20080429

Lead On, Blood-Black Footprints











Father Quickly watched from the Rectory across the street as Lovovich crept out of his house and hobbled down the driveway to the curb. He was wearing wrinkled grey pants that bunched up like paper around his calves, and he had on a linen shirt -- unbuttoned at the collar -- that hung cockeyed across his frail shoulders like the stiff envelope of a stick of chewing gum. He was barefoot.

It was late evening, but there was a last puff of light still waning between the bushes and the houses. Father Quickly mashed the curtains against the Rectory window to cut the glare, but he didn’t dare open them. If Lovovich saw him, Lovovich would shrink back inside his house like the wrinkled neck of a timid turtle. It had happened before. Lovovich didn’t trust Father Quickly, and the feeling was mutual.

Father Quickly reached over and snuffed the overhead chandelier in the Rectory’s dining room. He crouched in the darkness, watching the old retired priest to see what he did.

The retired priest was waiting for someone.

Lovovich stood at the edge of the curb and peered both directions down the street. Cars in this section of the quiet residential neighborhood were seldom, and people going to St. Joe’s to pray in the perpetual adoration chapel or to drop kids off at Thursday night CCD classes would use the church’s main entrance. Yet, Lovovich stood on the curb of his boxy, modern two-story as if he expected someone to turn the corner any moment.

Sure enough, a battered red step-side pick-up rounded the bend hot off the highway and began crawling down the street in fits and starts. The person inside was probably checking addresses. Lovovich waved, and the truck sped up before coming to a stop in front of the old priest’s house. The cab of the truck obscured Father Quickly’s view, and so he moved to the kitchen window to get a better angle.

In the time it took to change locations, the driver of the truck had already gotten out and was shaking hands with the elder cleric. Father Quickly didn’t recognize the truck’s owner, and he was sure he’d never seen him before, which meant that he certainly wasn’t a member of the parish.

He was tall and gaunt, and the bobbins of his cheek bones stood out prominently in his thin red face. He wore a red and black striped lumberjack shirt tucked into blue jeans, and his jeans hung over a pair of sharp black cowboy boots -- cut with a low heel -- that shined with polish.

Lovovich and the truck driver talked for a few minutes, and then money changed hands: Lovovich gave the man a crumpled twenty dollar bill, and the man unhooked the tailgate of the truck and rested one boot on the steel fender. He massaged his back, and then leaned way over and yanked at something bulky hidden under a blue tarp, sliding it along the bed of the truck until he held it in his hands.

It was an aquarium tank. One of the big ones, the size of a small desk. It was made of thick, heavy glass and it didn’t have any of the tubing that normally went along with an aquarium. No lid, either. It was empty, and the sides were crusted with dirt.

At first, the man in the lumberjack shirt tried to help Lovovich carry the aquarium, but Lovovich shouted at him and shook his fist, and the man in the lumberjack shirt put his hands in his pockets. Lovovich balanced the aquarium at a dangerous angle on his shoulder and tottered toward his house while the man in the lumberjack shirt watched. Lovovich set the aquarium down on the porch, looked back at the man in the lumberjack shirt with malevolence in his eyes, and opened his front door.

He pushed the aquarium inside with his knees, and then shut the door behind him.

The man in the lumberjack shirt stared at the house without moving, as if expecting something to happen. Nothing did. He walked over to the driveway and knelt down beside a black spot that Father Quickly hadn’t noticed before. There were two lines of them leading from the door to the curb, and Father Quickly could swear they hadn’t been there this morning. He climbed on top of the kitchen counter to get a better view and pressed his forehead against the glass between the curtain rod and the top edge of the window.

They were footprints.

The man in the lumberjack shirt examined one of the footprints with a confused twist to his craggy face. He looked back at the house, but all was still. He reached out and dipped his finger in the spot and then held his finger up to his face and stared at it. He brought his finger up to one nostril and sniffed it.

A knock at the door startled Father Quickly, and caused him to stumble and fall off of the kitchen counter. He crashed into one of the ornate chairs around the breakfast table, and landed in the soft pile rug by the hutch, where the dishes meant for company were kept. The dishes rattled with his impact, but none of them toppled or broke.

“Just a second!” shouted Father Quickly.

He righted the chair, fixed the curtains, and made sure his hair was smoothed back on his head in the hallway mirror. He put on a Roman collar with one hand, twisting the clasp in back around his finger and letting it snap together all in one fluid motion. He opened the door with an unctuous smile already waiting on his lips.

Standing at the door was a thick, squat woman who Father Quickly recognized from the Church office. She was one of the women who volunteered to clean once a week, and with her was a little girl still in elementary school. Both the woman and the little girl had coarse black hair running up their arms, and they had the same soggy half-moon features that festered like lichens underneath their flat, rock-like brows. The face of the child was softer -- talcum instead of granite -- and she had green eyes whereas the older woman had brown ones.

“Hello, Father,” said the little girl, curtseying. “We have come here to speak with you about my mother.”

The older woman didn’t stop staring at the priest with her dead, furrowed expression. Even though her gaze was level, it was as if she were trying to look underneath him, as if she had dropped her keys and was trying to find them in his soul, under his face.

“This is my Aunt Bobby,” said the little girl. “And my name is Felicia. Aunt Bobby is afraid to talk to you, so she brought me along.”

Finally, the older woman’s expression changed. She flushed bright red and began to look at her shoes. Father Quickly looked at her shoes, too. She wore canvas sneakers whose laces had gone yellow with age and decay. She crossed herself and kissed her fingers and then placed her fingers over her heart.

Father Quickly frowned at the two visitors and looked over their heads. Across the street, the man in the lumberjack shirt had climbed back into his pickup truck and gunned it. He sped off down the street back the way he came. Father Quickly watched the truck until it turned the corner.

“Can we come in, Father?” asked Felicia. “It’s very important.”

Father Quickly remembered himself and smiled at the little girl. He opened the door wider and let the visitors into the Rectory. He gave the house across the street one last searching look before shutting the door and giving his guests his full attention.

“How can I help you ladies?” asked Father Quickly. “I assume you are parishioners?”

“Yes, Father,” said Felicia.

“Is your mother unwell?” Father Quickly asked.

Felicia frowned and shook her head.

“Not unwell,” said Felicia. “Pregnant, although you wouldn’t know it to look at her. She is such a tiny thing, and so my new little sister must be a tiny thing too. Maybe only we knew about how she was pregnant, Aunt Bobby and me. She said she was due this weekend, you see…only…”

“Only what?” asked Father Quickly.

“She never came home on Friday night,” said Felicia. “My mother and Aunt Bobby both clean for the Church, and they take turns cleaning for Father Lovovich on Fridays. Last weekend it was my mother’s turn, and she never came home. We went to ring the bell, earlier, but he didn’t answer. He was outside just now, and we were watching, but we were afraid. We thought you could go talk to him?”

“Where is your father?” Father Quickly asked. “And the father of the child?”

Aunt Bobby put her head in her hands and hid herself. Her face was so red, and her breath came so ragged that Father Quickly knew that he had tunneled to the gut of the situation.

“Mama wouldn’t talk about this Daddy,” said Felicia. “My Daddy is not here, not in the country. My Daddy is the reason we came here, to get away from him. But then Mama got pregnant, and she wouldn’t say who.”

“Do you have any guesses?” asked Father Quickly. “Is she seeing anyone?”

“No,” said Felicia. “No one. She cleans at the school during the week, and then she cleans at the Church on Fridays, and then on Saturday and Sunday she cleans at the hospital. She is so busy, and she works so hard. Aunt Bobby works hard, too. She is a masseuse.”

“But a REAL one,” said Aunt Bobby, suddenly. She looked at Father Quickly furiously, and then stared at her shoes again.

“I am glad that your mother has decided to keep the child,” said Father Quickly. “We need to tell the police that she is missing. I assume you have called all of the local hospitals?”

“All of the ones in the phone book,” said Felicia.

“Why don’t you wait here, and I will go over to Father Lovovich’s house and see if he knows anything,” said Father Quickly. “Perhaps your mother and he are in communication.”

“Oh yes,” said Felicia. “They were very close. She always talked about him. I hope you don’t mind, but Mama always says she doesn’t trust young priests.”

“That’s alright,” said Father Quickly. “I’m used to it.”

“Anyway, when you took over and Father Lovovich retired, she was very upset. But I like you very much,” said Felicia.

“My sister Maria still goes to Church,” said Aunt Bobby. “She still takes communion. She is not ashamed.”

“If she is intimate with Father Lovovich, then I assume that he has been hearing her confession,” said Father Quickly. “We don’t keep track of that sort of thing.”

“I keep track,” said Aunt Bobby.

She and Father Quickly locked eyes until Father Quickly had to look away this time.

“Anyway, I’ll be right back,” said Father Quickly. “While I am gone, try and remember any of your mother’s acquaintances who might know more about where she could be. The police will want to know everything. Help yourself to some cookies from the cupboard, and there is milk in the refrigerator. There is also chocolate syrup, and you will find spoons in the drawer to the left of the sink.”

“Thank you, Father,” said Felicia.

“Thank you, Father,” said Aunt Bobby.

Father Quickly dabbed some holy water on himself from the font by the door, and stepped outside into the gloomy evening, trying to gather his dashing thoughts. If what the Bishop had told him about Lovovich was right, then it would definitely be within the realm of possibility that Lovovich was the father of Felicia’s little sister, wherever she – and her mother – might be.

Lovovich had been a priest earmarked for great things before a series of indiscretions had forced the Diocese to bury him out here in the provinces. The widowed wife of one of the City’s wealthiest investment bankers had taken up private dalliances with Lovovich while he was in his late thirties, and when he spurned her for her daughter, she threatened to go public unless he was duly punished.

The women had repented, of course. And so had he, in time. But repentance rarely affected habits, unless all temptations were permanently removed. So the Church took action, and Lovovich had been utterly destroyed. Meant to climb, he had his legs cut out from underneath him and was told to like it.

And yet, for three decades, he had been a model priest out here where people could hardly read, and where spiritual problems were immediate and often unsatisfying.

Last month, however, Father Quickly got a phone call. Rumors were circulating that Lovovich -- despite his advanced age -- was up to his old tricks. True or not, the Bishop was forced to intervene again. Father Quickly had been working inside the state penitentiary, administering to inmates. He jumped at the chance.

The Bishop sent Father Quickly to take over Lovovich’s parish with the understanding that Father Quickly would be aggressive in preventing anything embarrassing from happening.

Father Quickly had expected a fight, but as soon as he showed up, Lovovich declared that he was retiring, and would graciously stick around as an adjunct priest to fill in on weekday masses and to help ease Father Quickly into his place at St. Joseph’s. No one could argue. Everyone was happy: Quickly, Lovovich, the diocese.

Father Quickly had tried to track down Lovovich’s new mistress, but Lovovich’s parishioners were tight-lipped about their beloved pastor to the point of cultish adoration. These people in the hinterlands were jealous of their priests, especially if they were as charming, aged, and adept as Lovovich.

The retirement itself had been a success. There had been a celebration, and Lovovich had purchased the house across the street from the Rectory with money from his younger brother, an airplane pilot.

He moved in and he disappeared. He performed mass on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and sat by the altar with Father Quickly on Holy Days. But they shared no intimacy; they spent no time together; and Lovovich made it clear that he demanded total privacy.

Tradition dictated that you left retired parish priests alone with their hobbies and thoughts until it was time for extreme unction and the seclusion of the death watch. Your life was as open to the public as a joint-stock company while you were at the mercy of the public, and so retired parish priests were allowed leeway and freedoms denied to their brothers.

And yet, Father Quickly had his suspicions. He knew something was wrong. He could feel it; like how you could tell there was a bug on you before you saw it, before it even began to move or bite. It was a weight that shouldn’t be there.

Father Quickly crossed the street.

There was no light inside Lovovich’s house, and the street lamp only shrouded the residential pocket in darkness. Quickly looked behind him. Out of the window of his house, he could see Aunt Bobby and Felicia watching him and drinking dark milk as if it were Communion wine.

He stopped in the driveway and examined the black footprints. They were dry by now, and sticky, but Father Quickly couldn’t tell what they were. Blood? Oil? Paint? It was impossible to tell the difference in the gloom, and he didn’t linger long, crouched where Lovovich could watch him and prepare himself for a confrontation.

Quickly wanted to catch him off guard. He followed the footprints to the front door, where they stopped. He knocked hard. There was a pile of cat food behind one of the bushes, under the windowsill, and the empty bag lay beside it.

There was no answer, so he knocked again. He tried the doorknob, but it was locked. The door was a flimsy piece of wood-grained particle board, and there was no screen. There wasn’t even a deadbolt. Father Quickly tested the doorknob again. It wasn’t very snug in its mooring, and it seemed to wiggle even as he turned it back and forth. He pursed his lips together and turned the doorknob hard to the left. He put both hands and his shoulder into it. The lock gave – retracting with a wobble and a shudder – and the door sprang open.

Lovovich was sitting in an easy chair and facing the door. Father Quickly wasn’t sure if the old man was alive or dead in the darkness. He could only make out his shadow and his white hair. Quickly groped against the wall for the light switch, found it, and flooded the room with illumination.

Lovovich was smiling at Father Quickly and his legs were crossed. He was still barefoot, and he sat surrounded by footprints which led to him and then led away; to the dining room, and then up the stairs to his left. In the sudden light, the footsteps were dark red – blood-black – and they dotted Lovovich’s cream carpet like entrails for scrying.

There was more blood smeared against the walls, and there was blood spotted along the handrail of the staircase. Lovovich sat in his chair at the epicenter of all of these trails of blood like the switchman at a railroad junction, watching Quickly with detachment and waiting for him to make a move.

“You broke my doorknob,” Lovovich said, finally.

“What have you done with that woman?” asked Father Quickly. “Where is she? Have you hurt her?”

Lovovich smiled.

“Nothing but life here,” said Lovovich. “Nothing but life and its doorway.”

“Where did this blood come from?” asked Father Quickly. “It’s not your blood. You are too dry to bleed.”

Father Quickly began to follow one of the trails of blood into the dining room, but Lovovich stood up from his chair with his eyes blazing and stopped him. He put his shaking hands on Father Quickly’s shoulders and came so close that he was standing on Father Quickly’s shoes, dotting them with ichor.

Father Quickly stepped back, but Lovovich clung.

“Do you think God whispers?” asked Lovovich. “Or do you think God roars?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” said Father Quickly.

“When love comes it is like a whisper,” said Lovovich. “It is a persistent nag that makes you do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do. You take risks that you would never take. You say things that you would ordinarily laugh at. You do these things to pacify the whisper, but the whisper only gets louder until it is a roar, and then suddenly you may find yourself in a situation you did not want, or did not expect.”

“You seduced that poor woman and then you hurt her, didn’t you?” said Father Quickly. “Where is she?”

“I am more sane than you, brother, because I know what love means,” said Lovovich. “If you want to know if she is dead, than yes, she is dead. But I didn’t kill her. She died because she would not go to a hospital, because of the shame of your faith.”

Father Quickly shook free of Lovovich and stumbled into the dining room.

The room was covered in flies, and they all stopped feeding and began swarming as soon as Father Quickly stepped onto the blood-soaked Oriental rug -- rattling it. Lovovich’s mistress lay flat on the dining room table with her legs splayed and her knees bent. Her feet were tied to two of the table’s legs and she was naked from the waist down. Her abdomen was soaked in a dry crust of blood and there were streaks down her legs from her vagina down to her ankles. Her head was turned and Father Quickly couldn’t see her face, but it was evident she was no longer pregnant.

As he backed away, his head began to buzz and waves of fear like water guttering over campfire flames sparked through his body. His first thoughts were crazy: they’ll blame me! I’m responsible! Got to hide the body, got to get out! They’ll say I did it! But slowly, as he stared at the corpse, he started to regain his sense of balance and turned to face Lovovich who was standing there, waiting for him.

“She wouldn’t let me take her anywhere or tell anyone,” he said. “You must believe me. She said our shame and our sin had to be hidden from the world. She said that we must have the child and then give it away and then never see each other again. I was prepared to do this. I was prepared to accept her wishes, even though I loved her. I still love her. I gave last rights; I have sat with her without sleeping; but I have been so busy with the baby that I have not buried her.”

“The baby?” asked Father Quickly. “There is a baby here?”

“Her baby,” said Lovovich. “My baby.”

“Where? We must take it away.”

“Yes,” said Lovovich. “That is a good idea.”

There was something wrong. “The baby is hurt, too,” said Father Quickly.

“No,” said Lovovich. “But it is not a child for this world. I should go. The baby should go. But the baby is strong, whereas I am weak. You should take it and raise it and nourish it.”

“Stop talking,” said Quickly. “You are not making any sense. Tell me where you put the child.”

“Upstairs,” said Lovovich. “She was in the bathtub, but I had to move her, because she is so small, and I was afraid she would get stuck in the drain. But I made a deal with a man from the newspaper, and so she is comfortable.”

“Where?” asked Quickly again.

“My room,” said Lovovich. “You can’t hear her crying?”

Quickly shoved Lovovich, and the old man fell down against the wall and didn’t move. He was smiling.

“Ignore the cats and dogs!” said Lovovich. “I had to do that, once I ran out of mother’s blood.”

Quickly tromped up the stairs, his eyes following the footprints that stained every step. He turned on the lights on the upstairs landing, and found himself surrounded by further carnage. Dead dogs and cats lay piled up along the walls, in the eaves of doorways, on top of bookcases. They had been drained of blood, and their bodies were twisted like squeezed rags dried to crust inside mop buckets.

Footsteps led into the bathroom and then out again. Father quickly peered inside. The bathtub was filled to the brim with clotted blood, and the white shining tile of the bathroom seemed to scream at him. Two dead dogs – a terrier and some kind of grey, floppy eared mutt – were wedged under the bathroom sink with their throats slit.

Father Quickly stumbled into the bedroom.

At the foot of Lovovich’s bed was the aquarium he had purchased from the man in the lumberjack shirt. It was filled with blood, and floating on its back was the corpse of an infant girl with the umbilical cord still attached. A trio of cats hung from the ceiling fan’s pull-chain and dripped into the aquarium. More cats lay all over the floor. The child was stained completely red, and her pugilistic face was hollow and cold, with black patches where the eyes and mouth should be. The baby’s hands were curled into fists, and as Father Quickly came to a halt to stare, a terrified rat that had been lapping at this fresh, warm blood climbed over the side of the aquarium and ran in three furtive scampers to hide behind Lovovich’s nightstand.

“She has not been baptized yet,” said Lovovich at his shoulder. Father Quickly had not heard him come into the room. “She has not been baptized yet, but if she dies, I think she’ll be fine because God is merciful and he knows that I repent with all my heart.”

Lovovich seemed to get an idea. His eyes sparkled and he snapped his fingers.”

“Would you baptize her, Father Quickly? Call her Maria, like her mother. Can’t you hear her crying? She cries like her mother did: silent, pathetic, and without tears.”

The room started to spin and flash like a disco ball. At first, Father Quickly thought it was his eyes – lights in his brain telling him that he was going to fall over soon and to seek shelter and warmth. But no, it was the blue and red flash of a police car. The man in the lumberjack shirt must have smelled blood, too.

With a higher power in the area, Father Quickly let himself relax and sat down on a clean patch of Lovovich’s double bed. He stared at the aquarium and watched the reds turn to purples in the flashing blue, and he did not pray.



3 comments:

Anonymous said...

this is an amazing story!

kaboom! said...

Thanks! You are too kind, I am sure.

Herbie said...

Nice page turner. About half way through it starts moving very fast, waterfalling till the end.
Not real sure if this story absolutely needs it, but could it use a better description of "place"? Main priest moves from city to country. Is that enough?