A strong hand caresses the cheek of a young boy.
‘There, that’s enough. Now, go wash yourself.’
The priest rises from his chair and shakes off wrinkles and dust from his black shirt. He adjusts his clerical collar.
‘I want you to confess your sins to Father Villalaz. Confess and obtain absolution for the sins you have committed against God today. Wait for him by the confessional. I will go get him.’ He puts his hand on the boy’s head. ‘And remember — You are my Son; today I have become your Father.’
‘What’s wrong with Javi? He ran right past us and locked himself in his room.’ says Linda. ‘I just don’t understand what’s wrong with him lately. He’s been so moody!’
She sets a small, wooden table for three. ‘You don’t think maybe he’s being bullied at school, do you? Maybe the older boys are picking on him.’
Linda sits next to Rogelio. The living room couch grunts as it registers her weight. Rogelio’s eyes are glued to a shootout scene playing in the TV.
‘Could you please pay attention to me?’
Linda grabs the remote next to Rogelio’s thigh, presses the red OFF button and chucks the remote at him. It bounces with a thud off his strong chest.
‘Why’d you turn it off?!’ says Rogelio.
Linda crosses her arms and glares at her husband.
‘Okay, okay.’ He laughs. ‘I’m sorry. I promise I’ll talk to him. I’m sure he’s fine though. But I’ll talk to him anyway during dinner, okay?’
Rogelio laughs again and puts a trusting hand on his wife’s shoulder then, rocks her. She smiles and shoves him away. As she starts laughing, Rogelio leans towards her and places a tender kiss on her cheek.
Linda strokes Rogelio’s patchy beard. ‘It’s time to shave papi. This is not a good look for you.’
Javi sits at the table. He idles over his food, pokes the grilled chicken breast with a fork wrapped around his small hand. His eyes, empty, stare at an unknown. Rogelio and Linda look at him with parental concern.
‘Javi? Are you okay?’ asks Linda. Javi does not acknowledge her words. Over and over, the tine of the fork stabs the grilled chicken breast.
‘Baby?’ Linda’s hushed tone does not mask her worry. ‘You know you can talk to us about anything, right?’
Javi nods in acquiesce.
‘Rogelio, say something.’ Linda commands through white teeth.
‘Javi, what’s going on? You’ve been acting a little weird these past weeks and your mother is very concerned,’
asks Rogelio. ‘Come on, now. Why don’t you tell us what’s going on?’
‘I’m okay Dad,’ whispers Javi. His eyes dip lower.
Rogelio puts his hand on Javi’s shoulder.
‘Son, I –’
The fork falls to the ground, its silver echo bounces off the quiet of the walls. Javi’s body shakes; his eyes, wide-open. Rogelio scoots back on his chair, alarmed, and looks at his wife. High concern is painted on her face. She kicks her chair back and rushes closer to her only child. She kneels next to him and brushes back his dark hair. It runs smoothly through her fingers. Hot tears fall on top of Javi’s head.
‘Oh Javi, what is it, please tell me. Tell us. What is happening?’
Javi cries silently in his chair.
‘Please baby, please tell me.’ She brings his little face to her lips and plants wet kisses on his cheek and on his forehead.
‘Mommy, no. Mommy, I can’t. I’ll get in trouble.’ Javi says through sobs.
‘Trouble? Trouble with who?’ Linda asks.
‘With God, mommy.’
Linda looks at Rogelio.
‘What do you mean with God?’ asks Rogelio.
Javi’s little body rattles out quiet sobs. Linda wipes the snot that has formed underneath his nose.
‘I can’t. I can’t.’
Linda continues to brush her son’s hair as tears streak down her cheeks. Rogelio puts both hands down on the table and looks at his son’s face. ‘Son, you’re going to tell me what’s going on and you’re going to tell me now.’
Javi scoots his chair back, gets up and sinks his little body into his mother’s safe arms. She holds him tightly against her. Linda lifts her eyes towards her husband. ‘Rogelio, that’s enough,’ she says.
She buries her face in her boy’s hair. Linda strokes his tiny back as she whispers comforting words. Rogelio’s chair bounces off the floor as he rushes to join his family in their embrace. Together, they weep.
‘What are we going to do Rogelio? What do people even do in this kind of situation?’ says Linda.
She’s sitting on the edge of their bed. Rogelio paces from the left bedroom wall to the right bedroom wall. Fists hang by his side, ready to strike.
‘What are we going to do? What are we going to do?! I’ll tell you what I’m going to do! I’m going to kill that disgusting piece of shit! I’m going to walk right up to him and beat him to death. That’s what I’m going to do!’ screams Rogelio. His coarse voice breaking at intervals.
‘Papi, stop! You’re going to wake Javi up. Stop yelling, please, please. Come here. Come by my side.’
Rogelio keeps his rigid pacing, his feet stomp back and forth across the bedroom floor. Linda rises from their bed, and with speedy steps closes the space between her and her husband. She wraps her arms around his chest. Rogelio’s deep breathing heaves Linda up and down. Up and down. With anger, with rage. Up and down, with grief, and with hopelessness.
‘How could he do that?’ asks Rogelio, choking on his words. ‘How could anyone do that to a child. A kid! A small, innocent little kid! Jesus Christ, he’s a priest! A fucking priest!’
Rogelio loses his anchor and slowly, collapses against a wall. Linda falls alongside her husband. Linda cries with her husband.
‘What are we supposed to do, how do we face this, what should we do? I’m — I’m so lost.’
“I don’t know papi. I don’t know. Who can we tell? Who will believe our ten-year-old son? Who will believe us?’
‘Oh Linda. How — how could anyone –?’
Javier recognizes the person he’s been looking for and walks towards him. An old man sits in a red leather seating booth. The steam of a hot cup of coffee drifts upwards, solemnly, towards the sky. The old man takes his time, reading every item on the menu. Javier reaches the booth and takes a seat in front of the older man. The old man settles the menu on the table and squints his eyes through the lenses of his black rim glasses at the person intruding his coffee.
‘Hello young man, how may I help you?he he asks. A friendly smile crosses his lips.
“Father Alvarez?’ asks Javier.
‘Yes.’ Father Alvarez replies. He grabs the black edges of his reading glasses and adjusts them farther up his nose. ‘Do we know each other?’
Father Alvarez reaches, with shaky hands, for his cup of coffee.
‘Yes, we do. You were our local priest for many years. I thought I might never see you again. And here you are, ordering lunch,’ says Javier. He gulps down a strong wave of emotions. He closes his fists, hoping this act mitigates their surge up his throat.
‘I’m sorry young man. You look familiar, but I can’t quite place you. Do you mind telling me where we met? See, my memory is not what it once was I’m afraid. The wonders of old age.’ Father Alvarez chuckles. He takes a sip of the coffee. He sticks out his tongue and grumbles.
‘Hi! Welcome to Brasas.’ A young waitress hands a white and red menu to Javier.
‘Thank you. Um, could you please bring me a glass of water while I look at the menu?’
‘Oh, of course, I’ll be right back!’
With a bounce to her step, the waitress leaves. Javier turns his head towards Father Alvarez once again. Despite the heat of the coffee Father Alvarez tries another sip.
‘I was an altar boy, twenty-six years ago.’
‘I’ve had many altar boys during my years of service to the church. You’re going to have to be a little bit more specific. What is your name?’
‘I’m sure you have Father. My name is Javier. I hope you remember now.’
‘My God.’ Father Alvarez freezes before taking another sip. The steam rising from the cup of coffee fogs his black rim glasses.
‘I — You’ve grown,’ Father Alvarez finally manages to stutter. ‘You look well. How, how have you been? How are your parents? Your mother, Linda, if I’m not mistaken. She was so devout to the Lord. Such a pleasure to be around. Please, you must tell me everything!’
‘Here you go.’ The waitress places a glass of water in front of Javier and Father Alvarez. She cups her hand and places a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. She smiles at Javier. ‘Did you see anything you might like? I recommend the Spicy Red Bean Omelette, it’s new and, also, my personal favorite.’
‘Sounds great, I’ll have one of those,’ ,ays Javier.
‘And what would you like with your omelette?’
‘Just the omelette. Thank you.’ He returns the waitress a friendly smile.
‘Perfect! And what about you sir? Have you come to a decision?’
‘Oh, yes,’ says Father Alvarez. He grips the black rim of his glasses and puts them back on his nose. ‘I will have the Roasted Turkey Sandwich. And could you tell the chef to go easy on the mayo? Makes my stomach a little queasy.’
‘Of course, I will let him know. Would you like a side of regular fries or our seasoned fries,’ says the waitress as she selects the items with her finger on an iPad.
‘The regular fries are just fine.’
‘Okay so it’s one Spicy Red Bean Omelette and one Roasted Turkey Sandwich, easy on the mayo, with a side of regular fries, correct?’
‘Sounds about right,’ says Father Alvarez.
‘Great. And what would you like to drink?’
‘I’ll stick to water,’ says Javier.
‘I’ll have an orange juice, but could you please bring it with my meal? I hate when it gets warm while I wait for the food. Plus, I still have this coffee.’
‘Of course. There’s a small waiting period as we’re pretty busy right now. Is that okay?’ asks the waitress. She grimaces and bares her teeth, braving herself for the response.
‘That’s fine, sweetie,’ says Father Alvarez.
‘I’ll be right back guys.’ The waitress hurries back and pushes the sliding door into the kitchen. She disappears as the door swings back into place.
Father Alvarez turns to Javier to find his eyes, burning with anger, into his own. Father Alvarez shifts his weight, uneasily, in his booth.
‘So, tell me. How have you been? What have you done with your life?’ asks Father Alvarez.
‘Father, what are you doing back here? Why did you come back?’
‘What do you mean? I love this town, I’ve always loved it here. You know that. There’s no traffic, it’s quiet. The weather is great and so are the people. It just felt right to retire here.’ Father Alvarez pauses. He bites down his lip as he searches for the right words.
‘You seem a bit on edge. Are you okay? What’s going on?’ Javier licks his dry lips.
‘I want to know something. Something I never thought I would have the chance to ask.’ Javier rubs his hands together. ‘Why me?’
‘Why you? I don’t understand.’
‘Why did you pick me. Why did you — Why was it me?’
‘Javi — I — Let’s not –’
Javier slams his right fist on the table. Father Alvarez recoils in shock. The glasses of water clatter in place, some of their contents spilling onto the table. Javier’s gaze shifts downwards to the table as some heads turn to the brief spectacle.
‘Don’t call me that. It’s Javier.’
‘Uh, yes. Yes, of course. How stupid of me, I’m sorry.’
Javier lets out an audible sigh. He closes his eyes and uncurls his fists. ‘I’m sorry too. For slamming my fist on the table. I wasn’t thinking straight. I’m upset.’
‘Is everything okay over here guys?’ asks the waitress. She stands by the side of the table and looks back and forth between them.
‘Oh! I’ll get a towel and clean this up real quick.’
‘Oh no. It’s fine, don’t bother,’ Father Alvarez takes out several paper napkins from the napkin dispenser to soak up the water. ‘Just a little accident. I’ll clean it up.’ He finishes wiping the table and hands the waitress the wet paper napkins. Javier’s eyes remain locked to the table.
‘Let me know if you need anything,’ she says. As she nears the kitchen, she turns her head and glances at the two men on the red booth. She cannot help but wonder what that was about.
‘Javier — I was a sick man. I know there are no words I can say that would alleviate the damage that I have caused you. But know this, if I could take it back. If I could just take it all back, without a doubt in my mind, I would.’
‘Why me though? Why did you single me out?’
‘Javier. I — I –’
‘You’re going to answer.’
Father Alvarez takes off his black rim glasses and wipes his eyes with the side of his left hand’s index finger. ‘Maybe it was the familiarity. You were there every day, we spoke. You would tell me about your family and your friends. You would tell me what you liked, what you ate. What you did after school. What you thought about. What you didn’t like, what went wrong that day. What bothered you. Maybe that’s what it was. I don’t really know.’
Javier shakes his head in disbelief. ‘Do you have any idea –?’ Javier’s jaw clenches as he bites down his anger and his words, ‘– Do you have any idea the hell I’ve had to go through because of you? I’ve never known what a normal life is.’
Javier’s eyes rise and meet Father Alvarez’s. ‘I was a child. Do you understand? A child.’ Javier runs a hand through his crew cut hair. ‘My parents. They never believed me. And if they did, it never mattered. They didn’t do anything. You were never accused, and they kept going to church. The lived their lives pretending everything was okay. Our dark, little secret. You were free to walk about and do whatever you wanted. They waited it out, they just waited for you to move, to change parish. To leave and prey on other little boys. Our parents failed us. They made their choice. And they chose you.’
Javier takes a sip from his glass of water. ‘You know, I hated them for so long. For the way they sometimes looked at me. For the way they didn’t notice. For how they could never understand how a member of their beloved church could hurt their son that way. For how they refused to believe it. And instead they buried it. I could never forgive them for just brushing that aside. Like it never happened. And I was left alone. I’ve had no one to talk to about this. Until now.’
‘Javier. My actions were abhorrent, disgusting, and malicious. I took advantage of your trust, and of your childhood. I know that asking for your forgiveness is too much. So, I will not ask for it. But I am sorry, and I always will be. I pray to God every day of my life to forgive the things that I have done to you.’ Father Alvarez pauses. He clasps his fingers together. ‘And to others. I ask for penitence, I ask for his guidance, and I ask for His mercy once I depart from this world. I was a vulture, a predator. I am so ashamed. I promise you this Javier, I will do my absolute best to help you in any way that I can with whatever you need help in. Just tell me how. I’m here.’
‘Father Alvarez. You’ve never left.’
The Virgin Mary keeps her mournful eyes on Javier as he walks past her altar and into the church. He walks down the long nave. His hands, deep in his pockets. He takes a seat on an empty pew. Dust rises in the air. His body arcs downwards. His face finds rest inside his hands.
Jesus Christ, crucified, looks down on him from a towering cross.
‘Where are you?’
George Rosas is a short fiction writer, Business Administration graduate, retired Marine and travel enthusiast. He currently resides in Panama City, Panama.