“It sure is easy to go to hell, isn’t it?” Bobby observes idly, looking up towards the steeple of the church.
“Yup,” Rainbow replies mindlessly, casting down a yo-yo and then flicking it back up into his waiting palm. His wild, corn-silk hair hangs down over his face.
“I mean,” Bobby clarifies, feeling he hasn’t adequately expressed his thoughts, “if you don’t go to church, you go to hell. You don’t say your prayers, you go to hell.”
Rainbow nods, still pre-occupied with his yo-yo. Rainbow’s parents had raised the boy on a hippy commune just over the hill, instilling in him a strong sense of relaxed detachment from his present secular existence. Reflecting upon these values, Rainbow inaudibly whispers:
“I mean,” Bobby tries for a third time as he scratches the back of his neck, “it seems like everything fun puts you to hell, you know?”
“Except baseball,” Bobby corrects himself quickly, “and Skittles.”
“My mom says kids who eat candy go to hell,” Rainbow shakes his head, finally looking up from his yo-yo.
“What?” Bobby frowns, “That can’t be right.”
“Yup,” Rainbow nods. “Eat too much candy and straight to hell with you.”
“Jesus,” Bobby breathes, “well, this is exactly what I’m talking about. I like fun things, you know. It’s not fair those put you to hell. Why can’t I just eat Skittles?”
“Because you’ll go to hell.”
“But I want to eat Skittles when I want to!” Bobby snaps kicking a rock with his left tennis shoes. The rock leaps a good ten feet towards the preacher’s house, which sits adjacent to the church where the children lazily hang around after Sunday-school while they wait for their rides home.
“Careful, you might break Pastor Makellos’s window,” Rainbow cautions, “and if you do, he’ll send you straight to hell, or worse.”
“Yup,” Rainbow nods solemnly, “he can make you into a ghost.”
“What are you talking about?”
“He did it to his daughter,” Rainbow explains, “remember Elizabeth? She was in high school or whatever. When’s the last time you saw her?”
“Huh…” Bobby stops to think, “now that you mention it, I haven’t seen her for months.”
“Cause she’s a ghost,” Rainbow says with childish certainty, “sure as rain. My brother’s friend says he saw Elizabeth’s ghost hanging around Pastor Makellos’s cellar. It’s a fact, if you look through his cellar window, Elizabeth’s ghost will take your soul.”
“That’s crazy,” Bobby breathes, not skeptical enough to avoid a nervous sweat at the idea, “maybe we shouldn’t go to the Christmas Eve lock-in.”
“What do you mean?” Rainbow raises an eyebrow.
“The lock-in on Christmas, err Christmas Eve. Aren’t you going?” Bobby asks.
“Mom says I’m going to the party at the high school,” Rainbow explains, “Not a lock-in. Just some caroling and cookies. Then I can go home and sleep and then Christmas will be tomorrow.”
“You mean I’ll be alone at the lock-in?” Bobby furrows his brow with worry, “I don’t want to be alone with Pastor Makellos, especially if he made his daughter into a ghost. I don’t want to be a ghost.”
“Look, maybe the ghost is just a rumor,” Rainbow answers quietly in an effort to cheer up his friend as he resumes playing with his yo-yo, “look man, even if Pastor Makellos did make his daughter into a ghost, I’m sure he wouldn’t do the same to you.”
“Real comforting,” Bobby pouts, looking towards his feet.
“Look, what if I go check if there’s a ghost?” Rainbow offers, forgetting his previous fear of the cellar. He pockets his yo-yo and turns to Bobby.
“You’d do that?”
“I mean,” Rainbow gulps nervously, “well, if it made you feel better I guess I could.”
Bobby does not directly answer but looks at his friend expectantly. After an expansive moment, Rainbow sighs and turns towards the Pastor’s house.
“Alright I’ll go,” he declares and takes a step gingerly towards the old house.
Bobby stays where he stands, ready to observe the investigation from afar. As he does so, Rainbow creeps towards the home while continually looking back and forth for any adult who may watch. He jumps ever so slightly in his skin with every leaf and tree branch that cracks underfoot.
At the side of the house, Rainbow peeks down into the cellar window.
What do you see?” Bobby calls out with no regard for Rainbow’s attempted secrecy.
“Nothing, there’s paper over the window!” Rainbow yells back and realizing the volume of his own voice adds, “And stop yelling!”
“Try the cellar-door!” Bobby screams in response.
“Shut up!” Rainbow shouts but nevertheless tip-toes towards the latched door as he calls out. The old door lies with chipping paint at the base of the house a mere arm’s length from Rainbow’s current position. The boy cautiously lowers his weight to the ground and tries opening the barrier. To his surprise, the Pastor hadn’t bothered to lock the entrance.
From across the yard, Bobby considers shouting a question but holds his tongue.
Rainbow quietly peers into the dark cellar before taking a step in, quiet as a church-mouse. He squints his eyes to the shadows, desperate to see the ghost or find proof of its absence.
Rainbow jumps with surprised shock, ungracefully falling down the remaining steps to the floor of the basement.
“Are you alright?” the familiar voice asks with concern as its owner steps over to Rainbow.
“Ow,” he moans, rubbing his scratched elbow and gazing up towards the speaker, “Elizabeth? Wait, are you a ghost?”
“No,” Elizabeth raises an eyebrow, “what are you doing sneaking into the basement?”
“I wanted to see if you were really a ghost,” Rainbow explains himself before looking at Elizabeth’s belly, “Wait, I didn’t know you were old enough to have a kid…”
Elizabeth blushes and turns away in a weak-willed attempt to hide her bulging baby bump.
“You can’t tell anyone,” Elizabeth says quietly, stepping in the other direction from Rainbow and not making eye-contact.
“Why not? Don’t you want to be a mother?”
“Look,” Elizabeth starts, “This child is the reason I’m down here. I guess you’re not old enough to understand, but teenagers aren’t supposed to be mothers. It’s a sin. If father found out anybody else knew, he’d go ballistic. You have to keep this a secret.”
“I don’t get it,” Rainbow frowned, “Is the baby going to live down here? How long have you been down here?”
“I’ve been here since I started showing,” Elizabeth answers weakly as she sits down on chair across the room from Rainbow, “He doesn’t let me leave. And I don’t know what’s going to happen to the kid.”
“Oh,” Rainbow starts to understand before changing the subject in a poor attempt to cheer Elizabeth up, “Well, are you still going to the Christmas Eve party? Pastor Makellos always brings his family…”
“Not this year,” Elizabeth replies, “he’ll probably make up some lie about where I am. He always does that, I- I can always hear him on the phone making up excuses for why I’m down here. He’ll probably do that for the party, which- that- well, that might be the first time I’m alone since, it. Maybe, I- I could get out the house and…”
“Do you want to be alone?” Rainbow asks, not quite grasping the meaning of Elizabeth’s vacant soliloquy.
“That’s not what I meant,” Elizabeth answers, “I just-”
Her voice trails off and she sobs into her hands for a painfully long period. Rainbow looks at his shoes, examining idly the cheap Velcro straps.
“I just want to go outside,” Elizabeth cries to herself, “oh god, I don’t deserve this. My body hurts. I didn’t mean to bring father shame; I’m so sorry. I just wish this could all go away. I mean, I just, I wish…”
“I can go if you want,” Rainbow offers.
“Maybe that would be best,” Elizabeth manages to answer, choking up, “please, don’t tell anyone you saw me.”
“Your secret is safe with me,” Rainbow smiles weakly before hurrying back up towards the stairs, “and if it makes you feel better, dad says my mom had me when she was a teenager.”
Elizabeth sobs harder, and Rainbow guiltily ducks out from the cellar, not understanding what he had said to make things worse. Once outside, he quietly closes the doors behind him.
“Well?” Bobby calls, “What was down there?”
“Nothing,” Rainbow shrugs, “No ghost.”
Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
“Look at Maggy!” Herold calls happily, pointing to his daughter at the front row of the children’s choir. She blushes as she sees her father watching.
“Stop it,” his wife scolds him, “you’re embarrassing the poor girl!”
“But just look at her!” Herold exclaims just a tad more quietly, still crooning, “she looks so cute in her little dress!”
Maggy’s friends around her smirk, and the girl looks down in embarrassment.
“Contain yourself,” Herold’s wife pleads, grabbing his arm lightly.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he replies, his voice dropping down to a whisper. Some of the other parents in the modest audience look relieved as he quiets down.
Before the crowd, the children’s choir stands in the lobby of the local high school, in front of a nativity display as they sing “These Three Kings of Orient Are”. To the left of the singers, there lays a short table covered in a cheap polyester cloth and equipped with several trays of cookies and several plastic cups of milk. Above the table, some fake mistletoe hangs from the tile ceiling, swaying gently in the drafty air.
“You’d think they could have held this in the church,” Herold observes under his breath, not overly appreciating the tacky decorations.
“The church is having its own Christmas Eve party. If the preacher wasn’t such a fanatic maybe we’d go. Maggy says he used to yell at the whole choir for being off-key.”
“They’re children, what does he expect?” Herold chuckles.
The choir starts a new song, “Away in a Manger”, as Maggy glances with vague annoyance at a blond, shaggy-haired boy in the back row who has idly pulled out a yo-yo. Trying to ignore him, she focuses back on the song just in time to sing the refrain.
“You smell,” Herold’s wife states in a hush.
Herold smells his armpit.
“Woops,” he replies after taking in a whiff of sweat, “meant to shower after sheering the wethers. Must have forgot.”
“Go deodorize or something, you smell like the barn,” his wife insists.
“Why didn’t you say anything before now?”
“I wasn’t standing so close before now,” she points out, “I have a stick of deodorant in my purse, here.”
She hands him a stick of woman’s deodorant, which Herold looks at in slight embarrassment. With quiet resignation, he tucks the stick into his back pocket.
Trying not to disturb the other parents any more than necessary, Herold snakes his way out of the audience as he looks around for a restroom. Maggy watches her father wiggle out through the small assembly and peeks ahead at the next song in their program.
Moving out of the lobby and further into the high school, Herold strolls down the plain halls, scanning for a washroom. Now un-distracted by the performance, he realizes he also has to pee.
Eventually as the steady noise of the crowd fades into the background, Herold finds himself a bit lost in the old high school. Having wandered away from the well-lit lobby, he treads among rusted lockers in poor lighting. He strongly suspects that he had already passed unknowingly by a restroom, but keeps his forward pace, perhaps from nostalgia of the building. All the while, the children sing distantly, just finishing up a song and accepting a round of applause.
When Herold turns the next corner, he notices a sign for the locker room.
“Well, that ought to have a urinal,” Herold sighs to himself, letting himself into the locker room.
His footsteps ring out against the hard concrete ground as Herold steps over a metal drain in the floor. A stagnant smell of piss and body odor seems to permeate from the walls themselves, as every bit of forgotten food and dirty clothing rots in their sealed lockers. Finding a switch at his left side, Herold flips on the fluorescent lights overhead. With flickering hesitation they buzz to life, illuminating the plain room in pale white light.
An odd feeling wells up in Herold’s gut, the unshakable yet unexplainable sensation that he should turn back and leave without further investigation. The man frowns at the causeless dread; he stands alone in an un-threatening, empty locker room. Still, the emotion gives him pause. Before he can decide to make his way forwards to the restroom or back to the lobby, he hears a sound.
The noise, although muted, sounds like a girl sobbing.
A deplorable fusion of pain and shame drips from every wavering crack of the voice, and Herold finds himself wincing at its continued production. It comes in ragged cycles, only interrupted by the occasional shaking breath and its own resounding echoes cast from the cold, rigid brick walls.
Herold steps forwards towards the restroom from which the sound seems to originate, lead on by a mixture of morbid curiosity and genuine concern. The unseen voice continues its weak cries all the while. Almost within an arm’s reach of the door, Herold tries to take deep breaths and notices a low tremble in his fingers.
Herold steps through the doorway.
Within the restroom, he finds nothing out of place, just a couple un-occupied stalls, a urinal, and a run-down sink. For a confused moment he stares idly around the empty chamber. As he turns to glance back to the locker room, the stick of woman’s deodorant slips from his pocket and cracks loudly against the floor, giving Herold a startled jump. He almost laughs to himself as he realizes what produced the noise and places a worn hand to his racing heart.
His smile drops as he notices the crying sound persisting. Shifting his weight over his feet, the man looks up towards a vent running along the ceiling, where the noise seems to emanate from.
“The women’s locker-room,” Herold realizes out loud after remembering the approximate layout of this area of the school.
Having entirely forgotten his original reason for seeking out the restroom, Herold paces back out through the locker room and exits to the empty hall of the school. In the distance, he can hear the choir beginning Silent Night, but from a much nearer source, a sobbing settles into the foreground.
“Hello?” Herold calls into the woman’s locker room from his spot at the doorway, “Is anyone in there?”
The sobbing hushes with fright.
“I’m sorry, but I heard you. Are you alright? You sound hurt.”
No response, but after a lingering pause the crying continues.
“I’m coming in,” Herold announces, shaking his head and gently pushing the door open. Past the barrier, he finds the interior of the locker room closely resembling the men’s with a near identical layout, color, and placement of lockers.
Walking quietly into the locker room, Herold’s attention falls to the drain on the floor and the dark fluid that circles it. It slithers into the drain from a sizeable path along the concrete floor, running through a long, winding crack. The tail of the draining liquid disappears around the doorway to the restroom. Herold realizes the restroom itself lies just on the other side of the men’s restroom, no doubt sharing an air-vent through which he heard the voice.
“Are you alright?” Herold repeats his question in an uneven voice as he steps towards the restroom.
The flowing stream grows larger as he approaches the corner. He can hear the sobbing still, but also the shallow, agonized breaths nestled between each distressed heave. Mustering his courage and his good-will in equal strength, Herold steps around the brick wall to discover the source of the noise.
She sits against the sink, stripped naked and shaking un-naturally as the blood leaks from in-between her thighs. Her clothes sit in a neatly folded pile a few feet from her, and in her right hand, she clutches a bent coat-hanger.
“Elizabeth?” Herold recognizes the teenage girl with shock.
With a pained nod, she collapses to the floor.
Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born.
Father Gabriel sits down in the confessional and adjusts his glasses.
“Father?” a female voice inquiries from the other side of the booth, eliciting a jump of surprise from Gabriel who had previously thought the confessional empty.
“Goodness child, you frightened me,” he breathes, feeling his heart with his long frail fingers. Gabriel wipes sweat from his brow, the remnants of a harsh fever that had plagued him over the course of the prior week. As he does so, the priest can hear the other occupant of the booth breathing heavily in her area across the fabric material dividing them.
“Are you okay?” he asks with concern at the irregular breathing.
“I’m fine, it’s just-” she trails off. As she speaks, Father Gabriel recognizes her voice as the daughter Makellos, the local pastor. In such small communities, the church often brings in pastors from out of town to avoid conflicts of interest. However, Gabriel has visited this particular church several times in the last few years and has more or less come to recognize the locals.
“Forgive me father, for I have sinned,” she says at last, her waning confidence temporarily bolstered by the rote memory intimately tied to the simple phrase.
“How long has it been since your last confession, child?” Gabriel asks before wheezing to clear the mucus from his aging esophagus.
“It’s been five months.”
“I see. Then confess your wrong-doings, so that God might absolve you of your sins.”
“I, I,” the voice stops in anxious fright, “I, well, I haven’t prayed in the last four months. Even before meals and bed. I haven’t prayed at all.”
“It’s important to maintain a close relation to god, my girl,” Gabriel replies calmly, “Relationships require communication. Why haven’t you been praying?”
Dead silence fills the confessional for a moment.
“I’m pregnant, father.”
Gabriel leans forward, not anticipated the confession.
“How far along, child?”
“I don’t know,” she tries to speak with a dry, low-wavering voice “I haven’t bled for three months now. I think it’s almost visible now.”
“Have you told anyone else?”
“Not a soul.”
“Well, my child,” Gabriel coughs lightly, “In times like this, it’s important to have the support of your family. Tell your father and mother immediately. I know it can be frightening, but this isn’t something you can or should go through alone. It’s not healthy for you or the child to keep this hidden.”
“I don’t think I can tell my father.”
“Why do you think that?”
“He- he would,” her voice falls nervously mute, “I can’t tell him. He would- I can’t tell him.”
“You must,” Gabriel implores the girl, “This isn’t something you can keep secret. Besides it’s not just your own life but the life of the child you must take into account. You need to receive proper medical attention, particularly given your age.”
She does not respond.
“Besides, missed periods can result from a variety of causes besides pregnancy,” Gabriel adds, “this could be something different entirely. Something potentially life-threatening.”
Still, no answer.
“You should also take into account that the sin of pre-marital sex is not so great as the sin of improperly caring for a child. Your father may be upset at first, but as a man of god he, of all people, should understand your family’s commitment to the safety and happy life of the child. It’s not at all uncommon for teenagers such as yourself to engage in sexual activities, and although it’s certainly improper behavior, it’s not the end of the world. People make mistakes, and what’s important now is that we work to move on from this.”
“I’m a virgin.”
“I’ve never- done it before.”
“Then you must see a doctor as soon as possible, child, you almost certainly have another condition that no doubt requires medical attention. I know-”
“I’m pregnant, father. I know I am.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I had a dream. I guess- I guess it sounds silly, but it felt so real, you know. I had a dream that he came down and spoke to me. Oh, father, if you could have heard his voice, you’d understand. He told me, he told me that I was to bear the re-incarnation of Christ. Lord, it- it sounds mad, doesn’t it? I’m sorry, but that’s the truth, father. I’m to carry the son of God.”
Neither speaks. The air hangs still, too timid for movement.
“My child, you must tell your father all that you have told me, and then seek medical attention as soon as possible. I do not pretend to understand what you’re going through, but you need to seek the aid of professionals. Tell your father immediately.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
“You must, my child, and then all will be well. You have my word.”
“I- I-” she stammers for a floundering seconds, “I will. You’re right. I’m sure he’ll understand, in time, I will tell him.”
“And make sure to pray, child,” Gabriel adds, “In times like these, we must be close to heart with God. Go, I trust you will do what’s right.”
With that, the girl quietly composes herself and leaves the confessional.
Gabriel coughs into his elbow, finding his arm shaking with a tremor that hasn’t quite left since the fever. With uneven breaths, he leaves to confessional, finding the church illuminating with the bright light of the rising sun. All is calm. All is bright.
Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love's pure light;
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.
Written by Levi Salvos