A Burden of TruthMay 15, 2018
James Robert Whitmore stared up at the clock on the gray stone wall in the tiny room. Eleven-thirty, only thirty minutes left and then they would come to get him. He prayed the priest would get there soon. Whitmore rose up and began to pace from one of the drab stone walls to the other. His stomach started to gurgle, and he wished he hadn’t eaten the meal they had brought for him. A knock on the door caused him to freeze. He glanced again at the clock. It can’t be time. Please let it be the priest. His voice faltered as he called out, “Come in.”
The heavy wooden door swung open, and Father Thomas McCarthy walked in.
Whitmore rushed to meet him, grasping the old man’s hand. He said, “Thank God you’re here, Father. I don’t think I can go through with this.” The priest freed his hand from Whitmore’s death grip. Wrapping his arm around Whitmore’s shoulder, he said “Well, my son, I’m afraid at this point you don’t have much choice. Come now, why don’t we use this time wisely. You asked me to hear your confession, and that’s what I’m here to do.”
The old priest guided Whitmore to a rough wooden bench that sat against one of the bleak walls of the room and helped him sit down. “Now James, I’m ready to listen.”
With wild eyes, Whitmore looked at the priest and said: “It shouldn’t be me, Father. I don’t deserve this.”
“Well lad, the truth is many people feel that you do. We don’t have much time. Why don’t you share your confession with me? Free your soul, James. Now is the time.”
Whitmore had wrapped his arms around himself and was staring at the stone floor. “I’m sorry Father. I haven’t been to confession in over twenty-five years. I don’t even know how to start.”
“All you have to do is tell the truth son. It’s the truth that will set you free.”
Whitmore lifted his gaze up from the floor and said, “The problem with Emily was that she couldn’t keep a secret, and that’s why she had to die.”
A look of shock registered on the priest’s face, but he remained silent.
Whitmore continued: “Besides, the whole damned thing was her fault anyway. If Emily would have just thrown the invitation away like I had done to all the others, she’d still be alive today. But, oh no, she couldn’t leave it alone. She wrote a reply accepting the invitation on my behalf. Can you believe that, Father? The bitch didn’t even tell me what she’d done.” Whitmore looked into the priest’s eyes, expecting to see empathy, but instead, the old man looked like he had just drunk a glass of curdled milk.
He ignored the sour expression on the priest’s face and went on. “I found out what she’d done one night when I was sitting in my study reading the New York Times. I came across this article titled ‘Whitmore to Speak Publicly, the First Time in Twenty Years.’ Of course, I’m stunned by the headline, so I start reading.” ‘James Whitmore, author of the exceptional short story The Winter’s Harvest and several lesser-known works, will be this year’s keynote speaker at Bishop Walsh High School in Rochester NY.’ The article went on, but I didn’t need to read anymore. I knew what happened; my alma mater had sent their favorite son another request to speak at the school. Emily knew I would never accept, no matter how much she badgered me, so she accepted for me.
“Well, I grabbed that paper and marched my ass right out into the kitchen where she was doing dishes, and I introduced the back of my hand to the side of her face. She drops like I hit her with an ax handle. She starts blubbering. ‘I did it for you; I did it for you.’ I’m about to cram that article down her throat when my cell phone rings. I compose myself a little and answer the call. It turns out to be my old agent, who I had not spoken with in years. He tells me he saw that I was going to speak at Bishop Walsh and he says there is renewed interest in the story. He said he was even getting feelers from Hollywood about a remake of the original film. Well, Father, I start to think maybe it’s time to get back out there. Money was getting tight, and I didn’t have a lot going on. I hung up the phone and realized that what Emily had done was a good thing. I went over and tried to apologize to her, but she didn’t want to hear it. Just stormed off and locked herself in the bedroom. I knew it would take some time, but she’d come around. She always did.”
The more Whitmore talked, the more he relaxed. The priest was right; confession is good for the soul. He checked the time again and saw that it was eleven-forty-five. Only fifteen minutes left. The priest saw Whitmore look at the clock, and he tried to interject, but Whitmore stopped him. “I’m sorry, Father, but I only have fifteen minutes left, and I want to finish the confession.”
The priest nodded his head and said, “Go on.”
“Well, the next morning I amble out into the kitchen, and I see that Emily had placed the invitation to speak at Bishop Walsh on the kitchen table. At first, it was an ego rush to see it there. After all these years I was going back, and I was going back because they wanted me. Just like the coaches wanted me when I was their star quarterback.” A smirk came to his face. “Just like all the girls wanted me when they were in the back seat of my car.”
Whitmore stood up from the bench and started to pace the room again. “The problem was she left that goddamn invitation on the table. Sorry about the profanity, Father. I know that’s wrong, especially at a time like this.”
The priest waved his hand to continue. “Well, day after day I see that invitation sitting there, mocking me. That’s when it dawned on me. I don’t know how she found out, but somehow she knows the story that made me famous wasn’t mine. Every morning the smug bitch sits across from me drinking her morning coffee, pretending to read the paper, but I know what she’s doing. She’s trying to break me. She wants me to admit that I took that story from Timmy Wills and then killed him to cover it up. That wasn’t going to happen, though, Father McCarthy, and I’ll tell you why. Unlike Emily, I can keep a secret. Twenty-five years have gone by, Father, and I never breathed a word about what I did to Timmy. Not a word until this very moment.”
He smiled an ingratiating smile and said: “I know you can keep a secret too, but I guess that comes with your line of work, doesn’t it, Father?” The priest’s eyes were wide and locked onto Whitmore. The old man’s face was ashen.
“Anyway, no one should feel sorry for Timmy. The little dweeb was lucky to have me as a friend. God knows he didn’t have anyone else. Seriously, the only thing the kid had going for him was that he could write. I saw the way the whole damned English class would hang on his every word when that five foot nothing twerp stood in front of the class and read one of his stories. Instinctively, I knew that he had something I needed. And I was right. When he read me his story The Winter’s Harvest I knew that was it. I asked him if he had shared the story with anyone else yet, he said no, that I was his best friend, he wanted me to hear it first.
“Well, that was all I needed to hear. I asked Timmy if he wanted to go fishing on my dad’s boat that night. I still can’t believe how excited the moron got when I asked him that. He accepted on the spot, and I knew that I was going to get what I needed. I told him that I would get in trouble if my dad knew I took anyone on the boat so he shouldn’t tell anyone he was meeting me. Just before he left, I told him to bring the story with him because I wanted to hear it again that night. You should have seen the look on his face; you would have thought the prom queen had just asked him on a date.”
The priest’s cell phone buzzed. He said “excuse me” and answered the call. “Yes, I understand. I’ll wait for you here.”
Ending the call the priest looked to Whitmore and said: “They’re on their way.”
The panic that had been in Whitmore’s eyes when the priest first entered the room was gone. He was ready.
Whitmore looked to the priest and said: “I’m almost finished, and I need to get this out before I walk out that door.” Without waiting for a reply from the priest, he continued. “You probably can imagine what happened to Timmy when we got out on that boat, but I still feel I need to say it. We had a few beers as we headed out onto Ontario. I even let Tim drive the boat for a while. When we got about twelve miles out, I killed the motor, and we just sat there and watched the moonlight sparkle on top of the water. For a minute I thought about not doing it, but that’s exactly what a loser like Timmy would do. I came up behind him and cracked his skull with a propeller wrench. He crumpled to the deck. Out cold.
“Then I wrapped an old anchor chain around his legs and tossed him over the side. He came to when he hit the water, and for a moment he floated there at the surface and stared at me. He never said a word; it was as if he knew this was what life had in store for him. The image of that pale white face in the middle of that cold black water was hard to look at, but it didn’t last long. The weight of the anchor chain pulled him under, and he was gone.”
Whitmore analyzed the priest’s face for a reaction. The old man was shaken and pale. “Now you know what became of Timmy Wills. A lot of people thought the little freak ran off and joined the circus or something just to get away from life on his father’s farm, but I knew better… and now you do too.
“Some people would have been dumb and tried to do something with Timmy’s story right away, but not me. I waited two years before I took it to a publisher. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Whitmore heard them coming down the hall, and he looked up to check the clock one last time. Twelve on the dot. Time was up. He turned back to the priest. “Emily put me in this position, and now she’s at the bottom of Ontario with Tim. Now I have to deal with what she got me into. Thank you for listening to my confession, Father. It has made all the difference in the world.”
Just then the door opened, and Monsignor Carl Rickman walked in with three members of his staff. He looked at Whitmore and said, “I hope our prayer room here at the monastery wasn’t too spartan for you, sir.”
James Whitmore smiled, “Not at all. It was just what I needed. I have to tell you; Father McCarthy was a godsend. As you’re well aware, I haven’t spoken in public in over twenty years. I had a terrible bout of stage fright before Father McCarthy arrived, but he helped me get through it. I don’t think I could give today’s commencement speech without the steadying hand the Father provided.”
The monsignor nodded and smiled at the priest, then said “Thomas, perhaps you should sit the commencement out. You don’t look well. The old man raised his eyes up to the monsignor and feebly nodded his agreement.
Whitmore drew in a deep breath, “You know I told Father McCarthy that I didn’t think I deserved this, but through the power of prayer and confession I see now that indeed I am the person that should be speaking to these young people today.”
Clapping his hands together, Whitmore said, “All right then. Let’s go inspire the newest graduates of Bishop Walsh.” Smiling one last time at the old priest, he turned and headed out to greet the adoring assembly.by