She waited for the sun to sink below the mountain ridge, then for her eyes to gradually adjust to the gloom.
They would arrive soon, she had to be ready.
Every year, the night before her birthday, her sins came to call. They flew down from behind the mountains with buzzing wings, taking various sizes and shapes, all horrible.
Did everyone else’s sins manifest physically to torment them?
She had never dared to ask.
No, if their sins visited like hers did, no way a person could become Stalin or Hitler. She was only nineteen, her sins few and small compared to theirs, and yet all birthday eves had left an indelible mark on her soul.
Maybe, if you believed Dickens’s Christmas Carol, something similar could happen once in a lifetime.
Which meant she was special. Funny how the word could feel good and bad at the same time.
The sins came with weapons, but these served only to poke. Worse were their snakelike whispers and shifting faces that took the appearance of everyone she had hurt with her sin.
Dots of black rose in the deep blue sky. A minute later, and the night would have too dark for her to see them.
They would dissipate before the first light of dawn, leaving her bleary-eyed, with a list imprinted on her brain: people to get forgiveness from and/or penitential tasks for each of her sins. She learned early on that if she didn’t do it, the sin came back the year after, bigger and meaner.
One turned up every year, it had been there as early as she could remember. How old had she been, five? It stood back, never poked, never talked, never changed. It wore her face… or not quite. Something was off, but what?
Others wore her face, at times, when the person most affected by her sin was her own self, yet it wasn’t the same.
Her straining ears finally caught the beginning of the buzz. She hated the sound, yet it was a relief not to have to try and separate it from the nighttime noise of the backyard anymore.
Back when she was a child, the small sins had seemed more like toys. Not nice toys, no: ugly toys, boys’ toys, but nothing scary. The old one was medium sized. Not as big as stealing a twenty from her father’s wallet, but bigger than snapping at her mother.
What could a five-year-old do that was so bad? She had no idea, whatever she had done, she couldn’t remember. Was that why the sin held back? Did it need her to remember before confronting her?
Was this the sin that brought the others? Was this the sin that made her special?
The buzz became deafening. They were almost here. She squeezed the armrest of her Adirondack.
Led by the one wearing her face, they approached. She rose.
The leader raised a fist, halting the group.
Had she sinned that much? There were at least fifty of them. She tried so hard, every year, and yet, each birthday eve brought more of them.
Last year, and all the ones before she could remember, the one with her face had locked eyes with her, then lowered its arm without speaking, letting the others charge.
Not this time.
She stepped forward and grabbed hold of it, distancing her mind from the slimy feel of its skin. “Tell me!”