Karl Miller’s fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous periodicals, including RE:AL, Portland Review, Subtle Tea, Cold Mountain Review and others; his play, “A Night in Ruins,” was produced Off Off Broadway in 2013. A 2016 Best of the Net nominee, Miller lives in Coral Springs, FL.
Edward emerges slowly from morphine into a soft, dreamy room. As lines harden and shapes define themselves, he notices the visitor’s clothes first—the edge of a strange brown robe that barely emerges from dim shadows in the corner. Beyond the pervasive antiseptic odor, there is a faintly familiar scent he cannot place.
“Do I know you?” he asks in a weak voice.
The figure doesn’t respond.
Edward’s cataract-encrusted brown eyes roam, and come to rest on the nurse’s button.
“Maybe we should talk before you press that.” The figure’s voice is emotionless, with the trace of an unusual Spanish accent.
“Talk about what?”
“Some things we may have in common.” A pause. “What do you do for a living?”
“Well, I do some volunteering but I’m mostly retired.”
“What did you do before you retired?”
“I was kind of a social worker, basically helping the poor.”
“You were actually a bit more than a social worker, weren’t you?”
Edward gathers some strength from amid the medical equipment and peers closely at the corner. “Are you from the media?” he asks suspiciously.
“Do I look like I’m from the media?”
“Who are you then and why are you bothering me?”
“Just a simple Franciscan.”
“From which parish?” Edward asks pointedly.
“You wouldn’t know it.”
“I don’t know why I keep answering you, but I can’t seem to help it.” The patient waits a long moment, then finally says quietly, “I was a member of the clergy.”
“Yes, you were,” the figure responds. “Thank you for your honesty. Let’s talk about why you are retired now.”
Edward briefly looks at the nurse’s button again. “There was some issue with a few of the parishioners.”
“What type of issue?”
“There are always complainers, always gossips,” he says with an irritated tone. “You apparently are a man of the cloth—you know the sort.”
“What did they gossip about?” the visitor asks.
“Very hateful, hurtful things.”
“Be more precise.”
Ten seconds pass in silence. “They accused me of inappropriate behavior with a child.”
“And did you?”
“Of course not!”
“Then why these accusations?” the figure asks.
“Some parishioners hated what I was doing to bring the Church up to date, to bring it out of incense and guilt and into light and openness.”
The visitor appears to stir in the shadows. “Guilt is underrated—it shows you still have a sense of the road.” Another pause. “Was that all it was?”
“What are you insinuating?” the patient asks, voice full of indignation. “I was the parent those kids never had.”
From out of the corner, the sleeve of a translucent robe suddenly rises and points directly at Edward. “You are the monster that haunts their dreams even now!” the figure snarls, his voice rising angrily. He stops, collects himself. “Even now,” he repeats softly. “Is this really how you’d end, dying alone with only self-delusion and shame for company?”
The patient strains to see through the dark. His hands are shaking.
“What are you?”
“I was a failure, too. My sins were of a different sort, of omission rather than commission, for failing to speak up when I knew I should have. But I—and my brothers—have atoned through decades of penance in the gray fires. And now our time is ending.”
“I don’t understand.”
“In a few seconds, the monitors will begin to sound, but no nurse or doctor will be able to prevent you from leaving. In the last moment before you go, you will be given the opportunity to follow—or not.”
“This isn’t fair,” Edward protests, looking desperately past the chair to the thin strip of light under the door, praying an orderly will appear to break the scene. A sharp jolt of pain arrives instead. He suddenly recognizes the foreign scent in the room—an unusual formulation of incense, heavy on benzoin and myrrh, that he hadn’t encountered since the bishop’s thurible swung at his ordination decades earlier.
As the nurses rush in and the room slips from him, Edward can sense the figure watching.