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Slanted light filtered through the opaque windows of a small church in Northern Georgia. The trees that once shaded it during sunny days now seemed as if they were covering it with perpetual gloom. The clouds outside, the result of an evening rain shower, clung to the church walls like moss would to an old oak tree. Could someone have spoken just a moment ago? It seemed so to David, as if an echo reverberated through his mind. But that could not be possible. All was silent in the chapel. Dark silhouettes rested in the pews in front of him, but no one was speaking. Shouldn’t there be children running around, squealing and giggling? Shouldn’t the lights be on? Usually, it was sister Frances who would turn on the lights because she was the first to arrive. Now, the darkness was such that David took a moment to distinguish the forms sitting in the pews. He took a step inside of the chapel, into the stillness, breathing in a lungful of the summer humidity. He flipped on the light and gasped, taking an involuntary step backward.
Alex’s tanned face was turned to look at David, jowls drooping under the beard he wore. His dead, light green eyes regarded him with horror, head twisted to face the back of the church and away from the cross. Everyone was there, each pew filled to its capacity, his whole congregation. Each horrified face was turned toward their pastor, necks broken. Their mouths were slack, and their bodies slightly swollen. Flies were dancing around the room, touching an eye here, a tongue there, a finger, a knee. There was Molly Black, her head was bent to the side, as if in question. Her magnificent blonde curls were limp from the humidity, but even in death, she still looked as if she glowed. Her hands had been so soft.
“Stop that,” he scolded himself, just like his mother had done when she caught him looking down Eloise’s unlaced shirt.
There were Sherry Love and Terry Love, their faces frozen in twin tableau, tongues in almost the exact same angle from their mouths. He had never really been able to tell them apart. But he remembered a night, when they were all teenagers, wrestling in the back of his mom’s station wagon. He held onto those memories, even now, staring at their two dead faces. And there was Shannon Evans. The side of her head actually rested against the back of the pew. Her eyes were rolled into the back of her head as if to read some hidden text on the inside of her skull. She had been the one to confront him about his affair with Molly, blackmailing him into being the church’s treasurer. He had forgiven her, in a way, but he was not sorry to see her go. And Seamus, poor Seamus. He had only just begun his own healing through the Lord and had been coming to church regularly for the last five Sundays in a row. It was a new record for him. Today was his last Sunday, it seemed. The last time they had spoken, Seamus was expressing his guilt for having lain with another man, before he started going to church, of course. David tried to be understanding, but he remembered telling the kid that he was going to go to hell. He did not mean for Seamus to seek it out personally.
How could everyone lay dead here, in exactly the same manner? He felt as if he were missing something vital, had been missing something vital.
Why was everyone here without him? Was this the work of the Devil? Did David lead them astray, somehow? Could he really be slipping so far, unable to shepherd his people properly, leading them away from the light of God’s mercy? How else could he explain this? What would he tell the police when they came?
Everyone’s faces were accusing him now. Sinner, they seemed to say. The flies buzzing grew louder, a hum, and he felt his breakfast begin to rise from his stomach. He swallowed his bile and turned to walk down the aisle. Sweat popped out along his brow, and he wiped his slick palms on his pants. But he had to see. He had to know. What happened to his people? Was this his fault, somehow?
A few more faces caught and held his attention as he made his slow, funeral-like shuffle down the center of the chapel. Annabelle’s lips were not completely opened wide like the rest, but in a distinctive O-shape, as if she were just leaning down to kiss him again. Her eyes accused him because he had told her that he would divorce his wife for her, but how could he, as a pastor, divorce his wife? She had to understand, and it had seemed like she had until she showed up on his doorstep last Sunday evening to speak to his wife.
His wife had been so forgiving, understanding the pressures a man faces in his day-to-day life, and she was strong where he could not be. He had been unable to lay with her for some time in their marriage bed, preferring the couch and a football game to her company, but she did not think anything of his reclusiveness until that night. Her usual excitement about life had never once withered. She was bubbly, like a sink full of dishes. She even danced while she was cleaning the church. He would watch her sometimes, from the projection room. His wife needed no music to move, but had a music all her own. The room was still now, and his wife was dead at the other end of the church. He tried not to look at her.
Incongruously, the room did not smell like death. The only thing David could smell was the fake eucalyptus plants and the recent shampoo on the carpets. But all was quiet, too quiet. How had he ended up here without seeing anyone, not even the children? Now he knew. The children must have been left at home for whatever this was supposed to be. For whatever happened here.
He thought again about the night Annabelle stopped by his house. David was in the basement working on his latest project, the broken lawnmower. His wife answered the door, and when she didn’t come down to get him, he assumed that it was one of her friends or perhaps a door-to-door salesman that she would have politely turned away. There were no raised voices, no angry shouts, so David was unprepared for what he saw at his kitchen table when he came up for the night. They had been upstairs for nearly an hour alone, and both women wore mutually understanding looks, which meant that David could feel their icy stares.
As a man of God, he should have accepted His punishment and went to make amends with them both. Instead, he went for a drive. It started raining not long after he left, but he didn’t stop until he got over the state line and found a bar. None of the members of his church lived out that way, which was a good thing because he got way too drunk and started telling the guy next to him about his problems. He was a preacher. He was supposed to pray about those kinds of things.
He didn’t remember much after that. The man had started paying for drinks when David’s pocket money ran out, and he had even called him a cab to take him home. Who said nice guys did not drink at bars? It would have been a revelation to him, but he had more pressing thoughts on his mind.
He stumbled his way through the front door at about three in the morning and did not find his wife waiting up for him. She left for work the next morning without telling him goodbye but left his lunch sitting on the counter. Perhaps the relationship was salvageable, and they could get back on track somehow, the pimento cheese sandwich seemed to say. While the world crashed in on him, on what he had done to his wife and to his marriage, he felt too ashamed to pray. Instead, he felt like a pot of simmering spaghetti sauce boiling over. Prayer could have helped him put a lid over his shame, but he felt like it would be wrong to ask for the Lord’s help. He was not worthy.
Like most pastors, he had to have a primary income working at something that had nothing to do with his job as a pastor. He worked at a local hardware store labeling merchandise and straightening the aisles. It was not hard work, and he was sure that his wife resented his poor income, but he felt closer to the Lord that way. He couldn’t explain to her how pushing a broom felt like the Lord was sweeping away everyone’s problems or how straightening and stocking helped him to organize his thoughts and provide his congregation with more inspiring sermons.
While he was at work that next day, he leered at several women, quite by mistake, and gave their husbands or boyfriends dark, jealous looks. He snapped at his boss, a thing he had never done before, and he knocked over a shelf and threw a can of peanuts at a wall in frustration. Those kinds of things happened to other people, not a leader. He shouldn’t have been acting that way, but he felt so frustrated, so helpless.
A few nights and a few days went like this, then his wife sat him down one evening to talk. He was sitting in the den, watching the fake fire flicker and feeling the fake heat burn his shins when she walked in. Her overpowering perfume was pushed in before her, and the gust of cold air she brought into the room was nothing to the frost in her gaze. But instead of the tongue-lashing he deserved, she had been understanding, compassionate. She gave no ultimatums. She laid her hand on his knee and gazed into his eyes. She was sincere where other women would not have been. And he had nothing to say. Her understanding and forgiveness made him feel worse. His guilt overwhelmed him, but she patted him gently, kissed him on the forehead, and left the room.
And now this. Here he was, staring around him at all the evidence of his failure, and he was still failing to act. He should probably call the police, but being the only one in the church, he was sure to be locked up with no questions asked and left in a holding cell until his son could come and get him. His son, thankfully, was not a member, and surely, he would know that his father had not committed such an act. Surely…
David wanted to seek the solace of prayer, that bastion of peace that he had been a part of just a week ago, but words, everything, failed him. He was rooted to the spot, held in place by a mighty hand that seemed to press him down into the very carpet beneath his feet.
David closed his eyes and tried to breathe, he could not.
David tried to pray, but he could not.
David wanted to take out his cell phone and call someone, but he could not.
Instead, he made his way, slowly, toward the altar, toward the front pew. Every instinct in him told him to run. Every instinct in him told him to get his name changed and flee to Mexico. Every instinct in him tried to hold him back. But he persevered and trudged footfall by aching footfall to the front of the room.
There was a scorch mark in the dead center of the carpet in front of the altar. The scorch mark was not only black but had hints of orange and dark red, even yellow. Yellow? Orange? What could have happened to make such a mark?
He had a feeling, a sinking feeling in the pit of his flipping stomach, that he knew exactly what it was that had caused the mark and also knew what had killed his entire congregation. David hid his eyes. Shame coursed through him that his people could come to such a terrible crossroads without his being the least bit aware.
Turning, he made his slow, feet dragging way to where his wife sat, in the seat she had always sat in. Her purse lay open next to her, the same purse that she used to hand out candies to the children. It was one of those frilly affairs found in department stores that only old women carried around. A few of the strings on it had been fraying for months. He would have mentioned it to her, but she never liked him to mess with what she termed as “women’s business.” Perhaps her presence here was another one of those women’s business things she was always going on about. Perhaps she had had nothing to do with all of this and was only trying to help his congregation until it snapped her up and twisted her head around for her troubles. The sight of her broken, limp neck closed his own throat. He was unable to breathe for a moment, until he looked down.
A book lay open in her hand, her fingers pressed into a spot to hold her place. A Satanic bible. The goat’s head was distinctive. Its red eyes seemed to glow and pierce him, and it held him fast for a moment. Where had she gotten such a thing? How could he have missed this? David fell to his knees and began to pray for her soul, for all of their souls. It was an incoherent prayer, a blubbering gushing wave of bubbles that had words escaping from them, like he was a fish underwater. The room was growing dim around him, and he found that he did not care. It would be nice to hold his breath and lose consciousness. He wished he would die from the shock before seeing signs of his wife’s blasphemy, his pure wife. Now her memory would be forever blemished, a stain on a rug.
“There you are! Where have you been all this time? I’ve been looking for hours!”
His wife, his beautiful wife strode down the length of the church, face aglow and healthy, and with a cry he leapt to his feet to run. Demon! What had they done with his wife!? How dare they mock her form? She was such a sweet woman, so caring and kind. She had forgiven him, and he could not let her memory be dirtied like this! Never!
A heavy candlestick, which probably weighed close to ten pounds, sat on the shelf that bordered the church piano behind him. His wife had always been after him to throw out the garish thing, saying it was just too clunky and ugly to keep around. He was glad for it now, as he grabbed it up and brought it around with an almighty sweep and all the power that Jesus gave him as a warrior for God.
Too late, David noticed that the church no longer contained the bodies of his friends. Instead, they were flooding in through the double doors, their faces flashing like a light from glowing joy to wide-mouthed horror. The body of his wife had vanished, but the candlestick’s momentum could not be stopped. Like a bat hitting a fastball, the candlestick struck his wife’s head and knocked her into a pew. He heard the thump of her head as it hit, felt the candlestick land in the floor next to him as he dropped it.
He wasn’t too late! He could save her! He ran to her side, but Alex and Seamus were holding him back, pinning his arms. He didn’t realize they were right behind him until they closed their hands on him.
“Can’t you see she’s dying?! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! Let me go! I have to…”
But the two men only gripped his arms tighter. Her eyes were filming over already, their bright blue fading like denim in the wash. She lay like a discarded marionette, a puppet with its strings cut, her purse flung from her outstretched hand. Peppermints lay in a pool of blood that was rapidly spreading around her head, a bloody halo. Her Bible slipped from her other hand and fell at David’s feet.