Image design by S. Kitts
Opiates of the People
By Manfred Gabriel
Miquel stood on the steps of Saint Sebastian’s pushing vials of ‘god’. He held a baggie up in front of his two customers, Bible Boys from one of the havens on the surrounding hills. They had pulled up in a red sports sedan that probably belonged to one of their daddies. They didn’t leave the vehicle, kept the engine humming.
“It’s twice the price we normally pay,” the driver said, looking at the pale blue powder in the baggie. His hair was cropped short and he had a simple gray-black cross tattooed on his cheek.
“What do you expect?” Miquel said. “Next week’s holy week. This stuff’s in demand. Could probably sell it for three times as much, but I have a soft spot for you kids.” He talked the way the boys expected a dealer to talk. The orator’s voice he saved for mass, or the soft-spoken tone he used to minister to those in pain, would have sounded too much like one of their own preachers and turned them off.
The boy in the passenger seat, tall and thin and sporting an Ichthus nose ring, nudged the driver. The driver glanced up at Saint Sebastian’s dark spire, the gargoyles staring down from the eaves, faces laughing, menacing, grim. “My dad told me never to trust a Mick.”
Miquel laughed. “I look like I dye the river green? Look, you didn’t drive all this way to get the run-of-the-mill ‘samson and goliath’ they give kids in Sunday school. You came here for the good stuff. A hit of this will have you speaking in tongues.”
“What guarantee do we have?” The boy was nervous, being so far away from the havens, with their gates and cameras and private security. His voice shook slightly, and he kept his hands tight on the steering wheel.
Miquel waved his free hand. “This is my parish. Been here ten years, will be here a lifetime if they’ll let me. I have a reputation to maintain. If I’m cheating you, and a rosary of Hail Marys if I am, you’ll know where to find me. Still, if you’d rather deal with one of your brethren in that haven of yours, I’m sure they’ll be willing to sell you some ‘rapture’ that isn’t a quarter as good for half the price.” Miquel started to pocket the baggie.
The driver looked at his friend. His friend nodded. The driver produced a wad of cash from his jacket pocket. The exchange was made in one swift motion.
As they pulled away, Miquel made the sign of the cross. “Have a blessed Palm Sunday.”
The sedan zipped down the boulevard, took the corner without slowing down and was gone.
Miquel entered Saint Sebastian’s through its heavy, weathered double-doors, dipped his fingers into the holy water that he had blessed himself, untainted by the hallucinogens the archdiocese preferred he use. He genuflected toward the crucifix that hung above the massive altar, a solid piece of marble too heavy for looters to steal, too solid for vandals to break. The Jesus hanging on the cross was without a head, but some blood still stained his shoulder and his sunken chest still struggled for breath.
Miquel walked down the center aisle, linoleum worn, past where the pews would have sat if they hadn’t all been taken for kindling during the Incendium. The dying light of day filtered through the broken stained glass on either side. Each window once depicted a station of the cross. Only one remained intact – a large bearded man taking on the burden of the crucifix while a haloed Christ walked behind him – Simon Helps Carry the Cross.
In an alcove stood a statue of the Virgin Mary, arms that once held her babe now empty. A mural depicting Saint Sebastian, being nursed back to health by Saint Irene after being shot with arrows as a martyr, was so dark with soot that even the mural’s candles were dim. No matter how hard Miquel scrubbed them, he could not bring back the light.
He spent the evening sweeping the church floor of dirt that never seemed to stop blowing in from the city streets. He dusted the altar vessels, the chalice, the paten, the ciborium – which he had purchased on the black market with money he earned by selling ‘god’ in little plastic baggies. The church’s original gold ones had been stolen. These ones were simpler, plated bronze. Still, he hid them under some floorboards in his changing room, beneath the mattress where he slept, the same place he kept the inventory he sold to the Bible Boys and others from the havens.
The day after next was Palm Sunday. Parishioners would arrive, emerging from the surrounding, overcrowded tenements and the brownstones long abandoned by the gentrified elites who used to live there before the Incendium set the neighborhood ablaze. Miquel had no palms to bless, but still people would find some sense of normalcy in Mass. They would spill out the doors and fill the gallery to pray and sing and rejoice in God. He would give Communion with bread he commissioned some local women to bake. He did not trust the wafers that the Benedictine Sisters provided at no cost. What they called the ‘body’ was baked into them, which gave a sense of euphoria to make communicants think the body of Christ had entered them, but it was a temporary joy. It did not come from God, no matter what the archbishop preached.
No one who came to celebrate Mass would ask whether or not he was ordained, if he was qualified to wear the white collar, to perform the sacraments. No one had ever asked, not since he had taken up in this parish the Church had abandoned long ago.
When they called him Father or Padre or Père, he felt shame in not correcting them. He did not tell them he never finished seminary, did not deserve the honorific. To make up for it, he worked that much harder. He ministered to the sick in their homes, brought notebooks and pencils to the makeshift elementary school, always making sure he also had a pocketful of candy. He gave the homeless beneath the silent underpasses blankets and canned food and even cigarettes, and spoke to them about where their lives had gone wrong, how they could make them right again. He sometimes saw them standing in the back of the church the next Sunday, listening intently to his Homily, but no doubt also there for the free meal that he served after the Blessing and Dismissal were finally said.
And he never gave any of them the drugs the Church insisted would be their salvation.
Many of the parishioners praised Miquel for his work. He would demur humbly; remind them that it was not him, but Jesus working through him.
Miquel woke early the next morning to the sound of a car engine, not the hum of one of the new models, but the rumble of gas or maybe even diesel. He went out to meet the car, but as he entered the sanctuary, he found that the monsignor was already there, just inside the door.
The monsignor was a tall man, balding, with a Romanesque nose. He wore a purple sash over a black cassock trimmed with purple. Two priests stood on either side of him in simple black, broad-shouldered and taller even than the monsignor, one with a shaved head, the other with hair so short it might as well have been shaved.
The monsignor held out his hand. On it was a large gold ring set with a deep blue stone. Miquel hesitated. The monsignor waited. He was no ordinary messenger. A ring like this could only be bestowed by the archbishop, who lived and worked on his moated isle where the rivers forked, seven spires of his newly built cathedral blazing in the sun.
Miquel went to the monsignor, bent and kissed the ring. As he straightened, the monsignor dipped his hand into the cup of holy water just inside the door, and sniffed it. The drugged holy water the archdiocese distributed, and that Miguel refused to use, was slightly sweet.
“Still refusing Vatican III.”
“Has anyone complained?” No doubt the archdiocese had spies within his congregation.
The two priests left the monsignor’s side and walked through the church, inspecting the broken statues, the shattered stained glass, the marble altar.
“We tolerate you because of your good works.”
“And without me, who would be here to minister to these people?”
“I remember you from seminary. You would have made an excellent priest if only you had accepted the Sacraments.”
“Your ‘sacraments,’” Miquel countered.
The monsignor gave a wry smile. “Yet you sell to the Baptists, the Lutherans, the Methodists.”
“I use that money for my good works. There aren’t many resources here.”
“You should be converting them, not selling them more of the poison the preachers in their megachurches convince them is their salvation.”
“And your wafers, your water, your wine, are so much better? If they want to change, they are welcome here.” Miquel glanced sideways, tried not to appear concerned at seeing the two priests enter the changing room. “You can’t impose faith.”
The monsignor looked up towards the vaulted ceiling then settled his gaze on the headless crucifix. “I always liked this church. Wouldn’t it be nice to restore it to its former glory?”
“It suits God’s needs as is,” Miquel replied. “I’ve heard this pitch before. From your predecessor, and his before that. How many have there been?”
The monsignor waved the question away with a manicured hand. “Just a thought, that’s all. It isn’t why we’re here. We’re looking for someone. Someone you know. Jeremy Hiltz.”
Miquel paused. He had not heard that name in a long while. “I haven’t seen him since he was kicked out of seminary.”
“Still, I understand you were good friends back then. Inseparable. The man has not had any easy life, as you can imagine. We thought he may have come to you for help, as a last resort.”
“Why now? What has he done?”
The priests came out of the changing room. The bald one shook his head. They returned to stand on either side of the monsignor. “That is none of your concern. But if you see him, it is your duty to inform us.”
“Of course,” Miquel said, not knowing if he actually would. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I must prepare for tomorrow’s Mass.”
“It’s not Mass if you give it,” the monsignor reminded him as he walked out with the other priests. The words stung. The logical part of him knew whether he was officially ordained did not matter, that his good works were all that were important in the eyes of God. But a greater part of him, the part his mother brought to church each Sunday, who learned the catechisms from the Carmelite Nuns every Tuesday, felt that without it, he would always be incomplete.
Miquel spent the afternoon organizing the next day’s meal. He had managed to procure a case of canned ham just past its expiration date, several sacks of potatoes, assorted canned vegetables, even some apples and pears from last fall’s harvest that had been kept cool and fresh in some basement somewhere, traded with a Hasidic sect near the city center for several grams of ‘exodus’.
The rectory that once abutted the church, with its industrial kitchen, was nothing but rubble and ruin, so he had to rely on the same parishioners who baked the Communion bread. The altar servers arrived, seven boys and girls with sallow faces in tired clothes but eager to help. He sent them scattering with wagons of food through the streets and avenues and alleys to the various cooks, along with instructions of what was to be done. Many were strong despite their size, and even the ones who weren’t pulled their load without complaint or reward. Today, he had a cache of chocolate to share with them when the task was done, but they didn’t know that.
Serena was last to leave. Tall and lanky, she was the most mature of them, forced to grow up too soon. Her brother had been gunned down by some Bible Boys just for fun. Her father used to get hyped up on ‘jawbone of an ass’ and beat his mother, until one day he simply disappeared. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, she was ever helpful, often smiling, her teeth bright and straight even though she had probably never seen a dentist. She assisted Miquel in assigning the others their errands, making sure they understood. She watched out for them, reminding Horatio to keep his jacket zipped and helping Lia with a knotted shoelace. As she loaded up a wagon with her own deliveries, she started to sing. The voice of an angel. Miquel never grew tired of it. Her mother never missed Mass, and she had taught Serena how to use her voice to praise God. Miquel envied her that. He couldn’t carry a tune. Even during Mass, he avoided joining the chorus, mouthing the words instead.
After Serena left, pulling the wagon behind her down the street, melodic voice mixing with the chilled air, Miquel took a sack of potatoes to a woman everyone called Tia. She was seventy-nine, lived in a fifth-floor walk-up, and whenever he saw her, she would ask him to pray for her bad knees. She had been a friend of his mother, back in the old neighborhood, in the few buildings that remained standing, making their lives amongst the fallen facades and blackened framework.
Miquel’s mother had died while he was away at school. He had been accepted into an academy for would-be priests, set up by the Church to help fill their aging ranks. His mother was so proud when he went off to live in the dormitory. She didn’t tell him she had tuberculosis, did not want to interrupt his studies. He both hated and loved her for that.
One winter, she went without a coat so that an expectant mother with nothing else could have it. She often told Miquel that a church was not a building made of stone, but a community made of people. That’s what Hiltz used to say, too, at seminary, before the drugs got hold of him.
The day had faded. Saint Sebastian’s was gray and silent. Miquel knelt and prayed at the altar before sitting down to write the next day’s Homily. It was then he heard a rapping coming from the one confessional with its doors still intact. The sign above it indicated someone was there.
Miquel went to the booth. One of his parishioners had no doubt gone in while he was lost in prayer, wished to confess his sins, beat the Holy Week rush.
“Bless me, Miquel, for I have sinned.”
Miquel recognized the voice instantly. “Hiltz?”
The silhouette on the other side of the screen nodded. “It has been ten years since my last confession. To a priest, anyway.”
Miquel understood. The ‘reconciliation’ was popular. A simple capsule with almost no side effects, it left one feeling free of all guilt, all regret, cleansed them. Hiltz had bought into Vatican III with all his soul, taking advantage of the seminary’s access and abusing it all – from ‘baptism’ to ‘last rites’. One evening, Miquel had found him in the small dorm room they shared, his eyes rolled back, his tongue swollen. They took him away on a stretcher and he never returned.
“They are looking for you,” Miquel said through the confessional screen.
“Did they tell you why?” Hiltz asked. “Did they tell you what I stole?” He pushed open the screen. His face, once chiseled, was gaunt and sunken, and he had let his hair grow long. He held up a small vial between his thumb and forefinger. The liquid within it sparkled, seemed to give off its own faint light. “I could not be a priest,” he said, “but they still needed people to clean the bathrooms, make the beds, prepare basic meals. I’ve been working at the seminary, scrounging the ‘sacraments’ when I could. Sometimes, they’d give them as payment, in hopes of making me a better man.”
Miquel noted the bulging veins in his neck, the weariness in his eyes.
“You know the Church, all about redemption. Eventually they trusted me with keys to most of the building. I never took enough that it would be noticed. The other day, I saw something new, something I had never come across before.” He shook the vial slightly.
“What is it?” Miquel asked.
Hiltz smiled. “It’s ‘resurrection’. Just a sample, but ‘resurrection’ nonetheless.”
Miquel leaned back in the confessional. ‘Resurrection’. It was thought to be a myth – something the Church told worshippers to provide them hope, keep them strung out. If Hiltz was to be believed, the drug of ‘resurrection’ promised new life.
“How do you know?” Miquel asked. “How can you be sure?”
“I tried some, right there and then. Not knowing what it was of course, just that it was new. A drop on my tongue was enough. I felt, I felt—” Hiltz suddenly went silent.
Miquel gazed into the vial as if he would find some answers in it. “Is that all there is?”
“There must be more somewhere. With the Archbishop in his cathedral, or locked away in the Vatican. I don’t know why it wasn’t under better security. Perhaps it was a mistake, or perhaps they thought the storeroom was safe enough.”
“You have to give it back,” Miquel said. “They’ll never stop looking for you if you don’t.”
“You don’t understand. You never could. It’s the ultimate salvation.” Hiltz palmed the vial. It disappeared into his coat.
“Salvation does not come from something you can keep in your pocket. It is a gift from God.”
“Who do you think gave this to us, gave us all the ‘sacraments’, if not God?”
“Someone other than God.”
Hiltz held up his hand. “I am not here to argue creed. I’ve come seeking sanctuary.”
“Sanctuary protects you from the legal system. If you haven’t noticed, that system is broken beyond repair. We have only the Church to rely on. You cannot seek protection from the Church within the Church.”
“Hide me for a few days, at least. I’ve heard them speak of you in the seminary – the priest who is not a priest. They shun you, but there is a touch of admiration in their voices.” He glanced down. “As much as I’d like to keep this for myself, I could get a hundred ‘baptisms’ for this one little vial. I’ll give you a cut. How does twenty-five percent sound?”
Miquel calculated how many children he could feed, how much real medicine he could buy, with that much money. What had the Church intended to do with the vial? Keep it for the monsignor, the archbishop, make a gift of it to the pope himself to gain favor? Still, theft was a sin, and theft from the church was doubly so. Hiltz was a thief, and Miquel was going into league with him.
“Make it thirty,” he said with more than a twinge of guilt.
Miquel slid the screen shut. “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good.”
Hiltz response was automatic even after all those years. “His mercy endures forever.”
Miquel made the sign of the cross. “Go in peace,” he said, but neither man moved for a long while.
After Palm Sunday Mass was over, everyone fed, the dishes washed and dried, good-byes bidden, Miquel sent Serena with a message to one of his dealers. It said only that he had something special to sell, and that he could meet with the dealer Monday afternoon in the usual place.
Serena returned a short time later. She seemed undisturbed by having entered the dealer’s lair, down by the fallen bridge. She was not bothered by likely having been frisked and escorted by angry looking men with crosses scrawled into their AR-15s. That’s why Miquel had sent her. She had been through so much he knew nothing could faze her. Besides, in the end, they were businessmen. She was his messenger, and he was a valued customer. The dealer had said he would be there.
Miquel had searched for Hiltz’s face during Mass, at the meal afterwards, but had seen no sign of him. He wasn’t hiding in the confessional, either. It wasn’t until everyone was gone, including Serena, that he found his old friend up in the gallery behind what was left of the organ, its pipes long sold for scrap.
Hiltz lay spread-eagled, naked, his head tilted to one side, eyes closed, spittle dribbling from his lips. He was muttering in a language that Miquel could not understand. His stomach was slightly swollen from malnutrition; track marks riddled his arms and legs. His palms trickled with blood.
The vial of ‘resurrection’ sat by his right hand, opened, about a quarter of it gone. Miquel sealed the vial and pocketed it, then lifted his friend. He was surprisingly light, but Miquel stumbled more than once coming down the stairs. He brought Hiltz down to his bed and covered him in several blankets. Hiltz was still muttering, opened his eyes once or twice. Despite his appearance, he looked strangely serene, a slight smile on his lips.
Miquel sat up all night with Hiltz as he alternated between chills and fever, turning him when he began to vomit so he would not choke, giving him sips of water in his periods of lucidness. Finally, Hiltz fell soundly to sleep. Miquel climbed into bed with him and closed his eyes. His friend was warm, but no longer with fever.
They awoke mid-morning, almost at the same time. Hiltz seemed to have suffered none the worse for wear. Miquel brought out some bread, some of his precious butter, and marmalade donated by a parishioner on condition Miquel would not give it to someone else. They sat at his tiny table. Hiltz ate like he hadn’t eaten in a while.
“Why do you do that to yourself?” Miquel asked.
Hiltz stood. Miquel had given him a collarless shirt and loose pants to wear. “Look at me, do I seem like I’m suffering? Sure, it may not be pretty, but during that time, my mind is at peace. And now, I feel as if though I could conquer the world. And you know what? I believe again.”
“For how long?”
“Long enough. Tell me, where’s the rest of it?”
Miquel patted his pocket, told Hiltz about the meeting. “Fortunately, there’s still enough to sell.”
“About that. I was thinking it would be a shame to have it wasted on some rich Bible Boys. You and me, we could string it out for several months at least.”
Miquel averted his gaze. “I have to go out.”
Down the street from the church sprawled Mount Olive Cemetery. It was once a part of the archdiocese, but like Saint Sebastian’s, the Church had abandoned it long ago.
A gravel path, overgrown with weeds, meandered between the gravestones, many of them chipped and marred, sprayed with graffiti or tipped over and broken. Miquel felt nurtured walking amongst the dead. Unlike in the city parks and boulevards, many of the trees still stood, and now, with spring harkening, were beginning to bud. He felt a sense of calm, and in that calm, he could think and pray.
He often talked to God, but God seldom talked back. Still, he hoped this time, he might get some sign of what to do next. He had thought that in selling the ‘resurrection’, it would allow Hiltz to get back on his feet, start a new life. Now, he realized Hiltz needed more than just money. He had long since lost his way.
Miquel came upon a mausoleum with a peaked tile roof, framed by Ionic columns like some ancient Greek temple. Miquel must have walked past this structure a hundred times, but this was the first time he ever read the family name etched in marble above the padlocked door. Flannagan. Judging by the mausoleum’s size and ornateness, they must have been wealthy and powerful once. Now, there was nothing left of them but this house of the dead. Life on this earth was fleeting, temporary. And while there was a better life waiting after death, this life was still one worth living. Hiltz deserved a chance to live that life well.
Deep down, the Church could be good. It could take Hiltz back in, the Prodigal Son. It could nurse him, attempt again to rehabilitate him, to save him, and maybe, in gratitude, ordain Miquel, make him a proper priest for his congregation.
Miquel found Serena at the makeshift school on Kenmare Street. He asked the teacher, a slip of a woman with close-cropped hair that the children knew not to mess with, to excuse her, sent her out with a message to the monsignor.
Back at the church, Hiltz trembled and sweat formed on his brow. He kept asking for the ‘resurrection’. “It’s mine, give it back to me. I’ll take it and be on my way. I’ve been too much trouble already.”
“You promised me thirty percent.” The monsignor had told Serena they would come soon. Miquel had to keep Hiltz here until then, and the only way to do that was to keep the ‘resurrection’ from him.
Hiltz began to pace. Miquel stood by the open doors, shifting his gaze between the outside and Hiltz, ready to flee if he lashed out.
They heard the monsignor’s car come to a quick halt at the curb. Hiltz stopped pacing, stared at Miquel, his face twisted. “You were my friend,” he said.
“I still am,” Miquel replied.
The monsignor’s priests hurried into the church. Hiltz turned and ran. Miquel followed as the priests chased Hiltz through the back door, catching up with them in the ruins of the rectory. They dragged him into the alley, threw him to the ground. He did not resist. Miquel watched from the church door as they kicked him. He curled up into a ball, trying to protect himself from the blows.
During and after the Incendium, Miquel had seen his share of violence and normally responded with calm and reason. This time, he hurled himself at the two men. He jumped on the back of one, gripping him around the neck and yelling at them to stop. The larger man grabbed Miquel’s arm and flung him over his shoulder. Miquel hit the ground hard. He turned, looked into Hiltz’s face. He could hardly recognize it for all the blood.
The car pulled up and the Monsignor got out. He walked over to Hiltz, knelt beside him, whispered something. No doubt, he was asking where the ‘resurrection’ was. Miquel had only told them where to find Hiltz. If he wasn’t going to sell the drug for a hefty profit, at least he could bargain with the archdiocese for antibiotics. Drugs that might really help his people.
Hiltz shook his head. The monsignor now spoke at length. He produced a syringe from his coat, injected Hiltz’ neck.
He was performing ‘last rites’.
The monsignor made the sign of the cross, rose. The priests dragged Hiltz into the back of the car, his body limp. The monsignor got into the front seat and the car drove off.
Serena stood in the alley’s entrance, a wisp in the trail of the car’s exhaust. The look on her face said she had seen everything. She tried to help Miquel, but he pushed her away. He staggered into the church. His outer injuries were superficial, but inside he felt pain not felt in a long while. The pain that came with hate. Hate for the men who beat Hiltz. Hate for the monsignor. Hate for the entire Church he had for so long wanted to be a part of. Hate for himself, realizing that he had let Hiltz down, and in letting him down, he had let Serena and those like her down as well. They did not need a priest, they did not need his drug money, they needed him.
He spent the rest of the afternoon in prayer, his lips moving, holding his rosary so tight the beads imprinted into his palms. He prayed for God to have mercy on Hiltz’s soul. He prayed for the strength to fight the raw emotions that dwelled within him. It would have been easy to blame God for all this, to lose faith. It was his own fault for misreading the sign in the cemetery. If God was trying to tell him anything at all, it was that death was near.
That evening, a van pulled up in front of Saint Sebastian’s. Several men in body armor got out. The archbishop’s guard. They genuflected before ransacking the church. They found his inventory under the floorboards, and after inspecting it all thoroughly, left it strewn about the changing room along with the communion dishes. They scanned the rubble of the rectory with flashlights, picked through the remains of the organ in the gallery.
They acted as if Miquel was not even there, until the end, when two of them strip-searched him on the altar. As he got dressed, another man appeared. He did not genuflect as he entered, but strode toward Miquel, his face becoming visible in the dim light. It was the balding priest who had been with the monsignor and had helped beat Hiltz to a pulp.
“Tell me where it is,” he said.
Miquel did not answer.
“We know you have it.” He looked around, his face twisted. “We’ve been polite up till now. But I am here to tell you that if you don’t turn it over to us by Friday, this little sanctuary of yours will be razed to the ground. Think about it. If that happens, what will happen to your flock?”
He left, the archbishop’s guard filing out behind him. As the van pulled away, Miquel locked the church doors, something he had not done in all the years he had been there. It was only then that he noticed Serena. She came out from behind the altar. Even after he pushed her away, she had not left. How she had avoided detection, he had no idea, but children like her were good at making themselves invisible.
“How long have you been here?” Miquel asked.
“Long enough,” she replied. “What did they want?”
In response, Miquel went to the statue of the Virgin Mother, reached behind it, opened a compartment no larger than a small pill container and removed the ‘resurrection’. The only way they could have found it was to smash the statue to pieces, and even these men dared not do that. He showed it to Serena, who nodded as he told her what it was.
“Are you going to give it to them?” she asked.
Miquel sat on the altar steps. “I can’t.”
Serena’s eyes welled. Miquel had never seen the girl cry before. “I don’t want anything to happen to you,” she said.
“I’m of no importance. The parish is what matters.”
Serena sat down next to him. “You’re the parish. As long as you’re here, there’s hope.”
Miquel put his hand on the girl’s shoulder, squeezed gently. He wasn’t sure if he believed that he was that important, but she believed it. The parish believed it.
“Maybe they’re bluffing,” Serena said hopefully. “If you give it to them, they’ll be grateful.”
For a moment, Miquel fantasized she was right. They would laud him a hero, maybe even ordain him. He shook the idea from his head. He had seen what they’d done to Hiltz. And even if they deemed to call him Father, he now found it nothing but an empty word.
“I doubt it.”
“So they’ll destroy the church?”
“No,” Miquel said. “They won’t do that either.”
He sent her away, but not before giving her a message to relay to the other children, to spread throughout the congregation.
The demolition crew arrived early Good Friday with wrecking balls, dump trucks and bulldozers. Private contractors hired by what was left of City Hall with condemnation orders. The Church had paid off the mayor, no doubt, but if anyone bothered to check, it had no official involvement.
One of crew crossed himself before getting to work. By mid-afternoon, nothing remained except bits of shattered concrete, splintered wood, shards of ceramic tile in piles around a cement foundation. That and the first step leading up to the main doors, where Miquel had stood only a few days before, selling ‘god’ to the Bible Boys in their red sports sedan.
Miquel had watched the destruction from the safety of a nearby rowhouse. It hurt to see the walls come down in a shower of broken masonry and dust, but he thought he owed it that much. When the crews were gone, he went and stood on the remaining step. He looked up, as if the steeple and the gargoyles were still there, while fingering the vial in his coat pocket.
Easter was celebrated in an old warehouse belonging to Miquel’s suppliers, a few of them even staying to hear him say Mass. Parishioners filtered into the warehouse in small numbers so as not to attract attention, until the whole space was full. Miquel had no meal to feed them, but they showed up all the same, parting for him as he led the Processional, the Good News in hand.
Prior to the demolition, some of them had come to Saint Sebastian’s to claim the statue of the Virgin Mother, cut away the mural, and take down the headless crucifix. They now surrounded Miquel, who stood on a makeshift altar hastily built of wooden pallets and old crates, giving the warehouse a sense of home.
Miquel looked out over his church. A Church made of people, just like his mother had taught him. He would deal with his hate later. Today was a day of joy.
The monsignor stood in the front of the crowd, his priests on either side, all in black except for the monsignor’s purple sash, faces grim. Jules, one of Miquel’s suppliers, beckoned him from the left side of the altar. He had a beatific glow to his face; smooth, radiant skin that hid inner scars of a life hard-lived. Miquel hoped to save him one day.
“Do you want us to kick them out?” Jules nodded toward the three.
“Let them stay.”
“They could cause you trouble,” Jules replied.
“If they try anything, they’ll have the congregation to contend. They’re all the protection I need.” He only half believed it. In the end, it didn’t matter either way. The real church, the community made of his people, would endure without him and without drugs.
Serena was the altar server assisting him with mass. She nodded to Miquel and he nodded back. He turned to his congregation, withdrew the vial of ‘resurrection’ from beneath his vestments, and held it up. The sparkling light it emitted was unmistakable.
The Monsignor shook his head vigorously, seeming to realize Miquel’s intent. Up until that moment, Miquel himself was not sure if he’d go through with it. But in looking at the Monsignor, he saw more than one man. Instead, he saw Hiltz, a hundred, a thousand, a million Hitlz’s, all strung out on false faiths, all having the saddest of lives, all coming to the saddest of ends.
Miquel smashed the ‘resurrection’ vial to the ground. Its contents slowly seeped between the cracks in the concrete floor. Most of the congregation would have no idea what he had just done, but the Monsignor knew. Miquel looked straight at him and dared the slightest jutting of his chin.
The two priests moved towards the altar, pushing those before them out of their way. The Monsignor halted them with a word. He understood that doing anything to Miquel now would be meaningless at best, ensure martyrdom at worst.
After a tense moment, the Monsignor nodded once with a hint of a smile. Miquel nodded back. The Monsignor turned and disappeared into the crowd, priests in tow.
Serena beamed at Miquel. Hands now empty, he opened them wide in welcome. “Let us pray.”
Manfred Gabriel lives and writes in Western Wisconsin. For his day job, he spends all day dealing with people, and writes to maintain his sanity. His short stories have appeared in over two dozen publications. His musing on the workplace can be found at www.wordpress.
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