OCH Literary Society does this really cool contest where they pick an image and you write a story about the image. The submissions are judged, and the best one gets published on the website (and the winner gets an ebook too). I didn’t win this time, this wonderful story took the title. Congratulations Joseph Schmidt!
I figured I’d share my submission anyway because I had a lot of fun writing it! Plus, it’s really good practice. I encourage all writers to participate the next time OCH Literary Society does this.
So, without further ado…here is the image this story was written for:
Home by J.C. Hannigan
I could relate to this church; it was old, decrepit, just like me. It had seen better days, more joyful ones. The pews and windows once sparkled and shined with youth. Now everything was decaying, old and dusty.
Father Weston still held mass within the crumbling, dusty brick walls. The doors were never locked, so that anyone seeking refuge could find it within this Gothic sanctuary. The fact that it was still functioning was surprising, but I suppose the fact that I was still functioning was even more surprising.
The city had deemed this church historical, and funds were on the way to restore most of it to its former glory. I likely wouldn’t see that day, though. I was nearing my eighty-sixth year of birth. My mind was going, my body failing. My ticker was weak, too broken and soft. I was the shell of a man I once was, a ticking time bomb. Would my heart fail me? Would a stroke take me? Only time – and limited time at that – could tell.
I used to be vibrant and strong, but age had taken both of those traits from me. Now I was faded, as if the light had drained from my body. I was weak, not only in body, but spirit too. I suppose that was why I sought out Father Weston’s company on this particular day.
I sat on the solid pew, breathing in the damp air that circulated the old church. The cold wood beneath me caused a sharp, throbbing ache to pulse in the hip that I had gotten replaced twice in the last ten years. I was here because I didn’t know where to go. I was here because I needed refuge; I needed sanctuary.
Father Weston was in the oratory with a penitent. I was waiting my turn. My left foot, I suppose it could be described as my good foot, tapped impatiently against the stone floors. I was uncomfortable. I hadn’t set foot in this church since I married Mary-Beth. That was sixty-five years ago. Mary-Beth was the devoted one. She had been the one to come to Sunday mass every year without fail. Father Weston knew her well. The entire town knew Mary-Beth. She had been a one of a kind woman, always volunteering her time…always helping others. She wasn’t selfish, like me. But still, something drove me to come here today, to repent my sins.
“John, how are you doing?” the voice stirred me from my thoughts, and my eyes snapped up at the speaker. I brought a shaking hand to my heart, trying to calm the frantic, startled beats. It was just another parishioner. I recognized his face but my memory failed me in recalling his name. I knew that he was roughly twenty years younger than me, and that Mary-Beth had cooked many casseroles for him following the death of his wife. He lost her to cancer, or maybe something else, I couldn’t remember, nor could I get past my own grief to care.
“I’m fine, thank you,” I told him when I finally found my voice. I leaned heavily on the old cane before me, trying to urge my hips to cooperate. The man gently brought his hands to my arms and helped me stand. I stood before him, my knees nearly knocking together with age.
“I’m sorry about the passing of your wife. She was a remarkable gift,” the man said, giving me the sad smile that all widowers seemed to wear. My heart clenched painfully in my chest, reminding me of my impending fate.
“Thank you,” I grumbled, my eyes drifting away from his face, towards the confessional. I had so many things I needed to repent before it was time. “Well, I’ll see you around.” I added, to be sure that the man understood that I didn’t want to stand around and talk to him all day about my aching heart following the loss of the love of my life. The love that I had wronged in so many ways over our sixty-five years together, the love that I didn’t know how to live without.
I didn’t bother to wait and hear his reply. Instead, I began my slow, tedious walk to the confessional booth, my thoughts swirling and tangling into one another.
Mary-Beth had died just a few days ago. Our funeral arrangements were both already handled so the remaining one wouldn’t have to face those difficult decisions alone while in the thicket of their grief. Mary-Beth had been the one to suggest that. She figured it would be easier on the one left behind to have everything set up. She hadn’t known which one of us would go first, but I think we both thought it would be me.
Mary-Beth had never had any health issues. She didn’t require hip replacements, as I had, and she hadn’t been told by any doctors to cut back on the bacon, as I had. She had aged beautiful, the light and vibrancy never leaving her breathtaking cornflower blue eyes.
I, on the other hand, had faded and crouched with age, my body riddled with health problems and aches, likely brought on by years of hard labor as a carpenter. I suffered from arthritis and cataracts and took more pills per day than our local pharmacy had in stock. I was certain I would go first, so certain that I had gone along with her plan without complaint, not wanting to imagine her struggling to make these decisions alone…without me.
Color me surprised when I rolled over four days ago to kiss my wife good morning, only to find her cold and lifeless beside me. The doctor said it had been a brain aneurysm to take her from me.
I opened the door to the booth with my shaking hand and crept towards the bench. I sat down, exhaling heavily. I waited until Father Weston opened the window, until I could make out the shape of him through the dark screen, before I began.
I made the sign of the cross slowly, my memory awkward in recalling exactly how to go about it despite being raised in the Catholic faith. “Bless me father for I have sinned.”
“May God the Father of all mercies help you make a good Confession,” Father Weston’s voice washed over me like a blanket, easing my anxieties. I was nervous about this. I had done many, many bad things that Father Weston would surely find detestable, that God would surely find detestable. I needed to repent before I went too, so that I could find Mary-Beth again in the afterlife, so that I could make up for all the wrongs I did to her. Time was running out, I could feel it in my bones. I think the spirit knows when it will be called home, much like a pregnant woman knows her baby will arrive and begins to nest. My soul was urging me to nest, to repent my sins and get my affairs in line.
Alas, I had ignored that urge for too long.
I opened my mouth, desperate to get my confession out, but something happened. The words were stuck, lodged in my throat. It felt as if I had swallowed a golf ball. I clenched at my throat with my hands, clawing at it, choking on that mass. I fought desperately for oxygen, but no air came through. My lungs pinched painfully and I looked desperately to the right, to the black screen that separated the booths. But choking is silent, and Father Weston likely thought I was struggling to repent my sins, not dying in the booth beside him.
By the time he realized what was happening, it was too late. I was already fading, my heart was slowing to a pace I’d never felt before and the darkness was drawing me from my body, from my consciousness. The last thing I felt before I died was Father Weston’s hands on me, desperately trying to revive me.
Then I felt nothing, I saw nothing.