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First Communion

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In 1994, Erin Greene joins the altar boys, and suddenly the old Monsignor makes a pointed effort to veer his language from ‘altar boys’ to ‘altar servers .’ But Erin doesn’t last long. It’s not that she doesn’t try. She’s more formal than Riley is, even though he’s been training longer. She bows lower, her posture perfect. She has a natural solemnity and grace; she never stumbles on the steps to the altar. 

But then one Sunday Monsignor Pruitt catches Erin kissing Riley in the sacristy, and Erin’s altar girl days are gone. She doesn’t get a scolding, not like Riley does. She serves just for the next Mass and then she’s gone, and Riley is the one pulled into the Monsignor’s office for a talking-to. 

“As Eve tempted Adam, eh, Riley?” the Monsignor says in that deep voice of his, and Riley can’t tell if he’s joking or not. He stares at his feet, the sensible black shoes he only wears for church, and his stomach twists. He can see Monsignor’s fingers tapping on the desk out of the corner of his eye. There’s a telephone on the filing cabinet behind him, brand-new — took them years to run phone lines to the church — and he imagines the Monsignor manipulating the finger wheel, that click-click-vrrrr of the spring as he calls Riley’s parents, tells them what he’s done. 

The Monsignor stops talking. He dips his head a little, eyebrows raised, makes eye contact with Riley. He glances over his shoulder at the phone.

“Ah,” he says, as if he’s solved a mystery. “Yes, I know. On the mainland, hardly anybody uses them anymore. But we take what we can get, don’t we?”

Riley nods. He wipes sweaty palms on his pants. The Monsignor is studying him again, dark eyes flickering in a heavy face. 

“Listen,” says the Monsignor, and now his voice is lower, conversational, “you’re a good kid, Riley. I’ve known you your whole life. What happened in the sacristy…” He wrinkles his nose, waves a dismissive hand. “Let’s forget about it. Okay?”

Riley isn’t willing to believe it yet. He searches the Monsignor’s face for signs of a trap.

“It’ll be our secret,” the Monsignor says. “Just between us, okay?”

Riley purses his lips. He thinks of Erin, sent home forever, never allowed to serve at the altar again. It doesn’t sit right with him. He wants to argue for her, say that it was him who kissed her, that he pulled her into this mess. But… it wasn’t him. Erin started it. She laughed when he told her they shouldn’t. 

And he’s maybe a little too relieved to argue. 

“Okay,” he says. “Our secret.”

It’s Riley who rings the Bells. It doesn’t matter how many times he’s done it, he always listens closely, afraid he’ll miss his cue. The Monsignor holds his hands over the bread and wine, and Riley rings the Bells, two seconds, no more. The Monsignor raises the Sacred Body of Christ and says, “This is my body, which will be given up for you,” and Riley rings the Bells again. Three rings this time, short and sweet. The Monsignor lifts the Precious Blood, and Riley rings the Bells again. 

Afterward, in the sacristy, Riley is alone. The other altar boy always throws his surplice and cassock on the preparation table and sprints out the door, eager to see his friends. Riley has nothing to look forward to after Mass — just another long Sunday fishing with his dad — so he’s slower. Sometimes he sits here, leaning against the counter, staring blankly at the wall until he’s sure his parents have gone home, and then he can walk alone through the woods, along the beach. Maybe he’d go see Erin, but she’s still mad at him for the kiss that got her fired, for the stupid comment he made echoing the Monsignor — Adam and Eve, temptation. 

He pulls his surplice over his head. Through a veil of gauzy white, he sees the sacristy door swing open, a blotch of deep black that he knows from experience has to be the Monsignor coming in. 

“Still here, Riley?” the Monsignor asks. 

The surplice pulls up a tuft of Riley’s hair as he extricates himself from it. His cheeks are flushed; he tries to hang up his own clothes plus the other boy’s at the same time, as if the Monsignor hasn’t seen them already, tossed carelessly over the table. He shouldn’t feel ashamed of the other boy’s sloppiness, but he is — maybe it’s the fact that he didn’t take care of it before the Monsignor came in. It makes him feel like a snitch.

But the Monsignor says nothing. He grips the cupboard door before Riley can close it and leans inside. He comes back out with a bottle of Communion wine in his hand. It fits right into his broad palm, and his fingers wrap around the thickest part of it like it’s nothing, and Riley glances down at his own hands, callused and scarred from years of helping his dad but still so small. 

“Want a drink?” the Monsignor asks.

His lips are twisted into a smile. He must be joking — or maybe it’s a test. Riley keeps his mouth shut, his face blank. Even a tiny expression might give away his desire to say yes. But the Monsignor opens the bottle anyway and takes a swig, the air and wine trapped inside flipping over each other in one deep glug sound. Then, lips stained red, he holds the bottle out to Riley.

“Pretend it’s water,” the Monsignor says.

Riley takes it. His bottom lip touches the thick green glass, wet with wine, the exact spot where the Monsignor’s lips touched just moments ago. He takes a drink.

“Our little secret,” the Monsignor says.

For years after he leaves Crockett Island, Riley dreams that he’s an altar boy again. He’s standing in the sacristy, anxious because there are bloodstains on his cassock and he’s worried they’ll be visible against the black fabric if he walks outside. They’re still wet. What if the blood rubs off on his surplice? Then everyone will see it. 

He licks his thumb, tries to scrub the blood out, but it doesn’t work. Somehow, it just makes the bloodstains bigger. He works frantically, desperately, and just when he thinks he’s reached the peak of panic he realizes it doesn’t matter if he cleans his cassock or not, because the blood isn’t coming from nowhere — it’s coming from him, from a wound beneath his clothes. A wound near his waist. Between his thighs. Blood slicking his balls, dribbling down to the tip of his cock, dampening his underwear. 

The door opens. The Monsignor pauses in the entranceway, his hand on the doorknob.

“Alright, Riley?” he asks, and his eyes dart down to the bloodstains. “Let’s get you cleaned up,” he says.

Riley dreams the same dream for years. Then he gets drunk one night — then he kills Tara-Beth — and the dreams change.

Being an atheist, accepting atheism, has changed parts of Riley that for years, he thought were innate. His childhood hatred of science rotted and fell away like a scab. His long nights of mortal fear, his agonizing dreams of heaven and hell, faded away, and in their place there was Tara-Beth, the bloodstained church, the boat. Images he didn’t need to understand. 

But there was something else that died, something more important: Riley no longer feels the urge to kneel. 

He steps into the rec center for his AA meeting. He sees Father Paul on the ground, his hands folded, his posture submissive, and something dark curls inside him: contempt and a type of gloating, pride that he will never be brought low like that again, never be vulnerable before a man of the cloth like he was a child. 

Then he sees what Father Paul is bowing to. 

It’s his first Communion, and the Monsignor instructs him to open his mouth. He places the Communion wafer on Riley’s tongue. As it’s melting, crushed against the roof of his mouth, the Monsignor guides him to the Chalice, cold metal against Riley’s lips, his first taste of wine. He’s too young to recognize the sweetness there. To him, it’s just dry and bitter.

It’s his first Communion, and the Monsignor drinks first. He holds Sturge’s wrist to his mouth, sucks on the wound, and suddenly just by watching them, Riley is a kid again, and he has to force himself to come back to the present. The Monsignor, young and handsome now, approaches, and his lips are red with blood, and he leans in, and the taste of blood is familiar.

And the taste of his lips is, too. 

“Our secret,” the Monsignor says.