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"Bless me Father, for I have sinned."
Father Moriarty inspected the black metal bars which separated him from the familiar voice. For the tenth time this Sunday he heard confession, and the sessions had been emotionally trying. "How so, my daughter?"
Her tone was tense. "Father, I killed two hundred and twenty-seven men."
Moriarty's face melted into a smile despite himself. "Three Hail Marys."
"The repentance must meet the sin, my child."
He heard the sounds of quick movement, and with a gust his booth's curtain flew open. In the sudden light appeared a young woman. Her hair was short, curly and black, and so was her velvet dress, a dark shadow surrounding her flushed skin. "I can't even get absolution in this crummy church!" she raged. He lost restraint and burst into laughter. "Oh sure, laugh, laugh!" Her voice had an edge of panic. "Just laugh at me!"
With an effort and a clutch of his stomach, he stopped laughing and rose. "Peace, my daughter." He took a deep breath. "Mary," he said calmly, "You must come to realize that killing people in games and killing people in real life is. . ." he put his hands together, "different in the eyes of the Lord. Now I'm sure you feel very deeply about this--"
"Blood was everywhere!"
"--Ah, yes, but people have been playing computer games, or arcade games, all sorts of electronic games for half a century now. All children and teenagers play them. And I assure you there's nothing wrong with blasting away digital opponents for a little fun. It's not real, child. Just the other day in the news I heard that scientific studies strongly suggest that this release of stress is beneficial."
"You just don't understand!" Mary spun and stalked past the dirty pews, her rush tugging at the candle flames before the Cross. "I've been having these nightmares about Hell!"
Stopping and raising her hands, she said, "There was this red river flowing into the base of a mountain, and everything was skewed, like there wasn't a straight line anywhere, it was all wavy and bloody. All around were these giant statues of heads, like the heads of Gods, just staring. They had no expressions, they just kept watching me, watching watching watching, they were inexorably and unchangeably there, watching, staring, staring--"
Again, her voice held that edge of panic. "It was just a dream, my child," Father Moriarty said soothingly.
"And I was all alone--totally and completely alone!" Mary burst into tears. Father Moriarty moved quickly to comfort the girl, who sagged against him. He was shocked by the lightness of her body. "My goodness, child, when was the last time you ate?"
"Yesterday," she sniffed. "I didn't have another chance, I had to spend the day fighting the Hordes in cyberspace." As she spoke he seated her on a pew. "I could use a cracker or something," she admitted. "How about those crunchy things you're always giving out on Sundays?"
"I don't think so," he said mildly. "Ah. . .I'll be right back." Quietly he walked to a room at the back of the church, and he shut the door behind him.
Then he crossed himself. What was he to do with this strange girl? A week ago she had started coming to confession every single day, always decrying this utterly peculiar "sins" of cyberspace. How she blew up this building, or cast an evil spell, or some such nonsense. Her parents--if she even had any-- obviously had not taught her the difference between reality and fantasy, and now, for whatever reason, she wouldn't stop pestering him.
He had long ago determined that she wasn't Catholic, that she didn't come here from any real belief in God. As far as he could tell this was just another place of fantasy for her, a peculiar extension of the hours and hours she spent playing electronic games. Apparently she had seen some movie about a priest a couple weeks ago and now she thought his church was her private toy. If only she'd leave him alone--
"No," he said to himself. He was a priest, here to serve the Lord Christ. All who came to him would receive his help. But he had absolutely no idea what to do with that girl, and now was the worst of times for her to be here.
Taking his hand from his brow, he turned to the church's small kitchen. Quickly ruffling through the pantry, he returned to the church proper with a tray. She remained where he'd left her. From a distance her thin body looked pale and small, and her black, voluminous dress--very odd attire, perhaps another figment of her warped imagination--swelled hugely around her figure. Her bright brown eyes were locked on the Cross.
She studied the Christ as if mapping His every feature, as if trying to discover His every secret. He approached her quickly, horrified that anyone would dare so blatantly study Jesus, like she were trying to render him naked and peer into the very soul of Him Himself. "Here." He interposed himself in her view and thrust the tray into her hands. She caught it with surprise. "I'm afraid," he said brusquely, "that I'm going to have to ask you to leave. You see, I have a very important sermon to give today. But if you truly wish you can come back and have another confession tomorrow."
He forced himself not to frown, she was just a girl, after all, not even a Catholic, but when he thought of all the people who came in here with real problems and real sorrows he couldn't help but add, "If you feel you can stand the guilt for that long."
She stared at him, and again, that look of panic came to her eyes, as if, as if--Gentling his voice, he asked, "My daughter, why were you studying the Cross?"
Lowering the tray to her knees, Mary selected from the tray without looking at its contents. She chewed carefully while her eyes studied his. Only the gentle crunching of her teeth came between them. Finally she said, "Well, I'd never really looked at one in real life before. I've seen them in a movie and some TV shows, and in the pics I've saw all these people clustered around them, and they all seemed. . .well, like that Cross really mattered to them. You know?"
Crunch, crunch, crunch. Her eyes never left his.
"I would think it would matter to them," he said. "It is Christ their Lord."
"Can Christ be my Lord, too?" she asked.
"Christ is everyone's Lord, my daughter."
"Really?" She brightened considerably. "Then that means someone loves me?"
"Christ loves everyone, my child."
"Oh, goody!" She leaped to her feet, spilling the tray to the floor. "That means that I'll never be alone again! I'll have someone to talk to, someone to play with, someone to help me sleep, someone to help me defeat the Hordes! It'll be just like in that Humphrey Bogart movie I saw!" She thrust past him and beamed up at the Cross. "Hi, Jesus, I'm Mary!"
"No, no, no!" Father Moriarty struggled to contain himself, he bent and started picking the fallen food into the tray.
"Oh, don't worry about that," said Mary, stooping to help him. "I dropped it, I'll take care of it--in fact, think of how much I'll be able to help you, now that I'll be staying here!"
"Well, if Christ loves me here, then I'll--"
"No! Christ loves you everywhere and anywhere! Now please, would you mind going home?"
"I--" He crossed himself again. "Mary, I have a very important guest coming this evening. The. . ." his voice hushed to a whisper, ". . .the Bishop is coming to my church."
"Who and what's the Bishop?" she asked.
He fought down his irritation. "My boss!"
"The Bishop's your boss? Humphrey Bogart said something like his boss being--"
"He's my immediate boss! And he's coming to my church! You couldn't understand, you obviously know nothing about the Church--"
"Try me!" she exclaimed indignantly. "Billy Jobeson said I wouldn't know how to operate a flight simulator after all those X-Wing sims. I showed him! Go on--try me!"
"My church is in one of the filthiest slums in the city. Homeless people sleep on the pews during my services. Criminals conduct their crimes inside these walls. Crime is so rampant in the twenty-first century, I used to think I could help them, I used to think I could help them all, but now I've learned to ignore them, now I don't even blink an eye. And today the Bishop's coming, part of his campaign to make the dying Church more popular with the people--like people even really care--"
He stopped. Her eyes were wide, and she was listening intently, and for a moment he thought she was really trying to understand. He cursed himself, cursed himself for flying into an almost blasphemous tirade before a girl who couldn't understand. . .
"Don't you have any family?" he asked finally, his voice calm, soothing.
"They died in a drive-by shooting," she said, "When I was three."
He turned from her, crossed himself, slowly. "I live in the Orphanage on Sixth Street. It's no big deal. I just usually don't tell people because then they have to give all this pity and it makes me uncomfortable."
"Wasn't there a shooting," he said, his voice sounding strange to him, "About a week ago, on the Orphanage on Sixth Street?"
"Oh, no," she said. He turned slowly to face her. Her eyes were wide and strange. "There was no shooting. It was just a day like every other. I played on the computer with Billy Jobeson. He was beating me as usual. He was the only one who ever could."
"That's the second time you've mentioned Billy. Are you close to him?"
"Huh? Oh, no, Billy had to go away for awhile."
"Ms. Garleson said he had to last week. She said he wouldn't ever come back, that he was going to a better place. She took us all out to see a movie with Sister Edna, she hardly ever does that. I usually don't like movies, ya know? You just sit there and you don't have any control over anything. There's nothing to shoot, nothing to do at all but just sit there and watch a flat screen. It's so boring. But this time it was different. There was this man I've never seen before, Humphrey Bogart was what Ms. Garleson said his name was, and he was a priest like you, and he was kind and loving and brave and he didn't think shooting people was always good thing. I'd never seen anything like it before, not ever. He's all I've been able to think about since Billy had to go."
She turned, and pointed at the Cross without any reverence at all, and said, "But I don't have to worry about that anymore. Does he have a nickname? Billy had a nickname--'Shooter.' Mine's 'Muerte.'"
He approached her slowly, and put his hand on her shoulder. "No, he. . .he's just called 'Our Lord'."
"Just like what Humphrey Bogart called him!"
"Yes, um. . .have you ever read something called 'The Bible'?"
"Every now and then Sister Edna comes to the Orphanage and tries to get us to read it. Ms. Garleson doesn't like it, because the Federal Government says it's wrong to do that in a Federally funded institution, but I don't really care. I mean, books are even more boring than movies."
"Please don't make me leave! I'll clean up the mess! I just want to stay!"
Father Moriarty sighed. What could he do?
"You may stay, my daughter, but please, be quiet."
"Great! I'll clean up the mess right away! Do you have a broom and stuff in that back room? I 'll go get it!" She rushed off like a sprite.
Alone, Father Moriarty looked with supplication at the Cross. "Why did you send her to me? Can't you see there's nothing I can do to help her? There's nothing I can do to help any of the people You've sent me. Nothing I can do for the homeless, nothing I can do for the criminals, nothing I can do for the adulterers and the young pregnant women, nothing at all. The times are changing so fast, and now I have a child who doesn't even know what's real. What do You expect me to do? What do You expect me to--"
A giant crash rang from the back room. "Damn!" Slowly, the door opened. "I wasn't supposed to say that, was I?" she asked meekly. "Sister Edna's very particular about saying things like shit and piss--oops, I wasn't supposed to say those!" She giggled. "I don't know why--everyone uses those words, anyway, when she's not looking." She slid through the door, and one by one revealed a mop and a dustpan. "Sister Edna's really a drag, actually, but Ms. Garleson let's her come because she helps around the Orphanage."
"Mary, um. . .look, child, maybe you should go back to the Orphanage. It's getting to be dinner time, and the Bishop's going to be here soon."
"You mean your boss? Gee, if your boss is coming, shouldn't you clean the place up? After all, most people want to impress their bosses, just like Ms. Garleson does--"
"On the other hand, why don't you remain right here," Father Moriarty said, tiredly. "No, I didn't clean the place up. Serve the Bishop right to walk into a. . .dirty place like this. He spends all his time in the lovely affluent section of the city, where they don't have muggers in the pews. Now if you excuse me, I think I need a moment. . ."
He passed her to enter the Church's back room. He paused by the door to ask, "Haven't you been to school? Surely you would have heard about Christ in the schools."
"Sometimes I saw the name 'Christ' written in graffiti in the classrooms. But I try not to go to school, and Ms. Garleson doesn't really make me. You know what they say--going to school in the projects is a good way to get killed." She winked.
He nodded slowly and began to shut the door, but she stopped him. "Will Christ really love me? Anywhere I go?"
"Yes," he said, though not with the vigor he might have hoped.
"Really? I mean. . ." and for the first time, her voice lowered, and a hint of seriousness touched her tone, ". . .I mean, like, Christ is something like God, right? And God takes care of things. I mean, Ms. Garleson said Billy had gone with God, so if I know God, I can be with Billy, right? 'Cause I'd really like to be with Billy. And if God's here, then that means that sooner or later, Billy will be too, right? And God will keep us safe, that's what Sister Edna keeps telling us. So I can't leave here, you see, I gotta wait for Billy to come, so we can play the games again. But maybe we won't play the killing games anymore because they've been giving me such nightmares. . .please, can I stay, Mister Moriarty? Can I stay?"
"You. . .can stay, I already said so."
"Until Billy comes?"
He swallowed, hard.
"Because Billy will come, right?"
"Billy. . .'left' around the time of the shooting at your Orphanage, rig--" He stopped in mid-word, as without warning that almost palpable sense of PANIC came to her eyes and he reached and touched her arm. "You can stay, Mary, you can stay until Billy comes."
A barely perceptible sigh came from her lips, and the panic faded, and then he'd never even know it had been there. "I'll be right with the cleaning," she said eagerly. "I'll clean the whole place up, don't you worry, it'll look great when I'm through--you go do whatever you need to for your boss. Don't you worry--don't you worry!"
He nodded, and started to shut the door once more. She stopped him again and threw her arms around him, and squeezed him with the strength only the desperate could muster. Then she ran off into the pews, swinging the mop through the air like she were a ballerina, making strange karate noises. "I'm the Cleaning Ninja! Just like on TV!"
He shut the door.
"Now I've lied for You," he said, looking to the Cross above the nearby desk. "What was I supposed to say to her? What, that Billy's never coming? Maybe that would have been better. Maybe that's what I should have said. Told her to go back to the Orphanage, that she can't stay here, that's she's completely out of touch with the world, that she's doggone nuts. I should have tossed her out of your House, is that what I should have done? Tossed her weeping to the streets?
"But no, how could I do that? How could I do that when I'm supposed to be kind and wise? I'm not wise. I'm a fool." He clenched his hand. "A doggoned fool."
He walked to the desk, and opened a phonebook. It took only a few minutes to find the number to the Orphanage.
"Hello?" answered a tired voice on the other end of the line.
"Hello. May I speak to Ms. Garleson, please?"
"Hello, I'm Father Moriarty. Listen, I think I have one of your wards, her name's Mary?"
"Which Mary? I've got three of them."
"Um. . .I don't know. . .are they all missing?"
"Never mind. Does she have black hair and brown eyes? Is she wearing a widow's gown?"
"A widow's gown--Ms. Garleson, wasn't there a shooting--"
The voice was heavy and cold.
"Oh. Um. . .is there anything I can do?"
"Can you bring five children back to life?"
He was silent.
"I'll send Sister Edna over. She's here telling everyone that God has five new angels in Heaven, the damned bitch. Oh gosh, what did I just say. . .sorry Father, um. . .it's been really tough over here." The woman sounded like she was fighting back tears. "I'll send Sister Edna over, she really does care. Maybe she'll take them to another movie. I can't believe she dragged me to the last one. Mary--the one with you--she's really quite taken with Humphrey Bogart. It's something I guess, better than those cheap games she always plays."
"I'll be waiting for her."
"Thank you, Father. . .good-bye."
He turned from the phone. "It's amazing all the suffering you managed to cram into the world," he said to the air. "Do you feel proud of yourself sometimes?" But how could he say that? Had God shot up the orphanage? Who was he supposed to blame, the gunman or the Lord?
He walked to the door. Just as he was to open it was thrown open from the opposite side, and he was confronted with Mary's flushed face. "Hurry, Mr. Moriarty, your boss is here!"
She tugged him out of the room, and he stood half-amazed. Half of the pews were shiny and clean, they had been scrubbed with soap. The floor a bit less grimy, the littered debris on the pews was gone--"My God!" he said.
"I know, I know--I didn't get a chance to clean everything, I tried--look, is that your boss?"
Indeed it was. The Bishop entered wearing his regal white robes and tall hat. He was a handsome man, dark in coloring and known for his charisma, and he seemed totally unflustered by the two men with tiny mini-cams hovering around him. One camera man was in front, another in the back, and they circled him like monkeys scrambling for a view. Behind them came several of the Bishop's assistants, they had their clipboards and notes--
"No!" one of the assistants cried. "This place looks like a festering dump!"
"Stop the camera, stop the camera!" another assistant cried. "This is NOT the image we want to present!"
The Bishop stopped and turned, as if seeing the Church for the first time. His mouth fell open, and Father Moriarty suspected he wasn't pleased. "It's. . .dirty," he said, like he couldn't believe it.
"Someone at least started to clean the front pews," said another assistant. "Where's the Priest who runs this trash heap?"
Father Moriarty broke from Mary's grasp and walked forward with as much dignity as he could muster. "Welcome--" he started to say.
"Couldn't you at least have cleaned up the place?" the Bishop asked. "How am I supposed to better our public image? How am I supposed to convince people we're helping the poor and needy when the church looks like a pig sty? I thought this place had stained glass windows, all I see is cardboard."
"Stained glass windows show the glory of God," Father Moriarty said, "But they're fearfully fragile when it comes to bullets."
"But we chose this Church because it's in one of the poorest areas of the city! We're featuring you on national television! Couldn't you at least have made an effort to make the place look even a little better? It looks like, like. . ."
"Like we're in a slum?"
"Exactly!" the Bishop shouted, steadily losing his dignity and composure. "How are we supposed to convince people we're helping them when the place looks like it's part of the problem? This is supposed to be God's house, it's supposed to at least be clean. . ."
"I petitioned your office for someone to help me maintain the Church. My petition was refused."
"The Church is poor, man, the Church is broke! We don't have the money to fund your laziness with maids and butlers, now do we?"
"Unlike the maid and butler the Bishop is reputed to have in his own church?" The Bishop's mouth closed with a snap and he turned beet red. "A simple nun would have done, your Eminence. Please, I mean no disrespect, simply I have petitioned the Church many times, sometimes for only a modicum of assistance, and always my requests were refused."
"Perhaps what this church really needs is a new priest," the Bishop said darkly.
"Perhaps," Father Moriarty said with composure.
The Bishop scowled. "The front pews are the cleanest. Let's film it there." He started forward, and the assistants and the camera men scurried after him. "Maybe you're right, Father," the Bishop called over his shoulder as stopped by one of the forward pews and daintily brushed away a scrap of dirt. "Having the place look a bit run down gives it a touch of realism I hadn't foreseen. If handled right, maybe we could tug at a few hearts, touch a few checkbooks. Yes." The Bishop turned his attention to his camera men. "Get a shot of that window only, it's still got some glass. And who's this girl here? Father, I thought you said you hadn't got a nun."
"She's not a nun, your Eminence."
"Of course not, she wears no habit. It's dark in here, she was dressed in black. What's your name, girl?"
"Muerte," Mary answered eagerly.
"Her name's Mary," Father Moriarty said.
"Oh, you mean my real name," Mary said, "not my nickname! Yes, Mary it is."
"Why would anyone have the nickname of Muerte?" the Bishop asked.
"It's Spanish for Death," Mary volunteered. "That's what they call me in cyberspace."
"A gamer, huh? It's good to see that even gamers take an interest in the Church. Perhaps we're not in such dire straits after all. See Father, with all your complaints and your filthy Church, even right here is a bastion of hope for our cause. Sit right here beside me. . .Mary? Oh, what a beautiful name. Named right after the Virgin herself."
"Hey, don't call me a virgin!" Mary exclaimed. "It's bad enough that everyone teases me about it anyway! If Billy hadn't left, I might have--"
Mary turned away. Though her back was to him, Father Moriarty could almost imagine that expression in her eyes again. Mary looked at the Cross for a long moment.
When she turned around, she face was bright and smiling. "But don't worry! Jesus will make sure it's okay!"
"That's the way!" the Bishop boomed. "Come, have a seat by me! Ah, that grim Father Moriarty! Ignore him! Always talking about the poor and the suffering--sure there's suffering! Anyone who's not Catholic's going to suffer! What do they expect?"
"Well. . ." Mary looked puzzled. "Well sure, you're going to suffer if you don't have friends. Jesus is my friend. Right, Mister Moriarty?"
"Father Moriarty," he immediately corrected. "You have to forgive her, Bishop, she's--"
"Well, a Catholic in the slums can't be perfect. Come, Mary, sit by me! Of course you have a friend. You have a whole world of friends. Everyone does, if they believe in Him." Taking Mary's hand, the two sat together in the front pew. "You got those cameras ready?" he asked one of his assistants.
"Just a moment or so, Your Eminence."
"Mmm, well hurry it up, well you? I have a dinner engagement." Turning to Father Moriarty, the Bishop said, "I purposely selected the smallest cameras possible, but they're a bit of a pain to setup, so I'll have to take up just a wee bit more of your time. Small cameras are great for shots taken in public--they're concealed and they don't make people nervous."
Father Moriarty walked to the Bishop's side and said in a low voice, "Your Eminence, may I have a word with you?"
The Bishop scowled, then studied Father Moriarty through squinted eyes. "Hold on here, little Mary," he said, patting her hand. It was obvious that Mary didn't like being called little, but for some reason she let it pass.
They took a few steps from the pews and the Bishop said, "What?"
"I was wondering if perhaps you could think of a place for that girl over there," Father Moriarty said. "I know it's hard to tell by the look of her, but she's. . .well, she's been traumatized."
"Nonsense!" exclaimed the Bishop.
"A week ago the orphanage where she lives was shot up by a gun man. Five kids, including her closest friend, died."
"Dear Lord." The Bishop crossed himself. "How even the young must pay in this world. Just what do you expect me to do, Father?"
"I. . .was hoping you might have a place for her. I know you live in the affluent section of the city, and I was hoping that maybe you could use your influence to find her a place somewhere in that section of town. Your Eminence, she's really a bright girl, even a cheerful girl, but. . .she's dimming down here, Your Eminence. It's like she's fading away. I know it's not really obvious, but I've seen her, I've seen those like her, and if we or someone or God doesn't get her out of here, I can't imagine what will become of her. Your Eminence, I can't even bear to imagine what will become of her. She's got no education, no family, she's not even living in this world. Is there nothing you can do, Your Eminence, nothing at all?"
The Bishop's face was somber. "How long have you known her?" he asked.
"A week? You'd expect you'd had known her for years the way you were carrying on!"
Father Moriarty felt his face grow red. "Sometimes the Lord grants insight, Your Eminence. Sometimes living in Hell can give you a sort of warped understanding not found in the high-rise condos Downtown."
"Seems to me like you've been down here too long," the Bishop said. "But I'll let your accursed impudence pass again. I'll help her, Father Moriarty, I'll help her just like you ask, provided you can answer one question."
"Yes, Your Eminence?"
"Has she been baptized?"
"Ah. . .no."
"Is she Catholic?"
". . .no."
Instantly Father Moriarty wished he had lied.
"No, hmm? Well then explain to me why I should take the time to rescue one, just one, mind you, little slum girl from the slums, when there are surely a thousand more just like her. I save this one, and then there's the next, and the next, and the next. I can't find placements for every child here. No, Father, no, it wouldn't even be right. It's not the solution, you must see that. The solution is to eradicate the slums, eradicate the poverty, but not, my dear friend, to just save one child." The Bishop clapped Father Moriarty's arm. "But obviously you're a kind chap--"
"What difference does it make, whether she's Catholic or not?" Father Moriarty asked bitterly.
"Don't you know, Father?" the Bishop asked. "According to our beliefs, everyone who's not a Catholic, who's not been baptized is going to the Flame. If she had been baptized, maybe it would have been worth my time. But she's doomed anyway, and there a thousand more like her."
"You're just sorry you can't save a Catholic girl," Father Moriarty almost shouted. "Why did I even bother to speak to you? Your entire life is but a damned public relations scam and hoax!"
"Oh, are we taking the Lord's name in vain, now, Father? Perhaps you should meet me in Confession later." The Bishop smiled blandly and turned away.
Father Moriarty raised his fist, he aimed at the back of the Bishop's head and--
"Hey, Mister Moriarty!" The Bishop's and Father Moriarty's attention was called to the Cross. Mary stood there, her face flushed before the flickering candles. "Look what I found!"
She raised her arms. Both the Father and the Bishop gasped. "Good Lord!" said the Bishop.
Draped upon Mary's either arm were easily a dozen Crosses, all dangling from their gold and silver and bronze chains from her uplifted arms and hands, all throwing flashy reflections of light which danced through the dark church and upon her black dress and glowing face. The crosses floated above candles, she was a disembodied angel of bright brown eyes and crucifix wings. . .
"Put those down, now!" the Bishop cried. "You have no right to be. . .playing with what's Holy!"
"But they're so cool!" she exclaimed, slowly swaying her arms so that the crosses clinked against each other.
"Put them down!" the Bishop shouted, and Mary's smile faltered.
Father Moriarty walked toward Mary and took her hand, leading her away from the candles and the Cross. "Give them to me," he said quietly.
"I was just trying to look pretty," she whispered back. "It's like jewelry. I've never really worn much jewelry. I just wanted to show the Bishop that I wasn't a little girl, like he said. And I always wanted to look pretty for Billy. . ."
"I know, I know. . ." He wasn't prepared for when she softly put her head against his chest and hugged him again, crosses and all. "I miss him," she whispered, "I really, really miss him. . .when's he coming back, I miss him. . ."
"It's all right, my daughter," he said. He kissed her curly black hair. "You'll find him again someday, we'll all find our Billy someday. . ."
She sobbed into his chest, delicate and frail and small. He held her and the candles before the Cross flickered and wavered. . .
"The cameras are ready, your Eminence."
"Give those Crosses to Father Moriarty, child," said the Bishop, his tone softer but not quite kind. Mary wiped the tears from her eyes, then began clumsily doing as the Bishop said. The Bishop smiled and turned to his anxious assistants who were crowding around him.
"Mary," said Father Moriarty, putting his hands on her shoulders. "You must understand--the Catholic Church is so much more than you see here. Some of the more glorious art in the world is inside Catholic churches, like the Sistine Chapel."
"The Sixteen what?"
"The Bishop there--he's not your typical Bishop. Every religion has its faults, just like every man or woman has their faults. The Bishop is just very concerned about the image of the Church, that is all. Other Bishops, other priests and nuns would give you their heart on a silver platter. It's just that this world is falling apart, dear Mary. Don't let these little injustices make you think--"
"Like you?" she asked.
"Think like me--what, what do you mean?" he faltered. "No, not like me. I'm not losing my faith, no--"
"No, no," she said. She handed him the crosses, their chains all tangled together. "I think. . .I think what I'm saying is that you're everything I'd ever hoped a priest would be, Mister Moriarty."
"Father Moriarty. You call a priest 'Father'."
"Oh. That's why they kept doing that in the movie. Just like 'Sister Edna.' What I mean is, you've been just as nice to me as Ms. Garleson or Billy. I sort of feel like. . ."
"It's all right, Mary. You don't have to talk."
"No! I never had a chance to tell Billy how I really felt, so now I'm always going to say what I really feel, no matter what. You've given me your heart on a silver platter too, Father Moriarty, by letting me stay here. I haven't found a lot of people who'd even give me the time of day, and. . .well, thank you," she finished, her voice nearly a whisper.
She smiled, blinking wet eyes.
He swallowed. "Bless you, my daughter."
"Father!" the Bishop called. "We're all ready here! Come and take your place. That black girl can sit at the pews in the back."
Father Moriarty's jaw tensed in rage. How the dare the Bishop refer to her--
"In the back!" Mary exclaimed. "But I didn't even clean those!"
"Can't she sit just a couple of pews back, Your Eminence?" Father Moriarty asked, his voice small and tight.
"Fine, fine. Just as long as she's not in the camera shot. Who knows what she might do?"
"Go on, my child."
"Sit in the back. Who does he think he is? If we were in cyberspace I'd. . ."
The Church door opened, and the first of Father Moriarty's church regulars entered, a wrinkled black lady so old she made the sun look young. Father Moriarty welcomed her with open arms. "Welcome, Ms. Jeffreys. Did you have a good weekend?"
"Fine, fine," she wheezed. "No bullets came through my door, it was a good weekend. Thanks for asking, Father." She took her seat.
She was followed by many others. After the few devout had entered, the many scum came in, and Father Moriarty greeted them, too. After all, everyone was welcome in God's House.
There was Blade, who always wore a mix of cheap jewelry and leather. His face was scarred, his eyes were cold, and his wide shoulders barely fit through the doorway. Father Moriarty nodded to him, and was ignored, as usual. The big man's eyes scrutinized the Bishop and his contingent, who seemed obviously out of place. Yet the Bishop's regal robes had no real significance to him, and after his examination the big punk sneered. "Rich fuck," he muttered.
Blade was the biggest and baddest of them all. A couple of his crew followed him, two oily bad-ass toughs who wore the baggy rapper clothes and sported the darkest sunglasses imaginable. Most of the others were winos and addicts, some pushers, a few others homeless who smiled at Moriarty's greeting. Not that many came here, only the ones who thought they could get away with crimes where the police would never think of looking.
From the corner of his eye, Father Moriarty watched the Bishop slowly pale with each new arrival. The Bishop had probably not even dreamed a church could hold such people. It served the Bishop the right, it satisfied Father Moriarty very deeply to know that at least for an hour the Bishop would glimpse life as it could be. . .
Before taking the pulpit Father Moriarty stopped by Mary's seat. She seemed nervous and restless, and he laid a soothing hand on her shoulder. "What's with all those bad people?" she asked. "Some of those guys look like the enemies I blasted away in that old game 'Rumble.'"
"Don't worry. Just don't stare at them, or even look at them."
She watched him walk away, to take his place at the pulpit. He felt his sleeves slide upon his arms as he laid his hands on the paper where he had scrawled the notes for his sermon. The pews of the dirty church faced him back, like a question he had never been quite able to answer. Would anyone hear his words today? Did anyone ever hear them? Surely the drug dealers and the addicts near the back didn't care, nor the people who regularly walked in and out of the church to surreptitiously score from Blade. How had the Holy Church come to this? Why did he even bother?
If only he had the strength or passion to move these people. If only he'd ever had the courage to throw this trash out of God's House. Often he told himself that the church had to be open to everyone, but even he doubted he believed that completely.
He took a deep breath.
"There have been times when people have asked me about the practicality of Faith. Isn't the concept of Eternal Damnation a bit cruel in these modern times? How can someone realistically practice and uphold the black and white ethics that faith demands in today's world? Our world has become increasingly hard, more and more back biting as everyone fights for an edge, and not just for capital gain, or greed, but sometimes simply for survival. Can you blame the starving thief? Can you curse the uneducated gangster?
"Our world is a mad world, where half suffer and half feast. Is there no way to catch the ear of the wealthy? Is there no way to widen the eyes of the oppressed? Are we only animals under God? Is there not some way to convince people that their cause is not the only one--"
Shouts rose abruptly from the back of the church. Father Moriarty's hands clenched, spasmodically--it was hard to see but in the back of the church was that a gun--
The flash lit the gray walls and the sound made everyone duck. The flash repeated itself three more times, Father Moriarty glimpsed the agony on the face of a falling man. Blade was grinning like an animal, livid joy in his eyes.
Silence, a moment's silence, mock silence.
The Bishop rose, his mouth hanging open. The damned fool didn't even have the wits to stay down. He rose to his full measure, and with rage pointed at Blade, and shouted, "The Lord Will Punish You--"
Blade casually aimed at the Bishop's chest. His Eminence's words faltered and fear colored his face. A sudden scurrying filled the air was the homeless and winos made a break for the exit. Ms. Jeffreys was clutching her chest, her nostrils flaring with each hard won breath. And his hands were trembling, he was frozen motionless at the pulpit, the only motion his shaking hands. . .
Mary rose from her seat. "No," he whispered, eyes fastened on her. It took all his will to raise his hand, trying to stop her, "No, get down--"
Mary raised her hand. In her hands was a black 9 millimeter.
Blade never saw it coming. Perhaps it was because the church was dark, or maybe it was because Mary was wearing a dark dress, or perhaps because she was so small. Her face was cool and her eyes were serene. She squeezed the trigger like it was nothing but the press of a joystick button.
Red exploded from Blade's chest, like pulp. It splattered across the pews and suddenly all the joy was gone from his face. He spun crazily toward the direction of the shot and Mary let him have it in the face.
Teeth flew through the air.
One of Blade's two lackeys went for his piece, a quick move to his vest. He never finished the motion. The second already had his out, Mary ducked and the shots went wild. She ran crouched along the pews, like some easy cyber warrior, came up from a different position and now there were four dead people on the ground.
Slowly, Mary rose to her full height. Most everyone else had left by now. The Bishop had fallen sobbing on the floor, begging God to have Mercy on him. Father Moriarty wasn't sure, but he might have wet himself. In the front pews Ms. Jeffreys composed herself, then crossed herself. She kicked at the huddled white mass of the Bishop. "Get up you old fool, it's over. Think you'd never been in the projects before." She wheezed.
Somehow Father Moriarty forced himself from the pew. He took a few steps toward Mary, then stopped, unable to go any further.
"It's just like the games," Mary said, a tone of wonder in her voice. "I. . .always thought it'd be different in real life." The gun fell from her hands, smacked the pew with a sharp clatter. "The gun, though. . .I had no idea it was so heavy, so loud. . ." She raised her hands to her ears, then lowered them. "There's all this. . .powder on my fingers. . ."
"Mary," Father Moriarty said, voice hoarse and foreign to him, "Where'd you get the gun?"
Mary looked at him, without really seeing him. "Well, that's funny," she said. "I'd never have expected to have gotten it from her."
"Ms. Garleson. She gave it to me. Said I should never let what happened to Billy happen to me, so I. . . I took the gun. . ." Mary clutched her head. "I. . .I won't start having the nightmares again, will I? I was only trying to do what was right. I don't want to have the nightmares again. I. . .Father?" She looked at him, her eyes suddenly frightened and wet, so different from just a moment ago, "Father?" she said, like he was really her father, like--"Father, did I do right?"
"You. . .killed in God's House. . ." he heard himself say, but no, that wasn't the thing to say. He wasn't anyone's Father, no. Not when he was glad that Blade was dead, not when he was glad at the Bishop's cowering--
The Bishop was in the arms of his assistants, one was calling the police on his cell phone. "It's just like the games, the movies. . .just like Billy said, there's no difference." Mary smiled. "If I could just have done that for Billy."
Again, Father Moriarty forced himself to move. He was nearly beside Mary when without warning he started to cry. "Why couldn't I have been there for Billy," she kept saying, as Father Moriarty took her into his arms. "Why couldn't I have been there for him. . ."
"It's okay, it's okay," he sobbed. In the distance he could hear the wail of sirens.
"Sister Edna said we needed to take it all back. She said God and Jesus said we had to kill and fight now, just like them. She said God was going to punish the person who shot Billy in hell and that the shooter deserved to die." Father Moriarty held her tighter. Mary looked up at him. "Did I do my part for Billy, Father? Did I do my part for God? Will God love me now?"
Father Moriarty couldn't answer.
"I had to defend Billy's church, that's what you were saying, right, I had to defend Billy's church. . ."
A creaking sound distracted them. Above candles the Cross tilted, then fell forward. Father Moriarty glimpsed two bullet holes in the wood before it fell upon the candle flames, extinguishing the light and engulfing the church in a terrible gloom.
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