Meaker stood in the priest’s doorway as Joseph looked up from the chapter he’d been studying. Meaker shifted his weight once from left to right. He looked uncharacteristically nervous.
“Why hello, John. What brings you by here?” the priest asked with his disarming smile and singsong inflection.
“It’s Skulls, Father. He’s asking for you.”
“And he got you to be his messenger? What’s going on?”
“He’s been bitten, Father, and he says he won’t take the Walk until he’s talked to you first.”
“Oh.” The wide smile faded from Joseph’s face. “That certainly changes things.” He turned his back and started to gather his things.
“Hello, Father.” Skulls looked like death warmed over. Most of his left calf was missing. Joseph could see what he thought might have been bloody tendons hanging out of the back of his knee. Maybe they were blood vessels. Maybe it was just cartilage. No matter. The skin and muscle were gone. The bone was fractured. There was an incisor stuck in it. Joseph kept a straight face. His squad must have carried him all the way home. The Rumblers had been assigned toward the east today. There was no transport.
“Hello, Skulls. What can I do for you?”
“Well, uh. It’s been twenty-seven years since my last confession. And since this will really be my last confession, I, uh, figured we probably ought to get started.”
“You’re forgiven, Skulls.”
“Aren’t you going to make me pray, or say some Hail Marys or something?”
“Why did you call me, Skulls?”
“I didn’t want to just take the Walk. It just seemed wrong. It’s hard to explain, but it seemed like suicide.”
“And why did you call me, Skulls?”
“I just haven’t been very good lately. I’ve been prideful. I’ve boasted. I’ve acted like I’m infallible. I’ve used the outbreak as an excuse, but I’ve been that way for a lot longer than that. And I’m sorry.”
“Skulls, you’ve survived. You’ve passed your tests. Have you committed any crimes?”
“No. Not really.”
“That’s good enough for me. And it will be good enough for Him.” He intoned some Latin. “That should get you through the Pearly Gates like one of those twenty mile-an-hour E-Z Passes.”
Skulls smiled weakly. “Thanks, Father. I’m just so tired. I’m tired of it all.”
Joseph leaned back in his seat. “Take a nap if you need to. Don’t worry about anything. Nothing can hurt you ever again. I’ll be with you until the end. Nothing will move me from your side.”
“Thanks, Joseph. I really wish I had…”
Skulls’ voice trailed off. His breathing was slow, too slow. Joseph figured that the next transition would take place in six hours or so. He felt the heft of the crucifix in his hand, and for the fourth time since entering the room, he guiltily eyed the spot where he would remove Skulls from this world of pain.
By all rights, he knew, he should hate this aspect of his job, but he knew with even more certainty that soon Skulls would be in a better place even than Syracuse Hancock International Airport, and the thought made him chuckle.
He would add Skulls to the ever-lengthening list of people he would pray for every day, and with six hours to spare, he began the litany.
The crucifix felt good in his hand. It always felt good to save souls.