by Gary Fincke

YOUR FATHER’S SINS, Miss Sussex told us in September, belong to you, counting the ways from drunk to unfaithful while our Sunday school class constructed heaven and hell, silently attaching the future for all of us onto the church’s new bulletin boards. Melanie Truman, whose father had disappeared, cut narrow spaces into heaven’s gate, forming a grate so we could see inside where the white wings we drew floated against cloudless blue sky. Jack Walcyk shaped a purple robe for God and a loose, white cloak for Jesus, their faces turned away because we dared not look upon them. Remember, Miss Sussex said, those wings will only be lifted by the benevolent breath of God if you are pure in heart.

Children, Miss Sussex said in November, you are all just numbers. She read us Bible verses, speaking, she said, for a disgusted God. She assigned numbers for good and evil. Sunday school was 2, church was 4; lying was -3, stealing was -6; prayer was 3, swearing was -4. Always, evil subtracted more than goodness earned. The totals growled, teeth bared, when Miss Sussex made columns of figures she called hypotheticals. Children, she said, yes, all of you, your number can be zero, or worse yet, somewhere far below that where the damned are counted in minuses, and we thought about the negatives, saying nothing to each other, still believing, while we listened, that our secret sins were singular.

All winter, Jack Walcyk and I, near Pittsburgh, walked to fifth grade inside a coal-smoke cloud, passing the blocks-long Spang-Chalfant mill where the light and heat of molten steel poured over us like the weather would be, early morning, in hell. We made up stories of our own, one with a second sun drifting toward Earth, sweating children crying for water. At its end, we decided, cactus would rule, scorpions scuttling on a planet of sand until the suns collided.

Miss Sussex, by April, made all of us design the black wings for hell. Dick Wertz, his father in prison, scissored scarlet triangles for eternal flames. Melanie Truman cut a grate for the wide gate to hell that that Sharon Claus made, but Miss Sussex told Sharon to leave it open.

In May, Miss Sussex forecast weather for our hell, constant heavy rain. She had us cut gray clouds and sharp, silver drops that we scattered close to the clouds because every drop would vanish before it reached whoever was crying in the flames. 

God sees into your sinful hearts, Miss Sussex said in August as she said goodbye on our last Sunday. Remember that, children—He knows every thought. Just you wait, there are sins you haven’t imagined yet. Believe me, they can do more than add up—they can multiply.

The next Sunday we changed classes, boys and girls filing into separate rooms as we began to master the sins of lust and envy and coveting, using the sin of falsehood to deny how we privately abused ourselves and publicly blasphemed, counting the commandments we shattered each day even though Miss Sussex, each Sunday all that summer, had kept our paired, praying paper hands pinned underneath the dark red, detailed face of Satan she drew to remind us how he wanted to adopt us like stray puppies, training us to be the devil’s children. We were divided now, growing into our fathers in one room or their victims in another.


Gary Fincke’s new collection of flash fiction The Corridors of Longing was published in 2022 by Pelekinesis Press. The title story was reprinted in Best Small Fictions 2020. His collections of full-length stories and poems have won the Flannery O’Connor Prize (Georgia) and what is now the Wheeler Prize (Ohio State) respectively. He is co-editor of the annual anthology series Best Microfiction.