Sin eatercom, p.4
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           Mark Finnemore
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  By Mark Finnemore

  Copyright 2011 Mark Finnemore


  "Time to go, Gabe."

  Gabe turned to face a grizzled old man with a fringe of grey hair spiking his head like a crown of horns. He took a step back and shook his head. "Huh?"

  The old man smiled a yellow, snaggle-toothed grin. "Time to honor your agreement."

  Gabe reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. "Um, here. Get something to eat, maybe a place to stay?"

  The old man clawed the money from Gabe's hand and snorted out a laugh. "You can't pay this debt with money, Gabe. We'll be back for you. We got your whole life."

  The old man walked off and disappeared into the mall crowd. Gabe turned away to find Bethany behind him with a sneer on her face. It wasn't her best look, and almost made her seem ugly, if ugly was physically possible for her.

  "How'd that guy know my name?"

  Bethany waved a dismissive, expertly-manicured hand and sighed, clearly bored. "Whatever. He probably recognized you? We're in L.A. after all--even the bums follow celebrity news."

  Gabe didn't share Bethany's confidence in his star power. And he couldn't forget the nightmares. "He said it's time to honor my agreement."

  Bethany sighed again and looked down at her cell phone. "If it bothers you so much, why don't you accept that offer?"

  "Sell out to a soulless corporation?" Gabe shook his head. "Never!"

  Bethany looked up from her phone and rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Why'd you drag me to a mall anyway?"

  Gabe shrugged. "I guess I'm feeling disconnected from reality. I'm new to this whole rich-and-famous thing."

  "You're not famous," Bethany said. "You're rich, true, but being engaged to me is what makes you famous."

  The cadenced hob-nailing of approaching boot-steps drew Gabe's attention. The security guard marching toward him was tall and wide-shouldered, his arms thick beneath rolled-up sleeves. A drill-sergeant's hat shadowed his eyes. As he passed, he gave Gabe a conspiratorial smile. The stench of burnt matches and stale cigarettes trailed after him like a phantom stalker.

  A sudden cramp seized Gabe's gut. "Ah! I really gotta go!"


  Gabe pushed through the door beside the restroom sign. The door slammed shut behind him and echoed down the hallway ahead. Overhead, the lights flickered between dim fluorescence and total darkness. The strobe effect made Gabe dizzy; he put his hand out for support and bitter cold seeped through the cinderblock walls, way too cold for L.A. in July. He would've turned around but he didn't think he could hold it.

  Gabe smelled the bathroom before he finally felt his way around a corner and saw the door. He winced at the reek that washed out when he pushed it open, like a rarely-emptied porta-potty on a hot August day. He held his breath, tip-toed across the piss-puddled floor, and locked himself into the last stall. While he waited, sitting on the cold plastic throne, he read the humor scrawled on the walls.

  He was halfway through a joke about a religious man drowning after a boating accident when the restroom door slammed open and heavy footsteps entered.

  "Why read the wall? The joke's hanging between your legs!"

  The smell of smoke and sulfur wafted into the room as a pair of spit-shined boots walked up and stopped outside Gabe's stall. Above the door, Gabe saw the top of a drill sergeant's hat.

  "Hey--I'm talking to you, Gabe!"

  Gabe's breath caught as he remembered the hulking security guard. How did he know his name too? He pulled his feet in, acutely aware that he sat half-naked in a restroom, down a long dark hallway, cornered and trapped. He reached for the toilet paper and the roll fell to the floor and tumbled away.

  The guard laughed and kicked the TP across the room. Then he leaned against the stall door; it groaned in protest as the guard stared through the crack. Gabe saw the glint of an eye and the glimmer of an amused smile.

  Gabe closed his legs and put his sweaty hands in his lap. He cleared his throat and took a breath. "What do you want?" He tried to sound confident, forceful, but his question came out as a whine.

  "Payment!" The guard spit the word as if the taste of it sickened him.

  Gabe jerked back as spittle sprayed through the door crack. He felt his fingernails digging into his palms and he loosened his clenched fists. His knuckles ached.

  The guard took a step back and shifted his weight from foot to foot, his boots splashing in a puddle of piss.

  Gabe held his breath. Cold drops of sweat slithered down his spine. He rocked back-and-forth, his thighs sticking to the toilet seat. Beside him, the next toilet over squealed and whined with leaking water.

  The guard stopped his pacing and kicked out a booted foot. Gabe covered his eyes as the stall door burst in on him.

  "Whoa! What the hell's going on here?"

  "Dude, I don't even wanna know!"

  Gabe took advantage of the distraction and pushed past the guard and the two teens that had just entered the restroom.

  "Think there's somewhere safe, Gabe?" The guard shouted after him. "Just think of it and you'll be there. We love a good game. That's what we exist for! But we'll find you, Gabe--we've got your whole damned life!"


  Gabe pushed through the door and the heavy smell of cooking grease replaced the stink of urine. He was in a restaurant now, by the looks of it the Billy Burger back in Poughkeepsie. But that was impossible. . . .


  The woman looking at him didn't possess Bethany's fantasy-girl beauty, but she was pretty in a simpler way that was almost more appealing. And her smile was friendly, real. "Angie? What're you doing here?"

  Angie laughed, a musical sound devoid of cruelty. "I live here."

  Gabe shook his head. "When did you move to L.A.?"

  Angie's brown eyes widened with concern. "Are you alright, Gabe? You're not a drugged-out Hollywood zombie now are you?"

  "I wish," Gabe said. "That would explain things."

  Angie pushed her hair behind her left ear. "Um, listen, I gotta get back to work now, but drop by later so we can catch up. I get off at five. I'm still in our old place on Sunstone."

  Gabe noticed Angie's uniform and name tag. "You work here?"

  Angie's concern turned to irritation. "Yeah, well, not everyone can twist people's fears into a profit-making scheme!"

  Gabe shook his head. He had a long history of saying the wrong things to Angie. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that."

  Angie frowned. "What're you doing here anyway?"

  Gabe remembered what the guard had said. "I guess I was looking for some place safe. Maybe someone safe."

  "So you think I'm safe?" Angie said. "You think you can come back here after you dumped me for that Hollywood slut Bethany Lancer and everything'll be fine? Go back to her, Gabe--you deserve her! Or did she get tired of you already, like you got tired of me?"

  Angie ripped off her apron and turned away. "You're spam to me, Gabe. I've deleted you from my life."


  Angie stormed out the door. Gabe followed to apologize, but she was gone. That pretty much summed up their relationship.

  Outside, it was humid, stifling; the sun pierced Gabe's eyes like splinters and blood rushed through his ears like the screams of the damned. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and put his hand against a wall to keep from falling.

  When the spinning slowed, he opened his eyes. Heat rose in dizzying waves from the concrete pedestrian mall outside Billy Burger, a mall filled with men and women and children, their eyes shadowed pits beneath Cro-Magnon brows, their mouths stretched into drooling maws full of needle-like teeth.

  Gabe turned and ran. It felt like a nightmare, but he never noticed his shirt
slicked to his back and sweat stinging his eyes in his dreams. Either way, it wasn't right--nightmares shouldn't happen in broad daylight!

  Ahead he saw the cross atop the steeple of Saint Peter's, where his mom used to drag him on Sunday mornings. Sunday nights his dreams would take him back there, running from the animated bodies scratching their way out of the cemetery behind the church. Seems he was always running from something.

  Gabe ran up the granite steps into the church and pushed the heavy wooden doors shut. The church was empty aside from two old women clutching rosaries between arthritic fingers--all their sins forgiven for the price of a few prayers.

  He sat on a hard wooden bench. Above the altar, the same sad, crucified Jesus he remembered as a kid gazed out over rows of empty benches. Perhaps it filled on Sundays, everyone dressed in their finest to invest an hour of their week just in case those ridiculous stories were true. But the devil wasn't real to them, even if they believed in God. The devil had evolved into a mere metaphor of evil. The devil was that man who murdered his family. The drug dealer down at the schoolyard. A bad hair day.

  Gabe checked his cell phone: "No Service". He glanced back at the two old ladies. Why were they staring at him?

  "May I help you?"

  Gabe jerked around. The priest standing beside him was young, his face all smiles and forgiveness. "Where's Father Brown?"

  The priest sat next to him. "He died a couple years ago. He's out back now."

  Gabe nodded. It was nearly ten years since he'd been inside Saint Peter's. "Do you believe in souls, Father?"

  The priest shrugged. "It's in the job description. Why don't you just tell me what's bothering you?"

  Gabe took a deep breath. "Well, a few years ago I took an anthropology course over at Dutchess College and the subject of sin-eaters came up--you know, a person who takes on the sins of others so they can go to heaven and all that?"

  "I give easement and rest now to thee," The priest intoned. "Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul."

  Gabe nodded. "Um, yeah. So anyway, I got this idea. Maybe people would still pay to transfer their sins to someone else. I mean, a lot of people believe in God, but they don't want to be too inconvenienced about hell." Gabe shrugged. "So, I started a website. And it worked! I made millions! I figured, where's the harm? They feel better so they can enjoy life without worrying about going to hell, and I make money. Everyone wins, right?"

  The priest pursed his lips and nodded slowly. "So now you're feeling guilty?"

  "No. Well, yeah, that too," Gabe admitted. "But lately I've been wondering--what if it's true? My fiancée thinks I'm crazy, but maybe I actually did take on all those people's sins. And maybe my soul's full now and the devil's sent his minions to bring me to hell!"

  "So, why don't they just take you then?" The priest asked.

  Gabe remembered what the security guard had said as he ran from the restroom. "Where's the fun in that? Maybe this is their only time out of hell. Maybe they like to take their time, toy with people? I mean, what's the hurry--they have my whole life to get me, right?"

  Gabe looked back over to the two old women by the confessional. "Hey, maybe I could confess away my sins?"

  "Sure, that'll work for your sins," the priest said. "But not for the other people's sins."

  Gabe sighed and turned to the stained glass windows along the church's walls: Saint George slaying a dragon; an angel, its sword held aloft, foot on Lucifer's throat; Jesus casting out demons. The sun sliced through the windows, casting red and purple slashes across the dim church.

  Gabe turned back to the priest, who smiled at him--a twisted half-smile full of sinister humor.

  The two old ladies sat on Gabe's other side, so close he could smell their imminent death. They smiled too, toothless grins in wrinkled faces. Their breath smelled of wet dirt and maggots.

  Gabe scrambled over the back of the bench in front of him. He fell to the cold marble floor, his shin banging against the hard wooden pew. Demented laughter echoed through the church as he scratched along the floor. When he reached the aisle, he pushed himself up and hobbled to the heavy wooden doors, half-expecting that the zombie families were out there waiting for him.

  He heaved the doors open and there was nothing but blue skies and sunshine. That was almost worse. He ran out of the church, ran until his legs and lungs burned. When he turned, he expected to see the priest in pursuit, black robes trailing in the wind, old crones at his heels. But the street was empty.

  Slowing to a walk, he noticed he was on Sunstone Drive, just down from Angie's place. His and Angie's old place. He checked his cell phone again. Still no service. He looked back up at the sign. Sure, Angie was justifiably pissed at him, but he had nowhere else to go.


  Gabe pushed the door open and looked into the apartment. Luckily he'd kept a key. Luckier still Angie hadn't changed the lock. He felt like a thief breaking into his past life, though admittedly a cleaner, more stylishly-decorated version.

  He wandered through the small kitchen into the bedroom. A picture on the nightstand showed him and Angie standing hand-in-hand on the shore of Morgan Lake, the wind whipping their hair into a frenzy. Gabe smiled as he remembered the warmth of Angie's hand, the light scent of her perfume mixed with blossoming jasmine. On the dresser he found two strips of cheesy pictures of him and Angie from a twenty-five cent photo booth. He grinned looking at Angie's smile--how it lit up her face--the dimples in her cheeks--the sparkle in her eyes.

  Then he saw a glint of metal in the partially-opened top drawer. He opened it and pulled out a pistol and a box of ammo. Christ, when did Angie get a gun? Maybe she was afraid living without him?

  He took the gun and ammo into the living room and sat on the same worn brown couch that had been there when he and Angie lived together. Hell, maybe they still did. Maybe the past two years were all in his imagination. After all, what were the chances he'd be filthy rich and engaged to one of Hollywood's hottest new starlets? And what were the chances that none of that would make him happy anyway? God was cruel.

  The phone rang, demanding his attention. His first impulse was to answer, but then he realized he didn't live there anymore. Or at least he didn't think he did. After four rings the answering machine picked up. Angie's voice on the recorder said, "Nobody's home; leave a message."

  After a beep another familiar voice came from the machine. "Gabby, it's Mom." Again, Gabe reached for the phone; again he reconsidered. "Be a good boy and pay your debts, Gabby. Mommy didn't teach you to be a cheater, now did she?"

  Gabe stared at the phone. Memories seeped in, memories of his mother clutching a bible worn by constant handling, her eyes squeezed closed, her lips mumbling some fire-and-brimstone bullshit that had been indoctrinated into her as a child. But then maybe she wasn't crazy. Maybe all those things were real. Either way, how could she call--she'd been buried in the cemetery behind Saint Peter's for almost three years!

  Gabe's heart pounded, complaining of an entire day of pounding and fluttering and sometimes seemingly stopping entirely. He loaded a cartridge into the pistol, pulled back the slide and let it snap back, loading the round into the chamber. The bullet could erase all his memories, all his delusions. He turned the gun and looked down the muzzle. It stared back at him like an empty eye socket. Unseeing. Uncaring.

  Gabe pulled his gaze from the pistol's hypnotic maw and let go of the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Images of the stained glass windows at Saint Peter's came back to him: Saint George slaying a dragon--the angel trodding on Lucifer--Jesus casting out demons.

  Maybe it was time to stop running.

  He pulled a bullet from the box of ammunition; the deep hollow in the tip could hold a drop or two of Holy Water. Maybe that would work.

  Gabe shoved the gun into his pocket and checked the clock: 3:52. Angie said she got off at five--time enough to go back to the church, get some holy water, and get back before she did.

  In the kitchen he found a bottle of vitamin C and one of aspirin. He dumped the pills into the sink, shoved the bottles into his pocket, and left the apartment.


  Gabe hurried up the stairs into Saint Peter's before he lost his nerve. Or his mind. It was quiet in the church, empty. The stained-glass windows cast dancing shadows across the gloomy interior.

  Gabe looked at the windows but no longer saw Saint George or the angel or Jesus. The windows displayed new scenes now, depictions of torture and hell: a man chained to a boulder, his mouth frozen open in an agonized scream as a monstrous bird pecked out his intestines--a winged demon with a sword in one hand and a severed head in the other--men and women writhing in scarlet flames. A tree outside the window added life to this scene, the wind-blown branches animating both inferno and burning sinners. Red light swirled through the interior of the church, so that it too seemed engulfed in flames.

  Just inside the doors, to each side, stood a font of holy water. Gabe pulled one of the bottles from his pocket and unscrewed the cap.

  "Did you come to turn in your soul, Gabe?"

  Gabe dropped the bottle and turned the gun on the priest standing before the altar. It was his childhood priest, Father Brown, his eyes devoured by shadow. Father Brown smiled, a mocking smile, a sinister half-smile overflowing with black, wicked humor.

  "You're right, Gabe, we do like to play games. What other joy is available to the damned?" His skeletal smile stretched like a viper's. "But you'll find that out for yourself soon enough!"

  The heavy wooden doors slammed shut behind Gabe; their hollow echo rolled through the church. Gabe glanced back at the doors as an ear-raking screech at the front of the church warned of further threats.

  He turned and saw the two old women scuttling down the side aisles of the church, their wizened faces twisted into fanged monstrosities, their gnarled hands bent into long-nailed claws.

  Charging down the center aisle was his mother, the dirt from the cemetery out back still staining her burial clothes.

  Gabe pulled the second bottle from his pocket, fumbled the lid off. He kept his eyes on the font of holy water, forced himself not to look up, to ignore the insane screams growing closer. Hands shaking, panic seizing his heart, he filled and capped the bottle. Then he bolted out the door into bright sunshine and harsh reality.

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