I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

This week I’m sharing original flash fiction (ideally 500 words or less, this one’s longer) inspired by some of my favorite sad Christmas songs. Here’s one based on I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

Jacob’s knees ached from being pressed so long to the wooden kneeler. He prayed his Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s aloud, no priest on the other side of the grating of the confessional booth to hear him. He kept mixing up the wording, and then even worse, forgetting what number he was on, so he’d have to start over. Outside the church, the sun was setting, sinking the cold Christmas Day into night. There was no power in the church so the confessional grew dimmer until everything faded into shadow. 

He’d been assigned this penance long ago by Fr. Ruiz, twenty Our Father’s and thirty Hail Mary’s for calling his mom a ho. He hadn’t even known what the word meant then—just that it seemed to capture how angry he was at her for giving him a used Atari for Christmas when he’d asked for a Nintendo.  

Like the other boys in his class, he hadn’t taken Reconciliation seriously, eavesdropping on the confessor stationed in the box on the other side of Fr. Ruiz, a girl who’d punched her sister, rather than completing his own sentence. But time was running out to find his way back into God’s good graces in this locale. St. Paul’s was due to be demolished the day after New Year’s. 

His penance complete, Jacob emerged from the confessional booth into the dark church. There were no prayer candles to light, he’d checked when he snuck in, so he switched on his phone flashlight and aimed it at the sanctuary where a giant crucifix had once hung and where he’d served as an altar boy, watching from behind the scenes as Fr. Ruiz turned bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. 

Along with the crucifix, the church had been stripped of its statuary, baptismal font, polished pews, padded kneelers, altar, old pipe organ, and steeple bells—everything of value sold off to keep the diocese out of debt. Even the stained glass windows were gone with wooden boards sealed over the gaps left by their absence. Aside from the ceiling and walls, the only thing that remained was the scent of incense, accumulated over a hundred years of burning. 

Jacob approached the five marble steps that separated the sanctuary from the main part of the church. It was on those steps nearly forty years ago he’d performed in a Christmas pageant his mom had directed. He thought he’d be a shoo-in for Joseph, but she assigned him a roll as one of the three kings. When he’d complained, she told him he wasn’t the Joseph type—like the three kings, he’d always be roaming. 

She was right about that. He’d been on the other side of the country in California when the church had closed three years ago. It’d sat vacant since then except for the occasional funeral, his mom’s this past October being one of them. When she’d fallen sick, the demolition of the church had already been announced, and it seemed to Jacob his mom had hastened her own demise, refusing certain therapeutics, with the hope that her funeral mass could be performed at St. Paul’s. 

On the steps, Jacob stared out at the dark chamber where the congregation had once gathered. The year he’d played a king, the one who brings the myrrh, his last line had been a cue for the choir to erupt in Angels We Have Heard On High and for the church bells to be rung. 

Surely today our Savior is born, he shouted, trying the line again now. 

His words echoed off the empty walls but only silence followed.  

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