?”

“—Yeah, but—”

“—power corrupts even the soul, even that quickly.”

Quinn thinks about that and then he says, “Donny’s yelling and playing games with these people, pointing the gun at them. And I’m yelling at him to cut that shit out, but he doesn’t. Then there’s this guy, he’s got a gun…I don’t know…I didn’t think you could have a gun in a bar, but he did. I don’t know where it came from. Then there’s a standoff you know, guy on the floor pointing the gun at me, and I’ve got mine at my side, frozen. And then Donny sees the guy and freaking unloads on him, shoots at him three times. Guy takes a round or two, I don’t know where, but there was a lot of blood. But as soon as Donny started shooting the guy pulls the trigger,”—looking down at his side—“I didn’t even feel it. The guy rolls up into a ball and bleeds. But Donny’s pissed now and his gun jams. And as he starts to clear it…”

“Yes?”

“…I shot him.”

“You shot him? Why?”

“Because no one was supposed to get hurt. Because of the look in his eyes…” there is more, but the rest of Quinn’s words, his justification, die in his throat. He swallows roughly. “I guess I don’t know why I shot him, just needed to.”

In Quinn’s mind, Donny is there looking at him, shocked, and then dropping to the floor, disbelieving.

Father Julius digests the story and then asks, “So you feel like you did a good thing?”

“No, he was my friend, but he needed to be stopped. I had to stop him. He looked like a rabid dog or something.”

The priest says he knows what Quinn means. “Are you asking for forgiveness?”

“No, I’m not.” 

Or maybe he is. Maybe that’s why he’s here. He could have stayed in the car. Let them find him there. He didn’t. 

“Do you think you did a bad thing?”

“I killed my friend,” Quinn says. “That’s as bad as it gets in my world when you turn on people close to you.”

“How do you know he’s dead?”

Quinn thinks about it. “I don’t.”

“Maybe he isn’t dead.”

“I’m dead,” Quinn says, not saying he doesn’t want to die alone. Maybe that’s why he’s here.

“But how do you know?”

“I don’t—”

And then nothing…

*    *    *

…Quinn wakes up in the hospital, an ER suite. He can tell because he’s been here before, Saint Francis, the Pink Palace, on account of the pink marble on the exterior, which came from special quarries in Italy—a Catholic hospital. 

Awake, Quinn surveys the room and finds the priest sitting in the recliner a few feet from him. 

Father Julius says, “Quinton.” The priest’s face brightens at seeing him awake. “Welcome back to the living. You know, it was hard finding you, because you didn’t get around to telling me your name, but I figured it out.”

Quinn turns his head, stiffly. His body feels like there is a rock sitting on him and his throat’s dry, making his words come out funny, as he says, “How, the police report?”

The priest laughs. “No…the news.”

“What happened?” Quinn asks, croaking like a frog. 

“You passed out; I imagine it was the blood loss.” The priest stands and picks up the cup on the table. He hands the drink to Quinn, who wraps his lips around the straw, sucking, emptying the cup. After it is empty, the priest takes the cup away, sets it back on the table, and takes a seat again. 

“I mean what happened, how did I end up here?”

Father Julius crosses his legs. “Right before you handed me the gun, the police entered the church. I motioned for them to stay back. Then an ambulance came. They say it was touch and go there for a little while. But God’s smiled on you, because…” he lifts his hands, pushes them toward the bed.

“Because I’m lying here, awake.” Quinn moves some in the bed and realizes his left hand is cuffed to the frame, to the rail. He jerks his arm a bit, testing the restraints. “How are you here—why are you here?”

“Hard to deny a priest,” Father Julius says, “after all this is a Catholic hospital.”

“Not hard when you’re in police custody.”

The priest concedes, telling Quinn he and the cops had an understanding, and then says, “You didn’t say you had a record.”

“There’s a lot I didn’t say.”

“Or that you were so young—twenty-one-years-old. Or the fact that people at the bar said there were three people there, robbing the place.” The priest holds up three fingers, subtracting one for him, and one for Donny, leaving one finger still standing. The priest chuckles and retracts the last finger.

“Oh yeah,” Quinn says, “huh? Why would they say that?”

Father Julius sighs, uncrosses his legs, and sits forward in the chair. He puts his hands together, with his elbows on his knees. “I met Reggie,” he says, “your brother, he’s not a good boy, eyes give it away, but I see that he tries. He does it for your mother. I’ve seen boys like you two, you know, don’t have to be from here to see it. Boys like you and your brother exist all over the world. There were boys like you on my street. An older brother looking out for the younger. Your mother was here too, she came with him, on account they thought you wouldn’t make it.”

“They go?” Quinn asks, wishing he could have seen them, or at least, his mother. He is glad Reggie got away.

Father Julius frowns. “Afraid so, you’re not dying, not anymore. You passed that, so back to police custody you go.”

Quinn jerks the handcuffs, motioning to him. “But you’re here.”

“I am.”

“Why? What do you care?”

“We didn’t get to finish your confession,” the priest says. “I understand you didn’t want to do that,”—he claps his hands together—“but here we are, with plenty you didn’t tell me. Like how the other boy…what was his name, Donny?…how he’s Reggie’s friend too, according to the police. Or how the man that shot you was a cop.”

“I didn’t know he was a cop.” 

“Well, that’s why I’m here,” Father Julius says, raising his right hand, “See the police are conflicted about you. On one hand, you are a criminal. Their words, not mine. No doubt. Have a record, they say. As long as their arm, they say.” He smiles. “But you will come around; God spared you for a reason.” Now the left-hand rises, as the other lowers. “Now, on the other hand, you shot the man that shot one of their brothers. So they don’t know what to do with you or how to feel about you.”

“No one died?” Quinn asks. 

“No,” Father Julius says, “you were the only one that was close. Of course, it wouldn’t have been so bad had you not bled all over my church. They say you were lucky. Just a few inches, you know? What’s a gallbladder do anyways?”

Quinn shrugs. 

“I hope you are counting, that’s several times you were lucky, you should be keeping track. You will owe someone some favors. God has a tendency to ask much of those he shows favor towards…you know….wants a return on his investment, so to speak.”

“I don’t feel lucky,” Quinn says, throwing his head back on the pillow, jerking on the cuffs again. “God won’t want nothing from me. I’m going to prison. He’s not going to ask anything of me—not there.”

“We’ll see, but I imagine, it won’t be long,” the priest says. “And being no one died—”

“—it’s not as bad as it could have been,” Quinn finishes. “But it’s still bad.”

“It is,” Father Julius says, agreeing. “But you have met your Savior, or your Savior met you. Either way, Jesus loves you and has shown you his love.”

“Tell that to all those starving kids in Africa,” Quinn says, trying to hurt the priest. His eyes shift away from the priest and focus on the crucifix on the wall opposite the bed, hanging above the whiteboard with the nurses’ names written on it. Jesus stares down at him again. 

The priest lets the insult go and waits before he speaks again. “You can’t get away from him,” Father Julius tells him, “but I’m glad no one died, especially you. I prayed for you. That’s what I was doing when you woke up.” He holds up rosary beads. “I asked my sister, the nun, to pray for you too. She told me she would. I’m happy to have the chance to finish our conversation.”

Quinn says, “Why, because we’re friends? You know, we’re not friends, we’re nothing.”

“Why not?” the priest says. “I wouldn’t want to leave you entering eternity without the sacrament of Viaticum, Last Rites.”

“No one died. No rites needed.”

The priest remains silent. 

Finally, Quinn says, “Do they teach you how not to talk in priest school?”

Father Julius smiles, teeth bright. “Seminary—preschool is for children, and they taught me many things, among which is listening—listening is an art. It takes skill and talent. Time. Also taught me how to handle difficult believers or in your case, non-believers. And other things, like anointing the sick.”

“Fine,” Quinn says, “are you going to just sit there, or are you going to get the oils and all that out? Perform your little ceremony?”

“I’ll take that as a request,” Father Julius says, standing. “Was that so hard? Still have to take Communion, in case you take a turn for the worst like last time. And so we are clear, do not die this time; I wouldn’t want my prayers to go to waste. I do not believe that will happen. But you never know.” Father Julius shrugs and bends over to pick up a small pouch.

“I’m glad I didn’t die,” Quinn says.

“I’m glad you did not die either,” Father Julius says as he lays a small pouch on the foot of Quinn’s bed. The pouch contains a cloth, his vestments, and some small plastic bottles, which look like a shampoo set from the bathroom of a hotel; and a golden square case, “You got close—now do you know the Act of Contrition or do I need to help you?”

He does. Quinn doesn’t pray but now that he’s alive, he’s willing to learn. 

#

BIO: Mark Atley is the author of The Olympian, American Standard, and the forthcoming A Bright Young Man, as well as a handful of short fiction. Mark promises to entertain his readers and will choose real other drama every time. He works as a detective for a suburb of Tulsa, OK and has dedicated his life to crime. Follow on Twitter: @mark_atley