Samuel frowned, not daring to look up at Father Reynolds as he stalked before him and the others. The old priest was wiry, with bulking forearms and shoulders that made him look kind of like a great ape, just one with a pencil thin beard hanging low off his chin. The man was always angry, and quick to use his cane to “correct” poor behaviors from the boys he watched over.
And with how often he caned them, you’d think they would only know correct behavior now.
“You’re all weak,” Father Reynolds continued, arms folded behind his back as he paced in front of him and James and Michael. The three boys were young, Michael and himself twelve while James was eleven. “We all are though, so perhaps I’m being too harsh on you lot.”
The orphanage they lived in, St. Nicholas Home for Young Men, was best described as a shithole.
The whole place was easily over a hundred-years-old, with the latest renovation being older than the gray-haired priest before them. The thirty-odd orphans that lived here were the only group that did any kind of maintenance on the decrepit building, all under the harsh guidance of the priests and nuns best left alone because of problems they had dealing with people deemed important.
Orphans, according to the church, were not important enough to warrant the kindness of manners or niceties.
Now, the three boys were kneeling in the dim gloom of the one place they weren’t allowed to clean, or repair, or even enter at the orphanage.
The older boys never spoke of it and changed the subject whenever the young kids did. Sometimes, when the teenagers had managed to smuggle some Gin away from the liquor cabinet and drank themselves to oblivion, they all shared haunted looks and glances when the basement was mentioned. They’d still change the subject as quick as possible, but when drunk… they all seemed a little lost or scared when it was brought up.
Now, as Samuel kneeled in a stagnant puddle on the cold stone floor, bathed in the flickering light of a dozen candles… he was a kind of seeing why the basement was deemed so scary.
“God helps those who help themselves,” Father Reynolds continued, warbling voice a harsh whisper. He waved an arthritic hand back at the hallway leading deeper into the basement, unlit and cold. “But sometimes… sometimes, He asks us to help those who cannot help themselves.”
“What do you mean by that Father?” James asked, a little too quickly if the way his eyes bugged out after the words left his mouth were any sign. “I’m-I’m sorry, I didn—”
“Don’t.” Father Reynolds said, eyes narrowing into slits. “Don’t apologize. I know that we’ve taught you never to interrupt, but we’ve also taught you to rely on yourselves and work hard to make something of yourselves. That’s why you’re asking why, am I right?”
James nodded frantically, tears welling in his eyes.
Father Reynolds sighed, straightening up. “Man is flawed, my boy. We all are, due to Adam’s first folly. But the Lord has made sure that we can all persevere and live well, in ways that you all have come to know since we took you in.”
The boys remained silent, unblinking eyes watching as Father Reynolds continued to lecture.
“Hard work… Loyalty… Humility… these words define how to be a true Christian, a true servant of the Lord.”
“But sometimes,” Father Reynolds rubbed at his eyes, a sigh wafting from him, “sometimes… sometimes this isn’t enough.”
The boys were listening now. They’d never heard the old priest saying something so… so bad before. It was always about how Lord could do anything, and a man who walked with the Lord could do anything.
“Sometimes the Devil seeps into the mind of man, infecting us like the disease he is,” he continued. “A disease not of the body, but of the soul. And the only cure is through the work of someone who knows how to wield the anger and wrath of the Lord, anger He has for the corrupting influence of the Devil, and wrath for the servants of the foul serpent that corrupt the children of the Lord in such ways.”
The boys jumped when Father Reynolds finished the sentence, not because of how unsettling the words were, but because a new sound crept out from the chilling darkness.
It was in some foreign language, and soft. The singer had a scratchy voice that was oddly melodic, soothing in its own fashion.
“The Devil and his minions tempt us, try to find something we desire…” Father Reynolds continued, ignoring the song echoing from deeper in the basement, from the darkened hall. “They offer deals… bargains, sweet and kind promises that implore us to trust them…”
The song grew in volume, the shivering crooning bouncing off the hewn stone walls leading into the cloying darkness beyond the hall before them. The dim candlelight pushed against the encroaching blackness as best it could, but it almost seemed like the shade was a tangible fog that pushed against the light, smothering the glow in such a way that it was impossible to peer beyond the veil in any helpful fashion.
Father Reynolds pressed on, turning to stare into the bleak Gehenna behind him. “The promises it offers? They’re nothing but ash and salt, a poison that will corrupt you even worse than what it’s doing to the poor soul already infected by them. The minions of Satan can do many things, but one thing they all excel at is lying.”
He turned to regard the three boys for a few seconds, the only sounds permeating the chilled basement being the unnerving song and the chattering of the orphan’s teeth. He studied them, nodding minutely when he finally settled on James.
“I believe,” he said, clasping James by the shoulder, “that you’ll go first, my boy.”
“What?” James demanded, confused. “Go first for what?”
“Oh,” Father Reynolds smiled a not-so-friendly smile. “To see if you can help those who cannot help themselves.”
James stared at the father for a half minute before he was tugged from his spot where he stood, pulled towards the hallway. Father Reynolds picked up one candle and offered it to him. As James took it, the father leaned in and whispered something in his ear, something that must have been startling, as James flinched back from whatever words were spoken.
Father Reynolds stood straight as best he could consider his slumped shoulders, that same smile splitting his face, “If you’re up to it, then?”
He motioned down the hall one final time before James began hesitantly walking into the unknown. Samuel watched as his friend walked away, the candlelight muted by his own body enough to where Samuel couldn’t make out what was in front of him. All he could see was that the hallway led to a massive door, covered in dozens of Crucifixes, all hammered into place with multiple nails each.
“That can’t be good,” Samuel heard Michael mutter from next to him softly hoping Father Reynolds wouldn’t hear him.
Still watching James as he stopped at the door, Father Reynolds dispelled Michael of this hope. “Oh,” he said with a soft chuckle, “this is, with any luck, the very definition of good, my boy.”
Watching James reach to the door and pull on the rusted handle, the long creak and a groan of unoiled hinges and rot, Samuel could only hope that whatever Father Reynolds was hoping would happen wouldn’t end up killing any of them.