Crossroads12 mins 430 12 mins 430
“Wha-uh!” Justin woke up from his sleep courtesy of a loud metallic clank. The sound seemed to come from the kitchen below. Justin sat up on his bed, looking around his pitch-black room, which was on the higher floor of the double-storeyed house. He rubbed his eyes and shook his head vigorously, as if forcing the remainder of the sleep out of his system.
The sounds coming from the ground floor had not only increased in number, but also in amplitude. “Mom?” Justin shouted, albeit in a lower voice, perhaps since he was still sleepy, or, most probably, due to fear.
There was no response. Maybe his mother hadn’t heard her seventeen-year-old son. Maybe.
Abruptly, the voices halted. The commotion on the ground floor seemed to have ended. Justin slithered out of bed into his slippers and took a long, hard look at his bedroom door. He had seen numerous movies where the protagonist was caught in a similar situation and had heartily made fun of the clichéd sequence. Now, he found himself in a similar situation, and, needless to say, did not find it hilarious.
He took six steps towards the door, then stopped dead in his tracks. He had lived in this house for the better part of the last ten years, and, although there was no sound that reached his eardrums, he was almost sure someone was tiptoeing his way up the stairs. Someone who was definitely not his mother.
Cautiously, Justin crept up to the door and stood a couple of inches to the right of the door’s opening, waiting for whoever it was to open the door.
A tense ten seconds passed by.
Justin could now sense the intruder at the doorstep. The door hinged ever so slightly. He took another step to his left, keeping himself away from the arc of sight of the intruder.
Slowly, the ray of light coming from the ajar door started turning into a beam. Justin could now see a glove-wearing palm, the index finger of which was pushing the frame of the door.
The door was now open just enough to allow the entry of a human. Black leather boots made their way first, followed by dark-coloured pants (the light was too dim to make out the exact colour,) and a leather jacket. The intruder’s eyes were glued at the single bed in front, unaware of the teenager half a foot away from him towards his left.
Justin ran full-speed towards the intruder, shoulder-tackling him into the bookshelf. As the teen regained his balance, he saw that the intruder was wearing a balaclava mask that hid all of his face, except for the eyes. The same eyes were glaring at him, but Justin wasn’t looking into them. His own eyes were transfixed at the left palm of the intruder, which seemed to be moving irregularly on the ground as if searching something. Justin had not seen any weapon on the intruder, but he was not going to take any risk.
He charged towards the kneeling intruder, aiming the sole of his slippers on his adversary’s face. However, the intruder moved forward and connect a right fist to the abdomen of the teenager. “Oof!” Justin grunted, retreating a couple of steps, and closing his eyes, expecting more blows to come.
But none came.
A split-second later, Justin opened his eyes to see the intruder’s attention completely fixed on the floor. Looking to take advantage, he jumped up a few feet in the air towards the man in the mask and landed a bicycle knee to the temple. “Oh, God!” He heard the faint voice of the intruder, as he fell down on the ground in a foetal position. Justin began kicking away at his adversary, hoping to keep him down.
“Mom!” He shouted amidst the chaos again.
However, that momentary lapse in concentration allowed the intruder to make a comeback. He grabbed at the kicking foot and swept the other one, causing Justin to lose balance and fall backwards. The intruder then got up, kneeled down beside the teen, and began pressing both his thumbs on the teen's throat. Evidently, he had decided to do away with whatever he was searching beforehand.
Justin countered by bringing his right leg backwards and connecting with a kick to the intruder’s head, making him double over and lose the grip on the choke hold. He caught the right leg of the intruder, pulling him back, but the left one hit him in the ribs. The intruder got back up and pushed him against the bookshelf, driving his shoulder against the teen’s abdomen. Justin winced in pain as the back of his torso collided with the wooden framework of the shelf.
Seeing that wood did a good amount of damage, the intruder pulled him away from the shelf slightly, and pushed him spine-first again. But Justin got his knee up just in time, hitting his opponent square in the face. The intruder back-tracked, even though the strike was far from perfect. Perhaps, the bicycle knee had softened his skull, Justin thought to himself, and decided to focus his offence on the Achilles’ heel, or rather, the Achilles' face. He landed a short-arm jab on the forehead of the assailant, and then, grabbing him by the mask, shoved him face-first towards the wooden cupboard in his room.
The intruder hit the frame hard, ricocheted off the surface and fell down on the floor like a sack of potatoes. He did not try to get up again.
“Mom?” Justin shouted once more, moving towards the door, but stopped. The intruder could get his consciousness back, and therefore, could not be left alone free. He looked around his room for something to tie him up but found nothing. Eventually, his gaze wandered towards the boots of his fallen adversary, and an idea struck. He tied the intruder’s hands behind his back using the laces of the boots and left him lying on his stomach.
Taking bigger steps than usual, Justin made his way down the stairs towards his mother’s bedroom. He shoved the door open and looked all around the room. There was no one. He found similar results in the attached bathroom.
“Mom?” He shouted at the top of his voice, once again, to no avail. He checked the next bedroom, which the family used as a store room. All in vain. Then, he went into the kitchen, where his eyes saw a sight that his mind refused to believe.
His mother was lying down on her back on the kitchen floor with her eyes rolled up back in her head. Her mouth was open wide and her left arm was twisted at an angle at which the human arm is not supposed to turn. The ground around her was covered in a pool of blood, which was coming from a horizontal gash in her neck, presumably made by a knife slash.
“Mom… Mom…. Mom…” Justin knelt beside her mother, removing the blur from his eyes by wiping away the tears. He put his thumb on her wrist, trying to feel her pulse.
There was nothing to feel. His mother was dead.
Half-a-minute had passed while Justin tried to find any semblance of life on his mother’s wrist. But to him, it felt like a century. He was not willing to accept what had happened. Maybe the doctors could still revive her, he thought to himself. He had read about such cases in newspapers. He knew that the chances were next to nothing, but tried not to have that thought at the moment.
He raced towards the landline phone in the hall and dialled the emergency number for an ambulance. Then, he called the police, relaying them about the incident as fast as he could. Who was the assailant? Why was his mother attacked? The cops had asked. He did not know. He wanted to, though.
Justin went up the stairs and entered his room. The intruder was still kayoed, lying limp exactly where he had been left. He walked up to him and removed the balaclava mask, taking a closer look at the dimly lit visage of a fifty-ish year old man.
“Father Lenz?” He muttered to himself.
Father Lenz was the priest of the town’s only church, a place where both his mother and he visited every Sunday. Justin had always known Father Lenz as a kind and benevolent man. However, like every human, Father Lenz had a dark side as well – a demon inside him, about whom even the padre did not know until a couple of weeks ago.
It all started with a young man, who had entered the church’s confession box to atone for his sins. The session went normally, but somewhere during the procedure, something snapped inside Father Lenz. He did not feel sympathy for the stranger; he felt hatred. Hatred for all the crimes he had committed, for all the people he had hurt, for all the lives he had destroyed. And now, he wanted to bail out of the penalties by confessing inside a four-by-four box. Did he think that by coming under the light of the Lord, all his past mistakes would be forgotten? Every ungodly action has a consequence, a cost that the sinner has to pay. The stranger did not deserve atonement, he deserved punishment. And Father Lenz took the onus of dishing out the punishment on himself. Such people did not deserve to live, they deserve to be served justice. And, in Father Lenz’s mind, God had chosen him to be the one to serve justice. For the last two weeks, Father Lenz would put such souls to rest, slicing their necks with a single slash of his trusted switchblade.
To him, Justin’s mother was no special case. She, too, had her own past, a dark past that she confessed to the priest. And the priest had decided that she, too, was to pay for her past. By God’s decree. However, she woke up before Father Lenz could finish his job and ran to the kitchen. A brief struggle followed, during which, he heard Justin’s scream of “Mom.” He thought that the teenager could have seen him commit the crime, and decided to tie up all the loose ends. He did not realise that even if Justin had seen him, his face was completely covered in the mask. He was blinded by his religious duties – duties that the Lord himself had given him.
Justin did not know any of this. He had heard about the seven murders that had taken place, but could not connect them with his mother. He stood beside the unconscious priest for a full minute, not sure what to do. Then, all of a sudden, he decided to tell the cops about his discovery. As he took a couple of steps towards the door, his slippers stepped on something metallic. He looked down to see a switchblade knife. Perhaps this was what Father Lenz was searching.
And precisely at that moment, a thought occurred to him. A thought that he could never think of, even in his wildest dreams. He looked at the switchblade, then at the priest, then at the chaotic state of his room, and finally, at his own bruises. If he were to kill the priest right now, no one could say that he did so in cold blood. He could easily tell the cops that he acted in self-defence; that the priest attacked him first, and then he took out his knife, they both struggled over it, and then…
No, no, no. He couldn’t. What was he even thinking? He was not a murderer. There’s law, there’s the judiciary, there are cops to deal with such criminals. He could not take matters in his own hands. Should not. Must not.
But it all blended so perfectly. It was as if the universe was signalling him towards this. The cupboard and bookshelf could have remained intact, but they didn’t. His nose could have never bled, but it did. Even though Father Lenz had never even hit him on the face. Yet, there was blood on his nose. A sign of great struggle. A sign that could justify self-defence. He could have walked in his room a hundred times without stepping on the switchblade, but he did not.
“A-a-a-a-a-a-ah!” Justin slapped himself on the back of his head as if removing these thoughts out. Sweat was pouring all over his face. It was like there were two voices debating in his head, making contradictory statements and cancelling out each other’s vital points. One screamed justice. The other demanded revenge. Revenge for his mother. A soul for a soul.
But his mother would have never approved of him killing another man, whatever be the reasons. All the years he had known her, she was a devout Christian. She had instilled the virtues of benevolence, kindness and forgiveness in him since childhood. Even Jesus had forgiven his perpetrators moments before his death. His mother often recited to him the various tales in the Bible, each one giving a different message to the followers.
Justin walked away from the switchblade, finally making up his mind. He would not have another man’s blood on his head, just the way her mother would have wanted. She had lived her life as a believer, and he would….
Why would God do this to someone who had lived her whole life being nothing but kind? Ever since his father’s death, his mother had worked twice as hard as anyone else to make ends meet. She did no wrong. She went to church every week. She gave away to charity. She did not deserve an end like this.
People talk about how nice it feels to forgive. To move on. Justin had heard many-a-times that when you let go, you feel lighter. When you walk on the path led by God, you feel enlightened. As he walked away from the switchblade, he did not feel any of it. No tranquillity, no enlightenment. Just hatred. Not for Father Lenz, but for his own self. If he walked away right now, he would never be able to sleep peacefully ever again. He would never be able to look himself in the mirror ever again.
He bent down on one knee and picked up the switchblade, its metallic surface glistening in the dim light. Maybe what he was doing was not right, but at this moment, being righteous was the last thing he cared about. His primary motive was revenge. Correction: His only motive was revenge.
No. Revenge will not bring his mother back.
And walking away will? Will forgiveness bring back his mother? Will God bring back his mother? Will anything?
Nothing could bring back his mother. Somewhere deep down, he had made peace with that fact. But revenge would give him a good night’s sleep, peace of mind, a closure, and, most importantly, justice. Real justice. Not the one bought in courts, but the one served in hell. And to him, that was more important than being righteous.
Slowly, Justin walked towards the limp priest and put him in a sitting position, placing his head on one of the legs of his study table. He could hear a voice clearly in his head now. The voice of reason had sublimed to oblivion; faded to black. The voice demanding revenge had triumphed. His limbs ached for revenge, his eyes gleamed in anticipation of revenge, his throat screamed revenge, his ears heard revenge, his brain could think of nothing but revenge, his heartbeat for revenge.
“I hope you can hear me,” he whispered close to the ears of the priest, placing the tip of the switchblade near his chest. An eerie calmness came over his voice as he spoke the next few words.
“Father Lenz… I absolve you of your sin