‘Flicker’ by Michael Occhionero

“Forgive me father, for I have sinned. It has been seven days since my last confession.”

Father is silent. His face is partially obscured behind the screen, but his familiar musk, and the smell of his clean vestments remind me that I am not alone. Even through the grate I can tell that the father’s hands are folded upon his lap, and his face is drawn tight with concentration.

“Speak your sins, my son. Open yourself to the grace of God.”

Father’s voice is slow, methodical in its usual way. The confessional is close, but the promise of God’s grace sets free my worried heart. Still, I am nervous, for I have sinned gravely. With a deep breath, I begin:

“Three days have passed now since I harbored sinful desires for my neighbor’s wife. She was in front of the house. I was too, leaving for my shift at the factory. I watched her reach down for the morning paper. She was in her nightdress. I watched from the car, lingering, lusting for flesh as she bent over. The nightdress was loose fitting, and she is a woman unabashed by her sexuality. As she leaned forward, the nightdress parted and I glimpsed her smooth breasts. I have been unable to forget the image since, father. My mind has on more than one occasion been overcome by lust for her. Father, I wish to cleanse myself of the torments of this temptation.”

There is a moment’s pause before the father clears his throat. The air seems to thicken in the closed space.

“So it shall be. God forgives all His children their trespasses, so long as they willfully repent.”

Pause. The father’s breath lingers, sweet with the blood of Christ.

“Is there more?”

I bite my lip, resisting the urge to face the figure beyond the grate.

“Yes father, there is.”

I look down at my brittle, hardworking hands.

“Five days ago, I went to the market on Main Street to purchase produce. It is my usual routine, and as such the family who runs the market is friendly with me. On this particular day, the eldest son Matthew was left in charge of the cash register. As I approached to settle my due, the boy greeted me politely, and we exchanged pleasantries while he rang up the fruit. As he added up the bill, I noticed he had miscalculated the bundle of apples. The miscalculation was not grave- it was but a few apples- but it was to my benefit, and I did not point it out. I have been wrapped in the coils of remorse ever since.”

Father inhales deeply. He seems disappointed, or perhaps that is only an impression brought on by my fear of judgment. The screen between us veils the face of God, creates the distance required to judge my sins openly exposed. This is the only way.

“I see. Is there more? Make your peace with God.”

The same slow, methodical voice. It is the voice of selflessness, wisdom, and acceptance.

“I… I neglected my evening prayers, father. Twice.”

The father shuffles in his seat.

“Is there more?”

“No, father. That is all.”

I take a deep breath. I feel lighter, somehow, free of the burden of sin and awaiting my atonement.

“These are many sins, my son, and more than your usual fare. But as we know, there is no sin the Lord cannot forgive. You have humbled yourself before the Almighty, and you shall be clean again. Seventy-five Hail Mary’s, and an equal number of the Lord’s prayer shall set you once more upon the path to salvation.”

I let out a sigh.

“Oh, thank you father, thank you so much.”

The father rises to exit.

“Father, there is… one more thing.”

The open door floods the confessional with light.

“Oh?”

The father’s tone is reproachful. The door is shut. The light fades.

“I… have been having dreams, father. And I don’t quite know what to make of them.”

The black shadow beyond the grate sits. The screen is once more between us.

“Dreams? What kind of dreams my son?”

“Well, you see, there is no easy way to explain this… The dreams always begin the same way. I am here, in St. Michael’s, seated as always in the very first pew, just before the altar. The organ plays a sacred hymn, and the Lord’s healing light sprays in through the stained glass. I am dressed in my Sunday best, and indeed the entire congregation follows my example. The pews are full, and a light chatter fills the air, mingling with the gentle organ and the beautiful sunlight. God’s grace is in full glory, and his people wait eagerly for the morning mass. Finally, you step up to the altar, father, in your most elegant and holy vestments, and you raise your arms and all fall silent. And just as you open your mouth to begin the sermon, my body swells with the warmth of God’s love and there is a… flicker. Everything goes black, for just a second, as though I had blinked, and when my eyes reopen I am no longer in church. Instead, I am weightlessly suspended before an infinite light, brighter than anything I have ever witnessed. I cannot move, and I cannot utter a sound. I can only be consumed by this light, breathing it in, becoming it, until the second flicker comes, and I wake.”

Father’s breathing quickens.

“This is a very beautiful, but strange dream. There is no question that your desire to be closer to God is very great, my son. Though this vision is more than likely the symptom of an overworked mind.”

“What shall I do father?”

“You shall take solace in the warmth of God’s embrace, and let this ease your worry. You are on the path to salvation, and the Lord’s light shines down on you. Get to bed earlier, and say your prayers every night without fail, my son. Most importantly, keep your faith in Him strong, and The Lord will guide you in peaceful slumber.”

*

The next week comes as quickly as the last went by, and I think that I am feeling much better. My atonement, and my staunch adherence to the father’s recommendations bring me peace. Every night when I get home from the factory, I prepare a modest dinner, pray piously and openly to God, and then retire dutifully but happily to my bedchamber. Everything feels good and fine, until Saturday. A day of idleness leads to a restless night, and no amount of prayer can set my mind at ease. I sleep poorly this night, tossing and turning, unable to make peace with myself until the early morning. Upon waking, I realize that I have missed the Sunday sermon, and feel the gravity of my sin deeply. I hurry over to St. Michael’s in the afternoon, ready with humble apology.

“Forgive me father, for I have sinned. It has been seven days since my last confession.”
The soothing rhythm of the father’s breathing puts me at ease.

“Speak your sins, my son. Open yourself to the grace of God.”

“I do not mean to boast, but I have been exemplary this week father. Of course, aside from missing sermon this morning.”

Father’s tone is reproachful.

“It is a grave sin, you well know, to miss the holy mass. Fifty of our father’s prayers are in order.”

“I will gladly and humbly atone for this sin father.”

The father rises. I clear my throat.

“There is a reason for my absence father. I feel I should explain. It happened again last night. The dream. It was more vivid this time than ever before.”

Through the grate, I can see the father’s faithful eyes narrow.

“Oh?”

His tone seems almost amused.

“It began just like every other time. I was here, in St. Michael’s, and it was the same feeling, the same beauty all around me. I was in the first pew, and the organ played the same ethereal hymn. Everyone was dressed beautifully, and the sunlight filtered in through the stained glass. It was Sunday sermon, and you came out in your grandest robes and silenced the mass. And just as you were about to speak, father, there was the flicker. All went black, and I was once more in the overwhelming light.”

The father shuffles in his seat.

“You have not followed my recommendations, my son. Your dream has recurred as a consequence of your rebellious heart.”

I shake my head vehemently.

“No father, this is not so! I followed your recommendations with the utmost sincerity and devotion. This is why I was so stricken by the dream’s recurrence. But, something was different this time. As I lay before the light, I strained to turn away from it, and for the first time I found that I could. The excitement I could scarcely describe. With great effort, I managed to crane my neck to the right. Turned away from the daze of the blinding light, I slowly regained my senses, and I could feel that I was strapped to a table. The table was hard beneath me, and held me fast with straps upon my arms and legs. I struggled to free myself, but in vain. I was weak, and the straps held strong. As my eyes adjusted, I looked about me, and what I saw chilled me to the very bone. I realized that I was in an auditorium. In fact, I was in the very center of this auditorium. In the audience, filling the massive theatre from the grandstand to the bleachers, was a congregation of thousands upon thousands of hideous green insects, buzzing loudly and seemingly staring straight at me.”

I pause to take my breath. My heartbeat quickens at the recollection of last night’s horrors. Father is noticeably unsettled, and I shudder to think how insane this all must seem to him. But I must continue.

“Father, I know this is crazy but you must believe me when I tell you the nature of this dream was something unlike anything I could have ever imagined! Quite naturally, the sight of all these disgusting creatures horrified me. I began to panic and squirm, shaking violently to and fro, doing everything to free myself from my bindings. This seemed to greatly affect the insects in the crowd, as the buzzing in the auditorium grew louder and louder as I struggled, the buzzing gradually drowning even my screams. Soon, one of them approached. As it drew closer, I realized just how vile a creature it was. It stood on three fuzzy legs, with a green face like a praying mantis and black jaws that oozed some unknowable slime. It looked into my eyes and reached out a claw to touch me. I screamed with all my might, drowning in a sea of buzzing despair, fearing that all was lost and this was to be the end of me. And just as I was on the brink of the abyss, the second flicker came, and I woke.”

There is a long silence as the father contemplates my insane story. He mutters something about a mistake, and I fear that my sanity may well be slipping. I need help! But the father will not turn his back on me. He has never turned his back on me.

“That is a wild story, my son. I am afraid that I cannot help you with this. There is clearly some wild turmoil within you, something you must resolve with God. I can only recommend added prayer, and rest. Give yourself wholly to God. Quash your doubts and He will be the one to lead you to salvation and peace.”

I leave the church feeling strange, and indecisive. I can’t help but fear that these inexplicable dreams are somehow undermining my relationship with God. I want nothing more than for them to stop. But how could I effect change when I cannot locate the root of the problem? Perhaps father is right. Perhaps all that is needed is more prayer still.

*

This week passes as quickly as the last. I go to work at the factory all week, but not without a daily hour of prayer in the morning, an hour of prayer at lunch, and an hour of prayer in the evening. It seems to soothe my soul, and the horrid dreams, for now, have stopped. Saturday comes, and by the grace of God I make it through the night without another incident.

Sunday morning, I wake feeling lighthearted and entirely at ease. Before breakfast, I say a little prayer. Then, completely at one with God, I shine my shoes, slip into my Sunday suit, and make my way over to St. Michael’s.  

With a little providence, I even make it in time to secure my seat in the very first pew. The organist plays with extra verve today, and the heavenly hymn swells the church, the steeple, and the congregation with the warmth of God’s grace. The sunlight spraying in through the stained glass is as a vestige of heaven’s beauty. Everyone around me looks lovely, dressed in his or her Sunday best. Even the children seem to have been primped with extra care!

Finally, father, hearing the din of merry chatter and sensing the flock’s eagerness for Holy Communion with God, steps out into the light, and up to the sacred altar. He raises his arms to the skies, and there is silence. And just as he opens his mouth to speak, there is… a flicker.

When I come to, nothing has changed, except that everyone around me is no longer so. The music has stopped, and been replaced with a loud, deafening buzz. I rub my eyes and look around me. Yes! Everyone is a hideous, vile, green insect! With black foaming jaws oozing death and torment!

“Father!”

I call out to the altar for respite, but there he stands, the largest of them all in flowing purple robes, baring his razor sharp teeth and slowly approaching on three legs! I blink, and I blink, but in vain. The buzzing gets louder as they slowly close in, and my cries echo through an empty world.

Just as all hope is lost and I am certain to be devoured, I realize too late what I should have always seen: nothing in this world is for certain, but sheep are bred for slaughter!

 

 


Michael A. Occhionero received a B.A. from Concordia University, and is currently completing an M.A. at Queen’s University. His first novel ‘Idle Hands’ was published in 2017. Michael resides in Montreal, Canada. For more information, find Michael on Instagram or Facebook.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael Occhionero. All rights reserved.

‘The Kind of Girl’ by Abigail Schafer

 

 “Will you marry me?” He’s smiling. It’s not his crooked smile, uncensored as the grin climbs the left side of his face, crescent eyes and so many teeth. It’s a small smile, chompers hidden and eyes bright, yet, somehow, untouched. There he is, down on one knee; offering extended towards you. You examine his face – a day’s stubble; thick, enticing lips; a hint of crow’s feet; and laugh lines of your own making. His features are warmed by the glow escaping the yellow shade of the hall lamp, the one you lit what must have been – what? Only seconds ago? You had scrambled for the old beaded chain, one hand on the door frame, the other grasping in the darkness, searching for the familiar rusted stand – this you had experienced in a world before.

Your weary brain had been back at the bar, back on your interactions of the evening, your wins and – primarily – lack thereof. In the dark, as you pulled your scarf from your neck, you were still surrounded by bottles and coins and old wooden counters – Wipe, pour, smile, laugh, wipe, pour, cash, change, card – debit or credit? – bill, pour, smile, smile, smile, laugh, eye contact – not too much but just enough – laugh, smile, pour, cash, tip?, bill, laugh, smile, laugh, laugh, laugh…

And breathe.

You hadn’t finished the breathing part when the light opened on this kneeling, waiting, aging version of Jeffrey.

Slipping off worn leather boots (the laces of which have not, as far as can be remembered, been untied), you place heavily-socked feet – left (toes to sole to heel), then right (heel to sole to toes) – onto warped floorboards. These socks came in pairs of two. You have one pair, the green-toed ones, and Laura has the red. Or she used to, in senior year. That was back when you each minded a kind of inventory of each other’s lives – clothes, boys, grades, dreams. That was before.

Laura was a constant. Constants are comfortable; Laura’s strangling embrace as welcome as Jeff’s stubble on your bare shoulder – a reminder that he had neglected to shave (even now, in this life-defining moment, he had neglected to shave), a reminder that you hadn’t either – his heat making the cold of the high-ceilinged apartment a bitter welcome each morning. It was hard to choose, hard to name a date to remember Laura’s departure from your little circle of constants – but you’ve always been partly aware of when she no longer held you in hers. You remember when Laura turned all white.

White. Everything was so… white. Not in a clean, Apple store kind of way – more in a rich aunt who insists on lacy white curtains kind of way. There were rose gold rings clasping pleated white napkins, and you remember recognizing the pale pink flower arrangements from a magazine Laura had shown you – and laughed at – in high school. You remember the stiff material of Jeff’s jacket, how it irritated your inner arm and stuck out like a sore thumb, darker and looser fitting than any other suit in the room. There was a chandelier, although the ceiling was too low for it, and layers of sheer curtains pulled loosely back from full-wall windows, allowing for a soft glow of afternoon light – the whole thing like a ghastly scene out of Bridesmaids. Arm still wrapped around Jeff’s, sweat collecting under breast, you remember searching amongst distantly familiar faces for your better half. You had found her camouflaged amongst the rest, hair in soft, dark curls above creamy bare shoulders, pale blue dress floating on petite breasts. Her lips, painted dark and full, had curved upwards upon seeing you, revealing pearly white teeth. Eyes smiling, she had emerged from her entourage to tell you that she “couldn’t believe you had made it!” and that she was “so happy” to see you, and to “everyone” she had announced that “this was her high school best friend, Noa!” and with that, you were suddenly an item of the past.

The past swims around you still – what is now and what was then unclear, undefined, un… changed. Examining the person before you – his arms, bulky, a man’s; the lines, wearing prematurely on your high school boyfriend’s face; the smile, growing wider at the touch of your gaze – you rub your arm along your flat, almost concave stomach, underneath layers of sweaters and shirts, feeling the slanting lines of your rib cage and how it curves in along the middle. This boy, this man… has he become the better half? There’s an ache in your torso; empty, hungry – you haven’t eaten since noon. Your wandering eyes meet Jeffrey’s. His sky-blue gaze is small, self-satisfied, unaffected. Your brown eyes slip away from his waiting, wanting features; you let them glide down his torso. The ring box looks like a child’s toy, gripped by oversized, calloused, grease-stained fingers.

Blue light creeps through open windows, cool air drifting across the room. The orange light warming Jeff’s features fades before the blue one commences, separating the apartment in two. You long to walk past him, away from him, through him – leave this ghost and tuck your toes into couch pillows in the blue light of the moon, tuck them in deep and grow roots there. The cold would seep in but you would be warm, impenetrable, blanket upon blanket wrapped around your shoulders and the couch would swallow you whole, Jeffrey pacing back and forth in the amber light of the front hall – where had she gone? Maybe he could forget, and then remember. If only everyone could just re-remember, perhaps you could be new, fresh – something more than a shadow of a pretty high school face.

You’ve torn your eyes away from the boy, the question. The thick woolen socks you covet are unable to hide the frailty of your ankles, the bones of your feet. Kneecaps protrude from long, tired legs; they hit each other sometimes when you walk, like a rattling old skeleton, unprotected by flesh. You are old, and exhausted, and weak. This is your twenty-seven.

Sometimes, glancing at Jeff, you would miss the slight wrinkles around his eyes and forehead, the limp hair and thinning muscle, and you would see him as the kind of boy he had been ten years ago. The kind with neat, golden hair, the kind who would thank teachers by name after each class. He had been the kind of boy with an easy smile and subtly toned forearms – the kind who would push his sleeves up those forearms and use words like “teamwork” in lieu of doing much else. Sometimes you looked at Jeff and you’d see that boy who had been widely loved, the kind for whom life had come easily. The kind who had, to you, represented all of the injustices in the world; the kind who you had let slip into your life anyway, his road paved by smiles and flowers, and by quietly spoken humour designed for your ears alone. That kind of boy had moved into what was, then, a big, airy apartment with his high school sweetheart, and started working at a garage. And from then on, that kind of boy proceeded to stop proceeding – and fade, and wilt, and simply… halt.

A wine bottle and two glasses sit on the table to your left and you curl your toes over the edge of a warped floorboard, the wood cutting through your socks. There’s a hole in the left one and, with a small amount of wiggling, your pinky toe is able to escape into the floor’s crack, into a universe beyond your knowledge, your control, your… reach. You wonder how that kind of boy will digest the confusion produced by the word no. You wonder how long he’ll take to forget.

 

 


Abigail Schafer recently graduated from Marianopolis College in the Arts, Literature and Communications program. She has a variety of artistic interests, primarily in writing and visual arts, and would like to pursue one, if not both of these fields in the future.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Abigail Schafer. All rights reserved.

‘More Human’ by Rory Jay

Ste-Catherine Street is loud and in motion with people shopping and chattering, as per usual. Frigid November winds blow down it, making the people shiver and bury their faces in their coats, as per usual. There is something slightly different, though – the people rush by just a bit busier, the store windows and displays are just a bit brighter. Christmas is coming, and everyone is in a shopping frenzy.

A figure stands still on a street corner, leaning back against a building whose upper-floor windows flash with neon signs advertising “XXX Massages”. To them, this hustle and bustle seems less like a collaborative, celebratory activity, and more like a war between the stores and the people. They’ve heard mothers shouting at employees about how little Ruth’s holiday will be ruined if she doesn’t have the new BarbieTM PetshopTM motor trike, so what do you mean it’s out of stock, go double-check and triple-check the back room! They’ve seen clothing store employees hassling teenagers, battling empty wallets with fake smiles and promises of irresistible deals and the hottest fashions, all so some big man at a corporate headquarters can count a few more bills. Under all the colourful wrappings and glowing lights, there’s an anxious undercurrent to the whole ordeal.

They do, of course, consider that they might be overreacting. Besides, who are they to understand how people work? They don’t have those very human experiences of gender, or excitement, or a job, or anything else that seems to be common sense and mandatory for the crowd around them.

Glancing into a shop window, their reflection is neither masculine nor feminine, doesn’t look happy or really all that sad. Most people would feel something, something aside from disdain. Even if you hate the holidays, you would be expected to feel some sort of righteous anger, right? Have a riot, work to end capitalism, and failing all that, have a nice long cry. But they don’t feel like crying, or being angry.

I’m a simulacrum. I’m not a person, but an imitation of one.

A person would cry. A person would deal with this weariness by trying to make a change, instead of standing on a street corner and watching the world go. What are they doing there, anyways?

A ringing phone answers that question. The imitation fumbles through a satchel bag and brings the phone to their face.

“Hello…?”

“Casey! Jesus, where the hell are you? You haven’t answered your texts. You’re like, an hour late already!” Oh shit. It’s Benny, and old friend – an old friend they had made plans to visit.

“I… shit, I’m sorry, I lost track of time. I’m on my way now, I’m right by the metro.”

“Are you okay? You sound stressed – ”

“Yeah, I’m okay, no need to worry about me. I’ll – ”

“Listen, Case, if you don’t wanna come, you don’t have to.”

Casey hesitates, briefly considering it. It’s not that they don’t want to go over, but being an hour late is embarrassing. But they haven’t seen Benny in so long, and besides, how does that expression go? Better late than never?

“No, it’s fine. I’m fine. Bye.”

Casey remembered now: they’d gone downtown to buy Benny a present. It’s his birthday this weekend, and they were supposed to meet for lunch. It’s already two p.m. – there’s nothing to be done but bolt to the metro, and buy something tomorrow, so long as they don’t get distracted again.

***

Benny’s apartment is warm and smells nice, like fresh spices and kindness. It’s a well-located rental, not too far from the Atwater metro station. Casey stares out the window, down at the street, which looks remarkably like the ant farms the two of them used to play with as kids. Dots hurrying about, somewhere to be, something to do. Casey idly wonders if the process of rushing to a designated task is as automatic for humans as it is for ants.

“Hey Benny, d’you think those people think about what they’re doing?”

Benny steps out of the kitchen, holding two mugs of coffee, and walks over to Casey. “What do you mean?”

“Bugs… we don’t really know if they have emotions, or free will, and maybe they just act ‘cause their leader told them to. Maybe they just act to survive.”

Benny smirks as he places the mugs on the polished, brightly-coloured plastic coffee table, and slips into the adjacent “retro” leather chair. “I’m pretty sure Christmas shopping isn’t on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.”

“Neither is going to business school to start a company you don’t care about.” Casey’s voice is cold, colder than they intend it to be. Hearing their own words, they flinch, and recoil back into their seat.

“Hey, don’t be that way.” Benny says, reaching his hand out across the table. “I’m sure you’ll get back on your feet soon.” He’s still smiling, but it’s a concerned smile, full of pity. The type of face you make when trying to pretend everything’s okay when it’s not. The type of pity you extend to an injured animal.

“I get on my feet and then they slip out from under me. You told me that I’d get back on them at my first delay, when I dropped out, and before my last attempt.”

Silence. The two old friends stay quiet for a while; Benny knows he’s struck a nerve. Casey knows they’ve prodded him. Both of them look at the walls, lined with IKEA art pieces and framed certificates that feel unearned. Beneath the modern decor is thinly painted concrete, cheap cut corners disguised as chic and sophisticated. Though, it’s just concrete – cold and dry.

Casey looks back up at Benny, who seems a bit embarrassed. They don’t know why they resent him, as he’s always been nice. Better than nice – he had helped Casey transition, and stood by their unconventional presentation and pronouns. Even before that, he had befriended them, despite Casey being the kid that others whispered about: The kid who missed class once a week for appointments and who preferred to sit under the desk instead of in front of it, who didn’t play well with others, who led to parents describing them with strange words like savant, troubled, special, and occasionally a particularly nasty one that started with the letter R.

Despite all this, Benny stood by them. He’d offered them a job at his startup when CEGEP fell through, though at the time it was just a side-project. Casey had refused, but Benny would still bring it up every now and then. Casey didn’t want the job, but they were grateful for the opportunity. Some people just won’t let you fall. They glance at him fondly.

Suddenly, they remember. “Oh, Benny.”

He looks up, an apology in his brown watery eyes, but Casey isn’t looking as they search through their bag.

“It’s not much, I kinda just grabbed it on the way here, but, it’s something, I hope.” They hand a Starbucks gift card across the table, alongside a slightly squished teddy bear, the cheap kind they sell in corner stores with the big eyes. “It’s not much but, uh, I know you like coffee.”

Benny takes the present hesitantly. “Case… you didn’t have to do that, you know.”

“But it’s your birthday, and it’s almost Christmas, and besides… I wanted to repay you.”

He laughs, and the tension seems to disappear from the room. “Repay me? For what?”

“For being… around. For inviting me here even though you’re so busy. For treating me like, like a person, I guess.” There are tears in Casey’s eyes, but they aren’t quite crying.

Hands wrap around Casey’s back, and they feel their head pressed against a firm, warm chest. The tears start falling as they reach their arms around Benny, letting themselves be held. A torrent of emotions hits, fast and full as the wind.

“Oh Casey,” he says, his voice soft, that of a familiar old friend, that of home. “I think you’re more human than the rest of us.”

 


Rory Jay is a non-binary CEGEP student who writes poems, science-fiction, and contemporary fiction, often drawing on their experiences with gender, autism spectrum disorder, and mental illness. They love literature and storytelling of all kinds, from books, to television, to video games, to musicals, to anime. They are passionate about exploring new ideas, analyzing the world, and sharing their experiences.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Rory Jay. All rights reserved.