The Wide Game: Prologue

Quos deus vult perdere prius dementat:
Those whom a god wishes to destroy, he first drives insane.

Prologue

Ten years had passed since the murders, and, like most who still made their home in Harmony, Father Andrew Chapman thought the nightmare was over.

The old priest stepped from his vestry into the evening dimness of Saint Anthony’s Catholic Church, his mind preoccupied with far more recent sins.  The Harmony Herald was tucked beneath his arm, filled to the brim with lurid tales of sex in the White House.  He gave his pulpit a casual glance, pictured tomorrow morning’s sermon, and sighed heavily.  How in the hell was he supposed to stand up there and preach God’s commandments when the leader of the free world had broken half of them?

He turned his attention to the rest of the building, wondering where the next catastrophe would choose to manifest.  At sixty, the church was almost as old as its priest, and twice as temperamental.  On Father Andrew’s desk in the rectory, a repair list a mile long gathered dust.  After all, Harmony was a small Indiana farming town, and there was only so much his parishioners could give.  He shook his head and hoped tomorrow morning’s masses would enjoy air conditioning, a roof that wasn’t leaking, and a sound system that was in working order.  It was a rare day when everything ran to spec.

Behind the altar, a bronze Jesus hung from His bronze cross, weeping bronze tears.  Father Andrew genuflected before Him, then rose and gave the newspaper a final study.  Just below Mr. Clinton’s sexploits was an article on the local high school, on the Class of 1988 and their ten-year reunion.  God loves the small towns, he thought as he turned away, a smile dawning on his weathered lips.  Only in a one stoplight town like Harmony could a high school reunion and the President of the United States share ink on the same front page, unless of course the President had attended said high school.

The door to the vestibule blew open; humid August air flooded the tabernacle.  Flames danced around the painted feet of a Madonna statue–candles parishioners had lit in remembrance of the dead.

Father Andrew whirled around and moved down the long center aisle toward the entrance.  Heavy brass spindles formed door handles; he grabbed them and looked out into the night.  No one looked back.  Must be a storm coming.  He started to pull the doors shut, then something near the threshold caught his eye.

A crow.

The bird laid on its back, staring up at the priest with eyes as glassy as sable marbles.  Its beak hung open and mute, its wings unfurled and still.  Someone had slashed up its belly; its newly freed entrails uncoiled onto the concrete steps below.

Damn vandals.

Last Good Friday, kids had marred St. Anthony’s walls with spray-paint, scrawling red pentagrams and “666” across the pure white boards.  The bastards even hurled a rock through a stained glass window depicting the Lord’s Passion.  Father Andrew ran an aged hand down his haggard face.  There was a time, still sharp and bright in his memory, when the fear of God would have stopped young people from defiling sacred buildings, but that time had passed.  Now God Almighty was something people thought they might believe in, and the Devil?  Well, there was no Devil.  Didn’t you know?  He’s an invention, a Judeo-Christian bogeyman, created to scare children into saying their prayers before bed.  The concept of sin was outdated as well, something for a dead world.  It didn’t apply to the lives of modern men and women.

Over the years, Father Andrew had counseled couples seeking to be married in his church, and he often saw that the bride and groom had listed the same address under residence.

“You’re living together,” he would say with distaste.

“Sure we are,” they would answer.  “Is anything wrong with that?”

“Well…The Bible calls it fornication,” Father Andrew would say to their surprise, then think:  And in the time of Our Lord, you’d be taken out in the street and stoned to death. 

Yes, Father Andrew was what the kids would call “Old School,” and proud of it.  A sin in the time of Christ was the same sin today; there was just a whole lot more of it to go around.  There was a Devil, just as there was a Hell, just as there was a Heaven, and just as certainly as there was a one true God and His son, Jesus Christ.  It was a package deal.  If you believed in one, you had to accept the others.

“Amen,” the old priest said aloud, then turned back toward the vestry, toward the broom and dustpan he kept there.  His booming voice echoed through the empty house of worship, the same powerful voice that kept parishioners awake for his sermons.  The breeze from the open door had blown out the candles, throwing much of the interior into darkness.

A blur of movement in the corner of the priest’s eye; a dark shape rose swiftly from between the pews.  The figure seized Father Andrew, curled its left arm around his chest, and held something up to his throat.  He only saw it for an instant, but he knew it was a knife…a knife covered in blood.  The attacker’s hands were red and sleek with it.

Bless me, Father,” a voice cried into his ear.  It was so panicky, so shrill, he couldn’t tell if it belonged to a man or a woman. “Bless me, for I have sinned.”

When he was in the seminary, Father Andrew would lay awake at night thinking about the sanctity of the confessional. What you were told in confession stayed in confession.  End of story.  If you slid the wooden panel back and saw Jack the Ripper or Charles Manson screaming murder, you tried to get them to turn themselves in, but you couldn’t expose them–not to the police, not to the families of their victims, not to anyone at all. Although he had thought about this quite a bit in the forty years that followed, he’d never been confronted with a murderer, nor had he been held hostage at knifepoint.

You had to love St. Anthony’s–every day held some new surprise.

“Please…” My son? My child? You?   “…Put down the knife and we can talk about this.”

“I can’t do that, Father.”  The bloodstained knife shook with each word.  “They’re coming.  They’re coming for me and I need forgiveness.”

The police? Father Andrew wondered, but before he could utter a word his captor screamed again.

“I’m so sorry!  Christ…Jesus…Please, Father, I need forgiveness for my sins!”

“All right,” he found himself saying.  “Please, stay calm.”  He looked at the knife, at the blood.  There was so much blood.  “I’ll hear your confession.”

“Thank you, father,” the figure muttered, a shaky voice choked by tears.

Now that it had lowered an octave, Father Andrew thought the voice sounded familiar, but he still couldn’t say for sure who it was.  He attempted to make the sign of the cross with his right hand, but his attacker’s hold made it difficult.

“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  May God, who brightens every heart, help you to know your sins and trust in His mercy.”  Father Andrew swallowed, his Adam’s apple touching the wet edge of the blade.  “What are the sins you wish to confess to God?”

“Father Andrew,” the voice behind the knife said, “have you ever heard of the Wide Game?”

“Yes,” the old priest replied.  It was not a subject he wished to discuss, but he knew of it.  Live any length of time in Harmony and you couldn’t help but hear of it–hear what happened the last time a group of kids had played.  What Father Andrew didn’t know (and what his attacker had only just discovered) was that the game had not ended with the murders of ten years ago.

The game had not ended at all.

 

Small Wide Game SSP

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