By Josiah Hesse
Father Ernie was gasping his last breaths when the faces of the children he’d abused appeared before him. It’d been decades since anyone called him “Father,” but that was the way these children addressed him.
“Hello, Father Ernie.”
“Hello, Father Ernie.”
“Hello, Father Ernie,” they said, one after the other, each sounding more confident and empowered than the last. Very different from the shy and trembling children he’d once known. That was so many decades ago, yet Father Ernie instantly recognized every face as they materialized in the darkness, attached to the small bodies he’d vampirically drank from, night after night, seemingly free of consequence.
He’d moved into this isolated cabin outside Leadville, Colorado two months earlier as a ninety-two-year old retired preacher with stage IV bone cancer and a suffocating bout of pneumonia. Ernie’s grandson (the last living relative willing to speak with him) had been caring for him the last couple years, but after moving Ernie into this cabin, he’d been checking in on his grandfather less and less. Ernie hadn’t seen a soul for eight days when the children showed up.
He’d stopped chemotherapy when moving into the cabin, and there was a brief respite when his chemo side-effects stopped before his cancer symptoms returned. But when dehydration, diaper rash, and excessive lung fluid took hold, Ernie decided to just finish his OxyContin script all at once and have done with it.
Tsunamis of euphoria had been washing over him for the last ten minutes, but they were now interrupted by the most fundamental terror Ernie had ever experienced. A blizzard raged outside his cabin window, the sound of a wolf howling into a moonless night filled his ears when the first boy appeared.
“Hello, Father Ernie,” said the boy.
Paul McCormick, Ernie thought, recognizing the tattered clothes and shaggy hair of the first boy he’d made a move on. It was only once, he told himself.
And then, as if in response to this thought, another child walked into the room.
Like the boy, she appeared in a blue haze, fuzzy around the edges, but still very recognizable. Maria Chary, he recalled, her family were Haitian refugees.
Gales of snow tapped at the cabin window.
The girl’s eyes settled on Ernie’s, and he felt a deep shudder ripple through his body. He was helpless, unable to move or look away, as Maria’s gaze filled him with despair. She was wearing a yellow Sunday dress with tall white socks and polished shoes. It was the same outfit she wore to every church service for five years, long after her growing body caused the seams to stretch and snap.
“I set the template for you, Ernie,” the girl said to her former priest, sounding much older than she appeared. “Poor, a bit dim, and parents who aren’t trusted by people of authority.”
Ernie nodded, drool spilling out the corner of his weakened mouth, recalling the formula he’d devised with Maria. He’d driven her out to a cabin not unlike this one, was given access to this child for three days and two nights, merely because he’d asked.
He’d been allowed a three decade run at this sort of behavior before the Vatican, burdened with more six figure payouts for Ernie than any other 20th century priest (each of them settled out of court), took the rare step of defrocking him for the crime of pedophilia. Characteristically, though, they never admitted to any wrongdoing, and so Ernie’s reputation remained unscathed as he worked his way through several evangelical churches throughout the seventies and eighties. This was the era of the Jesus Freaks, former hippies who ran drug rehab communes with the aim of cultivating born again converts. Most pertinent to Ernie was their taking in junkie parents who could no longer care for their children, separating families and placing the kids in orphanages with no parental contact. Healthcare, education, and religious instruction was given to these kids, free of charge, and was administered by just about anyone willing to volunteer. Ernie was always the first to raise his hand for the privilege.
Miraculously, it wasn’t until 1998 that Ernie got his first ass-beating.
He’d lived until his final days without any legal repercussions for his actions (which was not uncommon for clergy with evil hands), but there were a lot of ass-beatings, mostly from parents or siblings in a blind rage, unable to afford a lawyer but perfectly capable of violence.
Yet none of this curbed Ernie’s appetite, as evidenced by the growing number of children surrounding his deathbed years later. There were so many that the room seemed to stretch to accommodate them. He could see generations of different clothes and haircuts, illustrating the breadth of time he’d been terrorizing children. The years had passed so gracefully, he’d never done the math of how many there’d been. Many of them were filthy, mentally or physically disabled—ideal candidates for a predator.
When each child penetrated the ether and walked into the room, their eyes would lock onto Ernie’s, and his body seemed to gain twenty pounds, sinking deeper into his bed with the weight of guilt—a sensation he’d never experienced in all his life.
Altogether, they appeared so much stronger than they did as confused, silent children in the dark. He was desperate to run, or at the very least look away; wordlessly, each child transferred the emotional burden of Ernie’s touch back onto him. All of the shame, terror, and intimate disgust was lifted from them, and gracelessly flung into Ernie. The ache of self-loathing, the panic attacks of feeling violated, the helplessness of another taking agency over your own body, suddenly rushed into Ernie, dozens of times over, shifting his sociopathic being into that of a spongy empath—and thereby burning his soul alive.
“No, PLEASE! No more,” Ernie pleaded, but the children kept coming, appearing in the windows, in the paintings on the wall, across his hands and feet. They surrounded his bed, growing to inhuman heights, towering over Ernie as he gasped for breath, choking on his own fear.
Then the crowd parted, silence filled the cabin, and at the foot of Ernie’s bed appeared a child different from the others. Instead of a fuzzy blue, this child was colored red. But beyond this, Ernie knew the real difference between this boy and the others: This boy was himself, 85 years ago. The hazel eyes reflected into his own, and for the first time in his life, Ernie began to weep.
“Look!” he shouted at the other children. “I was once a child too! An innocent! The pain I caused you was only an echo of what I absorbed as a child. Take pity on me, please!”
But the child version of himself remained silent, staring into Ernie’s eyes, offering no reprieve from the emotional horror inflicted on him. As seven-year-old Ernie approached his dying self, the dread rumbling in his stomach increased. The boy’s eyes turned to fire, and the bed grew bright and hot. As his bowels evacuated and lungs failed to breathe, Ernie tried to crawl away from his former self, feeling a maddening horror violently clash around his head, like a rabid bird in a cage. Young Ernie climbed onto the bed, approaching the old man on his hands and knees.
Flames climbed the cabin walls, filling the room with blinding waves of heat.
“You killed me long before you touched any of them,” the boy told the old man. “You suffocated me for years, deaf to my screams, killing us both, again and again, your entire life. . . . Now, be deaf no more.”
Father Ernie became lost in the gaze of his former self, feeling his own eyes turn to fire like the boy’s. He felt them boiling in their sockets, then explode across his face, instantly melting his skin down to the skull.
Even though he couldn’t see, Ernie could still somehow sense the children around him. He could sense their transformation into spritely demons, their mouths, hands and feet mutating into instruments of torture. Flames consumed the room as the children climbed onto the bed, nipping, burning and crushing his extremities. Yet even this physical torment was eclipsed by the soul-shattering emotional pain radiating through him, the empathetic misery of facing down his crimes against children.
“We will never leave you, Father Ernie,” they said in unison.
“Say goodbye, Father Ernie.”
“Say goodbye, Father Ernie.”
“Say goodbye, Father Ernie,” they chanted, as the bed slowly sank into the floor.
Author of psychological horror novel Carnality: Dancing on Red Lake, and regular contributor to VICE and The Guardian, Hesse aims to blend journalism and the arts within the pages of Suspect Press, making it both a reflection of our time and an innovative force of creativity. He’s recently released the second book in his series, Carnality: Sebastian Phoenix and the Dark Star, available at several Denver booksellers and on the Suspect Press website. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, josiahhesse.com & @JosiahMHesse